Callum awoke with the worst headache he’d ever had in his life.
He couldn’t tell how long he lay in bed for, cradling his head and trying not to think. At one point someone opened the curtains, but thankfully closed them again pretty quickly after an exceptionally embarrassing sound escaped from his throat.
A few times, someone tried to get him to drink something. The first time he was in too much pain to cooperate, but after that . . . he wasn’t sure if he felt a little better, or was just more used to it, or maybe his thirst was bad enough, but he let their small hands guide his own to bring the flask to his mouth.
Eventually, ever so slowly, the pain began to ebb, and he could begin to think again. For the life of him he couldn’t remember how or when it had started, but concentrating too hard made the pain worsen again. That wasn’t right; Callum remembered everything. Frustrated, he buried his head farther into the pillow.
When he finally brought himself to sit up, the pain down to a dull ache, he realized how strange the room around him was. The décor had more floral motifs than he was used too, and the color scheme was mostly comprised of blue and white, with gold accents. Delicate fabrics draped the walls, most imprinted with stylized lilies, of all things. He was alone.
He spied a wash basin in the corner of the room, and suddenly realized how grimy he felt. He pulled himself to his feet, groaning as his sore muscles stretched. Looking around the room from his new perspective, he frowned. Why was everything so short? Where was he?
He staggered to the wash basin and splashed some water on his face, bringing cool relief. He rubbed his face, grimacing at the prickliness of his cheeks and chin.
Wait a minute. Grasping the sides of the basin, he looked up into the mirror.
He didn’t recognize the wide-eyed face that stared back.
Well, that wasn’t entirely true. The face was strikingly similar to his, if his face was leaner and harder and somehow able to grow anything more than peach fuzz. He brought a hand up to stroke the neat, closely trimmed beard that was somehow decorating the lower half of his face. That brought his attention to his arm, exposed by his sleeveless tunic, much more defined than he remembered and decorated with a string of strange runes painted down its length.
“What the hell,” he muttered, and jolted at the deep voice that came out.
Callum clambered over towards the window, tripping over unsteady legs, and threw the curtains open. He didn’t recognize the landscape beyond, though at this point he hadn’t expected to. A city made of white stone spread out below, glinting in the sunlight. Golden fields and rolling hills stretched beyond.
Okay, okay. He stared down at his hands, gripping the windowsill hard enough to turn his knuckles white. A ring glinted on his left hand. His brain, already struggling to process, stalled. What is going on? Squeezing his eyes shut, he put his back to the wall and slid down to sit against it.
The door to his room flew open, and a familiar figure barreled through. “Callum! You’re awake! It’s so good to see you up, buddy!”
Callum just stared up at the cheerful young man before him. Even this was wrong, even if it was a nice wrong. Soren wasn’t this openly friendly. Or this genuinely happy. This was . . . a good thing, probably, but Callum couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in his gut.
Grinning, Soren looked over at the man who’d followed him in. “See? I told you as soon as we convinced her to take a break, he’d wake up.”
The other man, who also wore the colors of a Katolin crownguard but whose armor was more akin to that of a scout, snorted. “Well, you can be the one to go tell her, then.”
“Soren, where’s Ezran? Where’s my brother?” Callum demanded. “Where’s King Harrow?”
Both men froze.
“Uh . . . what?” Soren asked slowly.
Callum gritted his teeth. “Where’s Ezran and my stepdad? Are they safe? Did the elves attack?” He pulled himself up, leaning against the wall.
Faces suddenly grave, Soren and his fellow crownguard looked at each other. The other man nodded slowly. “I’ll go get His M—Ezran.”
“No. I’m coming with you.” Callum pushed off from the wall, still shaky.
“Callum . . .”
Angrily, Callum pushed Soren’s hand from his shoulder and stumbled toward the door. “I have to get out of this room.”
Soren sent the other man, Corvus, ahead to given Ezran a heads up. At least that meant Ez was okay, probably, though that small assurance didn’t help Callum’s mental state much. They were only about a dozen steps down the hall when Callum grudgingly relented and let Soren help support him. It was less awkward than he had imagined, given that he was just about Soren’s height. But that only added to his apprehension. It was just wrong.
After several long hallways and a set of wide, curving stairs that proved difficult enough to be embarrassing, the two of them approached a set of grand double doors decorated with yet another lily motif. A pair of guards in unfamiliar blue and white uniform flanked the doors.
Finally, something clicked in Callum’s brain. “Lilies. White and blue. Those are symbols of Duren.”
“Ah, yup,” Soren said cautiously. “That’s, uh, where we are. Duren Palace.”
“Why?” Callum asked. “How did we get here? How long was I out?”
“You know what, I’m going to let Ez and Rayla answer those questions.”
The guards opened the doors, and the two of them stepped into a grand hall. The unfamiliar throne at the far end was empty, but several people in a mix of fine robes and armor had gathered around a large table in the middle.
Callum glanced in the direction of the unfamiliar voice to find Corvus gently restraining a young woman. She glared up at the crownguard, face twisted in a snarl, but Corvus bent down and whispered urgently to her. The anger on her face melted into confusion. She looked back at Callum, worried, and he finally registered the marks on her face and the horns rising from her pale hair.
He stared back. What was an elf doing here?
Then again, he didn’t even know what he was doing here, so . . .
“Callum! Thank the Primals!” A pair of lean arms enveloped Callum from the front, and he found his face crushed into a mess of poofy brown hair. “I . . . I thought we might lose you.”
Callum relaxed slightly for the first time since waking up. This was better. Relieved, he hugged his brother tighter. Something hard pressed into the hollow of his throat.
After a moment, Ezran pulled back. He gripped Callum’s shoulders, looking both relieved and worried. “Corvus said . . . you’re not feeling the best yet, though? That you don’t remember what happened?”
Ezran was taller too, though still a head shorter than Callum, and his face had lost much of its baby fat. He still had his freckles, but his blue eyes were no longer those of an innocent ten-year-old. And resting on his brow . . .
Callum pulled back from his brother’s grip. “Ez . . . why . . .”
“Callum?” Ez took a step forward, reaching for him, but stopped as Callum continued to stumble backward.
“Ez, where’s King Harrow?” Callum’s voice was closer to the pitch he remembered, now that it was tinged with panic. “Why are you wearing the crown?”
Ezran’s eyes widened. Off to Callum’s right, someone gasped.
“Primals above and below.” A teenage girl in blue and white came up behind Ezran, a crown resting on her blonde hair as well. “It’s not just that he doesn’t remember what happened. Maybe the arcanum wasn’t all Viren was after.”
Ezran wearing the Katolin crown. The palace of Duren. A beard on his face. An elf in a human throne room. Callum bent almost double, cradling his head, which was pounding again. A pair of strong hands—Soren—steadied him from behind. He was almost as tall as Soren. Ez was nearly as tall as he was. Everything was so wrong. Spots danced in front of his eyes, darkness creeping in on his vision, and he squeezed them shut.
A deep voice off to Callum’s right swore vehemently, and suddenly another presence was at his side. A pair of small hands helped Soren lower Callum gently to the floor, then cupped his face. “Hey, hey,” a soft voice said. “Breathe. Stay with me, Callum. Breathe.”
With a shuddering gasp, Callum forced air into his lungs. They resisted, but he did it again, and again, and each time it was a little easier.
“That’s it,” the strangely accented voice murmured. “In, and out.” The hands fell from his face, and he missed their steadying presence. Eyes still closed, he grabbed blindly until he found one again and grasped it tightly. In return, the thumbs drew circles on the back of his hand, and Callum focused on that. He sat for several minutes until his lungs were working on their own again, his head didn’t feel like it would explode any moment, and his heart had settled into a more relaxed rhythm.
He squeezed the three-fingered hand as a silent thank you.
Three fingers? Callum’s eyes flew open and he yanked his own hand back to himself, crashing into Soren as he scrambled backward.
The elf. Right. White hair had been pulled back in a messy ponytail, and dark blue tattoos marked her pale skin. A pair of intricately carved cuffs decorated her horns. Her light armor, though scuffed and dirty, was of a fine make, though the silver and pale blue coloring clashed with—
Anger jolted through Callum. “Hey! That’s mine!” How dare—He grasped his scarf and yanked it from her neck.
The elf stared at him, shocked, one hand reaching for her throat where his scarf had been.
“Who are—what are you doing here?” Callum demanded. “You’re one of—you’re one of them!” He pushed himself to his feet, shoving Soren’s hands away. “You came to kill the king, didn’t you?”
The elf opened her mouth, but no words came out. Tears gathered at the corners of her eyes.
“Did you kill him?”
“Callum.” Ezran rested a hand on his shoulder.
“Ezran, what is that doing here?” Callum gestured at the elf, still kneeling on the floor.
“Callum, that’s enough,” Ezran said, voice shaking. Callum whirled to face him, but his protest died in his throat when he met his brother’s eyes.
Ezran was crying.
All the anger drained out of Callum like it had never been. “Ez?” He reached for his brother, horrified when Ezran took a step back. But after a split second, Ezran reached back for him.
“I’ll . . . I’ll explain in a bit,” Ezran said. Callum’s heart squeezed at the look on his face. “You should get some rest. I’ll come see you in a little while.” His voice broke. “Please?”
Callum nodded numbly, and let Corvus take his arm and lead him gently from the room.
The last thing he saw before the doors closed behind them was Ez pulling the elf into a hug.