The Strongest Magic

Chapter 17: The Eldest

Quiet had settled eerily over the upper terrace as Adair and the others were led to the great circular room where the council met. None of the sages and other councilors made a sound as they passed through the corridors. Whoever this "Eldest" was, he certainly had everyone in the tower on edge. As they made their way past another series of rooms, she kept an eye out for Octavia and General Heremoor, hoping to see that they had returned safe and sound. She didn't see them. It was Jason who asked the question Adair had been thinking.

"So who's this 'Eldest' guy?"

"Forgive me for misleading you earlier." Chiron answered. "The Eldest is not a single individual. They are a collective."

"But who are they?" Adair asked.

"As you've learned, time in Fantasia is very different than in your world. They are called 'The Eldest' because their stories have been told so many times that some of us consider them immortal."

"So they're just really old stories?"

"Well it's more than that. You see, the first of them claimed immortality long ago. They claimed to be well versed in a special kind of magic that exceeds all others."

"Some say they believe themselves to be greater than The Childlike Empress herself." Gandarin huffed.

Adair didn't like the sound of that. This talk of the most powerful magic reminded her too much of Fay. "What do they say?"

"They make no such claim,” the old child admitted. “But the way they throw their weight around here makes me wonder."

"It would be wise," Chiron cautioned, "to keep those thoughts to yourself while they are here Councilor."

"And they're asking for me?" Adair felt a lump form in her stomach. "Why?" It made her head spin how things had changed since the last time she'd been here. Her first visit to the Ivory Tower, she had been so inexperienced and the council had regarded her as something frail that needed protection. Now Chiron and Gandarin were looking to her to make decisions and these Eldest were seeking an audience with her.

"They are considering taking part in the coming battle."

Atreyu's eyes widened. "All of them?"

Chiron nodded sternly. "Adair, the Eldest keep to their own domains most of the time. When they involve themselves in the affairs of Fantasia, there is always great quaking in the land. For more than one of them to leave their domain is rare. For them all to be here right now is unheard of. Depending on what you tell them, they may aid us against Volrac's army, or they may simply return to their respective kingdoms altogether."

"If I were you, I'd send them packing." Gandarin grimaced.

"Councilor please!" Chiron warned him again before returning to Adair. "The decision is yours of course. You wear our Empress' blessing around your neck. But I would implore you to consider carefully. We will wait outside for your decision."

"Why? Shouldn't the council be in there too?"

"I'm afraid not. Whenever one of The Eldest is here in the tower, there is no authority shy of Moon Child herself greater than theirs. Be careful Adair. With our Empress still in the state she's in, it's quite possible you are about to come face to face with the most powerful beings in Fantasia."

"You mean me and Atreyu right? Jason? Deisha? They're coming with me right?"

Chiron shook his head sadly. "No. Only you. They asked specifically for the one who wears The Glory around her neck."

Adair looked desperately to her companions. "Guys?"

Jason shook his head vigorously. "No way are we letting you go in there alone."

"I'm afraid they're not giving you a choice." Gandarin replied.

Atreyu put a hand on Jason's shoulder and shook his head. They could tell from the set of his jaw that he didn't like this anymore than Jason did. He looked back to Adair.

"This is something only you can do." he said with surety.

Deisha gave her a hesitant thumbs up. "We'll be right outside. Just... don't say anything stupid."

Adair prayed they could not see the sweat she felt beading on her forehead.

"No pressure." she answered sarcastically.

"Go on Adair." Chiron urged. "They don't like to be kept waiting."

She gulped and made her way alone to the great double doors that led to the council chamber. She stood in front of them and stared at the entrance for a moment, took a deep breath and reached out her hand. With her own will, she threw them open. She was aware she needed to make an impression if she was going to have any control over the situation. What better way to make an impression than to show these supposed powerful magicians that she had power of her own. Their eyes were on her the second she was inside. She stepped to the center of the room and with a wave of her hand the doors closed. Though she held her head high and her shoulders straight, inside her heart was pounding.

She didn't know what she'd expected when she entered, so she didn't know what to think of the sight she was met with. At the very least she'd expected to be met with wizened faces like Ze'hara or Chiron. One glance around the room told her this was not the case. There were twelve chairs in the circle. The council chamber only ever has the chairs that it needs. If there had been more or less gathered there would be one chair to accommodate each one. Sitting in these chairs was a circle of twelve regal people both in manner and dress with serene faces. There were six women and six men. The man and woman that sat at the head of the circle facing Adair rose to their feet. They were both dressed in white silk. She wore a long flowing gown and a white cloak while he wore a tunic and boots and a cloak that sported thick fur on the collar. Whatever corner of Fantasia they hailed from must have been cold. Adair felt cold just looking at them.

"We thank you Adair Alicia Artemis for agreeing to meet with us." said the woman. She had long dark hair as black as ebony that made her face seem very pale. But to Adair's surprise, she had very kind blue eyes. "I am The Lady of Heaven's Grace."

The man at her side was the next to speak. He had close cropped brown hair and features that could only be called royal. "And I am The Knight of Heaven's Charm."

The two of them sat down and the next two at their left stood and announced themselves much the same as they had.

"I am the Lady of the Undying Rose." said a woman in a fine gown that shimmered gold. Her brown curls hung loosely around her shoulders. She had chestnut brown eyes that had a knowing look in them. Adair couldn't help but feel that she was analyzing her, trying to read her like one would read a book. In her hand she held a red rose and ran her fingers over the edges of its petals absentmindedly. Adair found the allusion to her name a little cliché.

"And I am The Knight of the Hidden Thorn." said the man at her side. He had intense dark eyes and dark curls. In spite of his fine apparel, he sported a goatee that made him look wolfish. The next two stood when they sat down.

"I am the Lady of the Midnight Hour." said a woman in a sparkling blue gown with her shimmering blond hair piled intricately on the top of her head.

"And I am the Knight of Tomorrow's Promise."

"I am the Lady of the Waking Dreaming." A woman with long honey colored hair declared with rose-red lips.

"And I am the Knight of Awakening."

The next two to stand seemed to have simpler dress than the others, but had a more exotic look about them. The woman had hair as fiery red as Hysbald's, and she wore a necklace made of seashells. The man at her side had a roguish look about him and a sly grin. He looked like he would have been more at home on a pirate ship than in this assembly hall.

"I am the Lady of Two Worlds."

"And I am the Knight of the Other Side."

The last of the gathering to stand almost made Adair lose her composure. At first glance she had completely missed them. She had seen them, but simply had not noticed how young they were. The boy and girl that stood to announce themselves could not have been more than ten. Yet they spoke with as much conviction as their peers. They clearly held their own in this gathering.

"I am the Lady of the Unfailing." said the girl.

"And I am the Knight of the Unyielding." said the boy.

As each one spoke, Adair had the strangest sensation. Much like how one feels when they meet eyes with a complete stranger, but they feel like they've seen them before. Something about this council of twelve seemed familiar to her.

When the last of them had taken their seats, the Lady of Heaven's grace stood back up.

"Adair Alicia Artemis, we have been made aware of the situation regarding the Creature of Darkness who calls himself the Nightmare King. We have also been told of your quest to discover the Strongest Magic."

Adair regarded her warily. "Who told you that?"

"We received a message from the dark princess of Spook City."

"Gaya sent you? I thought General Heremoor called you here."

The Lady of Heaven's Grace shook her head. "The dark princess told us of your mission and we came of our own accord. She told us that Fantasia can only be saved if you discover the strongest magic."

"Why would Gaya tell you that?"

The Knight of Heaven's Charm stood then, who Adair guessed was her husband (and she had similar suspicions about the others, though she couldn't guess at the relationship between the boy and the girl).

"She sent the message to us because all twelve of us gathered here have been touched by the strongest magic. It runs deeper in us than almost anyone in Fantasia. It resides at the core of each of our stories. I believe she had hoped we could teach it to you. She moves from the shadows and will not come herself, but whatever her reasons are, she wants you to succeed."

Adair had almost forgotten Gaya's warning, but her message came back to her then.

Your heart can only be awakened by the strongest magic... That is what you came here to learn.

She shivered at the memory of those endlessly black eyes in that face made of broken glass.

"So is she right? Can you teach it to me?"

The Knight of Heaven's Charm shook his head sadly. "The dark princess knows little of the strongest magic. It seems the same is true of you. The strongest magic cannot be taught."

The Knight of the Hidden Thorn (the one with the wolfish features) rose from his seat with indignation plain on his face. "Bite your tongue. I stand here as proof that it can be taught."

The Lady of the Undying Rose reached for his hand and stroked it lightly. "Calm yourself. That's not what he meant."

The Lady of Heaven's Grace leveled her gaze at them. It seemed that she and her knight were the senior members here. She turned her kind blue eyes back to Adair.

"Never mind the dark princess. She is not the reason we came. We came here because we wanted to see for ourselves. Have you found the strongest magic?"

Adair swallowed. "I don't know what that means."

"It does not suit a lady to lie." the Lady of the Undying Rose remarked, not unkindly.

Adair grimaced at that. She believed she'd been sent here to make a decision. Facing these people now, it was very clear no matter what she decided, they were here for their own reasons. What was worse, standing in the middle of this formidable circle she felt less like she was delegating and more like she was on trial.

"I know what some think it means. I've heard some say that love is the strongest magic. But I don't know if I believe that."

"Oh but Adair," the Lady of Two Worlds said wistfully (the woman with fiery red hair). "True love is powerful. It transcends time, worlds, any boundary you can think of. Not even death can stop it." If she weren't in council with the others, Adair believed this woman would have gotten out of her seat and danced.

"Yeah that's fine to say." Adair replied dryly. "But I've yet to see it."

"This was what I meant when I said it could not be taught." The Knight of Heaven's Charm stated. "We can tell you over and over the power that we have found through true love, but until you find it yourself you won't believe us."

The Lady of Heaven's grace turned to the Lady of the Undying Rose.

"Rose, what do you see? Has she found it yet?"

The Lady of the Undying Rose had a slight grin on her face as she returned her attention to the rose in her hand. It was the smile of a woman who knows a secret. "Her heart has changed since she came here. She is no longer fighting to keep it shut. But now it is currently being pulled in two directions."

"How do you know that?" Adair asked with a note of accusation in her voice.

Rose lifted her gaze and stared at her again with those keen brown eyes. "Because I can see your heart. Understanding people is what I do. It's how I found my strongest magic. Don't worry. Whatever is said in this room remains here."

"Thanks." Adair replied darkly. She did not like the idea of this woman being able to see inside her. But since it was now out in the open, she figured she may as well ask. What she had talked about with Atreyu and Jason still weighed heavily on her mind. She still wasn't sure how she felt about Jason, and even if she didn't love him the way he apparently loved her, how could she acknowledge her feelings for Atreyu without hurting him? She addressed the Lady of Heaven's Grace. For some reason, her eyes were the easiest to meet.

"About the whole strongest magic thing. What if you go for it and it hurts someone? Or what if it hurts you?"

"Adair, that's simply part of life. You may fall in love and your heart may later break. Or it may break the heart of someone you care about. But if we let our fear of a broken heart stop us, then we will never find it."

Adair shook her head. "Better to have loved and lost I guess."

"But I can promise you this. No matter what pain or hardships may come, if it is true love, things have a way of working themselves out."

Adair nodded, but her words were not comforting. "That's my problem. I've never really loved anyone. What if it's too late for me to feel it?"

"That is not true." It was the Lady of the Midnight Hour. Up until now she had not spoken save to give her name. With the way her golden hair was drawn up, it made her face look small and delicate. But she spoke with great conviction. "So many of your kind echo your thoughts. For so long you have let darkness swallow your heart. It is not that you believe you can't love. You simply believe that you are not worth loving. I was once like you. I let others convince me that I had no worth. But they were wrong. I was wrong, and so are you. I may not possess Rose' talent to see your heart but I have heard of you, and I see it in your eyes. You possess great courage and kindness. Though it's only beginning to awaken, your heart has a great capacity for love." She ceased speaking and her lip began to quiver. Her knight, the Knight of Tomorrow's Promise took her hand sympathetically. It seemed she was not as used to public speaking as the others.

The Lady of Heaven's Grace nodded with a smile. "It seems we've reached a decision. Adair Alicia Artemis, we the Eldest of Fantasia will aid you in the coming battle. We will show you the power of the strongest magic."

Atreyu, Jason, and Deisha hadn't moved from where Adair had left them. Jason paced nervously back and forth while Atreyu and Deisha leaned against the wall.

"You're wearing tracks into the floor." Deisha muttered.

"They've been in there a long time."

"I'm sure she's fine." Atreyu assured him, but there was anxiety underlying his voice as well.

At last the double doors of the council chamber swung open. Adair was the first one through, glad to reunite with her friends. The Lady of Heaven's Grace and the Knight of Heaven's Charm followed behind her. The rest of the Eldest filed out in pairs. Atreyu took a knee and motioned for his companions to do the same. He knew to give respect where respect was due. Jason and Deisha followed his example.

"Rise Atreyu of the plains." The Lady of Heaven's Grace said kindly. "You as well Jason Sayers and Deisha of the Plains."

They got to their feet. Chiron and Gandarin moved back into view and addressed the Lady warily.

"Well?" Gandarin asked. "What was the outcome of your meeting?"

The Knight of Heaven's Charm nodded. "We will stand with you against Volrac."

If the two councilors had any objection (and they certainly did) they were wise to stifle it.

"Send a proclamation throughout the tower." The Lady of Heaven's Grace declared. "The ball will be held in the northern square."

"Ball?" Adair asked apprehensively. "You never said anything about a ball."

"Lady," Atreyu interjected. "With Volrac's attack almost upon us, is this really the best time to hold a celebration?"

The Lady of Heaven's Grace nodded as though this were natural. "I believe so."

"Do your people not dance before battle Plainsman?" The Lady of the Undying Rose asked with a conspiratorial wink.

"It may seem frivolous to you," admitted the Lady of the Midnight Hour. "But it is a long upheld tradition." She looked to Adair as she explained the rest. "Love is often found to bloom at such occasions."

Adair felt her face flush and hoped the others didn't notice.

"We shall begin at dusk." The Lady of Heaven's Grace announced. "You have until then to find something suitable to wear. Councilor Chiron, call every available messenger you have to see to it everyone on the tower grounds is invited."

"Everyone?" Cairon asked incredulously.

The Knight of Heaven's Charm nodded firmly. "Everyone."

Chiron shook his head at the monumental task before him. He nodded to Adair and the others, and with one last bow to the Eldest he galloped away.

"Well what are you waiting for?" Asked the Lady of Two Worlds, in a far more giddy manner than most would find appropriate. "You can't go to a ball dressed like that. Go on."

After the Eldest departed, the group of four suffered a very awkward parting of ways. It was awkward because the invitation of the Eldest had left each of them with unspoken expectations. Expectations that they could not voice out loud. But even without being spoken they hammered in their hearts loud enough that they were afraid the others would hear it. Perhaps that was why they split up so quickly. Atreyu had gone ahead first with Jason to show him the market district. Atreyu himself planned to head to the Infinite Garden of the Ivory Tower where the Plains People had camped. Deisha had split off next to find Falkor, claiming to be in need of some of the supplies he carried. That is how Adair found herself alone in the chambers she had been shown to. There was a grand bed with silk curtains draped around it, a vanity set against the wall with a mirror, an assortment of combs and hairbrushes, and every shade of make-up a girl could hope for. Even the simple things like the combs were beautiful, carved with flowers and birds. The room was obscenely large for one person and she had begged, actually begged Deisha to share it with her. Not only was she uncomfortable with all the attention, she really wasn't in the mood to be alone. It was surreal to remember how often she'd craved time to herself in the human world.

Deisha had been more willing than Adair would have guessed. The Plains girl had been enthralled by the grandeur of the room and no doubt would have resented it if Adair had kept it to herself. It was one of those rare times she had let her more girlish side show. She returned from her errand with Falkor quicker than expected. She had her traveling pack with her.

"Sorry," Deisha apologized. "I couldn't find us anything to eat."

"Don't worry." Adair assured her, pointing to a cabinet in the corner of the room that took all the space from floor to ceiling. "Trust me, they have us covered." She'd already discovered the magic of the cupboard while Deisha had been out.

The other girl moved to it and placed a skeptical hand on it. When she opened it, her jaw dropped. She found a platter of roasted buffalo meat and a side of small purple berries that grew in the plains called grass-eyes. It was an enchanted cupboard that could conjure whatever food the user was thinking of at the time. For Adair there had been a plate of fried chicken with corn and mashed potatoes (Aunt Rosemary's favorite dish to cook). It had been a welcome sight. After being on this journey for so long, only eating what Atreyu was able to hunt himself, which could be scarce on the worst of days and gamey on the best, she had grown to sorely miss home cooking.

Deisha grinned from ear to ear. "These tower people think of everything!" She didn't waste any time digging in. As was Plains custom, she shared what she had with Adair, but she didn't feel like eating much after having devoured her meal earlier. The bed was large enough for the two of them to sit and eat and talk. Adair realized this was the first time she and Deisha actually had talked like this. What they talked about wasn't as important to her as the fact that they did. It made her see Deisha as a real girl rather than the hot tempered hunter of the plains she'd known so far. She felt more like a girl herself when they talked as well.

This must be what a sleepover feels like. She thought to herself. She wondered what her life would have been like if she had grown up with a friend like Deisha. She had never been friends with a girl her age back home, only ever being able to turn to Jason for company. And while she was immensely grateful to have Jason as a friend, there were simply things he could not understand as a boy, that she could not talk to him about as a girl.

Deisha grinned. "I have something to show you." She reached for the leather bag she'd retrieved from Falkor. She pulled out a long gown the exact shade of blue as a robin's egg. It was embroidered all down its blooming skirt with designs of wild desert blossoms and subtle tracings of desert paintings, the kind Adair had seen once in Arizona caves. Around the waist was a sash that strung multi-colored ribbons down the center. It was sleeveless, but there were strings of beads attached to the shoulders that were meant to be draped over the arms attached to cloth bracers. The beads were of every color of the rainbow. The dress was beautiful enough, but Deisha wasn't finished. Out of the sack she pulled a pair of sandals beaded all around their straps the same way as the dress. Last she pulled out a circlet that had the same strings of beads and ribbons meant to be strung through her hair. The circlet itself looked more like a wreath of blossoms.

"What do you think?"

Adair didn't know what to say. She raked her brain trying to figure out where Deisha would have gotten this. A strange smell permeated off of it. It smelled like the dry grassy wind of the plains. She realized then where the dress had come from.

"Is this what you got from Meleah the last time we were here?"

Deisha smiled guiltily. "It just looked so much fun when you were doing it that when you disappeared I had to try it too."

Adair laughed as she ran the ribbons and beads through her fingers. "It's beautiful. You'll look like a real princess at the ball tonight. Too bad for me."


"I don't have a thing to wear, and next to you I'll look downright plain."

Deisha put a thoughtful finger to her lips. "Wait here." Then without a word of explanation she dashed from the room. She poked her head back in the door for only a moment. "I could be awhile. You might want to find something to do."

There really wasn't much to be done in their shared bedroom and she really didn't feel like playing with the food cabinet again. As hungry as she'd been when she'd arrived, between her own meal and what Deisha had shared she was ready to burst. Idly she sat down at the vanity set and started running one of the brushes through her hair. It was a tangled mess. Traveling by flight and fighting with demons did not agree with it. It took a good long while, but she eventually managed to straighten it. Deisha still hadn't returned. With a hint of embarrassment she reached for the makeup in the drawer. She'd never used make-up seriously before but found herself wondering what she would look like with some of the glittery eye-shadow. She decided to start with something simple: lipstick. She found a natural red color just a shade darker than her lips and applied it carefully. She was just about to reach for the glitter when the door burst open. Jumping like she'd been caught doing something heinous she dropped the eye-shadow at once.

"I've got a surprise for yo-" Deisha stopped short when she noticed Adair's flustered state. "What were you doing?"

"Nothing." She answered too quickly.

Deisha shook the matter aside. "Anyway, close your eyes." Adair eyed her with an air of suspicion. The Plains girl sighed. "Would you just close your eyes for a second? Let me have my fun."

Adair relented and closed her eyes. "Can I open them yet?"

"Just a second... now."

Adair opened her eyes slowly and nearly jumped out of her seat when she saw the intense pair of mismatched blue and green eyes staring barely an inch from her face. The nature spirit smiled with her green lips.
"Hello again my daisy."

Adair smiled broadly. "Meleah!" She felt the woman wrap her long arms around her and squeeze her so tight she felt she might burst.

"When I heard you were in the tower and that there was to be a ball I started searching for you frantically. I'm so glad Deisha found me."

Adair pulled away from her and concern found its way into her eyes. "Why are you still in the tower? Didn't they tell you there was a battle coming?"

"Some of us have left to find safer ground." Meleah nodded, but there was a hint of disapproval in her voice. "But many of us have elected to stay. Some like myself can't fight, but we've found other ways of helping. I haven't designed much lately. I've been helping craft armor instead. That's why I was so glad to hear about this ball. I can finally let my talent shine again."

"So why were you looking for me?"

Meleah looked affronted. "Did you honestly believe I was going to let you subject yourself to the work of imposters? No my daisy, you are going to be as radiant as your friend tonight. This will be my finest work yet!"

Meleah rose to her full height and twirled around and around in a circle. Out from underneath her long billowing skirt, rolls of fabric unfurled magically and they were immediately assaulted by a barrage of exotic scents. It was like she'd brought her entire shop's inventory with her.

"So we'd better get started."

"You know," Hykrion commented, giving Jason a once over. "I believe I wore something like this to my first ball."

"You went to balls Uncle Hykrion?" Daisy asked excitedly.

"Oh yes. Your uncle could turn the head of any girl he pleased in my younger days, and to my first I wore something much like what Jason has on. Of course I filled it out much better with my superior physique." He flexed his right arm as if he needed to make the point more obvious.

"Great speech Hykrion." Jason scowled. "I'm totally ready." He studied himself in the shop's viewing mirror. He wore a white shirt with wide sleeves with drawstrings down the front, black leggings with leather chaps over them, and old fashioned boots. Over that he wore a sleeveless leather coat that went just below his hips and had what looked like actual wolf fangs for buckles. He had never felt terribly impressive, and even with this new gear on he still felt this was true. His once lanky arms he believed had begun to develop into muscle during his training with the sword. But he felt like the sleeves of this shirt had swallowed them whole.

"Don't worry about it Junior." Hykrion waved his concern away. "What you lack in the physical beauty of yours truly, you make up for in wit. I hear women like that kind of thing these days."

Jason hung his head, wondering if it would save him time to simply stamp "best friend forever" across his forehead.

"You worry too much boy!" Hykrion slapped his hand on his back heavily enough to make him cough. "Adair's not the only one who's been getting around lately. Word of you has been spreading like wildfire. You're a regular Fantasian hero in these parts! You'll have to beat the women off with a stick. Fairies, elves, sprites, nymphs, blondycats, witches... actually stay away from the witches. One dance with them, and you could wake up the next day in a dungeon somewhere accused of stealing from some count or other."

Daisy and Falcon cast sideways glances at Hykrion who decided against telling them the rest of that story. They were far too young to hear it.

"He's right you know." came a voice from the back of the shop. "No good comes from dealing with witches." Iole grinned slyly.

"Iole? What are you doing here?"
"Same as you. Shopping. I never miss a party. I was thinking something with an open back." Jason's face turned red at the thought, which only seemed to encourage her. "Maybe something with a really short skirt to show off my legs." She gave him a once over with her eyes, nodding with approval at his new clothes.

"Look at you. You look like a hero right out of a book."

He smiled. "You think so?"

"Absolutely. You'll have the girls lining up to dance."

"That's what I've been telling him!" Hykrion added.

Jason looked away, absentmindedly adjusting his wardrobe. "Yeah... all the girls."

"I know that tone." Iole smiled to herself. "It's the sound of a boy with only one girl on his mind."

Jason bit his lip and wondered (not for the first time) if Iole could read minds. Then he realized the notion was ridiculous. His feelings for Adair were all but transparent these days.

"Maybe I'm just fooling myself. Maybe I don't have a chance."

"Nonsense!" Hykrion roared.

"No maybe he's right." Iole said bluntly. She stepped behind him so she could meet his eyes through the viewing mirror. "But that shouldn't stop you."

"You really think she'd pick me over Atreyu?"

"Of course she would! What does Atreyu have that you don't?" Hykrion's encouragement was beginning to ring a bit hollow.

"It doesn't really matter what I think. If what you feel for her is real, you shouldn't cheapen it by giving up. This is something you should see through to the end."

He sighed. "She's been a huge part of my life for so long. I guess I didn't want to tell her because I was afraid of losing her. It's weird, but I should probably thank Atreyu. This whole thing with them has kind of forced me to make a move. But maybe it's too late."

Iole shook her head. "Mortals. Love is always so black and white with you. It's either there or it's not. It's either one thing or another. Maybe this, maybe that, you won't know for sure until you ask her will you?"

"You make it sound so easy."

"Probably because I know how short your life is. It's much too short to waste with all this waiting around."

Jason pondered what she had to say. She made sense. Life was short. For all he knew, they were all going to die tomorrow if Volrac had his way. It was a grim thought, but it was reality... or fantasy... whatever the term was for it in Fantasia.

"Hey Iole, were you ever in love?"

"What's with the 'were you'? How do you know I'm not?"

"I don't know. You just talk like you're..." he trailed off.

"Are you calling me old?"

He gulped. "No! I just... it came out wrong. And if you were I'm pretty sure you would have brought him with you."

"Nice save." She grimaced. "Yeah I've been in love a few times."

"A few times?" He asked in surprise.

"What can I say? I'm old."

"You're really frustrating. You know that?"

"So I've been told. Really I just like picking on you. You remind me of someone."

He turned away from the mirror to look her in the eye this time. "Who?"

"My son." She replied as if it were nothing.

"You have a son? Where has he been this whole time?"

"Somewhere off-world. It's another story. I'll tell it another time."

He rolled his eyes. He was silent for awhile. He raised his gaze back to the mirror and tried to see a different person in it, someone stronger, braver than the one who had come to Fantasia.

"I'm going to ask her tonight. No matter what she says, I have to."

Iole smiled. "That's more like it. Who knows? She might even say yes."

"Are you ready to make your purchase?" asked the shopkeeper, a long nosed gremlin with sharp teeth and gleaming yellow eyes behind half moon glasses. It occurred to Jason then that he didn't have any money.

Hykrion rose from where he'd been sitting and pressed a handful of gold coins into Jason's hand. "It's on me. What can I say? I'm a romantic. Now listen here junior. Fly or crash, whatever you do make it fantastic."

Jason grinned at that. "You've got it."

In a clearing they had made for themselves in the infinite garden at the base of the Ivory Tower, the people of the Plains were making their own preparations for the ball. As it's been stated, the Plains People held a sacred tradition of dancing before battle. Not that they saw many. They were naturally a peace loving people, but they were not cowards and they knew there were times they had to defend what they loved. This was not the first time they had come to battle at the Ivory Tower, and it would not be the last. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

Atreyu wasn't sure why he had come to the camp of his tribesmen, or what he was looking for. Perhaps in the wake of all this confusion he needed their familiarity. He felt downright foolish that a battle was looming over their heads that would decide the fate of all Fantasia and the Human World, but he found himself quaking in fear over a ball that was to be held that night. He was a fearless warrior, yet this small event that should mean nothing to him had his stomach tied up in knots, especially when his thoughts drifted to a pair of hazel green eyes.

If it was familiarity he was looking for, he found it in Ze'hara. She was sitting just outside her tent as if she'd been waiting for him, and indeed she told him as much.

"I've been waiting for you Mi'tah'zha." she told him, using the Plains word for "my little one". She had always called him such when no one else was around to save him from embarrassment. The wise woman rose from where she sat and wrapped her long willowy arms around him. "You are trembling child. What is it?"

"I don't know Teh'mah." he answered, calling her by the plains people's word for "mother".

"Could it be because you're in love?" He didn't answer, but she undoubtedly felt him tense when she asked. "When the two of you returned to our village I noticed a mighty change in her heart. The wall of ice I spoke of has begun to crack and come down. But she was not the only one I saw who was changed. When you are with her, there is a lightness in your eyes I have not seen in you for a long time."

He pulled away from her and shook his head adamantly. "This is wrong. This is all wrong. I can't be... that."

"And why not?" Ze'hara asked firmly.

"You know why not!" he shot back, then looked immediately penitent. He hadn't meant to raise his voice at her. "I can't let myself. I have to finish the stories."

"You mean you must continue to punish yourself." He looked away from her then and her voice began to constrict with sadness. "You must let it go mi'tah'zha. He was your friend. He would not want you carrying on this way. He would want you to forgive yourself."

"How could he after what I did to him?"

"You also helped him."

"He wouldn't have needed help if it hadn't been for me." He added bitterly.

"You don't know that. It's as you said, you were both right, and you were both wrong."

He remained defiantly silent. She took his hand gently.

"Come inside. I have something I want to give you." He followed her inside her tent where she stooped to retrieve something from her pack. It was rolled with care into her bed roll. "I made this for you. I had a feeling it would be useful to you someday. Looks like today is the day." She knelt down to unfurl it on the ground. Laying out on it was a beautiful shirt made from a soft green material he knew she couldn't have received from the plains. Over it was a tunic of black leather with an open front. It was beaded intricately with swirling designs. In all his years he had never dreamed of wearing something so fine.

"Teh'mah, you didn't have to do this."

"I know that. I wanted to. I've never minded doing such things for you. Nor have any of the women of our tribe. They have been mothers to you all your life, but what's more you have always been a son to them. You have always gone out of your way to help take care of them just as they cared for you through childhood. The men of our tribe look to you with pride as our bravest warrior. But all that pales in comparison to the admiration of our children. You have been big brother to them, you've taught them, spent time with them, been an example. That is the kind of soul you are mi'tah'zha. You have given so much of your time to help others. But you leave none for yourself."

She lifted the shirt and tunic and held it out to him. "We all want you to be happy. You deserve to be happy. You can have happiness with her."

He fought back tears as she spoke. "There is too much at stake right now. The battle could come upon us tomorrow, or even tonight."

She smiled sadly. "That is all the more reason to treasure the time you have together now. Enough dwelling on the past little one. Look to your future. Do all you can to make it a happy one." A single tear rolled down her cheek. "Make it one that you will fight for."

He said nothing more. He didn't have to. Ze'hara had said it all. All that was left for him to do was to leave her tent with her gift in hand. When he turned to face the tower again, it was dressed in green and black. Though his knees were trembling, his shoulders were straight and his head was high. His dark eyes were as steady and sure as they had ever been.

The sun began to set and all who were invited (which indeed was everyone present on the tower grounds) began making their way to the upper square of the Ivory Tower where the ball would be held. Whatever may come tomorrow, this was a night that the dreams of mankind chose to keep for themselves.

In the uppermost quarters of the tower, Adair was almost ready to leave. She found herself frozen to the seat of the vanity set where Meleah had just finished helping her with her makeup (a feat she could never have accomplished on her own). She felt utterly ridiculous that this ball the Eldest had orchestrated should fill her with more anxiety than the battle it was supposedly preparing them for.

Deisha looked her up and down and whistled. "You look amazing."

"Well as I always say," Meleah interjected. "Everyone has their own beauty, and you my daisies have always been beautiful. But tonight calls for a special kind of beauty that only shines on special nights. I think I outdid myself this time. Now get down there and don't let all my hard work be for nothing." She hugged Adair one last time and began ushering her and Deisha out the door.

The two girls left together while Meleah gathered her things.

"Hey Deisha," Adair asked her friend. "Nervous?"

"Normally I'd try to sound brave and say that was a stupid question. But actually... yeah. Silly right?"

Adair shook her head. "No it's not. I'm a little scared too." Deisha gave her a look that made her amend that statement. "Alright I'm really scared."

"Maybe we are being ridiculous." Deisha tried to lighten the tone of their procession. This was a ball and she was not going to treat their arrival like a funeral march. "The Eldest got us reading way too deep into this. It's just a dance right?"

Adair smiled and nodded. "Yeah. Just a dance."

They could say it out loud, but it wouldn't change what they knew to be true. As they neared the square with its sparkling lights and the pull of its music, they knew that they were coming to a crossroads. What happened here this night would mean as much for them and their quest as the battle ahead. And there would be no going back.

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