The Strongest Magic

Chapter 6: It Looks Good On You

Finding the monster that had attacked her gone was a small relief compared to the terror of finding that her nightmares were real. Even after the light had faded her eyes were glued to the spot where Volrac had just stood.

"Our scouts haven't yet found anyone within the tower who matched the description." General Herermoor reported.

"It's possible he wasn't really here at all." Chiron proposed. "Perhaps he was simply a projection of dark magic like the shadows he attacked us with. It would explain how he was expelled by the light of AURYN."

"But now that the creature behind the Childlike Empress' sleep has shown himself we mustn't delay. Fantasia itself hangs in the balance." Gandarin said sternly. "General Heremoor, Milady Octavia, once more the two of you must work together. Milady have your court search the wind and any pathway you can find. Track the monster to its source."

"We're already aware of the Forest of Thorns." Octavia explained. "But none of our magic has been able to pierce the darkness there. To enter the monster's den would mean certain destruction. Perhaps our best course of action would be to track his movement and have the General's forces descend when he makes his next move."

"Then General, your riders must be ready at a moment's notice to follow the Fairy Court to the enemy."

General Heremoor placed his steel clad hand over his chest. "I swear to you my men and I will be as swift as the wind that carries us."

"In the meantime" Gandarin went on "you must also be prepared to respond to distress calls should there be more of these demon attacks."

"Sir," Atreyu interrupted. "What would the Council have us do?"

"If you mean you and your friend from the Plains, Atreyu you may return home if you wish. As for Adair she's to remain in the Ivory Tower for her own protection. Volrac has clearly made his intentions for her known."

"Councilor Gandarin, I mean no disrespect..."

Adair almost rolled her eyes. She'd gleaned from this meeting that whenever Atreyu said "I mean no disrespect" it actually meant "I have a much better idea and I'm going with it whether you like it or not".

"Adair just obtained AURYN. It must mean that Moon Child needs her to do something only she can do. And she's still looking for a way home. Neither of these can be accomplished by staying here."

"Then what would you suggest Atreyu?" Gandarin said with an air of condescension. "That we give Adair a sword, put her on a horse and send her charging off toward Volrac's demon horde? Even with the power of the Gem with her you have to see the problem with that approach."

"I wasn't suggesting it."

"Atreyu I respect your insight as one of Moon Child's most trusted servants, but we can't send this little girl out to traverse Fantasia alone."

Adair had finally gotten sick of being called that. "Little girl? I'm twice your size! I've met dogs bigger than you!"

The entire council turned their eyes on Adair, nothing short of speechless.

Gandarin sputtered something incoherent, but she knew it was in outrage. "You insolent little-"

"What I mean is you guys have all been deciding my fate and talking about me like I'm not here the entire time I've been here! You guys can't have it both ways. I'm either supposed to save you or wait in a corner until you figure out what to do with me. I'm not sure about the whole savior bit but I'll still try that over being treated like a child! Did anyone think to ask me what I wanted to do?"

The council was slack-jawed still. She wondered if they were really so unused to being challenged like that. In truth they were astounded not because someone had spoken so harshly with them, but because it had been Adair who had done so. Adair who had been so quiet and sullen throughout the entire day's proceedings.

It was Octavia who spoke. "And what would you do Adair?"

She should have expected this question after an outburst like that, but she found her tongue went slack with no answer. She was suddenly very aware of the eyes on her and felt a hot prickling on the back of her neck. She looked back to Atreyu and found that unlike the rest of the council he wasn't staring wide eyed in shock. He was smiling as if he'd been waiting for her to do just what she'd done.

"I wanted to hear what Atreyu's idea was."

Atreyu nodded and began to address the council again. "Adair is searching for a way home. These demons are running rampant through all of Fantasia while the Creatures of Darkness control them and prepare for war. And now they've claimed my best friend who I plan to get back at all costs. Meanwhile the Empress is trapped in sleep. I believe these things are connected. Volrac is after Adair because he fears she might be able to stop him. Now that she has AURYN it would be a good idea for her to go where it points her to find some answers."

"And you plan to go with her?" Chiron asked.

"Such courage." Heremoor muttered, turning away as if to hide his tears. "The last hope of Fantasia and her brave protector traveling together to find the answers that will save us all. This will be a story for the ages!"

"Then I'm going too." Deisha leaped to Atreyu's side eagerly.

He only looked back to her with sad eyes. "Deisha you can't."

"You'll have to tie me to a Rockbiter's leg to stop me and even then it might not work."

"Deisha I have to go with Adair. She doesn't know her way around Fantasia. So I need someone I can trust to go back to our people and make sure they're safe. You need to tell them what's happening and get them ready for another attack."

"But-"

"Deisha," he took her by the arms and looked right into her eyes in a way that silenced her at once. "Please do this for me. I'll sleep easier knowing you're in the Plains helping our people."

She was silent for a moment then glowered at Adair. She whispered something to Atreyu that only he was able to hear, glaring at her all the while.

"I promise." was Atreyu's only reply.

"So where do we start looking?" Adair asked wanting to break the uncomfortable silence.

No one seemed to have an answer at first, or if they did they were reluctant to share it. It was Chiron again who spoke.

"There is one person you might ask, and Atreyu they reside in a place where you have been before. It will be dangerous-"

"Surprise surprise." Adair muttered.

"But so long as you have the Gem with you, it may protect you."

"Where is it?" Atreyu asked.

"We know of one of the Creatures of Darkness who has not joined with Volrac, or at least we haven't heard of them forsaking their domain for the Forest of Thorns. You'll have to travel to Spook City, the land of ghosts and ghouls. There you'll find the Dark Princess Gaya who rules that country. She's cunning and dangerous, but if you wish to find out more about the workings of darkness in Fantasia then it would be best to ask her. And if we're right and she hasn't joined ranks with Volrac then you have a chance of leaving her domain alive."

Adair's face fell. "She sounds charming."

"I don't like the idea either." Chiron admitted. "But I'm afraid the answers you seek must come at a price, for no one here knows them. The kind of answers you want will have to come from those who walk in the darkness. Atreyu it goes without saying that you should practice extreme caution. The first time I sent you on a quest you were forbidden any weapons. However this time you are journeying not as messenger for the Childlike Empress but as protector and guide for the human Adair Alicia Artemis. As such it would be wise to arm yourself well, especially considering the new danger prowling Fantasia.

The centaur's ancient eyes came to rest on Adair next. "Adair the medallion around your neck is known as AURYN and it is your most powerful ally, for in it is the power of the Childlike Empress. As a human you can use its power to make anything you wish a reality. Use it wisely. You two have been presented with a grave task for two so young. Know that you do so of your own free will. Do you accept this task?"

"I accept." Atreyu answered at once.

The centaur's words felt heavy in her mind, but something about that moment standing next to Atreyu made her forget her fear. "I accept."

"Then go your way Adair Alicia Artemis and Atreyu of the Plains People. May the Childlike Empress smile upon you both. This council is adjourned."

One by one the members of the council filed out. One of the last to leave was General Heremoor who quite suddenly grasped Atreyu's hand in both of his and looked down at the two with glistening green eyes. "How I wish I was going with you two. Your journey is one that will surely be told through the ages. Generation on generation of Fantasians will sing songs about it for years to come. Fantasia is in capable hands."

"Thank you General." Atreyu replied, visibly trying to wrench his hand free from Heremoor's grip.

"Adair," Octavia whispered over her shoulder. "Might I talk to you for a moment?"

Adair turned to face the fairy who was hovering just in front of her face, studying her with an unreadable expression.

"I know what you said earlier about not being able to do anything. It might not mean much but I want you to know that I don't believe that. What you did today proves to me you have more power than you know."

Adair wasn't sure what she meant. "I didn't really do anything, it was more the medallion."

"No it's more than that. AURYN's power drove Volrac out, that's true. But it was your wish to save Atreyu that summoned it. And the way you spoke to the council..."

Adair gave an embarrassed laugh. "Yeah I'm sorry about that, I have issues with authority."

"It was brilliant. You could have sat back and let us do all the deciding for you, but you didn't. It was you who made the choice to go on this quest."

"I just agreed with Atreyu, that's all."

"Because you believe in him. It was still your choice. You must remember that. Promise me you won't doubt yourself. It may mean the difference between failure and success in this journey."

Adair still didn't know what to say to that. Had this really been her decision or had she just been swept up in the moment? Was Octavia right about her and she had some hidden power she hadn't guessed at? "Um... I guess I'll try."

The fairy looked like she wanted to say something else, but the General called for her then.

"Come Milady Octavia, we have duties to perform. Can't let these youths have all the glory. Fantasia must know that all of it's children will fight to protect it!"

"I'll be right there General." She began to flutter away, but with one pleading look at Adair she added "If you only knew how strong you are."

The lower courts of the Ivory Tower were a bustling metropolis of winding stairs and walk ways intertwining towers and courtyards. Fantasians of all shapes and sizes and colors wound their way through its grounds. Though there had been no official announcement made as to what had transpired at the council, rumor was already spreading of a terrible phantom that had stolen into the chamber and had been warded off by a mysterious new human who had come to Fantasia. Some were even saying that the Glory had shown again and was hanging around this new human's neck. So imagine their surprise to see that very human wandering the streets of the Ivory Tower with AURYN openly hanging from her neck and the legendary Atreyu at her side.

"Is everyone in Fantasia going to stare at me like this?" Adair whispered an aside to Atreyu as they entered the market district.

"They just don't know what to think." he explained. "Humans have been known to bring as much ill to Fantasia as good."

"So they're afraid of me? That makes me feel a whole lot better."

Atreyu flushed. "It's not really that!" He tried to assure her. "It's just been a really long time since any human has come to Fantasia. They don't know how to act."

"Maybe you could just tell them to ignore me. I'd like that."

Deisha huffed. "Fat chance of that."

"Deisha's right." Atreyu said, taking on a more serious tone. "There will be some who might be afraid of you, and others who might worship the ground you walk on, but regardless of who they are or where they come from, every soul in Fantasia will have some thought about you. But as long as you wear that amulet, they'll regard you as Moon Child's messenger."

Adair reached for the amulet around her neck and thought about hiding it inside her shirt.

"Leave it out." he told her. "It might help us. We need to do what Chiron said and gear up before we set out, but we don't have much to pay with."

She regarded him quizzically. This sounded a little out of character for Atreyu. "You want me to strong-arm them into giving us free stuff?"

She half expected Atreyu to be hurt by the implication. Deisha looked furious. But Atreyu only chuckled. "Something like that. I don't like to, but we'll only be taking what we need. I can hunt and scout, so food and water won't really be a problem. But I would feel more able to protect you if I at least had a sword."

"You'll need a horse." Deisha reminded Atreyu.

Atreyu sighed. "No Deisha. No horses."

"You don't have much choice without Falkor. It'll be safer and faster than going on foot."

Adair could see him trying to think of a reason to say no. "Adair might not be comfortable riding one."

"After riding Falkor?" She almost laughed. "I think I can handle a horse."

"I'm only thinking of your safety." Deisha stated in an unusually calm manner for her. "You're not letting me come so the least you can do is listen to me on this one thing."

Atreyu looked from her then to Adair who didn't have anything to say. She actually agreed with Deisha on this one. On foot they'd be easy prey for the demons. With a horse they could have a running chance. It was a grim thought, but she had to be practical.

At length Atreyu gave in. "Fine. I'll go find us a horse. But you have to do me a favor then."

The backs of Deisha's leaf-shaped ears flashed to crimson. There was an implication in his request that made her nervous. "What's that?"

"Adair's clothes aren't up for the journey."

Adair looked down at her outfit and realized with a sinking feeling that he was right. She hadn't paid it any thought until now, but her jeans were wearing down to the threads at this point, they'd been through so much. Her shirt hadn't fared much better, and she could feel the air on her feet which told her that her high-tops were nearly ready to come apart.

"What? Why me?" Deisha called indignantly after Atreyu who had already started down the avenue.

"Because I don't know what looks good on girls." he called back, hiding a mischievous smile.

"And I do?" but her complaints never reached him because he was already gone. Deisha growled under her breath before grabbing Adair's hand roughly. "Come on."

There was little she could do but follow.

Jason couldn't help laughing. "Taking Adair shopping? Poor Deisha." He knew better than anyone how his friend hated shopping, and the thought of her getting a crash course on Fantasian fashion was enough to allow him, worried for her as he was, take slight pleasure in her situation. But when he stopped laughing he noticed Iole looking up at him with her blue cat eyes. He could swear he saw her roll them at him.

"Oh come on, it's a little funny."

The market was a wondrous sight for Adair. There were shops set up along the street with great glass windows showing off their wares, and others were simple tables and canopies set up outside. There were some selling food she didn't recognize, others selling clothes, knick-knacks, and many selling strange magical looking baubles that had her guessing what they could be for. If she'd been here with anyone but Deisha she might have wanted to browse some more. Without a word the Plains girl led her through the throng of Fantasians until they reached a shop with a great glass window displaying a row of dressed up mannequins. At first it looked like a costume shop to her; one was in a grand evening gown from the Elizabethan era, one looked like something a pirate would wear, and another was a colorful tunic with a short cape. Then she was reminded this was Fantasia. Perhaps people here really dressed that way.

She thought about what Atreyu had said earlier about her clothes, thinking on the way he'd asked Deisha to help her find a new wardrobe. "I don't know what looks good on girls" he had said before taking off. Had he blushed when he looked away? No she must have imagined it. Did he expect her to look good? And if that were true, what exactly looked good in Fantasia? She didn't even have a clear grasp on what looked good in her world and had never much cared. Not that she cared now, she told herself. But she still found herself entertaining the idea of finding something to wear that would catch Atreyu off-guard. He was so serious most of the time that she wondered if surprising him at all was possible.

Adair hadn't realized it, but she had just made her first wish.

"Let's go." Deisha finally released her and led the way into the shop.

The room was divided into two parts. The front was lined with more of those mannequins in a variety of outfits. The back however looked more like a witch's lair. There were several rows of great bubbling cauldrons, the smallest of which could easily fit a grown man inside. They rested above strange glowing lights that seemed to be heating them in place of a fire for they gave off a warm glow. Inside the cauldrons was a pungent smelling liquid. Seeing a different color bubbling in each cauldron made Adair realize what they were; these were dyes. And not just any dyes. With each color had a different scent; the purple carried the smell of lavendar while the red held the fragrance of roses. The green smelled of pine, and the blue had a pleasant scent like summer air. She was so enthralled by the sight that she didn't notice someone approaching her until she looked up and found two glistening mismatched eyes staring down at her; one emerald green with specks of brown, the other sky blue.

"Welcome to my humble shop valued customer." said the impossibly tall woman towering over her. She stood upright and flourished her arms in a grand gesture. "I am Meleah the Nature Spirit, and I am about to make your dreams come true."

Being able to take the woman's complete appearance in now that she wasn't in her face, Adair saw that she had deep tanned skin with a strange sheen covering it. Her hair swathed about her shoulders in dark brown curls that twisted together like the branches of a tree. Her lips were the color of grass, and from her head sprouted two curling horns like a ram's that curved elegantly over her head. Her long gown was as striking as she was, shifting from green to blue to magenta in the light, and a swirling pattern of flowers spiraling around her chest and down the gown all the way to the hem of the skirt. Even her fingernails were each a different color and carried the unique scent of the dyes. In her hand she held a white paper fan with a wash of cherry blossoms painted across its surface.

"I'd ask who you were" she went on in her melodious voice, "But I already know. You're quite famous here you know, Miss Adair Alicia Artemis."

"I only got here today." she replied bluntly.

"Word gets to you fast when you're friendly with the Autumn Fairy Court."

"You know Octavia?"

"My dear her entire court is wearing me. But enough about me, let's talk about you. There must be a reason you came here."

"I just need some new clothes."

"Obviously." Meleah folded her fan and held the back of her hand over her forehead as though she suddenly felt faint. "You poor dear it looks like you came to me just in time."

"Hey!" Adair protested.

"Hush now child, if you simply want clothes you go to those imposters on the street. Fantasia does not come to me for clothes they come to me to make their dreams reality. Ever since I was a little daisy I have always made it my duty to help others make their outside shine to show the world the unique beauty we each have inside! Our wardrobe tells a story my darling, and we must be thrilling storytellers now mustn't we? Take your friend for example."

Meleah circled Deisha, pointing to various parts of her outfit with her fan. "I can tell from the well worn leather of her trousers and the bold way she leaves her arms bare that she is a girl who knows how to survive in harsh conditions and knows how to get some dirt under her fingernails if need be. But the feathers in her hair and the hand painted pattern of a wild desert blossom on the back of her tunic shows that she has a more playful and girlish side as well. I'll bet with a little bit of robin's egg blue and just the right amount of yellow I can bring all those features to light. Anything you want dearies. I can make you bold and adventurous, or I can make you elegant and sophisticated. I can even bring out the best features in you that will capture the heart of that special someone you may have had your eye on."

Adair felt her lip quivering. Meleah had rubbed her just the wrong way that she was about to have one of her rare moments of passion. "Well I for one don't believe that a girl needs to be dressed up like a doll. I dress the way I do so people can see the real me, and if they have a problem with that then there's no point in pretending, and I think Deisha will agree with me." She turned to the tom-boyish plains girl who she was sure would offer her own two cents. She may not have liked Adair, but she did seem like the type to agree at least on this part.

Instead Deisha was fingering the feathers in her hair thoughtfully. "Playful and Girlish?" she said to herself.

Meleah smiled behind her fan at Adair. "You've got it all wrong my daisy. Dressing you up to hide the real you is what those imposters outside do. They don't sell clothes, they sell costumes and masks. I choose to highlight the beauty you already have, all your best traits, and make them shine. Where others try to 'make you beautiful' I use my craft to show the world that you already are." she smiled slyly with her green lips. "And you don't dress to show people the real you. You dress to hide yourself. Your drab colors and ill fitting blouse tell me you wish to be invisible. But behind that, these eyes of mine can see passion, a sense of justice, and a secret longing for adventure, all greatly repressed. But if you would permit me, I can bring those beautiful parts of yourself to the surface. Will you let me try?" The tall nature spirit looked at Adair expectantly.

Adair bit her lip, doing her best not to meet those penetrating mismatched eyes. She suddenly regretted what she'd said. She'd judged Meleah a little too quickly, the same way others had judged her before. Meleah wasn't about add-ons and frivolous things people don't really need. She spoke of fashion the way others would speak of art; as a means of expression.

"There was an outfit in the window I kind of liked. The one with the white frilled shirt and boots."

Meleah laughed. "No my daisy those are for display only. Everything I create is done on the spot for the one I craft it for. But if it's an adventurous look you're going for I think I can make the perfect one for you. Care to give it a try?"

Adair hesitated for only a moment. "Alright. I guess it can't hurt."

"Splendid!" the tall woman said, taking Adair by the wrist and pulling her into the center of the shop. What happened next was a whirl of colors and scents that is difficult to describe. Meleah would whip one of the rolls of white fabric from the wall, sweep it into one of the cauldrons of color then twirl it around Adair. With a wave of her long slim fingers she could pull flowers and whirlwinds out of thin air where they would imprint themselves onto the fabric to make intricate patterns. She'd try a seemingly endless number of combinations before settling on one element.

After about a half hour of this Deisha sighed. "I'm going to see about getting some food for my trek home. Stay right here until I come back."

Adair couldn't really respond since Meleah was still furiously spinning new things all around her. She could barely see the shop anymore let alone Deisha leaving through the door.

It would be said for years that Meleah's gift of finding one's greatest traits was unparalleled. But one day she would meet a mysterious man from the west and for the first time not be able to discern a single trait from him. She would take on the task of creating for him. He would capture her interest and eventually her heart as she went on a wild journey to learn who he was, and one day would at last find a look that fit him just right, and it would be her greatest masterpiece. She would never create another like it in all her long years. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

After a dizzying cyclone of every color of the rainbow and endlessly changing her mind, Meleah at last gave a sigh of satisfaction. "Finished. Well my daisy, come over here and tell me what you think."

Adair followed her to a tall mirror in the corner of the shop that allowed her to see herself in full profile. Had she looked at her face she would have seen her mouth hanging open. Meleah had delivered well on her promise because the girl in the mirror reminded her of a long forgotten dream. She had a simple white blouse with a frilled neckline under a lavender tunic of soft leather. On the front were intricate designs arranged in the shape of a butterfly that stretched all the way up to her shoulders. The tunic came down to her knees and had a wide opening in the front for riding. The part below her waist was white with a print of whirling flames that were purple rimmed in gold. And intertwining with the flames were long branches adorned with cherry blossoms. Her legs had been fitted with black leggings stuffed into cuffed boots of the same soft purple leather. Her sleeves were wide below the elbow and had two dull gold symbols on each arm; a sun on the right and a moon on the left. The purple, white, and gold of her wardrobe made her sandy blond hair seem a shade lighter and made her hazel eyes stand out and almost look gold. And she could actually smell the soft scents of lavender and cherry blossoms, though she'd never smelled cherry blossoms before.

She looked in the mirror, taking in different sides unable to believe what she was seeing. She would never wear something like this back home, and yet she did see something of herself in her new clothes.

"I'll take your silence to mean you like what you see."

"I'm... pretty." She didn't know how to say that without sounding vain, but putting her feelings into words for this was very hard. This kind of thing went against her very nature. But not only had she participated and allowed Meleah to change her entire look, she was happy with the results.

"You always were my daisy. You were just hiding it."

She brushed her hair back fitfully as if to clear away her head and regain some composure. "So do you think this will stand up to traveling?"

"Absolutely." the tall woman assured her. "The leather is fused with the steady patience of the cherry blossom tree to keep it sturdy through harsh weather and long treks, and the freedom of flames and wind so you can move easily."

Adair shook her head. "Yeah that makes perfect sense." This place was so weird.

"Well I have some more dyes to make. You can continue to admire yourself in the mirror if you wish until your friend comes back." Meleah winked before swishing away to the back of the store.

Adair looked away from the mirror hastily, embarrassed for having stared at herself for so long. She turned back to the door wondering when Deisha would come back for her, if at all. She wondered if she just might have to find Atreyu herself. It was while she was dwelling on this that a figure passed by the window that viewed the street. It wasn't Deisha. Adair froze, watching her pass by the store with her impassive blue eyes straight ahead of her. It couldn't be. How was she here? It didn't make sense, but Adair was sure it was her; the girl from the bookshop with the purple streak in her hair.

What is she doing here?

Jason jumped as Iole hissed. He found her arced back defensively with her claws extended, leering at the book like a mouse she was ready to pounce on.

"What's gotten into you?" He studied Iole curiously. Up until now Jason wasn't sure of his suspicion that the little white cat was following along in the book. He would catch her occasionally glancing at the pages, and when she saw him notice she'd stretch and yawn and look uninterested. Adair had been in dangerous situations already and Iole had never so much as batted a whisker at her plight. She'd simply licked her paws when Shadeseeker had caught Adair, and she hadn't done a thing of interest when that monster Volrac had appeared and in no uncertain terms declared his intentions to kill her. So why now was Iole so put off. What was so threatening about this girl that Adair seemed to have already met in the book shop? More important than a cat's thought on the matter, Jason wondered how the girl had managed to land in Fantasia with Adair when she'd met her earlier.

"Relax." he whispered, stroking the cat between her ears. Iole didn't recoil like she normally did when he tried to pet her, but she remained tense, her eyes on the book. He'd been right. Bastian hadn't been the only one keeping secrets.

The girl didn't notice her, didn't even look at the shop as she passed. Once she could no longer be seen from the window Adair went to the door and peered outside. She almost missed her vanishing into the crowd. Seeing her here made Adair realize how petite she was. From behind she looked like a middle-schooler. No one seemed to notice her as she went on unhindered like a ghost. Even in her strange clothing she seemed very ordinary among the throng of Fantasians, very few of whom even resembled humans. But watching from behind Adair noticed something she had not seen before when they had met in the book shop. Beneath her black skirt, swishing back and forth was a long black cat-like tail.

Once the girl was a good distance away that Adair felt she wouldn't be spotted, but close enough that she could still see her, she stole into the street and followed her. Keeping up with her wasn't difficult since the girl didn't seem to be in any kind of hurry. Meleah had been right about her clothes. She could move easily through the crowd in them. She kept her head down to keep from being recognized. She didn't want the girl to realize she was following her, and if anyone in the crowd stopped to gawk at "the human" as they'd been prone to do, that wouldn't help her efforts.

Thankfully Meleah had been thoughtful enough to add a hood onto the back of her tunic which she drew over her head, hiding her sandy blond locks. It seemed to work. No one paid her much mind as she weaved her way in pursuit of the girl. At last she saw the girl stop at the door of what looked like a tavern. Or at least it looked like it used to be a tavern. The windows were dim and dusted over. The words "Black Djinn Inn" were barely discernible on the hanging sign above the door. The girl opened the door and vanished into the old inn.

Taking off at full speed Adair found herself in front of the door. She took a moment to catch her breath then reached for the knob. She felt a start as the door fell open before she'd even turned it. It swung inside so violently the moment she gripped it that she was pulled in with it and spun into the dimly lit lobby of the tavern. Her hood fell from her head and at the same time she heard the door slam shut behind her.

"Ah good afternoon Miss Artemis." came a polished voice with an accent that sounded almost British to her. But despite the sophisticated tone he carried, whoever was speaking sounded very young, she would have guessed about her age. "Won't you join us for some tea?"

As her eyes adjusted to the darkened tavern lit only by a few sparse candles, she began to make out two figures sitting at a round table. The first was the owner of the voice; a handsome young man with rectangular glasses dressed in a white collared shirt and formal brown vest. An old fashioned black cravat hung loose from his collar that looked stained with something black, probably ink. Like his clothes his brown hair was unkempt and gave him a wild look. If a person's appearance could tell a story like Meleah said, then this young man's was saying that he was often so involved in his peculiar pursuits and hobbies that he couldn't be bothered with things he considered trivial, like proper grooming or hygiene.

The second figure Adair recognized as the girl she had followed here. Both of them had white porcelain tea cups in front of them with steaming tea inside. The girl was sipping hers without sparing Adair so much as a glance.

"Nag," the young man snapped his fingers. "Bring us another cup would you?"

"Right away." came a low effeminate voice that Adair couldn't tell was male or female. When the speaker came into view, that certainly didn't help clear things up any. It leaned back casually against one of the other tables. Even in the dim light Adair could see something very abnormal in its appearance. It had long wild blue hair and its ears were long and furred like a fox's, the same color as its hair. The creature's feet were bare and claw-tipped, much like the long fingers that sprouted from hands that looked too big at the end of its long thin arms. A swirling crisscrossing pattern of black lines were tattooed all along its bare arms and along the edges of its face that had features that looked almost canine. Its eyes seem to glow dull red in the darkness.

The creature stood upright, and suddenly took on a new appearance. A costume appeared on its body; a black waiter's jacket and bow tie, but at its waist was a white lace apron like a maid would wear. It even wore a maid's headpiece. A notepad and pen appeared in its hands, looking very small in its long fingers. "What will it be?"

Adair's eyes drifted from one figure to the next. She felt a strange chill come over her that wasn't from the draft in the building. She felt her throat tightening in anxiety. The three of them seemed to exude a dark aura from them that made her throat feel dry and her feet feel like they were made of lead. It took her a moment to find her voice.

"Who are you?"

"Oh forgive me." the young man in glasses said, placing his cup down. "Allow us to introduce ourselves. You may call me Thoth. This is my associate Nag," he gestured to the creature acting as waiter or waitress. "And I believe you've already met Fay." he motioned to the girl.

"You look nice." the girl finally looked at her. Her doll-like blue eyes were half lidded and gave the impression of looking down at her. "I see you've made your first wish."

"What?"

"Fay a little tact please. Can't you see the poor thing is frightened?"

"I'm not afraid." Adair said defensively. It was a complete lie because something in the back of her mind was telling her she should be very afraid.

"Nor should you be." Thoth assured her cheerily. "We're only here to talk. We've wanted to speak with you for some time."

She narrowed her eyes at the girl whose expression never changed. "You knew I was following you."

"You're not bad." Fay admitted in a flat tone. "With some training you could go far in the art of subtlety."

"Fay that's not why we're here. Could you try to focus?"

"Then get on with it. I'm starting to get bored."

Thoth sighed. "Very well, Adair would you mind taking a seat?" He motioned to the the empty chair at the table which slid out on its own, inviting her to sit down.

Against her better judgment she took a seat. Curiosity won against common sense in this case. This girl Fay, and probably these "associates" of hers were responsible for bringing her to Fantasia and she wanted to know why.

"Your tea." the blue haired creature said, sliding a porcelain cup in front of her. She jumped as its hand suddenly gripped her chin, forcing her eyes upward. "Oh my, you are a pretty one. Would you care to play with me?"

"Now now, none of that Nag." Thoth chided.

"Oh just a little game, please?" Nag begged, reaching for Adair even as she shrunk away.

Fay made an exasperated sigh before producing something from her sleeve. In her hand she held a rubber ball up to Nag's face. She waved it back and forth and Nag followed it like a dog would when playing fetch with its owner. Without a word she tossed it to the other side of the room and Nag dashed to retrieve it, on all fours no less.

"Do forgive Nag, it tends to get a little excited around new people."

"Maybe you should get it fixed." Adair answered bitingly.

The other two were silent for a moment and she wondered if she'd been too bold with them. But then Thoth tossed his head back and laughed. Even Fay gave a small grin and a pleased "hmph".

"Now there's an experiment that merits looking into. I do admire your spirit Miss Artemis. Now then, to business. You see, my associates and I are..." he paused to consider his words. "Well I suppose you could say we're traveling researchers."

Adair narrowed her eyes at him. "You're not from here are you?"

" 'Here', being?" Thoth inquired.

"You're not from Fantasia."

She cringed as Nag snaked its way back to the table, curving its body around her chair to whisper in her ear. "Now why would you say a thing like that? Don't we look Fantasian enough for you?"

She reached for the chain around her neck. "My medallion doesn't seem to like you."

The Gem that hung from her neck was glowing like it had done when Volrac had attacked Atreyu, though not as brightly. This was perhaps its way of coiling up for a strike like a rattlesnake would do.

Thoth snickered. "Ah yes, AURYN. I suppose that would give us away."

"So you're like me then." Adair stated. "Are you from my world?"

"Hardly. You see there are many worlds." Thoth explained. "We're from one called... Oh dash it all, Fay what was the name of our home?"

"I don't remember."

"It doesn't really matter." Nag answered. "We go where we please."

"Correct. You see each world, like this one has unique traits. It's quite fascinating really. So we cross the rift between them to learn and experiment."

"Experiment on what?"

"Each world gives us ideas." Fay said. "We have to try them."

"So you brought me here because of an experiment?"

"Yes, dreadfully sorry about that." Thoth adjusted his glasses. "I'm sure you've heard by now how much this world of Fantasia depends on humans of your world. The two are linked in a most remarkable way. But when we arrived we learned that it had been a very long time since a human had come to Fantasia. So Fay here wanted to see what would happen if we managed to bring one here, and I must say the results have been most informative. You're already creating quite a stir here. But we didn't count on so many being after your life. I fear we've put you in terrible danger."

"Yeah no kidding."

Fay set her cup down. "You didn't have to take my advice in the book shop. You still chose to read it." She regarded Adair with her cold blue eyes. There was something odd in them; a strange mixture of boredom and curiosity that reminded Adair of her cat. "Why did you choose to come here?"

"Fay, that's enough. Her reasons are her own." Thoth chided.

Fay folded her arms. "You're just mad because you know I'm right. She's been touched by the Strongest Magic."

Nag grimaced. "Fay will you quit saying that?"

"What's the strongest magic?"

The faintest beginnings of a smile tugged at the pale corners of Fay's mouth. "You'll understand soon."

"Oh pay her no mind." Thoth waved her away. "It's just something she's been on about for as long as we've known each other. Now back to you, I'm afraid you're in more danger than you realize. Your friend there," he pointed to AURYN. "Have you read the inscription on the back?"

Adair lifted it carefully, keeping her eye on Thoth and turned AURYN over. She found he was right. There was an engraving on the back that she read aloud.

" 'Do what you wish'."

Thoth nodded. "AURYN can grant you immense power, but at a terrible price. You see a human can use AURYN to make their wishes in Fantasia reality. But the cost is something very precious to you."

"What's that?"

"Your memories." Fay answered. "With each wish you make, you lose a memory of your world, and when you lose them all you will never be able to go back. You won't even remember your own name."

Adair froze. She began racing through her head trying to recall her life. She didn't feel any different. She couldn't think of anything she'd forgotten. She hadn't wished for anything had she? Why hadn't Atreyu told her about this?

"If AURYN can grant wishes, can I just wish myself home?"

"Ah it's far more complicated than that. You see, AURYN does not grant any wish without first putting it to a story. For instance, just now that outfit you wished for,"

Crap! Adair thought. She had wanted something new to wear that would surprise Atreyu, but it had just been a passing thought, not anything she'd say she had wished for.

"Wait a minute, how did you know that?"

Thoth waved the question away. "That's unimportant. Back to my point, when you wished for that new outfit, it did not simply appear out of thin air. You were led to a place where you would find it, a place or a person with their own story to tell that was then linked with yours. And that was just for some new wardrobe, which I will say is absolutely stunning on you."

"Think about what that must have taken." Nag grinned. "Now imagine how many wishes, how many stories, how many memories it would take on a long journey to get you home."

"You could lose everything." Fay said.

The thought was terrifying. At the same time she knew she couldn't completely trust these three. Not only had she barely met them, she still felt there was something strangely off about them. They were layers of shady. But what would they have to gain by making this up? She was sure they were holding a few things back, but they had known about how she'd been led to Meleah's shop. They'd known she had secretly wished for these clothes. And if they were right, she couldn't imagine a life where she didn't know who she was.

"Don't be scared pretty girl." Nag whispered in her ear.

Adair shrunk back from Nag and looked to Thoth, trying to cover her feelings. "You know I've been meaning to ask. Seriously, is this thing a dude or a chick?"

"You know we're not a hundred percent sure ourselves. That experiment was so long ago. Nag, do you remember what you were before we performed it?"

"Who can say?" Nag shrugged as it came around the other side of the table, pointing this way and that. "I was one or the other once, but I'm both and neither now."

Fay shook her head. "Cute."

"Anyway, back to my point." Thoth continued. Clearly he was the spokesmen of this group. "We feel largely responsible for the predicament you're in, so we're going to see about helping you. As you already know, we have our own means of crossing between worlds. We'd be willing to let you use it to go back home to your dear family and friends for a small price. I assure you it's much less than the one AURYN demands."

Adair didn't like where this was headed. What could they possibly want from her?

"What do you want?"

"It's just a little thing really."

Nag leered at her from across the table. "A lock of that dreamy Atreyu's hair."

Adair felt her lips curl in disgust. "Creepy much? What do you want with Atreyu's hair?"

"Just think of it as a specimen." Thoth said calmly. "It's nothing you really need to worry about. That's the thing with our magic. A contract with us always demands a price. But for a way home, a simple lock of hair is nothing compared am I right?"

Adair had no answer.

"Well you give it some thought. Do let us know if you change your mind. Fay if you please." he motioned to his associate.

Fay clapped her hands together. They made a dark violet light between them, and when she opened them she held a ring in her fingers. It looked to be made of silver and was set with a crescent moon in its center lying on its side. Arching over the tips of the crescent was a row of three stars. When Fay handed the ring to her, Adair noticed the same symbol tattooed on the back of her hand.

"If you decide," Fay explained "use this after you've collected our payment. Whisper the name of the one we serve into this ring, and you'll be taken directly to us."

Fay dropped the ring into her hand. In spite of her earlier warnings to herself not to trust them she still slipped it onto her finger. If all else fails at least I'll have this.

"The one you serve? Who's that?"

"I'll tell you the name." Fay said, and she did. But it was a name that carried so much darkness in it that it is best left unwritten on these pages.

"Okay, I'll try to remember that."

"Well it was a pleasure Miss Artemis. Taa-taa." Thoth waved.

"A real pleasure." Nag licked its lips.

"But we need to be going now." Fay said sounding bored.

"Yeah." Adair got up from her seat. "Me too." She didn't waste any time making her way to the door, and only caught the end of what Fay was saying to Thoth and Nag before she closed the door behind her.

"You realize she made that wish for him don't you? That's another point in my favor."

She didn't know how long it had been since she'd left Meleah's shop to follow Fay, but Deisha and Atreyu had to be looking for her by now. It was a slow walk back, half because she didn't really remember how she'd gotten to the tavern, and half because of everything she had just been given to think about.

"Adair!" It was Atreyu and he was running through the street to reach her with Deisha close behind. There was a new sword strapped to his back.

Deisha didn't seem to be in as much of a hurry as Atreyu. "See I told you she was fine."

"Lucky for us." Atreyu snapped, then turned back to Adair. "Are you alright? Where did you go?"

She felt a small amount of disappointment that he hadn't noticed her new clothes. "I thought I saw someone I recognized."

"Who?"

"It doesn't matter. I was wrong anyway. Sorry, I got lost on my way back."

Atreyu shot Deisha a dark look.

"I figured she'd come right back." she said defensively.

Adair noticed something in Deisha's hand. She was carrying a bag with the same insignia that had been on the sign at Meleah's shop. Deisha caught her looking at it.

"What? So you're the only one allowed to get a new look?"

Atreyu shook his head. "Come on. I found us a..." he stopped abruptly and at last Adair saw his eyes fall to her clothes. There it was; a genuine look of surprise from the hardened warrior of the plains. "Wow."

She couldn't help but smile. So there was a boy in there after all. "You sound like you have something to say."

Atreyu closed his mouth and shook his head like he'd just been slapped. That look on his face had definitely been worth everything she'd gone through to get it.

"It's nothing." he stammered, "It's just... Fantasia looks good on you."


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