The Strongest Magic

Chapter 3: The Vampiress

Cats in general were not friendly with Jason. He was more of a dog person. And even though he'd been friends with Adair for the longest time, her cat Iole had always brushed him off as cold as any captain of the cheer squad. So he didn't really spare her more than a glance. He reached into his pocket and dialed Adair in his contacts. He waited but it went straight to her voice mail. It didn't even ring. He texted her instead, asking where she was. Then he turned to leave and see if Bryan or Jamie knew where she might have gone.

As he made the first step he was startled by a small tugging at his jeans. He looked down. Iole had leaped from the bed and latched her claws onto his jeans. She released her hold on him and jumped back onto the bed where the book still lay open. He shook his head.

"Stupid cat." He made to leave again, but once more Iole was on the floor tugging on his leg. And once more she jumped back onto the bed. This time the white cat tapped the book with her black paw.

"Alright, this is weird." He decided to give into her and made a seat for himself on the bed. He took the book in his hands and opened it.

Adair shook her head vigorously.

Jason dropped the book at once. Adair? That couldn't be right. He looked back at the cat who was regarding him more carefully than she ever had before.

"What do you know?" The cat simply stared back at him. She seemed to share the same feeling he had; he was going crazy. There was no way Adair was actually in the book. It had to be a coincidence. Maybe she'd taken his advice about finding a book that reached out to her and picked a book with a heroine that had the same name as her. It was an odd coincidence, but it wasn't too far of a stretch. Then again, she still wasn't here.

He shook his head and opened the book again. He'd see, he told himself, the Adair in the book was not really his friend.

Adair shook her head vigorously. "I'm not getting on that thing."

"This thing," Atreyu retorted sounding highly offended "has a name. Falkor, this is Adair. We're taking her to the Ivory Tower."

"Pleased to meet you." The great Luckdragon winked with one of his glistening ruby eyes, not sounding offended at all by Adair's rudeness.

"I already told you, there's no way I'm flying on him. I don't fly period. Seriously the last time I flew I passed out, and that was in a plane. I don't want to pass out on a flying lion."

"Luckdragon." Falkor corrected her.

"Whatever."

"You've flown on plains before?" Atreyu asked in bewilderment. "How can the plains in your world fly? Isn't that dangerous?"

Adair shook her head realizing her mistake. "Not plain like here, a plane. It's a big metal bird that people fly inside."

"You fly inside a giant bird? That sounds awful."

"Rest assured young lady, I'm a lot safer than any metal bird." Falkor promised in his deep bronze voice. "You can trust me."

"Was the last human this whiny Atreyu?" someone called rudely as she brushed past Adair. It was the Plains girl that had rushed to Atreyu after the battle to see if he'd been injured. She had a bow and a quiver of arrows strapped to her back and was carrying a leather pouch in her hands. She stalked to Falkor's flank and began securing it to where Atreyu had already tied their provisions.

"What do you think you're doing Deisha?" Atreyu took her by the arm before she'd finished.

"What does it look like? I'm packing my things to go with you."

"No you're not." Atreyu said firmly.

"I think I am. Look at her. Does she look like she's going to be much help if you're attacked? You're going to need someone to watch your back if you run into more of those demons."

"Falkor and I can handle ourselves just fine."

"Your bruises from last night tell a different story." Deisha retorted, placing a hand on her hip. "You're getting too reckless and sooner or later your luck is going to run out. No offense Falkor." She rubbed the Luckdragon's hide.

"None taken." Falkor bellowed.

Atreyu sighed. "No. It's too dangerous."

"It's no different than hunting the purple buffalo. Besides…" Deisha dropped her voice as if she were trying to keep Adair from hearing. She heard anyway. "You heard what Ze'hara said about her."

Atreyu narrowed his eyes. "That was a secret council. Why were you listening?"

She fumed at him. "Because I knew what it meant. That you were going to get caught up in this mess and take off again after you just got here! You're always doing that, and whenever you leave, each 'adventure' you go on is more dangerous than the last one. You never take any thought for what it would do to… the rest of us if something were to happen to you. You're right. It's dangerous out there, especially right now and I'm not waiting around and worrying about you this time."

Adair interrupted them. "You know all the arguing is just wasting time, and it doesn't change the fact that I'm not flying on Falkor."

"It'll waste time if we go on foot." Atreyu shot back.

"I don't care, I'm keeping my feet on solid ground!"

Deisha groaned. "Alone with her the whole time. You two are fine with that? Really?"

"No one asked you to come. If you've got a problem with me you can leave."

"I'm coming because I have a problem with you human. I heard what Ze'hara said and I don't trust you!"

"For the last time Deisha, you're not coming!"

A roar sounded out through the whole village that was strong enough to shake the huts. "CHILDREN!" All three of them snapped their attention to Falkor. The Luckdragon took a deep breath to calm himself. "Atreyu I believe we need to think more of Adair's safety. I don't think it would hurt to have an extra bow with us. Adair, you're not the first to have a problem with flying that I've met, and while I don't understand it in the least I'll try to be sensitive. I'll stay low and start slow until you get used to it, and we can stop and rest whenever you like. Deisha, I'll support your decision to come so long as you curb that tongue of yours and keep whatever misgivings you have against Adair to yourself. Now are we all in agreement?"

Atreyu nodded grudgingly.

Deisha gave Adair one last bitter glance and nodded.

Adair narrowed her hazel green eyes at Deisha and brushed her sand colored hair from her face. Her fear of flying was suddenly overcome by a new found animosity for the Plains girl. "Sounds good to me. Fly as fast as you want." I'll just make sure that when I blow chunks it'll be in her hair.

Whatever doubt had still lingered in Jason it was gone now. This girl was definitely Adair.

Atreyu helped Adair climb onto Falkor's back and Deisha followed behind her. He went to check the provisions and secure his bow and his dagger. As he finished the preparations he stopped by Falkor's ear and whispered.

"Are you sure this is a good idea?"

"You know Deisha." Falkor said in as low of a voice as he could. "She'd have held onto my tail and not let go if we hadn't agreed to let her come, and nothing you could do or say would make her let go."

"Falkor it's bad enough that we have to put up with Adair."

"You don't like her?"

"I didn't say that." Atreyu answered defensively. "Still, she's no Bastian. She seems so… hostile."

"I think a better term would be guarded." Falkor reasoned. "You're right, she's no Bastian. He at least knew a little of Fantasia before he came here. Adair hasn't a clue where she is and doesn't sound like she wants to be here as he did. She's frightened. You might want to be sensitive to that."

"Still, with both her and Deisha? We're going to have our hands full just keeping the peace between them. Deisha promised to keep quiet but we both know she can't keep her mouth shut. How are we going to make this work?"

"Normally I'd answer 'with luck'. But…" the Luckdragon hesitated.

"But?" Atreyu asked.

"You need a lot more than luck when you're dealing with women."

In spite of the anxiety he felt at Adair being trapped in a book and still trying to wrap his head around how that had happened, Jason had to admit he liked Falkor.

Soon the four companions were flying over the landscape of Fantasia. It took a very long time because Falkor was forced to fly slowly for Adair's sake, but in time they left the grassy ocean of the plains behind them and crossed over into the range of the Silver Mountains.

"I think I'm going to be sick." Adair would say.

Then Deisha would sigh. "Oh for the love of the Empress, not again!"

Adair would glare over her shoulder. "You know we could still throw you off."

And then Deisha would answer back with something like "I was going to say the same about you."

And finally Atreyu would have to intervene. "That's enough out of both of you! If we're going to make it there safely we'll have to work together." That would bring on an uneasy peace for a while, and Atreyu would be grateful for the silence. But once Adair began to feel sick again it would all start over. By the time they finally settled down to camp for the night, Atreyu had a pounding headache.

They had at least reached the other side of the Silver Mountains when Falkor landed. Atreyu fashioned a small shelter while Deisha used some of the provisions they'd brought to cook a stew in a kettle over the fire they'd made.

Adair hadn't eaten a thing since they'd left the village and was starving by this time. But the lingering queasiness from the flight left her staring hesitantly into the wooden bowl of stew Deisha had just given her.

"What?" Deisha snapped. "Are you going to complain about the food now?"

Adair glowered at her once and then began to spoon it little by little into her mouth. If she hadn't been so angry at her, Adair might have noticed that Deisha had some unusual features for a Plains girl that she hadn't seen in any of the women in Atreyu's village. She had the same deep tanned skin and black hair, but her eyes were green rather than dark, and her ears were leaf shaped. She'd come to learn later that Deisha's grandmother had been an Elf hunter before she fell in love with one of the Plainsmen. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

Atreyu was just finishing staking down the tent. "Leave her alone Deisha. It's been a long day for all of us and we're going to have another one tomorrow."

"It wouldn't be so long if someone could get some courage and let us fly."

"You were no better the first time I let you ride Falkor. Remember?"

Deisha tensed. "You promised you'd never bring that up."

Adair grinned darkly. "What happened?"

"Nothing." Deisha answered too quickly.

"She screamed and held onto me. I don't think she opened her eyes once. And when we landed she still wouldn't let go. I had to carry her back to her hut so her father could pry her off of me." He laughed and Deisha splattered him in the face with a spoonful of stew straight from the kettle. "Ah! Deisha that's hot!"

"Serves you right. I'm going to find some firewood."

"We have plenty." Atreyu pointed out, wiping his eyes.

"Well I'll get some for later then!" She shouted and then stormed away from the campsite.

Falkor breathed a heavy sigh. "I think I'll head back into the mountains to sleep. I wouldn't want anyone who saw me sleeping to find out where you've camped."

"Are you sure you'll be alright?" Atreyu asked. Adair caught a hint of desperation in his voice. In truth he didn't want to be left alone to deal with the two of them.

"I'll be fine Atreyu. And with luck, so will you." The dragon winked and flew off into the sky.

Adair watched him fly away. "Why would anyone see Falkor sleep?"

"Falkor sleeps in the air." Atreyu explained.

Her eyes widened. "Really?"

"Even when he's asleep Falkor doesn't like to stay in one place too long. He won't even go inside a building no matter how big it is. He's only truly happy in the sky. In fact he's asleep right now."

She wondered if she was ever going to get used to this place. It was only her first day in Fantasia and she hadn't even seen that much of it yet. But what she had seen made her feel very lost and confused like she could no longer trust the ground beneath her feet.

"How did you and Falkor meet?" she asked. She'd been wondering how something that seemed as powerful and old was bound so strongly to someone as young as Atreyu. Falkor was clearly older maybe by hundreds of years for all she knew about Luckdragons, but from the way they spoke it was clear to her that Atreyu called the shots in their travels.

Atreyu seemed caught off guard by her question. He and Falkor had been constant companions for so long now it was hard to remember anything before that. But the day they met had been such an incredible story he'd never forget it.

"I was on a quest when I saved him from a Creature of Darkness named Ygramul the Many. I was looking for her because I'd been told she was the only way to reach where I needed to go. When I arrived at her lair I found Falkor caught in her web while she tormented him."

She tried to picture a younger Atreyu charging in to rescue Falkor from Ygramul who she pictured as a gigantic spider much bigger than even Falkor.

"How did you get him out?"

"He sort of got himself out, but since it had been because of me that he learned how, he said that his life was mine. I was glad to have him around, but to tell you the truth he saved my life that day as well. And he's done it countless other times. He's the best friend and companion anyone could have. We've been all over Fantasia together."

Adair found herself suddenly envious of Atreyu for two reasons. The first was that she envied his freedom. He seemed able to go and fly wherever and whenever he pleased while she was struggling to break out of a small town she hated and find a fresh start. The second thing she was jealous of was that he had a friend that understood him.

"What about you? Do you have a family in your world?"

She gave a start. "Sort of."

"You said you live with your Aunt. What's she like?"

"Controlling." She answered honestly. "And she has three kids, all brats." Okay well Lizzie was only a baby and very affectionate, but Adair didn't hold much stock that she'd turn out any differently than her brothers.

"Why don't you live with your mother and father?"

Jason gripped the book tightly in his hands. No one, no one, not even he asked Adair about her parents. It was just not done.

She closed her eyes. She'd been hoping he wouldn't ask that. What surprised her most was that he asked her in such a straight forward way, like it had never even occurred to him there was a reason she hadn't mentioned it herself. Normally she grew angry when someone brought up what she didn't want to talk about. But the way Atreyu had asked her and the mild way he was looking at her made it impossible for her to be angry at him. She was upset of course, but not angry. Still she felt her hand tighten into a fist.

"In my world," she said in a cold tone "it's considered rude to ask people personal questions like that."

Atreyu seemed a little hurt by the reprimand. "I'm sorry. I was just trying to understand you a little better since we'll be traveling together. If you don't ask one another questions in your world then how do you come to know your friends?"

"You don't." she said with an air of finality.

If Atreyu had been a hot tempered person he may have brought up that she had been the first to start asking questions, but he wasn't. Courageous, daring, stubborn, outspoken, these were all terms that applied to him, but he was not short tempered. His experiences in Fantasia had helped him to develop great patience. And what was more, Ze'hara's words at the village played again in his head.

This child has suffered greatly. She had said. She's spent much time trying to freeze it, but in so doing has built a wall of ice around herself.

So instead of snapping back at her he nodded in understanding. He would just have to be patient. She would just have to tell him in her own time.

She doesn't have to tell you at all! Jason thought bitterly. This Atreyu kid had known Adair for barely a day. What right did he have to try and pry into the deepest parts of her life that she never even shared with him? They'd known each other since the fourth grade and she had always kept that "wall of ice" as the little punk had called it up as a front. But there were times few and far between that she had let it down and Jason had been able to see the real Adair that was trying to break through and wake up. Then the ice would cover her again and she was all sarcasm and bitterness. But what he had seen was worth waiting for. So for that reason he'd remained her friend all these years trying to reach her, waiting for the day she'd finally let that guard down. This was why being forced to read Adair's peril rather than being there for her while she was forced to put her trust in a complete stranger was more than distressing for him. It was downright killing him.

He shook his head. What little of the real Adair he knew had taken him almost seven years to discover. This Atreyu had another thing coming if he thought he was going to achieve that in a day.

Atreyu's ears prickled at a quiet moaning sound. It was just on the edge of camp but it was coming closer.

Adair noticed his change of mood. "What is it?"

He held a hand up to quiet her so he could hear better. "Someone's coming. It sounds like… crying."

"Deisha?" she asked, though she couldn't really picture the short tempered plains girl crying for any reason.

"No. I can hear their footsteps and they sound very small."

After straining her hearing Adair could hear the light sobbing as well. It definitely wasn't Deisha. A small flickering light glimmered at the edge of their camp. Atreyu jumped to his feet.

"It's a Will-o'-the-wisp."

"A what?"

"A will-o'-the-wisp. They're tiny little sprites that like to play tricks on travelers by making them lose their way. They're normally full of energy, but this one's dragging its feet. Something must be wrong."

At first all she could see was a little bulb of flickering light moving very slowly across the ground. It moved to the petrified stump of a tree and rested on top of it. Slowly Atreyu crept to where it rested and Adair mimicked his subtle movements. Will-o'-the-wisps as a general rule are not only mischievous; they can also be painfully shy. When they drew nearer Adair could see the silhouette of a tiny figure inside the ball of light that appeared to be very nimble. But right now they appeared forsaken and pathetic. If it were on its feet she guessed it'd barely reach her knee.

"What's wrong?"

The little will-o'-the-wisp gave a start when he heard Atreyu's voice.

"You should get out of here!" it cried in an urgent whisper as though it were afraid someone might hear it.

"Why?" Adair asked.

"It isn't safe. They've already got them all. They got her too, and it's all my fault. You need to get out of here before they catch you too."

Atreyu held up his hands. "Alright slow down. Who are they? And who are you?"

The will-o'-the-wisp sniffed and took a deep breath. "Forgive me. My name is Blubb."

"Well Blubb, I see you're carrying a white flag with you. Are you a messenger?"

Blubb lifted the small white flag that had been resting across its lap, and said with a small amount of pride "Yes I am. My friends and I go all over Fantasia." Its shoulders slouched a little. "Or at least we did." And all at once it began to sob again.

"Take it easy." Adair admonished. "Just tell us what happened."

"Well, my friends and I were on our way to the Ivory Tower. We have a message for the Childlike Empress. We were just passing through the Whispering Woods when… SHE appeared."

Adair and Atreyu exchanged glances. "She?"

Blubb shivered. "Shadeseeker."

This didn't mean anything to Adair, but she could tell it meant something to Atreyu. "Shadeseeker?"

"She's a Creature of Darkness, a Witch, and a dangerous one. She's preyed on Fantasians for over a hundred years. She steals their life to keep herself young and beautiful."

"It was awful." Blubb whimpered. "She descended on us with a group of… things! I don't know what else to call them! They're just not right!"

Adair looked to Atreyu and he nodded. "Demons."

"Yes I suppose you could call them that. It certainly fits. She leads them, and she ordered them to capture us. She's taking them to a place called the Forest of Thorns. One of my friends is a Rock Biter so he made a huge fuss trying to protect us, but there were too many of them and in the end only I could get away. I wanted to go find them, but I couldn't leave them. So instead I've been hiding nearby and leading her in circles to slow them down until I could find help. They've stopped for now. For some reason the monsters won't go near the Silver Mountains."

"Well we're here now." Atreyu laid a comforting hand on Blubb's back. "We'll get your friends out."

Instead of rejoicing Blubb simply hung its head. "That's what that girl said."

"Girl?" Adair asked.

"Deisha!" Atreyu groaned. "Blubb, what happened to her?"

"She tried to attack Shadeseeker with her bow but the witch has sharp ears, and she's fast. She turned and snatched the arrow right out of the air! After that…" Blubb began to cry again. "Oh it's awful. She's doomed!"

"It's alright Blubb. Like you said, she's stuck right now so we have time to figure out a way to save them."

"Not her." Blubb shook his head. "You don't understand. My friends were taken prisoner. They're only alive because Shadeseeker said they're too ugly to eat. But now that she has that girl…"

Adair looked to Atreyu. "Could we call Falkor back?"

"We probably don't have the time." He reasoned. "And if the witch is as close as Blubb says then she might hear us. We'll have to think of something on our own. Blubb, where are they right now?"

Blubb sniffed and lifted his face. Adair could barely make out two tiny eyes inside the ball of light. "I'll show you."

After Atreyu had gathered his bow and knife from their campsite Blubb led them to a ledge overlooking a small clearing. The two had expected more of those snake faced wolves, but they were yet to learn that twisted beings such as demons come in all shapes and sizes. They, like the evils that spawn them come in great variety. The clearing was swarming with at least a hundred maroon colored imps. They were about as long as Atreyu's forearm and flew on bat-like wings. They had a pair of short hooked horns on the crown of their head and long thin tails like a rat's with a barb at the end. The worst part however was that they all lacked faces.

"They have poison in the barbs on their tails that puts you to sleep. That's how she caught us." Blubb explained.

The companions of the will-o'-the-wisp were easy to spot. At least the Rock Biter was because of his tremendous size. He was ten feet tall and had shoulders as broad as the roof of a house. He seemed to be made entirely out of stone. His powerful hands were bound tightly together by steal manacles secured by a length of chain. Then there was a little night hob with his hands chained behind his back looking about wildly with his saucer eyes. His mount; a great bat was chained down by its neck where a group of the demon-imps tormented it with their claws. The last who was so small they almost missed him was a creature known as a Tiny in dapper dress and chained beside his mount; a trusted racing snail.

"Blubb, where's Shadeseeker?"

Blubb pointed a trembling finger into the clearing. "There."

The witch wafted into the clearing. She was a tall woman in a billowing black robe-like dress that had a form fitting bodice, but a flowing skirt with an opening down the center leaving her legs exposed. The neckline was so low that it left everything above her chest bare. Her long sleeves hung with scarlet trim that was cut to invoke the image of flames. Her long black hair that hung all the way to her waist had deep crimson streaks in it. As they watched, she pulled something from within her sleeve and held it up to her face, stroking her hair lovingly as she did.

Atreyu squinted to see it. "What is it?"

"It's a mirror." Blubb answered. "That's the source of her spell. She forces others to look into it so it can steal their youth. They become older and older the longer she makes them look at it. Then she turns it on herself, and through her reflection the stolen youth becomes hers. I watched her use it. We weren't the only ones she captured. There was a water nymph." Blubb shuddered. "Apparently Shadeseeker thought she was beautiful enough to eat. There wasn't anything left of her when she was done."

That, Adair thought, put a whole new spin on the phrase "beauty is a curse".

In the clearing the witch snapped her fingers and four imps flew to the captives, each one taking a chain in their hand. All four pulled a prisoner out from the group and dragged her forward.

Atreyu gasped. "Deisha!" In the blink of an eye he fitted an arrow to his bowstring.

Adair grabbed his wrist and tried to make him lower it. "Slow down. You remember what Blubb said. That's how Deisha got caught."

"We can't just sit here!"

"We won't. I have an idea."

The two continued to converse in hushed voices. Meanwhile in the midst of the gathering of prisoners and demons Deisha was dragged before the witch. Shadeseeker smiled with her blood red lips and spoke in a voice as smooth as honey, but it carried poison in it.

"Listen well little girl from the grasslands. You know who I am and as I've explained to you I can steal every remaining year of your pathetic little life and make it my own. But I'm in a bit of a predicament. My useless escort doesn't seem able to enter the Silver Mountains and I'm a little pressed for time. I need to reach the Forest of Thorns before the week is out. Your people are skilled hunters and trackers. You can find a faster way than through these blasted mountains can't you? So how about we make a deal. You lead my 'friends' and I out, and I might let you keep a few of your years. Do we have an understanding?"

Deisha looked down at the ground. The witch lifted a cold hand to her face, grasping her chin, and forced her look up at her.

"Oh come now dearie, no need to be so shy. You're very pretty, and fierce. I admire that. Serve me well and I might even let you become a protegee instead of stealing your beauty. It's been a long time since I've added to my coven."

Deisha snapped her teeth at Shadeseeker, forcing the witch to recoil. "I would die before falling in with a hag like you!"

The word 'hag' made Shadeseeker quiver with rage, but she suppressed it and sighed. "You people can be so uncivilized. Oh well, I suppose I'll have to use other ways of making you cooperate." She raised her hand as if to snap her fingers to give the demon-imps a command, but suddenly one of them flitted to her side and flapped its wings right by her head. It had no mouth to communicate with, but Shadeseeker had other ways of understanding the messengers she'd been given.

"Oh really?" She smirked. "Well what are you waiting for? Do what you do best."

She snapped her fingers and ten of the imps swarmed the edge of the clearing and dragged a struggling figure into the open out of the bushes. Deisha froze when she saw who it was that the witch had captured. It was Adair. She resisted their pull but she found the little pests were stronger than they looked. Shadeseeker smiled again as she strode confidently to where Adair was forced to her knees.

"Now what do we have here?" She took the girl's face in her hand just as she had with Deisha and forced her to look up. Then her eyes took on a look of surprise. "My, my, my, can it be? I had heard whispers that a human had come to Fantasia again but who would believe my luck that you should fall into my hands first? Oh this will please Lord Volrac greatly."

Despite the dangerous situation she was in Adair gave her a wry smirk. The last time she had fought demons had been different. Chember had been intimidating and the snake-wolves had filled her with terror. She'd always been afraid of wolves and dogs and anything of the like. But the imps did not overcome her with the same fear, and the witch who controlled them she wasn't afraid of at all. She could see it in her cold reddish-brown eyes. This Shadeseeker was no different than others from her world consumed by their superficial beauty. "It's not going to last forever." She would say to one such girl she attended school with who couldn't seem to be bothered with anything practical because she was always checking herself in the mirror to make sure her hair was still perfectly in place, or her makeup wasn't smudging as if anything had changed the last time she had checked five minutes ago when they'd uploaded their hundredth “selfie”. She despised girls like that, and she hated this witch who had taken the obsession to an entirely new level. Yes, Adair knew just how to deal with someone like Shadeseeker.

Jason remembered that encounter. It had been Samantha Thompson. Samantha had made a very off-handed comment at him about how he'd never get a girlfriend if he didn't cut his hair. Adair had pointed out that Samantha was lucky she was pretty because she never had anything interesting to say. Samantha had gone home crying. In the long run it was Adair who'd been made to apologize to Samantha in the principal's office. But for Adair that apology came out "I'm sorry you know you're boring now. No one else had the heart to tell you."

"That's right. I'm the first human to come to Fantasia in a long time. You might never get another chance like this."

Shadeseeker narrowed her eyes. "What do you mean?"

"Have you ever taken from a human before? Don't you know anything about us? If you take from me you might never have to steal someone's youth again."

The witch sneered. "You are quite beautiful little girl, but you can't fool me. I can tell you're trying to distract me from my goal. Is this Plains girl a friend of yours? Is that why you've come?"

"Maybe you're right, maybe you're wrong." Adair replied. "But if you don't take your chance now you might never find out what I could have given you. You shriveled old hag."

Shadeseeker kept her voice level, but she couldn't hide the twitch in her eyebrow. "What did you say?"

"Oh I'm sorry, my mistake. I'm sure those wrinkles are just bad lighting."

The witch peeled her blood red lips back in a snarl. "You're going to have to do better than name calling."

"I was just wondering what you're using to hide those crow feet because it's not working. Oh maybe you're trying to go with a more rustic look. My grandma does that. It works for her. She doesn't look a day over sixty five."

Shadeseeker drew very near to her face. "You might want to watch your tongue little girl. You clearly know what I can do, so don't provoke me."

Adair coughed. "Oh wow, have you heard of a tic-tac? Your breath smells like a corpse. Oh wait… sorry I forgot. Is that why your name's Shadeseeker, because you have to hide your rotten ugly face in the shade?"

"That's enough!" the witch shrieked and drew herself back. Reaching into her sleeve she pulled out the brass handled mirror. "Now you've done it. Perhaps Lord Volrac will praise me for killing you instead!"

Adair tried to look away but her head was jerked toward the mirror by one of the imps who dug its claws below her eyebrows and forced her to keep her eyes open. She didn't see herself in the mirror, or rather she did, but not in the right sense. What she saw was a much older version of herself mirroring her fright. But little by little the old woman in the mirror moved back through time, growing younger and younger. Shadeseeker held the mirror closer to her and snarled.

"Now watch as your pretty little face decays into nothingness."

There was a shrill whistle in the trees above them just then; the signal Adair had been waiting for. "Same to you." She growled, then in a move so sudden it surprised the imps she tore one arm free and grabbed Shadeseeker by the ankle. The witch was so startled she was thrown off balance, flailing her arms in the air, the mirror still clutched tightly in her hand. Atreyu's arrow shot from where he was hidden and struck the glass dead-center. The sound of its shattering filled the clearing.

Shadeseeker shrieked in alarm and horror as she watched the fragmented shards spill to the ground like jagged rain. She fell to her knees and snatched up one of the larger shards and stared at it.

"No, no, NO! NOOOOO!" Adair couldn't see her face, but she watched as her black and red hair faded and thinned to wispy gray curls. All at once she snapped her head to transfix her gaze on Adair. "LOOK WHAT YOU'VE DONE!"

She was unrecognizable. Her flesh was withered and gray, her eyes sunken in like the eyes of a skull, and her lips were chapped and stretched thin over crooked yellow teeth. Her hands were gnarled like tree branches. She screamed and kept her hate filled eyes on Adair. An ominous humming sound filled the clearing as the imps began to swarm like a hive of angry bees. Shadeseeker peeled her lips back once more. "KILL THEM! KILL THEM ALL!"

Atreyu burst from his hiding place and charged forward with his dagger in hand. Blubb dashed ahead of him. "Blubb get the key!"

The tiny and nimble will-o'-the-wisp spun circles around Shadeseeker who tried in vain to swat him away. Her rapid aging had apparently slowed the frightening speed she had once possessed. Blubb retrieved a small skeleton key from her sleeve easily and dashed to the prisoners. He unchained Deisha first while Atreyu sprinted to the place where they'd stashed away her bow and arrows. Adair ran with him as the imps swarmed all around them.

"Deisha catch!" Atreyu called, tossing her bow to her.

Blubb worked furiously to fit the key into each shackle that held his friends while the two Plains warriors covered him with their bows. Once free, the Rock Biter, the Night Hob, and the Tiny began to fight furiously to escape, though the Tiny and his snail were of little use in a battle. The Rock Biter on the other hand could easily catch groups of the imps in his mighty hands and crush them like insects. Atreyu and Deisha were expert marksman with their bows, but sadly they found that the imps were much like the last demons they fought and could only be stunned by their arrows and not wounded. Adair found she could fight them off no better than the little man who rode the snail.

"Come on!" Blubb cried. "If we can get back into the mountains they won't follow us!"

"Follow me! Try not to let me step on you!" The Rock Biter roared in a deep mighty voice that made the ground shake. Using himself as a wall against the imps, he charged ahead while the others ran behind him.

Adair screamed as she felt something take hold of her hair and yank her backward. It slowed her enough that a group of imps caught up each of her limbs and lifted her high into the air. Atreyu spun around and lifted his bow.

"Adair!" But he found he couldn't make the shot. The imps were moving too fast for him to shoot without the risk of accidentally hitting Adair. Kicking and screaming the girl was hauled back into the clearing where they dropped her from a ten foot height right at the feet of the witch. Her head spun with dizziness as the fall took its toll on her.

Shadeseeker leered down at her, no longer the beautiful enchantress she had once been, but a desiccated hag. "You my pretty," she snarled in a much older and more ravaged voice "I will kill with my own hands." Before the girl could move, the hag was on her, those long gnarled fingers grasping tightly around her throat.

"Adair!" Atreyu called again, and without thinking charged back into the clearing. Deisha followed right behind, and they were gone before the others could stop them. The imps zipped all around them. They raised their bows, but the demons snatched them right out of their hands, and soon were holding them aloft just as they had taken Adair.

Meanwhile the edges of Adair's vision were beginning to blur as the hag strangled the life out of her.

"Crap! Now what?" Jason thought hard. There had to be something he could do. He couldn't just sit here and read out his best friend's death. He had to think. He'd played Dungeons & Dragons all his teen years. He knew how to strategize (or so he claimed). Atreyu and Deisha had been the strongest assets, and now they were immobile. Of the remaining party members, only the Rockbiter was of any real use, but they were expecting him and he'd soon be put back to sleep with the poison of the imps. Then with a jolt Jason remembered someone was missing.

"Falkor!" The Luckdragon would be able to burn those imps away like they were nothing. Maybe if he called the dragon's name into the book, he'd be alerted to the danger and come flying to the rescue. It was a long shot, but then again if this was all really happening, Falkor was a Luckdragon. If anyone could beat the odds it was him.

"Falkor! Wherever you are wake up! They're in danger!"

Adair struggled vainly to free herself. Her breath had been knocked out of her by the fall, and what little remained was being choked out by the witch. Just when she was sure she was going to black out completely she suddenly became aware that Shadeseeker's grip had slackened. The dark edges around her vision gave way to a brilliant blue light. That could only mean one thing.

Falkor soared overhead, breathing a bright stream of blue fire. The imps were falling to the ground in burning writhing heaps. The ones that weren't burned began to flee, including the ones holding Atreyu and Deisha. The two of them fell to the earth and landed in a crouch. Skill like that could only have come with lifelong practice in the art of survival that the Plains People were taught since childhood.

Desperately Atreyu clawed for anything he could use as a weapon. His bow lay halfway across the clearing where the imps had dropped it and he would never reach it in time before Shadeseeker had finished with Adair. Then his hand fell across something jagged and sharp. He looked down and found one of the remaining shards of Shadeseeker's mirror. It was long and when he picked it up the weight of it felt perfect in his hands. He arched his arm back and threw with all his might. The shard of glass spun through the air.

Adair coughed as air suddenly rushed back into her lungs. Shadeseeker was screaming, and when she looked up she saw the hag holding her hands to her face. She backed away still on her back and cringed as Shadeseeker pulled something long and gleaming out of her eye. The shard of glass dripped from its tip with the witch's blood. She growled like an animal at Adair and took one step, and had it not been for Atreyu she would have had her way.

The young Plains warrior had charged across the clearing and threw himself head long into the witch. With a swift jab to her wrist, Atreyu knocked the shard of glass out of her hand. Then something struck the ground between them before the witch could do anything more. It was an arrow. Deisha had not hesitated to retrieve her bow and was already preparing to loose another arrow. Shadeseeker screamed and fled from the clearing as quickly as she could.

"Get back here!" Deisha charged after her.

"Deisha!" Atreyu called. "Let her go."

"Let her go? Did you see what that dried up gorgon almost did to us?"

"Well she can't anymore. And I don't want to have to save you more than once in a day."

Deisha scowled but lowered her bow and trudged back to him. Atreyu turned and offered Adair a hand.

"Are you alright?"

She took it and let him help her to her feet. "Yeah I think so. Just dizzy."

Falkor landed beside them as lightly as a bird. "Now what did I say about not letting me miss any of the fun Atreyu?" he winked. "You okay Miss Adair?"

"Yeah thanks to you." She smiled. "I thought you were asleep. How did you get here just in time?"

Falkor gave a great hearty laugh. "With luck!"

She shook her head. "Of course."

Jason sighed with relief. "Sure Falkor. Go ahead. Take all the credit."

"Well actually that's not quite true." Falkor felt compelled to explain. "Something actually woke me from my sleep. It felt as though someone was calling me and telling me you were in danger."

Deisha knit her brows together. "How could that be?"

Atreyu took on a serious look. "I wonder if… Adair, where did you say you left the book in your world? The one that you said had me and Falkor in it?" As though she needed explaining as to which book he was talking about.

"It should still be in my room on my bed. Why?"

"Is there any chance someone else could be reading it?"

"The only one allowed in my room right now is my cat, and I doubt she's up to any reading today." They stared at her blankly for a moment and she sighed as she remembered who she was talking to. "No, cats can't read in my world. They're just pets."

Jason started as someone opened the door to Adair's room. It was Jamie.

"What are you guys doing in here? It sounded like you were fighting." He looked around in confusion. "Where's Adair?"

Jason thought quickly. "You were right. We had a fight and she left." But his tone wasn't convincing.

"I didn't see her leave." Jamie said with skepticism playing across his eyes.

"Listen, stay here with your brother and sister. Lock the door and don't answer it for anyone. You might want to call your mom too and tell her to come home early."

Now Jamie looked worried. "Is something wrong?"

"No nothing's wrong," he lied, and suddenly felt he needed to give the kid something a little more concrete. "Don't worry. I'm going to fix it. If your brother asks, tell him me and Adair went to a movie and Adair left you in charge."

"Me?"

"Yep. Make sure your big brother behaves himself."

Jamie smirked. "Sounds like fun."

Jason pounded fists with him and tucked the book under his arm before racing down the stairs. Bryan was in the living room.

"Where are you going?"

"Adair left. I'm going to meet her at the movies. She left Jamie in charge."

Bryan's jaw dropped. "What?"

Jamie was already at the bottom of the stairs and grinning broadly. "You heard him. Now go get ready for bed young man."

Brian glowered. "Yeah that's not going to happen."

Jason didn't stick around long enough to find out how the dispute he'd caused turned out. He jumped into his green BMW and sped out of the neighborhood back to the main part of town. He needed answers, and he only knew of one place he was likely to find them. If this was one of Mr. Bux's books then maybe he knew what was going on. He had to get Adair out of the book.

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