Fae descended, step by step, further into the Deepgrave. Darkness closed in around her, Gerick Irsotz, and the Star sisters as they took the stairs deeper into the mysterious, foreboding place.
“Only Death sleeps here. Do not disturb its slumber.”
That warning had been over the entrance, the biggest clue Fae had to what lay within. Gerick had spoken of “terrors,” of fears and monsters he couldn’t describe, but nothing else about this place.
And so far… they’d seen and heard nothing but each other.
Fae held one of her stylus Talismans in her left hand at all times. She’d shifted her shoulder bag so that it was on her right side, and she kept that hand inside the bag, gripping the handle of the candlestick bell infused with the essence of Child’s Innocence. She didn’t know if it would be any good against the dangers here, but just holding the cool metal made her feel safer.
The floating balls of magical light brought into being by Gerick and Neptune seemed to have grown dimmer. Darkness was closing in around all of them, and Fae struggled to see Gerick, though he was less than a foot ahead of her. At one point, Neptune had attempted to create a few more lights for them.
But they hadn’t appeared.
Only the light they’d brought with them from higher up, where it wasn’t so dark, stayed with them. Any new lights were instantly snuffed out.
How long would their current light last? Gerick had spoken of a labyrinth of tunnels, yet they were still descending the same, solitary stairwell, spiraling round and round again and again, with no other paths for hours.
Gerick raised his hand as close as he could towards his shrinking light so that all could see it, making a closed fist – the signal for them to stop. Their guide turned towards them, the waning light casting harsh shadows across his grim face.
“Something isn’t right,” he said in the barest whisper. Yet even speaking that softly sounded frighteningly loud in the stillness. “We should have reached the bottom by now. I think it would be best for us to turn back, to rest and consider our options, or see if we can discover something from outside.”
“But we’ve been going for so long,” Mercury said. She stood behind Fae, with Jupiter between her and Neptune. “Turning back would feel wasteful. If we have to rest, couldn’t we just sit down right here? Nothing’s threatened us so far.”
Gerick’s eyes flashed. “Do not take the dangers of the Deepgrave lightly, Mercury,” he said. “They hunger for when we are most vulnerable. We must be ever wary.”
“Could we have missed a branch on the way down?” Neptune asked. Jupiter had opened her mouth to say something, but Neptune and Mercury both had covered it with their hands. Jupiter didn’t know how to whisper properly, and being as loud as her in the silent darkness was not something they welcomed.
“I have never known of branches from the central stair,” Gerick said. “It is possible my recollection of the time it takes to descend is wrong, but…”
A heavy silence fell upon them. Gerick’s eyes were downcast in thought and, Fae thought, a bit of hope.
Hope that the girls would ask to turn back.
He hasn’t complained at all about this. Getting him to be our guide was so easy. Even when he spoke about how terrible the dangers in here are, he never seemed that afraid.
He doesn’t seem like one to show much emotion outside of happiness. How much is he hiding? How much of a brave face is he forcing himself to wear for our sakes?
Should we really continue? I’m frightened of this place, too. Something is very wrong here – in the air, in the darkness, in the stone beneath our feet and over our heads. We had to climb quite high to reach the entrance, but I’m certain by now we’ve descended twice as deep as we climbed. How far does this go? And what’s waiting for us at the bottom?
Then Fae had an idea. It was a dangerous idea – it involved sound, a great deal of it, and if it didn’t have the positive side-effects Fae hoped for, she’d only be putting them in harm’s way. But what else was there? And it had given her so much hope before. She gripped the handle of the bell tighter, started to pull it from her bag…
And then stopped.
There was a new sound in the darkness. A warm, humid breeze wafted up the stairs, and Fae flinched at its touch. And with it came the sound of…
It was breathing.
Something had exhaled, something unbelievably huge. And when it began to inhale, it was so slow, and so long, that it was no wonder the girls hadn’t heard it before now. Seconds stretched into minutes, and still the slow intake of breath continued.
Finally, it stopped. And for many more minutes, all was silence. Fae found she was holding her breath, too, waiting for the inevitable.
And then it came again. The exhale, and the humid breeze of breath washed lightly over them.
“What is that?” Mercury asked, her voice tense and quietly strained.
“We are nearer the bottom than I thought,” Gerick replied just as softly. His eyes locked with Fae’s. “Shall we continue?”
Fae was surprised when she didn’t hesitate, nodding right away. Gerick turned away before she could get a good look at his expression, and led the way down.
Each new step gave the disembodied breathing below more volume, as they came closer to its source. And then, suddenly, Gerick didn’t step further down, but instead stepped forward. As Fae followed, she found herself on level ground.
The stairs had ended. They had reached the bottom.
Was this the bottom of the Deepgrave? Or had they only just arrived at its proper entrance, the long stairway serving as nothing more than the welcome mat?
The steady, impossibly slow breathing continued. Some massive creature lived here, with a lung capacity Fae could scarcely fathom.
Was it the “Death” that they were warned sleeps here? Or was this just another obstacle before their final destination?
“It’s still a long ways off,” Gerick said in the barest whisper, choosing to speak in the moment between the creature’s inhale and exhale. “But I have no memory of this place. Somehow the layout has changed.”
A long exhale, and that unsettlingly humid breath brushed over them. Now that they were closer, Fae could get a better sense of its smell, and she wished she couldn’t. It wasn’t like anything she’d smelled before, but it was unpleasant, and with it came unpleasant feelings and thoughts. Her mind turned to images of death, but not of natural death.
Accidents. Sickness. Murder. Suicide.
Death before its time.
The ground beneath Fae’s feet felt less solid now. It was uneven, and with her next step, something underfoot cracked. The entire group stopped, and Gerick even turned to look at her. Yet as they all looked down… they couldn’t see what had made the sound. Neptune brought her orb of light lower and lower, until it hovered next to Fae’s feet, and yet the ground looked smooth. There was nothing there that could have made the sound.
They checked everyone’s feet with the light, but the ground didn’t look at all like it felt. It looked smooth, solid, but as soon as their check was finished and they took another step forward…
Cracks. All around them, as if all five of them had stepped on something at the same time. Again the lights went round, and again they saw nothing.
“Let me guess,” Jupiter said in her far-too-loud whisper. “You don’t remember anything like this from your last visit, either?”
Gerick shook his head. “Keep the lights low. Watch as we take our next step.”
They did, keeping the lights around their feet, and only Gerick and Fae, the two with feet illuminated, stepped forward.
Nothing. Now the ground felt as it looked. Smooth. Solid. Clean.
The lights moved back, and the Star sisters followed. For them as well, there was no disturbance.
“If we move on at this pace, though, we’ll take forever,” Mercury said.
“What should we do?” Gerick asked. He’d turned to face the group, but all of his attention was on Fae.
Fae knew what she wanted to do. Her right hand still held the handle of the candlestick bell in her bag. And why not ring it? Why not try it, bring some hope into this place? Even if it didn’t completely solve their problem, wouldn’t its hope be a welcome ally against the darkness and the uncertainty that pressed in on them from all sides?
But Gerick wasn’t asking that. He was asking a much simpler question: should they keep going forward, or turn back?
“Slowly forward,” Fae answered. “Keep the lights around our feet. I have a bad feeling about what happens when we can’t see.”
Gerick nodded, his expression betraying nothing, and continued forward. Slow step by slow step, the entire group marched ahead, lights dancing around their feet to show nothing but smooth, unbroken stone.
And still the breathing continued. Slow, steady, clearly of some massive being sleeping. And the farther they went, the worse the smell got. It wasn’t disgusting, or repulsive to Fae. It was something more emotional than physical, that wormed its way into her core, as if pulling her into what she smelled.
Death called to her. If they continued along this path, would any of them survive?
Yet even their knowledgeable guide Gerick continued forward. He didn’t give new warnings. Wouldn’t he have something to say if they were marching to their deaths?
Then they came against a wall. The path had gone on straight for a long time, and the creature’s breathing had felt like it came from far ahead of them, yet now it came to them from the left, the only path onward. They continued through this new branch of the path for a ways, and then suddenly they were forced to turn right. It was after two more turns that Jupiter, fed up with their seeming lack of progress, grew agitated and said she was going back, alone if she needed to.
“Wait, you can’t –” Neptune started, moving to intercept her sister. But they both stopped. And when Fae looked back with them, she understood why.
There was no path behind them. Though they’d been walking straight along this new branch for nearly an hour, immediately behind them was a solid stone wall. There were no breaks in it, no branches off from it.
The path back no longer existed.
“Oh, I am so done with whispering now!” Jupiter said, slamming her fists against the wall. “Let us out! Give us a break here, we’ve been at this for so long, and I’m hungry, and tired, and my feet hurt, and it’s so dark and we’re getting nowhere and –”
Jupiter stopped, and silence descended on them again.
Silence but for a new sound. All around them, as if they stood in a vast chamber rather than this cramped tunnel, came a pitter-patter chorus of hundreds of feet.
The footsteps were coming closer and closer to the group of five.
“I think we should run,” Gerick said, his voice surprisingly calm.
“Great idea!” Jupiter exclaimed, racing forward. She grabbed Neptune with one hand, Mercury with the other. “Let’s go!”
Fae ran with them, the five staying as close together as they could due to the suffocating darkness. They stumbled over each other, bumped against each other, but that was a small price to pay to ensure they stayed together.
To be separated in this place would surely invite death.
The footsteps came with the pace of a fast walk, and yet they kept getting closer despite the girls’ and Gerick’s desperate sprint through the tunnel. With their lights focused on illuminating even the slightest bit of the way ahead, the ground beneath their feet was no longer smooth, and it wobbled and cracked with every step.
“What do we do?” Jupiter cried. “We can’t outrun them!”
“We’ll have to fight,” Neptune said.
“Fight something we can’t even see?” Mercury asked. “How?”
“I have a better idea,” Fae said. She stopped running, pulling back on Gerick and pushing back against the Star sisters. Out from her bag came the candlestick bell.
Please don’t just be an antidote for Collapse. Please save us from this darkness, from the things we can’t see, from the fear coming at us from all sides.
The chorus of footsteps had become so loud that whatever Jupiter was screaming was completely inaudible. Fae raised the bell, trusting a hope, and rang it once.
Crystal clear came the bell’s hopeful peal, and Fae’s heart was instantly lifted. Not only did the sudden sound wash away all other noises, but also sudden light pierced the gloom, radiating outward from the bell. For a moment, Fae could see nothing, so blinded was she by the blazing brightness.
It didn’t matter that she was blinded, though. Her heart was so light, dancing with hope and joy, that nothing could bring her worry now. And as her eyes adjusted to the light, she saw there was nothing to fear.
She, Gerick, and the Star sisters stood in a tunnel, but it was no longer so narrow and dark that they could only walk single file. It was wide enough for three to walk side-by-side, and the light revealed walls, floor, and ceiling of smooth, polished stone. There were no torches or lamps, and the bell was no longer shining, yet light was all around them, without any distinguishable source.
And far ahead of them seemed to be their destination. The hall continued on for perhaps two hundred feet, and then opened up into…
Darkness. Why was it still dark?
And yet Fae felt that the darkness ahead wasn’t the same as the darkness before. She began to walk, and soon the others were walking with her.
“Why didn’t you ring that to begin with?” Jupiter asked. “Could have saved us all the trouble.”
“I wasn’t sure it would work,” Fae said. “And we were trying to avoid sound, so I thought if it failed, then we’d be exposed to whatever dangers were here.”
“We’ve only used it once, after all,” Neptune said, nodding. “And it was to cure Collapse. There wasn’t any reason to think it would definitely work here.”
“But now we have that to deal with,” Mercury said, staring ahead at the dark opening.
“I don’t think we have to worry,” Fae said. Suddenly came an exhale of breath from the opening ahead. It was warm and humid, but this time it didn’t smell of death. If anything, it didn’t smell at all.
More importantly, Fae noticed a difference in its sound. The creature that had been breathing in slumber before was now awake.
When they reached the end of the tunnel and the dark opening, Fae stepped to the front of the group. Out came another exhale, and as it subsided, Fae spoke.
“Hello,” she said, feeling very small all of a sudden. “I’m sorry if I disturbed your slumber. I know the entrance says not to disturb –”
“The warning was made by those who do not understand.”
The voice that spoke was hard to describe. It was huge, clearly conveying the unbelievable size of the speaker, and yet soft, and smooth, with no malice within its tone, speaking slowly and clearly. There was a sense of age beyond reckoning, a subtle undertone of wisdom and experience. And, in a way, it sounded like numerous voices, each slightly different, all merged into one distinct voice.
It came from the darkness, and yet Fae could not see the being within, only feel the breath of their speech.
“Why is your place still dark?” she asked.
“Do not mistake my darkness for the evil darkness,” the being said. “Like many peaceful living things, I am sensitive to physical light. So I burrow deep, and live deep, and slumber long. Though your bell had some effect. Surely you see the difference.”
Fae nodded. She could see it, that the darkness right in front of her wasn’t the same as that which had closed around her and her friends during their long trek through the Deepgrave. Yet she didn’t cross the threshold into the space beyond, and something in the being’s breath told her it noticed.
“You are wise not to approach further,” the being said. “This place was made for me, and for me alone. The end of the tunnel you stand in, though it does not appear as such, is a doorway. It is meant to protect you, for there are things about me and my home that are not safe for Humans or Enchanted.”
“Do you have a name?” Mercury asked, stepping forward next to Fae. “What should we call you? The sign above said ‘Death,’ but…”
A series of short breaths – a chuckle? “That is a translation of an ancient tongue,” the being said. “And even when it was written, it was written by those who did not fully understand. In their ignorance, they feared me. ‘Death’ is a clumsy, but understandable, translation of the name given to me, but a better translation would be… hmm. Perhaps ‘Long Sleep’ or ‘Buried Sleeper.’ But neither of those are quite right. I would prefer you not try to translate at all, for if I were to translate your names into my own tongue, they would not sound like names at all. If you are to call me something… hmm. My true name is too difficult to pronounce with Human or Enchanted tongues. Ah. I know. Call me by the name a dear friend gave me: Kairyu.”
“Was ringing the bell a good thing to do in your domain, Kairyu?” Fae asked.
“It was, and very much so,” Kairyu answered. “It was what I have been needing for a very long time. For my domain, this ‘Deepgrave,’ as those above call it, has become very fitting of its name. For words have power, and the warning above, written so very long ago, subtly, slowly transformed this place, until I could not move freely about my own halls. It had become filled with death and hopelessness, and it had begun to infect me, as well. So I slept, largely to stave off its ill effects. And that seems to have been exactly the right choice, for while I slept, a hero appeared to restore my domain and bring life back into a place of death. I daresay you will likely find the words above the door to these halls changed when you return.”
There was that word again: hero.
Me? A hero?
I saved the Fates, it’s true. And now it seems I’ve saved Kairyu, as well. But it was just the bell, wasn’t it? And that was a gift. Anyone else could have rung it.
Does doing something so simple make me a hero?
“These four came to your halls with questions,” Gerick said. “Would you be able to share your knowledge with them?”
“Gladly,” Kairyu said, “and without restriction. Any questions you have for me, I shall answer to the best of my ability. Not just the girls, but you as well, Gerick Irsotz.”
“You know my name?” Gerick asked.
“One hears many things when one goes unnoticed in the deep places of creation,” Kairyu said. “And it would be hard indeed to ignore your exploits, Master Artist. Sage of the High Reaches. And the title perhaps most relevant to me: Dragon Friend.”
“Dragon Friend?” Mercury asked, staring at Gerick in surprise.
“Relevant to you…” Neptune said, staring at the darkness. “Kairyu, are you a Dragon?”
“Indeed I am, Neptune Star,” Kairyu said. “Yes, I know of you and your sisters. Though I must say I have not the slightest idea who the fifth member of your company is. And I should dearly like to know her name, for she is the hero of this chapter of your story.”
“Fae,” Fae said. “Fae Greyson.”
“That’s… right,” Fae said, puzzled by Kairyu’s response.
“Interesting,” Kairyu said, humming low and thoughtfully. “But you don’t seem at all like the other one. But then, he would have been many generations before your time. And a good thing, too. For he was a false sort, presenting himself as peaceful and honest, when in fact he was vicious, and full of mischief.”
“Vicious?” Fae wasn’t sure what to think of this at all. One of her distant relatives could be described with such terms? She didn’t know her family tree very well at all, despite her great-grandparents painstakingly tracing the Greyson line back to before Grimoire was founded, but… well, “many generations” might refer to someone even farther before that. Even if she did know of him, a Greyson that far removed from the present wouldn’t have any bearing on her in the slightest.
“But you’re a Dragon,” Fae said, pulling herself back to the matters at hand. “The Fates, they said… they said we would meet one of the Spiral Dragons before we expected.”
“Oh, I am not one of the Spiral Dragons,” Kairyu said. “They are my younger siblings, though, if you must know. Though we Dragons are solitary creatures. I have not been in contact with them for… oh, a longer period of time than you could well fathom. And I am a Dragon of the deep, while they are Dragons of the air, of freedom, of roaming and traveling. I am meant for this home, to stay in one place, while they are meant to be… well, what they are. It is their freedom that drives them to mischief, and especially to Dragon Riddles, which you’ve no doubt heard of. Though you aren’t acting as if you have. Lucky for you, I am not my siblings, and I do not have the cursed power of Dragon Riddling.”
Fae felt a shiver run down her spine. She wouldn’t forget how clear the Fates had laid out the consequences of answering Dragon Riddles – and yet here she was, talking to a Dragon all this time, and she never once considered the possibility.
I need to be far more careful around beings I don’t understand. If I’m going to meet one of the Spiral Dragons before I expect, I can’t be as nonchalant as I’ve been with Kairyu.
“But I must ask,” Kairyu continued, “what brought you here? For you do not seem to have asked the questions that drove you into this place, dark and evil as it was before you rang your bell.”
“Oh, right,” Mercury said. She nudged Fae, whispered under her breath, “Collapse.”
Fae nodded. “We read that the Intangible, Collapse, had potentially come to the Deepgrave,” Fae said. “But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Do you know where it might have ended up?”
A low rumble emanated from the darkness of Kairyu’s home, and after a moment Fae realized it must be her growling. Though it came low and restrained, as if Kairyu was intentionally holding back on account of her guests, the walls and floors shook, and Fae felt a knife of fear pierce her heart. The sound of hope brought by the candlestick bell seemed ages in the past.
And then the growling stopped, and the fear left Fae as suddenly as it had arrived.
“I know well of Collapse,” Kairyu said, her voice tinged with regret and anger. “And it did pass through these halls once. Wicked Enchanted and Humans both brought that foul device here, their manmade Intangible. They did not know who or what I was, and thought that whatever being resided at the deepest parts of the Deepgrave must serve their master. But they were wrong. I let them come deep into my lair before I sprang my trap, seeking to destroy Collapse and the wicked acolytes in one fell stroke. But I failed. All I succeeded in doing was driving them from this place. The stench of them lingered still, until you came and rang your bell, Fae Greyson.”
“Do you know where they might have gone?” Neptune asked.
“I know more than where they ‘might have’ gone,” Kairyu answered. “I know precisely where they took their foul creation, and where they reside, protecting and strengthening it to this day.”
Fae felt a sudden leap in her heart, of anxiety and hope. This was it. Finally, she would know where Collapse lay, and finally, she would be able to take steps to destroy it.
“But your journey is long still, I fear,” Kairyu said. “For Collapse now resides in the Nightmare Citadel. Just reaching the Citadel is a tremendous task in itself. The road before you is still a long and difficult one.”
“Can you help us get there?” Mercury asked.
A soft chuckle from Kairyu. “My power is not so convenient. But you can reach it without outside aid, if you are as courageous as you seem to be. Courage is your best defense.”
“Is there anything else you can tell us?” Neptune asked. “Every bit of knowledge will help us.”
“I can see far, but not so far that I know all things,” Kairyu said. “Unfortunately, that is all I know of Collapse. It departed from my domain and ended in the Nightmare Citadel. There it still resides, and likely will never move unless it is destroyed. What ill will they have in store for such a place I cannot fathom, but if they are able to stay within the Citadel, then something terrible must have happened to its guardian.”
“The Queen?” Fae asked.
“Yes, the Nightmare Queen,” Kairyu answered. “I have heard the many rumors, rumors that she was involved in Collapse’s making, that she now spreads the infection throughout creation. They are false. She is a victim of this evil, and to destroy Collapse you more than likely will need to save her first.”
“What will you do once we leave?” Fae asked. She couldn’t think of more questions, and yet… she didn’t want to leave. Kairyu seemed lonely, and after who knew how long of people avoiding her due to unneeded warnings, after who knew how long of her domain being filled with death and decay, for her to now have a peaceful home only for the ones who saved her to immediately leave seemed sad.
“You need not worry for my sake, Fae Greyson,” Kairyu said. “Though I am touched by your kindness. I have long delved and dwelt alone, and I will continue to do so. Though I may now have a chance for the occasional interesting visitor, thanks to your efforts. For that I thank you. And if you should feel like visiting again when your journey is done, I will greatly look forward to it.”
“I will,” Fae said, smiling.
“We will,” Mercury said, grinning as she threw an arm across Fae’s shoulders.
“And I certainly will, as often as I can,” Gerick said. He smiled at the unseen Kairyu, and there was an eagerness to his tone that belied the many questions he had for such an ancient being.
And then they were off, leaving behind the mysterious Dragon. Their journey back to the surface was a long one, but their hearts were light, and there was no darkness around them to hinder their progress. Back out above, on the Plains of the Fallen, Fae turned to look up at the inscription above the Deepgrave’s door. It hadn’t just changed what it had once translated to, but had shifted to Fae’s own language, so she could read it herself.
“Herein lies the Dragon’s Den, home of Kairyu, restored to its former glory thanks to the hope and light of Fae Greyson, Dragon Friend.”