The Strongest Magic

Chapter 4: The Variable

Darkness had fallen by the time Jason reached "Coreander's Old Books." He tapped the glass on the front door, hoping the old man hadn't closed up shop yet.

"Mr. Bux! Mr. Bux!" To his relief the familiar bespectacled eyes came to greet him through the glass. The elderly gentleman opened the door and made to invite him in, but Jason didn't wait for the invite, brushing past him in a hurry.

"Well this is a surprise Jason. I didn't expect to see you here so late. I'm about to close up shop but I wouldn't mind staying a bit later if you wanted to browse."

"I'm not here to browse." Jason replied, taking the book he'd found in Adair's room from under his arm. He held it up so the old man could see. "Is this one of your books?"

Mr. Bux's face was blank as stone, but there was a silence between them. Still his face was unreadable when he said "I can honestly say I've never owned that book."

"My friend was supposed to come to this shop earlier today. A girl named Adair. Did you see her?"

"Oh yes." Mr. Bux nodded. "Moody little thing she was, but she did mention you."

"Did she leave with this book?"

The old man shrugged. "Perhaps. I know she left with a book, but I'd be hard pressed to remember which one. Why is it so important to you? Is everything alright?"

Jason sighed and looked away. Either Mr. Bux really didn't know anything, or he was a genius at playing dumb. How was he supposed to explain this? "You'll think I'm crazy."

"Maybe" the old man smiled. "But aren't we all just a little? What fun would life be otherwise?"

He hesitated, not knowing how to reply. Something was off about this. Mr. Bux may have been old but he was still the sharpest person Jason knew. There was no way he would have forgotten if Adair had bought this book from him.

Mr. Bux put a hand on Jason's shoulder. "Jason, I've known you for a long time, long enough to know that you're an honest lad. Now whatever is troubling you, you know you can tell me."

Jason let out a long slow breath. "Adair was supposed to come here and get a book, and then I was supposed to meet her at her house. But when I got there she wasn't in her room and her cousins never saw her leave. All I found in her room was this book, and for some reason the girl I'm reading about in it sounds a lot like her. She even has the same name."

"Jason," the old man prodded "what exactly are you saying?"

Jason took a deep breath and gave in. "I think Adair got this book from you, and now I think she's trapped inside it."

The old man was silent for a while, and when Jason looked up he was surprised to see that he was smiling. "Now isn't that something."

"Do you believe me?"

"Doesn't really matter what I believe. Do you believe it?" In the long time Jason had known him he'd discovered that Mr. Bux didn't really deal in straight answers.

"Alright let's say this actually is happening and Adair really is trapped in this book. How do I get her out?"

"Well, speaking from an avid reader's point of view," the old man winked "if your friend really is in this book then she's entered an entirely new world. And much like our own world, this one probably has its own rules. Things might apply in that world that don't really apply in ours."

Jason frowned. "Meaning…?"

"Meaning if there is a key to getting her out, it won't be in our world. It will have to come from where she is. Perhaps you can find an answer in there. And if you're wrong and your friend is just fine, well I've never heard of any harm coming to someone for simply reading a book."

Perhaps Jason had imagined it, but the way the old man spoke made it sound like he didn't think it was probable that he was wrong about Adair or the book. He'd known Mr. Bux for years, even helped him around the shop occasionally and he'd never mentioned anything like this. Still, he had accepted Jason's story a little too quickly.

"So you're saying I should just read and find out what happens?"

"That about sums it up." Mr. Bux nodded. "You're welcome to stay here and read if you like. I'll simply call my wife and tell her I'll be home late."

Now he knew Mr. Bux was hiding something, because one thing he'd known to be true about the old shopkeeper (because he said it so often) was that not once in the thirty-three years they'd been married had he ever missed a dinner with his wife.

"Pull up a chair my boy. Make yourself comfortable. I'll go make the call."

Jason followed him, keeping his eyes on his back. When he reached the familiar armchair things got even stranger. A pair of blue eyes looked up at him, and their owner's furry black ears twitched above her white face.

"Iole? How did you get here?"

"You two know each other?" Mr. Bux asked. "She was calling outside my door not five minutes before you got here and I let her in."

Jason fingered the collar that was secured around the cat's neck. The ID tag told him there was no mistake. "This is Adair's cat. But how did she get here? And how did she beat me?"

"Cats are remarkable creatures. She belongs to your friend you say? Perhaps she's as worried about her as you are. Well since we're all acquainted I'll let the two of you get cozy while I make that phone call. I think I'll fetch a saucer of milk for your friend. Would you care for anything from the fridge?"

"A cold soda?" Jason asked as politely as he could. He had a feeling he was going to be up way later than he was used to. He'd read the whole book in one night if he had to.

"Very well, I'll leave you to it then." Mr. Bux shuffled into the back room, leaving Jason alone with the black and white cat. To his surprise she moved off of the seat and stretched herself across the armrest as if she were inviting him to sit down.

Jason dropped himself into the seat and laid the book open in his lap. He looked at the cat and pointed to his eyes, then to her. "I've got my eye on you. So don't try anything."

Iole simply stared back at him and he swore she nodded her head toward the book. If she could speak he imagined she would have said something like "Yeah whatever, just shut up and read."

"No need to be pushy, I'm reading."

"I can't thank you enough for saving my friends." Blubb said over and over. The nimble and energetic will-o'-the-wisp bounced up and down and all around the trio that had rescued its companions.

"This is amazing!" the Night Hob whose name was Whooshwoozool circled Adair, studying her with those wild saucer eyes. "A human in Fantasia after all these years!"

An enormous hand seemingly made of stone snatched the Night Hob up as the Rock Biter who had called himself Pyornkrachzark lifted his more uncouth companion from the ground, bringing him close to his face. "Stop that." He chided in a low rumbling voice. "You're frightening her."

The last of the group of messengers, the very small well-dressed man in the top hat seemed a little more cultured than the other three. Removing his grand top hat he gave Adair a sweeping bow.

"My lady, my name is Gluckuk, and I am eternally grateful to you and the mighty Atreyu for rescuing my companions." Deisha folded her arms and scowled that the little man had forgotten to include her among his rescuers, but Gluckuk didn't seem to notice. "And what, my lady, may I call you?"

Adair hesitated. If this meeting was any indicator on how other Fantasians were going to react to her, she wasn't looking forward to reaching the Ivory Tower which she had taken to be the nation's capital. "Adair."

"Adair," Gluckuk repeated eloquently "a name as lovely as its wearer. Tell me, Lady Adair; are you here to save us as the Humans of old?"

"Uh, I'm not really planning on saving anyone. I'm just trying to get home."

Atreyu interrupted her. "Adair isn't exactly familiar with Fantasia yet." She hated how he used the word yet. "Right now we're just trying to reach the Ivory Tower. The Childlike Empress needs to know about what's happening in Fantasia."

"Agreed." The Rock Biter nodded. "That's precisely what we had set out to do."

"That's what I wanted to ask you." Atreyu replied. "What exactly was the nature of your expedition?"

The four companions looked at one another hesitantly. Whatever their message had been, it wasn't something they seemed eager to talk about. The Tiny was the one who the explanation fell to.

"Well you see the fact of the matter is that we've been all over Fantasia. As messengers we hear much news. And lately the news has been quite ominous. The Creatures of Darkness have all been leaving their respective vicinities. They say that even Ygramul the Many has abandoned her lair in the Land of Dead Mountains."

"Does anyone know where they've gone?"

"Not exactly, but there have been rumors." Gluckuk explained. "You see, not long ago a new land appeared in Fantasia. It's said to be in a place that the sun skips in its passage across the sky; a frightful place known as the Forest of Thorns. No one dares to go near it, but it seems to be the ideal gathering place for the Creatures of Darkness."

"The Forest of Thorns?" Deisha interjected. "That's where that witch was planning on taking us."

"Yes, Shadeseeker merely confirmed our fears. You see she was given the mission of capturing us so we could never give this message to the Empress. But since she didn't deem us any kind of threat she had no qualms about letting on their plans to us." The little man grew very silent, and the faces of all the messengers were grave.

"What did she say?" Atreyu asked hesitantly, as though their sudden melancholy made him believe he didn't really want to hear the answer. "What is it the Creatures of Darkness are planning?"

None of the messengers seemed willing to answer. But the Rock Biter at last opened his great jagged edged mouth. "Revolution." The word hung in the air like a hammer about to fall on all of their heads. "They wish to rise up against the Childlike Empress."

"That's impossible!" Falkor cried.

Deisha was no less vocal about her feelings on the matter. "Are they insane? The Empress is Fantasia! If anything happens to her then all of Fantasia goes with her, including them!"

Atreyu nodded in agreement but spoke in a far more steady tone. "Not in all of Fantasia's existence has anyone even dreamed of raising a hand against the Childlike Empress. Not even beings as twisted and wicked as the Creatures of Darkness are mad enough to attempt such a forbidden act, or even think it. No one from Fantasia has the capability to form such an idea."

Through all the discussion Adair remained silent. All this talk of Fantasia and Empresses and Creatures of Darkness was for Fantasians. It wasn't anything that should concern her. She wasn't part of this world and she didn't really want to be. It hadn't really done anything for her so far besides nearly get her killed. But despite her desire to remain indifferent she couldn't help but catch the way Atreyu had added that last sentence; that no one from Fantasia could have formed such an idea. In the back of her mind she began to wonder if he knew more about that than he was telling.

"We should get to the Ivory Tower with all haste!" Blubb bounced up and down anxiously, casting flickers of light all around them.

"That's going to be difficult." Gluckuk sighed. "Shadeseeker destroyed Pyornkrachzark's cycle when she captured us. She had those demons carry it off into the sky and drop it. It was probably smashed to pieces by the fall. It will take weeks to get there if he has to go on foot."

"You don't need to go." Atreyu said firmly. "You've given your message to us. We're heading to the Ivory Tower. There's no need for the four of you to risk your lives further. You've all done well."

The messengers hesitated. The Night Hob spoke up. "But we've never failed to deliver a message! We're legendary for it! How can we simply turn back?"

"I am Atreyu of the Plains People, warrior of Fantasia, and one who once wore AURYN around his neck as messenger of the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes. You have my word that I will deliver your message to the Ivory Tower for you. The Empress will be grateful for your bravery."

"Well someone certainly thinks a lot of themselves." Jason muttered as he read.

The messengers huddled together to discuss this. It seemed that their exhaustion from the ordeal of their capture by Shadeseeker as well as the fact that on the back of a Luckdragon, Atreyu and company could reach the Ivory Tower much faster than they could won out.

"Very well Atreyu." Gluckuk conceded. "You and your companions have our thanks. We will now return to our homes."

"Good luck Atreyu!" squealed the Night Hob.

"Take care." bellowed the Rock Biter.

To Adair's surprise Blubb actually leaped from the ground and latched itself onto her. She felt tiny little arms trying to hug her neck. "I will never forget any of you for what you did. If you ever need anything you can count on us to rush to your aid."

And with that the messengers set out for their homes while Atreyu, Adair, and Deisha climbed onto Falkor's back and took off into the sky once more.

But the four unlikely companions were not the only ones who delivered a message that day. The Forest of Thorns was indeed a very dark corner of Fantasia; a twisting den of roots and branches with thorns jutting every which way that was always blanketed in a thick fog. It was dark even at noonday because Fantasia's sun chose only to shine on it from a distance, as though it were afraid to pass over it. And at the center of this dreadful place was a castle that didn't seem to have been built within the forest so much as to have grown straight out of it. And it was in this dark lair that Chember the Butcher had a message of his own to deliver.

His entrance hadn't been as dignified as he would have liked, because the moment he set foot on the steps outside, he was seized upon by a nightmarish creature that barely cleared the archway into the castle. It was an ogre, one of the many Creatures of Darkness who had gathered in the Forest of Thorns. But because it was so dim-witted it was only fit for menial tasks such as guarding the castle. It snatched Chember up by the collar of his coat and lifted him off the ground in one of its great hairy hands. Chember was dragged kicking and screaming into the heart of the castle.

"Unhand me you hairy buffoon! I have important information to deliver!" Chember was tossed face first onto the floor of the chamber. He dusted himself off and looked up to see a pair of slitted red eyes that glowed in the darkness beneath a mat of azure blue hair. The face of their owner seemed very canine with a pair of blue furred fox like ears. The creature smiled, drawing its face unbearably close to his own.

Behind the blue haired creature with fox ears shone the reflection of a pair of glasses worn by a young man in sloppy formal attire. It was this one who spoke in a drawl cultured voice. "Now, now Chember, is that any way to speak to a lady?"

Chember's red and yellow speckled eyes widened as he turned away from the creature and the young man to look back at the ogre who was trudging back out of the chamber. "That was a woman?"

"Are you really so dim that you cannot tell the difference between the male and female specimens of Ogres?" The young man in glasses said condescendingly.

The blue haired creature drew even closer to Chember and grinned. "Tell me, which do you think I am?" It cackled as it shoved Chember back with its tattooed arms that had long fingered hands with hooked claws.

"Nag, Thoth, that's enough. I believe our guest came here for a reason." Chember froze at the girl's voice that had come suddenly from behind him. He was sure she hadn't been there when he had entered. Yet when he turned there she was. Standing in the doorway was a girl with a purple streak in her night black hair and cold heartless blue eyes. A long black cat-like tail swished back and forth beneath her short black skirt.

"What are you three doing here?" Chember growled.

The creature the girl had called Nag shoved Chember back to the ground and began to circle him on all fours just like a fox would circle a smaller animal it was toying with. "We're the ones who will be asking the questions here."

The young man called Thoth removed his glasses and breathed on them, polishing their lenses with a white handkerchief. "For instance, how is it that you have the gall to come crawling back here with not one of the Gorgon-Hounds you were given. Even worse, you return empty handed. You believe he will be pleased to learn you had the Human in your hands and let her escape to save your own diseased skin?"

Chember swallowed. "You know about the human?"

"We know everything." Nag snapped his jaws at Chember's face, causing him to shrink back. The despicable creature only laughed at his anxiety.

Chember was a creature of the darkest nature by Fantasian standards. He thrived on the fear and screams of his victims and violence was something that excited him. But even one as cruel and degenerate as he held fear for these three Witches who served his master; the playful cruelty of the creature Nag made him cringe. The intellectual pursuits of Thoth he had seen reduce many a Fantasian to strips of flesh and blood pinned across a board. And the cold eyes of the girl Fay made him shiver as she stared at her victims with that heartless gaze, trying to decide which unspeakable fate she could inflict on them would amuse her the most in a sordid attempt to ease her boredom. In a way she was the most terrifying because unlike her associates her playground was neither the body nor the mind of those who were unlucky enough to be claimed as her "toys". It was their very heart and soul that she liked to violate and corrupt.

Thoth smiled in a way that seemed too pleasant for his grim words. "Whatever will he say when he returns?"

Nag's blue furred ears twitched suddenly and it squealed in delight. "Ooooh we're about to find out!"

"He comes." Fay said flatly.

Chember cringed as the sound of heavy iron clad footsteps echoed from the head of the dimly lit chamber. As though the castle were welcoming its master home, candlelight sparked to life on either side of the room, illuminating the lord of the castle who now stood among them. Chember scrambled to gather himself, not wanting to appear weak in front of his commander. Weakness was not tolerated in his ranks. Quickly he fell to one knee and lowered his head.

Even the Circle of the Night was obliged to pay their respects to the dark being who now stood in their midst. Fay gathered her skirt and curtsied, Thoth gave a gentlemanly bow, and Nag prostrated itself on its knees.

"Welcome back Lord Volrac."

Chember lifted his gaze slowly. The figure that stood mostly in shadow was tall, at least a head taller than a full sized man, and was shrouded in a black cloak with a hood drawn up. All that could be seen were the black steel greaves and boots he wore. But even though his hood was drawn, it could not hide the snout that poked out from underneath, lined with fangs and covered in dark fur. And staring out of the shadow of the hood was a pair of green eyes that glowed like fire; the eyes of a wolf. Fay and Thoth moved to stand on either side of him while Nag crouched behind him like some sort of deranged pet.

He spoke in a harsh voice that called to mind the image of claws scraping against tree bark. "I trust you have good news for me Chember. How goes the burning of the Plains?"

The butcher began to tremble beneath his master's gaze. "About that… I was delayed."

"Delayed," Lord Volrac growled. "Or beaten?" Chember didn't reply right away. "ANSWER ME!"

He winced at his commander's voice for it was like the lash of a whip. "Forgive me."

"Forgive? Forgive your incompetence? You were sent against a band of uncivilized vermin with a force unlike anything in Fantasia! They shouldn't have even been able to wound them."

"It wasn't my fault! It was Atreyu!" Chember whined pitifully. "He led them!"

"How were your forces wounded?" Lord Volrac asked, this time lowering his voice. But that didn't make him any less menacing.

"Fire," Chember answered. "Fire can harm them. I didn't know! And when General Heremoor appeared—"

"Enough!" Lord Volrac growled. "Get out of my sight."

"My assignment?" Chember pleaded.

"To get as far away from here as you can. Do what you see fit to redeem yourself. Until then I don't want to see your face again."

"But my lord, the human is…"

Chember saw scarcely a blur and then he was flying across the chamber. He slammed into the wall and fell to the ground in a heap.

Lord Volrac was standing in the exact place Chember had been only a second ago as though he had always been there. "I know about the human. I have servants all over Fantasia with their ear to the ground. It was your vanity that had you scurrying back here like a dog for scraps, hoping to earn my praise for your discovery. But you made a grave mistake in coming back here empty handed. If you were a true soldier of our cause you would have pursued that girl to the ends of Fantasia and would not have rested until she was dead, Atreyu or no. Now be gone! I grow sick from the stink of your cowardice."

Collecting himself and his wounded pride Chember scrambled from the chamber and was gone. Lord Volrac was left alone with the Circle of the Night. "As for you three," he hissed. "You assured me those demons were invincible."

"Nearly invincible, my lord" Nag corrected "we said they were nearly invincible."

"Tis true milord." Thoth agreed. "But fear not, you still hold the upper hand."

"Demons can be wounded and slain just as any other creature, but the secrets of slaying them are not known in Fantasia." Fay explained.

"But now one is known." Volrac bared his fangs.

"Yes," Thoth drawled "but only by one mere Fantasian."

"Atreyu is not just one mere Fantasian." Volrac breathed. "He is one of its most legendary warriors, one who has acted as messenger for the Childlike Empress and walked with humans. If there is any in Fantasia who can stand against me it is Atreyu."

"Warrior or not, he's still only one boy." Nag licked his lips. "And not even he can conjure enough fire to stop us."

"But leave that for another time." Thoth interjected. "We have a greater concern. What would you have us do about the human now that we've succeeded in luring her here?"

At this Lord Volrac grinned. "Just as I predicted, Atreyu is taking her to the Ivory Tower, and soon all of Fantasia will know that she has arrived. There was a time this might have grieved me, but now I see the truth. The Ivory Tower will be the ideal place to deal with her. There before the high council of Fantasia and in the face of the Childlike Empress I shall kill the human with my own hands. Then Fantasia will be mine. They shall see the absolutes of the past crumble away and all the powers of Fantasia's ruler will fall to me."

"It will be a blow to their morale." Thoth stated casually as though he were discussing something trivial. "Nothing shakes one's faith like seeing what they believe in simply vanish. Any who remain loyal to the Empress will shatter."

Nag grinned. "And then you'll be there to snatch up the pieces my lord."

"However your time grows short if you want your plan to work." From the way Fay spoke one would believe she didn't care either way if the plans of the one she served succeeded or failed (and in truth she didn't). "You know what waits for the Human at the Ivory Tower. If she takes AURYN, divine protection will be hers."

Volrac swept his cloak about him. "That is the task that falls to you. Delay them. I must arrive at the Ivory Tower before them and head the human off before she has the chance to take AURYN."

"And how would you propose we do that?" Thoth asked.

"They ride on the back of a Luckdragon. I want you to take their mount. Take their mount and it will slow their journey."

"And what would you have us do with the Luckdragon after we've caught him?" Nag inquired.

The lips of Volrac's snout curled into a most unpleasant smile. "Anything you please. Now I must make haste. I have a date with destiny at the Ivory Tower and I will not keep her waiting." With another flourish of his cloak Lord Volrac vanished in a shadowy mist.

"It seems we have work to do." Fay said sounding highly inconvenienced.

Nag swept to her side as she returned to what she had been doing before Chember had arrived. "You sound pretty calm about the whole thing. It seems like everything's moving too fast. Aren't you worried he's going to kill her before the experiment has a chance to run its course?"

"There's no danger of that. Even in the state she's in, The Childlike Empress isn't as powerless as he seems to think she is."

"Yes, but it seems we have another problem now." Thoth interjected. "You remember what you read about the Luckdragon hearing a voice of warning before he rescued the others from that witch?"

Fay didn't even look at them as she resumed her seat on the little stool. The book remained open in front of her surrounded by candlelight. "Did you find anything out?"

Thoth turned to their associate. "Nag, why don't you explain to Fay what you just told me?"

"I stretched my senses earlier." Nag explained. "I can sense another human on the edge of Fantasia. There must be someone else reading The Neverending Story."

"Looks like Atreyu guessed right." Fay mused. "Do you know who it is?"

"No. But if you join your powers with mine, perhaps you'll be able to sense their heart so we can find out what they want."

"Very well." Fay held out her hand. Nag took it in one of its own. Its short haired hand with its long claw tipped fingers dwarfed hers. A soft violet glow radiated from their joined hands as Fay closed her eyes and Nag sniffed the air. After a moment they released each other and Fay returned her attention to the book.

"Well?" Thoth asked impatiently.

Nag crouched eagerly near where she sat. "Fay what did you see?"

"We'll allow it to continue." She replied.

"Is he a danger to our work?" Thoth inquired.

"He shouldn't be. If he's reading the book for Adair's sake then he won't be able to see us. The Neverending Story will continue to follow her. He'll only be made aware of our actions if we interact with her."

"He?" Nag squealed in excitement. "Adair never mentioned a boy!"

"Calm yourself Nag." Thoth scolded. "Fay there must be another reason you're allowing this to go on. It's not like you to leave a variable in one of your games."

"It might allow us to gather more data."

"How do you figure?" Thoth wondered, but when the idea struck him he grimaced. "Wait, don't tell me."

"You've guessed it." She said as the beginnings of a smirk tugged at her mouth. "He's been touched by the Strongest Magic."

The flight was much slower this time since Falkor was actually sleeping while the three rode on his back, and Adair was grateful. Still she was very envious of Deisha's ability to fall sound asleep on the back of the flying Luckdragon. The young Plains girl was slumped forward behind her, still straddling Falkor with her face buried in his soft white mane that ran along the back of his scaled body. No matter how used to flying Adair got (and she was still nowhere near used to it) she would never feel confident enough to sleep while flying.

Night had come to Fantasia and the sky was blanketed in shimmering stars as bright as the lights of any city and far more breathtaking. Atreyu had been so quiet, and Adair wondered if he might be asleep too. He startled her when he spoke. "Don't worry, we should be at the Ivory Tower by midday tomorrow."

The lack of sleep and the cold air was stinging her eyes so much that they watered. She needed to keep herself awake or she'd slip into sleep. "So what's the plan once we get to the Ivory Tower?"

"We take you to see Moon Child."

"You mean the Childlike Empress?" she asked, not missing the reverence with which he spoke her name. "Why do you call her that? Everyone else just calls her the Empress."

He was silent for a moment and she wondered if she'd offended him. "I suppose it's because I know her better than most Fantasians. There are those of us who get to see her when the Magnolia Pavilion opens, and some who go their entire lives without ever getting that gift. And then there are some like me who are granted the chance to enter her Pavilion and see her face to face."

"Like you?"

"Yes. I met her once many years ago and spoke with her."

She inched forward to hear him better. It was a calm night so they didn't need to shout over the wind to be heard, but for some reason he kept dropping his voice so she had to strain to hear him. "What's she like?"

"She's the source of all life in Fantasia. She doesn't really rule us like a king or a queen, but we all depend on her and her guidance."

"That's not what I meant. What's she really like? You've met her, you can tell me."

Again it took him a moment to answer. "It's hard to describe. I had always known she was powerful so when I met her I was surprised at how gentle she was. I'll never forget the way that I felt just being in her presence."

"Do you love her?" Adair asked. She had wondered for a while now. There was just something about the way that Atreyu spoke about her that was different from the others. Since she'd arrived she'd heard this mysterious empress addressed by all kinds of titles, each with reverence and respect, but no one had spoken of her in that personal way that Atreyu did.

"I suppose, in a way. For anyone in Fantasia it's a fact of life that we're all loyal to her. No one would ever think of harming her. Every Fantasian knows that they owe their life to Moon Child. But after the day I entered her pavilion it was different for me. I've felt her presence stronger, or at least I'm more aware of it than I was before. I can feel her care, the love she has for every living thing in Fantasia, even the darkest beings that have walked it."

Adair sighed. She wondered what that must be like, to feel so strongly that someone cared about you. She also wondered what it was like for Moon Child to be able to care about others so freely. "Do you think she'll be able to send me home?"

"If that's her will."

"What do you mean?"

"Moon Child's decisions are often difficult to understand because she understands so much more than we ever will."

Adair frowned. "Why wouldn't she want to send me home?"

"Every Human who has ever come to Fantasia has done so for a reason."

She sighed. "Don't tell me you believe what that little guy said about me coming to save this place. Trust me I'm no hero. All this stuff going on with those monsters isn't really my thing."

"If you say so." Atreyu replied. "But I wouldn't be so quick to discount yourself. We never would have saved the others from Shadeseeker if it hadn't been for you."

"Come on I was just the bait. You would have been fine without me."

"But that took great courage. And you were very clever to come up with that plan." She'd tell herself later she'd imagined it, but she caught a note of admiration in his voice when he said that. "Perhaps your coming here is just as much for you as it is for us."

She was silent for a moment, not sure what he'd meant. "What does that mean?"

"Adair, you aren't the first Human I've known. The last one who came to Fantasia was one of my truest friends. He came in a time when Fantasia had great need of him. But just as we needed him to save us, he needed Fantasia. He came here to learn something that could only be learned here, and when he returned it's said that he saw his world with new eyes. Maybe you're here for the same reason."

She looked out over the countryside that was rolling by beneath them. "I'll admit I haven't exactly taken to this place. Nearly everyone I've met has either wanted to kill me or they want something from me, except for you and Falkor."

Atreyu smiled. He wanted to explain to her that Deisha wasn't really as bad as she seemed but he thought better of it. "You've only seen a part of Fantasia. Wait until we reach the Ivory Tower and you go to see Moon Child."

Something about the way he explained that she'd be seeing Moon Child tomorrow made her anxious. "Aren't you going to go in with me?"

"I can't." he explained. "No one can see the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes more than once."

This was a surprise to her to say the least. Atreyu had spoken of Moon Child like she had been a lifelong friend. "You mean you haven't seen her one time since that day you first met her? Not once?"

She could hear the smile in his voice. "Once was enough." They flew in silence for some time which she broke by trying to stifle a yawn.

"You need to sleep." He admonished her.

"Fat chance. I'll fall off."

"If you fell off then Falkor wouldn't be much of a Luckdragon would he?" This did little to persuade her. Atreyu leaned toward the side and reached into one of the pouches he had secured to Falkor that held their provisions. He pulled out a thick blanket woven from the hair of the purple buffalo and handed it to her. "Here, this will help."

She wrapped herself in it and found that the thick buffalo hair warmed her instantly from the cold night air. She was glad of this, but it made fighting off sleep that much harder.

"You can trust me." He promised. "Just hold onto me and go to sleep. I promise I won't let you fall."

Nearly every basic instinct Adair had was telling her not to agree to this, all except one; the one that was telling her she hadn't slept in nearly two days and she needed rest. She rested her head against the soft leather of Atreyu's vest and wrapped her arms tightly around his waist. Her eyelids grew heavier and heavier each time she blinked, and finally they stayed closed. Her breathing grew slow and peaceful. Atreyu smiled. Adair was asleep.

"Now what's that look for?" Mr. Bux asked, returning with the promised soda for Jason and the saucer of milk for the cat that still lay stretched across the armrest. "Everything going alright for your friend?"

"A little too alright." Jason scowled.

Adair sighed. She wondered what that must be like, to feel so strongly that someone cared about you.

That passage read itself over and over again in his mind and it cut him deeply.

I care about you. He thought. He'd been her best friend since the fourth grade. And all this time he'd believed it had been obvious to her that he was there for her. But the Adair he was reading about seemed completely oblivious to the fact. Her thoughts had mentioned Rosemary, Bryan, Jamie, Lizzie, and even Iole in passing. But not once had he read of her thinking about him. And the way she spoke to this Atreyu character burned him more than anything else. She seemed so open with him, so willing to talk. She seemed interested in what he had to say more than she ever had been with him. What was he doing to her that she was letting her guard down so easily?

"I just don't trust this guy she's traveling with right now."

Mr. Bux took a seat on one of the smaller padded chairs that were stationed in each corner of the shop. "Guy? Tell me, who is this companion she's traveling with."

"Just some guy she met when she went there. He's playing her, he has to be."

"What makes you so sure?"

"I'm her best friend. I think I should know when someone's toying with her. Not even I can get her to talk like he can."

Mr. Bux seemed unconcerned, taking a book of his own out of the shelf near him and opening it. "Maybe you're looking at this the wrong way. Maybe this young man she's met simply has a gift for making others feel comfortable."

"But Adair doesn't get comfortable. You don't get it, she doesn't make friends. She won't try to. I have to fight to hold her attention and there's still a lot she won't share with me. And she shares even less with her family. She's spent her whole life pushing people away. It's just the way she is. He has to be tricking her somehow. Don't the people in this book have some kind of magic?"

"It's possible." The old man replied. "It seems like she's landed herself in a magical world so there may be some who possess magical abilities. And you may have a point. I didn't speak with her for very long but she did seem like quite the introverted young lady. What was the name of this character you've grown so suspicious of?"

Jason's lip curled in a sneer. "Atreyu, and he sounds like a total tool."

Up until that moment Mr. Bux had been as casual and friendly as he'd ever been, if a little mysterious. He had never said whether or not he believed Jason's story of his friend being trapped in a book she may or may not have gotten from his shop. But at that moment he lifted his eyes to Jason and narrowed his gaze harshly.

"Atreyu" he began firmly "is the truest bravest soul in all of Fantasia, and you will not speak of him in such a manner again am I understood?"

Jason was taken aback by the old man's sudden change of mood. In all the time he'd known the eccentric old shopkeeper he had never seen him angry, and Jason had on more than one occasion done something foolish while helping around the shop that could make even the most patient soul angry. This was the first time he had seen true indignation from Mr. Bux. He nodded meekly and the two of them didn't speak on it further. They went on reading their respective books, but Jason continued to wonder what had gotten into the old man. That was when he remembered something Atreyu had said to Adair.

"The last human who came to Fantasia was one of my truest friends."

Of one thing Jason was now certain. Mr. Bux knew exactly what had happened to Adair. And not just by mere knowledge. Bastian Balthazar Bux knew by experience what was woven in the pages of the Neverending Story.

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