Fae stood at the entrance to the Dragon’s Den, staring up at the inscription above the stone archway:
“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.”
That title held new significance to Fae now after meeting so many more Dragons, and especially after Soryu’s taunting of her title, and the strange new revelations thanks to Oliver and Hiryu.
What kind of importance does that title even hold? Is it just Kairyu saying I’m important to her, and nothing more?
Not that I’ve usually had much interest in titles, but… to get one, and then have every other Dragon after Kairyu act like it means nothing, feels awfully hollow.
“You ready?” Mercury asked.
Right. We’re not here to grumble about titles.
There are so many more important things than that.
“Yeah,” Fae said with a nod. She led the way in, starting down the many stairs with Olivia at her side, everyone else filing in behind them.
Olivia still stayed close to her, but there wasn’t as much physical contact as there had been before reading their messages from the Celestial Shore. Not everyone had shared theirs — both Olivia and Sonya had decided not to share theirs at all, and the Star sisters had just said they’d filled in more words on a song from their memories, a song that was still incomplete. But Olivia’s demeanor had changed significantly since then. She was naturally reticent and withdrawn, something Fae could readily relate to, but she didn’t seem so frightened now. There was a confidence in her posture. Though she still preferred keeping her hood up, she didn’t tug it forward to hide her face, or down to shield her eyes. And while she still preferred to stay near Fae, she didn’t grip her sleeve or hold her hand.
Fae was grateful for that last bit, both for her own sake, but especially for Olivia’s sake. It was the most wonderful sign to her that Olivia’s fears were fading, that the wicked trauma inflicted on her by Wasuryu was losing its hold.
Sonya doesn’t seem different at all. But…
There’s something. I can’t quite place it, it’s like something deep under the surface, so maybe it was always there and I’m only just now seeing it, but…
I hope her message wasn’t something hurtful. Mine shook me up a bit, but it’s been more helpful than painful. Madeline’s was interesting, and the Star sisters got more clues of their memories. A song… that fits them so well.
Fae found herself holding back a wry laugh.
I always thought Shana was the curious cat, while I was able to keep my nose out of other people’s business. Yet here I am, as curious as curious gets.
“I still can’t get over how much nicer this place is now,” Jupiter said as they descended.
“Just how bad was it before?” Sonya asked.
“You couldn’t see a thing, for starters,” Jupiter said. “None of these lamps along the walls, and that living darkness stuff was… well, you saw at the Fault Line Dungeon. It just chokes off light. And this place was full of it, not in that inky liquid kind of way, but just sort of a… cloud. We didn’t really understand at the time, we hadn’t actually seen the living darkness for ourselves, so thinking back to us just walking right into it is…” She shivered.
“Lots of freaky sounds too, don’t forget that,” Mercury said. “The footsteps, the breathing, the creepy voices…”
“I didn’t hear any voices!” Jupiter cried out.
“You didn’t?” Mercury asked, looking back at her with a mischievous smirk. “Man, you’re really lucky, then. They were the creepiest part. And I could’ve sworn they were whispering ‘Jupiter… Jupiter… come to us…’ ”
“Stop, no!” Jupiter shrieked, shoving Mercury right in the face. “I don’t want to hear any more about it!”
Mercury burst out laughing. “You’re way too much of a scaredy-cat!”
“And far too gullible,” Neptune said with a sigh.
“I’m not gullible!” Jupiter said. “I just trust my sisters! What’s wrong with that?”
“Nothing at all,” Mercury said, grinning.
“Oh, there’s the bottom,” Madeline said as they stepped off the stairs and into the flat corridors leading to Kairyu’s den.
Fae was noticing the differences, too. It was hard not to, after creeping through this place in the suffocating darkness on her first visit. When they’d been here in the darkness, the tunnels had been so cramped they could barely walk single-file, but now they were wide enough for four of them to walk side-by-side without Fae feeling like the others were encroaching on her personal space. Why the darkness was able to physically reconfigure the Dragon’s Den itself was a mystery to Fae, but she made sure to keep that in mind. That wasn’t a detail to just forget, not now that she’d had more experiences with the darkness since.
What will the Fault Line Dungeon be like now that it’s been overtaken by the darkness?
Is Lairah going to be okay?
Before she knew it, Fae was standing with the others in the wide, semicircular room in front of Kairyu’s den. The Dragon within was still shadowed in an impenetrable darkness, and now that Fae had experienced the living darkness head-on multiple times, she could tell the difference.
Dark places could sometimes be soothing and comforting. There were many creatures, and even some plants, that couldn’t handle sunlight at all.
“Welcome back, Fae Greyson,” came the captivating voice of Kairyu. Huge and powerful, yet soft and smooth, the voice of a creature of immense size and strength, yet chose to be so gentle. “I see you have made new friends since our last meeting.”
“And reunited with an old one,” Fae said, nodding to Madeline beside her.
“Ah, and I know this one,” Kairyu said. Next to Fae, Olivia bristled slightly, but then stepped forward.
“Have we met?” Olivia asked.
“No,” Kairyu said. “But I have felt your presence from afar many times. You served my wicked brother against your will. It is good to see you free of his power.”
“It is,” Olivia said softly.
“You seek answers,” Kairyu said. “All of you, but these three who look so alike by sight, and even your presences feel so similar… you three seek answers most of all.”
“What do you mean by our ‘presences’?” Sonya asked.
“There are many ways to see,” Kairyu said. “And for one like me, who tunnels deep and shuns physical light, seeing is done through what Human and Enchanted would view as more akin to feeling… sensations in the earth, in the roots of the universe, the impressions you leave on the space around you. I see these impressions as clearly as you see the stone halls around you.”
“And our impressions are more similar than usual?” Sonya asked. She already had out her notebook and pen, taking notes in that instinctual way of hers.
“Very much so,” Kairyu said. “The Star sisters, they are similar as well, but in the way that blood ties family together — especially twins, triplets, and the like. But you three… it is different than that. I fear my memory is imperfect, for I know I have seen the like of this once before, but cannot fully remember…”
“Did it have to do with the Orphan of the Dawn?” Sonya asked.
“The Orphan of the Dawn…” Kairyu said slowly, intrigue and attentiveness clear in her voice. “So you know of it?”
“We’ve been told we need to go there,” Fae said. “That it holds the key to what connects us.”
“I see…” Kairyu said softly. Then she spoke more, but there was a slightly musical lilt to her voice, and the cadence of her speech sounds more akin to reciting a poem:
“Where snow gleams bright like burnished gold
And sun over spires rises pale
She walks in silver waters cold
Alone amidst the burning dale.”
“So tells the only remembered verse of the Lays of Dawn,” Kairyu said, “or as close as I can get, translated into your speech. It is a song from the days of the Dragons, before I was even a child, and my spiraling siblings were barely hatched, sung by Dragons long departed from this world.”
“That’s not the only verse that’s remembered,” Neptune said. “Or at least… I’ve always heard it paired after this one.” And she recited a verse in the same rhythm and cadence Kairyu had:
“Born beneath the solemn trees
With starlight dancing in her hair
She rides upon symphonic breeze
And holds no fear toward darkened lair.”
No one else joined into the verse, and Mercury and Jupiter both stared at Neptune in surprise. “Where’d that come from?” Jupiter asked.
“An echo,” Neptune said, tapping her forehead. “Those two verses, paired together… they’ve always been in my memories, but I never understood them.”
“Nor do I understand how you hold a forgotten verse,” Kairyu said. “You are all truly rare girls, with rare gifts and knowledge and purpose. Your verse leads into mine… I see. A picture begins to form.”
“Of what?” Fae asked.
“I will need time to know for certain,” Kairyu said. “But please, tell me more of what you know, what you have seen, what you seek. The more I know, the better I can aid you.”
Fae, Madeline, Olivia, Sonya, and the Star sisters together told the story of all that had happened since they’d last been in the Dragon’s Den. From saving the Nightmare Queen to destroying Collapse, to the revelations behind the Vessels and Wasuryu, the fall of the Fault Line Dungeon to darkness, and their journey to and from the Celestial Shore.
“And now you seek passage to the Chapel of the Unreturned…” Kairyu said when their story was finished. “That is good. Through the Unreturning, you will find your way to the Silver Star Sanctuary, and so many questions will finally have answers.”
“The Unreturning?” Madeline asked.
“It is a trial,” Kairyu said. “You may wonder why there are so few at the Chapel of the Unreturned. It is because many brave the Unreturning, a trial that promises to bring them to what they originally sought when they became lost… if they can succeed. It can get one back to where they came from, or beyond to where they wished to go. In your instance, it is the only way to first reach the Silver Star Sanctuary.”
“ ‘First’?” Neptune asked. “Then after we’ve been there once, it’ll be easier to return?”
“Yes,” Kairyu said. “I’m glad you can meet with the Silver Star Matron. After all this time… I do wonder how she is. I have less contact with the outside world than my siblings. It’s been a very long time since I have spoken with the Matron. Please give her my warmest of regards.”
“You know her, then?” Mercury asked. “Do you know anything about us? Or any connection we might have to her?”
“I apologize, but no,” Kairyu said. “When I knew her and visited regularly, she was alone, and never spoke of any family or friends. But that was a very long time ago… much has changed in the rest of the Dominion since then. It is likely much has changed for her since I last saw her.”
“Surely I need not say this,” Kairyu continued, “but stay near one another. The Unreturning is often failed by those who challenge it alone. The only times I know of that a group has failed at the Unreturning are when they were a group hastily formed by strangers without bonds that held them close, or when the treacherous illusions of the Unreturning fooled a group into scattering, leaving each of them alone when once they’d had allies. Your group has forged strong bonds through great trials, but never take those for granted. I have seen too often how easy it is for deep bonds of love and friendship to tear asunder with a single word or action, by a lack of trust or confidence. Do not let that happen to you. The Unreturning will try to pit you against each other, but do not let that be your undoing.”
“We’ve been through too much to give up on each other,” Mercury said. “And I’m surprised we haven’t had more fights. The Unreturning might actually do us some good — get us to hash out whatever we’re holding too close.”
“Despite that,” Neptune said, “let’s not take this lightly.”
“When you have achieved all you wish in the Silver Star Sanctuary,” Kairyu said, “return to me. I can make sense of your map, Fae Greyson, and help you reach the Orphan of the Dawn. The picture begins to form… by the time you return, I will know it in full. If you wish it, I can be your guide to that most ancient of places, so long lost and forgotten to us.”
“We always need a guide,” Fae said, almost laughing at how their journey progressed. There was always someone showing them the way forward, or even walking that path with them for a time. “We’d be more than grateful for your guidance in deciphering the map.”
“And I will be more than happy to play that role,” Kairyu said. “But I can see that your heart is troubled. What weighs on your mind, Fae Greyson?”
“I… you named me Dragon Friend,” Fae said. “But Soryu laughed at the title, saying that I had yet to properly earn that title. And there was Oscar and Hiryu, with their words about how it’s an individual title, and I… well, I didn’t think I’d ever grow so attached to a title, but I guess I am, and I don’t understand what it means.”
“Both Soryu and Hiryu are wrong,” Kairyu said, sadness in her voice. “But it is not surprising. The title of ‘Dragon Friend’ was a rare and beautiful thing in the days of the Dragons. But so many of us left, and ones who once had so little power have become the glue that holds the Dominion together. It isn’t surprising that they would forsake the proper ways and lord over you with their own definitions and rules. But then… in a way, they are not wrong. For if they do not recognize your title, then it means nothing to them. For Dragons, to mark or name someone as friend or enemy carries great weight… but there is nothing in between. As long as they do not recognize you as Dragon Friend, my siblings will simply view you as a curiosity, perhaps not even as a living being. You are a puzzle to them, Fae Greyson, and they long to see how the pieces fit together, and what you will do for — or against — them. But they suffer, with a pain I do not understand. The cure for their pain… I do not know what it may be. But if you could find it, perhaps they would understand what I already see. You are a true Dragon Friend, Fae Greyson, whether others see it or not. They will come to see it in time.”
There was a low rumbling, not of Kairyu’s voice, but the earth itself. When the rumbling ceased, a doorway had appeared to the right of the chamber. “When you are ready,” Kairyu said, “take that door. It will lead you to the Chapel.”
“Before we go,” Fae said, one more question on her mind, “I just… I wanted to ask. That ‘other Greyson,’ you met, the one you called ‘vicious.’ Is he… do you know if he’s… still alive?”
It was an absurd question, Fae knew. But after her message in the bottle, after all the clues linking to it…
“He yet lives,” Kairyu replied, her voice tinged with sorrow and restrained anger. “Do not seek him out, Fae Greyson. Run if he should find you.”
“How much do you know about him?” Fae asked. “Do you have a name, a description, anything?”
“He never gave his name,” Kairyu said. “And I do not see him as you do. But I think you will know him if you see him. He speaks with grandiosity, yet his words frequently mask the true meaning of what he says. His desires are focused on — obsessed with — defying fate, doing battle with the rules of the reality itself. He knows much, too much, more than he should know, things that he should not be able to know. And he likes to flaunt his knowledge. He will know things about you, things he shouldn’t be able to know, and he will likely lead with them if he encounters you.”
“Yeah, that sounds like someone to run from,” Neptune said, her eyes narrowed.
“Please, be careful,” Kairyu said. “You have endured much, and by grace and through perseverance you have come out stronger for it. But there is much more yet to endure, and it is all too likely that your greatest trials are not behind you, but looming before you. Hold fast to one another, hold fast to what is good. Surrender neither to despair nor fear. And know that I am confident you can succeed.”
“Thank you,” Fae said. “We’ll come back once we’re ready to follow the map to the Orphan of the Dawn.”
And so she and her friends left, taking the door Kairyu had given to them. The Chapel of the Unreturned lay beyond, but a return to Kairyu lay even further beyond that.
When we’re ready, we’ll be back.
For now, thank you. You and so many others who have been so good to us, so kind to us, so generous with us. We’ve been through a lot on our own, but reaching those challenges, those trials, coming this far… it never would have been possible without so many guides along the way.