Chapter 19: For Fantasia
Slithering along the ceiling, blocking its twinkling lights from view, Ygramul held all in her one glowing red eye. Her form shifted as the endless horde of insects that made up her body rippled with restlessness. Whatever consciousness held them together, it was struggling to keep her entire being contained. Her whole form coiled and sprung with rage when that one terrible red eye came to rest on Atreyu. This attack could not have come at a worse time. Few if any of the guests were armed, and so many had been demoralized by the news of General Heremoor's death. Adair herself felt a sinking lump in her chest whenever she remembered it between the bouts of anxiety she felt at this creature's presence.
"Ygramul has waited a long time for this Atreyu Twolegs." The monster hissed in her shrill unfitting voice. "Taking the side of the Nightmare King was worth all that we have endured for this very reason. Now we will tear the flesh from your bones as we have dreamed of doing for so long."
"So you have sided with Volrac." Atreyu spat. It wasn't that he was surprised. Ygramul was a despicable creature. He was more disgusted.
"What choice did we have? You left us to starve in the Dead Mountains! You broke your promise! And after we had so generously given to you of our venom. Ever since the secret of Ygramul's venom got out, she hasn't had a decent meal. Why did you break your promise Atreyu Twolegs! You gave your word! You swore by the Childlike Empress herself!"
"He didn't reveal your secret." Came a bronze bellowing voice from the outer balcony. It was Falkor. "I did. After we escaped your web, I told everyone in Fantasia who would listen that your venom was magic. Perhaps you wouldn't have starved if you had simply eaten your prey instead of torturing them first!"
"You stay out of this Luckdragon! Ygramul shall settle her old score with you soon enough!" The creature lowered its gaze back to Atreyu. "Too bad for you Twolegs that you betrayed us, for now Ygramul's venom serves another purpose. The Nightmare King found a great use for it."
Atreyu felt a great rage rising inside of him. "You! You're the reason Volrac's army has been able to move freely through Fantasia!"
"Aye, you were always clever. The two-legged Witch called Thoth took samples of our venom and used it to enchant special medallions. That is how we surrounded the General and his Eagle Riders before they could do a thing, and that is how we have surrounded you. My venom has allowed the dark army to break through the barrier of wishes. They will reach the Ivory Tower soon, and before sunrise this will all belong to our Lord Volrac!" The monster laughed a most hideous laugh that was like the cacophony of a thousand warbling rats. It made one shiver with disgust as though they had been violated to hear that laugh.
Adair was trembling now, but not from fear. She was furious. "You helped them kill Heremoor! What have you done to Octavia? Where are the fairies?"
Ygramul merely laughed again. "So you are the little human we have heard so much about. Are you worried about the fairies little girl? Isn't that sweet. After Lord Volrac obliterated the General, all your poor helpless fairies panicked. Those that didn't flee into the wind were caught in my snare. I ate them one by one. Have you ever heard the crunch of fairy wings? There are few things in this world as satisfying as the crack of their wings amidst their shrill dying screams." Ygramul laughed once more, but it would not laugh again. Creatures of Darkness come in many forms. They can be powerful or weak, beautiful or grotesque, clever or stupid. Ygramul was of the stupid variety. In her haste for revenge against Atreyu, she had come alone to this gathering. She had believed the guests to be unarmed and thought they would panic at the mere sight of her. She never would have guessed she would give a mere two-legs like Adair the means to destroy her.
Ygramul's laughter stopped abruptly as though she had been choked. Her form ceased to change and began to close in on itself as though being squeezed by an external force. The air around her began to shimmer until all watching could see a glimmering orb of air closing in on the monster. On the floor, Adair held her hand out towards the monster, her fingers forming a cage and squeezing ever tighter. Rage drove her actions and fueled her magic, rage for her fallen friends and anger for how this monster could laugh at pain and fear that it caused so easily. Ygramul began to scream. Let her, Adair thought. Let her know what it's like to be afraid, to be helpless, to be hurt and not be able to do a thing about it. As the cage of air closed tighter and tighter around her, the hard carapaces of the insects began to crack. Those on the outer edge of the swarm were crushed under its weight.
"Please! Have mercy kind human! Do not kill poor Ygramul! Mercy! Please!"
"Mercy? As you have shown mercy?" Adair growled in a voice much lower than her own. It did not sound like her, not even to herself, but she knew it was hers. "As you showed mercy to Heremoor and his knights? As you showed mercy to the Octavia and her court? Is that the kind of mercy you ask for? Because it is the only kind you will find here!" As Adair spoke, her hand began to glow brighter and brighter, but not just her hand. Her eyes were filling with a strange and powerful light. She did not notice. All that mattered to her right now was satisfying her anger by making Ygramul suffer.
She would have squeezed the monster until every last hateful beetle in its swarm was splattered had it not been for Atreyu. Gently, the boy warrior placed his hand on her arm, beckoning her to lower it. His dark eyes pleaded wordlessly for her to stop. It was not for Ygramul that he interceded. It was for Adair. It is one thing to feel anger, it is quite another to fill yourself with hatred as Adair was doing. To do so makes you cruel and deadens your sense of compassion. Even for a monster as despicable as Ygramul the Many, nothing is worth poisoning your heart. Atreyu knew this, and when her eyes met his, Adair knew it too. Slowly, she released her hold on Ygramul, but the monster remained where she was. For the first time in her existence, Ygramul the Many was overwhelmed with fear. Adair kept her right where she was simply with her gaze.
"Leave this place." she commanded. "Go back to your master and tell him that if he wants a fight, he's got one. Then go back to whatever hole you crawled out of and never show your face again."
Ygramul did not move. The many beetles that made up her mass quivered in terror.
"LEAVE NOW!" The entire chamber shook with Adair's voice and hit Ygramul like a hammer. In a wisp of blue and black she flew from the chamber as fast as she could, dragging her broken pride behind her.
"You will regret this!" She called back. "The Nightmare King! He comes!"
With Ygramul gone, light seemed to return to the square, but the ball was definitively over. All remained where they stood and every eye was on Adair. Some regarded her with fear, others with respect. The Eldest she could see gathered together, watching her with approval like they had expected nothing less. As one they glided across the floor to meet her.
"Not bad." said the Knight of the Hidden Thorn with admiration. "That's quite a bit of fight you have in you young lady."
"You heard what that thing said." The Lady of the Midnight Hour reminded, as though they needed reminding. "The Nightmare King's army will be closing in on the tower soon."
"They're close." said the Lady of the Waking Dream. "I can feel them on the fringes of the barrier. Their wishes and dark magic are letting them break through." She held her hand to her head as though she'd been seized by a migraine. The Knight of Awakening steadied her.
The Lady of Heaven's Grace with her kind blue eyes was calm and full of confidence, but she was not leading. She was looking to Adair.
"Adair Alicia Artemis, you've gathered the heroes of Fantasia. What do you propose we do now?"
Adair knew what she was waiting for, what all of them were waiting for. She looked around her until she found one of the rotating stages the musicians had performed on earlier. She gathered her skirt and let Atreyu help her onto it. She knew this needed to be fast before she came down off of the adrenaline coursing through her and she remembered how frightened of public speaking she was. Once more, her voice carried over the entire square and every Fantasian gathered could hear her as though she were standing beside them.
"Most of you are scared, I get that. I've been scared for a long time. Right now every nightmare in Fantasia is right outside ready to break through. But you know what? I'm not afraid anymore. I'm angry. And you should be too. Fantasia lost some great heroes today, and if we don't stop Volrac and his army, they're going to take the Fantasia you know away from you, away from Moon Child who has loved and protected each and every one of you. The nightmares think we're weak and scared and that's why they fight. They think it'll be easy. I plan to show them they're wrong. I'm done running from my nightmares! I'm going to look them in the eye and show them until they're the ones running scared!"
At the base of the stage near her feet, Atreyu turned to face the others and raised his fist in the air.
"For Fantasia!" he cried and led the others into a tumult of zeal and courage for the coming storm.
"For Fantasia!" they cried. "For Moon Child!" And so it was that Adair Alicia Artemis led Fantasia into battle.
The outer terraces provided a view of the landscape surrounding the Ivory Tower. From here, Jason could see the Cyclops Bright Argus and his army of apprentices scattering silver dust all over the grounds of the infinite garden as Iole had suggested. The mole people who followed him were digging small pockets of earth to fill with the hidden silver.
Jason couldn't see the dark army, but he knew they were not far. He didn't have the power the Lady of the Waking Dream possessed to sense them, but he was still aware of the frightening weight of their darkness closing in around them. He flexed his fingers and rolled his shoulder, trying to get used to moving in the new armor he'd been outfitted with. Iole had pulled out all the stops when she coerced Bright Argus to craft with the silver. He had taken the armor, but had chosen not to outfit himself with a silver blade. She had assured him that his sword was enchanted and would serve to wound the demons just as he'd done before. He wished he had her confidence.
"You look awesome." Adair commented when she arrived. He turned to face her and frowned when he noticed she wasn't armored as he was.
"You're wearing Meleah's tunic?"
She nodded. "Yeah. It's been with me all the way so far. I think it can stand up to whatever Volrac can throw at it."
"Except a sword. Adair, what if you're attacked?"
"Jason." She reminded him, holding up her hand which began to glow.
"Right, magic. I forgot."
"Are you both ready?" Atreyu asked as he and Deisha arrived. "The others will be here soon."
Jason frowned to find that both of their plains friends were wearing their usual leather tunics and leggings.
"Why didn't you two get new armor?" Atreyu opened his mouth to answer, but Jason held up a hand to stop him. "Wait don't tell me. Plains warrior honor right?"
"Besides, we're faster without it." Deisha remarked. "You're just going to get weighted down."
"I've been working out." he held up his arm as if to flex. To this, Deisha merely rolled her eyes.
In spite of their lack of armor, both Atreyu and Deisha were fully outfitted for battle. Both their quivers had been filled with silver tipped arrows. Deisha carried a new spear as tall as she was with both a head and shaft crafted from silver. At her waist were two new curved knives. Atreyu carried his sword which had been silver all along. Both of them had their dark hair drawn back and bound tight with leather cord.
"Say what you want about the cyclops." came a familiar voice. "But he works fast." Iole sat at the edge of the terrace's railing in the same jeans and cropped shirt she'd always worn. She carried no weapons and the battle may not have been coming at all for the look of ease she wore.
Jason sighed. "Am I the only one who thought to wear armor?"
Iole leaped down and stepped to Deisha's side, taking an arrow from her quiver. She held her arm in front of her and morphed its soft flesh into hardened white scales that plated her completely. With tremendous force she rammed the arrow into her plated arm, shattering it to pieces, including the silver tip. She dusted her hands off.
"A bit redundant, don't you think?" was her only reply.
What had made Jason feel confident and proud a moment ago now made him feel overdressed and foolish among his comrades. But he was to be reprieved, for they were joined at that moment by Hykrion, the only one of his fellows to don his old golden armor. Baloc the horned rockbiter thundered behind him.
"The children have gone with the others who won't be fighting into the catacombs of the tower." He explained with a note of sadness in his voice.
Adair frowned. "I really am sorry Hykrion."
Hykrion glowered. "Don't you dare start that now, not after what you said up there. I'm in this now whether I like it or not."
"That's his way of saying you can count on us." Baloc said in his deep grating voice.
"Aye. We'll send those monsters running back to the hole they crawled out of."
"Glad to hear it old man. I'd hate to have to pick up your slack." It was Bahzha who arrived with Ze'hara and the Plains Elder at his side. They were representing the Plains people.
"Just like old times right boys? Whoever takes out the most foes gets first rights to drinks when this is over." Hysbald came wheeling in behind them, Engywook and Urgl on his shoulder bickering all the while.
"I told you to go back to the catacombs with the other women and children!" Engywook griped at his wife.
"And just wait there while the two of you likely get yourselves blown up? I won't hear of it. You'll need me to patch your broken fool bodies up out there."
"There will be no blowing up! My inventions are foolproof!"
"Then you must be a bigger fool than I realized for how many times you've blown the roof of my hut!"
Engywook snarled. "Devilish old woman." He griped, conceding to his wife's stubbornness.
"I believe we're all here now Adair." It was the Lady of Heaven's Grace who had spoken. The Eldest had arrived, and Jason breathed a sigh of satisfaction to see that the Knights of the Eldest were outfitted in armor. "Have you decided on a strategy?"
Arriving just after the Eldest were Chiron and Gandarin as well as others from the Fantasian council Adair recognized.
"We have instructed our fellows to take command of their respective people." Chiron reported. "What would you have us do?"
To this Adair turned to the boy at her side. "Jason, I need your help."
Jason frowned. "Mine?"
She nodded. "All those hours of RPG's are about to pay off."
They each talked for a good long while and Jason asked every one of them a series of questions. Adair had informally selected him as her military adviser, so now he was assessing the skills of their allies. They discussed the various talents of the Fantasians who would be fighting with them, and also the various powers the members of the Eldest possessed (which were many). He found perhaps their most valuable asset in Atreyu who had laid siege to the tower before and knew which areas would be the most likely openings in its defenses.
"They'll have a long fight ahead of them just to reach the tower." Atreyu reasoned, "but when they do, this is the spot where they'll most likely break through." He pointed to the crude diagram of the tower Jason had scratched into the ground with his blade.
"Then we'll station ourselves here on the ridge above their assault. We can see the whole battle from up there and Adair can rain some crazy magic on them easily. The Lady of the Waking Dream should stay with us to give us updates on the battle."
The woman with long honey colored hair and rose red lips nodded and the Knight of Awakening placed a protective hand on her shoulder.
"Hysbald, you'll lead the sky troops and guard the upper terraces. Don't let anything through."
"I thought I was leading the sky troops." Iole questioned.
Adair spoke up. "Actually I have a special job for you. A good place to start on the offense would be to take out the Seekers. Their magic is what holds the entire army together. We could cripple the army if we run interference. You've hunted them longer than anyone else. What can you give us?"
Iole thought for a moment. "I probably won't be able to take them out like this, but I have an idea that can distract them. Nag is terrified of me. If I can keep its attention on running away from me, it won't be focusing on the battle. And if I get to eat him in the process," the dragon girl grinned eerily. "That's even better."
Adair shuddered at the thought. "Gross."
"Chiron, we need you to put together teams of healers." Jason continued. He was taking to this role with relative ease. "We'll need medical support. The Knight of the Unyielding and the Lady of the Unfailing will cover you."
The young boy and girl among the Eldest shared mischievous smiles. "Sounds like fun."
"And me?" Gandarin asked in his small but firm voice. He gazed up at Adair with his round blue eyes. "What would you have me do? It shames me to admit that I am far too old to be any use in a battle, but surely you don't expect me to remain idle while Fantasia's fate is decided."
Adair nodded slowly. "You have perhaps the most important task here. You must protect the little ones in the catacombs. If we fail, it falls to you to escape with them and get them far away from Volrac and the Circle of the Night." Her declaration hung in the air. While it was important to maintain hope, it would be wrong not to prepare for this most horrible, but still possible eventuality. Not to do so would have been thoughtless of the little ones they were protecting. Still it was a heavy thought to bear that in spite of all their power, all their effort, they might still lose.
Gandarin nodded in quiet acceptance. "And how will I know when the time is right?"
The Lady of the Undying Rose stepped to his side and took a petal from the rose in her hand.
"Here." She handed it to him. "If this petal wilts, you will know it is time to escape."
Gandarin took the petal solemnly. "I best make my way down there then. Who knows when they'll arrive." He shuffled his little feet away from them, but cast one last look behind him at Adair. "If ever I had doubts about you, about any of you, they were erased when you stood on that platform tonight. If anyone can save Fantasia, it's you Adair Alicia Artemis." And then he departed.
Adair watched him go sadly and thought back on the wish she had made that no matter what happened the Tuah would be safe. She hoped that now extended to the rest who were waiting below the tower while they carried on the fight out here.
"Lady of the Waking Dream, how much time do we have?"
"Not much. But they won't break through without warning. They want us to know they're coming. Like all nightmares, they wish to frighten us."
"It won't work." Atreyu said firmly.
"Of course it won't." The Lady smiled. "We have the most powerful magic on our side."
Adair nodded, feeling her heart begin to hammer in her chest. "Let's hope it's enough. We all have things to do. Let's get to our posts."
Atreyu clapped a hand on Jason's shoulder. "Don't forget our bet. If I slay more demons than you do, you have to leap into the coldest lake in Fantasia."
Jason stared back at him, doing his best to keep his face blank. Even as the other boy smiled back at him, totally unaware of the anger lying under the surface, the same image danced across Jason's eyes to taunt him. He could see the kiss he had shared with Adair as clearly as he had on the dance floor. There was much he wanted to say, to do to Atreyu that he kept reigned in. Now was not the time. He shook hands with Atreyu, clamping down with an iron grip.
"Same to you."
The Lady of the Waking Dream had been right about one thing. Volrac's army was not quiet about their entrance. With the darkness of night still closing in around the tower, pressing back against the city's lights, Adair couldn't see the army so much as feel that they were there, their collective wills hammering against the barrier of wishes that had kept them out of the infinite garden thus far. At this point she could practically hear their growling and gnashing of teeth, their fierce desire to break through and destroy everything in their path. This served to explain the Lady of the Waking Dream's apparent strain as she could feel them coming in.
Everyone in the tower that had chosen to fight was crowded around the outer terraces, the bulk of their forces facing the tower's west. Jason, Atreyu, and Deisha were at her side and in spite of how loud she felt their enemy advancing, all was deathly quiet. She felt her heart beating in rhythm to the coming battle and she felt that the waiting was worse than whatever Volrac's army could hit her with. Her eyes scanned below to the forces that had chosen to follow her and her heart ached as she wondered how many, if any would survive.
The silence was shattered all at once and Adair found that she wouldn't have minded waiting just a bit longer. The Lady of the Waking Dream shrieked loud enough for all to hear her.
"They've broken through!"
Now there was more than simply darkness in the night. She could see them all like a swarm of rats flooding through the infinite garden. The glowing red, yellow, and green eyes of the demons made them easy to see even at that distance because of how many there were. Some bounded ahead and tore through the labyrinth's hedges on all fours. Some were gigantic and lumbered on legs as large as tree trunks. Some flew over the infinite garden on shadowy wings.
"Hold your ground!" Jason called, reminding their troops that they were to wait for the demons to fall into their trap first. As it turned out, the first wave of demons was taken by the silver dust. Those who stepped on where it was buried found that it exploded into the air and scalded their flesh. Those who trampled it under their feet fell to the ground and shriveled away. The flying demons were choked by the clouds of silver dust that were kicked up. But the defense did not last. For every wave of demons that fell, two more rose up in their place. The creatures of darkness that led them were cunning and thanks to the medallions enchanted with Ygramul's venom, they could be in one place and then on the other side of the battlefield in the blink of an eye. This kept them able to command the demonic hoard at a safe distance. After the dark forces overcame the initial shock of the silver dust, they began to close in little by little on the Ivory Tower. The infinite garden was slowly being engulfed in a wave of black with thousands of glowing hate filled eyes.
"I believe that's our cue!" Falkor called out to Iole and his fellow luckdragons. Iole changed shape and the six dragons took off into the sky. Swooping over Volrac's forces, they unleashed a wave of fire, the Luckdragon's azure blue, Iole's burning gold. They created a wall of fire between the demons and the tower.
"Any sign of Volrac or the Seekers?" Adair asked the Lady of the Waking Dream.
"They're here." The Lady replied. "They just haven't shown themselves yet. I can sense a terrible evil on the fringes of the army's darkness, watching, waiting to strike like spiders."
Adair didn't like the sound of that. It painted a grim picture, like the entire bulk of the horde they were facing was nothing more than the web, and that the real monsters were merely reeling them in. They needed to deal with this and fast.
With a mighty crash the demons managed to breach the wall of fire, and though it slowed and killed many, these monsters were mindless and merely crashed against it again and again like waves upon rocks. They were advancing once more.
Bahzha raised his hand to signal the Plains people. "Archers on my mark!" He pointed forward. "Now!" The silver tipped arrows of the Plains archers shot into the air like starlight filling the night sky. They arced over them and rained down on the front lines of the dark army. Hykrion signaled the rockbiters who hurled boulders into the sky that crushed the demon's ranks. Any of their flying enemies were kept at bay and thrown off course either by the dragon's fire or by Hysbald and his flying forces. The songbird cannons he had built for them were doing an exceptional job at disorienting the winged demons.
Twinfang himself rode at the head of the flying demons and he and his followers attempted to rain fire and ice on the tower. Cackling witches flew overhead on their twisted broomsticks with hideous gargoyles at their command. Below them, the Knight of the Unyielding and the Lady of the Unfailing exchanged mischievous grins before joining hands. They leaped high into the air, spinning in a circle around their joined hands. In their other hands they each held a toy; he a wooden sword, she a carved wand. They spun their toy weapons around them, and wherever they waved them, the spells of their enemies either flew back the way they had come, or shattered harmlessly. This was their power. The magic of witches was nothing to them, and they took to fighting black magic like playing pranks, giggling all the while.
The first of the army had reached the base of the tower at last. It was time for their ground forces to defend themselves.
"Our turn." The Lady of Heaven's Grace signaled for her fellows. The Knight of Heaven's Charm was at her side. Like the royalty Adair knew them to be they marched to the front with the Lady of the Midnight Hour and the Knight of the Tomorrow's Promise.
The Lady of Heaven's Grace closed her eyes and stretched her fingers outward. A howling wind poured out of the sky, and with it came a fierce snow storm. Her Knight rode forward on a white horse, undeterred by the cold, able to see in the harshest parts of the storm. With lance in hand he skewered the enemies that were caught in the wake of his lady's power.
Adair knew this was her cue to join the battle. Remembering the rage she had felt earlier at Ygramul, and the power that surged within her, fueled by her wish to protect the tower, she let all of her restraint go. She allowed all her power to flood through like a crashing tide. Fantastic lights of all colors were flying out of the tower now, dancing like fire and swirling like a storm. They blinded and hurled the demons in their wake, tossing them aside like rag dolls and burning them to cinders as they went. They rained down on the dark army like hail and for a moment they were driving the demons back with magic alone.
But on the far edge of the battle, the servants of evil had yet to unleash their darkest weapon. Watching the battle from afar with his telescope, seated comfortably on a litter of cushions, Thoth gestured to Nag.
"M'dear Nag, I believe it's time."
Nag grinned with its crooked fangs. It raised its claw-tipped hands skyward and rammed its palms into the ground. The entire infinite garden rumbled and quaked, and from Nag's fingertips a dreadful thing sprouted and spread from the ground. Great twisted vines and branches of sharp thorns tore up from the ground, corrupting everything it touched and covering the ground with rolling gray mist as it went. The Circle of the Night had brought the Forest of Thorns itself with them. The dark magic it was forged from began to create a sort of cover for the demons and stopped Adair's light from annihilating them. Even the snow storm had been negated. The Eldest who had marched to the front were caught in it as it began to encroach upon the tower's very walls. Like enormous skeletal fingers, the branches of the forest grasped the walls and began to break through. With the forest came more demons, breaching their defenses. Now Adair's army was fighting hand to hand with the army of darkness.
Adair searched frantically for the Lady of Heaven's Grace and the other Eldest who had gone with her. The Knight of Awakening looked to his lady who merely nodded to him.
"Go find them."
The Knight leaped gallantly off the railing of the terrace and landed directly onto one of the forest's thorny branches. He slid down its length on its feet and leaped into the air, bounding branch after twisted branch until he reached where his fellows had last been seen. Then he reached for the sword at his waist and leaped high into the air. His blade shown like the sun and cut through the darkness, shattering the canopy of the Forest of Thorns. He found the Lady of Heaven's Grace and the Knight of Heaven's Charm waiting for him at the forest floor surrounded by a host of hellish demons, but holding their own.
The Knight of Heaven's Charm flashed him a grin. "Nice to see you haven't lost a step with that sword of yours."
"You must be joking." The other knight shot back. "Traipsing through darkened woods full of monsters and witches? This is old hat to us is it not?"
"Indeed." Replied the Lady of Heaven's Grace.
"Everyone alright?" It was the Lady of the Midnight Hour accompanied by her knight.
"That depends on your definition of alright my lady." The Knight of Awakening responded, turning with his gleaming sword to form a circle with the others. The demons began to close in on them. They were hideous bloated gargling creatures with blank yellow eyes and jagged teeth. The Creature of Darkness who led them, a goblin warlord by the name of Hooktooth rode into view astride a giant wolf.
"Well, well, well, look what we have here." He crooned in his gravelly voice. "A couple of little princesses and their little prince-lings who've lost their way in our woods. Put that sword of yours away. Not even its light can pierce this forest. The darkness rules here!"
"He has a point." said the Lady of Heaven's Grace. "My power over nature holds little sway here. This forest is far too twisted for my liking."
"Dear Knight and Lady," said the Knight of Awakening, keeping his defensive stance as he spoke to the Lady of the Midnight Hour and the Knight of Tomorrow's Promise. "Now might be an ideal time to employ your little trick."
The Knight of Tomorrow's Promise smiled at his lady. "Shall we dance my love?"
The Lady of the Midnight Hour nodded. "I'll hold onto this moment for as long as I can."
"No tricks Eldest! You rule these lands no longer! Get them!" On Hooktooth's command the host of demons lunged, then all at once they stopped. Their movement slowed as though they were swimming through invisible water. The Knight of Tomorrow's Promise on the other hand was now moving at lightning speed with rapier in hand. In the blink of an eye he dashed from one foe to the other. His lady all the while watched him with widened eyes as she held her concentration. None of the others gained the same speed, for this power to loosen the hold of time was one she could use only on her beloved.
In moments each and every yellow eyed demon was down. As Hooktooth shrieked in outrage, the Knight of Heaven's Charm used the opportunity to charge forward on his steed. With his silver lance he charged head on at Hooktooth, burying his pole-arm into the wolf's hide. The goblin was thrown from his steed where a fearsome cold wind closed in around him, plating him completely in ice. The Lady of Heaven's Grace nodded with satisfaction.
With the immediate danger gone, time went back to its natural order while the Lady of the Midnight Hour slumped to her knees, breathing heavily. The Knight of Tomorrow's Promise dashed to her side and brushed her blond curls from her face.
"Can't rest yet my love. The battle's not over."
"Just catching my breath." she said through ragged breathing.
"I can see why you don't use it that often." The Knight of Awakening remarked, impressed by her power. "Father Time has a nasty right hook doesn't he."
The Knight of Heaven's Charm trotted back to his comrades. "What about your lady? How does she fare?"
In response, the Knight of Awakening held up his shining sword. "Still with Adair, but her power holds. So long as we're out here, she'll light the way for us just as she always has."
Back within the Ivory Tower's walls overlooking the battle, the Lady of the Waking Dream breathed a sight of relief and told Adair of what had just transpired.
"They're safe." She assured her.
"Let's go down there now." Atreyu urged them, tired of remaining on the sidelines.
"No not yet." The Lady shook her head. "We shall need you when these Witches called the Seekers enter the fray. I cannot sense the Nightmare King, but I can feel the Seekers preparing to make their move."
Adair strained her energy to see if she too could sense the puppet masters of the attack. It was no use. The darkness of the forest was too strong for her to pierce. She knew the Lady was right, all the same she hated standing by, and she knew Atreyu was in agony not being able to go and help his tribesmen. By now the Plains people were also becoming engulfed in the forest as it stretched its branches over the outer walls of the tower and into the grounds themselves. Waves of demons were pouring out of them and into the courtyards. She could see that the Plains Warriors had discarded their bows in favor of swords and spears and clubs. They were fierce fighters who put their whole hearts into each and every attack, like they carried the hopes of Fantasia on the tips of their blades. She saw Atreyu quiver with worry and frustration as the thorns of the forest closed in around his people. She placed her hand on his.
"It'll be alright. Without the Seekers around, the forest will disappear."
They did not have long to wait. The Lady of the Waking Dream had been spot on with her prediction of the Circle of the Night. With the army and the forest at last within the tower itself, Thoth and Nag were free to roam the dark woods.
"Do you think Fay's used the key yet?" Nag asked.
"If she had, the battle would have been over by now wouldn't it." Thoth stated blandly.
"What do you suppose is taking her so long? She went into the tower with those two assassins hours ago."
"In any event, she's on her own now. Ah here we are. This tree should suffice." Thoth declared as they reached an exceptionally thick tree in the midst of the woods. "This should do nicely." From his pocket he withdrew a piece of chalk and began to etch a magic circle into the blackened trunk.
"Is this really the time to play with your toys with that thing flying around?" Nag complained.
"With that beast in pursuit of us, now is the perfect time to employ my latest device. We may only be the distraction, but by the darkness I will give Fantasia one devil of a show." When he had completed the array, he held his hand flat. From the filthy sleeve of his coat, a small metal something crawled into his palm. It looked much like a spider made of cogs, springs, hooks, and wire. With a whisper of instruction, the metal spider leaped from his hand and into the center of the magic circle. Then it extended its legs and pierced the trunk with them, creating a hole and slicing cleanly through until a great cavity remained in the tree's center, large enough for Thoth to climb inside. But now in place of wood there was a metal lined chamber. Switches and levers jutted from its walls.
Thoth positioned himself inside and took hold of the levers. Nag watched on with a frown.
"Any chance I could squeeze in there with you?"
"And share the spotlight?" Thoth asked sounding mildly insulted. "Never. This is my armor. If you're so concerned about becoming dragon food, go and find your own. Farewell m'dear. Now watch and tremble Fantasia as you learn just what my imagination is capable of."
With a terrible screeching and crashing of iron and wood, the tree Thoth was in rose and grew to tremendous size. Now it had grown so much that Adair and the others could see it. The trunk became a plated torso while its branches turned and twisted to create long tentacles that sprouted from its back. From the sides of its trunk came two massive arms with cruel hooked thorns on the knuckles of its twisted fingers. Its roots sprang from the ground and became legs like that of the spider that had carved it open. And at the crown of the trunk came a face from nightmares with empty burning red eyes. Smoke poured from those eyes that burned with fire. Flames spewed from its maw which was lined all along its outside with angular jaws. The new monstrosity of forest and machine lumbered through the woods and into the tower's courtyard. When it reached the tower itself, it latched onto its glittering walls with the tentacles on its back and began to climb.
Atreyu looked on in horror as Thoth's machine started to climb the Ivory Tower.
"What is that thing?"
Jason merely sighed. "Thoth would bring a mech. Adair can you hit it from here?"
Adair focused and channeled her energy as she had before when she'd rained destruction on the demons. The shining wave of power washed over it, but rather than burning to cinders, the nightmarish machine caged it with the tentacles on its back, condensing it into a gigantic orb. Then with a fling of its branches sent Adair's power flying right back at them. They ducked as it exploded into the tower, but it hit too fast and too strong. With an explosion of debris, Adair and everyone nearby was thrown backwards. Through a haze, Adair felt Atreyu pulling her to her feet. The entire square they'd been standing in had been fissured until it was unrecognizable and shattered marble was strewn all about.
"Are you alright?"
She coughed the dust from her throat. "I'm fine. Is everyone okay?"
With some effort, Jason emerged from beneath the rubble and shook himself off. Deisha was helping the Lady of the Waking Dream who seemed remarkably unscathed despite being thrown. The Lady of the Unfailing and the Knight of the Unyielding were the only ones who had remained on their feet.
"It's no good." Atreyu said with dismay. "It seems Thoth armed it to repel magic."
Jason nodded. "Then to take out the mech, we need to take out its pilot. Come on." he motioned. "We need to get to higher ground and stop that thing. Lady can you find us a quick path to head it off?"
The Lady of the Waking Dream nodded. "Yes, but follow me quickly. I don't know what he plans, but at this rate he'll reach the Ivory Garden before our forces can put a scratch on him."
"We'll come too!" The Lady of the Unfailing cried. "We know a trick to get in."
"Good." Deisha said, hefting her spear. "Looks like we'll need all the help we can get."
"Let's go!" Jason took off ahead with the others at his heels.
Adair took position in the back to cover them, but stopped short. A strange chill had just seized her chest, that feeling you get when you can't explain how you know, but you are certain that something is terribly amiss. Without knowing why, she looked up. High above her, stalking their way through the upper levels of the tower she saw them. Because she knew them she spotted them right away. Terrified Fantasians were fleeing past them while Thoth's machine shook the tower, and they paid them no mind. They drew no suspicion for they were not demons, nor were they creatures of darkness. But Adair knew from experience that they were not friends either. Side by side, the Knight of the Burning Dawn and the Lady of the Evening Star were making their way up the tower, he in his shining silver armor with his morningstar resting over his shoulder, and she with her long white cloak flapping behind her. Adair clenched her fist so hard her fingernails broke the skin of her palms when she saw that another followed behind them, this one much smaller than they. Fay had forsaken her black attire and striped stockings for a pure white thigh-length gown with long billowing sleeves. Whatever the reason for her new wardrobe, Adair neither realized nor cared. All she could see was the hateful little Witch she had always been.
The surety with which she and her bodyguards made their way upward made Adair realize what was happening. They went discretely and unnoticed. She couldn't guess at the exact nature of their mission, but she knew from how quietly they went that Thoth was merely a distraction. The true intentions of the Circle of the Night were being enacted by Fay.
"Adair, come on! They're leaving us behind!" Deisha called to her. She took her hand and tried to pull her along, but Adair stayed transfixed on the invading trio. She pointed and Deisha saw but did not recognize them.
"Who are they?"
"The short one's Fay, the Seeker of Love. The other two tried to kill us in the Forest of Thorns. I have to stop them."
Deisha nodded. "Then I'm coming with you."
"No you can't. Atreyu and Jason need your help against Thoth. They'll need everyone to bring that thing down. Don't worry, I can handle Fay. Hurry and get to the others!" She tried to see their companions, but they had taken off at such speed that they were losing sight of them completely in the chaos. "Tell them not to worry about me. I'll join you as soon as I can."
Not wanting to argue further, Deisha simply nodded. "We'll come help you when it's over." She squeezed Adair's hand tightly and Adair squeezed back. They both knew full well this could be the last time they saw each other. Deisha took off at a run.
She knew she could not reach her quarry fast enough on foot. Not thinking about what she was doing Adair lifted her fingers to her mouth and whistled. The faithful gallop of hooves heralded Arian's arrival. Her steed had ridden loyally from the stables and straight to her at her call. With more grace than she knew she had, and with far more confidence than her first ride, Adair swept her leg into the stirrup of the saddle and swung herself onto her horse's back. Together they rode at full speed to save the tower.
Meanwhile, with Fay already within the tower, and Thoth scaling its walls, it fell to Nag to maintain the Forest of Thorns, a job much easier said than done when being pursued by a cadre of Luckdragons and a fierce White Dragon that was spitefully burning each and every clearing the Witch-beast fled to. Nag swung through the branches like a monkey and slipped into another grove to catch its breath. The fire from the dragons' breath was licking the branches around its hiding place. It thought frantically of a way to save itself. Then an idea came to it. It closed its eyes and reached out with its primal thoughts to another creature tied to the forest.
A shrill whistling of beating wings buzzed around Nag as Ygramul the Many filled the grove with her ever changing body. Her one red eye centered on Nag.
"You summoned us great Nag?"
Nag grinned with its canine teeth. "Yes as a matter of fact I did. I need a favor."
"Anything great Nag. There is no foe we cannot slay with our poison. We can protect you from anyone..." She trailed off. "Well, anyone but the human Adair Alicia Artemis. Her magic is too great even for us."
Nag shook its head. "No, no, don't worry. Nothing like that. But I do need protection." It emerged from the thicket it hid in and strode casually until it was directly in front of Ygramul's red eye. "Protection from someone far more dangerous than Adair." As Nag spoke, it hid one of its clawed hands behind its back. Its crisscrossing tattoos snaked their way to its fingers and covered its arm in a thick black substance, like tar.
The collective of Ygramul's body rippled with shivers. "More dangerous than the human?" She cried in her shrill voice. "How can Ygramul accomplish that?"
Nag chuckled. "Oh I have a few ideas." Then without warning, Nag thrust its new slick black hand into the heart of the monster. With lightning speed it grasped its fingers around the heart of Ygramul and began to pull it out.
"Great Nag!" Ygramul rasped as though she were being choked. "Why? Why do you do this to us? Are we not loyal?" The insects began to swarm round and round in protest, but with Nag's fingers on her heart, there was nothing Ygramul the Many could do to stop it.
"It's nothing personal Ygramul." Nag soothed as it began to pull the monster's heart from within the mass of insects. "I just don't wish to become the Dragon's lunch. Sooooo..." Then at last Nag drew it out. In its hand it held Ygramul's heart, a bright crimson beetle that pulsed with blood red light, the queen of the rest of her body. "You're going to become mine."
Without another word, Nag slipped the beetle into its mouth. The thousands of insects swirled faster still around Nag as its laughter echoed through the grove. And soon Nag's laughter was joined by the cackling of thousands of others. The insects laughed with it.
Jason's group dashed through the tower and came directly on where Hykrion was stationed with his rockbiter companions.
"What the devil is that thing?" Hykrion bellowed, his face as red as a turnip. "My boys did everything we could to block its advance, but the bloody thing just kept climbing!"
"We're taking care of it." Jason assured him. The entire time he'd run he had kept his hand on the hilt of the sword strapped to his back. "Right now Bahzha's unit needs your help. The lower levels of the tower were consumed by the forest. The Plains people are surrounded down there. We'll deal with Thoth."
Hykrion nodded. Though he wanted to stay and fight such a worthy opponent, his comrade was in danger. The old Hykrion would have chosen glory over friendship, but that now went against what he knew to be more important.
"You heard him boys! Let's get down there and show these monsters what Hykrion the Marauder and his gang of rockbiter brutes can do!"
They parted ways and the group was about to continue their quest upward, but the brief stop to catch their breath had allowed Atreyu to take notice of what he hadn't before.
When he heard this, Jason also took notice. "I thought she was right behind you!"
Deisha shook her head. "Typical boys. You seriously just noticed she was missing?"
Atreyu took her firmly by both shoulders. "Where is she? What happened?"
Deisha shook him off. Though she knew there was too much at stake right now for her to worry about her personal feelings, the worry in Atreyu's dark eyes and the forcefulness he used to demand Adair's whereabouts cut her deeply.
"She has something to do. She said she'd come help us when she was done."
"She's right." The Lady of the Waking Dream interjected. "I can feel her racing to the top of the tower chasing something very important. You'll have to meet her when you are finished with the Witch's machine."
Jason didn't like the way she said that. "Aren't you coming with us?"
She shook her head and her long blond tresses swished as she did. "I have reached the end of my power here. If I go any further, I won't be able to guide my Knight out of the darkness. Unyielding and Unfailing will have to go with you in my stead."
"Will you be alright here by yourself?" Atreyu asked, his chivalry showing clearly.
Jason agreed. "Yeah, I mean this spot will be overrun with demons soon."
The Lady of the Waking Dream stood resolute. "I'll simply have to trust my Knight will find me soon. Our power is to cut through any darkness as long as we're together."
The Knight of the Unyielding beamed at them. "Don't worry about her. She can take care of herself."
"They're right, we have to hurry." Deisha pressed them. Without another word, Jason led them on.
The battle had reached the inside of the tower. Now full-out war was being waged both within and without. Fantasians of all kinds were battling the Creatures of Darkness and the demons who followed them. On the ground, Bahzha and the Plains People were joined by Hykrion and his rockbiters.
"Just like old times, eh Hydorn?" Hykrion laughed uproariously as he cleaved his silver greatsword through another demon, fighting back to back with his old comrade.
"I told you that's not my name anymore." Bahzha protested, pinning another demon with his spear. "How's Hysbald holding up?"
In the skies, Hysbald and the fliers behind him were keeping Twinfang's forces at bay. Urgl and Engywook manned the songbird cannon. But it could not do much against Twinfang's fire and ice.
"Hold on you two!" Hysbald cried as he swerved evasively.
"I think I'm going to be sick!" Engywook moaned, clinging tightly to Hysbald's shoulder.
"Here!" Urgl called, pulling a remedy flask from the folds of her skirt.
Her husband batted it away. "Now is not the time for your nonsense woman!"
And their battle was not the only one lighting the skies. Iole and the luckdragons had a new threat to face. Ygramul the many had emerged from the forest canopy in a swirling black mass, and a new voice came from its center.
"How do you like me now White Dragon!" Nag taunted, held aloft in the center of the great mass. "Now I'm a shape-shifter too!" Ygramul's body was monstrous, easily larger than the dragons four times over. Not only that, it was difficult for their fiery breath to strike its ever changing body. At times Nag would change it into a great hand to catch one of them and squeeze.
"Come on bite! Bite you worthless insects!" Nag cursed its inability to use Ygramul's poison. As luck would have it, Nag was not adept enough with Ygramul's body to employ her deadly venom. But that did not stop it from lashing out at the dragons.
"I can't pierce the center." Iole growled in frustration, flying next to Falkor.
"No one said this fight would be easy." Falkor winked. "But with a little luck I think we can give you a clear shot."
"That's your answer for everything!"
"Hasn't steered me wrong yet. Trust me."
Galloping at full speed, Adair could at last see her target. They had been easier to track than she had expected. Along the way she had seen the horrors of Fay's magic at work. She had turned the hearts of Fantasians against themselves. Wherever they had been she had found them swallowed by anger, frozen by their fear, or broken completely by regret. She had even passed a laughing nymph whose run in with Fay's dark magic had left her so gray and weary that she would never laugh again.
They were nearly to the council chamber. The fighting had not reached here yet, and the many pathways were completely empty. She was now close enough to them to see that Fay carried something with her. Strapped to her back was a long ovular case of black wood almost as long as she was. She grasped AURYN tightly and used her power to silence the beating of Arian's hooves, readying her hand to snatch whatever it was. Unfortunately, Fay turned just in time to leap out of the way of her charge, as did her bodyguards. Arian skidded to a halt and turned so Adair could face them down. She swung herself off her saddle and whispered to Arian to leave, not wanting him in the line of fire. As always, her horse did as she commanded.
Dawn and Star flanked Fay with their weapons at the ready, but Adair's eyes were locked with Fay's. Those cold reflective blue eyes stared back into Adair's with that same cat-like mix of boredom and curiosity that they had carried that day in the bookshop when she had tricked her into reading the Neverending Story. Just as she had then, the Witch was watching her, waiting curiously to see what she would do, as if she were hoping for something exciting. Shy of Volrac himself, Adair hated this girl more intensely than she had ever despised anyone.
"You've grown much stronger." Star remarked, sounding genuinely impressed.
Dawn leveled his spiked morningstar with her head. "But not even you are powerful enough to stand against all three of us, Mirror of the Empress."
Adair ignored them as her hands started to glow with gold and purple light.
"No, but with us she can." came a voice from behind her. The entrance to the council chamber was at her back, and emerging from its doorway was the Lady of the Undying Rose and the Knight of the Hidden Thorn.
"So it is true." The Knight of the Hidden Thorn spat. "You two have forsaken Fantasia."
"And the two of you are here to stand in our way." Dawn grimaced. "And why doesn't that surprise me?"
"I came to see if your hearts could be changed." The Lady of the Undying Rose shook her head sadly. "But I see now that it was a waste. You two are as stubborn and immovable as you've always been."
"You've always been obsessed with change Rose." Star hissed. "You can't pull our strings like you do on your dog there."
The Knight of the Hidden Thorn growled. "She did not change me. She brought out the good that was already there, an effort that is clearly wasted on petulant children like you."
The meaning of this exchange was enough to break Adair's intense concentration on her enemy. At last she pieced together who Dawn and Star really were.
"Dawn and Star? You're part of the Eldest?"
"We were." Dawn admitted darkly. "We are among the oldest stories in Fantasia, and love has bound us together through the ages. But unlike these hypocrites, our love has been torn away from us again and again, and there is never a thing we can do about it. We are always fated to be parted."
Star's face fell at this declaration and Adair could see memories of sadness that spanned untold ages play across her eyes. "Until now. Whatever becomes of Fantasia is not our concern. We will cross the threshold to the human world. There our love will be our own."
"Even if it risks the death of every hope and dream of mankind?" Rose pleaded. "Even if you succeed, you'll be going to a dead world without color, without love."
"We are done worrying about the dreams of humans. When have they ever cared about ours?"
"It is not your place to dream!" Thorn shouted. "Whether you acknowledge it or not, your story carries hope for humans!"
"What would either of you know about it?" Star cried. "You have never lived with tragedy like we have!"
"Have you already forgotten Star?" There was another voice now. Dawn and Star whirled to face the Lady of Two Worlds and the Knight of the Other Side. The red haired lady was smiling as always, but her smile was a sad one, like the look of a mother struggling to help a wayward child see the consequences of their stubbornness. "Our story began as a tragedy as well."
The Knight of the Other Side smiled as well. "I may have been too dense to see what was right in front of me, but she never gave up on me, and you two shouldn't give up either."
"We're not." Dawn stated, though it was apparent that his resolve was being sorely tested by this confrontation. "We're simply trying another way."
Rose sighed. "Is there nothing we can do to sway your course before you destroy yourselves?"
Dawn met her eyes in turn, then in a flash he hurled his heavy morningstar at the wall beside them. It tore a gaping hole through the marble. Without looking back he barked an order to Fay.
"Go Witch! You have a job to do!" Fay passed wordlessly through the new opening. She was gone before Adair could do anything to stop her. Dawn lifted his gaze back to Rose. "Let that be your answer."
Rose shook her head. "I'm sorry it had to come to this. Lady of Two Worlds, Knight of the Other Side, it's about time to use that last resort Jason spoke of. Head to the lower squares now."
The two Eldest joined hands and left to perform their dreaded task. Rose motioned to Adair.
"It's time for you to do what you came all this way to do. Stop the Seeker of Love. Dawn, Star, your fight is with us."
Dawn and Star readied their weapons, but made no move to hinder Adair. They remained intent on their self appointed opponents. "We're ready."
For reasons only those who have been in love can understand, Rose's eyes were filled with tears as she placed her hand on the side of her Knight's face.
"I'm ready." He assured her.
She nodded and kissed him tenderly. Then she stepped behind him. As he turned to face Dawn and Star, she waved the rose in her hand. Three red petals fell from its blossom and alighted on Thorn's shoulder. The moment they touched him, they began to glow. The Knight of the Hidden Thorn fell to his knees and roared fiercer than any monster. Before Adair's eyes he began to change. His body grew and dark fur sprouted from his skin, covering him until he was unrecognizable. Horns sprouted from the crown of his head, and fangs and claws grew where there had been none. The Knight now stood tall enough to brush the ivory ceiling above them. Without warning he lunged Dawn and Star. As they battled, it was plain to see that his strength and speed was even greater than theirs, and his ferocity was unmatched. In spite of his bestial nature, Adair found herself entranced by the primal beauty of the way he fought until Rose called her back to her senses.
"Go!" The Lady shrieked with tears streaming down her face. "Go now and end this!"
Without waiting to be told again, Adair dashed into the council chamber, hoping to beat Fay to the Ivory Garden where she was sure to find her.
Jason, Atreyu, Deisha, and their two Eldest companions were faced with untold difficulty reaching the terrace where Thoth's construct was still climbing. Aside from fighting past every demon that had reached that point, the explosions from all the chaotic magic that was being hurled between the two sides rocked the entire tower. More than once they had to leap out of the way of falling debris, or catch their balance from the unrelenting tremors. Together they hurtled over rubble and other obstacles. Their greatest challenge was when they at last reached the sections of the tower Thoth was actually climbing. The branch-like tendrils that had latched onto the tower wall had broken through the walls themselves.
"Look out!" Deisha cried as she used the pole of her spear to sweep Jason's legs out from under him. Ducking for cover herself, she barely avoided being hit as the machine's tentacle tore through the wall they had been running alongside. They rolled to the side to avoid being crushed by its weight. Getting back to their feet, they could see that the long thorny branch was far thicker than they had imagined. It took up almost the entire passageway. The thorns along its length were now as long as a man's arm.
"This thing is huge." Jason said.
Atreyu nodded. "I'm not looking forward to seeing what it's attached to."
"Well it's now or never." Jason motioned them to follow and they dashed to the edge of the balcony. From here they saw it climbing higher and higher. It's blazing eyes were staring up at them and its flaming maw was open as if waiting for them to jump in.
Jason gripped the hilt of his sword ever tighter. "Lucky blade don't fail me now." He addressed the others. "We wait for only a second more, then we get a running start. Should land right on it."
"Are you nuts?" Deisha shouted.
Atreyu shook his head. "It's not as hard as it sounds."
"Wait for it..." Jason held his hand up, waiting for the monstrosity to get just a little higher. It pulled itself another few floors up along the outside. "Wait for it..." It latched its tentacles onto a higher point and pulled again. "Wait for it..." When it released its hold and readied to reach higher, Jason jumped back. "Now!" The five of them dashed forward and leaped from the edge. With movement that had come with practice on the part of Jason and Atreyu, they landed on their feet, then transferred their weight to roll and absorb the impact of the fall. Deisha's landing was not executed as well. She ended up on her side, but managed to escape unharmed. The Lady of the Unfailing and the Knight of the Unyielding landed easily. Once they had regrouped, their weapons were unsheathed.
Suddenly, the construct stopped its advance. With a great hissing, and a cloud of steam, the head rolled backwards, opening with a deafening screech. A pod emerged and at its controls, Thoth smiled at them.
"Well this is unexpected. Tell me, where is our dear Miss Artemis? I thought she would be with you. Well no matter. I'll have plenty of time for her later. I had so hoped you would be here Jason old boy. How are you and my little beauty getting along?" Thoth eyed Jason's blade critically. "My, you seem to have grown together. Have you discovered some kind of hidden power? Can't wait to put it to the test. As you can see, the odds are quite stacked against you here. Should give you plenty of room to make a miracle. How about it old boy? Ladies, gentleman, feel free to join in the fun. The more the merrier."
With a pull of the levers, the pod rose from the cavity in the machine's neck. Eight vines as thick around as a man sprouted from its sides and lifted it out. Thorns jutted all along their length. They swayed back and forth like whips, and some even had cruel blunt ends designed to smash enemies to pieces. Others had tools like drills and spinning buzz-saws secured to their ends.
Jason motioned to the Lady of the Unfailing and the Knight of the Unyielding. "There's your entrance. Get in there and do your thing."
"It might take us a while to find the engine." The Knight of the Unyielding admitted. "He probably has lots of demons guarding the inside."
"Don't worry. We'll keep him busy. Wait for him to attack, then break for the entrance."
Thoth's attack came swiftly. At the pod's base were levels of rotating spiked disks that spun so rapidly it allowed him to glide along the surface of the construct. The vines whipped back and forth, trying to catch them in their grip or smash them with their ends. Jason, Atreyu and Deisha ran alongside it, leaping out of the way of its strikes, deflecting them with their weapons. But Thoth was moving too fast for them to get near. The Knight of the Unyielding and the Lady of the Unfailing used the opportunity to leap into the entrance.
As Jason ducked underneath one of the vines, he swung his lucky blade upward and sliced it off at the middle. To his dismay the appendage merely grew back.
"Fay is going to be quite upset she missed this one. You see, this handsome little number is made from pieces of the Forest of Thorns." Thoth lectured as though he were teaching a class. "Which as you know is made from fear and regret. And fear is the opposite of the hope your sword runs off m'dear Jason. So do put up a good fight and give me plenty of data for her. This is going to be fascinating."
Frigid winds were swirling all around the Ivory Garden and dark clouds had begun to gather around it, blotting out the stars of the night sky. It was eerily quiet, the billowing wind being the only sound. The Magnolia Pavilion stood closed. No light shone from between its ivory petals like it did on Adair's first visit. Everything about this place seemed less than it had been. The trees and flowers carved from ivory seemed to droop with sadness or exhaustion. The ivory animals had their heads lowered mournfully.
Just as a head of dark hair came into view around the trunk of an ivory tree, a blast of gold and purple light shot straight for her at blinding speed. With the palm of her porcelain white hand, Fay deflected the attack. It exploded against one of the other trees, shattering it to smithereens. The Witch turned her icy blue eyes on Adair who stood with her glowing hands outstretched.
"You still can't hit me as long as anger fuels your strikes." Fay said flatly.
Now that it was only the two of them, Adair could take a closer look at the white thigh-length dress she was wearing and take in its meaning, a meaning that only infuriated her further. Anyone who had ever been fortunate enough to come face to face with the Childlike Empress would have understood the despicable intentions Fay had when she paraded here in the ivory garden, wearing a dress of pure white lace with floral patterns outlined over it. Here at the center of the center of all Fantasia stood a usurper.
"That thing on your back." Adair growled. "Give it to me."
Fay shook her head slightly, not even moved by the venom in the girl's voice. "No." This confirmed her suspicion that it was important to their plans.
"What is it?" she demanded.
"It's the key to the Nightmare King's ending. You want it, you'll have to do better than anger. You'll have to hit me with the Strongest Magic."
Adair shrieked and hurled another blast of light at her. Fay tossed it to the side with ease, taking another piece of the ivory garden with it.
"You're stronger than last time. You've found it, I know you have. Show me what it can do."
"I am not your lab rat!" She threw another force of magic. This time Fay vanished before it could touch her. She was nowhere to be found.
"You want it, you'll have to come and get it." Fay's voice seemed to be echoing from all directions. Adair's eyes darted from side to side. She turned frantically in an attempt to locate her. "The angrier and more frightened you get..." Adair screamed as a fierce burning struck her in the back so hard it knocked her to her knees. "The stronger my spells become."
Grinding her teeth against the pain from the shock waves Fay had just sent into her, Adair struggled to her feet. She flung her hands to her sides, calling her power back into her fingertips.
"This is mine. This is my anger, my heart, and you don't get to use it against me." The clouds around the tower grew darker and thunder began to roll across the sky. Lightning rained down on the ivory garden, shattering trees and plants and animals alike. Each time Fay's hiding place was discovered, she would vanish again. "How does it feel to be the one running for once Fay?"
Within the tower, The Lady of the Waking Dream stood proud and tall, even as a cadre of demons closed in on her. She had not tried to run from where Jason and the others had left her. She looked her attackers in the eye as they closed in on her. Just as they were about to leap, a flash of light consumed them. They fell to the ground cleaved in half, as though the light had cut them in two. Their twisted bodies that could not bleed vanished in clouds of smoke. When the smoke cleared, the Knight of Awakening ran to his Lady's side, sheathing his magnificent sword and kissing her gently.
"I got here as quickly as I could my love. Are you alright?"
Behind him came the Knight of Heaven's Charm astride his white horse with the Lady of Heaven's Grace riding side-saddle behind him. The Lady of the Midnight Hour came after them leaning on the Knight of Tomorrow's Promise.
"That was very brave of you Lady, letting your Knight venture into the forest to rescue us."
"I only did what needed to be done." She answered stoically.
"Where are Adair and the others?" The Lady of Heaven's Grace asked.
"Adair went on alone to the Ivory Garden to face the one called Fay. The others are fighting the monster climbing the tower. I sent the little ones with them. But we need to get to the lower levels and gather our forces in one place."
"Why is that?"
The Lady of the Waking Dream looked very grave. "Because I felt the Lady of Two Worlds and the Knight of the Other Side heading down there."
The Lady of the Midnight Hour seemed to find her strength then. Her eyes were wide. "Do they mean to use the last resort?"
"I'm afraid so."
The Knight of Heaven's Charm rounded his horse to speak to the Lady of the Midnight Hour and the Knight of Tomorrow's Promise. "You two need to get to the catacombs and evacuate the ones hiding down there. Lady, use as much of your power as you can to make sure you make it in time. The rest of us will round up our troops."
"What about Adair and the others?"
"This is their fight now. As far as the Seekers, I'm afraid they're on their own. Lady of the Waking Dream, We'll need you to send out the signal."
The Lady nodded, knowing what she had to do. Her Knight took his place behind her, taking her gently in his arms to support her as she closed her eyes. All around the outside of the tower came great flashes of light. It was as if six burning stars had descended from the heavens in a circle and alighted upon the walls of the tower.
In the sky, the light disoriented the flying demons under Twinfang's command. Hysbald seized the chance to flip another switch on his chair. A length of rope with two shot-puts secured to its ends spun through the air and wrapped around Twinfang, hurling him backward before he had a chance to regain his balance. He cried out with his two voices as he fell to the ground, never to be heard from in Fantasia again.
Far below on the raging battleground, all the Fantasians still fighting the demons saw it.
Hykrion looked up with dismay. "Is that what I think it is?"
Bahzha frowned. "They're putting up the signal. We need to retreat and gather in one place."
"With all these demons at our heels? We'll be sitting ducks!"
"And what would you suggest? Our time is limited and we'll need to meet up with the Lady of Heaven's Grace quickly."
"We'll need to give a massive push back. Make them recoil to give us more time."
Bahzha nodded and called out commands to all the troops under his command. "You all know what those lights mean! We only have a few minutes to send a message to these fiends before we retreat! Let go of everything you've been holding back!"
By this point, the Fantasians who had been fighting the dark army had grown weary from battle. Many had already fallen. But the lights above them seemed to have renewed some of their vigor. What was more, the demons were shrinking back from it, as though they couldn't stand the light's gleam. With renewed ferocity the Ivory Tower's army began to push the darkness back in waves.
In the sky, Nag had turned a mass of Ygramul's body into a great black claw that shot through the sky and gripped Falkor by the neck. The luckdragon squirmed in its grasp until Iole's fiery breath burned away the arm that held him. They flew alongside each other while the other luckdragons kept Nag busy.
"Iole, this might be a good time to test your luck."
"I don't believe in luck Falkor!" The white dragon shot back. "I've never been lucky."
"Then you're due!"
"It hasn't been helping us so far!"
"Because you aren't giving it a chance! Now stop being stubborn and show a little faith! It's going to take a big miracle for this to work."
Begrudgingly, Iole flew above him and shrunk in size back to her elven form. She landed on his back. "This had better work. NOW!"
With a great heave, Falkor bucked her from his back and rocketed her forward into the great black and blue mass of beetles. She kept her body straight and her arms forward, spinning like a missile. Distracted by the other four luckdragons, Nag never saw her coming. She flew straight and true through the cloud of insects, piercing its glowing red heart. With the force of a battering ram she collided with Nag, grappling her arms around it and forcing it out. They fell together, Nag shrieking in terror and trying to throw her off. The insects abandoned the fight and flew as one long black column after them. With bestial fists they pummeled and scratched each other. Hardening scales over her hand, Iole thrust her fist into Nag's stomach. Nag coughed forcefully as all the air was knocked from its lungs. And with it came the red queen beetle. Iole caught it easily in her hand.
"No don't! Don't do that!" Nag squealed.
Paying it no heed, Iole clenched her fist, crushing the red beetle to paste and putting an end to Ygramul the Many. With no queen to hold it together, the swarm that had once been Ygramul fled in panic. Those that weren't burned by the luckdragons scattered to the wind. Though they would never be whole again, those beetles would find new places in Fantasia and new ways to cause misfortune in years to come. But that is another story and shall be told another time.
Nag screamed as they continued to fall. Not releasing her hold, Iole changed back, growing into the White Dragon once more.
"You will not eat me White Dragon!" Nag shrieked. "Not again!" Though it was now in Iole's grasp, they had fallen a great distance and were very near the Forest of Thorns. Nag squirmed in her grip and pulled one of its tattooed arms free. It stretched its claws toward the forest. The trees and thorns responded to its call. A great twisted column of thorn branches shot up from the ground. It struck the dragon in her soft underbelly, the one place not so armored by scales. The shock of the blow forced her to release Nag who fell cackling into the forest's waiting branches. Iole fell from the sky, her pain forcing her back into her other form. She would have fallen had Falkor not snatched her out of the air.
"Are you alright?"
"I'm fine." She wheezed. "Luck must have really been on my side that time." She smiled.
"It decided you needed a break." Falkor winked. "I knew you were due."
On the tower walls, Jason, Atreyu, and Deisha were still evading Thoth's attack. It was growing more difficult. With each strike his machine was gaining in speed. Once, Atreyu had even been caught up in the grasp of the vines. Thoth had tried to squeeze the life out of him before he had managed to cut himself free. Jason knew they were running out of time and wondered how much longer their luck would hold out. The lights surrounding the tower appeared, and just as they did there was a mighty crash that shook the entire construct they were standing on. The Lady of the Unfailing and the Knight of the Unyielding reemerged from the machine's interior.
"We found it!" They both cried in sing-song voices as a column of smoke rose from the back of the machine. The entire rigging began to teeter precariously.
Thoth rounded on the two children in fury. "Why you miniscule saboteurs!" The pod spun for them, stretching all of its extremities for them.
Atreyu and Jason dashed in front of it, swinging their blades in front of them and lopping each one off before it could reach the two children. Thoth shouted with fury as he configured the device to grow the vines back.
"Jason!" Deisha called, lifting her spear. "Hit me!"
Jason swung his lucky sword and clanged it against her spear. Deisha hefted it and threw it straight for the rotating base of Thoth's pod. It wedged itself between the rotating disks, effectively jamming them. The machine began to sizzle and smoke rose from its openings. Sparks flew where the spear was still wedged.
Thoth frowned. "Well this is less than ideal." With a sigh of defeat, he flipped the end of one of the levers open, revealing a small red button. Ramming his thumb down on it, the control seat ejected like a rocket. A pair of wings opened and the Witch with glasses escaped into the night sky. The others left on the machine had more to worry about than their fleeing adversary, for now the construct had detached itself from the tower and was falling apart.
"Atreyu!" They heard Falkor and saw him and the other Luckdragons flying towards them. Joining hands, the five companions ran for the edge of the machine and took a great leap of faith. The luckdragon had no difficulty catching them. Iole was on Falkor's back as well.
"What happened to you?" Jason asked.
"Nag threw a cheap shot at me. How did things go on your end?"
"Thoth got away." He grimaced.
"And where's Adair?"
Atreyu pointed towards the magnolia pavilion where a fierce thunderstorm and great flashes of magic had been happening for quite some time now.
"She went after Fay."
"I see. And those flashing lights?"
"The last resort." Jason replied. "Can you go down there and help them?"
"I'll try. What about you?"
"We need to reach Adair. Falkor, you can get us there." Atreyu said adamantly.
"Are you sure you don't want me to go with you?" Iole asked.
Jason eyed her injury. "That looks too nasty for an old lady like you to fight. I think the three of us and Falkor will be enough."
"What about us?" The Knight of the Unyielding asked.
"The other Eldest are going to need all the help they can get rounding everybody together." Jason explained. "Don't worry, we can handle this one. It's just Fay."
"Don't underestimate her." Iole warned. "She may not look like much,but in truth she's the worst of the three. Remember what I taught you about fighting with a clear head. Any less and you're dead."
Jason gave her a two fingered salute. "Got it Sensei."
The remains of the Ivory Tower's army had fallen back to the highest level they could. They'd made it about halfway to the top of the tower itself when the Eldest had rejoined them. The Lady of Heaven's Grace had instructed them all to get behind her. They had each fought bravely. Many heroes had joined them in this battle. Other Fantasians not so heroic had also taken up the cause. Even those who had once been dark creatures had fought to defend the tower from the demon invasion. Each had seen the battle in their own way and given what they could to protect what they loved. Even now we have only told a fraction of what happened that night, for a full account of the battle would take far too long than this chapter of our story has time for. Stories would be told about their bravery for ages to come. Though they had been gravely outnumbered at least ten to one, their hearts had been in the fight completely, for they fought for what was right and not for themselves. Had the battle continued, they surely would have prevailed in time. But now it was time for them to fall back for the last resort. It was a plan that none of them had wished would come to pass, but when the Circle of the Night had summoned the Forest of Thorns itself to cover their army, there had been but one option left to them, or they would have lost the tower altogether.
In the lower levels of the tower, standing alone were the red haired Lady of Two Worlds, and the Knight of the Other Side. A tear rolled down the lady's cheek as she prepared to do what needed to be done. He placed his hand over hers reassuringly.
"It has to be done."
"Did those beneath manage to escape?" She asked mournfully.
"The Lady of the Waking Dream just contacted me. The Lady of the Midnight Hour and the Knight of Tomorrow's Promise just led them into the outer valley. They'll be safe. It's time."
She nodded again, then waiting no longer she began to sing. Her voice was unmatched for beauty in Fantasia, and all in the tower could hear it. Even the Creatures of Darkness took pause in their advance, and the demons hissed and gnashed their teeth as though the beautiful melody hurt them. But this song that all Fantasia could here was not the last resort they had spoken of. It was her means of calling it. For those who know or have guessed the Lady and the Knight's story, they might also know why she is called the Lady of Two Worlds. For she had indeed crossed a threshold once in her youth. She had been a daughter of the sea, and after finding the one she loved. through much tribulation had managed to find a way to join him on land. But the sea was still her domain and would respond to her call.
A great rumbling shook the tower such as there had not been in ages past. Only Moon Child herself could recall a time when the tower had been shaken so. From the depths beneath the tower, the water began to rise. With tremendous force it began to push its way up and out, shattering the cobblestone streets, leveling homes, shops, places where Fantasians had played and danced and argued, even the ballroom where they had all danced and celebrated at the beginning of this night that now seemed to have grown so very long. As the Fantasians watched the sea coming to claim the beloved tower they had fought so hard to protect, many of them mourned its loss. In their hearts they knew it would be better than to let the demons claim it, but that did not make it any easier to bear.
The water rose over the battlements and crowned at last before crashing down in a wave that swept over the tower with such force that all that stood in its way was leveled. Thanks to the medallions enchanted with Ygramul's venom many of the Creatures of Darkness escaped outside where they could regroup, but the demons under their command had no such help. Each and every one of the soulless monsters encroaching on the Ivory Tower were caught up in the ocean's wake, crushed under its waves along with the region of the Forest of Thorns that had entered its walls. Then as quickly as it had come, the water receded, leaving nothing but rubble and sand behind.
Saddened though they were by the sacrifice, the Fantasians cheered to see the army of darkness driven back. But the Eldest were not cheering. They were all watching the Lady of the Waking Dream who still had her mind trained on the movements of their foe.
"They're just... waiting out there. I don't know what they're waiting for. They won't attack again, but I fear there's something we're not seeing."
"I don't like it." The Knight of Heaven's Charm admitted. "If they wanted, the Circle of the Night could call enough demons back to retake the tower just as quickly. So what are they waiting for?"
The answer to his question came. The Lady of the Waking Dream seized her head and moaned from the strain this was putting on her. "The Nightmare King..." She rasped. "Volrac... He draws near."
The Lady of Heaven's Grace turned her gaze skyward toward the Magnolia Pavilion where a great storm continued to rage on.
"Adair." The battle was not over yet.
There was no longer any place for Fay to hide. Adair's power had all but demolished the Ivory Garden. She backed away from Adair who was driving her back further and further towards the edge, toward the Magnolia Pavilion itself. The two had been locked in a battle of magic, with Adair blasting the Witch with everything she had while Fay had deflected it back. It had been even at the start, but Adair was driving her back now.
"Are you happy now?" Adair shouted. "I've found the Strongest Magic, and it's made me stronger than you! I love Fantasia and everything in it, and I will do everything in my power to protect it from you! Now you're the one who's running!"
"But you're wrong." Fay replied coolly, collected even in the face of such an overwhelming adversary. "The Strongest Magic cannot be yours until you stop running."
"I'm not running from anything! I just told you!"
"Then why have you kept the ring?" Fay shot back. It was a question Adair did not have a ready answer to. She had been through so much that it had made no sense for her to keep the ring these hateful Witches had given her. It brought on a hesitation, a moment of weakness that Fay seized at once. With a blast of Adair's own stolen magic, Fay sent a wave of energy at her that threw her into the air and knocked her flat on her back.
"So disappointing." Fay shook her head, advancing on the girl, her hand glowing icy blue and shadowy violet. "Here at the end, your magic has grown so strong. But still not strong enough." The coldhearted girl leveled her spell at Adair's head.
"Oh well." she sighed. "Onto the next experiment."
A wave of blue fire blazed across the Ivory Garden then, but it was not Fay's magic. Fay needed to leap back to avoid it, for it was Falkor's breath as he arrived at the height of the tower with Jason, Atreyu, and Deisha on his back. As he landed, the three of them leaped from his back and raced to the pair. Atreyu made it there first and helped Adair to her feet. She threw her arms around him the moment their eyes met. Then the four of them stood side by side with Falkor looming behind them, each one pinning Fay with their gaze.
"It's over Fay." Atreyu spat. "Your army's been driven back, and your allies have left you here alone with us. You're outnumbered and outmatched no matter what kind of magic you wield against us. You've lost."
Fay lowered her hands and the glow around them extinguished. "You're correct. I dare not go against the Strongest Magic. I can see it's touched each of you in some form or another. And you've all learned some of the many forms it can take. Some of those forms weaker than others." She turned her gaze on one of them. "Right Jason?"
Jason narrowed his eyes at her. "Stop talking. I'm sick of your lies."
"What lie have I told? Would it be a lie to say that your best friend shattered your heart tonight into a thousand tiny pieces? That things would have been better for you if Atreyu had never come into the picture?"
Deisha's gaze shifted anxiously between them. "What's she talking about?"
"Nothing." Jason growled.
"Would nothing drive you to beg Iole to return you to your home world?" Fay asked in her flat level tone. "Why don't you just tell them how your heart fragmented after Adair tossed it away when she kissed Atreyu? When she chose to stay here with him."
Jason could feel his fingers tightening around the hilt of his blade. He really wanted to shut this Witch up. The others noticed his building rage as well.
"Jason," Atreyu cautioned.
"Shut up. I'm fine." Jason hissed.
"Jason remember what Iole said. She's just trying to get to you."
"I KNOW THAT!" He shouted and at the same time swung his blade straight for Atreyu. In the moment he had lost control of his anger, Fay had exploited the crack in his heart and weaved a spell over him. His anger was now in complete control and just as the Witch had planned, he was directing it at Atreyu. The other boy managed to jump back just in time, but Jason came at him again, forcing him to block with his own sword.
"Jason stop it!" Adair cried.
Falkor tried to come between them, but before he could, Fay released another spell, the piece of the Forest of Thorns she had brought with her. Black thorn covered vines burst from the ground at the luckdragon's feet and bound him down tightly, cutting into his flesh. He roared and howled trying to get free, but it wasn't working. The vines only pulled tighter.
"Falkor!" Adair reached for him, but nothing happened. "My magic's not working!"
"Because your fear is feeding mine." Fay stated. "There's nothing you can do now."
She tried again, this time aiming to use her power to pull Jason's sword from his grasp. The sword merely glowed red and trembled slightly, resisting her pull. Then nothing. She rounded on Fay and sent a powerful spell rolling towards her. It hit a wall of ethereal blue light that appeared around her. It was slick like ice. The spell bounced off the wall and nearly came back at her and Deisha.
"Look out!" The Plains girl shoved Adair to the ground and let the magic go sailing over their heads.
"This is the wall of ice that shaman spoke of. Your fear has shielded your heart for ten years Adair. Now it protects me. Now if you'll excuse me," At last she unstrapped the cylinder from her back and held it in her hand. "I have some work to do."
Deisha got to her feet and with a howl of fury she charged the magical wall with her spear. She could not have imagined the strength of the shield Fay had created out of fear Adair had nurtured for ten years. When her spear struck, its own force came back on her ten fold. Deisha flew back like a rag doll. She flew all the way to the edge of the Ivory Garden and rolled along the ground. She flailed helplessly, losing her spear and clung for dear life to the edge that she now dangled from.
"Deisha!" Adair ran to her. It did not occur to her to use her powers to carry her friend back from danger. Fay's spell had taken complete control and turned her own fear against her. Her powers were no longer working. With nothing but her own strength she reached over the edge and took hold of Deisha's wrist. Both of them strained to hold tight and it was all they could do just to keep Deisha from falling to her death.
"Jason stop this!" Atreyu cried, keeping Jason's berserk strikes at bay, but only barely. The boy's fury made him leagues stronger, and more reckless, and Atreyu did not want to hurt him. "Jason I'm sorry! We were going to tell you!"
"Shut up! You ruined everything!" Jason roared in a voice that was so twisted with hate Atreyu could not believe it was truly his. "You can't protect her like I can! You can't protect anything! Fantasia, your friends, You couldn't even protect Bastian! You'll fail her just like you failed him!" Had he been in his right mind, Jason would never have said these things to Atreyu. But he was not in his right mind. Anger had taken him completely and all he could think of was making Atreyu hurt. And hurt he did. This was also in the Witch's plan.
Atreyu swung his own sword, and this time it matched Jason's in ferocity. The boy spoke in a low dark voice. "Don't say that again." He lifted his dark eyes that were now twisted with as much hate as Jason's. "Don't you EVER SAY THAT AGAIN!" And now they were fighting with all their strength, fully intending to destroy each other.
With the last of her foes incapacitated, Fay allowed herself the smallest ghost of a grin. Her heart had long ago become so deadened that now only cruelty of this level could make her smile. She returned to the task at hand. Under her breath she began to mutter a curse. As she uttered this foul incantation, the cylinder in her hand began to glow. An array of runic scribblings appeared all over its surface and began to slide over its surface.
"Adair! I'm slipping!"
"Don't let go!" Adair shouted. "I'll get you back up! Don't you dare let go!" But the strength of the girl's hand was not enough to hold her. No matter how she tried, Deisha's hand slipped from her grasp.
Falkor ceased his struggling. The vines were choking the life out of him. His eyes fought to stay open, and then fell closed.
Jason and Atreyu fought like savages. The clang of their swords echoed loud enough to be heard for miles around. They knocked one another back two steps, then rushed forward, their blades pointed for each other's hearts.
Then as quickly as one would turn the page of a story, it was quiet. A raging tempest on one page, calm waters on the next. That was how quickly the silence fell.
As it's been said, fairies are remarkable creatures in Fantasia, able to find the most secret of pathways and appear here and there in the twinkling of an eye. But what many don't know is that the oldest and wisest of fairies can even see the wrinkles in time. They can travel through these rifts, but at a great personal cost. One such fairy had done just that and frozen everyone in the Ivory Garden: Jason, Atreyu, Falkor, Adair, Deisha, even Fay.
She floated through the grounds and rested her little fingers on Adair who began to move again. A calm fell over Adair who found that this time when she reached for Deisha's hand, she could pull her back up. Deisha began to move as well, and when she found herself back on solid ground, she hugged her friend tightly. Adair turned to see their rescuer had already floated to Falkor and touched the vines that held him. They snapped open at once and Falkor filled his lungs with air most gratefully. Last the little fairy floated to Jason and Atreyu, resting her tiny weary fingers on them both. An angry red light that had been surrounding them unseen weakened and flickered out. When they could move again they found themselves tired, yet somehow relieved.
This last act done, the little fairy floated on tired faded wings back toward Adair. She went as far as she could, finally coming to rest on the ground at Adair's feet. She looked up at her with her tiny chestnut eyes. Her autumn leaf dress was withered and her once brown hair had turned gray. Her wings had lost their color and her face was so pale Adair could barely recognize her.
Adair's voice quivered. "Oc... Octavia?"
The little fairy nodded with a sad smile. She spoke slowly between long tired breaths. "We... don't have... much... time. That was... the last... of my... strength. I'll... fade... away... soon."
They gathered around her and Adair lifted her small exhausted body up in her hands. Her eyes filled with tears as she could feel their little friend's strength ebbing away from her.
"Octavia why? Why did you do that?"
"That's... a silly... question, Adair. You were... always... asking... silly... questions."
Adair shook her head. "There has to be something I can do. I can't let you just go like this." She couldn't bring herself to say the word die. She felt she would go out with her fairy friend if she did. "What can I do? Tell me what to do."
"You can... remember me... please... remember. I've waited... so long... for you... to remember me."
At first Adair didn't know what she meant, then something flashed into her mind. An image of the woods she had long since barred from her memory. The woods she had played in, she had not played in alone. She remembered a face in the trees that she would chase and try to find, one that would fly around her head and grant her wishes when no one was looking. One who had told a very young Adair she could barely remember that she was princess of all the forest.
"I do remember you. I used to imagine I saw you in those woods. You're the reason I played there so often."
"After... it happened... you stopped coming... I've waited here... in Fantasia... all this time... for you... to remember me... When you run... from the bad... in your past... you shut out... the good... too."
"I didn't mean to shut you out. Octavia please don't go. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."
"It's... alright... The ones... we love... never really... leave. They're just... not here... right now. They wanted me... to tell you... that. I... love... you...Adair." She smiled at Adair that sweet sweet smile that she would never again forget as long as she lived. Then she closed her eyes, and Adair was holding nothing but a handful of dried autumn leaves.
The others could say nothing. They could only watch Adair as she got to her feet. With Octavia's passing they could feel time speeding up again. Adair rose slowly to face Fay. Her eyes were filled with tears, but they were angry. Angry because she had lost someone very dear to her, and angry because she knew Fay had watched the whole thing. She knew this because Fay was watching her now with that curious gaze, waiting to see what she would do. This was all a curiosity to her, a great game. Well if it was a game, now Adair was going to make sure it was one she would lose, and lose hard.
The first rays of morning were at last starting to shine over the horizon and chase the night sky away. Adair felt herself filling with more power than she had ever felt before. The wind began to blow again. It surrounded Adair and whirled so fiercely it lifted her off the ground. But it was under her control. The others watched her and gasped as now even her eyes began to glow. Her right eye glowed light gold while her left became overshadowed by a metallic silver gleam just like the snakes of AURYN. They weren't the only ones who could see it either. All the Fantasian's below them, the Eldest, the Ivory Tower's army, even the Creatures of Darkness could see the silver and gold light streaming from Adair's being. Some who watched even claimed that Moon Child herself had manifested to fight for them.
"Seeker of Love." Adair's voice boomed, and there was not one voice but two. "The evil of your kind has poisoned Fantasia, destroyed many of its most beautiful dreams and stories, and now you have taken one of its most precious little ones. Now you will pay for every bit of poison you have brought!"
Building her power, Adair shot a column of silver and gold light at her enemy. This time, it completely shattered the wall of magic ice around her. Fay slammed against the Magnolia Pavilion itself and fell to the ground in a heap. The black cylinder flew from her grasp. It clattered to the ground and came to rest on the ivory floor between them. Fay mustered what strength she could to crawl on her hands and knees toward it. Adair's attack had been powerful. Another one would surely be the end of her. Her fingers were inches away from it when a gleaming iron boot came to rest on top of it.
"That's quite enough of that." came a boisterous voice that they all recognized. In gleaming silver armor caked with dirt and blood, General Heremoor reached down and retrieved the black cylinder. Seeing their friend alive and well was enough to bolster all of their spirits even after so sad a happening.
Adair felt her senses returning to her after being overwhelmed by her power. Slowly she returned to the ground. "General Heremoor!"
Jason was the first to reach him. "General! You're alive! We were told you were dead! Am I glad to see you! Check it out, we've saved the tower! You're just in time for the victory party!"
The General smiled and rested his hand on Jason's shoulder. "You've all done me proud my boy. But Fantasia is not quite saved yet." Then Heremoor's smile faded and a sadness touched his emerald green eyes. "There is nothing that I won't do for Fantasia." Then all of their joy turned to horror as they watched the General stab four long black claws through Jason's stomach.
Jason coughed and sputtered as hot blood ran down his front and over his fingers where he held his wound.
"JASON!" Adair cried and ran to him. Atreyu and Deisha rushed to his side with her. "Jason come on. You're alright. You're going to be alright."
Deisha snarled at Heremoor who was still standing over them. "You monster!"
Heremoor ignored them and stepped to face Fay. "How typical of you to get caught up in your play." He spat. "As usual I have to do everything myself."
Atreyu was on his feet with his sword drawn, standing protectively in front of Jason and the girls. Falkor growled threateningly.
"General, what have you done?"
Heremoor turned slowly and met eyes with Atreyu. This time his emerald green eyes were glowing fiery greenish yellow.
"I have done what I've always done. I have protected Fantasia. And I will continue to do so no matter who stands in my way." Then the face of the general changed into something grotesque. His long golden hair darkened to black and his face sprouted short dark fur. Over his mouth grew the snout and fangs of a wolf. Even his armor turned black as coal. Volrac, the Nightmare King had shown himself at last. Closing his vice like grip over the black wooden cylinder in his hand, he smashed the container and revealed the horror within. Atreyu gasped when he saw what Fay had risked so much to bring into the tower. In his hand, Volrac held a longsword with a blade so dark it looked as though the sunlight was afraid to touch it.
"And I will do it without the likes of them. You know what this is Atreyu. It is Sikanda, the ultimate symbol of the cruelty of their kind, the cruelty of humans! And now it will serve as my key to sever our ties with them and the Childlike Empress once and for all!"