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and finding answers (is forgetting all of the questions we called home)

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iii. head

Understandably, Callum’s dreams were pretty awful once Ezran and the healers convinced him to go to bed and he slipped into a restless sleep. They churned and shifted like storm clouds above the sea, melting from one into another before he could fully process what they showed him.

Viren stood in the hallway before him, eyes black, a glowing green orb floating above his open palm. Callum tried to scream, but no sound came out.

He fell through a breathtaking orange sky, Rayla falling far below, one hand stretched up towards him. He reached for her, but she was too far.

He clung desperately to a slab of wooden planks adrift on a raging sea, rain lashing around him.

He stood atop the battlements of Castle Katolis, the full moon filling the sky above, and a tall elf with a thunderous face aimed an arrow at his chest.

He kneeled over a hole in the ice on a frozen lake, searching the dark waters desperately for any sign of life.

He gaped at the figure standing before him—himself, but with cracked gray skin and merciless black eyes. His dark twin offered him a hand, smiling.

He scrabbled at the fist of the monster of stone and fire that had him by the throat, snarling, eyes glinting like red-hot embers in its face. He couldn’t breathe, his arms weakening, and his eyes drifted shut.

Breathe, Callum, a familiar voice said, wrapping around him like a gentle hug. No, someone was hugging him, holding him gently with one arm rubbing up and down his back in a calming rhythm. The pressure on his throat released, and he gasped for air. He pulled back slightly, and saw a face he’d given up on hoping to ever see again long before any of this had happened.

“Mom?” he whispered.

Oh, sweetheart. Sarai’s hand ghosted down the side of his face, a sad smile on her own. Look at you, all grown up! She pulled his head back to her chest. What a mess you’ve found yourself in this time.

He squeezed his eyes shut. “I don’t know what to do. Nothing makes any sense. Every time I think I’ve figured out what happened, it all gets flipped upside down again.”

You’ve been focusing so much on a past you don’t remember, and worrying for a future you can’t see, that you’re missing what’s right in front of you. She pulled back and tapped his nose, then gently placed her hand on his chest. Your mind isn’t the only place where memory resides.

He let out a wet chuckle. “Are you really telling me to listen to my heart right now?”

She laughed silently. I suppose I am. But not just your heart. Your body remembers, too.

“Yeah.” He looked down at his hands, clenched in his lap. “A friend of mine told me that, too.”

See? The answers you’re looking for aren’t behind you. They’re here, now, if you look.

“I miss you,” he whispered hoarsely, as the tears in his eyes blurred her face. “So much.”

Oh, Callum. She pulled him into a hug again, cheek resting on the top of his head. I miss you, too, more than I can ever say. But I will always be with you.

xXx

“My sister,” Soren growled, “needs to stop abducting people.” He kicked his chair out from the table, the wood groaning in protest as he fell into it. “We literally just did this a month ago.”

“At least we have two advantages over last time,” Ezran said from his seat near the head of the table. His eyes were red and puffy, but his expression showed only grim determination. “We know what happened—that it was Claudia—and we have an idea of where she’s going.” He tightened his grip on Bait, seated in his lap as always. “Even if we don’t know what her endgame is.”

Callum, who’d been slumped over the table, straightened. “We know where she’s going?”

“We know the most likely place,” Aanya said, seated at the head of the table as was her right—this was her palace and her country, after all. “Corvus and my scouts have been reporting a slow gathering of dark magic acolytes on the Katolin side of the border for a few weeks now. They haven’t been able to get too close, but the most likely theory is that they’re gathering at the elven ruins near there.”

Ezran nodded. “As fate would have it, we sent word to Aunt—sorry, General—Amaya about a week ago, requesting her to take a squad to gather more intel and possibly rout them, if she deemed it not too risky, and she agreed. She should nearly be there by now with a combined force of Standing Battalion soldiers and Sunfire warriors.”

“Which means we can ride out with as small a force as we can scramble on such short notice and still have a decent chance,” Corvus said.

“Exactly.” Aanya folded her hands and regarded everyone at the table solemnly. “And it also means we don’t need to go through the rest of the council to do so. They already approved sending General Amaya, and they can hardly disprove my sending a small force to assist hers, considering it concerns one of Duren’s borders.”

“Officially,” Soren said, raising an eyebrow.

Aanya’s smile was tight. “Officially.”

“How soon can we leave?” Callum asked.

Everyone at the table looked at him, and for a moment there was an awkward silence. “Callum,” Ezran said quietly, “you’re not going.”

Callum felt like he’d been slapped. “You can’t be serious.”

“You’re who they were after in the first place,” Aanya reminded him. “And they’ve already managed to abduct you once.”

“Yes, but I’ll have more than one person with me this time!” Callum said. “I’ll have an entire two task forces with me, as a matter of fact!”

“So will Claudia,” Soren said. “There’s a whole group of dark magic acolytes. My dad might even be there.”

I don’t care!”

“I see we’re doing this again, too,” Soren muttered. Corvus snorted.

“Callum.” Ezran stood and caught his eye, then tipped his head toward the door. “Can I talk to you?”

 

On some level, Callum had always known Rayla was closely tied to the past he’d lost. She’d been one of the most frequently featured subjects in his sketchbook, she and Ezran were incredibly close. She’d been the one to truly make him believe he’d become a mage. It figured that only now that she was gone he fully realized how important she was to his past.

You’re missing what’s right in front of you, his mother had told him.

Rayla was the key. Somehow.

But even more importantly than that, she was his friend, and she was in danger. She was in danger because she’d stepped up to protect him. And now she was in the hands of someone—perhaps several someones—who were only interested in how they could make use of her because of what she was. He couldn’t bear to think of what they were doing to her.

He had to get her back.

As soon as the door to the conference room closed behind them, Ezran spun to face him. “Callum, you can’t go with them,” he said. “I know it’s hard. But you are in no shape to fight right now, especially not Claudia or Viren, in case you missed that somehow.”

“You expect me to just sit here?” Callum shot back. “Rayla’s in danger because she protected me, and I’ll be damned if I don’t do everything I can to help her.”

“Callum.” Ezran looked weary. “As much as I absolutely hate to point this out, there’s nothing you can do at the moment that Soren, or Corvus, or Amaya, or any soldier could do better.”

That stung, hard, especially since Callum knew Ezran was right. But Callum knew he was right, too. He couldn’t just sit back. He squared his shoulders and looked his brother in the eye. “Rayla believed I could.”

“Oh? And what does that mean to you? What do you believe?”

“I—” He took a breath, forcibly swallowing his frustration. “I believe Rayla’s in danger, because of me, and if there’s a chance I can help, then I have to at least try.”

Ezran glared at him, and Callum glared right back.

After a few moments, Ezran’s face softened, just a little. “We’ve had this argument before,” he said. “I couldn’t stop you then, and I’m not naïve enough to think I can stop you now, even if . . .” He shook his head, eyes far away, a rueful smile on his face. “Some things never change, no matter what happens. You’ll always run after her, whatever it takes.”

Something whispered in Callum’s mind, at the edge of his awareness, flitting just out of reach. He met Ezran’s gaze, and felt the truth settle in his bones.

He would run after her. Every time.

Ezran stepped up and pulled him into a hug. Callum hugged him back tightly. “Just . . . be careful,” Ezran said, voice hoarse. “I can’t lose you again. And I sure as hell can’t lose both of you.”

“You won’t,” Callum said.

xXx

Angry clouds roiled above, a low rumbling further advertising nature’s discontent. Callum gripped his spear tighter, only marginally more confident now that he wasn’t on horseback. What the actual fuck had he been thinking? He was a liability here, just as useless as he had been when he was fourteen. Especially considering that was, like, a month ago, for him.

No. He planted his feet, set his mouth grimly. Rayla was in trouble, and he was going to do whatever it took to see her safe. He was going to see this through.

Ahead, Amaya wheeled her horse around to face the hybrid force of human Duren and Katolin soldiers and elven Sunfire warriors. Her company, alerted by messenger raven to the change in situation, had arrived first and had time to scout the area. “Remember,” she signed, Gren translating, “these men and women may only be acolytes, but their dark magic can still be deadly. Stick to your pairs.”

Soren bumped Callum’s shoulder and winked at him. Callum smiled hesitantly back.

“If Claudia comes after you, do not engage her. Retreat, and leave her for Janai or myself.”

The striking Sunfire woman, mounted on a winged lion of all things, nodded from her position beside Amaya. “The witch still possesses our corrupted Sunstone staff. Do not engage her unless you have no other option.”

“The same for Viren?” someone asked.

“Viren will not attack you. He is . . . otherwise occupied.” Amaya caught Callum’s eye, expression grim. Callum’s heart clenched.

Until they reached the surface of the plateau, they’d be fighting uphill. To even those odds slightly, Amaya led the half-dozen mounted Duren soldiers (and the two Standing Battalion officers that Callum and then Soren had offered their mounts to) in a first storming charge over the ridge, overwhelming the dark acolytes with sheer momentum and driving them back from the edge. As Callum, Soren, and the rest of the foot soldiers crested the slope, Amaya’s Sunfire friend swooped in on her flaming winged lion—Callum’s brain stalled unhelpfully on the fact that it had two tails—to further distract the enemy.

A wide circle of stone plinths encircled the plateau. In the middle of the space rose a circular stone dais, as high as three men were tall, ringed with smaller pillars and with a single wide staircase its only access. Only three figures occupied the dais, two standing dark and tall, the third hunched but defiant in the very middle. But on the plain before it was a not insignificant number of dark mage hopefuls.

Once on even ground, the battle seemed more even. It turned out that a battle was exactly the right place to let your instincts take over. Callum managed to hold his own with his spear; any attacks he made were clumsy, but for parrying and defense he let his body lead. He and Soren silently slipped into a rhythm; Soren on offense, Callum watching his back. It felt almost natural.

The two of them fought their way towards the stairs. As they reached the clear space before it, they slowed to a halt. Claudia was descending the stairs, a sly, lazy smile on her face and a tall staff topped with a large orb set in an ornate headpiece in her hand.

“Sor-Bear, you shouldn’t have come,” she said as she stepped down from the last stair, shaking her head and tsk-ing. “This isn’t going to end pretty. I’d hate to see you get hurt.”

“But you’d see me turned into a soulless cinder monster,” Soren said, voice tight. He raised his sword, stance cautious.

“Hmmm.” Claudia looked unfazed by this accusation. “Technicalities.”

From the corner of his eye, as he wasn’t making the mistake of taking his eyes off his former friend this time, Callum saw Amaya and Janai approach to flank Soren’s other side. The Sunfire woman spat something in an unfamiliar language, a glow beginning to spread beneath her skin like veins of fire. Amaya hefted her shield, and for the first time, Claudia looked uncertain.

Callum risked a glance at Soren. The crownguard nodded. “We’ve got Claudia. Go to her.”

Callum needed no encouragement. As Janai roared and the three of them charged the dark mage, he turned and raced towards the dais.

The wind rose, pulling at his jacket, slapping its edges in his face. Snarling, Callum yanked it off and tossed it aside. He leapt up the stairs two at a time. As he skidded onto the dais, both Rayla and Viren—who honestly looked very much the same as Callum recalled, though perhaps a bit thinner—turned to him in surprise.

“Callum, no!” Rayla struggled uselessly against the dark, writhing bonds chaining her to the stone. “Get out of here!”

He ignored her, rushing Viren, spear at the ready. But Viren moved quick as a viper, deflecting Callum’s clumsy strike with his staff before twisting to bring it flat across Callum’s arms. Callum yelped in pain, and his spear clattered to the ground.

“Oh, how far you’ve fallen, boy,” Viren said. “And to think I was once wary of your power, of your potential. But take that away, and what are you?” He kicked the spear away, off the side towards the ground below. “Nothing but an overgrown child, playing at being a hero in a battle you can’t even comprehend.”

Callum scrambled backward out of reach of the mage’s staff, though he knew that made no difference, with all the dark magic at the man’s disposal. But Viren only sniffed dismissively and turned back to Rayla. Callum could only watch, body refusing to move, head spinning, as the dark mage kicked at one of the short chains, yanking her back down to her knees.

“You still care for him, don’t you?” Viren shook his head, chuckling. “Even after everything that’s happened.”

“I love him,” Rayla whispered.

Viren’s smile was cruel. “How tragic, that he doesn’t feel the same.” He opened his hands, palms up, and began to chant. Wisps of dark energy reached towards the trapped elf.

Rayla closed her eyes, shuddering as the dark energy rippled over and through her, then up towards the pillars around them. “I . . . promised.

Callum’s mind whirled, faster than he could stand. The ground swayed under his feet, and he nearly fell before he caught himself on a nearby pillar, now starting to glow with a sickly light. He gasped for air, but he wasn’t taking any in. He’d been here before. This had happened before. What happened before?

He looked down, the battle below coming into focus. Despite their force’s larger beginning numbers, the fact that they were fighting an entirely mage-trained force soon overwhelmed them. Only two soldiers were still mounted, and both Amaya’s horse and Janai’s winged Xadian cat had been knocked out of commission. Several dark acolytes had fallen, but for each of them, more human and elven soldiers lay unmoving on the ground. Claudia was nowhere to be seen. Soren held his own against a pair of alcolytes with smoky weapons in their hands, but he was flagging. Amaya was limping, her shield in her non-dominant hand and her other arm hanging uselessly at her side. As Callum watched, Janai took a direct blast of sickly green energy and fell to her knees, Sunfire powers fading.

The wind pulled at Callum desperately, tugging at his clothes, whipping through his hair, begging him to understand.

Breathe, Callum. His mother’s voice.

A flash of silver in his periphery as the ring on his left hand caught his eye. Dazed, he brought the hand up in front of his face. It wasn’t from Claudia. Who was it from? He had seen that pattern before. He frowned; not only that, but he’d seen in recently. Since he’d woken up. But where?

He’d . . . he’d seen it . . . on . . .

Callum, you need to breathe, sweetie.

He looked back, at the woman he was powerless to help, and felt his heart breaking.

The horn cuffs. He’d seen it on Rayla’s horn cuffs.

He turned them over in his hands, marveling at Ethari’s craftsmanship. He glanced up, and there she was—ribbons draped over her horns, flowers in her hair, love and laughter in her lavender eyes. A silver ring rested in her palm.

Where you go I will follow, where you stand I will stay, at your side I will rest.

In both this life, and whatever lies beyond.

Viren was wrong.

His mind hadn’t remembered. But his heart had known.

“But I do,” Callum whispered. “Rayla, I love you.”

Breathe, Callum. Just breathe.

That’s all? I just need to . . . breathe?

Hand. Heart.

In, and out.

Head.

Memory ripped through Callum like a thunderbolt. The battle below slipped from awareness as reality snapped into place, finally connecting what he felt, what he knew, and what he’d lost. A thousand moments flashed before him, a dozen emotions filling the void in his soul.

For the first time since he’d woken, he knew exactly who he was, and for an instant he felt lighter than air.

A pained cry from behind him pulled him back to his surroundings. Oh, Primals, Rayla . . . Callum whirled to face Viren. Dark energy streamed from Rayla’s motionless form.

A rune appeared in his mind, and he felt rather than heard the words deep within. Sketching frantically in the air, he willed his hoarse voice to work. “Fulminous spiritus!”

His cry faded into the wind. And for an eternal, horrifying moment, the world held its breath.

Below, Soren’s sword slipped from his senseless fingers. Amaya’s heavy shield sank into the torn earth as she scrambled to support a fading Janai. Viren’s face twisted into a sneer.

Lightning exploded from the ground.

Crackling energy enveloped the dark archmage, streaking upward from the stone at Callum’s feet in a blaze of blue and white. It filled him totally, completing him in a way he hardly believed he could have forgotten. His hair sizzled with the power he couldn’t contain. The very air around him was alive. He laughed, ecstatic, and the sky above thundered its response.

Viren howled, raising his hands in a futile attempt to shield himself, and staggered back. His spell faded with the loss of his chanting, the dark magic dissolving into the air. For a brief instant the pillars flashed brighter than the sun, and then their light flowed back from where it’d been stolen.

Callum gritted his teeth, anger rising in him anew with the resurgence of his memories. What this man had done to his mother, to Harrow, to Ezran. To Soren, his own son. To Claudia, even if she couldn’t see it. To Callum. To Rayla. He took a step.

But Viren, hard as it was to move with the lightning around him, raised his staff. Callum tensed, but the dark mage only summoned a circular shadow on the ground beside him. He fell through it, vanishing from sight, and the portal dissipated behind him.

Callum let the lightning fade as he took a deep breath, pushing down his anger. There would be another chance. He turned back towards the main battle below. The fighting had ceased, every combatant from either side staring up at the dais in shock. Callum raised a hand, electricity crackling across his fingers, the wind eddying around him. Lightning split the sky above his head. “Go.”

The dark acolytes wasted no time, tripping over each other in their haste. Several soldiers made to follow, but Callum shook his head. “Let them go,” he said, projecting his voice to carry on the wind. “See to the wounded.”

Rayla was struggling to push herself up as Callum fell to his knees in front of her. As gently as he could with trembling hands, he helped her into a sitting position, frantically scanning her for signs of injury, releasing a breath he didn’t realize he’d been holding when he found nothing. He unwound his scarf from his neck and wrapped it around her shoulders while she stared at him, wide-eyed. Hands falling to her upper arms, he rested his forehead against hers, closing his eyes, and breathed in deeply.

This. This was right. This, more than anything else.

How could he have forgotten her?

“I promised too,” he whispered.

A strangled sound—half laugh, half sob—escaped her. She pulled him closer with surprising strength. “Dumb . . . prince.”

He buried his face in her hair. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, holding her tight, hoarse voice muffled. “I love you. I love you.

“Oh, Callum.” She pulled back, eyes shining, her dirty, tear-stained face the most beautiful sight he’d ever seen. “I know.”

And then she kissed him, more electrifying than any lightning spell, and he almost forgot who he was all over again.

(But not really.)