Ezran was staring out the window of his castle. The snow had finally melted. We had a short winter, he mused.
Six months had passed since the ball in Duren. In those six months, a tentative alliance had formed between Katolis, Duren and Xadia. Trade was now starting up in earnest. Especially Duren made it a point to trade as much food and supplies as they could with Xadia, both to better their standing and to make sure that they would always have enough food so they could prevent the shortage that happened all those years ago.
Katolis was profiting as well. Though the need for food was less pressing, they did trade in other items, mostly of cultural significance. And now, after six months, they would receive an elven delegation. Ezran stared at the letter that had come to him by a strange, magical bird. The elves had called it a shadowhawk in the letter.
Soren stood next to him, both watching the sun rise higher in the sky. Ever since Ezran had become king and they had both come back from that fateful day at the Storm Spire, he stood vigil over the young boy-king. I've failed once, Soren reflected. I will not fail again. Soren thought about all the things he'd heard these last few months. Sure, things were all happy-clappy between the humans and the elves, but the threat of war was still out there. If not with the elves, then probably with the other kingdoms. After the incident in Duren, Queen Aanya had ordered a thorough investigation. They had found that the mission had been ordered by his father. So dad is alive, was Soren's first thought. Then he thought about what that could mean for his sister. Oh Claudia, what have you gotten yourself into?
Soren pulled himself out of his memories and eyed Ezran, who was still holding the letter, appearing in deep thought. "So, what are you gonna tell them?"
Ezran looked up to Soren. He hadn't really grown a lot in the last few months. He desperately hoped he would grow up and become big and strong like Soren, and like his father, King Harrow. Ezran knew he was already well-respected, but he figured that was because Opeli corrected most of his decisions and made small adjustments to his policies to prevent any discontent from arising. To Ezran, growing up meant growing to fit the throne properly, both in body and in spirit. He felt that he didn't really take himself seriously so long as he was a little boy.
"Ez… you gonna answer or what?"
Ezran grinned. Soren was never one to remember protocol. But it made him an excellent friend, in his opinion. "Sorry, I was lost in thought."
"I saw that." Soren grinned at the little boy. So much going on inside his little head… He pointed at the letter. "Anything interesting? It isn't from Callum, is it?"
Ezran shook his head. "No, it isn't. It's from King Aureum Umbra. He wants to send a delegation to Katolis Capital to strengthen our relations. "
"Oh! That's good! Or bad?" With that dragon king, it could really go either way, Soren thought.
"I don't know. Perhaps the dragon finally wants to be friends with the humans?"
Soren burst out laughing but stopped himself as Ezran frowned at him. "Oh, sorry, you're serious!"
"Of course I'm serious! So many people's lives depend on this, on every moment we make contact with our former enemies!" Ezran sighed and stared out of the window again. "I'm hoping for the day that the dragon king will become our ally and trusted friend."
Soren smiled. "And then everyone will have peace and all will be happy, am I right?"
But Ezran shook his head. "We have peace with Xadia because it's the right thing to do. And because Callum and Rayla succeeded in delivering Zym to his mother. But the other human kingdoms, Del Bar, Neolandia and Evenere, they've all retreated behind their borders." Ezran walked from the window to a table which displayed various maps. He grabbed the one that showed the entire continent and put it on top. He gestured to Soren to come over.
"Here, Del Bar and Evenere have to deal with constant uprisings. Evenere alone has had five different leaders in the last five months!"
"Wow! Why is it so difficult for them to stick with one?"
"They all seem to lose their heads. Literally."
"Yuck!" Soren unconsciously rubbed his own neck.
"Del Bar has had a change of leadership as well, changing from a democracy to a geni…geniocracy." Ezran struggled to get the word out, but Opeli had taught him well, and he succeeded. "They are led by a council of wise men, calling themselves the Council of Ziard. And because of our new stance towards dark magic, they refuse to have any dealings with us at all."
"The Council of Ziard? That's the name of their leader?"
Ezran shook his head. "No, strangely enough. No one on their council is named Ziard, and I have got their names in the letter. Though, the name does ring a bell… I think that Viren talked about someone named like that once when he was teaching me?" He looked up at Soren questioningly, hoping he had answers, but Soren merely shrugged.
"Beats me. My dad gave up teaching me a loooong time ago. I'm much better with a sword than with a pen anyway."
Ezran snickered. "Yeah, I bet. Anyway," -he gestured back to the maps- "Neolandia still has a king, technically, but he has been sick for so long now that the country is being torn apart by the different barons who all want to take over."
"Noodleoodlia? Isn't that where we think my dad is?"
Ezran blinked at his weird pronunciation of the country's name but decided not to comment on it. Commenting on every weird thing Soren did would probably make him extremely tired anyway. "Yeah, we know Viren's there somewhere, and we got reports that the cult of the True Light is growing there, but that's about it. We have no real reason to go after him now. He doesn't threaten us directly."
"You don't think we need to go get dad? Or Claudia?" Soren kinda hoped that Ezran would have a plan to get Claudia back home, but again, Ezran shook his head.
"I think it's too dangerous. We have zero relations with Del Bar at the moment, and we can't afford to risk another war by sending soldiers across the border. I wish I could just summon the pentarchy and talk this all out, but for the moment, the pentarchy is shattered to pieces."
Soren tried to get a grasp on the complex political situation, but failed and frowned. "You do realise that this is all boring talky talky stuff to me, right?"
Ezran gave him a weak smile. "Talking to others helps me think. Why do you think I talk so much?"
This made Soren laugh. "Okay, so sending large armies to get the bad guy is out. I get it. But what about sending just one uber stealthy strong soldier to go there and get a looksie?" He waggled his eyebrows as he said that, and Ezran had to laugh.
"Really, and where would we find such a strong, yet stealthy soldier?"
Soren struck a pose. "There is only one man in the entire kingdom strong enough, yet quiet enough for such a mission…. Soren!" He said as he drew his sword and pointed it upwards.
Ezran was still laughing at the ridiculousness of it all, but as he was thinking, he found that he couldn't really object to such a plan. Sure, Soren was a crownguard and supposed to protect him with his life, but Ezran could understand that he wanted to see his father and sister again. Who knows, perhaps he will succeed in getting them back to the side of the good guys! Ezran thought optimistically. Well, maybe at least Claudia. She still seemed nice.
"Let me bring this up with Opeli. I'll give you my answer tomorrow." Ezran said carefully, not willing to make rash decisions anymore.
"Wait, really?" Soren looked surprised at Ezran.
"Yeah! I mean, if you really want to…"
"Nononono! I totally want to do this! I just didn't expect you to have that much confidence in me!" Soren hastily added, trying to explain his surprise.
"Soren, you have defended my father for years, and even though Viren manipulated you, in the end, you chose to defend me against your father as well. I believe in you, and I believe that you can make the right call. I don't like your chances of trying to convince Viren to stop, but maybe you can stop Claudia," Ezran said with a careful smile.
Soren smiled. "That's what I was thinking."
"Great! As I said, I'm gonna talk to Opeli first. We would lose our finest crown guard for a while. But maybe it will be worth it!"
Catlyn and Kiyara were panting from exertion. Both had a determined look on their faces. Despite the tough bout, neither one had bested the other. Catlyn did a warcry and lunged at her opponent. Kiyara evaded her dagger deftly and swung her sword upward, but Catlyn blocked it with her shortsword. She moved in, trying to get close. So far, she hadn't managed because Kiyara's swinging arks made it nearly impossible to get close. Kiyara had reach, and she used it quite magnificently.
But Catlyn was relentless in her offensive, much to her credit. And with two blades to wield, this put Kiyara on the defensive. She hadn't found an opening in her fight against the quick moonshadow elf. Right now she was just trying to survive this bout.
Rayla was watching from the sidelines. It was midday. Boros and Pincaelo were out patrolling, and Keryn was sleeping. She should be asleep as well, but she wanted to watch the two spar first. She wasn't really interested in their fighting skills though. It was more their interaction with each other that she was interested in. Catlyn and Kiyara struggled with each other, their dagger and sword locked and Kiyara keeping Catlyn's other blade at bay by holding her wrist. Eventually, they both gave up. Rayla was surprised as she noted that they gave each other a careful smile.
"Well done, lass," Catlyn said.
The pale elf smiled back. "Thanks, you too," she said softly.
Rayla had seen enough. This was what she wanted to see; that her fellow Dragonguards were all bonding and on good terms with each other. Trust had begun to grow between them. Sometimes they would all stay up at night and talk about their lives, though Kiyara so far had been the most reluctant to talk. But seeing her smile at Catlyn gave her hope that she too would mellow and grow to be a part of the group.
She gave them a nod and made her way down the stairs, back to her quarters. She was still sleeping alone, though the other quarters were filled. In the past six months, there had been several applicants for the last three positions within the Dragonguard. Two of them had been filled. A male sunfire elf called Orris who wielded a sunforged blade. He was about as old as Runaan had been, and was both skilled with a blade and very talkative. Rayla thought he was all talk and bravado with no real skill, up until she and Bosor tested him. He was a match for both of them, though Rayla fought at a disadvantage as she fought without her usual blades since the sunforged blade would cut clean through anything it touched.
The other elf was an older earthblood female named Gaia. She was a motherly figure, and though she wasn't really a fighter with weapons, she was quite adept with earthblood magic. More importantly, she was a healer, and she had spent several years working as a medic in the Earthblood garrisons.
Rayla liked her, even if Gaia had a habit of patronising others around her, seeing them all as children in need of guidance. She was glad that the ranks had been filled, though they had still one more spot to fill. She had hoped for a tidebound elf to make their appearance, but the tidebound tribes hadn't sent anyone. They haven't even answered my letters! Scunners! Relations with the tidebound elves had always been tenuous, the prime ocean archdragon being the only one able to keep the peace between them and the rest of Xadia. They were a strange lot, even by elven standards.
She grabbed some dinner and, not feeling up for any company, took her bowl with her back to her room. She plopped down on a chair and started rereading a letter from Callum she had gotten. There was a whole pile of them on the table. He had been true to his word, mostly. From the day he arrived at the temple, he had tried to send her a letter every single day! They were delivered once a week at the Storm Spire, mostly in bundles containing multiple letters. And most of them included sketches as well.
At first, Rayla was delighted! She loved the attention she got from him through the letters. Callum was clumsy in his way with words. It clearly showed in his writing. But his clumsiness made her smile, and his sketches warmed her heart. There was a thing she noticed though. As the months wore on, his letters came more infrequently. Sometimes she would go for over a week without getting one. Once she did receive one, it would usually include an apology for his tardiness, claiming he was busy. However, he had never specified what he was working on. And that did make her wonder.
Rayla knew she wasn't the only female out there. She remembered when he had looked at a scarcely clothed woman in Durenand how that made had her feel. She had tried to push those thoughts away to the corners of her mind, but some doubt remained. Six long months they had been apart, which was longer than how long they'd been together. Questions popped into her mind. Do I still love him? Are we still a thing? She put the spoon down, having lost her appetite for the fruit-and-berry porridge that was her evening meal today. She read the letter again, hoping to find...something. She wasn't sure what she was looking for, but it was something that she had felt before and was now missing.
How are you doing? Fine, I hope? How are those newbies treating you? Things are hectic here. Thorus is still a hardhead, though he appreciates my work. I think so, at least. He doesn't yell at me that often. Mind you, he's still grumpy, not wanting a 'stinking human' in his temple, but I think that after mastering so many spells in such a short time, he's come to respect me a bit.
The bullying has stopped, though mostly because I've shown them how powerful my fulminis is. I didn't give them the full charge of course. Just enough of a bit for them to get the message. Nothing else happened last week. Still busy with my project. Oh, I've included a little sketch of a small pool up on the mountain. It's a nice place. I go there often to think.
So, anything new from your side?
Well, that's all for now. Love you!
Rayla pondered the letter. It was nice of him to write her so often, yet the letter felt… distant. Like it was hastily written, without much thought. She had no way of knowing if she was correct though. Rayla hoped that Callum would find time to visit her. She missed him dearly
A knock on her door interrupted her reveries. "Rayl- I mean, captain, can I come in?"
Rayla went to the door and opened it. "Hey Cat."
Catlyn immediately saw by her slumped shoulders and sad smile that something was bothering her. "Hey, what's up?"
Rayla yawned and stretched. "Oh, you know, gettin' ready for the night."
Catlyn looked at her flatly. "Yeah, sure. And now a real answer. How are you feeling, Rayla?"
Rayla cringed inwardly. She can be so motherly at times... "Well… it's kind of… personal."
"Oeh, I love personal stuff!" Catlyn pushed past her and flopped on her bed.
Rayla regarded the elven woman for a moment. She was older than her, by at least double her age if Rayla guessed correctly. She never asked. However, by elven standards, that was still young. Physically, most elves were in the prime of their youth and health between twenty and sixty. After that, they would really start to age, but at a slower rate than humans did.
She winced at that thought. Great, yet another reminder about the complications of my relationship with Callum. She glanced at the wall, now covered with his sketches, and noticed that she was featured less and less in them. If we even have a relationship anymore.
"This is about Callum, isn't it?"
Rayla turned around swiftly and got ready to deny anything, but one look at Catlyn's face told her that such an attempt would be futile. She hung her head and plopped down on the other side of the bed. "I don't want to talk about it."
"Well, that's bad luck for you then, cause I do!"
Rayla threw her an annoyed look. "Since when did you become so bossy towards your captain?"
Catlyn just grinned. "What, you only noticed just now?" She scooted a little closer. "Girl, we're moonshadow elves. We need to look out for each other. As my captain, I respect you. But as a fellow elf, I worry about you." Catlyn became serious now, as she continued. "You've not been eating well, and you smile less often. Somethin's eating at ya. Now out with it!"
Rayla pressed her lips together. She felt she was at an emotional breaking point. But did she really dare to open her heart to this moonshadow elf? It was true that she liked Catlyn as a person and fellow Dragonguard, but talking about personal stuff wasn't something that was normally encouraged among the other moonshadow elves in the Silvergrove. To tell Catlyn of all people went against her instincts. "Why do you wanna talk about my feelings? Am I not supposed to ' toughen up'?" Rayla said, mimicking the annoying voice in which Runaan had always repeated that particular mantra.
Catlyn shrugged. "Call me a rebel. I do what I want. And I want to know what's been eatin' ya."
"Well… yeah... It's about Callum?" Rayla expected another quip from Catlyn, some kind of joke to lighten the mood. She would hate it of course, but that's how Catlyn was. To her surprise, however, she did none of this.
"What did he do, Rayla?"
Rayla gestured at the wall. "He writes these wonderful letters, but… I dunno, I get them less often now, and they feel… distant? And these sketches… They are more about the scenery than they are about us. He used to sketch our future together. And now... " She felt at a loss of words and gestured at the sketches containing mountains and valleys. Catlyn looked at them. They were really quite lovely.
"How long until he's done with his studies?"
Rayla looked at the floor dejectedly and crossed her arms. "That could take years… I don't really know. I doubt he knows either."
"Wow… alright, so you have to wait years before you see him again?" Rayla didn't like the look on Catlyn's face when she said that. It spoke of doubt.
"Well, I'm not sure. Don't they have breaks or holidays? I'm hopin' he will have the time to come visit me somewhere in between."
"Rayla, come sit with me." Catlyn patted the soft bed and Rayla obliged, sitting next to her. Catlyn scooted closer and put an arm around her. Rayla felt a bit uncomfortable by that, but at the same time, she was in need of a hug, so she let her.
"How long have you two been together?"
Rayla did a mental headcount. "I'd say… about seven months, not countin' the month we were travelin' together before that." In truth, it was probably shorter by a few weeks, but Rayla liked to make it seem like they had been together for a long time. It made her feel more confident about her relationship.
"Right… but he's been gone for six months now, so you've only dated each other for a month?"
Rayla didn't reply but nodded weakly. It doesn't sound that long, now that she says it like that.
"And you've only known him for about a month before that." Again, Rayla gave a small nod. "Rayla, I say this with all the love and respect I can muster for you as my captain, but, are you sure he's the one?"
Rayla said nothing for a while, as she simply stared ahead in front of her. She closed her eyes as they began to tear up as a torrent of emotion was unleashed within her, bottled up feelings from the last few months. She thought of the moments they had when they were together. Memories flashed before her eyes. Callum kissing her in the midnight desert…. Callum holding her hand when confronting Sol Regem... Callum holding her tenderly on the balcony in Duren... Callum saving her from the leeches... Callum crying on her shoulder... Callum talking back to her defiantly at swordpoint… She opened her eyes all of a sudden. She had a feeling that she had discovered something important, something inside her.
"Callum… yeah, he's definitely the one. I-it's just t-that we've been through so much together." She hiccuped as tears streamed down her face. "Catlyn, it's like our souls have been smashed together. Even though we've been apart for months now, A still can't see my life without him."
Catlyn said nothing but rubbed her back as Rayla poured out everything she had been keeping to herself these past months. "He sends me these letters. Sometimes it's hard for me to understand what he's actually talkin' about. He doesn't really have a way with words, but he tries, you know. He writes and he tries to keep in touch, right? A'm sure that Callum still loves me. He has to! And A'll kill the scunner if he doesn't!"
When Rayla looked up, she was surprised to find Catlyn trying to stifle her laughter. Her surprise quickly turned to annoyance, then anger. "This funny to ya?" she said with a dangerous edge to her voice as she wiped away the tears on her face.
Catlyn held up her hands in defence, still trying to hold back her laughter. "I'm sorry, captain. You are so serious about your relationship with the human prince. To us, it seems like you've been together forever. It's adorable! Yet, you two got together very quickly after you met. It's just that back when I met my boyfriend, we were running in circles around each other for over half a year before we really got together, and even then it didn't start as anything as serious as you two have got."
"Wait, you have a boyfriend?"
Catlyn nodded, a broad smile on her face. "That's right! This elven girl is spoken for!"
Rayla raised her eyebrows. "You're awfully proud of that."
Catlyn shrugged. "Took a long time to convince him that I was the one. He lives a long way away though, so I hope he will come visit soon."
Rayla smiled. "So that's all the mail you've been getting."
"I know how ya feel girl. Loving over a long distance sucks, but it can sweeten the relationship."
Rayla's eyes turned back to the letter on the table. "Do you think I'm overthinkin' this?"
"Probably. But that's normal. What would you want to know that he doesn't write about?"
Rayla tapped the wood of the bed, thinking for a moment. "I guess when I get to see him again. And why his letters are gettin' short."
Catlyn nodded. "Aye, those are the questions I would ask as well. Why not write to him? Right now, now that this is on your mind." When Rayla looked at her questioningly, she gave her an encouraging smile. "It'll be good for ya. Trust me."
Rayla made up her mind and grabbed her quill, ink and a piece of parchment. She sat down at her desk and stared at the empty paper with determination in her eyes. She spent some time mulling over her words before putting them on paper.
Catlyn kept a respectful distance as she was writing… most of the time. Rayla's warning glances in her direction however, told her that whatever was on that paper was still very much private.
When Rayla was done, she rolled up the parchment and sealed it with the seal of the Storm Spire. "Right. I hope that this will clear the air between us."
Exhausted from the day's events, Callum let himself fall into his bunk, or 'nest', as they called it. He thought of it as a bunk, but he could see why it would be called a nest. It was oval shaped woven reed, with a pile of furs in the middle to cushion his back. He had to admit it was cosy. The edge of his nest was high enough so that when he laid down he could only see the ceiling.
He liked that. He felt disconnected from the rest of the world and it helped him relax. The rest of the room wasn't much. It was circular and held four other nests, and a few wooden chests to keep their personal items in, though they couldn't be locked. And Callum had learned to trust the other elves as far as he could throw them, which, without using magic, wasn't far. He kept his most prized possession, his sketchbook, on him at all times, or beneath his furs when he was sleeping.
Callum closed his eyes. Thoughts jumbled through his head. About school, about his classmates, about his magic powers… He thought back to the day he first arrived here. It had taken a day or two of flying straight north into unknown territory. His new teacher had been polite on the way to the temple, sharing his food with him and helping him build a shelter for the night from sticks and leaves. Callum imagined he was testing the waters as he was stuck travelling with him for the way to the temple.
The next day, Callum saw the five towers that made up the Aero temple. They were grand, much taller than the twin towers of Katolis, and located in a valley in a windy mountainous region. The structure was an imposing sight, and Callum found it hard to accurately guess how tall they were.
When they landed, several skywing elves came to greet them. They were all dressed in the similar dark-blue and green robes as Thorus was dressed in, just a lot less elaborate. Callum noted that most robes clung to the body, going for a more streamlined appearance. He blushed as he saw various female elves who looked quite stunning in these robes. All the elves looked at him, most seeing a human for the first time in their lives. Callum found the experience thoroughly embarrassing. His teacher's remarks didn't help.
"Yes, we're allowing verm- we're allowing some particular unusual guests here nowadays. By order of the king," he had said as he gave Callum the stink eye. "Make sure to treat him with all the hospitality we can muster, boys."
Several of the boys grinned at Callum, but he couldn't see any kindness in them. Yup, I'm gonna feel right at home here… He said to himself, his internal voice laden with sarcasm.
The next few days were like hell. He had to get up before sunrise, eat in a mess hall in one of the towers, then study and follow classes all day. Which in itself was great for Callum. He loved studying! No, the thing that made it awful was the complete social isolation he was in. No elf was willing to talk to him, not one. And Thorus made sure that everyone knew what kind of 'stinking, filthy human' he was.
But, he was studying magic, and that's what he wanted. He was put in a class with ten other skywing elves who appeared to be of similar age, and Thorus and various other teachers taught him about the sky arcanum. The lessons were alright, Callum thought. Some lessons took place on top of the towers in the open sky, the meditation class took place in a nearby glade, and sometimes teachers would take the class out for a walk to make a point about the connection between the various arcana.
But the classes Callum was most familiar with would take place in a room in one of the towers, not unlike a room Opeli had used to teach him and Ezran back in the day. Each student would sit behind his desk and make notes as the teacher talked and sometimes gave examples. Runes would be drawn in the air for them to copy, and this was where Callum excelled. He made notes incredibly fast, and his runework was spot on. Some teachers actually showed their appreciation for his hard work and warmed up to him. Thorus, however, showed this by not belittling him all the time.
Six long months passed this way, with Callum being avoided by most other skywing elves, his only real social contact being with the select teachers who did appreciate him. It was hard for Callum, but as time wore on, his magic prowess increased tremendously.
Having an eidetic memory meant that he could master drawing any rune near-instantly. He had already mastered most of the simple sky arcanum spells, like a speed spell to let the wind help you fly or run faster, or a spell that would put up a wind wall that would stop any incoming projectiles.
Callum frowned as he thought about that particular lesson. They were using skirmishes with humans as an example of how to effectively employ magic, but the teachers would look at him awkwardly while talking about those. Yup, it was awkward hearing them talk about how to best take out humans like me.
Callum had approached those teachers with an air of understanding, and most were grateful for that. Right now, he had a working relationship with most teachers, and even if most students still distrust him, they respected his magic powers, especially after he had shown he wasn't afraid to use them to defend himself. Callum had been afraid they would throw him out of the temple after he had zapped one of his bullies, but Thorus simply shrugged, saying: "He now has learned a valuable lesson, and so have you. That is what experience is all about." He had left it at that.
Callum left out most of the bullying in his letters to Rayla. He didn't want to worry her. Instead, he focussed on the awesome things, like the new spells he had mastered and the conversations he had with his teachers. He didn't think of it as lying, more like… embellishing the truth. He figured he would tell her the rest when he would see her again, face to face.
As his thoughts moved to Rayla, he also felt a familiar feeling creeping up to him. It was a feeling that had kept him company throughout his time at the Aero Temple: loneliness. He thought of his elven girlfriend, and how far away she was. Does she miss me? He wondered. He was afraid of what the answer would be. He had written her letters, many, many letters! He included sketches of his daily life here as well.
But her responses had been infrequent and short, and Callum wasn't sure whether it was because she didn't have the time to write back, or because of something else. What that 'something else' could be, was something he didn't want to dwell on at the moment, but it made it harder for him to write long love letters to her.
He groaned and pressed the palms of his hands in his eye sockets. Even when I have some time off, I can't seem to relax! What I wouldn't give for just one day at the Bantherlodge! He remembered those carefree days with fondness, but pressed them from his mind just as quickly. He had just taken his time to remember the past six months, he didn't want to add another emotional load by thinking of all the times before that!
Callum got up, stretched and decided he would read some elven tomes in the library. They are always interesting! Well, most of the time. I swear, how some of the teachers manage to pick the most boring books to study is beyond me! As he was having his internal monologue, he didn't quite register what was in front of him as he moved through the doorway, at least, not until he bumped into something with full force.
"Aah, sorry!" Callum stammered and took a step backwards. In the opening stood a skywing elf girl. Her hair was long and white, as were her wings. She was wearing purple and blue clothes which hung loosely around her form. Her eyes were a startling blue, and she was rubbing a sore spot on her head as she was glaring daggers at Callum.
What is the new girl doing here!? In the boys tower of all places!? He vaguely remembered a couple of new-arrivals coming to the Aero Temple a month ago, and she had been among them.
"Well, that's a hell of a way to meet someone, huh?" Her frown was replaced by a grin despite the pain, her hand still rubbing the spot. She held out the other. "I'm Aireli."
Callum took her hand very hesitantly and shook it. "Callum."
She snickered. "So I've heard. You're that human prince the school is buzzing about, right?"
"Erm… I mean…."
"Well, of course you are! It's not like we are teaching any other humans." She looked at him with excitement. "Is it true that you can use the sky arcanum?"
Callum crossed his arms. "Well, I wouldn't be here if I couldn't, right?"
"Fair enough. But they say that you are special. They say that you can master spells more quickly than anyone around here."
Callum's chest swelled with pride. "Well, you know, I study hard and all that, but yeah, I'm really good!" He gave her a goofy smile and hoped that it looked a lot more confident than he felt right now.
Aireli grinned. "Great! You see, I'm studying some new magic and I want to create a new spell for a project, but I'm having trouble getting the runes right. I don't care that you're human. You are the best student I've heard of and I really need some help right now." She looked at him and touched his crossed arms lightly. A shiver went down his spine. "Could you please help me? I know the others have been rather mean to you, but I'm not them and I really want to ace this project!"
He looked at those dazzling, blue eyes and that excited smile. She was the first friendly face he had seen in six months. How could he say no?
The sun had risen in Katolis. Ezran watched Soren speed out of the gates on his horse, starting his long journey to Neolandia. Opeli had agreed, though reluctantly. However, right now they weren't at war with any nation, there were no assassination threats so far as they knew, and if Soren succeeded, it would bring an end to all the conflict on this continent.
Even though that chance was very slim, it was worth a try. But Ezran did have to promise to double the guard until Soren's return.
He sighed and moved back to the throne. He was going to do something now that he had been trying to train himself to do for the last few months; To consciously connect with Zym. He felt his connection with the dragon growing stronger, and he was able to communicate with Zym in some ways. It wasn't very useful right now, as Zym was still very much the toddler version of a dragon, but Ezran had hope that this would be yet another bond that would strengthen the future of a union between Xadia and the human kingdoms.
He sat down and closed his eyes. The throne room disappeared, and slowly a cave filled his vision, lit by soft light coming from above and flowers decorating a dragon's nest.
"Zeron, you are leaving again? So soon?" the soft voice of Queen Zubeia asked.
Zym looked at the dark dragon with the blue, glowing eyes, who simply nodded. "It is not my place to stay here long. There is news of dark magic stirring in Del Bar. I should go there to see what is happening."
"You know that you are no longer bound to the service of Xadia." King Aureum Umbra noted. "I will not be granting you any extra favours for this."
The black dragon raised his head in the king's direction, looking miffed. "Believe then that this is for my own interest as well. I should leave now. Besides," he said as he got up, "the captain and I rub each other the wrong way."
"Will you then at least give us an update on whether Del Bar actually uses dark magic?" the king insisted. "If so, we should consider sniffing it out before it gains deep roots like in Neolandia."
"I will do what I think is right for the world, and all those who live within it, King Aureum!" Zeron snapped. "May I advise you not to be too hasty in starting another war? Two countries have sworn not to use dark magic through talks alone. Perhaps you should shift your focus to that, and change your perspective on how to influence this world." And with that, the black dragon stomped out of the cavern.
Zym watched the black dragon go, as he felt Ezran's gaze was focussed on Zeron as well. Zym didn't mind the human boy watching through his eyes. It felt funny, and it felt like a game to Zym, where he had to guess what Ezran was most interested in and would get his approval if he looked the right way or listened to the right things. He couldn't see Ezran, of course, but he could hear his voice.
After a moment of silence, Queen Zubeia spoke up. "He's right, you know?"
The mighty dragon king said nothing, but folded his dark blue wings over his face and grumbled.
The sun had set at the Storm Spire, and all the Dragonguard were gathered together on the plateau in front of the entrance. It was cold outside, being only early in spring, so they had put a few fire pits up to keep them warm. Rayla had just finished her speech to them. She was proud of them and felt it was time to let them know that their progress was appreciated. The guards that joined them last year were now considered fully-fledged members, and Orris and Gaia were well on their way through their trial period. Everything was going swimmingly. Well, almost, anyway.
Already, Rayla could spot several rivalries appearing between the members of the guard. Bosor and Catlyn didn't really get along, Orris rubbed most of the members the wrong way because of his arrogance, and though Gaia's healing massages were greatly appreciated, she could be so motherly and concerned about things that they now rarely brought up their issues with her.
So, Rayla had put them all together tonight for a little bit of bonding. She had discussed this with the dragon king, and he had agreed to stay awake and remain vigilant for one night as the Dragonguard did their thing in front of the entrance.
"So...what do we do now?" Bosor asked, his question directed to no one in particular.
"We talk," Keryn said, though his voice hinted at the fact that this wasn't an activity he particularly liked.
Catlyn responded to her brother with a sigh. "Great! Who first?"
It remained silent for a while, the only sound being the fire consuming the wood in the firepits. Rayla made herself as obscure as she could, not wanting to put pressure on the guard. She wanted them to be able to talk freely, so she sat in a corner in the shadows. Gaia sat next to her and gave her the occasional glance, but her large earthblood elf form dwarfed Rayla, so the others couldn't see her very well.
"Alright, how about twenty questions?" Pincaelo piped up. "That's always a good game to get to know each other!"
Several members of the guard groaned. "That's a child's game!" Orris objected.
Pincaelo pouted. "Well, you come up with something better then!"
Bosor's deep voice replied "We could adjust the questions. Make them less childish." Several members grunted in approval.
"Alright then! I'll go first!" Pincaelo said cheerfully. "Bosor, how many girls have you kissed?"
Several members snorted at the sudden question. Catlyn nearly choked on her drink, and Bosor just looked at her in shock.
"Pincaelo, you don't start off with that kind of question!" Catlyn admonished the young skywing elf.
"What? It's my game, it's my question," she said while pouting.
Bosor just stared at her, his rugged face betraying no emotion other than the shock of her asking that question. Eventually though, he answered. "One." Several of the Dragonguard looked at Bosor curiously.
"Ohw! Who did you kiss? Who was it?"
Bosor stammered to dodge the question, but Catlyn came to his rescue. "That's not how this works, lassy. You get one question. Now it's Bosor's turn." She nodded at Bosor. "What is your question?"
Bosor thought for a bit, getting his bearings in this new game. "What… is everyone's favourite drink?"
Everyone had a quick reply to that one. "Lemon water!" "Veluws Deer." "Morach's draught."
Rayla laughed and answered; "Moonberry juice."
Everyone smiled, the ice having been broken. "Alright Rayla, how about you ask us a question?" Catlyn said, trying to involve the captain more in the group.
"Right! Erm…." She looked at the ragtag members of her guard. They came from all over the place and looked nothing alike. Yet they were all the best of the best in their chosen skills. That gave her an idea for a question! "Right! Things you are most proud of!"
"Oeh oeh oeh! My archery skills!" Pincaelo piped up.
"Cooking skills," Gaia said as she sipped her tea.
The moonshadow twins looked at each other and grinned. "Our ability to hold down any booze we come across." Multiple members snickered at that.
"My fighting prowess," Bosor said honestly.
"The amount of humans I've killed," Orris said with a wicked grin on his face.
This statement got everyone's attention. Rayla was horrified, but as she looked around, she was shocked to find that the other members of the group didn't have the same reaction.
"That's an awful thing to be proud of." Gaia admonished him, but Orris just shrugged it off.
"They invade our lands, that's what they get, and it's nothing that those stinky filthy humans don't deserve."
Catlyn saw the shocked look on Rayla's face and sought to defuse the tension that was rising. "Alright, alright, let's quit while we're ahead, shall we? Orris, I believe you're next. What do you want to know?"
Orris' grin didn't subside as he asked his question. "How many humans have you all killed?"
It was silent for a while around the fire pit. No one really dared to speak. Pincaelo looked around anxiously, biting her nails, the twins looked at each other uncertainly, while Kiyara and Bosor just stared at the flames. It was Kiyara's quiet voice who broke the silence first.
Rayla gasped as she heard the number. Keryn whistled. "Fifty-six!? Me and Catlyn never got past thirty!" Keryn didn't notice the warning look he got from Catlyn as he said that.
"Uh, oh… Well, humans don't usually attack our holdings in the mountains, so I only got three or four with my bow." Pincaello said, feeling a bit embarrassed that her score was so low.
Orris jumped up. "Hah! Then I beat you all! Last summer, I surpassed one hundred kills, with my total count coming up at one hundred and thirteen!"
Silence descended upon the group. No one knew quite how to respond to that. Orris looked displeased that no one cheered for him, but he was smart enough to read the mood of the group, so he kept his mouth shut.
"Three hundred and eighty-six," Bosor said, while still staring into the flames. All eyes whipped to Bosor. This time Orris did move and stuck out his arm as a form of congratulations, but Bossor gave him a warning look that made him pause. "This is not something to be proud of! Each life lost is still a waste. I was simply doing what was necessary. Besides…" he said as he turned to look at Rayla. "I am sure that our captain here exceeds us all. She was a moonshadow assassin after all, and she was present here during the battle of the Storm Spire."
Now all eyes turned to the young moonshadow elf captain, who looked around at all the faces of the people she could call her Dragonguard. Some looked eager to hear her answer, others merely curious. Catlyn looked concerned though, as she was the only one to read her mood correctly.
"I-I…." Rayla stammered as panic gripped her. For a second she thought of telling a lie but knew that lying would get her nowhere, not if she wanted to be able to trust her comrades blindly. She sighed and decided to tell the truth. "None."
The others gasped. That was not the answer they had been expecting. "Excuse me!?" Orris immediately said.
"None! I haven't killed a single one!" Rayla stood up as she confronted the group "I know you look up to me as your leader, and I have fought plenty of five-fingered creatures, some four-fingered ones, but I was always able to get away without killing anyone."
"That's impressive…" Catlyn said, fully understanding the implication. When you are on a mission, sometimes someone can get in your way. To have completed her mission without any kills meant she was a master at stealth and evasion in her eyes.
"That's absurd!" Bosor said, staring at her in disbelief.
"That's bullshit!" Orris shouted, visibly upset. "How can you be captain if you can't even kill our enemy!?"
"Because they are not always our enemy!" Rayla said as she stood up to him. "Some are evil, yes, but most aren't. They are just….just like…. Us!" She gestured at the group around them, her frustration with the topic palpable.
"And what about the dark mage?" Bosor asked her. "Didn't you kill him by throwing the both of you off the spire?"
Rayla sighed. "It appears he survived that… though how is anyone's guess."
"Well, this is just grand!" Orris threw up his arms. "We're being led by an infant! No kills, nothing to brag about… tell me, captain" he said the word as sarcastically as possible, "What are you good at?"
If this direct challenge to her capability to lead shocked Rayla, she didn't show it. Instead, she walked to Orris and stopped mere inches from his face. She had to look up to him, but Orris backed away slightly nonetheless. She had a scowl on her face that promised nothing but impending doom for him.
"Keepin' you in line." She snarled. "Ye'r on graveyard duty for the next week."
"Now move, before A add the latrines to yer list." Her eyes were menacing at this point.
Orris stammered and looked around at the group for support. However, they all supported their captain. Dejected and frustrated, he walked away, kicking the dust as he went.
Rayla watched him go, her back turned to the rest of the group. After a moment of silence, she spoke. "A'm gonna go get some sleep… goodnight…." She walked away briskly, into the spire.
Catlyn looked at her retreating form with worry. She got up to move after her, but when Keryn did the same, she pushed him down again. "Stay here, brother. She needs a woman's touch."
As Catlyn entered the hall, she saw Rayla was already making her way to her room. "Rayla, wait up!"
Rayla halted as she heard Carlyn's voice, but didn't turn around at first. As Catlyn got near her, she turned her back fully towards her, facing the wall.
"Heya girl… how are ya doin'?"
Rayla didn't answer. Catlyn gently laid her hand on the young girl's shoulder and turned her around. Rayla had crossed her arms around her torso, her face streaked with tears. She looked frightened, hurt.
"Aw, Rayla girl, come now. That scunner has nothing worth crying about." Catlyn quickly looked around to see if no one was around to witness her familiarity with the captain, then put her arms around the girl. Rayla was trying very hard to control her sobs.
"Its-it's not that," she sniffled. "Orris is an ass, but A can handle 'im." She wiped away the tears and looked at Catlyn. The hurt on her face was palpable. "It's just… A miss him so much, and now with all da work piling up, and da new members of our guard that need trainin', A...A…" The tears streamed down her face again.
As Catlyn comforted her, a voice came from the Great Hall where the dragons were resting. "Rayla, come here child…"
Rayla was startled as she heard Queen Zubeia's voice. She looked at Catlyn, who was just as surprised as her. Quickly and quietly, they entered the great hall. As they entered, King Aureum Umbra was watching them carefully, being especially vigilant tonight. Queen Zubeia however looked at Rayla with worry.
"Rayla, I haven't seen you so distraught in months. What is the matter?"
Rayla breathed deeply, calming herself. Showing her emotions before the dragons wasn't something she liked to do, even if she trusted Queen Zubeia well enough. "A… A don't know. Orris, the new recruit, said somethin' dreadful and A just snapped and had to set 'im straight."
"He was also very disrespectful towards you, captain." Catlyn provided.
"Right, but somethin' inside me snapped as well. A've been training the recruits non-stop, the administration has been pilin' up and...and Callum…!" She hiccuped as the emotions threatened to get the better of her again.
"Yes?" Queen Zubeia gently motioned for her to continue.
"Callum… his letters are becomin' more distant…. Or maybe A'm just readin' into it too much… Gods, I feel like I'm goin' crazy…"
King Aureum Umbra moved his attention to the captain, his eyes boring into her. "Are you still fit to lead, captain?" His voice betrayed no emotion, but Rayla was afraid for his judgement. She decided to answer honestly.
"A...A don't know… A feel like A need to catch me breath or somethin'."
The queen nodded. "How about some time off for you then? Just take a week or two, catch that breath of yours," she looked to the other dragon as she continued. "We do have enough of a guard to feel protected right now, I'd say."
The dragon king nodded. "Despite your own doubts, you are the most passionate captain I have seen in a long time. I would hate to lose you. While you are young, you have the promise for greatness…" He was silent for a moment. Rayla wondered if she should speak, but she really didn't know what to say.
"Very well then. Rayla of Xadia, I give you leave for fifteen days. Use it wisely. We hope to see you again refreshed and healthy."
The queen smiled and turned back to the young moonshadow elf. "I hope this helps you, Rayla. Just go somewhere that will make you feel better, away from the Storm Spire."
Rayla had calmed down somewhat, but she was still not feeling very relieved. "But where can I go? Callum is busy with his studies, and… I can't go home, I think."
"Why not?" Queen Zubeia asked, surprised by the statement.
"Last time I was there, I found out they banished me!"
"Ah, because of your… failed mission?" The king held no judgement in his voice. Rayla was glad for it. She figured he was in a good mood today, for some reason.
"Yes, they thought I ran away."
"Hold on," Catlyn said. "Wouldn't they have lifted the spell now that you're the captain of the Dragonguard?"
Rayla shrugged. "They might have, but I don't know. The crime still stands, you know. They thought I had abandoned my comrades."
The king snorted. "Well, that's easily fixed. They will get an order to lift the spell tomorrow morning."
Rayla was startled. "Uhm…. thanks, I guess!"
Queen Zubeia smiled. "You're welcome. Now go to bed. You can leave first thing in the morning.
Rayla and Catlyn exited the great hall. Catlyn patted her on the back. "See? Good things happen when you talk about your feelings."
Rayla cast a doubtful look at her comrade, who was now sporting a big grin on her face. "This time, maybe. It feels scary to talk about stuff like that in front of the king. The queen is alright though."
"Right." Catlyn hugged her captain, who was surprised and did not expect this. "Go to bed, Rayla," she said as she let go. "Go to bed and then go home. Do what you need to do to get that head of yours back in order."
Catlyn said this in a friendly, if slightly mocking manner, but it made Rayla smile despite her inner feelings. "Will do."
Catlyn turned around and walked back to the group, wondering what they were talking about now. She stopped when she heard her captains' voice behind her.
"Oh, and Catlyn?"
"Yeah?" Catlyn looked back to where her captain stood. Rayla stood there alone and vulnerable in the dark hall of the spire. Yet, when Catlyn now looked at her, she did look better than before. More relieved, more at ease, trusting that things would work out.
Rayla smiled at Catlyn. "Thanks, for listenin'."
Catlyn answered with a grin. "You're welcome!"
"So, I've asked my classmates to help me on this project, but there aren't many here that study the same subject, and I really think that I-"
"What is your subject then, Aireli?" Callum interrupted her. He made a point of saying her name, to practice its pronunciation. Aireli, Aireli, sounds like a funny name? Maybe an exotic name!
"Oh, it's about the runes that we draw for the sky magic. How they came to be, how we must draw them, that kind of thing."
"Alright! So how can I help you?"
Aireli gave him a small grin. "Well, you're impatient! I was coming to that! As I was saying-"
Callum shook his head. Apparently, she liked to talk. Like, a lot. As they walked through the tower, they passed various rooms, some empty, some filled with furniture to work as a study or practise room, while others had elves present, being engrossed in one lesson or another. One of the things Callum noted was that this tower lacked any doors. Even his own room didn't have one, which gave him very limited privacy. The only rooms that seemed to have any doors were the private rooms of the teachers, which also had a lock on them. Of course Callum wondered what was behind them. Of course Callum never had the nerve to find out.
Eventually, they came to a library section, and Aireli motioned for him to come over to a table, where a stack of papers was placed haphazardly in no distinguishable order. Aireli made a sound of indignation. "Oh no, they have rummaged through them again!" She rushed to the papers and looked to see if anything was missing. Eventually, she let out a relieved sigh. "Thank the gods! Everything's still there."
Callum moved over to where she stood and looked over her notes. They were indeed about magic runes, though Callum noted that the examples she had drawn were a bit on the shoddy side. "So, what's your problem then?"
"Here, it's these," she said, pointing at the runes. "I can't seem to get them right. Now I know the spell, so I can draw the runes well enough, but when I try to put them on paper, they look...well… off?" She cast him an apologetic look. "I've asked around for students who are good at runes, but this rumour keeps coming up about this new handsome human being especially gifted with them."
"I mean, I like to draw so,- wait. You think I'm handsome?" Callum felt himself blush a little. Only Rayla had ever said anything of the sort. To hear that from others felt… good.
Aireli giggled. "I didn't say that, now did I?"
"Oh! Uhm, err…" Callum's face was getting redder by the minute. He looked away and scratched his head. "Sorry!"
"Hahah, it's okay." She put a hand on his shoulder, meaning to placate him. "If it helps, I do think you look rather dashing in that shirt. Most people opt for a sleeveless design. Where did you get it?"
"Oh, this?" He gestured at the shirt he was currently wearing. It was made of a light blue fabric and was quite warm and comfortable. The special feature it had though, was that the sleeves were wider and that they were buttoned up on the inside of the arm. It had taken Callum a long time to make this, as he wasn't particularly gifted with sewing. In fact, all he did himself were the buttons; the shirt he'd traded for some sketches he had made. The end result looked exotic, if not stylish.
"I made it myself! Well, I had some help, but... "
She just gave him a smile. "I like it."
"T-thanks!" Callum just exclaimed, unsure how to react.
Aireli just looked at him for a bit, biting her lip as if contemplating something. Eventually, she looked back towards the table. "Could you help me with those runes?' She gestured at the ones in front of her.
"Right, right." Callum cleared his throat and moved to the page to study the runes. "I… think I know what's going on here." He gestures at the runes. "These are runes of the sunfire arcanum, aren't they?"
"Right, but you're drawing them using the sky arcanum style. See here? You make all the hooks of the rune jagged, just like they are with the sky arcanum. But the sun arcanum is a lot more swirly, and its runes don't end so abruptly." He grabbed his sketchbook and leafed through his sketches, eventually stopping at a page with various runes on them.
"Ah, you're right! Okay, can I borrow that book so I can study those runes?"
Callum immediately places a hand over the book protectively. "Eh, I'd rather not. But, I could draw you a few examples?"
Her face sagged somewhat as he didn't want to let go of the book, but brightened again at his compromise. "Great! Can I pick it up tomorrow morning?"
"Thanks!" She gave him a big hug. Callum, unsure of what the protocol was with skywing elves, gingerly hugged her back. He felt her soft body press against him, and his hands felt the soft feathers of her wings. Familiar feelings began to stir within him, however, with them came a tiny bit of guilt. Wait, is this...wrong?
The hug didn't last long. After a moment, Aireli let go and moved to exit the room. Before she did so, however, she turned around once more. "You know Callum, for a human, you're not so bad." And with that, she was gone.
Callum sighed and prepared for his next class. It was taught by his mentor, and while one of the more interesting ones, he also loathed Thorus' teaching methods. All in all, he only really enjoyed half of those lessons, which, to be fair, was still more than how much he enjoyed Opeli's lessons back in the day.
As he entered the classroom, he found that the rest of the students were already there. Thorus gave him a chagrined look. "Callum, you're late…"
Callum frowned. "Sorry, sorry, something came up. You see, there was this student, and-"
"Don't care. Have a seat."
Flabbergasted, Callum quickly took a seat and pulled out another notebook. This one he used for actual notes during the lessons. Of course, he doodled in it when he was bored, though, surprisingly, that didn't happen often.
"Today's lesson will be about the social structure in Xadia. It is important for you to have a good understanding of this, as you all are destined to occupy the function of a mage for one of the houses, or possibly, the dragon king himself. Now, can someone tell me who the current sky arcanum mage is for the dragon king?"
A few elves raised their hands. Callum did as well, but hesitantly.
A young boy elf answered the question. "Isn't it a mage called Ibs?"
"Ibis, you mean. And no, this is not correct."
The students who still had their hands raised now looked confused, and slowly lowered their hands. Callum however didn't. "Yes, Callum? You think you know better?" Several students snickered. Making fun of Callum was fun for everyone, and their teacher either joined in or actually instigated it. Callum tried not to care. Soren had teased him relentlessly and beat him up regularly during sword fighting. He knew how to handle things like that.
"I think you're asking a trick question. There is currently no sky mage assigned to the dragon king, because…. Because he is not a storm dragon!" Callum exclaimed, the last part a sudden thought in his head that connected the dots.
Thorus frowned, more out of frustration that the human yet again proved to be the brightest of his students. "You are correct, as usual," he said, mumbling the last part. "Can someone tell me then why Ibis is still the official mage of the royal dragon house then?"
When no one raised their hands, Callum carefully raised his, remembering a certain passage out of one of Rayla's letters. "It's because he was the official skywing mage for the previous king, and at the dragonmoot it was decided that the royal storm dragon house must continue. So King Aureum Umbra is only temporarily the king of Xadia."
"Very astute, Callum." He turned to the rest of the class. "This connects well with today's teachings. Xadia has always been ruled by a royal dragon house, which has lasted for thousands of years. Through the millennia, the houses have changed, but there has always been a dragon to lead us and protect the Xadian lands. The dragon king or queen presides at the dragonmoot. Now, who knows what a dragonmoot is?"
More hands were raised, and though Callum knew the answer, he decided that he had said enough. Trying to outsmart his fellow students usually led to more bullying.
Another boy elf spoke. This one was a bit shorter, but was one of the few elves that had actual wings. The feathers were all ruffled though, and his hair stuck to his face. It was clear that personal hygiene wasn't this elf's priority. "The dragonmoot is like this big meeting where all the dragons go to. There, they talk about stuff and make decisions."
Thorus nodded. "Yes, you are basically right. The king or queen can call a dragonmoot, and there they discuss topics of high importance, not stuff, Warther," he said as he gave the boy an admonishing look. Warther just shrugged.
"There are six species of dragons, all connected to their own arcanum. Each species has a range of subspecies. The larger ones can become archdragons. Out of all the archdragons, one prime is chosen to represent the entire species. One important thing to note is that a prime can't hold any other position within the Xadian social structure. So a dragon can't be a prime and a king at the same time, neither can it be a commander or messenger."
Thorus continued his talk about the dragon social structure and how it connected to the rest of Xadia. The class listened. Some took notes. Callum did, but he found time to make a doodle of the dragon king as well, though he gave him a bit of a jester-like appearance.
"Now, you lot will be assigned possibly to the royal house, but more likely to one of the elven houses or tribes. Who can think of any duties you would perform while being in such a position?"
"Yeah, advice on magic stuff!"
"Clean the toilets." Some students laughed at that, and Thorus frowned at the offending student.
"Protect the house against enemies!"
"Yeah! Kill humans!"
Callum's head whipped around. It was Darlyox who said it. Callum grimaced as he saw the elf sneering at him. Darlyox had been on his case since day one.
"What? You offended, Callum?" Darlyox was smiling. It wasn't a happy smile. Callum gritted his teeth. Thorus coughed to get their attention.
"Are you quite done antagonising our dear human friend, Darlyox?" Callum thought the way he said 'human friend' didn't sound so friendly.
"Sorry, master," Darlyox said, but he was grinning and no one believed he was actually sorry.
Thorus frowned again. "Right, moving on then. Yes, you do need to know how to fight, and that can include killing humans. It doesn't have to, though. It could be elves from rivalling houses."
"Well, let them come!" One of the students said. "I bet that with my fulminis and catena fulgur spells I can beat whatever humans or elves come my way!" Several students seemed to agree on that. Though Xadia was a magical place, the actual practice of magic was reserved for a select few, at least in these parts.
Thorus frowned at his overconfident students. "Really? And I bet you've all had plenty of practice then? Tell me, has any of you ever killed someone with a spell?" His voice held an edge, and the entire class fell silent. None dared to look at him, but Callum specifically tried to make himself as small as possible. This of course made his behaviour all the more noticeable to his teacher.
"Callum? Have you had such an experience during your adventures? Why don't you share them with your classmates."
"Urm, well…." Callum started to stammer. "I mean, I don't …. I don't really know? During the battle at the Storm Spire, I had to, you know, make sure they wouldn't get to the dragon prince. So I was standing on a cliff, and I-I blew a couple of soldiers off of it. Human soldiers!" he hastily added, as he was getting looks from the various elves. Though they had all heard about the battle, some were still unsure on what side Callum had been, even if the king himself spoke for him. "So, I guess that… at least they must have gotten hurt pretty bad?"
Thorus was somewhat intrigued by this. "Really? And tell me, how did you deal with the knowledge that you might have killed your fellow kin?"
"I-I-I… I didn't?" Callum came to the sudden realisation that he never really bothered to check what his part in the battle was, casualty wise. He was just glad to have saved Rayla.
"Hmm… interesting." Thorus looked outside. A giant pillar that stood in the centre of the towers marked the time, and right now it was showing that this class was over. "Alright, class dismissed." Everyone grabbed their book and pencil and moved to exit the room. "Oh, Callum? Why don't you stay for a bit."
"Urhm, alright?" Callum was getting nervous around Thorus. What does he want with me?
Thorus waited until the classroom was empty before he looked up from his notes and addressed Callum. "I wanted to talk about your progress."
"...okay?" Inwardly, Callum groaned. Here comes another complaint, I can feel it coming! He mentally braced himself for what would be another complaint about something extremely minor that for some reason was very important.
"I think… that you are doing very well right now. Indeed, you have surpassed most senior students as far as spells are concerned, though your history and social knowledge is severely lacking."
Callum didn't know what to say. For the first time in months, Thorus had actually said something nice about him! However, Thorus saw Callum's look of wonder and quickly moved on. "Let me be clear: I do not like you. You are a human and are likely to betray our secrets and use them against us, but… I must confess that I find myself intrigued by your abilities. I would like to test them to their limits. Therefore, we will start to use these next few weeks to study some master-level spells." He grabbed a scroll from a bag and handed it to Callum. He grabbed it, and read the title at the top. It simply said 'storm'.
"Thanks…" Callum said, still in shock. To him, it felt like all his hard work was finally paying off.
"Don't thank me yet. See if you can understand the spell first. And for the love of all that is holy, DO NOT TRY THIS IN OR NEAR THE SCHOOL!" Thorus yelled as he placed his palms on the desk. Callum backed away, having never seen his mentor having an outburst like that. "This is magic of the highest order and therefore extremely dangerous!"
"R-right! No problem!"
Thorus sighed and sat down. "We will start training next week. That is all, you may leave."
Callum moved to exit the room, but stopped and turned back to his mentor. He gulped as he asked his question. "Thorus? Since things are going well, is it possible that I leave the school for a couple of days?"
Thorus groaned and put his hands to his face. "Not this again."
Callum soldiered on. "Sir, it's just for a few days. I haven't seen Rayla in months, and I-"
"NO!" Thorus gave Callum a stern and tired look. "You will NOT be treated any differently from other students. You come in a fledgeling, you leave a master, or you don't leave at all. There are no exceptions to this rule."
"But-but sir…" Callum had tried to get his request through many times, sometimes trying to use his position as a prince from a foreign country, other times trying to appeal to his emotional side, all to no avail.
"Since you are eager to leave, I suggest you hurry up and master the Sky Arcanum. You do that, then you may leave." Thorus closed a book he wasn't reading with such force that a loud snap could be heard through the room. It underlined that this was final and not up for discussion.
Callum sighed and went back to his room. But within him, his determination burned like a roaring fire. This is what I'll do then. I'll master the sky arcanum, and then, I will be with Rayla!
The servant frowned at the hooded figure. It was wearing a grey cloak and hood, but beneath that, he could spot black clothing. Judging from what he saw from the face, it was definitely a woman.
The servant hesitated. He had heard of the True Light, spreading in the more remote regions of Neolandia, but they had never entered the capital yet. And now this woman was here, saying she had the power to heal the king, to make him see the light! It all sounded rather dubious really…
"I'm afraid the king is...indisposed."
"Indisposed!?" Claudia threw off her hood. It was hot in Neolandia, and though she wanted to be as inconspicuous as possible, it was hot out here and she was getting tired of this cult outfit. "He's been lying in his bed for the better part of a year now!"
"His majesty is resting…"
"Resting my butt! Look, I can heal him!" Claudia gave the servant her best pleading look, but he remained stoic.
"No visitors, no audiences. You want something, go to the local baron." The servant moved to close the door of the palace.
"Wait, hold up! I've got something that might change your mind."
The servant hesitated. If she offered a bribe, it better be a hefty one. He still wanted to build a house on the coastline someday. He mentally shrugged and opened the door somewhat, still trying to look as stern as possible with the hope of increasing the bribe. But instead of a bag of gold, this woman was holding a feather. It looked ordinary until it started to glow.
"You will lead me to your king," the woman said.
"Of course! Follow me!" Why wouldn't he? It was absolutely the most logical thing to do.
The servant led Claudia through the halls of the palace. Deeper and deeper they went. The guards gave her funny looks, but as she was being escorted by someone from the palace household, no one cared enough to stop them. Eventually, they entered the king's bedroom. It was dark, the curtains were drawn. Upon the bed lay a large form, silent, except for the heavy breathing.
Claudia moved closer. Her father and Aaravos had instructed her on how to heal this king's wounds. Her dad in particular had been very specific, almost as if he knew exactly what caused the wounds… She wrote it off as her dad being brilliant like always. Instead of dwelling on that, she got to work, the servant standing by idly, totally content with the situation.
"Krad eht of sdnuow eseht leah!" Her eyes began to glow, and blue-and-purple streams of energy emanated from her hands. They rocketed in the body, which began to spasm.
The sound of crackling energy was deafening. Several guards stormed into the bedroom to see what was going on, but the servant placated them. "Nothing to see here! She's just healing our king!" The guards looked unsure of what to do and kept a wary eye on Claudia as she performed her magic.
When she was done, the light of her magic disappeared. Everything was still, and all the people in the room held their breaths. Suddenly, the figure in the bed started coughing.
"Whe- cough cough- where… is…. my son?"
Claudia rushed forward and created some light with her hand. On the bed lay the king. His face was still pale, but he was conscious. "Greetings, my king. I am an emissary of the True Light, and I-"
"My son! Where is he?"
Claudia looked in the eyes of the king. He looked panicked. "Well, funny story that, actually!" she said with awkwardness in her voice, trying to find a way of how to bring the king the terrible news of Prince Kasef's demise.
"Your son went to war with Xadia. He…. died. Prince Kasef is dead." Claudia cast her eyes downwards.
The king looked at her. For a second, it seemed like he had frozen and become a statue. But then he started sobbing, and his sobs turned into wailing. The servant rushed forward to attend to his king, but at the motion of Claudia's hand, he stopped and remained at the side, the guards following his example. Claudia grasped the old king's hand and patted it. Eventually, he calmed down.
Claudia licked her lips, unsure how to proceed. "My king, Neolandia...is in trouble. We need your help. We need you to unite the people against our common enemy."
The king didn't seem to listen to her, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.
"We need to put up a united front against Xadia. We of the True Light can help with that."
"I don't want another war. I want my son…"
"Your majesty… he's gone, but the country-"
"I WANT MY SON!" The king screamed, thrashing about and pushing Claudia away. She frowned. This wasn't at all like she wanted it to go. Moreover, she didn't want to spend ages trying to placate the king and help him get over his grief. Dark magic was all about taking shortcuts, and she decided now was the time to use one yet again.
"My king, I think I have something for you that will take your mind off of that…" She took another feather out of her pouch and as she cast her spell, she started telling her the True Light's vision for the country.
The king stared at the glowing feather and listened to her sweet, magic laden voice. He calmed instantly. "Yes, that seems entirely reasonable."
"Hear ye, hear ye! The king is awake again! His majesty is alive and well, and will resume his rule of Neolandia!" The crowd gasped and cheered at the news of the town crier. She motioned for silence, as she had more to tell. "The king now proclaims that the True Light has helped him recover. His majesty speaks highly of their virtues, and urges every true citizen of Neolandia to visit them and possibly join them!" More mumbling in the crowd now. Most citizens nodded approvingly.
Viren smiled. Of course, these people would approve. This town was close to their camp. Most of them were members of the True Light already, he figured.
The town crier continued with several more announcements. Most notably, all barons were required to go to the capital to renew their pledge of allegiance to the king, and conscription was reintroduced, though people could elect to avoid joining the army by doing community service and working for the True Light instead.
Viren smiled. It's just perfect! Give the people a better alternative, and now they will flock to us! Claudia has done well…
He had heard enough and made his way back to the camp and the caves. They were almost deserted now, as he had urged them all to go to town and hear what the big news was all about. One who had remained, however, was Aaravos, whose giant bug form still lurked in the shadows.
"You seem in high spirits, Viren. I suppose you've heard good news then?"
Viren nodded as the voice from the shadows addressed him. "The plan worked. Neolandia is effectively now under our control."
"That is good to hear. This will give us the resources we need to move on to the next phase of our plan."
Viren frowned. For the past six months, he had worked diligently on preparing the various ingredients as Aaravos brought them to him. They already had the claws of a banther, the birds of a skywise (which turned out to be just a couple of eggs you could get on any market, most disappointing), the scales of a lavalizard and a moonpetal.
What they still needed though, was the pearl made by an Everonian mussel and a startouched rock. The pearl proved hard to come by as the sea wasn't accessible to Aaravos' form, and the tidebound elves were an odd bunch, often at war with the other tribes. That meant they rarely traded, making it difficult to acquire the pearl indirectly. Looks like we have another expedition ahead of ourselves….
The startouched rock had to be a piece of a meteor, but one that had recently fallen. When prompted about this, Aaravos said that this was 'something that the heavens will provide, in due time.' A most annoying answer, but this was all Viren had to work with. There was something that had been bugging Viren though as they discussed their plans. He had months and months to reflect on the past events, and he noticed that the current plans seemed to diverge heavily from their first one.
"Our plan to create the Heart of the Dragon is coming along nicely, sure. But what happened to 'let's-absorb-the-baby-dragon'? Why isn't that part of your plan anymore?"
The large purple-pink moth-like form of Aaravos appeared before him. His wings had restored themselves, the damage of the fight against the emperor reigar now completely healed.
"That plan is no longer feasible."
Viren raised an eyebrow. Cryptic as always. "Care to explain?"
The creature took a moment to look Viren over before he answered. "Back then, the baby dragon was scarcely guarded and quite an easy prey. We stood a chance of removing the oppression of the dragons in one fell swoop. Had we succeeded, you would have been the most powerful creature on this continent, possibly this planet, and Xadia would have been in turmoil, having lost their royal lineage. It would have been ripe for conquest." The creature looked about, staring into the caves, though Viren thought he was probably caught up in some memory or another.
"Now, however, the queen has awakened, and they are guarded over by a renewed elite force and a new dragon king. We still lack the power to confront him directly. So, in lieu of that, we must acquire power elsewhere. This primal stone, this Heart of a Dragon, is the next best thing."
Viren suspected something though. "I believe you when you say we need power. But this is all very specific, isn't it? Isn't there another reason we need this primal stone?"
The creature was silent for a long time before it finally answered. "All in due time." His voice sounded strained.
Viren said nothing but walked away. The creature called after him. "What about you, Viren? Ever since your death, you haven't been yourself. You've all but stopped using Dark Magic." The creature squinted. "Are you having doubts about the path you walk on?"
Viren stopped but didn't turn around. "I'm merely… reflecting on the nature of dark magic right now," he said. "I'm sure I will reach a conclusion that satisfies me…. In due time." As he said that last part, he gave a challenging look to the bug creature behind him, before disappearing in the shadows, leaving Aaravos alone to ponder his answer.
Rayla felt her heart pound in her throat as she entered the woods that held the Silvergrove. She had wasted no time getting here. With the blessing of the dragon king and queen, she had asked another dragon to ferry her across the midnight desert. It had only taken her a day to get from the Storm Spire all the way over here. She was nervous though. What if the king's message hasn't reached the grove yet? What if I'm still a ghost?
She walked through the woods as silently and gracefully as only a moonshadow elf assassin could, both out of habit and in case another elf was watching. It was a matter of pride to her. Rayla hadn't lost her touch. She had kept up her training with the others, and in the case of an attack, she, Catlyn and Keryn would move in the shadows to try and gang up on the would-be attackers. They had practised this scenario many times, and she was glad that this kept her skills honed.
Eventually, she reached the large tree root sticking upwards that was the official 'door' to the Silvergrove. All she had to do was turn the key.
Rayla took off the satchel she was carrying and placed it gingerly at the side. It contained some rations and all of Callum's letters and Sketches. She didn't really have anything else in the way of personal belongings. Thinking of the letters stung her a bit though. I hope he replies to my letter soon…
The wind blew softly through the trees as Rayla stepped on the centre spot of the root. She raised her arms and started the dance. As she went through the motions, thoughts entered her mind. Will Ethari be there? Will anyone else greet me? Will they be glad to see me? Will I be accepted again?
She tried to focus on the dance and pushed all feelings of nervousness and doubt to the edge, but it was hard. Her nervousness increased as the magic took hold and spread outwards. She saw the bright yellow and green colours of the forest be replaced with a dim blue shade. There, the buildings are back! That's my school! And my house!
Time seemed to slow down as the illusion dropped and the Silvergrove showed itself. Then, all of a sudden, its elves appeared in front of her. A large crowd of elves stood around her on the tree root as she slowly came to a halt, the dance complete. She looked around in shock.
They're all here! Alisha, Emesir, Una, Oxian...Ethari!
Ethari was standing in the crowd and stepped forward, his eyes filled with tears of joy. He didn't say anything but held his arms out towards her. Rayla rushed towards him and embraced him as Ethari held her tightly in his arms. The other elves clapped and cheered as Ethari's soft voice made its way to her ears.
"Welcome home, Rayla. Welcome home."
Author's note: Alright… Well… yeah. Let's talk, shall we? Just so you know what's up.
Concerning the story: This chapter was very difficult for me to write. I hate time-skips. There is so much that can happen in between, it's difficult to establish just how the characters have grown and what is important. There are also so many lost opportunities for great scenes, like all the letters Rayla and Callum wrote between them, or the various adventures of Viren and Claudia spreading the True Light in the various villages. But the thing is, I'm working towards a certain end-goal here, and the characters need to have had the time to grow sufficiently before that. I've tried my best to compress the story in what could realistically be portrayed as one Dragon Prince episode. I do this to keep the story in motion and not make it drag on forever, but also because if I don't, I will lose sight of that end-goal and probably lose motivation long before I've finished. So, yeah, you decide what you think of that. These are just my two-cents on skipping time like that.
Concerning the late update: Well, we all know what happened. The world went to shit, and in my case, that's no exception. There are so many problems and changes within my life right now (all our lives, probably). The biggest one though is our wedding. Right now we don't know if we can go through with it at all! The expectation is that the corona virus will still be around in a dangerous way in June, when we were supposed to get married. My dad and grandma are both part of the high-risk group. It wouldn't make sense to have a wedding during a pandemic that could very likely kill them. However, we can't cancel the wedding either, because we're under contract, and if the government doesn't forbid it, the location will hold us to that contract. Cancelling would cost us dearly, and delay our wedding by another year, possibly two.
So yeah, we're really living in a time of uncertainty.
I would like to thank you though. Your reviews are what keeps me going, even though it was hard to write in these past few weeks. Slowly but surely I've been able to get back in writing mode. Some of you have messaged me asking me if I'm alright, so thanks a lot for your concern! And that goes both ways. I hope that all of you and your friends and family are doing alright in these troubling times, and, in the likely case that you aren't , I hope that you will get well soon and that you all may recover! I hope and pray for that every day. A special thanks goes out to Wyta, whose therapeutic writing sessions have helped me restart the engine on this project. The result is what you see here today.
I will not make any promises on when the next chapter will be released, but I have already started working on it. We'll just have to wait and see what happens next. As always, let me know your thoughts! I love hearing from you all! Cheers!
Mateusz Weryski: Thanks for reading, and thanks for the compliment! As for the age thing, I hope that the writers will divulge more on that soon. Maybe that magic can help him, but I want to try to avoid any deus ex machina's here. As for Rayla's lifespan, it is similar, but not the same. I've interpreted as hers being double at most, but more likely averaging out at 170 years.
Oragonking: Hehehehe. Maybe if some of the main characters asks, he will tell. Zeron does have a backstory, but very few people are close enough to him that he would actually tell them about it.
Mdauben: Well, here's hoping! They are moving across a rocky road, that's for sure.
Gustrubio: Well, this chapter should answer that question. Thorus is very anti-human, but does recognize Callum's potential, and he is also curious, though his curiosity is more academic. At the end of the day, Callum is still a human, and that is a problem for Thorus.
Brenne: I imagined that different elf tribes had different social structures. The sunfire elves seemed highly evolved in their civilization. Therefore, I imagined that there must be small communities (or schools) focussed solely on learning about magic. Ibis already had a function as an ambassador for the dragon queen, and was probably quite busy, in my mind. It just didn't make sense to me to have him teach Callum, story wise.
Yup, and there's another reason.
Hehehe, too right mate!
Callum doesn't want to fight with Rayla. Ever. He avoids getting mad on her in the series. The one time he berates her, it's because she's feeling sorry for herself.
That's definitely in the works, but be warned. It will not be what you expect it to be...
Alf1310: Heh, thanks. We're still getting married before the law, but the entire church and party thing hangs in the balance right now. But I appreciate the sentiment :)
Leo: Hahahah. Not likely.
Steven richardson: Still healthy, though stressed with lots of worries (probably the same for everyone). Thank you for reading!