After another long day of travel, the caravan finally reached the bottom of the Storm Spire. Most of the elven delegates departed immediately back to their various homes and estates, but some of the nobles stayed, seeking further audience with the dragon king. They were now bargaining with some dragons to give them a lift so that they could forgo the long climb to the top.

The Dragonguard was present as well. Rayla was immediately greeted by Pincaelo, who had flown down from the spire to greet the visitors.

"Captain Rayla! You're back!" The excitable young skywing elf dropped down in front of them and gave Rayla a hug, which she was very hesitant to accept.

"Erm… that's fine, Pincaelo. Good to be here and all, you can let go now!"

She did so, then she saw Callum standing a few feet away, already hoisting various bags filled with Rayla's newly acquired 'birthday funds'. "Prince Callum! You've returned as well!"

"Yup!" said Callum, trying not to show how heavy these bags felt.

"Any news in my absence?" Rayla asked, trying to stay professional.

The elf shook her head. "Not really. No attacks, no intrusions, no news from other parts of Xadia. It's been a quiet week!"

Rayla sighed deeply. Finally! That means no more days bein' cooped up and writin' reports! "That's good to hear! Do you think you can help us get our stuff back up the mountain?"

"Sure! What do you have?"

Rayla looked back to Callum, who gestured at the pile of bags behind him. It was a small pile, but all the jewels and coins made it rather heavy.

Pincaelo puffed her cheeks as she saw the pile. "I'll need a few trips. Well, better get started!" She grabbed a bag, tested its weight, and flew up in the sky.

Rayla watched her go as Callum walked up next to her. "So, you wanna walk with the rest or shall I carry you up there?" Callum said, also looking up as the skywing Dragonguard disappeared in the air.

"Why on earth would we want to walk when we can fly?" Rayla asked, astonished that he would even suggest walking.

"Well, it's good exercise. Besides, last time I followed you up on that mountain, I found the view in front of me was really… fascinating."

It took Rayla only a moment to comprehend what he was getting at. She blushed but had to laugh at his crude joke and gave him a playful shove. Unfortunately, Callum was already weighed down by the bags and he failed to keep his balance. He fell backwards and landed on his rump. Rayla stood before him, hands on her hips, a devious smile on her face.

"Well, that should serve you right, makin' jokes like that."

Callum merely grinned. "Still worth it though."

"I bet it was…" Rayla mumbled, more to herself than anyone else. She helped him get up again. "Well, it seems you need to make a choice, my sweet dumb prince. Either you get to 'enjoy the view' while we're walkin' up there, which will take all day! Or…"

"Or what?"

"I get to hold you very close as you fly us up there."

Callum pretended to think about it. "Really? I mean, why choose? We could just walk one half, and…" He was quickly shut up as Rayla stumped him in the stomach, then kissed him on the mouth.

"Ouch! Is it always going to be like this?" He said, laughing because of her violent show of affection.

"Only if you play dumb, dummy. Just carry us. If we get up there quickly, we can relax in my room a little." Her eyes were twinkling as she said it.

Callum immediately dropped the bags and stretched his arms. "Manus-pluma-volantis!" he rather hastily spoke the incantation, causing his mage wings to appear.

Rayla grinned. Hook, line and sinker!

-/-/-/-

Once the pair landed on the plateau, they were greeted by Bosor. "Ah, captain! And Prince Callum…"

Rayla snickered at Bosor's hesitance to accept Callum, not really put off by it. "Yes Bosor, we're back."

"I didn't expect you to arrive so soon. Now that you're here, I should let you know the king has asked for your presence."

Rayla sighed. "Well, so much for quietly sneakin' inside." She pecked Callum on the cheek. "I won't be long, I hope."

"Actually, I meant Prince Callum," Bosor clarified, visibly uneasy with the display of affection.

Both Callum and Rayla were surprised by that. "Oh. Right, well, best not keep him waitin' then!" Rayla said nervously. Callum gulped.

They both entered the spire, where they saw Keryn and Catlyn quietly talking to each other. Rayla greeted them but walked with Callum to the entrance of the great hall. Callum could already see the two dragons sitting inside, waiting for him.

"Go on, I'm sure it will be fine." Rayla encouraged him.

"I know, but still. Dragons!"

Rayla snickered. "Yeah, but try to remember they are on our side. Queen Zubeia is actually quite nice."

Callum looked at her questioningly at that statement, but Rayla didn't elaborate. He took a deep sigh, steeled himself and walked in.

"Good luck!" Rayla shouted while she positioned herself near the door.

As soon as she sat down, someone else settled next to her. It was Catlyn, wearing a stupid grin on her face. "So, my dear captain. Tell me all about your little 'excursion' with the prince!"

Rayla groaned. Ugh, of course. Here we go...

Callum walked into the great hall. King Aureum Umbra and Queen Zubeia were already waiting for him, but Callum also saw another figure; a tall elf with pale, blue skin wearing dark green and blue robes, not unlike Ibis had worn, but these seemed more elaborate. The elf was male and had a pointed face. White markings covered the sides and centre of his face. It was a pattern where the straight lines swirled a little, but every hook and corner was jagged and sudden. It only made his appearance more daunting. Long white hair flowed down and was woven in an intricate pattern. Two horns protruded from his head, edging outwards before making a sudden turn upwards. The man looked at him with a stern expression. "This is my new student? Is this why I was summoned with all due haste!?"

"Watch yourself, Master Thorus. Remember who your betters are," the king spoke in warning tones. The elf shut up but didn't seem happy about it. The king ignored this, focussing his eyes on the young human who had entered his halls. "Prince Callum. As promised, I have found you a teacher of the sky arcanum. This here is Master Thorus. He is the most gifted mage of the sky arcanum in all of Xadia. You could not wish for a better teacher."

Callum thought that with the attitude this elf had just shown, he just might. Still, he didn't want to be rude, nor make a bad first impression. He bowed slightly as he addressed the elf. "Master Thorus, it's nice to meet you. I'm-'

"-Some prince, yes, I've heard. My king, please explain why I have to teach a human about the sky arcanum?"

Callum thought it was high time for a demonstration, but the king beat him to his response. "You do not get to make demands of your king, Thorus. Instead, you will do as asked, and trust in our better judgement. Do I make myself clear?" the king growled as he lowered his head towards Thorus.

Callum thought it best not to interrupt them. He turned his attention to Queen Zubeia, but she was purposefully away, instead tending to Zym, who was enjoying the nudges from his mother. When he looked back, Thorus seemed to have resigned himself to his fate.

"Fine, I will teach him… as you demand, my liege. Just tell me, how am I supposed to get him to the Aero Temple? Would you have me carry him on my back as well?"

The dragon king snickered, a low rumbling sound that echoed through the halls. "You will find that this human is very… resourceful. Now go! Teach him until the prince is satisfied, or until you hear otherwise."

The elf grimaced, bowed and walked towards the exit. As he passed Callum, he didn't even look at him. "Follow me then," he said as he continued walking, not even looking to see if Callum actually followed.

Callum muttered a thank you to the dragons, bowed quickly and followed his new teacher. He caught up and walked slightly behind him, figuring that he would address him when he was ready for it. He had a bad feeling about this, however. This elf seemed to be quite upset that he had a human thrust upon him. Oh well, thought Callum, I'm sure that when he sees what I can do with the sky arcanum, he will be happy to teach me! At least, he hoped so.

As soon as he had exited the great hall, Rayla caught up with him. "Hey! How did it go?"

Callum shrugged and gave her a worried frown, pointing at the elf he was following at a brisk pace.

"Oh…" Rayla gave them a confused glance and walked along in silence.

As they reached the plateau in front of the entrance of the spire, the elf stopped. He still had his back to them. "So, the great dragon wants me to teach you about the sky arcanum… I can't see the wisdom in teaching you, as the knowledge is wasted on the likes of you. But alright, we'll see how long you will last…" He now turned around and looked surprised at Rayla's appearance. "Ah, the Dragonguard captain. I'm pleased to know that you keep an eye on your guests. I do hope you will keep protecting the Storm Spire from any danger." His eyes shot to Callum as he said that last part.

Rayla didn't have the patience for this kind of attitude. "Are you quite done?"

The elf blinked. "Begging your pardon?"

"You're bein' an arse, even by elven standards."

"I'm merely pointing out possible… points of aggression."

"You're a point of aggression right now!"

The man seemed disgusted by the comment. "It pains me to find out that the esteemed captain of the Dragonguard is such a spoiled brat."

Rayla looked shocked for only a second, before spitting out her own reply. "Careful now, before A throw ye of da spire maself! Ya can at least be a little respectful!"

"I'll decide for myself who has earned my respect. You're just a baby with a sword. I assume your parents are the reason you have got your job?"

Callum stared at them as they started to raise their voices. Within moments, they were having a shouting match in front of him. Several Dragonguard came to look at what had gotten their captain worked up like that. Callum looked around to see if any of them could help, as Rayla was poised to go for his new teacher's throat. He spotted Zeron among the Dragonguard, watching impassively, and quickly stepped towards him.

"Zeron! Hey, could you perhaps…?" Callum gestured at the pair.

Zeron shook his head, however. "Doesn't seem particularly healthy for me to get involved."

Callum gave him an exasperated look. "What should I do then?"

Zeron seemed unsure for a moment. "You know I'm not a people person, right?"

Callum nodded, keeping a wary eye on his girlfriend and his teacher. Thorus was shouting something about him being able to easily blow their entire Dragonguard off this mountain, and Rayla warned him that, should he try, it would have dire consequences.

"Well, whatever you do, Callum, I suggest you pick your girlfriend's side, in public at least. Nothing good ever came of fighting against the one you love."

Callum sighed. He supposed he should try to placate the two, just as he had done in the past with Soren, Claudia and Rayla. Thing is, he was relatively sure of the outcome then, being friends with all of them. He didn't know what this elf's deal was, and the only thing that kept him from joining Rayla in the shouting match was that this was his one and only appointed teacher. He grumbled and walked back to the pair.

"- and if you think that any mage would stand for such insult-!"

"Insults!? You're da one callin' me a greenhorn!"

"Alright, alright, break it up!" Callum pushed himself between them. "Let's all just calm down and take a deep breath." He gave both of them a wary look.

"You don't get to tell me to calm down, you human scum!" the elf spat. Rayla opened her mouth to defend her boyfriend but Callum glanced at her and shook his head.

"I don't know why you're angry, mister Thorus."

"It's Master Thorus, you ingrate! Don't you know anything!?"

Callum swallowed and tried to keep his cool. "Master Thorus, very well. It seems that you are to be my teacher. How and when and where do you want to begin teaching me?"

Thorus gave Callum a long, hard look, with some occasional hateful glares towards Rayla, who eagerly returned them. "I suppose as soon as we reach the Sky Temple. Do you humans still use horses?"

"We do… though if I may ask, how did you get here?"

The elf's eyes narrowed. "By using magic beyond your comprehension."

Callum tried hard not to roll his eyes out of reflex. "Right, but, you flew, right?"

The elf crossed his arms. "...yes, of course."

Callum gave him a bright smile. "Great! I'll make sure I'll be able to keep up then!"

Now Thorus burst into laughter. "Whaha! You!? Fly!? And how are you going to manage that?"

A sly grin crossed Callum's face as he stretched his arms and intoned the spell. "Manus, pluma, volantis!" His mage wings appeared causing both the elf and Rayla to jump backwards, though the latter was expecting it. The look of utter shock on Thorus' face was priceless.

"Wha- what?" He looked Callum over once, twice, thrice, but he could not discover a primal stone. Nor should it be possible for him, a human, to cast this particular spell anyway "B-but how?"

Rayla picked at her nails, not looking up as she addressed the sky arcanum master. "Oh, you'll find the prince is very talented…" Her eyes crossed his and she gave him a grin which mirrored that of Callum.

Thorus looked flabbergasted but tried to regain his composure. "R-right. Well, try to be here by tomorrow morning, so we can leave at sunrise. If you can indeed keep up, it shouldn't take more than a full day of flying to reach the Sky Temple." He gave another look of disbelief to Callum, who folded his wings and dispelled them. "Just be prepared, human. You will be stuck at the temple for several months before we let you leave again. The study will be rigorous!"

If the elf hoped to see any doubt in Callum's face, he failed, as Callum simply smiled. "No worries. This is what I want! I'll see you tomorrow then!" Callum turned, grabbed Rayla by the arm and quickly walked away, leaving Thorus on the platform.

"Well, that went… okay I suppose." Callum mused.

Rayla scoffed at his remark. "Really? You're stuck with a scunner for a teacher, Callum. Really, I feel sorry for you."

"Maybe he just needs to warm up to my charming personality?"

Rayla snickered. "Maybe… But I doubt it."

Callum put his arms around her. "Right, now that's done, I believe someone suggested we go somewhere quieter?"

"Whoever gave you that idea?" Rayla said, but her eyes were already half-closed as she leaned in to kiss him.

"Ahum!"

The pair quickly broke off their kiss, turning in annoyance to face Bosor.

"Captain, sorry to interrupt…"

"A'm sure you are…" Rayla said in a voice laden with vinegar.

"Uhm, well, it's the nobles, captain. They are starting a fight amongst themselves in the great hall. Your presence is requested to restore order."

"Urgh!" Rayla gave an exasperated sigh. "Okay, fine, lead the way!" She quickly pecked Callum on the cheek. "This might take a while. I'll come and find you when I'm done, alright?"

Callum grinned. "Alright. You do what you do best; go kick some noble butt!"

Rayla let out a short laugh. "That was awful, Callum!" She quickly followed Bosor, who still eyed the pair with unease. I really should have a talk with him one of these days, Rayla mused. It began to bother her a bit that he was harbouring bad feelings towards Callum.

Callum sighed as he watched Rayla walk back into the spire. So much for our quiet time together, he thought. He looked around. It was rather busy up here. There were quite a lot of elves walking and talking at the plateau and in the Storm Spire. By the looks of it, most of them held some sort of important position in Xadia. Or they must just like pretty clothing and jewellery, he thought.

He figured the arrival of the caravan must have signalled some of the other nobles from Lux Aurea and other cities to meet up here so that they could speak to the dragon king together. He also figured he should stay out of their politics as much as he could.

While observing his surroundings, his mind was replaying his encounter with his new teacher. He couldn't say he especially liked the elf, but after the incident in the caravan, this sort of thing was to be expected. Rayla had some encounters with hate and racism as well in Duren, Callum thought. Something bugged him though. Something that Thorus said. 'You will be stuck at the temple for several months before we let you leave again…' Several months…

He had been separated from Rayla before, but only for about three weeks. And that was about a week ago. Can I really be without her for several months? They did talk about this briefly during their trip back to the Storm Spire, but Callum had put off really thinking about it. His teacher warning him about this suddenly made this more real. He frowned. I don't want to think about this right now….

Callum stretched. Happy thoughts! Time for some distraction! I might as well do some practice with my magic. He made his way to the top of the spire, determined to spend his time as useful as possible.

-/-/-/-

The castle gates opened as the king and his guard entered. Various soldiers saluted. Soren noted with satisfaction that the soldiers posted at the gates looked alert. He nodded with approval to them. They should be on guard, he thought. Viren is still alive, and so is Clauds. Who knows what they will send to Katolis… As a member of the crownguard, he made it a point to be in top shape. He expected his fellow guards to do the same.

The group dismounted and made their way to their own various quarters. There was no formal reception for the king as he returned, other than being greeted by Opeli and the head of the castle guard. They both requested an audience with the king to get him up to speed with recent developments.

Ezran sighed. "Do I have to, Opeli? I've travelled non-stop for a couple of days now! Can't I get a jelly tart first?"

Soren stifled a laugh. That kid will never change.

Opeli sighed. "His majesty can request jelly tarts while we are having the meeting."

Ezran immediately perked up. "I do so request it!"

As they went inside and got the meeting started, their good spirits disappeared quickly. The captain of the guard had little news to report, being only responsible for the safety and security of the castle, but the news Opeli brought them was far more dire.

"So far as we can tell, the citizens of Neolandia has now fully embraced dark magic and are practising this on a large scale. Men and women from all ages and all walks of life are joining the True Light, as the cult of dark magic users call themselves."

"How are we so sure that it's a cult?" Soren piped up, still hopeful that somewhere, his sister had good intentions.

Opeli looked at him with a blunt expression. "They seem to be operating similarly to the small group found in Duren. They spread a message of positivity, fueling their practices with the essence of magical creatures taken from Xadia."

"How do we know that they are taking creatures from Xadia?" Ezran asked. "Maybe they're just using beetles and stuff from the desert."

Opeli said nothing, but handed him a scroll. "This message came to the castle this morning. Since you appointed me as your replacement in your absence, I've taken the liberty of investigating its contents." She gently placed the scroll in Ezran's lap. His appetite for jelly tarts forgotten for the moment, he put his pastries aside and started reading the scroll. Soren winced as he saw Ezran's buttery fingers stain the official document.

Ezran read the letter once, then once more, and then a third time. "No,no,no! This isn't good!" He pointed at the offending letter as he looked at Opeli. "This message is from King Aureum Umbra! He says that if we do not do something to stop the dark magic ingredient trade, then he cannot prevent individual elf tribes from striking back! I thought we had peace!"

That's odd, thought Soren. I thought Ez and that dragon king got along great a few days ago. Why the threatening message?

Opeli quickly placated the young king. "We still have peace. This message is a bit of a test. The king of Xadia is simply trying to figure out how far you are willing to go in our newfound alliance." She looked down at the now stained letter. "Though he could have worded it more subtly. I also think this is his way of getting back at you for the letter you and Queen Aanya sent to him."

Ezran frowned. "So… this is kind of like a game then? I make a move, and then he makes a move?"

Opeli smiled and nodded. "The greatest game of all. The game of politics!"

Now Ezran smiled as well. "Oh! I like games! Let's play then! What do you think our next move should be?"

Opeli smiled. "Well, let me teach you, my king. I'm sure you will make for a daunting opponent."

-/-/-/-

Callum already figured that his magic skills should be top-notch when he really started training with his teacher, and he hoped this last bit of practice would keep him focussed on this task. However, when he arrived, he found that the plateau on top of the Storm Spire was already occupied. One of the Dragonguard was training there. Callum remembered her name. Kiyara, I believe. He watched as she swung her sword in quick arcs around herself. He also spotted Zeron walking in a large circle around her, observing her form, commenting occasionally.

"Keep the flow, Kiyara. Slow down if you must, but keep the flow."

Kiyara grunted, spun and twisted, her blade circling around her form. Callum imagined that no enemy could get close to her while she had that sword in her hand. It was truly a unique fighting style. More like an art style really. I wonder if Soren could win if he fought her. He walked around her to where Zeron was standing. Just as he was about to speak, Zeron held up his hand without looking at him, motioning for him to stay quiet.

"Alright, now practice your finisher," Zeron said, his eyes trained on the elf and her blade.

Kiyara slowed down for only a moment, before her sword circled upwards from her side very rapidly, ending with a strong swipe at head height. She remained motionless in that final pose, panting heavily.

Zeron nodded. "Well done, Kiyara. You are improving. You need to work on your footwork though. You remain in the same spot for too long."

"Thank... you...my mentor." She took a few deep breaths to regain her composure.

Zeron walked up to her and patted her shoulder. "Get some rest, get cleaned up. Your shift starts in a few hours after all."

She gave him a weak smile and made her way down, back to her quarters.

Once she left, Callum couldn't contain his excitement. "That was amazing! The way she swooshed her sword, and then like, twisted and slashed! Wow!" He gestured with his arms like they were swords for emphasis.

Zeron laughed. "I'm glad you liked it. I've been training her for a while now. She's really improving. I'm proud that she got to serve in the Dragonguard."

"So, are you a swordfighter as well? And a mage? And a dragon? All at the same time?"

Zeron shrugged. "I have my hobbies." He didn't elaborate; only smiled mysteriously before turning his head towards the horizon.

They both stared silently at the expanse before them. Clouds drifted through the sky, but there were clear patches, enabling them to see some glimpses of the ground below.

"I'm still having a hard time believing you are actually a dragon," Callum said at last, voicing his thoughts.

"I can imagine."

"I have to ask though. Back in Katolis, at the castle? Was all that just an act?" Callum thought back on the couple of days he had spent with Zeron, or 'Belt' as he had called himself. The man had seemed a lot younger, almost childish in his behaviour. It was a stark contrast with the serious and mysterious man he was now.

Zeron turned to look at Callum, who had an earnest look on his face. From it, he deduced that this was important to Callum. "Partly, though mostly not," he said at length. "I like working with you, and I am honestly interested in learning more about the various arcana. And it was also fun to let my more immature, awkward side surface again. You basically saw me as I was about 400 years ago."

Callum's eyes widened. "You're that old!?"

Zeron grinned. "Older."

"Wow…" Callum tried to imagine becoming that old, and how much the world would change around him. "So how old do dragons get?"

"Depends on the species, and on their connection to magic."

"You mean the arcana?"

"...yes, I suppose. The archdragons can easily reach fifteen-thousand years, the smaller ones I believe can reach up to eight-hundred years. I don't think there's a set age limit for when their body gives out, however. It's more that they die violent deaths due to infighting or outside forces. Take Avizandum for example. He was well over a thousand years old, just past his prime. He could have reached a second millennium, were it not for the terrible fate that had befallen him."

"Hmmm, that's still so much older than humans get. I think most of us don't live past eighty or ninety." A strange, worrying thought suddenly struck Callum. "Zeron? How old do elves get?"

"Again, depends on the species, and sometimes, on their connection to the arcanum. I believe most elves live at least one or two centuries, but a rare few elves are star-touched and can live for over a millennia."

"Oh…" was all Callum could say. It was silent for a while as he contemplated what this meant for him, or, more specifically, possibly for them. "And...um…. Moonshadow elves?"

Zeron looked at him curiously. "Well, with good health, I think Rayla will live close to two-hundred years, maybe a little more if she's lucky."

Callum's face fell. Two centuries! Two hundred years! And… at least a hundred years without me! He felt dizzy and wobbled a bit. Zeron quickly reached out and steadied him.

"Careful now. We are on the highest peak in all of Xadia, so don't fall. Deep breaths."

"Two-hundred years… Zeron, I-I… I won't be around that long!" Callum looked up to him in panic.

"No… you probably won't…" Zeron's voice was not unkind as he said that. "Have you talked with her about this?" Callum shook his head. "Then you probably should. Though, you should also consider the importance of time."

"What do you mean?"

A sad look crossed Zeron's face. "What is more important to you; the total amount of time you spend together, or the moments you had together?"

"Uh… I mean…"

"Don't answer that. Not to me at least. But you should talk to Rayla." He motioned for him to leave the plateau. "Go now. I figure she will be done with whatever business she was attending."

Callum, still trying to get a grip on all his thoughts, half-ran half stumbled towards the stairs and made his way down. Zeron watched him go, then turned around to watch the skies. The sun was going down, and it was growing darker. Poor kid… he mused. I've been there… I hope he'll fare better than I did.

As it turned out, Rayla was still busy sorting things out between the nobles. Callum didn't know what was going on, but she and two other Dragonguard (Callum thought their names were Catlyn and Keryn) were still in the great hall and were separating two groups of nobles, who by the looks of it, had come to blows over one issue or another. The dragon king looked none too pleased. Rayla had seen Callum standing in the entrance and had shot him an apologetic look before focusing on the two groups again. Things were tense, and she had to remain vigilant.

With nothing else to do, Callum grabbed some food from a tray left in the hall and sat down in the corner. He grabbed his sketchbook and let his mind wander. He felt sad and depressed. He didn't know how he could have a future together with Rayla if he couldn't match her lifespan. His hand was already sketching, and before he knew it, he had sketched a picture of them together.

However, Callum looked a fair bit older. He added wrinkles to his face and had given himself a stooped appearance. He had also drawn himself with a heavy beard. He was already growing a stubble and had to remind himself to shave every other morning. Rayla however, looked like she always had. Young, beautiful, strong and fearsome, loving and kind.

When he was done, his hand trembled a bit. Dark spots appeared on the sketch as a few tears had fallen down on the yellowed paper. He quickly rubbed his eyes with his hand. I'm a mess.

He thought about going outside and flying for a bit. Flying was always fun. But he was afraid he wouldn't be able to keep his focus on the spell. He was also afraid of the reaction he would get from his new teacher, should he see him. He resigned himself to just sit there, maybe sketch a bit more.

Time passed. The sun had set. Callum had entertained himself with sketching the various people passing through the halls. He had seen one or two Dragonguard, one group of nobles exiting the great hall, his new teacher (who threw him a dark look, which he ignored), and little Zym, who snuck out for only a moment before being called back by his mother. He smiled as he saw the little dragon. I miss the little guy. They had had some great adventures together, and Callum felt sad now that those were over. Zym was safe at home now, and Callum figured that his mother wouldn't let him out of her sight until he had grown up a little and could take care of himself a bit more.

After what had seemed like hours, Rayla finally emerged from the great hall, together with the other two Dragonguard and the rest of the nobles. Callum noted that the nobles were all escorted straight out of the spire by the two Dragonguard, while Rayla made a beeline for him.

"Gods, finally! I thought those bone-headed idiots would never shut up!" Rayla flopped down beside him and stretched.

Callum gave her a careful smile. "All done for today?"

Rayla nodded. "Yeah, I delegated some of my responsibilities to Catlyn, so I get to spend the rest of the evenin' with you. After all, we never really have that much time together, do we?" She was joking as she said that, however, Callum's face immediately twisted into a grimace. Rayla noticed, and was concerned about his reaction. "Callum, what is it?"

Callum sighed deeply. "Rayla, we should talk." He looked about. "Not here though. Can we… go to your room?"

"Erm… sure!" she said with fake cheer. Inside, Callum's behaviour worried her. He wants to talk? About what?

They made their way to Rayla's quarters and closed the door behind them. "So…" Rayla started as she lit the luneflame.

"So…" Callum closed his eyes. This is so hard! He tried to get his thoughts in order but was shaken out of his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder. He looked into the violet eyes of Rayla.

"Callum…" She looked worried.

She should be, Callum thought as he tried to figure out what to say next. "Rayla, I know you think big feelings time is weird, but… I've been having some big feelings about the future, and… I've also had a talk with Zeron."

"Zeron." Rayla's face seemed to freeze over when he mentioned his name.

"Yes, I know you don't like him, but we talked about something that you and I haven't considered yet and I really think we should talk about that now." He took another deep breath.

Rayla in the meantime was grasping at straws at what he was trying to get at. What on earth is he worried about? Is this the intimacy thing again!? And why would he talk to Zeron about that!? Internally, she was getting pretty worked up, but she tried to be patient and listen to what Callum had to say. "Callum, just spit it out. We're friends. We can talk about things, right?"

"Right, I mean, we're a bit more than friends, though, aren't we?" Callum said, a bit uncertain.

Rayla laughed, secretly relieved at what he implied. "I should hope so. Don't go thinkin' I just smoosh with every prince I meet." She kissed him on the lips softly. He let her, and she felt him relax a tiny bit. "Callum, what's wrong?" She whispered this while placing her head against his, staring into his big, green eyes.

Callum felt her breath on his lips as she said this. Alright, big feelings time, just let it out. "Rayla, I'm afraid I'm going to die."

"Wait, what?" Rayla broke the embrace and took a step backwards.

Well, that came out wrong! "I mean, not now! But someday. And I'll probably die a lot sooner than you will. And… I don't want to put you through that."

Rayla stared at him. "THAT'S what you're worried about!?"

Callum didn't know how to interpret her reaction. He sat down on the bed and motioned for her to sit beside him. She did so, but hesitantly. "See, I've been thinking a bit. About the future, I mean. For the last few months, we have been stuck together." He saw her frown at him. "I liked it!" he added hastily. "I like being with you. It makes me feel warm and fuzzy…" He had been smiling as he said that, but his smile fled as he thought about what to say next. "But now that those adventures are done… What kind of future do we have? Do we really want this?"

Rayla was confused. "I… I thought you already had it figured out! You kept talkin' about me bein' your princess and all that…"

"I was joking!" Callum groaned as he saw Rayla's expression turn into one of hurt and disbelief. "I mean, yes, I want you as my princess, but I really didn't give it any serious thought. We barely got to plan ahead last time we travelled. This is new to me!"

Rayla now looked away. She had been harbouring some similar scary thoughts, though she hadn't considered their different lifespan. But she had always pushed those thoughts away, figuring that they could just barrel through this. Now, she wasn't so sure. She had hoped that Callum would be the confident one to reassure her, but now it turned out he was harbouring doubts as well.

She thought about the difficulties they already had encountered, about their difference in race, and the fact that they could only be together for a few days before being separated again for months. She was angry too, that Callum seemed to want to give up so easily. "So what, ya get scolded at by a few elves and have one talk with that eejit of a dragon, and now ye're dumpin' me?"

Callum felt a stab of pain enter his chest. "What? No! That's not what I was-"

Rayla suddenly turned to him. Her eyes were angry, and brimming with tears. "A thought ya loved me! A thought ya cared for me!"

"Rayla please!" Callum wanted to hug her, but he picked up on her need for personal space right now. So he just stared at those angry eyes. He wanted her to look at him lovingly again, but he didn't want to hurt her, and he was afraid of what he would put her through if they continued like this. He searched his mind for the right words. "I just… I love you, Rayla. More than anything." He gave her a weak smile. "That's why I jumped after you, remember?"

Rayla's mind went back immediately to that moment. She had tackled Viren and cast the both of them off the Storm Spire. As she fell towards her doom, she knew how she had felt. A strange kind of peace that she had at least succeeded in her mission to protect the prince, but also regret, that the few weeks she had spent with Callum was all she was going to get. That she couldn't hold him in her arms again. And she felt surprise, gratitude and sadness as she saw him falling towards her, glad that he was willing to go down with her, but sad because he still had so much to live for. Why go down with me? She had thought.

It dawned on her that this must be how Callum was feeling right now. He knew he would die before her, and didn't want her to waste her life for him. "Oh, Callum…" She sniffed and held out her arms.

Callum embraced her and held her close. He felt his own tears flowing as well.

She held onto him for a bit and only let go when she felt she had some control over her emotions again. "Is that what you are afraid of? That I will waste away without ya?"

"Yes… I mean… I'll be gone for my studies for quite a bit… and even if our relationship survives that… What will happen then? You are stuck here, being the captain of the Dragonguard, and I'm the prince of Katolis. I'll probably have to live in the castle for the rest of my life." He sighed. He regretted bringing this up, seeing how his words hurt her and their relationship, but at the same time he knew he had to say it, knowing that this was something that they never brought up, but it would come into play sooner or later.

"Rayla, please understand, I really want to be with you, more than anything!" He looked her in the eyes as he cupped her face with his hands. She let him, bringing her own hand up to touch his. She looked back into those sad, green eyes as he continued. "But I don't want to hurt you either. Is it really such a good idea? The two of us together?"

She held his gaze for a moment before looking away again. His words hurt, the pain visible on her face. "A don't know…" She stood up and started pacing. "Callum, A've never had a boyfriend before. A don't know anythin' aboot bein' together. Why are we even talkin' aboot this? We've been only togetha for…" She made a quick count in her head. "Little more than a month?" She was amazed at that. Was it really that short?

Callum sniffled and shrugged. "I dunno. I just hate hurting you, Rayla. I don't want to lead you on into something impossible." He looked down at the floor and felt tears gathering in his eyes.

Rayla kneeled down in front of him and grasped his hand. "But doin' the impossible is what we're good at! Callum, A dunno what's gonna happen in the future. But we nearly got killed in Duren! It seems silly to worry aboot somethin' that's so far off! And… and your studies, well, they only last a few years right?" She gave him a hopeful smile. "A can wait a few years. And after that, well, we can just see what fate has in store for us, ye ken?"

Callum grinned, despite his tears. She looked so hopeful right now, even though her smile was so fragile. He also noticed something else. "You're doing it again."

Rayla looked at him, confused. "Doin' wha?"

"Your old accent. It's back again."

Rayla blushed. "Ye-yeah, you're right. Sorry, I-"

"Rayla, it's fine. I told you, I like it."

Rayla smiled at that. She sighed and leaned into his chest. Callum held her and stroked her hair and, very carefully, her horns. Rayla giggled. "Ya like my horns?"

"Love em," was the immediate reply.

They were both silent for a while. Rayla was still waiting for a reply, but she was content to be held in Callum's arms for the moment. Callum was mulling over what Rayla had said. She is right. He thought. Why am I even thinking about all those problems? But deep down, he knew why. He felt that he truly loved this elf girl, and after what they had both been through, he didn't think he would ever find anyone who could compare. She is my future. I want her to be my future. But is it really possible?

Callum slowly dislodged himself from the elf, who was still part way on the floor and had been leaning against him. "I want to show you something." He grabbed his sketchbook and sat down beside Rayla on the ground, flipping through the pages until he came upon his sketches from this afternoon. Rayla looked at the sketch silently, tracing a finger along the lines carefully so she wouldn't smudge them. She traced the beard Callum had on the picture, and traced the wrinkles in his face.

"I'll be lucky if you age this well." She smiled at him.

He smiled back, though there was a hint of sadness in his. "I hope so. But the point is-"

"I know what the point is." She sighed. She thought back to her conversation with Queen Zubeia. We dragons live a long time and generally, we mate for life, the dragon had said to her. So you have to be really careful about who you select as a mate. It had never occurred to her that this would apply to her as well. Still, as she looked back at the picture, she felt some hope. She saw something that she longed for. A future together.

"Callum…" Her voice was trembling a bit. She felt very fragile. "A know that our lifespan is different. But we've been through so much already! We are so lucky to be alive in the first place! And even though our lives have been dangerous, we've had so many wonderful moments together!"

As she said this, Callum had to think back to something Zeron had said. What is more important to you; the total amount of time you spend together, or the moments you had together? He now had an inkling of what Zeron meant by that.

"Maybe you're right." Rayla looked up in surprise as he said this. "Maybe I'm overthinking this. Again, I really don't want to hurt you, and I really want to be with you."

Rayla felt herself melting as he said that. After all the tension talking about this topic, this was what she needed to hear.

Callum looked her in the eyes. "I love you, Rayla. I really, really do."

"And I love you, Callum, my sweet, dumb prince." She kissed him and leaned against him. "We'll get through this, somehow."

Callum snorted. "Hey, that's my line!"

-/-/-/-

It was early morning when Callum and Rayla walked up the plateau of the Storm Spire. Thorus was already waiting for them. He watched them with a stern gaze, his eyes resting on their intertwined hands, but if he held any reservations about their apparent relationship status, he made no comment about it.

"Well, you're here. You showed me your mage wings yesterday. Can I assume you know how to use them?"

Callum nodded. "I've used them quite a lot since I learned the spell."

Thorus raised one eyebrow. "And when was that?"

"Oh, ehm… about… a month ago? A little more?"

Thorus' eyes almost bulged out of their sockets. "A month!? You've been practising this spell for only a month!? There is no way you know how to use them then!"

Callum looked offended. "Well, excuse me! I've only flown to Katolis Capital and back! Only took me a couple of days…"

Thorus started stuttering, then mumbled something incoherent. He was visibly upset by this information. Rayla looked worried that she had to leave Callum in the care of this 'loony', but there wasn't anything to be done about it.

Thorus took a few deep breaths, composing himself. "Right, well, we'll fly low until I'm convinced of your abilities. Are you ready to go then?"

"Just a moment," Callum said, and he turned to Rayla. "Well…"

"Here we are, again…" Rayla finished for him.

Callum gave her a small smile. "Yeah… though someday, in the future, I'll be here to stay."

Rayla snickered. "What, I thought you said you would end up in a castle?"

Callum merely shrugged as Rayla pointed out his contradiction. "Perhaps. What I meant was: I'll be staying with you then." Now he smiled earnestly at her. She smiled back.

"Goodbye, Callum. Good luck with your studies."

"Goodbye Rayla. I love you, and I'll miss you."

They kissed and hugged for a bit. It lasted until they were interrupted by shouts coming from a few Dragonguard who were watching them say goodbye. "Whooo! Go, captain!"

Rayla felt her cheeks heat up at the unbashful shouting. "Ugh… Catlyn." she groaned.

Callum shrugged, still holding her in his arms. "I'm not bothered by it. In fact, I'm proud to have you as my girlfriend."

Rayla now actually giggled and gave him a few quick kisses. She loved it when he played being all confident.

Thorus cleared his throat loudly. "Today, human! I want to leave today! As in, now! Not tomorrow, not in an hour, now!"

Callum sighed heavily. "Well, so long, Rayla."

Before he could turn away, Rayla grabbed him by the scarf and pressed a quick and aggressive kiss on his lips. "I love you. Don't forget that." There was passion in the kiss, but a bit of desperation as well.

Callum swallowed. He stroked her cheek. "I-I won't…" Then he turned away and stretched his arms. Both Thorus and Callum incanted the spell. Thorus still looked sceptical that this human could actually pull this off, but the mage wings appeared on Callum's arms as they always did and soon he soared through the sky, accompanying Thorus, who employed the same spell.

Rayla watched them go for a bit before a shiver returned her to the present. It was cold this morning. The sun didn't have time yet to properly warm the Storm Spire. With heavy steps she moved away from the platform, doing her first steps into a future without Callum for a long time.

-/-/-/-

"So, our plan will be to persuade the dying king by healing him. Should this fail, we can still charm him." Viren said to his daughter and the giant bug controlled by Aaravos. Both of them were paying rapt attention. This was an important meeting after all.

"It's curious that the people here seem to be so connected to such an… inadequate ruler," Aaravos commented. On his several flights back to Xadia to harvest ingredients, he had passed towns and cities. They were nothing special to look at. Indeed, most of the country was on the poorer side and seemed to rely more on local authority than on a single ruler.

"With all his faults, King Ahling was still a kind man who will bestow gifts upon those who ask for it. But with us controlling him, we can turn him into an effective ruler," Viren replied. He then turned to Claudia. "Daughter, the task of persuading the king rests on your shoulders."

Claudia blanched at the sudden attention and responsibility. "Me? Wouldn't you rather go yourself?"

Viren seemed hesitant to answer this. "I think… that this is a great opportunity to show how much you've grown, how far you've come."

Claudia smiled broadly. "Thanks, dad! I won't let you down! I'll promise that I'll show that king just how awesome our new cult is!"

Viren groaned. "Stop calling it a cult…"

Aaravos' form stepped forward, demanding their attention. "Well now, this is a good plan to consolidate our power here, but there are other things that will need to be done in the meantime. Viren, if you're staying, why don't you help me construct the new primal stone?"

"The Heart of a Dragon? I thought we needed more ingredients for that." Though the ingredients harvested from the emperor reigar formed a solid base for the enchantments needed for creating the Heart of a Dragon, further study of ancient documents revealed that creating this mystical primal stone would not be so simple.

"We do. We need some rare ingredients, each connected to a specific animal from a specific primal source. We will need the claws of a banther, the birds of a skywise, the scales of a lavalizard, a moonpetal, the pearl made by an Everonian mussel, and a startouched rock. Then there are other things we need still, but I'll save those for later."

Claudia whistled. "Some are easy to get, but most of these things are extremely rare! "

Viren, however, was suspicious. "Other things?"

The bug tilted his head, and Viren had to imagine that Aaravos was smiling mysteriously like he often did. "I'll save the best for last."

Viren narrowed his eyes, again feeling at a disadvantage against this ancient being. "Very well, I'll stay and help."

Aaravos nodded. "Good. I can get the ingredients, but with these" -he gestured with his appendages, which ended in some sort of very small claws- "I can't prepare them. That's where you come in."

Viren nodded and grabbed the various maps and letters that were on the table. "I'll get your travel bag sorted, Claudia. Get some rest. You'll leave first thing in the morning."

Claudia walked back towards her chamber (more like her part of the cave) to grab her things when she noticed she was being followed through the halls by the bug creature. She frowned. Gross! What does it want? She turned a corner to walk in a different direction, but the creature remained on her trail, though it didn't speed up once it was clear Claudia knew she was being followed. This frustrated Claudia, who had never really experienced the creature one-on-one before. She trusted her dad's judgement, but she hadn't really made up her own mind yet. She increased her pace and before she knew it, she exited the cave and stood on a ridge overlooking the valley. It was nighttime, but the stars were casting their light down with abundance. It was then that she heard Aaravos speak.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" the creature said as it slowly moved forward.

Claudia was on guard. "What do you want, Aaravos? Why are you following me?"

"To talk," it simply said.

"Oh, uh, alright. Could you perhaps be a little less creepy though? You are freaking me out!" Claudia already had her hand in her component pouch behind her back, just in case the answer was no.

But the creature let out a chortle, which she imagined must be a laugh, and it stopped in its tracks, just a few feet away from Claudia.

"Oh, I wish you could see my original form. They told me I was absolutely gorgeous."

This change of topic was unexpected to Claudia, and she felt her own curiosity overtake her. "Well, you're a bug now. What happened to your original form then?"

"Oh, I'm still me. I'm simply controlling this bug across space and time to better aid you."

"Right, because you are trapped."

"Because I am trapped."

They stared at each other on the ridge, each measuring the other for their worth. It was Aaravos who broke the silence first.

"Daughter of Viren, I have… a proposition for you."

"Oh really? And what's that?"

"You must have noticed that Viren has been less himself these last few weeks. He is so busy in his mind with the future of humanity and leading his flock of followers that he struggles to move forward with our actual mission."

Claudia said nothing, but inwardly, she had seen the same thing. His reluctance to do the things he discussed with Aaravos, and his hesitance in using dark magic; it all pointed to the fact that her dad had changed since falling from the Storm Spire.

She was afraid that her resurrection spell might be responsible for it, but she did not want to discuss that spell with her father to find out if the spell was indeed responsible for his new characteristics. Her dad was a practical man, but she doubted that even he would approve of the things she'd done to get him back.

So she had locked that moment of her life deep, deep within herself, and pushed it out of her mind. "Alright, yeah, dad has changed a little. But we all did. I lost my brother, and I lost my friends."

"Yes, you did, but what if you could change that?"

Now Claudia was confused. "What?"

Aaravos took a step forward. "What if I gave you the power to change the stars? To change your destiny? What if I gave you the power to rekindle the flame of friendship with those that fought against you?"

Claudia thought of Callum and Ezran, though mostly about Callum. His boyish affections had seemed cute before, but right before she betrayed him, she did feel her own feelings stirring inside her. The want for something more. She also thought about her brother who had abandoned her, and then turned against her. He was now ready and willing to kill their father. Claudia turned her head away in disgust from the memory. No, Soren chose his path! He can choke on a glow toad for all I care. But Callum….

"Well, there is a friend I would like back. He's the prince of Katolis."

"Ah, you mean the boy who's now the king?"

"Huh, what? No, not Ezran! I mean Callum!"

Aaravos searched his memory. "Hmm, I can't say that I've had the pleasure of meeting this young man. What is he to you?"

Claudia smiled weekly, thinking of all the times they had spied on each other from afar during sparring sessions and in the library. "An old friend," she lied.

The creature showed its fangs in a horrible version of a smile. "Then let's get him back."


Author's note:

New one's up! Took me some time to write this. The Rayllum sections are very easy to write, but I have to focus a lot more to keep track of what the other characters are up to. This story will also focus a lot more on Soren and Claudia, so I will have to take that in account as well.

I'm overwhelmed by the positive responses the first chapter got! Thank you all so much! I hope that this chapter will not disappoint. These first two chapters set the stage for the rest of the 'season', and I'm excited to write them!

A sidenote; it is possible the next update will be a little later than usual. The good news; I'm getting married in June. The bad news; not everything is going as smoothly as they should, and they will require some extra attention, which means less time to write. I hope for your understanding in this.

As always, if you like, please let me know! Reviews always help to keep the motivation up! Cheers mates!

Review responses:

XxDeath01xX: Dude, wtf!? You already posted the review when the actual chapter wasn't even up yet! Nice! I sometimes get the response that the buildup I wrote for the last story was a bit slow. I hope I can keep things interesting for everyone!

Gustrubio: Thanks, thanks and thanks a lot! It feels good to have such a dedicated following! I try not to disappoint! About the feather; there were four feathers, containing the spells 'charm', 'darkness', 'illusion', and 'fireball' not gonna bother with faux latin names for them right now., so using the feathers is out. Aaravos would also need very special magic to repair his magical bug body, and right now he has the time to let it heal on its own, so he's just conserving his energy.

Zeron is… special. He's a character I'm quite fond of, but I'm just using him to give the protagonist a slight push in the right direction, nothing more. But who knows, maybe I'll write a story about him specifically sometime in the future.

Mdauben: Hehehe, that was what I was going for! So for, responses to that scene have been hilarious! And, to be fair, those kind of mix-ups are the cute kind of awkward moments in real life as well.

Mateusz Wersyski: Cheers, thanks! I try to keep things exciting and to not overfeed my readers with the same fluf.

Rainbowhawk1993: Thanks to have your reviews again!

This is one of the greatest compliments I've had so far. Thanks a lot!

Yeah, he really should get back in the action. His role as crownsguard makes it a bit difficult though, because he's basically stuck with Ezran for the time being. But he will have his spotlight sometime in the future!

Wouldn't you like to know…

Possibly, though Viren is more likely to try subterfuge first. His war isn't against the humans, so he'll try to limit casualties.

Brenne: I'll try to keep on giving! Thanks for the review!

Pabs117: Thanks! As for Ezran X Aanya, I really can't promise. It's a logical pair, but there's really nothing in the cannon to support it. And I think Aanya is a fair bit more grown up compared to Ezran, so I think that from her perspective, he's probably very childish.