It was early morning when the caravan was put into order outside the gates of Berylgarten, the capital of Duren. Thousands of people had gathered to watch the elven delegation leave, escorted by a platoon of Xadian soldiers and led by the dragon king himself.

Rayla and Callum had just finished loading their bags on one of the beasts of burden. The elves employed saraphs for their travels. Callum marvelled at the new wonder from Xadia. It was a large creature, its body rather muscular. It walked on four legs and was about 10 feet tall. Its head resembled that of a duck, including a duckbill as mouth, but instead of feathers, its entire body was covered by some kind of rough, lizard-like skin. Two horns protruded from the back of its head, sloping backwards, but instead of ending in points, they looked like they were hollow. Callum was just about to wonder about what the horns were used for when a loud noise droned from them.

"Whoops! Looks like the beasts are gettin' impatient!" Rayla said cheerfully. She looked at her boyfriend. He looked rather grumpy. They had stayed at the party afterwards and went to bed far too late for both of their likings. Neither was used to this, but Rayla could push herself to ignore the groggy feeling in her body.

Callum looked like things were more difficult for him. He groaned as he hoisted another large satchel upwards. An elf atop the saraph grabbed the satchel. "How many more of these do you have?"

Rayla shrugged. "I think two more." She gestured to one servant of the palace who was carrying some bags for her. "I gotta say, those people at the ball sure were generous!" She opened one of the bags and eyed the various jewellery and coins that it contained, all presents for her birthday from the various nobles present at the party.

Callum laughed. "I told you, it's all politics!" But Rayla just stuck her tongue out, refusing to let that dampen her mood. Callum was amused by the childish gesture. "What are you going to do with all that?"

"I dunno. It's not like your coins are worth that much in Xadia. And I'm not a big fan of jewellery." She put her hand to her chin and thought for a moment. "I'll probably store it, save it for a rainy day. Who knows, perhaps I can use it to host a big party in Katolis!"

Callum hugged her and pecked her on the cheek. "That'd be nice." She smiled warmly at him.

Some distance away, King Aureum Umbra, King Ezran and Queen Aanya were speaking about matters of state. Several guards were in place to keep anyone from eavesdropping, though the dragon king had to try his best to keep his voice down.

"We will send word once a proper teacher for Prince Callum has been selected, so that you may know who teaches him and where," the dragon king said.

King Ezran nodded. "And Callum is free to contact us if he needs to?"

The dragon seemed hesitant. "That could interfere with the protocol of his studies…"

Queen Aanya stepped forward. "I'm sure that Prince Callum will be very responsible about his studies. But his duty to Katolis must come first." Ezran nodded, glad for the support of his Duren counterpart.

The dragon king grunted. "Very well. I'll make sure that he will have the means to communicate with you at all times."

Both the human king and queen smiled. This is going better than expected! Ezran thought.

-/-/-/-

The sun was setting as the caravan traversed a small valley. It had been a long day. Callum hadn't been in this part of Xadia before. When he, Rayla and Zym had travelled through Xadia, they had entered from Katolis to the far south. He marvelled at the steep mountains he saw here all around him, running with creeks and streams down the sides, like thin strands of silver.

"Admirin' the beinns, Callum?" Rayla said from behind him. They had opted to both ride atop one of the beasts of burden, though there wasn't a lot of room among the baggage.

"Sorry, what?"

"Beinns, mountains!" Rayla exclaimed as she pointed to the peaks on either side.

Callum smiled sheepishly. "Yeah… guess I am."

Rayla stretched her arms and sniffed. "Ah, it's good to be back in Xadia again."

Callum scoffed. "You haven't been gone that long."

"I know, but still. I'm not a city girl, Callum." As she settled her hands on his shoulders, she felt him relax and lean into her. She smiled broadly, happy to have this effect on him. "When you're done with your studies, maybe we can go live in a quiet village somewhere? Or build our own cabin in a secret grove?"

Callum snickered. "That's a nice thought. I don't think we'll be that lucky though. As a prince, I'll probably end up back in the castle." He looked back over his shoulder, staring at her lovingly. "With you as my princess."

She beamed a smile at him, but as he turned back, her face contorted with worry. Me, in a castle? For the rest of my life? She didn't like the thought of that. She didn't like it at all.

The call was given to make camp. The delegation had provided them with a tent, but they had to set it up themselves, as they had no servants and weren't part of the platoon that escorted them. The dragon king would stay the night with the caravan before flying off on his own, now being back in relative safety in Xadian territory.

Callum and Rayla set up their tent at the edge of the camp, preferring their peace and quiet. The both of them were pretty excited over the fact that they would get to spend the next few days together. "Possibly even longer." Rayla had whispered to him. "Who knows how long it will take the king to find a teacher for you?"

Callum hoped that the king would find one soon but, as he looked back at his stunning elf, not too soon.

Darkness had fallen as the last few people had finished setting up their tents. The cooks were already done with the food, having wasted no time while all the others were busy, and soon lines were forming in front of big cooking pots for everyone to grab some dinner.

Callum and Rayla happily chatted about their travels and everyday things as they waited, oblivious to the stares they had been getting. During the day, they had only given each other attention. However, once they sat down with a group of elves by the fire, Callum started to notice he was getting some unwelcoming looks from the other elves of the delegation.

He looked at his food, trying to ignore the hard stares he was getting from a couple of sunfire elves. Several mushrooms drifted aimlessly in his bowl as he stirred its contents.

"So, how's it going?" he ventured carefully, looking at the sunfire elf.

The elf was male, his head adorned with golden jewellery. He sneered as Callum addressed him. "Don't speak to me human. I've got nothing to say to you."

Callum was confused. "Huh? What did I do?"

"Typical of humans to forget their actions so quickly." A few sunfire elves mumbled their agreement.

Callum looked at Rayla for help, but she just shook her head at him warningly and continued eating. Callum tried to do the same, until another elf from across the fire addressed him.

"Is it true that humans only eat meat?" Callum couldn't quite make out the features of this elf from across the fire, but it appeared to be another sunfire elf.

"Eh… I don't think so? I mean, we have vegetables, just like you…"

"Just like us? You aren't anything like us, you little twirp!" The elf stood up and tossed their bowl down with such force that it shattered.

"Kedish! Mind your manners!" an older female elf said. The bowl-tosser grumbled and sat back down.

Callum thought he should thank the woman, but before he could do that, he already heard her say; "It's just a human. They're not as intelligent as us. They are not worth our anger."

Callum's patience ran out. Rayla reached out to grab his arm, but he shrugged it off as he stood up. "Alright, that's enough. I'm sure there are some pretty bad humans out there, but I'm not one of them!"

"Oh, it speaks…" the older female elf said. "If only it would speak the truth."

Callum gritted his teeth. "I haven't done anything to you! Except, you know, try to save the dragon prince! Was that all for nothing!?"

She looked back at Callum grimly. He saw wrinkles on her stern face. He figured she was old, and bitter, by the looks of it. "One good deed among the many vile acts your kind has done. It's just one drop in the ocean. Give us back Lux Aurea. Give us back our fallen. Maybe then we will talk." She returned to her food, mumbling: "Though I doubt it."

A deep voice could suddenly be heard from the shadows. "My, my, isn't everyone just getting along swimmingly?" The dark cloaked figure of Zeron stepped into the light of the bonfire. Rayla hissed as she spotted him. The elves seemed bemused by his presence.

"Really, Lord Zeron, do you have to don the face of a human? It's so repulsive..." the female elf said with a sneer.

Zeron didn't reply, but walked around the bonfire calmly before standing before the woman. "It seems to me that the hospitality of House Xi'tash has lessened of late."

"Don't you speak of hospit-" She was startled mid-sentence as Zeron loomed over her menacingly. His eyes changed to bright pupilless pools of aqua blue.

"Tell me, is your family home still safe in the bastion of the Luvenalis? Is your wealth still protected within the marble halls beneath your keep? Are you sure it will remain untouched?"

The elf paled visibly in the firelight. "You wouldn't… threaten… you dare…." she stuttered.

"Oh, but I would. For I just saw multiple members of the house of Xi'tash insult the prince of Katolis, a proven friend of Xadia, a hero who has rescued Prince Azymondias, and a guest of the royal house of Storm. You are disrespecting the hospitality shown by King Aureum Umbra, sowing hate in our midst and inviting war to Xadia by your actions." His face was now dangerously close to the elf, who was shuddering with fear.

"So I would need a very good reason to stay my hand."

The tension was palpable. Everyone around the bonfire was silent. The elf looked at Zeron, fear written on her face. She quickly looked about but saw that all the other elves had distanced themselves from her, except for the young elf who had tossed his bowl.

"P-please, Lord Zeron. Have mercy…" When all the response she got was the narrowing of his eyes, she bowed down and pressed her head against the grass. "We apologise. We spoke in anger. Please, forgive us."

Zeron stood up. "No, I don't think I will. It wasn't me who you wronged, but the prince of Katolis and the king of Xadia. But you will apologise to them, and you and yours will show exemplary behaviour towards our guest." He turned and addressed the rest of the elven nobles with a raised voice. "And I expect that from all of you!"

An awkward pause followed until eventually, the gathered elves mumbled assurances that they would. Callum was nervous. He knew that emotions were running high and that he was the cause.

Rayla on the other hand was confused. Why would Zeron choose our side? Then she reminded herself that, though Zeron had tortured her, he hadn't done anything of the like to Callum. Perhaps he just wants to protect him... she thought, but her suspicion of him remained.

Both the elves who had offended Callum approached and knelt before him.

"Uh, no please, you don't have to-" Callum started, but the pair bowed their heads to the ground.

"Prince Callum of Katolis, we have disrespected the hospitality you were granted and have insulted you. We beg your forgiveness."

Callum didn't know what to do. He looked at Rayla, but she simply shrugged. "Well, there's really no need to-" He was distracted by an annoyed sigh coming from his left. He felt a hand on his shoulder and looked in the now normal eyes of Zeron.

"Prince Callum, a quick word, if you please." Zeron turned a warning look to the pair on the ground that said: Don't get up.

Callum, now thoroughly confused, followed Zeron out of the crowd. Rayla got up and followed as well. If Zeron seemed disturbed by her intrusion, he didn't show it.

"I suppose you were just going to let this slide?" Zeron said, gesturing back to the bonfire, where the nobles were now quietly talking amongst themselves.

"Yes, of course! I don't want people kneeling for me. Even in Katolis, we usually don't do that."

Zeron seemed pensive for a moment. "Prince Callum, it seems to me you need a lesson in statecraft." He gestured at Callum's person, and his voice was more patient now, like that of a teacher. "You represent Katolis. Those nobles represent Xadia. They have insulted you, and thus, they have insulted Katolis."

Callum shrugged and looked away. "I don't think I see it that way. I mean, I figure they were just being mean to another human. I didn't like it, but why is it such a big deal?"

"I know that's how you see it, but remember that the world doesn't. What do you think the people of Katolis will say when they hear that elves got to insult the prince and got away with it?" Zeron looked at Callum, not unkindly, but demanding his attention, demanding that he figure this out.

Callum, to his credit, gave this serious thought. "I suppose… I mean, they won't be happy with it. But will they not just think badly of me? Why would this be bad for the entire country?"

"Because you are royalty. You represent Katolis, Callum, and I really think you are forgetting that right now. Remember how the entire city went out of its way to host a festival for your birthday? Do you think they would do that if they thought of you as just another person?"

"...no. No, I suppose not," Callum admitted at length.

Zeron smiled. "Good, then let us continue. Since they have insulted you, they must be punished. Now, I have intimidated them into accepting…" -Zeron paused for a bit, trying to come up with the right word.- "Your authority in punishment or forgiveness, whatever you choose. And that choice is yours. But you must not make it lightly. What do you think would happen if you had just let them walk away like you were about to?"

Callum sighed. "They would think they could bully me more often?"

Zeron nodded. "And what would that do to the relations between Xadia and Katolis?"

"It would be bad."

"Because?" Zeron pressed, not one for accepting short answers.

"Because then they would continue to not only bully me but all the other humans. And humans would in turn think that everyone in Xadia would see them as weaklings, pushovers."

"Which would give rise to a whole host of problems," Zeron finished for him. "That is why you have to be firm. Be merciful if you have to, but be firm in your stance."

Callum nodded. Zeron gestured with his arm to the pair of nobles, still sitting on the ground, and Callum walked towards them. Rayla started to go after him but was held back by Zeron who laid a hand on her shoulder. "Let him fight this battle on his own."

Rayla shrugged it off briskly. "Touch me again and you might lose a finger."

Zeron laughed. "I'd like to see you try."

They both watched as Callum talked to the two nobles. He was standing, and they remained in a kneeled position. Callum was clearly doing the talking now. Zeron gave Rayla a sidelong glance as he addressed her. "Still mad at me?"

"I will always be mad at you." Rayla turned to walk away but then heard the reply.

"Good."

She turned back. Zeron was still watching Callum, who was now helping the elves to their feet. Both elves looked like they had trouble containing their emotions. Rayla hoped they felt regret, but figured it was probably anger for being put in that position.

"Why are you helpin' him?" Rayla asked.

"Because I want to?" Zeron looked at her and raised an eyebrow.

Rayla walked back to him and stood in front of him, blocking his view of Callum. "And what do you get out of it?"

Zeron seemed to think of an answer. "Nothing I can think of, at the moment," he said eventually.

Rayla gave him a sceptical look. "Right."

Zeron shrugged. "He was kind to me when I was investigating him. I see no reason why I shouldn't return the favour."

She stepped even closer, even if her instincts remembered the previous encounter and tried to tell her otherwise. She pressed her finger in his chest. He didn't budge. "Well, I'm keepin' my eye on you! If you lay a finger on him…"

"Lay a finger on whom?"

Rayla jumped, knocking into Zeron as she was startled by Callum who had appeared behind her.

"Rayla, watch it! It's just me!" Callum said, quickly taking hold of her shoulders to calm her down. Rayla gave the both of them a frustrated glare. Callum looked at her curiously, while Zeron raised his eyebrows.

"Ugh, let's just find someplace to eat!" she said, looking around for her bowl. It then occurred to her that she had left her dinner near the bonfire. She groaned, really not wanting to mingle with that lot anymore.

"Why don't you join me in the servants' tent? There's still plenty of food left, and the company is certainly better than what you've experienced."

Rayla didn't reply but returned a glare.

Zeron shrugged. "Your choice," he said as he turned and made his way through the camp.

"Well, shall we follow him?" Callum said, not picking up on Rayla's frustration with the figure. As he saw her face, however, it dawned to him that he and her both had very different experiences with the character. "Or… maybe not?"

Rayla bumped into him and buried her face in his neck. Callum was surprised and alarmed by her reaction. "Wha-!?"

"Hug me, stupid."

"But…. em, okay." Gingerly, he put his arms around her. He even gently stroked her back.

Rayla sighed, feeling her frustration slowly seeping away. She enjoyed his touch in silence for another moment or so before she finally spoke. "You like him, don't you?" Her voice was muffled, her head was still buried in his neck.

"Well… I mean, as a friend yeah. Though I am mad about what he did to you." He emphasised the last part.

Rayla stepped back but didn't let go of him. She looked him in the eyes. Callum saw that she was worried. "But do you trust him?"

"...I'm not sure, Rayla. I know this sounds stupid, but so far he hasn't exactly lied to us."

The answer didn't please her, even if she could understand where he was coming from. She figured that Callum didn't have many friends, and he still felt something akin to friendship for the man… or dragon. She sighed. "Come on. Let's get some food then." She grabbed his hand and together they walked in the direction where Zeron had disappeared to.

Callum gave her a smile and a gentle squeeze. "Don't worry. I will put you first." He pecked her on the cheek. "Always," he added, whispering in her ear.

Rayla didn't reply, but a smile appeared on her face.

They didn't see exactly where Zeron had gone, but they did see that the tent where they had first gotten their food was now closed, and music could be heard from inside. As they entered the tent, they were surprised by how crowded it was in there. It seemed like most of the servants and elves who weren't of noble blood had gathered in the tent. They were laughing and clapping while a group of musicians was playing folk music.

"Hey, I know that tune! That's Dheanainn Sùgradh!' Rayla piped up, pressing forward to see the musicians, just as a male and female moonshadow elf started to sing with beautiful harmonious tones.

"The what now?" Callum said as he pressed on after her. He sometimes had trouble keeping up with Rayla's accent. While most words she used were the same as the common human one, she seemed to also speak a more rural dialect. He usually heard her use it when she got really mad. But as he watched Rayla enjoying the song and mouthing along the words, he figured there was more to it. Maybe I should ask her about it sometime.

Rayla sat down in front of the musicians, with Callum standing close behind her. Everyone was focussed on the music. Most of the elves had gathered around the musicians, except for a few elves dancing in the back of the tent. He looked around and eventually spotted the form of Zeron scooping up food in two large bowls near the food table, which was also in the back of the tent. He watched Zeron struggle for a moment to return to the crowd with the food while avoiding the dancers, but he managed, though just barely.

"Here you go," Zeron said as he handed Callum his bowl. It was filled with sweet rice, some vegetables and salty, fried potatoes. The sight of it made his mouth water. After the debacle by the bonfire, he still hadn't eaten yet.

Zeron gently placed the other bowl in Rayla's lap, who looked up in surprise. As she saw who had handed her the food, her surprise turned into a frown, but she accepted it nonetheless.

The song had ended, and the crowd whooped and cheered. The male elf of the duo addressed the group. "Thank ye fir yer kindness! We will continue after a wee break!" The crowd around them slowly moved about the tent as food and drink was served to the musicians.

Callum sat down next to Rayla, who was already enjoying her food. To his surprise, they were quickly joined by the elven singers.

"Mind if we sit here?" they asked. Rayla, who had her mouth full, gestured enthusiastically with her hand that it was alright.

Callum now got a good look at both of them. They had white hair, a trait that Callum had learned to recognize as being typical for moonshadow elves. The male had short hair, and his face markings were delicate, with swirling thin lines going across his face. The female had several braids in her hair, woven in an intricate pattern, and her face markings adorned the sides and top of her face, but never touched the centre. Callum thought the both of them looked very beautiful, though in his mind they would never compare to how he had seen Rayla when he had painted her.

"So, who are you two?" The elven woman asked.

Rayla swallowed her mouthful. "I'm Rayla, that's Callum."

"Pleasure! I'm Harismu, and this is my beloved, Anduel," the woman said as she looked them both over. Then a frown crossed her face as she now really looked at Callum. "Wait…. Is he… the human prince?"

Callum cringed at the way she said this. "Maybe…?" he answered shyly.

"Yeah, he is," Rayla said rather proudly.

"Oh, sorry!" Harismu put a hand in front of her mouth, realising that she put it rather bluntly. "it's just that… we've never seen a human before."

Anduel grunted. "Aye, only elves nowadays who seen a human up close have been soldiers. Is it true that ye have a fifth finger?" The man spoke with a heavy moonshadow accent, much thicker than Rayla's. It was understandable, but barely. Callum held up his hand and wiggled his fingers. The man recoiled at the sight. "Ugh! That's downright disgustin' that is!"

He got a slap on the side from Harismu. "Behave, they are guests of the king!"

Callum cleared his throat. "Do all elves really think badly about all humans?"

The elven woman looked hurt. "Well, I wouldn't say badly… I hope we didn't say anything to offend you?"

"Well, no, it's just that your reaction is…" Callum didn't quite know how to finish his sentence. He didn't want to sound rude. It just irked him that the only person who had been really welcoming in this caravan was also the person that had stabbed his girlfriend (in her dream, but still…).

Anduel grunted. "There's been animosity between our two races since the dawn of time. We've heard nothin' but bad stuff about ye and yers. Imagine our surprise when they announced peace and possible trade!" He snorted, then looked Callum in the eyes. "Can't say A like humans in general. But A'm alright with getting to know ya, see what ye're made of, yer highness." The elven man grinned at him.

Callum could do nothing but smile at that.

As the night progressed, he talked with several other elves about their differences. Rayla supplied her opinion when asked for, but she noticed that Callum really was the centre of attention that night. She wasn't jealous about that per se. She imagined that Callum would feel not unlike her when she was confronted with the bigotry about their races. But she did notice that Callum could make people feel more at ease. She smiled. It might have somethin' to do with the way he looks. He's a big softy. Who could ever feel threatened by him?

And yet, he also had a way with words. Once, not too long ago, he even gave an assassin pause, persuading her not to kill him, using just words. She looked at him as he told a group of elves about Katolis, some still eying him with distrust, but most of them being much more curious. We've still got a long road ahead of ourselves.

She shook her head and tried to pick up the thread of the conversation. Eventually, the musicians started playing again, and Rayla and Callum joined the crowd, clapping and laughing along with the various drinking songs that followed. The party lasted deep into the night, until morning came.

-/-/-/-

Back in Duren, Ezran was just having a meeting with Aanya about the outcome of the ball. Both of them were pretty pleased.

"I think King Aureum Umbra got the message," Aanya said as she looked at the various papers on the table. Most of them were the beginnings of trade agreements between various western cities of Xadia.

Ezran nodded. "Yup. The human kingdoms are on the map, and we are not going anywhere!" He grabbed another jelly tart and started munching.

Bait croaked in a complaining manner and poked Ezran's leg.

"Oh, right! Sorry, buddy!" Ezran said as he handed another jelly tart to his lifelong friend.

Aanya looked at the boy with an amused smile. "You know you'll get fat if you keep this up, right?"

"Uhm swill gwowing!" Ezran mumbled, wiping away the crumbs from the table before they could smudge the important documents. Aanya giggled at his boyish mannerisms.

From the corner of the room, Soren watched the proceedings. As a crownguard, he was to accompany the king wherever he went, though he usually stayed outside of the room during important meetings. However, this was just a small discussion. More of a celebration actually… he mused as he eyed the various appetisers on the table. He enjoyed seeing the young king happy like this. It reminded him that he still was a child at heart.

Still, a sombre mood had taken hold of Soren ever since he had arrived in Duren. After the battle at the Storm Spire, all enemy soldiers were rounded up and transported back home. Claudia wasn't among them. Soren had led a few search parties to search for his father and sister, as well as round up any other soldiers who had fled. While they did come across a few soldiers, they hadn't found Viren or Claudia. There was no trace of them at all.

And he was happy with that. No news was good news, because that meant they weren't dead. Soren hoped they had just given up and fled. However, now that he had arrived in Berylgarten, he had learned about a dark magic cult and that Viren was leading them from Neolandia. Soren just hoped that Claudia had the sense to escape their father's clutches. But he doubted it.

He was pulled out of these thoughts by Ezran as he approached him.

"Hey, you want a pastry?" The young king held out a small tray with a variety of goods.

"Well, can't say no to that!" Soren replied cheerfully as he grabbed one of the pastries.

"I hope these will cheer you up. You haven't been smiling so often."

Soren paused mid-bite as he heard that. He looked down at the king, who looked at him earnestly. Soren put the pastry down with a sigh. "I'm just worried about my sister."

The king nodded. "Yeah… Claudia was nice…"

"IS nice Ez- my king," Soren corrected him.

Aanya also came over, having made a neat stack of all the various documents on the table. "Claudia… she is the high mage's daughter, isn't she?"

"That's her!" Soren replied.

"Wasn't she fighting against us at the Storm Spire?" Aanya asked in a sceptical tone.

"Well, yes… but probably only because dad told her to. I know that she would never want to harm anyone herself." Soren quickly defended his sister, even though he doubted his own statement.

Ezran added to that doubt. "I don't think that's right Soren. I know she's your sister and all, but when that fake-Viren wanted to kill me, she didn't do anything to help me. She actually tried to stop you from helping." Ezran looked up to his most skilled crownguard and lifelong friend. "I don't think Claudia is on our side anymore."

Soren opened his mouth to reply, but no sound came out. He began to realise only now how far his sister had gone to help her dad that day. She had murdered humans and elves without hesitation with her magic, and if she was responsible for illusion-Viren, then she had tried to kill Ezran. With shame, he recalled he'd tried to do the same once.

He pressed his lips together, trying to contain his emotions. When that failed, he pressed his eyes shut with his fingers. Ezran put his hand against Soren's hip as a show of comfort. He felt him tremble slightly, even through the armour.

Aanya looked at the two with worry. Even in victory, there still is loss, she mused. We must never forget how this conflict affects us all.

-/-/-/-

The next morning the caravan broke camp much earlier than Rayla and Callum expected. They both groaned, really wanting to sleep in for once. Begrudgingly they packed their stuff and resumed their journey eastwards, towards the Storm Spire. King Aureum Umbra said his goodbyes and flew off, leaving the caravan to its own devices. The caravan left as soon as they were able. The journey would take another day at the least, and they were expected to make camp in the oasis in the midnight desert.

"Alright, pack it up! Make sure to refill your canteens, people! We're going through a desert!" One of the commanders of the platoon that escorted them was shouting commands throughout the camp. Even though the larger part of the caravan wasn't military and they didn't have to obey any orders, they were smart enough to heed his advice.

Rayla helped Callum up on his saraph and jumped up after him. Callum was once again amazed at her agility. "I wish I could do that," he said as Rayla took her seat behind him.

She wrapped her arms around him and gave him a peck on his cheek. "You can fly, dummy."

He grinned. "There's that."

They were silent for a while as the caravan got moving. Several soldiers were making sure that everyone was keeping pace. Both Callum and Rayla were focussed on keeping their saraph in line with the rest of the column, but once they picked up the pace, the beast would just follow the one in front of it on its own.

"So," started Callum. "What will you do when we reach the Storm Spire?"

Rayla puffed her cheeks. "Probably take care of a whole load of paperwork. And check in on the rest of the Dragonguard, of course."

"Hmmm, I wonder if Ibis is back yet. I think that he could teach me some more magic. Man, I really hope he will be my teacher!"

Rayla grinned. "Yeah, Ibis is nice. He helped me set up the Dragonguard. Couldn't have done it without him, really."

The conversation lapped into an easy silence again as Callum was softly stroking the arms wrapped around his torso. He was thinking about last night. There were questions he wanted to ask, but he was a bit afraid of asking them. Eventually, he figured he might as well get it out in the open, if only because there was really nothing else worth discussing.

"So, Rayla…"

"Yes, Callum?" Rayla quipped in a singsong voice. She did it teasingly, and it made him grin.

"Well, I'll be gone for a while soon, because of my studies."

"Oh… yes, and?" Rayla's voice took a more guarded tone now, and Callum picked up on that.

"Well, how can we keep in touch? Can I write you? And what about visiting? I don't know how often I can visit, but can I just drop by whenever I want?" Callum felt nervous as he asked this. He was basically asking what their relationship was going to be like, and even though they had been through a lot, secretly he was still afraid that something would happen that could mess it up.

Rayla thought for a while before answering. "I mean, I don't really know? I like havin' you around, so please drop by whenever you can, but I do have a job to do, you know?"

"I'm glad you say that," Callum said. It made him feel a little more secure. "I guess I'll just study magic if you're busy." He bit his lip, then continued. "Do you think I can stay in your room when I'm over?"

Rayla shook her head, then remembered that Callum couldn't see her as she sat behind him. "No, I don't think so. I hope to have the last three candidates for the Dragonguard within the next month or so, which means I'll be bunkin' with someone else." She leaned in and whispered in his ear. "But when you're over, I'm sure I can sneak off to whatever guest room you're stayin' in."

Callum shivered. "I'm looking forward to that. But what should I do when I'm away? I mean, can I write you?"

Rayla pressed herself closer to him. "All the time, dummy. Though I prefer your sketches. They give me somethin' to look at."

"I'll write to you every day! And I'll make sure to sketch as much as possible!"

Rayla laughed. "Oh wow, that'll be an awful lot of readin' for me then! I can't promise that I'll write you back that often, but I can try."

"Oh, I'm already looking forward to yours. I expect nothing less than a ten-page original moonshadow love poem!"

This got to Rayla, and she burst out laughing. "Agh, ya dafty! Ev'n i' A wrote that, ye kinna ev'n reed most a it!"

It took Callum a few moments to process what she said. "So, about your accent..."

"Whut aboot it?" Rayla replied, her accent now so thick that Callum suspected that she was doing it on purpose.

"Well, you usually don't talk like that… but I notice that sometimes you do, like when you got really mad during that fight in Duren, or last night when we talked with those moonshadow elves."

"Ah, that, right." Callum noticed she swallowed and sounded like normal again. "Well, my parents and their family were all pretty rural. So, yeah, I suppose to you it would sound like we have a pretty thick accent."

"Oh? I never knew that!"

"You didn't ask." She smiled. "But now you know."

Callum shrugged. "So why do you usually speak, you know, my kind of normal?"

Rayla sighed. "Because our accent was a bit too thick for other elves to understand. I had to learn to adjust my accent pretty quickly. Runaan and Ethari were used to it, bein' friends with my parents and all, and when I was raised by them I just learned to speak without the accent I suppose."

Callum thought about what she said for a moment. He turned his head so he could look her in the eyes.

"You know, I think your accent is cute."

Rayla was honestly surprised by that. "What, for real?"

"Yeah! It makes you more exotic! You're like that mysterious stranger coming from a land far away having this mysterious accent. Basically the protagonist of a fairy tale!"

Rayla laughed and blushed a little. "Thanks! I never saw it that way!"

Callum smiled at her. "You know, you can just use your old accent if you want to. I don't mind."

"Thanks Callum, but I've gotten used to the way I talk normally right now. It's like you said, it shimmers through sometimes when I get emotional."

"Okay, cool, but can you, like, talk to me for a bit in your original accent?"

Now Rayla was blushing, feeling a bit put-on-the-spot. "Uh… what do you want me to say?"

Callum now sat half-turned in the saddle, one hand on her hip, the other keeping a firm grip on the saddle to keep his balance. Rayla saw that he was enjoying this topic of conversation. "Just tell me about yourself!"

"O-okay! Hummm…." Rayla swallowed and coughed. She felt a bit nervous now that she knew Callum was paying attention to literally every word she said, and how she said it. "Right, Ma name is Rayla, A'm sixteen years old, an' A live in a wee village called ta Silvergrove. A love ta fight usin' me swords, and…." She was now struggling to come up with something to say. "A am ta captain o' ta Dragonguard. Oh! And A love a wee lad who's also ta prince of Katolis!" she said the last part with a glimmer in her eye. Callum's mouth was slightly open as he looked at her. Rayla giggled at the sight. "Ya liked it then?"

Callum grinned and kissed her. "I just love exotic beauties."

This only made Rayla blush and giggle. Gods, how far I've fallen for him.

Their small talk kept them going throughout the rest of the day until the sun set and camp was made yet again. By that time, they had reached a familiar oasis in the middle of the Midnight desert. Dinner went as expected. The nobility still mostly shunned Callum, though after yesterday's display nobody was overly offensive, but Rayla and Callum found that they much preferred the company of the servants above that of their masters. After dinner, they decided they needed some time apart from the rest of the caravan, so they grabbed a blanket and snuck off to a cluster of palm trees at the edge of the oasis. From here they could oversee the entire oasis.

Soon, the two engaged in a game of sweet words and kisses, which ended with Rayla now resting in Callum's welcoming arms. In the distance, they could see the rest of the caravan, the bonfires illuminating the tents around them.

Callum shifted uncomfortably, his hands softly stroking her shoulders and hair. Rayla enjoyed his caresses but noticed the hesitation. Eventually, she noticed that he had stopped touching her completely and felt him shift and turn. She figured out by his movements that Callum was nervous. It was the same kind of jitters he got when he had some kind of crazy idea in his mind.

She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Alright, out with it."

"W-wha?" Callum made some unintelligent noise, his arms resting on her hips slightly cramping down on her.

Rayla had to smile mischievously, Got you! she thought. "I can feel yer tense, dummy. You're thinkin' about somethin', but are too afraid to say it." She shook her head a bit, but carefully. She wouldn't want to skewer her boyfriend with her horns.

"Well… umm…. The thing is…" Callum stammered, not quite getting through his own sentences in one piece. He swallowed. In a very small voice, he said; "Can I touch them?"

Rayla's eyes widened. "What!?" Rayla got up in a rush and whipped around, staring at Callum who was looking at her with a scared expression, a blush creeping on his face.

"Aah! SorrysorryI-I.. I was just curious…!" He waved one hand in front of him, trying to dissuade her from doing anything violent.

Rayla in the meantime was still on her knees in front of her boyfriend. She was blushing furiously and had crossed her arms in front of her chest protectively. "W-what did you say!?"

Callum, in a tiny voice, answered: "C-can I touch them?" He was looking at her shyly, his head red as a beet.

Rayla felt like she was going crazy. She didn't know what had brought that up all of a sudden and didn't know how to respond.

Oh gods, what do I do, what do I do? Should I let him? Her heart suddenly hammered in her chest as Rayla's thoughts wandered back to their moment together in Duren. They had shared an intimate moment together after Callum's painting session, and their make-out session afterwards had gotten quite intense.

Rayla shivered as she remembered Callum's hands on her body. She hesitated, not at all comfortable with their new level of intimacy, but at the same time, she didn't want to seem prudish or afraid of the direction their relationship was going. I suppose it makes sense for him to ask… after all that.

"A-alright, go ahead." Rayla slowly let her arms down, her hands coming to rest upon her knees. She closed her eyes and leaned forward, expecting his touch with a certain level of apprehension.

She felt him lean towards her. Her body tensed, preparing her for the moment of impact, but when it came, she was very much surprised as she felt his touch. Her eyes flew open as she felt his hands very gently caress her horns. She made no sound but mouthed 'Oh' as she now realised his intent had been completely different from what she had thought.

"They are so smooth!" Callum said with wonder in his voice as he moved his fingers across her horns. "I expected them to be rougher with those grooves." Her horns were indeed pretty smooth, the grooves being very superficial, though you could see and feel that they were there. Callum was entranced by the pattern they made upon her horns.

Rayla swallowed. "Y-yeah, I get that. You have to wipe them regularly if you want them to remain smooth." She felt her body relax, feeling it was no longer in danger of being groped in other places. "Please don't yank them. My head is still attached, you know?" she said jokingly, trying to lighten the mood.

"Wouldn't dream of it," Callum replied, totally oblivious to what she had been feeling just now. She felt his fingers slowly reach the tip of her horns, felt them press upon the tip of them, testing their sharpness. "Whoa!" he exclaimed.

Rayla realised what had happened. "Please don't get blood on them!" Her hands immediately went to his wrists to dislodge him.

He let her, and when she released his wrists he stuck his finger in his mouth. "Shwarp!" he mumbled.

Rayla rolled her eyes. "Well of course they would be, dummy!"

Callum looked at her, a surprised expression on his face. "Rayla! You look… flustered?"

Rayla felt more blood creep up to her cheeks. She cursed inwardly. Just when I thought I had regained my composure… "Yeah, I mean…" She looked away.

"Rayla, what is it?" Callum looked concerned now, afraid he had hurt her or something. He sat close to her and put an arm around her. She let him and actually leaned into him a little.

"Well, it's probably stupid. I just thought you were goin' for… somethin' else…" she said, feeling her cheeks burn. She still refrained from looking him in the eye.

"Huh? Like what?"

Rayla mentally facepalmed herself. He really didn't have a clue, did he!? "I mean… I thought you wanted to… continue what we did back in Berylgarten." She gave him a sidelong look.

Callum slowly connected the dots, but when he figured it out, he looked abashed. "Wha-no! Nononono, that's not what I wanted to do!" Callum hastily said. "I mean, sure I want to, but not if you-" Callum was quickly silenced as Rayla put her finger against his lips.

"Shhhh... You're makin' it awkward." Rayla waited for a moment before she removed her finger. She wanted to be sure that her sweet dumb human prince would shut up. When it seemed Callum got the message, she rather roughly bumped into him and settled in his arms, her back to him. "Just hug me already," she said softly.

Callum was hesitant in placing his hands on her now, but after a moment complied with her wishes.

Rayla held onto his arms and pulled him closer.

"Rayla…" Callum's voice was full of concern. She didn't respond. Callum couldn't see her face, so again he called her name. "Rayla… what's the matter?"

He felt her chest heave as she sighed deeply. "I dunno. I'm...scared? Eh…" Another deep sigh. "I've never been this close to anyone before, Callum… some of the things we do...scare me."

"Pffft, you mean like sneaking past a giant dragon? Or fighting off an army of darkness?" he joked. His jokes fell on deaf ears, however.

"This isn't funny, Callum!" she replied tersely. "I'm tryin' to be honest here!"

"Right… sorry," was his mournful reply. It sounded like he meant it.

Rayla gave him a reassuring pat on his hip. "Anyway… I mean, you're my first boyfriend. I'm your first as well right?" Rayla felt Callum nod. "Aren't you… you know, scared?"

Callum shrugged. "I mean, I don't think about it enough to be scared, I guess? Does that make sense? Like, when we are kissing, I do feel funny, but it feels good and exciting and I guess I just let that feeling tell me what to do." He snorted. "I mean, there's no way that I could do something without your consent, right? You could easily snap my arm."

Rayla grinned. I could, yeah. "I mean, I suppose… but… what if I'm not sure if I want to do stuff?"

"Then we'll just wait," Callum said quickly.

Rayla said nothing, but nodded. She still felt uncomfortable about the topic and didn't really want to continue talking about it right now, but she felt grateful that Callum didn't seem to mind her state at all.

When the night grew colder, she grabbed a blanket and pulled it over the two of them, nestling herself close to him. "This is nice," she whispered, closing her eyes.

Callum gently stroked her horns and hair with one hand, the other arm wrapped around her. "Yeah, this is perfect," he replied, planting a kiss in her hair.

-/-/-/-

After six long days of travel through the desert, Claudia could finally spot the camp which was their home, however temporary. I sure hope it's temporary, Claudia thought. I've never been fond of camping.

The track through the desert would have been impossible, were it not for their possession of parts of the emperor reigar. The beak had been most useful. They could use parts of it as dark magic ingredients for protection against the desert cold and heat, and some other parts could be used to extract water from the air.

As for the rest of the body of the dead creature, well, meat was meat.

Claudia was excited, though she was also a bit worried. Ever since joining up with Aaravos, they had gotten in the possession of increasingly powerful magic ingredients. Claudia was now able to do magic she hadn't even dreamed of before! However, their dealings with Aaravos had begun to take a toll upon her father. He seemed reluctant to really take charge, or to use dark magic.

She frowned. Her father had explained to her who Aaravos was, briefly. The gist of it was that he was a trapped elf who used this bug creature as his avatar. He wanted to help Viren conquer Xadia. And he hated dragons. He's an elf though, she thought. So why is he so hellbent on helping us?

She looked as the creature walked beside Viren. Its wings were broken and torn in places, so it was unable to fly. On its back it was carrying all the parts and ingredients from the emperor reigar they could gather, including, most importantly, the large bundle of feathers. They weren't able to take all of it with them, but Viren said that they would send members of their group back to gather the rest. As she contemplated this, the creature turned its head and looked at her. Claudia felt a shiver run down her spine. She shrugged it off and sped up to walk besides Viren.

"So, dad…"

"Yes, daughter?" Viren looked at her sideways. His face still showed signs of corruption, even though he hadn't used dark magic ever since the battle at the Storm Spire, the corrupted sun spell he used against the emperor reigar being the only exception.

Claudia turned her attention away from her father's corrupted face and back to the topic at hand. "Well, now that we have the feathers, and the organs, and the eyeballs, what are we going to do with it?"

"We are going to make sure people will listen to us, Claudia. With the power to charm people, we will be able to make the rulers of the human kingdoms listen to reason. And Neolandia is in dire need of new leadership."

"Oh, so, you are going to be like a king again?" She looked at him expectantly.

Viren shook his head. "No, that didn't really work out in Katolis. I think it would be better if I stayed in the shadows. But if we replace the dying king of Neolandia and 'persuade' the rulers of Bel Dar, we have two kingdoms to back our endeavours!"

Claudia smiled. Her father really thought of everything. One thing bothered her though. "Do you think we can use some of that magic to get Soren back?" She whispered hopefully, not wanting to be overheard by Aaravos.

Viren sighed. "Your brother chose his path. Let him suffer it. He is of no use to us, Claudia." He gave her a hard look.

Claudia quickly looked away. "You're probably right…" she muttered.

Viren watched her walking along, looking at her feet. His reply had been hard, but internally, he was torn. Oh, dear Soren, why did you have to choose against us? Even though he thought his son was a stupid oaf, he did love and miss him. Still, humanity comes first.

He glanced at Aaravos, who seemed to ignore their conversation. He wants me to create this 'Heart of a Dragon'. But why? Sure, such a primal stone would be incredibly powerful, but I can't help but wonder if there's not more to this.

He looked away from the bug creature, but his mind was already making plans on how to deal with him. Tread carefully now, star-elf. Once the time is right, I will rid myself of you, before you grow too powerful.


Author's note:

Here we are again. I hope you enjoyed the chapter. I actually had to adjust a lot of the stuff I already wrote for Eye of the Storm. This chapter was originally 20K words long, but that just wouldn't work in the current set-up for various reasons (too much Rayllum, not enough spotlight for other characters, too much dialogue, too little action, etc etc). So I shifted things around a bit, moving quite a few parts to chapter 3, and scrapping other parts. Scrapped parts might appear in a different work as a series of one-shots.

As always, thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this piece, leave a review! And if you don't, leave a review! I always believe in honesty, and though I of course like the compliments, I also recognize that there is still much to learn for me in the world of writing. Cheers mates!