Chapter 25: The Strongest Magic
Yellow flames danced before Ze'hara's eyes. She could see all that was taking place within the Obsidian Tower at that moment, and the others hung on her every word.
"What do you see?" Bahzha asked.
"Now Atreyu fights with the Nightmare King. His light is strong, but Volrac fights with the darkness of an entire world. I see a woman in the smoke behind him. She poisons this world and others with her darkness. She wants this world for her own, and Volrac is her tool to take it." She gasped and the others jumped in shock.
"What's wrong?" Hysbald asked.
Ze'hara said nothing.
"Well don't keep us in suspense woman!" Hykrion cried. "We're on pins and needles as it is! Now what's going on?"
Ze'hara still didn't answer, but she began to tremble and shake her head.
"It can't be." Was all she said."It can't be."
Meanwhile within the Obsidian Tower, Atreyu staggered back to his feet. He felt his side and winced as his own touch sent a wave of pain through his ruptured bones. His sword hung at his side from his limp arm, but he forced himself to stand and look his enemy in the eye.
"Who told you that?" He demanded. "Where did you hear that?"
Volrac's face hardened in anger. "You already know don't you?" Then he held up his steel hand.
"Gmork." Atreyu panted, still trying to regain his breath. "It was Gmork who took your hand wasn't it."
"I was only a captain then. Word reached my squadron that a dark force was moving against your mission to stop the Nothing. I had never fought a creature like that demon wolf. My weapons could not harm it and it tore through my armor like parchment. It could have killed me so easily but it didn't. Instead, after it had devoured my hand, the Gmork gave me something. His darkness... it bled into my wounds and burned like fire. I saw something in that darkness. For me there had always been only Fantasia, but in that darkness I learned the truth of the human world and how it connects to ours. I saw the humans with my own eyes, their greed, their hate, and how it poisons our world. Their own selfishness was the cause behind the Nothing, and their wicked desires create nightmares in our world."
"But they also create dreams like you and me!" Atreyu cried. "Humans like Adair and Bastian!"
"Ha!" Volrac scoffed. "Bastian. And look at what he wrought when he came here. The Ivory Tower was destroyed. He nearly killed you with this very blade!" He held up Sikanda. "You still carry the scar, and this sword remembers your blood." He rushed again, reaching Atreyu in one leap. Mustering all of his strength, the boy blocked, his enemy's superior strength wearing him down more and more. From over their locked blades, Volrac leered at his foe with hate filled eyes. "You have seen the cruelty of humans and you still love them. You have not felt the pain of their betrayal like I have!" He swung his sword with such force that Atreyu slid back on his heels.
"After seeing what the Gmork wanted me to, I fell into despair. For what hope could there be for our world if we must depend on selfish beings like them! I remained on the ground of the forest I had fought the demon in, letting it take me. The thorns grew up around me and into me. In time I became part of that forest." He raised his arms, and the thorn covered vines that hung from his shoulders rose in accordance with his will. "The Forest of Thorns is part of me. It is the despair I felt when I saw the Fantasia I loved fall into that vile abyss. For ten years I remained trapped there, stewing in my own tragic existence. That's when they came."
Atreyu knew who he meant. He didn't take his gaze from Volrac, but he was very aware of wicked man and beast trying to break Moon Child's shield, and the cold-hearted girl with the black book in her hands. "The Circle of the Night."
"They told me of a way that I could avenge Fantasia. I could save it from the humans, and from that wretched child who lets them feed on our existence. From them I learned how to turn my sorrow, my hate into power. They told me that the Childlike Empress had a counterpart in the human world, one with whom her life force was bound. So I called on the darkness that Gmork had left within me to travel to the human world. I found her, and when I saw her cowering there in the woods I realized what I really wanted. I didn't simply wish her death. I wanted the Empress to suffer the way I had suffered."
"That's why you killed Adair's parents."
"I took what she loved, and when she sealed off her heart, Moon Child's power was weakened. Then I waited. I let her remain in that cursed state for ten years, exactly how long I had remained trapped in the thorns. And now she'll watch as I did while everything she loves is ripped from her."
He pointed Sikanda at Atreyu, and the thorns on his back shot forward like snakes. He hacked away at them as they closed in on him, but they grew back just as quickly. He could feel the vines moving all around him as well. He leaped out of the way as more thorns shot out from the ground where he had been standing. It was no longer one foe he was fighting, it was the entire forest. He leaped and dodged as the vines came at him from all sides. He was agile, but the attacks were relentless. Eventually his speed would give out and the thorns would catch up to him.
"Eventually his speed would give out and the thorns would catch up to him." Fay read. "From his left side, like the great black arm of some fiendish monster, the vines rose up and came down on him."
From his left side, like the great black arm of some fiendish monster, the vines rose up and came down on him. He wasn't quick enough to escape a grazing wound. The thorns slid down his left arm, tearing into his flesh and ripping through his tunic. But the pain from the thorns wasn't nearly as wracking as what followed. Sadness like he had never felt seeped into his wounds. It was a great heaviness that gripped his heart and shook him to his core. It was so heavy it forced him to his knees.
"You feel it don't you." Volrac said with a dark laugh. "That is the power of despair. It takes away your will to fight. Soon you'll simply surrender to it and welcome its crushing embrace."
"You're right." Atreyu gritted his teeth against his own sadness. Once more, he forced himself to rise, but it was much harder than before. "Those without hope are easy for the darkness to control. You know this, yet you let yourself be its puppet. You gave into your own despair and now the darkness makes you its tool! But I'm not like you! I still have hope that Fantasia and the human world can be saved! I know our two worlds can both be made well again! No matter what power you gain it doesn't change what you are. A hollow shell who believes in nothing anymore. That's why you'll lose."
"And yet," Volrac grinned as he stepped closer to Atreyu. "I am not the one fated to die here." He raised his blade and renewed his attacks. "It seems Fantasia knows you are wrong, because the Neverending Story has already written you out." Each time Atreyu blocked, he felt his arms grow weaker. His breathing was getting heavier, and he could no longer keep up with both the sword and the thorns. He sustained more scratches from the vines, and with each one, that grip around his heart tightened.
"Ten years ago I took what Moon Child loved right in front of her. Now I'm going to do it again. And this time it won't just weaken her. It will destroy her. The only thing standing in my way of claiming Fantasia is you Atreyu. You are the last piece. You are the one her human mirror loves more than anything. She's watching us now isn't she? Reading every word of our battle. I'm going to kill you right in front of her. Her heart will break, and Moon Child will vanish right along with it. Your 'strongest magic' is now your most bitter poison."
Adair shook her head frantically. She had to believe that what Fay had read was a lie.
"Iole, what does this mean?" Iole was silent. "It's wrong right? What Fay said? Tell me it's wrong." All eyes were on Iole now. She lifted her heavy gaze to meet Adair's eyes. The somber look in them told the girl what she wouldn't say. Fay hadn't lied. If Adair kept reading, the story would lead exactly where she had said it would.
"Did you know about this?"
"Not until Fay read it." She answered honestly. Then she hesitated. "But I know why it's happening."
"You're not going to like it."
"Tell me!" she pleaded.
"Atreyu is losing because he's not completely in Fantasia. There is still something keeping part of him in this world."
Adair felt a lump form in her stomach that she didn't understand. She didn't know what Iole would say, but she already knew she agreed with her; she wasn't going to like this.
"What is it? What's keeping him here?"
"You." Iole answered. "Your wish for a future with him. As long as that holds him here, he's not wholly in Fantasia."
Adair felt a feverish sensation. A wave of heat came over her face and then chills rolled down her spine. It made her dizzy.
"What? What do you mean?" Iole didn't answer, and she didn't have to. Adair knew what she meant, she just didn't want to hear it. "So if I want to save him I can never see him again?" She shook her head as if she could make reality disappear. It was getting hard to breathe. She narrowed her eyes at Iole. "Was this the decision you were talking about? Did they say we couldn't be together?"
"This was no one's decision Adair." Iole kept her voice level, but there was sympathy in it. "This was always meant to happen."
"What was? That we'd meet and go through all that together, fall in love and then have none of it mean anything?"
"It does mean something Adair. What you and him found, that was real. But there is more at stake here than you and him. You went to Fantasia, you fell in love and now you can share what you found with this world. That's why you couldn't stay there. But that's also why he can't return here. There are others that need him to stay in Fantasia, to teach them and guide them." She sat down on a stool in the corner and rested her arms on her knees. "Heroes like him are getting to be rare in Fantasia. He's one of the only ones left who knows what real bravery is. He's someone who does the right thing simply because it's the right thing, even when it's hard or dangerous," She lifted her gaze to Adair. "Or it means losing something precious."
Adair could hear what Iole was saying, but the time had long since past that she could picture a life without Atreyu. She knew a wish to let him go was beyond her power.
"I can't." Her voice cracked over her words.
Iole's gaze hardened. "Then by all means stop reading, because you already know how it ends." In spite of these words, Adair felt her eyes drift back down to the pages.
Jason was unable to block Dawn's strikes effectively because of the Knight's insane strength, but he was able to slough them off or dodge them altogether. Deisha on the other hand was having difficulty keeping up with her opponent. With a dagger in each hand, Star kept in close quarters with Deisha, rendering her long spear almost ineffective.
"You have both lost the ones you love into the arms of another." Star said with a wicked grin. "How could two castoffs like you ever hope to defeat our love?"
Deisha ground her teeth and pushed her spear against Star's daggers, throwing her off of her. "Because we know that some things are more important. This isn't about our feelings. It's about right and wrong."
Just off to their side, Jason had managed to swing his sword upward at Dawn's weapon. With a well placed slash, he cleaved the spiked head of the morning-star from its rod. Star jumped back out of Deisha's range. She narrowed her eyes at Jason who was closing in on her unarmed lover. She swiveled her eyes back on Deisha.
"I will show you the true power of our devotion." She raised one of her daggers against the flesh of her palm and slashed open her own hand. Dawn could sense it as his lady's blood dripped to the ground and that filled him with rage. Before Jason could prepare a defense, Dawn rushed him and sent a power charged fist into his stomach. It hit him like a hammer and knocked him off his feet. Before Deisha could stop her, Star took her second dagger and made a long thin gash down her forearm. Once more, new strength flooded into Dawn.
"Stop it!" Deisha tried to strike Star with the blunt end of her spear, but the lady ducked out of the way. "That's how you show your love? By mutilating yourself?"
"This is true love! Love is pain! Love is sacrifice!" Star shrieked as she took her own knife to herself over and over. Jason was now on the receiving end of a fierce beating from the Knight of the Burning Dawn whose face was now twisted with rage.
"Look at what you're doing to him!" Deisha cried. "Your pain doesn't make him stronger, it makes him suffer!" Even with her new wounds, Star was able to fend off the plains girl's attacks.
"That is why you will never understand the true power of love! For him I would die!"
"And you think that will make him happy? If you truly love him than you should treasure the life that he is fighting to protect!"
Deisha's words struck Star truer than her spear would have. It stopped her just long enough for Deisha to swing the blunt end of her spear at both of her hands. Star's daggers fell to the ground with a clatter, and the end of the spear at her throat prevented her from reaching them. Her hands moved to her belt, but she had depleted it of her throwing knives. Deisha cornered her back against the wall, but Dawn could sense his lady's danger. He dropped Jason and rushed Deisha. She stepped to the side, but he wasn't letting up on his attacks. Jason flanked him once more, and now the two of them were defending against Dawn while Star looked on in horror. The blood loss from her self inflicted wounds was taking its toll. Her breathing was heavy and she couldn't fight anymore.
Dawn's attacks were true and fierce, but they weren't connecting with his targets. No matter what he did, he could not strike Jason or Deisha. Now it was two against one and Star knew that the power he had just received would soon run out... unless. She dropped to her knees and retrieved one of her daggers.
"Heartseeker," She whispered to the blade. "Find your sheathe." She raised it and brought it down.
Dawn ceased his attacks at once and turned slowly. Star fell to the ground as blood spilled from the wound she had dealt to her own chest.
"No!" All at once, his strength was gone. He fell to his knees and crawled to where his lover lay dying. Jason and Deisha could only watch as he crawled to her and gathered her up in his arms. His silver breastplate and arm guards slipped from him like the shell of an insect. They gasped at what they saw within. His once strong broad frame had grown thin and frail in mere moments. He held Star in his arms and brushed her hair away from her face. With tears streaming down his now gaunt and hollow cheeks he growled to Jason and Deisha.
"Leave us. Go now."
Jason and Deisha cast one sad glance at them before leaving the courtyard up the stairs. Dawn spoke to his lady and held her close.
"Why? Why did you do that?"
She smiled at him with her waning strength. "Because I wanted you to live. Why didn't you go? You could have made it."
"Because any world I'm in would be dark without you."
Star chuckled. "What a sad match we are. Even after all this, here we are again dying in one another's arms. It's always been this way ever since that Shexper came to Fantasia and dreamed us into this world."
"And I'll do it a hundred more times for you."
She frowned. "The plains girl said something to me. She said that if I truly loved you, I would treasure the life you were trying to protect. Those two, the ones they love will never love them back. Yet they keep going. It made me think of all the times I've watched you die before my eyes. I know that you did it for me each and every time so that you could follow me in death, but now I think I would have preferred it if you lived. Maybe that's what we've gotten wrong all this time. We've been so consumed with dying for one another, we've never stopped to consider what it means to live for each other."
Dawn gave a weak smile and shook his head. "So it took us all the way until the end to realize it."
"And now it's too late." She said mournfully with tears in her eyes.
He wiped her tears away with his fingers. "We'll get it right next time. I swear it." As the light in her eyes began to fade, he stared into them. "What's this? What light through yonder window breaks? Tis the east. And you, my Juliet are the sun. My burning dawn."
She reached up and touched his face with the last of her strength. "Then guide me there Romeo... my evening star."
Their lips touched one last time, and then they died in one another's arms. But there would come a day when their story would be told again as it has been told for centuries, and this time they would find what had been out of their grasp for so long. They would find a happily ever after. But that is another story and shall be told another time.
Adair cried as she read that passage. It made her think about the choice which still lay before her. She knew what Atreyu would choose if their roles were reversed. He would do the right thing even though it would break both of their hearts. That was the kind of person he was. That was why she loved him. As she thought on this, she knew what would happen if she made the wrong choice. Even if it worked out somehow, if Atreyu survived and she found a way for him to return to her, if she took him away from where he belonged then it would leave both worlds lacking in something pure and good. If she truly loved him, she knew she had to do what was right.
At last she remembered what Moon Child had told her. A pure love could only be made through great sacrifice. Now she knew what sacrifice had to be made, and it was harder than she could have imagined. How could she do it? How could she let him go?
At the top of the Obsidian Tower, the battle between Atreyu and Volrac was about to reach its end. The young hero's wounds had taken his strength, as had the wicked magic in the thorns. He could no longer grasp his sword with both hands. His left arm hung limp at his side. He no longer had the strength to lift it. But still he fought on. With a frustrated swing, he raised his sword against Volrac. The Nightmare King swung Sikanda with power and force, and this time when it struck Atreyu's sword, it cleaved the boy's blade in half. Its tip clattered to the ground and its hilt was thrown from his hand. Now he was completely defenseless against the nightmare before him.
"It ends now Atreyu." Volrac declared. Vines erupted at Atreyu's feet and snared his legs. More came from his sides and took his arms, hoisting him into the air and binding him fast. They wound around him tighter and tighter. He became completely encased in vines and their thorns dug further into his flesh. He kicked and struggled, but the despair in the thorns was overpowering him now. He was drowning in it.
"You see now Atreyu." Volrac growled. "Love cannot prevail in a world like this."
With what little strength he still held onto, he lifted his head to look his executioner in the eye.
"You may kill me, but not what I fought for."
Adair shook her head frantically. "No, no, no!" But all her cries could not change what was written. What Fay had predicted in the story was now about to happen and there was only one thing she could do to stop it.
He could fight against it no more, 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-
"Alright!" Adair cried. "I let you go. I'll let you go." She lowered her head and let her tears spill onto the page. Perhaps it was because her eyes were clouded with tears, but she would swear that the words changed before her eyes. She tried to find where she had left off in the book, but the words were different now.
At that moment, above their heads where AURYN remained suspended in the air, something shifted. AURYN began to glow. Its light was small at first like the pinprick of a star in the night sky, but it grew and grew until it was a radiant as the sun. The two snakes of the medallion grew with the light until they formed an enormous circle in the sky. Light shone down on them from the inside of that circle.
Atreyu and Volrac were transfixed by the light, as were the Seekers.
"What is happening?!" Volrac roared.
"The gate between worlds is opening." Thoth said in awe.
"But I didn't open it!"
Nag's maw hung open. "Then who did?"
Volrac roared and reared Sikanda back, plunging it forward toward Atreyu's heart. Before the dark blade could strike, a bolt of light came between them. It was so bright, Volrac could not look directly at it. He rounded on Fay.
"I was supposed to kill him here! You read it! What does this mean?"
Fay's eyes had grown wide as she read from the book. "The words have changed." She said in complete shock. "His fate has been changed." Then she lifted her gaze and squinted against the column of light that now stood between Atreyu and Volrac. "The Strongest Magic." she breathed.
Still trapped in the vines, Atreyu could see something within the light. It was a sword. He knew where it had come from, for he could feel her there with him.
Give me a name. He felt the words more than he heard them, but he knew they had come from the sword. Give me a name, then put your hand forward and I will be yours.
As quickly as the light had shot from the sky, the answer came into his heart.
"Your name..." he said as he reached for the hilt, "is
Then he closed his fingers around it. Warm light flooded through his entire being. All at once, the vines that held him crumbled to ash, unable to withstand the purity that coursed through him now. He looked down at himself. His wounds were gone as though they had never been. Even the scar he had carried on his chest for so long had been erased. He felt stronger than he ever had before. He lifted the sword. Its blade was not made of steel, but rather of pure light. Its hilt was created from the same silver and gold snakes that made AURYN. They intertwined together and joined at the pommel.
Far below them on the ground where the little band of heroes still camped, they could see the light above the tower.
"What is that?" Hykrion gasped.
Bahzha came to Ze'hara's side. The wise woman was staring into the fire with a smile. "Ze'hara, what's happened?"
"I see Adair standing with Atreyu. Light is shining from them both. The shadow behind the Nightmare King cowers from it."
"Adair is there? How?"
Hysbald tore his gaze away from the light when he noticed something missing. "Has anyone seen Falkor?"
"This is impossible!" Volrac roared. Once more, the vines shot from the ground and lunged for Atreyu.
Atreyu lifted the blade and spun it into the vines as they reached for him. Its mere touch sent light into them and burned them to cinders. Their despair could not stand against the light of such a pure love.
"I suggest we wrap this up." Thoth said to Nag. The two of them turned back to the crystal where Moon child still slept. Both were startled when they saw Jason and Deisha standing in front of them. Jason rammed the pommel of his sword into Thoth's head, knocking him onto his back where he rolled down the steps of the pavilion. Deisha swung her spear and forced Nag to leap off the platform.
"Looks like today isn't your lucky day." Jason said with a grin.
"Oh please." Thoth scoffed. "How long have you been waiting to use that one?"
"Actually, I approve." Came a deep voice from behind them. The two Witches looked up in horror to see Falkor the Luckdragon hovering over them. "Looks like it's your luck that's run out this time."
Thoth scrambled backwards on his hands in a cowardly fashion and Nag scurried to Fay's side and hid behind her.
"Dragon! I hate dragons!" It screeched.
Howling with fury, Volrac called all of the thorns around them to attack Atreyu, but he leaped out of their path, touching Amare's blade to each one until none of them remained. The more he fought, the more he felt the strength of others with him. No longer was Adair's light the only one that filled him, he felt the light of all his friends and loved ones who wanted him to succeed.
"I will not be undone!" Volrac shrieked. "Love has no power over me!" The vines on his back snaked out and shot for Atreyu in a black wave.
"You're right it doesn't." Atreyu said sadly as he leaped over the vines. "That's why you're going to lose!" He ran along the vines toward Volrac, dragging Amare's tip over their surface and burning them with its light. He leaped into the air and raised Amare high as he came down toward Volrac. The Nightmare King lifted Sikanda to block, but this was his final undoing. Atreyu brought Amare down and their blades locked. The light in Amare pushed Sikanda's darkness back and burned into Volrac. He screamed in agony as Atreyu pushed him backward, and Atreyu pushed him farther, driving the darkness out of Sikanda. The blade shown silver once more and Volrac shrieked and dropped it. The flesh of his one remaining hand sizzled and smoke rose from his palm. He could no longer touch Sikanda, for it was an evil weapon no longer.
With the evil driven from Sikanda, Volrac could no longer hold the tower. The obsidian stone crumbled away and the thorns burned to ash. The Ivory Tower rose back into the sky, even brighter and more beautiful than before. Then the sound of shattering glass filled the air. The crystal in the center of the Magnolia Pavilion burst open, sending its glittering shards all around them like a fall of stardust. Then the Childlike Empress opened her golden eyes.