The storm was far behind them now. Charla could still see it in the distance—a wispy haze over the grasslands that made it look like the clouds themselves were disintegrating. Pyreflight was somewhere beyond it, lost in the distance and the darkness. Just barely, she could make out the dark spear that was the fortress of Concurrent Skies rising up to touch the lightning, but the portal—or whatever it had been—was gone, too.
Shivering, Charla retreated from the mouth of the cave—if one could call it a cave. It was more of a hollow between rocks, protected from the wind by a jutting overhang of stone. It was the best shelter they'd been able to find.
"Where do you think we are?" Charla asked as she turned her back on the outside world.
Lance looked at her, but he was the only one who did. Nuala and Meredy were huddled at the back of the hollow, murmuring in voices too quiet to hear. Between whispers, Nuala preened her drenched feathers and flicked her ears.
"In the northern foothills of Sunback Ridge, I'd say," Lance grunted, leaning against the rock. "Right at the edge of the Arid Lands."
"Oh." Charla looked out again, glancing over her shoulder. The land was flat and dry as far as she could see in the darkness, except for the rocky hills and outcrops that surrounded them. If Lance was right...that meant they were close to the eastern coast again. They were even further from the Well of Souls.
Why had they come this way? If they'd only flown west instead, and found shelter beyond the Pyria Grasslands... But, she supposed, she hadn't exactly been watching where they were going in the all the commotion of escaping Pyreflight. She'd been following Lance.
Maybe he'd gone this way on purpose.
She shivered again and shook away the twinge of annoyance that rose in her chest. It didn't matter; they were here now. She could figure out what to do next after they'd all recovered. After all, it had been a very long, very strange night.
Her new wound itched and ached incessantly, like a fire mite nipping under her scales. She flexed it, winced, and sat down to get a better look. It was not a pretty sight. The cut was thin but long, and the flesh there was raw, red and scaleless. When she raised a paw to touch it, it burned like fire. She bit back a gasp and let her paw drop, then wriggled clumsily out of her satchel so that the straps wouldn't chafe. The mad flight through the rain carrying Nuala had probably made it worse—though at least it had washed the blood off.
"You holding up?" Lance said as he loped up behind her.
Charla looked up at him. "Yeah. It just hurts a little."
"I'm not surprised."
He went silent, and they sat for a while listening to the wind whispering through the foothills outside. After a moment, Charla inched closer and let herself lean against his side. He seemed to stiffen a little, but maybe that was her imagination. His scales were warm; she could hear his heart still pounding fiercely behind his ribcage. They had flown for ages, through the night, looking for shelter. Dawn could not have been far off.
"You really scared me back there," he murmured.
Charla shifted uncomfortably. "...Sorry."
"Doesn't matter." His wing curled warmly around her, shielding her from the chill of the night. "You're okay now. We're safe."
She just nodded and rested her head against his foreleg. As her heartbeat returned to normal, a great tiredness began to descend upon her. Her eyelids were suddenly heavy—too heavy to stay up—and all she wanted was to curl up and forget what had happened. Forget the fear. Forget the fury. Forget the look on Nuala's face when she'd seen the empty cage...
Charla shuddered and pressed her cheek into Lance's warm scales. His wing settled more heavily about her shoulders.
"You should rest," he said, his voice thrumming through his ribcage.
She shifted and blinked her tired eyes. "But..."
When she looked over her shoulder, she saw Meredy and Nuala had hardly moved. Nuala had curled herself up into a ball and buried her face in her tail, like she didn't want to look at anyone—least of all them. Meredy lay beside her, just gazing down at her with misted eyes. As though she sensed Charla's gaze, she looked up. Neither of them seemed to know what to say.
"We're all tired," Lance said, like he'd read her mind. "We've got a lot to talk about, but that can wait until morning. Just get some sleep. I'll keep watch for a while."
Charla didn't have the energy to argue with that. Instead, she mumbled a wordless agreement, turned away from Meredy, and curled up on the ground beside Lance. Thoughts chased themselves around her head—about what had happened in Pyreflight, why, and what would happen now—but they were no match for the rising tide of sleep. Her eyes slid shut, and down she fell into an endless pool of soft darkness.
The first thing Charla knew was a sense of warmth. Something was curled around her, protective and secure. As she stirred from dreams, muffled voices filled her head. She couldn't hear what they were saying, only that they were there, surrounding her like a warm breeze on a summer day. She was not alone. She felt safe.
The fog of sleep shifted, and Charla shifted and stretched. The voices stopped abruptly, but as she blinked her gritty eyes, she heard Lance.
"Look who's stirring," he said, his voice filled with warmth.
Charla raised her head and the world swam into view. The rocky hollow was full of light and everyone was crowded around her. As she tried to sit up, she realised she was curled in the curve of Lance's tail, using it like some kind of scaly cushion.
"So you finally decided to join us, huh?" said Nuala, who sat between Meredy's forelegs with her feathers fluffed out. There was something strained about her smile. "Better late than never."
"How are you feeling?" Meredy asked quietly.
Her thoughts still misted, her eyes sandy with sleep, Charla wobbled on her haunches and rubbed her face. The wound on her side was stiff and dull now, and only ached when she stretched it. She felt like she'd slept for centuries.
"What time is it?" she mumbled, leaning against Lance's foreleg. The light was entirely too bright for early morning.
"About mid-afternoon, I think," he said. "Maybe later."
"I slept for that long?"
He shrugged. "You needed the rest. After a wound like that… Your body is healing. How is it, anyway?"
Charla twisted her head around and saw that the angry redness had faded from the gash. It was now just a pale pink scar between her scales. "Better, a bit. It doesn't hurt very much now."
As Lance grunted and muttered about how lucky it was they'd had spirit gems, she gazed over her shoulder at the outside world. Had she really slept almost the whole day away? The sun was certainly lower in the sky than it felt like it should be, and there was a sense—a coolness—of impending evening in the air. The shadows through the foothills were lengthening.
Vaguely, Charla remembered waking up earlier, when the sky outside had been awash with the early colours of dawn, Lance had been curled warmly around her, and Meredy had been keeping watch. But she must have quickly fallen asleep again. Now she felt weird and wispy, like her head was made of smoke and the dream-world hadn't quite let her go.
"We've been talking while you slept," Lance said suddenly, dragging her back to earth with a jolt. His voice was grimmer now. "Nuala's been enlightening me on what happened back in Pyreflight."
"Oh..." Charla mumbled, and her wandering eyes settled on Nuala again. She looked uncomfortable.
"Now that you're awake," Lance went on, a strange bite to his words, "maybe you've got a few questions for her?"
"Um..." Charla blinked the dryness from her eyes and Nuala's face swam in and out of focus. For a moment, nothing came to her. Her mind was too fuzzy around the edges.
"Why don't you let her eat first?" said Nuala snappishly. "She's still half asleep."
Meredy nodded in agreement, and Lance seemed to remember something. Charla's addled brain seized on only one thing. Food. Her stomach gurgled.
"Right. Here." Lance scooped something up and tossed it to her. "I went hunting earlier. Thought you'd like something when you woke up."
Charla stared at the dead rodent between her paws—the same little digging creature she'd hunted on the plains—and wasted no further time. Without so much as a word of thanks, she sank her teeth in.
It was gone in a matter of moments. As she sat crunching bone scraps thoughtfully, everything became a little clearer. The wispy sleepiness faded, hunger subsided, and clarity returned to her. The long sleep had done her well. She felt clear and bright, like she hadn't in ages.
But with her newfound wakefulness came a sense of unease. Everyone was watching her, and while she'd never feared attention before, the events of last night had filled her with a lingering anxiety. The search, the struggle... Her fury. The memory of the ape looming above her, of her own blood spilling hot over her scales... She shivered.
"Feeling better?" Meredy asked, and Charla almost flinched.
She suppressed her frightened memories as best she could and smiled. "Yeah. What about you? Are you okay?"
"We're all fine," Nuala cut in with unusual sharpness, and Meredy closed her mouth. Nuala's eyes stared intently into Charla's, like she knew where her thoughts were. "You were the only one we were worried about. But you're okay now, right? So let's just forget it..."
Her eyes darted to Lance and she faltered, her ears twitching. "...Well, that's what I'd like to say."
"You owe Charla an explanation," Lance growled. "She almost died because of you."
A shiver traced Charla's spine. Did he have to say it like that? It wasn't like she'd been on the brink of death or anything... And was it really Nuala's fault? It was the commander who'd attacked them—though Nuala had certainly acted strange and unfriendly, and...
"I get it," Nuala snapped, tearing her eyes away from Lance. As they came to rest on Charla, like shards of ice, she shivered again. "Look, if there's anything you want to know—"
"Why did you attack Lance?" Charla blurted out, before she could stop herself.
Nuala looked startled, but only for a second. "I... Because the commander ordered me to. It...would have gone pretty badly if I'd refused."
"Couldn't you just..." Charla hesitated. "Couldn't you have faked it...or something?"
Nuala averted her eyes and shook her head.
"She was too far gone by then," Lance said darkly, and she shot him a steely glare.
"I panicked, yes!" Nuala snapped, her feathers bristling. "I took it too far—but what was I meant to do? I didn't think he'd want me to join the battle! I thought you'd all fight each other and I could just...slip away while nobody noticed. I never meant to hurt you, or to help him..."
"Slip away?" Charla echoed. "You mean...to go to Meredy? Or..."
"She had a plan," Lance muttered. "It didn't involve good things for us."
"Shut up and let me explain it, alright?" Nuala lashed her tail, huffed angrily, and looked back at Charla. "Look... I don't know how much you already know. Meredy told you how we ended up at Pyreflight, right? And I guess you probably figured out that I was there for...for the cubs..."
She shuddered visibly, and a coldness clenched in Charla's stomach. The cubs that had never been there—that was the strangest thing.
"That was how the commander bribed me into staying," Nuala muttered, scowling at her paws. "After he caught me... He had all sorts of grand plans for me. He kept talking about all the money I could make him, how much he could sell me for... He said I was probably one of the last vulpala alive.
"And I told him there was no way he could keep me there—not with my illusions. As soon as he turned his back, I'd be out of there. Unless he killed me—and, well, he didn't want to do that just yet. He wanted to see what he could do with a live one..."
"How did he capture you?" Charla asked.
Nuala shrugged, but her scowl said everything. "I was careless. He'd booby-trapped his storeroom, see—apparently his stupid minions kept stealing food. So when I went to do the same thing...he caught me instead. I guess that was the shock of his lifetime."
She shook her head again. "But yeah, after I told him that, I guess that got him thinking. He told me I wasn't the only vulpala in the city. And I... I should have known he was baiting me, but..." She cleared her throat. "Well, I went with him, up to his office. He told me to wait for a moment—I guess that was the first clue, but I was too stupid, too curious to notice it. Then he let me in and...there they were. The cubs. The...the first vulpala I'd seen in ages...
"I really should have seen it then. I know what illusion magic feels like. But when...when you really want something to be real—well, that's when it's hardest to see through, you know?"
She went silent, briefly, and Charla clenched her paws against the ground. She did know. Back in the citadel, she'd felt it too—that same madness, that same desperation to believe in something no matter how impossible. Jayce could never have been there. It made no sense. When she thought back, she wondered how she could not have seen through it—not seen then, like Lance had, that it wasn't real.
But in the moment, she had believed. She had wanted to believe. She had wanted so badly for it to be real that all her doubts, all her common sense, had been overrun. Her own longing; her own desperation—it had fooled her perfectly.
Maybe that was the most frightening thing.
Nuala took a deep shuddering breath, raised her eyes to the ceiling, and went on. "I guess the commander expected that. He was...pretty savvy, for an ape.
"So he made a deal with me. He said as long as I was loyal to him, he'd keep the cubs alive—and maybe, if I proved my loyalty, he'd let me raise them. Raise them into his precious little army of vulpala... How rich and famous they'd make him... But it was all just me, wasn't it? Maybe, in the end, he'd have gotten bored of me and sold me in pieces—feathers for this, blood for that."
She uttered a high, humourless laugh that made Charla's scales prickle. When their eyes met again, Nuala's were glistening.
"So he put that collar on me. I couldn't go anywhere without him knowing—there were electric sensors all over the citadel, and they went off as soon as they detected the collar. I couldn't even get near his office, to see the cubs... He must have known the illusion wouldn't hold up if I got too close.
"I was trapped, then. All I could do was try to get on his good side and wait for an opportunity to get to the cubs. I just hoped Meredy would give up on me, when I didn't come back... But she didn't."
Fox and serpent looked at each other for a brief, charged moment, and Meredy offered a weak smile. Nuala sighed. The grin she gave Charla was twisted and strange.
"You have no idea how much I panicked when she found me in the citadel. She's no fighter. I knew the commander would kill her as soon as look at her. So I had to make her leave—I had to make sure she wouldn't come back. That's why I... Well. I overdid it, a little."
Her grin faltered. Meredy mumbled something that sounded like 'It wasn't your fault,' and Lance gave a barely audible scoff. Charla clenched her paws.
"But she came back anyway!" Nuala exclaimed suddenly, her voice cracking. "And she brought you two with her. You know, I couldn't believe it when I got her windwhisper. But that's when...when I started thinking, you know? That maybe this was a chance—maybe I could make this work.
"So I made a plan. First, I had to separate Meredy from you two—it was too dangerous for her, and I needed her help to free the cubs. Then I could lead you up to the commander and, while you fought, I could slip away, rescue the cubs, and get the heck out of there before he even realised I was gone.
"It just...didn't exactly go as I pictured it. Especially...the cubs..."
A great sigh left her muzzle and she bowed her head. For a moment, a chill silence fell over them all. Charla said nothing—she was still thinking it over, still trying to understand.
"But that's it, I guess," Nuala said, at length. "That's what happened. Maybe it all didn't go to plan, but at least we—"
"I think you're forgetting something." Lance's voice was cold and unfeeling, and it cut through the air like a blade.
Charla gave him a startled look, and Nuala tensed but said nothing.
"Forgot what?" Charla blurted.
Lance's eyes flashed like fired steel. "I can think of a few questions. Like... Why did you pretend to act like our enemy? Why didn't Meredy contact us after we got separated? And why didn't you tell us? Why didn't you just ask for our help, instead of tricking us?"
Nuala stared at her paws. "...You know why."
"I know what you've told me. But she doesn't." He gestured to Charla with a paw, his lip twitching. "Why don't you tell her?"
Nuala's wings shook and Meredy twisted her paws.
"I'm sorry—" Meredy started, but she got no further than that.
"Don't," Nuala said harshly. "It was my decision. I told Meredy not to contact you. I decided not to tell you. I thought it would be better if...if you didn't know the plan. If you thought I was the enemy."
"Why?" Lance growled.
"Because you might have screwed it up!" Nuala snapped, jerking her head up. "You might have blown my cover before it was time—and if the commander found out what I was planning, he would have killed the cubs! He—"
"There were no cubs—"
"I know that!" Her wings flared out and her eyes sparked with anger. "I know that now, but I didn't then. I was prepared to do anything to protect them. You don't understand..."
"Don't you think we could have protected you?" Lance snarled. "Don't you think it would have been easier if we had just known? Instead you hindered us—you nearly got Charla killed. Was that what you wanted?"
"No! But I didn't know—I didn't know what would happen if you knew. I thought—"
"You thought we might refuse to help," said Lance, his voice like ice, and Nuala went quiet. "But why would you think that? No, let me ask a different question. If your plan had gone exactly as you'd envisioned it, what would have happened to us?"
Nuala said nothing—her eyes were wide and her mouth was clamped shut. Her wings quivered.
"After you'd slipped away and left us to fight the commander," Lance growled, "what did you think would happen to us?"
"I... I thought... I hoped you'd beat him, of course—and then, you'd meet up with us, and..."
"And if we didn't? If we couldn't defeat him?"
Again, Nuala stayed mute. Charla could hear her own heart beating in her ears.
"Did you care?" asked Lance, and his voice was quiet but terrible, like distant thunder. "Did you care who won? Did you care if we died?"
"Of course I cared!" Nuala snapped. "I didn't want you to die—"
"But it was an option! It was a possibility you were willing to accept! You were ready to let us die, just so you could—"
"Yes, okay, yes!" Nuala shrieked, her voice rising shrill over his. Everyone went quiet. Trembling like she was standing on ice, Nuala stared hard into his eyes. "Is that what you want me to say? Is that what you want to hear?"
"I want the truth."
"Then yes! I was—" Her throat bobbed. "I was prepared to let you die."
Silence. Lance gazed down at her with stony eyes.
"I didn't know," Nuala went on shakily. "I didn't know if you could beat him. I knew you had a chance, but with that staff—with that elemental magic—I wasn't sure. And if I...if I put all my faith in you, if I trusted you to protect me and the cubs, and you failed... We would have all died. The commander would have finished us all off.
"I had to... I needed a failsafe. I needed a way to save the cubs, to save myself, if you failed. He couldn't know that you were my friends. He couldn't know that I had planned this. He had to think I was still loyal to him. So if the plain failed, if you couldn't even distract him for long enough, at least we'd be safe."
"And if it worked?" said Lance.
Nuala gazed evenly at him. "If it worked—if you kept him busy long enough for us to escape... What happened then wouldn't matter. Whether you lived or died, we would be safe—we would be free from him.
"Of course, I hoped...I hoped that you'd win. I hoped you'd kill him. But I couldn't put my faith in you. Not if it meant putting the cubs in danger..."
"You chose them over us," Lance added grimly, and Nuala bowed her head.
"What would you have done?" she mumbled. "You don't understand what it's like...thinking you're the only one left... What would you have done?"
"I would have trusted my friends," he growled, "instead of using them like disposable shields."
Nuala winced, but she didn't seem to have a retort for that. For what seemed like ages, she stared at the ground, her wings limp and her tail curled. Meredy was just the same—but she hadn't been able to look at Lance for the last several minutes. And Charla... Her thoughts were a mess. Her mind was a tangled web that couldn't, that didn't want to, understand.
Finally, Nuala raised her head. "But it all worked out okay, see? We're all still alive. We're all still in one piece..."
"For the most part," growled Lance, with a jerk of his head.
At that, Nuala's eyes, for the first time in ages, came to rest on Charla. Charla's heartbeat quickened. What could she say? What was she supposed to say? What were you supposed to answer to something like that?
"You're pretty quiet," Nuala said, after a moment. She seemed to be trying to smile, but it was shaky and unconvincing. "I don't think I've ever seen you this quiet, Char. What...what are you thinking?"
Charla just stared at her. She opened her mouth, but nothing came out. And then, with great effort, she stammered, "I...I think... I'm going to go for a walk."
She stood up. Nuala stared. Meredy didn't even look up; her eyes were fixed on the ground, and there were spots of wetness darkening the stone between her paws.
Feeling strange and otherworldly, Charla turned towards the entrance to the hollow. The foothills outside were open and inviting, not like the cold stifling air in here. She wanted to be out there. She didn't want to be here.
"I'll come with you."
Charla looked back at Lance, who had spoken. Though part of her wanted to, she didn't argue. With a half-hearted shrug, limping slightly on her right leg, she slumped out into the afternoon sun, and Lance followed without a word.
Nuala did not call after them.
"You okay?" Lance asked a while later, as they meandered together along the slopes of the foothills. Short grass and low-growing shrubs shivered in the wind as they passed.
Charla just nodded. She didn't feel like speaking—and anything she could say probably wouldn't have sounded right anyway. There were a lot of confusions inside her head—a lot of strange feelings she didn't know what to do with or how to put into words.
Instead she distracted herself by surveying the towering mountains of Sunback Ridge, which stretched away far, far to the south—back towards the coast, towards Warfang. Trees swayed on the slopes of the mountain range, inviting in a way. It was a familiar sight.
And strange, too, she thought as she let her eyes wander across the grasslands. If she squinted, she could just make out the glistening curve of the Great Eastern River. And there was Pyreflight, a dusty mirage on the horizon—and the fortress of Concurrent Skies under the dark clouds of an unending storm. She could see far, from here.
But that wasn't the strange thing. It was strange—this was all strange—because, after everything that had happened, they were here again. The four of them—Nuala, Meredy, her and Lance. They were here, in the shadow of the mountains somewhere between Warfang and Pyreflight, just like they had been before. If she didn't think too hard, she could almost imagine that nothing had changed. That they had gone back in time, to before they had ever separated, to before she had gone to Warfang—and nothing had changed.
Of course, that wasn't true at all. Everything had changed. She and Lance had changed—how could they not have, after what had happened in Warfang? Plans had changed—she knew now, for sure, where the Well of Souls was and how to get there.
And Nuala had changed...hadn't she?
Maybe she hadn't. Maybe Charla just hadn't known her as well as she'd thought. Maybe...that had always been in her—that willingness to let someone else die, to put herself over others. To seek protection, not friendship.
Wasn't that why she had chosen to travel with them in the first place? For protection—safety in numbers, she'd said. Maybe that was all it had ever been, to her.
But...hadn't they been friends? Charla had thought so. She liked Nuala—and she'd thought that Nuala liked her, too. Wasn't that friendship? Or did friendship just not mean that much to Nuala?
It was all too hard to understand. And it hurt—it hurt to think about.
"Do you think..." Charla hesitated, gazing up at the sunlit mountains. "Do you think she really would have let us die?"
Lance's steps faltered, but he didn't reply. Maybe he knew that the answer he wanted to give was not the answer she wanted to hear. So he said nothing at all.
"Do you think she would have been sad?" Charla asked instead, looking at him. "If we died?"
He held her gaze for a moment, but soon turned away. "I don't know, kid."
"I think she would have." Charla swept her paw through the bristly grass. "I would have been sad, if she died."
But then, leaving Nuala to die had never crossed her mind. She couldn't imagine doing that to a friend. Or doing that to anyone. She could never put herself so highly above someone else, to the point where she would see them die just to save herself. She would never...
Ah, said a nasty voice in her head, but what about the cubs?
A shiver crawled up her legs. The vulpala cubs.
Hadn't it been just like that? Hadn't she been willing to kill them to save herself?
That was different, though—wasn't it? The cubs weren't real...
But she hadn't known that when she'd done her fury. In the heat of the moment, faced with death, she'd reacted the only way her body knew how. She had acted to save herself, regardless of the consequences.
Maybe...that made her just as bad.
But these thoughts went unspoken, and they tormented her in silence.
"Hey... Kid," said Lance a while later, and it was the first thing to break into her stupor.
Charla pulled away from the mists of her mind and looked at him with blurry eyes. There was something strange about his voice. It seemed to shake, somehow.
"Back there...in Pyreflight..." he said, slowly. There was a definite halter between his words, and he paused strangely without saying anything more—like he didn't know how to say it. Or didn't want to.
Charla blinked a few times. As her vision sharpened and Lance's face swam into view, she felt like she hadn't looked at him in ages. How long had those anxious creases been under his eyes? Since when had his face looked so drawn and tired and worried? Something was wrong, and she hadn't even noticed.
"Lance?" The word cracked on its way out of her throat. "Are you okay?"
He didn't answer. His head shook, slowly, and he murmured, "In the citadel, I just... I wondered if you...saw..."
His voice faltered and was swept away by the wind. Charla stared at him.
"What?" she asked.
Lance's face hardened and he shook his head again. "...Never mind. Forget it. It's not important."
"No—wait. You were asking if I saw...something? What? What was it?"
"Forget it," he said again, stiffly. "It's nothing. You wouldn't have seen. Don't worry about it."
Charla opened her mouth to argue, but the words died on her tongue. There was no point, was there? Lance had closed up again, just like he always did. Like he had when she'd first met him. Like he had in Warfang...before everything had gone wrong between them. Before he'd finally let her in and she'd turned around and abandoned him.
A cold prickle clawed at her stomach. Maybe, after that, he'd never open up to her again.
She sighed and looked away. As they stumbled on through the foothills, she wondered what he had been trying to ask. What was there she might have 'seen' in the citadel? It could have been anything—but it was something that made Lance anxious, and there weren't many things that could do that. Were there?
She wracked her brains; she searched her thoughts. Her mind darted back to the battle, back to the moment when it had almost ended for her—when everything had almost ended for her. Her throat clenched. And she remembered something.
A flash of green. A blast of concussive sound.
She'd hardly noticed it back then, in the moment—but could it have been...? No, surely not. It was unthinkable. Lance couldn't have... He wouldn't have...
A warm shiver rolled down her spine, but she didn't dare voice those thoughts aloud. She didn't dare ask. She was wrong, surely. Lance wouldn't have done that. ...Would he?
"Do you think you'll be able to travel tomorrow?" he asked abruptly, and Charla shoved those thoughts away.
"U...um... Probably." She looked again at the healing wound on her side, pale and smooth now, barely visible between her cherry-red scales. It would be okay. "It doesn't really hurt anymore."
"Good," Lance grunted, and he went silent.
They said nothing more after that, but Charla watched him from the corner of her eye the whole way back to the hollow—worrying and wondering and wishing. There was so much left unsaid. There was so much she didn't dare to ask.
It was almost dark by the time Charla and Lance returned to the hollow. Nuala and Meredy were there to greet them, but nothing more was said about what had transpired between them. Indeed, they acted as though nothing had changed. Nuala asked if they had seen anything outside—any sign of apes or dreadwings or the Dark Army at all—but Charla and Lance shook their heads.
It was strangely quiet out there, Charla realised. After the chaos of last night, it was as though the apes and their dreadwings had hidden themselves away. And as Charla gazed out towards Concurrent Skies and the everlasting storm, she had the strangest feeling that something huge had happened that night. Something more than the events at Pyreflight. Something to do with that portal that had been in the sky.
But whatever that was, she couldn't say.
Night fell soon afterwards, and with it came a freezing winter breeze that crept uninvited into the hollow. Without asking anyone for permission, Charla decided to make a fire. She had nothing to make it with—no wood or kindling or anything. But she had magic, and that was all she needed.
Lance and Nuala watched in amazement as she weaved a little sphere of flame in the centre of the hollow. It was no bigger than her paw, but that was all she could manage now—sleep may have done her good, but her magic had yet to fully return.
"Where did you learn to do that?" Lance asked, lifting an eyebrow as the fire-sphere took shape in front of his eyes.
"The library," Charla said, and peeled her paws away from the flames. The sphere bobbed inches from the ground, throwing warmth and light through the hollow. A tingle of pride flared in her chest.
Lance grunted thoughtfully. "I guess you were doing more there than just looking for an escape route."
Charla smiled sheepishly. As she settled on the warming stone floor, the others crowded around her tiny fire. Meredy seemed unperturbed—she had seen it before, after all—but Nuala's eyes were shining.
"You dragons are just full of tricks, aren't you?" she said, unfurling her wings to warm them by the flames. "You sure are useful to have around."
Lance made a funny scoffing noise through his teeth, but Nuala ignored him. For a while, the four of them just sat there, soaking in the warmth while the world outside darkened.
The day had passed so suddenly. To Charla, it hardly felt like there'd been a day at all. They hadn't done anything. But now, awake and no longer aching—though her wound did twinge a little—her thoughts began to wander.
Apparently, Lance was thinking the same thing.
"We should move on tomorrow," he said into the silence. "Now that Charla's healed up. I take it you two are still headed to Mistral?"
Meredy nodded mutely, and Nuala huffed and muttered, "Where else? What about you two? Still headed to that ape stronghold or whatever? What did you call it?"
"The Well of Souls," said Charla, and her scales prickled at the thought of it. There was a long way to go—a long, long way.
Lance grunted and said nothing. Charla rubbed her paws together and shot him an anxious look.
"I'll take that as a yes, then, shall I?" said Nuala.
Charla just nodded, and silence returned to them. The orb of fire crackled and twisted merrily between them, forcing the darkness away—but finally Meredy yawned. Nuala looked at her.
"We should all sleep," she said. "Gotta be bright and fresh if we're gonna hit the road tomorrow, right? C'mon, Merry. I'm tired, too."
"I guess I'll keep watch then," Lance said grimly, as the two of them curled up together on the other side of the fire.
"Whatever you want, big guy," Nuala mumbled.
Lance snorted. Charla pulled her eyes away from the flames and looked up at him.
"I can keep watch," she said. "I'm not sleepy yet."
That wasn't a lie, either. After sleeping for most of the day, she felt as awake and alive as ever. The cold blanket of night did nothing to dampen that. Maybe Lance figured that out, too, because he gave in with surprising ease.
"Wake me when you get tired, then," he said, curling up against the wall of stone beside her, so that his tail was still touching hers. Maybe he wanted to be sure that she was still there.
"Okay," Charla whispered, and then all was quiet.
For what seemed like ages, she sat alone and gazed out into the night, the fire warming her back and the wind chilling her front. The foothills were dark and gloomy, and she could hardly see beyond the hollow. But the stars were out, and they seemed endless—a scattering of crystal shards thrown across the sky, glowing in the void.
Charla let her eyes wander through them, until they got lost in the constellations and fell back to earth. Her mind turned, and her thoughts drifted to the ever-distant Well of Souls. Even after everything that had happened, it was still so far away. Part of her felt like she would never reach it—that it was a hopeless endeavour and had been from the start.
She knew now where it was and how to get there, and yet... There were things she didn't know. There were questions she couldn't answer.
What next? Which way would she go? Who would follow her?
A long time ago, she hadn't thought twice about going there alone. There hadn't been anyone to go with her, after all. But then Lance had come into her life and changed everything. And now... Now she didn't know what to think.
The wind howled through the foothills. Finally, Charla couldn't help herself.
"Lance?" she whispered. "Are you awake?"
There was a grunt, and she heard him shift. "...I almost wasn't. What's up? Did you change your mind? I can keep watch if you're tired."
"No, I'm fine," she said quickly, and then hesitated.
He shuffled around to face her, the firelight playing across his scarred face. "What's wrong?"
"I just..." She stared at her paws. "I just wanted to ask... Are you really going to come with me?"
He said nothing, but Charla didn't give him much of a chance.
"I'm still going," she blurted out, clenching her paws. "I haven't changed my mind. I'm going to the Well of Souls no matter what happens. But...I know you don't... I just..."
She trailed off and glanced hopefully at him. His eyes glinted in the firelight, impassive.
"Do you remember what I said when I caught up to you on the riverbank?"
Charla shuffled her paws. He'd said a lot of things—things she didn't really want to think about. "Which part?"
Lance pushed himself up, so that his eyes were level with hers. "I said I wasn't going to let you run away from me again. And I meant it."
Hope flickered in her chest. "So..."
"You're right," he said, before she could get another word out. "I don't want to go to the Well of Souls. I don't want to go to the Mountain of Malefor. The last thing I've ever wanted is to go to that place—to take you to that place. But I can't stop you. You showed me that much in Warfang. I can't stop you from going there."
Charla swallowed, not daring to speak. Lance's eyes stared fiercely into hers.
"But you know what's worse than taking you to the Mountain of Malefor?" he whispered. She shook her head. "...Letting you go there alone. I can't do that. I'd never forgive myself if I did that. So I'll go with you—whatever happens, I'll go with you. I'll protect you. Alright?"
Slowly, Charla nodded. That was the best she could have hoped for. A sense of relief washed through her, like sinking into a warm bath. Lance held her gaze for a moment longer, then settled down again beside her. Just as she was about to turn her eyes back towards the stars, he spoke once more.
"And Charla? If you ever do change your mind... If you ever feel like you might change your mind... That offer I made to you in Warfang? It's still open. It always will be."
Then he laid his head down and closed his eyes. Charla watched him for a while, her chest full of warmth, until his breaths became deep and even and his scarred face relaxed in sleep. Smiling a little, she turned her eyes to the dark outside world.
She was not alone. Lance would always be with her. Whatever happened...
The back of her neck prickled. Abruptly, she was filled with the strangest feeling that someone was watching her in the darkness. Tensing, she turned her head—and very nearly jumped.
A pair of eyes was staring at her through the gloom, reflecting the firelight like twin chips of ice. Nuala was still awake.
For a brief, strange moment, they just stared at each other across the fire. And then, out of nowhere, Nuala spoke.
"The Mountain of Malefor, huh?"
A shiver slid coldly down Charla's spine. "What about it?"
"I'm just curious." There was a flutter of feathered wings, and suddenly Nuala leapt clear over the sphere of flames and landed delicately beside her. The fire made her fur look almost orange. "That's not a name I hear spoken lightly."
"You've heard of it?" Charla said in surprise.
"Well, yeah." Nuala gave her a shrewd look, her whiskers twitching. "Who hasn't? They say it's the evillest place in the world—and I'm not surprised, considering it's named after some loony dragon who's famous for genocide."
"But that's where you're really going, isn't it?" There was a strange glint in her eyes, and it made Charla uneasy. "That's the secret you've been keeping. All of this 'Well of Souls' stuff... What is it, a codename or something?"
Charla shifted nervously. "It wasn't a secret. They're the same place... I've just never heard it called the Mountain of Malefor. Not before we went to Warfang, anyway..."
Nuala stared. "How could you not? Everyone knows it. Who even calls it 'the Well of Souls,' anyway?"
"...The apes do."
Something flickered in Nuala's eyes and she sat back, swivelling her ears in a thoughtful manner. For several long, tense moments, she just stared at Charla—until Charla began to feel like she should have kept her mouth shut. But Nuala said nothing, and eventually she looked away and gazed out into the night, her eyes unreadable. Charla looked down at her paws.
"Did you know the cubs weren't real?" Nuala asked quietly, minutes later.
Charla flinched a little. "W...what?"
Nuala didn't look at her. "Back in Pyreflight, when you did your fury... Did you know the cubs were an illusion?"
A cold thrill pierced Charla's stomach. She opened her mouth, but the words stuck in her throat. Suddenly, she felt sick. She swallowed hard. "...N...no."
The silence lasted only a split second, and then words spilled out faster than Charla could think them. "B-but I didn't mean—I never meant to—! It was an accident! He was going to kill me! I couldn't control—I couldn't hold it—! I-I never meant—!"
Nuala's wing shot out, so that her pale feathers struck Charla on the tip of the muzzle. She jerked back, startled, and stared into the vulpala's cold blue eyes. For a long, icy moment, all was silent. Nuala said nothing. Charla swallowed the rest of her words.
Retracting her wing, Nuala folded it back to her side, fluffed her feathers, and looked away again. Full of a cold, sick feeling, Charla stared at the ground and tried to steady her breathing. The silence curdled in her stomach. She wished Nuala would just say something. But for a long time, she didn't.
And then, just as Charla was about to ask what she was thinking, Nuala spoke.
"Tell me again why you're going to the Mountain of Malefor," she said.
Charla stared at her and hesitated. "T...to save my family. ...They were captured by the Dark Army."
Nuala hummed thoughtfully. "Let's say I believe you... Is that the only reason?"
The pads of her paws prickled with unease. Nuala didn't believe her? But...why? It was the truth! Nuala had never seemed suspicious of her before.
"Yes...it is," she said, a little sharply.
Again, Nuala just stared at her, her eyes full of some strange and unspoken thought. The fire crackled and popped loudly behind them. Charla clenched her paws. Finally, Nuala opened her mouth.
"I'm going to ask you a question," she said. "Because there's something weird going on with you, and I'd really like to understand."
There was a pause. Charla held her breath.
"Back in the citadel," Nuala began, "when I was luring you up to the commander... I used a special kind of illusion magic. It's very easy to do, actually—all I have to do is provide the magic and your mind does the rest. These illusions... They make you see whatever you want to see—whatever you most want to see in that particular moment. And whatever form the illusion happens to take for you—I see it, too."
Charla felt a cold prickling on the back of her neck. She knew where this was going.
"I've used this illusion a lot over the years." Fire flickered in Nuala's eyes as a cold smile twitched her muzzle. "Creatures see all sorts of things. Friends, family, loved ones... Prey, food, riches and jewels... Anything you can think of, really. I'm rarely surprised by what they see. But you... You surprised me. And for the life of me, I can't wrap my head around it. Do you remember what you saw?"
But Charla said nothing; she clamped her jaws shut and stared down at Nuala, her heart beginning to race. She couldn't explain this. Not to Nuala. She wouldn't understand.
"You saw an ape." Nuala's ears flicked, but her steely gaze did not waver. "Just...an ape—alive and well, like that meant something to you. Why?"
Charla's paws clenched. She quickly looked away. Why? She couldn't answer that—she couldn't.
"Why is an ape so important to you?" Nuala pressed, and now there was impatience in her voice. "What could an ape possibly mean to you—a dragon? It has something to do with the Mountain of Malefor, doesn't it? Why you're going there... I want to know the truth, Charla. Why did you see an ape?"
Charla shook her head. "You won't understand..."
"I already don't! I'm trying to figure it out, but I don't get it!" Nuala huffed and swished her tail fiercely. "Are you in league with apes? Are you a spy for the Dark Army? Are you like Cynder?"
"Then explain it!"
They met eye to eye, the fire crackling beside them, and Charla faltered under Nuala's glare. She opened her mouth and closed it again without a word. Nearby, Lance snuffled in his sleep but did not stir.
Charla swallowed. She should have known this was coming. There was nothing else for it.
She took a steadying breath, and spoke. "His name is Jayce Bladelizard."
Nuala's glare slipped—she stared, her brow furrowing with confusion.
"He saved me," Charla blurted out, without giving herself a chance to hesitate. "He and another ape—an old ape called Silverback. They raised me—they're my family."
"You were raised by apes," Nuala said flatly.
Charla hardly spared time to nod. "Jayce found my egg on the night of the raid. It was at the Dragon Temple that night, and he saved it—he saved me. He took me back to the Well of Souls and I hatched there, and then he took me to Silverback because he didn't know how to raise a dragon. I lived there for...for ten...eleven years? And—"
"Wait," Nuala said. "The Well of Souls? As in, the Mountain of Malefor? You lived there?"
Another nod. Her heart was beating in her throat now.
Nuala's eyes were huge and bright with firelight. "Wh... But... How? How are you alive? How did they not kill you? Why?"
"Jayce and Silverback are good apes," Charla insisted, shaking her head. "They protected me—they kept me secret from the others. But Gaul found out. Jayce and I...we escaped, but Silverback couldn't come with us. He's too old. He couldn't have kept up."
Nuala stared at her, her mouth half open, but Charla was on a roll now. The words were spilling out, like they hadn't since she had told Lance so long ago. She spoke of the flight from the Well of Souls, the months of renegade life when it had been just her and Jayce against the world, and the events that led to that night in the storm, when Gaul had finally caught up to them...
"And now I've got to get back to the Well," she ended breathlessly, her paws shaking. "I've got to save Jayce and Silverback. Gaul must have locked them up in the dungeons there, and I've got to save them. I have to."
For what seemed like ages, Nuala said nothing. She just stared, like Charla was the strangest thing she'd ever seen, her eyes sharp and bright. The wind howled outside.
"This isn't all some elaborate cover story, is it?" said Nuala, her voice shaking with some semblance of a laugh.
Charla clenched her jaws and shook her head. The crooked smile on Nuala's face fell.
"I knew there was something weird about you," she said. "I knew almost as soon as we started travelling together. You always seemed like you were keeping secrets. You said you weren't raised by dragons, but you never said what raised you. I thought it would be rude to ask. Moles, cheetahs... It could have been anything. But that's it, isn't it? You were raised by apes. Apes."
She sighed through her teeth and finally dropped her gaze. At once, out from under her intense stare, Charla felt a weight lift off her shoulders. Nuala's wings seemed to sag.
"You're right," Nuala muttered, after a silent moment, "I don't understand. I don't get it at all, actually. I don't believe an ape would ever wittingly save a dragon. I don't believe an ape would ever do something good. I know apes—I've seen what they can do. They—"
"They're not all the same. They can be good..." Charla mumbled.
At once, Nuala's head jerked up and her eyes blazed like fire trapped in ice. "They've murdered my entire species! They've hunted us to extinction! There is nothing good about them!"
Charla shut her mouth and shrank back, but the anger quickly faded from Nuala's face. Instead, as she turned her icy eyes to the dark outside world, Charla felt a great sense of sadness from her.
"I hate apes," Nuala said quietly, calmly. "I hate them more than I've ever hated anything. And they deserve it. I will always hate them—I will never forgive them."
Charla bowed her head and said nothing.
Nuala sighed. "But if you say you were raised by apes...that they protected you...that they're your family... Who am I to judge? I wasn't there. I didn't see it happen. And you're here now, aren't you? I don't think you could make up a story like that if it wasn't true..."
"So..." Charla gazed hopefully at her, and Nuala turned to meet her gaze.
"So, even though I don't understand it, I'll believe you're telling the truth." She huffed and looked away again. "The form your illusion took... That's enough proof for me. At least for now."
For a short moment, Nuala was quiet—but it didn't last. "I do have a few questions, though."
Charla eyed her warily. "Like what?"
Nuala's sharp eyes slid up to hers again, searching. "Like... How do you know these apes of yours are still alive? If what you say is true, they're traitors to the Dark Army. Gaul should have killed them."
Charla's jaw tightened. Just like Lance... "I know they're alive. Gaul wouldn't kill them just like that. He...he wanted them to suffer. I heard him say so. I know he would have kept them alive."
Nuala stared hard into her eyes. "One more question, then."
Charla stared back, trying not to blink.
"If you get to the Mountain of Malefor and find out they're dead," said Nuala, "what will you do then?"
That was a question she hadn't expected. It struck like a blade to her gut and she faltered, her breath suddenly cold in her chest. What then? She'd never thought about it. She'd never needed to think about it. Surely, when she got there, Jayce and Silverback would be alive and waiting for her.
"I..." Charla faltered. "I...don't..."
"Will you go after Gaul?" Nuala asked suddenly, her eyes glinting. "Will you get revenge? Do you think you could beat him?"
Charla's eyes widened. "I...don't know..."
"I think you could." Her sharp muzzle tapered into a strange unsettling smile. "After seeing how you dealt with Commander Coldbone... I think you could do it."
"That's what I'd do, anyway," Nuala went on, apparently oblivious to Charla's distress. Her eyes were burning fervently. "I'd get revenge. If I could—if I thought I had a chance... I'd go after Gaul. I'd make him pay. For everything he's done..."
Charla swallowed. "...Nuala?"
Their eyes met once more, and Nuala's blazed with conviction. "That's what I want to do."
"Why are you telling me this?" Charla whispered. She'd had never seen Nuala so fierce and fervent—not like this.
But thoughts of Gaul filled her with a fear she'd rarely known, and she knew without a doubt that she didn't want to go anywhere near that ape. That awful, murderous ape... Even if she wanted to, how could she take revenge on him? He'd kill her! She wouldn't stand a chance.
Nuala's expression did not falter. "Why? Because you're giving me an opportunity here—the sort I didn't think I'd ever get."
"I don't understand..."
She leaned forward and hissed, "I want revenge. But I can't take it on my own. Do you think I have a chance against Gaul? I'm a trickster, not a fighter. But you—both of you—you're dragons. You're powerful. I saw that last night, in Pyreflight... You're just a child and you took down that commander with a single attack. You—have—power."
She sat back, twitching her wings, her face grim. "And Lance is right. I should have put my faith in you. I should have trusted that you could defeat one measly ape. I made...a mistake. I forget sometimes how dangerous dragons are, but I won't forget that again. I know you can help me—I know you can help me get revenge."
Inhaling shakily, Charla whispered, "You want us to kill Gaul?"
Nuala's eyes flashed. "I want you to help me kill Gaul."
"But... But that makes it sound like..."—Charla hesitated, hardly daring to think it—"...like you're coming with us."
The orb of fire crackled fiercely. Nuala smiled—a grim, shadowy sort of smile. "If you'll have me. I can help you, too. You think sneaking into an ape stronghold is going to be easy? Well, with my illusions, it just might be. I can help you save these apes of yours. All I ask in return..."
She trailed off meaningfully, and her unblinking eyes held Charla like a bird in a cage. But Charla quickly looked away. Her eyes darted around the hollow, from the pool of firelight to the shadows around the walls—from Lance's snoring form to the peaceful, silent Meredy. Something in her chest clenched.
"What about Meredy?" she said, looking back at Nuala. "Aren't you going with her to Mistral?"
Nuala's face hardened and she averted her eyes this time. "Meredy is... She'll be okay. Once we get through the Arid Lands, it's not that much further to Mistral. And we'll be up north, away from the Dark Army... She can make it on her own."
"Besides," Nuala interrupted strongly, lifting her head, "I can't stay with her forever. There are things I want to do. Things I need to do. I... It's only really started to dawn on me, you know? That I might be it—the last vulpala left. I...I haven't seen another since I lost my brother. And—and even before that, we never saw any others! It was always just us..."
She inhaled raggedly and gazed out into the darkness. "I've got to think about what comes next for me. What am I going to do next? What do I want to do? I never really had the chance before... It all happened so quickly. One moment, I lost my brother—the next, I found Meredy. Or...she found me, I suppose. And...and I decided without really thinking about it that I had to help her. She'd saved me—this little serpent child had saved me, and it was the least I could do to help her get back to her family.
"But, ever since then... I've been thinking. What next? What do I want? Do I want to go with her to Mistral and live out the rest of my days there in peace? And then, fifty or so years from now, when I die as a wizened old hag—will that be it? Will that be the end of the vulpala? Is that how we go extinct—when the last vulpala dies in her sleep, surrounded by creatures that will forget us when we're gone?
"That's...not what I want." Nuala shook her head, her wings quivering. "That's not how I want it to end. If I...if I really am the last vulpala, shouldn't I do something? I want to make a difference—I want to make sure we're remembered when we're gone. I'd rather die fighting for that than...pass away in silence.
"And I want revenge." She gritted her teeth. "I want the apes to pay for what they've done to us. I want them to regret it, even if I have to make them. Killing Gaul—taking down the king of apes, the head of the Dark Army... That's the best revenge I can think of. They'll remember us then—apes, dragons, whoever. They'll remember the vulpala who defeated the king of apes..."
Her voice trailed into silence and she closed her eyes. Shaking a little, Charla gazed down at her—at this tiny creature, smaller even than her, so full of hate and pain and the urge for revenge. It filled her lungs with ice. Nuala stood no chance against Gaul. Gaul was...beyond anything she knew. He was not just another ape commander to be taken out by a mere fury. Charla had faced him before, and she knew he wielded a power she could scarcely dream of. He was not the king of apes for no reason.
But she could say none of this to Nuala. She wouldn't hear it, would she? The passion, the fury in her voice—Charla had never heard anything like it. This was something Nuala would do or die trying.
Just like what Charla would do for Jayce.
She breathed in deeply, filling her lungs with the chill winter air. "Are you sure we can do it? Gaul is...powerful, too."
Nuala looked at her. "The three of us? You, me and Lance? We could do it. We have more than a chance. I'm sure of it."
Charla closed her mouth and let her eyes drift to the stars. The red moon was there, too—bright and fierce, like a staring eye, throwing a pale bloody glow across the foothills. Her spine tingled.
"So, what do you say?" Nuala asked, quietly. "Will you help me? Will you let me come with you?"
Charla shivered and glanced over her shoulder. The orb of fire crackled comfortingly, and for a brief second she thought she saw Meredy move. But then she blinked, and the sky serpent was as still as ever. Sighing, Charla looked out again.
"You can come," she said, though a chill swept through her as she spoke. "If you want to help me... I can try to help you."
Gaul's vivid crystal eye flashed into her mind, and she shuddered. Nuala didn't seem to notice.
"You're a brave kid, Char," she said, smiling wryly. "How many others would have the guts to sneak into the Mountain of Malefor? Gaul won't know what hit him."
Abruptly, she stood up, fluffing her wings. Charla stared at her.
"If you don't mind, I'm going to get some sleep. We've got a long way to go tomorrow. And the day after—and the day after that..." Nuala grinned over her shoulder. "Oh, and you should wake me up for the next watch. I think big guy there needs the rest more than I do."
She jerked her head at Lance, who was sleeping so deeply he looked half dead. Charla nodded slowly. With a flutter of feathers, Nuala glided over the floating fire-orb and resettled beside Meredy, whose paws twitched slightly.
"G'night, Char," she said.
"Night," Charla whispered, and she turned away.
And just like that, the silence returned. Alone again, with no eyes upon her but for the moons themselves, Charla finally let herself breathe easy.
The breath she let out was cold and trembling, and it pooled as fog before her eyes. As it faded, as her eyes found again the stars splayed across the sky, something inside her—that cold tensing fist in her stomach—released. She let her shoulders fall.
Everything was okay now. Everything was fine. She was safe, her friends were safe, and the firelight was warm.
As Nuala's gentle snores rose to join the thrum of silence curling around her, Charla relaxed. She was certain she had never been so tense, and yet now it felt as though a weight had been suddenly lifted from her chest—the sort of weight she hadn't noticed before, because it had grown so gradually. Now the stars seemed a little brighter, and her heart a little lighter.
She was not alone. Surely, she felt that now—with Nuala's words and Lance's promises ringing in her head. She no longer had to fear a lonely path.
How things had changed.
With the moons bright in her eyes and the fire hot on her scales, full of new warming calm, Charla gazed into the night and wondered.
She had come a long way, hadn't she? It was strange to think about it now, with the struggles of Warfang and Pyreflight behind her, but she had come a long way from that lost little dragoness alone on a storm-swept shore. Back then, she had cared only about one thing. About Jayce. About finding him. Saving him. Being with him.
Nothing else had mattered. There had been no one and nothing else to care about. For so long, it had been only them. Just her and Jayce, dragon and ape, alone in a little bubble apart from the rest of the world.
Charla had never expected that to change.
But now, here she was. And everything had changed. She had travelled far, from shore to mountain peak, from wild lands to city streets. She had met dragons and creatures of all kinds—she had seen their lives and heard their stories. She had learned things she had never expected to. And she had made friends. Real friends. True friends. Friends she cared for, friends she loved.
Friends just like Jayce.
When she looked over her shoulder—at Lance, Nuala and Meredy, curled up in her firelight—she felt it more than she ever had. She barely knew them—they had been with her for mere seconds compared to the years she had spent with Jayce—and yet she felt them. She felt their warmth. She felt their feelings and their trust.
It was like she belonged there, with them. She had never belonged anywhere before, except with Jayce.
And maybe, when she found him again—when she saved him and Silverback, whatever that took—maybe they would belong, too. Maybe they would all belong, somewhere, together.
A month ago, she would never have had such a hopeful thought. She would never have dared to hope there could be a place for her and Jayce. There never had been, and she had never longed for one.
But she was not that Charla anymore. She was not the Charla who had no one but Jayce—who knew nothing about dragons, or what it meant to be one. She had seen the life she'd never had; she had walked the streets of Warfang itself. And she had chosen to leave that behind, for Jayce. She had made that choice—a choice she'd never been able to make before.
Now, with that lost and wandering journey behind her, she faced a new leg on her trek to the Well of Souls. This time, she was not unprepared. This time, although the path seemed endless, she was certain she could make it there.
No more stumbling in the dark. No more losing the road. No more pushing forward alone.
She knew the way, and she knew her friends would follow.
In the dark, while she watched the moons dance over Pyreflight and waited for the night to pass, Charla held onto those hopes. There were still many things to worry about—many fears and uncertainties and unspoken thoughts still locked inside her heart—and still a long, long way to go, but there would be time for that. In the morning, it would all begin again. For now, surrounded by friends and firelight, she could be calm. She could believe.
Jayce and Silverback would wait for her. The Well of Souls would wait for her.
All she had to do now was get there.
And so Firelight comes to its end. But Charla's story is far from over. This was only the beginning—the start of her journey into the world of dragons. Next time, in Balefire, we head into the timeline of The Eternal Night and continue our trek towards the Well of Souls. I hope you'll join me for the journey.
On that note, thank you so much for reading! Whether you've followed, favourited, reviewed, or simply read in silence—thank you so much, from the bottom of my heart, for indulging in my silly (not-so-)little fanfiction. I really hope you've enjoyed it. That's all I could ever hope for. It's been a very enjoyable five years for me (though I wish it hadn't taken me so long, but life does get in the way sometimes) and I look forward to sharing Balefire with you when the time comes. With any luck, it won't take me nearly so long to write. :P
And to the people out there who took the time to leave a review, whether you wrote one or many, thank you so so much for your continued support. It means the world to me to hear your opinions. You're all wonderful.
So, what next?
I've only just started work on Balefire, and I'd like to get a decent amount of chapters written before I start posting any, so it may be a while before it appears in the archive. But if you're interested, you should keep an eye on my profile here. I update it very frequently with news and progress regarding my writings. So if you want to know beforehand when to expect Balefire, keep an eye out!
And for the last time, thank you so much for reading! I hope to see all of you in Balefire!