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Reaching for the Moon

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Rayla stirred to wakefulness in a strange and unfamiliar room, pushing away an odd dream. She’d been running somewhere – towards something, or away from something, maybe – and she’d had only four fingers, which made it a very strange dream.

The ceiling stretched far above her, unlike any room she’d ever seen at the keep. The tall ceiling reminded her of the dining hall she’d eaten in once at the Castle, but the walls were made out of wood, not stone. It was even different from a building made out of wood, because there were no planks or logs – it was as if someone had carved the entire space out of one contiguous massive log.

It had been dark when she fell asleep, with no sunlight to be seen. By now, many hours later, the sun should have risen, and yet it remained absent. In its place, the light from the Moon had grown brighter, spilling through the window to illuminate the bed and its surroundings.

The bed was not what she’d expected. It was simultaneously too familiar and not familiar enough; the mattress felt far softer than the ones back at the keep, and the thick comforter patterned with purple and green fabric was nothing like the layers of thin dull-blue blankets she was used to. She pushed herself to an upright position and looked down at her hands. They were just like she’d left them – thumb, two, three, four, pinkie – she definitely still had all five of her fingers. The dream had been strange and unexpected, but the details had already slipped from her mind.

From her upright position, she could take in more of the room. On one side of the room, a table was carved out of the wall, with a glowing blue crystal illuminating it from above. On it sat her fully-stuffed bag of clothes from the keep. On the other side of the room, a set of shelves sat empty.

There were little bits of sleep collected in the corners of her eyes, and she rubbed them away. She wasn’t used to waking up quite like this. Usually, she was woken up by the sound of boots that heralded soldiers reporting for breakfast, and then she’d sneak into the keep’s kitchens to snatch up pancakes or sausages or something. Then her tutor would try to track her down, and she’d evade them for at least half an hour.

What was she supposed to be doing here? Where was she going to find food? Were there even enough elves to have an entire kitchen? How would they react to her trying to take their food? Was she supposed to be going to school now? Elf school? Was that what elf children did? It really didn’t seem like Mom would have brought her human tutor here.

She’d have to find her own food – or find Mom, and get her to find the food. Mom probably knew where the food was, if she lived here. Maybe there would even be a kitchen in the weird elf treehouse.

Across from her, a carved wooden door sat ajar. Beyond the threshold, illuminated by a bluish glow, a spiral staircase stretched upwards and downwards.

She hopped off the bed and skittered over to the door, bare feet tapping against the wooden floor. The staircase twisted quickly in both directions, and she couldn’t tell where either direction went.

She had been carried upwards to bed, so downwards would be towards the room where Mom had been talking with Runaan. She’d already partially seen that room, so upwards would be the more interesting exploration route.

Rayla padded onto the stairs and took a few steps upwards, before halting mid-step. Upstairs might be more interesting to explore, but downstairs was probably the place where food was. She didn’t remember hearing Runaan climb any stairs when he got her the moonberry… but also, she didn’t remember Runaan or Mom making any noise with their footsteps, so that wasn’t conclusive.

She glanced downwards, then upwards again, and then back down.

Hunger licked at her stomach, and it won out over her curiosity. She padded downwards as quietly as she could, trying to step on the outer edge of the stairs. She wasn’t quite sure whether the “step on the outside of the staircase” rule also worked for spiral staircases, but the stairs felt solid under her footfalls and didn’t squeak once, so it must have been right.

The first offshoot of the stairs came on the outer right side of the spiral – a room surprising like the one she just slept in, but clearly made for more than one person. The bed was much larger, with two sets of pillows, and there were two desks and two sets of shelves. Items were strewn across the desks, including scraps of paper, arrows, chisels, gemstones, wooden cups, books, knives, and rocks – but weirdly-colored versions of all of those. (Except the paper. The paper was still white.) The shelves were filled with pieces of clothing of some sort, and beside them sat a collection of wooden boxes, a stack of blankets, and a pair of green shoulder bags.

Nobody was in the room. Maybe this was where Runaan and that other elf slept? There was another door off of it, but she could investigate that later; it definitely wasn’t in the direction of food.

Rayla continued down the stairs with careful steps. As she went, she began to hear the sound of sizzling coming from below, like a pan on a hot stove, accompanied by a wafting smell of maybe pancakes, and maybe berries – which meant that there was probably someone cooking down there. Runaan, maybe? Or Mom? Mom had never seemed to like cooking, so probably Runaan.

At the bottom, the staircase opened up directly into a room without so much as a door. That was a problem; anyone in the room would see her feet before she could see them, which made the whole thing harder. What if it wasn’t Mom or Runaan? They might be a dangerous cook, cooking dangerous food, and what then?

She could sneak back upstairs and take the window down to the pantry again. But that hadn’t gone so well last time, so it wasn’t worth considering.

Instead, she settled for creeping down slowly. She kept to the inner wall of the staircase, and crouched down as she went so that she’d be able to see whoever was at the bottom as soon as possible. The room – a kitchen – came into view gradually. First, a wooden table came into view, built into the floor with small cubbyholes in its sides. Then, a counter came into view, with something that was maybe a wash basin. Then, a plate came into view on the counter, containing some sort of reddish circular food. And then – an elf.

She didn’t have to see much of the elf to figure out they were neither Runaan nor Mom. They were wearing clothing that looked less like green-tinged armor and more like a dark blue cloak, and the unmarked parts of their skin were a darker shade of purple than either of the two. She scrambled back up the stairs to get out of sight as quickly and quietly as possible, before she had even gotten a chance to glimpse of the elf’s face or hair.

She breathed as quietly as possible as she tried to make a plan. A strange elf was downstairs. They were probably cooking food; that room looked like an especially small kitchen, and cooking would explain the frying noises. She couldn’t hear any conversation, and she couldn’t imagine Mom being there without striking up a conversation, so Mom wasn’t there. Unless the elf wasn’t safe to talk to, in which case Mom would definitely not be talking to them – but if Mom was here and the elf wasn’t safe, she would have come to protect Rayla already.

If Mom wasn’t there, Runaan probably wasn’t either, so they must have left her alone with a strange elf. Maybe the elf was a safe elf, maybe even the other elf that Mom had talked about, but Rayla knew from Mom and Dad that this place was very dangerous, so she needed to know as much as she could before she took any chances.

Maybe Mom was further up?

She snuck back up the stairs, past the room fit for two people, past the room she had slept in, until the stairs ended at a final door. She cautiously pushed it open and peeked through the crack.

Inside, it was a room filled with piles and piles of wooden boxes, illuminated only by the moonlight flooding the window and some more of the blue stones. The room smelled of dust. It definitely didn’t look or smell like a place that Mom would sleep, or anyone for that matter. She pulled the door back shut and shuffled down the stairs again.

Nothing to do now but face the elf.

As she snuck past the other lower room, a glint of metal caught her eye – one of the knives sitting on a desk that she’d spotted on her first trip past. Now, that would be useful!

She shot a furtive glance around the empty room and snatched the sharp metal object off the table. She held it up – it was a nice knife. It was sharp and big, nearly as long as her entire arm, and the bigger and sharper the knife, the better.

(The soldiers and the cooks at the keep did not agree with her assessment. To them, anything larger than a butter knife was very bad, because they’d always tell her she was going to hurt herself and try to take them from her. She’d had to start hiding the knives from everyone.)

She padded back down the stairs, and the elf came into view again. He had his back to her and didn’t turn around to look at her until she was nearly at floor level. “Good evening,” he said, in an amiable manner. “You must be Rayla –”

And then he stopped, one of his eyes twitching in confusion at the piece of metal she held out in front of her. “Is that a knife?” he asked, a smile quirking at his lips.

Rayla’s eyes flicked to the piece of metal she was grasping onto, and then back up to the elf. He didn’t look scared at the knife, even though he wasn’t wearing any armor. He was just wearing a dark blue sleeveless shirt and a purple scarf, neither of which seemed like they’d do any good against a knife. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“I’m Ethari,” the elf explained, switching his amused gaze from the knife to Rayla’s face. Behind him, she could see a griddle set over the glow of a fire, so this was definitely a kitchen. “Your mother asked me and my husband to help take care of you.”

She squinted at him. Mom had said there were two elves she could trust, but she couldn’t remember the name of the second one. “You’re the other elf?” she asked.

Ethari nodded in confirmation. “I won’t hurt you,” he promised. “I’m actually making breakfast, right now, if you want any.”

Rayla squinted at him. He was … probably trustworthy. Mom probably wouldn’t leave her with an elf who was dangerous, and if he were dangerous, he probably wouldn’t have promised not to hurt her.

The soldiers at the keep always called elves evil, and Mom and Dad always called elves dangerous, but nobody ever called elves liars.

Begrudgingly, she lowered the knife. Ethari seemed to relax slightly more. “So,” he said, tapping his fingers on the table. “Runaan tells me that you really like moonberries.”

Rayla reached up to set the knife down near the corner of the table, and then clambered into one of the tall purple-wood chairs. “Moonberries are the best,” she confirmed. “And they’d never make anything with them in the keep, no matter how many times I asked.”

“You’re in luck, then,” he beamed. “I’m making moonberry pancakes.” From her newly-acquired vantage point, she could see what was on the griddle behind him: an array of eight reddish disks, like the ones in the plate to the side, with their surfaces slowly bubbling.

Ethari turned around, with his back exposed to her, and picked up a metal spatula from the wooden countertop beside the griddle. With a series of eight very deft flips, the pancakes were now upside-down, red-brown crust facing up, in what must have been exactly the same places they’d been before.

She realized that, strangely, there was no actual fire to be found beneath the griddle. Instead, there were a set of four squarish orange things, with yellow squiggles inscribed on the top. A metal grate separated them from the griddle, and they were making it sizzle almost as if there were a fire – even though there wasn’t.

“The pancakes don’t have moonberries directly in the batter,” Ethari explained. He turned back to her and leaned up against the counter. “Even if you chop them up enough to fit in the pancakes, they just collapse in on themselves, so I added moonberry juice instead. This way, it has the right flavor, but doesn’t ruin the consistency.”

Rayla pointed at the griddle. “Where’s the fire?” she asked.

Ethari blinked, glanced towards the griddle, and then back at her. “Those are fire stones,” he explained, almost like he hadn’t really thought that he’d need to explain them. “They have a sun rune carved in the top, so they act like a real fire, but they’re much more controlled.”

“Sun rune?” she asked, tilting her head to the side. She felt like she should know what that meant; she’d heard people talking about runes before, but nobody had actually explained it ever.

Ethari hesitated for a moment, looking at her with a hint of confusion in his eyebrows, before nodding in understanding. “I forgot that you didn’t have real magic in Katolis,” he apologized. “A rune is a special symbol that invokes a particular spell, like the sun magic that’s cooking the pancakes.” The yellow squiggles on top of the orange squares, Rayla determined.

He paused. “I can’t do sun magic myself, so we had to get those stones from the north. But I can inscribe Moon runes.”

At that, he gestured to Rayla’s left, where a column of shelves built into the wall held an array of wooden boxes. Many of them had softly glowing white runes inscribed into their lids. “Those runes keep the food inside cold, so it lasts longer,” he explained.

“Like an ice box!” Rayla suggested.

“Yes, but there’s no ice inside,” Ethari replied. “It’s just the light from the Moon, absorbed into the runes, chilling the insides.”

He turned back to the pancakes, and, with another series of precise flips, added the eight cooked disks to a growing pile. The pile, set down in a spiral formation, was curled up in a wooden plate to the right of the griddle. Ethari fished a small metal measuring cup out of the wooden bowl of batter and deposited eight more reddish pancakes onto the griddle. Finally, he picked up the plate full of pancakes and slid them onto the table near her.

As he turned away, Rayla immediately snatched up one of the reddish pancakes and chomped down on it. The pancake in her mouth was soft and fluffy, with the tangy sweetness of moonberry filling the whole disk.

Ethari turned back to her, holding two wooden plates and two wooden forks from the rack behind him. “Do you want a plate for that?” he asked, amused. “Not that your hands aren’t perfectly sufficient, but they’d make adding syrup easier.”

“Syrup!” she tried to exclaim, but was prevented by the several bites of pancake occupying her mouth. Instead, it came out muffled, and she had to clamp her mouth back shut immediately to avoid losing any pancake to the table.

Ethari smiled and slid her a plate and a fork, before snatching two pancakes for himself.

From the shelves, he grabbed one of the Moon rune boxes. He pulled off the lid, and Rayla stood up in her chair to peek inside. The box was entirely packed with an array of different bottles and jars, one of which Ethari fished out.

“Want to feel inside?” he suggested, and Rayla immediately obliged. The air inside was, in fact, significantly colder than the room’s air – and so were the jar caps.

“Coooooool,” she said, and removed her hand.

“It’s not just cool,” Ethari replied, with a smirk. “It’s cold.” The box went back on the shelf, and he sat down across from her.

The glass vessel he’d removed from the box was filled with a blue, viscous liquid. It had almost the same consistency as syrup, but syrup was never blue, so this couldn’t be syrup. Its label, rather than containing real words, held a set of a weird scribbles.

“What are the rest of the runes?” she asked. “Are those runes?”

Ethari uncapped the bottle. “That’s elvish,” he said, as if it were obvious. “There are lots of different runes, far more than I could ever remember. The lights have runes inscribed on their backs, Runaan’s weapons have their own enchantment runes, and even the shape of the rooms we’re in are held in place by runes written into the tree.”

He tipped the neck of the bottle, and the blue fluid began to pour out, visibly taking its time to move within the bottle. The stream from the bottle dripped onto the reddish pancakes, and spread across their surface, soaking into them before spilling onto the rest of the plate. “Magic suffuses our lives,” he explained, almost as if the syrup was a demonstration. “Everything we have and everything we do is touched on by magic in some way. Magic is everywhere in Xadia, and it’s not usually something we think too much about. I couldn’t list everywhere we use magic, or even just everything I see each day with runes inscribed on them.”

He pushed the bottle across the table to her. She stared at it in confusion. “Syrup?” he prompted.

“Why is it blue?” she asked. That wasn’t what syrup was like.

He looked at her for a moment, before gesturing in a shrug. “That’s a really good question, honestly. I don’t really know why syrup is blue. It just is. What did you think it was?”

“Syrup is supposed to be brown,” she replied.

“Maybe in Katolis,” Ethari said. “I’ve never seen brown syrup in my life.”

The two of them stared at each other for several seconds, before Rayla shifted her gaze to the bottle and gingerly reached out to grab it. The cap was already off, so she brought it near her nose and sniffed.

It smelled sugary and almost exactly like syrup. With a great deal of care, she, very slowly and very carefully, poured it all over her pancake.

She tipped the bottle back upright, realizing too late that she should have tried just a bit of the syrup first. She cut off a corner of her pancake with the fork and soaked up as much of the blue syrup as possible – before sticking it in her mouth.

Her eyes went wide. It did taste like syrup! There was something else there, beyond what syrup normally always tasted like, and beyond the pancake flavor and moonberry flavor, but it wasn’t a bad flavor. Just unexpected.

“It’s good!” she proclaimed, around a simultaneous second and third bite of the pancake.

Ethari smiled again. He stood up to flip the pancakes on the griddle once more, just as precisely as the first time, and by the time he sat back down, Rayla had already finished her first pancake and snatched another out of the spiral. As he began to eat his own, she couldn’t help but study the way his face looked.

For years, her parents’ faces had been unique. They had strange bluish markings on them: two triangle-y marks below each eye on Mom’s face, and one curving around each eye on Dad’s face with smaller marks below them. She could barely remember the time when they didn’t have them. None of the other humans at the keep had anything like them, even the other humans who were doing the same dangerous thing her parents did. Nothing else about their elf appearances was visible in the keep, but this one part must have been different.

Both Ethari and Runaan had the same kind of markings as Mom and Dad. For Runaan, there were two of them, simply stretched between his cheeks and across his nose, but Ethari had much more elaborate markings. His stretched in several curves arcing around his ears. Like Runaan, and unlike her parents, he also had markings on the visible parts of his arms: his shoulders and his hands. They formed nested circles, like the ones on his face, whereas Runaan’s markings stretched in straighter lines and symbols.

“Is everything okay?” Ethari asked her, snapping her out of her focused consideration.

“Are those runes on your face?” she asked.

Ethari blinked, and then quirked an eyebrow. He seemed to be amused with her questions. Which was definitely better than him getting tired of them, like soldiers in the keep would do.

“No, those are my markings,” he explained. “They’re not magic – well, not more magic than the rest of me. They’re unique to each elf, and they tell you important things about an elf if you know how to interpret them.”

Rayla thought about that for a moment. “Why do Mom and Dad have them, if they’re an elf thing?”

Ethari switched from the “I hadn’t thought to explain that” kind of amused face to the “I really thought you knew this” kind of amused face. “Because they’re trying to look like elves?” he prompted.

“No, no,” said Rayla. “They also have them when they’re not elves.”

Ethari’s eyes flicked around slightly as he considered that.

“We aren’t born with them,” he began, and spoke slowly, as if collecting his thoughts. “We paint them on. Well, first our parents help us paint them, and then it’s always whoever is closest to us as we grow older. You never paint them on yourself. Runaan helped me paint on my current set, when they started to fade last month. Your parents must have painted them on each other, rather than trying to make an illusion out of them.”

He paused, looking not quite at her eyes, but almost. “Your mother will probably paint –,” he began, and then he stopped mid-sentence. “Sorry, I should let her talk to you about it.”

Rayla quirked an eye at him. “Talk to me about what?

Ethari bit his lower lip and glanced to the side. “While you were asleep, we called an assembly – because, honestly, the idea of letting a human live here is unprecedented. Knowingly, at least. The grove voted to let you stay, but – your mother should be the one to tell you the details.”

Rayla considered that for a moment. “Where is Mom?” she asked.

“Sleeping, I’m sure,” Ethari quickly answered. “Just before you came down here, I sent off Runaan to go wake her up. She’s usually more punctual, but –”

He paused for a moment, not looking at her, visibly thinking about what he was going to say. “It’s a bit of a stressful situation for all of us, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she overslept.”

Oversleeping didn’t sound like something her mom would do. She squinted at him, but they both left it at that.

She finished her third pancake and started on her fourth. Ethari flipped the pancakes off of the griddle, and then scraped the last of the batter to make three more.

She slowly nibbled the last of her fourth pancake away, scraping up the syrup until the plate was empty.

“Done with your plate?” Ethari asked. He’d made it through six pancakes, two more than her. She’d counted.

Rayla nodded and pushed it towards him.

He set it down in the wash basin on the right side of the room. Strangely, she realized, there wasn’t any barrel of water to feed the spigot. Instead, the wooden spigot just stuck directly out of the wall, almost like the tree itself was the barrel.

Ethari pushed the lever on the spigot upwards, and a stream of water poured out into the basin. He began to scrub at the dishes with a green rag.

“Is the water magic?” Rayla asked. “There’s no barrel.”

Ethari glanced back at her as he scrubbed. “Not really,” he said. “It’s just plumbing.”

“Plumbing?”

“Yes,” he said. He hung the first dish on a rack near the sink, and picked up the next. “We stick metal pipes inside the trees. They collect rainwater from the tops of the trees for us to use. There’s some earth magic to keep the water clean and safe to drink, but that’s about it.”

“Huh,” she said.

Ethari continued his scrubbing.

When he shut off the water, she began to hear the sound of two people in discussion, coming from somewhere off to her right, where there were other rooms – and a door that she remembered opened to the outside.

“Look, Runaan, I’m completely fine,” someone was saying, muffled by the door.

“You collapsed, Tiadrin, and you are dying,” the other voice replied, similarly muffled. “You must be more careful. Rayla needs you to make it through the night, and you can’t –”

His voice stopped, as if silenced. Then, Rayla watched – and Ethari glanced around the corner – as the front door swung open, and her mom stepped inside, closely followed by Runaan.

Her mom’s elven face lit up at the sight of her. “Rayla, you’re awake!” she exclaimed, and rushed over, immediately cramming Rayla into a deep hug – with both of her arms.

She released Rayla and smiled widely, before tapping on a bracelet around her left wrist. The bracelet itself was brown, with a circle of green runes written on it, and the flesh around it glowed the same color as the runes. There was something else strange about the arm, though, barely perceptible – something about how it moved just didn’t seem quite right.

“What’s that?” Rayla asked.

“Earth magic!” Mom exclaimed. “It’s the same enchantment they use to animate prosthetic arms. Do you know what that means?”

“You’re not going to die?” Rayla asked, hopefully.

Her mom paused, and she could see Runaan and Ethari shoot each other an awkward look.

“No,” Mom admitted. “It doesn’t mean that. But what it does mean is that I’m able enough to show you around the grove!”

And then Mom coughed, loudly. It was a strange, sickly cough. If Rayla didn’t believe Mom was hurt before… as she tried her best to twist a strained grimace into a smile, Rayla definitely believed it now.