The Strongest Magic

Chaptter 20: Breaking to Save

Traveling across the sky, slowly over the fields of Fantasia went the withered dried leaf. The wind carried it over the infinite garden to the Valley of Rain, over Singing Tree Country, and the Swamps of Sadness until finally it drifted over the Ocean of Secrets into the darkness of Spook City. The Dark Princess sat solemnly on her throne, alone and melancholy in her palace. The leaf drifted soundlessly through the throne room and at long last ended its lonely journey on the tip of Gaya's glass finger. The princess held it in front of her hollow dark eyes.

"I remember you." She told the leaf sadly. "It's been a long road for you hasn't it? But you've done well." The leaf crumbled and became a new broken shard. The Dark Princess gathered it gently in her hand and let the rest of the broken dreams that made up her body absorb it. "You can rest here now little messenger. I will watch over you until you wake."

Octavia stayed with Gaya for a very long time, drifting in endless sleep among a sea of other lost and forgotten dreams. But she would not stay there forever. There are many ways into Fantasia, and one day a human would find one in the very woods Adair had once played in with Octavia. When they did, they would be given a very special destiny that would free Octavia and many other dreams from Gaya's curse. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

For now let us return to Adair and her friends who were at that moment still in the Ivory Garden where they had been met with a heart rending truth. With Fay at his side, Volrac lifted the black blade Sikanda, letting them take in its sight.

"The battle seems to have ceased below us." As the Nightmare King spoke, his face slowly changed back into the face of General Heremoor. "Good. I want them all to witness this. I want them to see what their faith in the humans has brought."

"Stop this!" Adair cried with indignation. She was on the ground beside Jason who lay his head in her lap. Blood was still spilling from the wound in his chest. "You don't deserve to wear our friend's face!"

Heremoor lowered his gaze to her. "But this is my face."

"No! You're Volrac! General Heremoor was a great man that you killed!"

"If only that were true." The General replied sadly. "How I have longed for death in glorious battle when faced with what I have set out to do. But as I told you before Adair, there is nothing I would not do for Fantasia. I am Volrac, and Volrac is me. He is my shadow.”

“But your Eagler Rider--”

“Was an already dead puppet under Ygramul's control. One that said only what I wanted you to hear. I believed it would weaken your resolve to fight. My standing here now proves that I was right. So weak is the will of humans." He shook his head. "You know, for a moment I hoped it were true Adair, that you could save Fantasia. If only more of your kind were like you, there would have been hope for our worlds. But alas, this is how it must be. I will save Fantasia. But first I must break it."

The General turned sharply away from them to face the Magnolia Pavilion, swinging Sikanda in front of him.

"No!" Atreyu cried in despair. Too late. A wave of darkness shot from the path of the blade. In times past, not even the darkest magic in Fantasia could have penetrated the Magnolia Pavilion. But the power of the Childlike Empress had grown too weak to withstand it now. The Magnolia Pavilion was blown apart by Sikanda's power. It fell to rubble. In the center of the wreckage she was there just as when Adair had seen her. She remained asleep, encased in crystal. But this time she appeared a little more frail, a little more tired, like sickness had taken her.

"Behold!" Heremoor cried, and his voice boomed in the sky. Everyone in the tower could hear him, and they could all see what was transpiring at the tower's peak. The clouds had cleared and the rays of dawn splashed blood red across the sky as the night ended. "See your Empress as she's always been! Weak and helpless! Darkness unrivaled would take this tower and destroy you all, yet she does nothing! She has allowed this darkness to exist in our world for ages! And these things, these humans you so depend on, they are the cause of it! With their lies and their greed they create these monsters that poison our world!"

"You're wrong!" Atreyu cried. "Adair is not like that! She's fought to save this tower from you! You who should have been helping us protect Fantasia, not tear it apart!"

"Is that so? Then let her! Let this human with all her awesome power strike me down and end this!" The General threw his arms open wide as if he were inviting a strike. "But know this Adair Alicia Artemis. You have no power without AURYN. That talisman around your neck grants you the power to save or doom Fantasia at your will, but it is also the only power by which your friend can be saved." He pointed to Jason whose head now lay in Adair's lap. "He has been wounded deeply, and no wish of yours can reverse death now. If you wish for him to be healed, you will have to give up all your power to him. That means the Gem as well. But then you will have no means to stop me from claiming the tower. If you truly believe me to be the great evil plaguing Fantasia, you'll let your friend die and strike me down."

Adair held AURYN in her hand. Her eyes darted from the intertwining snakes to Jason. He said nothing. His eyes were glazed over and blood had begun to trickle from the corner of his mouth.

What should I do? You've gotten me this far, tell me what I should do!

The Glory was silent. This was a decision she had to make for herself. But there were so many voices ringing loudly in her head, it was one she felt she could not make.

"Don't listen to him Adair!" Atreyu shouted. "He's lying!"

"Look at him Adair and listen to your human feelings." Heremoor spat. "You know I am right."

She could hear others as well. Those in the tower who were depending on her seemed to be pleading with their thoughts.

Save us! Save our Empress! Use your power! Save us! Save us! SAVE US!

"Adair don't listen to him!" Atreyu tried to reach out to her again. "Adair!"

"ENOUGH!" Adair shouted so hard she felt her windpipe would crack. "I'm done!" The decision had been made. With a sharp tug she ripped AURYN from her neck and laid it over Jason. The wish was made, the power given up. The wound in Jason's chest began to close over and color began to return to his face. He had not the strength to speak yet. All he could do was take Adair's hand and squeeze it. Adair sighed with relief that he was alright. Then she lifted her eyes to meet Atreyu's. She thought her heart was going to break when she met his dark eyes. They were filled with hurt and betrayal.

"You see now." Heremoor declared smugly. "You see now! The human is too weak to save you! Too weak to place the fate of an entire world over her human feelings! But I can! I have! I have sacrificed everything in order to save Fantasia from them! From their weakness! Their wantonness! Their selfish, bigoted, filth!" He pointed back to where Moon Child slept inside her crystal prison. "From this child who calls herself our empress and lets our lands be plagued with nightmares! Stand with me Fantasia, and I will do what she cannot! Stand with me and I will give you a perfect Fantasia! One where we may dream for ourselves! One free of darkness and death! Watch me now!"

He lifted Sikanda and pointed the dark blade skyward. A terrible chorus of choking cries sounded all through the land just then. The Fantasians within the tower looked out to the Infinite Garden where the cries were coming from. The Creatures of Darkness were falling to the ground one by one. The medallions they had been given with Ygramul's venom inside them had burst open. Anyone wearing one suddenly felt the poison's burn on their flesh. Heremoor had turned Ygramul's poison on his own army.

Adair screamed in agony as those cries filled her ears. As the Creatures of Darkness began to fall, her heart felt like it was being cleaved in two. She realized she was experiencing what Moon Child herself was feeling. As the mirror of the Empress, she could feel Moon Child's pain at the loss of so many Fantasians, beings that were wicked and selfish, creatures who had betrayed her, yet Fantasians she had loved as her subjects all the same. Outside Fantasia, many humans lost their dreams that day. Some of them became confused people, drifting aimlessly with no clear idea of what they wanted. Others became bitter and selfish people with no color in their lives. In any event, both worlds felt the loss. Not all of the Creatures of Darkness fell to Ygramul's poison however. Some managed to get their medallions off before they could be killed. But these were quickly ambushed by the very demons they had commanded. Many were killed by the demons, and in the end very few managed to escape. Wherever they went, they did not return to plague Fantasia again at that time.

Adair narrowed her tear filled eyes at Heremoor. "How could you?"

Heremoor set his jaw. "Did you think even for one moment that I would leave my beloved Fantasia to the likes of them? They have served their purpose, and they have been given the fate they deserve. Hear me Fantasia! You are safe now! And soon you will be safe forever, for this is the dawning of a new age!" The general swung Sikanda and slammed it point first into the ground. A wave of black mist flooded the Ivory Garden for a moment, and then it was gone. When it cleared, Heremoor had vanished, and Fay with him. Sikanda remained, driven half its length into the ground. It did not break the ground it stood in, but rather it appeared to have melded with it. The once ivory white floor around it had darkened to slick obsidian black.

Atreyu stepped forward cautiously along the newly blackened stone. He reached for Sikanda's hilt, but withdrew his fingers the moment he touched it. He waited a moment, then gathered his resolve and took it in both hands. The moment his fingers closed around it, he fell to his knees, sick to his stomach. Sikanda was part of the tower now.

"Atreyu!" Adair ran to him and tried to help him up. He shrugged her off. He didn't even look at her. He simply turned and walked away. Deisha followed him reluctantly. Adair stared after him, unable to move. What had she done?

Many long painful hours passed after the battle. Everyone who had taken part in the battle had been wounded not only in their bodies but in their hearts. They had lost friends, their tower, and they had been betrayed by those they had trusted. The knowledge that their Empress slept and had not stirred from sleep for ten years was more than they could bear. They all had healing to go through.

After Atreyu had left Adair had limped after him, calling for him to return to her. He had vanished down the railway into the tower. She had lost sight of him. As she walked through the tower, she passed the wounded who were being tended by Chiron and his team of healers. She felt the eyes of everyone she passed on her. A lump swelled in her throat and heat beat down on the back of her neck. She tried not to look, but she felt all of their gazes blaming her for their loss. In truth, some of them probably did. Others, having lost friends themselves in the fight may have known what Adair had been feeling when she gave up the Gem. What they truly felt didn't matter to her because she was now her own judge and jury, and she was reading herself the riot act. She did not regret her decision to save Jason, but she did regret the consequences and heartache it had brought.

If only she'd been stronger, she kept thinking over and over. Her regret carried her back over every bad decision she'd made. If she'd been stronger she would have stopped Heremoor and ended the battle. If she'd been stronger she would have seen through him at the start before he'd had a chance to cause all of this destruction. If she had just been stronger, she could have saved her parents the day Volrac had killed them and had a happy life. Her parents would have been with her, Moon Child never would have fallen into her cursed sleep, Octavia would still be alive, she never would have come to Fantasia, and she never would have had to see Atreyu look at her the way he had on the top of the tower. She knew he loved Fantasia more than his own life. Maybe that went for everyone else' too. By abandoning her task as the Empress' messenger, she had betrayed what was most precious to him.

She took the long shameful walk all the way to the base of the tower, and when she could not find Atreyu, she took the same long walk all the way back. In that whole time, no one stopped her. No one talked to her. She suddenly remembered how forgotten she had always been in the human world. Now she was a cast off here too. Perhaps what she hated the most was how weak and vulnerable she now felt without AURYN around her neck. Losing the talisman to save Jason had been like giving up a friend.

After what felt like a very long time, she found herself back in the higher terraces of the tower. She had stopped looking for Atreyu and had just walked, numb to everything until she came to the council chamber. There were no seats lining its circular walls at the moment for there was no one meeting there. But she let her mind drift to the past when she had sat here, a frightened girl just beginning a journey through this strange and beautiful land.

He had stood with her here, spoken for her, and listened to what she'd had to say. From the beginning, he had shown unwavering faith in her. Faith that she had betrayed here at the end of their journey. No she thought, glancing down at the hateful silver ring on her hand with its three gleaming stars over the crescent moon. She'd never been worthy of that faith he'd placed in her. From the start she'd been a coward. She knew it was too late for it to matter, but she wanted to try to fix this. She didn't know how she was going to get home, if she ever would. She didn't even know if she still wanted to. But that didn't matter. She wasn't going to betray him again, and no matter what became of her she didn't want any part of them on her. She yanked the ring off her finger and hurled it to the floor. It bounced off the marble floor and rolled to the edge of the room. Wordlessly she made her way out of the council chamber and up the walkway that led into the sky. Without her even noticing, she was back in the Ivory Garden, taking laborious steps toward what remained of the Magnolia Pavilion. She walked past where Sikanda remained embedded in the tower, trying not to look at it or the stone it had blackened.

Moon Child was still asleep within the crystal that stood resolute, but it no longer hummed and it no longer forced her back as it had in the past. Her seven powers were beginning to fail. Soon they'd no longer be able to protect her in her sleep. Adair was reluctant to touch it, not because she feared it but because she worried that her very touch would defile the purity within it. She felt like the most wretched creature to have ever walked. And she was supposed to be this beautiful being's mirror? Impossible.

She fell to her knees and began to cry. "I'm sorry." she wept at the feet of the Empress. "I'm so sorry." And she meant it. She was sorry she had allowed this curse to take her, sorry she had stopped dreaming and put her in this sleep, and sorry that she could not imagine a way to free her. She was sorry for all of it.

"I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry."

Jason looked up and down another crowded street with Falkor lumbering along at his side. There was no sign of his friends. Not Adair, Atreyu, nor Deisha. He didn't even see anyone familiar to him like Bahzha or any of the Eldest. Everyone seemed to be walking around half dazed. Even Falkor seemed drained. Not once had he lifted off the ground since they'd left the Ivory Garden, and he could never stand to remain earthbound for any length of time.

"Do you see them?"

Falkor shook his heavy head. "I'm afraid not. Don't worry though, we'll find them eventually."

"Sorry." Jason sighed. "Adair just looked so... I don't know, I've never seen her like that before." He ran his fingers over the medallion that now hung around his neck, its weight making him see over and over what Adair had given up when she'd given it to him. Not only had she lost her powers, they had lost the battle. She'd given all of it up to save his sorry life. He cursed himself for being so foolish to run straight up to Heremoor without sensing something was amiss. "Falkor?"

The Luckdragon made a noise to let him know he'd heard him, but didn't say a word.

"Do you think Adair did the right thing?"

"You mean when she saved your life? It's not for me to judge what is right or wrong on that. That was Adair's choice to make. But if you're asking if I agreed, the answer is yes. I would have done the same thing in her position."

Jason nodded. "What about Atreyu?" He asked, remembering the grave look the plains warrior had carried when the battle had ended. "Do you think he'll see it that way?"

Falkor didn't have a ready answer. Instead he walked silently along with Jason. Finally he took a long deep breath and sighed. "Atreyu has given up much for the sake of Fantasia, and seen things that were beyond someone of his years. It's made him strong, but in some ways it's also made him hard."

"So he probably blames me and Adair for what happened." Jason huffed, but on a guilty level he found he couldn't deny that it was his fault.

Falkor shook his head again. "No not you. He'd never blame you or Adair. It's not his way. He'll find some way to make it his fault. It's what he does. Every ill that befalls the ones he loves is his own personal failing. It's why he keeps himself at a distance from those that are close to him. In that way, he's as broken as Adair was when she first came here." They walked in silence for another short distance. They were moving very slowly and Jason was starting to notice he was hanging back more and more for Falkor's sake.

"I'd like you to know," Falkor said out of nowhere. "I'm grateful the two of you came here. You and Adair are the first people he's allowed to get close to him in a long time." Finally, the great luckdragon stopped moving and lay down on the ground. Jason's breath stopped for a moment as he turned and ran his hand along Falkor's hide. The wounds from the thorns had not yet healed. He wished Adair were here, that she still had the power to heal.

"Falkor, what's wrong?"

The luckdragon managed a weak smile. "Just need a moment to rest. That's all." Jason's fingers reached for AURYN, but when Falkor saw him do so, he shook his heavy head back and forth. "Save your wishes." He said solemnly. "I'm beyond the Glory's power now."

Jason dropped the talisman where it hung around his neck, heavy and useless. "Falkor, what's wrong?"

"Do you remember..." His voice was getting weaker. "When Atreyu said that stories in Fantasia are fading?"

Jason shook his head in denial. "No. You don't mean that."

"Listen to me Jason. What Volrac did on that tower, when he showed us all our Empress trapped in a cursed sleep... when he made everyone doubt Adair, he did more than claim the tower for himself. He destroyed the hope of countless Fantasians. And when hope in Fantasia dies..."

Jason dropped to his knees when he understood. "So do the luckdragons." He kept his hand on Falkor's as though he were trying to let his own strength flow into him, to share enough to get them both through this. "How much time do we have?"

Falkor grinned. "Who knows? How much time do any of us have? But one thing is certain. If Moon Child doesn't awaken soon, I will certainly vanish, along with the others."

"Don't talk like that. You're not going to disappear. We're going to figure this out."

"And how do you propose to do that?"

Jason forced a smile. "With luck." He tried to sound stronger than he felt, for right now he felt that all the luck in the world couldn't pull them out of this swirling despair that was dragging each of them down.

Falkor laughed and nodded. "That's right. Remember what I said Jason. Whatever you do, don't let your hope fade."

Day had come at last to the Ivory Tower, but instead of the sun's warm triumphant rays, it seemed to bring in a bitter cold and gray skies heavy with dread. Due to the cold, most of the Fantasians had moved to the indoor quarters of the tower to be treated for their injuries, those structures that hadn't been demolished by the waves. As it happened, the Black Djinn Inn had survived the destruction mostly undamaged. It was in the tavern that Atreyu and the others were now.

"Let me up already devil women!" Hykrion fought stubbornly against Ze'hara's wiry hands holding him down on one of the tables while she and Urgl tended to him. "I'm quite well! I need to find the children!"

"You won't be any use to them with that injury, even if you do find them." Urgl scolded. "Now stop your fussing. You're going to roll over and squish me!" She was standing next to his side, rubbing a curing remedy over a garish bite he'd received in the battle from a demon.

Hyrkion's nose curled in disgust. "It smells awful!"

"And what I give you next is going to taste worse, but you'll drink every drop before I let you leave this encampment!"

"It'll be easier if you do what she says." Hysbald chuckled. "She may be little, but she's got ways of dealing with a difficult patient, especially a friend."

Engywook nodded from where he stood on Hysbald's shoulder. "Quite right. In the three hundred and twenty eight years we've been wed, there hasn't been a single one where she hasn't gotten her way."

"Bah." Urgl growled at her husband, warning him to watch what he said. When she was finished, Ze'hara began to take her needle and thread to stitch the knight's wound up.

"Give it a rest old man." Bahzha said sternly. His wounds were minor and were being looked after by his wife Ainslee. "We received a report just after the Lady of Two Worlds flooded the tower. The Tuah children made it out through the tunnels with the others. You can join them in the valley when we're done here."

Hykrion grumbled something about not being old before relenting to being treated. "So what is the battle plan now? It seems that we defended the tower, but somehow... it doesn't feel like a victory."

Ze'hara nodded sternly. "He may not have conquered the tower this time, but Volrac brought a great evil here with him. It still permeates the air like the stench of a swamp."

"You mean Heremoor." Deisha said sourly. "Call the traitor by his real name."

"Is Heremoor really the traitor?" That statement brought a deathly silence on all of them. But the words themselves were not nearly as shocking to them as whom they had come from. Atreyu had not spoken a word as his wounds were treated. He'd merely sat among them silent as a stone. His friends had been content to let him be, thinking him fatigued. Now they looked to him as they would a lion who had just been roused from his slumber. Words spoken by a broken heart are as bitter as poison.

Ze'hara moved to his side and placed her hand on his arm, trying to make his dark serious eyes meet hers. "Mi'tah'zha, you don't mean that. Please tell me you don't." Atreyu didn't move, but there was a darkness in his eyes that frightened the wise woman. "Mi'tah'zha, please don't do this. Adair hasn't failed us yet. The fact that we are still here proves it. We can't blame her for what she did."

"She's right." Deisha agreed. "If I'd been in her shoes, I would have made the same choice."

"True Atreyu." Hykrion agreed. "In the heat of battle, emotions are running high, blood's pumping, anyone can make that kind of mistake."

Bahzha's fist struck the table in front of him hard enough to crack the wood. His wife yelped in surprise. With furious indignation in his eyes he rounded on his fellows.

"Mistake?! Is that what you all think? Hykrion, if it had been one of your children and you'd saved them would you call it a mistake?" He turned his angry gaze to Atreyu. "Is that why you're hiding from her in here? You think she betrayed us? When did you grow so heartless?" He turned to look at each one of them as he spoke. "You should all be ashamed. I can't believe after everything Adair's done for us, you're going buy into Volrac's lies. Volrac! The one who has been tearing Fantasia apart while Adair has been running around frantically trying to put it back together! What Vol... What Heremoor did up there on the tower was nothing more than a show for the rest of us, and you're all falling for it. Hasn't he fooled us once already?"

There was silence and they each found they couldn't meet his eyes. "Heremoor would have you believe that he made Adair weigh Jason's life against all of ours because that is how he sees it. He weighs and measures lives and possibilities like sheaves of wheat on a scale, and it is foolish and sick. Do you think that's how Moon Child sees our lives? It's not!" Bahzha turned back to Atreyu and pointed right at him. "You should understand what Adair did up there more than anyone! You led three armies against this very tower for the sake of one person that you cared about!"

Atreyu felt cold all over. Ze'hara felt some relief as the darkness she had seen began to leave his eyes. There was still pain, but it was the pain of regret for his own foolishness that filled his eyes now.

"Adair didn't choose Jason over Fantasia." Bahzha finished. "She just refused an ending where everyone couldn't be there."

No one said another word. Bahzha sat back down next to his wife looking very tired. She leaned her head on his shoulder. Atreyu got to his feet and stepped toward the door. They all watched him leave, Deisha more intently than anyone. She had not yet spoken to him about what had transpired between him and Adair at the dance, nor had she spoken to him about all the things she had wanted to say. Now she doubted she ever would. She saw so little point in it now. When Atreyu left the Black Djinn Inn, she found she could no longer stay either.

Atreyu stepped onto the empty street, walking slowly at first. Then with each step he gained in speed until he was running toward Adair.

Deisha sat alone at the edge of the railing overlooking the ruins of the Infinite Garden when she was discovered by someone.

"Now there's a face I recognize." Iole startled the plains girl whose keen half elven sense had not been alerted by her approach. "That's the face of someone who wants what they can't have."

"You..." Deisha eyed her warily. Up until now, she'd had very little interaction with the white dragon, and had only gained snippets of understanding from Adair and the others. She knew Atreyu didn't completely trust her, and that put her on edge. But in times like these, it's always nice to have someone to talk to, and Iole had already made it clear she knew her feelings so there was no point in hiding them. "I just came out here to think. It's weird. I should be devastated right? And part of me is. But most of me just doesn't know what to feel."

"I understand. He's been a big part of your life hasn't he?"

She smiled. "When we were children, we were inseparable. I thought for sure we'd be that way forever. Then Chiron came to the grasslands and everything changed. He'd be away traveling for months at a time. Sometimes I went with him, but most of the time I just waited for him to come home to our village. I guess I was waiting for everything to go back to the way it used to be. But they can't really can they?"

Iole shrugged. "That's just life. I won't lie, your first love is always hard to get over. And it doesn't get any easier with any others you might have. But the best part is that you get to keep what they taught you. The good times you remember, they'll stay there. And what happens next is up to you." She took a seat next to her on the balustrade. "So now that you don't plan on waiting around anymore, what's next for you?"

She thought on it for a moment. "I've always wondered how I'd do at adventuring."

"There's an idea. I'd tell you all about sleeping on a hard ground and going for weeks without a hot shower, but it seems like you're no stranger to that by now."

Deisha smiled. "The Plains are no place for soft women."

"So I'm learning."

Atreyu raced to the top of the tower as fast as he could. He burst through the doors of the council chamber and sprinted across its floor, but before he made it to the second set of doors, something sharp struck his foot through the leather soles of his boots. It was such a rude awakening that he missed his next step and tumbled to the floor. He rolled to push himself back to his knees and knelt to see what it was that had tripped him. A silvery gleam caught his eye. A ring lay on the floor before him. He recognized the crescent moon under the three stars whose sharp edges had punctured the sole of his foot. This was Adair's ring. He'd seen it on her finger before. He'd always assumed Meleah had given it to her along with her tunic. But what was it doing lying here forgotten on the floor?

"Oh good you found it." Nag's voice made Atreyu spring to his feet with sword in hand. He swung and missed. The blue haired Witch fell back on its hands and cartwheeled a safe distance from his blade. "Easy now. I didn't come here for a fight. I just came to get what belongs to us."

Atreyu glowered at the creature. "How did you get in here?"

"We go where we please, but that's not the issue. The ring if you don't mind." Nag extended its clawed fingers in a beckoning motion.

"This doesn't belong to you. It's Adair's."

"Well it was, but it looks like she no longer wants it. So I've come to take it back. You see, we gave that ring to her as part of a deal she made with us."

"You're lying!" He shouted adamantly. Adair make a deal with Witches? That was too absurd to be true.

Nag smirked as it held up its hand, showing Atreyu the back. A tattoo stood out among the others that lined its arms on the back of its hand: a sideways crescent moon with three stars arching over it, identical to the symbol on the ring. Atreyu's heart sank with despair.

"Oh don't look so glum. We just did what we always do. We offered help to a desperate soul. To be fair, she was pretty new here when she took it. She had no idea who we were or what we were doing. She was just a helpless girl who wanted to get home." Nag circled Atreyu in that hunched way that it walked. With the agility of a monkey it leaped onto one of the columns and climbed like a spider on the ceiling. "Haven't you ever wanted to make a deal with Witches?" it grinned.

Atreyu didn't look at Nag. He kept his eyes straight ahead. But every poisonous word it said burned in his ears. Suddenly he remembered what Jason had said that day and this time it made sense.

If it weren't for you, she could have gone home a long time ago!

"She made a deal with you. This ring was supposed to take her home."

"Well it was supposed to take her to us. But yes, we would have sent her home if she had our payment. A deal's a deal after all. Even we must honor agreements." Nag spoke the truth. A deal made with magic is binding, even when struck by those with the blackest hearts. However, witches and evil sorcerers have ways of twisting the truth to suit their needs. So even when they are forced to keep a promise, the gift they offer is always corrupted to bring harm on the other. Like any deal struck with a witch, the Circle of the Night had only told Adair half of the truth, a hideous truth which Atreyu was going to learn right now.

"What was she supposed to give you in return."

"A lock of your hair. But that was also just a means to an end. She didn't know what we wanted with it. It would have allowed us to cast a spell to get what we really wanted."

"And what was it you were really after?" Though Atreyu already had an idea what these twisted beings would want with his hair.

"You." Nag replied with the most crooked of grins. It twisted its neck so it could look down at Atreyu from where it crawled on the ceiling with its smoldering red eyes. "See we've been here for ten years now, and we've collected a fair number of test subjects. This world of yours fascinates us to no end. But in all this time, we've never gotten our hands on a bona-fide Fantasian hero. Thoth is all sorts of curious about what gives you your physical endurance. Fay wants to know where your pure hearts and courage come from. And I just want a new toy that won't break."

"Why are you telling me all this?"

"To settle a bet." Nag explained. "Fay and I want to see which is stronger. I've always believed that when it comes to one's own life, even one as brave and selfless as you," It said the words 'brave' and 'selfless' in the most mocking tone it could, "that it's the basest of instincts that takes over. She thinks this 'strongest magic' she's always going on about trumps that. So I'm giving you the full story to see what it will be. Fight or flight?" It jumped down from the ceiling and walked right up to Atreyu, casually moving his blade aside. "Here's the thing. Adair's decided to remain here in Fantasia. But you know what happens to those who remain here. Not to mention the damage it would do to both your worlds. If she doesn't go back, she'll never bring what she learned here to the human world. At least that's what I've come to understand you creatures believe. Humans stop dreaming, and then Fantasia stops growing."

It came around Atreyu, placing its cold fingers over his shoulders. It whispered right next to his ear. "Still not convinced? Hold that ring up to your eye. I want to show you something."

Atreyu saw little point in resisting. Everything Nag had said was true. He knew it, even if it ate away at his insides thinking about it. He held the ring before his eye and looked through it. A swirl of colors floated inside it like mist until it began to sort itself out. He saw a woman with unkempt brown hair and sad brown eyes. She was crying. She was sitting on a couch with three children close to her, two boys and a baby girl. They had their arms around their mother trying to comfort her, but they too were crying.

"That's Adair's family. The family she claims doesn't miss her. And their pain is only the beginning of what's to come if Adair remains here. You know what happens when Fantasia stops growing. And Adair will remain here, becoming less and less herself. I wonder how many memories she has left. She stays here for you. If she doesn't go back, it will be all your fault. You've already failed so many of your friends before. Are you going to fail her too? After everything you've gone through to protect it, will you let Fantasia die?"

Nag released its icy hold on Atreyu and turned heel toward the door. "The choice is yours." It declared as it made to leave. "As is the ring. Should you decide to take us up on our offer-"

"I'll do it." Atreyu didn't hesitate.

Nag sighed and spun on its toes to face him again. "I'll never understand creatures like you, but I will devise outrageous punishments for making me lose my bet."

"I don't care. I'll take your deal."

"You care that much for Fantasia that you'd become our possession?"

"Not just Fantasia. You can tell Fay she's right. I won't let Adair remain here and lose herself."

"How nauseating. But it is your right. You found the ring, you get the same deal."

Atreyu shook his head. "No. I want a new deal with new terms. You'll get what you want, but only after you meet them."

Nag licked its lips. "Name them."

Adair had ceased crying after awhile, but she had not moved. She remained slumped on her knees, staring blankly at the crystal prison and the sleeping empress within it. She was no longer mourning. She was taking time to think. In spite of the ruined state it was in, she still found the Magnolia Pavilion very peaceful. Perhaps it was just being so near Moon Child, even though her power was waning. Her thoughts were interrupted when she felt a gentle nuzzling in her back. Arian had found his way to her again and was pressing his nose between her shoulder blades. She smiled and let him push her to her feet. She stroked his nose affectionately.

"Arian." She whispered. "I've made a mess of things again. What am I supposed to do now?"

"He's a remarkable steed, but not even he has that answer." It was the Lady of Heaven's Grace. At her side as always was the Knight of Heaven's Charm. The rest of the Eldest stood behind them. Each of them looked weary from battle, their clothes torn, their faces dirty and bruised, and the Knight of the Hidden Thorn seemed to have sustained many wounds from his fight with Dawn and Star. He had returned to his original form, but there were hints of the beast still remaining at the edges of his eyes. But in spite of all their new scars, each lady stood even closer to her knight than they had when Adair first met them.

"I'm sorry." She told them.

The Lady of Heaven's Grace shook her head. "Adair, you have nothing to apologize for."

"But I failed! I lost AURYN, I let him take the tower-"

"What you did was give up all of your power to save a life. There is no shame in that."

The Knight of Heaven's Charm nodded in agreement. "Bravery like yours only comes along once in awhile. Never forget that."

She smiled at that, though she wasn't sure she believed it. She looked to the Lady of the Undying Rose and the Knight of the Hidden Thorn. "What happened to Dawn and Star?"

"They escaped when the battle ended." The Knight growled.

"Take care." the Lady of the Undying Rose warned. "You have not seen the last of them. They will stay their course to enter the Human World no matter what. Their hearts are strong. Foolish, but strong."

"But that's not why we came." The Lady of Heaven's Grace interjected. "We came to see if you have found the Strongest Magic for yourself."

Adair bit her lip. She had not forgotten the way Atreyu had looked at her when she'd given up AURYN. "I thought I had. But he won't forgive me. Not after what I did."

"Did we not just tell you that you did nothing wrong?" The Lady of Two Worlds wagged her finger at her. "Adair, you're far too hard on yourself. If anyone can understand that, it's the one you love."

"You think so?" She asked hopefully.

The Knight of the Other Side stayed his eager Lady from answering. "I think it would be best if we let you discover that yourself. But I believe it's time for us to go?"

The Lady of Heaven's Grace nodded. "Yes, it's time."

"Go?" Adair asked. "Where are you going?"

"We've done what we came to do." The Lady explained. "The rest is up to you."

"Sorry we can't stay." The Knight of Awakening flashed her a grin. "But you know how it goes. The hero must face the ending alone. Darling?" He motioned to the Lady of the Waking Dream. She nodded and closed her eyes, reaching out with her mind. Six grand carriages appeared out of the sky, each pulled by a team of winged horses. Though he could not speak, Arian regarded the magnificent beasts with some jealousy for their wings. One by one they said their good byes to her and stepped into their carriages.

"Goodbye Adair!" Waved the Knight of the Unyielding with his gap-toothed grin.

"It was fun!" Waved the Lady of the Unfailing.

After them was the Lady of the Midnight Hour and the Knight of Tomorrow's Promise. They were followed by the Lady of the Waking Dream and the Knight of Awakening. The Lady of the Undying Rose stopped short of getting into her carriage. Adair had been mistrustful of her and her gruff knight when they had met, but her parting words would remain with her for the rest of her life.

"You have a good heart Adair Alicia Artemis. But everyone has good in their hearts. What makes the difference is those who choose to hide it, and those who let it bloom." Then she and her Knight stepped into their carriage. The Knight of Heaven's Charm and the Lady of Heaven's Grace were all that remained.

"You know what you must do now?" The Lady of Heaven's Grace asked.

Adair shrugged. "Find Atreyu first, but after that I have no idea. I guess it'll work itself out right?"

The Lady smiled proudly. "Exactly." Then her Knight helped her into their carriage and the Eldest took off into the sky, each returning to their own kingdom. They would have many more adventures to come and Fantasia would hear each and every one in time. But those are all other stories for another time.

Adair turned back to the sleeping empress. Perhaps she imagined it, but she believed she saw a small grin touch the ageless girl's face. She gave a slight bow, feeling that some respect was due whether or not she could see it. She hadn't given up on waking her yet, but she knew the first step was in finding Atreyu. She left the Ivory Garden with her head held as high as her hopes.

"Here you are, as promised." Nag hissed as it dropped a crystal phial of water into Atreyu's waiting hands. "It will work as advertised. But how you get her to drink it is up to you. You'll need this as well." The creature reached into its tangled blue hair and produced a rolled up piece of paper. "This is their real ticket home. It's a page from Fay's book. We've enchanted it so that when the moonlight touches the words on it, they'll go straight back to wherever they were before they came here." Atreyu reached for it, but Nag whipped it just out of his reach. "But be warned. If we haven't collected our payment by that time, the moonlight will burn this page to cinders. A deal's a deal after all."

Atreyu snatched the page away with a scowl. "You'll have me soon enough. I keep my promises."

"Of course you do." Nag grinned. "Well you know what to do. When you're ready, just whisper the name into the ring." And then the Witch-Beast was gone.

Atreyu closed his eyes and took in slow deep breaths. He needed to prepare himself for what he was about to do. He needed more time, more time with her, more time to say goodbye, time to figure out what he would say to her. It was time he did not have. When he heard the footsteps coming from the Ivory Garden, he knew they were hers. Adair ran into the council chamber, but stopped when she saw him.

"Atreyu..." She waited for him to recognize her.

He called on what little strength he had left in him to look her in the eye. He prayed she could not see what he was feeling. In that moment, the weight of the world seemed to be pressing down on him. It didn't hit him all at once. Rather it felt like it had been there a long time and he was just now realizing it. He felt tired.

Adair didn't move. She was waiting for something, but he couldn't guess what. Finally she spoke. "I'm sorry."

It occurred to him then that she believed his sudden weariness was her fault, when in fact he'd quite forgotten how betrayed he'd felt only hours ago. He took weary steps to her and threw his arms around her. He was going to miss how strong he felt when he held her this way. He'd miss the feel of her hair between his fingers. Most of all he'd miss that smile he had fought so hard to see. He knew he would never see it again.

"No Adair, I'm sorry. Jason is my friend too, and I never should have judged you for saving him. It was so wrong of me." He could feel her hope rising in her chest as her fear of what he thought of her actions vanished. It felt wrong to lift her up when he knew he had to leave her. Why had he even waited for her? He knew he should have gone straight to Jason and enacted the plan as quickly as possible. Every second she remained here shortened the time she had left. He pulled away from her just enough that they could look into each other's eyes. Then he knew why he had stayed. He wanted to see her one last time. He wanted her face, her eyes, her smile imprinted on his heart forever so he would know in the dark days that stretched ahead of him why he had to do this.

"I never meant to hurt you Adair."

She shook her head. "You didn't. You never could." The lie pierced his heart like the shaft of an arrow. He steeled himself for the blow he was about to deliver to them both. It had to be now.

"It won't happen again." He let go of her and turned away then. He didn't want to see that smile fade. Even though he could hear it die in her voice, he held it in his mind.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean I've arranged for you and Jason to return home."

The silence closed in around them, prodding them, mocking them with its absence of happy words.

"Home?... How? Why? I told you I wanted-"

"To stay with me?" He shook his head, keeping his back turned to her. "That's not possible. We both knew that. You don't belong here."

He heard her choke, trying to speak past the lump forming in her throat. "I thought I belonged with you. I thought I came here for a reason."

"That reason is done. You've done all that you came here to do." This he believed in part to be true. How he wished he could tell her all that she had taught him. He had never questioned his role as a hero. He knew it was something he had to do. But Adair had reminded him why that was so. He reminded him of all that was beautiful in the world that he wanted to protect. But now protecting her meant breaking her heart, breaking both their hearts.

"But... what about you?"

"I'll move on. There are other stories I need to finish."

"Is that all this was?" He couldn't see her, but he could hear the tears starting to fall and it wracked him with guilt to hear her cry. "Was I just part of one of your stories?"

He bit his lip. "Believe that if it will make you leave. Your time in Fantasia is over." He made to leave, but felt her hands take hold of his. She pulled at him, tried to make him stay.

"Don't go. Please, just look at me when you say this. Then I'll know it's true. That you don't love me anymore."

He could not do that. If he turned around now, not only would her smile be gone forever, she would know that every word he spoke was a lie. Then she would never leave. He pulled his hand away from her and left without another word.

After what felt like hours of walking by himself, Jason found Atreyu. He had just missed him as he left the Black Djinn Inn, and had left Falkor in Urgl and Ze'hara's care. He saw Atreyu moving sluggishly toward him, looking for all the world that someone had died. Instantly he became worried for Adair.

"Where is she?" Jason asked earnestly.

"Are you alone?" Atreyu asked with a grave expression. The boy's voice sounded hollow like a recording, lacking all of the conviction Jason had come to associate with him. It made him nod in response without repeating his question.

"Good." Atreyu replied. "What I'm about to tell you, you must swear you won't repeat to anyone. Especially Iole." Jason didn't like where this was heading. In fact he felt like he should run the other way and never look back. But he remained where he was, waiting for Atreyu to explain himself. The once fearless and unshakable warrior from the plains now looked more tired than the oldest of old men Jason had ever met. "I've found a way home for you and Adair."

Jason didn't know how to feel. He wanted to get Adair home certainly, but he hadn't wanted it like this. So many things felt unfinished. He couldn't fathom why Atreyu of all people would be trying to send them back when he had been more determined than anyone to finish the quest.

"We can't leave yet. I thought you wanted to save Fantasia."

"I am saving Fantasia. You and Adair need to go home and share what you learned here with the rest of your world. You're the only hope Fantasia has now."

"Our odds would be better if we could stop Heremoor. If he wins, there won't be a Fantasia left for us to share."

Atreyu nodded. "But the same would be true if you and Adair lose your memories. Adair has worn AURYN for a long time now. I don't know how many she has left. If you don't get her home soon, the Adair you know will disappear forever. She'd be trapped, and all her dreams would vanish with her memories. Living with no dreams is a fate worse than death. You told me once you would rather she returned than risk losing her."

Jason shook his head. "That hasn't changed. But she wants to stay here with you. She'd never leave you."

"I know." Atreyu reached into his leather pouch and produced a small crystal phial of water. "That's why I have this."

"What is that?"

"Listen carefully Jason. You're the only one I can trust with this. This is a memory potion. I need you to give it to Adair. Find a way to make her drink it."

"Are you insane? You think I'd use magic on her?"

"When you know what it does you will, because it's the only way to save her. This potion will take away all her memories of me."

"Now I know you're insane! I thought the point of this was to keep her from losing her memories!"

"She won't lose her memories of Fantasia or what she went through. I just won't be in them." He held it out to Jason, waiting for him to take it. "You'd go back to being the most important person in her life. Without me, you two have a future. That's what you want isn't it?"

"Not like this!"

"Jason please. You think this is easy for me? We have to think of Adair now. The longer she spends here, the less of her remains."

Jason took it slowly. The phial was cool to the touch. "Atreyu, where did you get this?"

"It doesn't matter."

"It matters if this is dark magic. You know the cost this stuff can have."

"It's a cost I'm willing to pay." When Atreyu's eyes met Jason's again, all the fire that had once filled them had flickered out. "Adair will forget all about me and be out of my life forever. What cost could be higher than that?"

Jason shook his head. He didn't know if he wanted to shake Atreyu to his senses or punch him again. He couldn't believe this boy had the nerve to be so self-sacrificing!

"Atreyu, I didn't want it to be this way."

"I know. That's why you're the only one I can trust. You care for her more than anyone."

Jason looked down at the phial, then back to the broken Atreyu."I used to think that. Now I know I could never beat you."

When the battle had ended, Adair had walked through the tower in a haze. Now she didn't feel anything but the constant ache in her chest. What she was doing now couldn't even be called walking. Every few steps she took she would fall to her knees or lean against a wall to cry some more. She had never been one to cry before. Now she felt like she couldn't stop. She felt she was trying to empty a river out of her eyes, that when she cried everything out of herself she would be empty again and not have to feel anything.

Believe that if it will make you leave. Your time in Fantasia is over.

She couldn't get those words out of her head. She didn't want to, but they played over and over in her mind, like someone was shoving them into her face every time she tried to look away.

"How could he say that?" She sobbed. "He told me he loved me, and... he kissed me. He kissed me!" She took another step and fell back to her knees. She didn't get back up this time. "He kissed me!" Her first kiss that had meant so much to her seemed to have been nothing to him. She cursed herself for letting him in, and she cursed him for what he had done. Why had he wasted all this time putting her broken self back together only to smash it to pieces now?

Her tears blurred her vision, but she could vaguely make out a pair of boots stepping in front of her. A hand reached down to help her up, and once she touched it she knew it was Jason's. She looked up at him as he helped her to her feet. He brushed the tears away from her eyes and she threw herself into his arms. Even now she felt guilty, knowing how he truly felt about her and how she had broken his heart. Yet she knew if she didn't hold onto to something solid and warm she would break. He had always been that for her; solid, constant, always there, and she had taken advantage of that all these years. Perhaps it served her right to feel this way. Hadn't she done the same to him?

"Jason I don't know what to do."

"I know." He said. "It'll be alright."

"I wish I'd never come here. I wish it were like before where I didn't care about anything."

"Don't talk like that. Tell me what's wrong."

"I can't."

"You want things to be like before, then trust me like you used to. Tell me what's wrong and I'll try to help."

She didn't have any will left. If he wanted to know, she would tell him even if it would hurt her to say it. Even if it would hurt him to hear it.

"Atreyu... doesn't want me here anymore. I thought... I thought he loved me. I... I..."

She couldn't go on. She didn't need to. Jason knew now. He had seen the light in Atreyu's eyes go out, and after seeing Adair like this he knew exactly what Atreyu had done. But he couldn't bring himself to hate Atreyu for it. As much as he hated seeing Adair in this much pain, he knew it killed Atreyu to break her like this. He had broken both their hearts because he believed he was saving her. He loved Adair that much. It made what he was about to do look easy and selfish. But he had promised Atreyu he would, and he didn't want to see Adair hurting anymore. He held out the crystal phial he carried to her.

"Here. Drink this."

Adair blinked away more of her tears and stared at it. It seemed an odd thing to ask of her at a time like this.

"What is it?"

"It's something Ze'hara gave me." He lied. "She was worried about you. She said it would help with the pain."

She didn't know what that meant. How would Ze'hara know what kind of pain she was in? But she no longer had the strength to think about it. She looked into Jason's eyes for a moment and saw the worry in them. He was still the loyal friend he had always been. She took the phial and popped the cork. Then she drank.

Jason watched her drink and watched her expression change as the water disappeared down her throat. She looked confused and he wondered if there was something strange about the water that would alert her. Yet she drank every drop.

"Feel better?" He asked cautiously.

She took a moment to answer. The look in her eyes made it seem like she was trying to remember something.

"Yeah. I do. I... don't even know why I was so upset."

"Are you sure? You're not upset about anything?"

"Well of course I'm upset we lost the battle, and about what happened to Octavia, but you're right."

"I am?" He asked. "Right about what?"

"We have to go home. We're the last hope Fantasia has. If we don't go home and tell everyone what we learned, Volrac wins."

"And you're sure there's nothing about Fantasia you're going to miss?"

"I'll miss a lot of things. This place... it's beautiful. But I think I learned everything I came here to. That's really all we can do right?"

When Jason spoke it felt like wading through broken glass, stepping carefully. "Yeah. That's all we can do."

"So how do we get back home?"

He took her hand and began to lead her out of the tower while he explained the means by which they'd return to the Human World. As they left the tower, Atreyu watched them from the rooftops. He breathed a sigh of relief when he saw Jason leading her, and her following him without question or worry. She was safe. She was going home. That was all that mattered to him. He took the ring from his pocket, held it to his lips and whispered a vile name that is best left unwritten. The moment the name left his lips, he was gone as if he had never been.

"Are you sure we shouldn't look for Iole before we go?" Adair asked.

"No. I already told her. She can find her own way back... I think."

The two of them had made it to the outskirts of the Infinite Garden without being seen. Jason had intentionally taken them through the back roads so they wouldn't run into anyone. It pained him to leave without saying goodbye to any of their friends. He felt especially rotten about leaving Falkor behind without knowing if he would ever recover from his illness. But he didn't wish to risk what questions they might ask. The moment they realized she no longer remembered Atreyu, it would get back to Iole. And the White Dragon knew dark magic when she saw it. She could practically smell it on others. Not only that, he didn't want that knowledge to hurt Adair. So they left the Ivory Tower quietly, like thieves in the night. They had managed to make it all the way to the edge of the Infinite Garden without being noticed. But they hadn't completely escaped notice. Jason cast one last look towards the tower and saw that they were being followed. He cursed under his breath.

"What is it?"

He pointed to the intruder closing in on them. "It's that stupid horse of yours. He's like a dog sometimes."

Arian crossed the last crest of hills and loped down after them. He nudged Adair with his nose. She laughed and pet him.

"I wish I could take you with me boy." Arian whinnied nervously. Adair looked to Jason. "Is there anything we can do for him?"

Jason shrugged. "He's one of your stories. You finish it."

"But I don't have AURYN anymore."

Jason looked down at the talisman hanging from his neck and sighed. "The things I do for you."

He held AURYN in his hand and placed his other hand on Arian. "Alright... you got anything for me to go on?"

"He's always wanted to fly."

"How could you possibly know that?" She put her hands on her hips. "Alright. You want to fly. I think that can happen... and you'll need a story to go with it." He closed his eyes and tried to picture a story. He knew Arian would need something heroic to do for someone else. He tried to picture the saddest, most miserable individual in need of saving. Not a glittering princess waiting for some prince, but someone even lonelier who just needed a friend. Arian would make a loyal companion to someone like that. "Somewhere far away from here in... Spook City there's a young goblin slave. He's always worked for a hideous ogre overlord. But that ogre's been away fighting here in the Ivory Tower and no one has heard from him in a long time. The goblin boy's still trapped in his mansion, locked in a broom closet, being tormented by ghosts. He needs you to take him far away from that horrible city and find a place where he can be happy."

Before their eyes, light shone from Arian's back. A beautiful pair of white feathered wings sprouted from his back. He jumped about in excitement, nudging Jason to thank him. Then he trotted to Adair and nudged her as well as if he were waiting for her approval. Waiting for her to say he could go.

"Go on. I'll be fine." She smiled. "There's a goblin boy in Spook City that needs you. Go get him."

Arian nuzzled her one last time before galloping away. They watched him take off and it did something to lift their spirits to watch Arian the stallion become Arian the pegasus.

Adair hugged Jason then, something he wasn't sure he'd ever get used to. He liked it, it was just strange to see her so open with others now. He had tried to hug her in the past, but she had shrunk away like a frightened animal. He remembered his conversation with Bastian about how a time would come when Adair would show him all the sides of her she had kept hidden before. It was with a guilty weight in his chest that he remembered if it hadn't been for Atreyu, she never would have opened up this way. And now she no longer remembered what he had done for her. He resented Atreyu for putting him in this position.

"Thank you Jason."

"For what?"

"For everything. For sticking by me all this time. I know I didn't make it very easy on you."

"What are friends for?"

"Yeah... friends." The way she said it sounded strange, longing and hopeful.

"What is it?"

"I was just thinking... we've been through a lot here. Maybe when we get home we can try being more than friends."

There it was, what he'd waited years to hear her say. He'd pictured it for so long, but there was no joy in his heart for it like he'd imagined. There was only conflict. He didn't know what to say to her. Too many things were going through his mind. The Adair he had remembered never would have spoken about her feelings so boldly. She never would have felt this free even with him. What had Atreyu done that he hadn't been able to? Why had he reached her when he hadn't managed to for ten years? Would she stay this way now that he was no longer in her life? Even if she did, Jason didn't feel he could own up to her happiness. There would always be that flicker of doubt.

"We've got some time before the moon rises." He said. "I'll be right back."

She seemed confused by his sudden stand-offish manner. "Alright."

He went a ways off until he was sure she couldn't see or hear him. Then he took AURYN in his hand again. He looked at the two snakes as though he expected them to release the tails in their mouths and talk to him.

"Look here." He spoke to it sternly, not caring that he must look completely crazy. There was no one around to see. "We both know that wish I made just now was for her. I don't know what memory you took from me, and pretty soon it won't matter. But right now I'm going to make a wish for me, and it will be the last wish I ever make with your power. So here's what's going to happen. You're going to grant this wish, and it will work the way I want it to. After that you can take whatever you want from me. Are we clear?" The Gem said nothing back to him of course, but he still believed it heard him. He held it close to his face and whispered his wish into it.

Adair saw Jason coming back to her. She got to her feet and dusted herself off. She gave him a smile.

"Ready to go?"

He said nothing. Instead he took her by the shoulders and kissed her. She was surprised, but she didn't fight it. It was what she wanted wasn't it? After everything they'd been through, wasn't it natural for her to have fallen for him? It had taken her a long time, but she had discovered her heart again, and that heart cared for Jason deeply. Yet when she kissed him back, it felt wrong somehow. Why? Why was this feeling getting in the way of her being happy? Why was it stopping them? In the back of her mind she fought to understand. It was like she was fumbling through a tunnel where the only light that can be seen is at the exit. She pressed toward that light. She fought the strange numb feelings that were clouding her mind. Then she found it. It was like she'd left the tunnel and entered a sun filled valley. Her eyes flashed open and started blinking rapidly as images raced back into her mind. She saw what it was that had stopped her from giving in to her feelings for Jason. It wasn't that she didn't love him. It was that she'd already given her heart to someone she loved more. She could see his face, his steady dark eyes, and with those eyes came a name she couldn't believe she had forgotten.

She pulled away from Jason. "Atreyu."

Jason's face fell. He looked saddened, but not at all surprised. "Right."

"Jason, what happened?"

He pointed to AURYN. "I got my wish. I wanted to see if you and me could ever work like you and him would. I guess I got my answer."

That feeling of wanting to be with him hadn't left her, and seeing his disappointment still pained her. "Jason I'm so sorry."

"Don't. I just want you to be happy. Even if it's not with me." He turned away from her and motioned for her to follow him.

"Come on. Let's go find that idiot."

He heard a thud and turned around. Terror struck him like lightning when he saw Adair on the ground. He rushed to her side and gathered her in his arms, brushing her hair from her face. Her eyes were closed. She was breathing, but she wasn't waking up.

"Adair? Adair! Wake up! Come on Adair, don't do this! Come on! What's wrong?! ADAIR!"

"Adair. Adair wake up. You're going to be late."

That gentle voice roused her from sleep. She stretched and sat up in her bed. She smiled at the woman who had woken her with a kiss on her forehead.

"Good morning."

She rubbed her eyes and gave the woman a tired smile. "Morning Mom."

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