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Whumptober 2019: The Dragon Prince

Chapter Text

Amaya’s hands were wet. Drenched. The water splattering her gloves might as well have been blood. She couldn’t pull him back. He’d slipped out of reach. Fallen off the ledge. Been swept down the foaming cataract from the mouth of the cave.

Callum was gone.

She knelt on the wet stone lip before the silent rage of the waterfall. It hung like a curtain, hiding the future. Hiding the truth. Left her hands in the water. Its cold rage soaked her, but it couldn’t cool the magmatic horror of her shock.

He’d been right there. And then he wasn’t.

Sarai, I’m sorry. I failed you.

She snatched her hands back from the water, and they shook, they shook. Her words, if she could sign them to anyone—Callum, Sarai, Gren—would stutter with horrified grief. But she was alone.

Alone without Callum. Alone with no one else to blame. Alone with no one else to help.

She wrapped her arms around her waist and leaned forward, silently keening. Her arms shivered hard. The cold reality of Callum’s fall had literally begun to sink into her skin.

It would reach her heart soon.

That ice, again. She knew its bite now, after Sarai. She couldn’t stand to let it chill her a second time.

Not for Callum.

She could feel the look Sarai would give her, if she could. For losing Callum. Outrage, betrayal. No tears. Sarai was never the soft one, no matter what anyone else thought.

How could you, Sister. You let my son fall. How could you?

Amaya buried her face in her shaking hands. Her whole body strained with despair, rocking forward. Nearly toppling her off the ledge. Her hair got wet, she leaned so close.

She jerked back, eyes wide. Her hands flew to the first buckle on her armor, fingers cold and numb, slipping, wet, gripping, wrenching.

Amaya tossed the last piece of armor aside, stood up, and took a running leap into the thundering waterfall. Its icy rain pounded her, tumbling, downward toward the pool below. Toward the rocks.

Toward Callum.

The pool accepted her sacrifice, and her world went blue. She looked around, started swimming hard, searching for any sign of her nephew. Her hands spasmed as she swept them through the buffeting water.

I will find you, Callum. Or I will die trying.

Chapter Text

“I’m gonna throw you the Primal Stone.”

“No, that’s not a good plan. Throwing is bad!”

“I won’t throw it. I’ll just gently toss it.”

“No, no, no! No throwing. No tossing.”

Callum glanced down at the sparking magical sphere in his hand. Ezran was safely out of the way with Bait and the egg. And Rayla was indestructible. He just needed to get this magical lightning grounded somehow, and then he could try again. “Tossing it!” He lobbed the Primal Stone.

Rayla’s yelp of panic was the last thing he heard before his world turned to blinding white light and roaring sound.

When he could see again, he was staring straight up, lying sprawled on his back. The air smelled strangely heavy, a mix of burnt hair and barbecue. Callum shot to his feet. “Ezran?!”

Ezran waved a hand from where he’d huddled with Bait, giving Callum a thumbs up.

Callum sighed in relief and turned to Rayla.

Rayla wasn’t moving.

She lay sprawled as well, eyes on the sky—no, wait

Rayla didn’t have eyes anymore.

Callum scrambled to her side, took in a gasping, horrified breath, and gagged on the stench of burnt flesh. He stumbled back onto his butt and screamed into one hand. “Oh, no, oh no, oh nooo…”

Unable to look away, his eyes locked onto Rayla’s still form. She wasn’t breathing. Smoke rose from several points inside her shirt, but mostly from right over her heart. Bright pink scar patterns that looked exactly like little lightning bolts tracked their way across her hands, up her arms, and along her neck, terminating in smoking zigzags that reached her blackened eye sockets. A messy splatter of blood drenched one corner of her mouth and sprayed across her face and arms as if ejected at high speed. As if her insides had simply—exploded. Her last expression was literally baked onto her face: shock and betrayal.

Callum threw up again. The world spun away into a panicked haze. He came to sometime later, on his hands and knees, shrieking helplessly through a constricted throat as Ezran shook his shoulders and repeated tearfully, “What are we gonna do, what are we gonna do?”

Callum instinctively pulled Ezran into a panicked hug and tried to remember to breathe. The quest, the egg, the war… They couldn’t go back to the castle. Lord Viren had tried to steal his voice once. He’d do it again, or worse. And he’d take the egg again. But now they couldn’t make it to Xadia safely, either. Worse, Callum had just killed an elf. He hadn’t helped end the war. He’d helped fan its flames.

Callum hugged Ezran tightly and felt hot tears burning his eyes. “I don’t know, Ez. I don’t know.”

Chapter Text

“Callum! Callum, come back!” Sarai’s desperate scream was lost in the sheeting rain that drenched the castle battlements. “Callum! Where are you?”

Sarai slipped on the slick stone steps as she scrambled up to the tower’s flat top. For a desperate, vertiginous moment, the yawning void of the castle’s outer courtyard sucked at her balance, attempting to draw her down into its dark, stony bosom. How like her mother, that gap, that fall. Helpless enough—petty enough—to drag anyone else down with her when she realized that she’d never be enough. Never enough for her own standards, which she held everyone else to, pridefully ignoring her own hypocrisy.

“Get off me, you desperate bitch,” Sarai growled. She crawled the rest of the way on her hands and knees, soaking her long silk nightgown. The thick brocade fabric tangled around her ankles, and she yanked one knee free.

The fabric ripped. She tripped and skinned her knee hard against the cold stone.

“Mama? Mama?!”

“Callum!” Sarai was on her feet in an instant, running face first into the icy downpour. She couldn’t see a thing. The parapets that ringed her were dark shapes against a darker sky. Specters feeding on her panic, judging her motherhood, dismissing her worth. Like her mother.

“You don’t deserve this child.” That voice always sent a shiver down Sarai’s spine.

“Shut up, Mother!” Her voice shrilled through the storm.

“You’re a warrior. You withdrew from the field. You hide in silks and let others die in your place. You don’t deserve this child.”

Sarai’s childhood terror clashed with her protective instincts, leaving her with a half-drawn breath of fear.

Her mother stalked out of the rain, wearing her funeral whites, hair perfect even in death, sword flashing despite the storm clouds overhead. “You don’t deserve this child, Sarai.”

Sarai bared her teeth. “Mother—”

But the old warrior brushed past Sarai, eyes intent on a different target. Sarai whirled. Her wide eyes spotted Callum crouching between two sheltering parapets, with the long drop to the river just past his sopping form.

The vengeful old warrior lifted her sword and began to run toward Callum.

Sarai couldn’t move. Her legs had melded with the stone. The castle itself was holding her back. Inhaling her. Consuming her. She fell to the stone, felt cold rain and hot blood as her hands and elbows skidded hard. But she clawed her way after her mother, dragging her legs free of the castle. “Callum is my son! Don’t you touch him! Callum!”

Somehow she was on her feet, running. She caught up to her mother through sheer force of will, teeth bared, lungs burning, eyes full of rain. Sarai shoved her mother aside, stretched her arms out for her cowering son, to enfold him, protect him. To be his mother.

Callum looked up at Sarai with those wide green eyes, so like his father’s. And as he saw Sarai reaching down for him, he flinched away.

Flinched so hard, he toppled out of her reach and fell from the tower.

He vanished into the driving rain. He hadn’t even made a sound.

Sarai threw herself at the parapet, scrambling after him, screaming in denial, slamming her already injured knee against the upright edge of the stone as she struggled to dive after that which she’d already lost. “Callum!”

Her mother materialized at her shoulder. Her funeral whites clung to her, wrapping her like a caterpillar in a cocoon. Her face shriveled and withered until all that remained was an angry, dried husk, full of too many teeth and the powdered remnants of a constricting love.

Those bare, dull teeth clacked as their face blew away in the storm. “Like father, like son. You don’t deserve this child.”

Sarai wheezed through a throat on fire, crouched in the parapet’s notch, staring down into the storm. Her chest rang like a bell under the sea, shivering her heartbeat through paper-thin bones. Doubt wormed dark tendrils around her mind. “Do you want me to fall, Mother? Or to jump?”

Her mother shredded into a thousand wet fragments as something black and green slashed right through her. Sarai flinched back. Nearly fell from the parapet herself. Melodic chirping reached her ear, as if springtime had come early, forcing its way through the winter storm.

“Sarai!” A sturdier voice. Commanding.

Sarai’s voice was nearly lost on the howling wind. “I won’t do it!”

“Sarai, what are you doing?” Warm hands grasped her arms and scooped her from the parapet.

“I’m not jumping. You can’t make me.” Who was crying? Was it her? Or this new person, whose hands were warm and dark and so very big? Which held her cheeks and warmed them, pressed his forehead to hers?

“Sarai, Sarai. You’re too sick to be wandering alone. Let’s get you inside.”

Whoever he was, his voice was very pleasant. Sarai suddenly felt a powerful need for sleep. She rested her wet head on his equally wet shoulder. A light weight landed on his other shoulder. More chirping.

He scooped her into his arms and began to carry her. She snuggled against him. Somehow, his warmth kept her mother’s spirit at bay. Then she remembered. “Callum! Callum fell!”

“What? Callum’s asleep, Sarai. I checked on him myself, looking for you. I had no idea you were so sick, or I’d never have left you. You’re feverish. That can’t be good for the baby. Let me take care of you, please, my love.”

Reality found a crack in her delirium and poured back through. “H-Harrow?”

“And who else would dare to carry my queen off the battlements in this weather?” Harrow answered warmly.

“How did you find me?”

“Pip.” The big, beautiful raptor chirped over the howl of the wind. “He got very agitated very quickly. I’ve never seen him like that before. He just flew off his perch in the middle of the strategy meeting, and I managed to follow him up here to you.”

“To me, and the baby.” Sarai tucked a hand against her barely rounded tummy.

“That’s one special little prince you’re carrying, my love. He just saved your life.”

Sarai caressed the swell of her belly. “Thank you, Ezran.” As Harrow swept her back inside, Sarai fell asleep on her husband’s shoulder. I do deserve this child.

Chapter Text

Viren’s hand clamped down hard. “Stay quiet. Your master’s fate is sealed. Don’t make things worse.”

But Pip only knew fear, confusion… and revulsion. He didn’t belong, didn’t belong, didn’t belong. Shouldn’t be here, it was wrong, so wrong, and it hurt. It tugged at the strings of him, hard and red and hot, and they frayed and stretched. He tried to warble his distress.

Viren slapped him, and it stung hard. No feathers to protect his skin. “I told you to stay quiet.”

Pip’s instincts flared, hot and sharp and green. He managed to find some vocal chords and sound them, but the noise they made was awful. Familiar, adored, yet not his. A growl of anger.

Pip had never growled in his life. What, what, and where was his master? The desperate raptor flailed, feeling his heart thrum with pain, confusion, trepidation. Colors were wrong, dull, everything was dark. Smelled wrong. Panic began to set in.

Viren let out an exasperated sigh. “I see you’ll take as much convincing as he did.”

Pip tried to flail, to bat Viren’s strong hands away, but wings and arms are very different things, and nothing moved like it should, and everything ached and stung, and though the dark mage seemed smaller than he had before this terrible disaster, Viren easily had his way. He tipped a cold vial of something down Pip’s throat.

Soft lips sputtered. No beak to defend against the assault. Pip let out a wail of distress. The last thing he saw was Viren holding him down atop the king’s bed. Watching with cold calculation as Pip’s vision went dark.

Then, crashing sounds. Pip awoke to very dim moonlight. Grunting, clanging. On instinct, Pip tried to fly to his perch. But nothing moved. Not even a twitch.

Danger, danger! Escape! Pip’s senses rang with alarm, and his body—except it was not his body—flushed with adrenaline, panic, desperation. Pip tried to cry out, to scuttle, to roll over and fall to the floor. Get away!

But his master’s body lay as if frozen, save for its erratic breathing. Pip could see nothing except the canopy overhead.

And then, shadows. Flitting around the edges of his dim vision.

Battle had come to the king’s chamber. The whiz of arrows, the clash of swords. A tall, lean figure rippled into view, hard to track with his master's poor eyesight. A bare suggestion of elven grace with a long pale ponytail, standing atop the foot of the bed. Swords gleamed in his hands. His gleaming gaze raked Pip's unmoving form.

Pip was suddenly prey.

He wasn’t used to being prey. He much preferred fighting to hiding. Inside, he writhed with fierce defensiveness. But none of his instincts could make it past Viren’s potion, and he lay flat and slack, in full view of the Moonshadow predator who loomed over him, eyes black and turquoise in a half-invisible face.

The horned elf lunged forward, kneeling astride Pip’s heaving chest. His swords crossed Pip’s throat, cold and biting. “Justice will not be denied,” he breathed. “In Avizandum’s name, I will give you the mercy you never gave him—a swift death. Now. Stay quiet.”

Chapter Text

“Please, Bettina! Put that away. You don’t mean this.” Viren’s hands splayed out between him and his wife’s shaking double-barreled flintlock, currently aimed at his chest.

“Fuck you, Viren! You sold your soul for the heaven you promised me, but it’s only been hell! Fuck you!”

“I-I’m sorry, I can do better, I can speak with Harrow—”

Bettina’s ragged shriek of rage cut him off mid-sentence. Spittle flew from her lips, tears from her eyes. Her tousled blond hair fell across her face, leaving her dark eyes shrouded. Her madness hidden. “Don’t you fucking say his name to me right now! Don’t you fucking say it, Viren! Don’t you dare.”

“Okay, okay, whatever you want. Please, tell me how I can make this better.” Viren rallied his focus, ignored the sweaty tremble quivering down his spine. He’d always had one thing that could calm her down. “Bettina. Think of the children.”

With a hopeless, raging wail, Bettina pulled the trigger. One of the flintlock’s barrels coughed out a belch of pale smoke. Viren’s ears rang with the shot. He flinched back, bracing for agony, but felt nothing. He glanced out of the corner of his eye and saw a smoking hole in the stone a few inches from his head. “Y-You shot at me. You actually shot at me.”

Bettina’s tears shook down her cheeks like icy waterfalls. The wintry shiver in her trembling voice matched them. “I know what you did. What you did with him.”

Viren gulped hard. She couldn’t possibly know… could she? “I… I can explain. Just give me a chance to explain.”

“Yeah? Then do it from your knees.” She stalked closer in a rush, pistol held high, and shoved hard on the top of his shoulder.

Wary of that second, unfired barrel, Viren let her force him down.

“Because you like to be on your knees, don’t you, Viren?” Bettina hissed wetly. “You like it there, on your knees before power. Mouth open. Eyes shut. Open wide, Viren.” Bettina rammed the edge of the flintlock’s barrels against Viren’s teeth.

He gasped, jerked back. Felt the remnants of dark magic flare at his fingertips.

Hesitated. Not on her. Never on her. I promised.

The flintlock slid across his tongue. Pried his jaws wide. He coughed around its metal girth—one barrel cold, the other hot. His groaned, fingers knotted in Bettina’s tunic, begging.

I said close your eyes!” Her screech caused a hard flinch that nearly made him gag on the flintlock, but he shut his eyes tightly. “Remember this moment for the rest of your life, Viren. You’re kneeling to the one power you will never possess, because you will never understand it.”

A questioning grunt turned into a sharp gasp of pain as Bettina ripped the gun from his throat.

“Our last kiss.” She jammed the flintlock into her own mouth and squeezed the trigger.

No!

Chapter Text

“I hope you’re adjusting well to ruling, King Ezran,” Aanya said politely.

Ezran looked down at her from his too-big throne—Aanya knew that problem well—and nodded. His puff of natural hair fit him like an organic crown, and Aanya found that she liked it. “It was hard at first, knowing who to trust.”

Aanya glanced at the nearby guards out of the corner of her eye. ‘A constant concern for all of us. I can give you some advice, which I myself received from a kindly benefactor.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Ezran said.

A cool, iron thread wove through his words, and Aanya felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle. She’d learned to trust her instincts years ago, and right now, they were screaming.

A courtly smile graced her lips. Why had she bothered putting on that light pink lip gloss, anyway? Because she’d wanted to make a good impression. To find an ally. Well, that didn’t seem to be working out as well as she’d hoped. “If I may beg your indulgence, King Ezran, I am rather tired from my journey. Might I retire for a few hours to rest, before we meet again for dinner?”

“Of course, Queen Aanya.” Ezran’s blue eyes were like ice. He sat up straighter. “I’ve prepared a special room just for you.”

To Aanya’s left and right, she heard the soft clicks and clanks of the guards’ armor as they stiffened. This was a trap. Pre-arranged.

Her hand clutched at her mothers’ ring on its necklace. A soft gasp escaped her lips. “Ezran, why?” Her other hand found the hidden dagger in the back of her ornate belt.

“I assure you, Queen Aanya, I’m only acting on the best advice of my most trusted advisor.” But Ezran’s brows were low and tight.

A shadow moved from behind his throne. A tall, lanky figure stepped into the light, dark robe flowing, silvery staff glinting.

“Lord Viren?” Aanya gasped. “I thought you had been arrested. For treason.”

“Let me escort you to your chamber, Your Majesty,” Viren murmured. He withdrew a squirming yellow tentacle from a pouch on his belt, squished it until it oozed between his fingers, and chanted, “Nosirp ot eno siht gard.”

Aanya turned and ran, her dagger forgotten in her hand. Gasping in terror, she fled toward the distant throne room doors.

She didn’t make it.

Pale tentacles wrapped her arms and legs, pulling her to a halt. Then they began dragging her back past the king’s dais. Her heels scrabbled and kicked, but the dark magic things held her firmly, shaking her dagger from her hand, slithering toward a distant doorway with a dark descending staircase.

“Ezran, please!” Aanya cried. “Please don’t do this! This man let my mothers die. He wanted your father dead, too. Please!”

But Ezran said nothing. Looked away.

Viren, though, stepped down the dais stairs as the tentacular mass dragged Aanya, writhing, past him. His fingers plucked her necklace free and broke its chain, and he cupped the precious ring in his hand.

“Give that back! That’s not yours!” Aanya growled.

“We brought you here for an alliance, Queen Aanya. Your signet ring pressed into the wax on the decree will be sufficient. The rest of you is… not required.”

Aanya was nearly to the forbidding stairwell. “But why? Why?”

Viren’s eyes were on the sparkle in her ring. “I couldn’t run the risk of you remaining undecided a second time. Do enjoy your stay.”

Chapter Text

Starry fingers pressed against the cold glass. A chill numbed Aaravos’s forehead where it pressed against the mirror’s surface. His breath flooded the glass with a hot fog in desperate, shaking breaths. Gasp after gasp shuddered mistily against the mirror until it ran with condensation.

I’m leaking. But only on the inside.

Aaravos touched a finger to the wetness, drawing a four-pointed star.

No one sees me. No one sees me dripping, drying out, emptying myself against this mirror.

No one sees me.

The mirror’s magic pulsed and rippled, taunting him with an unbreakable membrane between him and reality. The world where everyone else lived, blissfully ignorant of his existence.

This close to the border between worlds, Aaravos had no defense against his eternal weakness. One hand pressed hard against the glass. The other reached behind him toward the fire and pulled.

The flames swirled into his hand and died, and the light in the library snuffed out. The mirror’s surface lit from the far side, and Aaravos pressed his nose against the cool glass like a child outside a shop, desperate for the offered delights within.

The Dragon King stood tall, wings tucked, as he strode from the high chamber on all fours. His mate—well known to Aaravos of old—sat primly with her tail tucked around her feet and spoke to a cadre of Moonshadow elves—

Elves.

A soft whine slipped through Aaravos’s nose. How long since he’d seen another elf? Moonshadows could be vicious. But they weren’t looking at him. They stood tall and focused, hands at the ready, intent.

They looked astonishingly friendly in comparison to the last elves Aaravos had encountered. An empty ache pounded in his chest, beneath his star, stealing his breath, pressing his forehead back against the mirror.

See me. Please see me.

But no one ever turned on the magic mirror from the far side.

No one knew how.

Somehow, that knowledge hurt both more and less than his memories of being locked into silent space as a child. The punishment of being folded into a wrinkle in the cosmos for his failings had left him wildly determined to do better, to be better.

To be perfect. Perfection itself.

And he tried, oh how he tried. But the gods are more unforgiving with their own than they ever were with mortals.

In the dark, endless, eternal nothingness of nowhere at all, Aaravos had learned to hate.

He had learned to turn his fear into a weapon, and his rage into a shield.

A stubborn flash blazed in his eyes. The elves didn’t matter. The dragons didn’t matter, either. Only one race had ever treasured his acquaintance. Only one race deserved his love. Until he could find them again…

He bent his head and licked up the moisture he’d breathed against the glass, reclaiming it. The vulnerable fire in his dark eyes cooled. His lips set in that familiar smirk, meant to keep everyone guessing. Keep everyone out.

Until then… No one sees me.

Chapter Text

Avizandum’s roar rang against the cliffs as he dove past them, trying to shake the magical missile the human king had launched. He teleported behind the quivering spear, only to have it do the same to him. His lightning had no effect, and he’d nearly lost an arm trying to grab the thing out of the air. Running was his only choice now.

He leaped a thousand miles away.

The spear joined him.

He was faster than the spear. For the moment. But it was driven by dark magic, and he was already tiring.

His fate rang in his ears. No escape. The future shook around him. His queen—his heir—the border. The war could tip against Xadia.

Surely the dark mage had planned for that, even if his king had not.

Avizandum threw himself through yet another teleport, directly in front of a cliff, and then away again, over the sea. But the spear was not fooled.

A black rage came over the King of the Dragons. He would not run from his own death, not like this.

He turned, flared his wings high. The spear drove toward his heart.

Avizandum teleported at the very last moment. Chose wildly, at random, with no thought but to meet his final end with honor and dignity, as befitted his rank and position.

The spear flashed after him and struck. The unicorn horn strapped to its broad metal head drove deep, and the metal bit into his chest after it. A mighty roar of agony rocked Avizandum’s throat. His lightning played along the spear, smoking its shaft to ash, heating its metal to a soft, molten lump in Avizandum’s flesh.

The horn reached his heart and pierced it.

The King began to fall. His wings fluttered like empty sails, their wind lost. His shaggy mane waved like sea grass, helpless in the current. His tail spun like a lost weathervane, caught in the winds of fate.

The human lands beckoned like a soft quilt below.

They cannot find me like this.

With his last, desperate thoughts, Avizandum drew on an ancient and dangerous ability. The Sky Archdragon gathered every last bit of his strength and teleported.

Back.

Every day for ten thousand days, Avizandum flashed back in time, appearing for a sliver of a heartbeat, then vanishing again. By the time he crashed down to earth, over twenty-seven years had flown by in reverse.

The earth was wet. Soggy. Deep. Avizandum sank into the dank muck of an ancient bog. The perfect place to hide the world’s most valuable magical creature. Not even the humans could find him here. Here, he could pour out his heartsblood and die in peace, never furthering the war for the humans, never causing Xadia to lose morale by the sight of his corpse. He would fade into legend, into myth, and the world would spin on without—

“Papa, look! Something fell from the sky! Something big!”

A drunken grunt was the young voice’s only answer, within fifty feet of Avizandum’s rapidly sinking head. His eyes were already going dark, but the sight of a gangly young human clambering onto a rock to look down at him made Avizandum desperately focus one last time.

Those eyes…

Gray eyes, sharp and inquisitive, looked down at him. Not with fear, but with curiosity. With keen hunger.

A word bubbled from the dragon’s stiffening lips as the cold of the bog settled into his scales. “Viren.”

The boy staggered back in shock. “What? How do you know my name?”

In chill remorse, Avizandum closed his bright blue eyes and sought the icy embrace of the bog’s depths. But it was too late. Viren had seen an Archdragon fall from the sky and speak his name. The greedy little human was set on his path now. No wonder he rose to power so meteorically. The one thing Avizandum had sought to prevent would now come to pass: Viren was the only mortal in the world who knew where the King of the Dragons had fallen. Who knew where to find the greatest trove of spell components in all of Xadia.

Blackness iced over Avizandum’s mind.

Azymondias…

Chapter Text

“Callum, what are you doing?” Claudia’s voice was raspy with exhaustion and disbelief.

“I could ask you the same thing, Clauds.” Callum’s voice was taut, icy, distanced. There was no affection left in him, not for her. His hands were rough as he closed the shackles around her wrists.

Claudia jerked at them in utter denial. “I can’t believe you’re doing this to me! You know why I had to do that to you!”

Callum’s eyes were green stone. “That’s just it, Claudia. You didn’t have to do that to me. You just wanted the shortcut.”

“No, Callum, I didn’t want it. I had to use it. We would have died if I hadn’t!”

Callum stared at her as if she’d stabbed him in the heart. Which she hadn’t, and would never do. Why couldn’t he understand?

Tears edged her eyes, and she silently begged him to understand. “You’re so precious to me, Callum. I’d never mean to hurt you. I’d never kill you, never in a million years. I’d die protecting you, do you understand? Please, say you understand!”

Callum held up his left hand, now missing its pinky, as a signal for her to stop talking. An elven hand on a nine-fingered mage. His finger had burned away in a desperate spell Claudia had cast to save them from the blind dragon’s fiery rage.

It had been a simple choice: lose a finger, or lose their lives. Callum hadn’t had a better plan. So Claudia had acted.

A dagger, a dozen tearfully blurted apologies, and a purple-eyed spell later, they’d been safe. She’d saved him! Was that pinky finger really that important to him?

By the way his face closed down whenever he looked at her, apparently it was.

“You’re not even left handed!” Claudia blurted. “Come on, please say you—mmmfff!”

Callum tied a gag over her mouth and pressed a hand over her lips. His eyes burned into hers. “You’ve done enough talking, Claudia. Maybe it’s time you listened.”

Under his hard hand, Claudia’s lip trembled. Her eyes welled, full of hot betrayal and loss. Everything I did, I did for him, and he can’t see it. He can’t see who I really am. Her tears spilled down her cheeks, and her shoulders shook, rattling her chains.

Callum leaned in suddenly, pressing his forehead against hers, eyes shut. His breath hitched as if he might start crying, too.

Claudia reached for him, desperate to connect, to feel his warmth, their belonging. They were the same, after all. But her chains pulled her up short, clanking in protest. She murmured his name beneath the gag, against his hand. More tears slid down her cheeks. Muffled words. “Callum, please.”

He pulled his hand away. Lightly caressed her cheek. Pressed a soft kiss against the gag. “Goodbye, Claudia.”

The heavy oak door of the cell pulled shut behind him as he left her there in her father’s own dungeon, and Claudia could only cry in the dark.

Chapter Text

“There must be a way out. There must. There has to be.” Gren spoke aloud, cheerily. He needed to hear someone being positive, but he was the only one in the tunnel. “Guess I’m hired!”

Gren’s feet pushed forward sluggishly, carefully, seeking the next stable step in the pitch blackness. Water swirled around his ribs. Dragged at his boots. Stole his heat so that his teeth chattered.

He’d yanked his manacles free of their chains after seeing what Viren had done to the Moonshadow elf, and he’d run through the tunnels, trying to find the way out. Instead, he found himself lost deep under the castle, in its oldest tunnels, now flooded with river water. “How long, how long have I been down here? No. Just keep pushing forward. You can do it, Gren. You’ve got this.”

His half-numb fingers trailed along the stone wall. Gritty, damp, trailing with soft moss and patches of slick algae.

“That’s not good. Algae means these tunnels fill. I need to get higher.” He took a deep breath and felt water squish out between the seams of his armor. When he exhaled, chilly water seeped back in, stealing more warmth. “Ju-u-st need to find a nice dry spot, that’s all. Then I’ll be high and dry. High and damp? Moderately elevated and somewhat wet sounds nice. I bet I can manage that.”

Gren’s boot toe caught on a loose brick in the floor. A sudden swirl of current kept him from catching himself on his other foot, and he plunged into the cold river water that swirled through the bowels of Katolis Castle. The icy shock invaded his mouth and shot up his nose. His armor’s weight dragged him down to the floor of the tunnel and held him there.

Everything was black, cold, heavy.

Everything wanted him dead.

“Well I’m not dead yet,” Gren bubbled determinedly. Then, realizing he’d lost precious air by talking out loud to the uncaring river, he scrambled hard to get onto his knees beneath the flowing current. A desperate hand found the tunnel wall, and he thrust himself upward hard, breaking the surface with a hard gasp. As the current swept around his chin, he sneezed water from his nose and sucked in another lungful of air.

Water poured from his shoulder armor as he regained his footing, turning Gren into a series of tiny waterfalls. He leaned on the tunnel’s slick wall and took a few deep breaths. Then he leaned his head against the stone and closed his eyes. His hair dripped cold water down his neck.

What if I can’t do this?

He didn’t dare let that thought out into the air. Amaya was counting on him, and he’d already failed her once.

Shivering from his sudden soaking, hair plastered to his head, eyes wide in the blackness, Gren started forward again. The wall soon angled to the left, and the sound of the water’s flow changed.

“Big room check?” Gren called. His voice echoed around a hallway junction. “Ah ha! Options! I like options.” The knot in his gut began to relax.

But before he took another step, thunder rolled overhead, its rumble vibrating through the stone itself. It was close. Gren froze, and the chill of the water invaded his bones with dread.

A storm.

The river would start rising soon.

Gren stood stock still in the black. Hand on the wall. Ears peeled. His optimism ran away and hid. His voice faltered.

Which way? I can’t do this forever. And I’m almost out of time.

With a determined breath, Gren forced himself to speak despite his bone-deep fears. “Amaya would know what to do. She’d go right. She always goes right first.” With a deep breath that only partly steadied his nerves, Gren slogged across the open floor, hands out in front of him, feeling for the wall, for a railing, for the lip of a hidden chasm.

I just want to go home.

Please, Amaya, help me.

Chapter Text

“Sorry. I know my hands are big and clumsy.” Harrow drew the needle through Amaya’s cheek and pulled another stitch tight across the gaping wound the Magma Titan’s molten chain strike had left.

Amaya waved away his apology, not bothering to sign. Her eyes were tight, elsewhere, lost in the last hour of their lives. Harrow wondered if she’d ever surface from that predawn pit again. He wondered if he would, either.

He felt a sudden wave of guilt that he hadn’t put more energy into learning Amaya’s language. He’d always counted on Sarai being there to translate her sister’s blunt sass.

Now they couldn’t speak at all. Did they really have anything to say? Perhaps the language barrier between them was a twisted kindness, of sorts.

The remnants of Harrow’s vaunted adventure party hunkered in the shade a few miles from the Xadian border to collectively lick their wounds. Sarai lay dead under her own scarlet cloak, not ten feet away. Harrow couldn’t bring himself to look. But someone had brought him needle and thread when he’d asked, and the thread had been pulled from a long fray in Sarai’s cloak…

Every stitch he sewed into Amaya’s face was Sarai holding her sister together.

His hand shook as he worked the needle back through Amaya’s torn skin. It punctured, bled. She winced hard, and a tear slipped from her near eye. On instinct, Harrow caught it against his finger before it could run into her open wound.

She flinched at his soft touch. Her eyes found his, hurting, raw, angry. Her tear trembled on his finger, slid over his knuckle, and dangled, shivering, in the biting winter air. The early morning sun shot it full of golden spears.

Amaya reached up with one bare hand and took her tear back, delicately supporting it on her index fingertip. She lifted it to eye level, away from Harrow’s stitching, and studied it for a moment. Then her eyes slid shut in a slow, deliberate blink, and she flicked the tear away. It landed on the cold, barren stone.

Harrow’s heart shivered. How could she be so cold? Her sister had just died, and she wouldn’t even cry for her?

“Harrow… if I may?” Viren’s voice was soft, hesitant. He knew he was interrupting. Harrow looked at him, and the mage shifted his gaze to Amaya. Viren made sure his face was fully visible as he spoke to her. “I… just wanted to make sure… I can heal that for you. It won’t take much.”

Amaya’s hands were iron as she signed back at him, something along the lines of I already told you I’ll keep the scar.

Baffled and exasperated, Viren turned to Harrow. But the king shook his head. “It’s her face, Viren. If she wishes to remember this day with an outer scar to match the inner scar we will all carry forward, then who am I to talk her out of it?”

“This isn’t necessary,” Viren began under his breath.

“Viren, no one blames you. You did everything you could.”

Viren shook his head. “No— I mean— Very well. I, I accept your decision, Amaya. As unnecessary as it is.” He excused himself, leaving Harrow and Amaya alone again.

Harrow took a steadying breath and pushed the needle through Amaya’s cheek again. She winced as he drew the long scarlet thread across the burnt and ripped flesh.

Harrow had never felt more useless in his life. He’d lost his queen. Gotten Amaya’s sister killed. Taken Ezran and Callum’s mother away. And now he couldn’t even prevent Amaya’s face from scarring, even though he kept driving that needle through her skin, again and again. Dragging Sarai’s woolen thread through her raw wound. Shoving Amaya’s dead sister in her face in the most literal way possible.

Finally, Harrow pulled the last stitch as tight as he dared and tied it off. He spoke to himself, to his country, as much as to Amaya. “It will scar.”

Amaya touched her fingertips lightly to the stitched wound, feeling the new topography of her cheek. Her eyes sought out Sarai’s body, but her gaze lengthened, not truly seeing her as she was, only as she had been not an hour ago. Her mouth drooped. Her shoulders slumped.

Her free hand rose and signed listlessly, and its meaning burnt itself into Harrow’s soul.

It already has.

Chapter Text

Click.

The sound was faint, but its particular timbre sent a wave of panic rocketing through Rayla’s chest. This close to home, it could only mean one thing. “Callum, stop! Stop right now! Don’t move.”

Callum lurched to a halt one step behind Rayla. His mouth didn’t, though. “What? Why? What’s going on?”

Rayla checked her feet. All clear, no traps. She glanced at Callum’s feet.

A slender vine had fallen loosely across the top of Callum’s left foot. A sunwire vine. Rayla’s eyes widened, and she clasped her hands over her mouth. “Oh no, oh, this is bad…”

Callum’s green eyes darted from her to the structure in the shadowy distance. “Rayla. Please tell me why you’re so panicked within shouting distance of your own house. Can I keep walking with you, or should I wait here? Did you, what, did you just remember that you’ve left the stove on all this time? Is that it?”

Rayla struggled to control her breathing. Why hadn’t she thought of this? It seemed so unlikely that Tinker would set traps around the house, though. Something must’ve happened. Something very bad. “Callum. Whatever you do, do not move your foot. I need to think of a plan.”

“A plan for what, exactly?” Callum’s adorable face was doing its best to be patient with her. He had no idea how fast Rayla’s thoughts were running.

“There’s maybe a few things I haven’t told you, Callum,” she blurted. Her heartbeat thrummed in her ears, making it hard to think. “Runaan and Tinker raised me together. Runaan should’ve caught up to us over a week ago, back in Katolis, but he didn’t. I never told you because, well, it seemed inappropriate considering… your step-dad the king, and all.” She took a deep breath and said, “I think something’s happened to Runaan, I think Tinker already knows about it, and I think he’s worried about unwanted visitors. Mostly humans. So he’s laid traps. And you’ve found one. With your foot.”

Callum blinked at her in astonishment. “’A few things’? Rayla, that’s like, half your life! And what kind of trap am I standing in?”

Rayla’s eyes dropped to the sunwire vine. “Oh, you know, just the sort that’ll slice your foot off like a sunforge blade if you move in the slightest, no big deal.” But she couldn’t quite catch her breath out of worry. It was very much a big deal.

The slender vine started to smoke a dark line across Callum’s boot. He couldn’t look away from the slow, inevitable damage. “Uh oh. Rayla? What do I do?”

Rayla dropped to her knees in front of Callum’s foot. “Don’t jerk free. It’ll cut off your toes for sure. Let me just…” She began to scratch at the hard-packed soil of the path with her nails. Felt one rip. Her blades were too big to fit between Callum’s boot and the vine, though. There was no other way.

Callum spoke again, and this time his voice vibrated with fear. “Rayla, stop.”

She was too focused on rescuing his foot, though. “It’s just a bit of blood, Callum. I’ve bled before.”

“No, Rayla.”

Rayla glanced up. Callum was pointing behind her. Toward the house. She spun on one knee, reaching for a butterfly sword out of habit.

Tinker stalked toward them, holding an ornate crossbow with a poisoned bolt. The deadly tilt to his horns told Rayla everything she needed to know, and it was far more than enough to terrify her. The craftsman was slow to anger, but once he’d made up his mind, not even Runaan could talk him down.

“Don’t move,” he called.

“Tinker, wait, please! I can explain everything.”

“I already know, Rayla. His lotus blossom sank last week. Your human isn’t welcome.” The chill in Tinker’s voice was devastating.

“L-Last week? But… Wait, wait, that doesn’t make sense.” Rayla’s fingers trembled as she held them out, trying to placate Tinker. Just as she’d tried to placate Runaan on the castle battlements. She hadn’t succeeded then, either. Her heartbeat shuddered through her, and her palms went damp. Please, I only want to help end the war! Why won’t anyone listen to me?

Callum chose that moment to make everything worse by opening his big human mouth. “I’m Prince Callum of Katolis. I mean you no ha—oh gosh, okay, whoa, please don’t shoot me!”

Something in Tinker’s expression broke. “A prince? Rayla! I sent you off to Katolis so you could redeem your family’s honor, and instead you traded my husband for a target?” Tinker lifted the crossbow to his shoulder and fired.

“No!” Rayla launched herself to her feet and caught the poisoned bolt with her shoulder. But the impact drove her back into Callum, who fell with a bloodcurdling scream as the sunwire vine cut into his foot. The cool shadows of the forest faded to gray, then to black.

Tinker’s voice pulled her back. The forest swam around her. Sounds were liquid. “Rayla? Rayla.”

Rayla gasped for breath as the poison started to work through her body. She couldn’t hear Callum’s voice. He wasn’t making any noise at all. “C-Callum? Where’s Callum? Is he all right?”

Tinker’s fingers were busy around the wound his bolt had torn in the flesh of her shoulder. “Don’t look. Focus on me. Rayla—Rayla. Shh, now. I’m here. Don’t move.”

Chapter Text

“Go with Harrow, Sarai. The kingdom needs to see you supporting the king.” Opeli squeezed the queen’s hand.

Sarai’s smile was wry. “Because I’m a good little wife, you mean?”

Opeli snorted. “Because you’re the best warrior in Katolis. Your martial support means the king will be safe. The kingdom will relax while you’re gone, knowing you’ll both return home successfully.”

“Of course. You’re right, Opeli, as always.” Sarai’s smile was soft.

The dream went jagged for a moment as reality slashed at its backdrop with red claws. Sarai’s face crisped around the edges from the lightning that killed her.

Her dream self didn’t notice. “What are friends for, my Queen?” Opeli said. She leaned forward and chuckled. “Besides, we both know Harrow is completely helpless without you. Viren’s harebrained idea will get someone killed. It’s up to you to keep them both in line. The kingdom is counting on your wisdom and perspicacity.”

Sarai began to reply, but she was jerked away, flying backward with a shocked expression. The dream whirled around her until she slammed into the bare stone ground so hard that Opeli heard her bones crack. Lightning sizzled along Sarai’s armor and made her hair smoke. From the corner of the dream, Harrow screamed Sarai’s name and ran to hold her, weeping over her unmoving form.

And then Viren stalked in. Expressionless. Arms crossed. One tucked hand holding that accursed silver staff of his. He watched Harrow impassively as he cradled his dying queen on the barren Xadian stone. Then, impossibly, he turned to look at Opeli. Not dream-Opeli. Opeli herself.

His dark brows lowered, and a sneer lifted his upper lip. “You did this, you foolish woman. You told her to go, and she trusted you. You killed Sarai. Your best friend in all of Katolis. What is your devotion worth now? Your guilt-ridden, misplaced anger and your toxic protectiveness of her sons only harms them. You are useless, worthless. Your counsel is destructively misguided. You serve no purpose but that of Death. You. Are. A. Disgrace.”

Viren’s eyes blazed with fury and disgust. He reached out and slapped her, hard, and his strike burned her cheek like a fiery brand.

Opeli woke and shot up into a sitting position with a wail that broke into sobs as her blond hair swooshed around her shoulders. She pressed her face into her sweaty palms. Her shoulders shook with every breath, and her words slipped out amid whimpers. “I’m sorry, Sarai, I’m s-sorry. I’m so sorry. And I’ll never make it right. But I have to try. I have to keep trying.”

Chapter Text

He had to keep the crows in their cages while he cried, or they’d try to gather around him and comfort him. To bring him gifts. Shinies from outside the communications tower. And that could look very bad. All the crows in Katolis Castle suddenly flying about, possibly bearing secret messages, was the worst possible thing that could happen right now. It wasn’t that Crow Master didn’t love his feathered friends. He did, very much. But their kindness could literally get him killed.

Crow Master’s shoulders heaved with rumpled sobs as he rested his head atop his hands on his desk. If only he hadn’t caved to Lord Viren and sent those messages to the Pentarchy. But he had. He was only trying to help! But now Lord Viren had been arrested for treason.

And Opeli was on a witch hunt for his collaborators.

“I never meant to be a collaborator!” Crow Master burbled his words through a mouth full of panicked sobs.

His crows cawed sympathetically. They fluttered their wings, agitated by his own distress.

“I’m sorry,” he hiccupped. He scrubbed tears from his eyes with the backs of his soft cloth bracers. “I can’t let you out. You’ll make the tower look busy, and I need to look like I have nothing to do.”

That would be the best scenario. Having nothing to do. Nothing at all, in fact. Getting fired. Let go. Disemployed. A much safer option than getting thrown in jail, or worse…

He should start looking for work in town as soon as he—no, wait. That would look suspicious, too!

A fresh wave of desperate tears spilled across the backs of Crow Master’s hands. Anything he did to protect himself, to protect his sisters, could implicate him. If he lost this position, his sisters might starve.

The thought shot him full of despair. Cold prickles clambered up his neck, and his eyes throbbed hot and swollen. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to get into trouble again, I swear!”

His parents couldn’t hear him anymore. They’d perished in a bridge accident two years ago, leaving Crow Master with his little twin sisters to take care of. They’d nearly starved that first winter. But finding employment at the castle had been a blessing. Working for the Crow Lord had been a dream come true. They’d never be hungry again, he told his sisters proudly, on his first day of work.

“And now everything is my fault! Why couldn’t I stand up to him? Why couldn’t I have just… hidden in the bathroom?” Crow Master’s face ached, and a headache bloomed red behind his blurry vision. He sniffed loudly and shuddered through a big breath that didn’t calm him down at all.

The crows cawed softly, trying to soothe him.

He fished in the top drawer of his desk for a handkerchief and blew hard, honking his nose like his grandpa used to. The desk top was splattered with tears, and he swiped at them with his sleeve.

Belatedly, he remembered he was literally holding a handkerchief.

His complete forgetfulness prompted him to start crying all over again. Apparently he’d cried out all his brain cells. Too stupid now. Definitely going to jail. A blanket of tear-stained defeat spread across his shoulders, and he slumped forward again, sobbing.

Soft caws comforted him somewhat, and his thoughts slowed to a slightly less than frantic pace. Opeli knew about Lord Viren’s treasonous maneuverings with the Pentarchy, his lies about being the Regent of Katolis. But there was one thing she didn’t know yet. When Lord Viren had stood across the desk from him and said “You are witnessing history”, Crow Master hadn’t understood. But looking back, knowing what Lord Viren had done, things made more sense.

Lord Viren had a much larger plan than simply trying to claim control of Katolis. A much larger plan, indeed.

Maybe Opeli would find that information helpful. Maybe it could save Crow Master’s life, if not his job. Though it was more likely to doom him, since reporting it now instead of earlier made him look weak, desperate to dissociate himself from Lord Viren, whom he had, in fact, helped when he shouldn’t’ve.

But I am weak and desperate. And even if they throw me in jail, too, at least my sisters will be safe at home. No one will hunt me down and drag me away in the night. And that’s all Mom and Dad would’ve wanted.

With a belly full of ice and a dry lump in his throat, Crow Master fetched out a sheet of parchment and his favorite pen and began to use his best handwriting.

Councilmember Opeli,

I am writing to tender my resignation. You will understand why when I explain. I have news which may be of interest to you, regarding Lord Viren…

Chapter Text

His scars still burned. They stank of dark magic. He inhaled the wreck of his own face with every breath. His humiliation, his defeat.

His ignominious dethroning.

The reek of the dark mage’s vile work filled Sol Regem’s nostrils unceasingly, painting memories of bright agony and betrayal across his blackened vision. Every inhalation relived Ziard’s utter presumptuousness, his deadly stupidity.

Humans were filthy. Pests. Vermin.

And because of their infestation, Luna Tenebris was enacting a power move against him.

Not them. Him.

His face scars throbbed hard and acidic as he growled under his breath.

“Did you have something to add, Sol?”

Luna’s voice caught him off guard. In the eternal blackness, Sol Regem had forever lost his Sun. His sense of time, his awareness, strewn across the countryside of his ignominy. He’d gotten caught up in his rage. Forgotten where he stood. But Luna’s casual disregard for the “Regem” part of his name brought him back to earth.

“Get it over with,” the Sun Archdragon growled.

“Get it over with, what?” Luna prompted in a cool, expectant voice.

Ohh, how he hated her. That smug tone of voice, that arch smile he could hear in every accursed word she said. She’d gotten the dragons to rally to her “more equable” approach to rule so quickly it should’ve broken their necks. Instead, they were choosing her to rule over them in Sol Regem’s place.

“Get it over with, Your Majesty,” Sol Regem grunted.

The Moon Archdragon clucked her tongue, as one would with a wayward dragonling. “And there you have it, my good counselors,” Luna said to the gathered dragons. “The old king has proclaimed me Queen of the Dragons.”

“Long may you reign!” the dragons chorused. Their wings rustled as they spread them out and bowed. Sol Regem remembered the day the dragons had begun that tradition. It had been his coronation day, two hundred years earlier. To have to hear them spread leather for his usurper rankled like a magmatic cocklebur trapped within the chambers of his heart, stabbing deep with every beat.

They could all burn, for all he cared. He might be blind, but it was the dragons’ short-sightedness that would bring about the downfall of Xadia. Making excuses for the humans’ behavior because they were an infant race. Trying to corral them in one place, the vaunted Elarion, City of Rats. Convincing each other that Sol Regem’s personal presence would certainly cow Ziard into giving up dark magic.

How much of Sol Regem’s downfall had been engineered by Luna Tenebris? Had she driven the council to urge their king to visit Elarion, knowing full well the stubborn stupidity of the dark mage?

Sol Regem’s heart burned with hate. Luna was absolutely capable of that level of treasonous treachery. He had seen her use it before, as his ally. No longer.

With all due obseisances performed, the council was dismissed. Sol Regem sat still, stubbornly refusing to stumble off and embarrass himself. As such, he heard one dragon approach the new queen. He smelled of ozone-laden wind.

“My great lady queen,” Avizandum began, “I have nothing but congratulations for your smooth takeover. May your reign last as long as your Moon remains in the Sky.”

Sol Regem’s snout rippled with disgust. The Sky Archdragon was… flirting.

Such a naked show of desire could be prodded with care to achieve a satisfying outcome that could pay Luna back for her betrayal. Sol Regem didn’t need to see to manage that. He just needed time.

Yes, Avizandum would be one to watch.

As it were.

Chapter Text

King Ahling glanced at his metal-woven balcony doors as he entered his private suites, ready for some quiet time before bed. What a pity he couldn’t throw them wide open on such a hot evening. The desert winds were cooling, whipping along the dunes across the river, and he could do with a breeze. But he’d received a letter from Queen Aanya just this morning, warning him that she didn’t trust Lord Viren of Katolis not to scheme up something sinister. And Ahling had to agree. The dark mage had given an impressive display at the Pentarchy meeting, but he’d seemed a little… Ahling hesitated to use the word “unhinged,” but the man had clearly been under a lot of strain.

Ahling poured himself a goblet of oasis wine and sipped appreciatively. Border kingdoms, border problems. He would take his desert and its desolate coastline full of shipwrecks and hazards any day. If Aanya wasn’t worried about Xadia, then Ahling wouldn’t worry, either. But if she was concerned about Lord Viren himself, then Ahling would keep his balcony doors locked—

They were open now.

Cold dread shivered down Ahling’s spine, and he dropped his goblet on the thickly woven rug underfood. “Guar—” he cried, but his word was cut short as a dark form boiling with thick smoke lunged out of the shadows and jammed its knee into his gut. He wheezed hard and fell like a toppling tree, lolling on the carpet like an upended turtle.

The smoke creature settled atop his chest in a graceful motion that wasn’t anywhere close to human. Its eyes burned purple, and against the starry night out on his balcony, Ahling could see a pair of silhouetted horns atop the thing’s head.

An elf. And yet, not quite an elf. Its body rippled with smoke and purple light and nothing else. Ahling couldn’t even feel its weight, though he was pinned down tight, entirely unable to rise from beneath it.

It brought a pair of daggers to bear against Ahling’s throat, ready to slash.

“P-Please!” Ahling stuttered. His heartbeat pounded in his ears. I’m not ready to die! And my son—

“Father?” Kasef’s voice intruded from the broad doorway. “I thought I heard your—oh—” Kasef broke off at the sight of the terrible phantasm.

“Please, don’t hurt my son,” Ahling begged.

The strange assassin creature paused and turned its bright purple eyes on Kasef. They lingered for a long moment. Ahling heard Kasef’s gulp of fear.

He’s not ready to lead, not at all! He needs me still! Neolandia has enough struggles without an immature ruler! Oh, I should’ve raised him better…

The silent creature returned its blazing gaze to Ahling’s face. The pressure on Ahling’s neck increased again.

Kasef will get help. He’ll find someone to help me—

“Sorry, Father. You’re on your own. I’ll take Neolandia from here.” Kasef pulled his father’s chamber door shut firmly.

Shock froze Ahling’s spine. His left hand scrabbled atop the carpet, desperately trying to draw Kasef back, to undo those devastating words. “No, no…” His wide eyes latched onto the dark spirit astride his chest. “Please, you can’t take me. Kasef is troubled—impatient—imbalanced. He’ll be an unfit ruler— My people will suffer!”

The light of those purple eyes dimmed as the smoky assassin looked down. When it met his eyes again, the purple slash of a mocking grin cut across its face.

In his last moments, Ahling finally comprehended the depth of Queen Aanya’s warning. Lord Viren was far more than unhinged. And Kasef was just unstable enough to be swayed to greed by sudden violence.

The assassin’s daggers flickered in the dying light of sunset, and Ahling drew his last bloody breath.

By dawn, Neolandia’s newly crowned King Kasef had burned the rug that had been stained with his father’s blood. But its fire still flickered in his eyes.

Chapter Text

Ethari sat by the heartbloom pool, working a twist of fine silver around a violet gem with delicate touches of his pliers. Desperate for anything to do, to keep his hands busy. He’d taken to working by the pool to reassure himself. Because it had been six days. Six days since the full Moon. Since the shadowhawk had returned.

Everyone knew the King of Katolis was dead. But almost no one knew that the prince still lived. The Dragon Queen had been waiting by the heartbloom pool the morning after the full Moon—or rather, her projected illusion had—and she’d quietly told him. Cast a silent eye at his lotus pond. She had concerns.

They were not the same concerns Ethari had.

It had seemed so simple. Ethari’s custom-built shadowhawk would inform the Dragon Queen herself of the mission’s success, and Runaan’s heartblooms would inform him of his family’s health and imminent return. Runaan, Rayla. His precious ones.

It had seemed so simple. What had gone wrong?

Six days had gone wrong. Runaan and his team had only taken one target. The more difficult one, the more strongly defended one. But not the most necessary one. King Harrow’s death was a lesson to him, that he was not above Xadian law. Prince Ezran’s death was a lesson to everyone else, that no one was above Xadian law.

The Dragon Queen’s lesson had fallen apart midway, along with Runaan’s mission. Katolis was in chaos, no doubt. But the Moonshadows would be, too, if they knew that something was amiss.

The Dragon Queen kept her silence. From everyone but Ethari.

“Where is my finest assassin? Has he fallen into enemy hands?” she had murmured.

Ethari couldn’t say.

“Inform me the moment you have news.” Her pale eye had touched upon the heartbloom pool once again, and then she shimmered and was gone. Ethari knew what she was really commanding him to do. Inform me if your husband perishes protecting Xadian secrets.

That was the better option, for her.

Runaan, where are you? I know you’re still out there. Bring Rayla home with you, hurry.

Weeks ago, Runaan and Rayla had placed the enchanted heartbloom flowers in the little pond themselves, along with the other assassins on Runaan’s team. Justice would be done. Rayla’s family honor would be regained. Their smiles had been so bright, so confident.

Ethari’s hands made small adjustments to the wire cage around the gem. His eyes fell on the heartblooms, catching tiny ripples across the water. Had one of them just… moved?

Five heartblooms sat firm and steady atop the water. He glanced at the last one.

Its green crystal flickered. The lowest points of its petals dipped beneath the surface.

Numb with horror, Ethari dropped his work and spun down to his knees, clinging to the curved stone with sweating fingers. He couldn’t look away. “No, no, no…”

The heartbloom began to rotate slowly as it sank further, spiraling in aching slow motion as the water rode higher up its metallic petals.

With a broken gasp, Ethari thrust his hands into the pond, cupping the delicate marker, straining against the magic he himself had placed on it. Horror turned his blood to ice. He didn’t feel the chill of the water or notice his soaking sleeves. “Runaan. Runaan. Stay with me, stay, please! Don’t go!”

But the heartbloom continued to sink.

Slowly.

Why didn’t I use more enchantments? He can’t hear me. I can’t reach him, can’t do anything! I’m useless! Why didn’t I—? “Runaan, please, my shade, don’t leave me like this.”

The flower’s smooth metal petals pressed cold against Ethari’s fingers. No substitute for Runaan’s warm, soft skin, his waterfall of thick hair. Ethari ached with sudden, flashing memories that jabbed hard against his eyes, making him see double.

The flower dipped lower. Water poured through the cutouts in its petals despite Ethari’s desperate fingers.

No!” His voice broke. Breathing was something he’d done ages ago, in peace, when he remembered happiness. Now his lungs ached and burned as if he were drowning along with the lotus. Had he cast such a spell? He was half terrified that he hadn’t. That he’d live through this.

The flower refused to rise. The last points of its petals vanished beneath the water’s surface. It continued to sink, twisting, shivering, pulling free of Ethari’s icy fingers.

Ethari gasped with cold realization.

Runaan was dying.

Runaan was dying. Would he remember the heartbloom, in his final moments? Would he think of Ethari, would he hope his beloved would stand watch with him?

Ethari’s bottom lip trembled, and tears flooded his eyes. “I’m here, Runaan! I’m here with you. You’re not alone. If you can’t stay with me, then I will stay with you.” He reached for the heartbloom once more, but to hold it delicately, to ease it gently on its way. His tears dripped into the pond, and soft sobs escaped him, little breaths of spirit finding their freedom.

The heartbloom shivered against Ethari’s hands. He closed his eyes and willed Runaan peace. Be brave, my love. Be strong. I’m here.

The flower stilled, and Ethari found that he didn’t want to let go. He pressed his face into the water, feeling its cold bite touch his ears and soak his hair. He spoke his last words to his husband into the water that had taken Runaan from him. Came up choking, hating the air that he had to breathe in a world without Runaan.

He would tell the Dragon Queen about the heartbloom tomorrow. But for now, for this night, for Runaan’s last rising and setting of the Moon, Ethari needed to stay.

He slumped against the pool’s stone edge, wet and tear-stained, and tried to muffle his sobs in his hand.

Stay with me.

 

Chapter Text

The kitchen was on fire. The baker lay dead, his eyes empty, his final expression one of shock. Ezran cowered behind the grate, hugging Bait close, and tried to ignore the throbbing in his right knee. He’d smacked it on the floor as he ran for cover and fell. That had been ten minutes ago. And in that time, Claudia had set the entire room aflame, casting spell after spell, burning through the royal menagerie one terrified bluefinch at a time. Between backward-chanted spells, she’d raged and cried about her father’s fate, that he didn’t deserve to be locked up, that he couldn’t have done what everyone was accusing him of.

A conspiracy, she called it. As she set fire to the room. To the hallway outside. To the herb garden.

Claudia sucked all the fire into her hand and squeezed it out, leaving the room dark and smoking and hot. “Ezran!” Her voice was lilting, as if they were playing a game of hide-and-seek. But a deadly waver rippled out from it. Too bright. Unpredictable. “Come out, Ezran. I know you’re in here somewhere.”

Ezran backed up and started crawling down the tiny space, following Bait to safety.

“We traveled all the way home together, Ezran,” Claudia cooed. “We bonded, didn’t we? You can just… let my dad go, right? I mean, you’re the king.”

Ezran knew the corridor would distort his voice. Claudia wouldn’t know where he was. “Your dad killed people, Claudia.” His voice sounded like it came from three different walls at once.

Claudia’s footsteps were muffled in ash as she stalked around the kitchen, trying to pinpoint Ezran’s location. “He was defending Katolis, Ezran. Like he always has. Those guards were manipulated by a traitor. My father was trying to make things right.”

“Yeah. He keeps doing that. And people keep dying. That’s not a good way to help.” Ezran was almost to the end of the crawlspace when he heard Claudia chanting again. “Oh no,” he breathed. “Hurry, Bait!”

Ezran’s knee thumped painfully as he scrambled toward the next secret corridor, but a howling wind soared after him. He looked over his shoulder and saw a hand formed of swirling air, reaching for him. His panicked gasp was eaten alive.

Bait growled and threw his lumpy body at the grasping hand. It closed on him and dragged him away. No amount of froggy flashes could convince the windy grip to drop him.

Ezran stared at the distant corner of the tiny crawlspace in silent horror. Bait was gone, sacrificing himself for Ezran. He knew he should crawl away, get to safety, but he couldn’t move. His legs were ice. He couldn’t breathe. His chest was a pincushion.

His mind reached out to his beloved and constant companion. Bait, Bait! Why did you do that?

Bait’s voice filled his mind, as soothing and calm as ever, a low crackle of tumbling embers. Run now, my prince, and don’t look back.

Ezran spun back onto his knees and began crawling away for all he was worth.

“Ezran,” Claudia cooed. “I’ll give you one last chance to help me out, kiddo. And I’ll make this choice super easy for you, okay? Let my dad go free, and me and Soren too. And I won’t turn Bait into enough magical power to pull this castle down around your ears.”

At the end of the crawlspace, Ezran crouched and stared back through the dark passage. Panic frazzled the edges of his vision. The entirety of his whole world shrank to one panicked breath. He had to save Bait. He had to.

Chapter Text

The elf had run off. By the time Corvus dragged himself out of the ditch on the side of the hill, the princes would be long gone. Again. He would have to start all over.

I just need a minute. Just one minute. And then I’ll get up.

But his ribs hurt, heavily bruised from that absolutely insane tumble he’d just taken. The elf had straight-up yanked him out of the trees and off the cliff in a death-defying backflip. He couldn’t believe he’d lived. Well, he could, actually, because he was in a lot of pain. But the odds…

How was he supposed to track and catch an elf who could do… that? Hurl herself off a cliff and completely expect to live? Who did that? No self-respecting human with a decent fear of pain and death, that’s for sure. Were all Moonshadow elves that invincible?

General Amaya is counting on me. I can’t let her down. These are her nephews! I have to find a way to catch this elf and free them!

In… in just a minute… Corvus’s breathing hitched hard as his ribs throbbed with fire. He rolled onto his back next to the big log and stared up at the sky, trying to find a way to breathe with only one lung so the other would stop stabbing him from the inside. It wasn’t working very well. He could barely get any air in before his chest simply cramped up and refused to cooperate. Worse, his swift, shallow breathing soon convinced his body that he needed to panic for some reason. His breaths tried to come more strongly, heaving, and his ribs strained.

It felt like getting stabbed repeatedly. Corvus’s fingers scrabbled against the log’s rough, peeling bark, desperate for something that wasn’t falling apart. But the bark simply shredded in chunky strips beneath his fingernails.

The burning in his chest increased. He scrabbled with his heels in the thin grass beneath the trees, writhing for relief, finding none. And through the pain, a strange euphoria sneaked up on him. He was breathing like a panicked bellows. Too much oxygen. Lightheaded.

Good thing I’m already on the ground.

The dappled sunlight that filtered through the leafy canopy spangled, blurred, and dimmed. The sky went dark, and all Corvus could hear was his own pained whimpers.

Silence.

Relief.

Then the sky lit once more. Corvus’s eyes fluttered open. Light, color, sensation. And pain. The bright heat in his ribs flared to life with every stuttering breath he took.

Still? Okay, okay. I can do this.

I just need a minute. Just one minute. And then I’ll get up.

Chapter Text

Annika couldn’t stop shaking. She knew the ceremony was about to begin. But her feet were practically numb. She’d never make it down the aisle, let alone remain on her feet long enough to say her vows. This wasn’t going to work after all. She should call the whole thing off—

A voice outside her chamber door. “But my lady, you know you’re not supposed to see the bride before the wed—”

“If you don’t move your ass, I’ll be happy to move it for you. You have until the count of now.” Neha, stars bless her.

Panicked shuffling. The door creaked open.

Annika plopped onto the end of her massive bed and hid her face in her hands. Oh no, I just smeared all my wedding makeup…this is a disaster…

“Annika? You’re trembling.” Neha’s dark hands cupped Annika’s light ones but didn’t try to pull them away. Annika felt her wife-to-be kneel down in front of her, making room amid their voluminous wedding finery for her knees. She scooted in close and gently put her arms around Annika and her rounded belly, hugging her chosen family in a warm, firm embrace. “I’m here, dulcet. I’m here.”

Annika whimpered through her fingers and rested her forehead on Neha’s shoulder, bending awkwardly over her full-term pregnancy. “I c-can’t…”

“You don’t have to. You don’t have to. It’s all right. It’s all all right.”

“You c-can’t mean that.” Annika’s teeth chattered sharply, and she accidentally nipped the tip of her tongue, making her jerk back.

Neha steadied her, capturing her cheek with one hand and her shoulder with the other. “Don’t tell me what I mean, stubborn queen,” she said through a soft smile. “I’ve been your military counselor for seven years now. I know very well when I mean something.”

“B-but this is different.” Annika hated the stutter her shaking forced into her words. She sounded like a lost child, not a warrior queen. But this was a new kind of battle. One she hadn’t prepared for. Perhaps it was beyond even her military advisor. “No one will understand. My people will see this as a weakness.”

“Because you carry your fallen husband’s child and marry a woman in his place? You are the Queen of Duren. Who can gainsay your word, Your Majesty? You are the law of the land.” Neha took Annika’s trembling hands in her own. “Would you like my professional judgment on your choice, my queen?”

“I would.” Annika’s eyes clung to Neha’s. How had she ever gotten by without this woman, who had supported her tirelessly until her husband’s untimely death seven months ago, and who had thrown herself into her queen’s life to bolster her in the eyes of her people? Who had slowly, slowly, begun to mean more and more to the queen, even as her pregnancy progressed? What would she ever do without her? Annika never wanted to find out.

Neha held her gaze as tightly as she held her hands. “You have chosen stability, for your family and for your kingdom. Duren will thrive with two warrior queens. We are a border kingdom, and together our knowledge, experience, and leadership will protect our people. The famine that has swept the land shouldn’t be something you must weather alone. You’ve chosen a partner to stand with you, to decide together how best to help our people. You have waited and mourned properly after the death of the king. And now, before the birth of your child, you have given her a full family again. Aanya will come into the world knowing two loving parents. These, my love, are all excellent tactical decisions, and I applaud you for them. But there is more you have done.” Neha brought Annika’s hands to her lips and kissed each shivering palm slowly.

“You chose me. You saw me as more than simply an advisor. You saw who I am. And you loved me. You held out your hand to me, and I—foolish, lovestruck woman that I was—I took it.” She grinned, and Annika managed a brief, teary chuckle. “Remember our first dance at the High Summer Ball? No one knew what to do with us. And then you kissed me, in front of the whole court. Do you remember what they did?”

Annika gulped back her fears. “They clapped.”

They clapped. For you. For us. For their queen, who was finding love again. Your people love you, Annika. And they will support you through this and everything else you do. You are their queen. You are my queen. And I will love you until the day I die.”

“Do you promise?”

“This I swear with my most sacred breath,” Neha recited. A line from their vows.

Annika reached for Neha’s face with her trembling hands and kissed her hard. Neha snugged her tight against her and returned the kiss. Warmth bubbled up in Annika’s chest, and the terrible tension that had her in a vice grip finally loosened.

And then it spilled down her thighs and puddled on the floor, soaking into her wedding gown. “Oh! Oh no! Neha, my water just broke!”

“What?” Neha pulled back and looked down. “I’ll fetch the midwife.”

Wild, free laughter spilled off Annika’s tongue. She grasped Neha’s wrists as the other woman began to rise. “No. Call the bishop first.”

“Annika, you’re going into labor!”

Annika’s smile was fierce. “Get. Me. The bishop. I am the Queen of Duren, and I say that Aanya will have two legal mothers when she enters this world. So he’s going to need to trim down the ceremony a bit.”

Neha gathered her skirts in her hands as she stood. She flashed her bride a dazzling smile. “Stars, you’re hot when you’re demanding.” She ran toward the door and hollered for the bishop, then darted back to kneel at Annika’s side. “I’m here, love. And I’m never leaving your side again.”

“Thank you, Neha.” Though Annika was still shaking, she didn’t feel alone anymore. The overwhelming ceremony was off. And her baby was on the way! She clasped Neha’s hands. “Is there much blood in the fluid? We can make this look really scary when they burst in here in a minute.”

Neha’s face flooded with shock until she saw Annika's sassy grin. “Stars, Annika, you’re such a drama queen.”

Chapter Text

Every month, he took them out and let them see each other. Every month since Winter’s Turn. Surely he didn’t do it out of kindness.

The windowsill, it seemed, was his theater of choice for the little drama he forced into existence. Good lighting. He propped each coin very carefully against a book so their faces were parallel, not two inches apart. And then he sat and watched. Sometimes, he even took notes.

Rayla’s mother had refused to acknowledge the dark mage the first time. All her attention was focused on her husband, trapped in the other coin. But his attention was, alas, on the dark mage almost exclusively, as he raged and shouted silently from his golden prison.

The mage wrote extensive notes that time. Eventually, he tired of the monotonous response, however, and he pointed to the other coin face with the tip of his feather pen.

She’d been unable to keep from pressing her hands against the coin face as he finally saw her. And he’d thrown himself against his prison window as well, as if he’d taken his first breath in the two hours he’d been ranting. Their eyes locked. Their hands pressed toward each other, desperate to touch. They didn’t need words. Never had.

A lucky match, her mother had said, finding a Moonshadow who understood her so deeply and completely that they barely needed to speak to communicate. They said more than most Moonshadows, in their silences and their touches. They had more to say, too.

They couldn’t touch now, bound away from each other. But they could still read each other like books. Every pain, fear, longing. Their shared desperate futility. Their fury. That hollow burn in their chests, their failure to protect the egg of the Dragon Prince.

Winter’s Turn had come, and they had not been prepared for the mage.

When word of his approach reached the Dragon King and Queen, all of the Dragonguard had quickly bound themselves with an oath to protect the egg or die trying. And most of them had died, their honor intact.

But Rayla’s parents had stood at the last, putting themselves between the egg and the mage, and defied him. All their best magics illusions, and tricks had kept him at bay. They’d finally begun to hope.

And then, the staff. The coins. And the agony.

One coin for her. One for him. And one for the egg. They vanished into pain and darkness, but they never died. And, worst of all, worse than the agony and the failure, was the shame. The transmutation spell had pulled them into the coins and out of their binding fabric. The only trace left of them was a pair of unblooded ribbons on the floor.

The dark mage had broken their oaths and stolen them away. Their honor was ruined.

And now, now he studied them. Watched them interact, his clinical curiosity engaged. But never his heart. The dark mage didn’t have one.

Every month, Rayla’s parents got to see one another on the dark mage’s window sill.

Every month, each grew thinner, hair limp, eyes tired.

They were dying, out of the Moonlight, out of the world. Their spirits were never meant to exist between. Not even the cocooning warmth of the dark magic stasis spell could sustain them forever. One day, this month or the next, he would prop up their coins, and they would no longer be able to come to their windows.

Would the dark mage let them out, then? Would he let them touch once more, let them die in each other’s arms, as they’d always intended? As they’d promised in their vows?

They’d bound themselves to each other long ago. How cruel that this dark mage’s vile, antiseptic curiosity should break not one oath, but two.

But then, today, the dark mage set a third book in the windowsill. A third coin. It bore a familiar face, stricken with horror, rage, and grief at the sight of Rayla’s parents. His presence, out of every soul in Xadia, finally broke their will. He had promised. He had given his most solemn word to keep Rayla safe, to raise her well. But here he was, captured, bound. Shamed.

Rayla’s mother covered her face and sobbed alone in her golden prison. Rayla had no more Moonshadows to guide and guard her. If the best assassin in Xadia couldn’t withstand the dark mage’s power, then who could?

Please, Rayla, be strong.

Chapter Text

Lujanne dodged beneath the incoming fist with a quick slide of her foot and retaliated with a hard jab to her opponent’s ribs. The illusion gasped hard and flinched away, but another took its place, swinging for Lujanne’s left cheek.

The Moon mage parried with her forearm, grabbed hold of the wrist, and yanked.. Her illusion stumbled straight into her knee jab and bent over, gasping for breath. Lujanne dropped an elbow slam onto the back of her illusion’s shoulders, and it dropped.

Lujanne took a moment to suck in a big lungful of air and debated whether to leave the fallen illusion in place as an obstacle. The moment cost her.

An entire bench cracked across Lujanne’s shoulders, and the mage cried out and fell to her hands and knees. She looked back over her shoulder in time to see another illusion of herself lifting half of the broken bench over her head, ready for a massive smackdown.

“Cheating!” With a frantic swipe, Lujanne dispelled the illusion. But the bench it held aloft was very real, and it fell with a painful thud across one of Lujanne’s ankles. “I can’t believe one of my own illusions decided to cheat! How rude—”

A rebel yell made Lujanne look over to the side. She rolled swiftly toward yet another illusion, which was intent on bodily tackling her. Lujanne closed the distance and tripped the illusion up, and they tangled in a pile of identical limbs. Fists flew, braids were yanked, nails raked across cheeks. Lujanne growled as a thumb nearly took out her eye. She pummeled her illusion’s nose with both fists until it yelped and let go of her.

But two more illusions ganged up on her and tackled her at once. Lujanne was lost under a sea of flailing fists. Their blows found her ribs, her jaw, her mouth. And Lujanne surrendered to the pain.

Hurt me. Let me feel something.

The edges of her hold on reality fuzzed as the pain built. Her nose cracked and her lips split. Blood trickled into one eye from a gash on her forehead. And still she lay there. Was she truly the real Lujanne? Maybe she was just an illusion, after all. Maybe she wasn’t real. Maybe when this fight was over, she could finally fade away into nothingness.

“Coward.” One of the illusions hissed the insult in her ear.

“Weak.” The other muttered in her other ear.

“Traitor.”

“Barren.”

“Useless.”

“They sent you here to die, and you let them.”

Lujanne’s eyes snapped open. She blinked the stinging blood away and curled her upper lip. “Yes. Because this is my sacrifice. I will die here, one way or another. I choose to die here! But not today.”

A white ring of light rocketed out from Lujanne and disintegrated all her other illusions, leaving her spent and heaving on the ground. Bleeding, gasping. Alone.

Alone.

Lujanne sat up gingerly, cradling her right arm against her chest. She spat a wad of blood onto the mossy stones. Caught her breath for a while.

Her voice came out soft, shivering. “Help. Help me.”

And they came. Her loyal illusions. Three of them gathered around her, soft and tender, and eased Lujanne to her feet.

As they led her back toward her chambers, one of them said, “Don’t worry, Lujanne. We’re always here for you, however you need us. We’re all you’ll ever need.”

Chapter Text

Soren body-checked the elf against the wall and heard him grunt painfully as his broken horn slammed against the stone. Hah! Right where I want you. Nowhere to jump now. Soren grinned cockily and drew his heavy broadsword back for a killing blow.

But for all Soren’s bravado and skill, he was still just eighteen. Every single opponent he’d ever fought in his short career had been human, and his reflexes knew it. The taller elf lunged at him, managing to drive Soren back half a step and disrupting his swing. Soren adjusted his balance and brought his broadsword to bear again, but the elf was already leaping straight up and pivoting overhead. Soren couldn’t stop the momentum of his sword, and he stumbled forward into the empty space the elf had just vacated.

As his broadsword clanged clumsily against the stone wall of the king’s chamber, Soren felt one of the elf’s curved blades kiss the side of his neck. A hot line of pain danced across his throat as the elf pivoted in midair. Soren felt his skin part and muscle tissue give way. Felt liquid heat pulsing out. Oh, that’s super not good.

He frantically clapped a hand against the side of his neck, where the blade had cut deepest, and felt his own blood pouring through his fingers. “Aah! Dad! Dad! Help!”

His voice still worked. But his cry drew the elf’s attention again. His enemy spun back to face him and clocked him across the cheek with the butt of one of his swords. Soren went sprawling and tumbled into a floor candelabra, and lit candles rolled everywhere.

“Dad, help me!” Soren cried, reaching frantically to stem the blood from his neck wound. It wasn’t as severe as he’d thought. More of a steady stream than a hot pulsing gush. What a clumsy assassin! He can’t even kill me properly! But Dad will save me.

Viren was going toe to toe with another assassin across the room. Each of them held a silvery metal staff and clacked them together with astonishing speed. With Soren out of the way, though, the path to King Harrow was clear. His dad needed to come heal him like, yesterday, so Soren could get back in this fight!

Viren blasted his opponent in the face with a burst of purple magic. He glanced over toward Soren, ignoring the elf’s limp body as it slammed to the floor. Saw Soren was down. Spotted the tall assassin with Soren’s blood on his blade. The tall assassin paused, as if waiting for Viren to make a decision. Viren glanced toward the king. Of course his dad understood everything.

Soren didn’t. What the heck’s going on? Blood dripped from Soren’s fingers and soaked into the thick carpet beneath him. His feet started to get cold in his boots. Dad, what’s taking you so long? I need help!

The one-horned assassin looked back at Soren, then over at King Harrow. And back at Viren again. They stared at each other as if they were the only two people in the room.

Soren had felt exactly that ignored by his dad plenty of times. It hurt nearly as much as the assassin’s slice. Why isn’t he helping me?

“D-Dad… help…” Soren stretched out a hand, cold and shaking.

Finally, Viren moved toward Soren. The assassin let out a judgy grunt and moved toward the king.

And then Soren understood. That’s why he didn’t kill me right away. I’m a wounded bird. A distraction. If Dad saves me, the assassin can take out the king! Frantically, Soren tried to wave Viren off.

But Viren ignored his gestures and knelt by his side, leaving the assassin to his battle with Harrow. “Dad, no… the king…”

“Let me see.” Viren pried Soren’s hand from his wound. “Hm. The elf did know what he was doing. Perhaps he’ll be of more value than I expected.”

“Dad, please help me. I’m bleeding out here.” Dark rings edged Soren’s vision. He couldn’t feel his fingertips anymore.

Viren clasped Soren’s bloodied hand. Then, with a fond smile, he pressed it against his cheek, leaving a dark, violent mark. “Don’t worry about Harrow, Soren. I’ll take care of both of you.”

Soren’s chest began to heave with swift, shallow breaths. A strange existential panic set in. Something was very, very wrong, but Soren couldn’t remember what it was. What did I forget this time? I’m sorry, Dad. I try so hard to be good!

“Dad…” Soren’s ragged whisper was lost in the room’s chaos. His eyesight failed, and the chamber went dark.

Viren leaned down and kissed Soren’s forehead. He hadn’t done that in ten years. “My brave boy. Your sacrifice is a gift.”

Chapter Text

The first bug that died was almost by accident. The grasshopper landed on Claudia’s elbow while she was out trying to find berries to eat, three days from the border town. She’d been hiding her face behind her hair—her white streak of hair—for two of those days. The gray patch on her skin had appeared slowly, right next to her white hair streak. The hair—it made everyone stare. No one really noticed her skin, not with how slowly it was dying.

Soren hadn’t noticed a thing. Detail wasn’t his strong point. But they’d also been traveling with Ezran and Corvus. And Corvus was an observant guy, if a little judgy and sanctimonious. Claudia knew she’d have to hide it somehow.

They’d all agreed not to fight, not to bring up the past. To start over together and move forward. But Claudia’s face hadn’t gotten the memo.

And now she was killing bugs to keep its secret from Corvus. And everyone else.

What am I going to tell Dad?

Claudia knew about Viren’s skin. Of course she knew. But she’d managed to play it off like she hadn’t been paying attention each of the three times she’d accidentally seen her dad all gray and patchy before. It hadn’t been a hard role to play, either. Everyone thought Claudia was kind of a ditz. Especially compared to her dad. But bringing up the truth now would be so awkward, with everything else that had happened on their mission.

Hey, Dad. Sooo… I failed the mission that you gave me, and I used a whole lotta dark magic at once, and now my skin’s dying, sooo… any handy makeup tips?

Yeah, no. he wasn’t going to take that well. Not at all.

And then: the grasshopper.

It was only a little patch of skin, just above her eyebrow. There had been just enough power in the grasshopper’s body to energize and mask Claudia’s damage.

For a day.

Claudia woke the next morning, and she knew the glamour had faded overnight. The uneven patch on her forehead felt cold and clammy. She sneaked away from camp and found a spider whose web was full of morning dew. “Aww. So pretty. Let’s leave it for others to see, okay? And you can come with me.”

Claudia collected the spider and squished it in her fist. A minute later, she returned to camp, looking and feeling much more herself.

But during the day, Claudia’s right eye started to lose its vision. As her world darkened, her hands began to sweat on her horse’s reins.

It’s not stopping. It’s spreading. Claudia shot a worried look at her brother, who rode next to her, grinning. Both of his legs kept working just fine. The magic she’d cast wasn’t wearing off of him. But it was taking even more of a toll on her than she’d bargained for.

Claudia started planning all over again. I can see just fine with one eye. But maybe I need to find a seeing spell just in case? Her tummy clenched and twisted. I guess I do have some questions for Dad, after all.

Chapter Text

[[While I wrote this, I listened to this song, which Devon Giehl said reminds her of one of the characters in S3. Guess who I think it's for.]]

 

Viren knelt upright on the stone floor of his cell and felt the chill of the stone invade his bad knee. Old scar tissue ached and stiffened. When the elf was finished with him, he probably wouldn’t be able to stand. His eyes sought the cleanest direction in which to fall over.

A starry hand on his shoulder distracted him before he could pick a landing zone, though. Heavy, cold, alive with stars in a twilight sky, the four-fingered hand squeezed his shoulder painfully, as if unaware of the fragility of human bone.

“What was your failure, Viren?” Aaravos murmured. His voice brushed Viren’s ear like black velvet.

“I-I didn’t—”

“But of course you failed. You wished a throne, yet you kneel in a prison cell. One may rule a kingdom from a cell, but it is exceedingly difficult, and you have not the skill. Yet.” Those cold fingers brushed through Viren’s hair with slow curiosity. “Tell me where you failed.”

“I- Well, ah, perhaps—“ Viren broke off, eyes darting, as Aaravos ran a finger along the round curve of his ear.

“Yes? Do go on.”

Viren shot the towering elf a hard look, but Aaravos merely offered him a sweet smile. “I… could have been faster during the battle. My knee isn’t what it was—”

“No,” Aaravos purred.

Irritation flashed in Viren’s eyes. “What do you mean, ‘no’? I’m only trying to—”

Aaravos paused in front of Viren and cupped his chin with a cold hand, gently forcing the dark mage to look up at him. “The frailty of your human body does not mark your failure. Yet fail you did. Find your weakness, Viren and show it to me.”

Viren’s lip curled. “So you can mock me? I’m only here because I listened to you—”

“No.” Less purring this time, and more bite.

“Yes,” Viren insisted. “You told me to prepare for battle. If I had simply escaped and hidden away, no one would ever have found me.”

Those chill fingers traced Viren’s hairline and brushed his hair back from his forehead. Aaravos’s golden eyes pierced him knowingly. Viren felt like he wasn’t wearing anything at all. No tunic, no shirt. No skin. Aaravos could see every part of him. And he found it wanting.

“Then,” the elf prompted, “why didn’t you?”

Viren blinked and gaped up at him.

Aaravos ran a violet thumb pad across Viren’s lower lip. “Hmm? Why did you listen? Why did you stay with me?”

Viren’s breathing lurched to a halt and then stuttered erratically. “S-sorry…what are you—”

Aaravos tipped his magnificent rack to the side in curiosity and murmured, “What is it you desire most, Viren?”

Viren was left stuttering and speechless. “I-I… ahh…”

Aaravos withdrew his hand from Viren’s face. Recklessly, Viren grabbed it with both of his own.

“No, wait. It’s you. You, and everything you know, and everything you can teach me. Please! I need you, I need your help. I can’t save my kingdom without you.”

Aaravos’s other hand returned to sieve through Viren’s hair. “All true words, Viren. Now. Tell me of your failure.”

Viren clung harder to Aaravos’s hand. His gray eyes locked onto those golden ones, so far above him. “I was too slow. And… perhaps someone spotted me on the balcony with the smoky assassins.”

Aaravos’s velvety chuckle sent shivers down Viren’s spine. “Ah, Viren. Do you truly believe you only started failing recently? Reach further back.”

Viren gulped, working saliva back onto his tongue. “I-I failed to convince the Pentarchy to rally behind me… Queen Aanya was particularly stubborn… I lost my temper with her.”

“Bettered by a mere child? And you call yourself a High Mage.” The smirk in Aaravos’s knowing tone cut Viren deeply, for it mirrored his own self-judgment. “Tell me more of your failure.”

“The princes…” Viren hesitated, not sure how to spin his actions to this glorious being.

Aaravos’s fingers tightened on Viren’s hand, settling against his thrumming pulse. “Tell me of them.”

“They don’t understand what’s at stake. They’re children. And we’re at war. I…we would all be better off if they were… if they died. Swiftly and mercifully like their father.”

Aaravos’s other hand sieved through Viren’s hair, and Viren leaned into the firm touch. “Where is your failure here, then?”

“I… sent my children to kill their friends. And they couldn’t. I thought it was the only way, but all children are children, even my own. They weren’t hard enough for the job I gave them. I… misjudged their strengths.”

“Endangered their lives. Exposed them to elements of the world beyond your control,” Aaravos supplied. He slipped his hand free of Viren’s grasp and pressed its cool fingertips behind Viren’s ear as he spoke.

“Yess,” Viren hissed. He wasn’t sure anymore if he was arching into or away from the elf’s touch.

Aaravos left hand tangled in Viren’s hair, tilting his head. His other fingers teased their way down the side of Viren’s neck. He dipped one icy finger inside the collar of Viren’s tunic. “And before that?”

“B-Before that?” Viren’s brain had stopped functioning.

Aaravos added a second digit and slipped them deeper under Viren’s collar. He idly caressed Viren’s throbbing carotid, sucking its heat with each press of his fingers. “Mmm, you are brimming with sin, Viren. Spill it for me. Confess. What did you do? Why are you really here, on your knees, moaning against my hand?”

Viren gasped and glanced down at Aaravos’s twinkling skin. So cold, so perfect. So close. Reaching past his protections, his protocols. Slipping under his clothes. Under his skin.

Unable to see straight, Viren reached out and took Aaravos’s free hand. He pressed his lips against the elf’s spangled palm and felt those long, cold fingers flex gently, cupping his cheek. Aaravos’s touch sucked the life out of him, leaving his lips cold and ready to speak of death.

And so he did.

“I killed my best friend.” He murmured the words into Aaravos’s palm.

The elf’s other hand shifted away from his throat and cupped the back of Viren’s head, pressing his mouth hard into Aaravos’s hand. “Speak your sins to me, and I will hold them for you.”

His voice muffled, Viren began to confess how he’d trapped Harrow, tricked him with the two-headed soulfang serpent. At some point, his shoulders slumped with relief. Aaravos provided no judgment. Viren could unburden himself, unload his burning need into the elf’s hand, and trust Aaravos to accept it. The elf’s fingers gently caressed his hair as he spoke. Viren wasn’t even sure what he was saying part of the time. Everything just spurted out of his soul once all that terrible pressure of hiding the truth was released. Once Aaravos released him.

Tears leaked from the corners of Viren’s eyes. Harrow was dead and gone. He’d never know his friend again. “I didn’t want it that way,” he whispered into a palmful of his own tears and spit. “I wanted to save him. But everything went to hell, and now that’s where I am. I’m in hell.”

Aaravos’s fingers teased the back of Viren’s neckline, dipping beneath his collar like ice cubes, teasing enticingly. “You acted rashly, Viren. You were too hasty. Harrow did not need to die, by your hand or by the Moonshadow assassins. You are a man, yet you think like a child. Let me instruct you in the ways of patience.”

Viren lifted his chin and stared up at Aaravos with soft hope and a wet chin. “Teach me, then. I’ll do everything you ask of me.”

Aaravos’s smirk was a slow, endless twilight. “Then open wide and take back what you gave.” One hand fisted in Viren’s hair and tilted his head sharply back, and the other lifted high over Viren’s face and poured his chilled tears and spit out in a slender drizzle.

Viren gasped as the cold liquid spattered his lips and captured it as best he could while Aaravos held his head still. Aaravos lowered his palm to Viren’s mouth, and the mage dragged his warm tongue across the elf’s cold hand, lapping up his own fluids.

Aaravos took Viren’s face in both hands then, and looked down into his eyes. “You own yourself. Everything you put into the world, you must take back. If you do not, it will come for you. Are you ready to be instructed?”

Viren’s assent was an eager whimper.

A heavy slap threw him across the floor and shoved him up against the far wall in a tangled heap of limbs. Startled out of his wits and half of the spell Aaravos had cast over him, he frantically sought out the towering elf and found him poised, as always, in the center of the room. Not a hair out of place. “W-Why did you do that?”

Aaravos stalked closer, looming like a midnight shadow, his horns sharp, his mouth set in a frown. “You did not offer me enough of your failures. You did not reach back far enough.”

Viren’s eyes sprang wide. “What—what should I—”

“You stole me, Viren. You put your theft into the world, but you did not take it back. You kept me. Now you have found exactly what you stole,” Aaravos added, gesturing gracefully to himself, “and I will make certain that you feel its full weight.” Aaravos set a heavy boot atop Viren’s chest and leaned until Viren wheezed and writhed, fingers futilely scrabbling at Aaravos’s foot.

“P-Please…” Viren whispered. His heels started drumming frantically on the stone floor of his cell.

The Star Touch was immovable. “Patience. All will be revealed in time.”

Viren’s lips moved, but he had no more breath with which to plead. His eyesight went dark, and the throbbing hot ache in his chest slowly faded away.

When he woke, Aaravos was sitting on the floor and holding him on his lap, with his head snuggled against Aaravos’s shoulder. His cold hands soothed their way through Viren’s hair and traced their way along his jaw. His lavender thumb brushed Viren’s lower lip. “Welcome back, sweet one. Won’t you tell me again of your failure?”

Chapter Text

Rayla hobbled slowly, using the splintery tree limb as a rough crutch. But she couldn’t go far. She’d barely made it around the bend in the forest path from where she’d landed before she had to lie down and prop her broken leg on top of a short boulder.

Rayla threw an arm across her eyes and tried to block out the pain. Moon help me, it hurts so bad.

She should’ve landed better. She should’ve been able to pivot, to anticipate… But she hadn’t anticipated Callum shoving her off the cliff. She’d been so worried, so desperately worried, about the strange, intense sickness that had come over him. He’d nearly stopped breathing at one point! Rayla had been beside herself with panic.

And then he’d woken, gasping, eyes black again. They’d argued. He thought he was making sense, talking about doing whatever it takes for peace. But he only sounded like Runaan. And Runaan had been wrong, too.

Rayla had tried to reason with him. Instead of calming him down, she’d only enraged him, and with the way she’d been focused on his lovely green eyes, she hadn’t seen his shove until it launched her out off the edge of the cliff.

The trees had been very kind. Rayla broke four or five of their limbs on the way down, and they only broke one of hers in return.

Callum had not come for her. Callum wasn’t going to come for her. He’d taken Ezran and they’d gone, probably taking Zym back home with them, even after all their time together. She was on her own, alone, in human territory, with a broken leg. If she was very lucky, she might make it to the Moonstone Path in two or three days. And she might even be able to hobble across the stones fast enough not to get swallowed by the lava.

That’s the spirit, Rayla. Very cheery.

Rayla felt tears prickle at the corners of her eyes. “Callum… please don’t leave me like this. Everything hurts. My heart hurts. Please, come back. I… I thought I meant as much to you as you do to me. And you mean a lot. Please come back, Callum.” Rayla buried her face in her hands, utterly broken, body and soul.

A soft noise in the distance. A voice. Rayla’s ears perked.

“…Well, I need something to power the spell, Callum.” It was the mage girl, still some distance away, out of sight.

“Don’t kill her, Claudia.”

Rayla’s heart leaped. Callum.

“Of course I won’t, sweetie,” Claudia cooed. “But she’s made of powerful stuff. Burning her braid let me find you guys over a hundred miles away. Just think what a few Moonshadow toes would do. Or a whole foot! We’ll be tucked safely back in the castle in no time!”

On the forest floor, Rayla stared wide-eyed at her broken leg. Hide, or fight? She’s just a girl. I can probably take her—

“So-ren,” Claudia sing-songed. “Let’s go, Mister Muscles. Time to redeem yourself against the elf.”

Callum again: “Claudia, you promised you wouldn’t kill her!”

“I sure did, Pooky. But I didn’t say anything about Soren not killing her. Come on, Sore-bear.”

The hulking Crownguard must’ve made it through the fight with that red dragon just fine after all. He sounded positively chipper. “Oh yeah. It’s elf killing time. Kill o’clock. Sorry, Step-prince. What you get for running with the wrong crowd.”

Bushes rustled as Claudia and Soren drew nearer. Rayla sat up and scooted backward, dragging her broken leg, desperate to reach the nearest tree and haul herself up into its branches.

“Aren’t you coming, Callum?” Claudia called sweetly. “You are on our side now, aren’t you?”

Rayla tore her palms on rough stones and fallen branches as she dragged herself toward safety. They’d see her trail. It was just a matter of time now.

Callum, Callum, no…

Chapter Text

“Idiot human. Did you hit your head and forget everything you know, or have you always been this stupid?” Janai’s fingers slid across the hard planes of Amaya’s armor, seeking its release points, getting slick with the unconscious human’s blood. Where was it all coming from? The front of her armor didn’t even have any—

Oh.

As the fires raged around her and elves and humans alike screamed in the distance, Janai’s hand found a long shard of metal embedded in Amaya’s side, driven between two plates of armor by the force of the explosion the general had saved Janai from. The splintered spearhead was thin—the general would probably survive just fine—but Janai couldn’t tell how deeply it drove into her body.

She took hold of the metal shard and, since Amaya was still out cold, gave it an experimental tug. It didn’t even pretend to budge.

“Maybe you won’t survive, after all, you utterly exasperating fool. Why did you save me? You could be safely with your troops by now.” Janai sucked hot, smoky air through her teeth as she began removing Amaya’s armor. The bloody metal clattered into a pile one piece at a time.

Blood soaked the lower half of Amaya’s shirt. The spear shard hadn’t gone in cleanly. Janai pressed firm fingers around the entrance, feeling for the metal’s direction within Amaya’s flesh.

The general stirred. Her body arched in pain, and she reached for the wound in her side. Janai captured her hand and squeezed tightly, getting Amaya’s attention.

The women stared at each other as the elven stronghold burned to the ground around them. Janai raised her other hand in a show of harmlessness.

Amaya’s eyes dropped to the spearhead in her side. Her breathing stayed shallow in an effort to keep her abdomen from moving even a little. She gritted her teeth and looked around, assessing the larger situation. Then she freed her hand from Janai’s grip and made a few signs, ending by gesturing to the disaster at large.

Janai detached her cloak and drew her sword. “I think most of your troops made it to the far side of the compound. I can hear shouting and swords, but it’s a small group. There is too much debris for open battle.” She laid her cloak out and sliced several squares free. “I will try to remove the spear, but I need your help. How far in does it go?”

Amaya gulped and looked down at her abdomen. Her hands shook as she gently pressed on the exposed end of the spearhead, and she let go immediately. But she pointed to the other end of the embedded metal beneath her skin and traced its path, and Janai sighed with relief. It seemed to have missed everything vital.

Amaya made a few more signs. Janai twisted one large square of her cloak into a thick rope, and Amaya opened wide and bit down on it. Then Janai rested one hand around the base of the spearhead and used the other to press Amaya’s shoulder flat onto the flagstones of the courtyard. She shifted and knelt on Amaya’s shoulder to hold her down. Amaya’s breathing sped up, and her fingers dug into the top of Janai’s knee.

The warriors shared a long look. Janai took a deep breath. Amaya couldn’t, but she held hers in focused anticipation, tensing. Janai grabbed hold of her arcanum and pulled.

This is not what a heat-being is supposed to be for. But here I am, saving this fool.

The metal heated beneath her glowing hand. Amaya writhed under Janai’s knee, and her fingers nearly tore a hole in Janai’s red trousers. Janai flexed, steadied her grip, and drew the metal out. Protestingly, it slid out of Amaya’s side with a gush of blood, a puff of smoke, and a sickening sizzle that cauterized the wound and kept the human from bleeding out.

Amaya went limp again. Janai glanced over and saw her eyelids fluttering. Tenderly, she brushed a sweaty lock of hair from the general’s eyes. “You were very brave, General Amaya.”

With the worst danger passed, Janai swiftly cleaned and patched Amaya up as best she could, tying a long strip from her cloak around Amaya’s waist to hold makeshift bandages over her wound. Then she glanced around and spotted a location with more cover near the compound’s outer wall. It was the elven side of the conflict, but it would have to do.

She scooped the smaller woman into her arms and stood with a grunt of effort. “Why are humans so dense in every way? I swear to the rising Sun.”

Amaya stirred as Janai’s voice rippled through her chest cavity. The human gingerly slipped an arm around Janai’s shoulders. Janai looked down at her, and their eyes met. “You die on me after everything I just did to save your irritating human carcass, and I will personally follow you to hell and kill you myself. Do you understand?”

Though Amaya’s brows were pinched with stress and pain, she managed a half smile and signed with her free hand. This one, Janai knew. She’d seen it a few times before.

You’re cute when you’re mad.

Chapter Text

“No… No, please, listen to me!” Ziard cried. But it was too late. The crowd’s malcontent had reached critical mass and tipped over from insults to action. Two burly men in loose tunics—former city guards let go for lack of food for the troops, no doubt—hooked Ziard’s elbows and dragged him off his box and toward the nearest alley entrance. His sudden departure from the edge of the plaza was met with raucous cheers and a following of more men pounding their fists into their palms. And they in turn were trailed by hungry kids whose mouths screeched insults they’d inherited from their parents. They’d have thrown rotten food, too, if it weren’t being scavenged for every soup pot in Elarion.

“Youse wanna tell us again how we should set foot outside dese walls for farmin’?” the Left Burlyman asked. He shoved Ziard hard against the grimy brick walls, and Ziard’s head cracked hard, making him see stars.

“Yeah,” the Right Burlyman added sneeringly. He stepped closer, his legs a pile driver for his meaty fist as it buried itself in Ziard’s gut.

Ziard wheezed and bent over the blow, and tears sprang to his eyes. “Please…we cannot turn to cannibalism. That way lies madness! The lottery is wrong! We must brave the elements and the elves. We must cling to who we—”

“Shyaddap.” Right Burlyman casually punched Ziard in the cheek, snapping his head to the right. Blood flooded his mouth from the sudden slice his teeth left in his own cheek.

“Yeah, shyaddap,” Left Burlyman chimed, punching Ziard’s other cheek, harder. “You goin’ against King Shuma? Dis lottery idea here’s his baby. And he’s offered to go first, see. Someone from da royal household gon’ be eats for da rest. Settin’ an example, he is.”

“An example of insanity,” Ziard muttered. He spat a glob of bloody spit onto the alley floor.

“Insanity? You think our great king’s got insanity? Burba, I don’t think our good friend here knows what insanity means.”

“You think we’se oughtta correct his thinkin’?” Left Burlyman cracked his best punching knuckles loudly.

Right Burlyman’s fist drove into Ziard’s gut so hard that his stomach rebelled, exiling what little he’d had to eat that morning, and he threw up on reflex. All over his new friends’ boots.

Left Burlyman examined his vomit-splattered footwear. “Well that wasn’t very friendly.”

“No, it weren’t.”

And the beating began in earnest.

Fists found Ziard’s liver, his ears, his mouth. He fell and cowered against the alley wall. Boot tips drove into his kidneys and his gut and cracked his ribs in three—four—places. His nose cracked and spurted blood all over his mouth. It ran down his cheek and pooled on the packed dirt, soaking into his dark hair. The last two fingers on his left hand broke as he tried to protect his face from a direct kick, and he cried out in agony and despair.

“Please! Please, we aren’t animals, and we must not live like them! Please!”

The Burlies stopped and shared a look. Their boots were slick and stained with Ziard’s blood. Their knuckles dripped with it. “Oh, we ain’t animals, Sunshine. But you is. And you know eating animals is fair game. You gots to be okay with that, right? You was just talkin’ about sacrificing for each other up on your box. Well, here’s your chance.”

“Oh, Burba, I got one, I got one,” Right Burlyman said, slapping his friend’s arm. “Here’s your chance to make us eat your words, Ziard. Right along with the rest of ya’s. Ha!”

Their raucous laughter was interrupted by a strange glow from the dead end of the alley. A deep, velvety voice spoke from behind a swirling cloud of purple and white. “That is enough.”

All three men stared at the glowing cloud. The Burlymen turned on their heels and bolted. One slipped on a slick of Ziard’s blood and nearly fell. The other didn’t wait for him.

A towering figure stepped through the cloud, and it faded to nothing. The figure strode toward Ziard, all deep shadow and white hair, a blur through his bloodied eyes. Ziard could only lay in a puddle of pain and hope his end came swiftly. Surely this was one of the Moonshadow elves, come to prey on the weakest among the humans. Their divine right, they called it, to take wherever they could—to strengthen the herd, they said.

Ziard pressed himself up onto one elbow, gasping in pain at the effort. He raised his eyes defiantly to the elf that loomed over him. “We are only t-trying to l-live. Just to live.” His words were wet with blood.

“No,” that deep voice cooed gently. The figure dropped to his knees right in front of Ziard. The tips of his purple skirt fell into Ziard’s blood and soaked it up, but the elf didn’t seem to notice. His violet hands came into focus as he reached out to cup Ziard’s swelling jaw, and the human could see that they were spangled with living, twinkling stars.

“Wh-Who are you?” he breathed, trying to focus on the elf’s face despite the blood dripping into his eyes.

“I am a friend. And it seems that you are in need of one just now.”

A starry thumb gently brushed away the blood from Ziard’s eyes, and he blinked up at his savior. Six glittering diamonds marked his lavender cheeks, and starry freckles gleamed across his nose. His face tapered to a softly pointed chin with a full mouth that wore a frown of concern. His brows were full and white, but the sclerae of his eyes were black, surrounding golden pupils that gleamed like coins. His wrists and ankles bore golden bracers and anklets, and a softly glowing crown ringed his brow. Aside from his purple skirt, he wore very little, save for an ornate golden collar fitted into a sheer tunic. Razor sharp purple horns swooped magnificently from his head, and a white star with a darkened heart was blazoned on his sculpted chest.

The star… The Star.

“G-Great One…” Ziard breathed. He had never seen anything—anyone—so beautiful in all his life.

The Star Touch settled him into a seated position against the alley wall without even the semblance of effort. “Allow me to heal you, and tell me of your needs. I seek only to serve, nothing more.”

Ziard’s breathing hitched and spasmed as he tried to breathe with several broken ribs. His hands fluttered and pressed against the broken bones. He closed his eyes in pain, even though he hated looking away from the glorious creature before him for even a moment.

To his surprise, cool hands pressed over his own, their fingers longer but fewer in number. “You are badly hurt, little one. Let me help you.”

An ecstasy of terror swirled in Ziard’s mind. If he died now, would he truly have failed? Was it ever failure to be noticed by one of the Great Ones? He nodded, coughed, dribbled blood down his chin.

The Star Touch drew a green rune in the air, and it hovered like liquid light before launching itself at Ziard and shaking him like an apple tree in harvest. It was swiftly followed by a golden rune that filled him with warmth so deep he nearly drifted off to sleep right there in the alley.

The Great One’s hand clasped his shoulder. “There. Perfect.”

“Perfect?” Ziard attempted a breath and found it entirely painless. He patted himself down eagerly and found all his injuries entirely healed.

Even his old leg injury from twenty-three years ago. “H-How did you…?” Ziard began.

The elf’s glorious eyes stole the rest of his sentence, and his dazzling smile made him not care one whit. He offered Ziard one starry hand. “Come with me now, and tell me how else I may serve you.”

Ziard unthinkingly clasped the elf’s hand, and he was hauled to his feet with grace and strength he’d never known. He stared up at the beautiful elf. “Who are you, Great One? I wish to know to whom I owe my life.”

“You wish my name?”

“Very much. You have my thanks. And more than that, my loyalty. And…”

The elf lifted a single white eyebrow. “And?”

“And… m-my adoration.” The soft, overwhelmed look in Ziard’s eyes said it all.

The Great One’s smile was sweet and soft. “You may call me Aaravos.”

Chapter Text

Marcos couldn’t feel his feet. He couldn’t feel anything from his thighs down. Soren dismissed the troops and told them to spread out through the forest. To kill anyone that moved, no questions asked. But Marcos’s legs wouldn’t obey. He had to lean against a pillar pediment or he’d fall over. The other soldiers thumped past him, hands on spear hafts and sword handles, fire in their eyes, teeth bared. Their king was dead—assassinated in the night—and they were famished for vengeance.

Marcos was just numb. The girl’s eyes had been such a strange hue of lavender, he’d been as entranced as he’d been terrified by the kiss of her blades on his throat. But then she’d hesitated. And so had he.

“Keep your mouth shut, and your family will live to see the dawn,” she’d muttered in his ear.

Marcos had seen the elves’ silhouetted horns in the lightning’s strike. But he had a family. A young wife, and a baby on the way. He convinced himself that he didn’t know—he couldn’t possibly be 100% sure—what those elves were doing in the predawn forest near Katolis Castle the day of the full moon.

And so he’d said nothing all day. Gone home to his wife as the sun set. Held her tight in the darkness. Breathed deeply of the sweet honeyberry scent of her hair. And woken to the news that King Harrow had been assassinated in the night by Moonshadow elves.

Marcos hadn’t walked straight to Lord Viren’s study the second he got back from patrol and told him what he’d seen. And now his legs refused to carry him any further. He’d forced them to betray his king, and his legs weren’t having any more of that nonsense. Their strength abandoned him, as he’d abandoned King Harrow to the vicious Xadian elves.

“Marcos?” Soren had been standing there for who knew how long. He was younger than Marcos, but he seemed to have aged five years overnight. “I need you out there, too, soldier. We can’t let these assassins escape justice.”

Too late. “S-Sir, I… I just need a minute to recover. The news hit me harder than I expected…”

Soren hesitated. “I… I feel the same. Here, let me help you to that bench.” He grabbed Marcos around the waist, slung Marcos’s arm over his own shoulders, and carry-dragged him to the stone bench beneath a shade tree.

“Thank you, sir,” Marcos whispered. The numbness was spreading. He couldn’t feel the bench underneath him, and he had to hold on with his fingertips in order not to flop backward onto the flagstones. “I’m not s-sure what’s w-wrong…” I killed my king, and now I’m heading off to join him. My soul’s going to pay for the actions my body never took. Gran was right. Karma is real after all.

“You’ve had a shock. We all have.” Soren rested a comforting hand on Marcos’s shoulder.

He could barely feel it. Breathing was becoming difficult. But he nodded as best he could. Surely it would pass soon. One way or the other.

“Don’t worry, soldier,” Soren said with a confident nod. “Everything is going to be all right.”

"Yes, sir" were Marcos's last words before he toppled backward and smacked his head on the stones of the courtyard.

Chapter Text

The Dragon Queen raised her tail, ready to flick it hard and kill the elf the moment she darted past the Sunfires and into the great audience chamber. The Sunfire voices couldn’t drown out the elf’s insistent yelping, or the broad vowels of the strange human accent that replied to her in a frantic tone. But their voices would fall silent soon enough.

Luna Tenebris knew this elf. Her solo return proved that the failure of her mentor’s mission, the Moonshadow assassins’ loss of honor, and the military disaster that left a king alive to take the throne of Katolis were all true, just as the craftsman had claimed. Failures left and right, and now this wayward elfling thought she could barge right in and demand to be seen by the Queen of the Dragons? Luna Tenebris drew an illusion of shadow around her, darkening the chamber hall to full night. Her tail hung poised for a fatal slap.

And then.

And then.

And then.

A tiny squeal of memory, recognition, and excitement. The smallest of voices, the softest of chirps. It echoed down the entrance hall, squeaking past the other shouts.

Luna Tenebris’s ears stiffened. Her tail curled back in utter surprise, and her delicate whiskers trembled. Her grasp on the illusion of darkness fluttered from her claws.

Illusion? Impossible. No one could know his voice but me!

The elfling flipped into the room off the side of the entrance hall and skidded to a dramatic halt, forty feet below Luna Tenebris’s head. In her arms, she cradled a ball of snowy fluff and slender wings. The Dragon Queen sucked in a massive breath and let that first moment of recognition wash over her, body and soul.

“Azymondias!” she boomed.

The gleaming white bundle in the elfling’s arms chittered ecstatically and scrambled free. Her precious son spread his tiny wings and leaped toward her from the elf’s shoulder.

And he flew.

He flew.

Her baby flew right back into her life.

Luna Tenebris’s front feet gave way as her heart melted into a molten puddle, and she crashed to the sandy floor with a cry of pure joy. Her darling baby twirled in a spiral and squealed, landing clumsily on her long snout and flopping flat, wriggling and cooing against her smooth white scales.

Luna Tenebris’s eyes filled—with the sight of him, and with tears—and she gasped softly so as not to disturb her baby’s loving hug. “Azymondias…”

His content chirp replied, dazzling her ears with his tender little voice. Luna Tenebris slowly lay her head flat on the sand. Her bright blue eyes never left her son as he lay sprawled and warm against her snout.

With one claw, she gestured to the elf to approach. But when the Moonshadow stepped forward, the human was already at her side. His breaths were sharp and pained as if he’d been running full tilt to keep up with her. The elf took his hand protectively.

The human eyed Luna Tenebris warily and muttered, “Not this again.”

The elf replied, “Shh. This is different.”

“Different how? The dragon, or the hand-holding?” the human asked wryly.

The elf kept her eyes on the Dragon Queen. “Just stay close.”

The elf’s name returned to Luna Tenebris’s memory, and she slid her great gaze toward the little being before her. “Rayla,” she hummed. “You have brought me my precious son. When all hope was lost, you found it within the human kingdoms and brought it home. My hope. My darling boy. I am… I am well pleased with you.”

Azymondias cooed and chirped.

“As is my son, it seems.”

“Yeah, he’s pretty great, too,” Rayla replied with a self-conscious chuckle.

“Your recovery of the Dragon Prince means that there is no need for the second blood-ribbon. Therefore, your mission is fulfilled, and your honor restored. You have done well, little one. What is your wish for this… human you bring with you?”

“Oh, uh, Callum? He’s my friend. A truer friend could not be found in all of Xadia, Great Queen. Callum has saved my life more times than I have fingers, and I’ve saved his, too. We brought your son home safely together. I couldn’t have done it without him.” She shared a long look with the human boy. “We both want peace between our lands. And we’re willing to do whatever it takes to make that happen. But it starts with Zym, Your Majesty. It starts with you.”

Luna Tenebris blinked slowly in surprise. For a long moment, she remained silent.

Azymondias chirped inquiringly, and his mother hummed a low rumble that vibrated through her scales and made her son squeal in delight.

“No, little ones,” Luna Tenebris said. “It has already begun. It began with you.”

Chapter Text

General Amaya’s hand lay heavy on Runaan’s shoulder, but he barely felt it. Buzzing nerve twitches shot up and down his spine, making it hard to breathe normally, let alone focus on the human’s restraining grasp. Together, they walked toward the narrow stone path that snaked across the river of lava at the Xadian border. The molten rock fell in slow motion over the high stone ridge. Fell too slowly, with an otherworldly speed that threw off Runaan’s sense of time whenever he glanced up at it.

The general halted him at the start of the path. Pointed ahead with her other hand. Imperious. A firm shove on the back of his shoulder sent him stumbling.

Lightheaded, exhausted, Runaan began to walk.

The heat of the lava fall swirled hot wind through his hair and dried his nervous sweat. He kept his jaw tight, kept putting one foot in front of the other, kept treading across the dusty, baked stone. The cage ride to the border had been a blur peppered with agony as his arm decided whether it would fall off or not, even without the binding. The next week in a locked room had been a vast upgrade from Viren’s dungeon. He’d been cared for, had begun to heal, but no one bothered to tell him why he was there.

He’d overhead the word “negotiations” once, though. And that had shot him full of something he’d given up wishing for: hope.

Now, with no explanation forthcoming from the silent general, Runaan was walking back home alone. Toward an uncertain fate, in an uncertain time. He had picked up very little intel since the full Moon. Perhaps the war had shifted. Perhaps loyalties had changed—

“Runaan!”

Runaan’s dusty boots lurched to a stop.

That soft, raspy voice, soaring with relief, cracking with strain. Runaan’s heart shuddered under the ripples of his name.

“Runaan?”

Barely able to breathe in the hot, arid breeze, Runaan sucked in a breath through clenched teeth and lifted his gaze.

There at the halfway point, the true border between Katolis and Xadia, stood Ethari. His white hair glowed molten in the radiant light of the lava fall, and his markings dashed pale against his dark skin. His hands were tight fists at his sides.

Runaan’s mouth fell open in sheer surprise. His feet lurched into motion. He stumbled, nearly tripped, but his eyes never left Ethari’s. He was running, gasping, aching in all the right and wrong ways.

Ethari held his arms wide. His smile was all the welcome Runaan had ever dreamt of.

They crashed together, a tangle of strong arms, warm breath, tears, and ecstatic sobs. Their knees hit the stone at the same moment.

“Runaan, Runaan, Runaan.” Ethari’s arms were so strong and warm, squeezing away the past, obliterating it. Nothing felt like Ethari’s hugs, nothing could compare.

Runaan had been asleep for weeks, and now he was awake again. He could barely breathe within Ethari’s hug. Didn’t want to breathe. Sobbed against Ethari’s shoulder in soft gasps. Dug his fingers into his shirt, his scarf, his hair. Couldn’t possibly get close enough to him. “Ethari,” he breathed. “Ethari.”

Ethari pulled back and took Runaan’s face in his strong hands. Tears of joy poured down his brier-marked cheeks, and his eyes were clear and shining like a fresh sunset. “I found you. I missed you so much. You would not believe the things I had to do to get you back. But you’re here now. You’re here. And I’m never letting you out of my sight again.”

Runaan’s resolve crumbled, and his tears began anew. “I’m so sorry.”

Ethari kissed him softly. On the lips, on both cheeks. He pressed their foreheads together and hugged Runaan gently, smoothing his braid, sieving his long ponytail through his fingers. “Shh now. You’re coming home with me, and that’s that.”

Ethari took Runaan’s hands and started to rise, but Runaan stayed on his knees. He could barely see straight, the need to confess was so strong. “I tried… I thought—”

But Ethari fell back to one knee and kissed him hard. Not too hard, but just hard enough. The heat of those lips, those insistent hands in his hair, Ethari’s weight against his chest—Runaan was swept away. He clung to Ethari like a drowning elf desperate for air. And Ethari let him breathe deep.

Runaan leaned against him, dizzy, euphoric. “Ethari…”

Ethari held him protectively. His hands soothed the tension from Runaan’s shoulders. One hand shifted to cup Runaan’s cheek, soft yet strong, and their eyes met. “I said that’s that. It’s time to come home.”