The Ceremony of Passing

The old bells jangled as the door opened, then jangled again as the owner picked up a large box to take inside. The copper lettering on the glass door shimmered in the sun as it had recently been repainted. For years, he'd left it with the name he was familiar with even though the old owner was no longer around. It had become so badly flaked and weathered that one couldn't read it, so he'd had it updated. It was still simply called 'Old Books', but with his name instead. Bastian Balthazar Bux.

The bookstore had changed in other ways too. As so many people used so many electronic devices, a wireless router had been added to allow public access. To go with that, the bookstore now had a page on Facebook. Bastian hadn't been sure about computers and the internet when such things showed up. They seemed like an efficient way to spread lies. And while he still felt that way, he had learned about them, now finding them indispensable in business and life.

By now, the old bookstore had a growing collection of little stickers on a board hanging outside. There was the usual 'Like us on Facebook for a discount!' sticker, with an added note that it would be a one-time thing. Another sticker advertised Goodreads; Bastian had been slowly adding reviews for various old books to that site, promoting those that stirred the imagination most of all. A third sticker informed that the store would be a write-in location for NaNoWriMo. After all, without authors there wouldn't be books, and without books there wouldn't be authors. There was also a rarely-seen sticker, one for the Tales of Fantastica website.

Near the door (and thus a handy place to set the box for now), there was a little reading area. It was something a business adviser had encouraged him to do to make the place more personable and relaxing. While it had meant rearranging the shelves (an arduous task he'd had to get help on), Bastian had thought it was a good idea. He simply made sure to track down antique armchairs, tables, and lamps to make it seem like those pieces had always been here. It had also required updating the wiring within the shop so that outlets were readily available there, but that had to be done for the modern world anyhow.

Other changes were with this box. When he opened it up, there were a number of small old books inside. They were mostly children's books, with a few that bridged the difference in ages. He'd told Carl that there was no reason the store couldn't have old children's book too, eventually convincing him of the matter. And with the internet, Bastian found a steadier flow of sales than simply depending on those who walked in. He bought books online from estate sales and such, checked on their conditions, then added them to the inventory that could be ordered from anywhere in the world. Books that Carl said had been here forever started finding new homes, often with people who thought they couldn't find such copies anymore. In turn, new books came in all the time. He even had an inventory of 'Not So Old Books' since it was near impossible not to pick up newer works when buying books in batches.

He would have liked to start checking on these new ones, but there was other mail first. Some bills, a note from the publishing house that dealt in his books, an envelope with deliberately printed addresses and a stamp with an American flag…


The moment he saw the envelope itself, he felt a far-off signal, like a trap ready to be sprung. "From a letter?" he murmured, setting the rest of the mail with the box of books. Those were important in various ways to this world, but this letter was important to another world.

The letter stated it was from one Jill Jasmine Jackson, sent in care of Peoria Middle School instead of a home address. As it was in English, he took it to the old desk and used his smartphone to scan and translate the letter to German as best it could. He should consult a friend to make sure he had a proper translation for this and a return letter, but he wanted to see what it was about quickly with that important sign. It was written in pencil on lined notebook paper, still with the fringes from being torn out.

'Dear Mr. Bux:

My name is Jill and I'm writing for my school's book club. We read two of your books so far this year and all of us loved them. We write and read stories for our weekly meetings but we've had some arguments about writing and I thought that we should ask you because you write great stories. The teacher asked us why we should write stories but hasn't said who is right or wrong. I write stories because I read a lot and I want to write stories I can't find in the possible word: library but that I think up. Tim and Sierra agree with me but Nate and Laurie think we should write the stories that other people will read and like us for and Abby is sure that stories should teach people things to be best. What do you think is right?

Also I have another question. Why don't you write about the tinies? They were in both books but the books weren't about them. I wrote a story about them but Abby says it's just like Laurie's pony stories because it was your idea first. She thinks it makes the stories bad if they're like that, but me and Laurie don't agree. I don't want there to be fighting in our club. It should be fun to tell stories but the teacher might say we can't have book club anymore if we keep arguing. Can you help us? I don't want book club to end.

From the Peoria Middle School Book Club

P.S: We read Tales of Hero Hynreck: Curse of the King's Tomb and Atreyu and the Viking Armada.'

"It's a wonder that your teacher let you write to me instead of an American author your club liked," Bastian said. Just for that reason, he wanted to make a reply. But with Fantastica involved… Bastian sent a text to his friend to make sure of the translation, then set the letter aside to take care of the store's business. He wanted to be able to focus on what needed to be done.

In his world, time passed at a regular unchanging rate. The distance between Old Books and Peoria Middle School would always be the same. And the books within the store and in the school would also always be the same. The stories went from cover to cover, beginning to end. However, that was not true for one book. The Neverending Story was never the same when it was opened. Time, place, and distance changed within the world it contained, as the plot demanded (it was a phrase he'd come across online and Bastian liked it as a simpler explanation of how things worked in Fantastica). Days of travel could pass in a few lines; a hundred years could pass and a child wouldn't grow up. But if the plot demanded it, the child would become an adult.

"Every time the book is opened to fresh eyes, its world is in danger again," Bastian recited late that evening, when he'd decided to turn his attention to Jill's letter. "Dear Moon Child, Golden-Eyed Commander of Wishes, forgive me of this peril. But to stimulate the imagination of humanity and increase the recognition of lies, I wish to pass this book on. I can send you to another who can give you a name."

His hand was on a sketch of two snakes entwined in an oval. This was an important moment, as well as dangerous. If it were used improperly, those who read The Neverending Story would disappear from the world forever. It was something that made Bastian worried every time he did this. But as dangerous as it might be to those who started it, it could be more dangerous to the world if he held onto caution too tightly.

A shine like fire raced around the drawing of the white and black snakes. After a moment, a similar shine caught his eye on the table nearby. There was now a book where there hadn't been one before: The Neverending Story was back with him. However, he had known it when it was written in German. This book was written in English. It was still the same book, the only true book of The Neverending Story. All other books had to come to an end when their back cover was reached.

There was an itch in Bastian's mind, wanting to get lost in this book again. But it wouldn't work this time. He couldn't read it in this language, for one thing.

Still, he sat in his chair and opened up the book. It naturally fell open to a particular point. After a moment, the text shimmered and reverted to German, giving him a description of him performing the ceremony of passing. This was because the Childlike Empress was watching him. As he was expecting that, it wasn't nearly as disorienting as getting caught in the Circle of Return. "A letter came to me from a school book club in another country," he said. "Then you've seen this Jill already?"

The Childlike Empress smiled at that. "Jill and her fellow club members. The six of them are all good humans to contact."

"You're inviting six at once?" Bastian asked. "How is that going to work? There's only one of the Glory and six young storytellers at once will be chaotic."

"If I want it to be, it will work," she said. "They will each be drawn to the book; they will read it together and be drawn in together. I'll make sure they're guided to your website so you can read of their story when they return.

"This will be interesting," he said, smiling at the thought.

Although honestly, it was interesting every time he got the signal that the book had found someone it wanted to be with. It was nearly twenty years ago now that he'd had the idea of how to make Fantastica richer and stronger beyond what he could do alone. The trouble with how the ceremony of passing had been done was that it counted on a new potential wisher coming into contact with one who had traveled to Fantasia and successfully returned. As it was, Carl had only ever passed The Neverending Story down to Bastian.

Bastian had passed it on dozens of times so far, and that was all due to computers. The fact that he had a computer meant that he could potentially connect with anyone else who had a computer. As a result, finding people of the right imagination was more likely. It was more complicated, though. He had to check websites where people talked until a post gave him that signal, similar to what he felt upon first touching The Neverending Story. Then he would have to consult the Childlike Empress for excuses to send them a book. Sometimes, he put bundles of less valuable books up for auction where he could get that person's attention. Other times, he had to simply mail off the book with a vague return address. As long as they got it, it didn't matter how they ended up with the book.

It meant that he didn't have as much influence over The Neverending Story now. However, it also meant that he was reading more and more about places in Fantasia that he would have never dreamed up. There were adventures that he'd never imagined too. Thankfully, his daydreams always let him go back to the stories he'd started in Fantasia, the ones Atreyu had sworn to see to their finish. That let Bastian write down the results and send them off to the publishing company so that others could read those stories. After all, he owed so much to Atreyu for all the work he had done. He would make sure that those efforts were recorded and read in both worlds.

Once he and the Empress had plans to send the book safely to America, he shut the book and went to his computer. He used to find others who'd been to Fantastica by reading books until one struck him as truer to the realm of imagination than most. And once again, computers had saved him from such a long and potentially fruitless task. He had started up a mailing list with others who had returned, each member searching various sites trying to identify others. In time, that grew to have its own social site, a message board he named Tales of Fantastica. It had two sides, the public face that anyone could access and the private one reserved for those who had truly visited Fantastica. Most had come in through The Neverending Story, but there were a fair number there who had visited another magical realm through a phantom tollbooth. Since they often had similar experiences, such imaginative people were welcomed as well.

Bastian logged in not on his main account, but an admin account named Sage B. This allowed him to send out a notice on the private side, connected to a new important thread: 'Ceremony of Passing performed for group'. In it, he gave a vague report of the letter from the school book club. This allowed the members of ToF to know of newcomers and pray for their success. They could even direct their daydreams and watch over the adventures, which was especially important when children like these ones entered Fantastica.

He had his own alerts from the site, people discussing adventures in Fantastica, with the tollbooth, or on Earth. However, one was also marked important, from the admin Sage Q. It directed him to a thread that had popped up in the Our World Discussions section: 'A Warning for the Sages'. Bastian stayed on the Sage B account to check on it.

It was from a user named Foxtail Princess, a young woman who had recently returned from Fantastica, and she had dire news indeed. 'I've seen talk around about beings not of Earth or Fantastica who have been trying to weaken both worlds, like Gmork the werewolf from BBB or the pale lady Unfarn from Myriaddreams, but they weren't involved in my adventures with TNS. But I ended up running into one earlier today. I have to thank all of you who were in the thread about how to safely deal with such beings, since this one scared the daylights out of me and nearly got violent.

'I was lucky that I'd bought an inspirational bookmark shortly before meeting him, as it gave me a means to protect myself. I went to gas up my car, but there were signs at the pumps asking for payment to be done at the register since there were concerns about card theft devices on the scanners out there. While I was paying for the gas, a wild-looking man barged in, drew a gun, and fired into a wall to scare everyone. It started out like it was a simple hold-up, but then the man looked at me. There was an unearthly shine to his eyes, I noticed that quickly. He then acted like he was taking me hostage, but the truth was that he recognized me as one who had been to Fantastica and I was his actual target there.

'He told me that he was known as Shame and asked if I knew the ceremony of passing. I acted ignorant, which didn't fool him but gave me some time to recall what you all had posted. While the clerk got out an alert to the police, Shame instructed me to cease all usage of the ceremony to stop inviting others into 'the trap of that dangerous fantasy', as he said it. He told me how parents were suffering because their children kept getting drawn in and lost forever to Fantastica, which did make me feel guilty and afraid just thinking of what might happen if my little girl gets hold of the book (or what could have happened to her if I had been unable to escape the School of Nitwits, or any other of the dangers I had faced).

'Actually, he told me a lot of things that made me very embarrassed by the time that the police showed up to stop him. But I had that new bookmark, stuffed into my purse because I meant to replace the old one in the book I had with me. It was one of those things that spoke to me deeply, in the message it told and in the picture drawn on it. Because it spoke to my beliefs so strongly, I was able to take hold of it for protection. Shame trembled the moment I did, dropping his gun to the floor. He barked out that he would choke me instead, acting desperate. But to me, he quietly tried to curse me and his barbs grew even sharper. I didn't feel as scared, though, knowing that my beliefs protected me against a wicked stray like him.

'I'm still rattled by what happened, but I know I'll be okay now. It was more important for me to get on here and pass on a warning to those who do know the ceremony of passing and use it. As our connections here have made us and both worlds stronger, those trying to divide Earth and Fantastica must feel threatened because of this place on the web. I have a strong feeling that they will attempt to harm and even kill our sages who pass the book along. You should all make sure that you have a means of protection on you always.'

"This is trouble," Bastian said to himself. He already carried things with him to act as a ward against beings like Gmork, and Shame now. And because he lived above the bookstore, a place that stored the fruits of imagination, this building was already secretly warded against wicked strays. The warning was still a good reminder to continue being cautious.

And of course, her story brought out an old debate on this board: was it right for them, as those who had experienced the dangers of The Neverending Story, to put others at risk by passing the book along to the next reader?

It was often encounters with the strays that brought up that question. Gmork had tried to ruin Fantastica and Earth by working within Fantastica, under orders from some force that they still didn't know much about. Then again, it was the strays who kept bringing that up, creatures that belonged to no world and wanted to make others suffer for it. They wanted to destroy human imagination.

Strays could be rescued from their plight, in a sense. Bastian had learned that when Atreyu reported to him that he had run into Gmork again in Spook City. When he had recreated Fantastica, Gmork had reappeared because he was a character within the story that Bastian had read. But he had become a native of Fantastica, not a stray. He was still a villain, perhaps because Bastian had understood him to be one. Unfortunately, he remembered nothing of who had commanded him when he had been a stray.

After some more thought, Bastian had his reply. 'Thank you for the warning, Foxtail Princess. And I agree with the others. We'll continue using the ceremony of passing, and continue being cautious with strays like Shame.

'About if doing so is right, I have been thinking over that again lately. The lessons of AURYN are harsh, yes, but I haven't run into anyone here who speaks of feeling worse off for learning those lessons. I lost all that I had from Earth and nearly got lost in Fantastica permanently because of AURYN. But due to what I learned in the process of losing everything, I gained it all back and far more than I could wish for. Being a part of this community and helping it grow continually is one of those precious things I gained as well.

'I've also come to wonder, are so many truly lost to The Neverending Story? It seems like every time a sage posts that they performed the ceremony, we gain a new member of our community a few days later. There are also many of us who have never even touched the book. This thread over on the public side (Give Them a Story! A List of Wishes from the Beings and Creatures of Fantastica) is undeniably the main draw to new members of the public board. They become inspired by the List and are drawn into Fantastica as a result of the stories they read and write there. We sages affirm that they have been to Fantastica and returned safely; we have not heard about any who fail to return.

'And in many stories that get told here, we hear a lot about a place where other humans have ended up trapped forever. The place goes by many names and guises: The School of Nitwits, The City of Old Emperors, The Labyrinth of Lost Ways. Its warden goes by a variety of guises and names, but has the same personality. But when we share stories of such prisons, we often discover that we have seen each other there. I'm sure I saw you there, Foxtail Princess, even though you entered Fantastica many years after me. You saw me there too, as someone in the School of Nitwits.

'We know that Fantastica is a land where anything is possible and where hyperbole is the rule. So many places have been stated to be the most beautiful, the largest, the tallest, the tiniest, the strangest, and so on. Even a place that tries to be ordinary often ends up being called 'the most ordinary and average place in Fantastica'. The humans who get trapped in such prisons are stated to stay there forever. But then, famed swords and precious artifacts end up lost forever, only to be found again for some vital purpose only it can perform (or so it is said) and then lost forever again. What is to say that the humans who are 'lost forever' in the prisons are not mere memories of those who got stuck there but eventually escaped as a part of their journey towards their truest deepest wish?

After all, the Childlike Empress is fond of telling us that 'the moment is forever'.'

'To the members of the Peoria Middle School Book Club:

I'm honored that you would write me from so far away, and on such an important question. Thank you for that. However, it's not easy to answer why we should write stories. There are many writers in the world with many reasons for writing what they do. Some writers write instruction manuals so that other people know how to do things properly. Other writers write textbooks so that students like yourselves can learn about things. And still other writers write storybooks so that readers can enjoy the daydreams that the writer has. Those are all good reasons to write.

To be honest, I write for all the reasons you told me about and more besides. I write because I love books, because I have stories in my head that I haven't read before. I write because I hope to pass on a little bit of the things that I've learned too, and hopefully in ways to not bore my readers. And while it is embarrassing to admit, I also write because I hope people will like the stories I tell. Those are all good reasons to share stories.

Added to that, I write because I have fun telling stories and I love the characters and places I imagine. Atreyu himself is my muse and best friend; I always feel like when I sit down to write, he's sitting down at a campfire somewhere in his many adventures, telling me the stories that I put to words. At times, he'll smile or laugh at my mistakes, telling me more clearly what I didn't see for myself. I hope all of you keep having fun writing and reading stories because the world is much better off with a variety of things to read.

Your letter also mentioned an argument over if stories had to be all original or if they could be inspired by other stories. I think all books are a little of both. After all, it's very hard these days to become a writer without having seen books, movies, TV shows, or one of the many other ways that a story gets told. Each story you read becomes a little piece of inspiration for the stories that you write. There are a lot of rules made by adults that say you can't publish a fanfiction book that takes places and characters from another source. However, that doesn't make stories like that bad. They can still be very good, and I've read many that are.

I have to admit that I can only read a little of English, and I don't think you can read much in the German language that I know best. But I have a friend who helped me read your letter and write this reply. Since I was glad for this chance, I discussed with her about sending you a book your club can read that will help you with your writing. We decided on this one because it has pictures with many ways to describe them, a good skill to learn in telling stories. Keep practicing; I hope someday I'll be able to read your stories as well.

From Bastian Balthazar Bux.'

It was a gray snowy day outside, but the excitement in the classroom during the club meeting had made it seem bright and sunny. The teacher had told them that they might not get a reply from so far away, but here it was! And Mr. Bux had been nice enough to send them a new book too. However, it didn't seem like the book he wrote about in the letter. There were no pictures in it as far as they could tell. It had lettering like an old book, especially in the impressively elaborate lettering on the cover and at the start of chapters. And unlike other books, it was protected with a cover of copper-colored silk. It also seemed like something incredibly precious, with the emblem of two snakes on the cover and the alluring title of The Neverending Story.

"Do you think he sent this one by mistake?" Jill asked, intrigued by it like no other book she'd seen. It made such a grandiose promise, something she'd long wished for. Was it real? "The envelope says it's from a place called 'Old Books' and this looks really old."

"Probably," Abby said, shifting her glasses. "We should send it back."

"Yeah, but do you think it's really never-ending?" Tim asked, not taking his eyes off it. In fact, it seemed none of them wanted to let go of it.

"It can't be because it's got two covers," Laurie said. "So it'll stop when you reach the last of the pages, like any other book. It would be really great if there was a never ending story, though."

Abby nodded. "Yeah, even online, a story would have to end because otherwise it'd get too big and freeze the computer up entirely. That happened when my dad kept too many videos on his computer."

"B-but it would be wonderful if it was magic and really didn't end," Sierra said quietly, fidgeting like she always did when speaking up.

"Magic isn't real, though it would be nice," Nate agreed. "Um, we should send it back, but maybe we can read a bit of it?"

"Well it's not our book because it got sent by mistake," Abby said, being responsible since she was the club leader. But even with that resting on her shoulders, she glanced over at the teacher who was supposed to watch over them. Napping again. "But maybe if we're really careful, we can read a little bit of it."

"If it's magic, we should all open it at once," Sierra said, smiling a bit since she always like stories with magic in them.

Jill nodded. "Yeah, that'd be best." The rest of the club soon agreed, so they all put a hand on it to open up the cover.

By the end of the week, all six members of the Peoria Middle School Book Club were drawn within The Neverending Story. But that is a story for another time.