Callum wakes, and reaches for her instinctively.
Since the battle — since the clash and clamour, the fall and then the flight — he’s needed Rayla beside him while they both wait for sleep to come. He thinks she needs him, too. He’s noticed all the times she twitches and flinches from the things that dwell in her subconscious, and come out to haunt her at night. His being there… helps. Sometimes, at least.
But when he creaks his bleary eyes open, he finds that the room is empty. Callum sits up, his brow furrowing, his movements still slow and clumsy. Where could she be? Where would she go?
He suspects he knows the answer, and yet it still surprises him somewhat when he finds her on the very top of the Spire.
The moon is full tonight. It seems to fill the entire sky with its glow, and it renders the silhouette of a certain elf nearly invisible. Rayla is little more than a shadow, curled up into herself on the edge of the platform.
Callum’s breath catches slightly in his throat. In the dream-like atmosphere, he approaches her and then, without saying a word, sits next to her.
After a moment, Rayla scoots closer and leans her head on his shoulder. After a few more moments, she sighs, and reappears out of her shadow form.
“There you are,” Callum murmurs.
He’s learning — gradually, and against his usual impulse — not to force her to talk about whatever it is that’s bothering her. The best thing he can do is be present, and wait for her to open up in her own time.
Rayla trembles ever so slightly.
“Are you cold?” he asks, and starts to tug at his scarf with his free arm.
She’s already shaking her head. “It’s just… you reminded me of Ethari.”
Of course. When Ethari temporarily broke the spell that ghosted Rayla, that’s what he said. Take my hand. There you are.
Which means… “You’re missing home.”
He doesn’t say it like a question, but she understands that it sort of is. “Always,” Rayla quietly admits. “But I don’t think I’m ready to go back and confront anyone. Not yet.”
She takes a deep breath and pulls back from him so she can look at him directly. “There’s something else I need to do. And I need your help.”
“Anything,” Callum says automatically. Then he flushes, embarrassed. “Uh, that came out a little too fast.”
For the first time since they’ve been up here, Rayla cracks a bit of a smile. “You’ve already jumped off a mountain for me. I think we’re a ways past that.”
Callum seizes his chance. “Speaking of, would you mind if we continue this conversation just a bit further from the deadly precipice?” Even seated and alone, sans monomaniacal dark mage, seeing Rayla here makes his heart clench.
“Oh!” Rayla’s eyes widen and she all but drags Callum away from the edge. “Better?”
Just those two words are enough for him to realise they’ve shifted for his benefit rather than hers. Even though she was the one who threw herself off the Spire without even a sliver of a chance at survival, he’s the one who gets nightmares about her falling. About not being in time to catch her.
On one occasion in the past few days, Rayla woke up crying and scrabbled around in the dark for him. She dreamt that he’d done as she asked and fled with Zym, and that as she stared down faceless human armies alone, she realised much too late that all she wanted was to see him one last time. That was what really horrified her.
Callum remembers her musing, almost detachedly, that she wondered if her parents had thought of her when they made their final stand. He hugged her for ages after she said that.
Now her hands are on his arms. She’s here, she’s safe, and she’s so impossibly brave and beautiful. Callum huffs through his nose. “Amazing,” he says, tipping his chin at her.
Rayla watches him with that one expression of hers that roughly translates to I don’t understand your human ways, but I find them quite endearing.
Callum clears his throat. “So, uh, what did you need help with?”
She answers with an apparent non sequitur. “How much do you know about these?” she asks, indicating the purple markings under her eyes.
“I know they’re temporary,” Callum ventures. Rayla mentioned as much in passing once. “And that they mean something, but I don’t know what. Is it a language of some sort?”
Rayla squints, considering. “In a way. There isn’t a real alphabet, or grammar. It’s pictorial.”
“Like linguistics, but with pictures…” He snaps his fingers. “Pinguistics!”
She rolls her eyes at him, but her expression is fond. “Why do I love you?”
“I dunno. But I love you too.” He beams at her.
Then she says, “I need you to fly me down to the forest.”
Callum hasn’t conjured mage wings since the battle. He’s not entirely sure it’ll even work for him again. Maybe that first time was a fluke, or a moment of grace born of desperation. After all, Ibis said that even for Skywing elves, mastering the spell is rare.
But he nods. “Stand back,” he warns. He doesn’t want the wings to knock into her. He holds out both arms and closes his eyes, focusing on his own breaths.
In. Out. In.
“Manus. Pluma. Volantus.”
Disappointed, Callum reopens his eyes. Rayla takes a couple of steps toward him. He watches her and shrugs his distinctly non-feathery arms. “I’m sorry, Rayla. I—”
He cuts himself off as she steps right into his space and wraps both her arms around his neck securely. She stands so close that he can feel the ridges of her armour through his tunic. She gives him a gentle smile and leans forward to press their foreheads together. “I trust you, Callum.”
And it’s like something slots into place in his chest, evicting the lingering fear and anxiety, and leaving just: love, love, love. Barely moving his lips, Callum whispers, “Manus. Pluma. Volantus.”
He knows at once that it’s worked. His wings materialise around Rayla, enfolding her in softness and warmth.
She pulls back just enough to smirk at him. “I think your magic likes me,” she teases.
Callum makes a face at her. “Are we headed any direction in particular?”
“I’ll know it when I see it,” she replies, which doesn’t clear up his confusion at all. She clings tight as they take off, and he wishes once again that the spell gave him wings in addition to his arms, so he could hold her himself.
They drift down through the cloud layer and fly low over the treetops, on Rayla’s request. The moonlight is bright enough that Callum isn’t quite flying blind, but it’s still mildly terrifying. Not for Rayla, though. She whoops and howls a couple of times, until Callum starts asking himself if she really just wanted a joyride. He’d be okay with that, honestly.
Then she exclaims, “I see it! Down there!” She points at a small clearing, through which runs a brook.
As soon as they’ve landed, and before Callum is even done reversing the spell, Rayla is running over to a nondescript bush with dark berries. He can’t make out the colour at first, but then she plucks several of them and holds them out to him.
They’re the exact same purple as her markings.
“I’m not sure what they were called before we started using them as a pigment, but these are glyphberries,” Rayla explains.
Callum looks down at her palm, where the squishy berries have already left some juice. “Isn’t your hand going to be splotchy now?”
She shakes her head and reaches back to pluck a single leaf from the bush. “It’s only permanent — well, semi-permanent — when you crush the berries on the leaves.”
Suddenly she looks shy. “We, uh… We don’t do that bit ourselves.”
Some part of Callum realises that this is her repressed Moonshadow elf way of asking him to make the glyphberry pigment for her. He immediately takes the berries and leaf. “What do you mean?” he prods, while he sits on the grass and gets to work.
Rayla joins him on the ground and pulls out one of her swords. It really says something about how far they’ve come, that he doesn’t even flinch seeing the wicked curve of a weapon she threatened to kill him with, not too long ago.
She hands him the sword. He takes it with a gulp, and follows her instructions to lightly scrape the leaf, removing its waxy surface. Then he starts squeezing the berries, letting their juice drip onto the exposed area.
It feels… oddly natural, even though obviously he’s never done this before. Callum quickly becomes absorbed in his task, so he jumps a little when Rayla belatedly answers his question.
“Moonshadow elf markings are a way to signal your identity. We renew them when they fade, and we redo them if we feel like we’ve changed.”
That makes sense. After their journey together, after everything they’ve been through, Callum also feels like a different person from when they began.
“But you don’t just decide for yourself,” Rayla continues. “You choose someone you trust. Someone who means the most to you. And under a full moon, that person helps you inscribe who you are.”
Callum is blown away. Not only at the fact that Rayla chose him — he’ll have to file that away to think about later — but at the intimacy and complexity of the whole ritual. “So it’s a form of magic?” he speculates. “Are there words in ancient draconic I should be saying right now?”
“Is it magical?” Rayla smiles wryly at him. “I told you once that in Xadia, magic is everywhere. Even in ordinary things like dancing, and crafting.”
His eyes widen. “Like your key into Silvergrove. And the assassins’ flowers!”
Excited, he pauses his work, hand hovering over the grass. Rayla nudges it back over the leaf to avoid wasting any berry juice.
She looks pleased that he’s so quickly understood this aspect of her culture. But her face is clouded over by the same sadness it held up on the Spire earlier. Callum sobers once he notices.
He leans forward and briefly cups her cheek with the hand that isn’t covered in berry juice. He lifts her chin and gives her a small smile. He waits for her to return it.
Then he says, “Good thing I have this with me,” and produces the brush he used to paint the runes on his arms for the mage wings spell.
“Wait,” she says. Callum watches as she shrugs out of her outer armour, the parts that usually cover her upper arms and wrists. He realises suddenly that he’s never seen her without it. Its absence makes her look oddly vulnerable. Rayla rubs her arms idly, unused to the sensation as well.
“What are you thinking?” he asks quietly.
It takes her a moment to respond. “About my parents. How brave they were — are. How her laugh sounds, how he used to do different voices when he told me stories of the Dragon Guard. About Ethari, too. And Runaan.”
Her voice wobbles. “I want to honour them.” She doesn’t say because I may never see them again. She doesn’t have to.
Rayla puts her hand on his — the one that’s holding the brush. Together, they dip it in the glyphberry solution.
Callum can barely tell whether it’s him or her moving the brush. Part of him thinks that this is the worst way to paint anything remotely permanent: freehand, and in tandem. Yet somehow, in the moonlight, they’re perfectly in sync. He recalls the brief glimpse of Rayla’s parents he got. Their passion and vitality and togetherness. He pictures Runaan on the castle ramparts, expression fierce until the sight of the egg changed it to one of awe and compassion. He thinks about Ethari by the fountain in Silvergrove; his grief and confusion.
The new marking on Rayla’s upper arm is all curves, swirls, and cascading lines. Looking at it makes Callum think of lineage and sacrifice. Love, and loss. Once it’s complete, they move to her other arm and paint it there too, pausing only to dip the brush again.
Then Rayla hesitates. Their hands go still, midair.
“And you,” she says, as if they’ve been conversing all this time. In a way, they have. “You and Ezran.”
This time Callum can tell the impetus comes from her hand. She moves the brush to her left wrist. The one her assassin’s binding was on.
He stops her, because he can tell immediately what her intention is. “All the elves I’ve seen — their markings are symmetrical,” Callum points out. He wonders if it’s alright to take this sacred Moonshadow ritual, and introduce anything human into it.
“I’m a break from tradition,” Rayla says lightly, but with a solemn face.
They trace a line partway around her wrist. But they don’t close the circle. Instead, both ends of it veer off into a minimalist impression of wings. It’s a cross between the Katolis crown and dragon wings. In place of her assassin’s binding: her sworn loyalty to both humans and Xadia.
They paint the same symbol around his right wrist.
Callum puts down the brush and blinks as if waking from a trance. The glyphberry pigment has dried quite rapidly; he traces the lines on Rayla’s arms and wrist. She quivers as he does; not from the cold, he realises, but because this is her bare spirit, her core. And the two of them are bound together in their understanding of what it all means. Rayla takes his right hand with her left. Their markings match perfectly.
“Wow,” is all he can say.
They grin at each other for a moment, suddenly dizzy.
Returning Zym to his mother did work as a symbolic gesture, but there’s still a long way to go before peace. Ezran and Aanya have guaranteed Zubeia the cooperation of their kingdoms. But Rayla killing Viren while he was officially King, and Aanya killing Prince Kasef, means neither Katolis nor Duren can assure Xadia they can unite the other members of the Pentarchy for peace. Grudges will still be held. Prejudice will persist.
Everything else is a chaotic mess of politics and pride. Soon, they’ll probably be roped in as ambassadors on both sides of the border. Tough as it was to get Zym home, they really have their work cut out for them now. But they’ll do it together. And Rayla… Callum just knows her. She’s his point of stillness, his fulcrum, his north star.
Still looking steadily at him, she picks up the brush with her free hand.
“Oh,” Callum says, surprised. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to—”
“I know,” Rayla interjects. “Other elves might not take too kindly to markings you can’t hide under your jacket. But…”
She leans over and rinses the brush in the brook, then flicks away the excess water.
And she draws, invisibly and yet indelibly in Callum’s eidetic memory, countless spirals and dots and lines all down his arms. She outlines feathers, and runes that Callum doesn’t recognise but swears to himself he’ll remember and look up later. This is how I see you, she seems to be saying without words. How I know you. How I love you.
Moonshadow elves don’t have things like Big Feelings Time, Callum thinks distantly, because they say it all with actions instead.
The brush tickles now that his hand isn’t guiding it, too. Callum starts to laugh, but then Rayla squeezes his hand and he stills.
Finally, she reaches up to his face. He closes his eyes as she brushes a symmetrical pattern over his cheeks. After another moment, he feels her press a kiss to his forehead.
He opens his eyes. She’s smiling at him.
“There you are,” she says softly.