Fae felt the wind on her face, a cool gust that swept across what was once the Valley of Ruin. It still didn’t have a proper new name, so Fae just thought of it as “The Valley.”
The breeze feels so good.
And the sun… how long has it been since the sun properly warmed this place?
Collapse was defeated. Really, truly, completely, gone.
There was still much for Fae to do, so much of a quest ahead of her. She knew that.
But this moment of catharsis, of relief, of triumph, was one she needed to cherish, even if just for a little bit.
“I can sort of see what you drew now,” Mercury said. She sat next to Fae on the bridge, their feet dangling over the edge along with Madeline, Neptune, and Jupiter. “It’s ruined, but it isn’t ugly or dead. There are signs of life and beauty.”
“One day, it’ll be whole again,” Madeline said. “People will come back here.”
“Mm,” Fae murmured, a wordless agreement through a smile.
“But hey, how come you were able to draw all that?” Jupiter asked. “I know we kinda skipped over that before because we had stuff to do, but now that we have a break… doesn’t it freak you out? Having all those names in your head?”
I’ve been trying not to think about that.
“It’s gotta have something to do with all of your other drawings,” Mercury said. “Do you still remember all of their names?”
“Yeah,” Fae said, nodding hesitantly. “At first it hurt, like I didn’t have space for all of that, but now… it’s all just… there.”
“Super weird,” Jupiter said. “But kinda cool.”
“What do we do next?” Madeline asked.
“Back to Selphine, right?” Neptune asked. “We have the doorknob that can take us there. She’ll help us get wherever we decide to go next.”
“Yeah,” Fae said. She sat there, smiling at the breeze once again.
If I can just enjoy this a little longer, that would be —
Fae jolted to a start, shot to her feet. Digging into her shirt, she pulled out the amulet hanging from her neck.
It was glowing.
“The Sealed Vessel?” Mercury asked, staring wide-eyed at the amulet. “She’s here?”
“Then we need to go back to Selphine, fast!” Jupiter said.
Fae hesitated, then shook her head. “No,” she said. “The Vessel might be able to follow us there, and put Selphine at risk, too.”
“Or Selphine could protect us,” Jupiter said. “She’s gotta be super-powerful and stuff, right?”
“Maybe,” Fae said. “But I don’t want to risk her.”
Madeline nodded. “So where do we go?” she asked.
“We need to know where the Sealed Vessel is,” Fae said, turning in a slow circle, surveying the Valley. They were about halfway up, so they could see most of the Valley from above, with long, clear sight lines. But there was a lot of ruin, a lot of rubble.
A lot of places to hide.
“And then we book it outta here,” Mercury said, grinning. “You know this place, right? Is there an exit to another Location?”
Fae nodded, not even having to think about it. “There’s one,” she said, still looking for the Sealed Vessel. “On top of the Valley. There are stairs leading up, a short ways from here.”
Her clothes are totally white, and she wears a hood to hide face or hair. She can blend into this place so easily.
But if I’m right, then —
There the Sealed Vessel was, standing on a bridge forty yards away, across a vast gap of open air. She held her scythe at her side, planted on the stone, its alabaster blade pale in the sunlight.
“Time to go,” Mercury said.
“Yeah,” Fae said, turning away with a force of effort.
Something about her face, what little I can see under that hood…
Why does she seem familiar?
But now she was running, trying to cast curiosity from her mind. Across the bridge, to stairs that swept down several stories, and then they were in the thick of the city, through winding streets, under and over rubble and ruined buildings, picking their way along a path that Fae led them down.
For she knew this city by heart.
It’s not too far to the stairs, if we run. I don’t know how fast the Sealed Vessel is, though. Or how dangerous she is.
She was already out of breath, struggling to keep up the pace.
Running is so not my forte.
“She’s just walking after us,” Jupiter said. “Why is she keeping up with us?”
“She’s a power-walking champion,” Mercury said.
Fae pulled out her stylus Talisman, drawing in the air. Glowing lines appeared, but then she ran straight through them. She tried again, and again, but her lines continued to tether themselves to the spot, so that she couldn’t complete her drawings unless she came to a stop.
And stopping would do them no good.
“Focus,” came the voice of Madeline, struggling for breath in the run, too. “You got this.”
Fae’s heart lightened a little, and she managed to gasp in a deep breath and start again.
Her lines followed her, stayed with her, glowing in the air as she ran. She drew swiftly, not going for anything complex. She had to keep her eyes on her feet, on the path, as well, lest she trip. A simple spiral, and a quick scattering of lines bursting out from its circumference. She slashed across the drawing and it flashed with light, zipping through and behind her.
“Nobody look back!” she shouted.
A moment later, brilliant white light, bright as the sun, blazed into being behind them, its blinding rays slashing across the ruins, throwing their shapes and structures into sharp relief, annihilating even the hints of shadows wherever it shone.
For two, three, four seconds the light blazed bright.
Then it faded.
“Did it help?” Fae asked.
Jupiter was alongside her, and glanced back. “Uh, hard to say,” she said.
“Maybe a little, tiny bit,” Mercury said. “Maybe.”
“So we can’t slow her down at all?” Jupiter asked. “This is like something out of a horror movie.”
“Yeah, it’d be the perfect atmosphere if it was the middle of the night, and we just had a flashlight to see by, and this probably should be a forest instead of a city, then it’d be super scary.”
“How —” Fae said through gasping breaths, “can you two — talk so much — while running?”
“Practice,” Mercury and Jupiter said in nonchalant unison.
Fae would have burst out laughing if she wasn’t so desperate for breath, if she wasn’t being pursued by a mysterious stranger, if everything wasn’t so frantic and frightening.
“Here,” she managed to wheeze out, pointing at a curving set of stairs. Up they ran, and Fae felt two hands gentle at her back, pushing her up the stairs.
“I got you,” said Mercury. Fae could hear the smile in her voice.
“And I’ve got you,” Jupiter said, followed by an unintelligible, groaning murmur that was probably thanks from Madeline.
Thank goodness they aren’t as out of shape as the two of us.
The curving stairs led up onto a high bridge that shot, clear and clean, to the far Valley wall, where a steep set of stairs shot up the precipitous climb to the top of the rocky cliffs.
Fae managed to look aside as she rushed across the bridge as fast as her weary legs would take her.
There was the Sealed Vessel, picking her way through the ruins, nearing the curving stairs up to this bridge with frightening, yet somehow casual, speed.
But we’re almost out. It’ll be fine.
We just need to keep… running…
Fae’s feet nearly failed her, and would have if Mercury wasn’t there to push her along.
“Neptune, take over,” Mercury said, rushing past Fae to the stairs. Neptune’s hands were at Fae’s back now, a different sort of touch, calm, reassuring. Mercury reached the stairs, racing up the steep steps with shocking speed.
A sound like wind whistling harshly through metal was followed by an arcing blast of light, white rimmed in gold. It sliced into the stairs beneath Mercury’s feet, tore the staircase asunder.
Mercury fell into open air.
“Mercury!” Fae cried out, racing for the edge of the bridge.
Madeline was there sooner. Paintbrush Talisman in hand, she flicked it forward. Gleaming ribbons shot out, racing towards the falling Mercury as they anchored themselves to the bridge. They grabbed her just in time, reeling her up in an arc that gave her a bit of a jump at the top, landing on the bridge on her feet with impact enough that she dropped to one knee. She looked dazed, not saying anything or even moving for a moment.
“Mercury?” Fae finally asked.
The blonde shook her head, blinked her eyes, and shot to her feet. “Okay,” she said, breathless, nodding too many times. “Okay, yeah. …That was scary.” She turned around in a circle, looking at everyone in turn. Finally, she stopped at Madeline. “Thanks.”
“But now we’ve gotta deal with her,” Jupiter said, looking along the bridge to where the Sealed Vessel had just climbed up.
“Is there any other way up to the top of the Valley?” Neptune asked.
“No,” Fae said, looking left and right just to be sure. But her memories, memories that weren’t hers, were true. “There were four stairs up, but the other three were already destroyed. This was the last one.”
“So Selphine now, yeah?” Jupiter asked.
Fae gritted her teeth, stepping ahead of the others, towards the Sealed Vessel. “Please stop!” she called out.
The Sealed Vessel, surprisingly, came to a stop.
“I’m sure we can talk about this,” Fae continued.
“The only one you need talk to is my master,” the Sealed Vessel replied in that flat, emotionless voice of hers.
There is something, though, isn’t there?
It’s well-hidden with how she doesn’t talk with any emotion, but…
I know that voice…
“Who’s your master?” Madeline asked.
The Sealed Vessel was silent.
“Who’s your master?” Fae asked, playing a hunch.
“You will know soon,” the Vessel replied.
“She’s not going with you!” Mercury shouted in defiance.
“Is there any way to keep you from harming my friends?” Fae asked.
“Come on, we can take her,” Mercury said.
“You can’t even pretend to fight,” Neptune said softly. “Neither can Jupiter. Don’t forget she nearly killed you a second ago.”
None of us are fighters. That’s not how we’re going to get out of this.
“Come with me willingly,” the Vessel said. “I need not touch your friends.”
“She’s not —” Mercury started. Fae held up a hand, shook her head.
“You can’t,” Madeline said.
“We’ll figure something out,” Mercury said. “Don’t just go with her. You don’t know what she’s going to do to you.”
“You have ten seconds,” the Vessel said. She remained stopped at the far side of the bridge, but she shifted the scythe in her hand ever so slightly.
“I won’t let anything happen to me,” Fae said softly, turning to the others. “But this might be the best way to understand what’s happening, what they want with me. And…” She looked to Madeline, then Neptune. “I know you guys will find me.”
“Fae…” Mercury started, staring at her with pleading eyes.
Fae pulled the doorknob out of her bag and the amulet from around her neck and handed both to Neptune. “Tell Selphine everything,” she said.
Neptune took the doorknob. She met Fae’s gaze with a serious stare that told Fae she understood more than her words.
Mercury took Fae’s hand. Fae smiled, gave it a gentle squeeze, and let go. She looked at Madeline, nodded once, then turned away. A soft, brief touch on her shoulder made her heart light.
I’ll be fine.
I just need to hold on. Discover the truth. And let them find me.
She started walking towards the Sealed Vessel.
“We can’t just let her go,” Jupiter said softly, urgently.
“This is the best way,” Neptune said gently.
“This can’t be the best way,” Mercury replied, frustration thick in her voice.
“I trust her,” Neptune said.
“We’ll find you!” Mercury called out. “No matter what! So don’t let them do anything to you, or turn you into some Vessel thing!”
Fae smiled, and she fought back tears.
There was fear in the tears that threatened to escape, but also, strangely…
The fact that Madeline said nothing was exactly what Fae had hoped for and expected.
We communicate best without words, anyway.
She knew everything going on in Madeline’s mind.
And she knew, placing her trust in those four…
They won’t let me down.
She finally stopped, a few paces away from the Sealed Vessel. “Where do we go?” she asked.
“Give me your hand,” the Sealed Vessel said, holding out her own. Hesitantly, Fae took her hand.
Her skin was warm, and smooth.
Even at the very last moment, though Fae thought she should, or thought she wanted to…
She couldn’t bring herself to turn around. Couldn’t bring herself to look back at her friends, one last time, to say goodbye.
Light swirled around her and the Vessel, and the Valley vanished.
Fae swallowed her tears. Where she was going, she needed clear eyes and a clear mind.
Slowly, the light faded, and then faded far more than Fae expected. No longer were they outside in the sun. This new place was dark, the interior of some factory or industrial facility, with dim yellow lights barely offering enough to see by, at least until Fae’s eyes adjusted.
There were numerous sounds, quiet but clear. Electronic beeps. Hisses of steam. Mechanical creaking and cranking. The muffled, bubbly sound of water moving through pipes and tubes.
And there was quite a lot of water, Fae realized. Numerous windows and transparent tubes in this cramped, claustrophobic place carried strange fluid through them that glowed with faint, pale green luminescence.
Great, dark machines rose up everywhere, with exposed pipes, tubes, wiring abounding. Cranks and dials, levers and switches, analog displays, covered their metal faces, suggesting a hodgepodge of technology that Fae couldn’t place anywhere in Earth’s history.
So we’re still somewhere in the Enchanted Dominion. But where?
There was a putrid smell in the air, causing Fae to wrinkle her nose.
“I’ve returned,” the Sealed Vessel said, striding a few paces ahead and then turning left through a gap between machinery. Fae followed. “I’ve brought her.”
“So you finally succeeded at something,” came a man’s voice. It sounded old, and muffled, metallic, as if coming through some kind of filter. When the Sealed Vessel stopped, Fae stopped with her, looking up at the largest machine in the place. It was a tower of metal, with many of those clear pipes and tubes feeding luminescent liquid into it. A large, rectangular window with rounded edges sat about ten feet up, and the pale green liquid could be seen bubbling within it. Around the window were faintly lit displays, each showing symbols that Fae couldn’t read or recognize. Beneath the window was a slatted, circular piece, looking rather like an old-fashioned school intercom.
“Ahh,” the voice said, and it was clear it came from that intercom-like piece. “Yes, it’s quite something to look upon you. You are indeed the True Vessel. There’s no doubt about that. Seeing you like this makes me feel a fool for thinking the other two suitable.”
“Who are you?” Fae asked. “Are you the one who’s been sending me the drawings?”
The voice laughed, gruff and throaty, tinged with bitterness. “No, no, the drawings don’t come from me, or anyone else,” he said. “Can’t you see, girl? They come from you! The Dominion just awakens hidden truths within you.”
Fae did her best to keep her face still, passive.
I don’t buy that at all.
I’ve heard another voice, a voice that isn’t mine. And those words on the drawing of the Valley — “Don’t Forget” — that was a message, not from me, but to me.
There’s too much about these drawings, about where they’ve led me. There’s no way they’re coming from me.
So why does he feel the need to lie?
“Silence,” the voice said. “Fascinating. I thought you’d at least say something, but you’re awfully calm. Well, calm is good. It makes all of this easier.”
“All of what?” Fae asked. “What are you going to do with me? What are the Vessels, and why do you think I’m the ‘true’ one? What are you going to put inside me?”
“Myself, of course!” the voice said, tinged with laughter. Fae’s stomach churned at that response.
Yeah, that’s not happening.
“What are you?” Fae asked.
“Now you’re asking interesting questions!” the voice said, laughing. Fae was already sick of his laughter. “Perhaps this will give you some sort of clue.” The liquid within the window, which bubbled a bit here and there whenever the voice spoke, suddenly began to churn and foam. Fae stared, waiting.
Suddenly, the waters swirled and slammed against the window with a vicious sound.
They formed the image of an eye, an eye that filled the entire window, an eye with a translucent lid, rather like that of a snake.
“A Dragon…?” Fae asked. That eye looked remarkably like Soryu’s, the great Spiral Dragon she’d met so unexpectedly after finishing the adventures at the Nightmare Citadel.
“So you’ve met one of my siblings, then?” the voice asked. The eye vanished, and the waters bubbled now and then with his speech once more.
“Siblings?” Fae asked. “You’re a Spiral Dragon?”
“Not all of us get so lofty a title,” the voice said. “Only four.”
He’s right about the first part at least. Kairyu is sister to the Spiral Dragons, but she isn’t one of them.
“What are you called?” Fae asked.
“I like the way you phrase that,” the voice said, laughing. “Very Dragon-like. You can call me whatever you like, it won’t matter for very long. But if you must know, my name — in a form that you could actually speak — is Wasuryu. And I should rightfully be a Spiral Dragon, you know.”
Fae didn’t know, but she was about to find out, as Wasuryu kept speaking.
“Each Spiral Dragon rules over a Sector of the Enchanted Dominion,” he said. “But there are so many Locations that aren’t tethered to a specific Sector. So I asked, quite politely, you know, for us to gather those untethered Locations into a fourth Sector. There’s certainly enough of them, after all. Why not have four Sectors, what does the number matter? But they overruled me! Especially that Silver Star Witch. Without her, perhaps things would have gone rightly.”
Silver Star Witch?
Like the Silver Star Sanctuary? Does he know something that might help Neptune, Mercury, and Jupiter?
“They knew what they doomed me to,” Wasuryu continued. “I am not like Kairyu, able to dwell in the festering dirt. I was made like the others, to soar, but without a Sector to call home, I exist only in the metaphysical places of the universe, unable to truly interact with anyone save through this overly complicated apparatus you see here. It’s trying and troublesome. But that’s where you come in, True Vessel.”
Gross. Way too gross. No way.
“You will be my host!” Wasuryu said. “And what an honor it is, to be the body of a Dragon! I will enter into you, and walk through the physical realms in your form, but with all my powers intact. Perfection, truly. The freedom, freedom I’ve longed for, freedom none of my siblings can have, curse them to the Darkhold! And I’ve finally found the proper Vessel. Not those two sad failures.”
“Who are they?” Fae asked, fighting back her disgust at what this Dragon intended for her. “The Broken Vessel, the Sealed Vessel… why are they like that?”
“Because they failed!” Wasuryu said, haughtily, as if it should be perfectly obvious. “The Broken Vessel fell into madness because she couldn’t house me at all — the attempt broke her, and sent me back here, with no progress whatsoever. As for Sealed, here, she’s perhaps the worst failure. After just a small part of me entered her, she sealed shut. Wouldn’t let anything else in, and wouldn’t let the fragment of my soul out. I’m not even whole anymore, thanks to her! But that won’t last much longer.”
“What will happen to them?” Fae asked. “If you make me your Vessel… what becomes of them?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” Wasuryu asked. “Well, perhaps not. The Broken Vessel, she actually might be whole again. Or she’ll remain broken, I don’t know. But she should be fine, there’s nothing of me in her, after all. As for Sealed, she’ll die, of course. I have to pull the fragment of me out of her, and the only way to do that is to break her. She won’t survive the process.”
“Why would you just let that happen?” Fae asked, unable to conceal her disgust and anger anymore. “You talk of them as if they’re nothing! But you’re going to kill a girl just to gain a human body for yourself? You’re alive, even like that. How selfish can you get?”
“Silly girl,” Wasuryu said, though there was no humor in his voice. “Sealed isn’t a person anymore. That tiny fragment of me that’s in her, it was too much. Forced all that was ‘her’ out. She’s just a shell now, a slave. Death would be salvation for her.”
“I won’t let you,” Fae said. “I came here willingly, but I didn’t agree to be your Vessel. And I won’t let you use me to kill someone else.”
Wasuryu laughed, that haughty, disgusting laugh. “As if you have any choice, petty girl,” he said. “I won’t waste the good work that dark ‘scientist’ did in giving me this path to freedom. Not that you’ll care one bit about the slave once you know the truth.” The liquid inside the window frothed for a moment, then settled. “Sealed! Lower your hood, won’t you? Show the girl your face.”
Fae stared at the Sealed Vessel, her heart pounding in her chest. What would she see?
The Sealed Vessel let go of her scythe, and it vanished into thin air. Lifting both ungloved hands, she slowly pulled back her hood, let it fall.
Fae’s eyes widened slowly. Her heart skipped a beat, then pounded against the wall of her chest, then skipped again. She forgot to breathe for several long moments.
The Sealed Vessel bore a familiar face, the most familiar face.
It was the face of Fae Greyson.