Rayla drew her blades and crouched down low, ready to dodge any magic Viren would send her way. She remembered how the last time went for her though. This isn't good…
Viren seemed to have a similar train of thought. "A moonshadow elf… a familiar moonshadow elf!" He turned to Soren. "You have certainly made interesting friends, son."
"Give up, father! You are outnumbered!" Soren said, trying to sound more confident than he was feeling.
Viren raised an eyebrow. "Really? Perhaps I should summon some shadows to my side then, to even the odds?"
No one replied, but they eyed each other warily. Rayla and Soren were hesitant to attack. Rayla because she knew the extent of Viren's power, Soren because Viren was still his father. He remembered how he felt when he had stabbed his father's illusion at the battle of the Storm Spire. Strangely enough, Viren made no move either, simply placing his staff in front of him and leaning on it, eyeing the intruders with disdain, but also with interest.
"So, are we just gonna stare at each other or what!?" Rayla said tersely, whirling a blade as she was still moving to the side, flanking Viren.
Viren raised an eyebrow. "It is rather typical that all you moonshadow elves want to do is to fight. Don't you ever stop and think for a second what could be accomplished by talking?"
"Hah! Says the guy who attacked the Storm Spire with an army!"
"An army I assembled by talking my way to the top." Viren cocked his head. Though the intruders didn't notice, he was gripping his staff so hard that his knuckles turned white. Calm yourself! Those who keep a levelled head will come out on top of the situation! "You seem...unsure of whether or not to attack me. May I surmise that you are not here to kill me, then?"
Soren moved to his other side. They were both still a few feet from him, but they wanted to be within leaping distance at least, if Viren made any threatening moves. "We're here to put an end to your evil!" he declared heroically.
"Really? And how will you do that?"
"By going to...by doing... " Soren hesitated. He did not want to kill his dad, nor could he say it. He decided to change topics. "Where is your bug pal?"
Viren sighed. "My 'bug pal' is off on an errand. Now, what are you two doing here?"
Rayla took a step forward, levelling her blade with his face. "Where is Runaan?"
Blinking, Viren took a careful step back, trying to stay out of their immediate reach. "And who would that be?"
"The moonshadow elf who killed yer king! He's not dead, I know that much." An angry gleam took hold of Rayla's eyes, and even Soren felt a shiver run down his spine as he saw his ally creep closer and closer to Viren. "I ask again, what have you done with him!?"
"Ah, so that's what this is about…" Viren thought for a second. He was outnumbered, and had no hope of escaping this situation without dark magic, though; If they do not want to kill me, then perhaps a conversation is in order. And if those useless coins are all they want, then perhaps I can trade them for something useful, like information… Vired reached for the pouch on his belt, containing the coins.
Rayla noticed this and her other sword went straight for his hand, nicking him and causing him to recoil. "Any dark magic and it'll be the last spell you've cast!"
Viren was surprised by how menacing her voice could sound. He sneered at her. "No, it won't, because you won't kill me until you've got what you came for. And I will not let you leave with it until I've got what I want." He looked up as he noticed a familiar sound echoing through the building.
"Dad, she just wants some brown bag with stuff or something," Soren said, remembering slips of their conversations on the way here. "Just give it to her. And where is Claudia? I wanna talk to her as well!"
Viren waited a bit before answering, upping the tension. Once he judged enough time had passed, he said; "I don't just give stuff. I trade. And I might trade this" -he said as he patted the small pouch on his belt- "for a conversation with your elven friend here. And if you're looking for your sister, all you have to do is look behind you."
Soren scoffed. "Nice try, dad but that won't work on meaaaAH!" Soren yelped as he felt himself fall upwards to the ceiling. As he looked up (or below, depending on how you look at it) he saw Claudia enter.
"I'm here, dad! Are you alright!?" Her eyes were still glowing bright purple from the magic she'd just used. As she spotted the elf crouched next to Viren, swords at the ready, she hissed. "I'll protect you! Ignis p-"
Viren held out a hand. "Stop! The elf and I are going to have a talk, and if the talk is fruitful, then they will leave without any further violence." He gave Rayla a stern look. "Won't they?"
Rayla looked about. One dark mage was already bad enough, but two of them? She didn't really think that she could best them. Muardalt was defeated by her only because Callum helped her. For Garlath's sake... Looks like it's diplomacy again! I HATE diplomacy… She didn't understand what Viren was up to, but since he had not yet taken the opportunity to harm her, she figured that she could hear him out, if only because she had no choice. Part of her wanted to fight, trying to end their evil here and now, but with Soren helplessly stuck against the ceiling, there was no chance that she could take on the two of them.
"Alright then... " she said, lowering her swords slowly. "But no funny business!"
Viren scoffed but didn't comment. Instead, he addressed his daughter. "Claudia. Why don't you take Soren outside?"
Claudia looked uncertain. "Are you sure, dad? She's quick, and clever. She could hurt you!"
Viren shook his hand. "She could, but then she would never get back her compatriots," he said as he eyed the moonshadow elf, who was squinting her eyes at him, but made no hostile movements at the moment, though she was still gripping her swords.
Claudia pouted. "Fine! But I do want you to be safe! Sdnah Egam Gnibbarg!" Her eyes flashed purple again as two streaks of dark energy released themselves from her hands. In a flash, they twirled themselves around Rayla's swords and yanked them from her grasp.
"Hey! Give those back!" Rayla was already leaping towards Claudia, but she simply extended another hand and Rayla was pushed back by an invisible force.
"You'll get them back after your talk." She frowned. Claudia found that she didn't like the elf at all. This was the same elf that helped Callum get away from her, and Callum had saved her later on using dark magic. How did Callum get to be such good friends with that creature!?
Rayla lay on the ground, looking angry, but feeling helpless, defenceless without her weapons. Viren didn't seem to care about what transpired and was waiting for Claudia to leave. Claudia made a gesture and Soren dropped down from the ceiling.
"Oompf! Autch! What the heck, sis!?"
"Soren, just shut up and come with me, okay? We'll talk." Claudia gave her father a last look. Be safe, she mouthed to him. He didn't say anything but nodded. And with that, Claudia and Soren departed the room.
"So, shall we sit down?" Viren moved to one chair and gestured to another one about five feet away from him, which seemed to be a safe distance.
Rayla watched him sit, hesitated, then, eventually, sat down opposite of him."Alright, you wanted to talk, though I can't imagine about what. What do you want?"
Viren stroked his chin. "I don't know."
"What do you mean, you don't know!?"
"Just what I said. I don't know. Let's get to know each other first, shall we? What do you know about me?"
Ralya thought for a second. She wanted to give a snarky reply but figured that would only annoy him. She didn't want to lessen her chances of getting that pouch. "You were a dark mage in Katolis...and Callum's teacher... And the father of those two?"
"Close enough. I was high mage at the court of King Harrow, and I was indeed responsible for both Callum's and Ezran's education. When the king was killed by your companions, I rallied the other human kingdoms to strike back at the elves and end the Xadian threat once and for all."
This riled Rayla to her core. "What Xadian threat!? We never threatened you with anythin'! It wasn't until you killed our king that we struck at yours!"
Viren squinted. "Your king killed our queen, and those of Duren."
Rayla blanched. She didn't know that. "Then...then they must have been on Xadia soil. The king would never go past the border, and he wouldn't kill without reason!" She wasn't sure that was true, but it was a reasonable assumption.
"True, but just crossing the border should not have been a death sentence for them."
Ralya leaned forward, getting angry now. "Well, pardon me, but I can understand why the king would respond violently to humans enterin' our domain. Every time the humans cross into Xadia they leave a bloody trail in their wake! Every time they murder and kill dozens of innocent creatures."
Viren gripped his staff so hard he cracked his knuckles. "Yes. And if we don't, thousands of humans, men, women and children starve. Children STARVE!" He roared the last part, causing Rayla to lean back. "You don't seem to understand why humans ever practised dark magic. Your kind never does. We don't do it for our pleasure, we do it out of necessity. There was a famine. If we hadn't crossed the border back then to retrieve ingredients, a hundred thousand would have starved to death."
"Have you considered askin' for help?" she replied curtly.
"Our neighbouring kingdoms suffered the same problem."
"Have you asked Xadia?"
"If we did, would they have helped?"
Rayla considered this. She wanted to say yes, but she knew how stubborn elves could be. At length, she responded. "No, no, we wouldn't have."
Viren spread his arms. "And therein lies our conflict."
Rayla scoffed. "If we're in conflict, why are we talkin' now? You were so eager to grab the power of Prince Azymondias at the spire… what changed?"
Now Viren took his time to ponder the question. "My perspective," he said. "It may not look like it, but you killed me. Through some miracle, Claudia was able to bring me back, but that fall did kill me."
This shocked Rayla. I...I killed someone?! But...he's still alive… She didn't know what to do with that information. Viren took her look of astonishment as a sign to continue.
"Once I came to, I realised what I had done. Even if my intention was to erase the threat of Xadia so that the human kingdoms could prosper, I realised I had slowly become corrupted, both by Aaravos' and my own lust for power. I have used dark magic more and more for my own benefit, and I paid for it with my life and that of my countrymen." He gestured at his own face. "Some of the corruption disappeared after I died, but not everything."
Rayla looked at him, really observing him now. He looks...tired. His face was an unhealthy white, with the skin cracking at places, and his eyes were red at the edges, like he hadn't slept enough. His hair was white at places, giving it an uneven look. She shook her head. "Why are you tellin' me this?"
A heavy sigh escaped Viren's lips. He glanced out the window. We still appear to be alone. Good. "Because… I fear I may have set things in motion that I cannot stop, and that those things will destroy both Xadia and humanity."
In the meantime, Claudia had dragged her brother to a different room. Her mind was racing on how to best approach this situation. Last time, Soren wasn't exactly thinking things through. He was more like stabby stabby. She looked back over her shoulder and eyed Soren's sword, still in his hands. She didn't know if he would let her cast anything. He looked pretty on edge. Maybe...maybe I just have to make him a bit more...friendly towards me.
She led him into another room. As soon as they entered, Claudia walked briskly towards a table and reached for a feather, but as soon as she did, Soren stopped her, grabbing her arm.
"No Claudia, not this time!"
Claudia struggled against her brother, but he was a fair bit stronger than her. "Soren, wait! If you will just let me-"
"No, I'm not going to let you turn me into a chicken!" he replied, making sure she stayed away from the pile of feathers.
Startled, Claudia turned to look at her brother. "A-a chicken!? I wouldn't...I mean, that would…" Despite the seriousness of the situation, Claudia found herself trying hard to contain her laughter.
Soren noticed, and, being her sibling, started to laugh as well. "Pffft...Hahaha! A chicken!"
"You would make for a very big chicken, Soren!"
"Yeah, a pretty buff chicken!" he said, flexing his other arm while still holding hers.
Claudia sighed, feeling some of the tension ebbing away. "Soren. Please let go of me. I want to show you something." She felt as her brother released her arm, though he stayed on his guard, apparently not wanting her to get to the pile of feathers regardless. Claudia noticed and looked him in the eyes. "Brother, do you trust me?"
Soren stared back, raising an eyebrow. "Trust you!? You were going to turn me into a chicken just now!"
"A ch- No, I wasn't going to… argh! Just come with me, you oaf!" She grabbed his hand and pulled him to the balcony, away from the table with ingredients. As they stood on the balcony, they had a perfect view of the city. Claudia gestured at the people below, the market bustling with activity. "What do you think of this town, Soren?"
Soren looked down. "Well, it's a bit warm, and a bit dusty, but it's alright, I suppose. Why?"
"Can you believe that this place was a dump when we got here?"
"You built this town on a dump!?"
Claudia groaned. "Ugh, no! I mean that people were really poor and a lot of them were sick and starving! So me and dad got to work and started helping people with dark magic. And things got better! Aaravos, that's what the bug's called, by the way, he gave us ingredients and in turn, we're now helping the people here! Can't you see? We're finally doing some good here!"
Soren looked doubtful, eying the guards that patrolled the town, clad in armour and robes of the True Light instead of Neolandia colours. "Sure, but that's not all, is it? You are actually taking over the country."
"Yes, to help them!" Claudia pressed. "They would be much better off under our leadership!"
"And then what. Say, you rule Noodleoodlia, what's next? Are you going to attack Katolis?"
"No! Why would we attack fellow humans!? That's not what we're about at all!" Claudia was getting frustrated at her brother's stubbornness to not see things her way. "We've only ever had one enemy: Xadia!
Soren frowned. "But we just made peace with Xadia!"
Claudia gave him a frown to match. "Yeah, and what did it cost you? You can't use dark magic anymore. What happens when somebody gets really ill? Or-or when there's another famine!? Are you really counting on your pointy-eared friends to help you out?"
"They are not so bad, Clauds. Not as bad as dad made them out to be, at least." Soren was uncharacteristically sincere, and it put Claudia off.
"It's just a trick, Soren… They'll betray you eventually."
He shrugged. "Maybe, but they haven't so far. They've been nice enough, and that elf with the two swish-slash swords has even become Callum's girlfriend."
Claudia's eyes widened as she felt an icy spear stab a soft spot in her heart. "W-what? I-I mean... Callum?"
Soren was oblivious to Claudia's inner feelings as he continued in a jovial tone. "Yeah, he's doing alright. Finally got himself a girl, and he's now studying magic in Xadia. Did you know that he can actually do arcanum magic without a stone?"
"Y-yes...I've never seen it myself, but I've been curious ever since I read the reports..." Her mind was still mulling over the fact that Callum found someone else. Callum...Oh, how much must I have hurt you for you to run to an elf! "So...he's in Xadia now?"
"Yeah! We get reports now and then. Ezran reads them, but he tells me the fun bits. Apparently, he's doing quite well in school. He's hoping to get back to the Storm Spire though, to see Rayla." Soren rubbed the back of his head as he laughed awkwardly. "Oh boy, can you imagine? That letter was weeks ago! He might actually be there already. And Rayla is here, with me! Oh, the unlucky bastard…."
Claudia frowned. Unlucky? He found someone… "Unlucky indeed." Still, Claudia gave a slight smile. The information Soren gave her provided her with some opportunities. She hugged Soren, who was very much surprised by the gesture. "Well, thanks for talking with me, Sor-bear."
"... you're welcome, Clauds." He returned the hug. "...So, you're not going to turn me into a chicken?"
Claudia said nothing, but snickered.
"So you've finally discovered that dark magic is full of corruption?" Rayla was still aggressively taunting Viren. She didn't want to start a fight, but she also couldn't just forget what Viren had done.
Viren, to his credit, was being very patient with the aggressive elf. "I already knew the corruptive nature of dark magic. I used it anyway, for the betterment of humanity. That should tell you enough about what kind of man I am."
The two eyed each, still sitting, but on edge.
"You're not goin' to stop usin' dark magic, are you?"
Viren shook his head. "No, though I am going to moderate the use and find a less damaging way to use it. I've heard rumours of a council in Del Bar that uses dark magic as well, though in a very...religious manner. This might be worth investigating."
"Right…." Her tone of voice indicated how much she believed that dark magic could be used for good. "But I still don't know what you want from me. Much less do I know if I want to give it to ya."
"What I want to know is the stance of Xadia on the human kingdoms. You are the captain of the Dragonguard. You are close to the king. I want to know if Xadia will attack the human kingdoms that didn't join their alliance."
Rayla sat there, pensive. She didn't know a lot about what he was asking about, but she knew some things. She wondered if telling him would be divulging state secrets though. She couldn't betray Xadia, not even for Runaan. "What are you goin' to do with that information?"
"Use it to my advantage, of course."
Rayla grimaced. Of course he would… "Right… Well, I'll tell you this much. King Aureum Umbra loathes dark magic, but he seems content with the two human kingdoms who have allied themselves with Xadia and have sworn not to use it again. I guess I can safely say that the king doesn't hate humans per sé." Whether he thinks highly of them is a different matter entirely, however. "The king is very honourable and will keep his word. When Callum promised to help, the king kept his word and sought out a teacher for him. I think that, as long as Katolis and Duren don't do anythin' with dark magic, then the king will keep the alliance intact."
Viren nodded. "That makes sense, I suppose. And what of the other three nations? What of Neolandia, which is now actively creating an army? What of Del Bar, with its council of dark mages?" Viren was pushing her. In truth, the 'army' they had was far from ready, and he didn't really know if the council members in Del Bar were really dark mages, though it was likely, considering they called themselves 'the Council of Ziard'.
Rayla hesitated but figured an outburst of the king didn't really count as a concrete plan that he was going to execute. "He threatened to destroy the other kingdoms in a preemptive strike. A dragon called Zeron talked him out of it though."
Viren's eyes widened at this. "Zeron did? That is a surprise…" He recalled his earlier meeting with the dragon. Though there was the feeling of underlying threat during that meeting, the dragon had remained quite civil.
"You know him? How!?" Rayla's thoughts went quite the other way. Is Zeron dealin' with the enemy!?
"That is none of your concern. However, to surmise; the dragon king holds the nations that use dark magic in contempt, but is not planning to strike. Would that be correct?"
"...yes, to the best of my knowledge at least."
Viren smiled inwardly. That gives me some respite. Perhaps in Del Bar, I can then start anew and start a front against Xadia and Aaravos. "Very well, then. I think that concludes our meeting." Viren stood just as Claudia and Soren entered.
"W-wait! You said you would trade information for what I want!"
Viren nodded. "Indeed I did." Then, ignoring Rayla, "Was your talk fruitful as well?"
Soren opted to say something about talking not being the way to get fruit, except when you're on the market, but Claudia already answered, saying, "Well, we exchanged some… views… He won't stay though." Claudia looked dejected as she said that.
"Of course he won't. He is the captain of the crownguard after all. He needs to return to his king." Viren gave his son a neutral look, which Soren returned.
"So, what do you want me to do with the elf, dad?" Claudia readied her staff, which gave Rayla chills as she tensed, ready to jump out of the way. There was not a snowflake's chance in Garlath's Furnace that she could make it out of here alive without her swords, though.
Viren paused for a bit, adding to the tension, but then made a dismissive gesture. "Nothing, Claudia. She and Soren will leave unscathed, and they will remember that those who practice dark magic are not evil, nor merciless monsters." He gave Rayla a very pointed look as he said that.
"We'll see about that, but you still haven't upheld your end of the bargain, Viren. I answered yer questions, now answer mine. Where is Runaan? I know he's still alive. What did you do to him!?" Her tone of voice became frantic. After all that, she wouldn't just be sent away here. Her entire journey here would have been for nothing!
Viren looked at her as he spoke, his voice authoritative. "You gave me information. I am going to give you three things in return; A promise, a warning, and a gift." He held up one finger. "I will promise you that I personally will not bother Xadia any longer, as long as they leave me alone." He held up another one. "I warn you that if Xadia ever strikes out again towards the human lands without sufficient provocation, that the consequences will be dire." And finally, he held out his hand, containing a small brown satchel. "I give this to you. T' is what remains of your comrade, and every moonshadow elf that had the misfortune to cross my path."
Rayla grabbed the satchel quickly and opened it. Please don't be bones, please don't be bones… She knew that the satchel was way too small to contain anything significant, but she also didn't know what else to expect. When she looked in the satchel, she was surprised to see it was filled with a handful of coins. She blinked and looked at Viren. "What's this?"
Viren smiled, a bit of his former, evil self gleaming through. "I sought a way to store their life energy so that I could extract it when needed. I succeeded partly, but never found a way to properly use the coins. And before you ask, no, I don't know how to reverse the process. That is really up to you."
With shaking hands, Rayla picked up a coin from the satchel and looked at it. A frightened moonshadow elf looked back at her. She didn't know who it was, but it confirmed her suspicion that some object was trapping their soul or essence and preventing it from moving on. "You….you monster!"
"Really, is that any way to say goodbye?" He motioned for the door. "Be gone now, before we change our minds." He nodded to Claudia, who returned by his side.
Rayla's mouth turned into a thin white line. "Give me back my swords, then I'll leave." She thought of adding a few expletives but held back lest she risk not getting her swords at all.
Claudia scoffed, but threw the two closed blades to her, which Rayla caught effortlessly.
Soren nodded to the two as he and Rayla moved to the entrance. "Father, Clauds…."
Claudia said nothing, but Viren did. "Travel safely, son."
Soren looked surprised as he said that, but didn't reply. Within moments, the two intruders had left the building.
As soon as they were well and surely gone, Claudia turned to her father. "How could you just let them walk out of here!? With the coins!? They are our enemies!"
Viren gave her a stern look. "The coins were nothing more than memorabilia. They are quite useless to them as they can only be unlocked by dark magic, which they have sworn never to use again. If anything, this will give them more trouble, giving us another edge over them. And one of those 'enemies' is your brother. You would do well to remember that."
Claudia was taken aback by that. "So? He left us, turned on us. Did you know he stabbed your illusory double at the Storm Spire!?"
Viren rubbed his eyes. "Yes, you've told me. I doubt he did it cold-heartedly though… No, your brother has yet a part to play in this cold war with Xadia. Perhaps after he's seen the treachery of the elves first hand, he will come back into our ranks."
"'Our' ranks? So you're staying?" Claudia's tone was hopeful, but Viren's look shattered that hope immediately.
"No, I am leaving. We've talked about this…"
Claudia let out a growl in frustration. "No, you wrote about this in your last letter. I bet you were also planning to leave without waiting for my reply!"
He frowned. "Do you really think so little of me?"
"Agh, no, but...dad! I've...we've…." Tears were gathering in Claudia's eyes. She looked desperate. "Dad, I've lost mom in the divorce. I've lost Soren at the battle of the Storm Spire…"
"Well, I wouldn't really say 'lost' is the right word to use." Viren awkwardly replied.
Claudia ignored him. "And now I have to lose you too!? Why! What have I done wrong!?" She looked at him, tears streaming down her face, clutching her staff as if it could give her any comfort.
With a sigh, Viren opened his arms and gave Claudia a hug which she hesitantly accepted. He would later reflect that this had probably been the first hug he gave her in years. "Nothing. You've done nothing wrong, daughter." After a brief hug, he pulled her away a bit so he could hold her, but still look into her eyes. "I've set you on a path. A path of greatness. You must follow that path. But I…. I don't think that same path is the right one for me." He looked sorrowful as he said that. "I thought I knew everything about dark magic, but I've never been as powerful as you are now. And I've never stopped to think either, just how deep the corruptive side of dark magic can run."
A smile appeared on Claudia's face as he complimented her, but as Viren mentioned the corruption, Claudia interrupted. "Dad, we've talked about this plenty of times. It's just a small price to pay for doing powerful magic!"
"But what if it isn't? What if there's more to it?" He sighed and let go of his daughter. "I'm rambling. I'm sorry. All I'm going to do is to go to Del Bar and see if this council knows something about dark magic that I don't."
Claudia sniffled a bit. "And when you've learned about that… will you then get back here?"
Viren smiled. "Of course."
Claudia opened her arms. She hadn't felt a hug like that in a while and wanted another one. "Promise?"
Viren hugged his daughter tightly. "Promise," he lied.
The Storm Spire seemed to beckon him as he approached it from the air. It's my home...away from home anyway… After all that had transpired at the temple, he felt exhausted, nervous, and excited all at the same time. Thousands of different thoughts had kept him company during the few days he had flown back here. He was nervous, unsure of himself and everything he had done these past few weeks. But he knew one thing; I want to be back in her arms again.
He swooped down, expecting to be greeted by the white-haired moonshadow elf any second now. Instead, he dodged to the right as something small, fast and pointy sped past his head. "What the-!?"
A young, colourful skywing elf appeared, holding a bow and looking apologetically. "Hey, Callum! Sorry about that." Pincaelo said as she flew up next to him.
Callum puffed, but restrained himself. He didn't want to come off as rude by shouting at one of the Dragonguard. "It's okay. Accidents happen, right?"
"Oh, it wasn't an accident!" She replied as she saw his expression turn into shock. "Em… Orris said to give you a warning shot."
"Orris?" Callum thought hard. He had heard the name before. Didn't Rayla write about him in one of her letters? "He's one of the new Dragonguard, right?"
She nodded. "Yeah, he's a bit...excited. I'm on guard duty with him right now. He says you're an intruder and that you need to surrender to him right away." She pointed downwards to the spire where, on top of the plateau, a tall, dark-skinned elf stood, clad in golden armour and holding a glowing red sword.
Callum swallowed. "That's not right. I used to come here all the time! Where's Rayla?"
"She's on holiday. She didn't feel so well, so the king and queen gave her some time off. She'll be back in a week though!" Pincaelo gave him a bright smile, as if that would make everything right again.
"A week…" I suppose I could come back in a week...but where would I go in the meantime? He thought about it. Berylgarten, the capital of Duren, was closest, but by the time he'd get there, he would have to fly back again. Callum looked down at the elf again, who seemed to grow impatient, swinging his sword. Yeah, no, he's definitely looking for a fight. Callum made up his mind.
"I'm sorry, I think this is a bad time for me to be here. I'll just come back when Rayla is here again." Callum beat his wings a bit harder to put a little distance between him and the skywing elf, but as he did, her bow swivelled around, the arrow pointing straight at his face.
"I'm sorry, Callum. But he really ordered me to make sure you surrendered yourself to him. So please do." Her voice was a bit shaky as she continued. "Please, I don't want to kill you. You're nice."
"So why do you listen to that guy then!? You were here longer than him. Don't you outrank him or something!?" Callum felt his stomach turning. He felt like he had flown into a very dangerous and potentially explosive situation. He remembered how most elves treated him during his studies. He felt like some of the Dragonguard wouldn't do any differently. They'd probably do worse than that, now that Rayla's not around.
Pincaelo shrugged, still aiming her bow. "I'm on duty with him and...I don't know, he's very persuasive. Just go down there, please? I'm sure once you explain who you are, everything will be alright!"
Callum narrowed his eyes. He thought the reply was a strange one. Did the other Dragonguard force her to do this? He wondered about it, but it was clear there wasn't going to be a clean way out of this situation. "Alright, I'm coming down."
Very gently Callum flew down to the top of the Spire, making sure to make no sudden movements. As soon as he landed, he folded his wings but didn't dismiss them, in case he needed a quick escape. Orris stuck the sword in the ground next to him as he gleefully regarded Callum.
"So, you've decided to surrender, eh? Very wise. Careless of you, flying around the tower like that. What, thought we didn't have eyes in the sky to catch a human spy like you?"
Callum looked at Orris like he'd grown a second head. He wasn't sure how to respond to such nonsense. When Callum didn't respond, Orris continued.
"Alright, dispel your wings and come quietly. If you do that, I may let you live."
"Hold up hold up hold up…. Who are you exactly?" Callum's left wing pointed at Orris in a manner that seemed to offend him.
"I am Orris, champion of the sunfire elves and currently the highest-ranking Dragonguard at the Spire." He growled, pulling the sword out of the ground with a crunch.
"Well, technically, we're all the same rank. Rayla is the only one with a higher rank, because she's- " Pincaelo rambled as she had flown down next to Orris, who swooshed his sword in front of her to silence her.
"Quiet! The human doesn't need to know!"
Callum looked at the two, really regretting that Rayla was not here. "Right, I'm here, I've landed. I'm looking for Rayla. Pincaelo said she wasn't around?" Callum said casually. After his time with Soren and the elves in the Temple, he had no problems recognizing a bully. And Orris was definitely one.
"No, she's not, human! And I don't see why you would get to see her anyway! Now surrender, or taste my blade!" Orris took a fighting stance as Callum backed up a little.
"Orris, please! I've told you, this is Callum! He's …. He's special to our captain!" Pincaelo had her hands in front of her mouth, afraid of the two coming to blows. Orris pretty much ignored her pleas as he waited for Callum to respond.
Callum weighed his options. It would be easy to fly away. I doubt Orris has any long-distance magic. But Pincaelo would be forced to shoot at me, and I bet her aim is perfect, being a Dragonguard… He thought for a bit, before letting his wings down, no longer covering his chest protectively. "I think...I'll do neither."
Callum had enough of being bullied around, and he thought that Orris was bluffing anyhow. If not, Callum figured he could do some sparring, see if he could keep his distance. And if he couldn't, he would just jump off the spire and pray that Pincaelo wouldn't shoot him. "I'm here for Rayla, not for spying or for anything else. I've been here enough times to know that I used to be welcome here. The queen probably knows me as well. So I really don't think you're going to use that weapon on me. I think you're bluffing!"
Orris' snear suddenly turned into a sickly grin. "Wrong choice, human. I've slain countless of your kind. You're just another one to fall before me!" Orris' form changed, with red-hot cracks appearing all over his skin. And with that, he charged at Callum, sword at the ready for a sideward swing.
Callum already saw what was happening as Orris was monologuing. He got ready, and as soon as Orris moved, he drew the rune. "Aspiro!" A mighty gale erupted from Callum as he blew at Orris. The elf did not expect this and was thrust backwards. As he hit the ground, he rolled onto his stomach and made himself small, trying to avoid most of the wind.
Pincaelo was hit by the gale as well. "Eeep!" she exclaimed as the winds launched her off the plateau. She quickly spread her wings to keep her in the air.
"Stupid...magic...tricks!" Orris grunted as he got up and rushed at Callum again. Callum now jumped backwards, off the plateau as well and flew into the air. "Come back here and fight!"
"Why would I do that?" Callum exclaimed. "You would skewer me with your sword!"
"Exactly! So come here and have at it!" Orris held up his sword in the air in a challenging way, pointed straight at Callum.
Callum's only safe option was to fly away or try to talk to this bonehead. But he liked neither of those options and he had enough of being pushed around. A dark look crossed Callum's eyes as he thought of his next move. "Alright, suit yourself." With a large arc, Callum sped downward, then upward again, moving to the other side of the plateau so that there still was some distance between him and Orris. As soon as he landed, he dismissed his wings and cast a rune that formed a large, swirling circle. "Zephyr Clypeus!"
Orris charged him as soon as he landed and struck, but as soon as his sword got near Callum, it got repelled as swirling winds surrounded Callum in a small bubble and Orris had to strain himself to keep his grip on his sword. He grunted and struck again, but once more, the sword got repelled like it had hit some sort of shield. "Impossible! Nothing can stop a sunforged blade!"
Callum shrugged. "Well, this apparently can. So, can we now-"
"Die!" Orris grabbed the sword with both hands and thrust it in the wind-globe, straining to keep it straight and pointed at Callum. It felt like he was pushing through wood and stone, but slowly, the sword was moving inwards.
Alarmed, Callum took a step backwards but the winds of the globe kept him inside as well. "Oh heck!" He started to draw the Aspiro rune to blow Orris away, but then remembered his lessons at the temple: wind spells could not enter or exit a wind shield spell. Panic overtook him as Orris strained to get his sword further inside the small globe. Within seconds, the sword would be close enough to skewer him. With very little wiggle room now, he drew another rune. As the sword got closer to his throat, he let go of the gathered magic. "Fulminis!"
Lightning erupted from Callum's hand and impacted Orris at nearly point-blank range. As the power coursed through him, he fell to his knees, letting go of his sword, which was promptly ejected by the wind-globe and flung off the mountain.
Seeing Orris' form smoking and on his knees, Callum suddenly wondered if he had pushed things too far. The spell was powerful enough to kill. Oh damn, what if I had killed him by accident!? He regretted his rushed decision and knelt down next to him. "Are you alright?"
Without answering, Orris leapt up and put his hands around Callum's throat. Callum tried to back away, but could not escape his grasp. He clawed at Orris' hands, but to no avail. Panic crept into Callum as he saw the burning hatred in this Sunfire elf's eyes, their faces inches apart. Callum couldn't breathe and fought for breath as Orris spoke. "I told you I would kill you."
With a snap, Orris was suddenly yanked upwards and backwards, as another force wound itself around Callum's waist and drew him in the opposite direction. Callum felt nails scraping at his neck as the hands left his throat. He was hoisted in the air. As he looked at his waist, he saw a giant stone hand holding him in place, and the same was true for Orris on the opposite side of the plateau. And there, near the stairway, Callum saw another Dragonguard, one he recognized as Bosor who had his hands placed firmly down into the stone.
"Are the two of you quite done!?" His dignified voice held a cold anger as Bosor, dressed in full armour and helmet glared at the two combatants.
"Wuaargh! Bosor! You dare use magic against a fellow Dragonguard!?" Orris raged and struggled against the stone, but was quite powerless.
Callum's mind was already going through a list of things that could break this spell, but he figured it was probably a good thing Bosor interrupted them. Behind Bosor, Callum could now see the rest of the guard watching. He could also feel the giant stone fist slowly crushing him.
"I asked, are you two done?" Bosor strengthened his hold on the spell, his hands still digging into the stone of the mountain.
"I'm done, I'm done!" Callum quickly shouted. He thought he deserved a far better welcome, but right now he would be lucky if he survived for the next few minutes.
Orris said nothing, but his body slackened and he just grimaced in their general direction.
Bosor slowly let go of his spell. Callum and Orris were set down on the ground, and several Dragonguard rushed to their sides. Callum noticed they all had their weapons drawn. It was Catlyn who was standing next to him.
"You alright?" She asked warily, unsure whether either of the two would want to start the fight again.
"Yeah, I'm okay." Callum got up and adjusted the strap of his satchel. He looked at Orris, who was helped up by a rather large earthblood elf who looked to be a motherly figure. Orris brushed her off and said something. He couldn't hear what it was, but it couldn't have been kind, judging by the face the earthblood elf pulled. "So, there's some new faces here…"
Catlyn nodded. "Yes, though at least one of them still needs to learn his place in the guard."
Bosor approached Callum. He couldn't see the elf's face as it was covered by his helmet, but the eyes that peered at him through the slits looked harsh. "What happened?"
"Eh, well...I was going to visit Rayla, when Pincaelo said I had to land, and this Sunfire elf was being rude, so…"
"So you started a fight?" Bosor crossed his arms.
"What!? No! He threatened to kill me and said I should just surrender! I just wanted to visit Rayla!"
"I believe that part." Catlyn piped in. "But why didn't you just fly away when Orris attacked you? Should be easy for you with all that magic," she said this with a slight grin, but Callum could see that there was an honest question in there.
"Well… I... " He sighed deeply and looked at the elves around him. Bosor was stoic as ever, but Catlyn seemed to look out for him. Pincaelo was hovering in the background, looking nervous. The other elves were with Orris, who was still fuming. "I was tired of getting pushed around… and Pincaelo said she would shoot me if I tried to flee anyhow."
Bosor's head whipped around to Pincaelo who was looking quite pale now. "Is that true, Pincaelo?"
"Yes…" She said nothing else, but looked down at the ground, holding her bow protectively.
"Orris said she had to!" Callum quickly said, hoping that this would back her up.
"Really…" Catlyn was shooting daggers at Orris, who was now finally calming down, the red cracks on his skin disappearing.
Bosor motioned for them to follow him as he approached Orris. "Did you start the fight, Orris?"
"What do you mean!? This human came flying into our domain unannounced! Give me one good reason why I shouldn't take him down!"
"Because he is the prince of Katolis," Bosor answered him, crossing his arms.
Orris scoffed. "And how am I supposed to know that!? To me, he's just another human!"
Catlyn got up close to him. "That's bullshit and you know it! There's only one human that can fly, and I imagine that Pincaelo would have told you exactly who he was anyway, right?" Catlyn looked to Pincaelo, who was nodding furiously.
Now Orris growled. "Yes, so I might have known that it was the human brat, so what? I wouldn't have killed him anyway, just roughed him up a little."
"I find that hard to believe," Bosor replied. "However, my belief is irrelevant. It is the captain who should decide what to do with this."
"What!? You're gonna tattle on me!?" A look of hatred and pure disgust crossed Orris' face. It was clear that things were going poorly for him, but there was little that he could do about it.
"You must take responsibility for your actions, especially as a Dragonguard." Bosor then turned to Callum. "The captain isn't here. Since you are royalty and a known guest, I will offer the guestrooms for your use until she does return, though I would advise you to write in advance the next time you come to visit."
Callum rubbed the back of his head, looking a bit sheepish. "Yeah, I suppose… sorry about that."
Bosor nodded, continuing. "Furthermore, the Dragonguard will ensure your safety during your stay. As such, Catlyn will be your personal bodyguard until the captain returns."
Callum was surprised by this and looked at the moonshadow elf, who was grinning at him, looking forward to spending time with the captain's lover. "Eeeh...okay?"
"Now, everyone, back to your post!" Bosor bellowed as the elves all moved back down the stairs. Orris bumped into Callum with his shoulder before being pushed down the stairs harshly by Bosor who had noticed. Orris nearly fell but steadied himself. He said nothing, just gave a hateful look back in their direction. "Watch out for that one," Bosor whispered as he passed Callum. "He's a great warrior, but he has a dark heart."
"Noted," Callum said as Bosor moved in front of him. Now it was just him and Catlyn standing on top of the stairs as the rest disappeared around the bend. "So...I guess we should follow?"
Catlyn ignored his remark but was still grinning. "Well, it looks like you and I are going to spend some time together!" She put her arm around his shoulders as she guided him down the stairs. "Let's get you freshened up. And after that, you can tell me all about the captain and what the two of you have been writing to each other."
"Hey, little elf-girl, wait up!" Soren rushed after Rayla on his horse, which had a hard time keeping up with the elf's cat-mount. Geez, what's with her? We're no longer in danger, right?
Rayla didn't listen, but pushed her shadowpaw onwards, towards the oasis where they had met up. She considered checking the purse sooner, but she didn't want to be anywhere near the city in case Viren changed his mind. It took the rest of the day to reach the oasis again, both mounts protesting heavily as they had to run in the burning desert sun. As soon as they entered the oasis, Rayla dismounted, fastened her mount to a tree and grabbed the purse.
"Wow, what is with that? Are you alright?" Soren asked. "I thought we weren't supposed to ride in the desert during the day."
"I don't care! I want to know what these coins are!" Rayla held up the small bag. "Runaan could be in there."
Soren blinked. "Who's Runaan?"
"He's my stepdad. He took care of me when my parents joined the Dragonguard. He's the one who trained me…" Rayla was surprised when her eyes started to tear up. She could feel that she was close to something, perhaps to seeing him again! But how could such a small satchel ever hold the key to Runaan?
"So, you're saying he's… in there?" Soren was about to poke the satchel when Rayla pulled it back, out of his reach.
"Yes..no… I mean, I don't know! All I know is that he's not dead, and Viren said that he...he stored his energy in coins or something."
"Father said that? You know that he's a liar, right?"
Rayla visibly deflated. What if it was just a set with decorated coins? What if they were an illusion? "I know…" She sat down against a tree. Soren settled next to her.
"Well, let's see those coins. The sooner we find out what they are, the better." He gave her a smile, and to his surprise, Rayla smiled back at him, though weakly.
"Definitely more than a dumb oaf," she muttered as she started working on the knots keeping the satchel closed. As it opened, she took a deep breath and very gently let the contents slide on the ground in front of her. There, on the ground, were a handful of coins, six to be exact. Rayla blinked as she didn't quite believe what she saw.
"They have faces on them!" Soren exclaimed. He very much wanted to grab one and take a closer look, but he refrained, noticing the scared look Rayla had on her face. "Are you alright?"
Rayla didn't respond. With a shaking hand, she grabbed one and brought it closer to her face. Looking back at her was the terrified face of a moonshadow elf. The face moved and the eyes suddenly sought hers. "Wha!" Rayla dropped the coin and immediately felt sorry that she did.
"What was it?" Soren was burning with curiosity and grabbed the coin as it rolled away. "Hey, it moves! Neat!" He turned to Rayla, who was now breathing heavily. "It's like a painting or an engraving, but a moving one!"
"Soren, I-I think… I think Viren captured souls in these coins. They're not engravings, they are actual people in there!"
Soren blanched and dropped the coin like it was glowing red hot.
Rayla lunged forward and caught it before it hit the hard, stone ground. As she looked at it again, the face did not give an indication that it noticed what had transpired. It still looked just as terrified. It did seem to notice Rayla, however, and again sought out her eyes.
"Do...do you know her? Him? It?" Soren moved closer and also looked at the coin.
Rayla swallowed. "No... no, I don't. It's definitely a moonshadow elf though. Probably a woman, judging by the hair... Where do you think Viren caught this one?"
Soren shrugged. "He travelled a lot and made some incursions into Xadia. I imagine he had many enemies there…"
Rayla didn't reply but nodded. "I'll try to get you out," she said to the coin. It gave no sign that she heard or understood Rayla, but kept eye contact until Rayla put the coin back in the bag. "I'll have to check the others. One of them has got to be Runaan." She grabbed the next one, but it was another moonshadow elf she didn't recognize. She sighed and put it in the bag. Then another one. She took a quick look. Not Runaan…. She was about to put it away when something clicked in her head. She looked closer now. The short, wavy hair, the split tattoos under his eyes, and the braid on his right side… "Da! It's Da!" With wide-open eyes, Rayla stared at the coin like she couldn't believe what she saw.
"Da? You mean like dada?"
"I mean, it's my father! My dad!" Tears welled up in Rayla's eyes again as she looked at the face of her father. It wasn't terrified, more defiant. However, as the face glanced in her direction, it looked surprised, and it gave her a sad smile. "He can see me!" Rayla put a hand in front of her mouth as she was sobbing, trying to hold the coin steady in her shaking hand as she was looking at it.
"So...your father was captured by Viren as well?" Soren didn't quite understand how that could be. "It's a small world after all…" he muttered.
"But..but that could mean…!" With her other hand, she quickly grabbed another coin. This one she recognized immediately. "Runaan! Oh, Runaan!" The face that was looking back at her was both defiant and fearful. He seemed to recognize her, but the face showed no smile, just disbelief. Rayla quickly put the coin in her other hand, together with her da's and grabbed another one. This one she didn't recognize. Another moonshadow elf… She gulped as she put this one in the satchel and eyed the last coin with trepidation. Please, oh please let it be ma... She picked it up and slowly brought it closer, wiping away the tears with the palm of her other hand so she could see clearly. As soon as she saw the face, her eyes teared up again. "Ma, it is you! Oh, ma…" Her mother's face looked back at her, surprised and smiling nervously.
Soren said nothing anymore. He now recognized the significance of the moment and waited for Rayla to take her time.
Rayla had the coins lying in her hands, face up, looking at them. She could only see their faces. They looked happy but afraid as they looked back at her. Rayla saw their mouths moving, like they were trying to tell her something, but she couldn't make sense of it. She sat there for a few minutes. "I'll get you out, I promise," she said softly to them. Then she carefully put them back into the satchel and placed it securely within her armour. "I need to get back to Xadia. Right now."
"So...you know how to get them out?" Soren asked.
Rayla shook her head. "No, but Callum might. He's a mage after all." Rayla was already thinking ahead. "I just need to get to him. But I don't know the way to the temple. The dragon king might though, or maybe some of the other Dragonguard."
"Right…" Soren stood there awkwardly. "So, I guess we part ways here then?"
Rayla looked at Soren and only now realised that while her part of the mission was a success, Soren had left empty-handed. He looked a bit lost. "Oh Soren, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that Claudia didn't want to come with you." She hesitated for a moment, then moved in for a hug.
Soren gingerly accepted it. "Yeah...yeah, I know. Clauds can be real stubborn at times."
"What will you do?" Rayla asked as she moved away from him.
"Go back and protect the king I suppose. I tried, and hopefully, in the future, Claudia will see that we really can be friends with the elves." He looked at her. "And with you as well."
Rayla laughed a bit. "That's a long shot, but who knows?" She looked up as the sun was now setting in the west. "I should go. My shadowpaw should have the strength to cross the border to Xadia before the mornin' comes."
"I figured you would want to rush back. That's alright. I'll make my own way back. I know the way from here." Soren grabbed some food from his pack and started to munch. "Good luck Rayla. Say 'hi' to Callum from me!"
Rayla smiled at him. "Thanks. And thank you for your help."
Soren winked at her. "Anytime!" And with that, Rayla jumped on her shadowpaw and raced into the desert. Soren reflected that Callum had really gotten himself a beautiful, strong and willful elf as his girlfriend. He hoped that Callum was smart enough to never do anything to make her mad.
Claudia watched her father leave from the balcony. He sped away on a black horse towards the sunset. She clung desperately to the promise that he'd return someday, but she didn't know how long he would be gone. Del Bar was far away and she knew that she wouldn't be seeing her father for a long time.
Frustrated, she went inside and looked at her notes. She had been leading the True Light for months now. It wasn't all fun and games. Some of the members had become powerful mages in their own right, who had taken up training the others so that she could spend more time working on their plan to vanquish Xadia. She could be proud, and yet… I never wanted to do this alone….
As if on cue, the flapping of wings announced that another being had landed on the balcony. Claudia turned around to see Aaravos' bug form walking inside. "So, Viren has decided to leave us. Pity."
Claudia couldn't hear by the voice if it was a sincere remark. "He might come back, you know. He just wanted to figure out some stuff about dark magic." She stared off into the distance. "He's always been like that. Even when he was together with mom, he would sometimes just run off and be gone for weeks, only to return with some rare ingredient or some new spell…" It's what broke them in the end, she thought.
"Perhaps…" Aaravos replied doubtfully. "In any case, you are in charge now, fully and completely. The Heart of a Dragon is almost complete, it just lacks a few key ingredients…"
"Well, I don't care about that now. I don't want to do this all by myself." She gave Aaravos a long, hard look. "Did you mean what you said before?"
The bug just stared at her. "About what?"
"About helping me get my friend back."
"Oh, that? Yes, of course! I'm happy to help you if you think he is the person you need to proceed with our plans." The bug glowered, but there was an underlying threat in the way he emphasised that they needed to proceed with said plans.
Claudia recognized the tone. "Callum is a very talented mage. He could do magic just by seeing someone else do it!" She remembered with some pain the time they stood against each other, where Callum cast dark magic for the first time, without any instruction. Though the memory hurt because of their shattered friendship, she was also proud and suspected Callum had hidden talents and capabilities far beyond her own. "We need him on our side."
The bug was silent for a moment, regarding the human in front of him. He fluttered his wings, stretching them, seemingly coming to a conclusion. "I have heard of him through whispers and rumours. I'd be delighted to meet the boy in person."
Claudia smiled. "Good. Now tell me, how fast can you get me to the Storm Spire?"
Author's Note: New one's up!
Concerning the story; Well, I'm curious where you all think this is going to go. I have seen similar story lines, but I'd wager that what I have planned is original stuff. Things will get very tense in the coming chapters, so the true Rayllum lovers might have to hang on for dear life! It's going to be one hell of a ride!
Concerning the update schedule; Suffice to say that the various things in life had left me exhausted at the start of the summer holiday and in need of a break. There's nothing more to it really. I took my break, and now I'm back. I've already completed the next chapter as well, so I should be good for a regular update schedule again.
I hope that you all enjoyed reading this, and that most of you are still following this story despite the long break in updates. Above all, stay safe, stay healthy! Cheers!
Rayllum fan: Yup, doing that now.
Brenne: Callum is in for a rough ride. Poor him indeed.
Gustrubio: You're probably correct, but that's not how Thorus interpreted the scene, nor is it how Callum thinks of it right now. And he doesn know how Rayla would think about it either, so he really only has his own thoughts to torture himself with.
Mateusz Weryski: Glad to have such a loyal follower! Thanks!
Cobb: I don't think Rayla is that experienced at relationships either, so she is making mistakes as well. If the both of them get the time together to talk it out, I'm sure they'll be alright.
Guest: Glad to be back!
Pabs117: Aireli has her own motivation for going after Callum. To her, he's a conquest, a trophy. It's a game to her, not something she took very seriously. Angering her dad is just bonus points in the matter I imagine.
Well….Callum really hasn't the charisma to bring it like that, now does he?
Time will tell, though she got out of the Viren situation alright. In that regard, she was incredibly lucky that she caught Viren in a mentally weakened state.
PurpleGalaxyRose1: Hehehe, exactly. It's doubtful whether he'll get the chance for it though. The stakes are high, and he's at the centre of this conflict.