Rayla jerked her brow at the Skywing elf's introduction. He was around her age, a bit taller than her by an inch, with an ash blue skin littered with white henna markings and rune tattoos she found familiar on his bare arms. His midnight hair has framed his chiseled beard-free face really well, with uneven bangs failing to hide the nervousness on his forest green eyes.
He was wingless it seems, given how he slung his knapsack nonchalantly on his smooth back. The knee-length cloak he was wearing showed no protrusion below his spine that might have covered his paired forelimbs.
"That's a pretty weird name for an elf." the Moonshadow said as she eyed his four-fingered hand that he withdrew automatically when she declined his handshake.
"Ah, eh, m -my elven parents are very unconventional." he stammered, scratching his nape incessantly like it was his nervous tick. "S-so that's why I got Jofus. Yeah, my name. Jofus."
Rayla can smell his fishy lies easily from a distance.
"Stop giving this poor boy your murderous glares," their other companion bellowed as he slapped Jofus' back jokingly, causing the Skywing to stumble from his chair. "You can't blame him for cowering in fear at the Grim Reaper's presence."
The Moonshadow elf let out a snort when Jofus looked at her with green eyes like saucers.
She didn't know how exactly she earned the moniker Grim Reaper.
When she first heard the rumors, she had no idea that it was actually about her until someone screamed their lungs out of fear and fainted in her presence.
A recluse, powerful Moonshadow who brings death to anyone they meet and wears a scarf soaked with the blood of her enemies? She wanted to laugh at the absurdity of the claims.
"Let's cut to the chase, shall we?" Rayla leaned forward with folded hands and elbows resting on the table. "Why do we have a mage involved in this meeting, Bogoda?"
Bogoda, an Earthblood elf who happened to be the owner of the tavern that they were in, muttered, "Well, Jofus here knows the key that Viren was looking for - or has an idea where to find it."
Rayla averted her steely gaze towards the Skywing elf who nodded hastily.
He gulped audibly. "I'm sorry but I was instructed by Queen Zubeia - "
" Where ?"
The Moonshadow elf almost balked at Jofus' sudden shift of demeanor, his forest green eyes voided with shyness. "In one of the caves in the Far Reaches, just the south of the Ruins of Elarion."
"And how did you know that the key is in there?"
"It's…" the Skywing shifted his gaze solemnly to the ground. "It's classified information."
Rayla stood up. "You're only wasting my time."
"W-Wait!" Jofus chased her towards the exit. "I - I know you don't believe me - "
"I don't," she interposed as she briskly walked away from the premise to head towards the woods where she fastened her Moonstrider, but the Skywing elf outpaced her.
"- but Prince Azymondias requested specifically that I must seek your assistance as his Dragonguard!"
She halted her steps at the mention of Zym's name, then lashed her head towards the elf who immediately blocked her way. "What did you just say?"
"Wait," Jofus wheezed as he raised a finger on her face, "Let me just...catch...my breath. You're too fast… Okay… I'm good." He began to clear his throat. "The Dragon Prince wants me to lead you to the key that Viren seeks."
Rayla crossed her arms. "Why do I have to follow you if you can just give me the exact location so I can get it myself?"
"Because the key is surrounded with magical traps that only a mage like me can unlock without setting the bombs off."
"And why do I have to believe you?"
The Skywing took a deep sigh before he opened his overcoat and pulled a rolled parchment sealed with a royal stamp. "You're not trusting, are you?"
"I don't trust anyone that I meet for the first time, that's all." she yanked the letter from his hand and tore the seal off nonchalantly to read the contents. "Huh. You're not joking."
"You think it was a joke?"
"You're not the only person who tried to con me for Viren's information." She rerolled the parchment and handed it back to Jofus. "Queen Zubeia presented a very interesting offer, but I'm afraid I have to reject it."
"Why? Is it the monetary allowance?"
Rayla shook her head. "I only work solo. I'm not good with groups, and I'm sure you have heard about the rumors of people who crossed my path."
They call her the Grim Reaper for a reason.
"Does that mean the scarf that you are wearing is really dyed with blood?"
The Moonshadow pursed a grin as she touched her scarf instinctively, her calloused fingers traced the edge where the Katolis towers were once etched in bright gold. "I can neither confirm nor deny that."
"Now that's mean," he was frowning but his green eyes were twinkling with mirth. "Will you reconsider our offer if I tell you that I'm proficient with more than one arcanum?"
Mages who forged multiple arcanum are rare but not completely unheard of.
"I can give you a few demonstrations as proof if you like."
"No need," she quipped. Jofus might be a strange elf, but she can sense his powerful aura based on how he carries himself. "Do you have a ride?"
Jofus stretched both of his lithe arms on the side to reveal his rune markings. "I can fly."
"Fair enough," she said. "I have one last condition before I can accept your offer."
" Really ?!" he exclaimed giddily, only to fake a cough to hide his embarrassment. "Tha - that sounds good. S-so, what is the condition?"
"You have to stop staring at me like that."
His brows furrowed. "Staring like what?"
"Like that ." Rayla scowled at his expression. "Like you're in love with me."
The Skywing choked on his spit as his face changed from beet red to sickly white in mere seconds. "W-what?"
"I'm sorry if I'm brutally honest, but I don't want to lead you on to something that will never happen," she explained, remembering how the elf gave her an enamored look when she first entered the tavern. There was also longingness on his green eyes when he thought she wasn't paying attention, and the sight unnerved her greatly. "I don't know who you are, and I don't have any plans of knowing you either. I'm already taken, and very much committed to - "
She stopped when Jofus burst out laughing, "I'm sorry! I didn't - I didn't mean to make you feel uncomfortable! Oh gosh, this is so funny...uh, how can I explain this. Erm, I'm also taken? And very much faithful to my girlfriend?"
Now it was Rayla who went flustered with mortification. "I-I thought you were -"
"Your assumptions are valid!" he gesticulated as if trying to save themselves from awkwardness. "I apologize for my inappropriate behavior, and I swear it will never happen again! I-It's not my intention to make you feel that way! It's just that you reminded me of her - AND I'M NOT USING YOU AS A REPLACEMENT - and you're both Moonshadow who are strong, and brave, and kind, and beautiful, and Ireallyneedtoshutmymouthnow ."
After a few beats of awkward silence, Rayla decided to break the tension by muttering, "Let's forget that we had this kind of conversation."
"Y-yeah," the Skywing stuttered with a nod. "N-nothing happened. Nope!"
"Good," she extended her right hand towards him for a handshake. "Let's start over again. I'm Rayla, a regular Moonshadow assassin."
He accepted hers with a smile. "Jofus, a regular Skywing mage at your service."
She tried not to put any malice when Jofus' hand lingered a bit longer on hers to be considered as a handshake between strangers, or the familiar spark she felt when his skin touched hers.
'He has a lover, dummy,' Rayla scolded herself as she walked towards her Moonstrider, ignoring how her heart clenched at the sight of her companion's back.
If Jofus wasn't a pure-blooded Skywing elf, she might think that the man standing before her was Callum.
TW: mention of blood and mutilation
Chapter number has been updated, and will probably change depends on my plot bunnies.
Jofus suddenly yelped, slamming his sketchbook shut so hard on his face, and the sound he caused almost frightened the birds in the area. He whipped his head towards her direction with startling green eyes as if she caught him red-handed stealing her Moonberry juice.
"I'm sorry," Rayla apologized as she stepped back to give the Skywing elf a space to recover his bearings. "I didn't mean to spook you. I've been calling your name several times, but you're not responding, so I went here, and then I saw you busy...doodling."
"Did you see it?"
"My drawing," he asked evenly. "Did you see it?"
The Moonshadow shook her head. "Not even a smudge of your pencil."
"Oh. Oh , thank Nexus," he sighed, slipping his sketchbook and his pencil case inside his knapsack.
He patted the loose dirt on his trousers as he stood up. "Are we leaving now?"
"If you're ready."
The two decided to take a short break near the stream to refill their water flasks and to gather enough supplies for their journey. But when Jofus told her that his food keeper was still full, Rayla roamed around to forage for herself instead, leaving him her Moonstrider with an assumption that the Skywing mage would meditate somewhere peaceful and alone.
She didn't expect that Jofus has a hobby.
"I'm sorry if I was rude back then," the Skywing said, rubbing his nape shyly as Rayla mounted her ride. "I was surprised, that's all."
The Moonshadow shrugged him off. "You don't have to explain everything to me. Everyone is entitled to privacy."
"You know," she gripped the reins of her Moonstrider while giving him a coolly stare. "You were lucky I found you first, and not some bounty hunters or someone who works under Viren. Don't lower your guard - I've seen some people who did that and lost their head literally the next day."
He gulped audibly. "D-Dully noted."
Rayla didn't want to sound mean, but she had to address his carefree attitude before someone ambushed them along their way. Everyone in Xadia has been looking for the mysterious key, and for an elf like Jofus to carry such vital information, she deemed it impossible that no one caught wind of it.
Besides, she wasn't joking when she told him about the possible consequences of being complacent. And the way his face paled at her morbid implication, she knew that he was fully aware of her reputation as the Grim Reaper .
Death follows her wherever she goes.
Rayla wasn't sure if it was her discovery of Jofus' artistic side or their discussion about losing a head that triggered her nightmares that night.
Viren was still present as usual, but instead of facing him in the Storm Spire, they were at the Sunfire elves' relocation camp that his Dark Shadow minions attacked last year.
She knew what unfolded on that day.
She was the only survivor who witnessed the aftermath.
But her dreams somehow changed everything and morphed the Sunfire corpses into people she knew and loved - her parents, Runaan, Ethari...almost everyone in Silvergrove and Katolis. And on the other pile of dead bodies were Ezran, Soren, and Bait.
Callum was kneeling on the ground with both hands tied in the back, and his red scarf was used to gag his mouth. His forest green eyes went glassy when the dark mage fisted his brown hair, forcing the prince to tilt his head up and face her direction.
She knew it wasn't real yet her sleep-induced brain told her otherwise.
She was pleading to Viren to let the prince go, but the man only smirked at her cries and answered her by raising a silver blade and slashing it across Callum's jugular.
Blood spurted everywhere as the dark mage slashed his blade again to the prince's neck for a cleaner cut, then kicked his headless body from behind as it slumped to the ground like a rag doll.
Rayla couldn't hear his words anymore at the sound of her cries, and when he tossed her beloved's lifeless head straight to her shaky arms, her dam broke.
"No!" The Moonshadow sobbed, cradling Callum's head against her chest as her life depended on it. "No, no, no! No! Callum!"
"Rayla, wake up!"
" Rayla! "
She was still recovering from her dream haze when her assassin instinct suddenly kicked in, prompting her to pull one of her twin blades and aimed it at the person looming above her.
" W-What… " her voice croaked when she finally registered her surroundings. Her unsteady right hand was holding her weapon in a protective stance while her left was supporting her upper body's weight as she sat to the ground. " What in the fresh hell are you doing ?"
"You were trashing in your sleep," Jofus explained, his green eyes flickered nervously from hers to the silver blade that was inches away from his throat. "I tried to wake you up, but all of a sudden you, well, you tried to decapitate me."
Guilt flooded her as she withdrew her blade away from the Skywing and sheathed it on her back. "I-I'm sorry. For attacking you. I usually sleep alone so I'm not used to having someone rousing me up when I have an episode."
"It's okay, no harm was done." Jofus sat on the ground so he could assess her at eye level. "Has this happened before? Attacking people after waking up from a nightmare?"
She mulled over whether to tell him about the innkeeper incident but opted not to instead. "Let's just say that this is the main reason why I prefer camping outdoors."
He frowned. "That doesn't sound good. Here, let me help you."
Rayla tried not to resist when the Skywing took her water flask from her clammy hands and uncapped it for her.
"T-Thanks," she uttered blankly.
She couldn't believe how thirsty she was until she emptied her container in one down.
"When I was trying to snap you out from your nightmares, you screamed someone's name...someone named Callum," she jolted at the mention of her boyfriend's name, and when she looked at him, his face remained unreadable.
"Is he…" Jofus wetted his lips. "Is he tormenting you in your sleep?"
"No," the Moonshadow murmured, her calloused fingers toying the leather strap of her water flask with downcast eyes. "It's the opposite, actually. He's the one being tormented in my dreams. Callum. It's always him."
"Callum...he's Prince Callum, right? The prince of Katolis?"
Rayla did not answer him.
"And this kind of dream...how long have you been having it?"
She didn't know why she was telling him about it, but there was something in Jofus' presence that made her feel secure and safe to reveal her innermost thoughts.
"You know how dreams are the manifestation of our subconsciousness, right?" She went on when he gave her a nod. "Whenever I recall a bad event in the past, my brain will twist it and replace the offended parties with people I care the most. Despite knowing that it wasn't real, my nightmares will still make me react horribly. It seems...it seems that you can't simply beat your inner demons with logic and reasoning."
"Have you tried seeking professional help?"
"And what, force me to take some medicines and attend therapy sessions that will consume so much time, time that I could have used to find Viren?" she scoffed at his suggestion. "My nightmares will only end once Viren is captured or dead."
"But - "
"Drop it, Jofus," she warned with a beady glare. "Your mission is to lead me to where the key is, not to be my shrink."
The Skywing was about to retort when something caught his attention instead.
"What happened to your neck?"
"Just an old wound," she muttered when she noticed that her scarf was a bit loose, exposing a purplish band just above her collar. She immediately fixed the red fabric around her neck, then looped it more securely to hide the nasty mark from his privy eyes. "It's nothing."
"That's not nothing ," he gave her an incredulous look. "That wound looks infected ! Let me -"
Rayla slapped his wrist before he could reach her scarf out of reflex, and the action shocked them both.
"I'm sorry!" Jofus withdrew automatically then raised both of his hands above his head as if surrendering. "I should have respected your boundaries but my curiosity got ahead of me and I know some healing spells that can - "
"You can't," she cut off his blabbering, then curled her body slightly inward. "Primal spells can't do anything to wounds inflicted by Dark Magic."
"Wha-what do you mean by Dark - "
Before he could finish his sentence, Rayla slid back to her sleeping mat with her back facing him. "I don't want to talk about this anymore. Good night, Jofus. See you in the morning."
A few minutes had passed before she heard his exasperated sigh behind her, muttering 'Good night, Rayla' then shuffled away.
Jofus was giving her a silent treatment the next day.
While she appreciated that he wasn't nagging her for details during breakfast, his brooding attitude was very much unwelcome. And the way he flew just above her, his mage wings casting a shadow that shielded her from direct sunlight, it made her feel like he was a predator and she was his prey.
Rayla wasn't in a mood to deal with his childish behavior.
She heard a yowl, followed by a gust of wind caused by a very annoyed elf who landed unceremoniously in front of her and blocked her way.
" Did you just fucking throw me a walnut ?!"
"You were giving me a look like I insulted your mother!" the Moonshadow spat as she unmounted her ride. "So let's get straight to the point, Birdman."
He sputtered. " B-Birdman ?"
It was almost their lunchtime so she used it as an opportunity to make him stop beating around the bush.
"Are you really that desperate to know my neck wound?"
Jofus blinked at her with disbelief, and when it dawned to him that she wasn't joking, he flashed her a toothy grin. "If you can tell me the story behind it that would be great."
"You're not even trying to deny it." she deadpanned.
He shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. "You offered so who am I to become choosy? Besides, I don't gossip."
"Swear to your arcanum."
"Swear to my what ?"
"Your arcanum," Rayla gave him a narrow stare. "Are Skywing kids not making promise swears or their dead ancestors will smite them?"
The Skywing broke a sweat as he fiddled the edge of his overcoat with his fingers nervously. "I'm, ah, homeschooled?"
She jerked a brow. "Is that a question?"
"No?" he squeaked at her inquisitive gaze, then raised his right hand and recited, "I, Jofus, solemnly swear over my ancestors' dead body that I will never, ever tell Rayla's secrets to anyone."
She gave him another long, hard look before she shrugged it off. "That's not how you swear to your arcanum, but I'll take it anyway. Besides, I can easily chop off your tongue before you can spill my secret."
She heard him gulped audibly.
The Moonshadow walked towards the clearing where a large log was in the middle. She patted a space on her right, then scooted a little when the Skywing mage took her hint and sat beside her.
"A year ago, a group of Dark Shadows attacked a Sunfire relocation camp near the Shiverglades," she began. "Several families who were looking for a better place after the collapse of Lux Aurea were slaughtered mercilessly by the same creature who destroyed their hometown. Nobody survived," her jaw clenched at the memory. "Men, women, children...all of them were butchered like animals. Garlath knows what happened to their missing body parts, or what kind of dark spells were created out of it."
"And you were there."
"I was late," the Moonshadow clenched her fists on her lap. "If I didn't make a little detour, I could have saved that boy's life. He was the last survivor, or supposed to be one if they didn't capture him. You have no idea how intense my rage was when they beheaded him in front of his family's corpses. He was barely ten, Jofus, ten fucking years old, and was crying for his mom."
"I don't think I can sit back and watch there without doing anything." the Skywing murmured with controlled anger.
"See, that was my biggest mistake," she nudged him lightly with her elbow. "I was blindsided by my extreme emotions to notice that the dark mage's daughter was behind me all along."
" Claudia ?"
"You know her?" The Moonshadow asked when her companion lashed his head towards her with bewilderment.
Rayla didn't buy it but decided not to pry further.
"I don't know why you know her or even care as to how, but at least you have an idea of her magical capabilities, especially with dozens of undead army as her back-up, and anti-elven 'ingredients' lying on the ground literally at her disposal," she made an air-quote on the ingredients to emphasize. "Claudia...she was powerful, way more powerful than our last encounter with the dragon. But I was faster ."
"I didn't kill her if that's what you want to know next," she added when the Skywing opened his mouth to ask, only to shut it closed at her answer. "Not that I can't kill her, but I am obligated not to for the sake of my friends - and one of them is her brother. She's pretty much untouchable in my books, even though she holds a deep-seated grudge against me. That's why she gave me this."
She pulled her scarf a bit to reveal a sliver of her neck mark, then covered it again. "Several healers told me that it was a severing mark. It's like our assassin's binding where it will grow tighter as the days progress until one of your body parts falls off - in my case, my head."
"And you're okay with it?"
Jofus' voice hitched a little, but she waved it dismissively with a chuckle. "My head is perfectly well-intact, as you can see, so the spell didn't work, or as many mages believed, wasn't executed properly. I don't know why Claudia failed back then. Maybe she needed something to complete the spell, like my spit or my toenails, or maybe one of my horns. Or maybe I was lucky enough to escape before she could finish her incantations. Anyw - Jofus?"
Of all the reactions that she could imagine for Jofus to express, crying wasn't one of them.
"Why," the Skywing gripped her shoulders firmly as tears welled on his forest green eyes. "Why are you acting like it's nothing ?! Why are you devaluing your life like that ?!"
"We are not immortal, Jofus," she told him with a straight-laced face. "And we are in the midst of war. Half of our bodies are already buried six feet below the ground, and it will only hurt you more if you don't admit that you will eventually die. The sooner you accept the truth, the freer you become."
"But that doesn't mean you can throw your life away like that!" he retorted hotly. "I know death is inevitable, but the way you see yourself in a dangerous situation concerns me. Scares me . Don't you have people whom you care about the most? What about them? What do you think they will feel about it? What about Callum?"
Her body went stiff as she flashed him a warning look. "Callum has nothing to do with this."
"Of course, he does! He loves you!"
"And he shouldn't!" she yelled back. "I left him Jofus, on the night before his birthday, even though I promised him that we're going to find Viren together. Do you know how shit that action was? Lying on your beloved's face without batting an eye? Strong relationships need honesty, the full truth, and I gave him none of that!"
She stood up with her back facing him, then wiped a stray tear on her cheek harshly with her palm. "I'm a mess, Jofus, a walking disaster, a living bomb that can explode anytime soon. I have demons in my head that I can't kill for years. I'm a ghost, a banished elf that's severely broken beyond repair."
"Callum deserves someone better," she went on as she kept her emotions at bay. "He's royalty, a prince, with a brother who loves him so dearly. He's wise and noble, and pure. He has a bright future ahead of him. Me, on the other hand… I have nothing . I don't have a title or any riches to share. My parents were labeled as traitors, my foster father murdered his father, and I was ghosted by my kind. I am nothing but a problem, one with mental baggage, and I don't want to subject him to that. Not to mention the fact that I'm an elf, and he's a human."
"Callum doesn't care about any of those."
"No, he doesn't," she turned around and noted how blotchy his cheeks were from crying. "But I don't want to put him in a position where he had to choose between Katolis and me. And he has a track record of almost killing himself for following me, so I want him to stop that."
"You know why everyone calls me Grim Reaper, right?" she continued with a leveled tone. "The mass killing on the Sunfire's relocation camp wasn't the only slaughtering that I've stumbled in the past. Hell, I couldn't count how many dead people I've seen this year alone. And the worst thing was that none of these had any survivors left. That's why people are scared of me. It's a fucking irony, really. I, a Moonshadow assassin turned Ghost, became a harbinger of death."
"If only Callum accompanied you…" Jofus stared to the ground solemnly, "If he was with you all along, maybe...maybe you'll never suffer this way. Alone."
"I'd rather choose to die than to see him killed, mutilated or tortured," was her stern reply. "He's the reason why I'm still alive in this world, Jofus. He keeps me grounded. And knowing that he's alive and safe somewhere and away from this bloody war zone washes away all of my pain and suffering because I'm doing all of these for him. It's always for him. He's the only one that's left for me, and I'm willing to sacrifice myself to give him the world he deserves to live."
"But what if you're his world, Rayla?" he asked. "What if he's out there looking for you?"
"He will only see me once Viren is dead," she responded as she walked back to her Moonstrider, her lunch left forgotten.
Her steps faltered as she glanced back. "You probably know Callum by association , or met him personally due to your shared passion, but whatever revelations I shared with you today, you have to keep it as a secret."
"You made me swore to my arcanum, remember?" Jofus replied with a forced smile. "Besides, I don't gossip."
She smiled back. "Thank you."
A rumble of thunder roared from afar caught her attention.
"We have to move faster before a storm hits us," she suggested, but the Skywing mage shook his head.
"I don't think we will make it on time," he said, with green eyes fixated on the dark clouds looming above them. "We need to find shelter. Now."
"Rain sucks," Rayla mumbled as she stared at her disgruntled reflection from a puddle outside their cave, only to be distorted by heavy droplets of rain.
Her elven companion who was huddling next to her made a non-committal hum, his green eyes remained vibrant as he stared intently at the gloomy clouds like a kid fascinated by a fireworks display
"Skywings really love storms, huh?" she bemused, drawing her legs closed as she tucked her chin between her knees. "Just like Callum."
"I hope you were not offended when I told you that you both share a lot of traits," she added immediately when the Skywing mage began to sputter from his seat.
"I-It's fine! Really," he waved a hand dismissively, then pulled the edge of his cloak around his body as he dodged her prying gaze with a blush. "A-and I'm sure you can't h-help it! A-after all, w-we both have the same arcanum."
"Right," she resumed her attention back to the puddle in front of her with a nostalgic smile. "Callum was so engrossed with the storm even before he connected to the Sky. I guess the Primal Stone gave him a better grasp about it, making it easier for him to understand the arcanum."
"How is he like? Callum, I mean," Jofus flailed his arms wildly with a squeak when the Moonshadow gave him a confused look. "I-If it's okay with you! I - I know Prince Callum because I met him once, and he seems so cool and awesome and wise but not on a closer level like yours! A-and we have nothing to do in this cave anyway, so why not talk about random bits and stuff to kill time?"
Rayla laughed much to the Skywings embarrassment. "It's fine, Jofus. You never offended me. Besides, I probably need some distractions."
The way she rubbed her palm against her red scarf was left unnoticed.
"My offer still stands, Rayla," he said somberly as the humor died down. "I know a few spells that can help you with that wound."
She shook her head, then dropped her hand to her side with a sigh. "It's not painful...or itchy. More like, a weird sensation, as if there's an invisible sticky tape on my skin that is so bothersome you might want to peel it off but can't. I usually get this feeling when the weather is bad, or if it's a New Moon, or…"
Her expression fell. "Or if there's a presence of Dark magic in the area."
It has been two days since they started their mission, and so far, they have never encountered any dangers along their way. It might be because they were heading to the southern part of the continent that was voided by civilization. Despite the comforting prospect, nobody could tell if their destination would be safe.
Rayla hoped it was just the weather.
"Why don't we play a game instead?" she proposed, attempting to lift the dampened mood. "They call it a Five-Question game. It's a game where we ask five questions back and forth, and the first who call it quits is the loser."
"Sounds interesting," he nodded with an upturned mouth, then shifted his position so he could face her properly. "Ladies first?"
"Naaah, you already dropped a question first, so better not to keep you hanging - or give you a chance to change it. 'Tis unfair," she smirked when he gave her an offensive look, then tapped the side of her cheek with her finger as if pondering. "So, Callum huh? What is he like...erm, let's see. Callum is... a big dork."
Jofus snorted indignantly.
"A massive, nerdy dork, to be exact," she flashed a toothy grin at his dubious expression. "He's a bookworm who loves to study, especially math. Who the hell loves math? Math sucks!"
The Skywing grumbled something incoherent under his breath, but she simply brushed him off.
"He's an artist, just like you," the Moonshadow went on. "And a really good one. If you have seen his watercolor paintings, you will be rendered speechless at how detailed and vibrant they are."
He burst out laughing. "You're exaggerating it."
"No, I'm not," she defended with a pout. "Callum is a great artist. He even has this favorite character he affectionately named Marshmallow Monster."
She flashed a toothy grin at his impassive face. "It's true! You can find his Marshmallow Monster in the first few pages of his sketchbook - you know, that large book with a shoulder strap?"
"I don't think Prince Callum and I are close enough to make an art trade." Jofus chortled.
"Oh, but you two are going to be great friends! Best friends even!" Rayla elbowed his arm lightly. "So...how did you two meet, by the way?
She heard him gulped audibly.
"He's, uh...he visited the Storm Spire to meet Master Ibis," the Skywing explained as his fingers began to fiddle the frayed edge of his cloak. "We made some courtesy hi's and hello's but never talked much. And he never stayed there for a chit-chat. Too bad, though. He seems like a pretty decent guy."
"Uh-huh..." she drawled languidly with a frown. "But you acted as if you know all of his life stories a while ago."
The Moonshadow caught him wincing at her words. "Well, uh... erm, i-it's easy to read him once he drops his mental barriers. He's like an open book."
Rayla hummed to agree.
She wondered if Callum was there to become Ibis' apprentice since the old Skywing mage has expressed his interest in teaching the Prince before.
If he accepted the offer back then and decided to stay in Xadia instead of going back to Katolis, will she end up living in the Storm Spire with him and pursue her other dream to become a Dragon Guard?
Are they going to spend their days training separately, only to see each other during meals or before bedtime? Will they end up sharing a room? Live their life in domestic bliss until they reached a certain age where they decided to be married and -
The sound of Jofus clearing his throat snapped her back to reality.
"So, why did you call yourself a Grim Reaper?" he asked.
"I never called myself a Grim Reaper," she scoffed, tucking her chin back to her propped knees as she stared at the wet ground. "I don't even know how I got that stupid name. I learned it first from someone who explained to me why his friend fainted on me when I asked for directions."
Her companion snorted. "Fainted? Seriously?"
"I know, right?" she jabbed her index towards him with a huff. "All I did was to report to the authorities if I stumbled on an ambushed site or a mass grave. That's it. It's not like I killed them or something."
"You've never killed anyone?"
"It's my turn to ask, isn't it?” she gave him a sardonic grin when he rolled his eyes indignantly. “Okay, tell me more about your girlfriend.”
Jofus whipped his head towards her with a sputter, "W-What?!"
“C’mon, it’s unfair that you know about my love life more than I know yours,” she taunted in a whiny voice when he covered his crimson face with his fingerless gloved hands. “All I know is that she’s a Moonshadow like me, who is strong and brave and kind and beautiful and...is she also daring?”
The Skywing made an obscure groan.
“Don’t be a sore loser, Jofus. You agreed to play the game. Unless..." She paused for a bit to make a dramatic gasp. "You don't actually love her?"
He shot her a beady eye between his parted fingers. “You have a way with words, you know that?”
“You pulled a similar stunt to me a few hours ago.” she pointed out coolly. "A pot calling the kettle black."
“Alright, then,” Jofus dragged his hands away from his face wearily with a resigned sigh, “My girlfriend, huh?"
"That's the question."
He looked at the gloomy sky. "She’s...she’s the most incorrigible person that I’ve ever met in my entire life."
Rayla wrinkled her nose. “Sounds like a handful type."
"You don't say," he chuckled as he gave her a side glance. "She's a very hard-headed person…very independent...very daring, I might say...and funny in her way. Gorgeous...and so beautiful both inside and out. Probably the prettiest girl in the world next to my mom."
"Oh?" she leaned her head to the side with a grin. "Must be a catch then."
"Absolutely," he beamed at her with a knowing glint in his eye. "I can't imagine myself spending the rest of my life with anyone but her."
The Moonshadow whistled. "You're that serious, huh?"
"If she will have me," he muttered glumly, but before Rayla could pry further, he chirped, "Anyway! Since I already answered your question, it's your turn now to answer mine."
"If I killed anyone, huh?" she harrumphed with a feigned annoyance. "I killed one, technically. But someone resurrected him from the dead, so my deed was null. Not a good reputation for a trained assassin, you know? Not to mention being friends with someone I was bound to kill."
"You don't seem like you have regrets."
"He's worth losing a limb anyway," she shrugged off her shoulders, then side-eyed him with apprehension. "I was wondering, and I hope you don't mind me asking this question but...what made you decide to accept this mission?"
"I..." his voice faltered a bit as if he was trying to collect his thoughts. "I was hoping that this mission can help me find her."
His lips quivered. "She...she left me."
Rayla wanted to scold herself for asking such a hurtful question.
"It's easier if she broke up with me," he went on without glancing at her way. "But she didn't. She left because she believed that it was the best for us. For me."
She felt a lump on her throat as he continued.
"I fell for a hero," His voice wavered a bit as he stared blankly at the torrential rains. "Who is strong and brave and kind and selfless that it frustrates me to no end why she can't see herself the way people see her. The way I see her. That she's...that she's more important to me."
"I should've seen the signs, Rayla," he choked back a sob, then immediately wiped the tear that leaked out from his eye with the back of his hand. "But I didn't. I thought...I thought that being together was enough. That my love was enough. I was a fool."
"I'm sure she knows about your feelings."
"That's the problem, Rayla!" he exclaimed as he angled his body towards her, only to jerk away after realizing his outburst.
The Moonshadow remained unfazed by his action.
She understood where he was coming from.
He focused his gaze back on the outside view. "She doesn't know...or maybe she does now...but that doesn't negate the fact that my feelings blindsided me to see the truth behind the lies. Behind her lies."
The Skywing shuddered with a forced smile when she gave him a comforting squeeze in the arm. "I - I'm sorry. I didn't mean to make this game even more depressing than the weather."
"It's okay," Rayla soothed. "Bottling up your emotions is bad for your health, you know?"
Jofus chuckled. "That's rich coming from a Moonshadow elf."
"I've never been a traditionalist. Broke a few rules here and there," she scooted a little closer so she could sling her arm on his shoulder for a friendly pat. "I'm sorry if my question was too much."
"It's fine, Rayla. I did the same thing to you before we got stuck in this cave, remember?" he returned the gesture by patting the back of her hand. "Like what you've said earlier, a pot calling the kettle black."
"Right." she nodded with a smile.
"What if..." Jofus clutched her hand then tilted his head to stare at her with uncertain eyes. "What if Callum is actually in this cave, right here, right now...what would you do? Or better yet...what if I'm actually Callum?"
Rayla's breathing hitched as she absorbed his words.
What if Jofus is Callum?
How will she respond with that information?
"I…" she averted her gaze as she worried her chapped lip. "I'm going...I'm going to run away."
He let go of her hand, baffled by her answer. "What?"
"Don't get me wrong, I really want to see Callum," the Moonshadow tried to laugh off his flabbergasted expression but failed. "But I think you have no idea how deep my devotions are. If only I could bind myself to kill Viren, I probably should have done that years ago. Besides, if Callum is here, what am I supposed to say?"
"The full truth?" he replied lamely.
"No," She shook her head at his suggestion. "If he knows, he might...he might do everything to help me. Even...even if it will cost his life. And I will never allow that."
"White lies are illusions you build with your words to protect the hearts of those you love,” she muttered as she looked at her distorted reflection in the puddle again. "I can't say sorry for leaving that night or ask for his forgiveness if he's here. Because saying sorry means that I will never do it again, and I can't because Viren is still out posing as a threat not only to him but also to the rest of Xadia."
She heard him taking a deep, mournful sigh. "You're... you're such a stubborn elf."
"Moonshadows are stubborn in nature. It's in our blood," she chuckled dryly. "See, this is the reason why you will never be Callum."
Jofus sat ramrod straight as he blinked in confusion.
"You never showed any hostility or resentments when we first met in the tavern," she explained, which earned her an offended scoff. "Plus, Callum is a very horrible actor. I can smell his fishy lies even from a distance."
"I completely disagree with you on the first. And for the second one," the Skywing leaned to her with a smirk. "What if I know a very good illusion spell, so good that it makes you not see my very horrible acting skills?"
She was about to say something when a sharp jab in her neck interrupted her.
"M' fine," she gasped, raising her hand to make him stop. "It's just the weather…"
"You don't look fine to me - Rayla!"
Another sharp pain made her crouched down to the ground as realization finally dawned on her that her neck discomfort has nothing to do with the weather.
"D-Death shadows," she panted as she reached for her weapons. "They're...they're here."
The Skywing's jaw clenched as he assisted her to stand up. "I don't think it's wise to leave this cave - "
The two froze on their spot when they noticed several humanoid figures moving from afar.
It wasn't just one or two, but ten Dark Shadows were approaching their location.
Garlath knows if there were a few more lurking behind their location.
She could probably hold three Dark Shadows easily despite her throbbing wound, and with the raging storm outside, she knew that Jofus was at the height of his power.
She wasn't sure if the Skywing mage was powerful enough to zap them all.
"I don't think they found us," Rayla growled at his silent question as she unsheathed her dual blades. "They're probably here to survey this area. Either to do an ambush...or to check for survivors. I know we're outnumbered, but we have no choice but to fight them."
She was about to step out of the cave when an arm blocked her way.
"Stop," the Skywing told her. "We have to stay here."
"And what, let these Dark Shadows kill us?" she retorted hotly.
"No, they won't," he muttered, his forest green eyes turned cold at the sight of their approaching enemies. "I have a plan."
She was taken aback when Jofus suddenly embraced her, an action that was definitely unwelcomed but completely out of the blue.
"Rayla," he murmured as he hugged her as if his life depended on it. "Do you...do you trust me?"
For some odd reason, she trusted this strange elf more than anyone in the world.
"I do," the Moonshadow replied as she peeled herself off from his lithe arms. "But you have to fill me in with this plan of yours."
"No problem," he nodded, then turned his head back to the approaching group. "I want you to stay clear, and behind me if possible. And if...and if you noticed something in me, please don't - don't run away, okay?"
Her brows furrowed. "I don't understand."
The melancholy in his smile confused her more.
"Okay, I promise," she said. "I'm not going to run away even if you're going to do something crazy. Wait a minute - are you?"
"Sort of?" he tried to suppress a grin but failed. "Just...just sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. Okay?"
"Okay?" she parroted. "But what do you mean by - "
Rayla gaped when the Skywing drew a familiar rune in the air and chanted a spell that was often used in covert missions.
It wasn't a Sky spell.
It was a Moon.
" Mystica Arbora! "