The Strongest Magic

Chapter 18: The Night Before

Realizing that he was no longer alone, the Knight of the Burning Dawn set down the weapon he had been polishing and rose to meet her. He knew who it was that approached the empty throne room within the Castle of Nightmares. He and the Lady of the Evening Star were as close as two souls can be. That is why they could sense one another no matter how far apart, and why he knew exactly what she had come to say when he met her eyes.

"So they have united against us." he said.

She nodded. "They're at the tower now. The Witch who calls herself Fay confirmed it. They allied themselves with the human Adair Alicia Artemis. They're going to help her in the battle."

Dawn reached for his morningstar and hefted it over his shoulder. "Let them come. Let them try to stop us. A thousand years of torment has failed to tear us apart. Our love will prevail."

Star smiled and nodded. "Even against them? They have what we have you know."

"And they each remember how hard they fought to keep it. That is how they know we are not an enemy to be taken lightly."

"On that," came a dark grating voice from the throne, "I am counting." Lord Volrac, the Nightmare King sat on the throne where he had not been a moment ago. This castle and the forest in which it stood was his. He could appear within it wherever and whenever he chose. The werewolf in black armor stared down at them with his glowing yellow-green eyes. "I have a special task for the two of you."

"I take it then, the assault on the tower is close?" Star asked with a spark of excitement in her eyes.

Volrac nodded. "The final obstacle is out of the way, and my subordinates have finished the final preparations."

"You mean your pet Witches." Dawn sneered.

Volrac snarled and bared his fangs, but only slightly. He did not need to agree with his pawns in order to use them. "Everything must be in place. When I claim the Ivory Tower, I shall expose that which connects our world to the world of the humans and destroy it. But to do that I'll need the key in place."

"And this key?" Dawn asked. "Where is it?"

"We have it." Their attention snapped to the entryway. Nag slithered into the room on all fours with something strapped to its back. It was wrapped tightly in a thick burlap cloth with cord binding it shut. Thoth and Fay flanked either side of Nag.

"And what pray tell will you three be doing when we attack? Skulking in the shadows as you always do?"

"And miss out on a chance to apply my theories?" Thoth asked with a note of surprise. "Never."

Nag licked its lips. "Besides, I hear they're having a party."

"Nag and Thoth will command our ground forces." Volrac instructed. "The White Dragon's attention will be on you. See to it you take the necessary measures."

At this, Nag gulped, horrified at the prospect of coming in range of the White Dragon's wrath. Thoth on the other hand appeared far more confident.

"Oh don't worry. We have plenty to keep her busy."

"Your mission, esteemed Knight and Lady," the Nightmare King addressed Dawn and Star directly "is to provide cover for Fay."

"Fay?" They both asked at once.

"Will that be a problem." the Witch asked coldly, narrowing her reflective blue eyes.

"Fay's objective in this mission is critical. She will be carrier of the key. Your task is to make sure she reaches that objective. Can you do this?"

The two of them only nodded. Star shot Fay an insincere smile. "I so look forward to working with you."

"The feeling is mutual." Fay replied with about as much enthusiasm. "I'm eager to see how your strongest magic will fare against that of your peers."

Out of the three, Star and Dawn held a special dislike for Fay, especially the way she observed them as some sort of experiment. They hated subjecting their love to the scrutiny of this coldhearted Witch.

"Now then, be about your duties." Volrac growled.

Dawn turned to face him. "When we succeed, you will honor our agreement."

Volrac's lips curled in disgust over his fangs. "I am a man of honor, however that does not change how your goal sickens me."

"Be that as it may, when the time comes you will send us across the threshold before you destroy it. You will send us to the human world."

Volrac nodded. "And may you find what you are looking for there, though I doubt anything good can come from such a dismal place. Now be gone, all of you. Gather your strength for what is to come."

When Dawn and Star were far from the throne room and the prying ears of the Seekers, Dawn shared his thoughts with his lover.

"I don't trust them, any of them."

"Nor should you." Star admitted. "They are using us just as surely as we are using them. But he has no reason to deny us what we want. When the time comes, with or without his help we will leave Fantasia behind forever and enter the human world." They stopped walking and she faced him to place her hand on the side of his face.

"There we will have what we could never have here. Our love will become real, ours. It will never be taken from us again."

He took her hand and pressed it tighter to his face. He closed his eyes and took in her scent. It was always like this for them: that longing, so powerful, overbearing, filling all of their senses until they were ready to break, but always temporary. They had fought for it in countless battles, and this would be their last. That they had promised. He pulled her to him and they shared a deep kiss. Tonight was theirs, and tomorrow would change everything.

The northern square which the Eldest had designated the ball to be held in was actually indoors, but it was as large as several city blocks. Despite being indoors, it was very open. This was in part because of its size, but also because of the ceiling. It was painted midnight blue, and scattered across its immense surface were twinkling lights that sparkled like stars. They served to light the whole place. There were raised platforms for performers, each band playing a different melody. Some of the music was classical and symphonic, some was exotic and entrancing, and others would sound surprisingly familiar to you. The stages actually drifted along the floor in a rotating pattern so they could provide music for the entirety of the event. Fantasians of every kind were pouring in and Jason wondered just how he was supposed to find Adair in the midst of the throng. The Eldest had declared the ball to be held before the battle, knowing that this was a likely place for many to find love, counting on that to strengthen them in the trying times ahead. Whether there was any truth to this notion, they had been right about one thing. This night proved to be eventful for many Fantasians. Many of them found love this night, others would lose love, and many would find great strength in something greater to fight for. Many new stories began that night, weaving their tales into Fantasia's history. But those are other stories and shall be told another time.

"Do you see her?" Jason asked Hykrion.

"Huh?" The hulking knight asked absentmindedly. He was looking at something across the dance floor. A certain nymph had caught his eye, and judging from the way she was beckoning across the floor and winking at him, he had caught hers as well. "Oh, not yet. But the night is young. Plenty of time to get some practice in before you find her. Now if you'll excuse me," he twirled his mustache in a most devilish fashion. "I need to get myself back into practice. Falcon, mind the others and make sure Baloc walks you back to our quarters at a reasonable hour."

"Yes sir." Falcon replied before he and the other children vanished into the crowd. Jason was amazed at how quickly they assimilated themselves into the throng. Surely they had never been around this many people before, but they seemed to sense that no one here meant them any harm and set out to make the most of the night. He admired their eagerness. He inhaled deeply and pressed forward. He briefly entertained Hykrion's idea of finding other girls to dance with, Fantasia was certainly home to beautiful and exotic women of all kinds, but there was only one girl on his mind. With the thought of what he planned to do, to say to her at the front of his mind he couldn't bring himself to even entertain the notion. Not that he had any shortage of offers. Many of the Fantasian women present had never seen a human before and were intrigued by the idea of dancing with one. He politely declined each invitation and kept pressing his way through.

Amid the throng he caught sight of some of the Eldest. It was hard to miss them, even scattered through the mob as they were. Wherever they danced, there was no one around them. They were given their own space, like they existed in their own world apart from the rest. Jason wondered why the others held such fear for them, but looking closer he saw this wasn't the case. The other celebrants weren't keeping their distance out of fear. They certainly took notice of them, but they were not cowering from them as he'd previously thought. Some had even stopped dancing and stared in awe at them. They were simply keeping outside that invisible border, perhaps without even noticing.

The Lady of Heaven's Grace danced as gracefully as her name would imply with the Knight of Heaven's Charm. The Knight of the Hidden Thorn twirled the Lady of the Undying Rose whose shimmering golden gown moved with her like the petals of a flower. The Lady of the Midnight Hour and the Knight of Tomorrow's Promise danced close together, staring lovingly into one another's eyes. The Lady of Two Worlds and the Knight of the Other Side were the most flamboyant in their dancing. He lifted her over his head and spun her on more than one occasion. The Knight of the Unyielding and the Maiden of the Unfailing looked more like they were playing than dancing.

He felt a hand on his shoulder from behind and turned slowly to politely decline another invitation, but stopped when he saw who it was. Atreyu stared back at him, and for the first time since he'd known him his dark eyes seemed unsure of themselves. His clothes were also a new sight. He'd wondered if Atreyu even owned anything besides his leather tunic and breeches.

"Jason..." He began hesitantly.

He nodded back. "Atreyu."

"You look good."

"Thanks." He replied, then after some hesitancy added "So do you."

"Have you seen-"

"Don't ask. I haven't found her yet, and if I had I sure wouldn't tell you."

Atreyu nodded. "I understand. Listen, I wanted to talk... about us."

Jason rolled his eyes. "I'd really preferred it if we just stayed friends."

"What?" Atreyu thought on it for a moment, and when he realized the joke turned instantly red. "No that's not what I meant!"

"It was a joke dude. I do that when I'm nervous."

The other boy sighed in relief. "Oh good. I'm glad I'm not the only one who's nervous."

"So what did you come here to say?" He asked, though he already had a pretty good idea.

"I wanted to talk about Adair."

"Don't you always?"

"I suppose that's true." They stared at one another for a while. This wasn't an easy thing for either of them to talk about it seemed. "There's really no denying how we both feel about her at this point is there?"

"I guess not." He spoke in a neutral tone and stared back with a level gaze.

"Believe me I have tried to tell myself otherwise, but I know it's the truth. I do have feelings for her. But I can't just ignore your feelings either. It wouldn't be fair to you. You've been there for her far longer than I have."

Jason sighed. He couldn't believe they were having this talk right now. What he hated the most about it was that he actually admired Atreyu's straightforwardness, how willing he was to talk about this. He doubted he would have had the same courtesy.

"Man, how am I supposed to compete with someone like you?"

Atreyu frowned. "What do you mean?"

"You know what I mean Choir Boy. You're just too... good. This wouldn't be so hard if you were horrible but you're not! Everything you do is for someone else! If it weren't for us falling for the same girl I might have even liked you!"

"Oh." He paused. "Jason, I'm really not the 'choir boy' you think I am. And if you think I'm in any way better than you, you're wrong. You're a brave warrior who can think quickly on your feet. And I've seen you risk your life over and over for her. If I would lose Adair to anyone I would want it to be you."

"I guess I feel the same. At least I'd know she was taken care of." He leveled a stern gaze at him. "Still, that doesn't change things. In the end we can't both have her."

Atreyu nodded. "You're right. But whichever one of us she chooses, let's promise that they will always be worthy of that place at her side." He extended his hand which Jason took and shook firmly.

"Deal. First one to find her gets the first dance."


"When are you going to take off that stupid cloak?" Deisha asked. "You're covering up Meleah's work."

"I know, it's just... I don't know if I'm ready to be seen in this yet. Maybe when we get to the dance." Adair replied sheepishly, pulling the long dark blue cloak tighter around her like a frigid wind had just seized her. In truth she did have chills, but it had nothing to do with cold. She even kept her hood drawn up.

Deisha twirled enthusiastically, letting her light blue gown swirl around her and her sash of colorful ribbons flapped like fire. "Well you can stay all shrouded if you want, but tonight I plan to show off what I can do." Adair knew she'd have no problem getting attention tonight. Deisha had always been pretty, but tonight she looked like a whole different person. But that wasn't true she realized, thinking back to what Meleah had once said about the clothes she made. What she was actually seeing was a side of Deisha that she hadn't before, one she rarely let out. She seemed more free and happy tonight than Adair had ever seen her.

They arrived at the northern square with its twirling revelers and glittering lights. She scanned the crowd with her hazel green eyes and felt another shiver, anxiety or excitement she wasn't sure.

"It's now or never Adair." Deisha prodded, tugging at the edge of her cloak.

Adair closed her eyes. "Alright. I can do this. It's just a dance right?"

Deisha nodded. "Just a dance. We can do this."

To Adair, taking the cloak off was like taking the first dive into cold water. She hesitated, counted to three, then with a deep breath she finally just went for it. She tore it off her shoulders and let it fall around her feet. Her long white ballgown almost reached the floor and moved subtly like the ripples on a lake. The bodice and shoulders encased her like she had been poured into it. It seemed Meleah had seen fit to keep the sleeves that tapered off above her elbows. This suited her just fine since she wasn't near as comfortable as Deisha about baring her shoulders, but it made the dress so different than the kind she had seen in her world. When she had seen herself in the mirror with Meleah, she had looked more like a princess out of a fairytale, and that only made her more nervous. Beginning at the bodice and flowing into the skirt was a subtle wash of gold and purple over the white set with a random pattern of small crystals of the same color. They weren't flashy like Deisha's beads, but they caught the light and became iridescent. It made her easy to spot at the top of the marble staircase. Jason and Atreyu would have to have been blind to not see her at that moment.

She and Deisha descended the staircase together. Atreyu and Jason met them at the base of the steps. Atreyu found himself unable to speak, so it was Jason who got in the first word. This did not mean he was any less awestruck.

"You two look amazing."

Deisha smiled. "You finally noticed."

Adair could do nothing but blush.

"Well the Eldest gave us a party." Deisha declared boldly. "Let's not waste it. Come on Atreyu, your first dance is with me." She winked at Jason as she passed as if to say go get her. Then she led Atreyu away before he could say a word.

Jason and Adair locked eyes and didn't move. He could not guess what he was waiting for. His moment was right here, and if he didn't seize it he would kick himself. Perhaps the reason he could not move was not just because of how beautiful she was, but because he never in a million years believed he would ever get this far.

Flustered, Adair took a handful of her skirt and held it out. "What do you think? I know it's a little different. Do I pull it off?"

"And then some." He answered honestly.

She shook her head. "That's what I've always liked about you. You tell the sweetest lies."

"I'm telling the truth. You're beautiful. You've always been beautiful." He had said it. This was it. It was now or never. He held his hand out to her and asked in the simplest way he could. "Want to dance?"

She took his hand. "I'd love to."

He wrapped his arm around her waist and she put hers around his shoulders. The new firmness to them took her by surprise. All of Iole's training had not been for nothing. They danced close together in a circle. Neither one of them knew how to really dance.

"What is it?" He asked, and with embarrassment she realized she'd been staring at him without saying anything.

"Sorry it's just that I've never really noticed your eyes. They're really blue without your glasses."

"Oh yeah, I forgot. What are the odds we can find an optometrist in Fantasia?"

"Not good. The only one I've seen wearing glasses here is that gnome Engywook. Think you can squeeze?"

"Not likely." He shrugged. "I'll probably just get another pair when we get home."

Something about what he said bothered her, but she couldn't imagine why. "What?"

"You know, when this is over." He studied her with concern. "You are still planning on getting us home right?"

It had been so long since she'd thought about home. It was a question she was not prepared for. "Of course." She answered, but that answer couldn't convince a fool, much less her best friend.


"I just haven't really thought about it to tell you the truth."

This only worried him more. "Look Adair, I'm with you. This place is amazing. But you have a life back home. Think about Rosemary and your cousins."

"Let's just worry about it when it comes." She left no room for discussion. She seriously doubted her disappearance had affected Rosemary. With any luck she had simply convinced herself that Adair was safe and sound somewhere else and she didn't have to worry. That was her aunt, assume the best even if it was ridiculous and live free of worry or problems. She didn't deal with problems, she simply brushed them under the rug and tried to forget them.

Jason agreed to leave the matter be. He remembered what he had talked about with Deisha. No matter what happened, he and Adair would have to return home eventually. But what would come of them when they did depended entirely on what happened to them right now. He'd come too far to simply let them go back to the way they were.

"Listen, we haven't talked about what I said back then."

She'd been braced for this, but she was still overcome by it. The heat rushed to her face then flushed out of her cheeks so fast it made her dizzy.

He seemed to be feeling it too. "Unless you don't want to."

"No Jason, we're friends. We should always be able to talk."

"You're right, we are friends. That's always been fine with me. Us against the world. Really I thought that was all I wanted. But when you disappeared into the book and I had to read about you in danger, not being able to help, not being able to say anything that could help you when you were scared or hurting, it was torture. That's when I realized I'd been wrong about my feelings. What I feel for you... it's stronger now. I can't keep it in anymore."

He leaned close to her and whispered right into her ear like this was their own secret meant only for them, like he was giving her a sacred part of himself.

"Adair, I love you." He was holding her close now. There was no space between them. "And I need to know if you feel the same."

She was silent. She had no answer. She really did not have an answer. She couldn't say yes because she knew in her heart that what he felt for her was stronger than what she felt for him. But it was in that moment that she realized she couldn't say no either. Whatever was between them now, it was stronger than the friendship they had shared through the years. She couldn't say what it was, but she now knew as clearly as he did that there was no going back to the way things were for them. But she still had no answer. He seemed to sense her thoughts because he did not press her for one. He had always been able to read her that way. In truth he'd been the only person in her life before coming to Fantasia that had understood her, the only one who had stuck around long enough to try.

"You don't have to answer me now." He said. "But promise me you'll think about it. I just want you to be happy, no matter what you choose. But know this." He released his hold on her so they could see eye to eye. "If you choose this... if you choose us, I will spend every day making you happy."

There was nothing else that could be said here. The song ended, but it didn't matter. They had already stopped dancing. He had given her the choice, the rest was up to her.

Iole left the square for one of the outer balconies when she spotted a pair of ruby eyes. "So this is where you've been hiding." Iole grinned at Falkor who floated casually at the balcony's edge.

"Far too crowded in there. And even with all those lights they can't fool me. That's still a ceiling."

She sat gingerly on the railing. "I heard you brought some of your Luckdragon friends to help. Is that them dancing in the sky?" She pointed her head toward the lithe soaring shapes high above them. There were four, one gold, one red, one blue, and one green. "Why not join them?"

"Oh I will in a moment. I just wanted to see how things were going with them." His ruby eyes followed their four young companions across the dance floor. "I always thought Atreyu and Deisha were a fine match. But I've never seen him look at anyone the way he looks at Adair."

"And you're okay with that? You know what will happen if this all ends well."

He nodded solemnly. "You mean their destinies of belonging to two different worlds. I have thought about it. I'm sure he has as well."

"But you let it continue. Shouldn't you be trying to protect him from false hope?"

"First of all, I don't believe there is such a thing as false hope." He replied sternly. "Second, even if I wanted to make him see it was impossible I doubt he would listen to me. Surely you remember a time when you were young and in love Iole. What would you have said?"

She didn't have to think hard on this at all. "I would have told them to jump off a cliff." And in the past she had done just that.

"What about you? Why have you not confronted Adair? You know what will happen if she remains here. Have you considered what you will do if she chooses to stay in Fantasia?"

"What she chooses to do is none of my concern." She answered flatly. "I'm only here for the Seekers. Anything past that is out of my hands."

"You say so, but I don't believe it. If you were truly after them and nothing else, why would you have stayed by Adair's side all these years?"

Iole's smile did not reach her eyes. It seldom did. "I was watching her in case they showed themselves again."

"There were other ways for a master shape shifter to do that. But you chose to take the form of her cat. You were her constant companion, someone that would listen to what she had to say when she believed no one could hear her. You and I are both old Iole, old enough to have seen more than our share of hardship. But I still don't believe you are as cold as you make yourself seem."

Iole shrugged. "Guess I should try harder." She looked back at the events unfolding on the dance floor. "It would be nice to see her happy, but I don't think any amount of luck can change the facts."

Falkor shook his head. "No. The kind of luck they need would be nothing short of a miracle. Yet you still hope?"

"Not me, but someone else does something fierce. You know what the sick part is?" She asked. "Just this once I'm hoping Fay's right."

"About the strongest magic?"

She nodded. "Do you think it can overcome this?"

Falkor winked his ruby red eye. "With luck, anything's possible."

Adair drifted aimlessly through the throng, her thoughts jumbling and gyrating as surely as the dancers around her. This was insane. How could she have feelings for Atreyu and Jason? It wasn't supposed to work this way? Then again, what did she know about how it was supposed to work? She'd neglected her heart for a decade. It was while she was wrestling with this dilemma that she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder. She turned and was surprised to find none other than the Knight of the Unyielding, the youngest knight of the Eldest looking up at her with round brown eyes. He was a slim youth who couldn't be much older than ten now that she saw him up close. He kept his untidy brown hair covered in a yellow wool cap.

"Will you dance with me?" He asked sweetly and batted his eyes at her.

She swallowed nervously. She couldn't help but feel the gathering around them was staring. In her world it would have been because of the apparent difference in their age, but this was Fantasia. It had more to do with him than with her. Despite his young appearance, he retained the same wide berth that the rest of the Eldest did. He was clearly regarded with respect or fear. She could not tell which. But she had no such feelings toward him. He reminded her of little Jamie who had batted his eyes at her much the same way when he wanted her to do something for him. Still, she felt a little awkward about the whole thing.

"Sure." She let him place his hand around her waist which wasn't difficult considering his height. He danced about as well as Jason, but he didn't seem as interested in dancing as he was in talking to her. He asked her all sorts of questions: what her home was like, how she had met Atreyu, about her magic, even random things like what her favorite food was. After awhile she asked him a question of her own.

"So how did you and your lady become one of the Eldest?"

He shrugged. "Don't know really. It just sort of happened after our adventure."

"Your adventure?"

"Yes. We got lost in the woods and were almost eaten by a witch. But I never gave up. That's why they called me the Knight of the Unyielding."

"And your Lady?"

"When the witch came for me, she fought back and saved me even though she was afraid, so they call her the Lady of the Unfailing. She's always there for me when I need her."

Once again Adair found herself struck by a familiar feeling listening to the boy's story. She scanned the crowd trying to find his companion. "Speaking of your Lady, are you sure you should be dancing with me?"

He seemed confused by this. "What do you mean?"

"I mean won't she get... you know, jealous?"

"Why should she be jealous?" Then he realized what she meant and made a sour face. "Oh gross, no. We're not like that at all. Gretel's my sister!"

Adair hadn't expected that. "What? But I thought the Eldest all had the Strongest Magic."

"We do." He replied, as perplexed by her line of questioning as she was by his answers.

"Doesn't that mean you have to be in love?"

He chuckled and shook his head. "No. You only need to be connected by true love."

"That's what I'm saying!"

"True love doesn't always have to mean that. It's the most powerful magic in the world. It can take many forms: Husband and wife, parent to children, brothers to sisters, even love between friends can be called true love."

He spoke with certainty as if he were explaining something simple like the color of the sky. But the way he broke it down made things sound so clear to her. Then she caught hold of something else he had said.

"Wait, did you say your sister's name was Gretel?"

He nodded. "Yep."

"Then you're..."

"Hansel. Yes."

At last she caught hold of why the Eldest had carried such feelings of deja vu for her. She'd known them before they'd even met.

"Then why not tell me at the start?"

"We have many names. Our stories get told over and over, and parts get changed. I think Midnight and Promise have more names than they can count."

The song ended and he bowed graciously to her and waved goodbye. "Thanks for dancing with me. You're really pretty, and really nice, even if you're a little weird. Grace was right. With you here, there's no way we can lose!" Then he vanished into the crowd to find his sister. For as long as his young mind could remember, his sister was the most important person in his life. The same was true for her, and their bond was among the strongest in history. But time goes on even in Fantasia, and one day they would both find others who would change their lives forever, and their Strongest Magic would only grow. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

"Thank you!" Adair called after him and watched him go. Though he probably didn't know it, he had made sense of a lot of what she was feeling. She was one step closer to figuring out the truth of her feelings, both for Atreyu and Jason.

The timing could not have been better, because the moment the music began again she could feel his approach. She knew where to find him without searching for him, and she knew he was coming for her as well. The Fantasians between them parted without realizing it, much like the way they made room for the Eldest. They crossed the square and when they met he held his hand out wordlessly. It was a strange thing. Neither one seemed to know what to say, yet they could feel what the other wanted and how to answer. She took his hand and they placed their hands on one another as they had with their other partners. He began to pull her one way and she faltered after him. Their eyes, his dark and steady, hers hazel green and full of wonder did not waver from one another once.

"I don't really know how to dance." She confessed.

"I'll show you." He assured her. "Just follow my lead." He spoke the truth. He could dance. In his arms she found herself gliding and twirling with more grace than she ever dreamed she possessed.

She smiled. "Of course. You haven't steered me wrong yet." She swallowed. "You've shown me so much. I never would have gotten this far without you."

"I didn't do anything Adair. You're the one who got us here."

"Why do you do that?" She pleaded.

"Do what?"

"Sell yourself short. Since I landed here, everything you've done has been for me. You do that with everyone. I've never really met anyone like you."

He said nothing at first. She waited patiently for him to answer her. "Adair, you're the same way. I can't explain it, but... I feel good when I'm around you. You make me feel stronger, happier, like I can do anything."

"That's how I feel. It's weird. I never really believed in this before, I think because I got it wrong. I used to think feeling this way made you forget all the terrible things, but that's not it. It's better. I don't forget them when I'm with you, I feel like I can beat them. When we first realized this, we said we'd wait until we were sure. Well I'm sure now. Are you?"

"Adair, I don't think..." he saw her face fall when he began and knew it was the wrong thing to say. It wasn't true anyway. "Yes. I have feelings for you. Intense feelings I've never had before."

"Then I know where I want to go from here." She took a deep breath. "I'm staying in Fantasia."

There it was. The horrible truth he had not wanted to face had been brought up and now he could not avoid it.

"Adair, you can't." He said sadly. "No human can stay in Fantasia forever."

"Why not?"

"You know why not. You'll lose your memories, all of them."

"So what if I do? I don't need them. The me from the human world and the me here are two different people now. The old me was sad and lonely and weak. That's not me anymore, so who cares if she disappears?"

"What about your family? What about Jason?"

"My aunt probably hasn't even noticed I'm gone. And Jason..." her voice wavered around her dear friend's name. "Look this isn't about anyone but me and you right now. You just said it. If we're together, everything else will work out."

"Adair, your memories are your story. If you lose them here it's like you never existed."

She shook her head. "I've made up my mind. Look me in the eye and tell me you don't want me to stay."

Of course he could not. As much as his head told him that what she proposed was wrong, his heart could not bare the thought of her leaving. He could no longer picture Fantasia without her. The thought of going back to the way things were before she came was now a colorless blur that made his heart ache.

"Adair..." he began, but he fell short. He could not lie to her. His heart wouldn't let him.

They had stopped dancing and their hands were no longer joined. He had both hands around her waist and she had both of hers around his shoulders.

"It's alright. If this really is 'the strongest magic' like everyone keeps saying, we should be able to overcome this right? We can do it, I know we can." He was very close to her face now, but she hadn't noticed yet. "I'm not leaving you."

"Adair..." He said once more, but he had nothing to say after that. He had finally stopped fighting her pull just as she had. His lips touched hers lightly, and when they did she brought hers closer. Their kiss sent shivers down her spine at first, then she felt her whole being flood with warmth. They held each other and he was so gentle when he did. She felt his hand slide up her back as he ran his fingers through her hair and the warmth she felt within herself suddenly spread from her chest all the way to her fingertips. Everything but him had vanished for her then. He in turn could see nothing in his mind but her. That is how they were never made aware of who else had seen them kiss.

Jason tore up the steps to the balcony where he knew he would find Iole. Falkor was with her.

"Iole! Iole!" He called. No one in the ballroom could hear him over the din of the music.

She appeared to have barely noticed him when he finally reached the balcony.

"You rang?"

"Send me back." He demanded.

"What do you mean?"

"Send me back! Do that world jumping or whatever it's called."

"World diving." She corrected.

"Whatever! Just send me home. I'm done here."

"And what brought on this change of heart?"

He glowered at her fiercely and it was easy to see how hard he was fighting back his tears. "Quit playing your games! You know exactly why! She made her choice and it wasn't me!"

She sighed. "So you're just going to leave?"

"Why not. She was my whole reason for coming here. What's left for me? I'm useless!"

"Get a hold of yourself."

"It's the truth! Look at me! It's no wonder she picked him. The only reason I even got this far is because of a stupid lucky sword." He slouched against the railing and let himself sink to the floor completely defeated. He no longer cared if Iole and Falkor saw him cry. Nothing mattered anymore.

Iole said nothing. It was Falkor who reached through the railing and rested one of his claws on the boy's shoulder.

"Now let me tell you something about your 'stupid lucky sword' Jason.” He said softly (not an easy feat for one with a voice like his). “There is a secret to luck magic. Most think it's all just random chances that happen to work out. Those Witches who held me even narrowed it down to something as trivial as probability. But they were wrong. That's not the whole truth. Luck has a lot to do with chance, but it's not so much the chances of happening so much as our hope that things will happen. When those Witches had me caged, they'd taken away every chance of escape. But that whole time I never gave up hope that I would get away. And low and behold, my three brave friends came to my rescue. Hope is the true power behind luck magic. That is what powers your sword Jason. That is your power. You must continue to hope even when all hope is gone."

"He's right." Iole stood over him with her arms folded. "No matter what your reason for coming to Fantasia, you're here now. You are here for a reason, even if it's not the one you thought it was. Fantasia and everyone connected to it still needs you here. That is why I can't send you back."

He wiped his eyes on his sleeve and tried to recompose himself. "But what do I do if I can't have what I hoped for?"

"Then hope for something else. Hope to get out of this alive at least."

He smiled sadly and shook his head. "You really know how to motivate people."

She smirked. "It's part of my charm."

He inhaled and got back to his feet. "I'm sorry."

"Don't apologize to me. You're the one you've been kicking. So what do you plan to do now?"

He only half thought about it. Any answer he gave wouldn't mean anything. It was still too soon. "Slay some demons?"

"And after that?"

"I don't know. Find something else to hope for like you said... with luck."

Falkor grinned. "That's the spirit."

The ball was interrupted suddenly by a cry of anguish. Jason had just returned to the ballroom and Atreyu and Adair had finally let go of one another when it rang out through the square.

"Atreyu! Where is Atreyu?! I must speak to Atreyu!

The crowd parted to let two figures pass: a compassionate blondycat and a blue skinned djinn. They supported a stooped and crippled figure between them. Adair recognized him with horror as one of General Heremoor's eagle riders. He was a knight with the head of a lion. Blood caked his golden mane and his silver armor. He coughed and hacked terribly and his once majestic face was covered in a patchwork of odd sores. Atreyu and Adair rushed to meet him. The ball had ended. The battle had come crashing at their door.

"What is it?" Atreyu asked. "What's happened? Where are the other eagle riders? Where's General Heremoor?"

The knight coughed before answering. "Dead. He met Volrac on the battlefield. I saw it with my own eyes. Our General is no more."

A wave of fear and despair rippled through the gathering. All were listening to his message. Adair rushed forward, taken by panic. Her heart ached at the thought of the boisterous General, her friend brought down by the monster who had ruined her life. She pressed him for more answers.

"What about Octavia? What happened to the rest?"

The knight took shallow ragged breaths. "The fairies vanished when Volrac killed the General. We all scattered. I don't know what became of the fairies. My comrades..." The lion knight choked "My brothers... all dead. Every last one of the eagle riders is dead."

Atreyu placed a hand on his shoulder. "Be at peace. It was not your fault."

"I lost my eagle." He rasped mournfully. "I walked three days to reach here."

"How did you escape?"

He grew still. Slowly, very slowly he lifted his golden brown eyes to Atreyu. They were filled with pain and suffering.

"I didn't." He paused and stood upright without help this time. "Atreyu forgive me. Please forgive me." Before he had a chance to explain himself the knight reared his head back and opened his great maw. He let out a final roar of agony that was soon drowned out by what came flooding out of his mouth. A great cloud of black and blue exploded out of his mouth that soon filled the entire space above them. No, Adair realized as she looked closer. Not a cloud, a swarm. Within the knight's body had hidden thousands of black and steel blue insects with fiery red eyes that buzzed like hornets. The knight fell dead as the last of the swarm escaped his body. They compacted together, writhing and swirling until at last the swarm took on a form. Together they made a gigantic spider with one fiery red eye. It centered this burning eye with its vertical pupil on Atreyu and Adair.

"Hello again Atreyu twolegs." the swarm spoke with one voice that was high and hoarse. It was not the right kind of voice at all for such a horrific creature. "It's been a long, long time."

Atreyu stood protectively in front of Adair and narrowed his dark gaze in anger.

"Ygramul." he spat.

"So glad you have not forgotten poor old Ygramul." The creature hissed. "Because she has not forgotten you.”

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