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Reaching for the Moon

Chapter Text

“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.”

“Hmm.”

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.”

“Mm.”

“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...”

“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.

Chapter Text

The elf man – Runaan, he’d said – returned to the room, carrying a purple bowl filled with something. Rayla’s stomach growled. She hadn’t eaten since dinner back at the keep, and that had been so long ago.

“This is for you,” Runaan said, sliding it across the table to her. “It isn’t very much, but I hope you like it.”

Rayla inspected the dish. The bowl held scoops of something smooth and white, almost like ice cream, with a large, red berry in the middle. The berry was larger than her fist, with little rivulets of bright red juice leaking out of it. There was already a spoon tucked into the ice cream, made of the same purplish wood as the bowl.

She picked up the spoon and poked at the berry with it. She’d never seen a berry like this before, but it almost looked familiar.

Mom laughed from the chair to her left. “Not much, Runaan? That’s an entire moonberry.”

“When did she last eat?” he countered.

“Before she left, I know. I’m sure she’s hungry. I only mean that I wouldn’t call it ‘not much’ food.”

So that was a moonberry! Rayla took the opportunity to hop up onto the table with the bowl in her hands and sit down cross-legged on the surface with the bowl in her lap.

“Rayla, Runaan doesn’t want –” Mom began, but then Runaan waved her off.

“The table will live,” he replied. “Let her have this.”

She could tell the two of them were watching her. She poked the spoon into the moonberry, scraping out a bit of it with a bit of the ice cream, and stuck it in her mouth.

Surprisingly, the spoon didn’t make it taste of wood. The moonberry was both sour and sweet, just like the juice her parents would bring her. The ice cream was creamy, and the whole thing dissolved in her mouth.

It was a very simple piece of food. It was also automatically better than most of the food they served at the keep because it had moonberries in it – and because it had ice cream in it.

She stuck the spoon in again for more. The second bite was just as good as the first!

Mom took a deep breath. “Rayla,” she said. “I’m going to have to tell you some things that are hard to hear.”

Rayla glanced up at her, and then pried off more of the berry with her spoon. “Okay,” she said.

“Your father and I did something very dangerous and very foolish.”

“And heroic,” Runaan cut in.

“Yes,” her mom acknowledged. “It was for a worthy cause, and I would do it again – but it came with at a heavy cost. For your father, for me, and, less directly, for you.”

Rayla looked up from her ice cream. “What was it?”

Mom frowned. “A group of people were going to do something very bad. They were … they were going to kill a creature so that they could rip out its heart, and use it for dark magic. Your father and I were on a patrol with the other elves when they came, so we helped stop them. We held them off, but we were very hurt in the process.”

“Why?” asked Rayla.

“Why what?”

“Why were you hurt?”

Mom blinked and took another deep breath. “There was a very powerful man. A dark mage. You met him once, when we visited the Castle.”

Rayla remembered. He was tall and dressed in black. He had looked at her with cold eyes, and had spoken to her parents in harsh words. She didn’t like him.

“He cast a very powerful spell on your father,” Mom continued, slowly, carefully. “And on me. And on most of the other elves. Your father died, and I will too.”

Rayla furrowed her eyebrows and set down the spoon. Mom seemed pretty alive. Mostly she just looked like an elf. “You don’t look like you’re dying,” Rayla pointed out.

Mom’s eyes flicked to Runaan’s face, and back again. Runaan turned his gaze towards the floor.

“I was lucky that I didn’t die immediately,” Mom said. She hesitated, and then reached over to pull her armor on her left arm aside, which continued to hang limp. There was a large patch of bumpy, purple skin underneath – not at all like the light dusting of purple on the skin of her face and hands, but a dark, messy, creeping purple. Rayla’s eyes went wide, and Mom immediately pulled her armor back up, wincing as she did so.

Rayla looked up at her mom, who was barely holding herself together. This didn’t make any sense. Mom was supposed to be invincible, not – dying. She couldn’t be dying.

“The spell is going to spread,” Mom slowly explained. “It already infected the nerves in my arm. When it reaches my heart, I will die. The other elves tried their best, but it already spread too far. There’s nothing they can do. Maybe if they had a year to find the right spell, but I don’t have that long.”

Rayla looked down and pried another piece of the moonberry off with the spoon, sticking it in her mouth.

She left it there until the taste turned purely sour, and then until even that dissolved.

“Why am I here?” she asked, quietly. “You said it was dangerous for me.”

Mom paused. “I did, because it is dangerous for you. Now that the whole grove knows my secret, it’s dangerous for me, too. But it was far more dangerous for you to stay behind.”

“Why?” asked Rayla. “The soldiers would have kept me safe. Especially General Amaya.”

Mom shook her head again. “That’s the problem. The bad people I talked about before? They’re from Katolis. General Amaya was one of them. We did the right thing, but they’ll never see it that way. Everyone will consider us traitors, now. Even her.”

“But I didn’t do anything.”

“No,” Mom agreed. “You didn’t, and Amaya might even care about that, but the dark mage wouldn’t have. Leaving you would have been more dangerous than bringing you.”

Rayla looked over to Runaan, who smiled sadly. “Your mother is brave, Rayla. I do not know if she is making the right choice. Maybe the Silvergrove is the best place for you to be. Maybe it is not. But we will do everything we can to make it safe for you.”

“Aren’t you supposed to be dangerous, not safe?”

Runaan blinked, taken aback. “We are dangerous. To our enemies. Yes, our enemies are often humans.” He looked towards Mom. “But only bad humans.”

He turned his gaze back to Rayla. “You, Rayla, are not a bad human. You are the daughter of the best two humans I know.”

Rayla looked down at her bowl. She scooped another spoonful of ice cream into her mouth.

There was silence around the table.

“I know this is a lot to take in,” her mom said. “I’m sorry. This isn’t what we wanted to happen. We were waiting to bring you until you were older, when we could teach you how to disguise yourself. We should have planned better.”

Rayla ate another piece of the moonberry. It was strangely filling, just like moonberry juice, even when there was so little of it.

“I’ll stay with you as long as I can,” her mom promised, as she stared at the bowl. “But when I’m gone, someone has to take care of you. Your father and I have – we had two people in mind that we think you’ll like.”

Rayla looked up at the two adults, who shared a glance with each other. Runaan nodded at her.

“You’ve already met the first one,” her mom continued. “Runaan is – he’s someone we’ve known for a long time. You can trust him.”

Rayla looked up at Runaan, who smiled softly at her. He was an elf, but… she liked him. He seemed nice. He hadn’t gotten mad when he’d caught her sneaking around, not like the soldiers did at the keep, and he’d even offered to teach her to do it better. He’d also given her a real moonberry – without her even asking! Even her parents had only ever given her the juice.

“Will you let me have more of this?” she asked him, gesturing down at the mostly-empty bowl.

He blinked and cleared his throat. “Well,” he said. “I do know how to make more ice cream.”

“No, no,” she shook her head. “The moonberry.” She poked at what remained of it.

Runaan raised an eyebrow. Mom leaned towards him. “She loved drinking our moonberry juice whenever we returned to Katolis,” she explained, pretending to whisper but clearly not.

Runaan glanced at her, then back at Rayla, and then chuckled. “Rayla,” he said. “We are in the Silvergrove. You can have as many moonberries as you can eat. I’ll even show you how to pick them yourself.”

Her eyes lit up. “Good,” she said. “I like you.”

Mom and Runaan shared a smile. “The other person is Ethari,” her mom explained. “He’s Runaan’s husband, and the Silvergrove’s best smith. He even made the armor that Runaan and I am wearing right now.”

Rayla looked at the green-and-dark-blue armor the two wore. She nodded.

“Ethari is a good person,” Mom continued. “You can trust him too. He’s… busy right now, taking care of something, but he’ll be back in the evening, and you can meet him then.”

Rayla nodded and looked back down at her bowl. Strangely enough, the ice cream hadn’t started to melt yet, and she’d been sitting here a long time. She had eaten most of it, though. She scraped up the last few bites into her mouth, along with the last of the moonberry, and set the bowl down.

She scooted across the table to Mom, who quickly scooped her up into a tight, one-armed embrace. She squeezed back, wrapping her arms around her mom’s head and white hair.

“I’m going to miss you,” Mom said. “I am so, so sorry that everything turned out like this.”

She released Rayla and looked into her eyes. “Rayla,” she said. “This isn’t going to be easy for you. Xadia doesn’t have many humans, and the people here won’t like you for being one. But I know that you’re strong, and you’re brave, and you’ll be able to thrive here. And Runaan and Ethari will be with you, every step of the way.”

Rayla nodded. She didn’t know what she was supposed to be thinking or how she was supposed to respond.

She leaned back in and tightened her arms around Mom. “I love you,” she whispered.

“I love you too, moonshine,” her mom whispered back, stroking Rayla’s dark hair with a four-fingered hand.

Something made Rayla feel heavy. Maybe it was how long they’d ridden to get here. Maybe it was the suspiciously filling ice cream. Maybe it was that it was long past her bedtime. Maybe it was, just a little bit, the weight of what she’d just been told.

Regardless of why she was tired, she let out a long yawn and rested her head against her mother’s shoulder. Her eyes slipped closed, and she could feel Mom rise to her feet, treading silently over to the stairs.

Her mom was quiet, her footsteps inaudible. Rayla knew that made her a good spy. She was too good of a spy for anyone to be able to hurt her, so Rayla knew there was nothing to worry about. Mom would be fine.

Somewhere between the bottom of the stairs and being tucked into bed, Rayla drifted off to sleep.

Chapter Text

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.