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A hooded figure stood alone among the rocky outcroppings on the eastern edge of the Midnight Desert. A gentle breeze fluttered the end of her cloak as she gazed upward at the cloudless sky. 

By all accounts it was a beautiful day. The touch of winter didn’t come to the land this close to the Midnight Desert, the heat radiating off the sand keeping the snow and cold at bay. But Claudia could hardly notice. She was exhausted, she was filthy and she wanted to go home. 

She sighed, letting her eyes drop down for a moment so she could try to rub some of the tiredness from them. She didn’t even have a home to go back to anymore. She wouldn’t be welcome back in the castle, and surely every town and village throughout the Pentarchy would have heard about what happened at the Storm Spire.

They were exiles, forced to hide in enemy territory, sleeping in the dirt and scavenging for every meal. She missed her old life; she missed sleeping in her own bed; she missed having three readily-prepared meals a day.

She missed her brother. 

Claudia’s entire body shuddered, fighting back the clench in her heart as she pictured Soren’s face.

No. No, she couldn’t do this now. She had a job to do.

She turned her eyes back skyward, looking for anything heading toward her from the west 

Another hour passed. She tensed every time a bird or particularly large insect passed in front of her. They should be here soon, at least that’s what he said. 

She still didn’t understand how her father could trust him, he was an elf after all. At least, she thought that’s what he was. But he claimed to see glimpses into the past and the future. That wasn’t a power she’d ever heard of before.

But her father trusted him, and she trusted her father more than anyone. So she would do as she was told. 

She blinked when a particularly large speck of...something entered her vision.

She wiped at her eyes, not sure if it was just a trick of the light. But when she looked back, she saw it clearly. It was a dragon all right, and the closer it got, the more she could recognize the familiar scarlet color of its scales. 

Claudia jumped from the top of the outcropping and moved into the shadows where she could still keep the dragon in her line of sight. She sucked in a quick breath and held it in her lungs when she saw a flash of silver from on top of the beast’s back.

Claudia’s eyes narrowed. After she’d brought him back, her father had told her that Rayla was the one who tackled him from the top of the spire, sending him falling to his death while she somehow survived. It had nearly killed Claudia as well when she discovered her father’s twisted, bleeding body after the battle. 

Now, she wanted nothing more than to return the favor. 

The tendrils of revenge wrapping themselves around her heart stalled when Claudia also saw a glimpse of brown hair behind the elf.

Callum. 

She hadn’t seen him properly since he’d stolen her book on dark magic to save the very dragon they now rode upon. She’d hardly recognized him then. It had broken her heart to see him look at her with so much disdain and disappointment. 

But she supposed she’d broken his heart first.

She would get her friends back. She would get her family back. And she would kill that damn elf if it was the last thing she did. 

The dragon passed above her before continuing east toward the spire. She watched them for a moment longer before heading for the treeline and the cave she and her father had escaped to after his resurrection. 

Pulling away branches, she uncovered the cave’s entrance and she saw the flickering light of their campfire inside.

Her footsteps echoed on the stone floor as she approached her father and the other cloaked figure sitting on the ground. 

She smiled at her father as she approached. The sight of him living and breathing still sent a feeling of relief washing over her. His cuts and bruises had healed and he now looked just as he had before the fall. He was dirty and had lost weight, just like she had. But they were here, they were alive and they were together. 

Her smile fell as she directed her attention to the hooded figure beside him. 

“They’re back,” she told him simply, not bothering to try and hide the edge of contempt that tended to leak into her voice when she spoke to him.

He leaned forward and raised his hands to pull the hood back from his head, exposing his deformed face. 

Claudia winced. When he’d emerged from the cocoon weaved by the strange caterpillar that had ridden into Xadia on her father’s shoulder, he’d come out as some kind of amalgamation of elf and beast. 

He wore the same shiny, purple skin of the little bug creature. But it was like it didn’t fit; the skin seemed to be taut in some places and loose in others, patched together into a face that would be rather handsome if it wasn’t also grotesque.  His long white hair and large, twisting horns were undeniably elf, however. 

“Good,” Aaravos said simply.

The deep rumble of his voice always sent a shiver of unease up Claudia’s spine.

“Now we can begin.”