“I don’t understand!” Dauria wailed in frustration. “It should be right here!”

“What are we looking for?”

Dauria sighed. “There should be a star-shaped keyhole about a tenth of a wingspan in diameter above the sigil of Ryujin.”

Kaito’s eyes turned golden again and he scanned the rock wall around and above them.

Within seconds, he grinned. “Got it.”

“What?!” Her blood boiled in her veins. How could this rogue dragon find the thing in five seconds when she’d been searching for it for the better part of an hour?

He pointed to it and her jaw fell open.

Somehow, when he pointed it out she saw it easily, in spite of having looked past that exact point at least a dozen times since she started looking for the entrance.

“Alright,” she said, grudging. It must be some sort of enchantment to make human eyes overlook it. I didn’t expect that, though I probably should have.

“You have to be in true form to unlock it.” With a soft growl, she thought, why am I just now remembering that? What did I think I was going to do if I found it on my own? “Using both forepaws, you’ll place a claw at each of the points of the star and turn it in the direction of the rising Sun.”

Kaito nodded, though he looked none-too-pleased about it. What does he have against it? she wondered. Has he tried to abandon his dragon nature altogether?

Kaito transformed slowly, with many false starts and jerky, sudden spurts. His limbs lengthened, his fingernails grew, his skin hardened into scales, and his teeth grew long and pointed.

It’s as though he hasn’t done this in a very long time.

His head elongated and his torso expanded in all directions.

Then the transformation quickened and his body grew at a phenomenal rate, tail sprouting from the bottom of his spine.

Finally, when his length was a little more than a standard wingspan, his scales turned dull yellow, then brightened, then darkened again to a lusterless gold before they brightened again. And kept brightening, until they shone bright, lustrous gold in the waning Sunlight.

After another minute, a long, thin, sinuous dragon of metallic gold stood before her. His red-gold mane shone in her eyes, blinding her until she shaded them with her hands.

“Majestic,” she breathed.

The golden dragon rolled its bronze eyes at her and stepped up to the star-shaped lock above. He spent a few moments orienting himself to the star and situating his claws into its grooves.

With an audible heave, he turned the lock three-quarters of a turn before it clicked. A slight rumble sounded beneath her feet and an entrance opened to the left of the keyhole. The rock wall seemed to rise up into the mountain itself, revealing a wide, deep tunnel.

Kaito lowered an open paw to the rocky path and, without hesitation, Dauria stepped onto it. He lifter her up to the cave mouth, then followed after her, shrinking back to his human form.

Dauria’s blood throbbed behind her eyes and thundered in her ears. This is it! I’m finally here! There has to be something here to get me out of this mess!

The cave walls were every bit as smooth as she remembered, the floor just as clean. The rocky protrusions, stalactites, and stalagmites had all been removed eons earlier by the loving claws of Baalhalllu.

With the giddy restlessness of extreme youth, she all-but-hopped into her first steps into the perfect tunnel for the first time in centuries.

At last, I am home, she thought.

“What is that?” Kaito asked.

“What?”

“I feel something. I can’t identify it. It feels dark, yet bright. Energetic, yet lethargic. It doesn’t make sense.”

“Strange,” Dauria said. “I don’t sense anything.”

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CHANNILLO

Metal and Stone, Chapter 7
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The Sun was well above the horizon when Dauria finished speaking.

“That’s quite a story,” Kaito said. “So you’re stuck like this?”

“If you so much as smile, I’ll rip your throat out,” she said sweetly.

He shrugged and turned away to take down the tent. He mumbled something, she couldn’t quite catch, but it sounded suspiciously like, “Lucky you.”

If he transforms, he could kill me in the beat of a heart, she thought with not a little concern. And there’d be nothing I could do about it.

After a long moment, she shrugged as well. Since there’d be nothing I could do to stop it, there’s no sense in worrying over it.

She started gathering up her things, placing them in her own hide b...

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