Chapter 1: Those Above Us
Red stone cast ahead of us, arches of ancient lava, and peaks of orange earth that glow in the sun. I step foot on Xadian soil again.
The air feels freer here, the gentle thrum of magick I rarely notice. Its absence had been off putting.
Callum seems delighted. I turn to him.
“This is it, Callum. Xadia.”
For a moment, he is awestruck. Then he inhales, and not in a happy way.
I look behind me. A great dragon has awoken.
“Oh no. It’s him!
The Arch Dragon of the Sun raises his head, his blinded eye towards us and I am momentarily breathless.
I make a quick calculation and I’m dismayed when I figure out what’s going to happen, unless I make a hard decision.
He takes a great inhale of the air around him, and the sky seems to ripple with heat. From here, the red scar lashed across his eye looks like a fire.
I look to Callum; he doesn’t realize that his life is almost forfeit
No time for hesitation; I make my choice. I’m sorry.
“Don’t trust them. Don’t tell them about Zym. And don’t tell them who ya are.”
“What? Rayla, what are you talking-”
I spin, hidden behind a rock with Zym, who is restless in my arms.
“Shhh. Quiet! You’ll get him killed.”
Zym whines, but stops squirming.
Sol Regem stills. Then his long neck twists, the air snaps and all of a sudden he is face to face with Callum.
Great gusts of wind slam into my cover and curl towards me, as the force of Sol Regem’s quick flight finally catches up.
I hear Callum’s fearful breath quickening.
I judge that the angle won’t allow them to see where I am and where I’m going. I jump up on the rocks. Slink to the shadows. I keep running, and don’t look back.
I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
I remember my act of mercy before, how it got all my comrades caught or killed, the only family I’d had left. I can’t afford that, not again; this way, Callum may survive until I am able to rescue him.
Sol Regem rumbles something which sounds like a heatwave feels, but the meaning of it rolls through me, inescapable.
“The Sky clutches onto the Moon, unthinkingly, unknowingly. But the Sun sees all faces of the Moon, knows it more intimately than anyone else ever can.”
He knows. He knows I’m here.
Can’t change that now. I keep running. I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.
“The shadows fall from you, alone in the light.”
Jump in a river, I think viciously. I scale another massive stone, taking pains to stay in the shade.
The rocks get more treacherous as I avoid the guard stations. I have to hold myself between two boulders for three solid minutes while two guards wander nearby. When they leave I almost sigh aloud before catching myself.
I left Callum. I’m a coward. I’m a traitor.
As these thoughts distract me, I slip and scrape my knee.
“Agh! Ugh, can you climb on your own? I’m having a difficult time here.”
I set him down. Zym scrambles up the rocks occasionally flying short distances. I try to retrace the steps I took to get to Katolis.
It would be super convenient if we had a secret tunnel system we could take back home, but no. If Moonshadow elves can’t sneak past the Sunfire guard, then they’re not worthy of sneaking into Katolis. Honourable philosophy, but really annoying when I’m traveling with a yippy baby dragon.
We huddle in a crevasse for about an hour while a group takes a lunch break mere feet from us. Zym seems to understand how much danger we’re in, despite the delicious smells from the group. My stomach growls, but fortunately they don’t notice.
There’s a whisper in the wind. Suddenly, the guards stop eating and rush away, leaving their food behind. I dart out and grab the leftovers, hoping they’ll assume a firefox ate them.
The sun has reached its zenith above us as we settle into a small clearing. I caution Zym away from a simmering sunspice soup, and he eats a pastry instead.
Once it’s done, he begins whining again.
“Huh? What’s wrong?”
My question is answered when there’s a bolt of gold above, and a massive shining form lands in front of me. Sol Regem’s jaws are a mere foot away from me. I want to make a quip about personal space but I think I just swallowed my tongue.
Zym starts sparking at the mouth. I grab my blades and my hands are shaking and I can’t breathe right in the hot billows of his breath. Everything snaps into too sharp focus and I think I’m hyperventilating.
“No matter the distance, the Moon always feels the gentle caress of my gaze. No matter the storm that clouds it, it can never hide.”
The details of the landscape are too sharp sharp sharp, and my eyes feel like they're being cut open. His scarred eye seems to tear right through me. I quiver, feeling exposed.
I am absolutely going to be killed, Zym is going to be killed, and this will all have been for nothing. My only solace is hoping that the Sun dragon gave Callum a quick death.
I’m so stupid. Why didn’t I make a plan? Why wasn’t I smarter?
I can’t help thinking of Runaan, how I betrayed him, and how it was pointless. About how if he died, he probably died cursing my name.
Sol Regem's reptilian face, the massive fan of scales, obscures anything else, getting closer closer slowly. I can see every scratch in his scales, and it's as though all sound has died apart from his warm breathing. I bend my knees, preparing to strike only to realize my knees are wobbling. I’m so sorry.
The world around me grows dark and I think I’ve been killed and just don’t know it yet.
But the ground beside me seems to whisper and the darkness shifts, swirls to a familiar shape. And in it I can see the round pale face of the Arch Dragon of the Moon, Neach-dèanamh mac-meanmna. The Dream Master and master illusionist.
She fully materializes, small and white in a hazy shadow. She glistens like a pearl and it’s all I can do not to fall to my knees in worship. She’s more beautiful than I imagined.
She looks at me. She doesn’t speak as Sol Regem does; I don’t hear the words in my mind, I see images. Scenes of people cheering for Zym, and for me. Riots when they discover our deaths.
The general meaning is clear. People know we are here and there will be consequences if either of us are killed.
I open my eyes, surprised that I’m still standing in the rocky deadlands.
Sol Regem has a deep laugh that makes me shiver. Dominus Somnia doesn’t react.
“My clever little shadow, my mirror of many things. How the light reflects off you so even I do not know.”
More images. Of predictability. Derision. Idiocy.
“Hungry for blood, I see. A moth to my flame. Delicate. Beautiful. Inviting my warm touch.”
The images I see are esoteric, leeches and fingers, but she seems to be calling him a creep.
He sneers briefly before controlling himself. He leers at her and I feel outraged. How dare he look at her that way! I grip my blades tighter, which is a mistake, because his head swivels back to look me in the eye. The milky orb in his face glows yellow for a moment.
Something interrupts the light. I see an image of myself riding a white dragon. I turn to look at her. Surely she doesn’t mean....
She nudges me with a slender tail. I heed the subtle command and climb aboard her smooth back. Sol Regem follows me with his eye, but doesn’t try to stop me. He does however scoop up a large rock.
I settle on the back of Dominus Somnia. Her scales are soft as silk and she smells vaguely of jasmine. The sensory overload ebbs away.
The dual crescent moons on her ears fold back and she streaks into the sky. I look back and see Zym twined in her three tails, and Sol Regem dropping the rock in surprise.
We reach the clouds and her wings snap out to the side. It doesn’t feel like flying so much as gliding. We tilt with the air currents, her rhythm like a swaying river but I’m not afraid. This is the greatest honour of a lifetime and completely overwhelms my fear.
Some of my fear.
“Hey, uh. Do ya happen to know what happened to Callum, my lady?”
Images of Sunfire elves leading him away.
“Ah. Do ya know what will happen to him?”
Shadows and mystery. Threads leading in many directions. She doesn’t know.
“I see. Thank you very much.”
I hear Zym sparking in the back, holding his wings out to mimic flight in her tails.
I see an image of me looking for something. I think she’s asking if I have any more questions. I didn’t think I did, but one hits me like a fist to the jaw.
“Yes, um. My comrades, Moonshadow elves. They came with me to Katolis. Do ya know if any of them....”
In my mind, the bodies of my comrades lay eyes covered in eternal sleep. Runaan. She seems to have known them all.
“Ah.” I try not to cry. Finlay. Labhrainn. Cian. Dougal. Cearbhall. Runaan, I’m so sorry. I don’t know how I’m going to look at Seitheach ever again. He might kill me.
We make a turn, dip beneath the clouds.
“What will happen when we land? I still have a mission to complete.”
More threads, but this time winding around people in deep conversation. All of them are set on scales, each interlocking above even larger scales. She seems to be emphasizing how important this conversation is.
“What will I have to do?”
Within the threads, I sit, with the moon glowing at my throat. I have no idea what that means, but I have no time to contemplate. We’re here.
I can see the dark forests swallowing the earth and my stomach drops. Stupidly, this was not where I expected her to take me; I wonder if I would be safer jumping to my death.
She’s taking me home, to the Shadowcasts.
Sol Regem had stared at me for a long time. His remaining eye radiated so much light I had to squint. I wondered vaguely if that’s how he blinded his other eye; by shining so brightly it burned.
“Where the light touches, so my throne rests.”
Sol Regem’s last words to me, moments before Sunfire elves came to escort me away.
They weren’t cruel. They barely spoke. I was lead to a bare room with two metal chairs and a table. I’m sitting there now.
There’s a dripping in the corner. It splashes. My wrists hurt, the chains clanking against my joints painfully.
I sit alone in this room for at least an hour. The guards ignore me for the most part, but one of them rolls her eyes when I ask annoying questions.
I jump when the door opens. A Sunfire elf with arched back horns, glasses, and a floppy haircut. Unlike the other elves, this one is wearing black with only accents of gold.
“Hi, kid. I’m Killian. What’s your name.” He sits across the table from me.
Don’t tell them who ya are, memory Rayla tells me.
“Viren. My name is Viren.”
“Like, Lord Viren? Katolis’ High Mage?”
“Uh, yeah. My parents fought alongside him in the war.”
I could hit myself. Idiot! Why did I mention the war? Humans fought against the elves, dummy.
He hums in contemplation.
“I remember Viren. Saw him once, across the battlefield. Ruthless asshole, but efficient.
‘No judgment, of course. I’m sure he was a fine person off the battlefield.”
I haven’t heard an adult swear so casually in years. Not since my mom.
“None taken, I didn’t even really know him.”
“Right. Is he still alive?”
“Uhhh, maybe? My parents are dead. I think he saved my mom’s life, though. Before that.”
Tried to, my mind unhelpfully reminds.
“Hmm.” He nods and then eases back in his chair.
He asks questions, a lot of questions about things I didn’t think mattered. Things about what I like to do for fun, the weather in Katolis, jelly tarts. Then things start getting kind of embarrassing.
“Uh-ha! Uh, what?”
“Is there anyone you like? Romantically.” The Sunfire elf asks, casually.
He’s sitting across from me at the table, one ankle crossed over his knee. He has dark skin, and purple and gold tattoos rippling out from his eyes, but the confidence is very familiar. I’m reminded of Soren, and I relax. I’m feeling very tired, and I miss him, despite everything.
“Well, uh, there’s maybe someone I like. But why does that matter?”
“Well, if you’d been crossing the border to get some flowers for your lover, maybe I could have overlooked it.” He teases.
“I wish I’d thought of that. But no, sorry.”
“Me too, kid. Would make the paperwork easier to handle.”
I laugh. He leans in closer, and I mimic him.
“So tell me, what were you doing traveling with a Moonshadow elf?”
“She’s my friend.”
“She left you behind to be arrested. Some friend.”
“No, she’s not like that! Really! She just had- uh- something to do! Yeah, that’s it.”
He looks unimpressed.
“Okay, look, kid. I get that you want to protect your friend. But things will go a lot better for you and her if you just tell the truth. Because right now we have to treat her as a hostile invader.”
“What!? No, you can’t! She’s one of you!”
“Then why run from us?”
“I don’t know. Look, we’ve been on the road for a while, and she’s just jumpy. She probably assumed that you were a threat.”
“And she left you behind?”
“No! Well, yes, but- no! She just.... probably assumed I’d keep up.”
He looks at me sadly.
“Does she know that you’re not capable of keeping up?”
My skin burns and I feel squirmy inside.
I’m capable of lots of things! Magic, for one. Sort of. But telling this stranger that seems like a bad idea.
Don’t trust them, Rayla’s last words to me echo in my head.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on with her.”
He leans back and sighs.
“I get the feeling you’ve been played for a sucker, and I sympathize. But I can’t just let you go. The political situation between our nations is very delicate, and I don’t want to be the one to tip it over into all out war, you understand me?”
“You don’t have to worry about that.”
“We think we figured out a way to ensure peace between our nations. That’s what Rayla’s doing.”
He goes stone still. The air seems to die, I feel a creeping heat.
His eyes go wide, his pupils slit and then he lowers his head. I feel very strange watching this, like there’s a significance I’m not understanding.
“Are you okay?”
“I live right by the border with my wife and two kids. If this is true....”
He exhales a huge breath.
“What needs to happen for this peace to come about?”
“Rayla said that I have to retu- do a thing myself. That’s the gesture that matters. I have to do something.”
“Because I’m human.”
“There are plenty of humans. Humans who are capable of navigating rocky terrain. Why you?”
I recoil a bit at the jab, but continue.
“Because we’re friends.”
“You said that, but you presumably weren’t when she invaded your country.”
“Wha- is it really an invasion when there aren’t massive armies all smashing at each other, like,” I tap my fists together and make explosion noises. Slish slash! He waits patiently while I finish fake fighting.
“Yes. And I also happen to know that a Moonshadow elf invasion happened just a couple of weeks ago, and ended with the assassination of your sovereign leader.”
“I-I guess. But Rayla’s not like that! She’d never kill anyone!”
“How do you know? Do you think she just happened to invade your country at the same time as her kin were moving to assassinate King Harrow?”
“No. Well, it’s.... more complicated than that.”
“I’m sure it is. But you realize how bad this looks, right?”
“Huh? What do you mean?”
He looks at me pityingly.
“I mean that you return with an assassin of Katolis royalty, claiming loyalty to her, and then seeking amnesty in Xadia.
‘As it stands, the gesture isn’t going to be heartwarming. It’s going to look like Xadia managed to turn you into an agent against Katolis. You may even be implicated for his murder.”
“What!?” I realize that I’ve jumped up out of my chair. I feel like I’ve been punched in the stomach. Me kill him?
“Easy, huh? You just said I killed my- King! That I’m a traitor!”
“I know you’re not a traitor. You’ve proven your loyalty a dozen times over in this conversation alone.”
“Everything alright in there?” A guard has opened the door and stands with her sword half pulled out of its scabbard.
“We’re fine. But could we get some lunch? I’m starving. What about you, kid? You hungry?”
“I could eat.” I feel a little awkward standing. I don’t think this is how diplomacy goes.
“Pasta, please.” He adds.
The guard nods at us, and her eyes soften. She closes the door gently.
I lower myself back down into my chair.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to yell.”
“It’s okay. It’s a difficult time for you, I’m sure.”
Killian drops his voice to a whisper and leans in. I lean in too.
“Look. I believe you. But it doesn’t matter what I believe. It matters what’s everyone else believes. And as it stands, everyone else is going to believe that you’re some random kid who betrayed Katolis.”
“They won’t.” I say firmly.
He sighs and bows his head.
“Can you give me a hint? Just so I know whether or not to expect a battalion knocking on my front door in the middle of the night?”
Don’t trust them, Rayla says. Don’t trust them.
I want to tell him. I want to let him know that I’m not some random kid, but I almost paid a terrible price not trusting Rayla before. And even though I’m feeling a little betrayed that Rayla just left me to get arrested, I know that she’ll come back for me.
“All I can tell you is that no one will think the things you’re thinking they’ll think. I need to get out of here. The sooner the better.”
“Well, good luck with that, when I can’t tell my bosses why you shouldn’t just be thrown in a jail cell.”
“You’re not in charge?”
He laughs. “Kid, I hate to break it to you, but the people up the mountain don’t usually give enough of a shit to talk to common folk like us.”
I blink, surprised. I knew other places weren’t the same as home with dad, but to hear someone speak so disparagingly about their leaders is a bit of a shock.
“Oh. I didn’t realize.”
“Not to worry. You’re what? 16, 17?”
“Almost 15, actually.”
“Hmm. Mature for your age.”
The door opens and a hunched over man carries a tray in. The guard from earlier gives me a little wave, which I return.
“Thank you, Gabriel.”
The old man smiles, his golden tattoos glimmering. He walks out and the door closes.
“Now. Let’s dig in.”
The cutlery is a little strange, shorter than I’m used to. But I manage not to flail noodles everywhere, and manage not to spit up the flowery tasting sauce. The conversation distracts me from how gross it is.
We talk about sword fighting, about how I’m terrible at it, about how he’s terrible at it, and so he usually just mimes during a fight. I honestly cannot stop laughing.
“Everyone thought I was a sword fighting prodigy for like, six years, but then my dad caught me switching places with my younger brother, and he realized that his dreams of us both being fearsomefires were dashed. So then I say, ‘no no! I can still be a fearsomefire! I just need to distract everyone while someone else does the fighting for me!’”
One time Soren tried to do that for me, taking my place when a notoriously strict swordmaster came to whip me into shape. When our parents found out a week later, he got yelled at by his dad. I’m so painfully homesick that my laughter starts to slide into crying.
“You okay, kid?”
“I miss home, you know? I’ve been away, only for a couple of weeks, but it feels like months. We left kind of suddenly, and then we were on the road a lot, and then I had a falling out with my friends...”
I feel my throat start to close up.
“That sounds tough.”
“Yeah. It hasn’t been all bad. I started learning magic, and that’s been amazing.”
I have a flickering memory of Lujanne getting offended at the mention of Dark Magic and I cringe.
“Sorry, I know elves don’t really like Dark Magic.”
“Sunfire elves don’t have that irrational hatred of Dark Magic. Humans had to find some way to defend themselves, right?”
“Yeah, I guess. I still don’t really like Dark Magic, though. I don’t know why, it just feels.... creepy.”
“You just said you were learning magic.”
“Yeah, but it’s not like that, though.”
He looks at me like I’m a dumb kid, and he’s so like Soren in that moment that I laugh at him.
“Glad I could amuse you.”
“Sorry, you just reminded me of someone.”
“Someone handsome, I hope.”
“Haha. Yeah, I guess he is. He’s also an annoying jerk.”
Killian raises his eyebrow and smirks at my embarrassment.
“But not that you’re that way! It’s just- he was kind of like an older brother to me. He always used to tease me, but had my back when it counted. He was strong and funny, and I could always trust him..... until I couldn’t.”
My eyes start watering. I squeeze them shut and try to will the tears away.
“Oh. That’s rough.”
“Yeah, it was hard. I don’t even know how I’m going to sort out my feelings about Claudia.”
“She’s Soren’s sister; the girl I like. Liked. She kind of betrayed me and tried to kidnap Zym. And I don’t even know why! She wouldn’t explain herself and-”
“Kid? What are you saying?”
“Huh? Wha ah oo dagging abou?”
I realize that my tongue is swollen and my mouth is burning. My words are so slurred I don’t know how I didn’t notice before. They just kept pouring out of me.
The floor is tilting, and so is the table, and then I feel the pasta course up my throat and through my mouth and land sideways- huh? No wait, that’s on the floor. I’m sideways.
“Kid? Kid! Hey, need help in here!”
There’s thumping and then the light starts to dim.