The caldera was strange, but the illusions were stranger still. Claudia wasn't deterred.
Once they'd realized the illusions were just that, nothing stopped her march to the summit. The trek took a day, maybe more, but getting to the top was more than worth it. An elven settlement. Here, in the human kingdoms, no less.
No elves, apparently. She gestured for Soren to follow. If the princes were here, they had to locate and dispose of the elves, quietly.
Hugging Callum was the highlight of her night; even if things weren't entirely fixed between them it put Rayla a little at ease. That trust would need to be rebuilt. Or maybe she was overthinking.
Callum held her hand and squeezed it. "You should go to bed."
Rayla rolled her eyes. "Oh? Since when were you in charge of my sleep schedule?"
"Since you were out here all day. Don't you think you should sleep?"
"No, actually," she said. "I'm going to patrol the perimeter for a while. Then, maybe I can go to sleep. You, on the other hand, should get some rest. You humans seem to love it so much, you sleep in every morning."
Callum laughed. She smiled. He said, "Not everybody can get out of bed at five in the morning. Are you saying all elves are up that early?
She thought about it. "... not all of us, I suppose."
"See?" he said, pleased with himself.
Too pleased with himself. She pushed him along. "Yeah, yeah, off to bed with you." Her voice softened. "I'll see you in the morning."
He paused. She almost asked him what was wrong, but he gave her a hug before leaving. Callum didn't say another goodnight to her, but he held her for a second longer than usual.
She didn't even hug him back before he left her standing there.
Strange, this human. Even if she considered him her favorite human. Tied with Ez, maybe.
The half-moon was high in the sky and she ventured that not all of the team were asleep. She hoped Runaan, at least, was resting because he needed to. Meditation was... fine, but he needed actual sleep. If she found him awake, she might have to enlist Andromeda's help to persuade him. Even Callisto.
Maybe Callum had a point about needing some rest if she got any of her habits from Runaan.
She was willing to bet on it. Hoped, anyway.
Walking the stone path, Rayla kept her ears and eyes open for any disturbances. She walked along, letting the moonlight ease her nervous heart. She was no fool to think Callum was entirely over the assassin issue. Not that she blamed him.
Sometimes, she questioned it as well.
Focus, she ordered herself.
She righted her mind onto the task at hand. A patrol was hardly useful if she wasn't listening for intruders who could slip by her.
The Nexus, she had to admit, made her miss home. It had all the hallmarks of Moonshadow architecture and the nuances the human towns and kingdoms simply didn't. They were different and they weren't home.
Sounds of home hummed in her mind.
Sweet music of The Silvergrove.
Rayla grew sleepy.
And sleepier still.
Her body drooped and her mind lit up just long enough to grab a rose and prick the thorn on her thumb before she collapsed to the ground.
Then, the voices. Two of them. The voices and the thorn embedded in her thumb stirred her. She roused from her sleep, but kept her eyes closed.
"... if we kill her and somebody finds her, they'll know we're here."
"Then, we hide the body. Soren, c'mon. Kill her. She's a Moonshadow elf. Are you honestly having second thoughts, now?"
"Claudia, I've never fought someone who's asleep like this. It feels like-- like I'm cheating, okay?"
Claudia hissed. "Cheating? We have to rescue the princes. This was even your idea--"
"To rescue the princes. Not kill the elves as soon as we got here."
"I saw an opportunity. How else are we supposed to search the grounds if--"
Rayla heard enough. She swept Soren off of his feet, then pointed her swords at Claudia.
Right. The Dark Mage's daughter.
She approached Claudia, ignoring the fear in her eyes and paying more attention to whether she would fight or fly. Rayla didn't forget the soldier. Soren picked himself up off the ground and unsheathed his sword. Cornered by two enemies, Rayla pointed a sword at each of them.
She thought of the bigger threat. On another day, in another time, she would leap for Soren and go toe to toe with him. She would let Claudia be. Claudia's fear would be enough to stay her.
Rayla leapt for Claudia.
Warrior or no, the girl used dark magic and more dark magic was the last thing any of them needed. A sword only did so many things, but Xadia only knew what the girl had in her bag of tricks.
Immediately, the boy tackled Rayla. She threw him off. He rolled.
The girl was rifling through her bag. Rayla charged her, throwing her sword in her direction. Soren interceded and jumped between her and Claudia. He smacked Rayla's sword away. Rayla caught it.
Alright, then. The boy first. Rayla and Soren circled each other, both of them with an eye on Claudia.
If Rayla couldn't stop her from performing dark magic, she could at least dodge. The thought of whatever macabre thing being cooked up made Rayla's stomach churn.
Soren jumped first. He leapt, Rayla dodged and came back with her own attack. He parried her and she moved out of the way. Leaping around him, she went straight for Claudia.
Rayla tackled Claudia to the ground. Whatever it was -- a paw, Rayla realized -- Claudia dropped it on the ground as the girls tousled, Rayla raised her sword--
--and cut the bag from Claudia's body.
Soren roared and charged Rayla. He lifted Rayla off of Claudia. Rayla elbowed him and he let her go. She put distance between them, panting.
Rayla braced herself for another round. Her only saving grace was that Claudia was not apparently a warrior. She wouldn't fight like one. That was an advantage and a disadvantage.
Soren, closed in on her with his sword. Claudia picked up something from her bag and--
Rayla's eyes widened. She twirled around. Callum ran at breakneck speed to come between them. His back to Rayla, he said to them all. " Stop fighting. Soren, Claudia, what are you doing here? Not that I'm not glad you're here, but--"
"It's okay, Callum," Claudia said, raising her -- it was a severed paw. Rayla was going to be sick. "We're here to rescue you."
"Wait, you guys don't understand. I don't even understand--"
Soren flexed his grip on his sword. "It'll all make sense once we're done here. Just get out of the way, okay, step-prince? And then we can take you home."
Something in Rayla spiked, but Callum extended his arms out and backed up into Rayla. "What? No."
"Don't worry. I know a good spell that will have her off our backs for good."
Rayla leaped at them, but Callum caught her around the waist with everything he had, whirling her in a circle and holding her against him with both his arms. "Everybody, wait a minute."
As if on cue, the trees rustled.
Andromeda dropped first. Then, Callisto. Then, Ram and Skor.
Finally, Runaan stalked from the shadows, into the moonlight.
They all had their weapons out. Ram and Skor were behind Claudia and Soren.
"You again?" Andromeda sneered.
"They're my friends," Callum answered. "I grew up with them-- please, can we all just wait a minute and figure out what's going on."
"Make it quick," Callisto said, his knives ready.
Callum looked at Soren and Claudia with a meaningful face.
"We're here for you," Claudia said finally. Gently. "You and Ezran."
"Claudia, I ran away. Remember? Why would I go back?" He demanded. "Your dad wanted to kill me."
"My dad's only doing what's best for us. All of us. I'm sure we can convince him that you and Ezran are okay. He's just... confused. It's a misunderstanding."
Callum held Rayla tighter. She said what he wanted to. "He killed Callum's stepdad. How is that a misunderstanding?"
"That's not true," Claudia retorted, glaring. "He would never do that. Callum, we need to talk about this."
Andromeda said to Runaan, "We should kill them. Silence them. If they leave, they run back to the human kingdoms with our whereabouts. No doubt there's a force waiting to ambush us."
Skor agreed. Callum immediately shook his head. "No, no! Wait, listen-- Everyone, this is crazy. You guys can't just kill each other at the drop of a hat. Claudia, Soren, you attacked Rayla without even seeing if I wanted to go. You knew I'd gone on my own and still did it, anyway." He looked to Runaan. "That doesn't mean I want them to get hurt. Runaan, please, give me a chance to sort this out and figure out what's going on."
Runaan bristled. "You expect me to trust them?"
"No, I'm asking you to trust me on this. You don't have to trust them... you don't really have a reason to, but please."
Runaan paused, blue eyes piercing the three of them. He glanced at Rayla.
Rayla sighed. "Runaan... they're his friends. We should..." She hated to say it. "We should honor it."
His face did that thing. The slightest twitch which meant he would relent. "Very well. But they will be watched. If they act on their ill intentions or I think they have become a danger to us all, they will be killed. I will not hesitate. None of us will hesitate. Is that clear?"
Callum nodded. "Thank you."
He glared at Soren and Claudia. After a moment, Soren sheathed his sword. Smart.
Claudia picked up her ruined bag as Callum let Rayla go.
Rayla looked at Callum. He put his hands up. "Sorry, I didn't mean to--"
"Don't worry about it," she smiled at him.
He smiled back, albeit apologetically. He went to walk with Claudia and Soren as the elves escorted them away.
To Claudia, Rayla said. "Don't do anything stupid."
Claudia's glare was frigid. The feeling was mutual.
Rayla only regretted the worry in Callum's eyes when he glanced at them.
The next morning, Callum brought Claudia and Soren breakfast to their room. Runnan kept them under lock and key until he decided when they could walk the grounds. Callum needed to talk with him about it, but otherwise things were fine...
As Callum looked in the mirror and rubbed his face he sighed. No, things were not fine on that front.
Claudia and Soren had sided with their father, who killed his father-- he would not back down from the fact -- and were now trying to convince him to take Ezran home. To the same father who wanted to kill them.
Whether or not Claudia and Soren could convince their father to let them live wasn't a risk Callum wanted to take. Not with his life. Not with Ezran's life.
Frankly, he was safer here.
That didn't mean he didn't want to hear them out. It didn't mean he didn't miss them and some semblance of his old life.
"Listen." Rayla shut the door behind her. "We can't trust them."
Callum was already tired. He nodded. "Right..."
"Why are they here? They want to rescue you? They knew you left with us. That doesn't sound right."
"Rayla, I get it. I agree, but I also can't just ignore what they have to say. What if they really are here to help?"
Rayla blinked at him. "Callum, they told you what they wanted: to bring you home. Do you really think they just came here, on their own, defying their father's wishes to bring you home so they can help you? And their father didn’t send them to capture you? You don't believe that, do you?"
Callum turned away.He rubbed his eyes and went back to the mirror. Worry lined his face.
"I don't trust anybody right now." He didn't look at Rayla through the mirror. "Trust isn't the easiest thing for me right now, okay?"
When he finally looked at Rayla’s reflection, her face told him enough about how his words made her feel.
Her ears drooped and she opened her mouth to speak, but ultimately closed it. When she turned to leave, he wanted to turn around and stop her. He didn't.
Callum plopped back on the bed. Why was his life getting so complicated?
"I don't understand," Claudia was biting her thumb and pacing. She'd had her hot brown morning potion and was ready to work. But hanging out with all these elves made her nervous. What's more, they were assassins. "Callum and Ezran would never act like this."
"I mean, we don't need to worry about Ezran. We're talking about Callum here," Soren said. "If Callum comes, Ezran will follow."
"But it’s Ezran too... he's so attached to that other elf. What if he's just as comfortable? What are we supposed to do?"
"Clauds, you're thinking way too hard about this."
Claudia stopped pacing and crossed her arms. "And how do you figure that? We have a tall order to convince Callum we're the ones actually on his side. He's been... brainwashed by these elves. He's spent time with them. You noticed how he was with that one elf from last night."
"We really ought to learn their names," Soren mused. "This is getting confusing."
"I am focusing. Look, Clauds." He stood up and put his hands on Claudia's shoulders. "We've known the Step-Prince and the Crown Runt--"
"-- for years. I'm sure we can figure something out. Normally, I'd say let's just pick them up and carry them home, but even I might have a hard time beating off a team of Moonshadow elf assassins. Though I'm good. Pretty good."
Claudia snapped her fingers and walked away from Soren. Sometimes... sometimes, Soren was brilliant.
"Clauds? Yoo-hoo, I'm over here. Mind telling me what's going on in Claudialand?"
"You are absolutely right."
"I am?" He blinked, then straightened up. "I mean, of course I am."
The'd been friends their whole lives. And Callum had, well, a special connection with her. Surely, that hadn't just evaporated, had it? Elf or no elf.
"Listen, let's just talk to Callum. No crazy stunts. No tricks. Like you said, he knows us way better than them, right?"
"Okay, I said that, but... you also made a good point. What about her?"
What was her name again?
What did Callum call her when he brought them their breakfast?
Rayla was her name. "We talk to Callum without Rayla. You see the way she is with him."
"The way he is with her, you mean."
"The point is that we need him to remember we're his friends. Not them."
They could manage that. She was sure of it.
When Runaan gave the leave, Callum was admittedly relieved to be able to spend time with Soren and Claudia. Even if they did misunderstand the situation he and Ezran were in. Still, talking to them was nice. Surely, they'd come around and understand. Wouldn't they?
Nobody escorted them. Considering there were six assassins plus Lujanne around to monitor them, Callum was marginally able to convince Runaan to let them be.
Rayla hadn't bothered objecting. She hadn't even looked at him.
He squirmed when she didn't.
"... and this is the temple of the Moon Nexus. I've only been in here once, but it's pretty nice, huh?"
"It's amazing, Callum."
Claudia marveled at the inscriptions on the temple walls and what they might mean. Callum let her explore. He had forgotten so much about what home was like. Or around something that felt like home. Watching Claudia in all her beauty and curiosity… he missed this.
He even missed Soren's interjections, maybe.
Part of him wished Ezran came along with them, but Ezran was more comfortable with Andromeda and Ram right now, looking after the egg. Lujanne was still trying to save the egg after all.
Watching Claudia, his face fell slightly.
He wondered when they might ask about the egg.
They hadn't thus far.
Since when was he so distrusting? Perhaps Rayla called it cautious. He never questioned Soren or Claudia once upon a time. Today, he did. The one blow that always came to mind was their refusal to listen to him about how Lord Viren had killed his father.
He'd seen the killing blow.
Nobody would tell him otherwise.
Whatever his face did, Claudia frowned at it.
"Nothing," he said. "I'm alright."
"... how have you been, lately?"
Callum wasn't even sure how to answer that. He sighed and looked at the ceiling for a second before turning back to Claudia, his lips tight. "Okay? Not okay? Not as okay as I could be? I'm not sure if I'm happy. Some things make me happy--"
He thought of Rayla.
"--some things... make me sick. And angry. A lot's going on right now."
"I'm sorry... about everything. You... I understand you don't trust us because of what happened with your dad, but don't you think it's at least a little possible that the elves might have tricked you?”
There was that feeling again. Tight and miserable.
He knew what turned his and Ezran’s life upside down.
"You weren't there. Neither of you were." Callum turned away from Claudia. His eyes stung. "I- I saw the flash of light. It was purple like all of your spells, and I saw King Harrow -- my stepdad -- fall. I heard it."
The twin sickening thud of Lady Eveline’s body echoed in his mind.
His stepdad's dying collapse also came back, fresh and ready to haunt him for a time, too.
"... can we talk about it?"
Callum clenched his fists. "What's there to talk about? You don't believe me."
A hand laid on one of his fists and he blinked his tears away. Claudia said, "No... I do."
Even Soren seemed... sorry. Apologetic, even. "I do, too. Callum, we're sorry."
"We're sorry about what happened. And... we're sorry about what our dad did. This... this doesn't make it right.But maybe there was a reason. They had a long friendship. Why would they just... why would our dad just do that to yours without a reason? I'm not saying you ever have to forgive him, but you can imagine, can't you?"
Claudia squeezed his hand.
Callum wasn't sure if he should be angry or sad. Relenting or resisting.
"I don't really have to imagine."
"What if he was sorry? What if it was an accident?"
He'd never considered the idea that any of it had been an accident. From what Claudia had told him, dark magic went wrong sometimes. Still, he swore they were shouting. He swore they'd been arguing about the egg. His stepdad blamed Lord Viren.
"I don't know."
"Callum, you don't have to forgive my dad. And we can even deal with that later, but it's not safe for you here. What will happen when you get to Xadia? They’ll fix everything? You're still safer with us. Humans. Humans who care about you. Even if they lock my dad away forever for what he did to yours--"
Callum looked at her sharply.
"-- you still have Opeli. And all the other counselors. You have your Aunt Amaya."
If she forgave him, anyway. He ventured that she would want an explanation about what happened at the Banther Lodge. But Aunt Amaya was always reasonable.
Moreover... Claudia had a point.
"You'll have us, too," she added.
Callum squeezed Claudia's hand. He appreciated her.
That didn't completely set aside the unease in his belly.
"I missed you guys," he admitted. "But I... I can't just go back now. Things aren't that simple. So much has happened since then. They've protected me."
Claudia's face was crestfallen, maybe even a bit upset when he kept walking.
"Even if they're assassins?"
Claudia and Callum twisted to look at Soren. He said little during their walk, but he'd been listening.
"Yes, even if they're assassins."
Soren frowned. "Callum... we heard about Meraxia."
Callum froze. He must have been like an animal on the road.
The sick thud played in his head again and again and again--
"We were on the road when we found out," Soren said. "But what... What happened with you? How did you even get mixed up in that?"
How did he even answer?
With the truth, he supposed.
What else was there but the truth?
So, he told them. He told them everything and explained what happened, leaving out little detail. For the first time, he had someone to tell. Rayla had lived it with him. And nobody would ever sit above her in that regard.
But to finally have it off his chest with someone who wasn't there.
It gave him some relief. Some.
Even if Soren looked uncomfortable and Claudia a little horrified. It was their turn to be speechless and their turn to feel a bit of what he felt on a daily basis.
When Soren gathered himself, he said, "None of that needed to happen."
"It was my idea--"
"But you wouldn't have been in that situation if it weren't for them. They're assassins, Callum. All of them."
Callum sighed. "Yes. I've already had to deal with that."
"... she's an assassin, Callum."
Callum paused. A common fact, at this point. He wanted to tell Soren as much. Make him back off.
There was also a part of him who wanted someone to listen to what it was like adapting to a bunch of assassins and, well, caring about them. Not that Callum didn't care about a lot of people, but this situation was different.
On top of it all, it wasn't like he was entirely past the thing about Rayla and the guard from Meraxia.
"I know, okay," Callum said. "It hasn't been easy."
This time, Claudia put her hand on his shoulder. "You can tell us what happened."
Callum pursed his lips.
He told them.
He told them all about his fight with Rayla, how she killed the guard and why she did it. It was like he kept trying to convince himself or debate with himself about how he was coping with that bit of knowledge. There was a part of him still horrified by what she did. There was another part of him that remembered what Lujanne said and why Rayla had done it in the first place.
All of it made him hear Lady Eveline's death again.
Was that going to haunt him for the rest of his life?
He reckoned so.
"Callum... that's horrible."
"You see, it sounds horrible, and then I remember, hey, she did it to protect us--"
Soren shook his head. "That's not really an excuse."
"But nothing. You keep making excuses for her, but she murdered him. In cold blood. She's a murderer, Callum. That's her job."
Claudia stood with Soren on this one. "That's... all she'll ever be, Callum. Do you really want to be around people like that? Just like-- like everybody has always said. Listen, we're only trying to protect you, okay?"
Callum stopped walking. "Wait a minute, she's not a murderer. And it's not like that. Not even close. You weren't there. We were being hunted. We're still being hunted. Rayla did what she felt like she had to do to keep us safe. I don't like it, but I won’t judge her like that. You shouldn't either."
"Why are you protecting her?" Soren demanded. "You said it yourself. She killed a guard, then lied to you about it. Sounds like murder to me."
"Because it isn't like that. She had a good reason. I mean, she shouldn't have lied about it, but..."
"But what? Why are you defending them so much? Why are you defendingher so much?" Soren crossed his arms. "They're Moonshadow elves. She's a Moonshadow elf."
"Callum, I know everything seems confusing, but I promise if you just come home with us then everything will work itself out. It's like Soren said, she's a Moonshadow elf." Claudia said. "She's not worth your time."
"What? No, Rayla means the world to me." Callum shook his head. "I won't leave her."
Claudia and Soren looked at him, then they looked at each other.
He didn't know what they were thinking and, frankly, he didn't want to know.
When Callum found her, Rayla was sharpening her knives. Naturally, she was somewhere doing something sword related.
She was in her room and she didn't say anything when he came in. Okay, maybe he deserved that. He was supposed to be getting better at dealing with this thing that was still between them. Despite her lack of acknowledgement, he sat next to her and sidled up as far as he dared.
Rayla kept sharpening her blades very pointedly, but he continued. "I'm sorry about what I said earlier."
She hunched her shoulders. "It's fine."
He reached out to her, then stopped. Maybe not while she was handling those things. "It's not. I didn't mean to make it sound like I didn't trust you. I'm still not... okay with everything. But what I said wasn't meant to be toward you. Never toward you."
She paused and looked at him out of the corner of her eyes. Pouted slightly.
But she let her shoulders down and grumbled at him. "You're so... ridiculous."
He grinned. "You're right, but at least I'm ridiculous with you, right?"
Rayla smiled, she looked down at her swords, then back at him. "I suppose. So, how did it go?"
That immediately made Callum tired. "Okay, I guess. Claudia's always easier than Soren. But I also have a better connection with her. Magic and all. Speaking of which--"
They looked up. Claudia stood at the doorway, smiling, her knuckles raised to rap at the door. "Hey, want to go for another walk? I could use another tour of the place," she said. Her voice was a bit easier this time. "Just the two of us?"
This was the Claudia he knew and could be around. Callum nudged Rayla, who was already frowning. "I'll be back, okay?"
Rayla grumbled, but otherwise nudged him back. "I'll be around."
For you .
She didn't need to say it.
One day, he'd tell her he appreciated her waiting for him.
"I'm sorry about earlier, Callum. Can we put it behind us?"
Callum couldn't be more tired of fighting with the people around him. "Yeah... I guess. Of course. I... I kind of want to give it a rest, too."
Maybe, things were okay.
Maybe, it wasn't all bad.
Claudia smiled. That bright, beautiful smile that made his stomach lurch and his heart leap. His face was warmer, too.
"So... the Moon Nexus temple was beautiful, but you never took us to the Nexus itself."
Callum stammered. "O-oh, yeah. Guess I got a little sidetracked about it, honestly. You seemed to love the ruins though."
"They were beautiful. So magical and full of history. I'd love to go there again, sometime."
Callum swallowed hard. Maybe...
Maybe this was his chance. Maybe things were kind of back to normal.
Back in Katolis, he never mustered up the courage to ask Claudia out on a real date. It was always a coincidence of Soren being around or just finding her when she was out. But asking her out on a date. An actual, hopefully romantic date.
He could do this.
Callum rubbed the back of his neck.
He could do this.
"How... how about tonight? I can take you there. And the Moon Nexus. Only if you want to, of course. If not, I totally understand and I can show you sometime in the day when it's not just the two of us. You know, I understand how that might--"
"--not be entirely comfortable and I totally respect that and--"
Callum froze. He dared to look at her directly.
"I'd love to go on a date with you. Let's say, tonight? Moonrise?"
He blinked. "U-uh, yes! That'd be great. If it's great--good, sounds good-- with you?"
Nervous should just be his middle name right about now.
Claudia laughed. He could have melted right there. "Of course it's good with me. Besides, I'd like to make it up to you. Everything, I mean. I just want to have a good time with you again."
Callum cracked a smile. "I'd really like that, too, Claudia."
She began to walk away, but not before brushing her hair behind her ear and smiling back at him. "It's a date then."
He was practically breathless. "A-a date."
When she was out of view, he almost collapsed right there.
A date. With Claudia.
He had to talk to somebody. Had to tell somebody. If Ezran was here, he'd tell him, but he was probably busy.
Callum was going to burst. With nerves or joy, he wasn't entirely certain.
When he came back to see Rayla, she had migrated to the tree outside and was just about done with her swords, putting them away as he approached her. Her face was already in question when he strolled toward her, his heart and face on fire.
He took Rayla by the elbows and sat her down again.
"What's the matter with you?" she asked.
"Date. With Claudia."
Rayla froze. "With Claudia."
"I have a date with Claudia," he grinned. Her reaction was the exact opposite of his. He could do anything. Wanted to do everything right now. Rayla sat next to him, eyes wide and her mouth frozen.
"We talked about things and, you know, we've been friends for so long. I guess good things can happen in crazy times, right?"
"... right. I'm, uh... good for you. "
Her face was still unreadable. He held her arms when they stood back up, but Callum was grinning from ear to ear. "Thanks for being so easy about this. I know you don't trust them, but everything will be fine. You trust me, right?"
Out of instinct, he held her hand to his chest.
Her expression was still weird, but he couldn't read it with so many things going on in his head.
"...of course, I trust you," she said finally. Her smile was small.
"Okay, I still have to tell you something, but I have to get ready first. We’ll talk tonight? When I get back?"
She only nodded.
Callum squeezed her hand as he let her go. Then, he left.
Skor watched from his place, a safe distance away. He saw Rayla.
Beside him, Ram did, too.
"You see that?" Skor asked.
"I tried not to, but yes."
"You realize that'll be a problem, right?"
"Yes, I do," Ram sounded tired.
Skor grumbled. Damned teenagers.