The Strongest Magic

Chapter 1: The Right Book

Adair stared at the paper in front of her as though it were a person who had just told her it didn't like the way she dressed (though it certainly wouldn't have been the first if it could talk). Her latest abysmal attempt at a creative writing assignment had a large scarlet F stamped at the top of it.

"Now you understand why I asked you to stay after class." Mr. Fillmore said sympathetically. "Miss Artemis, as you know I don't give failing grades. Creative writing is purely subjective. It's an art form. I grade papers based on the effort of the student."

"I was up until one in the morning writing this thing." Adair made a half-hearted attempt to defend her work.

"Be that as it may, your work lacked any sort of passion. And not just this one but every assignment you've handed in this term. And it would be a discredit to you if I allowed you to simply fly through my class without taking anything away from it. So let's talk about the root of the problem. Do you feel anything for this subject matter?"

"That's just it! I haven't felt anything for any of them. I really don't like writing!" She threw her hands in the air.

Mr. Fillmore simply folded his hands on his desk. "Then if you don't mind my asking, why did you take this class?"

"I needed some fine arts credit." She answered honestly. "It was this or choir. I figured I'd do the charitable thing and just make you suffer."

"I didn't say your writing was horrible Adair. I simply said it lacked feeling. Your heart is not in this work. If I thought it was horrible we wouldn't be discussing this right now. Now you are a bright girl I'm sure. There is a lot of potential here. We just need to see if we can make it shine."

"And what would you say would make it better?"

"Well for one you could stop writing out gruesome deaths for your main characters. I'm all for freedom of expression, but there's a difference between creative writing and passive aggression."

Adair sighed in defeat. Gruesome death for the miserable characters she was forced to write about was the only thing she had to look forward to in these assignments. "Mr. Fillmore I can't fail on this paper. I'll be good with a C but if I fail it…" She hesitated which seemed to perk her teacher's interest. "I just have a lot riding on this okay? Is there anything I can do?"

"Well it would seem that for you to progress at all you need to find yourself a muse. One that isn't covered in blood and screaming death metal in your ears." He smiled, but it quickly faded when it became clear she didn't appreciate the joke. "Alright here's what we'll do. I'll let you make up the assignment. I'll enter your grade on this paper as a C on one condition. You bring me an extra credit paper."

Adair eyed him warily. "On what?"

"Anything. I'm not assigning you any subject matter. You can write about anything you want. You have one week. All you have to do is get out there and find something that inspires you and write about it. Believe me, you'll know when it hits you."

The second bell rang for lunch and Mr. Fillmore bid Adair good afternoon as she gathered her things and left the classroom.

Sitting in the usual spot for lunch, at the base of a tree at the edge of the outside commons, she related her new problem to the only person in the world who would listen; her best (and really only) friend Jason. Everyone else at lunch kept their distance from them for the most part. Adair could have been called a Goth with a rim of black eyeliner around her hazel-green eyes, but her usual choice in outfits like the one she was wearing now; black skinny jeans and hi-tops with a black and gray striped T-shirt was plain in comparison to the actual “Goths” of their school, all chains and studs and leather. So she was at best a Goth who didn't care enough about it to put that extra ounce of dread into her appearance. She didn't have a single piercing, she didn't wear any lipstick over her naturally pink lips, and she left her hair its natural shade of dirty blond rather than dying it oil black.

Jason was slim and seemed to wear the same outfit every day; a long sleeved two in one T-Shirt with boot-cut blue jeans over a pair of motorcycle boots even though he neither owned nor had ever ridden a motorcycle. His hair was dark brown and about shoulder length when he left it down. However he liked to keep it tied back in a ponytail because he insisted it made him look like Orlando Bloom and Adair didn't feel the need to tell him otherwise. He swallowed whatever the cafeteria had seen fit to slop onto their plate that afternoon. As usual he'd downed his own portion in half the time it had taken her to take the first bite, and he was already asking for hers. She was a little jealous he could eat so freely without gaining a single pound.

"You going to eat that?" he asked again.

She slid her tray off her lap and handed it to him. "Knock yourself out." She rolled her eyes as he dug into her lunch as vigorously as he had his own. "Are you listening?"

"Yes Adair, I can listen and eat at the same time. I'm a big multi-tasker that way." He wiped the remains of what she thought was gravy away from his mouth with the back of his hand. "Why don't you try reading a book?"


"You know, a book. BOOK" he said slowly, opening his hands and closing them in front of him. "You know, those things with pages and words that you always see me holding."

"Read a book? That's your idea."


"This is really easy for you to say. You're good at this kind of thing."

"It's not exactly hard. Fillmore said you needed to find some inspiration. What's more inspiring than a book? That's what they're for."

"Apparently Lemming never made you read Lord of the Flies."

"Alright, but this is about finding the right book. Look just go by Coreander's Old Books after school. Here I'll give you the address." He pulled a marker from the backpack next to him and held out his hand for hers. She gave it to him and he scribbled an address on the back of her hand. "They've got everything there, and since they're all old you can get them pretty cheap too. Just find one that grabs you and I'll meet you at your Aunt's place tonight."

Adair rolled her eyes again. "Sounds promising."

"Hey I know this is a big deal for you-"

"It's a huge deal!" She cried, cutting him off. "If I fail this assignment, Aunt Rosemary won't sign for my internship for the secretary position in the city, and then that will put all my plans for moving out of this place on hold. I can't stay here anymore! I'm so sick of this place!"

"And Fillmore says you lack passion." Jason muttered. "Look, you want to pass this class then trust me. Alright? Go get the book and I'll meet you at Rosemary's place later."

Adair gave him a questioning glance. "Why can't you come to the bookshop with me?"

Jason shrugged. "Detention."

"For what?"

"I might have tuned out when Huffman was giving us our instructions in chemistry and added too much sulfur to the mix he gave us."

She winced. "How bad is it?"

"I'll let you know when I finish cleaning the ceiling."

True to its name, "Carl Conrad Coreander, Old Books" wasn't much of a bookshop so much as a book graveyard. Adair slid in through the doorway to a long narrow room lined with shelves of books of all shapes and sizes. Unlike other bookshops she'd been in, the air wasn't permeated with the smell of coffee. No this shop had a more homely feel to it. While the books seemed kept in good condition for the most part, it was clear most of their spines had been well worn from previous ownership. The tinkling of the bells must have alerted the shop owner because she heard a brisk shuffling from the back room.

An elderly gentleman shuffled into the front of the shop to greet her. Adair had learned that there were two kinds of old people in the world. The ones who let their years show with permanent frown lines in the wrinkles of their face, and those who had a perpetual smile imprinted in the dimples around their mouth. They were like trees that way, how the rings inside a trunk could tell a story. This man was the happy kind. He wore a blue striped button down shirt and a pair of plain brown khakis with some casual cordovan shoes. His eyes were clear blue behind his glasses, and his hair, though gray and receding at the crown of his head still looked thick and healthy.

"How do you do young lady?" He asked congenially.

Adair shrugged. "Fine I guess. Are you the Mr. Coreander that owns this shop?" She indicated the sign behind her.

The man looked at the door where the shop's name could be clearly seen on the back of the glass pane. He adjusted his glasses. "It would seem this shop actually belongs to a… Rednaeroc." He chuckled, pointing out that the sign she was referring to could only be read backwards from inside the shop. When she didn't laugh back he cleared his throat. "No I am not. Though he was a dear friend. I am the Mr. Bux who owns this shop. Bastian Balthazar Bux at your service."

"Bastian Balthazar Bux? Carl Conrad Coreander? B's C's was that on purpose?"

The man smiled. "Funny you should ask, we noticed that on the first day we met. Though the alliteration was purely coincidence. And what may I ask is your name?"

She bit her lip when she realized her blunder. "Adair." She answered frankly.

"Adair….?" He pressed.

She sighed. "Adair Alicia Artemis."

Mr. Bux chuckled again. "But my dear, that's all A's. Seems you'll fit in quite well here."

"My friend told me you could help me find a book."


"Jason. The one with the boots and the ponytail."

"Oh Jason, yes of course I know him. Regular here." He stroked his chin. "I might be able to help you. It all depends of course. What is it you're looking for?"

Adair paused. "I don't really know."

"Ah, just browsing then. Well what is it you like to read? A good romance novel perhaps?"

"No!" She said a little too quickly. The thought made her gag. "Anything but that."

"Oh very well, a fantasy perhaps. A girl needs a little fantasy in her life."

"I'm not sure about that either." She admitted.

Mr. Bux knit his graying eyebrows over his eyes in what looked like concern. "My dear is there any kind of book you're interested in?"

"I'm not much for reading."

A look of understanding dawned on the old man. "I see. That explains it then."

"Explains what?"

"Why you look so old. I could see it from across the room. You're carrying the world's problems on your shoulders. Reading, discovering, feeling, these are the things that keep us young my dear. Without reading, we're really just going through our life's problems on our own."

"I can manage my problems just fine thank you. And I'm only seventeen." She said with a little more venom than she'd intended. She didn't like this man. There was something about him that made her feel like he could read her as easily as one of the books he kept.

He seemed to take the hint. "Alright I didn't mean any offense. Just give me a moment and I guarantee we can find something suitable. I won't allow you to leave the shop dissatisfied. It's simply a matter of finding the right book."

There it was again. The same phrase Jason had used. That phrase was beginning to annoy her. "What's the difference? A book's a book."

"Not true my dear, not true at all." He continued as he began to rummage through the shelves. "There are books about love, there are books about adventure, there are books about talking animals, science, history, pirates, books about magical nannies who gallivant all over Europe by flying with an umbrella…" He paused for a moment and looked at her with those clear blue eyes in a way that made her feel like he was reading her again. "And then there is that one special book that changes your life forever. It's not a simple thing Miss Adair Alicia Artemis, no not simple at all."

She shuffled from one foot to the other uncomfortably as he stared at her, either studying her or lost in thought she could not tell, until at last a loud ringing broke him from his reverie.

"Oh that would be my wife. If you'll excuse me for a moment. Feel free to look around. Let me know if something peaks your interest." He ducked out of the room to answer the phone in the back room. She knew she shouldn't be surprised the old man still owned a land-line, but it was strange to her that something like that still existed anywhere.

She resigned herself to scanning the shelves for titles that jumped out at her. A few did here and there, ones with words like "Dark" or "Blood" or "Revenge". But then one caught her eye that didn't appear to have a title, or at least not on the spine. But the strange symbol on the spine caught her eye; a pair of snakes, one light and one dark intertwining in a circle, each biting the others' tail. She pulled it from the shelf. It was bound in copper colored silk that shimmered when she moved it about, and the same symbol that was on the spine was also on the cover just above the title. She sighed when she read the title's intricate lettering. "The Neverending Story."

Yeah, I only have a week. I don't have time for never ending. She thought to herself.

"You should get that one."

Adair spun around. The voice did not belong to the old man. Standing in the shop with her she found a girl about her age, maybe a little younger. She had long night black hair with a purple streak in it. Her blue doll-like eyes stayed on Adair with a mixture of curiosity and boredom. Her wardrobe was bizarre; resembling something out of those Animes Jason liked to watch. She wore a knee length black dress with a white lace petticoat underneath it. The dress left her shoulders bare, but her arms had loose white sleeves laced just above her elbows and held in place by black buckles. The loose cuffs of the sleeves had the same ruffle as her petticoat. Her legs were clad in black and white striped stockings and black knee-high boots. Her fingernails were the same color as the streak in her hair.

Adair had been startled by the girl's sudden appearance. She hadn't heard her enter the shop. But the outlandishness of her outfit helped her get over it. She gave the girl a wry smirk.

"Did you get lost on your way to a convention?"

"No." The girl said flatly, lacking any of the usual confusion or resentment Adair had come to expect from those who suffered her sarcasm. She either didn't notice the comment had been meant as an insult, or more likely she just didn't care. "You should read that book. I hear it really speaks to people."

"Yeah, I'm not much of a reader. I'm just looking for something to read for a school assignment."

"Suit yourself. It was only a suggestion." The strange girl replied, her face unchanging and reminiscent of porcelain. She turned on her heel and made her way toward another part of the shop that was hidden behind another row of bookshelves. Adair heard her whisper as she left. "But you won't find another book like it. Not in all the world." Then she was gone.

"Okay." Adair said more to herself. Was this what reading really did to you? Between the old man and the weird girl she was getting the feeling she was in one of Jason's Anime's. These people couldn't be for real. She thought of telling Jason about the strangely dressed girl she had met, thinking he'd immediately want her number. But try as she might, she couldn't picture fun-loving Jason going anywhere with someone so disjointed no matter how weird they dressed.

All the while she still found herself holding onto the book. She wondered if it was worth it to try the weirdo's advice. What was so special about this book that claimed to never end anyway? She looked around. There was no sign of the old man, though she could faintly hear his voice in the back room on the phone, and it didn't sound like he meant to end his call anytime soon. There was also no sign of the girl she'd been talking to, but she didn't mind that so much. In fact she hoped it stayed that way. What she did see was an armchair almost hidden behind a shoulder high wall of books. Considering sitting down to read she was reminded of a little old woman curling up on a rocking chair in front of a fire with a book and a pair of reading glasses. And that in turn reminded her of the earlier (and frankly quite rude) observation Mr. Bux had made that she appeared old. He'd most likely laugh at her. But Adair wasn't normally the kind to let what others thought bother her, and when she did it was short lived.

She shrugged and gave in, settling herself into the armchair. She opened the book and began to read.

The plains of Fantasia were always a welcome sight to his eyes. Their lush grasslands rich with the light of the sun seemed to stretch on forever. He filled his lungs as though trying to taste the scent of the wind that blew through his hair on the back of his flying Luckdragon. On the horizon he could see little plumes of smoke from campfires, and his sharp eyes were beginning to see the outlines of the huts of his people. They had made it. Atreyu the Warrior of the Plains was home. He had traversed all over Fantasia and had many fantastic adventures, and he still had many more ahead of him, but for a little while at least he would be back among his own people, those he still called family.

"Falkor!" he called to the white Luckdragon who was not only his trusted mount, but also his most loyal and dearest friend. "I want you to land!"

"What?" The Luckdragon asked in his deep bronze-like voice. "But we haven't even reached the village yet!" The two of them needed to shout to be heard over the wind.

"I know! Just land! You can go on ahead!"

Not sure what his little master was playing at, but not seeing any harm either, Falkor descended to the grasslands. Atreyu leaped off and Falkor turned his head to look at him with his great ruby eyes. He wasn't like other dragons in Fantasia with their hardened scales and great spiked wings who were considered evil and destructive beings. Falkor was a Luckdragon with a long graceful serpentine body with pearly pink and white scales and a face like a lion. They were also said to bring great fortune to those they travelled with. Atreyu found this to be beyond doubt. Having Falkor as his friend he considered fortune enough. And he credited him for many narrow escapes they had made in the past.

"You go on ahead Falkor. I just want a little time to run through the grass before we get there."

"Suit yourself. I'll meet you there. Try not to get yourself into any trouble before you reach the village." The dragon winked his glistening ruby colored eye. "I'd hate to miss out on any of the fun." And with that he took off into the sky again. Despite his size, Falkor was as light as a cloud and swam through the air like a fish through water.

Atreyu watched him fly away then began to make his way through the tall grass of his homeland. He trekked slowly at first, but steadily he gained speed, wanting to feel the warmth of the sunlight in the grass. He was a healthy youth of about seventeen with deep tanned skin and dark hair that fell about his shoulders. The padding of his soft buffalo leather boots was swift along the ground. His dark eyes were intense and focused. They were the eyes of a hunter, a warrior, which is what Atreyu was. But in the eyes of the plains he would always be their child, and its tall green grass welcomed him with all the tenderness of a loving parent. He let the boy in him laugh out loud as he bent his head and tried to see how fast he could run through the grass.

Then he stopped suddenly as he became aware of a strange prickling sensation on the back of his neck; the feeling of being watched. In the way of weapons he had his bow and a quiver of arrows strapped to his back, and a dagger at his waist, but even though that sensation had taken him by surprise he didn't reach for either of them. There was something familiar about this presence. He turned around and saw nothing.

He squinted his eyes trying to see far off. The grass as the wind blew through it looked like the waves of a vast ocean. It took him some time to see past them until at last, there it was. Someone else was standing in the grass with him. She was hard to see at first, but little by little she became clearer. At first all he could see was that she was a girl dressed in dark clothes about his age. Then more of her began to come into focus. Her long hair was the color of gold desert sand, and her eyes were the color of the grass, green but shifting into shades of blue and gold at times. The clearer she became, the closer it seemed she was to him. Soon she seemed close enough that he caught her scent in the wind. She was—

"What are you doing?!" The outcry brought Adair from the grassy plains of Fantasia in a shocking whirl back into the old bookshop. It was Mr. Bux standing in the doorway to the backroom and looking far more anxious than when he'd first gone back there.

"What?" She asked, shutting the book but keeping her finger in the page she'd been reading. She bolted up from the chair. "You said I could browse."

The old man made an attempt to calm himself, but he wasn't succeeding. He was breathing heavily and there was still a note of desperation in his voice. "Yes of course. You're free to browse and read at your leisure. Now how about we find something for you to go home with shall we? 'Jane Eyre' perhaps? Seems right up your alley."

"Actually I think I've already found one. This one seems like the right book." She held it up for him to see and was surprised by the look of sheer horror that rose in his face.

"Any book you like Miss, any at all. I'll even give it to you free of charge! But not that book. That one is not for sale."

Adair narrowed her eyes. "Then you shouldn't have put it with the ones that were."

"I didn't! It must have been… put there by mistake." He began to take careful steps toward her.

"Yeah, well I'm not changing my mind." She insisted stubbornly. Hadn't he been the one who'd insisted she find 'the right book'? Well now she'd found one that for the first time she didn't want to throw into a fire after the first paragraph. Why was he trying to change her mind all of a sudden? She drew the book closer to her protectively as he drew nearer with reaching hands.

"Please Miss Artemis," he said in a pleading voice. "Give me that book." Then without warning he lunged and seized the book with both hands. Adair recoiled and held on with all her strength.

She ground her teeth together. "Let… GO!" She finally succeeded in tearing the book back from his grasp and both of them staggered backwards. Adair actually fell and landed on her rear. Like a cornered mouse she scooted backwards when he advanced on her again. In a burst of adrenaline she leaped back to her feet and sprinted toward the door. She threw it open, the book still clutched tightly in her hands, and sped down the block as fast as her feet could carry her, tucking the book tightly against her chest.

Mr. Bux, by now very out of breath could only call after her from the door to his shop. "Miss Artemis! Miss Artemis! Please come back! You don't know what you're doing! Come back!"

It was several blocks before she felt safe enough to stop running. In dismay she looked down at the act of petty theft in her hands. She had just stolen one of the old man's books.

Well it's his own fault for scaring me like that. She reasoned to herself. The old man would be lucky if she didn't try to charge him with harassment. And if the book wasn't for sale, why had it been on the shelf? Still, Adair was a lot of things, but a thief she was not. She went over and over in her head trying to figure out why she'd gone ahead and stolen it. Had Mr. Bux really scared her so badly? No it was more than that, much more.

In that short passage she had read something strange had happened. The boy she'd read about, Atreyu? The girl he had seen, was it possible he had seen her? The girl sounded a lot like her, although she'd been described in far more beautiful words than she would have used. Her hair was sandy-blond, not the color of gold desert sand. Impossible. There was no way the girl he had seen was her.

But then if it hadn't been her, why had she seen him? Up until that point she'd been able to picture everything in the book clearly; the plains, the village in the distance, even the Luckdragon who sounded to her like the most absurd creature ever to be thought up. But when it had come to the boy she had seen him perfectly in every detail, and in a far more real sense than just imagining him. She had seen the sun gleam off his dark hair that reminded her of raven's feathers. The soft leather of his clothes had seemed so close she'd wanted to reach out and touch it. She'd even seen something that the book hadn't mentioned; on a part of his chest that was exposed by the opening of his leather tunic was the faded pink remains of what must have been a grisly scar at one time. And those eyes, she had seen him study her with that hunter's gaze.

As she studied the book's cover the twin snakes seemed to be grinning at her like they knew a secret she did not. She made a note to give Jason some money to pay Mr. Bux with later. Because of one thing she was certain. However much she had doubted the artsy talk of her friend Jason, and the ranting of the old man, she knew she had found "the right book" and she was not about to let it go.

Aunt Rosemary's house was the usual scene of chaos. Her cousins Bryan and Jamie were running through the living room with their loud obnoxious toy ray-guns. Brian nearly ran into her as he pursued his brother. He was a gangly child with brown hair and eyes and torn jeans.

"Adair's home!" Jamie called. He was the younger of the two brothers and looked like Bryan in miniature, with slightly more rounded features.

Bryan took a defensive position behind the couch and began shooting at Jamie. The gun made a loud sci-fi blasting noise. "Hey Mom wants you to do the dishes!"

Aunt Rosemary was in the kitchen sitting at the table with her two year old daughter Lizzie in her lap, trying to tie the child's black hair into twin braids. She scolded her son from where she was still struggling with his baby sister. "Bryan you know good and well I asked you to do that! And put those away please, I have a headache!"

She struggled in vain to hold onto Lizzie who started squirming at the sight of Adair. The little girl slid off her mother's lap and ran toward Adair with outstretched hands. The left half of her hair was braided tight while the other half hung free over her face. She wrapped herself tightly around Adair's leg.

Aunt Rosemary sighed and turned to her niece. "Where have you been? I was expecting you back an hour ago." Her Aunt was a pretty woman in a maternal sort of way with a heart shaped face and almond colored eyes with thick brown hair that seemed so long and unruly at times that she always kept it tied back and pulled away from her face. On the whole she was a very small woman as well, barely clearing the top of her twelve year old son's head with her chin. And when she was in the mood to scold, which she was now, she always folded her arms and hooked her left eyebrow. But she did it with a tired smile.

"I needed to pick up a book for an assignment."

"Well you should have called. I didn't give you that cell phone so you could play Angry Birds on it. Bryan, Jamie, will you please put those things away!" Her boys giggled and ran upstairs away from their mother's growing frustration. But no one heard any further blaster noises. The boys may have been bratty and obnoxious in Adair's opinion, but their one redeeming quality was that they were mindful of their mother. Aunt Rosemary sighed again.

"Listen I know I asked Bryan to do it, but could you please do the kitchen? I need to leave for work soon." Aunt Rosemary worked at a spa in the city. She worked long hours and sometimes had to be gone over the weekend, leaving Adair alone to tend to her cousins.

"I don't have time for that." Adair protested. "I'm backed up with my homework."

"I understand, but you know that if I'm not here Bryan won't do it and then it'll just pile up and not get done. Besides, if you're really set on moving to the city for that internship you're going to have to learn how to make time for these things." There it was. Her Aunt was not above holding that over her. Aunt Rosemary did not like the idea of Adair getting an apartment in the city. And why should she when that would leave her alone at home with her own delinquent sons and baby girl.

Maybe if you made your sons pull their own weight around here, my leaving wouldn't be such a shock to you. She thought bitterly. For she was convinced that doing household chores was the only reason her Aunt even kept her around.

"Fine. Whatever. I'll do it."

Aunt Rosemary made a mock sigh. "Oh thank you so much. What would I do without your sacrifice." She said sarcastically.

"Yeah well you better figure out because the second summer hits I can't move out fast enough." She turned to stomp up the stairs to her room.

"Adair!" her Aunt called. She guessed it was to ask her to do the kitchen again.

"I'll do it later!" She marched to her room and wasn't surprised at all to find the boys hiding in there, giggling to themselves in her closet like she'd never find them. She shucked off her book bag and tossed it onto her bed before she threw the door open and grabbed them both by the shoulder. "Get out! Your Mom's leaving for the city soon and I'm in charge. I catch either of you in my room one more time I'm putting you both in one of my dresses and posting pictures all over the internet." That was an empty threat. Adair didn't own a single dress.

They both looked like they wanted to add to that, but she quickly shut the door behind them and locked it. She leaned against the door and let out a long slow breath to clear her head, sinking down to the floor. She was finally alone. Well not entirely. She had one roommate, but one that she didn't mind at all since they never had much to say. A white cat with black ears and a black tail and legs lay curled up on her bed. Now that the boys were gone her cat felt safe enough to stop pretending that she was asleep. She uncurled from her place on the bed and stretched her claws in the way that cats do before bouncing off the bed to rub her head against Adair's leg.

"Hi Iole. It's just you and me right now." She said absently, stroking her fur. "Pretty soon it'll be like this every day when we move to the city. Would you like that?" Of course Iole had nothing to say, which is why she and Adair got along so well.

The book caught her eye again and she got up to clear a space for herself on her bed. She sat Indian style and opened the book across her lap. Iole followed and curled up next to her. As she looked for the space where she had left off she was overcome by this feeling of anticipation that was completely foreign to her. She didn't really have much to look forward to in her day-to-day life, and this certainly never applied to a book. But here she found herself anxious to get back to where she'd been before Mr. Bux had interrupted her.

"I'm telling you both I saw her." Atreyu repeated defiantly. He had arrived at the village and had been welcomed warmly by his tribesmen; the men who congratulated him on the feats of bravery they had heard he'd undergone, the women who greeted him tenderly with maternal caring, and particularly the children who all looked up to Atreyu like an elder brother crowded around him and clamored to hear stories of his adventures. They'd had something of a feast in his honor and a dance that had gone on well into the night. Now he was free at last to share what he had seen on the plains with two of his closest friends; Falkor, and Bahzha, a member of his tribe that had traveled with him once a long time ago. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

They had remained gathered around their fire while the majority of the village had retired to bed. He hadn't wanted to raise concern among his tribesmen, so he'd decided to share what he'd seen only with the two of them. But neither of them seemed to believe him.

"Why don't you believe me?"

"It's not that we're trying to doubt you Atreyu." Falkor assured him in as low of a voice as he could manage so they wouldn't arouse any of the villagers. This wasn't an easy task for a Luckdragon. "It's just that there haven't been any humans in Fantasia since…"

"I know that. But I know what I saw. Maybe another one has come. Hasn't that been the tradition? That a human come to Fantasia when we are in our greatest need? Falkor you've seen it, those things that have been terrorizing the countryside?"

"Atreyu we've only heard the stories and seen the aftermath. We've never actually seen any of what they call Demons."

"But they've all told the same stories. The gnomes tell it, the gjinn's tell it, the elves tell it, the Sassafranians, the Blondycats, even the Headfooters. And it's not like them to make sense."

Bahzha shrugged as he continued to whittle at the wooden flute he was making. He was tall and lean and seemed carved entirely from bone and sinew. This seemed to contradict his name which in the language of the Plains people meant 'Little Warrior'.

"Fantasia's always been plagued by the Creatures of Darkness. The Childlike Empress allows them to exist here because they are the dreams of the humans just like you and I. She draws no distinctions. It's just something we've had to learn to live with."

"But these aren't like the Creatures of Darkness. The ones who have seen them have said they don't feel like they belong in Fantasia. They're… wrong."

"You mean like the wolf you met in Spook City?"

Atreyu shuddered at the most unwelcome memory. "Yeah, like that."

"Still," Falkor argued "if a human had come to Fantasia there would have been news of it at the Ivory Tower first."

"No one's heard news from the Childlike Empress in a long time." Atreyu pointed out. "The Magnolia Pavilion hasn't opened for years. I think it has something to do with the Demons."

"You're sure it was a girl you saw?" Bahzha asked.

Atreyu eyed him skeptically. "Yes. Why?"

"Perhaps what you saw wasn't really a human, but a message from Fantasia."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm only saying, if you're sure it was a girl…."

"Bahzha not this again!" Atreyu grew instantly exasperated.

"What?" Bahzha asked defensively. "I don't think I'm alone on this one. You've traveled to nearly every corner of Fantasia by now. Maybe this vision you had was trying to tell you that it's time to settle down. Deisha's mother tells me she's still available. You know she's always taken a shine to you."

"No." Atreyu answered adamantly. "Not until I finish the stories."

"That's just it Atreyu! You'll never finish the stories, because no real story is ever finished. It'll just lead you to another one, and then another, and still another. You've done well keeping your promise. Maybe it's time you stepped down and let someone else start fulfilling them."

To this, Atreyu had no answer. He'd gained a great deal of frustration trying to convince his friends of the truth. He knew what he'd seen. And this absurd theory that it was Fantasia telling him to stop adventuring and get married was enough to make him get up and stalk off to the edge of the village.

I know how he feels. Adair thought. To have no one take you seriously and insist they know what's best for you without really understanding where you were coming from was something she was very familiar with. Her Aunt didn't understand her, that was for sure. She had just barely been convinced that Adair's moodiness wasn't attributed to drug use. And still she caught her gaze flicker to her arms as if to make sure she wasn't cutting herself. Jason was the one she could confide in the most, but she couldn't say he understood her any better. Still he tried a lot more than Aunt Rosemary, and he'd never jumped to such drastic conclusions as she had. She went on reading.

Again Atreyu was overcome with that feeling that he was being watched. He turned slowly to find that he was alone in the darkness at the edge of the village. He could see the glow of Bahzha and Falkor's fire, but there was no other sign of life. He hadn't noticed how far from the village he'd wandered but this didn't bother him too greatly.

He sat down and let his thoughts sort themselves out. More and more he found himself wishing he could see Moon Child. The news that she hadn't been seen for so long troubled him. The Childlike Empress was the source of all life in Fantasia, and while she didn't do much in the way of ruling, without her Fantasia felt uneasy and leaderless. He'd seen it in the eyes of all the Fantasians he had visited recently. He knew the appearance of these demons and the news that their Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes remained silent through it all troubled each and every being of Fantasia. They had to be connected. And though he knew whether she was around or not, that he could never see Moon Child a second time, he still wished to hear her voice, to feel her assurance.

Atreyu was startled suddenly by another feeling. He was being watched once more, but this time he did feel the need to reach for his knife. Whatever had its gaze on him now was indeed hostile. He hadn't heard anyone approach, but he didn't miss the glowing green eyes glowering at him in the distance. As he focused he could see that they sat in the center of a pale face that glistened in the moonlight like scales. But that was all he had time to see because at that moment the creature pounced. Atreyu braced himself for the impact and let himself fall with the beast as it fell on top of him. As he landed on his back, he slid underneath it and thrust his dagger upward into its throat. The creature made a sound like a whimpering dog before falling to the side. He leaped back to his feet and watched it fall to the earth. Its face was pale and scaled as he had seen, but it had a snout and a maw like a wolf's. Its four legs were scaled as well, ending in long hooked talons. But the rest of the beast was covered in mangy black fur.

Atreyu had seen many monsters in his adventures, but only one had ever made him shiver with such a cold and unnatural aura, and that creature just like the one that lay before him felt wrong all over. It reminded him of the way oil slid along the surface of water, but could never really mix with it. This was one of those monsters known as demons that he had heard of. He turned and made to run back for the camp to tell his friends of what he'd seen. He was so caught up in the excitement of finding the proof of what they'd been discussing, and the relief of having escaped with his life that he didn't notice the creature had staggered back to its clawed feet and was bounding after him on all fours with head bent.

With claws outstretched and fangs wide it leaped for Atreyu.

"Look behind you!" Adair cried, and felt immediately how silly that was. She was reminded of those people who go to see a scary movie and shout uselessly at the young vulnerable heroine to turn around before she's brutally stabbed to death by the slasher. She shook her head and tried to read again.

"Look behind you!" Atreyu heard it clearly and turned just in time to see the demon leap for him again. He knew it was the same one he had cut down because it still had the gaping wound in its throat that he had put there. Acting on instinct he stepped to the side just before it reached him and plunged his knife into the same place, this time with such force that the demon's head fell from its shoulders. The thing fell a second time to the earth, and this time Atreyu watched to make sure it was dead. Then he gaped as it never hit the earth but vanished in a dark mist. He didn't have time to wonder how that had happened or what it meant. He had to warn his village.

"There is no way that just happened."

No sooner had he started in the direction of the village then he saw them. A pack of black shapes was closing in on the camp quickly and silently. He ran faster, his chest heaving with panic. They were all asleep. The demons had the edge of surprise. Only Falkor and Bahzha were awake, but from where they were they couldn't see them. And he was too far away to cry out the alarm. What was more; they weren't the only shapes moving in the darkness. He could hear more, at least four. And these ones were closing in on him. Atreyu was among the fastest runners in all of Fantasia. But not even he could outrun these creatures as they caught him on all sides.

He stopped when he saw that he was surrounded. They edged toward him, snapping their jaws trying to get a taste of his flesh. Atreyu held his knife out as they closed in, prepared to face death fighting like a true warrior. He was afraid not for himself, but for his tribesmen who were still sound asleep.

Adair was suddenly gripped by a fear similar to the kind that Atreyu was feeling. She was afraid for him. The thought of the boy she had seen so clearly earlier that afternoon, now surrounded by fiendish creatures that sent chills up her spine when she pictured them, armed with only a knife was unbearable. And the worst part was how calmly he faced them even when he knew he had no chance of winning. She didn't care how great of a warrior the book made him out to be, she knew no one person ever won in a fight against a pack of wolves in this or any world.

"No, no, no," she said to herself over and over, hoping, waiting for something to happen, something to change. Nothing did. She read that they were still getting closer and Atreyu wasn't making any move to run or escape. She found herself wishing with more feeling than she'd felt in a long time that something would happen that would save him. Something had to happen. She would not allow the book to end this way.

She was so intent in her wishing that she hadn't even noticed the strange light that was suddenly coming off of the book. But Iole noticed. The cat backed away slowly as it glowed brighter and brighter. Soon it filled the whole room, and Adair still hadn't a thought in her head other than willing the words on the page to change.

"Come on, come on, COME ON! Something happen!"

Then in a brilliant flash, Iole found herself alone in Adair's bedroom with the book still open on the bed.

And that is how Adair Alicia Artemis came to Fantasia.

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