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Not even the most intrepid mountain climbers ventured into these fields of everlasting ice. It had been so very, very long since anyone had succeeded in climbing this mountain that the feat had been forgotten. For one of Fantastica's many strange laws decreed that no one could climb the Mountain of Destiny until the last successful climber had been utterly forgotten. Thus anyone who managed to climb it would always be the first. No living creature could survive in that icy waste -- except for a handful of gigantic ice-glumps -- who could barely be called living creatures, for they moved so slowly that they needed years for a single step and whole centuries for a short walk. Which meant, of course, that they could only associate with their own kind and knew nothing at all about the rest of Fantastica. They thought of themselves as the only living creatures in the universe. Consequently, they were puzzled to the point of consternation when they saw a tiny speck twining its way upward over perilous crags and razor-sharp ridges, then vanishing into deep chasms and crevasses, only to reappear higher up. That speck was the Childlike Empress's glass litter, still carried by four of her invisible Powers. It was barely visible, for the glass it was made of looked very much like ice, and the Childlike Empress's white gown and white hair could hardly be distinguished from the snow roundabout.
She bent forward, picked up AURYN, and let the chain glide through her fingers. "You have done well," she said, "and I am pleased with you." "No!" cried Atreyu almost savagely. "It was all in vain. There's no hope." A long silence followed. Atreyu buried his face in the crook of his elbow, and his whole body trembled. How would she react? With a cry of despair, a moan, words of bitter reproach or even anger? Atreyu couldn't have said what he expected. Certainly not what he heard. Laughter. A soft, contented laugh. Atreyu's thoughts were in a whirl, for a moment he thought she had gone mad. But that was not the laughter of madness. Then he heard her say: "But you've brought him with you." Atreyu looked up. "Who?" "Our savior." He looked into her eyes and found only serenity. She smiled again. "Golden-eyed Commander of Wishes," he stammered, now for the first time using the official words of address that Falkor had recommended. "I. . . no, really. . . I don't understand." "I can see that by the look on your face," she said. "But whether you understand or not, you've done it. And that's what counts, isn't it?" Atreyu said nothing. He couldn't even think of a question to ask. He stood there openmouthed, staring at the Childlike Empress. "I saw him," she went on, "and he saw me."
Atreyu felt as if a band had tightened around his throat. All he could do was nod his head. Then he heard the sweet soft voice saying: "You have carried out your mission. . ." Were these words meant as a question? Atreyu didn't know. He didn't dare look up to read the answer in her face. Slowly he reached for the golden amulet and removed the chain from his neck. Without raising his eyes, he held it out to the Childlike Empress. He tried to kneel as messengers did in the stories and songs he had heard at home, but his wounded leg refused to do his bidding. He fell at the Childlike Empress's feet, and there he lay with his face to the floor. She bent forward, picked up AURYN, and let the chain glide through her fingers. "You have done well," she said, "and I am pleased with you." "No!" cried Atreyu almost savagely. "It was all in vain. There's no hope." A long silence followed. Atreyu buried his face in the crook of his elbow, and his whole body trembled. How would she react? With a cry of despair, a moan, words of bitter reproach or even anger? Atreyu couldn't have said what he expected. Certainly not what he heard. Laughter. A soft, contented laugh. Atreyu's thoughts were in a whirl, for a moment he thought she had gone mad. But that was not the laughter of madness. Then he heard her say: "But you've brought him with you." Atreyu looked up. "Who?" "Our savior."
Still, the four invisible Powers were not guided entirely by chance in their choice of an itinerary. As often as not, the Nothing, which had already swallowed up whole regions, left only a single path open. Sometimes the possibilities narrowed down to a bridge, a tunnel, or a gateway, and sometimes they were forced to carry the litter with the deathly ill Empress over the waves of the sea. These carriers saw no difference between liquid and solid. Tireless and persevering, they had finally reached the frozen heights of the Mountain of Destiny. And they would go on climbing until the Childlike Empress gave them another order. But she lay still on her cushions. Her eyes were closed and she said nothing. The last words she had spoken were the "no matter where" she had said on leaving the Ivory Tower. The litter was moving through a deep ravine, so narrow that there was barely room for it to pass. The snow was several feet deep, but the invisible carriers did not sink in or even leave footprints. It was very dark at the bottom of this ravine, which admitted only a narrow strip of daylight. The path was on a steady incline and the higher the litter climbed, the nearer the daylight seemed. And then suddenly the walls leveled off, opening up a view of a vast white expanse. This was the summit, for the Mountain of Destiny culminated not, like most other mountains, in a single peak, but in this high plateau, which was as large as a whole country.
Enfeebled and trembling, the innermost heart of Fantastica was still resisting the inexorable encroachment of the Nothing. But the Ivory Tower at the center still shimmered pure, immaculately white. Ordinarily flying messengers landed on one of the lower terraces. But Falkor reasoned that since neither he nor Atreyu had the strength to climb the long spiraling street leading to the top of the Tower, and since time was of the essence, the regulations and rules of etiquette could reasonably be ignored. He therefore decided on an emergency landing. Swooping down over the ivory buttresses, bridges, and balustrades, he located, just in time, the uppermost end of the spiraling High Street, which lay just outside the palace grounds. Plummeting to the roadway, he went into a skid, made several complete turns, and finally came to a stop tail-first. Atreyu, who had been clinging with both arms to Falkor's neck, sat up and looked around. He had expected some sort of reception, or at least a detachment of palace guards to challenge them -- but far and wide there was no one to be seen.