The Strongest Magic

Chapter 7: The Day Her Heart Stopped

Gaya's palace in Spook City was a great distance from the Ivory Tower and would take at least three days to reach by horse if they didn't make many stops. Atreyu was anxious to begin the journey and Deisha's good bye was taking longer than he would have liked.

"Yes Deisha, I promise I'll be careful. You do the same."

"I'm not the one going to Spook City." she reminded him, and there was underlying regret in her voice.

"I've been there before. We'll be alright."

Deisha nodded. "Alright. You'd better make sure you have everything you need saddled on that horse."

Atreyu's face fell. "Yeah." he sighed. Without another word he went to the horse he'd been given (General Heremoor had been more than willing to lend him a steed from the Imperial Guard). He went about the saddle where their provisions were attached, checking each one with a downcast expression.

Adair whispered to Deisha. "What's the deal with Atreyu and horses?" she asked, remembering Atreyu's vigorous protest when Deisha had suggested he get one.

Deisha didn't answer, but surprised Adair by rounding on her. The Plains girl drew very near her face, forcing her to back up to the wall behind her. Deisha rested a hand against it right by her face and glowered down at her with her emerald green eyes.

"Listen well human because I'm only going to say this once." She lowered her voice so that Atreyu wouldn't hear. "I still don't trust you. You may have AURYN now, but that still doesn't change that there is something very dark about you and why you're here. So for your sake he had better make it back to me unharmed or you will answer to me."

"Are you threatening me?" Adair said aghast. Even with their initial dislike of one another, this was a new level of aggression in Deisha she hadn't seen before.

"Threats are empty. I'm giving you a promise. He may think he has to help you because that's the kind of person he is. As long as you're traveling with him, he'll guard your life more closely than his own. He never does anything for himself because the rest of Fantasia always has to come first. But you and I know perfectly well he could have left you here for the council to deal with and gone back home. So let me give it to you straight. There are things that you will do and things you will not do."

Adair tried to speak but Deisha held a finger up.

"No I'm talking right now. You will be grateful for what he's doing for you. You will do what he says when he says it because it could mean both your lives. You will not leave him open for an attack. You will not betray us. You will not take advantage of his kindness. And one more thing."

Then the Plains girl drew even closer to her face to the point that Adair could feel the heat of her breath. "If anything happens to him because of you, you will crawl into the deepest cave in all of Fantasia and hide under a rock for the rest of your days or I will find you. And if that happens you'll wish that Werewolf in the tower had gotten you."

Adair had nothing to say. With this intensity Deisha was imposing and she was suddenly very aware of how much stronger than her the other girl appeared to be physically. The Plains did not breed soft women. But more than that, something she said had been driven home. Atreyu was taking a great risk on her behalf.

Deisha said not another word, not even to Atreyu. Instead she turned her back on Adair, stalked past Atreyu to the horse she'd been given and swung herself onto its back. She rode off bare-back with the provisions she needed jostling in a leather pack on her back. The other items she'd picked up during their stay were tied to the steed's flanks. Unknown to Adair and Atreyu, the moment she was out of sight Deisha would cry most of the long journey back to the Plains.

"Come on." Atreyu said, taking Adair's hand. He had chosen a white stallion fitted with a saddle which Adair found strangely fitting if not cliche. He helped her into the stirrups. He gave another sad glance at the horse before pulling himself onto its back to sit in front of her. They began at a slow trot as they made their way through the labyrinth that surrounded the tower.

"What was Deisha saying to you before she left?” He asked. “She sure took off in a hurry."

"Nothing much." Adair said automatically. "Girl stuff."

You will not betray us.

Why had Deisha said that? What had she done that made the Plains girl so suspicious of her? She couldn't think of anything, at least not anything Deisha would have known about. Guiltily she stroked the silver ring on her finger wondering if Deisha was right to mistrust her.

When they reached the edge of the labyrinth, Atreyu spurred their horse on to a full gallop. And so did Adair and Atreyu begin their quest.

You messed with Adair, you messed with Jason. It was a fact of life. So threatening Adair with violence likely meant that Jason would respond in kind. There had been a time in the sixth grade that a bully had taken Adair's book bag and strung it on a telephone pole. She'd fallen trying to get it back and broken her arm, so Jason found the boy the next day and broke his nose. He'd taken a beating himself as lanky as he was, but he won.

So naturally Jason was perturbed by Deisha's harsh words with his best friend. But his heart was softened towards her somewhat because he knew where those words had come from. It was a feeling he was familiar with. He couldn't be angry with Deisha because he knew what it was like to have feelings for someone who didn't feel the same. If anyone knew what Deisha was going through it was Jason. He read on but the hour had grown very late. Bastian had gone home an hour ago and had told him to make sure to lock up when he was through. He'd been so consumed with reading and worrying that he hadn't noticed the time or how tired he was. His eyelids grew heavy and each time he closed them it became harder to open them again. His head fell back into the soft cushion of the armchair.

The book remained open in his lap as he drifted off to sleep. Unknown to him, now that he was no longer reading its pages hanging on Adair's every step, a different story was being woven in the book; a very dark story that had no place in Fantasia but unfurled still, intertwining its dark threads with the words of the Neverending Story. Jason would never know, but this change did not escape the attention of a certain cat. From her perch on the armrest of the chair Iole peered into the book with her sky blue eyes.

Falkor opened his eyes slowly. What awoke him first was a steady drip of water trickling onto his forehead. He winced as each drop fell on his white mane. Groggily he lifted his eyes to see where it was coming from. The chamber he was in was lit dimly by candles. He could only see that it was made of stone. Instantly he felt sick. The Luckdragon didn't do well inside buildings no matter how large. Anything with a ceiling was enough to make him nauseous. Another drip splattered onto his nose.

"Hee-hee" came a voice from above him. He saw a strange creature that he had never seen in Fantasia; a tall slender figure with blue hair and furred ears and tail. It dangled from a length of chain that hung from the ceiling, looking down at Falkor with glowing red eyes and the most hideous of smiles stretched across its face. It held one of its claw tipped hands out, rubbing two fingers together. Water was appearing from its fingers and falling onto his face. "Nice to see you're finally awake."

Falkor blinked his eyes. "Where am I, and who are you?"

"Nowhere and no one." the strange blue haired creature crooned.

Falkor winced again as another steady trickle of water struck his nose. He made a move to rise. He wasn't bound down at all so it wouldn't be difficult to fly.

"I wouldn't do that." The creature said. "Sorry Luckdragon, but your luck has run out."

"You are our prisoner now." came the cold voice of a girl from the corner of the room. She sat on a small wooden stool with a book in front of her surrounded by candles. "And luck is a magic we defeated long ago."

"You see, your uncanny luck relies on probability." Came a third voice, this from a young man in glasses who stepped out of the darkness so the candlelight shone off of their lenses. "The lower the probability the greater your luck. With a probability of one to ten you can pull off some unlikely actions. If it were one to one hundred, a magnificent creature like yourself is capable of creating a miracle. However not even magic can make something out of nothing, and not even a Luckdragon can find a lucky break when the probability is zero."

Falkor narrowed his eyes at the young man. "I may not know much about statistics, but I know a few things. For one, I'm a great deal bigger than all three of you. Second, you all seem to have forgotten to chain me down. So what's keeping me from flying through that ceiling? For that matter, what's stopping me from turning you into a snack?"

The creature above him grinned. "Ooooh aren't we feisty." It made a cat claw gesture. "Rawr."

"Look down." said the young man in glasses.

Falkor lowered his eyes to the floor beneath him and found an intricate carved circle with an assortment of symbols etched into it. Never having had much need for magic in his lifetime, the Luckdragon didn't have a taste for such things. But he was wise and he knew a magic circle when he saw it.

"That, my miracle-making friend is a rift circle. My associates and I once made use of them to cross between the various worlds we've visited. And we've explored all kinds. There are some full of magic like this one, others not so magical, some with people made of fire, others covered in ice. And there are even worlds where the landscape, the trees, the inhabitants, and even the air are made entirely out of water."

Falkor visibly flinched which only made his captors grin.

"That's what waits for you if you take one step out of this circle." said the blue haired creature. "We know that doesn't really mix well with Luckdragons, being made from fire and air and all."

Falkor growled at them, but his fear of water kept him from moving to snap his jaws at them. "What do you want from me?"

"Nothing comes to mind at the moment." The young man gloated. "We only apprehended you on orders. But you are a Luckdragon. I'm sure we can find a use for you. Fay, what was it he said to Atreyu on the day they met?"

Fay sighed like she'd been interrupted and lifted the book in her lap, holding it open so they could see its pages. But instead of words Falkor's stomach lurched at seeing an image of himself speaking to a much younger Atreyu.

"From now on," the Falkor in the book said pridefully "You'll succeed in everything you attempt. Because I'm a Luckdragon!"

The image faded as Fay rested the book in her lap again.

Thoth smiled cordially. "I suppose we can always use a bit more luck."

"You're going to need it." Fay said. "That is if you plan on winning this game. The points are stacking in my favor."

Thoth rolled his eyes. "A wish for a pretty new dress is hardly conclusive data for your 'strongest magic' theory."

"It was a wish made by a girl who has not wished for anything in ten years." Fay argued.

"Still, hardly conclusive."

"I have an idea." Nag swung off its chain and landed in a crouch on the ground. "Atreyu has relied on luck magic ever since the day he met Falkor." They continued talking as though Falkor weren't even there. "Fay's 'strongest magic' is still very new to him. Maybe we can put the two against each other."

Thoth stroked his chin with his slim fingers. "Now there's an idea. The magic he's trusted most, from his closest companion no less, used against him. Well Fay? Dramatic enough for you? What do you say to another experiment?"

"At least it will give us something to do while we wait for that girl to make up her mind with that ring we gave her." Nag added.

Fay closed the book. "The drama intrigues me." she admitted in her dull flat voice. "Very well. We'll pit luck magic against the Strongest Magic. I declare that the Strongest Magic will shatter it."

"And I hypothesize that Atreyu's years of dependance on luck magic will be his undoing. The loser has to give Nag a tick bath."

Nag cringed. "I hate that idea."

"You are overdue for one." Fay admitted. "It's starting to show."

Nag scratched its furred ear in a canine fashion. "Wait a minute. Atreyu is new to your 'strongest magic' Fay. And Adair is resistant to it. That's a really big risk. How will we continue the experiment if Thoth turns out to be right?"

To this, Fay gave the ghost of a smirk and winked one of her cold blue eyes mockingly. "With luck."

Falkor snarled. "You're despicable."

The three turned back to the Luckdragon. "Oh don't worry." Nag jeered. "We haven't forgotten about you."

"Seems we're going to get some use out of you after all." Thoth said.

Falkor reared his head back and took a deep breath. A powerful stream of blue flames shot from his maw and streaked toward his captors. But just as it reached the edge of the circle it evaporated into mist. They had spoken the truth. His fire had been extinguished in that world of water.

"My turn." Nag held up its hand and from its palm came a cold spray of water. Falkor cringed and curled away from it, but there was nowhere to go. He wrenched his ruby eyes shut as he felt the water begin to sizzle on his face.

"Now that's quite enough of that." Thoth said. "Nag, if you please."

Nag spread its legs and dropped to a low stance. In a sweeping motion it heaved its arms upward. Falkor cried in alarm as two shadowy pillars sprung up on either side of him. Two giant arms made of pure darkness materialized and clamped their great hands down on him. Struggle and thrash as he might, he was powerless to escape their grasp.

Thoth crossed the circle with a pair of shears in hand, snipping them together cruelly. "This won't hurt a bit."

Fay stood on the edge of the circle watching the other two work. Her cold gaze met Falkor's. "Like we said, your luck has run out."

"Jason... Jason."

Jason felt a light shaking on his shoulder and looked up to see Bastian looking down at him. He'd fallen asleep slumped over in the armchair. He rubbed his eyes and looked around as if he didn't remember where he was. With a sinking feeling he saw that it was daylight outside.

"Have you been there the whole night?"

Jason didn't answer at first. Instead his head shot up when he realized something was missing from his grasp.

"Relax." Bastian said. "I have it right here. It must have fallen out of your lap." he held up the copper silk bound book in his hand.

Jason had to stop himself from seizing it. He took it gratefully and opened it again. It didn't occur to him through his early morning haze that he hadn't marked his page the night before. He simply knew it was open to the right page.

"Any luck?" Bastian asked.

Jason read the first line on the page and sighed when he saw his friend's name. "No. She's still in here." He noticed Iole curled up at his feet sound asleep and purring loudly. "Traitor." he muttered.

"Perhaps you should head home. Won't someone be missing you right about now?"

"No." Jason said bitterly.

Bastian nodded and took one of the chairs from the corner of the shop to sit in front of him. He nodded with understanding.

"I see. So things aren't any better on that front?"

"Not unless you call signing me up for military school behind my back better."

"I'm sorry to hear that."

"It's fine. It's never really been a secret neither one of us want me there. At least he's upfront about it."

"You know my offer still stands." Bastian reminded him.

"I know."

Bastian caught the tone of his voice and knew he didn't want to talk about it anymore. "Well you have more pressing concerns right now, and I have a till to count. So if you'll excuse me I think I'll leave you to it then."

"Thanks." Was all he said before he began reading again.

Three days passed and Atreyu and Adair at last reached...

"Whoa!" he cried in alarm. "Three days?"

"Something wrong?" Bastian looked up from his counting.

"The book says she's been traveling three days, but she only got sucked in yesterday. How does that work?"

"Perhaps time flows differently in Fantasia than here. Different worlds have different flows of time. One would think it entirely possible for a person to spend their whole life in one world while not a day goes by in this one."

Jason didn't like this idea at all. What if Adair did spend the rest of her life in Fantasia? What if he couldn't get her out before she became an old woman? Then he remembered that Adair did have a way of getting out if she really wanted to. He hesitated to think about what that might mean, but if it meant getting her out before she lost anymore time, or worse got herself killed by one of Fantasia's many dangers would that not be worth considering?

"Mr. Bux?"

The old man looked up again. "Yes?"

"What if Adair's found a way out of Fantasia already?"

"Doesn't seem likely. Wouldn't she have used it by now?"

"Well, it's complicated. Someone told her there was a way, but they were..." He considered his words and then went on to explain the three strange characters in the book Adair had met; the ones who had claimed not to be from Fantasia and had promised her a way home in exchange for a price that was as strange as they were. "So if she gives them a lock of Atreyu's hair (which by the way is beyond creepy) they'll send her home."

"I see." Bastian mused. "Well I don't know much about magic myself, but the kind that demands a price up front, especially a vague one like that sounds a little dark to me. These three you've described sound very much like witches. That might be why Adair hasn't called on them."

Bastian's words made Jason remember something those witches had said to Adair. "Wait, AURYN gives Adair power, but that demands a price too. Adair loses a memory each time she makes a wish. Isn't that the same thing?"

"Well AURYN is different. Much like the Childlike Empress, it doesn't make distinctions between good and evil."

"So is Moon Child good or evil then?"

"Why of course Moon Child is good." Bastian said with certainty.

"Then how can she allow evil to exist in her world?"

"Because she understands a great deal more than you or I ever will. Having lived for such a long time, she has a different perspective. Here, try this; suppose you knew Adair was going to fall and break her arm before it happened. What would you do?"

Jason answered immediately. "I'd stop her from falling."

"Just as any good person would want to." Bastian agreed. "But now let's look at it from Moon Child's perspective. You may not want Adair to fall and injure herself, but what you don't see is that Adair would survive the fall, her arm would heal and be even stronger than before, and in the end she'd be all the wiser for it. Furthermore those that are close to her are given the chance to care for her and show her they love her by being there in her time of need. All of these wonderful opportunities present themselves by one simple fall."

Jason pondered the old man's words for a moment. "I guess that makes sense. But what if the fall leaves her worse off than before?"

"I find that when we fall it can work both ways. We can give up or we can get up. But that is up to no one else but us. But listen to the two of us." Bastian said, returning to his work. "We're wasting time. I have a store to run and you have a friend to save. Let's both get to it then." They both set to their tasks before Bastian felt compelled to voice a last warning.

"Jason," their eyes met. "Take it from me my boy. No good ever comes from dealing with witches."

Three days passed and Adair and Atreyu at last reached the shores of the Ocean of Whispers that washed against the borders of Princess Gaya's domain. Atreyu had been strangely silent and distant for most of the journey. Mostly he'd stuck to telling her more about Fantasia. She'd been fascinated to learn that it was impossible to map Fantasia in its entirety because the landscape was always changing. It would constantly shift depending on the wishes of the traveler, where they were trying to reach and the strength of that wish. The only thing that remained constant was that the Ivory Tower was its heart. He'd told her that normally on horseback it would have taken a week to reach Spook City, but because AURYN hung from her neck they'd been granted faster passage.

"So this Princess, have you ever met her?"

"No. But I've heard about her." Atreyu admitted. "She's said to be very cunning, and powerful. Some call her the Maiden of Broken Dreams."

"Why?"

Atreyu leaped off the horse. "I guess we're about to find out."

"Are we there?" Adair looked from left to right trying to catch a glimpse of this famed city of ghosts and goblins. "Where is it?"

"There." he pointed across the ocean. She could see nothing beyond the shifting waves but gatherings of dark clouds.

She looked hesitantly at the water. "This might be a bad time to mention that I can't swim."

"You won't need to." he assured her. "We're going to ask the sea nymphs."

"Sea Nymphs?"

"The only way to reach Spook City is through them. They're bound to the water, so they're keepers of many secrets. It's one of the reasons Falkor hates the water. Secrets can tie you down."

Falkor she thought with despair. They still hadn't heard anything from him since they'd been separated and she attributed this to Atreyu's bouts of silence. Talking about it now wasn't going to help though so instead she asked "Well if they're so secretive then what makes you think they'll help us?"

"Because they saved my life once. A long time ago I fell into this ocean and they carried me to Gaya's shores."

Fallen into an ocean? She wondered how that had happened, but decided against asking him. It sounded like a long story and he seemed very focused right now. She'd have to find out later.

Atreyu fetched a pebble from the bank and pressed it against his lips.

"What are you doing?"

He lowered the stone. "Sending a message." Then with a flick of his wrist he shot it across the water's surface where it leaped seven times.

"Impressive." she admitted. At first nothing happened. Then Adair gave a start when she saw three pairs of eyes break the surface of the water where Atreyu had thrown the stone. Slowly they made their way to the shore until they could pull themselves onto the sand. Perhaps the most unsettling thing was that no matter how they moved, not a ripple disturbed the water's surface. They were beautiful as most nymphs are, but in a dark and mysterious way. Their night black hair twisted together all the way down their backs like coral. Their ears were long and ridged like the fins of a fish, and their eyes were completely black. Their fingers were webbed together, and they were wrapped in leaves of seaweed. But beneath it Adair could see that their flesh was actually covered in pale gold scales. She could only see them from the waist up because their lower halves remained hidden beneath the murky gray water.

"Atreyu of the Plains." said the first. Despite her eerie appearance, the sea nymph spoke in a musical voice that reminded Adair of trickling water. "It's been a long time, but I still remember the day my sisters and I carried you in our arms. You were very small then."

"Daughters of the water," Atreyu addressed them formally "this is Adair Alicia Artemis."

"We know who she is." said the second. "There are whispers all over Fantasia, and every whispered secret is washed back to us."

"You have come seeking the Maiden of Broken Dreams." said the third. "She has been expecting you." They sank back into the water until only their faces remained visible above the surface. "Step onto the water. We shall take you to her shores."

Adair looked to Atreyu. "That was easy." In spite of this she couldn't begin to guess how they were going to reach the city by stepping onto the water.

Atreyu went first and held is hand out for her. As they stepped onto the water she found it solid beneath their feet. It was like walking on a glass floor, slick and uncertain but still solid. They took three steps in and then suddenly the water rose around them. She flinched and threw her arms around Atreyu as she felt her feet heave upward. He held her steady as the water lifted them into a wave. It carried them across the Ocean of Whispers at such speed that she was obliged to close her eyes. When she opened them again she saw the jagged rocks on the opposite shore coming at them.

"Hold on!" Atreyu cried and she squeezed ever tighter. The water lifted them higher and higher, propelling them over the rocks. Adair screamed as they were thrown from the wave's crown and felt the breath knocked out of her when they landed on the wet black sand. The landing had been hard but still safe.

She coughed as she rolled onto her knees, pushing herself up. "How did you land on your feet?" she asked Atreyu with no small amount of jealousy.

Atreyu bent to help her up. "You've just got to find your center. You'll get the hang of it."

"Don't bet on it because I am never doing that again."

"What do we have here?" came a gravelly voice from behind one of the rocks.

In a flash Atreyu had his sword out with his feet planted firmly in front of Adair. A gaggle of six cackling goblins emerged from the rocks with their sickly green flesh and yellow saucer eyes. Their noses were long and hooked and their teeth looked as jagged and misshapen as the rocks. They had wild curly hair and in their hands they carried long spears that were taller than they were. The tallest looked like he barely reached Atreyu's shoulder. But what they lacked in height they made up for in thickness. Each one had burly shoulders and thick arms attached to a torso that balanced on squat legs with tough square knees.

"Now that's a shiny sword." said one. It's widely known that goblins are lovers of anything shiny and they will do almost anything to get it.

"Careful. It looks like it knows how to use it." said another.

"Well too bad for it. They're in our lands now."

"I am Atreyu." the boy said boldly. "We are here to see Princess Gaya, the ruler of these lands. We were told she was expecting us."

All of them laughed. "It's little, but it talks so big! Our Princess expecting you? Prove it!"

Thinking quickly, Adair got to her feet and stepped in front of Atreyu. She held up the medallion around her neck for all of them to see.

"Recognize this?" she snapped.

The goblins cringed. "The Gem. The Gem! It has the Gem!" they cried. "A human! The Empress' messenger!"

"That's right. The Empress sent us." Adair declared with more boldness than she felt. "We came to ask your princess something and you are going to make sure we get there safely. Got that?"

The goblins looked at each other and waited for their leader to speak. "Right this way." one of them said. "We'll take you to her."

The motley gathering motioned for them to follow. Three led from the front while the rest took up the rear. With goblins in front and behind Adair felt this was more of a prison escort and the idea made her uneasy. Had Ateryu not been there she wouldn't have had the courage to take another step. His confidence had been something of an example to her since they'd met. But even with him there her head was swimming with all kinds of ideas about who they were going to see, none of them pleasant. She could see the city at the height of the rock formation. As the goblins led them up the winding path that led there she would catch glimpses of shadows out of the corner of her eye. They'd flit back and forth on the rocks above them. She felt like they were staring down at them. The nearer they drew to the city, the more real and frequent the shadows became. When they reached the gates of the city they weren't shadows anymore. She could see the eyes of night hobs, ghouls, ghosts, and hags leering at her from every which way. She felt Atreyu squeeze her hand.

"Don't pay any attention." he whispered. "This place feeds on your fear."

"Then they just got an all-you-can-eat-buffet." she whispered back.

"Just don't show them you're scared and they can't bother you." The way he instructed her reminded her of a time when she'd been very small and someone she loved very dearly had given her advice when she'd been plagued by nightmares.

You're wrong. she thought. They can hurt you.

Spook City was more of a ruin than a city. It was a grand ruin, but still a ruin. The buildings were all falling into disrepair, and more than that they looked like they shouldn't have been able to stand the way they were built. One tower she saw stooped over, almost in a complete arch. Everything in the city seemed intentionally left covered in a layer of dust and cobwebs. After a long trek through the city the goblins led them to its center. In the city square with the moon shining down on it with pale light stood a tall castle of stone. She didn't remember the sun setting, but from the moment they'd entered the cliffs the sky had been dark. Now that they were at the center, the city looked to have reached twilight. The goblins led them into the citadel past a pair of imposing gargoyles perched above the gate. She was sure she saw the statues move and stare at her as she passed.

The goblins led them up the steps that led to a wide room with a black throne in its center. The moon shone down on this room through a gaping hole in the ceiling that looked like it had been blasted open intentionally rather than simply falling to decay like the rest of the city.

"Fearsome and revered Princess Gaya," said the goblin leader as he and his followers fell to one knee. "We bring you Atreyu of the Plains and human Adair Alicia Artemis. They seek an audience with you.”

Adair heard something from far off that at first sounded like the wind. But as it grew louder it sounded more like howling. Soon the wind reached the throne room and it was all around her. She covered her ears because the wind was actually the cries and howls of thousands in her ears. It carried with it glittering specks that looked like stars. The glowing trail swirled around each of them until reaching the throne. The glittering shards gathered before the throne and Adair gasped as they collected to form feet, then legs, and then a being came into full view. A tall maiden materialized from the shards and shadows swirled around her in a long flowing gown that looked like a piece of the night sky that had been cut from the heavens. Her hair was pure white and looked like glowing strands of moonlight. It floated around her head as though it were beneath the water. Her entire body was made up of these glittering shards that looked like broken glass attached to a shadowy core. Adair had to stifle a gasp when she saw her face, for in its center sat a pair of black eyes. But they weren't eyes at all. They looked more like holes that led into the darkest abyss.

The Dark Princess lowered her heavy black gaze to Adair and she felt her legs tense like they'd been bound with wire.

"I know who you are and why you have come to my realm." Her voice sounded like the terrible wind, like the cries of others in a sordid chorus. "Leave us." she said to the goblins. The goblins were only too happy to oblige her orders. This princess left even her own followers quivering with fear. "Atreyu of the Plains, we meet at last."

Adair looked to Atreyu who was as stoic as always. His hunter's gaze that she had drawn strength from were as steady as boulders. She wondered how even in the face of this creature he could remain so calm, but then she noticed something that she never thought she would see. His legs were trembling. Even Atreyu felt the weight of the Princess' darkness.

"I am Gaya, ruler of these lands, queen of witches and ghouls, and regent of all that moves in the night."

"You said you know why we've come." Atreyu stated and Adair was grateful he was brave enough to talk to her because there was no way she would. "A Creature of Darkness that calls himself Volrac has declared war on the Childlike Empress."

"The Nightmare King." Gaya said with bile coating the title. "Yes I know him. Ten years ago he came to my realm and asked me to be party to his madness."

"You refused?" he asked.

The shards that made up the Princess' face tightened into a scowl. "Did you doubt that I would? Moon Child is Fantasia."

Adair tensed. It felt like a blow to hear Moon Child's name glide along the tongue of someone like Gaya. The strangest part was the respect in her tone when she made that statement.

"That is what we wish to know. He must know that if the Childlike Empress dies, Fantasia and everything in it will be destroyed, him included. Why would anyone, even a Creature of Darkness attempt something like that?"

"Why do you ask me what you have already guessed 'Son of All'? You said it yourself. No one from Fantasia could ever form such an idea."

Adair shuddered. "How did you know that?" she asked, and regretted speaking when those abyssal eyes came to rest on her again.

"Secrets and whispers are all in my dominion." Gaya answered. "Every dark idea or suspicion reaches my ears. I even know your fears."

"Then you know who it is?" Atreyu asked. "Who gave Volrac the idea?"

"The Nightmare King is powerful indeed, but he is only a pawn in the greater picture, a puppet dangling from the strings of an even darker power."

"Who is it?" Atreyu demanded.

Gaya's face twisted in rage and she let out a low howling hiss. "The Distortion. It does not belong in Fantasia, and it carries hideous magic that poisons all that it touches, twisted and ugly. Because it is not of Fantasia it is not bound by its rules. It twists Fantasia's very nature to fit its desires."

"But why? What does it want?"

"Want?" Gaya said with a sneer. "The Nightmare King wants. The Nightmare King has ambitions, and as mad and hopeless as they are he at least believes in what he does. The Distortion wants for nothing. It simply corrupts for corruption's sake. Its whims are childish and meaningless. It has given the Nightmare King his power and promised to help him reshape Fantasia just to see if it can."

Atreyu realized he'd been asking the wrong question. "What did this Distortion promise Volrac? What does he want?"

"The Nightmare King hates Moon Child and hates the world of humans even more. He despises the connection between our world and theirs. In his mind Fantasia must be free of them."

"And destroying the Childlike Empress accomplishes this?" Atreyu asked.

"He can't destroy Moon Child!" Adair cried. "That would still destroy Fantasia. I don't know a lot but I know that much."

Gaya held up one of her glimmering hands to silence them. "It is not his wish to destroy Moon Child. It is far worse. The Distortion has promised to craft a most hideous magic to help him accomplish this. He does not plan to destroy her. He plans to replace her."

Atreyu visibly staggered. "A Fantasia not ruled by Moon Child? That can't happen. Not even the Distortion can do that. Please Princess tell me it can't!"

"Who can say?" Gaya answered and Adair almost believed she heard sadness in her voice. "Its darkness is vast and still growing. It may yet find a way. Uncertain or not, many of the Creatures of Darkness have been attracted to the Nightmare King's dream of a new Fantasia no longer bound to Moon Child or the Human World. Even some of Fantasia who do not follow the darkness have been misled by this madness. I hold my court here through their fear of me, but soon even they will forsake this place to join him."

"But not you." Adair realized. "You hate his plan." she looked up at the dark princess whose face was now as blank as the shards of glass that made up her body. "You're a Creature of Darkness. Shouldn't you hate everything that's good including Moon Child?"

Thunder cracked above them as Gaya's black gaze turned hard. She spoke slowly with menace. "How dare you. I allow you into my domain and give what I know freely, and you would accuse me of treason?"

Atreyu stepped forward. "She means no disrespect Princess. Even I have wondered why you've remained here while all the others have joined Volrac."

Gaya turned her eyes back to Atreyu and the instant she did she was inches from his face, hovering above the ground in front of him. "I will not tolerate suspicion from you. Do not forget 'Son of All' that it was by my power that Gmork the Werewolf was chained. When the Nothing was consuming our world, Gmork would have seen it happen by destroying you, the only one who could save us. By my cunning I tricked him and by my magic I bound him. Then to make sure he would never escape I threw myself into the Nothing. Had I not he would have found you and swallowed you whole and our world would have been lost."

For once Atreyu's eyes were wide in alarm. The shards of Gaya's body dispersed and swirled back to the throne where she reformed. Seated in her throne her voice took on a distant tone.

"I was a beautiful dream once," she said mournfully. For the first time her voice was soft and now Adair knew there was sorrow in it. "Loved and admired by all, until the one who dreamed me lost his wife and went mad with grief. I changed into a hideous nightmare and was scorned by all those I had once called my friends. I wandered ugly and alone for many years until one day I found myself at the Ivory Tower. No one stopped or stared as I made my way to the top. It had become everyone's custom to simply try and pretend I was not there. I climbed for days without rest until I reached the Ivory Garden where I collapsed. When I awoke I found myself in the Magnolia Pavilion and came face to face with the Golden Eyed Commander of Wishes. I fell to my knees and wept at her feet. I begged her to make me beautiful again. Then I heard her laugh. When I looked up she smiled at me with those wondrous golden eyes. She shook her head and said 'but Gaya, you already are'."

She lowered her gaze to Atreyu. "Yes 'Son of All', I am like you. I have seen her face to face. The Childlike Empress was the first and last to look upon me and accept me the way I am. She does so with us all, even those as broken and forgotten as me. Through her I found new purpose." then she scowled and her voice turned hard again. "For me, Moon Child's Fantasia is and always will be the ONLY Fantasia."

She raised her arm and stared at the glittering shards that formed it. "You have heard that I am called the 'Maiden of Broken Dreams'. That is not simply a title, it is my calling. This form that I take is made from the fragments of every dream that has ever been broken or forgotten. They are like me." she looked to Adair this time. "They are the despair of your race, and it is growing every day."

Adair felt a sinking feeling in her chest. "That sounds very... lonely."

"It's not really. This is the calling Moon Child gave me and I will honor it. They are simply wishing for someone to remember them. I even have one of yours." she looked to Adair again. "Would you like to see it?"

Atreyu shook his head at her. He looked anxious. But Gaya's claim gave her curiosity. There was a piece of her dreams in the princess? What did that mean? She took a step forward as Gaya beckoned her with her long glass fingers. The princess spread her hands wide and in a flash the shards of her body spread out and swirled like flakes in a snow globe. One shard floated to the front and she cupped it in her hands. It grew until Adair could see her face reflected in it like a mirror. Then it changed. It was still her face, but she was very small. She jumped when she recognized the white daisy pins in her hair. The last time she had worn those she had been seven and it had been her mother who had used them to pin back her bangs. She was looking at her younger self and now she realized what Gaya was showing her. She tried to back away, tried to tear her gaze from the mirror. She saw her young self in the woods crying, she saw them coming to find her.

Mom! Dad! No! Don't! Don't come! NO!

And then she saw HIM. What played out before her made Adair's head spin. She felt disconnected, like she'd been a fish plucked from a pond and swung around while the air burned her lungs. She couldn't breathe. The first thing that brought her back to herself was Atreyu screaming her name.

"Adair! Adair! What's wrong?"

She realized then that she had been screaming. She found herself on the floor where she would have hit her head had he not caught her. She felt his arms around her and when she looked into his eyes she felt herself start to cry. She buried her face in his chest to hide the tears. She didn't want him or anyone to see her cry.

Atreyu hardened his gaze as he looked back to Gaya and demanded an explanation. "What did you do to her?"

"I showed her what you came for." the princess snapped. "The reason Moon Child sleeps while the Nightmare King tries to take her realm from her. His attack on our world began ten years ago when the Distortion showed him her mirror in the human world."

Adair could barely hear them. Her head was still being assaulted by that horrible image she had kept buried for so long.

"What are you talking about?" Atreyu shouted. "Moon Child has no mirror in the human world. She is Fantasia."

"And Fantasia is filled with contradictions." Gaya said with an air of superiority. "This is what the Nightmare King used to try to persuade me to join his cause a decade ago. The Distortion used its dark magic to grant him a brief passage to the human world and showed him the human mirror of the Childlike Empress."

"Adair?"

Finally Adair could think straight enough to process what they were saying. "Me? I'm the Childlike Empress?"

"You are her mirror in the human world. You are connected to her stronger than any other I have ever seen. Seeing you here with the Glory around your neck I am now more certain of that than ever. The night you saw the Nightmare King he stopped your heart. You have not dreamed or wished ever since that night. At the same time in Fantasia, Moon Child's eyes closed and have not opened again."

Adair held a hand to her chest, clasping AURYN in her hand. "He... stopped my heart? Everything he did... was to get to her?"

"That has been his plan from the beginning. When he attacked you in the Ivory Tower he believed the Empress would vanish with you and leave her throne open for him. In her state, Moon Child is powerless to stop him, and she will remain so until your heart awakens."

"How do I do that?" Adair asked feeling fresh tears trying to break through her eyes. "How can I start dreaming again when I haven't for ten years?"

"Your heart can only be awakened by the Strongest Magic." the princess answered.

"What is that?"

"That is what you came here to learn." Gaya answered. "This is your story Adair Alicia Artemis. It is for you to discover."

She tried to rise and Atreyu helped her to her feet.

"Why haven't you told anyone of this?" Atreyu asked. "All this time Moon Child has been asleep you knew. You knew how it had happened."

"Because she has always known." Gaya replied. "The day before she fell into sleep, Moon Child sent a messenger to my realm. She told me all that I have told you and instructed me that I was to wait until you and Adair stood before me. Then I was to tell you and only you. You in turn must never reveal what I have. Keep Adair's identity a secret and guard her with your life for without her we are all lost."

Adair needed Atreyu to help her remain steady. He kept one arm around her shoulder as he spoke to Gaya. "Thank you Princess for all that you've done. We'll be leaving now."

"Wait." Gaya rose from her throne. "There is one last thing. As a show of good faith to Moon Child's messengers I offer you a tribute."

They heard footsteps from one of the corridors as a group of wide eyed night hobs entered the throne room. Each one dragged a chain behind them. The links clanked together loudly, and each time they tugged the chain in their hand they laughed high screechy laughs. Adair peered over them to see what it was they were dragging behind them. The moment she caught a glimpse of the hunched figure who looked around wildly with reddish brown eyes she knew who it was. Gaya had captured Shadeseeker. She was as old and shriveled as they had seen her last. Apparently she'd been unable to steal anymore youth after the destruction of her mirror. In fact Adair thought she looked even worse than before.

"We caught her three days ago trying to hide in our ranks. She is powerless now and is useless to the Nightmare King who will not allow her back into his graces. Even so she is still a traitor to all of Fantasia. As messengers of the Childlike Empress I give her to you. Before me and these witnesses of my court you may decide her fate."

Atreyu moved as if to shield Adair from the terrible sight but she waved him away and moved into the gathering of hobs to look the old hag in the eye. Shadeseeker said not a word but her eyes were wide both with malice and fear. Her face was covered in bruises and stained with tears that left trails in the layer of grime that coated her skin. The gash that Atreyu had caused with the shard of her mirror had scabbed over and looked to have become infected with green around its edges.

"Did you get anything out of her?"

"Nothing I didn't already know." Gaya replied. "And there is nothing more to be gained. She is a soft being and did not stand up to torture. Had you not arrived I would have had her executed. But I shall leave the decision to you."

Adair felt a hand take her by the wrist. It was Atreyu. Shadeseeker looked desperately between the two of them looking for all the world like a cornered field mouse. Atreyu whispered in Adair's ear and she nodded.

Turning back to the dark princess Adair said "Banishment. Let her go."

Gaya's dark gaze was apprehensive. "You would have us free her? She who joined ranks with Moon Child's enemy?"

"It's like you said." Adair explained. "She's powerless. She can't do any more harm even if she's freed. Why waste time?" The princess stared at her silently. "This is my decision as the messenger of the Childlike Empress." She held AURYN up for her to see.

For the first time since she had appeared before them, Gaya smiled. "You are more like Moon Child than you realize." She motioned for her hobs who set to releasing the hag from her shackles. She still said not a word even as Gaya ordered her to leave. She took shuffling steps toward the gate and spared Adair one last glance over her shoulder. She didn't know what was in those eyes, whether it was hatred, wonder, or just plain confusion. Then Shadeseeker vanished from Spook City.

"I think it's time we left too." Atreyu said and Adair agreed. All she wanted was to leave this terrible place behind and never look back. They made their way past the hobs and toward the gate when Gaya called to them a final time.

"Good luck Atreyu and Adair," It was the first time she had said their names without addressing them by any sort of title. "And beware. The only thing that can save us is also what the Distortion seeks. If they succeed your Strongest Magic may become your most bitter poison." And then she was gone, leaving only the howling wind in her wake; the mournful cries of broken dreams.


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