The capital city of Katolis was deserted. Houses had been burned down or had collapsed underneath the violence of the Xadian army. Destruction could be seen everywhere. The once lush and green forests surrounding the city and castle had been turned to cinders, and the ground was blackened with ash.

But the castle still stood, proud and defiant. The initial assaults were only meant to test the enemy's defences after all. The real strength of the castle walls was still untested against the might of Xadia. The Xadian army had set up camp a few miles away on a large hillside. There, they could overlook the city ruins and Katolis castle from a distance.

Rayla was watching the city and castle now, from atop one of the wooden watchtowers. She glared at it. She hated the sight of it, hated what it meant to her. A reminder of her failure to secure peace. A reminder of a failed love. It was the home to Callum, now known in Xadia as the slayer of elves. It was also the second person in her life she had killed.

Looking at the castle for too long was too painful for her. Too many bad memories resurfaced. So, instead, she looked to the other side, to the great army's encampment. The camp was large, the army numbering in the tens of thousands. After the second attack on the Storm Spire, the dragonmoot had united behind King Aureum Umbra. Within a week, an army was mustered. There was no shortage of elves willing to fight for their king and country, especially not after news had spread of how the dark mages, and the prince of Katolis specifically, had used dark magic to kill some of Xadia's greatest warriors.

Rayla closed her eyes from pain as her thoughts once again turned to Callum. It had been a month since the attack, but it still haunted her in her dreams. The corrupted face of Callum, and the sound her swords made as they pierced through his body… it was the stuff of nightmares.

She tried to shake the thoughts away, looking once more at the castle. Focus, girl, damnit! You're here on a job! She was on the lookout for something specific. And then she saw it. A tiny blip of silver and black, carrying a white flag.

She immediately sprung into action and jumped down the watchtower, leaping from one wooden beam unto the other until she hit the ground. She ran up the hill towards where the king and the generals had gathered. Elves that she passed looked up in surprise and saluted her. She heard them mutter: "Rayla of Xadia".

Suppressing a groan, she rushed on. Ever since they rescued the dragon prince, she had earned the title "of Xadia", meaning that she was an esteemed heroine of Xadia. But back then it hadn't really had an impact on her as she didn't venture out of the Storm Spire a lot. Now that she was with the army though, she noticed how much the other elves looked up to her. The young moonshadow assassin who rescued the dragon prince, the same one who killed two of the most powerful dark mages within the span of a year! She caught soldiers staring at her in amazement and heard them whisper exaggerated stories of her deeds at the campfire.

Oh, how she hated it.

It was a constant reminder of her adventures with Callum and how she had to kill him in the end. She had grown bitter and withdrawn in these past weeks, trying to shove away all those feelings and memories deep inside of her. Needless to say, these times were very tough for Rayla.

But the king had accepted her back in the ranks of the Dragonguard as thanks for killing Callum and doing her part in defending them. The Dragonguard was leaderless now, its force divided between the Storm Spire to protect the queen and prince, and the front where the king was present. Rayla and Orris were both representing the Dragonguard at the front, with Catlyn, Pincaelo and Kiyara staying behind and working on bolstering the defences there.

As she crested the hill, she came to the spot where the generals had gathered, with the dragon king resting behind them, taking note of all the proceedings. The guards that surrounded the meeting place let her pass without issue. As she joined the group of generals, she proceeded to deliver the news, only to be shushed away by the generals discussing the siege.

"Lords, there is a-"

"Later, Dragonguard, can't you see that we're in a meeting?" A noble, uptight looking skywing elf sneered at her, before turning back to the others. "As I was saying, the only reason we're currently camping here, and not attacking the walls right now, is because of a lack of support from the dragons."

"That is an insult!" a female sunfire elf replied angrily. "You know as well as I do that they've placed ballistae on every wall and tower of that damned castle. Many dragons would lose their lives!"

"Well, it seems we're stuck then," a giant, amiable looking earthblood elf said to them. "But we can't maintain this siege here for too long. In a few weeks, the troops will go hungry. In a month, they will be starving. We have pushed through Katolis too fast. Our best hope is to negotiate while we still hold the upper hand."

"Negotiate!? We will never negotiate with those animals!"

"Besides, they won't talk with us either!"

"Well, without a negotiator to work with-"

"PLEASE EXCUSE ME!?" All eyes turned to Rayla, annoyed with the intrusion. She had quite enough of waiting around. "A Katolis soldier is approachin' under a white flag. Maybe they want to...oh, I don't know...negotiate?" She tapped her chin thoughtfully while grinning at the bunch.

"Well, why didn't you say so right away, Dragonguard?!" the uptight skywing general said. "Lead him to us!"

-/-/-/-

Soren walked through the ranks of elven warriors holding the flag pole up high, the white flag swaying gently in the wind. The elves sneered at him, but let him be. He kept on muttering to himself as he walked up the hill.

"Come on Soren, you can do this. All you have to do is walk up that stupid hill without killing those stupid elves who want this stupid war." He was in an uncharacteristically dark mood. Back in the day, he just fought and killed elves because he was told to, but ever since Callum's death, he absolutely hated them.

The dragon king was looming up ahead. As Soren got nearer, he could spot a lot of important elves sitting on chairs in front of them. Just look at them. If only I was allowed to bring my sword… Alas, Soren had strict orders to relay a message and bring the dragon king's reply back to King Ezran. Despite hating the assignment, Soren was smart enough to understand why they sent him; he was a high-ranking soldier who had also fought at the Battle of the Storm Spire, defending the dragon prince and the sleeping Queen Zubeia. They hope that if I bring the message, they might actually listen. Or, maybe they just hope that because I fought at their side once, they will not kill me here on the spot.

As Soren took his position opposite the elven council, he suddenly recognized one of the Dragonguards, standing in front of the dragon king. The silver haired Dragonguard looked surprised as Soren waved at her. "Hey, little elf girl!"

Rayla scowled at him. "It's Rayla!" she hissed. "And be quiet! Yer supposed to deliver a message, right?"

The dragon king cleared his throat, demanding the messenger's attention. "Greetings. What message does the king of Katolis have for us?"

"Oh, eh, I don't know, actually, but he wrote it down on this paper thing." Soren took out a scroll from his pouch, sealed with wax and stamped with the Katolis seal of the uneven towers. "So, should I give it to you? Or read it out? Or….?" Soren held out the scroll towards the dragon king rather awkwardly. The scroll looked comically tiny compared to the gargantuan dragon claws.

An elven general coughed and walked up to Soren. "Just give it to me, human." He sounded rather chagrined by the whole ordeal. The general opened the scroll and read it out to all the people gathered there. "To the dragon king and his council…"

"That's YOU!" Soren said as he did a pose, pointing his fingers towards the giant dragon. Everyone just stared at him for a bit before turning back to the general.

"Right…" he muttered. "Where was I… Ah, yes… I besiege the king of Xadia to halt this senseless and unprovoked war. We have had a time of peace. We can yet return to it. But, be warned. Though you have brought your army to our capital city, this is where we draw the line. Here, but no further. Should you attack, we will retaliate. I sincerely hope that you make the right decision and will choose peace. Signed, King Ezran, ruler of Katolis. "

The general looked up to the king. "What will our reply be, sire?"

The dragon king thought for a moment. "I want to consider my reply carefully. Let us discuss what would be wise." His eyes swivelled to Soren. "Though, preferably in private."

Soren looked around. "Oh, wait, you're talking about me?"

The dragon king sighed. How could Katolis still stand if they employed such fools! "I will have one of the Dragonguard escort you to our mess hall. You can refresh yourself there. Rayla, please take care of our guest." Without giving Soren a second glance, the king turned to the generals to discuss their answer.

Rayla moved quickly towards Soren and grabbed him by the arm, moving him in the direction of the mess hall. She didn't say anything and avoided his gaze as she did so. This confused Soren thoroughly.

"Whoa, what's with the hurry? I'm sure the food won't run away, you know! I mean, unless it's still alive, but you elves are not that barbaric, right?" His jovial tone fell on deaf ears, however. Though Rayla didn't look at him, Soren could see that her face was in a constant frown.

They entered the mess hall, a giant tent where the food was served. Rayla got Soren a cup of wine and handed it to him, again without making eye contact. Soren took the wine, sniffed it, and wrinkled his nose.

"Do I have to drink it?¨

Rayla just shrugged and downed hers in one go.

Soren raised his eyebrows at that. "Do they allow you to drink while on duty?"

She gave him a sidelong, dark look. A raspy voice answered him. "Why do you care?" She was surprised when she felt a hand on her shoulder and jumped back instinctively.

"Rayla… are you alright?" The young human looked surprisingly honest with his concern.

His concern and friendly demeanour were what put her off. She hissed at him. "Why are you talkin' to me? We're at war. I-I killed Callum. Don't you hate me?" She looked confused, and maybe a little frightened.

This gave Soren pause. He opened his mouth to say something, but it seemed that he couldn't find the right words immediately, like she had struck a sensitive chord.

Rayla blinked and put her hands on her hips. "Well?"

Soren hesitated but finally found the words to answer her question. "Rayla, I want to be mad… I was mad for some time when Ezran told me what happened... but I know you wouldn't have done it if he wasn't really evil. So, what I am trying to say is… you did the right thing."

This time, Rayla opened her mouth several times, but no words came out. "...what?"

Soren persisted and took her by the shoulders. She let him, this time. "Rayla, it's not your fault. Callum...wasn't himself."

Rayla had her lips firmly pressed together. She thought of Bosor's last words. Not. his. Fault. She had suspected some kind of spell was placed on Callum, but she couldn't be sure. There's no way to be sure. She pushed the thought out of her mind like she had been doing for the last couple of weeks. "Whatever happened, happened Soren. Callum is dead. We are at war. What more is there to say?"

A chime sounded. Soren had no idea what it meant, but he saw Rayla perk up and gesture to follow her. He figured that the dragon king had his reply ready. As he hurried after her, he quickly spoke to her in hushed tones. "Rayla, please don't attack us. We'd kill you, and I don't want that."

Rayla scoffed. "Oh really? Did you forget that we were able to march all the way through your country, practically unopposed? Your soldiers are scared of fighting Xadia's armies. You don't stand a chance."

"Do you really think that's why you got so far? King Ezran did everything to make peace with you. He evacuated everyone before you could get to them and lured you deeper into our territory." He grabbed her arm and twisted her towards him.

The movement caused several guards to draw their swords, but Rayla quickly held out her hand, gesturing to them that it was alright. "What are you playin' at?" shissed. "Are you tryin' to make me afraid of you or somethin'?"

"No! I mean, yes. I mean… maybe? Look, the point is, you are deep in enemy territory, far away from any reinforcements." Soren looked conflicted. "I… can't tell you what is going to happen if you attack. But if you do, know that Ezran really meant it when he said he'd draw the line. It won't be pretty."

Rayla saw that Soren was honest. She was even slightly touched that he still cared for her, enough to want her to live through this. But that made it hard for her to hate him, to hate every human-like she had been trying to for weeks now. "Thanks, Soren. I can see you care."

Soren gave her a weak smile.

"When the time comes, I hope I won't have to fight you. Now come, the king must be gettin' impatient."

The both of them walked on and reached the top of the hill, where all the generals had taken their seats again. The dragon king cast an ominous shadow over the gathering. As the king spoke, his voice was menacing. "Listen well, messenger and carry my words to your king. This is Xadia's reply."

-/-/-/-

The small room in the tower was stunned to silence, though a few crickets had somehow made their way inside. Soren stood awkwardly in the middle of the temporary throne room. The real one was needed to house all the refugees, so they opted to use one of the towers for official state business. General Amaya and Corvus were present, as was Opeli, who stood next to the king. King Ezran was shocked. He just kept looking at Soren, his mouth hanging open. Eventually, he seemed to recover.

"THAT's what the dragon king said!?"

Soren rubbed the back of his head. "Well, yeah, sort of?"

"Did you relay the message exactly as it was told?" Opeli interjected. "Word for word?"

The royal guardsman looked annoyed. "I wouldn't be a very good messenger if I didn't do that, would I? Anyway, they wrote it down for me, so…" Soren produced a scroll from his pouch and handed it to Opeli, who immediately broke the seal and started reading.

"...he's not wrong," Opeli said in worried tones as she handed Ezran the scroll, but the king ignored it, instead sliding off the throne and starting to pace the room.

"'Destroy the entire city'? 'Annihilate all the humans!?' What kind of dragon is he!?" the young king exclaimed. "Has he become some kind of monster?"

"Well, he's already a pretty big monster if you ask me," Soren replied. "I think he has just gotten meaner."

Ezran groaned, pushing his palms against his head.

"Sire, don't worry. Katolis Castle hasn't fallen ever since your family took it hundreds of years ago!" Opeli tried to placate the young king.

General Amaya joined in, signing enthusiastically. -We've placed ballistae on every tower and we've even employed the soldiers that Viren has cursed. Should the dragon attack, we are well equipped to defend ourselves.-

"You only have to hold out until Duren's army arrives," Corvus added. "Just like the original plan was. We lure them here, and then squash them between our two forces."

"That's not what I'm worried about!" Ezran said harshly. "Sure, this siege will keep them occupied until Duren attacks them in the back, but that will still kill so many soldiers! On both sides!" He sat down on the floor. Soren reflected that he had never seen Ezran look so tired before. "Peace will be even further away than before."

Opeli kneeled down next to the king, just as Bait nudged up against him, trying to comfort his young human friend.

"My liege, you said it yourself. This is war. There may not be a miraculous solution to this problem. The dragon king was attacked by Prince Callum, no less. As long as the king is alive, he will hold that grudge against you."

Ezran shook his head and stood up, walking towards the door.

"My liege… what about the message?"

"Leave it for now. I've got to think," Ezran said, without looking back, slamming the door shut behind him.

The tower room was silent. Everyone was thinking about the war and the impact it had on not only Katolis but the young king as well.

Well, everyone except for Soren. "So, anyone hungry?"

-/-/-/-

There was light. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

Callum groaned as he tossed about, trying to wake up. "Urgh! W-what...what is-?!"

"Careful, Prince Callum. Save your strength. You've been through a lot."

Callum only saw stars and blotches of light swimming in his vision. A dark shape sat next to him, but he couldn't focus. Who is it? The voice was deep and soothing. Kind, even, and familiar. But as his vision cleared and looked at the black-greyish figure next to him, he realised why the voice was familiar. "Lord Viren!"

Viren made a placating gesture when Callum tried to get up and roll away from him. "No! Callum, take it easy! You've been through a lot! More than most, I'd say…"

Callum rubbed his eyes till the spots were gone. He blinked a couple of times. He felt the hurt in his chest, but it was bearable and he could ignore it for the time being. He looked at his hands and saw them coming back to focus. He was startled, however, as he saw that grey, cracked skin covered his hands. "What happened to my hands!?"

"Ah...that...would be a consequence of your actions."

"My actions!?" He whipped around to face Viren and was startled again as he saw the man having the same grey, cracked skin. Viren's face looked old and weathered, like it was supposed to be dead, yet somehow still alive. The man didn't look at all like the one that had been by his step-father's side all those years. Yet, somehow, this man in front of him right now looked less arrogant and more remorseful.

"Why are you here, Viren? And where am I? Where's Rayla? Where's Ezran?" Callum tried to come up with answers to his own questions, but his mind only gave glimpses of memories, of swords and dragons and dark magic.

"Callum. Easy. I will explain if you will let me." Viren made no further movement. He still sat upon the chair next to his bed and was watching him patiently.

Callum looked around. The room was small and sparsely furnished. There was the bed he lay in, a desk, a chair and a closet. He saw the light of the sun coming in through an open window. It felt hot like they were in a warmer climate. "Alright. I'll listen."

"Good. This...may come as a shock to you, Callum, but you died."

"I what!?"

"You were dead for some time. Claudia resurrected you, as she did to me once."

"Wow…" Callum tried to get his thoughts in order. He remembered ...something. Flashes of light. He thought he saw something important, but he couldn't get his head to clear up. There were too many thoughts right now. "How long was I gone?"

"If you mean how long you were dead, well, I do not know, sorry to say. I only got here a couple of days ago. All I know is that Claudia's attack at the Storm Spire happened a month ago and that you've been comatose ever since."

"A month!?" To Callum it seemed like everything Viren was telling him was a new shock he had to process. "Wh-why was I out so long!?"

Viren shrugged. "I cannot answer that. Perhaps the spell affected you differently than it did me. Or perhaps Claudia cast a sleeping spell on you to keep you docile. In any case, I've been watching over you for the last couple of days. This is the first time you've awoken."

Callum frowned and kept looking at his hands, turning them this way and that, as if seeing them for the first time.

Viren had an inkling of what the boy was going through and tried to give Callum time to cope with it. "What can you remember?"

"I remember...the Storm Spire? I think? There was fighting… I can see Ibis falling, a-and fighting between human mages and the Dragonguard… and Rayla! Rayla...she put her sword against my neck!" His hands flew to his own neck to check for marks. There weren't any, but the skin didn't feel like his own. He moved to get out of bed, but Viren tried to warn him against it.

"Callum...please, take it easy."

"I've got to check something. Is there a mirror somewhere?"

Viren sighed. There's no stopping that boy… "There's a mirror in the closet."

Callum stumbled out of bed and opened the closet doors. There was indeed a mirror stuck to the inside of one of the doors. Callum opened it all the way and gasped as he saw his reflection. His skin had turned grey and his hair had white streaks running through it. The white of his eyes had turned an unhealthy yellow colour and looked dull, less clear. Oh no...he thought. I look just like I did in my vision! He turned around, panic in his eyes. "Viren, what happened to me?"

"I can't be sure," he said as he got up and walked to the window. Viren had thought of comforting Callum. He hadn't seen the boy this lost since the day he fled the castle. They had been on opposing sides since then, but much had changed in the meantime. He decided that the best way he could help Callum was to give him an honest account of the attack. "From what I've pieced together from listening to Claudia and incoming reports, Claudia abducted you and charmed you with a spell. You were given a mission: to learn dark magic and use it to complete an ancient spell to create a powerful primal stone. From just looking at you, I can say that in those few weeks you were under her spell you cast more dark magic spells than most mages I know have cast in their life. With Aaravos supplying the cult with ingredients, you didn't have to worry about running out of any. This has the side effect of severely corrupting your body. It is so severe that even the resurrection spell hasn't gotten rid of some of it."

"Well, how do I get rid of it!?"

"Well, there are spells with which you can cast a glamour on yourself to hide the effect."

"That's not what I meant! How do I get rid of the corruption!?"

Viren looked at Callum. The young man seemed on the verge of panic, desperate to get his old life back. Viren sighed. He'll have to learn that life can be incredibly unfair at times… It's a shame he has to learn that through me. "You can't, Callum. This is how you will look until the day you die."

"No...no this can't be…. I swore never to use dark magic again…" Callum was pacing the room, clawing at his hair.

Viren quickly moved over to the boy and grabbed him by his wrists. "Don't do that. You will hurt yourself. Look, you've only just woken up. Claudia is on a mission and she took Aaravos with her. That means it's just you and me in this temple now, and I don't mean you any harm."

A doubtful gaze told Viren exactly how much of that Callum believed. "You hurt me in the past. You took my voice!"

"That was because you were an obnoxious little… Never mind. Run away, for all I care. But if you rest now, and think things through, then I promise I will try to help you tomorrow." With that, Viren stood up and walked to the door.

Exhausted, Callum sat on the edge of the bed. Before Viren exited the room though, he asked a question. "Why help me now?"

Viren stopped but didn't turn around. "Because… she won't listen to me anymore. And this war isn't going to win itself." And with that, he was gone.

Callum fell backwards and stared at the ceiling. He tried to collect his thoughts, but there were too many of them. And all of them were spiralling around that silver-haired elven girl that had stabbed him through the heart. "Rayla…."

-/-/-/-

The talks lasted deep into the night. The elven generals had a heated argument about how to break the siege, with King Aureum Umbra only interjecting sporadically. He commanded the dragons, but not the ground forces. Rayla suspected that the dragon king left this to the elven generals on purpose as he likely wouldn't know how to deploy those troops properly.

She yawned. It had been a long night. She longed to go to sleep, to go unconscious for a few hours, an escape from this world. But she was a Dragonguard and that meant that she had to be wherever the king was. Orris would take over once the meetings were done, but that could take an hour or more at the least. Sighing, she resigned herself to her current disposition.

She tried to pay attention to the meeting, but memories kept diverting her attention. They were talking about taking the castle, and she was reminded of how she had scaled those walls by herself, of how she had met Callum and Ezran. She even fought Runaan, trying to convince him that her way was better. That her way would end the war. In the end, it only made room for another one. One that very soon could turn out to be much more destructive. She put her hand against her side, on the spot where the pouch with the coins would be. "I'm sorry…" she whispered, hoping that one day, Runaan could forgive her for her actions, though she doubted it.

"Enough!" the dragon bellowed, interrupting another heated argument between two generals. "This is getting us nowhere! It is certainly not getting us inside the castle walls! Now…." the king said as he lowered his head closer to the generals, who were not immune to the intimidating effect. "...to summarise this pointless discussion: you all agree we should attack as soon as possible, but you all disagree on how to attack because you are uncertain what awaits us behind the walls. Is this correct?"

The generals looked at each other uncertainly. One by one, they started to nod.

"Then wouldn't it be more prudent to send one of our own into the castle in secret to spy on them?"

"My liege, of course, that would be the wisest course of action." The sunfire general hastily replied. "However, in our haste to attack the human lands, we were unable to fully prepare for scenarios like this. Would we have waited a few months, we could have planned for-"

"I will not give the humans those months! They are to be exterminated as soon as possible! Every second they are yet alive is another second where the innocent creatures of Xadia are under threat!"

"O-of course. All I'm saying is that we don't have any soldiers with the right skillset to infiltrate a stronghold like that. We could try to send one, of course, but the chance of success is terribly low."

The dragon king scoffed. "What. Do we not have our moonshadow elves? Are they not the stealthiest of elves?"

Some of the generals flinched as the king praised the moonshadow elves above their own kind. The sunfire general tried his best to explain. "They are assassins. They are not part of our armed forces! We don't have any here!"

King Aureum Umbra slowly turned his head towards Rayla. "We do have one…"

For the second time that day, all eyes turned to Rayla, who was startled by the sudden attention. "Uhhh….."

"Rayla of Xadia, heroine of the moonshadow elves, I charge you with this mission, to infiltrate Katolis castle and discover what it is they are planning. Find out what you can and report back to us."

The generals all mumbled as the king declared the mission without discussing it with them, but they dared not to object to the matter.

Rayla was completely caught off guard by the sudden turn of events. She had expected to see the castle crumble and fall from a distance, but never to see it up close again. She wasn't sure what to say. Could she do this? Remembering her position as a Dragonguard, however, she quickly regained her composure and saluted. "Your will be done, my king. "

"See to it that it is done. And, if you see the opportunity, please kill the king and their generals. Whatever could help us to bring the humans to their knees."

"Right… of course…." She tried to keep the sadness out of her voice as she replied, but didn't quite manage. How can I kill Ezran!? He's my friend! "So...when do I leave?"

The giant moon arch dragon raised his head and looked at the skies. "The moon will be full tomorrow. You will be at the height of your powers then. Tomorrow night, when the moon rises, that is when you will begin your mission."

Rayla nodded, then mumbled, "Yes. Good. I will…. Do the mission, I mean." Groans were coming from the generals seated at the table. She tried her best to ignore them.

The dragon king squinted at her. "You are dismissed. Get Orris to replace you as my guard, and make sure you are well rested for tomorrow evening."

Rayla saluted, hesitated whether she should say anything, then thought the better of it and just left.

Once she was gone, one of the generals coughed awkwardly. "My liege, not to judge your immense wisdom, but… is it wise to send the elf who has fraternised with the enemy?"

The dragon king grunted. He had expected them to pose the question. "Time is pressing. We cannot wait for other moonshadow elves, if we should call them here, so we must send her. She knows the castle since she has already been there. Despite her many shortcomings, she has always fought for Xadia. Her loyalty has been proven, time and time again." The king strained his neck and kept an eye on Rayla as she disappeared into one of the tents in the camp. "Besides, I do not think that the humans will take kindly to an elf who has killed their beloved prince. If she is captured, her end will be swift."

-/-/-/-

Ezran sat on his bed in his old tower room. He had never moved into the master bedroom after he became king. It felt weird. To him, that was still his dad's room. Other people were staying there now because they lacked space to house all the refugees properly, and he felt much more at ease in his old cosy place anyway.

As he looked out the window and watched the moon and stars appear, he started to think about the predicament he was in. If we can hold out for a few weeks, Aanya said that her army could attack them in the rear. But there must be a way to end this conflict without killing someone, despite what Opeli said.

He sat cross-legged on the bed, closed his eyes, and focussed on his breathing. He had seen some of the veteran soldiers do exercises like that to calm themselves down. He figured he could give it a try now.

As he calmed down, he wrecked his brain on how to solve this conflict. Bargaining was his best bet, but he didn't know what he could offer the dragon king that would placate him. He wants revenge. He wants to kill humans… The problem is the king. The king wants the wrong things…

As Ezran sat there and drifted between thinking and falling asleep, he felt a familiar tug on his consciousness. Zym!

Almost instinctively he reached out with his mind and connected to his dear dragon friend. Zym, you're here!

Ezzz!

Ezran heard the draconic voice in his mind. Zym couldn't say his name properly, he could barely speak as was, but he and Zym had been practising whenever they connected. Ezran, for his part, was trying to get more control over their connection. So far, he had made little progress, but this didn't keep Ezran from trying.

Zym! How are you doing? Is everything okay?

A draconic yelp came as the dragon tried to process the words. Yep! Ooooke. Miss Ezzz. Misss Ray. Misss Cam…

Ezran swallowed. The death of his brother had hit him hard. He had tried to deal with it, but there was always something more pressing that demanded his attention, so any thoughts about his brother had always been shoved to the background. I miss them too. He quickly replied, before switching subjects. Zym… the elves are near the castle. The dragon king is leading them. Can you ask your mom to stop him?

Ezran sensed the hesitation on the dragon's side. Maaybrrr? The dragon replied. Trrr spek mommmma.

It took Ezran a few seconds before he understood what the dragon meant. Yes! Go try to speak to your mother! I'm sure she'll understand!

Ya! Was the cheerful reply, before the dragon grew silent.

Ezran sensed that he was still connected to the dragon. He focussed on his eyes and was not surprised when he began to see through Zym's. He saw the young dragon hopping around from where he nested towards the entrance. The young dragon didn't look around, so Ezran figured that, for some reason, Queen Zubeia was not in the Great Hall itself. As Zym hopped out of the great hall, several elves looked up in surprise. Ezran couldn't say he recognized any of them. He half expected to catch a glimpse of Rayla, but then remembered Soren said that she was here, with the dragon king. Zym hopped past the guards, towards the exit of the Storm Spire. Several elves rushed after him.

"Wait up, little prince! Where are you going?" From the sound of footsteps, Ezran thought that the elves were probably following Zym. However, he couldn't control Zym, only watch through his eyes, and Zym's eyes were focussed on the bright light ahead of him.

It was a radiant day when Zym exited the Storm Spire. The sun was shining brightly down upon the mountain. The dragon queen was lying in the warm sun in front of the entrance with a winged elf hovering nearby. The queen looked up in surprise as her son approached.

"Prince Azymondias, are you done playing already?"

Zym rushed to his mother and nudged her giant paw. Though he had been growing, for dragons it was a slow process and the paw would still dwarf him for many years to come. "Ezzz! Ezzz!" Zym said happily, looking up into his mother's eyes.

Queen Zubeia cocked her head. "What are you trying to tell me, my son?" She leaned over, lowering her head until their snouts touched. Sparks of electricity erupted between them, a legacy of their species.

Ezran felt the sparks himself. He rubbed his nose out of reflex but otherwise remained focussed on his vision. He saw the big, bright eyes of the dragon queen pierce his gaze as her son kept talking to her. "Ezzz. Halp Ezzzz. Fight...BAD!" Zym ended his statement with a zap in the air, excited that his human friend had given him something to do without fully understanding how much danger his friend was really in.

The queen seemed pensive for a moment. "You're worried about your friend Ezran, aren't you?" She sighed deeply. "I dislike the fighting as much as you do. But there's no stopping the king, not after the last attack. And I can't say I blame him. They almost killed us." Her eyes turned sad as she remembered that night. She couldn't recall a time when she had been more scared for her own and her son's life.

Zym picked up on her mood, but also on the fact that she hadn't changed her mind. He stomped around, a bit miffed that she didn't give the reply Ezran wanted. "Ezzz….frind! Ezzz nice!"

"Oh, young prince, you are still too small to understand the workings of the big world around you. The king won't spare the humans, even the innocent ones. Perhaps, if some other arch dragon were to take his place, like Rex Igneous… But I don't see that happen anytime soon."

Zym made soft whining noises and nudged against his mother, who nudged him back. Momma not help… he sent to Ezran.

I know, Zym. But you did. You were a great help!

This cheered Zym up a little, and he smiled.

Ezran smiled as he broke his mental connection with his friend. He thought about what the queen said. She won't help, and the king won't change his mind. But what if the king wasn't the king anymore? Ezran had an idea. It was a long shot though. With renewed hope, he rushed out the door in search of Opeli and Soren.

-/-/-/-

The cube landed in the corner. It slid along the floor and came to a stop. Callum used his foot to nudge it back to him so that he could toss it again. The cube might be an artefact of an all-powerful mage, right now it was just something for Callum to throw against the wall.

He was frustrated. His body still hadn't recovered. He felt weak, and every time he looked in the mirror, he swore he saw his evil corrupted mirror image sneering back at him.

Callum wanted to do nothing more than spread out his wings and fly away from here. But he was too weak, and Viren had warned him that the cultists had strict orders to keep him here because Claudia wasn't sure if the charm effect had worn off.

Yeah, there was that. Claudia charmed me with a spell….

It felt like another stab in the back from his once friend/crush. He knew she had chosen a different side, but he had never dreamt that she would turn out to be so… so…. Evil.

The memories returned to him slowly. He remembered researching the spell and learning more about dark magic, eventually helping the other cultists with their training. He remembered other things… things that Claudia had made him do. He grunted and tossed the cube a little harder than he had meant to. It smacked against the wall and slid along the ground, leaving a dent in the wall. She asked me to kiss her… and of course, the spell made me do it. She made me do it.

He remembered more and more of the attack. Most of it was still blurry, but he figured he had probably killed someone. He wasn't too sure who though. In the end, he was just glad he hadn't been able to kill Rayla. He was even glad that she had ended his killing spree.

He tossed the cube again, but this time it was just a very simple toss-up in the air. The cube landed without tumbling and settled, then it shifted, all of a sudden, sliding back towards Callum. He did a double-take. That's odd cube behaviour… He grabbed the cube and held it. It still displayed the same symbols of the different primal sources, as it used to do. Then, two of the sigils started glowing. One of them came to no surprise. It was the sigil of the air arcanum. He remembered it used to glow when he held the cube in his hand for a while. But on the opposite side was a purple glow. Callum slowly turned the cube around and noticed that the sigil of the star arcanum was glowing faintly.

.that's odd. Wait, does that mean…!? With a flash, he remembered a bright light. He remembered seeing the world from afar, from a bird's point of view, high, high up in the sky. He remembered all the different colours of light flowing around the continent, like waves of magic. He then remembered the revelation he had when he was in that other place. I understand the Star Arcanum!

Callum somehow doubted that he really did, but the cube was definitely telling him that he had a connection. Wow… but what can I do with it? His curiosity to explore this new aspect of him quickly overtook all the negative thoughts he had and he found himself wrecking his mind for any references to star arcanum magic he might have come across this past year. Turns out, there was this one particular spell that he had wanted to try. The dream spell!

He got back on the bed and took a cross-legged position, holding the cube in his hands. He focussed, his mind providing him with the image of the parchment which held the spell. It was a complicated one, and Callum took a minute to study the runes and words that went along with it. Carefully, he raised a hand and traced a finger through the air. Mystic, purple energy followed his finger as he traced the rune. "Somniare. Hoc quod te rogo. Quemadmodum iubeo."

It was a long incantation and he sincerely hoped that he said it correctly. He felt the spell take effect, as he immediately felt himself become drowsy. He let himself fall onto the bed and closed his eyes as his consciousness faded from him. But as he felt himself relax, he also felt how the cosmic energy he was using for the spell was torn from him. He panicked, knowing now that he let himself relax too much, while he should have kept his focus on the spell.

His last bit of consciousness tried to frame a coherent thought before he was pulled into a deep slumber. Uh oh… this can't be good...

-/-/-/-

Rayla yawned. It had been a long, annoying night. She had talked (more like argued, now that she thought of it, really) with Orris for hours about how he could best replace her. Orris was of the opinion that he should be as prominently displayed as possible to intimidate any would-be attackers, while Rayla argued that if the guard was present in the background, they would be more likely to notice things that were hidden. They were opposites, like sun and moon.

Fitting, considering their lineage.

As she bunked down, the first rays of the sun already tried to peek through the heavy curtains of her tent. She closed her eyes, shutting them out completely, and just hoped that sleep would come swiftly to take her away from the pain in her heart and all her worldly troubles.

She was annoyed when sleep didn't come. She had her eyes closed, but she felt strangely energetic. Odd… I felt sleepy a moment ago. She turned on her side, hoping to make herself comfortable when she felt something sharp press into her side. This only annoyed her further. Oh, for Garlath's sake! What does an elf have to do to get some sleep!? With her hand, she brushed it away and was surprised when she felt her hand sweep the cold stone floor.

She quickly opened her eyes, but it was still dark. It was also cold and damp. She was in some kind of cave. As she looked around she came to the slow realisation that this place was very familiar. She was back in the great hall of the Storm Spire. But that's impossible! I was in my tent just now...wasn't I?

Her brain felt fuzzy. She tried to remember what had happened. She tried to get to sleep, so how did she end up here? As she looked around she felt in her gut that something was wrong. I don't hear anything… Where are the dragons? The great hall appeared to be empty.

She stood up and exited the great hall. The front hall of the Storm Spire was just as she remembered it. The benches and tables stood where they had left them but nobody sat upon them. "That's weird… usually there is at least one Dragonguard in this hall…"

Feeling uneasy, she crept through the hall, searching for any sign of life. She peeked down the hallways where the Dragonguards had their rooms. They were empty, but she did see that one door was ajar. It wasn't her door though. That was the door to Bosor's old room. She crept closer and peered inside through the crack. There was no light, no sound. Her heart pounded in her chest. What's going on here?

She pushed the door open and looked inside, but could barely see anything in the darkness. She quickly moved to the other end of the room, searching for the luneflame. She found it and lit it, grabbing the candle so that she could look around. The room was a mess. There was broken furniture here, and the room smelled of sulphur and blood. Her eyes grew wide as she saw a blood trail on the floor, leading towards one of the beds built into the wall. There were curtains hanging in front of it, obscuring anyone laying in it. The curtains had blood on them as well.

Her heart was pounding in her chest now. She slowly stepped towards the bed and, in one quick move, pulled the curtain aside. She gasped. In the bed lay a body, clearly dead, its skin pale as ice. Bosor! The elf looked like he did when he died. Emotions overwhelmed her, and she gently reached out to touch his cheek, missing her fellow Dragonguard dearly.

Suddenly, Bosor's eyes opened and locked on hers, while his claw-like hand snapped around her wrist. Rayla opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. The dead elf looked at her with an unnerving intensity. "Not…...his…...fault…. " It rasped.

Rayla came to her senses and tried to pull away, but the claw was unrelenting. "Not…..his…..fault…." the voice rasped again. It sounded like Bosor, but it was dry, deformed. Rayla felt panic rise in her stomach.

"Let me go!" She put one foot on the edge of the bed and pulled with all her might. She saw another claw appearing, reaching for her ankle. With a last-ditch effort, she pulled and finally came free, falling backwards.

Her relief was short-lived, however, as she saw the claw-like hand still dangling from her wrist. The arm had broken off at the elbow. As she looked up, she was filled with horror when she saw the body crawl out of bed, flopping on the ground and crawling towards her. "Not…..his…...fault…"

"Get away from me!" She pulled the claw from her wrist and threw it at the dead elf before rushing back into the hallway. As she ran from the room, she kept hearing Bosor's voice rasping the same message. "Not ….. His…..fault….."

"My swords...I need to find my swords!" When she entered the hall, she looked around for a weapon. She couldn't find any, but she did spot movement. From the entrance of the Great Hall stumbled various figures. Rayla recognized the large form of Gaia, only now the elf was completely burned, with black, cracked skin. She groaned and mumbled as she stumbled closer to Rayla. Behind her came another figure which resembled Icra.

Rayla grimaced. What on earth is happenin'!? Is this a nightmare!? None of it was making sense to her. The dead shouldn't move, much less try to grab her! However, despite the initial shock, Rayla was not immediately afraid of the elf-zombies. She was a warrior. Her battle-hardened senses took over and she analysed the situation. They were slow, and she was not. She figured she could stay out of their reach as long as she didn't get herself cornered. What concerned her more was not knowing how she had ended up here. This feels too real to be some kind of dream...

She quickly searched the hall while staying out of the reach of the zombies, but she couldn't find any weapons. The elf-zombies were now getting closer, slowly surrounding her. The dead body of Bosor had now crawled out of the hallway as well. "Stayin' here's too dangerous…" she hissed to herself. She turned to exit the Storm Spire when she saw a hooded figure standing in the doorway. The sun was behind him, so all she saw was a black outline. However, her heart beat faster as she heard his voice.

"Rayla! Quick, this way!"

"Callum!" She rushed towards him and embraced him, holding him tightly. She smelled his familiar scent and felt herself relax. "Callum, I dunno if this is a dream. It must be, now that you're here…" Her mind struggled to catch up with the situation, but she put those thoughts out of her mind and tried to just enjoy the moment.

"Rayla, it's okay. But we've got to go. We've got a little problem with walking dead people."

Rayla whipped around and saw that the three dead elves were getting pretty close now. She turned to look at Callum, but he had already turned around.

"Come, let's go." He grabbed her by the wrist and pulled her along. As they exited the structure, Rayla saw that there were a lot more dead people milling about outside. They looked a lot like the cultists that had attacked the Storm Spire. The dead cultists moved about in a brainless way and when they saw the duo, they slowly shambled in their direction. "We need to go up!"

Rayla let herself be pulled along up the stairs spiralling upwards to the plateau. She kept looking behind to see if the dead were following them. They were, at a steady pace, but she and Callum had put some distance between them. Soon, the zombies disappeared from view as they ascended the spiral stairs. When she looked at Callum again, she noticed something was off. His hand… it looks….pale. She suddenly remembered how Callum had looked when she had last seen him, during the attack. "Hold up!" she said as she whisked her hand away from his and stopped running.

Callum stopped but didn't turn around. "We need to go!" he said, his back still turned to her.

"Somethin's off about ya. Turn around so A can see yer face." Her anger and mistrust were palpable as she spoke, now heavily doubting on whose side Callum was.

Callum hesitated. He could hear by the tone of her voice that she was on edge. This entire dream thing has gone all kinds of wrong! I don't want her to see me like this… "Rayla, we do not have time for this! They are coming!"

She knew that. She could hear the growling and mumbling of the dead. They probably had already reached the stairs. However, this did not frighten her as much as what was in front of her. "Not before ya turn around!"

"Rayla… please." Callum tried one last time, his shoulders sagging a little.

"No Callum. A dunno what's goin' on. This feels too real to be a dream, but it canna be real either." A thought struck her. She called out into the sky. "Zeron! Is this yer doin', ya scunner!?"

Callum sighed deeply. "No...no, this is my doing. I'm sorry." He turned around.

Rayla inhaled sharply as she saw his corrupted, grey, cracked face. "No… yer still a dark mage…"

"No, I'm not! That wasn't me!"

"Well, this is ye now!" She pointed at him accusingly.

Callum gritted his teeth. This wasn't going as he had planned at all. "Well, maybe I look like that, but on the inside, it's still me!"

"What in Garlath's name is that supposed ta mean!?" The sound of the zombie elves and cultists was getting louder now, but she still ignored it. "Ya tried ta kill my friends! Ya even killed Bosor! And Icra and Gaia! Ye got blood on yer hands!"

The words hit Callum like a hammer. He couldn't bear her accusations. He stumbled closer, hoping in vain that she would hug him again. "Rayla, please, I beg of you…"

"No! Stay away!" Rayla took a step back defensively but was surprised by a groan that came from behind her. She turned to look and saw that the dead had ascended the stairs. They were only a few steps away from her. A've gotta get out of this nightmare! She looked around. Her choices were zombies or the dark mage. Not a lot of appealin' options. Then she looked down the mountain and a third option came to mind.

"Please, Rayla. I...I just want to talk to you. I-I'm-"

"NO! You stay away from me, ya hear!?" She stepped sideways, closer to the edge. They were almost upon her now. She breathed deeply. Think happy thoughts. This is just a dream. I'll be awake soon.

Callum saw her step backwards, closer to the edge. "Careful, Rayla, they might push you off! Please, you've got to come with me!"

Rayla looked into his eyes and said her words with a finality that pierced right through his heart. "No, A don't." She spread her arms and let herself fall backwards. The last thing she saw before she closed her eyes was Callum leaning over the edge as the dead swarmed him while he screamed at her.

"Rayla, No!"

With a shock, Rayla opened her eyes. She was back in her tent. Groaning, she stumbled towards the tent flap to check the time. Oh d'arvit, this is just great! The sun was going down, meaning that there were only a few hours left before she would have to go on her mission. "Great, and I don't feel rested at all. Friggin' nightmare..." With a heavy sigh, she stumbled out of her tent to make ready for her nightly adventure.

-/-/-/-

"I smell death!" The sun dragon roared. He spread his claws apart, steadying himself, as he raised his head and inhaled deeply. His neck started to glow.

Claudia thought of a witty reply and was about to call out, but then thought the better of it. I already screwed up our last mission. I shouldn't do something stupid this time. Instead, she remained silent as to not alert the giant dragon of their presence.

The cultists fanned out. They were with fewer, this time. After Claudia had failed to return with the mages from the attack on the Storm Spire, there had been a lot of commotion caused by the surviving relatives. Claudia had to use bribery and charm spells to pull herself out of that mess. It had become painfully obvious to her that she was not all-powerful and that there were definitely consequences for her actions.

The most severe response to her failed mission came from Aaravos. "You were warned," he simply said. But the disappointment in the bug's voice spoke volumes. With the departure of her father, she had only Callum and Aaravos to lean on for support. Callum died. She was able to resurrect him, but he remained in a coma and she wasn't sure why. That meant that the only person left to talk to was Aaravos, and he was furious with her for wasting so many resources on an attack he had already predicted was doomed to fail.

"Watch out!" a cultist called out as the dragon's jaws opened wide, flames forcing their way through rock and stone. The dragon was blind, however, and the cultists were not. And they had been smart enough to mask their scent with various herbs. To put it plainly, they all smelled like duskweed.

Claudia did not have to move to avoid the stream of flame; it was not aimed at her. Once the dragon was spent, she gave the signal. "Stun him!"

All the cultists sprung forward and cast their dark magic spell, stunning the arch dragon where he stood.

"What's this!? You dare use your foul magic on me!? I am Sol Regem! I will tear you limb from limb!" The dragon raged, however, his mouth was the only thing he could move. The rest of his gargantuan body was frozen in place.

Claudia raised her staff and focussed, gathering the power she needed to finish off the dragon. A black orb began to form on the top of her staff, crackling with dark energy. As she started the incantation, she glanced left and right to see all the mages focussing their own power, keeping the dragon in place. My dad could have never done this in the past, she thought. He and I were the only mages in Katolis. Look what we can achieve if we have a whole bunch of us working together! She focused back on the dragon, narrowing her eyes. We can take on the world!

Claudia focussed on her gathering power, just as she was joined by Aaravos, his bug creature now descending from the sky.

"Well done, Claudia. His heart will be the perfect ingredient for the most powerful primal stone in the world: the Heart of a Dragon. Now, finish him off.

Claudia nodded and raised her staff, but as she saw the dragon standing there, she hesitated, thinking back on how Callum used his absorb spell to gain the lifeforce of another to be used for later spells. There's a whole lot of lifeforce right in front of me! "Can't we absorb his power instead? Think of all the spells you could cast with that much power! We could still cut out the heart afterwards!"

"He's pretty weak for an arch dragon," Aaravos said. "Regardless, that approach is still too risky. He's trying to break the stun spell right now! Better to just kill him and cut out his heart."

Claudia bit her lip. She knew he was right, but at the same time, she didn't want to lose the opportunity to gain more power. "Are you sure I can't try to-"

"Claudia! Do it, or risk losing your life this time!" The casual tone Aaravos normally used was gone. Instead, he sounded like he was losing his patience with her behaviour.

Claudia winced. Deep down inside, she wasn't sure whether Aaravos was warning her of the dragon's power, or the consequence should she fail him a second time.

With a scream, she let go of her spell and hurled the black orb right at the arch dragon's chest. It exploded with a flash. A wave of heat rolled over the dark mages as the dragon roared in agony and crumpled to the ground. When the dust settled, they could see the arch dragon laying there in a pool of his own blood.

The cultists cheered and offered their congratulations to Claudia. "Thanks, but we did it together!" she replied. As she moved towards the dead dragon, she turned to Aaravos. "Well, that was easy! We should have done that the first time!"

Aaravos sounded bemused. "Yes, you should have. And had you heeded my council, you would have."

"Oh, don't give me that. We almost won at the Storm Spire! It was so close!"

"So close to dying, you must mean. You overreached, you gambled. Because of that, you nearly lost everything."

"Well, yes, but nearly isn't completely!" she said with a wink.

The bug just stared at her before walking away. "Finish the job, Claudia."

She stared at the bug form for a while, smirking, keeping up the facade of a happy, untroubled sorcerer. Claudia wanted to make it sound like it was no big deal, but she hid her real thoughts and feelings about the night they attacked the Storm Spire. In reality, it terrified her that she came so close to dying. It was Callum who had saved her numerous times that night, and he paid the ultimate price in the end. It was a miracle that she had managed to get away with his body and resurrect him, though she wasn't sure that the spell worked completely. He's in some sort of coma because of me. Poor Callum. I really do owe him. Maybe I'll try easing off the charm spell… If he will love me without it, that is.

She looked at the sky, thinking about her charmed boyfriend hundreds of miles away. Anyway, dad is watching over him right now. I'm sure he'll be fine.


Author's notes

Here we go, the first chapter of War of Cinders! I do hope you like it. It's about high time that I returned to writing. I wanted to do something with the visions of "dark Callum" at the end of season 2. That's one of the reasons why I put this in the story. I want to build on what the creators already put in the show, building the connection between that and the fanfic. It's working out quite well so far.

Thank you for reading, and as always, please let me know what you think of the story!