A/N: Yippee! I updated this story! I was beginning to think about putting this one out of commission but I got'r dun, son. It's fairly short and I wrote it in a pretty short amount of time...but it's something! So enjoy.

Chapter 5

They were on their way, into an adventure full of excitement and danger. Never before had the Empress been directly involved in one of these adventures. Before she had been only a name to refer to, a silent figure on the side to which they would come asking questions and she would provide their answers. Now she only had questions and no answers, and no one to ask. She could not ask Bastian, who knew less than she did. She could not ask Falcor, who seemed to regard her as foolish now for her decision to leave. She trusted both of them, but she felt alone.

That loneliness deepened as she turned one final time to see the light of her beloved tower fade into the horizon. The darkness that spread over the land seem to hide itself in her heart and she found her hands clinging to Bastian's jacket even tighter. What was she to do if she couldn't find the cure for what was happening to herself and her people?

She thought about the suggestion that Falcor had made about finding a new Keeper for Fantasia. Was it true that the Oracle had told Bastian that he was of no help, and that he was no longer the Keeper of Fantasia? Why would the Oracle tell him that? It made the Empress feel even more foolish. She had never spoken to the Oracle itself but knew of it well and had come to expect the unexpected from it. But this was far too unexpected.

Bastian himself did not seem discouraged. She actually did not know what to make of him now. Taller, thinner, his face drawn, he seemed older than his actual age. She knew he was young, but his face looked tired, aged. Definitely not a boy anymore. That was discouraging for her. She had known he had grown a bit, but hadn't been fully aware of how much. That was her mistake. Perhaps it had also been a mistake to bring him back…

But somehow it wasn't stopping him. If he could go on, then she had to find a way to also go on. She hated this feeling of self-doubt that had started creeping upon her ever since her body had started aging. She was ageless, her mind always more than a child's, but for some reason her adult body was complicating things. She began feeling confused, emotional. Feelings were interrupting her thoughts. Feelings she had never felt before…and she hated it. She just wanted to solve this mystery as soon as possible so she could get back to normal.

Which was why Bastian was the only thing she had to rely on at the moment. As much faith as she had always had in him, the situation now seemed hopeless, which also made her feel guilty. Fantasia was a world for the imagination of children, not adults, for adults always and forever cast away their imaginations because their dreams never came true. They grew tired of dreaming and so they forgot what it was like to be a child, carefree and unconditionally faithful. It seemed Bastian was no different…but he was determined to try, anyway. She couldn't hold anything against him, not even for a second. He could not help but grow older…even she had to face that fact. But the time had gone by too fast, and she had never usually been one to notice the time. Until all of a sudden it seemed to affect her in more ways than one.

Time had affected Bastian drastically. She had wanted nothing more than to bring him to Fantasia and let him stay forever, but she knew he would not have agreed. How could she hold him against his will? And yet she had pulled him to Fantasia against his will. Or had she? Had he been able to resist? She really didn't know…all she knew is that she had called to him and he had still shown up. And even now she felt that something wasn't quite right about him, though she couldn't place her finger on it.

And then she felt him place his hand on hers, and she realized that her arms had unconsciously slipped around his waist. She felt her cheeks burn and started to remove them but his hand kept them where they were. He glanced behind him and smiled at her.

"Don't worry, Empress. Everything will be fine."

She offered him a half-smile, the best she could do at the moment. "I know Bastian."

***

During the night she slept a little, her head resting on Bastian's back as Falcor flew on. The sunrise woke her up with its first rays of light over the clouds. There were no words for the sight that greeted them, with colors splashed across the sky like an artist's canvas. She simply stared in awe. How many times had she seen the sunrise and the sunset from her Ivory Tower? Why did this one seem so different, as though it were the first sunrise she'd ever seen?

Bastian was also in awe. "I don't think I've ever seen a sunrise this amazing," he said.

"Sunrises in Fantasia are fantastic," she replied. "I have seen many…however, this one seems different."

"Maybe it's because you're seeing it from a different angle," he said, never taking his eyes off the fiery glow.

She didn't say anything, but she was thinking how right he was. A different angle? Perhaps that was how she was seeing him…and why he seemed so different.

"Empress," Falcor said suddenly. "I'm afraid I have to stop."

She frowned. "Have to stop? Why, Falcor? What's wrong?"

The luck dragon wheezed. "I…am…tired…"

Bastian was immediately worried. Falcor did not sound good at all. "Ok, let's stop. There's some woods down there, we can set up camp."

When Falcor landed, Bastian jumped down, helped the Empress, and then took a good look at his friend. Falcor's eyes were closed as though in pain, and he was breathing heavily.

"What's wrong with you?" Bastian asked.

Falcor opened one eye and regarded Bastian with a hazy look. "Forgive me…I don't think I can go on."

Bastian began to panic. "What do you mean you can't go on? Falcor, tell me what's wrong!"

Falcor heaved a great sigh. "I am dying, Bastian." Falcor said quietly. "I have lived forever, and now I can feel the life leaving me even now. I don't know much longer I have…that is why you must hurry. You…and the Empress…must find a cure, or everything will die."

Bastian was horrified. "I thought that you and the people of Fantasia were just growing older."

"We are. But it is growing stronger. Death creeps ever nearer and I cannot hold him off for long."

The Empress watched as the luck dragon closed his eyes again, and she felt that panic rising in her heart, as well. "Don't give up, Falcor," she said. "We will find the cure for Fantasia. We will restore it, and you. Don't die…" Tears were now streaming down her cheeks.

Falcor opened an eye again and smiled faintly. "Empress, you are brave."

"I don't feel brave," she replied.

"To leave your tower was the bravest thing you have done. Continue to move forward, Empress, and the answer will come to you."

Falcor closed his eyes once more and whispered, "Now leave me."

The Empress nodded and took Bastian by the hand. Bastian resisted…he didn't want to leave Falcor like this. What if something came along and Falcor couldn't defend himself? What if…Falcor…

"No, I won't leave you!" Bastian cried. "You've got to come with us, Falcor…don't just lie here and give up!"

"Bastian, we must hurry!" the Empress said, pulling him. "Falcor will be fine."

"We can't leave him!"

"We have to!" she shouted. "Do you think I want to leave him here? I do not! Come, Bastian!"

Bastian stopped, tears forming in his eyes as he gazed at Falcor one last time. The luck dragon said nothing more, his eyes closed. Either he was asleep or he was pointedly not saying anything. Bastian was furious. How could Falcor expect him to just leave? But he knew that he had to leave…just like he had left his father in the other world…

The tears escaped and slid down his cheeks as he clenched the fist that wasn't being held by the Empress. "Goodbye, Falcor," he whispered, and turned away, following the Empress. Leaving his friend.

Falcor said nothing, but watched them leave through one tired eye.

***

"It's just too sudden," Bastian said. "I mean, one minute he was fine, and the next he's not. I don't get it."

"I don't understand, either," the Empress replied. "But if I had to guess, I would say that Falcor meant for us to go on alone no matter what. I don't know why, because we could certainly use his help. I don't even know where to look, do you?"

"No, but we can ask. Aren't there villages around here?"

"I don't know…" she replied, feeling very uncertain. She loved her Fantasia…but had she ever really been out in it? Did she know where anything was? Some part of her mind told her that at one time, she might have…but that seemed like ages ago, when ages shouldn't mean anything to her."

"Empress, don't worry, it will work out," Bastian said, laying a hand on her shoulder. She stared up at him and tried to smile. It was sweet of him to try to be optimistic.

"We just need a miracle," she replied.

"Miracles happen here all the time. I remember."

She looked away. "Not since you left…" she whispered. He heard her, but said nothing. He walked away, his mind filled with confusion.

"Look," he said. "I understand now that this situation is more serious than I thought. But that doesn't mean we can't lick it, right? Remember the Nothing?"

She nodded. How could she forget?

"It was hopeless then, too. This is the small stuff. So what if everyone is growing old? People in my world grow old every day and there's nothing we can do to stop it. But here…this place is different. There's something wrong, here, and we can fix it."

She nodded again, a little bit more convincingly. He was convinced, at least for now.

"Let's go," he said.

***

As they walked, however, his mind took over once again and he found himself on the verge of giving himself a nervous breakdown. He couldn't stop imagining Falcor lying there, alone and dying. He knew Falcor would not feign something that serious…and for Falcor to even have a cough was unheard of. It chilled Bastian to the bone to think that a luck dragon could lose his luck. What did it say for the rest of them?

What if something happened to the Empress? It would be his fault for bringing her…no, his fault for encouraging her to come. He would be responsible for killing the ruler of the imaginary world. In her currently mortal state she could be susceptible to anything.

And the thought had occurred to him that he might be affected, too.

He felt another headache coming on.

Her voice eventually broke through his thoughts when she said, "The trees…"

"Huh?"

She didn't look at him as she kept walking, her eyes looking up at the branches. "The trees…they are dying, too."

"Don't trees grow old?" he asked.

"Of course they do. But I can…I can sense that they are in pain."

She stopped, and he stopped beside her. She looked up again and sighed. "Can't you hear their cries?"

He listened, and could only hear the wind. But even it sounded like a terrible moaning as it passed through the branches. The rustling of the leaves sounded like thousands of tears falling to the earth. He shuddered, trying to overcome the feeling of dread he felt in his heart.

"Let's keep moving," he said.

Before they could move another step, Bastian was knocked down by a blurry streak that pushed past them at lightening speed. He could barely even regroup his thoughts before he heard the Empress scream. Acting out of sheer instincts, Bastian lunged for the blurry streak that moved way too fast for him, and somehow managed to grab ahold of a piece of clothing, also knocking him to the ground. He heard a loud "Umph!"

The Empress, driven purely by fear and desperation, picked up a fallen wooden branch and held it at ready.

The perpetrator managed to loose himself from Bastian's grasp and ran a short distance away before looking back at them. Bastian saw his face, and gasped.

He had never seen anything like it. He didn't even know if it was male or female, but it definitely had a male look to it. Large, dark eyes stared at both of them cautiously. It was light-skinned with a mixture of fur and scales. It had pointy ears and wore a very light tunic. Bastian was amazed, but was still angry.

"What was that for?" he asked. "If you were in such a hurry, all you had to do was go around us, you know."

The thing looked at Bastian and seemed to smile. "If I had gone around," it said, its voice raspy and also unclear. "I would not have been able to obtain this."

It held up the object in its clawed hand and the Empress gasped, reaching for where it should have been around her neck. "That's my amulet!" she cried. "Give it back!"

"I cannot," the thing replied. "If you catch me you can have it back." Without another word, it sped off.

The Empress went to run after it, but stopped when Bastian cried after her. "Wait!" he called. "You'll never be able to take him on."

"I've got to get my amulet back!" she cried. "Get up, will you, we've got to go after it!"

He struggled to his feet, feeling shaken. "Give me a second, geez. What do you need that amulet for, anyway?"

"It only contains a manifestation of my power," she replied coolly. "Fallen into the wrong hands, which never would have been an issue, it can do great damage."

He stared at her. "What does it do?"

"I don't want to find out. If you don't, either, I suggest we get moving."

***

"Why didn't you just tell him who you were?" Bastian asked as they walked.

"I don't want people to know who I am."

He was confused. "Why not?"

She gestured her hand at herself. "Need I say more?"

"So what if you look different? You're still you."

"It's not the same. My people know the Child-like Empress. I am no longer child-like."

He stared at her appreciatively. "That's for sure."

She gave him a look that said she wasn't amused, and he looked away, blushing. Well, he couldn't help but appreciate the new and improved body of the Empress. She was beautiful. He was also an adult now…and he appreciated those kinds of things.

"Look, a village," she pointed out. He followed her line of sight and smiled. He could clearly see houses in the distance.

"I bet that's where that freak went," he said. "We'll get your amulet back."

***

"Or not…"

Bastian stood at the entrance of the village…and looked down. Hundreds of tiny houses dotted the ground, and he immediately knew where he was. And when he heard that same familiar little voice, his suspicions were verified.

"Bastian! I didn't think you'd ever come back!"

A horde of little people came rushing towards them and Bastian recognized Glukuk, the snail-rider, leading the pack. His friend stopped at Bastian's feet, and Bastian knelt to see him better.

"It's good to see you again, Glukuk," Bastian replied. "I don't know how you recognized me looking like I do now."

"We would know you anywhere," Glukuk said with a snort. "You could be an old man and you'd still be the boy we know and love. I'm sure you've heard about the situation here."

Bastian nodded. "I'm here to help. And so is the Em – I mean, so is my friend, here. Her name is, uh…" He racked his brain, trying to think of a name. Déjà vu, all over again…once again trying to find a name for the Empress. He couldn't use Moonchild, people would still know who she was. She was chewing her lip, looking very nervous. Finally he just decided on one. "This is Emilia. I picked her up on my travels."

Glukuk eyed her closely for a moment, suspicious. "There's something familiar about her," he said, rubbing his chin. "Have we met before?"

"I don't think so," the Empress replied and smiled a shaky smile. Bastian could tell this was going to be fun.

"She's kind of shy. And forgetful," he said. She gave him a dirty look but said nothing. Glukuk seemed convinced for the moment.

"Listen, Glukuk, we're looking for a weird-looking fellow that might have passed through here. He stole her amulet, and we're going to get it back. Have you seen him?"

"Kind of creepy looking?" Glukuk asked. "Patchy skin?"

"Yeah, that's him."

"Yup, he breezed right through here, but didn't steal anything. He just asked for a drink of water and left."

"Where was he headed."

"North. Towards the Crystal Mountains."

Bastian smiled. "Thanks, Glukuk. We've got to be going. Wish us well."

"Good luck, Bastian," Glukuk said, and waved until they were out of sight.