The Strongest Magic

Chapter 24: Despair

Xanthic light filtered through the curtain of Adair's bedroom and she struggled to sit up and rub her eyes. Her first night in a real bed after her journey had been so restful that when she took in her surroundings she had to feel them to make sure her return had been more than a dream. She squeezed the covers between her fingers and smiled. Then she went to her window and threw open the curtains. The yellow light of dawn and the silence in the house told her she must have been the first one awake. She glanced at the clock on her dresser. It was seven in the morning. Adair had never been what one would call a morning person, but for some reason today, she had a different feeling about the morning than she'd had in awhile. Not just the morning, but the whole day. And she knew why. Starting today, everything was going to be different. She was going to be different, to her family, her friends, to everyone.

She moved to her closet and rifled through the hangers. Most of her clothes were black or gray with a splatter of glitter or color here and there like her rock concert T-shirts. All her pants were black jeans or capris pants. She shook her head. The old her wouldn't have cared one way or the other, but she wanted to wear something different today. She dug further and further back.

Yes, she still had it! Quickly getting dressed, she crept quietly to the bathroom to brush her teeth and then her hair. When she was finished, the temptation crept on her to rifle through her aunt's drawer where she kept her make-up. Only a little she told herself. In the past, the idea of make-up repulsed her, but this morning, she almost laughed at imagining her family's reaction. With a grin, she pulled out Aunt Rosemary's mascara.

Okay, how do I do this again?

Very carefully, she attempted to apply it to her eyelashes.

"WHOAH!"

Adair yelped in surprise. She dropped the brush and whirled to see Bryan standing in the doorway, still in his pajamas with his mouth hanging open. He was taking in her outfit and not bothering to hide his surprise at all.

"What?"

"Is that a skirt?"

Adair smiled as she turned to model the layered pink-plaid skirt over black leggings. "Surprised?"

"Where did it come from?"

"Aunt Rosemary bought it for me a while ago. I just buried it in the back of the closet because I didn't want to wear it." She explained, remembering the argument she'd had with Rosemary two Christmases ago.

"Oh..." Brian seemed to lose some of his astonishment.

"What is it?"

"I just thought you... you know... magicked it onto yourself."

"What?"

"You know, like you did in Fantasia."

"I never made clothes out of thin air." Adair reminded him.

"But you did magic right? Like shooting light out of your hands?"

Adair nodded meekly, a little bashful over how impressed her cousin was about the whole thing.

"Can you still do that?"

"I don't think it works here." She admitted.

"Just try." He pleaded.

She shook her head and held up her hand. She squinted at her fingers and concentrated, trying to create at least a spark. When nothing happened, she shrugged.

"Sorry."

"Awe man." Brian sighed. "That would have been so cool."

"Maybe someday I'll learn how to do it again." She said jokingly. "So be nice to your brother and sister when I do or I'll turn you into a toad."

"That would be awesome!"

"You're such a brat." She teased. Then without warning she locked her arm around his neck and pulled him in. He fought hard, but it didn't stop her from planting her lips right on his forehead.

"Oh gross!"

"I love you too!" She released him and waved as she skipped past him and down the stairs.

She went to the kitchen where she normally would have grabbed two pop-tarts and been on her way. But remembering that everyone but Bryan was still asleep gave her an idea. She went through the cupboards and raided the fridge with a sneaky grin. She felt so good about what she was doing that she actually giggled as she cracked two eggs into the pan and began to fry them. This prompted Bryan who was still spying on her to dash to his mother's room and shake her awake.

"Mom wake up!" He whispered urgently. "Adair's being really scary!"

Not understanding her son's meaning, but catching the smell wafting up from the kitchen, she told him to wake his brother and sister and come downstairs. Rosemary, Bryan, Jamie, and Baby Lizzie were met with a sight.

"Who wants breakfast?" Adair asked as she set the table and started dishing bacon and eggs onto their plates.

Rosemary couldn't think of what to say. "This was very nice of you. What's the occasion?"

"No occasion." Adair promised. "Just wanted to make breakfast for my family."

Family. Adair had always called Rosemary her aunt, or Bryan and Jamie her cousins, but they couldn't recall a time she had ever referred to them as her family. Rosemary was so happy to hear her niece address them as such that her eyes began to swell with tears. Then the five of them sat down to eat breakfast as a family for the first time years. They talked, they laughed, they ate and when it was over, Bryan and Jamie even volunteered to wash the dishes without their mother asking them.

A knock came at the door when they were finished.

"That's Jason." Adair said, getting up from the table to give her aunt a hug. "He's here to take me to Bastian's shop."

"Alright." Romemary patted Adair's shoulder from where she sat. "We'll meet you there soon. I can't wait to meet him." She winked.

Adair blushed. "Me neither." She made her way to the door and threw it open, greeting Jason with a hug before he could even speak.

Jason didn't know how to react at first, but hugged her back anyway. Then when she took a step back he grew even more confused.

"Is that a skirt?"

"Yeah, you want one too?" she teased.

He pretended to consider it for a moment. "Not my color. Let's go."

She followed him out to his car and they made most of the drive into town in silence.

"Do you think Iole's going to send us back?" Jason asked.

"I don't know." Adair replied. She knew what he really wanted to ask, because it was the same thing that had been on her mind. She knew there was a lot Iole wasn't telling them about the situation, but one thing she had made very clear. They had broken some kind of natural order by bringing Atreyu here. Some kind of decision was being made or already had been made about what that meant for them. She didn't want to think about it right now.

"I hope she does." Jason admitted.

"I don't know if it works that way. Very few people actually get to go to Fantasia, and even fewer find their way back. I think it depends on if you learn what you were supposed to."

"Yeah, but that was before the Seekers came and screwed everything up. Besides, we're not done over there. Moon Child's still asleep." He reminded her.

"I know."

"Do you not want to go back?" He asked.

"It's not that. It's just... I think we should consider ourselves lucky we got to see it at all. How many people can say that?"

"Alright, but you can't tell me you won't miss being able to throw magic at people."

She smiled. "Yeah that part was pretty cool."

"You looked awesome. You know, in an X-Men kind of way."

"Yeah, I'll miss that."

"I guess that means you'll want this back then?" He reached for his neck and tugged on a length of chain that hung from it, pulling it out from inside his shirt. Her eyes went wide when she saw AURYN dangling at the end of its length.

"How did you get that?"

"Uh, you gave it to me. Remember?"

"Not that. I mean, how did you get it here?"

"I was still wearing it when me and Atreyu came through. I guess it's different than everything else in Fantasia." He frowned. "I wish my sword had come through with us. I'll miss it." He grimaced. "Thoth's probably got his greasy hands all over it by now. Here, you can have it back."

"I don't know." Adair hesitated. "I gave it up. Remember?"

"Right, and I'm giving it up right back to you. I don't think it would be right if we finished this and you didn't have it, kind of like finishing without my sword." He frowned again.

She rolled her eyes before carefully taking AURYN's chain into her hand. She looped it over her head and pulled her hair out from under its chain. Its weight felt good back around her neck, like a hug from an old friend one hasn't seen in a long time. She ran her fingers over the twin snakes in silence as they continued the drive. This didn't go unnoticed by Jason.

"What are you thinking about?"

"I was trying to understand something."

"About?" He prodded.

"I didn't think much of it when we were in Fantasia, but Bastian's story made me wonder. You remember when Atreyu said that wishing on AURYN takes away your memories?"

"Yeah."

"Well Bastian really did lose everything. By the end he'd even forgotten his own name."

"He was in Fantasia for years." He reminded her.

"Still, I've been running it through my head and I can't think of anything significant about my life I forgot. I thought maybe it was because we've come back. But even in Fantasia I remembered you, and Rosemary, Bryan, Jamie, Lizzie, my parents, everything."

Jason kept his eyes on the road and said nothing. She wondered if he'd been listening until he spoke again.

"I think everyone's journey in Fantasia is different. Maybe it depends on why you went there in the first place. Why did you need to go to Fantasia?"

She thought that made sense. "I came there to learn about love... to learn how to love."

"And why didn't you try that before?"

"There were lots of reasons."

"Can you name any of them?"

She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. She thought hard on it. She knew there was a time she had possessed a number of reasons not to let others into her heart, but now she couldn't name a single one of them.

"I don't remember." She smiled and said it again. "I don't remember!"

He smiled as he drove on. "There's your answer. I just... nah never mind."

She frowned. "No, go on. What were you going to say?"

He sighed. "I just wish you could have done that here... with me."

"Oh." She placed her hand on his arm. They hadn't had much of a chance to talk about what he'd revealed to her in Fantasia, how he'd loved her all this time. "Jason, I'm sorry."

"Adair don't." He snapped, but not harshly. "Don't apologize. I know it didn't work out the way I wanted it to, but don't be sorry. Because I could never be sorry for what we had." He looked at her for the first time since they'd gotten in the car. They had pulled into the front of Bastian's shop. She hadn't noticed they'd arrived.

He gave her a smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "You'll always be my first."

She reached across her seat and hugged him. "Thank you." She whispered in his ear. "Thank you for being my friend even when I was too stupid to want one."

He took her by her shoulders and looked her in the eye. "Thank you for giving me someone to be stupid with."

She smiled and unlocked her seat belt, opening her door. She looked back to him.

"Aren't you coming?"

"I'll be there in a minute." He assured her. He reached into his back seat and pulled his backpack from under the bench. "Got some reading to do." He unzipped the bag and pulled out a familiar book bound in coppery silk.

"You've had it the whole time?" Adair gasped.

"Yeah, I picked it up before I came and got you after... Atreyu came out of it." He lingered over the last part, not wanting to bring up the horrific experience they'd all just gone through.

"Well be careful. Don't you dare go in there without me."

"Wasn't planning on it." He promised. "I just feel bad for Falkor and Deisha being left out of the loop like this. So I've been trying to keep an eye on them. The others too. Don't worry, I've been reading it since the hospital, and nothing weird happened."

Adair felt a sudden surge of guilt. With Atreyu being at death's door since their return, she hadn't really thought of the friends they'd left behind in Fantasia.

"How are they?"

"They're holding up. I won't lie, there was kind of a panic when we left. But Volrac hasn't attacked again, so now the Fantasians at the tower are just regrouping. Most of them have set up camp in the infinite garden."

"The Tuah?"

"Hykrion and the Rockbiters found them."

"What about the rest?"

"I can't find Deisha." He admitted. "But I'm sure she's okay. She's just not with the others."

"And Falkor?"

He hesitated. "Not good. Unless hope comes back to Fantasia, he's just going to keep getting weaker, just like the Childlike Empress."

She nodded. "Then we have to finish this."

"Right. But hey, don't tell Atreyu just yet. He's still recovering. I don't want to turn him into a wreck by making him worry."

"Alright." She agreed. "I'll see you inside." She went to the door of the shop and turned the handle. But before she went inside she lingered to look back at Jason. He had already started reading. When he noticed she was looking at him, he gave her a reassuring smile and waved. She waved back and an unpleasant feeling came over her.

Why does it feel like I'm waving goodbye?

She shook the thought away and let herself into the bookshop.

Jason's smile faded when she disappeared from view. He knew what awaited on the other side of that glass door with its faded lettering. And the truth was, he didn't want to watch her drift forever away from him into the arms of someone else. But if he had known what would happen next, he may have wished to stay with her a little longer.

Adair let herself into Bastian's shop, a tinkling of bells on the door signaling her arrival. It was just as cluttered as she remembered. In truth it was worse now because so many of the books had been moved from the shelves and were strewn or stacked all over the floor. She was greeted by an older woman she didn't recognize who emerged from behind the desk and the familiar armchair. She walked right up to her with a bright smile on her face.

"You must be Adair." She said, taking both the girl's hands in hers. "I'm Christa, Bastian's wife. Please come in. It's so good to meet you."

Adair was a little staggered by her abruptness at ushering her into the shop. "Uh, likewise."

"She's here dear." Christa called to the armchair.

Adair let herself be taken further into the shop with its smell of well worn musty pages. She found Bastian was the one seated in the armchair. Her heart jumped when she noticed Atreyu sitting cross-legged on the floor next to him, holding an open book up for him. Neither of them had noticed her and Christa approach just yet, and Adair didn't speak up at once either. She was satisfied just to see him with all the color back in his face, the gauntness and exhaustion gone. What was more, there was a new light in his dark eyes she had not seen before. He seemed happier and more free than she could recall.

"And these letters," Atreyu said, pointing to a part of the book. "What do they spell?"

Bastian adjusted his glasses and peered at the book.

"My friend, that's your name. This was where you entered this story."

"Oh." Atreyu looked a little embarrassed.

"Don't worry, you'll get the hang of it. You're doing fine. But why don't we put the book away for a moment."

Atreyu looked up from the page and his face brightened even more when his eyes met hers. She could feel the warmth coming from him like it was a light filling the entire room. He jumped to his feet.

"Adair, you have to come see this!" He cried, pointing to the book he'd been holding. "Bastian's written so many books since he returned here. They're all about Fantasia! And look, I'm in every one!" He drew close to her side and held the book open for her. "Look here. Read this part."

She tried to stifle a laugh at his excitement. She cleared her throat and read a sentence aloud.

"The rain water made the treetops of the Singing Tree Forest glisten like a silvery canvas. And when the raindrops struck the leaves, Atreyu and Falkor could hear their music as they flew over the canopy: familiar tunes, haunting ones that made them want to cry, and lively ones that made them want to dance."

"It's true! It's all true!" He exclaimed. "It's like he was right there with me the whole time through all of it!" His joy was contagious.

"That's amazing!" She squeezed his hand. Their eyes met again and a sudden bashfulness washed over them both. Christa and Bastian looked on, their eyes glowing with nostalgia as they remembered a time years ago when they had been young and in love like the pair in front of them.

"So are you..." she stammered, "okay now? I mean, are you... you?" Though it was clear to her he'd recovered, she still wished for that reassurance. She knew that if they were going to face whatever awaited them with Iole's return, she'd need him. The real him.

He said nothing as he set his book down on the armrest of the chair. Then swiftly, he looped his arms through hers and pressed her to him. He lifted her off her feet and spun her as she yelped in surprise. That made the rest of them laugh.

"Okay! I get it! Put me down already!" She laughed.

The laughter inside the shop drifted out into the street and reached Jason who remained in the driver's seat of his car. He smiled, but it wasn't the same kind of smile the ones inside were sharing. It was a sad one that a person makes who's trying to be happy because they know that things are happening for the best, even if it's not what they want. He took a deep breath and opened the Neverending Story.

The Infinite Labyrinth outside the Ivory Tower had been dotted all over with small campfires only a night before, and the tower had been lit. But now the great tower stood empty, and very few fires remained. So many of the legion that had fought to protect the Ivory Tower from Volrac's assault had given up and returned to their little corners of Fantasia to await the end. Not a soul remained in the Ivory Tower as far as anyone knew. Being inside it just reminded all of them of the tragic state of their Empress, still trapped in her enchanted sleep, encased in crystal by her seven powers. Nothing saddened them more than to know that there was nothing they could do to help her, and she in turn could not save them as she was.

But some stalwart heroes remained. The Plains People had stayed behind out of loyalty to Atreyu if for no other reason. And there were still others, however few who still believed Moon Child was not beaten yet, nor was Adair, the human she had chosen. And gathered around one fire in particular were some of the most dedicated to the cause of the true Fantasia: Bahzha who had once been called Hydorn, his wife Ainslee, Hykrion once "the Strong", now "the Marauder", along with his band of Rockbiters and the silver-eyed children they protected, Hysbald and his two Gnommic companions Engywook and Urgl, Ze'hara the Plains Shamaness, and Falkor the Luckdragon. But the days had dragged on, and even they were beginning to feel their hope fading like the embers of their fire.

"Let me get that." Falkor wheezed as he attempted to breathe some life back into the fire. A few blue wisps of smoke escaped his mouth, but he choked before he could create any real fire.

"Stop wasting your energy!" Urgl scolded, wagging her gnarled old finger at him. "You need to rest and finish the medicine I brewed for you!"

Falkor managed a weak grin. "Thank you for your help Urgl... but I'm afraid no amount of medicine can help me now. I can't even fly anymore."

"Nonsense!" Urgl shrieked, biting back tears. "Just need a little medicine is all. You'll be right as rain in no time." Engywook watched his wife in silence. Most wondered why he wasn't trying to argue her out of wasting her time on what he dubbed her silly remedies. But he knew what his wife was really doing was trying to keep herself busy. She couldn't let herself stop trying to help, because the moment she did was the moment she gave up.

Ze'hara too had been exhausting much of her strength, trying to find the answers to their questions. She had seldom looked away from the fire, trying to see a vision in its flames, to hear a message in its crackle. Her eyes had become swollen and red from the smoke, but still she kept her vigil without rest.

"Do you see anything about Atreyu?" Bahzha asked. Ze'hara only shook her head sadly. "Adair? Jason?" Again the wise woman shook her head, her long graying black hair swinging like a curtain behind her.

"I see nothing of any of them."

"Then are they..." Hysbald trailed off, not wanting to finish that thought.

"No." Ze'hara answered firmly. "If they were I would have seen it by now. But there is nothing of them for me to see. It's as if they've left Fantasia. It would make sense if Adair and Jason had returned to their world, but for Atreyu to be gone as well... I don't know what it means."

"What about Deisha?" Bahzha asked. "You said she wasn't with them."

"I can see her." Ze'hara assured him. "But it is still as I said. The path of her life has changed and not even the fire can show me her direction for now."

"Well what are we supposed to do?" Hykrion grumbled. "I for one would rather not sit around here stewing and waiting for Volrac to strike again."

"I'm afraid we have no choice." Ze'hara lectured the brash knight.

"Uncle Hykrion..." little Daisy of the Tuah children climbed into Hykrion's lap. "Did Adair forget about us?"

A sad smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, almost hidden by his grand black mustache.

"How could anyone forget you little Daisy, or any of you? She'll be back. You'll see. And she's going to show that big bad wolf a thing or two when she returns." Though his words were optimistic, he had begun to wonder the same thing. Why had the one who was supposed to save them suddenly disappeared when they needed her most?

"What if they did leave Fantasia?" Daisy began to cry. "How will they get back?"

Falcon scooted next to Hykrion and patted his sister's bright pink hair. "Don't cry Daisy. She'll come back just like Uncle Hykrion promised."

"How?"

"With luck." Falcon replied firmly.

"Smart lad." Falkor chuckled. Then he coughed so fiercely it sent shudders through each of them. "I'm sorry. It wouldn't be so bad if not for the smell."

"What smell?" Hysbald asked.

"How can you not notice? It's this overpowering scent of cinnamon and roses. Pleasant normally, but this is too much." Falkor complained as he wrinkled his nose. When Hykrion heard that, the ends of his mustache twitched. He made to stand up and set Daisy down gently next to Falcon.

"Where are you going Uncle Hykrion?" Daisy tugged on the leg of his trousers.

"I'm just going to do a little scouting." He whispered so the others wouldn't hear. "I'll be right back. Falcon, watch your brothers and sisters until I return."

"Yes sir."

Hykrion stepped back cautiously, not wanting to alert anyone that he was leaving. He tried to sniff out the scent that Falkor had complained about earlier. While he didn't possess the Luckdragon's incredible nose, now that he knew it was there he was able to ferret it out. It led him around the corner of one of the hedges. Not far off from where they camped he found her. The light of dusk still shone in her autumn red curls. The freckled red haired woman looked very different from the one he remembered, but he could not mistake her eyes, or the scent that had led him here.

"Hello Hykrion." She said in a subdued voice.

Hykrion grimaced. "Hello Matilda. Or do you just go by Shadeseeker now?"

She lowered her reddish brown eyes, unable to meet his gaze. "Just Matilda is fine. How did you know I was here?"

"The Luckdragon has a very keen nose, and you still wear the same perfume." The knight folded his broad arms. "What are you doing here?" She didn't answer at first. "Should I expect the rest of your coven to be here soon?"

"No." she replied. "The ones you didn't kill... are no longer with me."

"Are you part of this?" He demanded. "Are you on Volrac's side?"

"I was." She admitted. "After so long traveling, my sisters and I began aging. We turned on each other, stealing one another's years until I was the last one left."

"You always were the most cunning." Hykrion said, but it wasn't in flattery.

"But it didn't last."

"So you made a deal with the devil then."

She nodded. "He said he could grant my wish. He gave me power, and I didn't care what we were doing so long as I got what I wanted.

"Why are you telling me this?"

"You may have heard the human Adair Alicia Artemis defeated me."

"We don't get much news in our part of Fantasia. Then again, we don't get many witches either so I can't complain." Part of her seemed to shrink into herself when he snapped at her. She was silent for awhile and he sighed. "What happened then?"

"I lost my power and my youth. I thought I had nothing. Somehow I wandered into the country of the Sassafranians. I was so old and ugly they believed I was one of their children at first. They nursed me back to health. I didn't tell them who I was right away. After they learned I was an outsider, I asked if they had a place for me. I know about herbs and potions, and their children are born so old and frail that they have many ailments. For the first time I was using my powers to help someone other than me and... it felt good. I didn't notice at first, but little by little I grew younger. I don't know if it was being in their country or something else. But either way, the more I helped them, the younger I became."

"So why aren't you there now?"

"They found out who I was." She replied with a little sadness in her voice. "Rumors began to surface of just how I gained my youth back. They were kind about it, but in the end I was asked to leave."

"And did you?... Steal their youth I mean."

She looked him in the eye for the first time, and her reddish brown eyes held no mystery or deceit in them any longer. For the first time since he'd known her, they were clear and honest.

"No. I could never go back to doing that. Not after I've felt the other side. That's what I came here to tell you. You and the children don't have to be afraid of us anymore. I'm all that's left and I swear I will never touch them again."

"And you came all this way to tell me that. A letter wouldn't have done?"

"I wanted... I just wanted to look you in the eye and tell you I'm sorry. I'm sorry for the lies. I'm sorry that I used you, and I am so sorry that I used the children. But I know that nothing I say will ever make it okay. Apologies won't change what I did. So I'm here now." She closed her eyes and threw her arms open wide. "Do what you will with me. Just know that I meant every word."

In the silence between them, she never opened her eyes, but she could feel his eyes on her, studying her, trying to piece together what had been said. Then suddenly he grabbed her by the arm. His grip was strong and his hand wrapped easily around her elbow. She was powerless to resist as he dragged her after him. His strides were so long and purposeful that she nearly tripped trying to keep up.

Though she allowed herself to be dragged in silence, she was frightened. Her mind raced as she imagined what he planned to do. Was he going to take her to some secret place and strangle her? Was he going to drag her before his companions and the children so they could see justice done? Would he give her to the Rockbiters so they could stone her or tear her apart with their bare hands? In Matilda's mind, one who was still very new to the strongest magic, it was easy to imagine the world this way, cold and unforgiving. It had not occurred to her that true words spoken in love can make a person see that even a heart that had been as dark as Shadeseeker's could be honest.

He pulled her into a clearing walled off by hedges. It was a small pond where large gold and silver fish swam in circles. He pulled her to the edge and took her by the nape of her neck, pushing her to her knees. She fully expected him to plunge her face into the water and drown her, and there was nothing she could have done to fight off his strength even she'd wanted to.

"Look." He demanded. She complied and stared into the water, but all she saw was her own reflection. It was something she had obsessed over at one time, and feared at another. But she hadn't truly looked at it in some time. She looked different. She was beautiful, yet not the same as when she had stolen youth from others. There was a new kind of beauty there, a warm one that came from light someone carries within and lets shine out. She looked back up at him.

"I don't understand."

He looked into her with his intense eyes under his stern brow. "It seems Fantasia believes you deserve a second chance. So I suppose I believe it too."

She felt her knees go weak then and all her strength left her frame as she fell into him, resting her head beneath his chin. He put his strong arms around her and the two of them remained there for some time.

Though she didn't know it then, the Tuah are very quick to forgive, and they love anyone who loves them. When she returned with Hykrion, they would welcome Matilda with open arms and claim her as their "Auntie". Together the Knight, the Sorceress, and the Rockbiters would journey to find a new home for the Tuah where they could live and play without fear, a place more beautiful than they ever imagined. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

"Huh." Jason mused. "So that's who Matilda was." He remarked to himself, remembering the kindly woman who had told him and Iole how to reach the Seeker's castle. "Looks like that's another story we have to make sure happens." He ran his fingers over the words, thinking back sadly to their friends still confused and worried over their disappearance and what it meant for the overall fate of their two worlds.

"Don't worry guys. We're coming." He promised, hoping they could sense it somehow. He went on reading.

As the two loves reconciled, they didn't notice the quaking of the ground at first. But the others whom Hykrion had left behind at the campfire did. It began as a low rumble that they felt beneath their feet. Falkor's ears perked up and Ze'hara looked up from her fire, sensing something foul on the wind. Engywook and Urgl were bounced off the ground like little jumping beans, and the vibrations rattled their old bones as they clung to each other to steady themselves. The instruments on Hysbald's wheelchair rattled and shook as the ground began to shake more and more. Then they heard a fierce crack like thunder split the sky. Matilda clung tighter to Hykrion and he pressed her to him, desperately hoping to shield her from whatever was going on.

Great black clouds swirled in the sky, closing in above the Ivory Tower. Dirt and stones were thrown high into the air, covering the ground in a thick miasma. They were being flung every which way by the great thorn covered branches that were erupting from the ground. The Forest of Thorns had returned and was surrounding the Ivory Tower. At the tower's peak where the Magnolia Pavilion had once stood, the darkness from Sikanda's blade that had poisoned the stones of the tower was spreading like the toxic black water of a swamp. Ze'hara pointed and cried in horror as the ivory white of the tower turned obsidian black. Now the Forest of Thorns wasn't just surrounding the tower. Its branches were forcing their way into its walls, merging with it and melding together with the newly blackened stone. And as the darkness enveloped the tower, all the light of Fantasia seemed to go with it.

"No, no, no!" Jason snapped the book shut and flung the door of his car open. He sprinted around it and towards the shop, running so blindly he slammed right into someone else.

"Whoah, what's gotten into you?" Iole asked. She took him swiftly by both shoulders to stop him from falling flat on his back.

"Iole! You're back! Hurry you have to send us back!" He held the pages of the book open, waving them frantically.

"What are you talking about?"

"There's no time! They're all in danger! Me, Adair, and Atreyu have to go back now!"

Whatever Iole had been about to say, it was cut short by a clap of thunder. Just as they had in the passage Jason had just read, dark clouds swirled overhead and blotted out the sunlight. Iole swung Jason behind her by the arm and stood protectively in front of him. Her arms morphed into scales and claws as she swiveled her head from side to side, looking sharp for any unseen foe.

"He's here." She hissed.

A column of shadows descended from the sky and swirled into a solid dark mass. The feral snout and eyes of a wolf poked through, connected to a shadowy form. When its eyes landed on Jason, evil greenish-yellow eyes that burned with hatred, he knew he was looking upon the creature that murdered Adair's mother and father.

"I can't stay long White Dragon, and I don't care to." Volrac snarled. "I'm here for the boy."

Iole stood firm. "You remember what happened the last time we tangled."

"This won't be like ten years ago. My power has surpassed even your kind."

"You're welcome to test that."

Volrac's snout curled into a hideous grin. "You look tired White Dragon."

Jason could see it as well. That same fatigue he had seen in her earlier was still there. Diving to her home world must have taken a great deal of her strength.

"I'm not moving." She bared her teeth.

"How I would relish an honorable battle with you. How I would moan in delight as I crushed your throat between my fangs. But my time is short, and so is yours." With a bloodcurdling howl, Volrac's shadow lunged, its claws extended. But it did not collide with Iole. Instead the shadow passed through her like smoke. It rippled over her body like a shock wave, robbing her of her remaining strength and knocking her onto her back. She rolled onto her stomach and tried to push herself up, but she found herself too weak and it was too late.

The darkness swirled around Jason, trapping him in itself. And it didn't just flow over his body. He felt its clawed fingers running over his mind. It made him scream and want to vomit. He heard Volrac growl as his shadow reached up and caressed his neck.

You don't have it. He heard the Nightmare King's voice in his head.

The tinkling of bells sounded as the door to the shop was flung open.

"Jason!" Adair and Atreyu stood in the doorway, unarmed but ready to charge. Jason felt the shadow flicker with excitement when it saw Adair. Then Jason knew what it was really after.

"Adair stay back! He wants AURYN!"

"Come here!" Volrac roared.

Adair made to run to him. He couldn't let her. They could not let him get it.

"Atreyu keep her back! Don't come near me!"

Atreyu obeyed and blocked her path. Jason could see the fear in his eyes. He wanted to run to his aid.

"Don't do it!" Jason shouted above the roar. "This is not the time to be a hero! Stay away from me!"

The shadow over him quivered with rage and Jason knew Volrac's time in the human world was up. It needed to return to Fantasia or risk losing its form. Jason breathed a sigh of relief that the monster had not obtained its desires. Then all the darkness that was Volrac suddenly compressed into his body, darkness merging with his flesh and encasing him in its will. His vision was suddenly blinded by green-yellow fire as Volrac's eyes became his eyes. He felt his face twist with hate as the monster used his mouth as its own.

"You will deliver AURYN to me Adair Alicia Artemis." It hissed through Jason's lips. "You will bring it to the tower before Fantasia's next sundown. Make no mistake, if you fail his life is mine!"

As swiftly as it had come, the darkness lifted, and it took Jason with it.


Adair sat on the armchair in Bastian's shop, her knees quivering and her stomach tying in knots, but her mouth was set in a hard line. Atreyu sat beside her on the armrest of the chair, his hand on her shoulder.

"Are you telling me Jason's gone?" Rosemary asked. She and her children had pulled up shortly after Jason had been taken. Bryan and Jamie were more quiet than anyone thought they could be. They kept switching sympathetic gazes between their mother and their cousin. Lizzie sat quietly on Bryan's lap and was very still for someone of her age. She didn't know what was going on, but all her attention was fixed on Atreyu. Even as young as she was, she knew there was something different about him and that had her little mind enthralled.

"Volrac thought he had AURYN." Iole explained, leaning against one of the bookshelves. Her long dark hair hung loose around her shoulders and her eyes were sunken in. She looked very haggard. "When his time in this world ran out, he took Jason hostage."

"How was he able to do that?" Atreyu asked. "At first I thought the Seekers allowed him through the first time. But their magic couldn't even get me here safely."

Iole nodded. "You're right, that wasn't their magic he was using. It was just as dark, but it didn't have their scent."

"Who cares how he got here!" Rosemary shouted and pointed a finger at Iole. "The real question should be what you're going to do about this!"

"Good woman, please calm yourself." Bastian admonished her. "We're all trying to solve this crisis."

"If Jason's life is at stake," Christa offered. "Perhaps it would be best to just give him what he wants."

There were several in the room who had their opinions on that idea, Atreyu being one of the fiercest, but it was Adair who spoke.

"No." Everyone in the room looked to her. She hadn't moved, and in spite of her best friend being taken by her worst nightmare in front of her eyes, she was frighteningly calm.

"I let Volrac push me into that decision last time. He expects me to do it again. But if I do, then what Jason just did for us won't mean anything. We're not letting him have his way anymore. We're going back to Fantasia and getting Jason back ourselves."

Rosemary rounded on her niece sternly. "That's out of the question. I'm not letting you anywhere near that monster. Fancy medallion or no, I am still your aunt."

"Aunt Rosemary, this isn't something you can stop. It's something I have to do. I'm going."

"No you're not." It was Iole. Adair centered an indignant gaze on her. The dragon woman seemed sympathetic, but unmoved. "The decision's been made. You can't go back to Fantasia."

Adair shot up from her seat. "What do you mean?!"

Iole sighed. "The balance of the two worlds is leagues out of sync. Most of that is Volrac's doing, but you caused a huge disruption when you brought Atreyu here."

"Who cares about the balance?!" Adair cried. "This is about Jason's life! This is about doing the right thing!"

"Sometimes right and wrong are too big to take into your own hands! Remember that Volrac thinks what he's doing is right!" Iole was less than a hand taller than Adair, and the exhaustion was plain on her face. But when she spoke, she seemed to loom much taller than she was. Adair didn't argue, but her eyes were pleading. Iole shrank back to her part of the room.

"Fantasia and the human world can still get back on track, but it has to be in their own way and on their own. We can't interfere anymore. I..." she hesitated, appearing to hate her own message as much as they did. "I've been taken off this case. This is the last help I was allowed to give you."

Adair shook her head stubbornly. "Then what are we supposed to do? Let it happen and hope for the best?"

"I didn't say that." Iole pointed out. "You can't go to Fantasia to defeat Volrac. Only a Fantasian hero can do that." Adair felt Atreyu's hand on her shoulder. He turned her to face him. His steady dark eyes stared into her hazel green.

"She's right. It has to be me."

She shook her head. "I can't just let you go without me. We're in this together remember?"

"You are." Iole agreed. "That's why he needs you here. You're a human. He's a Fantasian. Your worlds are in this together, they need to work together. He needs to go in and be the hero."

"And me?" She asked, not able to look her or Atreyu in the eye. "I'm supposed to do what?"

Iole stepped to her side and held something out to her. It was the book Jason had dropped. It was the book that had pulled her into this. The book that connected them all.

"You read."

"That's it?" Adair was fuming now. "I'm just supposed to read about the danger he's in, safe and cozy in this shop while Atreyu and my best friend are over there fighting."

"Adair." Atreyu reached for her. His hand felt warm as he brought it against her cheek. He pulled her face towards his so their eyes could meet again. "I need you here. I need you to believe in me now, the way that I've believed in you all this time. I can't do this without you."

She felt herself losing resolve. Her lip was quivering as she rested her hand against his.

"Promise me you'll come back."

"Listen." He drew so close to her she thought their lips would touch. "Fantasians don't have dreams of their own. We live out the dreams of humans. But for the first time I have a dream. You gave it to me, but I know beyond doubt that it's mine. I want a future with you. So don't doubt that I'm coming back for you."

Pure love. She thought. Moon Child's warning. Only pure love could save them now. But how could it save them if they were apart? She tried to remember the rest of what Moon Child had said, but that wasn't just remembering a dream. She was trying to remember a dream within a dream, and that was much harder.

"I promise." Atreyu repeated.

"Adair, it's time." Iole pressed.

She nodded, but rather than take the book Iole held out to her, she reached for the chain around her neck. She took AURYN from her neck and looped it over Atreyu's head.

"Then you can give this back to Moon Child when she wakes up. And tell her thanks for everything."

"Good luck old friend." Bastian smiled from where he stood hand in hand with his wife.

"Be careful." Christa said in her sweet voice.

"Thank you." Atreyu said. "I'll never forget what you've done."

"You better keep that promise." Rosemary smiled. "If you upset my niece, you'll have to deal with me."

Once more, Iole held the book out for Adair to take. She didn't say a word as Adair took it from her, and she didn't meet her eyes. Once she released the book she went straight back to leaning against the wall as if being in the middle of these exchanges made her uncomfortable.

"Adair, start reading. Atreyu stand in the middle of the room. Everyone else get back and don't touch him."

Adair grasped Atreyu's hand one more time and didn't let go of it even as she walked away. When she could no longer hold onto his fingers, she let her hand fall and sat in the armchair with the book in her lap. Everyone else found a stool or a chair or sat on the floor around the edge of the room. Bastian went to flip the sign on the door so it read "Closed".

Rosemary sat on a stool with her baby girl on her lap and her sons on the floor in front of her. Little Lizzie looked in confusion between Adair and Atreyu. She pointed a chubby little finger at him.

"Wha'happen?" She asked in her childish way. Adair looked at her little cousin and smiled through her tears.

"Get ready Lizzie. I'm about to read us a story." Then she opened the book and began to read aloud.

Atreyu awoke on his back, lying atop soft ground.

A collective gasp from everyone but Bastian and Iole interrupted Adair's reading. She looked up even though she already knew what she would see. He was gone. She swallowed and kept reading.

Atreyu awoke on his back, lying atop soft ground. Coming back to Fantasia had been far less painful than leaving it. It felt like slipping into a dream. Slowly, he sat up and found that he was no longer wearing the clothes Bastian had given him. He was back in his familiar leather tunic and boots. With some concern he reached for his chest. He felt relief as his fingers clasped around the medallion. AURYN had come back with him. It was back where it belonged.

"He's here!" Came a voice from behind him. It occurred to him that he didn't know where he was. There was cool grass beneath him, but it was not the plains. Around him there were green hedges that walled off some kind of garden. The infinite labyrinth!

"I found him!" That voice came again, accompanied by a stampede of footsteps as they came thundering into the clearing to surround him.

"Atreyu!" It was Bahzha, and he had called the others of their little band: Hysbald with Engywook and Urgl perched on his shoulders, Ze'hara, and Hykrion surrounded by the Tuah children. At his side was a red haired woman he didn't recognize. The Rockbiters came lumbering after them. The tall fellow plainsmen helped him to his feet.

"What happened to you?"

"Where have you been?" Hykrion demanded.

"You're not hurt are you?" Urgl snapped.

"Will you let him alone woman!" Engywook chortled. "Anyone can see that he's perfectly unharmed!"

"The same won't be said of you very soon if you keep making diagnoses for me!"

"Both of you give him a moment to breathe." Hysbald reprimanded them both.

"My child!" Ze'hara seized him by both shoulders and kissed his forehead. "I finally caught a glimpse of you in my fire this morning. We've been searching all day for you." Her words carried a dreadful meaning for him.

"All day? What's the hour now?"

She looked confused. "Nearly sundown. Why?" Sundown. Volrac's ultimatum was only minutes away.

"Listen. We don't have much time. Volrac has Jason and unless we rescue him by sundown, he'll kill him. I need to get to the Ivory Tower."

Bahzha winced. "About that." He pointed over the horizon and Atreyu's eyes filled with horror. The Ivory Tower was gone. In its place, jutting against the sky like a poisoned sword was a heart wrenching construct of obsidian stone and thorn covered branches. "It happened just last night. No one's been able to breach the Forest of Thorns. It's merged with the Ivory Tower."

"The darkness in Sikanda's blade turned it black." said the strange red haired woman who stood with Hykrion. "It's the Obsidian Tower now."

"What's left of the army has been trying to cut their way through the thorns, but they just grow back." Hykrion explained. "Not only that, they lash out."

The woman nodded. "Anyone pierced by a thorn is overcome with fear or plunge into a bottomless sadness. We've kept our distance."

"Has anyone tried to fly over it?" Atreyu asked.

Hysbald wheeled his chair forward. "Sure did. The vines reach higher than you'd think. They nearly knocked me out of sky. The song cannon doesn't work on them either."

"What about Falkor?" The group felt silent. They each looked to each other, silently asking someone else to tell him something they didn't want to say out loud. "What is it? Where's Falkor?"

Ze'hara took him by the hand. "Come with us." She led Atreyu and the rest of the party followed. They seemed to drag their feet behind him. She led him down several passageways through the maze of hedges into another clearing. Lying in the center around the ashes of their campfire was Falkor. His breathing was ragged and came out in short forced wheezes. White clumps of fur lay on the ground from where he had shed them. His once pearly pink scales were faded to gray, and his eyes were no longer the glistening rubies they had been. They were dull and brown.

"Falkor!" Atreyu rushed to his friend and threw his arms over him.

"Well... you took your time." Falkor turned his heavy head to Atreyu, and in spite of his obvious pain he forced a smile. "Where have you been?"

"It's a long story. What's happened to you?"

"The more hope in Fantasia dies, the weaker I become. Are the others with you?" Atreyu fingered the medallion around his neck and Falkor nodded knowingly. "I see. So Adair has left us then." The others murmured to each other, suddenly disheartened by the news.

"She's no longer in Fantasia, but she is still with us. She's going to help us. It's Jason we need to worry about."

"Jason? What's happened to him?"

"Volrac has him in the tower."

"I see." Falkor said sadly, sounding older and wearier than Atreyu had ever heard him. "What about Deisha?"

"Deisha?" Atreyu blinked. "I thought she was with you."

"She disappeared around the same time the three of you did."

Atreyu shook his head. "Wherever she is, I'm sure she's in trouble. She can't stay out of it can she?"

"Sounds like someone I know."

Atreyu rubbed a hand down Falkor's side. The Luckdragon was clammy and cold. "You really can't fly?"

"Would I even be touching ground if I could?"

The young warrior sighed. "We're running out of time. How are we getting out of this one?"

Falkor winked one of his faded eyes. "With luck."

That gave Atreyu an idea. He looked down at AURYN. The talisman was meant to protect him wherever he went in Fantasia. It had done so before. It had protected Adair as well in spite of Moon Child's waning power. Could it get him through the Forest of Thorns? He grimaced. Perhaps that was what Volrac was counting on. He looked to his companions who were all waiting on him.

"Listen to me. I'm getting into the tower one way or the other, and I'm not leaving until Volrac's curse on Fantasia is broken."

"You're going in alone?" Urgl shrieked. "Are you daft boy? Who knows what kinds of monsters are lurking in there!"

Bahzha stepped forward. "Plains people look out for each other. You can't ask me to stay behind while you go in there."

There were other cries of protest as well from the others, but Ze'hara said nothing. Instead she studied him with her intense dark eyes that bulged in the middle of her thin face. She held up one willowy hand to silence the rest of them. She spoke directly to Atreyu.

"AURYN will protect only you." She stated. He nodded. "You are the only one who can enter the tower. Then this happened for a reason. This is something only you can do." She stepped forward and took both of his hands. She bent forward and kissed him on the forehead. "But know that we will be with you wherever you go. Be well Mi'tah'zha."

"Thank you Te'mah."

Bahzha stepped to her side, carrying something in his arms. "At least take these with you." Atreyu was awed to see that he carried his sword, his bow, and his quiver. "You left them at the inn when you went to find Adair."

He took them gratefully and strapped the blade, bow, and arrows to his back. Then he said his farewells to the others. The Tuatha children cried when it was there turn.

"No tears." Atreyu told them, taking a knee to look them in the eye. "I need all of you to stay strong and protect everyone else while I'm gone."

"We will." Falcon promised, stifling his tears.

Daisy held onto her brother's hand and wiped her eyes. "I hope we can play again some time."

"Do us proud in there laddie." Engywook smiled. "And remember, brain over brawn."

"And your heart." Urgl added. "Don't forget that. You've got a good strong heart."

Hykrion stuttered and stammered to find the right words.

"Listen Atreyu... things weren't always good with us. I may have said some things that challenged your honor. But I've seen you now for who you are. You are a man of courage and honor, and I am proud to have been your comrade."

"And I am proud to have called you my friend."

Hykrion's face soured as if he had been wounded. He nearly choked on his next words. "Don't go soft on me now. Hurry and get out of here."

Hysbald wheeled to his old companion's side. "Hykrion the Strong, are you crying?"

"Don't be ridiculous! My eyes were dried out from the cradle!"

"Come on, we're wishing him luck. Not saying goodbye."

"Indeed." Bahzha agreed. "In the language of the Plains, there is no goodbye. There is simply Yadalanh She'nai."

"What does that mean?" Hysbald asked.

"Till we meet again my brother."

Atreyu nodded and shook Bahzha's hand firmly. "Yadalanh."

As they all looked on, Atreyu made his way in the direction of the tower. Just before he left the clearing, he remembered something and called back.

"Bahzha, Hykrion, Hysbald! I have a message from Bastian!" All three of them froze in surprise.

"You saw Lord Bastian?" Hykrion asked incredulously.

"He wanted to thank you for your loyalty, and tell you that you each completed your quest as true knights. For your next quest, he wants you to find your own happiness."

Atreyu smiled as he watched the three of them come to the same realization he had earlier. That Bastian had remembered them and their loyalty. That after all this time he was still their friend.

"Lord Bastian said that?" Hykrion choked again.

"If you see him again..." Bahzha called, having to clear his throat. "Tell him we've already found it."

Without another word, Atreyu made his way toward the Forest of Thorns. The twisted branches had done severe damage to the grounds as they burst to the surface. Entire gardens had been torn apart and the labyrinth's walls that had stood in their way were now nothing more than crushed twigs and scattered leaves. He saw the winding branches before him, twisting and tangling to block his path. They moved together like a den of snakes. He was without fear as he pressed forward. Just as he had believed, the thorns began to shy away from him like demons afraid of the light. But as the path ahead was cleared, he began to wonder why AURYN was able to protect him here. Had it really been Moon Child's power, or was he allowed through because this is what Volrac wanted? He clenched his fingers around the Gem and whispered.

"Adair." He said, for he knew she was listening. "We have less time than we thought. Do what you can to find Jason."

Adair wasn't sure how to do what Atreyu had asked, or what she would do if she could find Jason in the story, but she knew he was right. They were running out of time. It wasn't easy to take her thoughts off of Atreyu while the danger surrounded him, but she thought about Jason, focused her thoughts on him and turned the page.

Meanwhile, somewhere in the Obsidian Tower Jason had long given up trying to climb out of the holding cell he'd been thrown in. It was a small circular room of rough brick in the floor of some chamber. He had no idea where he was, but if he had to guess he would have said it was somewhere in the upper chambers because of the still breeze coming through the floor. The only opening was an iron grate over a round manhole. He had already exhausted any tools in his pocket that may have been able to pick the lock (which to his dismay was nothing more than a few paper clips he had collected without thinking at some forgotten point in time). Not only was the lock impossible to pick, he knew it would be enchanted as well. He was Volrac's only leverage to obtain the Glory. He wasn't going to take any chances. There were no loose stones to be found either, so burrowing his way out was not an option. So instead of thoughts of escape, he was content to wait for Volrac and the Seekers to reach a decision on what was to be done with him when they realized Adair wasn't going to give them what they wanted. At the very least, he took comfort in knowing Volrac would not have AURYN.

He heard light footsteps coming. He guessed it was Nag coming to toss him some meager scraps of rotten food as it had already done. It had been the Witch-beast who threw him into this prison when he arrived.

"Unless you have a T-Bone steak with some mashed potatoes, you can hurl it straight out the window. Then do me a favor and follow it."

"Does that go for prison keys too?" Jason jumped to his feet when he heard that voice. Bracing one leg on the wall of his cell, he vaulted up the wall and grabbed hold of the bars of the manhole cover. He saw a pair of dark green eyes grinning down at him. She smiled as she jangled the ring of keys in front of him.

"Hello useless."

"Deisha! How did you get here?"

"I never really left. After you guys disappeared, I searched the tower for you. I was in the Ivory Garden when I saw them."

"Saw who?"

"The Seekers. They've been sneaking in and out the tower to cast some weird spells on that sword. I got stuck on this side when they darkened the tower. I've been spying on them to see if I can learn more about their plan. Lucky for me, they really like to talk. That's how I found out you were here."

"How did you get the keys?"

"Thoth led me to them. I couldn't follow Nag because it might catch my scent. And Fay would be able to sense me. But Thoth always seems totally oblivious. I followed him all the way to their lair and he never once looked behind him."

Jason smiled. "I haven't been this happy to see you since... actually I've never been happy to see you."

"I could leave if you like." She smirked. "But I took the trouble of bringing you a present, so I guess I'll forgive you."

"A present, for me? You shouldn't have."

"Surprise!" She reached behind where she crouched and slid something into his view.

"My sword! Where did you get it?"

"The Seekers moved a ton of junk into the council chamber when they took over. You'd think they were trying to move in."

"Whoa, Jason has a sword?" Jamie exclaimed.

"When did he get so cool?" Bryan asked, sounding impressed.

"He was always cool." Jamie said proudly.

"Cool!" Lizzie repeated.

"Boys, Adair's trying to read." Rosemary scolded.

"Sorry." They both said together.

"Sorry." Lizzie echoed.

Adair rolled her eyes and started reading again.

When Deisha found the right key, she thrust it into the lock and unfastened it. Jason pushed the cover open and she helped him out.

"Deisha, I could kiss you." He said with a grin.

Her face hardened. "Try it, and I'll punch your teeth in."

Before he could tell her he'd been kidding, a shrill moaning filled their ears. It sounded like the mewling cries of a thousand shrieking cats. Some distance away, they could hear the pound of footsteps and the scraping of claws all heading in one direction.

Deisha tried to follow the sound with her eyes. "Did we trigger the alarm?"

"I don't think so. It sounds like they're heading to the lower levels. Someone must have gotten into the tower. And I think we both know who."

Atreyu! Adair thought in panic. Right when she thought of his name, she seemed to lose her place in the book. When she found it again, the story had already moved on.

Atreyu rounded the corner, a platoon of yellow-eyed demons at his heels. He had managed to reach the middle section of the tower without being detected, but his luck had run out when a demon who was half snake half woman spotted him while she made her rounds. It had raised the alarm, and now a host of them were closing in on him.

He sprinted through another corridor and burst out into an open courtyard. At the north section there was a set of stairs that led to the upper levels of the tower. In front of the stairs was an archway, the only exit. Just as he reached the front of the arch, an iron portcullis came screeching down, sealing off his escape with a resounding snap. He turned to face his pursuers as they poured in from both sides of the courtyard. He pulled his bow and knocked a silver tipped arrow to his string. He took aim at the front of their ranks, firing again and again with all the speed he could muster in his arm. Each shot pinned an enemy between the eyes, vanquishing the monsters in a flash. They halted in their charge, wary of the practiced archer's skill. They snarled and hissed and chortled and made a cacophony of all kinds of hideous noises, but they didn't move for him.

The sound of heavy footsteps that shook the ground came from the back of the courtyard. Then the throng of demons parted. Making its way to the front was a hideous demon, three times the size of a man. It was a rotund monster with scorched red flesh and curved yellow tusks that jutted from its mouth. In its clawed mammoth hands it dragged a long chain along the ground. In a swift motion it swung the chain at him. Before he could move, the chain latched onto his bow. With a tug, his bow was torn from his hands. The tusked demon caught it in its mouth and crunched it between its teeth, chewing his treasured bow to bits. It grinned wickedly as Atreyu drew his sword. It swung its chain again, aiming to bring it down on his head. He whirled to the side, feeling the heavy chain whiz past his ear. It cracked the stone ground when it landed. The demon lifted the chain over its head, making another swing. Atreyu could see it coming. It was aiming to wrap the chain around his legs. He planned to jump at the last moment and step on it to trap the creature's weapon. Then he'd use that time to charge in with his sword.

He prepared himself, counting the seconds in his head. The demon swung and Atreyu leaped, but his landing was off by a mere second. The chain caught him by the ankle and yanked him off balance. He fell flat on his back but kept a tight grip on his sword. The demon pulled, dragging the boy towards him. Atreyu heard a sharp clang, then the demon's pull stopped short. A silver spear was sticking out of the ground, pinning the chain down. It had gone straight through one of the links. From a ledge a few feet above the courtyard, Deisha nodded proudly that her throw had landed so perfectly.

Before the demon could pull the chain free, the other demons shrieked as Jason charged forward from behind the monster. His sword was held out to his side in one hand. He came around the monster's side, slashing upward just behind its knee. The demon roared in frustration rather than pain, for it did not feel any. But Jason had crippled it. It dropped to its knees. As Jason passed it, he took his sword in both hands and pivoted around, bringing his blade down in a swing that slashed the creature from its chest all the way to his hip. With his enchanted blade, it was a killing blow. The demon crumbled to ash before their eyes and the others hissed in fury. Jason took a defensive stance and covered Deisha as she leaped to the ground to retrieve her spear. Atreyu unwound the chain from his ankle and got to back to his feet.

Jason backed up to stand with them. "So this is what? Two? Three times I've saved your life?"

"I had it under control."

"And zero times you've said thank you."

"And I did nothing?" Deisha interjected.

"You couldn't have made that throw without my luck."

"I could have made it with my eyes closed!"

"Where's Adair?" Jason asked.

"She... she didn't come back with me." He admitted. "But she is here."

"What does that mean?" Deisha asked.

"She's reading the book."

"So she's watching us right now?" Jason shivered. "That's kind of creepy."

"Didn't you do the same thing?"

"Still."

"I think it's romantic." Atreyu argued.

"No I'm with Jason." Deisha agreed. "It's creepy."

They do realize I can hear them. Adair thought. Though she knew Deisha wouldn't care either way.

The three prepared themselves for battle, for the demons looked to be gathering their courage (or whatever passes for courage for such creatures). But just when they thought they would charge, they sniffed the air, catching a certain scent. All at once, the demons went scurrying like frightened mice back to their den.

"So now, even demons flee from our presence." Came a voice. Star came into view, clad in her white tunic and breeches. Her row of daggers gleamed from her belt.

"Our resolve has grown with our love." Dawn added, his silver breastplate shining beside his lady. He carried his morning-star over his shoulder.

"Not you two again." Jason moaned. "What do you want?"

"Do not feign ignorance boy!" Dawn shouted. "You know what we want!"

"The Glory if you please." Star demanded. "The time has finally come for us to enter the human world where our love will become real. You will not stand in our way."

Atreyu glowered. "You know you can't take it by force."

"I think you'll find we can."

"This is no longer the Childlike Empress' Fantasia." Dawn said with a sneer. "This is no longer her tower. She holds no power anymore."

"That's not true!"

Star shot him an unpleasant smile. "Well, not for long anyway."

"They're right. We don't have time for this." Deisha whispered. "I heard the Seekers talking. Volrac doesn't have complete control of the tower yet. Moon Child's still fighting him off, but her strength is running out."

"I have an idea." Jason hissed out of the corner of his mouth with an impish grin. "Ready to test our luck again?" He called down to their enemies. "Hey Star! You're fat and old!"

Star's mouth dropped open and Dawn froze in rage. "What did you say?"

"What's wrong? Don't hear so well anymore old lady? I called you ugly!"

Dawn's temper flared. "You watch your tongue boy!"

"Make me! What's wrong Dawn? I just insulted your lady! Go on, take a swing at me! Hit me! I dare you! Are you chicken?"

Dawn was finding it harder and harder to contain his anger. Perhaps he would have gotten it under control and seen what Jason was trying to do if not for Star.

"Well are you?" She snapped.

With a furious roar, Dawn hurled his morning-star at the three of them. It sailed straight for Jason's head.

"Duck!" He cried. The three dove out of the way, and the heavy weapon crashed through the portcullis behind them. It shattered the bars as it passed through, creating an opening just big enough to fit through. Jason turned to Atreyu.

"Go!"

"But you-"

"You heard Deisha! We're running out of time!"

Deisha nodded in agreement. "We can handle them. Hurry!"

"He's getting away!" Dawn shouted as Atreyu sprinted up the stairs. "Stop him!"

Star dashed forward, throwing two of her knives, aiming to pierce Atreyu's legs. Jason stepped in front and blocked both knives with his sword. Deisha ran to meet Star and swept the long handle of her spear under her legs, causing her to tumble. She got back to her feet in a huff, brushing her long brown hair from her face furiously. Dawn rejoined her, but Jason and Deisha were already blocking their advance. The Knight held out his hand, and by some magic force, his heavy weapon flew from where he had thrown it and returned to his hand.

"You're going to regret that." Dawn growled menacingly.

"Think we should go with him?" Deisha asked as their foes began to circle them.

"We can't outrun Star." he admitted. "That reminds me. I don't fight women, so she's all yours."

"You're such a gentleman." Then the two fought side by side while Atreyu continued his desperate ascent to the top of the tower.


The tower was very different than the one he remembered. Their black stones seemed to have eaten the light around them. The walls pulsed as though they were alive. The thorns of the forest weaved in and out of the walls, the ceiling, and the floor. AURYN still protected him from their touch, and he managed to avoid detection from the demons. He made it all the way to the council chamber, now cluttered and stacked to the ceiling with the ill-gotten artifacts of the Circle of the Night. Some of them he recognized from their castle. He burst through the door and out onto the walkway that led to the peak of the tower. It spiraled around the column that jutted from the tower itself and wound all the way to the entrance of what had once been the Ivory Garden. But when he made his way into its walls, none of its flowers or fountains remained. No ivory statues of exotic animals stood as sentinels. All that was there was all that would remain in Volrac's new Fantasia: dreary black stone and a twisted maze of thorns and vines.

Sikanda was still in the center, driven half its length into the floor. Pulsing veins of red light snaked down its side and fissured out of the floor all around it like the web of a spider. The only bit of light that still shone was inside the shattered remains of the Magnolia Pavilion. The obsidian was pushing forward into the gold and ivory flooring of the Empress' raised platform. It had almost reached the edge of the crystal where Moon Child still slept. And at her side, Atreyu saw him. His one remaining hand had long clawed fingers while the arm where he had lost his hand ended in a gauntlet covered in black spikes, hooked and cruel like the thorns of the forest. He circled around her, running his claws over her crystal shield. Light hummed from the crystal and sparked in protest where he touched it. His hair was long and dark, and his armor was now as slick and black as the Obsidian Tower. Instead of a cloak, long thorn covered vines hung from his shoulders.

"Now watch Moon Child." Heremoor, or rather Volrac hissed into the crystal. "Watch as those humans you placed your faith in fail you. I want you to feel as all of your hope withers like the petals of a dead rose, until it's finally crushed. Watch as your beloved Fantasia falls into darkness just as I did."

"Darkness that you created." Atreyu stepped forward without fear.

Volrac turned his eyes on him. They were no longer the emerald green eyes of the general. They were greenish-yellow points of fire that burned with hatred that had seethed beneath the surface for years. He did not look surprised to see Atreyu here. If anything he seemed saddened.

"No Atreyu. There has been darkness in this land for far too long already. I simply utilized it and turned it on the one who should have protected us from it." He stepped down from the platform as he spoke and pointed one clawed finger back at Moon Child. "It is time for her to feel what she has allowed to drag us down for so long." Even his voice had changed. The General's booming baritone was lowered and grated like claws on stone. "I shall use the darkness brought down on us by her and the humans to erase this Fantasia. And from its ashes I will create a new one, a perfect one where we dream for ourselves. Where our fates are tied to no one but ourselves!"

"You disrespect all of our parts in the never ending story. You forget that living only for yourself is no life at all. That is why you'll fail. I'm going to stop you here because I have something stronger."

Volrac sneered. "Yes, your 'strongest magic'. I know all about that tragic journey you embarked on with the human, and the ill-fated love you share. I respected you once Atreyu. You carry with you all that is good in our land. But one who loves humans as you do has no place in my Fantasia." He held out his hand. In a flash, AURYN was lifted from around Atreyu's neck. He tried in vain to snatch it back. It flew towards the Nightmare King with such speed that it snapped the chain by which it was held. The talisman floated straight to Volrac's outstretched fingers. "And now, thanks to you I have the final piece."

"How did you-"

"I hold the tower. I hold the heart of Fantasia itself in my power, and soon even AURYN will be mine to command. Soon the Childlike Empress will vanish, and her power will become mine."

The thorns around them shifted and Atreyu felt that they were no longer alone. Each one entered from a different side and surrounded them: Nag, Thoth, and Fay. Volrac lifted his hand, and AURYN floated high above them, suspended in the air above Sikanda.

"Our world and the world of humans are so close now, they're practically touching. Now it is possible for us to open the gate between them. And when that happens, I shall call on all the darkness of this world to destroy the connection that binds us. Then all their poison shall be sent right back where it came from. There world will become as dark and hopeless as this tower while Fantasia will be reborn in shining perfection. Nag! Thoth! Do what you came here to do. Finish the spell!"

"As you wish m'lord." Thoth bowed. "Well Atreyu, it's been a real pleasure." The two Witches did as they were commanded. They climbed the steps of the ruined pavilion to the edge of where the black stones continued to creep forward. They raised their hands, and the thorns around them responded to their will. The vines shot forward like tentacles, reaching for the crystal that protected Moon Child. The light that shone from it was holding them back, but they continued to force their way closer. Sooner or later, the strength of the seven powers would give out, and the thorns would shatter Moon Child's shield.

"No!" Atreyu rushed forward, hoping to stop the Witches' profane ritual. In a black blur, Volrac stood in his path, striking Atreyu in the face with the back of his gauntlet. The force of the blow sent his head reeling as he was thrown to the floor. The spikes pierced him and he felt hot blood run down the side of his face. He staggered back to his feet.

Fay went to join her coven, but Volrac had other orders for her.

"Not you!" The little Witch turned to face him with her cold blue eyes as expressionless as ever. "Do you have it?" He asked. Instead of answering, Fay hefted what was tucked under her arm. She held it out so he could see. It was a book bound in black silk. Atreyu gasped when he saw the intertwining gold and silver snakes on the cover and the intricate purple lettering of the title that read "The Neverending Story".

"How did you get that?" Atreyu demanded.

"I told you I learned of Fantasia long ago." She said flatly. "It's a real pity. I tried to warn you, but now it's too late."

"Thanks to that handy little treasure, I've known all of your plans from the beginning." Volrac said with a hideous grin. "About how you and the human hoped to save Fantasia with the 'the strongest magic'. And now I will show you how pointless it all was." The Nightmare King took grand postured steps to where Sikanda rested. With his flesh hand he took it by the hilt and drew it forth from the stone. "Now Atreyu, let us end this the way we knew it would end from the start. And you," he pointed to Fay with the tip of the sword. "You have the honor of playing the storyteller in this Fantasia's last hour. Now read!"

Fay opened the book and began to read aloud:

"Atreyu charged forward, his sword at the ready. Volrac blocked his assault and Atreyu's sword was no match for the black blade of Sikanda."

Atreyu charged forward, his sword at the ready. Volrac blocked his assault and Atreyu's sword was no match for the black blade of Sikanda. They were both skilled with the sword, but while Atreyu was faster and lighter on his feet, the Nightmare King held the advantage in size and strength. Moreover, his was the blade of Bastian Balthazar Bux, the enchanted sword which never failed its wielder. Once a shining sword of a hero, the betrayal of long ago had blackened the blade. Now it was a weapon of evil, one that had been buried, never to be unearthed again. But the Circle of the Night had found it and told Volrac of its whereabouts.

The two warriors clashed, matching each other stroke for stroke. Atreyu managed to side-step his enemy's attacks, but each time their blades met, Volrac's strength sent ringing shock waves all through his body. His arms ached with every block.

Fay continued to read:

"Finally, Volrac's attack slowed him just enough for the Nightmare King to send his steel fist into his side. The spikes on its knuckles cracked his ribs and pounded the breath from his lungs."

Finally, Volrac's attack slowed him just enough for the Nightmare King to send his steel fist into his side. The spikes on its knuckles cracked his ribs and pounded the breath from his lungs. Volrac swung again and Atreyu barely had time to block Sikanda's blade. This time the attack sent him sliding back on his feet. His chest heaved as he tried to claim some of his breath back. Blood ran down his side from where Volrac had struck.

"You see Atreyu, what your 'strongest magic' gives you? Nothing but heartache and suffering. Love cannot prevail in a world like this."

"You're wrong." Atreyu wheezed.

"I am not. For I already know how this story ends." He turned his burning green eyes to Fay. "Go on. Show him. Skip to the end."

Fay sighed and turned a few pages ahead. In spite of her cruel and capricious nature, she seemed to take no pleasure in reading this passage.

"...For no dream of love and hope can exist in the midst of such overwhelming darkness. Atreyu was powerless to stop the end. His last thoughts were of Adair and how he had failed her, and all those who were dear to him. Then Volrac plunged Sikanda into his heart. And that is how Atreyu died."

Atreyu's eyes grew wide as the Witch read the details of his prophesied defeat. That couldn't be the ending to this story. After everything they had gone through to protect what they loved, it couldn't end the way she had read. His heart tightened as Fay turned the book so that it's pages faced him. Though he could now barely read, two words were clear to him, and they were the last ones on the page: Atreyu died.

"Your quest was for nothing, and I'll tell you why." Volrac jeered. "You did not find the strongest magic. Do you want to know what the strongest magic truly is? It is despair." Atreyu lifted his eyes to Volrac. A hideous familiarity to those words rang in his ears. The Nightmare King clenched his steel hand into a fist. "And do you know why that is? Because people who have no hopes are easy to control!"


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