The Strongest Magic

Chapter 23: Complete Honesty

Within the hospital room, the silence between Adair and Atreyu stretched on to almost an hour. At first she was simply glad he was awake, happy to be back in his arms. But as he held her, the memory of Fay's words kept her from being at peace.

You shared your pain with him. Has he done the same?

She didn't trust Fay at all, but at the same time she knew the Witch might have been right. There was something missing, some piece they hadn't solved yet because Moon Child was still not awake. Moreover, she recalled vividly how free and strong she'd felt that day after she had lain all of her sorrows bare for him. Shouldn't she want the same freedom for him? She couldn't think of what to say to him. Actually that wasn't true. She knew what she should say. What she found herself lacking was the courage to do so. Perhaps she was afraid of what she would find, or perhaps she worried he would resent her for asking.

As the minutes ticked on, the promise of Iole's return and the many unpleasant things it could mean for them loomed ever closer. It was now or never. She had to ask him. He needed to tell her what he had kept buried within him so long. She knew what to ask. Bastian had already given her the answer before she knew she needed it. Now it was time.

"Atreyu." She hesitated.

He could feel the weight of her mind in the way she spoke. "What's wrong?"

She pulled away from him and looked him straight in the eye. "You never told me about what happened between you and Bastian." The moment she said it, the look in his eyes pierced deep into her chest like a needle. Something changed in his eyes then, those dark eyes that had seemed like endless pools of unmovable strength and unshakable courage. Those two virtues that had always seemed so centered within him parted like curtains across his eyes to reveal a look of pain and sorrow she had never seen in him. But the worst part was that she could also see fear. He was afraid to answer her.

"Why would you ask that?" He asked, and when his lip quivered he looked so young.

Her hands were trembling. Bringing him into this state was painful. Was this what it had been like for him when he helped her? Had he also shuddered at her tears and wished nothing more than to forget the whole affair and let her never talk about it again? It took all of her resolve to stay her course when all she wanted was to say never mind and hug him until he forgot. But she knew she couldn't. This had to happen.

"I know what happened." She admitted. "I know that Bastian almost lost his mind to AURYN's power and that he betrayed you. I know he's the one that gave you that scar. What I don't know is why you never told me."

His face hardened in anger. "Because I've never talked about it with anyone." He snapped. But the anger couldn't fool her. It was merely a screen for how frightened he was. He was frightened that she finally knew the truth. "I've never spoken about it and I don't want to."

"Okay, that's not fair." She snapped back. Adair could feel her eyes welling up, but she didn't show it. It was her turn to be steadfast for him. "I shared things with you I never wanted to talk about. If it hadn't been for you I would have stayed in that shell and never let anyone in. You forced your way into my heart, so you don't get to keep me out of yours!"

"That was different!" He shot defensively.

"It was not! You showed me how much sadder I was not letting anyone in. And when I finally stopped being so guarded, you showed me that I could be happy! So what gives you the right to stay miserable?"

He stared back at her, and she could seem him letting her words sink in.

"I can't." He said weakly. Tears were starting to pool in his eyes. He bit his lip, not allowing it. She wondered how long it had been since he had let himself cry.

"Why not?" He was silent. "I'm sorry." She admitted. "I know how hard this is for you to talk about. I can't imagine what it was like to be betrayed like that, or how painful it must have been to fight your best friend. But if you don't talk about it, you can't move on. I mean, you forgave him right?"

"What?" He asked as though she'd entirely changed the subject out of the blue. "Forgave who?"

She searched his face to see if he were trying to dodge her question. He was being sincere.

"Bastian." She explained, sounding as confused as he did. "For what he did."

"You think I blame Bastian for what happened?"

"You don't?"

"Of course not. None of it was his fault."

Adair was experiencing the frustrating sensation of hitting a dead end in a road. "Then what?"

Atreyu looked down away from her, the way she had once avoided looking others in the eye. He took in a long breath, and when he let it out, his shoulders trembled.

"Bastian didn't betray me. It was me. I failed him."

This left Adair more confused than ever. "How? How could you have failed him?"

"You already know the story."

"Well apparently not all of it, because the way I heard it you saved his life."

"Only after I abandoned him to destroy himself." He said solemnly. His voice remained steady even as tears began to roll down his cheek. "I could see what AURYN was doing to him, how dangerous his wishes were becoming. But I did nothing until it was too late. We almost destroyed the Ivory Tower, and then I let him wander Fantasia lost and alone for years until he had forgotten even his own name." He clenched the bed covers with his fists until his knuckles turned white.

"I fall off the tower every night in my dreams. I relive that day over and over, watching my friend slip away into darkness. I think over and over, if only I had acted sooner, if only I'd been stronger, or braver, or smarter I could have stopped it from happening. But in the end none of it matters. I failed him and there is no changing it."

He fell silent again and Adair could see the sadness of the past play across his eyes. "When we finally found his way out of Fantasia, Bastian was told he could not leave unless all the stories he began were finished. I knew what I had to do. I offered to finish them in his place. That is how I would atone for my failure." Finally, he raised his gaze back to her. "Then you came and it happened all over again. I let my own feelings get in the way of what I was supposed to do. I made you want to stay in Fantasia even though I knew what would happen to you if you did. I failed him, I failed Fantasia, and I failed you."

He didn't lift his gaze to meet her. He drew his knees close to him and folded his arms around them, burying his face. All of that weakness, all of his wrongs were now in the open. Now that she knew the truth, he couldn't imagine what she must think of him.

"You really believe that don't you?" Adair asked in shock. When he heard that she was crying, he lifted his head. She was blinking back tears furiously and gritting her teeth. Before he could say anything, she balled her hand into a fist and socked him in the arm. "You idiot! You think Bastian blamed you for anything that happened? You think I blame you every time something bad happens? You may be a hero, but that doesn't mean the whole story revolves around you! After everything you told me, how can you still think this way?" She was referring to the time when she had confessed feelings of guilt over the death of her parents. It had been Atreyu who made her realize after ten long years that it had not been her fault. Now here he was taking the pain of an entire world on himself. She didn't know what she'd expected. It was just the kind of person he was.

"Atreyu, bad things are always going to happen in this world and in Fantasia. Bad things are going to happen to me. Sometimes they'll be my own fault, and sometimes they'll just happen. But I can face them now, and it's because of you. So you can stop taking all of the pain for yourself." She placed her hands on him, and on their own her fingers grasped his robe in her hands. "If my time in Fantasia's taught me anything... if you've taught me anything it's that we're all meant to help each other. We're all part of a story, and we each have a part to play so we can reach a happy ending. That means all of us. So stop trying to do this all on your own. Please. Let me help you."

"Adair." He put his arms around her as she forced her way into him. He held her tightly, but in his gentle way and intertwined his fingers in her hair. "I'm sorry. I had no idea."

"Well get used to it." She sniffed. "We're in this together now. That means we share everything, the good and the bad. Understand?"

"She's right you know." Came a voice from the doorway. It was a very familiar voice to Adair, but not to Atreyu. An elderly man stood in the doorway that Atreyu did not know at first. The boy looked confused. He looked down to Adair who only smiled. He looked back to the old man and this time searched his eyes carefully. Then he saw them clearly. Though they were worn with age and half hidden behind his glasses, but they were still the clear eyes he remembered. Those eyes had always been filled with wonder and still were, though they carried the glint of experience in them now.

Weakly, Atreyu struggled to move. With Adair's help, he managed to get out of the bed. He took slow laboring steps toward the man, never taking his eyes off him. Once, he nearly fell to the floor, only to have Adair steady him. The linoleum floor of the hospital was cold on his bare feet, and he felt himself shivering. He stopped just short of reaching the man, and with a quivering voice he spoke.

"Bastian?"

The old man smiled and placed his hands on the boy's shoulders. "It's been a long time my old friend. Well... hopefully I'm not that old of a friend now." He added with a wink.

At that, Atreyu fell forward into the man's arms and cried. In that time, he allowed himself to be what he had not been for so long, not a hardened warrior of the plains, not a hero with the fate of so much on his shoulders. No, for now he was a just boy who had found a long lost friend he believed he would never see again. Years of worry and guilt seemed to flow out of Atreyu with his tears.

Though he was crying too, Bastian could not stop smiling. He saw Adair standing off to the side, unsure of what she should do. He held out one of his arms and pulled her close so that he could hug both of them.

"I hate to interrupt." The three were joined unexpectedly by a fourth. Iole leaned against the frame of the door. Her eyes were heavily shadowed like she hadn't slept for a long while. Her face looked a shade paler than when they'd seen her last. All in all, she looked more tired and drained than they'd ever seen her. Jason was standing a step behind her. "They're deliberating. It won't be long before I'm contacted about a final decision. I suggest you tie up any unfinished business you might have. It may be the last chance you get."


"What do you think Iole meant by tying up unfinished business?" Jason whispered to Adair while Bastian signed the necessary paper work for Atreyu's release.

"She probably meant that we're heading back into battle soon." Atreyu explained. He was glad to be out of the hospital gown and into something more modest, but he didn't yet know how to feel with the change of clothes Bastian had brought him from his house. It was a simple earth toned T-shirt and faded indigo jeans. He couldn't seem to stop feeling the material of the shirt or bending his legs to test the flexibility of the jeans. Both were obviously foreign to him.

Adair didn't care what he was wearing. She was just glad he was regaining his strength. "Either that, or whoever she works for is going to decide we're causing too much trouble."

"That's what I'm afraid of." Jason grimaced. "Hey look, I know she's supposed to protect the balance or whatever, but you don't think she'd actually... you know." He slid his finger across his throat in a slitting motion.

"That's not funny Jason." Adair glowered.

"I know. It's terrifying. What if they give her the order and she takes us to Dragon-Jail?"

"We'll worry about that when it comes." Bastian interjected. "If Iole's to be believed, our time is short, so why don't we make the most of it. Adair, is there anything you need to do?"

She nodded. "My aunt's waiting for me to come back. I promised her I'd explain where I've been. Doesn't mean she'll believe me, but I need to anyway."

"You'd be surprised what we grown-ups are willing to believe." Bastian assured her with a sly smile. "What about you Jason. Anyone you need to see?"

"Not exactly." Jason lied. "But there is something I need to do." He looked to Adair. "I can drop you off on my way if you'd like."

"Do you want me to go with you?" Atreyu asked.

Bastian stopped her. "I think it would be best if Adair spoke to her aunt on her own at first." He paused. "Actually, Atreyu would you mind coming home with me? You and I have some catching up to do. And there's someone I want you to meet."

Atreyu looked to Adair first. She only nodded. "I'll be fine. Don't worry. This is important to you."

His face brightened. "Alright."

"Whatever you all decide to do make it quick." Iole's voice startled them again.

Jason jumped. "How long have you been standing there?"

"A while." She answered blithely.

"Well quit it!"

Iole went on as if she hadn't heard him. Again, the look of exhaustion she exuded did not escape their notice. "I need to return soon, but be ready when I get back. Meet me at the bookshop tomorrow." She turned to leave, but Adair stopped her.

"Iole wait... Before you go, do you think you could do me a favor?"

Adair and Jason said their respective goodbyes to Atreyu and Bastian and left the hospital while Bastian finalized the release forms. On the way out to Jason's car, Adair explained her request to Iole. When she was finished she mustered the most pleading expression she could.

The woman simply narrowed her sky blue eyes at her, but at length she sighed and shrugged her shoulders.

"I guess I've already broken plenty of rules for you. What's one more?"


Rosemary flung the door open. She looked as wild eyed as when Adair had left the day before, but she looked like she had at least gotten rest. She was dressed and her brown curls were pulled back if not combed. She sighed with relief when she saw her niece on her porch, carrying a white blue eyed cat in her arms.

"Sorry my call was so short."

Her aunt smiled. "Come inside." Rosemary led her into the living room and shut the door behind her. Adair didn't know what to think about being here again. Could it have really been just two days ago she had argued with her aunt about cleaning the kitchen? It seemed so far away now. And for her, it had been.

Rosemary took a seat on the couch. As she did, Bryan and Jamie came barreling down the stairs with baby Lizzie trailing behind them. The boys both hammered her with questions of where she'd been. Lizzie simply wrapped her tiny arms around Adair's leg.

"Mine." She said stoutly. She had dearly missed Adair it seemed. Adair set the white cat in her arms down so she could pick up her cousin and hug her tightly. She took a seat on the armchair adjacent to the couch and sat Lizzie on her lap.

She took a deep breath. "So where do you want me to start?"

"Where you've been might be a good place."

Adair grinned sheepishly. "Would you believe in the book that Jason showed you?"

Rosemary shook her head. "Look Adair, I know I said I was ready to listen and I am. But I expect some courtesy from you. I'd like to talk honestly about the last few days."

"I know. For starters, it's been way longer than a few days for me. Second, I know how hard this is going to be to take in. That's why I brought someone to help you." Adair could feel her cat's eyes on her. She looked to her and nodded. In a blink, Iole shifted back into her other form. Rosemary gasped and her eyes grew wide enough to take up her whole face.

"Whoah!" Bryan and Jamie exclaimed in unison, falling back onto the couch with their mother. Rosemary's mouth opened and then closed again a few times. No words would come.

"This might be a good time to tell you I'm moving out." Iole stated blithely. She centered her gaze on Rosemary. "I warned Adair to tell you only what you can handle. If it gets to be too much, give her this signal." She held her hand up in a 'stop' gesture. "You've got a good girl here. Listen to what she has to say." She winked and began heading out, but stopped and turned her eyes on Bryan. She drew her face very near his. "FYI, I know everything that's gone on in this house for the last ten years. My advice, come clean about who broke the window last summer. Your mom already knows." She made her way to the door and cast one last glance at Adair. "I'll meet you at the bookshop tomorrow." She gave her an encouraging thumbs up and then left their household for the last time. Part of her would miss living there, but only a small one.

Bryan's jaw was now hanging open and his eyes were as wide as his mother's. Jamie was the only one that seemed to have his power of speech left.

"Was that really Iole?"

Adair nodded.

"Is she some kind of elf?"

Adair shrugged with a grin. "Dragon actually."

Rosemary held up her hand with the gesture Iole had just shown her. "Alright. Start from the beginning."

Adair smiled.


While one family was on its way to reparations, another was about to vanish. Jason knew that a great change had come in his life. Iole's warning that they should each resolve any unfinished business before the final conflict hung heavily over him. On some level he had always known it would come to this. His ties to Fantasia had only made it come sooner than he had thought. He thought he would be relieved when it finally came. Instead he found his stomach tied up in knots, his innards revolting against him and twisting as firmly as the roots of a tree. He felt that anxiousness tighten around his heart as he stepped through the glass double doors. The familiar scent of the building's tiled flooring brought bitter memories flooding back, memories of a small boy with glasses waiting in the lobby for hours. Waiting for a ride home until it grew late and he fell asleep in the stiff uncomfortable office chair. Waiting anxiously to be taken on a promised trip to the zoo only to be told by a receptionist wearing too much perfume that it wasn't going to happen. So many days he'd sat alone with nothing but his thoughts to occupy him, not even a toy from home. In the beginning he had cried to himself, hoping, wishing that someone would stop what they were doing and notice him. When he realized no one was going to, the crying stopped.

Just as when he'd been that sad little boy, no one stopped to say hello. No one gave him so much as a nod. The people who sat at their desks or mulled about their tasks didn't even look like people to him anymore. They looked more like shapeless caricatures shifting on a colorless backdrop. He didn't blame any of them for being this way. What more could come from working in this grinding blur day after day? He knew what it was like. He had lived with it.

He took the elevator to the fourth floor, half-listening to its repetitive tune. The elevator dinged and the doors opened. His robotic footsteps led him to a desk he had stood in front of many times. The receptionist behind was wearing a headset linked to the phone line and taking calls. She was different than the one that had worked here when he was a boy, the one with too much lipstick. That one had left three years ago shortly after they'd gotten the new headsets for the phones. He hoped she was living happily with her family wherever she was. The one that worked here now was a young pretty intern. He hoped she would leave this place before it was too late for her to have a family.

She held up one finger at him and tried to wrap up her business with whoever was on the other line. Whoever it was, they were either persistent or very long winded because it took her five whole minutes before she was able to click the headset to switch calls.

"Sir," She said into the headset. "Your four o'clock is here..." She paused and waited for the recipient of her call to reply. It was much quicker than her last one. "Yes I'll tell him. Have a nice day." She clicked the line off and spared a glance for Jason. Her tone suggested she was trying her best to be polite, but that she had far more important things to be doing. "He's actually not in right now, but if you follow this hallway, you'll come to-"

He held up a hand to stop her. "It's alright. I know the drill. Thanks for your help."

"Thank you and have a nice day." She replied automatically before returning to her work.

Typical of him not to be here. Why should this time be any different? He thought to himself as he made his way to the office. He knew something about this time should feel different, but it didn't. It was business as usual. He let himself into the empty office. The room itself had a nice window view of the city, but that was the only thing that could be said for it. Everything else was plain and bland; the desk, the empty chair, the gray computer lying idle, the black phone with blinking red lights that sat on the desk were the only items the office contained. It was the phone that Jason had come for. He sighed as he leaned over the desk and pushed the pager button. One of the blinking red lights turned green. A short dial tone droned and then a voice patched through the line.

"Hello." The voice on the line was flat and concise. It drifted somewhere between irritation and holding no feeling at all.

"Hi." Jason replied.

"This couldn't wait?" The voice asked.

"No it couldn't."

"Very well then. I'm on my way to a conference so let's make this quick."

Business as usual. Jason thought again. This was one of those rare instances he found that he agreed with the man on the phone. He did want to make this quick.

"I just wanted to tell you I'm leaving."

"You know you don't need my permission if you want to go somewhere. I got you that car for a reason."

You got it so I would stay out of your way. Jason thought bitterly. A younger Jason would have had no second thoughts about telling the man so, along with some less savory language thrown in. But things were different now. His time in Fantasia had tempered him. Moreover, he knew this would be the last time they would speak. He didn't wish to look back on it with regret.

"No, I mean I'm leaving home... for good."

There was a brief silence on the line. "Oh... I see. Well, best of luck to you."

If he had expected anger at his boldness, or sorrow at the news, Jason was sorely disappointed. For years he'd thought about how this would play out. He had imagined a lot of shouting, a lot of hurtful things said on both sides. But this... this coldness was far worse than anything he could have imagined. If anything, the man on the phone sounded relieved.

"Is that it?" He asked in shock.

"Is what it?"

"Is that all you have to say?"

"Well it hardly came as a surprise."

"You don't even want to know where I'm going?"

"You're a smart boy. I'm sure you've figured something out. Or are you just wasting my time?"

"You realize that when I hang up this phone, I'm never coming back here. I'm not going to look for you."

"Yes I believe that's for the best." The man said in a tone so reasonable it made Jason want to scream.

Jason slumped next to the desk and leaned his back against its leg. He could have sat in the office chair, but the thought had always made him sick. One of the reasons he and Adair had become such fast friends as children was that they shared a common problem. They both had a troubled family life. But here is where they differed. While Adair had actively worked to shut off those that were close to her, Jason had done nothing but reach out again and again until recent years. It had only been a short time ago that he'd finally admitted his reaching had been for nothing. Since then he had done everything he could to distance himself from the man on the phone. Even his decision to grow his hair long had been because he no longer wished to resemble him. He wasn't about to sit in his chair.

"I don't know why I expected any different from you. It's always the same."

"Then why did you even bother coming here? Were you expecting to get a rise out of me? You've made up your mind. I don't see any reason to try and change it."

"I came here because this is my last chance."

"Last chance for what?"

"For some honesty!" He shouted, then consciously got his temper back under control. "I just want you to answer one question. What did I do to make you hate me so much?" The man was quiet for a moment. For a second, Jason wondered if he had hung up.

"Jason," the sound of his own name seemed foreign to him when this man said it. This was because he had never referred to him in a personal manner unless it was absolutely necessary. "I'll be the first to admit I haven't done you any favors. But I don't hate you."

"Then why? Why the distance? I figured out a long time ago this goes way past your job, so don't feed me any more of those lies. Why can't you stand being around me?"

Again the man took a moment to answer. "Honestly, you reminded me too much of your mother." Jason felt a jolt in his chest. This man had never, ever spoken about his mother. "I wish you could know how alike you two really are... were. She was so passionate about everything she did. She saw a different world than everyone else. She didn't see what it was, she saw what it could be. She did the same with me. When she was gone, I couldn't see it anymore. I didn't want to. It only reminded me of how much I missed her." A silence hung between them for a moment. "She would have hated this place you know. This job, this office. I think that's one of the reasons I pursued this career after she was gone. I ran from everything that made me think of her."

"Including me."

"Especially you."

Jason grinned. It was nice to know he shared more with his mother than he knew. "Tell me more about her. What would she have had you do?"

"She talked about it once. She always encouraged me to go to medical school. She joked about working with me as a nurse. That was the kind of person she was. She loved making people feel good."

"She wanted to be a nurse?"

"Actually she was going to school to be a child psychologist when we met. She loved working with kids, and she had a special way with the problem ones. That was what I loved most about her I think. Where everyone else saw something broken, she saw something that could be fixed."

There was another silence. Jason had never heard him at such a loss for words. He'd never had trouble speaking before.

"Jason, I cared about you once. I don't know when I stopped, but it had nothing to do with you. I just ran for so long, I suppose I forgot how."

"I get it." Jason replied. "It's good to know."

"I wouldn't blame you if you hated me."

"I don't hate you." He answered honestly. "You never gave me enough of you to hate."

"I understand. Best of luck to you."

"Yeah." Jason replied as he got up to leave. "You too." He clicked the phone off and left the office for the last time.

For those who may have hoped that father and son would reconcile, I'm sorry to disappoint. This isn't always the case, but sometimes a family is too broken to fix. Whatever his reasons, Jason's father had forgotten how to love and he no longer wanted to try. And when the desire to try is gone, there is really nothing that can be done. But try as he might to deny it, Jason did still love his father. Though he didn't hold much hope, he wished his father could remember the happiness he'd felt with his wife someday, and that he wouldn't end his days as lonely and empty as he'd let himself become. But whether he did or not is another story and shall be told another time.


"Steady now." Bastian cautioned as he helped Atreyu out of the car. The boy didn't seem to know how to take the ride. The machine fascinated him. The entire way back from the hospital, he'd asked about all the different buttons and gears and other questions about how it worked. Bastian was just glad to see some color returning to his face. He took his arm and looped it over his shoulder so Atreyu could lean on him.

"I can walk." Atreyu assured him.

"Your strength is returning, but try not to over exert yourself my friend." He led Atreyu up the walk to his house and walked him inside. "Welcome to our humble abode." He said congenially. He led his friend through the front living room and down the hall into the study. The room was lined with books and had a homely fireplace at the back which remained unlit. In front of the hearth were two leather armchairs. Bastian led him to one and let him sit.

"Where did you get these strange clothes?" he asked. Atreyu had already seen some of what the humans wore in this world thanks to Adair and Jason, but the actual feel of it on his own body was another experience entirely.

"They were my son's."

"Your son?" Atreyu asked in shock. "You have a son?"

"Three actually. And two beautiful girls, one of whom is expecting her first child."

"Then... you must have married." This was a lot for Atreyu to take in. When last they had seen one another, Bastian had been a pudgy youth of ten years. To see him not only grown, but old enough to be expecting his first grandchild was jarring.

Bastian smiled. "Atreyu, there's someone I'd like you to meet." He raised his voice to call down the hallway. "Dear, we're home."

"About time." Came a voice from the next room. "I've been waiting for news all morning, and the tea's getting cold." A woman came around the corner carrying a tray with two cups and a steaming pot of tea. The moment Atreyu saw her face he knew who she was. Her long hair though gray still retained some of its white blond color. Her green eyes were large and round in her warm aged face. They grew wider still when she saw him. She nearly dropped the tea.

"Kris Ta?" Atreyu breathed in awe, for it could be no one else. "The little girl you used to tell stories to?"

"Used to?" Christa said with a laugh. "I haven't been able to stop him."

Bastian feigned being wounded. "Oh how you tease me so."

Christa stepped cautiously inside and set the tray on the small table between their chairs. Tenderly she placed a hand on Atreyu's shoulder and another on the side of his face.

"Can it really be... are you really... what is your name?"

Atreyu wasn't sure why Christa seemed so in awe of him, but it made him a little uncomfortable. "Atreyu."

Her lip quivered at that. "Then this family owes you a great debt." She said as she kissed his forehead.

"I..." Atreyu stammered. "I don't understand."

"She means what you taught me about courage." Bastian said with a smile. "If it hadn't been for you, I don't believe I ever would have had the bravery to propose to Christa on that fine summer morning, the sunshine glistening on her hair like spun gold." He said wistfully.

Christa blushed. "As you can see my husband can still spin a story or two." She turned to Bastian. "You know perfectly well it was in September and it rained on our picnic."

"But the rain water did make your hair glisten." The old man winked.

"But I didn't have anything to do with that." Atreyu shook his head.

Bastian sighed. "You still don't understand. Atreyu I brought you here to show you that all of this, our family would not have happened if it had not been for you. I am the man I am today because of what I learned from you." He made a beckoning motion with his finger and strode to one of the bookshelves. "Come here, I wish to show you something."

Noticing he was having trouble rising from his seat, Christa put a warm arm and around his shoulder and pulled him along with her hand. She led him to the shelf and Bastian pointed to one particular row. They were a neat row of at least twenty books, their spines well worn like all the others. He didn't know what their titles read, for the Plains People have no written language. Bastian knew this, so he took them out one at a time and handed them to him. Each one had an illustration on its cover, and when Atreyu saw the first he gasped. It was of himself flying over Fantasia on Falkor's back over a brilliant moonlit forest.

" 'Atreyu and the Night Forest'" Bastian read aloud. He pulled out another and showed the cover. This one pictured Atreyu standing in a desert, each dune of sand a different color. Looming over him was a ferocious lion whose mane shown like fire and shimmered in as many colors as the desert around him.

"'Atreyu and the Many-Colored Death'."

He showed him book after book, each one bearing a picture of Atreyu and a place or person in Fantasia that the boy knew well. 'Atreyu and the Silver City', 'Atreyu and the Fallen Knight', 'Atreyu and the City of Luckdragons', 'Atreyu and the City of Ghosts', 'Atreyu and the War of the Elves', 'Atreyu and Hero Hynreck', Bastian read each title aloud until he had emptied two entire rows of the bookshelf.

"There are more." He admitted. "A few aren't always about you, but rest assured you appear in each one. Children all over the world know and love you as though they'd been there with you. My own children could not sleep until I read to them one of your adventures."

"But all of this happened in Fantasia. How did you know about all of this?"

"They were my stories after all. I started them, and you vowed to finish them. Isn't that the promise we made?"

Atreyu bit his lip. "How could I have done any different?"

Bastian set the books down. "Of course. But you forget, I made a promise that day too." The old man took both his hands and rested them on Atreyu's shoulders. "I promised to take everything I'd learned from Fantasia with me and share it with this world. And I've strived to keep that promise. Through all of your adventures, I've been beside you. I've been with you every step of the way because we are friends."

Friends. Atreyu had always considered Bastian as such, but he had wondered if the same had been true for Bastian. For so long he had carried guilt over Bastian's trials in Fantasia. But now, to hear of the love his friend had for him after all this time, to hear of all he had done for him and Fantasia lifted years of guilt from his heart in an instant. Now there was no doubt in his mind that Bastian was still his friend. With a childlike lightness he had forgotten he possessed, Atreyu fell forward into Bastian's arms and hugged him tightly. Christa too wrapped her arms around him and they both held him gently. He had believed he'd been through crying in the hospital. He had been wrong.


Adair's tale of her adventures stretched well into the night, and more than once Rosemary had to stop her so she could gather her thoughts. But she listened patiently, without interrupting and without a hint of irony. Though it was hard for her to believe in what her niece was saying, it was clear that she did.

Her cousins accepted her story without a hitch and begged to hear more. Unlike their mother, they were bombarding her with questions.

"What does a Luckdragon look like?" Jamie asked.

"Tell me more about those Rock Giants!" Bryan demanded. "They sound awesome!"

"Awesome!" Lizzie repeated.

Adair made it a point to avoid telling her aunt about the more dangerous parts of her adventures, but there were things she simply couldn't leave out. And the one thing she could not leave out was perhaps the most dangerous of all.

"And then we came back to this world." Adair finished her telling. "Me and Jason are back and Atreyu is with Bastian."

"Are you going back?" Jamie asked.

"Yeah, you still have to wake that princess up don't you?" Bryan reminded them.

"Right now we're just waiting for Iole to come back. She says we broke some important rules when we brought Atreyu back with us."

Rosemary's face was expressionless when she spoke. "This Nightmare King you mentioned... Volrac." She paused over the dark detail Adair hadn't been able to exclude from her story. "You said he planned for all of this to happen, that he... wanted you." Adair heard the unspoken question in her statement. The answer to that question was the reason she had not taken their worst enemy out of the story. Adair nodded solemnly because the answer was yes, Volrac had been the wolf she had seen in the woods when she was a little girl. He was the reason her parents were gone.

"Bryan, Jamie, go put your sister to bed and then you do the same."

"But mom!" They both groaned in unison.

"I wanted to hear more about Fantasia!" Jamie whined.

"I need to speak to your cousin alone and you both still have school tomorrow. Now go to bed."

The two brothers grunted about their mother's perceived unfairness, but relented to her demands, leading their tired-eyed little sister up the steps to bed. Rosmary stared at her niece for a long time before she finally spoke. Whether she was collecting herself or making sure the boys weren't eavesdropping, Adair wasn't sure.

"He was the one wasn't he?" She asked. "The one you saw that day."

Adair nodded. "Do you... believe me?"

Rosemary held a hand over her trembling lips. As her eyes started to water, she had to look away from Adair.

"I hoped I'd never have to. I thought it would be easier just to forget." She lifted her gaze slowly to meet Adair's. "I am so sorry I made you bury that. When I heard your story about what happened to Rick and Diana, I knew it had to be true. You always had an active imagination, but no child would make up a story like that. But the more you tried to convince the police it was true, the more questions they started asking me."

"What kinds of questions?"

Rosemary sighed. "Like if we had a history of mental illness in our family. When they asked me that, I knew where it would lead. They were going to take you away from me. They would never believe the truth, and at the time I wasn't sure I could either. So I made you change it. I made sure you never brought up the wolf again. I was so afraid of facing the truth that I took away what you needed most. I couldn't see that you just needed someone to talk about it with."

For the first time in a decade of living together, Adair finally understood her aunt's actions. She hadn't been trying to ignore her, she had been trying to protect her. Her denial of the events of that terrible day had been to insure that she could stay with the only family she had left. It filled her with regret to think on how she'd treated that family since then. Now Adair was crying too.

"Auntie I'm so sorry!" She cried, burying her face into her aunt and crying like she was a little girl again. "I didn't know."

"I'm sorry too." Rosemary admitted as she stroked her niece's hair. "Looks like we both have some growing up to do. But I promise to listen to you from now on, no matter what it is you want to talk about. But you have to promise me one thing."

Adair lifted her tear swollen eyes to her aunt. "What's that?"

"Promise that you'll talk to me and give me something to listen to."

She smiled through her tears. "Deal."

"And about that job in the city... no matter what you decide I'll support you. But remember that you'll always have a home here. It would be nice of you to drop in and visit your cousins from time to time."

"About that." Adair hesitated. "I'm not so sure I want to take that internship anymore. I'm actually thinking about taking some art classes when I graduate."

"Art classes?" Rosemary beamed. "That sounds... interesting."

"Does that mean I can stay here a little longer?"

"You know the answer to that." Rosemary said with a smile. "So, tell me more about this boy you brought back with you. He sounds dreamy."

"Aunt Rosemary!" Adair's face flushed with embarrassment.

"Don't be embarrassed. It's about time you started dating a nice boy. But did you have to go so far to find him?"

"Yeah." Adair laughed. "Leave it to me to have to go to another world to find a guy." And so began Adair's and Rosemary's journey to being a family again.


"Well, you boys don't stay up too late now." Christa admonished. She, Bastian, and Atreyu had spent the better part of the day in the study sharing stories, but now it had grown late. "I'll be heading to bed and I suggest you two do the same. Sounds like we all have a big day ahead of us." She kissed Atreyu once more on the forehead, and then went to kiss Bastian on the cheek.

"Good night dear. I'll be up in a moment." Bastian promised. When she left the study, Bastian's eyes turned serious. "Now Atreyu, there's something I wished to discuss with you alone."

"What is it?" the boy asked apprehensively.

Bastian took a moment to speak. "As I've said, I've done what I can to help you in your adventures, but there is one thing that I could not give you. It wasn't until Adair found her way into Fantasia that I learned why. I couldn't give it to you because you were denying yourself of it."

Atreyu knit his dark brows together. "What was that?"

"Happiness." Bastian replied. "I tried again and again to create some form of happiness for you in my stories, but no matter what I invented, it never seemed to have any lasting impact. And now I know why. You weren't allowing yourself to be happy."

Atreyu began to fidget and rubbed his arm tensely. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Everything." Bastian said, taking on a distant tone. "It might be the very answer to solving this crisis."

Atreyu's interest perked up and his dark eyes became intensely focused. It was the same focus they held when he drew an arrow back with his bow. "How?"

"Think Atreyu. What did Gaya tell you about Adair?"

He thought back on that moment, recalling the Dark Princess' words. "She said that Adair was the human mirror of the Childlike Empress. That's why she fell asleep after Adair closed off her heart. But how can that be? Moon Child shouldn't have a mirror in this world. She is Fantasia."

"I have a theory if you'll indulge me." Bastian leaned forward and began to talk with his hands. It reminded him of Engywook's excitement whenever he was going to discuss something scientific. "Because of Moon Child's nature, a little bit of her exists in everything. That's even true here. It is true that we are all part of the great never ending story, that we are all connected. But once every so often, the actions of one have the potential to change the story's course forever. I believe that the bond you share with Adair is one such event. You've always been a hero in a story, but now just as you were when I met you, you are the hero of the story. As such, I believe that what happens to Adair affects Moon Child, because Adair was always meant to be your Moon Child."

Atreyu shook his head vigorously. "That can't be it. Moon Child fell asleep ten years ago, long before Adair and I met."

"There are two things I know of, over which time holds no sway." Bastian held up two fingers. "Love, and Fantasia. And you my friend are a product of both."

"Is that really the answer?"

"You heard it yourself. Only the Strongest Magic could wake Moon Child and save Fantasia. It may be that by denying yourself happiness, you're preventing the one thing that can make everything right."

Bastian's words made Atreyu recall something Ze'hara had said to him the night before the ball.

"We all want you to be happy. You deserve to be happy. You can have happiness with her."

The answer had been right in front of him the entire time. It seemed too simple.

"I still don't understand. It's true that I love Adair." It felt strange admitting that. It felt wonderful to say, but there was a strange flush of embarrassment in his face when he did. He had always been direct and straightforward, unafraid to say what was on his mind. But when it came to Adair his words seemed to tangle up on the edge of his tongue, piling into a mess that refused to make sense. It made him feel so helpless sometimes, but he loved her all the more for it. "But how does that wake up Moon Child? What is it we have to do?"

"You won't know that until you try." Bastian said with a wise grin. "You've faced many dangers in your life, but falling in love may be the bravest thing you've ever had to do. Your greatest adventure yet."

"I believe I said it was time for bed." Christa's voice startled them. They saw her standing in the doorway dressed in a long white night gown and looking cross. She held a folded pair of striped pajamas in her arms.

"We were almost finished dear." Bastian promised sheepishly.

"I've heard that story before." Christa snapped.

"I promise dear, I'll be up in a moment."

"You can stay up until the cows come home for all I care. But you," She pointed an accusing finger at Atreyu. "Didn't anyone ever teach you that growing boys need their rest? Now come along. He'll keep you up until dawn if you let him. Now come with me and I'll show you where you're sleeping, hop to it!"

Atreyu snapped to his feet. "Yes Ma'am." He said instinctively. Her direct maternal manner reminded him of Urgl, and he knew it was best not to resist when she believed she knew best.

Bastian winked as if he'd read his mind. "Good thinking lad. Perhaps we should continue this tomorrow."

Growing up in the Plains and living a life of adventuring, Atreyu had grown accustomed to sleeping on the ground or on Falkor's back. But that night for the first time he got to sleep in a real bed. Though it was foreign to him at first, the moment his head touched the pillow he realized how tired he was. He fell into a deep sleep, and he dreamed while he slept. Not the kind of dreams he sometimes had in Fantasia that guided him on his journey. These were dreams that were nothing more than the product of a tired boy's mind. They were all of Adair.

At the same time, Adair was returning to her bed for the first time in what felt like ages. She never believed she would miss it so much. And Jason returned to a house he knew would be empty to sleep in a bed he had not missed for what he knew would be the last time. The three slept peacefully in the human world, in spite of how much still lay ahead of them before they could truly rest. For in Fantasia things were far from quiet.


While our heroes rested in the other world, the Circle of the Night had some regathering of their own to do. Adair had reduced the castle east of the sun and west of the moon to rubble. They'd been forced to move their base of operation back to the Castle of Nightmares. This was a minor annoyance, but Thoth had much larger problems than the decimation of their fortress. Namely, he was losing the wager. Fay had just returned from the human world and given a less than satisfactory report to his needs. Crash after crash echoed in the great hall as he hurled many of his artifacts and other objects at the wall, shouting the foulest obscenities as he did so like a child throwing a tantrum.

"Never! I refuse to accept this! The fundamental laws of magic are absolute! You cannot gain something for nothing! We had a contract and Atreyu violated the terms! By rights he should be scattered bits of nonsense in the human world!"

Nag seemed to agree with Thoth's sentiment, though it seemed much less distraught. "It's impossible. Even without the contract binding him to us, crossing into the human world alone should have killed him."

"But it didn't." Fay stated with smug satisfaction. "I saw him myself as I left, alive and well. The strongest magic defied his fate. Not only did he gain his freedom thanks to Adair's wish, he is now able to exist in a place where no Fantasian has ever gone before. He gained the impossible without paying. Love is the only magic that can accomplish that. Now admit your defeat."

Thoth pointed his bony finger contemptuously at his colleague. "Never! In case it's slipped your mind, this game of ours has yet to run its course. This isn't over yet!"

A dark voice came out of the shadows of the great hall and called their attention to the throne. "So glad to see we still agree." Heremoor the true Nightmare King sat on the throne, resting his head on his iron clad knuckles. He had foregone the silver and gold armor he had warn as the general of the eagle riders, and he had seen little use in resuming the form of Volrac. He seemed at ease in a new form that lay somewhere between the two. His armor was now obsidian black and he wore a cloak of deep crimson with steel black pauldrons welded in the shape of wings. His chiseled face seemed harder and more shadowed than before. His once long golden hair had become as black as coal. His emerald green eyes were still as steady as a mountain, but now they burned with the hate he had hidden for so long.

"Lord Volrac." Nag leaped from where it had been perched on the steps leading to the throne. "Welcome back."

Heremoor smiled, but it was not a kind smile befitting a brave and jovial knight. "Why so agitated my servants? Does my return put you on edge?"

Thoth grinned cordially, but his voice seemed to waver. "Whatever gave you that idea? We are your humble servants as always."

"Glad to hear it." Heremoor replied. His smile began to fade and his expression turned dark. "Then perhaps you would like to tell me how it is that AURYN has left this world?"

The Seekers exchanged nervous glances excluding Fay who looked openly annoyed rather than nervous.

"You thought I didn't know the humans and Atreyu have vanished? Have you forgotten what an integral part AURYN is meant to play in my plan?" Silence answered him. "Well?!" He cried angrily. Nag cowered away from him. Heremoor sighed. "You must really believe me to be a fool. And perhaps I am for having ever placed my faith in you. Well like it or not," the Nightmare King said ominously as he rose to his feet. "You still have an obligation to me."

A powerful gale of wind swirled all around the throne room as Heremoor raised his hand toward the ceiling. A black manacle appeared around his wrist, and from it shot three lengths of chain. They extended all the way to Nag, Thoth, and Fay who found their wrists bound to them by their own shackles. The wind howled fiercely and the three Witches found themselves caught up by its tremendous force. Like kites on a blustery day, they swung round and round from their chains, flailing their arms and legs uselessly. Bound as they were, they felt as though the chains would tear their arms off.

"See here the proof of our bond!" Heremoor declared over the wind. As it whipped his dark hair and caught at his cloak, he remained with his feet firmly planted. "We remain bound together by our contract as strong as the day it was formed. As you three are so fond of telling me, you can't receive something for nothing. For too long I've turned my gaze away as your hideous deeds poison my empire. I have allowed it only for the sake of the service you have provided me. But now, your time of playing rulers in my land is at an end. You collected my payment that day and now I am compelling you to honor your end of our agreement."

The chains vanished and the wind died down. Nag, Thoth, and Fay were flung to opposite corners of the chamber where they slammed into the walls and tumbled to the floor in panting heaps. Nag moaned pathetically and cowered like a dog. Thoth got to his feet and attempted to collect his dignity, dusting himself off and straightening his glasses. Fay rolled onto her knees, but before she could stand, Heremoor was towering over her. His steel clad hand closed around her throat. His grip wasn't tight enough to stop her breathing, but the strength in his hand was present and clear. With one squeeze he could crush her neck as easily as snapping a twig. Nag and Thoth were frozen, transfixed by the exchange.

"You were in the human world?" He asked levelly. With what little movement she was allowed, Fay nodded. "You spoke to the human?" Again she nodded. "And? Where is AURYN?"

"She didn't have it." Fay replied in a voice as even as his. Even in the face of Heremoor's overwhelming power she wasn't frightened. In spite of her selfish nature, Fay held her own life with very little regard. She only feared things she didn't understand, and she understood the Nightmare King inside and out. "My guess is that it's still with Jason."

Heremoor held her in his grasp for a moment longer before he finally released her.

"Very well." He said, pacing to the center of the room.

"Would you have us go to the other world and retrieve it?" Thoth asked tenuously.

"No. You three return to the Tower and prepare for the final stage. I'll retrieve AURYN myself. Though I detest every inch of it, crossing into the human world is something I've never relied on your power for." Heremoor unbuckled the gauntlet on his right arm, the one on which he lacked a hand. Dark mist poured from the empty socket in the armor and swirled around him. As it did so, he began to change shape, becoming Volrac the werewolf once more. "When I return and complete the sundering, our arrangement will come to an end. You will have until I draw my blade to leave my beloved Fantasia or I will sunder the three of you along with it."

The darkness gathered and thickened around him, then it was gone and him with it. All that remained were a trio of disgruntled Witches faced with an uncomfortable realization that they were no longer in control of their own game.


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