“It wasn’t real,” Mom was saying. “Not at first.”
Rayla pressed one eye to the crack in the strange, carved-wood door. In the dim light cast across the room beyond, she could see her mom sitting at a wooden table, face filled with regret. From the other side, the grumpy, slightly purple man stared her down with a look that could whither away stone.
The man looked strange. His hair was colorless – not gray, but some sort of inhuman and otherworldly white. Two horns swept backwards through his hair, bending and then coming to points above the back of his head. His ears were pointed, and his face and arms were covered with bluish-purple markings.
The oddest part of the scene wasn’t the man. It was that Mom looked just as strange as he did. Her hair, too, was white, and her ears were pointed. Two horns swept back along her head, seeming almost as if they were supposed to be there.
Mom looked hurt, scared, and nearly at the edge of tears, and the purple man just sat there, stoic, staring her down.
“It was a job,” Mom continued. “Well, not a job. A service. The humans – were outmatched, and they knew it. If it ever came to open war, they’d lose. So it made sense. Put on a disguise. Slip across the border. Pretend to live here. See what could be learned. So nothing about us was real, nothing about us was genuine, not when you and I first met. You were just –”
She paused and took a deep breath, continuing to stare at the table. “An opportunity, back then. It hurts to admit, but you deserve to know.”
“Mmm,” the man said, voice level.
Her mother sighed, long and regretful. “We – it was new. The expeditions had always been temporary, especially when we first met, and I was only passing through for a few days. But no matter how many temporary, surface-level excursions we went on – they weren’t enough. Our commanders always wanted more, and that was why we went into deeper cover. Lain and I weren’t the first to try, but we were the first two to succeed. We were the pair who proved it was possible. We were supposed to settle in, build lives, gain trust, immerse ourselves, and send back information – but never interfere. Not until the right moment came.”
Rayla knew she wasn’t supposed to be watching, wasn’t supposed to be listening, but she had to understand. Mom and Dad had only ever explained bits and pieces of what they did, when they were away from her and the rest of the keep, and she knew it had left her unprepared. They had spent months of their lives at a time in another world – and kept all the details from her.
They’d talk about trees, about moonlight, about danger, and training, and secrecy – but they always stayed quiet about who they met and where they went and what they actually did when they were there. Mom and Dad had promised to show her everything, and tell her everything, but told her she’d have to wait until she was much, much older.
This time, though, when Mom had come back, she didn’t say anything about waiting for later. She had come early, alone, and in the middle of the night. Rayla had stirred away, drowsy and confused, and Mom had told her that they had to leave now, and there was no question to it.
They’d gone across the border – to a world Mom and Dad couldn’t talk about. A world she wasn’t supposed to see until she was older. A world that had always been too dangerous for her.
Mom had tried to put her to bed upstairs, but the room was weird and strange. It was really high up, built completely differently than her old room, and carved directly into the middle of a tree. It was a very cool tree! It was taller than the highest towers she’d ever seen, dark and mysterious, and swept by soft moonlight – but she couldn’t sleep. How could she, in this strange and unfamiliar place, without knowing why she was here?
She had climbed out of the window of the bedroom, just like she would do at the keep when they tried to put her to bed too early. She had clambered down the bark and branches, and hopped in the window below. Now she was here, in a strange room full of weird lumpy boxes that were hard to see in the dark, spying on Mom and the purple man through the crack in the door.
“The change wasn’t sudden,” Mom continued to say. “It was more gradual. We – we talked about it, hidden under the light of day, whether humans were right for having done – everything. We’d trade sides of the argument, trying to keep each other fresh, until we could convince everyone we had the same opinions on humans as everyone else, the same opinions on primal magic and dark magic, the same love for Xadia.”
“I see,” he responded.
Mom traced a finger from her right hand across the surface of the table, her left arm hidden from Rayla’s view. “That was where we started to cross the line, I think. We had to understand what everyone else believed, and we did so, at first, in that abstract way you do when you’re acting. That was how it was, up until – well, I can remember the night. We had heard about the incident in Ilvern with the Gryphon pack.” Mom looked up as she said that, at the man, taking her eyes off the table. “You probably --”
“I remember,” the man stated, firmly. He had an accent, Rayla could tell. Not exactly the same one her parents had started to have over the years, but there was some similarity.
“Of course,” Mom acknowledged. “I was angry, which was my character, so of course I was angry. What hit me after that incident was that I was angry. I wasn’t just acting. It was as if the emotion, the anger, the disgust, had somehow bled through the illusions we had cast. I understood it to be true, Runaan. What that human had done was wrong, horrifically wrong, and I knew it. And Lain – he felt the same way.”
She leaned back into her chair. “We stopped our practice after that. When you feel an emotion – really feel it – you don’t have to pretend. We didn’t tell anyone. It was shameful to admit that we’d fallen deeper than we were meant to. But we kept up the other rituals, the other – the ways we distanced ourselves. That is – we’d always take a few minutes, right before we slept, to dispel our illusions, and call each other by our other names. ‘Lorne,’ I’d say. ‘Tirana,’ he’d say. Usually more, but sometimes just that. Always at least that, every day before we slept. It was something to remember – something to keep us grounded in the knowledge that we weren’t our characters, that it was just an act.”
“Last day, you said it wasn’t an act.”
Mom took a deep breath, and exhaled, shakily. She pushed herself forward again, and rested uneasily against the table, propped up by her right arm and its green armor. “At that point, it was. Even when we agreed to join the patrol, when you offered us the assignment, it still was. That hadn’t been a rash decision, as little was for us then. We spent many hours exchanging letters with our handlers, strategizing and planning. And we joined, ostensibly just to reach a better position to use later, when we – when the humans needed it. But I’m not sure that was really all it was, even then.”
“The first patrol was quiet,” Mom continued. “We didn’t see any humans. We didn’t see any fighting. Only a young Skywing who’d sprained her wings and gotten herself stuck, who we helped make it home. And when we got back, we were the same people who’d left. Nothing had changed. We were still the two humans, deep undercover, playing at being elves. Then, on the second patrol, it was … different. We encountered a human, trying to sneak in, absolutely reeking of dark magic. He had a satchel we quickly discovered was filled with stolen butterflies, but he was heading inward – which meant he wanted something even worse. Lain and I were at the front of the group, so we went for him first. Lain went one way to draw his focus, and I went the other way to slit his throat from behind.”
“I remember the report,” the man spoke. “You did a clean job of it. It was why we kept you on the patrol.”
“We did,” Rayla’s mom said, and paused. “Our handlers weren’t pleased that we killed the human, but they were happy that at least we had earned a permanent position. And the grove’s trust. But...”
“When we got back, our … our ritual stopped. We didn’t really talk about it. We just – we hadn’t done the ritual on the patrols, for fear of being discovered, and that was normal. Then, we came back, and started to go to sleep, we just … shared a look with each other. I remember like it was yesternight. I had the moonstone. I was supposed to dispel my illusion first. But then … I didn’t, and I just passed him the moonstone, so he could dispel his. And he just set it down. And then I called him Lain, and he called me Tiadrin. And that was the inverse of what we’d done before. Something had changed, even if we couldn’t grasp its significance yet. We just – we stopped grounding ourselves out of our characters, and started – grounding ourselves in our characters. And we didn’t tell anyone about that, either.”
“It stopped being an illusion,” the man offered, still just as stoic.
“Exactly,” she said. “The idea that it was an illusion became an illusion.”
And then, as if out of nowhere, Mom hissed, and clutched her left arm, like soldiers at the keep did when they – when they were hurt.
At that realization, Rayla’s eyes went wide. Moms weren’t supposed to be hurt. They were supposed to be strong, tough, invincible, and show off their combat skills to the rest of the troops every time they came back perfectly unscathed from their mysterious job on the other side of the border. They were tough, and strong, so moms couldn’t be hurt.
Mom regained her composure, taking deep breaths, before she continued. The man barely acknowledged that she had been in pain. “Even before that, our friendships had become real to us. I don’t remember when it was, maybe when you and Ethari finally decided to move in together. He asked Lain and I for help with the construction, and we’d talked through it with each other in private. I recall that I was going on to Lain about how I didn’t know if it was a good use of time, or in character, but I wanted to do it, but I didn’t know if we should do it – and he just said, under the cover of daylight, where he could have said anything at all – ‘They’re our friends, Tiadrin.’ And we – and so we did it.”
“I recall that you and Lain were very excited to help us.”
“We were. I think we were swept up in the excitement that we could actually be genuine friends with you two, not just – not just be falsely friendly with you for the sake of the job, but actually care about you as people. We’d – we’d had to throw away our lives in Katolis, leave our daughter behind at the keep – and the thought that we’d gained lives, too, was so, so meaningful to us. We weren’t really supposed to have felt like that, of course, and we never admitted it to our handlers.”
“That’s better than I feared,” the man stated. He was schooling his emotions carefully, just like Rayla had seen General Amaya do when she was angry. “The fact it was once a lie still pains me.”
“It pains me, too,” Mom responded. “If I could go back – if I could redo everything, meet everyone I’ve met, get to know everyone again without the lie – I would. In an instant. And I know Lain would too, if he – if he –“
And then Mom collapsed, tears streaming down her face, and then, shockingly, the man collapsed too. He didn’t break into tears, but his stoic expression imploded. He suddenly looked devastated, just as much as she did, and he stood up and walked around the table to her, pulling her into a deep hug.
Rayla watched Mom – who had always been unflappable, undefeatable, perfectly controlled – sob completely uncontrollably into the arms of a man Rayla didn’t even know. They both had four fingers, white hair, pointy ears, and horns shooting out of their heads. Mom didn’t normally look like this. She always had five fingers and dark hair and no horns at all when she visited. Even this time, she hadn’t changed – hadn’t become this strange and otherworldly version of her mother – until they’d crossed the border. This was how she’d carried Rayla, under the cover of darkness, into the strange world the soldiers were always defending against.
Except… Mom did normally look like this, she realized now. Mom – and Dad – had spent years being elves, and their normal was definitely not looking human. Rayla had known that, but also she hadn’t, and it was like she was really putting it together for the first time. Her parents had been in danger because if anyone had figured out they weren’t really elves, they’d … be gone.
But here Mom was, crying about that very thing into the shoulder of one of those dangerous elves. He knew that her mother, beneath the spell, looked just as human as Rayla did herself. And yet … Mom was still alive.
But where was Dad? She’d assumed he was just coming later, but he still wasn’t here.
At that thought, Rayla accidentally leaned forward into the door with a little bit too much of her weight, and the door squeaked ever so quietly. She jerked back, taking her weight off of it, but the elf comforting her mom had immediately swiveled his head to stare directly at where she was. Her eyes went wide, and she scrambled back, thumping over a box of weird-looking fruit.
She looked around, brain immediately switching back into escape mode, trying to pick a place to hide. She could barely see anything in the room, because it was so dark, so… she could just hide in a corner, and nobody would be able to find her. She couldn’t see any lamps in the room, so he wouldn’t be able to light anything to help see her. His eyes, she knew, would adjusted to the brighter light in the outside room, so he would definitely not be able to see her in the darkness, especially since her eyes that were already adjusted to the darker light couldn’t.
She could try to hide herself in one of the boxes, but she’d have to find an empty one, or dump one out, and that sounded too loud. So she scurried into a corner and crouched down under the dark wood of one of the shelves. It wasn’t a perfect spot, but unless he had a lamp, she’d be safe.
Her mom and the elf man were still audible, even though their voices were quieter. “What is it, Runaan?” her mom asked.
“Someone was spying on our conversation,” the elf stated.
The sharp screech of a blade being drawn echoed through the wall. “Do you think they –” Mom began, much harsher.
“Someone small,” the elf corrected, sounding slightly amused. “That isn’t necessary. I’ll just have a look.”
Rayla scrunched herself tighter and tried to control her breathing. She’d hid in the stockroom back at the keep plenty of times, and she was hardly ever caught, even when one of the cooks brought a torch. Or a candle. But she’d never hid here before, so she didn’t know how well it would work.
The crack of dim light spilling through the door widened, and the elf entered the room. She couldn’t entirely see him, obscured as he was by the shelves and boxes. He stepped up to the window she’d snuck in through. Instead of looking in her direction, he just seemed to peer upwards through the crack, which made her snicker inside her head. He was assuming she’d clambered back to the room. Very wrong. One point to Rayla.
Then, he moved back from the window, and walked towards her hiding spot, stepping over the box she’d nearly tripped into earlier. To her right, Rayla could see her mother standing in the doorway, shadow interrupting the sliver of light. The man wasn’t going to see her, she knew. It was far too dark in here, especially where she was hidden. But then he stopped right in front of her, looking in her direction, and crouched down. His eyes seemed to glow slightly, while the rest of him was barely visible against the darkness.
“Caught you,” he said, looking directly at her with the glow of his eyes. He sounded almost amused. Rayla swallowed against a dry mouth, and didn’t say anything.
“My name is Runaan,” he introduced. “I won’t hurt you. Your mother and I are old friends.”
Rayla stayed quiet. She wasn’t sure what to think of him.
He seemed to notice her hesitation.
“Here,” he said, extending a hand towards her. “I am told that humans ‘shake hands’ when they meet. Would you like to?”
She stared at it for a few seconds. He only had four fingers, where was the pinky? How did he go through life with an entire finger missing? And then, carefully, she reached out with one hand and grasped at his. His hand was a lot larger than hers, colder than she expected, and rough. She mostly just wrapped her fingers around the three of his and then immediately shook them as hard as she could.
He laughed, letting her shake them rapidly up and down. When she stopped, and let go, he withdrew his hand. “How much of our conversation did you hear?” he asked.
“A lot,” she replied.
“Would you like to come out of the pantry and sit with us at the table?”
She thought about it for a moment, but something else was more pressing. “How’d you find me?” she asked.
He seemed to raise an eyebrow, but it wasn’t easy to make out in the darkness. “You aren’t very hard to spot,” he explained, still very amused. “It was easy to see you.”
“But it’s so dark!” she countered. “I can barely see me!”
He smiled down at her, and tapped the side of his head with a finger, near his eye. “Yes, but I am a Moonshadow elf. And that means I can see in the dark.”
Rayla’s eyes went wide. Of course she’d been caught! If he could see in the darkness, that explained why there wasn’t a light source! Her hiding spot had been so dumb! She should have hidden herself inside one of the crates! She took one hand and dramatically slapped herself on the forehead, just like she’d seen soldiers do when they’d done something by mistake.
“Don’t worry,” the elf said, tilting his head forward almost like he was telling her a secret. “We can work on your stealth.”
She looked back up at him and squinted. She’d never heard that response before when she’d been caught. “Are you stealthy?” she prodded.
He smiled. “Very.”
Most of the adults she’d met had been annoyed at her for sneaking around the keep. But this one was different. She could – her mind switched gears and put the two other things together – if she, too, were able to see in the dark, she could go to so many more of the places in the keep. She wouldn’t need to steal a candle, and would never have her hiding spot given away by its glow.
“Can you show me how to see in the dark?” she asked.
The elf looked at her for a moment and then chuckled. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not. Not everyone can do it, and those who can tend to be elves.”
“Bet you I can,” she countered.
“We can give it a try later,” he promised. “How about you come out of the corner? I could carry you.”
She stared up at him, the strange and unfamiliar elf that had could see in the darkness. He was nice, but she still didn’t know him.
Rayla knew her answer, and she uncurled herself the rest of the way before giving it: “No.”
Having said that, she immediately darted out from under the shelf, past his feet, and towards the door where her mother was standing. Her mom, the super cool warrior who could and had beaten everyone in the keep but General Amaya herself, lifted her up with her right arm with all the gentleness in the world.
And then winced, subtly, when Rayla’s hand brushed against her left arm, which was … hanging limp?
“Rayla,” her mom said, looking into Rayla’s eyes. “How did you sneak down here?”
“The window,” Rayla replied simply. “I climbed.”
Her mother glanced to the window and then smiled and shook her head. Rayla could see where she hadn’t entirely wiped the tears off of her face.
“She takes after her parents,” the elf commented with amusement. “That isn’t an easy climb for a child.”
“She’s been the scourge of the keep, from what I’ve seen,” her mother replied, still smiling. “Especially ever since Lain taught her lockpicking.”
Lain. That was what Dad had been called, she knew now, when he was off being an elf. Maybe she should be an elf someday. She could be sneaky, grow horns, and even be able to see in the dark. But something tugged at her.
“Mom,” she said. “Why are we here? And where’s Dad?”
Mom’s smile melted away. For a moment, her softly glowing blue eyes stared right through Rayla, like she wasn’t there, before snapping back into focus. “I’m sorry, moonshine,” her mother said. “There are going to be some changes in your life. Unexpected ones, and … a lot of them. I’m sorry. We were going to talk to you about it once you slept, but … since you don’t look like you’re doing that anytime soon, we can talk about them now.”
Rayla looked at her mom, whose face bore a sad smile, and then looked at the elf, who also looked strangely sorrowful, and then back at her mom.
She didn’t know what was happening, or why things were changing. But she knew she needed to understand.
“Okay,” she said.