“No one outwits a Dragon.”
Fae stared in stunned silence at the impossibly huge creature before her. Mist swirled everywhere, so the vast majority of its body was hidden, but just the side of its face – what Fae could see of it from this close – was a mountain, its single visible eye alone bigger than a dozen Greyson Manors.
She and Neptune still had their hands over Jupiter’s mouth, and while the redhead had struggled at first, she quickly understood.
They all did. They all remembered the warnings.
“You will meet a Spiral Dragon soon, sooner than you would have expected. Be prepared for it, and never let down your guard.”
The Spiral Dragons speak in riddles, and they don’t always seem to be riddles. They won’t even always be phrased as questions or what we might recognize as riddles.
“Take great care in whether you speak, and how you speak.”
If we answer a riddle correctly, horrible pain and misery falls on the one who answers. If we answer incorrectly, we’re safe, but awful evils will be loosed upon the wider world.
How do we talk to a Spiral Dragon at all?
“Silence will not show you the way forward,” said the Dragon, its voice such a strange, impossible blend of contradictions. Rumbling and powerful, yet clear and beautiful. Coming from all around, and yet speaking directly to them.
We have to talk to them. But…
How do we know what’s a riddle and what isn’t? When they can speak in riddles without even phrasing them as riddles, or even questions…
How do I even know when to speak, much less how?
“Perhaps,” said the Dragon, “I should introduce myself. I am called –”
The next collection of syllables and sounds was long, impossible, something Fae would never be able to reproduce with her own lips.
Fae waited for a moment, then another.
The Dragon was silent, watching her and her companions with that single, glittering eye.
I think I have a bit of an understanding here.
“We’ve met another Dragon,” she said, stunning the Star sisters with the fact that she spoke at all. “She said we could call her Kairyu. Do you have a name we can actually speak?”
A rumbling laughter filled the air. “Clever, indeed,” said the Dragon. “I know that you met my sister. And I know the title so carelessly bestowed upon you, Fae Greyson, and you, Gerick Irsotz. ‘Dragon Friend.’ ” The Dragon scoffed. “To be named friend of Dragons, when one has yet to meet a Spiral Dragon? An utter farce.”
The Dragon’s audience was silent, and after a time, the Dragon laughed again.
“Clever, clever, delightfully so,” said the Dragon. “Or perhaps ‘cautious’ is a better word. Ah, but you asked for my name. I suppose it is only fair to oblige – after all, I know all of your names, a terribly unfair advantage. You may call me Soryu, the Spiral Dragon who soars through the sky of the first, and greatest, Sector of the Enchanted Dominion.” A lilting mischief entered Soryu’s voice. “I am the eldest of the three Spiral Dragons, if you must know, and only brother to Kairyu.”
Fae waited a long time with bated breath, but Soryu continued to watch, silently.
Is time enough? Is that all it takes to be able to respond without inviting destruction on us or the world?
I hope so. I can’t ever tell if he’s riddling or not.
“Why did you bring us here?” Fae asked. “And what do we have to do to leave?”
“You want to leave so soon?” asked Soryu. “You’ve only just arrived. And part of your great quest, Fae Greyson, involves me and my kin. The Spiral Dragons were part of your drawings, were we not?”
I can’t tell anything about him. Is he earnestly looking to speak with and help me? Or is he playing me, drawing me in until I let down my guard?
Jupiter opened her mouth to speak, but Neptune slapped her hand over it again. She whispered something so faintly Fae could barely tell she’d made a sound, but Jupiter nodded frantically at it, and Neptune removed her hand.
“Caution without fear,” said Soryu. “Fascinating creatures, you are. Well then, Fae Greyson. What do you wish to ask me?”
That’s too easy. I won’t fall for that.
A beat later, Soryu laughed. “Ah, it was worth a try.”
He said no more for a count of ten. Then a count of twenty.
Fae felt a bead of sweat run down her spine.
I can’t make a single mistake. Is time really something I can count on? Are there ways he can speak a Dragon Riddle that leaves it open no matter how long I wait? Is there a way to answer without answering either correctly or incorrectly, some kind of loophole or contradiction that cancels out the Riddle?
I need to know the rules about them. But how do I find out? He has me at a complete disadvantage, and I can’t even risk consulting with the others. And the way they’re looking at me…
Why are they leaving everything to me?
Fae took a deep breath, tried to calm her racing heart. “Do you know why my drawings singled out you and your kin?” she asked. “Do you know how I can meet the other Spiral Dragons, and if so, for what purpose? Anything you can tell me is appreciated.”
“ ‘Anything,’ you say?” asked Soryu. “And yet you do not ask the question that most weighs on your mind, that incites the caution within you.” His voice slowed and quieted. “You do not trust me.”
Can you blame me?
Fae stayed silent.
“Clever, cautious, resourceful,” said Soryu. “I can see why Kairyu liked you. Interesting… so. You wonder why you were brought here. You wonder at the great power that calls to you and inspires such drawings. You wonder at much, Fae Greyson, and for good reason. Perhaps I could tell you something. I am, after all, the most mature, and least mischievous, of the Spiral Dragons. Age brings wisdom, as Humans like to say.”
For the first time since they’d seen him, Soryu blinked. A moist, translucent membrane closed over the great, gleaming blue eye, and then opened.
“You know about the centers of each Sector,” continued Soryu. “Three great Locations sit in the center of the three Sectors of the Enchanted Dominion. They were your hope for meeting my kin, and you are not wrong in that. But there is more to these Center Locations. You must visit all three – there are interesting clues that wait for you. But don’t find too much hope in my directions.” A mischievous gleam shone in the Dragon’s great eye. “The great power that has called you, the questions that stir within your core… you will not find the answers so easily. Only when you unravel every mystery will you discover the truth. And the truth may not be what you hoped to find.”
Fae stopped herself from opening her mouth to speak.
I still have to wait after he talks, just to be safe. And he might have more to say.
I get it. He sounds, at first glance, like he’s helping us so much. But he isn’t. Just a simple clue: go to the Center Locations, which we’d already planned on. And vague stuff beyond that.
Seeing how silent Soryu remained, Fae spoke.
“And what about you and your kin?” she asked. “Why was I called to seek you out?”
The Fates were similar, in that they mainly just pushed me to answers and the rest of my journey. But even then, being sent to them led to me saving them from Collapse.
Do the Spiral Dragons need something from me? Is there anything valuable I can do for them?
“As I said,” said Soryu with a rumbling laugh, “you must unravel every mystery to discover the truth. And remember that the Fates were all three together. I am but one of three, and the other two will not so easily be met with – nor outwitted.”
“S—” came the faintest start of a word from Jupiter, before being shut up by Neptune.
He’s not saying we outwitted him. That was a trick to provoke surprise and a response, and Jupiter almost fell for it.
“Is that all?” Fae asked after a count of sixty. “What… is this place? How did you bring us here? What is your purpose in this world? Is there anything that you need from me, anything I’m supposed to do for you or your siblings?”
A long rumble of laughter stretched on through the vast emptiness. “So clever,” said Soryu. “So clever that I had stopped expecting you to let down your guard.”
“Perhaps there is something you can do for me,” said Soryu, and Fae felt a sudden sense of vertigo. The mountainous bulk of the Dragon’s face was surging towards her, and blue scales surrounded her, rose up above her, and she stood upon those same scales, the stony platform gone, her companions gone.
The mist parted, and glittering diamond-like light shone from all directions. Fae gaped in wonder.
She could see so much of the great Spiral Dragon, and was looking upon him in revealed glory. His scales shone and sparkled, lighting up like azure fires, like aquamarine bolts of lightning, like sapphire suns. His majestic, serpentine body was a grand cylindrical highway, spiraling all around Fae, above her, below her. In the gaps between vast stretches of scaly movement, Fae saw glimpses of strange spheres floating in the void. The spheres were like bubbles, like snow globes, and inside…
Is that… the Plains of the Fallen?
And in that one… what…?
In the center of it all, high above, was Soryu’s face. Both eyes Fae now saw, gazing down at her with a wild mixture of mischief, power, delight, and…
Is that… hope?
“You know so very little, Fae Greyson,” said Soryu. “But if you truly wish to help – if you fashion yourself a hero, by choice or by fate – then heed the words I have spoken. Heed the clues on the path before you and behind. The greatest answers lie not with one part, but with the whole. If you can decipher the Great Riddle, then we shall meet again, and I may just decide to agree with my elder sister and recognize you as Dragon Friend.”
Soryu’s scales and eyes shone brighter than ever, until there was nothing but brilliant blue light all around.
When the light vanished, Fae found herself looking up at a grey sky. A soft, gentle rain fell, its quiet rhythm a sudden, calming presence after the majestic splendor of Soryu.
“We’re back,” came the voice of Mercury, dull and quiet against the rain.
They stood upon a low hill overlooking the artist’s camp in the Plains of the Fallen.
“What happened?” Jupiter asked. “You totally vanished, and so did the Dragon, and then suddenly boom! We’re here.”
“What happened was you almost ruined everything,” Mercury said, smacking her redheaded sister on the back of the head. “Are you the only one who forgot about Dragon Riddles?”
“I didn’t forget,” Jupiter said, rubbing the back of her head. “I just didn’t remember at the time.”
“Anyway, we’re all wondering the same thing,” Neptune said. “What did happen?”
“I guess…” Fae said slowly, “Soryu wanted to talk to me alone.”
Though I don’t know why. I’ll just end up telling them everything he said.
It must be more than that.
“Well joke’s on him, ’cause you’re gonna tell us anyway,” Mercury said, grinning at Fae. “Right?”
“Of course,” Fae said with a smile.
“At any rate,” Gerick said, “it might be prudent to take this conversation inside. The rain never gets much heavier than this on the Plains, but it can still soak us through, given time.”
“We can take our time,” Fae said. “I’ve always loved the rain.”
She took in a deep breath, held it for a beat, then let it out slowly.
I feel like that’s the first time I’ve taken a proper breath since… since we first left to take on the Nightmare Road.
I’ll cherish this moment. It doesn’t look like I’ll get many like it in the future.
“Hey, uh…” Mercury said, her tone wavering. “Who’s… that?”
Fae, Neptune, Jupiter, and Gerick turned to look where she pointed. Approaching their group from the other side of the hill was a figure dressed all in white. The outfit was like a uniform, or some sort of ceremonial garb – it fit closely to the figure’s vaguely female form, and was largely unadorned, save for a golden pin on the right breast, and faint pearly tracery along the sleeves and pant legs. The jacket wrapped around to button along the figure’s left side, and had a hood which came low in the front, hiding the figure’s face.
“I’ve never seen her before,” Gerick said, staring with a slightly puzzled look.
“I don’t like this,” Mercury said, shaking her head. “Something about her…”
“Yeah,” Jupiter said, nodding frantically.
“It’s… strange…” Neptune said slowly.
The figure stopped about twenty yards from the group and raised a pale, ungloved hand to point at Fae.
“The True One,” came a female voice, flat and lacking emotion of any sort.
A chill ran down Fae’s spine as warnings and information came tumbling to her through her memories.
“…they cannot express emotion. Their feelings and personal desires have been sealed off.”
“And despite your amulet, you will not detect the Vessel’s presence until meeting them once. They will catch you unawares. Do not allow them to overcome you.”
“The Sealed Vessel,” Fae said softly, staring.
“No way,” Mercury said. “The amulet –”
“Won’t detect them the first time,” Neptune said.
“I come for the True One,” the Sealed Vessel said, still pointing at Fae. “All others will leave.”
“As if we’d go anywhere,” Mercury said, stepping in front of Fae. “What do you want with her? Why are you calling her the ‘True One?’ ”
The Sealed Vessel dropped her pointing hand, and held out her other hand to her side. The air shimmered, forming a line of silver that suddenly flashed with brilliance. When the light faded, the Sealed Vessel held in her hand a long, pearly-white staff.
No. Not a staff.
It rose, simple and unadorned, eight feet in length. But at the top, it swept back, forming a base for…
Atop the staff was a massive, curving, alabaster blade.
The Sealed Vessel held a scythe.
“Come by choice or be taken,” the Sealed Vessel said. “You have five seconds to decide.”
“Don’t go,” Mercury said. “I don’t like what she has planned for you. And you know she won’t let us go with you.”
But if I do nothing…
Fae stared at the white-clad Vessel, her heart tying itself in knots.
It was all too sudden. Too unexpected.
Just as the Fates had warned.
There were so many questions. And she had no time to ask them.
We aren’t fighters.
Yet she… she holds that weapon like she’s used to it. She carries herself like a warrior.
If we resist…
She’ll kill everyone.
Fae opened her mouth to speak, but was suddenly cut off by a clear, defiant, trilling cry.
Down from the sky swooped a bolt of lavender light, coalescing into the form of a bird, wings outstretched. The Vessel turned, raising her scythe, but was too slow. The diving bird raked claws over the hand that held the scythe, and the weapon fell from the Vessel’s hand. As the bird tilted upward and soared away, Fae caught a better look at it.
It was a raven. A brilliant raven shining with lavender light. Something about its cry, its color, its form, struck a chord in Fae’s heart.
Before anyone – even the Sealed Vessel – could react to the suddenness of that attack, a clear, confident voice cried out, and Fae’s heart skipped a beat.
There’s no way…
Thousands of glowing, violet butterflies filled the air, descending as a fluttering horde upon the Sealed Vessel. She seemed unperturbed by their presence at first, reaching for her dropped scythe. But when the first few alighted on her…
She froze. More butterflies came down, swirling around her, landing on her shoulders, her head, her arms, her legs.
The Sealed Vessel suddenly spun in a wide circle, forcing the butterflies away. She lifted her scythe and then turned on her heel, slashing at empty air.
The air itself tore open, unfolding in a portal through which could be glimpsed a white, featureless landscape.
The Sealed Vessel stepped through the portal, and space closed in behind her.
She was gone.
Fae was immediately looking around in all directions, until finally her eyes found the raven, still in the midst of a banking turn. She followed it, watching as it came softly down to land upon an outstretched arm.
She couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Royal… Raven?” she asked softly.
There she was, the costumed superhero that Fae and Madeline Crowley had invented together in middle school, and then redesigned in high school.
Except she was real.
Royal Raven laughed, clear and bright. “What?” she asked, and Fae’s heart stopped at the sound of that voice. “Don’t you recognize your best friend?”
She held out a gloved hand, and her entire superhero costume transformed into spiraling, shimmering ribbons of light. In a flash, the ribbons snapped together, shooting towards the outstretched finger tips, vanishing into thin air.
Their departure left behind Madeline Crowley, a raven Summon on her arm, a smile on her face, and the faintest hint of tears shining in her eyes.
Fae’s heart caught in her throat.
“Found you,” Madeline said, laughing softly.
Yeah. Yeah you did.