Title: the world transform'd shall view
Fandom: The NeverEndng Story, set after III, but based mostly on the first movie
Characters: Nicole, Bastian, Rock Chewer Junior, Atreyu, Falkor, Childlike Empress
Word Count: 8,381 words
Summary:"Nicole remembers that day three years ago when the world went wild because of her whims, standing soaked in the rain, pleading with her new brother Bastian to fight the Nasty... did she want to go through that again?"
Author's Note: Written for alixtii for Yuletide 2009. You should be able to follow this story, even if you've only seen the first movie. What you need to know is that Bastian's father remarried in III, and he gained a step-sister, Nicole, who is the same age. She didn't like him at first, even to the point of trying to sabotage him using the Auryn medallion, but came to accept and love him by the end. Thank you to foxtwin, myystic and zoi_no_miko for the beta. :)
The voice almost rouses her from sleep, amidst a strange dream of flying creatures and fantastic landscapes. She murmurs and drifts off.
The voice is high and fragile-sounding, and somewhat alien. She tosses and turns most of the night and minutes before her alarm buzzes she is sitting up in bed, whispering her own name. "Nicole..."
She eats her breakfast in a daze, her mother's reminders to send off her college applications unheard. Later that morning, she finds herself blinking in the dusty morning light that filters through the high windows of the school library. She had asked the study hall monitor if she could come, but she doesn't really know why. This is Bastian's domain, not hers. She almost expects to find him here, legs drawn beneath him in a comfortable chair... but this is school, not home. Bastian prefers quiet; he reads in his bedroom, a forgotten storeroom or under a tree -- not some public place like this.
Bastian has taught her to enjoy reading. The first year their parents were married, they spent nights reading to each other their favorite books -- first him then her -- and she smiles thinking about it. Her private bookshelf at home is just as packed with books as his now, but she still loves to go out with her friends at night. Bastian has friends now -- Nicole found him some mutual friends -- but sometimes Nicole thinks he'll always be closer to his books.
Mr. Coreander, the librarian, isn't here. The library is silent save for the ticking of the clock on the wall. She takes slow, careful steps toward the reference section. The book is there again, The NeverEnding Story, she can see the gilt edges glimmering from behind the dictionaries and encyclopedias that hem it in.
It wasn't there last month, or last year even. Bastian told her once that the book only appears at a time of great need: in his life, and in Fantasia's. They are inextricably linked.
So why is it here now? Why can she see it? She reaches out her hand to touch it and the whispered voice calls, "Nicole..."
She flinches, but then her hand grasps the book, almost of its own accord. She can't resist reading the title aloud. "The NeverEnding Story." The book seems to whisper in time with her own trembling voice.
Nicole remembers that day three years ago when the world went wild because of her whims, standing soaked in the rain, pleading with her new brother Bastian to fight the Nasty... did she want to go through that again?
She is unable to stop from opening the pages, from viewing the first illustrated page. It is a pencil sketch of Nicole, standing on a forested hillside, a tall tower in the distance. She is not looking toward the tower, but toward the horizon, something the Nicole outside the book cannot see.
The caption below says...
"The Disquiet?" she reads aloud. She is alone in the library, so she continues, "Nicole woke that morning with the sound of voices calling her name urgently. Someone needed her, someplace she had never been before. A churning sensation began in her stomach. 'Who could need my help?' she thought. 'I am not brave, not like--'"
The door to the library creaks open and she looks up guiltily to see her stepbrother in the doorway. "Bastian?"
"Nicole?" He tilts his head in confusion as he walks toward her. He is no longer the awkward fourteen-year old boy she'd first met while their parents were dating. He is seventeen, like she is, almost ready to go out into the world. And his unruly shock of wavy hair over his searching blue eyes is more endearing than 'un.' "What are you doing...?" He notices what she is holding. "Is that...?"
"Yes," she says simply. "It called to me."
"To... you?" He looks hurt. "I thought it was calling me."
"Why couldn't it be calling to me?" she challenges him. All her earlier doubts flee in the face of his disbelief. "Mr. Coreander said 'our' story wasn't over, you know!"
He gives her a half-smile, half-grimace. "I know, but..."
"This was always your story."
"Yeah." He comes around to her side to look at the beautifully printed words. "What does it say?"
Her mouth twists up in a smirk. "I just started reading, Bast." She points to the picture. "Is that Fantasia?"
"Yes, and the Ivory Tower." His eyebrows draw down. "But you've never been there... or have you?"
"No." Suddenly she wants nothing more. "But I'm going there soon." She bookmarks her place with a finger and tucks the book under her arm. Then she holds out her hand. "Will you come with me?"
He smiles and takes her hand. It fits into hers just right -- it shouldn't feel so right, she thinks. Should it?
"Take us to Fantasia," she whispers to the book under her arm. Nothing happens at first. Then without warning, the tiny space between their palms tingles with magic; the feeling quickly spreads up her arms and throughout her whole body. The room begins to shake and spin... and suddenly they are gone. The book tumbles to the floor, flopping open to the page Nicole had tried to mark.
Mr. Coreander leaves the storeroom just then, and shuffles toward the reference desk. He sees the book open on the floor. "Someone needs to be more careful about how they handle my books!" he grumbles. His expression changes to a curious smile when he reads the cover. He lifts the book and reads for a few moments, then closes and replaces the book on the shelf. Humming, he goes about his duties.
Nicole has never seen anything so beautiful in all her life. She couldn't have wished for anything as amazing as this, even if she had the magical Auryn medallion around her neck again. They are standing on a tall cliff, looking over a breathless view of Fantasia. Nicole turns in a slow circle, taking in the endless sea of green foliage. And far, far in the distance is the Ivory Tower. As her eyes alight on it, her name seems to float in the air. She has never seen the like, not trapped in suburbia with its endless asphalt. The world seems fresh and new, and more... alive... than she has ever known.
"Is it always like this?"
Bastian closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, seeming to joyfully fill his lungs with the magic of the place. "Yes." He opens them and looks out at the spire of white rising in the distance. "Except when the Emptiness, the Nothing and the Nasty were destroying it. This is the way it should be. When everything is right."
A voice rumbles from almost underneath their feet. "Is not right."
Nicole yelps in surprise and fear.
"Is not home."
Bastian turns in all directions and his face lights up as he rushes to the edge of the cliff. "Rock Chewer Junior?"
"What?" is all she can think to say. She sees nothing, not even a bird or an insect.
"Come here, Nic." He waves her to the edge. "Look down there -- see that pile of rocks?"
Nicole gives him a raised eyebrow in reply.
Bastian smiles. "Wave to my sister, Junior!"
"Bastian? And sister? Bastian bring sister?" The pile of rocks transforms into a great monster of a figure, looking like an overgrown teenager, but completely made of stone.
"Whoa," she says, eyes wide.
Bastian laughs. The sound is deep and full of joy. He seems more alive here in this fantasy world than he does back at home. She feels a quick stab of envy as she watches him scramble to climb down the side toward his friend.
She's not here to watch, though. She follows him down and whoops in surprise when the creature sweeps them up in two rocky fists.
"How are you doing, Junior?" Bastian asks. "You look so grownup, now! Last I saw you, you were just a toddler!"
"More tasty limestone to eat, more grow." He grins, his mouth full of jagged boulders stretching out wide. Then his smile fades, and the rocks grind together in sadness. "But no more tasty mountains here. Not for Junior."
Bastian is instantly concerned. "Why? What's happened? Is the Nothing back? The Emptiness?"
"No. Dad say rocks tasty. Mom say rocks tasty. But rocks not tasty to Junior. Not right."
Junior puts his fists under his chin and pouts, even though they are still grasped within. Nicole clings furiously to one of his oversized fingers with a squeal. "Hey! Watch it!"
"Oh! Sorry," he rumbles, and gently sets them back on the ground beneath them.
"Is that why you're here? To find 'tasty' rocks?" Nicole asks, dusting herself off.
"These rocks not good. Too..." Junior sticks out his marble slab tongue.
"Maybe you just need to keep looking. If you search hard enough, you'll be sure to find it." Bastian is confident. She likes this side of him, it doesn't show nearly enough back in their world.
"What if Junior not know what he looking for?" Junior's massive lip trembles.
That seems to stump Bastian. Nicole doesn't know what to say either. She is six months away from the end of high school and the next step seems like walking off this cliff behind them. There's a reason she has been ignoring the college applications her mother sets on her bed.
Nicole walks over to Junior's foot, and pats it gently with her hand. "Everything will be fine. You'll figure it out." It seems like an empty promise, something a parent would tell a child when there is nothing else to say.
"Thank you, Bastian Sister."
"Maybe we can help you find it," Bastian says hopefully. "We're on a journey to see the Childlike Empress. Maybe we will find it on the way?"
Nicole looks quickly at Bastian. They are going to see the Childlike Empress? Is that the voice in her head?
"Come with Bastian and Sister?"
Junior gets to his feet in happy anticipation, shaking the cliff and the trees at its base like a mighty earthquake, dislodging rocks and dirt. Bastian and Nicole clutch at each other for stability. One of the rocks tumbles directly toward them and they dive out of the way just in time.
"Sorry, again," Junior says in a low rumble, and scoops them up again in one palm. "To Ivory Tower?" he asks, and points them in the direction of shining pillar far in the distance.
Bastian nods. "To the Ivory Tower."
As Junior sets a quick pace, none of three notices the way the colors of the trees behind them have begun to fade, becoming colorless as ash.
The Ivory Tower shines brightly in the distance, through the day and the night. The wind seems to blow at their backs, pushing them along toward the Tower. Nicole finds herself wakeful that first night, out in the open with only her autumn jacket and Rock Chewer Junior blocking the wind. She thinks about what Bastian had said about the Childlike Empress during their journey with a touch of worry.
"She rules over all of Fantasia and she has control of the Auryn. She's calm and wise," he says, looking toward the Tower as he speaks. "And beautiful." He uses the reverent voice he reserves only for his long-dead mother, though she's not sure she wants to ask why. Nicole wonders how he would describe her.
It's funny. That summer they first met, she couldn't care less what he thought of her. He was this intruder in her life, he and his father -- strangers who could never take the place of her missing dad. But now she can't imagine life without them, without him.
Bastian had said that the voice calling her was probably the Childlike Empress. She had called Bastian before when her need was great. What is the Empress' need this time? Though Nicole has never been here before, nothing seems amiss.
Nicole turns over to gaze on Bastian, curled up against Rock Chewer Junior's massive foot. Junior rumbles the earth slightly with his snores. She is jealous that they are able to sleep, looking forward to the end of the journey. Nicole shifts a little closer to her step-brother, hoping some of that peace will rub off on her.
They wake to a bright dawn, Nicole having drifted off for a few hours. She can vaguely remember a whispering lullaby floating on the wind, trying to soothe her to sleep. Bastian is finger-combing his hair and stretching. She hopes it isn't much farther; she's hungry. So far they have been able to find berries and such along the way, but that won't satisfy them forever.
She stands and stretches herself, looking at the path ahead. The wooded area is giving forth to grassy plains, which seem to stretch endlessly ahead. But so had the woods. The Tower still shines in the distance, winking brightly in the morning sun.
Nicole frowns. "Shouldn't it seem closer now?"
Bastian covers his eyes with one hand and squints into the distance. "It seems closer to me," he says after a moment. "I think." Then he shrugs. "We're almost to the plains. It must be."
"Tower still far," Junior observes. "Must hurry."
He lowers his palm to the ground and they climb up onto it to begin the day's journey. She should keep her eyes straight ahead, she thinks, but she would rather watch Bastian's face.
When the sun is high in the sky, Bastian asks Junior to set them down by a stand of trees. "I'm going to see if there is anything edible, okay, Nic?"
"Okay," she says, but he's already pushing aside branches.
She decides to walk around the other way, around the outside of the grove. She has avoided looking toward the Ivory Tower all morning. It's not as if she is afraid. By all rights, she should be just as excited to meet this fairytale princess as Bastian is. But the moment she saw the beauty and wonder of this place, all of her confidence from the library had slowly evaporated. She had tried hard not to let Bastian see it.
Nicole closes her fingers into fists and finally looks up.
The Tower is still there, just as bright, just as beautiful... just as far away.
"It's beautiful, isn't it?" A voice comes from behind her, strong and male. But it isn't Bastian.
She whirls, hand to her chest, to see a tall young man, seventeen or eighteen by the look of him, bronzed, well-muscled with long, brown hair. Behind him, a fine white stallion grazes on the grass. She takes a step back.
He holds out a hand in entreaty. "Do not run. I did not mean to startle you." He nods formally. "My name is Atreyu. I am a warrior of the plains."
"Atreyu?" The hero of Bastian's stories? He was just a boy in those stories... but then, Bastian was just a boy the last time the two met, also.
"Yes. You have heard of me?" he asks with a tilt to his head.
"My stepbrother told me about you. You know him: Bastian?"
His face lights up in a wondering smile. "Bastian is your brother? I have not seen him in many years! Does he fare well in the human world?"
"He's fine. He's great." She looks beyond him, into the trees. "He's here, actually."
"Splendid!" he exclaims, and turns to look into the trees as well.
Nicole feels odd speaking to a person borne of Bastian's imagination. Sure, she has met Rock Chewer Junior already, but he is such a fantastical creature that it isn't as hard to accept. But Atreyu seems so real, like he has a life completely separate from them all.
"So..." she says after a few moments, "are you out... hunting or something?" Her voice is hopeful. The berries were a long time ago.
He turns back to her. "No. Searching."
He has a very plain way of speaking. She'll have to ask more questions if she wants to know more about him.
"My place." He turns back to peer through the trees for Bastian.
Nicole opens her mouth to ask what he means by that, but he strides toward the trees. Bastian comes into sight at the same time. "Hey, Nic, I think these plants are edible, it seems like last ti--" He cuts off immediately upon seeing their new visitor. "Atreyu!"
"Bastian!" Atreyu throws his arms around her stepbrother and hugs him tightly. Atreyu draws back and holds Bastian at arms' length. "It is good to see you." Then he frowns. "What great peril has brought you here?"
"Peril?" Bastian looks to Nicole. "We don't actually know. The Childlike Empress is calling my sister... there must be a reason."
Suddenly, Atreyu is regarding her with a great deal more interest. "She calls you?"
"Yes," Nicole says simply. She can't add anything further, not yet.
"I, too, am on my way to the Ivory Tower. Perhaps we can journey on together, the three of us."
"Four," comes a rumble from over the trees, and Rock Chewer Junior rises up above the canopy to gaze down on them all.
"Four, then." Atreyu smiles. "Five, including Artax."
Nicole moves closer to the warrior. There is something about him that draws her in the same way Bastian does. Of course, the fact that he is muscular and tanned doesn't hurt. She asks, "You're searching for your place? What does that mean?"
He presses his lips together in thought and breathes heavily through his nose. "The plains have always been my home, but lately... I feel that I must be elsewhere. Where it is, I cannot say. I hope that the Childlike Empress can help."
They continue traveling toward the Tower, a larger group than before. Atreyu rides his horse beside the rock chewer, who carries the siblings still. Nicole slowly nibbles on some trail rations Atreyu shared with them before moving on. Still, the uneasiness grows in her stomach, and food does not settle it.
Bastian notices. "Is there something wrong, Nic?" He places a hand on her arm, and she tries not to lean into it.
"Not really, just..." She tries to think of an explanation that doesn't make her seem like a worrywart. "...this is all a little surreal."
Bastian gives her an understanding smile. "Oh yeah, I was completely freaked out the first time I realized that this place was real." His smile turns broad. "And then I thought it was the greatest thing ever."
She smiles back at him as bravely as she can, and then pulls away, wrapping her arms around herself. The blasted cold wind at their backs is getting to her. "I'm just impatient to get to the Ivory Tower, I guess. Try to figure all of this out." She points at the shining tower in the distance. "Does it always seem like you will never reach it?"
"Sometimes. But I always have, eventually."
"It must be the magic of the place, then. 'Cause I swear, that tower is just as far away as it was when we joined up with Atreyu a couple hours ago."
"Oh, I'm sure it's just a trick of the light..." Bastian begins, and then his smile turns to a frown. "Actually... maybe you're right..."
"I am?" she asks, surprised. This is his world after all.
"Junior!" he calls out. "Could you set us down?"
"Whatever Bastian want." They both hop off his lowered hand into the grass. Junior carefully lowers himself to sit on the grass, displacing the tall shoots.
Atreyu walks his horse toward them. "What is it?"
"Does the Tower look closer to you, Atreyu? Or the same distance as before?"
Atreyu places a hand over his eyes to peer into the West. "It seems the same... but it must be closer. We have all traveled a good distance."
"It's not," Nicole says firmly. "I've been watching it since this morning, and it never gets any larger. I don't know..." She swallows, uncomfortable. "...if it wants us to come."
"Time and distance can be very fluid here, Nic." It stings a little that Bastian doesn't accept her hypothesis.
"Maybe we just need a faster method of travel."
"Could we call upon the luck dragon?" Atreyu suggests.
"Oo, doggie," Junior says, clapping his mammoth hands together. "Me want to see dragon, too."
"Falkor's the flying dragon, right?" Nicole asks.
"How do we call him?"
"If I had the Auryn... or even the book... all I'd have to do is wish."
Atreyu places a hand on his chin to think. "Maybe we could shout for him?"
"Worth a try." Bastian cups his hands around his mouth and shouts at the top of his voice, "Falkor! Falkor! We need you! Falkor!"
Nicole and Atreyu add their voices to the din, all three searching the sky in all directions for some sign of the huge white luck dragon. Soon Nicole's voice becomes hoarse and she drops out, letting the boys keep shouting. Falkor does not come.
Nicole suddenly feels more discouraged than she has since the day her father left home. This is useless. They are going to be trapped in this world forever, no one knowing what happened to them. She will never see her mom again, her step-dad, her friends... all she has is Bastian.
She looks over at Bastian, still gamely trying to shout Falkor's name. If they are stuck here, then at least they have each other. They've grown so close in the last couple of years -- it wouldn't be so bad, would it?
Then she feels awful again. It's Nicole's fault they are both here. She invited him to come. Maybe she should have gone alone, and followed the voice to its source. None of this neverending wandering would have happened.
I need Falkor, she thinks, and quickly. I have to get to the Tower so that Bastian -- and I -- can get home.
The boys are drifting apart, intermittently calling the dragon's name. Nicole closes her eyes in defeat.
Then she hears a strange sound, almost like... snoring. She turns toward it and wanders toward the edge of a ridge (was that there before?) and carefully peeks over the side.
At the bottom of a shallow valley, the luck dragon lies in slumber. His floppy ears almost cover his eyes and his whiskers blow in the wind of his every breath. When did he appear? Why can he not hear the shouting of his name only yards away?
"Falkor?" she whispers, clambering quietly over the ridge to reach him. She creeps up to the luck dragon, much larger than she remembers, and whispers his name again from a safe distance. "Falkor?"
She receives a snore in response.
She takes another careful step. The creature is so big, and though she doesn't think he would hurt her -- he is, after all, another one of Bastian's creations -- she doesn't know what he would do if awakened suddenly.
"Falkor?" she tries again, this time a little louder. When there is still no response, she treads as close as she can toward his large head. What was it Bastian had said in his stories that the dragon liked best? Oh, yes, scratching behind the ear...
She carefully moves behind his floppy white ear and places a hand there. The creature does not react, so she curls her fingernails downward and begins to stroke. First lightly, and then with increasing firmness.
A different sound comes from the dragon's throat, a soft whine. It turns into a throaty moan of pleasure. "Young lady..." His voice is gravelly and low. "You have a friend for life."
He turns his head so that she can scratch more easily in the ridge above his ear, and his tongue lolls out to the side, just like a real dog.
"Mmmm, yes. I am Falkor. A little more there, please."
"All right." She scratches as firmly as she can and he moans again. She smiles. "We've been looking for you, Falkor. Can you take us -- me, Bastian and Atreyu -- to the Ivory Tower?"
"Mmmm, I could."
She scratches a little farther down. "Oh, thank you! We'd never rea--"
"But I won't."
Her hand stops. "Why not?"
"I do not want to. If I go there, things will change. I do not like change."
She steps fully away, and walks over to the ground in front of his canine head. "No one does!" she tells him with a touch of irritation. "But we must go. The Childlike Empress is calling us!" Then she frowns. "What do you mean, change?"
"The world is perfect, as it is. I can sleep for hours and nothing troubles me," he answers, his eyes still closed. "All enemies are vanquished, and my luck never fails me. If I take you there..."
"Things might change for the worse?"
"Exactly. How could it be better than now?"
She frowns harder. "But Bastian says we have to go there."
The dragon's large eyes open and he regards her for the first time. The eyes are bright blue and almost human in appearance. "Are you Bastian? Do you do everything he says just because he says it?"
"Then come rest beside me. I have not had someone to nap with in many years." His body shimmies slightly and he pats a soft paw on the ground where she can lie down.
After the poor night's sleep, it does look inviting. She could get some rest, and then try to convince him afterward. She sits down in the grass beside his furry paw and closes her eyes. This will only be a short nap; Bastian and the others will find them soon anyway. The whispering voice comes back to her as she drifts off. It sounds more urgent but her limbs feel heavy and she is soon sleeping. She does not dream.
She slowly awakens to Bastian gently shaking her arm. She can hear Atreyu frantically calling Falkor's name, and the ground shakes as Rock Chewer Junior shifts from foot to foot.
"Nicole, wake up," he is saying, and she opens her eyes blearily. He looks worried.
She yawns. "Bastian. You found us."
"How long have you been here, Nic? In a few hours it will be sundown!"
She turns to the horizon. He's right. She must have been sleeping most of the afternoon. "Wow, I slept longer than I thought."
Bastian looks upset, but Atreyu strides up to him before her stepbrother can scold her. "The dragon is alive, but sleeping soundly. He does not wake no matter how loudly I shout."
"Is he in a coma?" Bastian says worriedly.
"No," Nicole says, getting to her feet. "I spoke to him earlier. He doesn't want to take us to the Ivory Tower."
"He doesn't?" Bastian seems more disappointed than upset now. "Why didn't you come find us after you talked to him?"
Falkor's voice rings out in the small valley. "Because I asked her to rest with me."
"Falkor! You're okay!" Bastian moves to stand in front of the dragon, giving the creature's snout a quick hug. "But why won't you take us?"
"I do not wish to. Ask your sister." His eyes close again.
"He doesn't like change." Nicole shrugs. "I can't blame him." She reaches up a hand to stroke his ear. "And I couldn't convince him otherwise."
"But Falkor, you don't understand. Things are already changing." Bastian gestures to the east. "While we were searching for you, we discovered something terrible. All the land behind us is fading out, turning grey!" His voice grows urgent. "Things are changing whether you like it or not!"
Nicole stands and looks in the direction Bastian pointed. "What?"
"This must be why the Empress is calling us. To prevent Fantasia from fading away completely!"
Falkor settles lower into the grass. "It is not different here, Bastian. Perhaps it is only the places you travel from that change."
Bastian closes his mouth, eyebrows drawing down. But Nicole's mind swirls. Falkor's words have struck a chord within her, and she resonates with realization. "Even if we can't go back, we can't stay here," she says. Then she swallows. "I came here for a reason -- to help the Childlike Empress. I need to go through with it."
She nods and sets off on her own, walking toward the horizon and the Tower. The others are silent as she stalks away, but only for a moment.
A satisfied huff comes from behind her. "If that's the way you feel about it, then of course, I'll take you."
She halts, and swivels back to look at Falkor. "Really?"
"If you are sure you are ready to go."
She holds his eyes, the others looking puzzled at this exchange. Then she nods. "I am."
"Then hop aboard, everyone!" His demeanor has changed completely, his tone jovial and bright. "Except you and Artax, Junior. Do you think you can keep up?"
The horse paws the ground and shakes his mane. Junior bellows, "Junior run fast!"
The three humans climb quickly onto Falkor's back. He rises impossibly into the air and swishes his tail in readiness. "We can make the Tower before sundown!"
Nicole can finally make out some details on the Tower, now. After a full day and a half of traveling, the tall pillar of light is growing close. Once she decides to go forward, the journey has become easy.
She has realized something else as well. If all of these creatures, all of these people, are creations of Bastian's imagination -- maybe they are all based on Bastian in some small way. She would ask Bastian, she realizes, has probably not analyzed this fact himself.
She looks down at Junior, loping along below them. Who would he be? The child of a larger-than-life being, primal in his needs? He is now almost grown-up, just like Bastian. He is looking for tastier rocks. Those of home no longer satisfy him. Is Bastian the same? Finally ready to break away from home... and her?
She thinks about Atreyu. He is a hero, a warrior, full of confidence and skill. Surely Bastian was not that way when she first met him, and yet... This heroic side has emerged in him again and again. And what is Atreyu searching for? His place, a new place.
She thinks about Falkor, flying free through the air. What is he? Is he Bastian's longing for freedom? For empowerment? He seems to represent their determination, their willingness to move on.
And what part of Bastian would this Empress be? Is she Bastian's long-gone mother? His longing for love? Or... was she once the desire for a sister? If those were true, then what about Nicole? What about her mother? What about...?
But there is no other girl in Bastian's life. Not in the real-- the "human world," she corrects herself. She has experienced in person that this place is just as real as home.
Still, the thought of Bastian being made up of all of these people, this kaleidoscope of character... What if they are all her, instead of Bastian?
She feels Bastian's hand on her shoulder brings her out of her thoughts. "Look, Nic, there it is!"
Falkor angles his flight to let them see better, and she is dazzled by its beauty. The tower is taller than any skyscraper she has ever seen, and looks more delicate than porcelain. It seems to glow from within, illuminating the wild gardens at its base. "Whoa," she says,
at a loss.
Bastian pats her shoulder again. "I know."
Falkor descends, soaring downward toward an opening in the top of the Tower. The structure approaches so quickly that she fears they will not make it through. She closes her eyes tightly and grips Falkor's fur as firmly as she can...
Then the rush of wind and dizzying speed stops. Have they landed?
"You are going to create two new bald spots if you don't let go," Falkor jokes.
She loosens her grip and opens her eyes. Everything is gleaming white, impossibly beautiful and clean. The courtyard is large and echoing, bigger than it seemed from the air. She brings her legs to the side to slide off, but Bastian is already on the glittering tiles, holding out a hand to help her down. She smiles gratefully and takes it. Rock Chewer Junior has somehow made his way up here also -- she doesn't understand how the finely-polished floors don't crack under his weight, but miraculously, they are fine. Artax waits patiently beside one of the delicate pillars.
She follows Atreyu and Bastian toward an opening on one side of the court, where there is some sort of throne. Seated there, looking fragile yet wise, is a young woman. This must be the Childlike Empress.
The Empress stands and holds out her hands to her stepbrother. "Bastian!" Her voice is breathy and light, only slightly stronger than the voice that whispered to Nicole in her dreams.
He comes and takes her hands in his. "We came as soon as we could, your Highness."
"I am glad," she says, then nods at the others. "I did not expect so many guests, though. Only," she turns her limpid blue eyes on Nicole, "one."
Nicole swallows. "I asked Bastian to come, to help guide me." Then she realizes her rudeness and curtsies awkwardly. "Your Highness."
"And the others? They are here to help as well?"
"Actually," Atreyu steps forward and bows. "We were hoping you could help us."
The Childlike Empress smiles sadly. "I see." She gently lets go of Bastian's hands and seems to float forward to stand in the middle of the group. "I desire greatly to help you, but I am in need of help first."
"What can we do, Empress?" Bastian asks with eager worry.
"The Old Man of Wandering Mountain told me when last I saw him that a young person must save us again. A person who has a great, but fear-filled heart, who loves deeply but is afraid to surrender completely." The Empress looks straight at Nicole when she says this.
"Me?" Nicole says uselessly -- even though she knows that she is the one who has been called, not Bastian.
"You know that it is." The Empress glides toward her, the jewel strand on her forehead twinkling in the light. "Come with me, Nicole?" She stretches out a slender-fingered hand.
"Go ahead, Nic," Bastian encourages her. She looks back into his eyes and sees nothing but encouragement.
Nicole takes the Empress' hand, feeling more unsure of herself than ever. The Empress leads Nicole into another part of the Tower, into a more enclosed room, with a single window. It is in front of this window that they stop.
"I can see all of my kingdom from here," the Empress begins. "I love it so. And though Fantasia has suffered terrible trials, we have always come back stronger than before."
Nicole looks out over the countryside, now glowing red with the sunset. She can see what the Empress means. There are the plains they passed through, the mountains and forests far in the distance. They are difficult to see in the waning light, however; even the ruddy colors of sunset do not reach them.
Nicole blinks. Maybe it isn't just nightfall. The land to the east, the direction they came, is actually grey. Only the lands toward the west and the setting sun are bright with color. "Is it really--?"
"Fading grey?" the Empress answers her thought. "Yes, it is, Nicole." She brings Nicole's hand, which she is still holding, close to her heart which beats beneath her embroidered bodice. "And only you can stop it."
Nicole's eyes slowly go wide. She is expecting to help in some way -- from what she remembers of Bastian's stories -- but not that she alone can stop it.
The Empress nods, a slight tilting of her regal chin. "You can face The Disquiet."
"That was..." Nicole says, understanding dawning. "…that was the title in the book..."
"Tell me, Nicole. Have you felt this disquiet within you?"
"I--" Nicole begins, but then she knows the truth. She has felt nothing but disquiet since she arrived in Fantasia. "Yes." She blinks a few times. "The Disquiet has invaded Fantasia, hasn't it?"
"It has. It has spread across the land, seemingly unstoppable."
"But I don't understand what I can do."
"The Disquiet came from outside Fantasia. From the human world." The Empress steps closer, and places a delicate hand over Nicole's heart. "From within you."
The Empress removes her hand and Nicole touches the spot, disbelieving. "What?"
"Yes. The NeverEnding Story has always been Bastian's tale… but then he met you. When you used the Auryn, this world's magic became attuned to you. And when you worked together to stop the Nasty -- you, he and Fantasia became inextricably linked."
Nicole blinks. She never had a brother before their parents married. She has felt a connection to Bastian since the day they saved Fantasia and the human world together, but always assumed it was the feeling all siblings had for each other and their families. The Empress was now telling her this connection was something stronger.
"I can feel it, Empress." She looks down at the spot on her chest that she is touching. She almost can't believe how strong it is.
"Then you must also feel The Disquiet. It threatens this connection." She looks out toward the common area, where Bastian, Atreyu and the others are waiting. "Will you fight it, Nicole?"
Nicole focuses on the sensation, the feeling of worry, of fear, of weakness. It has been there for months now, starting subtly at first, and then growing stronger. It has never crippled her so much that she can't function, so she has pushed it aside, shoved it deep down where it will not affect the carefree teenage girl everyone knows. The girl who should only worry about what outfit to wear that day, or whether their football team will win at homecoming, or who is going to ask her to prom.
But that's the problem. That's the girl she was when she first met Bastian. And that girl is no more than a shell now. Her friends think she hasn't changed, but she has. Having a real family again, one that is loyal and caring, and having a brother -- a very special brother -- has changed her. Her mother suspects, but she doesn't say anything. Her stepfather's a sweet guy, but he's not her first choice for a confidant. Bastian, though....
She thinks Bastian already knows. He gives her a look now and again, the kind of look that makes her think she's as easy to read as one of his beloved books. But she hasn't said anything to him yet. She is afraid to give the words voice.
The Empress is waiting for her answer patiently, glowing with confident innocence. The otherworldly girl touches her shoulder gently then, and Nicole suddenly crumples into her arms. "I don't know what I'm going to do!" she sobs.
The Empress gently leads her to a delicate white wrought-iron bench and wraps an arm around Nicole. She does not say a word, only lets Nicole cry her tears of frustration and loss.
The words all come out in a rush, all the things she has kept inside for months. "High school is going to be over soon, and I have no idea what I want to do. Everyone is expecting me to go to college, but I don't know where I want to go, what I want to major in; I'm not even sure I want to go at all. Anywhere I go is going to be far from home! For most of my life it was just my mom and me. I've only just had a few short years to have a true family. Only a few years to have a real brother. I don't want to go off on my own yet! I don't want to leave B--"
Nicole stops, realizing what she is about to say. Then she finishes after a hiccupping sob, "Bastian. I'm not ready to leave him yet."
There it was. The thing she could hardly think, let alone say aloud.
Since when did Nicole Bux break down into a sobbing mess of tears? The old Nicole would have laughed it off as unimportant, or waited until she was completely alone before she let even a single tear roll down her face. And the time she cried in front of Bastian in the pouring rain... well, that was a completely different situation, wasn't it? The Auryn's magic in the hands of the Nasties was making the world go mad. No one was themselves that night.
The Childlike Empress slowly smoothes a hand over Nicole's back. She lets Nicole cry a little while longer, letting all of the turmoil flow out. Then in a quiet voice, she says, "You must speak of this with Bastian, Nicole."
Nicole nods numbly, not ready to leave the Childlike Empress' embrace.
"Nicole," the Empress says in a soft voice, "I told you that you are the only one who can face The Disquiet..." She reaches down and takes Nicole's hand in hers. "But you do not have to do it alone."
Nicole slowly raises her head and looks straight into the Empress' eyes. She sniffles once before saying, "I know."
"You do," the Empress answers matter-of-factly.
Nicole stands then, squaring her shoulders and straightening her clothes. She does not bother to do more than scrub one of her sleeves across her eyes. The only one she would worry about seeing her cry has already seen it before. Resolute, she walks back into the courtyard.
Bastian sees her right away, his eyes seemingly drawn to hers. "Nicole!" he says with excitement. "Did she tell you what is threatening Fantasia?"
The Empress calls Atreyu and Rock Chewer Junior to join her in her chamber, but Nicole hardly notices, nor does she acknowledge the luck dragon, curled up contentedly in one corner. She comes close to her stepbrother, and stops almost toe-to-toe with him. His eyes crinkle with a frown when he notices her puffy eyes and tear-streaked face, but he doesn't comment on it.
She tilts her chin up. "Yes. It's called The Disquiet."
"Is that its name this time?" he asks earnestly. "How do we defeat it?"
"By giving it voice." She sees a sort of balcony, jutting off the side of the courtyard, and she holds out her hand, just like she did moments before they traveled to Fantasia. "Will you come with me?"
Bastian looks puzzled, but he takes her hand. It is warm and strong -- oh, this is going to be difficult. They walk to the railing and stop. Bastian lets go of her hand again, regretfully.
She looks down at her hands, resting uncomfortably on the railing, as she begins. "Bastian, for a couple of months, I've felt this sort of... worry. We're going to graduate from high school soon, and... I don't know what I'm going to do."
"Nic," he says, and she can feel that concern in his voice, the kind that has made her love for him grow stronger every day. "It's natural to be afraid. I don't have any idea where I want to go to college. I mean, there are so many good schools for writing, but I don't know if I have the talent to make it--"
"That's not what I mean, Bast," she interrupts. She knows he's going to be fine, he's always been stronger than the circumstances around him. "I mean, I'll probably study business or something, and don't know if I really care which college I go to... if I go at all."
"If?" He looks more worried than she expected.
"I'll go when I go. That's not what has me worried."
She looks up, but then out toward the lands all around them. She gestures toward the grey areas, almost completely dark now. "You see that? That's me inside. I'm losing myself by inches to this terrible fear." She finally looks up at him, and forces herself to say the words. "I'm afraid of losing you."
His face goes through a number of expressions -- surprise, puzzlement, worry -- before settling into affection. He tries to comfort her, "You'll never lose me, Nicole."
"But I will! You'll go off to one college, I'll go off to mine, we'll see each other on holidays and summer break. But it won't be the same! I'll be alone, and I won't even have Mom around."
For the last few years, Bastian has represented unconditional acceptance, family bonds that are stronger than circumstances. If they move away from each other, will she lose that? Will they grow apart?
He takes her hand again. "We could apply to the same colleges... go together. I bet Mom and Dad would even like that."
Her heart soars for a moment. "You'd do that?"
She knows he means it and she wants to jump with relief... but she still feels the knot in her stomach. This isn't the answer.
"No, Bastian, you don't have to limit yourself like that. You're an amazing writer, and you have an amazing imagination. You created all of this, right?" She takes another long glance around at the finery. "I know I have to let you go."
Then she wraps her arms around his waist and pulls him into a tight embrace. He sinks into her arms and she closes her eyes, trying to soak in the feeling. They rock back and forth for several minutes, and she never wants to be anywhere else.
The sun goes completely below the horizon while they stand there, and the only light emanates from the Ivory Tower. It seems that even Fantasia has to tell her that the day is over.
This visit to Fantasia has shown her that resisting change can cause harm. She has to trust that they won't lose their deep bond, that embracing change will strengthen both of them. Their love will continue as they grow older despite physical separation.
She gently pulls back and lifts onto her toes to give him a slow, sweet kiss on the cheek. "Goodbye, Bastian. The best of luck."
He gives her a smile, but there are tears shining in the corners of his eyes. "We have the rest of the year. It's not time to say goodbye yet."
"It is here," she says, and touches her heart.
At that statement, something seems to shift. The walls around shine brighter; the sun inexplicably rises again in the east, even though it had just set moments before. The wild gardens below the Tower are in full bloom and the horizon almost glitters with colorful promise.
Atreyu and Rock Chewer Junior walk back into the courtyard as she and Bastian are gazing at the sights outside in wonder.
"Bastian! Nicole!" Atreyu strides toward them, his face bright with joy. "The Empress has told me I should continue west! My destiny lies there."
"I stay here!" Rock Chewer announces. "Many tasty rocks around the valley."
"That's great," Nicole says, and gives Atreyu a quick surprise hug, and another for Junior, though she barely manages to fit her arms around his toe.
"I leave in the morning," Atreyu continues. "Will the two of you join me in my journey, or will you stay here?"
Nicole and Bastian look at each other, and something just clicks. Bastian shakes his head, and Nicole turns to the Childlike Empress, who is standing a few yards away from the group, giving Falkor an ear scratch.
She gives the dragon's ear a pat and then turns to the two step-siblings. "The Disquiet has been faced?" she asks.
Nicole nods, then speaks their wish. "We want to go home."
The Empress nods serenely, and then reaches into a fold of her skirt. She brings out the Auryn on a fine golden chain, and sets it gently into Nicole's palm. "You should both hold on to the Auryn and wish. It will return you safely." Bastian places his fingers on the other side of the medallion.
"Thank you," Nicole says to the Empress, who nods regally.
Then, fingers touching, they chant the words in unison, "Take us home."
Nicole stumbles slightly as she feels the firm floor beneath her feet. The library is unchanged, though the sun shines through the windows at a slightly different angle. She looks up at the clock. Only an hour has passed in the human world. She breathes a sigh of relief; no one will be looking for them yet.
"We're home," Bastian whispers.
"Thanks for pointing that out, I would never have guessed," she teases softly, and he smiles.
She glances over at the shelf where the NeverEnding Story had been, expecting to find it gone... and then gasps. "Bast!" She points to the spot.
His eyes go wide, but he can't speak.
She marvels, "There are two."
"Lights out in ten minutes!" the R.A. calls from the dorm hallway, and Nicole sighs, she doesn't want to stop reading. So she reads a little longer, she's almost at the end of the next section anyway. Quietly, she reads aloud, but not loud enough to disturb her roommate, who is working on a paper on her laptop. "Bastian looked up at the stars and sent a silent message out to his sister. 'Sleep well, Nicole.'"
Nicole closes the book and turns out her bedside lamp. Even with Bastian hundreds of miles away, she can always take strength from his presence whenever she reads of him. As she turns over, she murmurs, "Good night, Bastian."
The raised Auryn on the cover glows golden before the light sends sparkles into the air and fades away.