The Strongest Magic

Chapter 5: The Nightmare King

Even with the speed of a Luckdragon our four traveling companions soon learned that their enemy always had their ear to the ground and was one step ahead.

"The Ivory Tower is just over that Horizon!" Atreyu had called. But no sooner had he said it then a frightening black cloud appeared in their path.

"Look!" Deisha called, pointing to the darkness that was drawing closer to them as they flew onward to their destination.

As it flew closer and closer they felt a sense of dread descend on them as one by one they realized that it was no cloud that was flying toward them but a murder of crows. But they weren't really crows at all. They were far too big, and each with one glowing red eye in the center of their heads. Every one had their eye centered on one thing; the Luckdragon and its riders. The clouds in the sky had darkened and begun to thunder, and with each flap the dark clouds would swirl around their wings.

"Demons." Atreyu hissed. And soon the great black birds had the Luckdragon flying excitedly back and forth while the two warriors from the plains had their bows out with arrows notched. But they found just as they had with their previous encounters with demons that their arrows simply bounced off the monsters with only glancing blows. The only thing that protected them was Falkor's fire. With a jet of blue flames he scorched the fist wave of them. The great birds fell to the earth screeching. But they were great in number and these appeared to learn from their fallen members fairly quickly. As three of them neared the Luckdragon, Falkor stretched his great maw wide, but before his flames could ignite the three demons split off to circle him instead, one of them getting close enough to rake its talons along his side. Falkor's injury slowed him a little, but it was enough for them to be caught on all sides by the murderous birds. The black storm clouds that swirled around their wings made all the world dark around them.

Adair clung ever tighter to Atreyu as Falkor zig-zagged and doubled back to avoid their attacks.

"There's too many of them!" Falkor called despairingly.

"What do we do?" Atreyu cried to be heard over the screeching and wailing of the demon birds.

"Whatever happens, you two must get Adair to the Ivory Tower!"

Adair felt Atreyu tense, and in that instant she knew what Falkor meant, though she was as ready to accept this as Atreyu was.

"Falkor, you can't! How will you fare on your own against them?"

Through what little light that was left to them, the companions saw Falkor turn his great head to wink one of his great ruby eyes at them. "With luck."

"How will we make it there without you?"

"With luck." Falkor said again. "There's no time to argue. We're just going to have act and sort everything out later. Now whatever you do, hold onto one another and don't let go no matter what. Adair, please forgive me for this."

Adair winced inwardly. "For what?"

But instead of answering her the Luckdragon halted suddenly, springing his back upward and catapulting the three of them off of him. The last the three saw of Falkor, he was surrounded by the circling flock of demon birds, waving one of his great claws after them, whether to cheer them on or to say good-bye they weren't sure. As they were shot from the black storm cloud they lost sight of him altogether.

The sky was clear above them and Adair was all too aware of the ground five thousand feet below rushing up to meet them. She wanted to scream but instead she felt a hand clasping tightly around her wrist. It was Atreyu, and he was reaching for her, his dark gaze as steady and calm as she'd always known it to be. He was shouting something at her, but the wind around them was too fierce for her to hear. He was flailing his other arm desperately to get a hold of her. She had just enough awareness remaining through the fear to reach back and clasp his other arm. Their joined arms kept them steady in their fall where they otherwise would have gone down a flailing and spinning cluster of limbs. Out of the corner of her eye she could see Deisha who had been flung farther clinging to Atreyu's ankle. The rushing air stung her eyes and whipped her sand colored hair all around her in a frenzy. She kept her eyes on Atreyu's, if only to avoid looking down at the ground. His features tensed with the effort of pulling her closer to him through the air. Soon he had a grip on both her elbows. He was allowing Deisha to pull herself further up, wrapping his other leg around her. Finally they were close enough that she could hear what Atreyu was shouting to her.

"Adair look down!"

"I'd rather not!"

"Look!" he said again.

Reluctantly she lowered her gaze. A jolt shot through her stomach at seeing how high they were and the ground moving beneath them. But after a moment it struck her. The ground beneath them seemed to be moving, but not toward them. They weren't falling, they were flying over it. A flicker of movement caught her eye and she looked around to see familiar figures flying all around them, each one no longer than her forearm, and some as small as her hand, each with fluttering iridescent wings; the fairies of Octavia's court. They had been saved at the last minute and were now being carried over the landscape of Fantasia by the fairies' magic.

"There it is!" Atreyu pointed over the horizon. Adair turned to see what he was pointing at. At first it appeared as little more than a great white mountain jutting out of the landscape, one so high it seemed to pierce the heavens. The clouds swirled around its peak like a halo. As they drew nearer she realized it wasn't a mountain at all. They were now close enough that she could make out innumerable towers and turrets all fitted together seamlessly by stairways and arches. The word "tower" had certainly been misleading for it was as big as an entire city.

She remembered the night before when she had told Atreyu how everything she had seen thus far in Fantasia had frightened her, and his promise that the Ivory Tower when they reached it would outweigh everything. It did all this and more. Her eyes were watering at the beauty of the Ivory Tower. A rich scent filled her nose and she felt compelled to look below them. At first glance the land below looked covered in a great hedge maze. This it was, but there was so much more to it. The labyrinth seemed to stretch from horizon to horizon, reaching to the very slopes of the Ivory Tower. And scattered throughout this magnificent garden were flowers of every shape and color. Some she recognized, but others she was sure could not possibly exist in the human world. She could see movement below that told her there was wildlife in the labyrinth. And such life there was. In one clearing of cool green grass she saw two young unicorns of purest white frolicking to and fro. In another clearing where a gurgling water fountain stood at its center she spied a group of laughing nymphs dancing in a circle while a satyr played for them on his wooden flute. She even thought she saw a phoenix perched on the branches of one of the fruit trees that seemed as plentiful as the flowers.

She felt the wind carrying her upward as they neared the Ivory Tower that now shimmered in the light of the rising sun. She noticed now where she hadn't before that she was no longer gripping Atreyu. They were flying side by side and his hand was clasped around hers. Deisha was on his other side, and the three of them soared over the great garden as though by their own power rather than the magic winds of the fairies. The wind carried them higher and higher up the side of the Ivory Tower until at last Adair could see the summit. At the very crown of the tower she could see it; a grand terrace, at the center of which sat a great pavilion in the shape of a magnolia blossom. She had to admit Atreyu had been right. It was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.

At last they reached the terrace just below the highest where a committee of welcomers waited, each robed in white and gold with hoods drawn. The fairies' magic placed them lightly on their feet where the hooded imperial grooms greeted them. One of them held out a golden cup in front of him.

"The cup of welcoming." she heard Atreyu whisper to her. The groom held it out to him first and he took a sip from it politely. Then the groom handed it to Adair. She followed Atreyu's lead and took a sip of the water it carried. Secretly she wanted to drink down the whole thing. The journey and the terror of near death had left her so parched. But she had a feeling that would be seen as inappropriate at such a solemn occasion. Deisha was the last of the three to drink before the grooms passed it between themselves. When they'd all drunk from the cup Adair heard another flutter of wings and at last saw someone she recognized.

"Thank the Empress you three are alright." Octavia sighed in her light breathy voice as she floated to the center of the gathering, hovering above the ground as always and still arrayed in her gown of autumn leaves. "My court appears to have arrived just in time. What a stroke of luck."

"Yes." Atreyu agreed, and Adair heard the sadness in his voice. "Luck."

"Atreyu!" the door to the council chamber burst open so loudly that it echoed, but not loud enough to cover the boisterous cries of General Heremoor as he stormed into the chamber.

It was a circular room of white ivory like the rest of the tower with high backed chairs lining the walls. And on the floor was emblazoned a symbol Adair recognized from the cover of the book that had brought her here; two snakes intertwining in a circle and biting one another's tale, one dark and one white. Atreyu, Adair, and Deisha had been led by Octavia to this chamber to await the high Fantasian Council.

General Heremoor was the first to enter, looking far less suited up than when the party had seen him last. He'd forgone his full armor for a blue silk tunic with the same sun pattern as was burned onto his armor, but this did not make him any less formidable in appearance, and he still retained his steel gauntlets and boots. Strapped to his back he still carried his great sword. He took great strides across the room directly to where Atreyu rose from his seat to meet him, looking a tad intimidated as the General came to tower over him.

"Good to see you again General. When did you return?"

"You cannot hide anything from me Atreyu." Heremoor said sternly. Then suddenly and quite unexpectedly his eyes began to water. In one sweeping movement he caught Atreyu up in his arms in a bone-crushing embrace. "How tragic! To lose your most faithful companion in such a cruel twist of fate as this! What incomparable bravery for Falkor to fling the three of you to safety at the cost of his own! What a valiant sacrifice! Come Atreyu and weep for your comrade with me!"

"Put him down." Adair said at once. "He doesn't need to weep for anyone because he knows that's not going to do any good." It felt a little bold of her to voice Atreyu's thoughts for him, but this is what she believed herself, and Atreyu looked in no position to speak up while the giant crushed him.

At this, General Heremoor's intense gaze shifted to her. She was surprised to find hurt in his eyes which were still spilling with tears. This man despite his great size was highly emotional, a contrast she wasn't used to. "Such a heartless thing to say. Atreyu has just lost his closest companion, his brother in arms! Surely we must take a moment to consider his sacrifice."

"No Adair's right." Atreyu said as he managed to slip from the General's grip. "Falkor saved us so we could reach Moon Child and save Fantasia, not so we could weep for him."

General Heremoor straightened himself, wiping his eyes as he did so. "Such bravery. Truly you children are the future of Fantasia. You're absolutely right. There will be time for mourning and rejoicing later. Now is the time for action!"

"You're far too emotional General." In the blink of an eye a very small finger appeared as if from thin air to flick General Heremoor squarely between the eyes. He winced and staggered backward. It was Lady Octavia who had joined the council chamber. She wagged her finger disapprovingly at Heremoor and Adair couldn't help but laugh to herself that someone as gigantic as the General could be brought low by the scolding of someone the size of his hand. "Your moods change as quickly as the wind, and one day it will be the death of you if you don't learn to control that passion."

"Milady Octavia." Atreyu addressed her, ignoring the General. "Any news from your court?"

When the fairy queen turned to him, her chestnut eyes were full of sympathy. "I'm sorry Atreyu. We got there as quickly as we could, but there was no sign of him. Not of Falkor, nor the storm clouds, or the demons you said attacked you."

Despite his earlier refusal to weep for Falkor, Atreyu hung his head. Deisha was out of her seat and at his side quickly, wrapping a comforting hand around his arm. The half-elf girl shot Adair a resentful glance over her shoulder.

Does she think this is my fault? I didn't ask Falkor to do that for us. I don't even want to be here. I just want to go home. But then again, wasn't that the reason Atreyu had brought her to the Ivory Tower? She shook those thoughts from her head quickly. She didn't know why the Plains Girl tossed her dirty looks at every opportunity, but it shouldn't matter. These were characters in a book, and the first thing she was going to do when she got out was take that very book back to the man she'd stolen it from and throw it in his face. She still wasn't entirely convinced she wasn't dreaming, so there was no way she was letting herself get caught up in the lives of these characters that may or may not exist. After all, that was what had landed her in this position in the first place. She shouldn't feel bad about any of this. So why do I? She thought again. Something about Atreyu's fallen countenance and the way Falkor had waved farewell to them ate at her like the time she had first begun reading and called out to Atreyu for fear of his safety. None of this made sense to her.

"Of one thing the General spoke true." came a small voice that sounded too young to be so stern. She turned to the doorway of the chamber to see a small boy no older than ten dressed in a white robe that seemed to swallow his small frame. He carried with him a metal staff twice as tall as he was, and his face was round and childish. But his round blue eyes looked far older even set in his young face. "Now is the time for action."

"Indeed." came yet another voice, this one accompanied by a steady clip-clop sound as hoofs met the marble floor. The last councilor to join them (Adair was stunned to see) was a centaur, but different from the kind she'd learned about in that painful course in Greek Mythology she'd been subjected to in sixth grade. He had the top half of a man, and the bottom half of a horse, but that half was patterned with black and white stripes like a zebra. His top half was dark skinned, making his long snow white hair and beard startling. On his head he wore a broad rimmed hat made of straw. "It's good to see you Atreyu. You've grown."

"Chiron!" Atreyu dashed across the chamber to meet him. The boy clasped the centaur's hand and the two embraced like old friends.

Adair crept to Deisha's side. "They know each other?" she whispered.

Deisha didn't look at her, but whispered back keeping her eyes on Atreyu and the Centaur. "That's Chiron, the most famous physician in Fantasia. Years ago when the Empress took ill she sent Chiron to call on Atreyu to save her. He traveled to the plains to send Atreyu on his first great quest."

"As I said," the little boy in robes announced once more, "there will be time for this later. For now take your seats." He stamped the end of his staff on the ground with an air of authority. The councilors had finally gathered in the chamber (or rather all those that were present at the tower, for the council of Fantasia was vast and had members scattered all over its lands, not all of whom could be present). In number currently there were ten; General Heremoor, Octavia, the little boy, Chiron the centaur, a blue skinned djinn with a white turban, a glittering snow sprite, a bearded dwarf, an elf prince with glittering gold hair and a mischiefous smile, a little gnome with a shriveled face that was shorter than even Octavia and had to be helped into his seat, and a tree spirit who looked like a woman with bark for flesh, branches for limbs, and moss for hair. They each took their seats as the boy had demanded, though Chiron really had no choice but to stand since none of the high backed chairs would accommodate him.

As they sat down, Deisha seemed determined not to sit by Adair, so Atreyu was caught between the two of them. Adair was grateful to have him to direct her questions at instead.

"Who's the kid?" she asked, genuinely perplexed that the small child seemed to carry so much weight in this gathering.

"Councillor Gandarin" Atreyu explained, speaking of the boy "is a Sassafranian. They are born old and they die young, so by their standards he's near ancient."

Again she wanted to laugh. The boy was so small, and made to look even more frail by his cumbersome robe. He reminded her of Jamie when he tried to wear Bryan's hand-me-downs. The Sassafranian boy was the only one who remained standing. He made his way around the room to stand directly in front of Adair.

"So this is the Human. What is your name child?"

Here we go again. Adair thought. "Adair Alicia Artemis." She used her full name because for some reason she knew that Fantasians expected that kind of thing.

"In my long years I have never heard tell of a human entering Fantasia without the aid of the Childlike Empress. How did you manage that?" There was an air of suspicion in his voice as he focused his bright blue eyes on her.

"I don't know." Adair answered honestly. "I was hoping your Empress could tell me." she didn't let the title escape disdain as she uttered it, though she knew it probably wasn't a good idea. And indeed she could feel the other council members exchanging glances.

"How are you so certain Adair's coming here isn't the Empress' will?" It was Atreyu who spoke.

Councilor Gandarin turned to him. "What do you mean Atreyu?"

"Exactly what I said councilor. How are you so certain that the Empress didn't bring her here?"

Gandarin took a moment to answer. "Because she doesn't possess AURYN. Whenever a human enters Fantasia they've always been known to be given the Glory by the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes herself."

"I've never heard that." Atreyu answered calmly. "And Moon Child's decisions have never been easily understood. Some of them are unfathomable to the likes of us."

"Atreyu," Octavia interrupted in her soft voice. "What are you saying?"

"No disrespect Milady Octavia, but I believe you know. And if it pleases the Council I would like to take the floor."

The councilors exchanged wary glances and Adair wondered if Atreyu carried the same authority here as he did among his own people. He certainly spoke boldly enough, but she guessed he would no matter what the circumstances. Even Deisha's hot temper seemed to be curbed by the atmosphere of this place and the company of the council. But Atreyu was as straightforward and direct as he had always been.

"Very well." Gandarin moved to return to his seat.

"Atreyu, Warrior of the Plains People you may take the floor." Chiron announced.

Atreyu rose from his seat and moved to the center of the floor, looking each council member in the eye as he spoke. "You have all heard by now that Fantasia's lands are being threatened by these monsters we have chosen to call demons. Even the vilest of the Creatures of Darkness can call themselves Fantasians, but these demons are monsters of even darker evil. Their presence is not of Fantasia, nor any other world I know of. Before they appeared I have only encountered an entity of that nature one other time. Its name was Gmork. It took the form of a wolf, but in truth it had no true form other than darkness. It told me it had no world to call its own, though it could travel freely between them. I had only to gaze into its soulless eyes to know that was true. Gmork was a creature that did not belong anywhere, one that should not exist. These demons are like Gmork."

"Be brief Atreyu." Gandarin snapped. "What does any of this have to do with your inquiries of the Childlike Empress?"

Adair suppressed a smirk at hearing the small child use a word as big as "inquiries". She wondered if she could ever take the Sassafranian seriously.

"What I mean," Atreyu went on "is that Gmork is the only other creature like the demons I have ever met, and it came to this world when Fantasia was being consumed by the Nothing." A visible shudder rippled through the council members. Even the fearless Genereal Heremoor's hands tightened. "It came at a time when the Empress was ill. So what I am asking the council is this; is there something wrong with the Childlike Empress?"

There was silence at first, then a slow murmur as the council members whispered to one another. Adair remembered back to the village when Atreyu had asked similar questions to Heremoor and Octavia but had been shrugged off. She now realized he had guessed this from the beginning.

General Heremoor sighed. "Well we couldn't hide it forever."

"Hold your tongue General!" Gandarin barked.

"What's the point? He's already guessed."

Atreyu sighed. "Then I was right?"

"She isn't sick Atreyu." Octavia assured him.

"Then what?" he demanded.

"It's difficult to explain. I think it would be best if Adair went in to see her before we begin any further instruction."

Adair flushed suddenly as the entire council turned their eyes on her. "Why me?"

"Well you are the first human to come to Fantasia in a great while. Perhaps this is something only you can do."

"Do what?" Adair huffed in frustration. "Look there's really nothing special about me. I'm a nobody, a Plain Jane. I've gone my whole life struggling just to be average. So if it's a miracle you guys want there's nothing I can do. Sorry." she sighed, slumping down into her chair and dropping her eyes to her shoes. "I just want to go home."

Chiron shook his head. "If that is what you desire, then a miracle you must produce my child, because the Empress is the only one with the power to send you home."

"Adair," she looked up to see Atreyu offering her his hand. "You have more power than you know simply because you're human. You won't know unless you try." He turned his head to address the council. "I will take Adair to the Magnolia Pavilion for an audience with the Empress."

For some reason Adair didn't understand, the one who they all looked at to make the decision was Octavia who was smiling sympathetically at the two of them. "Granted."

Adair let Atreyu lead her from the chamber and up the steps. The council chamber was the highest room in the tower below the Magnolia Pavilion, and the door on the north side led to a winding staircase that to Adair's dismay wound around the outside of the tower's highest spire. The clouds blew heedlessly around them and the slow careless way they seemed to close in on them as they made their passage through the sky made her think they were laughing at her.

"You knew about this didn't you?" she asked Atreyu, more to distract her from their height than to confirm her earlier suspicions. Had no one in all of Fantasia thought to put handrails on these stairs?

"About what? If this is about your fear of heights again, I thought the word 'tower' would imply such."

"No I mean about the Empress. How long have you known something was wrong with her?"

He led her further up the steps. They were beginning to come out of the clouds and she could see an opening into a terrace above them. "Remember what I told you about how I can feel her presence stronger than most Fantasians?" He spoke solemnly his voice carried a sadness in it. "It's begun to grow faint over the years. It's barely a whisper now. At first I thought it was because I was losing the connection I had to her. But my faith in Moon Child has always been strong. As strange as it sounds, I'm actually glad to find that I was right."

"What do you think is wrong with her?" At last they had reached the top of the stairs and made their way onto the terrace. It was as grand as the rest of the tower, enclosed in ivory walls made to look like the petals of a great flower closing in around it. What was most striking about it was that it appeared to be a garden. But in this garden everything, the flowers, the trees, even the water that spouted from the fountains seemed to be made of Ivory. And in the very center, at the end of the trail of bridges and walkways they were meant to follow stood the Magnolia Pavilion; a great Ivory flower with its petals closed. At its base the petals opened just enough to allow one to pass through, but she couldn't see within for a blinding light emitted from it.

"I don't know.” Atreyu admitted. “But I suppose the council thinks you can do something about it." He stopped suddenly at the end of the second bridge. They had passed through the gate into the Ivory Garden, but now he stopped at the second gate. "I can't go with you any farther. I'll wait for you here."

An anxiety gripped her chest. "What do I say?"

"Just tell her why you're here. And remember, when you address her in person you must call her the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes."

She swallowed and took a step forward through the gate.

"One more thing." he called after her and she tossed a glance over her shoulder. "Go as far as you can on your own, but don't try to go the whole way."

"Why not?"

"Because no one enters the Magnolia Pavilion on their own. They can get nearly there, but the rest of the way must come to them as a gift."

She wasn't sure what to make of that, but she nodded anyway and turned to make her way toward the pavilion. She kept her eyes forward, her head racing in a hundred different directions. What would she say to the Empress? What would she be like? The word empress conjured up stern paintings of Queen Elizabeth all stiff and humorless, arrayed in layers of finery. But if that were true why did they all call her the Childlike Empress? Why did they call her the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes? Were her eyes really gold? The thought of that invoked images of a wolf, and that only served to frighten her more. As she drew nearer to the doorway into the pavilion the light from within grew steadily brighter. With each step the light hid more of the Ivory Garden from view until at last it was all she could see. Its brightness and warmth hit her like a wall and she covered her eyes to protect them from its brilliance. She felt the light's warmth subside slowly and at length she felt safe enough to lower her arm. When she opened her eyes, she would never be able to say how but there she was inside the grand dome of the Magnolia Pavilion. In the center was a great round couch, and at the center of this couch Adair came face to face with the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes.

Balanced on the round couch perfectly as if held by strings was a shimmering crystal that caught the light within the pavilion. And within this glimmering crystal, hovering at its center as though she too were held by strings was the Childlike Empress. She was an indescribably beautiful girl whose small form looked no older than ten, and frail at that. Her slight body was wrapped in a simple gown of purest white, and her long hair that swept down around her shoulders like the wings of an angel was as white as snow. But her eyes were closed as if she were fast asleep. Yet despite that, her face looked for all the world that she was pleading. Her serene beauty was enough to touch even the heart of Adair. To see a being of such purity trapped behind the crystal glass made Adair do something she hadn't done for ten years. Tears spilled from her eyes and down her face.

Jason felt a jolting sensation shoot through his chest as he came to this passage. In that moment, something incredible had happened. As he'd read the book he didn't know if it was the imagery it invoked, or the very real sense of Adair's peril, but he'd been able to picture the world of Fantasia quite clearly. All of it; Falkor, Atreyu, Deisha, the funny band of messengers, the members of the Council, even the witch Shadeseeker. Each held a fresh image in his head. But that was all it was. It was in his head. But when Adair had reached the Magnolia Pavilion and had seen the Childlike Empress, everything she had seen he had seen. He wasn't imagining it, he could see it with his eyes. And what they both had seen had made both he and Adair's eyes water at the sight. Even as the image faded from his sight and he continued to read, the memory of the image was powerful enough to make his heart want to break. This was what was wrong with the Childlike Empress.

Adair slid her hand down the crystal's surface wondering what, if anything, she could do. There had to be some way of freeing this girl. But the crystal was more than the mere surface. It was solid all the way to the core that held her. Her eye caught on something she hadn't noticed before. Hanging around the neck of the Empress was a strange medallion. Squinting against the light she recognized the symbol, the same as the one on the floor of the council chamber and on the cover of the Neverending Story; two snakes, one dark and one white intertwining in a circle biting one another's tale.

She felt the crystal pulse then, and it was sharp enough to stagger her and make her step back. She stared in wonder at the crystal that held the Empress and saw it start to glow. The light rose and faded in rhythm like the beating of a heart. As it pulsed she heard a low humming. She couldn't be sure but the hum sounded like a cluster of voices saying only one thing over and over.

Go back. Go back. Go back.

She didn't understand. What did they mean "go back"? Hadn't they wanted her to come here? Hadn't that been the point? To do what others in Fantasia could not? With bitterness she shook her head and wiped her eyes dry. She'd been foolish to hope, even for that brief second that she could change anything. She'd long ago come to terms with her own powerlessness, why should she start to hope now?

"Fine." she muttered to no one in particular. The crystal continued to pulse and those same voices seemed to ring in her ears like the lingering of a blast she'd been too close to. She raised her voice and shouted back at them. "Fine I'll go!"

She took care to dry her eyes thoroughly before leaving the pavilion. The same light swallowed her again and she found herself right at the gate where she and Atreyu had parted ways, stunned and not sure how she had gotten there.

Atreyu also seemed surprised to see her again so suddenly. They stared at one another in silence for a moment until finally he asked her. "What happened?"

"I was right." she said in a harsh voice. "There was nothing I could do."

"Something the matter?" The tired voice of Mr. Bux broke Jason from his reverie as the old man returned from the back room. With some embarrassment he realized that his eyes were still wet from what the book had shown him.

"I saw her."

The old man settled himself back into his chair. "And who might that be?"

Jason shot him a glare. He was tired of Mr. Bux playing dumb when he'd already given away what he knew. "I think you know. I saw her." he said again.

The two stared at each other for a long while until finally Mr. Bux answered "Vivid book is it not?"

"It's more than vivid. It's real. But you already knew that didn't you." It wasn't a question, it was a demand to come clean.

"Well of course it's real. Every story is real. At one time or another each story was someone's dream. Surely you didn't think such a thing could be confined to words on a page. And Fantasia is the home of every single human dream. They exist because we dream them up, and we dream because they exist."

"Well which is it?" Jason demanded. "Is Fantasia there because we dreamed it up, or did it come to us so we could dream?"

"Both." was Mr. Bux's one word answer to that query. Jason was about to give up on finding any more out when the old man asked a question of his own. "So you saw Moon Child then? Beautiful isn't she."

On this Jason had to agree. "She's the most beautiful face I've ever seen." Well almost he thought to himself.

"How is she faring?" Mr. Bux asked.

"Something's wrong with her." He went on to explain exactly what Adair (and in turn he) had seen in the Magnolia Pavilion. "How could that happen?"

"Who can say? Perhaps Moon Child, like so many dreams of her kind is being shut away and forgotten. The more important question is what does your friend Adair plan to do about it?"

"Well she already tried. The crystal keeping Moon Child asleep held her back. There was nothing she could do."

"Perhaps." The old man said cryptically. "Or perhaps that is simply what Adair believes."

"What do you mean?"

"Think about it boy. I didn't spend all this time with you in this bookshop because you have a dull wit. You have the answer."

Jason thought about what Mr. Bux had said about Fantasia, how it was the world of human dreams. As he connected that and what it had to do with Adair a thought struck him. "You mean Adair can dream a way to free Moon Child?"

"Why not? The entire realm of Fantasia is the dreams of humans. As a human Adair is unaware of the power she holds there. If she wished, she could do anything there. The only thing that holds her back is herself."

"Okay, so the question is how to make Adair see that."

Mr. Bux smiled. "Perhaps that is what she came to Fantasia to learn. Keep reading boy. We won't learn anything more here."

Atreyu led Adair back through the garden and down the stairway in silence. They were halfway to the council chamber when they were met unexpectedly by none other than General Heremoor. His eyes were solemn and his arms were folded.

"Well?" he asked in a low voice. "What happened? What did you see?"

"Exactly what you expected me to see." Adair replied flatly.

"And? Did anything happen?" But the General didn't need an answer. Their fallen countenances were enough.

"General," Atreyu said "Why haven't you or the council told anyone about this?"

"What good would that do?" the General asked back. "All we would do is send Fantasia into mass panic like when the Nothing was consuming it."

"How long as she been that way?" the boy demanded.

Heremoor hesitated. "Ten years."

"Ten years? The Empress has been asleep for ten years?"

"I am sorry Atreyu. Lady Octavia was the first one to discover it. She was granted an audience with the Empress. I don't know how, but she was the first of us to know that something was wrong. But when she got there, it was already too late. The Empress had fallen into a deep sleep and there was nothing she or anyone else could do to wake her. It was the Empress' own seven powers that chose to turn themselves into the crystal you saw to keep her protected. We had hoped that a human's coming meant that she would awaken. But it seems Councilor Gandarin was right. It can't have been the Empress' will that brought you here Adair. There is something very wrong in Fantasia."

Adair thought about what that meant. The General's statement made her feel much like she did in Aunt Rosemary's house; like she didn't belong, and above all like no one wanted her there, like a puzzle piece that just didn't fit. She remembered how powerless she had felt in the pavilion, how she could do nothing to wake the Empress. But if that were true then why was she here? Had she simply traded one prison for another? Was there really no reason for her being here?

She didn't have long to think on it though because at that moment they heard a scream. The sound of sheer terror split the air and rang in their ears.

"The Council chamber!" Atreyu cried.

"Follow me!" The General declared, gripping the hilt of his greatsword and taking off down the stairs. He was the first to reach the chamber since Atreyu was still dragging Adair by the hand and she was by far the slowest runner between the three of them. As they burst back into the chamber they were met with a most nightmarish sight. Lady Octavia was floating out of her seat backed up as far to the wall as she could get, her wings fluttering feverishly. The other council members as well as Deisha were deathly still in their seats, their eyes frozen to the dark specter that stood in the grand entryway to the chamber.

"So now you all know the truth." it spoke in a voice that was like the scraping of claws against tree bark. The speaker was tall and broad shouldered, but hunched and shrouded in a cloak of darkest black with a hood drawn up to hide his face. But even beneath that an elongated snout lined with sharp cruel fangs protruded from beneath its shadow. "The Human cannot save you."

The General drew his sword and pointed its tip at the creature's head, taking a protective stance in front of Atreyu and Adair. "Your name Monster. Who are you and how did you reach this council chamber?"

"My name." the creature grinned beneath its hood. "You may call me Lord Volrac, the Nightmare King."

Volrac Adair thought. That had been the name Shadeseeker had uttered. This was the master of the Creatures of Darkness that were gathering in the Forest of Thorns. A shiver came over her as she watched a pair of claws appear from within the cloak, drawing it back. The creature wore black plated armor like that of a knight, but its stature suggested something more beast like beneath, as did the tufts of black fur that sprouted from the openings in the arms. It stood upright and drew back its hood and Adair gasped. The face of this nightmarish creature was that of a black wolf. But in place of fur at the crown of his head, long dark hair cascaded down his shoulders. Worst of all were his slitted eyes that glowed like green fire with an intense hatred. The face of Lord Volrac was frightening indeed, but that was not why Adair had gasped, nor was it why her legs had begun to tremble while her feet seemed rooted to the spot, suddenly as heavy as lead.

It can't be. It can't be.

"You have all guessed by now," Volrac went on, speaking with his fanged maw. "It was not the Childlike Empress who brought this human here. It was by my will, and it is my will that has shown you all the Childlike Empress as she has always been; powerless and weak."

Atreyu stepped forward and his voice was unlike Adair had ever heard it. His voice and his whole body trembled with fury. "You're the reason Moon Child is asleep! You're what's poisoning Fantasia!"

"Poisoning?" Volrac sounded amused. "How can I poison what is already dying? No what I intend to do is create a new Fantasia. For too long has our world been bound to that frail child and her unfathomable will, and the will of these humans who dare to think themselves our creators when it is us who give them power. And for this reason have I begun this movement to rid us of these chains."

General Heremoor swung his sword expertly. "In that case then allow me to show you JUST HOW WEAK AND POWERLESS WE ARE!" In a flash the General dashed forward, moving at a speed no one would think possible for someone of his size. He raised his sword high above his head. "I'll cut that depraved head from your shoulders monster!"

Volrac's hand shot out from under his cloak again and shadows suddenly snaked out from him, wrapping themselves around the General's arms and legs. The great man was forced to his knees suddenly as if the shadows were chains being pulled down on him.

"General!" Octavia cried.

"All of you remain in your seats." Volrac barked. "It is not my intention to spill Fantasian blood this day. I am here for her." he raised his black furred hand and pointed his claw right at Adair.

Atreyu stood in front of her, holding his arms out protectively. Through her haze of terror Adair realized that Atreyu had no weapon. His bow and his arrows as well as his knife had been taken from him at the door.

"Get out of my way boy. You are nothing but a relic of a bygone era, a dying Fantasia. You cannot hope to stand in the way of my vision." Volrac advanced on them undeterred, then stopped suddenly. He looked down and growled when he found that his feet were bound by vines that had shot magically from the floor. Behind the werewolf Octavia fluttered up and down furiously.

"Atreyu, get her out of here!"

The other members of the council had gotten out of their seats and were making to rush the monster, but Volrac leaned his head back and roared. The terrible sound filled the whole chamber and deafened them. Shadows erupted from his mouth and beneath the folds of his cloak like so much poison, pushing every member of the council back as though they were as solid as stone, slamming them into the walls of the chamber. Through all this Atreyu stood fast in front of her, digging his boots into the ground as best he could to keep himself from being pushed away.

"I said get out of my way!" Volrac growled. he was towering over them now and Adair could smell his breath like the smoky metallic stench of sulfur. With one hand he grasped Atreyu by the throat.

"Atreyu!" Deisha cried, leaping onto her seat and launching herself over the shadows. She landed on Volrac and grasped tightly to his shoulder, pounding her fist against his head as hard as she could. She may as well have been hitting a boulder for all the mind he paid her, for he flung her off of him as easily as shrugging off a coat. With an easy toss of his shoulder Deisha was thrown to the ground on her back. The shadows began to slither over her, keeping her down just as they were snaking their way over the rest of the chamber

Atreyu took hold of Volrac's wrist with both hands as the werewolf's grip tightened. Even as he was lifted off the ground, his feet dangling helplessly, his dark eyed gaze remained defiant. But Adair could hear the air being choked out of him. Worse, she could see the pleasure in the monster's eyes as he strangled the breath from him.

Not again. "No. No! NO! NOOO!"

Adair's cries pierced the ears of those in the room, and with them came a light. Shadows can be very powerful. Not the typical shadows that you cast off of yourself during the daytime. Those are actually quite friendly and can play games with you if you let them. The kind that did Volrac's bidding were the stuff of nightmares. The kind that your fear makes slither around your bedroom at night while you try to convince yourself that nothing is there. But if the light is strong enough, then even the most hideous of shadows must retreat. And the one that burned around Adair now sent every shadow in the room shrieking back to whatever dark corner they could find.

Volrac roared and dropped Atreyu at once who fell to his knees trying to regain his breath. With one claw to cover his burning greenish-yellow eyes he strained his vision against the light to see where it was coming from. Then he snarled in fury when it became clear. Hanging around Adair's neck by a thin chain of silver was a medallion of two snakes intertwining in a circle, one black and one white and biting each others' tale.

"AURYN." Volrac sneered in a most ugly way. "You mean that even this is the will of the Childlike Empress?" with burning malice he centered his hate-filled eyes on Adair. "Are we forever to be chained to your will? MOON CHILD!" The creature lunged, stretching his claws for her. She wrenched her eyes shut and in that moment the light from AURYN burned even brighter. Volrac let out a fierce howl before all went silent. When the light cleared Volrac was gone.

The General was getting back to his feet, dragging his sword with him to where Volrac had been standing. "I don't think we've quite seen the last of him." he said with dismay.

Adair felt her balance wavering from all the excitement, still not quite grasping what had happened. Atreyu was at her side helping her stand. "Are you alright?"

"I think so." she lied. Those eyes, those hateful green eyes, right now she would do anything to shake them from her mind.

Councilor Gandarin held both hands to his small blond head as if seized by a terrible headache. "What just happened."

"It seems we were all wrong." Octavia was fluttering near Atreyu and Adair grinning. "Adair was rescued by AURYN. That can only mean one thing. You've been chosen by the Childlike Empress.”

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