Kendra and Bracken had been looking for Seth for five days when they found him asleep inside a lean-to. All and all, not bad, for really considering the size of the preserve, a small eternity could have withered away with no sign of Seth or his much smaller nipsie companion.
But here was Seth, and, lying on his shoulder, there was Calvin.
Observing her sleeping brother, Kendra whispered, "I'm not sure we thought this far ahead."
Bracken had to reluctantly agree. They couldn't exactly throw the boy over their shoulder and haul him home to Fablehaven, no matter how tempting the idea and no matter that Calvin just might go along with it. Seth already seemed to have re-developed trust issues; they didn't need to add to them. "Maybe we should just wake him up and wing it. I think we've already stared at him for what might be considered a creepy amount of time."
Kendra looked hesitant, but lowered herself to shake him awake anyhow. "Seth," she hissed.
Startled, the boy jumped awake, startling his companion awake in turn. Upon seeing who had woken him, Seth couldn't seem to choose between being relieved or just more alarmed.
Calvin experienced no such dilemma. "Kendra! It's good to see you."
"What are you doing here?"
Kendra sucked in a breath. "We came here to look for you. We got your message, so we went after you."
Seth, narrowing his eyes in suspicion, asked, "What are you going to do now that you've found me?"
Bracken and Kendra shared a look. "I think we've just realized that we had not thought that far ahead," Bracken said sheepishly, "but I do believe our endgame was to get you back to our people, that is, your people, if you could remember them."
"I'm not going back with you. Even if you knew me before, I don't remember you and I don't know that I should trust you. I'm here for my memories and I'm here for space to think, without anyone's influence."
Kendra and Bracken swapped calculating, reassessing looks. "What if we helped you find your memories?"
Calvin looked encouragingly to Seth. "And they could help us find Serena too. Sixteen hands are better than four, that's what I always say."
"Is that what you always say?" Seth glanced warily at the three-inch figure. "How do I know they aren't trying to trick me? You do realize they count as influences, right?"
"And I don't?" Calvin reasoned. "Besides, they can give you space and so can I, right?"
Kendra and Bracken nodded along.
Seth frowned. "I suppose I can hardly stop you two from following me, anyway, can I?"
"I mean, you probably could, but…," Kendra trailed off.
Kendra and Bracken smiled triumphantly. "So what is your lead on your memories and Serena anyway?" Bracken asked, extending a hand to pull the boy up.
"We're looking for Humbuggle's castle," Seth said.
"Do we know where that is?"
"I guess we're just kinda winging it."
They winged it fruitlessly for about three days. On that third, they were traveling through the mountain range that created the ginormous valley comprising the preserve. At about four o' clock, Bracken spotted a large tower peeking out on one of the mountain slopes.
"How loosely are we defining 'castle' here?"
Calvin shrugged dubiously.
"Hmmm," Seth hummed, "Let's check it out."
"What?" Kendra hissed, "Shouldn't we at least have a plan in case it is Humbuggle? He is a demon, Seth, and he's the one that stole your memories in the first place. And what if it's someone else's tower?"
"Well, first of all, I'm a shadow charmer, but you seem to at least pretend not to mind that. Second of all, yeah he stole my memories and I need to convince him to give them back to me, so maybe he'll appreciate me politely knocking instead of breaking in or whatever it is you want to plan out. Third, if there's someone else in the tower/castle, then we'll just have to talk our way out of it, I guess." Seth was already scaling the mountain, seemingly mind made up.
Kendra blew her hair out of her face, starting in after him. Bracken sighed, following in after her. Calvin was already tucked in Seth's pocket, following all along.
It was not Humbuggle's castle. Or at least, it probably wasn't. The woman who inhabited the tower-castle seemed to be in her twenties, not that that meant much in a place such as this. She was of a slender build, with cropped short hair, ochre skin, and fine features. Frankly, she was dressed kind of like red riding hood, red dress and crooked white cloak. She certainly didn't look the way Humbuggle did the last time they saw him.
"Who are you?" The woman scowled at them from her door.
Seth wavered nervously, gulping. "I'm Seth. This is Kendra and that's Bracken. And you are?"
The woman squinted at them, her interest piqued and some of her animosity gone. "Seth and Kendra, you say? Of no relation to Seth and Kendra Sorenson, I presume?"
Kendra nodded, lips thinned. "I'm Kenra Sorenson and this is my brother, Seth Sorenson. He's lost his memories and we're trying to get them back. Do you know of the demon Humbuggle?"
"Hmmm, my name is Isadore. Come in."
The three of them traded skeptical looks, following her into the tower regardless, brought inside to what was basically an open sitting room, encased by a cylindrical staircase, cozy in a way one wouldn't expect a ramshackle lone tower out in the middle of a mountain to be, set with couches and plush armchairs, a coffee and a couple end tables. Paintings hung on the stone walls above and beside the staircase. It certainly seemed lived in, more than perhaps it would be if only recently moved back in by a mischievous demon.
"So you lost your memories?" Isadore queried.
"Yes," Seth answered.
The woman raised an eyebrow, waiting for more information to be volunteered. When none was offered, Isadore continued, "And you think Humbuggle can you get them back?" Seth nodded warily. "Perhaps is he the one who took them?" Seth nodded again. Isadore gave a little smirk. "I guess, I just don't see how you could be so optimistic as to think he who took your memories would so readily give them back."
"It's more desperation then optimism, I guess. I need them back and he's the one to give them to me."
Isadore, a shade too eager, went in for it, "But hardly the only one. This is a dragon preserve, and we wizards do reside here at times."
"You're a wizard?"
"Of course I am. And I dare say, I'm a powerful one too."
"Powerful enough to restore lost memories?"
Isadore shrugged, a gleam shining in her black eyes, somewhere between wile and hope, "I'll be wanting something in return, of course."
Seth nodded. "Whatever you want. I need my memories back."
"What I want, you can't give me."
Kendra raised a skeptical eyebrow. "Then who is supposed to give you what?"
Isadore turned to regard Kendra. "I want my son back."
Bracken froze, scratching at his itching memory. "Your son?"
Kendra creased her eyes that flickered from wizard to unicorn to brother.
The wizards gleam turned to a glow as her face was a light with some strange rapture. "You're the only one who can bring my son back, Kendra Sorenson. And in return for your help, I will help your brother."
Isadore led them up a spiraling staircase to a vast furnitureless room with a curled up motionless dragon lying in its midst. On the outer end of the spiraling body was its head, maw against the stone ground, adorned with a pair of curved horns that led a trail of smaller spines down its neck and back, tucked into obsidian scales that lined the entire body of the out-of-time creature.
"Navarog," Kendra gasped. There was no way. Nothing could survive a dragon's stomach, especially not in three pieces. Navarog was dead. And yet. It was obviously him. There was no forgetting, at least not for Kendra, the tremendous beast that turned from friend to definitively not in a coin's flip. "Navarog is your son?"
"How? I thought he was dead," Bracken breathed, darting his eyes over still black scales.
Seth's was thoroughly in the dark. He had some idea in some recess that Navorog was a dragon and that he was considered a dangerous one at that, but that seemed deducible enough from the situation at hand. Nonetheless, he kept his questions to himself
Isadore, with a fevered smile began, "Centuries ago, long before you convinced that spineless fairy dragon to kill my son, Navarog was granted a gift from Risenmary. He had been seeking invulnerability, at the time, for he was always ambitious, and he knew Risenmary was always playing fairy godmother.
"He made it through her maze and when Risenmary still was not impressed enough to dispense with any power, Navarog offered her the vanquishment of any foe if she would but promised that no death would be a permanent for him, not even phoenix fire or, I suppose, dragon stomach. She just shook her head and said she'd give him his boon for free -as if going through her little hell maze counts as free- but that there'd be a catch. If anyone got the slip on him, he'd remain alive and unalive in his true form, stored in a safe place, only to awaken by the kiss of one he truly loves. In the romantic sense. That's fucking Risenmary for you, always stuck in her damn fairytales and her godsforsaken true love.
"He thought she was mocking him. An useless gift, everything he wanted but maddingly out of reach. Navarog loved no one except for perhaps myself, and he was never going to love anyone. The very idea of my son pining away was laughable. It must have been Risenmary having a laugh at him. But then, I began to hear about you, Kendra Sorenson, and from whose mouth but my own son. About this clever girl, cunning even, and with a bravery that was all iron will and no brash. About letters and a coyote-on-a stick.
"At first, I didn't think much of you. So what about some fairy girl and some letters? It was just another of his grabs for power, he wanted to free the demons or some such and if he had made some pretty friend on it, it wasn't like it was going to last. But then my son was gone. And I heard it to be your fault. I was furious, of course, even if I couldn't help respecting you for it, cunning indeed. And I was contemplating going after you and then that runt you connived into doing the deed. But then, I remembered Risenmary's gift and, sure enough, I found him here. And here you are. And if my son loved anyone, it would have been you.
"So bring him back. Kiss him and I will restore your brother's memories," Isadore finished, eyes alight.
He looked to Kendra's narrowed skeptical eyes. "It's not going to work. Navarog never loved me."
Isadore pursed her lips. "It will work. There is no other option but for it to."
Kendra crossed her arms. "And if it doesn't?"
The wizard withered, her look of rapture collapsing into scowl. "Fine. If you fail to awaken my son, I will restore your brother's memories anyhow. But you must kiss him," even her scowl collapsed, " you must try to bring him back," and her voice cracked.
Some stirring of pity started in Kendra, mixing in with whatever long hidden affection she still harbored for a passed dragon. Kendra shook her head, shoving both feelings away. She'd do it. She had to do it. But for Seth, not him. Navarog didn't love her, he wasn't going to wake up, and she didn't want him to. Kendra had more than enough well-and-alive enemies to last her a lifetime. Probably two. "Fine, I'll -"
Seth grabbed his probably-sister's arm. "Wait. Shouldn't we talk about this?"
"What's there to talk about? You need your memories back and this is the only way," Kendra whispered back, gesturing back to the wizard and the dragon.
Bracken grabbed Kendra's other arm. "Not necessarily. We don't have to risk waking an evil, psychotic demon dragon. Not yet, at least. We could keep looking for Humbuggle. We don't need to make more problems for ourselves prematurely."
Kendra arched an eyebrow. "We aren't risking anything. He won't wake up. You said it yourself: evil psychotic demon dragon. Risenmary was mocking him and, you know what, it's pretty damn funny. We don't know where Humbuggle is or if he'll even give Seth his memories back. Muchless, what he'll want in return if he's willing to bargain. Don't forget he's the one who took Seth's memories in the first place. We can get them back this way with practically no risk to life or limb."
Isadore coughed, as if to remind the trio she was still in the room. Bracken leveled a glare at her before returning his attention to Kendra and Seth.
"But what if he does wake up?" Bracken huffed. "You did tell me once that at one point you thought he really liked you. What if he really wasn't as great of an actor as you assumed? There's always risk, Kendra."
Seth nodded. "Yeah, what if this dragon dude really does wake up. He seems like a real asshole. And besides, it's not fair for you to have to do the thing to get my memories back. They're my memories, you shouldn't have to pay for them."
Kendra rolled her eyes. "You're my brother, Seth, whether you believe that or not. I'd do anything for you. Even bring back an evil dragon. Yeah, it'll suck if he actually wakes up and sure, I guess we are risking it a little. It's worth it, though. I want my brother back. I want him back so much."
She really was his sister, Seth realized. And she must've loved him. To do this when it seemed obvious that the price was ridiculously high to Seth. So here was his answer, he supposed; Kendra was his sister and she was always on his side, even when he wasn't on hers. And even with this revelation, even now that his memories seemed less important, he was going to get them anyway because Seth had a sister that loved him. Seth pulled his sister into a hug and couldn't help the sob that escaped into her shoulder.
Still buried in her shoulder, Seth asked. "Are you sure?"
Kendra squeezed her brother for a moment before extricating herself, turning to Isadore. "I'll do it, but then, regardless of the result, you have to give my brother his memories back."
Kendra walked to her, extending her hand. Isadore cocked her head at the girl before shaking her hand.
Kenra continued to the massive body of scales, approaching its head. It was hard not to remember him from before, how she used to think about kissing him, how she had wanted to kiss him. Kendra gulped, balling up her fist before leaning down to peck his sharp obsidian forehead.
She pulled back, scanning his body for any movement, any sign of life. When she spied none, Kendra gave a bitter self-satisfied smile before she whirled around to face Isadore's sagged shoulders. "My brother's memories, you promised."
Isadore pursed her lips and for a moment it looked like she'd deny them, but slowly she nodded. Beckoning to the shadow charmer standing beside a clearly relieved unicorn, Isadore, disappointed, prepared herself to reach into the boy's head and pull his memories back to the surface.
However, before the wizard could begin, indeed before Seth made it over to her, an ominous breathing filled the room. Isadore gasped and the trio all froze as they spun to face a pair of glowing red eyes.
Kendra's eyes widened as she rushed back from the dragon who no doubt remembered the circumstance of his temporary demise. Molten eyes peered, curious at her, croaking out a "Kendra," in an obviously long unused voice. His enormous head rose as Navarog, awake once more, pushed himself up on his feet.
"Oh, shit," the unicorn profaned, horrified at the realization of that scorned reality coming to pass.
Seth nodded, lip bit. They were indeed in a veritable mountain of shit.
Isadore's mouth curved into a wicked smile, delighted that her son was back after all and smug, in that way mothers tend to be, in her being right after all.
Navorag narrowed those eyes still glued to Kendra, months of dreams fading into his last real memory. Steam curled out of his nostrils and, appalled, "You fed me to your fucking fairy dragon half-pint?"
Kendra scoffed. "After you trapped my cousin in the knapsack," Kendra crossed her arms. "Warren's fine by the way. He got out, as I'm sure you're relieved to hear."
"Hmmmm," Navoraog hummed, looking around before setting himself back onto the stone floor. "At least you missed me."
Kendra was no doubt about to sneer something back, if it had not been for Isadore adressing Seth. "Well boy, do you want your memories back or not?"
Seth blinked, nodding, and finished his walk over to the wizard. She placed her petite hand on his forehead, closing her eyes as she prodded through the shadow charmer's head. Deep down through a largely identity-less void there was an artificially covered web of something. "There we are." Obliterating the barrier, Isadore tugged the web up and allowed it to reattach itself to the boy's stream of consciousness.
"Oh," Seth stumbled, overwhelmed by the onslaught of restored memory.
"Consider our bargain fulfilled. Your memories for my resurrected son." Isadore flourished dismissively behind her before marching after her son.
"Mother," Navarog nodded his head to the wizard, who gave him a quick hug before beginning her interrogation on what exactly happened in Wyrmroost, interrupting his answer to lecture on the dangers of arrogance.
Kendra rushed to her brother, pulling him into another hug. "That unicorn bastard really kidnapped me and then told me you and Bracken were some evil light-makes-right brigade, huh." She squeezed him tighter.
"Yeah, I guess he did."
Seth snorted, "I guess Ronodin and Navarog can form a dark-makes-right brigade now." He frowned and pulled back from Kendra. "I'm sorry that I got us mixed up with him all over again."
Kendra sighed, "We've been over this. Yeah, this really sucks. Like a lot. But I'd do it again in a heartbeat."
Bracken patted Seth on the back. "It's good to have you back, but maybe we should go now while we still have heartbeat. I mean, we were never exactly promised safe passage out of here and even if we were," Bracken trailed off, side-eying the mother-son pair with skepticism.
Kendra nodded and they began to slowly creep out of the castle.
"Leaving without saying goodbye?"
"Ummmmmmmmm, bye," Seth answered with a shrug, ready to dash the hell out of there.
"Wait," Isadore called, walking after the attempted escapees. It didn't seem like a threatening walk, but they shared a panicked look anyway. Isadore landed in front of Kendra, laying a hand on her shoulder that certainly didn't ease Seth and Bracken's panic. She inspected Kendra for a moment before speaking, "Thank you, for bringing him back and for before that too. If you ever need anything, you know where to find me."
"Ummmm you wouldn't know how to get to Humbuggle's castle, would you?"