She was running blindly. Her legs moved faster than her mind could even as every inch of her body from the neck down felt like it as on fire. The temples of her skull pounded and the world began to go sideways every few steps.
Rayla couldn’t catch her breath. Her chest was going to implode at this speed, with this weight on her, but--
But she had to keep moving. This weight she was carrying could change everything.
She couldn’t jump through the trees anymore. No, she have didn’t the strength and would probably just end up killing herself faster. Rayla ran on foot, away from the castle that probably was scrambling to find her. They would find her. Eventually. He would find her.
The high mage’s smile nearly made her vomit and she almost fell to her knees right then. But she kept going. She had fought her way out because this weight she was carrying was just that important. There was no way she could fail. She refused to fail.
The egg of The Dragon Prince was heavy in her arms, but she kept going. If she could just get to Runaan and the others, they would take care of it. Die getting it back to Xadia if they had to. She had disobeyed Runaan’s direct orders again and he was going to be furious, but hopefully… hopefully he would understand, this time. At least, after seeing the egg.
That’s if she made it. She could feel her body getting weaker and she was moving at half the speed. Was she nearly there? She had to be.
She had to be…
Her lungs burned with the effort to breathe. The world was hanging to her limbs, dragging her further and further to the ground. Was there a faint ringing sound? She swore she did. The sky and the trees blurred together.
She stumbled to the ground and the egg rolled away from her. No. No, not yet.
Not yet .
Rayla practically dragged herself toward the egg, half on her knees. It felt warm against her side as she used it to keep herself upright. She looked at her legs and her arms, leggings and flesh torn open where she’d been bitten. Was the burning pain keeping her awake or was it draining her? She couldn’t tell.
The world began slipping away. If she could rest just for a moment.
Just for a moment…
“Callum,” The younger prince panted. “Callum, I can’t-- breathe. Can we-- slow down?”
Callum turned back and grabbed onto his brother’s hand, pulling him forward. “Soon, Ez, soon. We need to keep running just for a little longer, okay? Don’t stop.”
Even if Callum’s legs were tiring out. They’d been running ever since they left the castle. They hadn’t dared to stop. Not after… not after what Viren--
He pushed the thought from his mind. Running. Only focus on running. If Viren caught them, that was it. And he would make that look like an accident, too. That, Callum was sure of. Bait made a distressed croak from somewhere in Ez’s backpack, but Callum didn’t quesiton it.
If he stopped, he was going to cry. If they stopped, Ezran was going to cry. They didn’t have breathe to waste crying yet.
“Not yet, Ez. Keep going. Just keep going.”
The impact of Ezran running into his back nearly had Callum impale himself on the sword that levelled itself with his belly. Callum hadn’t seen it, hadn’t seen a whole body lying on the ground. He followed the arm of whoever owned the sword and his heart jumped into his throat for a moment. An elf. White hair. Purple eyes and… she was hurt?
He looked down at her, her skin had been ripped open from what looked like dog bites, blood pooling at the worst wounds. It seemed like even holding that sword was too much. Under her arm--
“How did you find that?” Callum glanced down at Ez, his younger brother’s blue eyes wide. “That was under Lord Viren’s room…”
“Ez…” Callum warned.
The elven girl ignored him, her face was contorted with the effort to look tough. She said viciously, “Stay. Back.”
The blade was slicked and drying in blood from blade to hilt. Had she? She was the one who had been in the castle then. The one everybody had been looking for--
“It’s okay,” Ezran moved from around Callum, but Callum clutched Ezran’s arm tight. Ezran ignored him. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“I said stay back!” The elven girl’s eyes were wild, but she flinched at the effort it took to wave her sword in their direction. “Don’t get any closer, humans. I’ll cut you from nose to navel if you take another step.”
Callum frowned. “How? Look at you. You can’t even move. You don’t even look like you can really see.”
“Oh, trust me. I’ll manage,” the elf grinned at him. He believed her.
“Let us help you.”
“You move. You die,” she said coldly.
Callum stiffened. Maybe if he was by himself, but… not with Ezran here. He wouldn’t risk it. “Ez… let’s go.”
“No, Callum. We can’t,” Ezran wrenched his arm out from Callum’s grip. “She’s hurt.”
“And she wants to hurt us. We can’t help her if she doesn’t want our help. And she--” Callum’s eyes widened when he realized what was under her arm. “Is that… is that what I think it is...?”
“Go away,” the elven girl growled. “You’re not worthy enough to know.”
“It’s the egg of The Dragon Prince, isn’t it?” Ezran said calmly. He didn’t move, but he didn’t look away from her. “I found it earlier. In a secret room under Lord Viren’s room.”
Callum looked at his brother. Ezran had just… found the egg of The Dragon Prince. Just like that. When had he found this? “Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I…” Ezran hunched his shoulders and Bait, now in his arms, croaked defensively. “I didn’t know if it really was. And… I thought I’d get in trouble if he knew I was in there… you know how scary Lord Viren can be when he’s mad… I was going to tell, Dad, but...”
Callum put a hand on Ezran’s shoulder. He didn’t have to say it. Looking back at the elven girl, Callum kept her gaze for a long moment. Her arm was shaking with the effort of keeping that sword up. He bit his lip. “Please, let us help you. You’re hurt really badly. We can at least find you someone who can heal you.”
“With what? Your dark magic?” she snarled. “I would end up dead anyway.”
“Please, I’m not your enemy.”
“You’re a human,” she spat, her voice cracking and pain welling up in her eyes from the effort. “Of course you are.”
Reluctantly, Callum took a step forward.
He didn’t get to take another as a flurry of bodies descended upon them.
It was Callisto who had discovered that Rayla was missing.
Runaan nearly cursed the air blue when he had gotten word of her defiance. Again. She was supposed to stay out of the way where their jobs wouldn’t be harder after she had let the human guard go.
They had debated on whether or not to go look for her. Skor had argued against it. They couldn’t waste their energy looking for her. Not when the guards could still be patrolling the area and night was only in a few hours. He had a point. Ram was reluctant to agree. It was Andromeda who pointed out that if Rayla were captured, the guards might be able to pinpoint their location. Then, they would know that the moon moth from earlier had not been wrong.
Their entire mission would be severely compromised.
But Runaan was essentially decided before any of them had given their input. He would have gone alone, even, to find her. They couldn’t simply abandon Rayla to the humans for a variety of reasons. Reasons practical, ethical and personal. However, if they got out of this alive, it would be a long time before he considered taking her along on another mission. She needed more training, apparently. And discipline. Mentally and emotionally.
Then, it happened. As they readied themselves to leave, their arm bindings were falling off. One from each of them turned red and drifted to the ground. They all froze, stunned at this new revelation. Had Rayla done it? They didn’t know which one of the targets had died, but one of their two targets had just passed. But was it the prince or the king? They needed to know.
This had changed things. Drastically. Who and how was now part of their mission.
Toward the castle was the only direction Runaan needed to mind. That was the only way she would have gone. Through the trees, they flew, time of the essence. Sundown was not too long from now and, at some point, if they did not find Rayla then they would need to leave her. Runaan ran the option through his mind, but... he did not particularly like it. At all. What he did know was that the punishment for her disobedience, no-- insubordination -- was going to have to be severe. With luck, they would allow him to be the one to handle that in Xadia. As her commander and having known her the longest, it was only natural.
Then again, they could deem those many years he had looked after her a weakness. He didn’t want to think of what another might do in the wake of such insolence on such an important mission.
Runaan considered it his fault though. He had thought that she was ready. He had thought that her talent would carry on to her discipline. He was wrong. She had shown all the potential and he still believed in that talent and potential, but it needed to be nurtured more. Honed. When they went home, he told himself.
When they went home.
And it was as that thought died that her voice pricked at his ear. He had been listening to that voice for most of her entire life and nearly half of his own. He knew what it sounded like. And… he knew what it sounded like when something was wrong.
They moved faster, quieter.
There, in a clearing between the trees, was Rayla. Half her body lay limp on the ground, staining the grass with her blood. Her other half rested on something to keep herself upright and she was leveling her blade at someone. Runaan followed the sword and frowned.
Runaan shared a look with Callisto. Then, with the rest of his team.
The human boy who had taken a step toward Rayla stumbled back when they all leapt from the trees. There was no need to have weapons at the ready. Humans or not, these were simply children. They had enough time to tie them up and put them somewhere if need be. If not, then… he would do what had to be done. Regrettably. He avoided situations like these like a plague, but it wouldn’t have been the first time mistakes cost lives that weren’t meant to be lost. He had a dreading feeling that it wouldn’t be the last.
“R-Runaan…” Rayla could barely manage to say his name without wheezing. She sounded relieved and he looked her over. His face nearly betrayed his shock.
What had happened to her? She looked as if she escaped a mauling. Then, she moved, fighting with the effort to say something. Skor, his long hair covering one side of his face trembled upon reaching for whatever it was that Rayla was protecting.
“What is it?” Callisto asked. His short, white hair somehow probably made him look all the more menacing to the humans. They seem to backup a little more after he spoke.
“This… can’t be...” Skor’s voice failed him.
Runaan turned to see what they were talking about and his eyes widened. Rayla moved as best she could to reveal what was under her. It was a beautiful, kaleidoscoped, glowing egg that he had only ever seen in one place.
Andromeda knelt before the egg. “Is that…?”
“The egg of The Dragon Prince.” Runaan shook his head. “That’s impossible.”
He looked at Rayla. She was trying to give him that cheeky grin, desperate as it was for relief from the pain she was in. Runaan stopped himself from reaching out for her halfway since he didn’t know if she would outright pass out from her injuries under the pressure. She didn’t even look like she could focus on him. “Ask,” she breathed, hoarse and wheezing. “Them.”
Her gaze shifted to the humans still standing in fear before them. Runaan and Skor stood up, approaching the human boys as Callisto crouched down next to Rayla. “Where did she get this?” Runaan demanded. “Tell me what you know.”
The boys looked at each other. Runaan waited for their answer.
The eldest who stepped forward. “Listen, just… don’t hurt him.” He stepped in front of the younger boy. “We didn’t even know it was around until a little while ago. Our high mage was keeping it a secret from everyone. We swear.”
Runaan frowned. “If it as such a secret then what do two human children want with it?”
“We don’t want it at all. Listen, you can have it. We were just trying to help her.” The elder boy pointed at Rayla.
Ram’s red eyes flashed. He bristled. “Why would a human ever help an elven girl?”
The elder boy narrowed his eyes. “Because she’s hurt! What was I supposed to do? Leave her there?”
“We’re not inclined to believe you simply wanted to help her out of the kindness of your own hearts,” said Andromeda, stepping beside Runaan.
The younger boy now stepped from around the elder. “It’s true,” he said. “We don’t want anything. We were just trying to leave and we ran into her. That’s all. We don’t want the egg”
Runaan looked up at the castle. Then, down at the boys. Two boys running in woods all alone…
Runaan shared a look with Andromeda.
“And where did you say you were running to, again?” she asked them.
The elder boy stammered. “N-nowhere. We were just trying to get to the next town before dark.”
“The next town in this direction is half a day’s journey. At least it is, through the woods,” Runaan stepped closer to them. The elder boy pushed the younger behind him again. “Who are you, really?”
The younger boy moved from behind the elder. “If I tell you who I am, will you take care of her and leave us alone? Or at least let one of us go?”
The elder boy clutched down on the younger’s shoulder, trying to pull him back.
“We will take care of her, regardless,” Runaan said. “But it will be easier to resolve this situation if we know who you are.”
The younger boy held his toad in his arms and looked up at Runaan, meeting his eyes. “I’m Prince Ezran.”
Runaan had to commend the boy for his forthrightness. He stepped toward them again, reaching for his bow. “I know.”
The elder boy placed himself between Runaan and Prince Ezran. “Callum, it’s okay. Just--” said Prince Ezran.
“Ez, just go. Run. I’ll hold them off,” The boy named Callum didn’t so much as budge when Runaan stood in front of him. “You’ll have to go through me.”
The bravery of these princes was notable. For humans so young, they faced death like Moonshadow elves. He paused. “Your father is dead.”
The princes’ faces faltered. Prince Callum pursed his lips. “Yes… he… King Harrow was killed by the same man who had that egg.”
Callisto frowned from where he was next to Rayla. “Your high mage?”
“My… King Harrow found out about the egg after your friend stole it. He and Lord Viren had an argument in the king’s chambers and…” Prince Callum looked away. “He made it look like it wasn't. And he’s never liked me, so I knew he was going to do the same to us next. He’s blaming her for the killing since they knew you were coming. She made enough noise that they’ll believe him. I took my brother and ran as fast as I could. That’s why we’re out here.”
So, Rayla hadn’t killed the king. It had been the king’s own chief mage. He looked back at her. At her sword. And, yet, her blade was beginning to crust with what he knew this time to be blood. He turned back to the princes.
Runaan shook his head. Humans. They couldn’t even trust each other.
Runaan turned to Andromeda. She gestured for him to come with her. After making sure Skor and Ram were watching the princes, he let her take him off to the side. “This changes things.”
Runaan kept his voice low. “He’s our target. They’re humans, Andromeda.”
“Human children,” she said. “And we now know the truth of The Dragon Prince. We have the egg. There is no need for justice against the young prince. These are the heirs to Katolis and the nephews to the great General Amaya. He is worth more to us alive than dead.”
“I can’t simply undo this. We bound ourselves Andromeda.”
“The king is dead, Runaan. We have the egg of The Dragon Prince. You said it yourself. Life is precious. We don’t need to take this one, anymore.”
Runaan turned to look at the princes. Prince Ezran was looking right at him. The boy said, “I’ll go with you. I’ll cooperate--”
“We,” Prince Callum put his hands on his brother’s shoulders and they gave each other a look of reassurance. “We will go with you. If you keep us alive, if you don’t hurt us, we’ll go with you to return the egg to The Dragon Queen.”
Runaan considered those words. Andromeda’s voice as in his ear. “Peace can be had, Runaan. I imagine that’s why Rayla risked her life to get out of there with it.”
“In return,” Prince Callum started. Runaan raised his brows. “You help us get to safety. Lord Viren will no doubt be coming after us. You give us that protection and we’ll cooperate completely.”
Skor shook his head. “We can’t. If the prince lives, we all lose our hands.”
Andromeda snapped, “Is that not worth it for Xadia? We have the egg. The egg we all thought had been destroyed. Do you realize what kind of change this could bring?”
“We’ll be slowed down, Andromeda,” Skor argued. “Runaan, you know we don’t have time for this.”
“The Dragon Queen can unbind us,” said Andromeda. “Dragons have powerful magic. If we can get the egg to her then she most likely will release us from our bindings.”
Ram stood next to Skor. “Wait a minute. Are we sure about that? Are we sure she can do that?”
“Losing my hand is worth getting The Dragon Prince back to his mother.”
Skor replied, “If we even make it with all this extra weight--"
“Enough. Runaan, make a decision.” Callisto’s voice cut clear between them. That tone made Runaan turn toward him. Where Rayla was limp in his arms. “We need to get back to camp. I need to treat Rayla immediately. Before infection starts setting in and she loses too much blood.”
Runaan turned to the princes and regarded them. Finally, Prince Callum said, “Lord Viren killed our father. His king. A man he called his friend, once. At least, let us have a chance to bring him to justice.”
For another moment, Runaan said nothing. Then, he broke his silence, “You will be compliant. You will be quiet. And if you become a liability, you will be dealt with. Is that understood?”
The princes shared gazes. They looked back at him and nodded.
“Very well. Come with us.”