Fae stared in awe at the Dragon that rose up out of the ocean to gaze at her.
But… that awe was somewhat subdued.
“So much smaller than the other Dragons,” Jupiter murmured.
“Yes,” said the Dragon, his voice just as otherworldly and majestic as that of his siblings. “But this is merely a temporary form. We Dragons can change our shape and size, you know. Or don’t you? Met four Dragons already and you don’t even know that much?” He chuckled, his head bobbing, water rippling around him. “What a strange, pathetic bunch you are.”
“P—” Jupiter started, but Mercury and Neptune clapped their hands over her mouth. The Dragon chuckled.
So this one’s going to antagonize us? That’s a new trick — but an effective one, even though we’re prepared for how to talk to Dragons.
“Clever, clever girls,” the Dragon said. His giant eyes seemed to tilt, slightly, as if he’d shifted his great gaze to Oliver. “And yet far less clever than you were when you arrived.”
“And I’d never met a Dragon before you,” Oliver said, stunning Fae with how quickly he replied to the Dragon.
Are you nuts? The Dragon Riddle…
She saw Oliver’s smile, a knowing glint in his eyes.
Something’s different. But how? Why?
Does he know more about Dragon Riddles, or…?
“The boy is a proper Dragon Friend,” the Dragon said, chuckling. “At least, a Friend to me. Now you learn a tiny bit more, little Greyson girl.”
“Don’t belittle her, Hiryu,” Oliver said with a sigh. “You’re fond of your games, but Fae and her friends are important, and I have much to tell them. So do you, if you’d behave yourself.”
“A Dragon does not bow to the whims of a Human,” Hiryu said, but there was a lilt of laughter in his voice. “Where shall we begin?”
No one spoke, and after a few moments, Oliver chuckled. “It’s all right,” he said, waving a hand. “Hiryu can’t use his Dragon Riddles on anyone I consider a friend or ally. He’s harmless.”
“Don’t you start belittling me, boy,” Hiryu said, but there was no anger in his voice. “It matters not. My words are for later. It isn’t nearly as fun to speak with Humans when you protect them.” Oliver smiled warmly, but said nothing. Hiryu’s gaze turned back to Fae. “My siblings have shown you their true forms in Otherwhere, and I will do the same, next we meet.” Slowly, the Dragon receded into the water, vanishing beneath the glassy surface of the ocean.
Oliver sighed, then shrugged, spreading his hands helplessly. “I can’t speak for the other Spiral Dragons, as I haven’t met them, but Hiryu’s quite the handful. I’m lucky I was able to forge a friendship with him, or life here would be much more dangerous. I probably wouldn’t still be here to guide you, and that would leave your journey here nearly for naught.”
“Fae’s a Dragon Friend, too,” Mercury said. “Or does that only apply to each Dragon that recognizes her?”
“That seems to be how it works,” Oliver said. “No one’s really ‘a’ Dragon Friend, in a general sense. I’m a Dragon Friend to Hiryu, but I’d need to watch my step around his siblings. When a Dragon recognizes you as a Friend, they can no longer harm you or others through you in any way, shape, or form, directly or indirectly. And they tend to become much kinder, though that varies from Dragon to Dragon. Or so I’ve read.”
“So… what is all of this?” Fae asked. “You vanished, and Selphine tried to follow you, tried to find you. Have you been here this whole time, hanging out with a Dragon? There have been all sorts of rumors of what happened to you, including that you succumbed to Collapse.”
Oliver’s smile faded, and he lowered his gaze. “I did succumb,” he said softly, “for a time. How I reached the Celestial Shore, I confess I don’t know. But being here… brought me some measure of healing. Though Collapse’s influence remained, like a scar. Until…” He looked up, straight at Fae, and a small smile returned. “I felt it. When you destroyed Collapse, ended its wicked influence for good, I felt it. The scar burned, for a moment, and then was gone. I’m… finally free. Thanks to you, Fae.”
“I didn’t do it alone,” Fae said. “But… what kept you here? If you healed from its influence, couldn’t you have left and gone back to Selphine?”
Oliver turned away, gazing out at the endless ocean. “We have much to talk about, Fae,” he said. “After I’ve said what I need to say… then, perhaps, we can talk about me. I will start by saying this: you and I were called by the same person, to the same place.”
“Called by a person?” Fae asked. “You know that?”
Oliver nodded. “Though I don’t entirely know why I was called,” he said. “I think…” He sighed, shaking his head. “It doesn’t matter. I failed in the journey. I fell too far. This marvelous shore is as far as I can go. I’m no longer allowed into the place that beckons you, can never meet the one who calls to you, inspires your drawings and leads you on this quest. But I’ve stayed here because I must.” He knelt as the tide came in, and Fae saw that it carried with it a small bottle, and inside the bottle, a letter. Oliver stood with the bottle, uncorked it, and deposited the letter into his hand, unfolding it. He smirked. “Just one word: ‘Star.’ But I understand.” He folded the letter and pocketed it. “You see, the Celestial Shore… it’s a sort of place of transit, I suppose you could say. It can bring things in from far-off places, and take things out just the same.”
“Like the Basin of Antiquity,” Neptune said. “It pulls in all sorts of lost things.”
“Similar,” Oliver said with a nod, “but not the same. The Basin pulls in what is lost, and only sends out other lost things with a proper place in mind. The Celestial Shore is more specific. The only things that come here must be intentionally sent, and the same for things that are sent from here. I have sent a few things your way, through… a mutual friend.”
“You mean the doorknob?” Mercury asked.
“That’s right, the reflecting pool in Eventide Archive,” Madeline said. “You sent the doorknob?”
“Selphine didn’t mention it was once mine?” Oliver asked. The girls shook their heads. “Ah. I see. Well, yes, I sent that. And I’ve been receiving messages… from the one who calls us.”
“Do you have to keep being so vague?” Jupiter asked. “Who’s the one calling out to you?”
“The Silver Star Matron,” Oliver said.
“Silver Star…” Mercury said softly.
“That’s right,” Oliver said. “And she knows about you three. As you’ve likely been told, it’s no coincidence that all of you have ended up together. What you three sisters have long sought after will soon be within your grasp.”
“But who is she?” Mercury asked, excitement and hope rising in her voice. “What’s her relation to us? How does she know us? Is she…?” But she trailed off, leaving that last question unasked.
“She won’t tell me,” Oliver said. “I can’t say much about her character, since I’ve never actually met her, but I gather from her messages that she… is very old. Older, perhaps, than many Dragons, even. She has many secrets, many mysteries, and she is very careful about disclosing those secrets. But she does know of you three, and she is eager to meet you, that I know for certain. She awaits you, all of you, at the Silver Star Sanctuary.”
“The place we’ve spent so long trying to find…” Mercury said. “But where is it? How do we get there?”
“It isn’t much farther,” Oliver said, turning away from the ocean and smiling at the girls. “All of your journeys, and you have but one more clear destination. The Chapel of the Unreturned is the gateway to the Silver Star Sanctuary, for those very few who are allowed passage.”
“The Chapel of the Unreturned…” Mercury said softly.
“What’s with that name, though?” Jupiter asked. “Does that mean we can’t ever come back after we go through?”
“You will understand its name when you go there,” Oliver said. “But its name does not apply to all who go, and it will not apply to you, if you succeed in its trials. If you successfully reach the Silver Star Sanctuary, then you have nothing to fear: you will be able to return safely to the rest of the Enchanted Dominion, and even to Earth. You have the key to the Silver Star Door, so you have nothing to fear.”
“The locket,” Mercury said, looking to Neptune.
“After all this time…” Neptune said, pulling out the locket and gazing at it. “We’re so close, after all this time.”
“The Silver Star Sanctuary holds hope for more than just you three,” Oliver said. “There are a great many truths you can only fully discover there. Just as I’ve discovered here, in my final role in this story.”
“Final role?” Madeline asked.
“To be a guide,” Oliver said, smiling. There was a sadness in his eyes, a sadness that never quite left, no matter how much he smiled. “For all of you. That is my final role, and I accept it gladly. You’ve had great need of guides throughout your quest, and you will still, even after my work is finished. I’ll help as much as I can, of course. I’ve… been waiting a long time, just for that purpose.”
“How much do you know?” Sonya asked, taking a step forward. “I mean… do you know about me or Olivia, and Fae, and why we look the same, why we were all pursued by Wasuryu?” Olivia gripped Fae’s sleeve tightly, saying nothing, but she stared intently at Oliver.
“I have a few pieces of the puzzle,” Oliver said, “but not the full picture. I know there is a powerful bond between you three: not of blood, despite looking to all the world like identical triplets. There is a bond of magic between you three, one that has transcended time and space, and the Silver Star Matron knows most of the truth behind it, though she would not tell me. I’ve been left with letters, one to each of you seven, letters I’m not allowed to read. They’ll be my last gift to you, when you’re ready to leave, and then you can find important pieces to each of your individual puzzles. But for the three Vessels… I did find one clue that the Matron didn’t know.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a faded, yellowed paper that acted more like cloth, flowing freely in his hand. He held it out, and Fae, Sonya, and Olivia all came forward together to take a look at it.
On the bottom was a drawing of a worn, crumbled statue of a man upon a throne. On the top was a different drawing, one Fae instantly recognized, of a fiery sun around a gemstone. She reached into her shirt, pulling out an amulet with the same symbol on it.
“The Orphan of the Dawn,” she said softly, and Oliver nodded.
“It’s a map, of a sort,” he said. “The Matron and I both agreed on where it starts — the Watcher of Solace — and where it ends — the Orphan of the Dawn. But we can’t decipher what lies between, what connects the two Locations.” Running in a winding line from the bottom picture to the top was a set of strange, very simplistic symbols, symbols Fae hadn’t seen anywhere else.
“So the Orphan of the Dawn holds the full answer to what binds us,” Olivia said softly.
“That’s correct,” Oliver said. “I have clues, and the Matron has more, but the central truth of it all lies there. Until you’ve reached the Orphan of the Dawn, you won’t fully know what bond you three share, or why Wasuryu hunts you.”
“How did you come across it?” Fae asked. “And how did you know it was a clue for us?”
“I found it on my journey, long before I arrived here,” Oliver said. “Esmerelda of the Gallery of Wounds gave it to me. She said that it was ‘for the one who comes after you.’ It took me some time to understand what she meant, but I finally grew to understand its purpose. Take it, and good luck in deciphering it.”
Fae took it first, but then she handed it to Olivia, who stared at it in shock. “You should look after it,” Fae said. “I trust you.” Slowly, Olivia took it, placing it carefully into the pocket of her jacket.
“I also have a drawing,” Oliver said, pulling his sketchbook out from the satchel on his belt. Opening it, he gingerly tore out the last page and handed it to Fae. “The last drawing that came to me. The magical drawings don’t happen for me, not anymore. This was the last, and… it’s really for you. A… passing of the torch, so to speak.” He chuckled, looking away. “I always hoped I’d be the hero. I can’t deny that it’s frustrating, but I brought this on myself. I’m eternally grateful that I can do this, that I can have some part to play in the story, even if the story is really yours, Fae.” He looked at her, smiling. “Take it. Follow where it leads you in the Silver Star Sanctuary.”
Fae took the picture, gazing at it. It had the roughness she recognized of the drawings she’d seen, the ones that Oliver made when the magic inspired him to create these artistic clues. There was a grand, sweeping staircase, spiraling round in an impossible formation, forming an arch over a rounded door inset with a trio of ten-pointed stars.
“And my final gifts,” Oliver said. “The time has come for them after all. A message in a bottle, one for each of you, and this.” He pulled off the chain which hung around his neck and held it out to Fae. The chain bore a small, ornate key, inset with three gemstones: one green, one blue, one red. The colors and key tugged at some memory, and Fae’s eyes widened. She reached into her bag, pulling out the book, the one locked with a clasp that the Fates had given her.
“Yes,” Oliver said, smiling. “This key goes to that book. You will know when to use it.”
“Why not now?” Jupiter asked. “Crack it open and see what it says.”
“The Fates said that we’ll know when the time’s right,” Neptune said.
Fae nodded. “And somehow…” she started, taking the key from Oliver. It was surprisingly heavy for its size, and cool in her hand. “It doesn’t feel like it’s time yet.” Already bearing one pendant around her neck, she decided to wrap the chain of the key around the book it belonged to, and then put book and key in her bag.
“For these last messages,” Oliver said, pulling out bottles one at a time and handing each one to a different girl, “as I said before, don’t read them until you leave this place. They’re not for my eyes, or my ears, or anything else. I have no idea what they contain within, only who they belong to. What you make of their words or images, whether they’re riddles or seeming nonsense or clear as crystal, is up to you to discover. This… is where my guidance for you ends. And now you know exactly where to go.” He smiled, that same sad smile he kept wearing. “To the Chapel of the Unreturned, and beyond it, to the Silver Star Sanctuary. I wish you the best of luck. And… I’m truly grateful that you made it this far. Fae… I’m grateful that you were called by the Sanctuary, too. Grateful that you didn’t fall like I did, and grateful that I could, in some small part, aid you. I couldn’t be the hero, but to aid the hero…” He chuckled. “Well, that isn’t so bad, I think.”
There’s that word again: “hero.”
Is that really me? Can that…
“So you’re going to a reunion with Selphine now, right?” Mercury asked.
“Ah…” Oliver looked away, scratching the back of his neck. “I… really should stay here, I think.”
“She isn’t angry with you,” Fae said. “And she won’t judge you for what happened. She misses you.”
Oliver stared at Fae, a wild mix of emotions going across his face. “I…” he started, then paused, then laughed, shaking his head. He stared at his feet, idly squeezing the sand with his toes. “Yes, I suppose I will follow, but not right away. Give me… some time. I need to collect my thoughts.”
“Don’t stay here,” Mercury said. “Promise us, will you? That you’ll leave here and go back to Selphine.”
Oliver kicked at the sand for a few moments in silence, then laughed again. “Yes, well, there’s no escaping it, is there?” he asked. “I promise. I’ll go back to her. But not with you. Just… give me some time.”
“As long as you don’t stay here,” Mercury said, smiling that perfect smile of hers.
“Well, guess it’s time,” Jupiter said. “Doorknob shortcut, here we go!”
“Ah, that won’t work,” Oliver said.
“Huh?” Jupiter asked.
“The Acolytes of Constella said the return wouldn’t be easy,” Fae said.
Oliver nodded, and then pointed. Far across the sandy shore were two stone pillars. “Through those pillars is the only exit,” Oliver said. “There is a bit of a trial involved. Keep your wits about you, and you’ll make it through all right. I only know what I’ve read, but with all you’ve been through, it shouldn’t give you too much trouble.”
“We can hope,” Sonya said. She was turning the bottle with a message for her over and over in her hands.
“Thank you, Oliver,” Fae said.
“I’m glad we were able to meet,” Oliver said, smiling. “And since I’ve promised to leave the Shore, perhaps we’ll meet again. But for now, good luck on your journey, Fae. I’m certain you’ll succeed.”
With that, the girls said their goodbyes and made their way to the pillars, steeling themselves for the trial that awaited them on their return journey.