The cave was chilly and damp, dripping on the young elves as they went inside to explore. They had expected something shallow, but they walked for several minutes without seeing a wall. The faeries lighted their way and they were the first to see the split in the cavern. They hesitated but agreed to go left and Maebhe took a turquoise bead out of her hair and handed it Ylida who made it glow. They set it on the path in case the cave went on, to keep from getting lost.
The went on and found themselves dead ended in a large room. There was nothing there, not even evidence of a colony of bats. Maebhe shivered and Subito suggested they try the other path, to make sure it dead ended on nothing as well before they went to sleep. They doubled back and placed the glowing bead on the other trail before heading farther in.
This path was treacherous and complicated. They had only gone fifty feet when the flooring dropped off to one side. The faeries warned them in time to avoid anyone falling, but the path was narrow. After a while the path widened into a room that led to three more passages.
Drummer had had enough. "Okay, this is ridiculous. Can we just sleep here and play adventure tomorrow?"
Aniko was sitting on Subito's head, using his hair as reigns. "Actually, I was kind of having fun."
Vivace disagreed. "Let's stay here- the cave is kinda safe, and if we take turns on watch, it should be fine. I mean, there's no black pit in this room to roll into, and maybe we'll find something pretty great at the end."
Maebhe yawned and the vocalist noticed. "I'll take the first watch." Subito dropped his bag and leaned against it. The rest of them unpacked their bedrolls and settled in for the night. Ylida curled up beside Maebhe in a nest of her curly silver hair, her light dimming as she fell asleep. Aniko lay across Subito's pack and flickered out while the other two faeries made dens in the cover of the elves's bedrolls.
A candle was lit to mark time, and the first watch passed uneventfully. Subito passed the time by whittling away on a piece of wood that began to look more and more like a person as the minutes ticked by. When the wax had melted past a two hour mark, he woke Aniko.
"You're turn," he said, stifling a yawn. He flipped open his bedroll and lay down, ignoring the grumpy mumblings of his faerie as he slipped away into dreams.
It wasn't until the third watch that a rumble woke them all up.
Libba was the one fully awake and she flew from face to face in a panic, trying to bring everyone back to full consciousness. "Did you hear that?" she whispered, shushing them. "Did you feel that?"
"What d'you think it is?" Vivace yawned widely and drew his lanky body off the cave floor. "Which direction?"
They faced the three paths uncertainly. The path to the right had a cold air coming off of it. The left smelled stale, but the center path was very warm.
"Maybe we should just go back to the first cavern and sleep," Drummer said tiredly.
Inina blew purple dust in his face. "Wake up! I smell a dragon."
"The seal," Maebhe whispered. "There might be a piece here."
"Well, that was a lovely nap," Subito said. "I say path number two."
The elves drew their weapons and started forward down the warmest path, faeries hovering beside them. The floor rumbled again, and Maebhe fell, her bow clattering to the ground. Drummer picked it up and handed it to her. They continued on down the path, leaving a bead from the violinist's hair every time the tunnel branched off.
The rumbles continued at even intervals. Drummer counted them off as they walked through the thickening air. Their fear seemed to abate, listening to his counting, but it peaked when Maebhe's foot got stuck in something that crunched.
"What? Ahh!" She screamed and there was a wet plop.
"What the- where'd she go?" Vivace asked, looking around.
Ylida flitted down, lighting the ground up to reveal something small and silvery blue. "She turns into a starfish when she panics," she explained.
"That's a human skull," Drummer said calmly. He picked the broken skull up and lifted the little starfish out of it. "Weird."
"You'd think she'd turn into a mouse or maybe a trout," Vivace joked.
Subito scowled at them. "How long does it take to turn back?" he asked.
The golden faerie shrugged. "However long the shock takes to wear off and for her to remember she's human, since she didn't finish her training. You should hydrate her."
The flautist offered Drummer his dinner bowl and Subito emptied his canteen into it over the little star. They continued their trek through the cave, avoiding bones and rocks and once a golden helmet. It was a full fifteen minutes before the bowl in Drummer's hand began to quiver.
"Set her down!" Ylida said. He laid her on the path. There was a pop and suddenly a very damp little elf maid was lying on the floor.
"Sorry," she sputtered, shaking damp curls out of her eyes as she sat up. "I've just never seen a skeleton before."
Drummer hushed her as he helped her up, and started forward again. The rumbles were getting closer and closer together and there was violet light now flickering at the end of the tunnel. The temperature rose quickly from warm to hot, drying Maebhe off only to cause her and the others to sweat through their clothes shortly after.
What they saw at the end stopped them all dead in their tracks. The violet light was a flame that precisely matched the color of the dragon that took up a good part of the huge cave they were about to enter. The rest of it was filled with valuables. Gold, jewels, silver, jewelry, cutlery, weaponry- everything was piled according to value and type and seemed to make the room glow as the facets and mirrors reflected the light of the fire the dragon was gently blowing out of her nares as she slept.
She was a magnificent creature. At thirty feet long she was still young, with shimmering violet feathers and a line of violet peacock-like plumes starting small in the middle of her wide forehead and growing until it tapered out right where graceful neck met shoulders. She was almost like a horse crossed a snake in shape. Her legs were long but thick, ending in feet with retractable iron-like claws. Her face was triangular and her wings were thick and feathery, shaped like a seraph's. She was an air dragon with the hardened beak to prove it.
"I find it hard to believe an air dragon is the reason that human skull was back in that passage," Subito said.
"There aren't any humans around here, anyway. It must've been a hermit or something," Vivace agreed.
"I don't believe in coincidences," Drummer and Maebhe said.
The faeries hovered over the heads of their friends. "Let us go first," Inina suggested. "There's nothing a dragon would want with a faerie."
Maebhe bit her lip. "I don't know," she said. "I don't want you four to get hurt."
"You gotta believe in your faerie," Vivace said cheerfully. "Go for it, Libba!"
The faeries flew quietly into the cave and hovered near the dragon's curled cat ears. "Hello, wake up!" Libba called.
"We want to speak with you!" Inina added into the other ear.
The dragon's long feathered tail thumped the floor of the cave, causing another rumble. All was still for a moment. Suddenly, her head rose up and back, sending a stream of violet flame blazing out from her open maw to roast the four little faeries.
"No!" Maebhe cried, rushing forward. Drummer threw his arms around her, pulling her back before she could dive into the flames. He crushed her against him with one arm and covered her mouth.
"Faeries are immune to dragon fire," he hissed. "Calm down."
She squirmed so he held on as the scene unfolded before them.
"Who disturbs me?" the dragon demanded in a voice like a thunderstorm.
Ylida flew forward. "We are faeries." She hovered for a moment before she spoke again. "We have a question."
"Ask," she said.
"Can you tell us why there is a human skeleton in the passage behind you?"
The dragon clicked her beak impatiently. "Who am I to tell you what lies in the caves beyond? I would not fit, nor do I partake of dirty humans and their rancid meat-flesh."
"So you didn't kill anyone, sister?" Aniko asked.
"I would kill any human who enters my cave, and any other creatures who come here without invite- I know faeries travel in the company of elves. Why have you come?"
Maebhe struggled against Drummer's arm again, but he kept his hold. "Give them a chance," he whispered.
"We are on a journey, and we happened on your cave. Is there any chance you could grant us safe passage? Perhaps a stay for what's left of the night?" Inina asked.
The dragon chuckled. "You are bold. Death becomes you."
Inina shifted uncomfortably. "Do you mean to kill us or merely make a comment on my element?"
"You will know when I threaten you, dark one. Tell your elves to come in, and perhaps we can make an arrangement."
The faeries flew back to the passage and re-entered with their friends. Maebhe walked ahead of the rest, trying to distance herself from Drummer. She found herself a foot away from the dragon's face and stopped.
"Beg your pardon," she said. "What kind of arrangement?"
The dragon curled her long feathery tail around the little elf and lifted her up. "I like this one." She deposited the girl on her back and turned to the rest. "I will grant you a safe stay here, but the night is over. You must stay the day and tell me stories, and I will allow you a safe night in my hoard."
"What should we tell you, great one?" Subito asked with a bow.
"Tell me why you are here," she said. "What brings four faeries and their elves to the keep of an air dragon? And what is that?"
There was a growl coming from the passage the elves had exited. Maebhe slipped down the dragon's back and hurried over to the source of the sound. "It's the kit! From the woods- I'm so sorry-" She buried her face in his red fur. "It's alright- he's not dinner," she added to the dragon. She picked him up and walked back into the cave.
"We have a lot of stories." Vivace laughed as he spoke. "Who's do you wanna hear first?"