Actions

Work Header

Sides of the Moon

Chapter Text

Blindly.

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.

Callum--”

“Not yet, Ez. Keep going. Just keep going.”

“No, Callum--”

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.

Humans.

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”

Leaving?

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.”

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.”

Chapter Text

The elf named Callisto carried Rayla into a tent.

While the other elves didn’t seem to have any intention of hovering near the tent, the tension was… there. Their leader, Runaan, seemed to go meditate on a rock. With Ezran more than ready to bed down for at least a bit, Callum elected to go through the items he’d swiped from Lord Viren’s secret room.

He had nabbed a variety of things: a book, a bunch of knick knacks he just blindly grabbed, a few stones that looked a bit suspect and a jar of some kind of ointment. On the way out, he also managed to grab the primal stone that Claudia had left in her father’s office. He didn’t know what he would do with it, but he didn’t need Lord Viren or Claudia to have it when they realized that Callum and Ezran were gone.

It all was a blur, really. Not exactly a point in time when he was thinking the clearest that he had ever reasoned. Half of these things he probably wouldn’t use, but it was better than having no supplies. He regretted not grabbing anything to eat. One look in Ezran’s bag, however, and he relaxed a little bit. Just a little. At least Ezran had grabbed a handful of jelly tarts.

After all, what did elves eat?

Callum kept the primal stone tucked away in his bag. The last thing they needed was for the elves to feel threatened. He continued to sift through the contents of the bag, examining his collection. Something scraped against his fingers, cutting across the soft pads. He winced as they welled with blood. Grabbing the ointment, he opened it and spread a little bit of the contents over his skin. It burned a little more than it should have, but the wound closed before his eyes.

Callum blinked. Well, that was useful.

-:-:-:-

Runaan meditated on the slab of rock. He tried, at least.

He hadn’t bothered to go into the tent where Callisto was treating Rayla. No, Callisto would be better off without Runaan hovering over him working. Combat, yes, Runaan excelled at, but treating critical wounds were in Callisto’s realm. It was one reason Runaan had elected him as a linchpin part of the team.

Still, Runaan felt as if he should be in there. Would Rayla respond to the sound of his voice? He recalled a time when a mighty fever had swept through their home in Xadia. Thankfully, the healing mages were able to call her from the brink, but they credited her ability to keep from slipping beyond that point to how she clung to his voice.

But Rayla had been a child then. She could pull through this, now. With Callisto’s help.

He wasn’t worried about anything beyond her fate tonight, but the consequences of today didn’t sit well with him. She had disobeyed his direct orders. Not once, but twice. Naturally, something had to be done about that.

It haunted him.

“You should look at these.” Andromeda stood to his left. Runaan looked up at the swords she displayed before him. Rayla’s swords were dry with blood. The blades, the handles... it had not come from just a single human.

“We don’t know if she killed any of them.”

Andromeda’s voice was soft. “You saw the state of her, Runaan. Do you really believe that?”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe, right now.”

“Rayla, above any of us, knows the importance of getting the egg back to The Dragon Queen. You know she would have done anything to get it out of the humans’ hands.”

Runaan sighed through his nose. “I know.”

Giving her own life was a small sacrifice to Rayla if it meant correcting the dishonor her parents had inflicted. But would Rayla kill a human? He thought she would have. He thought he had taught her better than that.

Now, he questioned his judgement in that matter.

“Are you still considering her punishment?”

Runaan met Andromeda’s gaze, his face flinching with the regret in his heart. “You know I have to.”

Andromeda shook her head. “She had redeemed herself today. At least, somewhat. Xadia will regard her as a hero for what she’s done. You know this, Runaan. Look at where she’s at. Hasn’t she been punished enough?”

“If I don’t punish her then they will at home. It’s not entirely my decision.”

She got on one knee. “Plea with them.”

“I plead with them once and look what happened.”

“Yes.” She said. “And we have the egg. You plead with them once and, now, The Dragon Prince is with us after what we thought was its destruction.”

“She defied me, Andromeda. I can’t simply overlook that! She nearly cost the entire mission and could have killed us all with her stunt! Do you believe that I want to consider this?”

“It doesn’t matter what I believe,” Andromeda replied. Runaan broke eye contact with her. “She doesn’t deserve to be punished. Not with the severity you have in mind. And you know it.”

The curtain to Rayla’s tent opened. Callisto’s head slipped through the opening. He gestured for Runaan to come inside. In the tent, the surroundings were were the color of lavender ashed and Rayla looked pale in comparison to all of it. Callisto’s tools lay around her, her bloody clothes discarded in a corner and a blanket over her up to her chest. Runaan could see her fighting for breath even in her near unconscious state. He could hear it.

Her wheezing was wet. As if her body couldn’t keep up with the havoc that had been wrecked on it. Across from Runaan, Callisto told him quietly, “Be with her. Talk to her while I go outside for a moment.”

Runaan nodded. He didn’t question it.

Callisto left and Runaan knelt beside her. “Rayla.”

Slowly Rayla turned her head toward him. Her eyes shuttered open and closed.

Runa… Ru...” she tried weakly to say his name, but she winced and her chest rose and fell in several, slow deep passings. The wheezing sound was more evident than ever.

“Don’t try to talk,” he said to her softly. “Save your strength for later. You will pull through this.”

He prayed this was the one time she listened to him.

Her hand, bloody and pale, inched toward him. Her wrists… he saw the dark scars around them. He took her by the hand and squeezed it gently. It was so cold.

She didn’t squeeze back.

-:-:-:-

Outside, Callisto could feel everyone’s eyes on him, but he ignored them all.

There had to be something out here that could help him. Something. Anything.

Damn these human lands. In Xadia, the very nature around them would be useful for healing, but here there was no such magic. No such help within reach that might be able to save Rayla’s life.

As Callisto muttered to himself, Ram approached him. “What’s happened?”

Callisto was still looking around.

Ram grabbed him by his arm. “Callisto.”

Callisto looked into that dark face and pursed his lips. It was enough of a message. Ram let go of his arm and turned his attention toward the tent. He opened his mouth, then closed it.

“Is there nothing that can be done?” Andromeda asked.

Callisto scratched the back of his head. Tiredly, he replied, “I don’t know. This is different.”

Runaan walked out of the tent and toward them, his eyes filled with the emotion that he tried to keep from his face. “What is it that you need to help her?”

“I don’t know...I need something… something more…” Callisto muttered out loud.

Out of the corner of his eye, Callisto could see the elder prince standing off to the side. Callisto looked at him. Prince Callum’s brows were knitted together. “It’s bad, isn’t it?”

Skor crossed his arms. “What do you think, human?”

Skor’s comment didn’t seem to deter the prince. Prince Callum pulled something from out of his bag and extended it to Callisto. A jar. A small one. “I, uh… I don’t know if it’ll help, but I found this ointment in some of the stuff I took from Lord Viren’s secret room. I put it on my cut a few minutes ago and it healed it way faster than it would have on it’s own. It might be magic. If you need it, it’s all yours.”

Callisto blinked at the prince. He cautiously took the jar from the boy, opened and gave it a whiff. It smelled medicated. Familiar, even. Perhaps there was an essence of magic in it that he had come across in Xadia. Callisto closed the jar just as Skor put a hand over it.

“We can’t,” Skor looked Callisto dead in the eye.

Skor, damn him, sometimes. Callisto hissed, “Skor, what else would you like me to do?’

“It could be magic. Dark, human magic. You don’t know what kind of dirty trick this could be--”

Prince Callum put up his hands in defense. “No, I swear! It’s not a trick! I found it. I don’t even know what it is, really. But I swear it healed me. I wouldn’t lie about this in this situation.”

Ram grabbed Skor’s shoulder. “He’s right, Skor. Listen, why would he lie surrounded by elves tha could kill him in a second flat?”

Skor gritted his teeth and looked at Callisto. “You cannot trust this human.”

“That’s enough, Skor.” Runaan said firmly and took a step toward them. “Callisto’s judgment is better than the rest of us when it comes to healing properties.”

“Runaan, you know humans are liars. How can we be sure this won’t kill her and turn her into some creature of dark magic?” Callisto rolled his eyes. Oh, for alls sakes. "Callisto--”

Callisto wrenched his hand out of Skor’s.

We have no choice!” Callisto snapped. He sighed and looked at Runaan. “Rayla is dying.”

They all went quiet. Even if Runaan had clearly seen that from being in the tent with her, a pain still seized his chest.

Callisto looked at them each as he explained, “Her wounds aren’t closing. Nothing I’m doing is working. These are different. Inflicted by dark magic, I suspect. If she doesn’t die of blood loss she’s going die of infection. This is all I’ve got.” He faced Runaan. “Give me the authority to use this. Give it to me and I will do everything within my power to save her life.”

Runaan met Callisto’s gaze. “Do whatever it takes.”

Callisto gripped the jar tighter and, with a curt nod, disappeared into the tent.

-:-:-:-

The hour passed.

Callum felt as if he were on trial despite the help he intended to provide. If something did go wrong because of that ointment, then, he would surely be to blame. It was bad enough the elven man, Skor, shot Callum a dirty look every chance he got, but the real scare was their leader.

Runaan went back to his meditating, but Callum wondered if he was actually meditating. Sometimes, Callum caught him with his eyes open just staring into the space before him. Callum had seen that kind of look many times on King-- on his stepfather’s face many a time when matters of Katolis required the king’s hand.

A man between a rock and a hard place.

Callisto finally emerged the tent. All eyes were on him, but he only walked over to Callum and regarded him for a moment.

He tossed the jar into Callum’s hand. ““Allow me to study that later?”

Callum blinked. “Uh-uh, yeah. Yes, of course. Is she…?”

Callisto crossed his arms. “She’s going to be fine… thank you.”

Ram popped up next to Callisto first. “Wait, so she’s going to live?”

Callisto nodded and turned to face the rest of the elves. “Yes, she’s going to live. She needs rest and food when she gets up, but, otherwise, she’ll recover.” There was a tangible wave of relief through everyone. Runaan stood. “Now, for the next problem. When do we need to leave?”

Runaan answered his question with one his own. “When can she move?”

“When can we help her move, you mean? Callisto snorted. “She won’t be moving for a couple days, but we can probably start travel tomorrow night. Give her tonight and tomorrow to rest and we should be able to be on our way.”

“A whole night and day,” Ram winced. “That’s a long time with the princes in tow. No doubt they’ll be looking for them. And us.”

“Then, we’re going to need round the clock scouting rotations,” Runaan said. “Ram you do the first scouting. Skor, you will back him up on watch. Andromeda and I will stay up. Callisto, rest. You’ve done enough for now.”

Callisto nodded, rubbing his eyes and made to retreat to his tent, but turned back briefly. “She’s asleep, but you can go see her now.”

Runaan was already on his way.

So, she as going to make it. Good. That was good. After all of that, Callum wondered if he could even sleep, but he bedded down next to Ezran and Bait and didn’t even feel himself slip away.

-:-:-:-

When Runaan took her hand again, it was warmer. Not as warm as would have made him comfortable, but it was better than those icy limp fingers from earlier. The cold had never bothered him until that moment.

He peered into her face and saw something more relaxed. Not a languish to the world, but the faintest eagerness just to sleep without pain or peril. Then again, perhaps he was imagining all that. Perhaps it was his own relief that he was reading in her face.

After so many years, Runaan found it easy to discern Rayla’s facial expressions. She was somewhat bad at hiding them anyhow. But he hated the fact that he now knew what she looked like on the brink of death. Death and pain beyond what her senses could handle. It was more unsettling when he considered how easily she usually bounced back from nearly anything.

He glanced down at her wrists at her sides. Those scars. He had not bothered to ask about those unusual wounds on her wrists that resembled her other wounds in how there was a burnt quality to them, but they were… different in nature.

When she woke and was able to, he would have to ask her what she experienced in the castle. It was still his duty to make sure that nothing was going to become a problem from those experiences. Even Skor wasn’t too outrageous to question that.

Dark magic. Callisto suspected dark magic had been inflicted upon her. He needed to know what kind and could it still hurt them now.

When she got up. When she felt a bit better.

He would also need to question who. Prince Callum had mentioned their high mage, this Lord Viren who had apparently stolen the egg of The Dragon Prince. It would not be a great stretch to believe he had something to do with this. Some naive part of himself had always wanted to protect Rayla from the horrors of dark magic. Runaan had seen terrible things. Nasty things.

Things that should not have been, but humans had found dark magic and, with it, the most unnatural things anybody would ever witness because of it. Dark magic was… invasive. Pervasive. He had once felt it’s tendrils on him in a fight. Thankfully, that match ended with him the victor.

And throwing up in a river.

But that had been years ago. He was more ready now. He questioned if he prepared Rayla enough…

The whole thing sent a shudder through him that he was glad she wasn’t awake to see.

For now, he squeezed her hand again and didn’t mind it when she didn’t squeeze back. He felt a finger twitch into his palm.

-:-:-:-

When Runaan returned to the campfire, he sat down next to Andromeda. She watched him sit as his shoulders sagged just a little. Only a little while none of the others were around to see.

“How does she look?” Andromeda asked. Perhaps it wasn’t the brightest question about someone who had been on death’s door, but it was an honest one.

“Tired,” Runaan whispered. “But she’s not in as much pain.”

“Is she sleeping?”

“With some peace.”

Andromeda kept her voice low. “Good. You always knew she was going to make it.”

Runaan frowned. “Did I? When I was in there I had never seen her so close to death. We’re taught to accept death so that we will not fear it, but what about someone else’s?”

Andromeda had no direct answer for that. It was little secret that Rayla had raised Rayla in place of her parents. But in Andromeda’s case, she had never seen Runaan favor someone so much in his heart. There were few who he let that close to him. “I know it’s different to watch her go through these things. Don’t be afraid. You know who you raised.”

Runaan pauses. “I think she was ready. I think, if death had come for her today, she was ready.” Andromeda nearly reached out for him. “But I wasn’t ready for how cold her death would feel like.”

It’s different for certain people. We don’t fear death--”

“But there’s a rule for every exception? Is that what you were going to say?” He raised a brow and glanced at her sideways. He snorted when she smiled faintly at him. “Perhaps you have a point.”

“Perhaps. I have those every now and again,” she agreed. “You should rest. We need you sharp for tomorrow.”

Runaan shook his head. “Not right now. You go. Sleep will do me more harm than good, I suspect.”

She didn’t bother asking him what he meant. They all had their fair share of terrors after a mission gone wrong. She squeezed his shoulder as she got up and retreated to her tent, but not before glancing over at the sleeping princes and peaking in on a Rayla that was dead to the world. But the wounds that were visible seemed much better, healing over with new, pink skin. Andromeda would help her into extra clothes in the morning.

Chapter Text

Ezran woke the next morning and didn’t know if he should actually get up or not. He wanted to believe last night had all been a dream, but…

He was lying on grass somewhere in the woods.

He missed his bed. He missed his home.

He missed his dad.

None of this was fair. He couldn’t understand why Lord Viren would have-- Yes, Lord Viren had never exactly been the closest to Callum or to Ezran for that matter, but Ezran had trusted him. Maybe Callum hadn’t… but Ezran had. He was friends with Claudia and Soren.

When Callum had come to him in a hurry, telling him to get Bait, gather anything he could carry, he hadn’t understand that, either. Then, Callum had told him about what had happened to their father by Lord Viren’s hand.

The elves didn’t scare him as much as Lord Viren did. In fact, the elves didn’t really scare him at all. At least they were more honest than his father’s friend had ever been.

-:-:-:-

Runaan’s finger trace a path on the map. “We go northeast a short distance, then we head west through the Horn of Dahlia.”

“The Horn of Dahlia?” Skor raised his brows. “But the passage we came through worked out fine.”

“But it’s crawling with humans,” Callisto said. “And we might all be without a hand.”

There was a silence as Runaan nodded. “Precisely. We need to plan for that. The Horn of Dahlia is largely deserted by elves and humans alike. It won’t be guarded the way the rest of the breach is.”

Andromeda surveyed the map as she said, “Yes, but it’s also home to creatures that are said to eat anything that moves. I assume that would be why it’s deserted.”

They all looked at Ram.

Ram made a noise. “Well, it’s not exactly the most habitable place in the world, either. There’s little food or water around for miles. There are rumors of great beasts living there, but whatever does live there can’t need the traditional means of life.”

“And what is your opinion?” Runaan asked.

“Well, Dahlia was an elf connected to earth magic. She was also considered relatively insane by the time she died after getting caught in a war between humans and elves. And she picked up a few pieces of forbidden magic along the way.” Ram explained. “They say she died cursing the land they now called the Horn so that no life would grow there, but she also left some nasty things behind as well. Nobody really knows what. Mostly because nobody ever climbs the Horn and comes back.”

“That didn’t make me feel better,” Skor grunted.

Ram shrugged.

“Runaan, are you sure about this route?” Andromeda asked. “The costs may outweigh the benefits.”

“It’s either the humans or the Horn. By the time we reach the Breach, the humans will already be aware of us and on the lookout when we try to slip back into Xadia. Then, there are the forces that may be on our trail to consider,” said Runaan. “I am aware of our problem, but the safest route is the best route.”

“We have no guarantee that the Horn is the safer route.”

“But we are guaranteed death if the humans overwhelm us from all sides,” Runaan said. “The Horn of Dahlia is our best option. We don’t actually have to climb it. We may be able to skirt around it, but if we all end up with half our hands then avoiding humans in the tail end of this journey will be imperative.”

“Humans have mages.” Callisto looked at Andromeda. “And humans have already decided if we should die. An animal might get distracted. The chances are obscure, but more flexible.”

Though reluctant, Andromeda nodded her understanding. Runaan understood her misgivings. He had some of them himself, after all. The idea of going up a mountain pass that nobody came down from was… uninviting. Still, they had a job to do. As it was, he wasn’t entirely sure if they were going directly up the mountain. The area in and of itself was all they needed. Just to get away or discourage any humans from getting too close to them once they were nearly at Xadia’s border.

They all went back to their tasks. This time, Ram and Skor were the ones who got to rest, Andromeda and Callisto on scouting and watch. Runaan checked on Rayla.

She hadn’t woken up since yesterday, but he wasn’t about to try and wake her. Rest. That’s what Callisto had said. Rest. He’d give her all the rest if he could, but…

He could only hope that that the day and night would suffice. They didn’t have more time to give her. Runaan was already on pins and needles with the humans in such close proximity and working knowledge of the king’s death. Moreover, they blamed Rayla for it. Not to say that the deed wouldn’t have been a desired outcome, but this had become… complicated.

Callisto had mentioned it to him earlier that day.

“The king is dead and we are involved in a way that we didn’t anticipate.”

Runaan opened his eyes from his place meditating. “No, but our stakes are greater now. This is no longer only about justice.”

And it wasn’t. The king was dead. And his sons were now their charges. The circumstances had changed considerably, but… the outcome was neither worse nor better. Prince Ezran as what was essentially a political hostage was a condition that could very well serve Xadia and the greater of the continent’s future. It also didn’t escape Runaan’s attention and secret relief that he no longer felt the need to actually kill the child. The situation had been complex. Honor bound. Yes, that it had been.

That did not mean the idea of killing a boy was an idea he or any of his comrades found easy to wrap their minds and wills around. Do it, they would. Live with it, they also would have. How well was another story.

One he hoped they no longer had to consider.

-:-:-:-

Callum was approached by Runaan. Immediately, Callum stood. Being in front of this particular elf was… an intense experience. Perhaps it was because this was the most time he had ever spent with elves. In fact, this was his first meeting with them, but even he didn’t need to be told that Runaan was serious business.

“Who knows you’re gone?” Runaan asked.

“I don’t know.” Callum hadn’t taken inventory of who might have noticed him gone, exactly. “But Lord Viren knows for sure. He has to know the egg is gone by now.”

“And this Lord Viren… tell me about him.” Naturally, that was important knowledge.

“Lord Viren has a lot of connections. He’s incredibly powerful in dark magic. He can do… anything. But he’s not stupid. And he knows that I know he killed my stepdad. We need to get as far away from him as possible. If he catches any of us, we’re dead.”

“Have you ever witnessed his dark magic directly?”

Lord Viren’s magic business was generally a… secret endeavor of his. Now that he thought about it, Callum noticed how little Lord Viren actually did in showing off his dark magic. Callum had seen Claudia do it plenty of times. Only for small things though like making pancakes. “Not often. Sometimes, but nothing remarkable. That part I think he keeps a kind of secretive. But he does have his staff that he uses for a lot of his magic. At least, it always seemed important to him.”

That much was true. Lord Viren was never seen without his staff. Partially because of a weak leg, perhaps, but mostly because it was precious to him. At least, to Callum that had always seemed to be the case.

Thinking about it now, Callum wished he had taken Lord Viren’s staff. He looked up at Runaan. “Um… how is she?”

Runaan seemed as if he was thinking about whether or not to answer. “Resting. Your… medicine helped her. After Callisto comes back from his watch he would like to take a look at it.”

“Yeah, of course. He’s welcome to it.”

And that was that. The conversation ended with a very short nod from Runaan and Callum let his shoulders sag slightly. That was more unnerving than it had to be.

“Callum, is everything okay?”

Callum turned to his little brother with a smile. “Yeah, everything’s alright. He just wanted to ask me a couple questions is all. What about you? Are you…” He didn’t want to sugar coat their position. “You doing alright, Ez?”

Ezran shrugged. Bait turned blue.

Callum strode over and pulled his brother into a hug. Neither of them had paused to deal with the fact that their father was gone. He would never hear his stepdad make terrible jokes again. He would never hear the man’s booming voice command a room or turn into the most gentle of tones that he saved only for his family.

They would never embrace as father and son again.

He had never even got to call him “Dad’ to his face and see him maybe smile at that. Ezran had mentioned that it would probably make him feel good. Now he had no more chances for that maybe smile.

Now, both of their parents were gone.

And the word suddenly felt so big. Too wide.

His face even felt too dry. But did he have the courage for tears? He didn’t think he did and his body just… couldn’t. Shock? Perhaps.

But his life had jolted and he hadn’t been prepared for the emptiness that laid in its wake.

Now, all he could do was hold Ezran as his little brother struggled with whatever was in his own heart as well.

-:-:-:-

“Father, I don’t understand. The moon moth failed.”

“No, the moon moth did not fail. Moonshadow elves are deceitful by nature. Moon moths never fail. It was only you who failed to see them. They were probably staring right at you, Soren.”

Viren stamped his staff. He addressed his daughter. “Claudia, do you still have a piece of the elven girl?”

Claudia showed him the rag with the elven girl’s blood on it. She had bled in the catacombs after they had sent the shadow smoke dogs after her. “Don’t worry, father. Callum and Ezran will be safe from that murderer. They’re going to pay for what they did to the king.”

Viren looked over them both and nodded. “Soren, take your men. Claudia, find her. Do what you both must. Bring back the egg. Bring back the princes. And, remember, who knows what those elven assassins may have said to bamboozle the boys. Trust nothing they say. Do you both understand?”

Soren and Claudia nodded in unison.

“Good. Now, go. Every moment counts if we’re to get the boys back safe and sound. Make sure you bring them to me as soon as they’re found. I need to make sure they haven’t been put under dangerous elven magic.”

They began to leave with haste, but Viren tapped his staff with a finger on a last thought. “...Soren?”

Soren turned. He blinked. “What’s wrong, father?”

“Don’t let your men kill the one who took the egg if they can help it. Bring her to me. Young Moonshadow elves are hard to come by.”

His son frowned slightly. “Uh… is this a magic thing?’

“Yes.” Viren observed the stone in his staff, pretending to dust it off. “It’s a magic thing.”

-:-:-:-

“What is it, Ram?”

Ram hadn’t even had a chance to sit down when Runaan opened his eyes. Normally, he left it to Callisto and Skor to raise their concerns to Runaan, but something itched at Ram and he wasn’t one to let a itch go unscratched if he had the time for it.

“This prince. Do you trust him?”

Runaan raised a brow at him.

Ram chose a better set of words. “Okay, I know you don’t trust him, but what do you think of him?”

Runaan and Ram glanced over their shoulders at the fair-skinned prince too busy looking in his book to pay attention to either of them. “I’ve yet to serve judgement, but he is desperate. That much is obvious.”

“I think he is, too.”

Runaan observed Ram with a look. Between the two of them, Ram never really had to overly explain himself to Runaan. It was nice. Runaan always took him seriously and that was that. His interest in all things flora and fauna, human or Xadian, had apparently caught his eye a long time ago. The rest was history.

Runaan nodded at Ram and Ram went on. “Animals that are desperate can be unpredictable. The only thing predictable thing about them is that they’ll do anything to survive when cornered.”

Runaan glanced at the prince again out of the corner of his eye. “Do you believe he is bound to be a liability?”

After all, it was Prince Ezran they needed.

“Only time will tell,” Ram replied. “Even elves can be like that. Especially at that age. But I also think he can be valuable.”

“For what he knows.”

Ram nodded. “He can guide us through these human kingdoms in a way only a human prince could, perhaps. Again, time will tell. If he feels safe then it may lessen his risk as a liability. Not to mention, without him, Prince Ezran may cooperate with us less. Not something we’re looking to deal with.”

-:-:-:-

Ram had a point.

It would serve them all well to not conflict too much with the elder prince. Child or not, he could sell them down the river once he was far enough from the capitol, but he could also prove valuable if a personal alliance could be had.

Callisto and Andromeda leapt back into camp --

And he could tell something was wrong just by the looks in their eyes, but they couldn’t get it out before arrows began flying. Runaan dodged as the others got behind something. Then, there as the earth rumble. Horses.

He heard the thundering of hooves and horses sounding off in the distance, becoming closer, closer at a speed and, from the sounds of it, a number he knew he wasn’t going to be able to outhink for a quick plan.

He no longer had the use of mystica arbora at his disposal. He had nothing.

He cursed. They must have circled back to the spot the moon moth had led them too. There hadn’t even been enough time for their team to change locations before --

He ran out of whatever time they had. Skor, Andromeda, Ram and Callisto all already had their weapons ready alongside him as a considerable Katolis force swept in and surrounded them, herding them and circling their camp. Out of the corner of his eye, Runaan could see Prince Callum standing nervously to the side, ready to leap any which direction he had to.

Capture by these soldiers most likely meant death for him and his brother.

At the helm of these men was the young captain that had unknowingly found them before. He drew his sword. “Surrender yourselves. You are hereby arrested and judged for the murder of King Harrow and the kidnapping of Prince Callum and Prince Ezran. Put down your weapons.”

Runaan did no such thing and neither did anyone on his team. “We did not kill your king,” he said coldly.

The girl riding next to the young captain was starkly dressed in all black and gold, “You expect us to believe that our king was murdered and the elven assassins still here in our forests aren’t the ones who did it?”

“Your king is dead on account of one of your own,” said Andromeda, raising her blade. “If we had killed him then we would not be here.”

“It’s true, Claudia.”

Prince Callum stepped forward, revealing himself to the Katolis soldiers.

Claudia extended her hand. “Callum, come over here. We’ll protect you from the elves.”

Callum stood his ground. “That’s not the protection I need right now. Soren, Claudia, it was your father who killed the king.”

The captain whose name was Soren narrowed his eyes. “What did these elves tell you to make you think that?”

“Nothing! I saw your father kill mine! He did it with dark magic! He--”

“They’re lying, Callum.” Claudia said still reaching out for him. “Moonshadow elves are horrible, terrible bloodthirsty manipulators--”

“Can I just throw a knife at her?” Ram grumbled.

“--and whatever they told you is a lie.”

“Then why did your father have the egg? Why was it in his office?” Callum demanded.

“He took it to protect us, Callum. That way the elves and the dragons couldn’t use it against us. I don’t know what they told you, but you don’t understand what kind of powerful weapon it is.”

There was a long pause.

A what?” That was Skor on the other side of the clearing. For once, Runaan was glad he said something. “I can’t even make my focking breakfast out of this thing! What kind of weapon are we supposed to be making out of it?"

Soren pointed his sword at Skor. “We’re not buying the act. You know it’s a powerful doomsday weapon you can use against humans.”

Even Callisto paused, blinking, echoing Runaan’s thoughts. “...the egg?”

Skor actually took a look around at everyone present to see if any of these humans actually believed such nonsense. He waved an irate hand at Soren and Claudia. “Well, then you all must be focking geniuses since you’ve discovered a way to make a weapon of war out of an egg.”

“Soren, it’s not a weapon. It’s an egg. There’s nothing mysterious about it and it should go back home. That’s what started all of this,” Callum plead with them. “Can’t you see that?”

As they talked, Runaan calculated their chances. They weren’t good. These were a lot of soldiers and there was only six of them. Five since Rayla was in no shape to be in an all out battle. Not to mention, they had to protect the princes and the egg--

The egg.

Runaan tried to look at his tent where it was hidden for the time being. Doubtless, they would search the camp up and down and find it. They had to leave.

But how?

They were surrounded. Not a gap, not a way out unless they fought their way out and he just couldn’t see that happening with their circumstances.

“This is getting us nowhere.” Soren swung his sword in a command. “Take them out. Find the egg. Callum, come here.”

Runaan split his bow into swords and readied himself for a fight to the death. The image of Rayla in that tent burned in his skull. The egg and the promise it represented. If death came for him today, he was already dead. He could accept this, but he would not accept it without trying to get at least one or two survivors out of this. For The Dragon Prince. To give Rayla a fighting chance.

“Your father will kill us both!”

Callum.”

“Uh…” Claudia cut in. “Where is Ez?”

-:-:-:-

Callum’s head was spinning. Ez. Ezran.

Where was Ezran?

Where was he, where was he, where was he--

Not now, not now. He couldn't be gone. DId someone come and take him? Did he run off? Callum was willing to bet that he ran off when he heard the noise, but Ezran had never been one to run away like that. Then again, he also had never encountered assassins and soldiers about to have an all out battle.

Callum surveyed the situation. If they fought, he had a confidence that Runaan would go for Soren and Claudia first. Claudia for sure since she could do dark magic. That much was obvious with the glowing whatever it was in her hand. It looked like a stained rag.

A stone sunk into his belly. Soren and Claudia were still his friends. At least, as it stood right now. He didn’t want to see them hurt or dead. Knowing Soren he was just following his father’s order. Callum thought of Claudia dead and something panicked inside his brain. Not Claudia, he prayed.

That being said, he was already well into panic territory.

Where was Ezran?

Was he hiding in the tents? He could be hiding.

“Ez? Ezran where are you?” Callum, not giving a damn who was there, sifted through the tents in a flurry. He got to Rayla’s tent. “Ezra--”

And stopped.

The tent was empty.

He could feel Runaan’s eyes on him. Did he know that Rayla wasn’t in there? Callum dared not look at any of the elves. He barely could look at Soren and Claudia. Ezran and Rayla were missing. That was going to be suspicious, but he wasn’t sure. And the egg, the egg wasn’t in Runaan’s tent like he had seen.

The egg, Ezran and Rayla were all missing.

He wasn’t sure if this was good or not.

“What is it? Who’’s in there?” Soren demanded. When Callum didn’t respond, Soren gave an order to one of his men. “Go over there and check it out-- Don’t you even think about moving elf. You move, we shoot.”

The guard who pulled Callum out of the way poked his head into Rayla’s tent. He went inside. A moment later, he emerged with Rayla’s bloody set of clothes. “There’s no one in there. But there was.”

Soren and Claudia exchanged looks. Claudia raised the rag even higher as if she were searching for something. Callum didn’t like that.

Any moment now, they were going to order the elves dead and it was going to turn into a bloodbath. The elves weren’t just going to lie down and die, that much Callum didn’t need to wonder. But that meant his chances of getting out of Katolis and away from Viren might evaporate if the elves lost and looking at these odds...

He had to think, had to think, had to think.

His mind was on fire trying to come up with something.

Then, he turned to the elves, Runaan specifically. “What did you do to my younger brother? Where is he? What’d you bloodthirsty monsters do with him?”

Stars, he hoped this would work.

Runaan snarled at him, but said nothing. Callisto’s face was unreadable, but he could see Skor cocking a hatchet in his hand. Okay, he had to be quick about this.

“Claudia, you were right,” Callum carefully made his way over to her despite the elf with the dark skin and short hair -- Ram, Callum roughly remembering his name -- following his every movement like a hawk. “They must have done something with Ezran and the egg. We have to find them before something happens to him.”

He could hear Skor mutter something vicious about trusting humans.

Whatever the case, Soren took one look at him and it was clear that Callum had won out. “We will. Don’t worry Callum. Let’s just take care of them and we’ll find Ezran and that murderer. Take them out.”

Callum grabbed him by the sword. “No!” When Soren frowned at him in confusion, Callum stammered. “W-we don’t know where Ezran is. Shouldn’t we find him first?’

Claudia looked at her brother. “He’s right, Soren. We might need leverage. Especially if we can’t bring the youngest elf back for father.”

Soren weighed the input. He glared at the elves and Callum looked back at them, too. At Runaan who looked ready to slit someone’s throat right then, right there. “None of us are going with you. We’ll die first.”

“That can be arranged,” Soren told him. He waved a hand and the elves, ready to move, nearly leapt for the soldiers. “But later.”

Ymene ym mlehwrevo.”

Claudia recited a bone chilling enchantment and blew some kind of dust from her hand. The dust clouded the area the elves stood at and turned black. Callum backed up from it. He could hear them hacking and fighting to get out, but the dust just followed them like a snake as they tried to escape.

The soldiers threw lassoed ropes into the fray, dragging an elf to the ground every few throws until finally Runaan hit the ground, murder in his bloodshot eyes. Whatever the dust was prevented them from breathing and seeing.

Callum prayed this idea of his went in his favor.

-:-:-:-

The hour passed and the elves were each tied to an individual tree. They were questioned and pressed for information they effectively didn’t have. Not that they were going to say anything anyway. He had a feeling they would rather die first in any case.

In that time, Callum still stirred in worry over Ezran. Several times, he tried to get Soren and Claudia to let him go find Ezran on his on, but they always told him to wait. If they could get information from the elves then they would find him quickly and this could all be over.

It soon became evident that the elves would not be helping. Callum himself tried not to look at them. They all looked at him with distasteful curiosity or outright murder.

“This needs to end,” Soren finally said. “Men, spread out and search the forest. The prince must be around here somewhere. You four. You stay here and guard the elves. Callum, come on.”

Callum froze. “Uh…”

Soren frowned. “Uh, what? Weren’t you just bugging us to go find him?”

“Well, yeah, but…” Callum hunched his shoulders. “I was just thinking. You know, I should stay here. In case he comes back.”

Claudia shrugged. “That makes sense. Soren and I will look around the forest. Will you be alright here?”

“Me? Of course,” Callum mock-scoffed. “I’ve got guards with me. I’ll be fine.”

Claudia smiled a little and he might have relaxed as she mounted her horse if Soren had done the same. He did not. Soren stared at Callum, seeming to debate whether or not to mount as well. Soren was… many things. Not always the brightest maybe, but he was a crownguard at his age for a reason. He wasn’t completely without a sense of suspicion.

Soren walked right up to him and began sifting through his pockets and his clothes. Finally, he yanked a knife out of the sleeve Callum had hidden it in. Callum grimaced.

“You lied,” Soren said, both disappointed and angry. “You were going to free the elves when we were gone! We’re trying to help you, Callum!”

Callum yanked his arm out of Soren’s grip, not looking at Claudia. He didn’t want to see the disappointment on her face, too. “By what? Taking me to your father? He’ll have us both killed. I keep telling you! And I’m not letting you do that.”

“Callum…” There was Claudia’s disappointment. “Our father is only trying to help you. These people, these elves murdered your father. The king. How could you side with them?”

“Because they’ve already got him in their hands. He’s their puppet now,” Soren took a step back from Callum and nodded to two of his men. “Tie him up. We can’t have him running around while we look for Prince Ezran.”

“No! Let me find him! Leave him alone!” Callum kicked as the guards dragged him to a tree. “You’ll scare him! You can’t take us back! Please, listen to me! Your father killed mine and he wants to do the same to us! Soren! Claudia! Please, you guys have to believe me!”

Claudia put a hand to her mouth as they tied him up. Soren’s brows twitched together. His words to Callum were regrettable. “I’m sorry, Step-Prince.”

-:-:-:-

Night fell.

Rayla stayed out of sight till then. Nothing could be done until the full moon.

Stars above, she couldn’t fight a squirrel let alone four fully armed soldiers of Katolis the way she was now. It just wasn’t going to happen with her alive in the end. When the commotion started, she didn’t know what was going on. Not immediately. Then, Skor was shouting about the egg and she knew she had to get out of there. With the egg. With the young prince.

The young prince had been somewhere near one of the other tents, mercifully out of sight. It was easy to grab him and get out of camp. She just hoped he would stay in the tree she put him in. Under no circumstance, she instructed him, should he move unless one of them came for him. Otherise, the people looking for him were going to drag him back to Katolis. She didn’t know the exact conditions of whatever reason they were now travelling with them -- she’d been in and out of consciousness at that point -- but she knew enough that they didn’t want to go back to Katolis. Putting two and two together, she had a fairly solid idea why.

Not only would they be dragged back to the castle, but so would the egg and that could not happen. They were too close to getting out of here and going home to Xadia. The Dragon Prince could be with it’s mother and maybe a crisis could be averted. Although, she wouldn’t put it past the humans to muck it up somehow.

Especially with their dark magic.

Rayla shook her head. Focus.

She could see the guards standing close to the bushes. Clouds still covered a moon that wasn’t quite risen enough for her powers to reach their height yet. Just a little while longer.

Another hour passed. It was only luck at this point that the rest of the forces hadn’t come back to the site. She could see Runaan tied up in the middle. That human captain had kicked him when he wouldn’t talk. A leader to leader exchange of some kind. Now, she wanted to do more than kick that human back.

She had to move. Full form or not, she had to go. This was taking too long.

As if someone had heard her problems, the clouds began to part and the moon, finally reaching its zenith, was there in all it’s luminous glory and she could feel it. She felt one with the light of the moon and her skin became like the night itself. Dark and clear all at once. This form took over her and she just moved like the wind.

It wasn’t easy. Powers or no powers, her body was still screaming for rest. Every few feet was an effort. But she had to keep going with this momentum. She could rest later. If she didn’t do this then there was no later.

The first guard to go was the one who just wasn’t paying attention. He was bored. Annoyed. He didn’t want to be there and it showed. He got too close to the shadows of the trees and she snatched him first.

Don’t think, don’t think, don’t think, she told herself. If she thought about him then she would hesitate. This was not the moment to hesitate.

She couldn’t let everyone down again.

She couldn’t let Runaan down. Not again.

She brought her blade across his throat before he could even begin fighting her. For a few brief moments, he struggled, but quickly fell to death’s spell. Rayla dragged her eyes away from him before a gaze too long cost her her life.

The deed was done.

Move on.

And, so she did. She made herself. She was an assassin. An assassin. And an assasin had to be efficient. She was doing this for a reason. Runaan’s voice about having a job to do rang in her ears. This was her job and a job had to be done when called upon. Even if it’d been a bloody day, indeed. Her first one, really. Maybe that’s why it felt heavy on her, still.

The second guard entered the shadows and never came out. Rayla made sure to drag their bodies, slowly, but surely into the bushes where the other two wouldn’t trip on their feet.

Next one.

She had to be quick with the third guard. That one had realized that the other two were no longer at their posts. He came too close and she dragged him to his death as well.

One more. Just one more and she could free her team. Even that damn prince that had tried to pull a fast one on them. She was ready for the last guard, but he had heard the commotion and refused to come into the shadow.

Rayla could see the others in their full forms. Not that it was going to help them much tied up. The guard moved into the light, sword drawn and surveying the space carefully. He looked right at her a couple times. “I know you’re there. Show yourself!”

Okay, this one was big. Pulling him into the bushes would be difficult even if he did manage to bring himself over to her location. But she couldn’t fight him. Not like this. Her body was already trembling from the three she had managed to take down.

She only had so much time. Not just from the soldiers who would eventually come back, but because her own body wasn’t going to hold up at this rate itself. There was only one option: jump him. Jump him when he was a tad less ready.

Rayla waited. She dared not move. Just another minute or two so he would get out of the clearing. In the meantime, she positioned himself, stalking him like prey at his every move. Eventually, she was behind him.

He was investigating the bush shadows directly across from her. She didn’t look at Runaan. She didn’t look at Andromeda or Callisto or Skor or Ram. She didn’t look at the prince. Even though she could feel their eyes on her, she dared not to even flick her eyes in their direction. Her shot was now. Blades out, ready to pounce once she was close enough, she stalked across the moonlit clearing.

The guard wasn’t paying attention.

Just a little closer.

Just a little closer--

He twirled and swung at her. Rayla barely dodged his sword and her body screamed, legs trembling as she leapt out of the way. The guard brought his sword down and she scrambled out of the way again.

“There you are, elf,” the guard growled and charged at her.

She couldn’t fight him. She couldn’t go toe to toe with him like she could so easily on any other night, but tonight. If their swords met, his strength would break hers in a second. He swung, she dodged, he swung again, she rolled out of the way. If she dared to swing at him that might be it.

Her lungs burned. Her body cried out for release from this madness Rayla was inflicting on herself. The places where she had been ripped open, new skin over it healing better than she ever thought they would, still roared with the pain of being treated so roughly. Not to mention, her strength just wasn’t there.

To even walk felt like a chore at this point.

She forced strength to be there where it just refused to be. That fight alone was draining.

Her mind wandered for a second too long.

The guard raised a heavy leg faster than she had anticipated and landed a kick right in her chest. Rayla went flying, her back slamming into a rock. The wind left her like a storm. She saw stars. Across the clearing, the others were looking at her, saying something she couldn’t hear. Runaan was looking at her, willing her with his eyes just to get up.

Breathe .

She looked at him and forced air into her lungs. Loudly, laboriously, she gasped, a searing pain spreading across her ribs with every rise and fall of her chest. Behind her enemy, the prince was kicking at something with his foot. Kicking. Kicking. Looking at her.

To her left. She felt through the grass at her left. String. A tight string.

Runaan’s bow. And his arrows just a skip away.

Rayla dragged herself upright against the rock, bringing Runaan’s bow and an arrow to her side as discreetly as she could. In this shadow, the green of the grass, she prayed the guard wouldn’t quite see them. She glowered at him. If he could just get closer… she didn’t have the strength from this distance. But closer...

“This is over.” The guard approached her. Closer. He raised his sword. Closer. “He wanted you alive, but I’ll explain your corpse to Lord Viren. Sure he’ll find a use for it.”

There.

Years of practice kicked in and Rayla nocked the arrow faster than the guard could move in that armor. She loosed.

The arrow went through his neck. He clawed at it, trying to save himself from what was certain and fell back, spitting blood onto the grass until he stilled.

Chest still burning, Rayla loosed a breath. “Now, it’s over.”

Or, not yet. She couldn’t stop. Even if the world was going sideways as she got up and stumbled toward Runaan. She put one of her swords back and used the other to slice through the ropes holding him hostage.

Runaan caught her before she fell. In one swift motion, he took her sword and cut Callisto from his tree. Callisto did the rest as Runaan kept Rayla on her feet.

-:-:-:-

Runaan wasn’t about to let Rayla go even as everyone was finally untied. Everyone except the prince.

She had finally done it. He knew she was able to, but… no matter what happened in that castle, he had witnessed her put an end to her enemy. She had done enough for today.

“Runaan, the egg… the other prince…” It was a struggle for her to speak, even. “I hid them in a tree not too far from here…”

“Stay awake for a little longer. Show us,” he said. He would have put her over his shoulder if it hadn’t been for that kick to her chest. Doubtless a rib or two was broken. Cracked, at least. He lowered his voice for her. “You won’t fall. I have you.”

Rayla’s lip twitched, but then she looked at Prince Callum who was still tied up. “...what about him…?” She sounded as unpleasant about discussing him as Runaan felt about the situation.

Runaan considered the prince who knew better than to plead with his mouth. His eyes, on the other hand, were a different story.

“Runaan.”

Runaan looked at Ram. It was an unreadable face.

Runaan looked at the elder prince. He nodded to Ram. “Hurry and untie him. We are leaving.”

Chapter Text

When they finally stopped running, the moon was already going down. Light hadn’t quite started peeking over the horizon, not that Callum could see above the trees.

The elves moved faster than he was accustomed to, but he kept up and made sure Ezran kept up, too. They were just too close to being at least a bit out of the figurative woods and Soren and Claudia had horses. Shaking them off was important.

So, he was at least a little relieved when he turned and saw the castle in the distance. Just a little relieved.

“We stop here for the night.” Runaan said, handing Rayla off to Callisto. “In the morning, we move. All of you rest. I will act as watch.”

But Rayla shrugged herself off of Callisto’s shoulders. She drew a blade.

And placed it’s point directly at Callum’s throat.

Callum froze. “H-hey, wait a minute. I can explain.”

“Then, start explaining.” Rayla said in a voice that might have sounded more menacing if she also didn’t seem to have a hard time breathing. “What was that? You called us bloodthirsty monsters. You almost got us all killed. Or was that a part of your little plan?”

“What? No!” Callum shook his head and, seeing the stony faces of the rest of their team, he put his hands up. “I only said those things because I was trying to keep them from killing you guys! Listen, I know I had a funny way of showing it--”

Rayla scoffed. “Oh, it was absolutely hilarious.”

“It’s true! I was just trying to get us all out of there. Please believe me.” He tried to take a step around her sword.

She readjusted it back to the apex of his neck. “Why? You humans lie all the time and you just proved it. Why should we believe anything you’ve got to say?”

“Because how would I benefit if you died? How? I swear.” When she didn’t drop her sword, despite the trembling in her hand, he actually leaned into the sword a bit. “If I wanted any of you dead then you wouldn’t be here.”

“What’s that supposed to me-” Rayla growled at him, but her body didn’t seem to like how much energy this confrontation was taking out of her. She sucked in a sharp breath, doubling over and clutching her side as swayed on her feet.

Callum put his arms down and almost reached out for her. “Hey, are you okay?”

Rayla sharply levelled that blade back up to his throat. Callum didn’t move, but still saw where she was holding herself at. From the way she was standing, she must have been in a lot of pain. Runaan steadied her with a hand over the one she had threatening Callum. She looked up at him. “But, Runaan.”

“He has a point.” Runaan looked at Callum, blue eyes boring into him. “And you need to go lie down. But rest assured it won’t happen again. I suggest you tread carefully, Prince.”

Callum nodded under Runaan’s stare. He meant it. Next time, he was probably going to think twice about saying something to upset the elves. At the very least, Runaan and Rayla.

-:-:-:-

Callisto helped Rayla to the under a tree. “Thanks.”

“I could say the same to you,” Callisto carefully began prodding at her ribs. Gently as possible. She hissed when he slid over the most painful places. “Here?”

Rayla nodded. She pointed to another spot. “And here.”

Callisto pressed slightly harder. She flinched. “Sorry. They do seem cracked. Or at least bruised. You’re going to have to take it easy for a little bit.”

She hated hearing that. Her mobility was always so free. Feeling it suppressed like this by her own body didn’t exactly feel great. She sighed. “I’m sorry. I’m going to slow everyone down.”

He pulled out a small jar of ointment and instructed for her to pick up her shirt where the pain was. Gently again, he spread only a little bit over her injuries. “We also wouldn’t be here without you.”

“We’re in this mess because of me.”

“Perhaps, but we all have made mistakes, Rayla. I have. And yes, even Runaan. It’s true that in our line of work mistakes can be horrendous and we should avoid them at all costs. But.” Callisto jerked his head at the egg sitting near Andromeda. “Sometimes they’re necessary. Now, you need rest. We only have a few hours before morning.”

Rayla nodded. As he left her, she let herself slip into a fitful sleep.

-:-:-:-

Callisto rubbed his eyes as he found in a tree to maybe sleep. Maybe. He doubted it. His nerves were still wired from their trek across the forest to escape the human soldiers. He kept his dual blades conjoined and across his lap. That alone would keep him awake.

“You really should put that away,” Ram climbed up into the branch next to him. “It’s not going to do you much good up here.”

Callisto glanced at him with an open eye. “I want to be ready if we’re attacked. You should be, too.”

“Well, if an arrow comes flying that’s not really going to help you.”

“Thank you, Ram.”

Ram shrugged. “So, do you think he means it? The prince, I mean.”

“He means not to die so I suppose the things he’s doing align to that point, but if we were the murderous elves their kind teach about us then he wouldn’t have to worry about running from the high mage anymore.”

Callisto glanced down at the prince underneath a different tree. He had to be about Rayla’s age. There was a book he kept strapped to his side. A reader or an artist. One of the two. Then, there was his younger brother, Prince Ezran. Callisto hadn’t gotten involved in the discussion about whether or not to kill the boy, but he favored Andromeda’s point. There was no need to kill him now that they had the egg and the king was dead. Not that Callisto fancied losing a hand, but that was the risk they took with the binding ritual.

The brothers didn’t initially resemble each other, but now Callisto could see it. Callum had green eyes and fair skin while Ezran had blue eyes and medium brown skin. Callisto suspected a blended family. Adoption, maybe. Later, it might be useful to ask. That would explain why Prince Ezran was the heir and not Prince Callum.

Ram adjusted himself on the branch. “He’s pretty young. Rayla’s age, probably. I think it’s a passable offense. Do you think Runaan will let it go?”

“That remains to be seen, but he seems to have let it go for now. Is he taking watch?”

“Mmhm.” Ram nodded. “You know, he hasn’t slept since yesterday.”

Callisto snorted. Of course. “Don’t ask him to either. You know how he is.”

“I know,” said Ram. “He usually only listens to you about that kind of thing. Maybe Andromeda.”

“I haven’t bothered. He’s too focused on the humans being so close to us. Makes him nervous. I can’t blame him.” Callisto shared the sentiment.

“And Rayla?”

“And Rayla.” Callisto glanced at him again, Ram’s face implying a question. “She’s fine. For now. She’s not dying right now, anyway. But she’s in bad shape. Can’t stand on her own and she can barely breathe right. There’s no way she’s moving any faster than we are now. This is already pushing past her limits. She needs real time to heal.”

“Have you told Runaan any of this?”

“Not in detail. Don’t need to. He knows her better than I do and I’m sure he sees it without me having to explain it.”

“You think so?”

Callisto tried not to sigh. He just wanted to sleep for the little bit of time he was permitted. “Ram.”

He heard Ram chuckle. “Rest, Callisto. I’ll keep those arrows from killing you in your sleep.”

-:-:-:-

Callum didn’t question it when the elves left him alone. Too wound up and too desperately in need of some sleep after that emotionally taxing night. He hadn’t thought his day would end with a sword at his throat.

Under a tree, Rayla looked uncomfortable even in her sleep. He watched her for a breath.

She opened her eyes.

Callum froze, her violet eyes glowered at him.

He got the message and turned away from her, facing Ezran who was hugging Bait in a sleep that he could tell wasn’t coming along great.

“Ez?” Callum laid down next to Ezran. “You asleep?”

“No…” Ezran rolled over. “Bait isn’t sleeping so well.”

Bait croaked quietly in agreement. Callum smiled a little and pet Bait on the head. “Well, I hope Bait is okay after everything that happened today… is he?”

Ezran took too long of a moment to nod. Callum’s heart dropped. His baby brother had been so withdrawn since yesterday. Normally, Ezran was so friendly and ready to talk to anyone even if he wasn’t always good at making friends. But after their father’s death…

He hated that this was probably unavoidable.

Ezran hadn’t even shed a tear. It was as if… as if his brother felt nothing but the overwhelming gloom of their lives being shattered. Nothing else, the light in his eyes so dim. Defeated.

Callum’s heart shriveled at the sight.

Later, they would talk. Later, they would cry over their father. They would have the time to grieve. They would. For now, they had to keep focus. At least, Callum did. He rested his head against the grass. It was time to sleep so they could run from the man who shredded their lives.

Callum didn’t even know if he should cry or break something.

-:-:-:-

You’ve gone far enough.”

The slithers of dark magic burned against her skin. She could see the egg. It was so close.

But it burned . She’d never felt magic that burned like this. It didn’t burn like the magic of the Sunfire elves. No, not like that. Not like that kind of fire that she might light up like a torch.

This kind of burning felt like it could incinerate her from the inside out.

Just as Rayla wanted to scream out from the horrible grip on her wrists tightening, pinning her to the stone wall, the room shifted and she was running down a stone hall with the egg between her hands.

The egg was slowing her down. It was heavier than she thought it would be, but she could make it.

She had to make it.

In the darkness of the hall behind her, she heard the mage’s voice.

Do you think you can just take the egg? Do you think you can escape me, elf? Run, but I will find you.”

Vicious growling and snarling snapped at her heels. Faster, faster.

Faster.

She was surrounded. These beasts couldn’t be cut through. They were just made of smoke from that unholy burning. There were only two of them, but she just couldn’t get around them. Not with this egg. The dogs leapt. She dodged to and fro. Her first instinct was to slice her way out, but it wouldn’t work here. Wherever she stepped, they were there to dance with her.

The darkness was enclosing on her. The world was enclosing in on her.

The beasts loomed and snapped--

The egg. They couldn’t have the egg.

They dogs leapt. She had no time.

She threw herself to the ground, the egg protected against her belly as the dogs tore into her.

Someone.

She was a Moonshadow elf. She wasn’t supposed to show fear.

Runaan.

Anyone--

Rayla bolted upright, gasping for air. Her eyes desperately adjusted to the dark. Her skin was cold, damp with sweat.

She was under a tree. Under the stars. Under the moon.

She looked up, Callisto and Ram were sleeping in a tree. Andromeda against a boulder not too far away. Skor on the other side of it. The princes were under another tree on the other side of the clearing.

She wasn’t under a castle. She was in the woods with other elves.

Rayla slacked against the bark at her back. She looked at the dark marks on her wrists. Perhaps she could ask Callisto if he could do anything about them when morning came and they were in a more secure location. Looking at them made her feel a little sick. Maybe Andromeda had her spare wrist bands somewhere.

With significant difficulty, she got up. If Callisto saw her, he would have killed her. Or, at least, he might have taken watch just to ensure that she didn’t move, but she couldn’t sit there after… whatever that was. It was a little unbearable. Frankly, more unbearable than her pitiful attempt to walk on her own. Eventually, she began using the trees for support. How long was she asleep? From the look of things, dawn would be upon them soon.

Where she was even going, she didn’t quite know, but she made sure to keep inventory of everyone’s energies. It wouldn’t do to stray too far away from the group.

She slipped and fell to her knees. This was pathetic.

Moon help her, she couldn’t even get up on her own without feeling as if her body was ready to splinter in on itself. Now, she quite frankly felt stuck here on the ground and she would have to call someone to come pick her up. Rayla nearly cried. What a mess everything was. And it was all because of her.

Just as that thought passed, she felt him before he jumped down in front of her. Looking up from where she involuntarily resting, Runaan seemed mildly perplexed by her position. Expecting to be given a stern talking to, she instead watched as he got down to her level.

“You should be asleep.”

“I couldn’t,” she told him, looking away.

He waited for her to say something more, then reached out to pick her up. “Come. Let’s get you back--”

Something inside Rayla seized her, urging her to take the moment. “Wait, Runaan I need to tell you something.”

“It can wait until morning.”

“No.” She said when he tried to help her again. He stopped. After a pause, he stayed on one knee kneeling down in front of her. Now that he was listening, she continued. “No, I… I need to apologize to you. You were right.” He said nothing, but his face softened just a touch. It spurred her on. “When I was in the castle, I was caught by their high mage after I found the egg. That’s why Iooked like a mess when you found me.”

“Their high mage?” Runaan frowned.

Rayla nodded.

“He… he used his dark magic to pin me to the wall and said he was going to dissect me. It was like I wasn’t even a living thing to him. And the magic, it felt wrong. Like nothing I’ve ever felt before.”

Runaan nodded slowly. He was still listening to her. “How did you escape?”

“One of his guards distracted him and I got away, but he sent these… these beasts made of dark magic smoke and I couldn't cut through them.” She hunched her shoulders. “I couldn’t get away.”

“And you still managed to get out of the castle?”

“Yes… I just… picked myself up and ran. I don’t even remember all of it. I was just cutting through guards until I got over the wall and dragged myself into the woods. I think I lost a lot of blood by then because I don’t remember most of it. But I do remember the guard that distracted their high mage… I cut his throat the way I was going to with that guard from earlier you told me to kill.” Rayla expected her eyes to sting, but they didn’t. Instead, it felt as if she were floating in some lost sea with no direction. She looked up at him. “Is… is it supposed to feel like this? Like I was wrong? I know I had to do it, but I did it because I didn’t know what else to do and they were going to kill me. They were going to take the egg and use it for their dark magic. I… I had to, right...?”

She hunched her shoulders again and squeezed her eyes shut when they began to sting. No tears. No crying. This was her job. She was supposed to take pride in this and--

There, in the dark, Runaan took her head in her hands and lifted her face to look at him. “Harden your heart to it, Rayla,” He said firmly, but not unkindly. His eyes reflected the soft whisper of his voice in that moment. “Not entirely. Just enough to keep moving. You should know something: I would be concerned if you were eager to do it.”

“Y-you would?”

“Rayla, what we do is not out of joy. We do it out of honor. Justice. We do it because we must. This job… it is very difficult. And your heart makes it even more so, but it will also help keep you on the right path. This is something we bear. Carefully. We bear it with honor, but it is something we bear nonetheless,” He wiped away the single tear she couldn’t stop from rolling down her cheek. “You did well today.”

Rayla hung a hand from his wrist and breathed a shaky sigh. “So, I’m-I’m not just… not strong enough for this?”

Runaan shook his head. “Not at all. It’s not easy to take your first life. Or any number of lives, human or not. And, yes, you made mistakes, but you redeemed yourself and you put your life on the line for the greater good. For Xadia. For the Dragon Prince. Rayla, the truth is that the things we do won’t always feel right. You will regret your actions. You will wish things had gone differently. Sometimes, you will think of your victims families. These transitions are difficult. Complicated. But remember, we’re not monarchs or mages or judges. We’re assassins. We are called to decide life and death. Nothing more.” He let go of her face and stood to scoop her up. She winced at the pain. “Now, you still defied my direct orders and we need to work on that, but… I believe you will be fine. You can do this.”

There was a considerable amount of relief in the way Runan looked at her during that exchange. Rayla was too embarrassed to tell him that it made her feel five again. In a good way. Five and exhausted and falling asleep in his arms after a long day of training to be the best. He would always give her a lesson in what it took to be a good assassin besides just her skills. Perhaps, they had paid off when it counted most. Just maybe. It still felt… complicated. What she had done. But there was clarity there. The waters were no longer quite as murky as they were before.

“Runaan?”

“Yes?”

Rayla lowered her voice as he carried her closer to where the others were still asleep. “Thanks.”

He smiled just a bit as the faintest pink light tickled the sky, his voice barely a whisper. “Always.”

Chapter Text

The next three days went by staggeringly slow. In the woods, light was just fine most of the time. Lush greens everywhere they looked and chirping birds with not a care in the world. The sounds of the river kept the silence somewhat comfortable despite their less than circumstances. It all would have been a particularly scenic route to take if they weren’t trying to escape certain death. The situation itself was nerve wracking to say the least. Most of all, Callum noticed, was that Rayla was definitely not getting better. He was no healer, but her ability to walk wasn’t improving. She just seemed tired all the time. Tired and grumpy.

They were all tired. He supposed that’s why he noticed so much.

Tired and hungry and in desperate need of sleep that wasn’t ruined by a deer stepping on a twig or something. Worst of all, they had no real food. Any actual thing to eat had been left behind at the camp when they made their escape. Callum’s first priority was Ezran and while Ezran wasn’t complaining, his temperment hadn’t improved and he doubt it was being helped by the sheer lack of anything to eat. Which wasn’t helping anyone in the sleep department while he thought about it.

A handful of berries a day wasn’t enough to feed eight people.

His thoughts were going around in circles. Food, sleep, food, sleep...

In the past few days he had figured out who was who though. Runaan was easy to remember. He was the tallest, the obvious leader and he had the longest hair Callum had ever seen on anyone. Andromeda was the only female elf on the team, dark skinned with calm green eyes and long hair -- though it still wasn’t as long as Runaan’s. Skor was the other male with long hair, half his head shaved and a braid tied back to the side of his head. It was also hard to mistake his colorful use of words.

Ram was the dark skinned male with red eyes. He seemed to take curious notice of Ezran quite a bit. Or maybe it was Bait. The other elves always asked him about anything that had to do with plants or animals.

Callisto was the elf with the earrings on one elongated ear and all of his head shaved except the hair on the top that swept past his forehead. He never seemed to be too nonplussed about anything. He also seemed to be Runaan’s right hand man. Elf. Elven male.

Each of their distinct tattoos made things a bit easier as well.

Then, there was Rayla. Rayla with her very distinctive triangle tattoos inked under her eyes to a point midway down her cheeks. She was the youngest of them. Taller than Callum by a scant inch and normally annoyed every time she came face to face with him. He could tell even without the facial expression. Those purple eyes got unusually focused when she wasn’t happy. Even if she wasn’t looking at the source of her disdain. There was something to the color around them that he couldn’t quite place. Then again, the only person she seemed to have a real problem with was with him.

If he got too close to her, she just intentionally did her best to ignore his presence. She listened to Runaan. She naturally got along with her comrades and even seemed to be perfectly fine with Ezran. That much he was grateful for, at least. The last thing he wanted was for anyone to be sour to Ezran right now.

Ezran seemed particularly fidgety as they began walking along the banks of a river, sticking to the cover of the trees for security. He smacked his lips.

Callum turned to look at him. “You okay, Ez?”

“Yeah,” Ezran looked at the river. “I’m just a little thirsty. Bait’s okay though. Bait can just drink from the river.”

Callum had no flask for either of them. Any water they had was just from creeks and watering holes they happened upon, but everything had been left at the elves’ camp. They had nothing to actually hold the water in. Not to mention, they couldn’t just be drinking from any kind of source. He didn’t know about elves, but humans definitely could get sick from that kind of thing.

“Here.” Andromeda unhooked a small clear flask from her belt, handing Ezran the red liquid. Callum opened his mouth to say something. They didn’t drink-- “It’s moonberry juice. Only a little, but it should be enough for now.”

She didn’t smile, but her voice was gentle. Callum closed his mouth as Ezran reluctantly took it. “Are you sure? What if you get thirsty?”

“Don’t worry. I’m older than you. I can manage a while longer.”

Ezran flashed her a small smile. “Thanks. We can share next time I find some juice.”

“I would like that.”

Callum closed his mouth as Ezran drank. So, it wasn’t blood. He looked ahead and caught Runaan looking back at them. Callum’s breath hitched. Elves couldn’t read minds, could they?

“Andromeda, was that your last flask?”

“It was my only flask,” she told him. “I left the rest back at the camp. We had no time to get everything.”

At that, Callisto let out a sigh and ran a hand through his hair. Callum had a feeling none of them had anything to drink either. It was a shame the river wasn’t really drinkable. How could they be so close to a source of water and, yet, so thirsty? Maybe, if they became truly desperate it would be useful.

“Callum.”

“Yeah, Ez? What is it?”

“Don’t we know this river?” Ezran stopped and cocked his head as he stared at the river, Bait croaking the same sentiment.

Callum frowned. They’d been to many places in Katolis. Naturally, they knew this--

Callum stopped. Wait. This river was close to…

“Ez, you’re right.” Callum stepped out from the trees and looked up and down the river. The speed of the river, these rocks, the curve. He remembered all of this. “You’re right. This is the river that goes past the Banther Lodge!”

“The what?” Ram raised a brow, helping Rayla walk with a shoulder.

“The Banther Lodge. It’s a place we vacation to every year. It’s our winter lodge.” He ignored the pang in his heart that reminded him of the past winter he spent with his family there. The last time. “It has supplies, shelter, a place to rest. It’s in the east. Xadia’s in the east. We have to stop there.”

Rayla narrowed her eyes. “What? Are you crazy? We don’t have time for that. We have to get this egg back to Xadia. Or did you forget?”

“If we even get to Xadia. Look at us, we’re all starving. We’re tired. We’re tired because we’re starving. And we can’t sleep. At this rate, if we run into any group of humans we won’t even have the energy to run.”

“Right. And I’m sure we won’t run into any humans at a human lodge,” Rayla drawled.

“No, listen. Rayla, it’s the winter lodge--”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot. Humans in the summer are less violent and less likely to kill us. They’ll be happy to have us.”

Callum’s jaw tightened. “No. That means it’s vacant in the summer. No winter. No humans around for miles. Besides, you got kicked in the ribs by a guy at least twice your size. You need to rest so you can get better.”

Rayla rolled her eyes. “Stop acting like you care if I live or die.”

Callum blinked.

Really?

What is your problem?” Callum snapped, taking a couple steps toward her. “Look, I know you don’t exactly know me and all. I even get that you don’t really trust me, but I saved your life. If it weren’t for me, you would be dead right now. I gave Callisto the medicine that helped you! I know you can’t stand me, but can you at least work with me for two seconds so maybe we can all try and get out of this alive? I’m not your enemy. I just want to get out of Katolis, get to Xadia and get away from the maniac that killed my father and wants to kill us. And, quite frankly, you’re slowing us down because you can’t even walk on your own. Can we do that?”

When he was done, Callum had come face to face with Rayla and they glared at each other before Runaan stepped in. “That’s enough. Both of you. This is not the time.”

Callisto sighed. He rubbed the bridge of his nose. “He has a point though.” They all looked at Callisto. “We have no supplies. Nothing to eat. And we’ve run out of anything to drink. If there are no humans at this Banther Lodge like the prince says then a hideout for a few days will do us more good then what we’re doing right now. And Rayla, he has the right of it. You’re hurt and you’re not getting any better because your body isn’t getting the chance to actually rest and heal. You need sleep and real food. We all do.”

“We are at a disadvantage right now. And I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t exhausted,” Skor said.

“Me too,” Andromeda agreed.

Ram only grunted. He’d been helping Rayla walk for the last few miles.

They all looked at Runaan. It was no secret that Runaan had slept the least out of all of them in the last three days. Callum had to admit: the guy was no joke. It barely seemed to bother him. “You’re sure it’s empty this time of year?” Runaan asked.

Callum nodded. “It has been since December. It should still have food and there are beds so Rayla can get a good night’s rest. All of us can. And we’re supposed to be going to Xadia, right? They won’t expect us to stop there.”

“The lodge is pretty isolated,” Ezran added. “There aren’t even any towns really close by.”

“Yeah, they built it like that,” Callum explained. “Since it was our lodge, they didn’t want just anybody to have access to it. It’s a safe place where we can get ourselves together.”

Naturally, the elves all looked to Runaan for the final answer. He was quiet for a while, weighing the matter in his head. That much, Callum could see. There were risks. It was possible that humans could come to the lodge, but he also knew that the risks of running into humans as they were now was just as important to consider.

“We will go to this lodge.”

“Runaan-” Rayla started.

“We’re not strong enough as we are,” Runaan told her firmly, but not unkindly. “We’re slow because we’re hungry, tired and you’re not able to walk on your own. You can’t go on like this all the way to Xadia.”

Rayla stared at him for a minute, distress transfixing her eyes, but she nodded and looked down. Skor pursed his lips. “A few days is a lot of time for us.”

“They aren’t negotiable. At this rate, if Katolis sends a force after us, the humans will gain on us with time to spare. We need to lay low until we’re strong enough to run without becoming a liability to ourselves.” Runaan looked at Callum. “Show us the way to this lodge.”

And that was that. Callum caught the way Rayla glared at him as he turned to show them the way. “It’s this way. Not too far from here.”

The Banther Lodge was a comfortable, sturdy cabin that resided in a private clearing, the river they’d been travelling along at it’s back. A bridge was built over the river, leading to a road that led into the woods. The lodge itself was made out of stone and wood, large tiled glass criss crossed by wooden poles.

The lodge was large enough for quite a few people to live in. It was quaint. Very comfortable and complete with a chimney for the coldest of nights. If Callum hadn’t been a prince, he and Ezran would have been happy just to reside there, sometimes. They always hated leaving when the time came. There had always been something inherently tranquil and peaceful about the place. Returning to palace life always was quite a bit busier than life at the lodge.

Insides, the stairs that led to the second floor were directly laid across from the main entrance, balancing the sturdy, wooden beams supporting the structure and centerpieced by the wooden moose head situated on top of the main entrance. A long dining table was set on the right and the chimney, resting area and bookshelves were on the left. Shields, sleds and skis decorated the walls. Callum nearly smiled. The skis and sleds had been their father’s touch. Two suits of armor stood at the top of the stairs at the foot of each second set of stairs lifting them to the upper floor.

“Here it is,” Callum said more to himself than anyone else, taking in everything as if it were the first time. He caught himself and turned to the elves. “Bedrooms are on the second floor, first room on the right is the closest.”

Callisto carried Rayla up the stairs as the elves took their turns looking around, then went down with Skor to look into the kitchen for food. Callum saw Skor pull out a probably stale, very hard loaf of bread. He spun it around like it was a weapon. He poked Callisto with it, who did not appreciate the gesture and smacked it away. The bread dropped to the ground with a considerable thud.

Skor picked it up, brows raised. “I could bludgeon a man to death with this.”

“Remember where it is then,” Callisto said dryly.

Ram looked over Skor’s shoulder. “Is that what humans call bread?’

Skor shrugged. “I guess. Doesn’t seem very appetizing.”

Callum made a face. “Well, bread is usually pretty soft. That one’s kind of old and stale which is why it’s so hard.”

“Can you use it as a weapon, then?” The three elves all looked at him.

“Uh…” Callum wasn’t completely sure how to answer that. “I… guess? If it’s hard enough.”

Skor spun the bread again. “Hm. Versatile. Food and a weapon.”

Callisto took the bread from Skor and looked it over. “Well, it’s going to have to be food right now. Ram, you think you can help find some ingredients to make a broth around here?”

Ram nodded. “I thought I saw some wild vegetables around here.”

Skor didn’t bother sticking around when Callisto and Ram left. Not that Callum expected him, too. Being stuck in a room with any of the elves one on one was a bit… uncomfortable. It wasn’t like they were the warmest of beings in the world. He wondered if all Moonshadow elves were this business like. Alone once more, he took the opportunity to feel the place around again.

It felt like the first time and the last time. The wood felt the same under his fingers as he walked upstairs, feeling the railing just to hold onto something solid. The last few days still didn’t feel entirely real. Not at all right.

He kept expecting his stepfather to come out of a room asking them if they want to go for a walk around the place or go fishing or maybe a ride on horseback. Callum was never the best on horseback. He wasn’t the best at anything, really.

He shut his eyes as he got to the top of the stairs. He wasn’t good anything. Not at swordfight. At anything he could use to fight back. Here he was, having to rely on elves for protection. The very people who were actually sent to kill his father were now the ones he had to make a deal with so just maybe he and Ezran could be safe. The irony of that hadn’t been missed by Callum.

He found his feet moving, but his mind wandering and he got to his stepfather’s room before he knew it.

And open.

In the room, standing at the foot of the bed, Ezran held Bait and just looked at the perfectly made bed, the russet colored sheets, the symbol of Katolis on a shield placed over the headboard. Bait croaked worriedly at Ezran, but he didn’t seem to notice.

“Ez?” Callum took a step into the room, keeping his voice soft. “You okay?”

Ezran didn’t answer immediately. “...I used to come in here when I was really little. Remember?”

Callum tried to smile. “Yeah, I do. I’d go look for you in the morning and when you weren’t in your room, I’d know to come here and you’d be sleeping between them. Mom always held you so tight because she worried that you’d be cold in the night and get sick.”

“Yeah… then you’d climb in for a hug and dad would lift us all out of bed. Remember how he taught us how to make blueberry pancakes?”

“Oh, yeah,” Callum walked in and looked up at the walls. The dresser. He held onto the parts of his parents that were still with their sons in that room. A chuckle escaped his lips even as a lump formed in his throat. “I remember. I’d always get flour all over myself and you got to eat the leftover blueberries.”

He remembered those mornings like they were yesterday and missed them with all the the light of the day. What he would give to go back to a time when he could just hug both of his parents and tell them how much he loved them. Even if it was just for one moment. One.

It was all he asked for.

Someone called for him downstairs. Ezran finally looked at Callum and seemed to attempt a smile. His first in the past few days. Callum put an arm around his little brother as they left the room and closed the door behind him.

Callum let out a breath as he left the warmth of that room.

While Ezran went to go explore a few of his toys he left behind in the last winter, Callum went into the kitchen to see who called him. Callisto had found a variety of greens and was currently chopping them with a dagger that did not look like it was for vegetable chopping. Near him, two pots of water were boiling.

“Was that you who called me?”

Callisto glanced up. “Yes. Do you know how to fish?”

“Uh…” Callum rubbed the back of his neck. “Well?”

“I’ll take that as a no. Skor will do it then. He might riot if he can’t sink his teeth into something and everybody could use the protein.” He dumped the chopped greens into the pot, turning to drop a few leaves into a cup and scooped some hot water into it. He paused, then grabbed a second cup out of the cupboard and did the same thing.

He slid the a cup over toward Callum. Callum blinked.

When he didn’t take it, Callisto looked at him over his cup. Oh. Callum realized it was supposed to be for him. He took the cup and sniffed it.

“It’s peppermint.” Callisto explained over his tea. “I have a massive headache.”

“Oh… thanks.” Callum took a sip and sure enough he could feel the tea soothe his senses. “So, uh… is it okay if I ask you a question?’

Callisto nodded.

“Why is it that you don’t seem to hate my guts?”

Callisto regarded him with tired eyes for a second. He blinked, then went back to his cup. “Call it a pity for things that obviously have no clue what they’re doing.”

Callum wasn’t sure how much he liked being called a thing, but it was… a fair statement. The past few days had been a blur of just doing things he had never attempted before. Like the borderline suicidal attempt at angering a group of elven assassins. He was never going to do that one again.

Gingerly, slowly, he asked, “Do you know how everyone else is, uh… feeling about me?”

Callisto shrugged. “If you’re asking if we’re going to slit your throat in the middle of the night, the answer’s no, but you are a human. I can imagine them being indifferent to you at best.”

“And Ezran?”

Callisto tapped a finger on his cup. He looked Callum for a moment, then took another sip. “He’s a child. Prince or not he has no power neither here nor there. He’s just at the mercy of your world. We recognize that. We were sent to kill him as a matter of honor, but it’s not something we looked forward to. The egg lives. That’s enough for us.”

Callum let out a breath. So, they knew Ezran was innocent. Still, that last part didn’t totally sit right with him. “How is killing someone who didn’t do anything wrong honorable?”

“You have your ways and we have ours. We wouldn’t be here if your father hadn’t killed the Dragon King.”

“That doesn’t answer my question.”

“Doesn’t it? You’re not too young to understand the ways of the world, Prince Callum. When a message is sent, what should be expected? A reply. With the Dragon King dead, that leaves Xadia open to human aggression. The King of Katolis, as the man behind it, had to take responsibility for that incident. With him dead that leaves your kingdom in too much disarray to attack us. His only heir dead means said heir can’t retaliate with some justification.”

Callum’s grip on his cup tightened. “Ezran would never do that.”

“You know your brother. The world does not. Nor do they know the advisors that would be whispering in his ears and really pulling the strings.” Callum immediately imagined Viren sitting at Ezran’s side. His stomach lurched. “Kingdoms have risen and fallen in the wake of princes left alive to avenge their fathers.”

Callum still challenged him. “That’s not fair.”

“It’s politics. It wasn’t designed to be fair.”

Callum had no answer to that. He took a sip of his tea and changed the subject. “So, Runaan is your leader, right?”

Callisto nodded. “That is correct.”

“And what power does he have over you? What power do you have over each other?”

Callisto snorted, smirking a little behind his cup. “Getting to know our hierarchy. Smart. Well, Callum, if you’d seen Runaan fight then you’d never question why again. We follow him because he has proven his leadership over and over again. As for the rest of us, we work as a team. I tend to take the lion’s share right behind Runaan, but otherwise, we all trust each other. That’s how it works.”

Teamwork. That much he could see. They all seemed to have each other’s backs and, yet, weren’t afraid to question the other when it felt necessary.

“So, if Runaan is your leader then why didn’t he just order you to kill us and take the egg? Especially after what happened at the camp.” Maybe he shouldn’t have been giving them ideas, but they didn’t seem to be considering his mortality anymore. “You would have accomplished your mission and had the egg.”

“I did say it was a job. It’s not a hobby. If we don’t have to take a life then we’re not going to. Nobody’s going to kill you just because.”

“Oh.” Callum frowned. “Well, that’s good. So, then, do you guys not really hate humans as much of people say you do? It’s almost like at least Runaan doesn’t seem to care about me either way.”

“Oh, Runaan hates humans, but you saved Rayla’s life. He’s not going to forget that easily.” Callisto finished his tea. “No matter how much he might want to.”

-:-:-:-

Andromeda found Runaan rubbing his eyes as he left Rayla’s room. “Asleep?”

Runaan nodded. “She was asleep when I came by. Callisto’s making food. When she gets up, she can eat. The sooner she gets back on her feet the better.”

“Good. Now, you can go rest as well.”

“There are things to be done. We need to patrol the perimeter, decide what we can take in our resupply--”

Andromeda put a hand on his shoulder. “All things that can be done by us or can be done later tonight. After you sleep. Runaan, we need you at your best. And you’ve barely had a chance to rest. Rayla’s comfortable now. Go.”

Runaan opened his mouth as if to argue, but closed it. She knew she’d won. “Wake me if Callisto needs me.”

“Callisto was the one who told me to put you to sleep.”

Runaan snorted. “If this is going to be the case, then what will you do now?”

“I’m going to check the area out. See if there’s any human activity nearby. Then I’ll check on Prince Ezran. See how he might be since Callisto wanted to see if Prince Callum could help fish.”

Runaan looked at her for a longer time than felt right. She sighed. “He’s a child, Runaan. A boy. Now, I’m going to tuck you in if you don’t go.”

Runaan said nothing to the matter of Prince Ezran. “Please, don’t.”

“Then don’t make us tell you again.” She lightly shoved him the direction of the next bedroom and watched him until he went in. He sent her a meaningful glance. The matter about Ezran wasn’t over. She ignored it. When he left, she peeked in on Rayla. True to his word, Rayla was out like a candle in the day.

Andromeda wasn’t going to step in the room lest Rayla woke up, but it seemed to be too late. Girl was as much of a light sleeper as Runaan was. “Rayla? Are you okay?”

Rayla turned her head to look at her. “Andromeda? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I’m just checking on you is all. I finally was able to get Runaan to sleep.”

Rayla smiled a little at that, but it quickly faded into something that was quite unpleasant. “That’s good…”

Andromeda walked to her side. “And you’re not. Go on, now. Tell me.”

Rayla didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then, she said, “When I was in the castle. The high mage caught me and was going to kill me with his dark magic. He almost did. It was horrible.” Andromeda nodded. So that’s what happened. “And I saw all kinds of things he had in his little room… terrible, pitiful things that had died in jars… Runaan was right. Humans can’t be trusted. But then I come out and it turns out that human prince is the one that helped Callisto save me. How am I supposed to feel about that?”

Andromeda gave her a little smile and sat on the bed. “You don’t seem to mind the young prince.”

“Ezran? He’s a little kid. And he’s sweet. I don’t think he really counts. Kids don’t really ever count, right?”

Andromeda nodded. “I agree. Even if everyone doesn’t. Children aren’t usually born with the ways of their people. They have to be taught. The young prince seems to show us no ill will. We ought not to with him.”

“But the older prince… he’s right though. I was slowing us down. Ugh,” Rayla scoffed at herself in disgust. “Andromeda, I hate this.”

“I know. Remember though, we didn’t stop only because of you. But don’t worry about that right now.” Andromeda told her. “You’re tired. Let yourself rest, Rayla. There will be food for you when you wake. Alright?”

Rayla nodded still looking slightly miserable, then turned over in the bed.

Andromeda made sure to close the door quietly on her way out.

She went downstairs and found Prince Callum sitting on one of the chairs falling asleep. When he heard her come downstairs, he jumped up and stood at attention. What a skittish human.

She put a hand up. He sagged when he realized it was just her.

“Sorry. Guess I was falling asleep.” He glanced up the way Andromeda had come. “Is she okay? Rayla, I mean.”

“She’s fast asleep.” Andromeda frowned. “Why do you ask about her so much?”

He hunched his shoulders, his body tensing. Good. “I’m just making sure she’s okay. She was really hurt.”

“And, yet, you throw it in her face that she’s hurt. Odd way of showing concern.”

Callum rubbed his arm. “I wasn’t trying to-- I just-- I don’t understand why she seems to hate me so much.”

Andromeda sighed. “Rayla doesn’t trust you. And she’s right not to considering what you’ve shown her of you. Callisto is indifferent of you, but the rest of us aren’t. Then, you throw it in her face that you were the one who helped which, while true and appreciated, can be seen as an insult the way you’ve been shoving it in her face. In our culture, it can be seen as you making sure she knows that she owes you a debt. Believe me, she knows.”

The way his face fell, he clearly hadn’t thought of that. “What? No- No, I never meant that. I just don’t want us to be at each other’s throats the whole time.”

“Then don’t speak to her as if she’s the liability. Have some respect for that.”

Andromeda left the prince to find his brother, instead.

-:-:-:-

Callum had the rest of the afternoon to think about Andromeda’s words.

Had he been throwing that in Rayla’s face?

It wasn’t like he wanted any kind of recognition or anything. He just… he just really didn’t want to be fighting with her the entire time. It was already uncomfortable enough being the one everybody kind of didn’t know if they should like or not. Well, according to Callisto, Runaan himself hated humans. So, that put Callum in a precarious situation.

Though he supposed he did earn it. That trick had been a desperate one, but one where the elves mistrust wasn’t exactly going to be avoidable. And it didn’t really pay off in the end.

He was grateful for the courtesy they showed Ezran. Whatever they felt for Callum, it didn’t translate over to Ezran. Callisto made sure he got food. And, for some reason, Andromeda was always somewhere near him. He didn’t mind. There was something… genuine about her actions. Her words.

Maybe that’s why what she said to him about Rayla stuck in his head all day. Dinner came and Callisto had made a vegetable stew with fish and bread softened by broth. Considering what they had to work with, Callum was impressed.

The elves sat around the chimney, a fire lit for warmth as they ate. They debated about the use of the chimney at all, but decided that there was no real human activity for miles after their patrols today. Callum and Ezran ate on the bench behind them. Callisto was the last to come in, carrying two bowls and heading up the stairs.

Callum jumped to his feet, leaving his food and caught Callisto before he started to climb the stairs. “Uh, hey. I was wondering… do you think I could bring that to her?”

Callisto raised his brows, but handed him the bowl after a moment. “Alright, then. Knock yourself out. Make sure she doesn’t.”

“She’s still kind of bedridden though...isn’t she?” Callum asked.

“I have a feeling Rayla bedridden could still knock you out.”

Callum opened his mouth to reply, then closed it. Okay, that was fair.

He walked upstairs.

-:-:-:-

Runaan watched Callum go upstairs and into Rayla’s room. He went back to eating his stew.

Andromeda frowned. “Where is he going?”

Callisto sat with them. “To give Rayla her food.”

At that, Andromeda immediately started getting up. “We should follow him, then.”

“For what? What’s he going to do?”

“What if he poisons her?”

Callisto actually put down his bowl and made a face. “You really think that boy has the balls to poison an assassin in a house full of other assassins? You really think he’s that stupid?”

“Callum wouldn’t do that,” Prince Ezran said to Andromeda. “He’d never hurt someone like that. He probably just wants him and Rayla to get along and stop fighting.”

Andromeda looked at Ezran, no longer moving to get up, but still not entirely convinced. Runaan saw that look on her face. “Leave them, Andromeda.”

“Runaan--”

“Let them make peace. If they continue to argue, their fighting could prove to be a problem for us in the future.”

“Besides,” Ram started, finishing his mouthful of food. “If he did anything to Rayla it’s not like we can’t just kill him for it.”

Ezran choked. Andromeda kicked Ram, then got up to hit Ezan on the back. “Ram!”

Ram winced. “Sorry, sorry. I mean, like you said, your brother’s not going to do anything like that. So, nothing to worry about.”

“It is the truth though,” Skor said in between bites. “That’s what we’d do. Either way, problem solved.”

Callisto heaved a heavy sigh. “I’m going to need more tea.”

Runaan seconded that. “Make a cup for me.”

-:-:-:-

Callum knocked on the door and opened it when she gave permission.

“What’d you make--” Rayla turned, realized it was him and rolled right back over. A reaction he expected. Deserved even.

“I, uh…” Callum rubbed his neck. “I brought you your dinner.”

Wow, how was he going to do this? This had instantly become awkward. She didn’t answer him. He didn’t respond to the silence.

“Just leave it,” she said. “I’ll eat it later.”

Callum put the bowl of stew on the nightstand. They stayed in silence like that for a little while until he could figure out what to say exactly. He’d never been good with words, either. Not really. He sighed. He didn’t exactly have much to lose.

Here went nothing.

“Rayla, I need to apologize to you. I haven’t been fair. I’ve been… well, I’ve been kind of a jerk.” He hunched his shoulders. “When I said that stuff about saving your life? I didn’t say it to upset you. I only said it because I don’t want you to think I’m your enemy this whole time. But I was wrong for saying it how I did. I shouldn’t have said it at all, really. I was disrespectful to you. And… I’m sorry about that.”

Well, she didn’t immediately lash out at him. That was a nice sign. But she didn’t turn around to look at him or take her food.

He let his shoulders sag. He said what he had to say. Hopefully, she could see that he was genuine.

Then, just as he was leaving the room, Callum heard her voice.

“Thanks.”

He closed the door behind him, leaving her to her peace.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Rayla was able to get out of bed. Callum was actually really impressed, but Callisto only commented on what a good night’s sleep and actual nutrition could do for a healing elf.

Callum took his word for it. Though she still apparently had to take it easy.

She was put to work fishing with Skor though it was apparent that fishing wasn’t exactly her calling. Rayla was careful, but a bit impatient. Definitely more of a go-getter than one who kind of seemed to enjoy the peace that fishing could bring like Skor did. After about half an hour of sighing loudly, Skor sent her inside to go help find supplies. He muttered something about young people not knowing how to appreciate peace.

Callum, meanwhile, had been sketching the river from a spot he and his parents used to sit at for a picnic. He sat there for a minute after he was finished, letting the scene burn into his mind before he went inside.

Inside he had… expected it. Really, he had. But it still was a bit uncomfortable watching everyone rifle through his family’s personal belongings. Albeit, they did it respectfully and seemed to put anything they didn’t need back with care.

“There are tents in this box. All in good condition. We need these pretty bad,” Ram said over a box he’d pulled out one of the storage rooms.

“Put those aside, then. We’ll store them once we find bags to put them in.” Callisto looked back at Callum.

“It’s fine,” Callum assured them.”Find what you need. Just… please be careful with some of the things. It’s all I really ask.”

Callisto nodded. “You have our word.”

Callum turned to go upstairs. He was pretty sure there were some packs in the old game room. Or maybe it was the closet…

Something collided with him, knocking him right onto his butt so hard his sketchbook actually unlatched from his bag. He rubbed his head. Well, that hurt. He opened his eyes and stopped dead looking at Rayla stifling a groan and rubbing her ribs.

“I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you, I swear,” he explained, but Rayla was already getting up.

She offered him a hand.

“It’s fine.” Callum blinked. She waited. He took her hand, allowing her to help him back onto his feet. Then, she bent down to pick up his sketchbook. “I didn’t see you coming up.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t exactly watching where I was going, either.”

She saw a few pages in his sketchbook. “Are these yours?”

“Oh, yeah. I draw sometimes,” Callum shrugged awkwardly. He tried to grin. “It’s the one thing I’m not terrible at.”

She handed it back to him. “You’re good.”

“Oh, uh,” he said, latching the book back onto his bag. “Thanks.”

She nodded albeit a bit awkwardly, but there was no sign of animosity toward him anywhere in her eyes. Hm. Her eyes were a kind of light purple. He thought they were darker than that.

He smiled at her. It probably looked a bit painful because her attempt looked the same. She turned away from him when Callisto asked her what she was doing in the house. “Skor sent me back. I was bothering him.”

“Were you sighing?” Runaan asked her, looking over a chest Callisto was opening.

“Not that loudly,” she said, her mouth twisting just a little bit. “Just let me do something. You can put me to work.”

“Fishing is work.”

Now, she looked like Runaan crossing her arms. He looked at her when she didn’t answer. A stalled second later, he went back to what he was doing. “Go start pulling things out of the storage room. It’s in the back.”

Rayla actually grinned, satisfied with her small victory. As she left, Callisto said, “If you lift anything too heavy I’m stuffing you in one of these boxes.”

“You’d have to catch me first.”

That made Callisto actually look up at the door she left through, then at Runaan. “You hear that? That’s your fault. You encouraged that.”

Runaan raised his brows, but said nothing. For the next half hour, they rifled through boxes and cabinets and any kind of storage space all over the house. The one space he asked them not to go into was his parent’s bedroom. Not only was there nothing there, but it was the one place Callum really wanted left untouched. Perhaps, because it was the one room Callum could go into and feel like he had gone back in the past. Thankfully, the elves had no qualms with that. They agreed to respect his wishes.

Then, Rayla came in with a box that made his heart drop and he didn’t know why. He didn’t know what was in it, but something shifted in him when he saw it. In the last ten minutes Ezran had come downstairs, playing with Bait in front of the fireplace and helping Andromeda with a chest full of clothes she had found.

Rayla opened the box. “Hey, there’s a bunch of scarves in here. Could we use these?”

Callum didn’t see, but he knew the instant she said that. His stepfather’s scarves. Old ones he had stored away for the next winter they were to be there. There had always been a few things they left behind. Maybe to keep a piece of themselves here at all times. He wasn’t sure.

Ezran stopped playing with his toys. He got up and walked up to the box as Rayla left it. From the other side of the room, Callum watched him. He watched his little brother pick up the scarf and just stare at it. For a very long moment, he looked over the scarf.

And then he cried.

And then he cried louder.

He clutched the scarf to himself and bent his head lower as the tears fell, sliding down his face. Callum got up immediately. “Ez--”

I didn’t even get to say goodbye,” Ezran sobbed.

The entire room went quiet and all the elves turned to him as he sniffed, shaking with sobs. Before Callum could even cross the room, Ezran pushed past him and ran up the stairs. Callum watched him go.

The room was dead silent, no one moving after they watched him go. Rayla looked like a deer caught in the forest. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset him. I’ll put it back.”

“No, it’s fine,” Callum assured her, then looked back up the stairs. “This was actually kind of a good thing…”

-:-:-:-

Callum went to Ezran’s room. It was empty.

He went to his parents bedroom.

Ezran was sitting on the bed, sniffling over his father’s red scarf. It was so much like the one Callum kept around his neck, but it was void of the elaborate Katolis symbolage. This scarf was more plain. Less for a king and more for a father who simply wanted to be with his family.

Callum didn’t say anything as he sat down on the bed next to him. He waited for Ezran to speak.

Minutes went by. Ezran finally said through his tears, “I didn’t get to say goodbye. I didn’t even get to see him or tell him I love him. And I’m sorry for always taking jelly tarts when I’m not supposed to. And just--”

He broke into tears again. Bait turned blue. Callum put an arm around him. “I know, buddy. I know. I…”

Callum’s eyes stung as the words wouldn’t come out of his heart. How he hadn’t been able to do anything.

“Callum what are we even going to do now? We can’t go back home.”

“I don’t know. I… I don’t have an answer for that. What I do know is that we’re going to be okay. No matter what. No matter what happens, I am going to make sure that we end up okay.” Callum wiped his tears. “They’re watching over us. I know it. And, for the record? He wanted you to have those jelly tarts.”

Through his tears, through his hiccups, Ezran smiled a little. Then, he laughed a little.

And Callum knew he was going to be able to keep his promise.

At the very least, he had hope.

-:-:-:-

“Well… I feel… terrible.” Ram cringed.

“Don’t start that,” Callisto said even if his tone wasn’t as firm. “You know we didn’t have a choice.”

“I know… I still feel bad.”

Rayla felt how Ram looked. She really hadn’t meant to upset Ezran. He was sweet and had kept coming in to keep her company with his ...frog. Whatever it was. Even if the little monster didn’t seem to care for her. In fact, it seemed downright annoyed with her as if she were some strange creature.

“Rayla, you didn’t mean it,” Andromeda told her.

“I know. But… still. He was so upset and, you know, we kind of don’t help the situation.”

“We’re assassins,” Runaan said somewhat softly. “This is our job. Normally, we’re just not around for this part.”

Rayla sighed, she looked up at Andromeda. “Do you think we should… check on them?”

“No,” Runaan said.

“I think so,” Andromeda replied.

Runaan turned to her and Rayla knew to take a couple steps from between them. “We do not get involved in these types of things. It’s not our place. And it certainly isn’t yours. We’re not discussing this.”

“Good. Then, we won’t.”

She climbed the stairs to the second floor. Runaan glared after her, snorting irritably. He yanked a box open and started going through it. Callisto only shook his head. “I told you. Women are stubborn.”

Hey, I’m standing right here.” Rayla tossed an old stuffed animal at his head. He caught it.

-:-:-:-

Just as they were leaving the room, Callum and Ezran ran into Andromeda.

“Oh, young prince, I just wanted to see if everything was okay,” Andromeda’s voice as gentle.

Ezran nodded, flashing her a smile. “I’m… fine. I guess. I’ll be alright.”

For the first time, Callum saw Andromeda smile. Though it was a short one. “Come. Would you like to continue helping? I’d love to hear about the stories behind these things you humans keep.”

Callum didn’t say anything. He didn’t mind. As long as Ezran was comfortable with her, then Callum was fine with it, too. Whatever Andromeda’s reason for her kindness to Ezran was, he was grateful for it. “Sure,” said Ezran, joining her side. “By the way, you can just call me Ezran.”

“Thank you, Ezran. I wasn’t sure if you wanted me to use your name.”

Ezran shrugged as they went downstairs. “It’s fine. I like it when people use my name.”

Downstairs, Rayla looked doubtful if she should, but she walked up to Ezran and apologized. “I didn’t mean to upset you. Are you alright?”

Ezran opened his mouth to speak, but then he closed it. The answer wasn’t quite yes, but… he also smiled at her a little. Rayla returned. Ezran shook his head. “It wasn’t your fault, Rayla. Not… really?”

Her smile faltered. “Oh… yeah. That. I’m sorry about that, too. I really am.”

The room went quiet again. Then, in an act Callum certainly didn’t think he would see -- and, apparently, neither did Rayla considering her face -- Runaan walked over to them and got on one knee to level with Ezran. “From what I do know about your people, your father was considered a good man.”

Ezran’s brows furrowed, but, kind as he was, he considered Runaan’s words. Calmly, he asked, “Then, why would you try to kill him?’

Callum had asked Callisto the same thing, essentially. He still wasn’t sure if the answer satisfied him.

“It is difficult for good men to be good kings. I cannot give you an answer that will comfort your heart. Not the way you want, but I can give you the truth. Your father’s name was on actions that forced our hand. That is why we sought his life. And yours. It is something we would never have done outside of such circumstances. I hope you can accept that. And I am sorry that it came to this.”

Ezran looked at Runaan for a solemn time, then nodded. “I appreciate that.”

Runaan stood. A curt, but direct nod in return to Ezran, then, he went back to the business of sifting through boxes for supplies. Ezran stood in the same place, looking around and Callum swore a small weight seemed to lift from his shoulders. He didn’t know exactly what that exchange was all about, but whatever it was Ezran had needed some of it.

Ezran went back to helping Andromeda and Callum caught Rayla’s eye. He sent her a small smile, not waiting to see if she would do the same back.

He went back outside to sketch and appreciate the momentary peace.

-:-:-:-

The night was clear.

Thank goodness. Rayla knew she shouldn’t have been out of bed, but…

Do you think you can escape me, elf? Run, but I will find you.”

Rayla shook her head, closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She held it.

She exhaled it and her limbs went weak.

How long was that going to go through her head? How long was that voice going to invade her mind? Now that she wasn’t dead tired, the dreams started up. Well, nightmares. There was nothing nice about them.

Waking up sweating and gasping also left her shaking even as she got out of bed. She’d moved along the large wooden beams and out a window to sit on the roof under the stars. The moon. It made her feel slightly more at home in her own skin.

At least, Ram was the one on watch tonight. If he caught Rayla out here he wouldn’t immediately report it to Callisto who would, on top of being aggravated because he was woken up, might shackle Rayla to her bed without an explanation. But she hadn’t even really told Runaan about her nightmares -- although he probably suspected something -- and she wasn’t about to explain them to anybody else if she could help it.

That would mean admitting those fears and she wasn’t sure she was ready to do that. In fact, she wasn’t sure if she’d ever be ready.

“Oh, I didn’t know you’d be up here. Sorry.”

Rayla twisted. Callum was halfway through climbing up to the roof. He was going back down, but she stopped him. “No. No, it’s fine. How did you get up here?”

“There’s a ladder around back,” he said, jerking his thumb behind him.

“Oh.”

Callum secured himself a spot some ways from her. He looked up at the sky. For a while they just sat there in silence and it wasn’t… so bad. From the look in his eyes, he was lost in his own thoughts as well.

Now, alone with this fumbling human prince, Rayla could feel that one annoying thing that had been tugging at her all day ever since she ran into him on the stairs.

“Hey. I just wanted to say, uh…” He looked at her, not having expected her to say anything apparently. She sighed. “Thank you. For saving me, I mean.”

Callum shook his head. “Hey, don’t mention it, remember? I shouldn’t have been throwing that in your face. I didn’t realize what that meant in your culture.”

“It’s fine. I mean it. You didn’t have to give Callisto that medecine.” Knees drawn up to their chests, they matched postures and Rayla actually smiled at him. “I do owe you my life.”

“I think the slate is already clear,” he said softly and looked right at her. The green of his eyes were also soft, but his gaze was firm. “Thank you for saving our lives. We wouldn’t even be here without you. You definitely did that. And… thank you for thinking of Ezran. You could have just taken the egg, but you took him, too, and I don’t know how I can even repay you for that.”

Rayla raised her brows, but she cleared her throat. “Oh, that? He’s a good kid. He didn’t need to be there.”

Callum nodded. “Yeah. But I’m really glad he was spared from that.”

“Yeah... and I guess while we’re talking…?” Rayla pursed her lips a bit. She kept his gaze despite her instinct to look away. “I’m sorry about your father. I know that it’s odd coming from me since we were sent to kill him and all, but… he didn’t deserve to die the way he did.”

For his credit, he didn’t look away either. His subsequent smile was sad and small, but it was there. His voice was nearly a whisper. “I appreciate that.” He sighed and looked back up at the sky. “Guess neither of us thought we’d be here, huh?”

Rayla chuckled a bit. “Not even close.”

She was glad to hear him laugh a little as well. “You know, if you’d told me that I would be on the rooftop of my family’s winter lodge in the spring with a team of assassins on the way to Xadia with the egg of the Dragon Prince I might have told you to ease up on the moonberry juice.”

Rayla snorted. “Tell me about it. No offense, but I really just want to get home. Your human lands are… really exhausting.”

“Honestly? I’m human and I agree with you.”

Her mouth twisted. “It… yeah, it hasn’t been the best experience…”

She bit her tongue. She’d said too much.

When he didn’t answer her immediately, she looked at him. His eyes were narrowed, looking at something on the ground. The river. She didn’t know. “Rayla, I’m sorry about whatever happened in that castle.” Her body tensed. She sucked in a breath. It must have been a bit loud. “You don’t have to tell me. But I know humans haven’t given you the best impression.”

She made a face, her brows knitted together.

“Yeah… I have to be honest. Humans aren’t my favorite things in the world right now, but…” Her lips curved. Just a little bit, a faintness to it. “You’re not the worst human.”

She was pretty sure she had met that one, anyway.

Callum let out some grindy noise that sounded something like a laugh. “Thanks. That means a lot right now.”

They both went back to looking at the sky, the air feeling better on her skin than it had when she came out. It was nice. “It means a lot to me, too.”

She felt him look at her, but they both left the silence in peace between them.

-:-:-:-

The Valley of Graves was expansive, grey and overall chilling if not somewhat reverent. It was a place of peace. A place to honor the monarchs that ruled.

And a place Ilias did not want to bother Lord Viren.

But the man had asked for his servant. Ilias usually was off doing whatever Lord Viren bid with his lips tight and his feet quick and quiet. It wasn’t the first time. He doubted it would be the last. Ilias waited for Lord Viren to notice him. He dare not disturb him at King Harrow’s newly erected gravesite.

“You do know why I’ve asked you to come here?” Lord Viren didn’t turn around. “Right?”

“Because the princes haven’t been found, my lord?”

“Correct. We need to fix that.”

“Shall I send out a search part--”

“No. I don’t want a search party.” Lord Viren’s voice was as cold as the grey sky. And yet, it lilted as if to delight. Appeal. “Ilias, you and I have worked together for many years. You and I both know that a search party is not what I’m looking for. We must… fix the situation with our dear princes. Don’t you think?”

Oh.

Ilias nodded numbly. “Whatever pleases, my lord. What did you have in mind?”

Lord Viren finally turned, a simple smile over his lips. “Summon Morgan.”

Ilias eyes widened. “But… with respect, my lord, doesn’t he have… her with him?”

“Yes, he does. And they make the kind of team I need right now.” Lord Viren walked away from King Harrow’s grave. “A deadly one. Now, be a good man and make sure that message only passes through the usual hands and nobody else. I’d hate for you to disappear.”

Ilias bones chilled. He was only in his twenties, but he suddenly felt eighty years older and just as frail. “Of course, my lord. I’ll summon them with haste.”

Ilias scampered away as soon as Lord Viren dismissed him.

Morgan. And… and her.

Ilias shuddered.

-:-:-:-

Callum woke to the sound of clanging metal. When he looked out his window, Rayla was leaping in and out Runaan’s path.

He rubbed his eyes. She was sparring?

Already? Did elves heal that fast?

After getting ready for the day, Callum went downstairs and into the back to stand next to a supervising Callisto.

“Easy does it Rayla.”

Like a responsible supposedly still healing person, Rayla did a few backflips then charged at Runaan.

Callisto sighed. “Why do I even bother? She’s just like him.”

The he Callisto was referring to blocked Rayla’s charge just as fast as she had come at him. Rayla and Runaan were fluid, each working off the other and practically predicting each other’s movement. Granted, Rayla always seemed just a touch behind Runaan. They must have done this a lot, then.

“Wow, she looks a lot better.” Callum followed them back and forth. “She heals really fast.”

“Rayla pretty much forces herself to heal out of sheer stubborness,” Callisto scoffed. “And spite.”

“She’s really good,” Ezran said in awe. He’d gotten up even earlier than Callum and was actually put to work making breakfast with Andromeda. That was a good sign as far as Callum was concerned. It made the day seem a little brighter than yesterday, at least.

“She ought to be. She’s been training since she was a child.”

Callum watched her flip and leap in ways he knew he never would like… like it was nothing to her. It was as easy as breathing. She met Runaan blade for blade as her swords were extensions of herself. “Wow…”

Runaan separated, attaching his swords back into a bow. Rayla followed suit by sheathing her own. “That’s enough for the morning. Ram and Andromeda are probably finished with breakfast.”

“It’s ready!” Ram called from inside.

“Let me guess,” Rayla rolled playful eyes. “It’s fish and vegetables.”

“Those fish and vegetables are healthy for you. You need to eat it,” Runaan said. “It’s why you’ve recovered so well.”

“I know. I wasn’t complaining about it.” Rayla absently rubbed her ribs. “It was kind of lucky for me that my ribs were just bruised, huh?”

“Very lucky,” Callisto pointed out. “He kicked you point blank. You could have died.”

“Thanks, Callisto.”

“Those are the facts. You aren’t invincible, Rayla.”

They sat down at the dining table. It was probably the most civil, normal anything that Callum had experienced in the past few days. Runaan skirted the head of the table, sitting across from Rayla. Callum on her side, Ezran between them. “He’s right, Rayla. This was your first mission and while it didn’t go as planned, you now see what can happen. Do you understand?”

Rayla sobered with his every word. She nodded.

“You can get hurt on missions,” Skor chimed in. “You can die on missions. Other people can die on missions. You need to be able to come to terms with that. That’s also why trust in the team is important.”

“Yes. Without trust, a team is doomed to fail,” Andromeda added. “You must rely on one another.”

“But you also can’t let your feelings get in the way. They don’t send us out for nothing.” Ram said. “We’re sent out on missions for important reasons. You can really care for your teammates, but have to keep going if they fall and it’s too late. And it hurts. But reality hurts sometimes. It can be very unpleasant, sometimes. When we choose to do this job we choose to accept that.”

“Listen to them, Rayla.” Runaan agreed. “These are all things we have experienced. Nothing says that facing them will be easy. You will struggle. All of us struggle with something in our lives that makes us uncertain of ourselves. That’s a part of life. This is a part of ours.”

“I understand.” Rayla nodded again.

“I think you’ll be fine.” Ezran said. They all looked at him, Rayla more surprised than anyone. “I know that’s really weird coming from me, but you saved everyone’s lives. Including mine. I think that counts for something.”

Rayla blinked. “Oh, uh...thanks, Ezran. I… don’t know what to say.”

Ezran flashed her a smile, then went back to his food. The conversation grinded, then moved on from there, the elves discussing what supplies they were prioritizing and what routes they could take that would get them there fast.

Then, all at once, they all winced in near unison and looked at their wrists.

“What’s wrong?” Callum asked.

He looked at Rayla rubbing her wrist. She frowned. “It’s starting.”

“What’s started?”

The pause that sat between them all didn’t bode well for his answer. It was Callisto who broke the silence. “When we go on a mission, there are times in which we perform a binding ritual.” He showed Callum the ribbon on his wrist. “It binds us to our duty. The night we came to Katolis, we bound ourselves to the lives of King Harrow and Prince Ezran. King Harrow is dead. So, one fell off. But Prince Ezran is alive. So, this one remains.”

Runaan continued. “So long as Prince Ezran lives, the binding will continue to tighten until we can no longer feel our hands. Then, it will fall off once it’s completely dead to our bodies.”

“That’s…” Callum breathed. “That’s horrible.”

It would just fall off? The idea of any of his body parts falling off of him was too grotesque to imagine. What if it rotted before it fell off? Would it?

“It’s the risk we took,” Andromeda said, looking at her wrist. “There’s a possibility that the Dragon Queen can have them removed, but… if not, then we chose this.”

Callum looked at his brother, something slithering into his heart. Would they change their minds about protecting Ezran?

“No harm will come to you or your brother,” Skor said. “The night we met you, we chose to do this. We’re not exactly happy about the idea of losing our hands, but we will honor our deal.”

“A life for a life,” Runaan told them. “Your people did not destroy the egg even if your high mage did steal it. We have no need to enact justice for a deed that was not committed.”

Relief took hold of Callum. And a small amount of horror. So… if they didn’t get back to Xadia in time then they might all lose a hand. Even then, there was no certainty that they wouldn’t anyway. Callum shook his head. He glanced at Rayla, looking at her binding.

And she was expected to this kind of thing again. If she lost her hand, would she still be expected to go out on missions? If she didn’t lose her hand, she still would. A week ago, he might have wondered why she would choose to do this. A part of him still did. After all, she seemed to be right at Callum’s age.

Then, he thought of Viren. He thought of his stepfather.

And he had a sense of understanding about the matter that he couldn’t quite put in words.

-:-:-:-

The morning came and went, the elves preparing for a long journey to Xadia with a bit more haste than they had the day before. After lunch, Ezran accompanied Ram in making sure the egg was okay. Every night, the egg rotated a room to prevent it from always being in the same place. Tonight, it was with Skor. Callum had seen Skor spar with Callisto. That egg was safe.

If nothing else, the elves were always prepared or in the midst of being prepared for something. That, he definitely could admit. In the meantime, Callum found himself outside looking over a book of magic that he’d nabbed from Lord Viren’s lair: Tome of Runes. It had no author and, quite frankly the book looked like it’d been buried somewhere, but it had a lot of interesting information in it including the aspiro spell he’d seen Claudia do. There were a few runes he tried to keep in mind.

Fulminis . Lightning did sounded interesting. Pluvium. Never knew when rain on command might be useful...

He’d taken his bag out with him, keeping himself occupied by organizing its contents and preparing for the trip in his own way.

He was going to need to stock up on a few things himself. Should he get a weapon, too? Perhaps a knife would be in order.

Digging in the bag, Callum felt the rumbling, smooth glass of the primal stone inside. He hadn’t taken it out since meeting the elves. He hadn’t dared.

He still shouldn’t have dared.

But he was curious. Looking over his shoulder to make sure nobody was coming, he slowly pulled the primal stone out of its hiding place. The glass was warm and cold at the same time. Inside, a storm thundered and crackled, contained to the palm of his hand. An entire storm.

And he was just holding it.

Granted, he’d never be able to use it, but holding it was still definitely something. He couldn’t imagine what it actually felt like to have an actual storm course through his veins and escape his fingers as actual magic. The closest he would ever get to that was drawing it in all its glory. So, he began doing just that, trying to capture the magic of the bottled clouds and thunder all for his own observation.

Something rustled in the bushes.

Callum nearly threw the primal stone back into the bag, but he froze. There were eyes in the bush. Luminescent, glowing eyes.

The mountain lion that must have been stalking him slowly edged out of the bush. Toward him. Callum got up as slowly as he could. He dared not shout. He dared not move too suddenly. He’d completely forgotten that mountain lions were known to pass through this area. The family guards had always patrolled the forested areas around the cabin for that very reason. It wasn’t often, but one would be spotted every now and again. Mountain lions. How had he forgotten about mountain lions?

“Easy…” Callum sucked in his breath. “Down, kitty…?”

The lion stilled. Still. Still as death itself.

Callum raised a finger.

The lion pounced.

Callum yelped, leaping out of the way, the lion sliding past him so closely that he felt the weight of the air whoosh past him. He twisted to face the thing and his fingers moved faster than his brain could give the command. The air glowed.

Could he do this?

His mouth ignored his doubts.

Could he even do this?

He sucked in a deep breath. The lion launched itself at him.

Aspiro!”

A great gust of wind escaped Callum’s lungs and met the lion with a force strong enough to knock it back a couple a few feet with a yowl. No time to blink. No time to wonder how that had happened. The lion was getting up and, furious, itran back at him. Could he make it back inside without letting it the house?

Damn it, Callum tried. He ran. He yanked open the backdoor.

And Rayla whipped past him, unsheathing her blades mid-surge.

Callum heard the lion fall before he saw it. He twisted on his heel, the lion was lying a foot away from him, a pool of blood growing from its sliced open neck. Standing over it, Rayla poked it with a blade cautiously.

“Rayla…” Her name was all he could say.

“You alright?” she asked.

It took him a moment, but Callum nodded. “Yeah…”

She frowned at him, not quite having put her swords away. “So, when were you going to tell us you were a mage?”

Callum blinked. “A mage? I’m… not a mage. I’m not anything like that.”

“You have a primal stone. Which are incredibly rare, by the way,” She pointed at his hand with a sword. “You just did magic. I heard you use a spell. You look like a mage to me.”

Oh no. He hadn’t had a chance to put the primal stone awa-- wait. Did he just do magic? Callum looked at the primal stone in his hand. “I… just did magic…”

“Did you not know?”

He looked up at her, nothing to say to that.

“If you didn’t think you were a mage, then why didn’t you tell us you had a primal stone?”

“I didn’t want you to think I was a mage and feel threatened.”

“But you are a mage.”

“But I just found that out,” Callum argued. He looked at the primal stone, then at Rayla. He repeated it to himself more than anyone, “I’m a mage… I’m a mage... I’m a mage!?”

Rayla sheathed her swords, then put a hand over Callum’s mouth. He talked against her hand.

“Don’t go shouting it like that! Loud mages get themselves killed! Ugh,” Rayla rolled her eyes. ”We should go tell Runaan. Right now. It’s going to look bad for you if he finds out for himself later on.”

“Wait, so… you guys aren’t threatened by me having magic?”

“I mean… you almost got killed by a mountain lion and you had magic. I don’t think they’re expecting much.”

“That was my first time though.”

-:-:-:-

Callum and Rayla explained the situation to the others insides, specifically Runaan and Callisto.

“And that’s what happened.,” Callum finished his story. “I swear I wasn’t hiding anything because I was going to betray you later. I just realized it could make me seem more threatening than I really am.”

Runaan regarded Callum with a calculating eye. It was uncomfortable to be under at best.

“I think he’s telling the truth. I had to save him from a mountain lion.”

Callum made a face. “Hey, I wasn’t prepared for that! I didn’t have time to react and it’s not like I knew I was a mage!”

Rayla shrugged. She looked at Runaan. “What are you thinking?”

Runaan was frowning at Callum. “Is there anything else you decided not to tell us?”

Callum shook his head.

“Very well. If there’s anything else, I expect to be told. I don’t have too many more of these passes for you. This time, it will slide. Understood?”

A tight nerve let go in Callum’s chest. “Yes, sir.”

“Good.”

“Callum I can’t believe you’re a mage,” Ezran said, staring at the primal stone in Callum’s hands. Bait croaked in agreement.

“Neither can I,” Callum said. “I had no clue. All these years, I could have been doing magic and I didn’t even know I was a mage.”

It was… a little exciting, actually. The tingle in his fingers that he felt when he drew that rune, the rush, literal or otherwise, when he performed that spell. All of that… there was a sense of hope inside of all of that. Hope for the hopeless, perhaps.

“Since it’s clear that you’ve never delved into anything that has to do with magic,” Runaan said, crossing his arms. “Callisto will give you a basic rundown of runes for caution’s sake.”

Callum looked up at Callisto. “You know about runes?”

Callisto nodded.

“Wow,” Callum said, admittedly a little astonished. “You’re an assassin, you cook, you fight, you know about runes. You sure do know a lot.”

“I’ve been on a my own for a long time. You pick up a few things.” Callisto shrugged. “Take a break. I need to put Skor on watching dinner without ruining the entire pot. Stars know he’s useless with fire and food unless it’s on a stick around a campfire.”

Rayla snickered behind her hand.

“That means you’re on fishing duty, Rayla.”

The way Rayla’s mouth fell open made it clear she regretted that snicker, but said nothing to the matter otherwise, her body language doing all the talking for her as she dragged herself in Callisto’s wake.

There was a brief shower through the afternoon.

The rain came and went, enough to wet the ground, but that didn’t stop the elves. They continued their work, Ezran kind enough to keep Rayla company while she fished for a while before he went inside. The rain also definitely didn’t stop Callisto from dragging Callum outside for their little rune lesson.

“The most important thing about magic is knowing where to use it and when. Remember, you’re wielding nature. Nature will fight back if you misuse it. Aside from that, it’s imperative you draw the rune and say the incantation correctly. Otherwise, you’re going to hurt yourself or someone else.” Callisto crossed his arms across from Callum. “So, what do you know, exactly?”

Callum rubbed the back of his neck. “Not a lot…”

“You must know something if you discovered you were a mage.”

“Well, I was looking through this book I took from the castle,” Callum showed him Tome of Runes. “I remember a few things from it. The one I used on the mountain lion was aspiro.”

“Show me.”

Callum blinked. “Right now? On you?”

“What? No, don’t use it on me. Blow it in the other direction,” Callisto looked at Callum like he’d grown another head. “Towards the river or something.”

Oh. That made sense. Callum drew the rune out in the air, that tingling in his fingers again. He drew a breath and released it, “Aspiro!”

The wind rippled across the surface of the river. At least he could do that one with confidence. Callisto nodded with approval. “Good. You seem to know how to do that one. Aspiro is a fairly basic rune, but it’s useful. More as a deterrent than an actual weapon as you probably know by now.”

That he did. It bought him time with the lion, but didn’t actually do much in terms of stopping it.

“You said you remember others. Show me.”

“Uh…” Callum recalled the last rune he looked at. He drew the rune in the air. It felt cool against his fingers. “Pluvium.”

His hand dropped water and he looked at it, unsure of what to actually do with it. He thrust his hand out and a shower poured from his hand. Okay. He knew what that did now.

“Pluvium is a spell you have to learn to be creative with, but it’s definitely useful for survival.” Callisto explained. “If we run into our previous problem ever again, now we know you can provide water, at least. What else?”

Callum paused. What else…? Oh, yes. There was that last one. Fulminis.

He drew the rune in the air, feeling the heat course through his wrist--

“Not that one, you idiot!”

“What, why?” The hair on Callum’s arms were rising the same way his sense of panic was.

Callisto looked ready to leap off the ground. “Because it just rained! The ground is wet and you’re next to a river! You’re going to--”

The lightning on the rune crackled and lashed out at the river. Around the corner, a strangled yelp ripped through the air. They raced to see who had been a bit too close to river when he’d made that mistake. He had an idea who the lucky elf was.

They bent over to look at Rayla, her hair raised, the fishing pole lying on the stone beside her. Callum cringed. “I’m so sorry. Rayla, are you okay?”

She didn’t immediately answer him, her teeth and limbs tight and twitching. Callisto was weary to touch her. “Rayla, can you hear me?”

“Y-yeah…” Her voice wasn’t entirely there, something between a whisper and a hoarse reassurance. Callum winced. He could see the crackling in her hair. Not to mention, she looked downright displeased to say the least.

Even Callisto looked cautiously sorry for her. “You should go inside.”

She looked at Callum, her voice returning to her. “That was you.” It was less of a question and more of a statement for clarification.

Callum nodded, trying not to shrink under a stare that reminded him of Runaan, but with… more irritation.

Callum’s lips peeled back into an uncertain grin. “Hey, look on the bright side.” He let out a nervous laugh. “I’m sure you’re the most radiant thing around for miles.”

She opened her mouth to say something, but shook her head and apparently decided against it. “I’m going inside. ”

Callisto didn’t argue with her. He shared a look with Callum. “Next rule: No lightning next to sources of water. Fulminis is definitely a weapon.”

Callum hunched his shoulders. Duly noted.

-:-:-:-

Later, when Callum saw Callisto again, he asked, “Is she okay?”

“She’s fine,” Callisto sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “Just don’t… hit her with lightning anymore. Can’t say she enjoyed that.”

“So, she’s pretty mad, huh?”

“About as mad as someone would be if they were shocked like that, but it’s nothing she’s going to hold a grudge against you if that’s what you’re wondering. I don’t think so, at least.” Callisto made a face, more to himself than to Callum. “She was pretty annoyed though.”

Great… just as he and Rayla weren’t at each other’s throats he had to have hit her with a whole bolt of lightning. A human sized bolt of lightning. Thankfully, she wasn’t seriously hurt.

It didn’t leave him feeling any less guilty about the matter. Neither did seeing Rayla come downstairs. She didn’t seem upset with him, exactly, but she didn’t really stop to give him more than a glance on her way back out to go fishing.

He pursed his lips.

“What’s wrong, Callum?”

Ezran stood next to where Callum was sitting. “It’s nothing. I kind of just… accidentally shocked Rayla while I was practicing magic.”

“Oh, is that why she seems kinda mad?”

“Yeah,” Callum sighed. “I didn’t mean to hurt her. I just wasn’t being careful. We were finally getting along, too.”

Ezran raised a brow. “Why are you trying to get Rayla to not hate you so much?”

“Well, because it’s really uncomfortable on my end being, you know, surrounded by--”

“Elves?” Ezran frowned. “Callum, that shouldn’t matter. They’re being good to us.”

“I was going to say assassins. And, yeah, they like you, but they’re still not sure about me. I keep messing up, too. First, I pretended to call them bloodthirsty monsters, I accidentally insult Rayla, then they find out I hid a primal stone from them and, now, I zapped Rayla with lightning. It’s rough on this end, Ez.”

Bait croaked. “Yeah, Bait agrees. I guess you’re not giving a good impression.”

Callum almost rolled his eyes. “I’m glad Bait and I are on the same page, then.”

“Hmm…” Ezran put a finger on his chin. “You mess up every time you try to talk--”

“Great vote of confidence.”

“--how about you write down what you want to say, instead? She’s fishing right now and isn’t super happy about it. And she’s probably bored. Why not try and cheer her up with a note? You know, like Dad would do with Mom?”

Callum blinked at his brother. Ezran smiled a little bit. A little sad, but stronger than yesterday’s.

Now that he thought about it… this definitely reminded him of the way his stepfather would just tiptoe around his mother when he was sure that she was mad. She didn’t show it exactly or take it out on him, but her displeasure was plain and that made it… interesting.

When he really didn’t want to rock the boat, he wrote her notes. Little letters on pieces of parchment just so he could communicate with her and give her space.

Callum looked down at his sketchbook and, suddenly, he was the one that was struck by lightning. “You know, you might be onto something there. Thanks, Ez. Maybe I can manage to sneak it to her while she’s not looking.”

“Wait, Callum.”

Callum paused on his way to the stairs. “Yeah, what’s up?”

“I, uh… I wanted to ask you about something. Kind of a favor. For both of us.”

Callum frowned. “Both of us?”

-:-:-:-

My Most Radiant Rayla,

I’m really sorry about the fulminis incident. I am. I’m not very good at a lot of things, but I promise to get better with magic. It could be really useful for our journey to Xadia.

Callisto says you’re alright. I’m glad that you’re alright. By the way, I never got to thank you for saving me from that mountain lion. Has anybody ever told you how incredible you are when you’re fighting? I’ve never even seen anyone move like that. You had him down in no time at all! I didn’t even have time to turn around. That’s amazing. I was told you’ve been training since you were really young. Is that true?

Again, I’m sorry about, well, everything that’s happened so far. I’m not exactly making the best impression on anyone here, but especially not you. It doesn’t really matter, though. Not as much as how kind you all have been to Ezran. He thinks you’re pretty tough. And I do, too. In more ways than one. But in a good way, mostly.

I still mean it when I say you’re the most radiant thing around. You literally had lightning come of of you.

That’s a story to tell your friends, right?

Signed, Callum

Rayla had one hand on the fishing pole and one hand on the book Callum had left open near for her to apparently find. He’d come out for a bit, apparently doing more of whatever sketching he did from time to time, then just… left the book. Open and with her name on it.

She blinked, confused as all else. What was he trying to play at?

-:-:-:-

Callum was sitting in front of the fireplace, looking through the Tome of Runes when his sketchbook was shoved into his view. He backed his face up, following the hand holding it to Rayla’s frowning face, an unsure mixture to her lips and a hand on her hip.

“What is this?” she demanded.

“Looks like it’s my sketchbook.”

“You know what I mean. That thing you left me in there. What was that?”

Callum shrugged, not putting too much into his face either way. “Just a note,” he said nonchalantly, a little pleasantly. “That’s all.”

“Ugh, here,” she scoffed and threw it onto his lap before going back into the kitchen. Undoubtedly to help Runaan with the fish she’d caught.

Callum sighed. Well, that went well. Had he said something wrong again? Maybe the opening had been too much. He flipped open to the letter he’d written her at the back of his sketchbook. Should he try again? He was kind of out of ideas after this.

He flipped the page.

Callum blinked at the page that was indeed not blank. A cautious optimism rose in his chest. She had written back.

Not The Worst Human,

I don’t know what you’re getting at here, but… it’s fine. Really. You didn’t mean it and I’m not hurt. I was more worried Callisto was going to restrict me again even though I keep telling him I’m okay now.

And thanks. I have been since I was a child. As long as I can remember, I’ve been training to be a warrior. So, it’s nice to hear that it impresses someone. I have to be tough. I have a tough mentor. Runaan makes sure I’m ready for anything and I make sure I know what I’m doing.

Just make sure you do, too, the next time you decide to draw another rune. I’m an assassin. A real, actual assassin, you know. I’m not supposed to be “radiant” like that.

Signed, Rayla

P.S. Don’t mention it. I’m not mean enough to let a mountain lion eat you.

Callum read the letter again. He smiled. Maybe they would get along, after all.

That night, at dinner, Rayla served his bowl of soup when she got her own.

-:-:-:-

Callum sat up in bed the next morning just breathing. He let himself just breathe. Just for a couple minutes.

After getting ready, he waited for Ezran and they went downstairs together with the scarf they’d found when looking for supplies. They would be leaving the lodge tomorrow at latest. This had to happen today.

Knowing better than to just leave, Callum approached Runaan. “Is it alright if Ezran and I go into the woods for a bit? There’s something we need to do.”

Runaan regarded Callum. “What would that be?”

Callum opened his mouth, then looked down. He found himself unable to say. Ezran stepped up to his side, showing him the scarf. “We wanted to go into the woods to bury this. For our dad. We aren’t going to be there for his, um…”

“For his funeral. They’ve probably already buried him by now,” Callum said, something cold in his chest. “We don’t know when we’re going to come back here again. So, we just wanted to pay our last respects in the only way we know how.”

A silence fell over the kitchen. He swore something in Runaan’s eyes softened just a touch. He shared looks with Callisto and Andromeda. Andromeda nodded. “Go. But Andromeda will accompany you.”

Callum nodded. That was fair. For the prince’s protection and the elves’ reassurance, after all.

The day was oddly nice. Or maybe it wasn’t odd at all. It was as if the forest was at peace, ready to receive this small part of his father and let him rest in this place that their family had come to and loved one another at. It was for all three of them. For their dad. For Ezran. For Callum himself.

And, yet, there was a numbness to the entire day. Breathe, he told himself.

Breathe.

They found a spot at the base of a tree surrounded by a kind of flower they remembered their parents used to share with one another when they could. How fitting they would fit a space of them as if the forest had prepared it.

They dug a spot with a small shovel and carefully laid the scarf in it. Ezran made sure it was all neat and proper. Fit as much for a king. A father.

For a minute, they just looked at it before Ezran put a hand on Callum’s arm. Once the scarf was buried, Callum and Ezran both put flowers. Bait even hopped over to a nice looking stone. Ezran smiled despite his watery eyes. “Thanks, Bait. He’ll like that one.”

The forest spoke for a while. The birds, the rustle of the leaves. They waited. Waited for the time to be right. Andromeda had stepped back, leaving them the respectful space and privacy they needed just for a little bit.

Ezran was the first to speak through the thickness of his voice. Through the tears beginning to fall. “Dad... I’m going to miss you. It’s not going to be the same without you. I promise I’ll eat an extra jelly tart for you. I’ll make sure I take care of Bait. I always do, but you gave me a best friend. And you loved me a lot, too. I know that. I wish I got to tell you how much I loved you,” Ezran wiped his eyes even as his voice cracked. “But you were smart. You had to know how much we loved you, right? You knew. So, I’m not worried, but… Dad? Can you do me a favor?”

Callum closed his eyes as Ezran spoke.

“Can you say hi to Mom for us? Tell her all the stuff we’ve been doing since she’s been gone? She’ll want to know. I want her to know. And when we see you again, we’ll tell you all kinds of things, too. I… I promise we’re going to have a lot to tell you guys. I-I love you so much, Dad.

Ezran hunched his shoulders, letting himself cry. Bait turned a deep shade of blue, croaking miserably and Callum put a hand on the back of his brother’s neck, holding his shoulder tightly to steady the both of them. Callum kept his lips tight the whole time, shaking and sniffling a little.

This was it, wasn’t it? The first and last time he would ever see this spot.

Maybe this would be the last time he ever saw the lodge. That cold spot got unusually warm. And hollow, too. He let that emptiness embrace all the things around him now. This peaceful forest day. The final resting place for their father’s memories. His body would be in The Valley of Graves, but his memories would be right here for his sons. He would think this was good. Preferable , even.

Ezran gathered himself together, sniffing still. “Callum? Did you want to say something?”

Callum couldn’t answer.

Ezran hugged him tight. “It’s okay. If you want to go, we can.”

“I… I, uh…” Callum cleared his throat. “Can I have a minute alone? I just want to be here for a little while with him.”

Ezran squeezed him tighter and smiled. He looked at Andromeda. Andromeda said nothing, but she nodded and gestured for Ezran to come with her. Ezran asked, “Will you be okay out here?”

“It’s not far,” Callum said. “I’ll be fine.”

When they left, Callum turned back to the grave and just breathed.

-:-:-:-

Runaan was waiting for them outside the lodge when they arrived. He frowned at the sight of them. “Where’s Prince Callum?”

“He wanted a moment alone,” Andromeda explained. That look he was giving her was chideful. Softly, she pleaded with him. “Runaan… let him have a moment. I think he’s earned that much from us.”

He sighed. She understood, but Prince Callum wasn’t a child. Near his side, Rayla was hovering by the doorway. He jerked his head towards he woods. “Follow him.” Runaan glanced at Andromeda. “With discretion.”

Rayla obeyed.

-:-:-:-

Callum stood there for a while. The silence not enough to fill the whole in his belly. Part of himself was tearing that whole open the more he stood like this, holding it all in.

Holding it all together for the sake of living. Escaping Viren. Leaving Katolis.

Everything.

He had to let himself have this.

Let himself have this much. In this moment. This one time.

He let everything faded away. Yet, it all encompassed him on that singular focus.

His stepfather’s grave at his feet.

Callum sighed, shaking so hard through it that even his breath trembled. He breathed again. And again.

And again. And again, his tears finally overcoming his will. And again, as the sobs sputtered from his lips.

His shoulders shook as the weight of his world fell from them, his sobs overtook him and his tears blinded him. His knees buckled and he let himself fall onto them, his sobbing continued.

He bawled. Let the whole forest hear it for all he cared. He bawled for his father. He bawled for his life ending as he once knew it. He bawled for that memory of Viren killing his father and how it came to his dreams every night. He bawled for all the life his father wasn’t going to get to see. His own and his sons’.

Callum bawled and he sobbed and he cried.

And when he could find breath through his sobs, on his hands and knees he punched the ground. “I’m sorry, Dad. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he cried and punched the ground again and again until his hand hurt. He croaked and his voice cracked. Thick tears fell from his eyes, sliding down his face and down his nose. “ I’m so sorry...! I couldn’t help you…! I couldn’t save you… all I could do was watch… I’m so sorry… I’m so sorry… please, forgive me, Dad… please forgive me…”

He hadn’t been able to do anything to save his father. Not a damn thing.

I promise… I’m going to protect Ezran… I’m not going to lose anybody else... I won’t let you down there… ” Callum sucked in a breath to steady himself. A hoarse determination gripped his voice. A bit of a growl.

He looked at his father’s makeshift grave, his eyes burning like the inside of his chest.

I swear it.”

-:-:-:-

Rayla leapt from branch to branch until she came upon the prince at a makeshift grave. He was on his knees, trying to catch his breath. Was he okay? She almost jumped down, but then he picked himself up and wiped his face.

He stood there for some time, then he left. Rayla made sure he never saw her all the way back to the lodge.

-:-:-:-

Callum took a nap after that. A very much needed nap.

He woke up feeling better than he had in days. Letting go for a moment after days of holding it together like that? It’d done more for him that he thought it would.

He meant his promise though. He wasn’t going to lose anyone else.

But there was some kind of peace, now. That hole was no longer being torn open.

The rest of the day went by relatively well. Tomorrow was definitely going to be their departure day and the elves were making their last preparations for the journey. Tents had been packed after they found a few bags near the river. Food was also well accounted for and Rayla seemed just about fully healed. Callum was still kind of marvelled at how fast she’d gotten back on her feet.

Things seemed to be going well. Andromeda even seemed to be a little nicer to him.

The day looked bright.

In the kitchen, Callum finished his lunch as Ezran helped Callisto clean up. Rayla had been sent out for patrol and the other elves discussed final matters with Runaan. Then, Rayla rushed through the front door, slammng it in her wake.

She stomped right over to Callum half out of breath. “ It’s winter lodge, Rayla!” She was beside herself, putting her fingers up in air quotations. “No winter, no humans!”

Callum put his hands up. “Whoa, hang on. What’s wrong? Why are you yelling at me?”

“You said there were no humans here in the spring!” She gestured toward the door. “There’s a small army of them coming this way! From your kingdom!”

Runaan rose out of his chair, a snarl on his face. “You--”

“No! No, I didn’t do this! I swear,” Callum put his hands between himself and Runaan.

Ezran pulled at Callum’s sleeve. “...Callum, what if it was Dad?”

‘What?”

“Dad. Remember, Dad was going to send us here. What if they don’t know?”

Callum’s mouth fell open. He gripped his hair with both hands. “Oh no.”

“What is it?” Runaan demanded.

“My dad knew you guys were coming and he was going to send us here for our safety.” Callum spoke faster with every word . “He would have sent a small party to protect us, but I assumed that order was cancelled when he died. They might not have gotten word in time.”

Or perhaps they hadn’t been sent word at all. Callum wasn’t sure what Viren was doing now. It wouldn’t surprise him if he forbade anyone from letting it get out to the generals of Katolis that the king was dead.

“We need to go, now.” Runaan ordered.

“There’s no time,” Rayla said. “They’ll be here any--”

A horn sounded. Callum knew that horn.

“They’re here.” Callum’s thoughts raced. “You all need to hide.”

“We need to leave--” Skor was already brandishing a sword.

“We’ll never get out of here without a fight.” Andromeda did the same.

“The storeroom,” For once, Callum wasn’t suggesting. Assassins or not, he was giving an order. “Get in the storeroom and we can wait for an opportunity to leave.”

Rayla started. “Our packs, the egg--”

“No time. I’ll get them.” None of them moved. “Unless anybody else has a better idea, the storeroom is all we have. We can’t just stand here.”

“He’s right.” Thank goodness, Runaan agreed. “Let’s go.”

“I’ll do my best to keep them out of there.” Not that Callum was worried for the elves’ safety. He knew they were killing anybody who wandered in there alone.

The elves finally gone, Callum and Ezran met the human soldiers outside. Who? Who could they be? Was it anyone he could talk around?

The apparent general came forward and took her helmet off. She was tall, dark-haired with a scar on her cheek and the same uptiled eyes as his mother.

“Aunt Amaya…” Callum breathed.

Was this shock or relief settling through him? He didn’t exactly know. But his aunt embraced them in a crushing hug.

She signed to them. Gren spoke, “Boys, I’ve missed you. It’s so good to see you. You’re safe now. I’m so sorry that we arrived late. How long have you been here?”

“Only for a couple days,” Callum grinned so hard it hurt his cheeks. “Did Dad send you?”

His aunt nodded and signed. “Your father’s letter arrived a few days ago,” she spoke through Gren. “I was hoping to get here a bit earlier than this, but it didn’t work out that way.”

So, she didn’t know. Callum wondered why.

Later, Callum did his best to sneak in all of the packs right under his aunt’s nose. When he managed to do that, he told the elves what he knew as quickly as possible posssible. There would be a watch, but most of the soliders would be asleep and if they could make it to the boats that were ported under the lodge then they could make their escape without any mess.

Until then, Callum and Ezran just had to keep it together.

“Callum, what if we tell her?” Ezran looked up at his brother from his place at the chimney.

Callum put a finger to his lips. “Ez, we can’t. You know Aunt Amaya isn’t exactly the biggest fan of elves and we can’t really tell her that we’re running around with assassins.”

“But Callum, doesn’t she deserve to know about Dad?”

Callum bit his lip. “She does. But we can’t be the ones to tell her. We need to get away from Lord Viren.”

“What if she can protect us from him?”

He… he hadn’t thought of that.

His aunt was probably the strongest person he knew.

Could she?

Could she protect them?

-:-:-:-

“Get the egg.”

Those were Rayla’s instructions. Runaan did not trust Callum enough to secure the egg. Rayla couldn’t blame him looking down at all the soldiers. She skipped across the beams, landing onto the second floor.

It should still be in Runaan’s room. She made her way to the room he’d been staying in--

And panicked when it wasn’t there.

No, no, no. Had they gotten it already? They weren’t acting like they found it.

Dragon eggs didn’t just disappear. She had to find it and she had to find it now.

This was going to be a lot of trouble.

-:-:-:-

Callum rested his head on the back of his chair and nearly choked on air when he saw Rayla, leaping across the beams. What was she doing?

The egg. Callum stifled a groan. He’d hidden the egg down in Ezran’s bag in a bush near the river where the boats were when nobody had been looking. He’d done that after talking to the elves.

How was he going to get her attention? He couldn’t very well start looking as if he was talking to the ceiling. Okay, he had to think. How were they going to get out of this? Night was falling fast and now was not the time to mess this up. Soon, Aunt Amaya would go to sleep and they only had to deal with the nightwatch.

Think, think, think.

He thought and thought and thought.

Unfortunately, hisideas were really running short right now.

Rayla looked at him. She was mouthing to him.

He looked around to see if anything was looking at him. He mouthed back, “I hid it.”

She asked him where.

Oh, for goodness sake--

He replied silently, “Go back.”

She glared at him, but moved on. Was she even listening to him? He didn’t know where she was going and that made him nervous. Another hour passed and he didn’t spot her. That made him incredibly nervous. Did he trust Rayla to move around like death itself? Sure. Did he trust her not to get caught when his aunt was currently awake? That was another matter. The thing about having a deaf woman and a general as a family member was the fact that she was very keenly aware of her surroundings. At all times. Ever.

Even Ezran was nervous at this point, fidgeting with his toys.

Only a little while longer. A little while longer. A little while--

They ran out of time.

There was a scream, a rumble and soldiers exploded into the living space. Soldiers and the elves, fighting their way into a clearing. Callum leapt up, snatching Ezran into his grip. How? How had they been found?

“I knew it.” Callum twisted his head to see his aunt and Gren standing on the second floor. Aunt Amaya signed and Gren spoke. “I knew someone else had been here. Too much of the food was missing for it to only have been two boys. Callum, Ezran, come here.”

Callum stepped forward. “Aunt Amaya, wait, let us expla--”

A soldier shot an arrow into the elves and Skor was the first to react. He danced into the fray, splaying man after man onto the ground. The scene erupted from there. Andromeda was a whip weaving in and out of the fight, men falling in her wake. Ram sheared and dodged swords as Callisto twirled his double-bladed sword. Runaan’s bow separated into his blades and he met several soldiers head on, a force of nature on his own.

Gren and Aunt Amaya ran to join the frey, Gren getting ahead of Callum’s aunt. Rayla leapt down on his aunt from the ceiling. Callum kept a tight grip on Ezran, keeping as far from the fight as possible, he pushed Ezran toward the back door. “Go outside,”

“Callum--”

Go!”

Ezran hesitated, but ran outside, Bait in his arms a vivid green color. Callum turned his attention back to the madness that was going on before him. He was frozen against the wall, unable to tear his eyes away from the carnage. Metal clashed, men screamed, blood sprayed. The elves were frighteningly good fighters. They cut through the soldiers, truly displaying the proclaimed Moonshadow elf prowess for battle.

And yet. They were being pushed back. As they cut through men, more soldiers poured in. Each elf could handle about three men. Runaan was dealing with five at a time, but it wasn’t enough.

Callum took a deep breath. He couldn’t just be standing here. He had to do something. At least, get them separated.

“Runaan! Callisto!” he called from the outskirts of the battle. “Skor! Andromeda! Ram!”

Runaan cut into a man, his focus driven on the task of staying alive right in that moment. He managed to exchange glances with Callisto who was busy doing the same thing, bringing his blade up into a man’s armpit. They switched places and Callisto took care of the men unprepared for Callisto’s blade sweeping across their throats. Callum hadn’t even seen Runaan take down his end of soldiers.

Skor was a madman in the midst of it all, faster than all get out and strong, too. He flipped a man clear across the room. “ The hell do you want, kid?” He shouted, stabbing a soldier who was charging at him from behind. “ We’re having some adult conversations right now! Make it quick!”

“Backdoor!” Callum pointed toward the back of the lodge. “Now! Let’s go!”

“Smartest thing you’ve said since we found you!” Skor elbowed someone in the face. “You lot! We can’t do this forever! Let’s go!

Trying!” Ram was running around a particularly large soldier trying to cut him down, his blades bloody from the others lying around them. “ This guy won’t take no for an answer! Told him I’m not a good dancer!

Well, stab him between the legs and get it over with!

Ram ducked a swing. He turned red. “ Switch with me if it’s so damn easy then!”

As if on command, Skor bypassed his assailants and slid under the legs of Ram’s opponent. The large soldier howled in pain as Skor buried a knife exactly where he said he would. Callum cringed. He felt that one.

“Ready?” Skor panted.

Ram jerked his head. “Let’s go.”

Andromeda joined them. “Runaan! Leave them before we’re surrounded!”

Runaan glanced at them, then said to Callisto. “It’s time to leave.”

“Seconded,” Callisto pushed the soldiers off of him, attempting to disengage. “Rayla! Let’s go!”

Callum could see Rayla fighting his aunt, maneuvering and vaulting around her, only to be met with that great shield and his aunt’s even greater strength. Despite holding her own, it was clear that she was outmatched a couple decades. She was glad to disengage from this fight. When she got a chance.

“Corvus!” Gren called. To who that was, Callum didn’t know.

A dark-skinned man who’d been battling on and off with Callisto and Runaan twisted and threw a chain up to the second floor. Aunt Amaya caught the chain. Rayla saw her chance. She sheathed her weapons in a flash and leapt toward the first floor, but Callum saw it before she got all the way out.

His aunt was fast.

The chain went flying just as Rayla did and it found its mark.

It wrapped right around Rayla’s neck not once, but twice and his aunt yanked on it, grabbing her back into the wooden railing with a thud and pulling the end through it so that Rayla couldn’t pull his aunt over. Callum’s heart plummeted into his belly. Rayla’s hands wrapped around the chain, fighting against her dangling position.

Callum’s eyes widened. Over all the noise, he could somehow hear her wheezing, choking, begging for air.

He could see that chain tightening around her throat.

She kicked at the air.

Her mouth fell open, her face turned red.

She kicked harder.

Aunt Amaya, no!” Callum’s hoarse shouts mixed with the sounds of blades clanging and clashing.

From the corner of his eye, Callum knew Runaan had seen Rayla. He charged toward her, but Corvus met him with a sword of his own. “No, you won’t, elf.”

Runaan pushed him back, gritting his teeth. “Move.”

He headbutted Corvus and used the moment to punch him in the face, desperately moving for Rayla again who was swinging her legs and clawing at the chains. A group of soldiers descended upon him. Those men were in his way.

And he turned into a nightmare with those bloody swords.

But he wasn’t going to make it.

Callum looked up at Rayla fighting for air as his aunt was strangling her to death.

He wasn’t going to make it in time.

Aunt Amaya, stop!”

At the foot of the stairs, Callum started to climb. She looked at him, then away, but did not let go of Rayla.

I know you see me! Gren!” Callum shouted louder. Gren was busy fighting Callisto. But his aunt had looked at him. She read his lips as they moved. “ Aunt Amaya, let her go! You’re killing her! Green, tell her to stop!”

Rayla’s kicks were becoming slower. She was turning purple.

Aunt Amaya! Stop! Please!”

Rayla couldn’t kick anymore. And then, the primal stone was in his hand.

I said stop!” The command ripped through his throat. “Fulminis!

When he had pulled the stone out of his jacket pocket, he didn’t know, but he drew the rune faster than he could think and was hurling the lightning at his aunt’s feet. She must have felt him draw it because she jumped out of the way, letting Rayla got in the process.

He heard Rayla hit the ground and ran over to the railing. A wave of relief washed over him when he heard her gasp, then again and saw her pulling the chain off as she picked herself up. Runaan was at her side in seconds.

Callum turned to see his aunt, getting up off the ground, but not taking her eyes off him. Her face… shock. Confusion. Pain.

She signed to him. “Callum.”

Callum looked down, Runaan and Rayla were edging out towards the back, blades out cutting into anybody getting too close. He looked back at his aunt who still hadn’t quite moved.

He spoke to her with his hands. A singular apology. It wasn’t enough to express how he felt. What he meant.

She reached for him. He ran down the stairs and out the back right behind Rayla and Runaan. His eyes stung, but he blinked the threatening tears away, the soldiers right on his heel. He met the elves and Ezran down by the river, three boats all ready to go. Runaan had an arrow nocked. He loosed. Behind Callum, a guard screamed.

Callum didn’t question it. He jumped into the boat with Rayla, Callisto and Ezran.

They began to row away, but soldiers were still coming. Someone gripped his hair and Callum yelped, but didn’t fight when he felt the blade on his throat. He held his breath.

‘What are you doing?” Callum hissed.

Callisto kept his cool and his blade on Callum’s throat. “Making sure they don’t shoot us in the back.”

They rowed under the bridge, past his soldiers. Past his aunt looking something between lost, angry and determined. He signed to her again.

One last apology.

-:-:-:-

They rowed until the soldiers were out of sight. For a time, they stopped, letting the river take them. Callum had little to say, but he could feel Rayla’s stare on him. He dragged his attention from the primal stone rumbling between his fingers.

“Thanks,” she said quietly, rubbing her throat. “Guess I owe you one, again.”

Callum shook his head. “Nah. We’re even. Mountain lion, remember?”

She almost smiled at him, but it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “Why didn’t you go with your aunt? You wouldn’t have needed us anymore.”

At that, Callum sat back, eyes cast on the primal stone again.

“No.” he replied. “She couldn’t have protected us.”

Chapter Text

They didn’t stop the boat nearly all night.

The ultimate worry was if the human general would follow them or not. That, Runaan could not risk. Andromeda agreed with him.

“Do you think they can outrun the river?”

Runaan shook his head. “No. Not with the forests and a force that big. It will take too much time to get them into formation before they can chase after us.”

She nodded. “They’re going to come after us. Not immediately. But in time.”

“Soon,” He added. “We should expect them to depart by morning. For now, the river will aid our speed. We need to widen the gap.”

On the boat behind them, Runaan could hear Rayla arguing with Callisto. He didn’t know who he was to be more exasperated with.

“Callisto, I’m fine. You don’t have to keep poking at me.”

“You were nearly strangled to death with a metal chain,” Callisto snapped. “You are going to be still while I check to make sure you are not bleeding internally, have torn neck muscles and possibly a damaged windpipe or so help me I am going to finish the job myself. Now, sit still.”

The silence that ensued afterward told Runaan who won that argument. He would need to have a word with Rayla about letting Callisto do his job. Callisto had said it before. Rayla was strong, but she wasn’t invincible. Runaan remembered what it was like to be that young and feel as if nothing could touch him when, in reality, anything could have killed him.

He supposed that was the great illusion of youth.

There were times Runaan had to make himself put aside Rayla’s age. After all, he’d taken care of her nearly her entire life. That was primarily why her body dangling from around that chain had made some instinct inside flare like a lit flame. And, yet, he hadn’t been able to make it in time. Rayla was not invincible. But neither was he. She would have met her end then and there had it not been for the human prince.

Runaan glanced back at Prince Callum watching Rayla and Callisto.

-:-:-:-

They finally looked for a suitable place to stop when the moon ran toward the horizon. Callisto had been treating and checking her wounds forever. His ability for healing magic was incredible and she did appreciate it, but…

It was so annoying, sometimes.

He instructed Rayla to drink some water. She obeyed and tried to hide her wince, but he wasn’t fooled.

“There is a some damage.” He observed. “But I don’t think it’s so severe I can’t heal you. You’re just going to need to--”

“Take it easy, I know.” She rolled her eyes.

Callisto frowned. “If you would stop getting hurt then perhaps I would stop telling you that.”

“Oh, right. I’ll try harder not to die next time since I wasn’t trying hard enough before. You know, I didn’t ask to get strangled. She threw the chain around when I trying to get away from her.”

“And you took your eyes off your opponent in doing so. Learn to be more careful. You are lucky. And don’t mock me this time. Just listen. You’re lucky that your injuries are not as bad as they could have been. Perhaps your hands were keeping the chain from tightening too much or some higher being was watching over you, but luck had something do with it. That’s for sure.”

Rayla looked away, but said nothing. He was… right. She’d been so caught up in what she was doing that she forgot to make sure her steps were careful. If she had stepped even a foot away that could have saved her some trouble.

“How long do I have to ‘take it easy’ then?” she grumbled.

“It won’t be as long as your time at the lodge. And you won’t need to be bedridden. Just don’t overdo it. I’m confident that I can heal whatever damage you sustained this time.”

This time.

Rayla looked out at the dark forest and didn’t talk to Callisto the rest of the boat ride. She more or less ignored him during their healing session once they had found a spot along the banks of the river to stop. Not that he seemed to notice or mind. Still, she thanked him, at least. He was right even if the way he went about it irked her, sometimes.

“Rayla.”

Rayla heaved a great mental sigh. Oh, she knew that tone of Runaan’s. That was his ‘I’d like a word with you’ voice. “Yes?”

He took a seat under the tree next to her as she got ready to bed down if only for a couple hours. “You cannot always fight Callisto when he tells you to rest. He is telling you these things for a reason.”

“I know,” Rayla crossed her arms. “But Runaan, I’m fine. He likes to pester me about it.”

“Do you listen?”

“Yes.”

He raised his brows at her.

“I try.”

“It’s his job to be sure that you are healing correctly. An injury in the field could remove you from duty.” She looked away. “Worse, you could die if he’s not thorough. You know this. If he’s bothering you about it, then it means your well-being is on his mind.”

Rayla uncrossed her arms. The last few days had been such a blitz. Between getting the egg, now sitting near Ram, nearly dying, and their time at the lodge, it was as if she’d been in a race to recover just so the rest of them wouldn’t die. Perhaps, she was getting ahead of herself. She turned back to Runaan. “I know you’re right... I just know I can prove myself.”

Runaan nodded his understanding. “You have proven yourself. And you will continue to do so, but learning when to listen and follow orders is also a part of that. Listening means understanding.”

“Just like you need to make sure Callisto and I don’t keep arguing?”

“Yes, just as I need to make sure the team is not disturbed by any conflicts between you and Callisto.” He smiled a little. “Rayla, you know he respects you, but it is his job to worry about you. As it is mine.”

Rayla returned his smile. She quipped. “To be fair, he worries about everybody that’s not himself. It’s going to get him in trouble someday.”

Runaan snorted. “That, you may have a point in. But I have enough experience keeping him in check there. Now, sleep. We won’t be here longer than a couple hours.”

“...are we leaving by boat?”

He stood up to leave, raising his brows slightly. “Very possibly.”

Wonderful.

-:-:-:-

The morning was pink when Callum woke up. Not that he’d really slept. It’d been an uneasy night, those elves that were allowed to sleep doing so with weapons in their hands. Runaan and Callisto kept watch on and off together. Runaan never put his bow away.

Callum wanted to walk off on his own for a while, but even he knew better than to just wander off in a time like this. There was no telling how truly close his Aunt Amaya might be.

So, he just went to the river and sat at the edge, looking out as rosy colors laced the water surface. There was something calm about the river. There was no rush or rapids. Just the stillness of the water letting the morning come peacefully.

At least something was at peace. He closed his eyes and the image of his aunt choking Rayla was there. As it had been in his dreams next to the purple flashes and sick thud that accompanied his night memories of Viren killing his stepfather.

He opened his eyes again and drank in that faint morning pink. He let yesterday die. It wasn’t as if he had a choice in the matter. Not anymore. That choice had been ripped away and tainted into something he could no longer understand let alone fathom choosing.

Yes, Aunt Amaya was a warrior and he always knew that. His own mother had been right alongside her, but this-- this was different.

“Hey.”

Callum blinked, then looked beside him as Rayla claimed a spot. “Hey.” He smiled a little. “How’s your throat?”

“Fine. Callisto’s treating it, but it’s still a bit sore. I just need to give my body a chance to heal itself. Shouldn’t be as bad as last time though.”

“That’s good.”

There was a pause between them. She looked out at the water with him. “You sleep alright?”

He shrugged. “I slept.”

“That’s fair. Mine was the same.” She said, then continued. “Say, is it... okay if I ask you a question?”

He nodded, already having a feeling for what it was about.

“What did you mean when you said your aunt couldn’t protect you? If she’s a general and your aunt then shouldn’t she have a say where your from?”

Callum was quiet for a long time. He wouldn’t have been surprised if Rayla just up and left, but she waited, patiently, watching with him as the waters doused themselves in that pink dew color. He narrowed his eyes when he finally spoke, “I always looked up to my aunt.” He could feel Rayla’s eyes move to him. “Always. For as long as I could remember, really. She was strong, she could beat anyone and she always knew the right thing to do. If anyone could fix things then it would be Aunt Amaya. And I knew she had prejudice against elves, but I didn’t think anything of it, you know? Everybody did. But that was my fault. I didn’t really think about it. Then, I saw her choking you. I saw her look at me. She read my lips, but she still kept strangling you. And… everything I knew about her became tainted.”

He’d brought his knees to rest under his chin. It was the truth he’d been slapped with last night. Nearly gutted, if he described how it made him feel precisely. How could she protect them if he had no idea what she would do? Her intentions to keep them from harm were all well and good, but they had also nearly resulted in Rayla’s death and for whatever Rayla was, he didn’t think she deserved to die. Not like that, certainly.

When he saw his aunt killing Rayla, knowing full well what she was doing, he had been yanked back into the moment of the purple flash that came right before his father hit the ground dead. It made him sick to his stomach.

“I can’t trust her anymore.”

It killed him to say that, but it was the truth. Whatever image or notion of his aunt he had was now in tatters and he wasn’t sure anything was going to fix it. Moreover, he kept wondering what had she already done that he simply didn’t know about.

What deeds were on her hands. He couldn’t call himself perfect. He never would, but he wondered how much elvish blood had stained her hands. How old had those elves been?

“I’m so sorry,” Rayla said. He snapped out of his thoughts and looked at her. Her brows were upturned in an apologetic look. “I never meant for you to lose her like that.”

“I never meant to either…” He shook his head. “It’s not your fault. I’m just glad you're alright. I don’t think I could have handled watching anyone else I know die.”

Rayla opened her mouth to say something, but there was a loud croak that interrupted them. Ezran had come down to the riverside with them, Bait in tow. He rubbed his eyes, yawning. “Are you guys coming to breakfast? Ram made crickets.”

“He made what?” Rayla turned a tinge of green. Callum couldn’t blame her.

Ezran grinned. “Yeah, Bait loves them. Ram says they’re really nutritious too. I tried them. Not bad. Kind of crunchy.”

“Maybe you can have my helping then. Callisto didn’t say I have to be on a frog diet,” Rayla muttered.

Ezran laughed. Callum blinked at him. It was the first time he’d heard Ezran laugh in days. He looked at Rayla and she was smiling at the sound, too. Something in Callum’s belly bloomed at the scene before him.

“Actually, Bait’s a toad, but I guess you can call him a frog just once,” Ezran grinned. “Callum, are you coming?”

“Soon, buddy. Just need to wake up a bit,” Callum said softly.

Ezran shrugged and left. Callum and Rayla turned back to the river. They stayed quiet for a good minute, soaking in the quiet as much as that early light. It was Rayla who finally broke the silence. She slipped off the sleeves of her forearms and revealed a dark scar on each wrist. “I got these back in the castle. I... keep wanting to ask Callisto if he can heal them, but then that means I have to explain them to him...”

Her voice trailed off as Callum frowned. They looked like some kind of burn marks. She continued.

“When I was in the castle, the high mage caught me stealing the egg. I got away, but he used his dark magic to pin me like he was a spider and I was a bug caught in his web. I…” Her voice trembled. She swallowed. “Then, he sent these dogs after me that were made of smoke and fire and I couldn’t fight them. I wasn’t fast enough to get away from them, either. Not with the egg. I managed to pick myself up, but you saw the shape I was in when I finally got out. I had to fight a lot of guards, too. And that’s… that’s when, you know. You met me.”

And that was why she was in the state she was in when they met. Callum felt sick. He shook his head. “Rayla, I’m so sorry about everything. All of it. Lord Viren, my aunt… you didn’t deserve any of that.”

She nodded curtly, but he knew it was sincere and she held a bare wrist, lifting her gaze to him. “You trusted me with your story. I thought I ought to trust you with mine.”

His lips curved with gratitude. “I appreciate that. If it’s any consolation? I still see the flashes of light before my dad died. Everytime I close my eyes for too long, I still see them.”

“I’ve been thinking we all see something when we close our eyes, if I’m honest. Even if we don’t know it. Sometimes, I think I see my parents if it’s too quiet. Outside and in my head.”

Callum ventured to ask, “Where are your parents now?”

“I never really had them.” It was her only answer.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean-- I shouldn’t have asked that. That was too personal.”

“It’s okay. I wouldn’t have told you if it wasn’t.” She slipped her sleeves back on her wrists. “You going to be okay?”

“Yeah. I think so.” He meant it. “Can’t really afford to stay sad about stuff too long, right?”

Rayla offered him a smile. “No, I suppose not. Come on, let’s go eat. Or, uh, try to eat breakfast.” She got up. “Think you might like crickets, Camel?”

Callum followed suit, raising a finger in protest. “Uh, that’s not really my--” She was smirking. He laughed. “Oh, okay I get it. Good one.”

“Let’s go, Sad Prince. Maybe we can feed our crickets to that toad of yours.”

-:-:-:-

Ram was not in charge of lunch that afternoon. Callisto made sure of that. They were expecting to leave after this and he was not about to start throwing his guts up in a boat on this kind of schedule. He would be damned first.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Runaan handed him a handful of berries. Callisto just looked at him. “They’re nutritious.”

“Then you can eat them. I’m not.”

Runaan let out a low laugh. “I never thought you might be afraid of bugs.”

Callisto rolled his eyes. “I’m not scared of them. I just don’t want to eat them. There are enough berries around here for me to suffice with. You can eat the jumping bastards all you’d like.”

Runaan’s amusement didn’t fade right away even as he went on. “While we’re here, I needed to speak with you about something.” Calisto nodded. Runaan continued. “Have you been butting heads with Rayla a lot, lately?”

Callisto narrowed his eyes. “No. Why do you ask?”

“I heard that little argument you two had last night.”

“Oh, that,” Callisto scoffed. “She doesn’t know how to be careful. I wish she would stop doing things that nearly gets her killed.”

“As would I,” Runaan nodded slowly. “But I must remind you that Rayla is a full-fledged assassin now. She’s one of us, Callisto.”

“I never said she wasn’t.”

“Then perhaps you might try treating her like she is one. Rayla is capable. Reckless, but capable.”

Callisto raised his brows at Runaan. This coming from Runaan, of all people? He supposed that Runaan had been the one to vouch for Rayla to come on this mission. He’d even had faith in her to kill that guard they first encountered the morning they came to Katolis, but it wasn’t as if Runaan didn’t have bias for Rayla. It was quiet, but it wasn’t unfounded.

“She is capable. Which is why she should know better. Runaan, she’s going to get herself killed if she continues to act without thinking. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to not see her hanging as an ornament for some human.”

Runaan frowned. “You don’t think I know that? She’s been under my care for as long as I can remember. If anyone understands what you mean it’s me. But even I have to remember to treat her with the respect she deserves. Rayla has shown us that she is well on her way to becoming an experienced assassin.”

Callisto crossed his arms. “So, you want me to be gentler with her?”

“I want you to remember that she is a part of the team. Not a subordinate of it.”

Callisto considered Runaan and his words. There was definitely a difference with how Runaan got to talk to Rayla and how Callisto should. Runaan had more or less earned that spot in his own way, having essentially raised Rayla nearly all her life. There was something about that Callisto knew wasn’t necessarily up for discussion and he had no intention of bringing it up. He wouldn’t question Runaan’s place in Rayla’s life. The man had earned a certain different respect from Rayla and that relationship was their own.

But, perhaps, Callisto could see the truth in his words.

“Maybe I have been a bit hard on her,” Callisto scratched the back of his head. He sighed. “Fine. I will try and lighten up. I know she wants to prove herself. She’s been succeeding. I could just do without her almost dying so many times.”

“Believe me. I understand the sentiment.”

-:-:-:-

The most interesting thing, Callum found, was Rayla’s odd opposition to taking the boats again. He hadn’t noticed anything wrong with her the night before when they were on them, but he also had probably been too busy in his own head to truly pay attention.

“I just think we could get more coverage if we walk,” Rayla said, eyeing the boat warily. “We’re pretty exposed by the river.”

“I know, Rayla,” Runaan said, an unusually kind tone to his voice. “But we’re more in need of speed, right now. Try to bear with it.”

Rayla nodded, albeit unhappily. As they prepared to board the boats, Callum sided up next to her. “You know, you could probably rest more on the boats than if we went by land. Why don’t you want to take them?”

“I told you, I just think that we could get more coverage through the forest with the trees and stuff.” She seemed inclined to hunch her shoulders, but there was a strange shift with her eyes that she wasn’t good at hiding. “That’s all.”

Callum blinked.

Wait… no. He tried to master his features to keep from outright laughing.

Was she for real?

He chuckled, smirking. “Are you sure that’s the only reason? I mean, there’s nothing else? Nothing at all?”

“No, of course not.” She crossed her arms. “Why would there be?”

He wasn’t convinced.

“Oh, no reason. You just don’t seem to be telling us the whole story.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “That’s all.”

He could hear her grumbling behind him as she grabbed a pack and boarded a boat. His amusement, however, faded somewhat after they set off. The longer they seemed to sail down the river, the more miserable Rayla seemed to get.

On one side, Callum and Callisto lounged, an oar in Callisto’s hand. Lounging was a generous term for any of the elves. Callisto was always scanning the forests, never completely at ease. His gaze eventually settled on Rayla, bent over the other side of the boat as if to try and contain the contents of her lunch. Callisto just slowly shook his head at her.

Callum tapped on the book of runes he had open, concern coming through his voice “Is she going to be okay?”

“She’ll be fine. As long as she doesn’t fall off the side of her boat with all her moving around,” Callisto said.

Rayla looked over her shoulder. “I can hear you, you know.”

Callisto went back to scanning the forests. “I know.”

“I’m fine,” she said, not sounding the least bit so. Quite frankly, she sounded like she was going to hurl. “I’m just looking at the detail on this bo--”

She stopped herself and put a hand to her mouth, keeling back over with a poorly hidden groan. Callum cringed. Admittedly, he felt a little bad about making fun of her earlier. He’d been so smug about it.

“Are you sure she’s going to be okay?” Callum whispered.

“Don’t worry about it,” Callisto lowered his voice. “She’s never been good with water. Something about it doesn’t sit right with her. I can only imagine the trouble it was for Runaan to get her to take a bath when she was younger.”

“I said I’m fine--”

“You just sit right before you end up--” A yelp, a splash was all it took to have Callisto rolling his eyes. “--falling in.”

Callum jumped up to grab her before she was swept away, but Callisto had already moved to haul her out of the water as they passed by. She coughed up water, picking herself up, ringing out her hair and looking overall the picture of an unhappy elf.

“I could maybe use aspiro, you know,” Callum offered. “To dry you off?”

Rayla opened her mouth as if to accept the offer, but Callisto beat her to it. “And that risks tipping the boat over. As a word of warning, if we capsize, I am drowning you. Your best bet is to can dry her off when we land.”

Callum winced. He mouthed an apology to Rayla.

She shook her head. “It’s fine. I’ll just… be here.”

She laid back down on the boat. Callisto said nothing, but he nodded an approval.

-:-:-:-

“That was Rayla.”

“It was,” Andromeda confirmed, the egg of The Dragon Prince in the bag at her side.

Runaan resisted the urge to sigh. She always did have an aversion to water. He wasn’t trying to make it more difficult having to travel by boat, but it was the fastest way to widen the gap between them and the humans. With enough distance, they could probably lose the humans completely.

He glanced at Andromeda. She was scanning the forests as he watched the river path ahead, but every now and again she glanced at their third boat not too far behind. At the young human prince riding with Ram and Skor.

“You worry in excess.”

She didn’t even look at him. “I’m not worried.”

“You are,” Runaan said. She finally turned to him. “Andromeda, even Skor wouldn’t begrudge a human child. Do you not trust him?”

“With the prince’s life? Yes. Skor knows his duty,” She said. “Remembering that he is a child, not just a human? How can I be?”

Runaan shook his head. “Skor knows how to handle children, Andromeda. More than the rest of us. Trust him.”

“I do trust him. You know that, Runaan. But… he’s human. Ezran can’t be much older than a decade. I don’t want him to feel the weight of all this transgression between our peoples.”

“He is in line to be the future king of Katolis. By all technicalities, he is the rightful king of his kingdom. This is what he should have been training for his entire life. I doubt Skor’s frost will make little difference.”

“He’s only a child. He doesn’t deserve it.”

Runaan looked at her for a long time. And there, in the green of her eyes stark against her dark skin was more than enough that she didn’t need to say. He would say this once. He didn’t have it in him to keep a firm tone. It came out almost a whisper.

“He’s not Aelan.”

At that, she looked away and he was sorry for it.

-:-:-:-

Sitting on the boat with Skor and a human wasn’t terrible. It wasn’t bad at all, really. But it did mean that Ram had to be the one to do most of the talking if there was to be any. Skor was outspoken, yes, but his comfort level around humans was… less than.

But he didn’t bother anyone nor be particularly over bothered by Ezran. That was good.

Not that Ram would blame him entirely.

“Where did you get your glow toad from?” Ram asked Ezran. Skor kept to scanning the forests.

Ezran smiled. He winced with a certain sadness. “My dad got him for me when I was younger. He’s been my best friend ever since. You knew he was a toad though.” His smiled split into a grin. “Most people think he’s a frog.”

“I’ve handled glow toads before,” Ram explained. “They’re diets are actually very wide for creatures like his, but they prefer insects.”

“Oh, Bait loves insects. He really liked those crickets you made, too. They were good, actually.”

“Thank you. At least someone appreciated them,” Ram said somewhat proudly. “You know, they’re actually rather nutritious and they’re not half bad when you roast them.”

“Roasted or not it’s still a bug,” Skor snorted.

“A nutritious bug,” Ram pointed out. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”

“You’re lucky Callisto didn’t throw you into that fire when you told him you made insects for lunch. At least make a soup out of it.”

Ram shrugged. The crickets were eaten. At least, Andromeda and Runaan didn’t complain, but it wasn’t like them to do so either way. “Is Bait the only glow toad you’ve ever encountered, Ezran?”

Ezran nodded. “I’ve only ever had him.”

“That’s what I figured. Well, perhaps you’ll run into more when you get to Xadia, huh?”

“Do they have glow toads?”

“There are all kinds of things in Xadia,” Ram grinned. He pulled out a couple of roasted crickets from his pocket. Bait croaked and immediately snatched them up with his tongue when offered. He turned pink.

“He changes with his mood, correct?”

“Mm-hm. This means he’s playful,” Ezran chuckled. “He likes you, now.”

Ram patted Bait on the head. “Oh, good. Maybe when I get time, I’ll see if I can find more crickets for him.”

“He’d like that. Wouldn’t you Bait?” Bait’s subsequent croak turned into a burp halfway. Ram laughed a little. It died a little when he caught Skor eyeing him. Skor turned his attention back to the forests as Ram tried to allow the prince some semblance of a normal conversation.

-:-:-:

They travelled for the next couple hours, the river speeding up in places that made probably Rayla prefer death. Even if managing those rapids prompted Runaan to make the merciful decision to stop for the time being. Callum felt some relief for her.

“We’ve travelled far enough down river for the day,” Runaan said once they had pulled the boats onto the banks of the river. “One of us will scout on ahead. Ram, you’re the fastest in these environments. That’s going to be you, for now. Give us a report on the terrain ahead and if you think there will be any more rapids downriver.”

Ram nodded and immediately left.

From there, they worked to unpack their tents and get some kind of decent night’s rest for once. After a while of struggling to actually put his and Ezran’s tents up, Rayla just shooed him away and took over.

“I’ll be done in the amount of time it’s taken you to get this far,” she told him.

She was probably right.

In the meantime, Callum went over a few runes near the banks of the river. Instead of moving on to new ones, he focused on the few he knew already. Could he perform them better? Fulminis was the one he had to get better control of. Unlike pluviam and aspiro, this one was easily a bonafide weapon. He was wary of actually performing the spell in and of itself. Especially since the last time he practiced it didn’t exactly go well.

“If you focus your mind, you will better gain better control of your spells. A prepared mind is key to magic.”

Callum twisted around, nearly dropping his book. Runaan always had that effect on him. He was an elf that was easy to tense up around, but Runaan didn’t seem to carry the stance of someone who wanted to be seen as the threat he knew how to be right then. He watched Callum, hands behind his back.

“Oh, uh…” Callum started, unsure of how to proceed. “How might I do that?”

“Whatever it is that calms your mind even in the most dire of situations. But that’s an easier thing said than done for someone of your age, I know,” Runaan replied. “Sometimes, all you can do is prepare yourself for those times in life beforehand.”

He could understand that. There were times his stepfather often needed time alone. Nothing was necessarily wrong, but he just wanted to soak in the world and the state of the day in peace. “And what do you do?”

Runaan never quite moved from beside the tree that marked his place. “I meditate. It allows me to consolidate my thoughts and push them aside to better evaluate my place in life. Be that currently or just in general. You may choose a different form than mine, but meditation in any form usually does a young mind good.”

“Thanks. I, uh… probably kind of needed that.” Callum nodded, then he frowned. “Why help me though? None of you are exactly fond of humans. I know you aren’t.”

Runaan regarded him, but didn’t answer immediately. Seemed inclined not to. Callum waited. As Runaan turned to leave, he said to Callum, “You saved Rayla’s life twice. Once in which you nearly struck down your own family member in doing so. I can’t overlook that. I meant to come and thank you properly.”

Callum blinked. Once. Twice as it dawned on him.

“You care for her,” he said quietly. It was less of a question and more of a statement. “Don’t you?’

Runaan didn’t say anything. He didn’t move. Callum continued.

“Rayla mentioned that she didn’t have parents earlier.” Runaan’s head turned back just slightly as Callum spoke. “Is… is that where you come in? You raised her...”

Runaan’s silence was all the answer he needed. He turned away from Callum completely, his next words all too quiet. “Be sure to focus your thoughts as your drawing your runes.”

Callum’s stepfather was in his thoughts for some time after that.

-:-:-:-

“Callisto, go with Rayla to get more firewood. We’ll need extra once the night gets cold. When you get back, we need to discuss our alternate routes from here on out.”

Dinner was already going, fish and some stray bird that had wandered too close to camp. Callum wasn’t completely sure what kind of bird it was, but he supposed it was probably safe. At least, the fish would be. Skor cleaned the fish and the bird nearby. Before Callisto could leave, Callum ventured to raise his hand. “Uh, I could go with her if you want.”

The entire team looked at him.

He rubbed the back of his neck. “I just, you know, haven’t really been doing much and if you guys have things to talk about I can probably take the job. It’s only firewood.”

“Do you think you can carry wood?” Skor asking, brows raised in question.

Callum wasn’t afraid to make a face. “I think I’ll manage.”

Runaan shared looks with Callisto. He nodded to Callum. “Go. Make sure there’s enough for the whole night. We don’t need to make multiple trips away from camp.”

Callum almost addressed him with a ‘yes sir,’ but that didn’t feel quite right. So, he just nodded with a “We can do that.”

Convinced, Runaan went to pull out a map of Katolis that he had snagged from the lodge. Before they left, Rayla tentatively turned to Callisto. “Is there a limit to what I should do? Weight, I mean.”

She had asked it with an olive branch between the words. Callisto paused. He seemed to take it, telling her with a softer tone than seemed to be like him, “You know your own body and I’ve treated what could have been dangerous. Just don’t strain yourself. Think you can do that for me?”

Her lips twitched into a smile and she nodded. “I can do that.”

Callisto waved her off. A friendly dismissal. Callum didn’t fail to notice the satisfied look in Runaan’s eye as he watched them.

-:-:-:-

He watched the elf and the human prince for some time. They chatted about nothing, really. Nonsense. Whatever it was people their age discussed.

The elf was was just barely taller than the prince. He caught sight of her horns. They were a purple color. A good length for her age. Worth something, indeed, to a few people. He and the one who had summoned him would share a particular interest in them. The man in the west, a different interest.

Athletic. A warrior in full. She would put up a good fight.

Good. This would be entertaining, then, with a real reward at the end maybe.

His attention snagged on the prince. Not much to look at if anything. The prince looked nothing like King Harrow, so, this was probably not the crown prince. This was the other prince. Both princes were to die, but this one especially was a spare.

Nobody would care what was done with him either way.

Good, good. All good.

He could drag them into the forests where nobody might bother him with his work.

He waited, still. She should be getting ready. He would wait elsewhere. Not for these two he felt greed lace through his fingertips for, but the other elves. For the younger prince with all hopes. Then the set would be complete. Could harvest what he might find useful then burn the rest, set the forest ablaze for all he cared.

But, for now, this was her hunt.

He had promised.

Chapter Text

“Hey, I think I found some good wood,” Callum grinned at what looked like a weak branch fallen from near the top of a tree.

“Is it, this time?” Rayla peaked over his shoulder, a collection of large sticks and near log size bark. “Okay, it is.”

“Ha! See?”

“I’m proud of you.”

He couldn’t help but laugh at that. Her fond smile made him laugh a little more. It felt good to laugh in earnest. Lightly, casually. The morning had started off rather solemn, but doing something useful and somewhat normal made things at least feel better. That was for sure.

“I don’t think we need anymore after this,” Rayla said, walking over to a stick. “Hey, can you get this one? My arms are kind of full.”

Indeed, she had done the lion’s share of the work, but he hadn’t expected anything less with Rayla being the stronger one between them. Picking up the stick, he said, “We should probably head back now. You think Callisto’s done with dinner?”

“Maybe. He might still be reeling from the crickets, so, who knows.”

They started heading back, the light seeping through the trees being snuffed out more and more until it almost seemed like sunset may have been settling. Callum frowned. He shared looks with Rayla. Apparently, she felt the same. “That’s…”

“Weird?” She watched the sky. “We haven’t been gone that long, have we?”

Callum shook his head. “No way. We were gone maybe an hour or two at best...? Right?”

Silence.

Callum glanced at the empty spot where Rayla was.

What--

“Rayla?”

No answer.

“Rayla, where’d you go?” He called. “Rayla!”

-:-:-:-

She thought Callum had followed her.

How had he gotten away from her so fast? Did he even know how to navigate a forest on his own?

“Callum?” Rayla twisted again. Nothing.

He was just… gone. Her heart dropped into her belly. She didn’t care if she was maybe being overcautious. Runaan would agree that being overcautious was better than being not cautious enough. Quite frankly, it was downright abnormal for anybody to disappear without a trace that quickly. Unless Callum was playing a trick on her, something wasn’t right.

“Rayla.”

That--

Rayla.

That was not Callum’s voice. It was a woman. Familiar and all-enraging to Rayla’s senses and, yet, she went numb when the pitch of that voice brought her back to a few memories she once held dear. What memories she did have that weren’t of Runaan and not the people they should have been.

Rayla actually dropped her pile of wood on the ground and whirled, pulling her swords out as she did. Her eyes widened at the face so much like her own.

...Mom?” Rayla’s mouth fell open. She rubbed her eyes. No, this wasn’t right. Was it? She looked back up. “Is that you?”

“Of course it’s me, Rayla.”

“What… what are you doing here?”

This couldn’t be real. She had to be seeing things. No, her mother was gone. Her father was gone. In reality, they had never really been with her, but four months ago they truly had gone and left with the greatest dishonor no less.

“I missed you.” Rayla’s mother stood underneath a tree. She smiled. “It’s been so long. Where have you been, my love?”

Rayla shook her head. “Where have I been? How-- You don’t get to ask questions like that! You left! You abandoned the egg of The Dragon Prince? How can you just ask where have I been?”

Her mother didn’t seem fazed. “I know you don’t understand, but I promise you will. Come here. Sit with me. I’ll explain everything.”

Rayla held her ground. The nerve of-- No, now was not the time. Against her better judgement, Rayla took a step forward. “What’s there to explain? You left. You ran away, abandoned The Dragon Prince and now we’re trying to avoid an all out war. You and Dad did this! How could you just leave like that?”

How could they leave her like this?

Her mother said nothing.

“Do you know what you put me through?” Rayla hated the way her eyes stung. “Do you have any idea of the shame you two put over my head? What I had to live with because of that?”

“You shame yourself, Rayla.”

Her mother’s tone became cold as ice, nothing inviting it in any longer. Rayla froze.

“You always have. Why do you think we had to put our lives on the line, anyway?” Her mother stepped toward her, eyes glinting wickedly. “We had to leave, Rayla. We had to leave because of you.”

“I never did anything to you,” Rayla’s eyes burned. “I don’t know what ever it is you think I did, but Runaan is proud of me. You hear that? He’s proud of how far I’ve come and now we’re taking the egg back to Xadia with no help from you or Dad.”

Her mother said nothing. Nothing, and it was maddening. Why be here at all? She hoped Callum wouldn’t come around the corner and see her like thi--

Callum.

Callum. Where was Callum?

Rayla paused and looked around. The dim forest felt suffocating, encroaching on her. Her mother’s face devoid of anything she could earnestly call natural. The coldness… she had never seen it quite like that before.

It all felt… wrong.

Like it wasn’t there at all.

Rayla shook her head and rubbed her eyes. The way chills were now running up and down her spine said it all. It reminded her of the burning she took when she got the scars on her wrists.

“You aren’t even here,” Rayla hissed. “And even if you were, I wouldn’t have to explain anything to you.”

She turned away from her mother and ran in the opposite direction.

-:-:-:-

“I told you to take care of your brother,” said the king. His father stood before him. Callum tried not to weep.

“I am, I-- I’m trying, Dad,” Callum had nearly dropped to his knees at the sight of him.

“You haven’t earned the right to call me that,” his stepfather scorned him. Callum felt like his heart was being ripped out of his chest. “I never granted you that.”

“Y-your majesty, I’m sorry,” Callum cried. He had tried. He was trying. What more could he do?

“Sorry isn’t good enough.”

Callum dropped to his knees, the weight of King Harrow’s words unbearable on his own two feet. He tried not to forget to breathe.

Of course, sorry wasn’t enough. How could it be enough when his stepfather had died because of his own damned inability to help? What could have been if he had even made a squeak? A peep of noise could have prevented all of this.

The shame threatened to eclipse him in everything he believed himself to be in that moment.

Helpless. Traitor. Useless. It was all encompassing.

“What good are your promises to me if you cannot even save yourself?”

Save himself.

Save himself?

He felt it before he saw it, the feeling of something about to pounce on him. Too late, too late--

“Callum!” Rayla’s swords met the beast, thing, whatever it was. Callum looked up. The king was gone, but now there was a fight at his back and suddenly everything was a bit clearer. He could breathe again.


“Rayla, what happened?” Callum pulled his primal stone out. “Where did you go?”

“I could ask you the same thing!”

He didn’t argue with her on that one. Instead, he turned to the thing that could have been human -- if it didn’t waft around like a puff of smoke, dark magic solidifying it’s form. It had no face, only a body and Callum could only tell one thing: it was a predator.

Rayla’s ears were down and swore he could see her sword trembling, her eyes fixated on the beast in a way that wasn’t entirely hardened. But she stood her ground. It struck again, a tendril like arm lashing out. She met it square on. It vanished, melted right into the dark. Callum took a step closer to her. “Did you see that?”

“It just… disappeared. Watch your back, it’s you it wants to kill.”

Lord Viren.

He should have known. Callum was willing to bet everything he owned that this had something to do with him.

Again, he felt it before he saw it. He twirled on his feet and drew out a rune. “Fulminis!”

The lightning crackled and the thing screamed. Screamed wasn’t exactly the right word -- he wasn’t sure if this thing could even do that -- but it was the only way he knew how to describe it. Rayla didn’t fall out of a fighting stance.

“You got it?”

Callum didn’t either. “I think so… what was that?”

“I don’t know.” She kept her voice low. “But I doubt it was alone. We need to meet back up with the others.”

The others.

Ezran .

Callum gripped the primal stone tighter. “Okay, first of all, how do we get out of here? Do we even know where we're at?”

“The light’s been snuffed out somehow, but the forest hasn’t changed. Not that I know of. We keep moving before more of those things show up. We go back the way we came. Recognize the trees.”

They did just that, not running into anymore of those strange creatures, but never letting their guard down. It was only a matter of time. They could feel themselves being watched, tracked, for sure, and whoever was responsible for this haze they were in was probably taking notes. Minutes passed. Nervous minutes that stretched into what felt like forever.

“Wait.” Callum stopped and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “We’re never going to get anywhere like this.”

“We don’t have a choice. If we stand still too long something’s going to jump out at us and I can’t protect you from something that’s too fast to see. The sooner we’re out of this, the sooner we’re safe.”

Callum shook his head. “Don’t worry about me. I’ve got a plan.”

Callum explained his plan to her as quietly as he could. Dark magic or not, this haze was just that, a haze. He could smell it, a sharp tang in his nose and his mouth. It had to end somewhere, right?

He didn’t exactly know, but it was a shot in the dark that he was willing to take.

“Are you sure?” Rayla frowned. She didn’t particularly like his idea, but resigned herself that it was all they had to work with.

He nodded. “I’m sure. I’ll be right behind you.”

Rayla faced the tree Callum had chosen to be their anchor, the tallest tree in their vicinity. She looked at him one more time before leaping into the branches, higher and higher until he couldn’t quite see her anymore.

-:-:-:-

Rayla didn’t like the way this felt. Dark magic in general already made her shiver, but leaving Callum down there by himself made it worse. It was too risky, too easy and felt like they were playing right into the hands of whoever was doing this, but this haze was endless outward.

There was question about up.

The farther she went up, the clearer she could see and the more light there was. The haze only reached up so far.

“How’s it look up there?” Callum called.

“It’s clear. Can you climb?”

“Maybe--” She heard him yelp. There was a scuffle and the light of his rune. “Fulminis!”

“Callum!” Rayla leapt down, grabbing the branches on her way down. She pulled her blades out as she landed, scanning for Callum somewhere in the fog of it all. Where, where, where was he--

Something terrible brushed past her and she saw Callum’s shadow move as if to face it. “Rayla!”

“I’m here!”

He wasn’t calling for help, she knew. His next rune didn’t have the the crackle of his lightning spell. “Aspiro!”

Rayla leapt toward him, damn whatever it was in the fog prowling on them. She found her spot next to Callum and snarled at the dark itself. “Did you see it?”

“I don’t think it’s an it at all. I don’t think it’s anything. It just feels like a shadow. We need to get out of this haze. It can see us, but we can’t see it.”

As if the magic itself was listening, the haze receded until there was nothing, but what prowled within.

-:-:-:-

“Callum and Rayla sure are taking a while.”

The young prince had a point. Callisto frowned. “They are.”

“Teenagers do that sometimes,” Skor dismissed. Callisto shot him a look. “I meant that they take their sweet time doing things.”

“Rayla’s not like that though,” Callisto looked at Runaan.

Runaan had already stopped what he was doing looking over a map of the human kingdoms. “No, she’s not. Rayla does her job as quickly as she can.”

“Do you think they’re okay?” Ezran asked.

“Of course,” Andromeda reassured him. “Rayla is a skilled fighter. I’m sure they’re alright.”

Even as she said that, she looked over Ezran’s head at Callisto and Runaan. Ram wasn’t back either to go take a quick look. Runaan stood up. “Callisto, you’re with me. The rest of you stay here.”

If Runaan’s face was anything to go on, he and Callisto we’re on the same page.

-:-:-:-

The beast had disappeared, it’s presumed master standing in its wake. The hair on the back of Rayla’s neck stood up. It was a woman. Tall. Her leather short top was long-sleeved over a fighter’s suit much like the one Rayla herself wore, thigh-high boots, too.

In fact -- Rayla cocked her head -- her clothes looked too much like her own. The woman slid the hood off her head. Blue tattoos adorned her forehead and her white hair was swept into a long ponytail to reveal pointy ears. It was then that Rayla finally noticed her four-fingered hands.

“You’re a Moonshadow elf?

The woman walked slowly, deliberately. “You wanted to see, didn’t you? I gave you what you asked for. You should be thanking me.”

“Oh, yeah, thanks for hunting us like rabbits,” Rayla growled. She took a step in front of Callum. “Who are you?”

The woman didn’t answer her. Like fangs, two swords chinked out of her sleeves and into her hands. Blades only an assassin could get her hands on. That was enough of an answer.

Rayla spun her own swords into a ready position. “Callum, go.”

“What? No way.” She could hear him ready to stand his ground. “You’re not doing this alone.”

“You need get out of here as fast as you can and go to the others. Go make sure Ezran’s okay,” She heard him hesitate. “I can hold her off.”

“I’m not leaving you.”

“Are we just going to stand here arguing all day?”

“There’s no way I’m going to just--”

The assassin didn’t wait for Callum to finish. She leapt. Rayla leapt with her and they met in the middle, their blades a vicious clash. “ Just go!

She didn’t look to see him leave, but quick footsteps in the grass told her as much. They became distant and Rayla pushed back against the assassin. She growled, “Who are you?

The woman’s eyes were a wicked blue, glinting something deadly. “Isn’t it obvious?”

They seperated and clashed again, Rayla pushed against her, but the assassin was stronger, taller. Rayla would have to be quicker, then. She spun out of place, the assassin pushing into air for just a second. Rayla stepped behind her, ready to plunge a blade into her back. The assassin recovered quicker than she had anticipated and stopped Rayla’s blade by crossing her own over her shoulders. “You’ll have to do better than that, my sun and stars.”

Rayla could just hear her grinning. She growled, “Don’t call me that.”

Faster than an adder, the assassin twirled to meet her, encroaching on the space between them, every move an intention to draw blood. She swung, Rayla parried. Rayla moved, the assassin was there. The assassin went for Rayla’s neck, but Rayla bent backwards just far enough for the assassin to miss. It was still a close call.

Separating from her, Rayla went back in, jumping for her from the air. The assassin pushed her away. Spinning her blades, Rayla went back in. Blow for blow, silver flashed and clanged.

Throwing herself into a swing, Rayla feinted, dropping into crouch and diverting her blade into a cut that would have bypassed the assassins sword not in position quick enough to stop her --

Had it not been for the short blade that shot out of the assassins sleeve.

The assassin’s arm shot out, nearly impaling Rayla’s head onto the thing as Rayla lost her balance. She fell back, rolling away and getting up. She twirled her blades back into position.

All the while, the assassin had been smiling just a little. Now, her lips widened ever so slowly. Her nose wrinkled.

“You fight like Runaan.”

-:-:-:-

Callum ran. He ran faster than he ever had.

He hated the idea of leaving Rayla there, but she was right. He had to see if Ezran was alright.

He had to meet up with the others. If he could just make it back to camp, they could turn around and go get Rayla--

Someone dropped in front of him. Callum scrambled back, his primal stone out just as fast. He readied himself, but the off kilter man just cocked his head at him. “You really aren’t King Harrow’s real son.” He seemed to be talking more to himself than to Callum. “When I heard about a step-prince, I told myself, no, they wouldn’t do that. But here you are. Hmph. Guess all things do change with time, don’t they?”

Callum didn’t even entertain him. He drew out a rune. “Fulminis!”

He threw out a bolt of lightning, the man dodging it with a wicked cackle. “Whoo, boy! Watch out now! Wouldn’t want the place to catch on fire, would you? Then, you’d really never get out of here alive.”

Callum took a step back. He had a point. One wrong lightning bolt and the whole place would go up in flames. The man was in a coat that looked like it could have been of Katolis quite a few years back, unruly brown hair straight and long and growing at various lengths. The look was complete with the unsettling gaze in his hazel eyes and that laugh. That grin. There was nothing nice in the lines of his glee.

Callum also didn’t fail to notice the swords he began pulling out. Two of them that slowly fell out of his sleeves.

“Then again, it’s not like that was the plan, anyway. I suppose I can finish you then go help with your friend and your brother.”

“You stay away from them,” Callum growled and began drawing out his windbreath spell.

“A little bit of air sure isn’t going to save you, boy.”

A chill raked down Callum’s spine. There was a coldness in the man’s eyes, a distance that matched perfectly with that ill-suited half grin of his.

Callum only managed to ask, “...who even are you?”

A quick flick of those swords had Callum back at the ready. The man breathed out a chuckle.

“My name is Morgan.”

-:-:-:-

Rayla was sweating, but she dared not wipe it from her forehead, allowing her opponent even a second of an opening. The assassin finally began to be the one to attack her, nearly overwhelming Rayla with speed and what seemed like at least a decade more of actual training.

She knew Runaan.

That told Rayla all she needed to know.

Anyone who knew Runaan’s fighting style just from watching Rayla… she didn’t know who this woman was, but it was someone who Rayla needed to get away from. This wasn’t a fight she could win anymore. Not a feasible one. Not without sacrificing a limb, at least.

This was a gamble in and of itself, but she didn’t put her swords away as she began running. No, she needed to be able to turn around and defend herself if need be, but it was time to leave. She prayed Callum had found Runaan.

Her prayers died when she realized too late that the assassin wasn’t behind her and she saw Callum’s back come into view.

“Callum,” she panted, pulling up beside him. “What--”

Even Callum, fighter though he was not, did not take his eyes off the man in front of them. “Did you take care of the other one?”

“No.” She would have to explain that one later.

As if on cue, the woman dropped from a tree and landed beside the man. Two dual blade wielders? Rayla pointed a sword at each of them, getting between them and Callum. She might be able to hold them off long enough to let Callum get away. Maybe. She wasn’t fool enough to think she would get out off it herself in one piece, but he could escape.

Rayla swallowed hard. She was a Moonshadow elf assassin. She knew her duty. She knew the risk. Her grip on her blades tightened.

And an arrow whizzed past her head. For a half second, she worried that they had a third partner, but she knew that presence. She knew that feeling.

The woman smiled vivaciously, balefully, and sauntered into a circle, Callum and Rayla in the middle, Runaan on the other side.

“Runaan… how long it’s been.”

Runaan and Callisto came beside her. Rayla looked at Runaan’s cold face, rage settling in his eyes, betraying the still and sternness of his features.

“Anarr.”

Chapter Text

“Anarr.”

Runaan hated that dead look in her eye. In the years since she’d seen him she had whetted that look. She had embraced it and let it hone her.

Destroy her all the same.

And he was the damned that set her on that path.

-:-:-:-

Rayla could see the calculation behind Runaan’s eyes. The acknowledgement and the knowing and the rage. Anarr, apparently, had expected this. Delighted in it even. She seemed to enjoy Runaan’s sudden appearance just in time to rescue Rayla and Callum, grinning in the face of that coldness.

Runaan,” she said with a savage coyness. “I didn’t know you might be dropping in today.”

“You knew exactly what you were doing and who you were following.”

Anarr raised a finger, shaking her head. “Not true. I only knew of the princes. The rest of your identities were forfeit outside of the obvious.”

“Then, you are a fool.”

Anarr cocked her head. “Am I? In the end, did it matter who you were? A Moonshadow elf is a Moonshadow elf. It’s all the same game to me.”

Runaan said nothing, but he watched her circle. Watched her take each of them in. Rayla could see it in her eyes, looking particularly at Runaan and no doubt gauging his skill level from whenever it was she saw him last. “You haven’t changed. You’re still naive as ever if you think any of this is a game.”

Anarr shrugged and looked away from him, her stance making it clear that she would return her attention to him in a moment. Her blade cocked. She eyed Rayla for a long time. “So… this is little Rayla. You really did bring her up to be murderers just like us, huh?”

Runaan snarled. He didn’t answer her.

“You wouldn’t remember me,” She went on, speaking to Rayla now. “You were too young at the time, but I remember you.”

Rayla had never seen this woman before in her life, but from the way she talked to Runaan it had been a very long time.

Anarr shook her head, musing as she took Rayla in. “You’re still so young. Young and precious in the world. You’ve no idea what’s out there waiting for you.”

“You don’t know me at all,” Rayla said coldly.

“Oh, my sun and stars. You see, that’s the thing.” Anarr raised her chin, a knowing, insidious look dripping from the depths of her green eyes and the maw of her pretty mouth. “I might as well know everything about you.”

“Enough.” Runaan separated his bowblade in two.

Anarr obliged him a second later, not a word of pleasantry to stall between them. She lurched forward. Runaan met her blade in kind, the metal singing between them. Runaan was not Rayla. He was not pressured and pushed upon the same way she had. Runaan was Anarr’s equal in every way and she had fully expected that.

Anarr fought Runaan like a proper assassin, not giving him a breadth of room to move the way she had allowed with Rayla. Rayla was still on edge from how close she had come to her own death so many times. It was a wonder if Anarr had allowed her to live on purpose or if Rayla had actually lived off her own merit.

Or both.

“You two need to stay back,” Callisto said, his double-bladed sword twirling in anticipation of Morgan-- that’s what Callum said his name was -- approaching as if to help Anarr. Callisto was not going to allow that.

“I can help,” Rayla faced Morgan with him.

“By defending Callum, yes.” Callisto said firmly. This was not up for discussion. “They’re not here for you. They’re here for him.”

Rayla glanced back at Callum, his primal stone in his hand and ready to make his own stand. But she also could see Runaan fighting with Anarr and hated the answer she knew she had to take.

Rayla tugged on Callum’s wrist. “Let’s go.”

Callum frowned. “Rayla, are you sure--”

“No, I’m not, but it has to be this way.” He nodded slowly, not fool enough to put his primal stone away.

She squeezed his wrist and looked him dead in the face, her lips tight. “Please, keep up.”

It wasn’t an order. It was a plea.

-:-:-:-

Anarr,” Morgan growled. Callisto wasn’t going to let him pass. Not a chance. He didn’t know this human, but he knew Anarr. That was enough.

“I’m busy,” she said calmly, but her movements were not calm at all. If there was anybody who could take on Anarr, it was Runaan.

“They’re getting away--”

Callisto slashed at him, but the bastard was smart enough to move back as he was talking. He didn’t give the human a chance to recover.

Callisto whirled one end of his sword into Morgan, then the other and each blow was met by the man. Barely. He was distracted. Or perhaps he wasn’t as skilled with these swords as Anarr was. Perhaps, she had taught him. Good.

Better for Callisto to kill him with, then.

Anarr.

“Fine.” Anarr pulled back from Runaan, a good, healthy distance away that Runaan sought to close. She was quick though, jumping out of his reach as she sliced her palm open and let the blood hit the ground. She took a breath. “Wodahs ym suht lliw ym emoceb.

Anarr winced as the blood curdled and slowly rose from the ground in some kind of smoke like creature. It hovered beside Anarr, waiting for orders as it continued to form itself. Anarr grinned at it. “Go get her.”

“Get get them.” Morgan snapped.

The shadow slithered away, pulling itself together as it went to follow it’s orders.

Runaan,” Callisto wasn’t given a chance to go after it as Morgan leapt on him in a flurry.

He wasn’t much better off either. “I know.”

-:-:-:-

Callum didn’t care that his lungs were fighting for air. He kept up with Rayla as much as he could. Morgan and Anarr weren’t going to just let them go. Rayla, for all her experience, kept looking behind them, too.

If they could just get back to the campsite then they could defend themselves better.

And he could see Ezran with his own two eyes. Andromeda would defend him, right? She had stuck to Ezran like a burr practically since she had met them. That was a small comfort.

That comfort was stifled when Rayla looked back and her eyes widened. He didn’t know what was behind him as she pulled him ahead of herand got between him and that shadow creature that had attacked them earlier.

“Keep running!” He would have stopped if she stopped, but Rayla kept going, leaping over logs and whatever else that might have hindered her. Faster and faster still they ran. They could feel the shadow on their heels, looming over them. When it reached out, they snapped out of it’s reach.

How did the campsite feel so far?

They saw the light in the trees and could hear the river now. Faster. They burst through the clearing so hard, Andromeda and Skor got up from what Callum assumed was instinct, blades mercifully at the ready.

Shadow!” Rayla cried.

Skor narrowed his eyes. “Wha-?”

“Behind us,” Callum panted, pointing and getting in front of Ezran. “There’s a--”

The shadow creature didn’t apparently have an aversion to light. It slithered out of the trees with no fear, not a hint of caring that it was now facing four people.

“What is that?” Ezran stayed behind Callum and Andromeda. Bait croaked and Callum wouldn’t blame the little guy if he turned green.

“I don’t know,” Callum said. He hadn’t exactly been able to figure it out in between the thing’s bouts of trying to kill them.

“It’s some kind of... creature,” Skor said. “Something unholy. Don’t let it touch you.”

Callum had no intention of allowing that. The creature lurked, somehow stalking toward them despite no real solid legs to speak of. Nothing he recognized anyway. As if it read it’s mind, their form shifted into something vaguely humanoid with legs and an tendrils to grab them with.

It lashed out at Callum. He leapt out of the way, turning back to see Andromeda grabbing Ezran and pushing him back as far as the river would let them. Her blades were out glinting in the morning light. Andromeda prowled the space between Ezran and the blood creature. Skor was still as death some feet away her, his eyes reflecting the same intent.

The blood creature leapt out at them, twisting and extending itself to reach both of them. Andromeda met it head on. Skor intervened from the side, his swords almost faster than he was. In the corner of his eye, Callum could see Rayla positioning herself behind it. She joined the fray, but the creature was ready for her, untwisting and retwisting itself to fend her off.

Callum didn’t know what to do.

If he had any ability with a sword, he would have joined them, but that was a bust and he didn’t know enough spells to do something that probably wouldn’t get in the way.

No, no, he didn’t know enough spells to actually fight the thing. As it was, fulminis was too dangerous with all of them tangled together like that. But he did have one idea that could work if the elves used the opportunity.

Callum put his primal ball away and stomped the ground. He waved his arms and began retreating into the forest. “Hey! Ugly! Over here, I’m the prince you want!”

The creature swiveled it’s attention toward him and pushed Rayla, Skor and Andromeda off of it. It went right for him and Callum hauled it into the forest, nevermind Rayla calling after him. He prayed they would use the opportunity to stab it in the back or something. Stupid, stupid idea, but the only one he had.

Man, he wished he was better at actually running away from things. At least, he wished he could run faster just this once because he could feel this thing on his heels. The hair on the back of his neck was standing on end even as he leapt over fallen branches and large rocks.

The thing might as well have been breathing down his neck, waiting eagerly for a mistake so it could sink it’s tethers into him. Tethers that smelled like iron even from this distance.

That, too, was how he knew it was so close behind him.

Callum tripped.

His heart stopped beating. The world all but stopped as he tumbled forward landing against the base of a tree that he didn’t have time to circumvent.

No-

The creature loomed.

No, no, no--

It lashed out--

And it screamed as a sword split it’s chest down the middle. It oozed black red blood and it screamed and and yowled and cried to the sky in pain, writhing from the blade impaling it. The twists and turns it made were unwieldy even in that semi-human shape.

In agony, it separated itself, retreating to the ground and fleeing into the distance.

Callum hadn’t realized he had been holding his breath. He eyed Rayla’s sword covered in what looked like blood. He loosed a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding.

“You’re my favorite, Rayla,”.

Her mouth twitched into a smile as she straightened herself up, flipping her hair over her shoulder. “You know other Raylas?”

He gave her a little grin as he sagged into the base of the tree. “No, but you’re still my favorite.”

-:-:-:-

Anarr winced. Runaan didn’t let her hiss go unnoticed.

“I doubt all that dark magic is good for your health.”

“Concerned?” She quipped despite the obvious hindrance. “You were always a good commander. You used to check up on me after our missions.”

Runaan didn’t put his swords down, but he didn’t attack her either. “You were my subordinate. My friend. It was my duty.”

She swung out so hard a spark or two embered between their swords. “Your sense of duty ruined me.”

“You ruined you, Anarr,” Runaan circled with her. “You forgot who you were. You forgot everything you were ever taught. And for what? Nevermind Moonshadow elf. You forgot everything that made you Xadian if this is what you’ve resorted to.”

“Forgot? I never forgot who I was and it made me better.” She snarled. “Better than you. You know, I used to look up to you, but the years have made me smarter. Wiser.”

They seperated and clashed again, the impact reverberating in Runaan’s bones. “Is that so?” He grunted. “Is this why you’ve resorted to working with humans?”

“Humans, elves, they’re all the same.” She drawled. Her face fell. “They all bleed the same. They all die the same. But you would know all about that.”

He said nothing to that and pushed back at her.

His eyes flicked over to Callisto pulling up somewhere near him. “Runaan--”

“Not yet.”

He wasn’t ready for that right then. It was Runaan’s duty to face her.

After all, Anarr was his failure. He would deal with her.

Just as he resolved to do that, she let more drops of blood fall to the ground.

-:-:-:-

Morgan spread Anarr’s blood on the ground with a foot and recited a bone chilling incantation.

Callisto was ready. Ready as he would ever be, at least. Xadians didn’t exactly delve too far into dark magic as a whole. It wasn’t their way and they had no need for it, but that didn’t mean that there wasn’t a use for it as far as Anarr had found.

The blood wafted into existence, more of a beast than a human-like creature.

“Do you like them?” Morgan grinned. He was a strangely unnerving human for one who dressed unassumingly, the only mark distinguishable thing about him being a blue and white beaded necklace hanging around his throat. “They’re my own creation. It was something I taught myself when I was younger.”

Callisto snorted. “They’re as disgusting as you are.”

“But they’re so loyal. And there’s just no end to them as long as Anarr is around to provide the energy needed for the spells. You elves never stop to think of all that power you have coursing through you if you only knew how to use it.”

“And you humans love your dark magic so much just to make up for what you lack. Some of you lacking more than others.”

Morgan snorted. “Clever. I guess we could sit here and talk all day, but what good is that? I could cut you up and use your parts for a spell or two I’m sure. Moonshadow elves make for some especially interesting pieces of magic.”

Callisto was ready when Morgan closed the gap between them. For a human, he was fast. Unnaturally so, even, and Callisto wondered who had to pay the price for that kind of strength. If anyone did.

“You learn to be fast when you have nothing.” Morgan said, smiling in Callisto’s face.

Callisto said nothing to the matter. He didn’t have the time nor desire to entertain whatever ramble Morgan was trying to feed him. Yes, Callisto has started off life largely with nothing. Not even parents who gave a damn about him, but he and this human were nothing alike.

He was past that kind of stage where such words would have made him vulnerable.

Callisto began to overwhelm him strength wise and Morgan separated, his beast hovering behind him as if ready to pounce on command. He pulled something out of his pocket and Callisto nearly froze at the horn Morgan now twirled in his hand. An elven horn.

Nellaf eht yb romra eht egrof.

The horn dissipated into some otherly substance and coated the beast in a translucent armor, then it coated Morgan and his swords in the same kind of armor. “Now, then.” His smile was slow. Confident. Savage. “You’re in my way. Let’s try this again.”

They clashed and Callisto kept one end of his blade between him and the human and one end ready to swipe at the beast looking for an opening. He could feel it coming.

Ready.

Ready.

The blood beast pounced and Callisto leapt out of the way, his blade swiping through it. Nothing. His blade faded right through it. Morgan almost seemed excited, his eyes widening in a kind of triumph as he lurched at Callisto. Callisto got up and rolled out of the way. Not in time. He yelped, a burning sensation tearing across his back hip to hip. His back stung, but he dared not reach for it. He dared not stop moving as Morgan began railing into him again, Callisto barely keeping up between him and his ungodly beast.

He backed up, Runaan hitting Callisto’s back and did his best to ignore the pain that jolted through him. “We’re not getting anywhere.” Callisto let out a heavy breath, steadying himself as best he could. “They’re just trying to stall us.”

“I know,” Runaan growled. The duo and their unholy beasts circled them like some kind of blood ritual.

“What’s happened, Anarr?” Callisto tipped his head back. “Forgot how to do your job?”

“Callisto, you always were stuck to Runaan’s side. Come over here and find out if I forgot how to cleave your head from your shoulders.”

“With pleasure.”

Runaan and Callisto slid past each other, lunging for the other’s opponent. He couldn’t see, but Callisto could hear Runaan reach Morgan, giving him a taste of what a real dual blade wielder fought like and Callisto rammed swords with Anarr.

He pushed her and pushed her, his back screaming. Inch by inch she let up, but that damned blood shadow whatever it was hurled itself at him and he leapt back. He was not getting hit by that thing. One more blow and he was done for, probably.

Still, they weren’t as vicious as perhaps they should have been.

“What’s wrong?” Callisto gave her a rare grin. “Can’t have too many of those things going at once?”

She didn’t answer him, opting for an aerial lunge while her creature went below.

Callisto braced himself.

-:-:-:-

Runaan would have had the human cut in two by now if it wasn’t for that damn armor of his. And his beast jumping in and out of the frey. Fending off both of them wasn’t exactly an easy task. The human bled from his chest and Runaan was able to ignore the cut under his ribs that Anarr had given him. He had narrowly missed her impaling him altogether.

“This seems to be a bit of a standoff, don’t you think?” Morgan simpered.

“You’re an utter fool if you truly believe that a fair match between the two of us would be a standoff.”

“I believe the match is fair. Dark magic isn’t a cheat. It’s a resource. The match is fair if only because I levelled the playing field.”

His side was hurting him and Runaan had enough of this. He wanted this over with.

“You sure do talk a lot.”

Morgan froze as the blades at his throat pressed against skin. Ram wasn’t smiling, having pulled himself out of a shadow to sneak up on the human. Runaan had seen him, felt his presence and let him work. That was something Ram was always good at.

Ram’s blade slipped over Morgan’s throat, quickly, precisely, but they might as well have done nothing. Only a thin slit oozed red. It was little more than a paper cut.

Ram looked at his blades as Morgan’s beast leapt at him and Morgan himself backed away. “Nice little trick, isn’t it?” His strained smile did little to hide the irritation in his eyes. “It’s amazing what you can do with magic. Once you have it, you can transform it into anything you want, really. Bend it to your nature. But that lesson’s going to have to wait. Anarr.

But Anarr was panting, her blood beasts coiling and wafting away. Runaan, Ram and Callisto made to surround them, but the beasts billowed the area with smoke as they died. When the smoke cleared, only the three of them remained.

Ram put his blades away. “Mind telling me what that was all about?”

Runaan put a hand on his bleeding side. It was deeper than he thought. He would have liked to know himself.

-:-:-:-

“You didn’t kill them.”

Anarr sat against a tree, taking deep breaths and wrapping a bandage around her still bleeding hand.

“Well, you went a bit overboard with the spells. I can’t have three of those things live and fight Runaan at the same time. You’re asking for too much.”

Morgan scoffed, his chest was bandaged up well enough. “Don’t pin this on me. You had them. You had the girl and, more importantly, you had the prince. Why didn’t they die?”

“Good question. I could ask you the same.” Anarr wasn’t looking at him, but he bore holes into her head. She snorted at his silence. “See?”

“You were ready to slaughter them. What happened?” She didn’t answer. “Tell me.”

Anarr clucked her tongue. “The girl had a familiar fighting style. I was curious. I was right.”

Morgan crouched in front of her. “So, he was the one?”

“Yes, he was the one.” Anarr let the silence between them sit for a moment. “Now, what’s your excuse? You had the prince. We could have taken the girl together. While your questioning me, I wonder if you also let the boy slip through.”

Morgan’s lips twitched into a grin. He made a noise. “You know I like to play with my food before I eat it. Like you.”

“So, we were both playing a little too much, then.”

Morgan rocked his head side to side. “I don’t think too much. I didn’t exactly expect your friends to join us so soon, but either way Viren said he wanted them dead. He didn’t say he wanted them dead quickly. I don’t see why we can’t both have fun before we finish it.”

Anarr examined her hand, opening and closing it. She winced. “You do realize we made our job harder for ourselves, right?” Morgan shrugged. “You have no problems with that.”

“Not particularly. I like a challenge, too. And you seem to have something in mind, anyhow.”

“I have things to decide.”

“Like?”

“Like how I’m going to make him suffer before I gut him.”

Morgan raised delighted brows. “Oh?”

Anarr said nothing for some time. She kept her eyes on her hand before meeting his gaze, searching and wild for an answer that would raise the heat in his blood. “They performed an assassin’s ritual. I saw the binding on their wrists. They’re racing against time. We can use that in our hunt.”

“Good. Then, with enough time they’ll be at a disadvantage. Perhaps if we’re lucky they’ll panic when they realize they only have one hand to work with. Now, my next question: Do you have a plan?” Morgan asked. “One that we’re actually going to stick to, this time?”

“Runaan is careful. He will run. So long as I’m close enough to snuff out his stars and tear his sun from the sky he will run.” Anarr looked into the dark, searching the shadows for an answer she knew she might never find. “ Let him.”

Chapter Text

“We are leaving.”

It was the first thing Runaan said when he dragged Callisto from the trees. Nobody debated with him. They were packed up within in the hour as Callisto and Runaan tended to each other’s wounds.

In relative silence, they sailed down the river most of the day. Distance. They needed distance and Callum knew it.

He didn’t have to ask to question why they weren’t stopping nor did anyone else apparently. Distance was the thing they needed most of all. If even Runaan sustained a wound like that then stars only knew how Callum would have fared.

Doubtless, it would have been any sort of contest.

Rayla stayed in Runaan’s boat, helping Callisto make sure his wound was healing. Not even half an hour down the river and he saw them all wince. One shared glance between Rayla and Callisto from the boat ahead of him told Callum everything he needed to know.

“It’s their bindings, isn’t it?” Ezran asked him.

Callum pursed his lips. He looked at Andromeda. She nodded. “It won’t be too long before the pressure begins to cut off our circulation.”

“There has to be another way,”Callum said.

Andromeda blinked at him, then nearly smiled. “There isn’t. We’re running from too many enemies to get to Xadia in time.”

“Not if we go east now.”

“No. Runaan is taking us west.”

“West?” Callum frowned, twisting to fully look at her no. “But Xadia is to the east. Shouldn’t we be heading that way?”

Their boat came side by side with the boat Runaan was on just as Callum finished that sentence. He kept his eyes ahead, not looking at Callum. “This is about keeping ours heads now. Not just our hands. We go west to the human cities where Anarr won’t follow us so readily. If we go east, she’s going to catch up.”

“We need to shake her,” Callisto confirmed, a darkness in his eyes that kept Callum from arguing.

Was she really that strong? He still had no idea who this Anarr woman was. Sharing a long look with Rayla, he left the subject alone.

-:-:-:-

They found another spot along the river to make camp for as the sun began reaching for the horizon. Even Runaan helped put the tents up even though Rayla wished he wouldn’t, but she understood. Their situation was a bit dire and sleep was not going to come easy.

She could still feel the chills of the creatures Anarr and Morgan had summoned. The scream of the one she had stabbed would stay with her for some time. It wasn’t a scream she knew how to recognize. It wasn’t eleven or human.

With camp settled, the fire going and fish that Skor had caught for dinner, they all sat in an exhausted silence. Runaan’s silence was a distracted one. She knew. She’d seen it before.

“Runaan?” She ventured.

He tore his eyes from the fire and looked to her.

“Who’s Anarr?”

They all looked to him, but Callisto only glanced. It was a long time before he spoke. “Anarr and I knew each other many years ago.”

“She said she remembered me.”

“It was a little over a decade ago. You’re were barely a child at the time,” He replied. “But she had met you a few times before. You liked her.”

“But who was she to you. She said I fought like you,” Rayla replied. “How would she know that?”

“Because I used to be her commander.”

The crackle of the fire suddenly seemed louder than it had a second ago.

“Her commander?”

Runaan nodded. Callisto rubbed his forehead. “She’s considered a kill on sight target.”

Callum narrowed his eyes. “Wait, but if you used to be her commander then… what happened? Why is she trying to kill you now?”

“Well, for starters, she’s trying to kill you,” Callisto added. “Secondly, that’s a complicated story.”

Runaan closed his eyes. “I was younger then. Not wholly inexperienced, but not as tested either. I was still learning what were the right decisions to make. Anarr was on my team. My second, in fact. We had trained together. We weren’t exactly in the same circles, but we had known of each other for years at that point. Her fit on my team was natural and she was a good subordinate. She was reliable, skilled and was everything a hardened warrior should have been, but she was a good teammate. She had a strong heart.” He sighed through his nose. “And her heart fell for another on our team. An elven man named Leland. Their kind of relationship in a team like ours was discouraged. Not entirely forbidden, but it was not something that would be condoned or tolerated.”

“You kicked them off the team?”

“I let it slide.”

The weight hit Rayla’s belly like a rock. A nervous feeling creeped into her limbs. “...then, what happened?”

“I considered both of them friends. And both of them were good warriors, good comrades to have in battle and I had been through so much with them. In my naivety, I allowed it to continue. I thought them able to work through it. With it.” Rayla knew his next words. He’d said them to her but a few days earlier. “But I was wrong.”

Callisto closed his eyes. “I’d been assigned to the team not long before. I was the youngest at the time, but Rayla you know that lovers may never be assigned to the same team, right?”

Rayla nodded. It was one of the most basic rules.

Runaan continued. “On our final mission together, we were sent to eliminate a human woman who had used a well crafted network of spies to garner sensitive Xadian intelligence and secrets. We had hunted her for weeks before finally closing in on her whereabouts. When we finally caught up with her, Leland himself had cornered the woman alone, but came back saying that she had escaped him. I should have known then. I suspected something was wrong, but I had never had a reason to suspect him before.”

Ezran pulled Bait closer to him. “Did she use dark magic to mind control him? Turn him against you?”

Runaan shook his head. “No. Leland fell in love with her. In the weeks he had been allowed to be alone with her, a bond had formed between them and he had let her go in an attempt to protect her. By the time I finally figured it out, Leland had caught up with her and wouldn’t allow us to complete our mission. He was determined to protect her.”

Rayla gulped. “But I thought he loved Anarr.”

“He did.” Runaan turned his attention back toward the fire. “And I killed him. Then, I killed his new lover.”

Callum’s mouth fell open. “You killed him?”

Runaan closed his eyes and for a moment he seemed to be gathering his thoughts. “Anarr never understood. It destroyed her when she learned the truth. I never intended to lie to her even though I knew she would scorn me forever for it. She had to know the whole truth. She deserved to.”

“Wait.” Rayla shook her head. “If she knew that he had fallen in love with a human woman, then why was she so angry with you?”

“She loved him anyway. Despite knowing the whole truth, that didn’t change the fact that she loved him. If anything, it only gave her more rage than she knew how to channel. We fought and I managed to subdue her instead of killing her, but the damage was done and Anarr’s career as an assassin was over,” Runaan said. “I was severely reprimanded for allowing the relationship to continue and would have lost my position had it not been for how I dealt with Leland and that our mission was successful. From then on out, romantic relationships between teammates was condemned.”

Rayla could see Callum’s opinions on his face before he talked. “But why did you kill them?” He asked. “Couldn’t you have just brought them home? Imprisoned.”

“It was my duty. My mission. My entire life had led up to moments like that.”

Callum still shook his head. “It still seems wrong.”

“An assassin doesn’t decide right and wrong. Only life and death.”

Callum had nothing to say to that, but it still didn’t seem to sit entirely right with him.

“What happened with Anarr after that?” Ram asked. Aside from Rayla, he was the second-newest addition to the team.

“She expressed a deep hatred for me after that and they deemed her unfit for service. It was never completely disclosed, but the trauma had left her mentally unable to deal with the high stress situations that came with our missions. They couldn’t trust her judgement. So, they assigned her to guarding prisoners.”

“Well, that sounds like a good idea,” Rayla raised a brow.

Callisto shrugged. “Not our decision.”

“And the months went by,” Runaan continued. “I was given new subordinates. Then, Anarr escaped with a prisoner she had been guarding. A human mage who used dark magic that had slipped past Xadian borders. Several teams were dispatched to find her over the months, but all failed. They either were killed or came back empty-handed. As for the human, he had been imprisoned for trespassing, but apparently had found a commonality with Anarr: a hatred for elves.”

“A hatred for all elves? I mean, I know you killed her lover, but that doesn’t make any sense. Not to hate her own kind because of that, anyway.”

“Doubtful it would make sense to anyone but her. Grief ruined Anarr. And she hated our world for rewarding me for killing the one she loved. She hated elven kind for making a romance between humans and elves something so contemptible. Who else was she going to blame? It’s important to remember that she was angry at Leland, too, but would never have a chance to confront him or even see him. To love him or to hate him. I don’t think she could reconcile that in her mind. Perhaps, to her, if he had been able to love a human all along then they wouldn’t have had anything for her to mourn over.”

“That’s so twisted. So, she…” Rayla searched for the right words. “She hates the world and everything in it.”

Callisto ran a hand through his hair. “She lost faith in everything that made her who she was. Her system had failed her. She had given her life to serving her society and it had only tore her future to ribbons. That’s how she sees it, anyway.”

“But Anarr was her own undoing,” Andromeda said, but her eyes were on Runaan. “We have all lost someone that meant something to us. Betraying her own and turning to dark magic was of her own volition.”

The elves chimed agreement, but Runaan barely nodded.

“I lost Aelan, but I’m still here. You made a choice you never wanted to make.”

Only Ezran was brave enough to inquire. “Aelan?”

Andromeda smiled sadly at Ezran. “My brother. He passed a few years ago.”

“How?”

“Ezran, that’s enough,” Callum said not unkindly. He looked to Andromeda. “I’m sorry.”

“No, it’s fine. I just- He…” Andromeda opened her mouth, then closed it as if the memory was too hard to articulate outright. “There are times when we lose people we love and there is no culprit. No one to blame. And we have to accept that.”

Rayla eyed Callum’s crestfallen face. His brows furrowed and he whispered across the fire. “We understand.”

He didn’t elaborate about it much more. Neither did Andromeda ask. “As I’ve said, many of us lose someone. It doesn’t tear us from the right path.”

“Sometimes the right path doesn’t really feel like it.”

They all looked at Skor. He hadn’t expected it nor had they expected him to speak and he looked at the fire as if to find any subtle comfort.

“Skor--”

“The right path sometimes feels the worst though, doesn’t it? Andromeda, you know that. You now how hard it can be to stay yourself.”

Andromeda said nothing for a moment. Her reply was quiet. “I do.’

He drew his knees up and rested an elbow on each, fidgeting with his fingers as he peered into the fire. “When I lost my daughter it was like the world ended. And if it wasn’t for my wife I think I would have been fine if it did. At least, for me.”

A sullen pause. Again, it was Ezran who asked, even quieter and softer this time, “Was she sick, too?”

“No,” Skor said without looking at him. “She was murdered.”

The air was stifling.

Skor’s gaze fixed on the fire, losing himself to the dancing in the flames and hazel eyes welling with a sorrow etched with rage. Tired, guilty eyes. “She was eight. You know, I wasn’t even home when it happened? We don’t even know who did it. Never caught them. All we know is that a human did it and left her outside our house where we let her play after taking the necklace I had given her to comfort her in my absence.”

“...how do you know it was a human?” Callum asked. Rayla’s breath hitched.

“Elves don’t cut off the horns of other elves.” His reply was a numb one. He blinked. “But I suppose that it drove me here, didn’t it? Justice. If I can’t have mine then at least someone else can have theirs, but if the stars ever gave me to chance to drain the blood of whoever took her from me and my wife I would take it. Damn the consequences.”

Silence. Heavy, world weighted silence.

Skor muttered a pardon and got up to head toward the river. They watched him go. Rayla looked at Runaan. “Should we leave him alone?”

“Not after today,” Runaan said. He looked at Ram.

Ram nodded wordlessly and followed after Skor.

-:-:-:-

Runaan meditated by the fire long after the other went to bed. Andromeda stayed with him.

“Will you be alright?”

“I have to be. Are you?”

Andromeda gave a curt nod. He knew that the answer was a bit more complicated than that. “So,” she started. “An elf hunting elves. What position does that put us in?”

“A somewhat precarious one. Anarr is different. You know that. She knows most of our tricks.”

“Our time is limited. If the binding tightens anymore our hands will be in trouble. You don’t believe we can circumvent her and make it to Xadia?”

“She was my second and she was more experienced than most of us. Not only that, but she’s learned dark magic in this past decade.”

“There’s also the issue of that human she totes around.” Both of them turned to Callisto joining them. He winced as he sat. “He’s different.”

“You should be resting,” Andromeda said. “Is it your wound?”

“I’m fine. It burns, but I’m fine,” Callisto said. “I just can’t really sleep. I might as well be useful somehow.”

“I didn’t fight the human as long as you did. How is he different?” Runaan asked.

“He taught her the dark magic she uses. And they use her as a power source. Not only that, but he used an elven horn to fuel his spells. That one isn’t a fighter exactly, but he makes up for it with his magic.”

“He’s not a fool,” Runaan rummanated on Ram’s failed slitting of Morgan’s throat. His magic had protected him. “But we do know one weakness: Those beasts are borderline useless if there are too many of them around. Apparently, the magic feeds off of her energy. She began to struggle after the third summons.”

“I wouldn’t call them useless,” Callisto gestured to his back. “This hurts enough to have a purpose.”

“Is it at risk for infection?” Andromeda inspected him.

Callisto shook his head. “I don’t believe so. It just stings, but I put some of that ointment on just in case. There are considerable healing properties in it. Wherever it came from, it’s certainly Xadian in origin. We should preserve what’s left for any injuries inflicted by those things as a precaution.”

Runaan nodded. Andromeda looked off into the dark. “Is Skor alright?”

“Ram’s with him. I would have, but,” Callisto hissed. “I earnestly don’t want to keep getting up.”

“If they don’t come back in some time,” Runaan said to Andromeda, watching the dark with her. “We go find them.”

-:-:-:-

Skor had washed his face with river water three times now, but nothing. Nothing got rid of this hole in his chest that he’d been reminded of. He let out a restless breath, half a growl.

“Are you just going to sit in that tree all day or are you coming down here?”

“I thought I’d give you your space.” Ram dropped down from the tree at his back.

“And yet, you’re here.”

Ram said nothing. Skor didn’t expect him too. They both knew why he couldn’t be left alone. Why none of them could just be wandering off by their own grief be damned. Then again, it was times like this that Skor had to fight the urge to wish someone would put him out of his misery.

He had to remind himself that his life wasn’t all bad. His family was waiting for him back home and so giving up on life simply wasn’t an option. When he felt a bit more pessimistic, he reminded himself that the bastard that had killed Iolaena was still alive.

That was unacceptable.

Ram sat next to him, letting the silence sit comfortable between them.

Skor was the one who broke it. “I won’t be long. I promise.”

“You can take all night if you want,” Ram said kindly. “I’m where I need to be. It’s the least I can do.”

Skor snorted even as that hole in his chest stretched open, threatening to consume him. He croaked, “You’re so sentimental.”

“Someone has to be.” Ram smiled weakly. He paused. “Would she have liked it here? In the humans lands?”

It was a tentative question. Skor sighed and looked up at the moon above them. “Yeah… she would have been fascinated by everything. Outgoing lil’ lass. Never could keep still. I’d have my hands full just trying to -- to keep her in one place.”

It was almost too much to think about let alone talk about and his voice broke. Ram nudged him softly. A silent apology.

Skor just nodded even as his eyes stung and his voice went hoarse. “S’okay. She’s somewhere better now.” And having left her parents behind. Not to mention, the sisters who would never meet her. His voice broke some more, but he stifled the tears threatening to betray him. “It’s okay.”

Nothing felt further from the truth.

-:-:-:-

Rayla was lying just under a tree when Callum sat by her, Ezran fast asleep just nearby. He followed her gaze, glancing at the moon that matched her hair. “Hey.”

She tore her eyes from the sky and looked at him. “Hey. Is Ez asleep?”

“Yeah, he’s exhausted,” Callum yawned. “I can’t lie. So am I.”

“That’s good. He came to check on me earlier and he seemed pretty sleepy. You should do the same if you’re tired. It’s going to be a long day.” She raised her brows slightly. “A long few days, probably.”

But Callum only laid next to her, settling into the spot without taking his eyes off her. “What about you? Don’t you think you should sleep, too?”

“Can’t.”

Callum didn’t ask her to clarify. “Yeah… I’m not sure I want to either.”

“...what did you see?” she asked. He froze. She looked away from him. “I mean, if you feel like telling me. You don’t have to. I just figured since…”

When she didn’t finish her sentence, he asked, “What did you see?”

She didn’t answer. He didn’t press her.

The silence was comfortable, but it told enough of the truths they’d seen. He didn’t know how long they just laid there next to each other, watching the moon as if searching for some familiar comfort. Each of them surely thought of home. Each of them wanting to grasp for that safety net that had been torn open.

“Maybe we should tell each other tomorrow,” Rayla said so quietly Callum almost didn’t catch it.

“Yeah. Maybe tomorrow.”

-:-:-:-

Rayla knew it was a dream -- a nightmare -- but she couldn’t stop it.

Her mother was there. She kept repeating the words she’d said to Rayla.

You shame yourself,” her mother said. “ We always had to leave because of you.”

Rayla never even got a chance to ask her what she did wrong when it changed to Lord Viren, his dark, putrid magic slithering from mouth, but from his lips came a voice that sounded like his own and Anarr’s.

My sun and stars. How young you are.”

The baleful laughter grew louder and louder and louder--

She startled awake. Again, cold sweat dampened her skin, cooler still with the night air. Not bothering to get up this time, she looked beside her. Callum was still asleep next to her. Good. Telling him about her absurdly silly dreams was something she didn’t want to do even if his brows were knitted together in a way that suggested his sleep wasn’t so peaceful either.

There was nothing for her to be scared of, she told herself as she took deep breaths and closed her eyes again. Some bit of her knew that was a lie, but she kept trying to believe it anyway.

-:-:-:-

They left as morning broke. Not that they could tell much. Overnight, clouds had rolled in heavy with a rainstorm that promised not to take too long to arrive. Rayla looked displeased with the entire idea.

“What’s wrong?” Callum smirked in good nature. “Scared you’ll get a little damp?”

“You don’t know?” Rayla raised worried brows. “Elves can’t fight in the rain because our special markings wash out. They give us all our power.”

Callum stopped dead in his tracks, his eyes widened. “Wait, are you serious?”

Rayla stopped with him and stared at him for a long, worrisome moment. Then, she burst out laughing, bracing a hand on his shoulder as she bent over howling and a hand holding her belly. “No, I’m not serious, dummy.”

“She got you there,” Callisto snorted, passing them by.

Callum frowned at her, exasperated, even if he did deserve it.

She was still snickering when she explained, “Callum, they’re tattoos. They don’t wash off.”

Ezran popped up beside them. “Do they give you powers though?”

Rayla shook her head. “Nope. They’re just plain old markings. They’re given to us over the course of our lives. Some of us get more, like Runaan, and some of us don’t get as many. It just depends, but they’re not magic.”

“Oh,” Ezran blinked. Bait croaked and Ezran smiled. “That’d be cool though!”

Rayla grinned wickedly. “It would be.” She looked over at Callum still frowning and put a hand on her hip. It was her turn to smirk. “Oh, come on, it was funny. And you deserved it.”

His frown slowly curved into an amused smile. He sighed, a dramatic flair to it just for effect. “I guess. Anyway, do you know where we’re going?”

“West,” she replied. “That’s all I know. Andromeda, do you know?”

“It’s less about destination as it is about distance. The farther we are from Anarr, the better.” Andromeda turned her head to look at them, she had a thinly veiled smile. “Nice comeback, by the way.”

“Thanks,” Rayla smirked at Callum again, pleased with herself.

This time, he just rolled his eyes, but couldn’t keep the smile from his face. “Yeah, yeah, alright. I had it coming. There, happy now?”

“It’ll do.”

“Runaan is still considering it with Callisto, but,” Andromeda interrupted. “It seems as if we’re making a detour toward the human cities. Then, if we can shake Anarr well enough, we’ll turn around and make our way east.”

“To the Horn of Dahlia?” Rayla asked.

Andromeda nodded.

“But what about your bindings.” Callum frowned. “Your hands…”

She pursed her lips. “I have no answer for that… as it is, the most important matter is the egg.”

Since Callisto was a poor choice to carry the egg as of right now, Ram carried it in his bag. Callum couldn’t keep himself from glancing at Rayla’s binding, then her face that tried to conceal her worry. He wanted to tell her it was going to be alright, but they all knew that was a lie. There was no indication this was going to end with any way besides the loss of a few limbs between the lot of them.

Still, he tried. Quietly, he said, “Hey, we’ll figure it out.”

Rayla blinked at him. She squared her shoulders. “We knew the risk. It’s like Andromeda said. The egg is more important.”

He admired her ability to face danger even as her eyes flickered in a lack of confidence. Her shoulders deflated slightly. “Besides, she continued. “I’d rather lose my hand than my head. That entire time I was fighting Anarr? She was playing with me. I could feel it, but I couldn’t do anything about it.”

“Anarr is several times over more experienced than you,” Runaan said to her from his place at the head of their party. Callisto made a noise of affirmation. “You did well considering what she could have done to you.”

Callum watched Runaan’s back as he turned toward the head of the road. They’d abandoned the boats after the river began diverting north. It’d taken a while, but Callum had began to catch on to Runaan’s way of speaking to Rayla. Beside him, Rayla nodded gratefully, her confidence returning just a little.

The great expanse of forest eased more and more until finally it was clear they’d come upon a valley. Open and wide, it made even himself nervous. If they ran into a party of humans, blood was likely to be spilled and Callum wasn’t sure he wanted to see anymore of that.

Their chances of running into someone, however, was mercifully -- or not so -- diminished by the rainstorm that seemed to be swooping in. The winds picked up and it began to sprinkle, then it began to rain. No one was more grumpy than Rayla. Runaan perhaps was, but he hid was always at least a little grumpy.

As if someone was watching over them and heard their grumbles, just as they cleared a hill, Ezran pointed down in the hill. “Look!”

At the base of the hill beside a road, a wooden cabin stood alone. It was smaller than the Banther Lodge for sure, but it was big enough to foreseeably house a family. No light came from it, no smoke, no signs of life.

The elves all exchanged looks.

“Should we…?” Ram ventured.

Skor, naturally, was very skeptical. “We ought to keep moving. Whoever lives there might be out. The road seems to lead to other settlements.”

“Yes, but this bag is getting wet and the egg is going to get wet sooner or later.”

“There seems to be a lack of maintenance,” Andromeda said. “It wouldn’t hurt to at least see if it’s abandoned or not. Besides…”

She looked at Callisto. He grumbled. Even as his voice was tight, he said, “I’m fine.”

All the elves just gave him a look, even Runaan.

He let out a resigned sigh. “Alright, fine,” He winced. “My back is on fire. I could use a break.”

Frankly, they could all use a break. Runaan didn’t even say anything as he led them toward the cabin.

Chapter Text

The cabin was abandoned, but it had a chimney and firewood in the corner heavy with cobwebs. Everywhere Callum looked it was dirty and dusty and hadn’t been touched in ages.

The entire house, really, hadn’t had anyone living in it for what seemed like decades. Callum wiped his finger on the dusty chair near him. “Nobody’s been here forever.”

Rayla pulled down her hood. “Yeah, well, at least it’s dry. Careful though. Who knows what could be living in the nooks and crannies around here.”

Callum retracted his finger with a slight cringe. “Right…”

Ram began looking in cupboards and cabinets. “Do you think there’s any food around here?”

Skor snorted. “If there was, I wouldn’t be eating it. Who knows how long it’s been sitting there for?”

“Well, if you find any bugs, let me know,” Ezran chirped. “Bait’ll eat them.”

“We can also roast them,” Ram suggested, then shrank under Callisto’s glare. “Or not.”

Runaan said nothing, but he moved about the cabin slowly, examining each space with a critical eye. The walls were covered in decorations that Callum had never seen before. Decorations with an aesthetic to them that he couldn’t place. And he’d been to a few places trailing his father in diplomatic trips across the human kingdoms.

Whatever was amiss, Runaan could feel it.

“We should search the place for any supplies that we can take,” Callisto said. “Dirty or not, if it can be used, we should use it.”

“Do you think people died here?” Rayla asked.

Callum groaned. “Why would you ask that?”

She rolled her eyes. “We have bigger problems to worry about than ghosts. I just don’t want to stumble on any bodies. Bodies mean things are probably infected around here.”

She had a point, but that didn’t mean he had to like it any better. The idea was… unsettling. He didn’t know how elves felt about ghosts or those that had passed, particularly what assassins thought, but he knew what he thought and it was not… comfortable.

“Believe me, if something in here was dead, you would know,” Andromeda said. “The smell is unforgettable.”

Whatever Runaan felt, it made him quieter than usual. Stiffer. “Search the cabin,” he ordered. “Go in pairs or groups. Report anything you might find.”

Andromeda took Ezran and Ram upstairs while Runaan searched the ground level with Skor and Callisto. That left Rayla and Callum to take their pick.

“We should check if there’s some kind of basement,” she suggested. “There might be a cellar or an underground level in a house like this.”

He followed her lead and, sure enough, there was a door underneath an overturned rug in the kitchen area. It opened to a a stairway that led to pitch black. They looked at each other, then around for a lantern. There was one still with oil in it on a nearby table. After finding a way to light it, Rayla led the way with the lantern stretched out in front of her.

Just as they got to what felt like the last steps, the basement lit itself, light pouring like a room full of lanterns from stones embedded in the walls. The incident had Rayla reaching for her sword on instinct, but Callum put a hand on her shoulder. “No, it’s okay…” He didn’t take his eyes off the stones. “Look.”

Each stone was of an orange or yellow color and felt warm when Callum touched it. Rayla carefully approached one and looked it over closer. “These aren’t from the human lands. There’s no way,” she said. “You find these in Xadia. Some places use them for light sources. Not where I’m from, but I’ve seen them.”

Callum looked back up at the ceiling where the floor above them were decorated with things he couldn’t place. “Do you…” He shook his head. “Do you think elves used to live here?”

“Maybe. Maybe they were Sunfire elves. Look.” He turned to find her examining the workstation against the wall. Tools were still set out, covered in dust and cobwebs like everything else. He saw a spider skitter across and shuddered. She gave him a look. “Really?”

“Listen, you handle bugs your way and I’ll handle them my way. Okay?”

She looked like she was trying to suppress a smile as he tentatively walked to her side. “Look at all of this. These are tools you’d find in Xadia. I know these things. They’re old, but they look the same.”

She walked to the next table and picked up one of the necklaces that sat there, a beautiful stone wrapped in what Callum assumed to be Xadian silver hanging from black rope. Once it was around her neck, she spun with a grin on her face. “How do I look?”

Callum stared at her for a long moment. Longer than she had expected from her face. “Human.”

Her face fell. “That’s not funny.”

“No, I mean it.” His eyes were wide, he knew, but she really did look… human. Her ears were round, her tattoos had disappeared and were those five fingers on each hand? He blinked and rubbed his eyes. “Rayla, you’re human. You look human.”

“What? That’s imposs--” She turned to the mirror welded into the wall, special runes glowing faintly when she did. She froze and touched her face. Cursing, she grabbed the necklace off. Her elven features were suddenly back in the single blink of an eye.

She put it back on and, then, was a human. She cursed again.

“There’s no way this was a Sunfire elf. It had to be a Moonshadow elf, right?” She turned to him, wide eyed.

Callum shrugged as they stared at each other. “Does it matter? How many are there?”

She yanked open the drawer at the work desk. “A few. At least six. Enough for all of us.”

“I think Runaan needs to know about this.”

-:-:-:-

They took the amulet and met with everyone else upstairs. Upstairs, Ram, Andromeda and Callisto had discovered Xadian garb in a bedroom made for two people.

“All the rest of the clothing was human. Nothing we would see in Xadia.”

“Maybe they were undercover here,” Skor suggested.

“Or maybe a human lived here. The elven clothes were for a male. The human clothes were for a female.”

“They lived together,” Runaan said, examining the amulet. “A human and an elf lived here decades ago. Probably a Moonshadow elf considering the nature of these amulets.”

“Then, the amulets were for disguise,” Callisto confirmed. “They used them to live among the humans without trouble.”

“But what happened to them?” Rayla wondered.

“Perhaps trouble found them.”

“Or, the human died,” Andromeda said. “Elves tend to live longer than humans. Not forever and not by a whole lot, but our natural lifespan easily and commonly outdoes a human’s. If the human woman died, it’s possible that he simply left. Went back home. I wouldn’t stay here if I had no reason to.”

Rayla considered it. She had a point. Knowing herself, Rayla knew she wouldn’t stay in the human lands. Not even if you paid her. The lands themselves weren’t bad even if she did miss the vibrancy of the magic that came with living in Xadia, but she did mind being hunted by humans. She did mind being surrounding by them, essentially.

She missed her people.

She missed her home.

“Do you think it’s right to take them?” Callum asked. “I mean, they used to belong to someone.”

Callisto answered him, “I think we have no choice. Using these would allow us to simply walk into town and get supplies.”

“With what money?” Andromeda asked. “Don’t forget. Humans are very strict about their money.”

Callisto cursed. “I forgot. Stealing is always an option. It’s not like we might not be good at it.”

“I have a little money,” Callum said, gesturing to his bag. “I found some rummaging through this bag. It’s not a ton, but it can buy us bread.”

Skor sighed. “Great. More bread.”

“It’s something,” Runaan said. “And Callisto’s right. We have little choice. These amulets could be the difference between wasting time foraging for food or simply buying it outright. Distasteful as it may sound.”

“What now, then?” Ezran asked. “It’s still raining.”

“Rest,” Runaan regarded them all. “Rain or shine, we leave in a matter of hours. We have no time to stay overnight.”

-:-:-:-

Callum found himself unable to rest. He’d found a spare bedroom upstairs to take refuge in, Ezran asleep on the bed while Callum found himself retreating to the nearby lounging chair when sleep didn’t seem to be his friend for the moment. Half an hour went by and he could find no peace. Not in his sketchbook. Not in his head. His mind wouldn’t let him.

He picked up his sketchbook, turned it over and began to write.

-:-:-:-

My Favorite Rayla,

If we’re both honest, I think you know what I saw. But… I want to tell you anyway. I saw my father. He was telling me that I failed him. That sorry wasn’t enough. Even if what I saw was just an illusion I think he was right. I couldn’t help him and now look. Where are we?

It makes me wonder if I even could have helped him. What was I going to do against a high mage? Now, I can only do what I can.

That all being said, the one good thing is I get to talk to you. That would be hard to pass up.

I hope you understand.

Sincerely,

Callum

Rayla didn’t close the book right away. She read it again. Then, once more.

She’d heard a knock at the door and when nobody answered her after she asked who it was, she’d found the book at her feet upon opening the door. Now, the bed she was sitting on felt a bit too open. Too exposed as she picked up the pencil left with the book.

-:-:-:-

Sad Prince,

It’s alright. Truth is, I saw my mother.

She said some things to me. Like, I was the reason why her and my father always had to leave. I like to tell myself it’s not true, but it still feels like it is, you know? Sometimes, even when all the answers are right in front of my face, that feels like the only one that can be true.

Guess I’m my own worst enemy. Guess you are, too.

Yeah.

That sounds about right.

Also, I’m glad you’re here, too.

I understand,

Rayla

A small weight lifted from Callum’s chest. He read the letter more than once before he fastened the book back on his belt and left the room. His feet were moving before he really knew where he was going, but it became apparent quite quickly where they wanted to go. Who they wanted to go to.

-:-:-:-

In the hall, Rayla sat. The rain pattering on the roof soothed the storm in her mind that she had managed to brew. She hadn’t written as many words as the last letter, but it almost felt like more. More than she had ever written in any letter to be honest. The only one who really knew how she felt about her parents was Runaan and that was mostly because he was there for all of it. There was no need to hide it from him.

They didn’t talk about it except when she needed to. After all, Runaan had always been there in their place. What did she need them for?

Yes. Exactly.

What did she need them for, anyhow?

Her parents were practically dead to her. It had been like that for a long time. There were many times that it hurt more than anything else life had thrown at her. Any punch, any kick. Then, she reminded herself that they probably had felt the same about her for a long time.

That’s the only answer she had anyway.

She heard Callum down the hall before she saw him, but he sat across the hall from her and she smiled when he said, “Hey.”

“Hey.” She pulled up her knees despite her smile. “We need to start figuring out a different way to say hi.”

He chuckled. “I guess… you feeling alright?”

She tapped her fingers against her legs. “Yeah. Just a little tired. Thanks for sharing with me though. I know it wasn’t easy. It wasn’t for me, that’s for sure.”

“You don’t need to thank me,” Callum returned her smile. “You’re pretty brave yourself all on your own.”

“I am pretty awesome,” she put her knees down and angled her head with a smug confidence. He seemed to enjoy it. Her puffed chest deflated though as a sincere bout washed over her. “My parents never exactly thought so, I think. They kind of always had somewhere else to be.”

“That’s what you meant by never really having them.”

Rayla nodded. “Yeah,” she sighed. “They were part of the Dragon Guard. Eight elite warriors chosen to guard the Dragon Prince and I was proud. It was an honor, you know. But… they never exactly seemed to think I was important either. They loved me, but I don’t think they were ready to have me when they did.”

“What happened to them?” he asked.

A bitter taste coated her mouth. “They ran away. When the humans came for the Dragon King and his heir? They ran. Nobody even knows what happened to them. All we know is that they abandoned their posts and fled without a word.”

Callum’s eyes furrowed. “Rayla, I-- I’m sorry. For everything. Everything that humans have done.”

She eyed him for a moment. Nevermind that they both knew that over the centuries elves had their fair share of transgressions, but these recent ones…

She got up and he almost looked worried that she was going to walk away, but she sat down next to him, instead. “I appreciate that. Even if it’s not really your fault.”

“That’s not the point though,” he pointed out. “I know that between our peoples it’s been a tit for tat, but there was really no reason why we had to go after the Dragon King except to gain power. Maybe I don’t understand everything, but how could I?”

Rayla rested her head on her arm and her arm across a knee. “Even though your father was a part of it?”

Callum gulped, his eyes trained on a spot on the ground. “Yeah. I can only speak for Harrow the man, but I don’t know what to say yet about Harrow the king.”

Rayla stood up straight. She raised her face to get a better look at him. That, she hadn’t expected him to say for some reason. “You know,” she started. “There is always the factor of the high mage. If your father had him at his side, then, it could explain a couple things. He doesn’t seem like a good man that high mage of yours.”

A smile ghosted Callum’s lips, but it still felt warm somehow. “Thanks. And you’re right, but I also have to deal with the reality that I didn’t know everything about my dad. It’s alright. That just what it is right now.”

Even as he said that, she could see the slight cloudiness in his eyes. She searched through it.

“Well,” she said, nudging him with her body. “I think if Runaan was able to say he was a good man, then you shouldn’t worry about it too much.”

He looked at her for some time, a bit misty-eyed and nodded. “I appreciate that. You’re alright, you know that?”

“For an elf?”

“No, just… you.”

Rayla blinked. Then, she laughed. “Isn’t that my line?”

“I don’t know. Is it?”

“Maybe so.” She raised a brow, grinning even as her laughter died out. “You really are alright, Sad Prince. You’re alright.”

 

-:-:-:-

Andromeda carefully rifled through the drawers of the master bedroom. A decade ago it might have felt wrong and, truthfully, it still did, but if there were any other magical artifacts that might help them survive this trip then they needed to find them.

“I’m surprised you’re not with the boy,” Skor leaned against the doorway, examining the room at large. “Actually, I’m more surprised you and Runaan haven’t had an outright blowout about it.”

Andromeda snorted. “Hate to disappoint you. I’m sure it’s coming though.”

“You think?”

“I know his looks. It’s already something he’s planning to address sooner or later.”

Skor chuckled. “Thanks for the heads up.”

“Are you alright?” she asked. “After…”

“Yes, I’m fine,” Skor said, his lips tight. “I have to be. It’s not exactly a choice in the matter. And I’ve my ways of dealing with it. Don’t you worry.”

Andromeda nodded. She skirted the bed and wandered to the next drawer. Opening it, she found clothes for a man and a woman, each to their own side. She almost touched them, then decided against it. Why this drawer, she didn’t know why, but she left it alone and closed the drawer.

“I know I said the elf may have simply left if the human woman died, but… I wonder. Their clothes are still here.”

“Yes. But you’re not finding as many. And you’re not finding anything you might consider sentimental. Perhaps they had children. Perhaps their children used to live here.”

“Perhaps.”

“And you’re worried?”

Andromeda said nothing.

“It was like this far before our time. You know that.”

“And how much longer will it be like this after our time?”

Skor sighed. He walked into the room and sat on the bed, his hands loosely interlocked as he watched her for some time. His eyes bore into hers.

“What?” she demanded.

“Nothing. You just… you know. It’s amazing how you can do this job with a heart like yours.” Andromeda looked away. “I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s mostly a compliment. You know, you’re the only one among us who probably could understand a human boy without ever meeting one.”

“Do you believe they’re really that much different than elven children?”

Skor shrugged. “Never crossed my mind, I think. I think I’m indifferent to humans if I’m honest. Unless they’re trying to kill me. Then, I’m not indifferent and I’ve met a lot of humans who want to kill me.’

“As have I. Don’t make it out to seem as if I suddenly trust and love every human. Because I don’t, but I won’t deny that there are innocents on both sides. Children, moreover, shouldn’t have to be involved in this.”

Skor opened his hands. “But aren’t they? Andromeda, when my daughters grow up, they’re going to need to know that they can’t trust most humans. Any human, really. Most want them dead. Just like most elves aren’t exactly enthralled with humans either.”

She sighed. He was right, after all, but was it really that simple?

“I know. They’re the future of this conflict and it’s hard to escape that. I don’t even know what I feel to be honest. All I know is that I don’t want Prince Ezran hurt. That’s all I know. It…” She made a fist and placed it over her heart. “It feels right to protect him.”

Skor looked at her, that same look in his eyes that Runaan had on the boat only yesterday. “I’m sure it does.”

“Don’t.”

If he even breathed Aelan’s name she might deck him, but he put his hands up and stood up. “I’m not. We do what we must. And don’t forget who we are. That’s part of our job, too, Andromeda.”

“I don’t need a lecture from you.”

“It’s not a lecture. It’s a warning for the both of us. You think it’s easy me being here, either?” His smile was bitter. “I see every human and wonder if they were the one that killed Iolaena. If they knew the one who did. Then, I wonder what kind of person that makes me and do I have the honor to do this job.”

Andromeda’s mouth fell open, then she found her voice. “You are honorable, Skor. A bastard, sometimes, with that mouth of yours, but honorable. You’ve never strayed from your duty.”

“Well,” he rubbed the back of his neck. “Pray for the both of us that it stays that way.”

He waited for her to nod and clapped her on the shoulder once she did. When he left the room, she followed. She had found nothing in the room worth taking.

-:-:-:-
Rayla stretched as the team gathered in the living room, stuffing away any still usable supplies.

“I’m ready to get out of here. This place kind of gives me the creeps. And it’s really dusty.”

“Yeah, you could say it’s a place for the mites,” he chuckled, grinning at her like an absolute goofball. She just narrowed her eyes in question. “Because, you know, dust mites. Termites. It’s a cabin made out of wood.”

Rayla just looked at him, her mouth straight and her eyes unamused. Nearby, he could see Ezran just looking blankly at his brother. Callum shrugged. He thought it was funny.

“Anyway,” Rayla said, shaking her head. “Runaan says we’re heading into a city called Meraxia. Have you heard of it?”

“Meraxia?” Callum frowned. “I’ve been there. It’s probably the richest city in Katolis. My father took us there a couple times for a diplomatic visit.”

“They get almost everywhere by boat,” Ezran added. Bait croaked after him. “Bait loves it there.”

Callum put his hand up in question. “Wait. Why are we going in the city though? Isn’t that a bit far in?”

“Anarr hasn’t stopped trailing us.,” Runaan said. “ I doubt she’s far behind, but she’s no fool. She won’t just waltz into a human city and it’ll be easier for us to lose her there.”

“Okay, but we’re just waltzing into a human city. And, no offense, but you guys aren’t exactly human.” Runaan only shook his head at him and Callum cocked his own. Then, it came back to him. He snapped his fingers. “We’re using those amulets, aren’t we?”

Runaan nodded. “We have little choice.”

“I forgot about those,” he said more to Rayla than to anyone else.

“It’ll be… interesting,” Rayla said, looking at her amulet. Her eyes flicked to him. “Though I bet I look more normal to you as a human, huh?”

Callum raised a brow. “Not… really. It’s weird to see you without the horns and tattoos, actually. Not to mention, the pointy ears.”

Rayla smirked in reply. “I think that’s the right answer.”

“Good because it’s the only one I’m giving you. You’re perfect as an elf.”

And he meant that. She opened her mouth to say something, but the rest of the team was filling out the door and Runaan was calling for Rayla. A smile and a nudge to his chest was the only response she got to give him before the two of them followed the team out the door.

“You know,” he heard Ezran say as they closed the door. “This place is kind of a bit of history, you know?”

“Why do you say that, Ezran?” Andromeda asked.

“I don’t know. I guess it just reminds me that humans and elves didn’t use to be so separate, you know?”

Andromeda seemed surprised by that and she glanced up at Runaan. Callum caught Runaan sparing him a glance as well.

-:-:-:-

“Runaan? What’s the matter?” Rayla asked when she caught up with him.

Mercifully, it’d stopped raining. Even if the ground was wet, that was still better than being rained on. “Nothing,” he said. “I just wanted to see if you were alright after fighting Anarr. I know she wasn’t what you were expecting.”

Rayla squared her shoulders. “An assassin should be ready for anything.”

He smiled faintly. “You are correct. And you fought well against her, but I know she was a rattling opponent for you to face.”

“Well.” If she thought about it, Anarr had been very unexpected. Unexpected and… she would only admit it to herself, but somewhat terrifying. “She knew how to counter me at every turn.”

“I taught you and she fought with me. If you ever come to blows with her again, you must learn to think outside the box. You’re good at that. Think beyond what we’ve trained for and don’t try to beat her. Live. You’re experienced, but you’re not on her level yet. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew. Understand?”

“I understand.”

“Good.”

She didn’t know what made the question blurt out of her mouth, but she asked, “Runaan, am I anything like Anarr?”

He frowned and looked down at her as they walked side by side. “No. You’re not,” he said. “Not at all.”

“Then why did she say it? Why did she talk to me as if she knew exactly where I was headed?” That, Rayla could admit, bothered her. She had buried it up until now, but the feeling apparently decided to rear its ugly head. “She sounded so sure.”

“Anarr may see herself in you, but that doesn’t mean you are her. She was young, once. Younger and naive. Compared to her you are all of those things and her bitterness marrs her worldview. She sees nothing of the good that you are because of what you’ve had to overcome. She knows nothing about you.”

“You mean my parents.”

“I do. And everything that you have achieved so far in spite of it is why you are here now. Anarr does not understand that or see that. So, no matter what she says, you remember who you are,” he said firmly. “You know who you are, Rayla.”

She heard the words behind that. The certainly.

Her eyes could have stung if she didn’t blink a few times. “I do. And I’m nothing like her.”

Runaan nodded and they didn’t say anything else for some time.

Chapter Text

Meraxia was a city of wonder. Of light.

And of water, to Rayla’s great chagrin. The idea of going everywhere by boat seemed to dismay her once she realized that’s what it would mean for her. With her necklace on, Rayla appeared human to everybody else, but Callum was thankfully spared from having to adjust to that. Having one of those amulets on himself apparently allowed him to see past the magic. And he preferred it, seeing her -- truly her -- in the light of the city against the waterways.

The walkways, buildings and bridges were built out of smooth stone. Other buildings were built out of wood. Everywhere they wandered boats floated up and down the canals, men taking coin for a ride on some of them. The richest had their own boats and travelled the widest waterways.

Callum remembered the city well. The pastries here had been some of Ezran’s favorite and Callum himself fancied the museum in the part of the city that wasn’t among the canals. For Meraxia was situated on a scenic piece of land where part of the city was built along canals and the other half, built around a waterfall, settled for stone pavements and horse and carriage as their main mode of transportation.

That was partially why the city was considered one of fantasy. One of dreams and rendezvous’.

One where people often found themselves finding something under the moonlight. Callum had once even dreamt that he could have taken Claudia here. Maybe she would have that special something with him.

Now, he laughed at himself for ever coming up with the idea. If only he had known what was in store for him.

“Everywhere?”

Callum laughed at Rayla’s face. She looked so uncomfortable as they passed people who paid them no attention. For elves, the team seemed to have every confidence in acting like they belonged.

“Well, not everywhere,” Callum explained, leaning in to point in the direction they were looking at. “If you keep going this way, you’re going to get to the part of the city where the canals end. Near the waterfall.”

“We should go there.”

“It’s also the more expensive part of the city. The richer population live in that area. That’s where our family used to stay at.”

“So.” Rayla crossed her arms over her chest. “Where exactly are we going?”
“There’s an inn I know of that we can afford, I’m sure.” Scavenging the cabin had resulted in a few more coins than when they went in with. Callum looked back at the pack behind him. “We’re only staying for a couple nights, right?”

Runaan nodded. “Only long enough to shake Anarr. No longer.”

“Do we have that much time?” Skor asked.

It was only earlier that morning that their bindings had tightened again. At this point, the next step was to wait long enough for their hands to fall off. Unless they found a solution to it. He hadn’t said anything, but Callum had searched all through his book of runes that perhaps, maybe, he could find something to reverse its effects.

“Elven magic is different than human magic,” Callisto said when he’d caught him rifling through his book yesterday. How Callisto knew what he was doing, Callum didn’t know nor did he ever ask. The guy just seemed to know things. “A rune isn’t going to undo it.”

Since then, Callum had only looked in his spare time, but he still couldn’t entirely accept that fact lying down. He didn’t know why, but it just seemed wrong for that to be the end of it.

He glanced at Rayla. She was looking suspiciously at the water as if it were going to grab her and pull her in.

“It’s just regular water,” he whispered to her. “It’s not going to do anything to you.”

She elbowed him. “I know that.”

He bit back a smile. Her pout made him wonder if she was sure about that.

They turned the corner and Callum immediately recognized the street. A street of wooden buildings and narrow canals, but it was inconspicuous with a look to it where most patrons would barely glance twice at it. Down the street, there was a shack. He recognized that, too, and the building beside it.

“Okay, just wait here,” he said to them. “I’ll be right back. I’m going to see if they have a vacancy.”

-:-:-:-

The inn office was shabby as was the counter and the keeper sitting at it.

“Can I help you?” the innkeeper asked without looking up from his papers.

“I was just curious if you had a room available?”

“Not a room exactly. More like a house. How many you housing? This here’s only for people with good money.”

Callum dug in his pocket. “Well, I’ve got this much. Is it enough?”

The innkeeper made a face at the few coins Callum put on the desk. He hadn’t wanted to dish out all of it. After all, they needed to buy food with it and any other emergency supplies. “This it?”

Callum pulled on empty pockets. “It’s all I’ve got. What’s your price?”

“Higher than this, but I have a feeling you don’t got it, anyway.”

“Listen, I’ve got seven people out there who’ve just come into the city for the first time and we just need a place to stay for a night or two. Do you think this can buy us that? If you want, we can do some work around the place for you.”

The innkeeper rubbed the stubble on his chin. He looked over the money thoughtfully. “Any of you know how to fix a floor board?”

“I’m sure there’s one of us that can. Five of them are… travellers. They have a lot of skills between them.”

“Well, there’s a loose floorboard in there. In the kitchen. You fix it for me and I can give you two nights with this. Three if you manage to fix the hole in the wall behind the painting in there. Deal?” The innkeeper held out his hand, an old smile somewhere in that tired face.

Two nights was all they needed. Callum shook his hand. “Deal.”

Outside, he approached the team with two thumbs up.

“You got it?” Rayla asked.

“Two nights. But I didn’t give him enough money, so, there’s one condition.”

“And what’s that?” That was Runaan.

“There’s a floorboard loose in the kitchen. If we fix it, we’re welcome to stay for two nights. Three if we manage to fix the hole in the wall behind a painting in there. Anybody know if they can do that?”

Skor scoffed and waved a dismissive hand. “I can do it. I have kids. I’m forever fixing things in my house.”

“Well, alright.” Callum grinned, nodding at them. “Let’s get settled.”

-:-:-:-

For a cheap place, the house beside the innkeeper’s office was actually… quite nice. It was a bit shabby, wood for floorboards and walls that once were white, now beige. A coffee table sat over the pastel green rug and between benches and chairs for sitting. There was a short stairway that led up through an archway and into the kitchen across from the main entrance. Just before it on the right, a set of wooden stairs led to the second floor.

Callum scratched his head. “Not bad.”

“It’s… nice,” Rayla looked up at the ceiling that also had a small hole in it. She could see through to the next floor. “Enough. Kind of.”

“Listen, I know it’s not the best and it could use some work, but unless you know of a better place this is what we really have to work with right now.”

He had a feeling she would have rathered sleep outside.

“It could use a lot of work,” Skor was looking the house over. “These walls haven’t been cleaned in a while either.”

Andromeda came from downstairs. “There are four bedrooms. We’re going to need to bunk, but everybody has a bed if they so choose.”

“There’s also the benches,” Ram pointed out. “If we still want to keep watch at night.”

“We shouldn’t get too comfortable,” Runaan said to them all. “We’re in a human city. We need to be on our guard with or without these amulets. We don’t know how long this magic may last.”

The team all shared looks. They hadn’t thought of that one.

After ten or so minutes of looking through the house, Skor came from the kitchen to report the damage. The house had more than a floorboard loose, but he could fix what was asked of them no sweat. It could be done by the afternoon if he started tomorrow morning. He was just going to need the proper tools for it. A hammer, a couple nails. Callum went next door to see if any of that was available, but the innkeeper pointed out that’s exactly what it hadn’t been done yet. He had no tools to otherwise use although Callum had a feeling he also had no patience.

Skor rolled his eyes when Callum came back. “Of course. Humans. Can’t even be bothered to do the most basic of tasks, sometimes. I’ll need to go into the city, then, and get some. And something to cover up that whole in the wall if we’re wanting to stay a third night.”

“We don’t have a lot left,” Callum said looking in his bag and counting what money they had left. “Maybe just enough for your tools and a bit of supplies.”

“We should actually see what will be most useful to us before we spend it, then,” Callisto said.

“So.” Ram scratched the back of his head. “Are we all going into the city, then?”

“Well, we might not all want to go.” Callum jerked his thumb at Ezran. “Ez here isn’t immediately recognizable in these parts, but there’s still the risk of someone knowing it’s him. Since he’s the crown prince, technically.”

King, Callum realized.

Ezran should have been king. Would have been had they not been marked for death by Lord Viren.

“I will stay here with him,” Andromeda volunteered. Runaan looked like he had expected as much. “I can also keep an eye out on things here. Guard what we do have just to be on the safe side.”

Runaan took a heartbeat too long to nod. “Then, it’s decided.”

“Okay, then.” Rayla crossed her arms. “Now, does anyone actually know how to get to the market square?”

-:-:-:-

The city was okay, but Rayla still wasn’t comfortable and that wasn’t helping things.

Not to mention, did they really have to stay in the side of town where they had to take a boat everywhere? How did this mission end up involving so much water anyway?

What was even more unnerving was the fact that she could see the rest of her team as elves, but the rest of the world couldn’t. It was an adjustment to remember that. To pray it stayed like that.

In spite of all that, she shoved down her nerves. They were still performing their mission, after all. She couldn’t be worried all over the place about these things in a time like this. It was time to be serious. Still, she tugged her cloak around her.
So many humans.

“It’s nice once you get past all the people,” Callum said to her quietly.

Rayla smiled. “Yeah… just a lot of people to get used to.”

“Humans?” he whispered.

She didn’t nod right away.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I don’t blame you.”

“It’s not you. It’s just a strange place, you know?”

And everytime the idea of a human came to her mind the first thing she saw behind her eyes was that high mage and a vicious chill went down her spine. Her second image was much less unwelcome, however. She looked at Callum eyeing the boats in the water.

“We’ll get to the market faster if we use the gondolas.”

“Don’t those cost money?” Ram asked.

“Not if you ask the right person. Especially in this part of town. Most people are willing to bargain for a ride.” Callum looked around for a moment and walked up a group of men lounging near a line of boats. “How much so my friends and I here can get to the market?”

“Depends,” one of them said. The man looked him over. “What you got, kid?”

Callum reached into his bag and knew exactly what to pull out. The loaf of bread was hard, stale and otherwise only good maybe if put into a soup, but it was still something. He only knew of this part of town not so much because of the brief tour he was given as a child with his parents, but because he had gotten lost on those tours. One look too many, a step too far and suddenly he was lost. Thankfully, he’d been found in a matter of hours, but that day had been… enlightening he supposed was the word. “How about this?”

The gondolier immediately frowned upon being handed the bread. He even raised his brows hitting it against his hand gave Callum a face that made it clear he wasn’t sure if it was satisfactory. “...what else you got?”

Alright, fair. A loaf of bread probably wasn’t very convincing for a ride to the market. Callum added two silver coins to the payment. That, apparently, was finally enough.

The gondolier exchanged looks with his fellows. They shrugged. Dinner and maybe dinner later seemed to please them well enough, “Fine. Hop in. We’ll take you where you want to go.”

The team filed into the boats. Callisto, Skor and Ram in one boat and Runaan, Andromeda and Ezran on another.

When Rayla didn’t join him approaching the gondola, Callum turned back to look at her.

-:-:-:-

Callum raised a brow at the reluctance probably written all across her face. She stood away from them as the gondolier stepped into it and didn’t move when Callum gestured for her to come along. ‘Aren’t you coming?”

She said nothing. Her muscles moved to step toward him. It was just a boat ride down the canal. With a human stranger steering. It was fine.

It was fine.

It would be fine and she was being silly.

Then, she caught a look at the human’s face and her eyes flickered over the boat in the water and her foot would not move. Whatever caution inside of her was flaring up more than she had ever felt it in a while.

Since--

She shook her head. Perhaps it wasn’t caution, but cowardice. The time she took standing there began to stretch into unusual territory. Her face was warm all of a sudden.

Callum walked over to her. Great. He was going to think she was being stupid. “Hey, what’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” she whispered back. He wasn’t convinced. “I just don’t trust them.”

By some gesture of mercy, he seemed to understand she wasn’t just talking about the gondoliers.

His face was fixed in that way that meant he was thinking hard about something, then his eyes lit up and he smiled. He went back to the boat and whispered something in the gondolier’s ear, pushing an extra silver coin in his hand. The gondolier looked down at it, shrugged, then handed the paddle off to Callum and walked off.

Rayla blinked.

He offered his hand to her and she numbly, passively walked over to him and let him guide her into the boat. When she sat down, he put the paddle in the water. She asked no question.

She didn’t have to, her eyes big as saucers as he pushed off into the canal. Kindly, he said, “Don’t trust them. Just trust me.”

Rayla cocked her head.

Was it odd that she… kind of already did?

She wasn’t sure.

-:-:-:-

Callum paddled the boat despite the fact that he never exactly… done this before. It wasn’t easy either. More than once he nearly collided with someone, but it was still worth it in his opinion. Despite his ineptitude at this -- he now wondered what the gondolier must have thought of him and his request -- Rayla didn’t seem that nervous anymore.

He didn’t want her to feel as if the world was closing in on her. That was what their last couple of weeks had been like for him. He’d come closer to death than he ever had in his entire nearly fifteen years of life and she had been there to prevent that.

Protect him.

It was only fair, only right, that he at least try to shoulder a little bit of the world so she could have some room to breathe. Even if it meant steering this gondola he had no idea how to steer.

Thing was, he found himself wanting to do that for her. Be in this position.

Thank goodness these canals were a straight shot.

The sun was nearly down by now, the sky a blue-black as the stars came out to play for the night. Overhead, the moon was a crescent, finally showing up after several days of pitch black nights. Around them, the lights of the city seemed to make it all glow just a little. Just that touch of light that was hard to expect in most places. It was probably the one place in the human lands he could truly say had a magical quality to it. That was what had made him wander off, anyway.

“You like this place.”

Rayla was watching him when Callum turned to look at her. He chuckled, rubbing the back of his neck before remembering he needed two hands to steer this thing. “Yeah, I, uh, I guess I do,” he said. Looking up toward the parts of the city near the waterfall he could see but perhaps would never visit again. “The artist life here is… I don’t know. It’s amazing. Just everywhere around you from all the way down here in the canals to up there… it’s all so alive.”

Rayla did look around. He knew what she was seeing. Artists and street performers and people just living. Creating lives of their own without a care in the world. Callum envied them and he was glad for their happiness in a world that had as of recently robbed him of his own. “It’s their home. It’s what they know. Do you think it’s as magical to them as it is to you?”

“I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “I mean, you’re from Xadia, right? What does it feel like for you? Does it still feel as magical as everybody says it is?”

“Everybody? You mean humans?”

Callum nodded.

Rayla sat back on her hands. “That’s a good question. I guess I never thought about it too much. I’ve just always been there and it’s just how we live, you know?”

“And do you like it?”

She took a moment to respond. “I love it. So, I guess… I guess it still is magical to me. I miss it a lot right now. Never really been away.”

“All the time I spent out of Katolis was mostly because my dad took us along when he had diplomatic trips to take. I never really got too homesick, but I guess it was because I always knew I was going back.”

“You’re here now,” she said kindly. “It’s not home, but you can have this moment. Right now.”

“Yeah…” She had a point. He looked around again and saw an artist painting a couple near a small shop. Each of them looked happy. Content with their lives. “You’re right. Honestly, one of my favorite things about this place is that it’s not home.”

Her eyes softened. “It’s magical?”

“It is. Don’t you feel it? The way everything’s just… different in this city. A city is kind of where dreams go to become alive. And this is the one that does it the best because everything feels… everything’s just right and alive and good. Everything’s beautiful.” His eyes found her face again. “I know that it’s not exactly your favorite place to be, but when you look past the flaws it’s a place where everything can be something different because we want it to be. I like that. I really do.”

Her lips slipped into a soft smile, a warm glow to her violet eyes as she took in the scenery through all it’s peace of the evening. Her gaze found his even as she hadn’t turned her head to him all the way again. “You know, maybe human cities aren’t so bad.”

He smiled back and allowed that daze to serenade his attention away. To her. “Yeah… maybe they aren’t.”

In the glow of the lights that gilded the air with that beauty he didn’t quite have the words to describe, her hair took on a frame that softened her face the same way her voice had . He’d never noticed the contrast between the white of her hair and the darkness of her tattoos. Or how her eyes balanced it all, the way they reflected the light--

Their gondola jolted as Callum quite blatantly let it off course and right into the side of another -- mercifully empty. Rayla clutched the sides of the boat for dear life. One of the bystanders called after them own the way. “Hey, you gotta steer!”

Somehow, someway, the end of the paddle had ended up under Callum’s chin for him to lean on rather than actually being in use.

“Thanks! Sorry!” Callum’s face went red even as Rayla sputtered into laugh behind her hand. “Won’t happen again!”

The bystander looked more concerned than angry. Callum couldn’t blame him.

-:-:-:-

“If that becomes a problem,” Skor turned away from Rayla and the prince lagging behind them. “You get to tell Runaan.”

Callisto sighed through a growl. “Why do I always have to be the one to tell Runaan?”

-:-:-:-

The beauty Callum had been referring to was the beauty of the moment. The beauty of content in the present. Rayla could understand that standing next to him as they perused the market while Skor looked for his tools.

He was just enjoying himself for once. Since she’d met him, she hadn’t actually seen him genuinely happy in whatever he was doing and she had to admit… it was nice. His laughter was contagious and his grins made whatever he was staring at a bit more interesting. If only because she wanted to know why it made him happy.

“See, these are pieces of metal that some people will find and they use fire to twist them around into little trinkets like this one.” He showed her an intricate one in the shape of a star. “You can use them as pendants or ornaments. The designs get really neat, too.”

“It’s really detailed.” Rayla put a hand on her chin. “It must have taken a long time to get this pretty.”

The artist at the booth thanked them. Callum eyed it for a bit more before putting it down as they moved on. “You know, when I was younger I used to think I could maybe sell some of my art here. Not that I needed the money, but just to see if people would like them.”

“I think they would. Your art is really nice.”

“Wait, you’ve seen it?”

Rayla blinked. “Of course I have. You always give me your sketchbook, remember?”

“I didn’t think you were flipping through the other side.”

Oh.

Was she not supposed to? It hadn’t occurred to her not to.

She cringed. “I might have… flipped through a few pages…?”

He turned pink. “How many pages?”

“I’ve seen your... mother?”

“Oh.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t have looked through it.”

“It’s fine,” he said reluctantly, rubbing his arm. “I guess I don’t really show my sketches to anyone but Ez. Not really used to it, but… you really thought they were good?”

“I do. You’re talented. Not a lot of people are. I’m not talented the same way you are.”

“You? Rayla, you’re one of the most talented people I’ve ever seen in my life. All the things you can do? I wish I was more like you. Just flip around everywhere like it’s nothing.”

“Hm. Guess I never thought about it that way. You create though. I just kind of… do. Let me ask you something, if I wasn’t always going around, you know, saving your life doing all the flippity flipping you see, then what would you say is the best thing about me?”

He raised his brows. Hadn’t been expecting that for sure.

“Okay, let me ask you something--”

“That’s not fair. I asked you something first.”

He laughed. “Who said? Never said I couldn’t answer your question with one, right?”

She rolled her eyes, but gestured him to go on.

“Are you always this cheerful?”

It was her turn to raise her brows. What was that supposed to mean? “Cheerful?”

“Well, I just think a question like that is begging for trouble because you are Rayla the flippity flipping warrior. Why wonder what would have been the best thing about you?”

“So, you’re saying that’s the most valuable thing about me.”

“What? No. That’s not what I’m saying at all.” He seemed a bit amused by the idea. “I’m saying I like how you are. There are plenty of good things about you. Why pick just one?”

“Same goes for you. Your art skills aren’t the only thing valuable about you, but I like them. So, shouldn’t you take your own advice?”

He thought about it for a second. “Alright. Fair enough.” There was a bit of admiration with that smug look he got from time to time in his face. “Aggressive encouragement. See, there are plenty of good things about you.”

“What about you? What should we call you? A relentless flatterer?” she smirked.

“Excuse you, but I’m definitely all about reactive positivity.”

She shoved him lightly, biting back a smile. “Dork.”

“You could call me that, too.”

“How about I just call you Callum?”

It’d surprised him, too. They stopped and stared at each other for a brief moment. Had she really not been using his name this whole time? It rolled off her tongue like it was supposed to.

He ducked his head and she nearly kicked herself for making it weird, but he picked up something else from a nearby booth and showed it to her. “Rayla, what do you think of this?”

It was a knife. Small, simple, but sturdy. She frowned. “This?”

He put it down when the boothkeeper cleared their throat politely. Callum apologized. “Yeah. I mean, you’re so used to your weapons. Do you think you could use this?”

“Probably. I had to learn the basics, too. Be adaptable, you know.” The person at the booth began eyeing them suspiciously and they quickly moved on. Once they were out of his earshot, she went on. “I was expected to pass certain tests before I was allowed to master the next set of lessons.”

“So, this has been your whole life.” He was smart enough not to mention her occupation in such a crowded space. “Is it everything you wanted?”

“It’s an honor,” she said proudly.

“But is it what you wanted?”

She didn’t have an answer for him right away. After moments went by, she replied, “...I think I wanted a lot of things. And, in some ways, this was one of them. But time changes everything and I’m here. I think I want different things now, but somehow this still feels right. Like I’m where I’m supposed to be. Even if it’s not everything I wanted. If that makes any sense.”

“It’s not everything you thought it’d be?”

“It’s more like it’s exactly what I thought it’d be,” she glanced at him. “And a little more if I’m honest. Guess I’m not sure how I feel about all of it yet. It’s a lot to process.”

She was grateful for his simple smile and acceptance of that answer. Whatever it even meant.

“Callum? Prince Callum is that you?”

Callum’s eyes widened and Rayla tensed. This was not the place to start a fight, but if she had to so they could get out of here in one piece then she would. But he twisted toward the voice, eyes still as big as dinner plates. Rayla followed suit, a hand at her back ready to grab one of her swords if she had to.

The man who recognized Callum was tall and dignified, his clothes just as well. A noble of some sort especially considering the servant who seemed to trail him. He was broad shouldered and dark bearded against fair skin. Handsome. Piercing blue-grey eyes set on Callum. “Prince Callum it is you. Why, I’d received no word that you might be in Meraxia. As pleasant as it is to see you, what brings you to my city?”

Rayla tried not to glance at Callum, but out of the corner of her eye she saw him shake the surprise off and bow shortly. “Lord Gallias. It’s good to see you as well.” His voice was straining with nervousness. She drew closer to him. “Just taking a trip away. You know how it is.”

Lord Gallias gave a hearty laugh. “Oh, yes, I do know what you mean. Palace life can be hectic. When I finally left your father’s council, it was a bit of a relief to be away from all that busyness. Who’s with you?”

“Nobody,” he said quickly. He grinned. “It’s just me. I… felt my muse needed a new environment.”

Lord Gallias blinked and Rayla touched Callum’s arm beneath her cloak, but the man grinned. “Oh, Harrow was a good man. A better father for letting you get out on your own. I know he worried about you boys a lot. Good on him for letting you take some time to yourself. After all, you’re a young man now, aren’t you?”

Callum nodded. “Nearly fifteen.”

“A good age as any.” Lord Gallias shifted his gaze to Rayla. “My apologies, I’ve been most rude. Who might this lovely young lady be?”

“Oh, uh,” Callum tensed. He put a hand on Rayla’s back and Rayla might have yelped if she wasn’t a relatively decent liar. “Lord Gallias, this is Rayla.”

Rayla didn’t know if she should bow or not. Giving him her hand was out of the question lest he realize she actually had one less appendage. They’d tested it earlier and it seemed to hold up, but the idea still made her nervous. She merely smiled at him and did a sort of curtsy. The most graceful version she could manage at least. It seemed to please him well enough. “A paramour?”

“A what?” Callum asked.

Lord Gallias laughed and shook his head. “Nevermind, nevermind. A bit too young for that term I suppose.” Callum and Rayla exchanged looks. They shrugged. Whatever that meant. “Now, since you are in the city, might you be attending my ball?”

-:-:-:-

“Ball?”

He didn’t know, Callum realized. Lord Gallias had no clue that King Harrow was dead. Not yet, anyway.

“It’s the two day ball we host every year to celebrate the founding of the city. You’ve been to it before, haven’t you? Then again, you were younger. Perhaps you don’t remember. I showed you some of my favorite treasures, didn’t I?”

Callum did remember some of that. Lord Gallias had taken he, Ezran and his father on a tour through his personal collection of artifacts, magical and otherwise. There were artifacts from Xadia and beyond, orbs and coins and sceptars and all kinds of objects made by elves, dragons, against humans, against elves--

Against elves.

“What time did you say that ball would be?” Callum asked. He ignored Rayla pinching him from under her cloak.

“Tomorrow evening. Oh, please tell me you might be joining us. It would surely be the highlight of your visit.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it. We can probably stand to make it.” Callum crossed his arms confidently. He could feel Rayla shooting him a look. Again, he ignored it.

“Splendid!” Lord Gallias took Callum’s hand in delight and grinned. “I look most forward to seeing you tomorrow evening, then. Tomorrow, Prince Callum.”

Rayla’s nails were a vice in his arm even as Callum bowed. “Tomorrow, Lord Gallias.”

Lord Gallias left and Callum let Rayla drag him away as soon as the man was gone. “What are you doing?” she hissed. “Callum, we can’t be going to some ball. Now, he’s going to be looking for you! For us!”

He pried her nails out of his arm and held her hand. She looked down at it. “Trust me, Rayla. You’re going to want to do this.” Her frown was an order to convince her. “Come on. We have to go tell the others.”

“Callisto may strangle you.”

-:-:-:-

In the end, it was Skor who looked like he wanted to strangle Callum.

“Explain it to me again?” Callisto said after waving down Skor’s hissy fit. “What is it that this Lord Gallias have that is so important you need to go dress up for it?”

“It’s called the Scepter of Meridian. It’s an old artifact I remember that was taken from Xadia--”

“-by humans,” Skor added.

“Yes, by humans, but what’s important about it is that it repels elven magic. It’s Lord Gallias’ most prized possession.”

“Wait a minute,” Rayla raised her hands. “What do you mean it repels elven magic? Like, it’ll kill if we touch it? We need to know that.”

Ram nodded in fervent agreement. “That’s critical information.”

“Ell, see... I don’t know,” Callum grinned nervously, but he raised a finger. “But what it might do is get those bindings off of you.”

“No.”

Everybody looked at Runaan. He’d crossed his arms and shook his head.

Callum frowned. “What? Why?”

“It’s too much of a risk. We don’t know if it works and even if it did, we chose these bindings. It’s a dishonor on us to simply find a way to take them off as if they didn’t mean anything.”

Callum blinked. He took a step forward. Rayla took a step toward the both of them. “How is it a dishonor? You’re going to lose your hands. This way, you might actually be able to keep them. We can get to Xadia faster and safer. If they get any tighter, your circulation is going to get cut off. You can’t just let that happen.”

“We made a vow.”

“Yeah and now you’re purposefully not trying to fulfill it. Things have changed. Can’t you put it aside?” Runaan stood steadfast. “Can’t you at least put it aside for your mission?”

Callisto snorted. “Kid’s got a point, Runaan. Not to mention, this thing on my back isn’t healing as fast as I’d like it. If my hand becomes a problem I’m going to become a real liability and then we’ll be down one on top of being out of half our hands.”

“We have a duty.”

Andromeda stood beside Runaan. “We have a duty to The Dragon Prince. Runaan, what is more important, his life or our vow? Prince Callum is right about it. Things have changed.”

Runaan regarded her for a moment, considering. For a long moment, he simply looked at each of his assassins. Then, he sighed and eyed Callum. “Do you believe it will work to repel the magic of our bindings?”

“I don’t know,” Callum said truthfully. “But it’s worth a try, I think. If nothing else, maybe we can use it against Anarr somehow.”

“If nothing else, we can also return that to Xadia,” Skor pointed out.

Callum gestured to Skor. More pros than cons.

“It’s worth a shot,” Rayla ventured carefully. She looked to Runaan.

“Very well,” he said. She nodded gratefully. “What do you have in mind?”

Chapter Text

The Palace of Solare was home to Lord Gallias and, his wife, Lady Eveline. An opulent thing, its dome shaped sparkling roofs and multi-tiered white walls of marble and limestone offset the glass windows, and three large glass domes characterized its towering appearance. Inside, Callum remembered vividly, was even grander with plush, beautifully woven rugs over the most pristine tiles. Where Katolis Castle was most certainly a castle, defense at the forefront of its purpose, the Palace of Solare was for beauty and a show of wealth. It felt like an impossible dream and Callum was a prince. A step-prince, yes, but a prince nonetheless. Few things left more of an impression on Callum.

Except maybe Rayla’s confidence when she volunteered to scale the thing to the very top.

“Rayla, are you sure you can do this?”

Rayla crossed her arms, leaning against the wall. She smirked, “Are you doubting my skills?”

“No,” he said slowly. “I’m just worried about you getting caught in there.”

Rayla scoffed and dismissed him with a wave. “I’ve got this down. I just get in, scope out this scepter and then I’m out, right?”

“There are guards all over the place. This is where Lord Gallias sleeps after all.” He told her. “Just be careful, alright?”

Because of how public the palace was, there would be no actually sneaking in by scaling the walls of the palace itself, but the buildings around it were forfeit. Rayla put a hand over her eyes, attention on her target. “I’ll be fine. You’ll see.”

Andromeda crossed her arms, Callisto sharpening his tools beside her. “If you run into any trouble” she said. “Take care of them. Quietly.”

Callum cringed. “But try to avoid that. At… all costs. Please.”

Rayla smiled at him. “Stop worrying. I’ll be back before you know it.”

He hung onto her smile to help ease his nerves as she leapt off the roof.

-:-:-:-

Scaling the palace wasn’t the hardest thing she’d ever done, but it wasn’t exactly the easiest either. She prayed nobody would spot the marks she made on the walls this high up. At least, not until they were out of the city. Rayla climbed through the window quickly, her hood up and weapons at the ready.

Nobody. Good. She hadn’t heard any footsteps while listening just outside the window.

She trod as lightly as possible along the reflective marble floors, keeping to the red and gold rugs that muted her movements. Callum had given her a map to use, but warned her that the scepter might not be exactly where he remembered; considering how many years it had been since he last was given a tour.

If there, she knew the rod was in the west side of the castle, right at the top of the structure on the west side. West side, top floor, should be on the same floor as the glass-domed room, but not directly under it. And guarded behind a door.

Rayla listened for any noise around the corner, moving on when she heard no one. She kept close to the walls, hiding behind decorative armor and large vases until the coast was clear.

Left, left, right.

She studied the map again.

Yep, those were Callum’s directions. Left, left, right. The second left was a long hall, open. Rayla crossed it as quickly as she could just in case someone came around--

She dove behind a plate of armor as a guard came into view. He stopped, stared at the spot she was in, then kept walking. As he continued down the hall, she kept her eyes on him until he turned the corner.

Right.

If the walls were anything to go by, this Lord Gallias seemed to enjoy portraits of himself. His wife, too, apparently. Many of the paintings involved the same woman, who Rayla assumed was his wife. A woman with strawberry blonde hair, a svelte woman dressed in fine clothes with a heart-shaped face. Her blue eyes were the focal point of every painting, even if they weren’t meant to be.

Ahead, the room opened and Rayla did herself a favor, climbing and crawling her way up a chandelier, just as another guard entered the round room. He circled once, then disappeared around a corner and Rayla fell from the chandelier, gracefully landing on the floor.

She approached the double doors. Here. Callum said it would be here.

Naturally, They kept it locked. She growled and pulled on it again. Oh, for the love of--

Footsteps.

No time to pick the lock. She found her way back up to the chandelier and out of sight, just as the guard came back into view. Okay, she didn’t have confirmation, but it was probably behind there.

If it was his most prized possession, then there was no better place to put it. The guard circled the room, then slowed. Rayla squinted.

He stopped.

She cursed.

Don’t look up, she prayed. Don’t look up.

Don’t look--

Up.

His eyes trained on her, widening at the site of her. He shouted and Rayla immediately descended upon him. No, no, no. If he made anymore noise more guards would come running. Were they too far to hear him? She hoped so.

He swung at her and Rayla dodged. When she came up, her eyes widened at the necklace now laying at her feet. She felt for it on her chest despite its presence on the floor.

The guard wasn’t stupid, his green eyes blazed when he took her in. Her white hair, her horns--

Elf!” He spat. “I’ll give Lord Gallias your head as a gift!”

Rayla sneered at him. “Come and try.”

Runaan would chastise her for her lack of subtlety, but she didn’t have a choice right about now.

This might as well happen.

He charged her, and she scuffled with him, meeting his sword with her own. This needed to end quickly. This had to end now. Every clash was too loud and echoed through the chamber. It was only a matter of time until the other guards heard and came running.

And heaven help her if he did anymore shouting.

Just as the thought ran through her mind, the guard opened his mouth and turned his head. The world slowed, and she saw the opportunity. She pounced on him, pinning him to the ground with his ribs under her knees and her hand over his mouth.

He bit her when he hit the ground and she cursed. He shouted against her hand and bit her again. She ground her teeth in an effort not to yelp.

Then, he threw her hand off his mouth. No, no, no.

Rayla’s jaw tightened.

“I’m sorry, Callum,” she muttered miserably.

The guard opened his mouth.

His voice died in his throat with a strangle as Rayla slit it. She pressed her hand against his throat to catch the blood, hauling herself, and him, off the floor with a strength and quickness only Runaan’s training could drill into her. He grabbed her hand, his eyes wide and full of hatred.

The last thing she heard out of him was a mangled, “... filthy elf…”

He went limp.

Rayla did her best to keep him, and his blood, off the ground; she snatched the curtain off a window, wrapping it around his throat to catch the blood and wipe off her hand. She swallowed hard, looking at his lifeless face.

Another face would be in her nightmares now. She closed her eyes and sighed through her nose.

Her job.

This was her job.

And now her job was to figure out where to put him.

She looked around, placing him in a decorative chest in a corner. It was crude. Desecrating even, but someone would come looking and properly bury him. She could not get caught right now.

This was what Runaan meant when it wouldn’t always feel right.

It felt downright wrong, actually.

But it officially marked the time to leave. She wouldn’t be able to find the scepter like this. Still, she tried to open the door, but it wouldn’t budge. Not even when she attempted to pick the lock, and she certainly didn’t have time to just sit here and keep trying. If this thing wasn’t in there, it could take all day to look for it. But this was the best she could do with the time given. She climbed up to the chandelier, trying not to look back at the body she left behind.

-:-:-:-

It was instinct to try and keep her footsteps quiet, even on the rooftop where Andromeda and Callisto could hear her anyway. Callum turned and closed his book when she walked up to them.

“Did you find it?”

She shook her head, hunching her shoulders at his disappointment. “Sorry. No luck.”

“You didn’t run into anybody, did you?”

Her muscles stiffened, and she took a second too long to answer. The slightest glance and she already could see that look on Callisto’s face. “Say, what?”

“Run into anybody,” Callum frowned. “You know. Guards? You didn’t run into any guards, did you?”

“No.” Rayla shook her head, steadying her voice as much as possible. “I just couldn’t open the door and someone was coming. I didn’t want to get caught.”

Callum sighed. “Well, at least there’s that.” He crossed his arms. She tried not to look at him, but she could feel Callisto’s eyes trained on her. “But how are we going to get it if you couldn’t find it? We need to know where it is before we go in for it.”

“It helps,” Callisto said. “This celebration. It’s a two day affair, isn’t it? We may need to use both days. The first night to find it and do reconnaissance. Especially for what security measures there might be. The second night to actually steal it.”

“Skor will have to fix that hole in the wall, then,” Andromeda said. “We’re going to need the extra night.”

“We’ll make do.”

As they talked, Callum raised a brow at her and Rayla pretended to cock her head at him. “What’s wrong?”

“I should ask you the same thing,” he said, frowning. “You okay?”

She forced a smile. “I am. Just a little nervous. That’s all. Just, you know, really want these bindings off.”

He blinked at her and for a dreadful moment she thought he would call her bluff. Then, he smiled and put a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’ll work out. Besides, can’t doubt skills, remember?”

Her laugh was genuine. Genuinely nervous even as he smiled and turned his attention back to Andromeda and Callisto’s discussion.

Rayla felt sick.

She felt even worse when Callisto approached her back at the inn and Callum went to check on Ezran.

“So, where did you put the body?”

“... in a chest. I figured they’ll find it eventually,” Rayla, resisting the urge to rub her arm.


“You did well,” He said, then crossed his arms. “Now, mind telling me why you bothered lying to the prince?”

“He doesn’t need to know.”

“Rayla--”

“He just doesn’t, okay? He asked me not to kill anyone, and I did. It’s best if he doesn’t find out. We need to do this mission right.” Even as she said that, she didn’t look at him.

Callisto sighed. “Very well.”

“Are you going to tell him?”

He was already walking away. “It’s like you said. We need to do this mission correctly. So, no. That’s not my duty, Rayla.”

She hated the way he said it.

-:-:-:-

Ezran ran up to Rayla when she walked into the bedroom. “Hey, look at the color Bait’s glowing,” he grinned at Bait’s plum glow. “I think he found some of that moonberry juice you guys keep around.”

Rayla snickered. “Who’s stash?”

Ezran shrugged.

“Well, don’t let Runaan know. He’ll see it as a waste of supplies.”

“Ooh, good idea.”

“Do you know where your brother is by the way?”

He shook his head. “I think he’s outside drawing or something. Why?”

“Don’t worry about it. No reason.”

“... say, Rayla?”

Rayla looked at him. He sat down on the bed, his legs just too short to reach the floor, his face in a concerned, but oddly happy expression. She sat next to him and put an arm around him. “What’s up, Ez? Something bothering you?”

Ezran seemed almost surprised by the gesture, albeit pleasantly so. He smiled warmly. “No, not really. I just wanted to say… thanks.”

“Thanks?” she blinked. “For what?”

He put Bait on the bed next to him; he took a moment, trying to find the right words. “I don’t know just… for helping Callum. I mean you’re always there for him and I know he’s been trying to keep everything together for me and, you know, he’s never really left me alone. Even though I never fit in so much at home. He’s always been my best friend, I guess. Kind of like my only friend. I don’t exactly have the easiest time talking to other kids.”

Rayla found herself pulling Ezran into a hug. “Aww, Ez. You don’t have to thank me for that. We’re travelling together. We might as well be friends about it. I think of you as a friend.”

Ezran’s eyes lit up. “Thanks, Rayla. That means a lot… see, I have this way with animals and it makes people think I’m… weird sometimes.”

“It can’t be that weird. Plenty of people love animals. Ram does for sure. We don’t think he’s weird. At least, not because of that.”

He hesitated. Trading looks with Bait as best as a boy could do with a glow toad.

Rayla squeezed his shoulder. “It’s alright. No judgement here. I tried to sneak into your castle and kill you, remember? I’ve got no room to judge.”

He pursed his lips, twisted his mouth as he fidgeted then sighed. “I... uh, I talk… to animals…” He cringed, one eye shut and the other on her. Regret flashed across his face. “I knew you would think it’s silly. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“Ez, no! It’s okay, I…” Rayla caught him by the arm as he got up. She didn’t think it was silly. Just… far-fetched. She’d lived in Xadia her entire life and never heard of such a thing. Then again, she didn’t know everything. “I just… have you talked to anyone else about this?”

“Callum,” he frowned. “But he doesn’t believe me. He thinks I’m making it up.”

“I’m sorry,” she said and meant it. He quieted, and she tried to think of what to say. “Hey, why don’t you talk to Andromeda about it? Or Callisto or Ram? Callisto knows a lot about a lot and Ram knows about animals. Maybe they can help.”

“You think so?”

Rayla smiled and nodded.

“Do you believe me?”

“I…” Rayla sighed. “I don’t think I know enough about this stuff. You know? I’m more of a slish and slash kind of girl. I’ve never really gotten to play with magic except during the full moon. I’m not the best person to ask about this stuff, but I bet there’s something special in there.”

He finally cracked a smile and threw himself into her arms. She hugged him back. “Thanks, Rayla.”

“No problem.” She hugged him a little tighter. “I’ll be here if you need me, too.”

-:-:-:-

“Wait. So, he can talk to animals?” Callum scratched his head.

Callisto nodded. Ram grinned. From the looks on their faces, Callisto was about done with Ram’s fascination with the whole thing. “It’s not completely unheard of. Just not common either. It also depends on why you have it, but your little brother can talk to animals. We had him talk to a couple mice who live under the floorboards--”

“That’s unsettling.”

“And they were able to find a bunch of screws for Skor to finish the floorboards. Guess they appreciate him fixing up the roof of their home, too.”

‘So, this is real. All those times…” Callum looked at a sheepish Ezran, who was holding Bait as if scared of his brother’s judgement. Callum couldn’t help but rub the back of his neck. “Well… Ez, I guess I owe you an apology. I’m sorry about all those years. I was wrong about you.”

Ezran looked hopeful. “You mean it?”

“Yeah. I do.” Callum pulled his brother into a quick hug. “I should have believed you before, but I guess I have to now, huh?”

Ezran laughed. “You have to be careful now. I might send those mice into your pants in the middle of the night.”

“Let’s not,” Callum chuckled. He turned back to Callisto and Ram, Callisto in particular. “And from the sound of things, you guys have some kind of idea for this.”

Callisto nodded. “These mice have agreed to do a bit of scouting for us. A ball means the palace will be crawling with humans. Entering through the roof may be too risky. However, if we can find an underground route, we can make our way to the top without being detected.”

“Why not just go straight for the scepter once you find it?”

“Because someone will need to watch over you in the ballroom with the other humans. You know sign language, yes?” Callum nodded. “I will signal when we are leaving so you can make your exit. As it is, you will be distracting Lord Gallias so he won’t go on one of his so-called famous tours as you call it.”

“Yeah. He likes to show off.” Callum crossed his arms. “Alright. Sounds like a plan. But how are the mice supposed to tell you what route to take?”

“They’re mice. They spend their entire lives learning labyrinths. They’ll be able to tell us,” Ram assured him. “And Ezran’s assured us they understand exactly what we’d like them to do. As long as we give them a block of cheese from the cupboard, they don’t mind.

“I guess that could work. One problem.”

Callisto closed his eyes with a sigh. “What now?”

“I need a date.”

“I beg your pardon?”

-:-:-:-

Callum could hear Rayla sharpening her blades as he knocked on the door.

“There you are,” he said when she gave him leave to come in. “I needed to ask you something.”

“What’s that?”

“Can you dance?”

Rayla stopped what she was doing. She blinked. “Can I what?”

“Dance. I need to know if you can dance.”

“Uh… sure, I guess. Actually, I’m a good dancer. Runaan taught me when I was younger.”

“That’s great-- wait. Runaan taught you how to dance?”

Rayla smirked. “Yeah. I was an active kid. It kept me busy.”

Callum cocked his head, arms akimbo. “Hm. Didn’t expect that. Anyway, that’s great because there’s a reason why I’m asking.”

“And that is?”

“I need you to, uh,” He cleared his throat and could feel his face warming even as he started scratching the back of his head. “I need you to be my, erm, my…”

“Should I make myself comfortable or are you going to spit it out sometime today?” she raised an amused brow, crossing one leg over the other.

He grumbled, his face almost the shade of a tomato. He sighed restlessly. “Listen, I need you to be my date to the ball.”

She took a moment to respond. “Your… date? Your, uh… your date to this… ball dance thingy?”

He nodded. “Listen, I know it’s kind of awkward and you don’t want to do it, but I kind of can’t go by myself, since it’s like this special formal party thing and you’re not supposed to go by yourself--” He realized he was fidgeting with his hands. “And you’re the only one I can go with since we can’t bring Ez. Not that I don’t want to go with you even though I know you don’t want to--”

“Callum.”

“But it’ll be over soon and--”

Callum.”

He froze when he realized her hands were gripping his shoulders. She was laughing a little. At him, sure, but the grip in his chest eased a bit at her little laugh. “Is that a yes?”

“Yes, I’ll go. We have to even if you’re right. I don’t really want to go. I’m not really sure if any of this is my thing.” He looked away from her. “But if there’s anyone I’d like to go with, it’d be you. Don’t worry. The two of us can handle this. Together.”

He smiled at her confidence. “Together.”

She went back to sharpening her swords. “So, how do I get ready for this party?”

“Well, I wouldn’t worry about that too much. It’s a good thing you said yes because Callisto’s already out getting our clothes, apparently.”

Callisto?

Lo-and-behold, an hour later, Callisto dropped a pile of formal wear on the table in the living room. Ezran picked them up as Callum stood beside him, both impressed.

“Wow, Callisto,” Ezran said. “You have good taste.”

“I know little about human fashion. But I know colors and I just took what was most expensive.”

Callum had a different question. “How did you steal a set of robes and a ballgown by yourself?

Callisto shrugged dismissively. “I’ve stolen bigger things.”

“He has.” That was Runaan. He eyed Rayla picking up the dress with a less than confident twist to her lips. “You’re wearing it for two evenings. A couple hours each.”

“I won’t be able to move in this, and there’s nowhere to store my swords. Unless I strap them to my legs or something.”

Callisto immediately replied, “And if they spring open, you will cut your legs off.”

Rayla grumbled, but Runaan agreed. “This will have to be something you do with finesse, Rayla. Your swords won’t be of much use in there.”

“I know,” she said. “It just feels weird, not having them with me.”

“An assassin must make do with what she has,” Runaan said, for the first time Callum had ever really heard, in a tone that was far more teacher than assassin superior. “Your hand to hand combat skills haven’t gone unpolished, have they?”

“No, of course not. I’ve got to have something to do when you turn my swords in to get touched up, right? Might as well punch a wooden pole for a few hours.”

Runaan snorted. She grinned.

“You just need to keep the humans and their lord distracted long enough for us to find the scepter the first night and retrieve it the second night. While doing all you can to avoid suspicion.” Andromeda reminded them. “Can you do that?”

“Aren’t humans easy to distract, anyway?”

Callum couldn’t exactly disagree.

“You’re not wrong,” Ezran said cheerfully.

“In the meantime, Prince Ezran will come with us to explain the route. Unless someone else speaks rat,” Andromeda said.

“Oh, yeah, the mice told me they want you to know they’re mice. Not rats. It annoys them.”

“Of course,” Andromeda said sincerely, putting a hand on Ezran’s shoulder in good faith. “We will remember as such.”

“Wait, Ez is coming?” Callum frowned. “He can’t. It’s too dangerous. If anybody recognizes him, that’s it. And they would drag him back to Katolis.”

“He’s the only one who can tell us what the r-- mice are saying. We can follow them in the dark, but it would make the process quite a bit harder.”

“Callum, I’ll be fine,” Ezran reassured.

Callum wasn’t convinced. Andromeda’s eyes softened. “I will bring him back here. You have my word he will be safe.”

They looked at each other for a long moment. At the beginning of this little journey, he might not have let that sway him, but… Andromeda always stuck to his little brother’s side like a burr and hadn’t strayed. If anybody would keep Ezran safe, he supposed it’d be her.

“I still don’t like it, but I guess I don’t have a choice, do I? Just... please. Don’t let anything happen to him. He’s all I have left.”

“I understand more than you may know. On my honor, your brother is safe so long as I have breath in my body.”

If she was aware how Runaan was eyeing her, she pointedly ignored it.

“She means it, Callum,” Ezran said seriously. “I trust her.”

“I guess I’ll have to,” Callum sighed with some relief and some resignation. He nodded gratefully. “Thank you.”

Andromeda put a fist to her chest. He believed her.

-:-:-:-

The blowout between her father and General Amaya was something to behold, according to Soren. Naturally, Claudia’s father wasn’t willing to relinquish the title of Lord Protector of the Realm. Not when the Xadian threat was hot on their heels.

Naturally, they could see this, right?

If Xadia knew they were without a leader, it would be the perfect opportunity for them to attack, this situation left them too vulnerable. Which was why Soren reported how the elves had taken the princes lives. Normally, Soren was a blockhead. Her loveable goof of a blockhead brother, but a blockhead nonetheless. This time, however, Claudia agreed with his decision.

Their father also approved.

“This gives us time to take care of… loose ends,” her father said. “You two will pursue the princes.”

“And bring them home,” Claudia said confidently. “Don’t worry, Dad. We can do this.”

“No.”

It was a cold word. A single, cold word. Ever since the king had died, something seemed to have died in him as well. A small spark. And something chilling had been left behind.

Soren detected this and straightened up; even if his features failed to capture the confidence their father had perhaps desired. “Father… are you sure?”

“Of course I’m sure,” Their father snapped. Soren didn’t even flinch. He just looked grim and disappointed. “After all, wasn’t it your decision to report the princes were already dead? A wiser decision than I thought you to make. But a good one. General Amaya encountering them was a snag. However, they are naturally travelling with assassins. Assassins who could turn on them any minute. Simply do the deed and the truth will take care of the rest.”

“Dad, they’re our friends. This is wrong,” Claudia argued. “Shouldn’t we bring them home--”

“And let the boy be king?” Her father sneered. She flinched. He’d never looked at her that way before. “He will plunge Katolis into chaos and the elves will surge in through the cracks!”

Soren looked about as uncomfortable as Claudia felt but he said, “Father.”

Their father heaved a heavy sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. “My children. My only two children. This is a task I can only give to the two of you. You are the only ones I can trust with this job.” He put aside his staff and put a hand on their shoulders. “I know you both will make me proud. This is for the future of our kingdom. Do you understand?”

Claudia didn’t have it in her heart to say no. But she couldn’t exactly say that she didn’t understand either. She couldn’t understand where the life in her father had gone, but she also knew what he was saying.

She just hated it.

But he wouldn’t have been asking this of them, sending them toward the Xadian border, for nothing.

Right?

He again sighed, this time through his nose, then grabbed his staff, circumventing the two of them. “Come. There’s something you should take with you to help you against the elves. Special… souvenirs, if you will. I had them made in Meraxia after we took down the King of the Dragons. No doubt there will be a fight. They should help.”

“Didn’t you send someone to find them and take care of it already though?” Soren dared to ask.

“A couple of wild cards,” their father growled. “I’d thought they would do well to get the job done quickly, but I’m beginning to have my doubts. Heavy doubts. My own lapse in judgement, I suppose.”

“Then, shouldn’t we send word that we’re coming to help them?” Claudia asked.

“No.” He said with a tone of finality. “If they’re out there doing the herding, then I need you two to finish the job. Track them. Eliminate them. Burn the evidence.”

Chapter Text

“So, you know, you were wondering if I know how to dance, but do you know how to dance?” Rayla asked Callum the next day. It occurred to her he wasn’t exactly the most coordinated person in the world. “You don’t exactly strike me as a fancy dancer.”

“Me? Uh…” He grinned, and she immediately knew the answer to her question. “Well, you see, I wasn’t really good at a lot of things. Sword fighting, horse racing--”

She crossed her arms. “And dancing. You don’t really know how to dance. Do you?”

He deflated. “Yeah, not really.”

Rayla let out a restless sigh. “Just great. So, that means we’re going to have to talk our way through this, doesn’t it?”

“Hey, to be fair, we just have to get through a couple hours each night and I can do most of the talking. You… don’t exactly sound like you’re from here.”

She put her hands on her hips with a raised brow. “What? I can sound like a human. See, look at this. I’ve practiced.”

“You’ve practiced.”

As she took in a deep breath, she shifted her voice and made it more nasally in an attempt to lose her Xadian accent; she put her hands on her hips just as dramatically as the humans she’d witnessed. “Hello, fellow humans, human fellows. I’m going to a big fancy party tonight for no other purpose than to brag about all the things I have and others don’t. All at the expense of someone else who has even more stuff I don’t have, but probably envy!”

Callum smacked himself on the forehead so hard she’d thought he hurt himself. She remained proud of her rendition.

“Yeah, you keep practicing that. I’ll be back.”

She raised a brow. “Back? Where are you going?”

“I just need to go out for a bit. I won’t be long.”

“I’ll come with you.”

“No!” She raised both eyebrows this time, and he cleared his throat. “No, I mean, I’ll be fine. I just need to go check something out. Okay?”

“Okay,” she said slowly. “That wasn’t weird at all, but okay. I guess.”

He gave her a thumbs up as he walked out the door. It didn’t help.

-:-:-:-

Stealing was never exactly something he thought of doing. Not really. A jelly tart or two with Ezran maybe when they were passing by the bakery, but that was about it.

Callum squirmed to even consider it, but he had to do this. It wasn’t right -- or safe -- for Rayla to go into a room full of humans completely unarmed. He could stash his primal stone somewhere on his person maybe, but Rayla lacked room for her swords.

He needed to do this quickly. Before he lost the nerve and, more importantly, before someone could catch him.

The market was busy during this time of the day and he perused until he found a stall where several weapons were on display. He wouldn’t be able to snatch an entire sword, but a small knife would work. Something durable and practical .

She wouldn’t care if it was pretty, would she?

He found a particular stall with a less than attentive clerk. Callum hovered near it for some time, not too close but close enough so he could spot something Rayla could wield. Though he had a feeling she could make do with just about anything.

It took him an unnerving amount of time, but he eventually walked past the clerk while he was dozing off and quietly snatched a small blade from the edge of the stall, then disappeared into the crowd. Callum stuffed the knife in his sleeve as he went around the corner. He examined it once he was far enough away. The craftsmanship was beautiful in its simplicity. The knife itself was modest, forged from steel and adorned with a smooth wooden hilt; its only embellishment was from the light curve at the tip of the blade. He covered it with a black cloth and stuffed it back into his sleeve.

He could hear the clerk around the corner shouting about a thief and walked faster.

When he returned to the inn, he shut the door a little harder than he meant to and huffed a sigh at the relative safety of their shabby walls. Rayla still sat on the bench, Andromeda beside her as they shared the whetstone. They both blinked at him, their blades cocked as if preparing to throw them.

“So, here’s a tip,” Rayla crooned. “Don’t slam the door in a house full of armed elven assassins in a city full of humans. Sound like a plan?”

Callum winced. “Right. Sorry.”

“Where did you go, anyway?”

Rather than tell her, he showed her and put the knife down on the table in front of them. He didn’t know why but he stammered just a little and rubbed the back of his neck -- his neck that wasn’t clammy like this a minute ago. “I went to get this.”

Andromeda blinked. She shared looks with Rayla, then looked back at Callum. “You do realize there are many knives in this house, do you not?”

“Yeah, we specialize in sharp, pointy things, you know,” Rayla snickered.

“No, no, uh,” Callum cleared his throat, doing his best not to think about his warming face. “It’s for you.”

Rayla stopped snickering. She cocked her head. “For me?”

“Yeah, well, I know you can’t take your swords to the ball. So, I got this for you. I mean, I stole it, but it’s for you.” She gently felt the hilt and the blade, pulling the dagger into her hand and weighing it on one finger. It balanced perfectly. He flinched when Rayla turned her attention back on him. “I know it’s not what you’re used to, but I thought it’d be good--”

“It’s perfect.”

“Yeah, I know. Listen, it can still come in handy--”

“Callum.” She said firmly, but not unkindly. Her gaze softened even as she let out that little laugh of hers. “You big dummy, be quiet for a moment. It’s perfect. I can find somewhere to strap this, like my leg or underneath my dress. Thank you. I appreciate it.”

He grinned sheepishly, crossing his arms. “Oh, well, glad I could help.” She made to go upstairs, to find a strap for the blade, but looked at him in consideration. “What?”

She shook her head, then smiled. “Nothing.” Her hand hovered toward him for a second, then squeezed his arm as a last thanks before she disappeared upstairs.

Callum’s brow arched. “What was that about?”

Andromeda hummed, but said nothing.

-:-:-:-

“We’re ready to leave.”

Soren already bid farewell to their father and gone to check if the horses were ready. It would take longer to calm their nerves with their… cargo in tow. This left Claudia to say goodbye.

Her father was sitting on his bed, tired as tired could look when she found him. He stood up when he heard her and almost seemed normal again. She smiled a little.

“Good,” he said, as a matter a fact as usual. “When you catch up with the princes, Claudia, you must do what is good for the kingdom of Katolis. Do you understand?”

Claudia shook her head. “Father… they’re the princes. Our friends. We should bring them home where they’re safe and I don’t understand why we’re not. How is this good for the kingdom?”

Viren sighed, putting a hand on his daughter’s shoulder. “They’ve been with these assassins for weeks at this point. And apparently are with them… voluntarily. And Prince Callum nearly killed General Amaya in defense of the elf who murdered King Harrow. Apparently, the boy has discovered he’s a mage.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sadly, the boys also truly believe I assassinated the king, somehow. I’m afraid he’s too far gone. We can’t trust either of them to rule the kingdom as Xadia could very well turn them into puppets. This leaves not only Katolis, but all the five kingdoms in terrible danger. Claudia, I understand your feelings, but sometimes we must do things and commit deeds for reasons greater than ourselves. In this, you must trust me.”

A hole tore open in Claudia’s chest. It hollowed a part of her which ached at the very idea, but… surely, her father was correct. He always had good reasons for doing things.

“Can you do this?” he asked finally. “Claudia, can I trust you? Both of you?”

She sighed, closed her eyes and ignored that ache completely. Out of sight. Out of mind.

Claudia looked up at her father, steel in her veins. “We can do it. Don’t worry, Dad. You can count on us.”

-:-:-:-

Callisto had chosen well. Expensive, indeed, these were clothes he could be expected to wear to a royal ball at home. Callum adjusted the cuffs of his maroon suit jacket, perusing his new ensemble. His black cuffs matched his collar, gold embroidery likewise matching the gold buttons neatly fastening the suit jacket closed. His dark trousers were of a fine material, neatly tucked into black dress boots.

He’d tried to smooth out his hair, but Ram quickly told him, in so many words, that it made him look stupid and he ought to stick with his normal hairstyle and just make sure it didn’t get too messy.

Well enough advice, he supposed. After all, hairstyling must have been slightly more difficult with horns in the way, right?

Were they in the way?

He tried not to go too far down that rabbit hole as his nerves tried setting in. They could do this. Two days. A couple hours each. No big deal.

Andromeda and Ram were already in position and in the midst of learning the route. The rest of the team would rendezvous with them there, towing the egg and leaving Andromeda to guard the underground exit with the egg and Ezran in tow. That part made him nervous most of all, but he had no choice but to trust Andromeda.

Investing so much in the limbs and lives of elves who came to assassinate his stepfather almost seemed silly, but he supposed he still didn’t think it fair for them to lose their limbs. Especially when they hadn’t killed him, regardless of intent. On top of it all, he and Ezran were relying on them to get to safety. It was in their best interests.

At least, he told himself that when the idea of Rayla losing her hand made him ache. She certainly didn’t deserve to lose one.

Whatever weird space he was in mentally, he didn’t want any of their hands popping off either way. Perhaps it had to do with how different his life was now. How the idea of being with elven assassins, somehow, made him feel safer than being at home in his own room.

When had that changed?

A soft rustle and hard steps settled behind him where the kitchen entrance was.

His eyes found the hem of her long dress first.

Under the arch, at the top of the short stairway, Rayla stood in her floor length silver white ball gown, her legs buried underneath the layers of gold-laced skirts which fanned out into a short train. The cup of her skirts met at her waist, the bodice wrapping tightly around her torso. Her arms and shoulders were left largely bare, her hair swooped up into a loose, low bun, with only the amulet from the cabin to adorn her lightly flushed skin. Then again, she didn’t need much to ornament herself as Callum’s gaze dragged to her, less than happy, violet eyes. Loose locks of hair fell around either side of her face.

She lifted her full skirts just barely off the ground, her hands becoming lost in the heavy fabric.

Callum realized he’d stopped moving, his hands still on his cuff. He loosed a breath. Breathing had stopped being a thing entirely.

“You look…”

“I look ridiculous.”

She dropped the skirts and came down the steps carefully despite the short distance to the floor. Her brows narrowed, but her pout, poorly disguised as a scowl, told a slightly different story.

“No! No, uh…” He cleared his throat. “You look good. You look really good.”

Rayla looked down at herself, distaste evaporating a little. “You think so?”

He nodded, reassuring her with a smile though his knees were weak. “I do. I mean it. I promise.”

It was her turn to look him over. The little curve of that smirk was worth all his nerves. “You don’t clean up so bad yourself.”

Uh-hm.

The sound of Callisto clearing his throat loudly made them both look toward the door. His face was dead-panned, not having the patience for any part of their little exchange. “If you’re done admiring yourselves…” he said. “Are you ready?”

“Uh, I think we are.” It took most of the courage he’d managed to muster up for the evening to hold his arm out for Rayla. He did his best to smile at her. “Right?”

To his great relief, she took his arm, wrapping her own around his. “Yeah. I think so.”

-:-:-:-

Getting to the ball, thankfully, required no interaction with the gondolas. All bridges and, eventually, a carriage which Lord Gallias had arranged for them. Naturally, they gave him the address to somewhere much nicer than a shabby inn tucked into the corner of a narrow waterway.

Along the way, Rayla fidgeted with her hands. She usually wasn’t this nervous, but the idea of being in a room full of humans without her weapons was less than inviting. Strapped to her leg, the knife Callum gifted her fit perfectly and reminded her how she wasn’t entirely defenseless.

Or alone.

She looked up at Callum to catch him staring at her.

His tone was kind when he asked, “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she said probably not convincingly. “Just never done this before.”

“If it makes you feel any better, I don’t exactly do this all the time either. I usually just dressed up, showed up with Ez and my stepdad and talked politely to a bunch of people I didn’t know all night.”

She scoffed. There was that little smirk again. “Sounds boring, if you ask me.”

“You have no idea.”

“So, what’s the plan for when we get in there? Just let your friend talk our ears off for the night?”

“That’s the idea. Keep an eye on him and reroute him when he wants to go show off, so they can properly search for the scepter. Tomorrow shouldn’t be as hard or take as long,” Callum said. “We should also make sure we don’t get separated. We should stay together.”

Rayla nodded. “Don’t worry, I don’t want to be out there by myself, anyway.”

“Together, then.” Callum held out his hand.

Rayla blinked but smiled just as quickly. She took his hand across the carriage from her. “Together.”

At that moment, the carriage stopped, and they could hear the murmuring of the crowd outside. Through the curtains, they could see the glow of the palace. A moment later, the door was opened, and the glow became an outright light.

Callum got out first, giving Rayla a hand out of the carriage. She wanted to keep her boots on, but Callisto had been against it.

“One accidental flip of that skirt and that’s it,” he warned her. “Your cover’s blown.”

So, to complete her look, she wore a pair of dainty flats which Ram had the joy of liberating from the market. How did people move in this stuff? It was heavy and a job all on its own just to carry around on her person.

Dresses she could understand, but this… this was an entirely different manner of the word dress.

At least, she didn’t look too terrible. She’d caught Callum’s eye more than once looking at her in a way she might describe as admiring. Needless to say, it helped her walk with her shoulders back and her head held high as they streamed into the palace, arm in arm, alongside other people dressed like all their wealth was at stake.

She spared Callum a glance. It helped that he looked good in his suit. Handsome. The red and black complimented him. Made the green of his eyes stand out against his dark hair. He looked at her as she tucked herself into his arm just a little bit more.

“You alright?”

“Fine,” she said quietly. “Are you sure you don’t want me to talk like a human?”

“Positive,” he said, but there was a chuckle in his tone. “Just say you live near the border or something. Besides, there’s going to be a lot of attention on you as it is.”

Rayla frowned. “Why do you say that?”

“Because step prince I might be, I’m still a prince of Katolis and you’re on his arm. And you’re beautiful. Nobles and wealthy people are nosy. They’ll want to know who you are and why you’re with me. They make it their business to.”

He said it so casually. So matter of fact as he scanned the crowd and greeted different nobles who recognized him on the way in, past decor of gold and priceless art. All things she’d never really seen before.

Beautiful.

A part of her shrank bashfully under that word. The way he uttered it like it was the most known thing in the world.

The other part of her, her ego, felt triumphant over all those priceless pieces of art they passed by.

“Oh,” she managed to say. “Well, that’s good.”

She must have looked a little like a moon peacock because Callum glanced at her and rolled his eyes with a definite smile.

She made no attempts to be modest about it.

This lord Callum knew gilded the ballroom as much as everything else. Large crystal chandeliers lit by candles and magic hung high above their heads, paintings decorated every wall, most of them of the man’s wife in some fashion. One painting held Rayla’s eye for a moment. It was one of the largest, Gallias’ wife glowing in an elegant dress, sword and shield in hand. She looked young, determined.

She looked bright, with blue eyes like jewels.

Quietly, Rayla asked, “Who’s the woman in all these paintings?”

Callum eased into her, talking just as low. “Lady Eveline. Lord Gallias wife. She was friends with my mother. She should be in here somewhere. If we can keep her busy, Lord Gallias will usually follow.”

“They’re that perfect for each other, huh?”

“Guess so. They like their stuff. They like each other. They like how rich they are.”

“Ugh, they sound unbearable to be around. I think I’d rather be back on one of those boats.”

She could see Callum smile to himself about that. Glass pane windows revealed the garden under the moonlight, again, beauty reigning over everything that grew. Inside the ballroom, ladies in their dresses swept the pristine floor and men in their finest suits gilded between them. They all parted, subtly, organically, as Callum and Rayla passed through, sparing long looks and whispers among the murmur of the crowd.

“Is that Prince Callum?”

“King Harrow’s stepson?”

“Yes, I’m sure of it. Who’s that girl he’s with?”

Good. The magic was holding up. At least, that much was clear since nobody was fleeing for their life or spitting in her general direction. Under her touch, Rayla could feel Callum tense. She tugged on his sleeve as subtly as she knew how. “Relax. You’ll do fine.”

“I’ve never done this without my step-dad,” he said through barely parted lips.

Just as he finished his comment, Lord Gallias saw them through the crowd and made his way over with a grin on his face.

“I’m right here with you,” she said to Callum, smiling at their target of the night.

“Prince Callum!” Lord Gallias bowed, his wife on his arm much the same way Rayla was. “And the Lady Rayla. It is so good to see you both. Welcome to my most humble abode. You must forgive the chandeliers -- they’re a bit rustic.”

Rayla nearly rolled her eyes but decided against it for the curtsy Callum had -- to her great amusement -- demonstrated to her earlier.

“This,” Lord Gallias said, shifting to allow his wife a more presentable position, “Is my wife, Eveline. Eveline, you remember Prince Callum, don’t you?”

“Of course I do.” Even her voice was melodic. She left her strawberry blonde hair down unlike most of the ladies in the room. It seemed to suit her as it cascaded around her face. Her eyes and smile were soft. Still, those blue eyes kept Rayla from looking away too quickly. “He looks so much like his mother. It is so good to see you again, Prince Callum. Would you like something to drink? Champagne? Wine?”

“It’s good to see you too, Lady Eveline. Uh,” Callum shook his head at the server who rushed up to them. “I’m fine. I think I’m a little young for that, anyway.”

“Oh, I’m sure Harrow wouldn’t mind. He was young once, too. You’re almost a man in your own right, after all. Time to start experimenting, right?”

For some reason, Rayla didn’t like the way he said that.

“Thank you, but I have to decline. Rayla and I have somewhere to be in the morning.”

“That’s right. We…” Rayla searched for something. “Have a painter to meet in the morning.”

“Gallias, leave them alone. They’re being responsible. Oh, believe me, dear, I know how long a portrait can take. You have to be looking your best and be willing to stand still for a dreadfully long time.” Eveline smiled warmly at them. “Rayla, was it? Dear, you have the most interesting accent. Pleasant, but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it before. Where did you say you were from again?”

“The border,” Callum blurted . “She lived near the border. So, that’s where that came from. Yep.”

“My, how interesting!” Eveline’s eyes flashed. “Where near the border, exactly?”

“The southern border,” Rayla said with as much grace and confidence as she could carry in her spine. Facts be damned. “Not very well known. I met Callum while visiting the castle one day.”

That was the truth if not the whole truth.

For a split second, Eveline’s brows twitched. At least, Rayla thought so. She squeezed Callum’s arm. “Oh, the southern border. Not quite as populated unless you’re near the sea. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard it’s lovely in the summer. As long as you don’t get too near the breach, of course.”

“Exactly. Yep. That was her,” Callum intervened. “Small trading village.”

“How quaint,” said Lord Gallias. “Now, your highness, you’ve met Lord Yervin, my master at arms here in Meraxia, haven’t you? Son of the great Lady Imogen?”

Before Callum opened his mouth, Lady Eveline cut in. “Oh dear, it may not matter. Lord Yervin’s memory is somewhat short. Why don’t we just reintroduce them? It must have been ages, hasn’t it? And we can be sure to introduce him to Lord Yervin’s daughter-in-law, Lady Renevieve.”

“Lord Yervin’s son married Lord Fallon’s daughter. Lord Fallon just retired from the High Council a year ago, I believe.”

That was a semi-long list of people Rayla was not thrilled to meet. Longer than she wanted it, anyway.

“But, first,” Eveline brought a boy about Ezran’s age -- younger, in fact -- to the forefront. He had his father’s dark hair and his mother’s bluer than blue eyes. His smile was sweet and his skin fair, the boy looked the epitome of a young lord-to-be in his blue formal robes. “You do remember my son, Alexander, don’t you?”

“Your highness,” Alexander bowed. “It’s good to see you. I’m sorry for not remembering you, but my mother says we’ve met before.”

“It’s alright,” Callum said more sincerely this time, his tone gentle. “You weren’t that old the last time I saw you. How are you? As good a fighter as your mother, yet?”

“Well, I’m not very good at sword fighting, but father says my horseback riding skills are good for my age. Right, father?”

Gallias put a sturdy hand on his son’s shoulder. “It’s true. He’s very good. He’s also good at something else: the arts. We thought that bit might interest you, Prince Callum?”

Callum smiled. “Really? That’s great, Alexander. What kind of artist are you?”

“I’m not as good as you. Not at drawing.” Callum raised his brow in question. “My father’s shown me the ones you gifted us from your last visit. But I’m not bad at dolls.”

“Dolls?”

“Painting them. Putting them together. I like puppets and things like that. My mother enjoys them and my father showed me how to make them. I can show you some before you leave, maybe?”

“We’d like that.” Callum glanced at Rayla. “Right, Rayla?”

Rayla genuinely smiled. “That sounds good. I think we can find the time.”

Alexander beamed proudly.

Lady Eveline put an ushering hand on his shoulder. “Before the end of the night, love. Why don’t you go find a few you want to show them, hm? We have a few people we have to introduce to Prince Callum and Lady Rayla.”

As Alexander rushed off to find his prize, it painfully reminded Rayla of that list of people she didn’t really want to meet. Callum and her shared looks as Lord Gallias and Lady Eveline led the way. Their night started here.

Rayla spared a glance to the glass-domed roof as Callisto’s familiar shadow nested above their heads.

Chapter Text

Rayla never knew there was a difference between rich people, nobles and excessively rich people.

Rich people talked about themselves.

Nobles talked about politics.

Excessively rich people talked about themselves and how much money they were making. These were usually merchant lords and self-made men who, apparently, needed to make up for whatever they lacked in those confounded coins humans loved so much. These people seemed to love said coins more than they loved themselves.

Many, many of the people here at the ball qualified as excessively rich people.

Callum gained his royal status through his mother’s marriage. Privilege and luxury were things he grew up with, but largely from his station and by who his mother married. Then again, Rayla knew little about his life before his mother married the king. He never mentioned a father outside of his stepfather and made no indication he even remembered much of his life before living in the castle.

But, apparently, life in the castle was different than here because he had none of the ego or the haughtiness of some of these people.

Lord Yervin had been well enough, she supposed. He talked mainly about battle tactics and sword fighting techniques. All things she could relate to but did her best to keep under wraps. Regardless of Eveline’s apparent skill with a sword, there was no need to raise suspicions about Rayla’s identity.

So, simple girl from a trading village she was.

Callum had the lion’s share of the work. She only needed to stand there and look interesting. And interested. He was expected to actually talk to these people.

Truth be told, Rayla was not the best at listening to people for an extended period of time. She was definitely more of a girl of action and Runaan always adjusted his teachings to accommodate. Thankfully, he also was more inclined to do than to talk; it was his way to get through to her.

Once they hit their fourth or so lady and lord, Rayla started tuning out after a few minutes of general discussions. Somehow, Callum could tell when she was drifting. He would shift the position of his hands, from giving her his arm to putting a hand on her back. Then would repeat the motion after another few minutes. The first time he did this, she glanced at him, but he only gave her a quick look and flashed a smile.

She straightened up just in time for Lord… Meron was his name? He turned around and shuffled away after what felt like an extended bid farewell.

Lady Eveline had them moving on to a woman who wore more jewels than Rayla had ever seen in her life.

“People do this on their own free will?” Rayla murmured when she felt Callum put a hand on her waist, his arm resting at her back.

He squeezed lightly. “It’s been maybe thirty minutes.”

“Wow, only half an hour and I already want to chew my own foot off.” Callum snorted. She glanced up at Callisto’s shadow. No movements. They hadn’t found it. “Do all these people want to talk to you?”

“Kind of. They care more about what they think I can do for them, usually. Nobility always tries to climb the social ladder.”

“Sounds like a fun time.” She could understand it, at least. It wasn’t that much different from certain groups of people back home. Humans were just… smarmier about it. She smirked. “How come you aren’t like these rich people, hm?”

She let him guide her along as he frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Aren’t you rich? You are a prince.”

Callum shrugged. “I guess. More like step-prince. Aside from having people just get me things when I want them, my life I guess is… normal? I don’t know. My stepdad never really made us believe we were any different from anyone else.”

“He sounds like a good father.” She kept her voice low.

His smile was sadder than before. “He was.”

Another half an hour went by and Rayla decided that Lady Cynan was her least favorite. She talked endlessly, largely about her businesses and her diamond mines in Del Bar.

“Lady Cynan is a busy woman. Don’t mind her. She comes from a family of jewelry merchants and likes to discuss business proposals when she can.” Lord Gallias turned to them, shaking his head. “Might you two be thirsty?”

“The wine sounds nice right about now,” Rayla said before she could stop herself. Callum elbowed her a little.

Lord Gallias laughed. “I feel the exact same way after a round with her.” He flagged down one of the servants. Rayla took a water, instead. “Might you excuse me for but a moment? I have to find my wife. She seems to have disappeared.”

He excused himself and Callum turned to Rayla. She shrugged.

“Well, that was subtle.” He made a face at her. “Aren’t you supposed to be the discreet one here?”

“But if I don’t say anything, he’ll just think I’ve got no personality.” He just stared at her for half a second, then rolled his eyes and rubbed his brow. She sighed, swirling her water in her goblet. “Fine, I’m sorry. I’m just… bored. And they all look like they want a piece of us.”

Of me, she said to herself. She figured she didn’t have to clarify who or what exactly she meant by they. Apparently, she didn’t have to say it at all.

He lowered his voice and got so close she could feel his breath. “I know you’re nervous.” He said gently. “But you can do this. Only a little longer.”

“It’s silly, you know,” she said, sipping her water with him so close to her ear. “I shouldn’t be scared. Humans aren’t so bad. At least, not the way Runaan made it seem sometimes.”

And, yet, she couldn’t help but remember who was surrounding her.

“He really does hate humans, doesn’t he?”

She knew what it looked like, Callum so close to her, his hand on her waist and his mouth near her ear. She tried to smile at him. “He’s seen a lot of things.”

He didn’t comment on that much further. “So have you. You’ve got this. You’re one of the strongest people I know.”

Rayla smiled at him this time in spite of herself. She let out a noise of dismissive confidence, setting aside her drink on a nearby table. “You’re right.” His brightened expression raised her spirits. “We just need to survive a while longer. Let’s do this.”

“Good, because here comes Lord Gallias.”

“I’ve realized that some of my other guests are also here to speak with me and I certainly can’t be a bad host.” Gallias said. “Why don’t you two mingle with the crowd? The night is young, after all. I shall catch up with you after I’ve gone to make a few proposals myself.”

He bowed short and Callum hadn’t even the chance to stop him before he disappeared into the crowd. They watched him make his way to a tall, spindly man who dressed just as splendidly as everyone else; the spindly man walked with Lord Gallias in a grace that reminded Rayla of an imitation more than a genuine gait. Lady Eveline had disappeared, too, now that they were looking.

“Oh no, what are we going to do now?” Rayla whispered.

“He’s not going anywhere, yet,” Callum reassured. They both glanced upward. Callisto made some kind of gesture and Callum translated, “They haven’t found it yet. They need more time.”

“We won’t be able to stalk him without looking suspicious. There are too many people looking at us.”

“I know, I know. We just have to figure out a way to keep his attention down here…”

“Well, unless people start dancing, I don’t see how that’s going to happen.” Callum looked at her and stared for a long moment. She narrowed her eyes at him. “What is it?”

“I think you’re onto something. Wait here.”

-:-:-:-:-

“We’ve cleared the west wing, but there’s nothing. Andromeda and Skor are going through the east wing and Runaan’s going through the west again.” Ram’s head popped up from the opening in the roof. “How’s it going down there?”

Callisto’s eyes were trained on the red and black figure, weaving and bobbing through the crowd; moving toward the musicians near the front of the room. Callum had Callisto splitting his attention between him and Rayla, left alone in the middle of the crowd.

Her nerves would have her standing there, fidgeting with her hands, attempting to appear normal in this sea of humans who thought her one of them. Runaan wouldn’t admit it, but Callisto knew it made him nervous to put her in this situation; not only defenseless, but at somewhat of a disadvantage. That dress made her fit in very well, but it certainly did her no favors if she had to end a fight.

In this, they were relying on Callum’s brain. And him being human.

Runaan may never say it, but he was squarely placing Rayla’s general protection on the boy’s shoulders.

“Where is he going?” Callisto whispered more to himself than Ram.

He felt Ram climb up onto the roof and look down. “Is he leaving her there?”

“He’s human, not stupid.”

Although sometimes that notion was one and the same.

“Then where is he going?”

“We’ll have to see.” Alright, now Callum was heading back to Rayla. “Report back. Runaan wanted regular updates.”

-:-:-:-

“Dance with me.”

“What?” Rayla caught herself, then whispered furiously at him. “I thought you didn’t know how to dance!”

He took her by the hand and led her toward the open floor as the music stopped. “I don’t, but my parents used to dance to this. It’s the only one I know.”

Most people at these things didn’t -- wouldn’t -- dance until someone found the courage to start. Sometimes, that person was his stepdad. Granted, it happened much less often after his mother died.

Still, he remembered some of the steps. Enough, he hoped, to keep the crowd rather captivated. The throng quieted down when Prince Callum and his mystery Lady Rayla, stepped into the center of attention. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Lord Gallias and Lady Eveline sidling up together to watch as well.

Rayla, for her part, didn’t argue after that. In her eyes he could see she understood. She let him pull her close, one hand on her back and the other lifting her hand in the air. He gestured for her to grip his shoulder.

She obliged just as he could hear the musicians starting up.

“Follow my lead.”

The music hummed to life. It was slightly unconventional for this kind of occasion, but he knew it by heart.

It was a lull. A rise. A solemn call that had Callum moving his feet. Rayla followed, spinning with him in a slow arc across the floor. They drifted to and from the crowd, now completely enraptured in their dance .

In the hum of the music, Callum could hear the life of the song itself underneath.

Promise me.

He let it take him and glide him where he needed to go, Rayla a solid weight under his touch. She was as nervous as he was but easing as the music took hold. For a moment, he forgot this was only a show.

Feeling the music about to change tempo, he prepared to move with it.

Eternity.

Then, he felt Rayla’s touch leaving his. The note of the music drawn out and rising with a lovesickness to the air, she spun out slowly, slowly and dipped in a form of curtsy, her skirts fanning the floor around her.

Callum frowned. He caught her little smile.

What was she doing?

She walked across from him, along a path which might have led to his back if he hadn’t walked with her. Her gestures were mockingly coy and that smirk.

Callum blinked. He narrowed his eyes in a way that spelled amusement when he realized what she was up to.

She was playing.

They walked in a circle with the tempo of the music, more than an arm’s length from each other and the slightest, casual bounce in their step.

She rolled her shoulders in a mock demure manner, somehow still teasing in a way only Rayla could. He humored her.

He danced with her.

Your arms.

The music shifted again. They twisted on their heels. He didn’t know how she knew or how he knew she knew as they began walking in opposite directions, retracing that circle between them, but not without Callum dipping in to take her hand from across the gap.

A token of his participation.

They were a bit closer now, but still at arm’s length, Callum holding her hand in his.

And even with all of that, it was nothing compared to her eyes. The way she looked at him outshone any jewel in the golden glow of the chandeliers, or any beauty that dress she wore boasted.

He squeezed her hand.

Stay.

The melody drifted into the next and they twisted again.

They only need share a look and both of them stepped in, crossing forearms in a way that had Callum resisting the urge to reach out and brush her hair behind her ear.

She smiled at him. A smirk or a smile. A cross in-between. It didn’t matter. The artist in him couldn’t stop taking her in. Every detail and curve of her face.

Your hand.

That smile curved a bit more. Definitely a smirk.

The music hit a point in which he didn’t want to turn away from her anymore.

Near me.

Callum stepped next to her, side to side, their hips and waists finally touching. She put her arms down, resting against her dress. Callum found his arm across the front of her body, his hand on her waist.

Her nose was nearly touching his.

He dragged his gaze from her eyes to her mouth.

He had to draw her face. Yes.

This was what flowed through his mind as his eyes followed the intoxicating curve of her lips and nearly forget the rise and fall of his own chest.

The music picked up tempo for its finale. Callum guided Rayla back to him as she slid back to her original position. Her hand graced his shoulder and his hand never left her as it slid to her back. They intertwined their leftover fingers together.

And they danced.

In a larger circle, to the crowd, from the crowd, Rayla’s skirts bouncing and flowing as their feet found the melody. They smiled and Callum even found the courage to twist her, spinning her in white and gold.

Callum lost himself in her. The laughter in her eyes. Her happiness. Had he ever truly seen her happy? It’d only been a couple weeks, but he felt like he’d known her forever. As long as he had known Claudia, even. Maybe it was the music, maybe it was her, but gliding across the room with her, like this, felt right.

Felt better than his life had in a while. Truth be told, he wasn’t sure he ever felt like this before.

The music reached it’s descension, and they slowed their spinning, the hum of the song nothing but an entrancing invitation back to her and the center she had somehow become in the past few minutes. Minutes imitating eternity.

The final note faded out and their spinning followed, resting into their original position. Her lips twitched into a smile. He forgot to breathe again.

And the crowd cheered.

Callum blinked and looked around. Rayla seemed to remember them, too, and seemed about as red as his suit. They could see Lord Gallias and Lady Eveline together clapping and looking at them admirably. In fact, everyone seemed to be pleasantly surprised and delighted at their dance. Truth be told, Callum was surprised himself.

The music started up again and other couples joined in on the floor, including their targets of the night.

Callum breathed a sigh of relief. Perfect.

He hadn’t let go of Rayla’s hand as the dance ended. He glanced up as they moved out of the way. Callisto was signing.

Perfect .

Rayla hooked herself on his arm again, her fingers tightly interlaced in his. He could feel the tension in her body loosen as they swept out an entrance, away from the ballroom and the center of attention.

“Did they find it?” Her voice was in his ear.

“Yeah, they did. We’re leaving.” Let the patrons who saw them leaving in such a flurry have their own ideas, judging by their expressions, about where and why the two were leaving. It would be just the alibi they needed.

-:-:-:-

Outside, the streets were still busy, but she could breathe. It was better than being stuffed in that room with all those… people. She shook her head. Humans weren't bad. They weren’t the way Runaan had made it seem, sometimes, growing up. Rayla wasn’t particularly keen on most of the people she had met tonight, but most of them at least seemed to have some good in them. They were people. Not the monsters she’d come to have a distaste for.

Not all of them, at least.

“Feeling better?”

They tried to keep it cool. Still appear normal as they strolled away from the palace. Callum hadn’t let go of her arms or her fingers and she hadn’t bothered to release them just yet . She only breathed. “Yeah. It was a bit much in there,” she said. “You don’t think they’ll be suspicious of us leaving so soon?”

“We were there for about an hour. That’s long enough and I think they’ll fill in the blanks about where we went off to afterwards. They’ll just tell Lord Gallias we went off for some midnight stroll. Which is technically the truth.”

“Oh… I guess,” was all she could a manage. She didn’t bother questioning it.

“Where do you want to go next?” he asked, looking more to the stars than at her.

Now, Rayla stopped in her tracks, shaking her head slightly. “Uh, back to the inn? Remember? That was the plan, wasn’t it?”

“Well, yeah,” he said, shrugging awkwardly. “But it’s still kind of early. And you haven’t seen this side of Meraxia, yet. I could show you. If you wanted me to.”

Now, she let him release her from his grip, but not entirely. He still hung onto her hand even as she pulled away from him. They were almost at arm’s length now, her hand held out to him as if he wouldn’t let go until he got some sign that she actually, truly wanted him to. She rubbed the back of her neck with her free hand. “We should be getting back,” she said quietly. Weakly. Unconvincingly. Even her body betrayed her words as she took a step toward him.

“Come on. Run away with me for the hour.”

Her resolve was crumbling. “Callum.”

It was a poor excuse of an admonishment.

He didn’t let go. Neither did she pull her hand from his, but she knew that if she had said no, and meant it, he would would have let go and they would have gone back to the inn. But he was waiting for her answer. He would do whatever her heart desired.

She didn’t try to hide her smile. “I hope you have something good to show me.”

His grin was bright as he pulled her along with him through the streets. “You’ll love it.”

-:-:-:-

The streets of Meraxia were cobblestone under her feet, hard and cool as Callum lead Rayla to their mystery destination. They didn’t hold hands or walk arm in arm like before, but it was comfortable and pleasant, really, despite that. The vendors on the streets sold wonderful goodies from pastries to little trinkets.

“It gets busy because of the celebration. So, there’s all kinds of things for sale out here.” Callum explained, biting into a pastry. It was cream filled. Lemon, maybe? “Good, isn’t it?”

Rayla licked the crumbs off her lips. “Mmhm. What’s in it?”

“Cream. Kind of like vanilla cream, but I think this is lemon.”

“Well, as delicious as this is, it can’t be the thing you wanted to show me. Remember? The thing I’ll love,” she said, teasing him more than anything. “It better be amazing or I’ll be disappointed.”

She wondered if he took it to heart, judging by the quick flicker of some perceivable nerves. He took her hand. “It’s just up this way.”

They were on the outskirts of the city now. At least, it seemed like they were, but at the same time it was all remarkably close. They wandered past a few buildings and up a neatly tended path with rose bushes of every color. The street lamps planted along the corners and pathways became the only light, with the moon serving them the rest of the way.

Rayla could smell the roses, the city feeling much farther away as they climbed a hill. They didn’t talk much, and after some time, the city noises died around them and she realized the crickets were their main attendees now.

They followed the stone path until they crested the hill, a single bench amidst the rose garden and statues, with a lone fountain sitting at the center of it all.

Before she could even open her mouth to admire it all, Callum put up a finger. “That’s not the amazing part.”

She let him lead her to the bench and turned her around.

The city glowed.

The firelight, canals and the water all lit by the life of the city, and here they were overlooking it all. From this high up, the view was panoramic. Enticing and entrancing. It was bright and beautiful with an amber glow which would have taken time immemorial to paint.

A city alive in all its beauty. All its glory.

“Wow…” she breathed.

Callum squeezed her hand lightly. “Yeah… amazing enough for you?”

She didn’t even look at him, her eyes transfixed on the view. “It’ll do, I guess.”

He laughed. She felt him sit down on the bench behind them, leaving her to ogle at the view of the city. “Human cities really aren’t so bad now, huh?”

She broke her stare to look at him smiling or smirking -- she didn’t know. Tucking her dress beneath her, she took a seat next to him, her gaze drawn between him and he view. “How did you find this place?”

“My parents found it when I was really young. I would come here and admire the roses while they had some time to themselves.”

“Oh?” she asked.

“Yeah. We just came here to relax and get away from it all.”

“It’s lovely.”

She meant it. Xadia boasted some of the most beautiful places she would ever see in her life, but there was something about this place that was… simple. Magical. The glow of the city stark yet gentle against the dark of the night.

They looked at each other and his gaze flickered between her and the ground. He leaned back and rested on the palms of his hands. He rubbed the back of his neck. “Do you like it though? I know it’s probably not the most brilliant thing you’ve ever seen, being from Xadia and all, but I though--”

“It’s good,” Rayla said. She smiled warmly at him and looked out again. “It’s beautiful. I… it’s just so peaceful here. And pretty. I’ve never been somewhere like this before. I wish I could come here whenever I wanted.”

When her gaze settled on him again, he blinked then returned her smile. “So do I. It’s…”

“It’s nice,” she finished for him. “I wish we could stay here forever.”

From the look on his face, he agreed. There was a mix of emotions. Perhaps some sorrow, but also maybe something content, something happy. She scooted next to him and wrapped an arm around his, holding it to her. Her thumb rubbed the fabric of his suit jacket. They stayed like this for a little while.

He broke the silence. “Do you want to dance?”

“I thought you didn’t know how to dance?” It was a somewhat empty question.

“I think I can make something up,” he spoke quietly, his voice just between the two of them.

“There’s no music.” Her voice lowered to nearly a whisper.

“I don’t think we need it.”

They both rose, trying their hardest not to be awkward and, yet, there was no need. After a moment of waiting to see what the other might do, Callum moved around her, the light of the city at their backs and found both her hands with his.

He moved her, his body her guide as she followed the slide of his steps. There was no need for words. Only a glance over her shoulder to let him know she could feel his next move. The shadow of his face did nothing to dim the illumination in his eyes, and his smile, the amber glow awash in his hair and against his features. She wondered what he saw when he looked at her.

He brought her hand over her head and spun her around. She laughed, and he followed, her dress whispering against the stones

-:-:-:-

It said enough when Rayla hadn’t realized he was there. Callisto rubbed his face, perched on top of a statue a mere hundred feet away.

She hadn’t seen him, and she hadn’t even suspected or sensed him. He didn’t expect Callum to, not at all, but Rayla… she was better than this. Callisto hadn’t even tried to conceal himself very well.

He suppressed a groan, muttering, “Please, don’t make this an issue I get to deal with.”

He snuck off into the night with no intention whatsoever of being the one to tell Runaan. Not tonight.

With prayers, perhaps, this would pass.

Chapter Text

“Where did you two go?”

They were late. They knew they would be, but Rayla still pretended to be sorry about it. Well, she didn’t exactly have to pretend. She was sorry, but not as sorry as she was acting.

“We got lost,” Callum said, the picture of apology. “We didn’t exactly wait for the carriage, so we tried to make it back on foot and it didn’t go so well.”

Runaan raised his brows and looked to Rayla. She shrugged and tried to hold his gaze. “I don’t know my way around this city. I just followed him.”

Runaan frowned. “This isn't the time for games. We’re in dangerous territory. Tomorrow we leave as soon as we’ve accomplished our goal. It can’t happen again.”

Did he know?

Judging by his face and demeanor, she suspected not, but it wouldn’t be the first time Runaan let her believe one thing and kept the other hidden, just to gauge her reaction. Even if normally he was a man of honesty and expected the same.

“It won’t.” She said truthfully. “We’ll know the way.”

Runaan fixed them -- her -- with a stern look, then nodded and walked away. Back into the kitchen with Callisto, she supposed. She could see Callisto eyeing her from the stairway, letting Runaan lead before following.

If he knew, he wasn’t letting on. Reality set back in. Even Callum could feel it, too. On their way back, they went over what they saw at the ball. Anything out of the ordinary or how they might keep Lord Gallias and Lady Eveline busy tomorrow night.

Truth be told, she should have been more focused. It was just… nice to have fun for a little bit. Just an hour. A small hour.

Some guilty part of her knew better, but she ignored it.

-:-:-:-

Callum let out a sigh once they were upstairs. “That was... “

“Yeah.” They faced each other as Rayla approached her door. “It was good though. I had fun. Even though I wasn’t really supposed to.”

“Who said you shouldn’t though?”

“It’s a mission. It’s not supposed to be fun. We’re supposed to be focused and--”

“And we were dancing. I think you’re allowed to enjoy that part, if nothing else.”  He smiled at her. He… had a point, maybe. “Good night, Rayla.”

“Good night, Callum.”

He shouldn’t have enjoyed it either. Ezran was already asleep, Bait at his side,both of them safe as Callum changed into a pair of night clothes Ram had been kind enough to procure for them.

Still, he liked it. He knew he did. It’d be a wonder if he survived this entire running away to Xadia ordeal, so he let himself enjoy the night. Rayla let him show her around and she seemed to enjoy the little reprieve from the mission. Perhaps, she was right, and they shouldn’t have, but it was nice to see her smile. Hopefully, he would see it more often.

He eyed the book of runes sitting on the desk nearby and reminded himself to look through it again tomorrow. With everything happening recently, he’d neglected to skim through it more. The night before, Callisto had dropped an interesting detail to him about not necessarily needing to have the primal stone in his hand when he cast spells; he would need to read more into that when he got the chance. After all, the closer they got to Xadia, the more dangerous it would be for him and Ezran, assassins or no assassins.

He had to be ready.

The next morning, Rayla was waiting for him by the stairs.

“You always get up late.”

“It’s eight in the morning,” Callum yawned.

“Yeah. Must be nice, being able to sleep in.”

He just stared at her, bleary eyed, as they walked downstairs. “You’re joking, right? You must be joking.”

She only smiled at him. That didn’t give him much of an answer.

When they arrived in the kitchen, there was a meager breakfast of bread and soup, ready to eat. Callisto and Callum met eyes for a moment before Callisto went back to his soup, discussing some plan or other with Runaan across the table.

"Tonight, you will be with me."

Callisto looked up from his breakfast, frowning. "And who, pray tell, do you expect to keep the lovebirds out of trouble?"

Callum nearly choked on his bread. Callisto ignored him.

Runaan already finished eating, his bowl set aside as he perused over a makeshift map of the palace. "I need you to help me with the runes they've placed around the scepter."

"I'm not a mage."

"But you know enough about runes to help. Either way, you're the only one who understands them. No one else has that knowledge. Skor will keep an eye on Rayla and Callum for today."

'Where did you find it?" Rayla asked from over her bowl.

"It wasn't behind the door, but rather in the room the door was being guarded from. A simple ploy, but it's guarded with runes and magic. Magic more than likely used to ward off theft. It's safe to say  the magic is delicate, and we will need to time to neutralize it. Which is where Callisto comes in."

"I'd be more useful keeping guard over the two of you than babysitting. Callisto's wound still hasn't completely healed yet. He's not much help in a fight right now," Skor said from his place by the wall, fixing the hole behind the painting. "No offense."

"None taken," Callisto said. "It's true."

"Ram's quickness will deal with the guards efficiently. Skor, if something goes wrong, you'll need to break in and get Rayla out."

Callum noted the lack of mention concerning his own name.

"And the prince?"

Runaan glanced at Callum. "He will have his primal stone. I expect him to help you all escape just the same."

"I can put up a fight on my own, you know," Rayla protested. She frowned, stopping the spoon halfway to her mouth. "I don't need all this protection."

Callum had a feeling she wouldn't like Runaan’s comment. But she was partially right. Rayla was a much better fighter than him. Magic or no magic. What good would he be against a slew of guards wanting to drag him back to Katolis?

"You are at a disadvantage in that attire. And you're going to need help in case a fight breaks out."

"Runaan--"

"It's not a question of skill, Rayla. It's a matter of strategy. I expect you to put up a fight, but I won’t  count on that alone in case something goes wrong. Nor can any of us afford capture."

She was still unconvinced. "It certainly doesn't sound like it’s not a question of my skill."

Runaan met her gaze and raised his brows. "It's not up for discussion."

She finished her food in silence. Afterward, Callum found her sharpening her swords upstairs. He sat down next to her. "You alright?"

"He doesn't trust me," she grumbled. "I'm not some damsel in distress who needs others to come save me. I've got this."

"I don't think it has anything to do with that." She looked at him sharply. "Hear me out, okay?"

Rayla looked at him for a moment, then nodded. "I think he's just being careful, that's all. I mean...  it just seems like he doesn't want anything bad to happen to you?"

"... I guess. I just don't like it. I've trained my whole life for times like these. Why can't he see that?"

"Rayla, he wants to be careful. You're supposed to trust them, remember?"

She sighed and set aside her blades. "I know... it's just-- I don't want to go back to being the person who nearly messed up the entire mission. I could have gotten us all killed and if I mess this up again, he'll never trust me."

Callum almost put an arm around her… almost.. He didn't, but he did nudge her side all the same. "Hey, it's not like that and you know it. Don't be so hard on yourself."

She quieted. So quiet, in fact, he was almost worried about her for a second. It was times like these where he realized how Rayla only entered his life a short time ago. It felt like he'd known her forever. Especially after the ball last night. That'd been fun. It felt like an eternity since he had so much fun. His life was so far from what it used to be. He didn't really know what she was thinking most of the time and yet, that was just fine for now. He was honored she was so honest with him, really. Did she have many friends back home? Rayla was outgoing, and funny and fearless. Smart, reliable... Although something told him she didn't have too many people she trusted. That, perhaps she didn't have too many people who might call her friend. He had a hard time imagining it, but still found it perfectly believable all the same.

"I just don't want to let anyone down," she whispered. "I don't want to mess up."

"You won't." He put a hand over hers. She looked at him. "We're in this together, remember? You've got my back and I've got yours. If anything happens, we'll find a way."

He smiled. She met his eyes, then returned it with a smile of her own and a squeeze of his hand. "Are you always going to make all these heartfelt little speeches from now on?"

"As often as you need me to."

Rayla snorted. "Sap."

"There she is."

That night, they dressed in their same clothes and met at the same inn waiting for the same carriage. Everyone else had already gone ahead to their assigned positions, Andromeda and Ezran abandoning the inn and taking everybody's things to the rendezvous point just outside the city. They would wait there until everyone made their escape.

"You don't think Lord Gallias will be suspicious after we just disappeared last night?"

"Not too much. He'll have his own ideas of where we went, I’m sure." Callum said, peeking out the window. “We’re here.”

The scene was the same and as beautiful as the night before, the patrons in their second set of attire for the ball’s last night. Again, there were onlookers wanting to know who Rayla was and again Callum generally ignored them unless spoken to. Even then, he tried to keep it brief. They wouldn’t have to dance tonight -- Callum wasn’t even sure if he could pull that off again -- but keeping Lord Gallias busy was a must.

This was almost over. He brushed his fingers against Rayla’s hand, her arm on his. Soon they would be on their way out of the city. Out of danger. At least, the kind of danger that came with a group of elves in a human city.

And Callum had a feeling Lord Gallias’ opinion on elves wasn’t all that stellar.

As if on cue, the man of the hour approached them with open arms. “There you two are. I hope you enjoyed yourselves last night, hmm?” Lord Gallias’ smiled. “That was some performance. A shame you left so soon though.”

“Apologies, Lord Gallias. The dance was tiring. That was all,” Callum said.

Lord Gallias bowed. “No need to apologize, your highness. Not at all. I completely understand. After all, I was young once myself. Isn’t that right, my dear?”

“Of course, dear,” Callum nearly jumped when Lady Eveline came into view. Where did she come from? “How often did we have nights like that ourselves? More than one obviously.”

She gestured toward Alexander talking with another lord and lady across the room.

Callum laughed nervously. “Yeah…”

“Alright, alright, we’re embarrassing you both,” Eveline laughed. “Now, it’s our turn to apologize. Although…”

Rayla’s grip on Callum tightened. He tucked her in a bit closer. “What seems to be wrong?”

“Why, you’re wearing the same clothes.”

“What?” Rayla couldn’t stop herself from saying. He could practically hear her suppressing the sarcasm wanting to bleed through her voice.

“We hadn’t packed much for a ball,” Callum said. “This was all we had.”

“We can’t have that,” Lord Gallias said. “Come, I’m sure that each of us have something for you to change into for the night.”

“It’s fine, really--”

Eveline pulled on Rayla and Gallias steered Callum in the opposite direction. Callum actually felt Rayla’s fingers snag on his sleeves as they were pulled apart.

“Nonsense! We insist.”

-:-:-:-

“Clauds, those things are making me nervous.”

“Just don’t look at them. They’re not doing anything. They can’t even move right now.”

That didn’t make Soren feel much better. Those things probably didn’t faze Claudia, but this was  well beyond his comfort zone. At least they were in crates.

“Okay, but when they do… you can control them, right?”

“Of course I can,” Claudia chirped. “It’s a simple spell. All I need--”

He put up a hand. “Don’t need details.” He shuddered at the thought. “Just… make sure you can control them.”

“Trust me, Soren. It’ll be easy. Father says they were made by the Kalfs and the Kalfs are experts at this kind of thing, so it’s not like they’re going to break on us. We have nothing to worry about.”

He wasn’t so sure but nudged his horse ahead anyway. Their father’s request had not gone over well with Claudia and he doubted she had fully rectified the situation in her head. But Claudia was good at hiding her feelings from most people.

He was not most people.

“You alright?”

She scoffed. “Of course I am. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Clauds…” They exchanged glances. Her face fell.

“I know we have to do this. It just feels wrong.” She held his gaze. “Doesn’t it? They’re our friends. We’ve known Callum and Ezran most of our lives. How are we just supposed to end theirs? I… I just don’t know what Dad’s thinking.”

Soren didn’t really have an answer for her. “I don’t know… I don’t want to do it either, but… dad has to have a good reason, right? He always has a reason for everything. If we do this, it’ll all work out. This is for Dad.”

Claudia looked back at the path ahead of them. “Right… for Dad… this is for Dad.”

-:-:-:-

Rayla tried to act like she hadn’t been through these halls before. Eveline was eerily silent, only making small talk sparingly along the way.

They walked deeper through the west wing and the halls became more and more unfamiliar. Eventually, they reached a decorated door situated in a particular manner that made Rayla think perhaps this could be one of the main bedrooms of the palace. Inside, the room was cozy. The carpet was a plush rosy color with bed covers to match. There was a vanity featured against the wall with a closet beside it and a wardrobe set away from the rest of the furniture.

“I have so many dresses from all over the human kingdoms.” Rayla rolled her eyes as Eveline disappeared into the walk-in closet. Surely, it was massive. “This is one of the rooms I keep my clothes. Please, feel free to sit. I’ll be right out.”

Rayla was hesitant but did so anyway. Blend in, blend in.

She just needed to blend in for a few hours. Maybe whatever new dress Eveline insisted on would be easier to move in.

On the dresser, there were three dolls. One of a boy, one of a young woman who resembled Eveline, and another that resembled Gallias. Upon closer inspection, Rayla realized they were actual replicas of the family. She couldn’t keep a slight grimace from her face. That was… odd. Odd at best, really. It was outright creepy. Then again, perhaps it was a gift from a husband to a wife. After all, Lord Gallias taught Alexander puppetry, didn’t he?

There was a knock on the door.

Rayla looked at the closet. Perhaps she hadn’t heard?

Another knock. “Madam?”

Still, no sign that Eveline had heard the knock. Rayla got up slowly, looking back at the closet as she walked to the door. It opened to one of the servants. He was as polite as they all were, a smile kindly plastered on his features. “Forgive me for bothering you, my lady. Lord Gallias sent me to check on how you both were doing.”

Rayla almost frowned. They’d been in here for not even five minutes.

“We’re fine, thank you,” she said politely. “We’ll be right out.”

“Of course.” The servant turned to leave. Rayla made to close the door. “And my lady?”

“Yes?”

A more sincere smile this time. “Please pass my condolences to Prince Callum. King Harrow will be deeply missed.”

Rayla stopped breathing.

Even as the servant bowed.

Even as he made his way down the hall.

Rayla stopped. She listened.

She looked over her shoulder at that strangely silent closet from where nobody had emerged.

Silently, she closed the door. The room mobbed all emotions, all of Rayla’s suspicions at once. Her heart beat faster than it had thirty seconds ago and every little rustle or perceived noise made her jump.

There was a knife strapped to her leg, she remembered, she went for it before her eyes fell to the dolls on the vanity. They dragged to the wardrobe in the mirror. In her reflection, Rayla watched herself stand up.

She turned, the wardrobe called to her.

Open me.

If it could speak that’s what it would say to her.

If it could speak its voice would be but a sinister whisper.

Rayla’s hand gripped the cold knob and yanked it open.

A black eyed doll stared down at her.

The life size doll was hoisted up in the wardrobe, porcelain skin and shiny black eyes staring down at her with a lifeless, posed smile. It smelled odd. Too clean. Too… too something. The shape of it was too natural and when Rayla reached out, possessed by some force or other inside her, the skin was soft.

The texture was unnervingly velvety in a way that wanted to make her leave her own body. It was hard beneath the surface, but didn’t quite feel like bone.

But the most alarming thing about it was the tattoos on its face. The white hair. The elongated elven ears.

The Moonshadow elf woman could have been someone she knew. She looked like a hundred women Rayla could have seen in Xadia.

She looked at the doll’s wrists and noticed what looked like a birthmark.

Rayla took a step back, then another. Her chest rose and fell with every breath she loosed and grasped back into her lungs.

“What is this…” She breathed, her voice shaking, her arms shaking. Everything was shaking. Even the bones in her chest, shuddered.

“A Kalf handcraft you weren’t supposed to see, yet, dear. She had to be a part of my collection. Despite her kind, even I could admit she was just too beautiful to let go. Just like you.”

Chapter Text

Rayla’s first instinct was to reach for the knife under her dress, but she resisted.

Assess. She needed to assess the situation before she broke her cover.

“I don’t understand what you mean,” She said, doing her best to keep the trembling from her voice. “What is this?”

Eveline didn’t move from the closet door. “You really are beautiful, aren’t you? A perfect Xadian beauty. Even with that amulet on I can tell.”

Assessment over. Rayla reached under her gown, brandishing a knife and facing Eveline. “Alright then, if that’s how you want it. What is this?” she gestured to the wardrobe. “That thing in there? And what are you doing in there?”

“You’re not in a position to be asking questions.”

“Oh, you think so?” Rayla flipped the knife in her palm. “I think my position is perfect. Now, spill it.”

From behind the door, Eveline pulled out a shield. Then, a sword. Rayla tightened her grip on the knife.

“I think I’m in the perfect position.”

Eveline leapt. Faster than Rayla expected, she repelled Eveline with a swipe of her knife and a bash with her shoulder. Still, Rayla separated and maneuvered away from her. But Eveline was instantly on her, swiping down and cutting into the floor.

Rayla went on the offensive, meeting her halfway as Eveline gave chase. She met her blow for blow. Barely. Eveline stepped on her dress, cutting her spin short and headbutting her hard enough to make her fall back.

New tactic. Flip back and--

Wait. No, bad idea, bad idea, bad idea.

There was no way she could flip at the speed she wanted to in this dress.

Their eyes met. Eveline realized it, too. Small quarters? Gown to slow her down?

This wasn’t her first time in battle and those paintings of her with her sword and shield weren’t just for decoration either. The exit was across from her now.

She leapt forward -- Eveline surged to meet her -- and right past her opponent.

Right toward the exit.

Rayla ran. She picked up her skirts and ran the way she came.

She couldn’t believe she was thinking it, but she had to get in front of some people. Eveline and even Gallias knew she was an elf, but the rest of the humans didn’t. She said a prayer for Runaan and the others. For--

Her mind narrowed in on Callum

Callum .

Gallias took him down the other wing and she’d just let them take him, she couldn’t believe--

The ballroom came back into view and Rayla slowed, hiding the knife in her skirts as she dropped them. She tried to even out her breath as she slipped back among the crowd and beelined for the other side of the ballroom.

The whole room felt like enemy territory. More than before. All these people… any of them could know what was going on. All of them could. At least some of them knew that Callum’s stepdad was dead.

Her head was spinning as she discreetly looked around, hoping no one would notice that something was off. Just because things were going terribly wrong didn’t mean it was time to raise suspicions. She still had to be the Lady Rayla or whatever these people thought she was.

At the other end of the room, the doors opened as if the guards were waiting for her to come. She watched it open.

Rayla sighed through her nose and walked through.

-:-:-:-

Skor frowned.

Her movements were too frantic. Just a tick. She was looking around too much and where was she going now?

He turned as Ram readied to head back to report.

“Tell them to hurry,” he watched as Rayla bobbed and weaved through the crowd. “Something’s wrong.”

-:-:-:-

The west wing of the palace practically mirrored the east wing. This was the first thing that bothered Rayla. The second was just how desperately empty it was.

The further down she went, the colder it felt. The more she somehow just… knew she was getting closer to her target.

Callum, she thought of him. She prayed that they hadn’t hurt him.

If they had, she would hurt them and that was the end of that.

Deserted as the corridor was, she knew people had been through here. Just some time ago, she’d seen people, select now when she thought about it, slip in and out of this wing. Gallias came and went this way when they separated her from Callum.

More paintings of Eveline were also down this hall. Somehow, the woman’s vanity seemed off, even if it did fit her at face value. It was as if these paintings were not a shrine to her, but a reminder of the days before. There was one painting that struck her in particular and Rayla didn’t know why.

It was a painting of their family: Gallias, Eveline and Alexander in a family portrait, the parents adoring of their son. If she had gone off this painting alone, the lord and lady were just two loving parents.

She eventually hit a dead end and here was where it felt the coldest. It was hard to pinpoint why, but she followed that feeling to the last door and tried to open it. Locked.

Pulling out the knife again, she started to pick the lock. It clicked open in a matter of minutes.

A dark, dim tunnel opened to her.

“If this isn’t the way they took him, then I’m actually a human,” she murmured.

The tunnel was dry. Comfortable, even, as far as tunnels to some terrible place or other went. They kept it maintained.

The doll in the wardrobe came to mind.

They used this often.

She hurried her steps but kept them quiet. Minutes passed; eternity could have passed as the tunnel continued to dim. If not for the torch far ahead of her she wouldn’t see much. Now, she was sure they’d taken Callum this way.

At the end of the hall, the door was wood and metal and stone. Reinforced. There was enough light for her to pick it, but whoever was on the other side of that door might hear it.

They could put an arrow in her before she had the chance to respond.

She put a hand on the door. If she went back… got Runaan and the others they could stand a chance.

And Callum could be dead.

Or worse.

That doll flashed in her mind again. That terrible, miserable doll strung up like she had never been alive.

Rayla shook her head.

She started picking the lock.

The job took longer than it should have, her eagle like focus made picking the lock harder and her admitted nerves made her mess up once or twice. Still, when it finally unlocked, she pushed it open slowly. Ever so slowly. Knife at the ready, prepared to roll or dodge in any direction she needed to not get shot in the heart. Or at all, really.

Nobody.

The door opened to a stone room well-lit by torch, hearth and moonlight. There was a flight of stairs leading to the next floor. Rayla followed its curve and looked up. A tower. A tall tower.

She would have found some alternate way of climbing if this dress wasn’t in the way, so when she came upon the stairs, she listened first.

No footsteps. No voices.

She carefully climbed the steps that curved up to the second floor. This room was a bit more elaborate, with some kind of mage’s desk and a few books. But nothing. She went up to the next floor. Then, the next and the next and the next, each room more elaborate than the last. Each a bit more disturbing than the last. The higher the floor, the more open it was, too. It made her wonder about the design and why a tower would have walls open to the air like that.

The fourth floor had a table with shackles and a workstation with tools she didn’t bother inspecting.

The fifth floor had even more in the way of odd and disturbing things.

There were prisoner shackles on the walls, on the tables. Some kind of strange glass bubble of what could only be described as some mage invented prison. Tables and… a full working space for some demented purpose.

And there was Callum, unconscious, shackled to the wall.

Rayla ran up to him, looking up at him and shaking his leg. She hissed, “Callum. Callum!”

He blinked into consciousness, muttering her name. “Where am I?”

“Are you okay?” she asked when he came to.

“I think so… I just remember Lord Gallias acting weirder and weirder. When I wanted to go back, he knocked me out. Then, I woke up here. Are you okay? Did they hurt you?”

“I’m fine,” she said, looking over his restraints. Maybe she could pick these locks, too. “These people are sick. We need to get out of here. Now. Before they do something horrible to both of us.”

She told him about what happened with Eveline and the macabre doll she found in the wardrobe. He paled.

“That’s…”

“Yeah, I know. Trust me. Do you still have your primal stone?”

He looked down at himself, then around once he realized he didn’t feel it on himself. “On the table. Over there.”

She glanced at it sitting comfortably on the table next to a mage’s desk that looked like it’d been in use.

“Good. Now, let’s get you out of here before--”

“Rayla, watch out!”

Instead of leaping out of the way and leaving Callum to take the blow meant for her, Rayla turned and met her opponent with the knife.

Gallias was stronger than his wife and pushing him back took more effort. Based on his stance though he didn’t seem as adept as his wife. Rayla reeled back and head-butted him, he stumbled back a bit and she went to drive the knife through him. He dodged and managed to backhand her.

She went to twist out of his range, but the dress tangled her legs, and he brought the shield he’d been using down on her head.

The world doubled, and he shoved her to the ground. She heard Callum saying her name among sinister words from another mouth -- then a hard, heavy weight pinned her chest. Rayla couldn’t move her limbs as she lay on the floor and when her vision went back to normal, Gallias was holding a blank, glowing doll over her. He laid it next to her head, and it was as if someone physically shackled her to the ground.

“Eveline’s had practice fighting in her gowns. It’s a surprisingly useful skill she has,” Gallias mused. “You should have learned it before coming here.”

Rayla snarled at him. “Let me go and I’ll show you what else I’ve learned.”

“I think not,” he said, taking his knee off her chest. “You’re fine where you’re at and it’s easier to work with you when you’re not struggling.”

“Gallias, darling.” Rayla couldn’t see Eveline, but she could hear her enter the room. “Oh, I see you managed to pin her. Good. Now, we can work.”

Work.

The doll came to mind once more.

“If you touch either of us, I’ll kill you,” she growled.

“Leave her alone,” Callum demanded. “I’ll go with you. Anything you want. Just leave her alone.”

“I wouldn’t worry about the prince, dear Rayla. Let’s just talk about you right now... see, Gallias? Isn’t she perfect?” Eveline’s smile was nothing less than creepy. Vapid, even. “And she’s young.”

Gallias nodded. “A young Moonshadow elf… your kind guard and teach their young well. Moonshadow elves your age are incredibly difficult to come by,” Gallias observed her. He reached out to grab her face and turn it. “It’s ironic, really. The poetic magic that can come from you. So young. Full of life. That magic is drenched in the cycle of life and death. It’s a special combination that makes for some interesting spellwork.”

Rayla froze.

Magic they could draw from a Moonshadow elf.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

They didn’t answer her.

Then, she looked at the glass imprisonment and the runes on the base. The mage’s desk. The tools.

Her heart wanted to stop. It would have been more merciful than whatever they planned for her. The same shivering feeling she had when Viren first caught her was creeping back into her veins. Except, this time, it seemed… more real. Not just a nightmare. She’d seen the results.

“First things first though.” Eveline said. “Her eyes are beautiful. Truly. But I’d like to try her face with different ones. Take them out.”

No!” Callum struggled against his restraints. Rayla tried to move, tried to fight. She heard the clacking of the tool Gallias had gotten up to grab. She struggled harder. He came back and pinned his knee to her chest again.

She turned her head and squeezed her eyes shut, refusing to face him. Eveline’s hands came around her and forced them forward. Her fingers pried Rayla’s eyes open.

She wouldn’t beg. She wouldn’t give them the satisfaction, but she did struggle, and she felt her eyes water.

“I’ll do anything. I’ll give you anything, just please.” Callum pleaded. “Lord Gallias, I’m begging you, don’t hurt her.”

“Hurry, Darling. This one is very willful.”

The pliers slowly came down for Rayla, aiming for precision. Rayla did her best to turn her head, but Eveline held.

A whimper and a scream almost escaped her throat.

She would not beg. She would not scream or cry.

No matter how badly she wanted to right about now.

She saw the gleam in their eyes as the pliers came for her left eye.

“Mother…? Father…?”

Gallias pulled the pliers away, turning toward the soft voice. Eveline let go of Rayla’s head and stood up so fast she accidentally kicked the glowing blank doll across the room. Rayla didn’t move right away. “Alex!”

Alexander stood at the door, a pupper of exquisite quality in his hand. He took the scene in before him, wide-eyed and at a loss. “What… what are you doing?”

Eveline strode over to him, placing motherly hands on his shoulders and smoothing down his hair. “It’s nothing, Alex. It’s nothing, love. We were just--”

“Just what?” Alexander demanded, clearly frightened. “What is this place? I followed Rayla down here and… Mother, what’s going on? I don’t like this. What--”

Gallias rose, reciting sinister words in a hurried tone.

Alex went limp. He shut down. Rayla couldn’t see him from behind his mother, but Eveline turned on Gallias. “Gallias, why would you do that to him?”

“We can erase his memory later, Dear. He doesn’t need to be here for this,” he said, almost softly.

Eveline moved around her son, fidgeting with something behind his back. It was then Rayla noticed his blank eyes and passive expression. As if--

Eveline opened his back.

Rayla and Callum’s mouths fell open. Alexander’s back split open, the doors wide enough for his mother to see whatever unnatural phenomenon was going on, keeping him alive. If they could even call it that.

It was Callum that said it. “He’s… he’s not real.”

“He is real!” Eveline snapped. “He’s my son. Of course he’s real!”

“He’s not alive,” he argued. “What did you do to him?”

“How dare you? You honestly believe I would subject my only son to anything but a full life? It was you that did this to him!” Rage contorted Eveline’s face, her finger pointing directly at Rayla.

“Me?” Rayla shook her head. “I didn’t do anything to him, and I certainly didn’t do that. That was all you.”

“We saved our son,” Gallias replied. “But it was your kind that did this to him. You elves. Particularly, Moonshadow elves. You are a disease on this land. A disease I only realized after it was too late for my son.”

“Wait…” Callum intervened. “I don’t understand. What happened to him?”

Eveline snapped at him before Gallias could. “We tried to protect him but, you took him away from us.”

“My family and I were coming home late one night. We were in a carriage and without warning one of her kind, a Moonshadow elf, descended upon us. She ripped open the door closest to Alex and dragged him out and she…”

“She killed him,” Eveline snarled. “Tell them whathappened, Gallias. That Moonshadow elf put a knife in him and took his life. For no other reason than because she could.”

“I’m sorry,” Rayla said. “I am. If I knew who did that to him, I would bring you justice.”

“There’s no need. We’ve already hired a hunter. And...” Eveline put her hands on the doll she called her son. “We’ve already done it. What you will do for us is going to help our cause well enough.”

Gallias said, “Moonshadow elven magic is connected to illusions and the cycle of life and death. A young Moonshadow elf is most valuable in that prospect.”

“Yes… you and the magic we will draw from your arcanum will serve Alexander well and help pay for what you’ve done. You will help keep Alex alive and he will live a full, happy life.”

“But Rayla didn’t do this. Please, listen to me. I’m sorry for what happened to Alexander. I am so, so sorry. But you can’t punish all elves for what one elf did and you certainly can’t do it like this. This… this is cruel. It’s not humane.”

“They’re not human,” Eveline snapped.

“He’s not alive!”

Eveline growled at him, hugging her son. “Lies! What do you know? You’re just a child. You’ve never had to lose someone like this. Someone that was your own. No… no, I refuse to give up on Alex. He’s my son and I will sacrifice anything or anyone so he has his chance at life. His soul can stay here, in this body that we made just for him. Anyone against us is the enemy.”

Callum swallowed. Rayla knew what he was about to say. “I do understand. More than you know, but I would never do this to him. Don’t you think Alex deserves to move on, too?”

Gallias stepped forward. “It doesn’t matter. With the energy I draw from your elf, Alex will be one step closer to being back to the way he was. I imagine that we can even get there tonight. Soon this will all be behind us.”

“This will never be behind you,” Callum said. “I’m sorry. You can’t fight this. You have to let him go and move on. And you can’t keep doing this to living, breathing people. You can’t keep doing this to Alexander.”

“We’ve only tried a few people. None of them ever worked out the way Moonshadow elves did,” Eveline said quickly.

“You’ve done this to humans, too,” Rayla said from the ground. “You’ve made them all your little puppets because you were too selfish to think about whether or not your son would even want to come back. Your son is your puppet, too. Callum is right. This is cruel.”

“That’s enough out of you,” Eveline strode forward, snatching a knife from the table. “It’s time to end your life so Alex’s time can start again.”

“Not on your life.” Rayla moved and swept Eveline under. She jumped to her feet and snatched the knife away from Eveline.

Gallias lurched forward and tried wrestling Rayla for the knife. She met him, holding his weight just long enough to kick him under the knee and headbutt him. He went down and Rayla grabbed the keys off him, hurrying to unlock Callum’s restraints as quickly as possible.

“Okay, we need to go right now.” Rayla would have grabbed his wrist, but he went for the primal stone. “Do you know any other way out of this place?”

Callum shook his head. “Only the stairs.”

“Then stairs it is.” Eveline was picking herself up onto her hands and knees just as Gallias was coming to, but Callum still stood there staring at them. “Callum, come on. We can’t wait for them to chase us to get out of here.”

“Wait,” he said, pursing his lips.

Wait? Wait for what? Have you lost your mind? We don’t have time to wait.” She pulled on his arm. “Let’s go.”

But he pulled away, and she looked at him like he grew a second head. A little bit of fear trickled down into her chest cavity. She wouldn’t leave him here to die. No, never.

She would never do that. Couldn’t.

But then he gave her a look. She wasn’t sure if it was fear or regret.

He pulled his primal stone out.

Then, he drew a rune in the air. It crackled. Rayla’s eyes widened. He wasn’t…

Would he?

She saw Eveline get the same look, blanching as Callum’s hands crackled with blinding white lightning.

Rayla reached out for him. “Callum--

He couldn’t do this. This wasn’t something he’d do. She’d never taken Callum as the kind to kill someone so easily, even two people like Eveline and Gallias--

He pointed it at Alex.

At Alexander’s broken, empty, pitiful Kalf vessel.

Rayla let him go and, for a moment, lightning was the only sound between the four of them. It seemed like an eternity. She saw Eveline’s face, torn between horror and fury. Her body scrambled off the floor, toward the doll she called her son, but wasn’t fast enough as Callum turned his head and closed his eyes.

Fulminis.”

Lightning burst from his hand. Alexander’s body blasted apart, plastic, velvety pieces with runes carved on the inside spilling and ricocheting all over the place. He laid in pieces.

Eveline screamed. “No!

She crawled on the ground, scrambling for the pieces of her son. The pieces that were too small slipped through her hands. On the ground, Gallias picked up one piece and just stared at it as if Callum broken a part of him too.

A warmth enveloped in front of them. They could feel it. They could see it.

Alexander smiled at them from where he once was trapped-- this was the only way Rayla could describe it -- and nodded. His voice was thin, ethereal. And tranquil. “Thank you.”

He looked at his parents. At his mother. His eyes were sad, but he waved at them. One last goodbye. Gallias raised a hand to wave back, slowly, automatically. On instinct perhaps.

But Eveline tried to grab him, tried to keep him there to no avail. Her hands went right through him. “No, Alex… No, darling, please… come back.”

Alexander faded away.

Gallias stood up, but Eveline still laid on her knees. She eventually dragged herself off the floor.

And grabbed the sword and shield near her.

I’m going to kill you.”

Chapter Text

Callum’s hand felt numb, and the lightning had nothing to do with it.

He’d just… blasted Alexander’s body apart. The fake vessel they called his body, anyway. Alex was gone. He wasn’t sure if what he did was right, but the boy deserved to move on.

Apparently, Alex appreciated the gesture even if Callum wasn’t sure how he felt.

Alexander’s mother wasn’t so conflicted.

Murder cooked in her skull. He could see it in the hateful eyes she bore into them. Her grip on the sword was white knuckle tight and her shield hung at her side. Tense could not describe Eveline’s body. Every cord was ready to snap.

“I’m going to kill you.”

He believed it, grabbing Rayla’s hand. “Rayla--”

She tried to push him off. “Go--”

“What? Are you insane? I’m not leaving you here with them.”

“There is no way we’re both getting out of this at the same time. Go, and I’ll catch up.”

Liar.

“We go together or I’m staying here,” he said firmly.

She opened her mouth to argue, but Eveline lunged. Luckily, rage splintered her focus and Rayla managed to throw a chair in her path. Callum took the invitation to leave. He yanked on Rayla’s hand and she followed him down the stairs; during their descent she kept looking back, the knife in her free hand for when Eveline and Gallias inevitably came racing after them. Gallias had still been picking up the pieces of Alex’s doll and his daze was sure to fade soon.

“Wait!” Rayla pulled on his hand.

So, this is what she felt like all the time. Wait?

“There’s sure to be guards this way and there’s no guarantee we’re getting out of it alive. We have to find another way.”

“Rayla, this tower goes up and it goes down. There’s no other way.”

“I know.” She bit her lip. “Let me think.”

He heard footsteps coming up the stairs. She’d been right. Of course she’d been right. Callum squeaked. “No time.”

The guards swarmed in, forming a circle around the two of them, swords out. They would take Callum alive, but Rayla…

She would be as good as dead. If they didn’t kill her, she was still as good as dead if those dolls were to be her fate. Callum went for his primal stone.

The guard in front of him, a big burly fellow, slumped. He fell face first. Callum heard his nose crunch.

Another went down. Then another. All in quick succession.

Then, he saw the white hair and the horns. An arrow flew by Callum and hit a guard in the shoulder.

Skor spun, blood coated his sickle. “Go.”

Runaan, Ram, Callisto and Skor made a path for them. Cold fury etched every feature in Runaan’s face. He separated his bow into blades and swiped another guard dead. The next wasn’t so slow and met Runaan blow for blow.

“Is the exit clear?” Rayla rammed a guard going for her.

“Not the way you came in.” Callisto was slower than normal and didn’t dare take his eyes off his opponents. “You need to find another way.”

“Are you going to be okay?”

“Fine. Just go and find Andromeda at the rendezvous.” He moved in a way that aggravated his back and growled. “Get going.

For once, neither Callum nor Rayla argued. They raced down another flight but went tumbling down after Rayla slipped.

Collecting himself from the stone floor, Callum shook his head. Since when did Rayla slip even in shoes like that?

He looked up and found Eveline stalking toward them, her sword and shield ready for blood. His mouth dropped. “When did you--?”

“You think I don’t have my ways? My extra staircases and rooms? There’s always a way down, Prince Callum.”

His heart pounded in his ears. He tried to climb to his feet and went for the primal stone, but Eveline was faster and kicked him so hard he doubled over, sending him flying across the floor.

“Callum! Get away from him!” Rayla lunged for her, but Eveline parried Rayla with her shield and smacked her with the flat of her sword. Rayla coughed when she hit the ground.

“Tired, dear? Carrying that heavy dress makes you slower. Trust me, I know. It’s why all my gowns are as light as possible just in case I may need to… defend myself.” Eveline’s smile was sweet. Her eyes savage. She turned to Callum. “I knew your mother, you know.”

Callum gasped for air. “What?”

“I admired her. She was a hero of mine, really. You were too young to remember, but I would spar with her the few times we visited Katolis castle. She taught me exercises to strengthen my body and I’ve learned them well. It’s just a shame you’ve thrown your favor with their lot.”

“I didn’t have a choice,” Callum wheezed, clutching his sore belly. “And even if I did, I would still have chosen them over you.”

“Her.”

Callum said nothing. He scrambled to his feet.


“How beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, I want a reminder.” She approached Rayla with her longsword and raised it high over her head. “I’ll preserve her head. Put it on my wall as a keepsake.”

“No!” Callum closed the gap between them with a run and a leap. He knocked her to the ground, and she fought him with everything she had.

Eveline hadn’t been joking. She was strong. It didn’t take much for her to pick herself up and fight him off, but it spun them around the room. In a quick, strong push, she slammed him against the wall. Callum’s head hit stone and he slid to the floor with stars in his vision.

“I don’t care what Viren wants,” Eveline was panting, beyond vicious and unraveling by the second; as if blasting apart Alex blasted apart her last anchor to the world. “You’re next.”

She swung, Callum dodged, but barely in time. He felt the open air and realized he’d made the wrong move too late. There was nowhere to go on this odd, open ledge. Spread evenly on the edge were three statues of some Xadian bird strutting into the air. Her smile told him that she’d done this before. She knew she had him where she wanted him.

“I’ve never had a human prince rain down on my roses. I wonder what you will do for them.”

He blanched. “You’re sick.”

The open air was at his back, the end of the stone ledge right at his fingertips.

Lightning fast and just as hard, Eveline kicked him in the chest. He didn’t have the air in his lungs to scream as he slipped off. His fingers found the edge and hung on. He could pull himself up. He could. If only his fingers would stop slipping.

His thoughts crashed when Eveline’s shadow washed over him. She raised her foot.

And her body was thrown to the side.

Pushed, he realized, as she fell. She went right over the edge.

Callum’s fingers slipped. His eyes went wide and the world slowed. He gave a shout.

But he didn’t fall. Rayla’s hands shot out to his, her grip mercifully strong. “I’ve got you…. I’ve got you. Don’t let go.”

“Don’t worry,” he squeaked. “I’ll just be hanging out here.”

She snorted. Gritting her teeth, she laid on the stone, her strength the only thing keeping him from splatting to the ground. “Give me your other hand.”

His balance was a precarious thing. If he swung too hard, he could take them both over the edge. Rayla was strong, but he knew she didn’t have much to hang on to up there. As if whoever built this place had planned that too. He would put nothing past them.

This sight is living poetry.”

Callum’s heart stopped. They shared a wide eyed moment, their attention snapping to the bird directly on Callum’s right.

How?

Eveline had lost her shield, but she was clinging to the stone bird, climbing on top of it to balance on its back. Somehow, she managed to keep her sword.

“The two of you really are beautiful.”

Rayla tried to let one of her hands go so she could reach for her knife, but Callum nearly slipped and she grabbed his hand again. Not even Rayla could hang onto him and fight her at the same time.

“Rayla, let go. I’ll be fine.”

For a moment, her attention was on him again. “What? No!”

“Rayla--”

“I’m not letting you go. I am not letting you die.”

But he could see the panic in her eyes. The fear that mirrored his own. A warm wind blew through, whipping Rayla’s hair around her face.

“You have to give me your other hand,” she pleaded. “I’ll pull you up. Now!”

“I can’t,” he said, straining by the weight. “If I swing the wrong way, I’ll pull you over, too.”

Her voice cracked for the first time. “Callum…”

He heard the end of her sentence even if she hadn’t said it. Please.

Their brief exchange filled them with panic; they had no more cards to play. He couldn’t do anything, but hang there and she couldn’t do anything but…

Get her head lopped off, he realized.

He looked back at Eveline, finally on the bird, standing triumphantly over them. She loomed, an ever-present shadow on their world.

Rayla looked at Eveline. Callum looked at Rayla.

He could see Eveline moving in the corner of his eye and followed Rayla’s gaze to Eveline. To Eveline as she lifted her sword over their heads. It would reach. When she brought it down, they were both dead. Rayla was dead with no chance of survival. Her hands tightened around his.

He became keenly aware of the breath in his lungs and the primal stone in his pocket.

Consider this my parting gift. You can have her head on the way down. The two of you can be together in pieces.”

Callum’s fingers felt cool to the touch.

Eveline’s eyes were wild with victory.

She moved. He moved before she did.

Aspiro!”

His fingers drew the rune in the air just as her elbows started to unbend. A few seconds slower and they would have died. Her body left the bird all at once, her feet slipping and her sword falling from her hands. The air pushed her. Her face betrayed the horror insider her. It mirrored his own.

The world, having slowed in that moment, sped back up as Eveline fell five stories. He turned, his eyes following as she did, but Rayla’s voice coaxed him back before he could turn too far. “Don’t look, don’t look.” Eveline screamed. Rayla’s voice was soft and trembling over it. “Don’t watch.”

Eveline screamed.

His eyes burned. His ears roared.

There was a horrible noise. A sickening thud. Then, the screams died.

Rayla was keeping his attention on her, softly saying again and again. “Look at my face. Look at my hands.”

He chose her face.

It took a couple of minutes, but she finally hauled him back onto the ledge and right into her arms, where she held him with one hand and kept herself upright with the other. He buried his face in her hair. There was silence. Finally, she asked in his ear. “Are you okay?”

He had no answer except his own question. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head. A moment later, he shook his, too. Her fingers gripped the back of his suit as she spoke into his ear again. “We have to go. Can you walk?”

“Yeah,” he said. Shakily, they rose to their feet. They’d forgotten the noise upstairs and it all came flooding back. Wordlessly, they grabbed the other’s hand and raced downstairs.

Quickly they made it to the first floor. Callum considered the door, but Rayla held him back. “Nu-uh. No way. Even if there aren’t guards on the other side of that door, they’ll be at the palace. We need to find another way.”

“The front door?”

He could tell she didn’t like the idea. The assassin in her, perhaps. “Do we have a choice?”

“Not really.”

They found the front door in a different room after some searching around. From the front, it mimicked the look of a residential building. A fine second place for a rich family. If only they knew.

Callum’s throat closed. Lady Eveline was dead. They would find that out, at least.

Outside, they’d expected guards as well, but most of them were apparently up on the top floor with the elves. They used the hedges to sneak past the few guards posted, laying low with Rayla lifting her skirts so they didn’t whisper against the grass.

Someone must have been looking out for them when they stumbled upon an unattended horse. She looked over at the guards not paying it any attention. She whispered to Callum, “Can you ride a horse?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “I could be better.”

Rayla nodded to the horse. “Get behind me.”

Rayla hopped on first then Callum behind her, holding on to her waist. The horse didn’t seem to mind the extra weight. Then there was a shout. Someone spotted them.

“Hang on!” She whipped the reins and sent the horse galloping. It didn’t take long to hear hooves behind her.

They raced through cobblestone streets and flew past people on carriages. Callum had his arms securely wrapped around her waist and there were shouts behind her to move as the people on foot dove out of the way. Callum dared not let go, but he glanced back and regretted it immediately. Five guards all on horseback, furiously riding on their tails.

“Where are we going?” he asked over the sound of pounding hooves.

“Runaan said the river!” She called back. “If we can get these guys off our trail, then we can meet up with the others!”

“I think you’re going the wrong way?”

‘What do you mean the wrong way? This way’s the river, right?”

She turned a sharp corner where a fruit cart stood and Callum nearly lost his balance. He heard a crash.

They rode ahead, turning into alleys where they could and gaining just enough time to reach the edge of the city where the river, was, in fact.

But, now, Rayla could see what he meant.

They built the city, he’d once mentioned to her, around a river with a waterfall.

They dismounted, Callum wincing as he did. His legs were going to hurt in the morning.

“You’re kidding me.” Rayla was panting. “Down there. That’s where we’re supposed to meet.”

There was a small gate built into the river. Perhaps, as a caution in case any boats somehow found their way this far down the waterways. Several boats sat washed up on the shores, a couple even against the gate that blocked the edge of the falls.

He could hear hooves again. His heart started to beat rapidly.

“We need to get in one of these boats.”

Panic was rising in his throat and he was doing his very best to master it, like she would -- like she was and always did -- for the sake of them both.

“But, how’s that help--”

He took her by the face and, just this once, made her meet his eyes, as gentle yet firmly as he possibly could. “Rayla, get in the boat.”

She stared at him for a split second, but it worked. For whatever was there in her eyes, it worked and she nodded. Despite herself, she hopped into the boat with him and helped him set off just as the guards came galloping up. They slowed, but didn’t stop, waiting for them to hit the gate just before the falls.

If he told her how they were getting out of this he wasn’t entirely sure Rayla would have gotten in the boat. The river was taking them toward the gate fast and there wasn’t exactly time to reassure her. But truth be told, he wasn’t exactly sure if this was a good idea at all. Did he know what awaited them at the end of the waterfall? Not really.

Was it a better fate than whatever awaited them should the guards get a hold of them? Probably.

Rayla fidgeted in the boat, shooting frantic, tense looks to the guards waiting for them. This was it.

He held out his hand. “Are you with me?”

“What?”

She looked at him as if he’d grown a second head, but he asked again, “Are you with me?”

There was only the rush of the water and the tense chord between them. Callum’s hand held out to her, a question all of its own.

It was hard to forget that they were in a life or death situation, but Rayla’s body eased if only a little. She slipped her hand in his and nodded.

He squeezed her hand tight and flashed a smile. Just a quick one to prepare her for what he was about to do.

With his free hand, he pointed a finger toward the gate and drew a rune in the air. “Fulminis!”

The gate smashed to bits. Rayla’s eyes shot open, her eyes as wide as dinner plates. Callum could feel a twinge of regret under the shaking of his limbs and the pounding in his chest. They huddled together, holding one another as the guards shouting started to fade. Only the roar of the approaching falls and holding Rayla close mattered now.

Rayla’s grip on him was so tight it would have hurt if he could feel anything.

Then, the falls drowned out everything.

He almost immediately regretted this decision.

Stupid, stupid, stup--

They went over and neither of them could keep the scream from their throats as the boat fell from underneath them. There was just air and water and falling. But neither of them let go, gripping the other tighter as they tumbled down the waterfall. The fall was eternity, and over in an instant as the water rushed over them, enveloping them in blades of light and darkness through the much calmer river that spanned out.

Taking too long, Callum finally emerged, gasping for air and looking around wildly. He could see Andromeda melting from the shadows by the edge of the river, Ezran and Bait behind her. He didn’t immediately swim to her, searching for Rayla’s head.

His heart dropped into his chest when he couldn’t find another white head in the dark. He was ready to shout for her, never mind that he left his voice back up the waterfall.

A gasp. Left.

Rayla was gasping, fighting with her dress to stay above water. He swam to her and reached for her, pulling her closer. They pulled themselves out of the river and into the riverbed, grass beneath their knees, cold and soaking and shaking. They panted and clung and hung to each other, gulping in air as if their lives were still in danger.

Rayla, on his right, pushed Callum back so he was out of her way. She crawled, trying to remove herself but her torso was practically laying on his knees, an overwhelmed look in her eyes--

And she vomited.

He wasn’t sure if she was crying, but she vomited right into the grass. The rapidly built up anxiety overloaded her system; so Rayla threw it all right up.

Numbly, Gallias flashed in his mind-- the moment he pinned Rayla down and tried to take her eye, the contraption that Alex was, the dolls he’d glimpsed in and out of consciousness on the way up the tower--

What happened?” he could hear Andromeda talking to them, but it was so distant.

Callum hugged Rayla, lying there over his knees and trembling violently, from the cold, from the experience. He wasn’t sure. He didn’t care, and it didn’t matter.

“Those humans were horrible,” he said hoarsely. “And they will never touch you again.”

He wasn’t sure how much he believed himself, but she needed to hear it. She let him hold her like that for a while.

-:-:-:-

It took some time before the rest of the team joined them. They had blood on them, but Callum was willing to bet it wasn’t their own.

He didn’t even have to ask about the scepter. Callisto held it out: gold, simple, but crafted in twists and turns that culminated to a jewel at its crown.

“This is it?”

Callum nodded.

“Good,” he said and stuffed it into his bag.

“This better work,” Skor grunted, flexing his hand. “Because we just let every human in this kingdom know where we’ve been.”

“Where’s Rayla?” Runaan demanded.

“Changing,” Andromeda said.

As soon as they had collected themselves, Rayla asked, begged, anyone to get her dress off her. It was suffocating and cold and she couldn’t move in it. It’d almost cost her her life.

When she emerged from behind the tree, she stored her swords back in their slots and exchanged looks with Runaan. His mouth twitched ever so slightly.

“What happened?”

Andromeda joined Runaan. “That’s what I’ve been trying to find out, but they could barely speak.”

Callum glanced at Rayla, but she was gathering inventory on herself, pulling her swords out and switching them back in. She couldn’t really look at any of them. So, Callum explained everything. Gradually, Rayla offered her side of the story. She tried not to let it show, but her voice hitched when she got to the part where Gallias and Eveline tried to take her eyes out. It got quiet when she mentioned they would turn her into a doll just like the Moonshadow elf she’d seen.

Runaan’s face was cold. Something colder than the impassive, rigid harshness his features usually held.

They gathered their things to leave. Runaan gave his things to Callisto.

“Head northeast,” he ordered.

Callisto didn’t question it. He nodded.

Runaan melted into the shadows at their back.

Rayla watched him leave. “Where’s he going?”

Callisto’s eyes flickered between Callum and Rayla, but only for an instant. He set his eyes ahead of them. “He’ll catch up.”

-:-:-:-

Their-- His bedroom was dimly lit, mostly by the moon. Gallias Kalf left the balcony open.

The night had fallen to pieces. Alex.

Eveline.

How had it all gone so wrong? He’d slipped out of the fray, managing to find his way to the bottom floor. He eventually found Eveline, her blood staining the grass where he’d expected Prince Callum or even the elf to be. He hadn’t the heart to pick her body up, to try, just in case it fell to pieces.

He ordered his guards to take her body back to the palace. Discreetly. He would go back for her after he tried to salvage this mess of a night. Bury her properly. Both of them. After he had Callum’s and that elf's throats in his hands. He would have nothing less.

No, he would have them both mounted on his wall. One for his son. One for his wife.

He needed to change, too much blood, he had to change if he wanted to go back in public. He’d been gone too long.

Gallias would have to wear the mask of the unwitting husband, just finding his dead wife for the first time. He’d have to mask his rage if only for a few hours.

The balcony doors shut.

Gallias froze.

The room went dark.

He looked at the candles still cast in moonlight, smoke rising and wafting in one direction. His eyes turned to the balcony. More smoke.

His blood went cold. Billowing smoke rose from the tower in the distance, all the windows. Smoke and fire.

All of his work.

Their work .

Everything he and Eveline poured into study and experimentation. Years of the Kalf’s research. Years.

He began to leave. He had to get to the tower, maybe he could save some of it--

A spark and the sound of metal sliding against metal lit the dark.

“Rayla.” He grinned, his breath shaking in his chest. “Come back to finish the job?”

The night had a deep, clear voice.

“She’s not here.”

Chapter Text

Runaan caught up with them hours into the night. It kept Rayla distracted for some time. She wondered what he might have been up to, but also wasn’t sure she wanted to know. Out of everyone, Runaan was efficient, quick and concise. He could also be brutal when warranted, and something told her he was less than pleased that humans were turning elves into some kind of macabre dolls.


She still shivered when she thought about it and nearly threw up again when her mind turned to those metal pliers reaching for her eye. That image would stay with her for a while, burned into her memory.


She and Callum hadn’t spoken since, but the silence was comfortable. Taut, but comfortable. On one hand, there was no doubt he was running through the events of the night like a play. On the other hand, she also doubted he wanted to discuss it. Frankly, neither did she.


Not yet.


Unlike him, she’d seen Eveline splat on the ground. Unlike him, Rayla was prepared to do just that if it meant keeping them both alive.


But Callum had done it for her, and she was ashamed to say she was grateful he did. She didn’t want this; she didn’t want him to wrestle with his choices.


He should never have made those choices; they should have been hers.


It wasn’t until they reached a brushed spot in the woods, somewhere dense and quiet, they finally made camp and she tried to talk to him.


“Hey.” Callum sat beneath a tree so she settled down next to him. Ezran was still with Andromeda. He must have gotten used to being with her so much it was becoming normal.


“Hey,” he said, not really looking at her. He was drawing in his sketchbook. She didn’t bother to ask how he could see with so little light.


“You okay?”


“Are you?”


It wasn’t a snark. He was deflecting, she realized. She didn’t quite nod but dipped her chin in something like it.


He tried to smile. “Good. I… you scared me, back there. Well, not you-- you know--”


“Callum, I know,” she turned to him and put a hand on his shoulder. “You don’t have to say it.”


His eyes dropped to the grass. He shook his head and closed his eyes. “I… I had no idea.”


“And there’s no way you could have.” She squeezed his shoulder lightly and scooted closer to him. “It’s not your fault.”


He looked miserable. He opened his mouth to say something, but apparently changed his mind. “You’re okay, though?” he asked instead.


“I’ll live,” she conceded. “Stop worrying about me.”


“I don’t think I can help it,” he tried to laugh, but it came out more like a weak, grinding noise.


She tried to smile, this time. “I understand.”


Callum looked at her for a long moment. “Don’t tell Ez about… you know.”


The flash of unease and panic that rose in his eyes told her exactly what he was talking about. Rayla shook her head. They kept Ezran in the dark about the more macabre details, despite the drama of the night. A ten-year-old didn’t need to hear about those kinds of things. “Why would I tell Ez?”


“Just…” His breath hitched. He choked on his own voice. “He can’t know. He can’t know that I--”


“Callum, you didn’t have a choice. It’s not--” Her hand dropped to his. She didn’t know what to say. The panic in him was blooming in her chest. If this was how he reacted--


Rayla fought the urge to smack herself. She was being selfish. This wasn’t about her or what he would think about what she did in Meraxia. They could deal with that later. Right now, this was about Callum and how he felt.


It didn’t make her feel much better.


“Just, please, Rayla,” he pleaded with her. “Don’t tell him.”


She bit the inside of her cheek; She nodded.


His shoulders sagged, and she was ill-prepared for the quick hug he drew her into. She’d just gotten her arms around him when he let go. “You going to sleep?”


“Yeah,” she said weakly. “Soon. I’ll be back.”


She left Callum to fall asleep under the tree. Unease made her feel nauseous. Callisto caught her eye, his place from the center of camp more exposed than she expected him to be. “You didn’t want to try to remove these, yet?”


“In the morning,” he told her. “When the light of the magic might not expose us to any lingering enemies.”


“You think Anarr and that human followed us?”


“I know they did. We didn’t get herded into that city for nothing.”


-:-:-:-


Andromeda left Ezran when Skor offered to settle in near him. Runaan perched on a tree, taut as could be under a near moonless night. She climbed up next to him. “In the morning, these bindings come off.”


“In the morning,” he confirmed. “I looked for them. They weren’t there.”


“But they’re close.”


“Close enough to make a difference.”


“Are you sure we shouldn’t keep moving?”


“Callisto can’t handle it.” He kept his eyes on the dark in front of him. Not Callisto easing himself onto the ground. That fight had taken it out of him.


They needed to figure out what to do about Callisto. If it were up to him, they would have gone on ahead of him, but Runaan would use every excuse in the book until he couldn’t. It didn’t erase the liability that Callisto’s injury was to them all. Neither did it make any of them closer to simply leaving him behind. That was the problem and Callisto knew it.


“I’ll take watch with you,” Andromeda said. She wanted to ask about Rayla. If Runaan would go see her on his own time, check on her, but they needed to focus. Instead, she asked, “Where do we go from here?”


“Northeast, then east.” A quiet, firm tone. “No more detours.”


“No more detours.”


-:-:-:-


Rayla was up before dawn; the sky ready to fill the world in hues of sage blue and violet before pink could kiss the horizon. It was the only relief she had so far. She’d woken up in the night, the pliers coming for her eyes, even in her sleep, and she saw herself become a doll. The veins in her hands were cold when her eyes shot open, and sleep was difficult to come by after that.


She got up, leaving Callum behind after making sure he seemed to be sleeping peacefully. She worried he would have his own nightmares. Not that it was her place to intrude. Either way, it didn’t make it easier to leave him on his own, but… she needed a minute.


Though it wasn’t like she could go far; she found a rock just a bit away from everyone, and the only isolated spot in their little campsite. She wasn’t foolish enough to go anywhere out of sight.


Should she be with her own thoughts too long? Maybe not, but it felt like something she needed. At least for a bit. Thankfully, it wasn’t long until she had company.


“Oh, sorry, Rayla. I didn’t know you were here.”


Ezran stayed quiet, Bait in his hands asleep and ever grumpy. His smile was small, but sincere.


“It’s okay.” Rayla patted the spot next to her on the slab of rock. “What are you doing up so early?”


“I don’t know,” he said. “It just seems calm. Not in a good way. It just seems too calm.”


“Yeah?”


“I can’t hear the animals.”


Rayla shuddered. Not at Ezran, but at the fact that even the animals were a bit apprehensive.


“Sorry,” he heard him say in a small voice and Rayla realized exactly what she’d done.


“No, no!” She put an arm around him. “That wasn’t at you. I just don’t trust a situation where the animals are too scared to be here.”


He leaned into the hug a little. For a moment, he was quiet, and she felt a bit terrible for making him feel like he was being weird. Then, he asked, “Is Callum okay?”


She tried not to tense up too much. Her smile was tight. “Of course he is.”


“Rayla, don’t lie to me.”


Rayla’s face fell. The smile left was much weaker than the one she’d plastered on her face. “... he’s trying to be.”


“I wish he’d tell me what’s wrong,” Ezran said, glancing at Callum still asleep under the tree. “I wish he’d tell me anything.”


“Aww, Ezran,” Rayla pulled him into an earnest hug now. “Callum’s just trying to protect you. He’s your big brother.”


“But I’m not a baby,” Ezran said even as he hugged her back.


“But you’re his baby brother. You always will be. And he’ll do his best to make sure you’re okay first. That’s what all this is about, for him.”


Ezran buried his face in her shoulder, but she could hear the tiniest of sniffles. “I can help. I… I don’t want to be useless the whole time. Everybody’s trying to protect me. Callum, Andromeda… I can be useful too.”


Rayla squeezed him lightly. She pulled back, placing narrow hands on his shoulders. “Hey, you’re doing fine. Because of you, we found a way into the palace, you know. Don’t be in such a hurry to grow up.” His face had her searching in herself and she sighed. “But I know what you mean. You just want to pull your own weight.”


Ezran blinked tears to his eyes and Rayla fought the urge to hold him again. “Everything’s different. And I can’t do anything.” His voice broke. “I want my life back.”


Rayla’s chest ached at the silver falling down his cheeks in the almost dark of the morning. Ezran was only ten. Ten. He didn’t deserve to feel like this. And yet… she remembered what she’d done with her sword. What had transpired in the past day. The past few days.


I’m fifteen, she remembered. Almost sixteen.


If her days were right.


Everything she had done, she had done it for her people. Their mission. Justice.


She held Ezran again even as she reaffirmed the commitment inside of her. Everything she had done she had done it because it was necessary. She did not enjoy it. She did not take it lightly. Runaan’s words echoed in her skull:


Life is precious. Life is valuable. We take it, but we do not take it lightly.


And she hadn’t. She’d killed when necessary. When their lives were on the line and when she had little other choice. It didn’t make her feel much better, holding someone as innocent as Ezran in her arms. Nevermind she would do it all again if it meant protecting him and Callum.


Still.


The line was far behind her. She was an assassin.


She was an assassin.


She chose this path.


Now, it was hers to walk.


Out of the corner of her eye, she could still see Callum asleep and wondered what he would think of his path.


What he thought of hers.


-:-:-:-


“Did you kill him?”


Runaan opened his eyes. He knew she’d been there. Ezran had gone back to sleep to get a bit more rest, and she’d sat on the rock for a while longer, thinking about the entire conversation and what she thought of herself. Rayla didn’t want to try to build up the conversation. She wanted to know.


“Yes,” he said, observing her. “Why do you believe I did?”


“Justice.”


“Yes, and?”


“He was a liability.”


“Precisely. He knows more than he should about us. About you, in particular. He could have used that knowledge against us, and he was especially dangerous if we consider the context of what he did to others. Those dolls can be dangerous.”


Rayla levelled herself, steady on the branch beside him. She looked out, the light of the sun peeking out over the horizon. “... they really did that even to their own people.”



Runaan didn’t say anything right away. “I burned everything.”


“All of it?”


“Yes. Everything I could find. Even the human dolls. I suspected he started with them, then realized that beings with no magic served little purpose in a magic ritual.”


“You burned the human ones, too.” It was less of a statement and more of a clarification. “Not just the elves.”


“Nobody deserves that. Not even a human.”


“Not even a human.”


“If something troubles you, I’d prefer you to speak it.”


Rayla finally sat on the branch. “We do this…”


“This?”


“Our job. An assassin. We do it for our people, for justice,” Rayla’s eyes burned. The dolls were still in her head. “But… for what? For what, Runaan? How could what we possibly do make a difference? It’s just death and death and more death. How, does it--I…”


Her voice broke. She felt like Ezran. Lost and tired and wanting to go back to before those dolls entered her life. The night was over, but the nightmare just wouldn’t stop. She felt hollow and small then, she thought about how close she’d come to being one of them. Everything they did… and those dolls still existed. They hadn’t even known. She doubted anyone back home knew, at least.


How many people would she kill and how many would she fail to save?


“Rayla.”


She sniffed. She hated crying in front of him, but she prayed he would understand. “Callum didn’t deserve to be the one to do that.”


“He had to.”


“He shouldn’t have had to.”


Maybe she was talking a little about herself, too


Runaan unfolded himself on the tree and sat a bit closer to her. “You said that we do this for our people. For justice. Do you know what else we do this for? Why we’ve made the choices we’ve made? You’ve been living it for some time and haven’t noticed.”


Rayla shook her head.


“Survival.” She looked at him. He went on. “Not just in the moment, but in the long term. You killed that guard in the palace, I know. And why did you do it?”


“He saw me. It was either that or… something worse.”


“He would have killed you, if you were lucky. If you weren’t, he would have brought you to his master and tortured you. You would die. Probably in that tower. Now we know, made into one of those dolls. But he would have squeezed you for every bit of information you had. The moonstone path? All the secrets of the assassins that came before you? The ones that may come after you? He would have learned it all.”


Rayla hung her head, not hiding the way it stung anymore. “You don’t believe in me?”


“No.” He told her, firm, yet gentle. “You are a new assassin. I expect you to face death like a soldier. Like you always do. But even the strongest of us can crumble under the weight of such horror, and you are young. Death is about finality. And we are already dead. But torture is about pain and price. Death is just a secondary goal. Sometimes, it’s something they avoid.”


“We take life when we have to. Nothing more, nothing less.”


“Something you need to remember, Rayla,” Callisto said from the base of the tree. He’d been listening. She knew, but she let him. “Is that the order will always be there. Someone has to do this job. It’s not pleasant. It’s not supposed to be. It’s not fair. It exists because the things people do are not fair. They tell you that two wrongs don’t make a right. They don’t tell you what is right or even if there is one. We survive. We do the job so no one else has to. And, maybe, we won’t have to either.”


“I know you’re struggling with this,” this time, Runaan’s voice was gentle, a tone he’d used on her as a child training to be an assassin. “I would be worried if you weren’t. But contrary to what you may believe, this is precisely why I have faith in you.”


It was barely morning and yet she felt raw inside. Then again, she should have expected this. Runaan warned her how this was a difficult path many times and she accepted it. From the first time he told her till even now.


If she were completely honest with herself, she wasn’t sure if Callum’s presence really changed how she felt. She didn’t like to think she would be completely okay with it if he weren’t here. But… life didn’t work that way.


This little secret she kept from him bothered her though. It complicated things.


Whatever the case, Runaan wasn’t judging her. That much, she could have a little peace with.


-:-:-:-


Everyone was up soon enough, and they gathered around a slab of rock, the Scepter of Meridian glinting between them.


“Any ideas how to use this?” Ram asked first.


Callisto reached for it. “It’s a Xadian artifact. Created by elves to use against other elves. Naturally, someone created it during a time of elven civil war.”


“Naturally,” Skor quipped.


“So… an elf needs to be the one to wield it?” Callum asked.


“That I’m not sure of.” Callisto offered the scepter to Runaan. “I’m not the moon mage.”


Runaan inspected the scepter, turning it over between his fingers. “Moon magic deals with illusions. Life. Death.” Callum and Rayla shared a look. “Repelling elven magic is… unique. Not easily wielded by any one elf. If I were a sun mage, perhaps, but even then, I don’t know.”


Andromeda frowned. “An elf must be able to wield it if it was made to target other elves.”


“Who said?”


They all looked at Ezran. Ezran froze but didn’t let that deter him.


He went on slowly. “I mean… just because it was made by an elf doesn’t mean elves are the only ones who can use it. Humans and elves used to live together, right? Side by side?”


“Humans weren’t…” Callum made a face. “Elves didn’t see humans as equals.”


Callum didn’t bother looking at any of the elves. They all knew it was true. It was still true depending on who you asked.


“But someone had to have used it. If elves can’t use it and humans can’t use it, then maybe both of them have to use it.”


“Ezran--”


“Dad used to say that history isn’t only about war. There were periods of peace. Humans and elves used to make friends, too. Just because nobody wrote about it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. You remember the cabin,” Ezran argued. “I’m just saying it’s worth a try. We’ve been trusting each other this far. Why stop now?”


They all mulled over Ezran’s words. And he… wasn’t wrong, exactly. Callum glanced at Rayla. If they hadn’t trusted each other last night, neither of them would be standing here now. He sighed and asked to see it. Runaan handed it over and Callum read the words etched out along the gold rim of the clasp holding the gem. He narrowed his eyes. The words were etched in some strange language:


traeh yht tsurt dna dnah ym wonk


A second phrase written beneath it, but he couldn’t even recognize the letters.


He studied it for a long moment, running over anything he’d ever heard.


Realization dawned on him.


It hit him.


Maybe…


Just maybe.


He pulled out his sketchbook and crouched to start writing. “Rayla, can you read the phrase on the bottom?”


Rayla took it from him and turned it over. “Eh… I know letters. It’s an elvish tongue, but I can’t actually read the words. They’re not really spelling anything.”


Callum finished writing out the human letters. There.


Know my heart and trust thy hand.


He shoved the pencil and sketchbook in her hand. “Write it backwards.”


Her eyes lit up in realization and immediately wrote the phrase out. They huddled together and read the words between themselves.


“Are you two going to share your little epiphany?” Skor asked, none too happy about being kept in the dark.


“We’ll do better than that,” Callum said, righting the scepter between him and Rayla at a ninety-degree angle. “We’re going to try it out.”


He held it between themselves and Callum met her eyes. He smiled. She smiled back and wrapped her hand above his, pointing the scepter away from them. “Guess so.”


“You know, I don’t know how this is going to turn out,” he warned her. “We really are guessing.”


“I trust you.” Rayla nudged his elbow with her own. “Besides, if anything happens to my hand, I’ll just take yours as compensation.”


“Rayla, that’s not funny.”


“Yes, it is. Now, are we going to do this or are you going to keep arguing with me?”


He made a face at her, but finally turned his concentration onto the scepter in his hand and the feeling he got when he used magic without holding the primal stone. He pushed Eveline’s screams from his mind as best he could, focusing on the feeling of Rayla’s hand next to his.


With or without the primal stone, he was a mage.


“Know my heart and trust thy hand.”


Rayla followed him. “Know my hand and trust thy heart.”


For a moment, there was nothing. Then, he could feel it, a strange energy wrapping around him, around her arm. It was cool and warm at the same time. Pleasant, exhilarating, tranquil--


The binding around Rayla’s wrist bled blue and loosened. It fell off.


Her eyes went wide and her lips split into a grin. “It came off! It really came off! I--” She caught herself and cleared her throat. “I mean, uh, that’s nice. Although I know it was about duty and all that…”


Runaan snorted.


“That was why it never worked for Lord Gallias. He probably tried,” Callum said.


“What do you mean?” Andromeda asked.


“I mean, in order for it to work, there has to be trust between the two people using it. I don’t know if it’s limited to elf-human unions, but… there definitely needs to be a certain level of trust.”


Rayla smiled at him when he looked at her. He returned it.


“Humans aren’t bound to a single primal source.” Callisto was holding his chin. “That might be it.”


“Maybe.”


“Maybe we should try it with the rest of us, yes?” Skor asked, somewhat impatiently. It was a bit understandable. Rayla’s hand already returned to its natural color, the creeping’s of death having shown up just this morning. Skor and the rest were feeling it, too. Runaan’s entire left arm was feeling it.


Skor went next. Then Calisto. Then Andromeda and Ram. Runaan was last.


Trust. There needed to be trust.


Apparently, everybody trusted him to some degree. A result of the previous night? Perhaps. It still took a minute for Callum and Runaan to perform the ritual. Callum held out the scepter for Runaan to join him.


He didn’t miss Runaan’s gaze flicker to Rayla.


Runaan placed his hand on the scepter.


Callum let out a small sigh of relief when the binding slipped off Runaan’s arm.


Just a small one.


-:-:-:-


They didn’t move too fast and we’re careful to keep a healthy distance away. Morgan didn’t want them scouted out.


Last night, they watched from the trees as plumes of smoke rose into the air. What an exciting end to an exciting show. He’d moved in the shadows, in plain sight, in the light of day, even. The world was his canvas, and he was a paintbrush. Nobody cared who he was until it was too late. That was how he liked it. Service to others until they served him. It was how he’d spun the webs of power in Meraxia. All the way to Katolis castle.


Morgan clucked his tongue. “Well, that’s too bad. They were a useful pair.”


Anarr said nothing. She was watching the smoke rise with eerie stillness.


He rose from a crouch. “It can’t be helped. Besides, they’d outlived most of their usefulness after introducing us to Viren.”


“We should have killed Runaan there.”


“And risked our necks in that kind of skirmish?” He raised his brows at her. “No. It’s not like the Kalf’s knew about you. This only worked because they think I caught and killed you. If they even suspected you were still alive? Would have killed me on the spot, then where would you be?”


“You’ve forgotten what I can do,” she said, her voice dangerously low.


“I know exactly what you can do.”


“No. You don’t. You’ve had me doing your dirty work for too long.”


Morgan shrugged. Perhaps she was right. Now, he could feel the crisp air as they kept northeast, snowcapped mountains and boreal trees laying a new canvas for him to melt between. Be ahead. Predict. Runaan was deadly, Anarr had mentioned. But he was predictable if Anarr was on his trail.


He checked his inventory and tucked them away in his bag. He liked to keep his horns separated and organized. It made them easier to use.


The trees rustled. He looked up.


“You got a haircut.”


Anarr cut her hair past chin length. She secured her blades back into her sleeves. Her green eyes flashed. Or blue. He couldn’t quite tell today. Green, blue. They changed depending on the light. “We do this my way.”


Irritation and amusement twitched inside him. And she thought he was dramatic. “That so?”


“I told you. You’ve had me doing your dirty work for too long. Runaan isn’t a human child.”


“So, you want to do this on your own,” he clarified. He shrugged. Their team was weak, after all. Shaken. Still, he asked, “Getting cocky, aren’t we?”


“You’re too eager for the kill.”


She acted like he was the one with the vengeance plan.


“I want my horns. As long as I get those girl’s horns you can do whatever you want. So quit acting like Garlath sent you and give me a plan.” He could see the young elf’s horns in his hands. Taste it. Such beautiful, powerful magic could come from a young Moonshadow elf. He and Gallias agreed on that subject once.


“The kill is a goal. Not a destination. You have to work for it.”


He went back to organizing his inventory. She could do whatever she wanted, then. “They’re weakened, but if they got that scepter working, then what advantage do you really have on them?”


“Justice.”


Morgan rolled his eyes. Elves.


-:-:-:-


Callum was more positive than he had been in a while. Maybe it wasn’t entirely honest, but the elves had their bindings off and they were on their way to Xadia.


The dolls and the sound of Eveline hitting the ground stayed in the night. He was sure they’d always revisit him.


More than once, Ezran tried to ask him about the night before, but… he couldn’t. Not to Ezran. Thankfully, Rayla hadn’t said a thing. He quietly thanked her for it later.


“I told you I wouldn’t say anything,” she told him. The river was colder this far north, and it was a wonder she even bothered to sit next to him rather than where everybody else was.


“I know. I still wanted you to know I appreciate it.”


He flashed a smile at her then went back to his sketchbook. She cocked her head and leaned over. “What are you drawing?”


“Just the landscape here.” His pencil was finishing up lines that still mystified her when they came out to be something. She was no good with art. “It’s pretty. I haven’t really had a chance to sketch anything for a while.”


Rayla glanced over her shoulder at Runaan talking with Callisto and Andromeda. “Well, looks like you’ll get more chances. Runaan wants to steer clear of anymore human settlements unless he feels we’re being boxed in.”


“Not that I’m complaining, but why? With the amulets, we could pass right through a lot easier than tough terrain.”


“Tough terrain is safer.”


Callum’s pencil stalled. “... something about Meraxia spooked him.”


“Runaan doesn’t get spooked.”


He does about you, Callum thought. The look on Runaan’s face didn’t escape Callum’s notice. He wondered if Runaan would have gone back if Callum hadn’t included the part where Rayla was nearly turned into one of those nightmare dolls.


“It’s getting cold,” he said, changing the subject. “We should at least stop for some proper cold weather clothes. You know, so we don’t freeze.”


“Moonshadow assassins don’t get cold.”


“Do Moonshadow assassins want frostbite? Because, you know, that’s how you get frostbite. You guys only have eight fingers and,” He glanced at her feet. “Toes, right?”


She glared at him. “Yes, and that’s how many we’re supposed to have.”


“Well, I’m supposed to have ten of each and I don’t want to lose any.” His voice was soft when he stopped sketching and looked up at her. “We should stop at least for warm clothes and supplies. I don’t think I can watch you go through a cold spell, too.”


He smiled weakly at her. She didn’t quite return it, but her shoulders sagged. “Callum, I’m fine.”


“Okay, then for Ezran. He’s ten.”


She bit her lip. He knew he’d won.


She left and came back ten minutes later. “Alright, it took some convincing, but Andromeda agreed with me and... “ She glanced back at them. “The cold’s killing Callisto.”


“It’s still bothering him that badly?”


“It’s getting worse, actually.” Rayla frowned. “It’s not really healing. It’s dark magic.”


The words shuddered through him in a way it never used to. He remembered Claudia and the way she did it so innocently. The way she did it for no reason. Pancakes, blankets, little amusements. For no reason and all the reasons in the world.


It hadn’t been quite touched him the same way it touched Rayla, but… the proximity was enough. Rayla stood up, offering him her hand and gesturing for him to come along. “We’ll probably be going soon.”


“I’m fine,” he insisted. “I’m not that far away.”


She paused. Then beckoned him with her outstretched hand. “They’re too close. If you’re too far away from us, you might get snatched up and I don’t know if I can convince anyone to go find you if you are.”


“Now, who’s the one worrying?”


“Just stop being a dummy and get up, would you?”


He let her help him up but didn’t forget the smile that ghosted her lips.


-:-:-:-


They moved on, with the air only becoming colder from there on out. It was an unpleasant night when they finally made camp, and nobody slept easy, if at all. Callum, Rayla and Ezran stayed huddled together in the night, Bait and the egg between them, with Ram not far away on watch. The next morning was a little better. Colder, if they could believe it.


Through it all, Runaan was almost untouched. Apparently, nothing phased him.


Callum had always been a little afraid of Runaan. Sometimes, a little more than afraid.


This was one of those times.


“Is he always like this?” Callum whispered to Rayla.


“Who?”


They were trailing behind the others, trudging in new fallen snow. It was why they left camp early. “Runaan.”


“Like what?”


“Like, you know,” Callum gestured to the pack’s front. “This. Nothing bothers him. Nothing fazes him. I’d say he doesn’t even notice if I didn’t know better.”


Rayla almost laughed. “Oh, yeah. He’s always like that. It’s just his thing. He’s one of the best, y’know. That’s why they chose him to lead this mission.”


“You really admire him.”


“I mean,” she shrugged, but Callum could see the hint of pride rolling off her shoulders. “He taught me everything I know, and I think I’m pretty awesome.”


“You are,” he agreed.


Rayla blinked. “... thanks.”


“Did you think I was going to say something else?”


“No, I just-- I don’t know,” she said. “Guess I just didn’t expect that.”


Callum shook his head. “Do we know where we’re going?”


“There are a few towns this way, I believe. We’ll stop there, rest for maybe a day and then leave for certain. We don’t want to get caught in-- in…”


“Yeah.”


Neither of them needed to say it.


“Do you think it’ll be like last time?” Rayla’s voice quieted.


“No, of course not.” He grabbed her hand. “And even if it was, nobody’s going to hurt you like that. It won’t happen again.”


She squeezed his hand back before he let go. “You don’t need to protect me, you know. I can handle myself.”


“I know,” he said. “You’ll probably save my life more times than I can count by the time this is over, but… I want to be able to save you sometimes, too. I just-- I don’t like the idea of someone hurting you. It scares me.”


He couldn’t get the thought of her fear out of his mind. Rayla was so strong. So… invincible. The sight of Gallias about to take her eye was something he’d been cursed to have burned in his mind. Feeling her shake and watching her vomit afterwards was too much.


She fought extremely hard not to be vulnerable. He knew that. He could tell as much. To have someone just rip that kind of fear out of her and thrust it into the open kept him up the night before. He had a feeling it would keep him up for some nights to come.


The feelings were reciprocal. Every now and then, he could feel and even catch Rayla watching him. She was worried about him after--


He shut Eveline from his mind. He shut her out real hard.


It was too much. He kept hearing the sickening thud of her death. Her screams. And if he saw it then, he would carry that picture in his head, too.


In those moments, he concentrated on Rayla’s face like he did when it happened.


He looked at Rayla again and when he caught her eye, she smiled. She had the most soothing smile for an assassin. “We should catch up with the others. Don’t want to lag behind too much.”


He tried to internalize her voice, too.


-:-:-:-


The snow was heavy and thick by the time midday came. Travelling north meant traversing the snowiest parts of Katolis. He was freezing, but the elves seemed to deal with it admirably. Even Rayla although he could tell she was cold.


“Training,” she told him when he asked. “We’re trained to deal with anything. Not to let it interfere with the mission, anyway.”


It sounded miserable if how he felt was anything to go by.


“Don’t worry,” she said. “Once we find a town, we’ll get some winter gear.”


“With what money? We barely have any left.”


“With... no money, I suppose.”


He wasn’t the biggest fan of stealing, but he guessed they weren’t exactly going to come into a ton of money anytime soon. Not to mention, at this point, he was getting into the mindset of doing what they needed to get to Xadia. In one piece. And, preferably, not dying from exposure.


Callum watched Ezran, shivering, but shivering without complaint. He held Bait to his body and Andromeda kept him close. For warmth.


Suddenly, stealing winter clothes didn’t bother him as much.


The white trail opened into a clearing, everything covered in snow or ice. It might have been a winter wonderland if they weren’t freezing. It was even complete with a fully frozen over lake. He could see the reflection of the sky in it, all the way across--


There was someone standing on the other bank.


As if they’d seen it at the same time, the elves in front of them stopped.


White hair. He could see black, obsidian eyes from this end and--


Those blood creatures rising from the snow beside her, her white hair whipping in a gust of icy wind.


Anarr.


“You’re kidding me.”


Rayla’s swords were out in an instant, the others brandishing their weapons just as fast. Even Callum grabbed his primal stone, making sure Ezran was behind Andromeda.


Only Runaan seemed to stare at Anarr, her swords out. They stood across from one another like enemies about to step into an arena.


He stepped onto the ice. Anarr stepped onto it with him.


“Runaan, what are you doing?” Andromeda demanded.


“Go around while I deal with her.”


“Runaan--” Rayla tried to protest.


“Now. Before she decides she won’t let you leave. Take the egg and go.”


“You heard him,” Skor said. “We need to leave.”


“You can’t be serious--”


“We have a job, Rayla. What’s it going to be worth if we all get killed by those damned blood things she controls.”


The horror set in on Rayla’s face. Runaan wasn’t planning on making it. Not really. Not with those blood creatures rearing on him, snakes of a more sinister nature. They were being pulled away, by Skor, by Ram. Andromeda wasn’t keen on leaving Runaan either, but one look at Ezran had her moving.


Callum froze when he heard it.


“You don’t think I’d let my Sun and Stars leave so easily, do you, Runaan? Or her friends?”


He felt the rush of air, the terror, the snow as the blood creature arced into their way, blocking their exit. It towered over them and they doubled back.


No way out.


He turned to the clang of metal; even as the creatures pushed them back, toward the fight erupting between Runaan and Anarr on the ice. Rayla was the first, she slid onto the ice, sliding all the way toward the center just in time to intercept a blow from Anarr.


“Rayla--” Runaan growled a warning, his eyes still on Anarr and their crossed swords.


“I’m not leaving you here. And we don’t exactly have a choice anymore!” Rayla threw Anarr’s weight off, but Anarr came back with an elbow that would have broken a nose had Rayla not been faster. Every move Runaan and Rayla made, she matched it.


In the meantime, the blood creature was striking, missing every shot as the elves dodged, determined not to let it touch them, especially after the way it injured Callisto in the fight before. Callum kept looking at Ezran, but Andromeda had him. He was also keenly aware that Ram still had the egg in his bag.


The creature found Callum and struck. Callum moved on some new instinct.


“Fulminis!”


It struck the creature dead on and it slumped, then collapsed, lightning still flashing as it twitched until it simply lay still. A pool of blood.


The other elves looked at him.


“Remember how to do that,” Callisto said, turning his attention to their backs. “Because there’s a second one.”


The second blood creature, bigger than the first, emerged from the snow. As if it’d been hiding, waiting for a chance to strike. It barreled toward the center, right at Anarr, Rayla and Runaan’s fight. Anarr moved. Runaan pushed himself and Rayla apart.


The creature was fast and viciously so. Callum and the elves dodged, sliding and moving out of the way as quickly as their feet would let them. It missed Ram by a hair.


Anarr leapt back onto the ice and onto Rayla first. Runaan was there in an instant, going blow for blow with her.


Callum watched their feet. He knew even before he heard the sound. “She’s going to crack the ice.”


Callisto righted himself back into a fighting stance. “She doesn’t care.”


“Pay attention to the thing coming back to kill us now,” Skor growled. “The ice is still deciding.”


The blood creature made a turn and came barreling back. It missed, then whipped right back around.


Callum wasn’t sure if he’d spent too much time with elven assassins or Anarr’s plan was just that transparent. “At best, those things kill us. At worst, the ice does.”


“Callum, you need to use fulminis again,” Ram said, watching the blood creature swerve.


“I got lucky. There’s no guarantee I won’t hit someone!”


“But we can’t keep dodging it forever. It’s too fast to outrun, and it’s trying to tire us out. It will kill someone otherwise.”


Something clicked in his head. “I have a better idea.”


“What--”


Callum ran forward, hearing the ice crack under his feet. He prayed it stayed intact. At least, long enough for him to do this. If it worked.


He pocketed the primal stone. He felt it once. iIf he felt it again, he could end it.


This was the dumbest thing he’d ever done.


The creature found him. It locked on.


It barreled right toward him. He heard Ezran call his name, but he didn’t have to turn around to know that Andromeda was clutching him, keeping him out of the way. If this went horribly wrong, at least he knew they would take care of Ezran.


Closer. Closer.


He could see the red and black blood of the creature hurtling toward him. Finally, Rayla saw what was happening.


She screamed, “Callum!”

“Aspiro!”


He drew the rune just in the nick of time, made one last prayer--


And sucked in the biggest breath of air he could and blew the force at the creature. It tried to fight the gust. It tried and tried and tried. Callum could tell he would run out of air soon--


It started to split. As soon as it started tearing apart, it fell and parted right down the middle. Callum ran out of air just as the creature disintegrated. He gasped and looked around him. The creature lay in puddles of blood around him.


“You idiot!” She screamed at him from her fight.


“I had to make sure I hit it!”


-:-:-:-


Anarr swiped and met air as Runaan dodged. Rayla was not supposed to be in this fight, but he could not deny that it kept Anarr at bay. He knew Anarr. He knew her style.


Killing them would be a bonus. Not an objective.


She liked to play the slow game. She liked the hunt. The chase.


This was just a milestone in her little game.


The one drawback about Rayla being in the mix meant he couldn’t shoot any arrows. Not without possibly hitting Rayla and Anarr knew it. He didn’t like the way Anarr called Rayla “her Sun and Stars.”


It unnerved him.


It made her objective all the more clear. Not that it was any good reasoning with Anarr. Ten years too late, and they had a job to do.


On either side of her, Runaan and Rayla stood, blades ready to engage at the slightest movement.


“You’re out of moves,” Rayla said. “Let’s end this.”


Anarr shook her head. She smiled. “You’re a young assassin. You’ve never played the long game, my Sun and Stars.”


“Don’t call me that.”


“But you’re so bright. So promising. Another your age would lie at me feet already. But I suppose that’s why you’re here. Runaan sees your talent. He sees your potential. Don’t you, Runaan?”


He didn’t deign to answer her.


“Rayla, I think you and I will get to know each other very well.”


“I think not.”


Anarr shrugged. “We shall see.”


Faster than an adder, she doubled back and raised her sword over her head. Runaan’s eyes widened. “Move!”


The sword came down, ice splintering where it cleaved. The ice broke and shattered and split right underneath their feet.


Rayla was fast, always fast, and she skittered and slid across breaking ice with no problem at all. Runaan could see his team ahead of him. Anarr had no intention of dying today. This added another notch in her belt. Another hit to their already cold and tired bones.


His team were not as prepared for the ice breaking, and the cracks had widened and split quickly. Ram slipped, and the egg went across the ice.


He heard a crunch and the unmistakable sound of Rayla fighting.


Runaan turned. Anarr had Rayla fighting to stay on the ice. They jumped and slipped, the precious space beneath them breaking apart. Runaan’s eyes widened as it dawned on him.


Her blood monstrosities were out of commission and she knew she would win no fight with him and Rayla, two against one.


Anarr and Rayla shared some similarities, he had to admit. One was their ability to be the nimblest of a group. Strong and agile.


But Anarr was older and more experienced. Where Rayla faltered, Anarr would not.


Breaking the ice was playing to those strengths; a wiser body, a mind made sharper by a decade under her belt. It was especially useful against a green assassin like Rayla, despite her talent.


He’d fallen for it, thinking she’d make her escape. Of course, she was trying to wear them out, but her sensibilities had never left her. Even after all these years, she was among the cleverest of assassins he’d ever worked with.


Runaan doubled back, fighting with the ground breaking underneath him to get to Rayla. Then, he saw it. The fight slowed for an instant.


Rayla’s foot slipped. Anarr spun. He saw steel on her left wrist.


Anarr caught Rayla on the way down, the hidden blade finding its mark under Rayla’s right side.


Rayla screamed. He ran faster. He prayed it would not be under right under her arm, not where her arteries were.


-:-:-:-


The pain blinded Rayla. She leaned into Anarr, her body trying to double over.


“I told you we’d get to know each other better,” Anarr said into her ear. “My Sun and Stars. I will tear you from the skies and make your master suffer.”


She could hear Callum calling her name.


Anarr yanked the knife out of Rayla and caught her by the hair. “I would kill you slowly, but Runaan’s on his way to save you. Besides, you may be more useful as a pretty doll, instead of killing you outright.”


Rayla froze.


No.


Of course, she’d know about that.


“But I’m not picky. I just don’t see the point if I can’t be alive to enjoy whatever death is coming for you.”


Rayla grit her teeth. The pain in her lower ribs was enough to make her pass out. “I’m already dead.”


Anarr laughed. “Do you know why we say that, Rayla, little moon? It’s because we are afraid of death. Moonshadow elves think themselves above death even as we assassins serve it. We must protect ourselves from it. Look around at the lot you carry here.” She shook Rayla by her hair. “But you are very much alive, and I will kill you all.”


Rayla’s ears twitched. She could hear Runaan brandishing his swords.


“Eventually. But not today.”


Anarr dropped Rayla and went wherever it was she planned to go. Rayla’s hands went to her side, pressing down on the wound. She felt Runaan pick her up, talking to her. It was hard to discern exactly what he was saying.


He lifted her off her feet and into his arms, hauling her off the ice as quickly as he could manage.


Rayla came to enough to see what was unfolding around them. She could see Ezran inching toward the egg, which had somehow slipped from Ram. Skor and Callisto were wet, pulling themselves out from the frozen waters with Callum, Andromeda and Ram in different places. But Ezran was almost to the egg. Almost. Almost.


An unmistakable crack snapped in the air.


Ezran scrambled back as the ice began to break underneath him. He was several feet back and the ice still came for him. It went all at once.


Ezran’s scream cut short as he went under, the egg across from him submerged just after he did. Rayla’s body willed her to move, but she couldn’t without pain spiking through her.


Callum screamed after his brother, trying to get to the spot where he’d fallen in.


“Andromeda!” Runaan called.


She was the closest to where the egg and Ezran went under. Now, she looked between the two spots. Choosing, Rayla realized.


Runaan called her again.


Andromeda dived after Ezran.


Skor was already going after the egg, damning the ice underneath him, he dove and, mercifully came out in barely a minute. Andromeda and Ezran were still under.


Too long passed and Callum was ready to go in after them if Ram hadn’t grabbed him. Just as Callum wrenched out of Ram’s grip, Andromeda finally emerged, gasping for air with Ezran under her arm. She hauled him onto something solid and held him.


“Young prince, please wake up,” she said to him,. “Ezran.”


Callum was on them in seconds, he shook Ezran, pleading. His voice was thick. “Ezran, please. Wake up, wake up.” Everything was still for the longest time. Callum’s tears became real, and he took his little brother from Andromeda. “Ezran… I’m begging you. You’re all I have left, okay? You can’t go. I can’t lose you, too. Ez, please, I love you. Don’t go, please-- don’t leave--”


Ezran’s body lurched. He coughed up water and gasped into Callum’s chest. “I’m… I’m fine. See?” he coughed. “I’m not going anywhere”


Callum couldn’t keep the tears from his eyes as he held Ezran. “You better not. Because I meant what I said.”


Despite the pain, Rayla’s muscles relaxed. Ezran was alive. Good. Everybody was okay, mostly, and the egg was there. Even if it was looking funny from this angle. Was it dimmer than before?


She finally passed out.



Chapter Text

The cold whipped into a blizzard by nightfall. They found a cave big enough for all of them, a fire keeping them warm between the rock walls.

Though not even a blizzard could stop Runaan and Andromeda from dragging each other outside for some less than friendly words. Callisto listened, the pain in his lower back spiking in this miserable cold. Rayla insisted he use the rest of the healing ointment on himself, but a quick reminder how blood loss kills quieted her down.

But the cold did not bother Runaan nor did it bother Andromeda. In fact, it seemed to make them louder.

You have a duty. To your mission. To the Dragon Prince. To Xadia.”

I don’t need a lecture from you,” Callisto could have groaned. She was never afraid of crossing the line when it came to Runaan. “ I knew what I was doing.”

You--” Callisto looked around the corner of the cave. They were in each other’s face, Andromeda almost on her tiptoes to meet his eye level. Runaan leaned down to just inches apart, fury lining every tremor. “ We are about to go to war. That egg could change the world.”

So could he,” Andromeda snapped.

They were quiet for a moment, their panting barely detectable over the sound of the howling wind. “You are an assassin first. Your mission comes first. None of this is new to you. You know what we are and what we do. Your sentiments have no place here.”

Andromeda snarled and stepped forward, pointing at some invisible subject to her left. Her voice was dangerously low, but Callisto could still hear the seething underneath. “You would have done the same thing if it was Rayla under the ice.”

Callisto winced. He didn’t need to see what happened next. A moment later, he heard crunching snow. When nobody returned, he guessed they found separate corners to sulk in. He glanced outside. Andromeda was alone, fuming quietly to herself. Runaan found somewhere else to be. Callisto made a note to time them, but he wasn’t foolish enough to go looking for them so soon.

“Anyone injured yet?” Ram inquired.

Callisto shook his head. “You know they wouldn’t go so far.”

“I know, but Runaan seems pretty angry. Even with Rayla’s mistake he wasn’t quite like this.”

“Rayla’s choice was out of hesitation. Not a deliberate act of defiance. Her lie afterwards was, but Rayla is a fifteen-year-old green assassin. Andromeda is not.”

“But?”

“But nothing. They both have a point.”

“And that’s probably what Runaan is off fuming about now,” Skor said. He watched Andromeda, the snow and wind whipping at her. “Should we go get her?”

“Later. Let them get it out of their system first.”

-:-:-:-

“Do you think it’s out of their system yet?”

Rayla winced. She lay on her back on a bench carved from the rock. Callum and Ezran sat beside her, with Ezran fast asleep. Someone had draped a heavy blanket over him, one Andromeda had managed to grab back at the lodge. “They never act like this with each other. I doubt it.”

Callum bit his lip. He was grateful to Andromeda, more than he would ever be able to say in words. And he would tell her… when she wasn’t fighting with Runaan.

For his part, Callum could understand where Runaan was coming from -- even if he would have done the same thing as Andromeda. Nothing was worth more than his little brother’s life, but from the perspective of a man with one job. One duty. He… supposed he understood. Callum shook his head. When did he start empathizing with Runaan?

Apparently as early as now.

Rayla’s jacket was off, her weapons lying beside it. He knew the bandages were probably tight against her ribs.

His eyes lingered on the place where Anarr stabbed her.

“I’m alright,” she told him. “We both are.”

He tried to smile. Ezran nearly gave him a heart attack. If anything happened to Ezran…

Callum shook his head. The thought was too much to handle. He wouldn’t know what to do with himself.

And Rayla’s scream.

That was a new fear.

“I couldn’t help either of you.”

“No.” Rayla reached out to him, her grip finding his arm. Her eyes met his. “You did more than enough. You saved us.”

“I could have done more. I could have helped you against Anarr. Maybe you and Ezran wouldn’t have--”

“She would have killed you first. She’s not going to leave a mage alive. She’s chipping away at the rest of us, but you? You could be a problem and she’s not going to have it.”

Callum felt her thumb caress his sleeve. He didn’t stop himself from putting his hand over hers. “Are you going to be okay?”

Rayla smiled. It was a tired smile. She nodded. “Callisto used the rest of the ointment on me. I’ll be fine within a couple days, but…”

“He used the rest of it?”

She nodded again. Guilt.

“Hey.” He squeezed her hand. “I rather he uses it on you than let it fester. What would happen if it got infected?”

“It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. I’m better than--”

“You did more than enough.”

She paused. He smiled.

Rayla rolled her eyes. She probably would have crossed her arms if it didn’t hurt so much. “Alright, fine. Guess you can use that.”

He chuckled. When it died, he asked. “What happens now?”

“She has us right where she wants us.” Callum twisted to look as Callisto came towards the fire. “Two of us are injured, we’re all exhausted and fighting amongst each other. It won’t be the last we see of Anarr.”

“What about the human mage?”

“He’s hiding in the shadows. You can add him to the pile, but I’ll worry about him when he comes to our side of the shadows.”

Callum shut his mouth. Moonshadow elves weren’t supposed to show fear, Rayla once told him, but he could see the stress written on Callisto’s face.

Callum hadn’t known the elves for long, but he doubted it was from the fear of Anarr finding them. They were ready for death at any time, it seemed. But the idea of not being able to help? Callum could understand that one personally.

“There has to be a way to help you,” Callum said. “Your injury, I mean. Rayla’s will heal in a couple of days.”

He could see Skor look up from what he was doing, but Callum ignored him. It hadn’t escaped Callum’s notice that Skor was… less than enthused about him most times. It was odd, really. Skor trusted Callum, but Skor also was the one to always remember that Callum was human. Aside from Runaan, that is.

Callum couldn’t exactly blame him.

The story about Skor’s daughter still gave him chills.

Callisto glanced at Callum. “It is what it is. Right now, we focus on how to get across the border. Preferably without Anarr and her dark mage killing us for parts.”

“But--”

Callisto silenced him with a glare. Not in the mood.

Fair enough.

“Callum’s right,” Rayla said. “You’ll be slow. We need to see if there’s a way to help you, too. Did you ask Runaan?”

“Moon mages are no healers. They’re normally illusionists. Runaan can do nothing for me in this state…” The crackle of the fireplace was louder than before. “This isn’t a normal injury.”

In other words, dark magic made everything more complicated.

“I’ll care about my back after we figure out how to help the egg.”

A dead weight fell between them all. They hadn’t forgotten about the egg, dimmer than before. Dimmer with every minute. Ram was inspecting it as they spoke, never quite leaving it for long, but in this blizzard with so many injured and their team falling apart… where was there to go?

“You know we can’t sit here,” Ram reminded them. “It’s dying.”

“I know.”

Callum swallowed hard. Anxiety reached its hand over all of them. He wondered if dread loved the cold.

He stayed close to Rayla and Ezran, trying to keep warm and calm in the frigid night.

-:-:-:-

She didn’t know where Runaan went and she tried to tell herself she didn’t care, but Andromeda kept an ear open and a mental timer of his absence.

She knew he was at least partially right, but she didn’t care.

Wrapping her arms around herself, Andromeda endured the icy wind and the snapping cold. It bit her arms and had no mercy, but she didn’t go inside. Damn the cold.

What did he know? Ezran was a prince of Katolis. A human prince. His role was just as important as the egg of the Dragon Prince.

The egg that was now dying.

She didn’t have to be Ram to see it. Her duty was to the egg, and her decision could have killed the egg much sooner if Skor hadn’t jumped in to save it. He knew. Skor knew she would pick Ezran, and he’d jumped in after the egg.

Andromeda sighed. Her breath misted the air.

Her decision was the wrong one by the standards of their mission. She knew as much. She did not care. This simple fact scared her the most, really. Her heart was practically on her sleeve at this point. It was unbecoming.

Yet, she still did not regret her decision. She would have made it again given the chance.

That was what Runaan couldn’t stand.

He could forgive her for the decision, maybe. A reprimand would have been her only punishment, but for Runaan her lack of remorse was where she crossed the line. When Rayla lied, he was furious, but he gave her a way out, and would have let it go after a reprimand. If they survived.

And that was Andromeda’s problem with him.

Runaan wouldn’t have hesitated to save Rayla instead of the egg. He would not have forgiven himself for either, but he would have saved Rayla’s life. Consequences be damned.

He had no right to act like she was wrong, either.

She considered her point made. And it apparently hit home since he stalked off to who knows where.

But her feelings on the matter didn’t change things.

The egg was still dying and the argument with Runaan had made her squirm. She would not have chosen differently, but it didn’t mean she liked what happened afterwards.

She made a mental note to go find Runaan if he didn’t come back soon.

-:-:-:-

Runaan eventually returned. He said nothing. Andromeda followed him soon after, but they did not speak to one another. The night was quiet.

The snowstorm passed by morning and they left without delay, amulets around their necks. Callum hovered between Ezran, who had the sniffles, and Rayla who occasionally relented to letting Callum help her walk when the snow got heavy.

Callum saw Ezran and Rayla whispering to each other more than once. No doubt about him, but he didn’t mind. He was glad Ezran had Rayla as well as Andromeda.

Speaking of which, she was pointedly ignoring Runaan. He did the same.

They travelled, eventually spotting a rising plume of smoke.

The town it belonged to was small, quaint and the type of place Callum might see in one of his stepfather’s favorite old winter solstice paintings. But it also had warm clothes. Maybe an inn for the night. A very cheap inn that needed work.

After scouring for an hour, they procured a couple nights from a particularly sympathetic innkeeper who had a soft heart for Rayla’s injury, and needed some things fixed around the place. It was a two-story house, quaint if not shabby. They were two people to a room, but it didn’t seem to be a problem. The innkeeper, Herna, looked happy to just have some company. She even made them dinner and dessert.

“Thank you. I don’t know how we can repay you for this.”

Herna smiled, eyes crinkling in mirth. She swung a grey braid over her bony shoulder. “It’s no problem. I’m not as busy this time of year and I could really use the help. Besides, the poor dear, your injured friend. Rayla was it? Who would attack a young girl like this?”

“People with serious problems,” Skor said nonchalantly in between cookie bites.

Rayla shot him a glare but smiled at Herna. “Eh, thanks. Yeah, it was so sudden. We were just passing through and you know how it is... bandits.”

Callum almost rubbed his face.

Herna shook her head. “Bandits. They’re getting bolder to attack like this in the winter. You’ll be safe here. Bandits rarely come into town. They usually stay to the roads. You’re lucky though. Could have been worse.”

“Yeah,” Rayla’s face fell. “Yeah… it really could have been.”

Callum nudged her under the table. She nudged him back gently.

Herna smiled at the two of them. “Well, I always say the healing happens when it feels safe to do so. You all can rest easy here.”

The elves said little and Skor did most of the work. Ram also knew his fair share of housework; a big family demanded his occasional handiwork skills. Runaan stayed in his room or visited Rayla. Callum gave them the space to talk.

The road had been long and hard. For both of them.

-:-:-:-

“Runaan, I messed up. I knew she wanted to kill me and I still--”

“She wants to kill you because of me.” Runaan said. He didn’t look at her as he helped freshen up her bandages. “You know this.”

“That’s my point. She wants to kill me, and I still let her get close.”

Runaan sighed. Rayla was fearless. Rayla was strong.

Rayla was terrified of failure. She was right to. Failure meant death, and he had long drilled this fact. To survive, she had to achieve perfection.

But he also made sure she understood that there was no such thing as perfection. Only the minimizing of casualties and mistakes. “Anarr is an enemy you never expected to face.”

“You always told me to be ready for anything.”

“I did. I didn’t say you would be ready for anything.”

Rayla rolled her eyes. “Really?”

“Anarr is an opponent who knows me well. My strengths. My weaknesses. By extent, she knows yours. You’re the price she wants me to pay for Leland.”

Rayla was quiet, even as he put his tools away. “... am I a price?”

Runaan fought through the pause. He closed Callisto’s tool bag and said nothing for a moment. He didn’t look at her. “She wants you because of me. And that is my doing.”

When he finally turned to look at her, he wasn’t sure what he saw. Fear. Relief.

Both his doing.

-:-:-:-

Herna was an old human woman.

Small and bony with a head of grey tied into a braid. She was forever smiling.

She was human, but Skor still felt the need to be respectful. He wasn’t sure how humans respected their elderly, but he figured it was the same since she took no outright offense. After fixing any creaky wooden planks he could find, Skor asked her for more work. She was delighted and asked if he would fix a shelf in a closet, but only after she got him a drink.

Hot chocolate. He wasn’t particularly thirsty and, if he were honest, sweets were not his favorite, but he still sipped as the old woman asked him questions.

“Where were you travelling from?”

“The kingdom over.”

“Oh? What business so far away?”

“Work.”

She never seemed to mind how short his answers were. Nor did she seem suspicious.

Then, she asked. “Do you have a family?”

Skor paused, the cup hovering at his mouth and suddenly very aware of the table he was sitting at. “... yes. A wife and three daughters. I had four.”

Herna’s face fell. “Had?”

Why did he mention that? Was there something in this drink?

Skor nodded curtly. “I had a daughter before my triplets were born. She was killed.”

He expected the sympathy. The pity. The eyes that darkened with the distant grief and despair. Like they were trying to understand the broken piece in his soul.

But she looked out the window, then, found a place at the table. “I understand,” she whispered. “I’m sorry. I still remember what it was like for me.”

He froze. “... how?”

“She worked at one of the shops in town. Someone was trying to steal, and she was always so brave… she tried to stop them. She saw his face...” The world fell silent. “He strangled her to make sure she would never tell.” Skor said nothing. Herna wiped her eyes with gnarled fingers and tried to smile. “It was some time go.”

“It’s still a tragedy,” Skor said softly. He put his cup down. “I’m sorry that it happened… did they ever find the man who did it?”

Herna nodded. “Oh yes. We found him. We beat him. I beat him so hard his face was never quite the same.” She shook her head. “My husband had to pull me off, to stop me from killing him. We made sure he spent the rest of his life in a prison cell. One of the towns over had a bigger jail, and they put him there. He died there.”

“It’s the least he deserves.”

Herna looked off into the distance. “I said her name when I beat him. I wanted him to remember. I wanted him to know whose life he took, and I wanted him to remember every time he looked at himself. Mira, Mira, Mira.” Each whisper was harsher than the last. “I wanted him to remember whose life he would pay for.”

Skor nodded. The very least he deserved. If he ever found the man who killed Iolaena, it would be slow. Painful. Bloody. It would be nothing less than what he deserved.

“None of it made me feel better. None of it filled the empty space that consumed me for years, but it kept the madness of my child’s monster from overwhelming me. He was gone and that was that. I don’t know what I should have done back then. I don’t think I ever will.” She looked at him again. “Nobody understands. Unless you’ve lost a child, nobody truly understands how it stays with you.”

For the first time, Skor looked away. He fixated on the wood grain of the table. “... You never get over it. She’s been gone for almost ten years and it still feels like she died yesterday.”

“That day never leaves you,” she agreed.

“I want him dead.”

She paused. Then, she stood up and gripped his wrist as she passed.

“I don’t blame you.”

-:-:-:-

Night came.

Ezran was still feeling groggy from the day before and was in bed by the time Callum came to see him. Bait croaked at him, a toad guardian sleeping on his brother’s shoulder.

On his way to Rayla’s, Callum opened his sketchbook:

My Most Cheerful Rayla,

I haven’t written one of these in a little while. I thought I should. You know you can talk to me, right? If you’re not okay. I hope you are, of course, but it’s okay if you’re not. I’ll check up on you tomorrow. You need rest.

Sincerely, Callum

He knocked on the door and left the sketchbook on the floor.

-:-:-:-

Rayla read his letter.

She wrote her own.

Callum,

You’re sweet, but I was about to say the same thing about you. We don’t have to talk about it, but we can. If you want.

I’ll listen.

I probably feel the same. It’s hard to sleep at night, now.

And just come ask for me next time. Maybe I want to talk to you. It’s a lot better than sitting painfully in bed like this.

Don’t be a dummy,

Rayla

“Is that for Callum?”

Rayla looked up. Andromeda’s brows rose ever so slightly.

“Just writing him a note,” Rayla said, ducking her head. “He’s being ridiculous.”

“I suppose he is.”

Rayla managed to give it to him before she scurried off to bed. She didn’t know why, but she hurried down the hall back to her room before he opened the door. Andromeda made a humming sound as Rayla nearly slammed the door shut.

But what she wrote in her letter was no lie. Sleep wasn’t coming as easy as it was before Meraxia. It felt like black, glossy eyes were watching her in the darkness. She was normally a light sleeper, but now every sound woke her up. She eventually threw the covers over her head.

Maybe to let her sleep.

Maybe to protect her.

She even heard Andromeda get up and open the door. Water, probably.

She heard her come back.

Someone sat on Rayla.

Rayla yelped and threw the covers from over her head and--

Green eyes. White hair. A slow, wide smile. Anarr gripped Rayla’s shirt to keep her down with one hand, a dagger fell out of her sleeve in the other.

Her whisper was the worst thing Rayla had ever heard.

You will never be rid of me.

Chapter Text

Anarr sneered in Rayla’s face.

I will follow you to the ends of these wretched lands and when you’re at the edge of your world, I will put my blade through you the same way Runaan did to Leland.” She pulled their faces together. “ No one will save you, my little doll.

Rayla’s ribs were screaming. She reached for her swords on the nightstand. They weren’t there.

She only had a second to look at Anarr. The knife came down.

Rayla sat up, cold sweat making her shiver. It wasn’t just the cold.

Beside her, Andromeda was out of her bed and the room felt normal. It didn’t feel like someone was in the shadows, waiting for the older assassin to leave the younger, injured one on her own. Runaan said that Anarr had always been clever. From their time together years ago and apparently even till now.

Rayla laid back down, rubbing her face and turning over onto her side. Was this dark magic, too? Was this something Anarr had done to her?

Or was Rayla just scared?

She’d always known that she could die sooner than the average elf. With her line of work, it was always a possibility. It shouldn’t have bothered her now.

She thought of Callum.

They still hadn’t talked about her role as an assassin. How it was her job to kill her targets in the most efficient way possible. She wasn’t sure if Callum… understood. She wasn’t sure if she should expect him too.

That mattered to her. She didn’t know why, but it did.

Then, there was the issue about the guard she killed in Meraxia. What if she’d just been honest with Callum in the first place? But she was--

She was scared to tell him.

The prospect of seeing him disgusted with her made her sick to her stomach. Was that because of what she thought of her job? Or what she thought of herself? Or what he might think and not understand?

Her head hurt by the time she went back to sleep.

-:-:-:-

Andromeda knew she might find Runaan in the night.

He was on the roof; the cold be damned. He didn’t look at her, but it wasn’t like he didn’t hear her either. They both knew he did.

Their earlier argument made things between them colder than the air on their skin. They were stiff. Inhospitable. In the past, they disagreed at times, but they never truly argued. Not like this. Runaan had more genuine arguments with Skor, Ram and, arguably, Callisto than he did with her. But Andromeda couldn’t blame him.

She would make the same decision again. Even after taking the day to think about it, that hadn’t changed.

But it didn’t mean she wanted to stay in this state with Runaan.

Sitting next to him, she wasn’t sure what she should say.

In the end, the apology wasn’t for saving Ezran. There was no real point in apologizing for something she would do again. It was for what she said and the fact that she knew he wasn’t wrong.

Even if it wasn’t enough to change her mind.

“I would do it again.” She broke the silence. “You know this.”

He said nothing, but he was listening.

She paused. “... but I am sorry. For how I handled it. For what I said--”

“No,” he said, not looking at her. She paused. “You were right.”

Her head turned sharply. What did he say?

He continued. “I would have done the same thing. I’ve already bent the rules for Rayla. I should have punished her for what she did when we started this mission. That human was supposed to die, she deliberately failed and I should have dealt with it accordingly. But I didn’t.” Runaan looked to her. “If I had to choose, I would have saved her.”

“You would have hated yourself for not saving the egg.”

“I would have saved her, anyway.”

The words hung in the air. He’d never said it like that before, but Runaan was so earnest when he spoke, she had no choice but to assume that was exactly how he felt. Something lifted between them.

“You were always good at this.”

Runaan frowned. “Good at what?”

“Being someone I could believe in.”

They sat in silence for some time, ignoring the cold. Runaan’s breath misted the air. “This human village is a prison. And we can’t stay here. But what are your thoughts?”

Andromeda smiled. It wasn’t quite so cold anymore. “I think you’re right. However, even prisons provide rest.”

He said nothing.

“You’re worried.”

“Anarr’s always been clever. Always. I have more training, but Rayla is the fastest, strongest of us. I was her captain, but not because Anarr couldn’t outmaneuver me.”

“Then, we leave as soon as possible. Tomorrow. No later than the day after.”

Runaan nodded after a pause. She put her hand on his shoulder and it was his turn to look at her. If there was one thing she admired about him, about her friend -- it was this. He wasn’t fool enough to think he was the best. Not at everything. He knew his strengths. He knew his weaknesses. He kept track of other’s strengths and weaknesses. It helped them stay alive.

“Go rest. I’ll stay up here and keep a lookout.”

“... you have Rayla’s room. You go. I need time to think.”

Andromeda didn’t go right away, but she didn’t argue with him. He had a point about Rayla.

-:-:-:-:-

Skor continued to go about repairing the inn. More than he even promised. They didn’t understand why he was suddenly repairing a human woman’s house, but they didn’t question it, either. Callum thought it was kind.

After breakfast, he sat in front of the rune tome. Maybe he could find a healing spell? Could primal magic heal dark magic? Determination ran through him as he flipped through the pages. He had to find something, anything.

Anything that would help.

“I know you get excited about magic and everything, but you’ve been reading that thing for an hour? It can’t be that interesting.”

Rayla sat next to him. He looked up and blinked at her. “You should be resting.”

“I was stabbed. I didn’t get, you know, really hurt.”

His brows shot up.

She rolled her eyes. “I’m fine. You act as if you’ve never been stabbed before.”

“I haven’t. That’s not really normal, Rayla. Are you being--”

She laughed. He rolled his eyes. Of course she was messing with him. Callum shook his head. “I’m sorry, Callum.” She put a hand over the crook of his elbow. “But I’ve been hurt before. This isn’t enough to stop me. Now, are you going to tell me what you’re doing with that thing and why you look so worried?”

That answer didn’t comfort him, but his lip twitched into a smile. “Well, it’s just…” Callum looked around. He didn’t know why he didn’t want Callisto to know, but Callisto didn’t seem to enjoy people fussing over him. Their last conversation about it hadn’t gone over too well. “Shouldn’t we try to help him? Callisto, I mean.”

Rayla blinked. “I mean… Callum, you know I want to, but he’s right. And he’s stubborn. How are we going to help him out here? The faster we get away from Anarr and her human partner, the faster we get to Xadia and help Callisto.” Her shoulders slumped. “But… I understand. I’m scared for him, too.”

Callum flipped to another page. “That’s what I was looking for in this book. Maybe, there’s a spell I can do to help. A rune I can draw. There has to be some way to help him.”

“Callum… he’s saved my life more than once. Many times. But I don’t think this will go the way you want. Besides, you’d have to get him to agree to it. And Callisto hates it when people fuss over him. He’s never had to deal with it.”

Right.

No parents.

No family to speak of, really.

He saw Callisto’s tendencies in Rayla, too, whose parents had been largely absent for most of her life. But Rayla had Runaan.

Callisto had nobody. Nobody, but this team.

Callum sat back, rubbing his eyes. “I feel helpless. We’re all in danger and I can’t even do this much.”

Rayla pulled him into a hug. “You’re not helpless. We’re a team. We all save each other. Now, quit your worrying and let’s go find your brother. He wants to show us a trick he says Bait does.”

“Bait does tricks?”

-:-:-:-

The idea didn’t leave Callum even after he, Rayla and Ezran let off a little steam playing with Bait.

Even if for the first time in forever things felt… normal. If only for a while.

Not to mention, Ezran noticed that something wasn’t particularly right with Callum’s demeanor. When they explained the issue to him, Ezran smiled sadly. “Yeah… he’s helped us a lot.”

“There just has to be something we can do.”

“But Callum…” Ezran debated with himself, picking Bait up almost as a security. “I think Rayla’s right and we’re in a tough spot right now. How are we going to help him? Neither of us know anything about dark magic or how to heal it. If we can get to Xadia, we can probably get a lot more help for Callisto.”

“That’s if he even makes it there. If we make it there.”

Callum shook his head, their positions jarred him a little. Normally, it was Callum who was trying to be the voice of reason to Ezran. Not the other way around. The weeks since they’d left home had aged him.

Ezran walked over to Callum and hugged him. Callum hugged him back, despite not having expected it. “You don’t have to worry about it on your own, Callum. I’m sure Runaan, Andromeda and everyone else are also thinking about it.”

“I just wish we would do something about it.”

“We also have to think about the egg. That’s our job now, too.”

Callum pulled back and blinked at Ezran. He smiled. “Look at you being the responsible one.”

It hurt him to realize Ezran was thinking about the politics of the egg of the dragon prince brought with it. After all, Ezran… well, he was King Ezran now. By right, anyway.

Callum sighed. “I’m going to take a walk.”

Rayla frowned. “Where?”

“Not too far. Just down the street, maybe I can find something warm to grab.”

Stealing still didn’t sit right with him. But… what choice did they have? The air was stifling. He just wanted to do something. Anything useful.

“Callum--”

He didn’t wait for her to answer.

-:-:-:-

Callum went past just ‘down the street.’ He went to the next street over, a little ways from the inn. He didn’t know what he was looking for. Barely knew what he wanted.

What he knew was that this aggravating empty feeling wouldn’t go away. He had a primal stone. He was a mage now.

Why wasn’t there some way he could help?

He didn’t even know why it bothered him so much. It wasn’t like Callisto was exactly the friendliest elf around. That title probably went to Ram who he last heard was keeping watch over the egg and making sure Herna didn’t exactly walk in on it.

It wasn’t like he’d known Callisto for more than a month, maybe.

Then again, he’d known Rayla the same amount of time and Callum knew he would never question his care for her despite it all.

Perhaps, similar reasons and rules applied here.

His thoughts distracted him until he happened upon a shop with the symbol of a stone pommel in a bowl.

An apothecary.

Callum stood there for a moment.

It wasn’t as if dark magic was a foreign concept to humans. Claudia would probably have had an idea about how to deal with a dark magic wound.

Perhaps…?

A bell chimed as he entered the apothecary. It was old and dingy, but otherwise clean. The place was small, but there were cabinets full of medicines and concoctions, beds made and liberal wooden counter space with a tool or two left out.

He heard someone shuffling behind a curtain. Out popped the head of a weathered old man with brown eyes and greying brown hair. His smile was kind as he edged from around the dusty curtain and greeted Callum.

“Good morning, good morning. Just washing some sheets. Don’t mind me. My name is Zumar. Who might you be?”

“Good morning, Mr. Zumar. I’m Callum.”

“Callum? It’s good to meet you. How may I help you today, young man?” He wiped wet hands with a rag. “Are you in need of any tonics today? Perhaps a remedy for energy or strength?”

Callum shook his head. “No, thank you. I was actually wondering if you ... maybe had anything that could help with healing someone hurt by dark magic?”

Every word made it clear the old clerk did not have many customers asking for those kinds of items.

“Dark magic.”

Callum nodded.

Zumar pursed his lips. “I am afraid that I don’t deal much in those kinds of healing matters. And I am sorry it happened. What I know of magical injuries is that they can be hard to heal without the right ingredients. If, at all.”

Callum’s heart fell. “So, you don’t know of any place? There’s someone I-- He’s hurt. And it’s bad. We ran into some trouble on the way. I… I’m just trying to help him.”

Zumar frowned. “You have my sympathies. But I’m truly afraid I have nothing. I have tonics for pain, but an injury inflicted by dark magic is another discipline entirely. One outside of my area of expertise. And I’m afraid I don’t know of anybody in town that could help.”

“Nobody?” Callum heard his voice crack a little.

Again, there was that nagging feeling. It hurt. Just a little. Why did he care so much? At a base level, he didn’t want Callisto to die. Which he knew would happen, eventually. Anarr and Morgan were right on their tails and from listening to Runaan and the others… that wasn’t going to change. The dark mages were herding them right where they wanted.

Meraxia hadn’t been an entirely unplanned event for them, Callum was sure.

Zumar shook his head. “Perhaps in the cities you would have better luck. If you travel west, you may find what you’re looking for.”

“We can’t go west, unfortunately.”

“No?”

“It’s not on our way.” He added quickly. That was enough information about their destination. “Thank you though. I appreciate your time.”

Zumar’s nod was stiff. Callum turned to leave, but the old man said, “This person means something to you?”

Callum looked at Zumar, he opened his mouth, then closed it. He didn’t know what to say at first. “I guess things happen when you start travelling with people. I just want him to be okay. I don’t know if it’s fair that he’s hurt like this.”

He was constantly reminding himself that his companions were assassins. They were sent to kill his stepfather and only failed because Lord Viren beat them to it.

But The Dragon Queen sent them because his stepfather killed Thunder. Callum thought of the egg of The Dragon Prince sitting with Ram at the inn, it’s life dimmer than before and dimmer still as Ram tried to figure out a way to save it. It was one of the several problems they had on top of just surviving.

And Runaan was always trying to figure out a plan of attack. Or defense. How to get to Xadia alive with two dark mages on your tail? One who knew how to think like an assassin because she was one. The other was a mysterious variable in the entire thing.

It always came to this: Assassins. What his stepfather did. Where they were now.

Saying life was odd would be the understatement of the year.

Zumar sighed. “Don’t quote me on this, but there is a flower that grows year-round. Even in the snow. It’s a remarkable thing called an Aspiro Lily--”

Callum’s eyes widened. “A what?”

“An Aspiro Lily. They’re named as such because legend has it that Skywing Elves used them for healing medicine in ancient times passed, but most of them grow on the human side of the border. So, human doctors and mages named them Aspiro Lilies. I’ve used a concoction with them once and it had remarkable properties when applied to all kinds of wounds. If you breathe it in as a powder, it can even help injuries to the lungs.”

Callum stepped forward. “And… you think this could help? You think it might work?”

“I’m saying it’s the only thing that could work in these parts. If you need a quick solution that might be your only option. Lucky for you, there’s an old hermit that lives on the mountain. He grows them. If you take the mountain path north, you’ll reach him by midday. Occasionally, I will go up there for other supplies, but he may be willing to give you one. He’s a kind man...” Zumar eyed Callum. “Please be kind back. I know what desperation can do to someone. Especially the young.”

Callum nodded. He even bowed a little. “I will. You have my word. I really appreciate your help.”

Zumar ambled back behind the curtain. “I hope your friend appreciates this.”

Callum wasn’t sure Callisto would.

And he wasn’t sure if it really mattered.

-:-:-:-

If he had gone back to the inn, the elves might have been suspicious. He didn’t want anyone to talk him out of this. This mission had possessed his spirit, and he was determined to make it work. If it was Callisto’s only shot, then he would at least try.

That all being said, Callum was no trained assassin. And he certainly wasn’t fit like one.

Rayla would have been able to make this trek well before midday. Runaan and any of the other elves? Within the hour because of some elven training method or other that Moonshadow elves prided themselves on. But Callum was a human prince, and he hadn’t exactly been good at that.

He was far enough up that looking down didn’t make him happy. The slope wasn’t particularly steep, but falling would hurt.

Callum’s legs were sore, and he was getting tired, but it was almost midday. He had to be close, right?

Just as that thought passed through his mind, he looked up, searching for any kind of relief. A sign. A bird flew by. Why couldn’t he have been born a Skywing elf?

He could just fly through the sky anywhere he wanted -- if they even had wings. He wasn’t entirely sure. -- rising up, past the plume of chimney smoke to find --

Wait.

Chimney smoke.

Cabin.

The pieces snapped in Callum’s head and he pushed himself up the trail. That had to be it. That had to be it. Ten minutes later of nearly lunging up the mountain, lungs straining from a workout they weren’t normally used to, or grateful for, he made it to the cabin.

He bent over, catching his breath as the trail plateaued. The cabin was solid, winter plants peeking out all around the house. Snow capped the roof, smoke pluming out of the chimney.

He was ready to knock on the door, but what was the man’s name? Callum hadn’t bothered to ask. He didn’t want to be rude...

But this is to help Callisto, he reminded himself.

He had to do this.

Callum approached the front door and knocked. When there was no answer, he knocked again. Silence. He raised his fist once more, but a voice at the other side stopped him.

“Who is it?” The voice was frail and almost not audible from outside.

“Oh, um-- Hi!” Callum called. “My name is Callum and Zumar said you grow Aspiro Lilies. I was wondering if it’s okay if I could have one. My friend is hurt…”

Nothing.

“Would it be alright if I came in?”

Saying all this outside was making him nervous, and he wasn’t sure if the old man was able enough to open the door or if it just took him awhile to get there, but his senses were--

“Come in,” the frail voice called again.

Callum blinked. He tried the knob.

The door creaked open for him.

-:-:-:-

“How’s the egg?”

Ram heard the young prince before he saw him. He was carrying the glow toad in his arms, Bait croaking a sort of greeting.

“The egg is unwell,” Ram sighed. He observed the dimming egg of The Dragon Prince. A prince that could become a king someday. If only it could live.

Ram had no notion of how to ensure that.

Ezran didn’t deign to ask him if Ram had tried everything. Instead, he set Bait down on the bed and climbed up. Ram let him put an ear to the egg to listen. Whatever power this boy had, it was real. He’d heard of such things, but never quite seen it for himself. Whatever the case, it came in handy in Meraxia.

“What do you hear?” Ram whispered.

Ezran listened. “It’s trying.”

“... can it hear us?”

“I think it can. It… it hears us.” Ezran frowned at the egg. Then, he hugged it. “Hang on, little guy. We’re going to help you. Just… hang on for us.”

“You have our word,” Ram said to the egg. “We will bring you home.”

“You have mine, too.”

Ezran nodded and looked at Ram, mouth set.

“An oath, then.”

The prince smiled. “Yeah, I guess so.”

A knock at the door made Ram look up. Rayla. She stood at the doorway, frowning. “Where is he?”

Ram knew who she was talking about.

“Is he still gone?” Ezran asked.

“He said he was just going down the street,” Rayla growled. “He knows we can’t be wandering around with two assassins on our trails, right?”

Ezran made a voice. “Callum can get pretty determined sometimes…”

Ram didn’t ask what he meant by that, but he told Rayla, “If he doesn’t come back within the hour, you should tell Runaan. It isn’t safe.”

“I’ll go find him soon enough. He probably got caught up doing something he shouldn’t.”

Ram shook his head. “No, Rayla. You are injured. If anything happens, you aren’t at full strength. You should rest now, in fact.”

She said nothing.

“Rayla.”

Fine.” She crossed her arms, wincing.

Good as that ointment was, it wasn’t just a scratch. They used the last of the medicine and there was only so much it could have done, anyway. There were limits. It reminded Ram that Rayla was young. Not untried. Not anymore.

But she was young.

She left. Ezran and Ram exchanged looks.

It seemed the prince didn’t believe she would sleep either.

-:-:-:-

The frail voice spoke to him again. “How may I help you?”

Callum ventured into the cabin carefully, he looked for the old man, trying to figure out where the voice was coming from. Another room, he assumed, but every time he tried to follow the voice it always came from a different area.

He heard no footsteps. Saw no shadow.

“Uh… hi, my name is Callum,” he called. “Someone told me you grow Aspiro Lilies here. My friend is hurt and I think they would really help.”

The old man said nothing back.

“Hello?”

“Oh, they’re in my kitchen cabinet. I like keeping them from the cold,” the old man replied. “Past the den.”

Callum entered the den. It was warm, the fire going. Half eaten food had been left out on the coffee table and the chairs looked well worn, an imprint still left in the one he could see. Alright, so it wasn’t like this place was unused.

Then, why did it feel weird?

Callum shook his head. He should just get this flower and go. Rayla would have suggested sneaking in. Maybe he should have done that. They were taking the man’s flower. Not his money.

Man, when did the idea of stealing become more attractive to him?

As he was leaving the den to go into the kitchen the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. Rayla would have suggested sneaking in for the sake of safety. Not because she enjoyed taking from others. They were lucky that amulet’s magic hadn’t worn off. They were lucky it even worked.

Callum opened the cabinets, never mind being rude. His muscles were tense. His heart was pounding faster than it was a few minutes ago. He found the lilies in the far most left cabinet, small and glowing dimly in the dark. He felt them. He wasn’t sure why. Maybe it was the primal stone in his bag. Maybe it was because he knew what sky magic felt like now. Either way, Callum grabbed a few and put them in his bag.

He was leaving. Now.

Nerves crackled like the lightning of the fulminis spell. He crossed the den and went back to the front door, saying nothing to the old man.

The old man hadn’t said a word since their initial conversation.

He hadn’t shown himself.

And the door was closed shut now. When Callum tried the knob again, it was locked.

Callum’s breathing shallowed.

He clutched his bag and looked around, searching for a nearby window. Taking deep breaths, he dared not try the knob again and alert whoever was keeping him in this house. Why did he come? Why did he come here by himself?

All the answers to those questions were a nice distraction, so he kept running them in the back of his mind, to stop himself from panicking. They weren’t helping. He shut them down. He was being trapped in this house on purpose. Whether Mr. Zumar had been in on it, he might never know and Callum would not go back to ask if he got out of here.

The den had windows. He could just go through one and probably not hurt himself.

He beelined for the window.

“You know, I’ve always liked chess.”

Callum froze. He spun around and almost vomited.

Morgan. At his feet, an old frail man too still to be anything but dead.

How long had he been sitting there? It couldn’t have been the whole time. Callum hadn’t seen him earlier.

He swallowed.

Meaning he’d been lurking from room to room the entire time, prowling around Callum like a stalker. He exhaled sharply. Probably lugging a body around to boot.

All far too silently to be natural.

Morgan’s ill smile made Callum’s nerves shrivel, hazel eyes trained on him like a predator. A spindly man, he’d changed his clothes from the last time they’d met. This time, he was in a drab colored well-fitted coat, trousers and boots. It didn’t miss Callum’s notice how they looked like they could fit the old man lying at Morgan’s feet.

Morgan laughed. Callum jumped.

“Dramatic entrance, I know. It’s a bit much, isn’t it?” Morgan leaned against the armrest, making himself far too at home. “I thought I’d see your reaction. I’m still getting to know you, after all. Never thought the king of Katolis would adopt a son even if it did come with his wife, but I guess the things we do for love, right? Though, I’m sure he loved you if I’m even here to deal with you in the first place. A king who didn’t love his stepson or put him anywhere in his will wouldn’t really be much of a threat, I suppose…”

Morgan mused, but Callum said nothing. Too many things were running through his head to entertain whatever nonsense the dark mage was spouting.

“Anyway, what was I saying…? Oh, right. Chess. I love chess, you know. I know all the variations, elven and human alike. The Sunfire elves have their version just like the people of Del Bar or Duren or the Moonshadow elves or the Earthblood elves. See, I love chess so much that I know all of them.” Callum took a step to the left. Morgan’s gaze followed him. Not once had he broken eye contact. Callum made it a point not to either. Mostly because he couldn’t. “The way you win is different in every game, but the game is the same. And when the game is done? You play another because you enjoy playing.”

Finally, Morgan looked down at Callum’s feet, observing him from head to toe. Evaluating. Callum had seen something marginally similar in his stepfather’s face in times of choice. He came back to Callum’s face. He smiled. “You know why I like chess?”

Callum glared at him. “What do you want?” he demanded.

Morgan barked a laugh. “He speaks! Well, I think I want you to guess why I like chess.”

Callum rolled his eyes. This monster will not intimidate him. At least, Callum told himself that despite his shaking hands and dry throat. “I don’t know.”

Morgan shook his head, disappointed. But his smile came back, wider and more wicked than the last. “I enjoy life, Prince Callum. Just like I enjoy chess. Chess is a hunter’s game. Life--” Morgan nodded, boring that sick hazel onto Callum with a coldness that didn’t match his amusement. “--is a hunter’s game. I like hunting elves, Prince Callum. I like hunting people… it’s like chess.”

Callum’s stomach churned.

“I will play another game after I’m done with you,” Morgan said with finality. Callum wasn’t sure if he was talking more to himself or Callum. Either way, he said to Callum, “I don’t care much about the goal unlike your Moonshadow friends. It’s not the mission I’ll keel over for. It’s the hunt… and the prize.” He chuckled. “I get nothing of real value for killing you, really, except the satisfaction of a mildly entertaining game. After all, here we are. But I can’t exactly leave one of the most dangerous pieces on the board. Even a young mage is troublesome and I don’t want to risk losing the game, right?”

Callum steadied his breathing. He became keenly aware of someone else in the house as Morgan talked, knowing that Callum was no threat here. He could talk as long as he liked.

Callum knew it was Anarr before she stalked through the door.

Morgan shook his head. “I don’t lose. If you have a chance to take out the most dangerous piece in the game, you do it. Anarr would agree, I believe.”

He looked at her. She nodded. “Agreed.”

Her eyes focused on Callum, flicking her wrist and summoning her dagger. Callum stepped back.

“But the prize for Rayla--” Callum’s mind ground to a halt. Morgan’s smiling face made something light up in his brain. “--will be very nice. So, I’ll enjoy that game a bit more.”

You stay away from her.”

Morgan smirked. He stood up, snorting. “Kill him and let’s get this over with. I want to move on.”

“The girl cares for him,” Anarr said. Morgan paused. “We can use that.”

“We can use his corpse.”

“He’s more useful to us alive than dead.”

“I beg to differ--”

Callum was not waiting for them to stop. He drew the rune faster than he had ever before. “Aspiro!”

The force sent them flying to different corners of the room. Callum bolted for the door, sending out a fulminis spell as he rounded the corner. The door burst open and Callum sprinted. He was not worried about Morgan.

Anarr was on his tail. That much he knew without turning around. She was basically Rayla, but older and arguably faster. Either way, she was much faster than him and Callum was running down the mountain trail knees to chest.

It didn’t matter.

He heard her even before he dared to look back. She was right there. One lunge and he was hers. Callum twisted and drew out a fulminis rune.

It missed and crackled into the sky.

Callum braced himself. His lungs burned.

This was it--

Anarr leapt right past him. Swords clanged. There was a battle cry.

Rayla met Anarr blade for blade, grunting the entire time. They braced their blades against each other. Rayla pushed her off and sidestepped, pushing Callum behind her.

“Rayla--”

“Just going down the street?”

Callum winced. “Okay, you can get mad at me later, but what are you doing here?

Rayla didn’t take her eyes off Anarr who was flexing her grip on her blades. “I was going to ask you the same thing.”

“I found something. Something that could help Callisto--”

“Callum, we talked about this,” she said against gritted teeth.

“And we’ll talk about it later.” Anarr took this as her cue and lunged. Rayla moved, but not as fast and received a nice cut on her arm as a result. Rayla stepped back. “Rayla, you can’t do this. You’re still hurt.”

“We don’t have a choice.”

“She’s got you at a disadvantage,” he argued. “She’ll only do worse.”

“I don’t care.”

Callum wasn’t asking permission. He stepped forward and drew out aspiro. The spell released and threw Anarr back; she went over the side, but he could see her fingers holding on. He shoved down the urge to vomit, flashing back to the sound Eveline made when she hit the ground.

He didn’t have time to think about it.

“Well, well, well, Prince Callum. Aren’t you generous?” Morgan’s voice yanked him back to the present. “You’ve brought her right to me.”

For Morgan, Callum drew out fulminis. The mage missed it narrowly and collided with Raylausing a vicious flurry of strikes. He was trying to overpower her, Callum realized.

And he was winning.

She couldn’t hold up against Morgan, now. Being stabbed by Anarr meant he was a match for her. Callum could see Anarr climbing back up out of the corner of his eye.

Callum scanned Morgan. He looked for something, anything, anything at all--

A necklace. Blue. A silver coloring to it. It glinted.

Morgan swept Rayla under the leg. She fell, scrambling for her blades.

Callum lunged and grabbed his necklace pulling on it as hard as he could. Morgan fought, dropping his swords and pulled forward where Callum was pulling back. They twisted and turned, Rayla calling Callum’s name as they neared the edge of the trail.

The necklace snapped and they fell to the ground. Callum felt the necklace in his hand, cold as the snow on the ground. Morgan coughed and his eyes found Callum’s.

“You’ve got some nerve, prince.” He seethed. “I told you I don’t like losing.”

Rayla didn’t get a chance to strike at Morgan as Anarr came back. Callum scrambled to Rayla. Anarr stood by Morgan.

Callum couldn’t see a proper way out of this.

“Take my bag and go,” he panted, looking at Rayla. “The flowers for Callisto are in there. They want me right now. You’re fast enough that you can get out of here and get back to the others.”

Rayla narrowed her eyes at him. “So, you can do what exactly?”

“Rayla, you’ll be safe--”

“I’m not leaving you here. We are getting out of here together.”

Callum looked at her face. Determined, firm. A face that had come to mean something to him.

Anarr and Morgan would slice them apart if they tried to run. Callum looked at the mountainside. The only other way down. He looked back at her. Her face hadn’t changed.

She would go down with him. Whatever that meant for them.

He couldn’t live with himself if he lived, and she died. He didn’t want her to die, even with him, period.

Anarr twisted on her heel. She sliced something in the air.

The arrow split in two, the head landing at Callum’s feet.

Runaan stood at a higher elevation, bow nocked and aimed at Anarr. Her eyes burned with hate as she watched him. From the shadows, Callum saw Skor and Andromeda, their blades at the ready. There was a silent stare down between Anarr and Runaan. Callum didn’t know who won, exactly, but he saw Anarr dodge the arrow meant for her and disappear, Morgan slithering along behind her. Just slow enough to meet Callum’s eyes one last time.

Nobody said anything, even after they’d left. Rayla watched Runaan approach them both. He frowned at her. “We will discuss this later.” She pursed her lips, but nodded.

“She didn’t use those blood beasts.” Callum said, changing the subject. “They were dead set on killing me, but she didn’t bother to use her beasts.

Runaan didn’t even look at him. “They exhaust her.”

“They wanted to kill me, but Anarr changed her mind. She wanted to keep me alive. T-to use me.”

He didn’t add that it was against Rayla specifically.

Runaan regarded him, then turned away. “This didn’t go the way it was supposed to. We will discuss this later. With both of you. Let’s go.”

Callum looked at Rayla. She was frowning at him. Apparently, he was going to get talked to twice.

-:-:-:-

The talk with Runaan amounted to “Don’t do that again” for Rayla and “Don’t do that again or I am leaving you here” for Callum. When Callum brought up the body of the old man -- they couldn’t just leave him there -- Runaan told him that Skor handled it.

“Skor?”

“He thought it pertinent to bury the man,” Runaan said.

Apparently, they would leave a tip to whoever the authorities were in town before they left. At least, they were doing that much. Callum would have felt horrible for just leaving the body there and not telling anyone. Frankly, it still felt horrible, but he tried to push it from his mind.

Just like he did when Lady Eveline slivered into his thoughts.

“That was stupid.”

“Rayla, you know why I did it,” he said, approaching her. It was late, after dinner, when he finally got a moment with Rayla. She was facing the fire, her arms crossed and not looking at him. He could see her pouting lip in the firelight. “C’mon, don’t be mad at me.”

“They could have killed you.”

“What about you? They could have killed you,” he argued.

“Because I went after you! Who else was going to make sure you don’t end up dying?” She uncrossed her arms, fists clenched at her sides. “You said down the street. The apothecary was not down the street! And don’t change the subject.”

“Rayla, c’mon,” he whined.

“Am I interrupting something?”

Callisto knocked at the door, clearing his throat. He was standing straighter than he had in a while.

“You look better,” Callum said.

Callisto nodded. He approached the fire, standing next to Callum. “I had no idea they grew Aspiro Lilies in the human lands… Rayla told me what you did. It was foolish.”

“Yeah,” he glanced at Rayla, who only crossed her arms again. Callum rubbed the back of his neck. “I know.”

“I’m sure she’s mentioned the foolish part then.”

“Oh, she has.”

“I’m right here, you know,” she snapped at them.

Callisto paused, searching the fire for a moment. “I know what you risked getting these flowers.” He faced Callum. “It appears I owe you my gratitude. And my respect.”

Callum blinked. “Oh, uh… you’re welcome? I just didn’t want you to die. You don’t deserve that. I don’t think you do, anyway.”

Callisto snorted. He shook his head. “Sleep well, Callum.”

He left, leaving Rayla and Callum alone again. Callum smiled. Just a little. “You’re not actually that mad at me, are you?”

Rayla glared at him over her shoulder. Even when she was frowning at him, her long lashes and the light against her features made her look… whatever it was, it made him lose his train of thought.

She sighed and uncrossed her arms for the last time. “Just don’t do that again, okay?” Her features softened. “I don’t know what I’d do if…”

“Funny,” he sat down. She sat down next to him. “That’s what I was thinking earlier. When I thought we might really jump off that mountain.”

“I would have jumped with you.”

“I know. That’s what’s scary.”

He swore her face was pink in the fire’s glow. “... it is, isn’t it?”

Callum looked at her for a long moment. Long enough that her ears drooped. She turned away, trying to look normal again. She started to get up. “But, Moonshadow elves don’t get scared. See, we’re taught that--”

Callum caught her by the wrist. His grip was gentle enough, but she still let him pull her back down.

And into a hug.

“It’s not that scary,” he said, hugging her tight. “Thank you, Rayla. For having my back. I would have been a goner if it wasn’t for you. I don’t know where I’d be without you. Just… don’t die for me, okay?”

To his pleasant surprise, she hugged him back. “I’ll try. But I can’t make any promises.”

Callum held her tighter still.

Chapter Text

Callum could no longer leave without someone accompanying him. Someone who wasn’t just Rayla.

Runaan didn’t want Callum out of their sight. They didn’t have time for another near-death experience with the human prince, as it was so elegantly put. Callum felt a little bad about it; the trouble it caused, anyway, but it was worth it. Callisto seemed to be much better within the past day than he had since his injury.

He didn’t mind Andromeda and Callisto as company. Out of everyone, they were the easiest to get along with.

“Do we need any more than this?” he asked, looking in their bag. Herna had been kind enough to give them a little money to buy supplies.

“We don’t want to make our packs too heavy. We need to stay light on our feet. This is enough.” Callisto said.

“Besides, we can’t keep stealing,” Andromeda said. “It will bring too much attention to us. Especially when we need to leave quietly.”

Callum could agree with that. They passed the town square, a neat cobblestone plaza powdered with snow. They peered at a newly formed crowd, with the ruckus growing louder as Callum ventured closer. He knew he creeped too close when he felt Callisto’s firm grip on his shoulder.

“Look. Listen,” he said to Callum.

“... vile creatures from Xadia! They are here! They are here to invade your homes and take what is yours. And there’s a group of them. Right here. In this very town!” The spindly man’s face was good-natured in a way that Callum realized wasn’t his natural disposition. “ Who do you think killed the poor old man who lives in the mountain? We have to defend ourselves, our loved ones, our children!

Concern did not look good on Morgan when you knew what he was actually like. He’d dressed himself perfectly: a drab set of clothes that were neither too fancy nor too old. His hair was tousled just right. An everyday man. A concerned citizen of the town. His eyes were lit with kindness that Callum knew was fake even from here, but Callum had also seen Morgan in his real skin. Something closer to a monster than a human.

We must hunt them down!” He raised his fist, his voice stirring with some emotion not becoming of him. “ We must make sure no one will ever again fall prey to these monsters in our town. Who’s with me?”

The crowd agreed.They bellowed their opinions and reached out to him, shaking his hand and giving him room to step down into the crowd. They helped him down.

They supported him.

A few good words, rousing the hearts of people who probably were less like Lady Eveline and more like people who would be angry on her behalf. People who did not know the pain Lady Eveline suffered from. Most people would never see an elf and, yet, they agreed to wipe them from existence. Or, at least from their little town.

He wondered if elves felt the same.

“We need to go,” he heard Andromeda hiss and felt Callisto pull him away from the crowd. Away from the square. Away from the anger that Morgan had so easily aroused in them. Callum still spied him from a distance. Morgan hadn’t seen them.

He walked like an average, concerned citizen. His hair was perfect. And if Callum had not seen the beast underneath, he might have believed him, too.

If only a little.

-:-:-:-

Andromeda gave them the news as soon as they got back, and everyone started packing in haste. Thankfully, there was not much. They gave their supplies priority over everything else, and they made quick work of getting their things together.

“Not a trace,” as Runaan ordered.

They would leave quickly and quietly, not saying anything to the innkeeper.

But it seemed like they didn’t have to.

Herna came into the room as Callisto, Skor and Ram were packing a small bag.

“Here,” she said urgently. “It’s not much, but it will last you from here to the east.”

They just stared at her. Callum would intervene if they pulled out any weapons, he decided, but they just watched her. She didn’t pay them any mind. “I don’t know exactly how far it is, but hopefully this will last you. If anybody comes asking about the lot of you, I will tell them you left and headed to the towns in the south. Make haste and you’ll have time before anyone is the wiser.”

Callisto and Ram exchanged looks.

Skor asked, “What are you doing?”

Herna didn’t pause in helping them pack the food. She didn’t speak for a moment. Skor continued to stare.

She took a deep breath. “It isn’t safe here for you anymore.”

Callisto frowned. “How did you know?”

“I’m a human, but I’m also old. I know when something doesn’t feel the same,” she said, smiling. “Your accents aren’t the easiest to hide, I presume.”

Quietly, Callisto took the bread she handed him and nodded. “Your kindness will always be appreciated.”

Herna smiled as they left the room, their packs on their backs. Runaan was at the door, watching, but said nothing. Skor stopped beside Herna and put a hand on her shoulder. “Be safe.”

Herna placed her hand over his. “And you. If we never meet again, I hope you find your peace. And your justice. Now, go.”

Skor squeezed her shoulder and left. Callum didn’t move right away, watching Herna for a moment.

“Callum.” He twisted to Runaan’s voice. “We’re leaving.”

Callum spared Herna a glance, then followed Runaan.

-:-:-:-

The streets were teeming with humans gossiping and searching for the elves invading their town right under their very noses. They weren’t as lethal as a trained group of assassins. Not on their own.

But Runaan wasn’t foolish enough to take the chance. He also wasn’t rash enough to think they could take on an entire town of humans, lethal or not.

He was more on edge about Anarr and Morgan than he liked. But Rayla had been too close to being on the other end of Anarr’s blade. Unnecessarily. It should not have happened.

Callum came to mind.

He was distinctly aware of the human prince trailing with Rayla near the back of their party.

It made him uneasy.

-:-:-:-

Callum tried not to look around too much. The first time he did, Rayla scolded him.

“We don’t know if Morgan and Anarr are watching us. We know Morgan was here, but we don’t know if he’s seen us,” she said. “Let’s not make it so obvious we’re trying to leave.”

… I can’t believe it was so easy.”

“For us?”

“No, for him. All he did was change his appearance, and attitude. He acted like he cared. And they believed him.”

“He’s done it before, probably,” she said, then paused. “What’s bothering you?”

Callum hunched his shoulders. “It’s just that... Lord Viren used to be someone I trusted. And everything’s different now.”

A frown tugged on her lips. “I’m sorry.”

He looked at her for a long moment. “I am, too.”

When her hand brushed against him, he returned the gesture.

Nobody noticed them leaving. With their packs full and new coats on, they trudged over a hill hardened with snow. Callum glanced back at it, but returned his attention toward their path. The rest of the team was farther up the slope than he and Rayla.

Rayla continued to watch the town.

He stopped for her. “You coming?” She didn’t answer him. “Rayla.”

“Wait,” she hushed him. “Do you hear that?”

He listened to whatever she was hearing. Nothing--

Wait.

The faintest high-pitched screams. He looked back at the town and saw a plume of smoke rising into the air. His heart dropped.

“Oh no,” she looked back at him.

“Do you think…?”

“It’s Morgan and Anarr. I know it’s them. It has to be them. Something’s wrong.”

Callum’s stomach clenched. “You don’t know that. Maybe something else happened. Rayla, you don’t need to--”

“Go ahead of me. I’ll catch up with you.”

“You can’t go by yourself. What if it is them? We just faced them yesterday, and they almost killed us. At least let me go with you.”

Rayla shook her head and unsheathed her swords. “We don’t have time and I can’t just leave while they’re wreaking havoc because of us. The egg is dying. Tell Runaan and the others I’ll catch up with you. I promise I’ll be careful. I just want to get their attention and then lose them. They’re looking for us, after all, now go--”

Rayla.

She didn’t stop to let him finish, turning back and running down the hill at a speed he knew he couldn’t match. Even so, he nearly went after her. After all, she would have done the same for him. She already had.

He would do that and more, but one thing he learned from their predicament yesterday was to stop doing things alone.

Callum ran up the hill, towards the group, his lungs burning by the time he reached them.

“Wait!” He panted, holding his chest. When they turned, Runaan was already searching for wherever Rayla had gone. He saw the plume of smoke. “It’s Morgan and Anarr. They’re attacking the town--”

Runaan sped past him, down the hill.

“I’m going with him.”

Callisto grabbed his shoulder. “No. This is between them. Our job is to get you two and the egg out of the human lands. We keep moving. They’ll catch up.”

Ezran shook his head. “We can’t just leave. They’re attacking the town. They’re hurting people...”

“And more people will get hurt if they see that Rayla went down to save a town of humans.” Callisto squeezed Callum’s shoulder. “They’ll be alright. Runaan will bring her back.”

Callum looked at the town again. His chest constricted as he turned back to their trail.

Ezran frowned, but did the same when Andromeda held out a hand to him. Bait turned green with nervousness. Callum agreed.

-:-:-:-

Rayla raced into town.

Screaming. Running. Scrambling.

People threatened to knock her over as she waded into the fray. She heard the beasts before she saw them and prayed nobody had touched them.

One of those blood monsters missed her at a crossroads as it crashed into a shop. A family ran out and Rayla watched as the creature fled and found another establishment to crash into.

It moved around the people in its way and chose a tavern to destroy.

She realized it wasn’t hurting anybody. The blood beast was just breaking things and causing a general panic.

Was it searching for something?

People were quickly vacating this part of town where the beast was rampant and Rayla knew before she even heard her voice.

“You took my invitation.”

Rayla twisted on her heel and tightened her grip on her swords.

“You can’t do this to a town of people, Anarr.”

Anarr didn’t smile this time. “I can. I will. And, for the record, Runaan will be a bit too busy to save you this time.”

“Leave him alone. It’s me you want, right?’

Anarr snorted. “Don’t worry, my sun and stars, I won’t kill him. I can’t. This entire thing is naught if I do that.”

Rayla shook her head this time. “Don’t you ever give up?”

This time, Anarr smiled. She hadn’t drawn her weapon or moved. The surrounding roads were vacant now, but the distant screaming and chaos echoed in the distance. “I was his best, you know. Runaan’s, I mean. I was his second. You know that, of course. Our relationship wasn’t like yours, but I think once upon a time he might have thought of me as a sister. No, Runaan’s relationship with you is much deeper. If he happens to get past my blood beasts on his own--” Rayla’s heart dropped into her stomach. “He might take my head on sight. For you, naturally, my sun and stars. Always for you.”

“And why do you always call me that?”

Anarr’s green eyes were piercing. “Because you are. Not mine, of course. Runaan’s. You are his sun and stars. The only living reminder he has of your parents. The only child he’ll likely ever raise with Ethari.”

Rayla said nothing. She didn’t know what to say.

Her blades twisted in her hands. Her side hurt.

“You look better. But if we fight now,” Anarr said. “You will lose. And you know it. Runaan would go home and never be the same.”

“You would let him live?”

“For a time. I want him to live with Ethari’s grief for a while before I deal with him.”

“... Runaan never meant to hurt you.”

Anarr lowered into a stance. “I don’t care.”

She was lightning as their blades clashed and sparked in the bitter cold.

-:-:-:-

The blood creatures attacked him all at once.

Thankfully, Runaan knew exactly what he was running into when he went after Rayla. He saw her, but lost her in the people running to and fro. Then, Anarr’s creatures descended on him.

He dodged and moved. They were vicious, but not unpredictable. The size of their “bodies” forced them to make fast, sweeping movements that required some anticipation before their attacks.

He’d managed to slice one of them similar to the way Callum had back on the icy lake. Now, there were two.

Two that weren’t exactly taking turns going after him. He used the corners to evade them at first, using their size against them as they swung around the corner.

He had a feeling they were here just for him. Rayla’s trap was obvious, but she’d gone anyway. For these humans. For people who would just as soon execute her.

Perhaps Ethari was right.

She’d proven herself. He trusted Rayla, but a part of him didn’t. That part of him came from a deeper place he tried to put aside during missions.

But he would be damned if he let Anarr kill her just to get to him.

Runaan climbed the roofs and watched as those things searched for him. So, they couldn’t sense him. He left them to their destruction.

-:-:-:-

Rayla couldn’t keep this up. She was tiring too fast and her side was getting agitated.

Anarr didn’t have to try as hard, but she was definitely aggressive. She shoved Rayla into a wall and the only thing that saved her from a blade to the head was to push Anarr away. They were still in the street, with the snow crunching under their feet.

Their blades clashed; their hearts pounded. Anarr was calculated and wild at the same time. Her swings were personal, her intentions fueled by fire.

Anarr played the long game, and she played it wildly.

“You were really going to jump, weren’t you?” Anarr asked, panting. They circled each other. “With that human? You trust him that much?”

“With my life.”

“A mistake. Mark my words, Rayla. One day, he will break your heart.”

Rayla rolled her eyes. “Right. I’ll be sure to take your advice.”

They met again in the middle, their swords sparking. This time, Rayla buckled, and Anarr punched her in the face.

“You’re mine.”

Anarr.”

Runaan was already aiming at her. Rayla knew before she even looked up.

Anarr turned and smiled. “Go ahead. Shoot me. You can try, anyway. I’d love for you to miss and hit poor Rayla.”

Runaan kept the arrow on her, but he didn’t dare release it. Not when Anarr could just move and Rayla might just get an arrow in the chest.

“Runaan, I love how you just keep walking into my messes. But I suppose you have no choice if your protégé here keeps running into them.”

“Stop talking as if you’re not getting tired. I know having three of those things is too much for you.”

“Does it matter?”

“What’s the point of all this? You make traps and don’t come through with them when I know you can. You’ve had every chance. You never used to enjoy playing with your food before you ate it.”

“That was before. This is now.”

“I know what I did, but you hanging onto the past is your own fault.”

She growled. “What do you know? You’ve been living with the love of your life! You married him! You raised her with him. But you definitely made certain that I paid for my mistake.”

“Rayla has nothing to do with this.”

“She will have everything to do with this when I make you clean up her blood!”

Rayla lunged at her. “You talk too much!”

The two of them wrestled on the ground and Rayla picked up one of her swords, swiping at Anarr. She could see Runaan coming to her out of the corner of her eye, but Anarr kicked Rayla off and right into Runaan.

“You know what I think, my sun and stars?” Anarr panted, raising something in her hand. “I think I’ll leave you to deal with these humans.”

Humans.

With the blood beasts gone, people were starting to come back to the streets.

And Rayla’s amulet was in Anarr’s hand.

Rayla touched her neck, her chest. Gone. She looked up and Anarr was already leaving, disappearing as the humans began to shout.

“It’s an elf!”

“They must both be elves!”

“They brought those evil things here!”

Rayla shook her head. “No, it’s not like that! Another elf was trying to hurt you and--”

Runaan grabbed her and ran down an alleyway. He didn’t listen to her protests as they went through twists and turns, the humans right behind them. They found a ladder, and he urged her up, watching as the humans went looking for them.

“Runaan, I’m sorry, but I couldn’t leave them like that.”

“You were reckless. You would have died.”

“I had it under control.”

“You walked right into a trap, and what’s worse is that you knew you did. You are not these humans’ hero. They have no love for you.”

“I know that. But they just don’t understand. Runaan, Anarr was destroying their town.” Rayla put her swords away as they stood. “I’m not trying to be their hero, but--”

He cut her off. “They are a mob. And you cannot reason with a mob. Nothing you said would have made a difference. Anarr did her job. Now, every human town from here on out will be looking for us. Any group of obvious strangers will become immediately suspicious.”

Rayla paused. She… hadn’t thought of that.

Of course, she hadn’t.

She rubbed her arm and said nothing. There was nothing to say and sorry wouldn’t fix how she made their mission more difficult, yet again.

There was a silence between them. Runaan let it linger.

Finally, he stood up and walked to the edge of the rooftop.

“Let’s go. We need to leave.”

She followed with nothing left to say.

Chapter Text

Every now and again, Callum checked Rayla’s face. He knew better than to talk about her feelings again. The first time, she snapped at him.

So, he chose a different approach.

“You’re upset. And you’re angry at yourself,” he said. “I get that. You should be.”

Rayla turned her head sharply. She frowned and looked away. He pressed her a little more.

“I would be. I do, actually.” he said. “I nearly got us both killed more than once at this point.”

“Those times weren’t your fault,” she said. Her frown lessened as she turned her attention back on him. “You did what you thought was right.”

Callum raised his brows slightly.

She crossed her arms and pouted.

“Rayla, that--”

“Don’t say it.”

He made a face at her. “That wasn’t your fault. You were only trying to do the right thing.”

“And now we can’t go to any town even if we run out of supplies. I’ve just essentially cut us off.”

“We probably couldn’t risk it much more, anyway. Obviously, Anarr and Morgan are hunting us and aren’t above hurting others. If you didn’t defend those people, then who would?”

She didn’t answer him. He didn’t push, but he knew he’d won in some small way when she uncrossed her arms. She didn’t look entirely convinced she hadn’t done a terrible thing from the expression on her face, though.

Not that Runaan’s disapproval helped. And he could admit that perhaps they could have formulated a plan or she shouldn’t have gone in by herself.

But then Callum wondered if that was the rational part of him or the part that hated to see Rayla in any more danger than she needed to be in.

Whatever the case, nothing good would come of her dwelling over any past mistakes. He took her hand and squeezed it. “Don’t beat yourself up over it, okay? I thought you were brave.”

Rayla stared. Then, she smiled weakly and squeezed his hand back before letting go. It wouldn’t be so bad if she were happy. It would be nice if Rayla was happy.

That being said, neither of them knew what destination Runaan had in mind. He had been tight lipped about it for one reason or another and didn’t seem inclined to tell either of them where they were going. They couldn’t deviate west anymore. That was not an option. Stopping for too long was also not a possibility now that they knew how closely Morgan and Anarr were following them.

No, they had to keep going east, to Xadia, but they had to stop somewhere, right?

Then there was the issue with the egg. It was still glowing dimly and dimmer still as the day passed. What would happen to it? Would it die? Nobody had an answer. Nobody had time for an answer.

“In order to be born, storm dragons must be born during a storm,” Ram was telling Ezran at one point. “I don’t know what will happen from here on out.”

None of them did. The sky was clear for miles.

When Callum got stressed, he turned to either his sketchbook or, as of late, the rune book. He wondered about this book. It had notes in it. From Lord Viren, no doubt. But he was curious how special this book could be, considering it was in his lair. There were things in here that made him think and spells he wasn’t sure if he could try.

Maybe one day, he might.

-:-:-:-

Rayla hated that he was right.

Even if it didn’t feel like it.

There were some things Callum didn’t understand. What it meant to be an assassin and what it meant about her actions, right or not.

Or what it felt like to have Runaan’s disapproval.

They would speak later on all of this when their lives weren’t in danger, but that also meant putting it off and living with how he felt about her choices right now. Just like back when she didn’t kill that human.

Thinking of Callum, she’s not entirely sure she regrets not killing that human.

This was the part Callum didn’t understand. Her duties to her people as an assassin . To her team as one, too.

Then again, who knew what part of her was telling her that? So much had happened in the past few weeks. There was a time not too long ago where Callum was only the son of her enemy.

Now, that was so far from the truth.

When he squeezed her hand, she’d smiled, and it’d been so easy to just squeeze it back. They didn’t question it.

She wasn’t sure if she’d ever had someone like that.

Someone who wasn’t Ethari or Runaan, anyway.

They continued to travel east, stopping only when they had to, but otherwise leaving as soon as light came. Travelling at night might have been something they would have considered if not for Ezran and, to a lesser extent, Callum. At night, Runaan had two people on lookout at all times.

Morning came with nobody feeling entirely rested. Even Ezran was still rubbing his eyes halfway through the morning as they continued their trek. Perhaps they had gotten spoiled, sleeping in whatever inns they could find disguised as humans.

That wasn’t an option anymore. Anarr had taken the pendant Rayla had on her person and there were no extras. Granted, it’d been dangerous at best to be in those human places, especially considering Herna figured out who they actually were.

Rayla didn’t ask questions. She followed, but noticed more than once that Callisto and Runaan would talk amongst themselves.

Rayla found Callisto while they were resting that afternoon.

“Is he going to tell the rest of us where we’re going?”

“I doubt it’s a place you’ve been before,” he told her.

“Have you?” She sat next to him. “Where is it?”

Callisto fixed her with a look, deciding if he was going to tell her or not.

He sighed.

“The Moon Nexus is a place where moon magic is at its most powerful. And it’s the only safe place for us at the moment.” She winced. He continued. “There’s a moon mage who lives there and guards the nexus. She’s a bit… eccentric, but doubtless she won’t mind the company as long as we all behave.”

“I can behave,” Rayla said, looking away.

“I know you can. And you will. It’s a sacred place. Runaan would not be happy about your misadventures with the prince there.”

“He’s already not happy with me.”

To her surprise, Callisto took on a gentler tone. “For now. But, remember, you rarely ever see him in this kind of light. Here, he is not the man that raised you. And yet, that’s a difficult thing for him to put aside. He doesn’t think you’re incompetent. Just green.”

Rayla looked at him. “That’s a little better, I guess.”

“A lot better. It’s harder to teach incompetence than it is to teach inexperience. This is your first mission, and it’s already grown into quite the ordeal. Which isn’t necessarily all your fault, either. Be a little easier on yourself.”

She cracked a smile. “Thanks, Callisto.”

He hummed a response.

At least that part was still normal.

-:-:-:-

It took another day to reach a small town at the base of a caldera, but they didn’t deviate toward the town. Rather, they kept moving toward the caldera.

“The Cursed Caldera they call it,” Ram said.

Ezran didn’t even seem bothered. “It’s cursed?”

“No. Not at all. It’s just the illusions the moon mage puts up to keep humans away, but it’s just a normal caldera otherwise. Well, except for it being the Moon Nexus.”

Andromeda and Rayla took up the rear for a while, leaving Callum with Callisto.

“What will happen to the egg?” Callum asked. It was getting dimmer still.

“I don’t know,” Callisto said honestly. “I won’t know until we get there. Hopefully, Lujanne can help, but I’m not sure… she’s a moon mage and they only deal in illusions.”

“Lujanne?”

“The moon mage that lives on the nexus. She’ll know what needs to be done, but if she can do it will be another story. Storm dragons are only hatched in the eye of a storm. And I don’t know any storm magic that could help.”

Callum gulped. None of it sounded promising.

It took another day to reach the top of the caldera.

The trek up was an experience Callum did not want to live again. Giant spiders, strange creatures and voices. It didn’t seem to faze anyone else, but himself -- even if he tried not to let anyone know. Well, maybe it was obvious. When he looked back at Rayla, she had that little smirk on her face.

None of it seemed to scare her. Rayla was fearless. Callum was decidedly… not. Not faced with giant spiders, anyway. That was for sure.

Near the very top, they finally met this enigmatic moon mage.

“Runaan. As good as it is to see you again, I’m surprised that it’s you who’s up here making a fuss with my illusions.” Lujanne was a dark-skinned elf with the signature white hair of her kind. She wore a set of light green-blue tunics and robes. “What brings you to the nexus?”

Runaan approached her with an air of respect Callum hadn’t seen since coming to know him. “Shelter, if you can provide it. We’re being hunted by a dark mage and someone I used to know. We could use a reprieve from them if you’re willing to provide.”

Lujanne made a face. Worry slipped over her features. “A short reprieve? Too much attention to the nexus could endanger my ability to guard it. I’m a capable mage, but a dark mage and anybody you used to know must make for a formidable match.”

“No longer than a week. We need time to regroup. Gather ourselves. And we have nowhere else to go.”

She was thinking about it. But Lujanne’s face was kind and warm. “Very well. I would not turn you away in your time of need.”

“In return, we will protect you while we are here. Thank you, Lujanne.”

“You’re a good man, Runaan. I know you wouldn’t be here if you didn’t feel you had to.” She nodded. “Will you introduce me to the rest of your team?”

Lujanne knew Callisto and Andromeda, but not Ram or Skor. Then, they came to Callum and Rayla.

“The youngest of the assassins. I knew of you the first time I met Runaan. He mentioned you even all those years ago.”

Rayla’s ears pricked. She glanced at Runaan, then back to Lujanne. “Thank you for letting us stay here.”

Lujanne laughed. “Oh, it’s not a problem. Sorry about the giant spiders. I know they can be a bit of a surprise.”

“I wasn’t scared,” Rayla insisted. She nudged Callum. “But I think this guy was.”

Looking at Callum and Ezran, Lujanne cocked her head. “And you are--”

“A human, I know, but I promise we won’t cause any trouble,” Callum said with hunched shoulders, holding Ezran to him. “I know you’re supposed to guard this place from humans, but we’re not--”

“I was going to ask you for your names, but I appreciate that you won’t desecrate these sacred grounds during your stay,” Lujanne laughed again.

“I’m Callum,” Callum said. “And this is Ezran.”

“The Princes of Katolis.”

Runaan’s voice was hard to read even after all this time. Lujanne’s brows rose. Her face relaxed into that kindness that set Callum at ease. Then again, he was surrounded by assassins who’d been helping them this far. She wouldn’t be a danger to Ezran. He hoped.

“It’s good to meet you,” she said. Her gaze found the ever dimming dragon egg as Ram pulled it out. “It appears you have other things to discuss.”

Runaan nodded. “We do.”

-:-:-:-

Runaan warned Rayla not to eat anything without critical scrutiny. It wasn’t that Lujanne would poison them, he told her when she asked, it was just that Lujanne was… different. Rayla decided to believe him.

While Runaan and Ram met with Lujanne about the egg, Rayla found a place to be alone, just for a little while. She was sharpening her swords under a tree, enjoying the relative peace as brief or false as it was. Callum was taking a well deserved nap and Ezran had taken to Skor as well. Skor was teaching the boy how to defend himself, claiming he was too antsy to rest properly.

Callisto, not wanting to eat something his stomach wasn’t up for after a long journey, took it upon himself to mind dinner.

It gave Rayla time to think.

She thought about everything that had happened. She thought about her parents.

She thought about the guard she hadn’t told Callum about. That nagged at her. Did she have to tell him? Perhaps she didn’t. He might never know. Though she would know.

And she would know that he didn’t know because of what she refused to admit.

Was it wrong? If she was an assassin, then no. She killed in times of necessity. He was going to kill her what was more…

Then, she’d stuffed him in a box. Surely, someone discovered him by now. The body would have started to smell and people were going to notice he was missing. No doubt they’d combed the place through after what happened that night.

She was an assassin. It was her job.

Then, why did it feel so wrong?

When she thought about it, it wasn’t like she was thinking about her part in the mission. All she could think of was Callum asking her not to kill anyone if she could avoid it.

The lie she told .

Maybe this could have been avoided if she just explained it to him, but the idea of him looking at her with disgust. Disapproval. That scared her more than anything.

What would Ezran think? Would he be scared of her? Would he wake up and realize that the people he’d come to care about are all assassins who’d done what she’d done many times over?

Rayla never really had friends. Not really.

The life of an assassin dictated as such. It required her to keep people at arm’s length. But Runaan had Ethari. And he had had her parents.

In the back of her mind, she even knew he had her.

Skor had his wife and daughters. Andromeda had her family. Ram had his. Only Callisto seemed to be a loner, but even he had them. And perhaps some secret partner on the side. Ethari suspected as much, anyway, he mentioned it a while before this mission.

But Rayla’s parents were gone. She doubted they would ever show their faces again.

She only had Runaan, Ethari and this team

She had Ezran, now.

She also had Callum. Losing that… it left an ache in her chest.

Rayla kept on sharpening her blades under the tree. She would talk to Callisto again later.

-:-:-:-

Callum took a decent nap, but not a long one. He couldn’t sleep.

Perhaps because he wasn’t truly safe from Anarr and Morgan. And Viren.

Lord Viren was always there in the back of his mind. The man was like a black cloud since they left Katolis, and Callum couldn’t shake the feeling off of him. Anxiety, dense and numb, coated him like a blanket. It buried itself in the hollow of his chest.

He didn’t know where he’d be without the elves.

Or Rayla.

She always made him feel like everything would work out.

Even in the moments where he thought of Lady Eveline. The woman stayed in the back of his mind as did the sound her death made. Somehow, that was worse than seeing her splat on the ground.

Callum’s imagination played with the image in the back of his mind. Perhaps it was his artistic brain that was too curious. He kept getting flashes of what it could have looked like and each one made him sick. Once, it even made him get up in the middle of the night to go throw up. He didn’t know if Ezran heard him. Ezran never asked and Callum didn’t tell him.

Callum always considered himself fairly open with his feelings. He tried to be, anyway. As a child, his parents would take time to help him understand how he was feeling, and it had always served him well. Especially after the death of his mother.

But this… this was different. His feelings were too raw, his mind too averse to the image set before him by that sickening sound of Lady Eveline crashing to the ground. It was all too much.

All of this was too much sometimes. His life was too different. His friends now were different too. He felt bad for the thought, sometimes, but the way he lived his life these days was too different. When did he become okay with stealing?

When did he make friends with assassins?

But then he thought of Rayla. There was no denying that he was glad she was in his life. At what point did he stop being able to imagine a life without her in it? He didn’t know. He honestly hadn’t thought about it until now.

He also appreciated Andromeda’s affection for Ezran. Even Ram’s. It comforted him and made it a little easier to feel like his baby brother had the support he needed. Different as it all was.

Sometimes, Callum thought of Rayla in the dress from Meraxia and… truly, that had been the highlight of their journey thus far. She enjoyed herself that night. Somehow, that meant more and more to him these days.

Unable to nap properly, Callum went to go find her. Maybe she could show him how she gets her blades so sharp.

-:-:-:-

“Don’t agonize over this.”

“Callisto, but… don’t you ever want to tell someone about the things you’ve done? Even if they’re not…”

“Not good?” Silence. “I don’t have many people to tell or not to tell. The people who are here know. That is enough for me.”

“I guess that makes sense.” Rayla frowned. She wanted to ease her conscience.

“Rayla, Callum will understand. In his own time.”

She sat down on the bed. Callisto was gathering a small set of spices he’d managed to grab from the human town. Bland food was its own kind of demoralization, he told her.

She ducked her head. “How long will that be?”

Callisto sighed. “Telling him is your own choice. But if you choose to, this is all new to him. All of it. You must understand the pain that comes with being forced to adapt to a new life you never asked for. As much as he cares for you, he is still himself and you are still you.”

Rayla opened her mouth to reply, then closed it. He said nothing else. She sat on the bed, her chest somehow hollow and heavy at the same time. The truth ate away at her, gnawing like a termite. It was becoming harder to look at Callum and not be afraid now that they were in a relatively “safe” place where their lives weren’t inherently in danger.

“Rayla?”

Rayla jumped. How had she not heard him? Callum watched her worriedly.

“Callum, what’s wrong?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing.” He walked into the room, ready to comfort her like he always did. That broke her.

“Callum, wait.” She stood up and put her hands up to stop him. A question formed on his lips, but she stopped him. “I have something to tell you about what happened in Meraxia.”

Chapter Text

“Meraxia.”

Rayla nodded. Callum’s face was white. His shoulders tensed. He looked at her with bright, green eyes.

“What about Meraxia?” he asked.

Rayla’s heart was about to break through her chest. She pulled her arm closer to her. “Do… do you remember when I snuck into the palace?”

“Yes…” Callum said slowly.

She took a deep breath. “And you remember when you asked me to avoid hurting anyone… while I was in there?”

He frowned. “Rayla, what happened? Did somebody hurt you? I don’t understand.”

Something about the tone of his voice told her he did. She looked away from him. “No.”

“... Rayla, what did you do.”

Painful realization struck her. If she looked at him she would chicken out, but they were too far in now. There was no turning back on what she was about to tell Callum and she could only hope he understood, but Callisto was right.

As much as he cares for you, he is still himself and you are still you.

“I killed a guard in the palace.”

“... Rayla--”

“And I put his body in a box to make sure nobody would find him before we could do anything.”

Silence.

“Rayla, you told me--”

She cut him off. “I know what I told you, but that’s what happened.”

She looked at him, but regretted it almost immediately. Mixed emotions contorted his face and shone in his eyes. His brows furrowed in a way she couldn’t quite place. What was he thinking? She wished he’d just tell her already, so she didn’t have to sit here and deal with the suspense.

Rayla found the urge to defend herself. It hurt to see him struggling with the truth. Ethari wouldn’t have been so torn. He would have understood, kind as he was. But the face Callum was making highlighted the difference between her and Callum and the worlds they came from.

“Callum, I am so sorry. Listen, he found me and I know I should have told you, but he found me and we started fighting and he was going to kill me and he really hated elves, but we started fighting and I cut his--”

Stop. Rayla, stop. Don’t say anymore.” He put a hand up and shut his eyes.

Callum shook his head and turned away from her. He paced the room. Rayla held her own wrist to keep from shaking.

“Callum. I’m sorry-”

He rounded on her. “You told me nothing happened! Why did you tell me nothing happened if--”

“I didn’t know what you might say.”

“What was I supposed to say?” He threw his hands up. “You stuck his body in a box! Nobody should be treated like that!”

“He was going to kill me and then rat us all out, I had to do something! And he hated elves! I couldn’t let myself make that mistake again!”

“So, killing him was the answer, right? That’s what your natural solution was, right?” he raised his voice.

“Callum, please… you don’t understand what it means to be an assassin. All our lives were on the line! Including yours! He would have put us all in danger. I did what I thought I had to do for all of us.”

Callum let out a very bitter laugh. He turned away from her, rubbing his face. “I can’t believe this. Rayla, you promised. Did you even try to just knock him out? Or anything else?”

Rayla’s mouth fell open. “Callum, what else was I supposed to do? I had no other options. Don’t you understand? Please. Please try to understand. I already messed up before with the guard from the castle and my whole team almost died because of it. I couldn’t--”

Callum whirled back around. “Oh, you mean, the guard you wouldn’t kill on your mission to come kill my stepdad? And Ezran? That incident, Rayla?”

Rayla paused. Her brain scrambled for anything to say. “I just did what I thought was the right thing to do,” she said weakly. Callum clenched his fists. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you.”

“You’re sorry.”

Her eyes stung. “Callum, please--”

The pit in her belly hadn’t been there since her parents ran away. They ran away from their people. They ran from her. Somehow, the way Callum was looking at her, it felt the same.

You’re a liar and a murderer.”

Rayla’s heart dropped into the pit.

When she didn’t answer him, Callum looked away. He lingered for a moment, perhaps hoping she might have something to say. Maybe. She didn’t know.

Fuming with a strange, conflicted look on his face, Callum stormed off. He left her there in the room by herself. Rayla slowly moved to the bed and sat down, unsure of what else to do.

A liar.

And a murderer.

A liar.

And a murderer.

Rayla didn’t know what to make of that, frankly. She didn’t know what to think or what she was supposed to think. But being stabbed somehow felt the same. It hollowed her where all those feelings and not-feelings had been.

Her eyes stung, but she refused to cry. She refused, she refused, she--

The tears came and instead of fighting it here alone in the bedroom; she found her way to the floor and curled up, knees to her chest and cried. Nevermind who might walk in. Everyone else was busy.

And Callum wasn’t coming back anyway.

-:-:-:-

Callum’s mind went to a thousand places. A million if he followed the black cloud and the toxic rain pouring over his day now. Some part of him felt guilty. Another part justified. Then another, angry.

It didn’t matter. He stalked off, searching for any place Rayla wasn’t. He couldn’t be around her right now.

How could she do that to him? After everything, she lied. And continued to lie to him. What else had she lied about?

The feeling burned so hot inside him that he almost didn’t know where it was coming from. He couldn’t imagine feeling this way over a suspicion that had crossed his mind once. Maybe twice. But he always pushed it away. Always dismissed it. Because she would tell him? Right? Rayla would be honest with him about anything. They’d been through so much together. Even if they’d known each other a short time.

Basically, a month.

Callum bit the inside of his cheek. But he always reasoned their month together wasn’t a typical month. Escaping death and danger for weeks on end made you closer to a person, he found. It made you want to make sure they were okay. There were things which made this newly formed bond feel real. Genuine. Callum believed he had this connection with Rayla.

He still did, but his brain couldn’t get over the hurdle of this lie. It latched and wouldn’t let go like tar on stone walls.

Callum walked for a while. He didn’t want to be around the other elves right now, nor did he really want to explain himself to anyone else. Ezran didn’t need to hear about this either. Instead, he explored the ruins they’d passed by.

The Moonhenge is what Callisto called it when Callum asked. Large, impossibly high stones erected to form a circle around a floor etched with moon runes. A waterfall and pools of water accompanied the steps and the stones. Moss grew on the stairs and between the cracks from lack of maintenance.

The ruins were enchanting. Beautiful, even. Earlier that day, Callum walked around for a moment to peer at the runes on the floor. He planned to ask Callisto or Lujanne about all of this later.

He’d wanted to bring Rayla here.

Callum growled.

Every time he thought of what she’d done, his face burned and his insides bubbled with the rise. He couldn’t think straight.

She cut the man’s throat. She put him in a box.

The sick thud.

Callum stopped walking. He squeezed his eyes shut.

The scream. The thud of a body hitting the floor.

Blood.

Callum pushed it all away and kept walking. How could she do that to someone else?

How could she not?

The questions danced inside his skull all while his mind circled about the fact that she lied about it. Deeper roots worked their way through those thoughts and he pretended like there was nothing there at all.

-:-:-:-

They’d been riding for some time when he noticed the silence.

It was becoming increasingly obvious that Claudia wasn’t happy about this arrangement. Soren tried to joke with her, but she didn’t take the bait. For a while, he kept silent and focused on the mission. Crownguard mode. Though, that was hard considering the cargo they were carrying. Those two eerie crates were plain, but they gave off a… feeling. He had no other way to describe it, but every time he thought about what was in them, he shuddered.

Finally, he sighed and said Claudia’s name to get her attention. She didn’t respond, so he said it again.

“I know this isn’t… great--”

“It’s horrible, Soren. Callum and Ezran are our friends. We should get rid of these elves and bring them home. Not do...”

“What Dad said?” He understood. It baffled him, too. But this was Dad, right? He knew what he was doing.

Right?

Soren wrangled with that, but Claudia sighed. “I know Dad’s counting on us. I know he is. I just don’t like it. I-I hate it.”

“Well, maybe… maybe we can convince him differently if we do bring the princes home?” He raised his brows at the question on her face. “Listen, if we kill the Moonshadow elves and bring the step-prince and the crown runt--”

Soren.

“--back home, then maybe we can convince them or-- or unconvince? Yeah, sure, unconvince them of whatever the elves told them. Listen, Dad’s smart, right? If anyone can get Callum and Ezran back on our side, it’s him. And we’d be doing them a favor, anyway.”

Claudia thought about it. He could see things working in her head in that... Claudia way it did. Her expression betrayed her thoughts. “Yeah…” she smiled. “Yeah. You’re right, Soren. We don’t have to kill them at all! All we have to do is convince them that the elves are wrong and problem solved. Besides, Ez is, like, ten. He should be easy enough to convince, right?”

“Exactly. Problem solved.” Soren smirked. “I know. I’m a genius.”

Claudia suppressed a laugh. He shot her a look, but softened a second later. It was worth it.

“We’re almost there. We should make camp for the night though.”

It was getting late, the setting sun leaving faster than he’d expected. Admittedly, Soren had been in his own mind, too.

He looked to their horizon.

A caldera was in view.

-:-:-:-

“How come you're mad at Rayla?”

Callum frowned at Ezran. He was taking off his shoes and getting ready for bed. In his black mood, Callum hadn’t seen him most of the day. Lujanne had found a spot in the nexus to preserve the egg while they tried their damndest to find a solution, and Ezran had visited with Andromeda. Runaan was still there.

“I’m fine.” Ezran just gave him a look. Callum hunched his shoulders. “ We’re fine. Okay? Just drop it.”

“You guys didn’t even talk to each other at dinner though. What happened?”

“Ez, please. Let’s just go to bed. It’s been a long day.”

“But Callum--”

Ezran. Stop.

Ezran frowned and shrank back. Bait turned red. A pang of guilt nestled in Callum’s chest, and he sighed. “I’m sorry. I just… she told me something. And I’m upset about it.”

“... are you mad at her?”

“Yeah.”

Silence.

Ezran broke it first. “What did she tell you?”

Callum hunched his shoulders. Okay, his little brother wasn’t ready for that. He was just a kid of ten. “It’s nothing.”

“How is it nothing if you guys are fighting this bad? I’m not stupid, Callum. You and Rayla have been really close since Meraxia. I’m tired of adults lying to me. You don’t need to lie to me, too.”

Callum paused. The guilt festered.

“I... In Meraxia, when Rayla snuck into the palace, I asked her not to hurt anyone. I asked her not to kill anyone. But she did. She killed a guard in there.”

Ezran didn’t say anything and Callum couldn’t get himself to look at his face. Horrified? Shock? Both?

It was something since he stayed quiet for so long. “I… why-- why did she do that?”

“He saw her and they were fighting. And it just happened. I guess. She says he was going to kill her. I know, it’s horrible, and that’s why I didn’t want to tell you, okay? I’m not ready for you to know those things.”

“What?”

“You’re not ready, Ez. To you, Rayla’s a good person who’s been our friend and now--”

Ezran frowned. He sat Bait on the bed. “And she’s still our friend, Callum. That hasn’t changed.”

“It’s complicated.”

“Okay? So are our entire lives right now. I don’t want to lose one of the only friends we have because she was defending herself.”

Callum ran his hands through his hair. He bristled. He paced. “See! See, you don’t get it. You think just because-- just because they were fighting that it’s okay for her to take his life? He had a family! People that cared about him! And she took his life! She didn’t even try to deal with it any other way. How are you okay with that?

Ezran looked at him for a long time. “I’m not okay with anything that’s happened. I haven’t been for a while and I’m only becoming okay with things now. But if there’s anything I can try to give Rayla a chance to explain, it’s why she, an assassin, would kill a guard who would have taken us back home.”

“Ezran--”

I don’t want to go back home. And if Rayla’s only trying to protect us then, yes! I’m okay with it! Because Lord Viren will kill us.” Callum froze as Ezran started pacing. As Ezran started bristling, with tears pricking at his eyes. “ Isn’t that what you said? What you’ve been saying for weeks? Or did I get it wrong?”

Callum tried, “Ez, calm down. It’s okay. I’m sorry--”

Dad’s dead. And Lord Viren killed him, right? Is he going to kill us like he killed Dad? How did he even kill Dad? You never told me! You haven’t told me anything since you just picked me up and told me we were leaving! So, yeah. If Rayla has to kill someone so we don’t have to go back there after all of that then I guess I’m okay with it. Whatever okay means, anymore.”

“Ezran.” Callum put his hands on Ezran’s shoulders. He held his quivering brother tight as Bait turned blue and croaked at them both. Callum was shaking, but he squeezed Ezran’s shoulders. “I… I killed someone in Meraxia.”

Ezran looked up at him with big eyes and shook his head. They brimmed with tears. “I’m okay with that.”

Callum’s eyes stung. He hugged his brother tight as Ezran’s sniffles became sobbing. Ezran hugged him back and didn’t let go for a long time. Eventually, he went to bed and slept like the dead.

Callum’s sleep was restless and less than peaceful.

-:-:-:-

Breakfast the next morning was awkward when Rayla and Callum weren’t talking. Callisto didn’t know what happened exactly, but he had a feeling.

What’s more, Rayla looked sad about it. That was going to be a problem. Out of the corner of his eye, Callisto could see Runaan observing. Whether he was aware of what was going on, Callisto doubted. But he was suspicious, and that was enough.

After breakfast, Runaan and Ram went to go speak with Lujanne about the egg. The young prince followed them, less bounce in his step than normal. Callisto found Rayla, far from Callum, training with a gnarly tree near her room.

“You’ll ruin your sword like that,” Callisto stood behind her, watching. “You know that.”

“It’s fine.”

“Rayla.”

Rayla stopped and slumped. “I told him.”

Callisto didn’t need an elaboration. “You must understand, Rayla. You are from two different worlds. Humans have different things they value than we do. He was never going to react the way you might have hoped.”

It seemed to make her sadder. “I was stupid.”

“About?”

He could see her suppressing a wobbling lip. “Everything.”

“He cares for you. Give him time.”

Rayla eyed him suspiciously. He couldn’t blame her too terribly. Callisto might come talk to her once in a while, but it wasn’t something he made a habit of. This was something Ethari might do. Maybe even Runaan, though nobody would put stock in Runaan approaching anyone about feelings very well.

He did that about as well as Rayla did, frankly.

She looked him over, but said, “I can’t help it if he hates me now. That’s his problem.”

But even she knew that wasn’t convincing. She didn’t even try to pretend she convinced herself. Typical Rayla would have stormed off, upset and fuming at the world. This Rayla still fumed, but something seemed… more broken than before.

Heartbroken over something that almost was.

“You think you’ve lost him.”

Silence.

Callisto sighed. “His world isn’t the world he knew anymore. Give him time, Rayla”

She stopped fiddling with her swords. Considered his words. He thought to leave her to her thoughts, but quieter than he’d ever heard her, she said, “I never really had a friend like that before.” She switched her blades closed and put them back under her hood. “It was nice.”

Callisto watched her walk off.

Callisto walked to the edge of the terrace and could see Callum in the distance, reading alone. He had his head in his hand. His shoulders slumped like Rayla’s.

He was getting too old for this.

-:-:-:-

Callum could barely concentrate on the Book of Runes. He was trying to read it, but the events of the day before left his focus in tatters. But he didn’t have the heart to draw since the subject he ended up drawing was Rayla.

It wasn’t intentional, but he realized the issue was on his mind no matter how much he wished it wasn’t.

Earlier, he’d popped in on the egg. More so to check on Ezran, but he was becoming curious -- and concerned -- about the egg.

“Is it alright?” he asked Lujanne.

Lujanne looked up from her reading. “It’s… not a good sign. It grows dimmer each day. Storm dragons can only be born during a storm. And they are born once every thousand years. I am doing what I can, but I’m afraid…”

Lujanne looked at Runaan. His face was grave.

Now, try as he might, Callum could find nothing in the book. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, really.

His mind still raced and slugged. But it always came back to the same sound.

The sick thud.

Lady Eveline’s scream.

The sick sound of her body hitting the ground.

Callum shut his eyes. When he closed them, he thought of Rayla.

He stood up, growling, and threw the book on the ground. It fell open to the very last page: inside of the back cover. Callum walked over to pick it up, so tired, despite the day not being over. A nap sounded great, if he was honest.

He went to pick up the book, then paused. Someone wrote something on the inside of the back cover.

Sloppily, but legible enough to make out.

“I find it hard to believe that you’re happy out here with no one to talk to.”

Callum turned, Callisto was sharpening his knives and approaching him. In another life, a month ago, it might have made Callum nervous.

Callum relaxed and closed the book. It would have to wait. “I’m alright. Just needed some time to think.”

“About Rayla.”

Was it that obvious?

Then again, it hadn’t escaped Callum’s notice that she hadn’t been very talkative either. Not that Rayla was ever more talkative than him on most occasions, but he hadn’t heard or seen her all day except maybe for the possibly phantom sound of her swords.

He’d been trying not to think about what she was doing.

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“You would make a poor assassin,” Callisto didn’t look at him, instead examining the edge of his knife.

Callum bristled. “Well, I didn’t exactly want to kill people for a living.”

Callisto ignored him. “You wear your heart on your sleeve. It makes you a decent human. Make no mistake about it, elves value such a trait as well. Rayla’s father was like that. She gets it from him.”

“Her father.” Callum paused. “Well, she doesn’t act like it.”

“Rayla’s ability to mask the things on her mind and her heart makes her good at what she does. It’s not something that comes naturally to her. And she doesn’t always do it well.”

“What are you trying to say?” Callum was exhausted. Moonshadow elves were either really straightforward or really cryptic. Today, he wished they’d be more straightforward with him.

Callisto shoved a knife in Callum’s hand. Callum looked at him, then back at Callisto as he put distance between them.

“Defend yourself.”

“What--”

Callisto lunged. Callum ducked just barely. Callisto’s knife caught his sleeve.

“Wait--wait, are you crazy?”

Callisto wasn’t listening. He grabbed Callum by the back of his collar and threw him to the ground. Callum didn’t have the good sense to roll out the way fast enough. He raised his arms, knife in hand, but Callisto smacked it away with an audible clang.

He put the tip of his knife to Callum’s throat.

“I’m about to kill you. What do you do now?”

Callum gaped.

Then he closed his mouth. His eyes lowered to the knife. Callisto removed his knee from Callum’s chest. He offered a hand.

And Callum took it wordlessly. They said nothing as Callisto collected his remaining knife and left him standing there.

-:-:-:-

Rayla felt sore on her sides. She’d trained all day. Not that it wasn’t normal for her to do that back home, but she’d trained harder than she normally might. It distracted her from the fight with Callum. He hadn’t approached her at all, and the sun was beginning to set.

She should go to bed.

She should rest and just let herself recuperate from their insane journey thus far.

Rayla ignored her sore sides and her stinging eyes. Nobody would come stop her. She took her blades back out and, after sharpening them for a time, went back to her training.

-:-:-:-

The great doors of the temple were beautiful and, he had to admit that Moonshadow buildings were beautiful. Inside and out.

Callum didn’t want to sleep. Not yet. Maybe not tonight at all. He told Ezran that he was taking a walk and would come to bed soon, but part of him knew that might not happen. Ezran knew it, too. His little brother hugged him and let him go without a fuss.

Callum was grateful for it and told Ezran he loved him before taking off. Not that he was going too far.

He ended up at the temple of the Moon Nexus. Searching. What for? He wasn’t sure. But he searched, and he found the inside of the temple beautiful, runes full of intriguing mystery and arcane wonder. A tightness gripped his chest. He would never do most of these. He had a primal stone, but it meant he could only do sky magic and only with the primal stone with him.

He wasn’t entirely sure he could keep his promise to his stepdad with only that to work with, especially if Callisto’s demonstration was anything to go by.

Then again, that wasn’t exactly the reason why he attacked him.

“Are you lost, Callum?”

Callum looked up from the runes he was admiring. Lujanne unfolded herself from her meditation spot.

“I’m sorry, Lujanne. I didn’t mean to disturb you. I can leave--”

“It’s alright. Although I see that you’re up awfully late. What has your mind wandering all the way out here?”

Callum shook his head. “It’s nothing.”

She rose from her spot and beckoned him to come closer. “I don’t exactly get many visitors, but I have a lot of time to reflect. Perhaps I can help?”

Lujanne smiled. Callum approached her even as he wanted to brush it off. Maybe not talk about it. Though that seemed to be the problem at hand.

“It’s Rayla, isn’t it?”

He looked at her with wide eyes. Then, sighed. How did everyone just know that?

“Is nothing a secret around here?’

Lujanne laughed. “You’re not the greatest actor. And I may have had some help.”

Callum just gave her a skeptical look, but he relented. “I just… don’t really know what to think. She killed someone. How am I supposed to be okay with that? I get it, but how? She’s… Rayla’s…”

He struggled with the words to say. There were a lot of things he could say about Rayla.

“Callum. Look at me.”

Lujanne’s face was somber, but kind. He listened.

“Rayla is an assassin. If you love her the way I think you do, you must accept all parts of her. You must also forgive yourself for what happened in Meraxia.”

His tight chest became impossibly tighter at the things she said. But the last part caught him the most off guard. “Wait, how do you know about that?”

“You’ve turned the heart of a few of these assassins.” She smirked, then smiled. “Callisto told me. I think he was concerned about you.”

His head was spinning. “But what does that make me? What does that make Rayla, then?”

“Callum…” She said softly. “Tell me, why did you kill that woman?”

He looked away. “I-it was an accident. I didn’t mean—“

“It’s alright. You can tell me.”

“... she was going to hurt Rayla. She’d already been through so much that night and I just couldn’t-- She was going to cut Rayla’s head off. I-I didn’t know what else to do. It all happened too fast.”

Silence. He let it sit there. His mind stewed. He’d murdered Lady Eveline. That sick thud played in his head, again, and again, and again. It was his fault she was dead, and she’d died so horribly. He couldn’t--

“In your heart of hearts.” Lujanne’s voice brought him back to reality. “Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?”

“I… I don’t know.”

“I think you do. And I’m sorry it ended that way.” Her voice was quiet as she spoke to him. “Callum, look at the moon. Do you know what is always constant about it? It is forever cycling between darkness and light. Because it is made of both. The world is the same.”

He shook his head. Hated the sound of it. His chest hurt. His eyes stung.

“It shouldn’t be that way.”

“Some things just are. And we can only adapt to it. Not change it.”

“So, what? Is that it? We’re just supposed to accept it? Let people keep hurting each other?”

“No, but sometimes to stop the cycle you must become a part of it. Understand it.”

Callum’s head was going to burst from the frustration. A few earnest tears escaped, and he quickly wiped them away “How does that make any sense?”

“The only thing we can do is try to make sense of it. For Moonshadow elves, that means justice. For you, that means compassion. Neither are wrong and neither are right. Neither are mutually exclusive.” She put a hand on his shoulder.

“So, what do I do?”

“Realize that you can only know what you know. And you know one thing, right now.”

-:-:-:-

Callum found Rayla packing up for the day. She seemed like she was finally going to bed. Maybe. It was pretty late, either way.

He knew she heard him when he came closer. Her shoulders were hunched when he approached her even if she tried to look busy, pretending to casually examine her blades.

He reached out first. Callum put a hand over hers and lowered her sword from between them. “I know you’re not looking at it. Just hear me out.”

Rayla glared at him. It softened. He hated the sadness in her eyes because it came from him. Still, he had to sort this out.

Callum sighed. He was exhausted and ran his fingers through his hair again, not caring if it was a mess. “Look, I… I don’t like it. I kind of hate what you did, but I can’t put it all on you. My head is a mess and I don’t know what to feel, exactly. But I do know one thing and I don’t want to be like this with you. Or be mad at you.”

He glanced at her, and she was looking at him with wide eyes. He continued.

“I don’t know how to deal with what you told me. I’m not happy about it. I don’t know how to accept it right now. But… some of that has to do with what I did in Meraxia. Just give me time to sort it out, okay?”

Rayla’s ears drooped. “I understand.”

She put her swords away and turned to leave, but he caught her hand. He still hadn’t made the conversation clear. “But I meant what I said about not wanting to be mad at you. I’ll work that out. I promise. I’m not leaving you, no matter what.”

Rayla just stared at him. Her eyes were wide, and they were overbright. She blinked her tears away and looked away from him. “Callum… I, um. I’m sorry, okay? I just--”

He squeezed her hand and pulled her into a hug.

He held her tight and didn’t let go. If she said the word, he would, but he hoped she might understand what he was trying to do. What he was trying to say.

She returned the hug, her hands reached up his back to really hold him in her embrace.

Callum let out a huge sigh of relief. “I missed you.”

She leaned into him. “I missed you, too.”

Chapter Text

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--

Claudia screamed--

--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--

"Wait!"

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...

He guessed.

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."

"Soren, focus!"

"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--"

"Soren."

"-- 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?"

Right. Her.

What was her name again?

What did Callum call her when he brought them their breakfast?

Rayla.

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.

"It's alright."

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.

"What's wrong?"

"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?”

"No."

There was that feeling again. Tight and miserable.

He knew what turned his and Ezran’s life upside down.

"Callum--"

"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?"

Callum froze.

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."

"Yeah, but--"

"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.

"Hey."

"... Hey."

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--"

Knock, knock

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--"

"Callum."

"--not be entirely comfortable and I totally respect that and--"

"Callum."

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."

"... what?"

"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.

"T-that's... yeah."

"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.

Chapter Text

Typically, he tried not to concern himself with the business of others.

Ram tried not to act too strange when he wandered toward Rayla’s general training space. What was he going to say? He should say nothing, but Skor put him up to this and Ram’s curiosity got the better of him, as usual.

Rayla wasn’t happy considering the way she was training and sulking.

Her brow furrowed from more than concentration. He treaded lightly.

“Your form is a little aggressive today,” he said. “Don’t you think you might want to rest?”

“Not really,” she grumbled. When the world irritated her that’s usually what she did.

Ram found something else to look at when she glanced at him. And he called himself an assassin. Fearsome and deadly.

That was definitely him.

“... where’s Callum?”

She threw her sword harder. “With Claudia.”

“The dark mage?”

Rayla made a less than friendly sound, but that was about as much affirmation as he would get. Ram let her be, winding his way back to his room with Skor.

Skor raised his brows. “Well?”

“Well, she’s mad and you’re right. He’s with the mage.” Ram shut the door behind him. “You don’t suppose Rayla’s upset he’s with the dark mage rather than he’s with the dark mage?

Skor frowned. “There’s a difference?”

“Yes, of course. Well... maybe. The question is, who is she upset with? Is she upset that she’s with him or is she upset that he’s with her?”

“Make some focking sense, man. I have a headache.”

My point,” Ram said, finding a chair. “Is that Rayla’s mad because of how she feels about Callum. Why else would she be angry?”

That much was obvious. More than obvious at this point. Those two were inseparable, and it surprised him that Runaan hadn’t noticed it. Ram pitied the boy when Runaan finally noticed. But Runaan was busy, his mind on the egg and, when not on the egg, his mind was on Anarr. His past and present issues with Anarr.

He doubted anyone would tolerate a human and an elf falling in love in such a precarious situation. Let alone Rayla falling for a human. Runaan’s opinion on humans wasn’t a secret. Nor was it a rare one. Far from it, in fact.

But Ram admitted that this human didn’t inspire any ire in his heart. The boy’s brother was also quite the opposite, and there was little doubt of Andromeda’s love for him. Runaan allowed it. Perhaps as a mercy or a crack in an assassin’s heart.

And Callum saved Callisto’s life. That hadn’t gone unnoticed by any of them.

Least of all by Callisto.

“Of course she’s angry that Callum is with the girl.”

Ram pursed his lips. “...do you think he likes the girl?”

“That’s not really our concern.”

“Isn’t it? I mean... it could impede the mission.”

Skor paused and searched Ram’s face. His nosy, curious face. Something shifted in his features to thoughtfulness. “It’s... possible. I can’t imagine why, but he grew up with the girl.”

“But you’ve seen the way he looks at Rayla.”

“And I’ve seen the way he holds her. I’ve been in love. I know what it looks like, even on young souls like them.”

What are you two talking about?”

Raising their heads, Callisto was walking in, Andromeda trailing behind them.

“Nothing I’m sure you’re not aware of. You followed them in Meraxia. Am I supposed to believe they got lost on the way back?” Skor asked.

“I know what I saw. I want to make it home alive and chose not to mention it,” Callisto said.

“You hoped it would go away.”

Callisto had no reply. He had hoped, Ram realized. To spare them all the gracious experience of dealing with it.

And telling Runaan.

“You’ve seen the way they are with each other,” Ram said. “They have true feelings for one another.”

Andromeda crossed her arms. “Why are you encouraging this? It’s not as if they could be together once we’re in Xadia. It’s best if this passes by quietly.”

Skor scoffed. “Yes, ignore the growing feelings of two teenagers and hope it goes away. Every story that ever happened in went so well.”

“It would never be accepted in The Silvergrove.”

“You can’t wish away what they feel, Andromeda. Try it and tell me how it goes for you.”

Callisto raised a brow. “Since when were you such a romantic?”

“I’m not,” Skor shrugged. “I’m a realist. I don’t want us all to die because of their hormones.”

“Oh?” Andromeda said. “So, you will tell Runaan?”

One look between them all and they knew nobody would do anything of the sort without good cause. Too many problems on his shoulders and too little patience to deal with a situation so delicate.

Not that he’d ever dealt with feelings well, including his own.

It was no secret that Ethari had disagreed with Rayla’s placement on this mission. She had proven herself though. Ram wondered at what cost, but she had proven herself nonetheless. This life wasn’t for everyone.

Still, she was one of them.

“We keep quiet,” Callisto finally said. “We keep an eye out. We interfere when it might put us in danger. Nothing else concerns us.”

Skor just sat back, watching Callisto with unreadable eyes. “You keep telling yourself that.”

-:-:-:-

His hair.

His stupid hair.

Callum tried to keep it down with a bit of water, which only made him look dangerously close to a sopping idiot. If he could just keep some stray ends down, that would be enough.

But to no avail. He was going to lose this fight.

In the mirror, Callum saw a boy he maybe knew. Finally, a date with Claudia. A team of assassins as his travelling party. Xadia as his destination.

Three things he never expected.

At least, with Claudia he always hoped, and hope came through for him. This was a silver lining, at least.

Well, one of them anyway. Rayla had been the highlight of his days this past month. He thought about leaving her another letter.

Later, though. For now, he had to focus on the task at hand. Trying not to look like a complete idiot in front of Claudia might be a tall order in his experience, but he would do his best to just have a good time.

Tonight, he wanted a nice date.

Nevermind how different he felt from a month ago and how unlike himself he would probably feel in an hour. A shell of another life he wanted and still wants, but didn’t know how to have.

His mind raced with the possibilities.

“You know, Claudia probably wont’ care if your hair is nice or not.”

Callum jumped and twisted in Ezran’s direction.

“Ez!” Callum laughed nervously. “I thought you were with the egg?”

“I was, but I just needed a break. Lujanne’s doing a good job at keeping it alive. I’m talking to it too, and it’s responding, but... she says I should rest. She says I’m doing a pretty good job. Even Andromeda thinks so!”

“That’s great, Ez,” Callum said sincerely. “I’m proud of you. You’re really putting your all into this.”

Ezran sat on the bed, a small, maybe sad smile. “Thanks... I hope it helps. In the end, I just want to help. Maybe make a difference that feels real.”

Callum sat next to Ezran and pulled him into a hug. “I get what you mean. We finally have a chance to rest and all I can think about is what things were like before.”

“They’re never going to be the same, huh?” Ezran peered up at him. Callum’s face fell. Ezran smiled. “You don’t have to lie to me. I know it won’t. Sometimes, I just wish. Everything’s so different now. I kind of don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Are you afraid?”

Ezran nodded. “... what if they don’t make jelly tarts in Xadia?”

Callum laughed, even as Ezran blinked his tears away. His own eyes couldn’t help but sting. “It’s going to be okay, Ez. No matter what. We’re going to be okay. I promise.”

Ezran hugged him back. “Thanks, Callum... shouldn’t you get going for your date?”

“I will. You’re more important first. That hasn’t changed.”

After Ezran left, Callum looked at the rune book on the vanity. Maybe... maybe Claudia would know what this spell did. He hadn’t looked back at it lately, with everything going on the past day or two, but it drew him in. His instincts beckoned him to try performing it.

He grabbed the book on the way out, then changed his mind and returned it to the vanity. No, not the entire book. That would stay with him. He tore out a piece of paper from his sketchbook and wrote the spell down.

He could just tell her he heard about it on the way from Katolis.

There was a part of him against her knowing he took her father’s book. He hated lying to Claudia, but somehow found it necessary. Just this once.

Since when did he justify lying?

Things kept going back to that same sentiment. It was running through his mind and Ezran’s mind.

Everything was different now.

-:-:-:-

Runaan didn’t expect the elder prince to come see the egg.

He was no fool. He knew the boy avoided him.

Good.

Runaan had too many things on his mind to bear the weight of Callum’s conscious as well. It wasn’t as if Runaan wasn’t aware of Callum’s action. But he never turned an eye to them unless it required his attention.

That was why it piqued his interest when Prince Callum showed up. They were silent for a time. Runaan didn’t greet him. Callum didn’t either, but he broke the silence.

“I wanted to see the egg. Ezran said Lujanne’s doing her best.”

“Lujanne’s efforts have tired her. She can’t continue to keep the egg alive.”

Callum frowned. “But isn’t it helping?”

“Lujanne is no miracle worker. She can only do what she can do. The egg’s life depends on the strength of its will to live.”

Life.

“How does that make sense? It’s only an egg.”

Runaan didn’t look at him. “Lujanne has more things she can try. She is doing the best she can and the egg lives. For now. We’re running out of time and none of us know what else to do. Believe me, I would take any measure to save Xadia’s future, but I cannot create a miracle.”

The silence between them was deadening.

“... but you can take a life.”

Runaan still didn’t look at him.

He sighed. “How can you do it so easily?”

Runaan frowned. “If you believe that it’s easy to take a life, then you know nothing. You know nothing about my culture, my people. You know nothing about me.”

“You know nothing about me and I’m sure you have your assumptions.”

“I admit I had my misgivings about you because you’re human. Just as you had — have your assumptions about me. I’ve ceased to assume anything about you. It seems your assumptions reach beyond me.”

“What do you mean?”

This time, Runaan turned to him. “You believe it is easy for me to take a life. That you believe it is easy for any of us tells me enough of what you may or may not understand. Even years later, it is still not something I take lightly.” Runaan glowered at him. “Life is precious. Life is valuable. We take it, but we do not take it lightly.”

Callum opened his mouth to reply. He said nothing and closed it.

The boy knew what he knew. Runaan would not pretend that he was perfect and didn’t give the boy less credit than perhaps he should. He tried not to think about the human prince.

Runaan turned away from him. “Be sure your friends don’t make any trouble.”

-:-:-:-

The moon was shining bright and white on the stone. He could see Claudia dressed in dark robes, even from a distance. Her hair was up, an ivory flower tucked into her bun.

Callum saw her for what she was: living poetry. His heart thumped with impatience. Nervousness. Glee.

Making sure his hair was as neat as he could get it, he approached her, the spell in his pocket.

Claudia turned to him and smiled when she saw him.

“... beautiful...” The word left Callum’s mouth before he caught himself. “I-isn’t it? It’s a beautiful night.”

Claudia laughed. “It is. The moonlight is perfect.”

It was. For once, everything seemed perfect. More than perfect when Claudia took his hand and squeezed it. He had to remember to squeeze it back.

“As amazing as these ruins are,” she said, looking around. “Are you going to take me to the nexus or are we just going to stand here looking at each other?”

“O-oh! Right, of course—”

“Not that I would mind the other thing as well.”

Callum’s face was warm. “Let’s go. You really have to see this.”

Hand in hand, Callum kept Claudia’s in his since she seemed more than happy to let him take the lead. All this time, he’d always been the one to follow her. Where she went, he wanted to be. Now, it appeared to be mutual.

Hadn’t he waited his entire life for this?

His heartbeat and giddiness jumped from nerve to nerve. It was a fight to keep himself from fidgeting too much.

What would Rayla tell him?

She would tell him not to be so nervous, obviously. Everything seemed so obvious to her. Then, she might say his name.

Rayla would make him look at her and tell him it would be okay.

And he’d believe her.

She didn’t have to do anything to make him believe her.

Gathering some courage, Callum looked at Claudia and smiled. “So... you know a lot of spells, don’t you?”

This was as good a time as any to ask, right? He needed something to talk about. Anything.

“Oh, I know a ton. Fancy some dark magic while we’re out here? I always have a thing or two on me to—”

“No, no, nothing like that,” Callum laughed. She almost seemed disappointed, but kept listening. “I just have something I, uh— I found this spell while we were on our travels. I was wondering if you knew what it was.”

They were almost to the nexus, but Callum stopped them and pulled out the spell from his pocket. The rune was slightly complicated, but nothing he couldn’t remember and replicate. Still, it differed from the others.

Claudia raised her brows. “Oh, wow. Where did you find this?”

“Just, uh, in this town. I was in their library and—”

“This rune starts a storm. I’ve never used it. Don’t know how, even though I used to try as a kid. It’s a hefty bit of magic. My father told me about it and showed me once.”

He resisted the urge to gulp.

But Claudia gave it back to him without even so much as an odd look. If anything, she looked impressed. “I guess your travels haven’t been all bad, have they?”

“No,” he said, taking her hand again and bringing her up the stairs to the nexus. “Especially not when I can see things like this.”

They reached the top of the stairs, and Claudia gasped. Pooling moonlight filled the lake, reflecting the moon itself in the water and bringing the sky to them. It was the perfect scenery. The most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. He used to look at the moon and see something in the sky that was pretty, but now he looked at it as something comforting.

When he saw the full moon, he felt safe. Not just from danger, but from everything that could take him away from himself.

The moon was his anchor.

Why, he didn’t know.

Maybe he did, but he tried not to think about it when he was trying to watch Claudia’s expression. Her face was flushed, her eyes sparkled with delight and wonder. She grew closer to the edge, resting her hands on the stone in front of her.

“I... I’m speechless.”

“I came here during the day, but never at night,” Callum said. He looked at the lake. “Incredible, isn’t it?”

“It’s beautiful, Callum.”

“...do you think all of Xadia is like this?”

Claudia turned to him. Her face wasn’t unpleasant, but... unreadable. Then, she smiled. “I’m sure there are similar places. There’s a lot of magic in Xadia. Sometimes, it makes me sad.”

Callum frowned. “Sad? Why?”

She shook her head. “Because humans can’t see any of it. We’re not allowed. Even now that Thunder is dead, Xadia would never share their magic with us.”

Callum laughed a bit. She gave him a questionable look. “No, I’m not laughing at you. It’s just... I understand now. I never did before, but elves don’t see magic as theirs to share or keep. Protect, maybe. But it’s not like money to them. Does that make sense? They are magic. It’s a part of them. Even to those who aren’t mages. It’s just... part of their identity.”

Claudia blinked. Her face broke into a smile. “Callum, the way you view the world... it’s so different.”

“Good different?”

She took his hand. “Yeah. I think so. You should share some of it with me. Imagine the things we could do.”

Callum’s mind paused. But he drew closer to Claudia. He didn’t smile. “I’ve... done some bad things.”

“What do you mean?”

His shoulders hunched. “I... Lady Eveline. She knew my mother. I knew her. We used to go to Meraxia when we were kids and... I killed her. I-I didn’t mean it. I didn’t want to. She was horrible. She was a monster. But she wasn’t always like that and I can’t stop hearing her die. I want it to stop.”

Her brows furrowed. “Callum... I’m so sorry. You’ve been through so much. That wasn’t your fault. You... I don’t like it, but I don’t blame you for trying to get out of there. You shouldn’t either.”

“But what I did to her... it breaks my heart.”

“She was going to kill you, Callum. Don’t let her hurt you like this. She’s gone and she can’t hurt you anymore.”

“Shouldn’t it though?”

“Shouldn’t it what?”

Callum looked at her. His eyes stung. “Break my heart.”

Claudia closed the gap between them. “I know that’s how it feels, but... I don’t think so.”

He wasn’t sure what to say. What to do. His stirrings inside didn’t... they didn’t feel right.

But looking into Claudia’s eyes that instinct quieted . They were beautiful. She was beautiful. And the way she looked at him made him draw closer to her. He didn’t know what that look was. Not in words, anyway, but he knew it meant something. That something had drawn him closer to her, Claudia’s eyes closed.

They were so close he could feel her breathing, her sweet breath tickling his nose.

He just about dipped in for a kiss—

Her lips. They were right there.

He’d waited for this moment almost his entire life.

Callum closed his eyes and leaned forward.

He stopped.

-:-:-:-

Rayla sat on a boulder under the tree near her room when Callum found her. His chest tightened, but the storm was quiet in there. It stilled when he saw her sitting just out of the moonlight. Not that he needed the light. He knew Rayla’s form no matter where she was.

She heard him as he approached her and sat on the twin rock beside her.

She didn’t look at him. “How was your date?”

“... fine,” he said, fixating on a spot in the grass. He glanced at her. “We were going to, uh... kiss.”

She shifted. “Oh.”

“I couldn’t do it.”

She looked at him sharply, a question on her face.

“I couldn’t do it,” he said again.

“You couldn’t?”

Callum shook his head. “I couldn’t bring myself to do it. When I closed my eyes I... I only saw your face.”

They locked eyes for a moment, the night and moon wrapped around them. The moments before he’d kissed Claudia were the most surreal in his life, and then it simply... didn’t happen.

And it didn’t upset him in the least.

Rayla’s face softened, a small, pleased smile on her face. “Good.”

Callum’s lips curved in a returning smile, but it dropped. He looked away. “Rayla, I’m sorry for calling you a liar and a murderer. I should have never said that to you.”

“You were right.”

“No, I wasn’t,” he insisted. “I was wrong. I-I wasn’t even really mad at you. I was mad at myself. I’ve felt so guilty for killing Lady Eveline that I just— I don’t know. It’s been tearing me up inside and I hate how I hear her death in my head sometimes. I keep hearing the moment she hit the ground. But she was going to hurt us. Hurt you. I didn’t feel like I had a choice.”

When Callum met her eyes again, they were bright with tears. “Callum... I am so sorry for what happened to you. I never wanted that for you to feel like it was something you had to do. For me or for anyone. I still think about the people I killed.”

“Runaan says it’s still hard. Even for him.”

“You talked to Runaan?”

“Kind of,” he said. “As much as I know how to talk to him, I suppose. I — You were going to get hurt. And I care about you a lot. Too much to just do nothing. All I know is that I wanted to protect you. Even if it’s not something I want to do, it’s a principle. I can’t just let you die. If I was put in the same situation, I would do it again because I don’t know what I’m doing.”

Rayla looked up at the sky. “Honestly? I don’t know what I’m doing either, and I’ve been training for this my entire life. The first night I really met you? I cried to Runaan about it. It bothers me. It still bothers me, and I know it bothers you, too. I think it’s supposed to. Runaan says as much.”

There was a comfortable pause between them.

He took a breath.

“I trust you, Rayla,” he said. “I trust your judgement. I understand now. At least, more than I used to. I can't imagine what it was like to be raised as an assassin, but it couldn’t have been easy. It's not easy for me to justify killing Eveline, but I know why I did it. If I could have found another way, I would have. But I didn't see another way out. I don't think you’re a murderer. I would never think that of you.”

Rayla looked at him with wide, teary eyes.

“I know you’re just trying to protect us. And I’m glad I have someone to talk to about this.”

She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. “I’m still sorry you had to do it. You didn’t choose that.”

“I did. I just never thought I would.”

“I know.”

Callum took her by the hand. She squeezed it.

The tightness in his chest relieved, he said to her. “I have something I want to show you.”