The Strongest Magic

Chapter 16: The Tale of Three

Packing all their belongings took no time at all. After the rather embarrassing end of the lost wager was over, the Tuah were ready to leave the mountain village in minutes. Most were packing light. They seemed to think the journey would be a short one and that they would return in no time at all, back in their cozy houses. Adair wished she shared their optimism. She knew where they were heading, and that simply traveling there was treacherous enough. She didn't want to think too hard on the battle that awaited them there, but it had hung over her like a deadline. She hated deadlines. More than anything she hated the thought of the Tuah children being in the Ivory Tower at the same time as the battle. She had promised Hykrion she would keep them out of the fighting, but so much was uncertain. She had seen the enemy host with her own eyes, or at least through Iole's, and she knew it had only grown since then.

Up until now Adair had made her wishes mostly by accident, or had let them come to her. This was the first time she took it upon herself to make a wish. She held AURYN in her hand, lifted it close to her face, closed her eyes and wished harder than she ever had in her life.

No matter what happens at the Tower, no matter how this turns out, I want the Tuah to be safe. Please keep them safe, and let them find somewhere happy to live after it's over, even if we lose.

She felt the warmth in the Glory through her fingers, but she still wasn't sure if it would work. Still, it was all she could do until the time came.

"What are you doing?" Jason's voice startled her. The white marks on the sides of his nose stood out sharply where his glasses used to be.

"Nothing." She quickly dropped the medallion back inside her tunic.

"You were wishing again weren't you."

Feeling guilty over this seemed a little silly to her at this point. "Is that a problem?" she asked, not without an edge to her voice.

"You promised you wouldn't use it unless we needed it."

"Well we needed it." she spat.

"How many have you made since we came here?"

She was taken aback, and even a little insulted by this sudden change in attitude. "What? You expect me to keep a log book now? Some of these I don't even know when I make them."

"Well that's convenient." The two of them stared at each other, he with unexplained accusation and she with utter astonishment. He shook his head. "I'm sorry. I don't mean it like that. It's just... you're scaring me you know? I'm scared that tomorrow when I wake you up and tell you it's time to go, you'll be all 'I'm sorry. Do I know you?'"

"It wouldn't be the first time a girl's told you that, I'm sure."

Jason's jaw dropped and he put a hand to his chest. "Ouch."

She regretted it the moment it was out of her mouth, but she didn't apologize. Instead she hung her head and looked away from him.

"It was important." she told him, feeling silly that she needed to defend her decision to him.


"Can we go now?"

Jason nodded slowly. "Okay." It was all he said. They didn't speak again as they met up with the others. They didn't even meet eyes. Their coldness towards one another did not go unnoticed by Atreyu and Deisha who exchanged confused glances.

"Everything alright?" Atreyu asked.

Adair put on a shallow grin. "Everything's fine."

But Jason shot him a glare that only confused the boy warrior even more. They noticed it along the mountain path as well. As the throng of Tuah children and rockbiters pressed out of the valley and down the mountainside with Hykrion in the lead, Adair barely spoke and Jason did not speak at all. But his bitter expression was plain as day. Even Falkor, who was hovering just above the party knew something was amiss between the two friends. The group had grown accustomed to the two's sarcastic jabs back and forth at one another, and Jason was always telling jokes or stories to try and lighten the mood. To those that knew them, this silence was unnerving. Atreyu leaned closer to Deisha.

"What do you suppose brought this on all of a sudden?"

Deisha's look was a somber one. "I don't think this came on 'all of a sudden'." she replied grimly. Atreyu wasn't certain what she meant, but Deisha had been learning little by little about what was going on in Jason's head. It was a feeling she was familiar with. But the understanding of the situation brought her no comfort. In fact it only made her more anxious. Like a pot of water over a small fire she had watched Jason's temperament heating ever so slowly. And here at the base of the mountain it would at last reach its boiling point.

After hours of tense silence from their little party (Hykrion, the Tuah, and the rockbiters were actually quite talkative and could not sense their darkening moods at all), they finally left the mountain range. Little Daisy and Falcon ran ahead of the others. They had spotted something.

"Daisy, Falcon, don't get too far ahead!" Hykrion shouted without need. They hadn't even left the shadow of the mountain yet. They stopped and approached their discovery cautiously with eyes full of wonder.

"It's so pretty!" Daisy said in awe. "What is it?" she asked, for she had never seen a horse before.

"It's a horse." Falcon explained. He had seen drawings of horses in one of the books Hykrion had brought back from his raids.

"Come on!" Daisy called. "Let's go show the others." The girl was fearless as she took the horse by the mane and led him gently back the way they'd come. Thankfully the horse didn't mind and let the girl lead him where she pleased. "Uncle Hykrion! Look! We found a horse!"

Hykrion's chiseled features softened in a look of genuine surprise. He was impressed with the animal.

"That's not just any horse. That's a stallion. And a fine one. I remember riding a horse like this in my younger days. The guard of the Ivory Tower ride steeds like these ones all over the grounds. But what's a fine horse like this doing out here?" He looked ahead warily for any riders, though he didn't suspect any. The horse had no saddle. "Adair! What do you make of this?" He called back as the others approached the top of the ridge they had just crossed.

Adair's eyes went wide when they found the horse. She recognized him at once.

"Arian!" Forgetting her heavier feelings for the moment, she dashed to the stallion's side. Arian could sense her approaching and whinnied with delight. She stroked his face affectionately. "I thought I'd never see you again."

He stared at her with his mist colored eyes as if to say: Did you forget you wished me back? She had forgotten the wish she had made when they'd been forced to part. In truth Arian had been led back to them by a great series of adventures, regarding some goblins, a trio of pixies, an old woman, and a house that could stand on legs. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

Atreyu and the others returned to her side, Jason dragging his feet behind them.

"Isn't that the horse you left the tower with?" Deisha asked.

"Yes." Atreyu answered. "We were forced to leave him behind after Iole found us. He must be a clever beast to find us all the way out here."

"Yeah." Jason agreed bitterly. "It's like magic." Adair did not miss the venom in his voice, though he had coated it on so thickly it would have been a wonder if anyone missed it. She turned to face her friend to find his arms folded and his blue eyes narrowed. "Was this that important wish you made? You're trading your memories for pets now?"

Had Adair been in better spirits she would have ignored his snap and explained that Arian's return was something she'd wished for much earlier. But as it stood she'd had enough of his foul mood.

"Jason, my wishes and my memories are my business, not yours."

"You promised me you'd only do it for something important!"

Atreyu looked from Jason to Adair earnestly. Deisha watched them as well, though she looked more ready to duck for cover than add her thoughts to this mess.

"Is that what this is about?" Atreyu interrupted. "Jason, wishes are complicated. They come from the heart, and sometimes they're hard to control. It's not Adair's fault."

"No, you're right." Jason's voice grew darker than any of them had ever heard it. "It's not her fault." His knuckles curled into a fist. That was all the warning Atreyu got before his fist connected with his jaw. "It's yours!"

Atreyu staggered back, placing a hand to his wounded jaw and looked to Jason with a hurt and confused expression. The others were too stunned to move. They looked on wide-eyed at the two.

"What was that for?!"

Jason wrung the pain out of his hand and made a beckoning gesture.

"You going to hit me back? Choir boy?"

"Choir boy? I don't even sing!" Another unexpected punch sent him reeling back. This one connected with his nose. It wasn't hard enough to make him bleed, but enough to blur his vision for a moment.

"Jason stop it!" Adair came between them. She couldn't decide whether to be angry with Jason or frightened, so her head and her stomach swirled with both in a sickening dance.

Jason had no remorse. "Come on, he asked for that one." He returned his attention to Atreyu who still had his hands over his nose. "Going to hit me back yet, or are you going to let Adair solve this for you like she solves all your other problems."

"What are you talking about?"

"Oh don't give me the helpless martyr act." Jason snapped. "You drag her into your mess and then puff your chest out like you're doing her some kind of favor! Is that why Bastian hated you? Did you use him like you're using her?"

Atreyu's expression darkened at once. "Do not speak of Bastian that way. He was my friend."

"Yeah I could tell from the scar he gave you." Jason stepped around Adair. "All that matters to you is what happens to your precious Fantasia! You'd throw us both off a cliff if you thought that would solve anything!You didn't care about him and you don't care about her." He threw another punch, but this time he met resistance. Atreyu caught him by the wrist and held it firmly. The look in his dark eyes told Jason he had finally crossed the line and hit the nerve he had aimed for. With a sharp jerk, he twisted Jason's arm back and sent a kick into his ribs. Jason coughed and staggered back, but he was smiling.

"Not so untouchable after all huh Choir Boy?"

Atreyu was throwing punches as recklessly as Jason now. They were exchanging blows heavily. It wasn't like their battles with monsters and demons. It wasn't even like Jason's duel with Hykrion which had taken skill and accuracy. This was exactly what it looked like: two boys throwing punches at each other. Nothing but blind fury and unchecked emotions. Atreyu caught Jason's arm as he swung it for a right hook, but Jason used his free hand to swipe past Atreyu's head and clamp down on the back of his neck. They grappled for a moment or two before their weight threw them off balance and they tumbled together off the ridge and into the dirt.

Adair and Deisha made to run down the ridge after them, but they both felt a heavy hand on their shoulders. Hykrion shook his head at the two of them.

"Do me a favor. Take the children somewhere else. I don't want them watching this. Daisy, Falcon, go with them."

Adair nodded and took the two children by the hand. She didn't know what Hykrion had planned, but she couldn't watch her friends tearing at each other this way. Deisha led Arian until they were out of sight of the scuffle.

"This isn't like Jason." Adair explained with an edge of unease in her voice. "I don't know what got into him."

Deisha only scowled. "This is your fault you know." she hissed.

Adair stopped walking. Sensing the situation, Daisy and Falcon went on ahead of them. They didn't want to be in the middle of another fight.

"You mean you blame me for making that wish too?"

"That's not what I'm talking about." the plains girl replied.

"Then what are you talking about?"

Deisha rolled her eyes. "You're either dense or you're one of the cruelest people I've ever met." She left Adair there, leading Arian away. "For what it's worth," she called over her shoulder. "I don't think you're a cruel person."

"So I'm dense?" She called after her.

"Looks like it."

Adair let Deisha walk away. She couldn't make heads or tails of what the plains girl was trying to say. If it wasn't about the wish, then what were they fighting about? Well she knew why Atreyu was fighting Jason. This only confirmed her suspicion that something dark had transpired between him and Bastian in the past. What she couldn't figure out was what had caused Jason to snap the way he did if not her wish. And why was he taking it out on Atreyu of all people? All her confusion at the incident was enough to make her believe she was dense. And it wasn't that really. As we've already seen Adair was an intelligent individual who could think quickly on her feet. The reason she failed to understand what had brought on Jason's anger was because of the ten long years her heart had been asleep. She was in new territory she had previously sealed herself off from. The ways of the heart were the greatest mystery in all the world to her.

She found herself returning to where Hykrion was dealing with the two boys. He had succeeded in coming between them and prying them apart. They were both covered in dirt. It crusted their hair and caked the sides of their face. Atreyu even looked like he'd swallowed some. Being smaller than most of his class, Jason knew how to fight dirty.

"Now I couldn't help but notice," Hykrion said sternly, looking from one dust encrusted boy to the other, "that while the two of you looked about to kill each other, neither one of you reached for your swords. Those are fine weapons you have strapped to your backs. Why not just take this business to your blades and be done with it? Would have been faster and saved us all that grotesque display the two of you just put on."

Atreyu looked horrified by the suggestion, and Jason merely glowered and dusted himself off.

"I didn't want to kill him!" Atreyu proclaimed at the same time that Jason said "He's not worth it."

"Precisely!" Hykrion scolded. "Anger between comrades is one thing, but to let it come to blows is disgraceful! If it's not worth killing one another, than it's not worth this! You Jason, this is not the way of true warriors, sniping at your comrade in arms and picking fights like a bully! And Atreyu," His voice dropped low and dripped in even more disapproval than he had used with Jason. "I am disgusted that you would stoop to this level. It seems you did not learn your lesson from Bastian of what comes from contention between comrades."

Jason took the whole thing keeping his arms folded stubbornly, refusing to meet Hykrion's eyes. But at this berating, Atreyu's eyes had begun to well with tears. If he appeared angry, it was directed at himself.

"You're right." He admitted, still fighting back tears. "I'm sorry Jason. I never should have struck you. But I don't understand. Why did you attack me?"

"I already told you." Jason snapped.

"I'm not using Adair, I promise. I care about her just as much as you do."

"No you don't. If you did, you wouldn't have asked her to do any of this... this quest and these wishes."

"She's on this quest because she chose to. I haven't made her do anything!"

"That's a lie! Everything she's done has been because of you! Before she met you, she would have walked away from all this without a second thought! She wouldn't be taking these risks! If it weren't for you she could have gone home a long time ago!"

Adair tensed. Was Jason going to tell him about the ring? He had promised not to, but in this state who knew what he was capable of?

"What are you talking about?" Atreyu asked. His expression was earnest, but there was also a hint of suspicion in his voice.

"This is ridiculous. I can see it, Deisha can see it, everyone knows except you!" Jason clenched his fists, and Adair feared he was going to hit Atreyu again. Instead he shoved past him and started walking ahead. Adair stumbled to catch up with him.

"Jason! Wait!" He stopped and turned to face her. Though he had been full of fire and anger only a moment ago, when his eyes met hers his countenance was one of defeat. It made her forget what she had been about to say. Questions spilled out of her all at once. "What's this about? Why are you acting like this? What did you mean back there?"

"So Atreyu's not the only one that can't see it. Or do you really think I'm that stupid?"

"What are you talking about?"

"I'm talking about how you feel about him. Why else would you still be here? I can't take it anymore."

She felt as though she'd been struck in the stomach. Why would he say something like that? Was it possible that Jason knew her feelings better than she did? But then again, hadn't it always been that way? Hadn't he been that friend who stuck by her side and helped her make sense of everything?

"If that's true, then why are you still here?"

This seemed to hurt Jason more than anything else that had happened since they came here. It didn't take him long to regain his composure, but for that one second she watched his face contort in agony.

"You really need to ask me that?" He stepped closer to her, and then closer still until they were almost touching. "For the same reason I'm always right outside Rosemary's place to walk you to school every morning. It's why I've taken beating after beating for you at school. It's why I walk you to your house and then stay outside and watch your window and wait for your light to come on. It's why you whistle and I come running, why I would jump when you snap. It's why I've stayed by your side as often as I physically could every day since we met for ten years." He reached for her then, and she felt a shiver crawl down her spine as he placed his hand on the side of her face. He brushed a strand of her sandy blond hair behind her ear. Then he let his hand drop and walked away without another word.

She watched him go, frozen where she stood. She berated herself in her head over and over. How could she have been so stupid? Ten years of being his friend and she had never once noticed, never even suspected, never let it enter her head that he might have wanted her to be more than his friend. What was worse, she didn't know how she felt about it. She didn't know how to feel about what he'd said about Atreyu either. Was he right? Did she have feelings for him? She admired him surely, trusted him completely, and had come to depend on his courage. She stopped and took a moment to look inward. She needed to search her heart.

Do I have feelings for Atreyu? The answer came to her quicker than she thought. Of course I do. Do I have feelings for Jason? Of this she wasn't sure. She felt something for him, but was it what he wanted or was it merely friendship? Was there a difference?

"He'll be alright Missy." Hykrion's voice startled her. "Just give him a little space. We men like to work out our feelings alone. Otherwise people would start to suspect we have them." He winked at her slyly. She felt heat rising in her face when she noticed Atreyu standing behind him.

"I'm sorry Adair. I didn't mean for it to go that far."

She didn't say anything. Her face was hotter than ever and she knew it was red. When she saw him start to blush as well it only got worse.

"Well I'll go tell the children it's safe to go on ahead." Hykrion said, sounding flustered and quickly ejected himself from the situation. His leaving didn't seem to change anything though. They just kept staring at each other, unable to speak. She suddenly felt very dizzy. She needed to sit down.

"Let's wait for them." She said, quickly looking away. She turned her back to him and sat down on a grassy patch on the hill. He sat next to her, and when she looked she saw his hand was trembling. She remembered that night at camp when he'd told her he didn't know how to act around girls. They'd come a long way since then, and he had long stopped acting awkward around her (well aside from his usual sort of awkward). Now it was like they'd taken a step backward. In spite of that, he was the one to break the silence.

"About what Jason said... Is it true?"

"What part?" It was a stupid question. She knew exactly what he was talking about. She just wasn't ready for an answer.

"About how you're only on this quest for me."

"No that part's not true." She answered quickly. "I'm on this quest for me too."

"So I am part of the reason?"

"I guess so. I was different before I met you. The old me never would have gotten this far. I never would have made my first wish if it weren't for you. But I'm not sorry. I like the way I've changed. I'm happier now."

She caught him smile, but he still wasn't looking at her. "I'm happy when I'm with you too. So... what about the rest of it? Do you really... feel that way about me?"

She shivered again. "I..." She knew she should say yes. It was the truth after all. "I'm not sure. I might."

"But you told me you didn't."

"I know, but that feels like it was a long time ago. This is all so new to me. I've never even thought about it before."

"Me neither." he admitted.

"So if I did... what would you say?"

"I don't know. I guess we'd have to wait until we were sure."

She nodded. "Right. Let's just take it as it comes."

"Sounds good to me."

As they sat side by side waiting for the others to catch up, they felt a breeze above them and looked up to see Falkor flying ahead. Deisha was on his back.

"Where do you suppose they're going?"

"I don't know." Atreyu answered numbly, and before she could say anything more she felt him take her hand. Even though she could feel it was still shaking, his hand was very warm. It surprised her, but she didn't pull her own away. She let him lace his fingers through hers. They still couldn't meet eyes, but they were both smiling.

Jason hadn't gotten far before Falkor swooped over his head and landed right in front of him. Deisha was straddling his back and stared at him with her fierce green eyes. She held out her hand.

"Get on."

He eyed her warily. "Why? So you can drop me?"

She rolled her eyes. "Just get on."

"Trust us Jason." Falkor winked one of his giant ruby eyes. "Have I let you fall yet?"

"This is a peace offering." she explained.

"Oh you want to parlais."

She cast him a sideways glance. "What?"

"Geez, are there no pirates in Fantasia?"

"Of course there are. But..." She sighed in frustration. "Look, last chance. Get on or not."

Jason relented and let Deisha help him onto Falkor's back. The luckdragon lifted off gracefully. Jason felt comfortable enough riding him that he leaned back to lay down. He folded his arms behind his head and sighed.

"I'm sorry about what I did back there."

"No you're not." She replied, but she had none of the accusation he'd been expecting.

In truth he did feel sorry. Not for hitting Atreyu, but for the way he'd done it. He had thrown punches at someone who had been content to take it until he provoked him by saying things he knew would hurt him. The worst was what Hykrion had said. Jason had fought bullies before and had been the victim of their anger more often than he cared to remember. To be called a bully had cut him deeply. But this wasn't why he was apologizing to Deisha. He felt he owed her a different apology.

"Well I am sorry about what I said. I do care about this quest. Fantasia's important to me too."

"I know."

He sat up. "You know?"

"Yes. I know how you feel."

He snorted. "Yeah I guess you would."

She turned her head to look at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means I know how you feel about him. Is that why you called me up here?"

She looked about to argue, but she decided against it. "Sort of." she admitted. "What would you say to an alliance?"

He quirked an eyebrow. "What do you mean?"

"I care about him, you care about her, and no matter what they say they care a lot about each other. I've never seen him look at someone like he looks at her and it makes me sick to my stomach. So I guess I understand how you can hate him."

"I don't hate Atreyu." he admitted.

"Oh." She hesitated. "You don't?"

"Don't get me wrong, he can tick me off, but I can't really bring myself to hate him. And I can't blame him for feeling the way he does about Adair. At the end of the day I know he's a good person. If I hate Choir Boy for anything it's for being too good."

"I understand." She agreed. "I guess I don't hate Adair either. She has a good heart. I just hate that I'm losing to her. But no matter what they feel, they're just fooling themselves."

"How's that?"

"Think about it. They're from two completely different worlds. Our worlds have rules. The first is that nothing from Fantasia can cross the border into your world. The other is that no matter what happens, no human can stay in Fantasia. The ones that do lose all their memories, and Atreyu would never let that happen to her. It's like you said, he's too good. So when everything is said and done, you and her will have to return to your world and we'll be left here to carry on without you. So until then, how about we just focus on the quest and do our best to get along. No more taking our anger out on them. Got it?"

"I think I can do that."

She held her hand out to him. "Shake on it."

He took her hand and shook on their agreement. "But in the meantime, is there anything wrong with running a little interference?"

"You mean with them? You didn't think I was going to give up so easily did you? I'm already thinking of ways to win him back. I won't lose."

He chuckled. "So there is a girl underneath all those briars and teeth."

She shot him a wry smile. "But if you tell anyone, I'll hog tie you and leave you in the Bestial Desert for the shrieking piranha wolves."

He gave her a two-fingered salute. "Understood."

Falkor smiled to himself as he listened to the two of them. Memories of his own youth flashed to him of what it was like to be young and in love. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

They traveled the rest of the day in each other's company while Atreyu and Adair walked with Hykrion and the children. The procession was a little lighter as they progressed, like they had carried a heavy mist with them out of the mountains that was only now beginning to clear. They laughed, they joked, they played games and sang with the children, and the rockbiters joined in with their calamitous off key baritone voices. They traveled all day and into the night until they found a sheltered ground where they could camp. When Atreyu and Adair built the fire, Jason, Deisha, and Falkor joined them. Atreyu stood to look Jason in the eye and there was a tense silence as the rest watched them. Then Jason put his hand forward.

"I'm sorry. I was a jerk."

Atreyu took his hand. "I've been thoughtless as well. I promise to be more sensitive to your feelings from now on. Both yours and Adair's."

"Does this mean you two won't fight again?" Adair prodded.

Atreyu grinned. "Almost. I still plan to have my revenge for the tea-party."

"You're on." Jason flashed him a devilish smile. "But the loser has to jump into the coldest lake in Fantasia naked."

"I know just the place."

They both laughed at that. Adair and Deisha shook their heads and looked to each other.


From then on there existed a rivalry between Atreyu and Jason. Though neither of them spoke of it, they both knew it was there. It was the same with Adair and Deisha. But they had learned something important that day. It was possible to be strong rivals and still friends.

"Well that was boring." Nag griped. "I was hoping for another fight."

Fay sighed. "They both care too much for Adair to upset her that way again."

"Will you two be quiet!" Thoth whispered to them, quite unnecessarily. They were the only ones in the darkened opera house aside from the performers. "It's been ages since we've been able to enjoy some real culture."

"Thank the darkness for that. This tie you made me wear is killing me!" Nag moaned, scratching at the collar of the white button down shirt Thoth had forced on it along with the black tie and vest. Its new garb aside, it still wore its black leather leggings and chose to forgo the use of shoes, letting its bare claw-tipped feet hang free. After unsuccessfully relieving its itch with its claws, it bent its leg at an unnatural angle to scratch at its neck with its foot. Fay and Thoth had chosen to dress for the occasion as well, though the former only did so at the urging of the latter. She'd only heard the performance as a dull humming in the background, never once looking up from her book. She wore a dark violet blouse with a blooming skirt and lace petticoat while he wore a black tuxedo with a garish red bow tie. A white scarf was draped elegantly over his shoulders.

Thoth watched the performers intently with a broad smile, swinging his fingers lightly as a conductor might. The candlelight of the theater danced eerily across his lenses. The Fantasian performers were living breathing instruments. They were made entirely of slick white marble and bore somewhere on their body an instrument that was part of them. One was little more than a head on two stubby legs with a pipe for a nose, playing the notes with short marble fingers. One was a tall woman with a wide cello for her chest. One had a smile that stretched an entire foot long to accommodate for the flute whose keys served as his teeth. There were others making up this frightening orchestra, but perhaps the most disturbing were the Siamese twins that were joined at the hip and shared one pair of legs. The first sister leaned away from the second so that she could play the piano whose keys were set into her twin's back. To anyone else, this troupe of musicians would have appeared quite nightmarish, but Thoth was enthralled.

Though they were alone in the grand opera theater, they sat six entire rows back from the stage. Even in space that they had claimed for their own, the Circle of the Night preferred to skulk in the shadows.

"Who knew a land as chaotic as Fantasia could foster such genius. Such sophistication! Tell me, what was this piece called again?"

Nag grimaced as it opened the program it had been fitfully picking apart for the last hour and read the title of the piece.

"Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in D Minor."

"Beethoven. What a brilliant mind his must have been. How I would have loved to crack it open and get a look inside."

Fay rolled her eyes and continued reading.

"Don't you roll your eyes at me Fay. We'll have plenty of time to return to your headache when this is over. After all the time we've wasted I am owed this!"

"As you wish." she replied without sincerity as she did with everything else.

"So does the experiment change now?" Nag asked her. "Now that they know?"

"Yes m'dear Fay, do explain. What changes are in store now that, to borrow one of your phrases, 'the cat is out of the bag'?"

"It does alter the situation now that they know one another's feelings. Now that they are aware of the Strongest Magic working within them, where they go from here depends on how they feel about that knowledge."

"What does that mean?" Nag asked.

"It means that they can either embrace it and let it thrive, or they can choose to neglect it and let it deteriorate back into a casual relationship, or simply die all together. However, past data has shown that once the Strongest Magic's existence is known, it is almost impossible to return things to the way they were, especially in a situation where it binds more than two parties. No matter what they choose from here on, there will be both pain and loss. If Adair chooses Atreyu, Jason's heart will be broken. Likewise-"

"Atreyu's heart will break if she chooses Jason." Thoth finished for her. "Not to mention the damage that would be done to that little plains filly if she loses Atreyu. What was her name again? It's growing difficult to track all the players in your tragedy."

"I actually haven't been paying very close attention to her either." Fay replied.

"Tragedy?" Nag questioned. "This sounds more like a comedy to me, all of them so new to these feelings, unsure of what to do with them. They can't help but make complete fools of themselves. I plan to laugh this up all the way to the end." It made a shriek of frustration then. "This tie is dreadful!"

Fay smirked and returned to her reading. It was then that the movement on stage reached its climax. Thoth's was the only applause that echoed in the expanse of the opera house, but he made it count as the macabre performers took mechanical bows.

"Brava!" He called to them, rising out of his seat as he did so. "Bravissima! Stupenda!"

Fay glanced up at the grand clock that hung on the wall at the rear of the theater.

"Just in time. Volrac will contact us soon. It's almost time to gather the army."

A wave of blue fire streaked across the sky as Falkor unleashed his fury on another wave of winged demons. They were the same as the ones that had surrounded them on their first journey to the Ivory Tower, and this time their leader had come with them; a Creature of Darkness called Twinfang. Once he had been a brilliant scientist in Fantasia until he was driven mad by the loss of his twin sister. He had turned to dark magic and combined it with his science to contain his sister's soul within him, but the process had turned him savage, and his sister was now nothing more than a malevolent spirit that used him as a host. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

Twinfang rode one of the vulture like demons and shouted commands at them in his gruff voice from his first face, a man's face with spiky black hair and skin so red and leathery he looked like he had been burned. His sister spoke from the face that shared the left side of his head, this one pale white with rouge red lips and long black hair that cascaded down the side, keeping her hidden until she felt the need to speak. Even Twinfang's clothes were shoddy stitches of the two lives they had once been, pieced together from his white lab coat and her black funeral dress.

"Kill the Luckdragon!" The red face crowed.

"But brother," hissed the white face, "our orders were only to intercept the red-haired knight before he reached this place. Shouldn't we have remained hidden?"

"And miss this chance?" The red face growled. "Never! Kill Atreyu! Kill the humans! And secure the vision of our Lord Volrac!"

The white face smiled with her scarlet lips and pointed teeth. "Yes brother! Kill kill kill to your heart's delight!" Then the two voices joined together and laughed most hideously.

Riding on Falkor's back, Atreyu and Deisha had their bows out and Adair rode behind them, weaving her magic into their arrows. Each one that struck a demon exploded in a shower of golden sparks that destroyed its target and spread its fire to the others near it. Jason stood on the Luckdragon's back and with finesse would swing his blade at the demons that drew too near. One swooped from the side with talons outstretched to catch Adair, but only met the tip of Jason's sword as he buried the blade all the way up to the hilt in its chest. The wound he created didn't bleed, but rather it smoked and hissed like burning steel being submerged in water. The monster shrieked and fell to the ground.

Adair nodded to Jason. "Thanks."

"Don't mention it. Atreyu, get your blade out. I've got an idea."

Atreyu gave him a puzzled look, but drew his sword just the same.

"Falkor get us high."

"You've got it!"

Meanwhile on the ground, Hykrion had taken command of the rockbiters who had formed a circle of protection around the Tuah.

"Bring the blighters down!" Hykrion commanded, and at his urging they snatched up boulders and great mounds of earth around them to hurl with tremendous strength.

At Jason's urging, Falkor rocketed higher into the sky with a horde of the demons swirling in a wave behind him.

"Try and get us right above Twinfang."

"I like where this is heading!" Falkor roared with glee.

Jason turned to Atreyu. "Can you guide our fall?"

The Plains warrior looked down at the their target. "I've fallen from worse."

"Are you two out of your mind?" Adair shouted.

Jason only hefted his lucky blade. "Got to take risks if we want our luck to work."

"There's risks, and then there's just plain suicidal!" Deisha shouted.

Atreyu ignored their protests. "You two cover us."

With the danger heightening and the flock of demon birds closing in on them, Adair only nodded and turned to Deisha.

"Deisha, fire on my mark."

In spite of her own reservations, Deisha agreed and knocked an arrow to her string. Falkor soared higher until he was above the entire murder of crows.


Deisha fired at Adair's behest, but had not aimed at any of the demons themselves. Her arrow shot through a clear path between them, and with Adair's magic a forceful whirlwind blasted them off course.

"That's our cue!" Jason took Atreyu's hand and the two of them vaulted off Falkor's back. Free falling, they kept their eyes on their target. Twinfang rode a demon much larger than the rest of the flock with segmented plates all along its back like a cockroach. It was at the crown of this shell that Twinfang rode, standing on his two feet, unaffected by the wind and turbulence. He watched his demons scattered by the wind and his red face growled, still unaware of his rapidly descending foes.

"The human's magic is strong!"

"But brother, did you forget?" crooned the white face. "We have magic of our own."

"How right you are sister. Shall we?"

Twinfang outstretched its mismatched arms, one broad and muscular with jagged yellowed fingernails, the other slender with red lacquered nails pointed into claws. Blue and red sparks gathered in each hand, forming two magical orbs. In his broad right hand he held an orb of violent red fire, and in his slender left hand he held a swirling disc of biting azure ice. He brought them together in one formidable blend and aimed to launch it at Falkor. As luck would have it, Jason and Atreyu fell directly in front of him just as he launched it, and with a broad arc of their swords diffused the magical attack. They gained their balance and took ready fighting stances, both with the tip of their swords leveled at Twinfang's throat.

"Now what have we here?" The white face chuckled.

"Two against one is hardly fair." the red face roared.

"Let us make things a bit more even." The white face said in agreement. Then Twinfang did something truly horrifying. The white face split off from the red face, and continued splitting down the middle until his body was in two separate halves. The inside of the two halves was lined with hooked fangs like inside the mouth of some horrid beast. As the two halves detached to stand on the one leg that was left to them, one of the fangs inside grew and twisted until it came to rest on the ground, a new makeshift leg. Then both halves held up their one arm and before the two warrior's eyes their claws grew to the length of blades. The white half laughed as she somersaulted off the side of the demon and re-emerged behind them, brandishing her scarlet claws. The red half closed in on them with his jagged yellowing claws. Acting quickly, Atreyu and Jason stood back to back. With his lucky black and red blade, Jason took on the white half while Atreyu took on the red.

"Why am I fighting the girl half?" Jason grimaced, keeping the white half at bay as she swung her razor claws with precision. "I fought the girl last time. I don't fight women!"

"Plains Warrior honor." Atreyu explained, blocking another wild swing from the red half who fought with less precision, but with ten times the ferocity of his sister. "I take the stronger looking opponent for myself."

"Well let me take him." Jason complained. "I'm more used to fighting bullies. Besides, it's like you said. You need some practice with girls."

"Fair enough. Switch!"

Moving as one, Atreyu and Jason circled back and traded opponents. With a lucky strike, Jason dodged the red half's thrust to the side and brought his sword down on his claws, shattering them to pieces. Likewise, Atreyu dodged the white half's attack and twirled his blade up underneath her assault, relieving her of her weapons. Both halves shrieked as the white half fell back and rejoined her brother. In a sickening display, the two halves stitched themselves back together.

"Alright," the white face conceded. "We know when we're beaten." Twinfang held up his hands, but just as quickly threw them down. In a crash of fire and ice, they struck not their enemies, but the demon on which they rode. The creature was dashed to pieces with a deafening crack and its three riders were thrown into the sky. Twinfang whistled with his white face and at his command, one of the demons swooped to catch him in its talons. He laughed with both of his voices as he watched Atreyu and Jason fall.

Falkor roared while Adair and Deisha shrieked in panic. The Luckdragon swooped down to catch them, but the distance between them was not only great, it was still impeded by demons. Just when it seemed certain that Atreyu and Jason would fall to their deaths, a sharp whistling cut through the air. Jason and Atreyu felt themselves caught by the waist and suddenly their fall stopped. But they didn't stop flying through the air. Something was pulling them now. They were dangling by long silken chords from an object that was flying too fast to see. What they could make out was that wherever the flying object went, the demons in front of it were thrown off course or otherwise wounded, like they were being shot at. They heard something that sounded like the humming of a thousand songbirds at once. More whistling brought their attention to the ground. Atreyu pointed and shouted.

"Look! It's Bahzha and the other Plains Warriors!" Far below them, Bahzha was leading the archers of the Plains People to bring down the demons with their arrows. Now being attacked on four fronts, Twinfang's demonic host was gravely outmatched.

"This would be an ideal time to retreat." Twinfang's white face hissed.

"Never!" Bellowed the red face. "I am no coward!"

"Brother, cowards live to fight another day."

"Right you are sister. Truly you are my better half." And without further argument, the Creature of Darkness called the rest of his demons to him and retreated into the sky.

With the danger gone, Atreyu and Jason's flying rescuer slowed his flight and gradually began to descend. They rolled onto the ground with a few scrapes but were for the most part unharmed. As they unfastened themselves from their harnesses, Jason lifted his sword to his lips and kissed the blade repeatedly.

"I love this thing!"

"I apologize for the rough landing." came the voice of the one that had rescued them. As they got to their feet they got their first good look at him. He rode to them on a strange chair with wheels attached to it. On its back was a mechanical appendage that reminded Jason of the tail of a plane. Folding into its sides were segmented mechanical wings that if they didn't know any better they would have guessed they had been hunted off of a dragon. There were other devices attached to the chair whose functions they could never have begun to guess at. The man himself who piloted the contraption was a lanky fellow who wore a leather jacked and a long wool scarf. Atreyu recognized him at once, even with the dark pair of goggles he wore to protect his eyes in flight. Though Jason didn't know the man personally, he could tell who it was. It was hard to miss his fiery red curls. "It's good to see you again Atreyu. And thank you for giving me the chance to run a field test."

Atreyu didn't know what he meant. "What field test?"

Hysbald pulled a switch on his chair and one of the contraptions sprung from its compartment and mounted itself above his head. It was made of brass and looked similar to the horn that one might attach to an old record player. Inside the horn was a network of wires stringing a series of instruments together. Placed at the mouth of the horn was a bellows which inflated and blew air through the horn. When the air blew threw it, the instruments would catch it or would twirl like fan blades, or perform whatever their function was. The result was a chorus of noises that culminated into the sound they had heard earlier.

"When the demons began attacking our corner of Fantasia, we fashioned something like this to protect our hut. This is our first portable model. Engywook will be thrilled that it worked."

Atreyu beamed. "Engywook is here?"

"Who's Engywook?" Jason asked, but Atreyu didn't get a chance to answer.

With a cry of victory, Falkor landed to let Adair and Deisha off. They ran to their companions and Adair hugged them both with a heavy sigh of relief. Then she curled her fist and punched Jason in the shoulder.

"Idiot!" She reared back to do the same to Atreyu, but he took a step back with his hands in a surrendering motion. "Don't ever pull a stunt like that again!"

Deisha grinned. "You looked awesome, but it was pretty stupid."

Jason struck an inflated pose. "You thought I looked awesome?"

"Get over yourself. I was talking about Atreyu."

He frowned. "Of course you were."

Hysbald laughed. "So you are the human that's been raising all the noise in Fantasia. Glad to see the rumors are true about you Lady Adair Alicia Artemis."

Adair frowned. "What rumors?"

Before answering her question, he took her hand and raised it to his lips. "That you are a courageous girl as beautiful as the Empress herself."

Adair's face flushed crimson as she cleared her throat. "So you're Hysbald? Bahzha said we were meeting you here."

Bahzha and the other plains people joined them at the landing along with Hykrion and the rockbiters, keeping the Tuah safely behind them. Bahzha carried on his shoulders two tiny people that Adair hadn't noticed at first. They were about the same size as Octavia, but that's where the similarities ended. While Octavia had a youthful and majestic appearance, these two had an earthy look about them and shriveled faces with tiny black eyes. They were a man and a woman. The woman wore a bonnet made of withered leaves and despite her age there was a sparkle to her dark eyes. The man looked just as old and shriveled as she, but his features were sharper, his eyes more intense behind a pair of large glasses. On his head he wore a bowl shaped hat made of a gnarled root. He jumped for joy and crowed with pride.

"Well done Hysbald! Way to gives those fiends the old what for with science!"

"You're not hurt are you?" asked the woman with motherly concern. "I'll not have you injuring yourself to my fool husband's science!"

Atreyu came to Bahzha's side and looked so happy to see these two little strangers Adair thought he was going to pick them up in his hands.

"Engywook! And Urgl! You're here too!"

"Aye my lad." The little gnome man beamed. "You didn't think I'd pass up a chance like this to show Fantasia what my inventions can do. It's good to see you again lad."

"Aah!" Urgl screeched and pointed at a scrape on Atreyu's arm. "Look at you! I worked my fingers to the bone patching your poor body back together and this is what you do with it!"

Adair cast a sideways glance at Atreyu. "Is there anyone in Fantasia you don't know?"

"Hysbald my old friend!" Hykrion cried. "It's been ages. Come on and get out of that chair so we can greet each other properly."

Hysbald winced. "About that Hykrion... I can't." An awkward silence followed then. At last it sank in that the chair Hysbald piloted was more than transportation. For those who had known Hysbald the Swift when he was a gallant knight, fleet of foot and the fastest warrior in Fantasia, seeing him denied the use of his legs was a difficult sight. "It's not as bad as it looks." he assured them. "Believe it or not I'm faster now then when you knew me. It's a long story. I'll explain on the way."

He gestured behind them. When he did, it looked as though the sun was rising, and emerging from the horizon they saw it. The Ivory Tower stood in the distance, the sun glittering off its turrets and dancing like fire over the magnolia pavilion that overlooked its peak. It was as beautiful as Adair remembered it, and for Jason who was laying eyes on it for the first time, it was a sight he would never forget.

"The Ivory Tower." Adair breathed.

"Was that there before?" Jason asked.

Atreyu shook his head. "When the three knights came together, the way of wishes must have brought us here. It must be time for us to return." Atreyu and Adair shared a solemn look before they departed for the Ivory Tower to prepare for the beginning of the end of their journey.

"So how did that happen?" Adair asked Hysbald after several minutes of walking, but she quickly amended her question when she realized how insensitive she sounded. "I mean, what happened to you after you split up from the others?"

Hysbald only grinned. "It's fine. It's actually a happy story." Though she didn't say so, Hysbald knew Adair didn't quite understand how a story that told how he was paralyzed could be happy. This was the precise reason he had to tell it.

"After I left the others to search for Bastian, I headed west. After many adventures I came to a treacherous canyon. The canyon's not so bad itself. It's the worms you need to watch out for."

"Worms?" She asked.

"Nasty things that burrow into the canyon walls. They're as big as an ox and have heads harder than rock. They like to knock travelers off the trail. Well as you can probably guess, that's exactly what became of me. I was foolish and thought that if I ran along the path fast enough, they wouldn't be able to hit me. I misjudged their speed and they sent me flying off the cliff. I finally landed at the bottom of the canyon. The fall completely shattered my armor. It may have been the only thing that had saved me. I tried to move, but I couldn't. I would have died there if someone hadn't come to help me."

"Is that when you met Engywook and Urgl?" she asked, referring to the two gnomes that were now perched on Atreyu's shoulders and talking both his ears off.

Hysbald nodded. "They don't agree on much, but that canyon is a place they both like to visit. Engywook likes to conduct research on the worms while Urgl collects slime from the walls of their cave for her remedies. They had just finished and were heading back to their hut when they found me. Engywook had his team follow him to the canyon and together they dragged me back. Urgl tended to me for... I actually don't know how long I was asleep. When I woke up she told me not to move. Said it was bad for my recovery to get too physical. It wasn't until I felt my strength returning that she broke the news. She had to tell me when I found I couldn't move my legs. It shames me to admit this now, but I lost hope then."

"I can understand that." Adair admitted. From what she'd come to understand, Hysbald had been active and athletic and valued his speed above all his other assets.

"In truth, Urgl's care was the only thing that kept me alive for a good long while. She seems gruff, but she's actually a caring soul. She loves making medicine and caring for sick and broken sorts like I was. But while she could mend my body, she couldn't fix a broken spirit. That was where Engywook was the greatest help. You see he grew tired of my moping around. He's always had an eye for potential and as far as he was concerned I was wasting my mind and the two limbs I had left to me. Quite ingenious that gnome. He actually designed this chair and had his research team construct it for me. It was a little different then. I've added to it over the years. Anyway he made it for me and told me that from then on I was to help him with his research. At first he had me do little more than fetch supplies for him. All the while he would ask me questions. He asked what I thought of the world, why I had become a knight, and most importantly what my plans were now." His eyes were distant as he recalled his story, but though it still seemed to Adair like a sad tale he had not once stopped smiling as he told it.

"I didn't have any answers for him. I had no plans for my future, my becoming a knight didn't matter since I could no longer go back to it, and the rest of Fantasia could have burned for all I cared. One day I finally broke down and told him as much. We yelled at each other for a solid hour. He called me all sorts of names, a waste of talent and space being the kindest of them. Then he got very quiet. He stared at me for a long time and then took a deep breath. He told me the story of his greatest failure.

"He had devoted years of his life to the study of a great scientific phenomenon in Fantasia. He and Urgl lived by themselves for decades waiting for travelers to pass by so he could discover a little more. Piece by piece he began to unravel the mystery of the Great Southern Oracle. But when he finally got lucky enough to talk to an adventurer who had made it all the way and spoken to the oracle, he was informed that she no longer existed. She had vanished after saying all she'd needed to say. The news crushed him. All of his research he had spent years collecting was no longer relevant. Engywook doesn't like to waste time investigating what was. He's only interested in what is. He had no clue what he was going to do after that."

He paused and Adair took the opportunity to ask him. "What did he do after that?"

"Lots of things." he answered. "Wonderful things. He journeyed all over Fantasia and made many great discoveries after that. But he told me that what he discovered wasn't nearly as important as the fact that he discovered them. He could have easily given up and retired to a life of obscurity and never pursue his dreams again. But he didn't. He told me that the same choice was in front of me. I thought about what he said. I stayed by myself in the little shelter they'd been kind enough to build for me. While I was there I began building. Some of Engywook's team came by to visit and I would ask them if they could bring me supplies. Eventually Engywook came to see what I was up to and we worked together. That's how I got these."

He pulled the lever on the side of his chair and the tail and wings he had used to fly before expanded. He folded them back in.

"After we were finished I started helping Engywook with his research full time. I became his apprentice. The old codger may be plumb crazy, but I wouldn't be here right now if it weren't for him. He taught me that I couldn't let what happened stop me. Yes it was sad that I fell, but if I hadn't I would never have learned how to fly."

Adair smiled. "You're right. That is a happy story."

"I've always thought so."

They walked in silence for a while and Adair reflected on his story. Not just his but on Bahzha's and Hykrion's as well. She was starting to see why the way of wishes had guided her to them. It hadn't just been to seek their aid against Volrac. As Atreyu had told her before, there were things that Fantasia had brought her here to learn. From Bahzha she had learned that no matter how alone or defeated someone might feel, there were always others that they could turn to. Hykrion and the many children he was now guardian and father to had taught her the strength that came from devoting yourself to others. And Hysbald's story had driven home in her even more than the other two. Until she had come to Fantasia, she had allowed the tragedy of her parents murder to define her. She had never been able to see anything bright ahead of her after that because she had never looked. She'd consigned herself to an empty life without dreams. It chilled her to think of how lonely her life would have been if she had never found that book in Bastian's shop.

The silence was eventually broken by their other companions.

"So Hydorn," Hykrion addressed Bahzha by his old name. "You threw your lot in with the Plains people. Never would have guessed you to turn savage."

Bahzha merely shrugged. "And I never would have believed you would hang up your armor to play nanny."

Hykrion's black mustache curled into a sneer. "Say that again! I'm still the strongest between us and I'll wallop you good!"

"Any time, any place old man."

"Who are you calling old!"

The two of them stared one another down and looked ready to duel until Hysbald wheeled his chair in between them.

"Easy boys. Save that for the battle." The two agreed. Hysbald was the youngest of the three, and in their past travels had also been the gentlest, often having to mediate between his more excitable comrades. It seemed that was still true even years later.

The group drew many stares when they at last reached the end of the path through the labyrinth garden that led into the Ivory Tower. The imperial grooms had their hands full this time giving each and every one of their party the cup of welcome to drink from. When it was over Atreyu explained to them that they needed to consult with Chiron as to their arrangements. They agreed to meet up in the square in the higher terraces in a few hours. Falkor took flight once they were inside the tower, preferring to remain in the sky than follow them in. Not that the tower couldn't afford him plenty of space. As it's been explained, the tower was as large as a whole city. But Falkor could not stand buildings or ceilings no matter how large.

The first thing Adair did was take Arian to the stables. Atreyu, Jason, and Deisha went with her. The four of them had been sticking close together since leaving the plains. As she led Arian to a stall and stroked his mane, assuring him she would be back soon, she wondered aloud.

"I wonder if Iole made it here yet." The voice that appeared behind them answered her question.

"It's about time. I was worried I was going to have all the fun." Iole sat perched on one of the stall doors like she'd been there from the start. She winked one of her crystal blue eyes at Adair. "Everything work out on your end?"

Adair smiled, genuinely happy to see her for the first time since the dragon girl had been her cat. She nodded. "We found them. What about you?"

"I just finished escorting the last caravan. If everything goes according to plan we'll have enough silver to arm every man,woman, and child in the tower."

"I hope it doesn't come to that." Atreyu said grimly. But as one who had seen with his own eyes the threat they faced, he didn't sound very hopeful that it could be avoided.

"Me too." Iole agreed, but she didn't sound any more optimistic. Now that they were all here, the weight of what was ahead of them was greater than it had ever been. "We'll have time to catch up later. You all have things to do and so do I." She hopped from her perch and made to leave the stables.

"Where are you going?" Jason called after her.

She waved without looking back. "Nowhere." But the way she said it led them to believe it was one of those things they "didn't need to know".

They talked little as they left the stables together and began the long ascent to the higher terraces of the tower to meet with the council. When they reached it at last they were met by Chiron the centaur and Gandarin the Sassafranian. Gandarin had his little arms folded and was scowling with his round eyes.

"Now you two have done it." the little Sassafranian grimaced. "There's no going back now."

Adair scowled. "Sorry we thought gathering a defense for the tower against a demonic horde was a good thing."

"And what an army you've brought! We'll be lucky if there is an Ivory Tower to defend when this is over, or a Fantasia for that matter."

Atreyu stepped in front of Adair. "If Volrac succeeds, there won't be."

"Do not disrespect this council again Atreyu!" Gandarin scolded. "This time you've gone too far!"

"I think you're exaggerating a bit." Jason waved his hand as if to brush the councilor's worry aside. "Really how much damage can three ex-knights, twelve rockbiters, a luckdragon, two gnomes, a village of immortal children, all the tribes of the Plains People, and whoever General Heremoor invited do?"

"Do not play the fool with me human!" The old child shouted.

"Councilor," Chiron intervened. "It could be that they don't know."

Adair looked from one councilor to the other. "Don't know what?"

Chiron spoke to them now, brooking no further outburst from his colleague. "We thank you for the bravery you and your companions have shown thus far, Adair Alicia Artemis. You have gathered a formidable force to defend the heart of Fantasia. Evidently it was far more formidable than you realized."

"Chiron," Atreyu interrupted. "What's happened?"

The Centaur shook his head before raising his old brown eyes to meet theirs again.

"It would seem that your quest has reached the ears of The Eldest."

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