The Strongest Magic

Chapter 26: The Last Wish

Ze'hara sighed with relief as the fire before her finally calmed. "He won." She told the others. They erupted in cheers. Bahzha and his wife Ainzlee held each other and Hykrion hoisted Matilda off her feet. The Tuah children crowded around them and jumped in joy on top of the Rockbiters. Engywook and Urgl danced in circles, laughing all the while. But Hysbald noticed that Ze'hara was not cheering with them. She sat by the embers of her fire, exhausted. But it was more than fatigue. Something was bothering her. He wheeled his chair beside her.

"Ze'hara? Why the long face? We won didn't we?"

She nodded. "We did, but at a price." She said this in a low voice so that none of the others could hear.

Hysbald frowned. "What price?"

Then she spoke so low that he had to crane his neck near her and strain his ears to hear.

"This was the best and the worst thing that could have happened to him."

At the peak of the restored Ivory Tower, the Childlike Empress let her feet touch the ground for the first time in ten years. Her snow white hair fell around her shoulders and her golden eyes took each of them in with a smile. Jason stood with his mouth agape. Deisha dropped to one knee and bowed her head. When she noticed Jason standing next to her stupefied, she yanked on his arm and forced him to kneel next to her. Atreyu remained standing, but his reverence for her was no less than the others.

"Atreyu." Just as it had when he first met her, her voice was as sweet as a bird singing in its sleep. "It's so good to see you again."

"Again?" Atreyu stammered. "How is this possible? No one in Fantasia can lay eyes on you more than once."

"It is true. You saw me before as Moon Child, but I am Moon Child no longer. I have been reborn with a new name."

"What name?"

"The name you gave me." She said plainly. Atreyu didn't understand. Her golden eyes floated to the sword still in his hand and then he knew what she meant.

"Your name is Amare." And then he understood how it had happened. But neither he nor the Empress would say, for it was a secret that one must learn the way Atreyu and Adair had. Instead she smiled knowingly at him and nodded. The sword in his hand flickered then and vanished back into the light it had come from. It had done all it had needed to do.

Amare turned her head away from them. The eyes of the Childlike Empress were always eyes filled with love and understanding for even the darkest beings in her world. But none of this was present when her golden eyes landed on the Seekers who remained skulking off to the side. Nag openly cowered behind Fay who stared at the Empress with her dead uncaring eyes. Thoth made his best attempt to stand upright, but even he stood behind his compatriots.

"Now now Empress, let's not do anything rash your Highness." Thoth said in a quivering voice. "Not even you use your powers to compel your subjects."

Though she stood shorter than the rest, when Amare spoke, her presence was the greatest among them. "My subjects are mine to protect. But I hold no kindness for intruders." She said, and this time her voice was not sweet. "I draw no distinction between good and evil in my realm, for Fantasia needs both so it may grow. But you three are not part of Fantasia and you are not welcome here." A gale blew behind the empress and her white hair floated around her small but angry face. Never once did she raise her voice, but her words made the very ground shake and the Witches' legs turn to jelly. "Now get out."

Nag shook like a kicked dog and Thoth found his tongue had gone numb. Only Fay was able to speak.

"As you wish your majesty." She said coldly. "We're finished here. But we cannot leave just yet. If we leave now, we take a piece of your realm with us." A silent understanding passed between the two.

Amare's golden eyes grew sad when she turned them toward where Volrac still struggled with his wounds on the ground. His dark armor had shattered, leaving him bare from the waist up. His flesh was reddened by the light that had burned him. His black hair hung in his face like the molted feathers of a buzzard. But his green-yellow eyes still burned with more hate than ever.

"Very well.” The Empress relented. “Do what you must. Then get out of my sight. If I ever find you've returned to Fantasia, I will erase you." With this, Amare turned her back on the Circle of the Night and Volrac.

Fay curtsied in mock respect. "Thoth, the crystal please."

"Ah, yes of course." He reached inside his filthy coat and produced an amethyst crystal, the size of a man's fist. Volrac's eyes widened in fury when he saw it. "Oh come now, a deal's a deal old boy. It's only fair." He said smugly as he handed the crystal to Fay.

Volrac snarled, but rather than attacking he tried to back away. In spite of all that he had done, Atreyu was worried for him. "What is that?"

Nag leered at him. "Just a simple business transaction."

"You see, we made a deal." Thoth explained. "But since you've taken back the tower, we no longer have the means to give Heremoor what he wanted. So it's only fair that we return the payment he gave us."

"No! Not that!" the Nightmare King cried. "Don't!"

Volrac's terror spurred Atreyu to run to his aid. "Atreyu don't." Amare's command stopped him in his tracks. Her back remained turned, and her voice was grave. "His own actions drove him to this point. There is nothing we can do for him now."

The rest of them could only look on as the crystal in Fay's hand began to glow. As she squeezed her small pale fingers around it, white cracks spread over its surface. Then with a horrid crack, it shattered in her hand. The light it had encased flew from her hand and into Volrac. The Nightmare King howled a bloodcurdling cry of torment as the light filled him. His body twitched and flailed as though he were being wracked by an invisible force. Unable to contain his compassion, Atreyu ran to his side and tried to steady him. Volrac continued to scream and flail in his arms.

"I believe we're done here." Fay said with spite. Once she did, the very air around them shifted. Behind them, a strange doorway was opening. It was a tear in the sky, like someone had torn the page of a storybook. A powerful wind came from within that tear, twirling around the Seekers and began to suck them in. With a shriek of excitement rather than fear, Nag leaped into it willingly.

"Bye-bye Atreyu! It was fun!" Then Nag was gone.

"Yes, ta-ta m'dears." Thoth waved as he turned to face the opening that Fantasia was forcing them out through. "T'was a true pleasure. Onto the next experiment." The Seeker of Truth was pulled off his feet and sent into the void. Only Fay remained as though she were resisting the pull of the vortex. It dragged her slowly backwards, sliding her black shoes along the ground. Her cold blue eyes didn't once leave Atreyu, but what she looked at him with he couldn't say.

"What was his payment?" He asked the Witch.

"His love for Fantasia." She replied. "And everything in it." Then the tear in the story closed up around her. The Circle of the Night had been cast out of Fantasia forever.

In his arms, Volrac stopped flailing. He began to grow old before their eyes. His hair turned gray and his face became ashen and withered. Once more, the thorn covered vines grew from him, but they weren't as solid as the forest had been. They were like smoke. They could not hurt anyone but him now. They wound their way back into him, snaking all through his body. Once more, Heremoor was consumed by his own despair. His breathing grew shallow and ragged. His green eyes faded slowly. With great difficulty he turned his head to look past them at the horizon. The sun was rising.

"It's been so long..." he rasped, "since I've seen the sun rise over Fantasia like that. Has it always been that beautiful? I... never... noticed." Then his eyes closed. The thorns covered him completely and then vanished. Atreyu was left holding nothing but air. The nightmare was over.

Everyone in the book shop released a breath they hadn't realized they'd been holding as Adair finished the passage.

"What happens now?" Rosemary asked. Adair had stopped reading, but she hadn't looked up from the page. Iole too was somber. They all looked to Bastian. The old man merely shook his head.

"I don't know."

"Brave warriors." Amare declared to Atreyu, Jason, Deisha, and Falkor. "You have saved Fantasia, and yet you have done more. It is a new Fantasia you have made, and your stories are yours to begin anew if you so choose. Whatever it is you wish, ask it of me. If it is in my power, I shall grant it."

The others waited. Atreyu looked to each of them. They knew what he wanted and were silently telling him to go first. He rose and stood before Amare.

"Empress, there is only one thing I would wish. That is to return to the human world to be with Adair."

"No, you have to stay here!" The others looked to the Empress in astonishment, but she was no longer standing before him. It was Adair speaking tearfully through her. "You can't come back. You have to stay."

"Adair?" Atreyu reached for her. "I don't understand."

She placed her hand on the side of his face. "I love you."

Adair couldn't read on. She snapped the book shut and hurled it across the floor. Bastian ran to scoop it back up.

"Someone else finish for me!" She cried. "I'm done!" She jumped up from the chair and ran to the back room of the shop, taking off up the flight of stairs at the back before anyone could stop her.

"Adair wait!" Rosemary cried and made to go after her.

"Rosemary." It was Iole. She stood behind Rosemary with a hand on her shoulder.

"No, you get off me! This is my family and that comes before any of your stupid rules or commandments or whatever you call them!"

The woman tried to shake her off, but Iole held fast until she agreed to hear her out. "Listen, neither of us have really been there for her the way we might have liked. But you have the rest of her life to be there for her. This is my last chance to do something right by her. You'll never see me again. Just please let me do this."

At length, Rosemary relented. Iole took the book from Bastian. He took her hand before she left.

"Thank you for keeping your promise." He said.

"Thank you for not keeping yours." She said with a sad smile. She left them and followed the path Adair had taken to the back room. The door at the top of the staircase led to the roof of the shop. Bastian had set up a sort of flower garden here, and at the edges were two park benches. It was on one of these that Adair sat, staring sullenly at the flowers Bastian and Christa had planted together. Iole sat quietly beside her.

"Hey." She said. Adair didn't respond. "Do you remember when we talked about how life sometimes has those bumps and bruises?" Adair gave her a very weak nod. Iole held the book out to her. "This is one of those road bumps."

Adair's face was red and her eyes were swollen. She couldn't look her in the eye when she spoke. "I don't know if I can do this. How can I leave him behind?"

"I know." Iole nodded. "I was in love too once."

"What happened?"

She swallowed. "He died a long time ago. I knew I was probably going to live a really long time and I didn't think I could keep going without him. But I knew I had to. It took a long time, but I realized that what we had, it didn't die with him. It just moved to a new place. This last while I kind of forgot that. It took a special assignment and meeting some really special people to remind me." She set the book in Adair's lap. "You really surprised me. If you can do that then I know you'll be fine no matter what happens." She got up from the bench. Adair didn't hear her go back inside, but when she looked up, she was gone. She took a deep breath and opened the book.

"What was that about?" Jason demanded. "What does she mean you have to stay here?"

"I'm afraid Adair's right." Amare said sadly. Then she explained the sacrifice Adair had made to save Atreyu and both their worlds. "You both have a destiny in different worlds. Adair must share what she learned here with her world. Atreyu must remain here to show it in other stories. Without him to fulfill that role, many stories in Fantasia will vanish."

"So after everything you guys went through, you have to separate anyway?" Deisha asked indignantly.

"Yeah she's right." Jason agreed. "You've already been to the human world. Why can't you go back?"

"That was done through dark magic." Amare reminded them. "And it nearly ended him."

"Jason," Atreyu put a hand on his shoulder. "It's okay. Amare's right. If Adair or I choose any world but our own, what we fought for would unravel. Adair's made peace with this decision. I..." He swallowed hard on his words. "I should as well."

Jason looked away from him, standing stock still for a moment. Then he set his jaw and shook his head.

"No. That's not good enough."

"Jason, go back to her. This way you can be with her like you wished."

"But she didn't choose me!" He shouted and rounded on Atreyu. "Stop being so freaking good and let someone else be a hero for once!"

Atreyu paused. "What are you saying?"

Jason didn't answer him. Instead he looked to the Childlike Empress. "Amare, what if there was a way that Atreyu could go back to the human world without taking anything from Fantasia?"

"Someone has to finish the stories he is a part of." She replied, but she did so with a smile. She knew what he was going to say before he had even said it.

"I'll stay."

"What?" Atreyu, Deisha, and Falkor all said at once.

"No Jason! Don't!" Adair pleaded, hoping he could hear her somehow. "You don't have to!"

"No Adair, I do." Jason replied. He had heard her. "But don't worry, it's not just for you." He looked back to Atreyu. "Or you. I used to think I was jealous of you because of Adair. But I was wrong. All this time I've been looking up to you. I wondered what it was that made you so good. Why you were enough for her and I wasn't? I wanted to know what you had that I didn't. Maybe it was because you carried a sword and rescued girls from monsters. But I think I finally figured out the real reason. You always do the right thing just because it's right. You don't need any other reason but that. That's something I've never done. Maybe that's why I came to Fantasia. So here's my chance." He looked up at the light still shining above them from the gate.

Adair could see him as she read. She was no longer just picturing him, she could see him. Jason, her best friend was waving goodbye to her from the other side. He didn't look sad or scared. She could see in his eyes that this was something he truly wanted. She could also see how he had changed. He looked less like the awkward frustrated boy she'd grown up with and more like the hero he wanted to be. She brushed her fingers along the page to thank him.

"I'll miss you."

"I'll miss you too. But hey, you'll always be my first kiss." He said with a laugh. "Amare, can a human live a normal life in Fantasia if they don't have AURYN?"

"It's never been done. They would be without any protection but their own." She replied. "But yes. They can live as a Fantasian without losing their memories. But how can a Fantasian like Atreyu live as a human?" She smiled at him knowingly. He knew what she was really asking. To leave Fantasia, Atreyu needed a story. Only a human could give him that.

"I guess this will be my last act as a human." He muttered. He thought of what he knew about Atreyu and tried to piece together a story. "He can live in the human world..." As he began, the words came to him easier than he had first thought. It didn't feel like he was making them up, it felt more like he was sifting through memories. Little by little they came into focus and then in a flash he had the answer.

"Atreyu can live in the human world because he's half human." The others were silent. He looked at Atreyu who stood with a disbelieving look on his face. "Atreyu, what do you remember of your parents?"

"They were both killed by buffalo shortly after I was born. I was raised by all the tribe. That's why my name means Son of All."

"Then the Plains People never told you. Your parents gave you that name. Your name means Son of All because you are a child of both worlds."

"How can that be?"

"A long time ago, a human woman came to Fantasia. But she was frightened by it. She had a family in the human world and used up her wishes in a panic to return to them. She didn't understand AURYN or the wishes it granted and she lost her memories quickly. Soon she even forgot her family. She wandered alone for a long time until she fell into the Grasslands where a Plains hunter found her. He couldn't give her memories back, but he did give her a new life. He taught her how to live among the Plains People. They fell in love and when she was accepted as a true member of the tribe, they married. They had a child, but they were killed in a hunt and the tribe raised him as their own. They decided to keep the truth from him, for if others knew of a half human in Fantasia it might place him in danger. But that child grew to walk with humans. Not only that, he fell in love with one."

Atreyu was awestruck, as were Falkor and Deisha. They couldn't think of what to say. Such a thing had never been heard of in all Fantasia.

"It's a beautiful story." Amare said sweetly. "How do you know of all this?"

You're going to make me say it aren't you. He thought with a smirk.

"I know this because that woman was my mother."

Adair read that part over to see if she'd heard right. Was such a thing possible, even in Fantasia? Jason had never spoken of his mother before now.

"In my world, she was hit in a car accident when I was very small. She fell into a coma that she never came out of. My father waited two years for her to wake up, then one day her body just quit. We never knew why. Now I do. That was the day she and your father were killed by the buffalo." He turned back to Amare. "Good enough? Can he go back now?"

"I have no say in this." The Childlike Empress smiled. "Atreyu, you are half human. What world you live in is your decision now."

Atreyu stammered to find the right words. "Jason... how can you ask me to leave Fantasia now that I know I have a brother?"

Jason took his hand and shook it firmly, placing his other hand on his shoulder. "Because your big brother says so. That's why."

Atreyu looked to his other friends. "Deisha..."

She knew what he wanted to say. "Don't worry about me. I'll be fine. Plains People are tough. They might cry a little when I break the news, but I'll get them through it."

"Come on you guys, we just won!" Jason crowed. "I don't believe for a second this is the end for any of us. We're in a never ending story. We'll see you again."

Atreyu wanted to believe it. As happy as a future with Adair made him, he was still saddened by the prospect of leaving his friends in Fantasia behind. "How can you be so sure?"

Amare answered for him. "There is a prophecy, which we seldom speak of, that someday humans will bring love to Fantasia. Then the two worlds will be one."

Jason grinned. "Looks like we have our work cut out for us on both sides. Can we count on you to hold up your end over there?"

Atreyu smiled and shook Jason's hand. "You have my word... Yadalanh She'nai."

"Till we meet again my brother." Jason repeated.

Deisha came to Atreyu and hugged him. "Yadalanh." She whispered into his ear.

Atreyu came to Falkor and placed his arms around his great lion head. "I'll miss you Falkor. You've been my truest friend for as long as I can remember."

"Now don't get my scales wet." Falkor chuckled. "You heard what Amare said. With luck, we'll see each other again. But allow me to give you a proper send off." Atreyu nodded and climbed onto Falkor's back one last time. He waved to the others and Falkor took off into the sky. He flew just below the gate, and stopped short of passing through it. Atreyu stood up and Falkor vaulted him into the air, straight through the gate. He vanished into the light, and when he was gone it closed. AURYN floated back to the ground to Amare's waiting hand. The Childlike Empress slipped it back onto its chain and looped it around her neck. Falkor flew back down to their level.

"So what's next for the three of you?" The Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes asked her subjects.

"Where are you headed Falkor?" Jason asked.

Falkor laughed his deep bronze laugh. "Jason, I'm a Luckdragon. I go wherever the wind takes me. Why do you ask?"

"I don't know. This hero stuff is new to me. I might need someone a little older to show me the ropes."

"Are you saying I'm old?"

Jason grinned. "As the hills."

"Then I'm your dragon."

"You'll need someone to watch your back." Deisha interjected. "And I think I'm ready to get out of the Plains. I want to see a little more of Fantasia."

"I think the question is, can Fantasia handle you?" Jason chuckled which earned him a slug to the arm from her.

"I've seen you try to hunt. You won't survive a day without me."

"I do like to eat. Welcome aboard Team Luck!"

"I think we need to work on that name."

"Agreed." Falkor nodded.

"Then it's settled." Amare declared. "Allow me to present you with your first quest." She held Sikanda in her hand and slipped its gleaming blade back into its rusty sheathe. "Before he left, Bastian declared that one day a hero would come to wield this sword without danger. They have a very important quest and they'll need Sikanda. Your first quest is to find them and present Sikanda to them. I'd say good luck, but if Falkor is with you I think that goes without saying." She winked one of her golden eyes at the dragon.

Jason bowed gallantly. "As you wish your majesty." He and Deisha climbed onto Falkor's back.

"Which direction?" Falkor asked.

"East." Jason said with surety.

"Why east?" Deisha asked.

"Because we're supposed to fly off into the sunset."

"It's dawn you idiot. East is the sunrise."

"I'm working with what I have!"

"Now come on the two of you." Falkor said calmly. "Is this really how we want to begin our first adventure together? We'll never make it at the rate you two argue."

"Sure we will." Jason promised with a wink. "With luck." Then the three of them flew east. They would find that young hero who was destined to hold Sikanda, and they'd have many other adventures besides. Fantasia would soon tell stories of the boy with the luck-magic sword, and the wild girl from the plains who flew on the back of a Luckdragon named Falkor. In time they would each become champions of justice in their own right. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

Within the gate between worlds, Atreyu ascended further and further upward. It was like swimming through light. He could feel himself drawing nearer to her. The closer she felt, the more he began to see her. He saw her high above him, her hazel green eyes watching the pages of the book in front of her. And when she finally put the book down...

...There he was.

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