The Strongest Magic

Chapter 21: The Real Thing

"Up, Up, up!" Diana cooed as she drew back the curtains of her daughter's bedroom, letting light flood into it. "You're going to be late for school."

Adair rubbed her eyes. "I'm up. I'm up."

Diana came around her bedside to look at the canvas stationed on the easel. "Is this why you're so tired this morning?"

"Maybe." She replied with a guilty smile.

Diana admired the painting with a thoughtful finger under her chin. "I like it. Did you do that all in one night?"

"Maybe." Adair said again.

"What are these purple things in the distance?"


"Buffalo?" Diana laughed. "Why purple buffalo?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. That just felt right."

"You come up with the strangest things sometimes. How did you get the grass to change colors like that?" She indicated the way the grass shifted from green to gold in the sunlight.

"It's a new technique I learned in class last week."

Diana smiled with pride at the painting. "Well as good as it is, it's still my job as your mother to make sure you're getting your rest. That means putting your brush down at a reasonable hour. Now hurry and get dressed or your friends will leave without you."

"Yes ma'am." She said with a grin as she pulled her shirt over her head. "Mom?" She called as Diana was just about to head out the door. Her mother turned back. "I love you."

Diana was surprised, but delighted all the same. "What brought that on all of a sudden?"

"I just... feel like I haven't said it in awhile."

Diana nodded. "I love you too sweetheart. Now hurry up."

Adair dressed quickly and made a halfhearted attempt to brush her hair, brushed her teeth thoroughly, and then headed down the stairs. Her father was just finishing up breakfast and was straightening his tie.

"Good morning Daisy."

"Dad I'm not a little girl anymore. Can you please just call me Adair."

"Anything you say Daisy. Don't forget to grab some breakfast on your way out."

She waved the granola bar she'd taken from the kitchen.

He scowled at her. "I don't think that counts."

"Bye Dad. Love you."

"Love you too." He called.

"Don't forget!" Her mother called. "We're going to your Aunt Rosemary's this weekend, so pack some clothes."

"Do I have to go?" She only half argued.

"Yes you do." Her mother scolded. "You promised your cousins you'd visit. They miss you."

"I guess." She waved goodbye and made her way to the corner of her block where her friends were waiting for her.

"It's about time." said a dark haired girl with a pair of green eyes that stood out in her dark complexion.

"Morning to you too Deisha."

"Maybe we should start giving you a wake up call." Deisha had a style as free-spirited as she was. There was never any less than seven colors in her blouse.

"You're only slightly better." Said the boy next to her. They shared the same dark hair and deep tan, but his eyes were dark. "She doesn't have anyone to splash water in her face to wake her up." As always he wore a pair of faded blue jeans that fit him just right, and a leather jacket over a plain T-shirt. It made him look cool and at ease, but Adair knew there was a boyish side to him, one that she loved to bring into the open.

Deisha socked her brother in the arm. "Keep it up Atreyu. I know all of your secrets, and the next time you splash me, Adair will too."

Atreyu's face flushed red. "What secrets? I don't know what you're talking about!"

Adair shot him a mischievous grin. "Every boy has secrets Atreyu. So be nice to your sister." Both girls laughed at that.

Jason placed a sympathetic hand on Atreyu's shoulder. "Face it Atreyu. Girls are pure evil. I don't care if she is your girlfriend."

Adair slipped her hand into Atreyu's and started pulling him along. "Don't worry. If Deisha ever tells me anything, I promise I won't laugh."

Deisha smiled. "I wouldn't be so sure."

"Lay off him she-devil. Poor guy already has to live with you." Jason teased. Deisha was not amused by the nickname.

"Did you get those photos I asked you to? I'm not flunking this project because you blew off your half of the work this weekend."

"Relax. It's not due for another three days."

Deisha was fuming. "Meaning you haven't gotten them yet?!" The two of them went on ahead so she could yell at him. Jason in turn would simply tell her she was cute when she was angry, which would only infuriate her further. Adair and Atreyu hung back, walking hand in hand.

"I wonder if those two will ever get along." Atreyu sighed.

"They get along." Adair said with a smile. "In their way."

"I guess you're right. So are we still on for the movies tonight?"

She groaned as she remembered her promise. "My mom just reminded me. We're visiting my aunt this weekend. I have to pack when I get home."

"Oh. Well what if I come and help you?"

"You want to help me go through my clothes?" She asked, and tried to look surprised.

He turned red when he realized the implication. "No I didn't mean it like that!" She burst into laughter and he realized she'd caught him in a trap. She just couldn't resist making him blush.

"You're too easy."

He frowned. "Jason's right. Girls are evil."

She gave him a quick peck on the cheek. "But you love me anyway."

He smiled in his shy way and the two of them caught up to the others. They made it to the school and waved to each other as they separated for their classes. Jason and Adair walked together since they had the same first hour.

"What's that smile for?" Jason asked.

"Nothing." She lied.

He rolled eyes. "You two. It's kind of sickening."

She frowned and looked at him. "Are you sure you're okay with this?"

He looked surprised. "You mean you and Atreyu? Totally. The guy's like my brother. And I remember what it was like when you and me dated. It was fun, but it just got awkward." He smiled. "I'm good with this. I just wish..." He trailed off.

"Yes?" she prodded.

"I just wish Deisha didn't have to hang out with us all the time now."

Adair shoved him lightly. "You like her."

"I like bacon. Bacon doesn't hit me."

Adair suppressed a yawn but Jason caught it anyway.

"Hey come on. Don't do that. The day just started. Wake up."

"Wake up! Wake up!" Jason shook Adair but it was no use. She lay sleeping as if dead in his arms. If it weren't for her deep rhythmic breathing he would have feared the worst. "Come on why won't you wake up?"

"What happened?" It was Iole. She must have flown to them to have arrived so quickly and without him knowing. She crouched near him and laid a hand on Adair's shoulder. The instant she did, she recoiled back and narrowed her eyes at Jason.

"You idiot." She said in a dark low voice. "What did you do?"

Not knowing how to explain, he reached into his pocket and handed her the empty phial he had tricked Adair to drink from. She grasped it tightly in her fingers and closed her eyes. He could see her eyes flickering beneath her eyelids like she was reading a story on the back of them. When she opened her eyes she glared at him again.

"I apologize. You're BOTH idiots!" She barked as she hurled the phial to the ground where it shattered. "Do you have any idea what you've both done?"

Jason shook his head. "I just did what Atreyu said. He said it was the only way to get her home."

"That's not your decision to make!" He had never seen Iole this angry. "Do you realize you just used dark magic to compel another's will? I could kill you for that!"

"What did it do?"

"Exactly what it was supposed to. Atreyu knew forcing her to leave would break her heart, so he made a deal for this potion to protect her. It erased her memories of him, but when you kissed her it brought them all back. So the spell found another way to 'protect' her. She's trapped in a dream world."

"I thought Fantasia was the dream world."

She clenched her fist and he flinched. "Don't try to get technical with me right now. She's in a fake world made from her wishes. In there, all the problems she worries about the most don't exist."

"Then how do we get her out?"

"We don't. This is the deal Atreyu made. You can't undo it. The only way she can wake up is if she realizes that world she's in is fake. Then she has to choose to leave it. I've seen this before. I can't tell you how many I've lost because they decided not to come back."

"Then maybe Atreyu can wake her up. If he made the deal, he can undo it."

"And how do you propose we find him?"

"He's still at the tower isn't he?"

Iole snickered darkly. "So he didn't tell you about his end of the deal."

"What are you talking about?"

"His payment! You think the Seekers would give him something for nothing? He traded himself to get you that potion and your way home. He's with them now, and who knows what they're doing to him. He's their property."

Jason's head began to spin. He had seen that Atreyu had been broken, but he never would have believed he would do something so desperate. But then again, it was his way to take the hardest path for himself so others wouldn't have to suffer.

"You jerk." he growled. He beat his fist against the ground. "You jerk! What makes you so special that you can take all the bad on by yourself! Don't you care about what happens to you? Don't you care how it makes the rest of us feel?!" He looked back to Iole. "We need to get to the Forest of Thorns. They probably have him in the Nightmare Castle."

"No they don't. That's Volrac's castle. They'd have a place for themselves. Somewhere safe that Volrac doesn't know about so they can do their experiments in peace."

"Where are they? You're the Witch hunter. Where do we start looking?"

"I've been tracking them longer than you've been alive. If there's one thing they're good at, it's covering their tracks. They don't want me to find them, and a lot of their magic goes into making sure I don't."

"I know where to find them." Both of their heads snapped in the direction of the voice. Hiding just around the hedge was a freckled woman with long red curls. She peered quietly around the corner like she'd been there all along. Both Jason and Iole leaped to their feet. He had his sword out in a flash and she had her arms morphed into claws even quicker.

"Who are you?" Jason demanded.

"A friend."

"Then step out here where we can see you." Iole snapped.

The woman stepped into view. She wore a white blouse under a red vest, and a long red wool skirt. Her long rose-gold curls and freckled face seemed plain at first, but her smile lit her features with hidden beauty. There was something warm and motherly about her face that made Jason want to trust her. But he was still hesitant.

"How do you know where to find the Seekers?"

"Because I've been to their castle before. I used to serve them."

"Used to? This sounds like a trap."

"I imagine it would." She confessed. "Unfortunately I don't have anything to give you but my word that I want to help Adair more than anything. You could say I owe her."

"Owe her? How?"

"I walked a very dark path once. If it weren't for her, I would still be on it."

Jason looked to Iole. "Well?"

"I don't smell any demons on her. But that doesn't mean she's telling the truth." She waited for him to make the call. Sadly, Iole didn't have much room in her heart for trust. This would have to be Jason's decision.

"Where are they?"

The woman smiled with relief. "You'll find them in a castle that is east of the sun and west of the moon. But I don't know how you'll reach it. You must travel very fast to find it."

"I've got us covered." Iole assured them.

"Then go." The woman urged. "The longer you wait, the further Adair's heart slips away. If you don't find the one she loves soon, she'll be unreachable."

Iole nodded to Jason. "Get her on my back quickly."

"Wait, we don't even know your name." Jason inquired. It may have been an odd thing to worry about with time running so short, but he felt like he should know who to thank if she could be trusted.

She smiled at him and said, "You can call me Matilda."

Cold was the first thing Atreyu became aware of. The moment he had used the ring, he'd felt himself pulled forward into nothing. Now he was on his hands and knees on a cold slick floor. Shivering, he took in his surroundings. He was in some kind of castle, of that he was sure. These fortresses of stone had always felt like a prison to him. But this was not the Castle of Nightmares as he'd expected. Its floor was black and white, checkered in some places, swirled in others, but in most places fragmented. It wasn't lit by torchlight, but rather by crystals that seemed to float in the air and give off ambient light. There were strange paintings on the walls of faces that may have once been beautiful but were now contorted in twisted ugly expressions. Some of them looked like they were laughing at him, others like they were crying for him.

The corridors and chambers made no sense, lined with twisting columns and walls that wound around each other. They seemed not to be made from stone, but rather from quartz. The entire castle was made from thick white crystal and black obsidian rock.

"Ah good." Came Thoth's voice as Atreyu's three captors appeared in the chamber with him. "He's arrived, mostly undamaged." He reached for his tattered vest and opened it. Its inner layer was lined with innumerable pockets that each held a tool. From one of these pockets he produced a long curved dagger. He handed it off to Nag. "Nag, if you please."

"I do." the Witch-Beast held the knife over their prisoner, its eyes gleaming with cruel excitement. Roughly it grabbed a handful of Atreyu's dark hair. Before he could blink, Nag slashed a lock of it away. It held the stolen hair between its claws and lifted it to its nose, inhaling its scent deeply. Without explanation it plucked one of its own long blue hairs and added it to Atreyu's. It returned to its associates. "Now yours."

Thoth reached for one of his greasy brown hairs and plucked a strand which he handed to Nag. Last was Fay who took one of the hairs from her purple streak. Nag took the new hairs and bound them around Atreyu's.

"What is that for?" Atreyu asked stoically. He'd already resigned himself to whatever fate they had planned for him.

"Just a bit of insurance." Thoth grinned. "Can't have you running away now can we?"

Nag twisted the lock of hair, then laid it flat on its palm. It had acquired a magical gleam. With a gust of its breath, the hairs flew from its hand toward Atreyu. They shimmered and snaked their way around his neck and wrists. Shadowy manacles appeared in their place, and then they vanished. That is to say, they were gone from the naked eye, but Atreyu's contract with the Circle of the Night was now more binding than ever.

"I already told you I had accepted my fate."

"Ah-ah-ah." Nag scolded,clenching its fingers. Atreyu suddenly found his mouth clamped shut. Try as he might, he could not open it. "You belong to us now." With a flick of its wrist, Atreyu found himself compelled to return to his hands and knees. Nag cackled as it took a seat on his shoulders, using the once proud boy warrior as a foot stool. "From now on, you only speak when we want you to. You only move when we want you to. You do what we tell you. Now let's see. What game shall we play first?"

"If there are games to be played, they are mine first." Said Fay. "Did you forget? I won the bet."

Nag snarled. "No I didn't forget. I was going to make him pay for it."

"Come come Nag, be a sport." Thoth said nonchalantly. "Fay won the wager fair and square." He clapped his hands twice. "Release him and let her have her turn."

Nag pouted, but stood up and snapped its fingers. Atreyu felt the spell's compulsion disappear. He rose on shaky knees back to his feet and stared back at his captors defiantly.

"Oooo those eyes." Nag's voice quivered with annoyance. It seized Atreyu's hair once more and drew its face right next to his. Its fetid breath made his stomach turn. "I can't wait to break all the spirit out of them."

"Nag." Fay snapped.

"You and I are going to have so much fun later. I promise you." Then Nag released him and stalked back to stand by Thoth.

Fay stood in front of Atreyu and stared at him with her cold blue eyes. They carried the same expression they always did; half disinterested, and half like she was expecting something.

"Leave us."

"As you wish M'dear. Come along Nag. I'm sure you can find other amusements while you wait your turn with our new subject."

Once they left the chamber, Fay went to close the doors. She turned back to him and stood in front of him.

"I need you to do something for me. Think of something... precious."

A thought came unbidden to his head then, not because she had requested it but because the very word precious made him think of Adair. Her hazel green eyes filled his mind and made his heart ache, but at the same time he took comfort that the last he had seen of her she had been smiling. This seemed to be all that Fay needed. She placed her hand on the side of his face and a soft white glow came from her palm. He could feel the cuts and bruises on his face vanishing. She ran her hand over the other wounds he'd received in the battle and he felt them close as well. She even ran her small white hand over the part of his hair that Nag had cut away. It was restored as though it had never been severed. Then she took his hand in both of hers. A strange tingling sensation crawled from her touch all over his body. When he looked down, he found that his clothes had changed. He now wore a tunic of white silk with gold scroll-work along its hem and sleeves.

He regarded her with great suspicion. He had expected cruelty. What did she hope to gain by showing him kindness?

"What is this?"

"A possibility. I'm going to give you a way out of your contract."

"And why would you do that?"

"Because you're going to do something for me. You're going to show me the strongest magic. It is the only power strong enough to break our bonds that hold you. It's the most powerful force in the world." She took a step back and locked her icy blue stare on him. "Kiss me."


"Kiss me. I have traveled many worlds and seen more of magic than you could ever dream. And in no world have I found one more powerful than love. But here in the realm of fantasy and dreams, it is at its strongest. This is the world that gives it power. It's why I came here. I've wanted that power for myself. For years I've worked on perfecting this spell. All I need now is a hero to kiss me. You are the hero of the story. By kissing me, you name me the heroine."

"Why not just force me to kiss you?" Atreyu asked, unable to believe the delusion of what he was hearing.

"It doesn't work that way. The strongest magic can't be forced. Our contract binds your body and soul, but not your heart."

He glowered at her. "If you know so much about love, then you already know my heart belongs to another. It's why I'm here in the first place."

"Another who is gone from this world. One who's forgotten all about you. You can learn to love again. I've seen it happen before."

"Why me? Do you even love me?" He didn't need an answer for that one. He knew this heartless girl had never loved a thing in her life. It's why the feeling perplexed her so, he was sure of it.

"I can learn to. You could be the one to teach me how. I'll admit, you possess traits that impress me. With the strongest magic binding us, we will be unstoppable. You'd be free to do as you please. Nag, Thoth, even Volrac himself could not hope to stand in our way."

"You would turn on your own companions?" He asked in disgust.

"Why not? They're nothing to me. Both of them are incapable of love, so they are of no real use to me once I have it."

"You speak of love as if it is something you can own, but it can't be bought so cheaply." He turned away from her. "I don't care if I spend a hundred years in this castle with you, I will never kiss you."

"You may want to think about what you're saying. Nag plans to torture your body and Thoth aims to break your mind. And trust me when I say you don't want any part of what I can do to you. You will face agony unlike any you've ever felt as our slave. But as my lover, you will rule Fantasia." He shot a her a bitter look. "Or protect it. Whatever you like." She placed her hand on his shoulder. "All you have to do is agree to be mine. Then I will do whatever you wish." For the first time he'd known her, there almost seemed to be real feeling in her words. Perhaps something underneath the layer of ice and wickedness was still close to human. Perhaps it was pleading to him to save it. He laid his fingers over hers. They were small and cold, like a child lost in the snow. It was hard to imagine those small thin fingers were capable of the cruelty he'd seen her enact. But one look into her cold dead eyes told him plainly he could not do what she asked.

"You are to be pitied Fay." She showed no reaction on her face, but he could see the black fur along the tail under her skirt bristle with resentment. Perhaps one day she could be reached, that lingering piece of her heart saved. But it would not be by him. "You will never understand what it means to love. It's not a spell for you to weave and play with. It is pure and sacred. I will not disgrace what Adair and I share by accepting less." He shrugged her hand off his shoulder and stepped back. "And I will never give my heart to someone as cold and selfish as you."

She stared back into his eyes, and her gaze was searching this time. What she sought he could not be sure. Perhaps a weakness, something she could say that would convince him. She didn't find it. He steeled his dark eyes against her. His heart belonged to Adair forever, and he would spend the rest of his days in this castle guarding it from her.

She stalked to the door and flung it open. "Nag!" She called.

The Witch-Beast returned in a flash. "Yes?"

"I've changed my mind." She reported. The two of them rounded on Atreyu with venomous stares. "Let's play with him together."

Adair slid her books back into her backpack as the final bell rang. The other students including Jason couldn't get out fast enough.

"Don't forget to finish your research for your papers!" The teacher called to them as they went. "Your rough drafts are due Monday."

"Aye-aye Sensei." Jason gave her a two -fingered salute on his way out.

"I mean it." She warned. "Or I'll show you first hand how Ivan the Terrible punished insubordination. One minute Adair, would you mind staying after class? I won't keep you long."

Adair looked to Jason. He shrugged and she nodded that it was alright for him to go.

"Go tell them I'll catch up with you guys." She waited for Jason to leave then turned to her teacher. "You wanted to see me Miss Tipp?"

Her teacher held her hand up as if to wave away the offending formality. "School's over Adair. Iole is just fine." She came around her desk and leaned back into it, folding her arms. She had a black buttoned blazer on, but no matter where she went she always wore jeans. Some said it was an unprofessional look for a teacher, but Iole had never much cared what others thought.

"I just wanted to catch up and talk, mostly about you and Atreyu. So the two of you are getting pretty serious?"

Adair could feel the heat rising in her face.

"Why do you ask?"

"Come on Adair," Iole winked. "I wouldn't be much of a Godmother if I didn't ask about these things. So how is everything on that front?"

She struggled to find the right words. "Good..."

"And how does he treat you?"

"Really good." Iole raised an eyebrow at her. "Really. He treats me just fine. He opens doors for me, he's always polite when he talks to me. He's so gentle. Honestly I'm probably worse to him."

"How's that?"

"I don't know. He's so easy to tease. He gets embarrassed over little things. He'd probably turn all red if he knew we were having this talk."

Iole smiled. "He sounds like a sweet kid."

"He is. Honest, you have nothing to worry about."

"Alright, I trust you. Just promise me something. Before you take any other steps, make sure it's the real thing."

Adair didn't know how to take that, but she nodded anyway and waved goodbye.

"Give my best to your folks for me."

"Will do. We're going to my Aunt's this weekend."

"Rosemary? Good. Tell her hi for me and tell your cousin Bryan I want my game back."

As she made her way out of the classroom and to the front gates of the school, she turned Iole's words over and over in her head. Her godmother did have a way of making her think. She also had a way of making her feel paranoid. The real thing? What could she have meant by that? Atreyu was the perfect boyfriend. She'd never felt the same way about anyone else. What could be more real? Just as she was thinking on this, she found him waiting for her just outside the gates, seated on the curb.

"Where's Jason and Deisha?" she asked.

"They went on ahead." Atreyu explained. "I wanted to wait for you." He stood up and offered her his hand. "Can I walk you home?"

She smiled. "Like you need to ask." She took his hand and they walked together quietly for about a block before he noticed something was on her mind.

"Everything alright?"


"You've just been pretty quiet."

"Oh yeah I'm fine. I was just thinking."

"About what?"

"About something Iole said."

"Miss Tipp? What did she say?"

Adair paused. She couldn't pass up this opportunity. "She said you should buck up and just propose already." There it was. His face turned red as a tomato and his dark eyes went wide.

"Propose? But we're still in high school! I thought you wanted..." He frowned when he saw her smirking at him, trying to stop herself from laughing outright. "You were teasing again. You should stop that."

"Or what?" She dared him.

"Or this." Without warning he let go of her hand and assaulted the sides of her ribs with his fingers. She dropped her bag and flinched reflexively as he tickled her. She pulled away and ran ahead of him, but he was right behind her, then in front of her. He was easily faster than her. She ran around one of the lamp posts that lined the street to put a barrier between them. They circled it, he trying to get around it to her while she tried to evade him. They wore mischievous grins as they tried to outmaneuver each other. She made a break for it, but he had her wrist before she could make it. She pulled against him with all of her weight and they both tumbled into the grass by the sidewalk, laughing like children. They lay side by side and stared up at nothing in particular. He wedged his arm beneath her so he could put his hand on her shoulder.

"So what did she really say?" He pressed again.

"She's just being god-motherly. She was asking me about how things were going with us."

"And that's what has you so quiet?"

"Well no... It's not really what she said, it was the way she said it. She wants me to make sure that what we have is the real thing."

Atreyu nodded, though he seemed confused. "So what did you say?"

"I didn't really say anything."

"What do you think? Are we real?"

Yes is what she wanted to say. It was right on the edge of her tongue. So why didn't she?


"Why are you so concerned?"

"I'm not. I know what we have is real. I just want to make sure you do."

She grinned a sly grin. "Then why don't you show me."

His dark eyes were serious. Everything about life, even the things that seemed small or trivial to her seemed to carry great weight to him. It was always life or death it seemed. He leaned forward and kissed her. It was without reservation, but it was also gentle and calm. She kissed him back and as she did she wondered why she had let what Iole said bother her. The silly old dragon-lady was probably just-

Dragon? What dragon? Iole? Why would I...?

"Adair, are you alright?" He looked embarrassed. "Was I too forward?"

"No." She shook her head.

"Was it not... as good for you?"

"No, it's always good. You're always good." She smiled and tried to shake away the strange thoughts that were troubling her. "Always feels like the first time."

First time? When was our first kiss?

As she tried to pull the memory into focus, she saw a grand white tower reaching into the heavens, as tall as a mountain and as great as a whole city. In that tower was a room with a glittering ceiling, dark blue like the night sky with glimmering crystals meant to look like stars. It was a beautiful place, one that she didn't remember visiting. Yet she could see herself and Atreyu dancing there on the floor. They were surrounded by strange characters, people and creatures out of fairy tale. He was pulling her close and kissing her. That was their first kiss. As she focused, she saw more. A strange creature with the head of a lion and pearly pink and white scales, and eyes that shone like rubies. There were three knights in golden armor, purple buffalo, strange furry creatures with baby blue eyes that breathed fire and liked to play in meadows, there were sprites and nature spirits, elves, giants made of rock, witches, dragons, gnomes, a fairy with chestnut eyes and a dress made from autumn leaves. They were real. She and Atreyu were in the middle of it. This was where they had met. This was where they had fallen in love and shared their first kiss. It was here in this magical land. And this land had a name.

"Fantasia." She whispered.

Atreyu frowned. "What?"

"Fantasia." she repeated, louder this time. How could she have forgotten? "I have to go back!" She fought to get to her feet. He was hanging onto her.

"Adair, what's wrong?" He asked urgently. He got to his feet and tried to pull her with him. "Come with me. You're not well. Let's get you home."

"That's not my home. Those aren't my parents. My parents died ten years ago."

"What are you talking about? You just talked to them this morning!" Whether he was angry or frightened she couldn't tell. He was worried about something, that was certain.

"No! I have to get out of here. Where's Jason? Where's Iole? She'll know what's going on."

"Jason is heading to my house with Deisha to work on their project. Iole's probably at school grading papers."

She shook her head frantically. "No she's not. She's in Fantasia! They all are! I have to get back there and help them!"

Something in the air was changing the clearer things became. It was as if she were stripping away the wallpaper of this false world, this stage play that had been put on for her. Bit by bit the sky fell away. She watched as it split down the middle all the way to the ground. What was behind the curtain was dark and uncertain, but it was a way out. She took a step toward it, but Atreyu, or what she had believed was Atreyu took a firm hold on her wrist.

"I don't understand. Isn't this what you wanted? Isn't this better?"

She looked into his eyes and smiled sadly. She felt tears in her eyes as she thought about the parts of this world that she had liked. Jason was happy here, Deisha was happy, she and Atreyu had a future together. Her parents were part of her life here. She was grateful she had told her parents she loved them this morning because she knew she was never going to see them again.

"It's wonderful here." She admitted. "But it's not real." She turned again, but he persisted, still pulling her back.

"Please stay here. Forget Fantasia."

She wrenched her hand free again. "Now I don't have any doubts. Because the Atreyu I love would never say that."

With the last of her doubts whisked away, the illusion was dispelled. It shattered all around her like glass. But what she saw on the outside was not Fantasia. She couldn't see anything. There was only darkness. She turned her head this way and that, but could see no one. She tried to move, to find a way out, but she found she couldn't. Something was holding her. Her feet felt so heavy.

You just couldn't be happy could you.

She could hear a voice, but she didn't know where it was coming from. It sounded more like it was in her head, or being whispered right into her ear. It was low, but it was female.

You're such a strange child. The voice whispered. Tell me, do you enjoy your misery so much

Then Adair saw what lurked in the darkness. It was a woman, shrouded in shadow. Her long black gown billowed around her like smoke, as did her pale hair. It glowed softly like moonlight. She might have been called beautiful if not for her eyes. They were the color of flame with black slits in the middle. Everything wrong with the world; hate, jealousy, apathy, greed, all seemed to exist in those smoldering eyes. Worse yet, they were eyes Adair had seen before.

"You..." her voice came out hoarse and weak. She felt more fear in the presence of this woman... this thing than she had ever felt before. And Adair was one who had let fear rule her for a decade. "You're the one the Circle of the Night serves... The Manipulator. Who are you?"

A hideous smile twitched at the corner of the woman's lips.

I have many names, and I come from many worlds. I exist wherever there is darkness.

She moved around Adair, circling her. She didn't walk, but rather she floated. Her dark gown and white hair floated with her. The way she moved reminded Adair of a corpse drifting in water.

As you've seen, I exist plenty in vessels such as these.

She waved her ghostly fingers, and the darkness around Adair receded. There were others now. She could see Nag, Thoth, and Fay. Yet it was not them. Their eyes were blank like a doll's. In that respect, Fay was much the same as she was on the outside. There were others as well. She saw Heremoor, both as the knight who had betrayed her and as the wolf she feared. Chember the Butcher, the Witch Shadeseeker, everyone she had met in Fantasia whose hearts were poisoned with darkness.

But I also reside in places you have not guessed.

As she drifted around in a circle, Adair turned with her, as though the only movement she was allowed was what the specter wanted her to see. The darkness peeled back again and Adair could see others. But these were the faces of people she loved. Jason, Iole, Deisha, Rosemary, Bryan, Jamie, even Atreyu. Adair shook her head in disbelief.

"No. That's not true."

Oh but it is. She drifted in front of her this time. I even exist here.

This time the shadows pulled away from the specter herself. But it was not the white haired woman standing there when they did. Adair's own face stared back at her. Her own face with those flame colored eyes. Adair felt her knees shaking. Tears began to streak down her face.


Yes Adair Alicia Artemis. Your heart is rich with darkness.

"You're lying! I'm not like you! I've never done anything wrong!" She knew she wasn't perfect, but Adair had never considered her heart to be dark.

Oh no, quite right. You did worse than wrong. You did nothing.

Nothing. When Adair heard that word, a lifetime of mistakes started to flash before her eyes. So many times she could see now that others had reached out to her and she had pushed them away. There had been others who had needed her to reach out to them, or just share kind words. She had ignored each and every one. She fell to her knees then.

Sloth is a terrible sin Adair. One you have wallowed in like a pig in filth.

Something was digging at her now, piercing her flesh. She looked down and was overcome with horror. Black vines were entangling her legs and binding her arms. Their thorns cut into her and she felt her blood begin to trickle. They moved on their own, snaring more and more of her. In no time at all they were tightening around her neck.

And you have done so for ten years. And now there's nothing you can do.

"I wouldn't say nothing." There was a new voice in the darkness now. With that voice came a light. It was a small voice, calm and youthful. With what little movement the vines afforded her, Adair turned her head toward the light. Standing in the middle of it was a small girl in an ample white dress that gleamed in the light. Her hair was as white as snow and fell around her shoulders. She looked no older than ten, but there was wisdom and serenity in her golden eyes.

"Moon Child." Adair breathed. The Childlike Empress of Fantasia was here.

"Still up to your old tricks." Moon Child said with a smile.

The specter had returned to her shadowy white haired form.

As are you I see.

"You have no right to be here." Moon Child said, and it was almost eerie how calm she was in the face of overwhelming evil. "So you should leave while you still can."

You and your kind are always so quick to remind me of what I can and cannot do. The dark woman said with a sneer. Be that as it may, this is Adair's heart. Right or no, I exist here. There is darkness in every human heart.

The woman raised her arms and Adair shuddered in pain. She was pulling the vines like marionette strings, and they were tightening around her.

And as you can see, she prefers it here in the dark.

The Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes lowered her gaze to Adair and spoke to her in that mild childlike voice.

"Adair, is that true?"

"I can't..." Adair cried in despair. "I can't get free."

"That's not what I asked. I asked if you prefer it in the dark."

Adair couldn't speak. What could she say? Of course she didn't wish to remain in the darkness. But as the woman in black had just shown her, she had chosen it a long time ago. She wasn't strong enough to leave it. Couldn't Moon Child see that? She looked to her with pleading eyes.

"It's true Adair, there is darkness in every human heart. But there is also light. The one that wins is the one you choose."

"But I can't! Don't you see I can't?!" She sobbed.

Moon Child's wasn't phased. She smiled calmly. "Yes you can. I've seen you do it before."

Through her tears, Adair smiled bitterly. "When? When have I ever cared about anything but myself?"

"Think about it."

The confidence in those golden eyes gave her the courage to try. Adair closed her eyes and tried to remember. It was so much harder to remember the good than it had been to recall the bad, but remember it she did. There had been light in her life. There had been love. Her parents had loved her. Even though they were no longer with her, they had loved her. Rosemary loved her even though they argued. Her cousin Lizzie loved her unconditionally as only a small child can. Even though they teased and taunted her, Bryan and Jamie loved her as well. Iole claimed to be impartial and distant, yet she had watched over her and protected her all these years. Was that not love as well? Jason loved her and had been her loyal friend even though it hurt him sometimes. Atreyu loved her and had taught her how to love. He had helped her remember that she carried love in her heart for each and every person in her life. The more she concentrated on it, the more warmth she felt flood into her. The light and the dark was equal in this space now, but the dark was struggling to hang on. The vines were writhing and the thorns still pierced her, but their grip was beginning to slacken.

If your heart is filled with so much light, the woman spat the word like acid into Adair's ear. If you care for this mortal so much, then why did you keep the ring of betrayal? The ring that would have bound you to me and my servants? The ring through which your beloved now seals his fate.

She felt the vines tighten again. That thought had weighed on her for such a long time. She had thought about throwing the ring away multiple times. Why had she only managed to cast it aside at the end when it was too late?

"I kept the ring because... I was afraid."

"Afraid of what, Adair?"

Afraid for yourself. You were afraid of being trapped in Fantasia, that place you profess to care for now.

"At first yes." She admitted. "But then I started to trust Atreyu. Then the other feelings started to come and I was afraid of them. I was afraid of opening my heart to anyone. I didn't think anyone could love me."

"And do you still feel that way?"

She focused on all those that loved her and thought on how much she loved them, how strong and safe she felt with them. She remembered what she had said to Atreyu. That when she was with him, the bad things didn't simply vanish, but she felt strong enough to beat them. And the more love she gave away, the more it seemed to fill her life. That is why it was the Strongest Magic. Unlike any other magic, it could create something from nothing, and it would only grow from there. It could even take a broken soul like hers and make it into something stronger.

"I know I'm not perfect." She said, her voice still hoarse, but more resolute this time. "And I know I still have a long way to go. But I want to try." The light was growing brighter. Now it wasn't just coming from Moon Child, but from herself as well. "This feeling that I have, I want to share it with everyone."

Much like the false world she had just left behind, the darkness began to break. The woman in black shrieked with rage, pointing a long shadowy finger at Moon Child.

You! You haven't won yet! Your realm will fall to me or be destroyed! I will erase you forever, you hear me?! I hate you! I HATE YOU!

Moon Child's smile only grew. "Hate me all you like, but it's Adair, not I who is casting you out. Your power means nothing in the presence of the Strongest Magic."

The vines began to whither into dust and Adair felt she could move again. The woman in black clamped her ice cold hand onto her shoulder, compelling her to look into those nightmarish eyes once more.

You and I aren't done. Do you hear me? Never. Before this is over I will prove that your "strongest magic" is nothing. Then your heart will be as black as mine.

The creature shrieked as the light closed in on her, and then she was gone.

"I'm afraid you haven't seen the last of her." Moon Child said sadly. "She won't rest until everyone is as miserable as she is."

"Who was she?"

"It doesn't matter. What matters is that she only has as much power as you let her have."

Adair nodded. "I promise, I won't let her back in. I don't want to go back to that."

"I know. You're a kind person Adair, even if you don't know it. That is why I chose you to be my mirror."

She was still unsure of what that meant, but at the moment she was just grateful to the Empress for reminding her of what she had fought so hard for. The light was growing ever brighter, and with it she could feel herself being pulled back to where she needed to be. She looked back at Moon Child.

"So are you still..."

"Asleep? Yes."

"Then how do I wake you up?"

"With the Strongest Magic."

"But I've already found it."

"You have." Moon Child nodded. "True love is the most powerful magic of all. But it comes in many forms."

"Which one will set you free?"

She smiled, but there was sadness in her eyes. "Pure love. But beware. A pure love is only created by great sacrifice." She looked around at the still growing light and smiled as she started to fade from view. "Looks like it's time for you to go."

"Wait!" She called. "Moon Child, what do you mean by great sacrifice? Whose sacrifice?"

"That's something you can only discover for yourself. Don't worry. I'll be with you until the very end. We all will."

Adair started forward and Jason jumped back in surprise. "Moon Child, wait!" She reached forward, still half asleep.

"Moon Child?" Jason asked. "You saw her?"

She shook her head and rubbed her eyes. She felt like she'd been sleeping for a long time. She didn't know where she was. All she knew was that she was cold.

"Well look who's finally awake." It was Iole's voice, but Adair couldn't see her. She looked down and realized why she was so cold. They were flying on Iole's back at a reckless speed.

"What happened?" She asked in a haze. "Where's Atreyu? I need to talk to him. Where are we?"

Jason scooted forward and steadied her. He didn't answer her at first, but instead put his arms around her. She didn't know why he was hugging her so tightly, but that didn't stop her from hugging him back.

"Adair I'm so sorry. I didn't know."

"What are you talking about?"

He pulled away. There was a mix of sadness and fear in his eyes.

"It was my fault. It was Atreyu's idea, but I went with it. I don't know what he said to you but it was all a lie to get you out of Fantasia. He was trying to protect you."

"What?" She focused and recalled the last time she'd spoken to Atreyu, the real Atreyu. Then she remembered the heart breaking things he'd told her. The pain she'd felt at his declaration that he no longer loved her had nearly broken her beyond repair. Now Jason was telling her it wasn't true. She smiled as she felt her hope being renewed.

"Where is he?"

"Listen." Jason kept his hand on her shoulder as if he were afraid she was going to fall. "He made a deal with them. With the Circle of the Night. He found your ring. He made them give us a way home, and a way for you to forget him. That was the water I gave you. I'm so sorry. I thought..." He bit his lip. "It doesn't matter what I thought. It was wrong, and I'm sorry. After I broke the curse, you fell asleep."

That must be when I was in that dream world. She realized.

"Where's Atreyu?" She asked again.

He shook his head sadly and the fear in his eyes only grew.

"With them." He answered. "That was the deal they made."

She punched Jason in the arm. "How could you let him do something so stupid! What's wrong with you!"

He took the blow passively. In truth he believed he deserved it. "I didn't know. Iole was the one who figured it out. We've been looking for him. A friend of yours told us where to find the Seeker's castle."

"A friend?"

"Yeah. I didn't recognize her. Do you know anyone named Matilda?"

She shook her head. "No. I don't know any Matilda. What did she say?"

"She said they were hiding in a castle east of the sun and west of the moon. But if there's one thing they're good at, it's hiding. We've been flying for over a day now and we haven't found it."

"You might want to rephrase that Jason." Iole interrupted. "I don't know what you went through while you were sleeping Adair, but it must have been powerful. Look there."

They stared out as Iole flew over a mountain range. In the midst of the mountains, they saw a place caught halfway between daylight and nightfall. The sky around it flickered back and forth from dusky purple to the orange light of dawn. At its core they saw an elaborate castle made from white crystal and black obsidian rock. Its towers were twisted and its turrets bent at odd angles. They had found the Circle's lair. Iole was not one to waste time and for once Adair was grateful for her gut wrenching speed. She couldn't imagine how Atreyu must have suffered. She'd been asleep for over a day Jason had said. That was far too long for the one she loved to be at the mercy of the likes of them. She had no talisman around her neck, no powers, no plan, but no matter what she was getting him out of that place.

"No, no, that's all wrong." Nag grimaced as he shoved Atreyu back to the ground. "He won't do anything I want him to. Are you sure your spell's working Fay?"

The other Witch looked to their slave on the ground with contempt. "It's working as well as it can Nag. That doesn't change the fact that no matter what I do to his mind, he will never really believe you're Adair. Their bond is too strong."

"Well that's no fun." Nag kicked the boy in the ribs, knocking his breath from him. He didn't fight back. He had no strength left in his body. He had worn it out all day trying to resist the dark magic the Witches had been using on his mind. They had been trying to make him see and believe things to bend his will. He'd managed to retain his will so far, but he didn't know how much longer he could hold out. "Come on Fay, playing with his head was your idea. Now think of something."

"Perhaps if we try someone else he loves, but not as strongly. Someone he's not familiar with."

"Anyone you have in mind?"

The corners of Fay's porcelain white lips twitched into a faint grin. "His mother perhaps?"

Nag giggled with fiendish delight. "Oh good one! Then he'd do whatever I told him to, and like it!" They didn't care if Atreyu heard what they planned to do to him. In fact they seemed to take pleasure in the fear it instilled in him. Moreover they loved reminding him that there was nothing he could do about it.

The doors of the "playroom" opening signaled Thoth's arrival.

"Well how is the test subject adjusting?"

"He's a stubborn one." Nag admitted. "But Fay just came up with a wonderful idea. She's going to make him think I'm his mother.

Thoth stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Interesting. Very interesting. M'dear, how do you come up with these delectable scenarios?"

"Natural talent." Fay replied dryly.

Thoth thought to himself for a moment. The ambient light from the crystals reflected off his glasses so that his eyes couldn't be seen. He grinned the most devilish smile Atreyu had seen yet as he looked down at him.

"Oh-ho brilliant! Fay M'dear, you've just given me the most wonderful idea if you're willing to try another experiment. How would you like to test a little nature vs. nurture?"

Fay folded her arms. "I'm listening."

"We've been given a golden opportunity here to study a real Fantasian hero, the very manifestation of chivalry, bravery, and all that humankind deems as noble and good. But it had to come from somewhere after all. Where do suppose it came from?"

"According to his story, his upbringing made him good, experience made him brave."

"Precisely. Now if we were to say take those away, would the heroic traits remain? Might they even be molded?"

"Are you suggesting what I believe you are?"

"Think about it, a hero made from scratch that we can teach to think like we do? We just might completely alter the preconceived notions of humanity with a hero like that. It's worth a try is it not?"

Once more, the ghost of a grin floated across Fay's lips. "And just how far back should we set the dial?"

"I would suggest six. It would save us the whole mess learning to walk and talk yes?"

"My studies suggest that two years old is the most critical time in a child's learning development." Fay said coldly. "If we wish to instill any lasting influence, we should start there."

"Oh that's going a bit far don't you think? What about four? That's a fair compromise, no?"

Nag leered down at Atreyu with a smile that showed all of its jagged teeth.

"How exciting." It hissed. "Then I could be your mommy for real."

Moving at this stage was excruciating, but Atreyu let his fear fuel him as he bolted for the door. Taking his memories, his life, and then molding it from the beginning to their liking was something he could not allow. The cruelty was unimaginable. He got as far as the door, then he felt himself yanked backwards so hard he fell on his back. The shackles of his contract had reappeared, and this time they were fastened to lengths of chain that Nag held in its claws.

"Oh don't be like that. Being a family will be fun!" The monster crooned as it dragged a struggling Atreyu across the floor. "You'll see, we'll do it all! We'll teach you how to lie, cheat, steal, kill, ooo I can't wait to teach you your first curse!"

"Yes, yes," Thoth waved Nag to follow him. "All in good time. For now let's get him strapped into the machine. I'll handle the changes to his body. Fay I'll leave his memories to you. You can keep them all for your studies."

Atreyu fought against his restraints, but it was no use. His contract held strong. He had willingly traded his life to them for their help. Now it was theirs to do with as they pleased.

The ambient crystal lights flashed to a dark purple for an instant. The Witches exchanged glances. This meant something to them. An alarm? Fay reached her hand toward the wall and a strange book floated to her fingers. Atreyu couldn't make out the cover or the title. She opened it and scanned its pages. When she stopped reading, she looked up at her associates.

"We have a problem."

"Oh what is it now?" Nag moaned.

Fay read aloud from the book. "She had no talisman around her neck, no powers, no plan, but no matter what she was getting him out of that place."

"Adair?" Nag questioned.

"Impossible!" Thoth cried.

Fay held the book out to them so they could see the written word for themselves. "She's on her way here with Jason and Iole."

The mention of Iole's name made Nag shiver in fear.

Thoth let out a sigh at the inconvenience. "At a time like this? Really, the lack of courtesy these days." He turned back to resume leading Nag as though nothing had changed. "It's your experiment Fay. You deal with it." He snapped as he and Nag dragged Atreyu away.

Iole swooped over the turrets of the castle. Her two riders could feel her form shifting beneath them.

"Hang on!" she warned. She came over the walkway along the upper towers of the castle and shrank back to her other form. Jason and Adair leaped off her back just in time. They landed in a crouch and quickly got back to their feet. Jason drew his sword with one hand and led Adair by the other. They sprinted for the interior of the castle. Iole kicked the double doors open.

"When we find them, leave the Witches to me. You two just worry about getting Atreyu out of here. Got it?"

They had barely taken a step inside when Jason felt their luck change again.

"Look out!" He lifted his lucky blade just in time to block a heavy spiked morningstar before it could swipe Iole's head from the side. Dawn, who had been waiting in ambush pressed his advance on Jason who sloughed off the man's attack. Just as he did, twin daggers shot from the darkness at Adair as Star joined the surprise attack. Adair barely dodged, and Iole didn't let the woman get any closer.

"What are you two doing here?" The dragon girl spat.

"Same as before." Star replied, moving to her lover's side. "You?"

"Same as before." Iole shot back.

"Then you know how this ends." Dawn growled. "Our quarrel is not with you. To engage us would be to break your precious rules."

Adair and Jason exchanged nervous glances, remembering how Iole's protocol had cost them the last time they'd run into Dawn and Star. She looked back at the two of them and winked one of her crystal blue eyes.

"Funny thing about me and rules." She dropped into a fighting stance, and when she held out her arms they became hardened with white scales and sharpened with claws. "I've never really cared for them." In one motion she swept her leg in a circle, crossing the floor and kicking both Dawn and Star back against the wall.

"Get moving you two!" She ordered. Then without warning she breathed a wave of fire at the floor beneath them. Adair and Jason squinted their eyes and covered their faces against the heat. When the flames stopped, they saw Iole ball her claws into a fist and raise it high over her head. Like a great hammer she brought it down on the heated floor, shattering it beneath them. All they could do was hold onto each other and scream.

Dawn and Star glowered as they got to their feet.

"Are you mad White Dragon?" Star cried. "You're breaking cosmic laws by interfering with us."

"Dragon?" Iole asked coyly. "Where? I don't see a dragon. It's just the two of you and little old me here."

"I doubt your masters will see it that way."

Iole shrugged. "Some rules were made to be broken."

Dawn hefted his morningstar with a smile. "Very well. It will be our pleasure. I've always wanted to fight a dragon."

After they had landed, Adair and Jason had taken off at a run as if nothing had changed. They were frantic to find Atreyu and leave this place far behind them. The entire castle reminded them exactly of the ones who claimed it, a twisted sight that made one sick to look at.

"Adair, I think we're going in circles." Jason pointed to the wall. "I definitely remember this painting."

Adair took a break from her mad dash down the hall. "How can you tell? They're all disgusting."

"Yeah, but this one actually reminded me of my old math teacher."

She squinted at it and found she couldn't deny he was right. They didn't know where they were going. All the corridors looked the same, but they had definitely been in this one already. Who knew how many times they had passed it?

"Then how do we find them?"

"You don't." Both of them sighed when they heard Fay's voice as she drifted silently into view around the corner. "This castle was made to hide that which no one wants found. Entering it to look for something only ensures that every step takes you farther from it."

Adair glowered at her from across the hall. "Then we'll just make you take us to him."

"With what power?" Fay asked coldly. "You gave up the Glory. Remember? And Jason doesn't know how to use it." The Witch held out her hands, and before their eyes the crystal walls seemed to slither, like they were shedding their skin. "Feeling frightened?" She asked as the crystal began to pile on the floor and take shape. It became two mounds on either side of her that began to grow legs, then a head, then claws and fangs. The crystal shaped itself into two giant cat-like monsters with razor sharp claws and fangs. They both had long jagged tails that swished back and forth with cruel barbs on the end.

Fay raised her hands to her side. Her night black hair writhed around her like it had been caught in a wind. "Or angry?" She asked as a red glow surrounded her fingers. "It makes no difference to me."

Jason stepped in front of Adair and lowered his blade casually. "I've got this."

With slow careful steps he walked towards the Witch and her monstrous pets. She signaled to them and they bounded toward him, claws extended and jaws agape.

"Timing." He muttered to himself. "It's all in the timing." He waited until they were halfway to him then broke into a run. At the last moment, just when they made to pounce on him to tear him to shreds, he swung his blade in front of him. It cut through their crystal bodies easily, slicing both of them cleanly in half. They fell to the floor and shattered. He raised his eyes to meet Fay's.

"That one was for Falkor."

She rolled her eyes and lifted her hands, ready to throw her prepared spell. Adair and Jason had both directed enough anger at her, she had the power to burn him where he stood. She raised her hand and flung her fingertips toward him. Nothing happened. She looked to her hands in confusion and found that her spell was no longer ready. Somehow it had vanished.

"Is this what you're looking for?" Adair asked, and for the first time she saw Fay's eyes go wide with shock. Between both of her hands, Adair had a spell of her own. The familiar gold and purple light was shining from her hands.

"How are you doing that?" She asked, for once showing actual fear. Her eyes darted from Adair to Jason. It was true, AURYN still hung from his neck. So where was Adair's power coming from? "That's not possible."

Adair gritted her teeth together and smiled. "What you know about magic could fit in a thimble." She released the spell which passed harmlessly through Jason, but blasted the little Witch right off her feet. Her black and white stockinged feet flew over her head. She flew like a rag doll and slammed into the wall behind her. She fell in a heap and lifted her eyes painfully back to Adair. Now she understood.

"The strongest magic." She muttered. Before the two of them could make another move, she pressed the palm of her hand against the wall. A magic circle of purple light appeared behind her. She passed through it and was gone.

"Great." Jason cursed. "Now how are we going to find Atreyu in this fun-house?" He looked to Adair with concern. "So you got your powers back?"

"I think so."

"How do you feel?"

"Strong. Really strong. Like I'm going to find him and tear apart anyone who gets in my way."

Jason cringed. "I don't know if that's awesome or scary. So, any ideas?"

"One." She replied. "My magic is coming from my wish to find Atreyu. I think it can lead me to him too."

"But even if we knew where he was, you heard what she said. Every hall we turn down takes us further away from our goal."

She called another wave of light into her hand and Jason wisely stood aside as she stepped up to the wall.

"Then we won't use hallways." And with that, the wall shattered before her.

"Adair." Atreyu whispered. He didn't know how much time he had left. He wanted his last real thoughts to be of her.

"Oh don't worry. In a few minutes you'll forget all about her." Nag declared with glee as it finished securing his wrists and ankles to the long wooden slab they had dragged him to. "There, strapped in all nice and tight. Don't worry, you won't feel a thing." The creature turned to Thoth. "He won't feel anything will he?"

"Don't be daft. It will be excruciating." Thoth replied as though Nag had asked a ridiculous question. "Why else would you need to strap him in?"

Nag turned back to Atreyu and shrugged. "Oh well. Guess I lied. You'll find I do that a lot."

"Quickly Nag, fetch my tools. I want us ready when Fay returns."

As if the mention of her name had been a summons, a magic circle of purple light appeared on the floor, and out of the light stumbled Fay looking haggard.

"What the devil happened to you?"

"Remember when I said we had a problem?" She rasped. A crash that seemed to shake the castle itself re-enforced Fay's meaning.

"That sounded like my room." Nag complained.

"She's closing in fast." Fay explained. "We don't have much time."

"But how? She has no magic left. How is she able to... to..." Thoth stammered.

Even in their apparently dire circumstance, Fay smirked at him. "How do you think?"

"There's no time for this!" Nag shrieked. "Hurry!"

The trio faced the wall together and joined hands. Shadows began to swirl around them and then take shape. Long thorny vines and branches ghosted into being around them, ready to ensnare the incoming onslaught. The wall in front of them started to glow and tremble. The crystal began to crack. Then the fissure gave way to a tidal wave of light. It was met head on with a wave of blackthorn vines. A short time ago this spell would have worked. But Adair was much stronger now. They could no longer trap her with her fears or regrets. She had something greater on her side. The fragment of the Forest of Thorns withered like dead plants against the sun. Before they knew it, the Circle of the Night found themselves beaten hard against the opposite wall. Their insides churned and heaved like they had been struck hard in the stomach by a battering ram.

Atreyu could barely move his head, he was bound so tightly, and he was weak from all he had endured in this terrible place. He squinted against the light. For a moment he believed he saw an angel emerging from it. What he saw when the light cleared was far greater to him, and yet it broke his heart all over again to see her.

"Adair." He called weakly.

When her eyes landed on him they flooded with a mix of horror, relief, and anger. She rushed to his side.

"Jason! Help me get these things off of him!"

Jason was right behind her.

Atreyu shook his head. "No. You were supposed to go home. You shouldn't be here."

"Funny how we never get a thank you Choir boy." Jason grimaced.

Atreyu smiled, realizing that only a few short moments ago he believed he would never have cause to smile again.

"Adair." He struggled to speak as they unfastened the restraints. "I want you to know... everything I said at the tower. I didn't mean any of it."

The last of the bonds came undone and Adair placed both her hands on his face and kissed him, holding onto him like she believed he would disappear.

"Don't worry. I'll yell at you for being an idiot when we get out of here."

"Oh but he won't be going anywhere." Thoth drawled. He and his companions had gotten back to their feet.

Adair held out her hand. "Don't come any closer!" This time, now that she was so close to Atreyu, her entire being put out light. The Witches, and even Jason gasped. Floating behind her back were a pair of ethereal wings. Now Atreyu knew it was an angel that had come for him. Her gaze was as hard as the mountains, and she held the Witches back with her will alone. "You take one step toward us, you die. I'll bring this entire castle down on you before I let you touch him again."

The Seekers dared not move. They watched Adair as though she were a dangerous wild animal. Thoth tossed Fay a sour glance.

"Happy now Fay? She's finally stronger than us."

Fay kept her eyes on Adair. "I'm elated." she said dryly.

"Be that as it may, look down."

Adair kept her hand up, but glanced quickly down at Atreyu and gasped. A collar and manacles had appeared around him. They hadn't been there when she'd first arrived.

"He made a deal with us Adair. And our contract is binding."

"He gave himself, body and soul to us to get you home." Nag jeered. "Romantic isn't it?"

"There is nothing you can do." Fay explained calmly. "He made the choice. He must pay the price."

"Adair they're right." Atreyu whispered. "It's my fault. You need to get out of here. Forget me."

She was undeterred. "No. I'm getting you out of here."

"All that power and you're still just a silly girl." Thoth shook his head. "I assure you, it's impossible. There's no getting out of a contract."

"Watch me." She reached down and took the iron collar. Her hand glowed ever brighter. The shackles hissed and sparked in protest and Atreyu winced, but he could feel it loosening. Against her will, his contract was losing the battle. In a flash, the collar broke, and the shackles fell from his wrists.

"You'll regret this m'dear." Thoth warned.

"Adair." It was Fay. "A promise is a promise. One way or another, it will be fulfilled."

"Enough!" Her voice thundered from her, shaking the chamber and silencing the three of them at once. "You don't get to call the shots in our life anymore. Your game is over." She raised her hand and hurled a spell, but not at them. The light crashed through the ceiling, revealing the sky caught between day and night above them. The moon was shining on this side.

"Jason, now!"

Jason reached into his coat and pulled out a sheet of paper. It was the page Atreyu had given him. He took hold of Adair's hand while she held onto Atreyu. He held the page up to the moonlight. Then all was quiet.

The dust began to settle. Nag, Thoth, and Fay coughed and dusted themselves off. But of Adair, Jason, and Atreyu there was no sign. The Witches were silent at first. They looked the ruined chamber over again as if to make sure they weren't hiding or buried under the rubble. The table Atreyu had been strapped to remained completely untouched by the destruction. They were gone. The Circle of the Night exchanged uncertain glances, but as the truth became certain all three began to smile. Then came the worst sound that three Witches such as they could make. Nag, Thoth, and Fay began to laugh.

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