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Hard Priorities

Chapter Text

Filtering down through the thick canopy of golden mallorn leaves, the late summer sun danced across the wild underbrush. The light was turning a dusty orange, signalling the end of the day.

 

Purple blood dripped into dead leaves, each new splatter accompanied by a quiet, frustrated sniffle.

 

“Ach, I dropped another one! Just had to hit me on the nose!”

 

“You’re worried about a nosebleed!? What about all of these!? Again; is your leg okay!? It’s still bleeding!”, the speaker motioned broadly at the elf’s bruised figure, “Rayla seriously, can we just make camp? There’s a clearing, it’s the perfect place!”

 

When the assassin didn’t react, the prince took another approach, “Look at Zym and tell me if he looks ready to keep walking!”

 

Rayla turned to face her accoster, walking backwards comfortably, her right hand still raised to her face.

 

“Don’t you dare use him as an excuse, Callum. He’s been zapping people, I’ve been kickin’ butt all day – what have you done?”, she razzed.

 

“Watching you get sliced up, mostly”, he said, angrily.

 

She stopped, smile fading. “Are you alright?”

 

“Bah! I’m fiiine!”, he snarked, “I just had half a mountain fall on my head today! Oh, and let’s not forget that I was in that landslide for a good half hour until you could pull me out! Meanwhile I’m pretty sure we were gonna just die! You know, rosy! Perfect! Amazing! Wonderful trip, this! Not dangerous at all!”

 

She first frowned and opened her mouth to say something, then sniffled, rolling her eyes. The constant flow annoyed her. “Ugh, I just wish I could go back to breathin’ normally. That’d be helpful!”

 

“Okay, well, you bleeding all over the place is so helpful to us right now. How about we find a log, sit you down and shove some gauze up your nose at least?”

 

She looked at him, similarly covered in all kinds of minor cuts and bruises, at the sleeping dragon whelp in his backpack and finally examined her bloodstained hand. She sniffled again and there was the taste of copper and iron in her mouth.

 

“Ew”, she spat, “alright, fine, let’s camp.”

 

She was surprised by how tired her own voice sounded once she stopped moving, “But next time, use air quotes with the voice - else I might miss the sarcasm !”

 

Callum started making camp. Rayla, after indeed stuffing some gauze up her nose, managed to find some berries and mushrooms that she knew were edible. Ever so often, she’d pop a berry in her mouth. As she foraged further, she felt her adrenaline levels drop. She started feeling herself, and immediately wished it wasn’t so. The long, shallow cuts in her calf and arm were still bleeding, the rub of her tight-fitting undersuit breaking them open regularly.

 

“Oof, I’m beat”, she told her friend, slumping into a bed of moss he had piled up for her. While he put together his own, the elf watched.

 

The bounty hunters who had waylaid them had sprung an elaborate trap that had failed somewhat, the landslide meant to crush the three of them had released a bit too late and missed her entirely.

 

The dragon had simply shaken off the dirt and gotten to work on the bounty hunters. The prince on the other hand had gotten pretty scratched and banged up, pinned under the dirt, which had kept him from helping her fight at first. Once free, he had managed to stay away from all the sharp points and edges that had come their way this afternoon.

 

“Who would’ve guessed that carrying around a bright blue dragon would attract this much attention? No less from people whose idea of a civilized conversation contains enough iron to make a cauldron”, he quipped.

 

She groaned with a short, pained laugh, “Why would you feel the need to say somethin’ so stupid?”

 

He gave her a cheeky smile that turned to bemused concern when her stomach growled audibly.

 

“Well thanks for your input I guess”, she smirked, patting her midriff. Small clouds of dust separated from her punctured clothes, prompting her to wince.

 

“Ah, I’ll trade you. While you fix dinner, I’ll go wash myself and your clothes.”

 

He slipped off his overcoat and handed her his pants. “Really appreciate it. I think there’s sand in my boxers... I’ll shake that out while you’re, uh, not here, heh... But! Once you’re back, we should put some bandages on you.”

 

“How many do we have left? I don’t wanna be wasteful with them in case somethin’ worse happens.”

 

“Worse!?”, Callum exclaimed, “Look at your leg! I can see... stuff! It looks really bad!”

 

Rayla shrugged laxly. “It’s just a bit of fatty tissue. Nothin’ you haven’t scraped off the odd piece of steak.”

 

His face contorted into an expression of total disgust. “Yeah but... steak isn’t super recognizable once it’s on the table. Plus, I don’t often dream of s...”, he coughed, “I DO often dream of steak, I mean, uh, we, uh, don’t ever eat meat anymore!”


A suspicious look from Rayla followed this obvious slip on his part.

 

“Bandages”, she said, pointedly, “How many?”

 

“Uh, like, around fifteen? I kept a stock”, he shrugged, “not like they go bad as fast as food.”

 

She nodded, then the assassin walked off in direction of the river.

 

As she was trotting along, his sheepish remark bounced about in her skull. Was he hiding something from her? It wasn’t like that was strange, she had plenty of secrets. Come to think of it, less so, with him.

 

Her culture was big on appearances and secrets had a deep meaning. She was really sharing a lot with him, more than she probably should.

 

The river interrupted her reverie, shallow and tepid as the flow was, she still despised the idea of messing with it. She should’ve traded making dinner, but Callum had developed into an amazing chef over the past few weeks. No matter what she handed him, it seemed to turn into deliciousness.

 

With a deep sigh, she started pulling off her clothes. There was nothing for it. She was beyond dirty with blood and sweat and her wounds needed cleaning.

 

Meanwhile, Callum had finished putting up his moss bed, then started collecting firewood.

 

“Alright, you do your thing while I go check around”, he affectionately told the smouldering kindling.

 

Tracing back the path they had arrived on for some distance, he carefully picked up any purple forest debris he could find. He spent some time erasing their tracks and when he was satisfied, he walked back to camp.

 

When his foot caught a root, it came as such a surprise that he yelped, falling not just on his face but rolling down the river’s embankment. The bloodstained debris, caked together, flew off into the water and drifted off as he watched.

 

“Ow”, he mumbled, sitting up against the trunk of a massive nearby tree. For a moment, he sat disoriented, watching the sun kaleidoscope on the river’s surface.

 

Suddenly, he heard quiet, quick steps, crunching the odd dry leaf, approaching from behind the tree. He hugged the tree and froze. If the headhunters had decided to come after them after all, he would have to take them on alone until Rayla caught wind of the fight.

 

A crouched shape zoomed past him, swords drawn. It was Rayla.

 

“Hey!”, Callum called out and Rayla tripped over her own feet, falling face-first into the mud.

 

Cringing, Callum walked over to help her up.

 

“What’s your problem!?”, she sputtered furiously, “Why did you scream?! I thought you were in trouble!”

 

“I didn’t scream, I yelped! I stumbled over a root and… sorta… bumbled down here.”

 

The elf was apparently very embarrassed, a light purple flush in her face. She was patting herself down to remove the dirt that clung to her.

 

He understood her annoyance, seeing how she wasn’t wearing her armor. It wasn’t an optimal dress to run into battle with, she looked rather vulnerable and uncomfortable like this.
Then the prince realized with a shock that this was the first time she was not wearing the rigid chest guard in his presence. For some reason, his face felt hot.

 

“What are you doin’ out here, anyway? I thought you were putting together a fire!”

 

“I was. Oh. Yeah, I should probably get back to that before our stuff catches.”

 

She shook her head at him. “I told you before; don’t leave an open flame, Callum!”

 

Under her annoyed glare, he scrambled up the river’s bank and was soon gone from view.

 

She sighed. Being in a state of relative undress was bad enough, but falling on her face like this in front of him annoyed her greatly. It made her wonder whether he’d think less of her and for obvious reasons, this would be a problem.

 

Those feelings were rather inconvenient, given that she needed her wits about her.

 

This was a very dangerous game.

Chapter Text

“`Gotta check on that fire, yep, yep.`... man, I’m stupid!”, Callum mocked himself, poking at the quietly burning branches. He hadn’t meant to worry Rayla and felt like a massive klutz for the way in which he had. She had seemed extremely uncomfortable. It was as though he’d seen something he shouldn’t have.

 

The prince wasn’t quite sure whether that was because she had fallen on her face rather unceremoniously. After all, she’d fallen in the mud before and she hadn’t made a big deal out of it, so why now?

 

Her reaction certainly seemed a bit strong, given the minor nature of the slip-up. Maybe it was all just adrenaline from expecting a fight.

 

After adding some more fuel, he got up and grabbed lengths of rope equipped with all sorts of noise makers. These alert lines had saved their bacon a few times from animals in the past month and he didn’t want to risk resting without them. He started stringing them along the perimeter of the camp.

 

Shortly after he had finished, one of the lines jingled, followed by a dull thud and a loud, frustrated groan.

 

“Nice job, Callum!”, Rayla shouted sarcastically, “I can’t see the thin’s at all!”

 

He first hurried in her direction, then thought better of it and turned away as she stepped out of the underbrush. It didn’t seem wise to embarrass her twice for the same thing.

 

“Don’t act like you didn’t see that!”, she yelled, not entirely unamused, chucking his damp clothes at the back of his head.

 

He caught the cusp of both a pant leg and coat collar and swung them around himself to avoid them dropping on the ground.

 

Her face was a little flushed.

 

“I’m really sorry...”, he started.

 

“It’s fine”, she said gruffly, “Not like you’re wearin’ much right now, either”

 

He blinked. Oh. So the fall hadn’t been the chief concern. Suddenly, he felt a bit exposed, even though he was wearing his undershirt and boxers. He’d always been comfortable like this, but maybe his companion had different standards. Was he being insensitive?

 

He motioned her to sit on her makeshift bed and draped his clothes over a makeshift drying rack. For all his worries, he wasn’t going to slip into damp pants. “I made some mushroom soup – sorry it’s really thin, I didn’t have any more flour.”

 

They quietly ate, a bit of discomfort in the air.

 

Rayla, of course, had some experience with feeling uncomfortable around Callum, especially after realizing that she had feelings for him. She had been planning on telling him once they were done with their mission.

 

It was too important to introduce those kinds of variables and whether she wanted to admit it or not, she was also worried of being rejected.

 

But day after day, there was a tiny voice in her head, egging her on.

 

The soup was thin, but still really good. She could feel her spirits lift a little. With one negative emotion muted, the pulsing and stabbing pains came back.

 

While the wounds were now clean and dry, she expected to have shining bruises for weeks to come. The new patches in her undersuit felt rough and scratchy. Sowing wasn’t one of Rayla’s strong suits and she hated it with a passion. It was fiddly and stupid.

 

Ever since they had entered Xadia, a group of headhunters had made their life difficult. Their assailants somehow seemed to know where to look for them at every turn.

 

The attacks had only stopped after they had made a detour, leaving the prepared paths and roads behind. Today was the first ambush since then and it made her wonder if this was just the start of a new series.

 

With the last drop of soup gone, she dropped back on her moss bed, lazily dumping the bowl next to her on the ground. After the long, awkward quiet of dinner, Callum’s voice almost startled her.

 

“We have a few honey poultices still.”

 

“Eh”, she replied, “None of these wounds are that serious. I’ve got sorta nasty ones across my lower left arm and on my right calf but they’re not deep, just long. Stayed out of the sword guy’s range after he got me. I’m sure if you just wrap em it’ll be okay.”

 

He came over, bandages in a pot of boiling water. “I’ve had them on since I, uh, came back. Is that long enough?”

 

The elf nodded without sitting up. It was too long of a boil and had probably worn the bandages’ weave a little but that wasn’t something she was going to challenge him on right now.

 

He knelt next to her, lifted her leg into his lap and moved to roll up her pant leg, but then stopped short.

 

“Hey, Rayla... is this okay with you? Me, uh, moving your clothes?”

 

“You’ve done it before. Why the question?”

 

“Well... you had a bit of a reaction down by the river and just now. I’m just wondering if I’m making you feel uncomfortable.”

 

“Right now what’s makin’ me uncomfortable is this wound on my leg. Get on with it, it’s fine.”

 

Her tone was rather tense and not exactly friendly, so the prince chose to doubt. Regardless, he moved to carry on with his ministration. When the fabric was out of the way, he started dressing her calf.

 

She picked up another bandage and started wrapping her other arm. She quietly worked through the annoyance of a thousand pins pricking her exposed tissue. That annoying voice would just not shut up. “Ask-him-ask-him-ask-him! Do-it-do-it-do-it! He’s wondering already! You want to know, right?”

 

Fine. Okay. Good. Grrr.

 

“Do you-- uh, like--”, she asked quietly, heat climbing back into the tips of her ears.

 

“Like what?”, he inquired, focused on his work and not quite listening.

 

His apparent disinterest struck her like a bag of bricks.

“Me”, she added, surprised at the freeze in her own voice.

 

Startled, he looked up to find her staring at him. Rayla’s expression was somewhat like the one she had worn when they had first collided at Katolis Castle.

 

“You know”, he started with an unsure half-smile, “I like you just fine. For an evil, dangerous elf assassin.”

 

His attempt at humour bounced off her, the effects rippling in her slackening expression. “So! Is that all you see when you look at me? Muscle with a blade? I’m scarin’ you now?”, she said, tonelessly.

 

“I-- uh-- No, but-- I just--”, he fumbled for words.

 

“We done here?”, she interrupted angrily, feeling a powerful upset grabbing her by the horns.

 

Okay. That was a pretty clear answer.

 

‘Breathe, Rayla. He’s still your friend’, she thought, trying to wrestle control from the sour blaze in her stomach.

 

He looked down awkwardly and finished tying up the wound and neither of them could think of how to continue a conversation from here.

 

Chapter Text

Later that night, Callum was roused by an unexpected sound. His first instinct was to check the alert lines but he had barely gotten up when he recognized the sound as badly suppressed sobbing.

 

He walked to the fire place, stoking the embers and adding more wood. Rayla was facing away from him, laying on her side.

 

“Are you okay?”, he asked into the night.

 

“’Okay’ people don’ sob, you dunce”, came the tearful reply.

 

He sat next to her cot, placing a hand on her shoulder.

 

“I can go out, see if I can find that herb you’ve been showing me if the pain’s keeping you up”

 

She waved him off. “It’s not that”

 

“Then”, he sighed, “you’ll have to talk to me so we can figure out what ‘it’ is”

 

“I dunno how.”, she said quietly, turning over, “I tried and just made things worse. I know it’s not your fault and that all that’s happened is a mess but...” She palmed her eyes and sniffled.

 

For a moment, Callum just looked at her. Dark rings around her eyes made her seem extremely tired, had she slept at all? Were they from crying?

 

“I’m snifflin’ again”, she groaned, still wiping her eyes, “I really suck at this.”

 

He reached over to the clothing rack and handed her the sleeve of his clean jacket which she used to dry her face. And, to blow her nose, which he didn’t appreciate one bit.

 

“I... don’ really know how to put this in a way that won’t make you laugh”, she mumbled, “so I’ll just say it. I’m sad cause you didn’...”, she fumbled for words.

 

She threw the jacket on the floor, “This is so frustratin’! I can knock out people three times my size - but this? This is so hard ! I really...”, she took a deep breath and then burst out, “I really wanted you to... like... me! As more than a friend!”

 

He blinked and quavered, “Ah.”

 

She clasped her hands over her face, “I guess I was bein’ pretty stupid.”

 

Following an impulse he couldn’t explain, he ran a hand along her uninjured arm. For the first time since he’d known her, he wasn’t touching her with the intent of getting her attention, to greet her or just to hug, so he paid full attention to his touch.

 

Her skin was like marble, denser and somehow more solid feeling than any human he’d ever touched. She was cool to the touch - not cold, just not nearly as warm as one would expect. His fingertips trailed bumps, bruises, scars and a light fuzz of thin white hair.

 

“I’m sorry...”, he started quietly.

 

“What for?”

 

“I… do kinda feel something similar, you know? It’s just that, as you said, it’s difficult to put that out there. It almost feels like you’re walking off the ledge of friendship to just go into free fall and you can just hope you fall somewhere soft and warm.”

 

She stared at him, dumbfounded, then burst out laughing. She started wheezing before having a chance to calm down, transitioning to shallow coughing.

 

“You’ll never be a poet”, she said, extending her injured arm to ruffle his hair, which, once again, he didn’t appreciate, “but the metaphor’s good.”

 

“I guess”, he said, combing his hair, “So, uh… what… happens now?”

 

She was not really listening, putting up a hand, “Shh. I think I heard a line.”

 

One of the alert lines jingled in the distance, louder this time.

The bells were followed by a surprised curse, an angry growl and a gut wrenching wet impact.

 

Chapter Text

They both sprung into action, hearts racing. Rayla grabbed her blades and Callum dove for Zym who had also been startled awake. They quickly fled out of the circle of light cast by the fire.

 

Moments later, a massive form entered the camp, surveying the scene.

 

“Yah it’s them a’righ’”, he growled over his shoulder, then shouted in a mocking tone: “Come out y’all lov’ berds, yer gonna need all o’ yer crap!”, turning to the trees he shouted, “Y’all forsaken bruisers out there come at me if ye want t’ dance!”

 

Rayla and Callum were pressed up against each other, in the shrubbery closest to the river. Neither of them made a peep.

 

“Ach. Find em’. Can’t ‘ve gone far.”, the mountainous man ordered into the shadows behind him, then shouted, again: “Oy, I swear by my ma’s grave that we’ll be leavin’ here with the drag’n either way. But, it‘s up to ye if yer gonna be leaving! I din’nah appreciate the knockin’ ye gave my boys this day but I’m willin’ to let bygones be bygones if you hand over the fire breathin’ rat!”

 

Rayla could tell there were three more headhunters skulking in the dark, her eyes quickly adjusting to the low light cast by the waxing moon.

 

She turned to Callum, who could not see squat outside the fire’s illumination, placed a finger on his mouth and motioned for him to stay. He nodded.

 

Carefully, the elf parted the dense shrubs, quietly slipping up into the crowns of the surrounding forest. Cold determination took over her thinking, the tears, tiredness and arguments of the past day pushed into a far corner of her mind.

 

She knocked out the first hunter using the flat of her blade, hanging head over heels from a strong branch.

 

The second choked on a sling she dropped around his neck. Like his companion before him, she pulled him into the branches and tied him to the tree, making sure he was still alive.

 

The last dodged the flat of her blade and managed to yelp in pain before she managed to pacify him with a choke hold. She tied rope around the guy’s waist and started lifting him into the tree.

 

“Ah, yer doin’ it again!”, came an annoyed shout from below her, “I jus’ told you I don’t appreciate your strugglin’ none!”

 

A massive hand closed around her ankle and tore her off the tree. The wounds she’d collected broke open and the impact of her landing on the ground knocked the air from her lungs.

 

Fear hammered on her focus as the massive man dragged her into the camp, his grip relentless.

 

He then made the mistake of letting go. She jerked up, ignoring her sliced calf’s painful protest. With a jump, she kicked at his head. There was an expression of mild surprise on his face. His heavy, iron-clad elbow came barrelling into her side.

 

Callum frantically searched for a way to help her, eyes darting all over their camp. She rolled on the ground, gasping for air while her assailant bent over to grab her by the wrist. He effortlessly lifted her off the ground, and moved closer to the still burning fire.

 

“Annoying till the last, ye midget”, he growled.

 

She was gasping from the earlier impact and struggling, trying to find some sort of purchase on the ground or on his body but he just held her further away.

 

“Now then. Buddy, if yer still out there ye should come out cause otherwise I’m gonna start experimentin’ on how well this here elf works as kindlin’!”

 

Callum’s mind raced. Fulminis would hit her, too, since they were touching. Then his eyes fixed onto the giant’s dress.

 

“A’right, got it.”, he shouted, dropping her on the floor and grabbing one of her horns, getting ready to throw her forward. She yelped.

 

At this, Callum shot up with Zym in his backpack, the sign for Aspiro already glowing. It was the only thing he knew to do, and this was as good a chance as he was going to get.

 

The spell dug into the bonfire, spraying both Rayla and her attacker in white-hot embers. Unlike Rayla, he was wearing a heavy coat which almost immediately caught fire. He swore, reflexively releasing the elf.

Now panicking, he tried to tear off the blazing coat.

 

Callum ran into the campground, roughly rolled into Rayla, making her cry out once more. Throwing her over his shoulders, he started to run, finding unbelievable strength in his tired body. He didn’t dare stopping until the camp was out of sight and he could no longer hear the barbarian’s angry shouting.

 

He found shelter under a small, earthy overhang and dropped everything he carried. Soaked in sweat and gasping for air, he did not take time to compose himself.

 

“Rayla!”, he started turning her on her side but she shook her head.

 

“M’okay”, she whispered hoarsely.

 

“Let me see what’s wrong with you!”, he struggled with her until she eventually shoved him away.

 

“I’m fine! Calm down! We’re okay!”, she hissed.

 

“This is insane! We can’t keep doing this.”, he slumped to the ground, panting.

 

Zym attempted to nuzzle him. He lightly shoved the little dragon aside.

“What if this beast comes after us again?”, he demanded angrily.

 

“What if he’s burning to death in our campground?”, she hissed back.

 

Callum suddenly got very cold. Yes - what if?

 

“I need to go back and check.”, she said angrily.

 

“I’ll come..”, he started.

You will sit here and make sure you keep Zym out of trouble, is what you’re gonna do!”, she cut him off angrily, “Shut up, sit down and let me check out the situation!”

 

Without another word, she hurried off, hobbling on every fourth or fifth step and pressing a hand to her side.

 

He watched her shape fade into the night and immediately wished they had not parted like this.

 

After a moment of silence, he turned to the unhappy whelp. “I’m sorry. This is just too much. Wait here, please, quietly.”

 

He got up and, after a few moments of teetering on his unsteady legs, made his way to the embankment on the side of the river opposite of the camp.

 

He took a few eager gulps of the clear water, filled his canteens and then climbed back to the treeline.

 

From here, he could see the shine of the fading fire, but heard nothing.

 

After a moment or two, he realized how pointless his presence here was. He was no master of stealth and if Rayla was in trouble he would not be able to tell from where he was. All he could do now is do what she demanded and watch over Zym.

 

After returning to the shelter with the little dragon, Callum spent some time going over the few provisions he had carried in this backpack. Mostly, it was to keep busy. If their camp was compromised for good, they would have nothing but a foot length of rope, four full canteens of water, a short, dull knife he was meaning to sharpen and five slices of hard tack. This was meagre provisions for the miles long trek to the nearest village.

 

A few times he thought he could hear Rayla returning and looked about to find himself alone with the little dragon.

 

“What if she’s not coming back?”, the thought sliced into his exhausted mind like a searing knife. He didn’t have an answer, either.

 

If Rayla did not return, the mission would probably end another few miles down the road when the next group of dragon hunters from one or another nation tracked him down.

 

Chapter Text

Pain radiated from Rayla’s right side, setting her mind alight with every step she took. The angry rush she had felt when Callum had shown himself and Azymondias had subsided and given way to a rueful worry.

 

As the camp came back into view, she slowed her approach and dropped to the ground. She regretted it immediately as the pain became too much to bear, making her almost black out. She rolled over to rest on her back.

 

It seemed like hours since the last positive thought she’d had, even though in reality barely one had passed. She smirked helplessly and remembered his face when he had given his spiel about the cliffs of friendship.

 

The odd star twinkled through the canopy. Crawling on a broken rib was out of the question, so she got up to a low crouch – which was already painful enough – and carefully snuck through the bushes.

 

The huge fighter was silently sitting in the ring of firelight, tending to himself. Rayla found the tree where she’d hidden the other men. They were all still there, tied up and knocked out. The guy she had last tried to hoist upward laid face down in the underbrush. She untied the hoisting line, coiling it over her waist and sat him against the tree so he’d breathe more comfortably. Here she also found her swords. “He may be massive - but he is very careless.”

 

Rayla circled the campground and found another bounty hunter, laying close to an alarm line. He was very much dead. “Price of failure with a demon as a leader”, she thought, now utterly disgusted.

 

She carefully climbed into a tree that put her mark in plain view. The hunter was now busy rummaging through their belongings, leaving every single item her and Callum owned strewn haphazardly all over the ground.

 

She took in the scene, looking for ways to disable her opponent. There were lots of trees, a few smooth boulders that had been left here by receding glaciers and a sinkhole in the ground that she found very interesting. If she could manage to lure him there, she felt it was possible to drop one of the bigger rocks on him by using the rope and nearby trees as pivots. She shrugged mentally. “That’s the best I have”.

 

She prepared her trap carefully, moving a rock close to the edge of the hole, wrapping the hoisting rope around it and using a young tree as a pivot. She tugged and the rock moved in a direction she could work with.

 

“Now to get him to come investigate...”, she thought, looking around. She decided to try a small rock first. It thudded loudly as it hit the rocky bottom of the sinkhole. He looked up, but didn’t move right away.

 

“Great, he’s also slow!”, she thought with exasperation and threw a larger rock.

 

This one got his attention. He stomped in her direction, saw the hole and immediately crouched. Due to his size, this did not hide him at all. Rayla fought the urge to snicker.

 

He crept up to the edge of the hole and glimpsed inside. Being human, he would see next to nothing. Grumbling, he dropped over the edge and bent over to check the darkness under the overhanging earth. Rayla pulled. With a dull crack, the boulder hit his head. He grabbed at nothing, staggered, then collapsed.

 

Rayla immediately jumped into the hole. Landing made her wince in pain once more. She cut the hoisting rope off the rock and tied him up. If he were to struggle, the rope would tighten around his neck. Then, she checked for his vitals. He was heaving shallow breaths. “Oh, I am so good”, the elf smirked. She then made her way out of the hole.

 

Chapter Text

Rayla. Ezran. Harrow. Claudia. Ezran. Rayla. Faces swirled on his wavering consciousness like oil paints in water. Callum had fallen into an uneasy, shallow rest waiting for Rayla, with Zym in his lap. He was determined to go looking for her at first light but eventually the exertions of the past day had gotten the better of him.

When she stepped under the overhang, reality and dream mixed and it took a moment for him to gain control of his faculties.

“You’re back!”, he cheered hoarsely, falling in her general direction since his legs did not immediately want to support his full weight. Zym danced around her legs.

She snickered, then winced. “I really wish they’d stop sendin’ their henchmen after us.” She dropped two bags on the ground, “I broke camp. And a rib. I need you to check if it broke off in one piece.”

He shuddered. “How you just deal with pain is beyond me.”

She sat down between his legs, facing him and gave him a weary glance that he could only see because of how close she had come. “I don’t wanna have to deal with it but it sure beats all-out war between humans and xadians. About that...” She grabbed his scarf and roughly pulled him even closer.

Frantically, with fear in her voice, she whispered, “You can’t try and save me like you did tonight again. Zym needs to get home and you need to be the one bringin’ him. I. Am. Completely! Expendable.”

He defiantly held her violet gaze for a moment.
Then they both started tearing up.

“You couldn’t have said anything more horrible”, he whispered, “You are not expendable and I won’t let you think of yourself that way. You are not our bodyguard! We are a team! Zym is important to me and so is avoiding a war, but trading lives is not how we should be solving our problems.”

He carefully wrapped his arms around her so her head could rest on his shoulder and vice versa. They spent a while like this, crying in silence, with the whelp trying to cheer them up.

“Ugh, that was dramatic, I’m sorry”, she took a few deep breaths, shuddering with each.

He ran a hand through her hair, then they separated. 

 

Wiping his face with his dirty undershirt, he scanned her expression.

 

“Ready to play doctor?”, she asked, snickering but still wiping her eyes.

He shakily nodded and asked, “How can I tell if the rib came off in one piece?”

“I’d do it myself but it’s hard to do since it hurts and you have to really apply some pressure to be able to tell where the bone is. Try to push down, find the point where the bone goes from hard to springy. If you push on it, lightly, and it stays down, it’s broken off. If it springs back, it’s still attached and just cracked”, she took a slow, deep breath, looking around as though she was expecting something to fall on her. 

 

She lifted her arms above her head, “Help me get these off.”

He helped her out of her jacket and the rigid chest guard she wore which also held the attachment points for her blades.

“Callum, look at me”, she ordered, clasping both hands against his cheeks, forcing him into a pout. 

“You are about to hurt me. I need you to know that’s fine. Please don’t stop until you’re sure about what you’re feeling because I am not doin’ this twice. Is that clear?”

He nodded, cold sweat pooling in his palms. She let go of him and carefully laid down to rest her head on a knapsack.

 

He carefully ran his spread hands over her rib cage.
There was a soft spot halfway down her right side.

Callum looked at Rayla nervously. She bit down on a balled up rag and smirked encouragingly. 

 

He pushed, feeling her tense and inhale sharply.

There was the break. Rayla groaned. Zym whined at him to stop.


He ran his hand further toward her abdomen where he found no more sharp edges.

“Feels like its a single piece and its still attached.”, he reported with a dry mouth.

She spat out the sleeve and breathed flatly to regain her composure. “That is good news. I’m not tastin’ copper either. Got lucky. We really need to lay low for a few days. Like, no fires, no washing clothes, nothin’. Just sittin’ and eatin’ hard tack.”

She happily took the canteen proffered by Callum and emptied it in one gulp. “At least the bounty hunters will leave us alone until they can figure out how to get out of their restraints. I put the big one in an auto-choke.”, she sighed, ”hate to say it but we really should move further away. ”

He helped her back into her armour. They got up wearily and shouldered their burdens. Zym trotted right behind Rayla, keeping her in his concerned view. 

 

She stumbled ahead since she was able to see where she was going.

As the day began to break, they found a wide cavity within a cracked boulder. The entry was barely wide enough to squeeze through standing up. They fell asleep almost as soon as they’d settled in.

When Callum came to, he was disoriented at first. The small entrance left little room for light to filter into the cavity. He crawled over to where he thought Rayla was sleeping. Even in the dim light and despite the dirt and matting, her white hair stood out. 


He briefly considered going outside to search for medicinal herbs but decided it would be too dangerous, especially on the first day. They were stuck here until they ran out of supplies or until Rayla felt ready to move again.

“Hi”, she crowed, responding to his searching touch.

“You’re up?”, he inquired softly.

“Wish it weren’t so”, she chortled hoarsely, “Sleepin’ with a broken rib’s hard enough in a bed. Hey... I just realized that I didn’t even check on you. How are you holdin’ up?”

He thought on that for a moment. “I’m doing well enough to be your personal nurse-butler”, he proclaimed, “In this, the finest hotel-hospital in all Xadia.”

“You are real bad for dodgin’ questions.”, she scolded with a weary smirk.

“It’s true though. I feel fine. Just really needed that sleep. My biggest concern right now is how little you seem to think of yourself.”

She carefully sat up. “I have a very high opinion of myself!”, she quipped.

“I. Am. Completely. Expendable?”, he quoted tersely.

The following silence dragged uncomfortably.

“Callum, there’s nothin’ more important to me than seeing you and this tiny Dragon to your goal. Nothing. Not my health and not my life...”


He cut her off firmly. “Though, and I’d really like you to consider this, what if that’s not how him or I feel? If we lost you, I wouldn’t even know what to do – how to act. I’m learning so much from you about field medicine and foraging but I don’t know nearly enough to survive this place without you. Zym needs you. I need you.”

From the position of her dirty hair and two faint specs of reflected light, he could tell that she was looking at him.

When she didn’t answer, he reached out to place his hand on her shoulder. “Neither of us can do this alone, Rayla, and you really need to stop that warrior princess trip you’ve been on since we first ran into trouble here. You shouldn’t put it all on your shoulders.”

She turned away and sighed deeply.
“I ‘spose you’re right. I’ve been a right hag this entire time...”


Interrupting her, he carefully wrapped his arms around her. She tensed up.
“No. You’ve been nothing short of amazing. But nobody can do what you did without a break and now it’s time you took a good one. Did I hurt you?”

“No, it’s just that I’m not sure if this is the part where we kiss or sob for the next twenty minutes”, she quipped shakily, “Was that too forward?”

“No?”, he answered, equally unsure.

“Well then”, she grabbed his scarf and pulled him in for a short kiss, which he didn’t fight. She smirked slyly, “That scarf’s real useful. Been usin’ it as a handle a lot.”

 

Chapter Text

He sat with the rock in his back, propping her up while she slept. Her regular breathing pressed her shoulders against his chest. The sun had advanced in the sky and a streak of golden light filtered into the crack.

 

She had asked him to help her sleep more comfortably and he had obliged, obviously, being the best nurse-butler in Xadia. Now though…?

 

“This is so uncomfortable”, he mumbled and carefully shifted his weight onto his right side to get his left shoulder off the wall. Time was moving like molasses. He was not looking forward to the next few days.

 

Azymondias was restless as well, often walking in circles and occasionally poking his head in the entrance passage. Whenever he did, Callum called him back and so far he had been a good boy. Right now, the dragon was curled up, watching dust motes dance in the beam of light.

 

“If only Ezran was around”, Callum thought.

 

On one hand, he was glad that his little brother wasn’t going through all of the hardships they’d been exposed to. On the other, he probably had his own problems. Ruling would be difficult in the best of times, holding the reigns during so much upheaval was bound to be a challenge - not to mention that gaining the loyalty of the court officers would be harder for a young boy.

 

He slowly shook his head. Worrying about Ezran was not going to help. Corvus was with him. It was probably just a matter of time before they’d get some sort of news from him.

 

Rayla roused. “That was much better”, she yawned, “sittin’ up helps a lot.”

 

“How are you feeling otherwise?”, Callum inquired.

 

She thought for a moment.

 

“I think `relieved` describes it best”, she gingerly got on her knees and turned around to face him. “Landin’ warm and soft ‘n all. Speakin’ of, do you have a fever or somethin’?”, she retched slightly and stuck out her arms, ”My back’s all sweaty...”

 

He smirked, a touch of sadness in his eyes that puzzled her.

 

“No, I think humans are just warmer than Moonshadow elves. Would you like some food?”

 

They each had a packet of hard tack and a handful of the berries Rayla had saved from the campground, eating the simple meal with entirely too much delight.

 

“By now they should’ve been able to get their ties off”, she said between bites, “Which means they’ll probably come lookin’ for us today and if they’re real serious, tomorrow. I doubt they’ll find us here since I’ve not been bleedin’ everywhere and the ground around here’s mostly rock.”

 

“I’ve not seen them carry any provisions or bags so they must’ve had a camp nearby”, Callum speculated.

 

She nodded, “Good point. That could be bad if they do regular patrols. They didn’t seem that well-organized though.”

 

“Plus, I think you must’ve kicked every single one of them in the head at this point”, he quipped.

 

“They’ve yet to learn from it”, she said and made a show of throwing berries at Zym, who caught them out of the air, happy for the distraction. “The way I see it is that our next move should probably be to find a settlement. I’m goin’ to need a good couple of days to heal that rib.”

 

“Got the map right here - but there’s not a whole lot of light to read it.”

 

She stopped petting Azmondias and got on her knees to have a look, “Speak for yourself, stove-boy, I can see it just fine.”

 

“Stove boy?”, he faked offense, then placed his hand over her arm, “You’re the one who feels like cold soapstone.”

 

She smiled absentmindedly, still reading the map.

 

“Once we do get to a town, I’m guessing it would be good for me to hide my hands and ears?”, he asked.

 

“Yes. Humans are about as welcome here as mold”, she put a thoughtful finger on her lip, “and I don’t mean the good stuff that grows on cheese”

 

Running her thinking finger along a river on the map she said, “We should be around here somewhere. The falls we camped near are there. The mountain range to the east we saw from this hill right there and over here we ran into the hunters. So… the nearest place would be Larwein here, about four days away. It’s drawn in as a tiny hamlet and I doubt it’s changed much. I’d rather not stay there. They’d offer us hospitality we wouldn’t be able to turn down and we can’t get into a situation where you’ll be expected to take off your hood around others.”

 

“I could just stay outside the village though”, he offered.

 

“Well, we can go to get some supplies if we keep movin’. Just need to make sure to go in early otherwise we’ll be expected to stay the night.”

 

“I never thought people being friendly would be inconvenient.”

 

She smiled wearily. “Uh, for my kinsmen it’s not just about bein’ friendly, it’s also about savin’ and buildin’ face. The first family to offer a meal and a bed to a stranger gets to brag about it to everyone. ‘Ohh you wouldn’t believe how much of my stew they ate! So much stew!’”, she mimed with a haughty expression.

 

She sat back, screwing up her face as her side ached, “That’s part of the reason we can’t just walk up to any stronghold and hand Zym over. They’d stuff socks down our gullets ‘n lock us both up, then they’d claim that they alone had saved the Dragon Prince from a traitor and a human.”

 

He gave her a quizzical look.

 

She added, “Oh yea, what I’m doin’ here? Comin’ over the border with a live, unchained specimen? That’s treason. Plus, if they’ve gotten any news whatsoever of me walkin’ out on Runaan’s mission, my face is gonna be plastered all over the place.”

 

Callum shook his head. “That all really doesn’t fit with the image of elven society you’ve given me.”

 

Rayla cocked her head and smiled at him, ”First, there’s no such thin’ as `elven` society. There’s the tribes, obviously, but then there’s thousands of sub-tribes and they all have their own twist on the whole `elf` thin’. I know i’ve been talkin’ the place up a bit but you gotta keep in mind that elves can be just as vile as humans given the right motivation. Otherwise we wouldn’t even be here right now", she reached over and impishly prodded him in the side with her finger, ”They’d come after you with pitchforks just as they’d do for me on the other side of the breach.”

 

“I figured”, he shrugged, “We’re all afraid of each other.”

 

“Well that’s about to change", she turned back to the map, “Further East from Larwein there’s the twin city of Veltis-Tiram. That’s where the Assembly is, our Government. We can probably find someone there to get us in contact with the Dragon Queen.”

 

“Twin city?”, he inquired.

 

“Yea, they started as moon and ocean tribe settlements on opposite shores of the river Ibalin and sorta just grew together”, she motioned with her hands, letting her fingers intersect, “Ah, here’s a good example of what I meant, by the way. The Moon elves call the place Veltis-Tiram, the ocean tribe calls it Tiram-Veltis. `We’ve gotta be first!`’, she mocked, “It’s been this whole thin’ for a good thousand years now.”

 

“If both sides are this conflicted among themselves, do you think elves and humans are just going to get along once we drop off Zym?”, he doubted.

 

“Well, it’s not goin’ to fix everythin’. But, it’d be a step in the right direction to avoid a war that will do nothin’ but kill a lot of people. Take some arrows out of the war hawks’ quivers.”

 

He nodded, “I’m worried about even just Katolis. With my dad off the throne, there might be civil war down the line. When Aanya took the throne of Duren, they had one.”

 

She sighed. “One thin’ after another. First, let’s prevent a world war. Then focus on small fry playin’ at empire", she quipped wryly.

 

He chuckled, “Yeah.”

 

They sat in pensive silence for a moment, then Rayla blew a strand of matted hair out of her face.

 

“Alright, good talk”, she said, folding the map up carefully.

 

“Can we have a ‘good talk’ about what happened earlier today?”, he asked plainly.

 

“Oh, uh, yes I s’pose we should have a conversation about that", she said sheepishly, “I sorta kinda pulled you into that one without makin’ a good effort at askin’.”

 

She got up to put the map away.

 

“I blame the scarf”, he quipped, “Hey Rayla, it’s nice to see you back to your goofy self.”

 

“Goofy?”

 

“I mean, light-hearted”, he added quickly, picking up on her tone.

 

“Better. I can’t have you ruin my image as a dangerous elf assassin! Remember, you’re still in arm’s reach!”

 

She came back and sat, crossing her legs and leaning against the opposite side of the hollow. Azmondias hopped into her lap.

 

“So, I kissed you and you kissed me", she smiled, ”I slept on you. And now… what?”, she asked encouragingly.

 

“I don’t know, how do these things normally go?”

 

“What?”, she blinked, “How do `these thin’s` go in Katolis?”

 

He shrugged, then half-jokingly said, “How am I supposed to know? I’m a step-prince. I am to read books, get my ass kicked by Soren, get to look at Claudia from a distance and eventually marry some random Neolandian princess to further the goals of my regent.”

 

She laughed, then yelped.

 

“Don’t make me laugh, are you crazy? Ow!”, she wiped tears of pain and laughter from her eyes, “What - you’ve had no romances to read? And Claudia, ha, she’s turned out to be a right hag, hasn’t she?”

 

“I wasn’t into the classic romances we had freely available at the castle. Someone always dies and the families of the lovers hate each other’s guts", he wrung his hands, “… and Claudia, uh, she’s mostly conflicted, I think. Caught between what she feels is right and what her dad’s been telling her, I think. He’s training her to be his successor... I, uh, think.”

 

“That was a lot of `I think`s”, Rayla leaned back and blinked in the beam of sunlight, trying to appear carefree. The question she had to ask burned in her throat. “You’re still interested in her?”

 

He looked at her and shrugged. “If I’m honest - and I really need to be honest, I don’t know who’s in here right now”, he tapped his chest, “This has all happened in such a rush. I like you. A lot. But I… I don’t know what’s going on with me right now”, he looked up, giving her a sad smile, “I don’t want our relationship to get weird.”

 

Rayla nodded slowly and sighed deeply, “I get it”. 


More brightly, she added, ”Plus, our people hate each other and we’re already halfway to the dyin’ part. It’s a classic romance! You hate those!”

 

He chortled, then asked, “You’re not mad?”

 

She studied the ground for a moment, rubbing her hands.

 

“No. I feel like I’ve been hurrin’ somethin’ that needs time, if it’s to happen at all. I don’t really know why I asked. Maybe because we’ve been livin’ so dangerously”, she blushed, “Ah, like I’d mentioned, moon elves are pretty serious about appearances and that includes a… uh, let’s say, `conservative` set of rules on who should be sayin’ what, how and when. So there’s maybe some subtext you’re not gettin’ on your end.”

 

She looked up, a wet twinkle in her eyes, “I really enjoyed kissin’ you, though?”

 

“I did, too”, he replied quietly, “But let’s not do it again until we’re both totally okay with the consequences.”

Chapter Text

“Draconarch”, the guard bowed, “an agent of the Lucid respectfully requests your excellency.”

 

“Have him proceed”, replied a deep, smooth voice.

 

A lithe, older looking moon elf stepped smartly around the guard, fell onto his left knee and bowed his head without once glancing at the other person in the room.

 

He was dressed in his green armor, still dirty from days spent in the field. The tips of his ears and the top side of his arms were sunburnt.


An ornately gloved hand motioned the guard to leave.

 

“We had not expected to see you alone, Legate Helmond.”

 

“Excellency...”, he started, but the hand cut him off, gently.

 

“We do not insist on formality, you appear to be pressed for time. Report what you must.”

 

“The traitor and the intruder are still at large with the prince.”

 

The elf caught the disappointed, questioning glance of a matte, golden eye.

 

“Then why are you here?”

 

“I must request the assistance of the Auxilia. Following the fugitives, my band has encountered a human party, marching east.”

 

“How did they pass through our border guard?”

 

“I do not know. It is a small party, no larger than a double strength Octuria. Armed heavily. I believe they may be looking for the dragon prince as well. During our best chance at capturing Runaan’s charge and the human, they interfered and we had to retreat. The band is led by Kel Ortis of Del Bar.”

 

“The Predator is known to us. She has carried out many attacks in Xadia. We understand you did not challenge them?”

 

“We were not equipped to do battle with a force this well-supplied. Any attempt would have yielded nothing but our own bloodshed.”

 

There was pensive silence. Helmond looked up. In front of him stood the interpreter of the male moon dragon’s will. Dressed in ornate white robes, he was staring off into the middle distance, his lightless eyes darting in his pale, furrowing face. “This is concerning news, once more. They are getting bolder.”

 

Turning towards Helmond, the Draconarch clasped his hands, his expression now warm and accepting.

“Thank you, Legate. The Predators Ortis are a problem on which we shall deliberate further within the Auxilia Senate. You are dismissed - unless you have something to add to your report?”

 

The elf studied the ground.

 

“May I address the interpreter privately, your excellency?”

 

“You may - for but a moment, Legate. We have other commitments.”, The Draconarch lowered his head in assent.

 

When she looked up again, her expression had hardened and her eyes had a fiery sheen. “He has departed. Speak.”, her voice sharp and determined.

 

“Interpreter Chalise, I feel it is necessary to mention that the fugitives seem to have a…”, his eyes darted for a moment. He then spat, “A `relationship` that exceeds mere companionship”

 

The ruler’s eyes narrowed slightly.

“Elaborate on that for me.”

 

“I’ve heard the traitor revealing her inner world”, he lowered his voice to a forceful, incredulous whisper, “Under. The open. Sky! Talking to the human as though he was... a desirable equal!”

 

Chalise seemed shocked. While she paced for a moment, Helmonds gaze followed her.

“Should they be seen fraternizing by the commons… Legate, I have always swayed the vote against sending envoy on the premise that our people would not be capable of finding common ground with the Abusers. It would challenge our leadership at a time where we cannot afford any dissent.”

 

“If not that, it would at the very least raise old, uncomfortable questions we believed ourselves beyond”, Helmond sighed, “Humans are evil and any closeness with them is an affront to our way of life. There can be no doubting this, not even for the commons! I also want to stress that Legate Runaan’s charge is fully educated in all our traditions. She understands what she is doing!”

 

“Who knows?”

 

“No-one but myself. I had my band trail me by several minutes for this exact reason.”

 

“You will relinquish command of your unit to Legate Astilliar.”

 

“Interpreter...”, Helmond pleaded but was once again silenced as she strode across the hall and bode him to stand. She placed a hand on his shoulder and leaned in to whisper quickly in his ear.

 

“I place my innermost in you. In you alone, Helmond. Erase Runaan’s failure. Return to me no-one alive but the princeling Azmondias. Go now. I must not make him wait.”

 

After the Legate had left, Chalise breathed evenly. Her regent’s paternal presence flooded her mind once more. She felt her expression become welcoming and her posture straighten.

 

“If I may inquire what cultural matter has taken your time, Interpreter?”, came the bemused inquiry.

 

“Merely the protection of good family values, my lord.”



Chapter Text

Callum woke to a rhythmic tapping sound.

 

“What are you doing?, he asked into the hide-out’s stifling darkness.

 

“Workin’ out”, Rayla huffed, “I can’t let myself rot in here.”

 

“Yeah that’s not why I’m asking. Does it have to be at night?”

 

“Early mornin’, actually. I thought about it and I think we should get out of here soon. Getting low on food and water. Plus, we’re only two - well, three days in and that spot around the bend in the back is really startin’ to stink.”

 

“No kidding!”, he replied dryly. “How does the smell explain your midnight madness?”

 

“We should travel at night! I’m trying to get used to a new sleep schedule.”, she panted, slumping next to him, a waft of warm sweat hitting him in the nose.

 

He retched.

 

“No offense - but you need a bath!”

 

She shook her head and laughed, tepidly, “No kiddin’! So do you. You smell...”, she tapped her finger against her lip, “...a bit musty. But, good news, it’s almost a full moon now, I can feel it. Moon elf prime time!”, she sing-songed, throwing up jazz hands.

 

“Well it’s not really my prime time. How is your side feeling?”

 

“Feels like someone’s poked a fishin’ hook through and is pulling at it. It’s a bit swollen but, eh. So, er, bearable? Honestly I’m about to lose my two remainin’ marbles bein’ stuck in here.”

 

“Why, how could you not enjoy eating, sleeping and doing literally everything else in the same room with me?”, he asked, sarcastically.

 

“Oh that part I’ve no problems with - if that room wasn’t the bathroom, too”, she gave a pained smirk and limply fanned her face.

 

“This was also my point.”

 

“It’s not all bad, I like talking, and playing games”, she looked down at what remained of countless tic-tac-toe grids. “I also like posin’ for you.”

 

“Ah, the light was so bad all the time, I can’t really say if I did a good job on all that pattern work you have on your armor or on your...”, he smirked, pointing above his head where his horns would be.

 

“Horns?”, she said with a chuckle, “Did you know we also call them ‘Smooch-handles’?”

 

He seemed a bit uncomfortable. “Rayla, I thought we agreed…”

 

She cut him off by punching his shoulder, maybe a little harder than necessary.

 

The rising sun poked a first ray through the entrance.

 

“We did, we did! Don’t get your knickers in a bunch, I was just talkin’. Good old goofy Rayla, talkin’ about all the stuff in her head.”

 

He grimaced. “Yeah, but, I guess the context is a bit different now.”

 

She groaned. “Context, shmontext! I thought you got it when you gave me that whole spiel about `cliffs of friendship` or whatever. The reason I didn’t wanna tell you how I was feelin’ is because now it’s makin’ things awkward. That’s decidedly free-fallin’!”

 

“Sure - yes - this is true”, he enumerated, “but I’m not doing it to hurt you or anything. I just don’t want to lead you on while I get my head on straight.”

 

“And I appreciate that. I’m still gonna make an fool of myself from time to time.”

 

He looked at her bright-eyed grin and felt better.

 

“How do you stay so positive?”

 

Her smug grin changed into a warm smile.
“Well, you’ve seen the alternative is bein’ atrocious to people who mean a lot to me - as friends”, she added hastily.

 

“Smooth”, he intoned.

 

She shrugged.

“How are you so grumpy all the time? How come my excellent mood hasn’t rubbed off on you, Mr. No-broken-bones?”

 

“So glad to have graduated from `stove-boy`.”

He sat up a little straighter and looked up to the tiny strip of paling sky, twinkling in through the ceiling.

“Just a lot on my mind. Sitting here hasn’t improved that.”

 

“You’re worried about Ezran?”

 

Zym looked up from his bored curl.

 

“Not really. I mean, yes, I’m worried about him but not worried that he’s dead or something.” He exhaled audibly. “I’m worried about what his advisers are telling him. What kind of king he’s going to shape up to be while I’m not there.”

 

Zym rolled his eyes and shook his head.

 

“He’s a smart boy, Callum. You’re giving yourself a bit too much credit.”, she replied warmly.

 

The dragon whelp nodded and barked his assent.

 

“I’m sure he misses you and he’d be happier if you were there to help him out, but frankly...”, she placed a hand on his shoulder, “Unlike you, he was good at all the princely things. He’ll be fine.”

 

“Golden words of comfort, Rayla, thank you”, he limply patted her hand.

 

“If you’ve come looking for wisdom, I shall do my best to fake it”, she quoted.

Azmondias snickered.

“What’s up with you havin’ a comment for everythin’ this morn’?”

 

The whelp got up, stepped into the lazy ray of the morning sun and began to drag a single claw across the ground.

 

“No way”, Callum said, scrambling to his feet.

 

A crude series of pictures showed Ezran wearing the Crown of Towers. In the background loomed the adviser Opeli. Next was a sick looking face that could be Viren’s behind bars. Last, there was Soren in bandages with Claudia bent over his bed.

 

The whelp yawned.

 

“He’s telling us about what Ez is doing!”, Callum was aghast, running his hands over the drawings, “I wonder if we can send a message back!”, he picked up the dragon in amazement. “Did you tell him what we were up to?”

 

Zym made a proud sound as Callum put him down, then curled back up.

 

“Well that’s all good news as far as I’m concerned”, Rayla said, surveying the pictures of Viren’s kin.

 

Callum looked at her with controlled annoyance.

“We don’t even know what really happened to them. Soren could be dead and Viren a hostage. All you have to go on is a bunch of dirt drawings.”

 

“No, I have so much to go on that it boggles my mind to hear you still defend them! They tried to murder me. Three times! They tried to kidnap you, or worse! Twice! I’m sorta decided on the content of their character.”

Her expression slackened and she crossed her arms.

 

“What’s our plan for tonight?”, he asked abruptly.

 

She rolled her eyes.

“Well, I was about done runnin’ in place, so I vote  for goin’ to sleep for a few more hours. Do you mind proppin’ me up again?”

 

“I can do that.”

 

He sat down, trying to get comfortable against the rock. She sat between his legs and put the back of her head on his chest. They both closed their eyes.

 

Some time passed.

 

“What is it?”, Rayla asked.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“If I wanted to sleep on something hard I wouldn’t be lyin’ on you! Why are you so tense? You’re leanin’ here like a hot, grumpy, smelly plank!”, she complained.

 

He laughed nervously, not sure whether she was joking or actually offended by the composition of his body.

 

“And I mean `hot` as in `temperature`, just to be completely clear”, she groaned.

 

“Ah, I mean, we just argued, for one”, he shifted uncomfortably, “but I’m excited that we still have a life line to Ez in some way. I’m looking forward to getting back on the road, but also worried about what’s gonna greet us out there.”

 

“Fresh air”, she grumbled, “Tonight I’ll go out ahead of you once the moon is up, have a look around. Maybe kick some heads. If there’s no heads to kick we can go wash up in the river and then get goin’”

 

He still seemed uncomfortable.

 

“What is it?”, she asked gruffly.

 

“I don’t know if I feel okay with bathing… with you.”

 

“YOU HAVE GOT TO BE...”, she yelled, then paused, shocked at her own reaction, listening for any sounds from the outside. She grimaced and ran her hands over her face. When there was no movement, she continued in a frustrated whisper, “You have got to be kidding! `With me`? I’ll be upstream, you’ll be downstream! Plus, Callum? It’s a full moon. I’ll be utterly, completely, ab-so-lu-te-ly invisible, so there’s no risk of my horrible outline upsettin’ your sensibilities! You can’t even see in the dark!”

 

“Rayla, this isn’t about… Ugh! I think you’re beautiful! I just don’t want things to get more awkward. You sound hurt now, though, and I’m sorry about that”, he said gently.

 

“Ah, good of you to pick up on that. I can’t live with us smelling like a bunch of dumpsters, so I need to tell you that we’re making plans to get a bath in! I told you, I can’t tip-toe around everythin’! It puts me on edge! What happened, happened. First, I wasn’t okay with it and you were not okay with it. Then, we were both sorta okay with it, then you weren’t okay with it again and I was okay with you not bein’ okay with it again - can we just drop it?”

 

“I didn’t quite follow that but I think I get the idea. I’m sorry.”

 

She sighed and adjusted her position, going from having her arms laid across his thighs to crossing them in front of her chest.

 

More silence followed.

 

“Good night”, he said eventually. She just nodded quietly, which he could feel.

 

Some time later, Rayla could feel him breathing regularly, but she was no closer to sleeping. Not only did her rib pulse from the workout, she was also trying to deal with this new-found source of frustration.

 

Was he interested in her - or not? He said he thought she was beautiful, but did that mean more beautiful than, say, Claudia? Did appearances mean anything at all to humans?

 

She puffed up her cheeks, spread out her arms as though she was carrying two massive melons and thought,

“Claudia, oh, Claudia! It’s always Claudia! With her bloody microscopic waist, stupid giant hips and massive... Bah.”

 

Her expression changed to an angry pout. Anger at herself for even drawing the comparison, but her mind was taking her for a ride.

 

She was a trained athlete and intended to not carry a single pound of body weight around that she didn’t need for warmth. Amongst the Moonshadow, she’d been envied for her subtle outline. Some of the other female assassins had to bind their chests quite seriously to be comfortable jumping around the way she did.

 

Her skin was criss-crossed with temporary bruises and more than just a few permanent scars. She was always slightly sunburnt and couldn’t - no, refused to! - compete with Claudia’s beauty regime.

 

Pinching herself, she felt her skin barely give way and snap back into place like a taut bow string.

She spent a good minute massaging her muscles in defiant self-adoration.

“Got’cha beat there, you squishy porcelain piglet!”

 

Her arms dropped limply to her sides. How could he still have feelings for that monster? After she tried to kidnap him and Ez? After she’d helped bring down a dragon?

 

Sure, she was human.

Sure, she was intelligent and probably funny, “And pretty, argh!”

 

He had known Claudia the better part of his life. They shared a culture, an upbringing. He wasn’t even entirely revolted by the kind of magic she did since he’d grown up with it.

 

“`We don’t have that yet`”, she remembered him say it and the disbelief at his stubbornness she’d felt then welled back up.

 

Rayla exhaled slowly. Having him so close physically made the emotional alienation she felt so much worse.

“Gotta give him time.” she thought, finally, “And me, too. This is still dangerous, all of it. Can’t get distracted.”

 

After a moment, she reached over to squeeze his lower thigh.

“Got’cha beat, too, stove-boy”, she thought affectionately.

Chapter Text

Ithral Ortis had a splitting headache - and not just a physical one. His soldiers had been combing the area for almost three days now and had not turned up a single thing.

 

“Where did ye go, midgets?”

A massive fist crashed down onto the map he had spread out in front of him. It was out of date.

 

His right hand man, Astor, was dead, killed by what he could only assume was an agent of the Lucid. If the moon elven’s secretive virtue guard was after his marks, he did not have much time left to collect. At the moment he believed that the only reason he was still alive was the careful distance he had kept between his party and the bastion to the east - and a lot of luck.

 

“Bloody sneak thieves.” he growled as the entrance to his tent was shoved open.

 

“Ithral.”

 

It was his wife, Kel. Her studded armor dripped from the warm rain outside, giving her stern face a soft sheen.

 

“Whatsit?”, he barked, “You find ‘em or what?”

 

She shook herself like a dog, sprinkling him with water from her flying chainmail and silky brown hair.
“They’re not ‘ere anymore. Given us the slip.”

 

With swift steps she came over to place a soothing hand on his treelike arm, “We need to be lookin’ fer other marks, love. Can’t be expectin’ everyone eatin’ dirt fer long.”

 

He beheld her lovely broad face and piercing blue eyes. “Wha about poor Astor…”, tears filled his eyes again, “He was my brother, Kel. My brother - and them bruise-skins took ‘im from me! He was my fist like ye are me heart!”

 

She kissed his unshaven cheek.

“Ya, but them midgets dinnah do him in, Ith.”

 

“Matters not to me. They’ve got a drag’n with ‘em, tidy coin on them heads and the gerl’s a bruiser. Need no more reason to wanna get em in front of me dagger again. But,” he turned his bald head, leaning down towards his wife.

 

“I’ve got more reasons here,” he tapped the shining bump on his head,

“an’ here”, he ran the finger around his neck where blue and purple rope burns were dug into his rough skin.

 

A fire blazed in his brown eyes.
“O ho ho, lil’ wench got me good, Kel.”, with every word he stabbed at the ground, ”I say she did print, stamp, sign and post her own warrant, doesn’t matter gold or none, drag’n or none! The little wind chucker, too! Ain’t nobody given me lastin’ marks without a fair fight!”

 

He sat back, a broad, excited smile parting his chin from the rest of his face.

“It’s sport now!”

 

“Ith, think of them boys and gerls we’re draggin’ about”, she pleaded.

 

“Always do”, he sighed, worry creeping into his bluster, “Wouldn’t’ve stepped out in no fire light with the Lucid about if I hadn’t had them with me. Better the sneak-thieves get at me than them.”

 

His expression changed to amusement.

 

“I thought they could take the midget bruiser - Kel she tied’em to a tree, she did! They all had faces on ‘em like well-hung bacon!”, he snorted hoarsely.

 

She shook her head, smiling.

“Maybe so, but she’s had ye hogtied in yer little hole, too. What if Selma hadn’t shown to get yer butt outta that un?”

 

He waved his hand. ”The crew - let’em go home, Kel. Find simpler marks.”

 

He placed his massive hand on her cheek, stroking it lovingly. “Ye go, too. Don’t wanna see you picked up by the Lucid.”

 

She kissed his scarred fingers.

“Ith, yer a blitherin’ tool if ye think I’m walkin’. Where you go, I go. Only ‘un’s pickin’ me up is you”, she turned to leave, picking up and sheathing her Zweihänder from the stand near the entrance.

 

He got up to follow her.

“Othello!”, she yelled.

 

Her lieutenant met them in front of their tent. “Called?”

 

“Y’all wet dogs! Break camp ‘n get your arses home through the breach. We’ve been dallyin’. Ith’n I are gonna strangle ourselves a pair of midgets.”

 

This got the attention of everyone in the camp.

 

“Ye find em? Wha’ about our cut?”, asked Othello.

 

“Yer cut?”, Ithral boomed, laughing, “If you hang about, yer gon’ get your head `cut` clean off by sneak-thieves I wager. Don’t soil your wrappers, y’all will get paid what yer due down to the nickel, as per usual. Now scram, we got business.”

 

Kel cheered and hollered.

“Let’s get them gold plated midgets, Ith!”

 

With that, the camp got busy.

 

And so did Kel and Ithral.

Chapter Text

Rayla was outside, scouting the area. The moon was full, but covered by clouds.

 

Water splashed into the hollow. This added to Callum’s misery. He sat away from the crack in the ceiling, huddled up and useless, but could not completely escape the muddy spray of cascading water, cascading into the ground right in front of him. Azmondias was hiding in his backpack.

 

As much as he looked forward to leaving the crack, he was going to miss the quiet conversation and moments of complete peace they had shared in here. After this morning’s conversation, Rayla had been short with him and he couldn’t blame her. At one point, she’d woken up to him embracing her painfully in his sleep. Obviously, this had not won him any favours. She had spent the rest of the day sleeping propped up against the opposite wall while he had sat in this exact spot, twiddling his thumbs.

 

Going back on the trail was going to expose them and he was not doubting for a moment that people were still looking for them.

 

He sighed and turned away from the entrance to shield his sketchbook from the spray while he flipped through the damp pages.

 

There was a copy of all the pictures Zym had drawn in the dirt and a more detailed drawing of Ezran wearing the crown.

 

Then followed, page after page, Rayla.

 

“I’m an idiot.”, he said with realization in his voice.

 

Rayla with Zym on her lap, pensively feeding him a singular berry.

 

Rayla, posing with her blades defiantly outstretched to either side, carrying a slightly pained mien.

 

Rayla’s intricate horns, hair and face, sleeping, from above and behind. The lines were awkward and shaky. This one had been a challenge and she did not yet know about it.

 

A few sketches of Zym in various cute and bored poses followed on a single page.

 

“Here be dragons”, he said, endeared.

 

Rayla, again, big goofy smile, a berry stuck up her right nostril.

 

Ezran, walking away on a cliff edge, following Corvus.

 

Various sketches of Rayla.

 

Ezran, eating a jelly tart with entirely too much gusto.

 

Callum smiled and let out a singular, breathy laugh.

 

Claudia.

 

Callum slammed the book shut, hard enough to send drops of water flying and to feel his hands tingle.

 

“Here be dragons”, he said, without endearment.

 

He turned back to face the entrance, resting his chin on his knees.

 

His heart ached and pounded. For years he had followed that girl - that woman, he hesitantly corrected - around. Thinking of her as a girl no longer seemed to fit her demeanor.

 

He’d adored her quietly and from a distance because he hadn’t known anything else to do. From time to time, she would show what he’d believed was romantic interest, then moved on to read more, or train more, or research more.

 

Looking back, he realised that he had been biding his time for the perfect moment to turn their friendship into a relationship while she’d not considered it until it suited her needs.

 

It was so strange, looking back at the moment on the balcony overlooking the moon nexus. In that moment, she had tried to use his affection for her to achieve his return to Katolis. It was manipulative and unlike her.

 

What had eventually cemented his anger and disappointment in her was when she had attacked that Dragon. A step too far, to be sure.

 

He opened his book, flipped to the drawing of Claudia that had offended him and tore the page out. He then kept flipping and tearing, and flipping and tearing - and as he did, his tears mixed with the rain.

 

All the feelings of repeated betrayal, life-shattering disbelief and hurt that he had bottled up since he had last seen her exploded out of his chest. He recalled seeing her through an oily, purple delerium brought on by dark magic, crumpled next to her wounded brother.

 

It seemed like a solid quarter of the filled pages from his book were now in his quaking fist, soaking in the rain.

 

He tore at them, but couldn’t rip through.

 

The release he sought would not come.

 

He settled for shredding the pages one-by-one.

 

When he was done, he flung the scraps around the bend in the back.

 

Caked together as they were, they hit their mark with a wet splash that sent disgusted shivers down Callum’s spine.

 

Mere moments later, similar wet noises came from the entrance and Rayla materialized. She stepping into the cave, pinching her nose.

 

“Let’s get out of here before I start pukin’. “, she smiled weakly, “It’s so, SO much worse when you can make the direct comparison.”

 

Her simple, toothy smirk sent waves of warmth through Callum’s chest. It was incredibly good to know that she was not mad at him anymore.

 

Their boots producing squelching sounds, they pushed through the crack’s entrance.

 

Fresh air buffeted Callum like a slap in the face. It was invigorating. He stood for a moment, letting the rain hit his face. Azmondias poked his head through the backpack’s flap and contentedly let the rain soak his white mane.

 

They walked quietly in the now cold downpour. Callum watched her attentively swivel her head, listening for any sounds. He thought she looked like a cat looking for her favourite toy.

 

After a few moments, Callum could hear the rush of the nearby Ibalin.

 

“I guess we won’t need a bath in this rain.”

 

“You wish”, Rayla said, turning invisible, “I can smell myself right now! See you in a bit, and don’t forget to put the bar soap to those woolen rags of yours! Won’t be any help if you smell like Ismil and Askander and your coverin’s like the bull…”, she caught herself, “...droppings you keep spoutin’”

 

“Yes, mother”, he mocked.


His head jerked forward as a light, wet slap hit his neck.

 

“You better”, she threatened with an audible smirk.

 

He listened to her wet boots shlopping away. The sound turned mid-step into the splash and patter of naked feet on the big stones lining the river bank. She was essentially stomping her feet for his benefit.

 

“Get!”, she shouted.

 

“What, you’re just gonna stand there and watch me?!”, he yelled, incredulous.

 

He could practically feel her eyes roll over as she groaned.

“You’re not currently movin’, Callum, and I’m gonna stand here until you do!”

 

He dropped his backpack and Zym into the protective shadow of a hollow tree, grabbed a well-used bar of herbal soap and unclasped his belt.

 

“Okay, I’ll see you in eight minutes. I’ll show you where I am”, she called. Out of nowhere, her boots appeared in a disembodied hand, bouncing through the air as she rounded a bend in the embankment.

 

He breathed a sigh of - what, relief? He didn’t know.

 

He shivered miserably as he waded into the shallow river. He quickly busied himself with his hair, giving it several thorough washes. The rain was extremely helpful to remove the suds and was, thankfully, a little warmer than the coursing river. Zym was playing in the shallows.

 

He dipped under the surface to clear out any remainders and turned to the rest of his body. He had gone without a wash even longer than Rayla and it felt liberating to drop this palpable layer of coarse dirt.

The cold water soothed his bruises, pains he had accepted as normal since the landslide - but which were now revealed to be a temporary issue.

 

He had just started scrubbing his clothes over a large rock when Rayla called out.

“You done yet?”

 

“Almost”, he yelled back.

 

“Same here”, came the reply.

 

He wrung out his overcoat, as if it mattered. The rain was still falling in strings.

Slipping into soaked clothes ranked among his top five most hated things, but it was going to be better now that they were at least clean.

 

He prepared himself mentally for the cling and slipped on his pants, when Rayla appeared around the bend, fully dressed. She was dramatically striding backwards, bending in the knee to come low to the ground with every step.

 

“Can I turn around?”, she stopped a few feet away.

 

There was a short pause.

 

“Yes.”

“Finally”, she said grumpily and turned around. Then, she blinked. He was standing entirely too close, a strange, unsure expression in his face.

 

He spread his arms for her and she took the invitation for a disgusting, wet hug. It was a long one. Long enough to be meaningful.

 

When they separated, she gave him a tender, but unsure smile, brushing a strand of wet hair over her right ear. “W--What’s gotten into you?”

 

“Sense”, he said sheepishly, took her by her hand and lead her to the cover of the tree.

 

He pulled out his sketchbook and showed her the missing pages.

 

She looked at him, inquisitively.

He looked right back, sheepishly.

 

“Does that mean… you’re sure?”

He put his hands on her waist, carefully pulling her close.

 

The romantic gesture ended up being a sort of awkward shuffle since she had not expected him to do it and failed to keep step.

 

“I’m at least sure I’ll be a terrible kisser”, he crowed, not believing that his mouth could be dry in this weather.

 

“First one wasn’t entirely horrifyin’”, she quipped. She then screwed up her face. “Plus, how would I know good from bad?”

 

This was different from the first time.

The first time had happened in such a rush - it hadn’t felt right.

They took a moment to just look at each other.

 

She studied him. His messy brown hair was stuck to his head. His green irises dimly shone in the night. She draped her arms around his neck.

 

“You better be dead-sure that you want me this time”, she swallowed heavily.

 

He ran a curious hand over her horns - remembering their alternative name - and hair, taking in the soft purple of her proud, demanding eyes.

 

“I just needed a bit of alone-time. And tear up some paper.”

 

Both of them had a fast, rhythmic thumping sound in their ears.

 

If the kiss was too wet, they couldn’t tell in this weather.

 

From inside the backpack, Azymondias cooed. Miles away, a sleeping King did the same.

 

She pressed up against him, his hands trailing her spine, coming to an abrupt rest in the small of her back.

 

“That was pretty good”. She smiled, opening her eyes.

 

“You’re purple”, he offered.


“You look like a big, ripe moonberry”, she replied, clumsily.

 

“Why don’t you take another bite then?”

 

She did.

 

“Gettin’ better and better at this”, she giggled, running a sopping wet sleeve across her face, “I really hate to cut this trainin’ session short but we need to get goin’.”

 

She gave him another peck on the lips and then pushed off his chest.

 

They shouldered their burdens and started walking back into the woods, away from the shore.

 

“Sooo”, Callum started, “...how do these things normally go for Moon-elves?”

 

She chuckled and slid her hand in his.

“I wouldn't worry about that if I was you. We've already torn up the rule book here.” She looked at her boots. “Moon elf couples’ traditions are all about protectin’ your `inner world` against others. `Keeping secrets is a moral duty!`”, she mocked deeply, channeling a male teacher that Callum did not know.

 

“Letting others in is basically the same as…” she trailed off. “Actually, I don’t know enough to compare it to something you’d understand. Are there stages of relationships in your culture?”

 

“Yeah. You might start out as friends. If you like each other, you become girlfriend and boyfriend. I mean, the combination depends on who’s in the relationship.”, he shrugged, “If that all goes well, you might get married. That’s when you’d be considered family and could take each other’s names.”

 

“So your parents were girlfriend and boyfriend?”

 

“No, ah, they got married. We call people who are married husband and wife, again depending on who’s in the relationship.”

 

“Are we girlfriend and boyfriend?”

 

He blushed, “I did just explain how that works, so technically, yes. Uh, if you’re okay with that?”

 

She nodded. “Anything beyond marriage?”

 

“Nope. That’s really it. I mean, some people might think that the next step would be having kids, but that can really happen anytime or not at all. There’s more to the whole courtship that happens before you get married, obviously, but I’d rather hear what you have to say.”

 

“It sounds surprisingly straight-forward, but you’ll have to tell me more later.”, she smirked, “Well, here’s how it works for my tribe. If you think you might love somebody, you bring them six specific gifts. Sorry about this - but here goes.”, she cleared her throat and sang, shyly and haltingly:

Ismil at advent and Askander at ascent,
Take Etwer, Telis and Banther Incents,
By your interest’s eye.

 

Invertim and Salis Anur

Bring your poundin’ achin’s cure

To your interest’s eye.

 

He blinked. “You sing?”

 

“No. Well, yes, if that’s what you wanna call that?”, she blushed, “but it’s a song that helps you remember the six items. Not only do you have to find these stupid plants, you have to give them at certain times. Ismil and Askander you already know - the soap we’ve in our packs is made from those. They’re given at the beginnin’ and the middle of the same night.”

 

She started walking backwards, facing him, still holding his hand.

“Etwer and Banther Lilly, they grow all over. But Invertim, Telis and Salis Anur are rare and difficult to find save for the windward flanks of high mountains. They’re flurry growths and need the updraft to stay pointed at the sun. Those are all supposed to be given at once, at whatever time of night the moon reaches zenith.”

 

“What does all of that have to do with relationships?”, he asked, a little overwhelmed.

 

“Well, it’s supposed to show how much you care about the other person. Gettin’ these plants together and making the incense is a lot of work, dependin’ on where you live, it might be impossible. People have been relaxin’ on the specifics but the easy to get flowers are still taken pretty seriously. If the other person’s interested, they’ll take them quietly, but start doin’ the whole spiel for you in return. If not, they’ll stop you on the first two plants and you can both move on with your lives.”

 

“Have you ever gotten any?”, he asked.

 

“Nah.”, she chortled, “Once you start trainin’ in the Auxilia, you’re basically an ironclad scarecrow to most people around you.”

 

“What’s the Auxilia?”

 

“The Xadian armed forces. It’s made up of all the tribes’ armies. The Lucid is also part of it, technically. You know what a standin’ army is since your Aunt is heading yours. The Lucid, ah…”

 

She grimaced.

 

“Everythin’ I’m tellin’ you here, they oversee it. They punish people for breakin’ the rules. They see it as a way to keep our society together and workin’ to a common goal. Most people just do what the traditions say cause it’s easier than coming up with your own ways. If you’re not that person, you do it ‘cause of the Lucid. Assassins, like me, we’re just another kind of Lucid agent. Unlike them though, we’re only allowed to do our duty abroad.”

 

“Wow. I never really thought about the fact that you’re a soldier. Uh, sorry I got you on a double tangent. Back to flowers?”

 

“No problem, it’s not like we have other things to keep busy.”, she smirked warmly, “Anyway, err... both parties now know that they are interested in a romantic relationship, without havin’ spoken a single word about it. Next step is to meet in private and tell each other a single secret. Wanna guess what that secret is?”

 

“Favourite foods?”, he quipped.

 

“It’s always `moonberries`”, she chortled, “But no, it’s literally that you feel for each other.”, she became agitated, “So you just go through all of this song’n’dance to show how much you care and then you sit on your butt, and you look ‘em in the eye and you go: `Duh-doy, guess what!`”

 

“Sounds kinda redundant”, he smirked.

 

“It is! So! Redundant!”, she enumerated, “Anyway, from there you are considered a pair. You’re not meant to show it in public just yet, though around family it’s usually fine. Runaan once told me about this date he...”, she interrupted herself shakily, “Actually never mind about that.”

 

For a moment, they walked quietly, then she cleared her throat.

 

“So. After that whole process, you keep coming back together privately to tell each other more and more secrets, starting with lesser ones, like - well, favourite foods. Then you gradually move into lies you’ve told them personally, if you can remember them. Then come family secrets.”

 

She looked at him, smiling warmly.

“And if, like me, you’re part of the military, you start sharin’ secrets of the state, if you know any”, she blushed but held his gaze, “Finally you and the other person... you, er…”, she trailed off, not finding comfortable words.

 

“Make love?”, he offered squeamishly.

 

She shrugged her agreement and continued, “That’s when you’re, I guess, considered `married`. You’ve merged both `inner worlds` into one. We call it `consummation` and the people in the relationship are `summands`.”

 

“That last part is also very much a human thing”, he swallowed, “So, we essentially started from pretty near the butt end. You’ve told me a lot of Xadian secrets at this point.”

 

She nodded, drawing her hand from his and holding it up.

“Doin’ this, touchin’ your, uh”, she blushed at the word, “lover under the open sky, is a taboo where I’m from, unless you are consummated. But we’ve shared secrets we should be saving for waaay later. That’s far enough up a crooked branch that even if you were an elf, some people would be furious.”

 

“What happens though, when it happens by accident? I didn’t know that I shouldn’t be telling you things...”, he inquired.

 

“Ah, it becomes a personal secret you shouldn’t be acting on directly. If you liked what you’d heard, you’d go through the entire process, front to back.”

 

She grinned toothily.

“I say, forget the rules. Followin’ them’s only gotten me grief so far.”

She let him step into her extended arms for a hug, then spun around to walk next to him again.

 

“I don’t know about you, but I don’t need a bushel of flowers or know all your secrets to be with you”, he said, “What you want to share is good enough for me”

 

“Aww that is sweet, but at this point I’d have basically nothing else to share with you anyway. My favourite food is fried grit soup with a nice slice of soft cheese. There, done.”, she gave him an interested smile, “What about you?”

 

He thought about it.

Was there anything he hadn’t told her about that he counted as a secret?

“Actually, yes. Something I should’ve shown you earlier.”

 

She blinked with surprise as he pulled her under a nearby rock.

 

“I drew you while you were asleep”, he showed her the picture.

 

“Well. That’s an interestin’ angle!”, she grinned toothily, “How did you grow a third arm to draw it?”

Chapter Text

Helmond shuddered. The rain would not let up and seemed to get colder, still. Autumn was coming into the world with all its might. It was mid-morning, but the day was dreary and gray.

 

Miserably, he unfolded his map and scanned the landscape for any points of reference.

 

To the east lay a small village, Larwein.

Westward were the remains of both Ithral Ortis’ camp and the fugitives’ last place of rest.

Other than the garrison to the north where he had come from, there was nothing remarkable.

 

“A shot at the sky”, he grumbled.

 

He adjusted his pack and began walking again.

 

Suddenly, he heard singing approach from a distance. He hid in a nearby bush.

Moments later, two figures appeared further below, engaged in quiet conversation. They were holding hands.

 

From where he sat in the rain, he could not quite make them out, but at least one of the shapes was clearly not elven.

 

“What luck”, Helmond thought, setting an arrow on his bow, “distance kill for the Abuser so I may not dirty my hand.”

 

The arrow flew silently off the string.

 

A feminine scream split the rain’s white noise.

 

Then came a booming shout. “Bruise-skins!”

 

The massive shape left his companion’s side, barrelling through the underbrush toward Helmond’s position.

He sprang up, Firing another arrow at Ithral Ortis. It impacted the massive human’s helmet and stuck there.

 

The female was coming up behind him, pulling the first arrow from his shoulder.

 

Helmond decided that he was not going to stay to see what the Predators would do to him and quickly turned to the trees behind him. He made a mental note to reprimand his scouts. They had reported that Ithral’s band was on their way to leave Xadia. A bolt from Ithral’s crossbow passed close by him as he hastily scaled into the Mallorn tree’s dense canopy.

 

“Ye better get!”, the woman yelled, firing her own.

 

It grazed Helmonds’ leg painfully just as he was finally vanishing from view.

 

Ithral turned to his wife. “You alright?”, he asked tenderly.

 

She shrugged.

 

“Good. Let’s keep movin’. He’ll be back, I wager.”

 

“You really think ‘e’s after them midgets, too? Not us?”

 

“Bett’n on it. Was the same bruiser that shanked Astor, I think. Plus, if he was comin’ fer us, he’d’ve stayed to try and finish the job, they always do. Bit too much co-ink-ee-dink for him to poke his ‘orns out here.”

 

“Fair”, she acknowledged, “Looks like we’re on the right track.”



Chapter Text

Callum sneezed. They had spent almost five days walking to the east and the weather had gotten somewhat colder. There was no mistaking it, both of them had a slight cold. They had spent a lot more time resting than they had intended.

 

Rayla looked on with concern as he coughed, then launched into a hacking round of her own.

 

“We'll be reachin’ Larwein soon. They should have a doctor's office.”

 

“It's not a bad idea to show me to an Elven doctor?”, Callum doubted.

 

“Well no, I'm just gonna trade you for some medicine", she quipped.

 

He laughed, coughed and asked, “Actually, we should probably talk about our stay in town. Any more taboos I need to know about?”

 

“No, not really. If we don't hold hands outside and you don't talk to anyone, we should be fine. Only time we'll have  to really be on our toes is the gate watch. They tend to be kinda jumpy near the bord--”

 

With some alarm, he interrupted, “Gate watch? Aren't they going to ask to see our faces?”

 

“They will - but we have a right to refuse them. It’s not goin’ to make us more suspicious than we already are, a lot of moonshadow elves turn that sort of request down.”

 

They reached the top of a ridge. Below them stretched more dense woodlands. Callum scanned the landscape, with Zym poking his furry head out of his backpack.

 

“Are we lost? I don't see a village.”

 

“Come on Callum, we’re elves! Of course you're not goin’ to spot a settlement from a mile away. We don’t chop down the forest to build our cities”, she stepped behind him, and guided his head, pointing.

 

“Look over there. The light puffs of smoke.”

 

When he nodded, she turned her guiding motion into a hug. “We should put on our cloaks.”

 

“Sorry buddy”, Callum said as he pushed the little dragon into the pack and latched it tightly, “I’ll let you out as soon as possible.”

 

As they approached the road, Rayla bade him wait and checked both directions. “It'd be weird if we showed up off the beaten path.”

 

Walking on the gravel was pleasant after having spent so much time on unprepared ground.

 

An arch flanked by wooden palisades came into view, two guards in heavy armor milling about.

 

Rayla approached one of them. “Greetn’s. We're passing through to Veltis-Tiram out from Ising-on-the-River.”

 

“State your purpose in Veltis-Tiram, names and tribe", The guard replied, opening a ledger on a pedestal before her.

 

“Visit relatives. I am Tarla, moon and Entwen, also moon.”

 

“Thank you", she replied. Rayla started to turn away but the guard stopped her, “We have warrants searching two fugitives, one human, the other moon. Would you consent to removing your hoods?”

 

Rayla shook her head calmly.

 

The guard stepped out from behind the pedestal, suspiciously placing a hand on her saber’s hilt.

“I apologize, but I will have to insist. You can follow me to the guard post if you are not comfortable under the open sky.”

 

Callum's heart was beating in his throat.

 

Rayla leaned towards the guard, talking quietly. Callum could see the guard's mien change from distant professionalism to recognition. When she had recomposed herself, the soldier closed the ledger, motioning them through.

 

Out of earshot, Callum turned to Rayla. “What did you tell her?”

 

Rayla chuckled. “I gave her a Lucid password and told her that I was escorting some ocean tribe VIP.”

 

“And that convinced her?”

 

His girlfriend shrugged. “We’re in, aren’t we?”

 

They passed through the palisades, entering a town square. That is, a place that didn’t have houses in it.

There wasn’t a tree stump in sight and walking the streets felt only slightly different from wandering through a light, well-kept forest.

 

The square was encircled by simple wooden buildings with thatched roofs. The wooden elements of the houses’ timber construction were hewn into soft, sweeping arches. More notably, the structures had been raised using existing trees as corner supports, creating some unconventional layouts.


A few of the houses had storefronts and elves were busy trading one thing for another.

 

Suddenly, Rayla stopped dead in her tracks. “They have an inn here now!”

Coughing, she pointed at a larger building that had three different signs installed along its facing wall.

“Blacksmith, Herbalist, Guest House”, she read out excitedly for him, “What about it, wanna take a hot bath and sleep in a real bed tonight?”

 

“I thought we weren’t going to stay?”, he looked around anxiously.

 

“I was assumin’ there was no guest house. Last time I was here, I was a wee elf and it was essentially a bunch of fisher’s huts and a herbalist. Guest house means we won’t be eatin’ with a family which means we can keep our hoods on. ”

 

“How do we even pay for that?”, he was still not convinced, though he had been wanting a real bed and hot bath since they had left the Moon Nexus, several weeks ago.

 

She enthusiastically unclasped one of her satchels, drawing out a packet of flower petals.
“No tall mountains around here! Meanin’ these people would literally shank us for this bundle of Invertim!”, she seemed excited at the prospect of being murdered over a bushel of dessicated flowers.

 

She dangled the pack in front of his unconvinced face, nodding with a wide grin, until he sighed and motioned her forward, sneezing in the process.

 

The inn was empty, save for the keeper. He was a wide, stocky elf, muscular but clearly fond of eating. His face was bright and friendly, streaked by a few wrinkles. As he was busy sweeping dirt out from under four round tables to their right, he hadn’t noticed them just yet. A few dirty but empty cups were lined up on a long counter to the left of them, ready to be taken away.

 

“Greet’ns”, Rayla said, getting his attention, “Got a room with bath for two?”

 

“‘Course! Sorry we’re short staffed, my summand’s out", he replied cordially, balancing the broom against a chair. He walked over to the bar counter, pulled out a ledger and asked, “My name’s Talaar. How long will you stay and may I have your tribes and names please?”

 

While his girlfriend handled the transaction, Callum studied the interior of the inn a little closer. There was a second level to it, a sort of balcony jutting out above the tables. He could see doors to six rooms up on the balcony and wondered if there was anyone else staying here. A glance at the key board behind the bar revealed that only one other room was currently taken.

 

“Got a lot more busy around here with the war”, the keeper explained, “People rushin’ to and from the Breach. Can’t help but feel a bit worried about Abusers comin’ through at some point. Never had any trouble here.”

 

Rayla handed him the packet, which he sniffed and stowed with glee.

 

“Ooh, Invertim! You’ve come far! Hm. You sure you don’t want… two… rooms?”, he said conspiratorially, sending a flush to Rayla’s face, “Ah, I shouldn’t be prying, sorry. Here you go, your key. It’s for my best room, at the left end upstairs. Breakfast and dinner are covered with this. You’ll love the tub in there, we had it made by a guy from Veltis", he gestured with pursed lips. “An experience! Oh, and washrooms are all the way to the right upstairs.”

 

They climbed the stairs and made their way into their room.

 

The door had barely closed when Rayla erupted in quiet laughter.

 

“He’s the stereotype of any innkeeper I’ve ever met”, Rayla said, coughing, “Size, slurs and folksy wisdoms all!”

 

“Slurs?”, Callum asked.

 

“Didn’t you hear him call humans `Abusers`? That’s a slur if I’ve ever heard one.”

 

Her boyfriend shrugged. “I didn’t know that was a thing”, he sneezed, “we should really get that medicine before we get settled in.”

 

She nodded, adjusting her hood. “While I’m down there, can you get some hot water started? There’s bound to be a fountain somewhere in here, look around.”

 

He nodded and she left after placing a peck on his cheek.

 

Callum opened his pack to let the whelp explore the room, which he did without much prompting.

The room was really nice. To his left was a door leading into some other room. A small wood stove was set up next to it, its exhaust pipe poking through the ceiling. The bed in the center of the wall he was facing was the main feature with a simple stool in front of a small table on his right. Above the bed’s headboard, there was a window rattling quietly in the wind.

 

“Comfy!”, Callum thought, walking into the other room. This one was windowless and contained nothing but a gurgling fountain with a bucket to his right and a bathtub that rivaled the bed’s size, hewn from timber, taking up the entire facing wall. Its insides were polished and lacquered, shining like brown marble in the dim blue light of a magically lit wall sconce. Around the rear rim of the tub, a few glass vials were lined up in wooden stands. Callum sniffed the contents of one and found it to be a sort of thick liquid that smelled of Banther Lilies. Above the tub, a number of fuzzy looking towels hung, neatly folded.

 

He inspected the fountain. It was quietly tinkling, as though there was a small bell inside it. There was another cylindrical glass container sitting on the fountain’s rim, filled with orange disks that bore the mark of the Sun.

Zym jumped up on the fountain and started gulping down the fresh, clear water while Callum gently stroked his fur.

 

He heard the key rattling and the door open and close in the other room.

“Callum?”

 

“I’m in here.”

He stepped out of the bathroom and found Rayla on the floor, busy taking off her boots and massaging her feet. Zym seemed happy she was back and she fed him a slice of cheese from a board that now sat on the table.

“Sorry, I got distracted”, he said.

 

“It’s fine. I was just too quick for you", she smirked, waving a bottle of irregular white pills, then pointed at his shoes, “Really don’t appreciate you tracking dirt everywhere though", motioning at the table, she added, “I brought dinner from downstairs.”

 

He bent down, lifted her chin to kiss her, then sat next to her and took off his boots.

 

“So do we use the bucket to heat the water or what?”

 

“Oh! No! That’d be actual work”, she walked into the bathroom and returned with one of the orange disks.

“One of these has enough heat to get the both of us a nice boil tonight. We just fill the tub with water from the fountain and drop one of those in and that’s it.”

 

“You use sun magic to heat your bath water?”, he asked incredulously.

 

“Duh, what else would we do with it? Make pancakes?”, she thought for a moment, “Actually that also makes sense, somewhat. Help me with this, please", she asked, lifting her arms over her head. He came over to help her out of her rigid chest guard.

 

She yelped quietly, then sighed contently, rotating her shoulders, “Sweet relief. Hadn’t realized how much the thin’ was rubbin’ on my rib.”

 

Zym sat on the bed’s headboard, looking through the window at the on-goings below.

 

“How is it”, he asked, nodding at her broken rib.

 

She shrugged, stepping into the bathroom. “It’s… a bit swollen. Not too bad though.”

 

Callum heard her fill and empty the bucket multiple times. Not quite sure what to do with himself, he took off his overcoat and pants, hoping to keep the mess he’d already made contained.

 

She poked her head out of the bathroom and saw her boyfriend in his underwear, getting ready to fall backwards onto the bed.

 

“NO!”, she shouted and both he and Zym flinched, “What’s wrong with you? That’s a clean bed!”

 

He clasped his chest. “You scared the soul out of me, Rayla!”

 

She shook her head and scolded with a smirk, “People who drop into a clean Arler-down bed in week old underwear have neither soul nor sense. Come in here, you’ll wanna see this thin’ splash down.”

 

He came over, shyly glancing at her like a dog looking for help from its owner.

 

“Don’t look at me like that, dummy, I just couldn’t let you do it! Look.”

 

She dropped the pellet into the water and after a breath’s time, it exploded into the liquid, heating it to what looked like an extreme boil that quickly subsided.

 

The room was immediately filled with thick fog.

 

“Whew!”, Callum said, flinching. He hadn’t expected it to be so violent.

 

Carefully, he dropped on his knees to examine the water. Dipping his hand inside, he smiled. “It’s perfect!”

 

“Yeah, and, thanks to it bein’ magic, it’ll still be perfect when you take your turn!”

 

He frowned.

 

“You get the first bath? When did we agree on that?”

 

“Oh, I called dibs. Just now!”, she said confidently.

 

Harrumphing, he pulled one of the vials from the stands on the back rim of the tub. “What are these? Soaps?”

 

“Sorta”, Rayla said, taking the container from him to unstopper it. She gave it a sniff, then upturned the entire thing and the amber-colored contents splashed into the water.

 

The room now filled with the smell of smoked caramel, making Callum’s mouth water. The surface of the water was covered in a thick, dense layer of bubbles.

 

“Neat!”, he said, running a finger through the foam.

 

“I guess”, Rayla smiled adoringly at his amazement. He was being cute.

 

He looked up from his experimentation and caught the tail end of her hastily hidden expression.

 

“Aha, I’m being ogled!”, he said, pointing at her face, a broad smile on his own.

 

“Yeah, fine, I got caught!”, she laughed, bending down to kiss him, “Now, princelin’, get out. I wanna get in there. You can play with the suds later!”

 

He flushed slightly and awkwardly shuffled out, closing the door behind him.

 

It was odd. In his mind, the days they had spent in the crack should’ve probably been the most awkward thing in his life. After all, there hadn’t been much privacy.

 

This, though, was somehow even stranger. Maybe it was the civilized surroundings? The fact that others might see them as a couple?

 

Callum settled for getting distracted, playing with Zym and eating delicious food off the small table. After a few weeks of berries, fruit, vegetables and hard tack, the cheese Rayla had brought upstairs was a feast.

 

Eventually, he heard the splash of water subside and after what felt like a small eternity, the door to the bathroom opened to permit his girlfriend through, her hair wrapped in a towel. She was wearing a plain linen shirt and pants rather than her dirty uniform which she had carelessly dropped on the floor in the bathroom.

 

“Good time?”, he asked and she nodded, focussed on brushing her wet hair.

 

“It was!”, she smirked, “Wish the rivers around here had that temperature.”

 

“Yeah. Dipping in the Ibalin wasn’t my favourite thing of all time. Okay, well, I’ll see you in a bit.”

 

He rummaged in his bag, digging deeply to find a clean pair of underpants and a plain linen shirt like hers.

 

Rayla watched him close the door, then fell back into the soft, comfortable bed. It seemed strange, having a room together. A little `official`, so to speak. She thought back to Talaar’s reaction, a slight flush returning to her face.

 

Two rooms.

 

Hm. Maybe it would’ve been a better idea.

 

Gotten less attention from the keeper.

 

Nevertheless, it was too late to change the situation and - being honest with herself - she was looking forward to sharing a bed with Callum. The thought made her smile and she snuggled her face into the pillow on the stove-side of the bed.

 

A moment later, she cursed herself. She was messing up the bed with her wet hair!

 

Getting back to brushing, she realized how famished she was. When her hair had achieved minimum tangle, she sat at the small table and destroyed what Callum hadn’t already eaten.

 

A while after she’d finished, the bathroom door opened and a cloud of steam escaped. It smelled like a tropical garden had exploded in there.

 

“You tried all of them, didn’t you”, she snickered, with a bit of reprimand in her tone.

 

“Uh. Maybe”, he chortled, then yawned and finally sneezed.

 

Rayla laughed at his stupefied expression.

 

“Ow, ow, ouch!”, she said, holding her side, “Don’t make me laugh! Here. Take your medicine!”

 

They each forced down one of the irregular, stone-like pills.

 

“So, uh”, Callum started, “I’ll just grab my winter jacket from the bottom of my pack and sleep over by the stove.”

 

Rayla blinked. “Huh? Why would you wanna do that?”

 

“There’s only one bed”, he said, flushing a little.

 

“Callum, really?”, she said, smiling, “in the crack, you held me up while I slept. This is fine. We’ll share.”

 

He looked at her, hearing the thump of his own heart in his ears.
How was this more nerve-wracking than that? He’d already known about her feelings then.

Maybe his confusion about his own had stopped him from thinking too much about it?

 

Rayla got up and turned off all the lights, then shuffled under the comforter. She propped herself into a half-sitting position using her massive pillow.

 

“Come sleep”, she said, patting the other side of the bed.

 

He sauntered over and fell into the fluffy mattress.

 

Under the covers, Callum tried very hard to stay on his side of the bed, clasping his arms to his side.

 

After a shockingly short time, Rayla’s breathing evened out.

 

The prince’s strange discomfort lasted until he finally fell asleep.

 


 

Below them, the front door opened, permitting a gaggle of dinner guests inside.

 

Among them was the only other boarded person.

He walked up to the bar and waited for service, seeing both Talaar and his male summand were busy handing out drinks.

 

“Excuse me. I’d like to take my evening meal now", he requested once the latter was paying attention to him.

 

The reply came energetically.

 

“Right away, friend Helmond!”

Chapter Text

The next morning came early for Callum. He blinked awake in the soft bedding and stretched contentedly. It was still dark outside. Next to him, Rayla was still fast asleep, snoring slightly with her mouth agape. He adored her quietly for a moment and then arched over to pet Zym, who was sleeping in front of the window where he had spent most of the time. At this he got up, stretched and dropped on the floor, out of sight.

 

The medicine had been more than a little helpful, providing a good night’s rest.

 

Rayla sniffled. Callum wanted so badly to snuggle her, but he was worried she might not want it, much like Zym who had just rejected his attention.

 

After seemingly getting annoyed with an itch on her nose, she roused and stretched.

“Mornin’, dummy”, she smiled at him sleepily, reaching out to pet his face.

 

“Sleep well?”, he inquired while she completed the motion, turning toward him and drawing him into a hug.

 

Callum smiled. She would’ve been totally fine with it.

 

Rayla shrugged in answer to his question, and said into his shoulder, “I didn’t dream so well. This is much nicer than sleepin’”

 

She felt sadness well up inside her, memories flooding back.

 

“I dreamt of the night we came to kill your dad", she said bluntly.

 

He nodded. “That can’t be easy.”

 

She sighed and he thought to hear the threat of tears on her voice.

 

“If I had killed that guard, everyone in my team would’ve lived and all of you would have died. I can’t feel good about either option. Especially with hindsight. I would’ve missed so much good in my life. With Ez. With you. But, every single person in my band had family who’s now lost someone. Because of me.”

 

She shook with quiet sobs. “Then there’s Runaan... C-Callum, I killed him. He was basically my foster-dad. I m-might as well have put m-my blade to his throat in person! I killed my dad!”, she breathed heavily, choking on her own words, “H-he was so dis--appointed with me, when he died and I’ll never get a chance to explain myself, or e-even just say sorry!”

 

She buried her face in his chest, her fists balled around the fabric of the bed and his shirt. She was dissolving in tears.

 

The prince knew nothing better to do than hold her. His brain ground at thoughts, trying to find something soothing to say.

 

“It’s not fair that you put their deaths on your shoulders. They chose to keep killing, even after you showed them that there was another option. You didn’t murder them”, Callum’s eyes burned, thinking with so much anger about what the Assassins had done, “They killed themselves. I’m just glad Ez and Azymondias got away. You’ve been sacrificing so much for peace, don’t blame yourself.”

 

She rubbed her cheek against him, paying attention not to scratch him with her horns. It was true, Runaan had insisted on carrying on with his mission instead of giving peace a chance.  He’d even threatened to walk over her dead body and fought like he’d meant it.

 

Callum’s hands started stroking her back. Gradually as they lay there, she felt better. His radiant presence soothed her, like a cozy fire.

 

“Thank you”, she said eventually, “This stuff gets to me sometimes more, sometimes less. I’m sorry. I probably ruined a perfectly good mornin’ for you. I feel like I’ll be carryin’ that baggage around for my entire life.”

 

“Then I’ll just have to be there to help you pull”, he said, brushing some of her fine, white hair out of her face.

 

She gave him a baffled glance.

 

“I mean it. You can lean on me, when the going gets tough”, a stupid smirk supported by a light blush spread over his face, “or anytime, really, I like it when you touch me”

 

Rayla’s hands came to rest on his cheeks and he blinked, worried what she would do.

 

Her lips found his and she pulled him into a tight hug.

 

“You are the best human”, she said sadly, petting his hair.

 

“You’re the best person”, he replied.

 

“That’s cheating!”, she complained with a small smile, “You can’t just repeat my compliment back and make it better. Hm. I guess we should get up, now.”

 

She rolled off the bed and walked to the bathroom and he heard her brush her teeth. Resolving to do the same, the Prince followed.

 

Once again, it was a bit odd, seeing each other brushing in the same mirror. They smirked at each other with foam in their mouths.

 

A strangely homely picture.

 

After they had finished cleaning themselves and the room, they got busy washing all their dirty clothes in the tub, using sun magic to dry them out almost instantly.

 

They clasped on their hoods, packed their bags and felt bolstered for the rest of the road.

 

Downstairs, the keeper’s summand had prepared a bundle of breakfast items for each of them, which they stuffed into their packs. With their key returned, all six were now up on the key board.

 

A singular guard gave them a weary glance as they passed through the arch again. Rayla waved at the soldier who tepidly returned the gesture. She recognized him but the guard that had allowed them in was nowhere to be seen.

 

“Back on the road”, Rayla said, enthusiastically chowing down on a bread roll with soft cheese from her pack.

 

Callum felt she had a spring in her step that he hadn’t noticed before. It was that or she was just really happy. He was feeding some of his own cheese to Zym through the flap of his tightly latched backpack who seemed unsure as to how the stuff worked, merely licking at it.

 

“Soooo?”, she started with a bit of a heckle in her voice, “Were you too embarrassed to sleep, after all?”

 

“Nah, it was good. Definitely much better than sleeping on the ground.”

 

Her eyes narrowed a little, “Oh? Better than sleepin’ on the ground? Well, I guess next time we won’t be spendin’ big on room and board!”

 

He waved his hand, “Not what I meant. It was really nice, but I also… hm.”

 

“What? You can say it, whatever it is”, she prompted, giving him an encouraging smile.

 

“It felt… official.  That we’re a couple. Sharing a room feels more official. It’s like telling people `hey, we’re a thing.`”

 

She snickered, patting his shoulder, then moving to hold his hand. “I know what you mean. I had that same thought. Especially with Talaar pointin’ it out.”

 

A mile down the road, they scampered into the thicket and Callum took the pack off his back to let Zym out. Rayla yelled and charged at something behind him. In that very moment, he was struck from behind, making him drop face down in the dirt. He felt pain in his shoulder. Cold spread through his arms and legs and sickness radiated from his abdomen as his vision blurred.

 

The last thing he heard was Rayla, yelling at someone about the war.

The last thing he felt was Rayla, checking his neck for a pulse.

The last thing he saw was a huge shape entering his view from the other side, bending over to pick up his backpack.

Chapter Text

Ezran shot up from his desk. He had just gotten the impression of being stuck in a tight spot, being shaken violently while outside of said space,  he’d glimpsed a fight.

 

If Azymondias was in trouble, so were his brother and Rayla.

 

He swiftly opened his chamber’s door and told one of the guards to fetch Corvus.

 

Moments later, the tracker stepped in front of him, sinking to his knee.

“Majesty.”

 

“Corvus, do we have any soldiers behind the lines in Xadia?”

 

“We do have several ongoing covert operations, yes.”

 

“Do you know a place named `Larwein`?”

 

“Yes, it is a small village about two weeks of travel off the border. If I may, what is this about?”

 

“I think Callum’s in trouble. It’s hard to say how exactly, but I saw them getting attacked.”

 

The tracker nodded, all to familiar with his king’s visions at this point and started pointing at the large map of Xadia and the Pentarchy that hung framed over the mantle. “We can’t help them quickly, I’m afraid. Our nearest agent is stationed in a larger city, Tiram-Veltis, on the same river as Larwein. It would take them at least two weeks to arrive at Larwein in the very best case and a month at worst.”

 

Ezran tapped his finger on his desk. He glanced over his shoulder at the empty bird stile. Pip had been a comfort to his father in times where he had not been sure what to do, but the bird was lost, thanks to Viren’s breakdown.

 

The Katolin King rose to pick up his own pet, Bait, who enjoyed the attention.

 

“That’s the only thing we have?”, he finally asked after having studied the map carefully.

 

“Yes. I can get the raven sent immediately.”

 

Ezran breathed an extended sigh, weighing the singular choice against its drawbacks. Ordering a hidden agent to ride hard to assist his brother and Rayla would very likely expose them or at least interrupt whatever it was they were doing.

 

To make matters worse, it wasn’t likely the soldier would then be able to help them. If they were being attacked now, there was a good chance that they had already saved themselves - Rayla being Rayla - or were already past saving.

 

The reality of the situation bore down on him and he placed his hands on his face.

“It would probably be pointless to send them. Corvus, thank you.”

 

As Corvus was leaving, Opeli entered, throwing a wry glance after the tracker.

She did not enjoy having him at her King’s side so often.

Ezran was aware of this and it made him trust her less.

 

“Majesty”, she began.

 

“Whatever it is you’re going to tell me right now, can it wait for a few minutes?”

 

She showed her best `genuine, sympathetic smile`.

“Would you like to talk about it?”

 

Chapter Text

Helmond was sitting in a tree, rotating a browning leaf between his fingers. The downside of this being an extremely sensitive mission was that he couldn’t use his authority to break down the door at the inn, arresting the intruders.

 

He had to wait for them like a common bandit.

 

After hearing about the two `adorable` new guests from the keeper Talaar, he had put two and two together, especially after seeing the princeling Azymondias in the window. Had they counted on nobody looking up? He shook his head. For an agent of the Lucid, Sicarius Rayla was deplorably careless.

 

Movement around the archway got his attention and he watched his two marks walk down the road. He noted with suspicion that one of the guards meant to be posted was not, a detail he had neglected so far. Puzzling about what that might mean and staying well above and behind them, he followed swiftly.

 

They ate while strolling casually, talking enthusiastically about their morning. He was close enough to make out the odd word and the implications of what he heard disturbed him deeply.

 

Another thing that confused him was that they did not appear to have the princeling with them.

 

Finally, after what had felt like an eternity, they strayed from the path and descended into the forest.

 

His chance came when the human bent down to fiddle with his backpack.

Impatiently, Helmond found a spot above them in their path. He grabbed for his bow and realized with blazing annoyance that he had left it in his lookout tree, having focussed too hard on their repulsing conversation.

 

He had been out of the field before this affair had sucked him in. In this very moment he swore to return to his office after it was done and to never respond to Chalis’ summons again.

 

No matter, he would simply attack. A young, inexperienced Sicarius would not be an issue.

 

He jumped, landing expertly behind the boy, his knife coming down between the human’s shoulder blades. What he obviously hadn’t expected was the Sicarius, ramming into his shoulder, spearing him against a tree with one of her switchblades and turning his attempt at a stab into a slashing cut.

 

“Wha-”, he gasped with disbelief as he looked at her, fury blazing in her eyes.

 

She left the blade stuck. He saw the fury fade from her eyes, a shaking hand clasped to her mouth. Dropping her other blade, she turned to her companion. Rendered unconscious by the impact and presumably shock, he was breathing, the knife lay on the ground. Helmond had failed, utterly.

 

“How could you, Sicarius”, Helmond stammered, “what of your vows? What of Xadia?”

 

She whirled around to face him, crying. “I vowed: `my heart for Xadia`! All I’ve been tryin’ to do is to preserve the peace! You almost ended that!”

 

Kneeling next to her mate, she apparently checked for his vitals. When she was satisfied that he was alive, she got up again.

 

“Here I was, thinkin’ I could get through this without murder”, she came closer, picking up her dropped blade.

As she looked up, she gave him a tearful smile, “You’re probably going to bleed out before you can get help once I pull this blade. Tell me your name and rank.”

 

He took this to mean that she was going to show him mercy and slit his throat.

If he was to die here, at least his killer would know his name.

“Helmond, Legate of the Lucid”, he said proudly.

 

“Well, Legate, try and stand still. I will go and get you both help.”

 

She ran off, leaving her companion lying where he had fallen.

 

Helmond was utterly shocked.

Why would she help him?

 

Inspecting the blade, he realized that she was right. It had torn through a major artery and he would die quickly once it was removed. The realization turned his stomach. This was really the first time in his long career that he’d come close to death. A strange, sobering experience, having his life hang by the width of a blade.

 

His consciousness faded in and out, more from the realization that he had been struck than anything else.

 

When he came to, the human was also rousing, grabbing at his wounded shoulder.

 

“If I was you, I would leave it. Bringing a dirty hand near an open wound is a foolish idea", Helmond crowed, not knowing why, exactly, there was a feeling of remorse in his chest.

 

The boy sat, his face screwed up. His glance wandered over the old elf’s impaled shoulder.

 

“Wow, nice work!”, he observed, “You got her mad enough to stab you!”

He looked around.

“Where is she? Did she take my pack?”

 

Helmond shook his head, vision becoming blurry as he did.

“Back to Larwein, I believe. She did not take anything of yours.”

 

“What?”

He scrambled to his feet, clutching his wounded arm and started searching the ground in a growing spiral.

 

“What are you doing? Sit down and rest! I’m sure you can replace anything you had inside it at Larwein”, Helmond offered with some annoyance at the boy’s uneducated order of priorities.

 

“The Dragon Prince is in that backpack!”

 

Helmond wanted so badly to place the palm of his right on his face but could not muster the effort. Another detail missed on his part, yes - but these young idiots were nothing but lucky to have gotten this far and now their luck had run out. He sighed deeply, the settling of his shoulder sending pain through his impaled body. Better not do that again.

 

There was shouting in the distance as four of the seven guards and the doctor from Larwein came into view running, the Sicarius leading them.

 

“Boy!”, Helmond warned, “You should want to hide those ears of yours!”

 

The group arrived and the Sicarius immediately tended to her wounded friend, who frantically talked at her. She embraced him gingerly and pressed her lips on his, still weeping.

 

Their touch sent confused shivers down his spine. Though, what right did he have to judge? Would he not embrace his summand thusly in the same situation? He lightly shook his head. This was exactly the sort of thing Chalise had warned him of. Empathy was indeed a strong emotion for his people, they were quick to identify with other living beings.

 

He was an officer tasked with protecting his culture, not here to judge the validity of his orders but to execute the command given to him - and yet.  He was getting old. The Sicarius had spared him his retirement years. Could he now justify taking the majority of their lives from them?

 

The soldiers of the Auxilia encircled them, both to keep everyone in place and to keep them safe.

 

The young doctor looked him over and said, “Do you have trouble breathing? Do you taste copper?"

 

“Neither. She did not strike to kill.”

 

Over his shoulder the doctor said to Rayla, “From what I can see so far, you have indeed found your mark in that he will likely recover. However, we will have to act fast once the blade is removed.”

 

She appeared to breathe a halting sigh of relief.

Helmond’s confusion grew. What use was an Assassin who refused to kill?

 

“Prepare yourself, Legate", said the doctor.

 

With that, two of the soldiers braced the agent and the healer removed the blade. Helmond growled, but remained standing. The wound bled quite terribly, but the doctor managed to stem the flood. He then washed it, stitched the clean edges together and bode one of the soldiers to bind his shoulder up tightly with some herb paste below the gauze.

 

He then approached Rayla who was attempting to clean the deep, bleeding slash in the boy’s shoulder.

 

The physician recoiled. “Red?!”, he exclaimed, “Hu-Human!”

 

The guards drew their blades in unison, immediately moving on the pair.

Rayla brandished hers.

 

To Helmonds astonishment, the boy had flung himself to his feet, the beginnings of a fulminis rune beginning to take shape under his finger. Did he have a primal stone?

 

This was going to escalate. “Stand fast, all of you!”, barked Helmond, “They are a secret envoy.”

 

Everyone present gaped at him.

The human looked even more confused, apparently mouthing “What did he just say?”

 

Helmond himself didn’t quite have a concept of what he had just said.

 

“He is human, Princeps. How can he be a charge of the Lucid?”, asked one of the guards.

 

Helmond’s mind raced. Was he going to stop them here? Expose their mission? Their relationship was already quite plain, the damage done, he reasoned. His mission was over and he somehow now felt trepidation at the prospect of destroying these two young beings. He resigned himself to lie.

 

“I am not privy to orders handed down by Regina Draconis herself.”

 

The soldiers gave each other shocked looks.

 

“Tend to him”, Helmond told the doctor, “If you can.”

 

He turned to the female guard who had been wrapping his shoulder. She was carrying a large quiver of eagle arrows. “Noticar, you are to send the Interpreter at Bastion Korhal a report that I will write now.”

 

“Yes, princeps!”, she finished her work, then followed him to a flat stone where he sat.

 

“Most honoured Eminence”, Helmond started in code, his hand trained from many such occasions,

“My judgement has faltered and I now have doubts as to the legitimacy of my assignment. The Sicarius has spared my life and I cannot bring myself to take a blade to her or her companion’s throat. Princeling Azmondias is lost to us, removed from their care by an unknown third party, though I suspect it may be the Ortis’ doing since they have been following similar tracks to mine. I have failed to execute on your mission and must request relief as my morals require me to recuse myself. My current position is the village Larwein on the river Ibalin.”

 

He dated and signed the document, then tied a band around it to close it.

 

One of the guards had put away her blade, the others held them tightly, their discomfort with the human obvious in their faces. The Sicarius held him in a careful but obviously romantic embrace while the doctor was busy with his wound. For a young human, he was surprisingly stoic with the situation.

 

“Interpreter Chalise!”, an eagle arrow flew off the Noticar’s bow, in a westerly direction.

 

Helmond sighed, clasping a hand over his aching shoulder. With the message sent, he felt his professional guilt subside, replaced by a cold dread. He had fulfilled his last duty as an agent of the Lucid, informing his superior.

This was important since he would feel the consequences of this failure directly. He simply would not pass his sins on to his kin.

 

But.

 

Chalise was not going to let this go easily, it was not in her character.

 

One of the guards who had sheathed her weapon earlier now pointed unsubtly at the human and his elven companion and leaned over to whisper something into another’s ear. The man shook his helmeted head wildly then boxed his squadmate in the shoulder which produced loud, metallic clattering.

 

“No, she’s right”, the Sicarius said with a vaguely amused look at them, “We’re a couple.”

 

There were more unsure glances but none openly hostile. Maybe this was owed to the fact that there were only two moonshadow elves present; Helmond and Rayla.

 

“Sicarius”, said Helmond, “A word.”

 

They separated from the group after she had ensured her partner’s comfort. It filled him with some alienation to use the term, but it was apt enough.

 

Once they were out of earshot, he faced her, having to look down to meet her gaze. Compared to him, she was so very young. How did she and her equally teenage companion end up with such a dangerous burden?

“Sicarius, I know of your loss of the princeling Azmondias. Have you concluded anything yet?”

 

“Callum says he saw a large person pick up his pack while he was on the ground. That may have been a bounty hunter we’ve run into before”, she said, then smiled, “Legate, I want to thank you. I know it was your mission to hunt us down. You just saved our lives!”

 

He shook his head. “You misunderstand. It is my conviction that what you are doing with this... Abuser... is not only treasonous, but the very definition of vile.”

 

Her mien turned from thankful ease to distrust.

 

“My concern is with the safety of the princeling at this time. I am an officer of the Lucid. I cannot abandon duty as easily as you may have managed it. I know what you’ve done, Rayla.”

 

The greying agent scoffed at her sinking mien, “Yes. I know that face all too well. You know better than anyone what you’ve done. Well; Get used to this feeling, it will follow you to the pyre. So will the guilt.”

 

His eyes narrowed, “Just punishments for those who would defile the relationship they share with their band, Sicarius.”

 

Finally, his glance softened as he looked at his hands, “All that aside... you made every effort to spare my life and I cannot stand for taking yours. I have withdrawn from this mission and have notified my superiors of our whereabouts. They will likely want to send more qualified personnel to continue the hunt.”

 

Explosive fury returned to her eyes.

“So what you’re tellin’ me is that you let us live but are calling more dangerous people after both you and us?!”

 

“As I said. I am a loyal officer of the Lucid. Subscribed to a code. As your parents were. Naturally, you are best known among our people for having no such integrity.”

 

She whirled around, ready to stomp off.

 

“Sicarius!”, he barked and something deep inside her head made her stop dead in her tracks against her better judgement, “You were `not` dismissed!”

 

The young soldier turned smartly, her face wrought by anger at her inability to completely shake a round decade of elite force conditioning and frustration at the harshness of his words.

 

“You are correct in the matters of Azymondias. I have reason to believe you will find the Dragon Prince in the hands of Kel and Ithral Ortis. They are, as you know firsthand, extremely dangerous Predators. But, far beyond what you can imagine, they have wreaked bloody havoc in the Auxilia’s lines whenever we have joined battle with them. They will be far more challenging foes than any of our own agents. We must bring them to justice.”

 

He breathed deeply.

 

“We must regain the princeling. Thus, I must join your effort.”

Chapter Text

“He wants to come with us?”

Callum was incredulous.

 

All of them had returned to the inn at Larwein. The village was now buzzing with confused news about the human-elven couple. Talaar had silently given them their old room back where they now sat on the bed. The keeper had seemed mildly disturbed. They had since eaten lunch and gotten more attention from the doctor who was professionally interested in examining Callum’s body which the Prince bore without complaint. His wounded arm now rested in a sling.

 

“That’s what he said.”

Rayla moved a strand of her thin hair behind her ear, pensively.

 

“You can’t  be thinking of taking him? Not seriously?”

 

“Why not? He’s an experienced soldier and if we’re going up against that massive human again we’re going to need help.”

 

“He tried to murder me!”

 

Rayla crossed her arms and smirked. “Oh? I wonder how that feels? Having someone you’re close to defend a person who tried to kill you?”

 

Callum shook his head angrily.

“That’s not a fair comparison! You’ve known this guy for a little less than a day now. How do we know he’s not just biding his time until we have Zym back?”

 

“My gut is tellin’ me we can at least trust him not to kill us when we get there. He’s been very… clear about his feelin’s”, she placed her hand on his uninjured shoulder. “I know this is strange but our job just got so much harder and…”

 

There was a knock at the door.

 

“Talk more later?”, asked Rayla. Callum shrugged.

 

It was Talaar.

 

Studying the ground the keeper asked, “I wanted to… apologize. May I come in?”

 

Rayla stepped aside and he took a seat on the stool. After the door had closed, he looked at both of them and said, “I want to share a secret, if you’re alright with that.”

 

Once both Rayla and Callum had nodded their assent, he continued, wringing his hands, ”Seeing you two together reminded me of how hard having a relationship was for Selchin and I. Our families were very set on continuing the line and we are both only children since Selchin’s sister was killed in the war. Since we’ve decided not to adopt, they have been vile beyond measure. You are doing something that’s so much harder than that and… I feel you deserve my respect and what little support I can give you.”

 

He teared up a little, fanning his face with both hands.

“Oh, please, pull yourself together!”, he reprimanded himself, “I’m not sure if I can do anything, but please let me know", turning to Callum specifically he said, “I called your people `Abusers` my entire life without having met a single one of you. From what I can tell, you are not a bad person and I want to ask your forgiveness for my behaviour.”

 

Callum shook his head, smiling, “Talaar, thank you so much. My father used to say that a good person is not flawless but someone who is willing to accept responsibility for and work on their mistakes. That’s you. You need to be proud of that.”

 

The heavy set elf nodded, “He sounds pretty wise. You must be glad to have an accepting father.”

 

Callum’s smile faded. “He passed, a little less than three months ago.”

 

“Oh. I’m sorry.”

The keeper palmed his eyes, then got up.

“Tarla, Entwen, I did not want to interrupt you for long. Please let me or Selchin know if there’s anything you need.”

 

“It’s actually Rayla. He is Callum”, Rayla corrected sheepishly.

 

The keeper smirked, nodding, “Ah, of course you wouldn’t go around giving people your real names. Rayla and Callum.”

 

They thanked him as he left the room.

 

“So--", Rayla began, but was interrupted. She pet her boyfriend’s hair for a while as he buried his face in her chest guard.

 

“The Lucid officer. I should talk to him”, he suggested after some time, “I can’t really make a good call on what we should be doing without having done that.”

 

“Oh? Maybe you’re not as bad a prince as we all thought? Getting all the facts on the table, look at you!”, she razzed.

 

He turned away from her, smirking but covertly wiping his eyes.

 

“So you want to talk to him alone?”, she asked as he was getting up.

 

Callum nodded and walked to the door. “I’ll be back in a bit.”

 

Helmond was sitting at one of the round tables on the first floor, studying a map with his slinged arm and drinking a bubbling liquid from a stein with his unbandaged arm.

 

“Do you mind if I interrupt?”, Callum asked.

 

The officer put down the map and gave him a slightly swimming, questioning glance.

“How may I be of service, Prince Callum?”

 

“You don’t have to call me that. Prince, I mean.”

 

“It is not your title?”, Helmond furrowed his brows.

 

“It is, but it’s not important here.”

 

“Very well. I assume this is about me asking to join your party?”

 

“It is. I guess I wanna get an impression of you. You know, one that doesn’t involve a knife.”

 

The officer smiled tepidly, taking a drink.

“Amusing. You believe an agent of the Lucid knows how to make any other impression?”

 

Callum smirked. Was this him being funny?

“Do you have family, Helmond?”

 

The question struck a nerve. Helmond thought for a moment. Did he, at this point? His work had always come first, even now he could be home, tending to his summand and their children - but here he was, having to weigh sharing secrets with a human who was just a few years younger than his  son.

 

“Callum, I must note how rude it is to ask such questions, especially in public. But to further our working relationship - yes, I do have a family.”

 

“I really appreciate you letting me know. Doesn’t that mean you made a loving impression on someone in your life?”

 

He laughed out loud, snorting and startling the prince.

“My summand Anzha might agree somewhat, however”, he snickered, “the proper function of our relationship still required a stabbing motion.”

 

Callum realized then that the man had been drinking since they had come back. That had been the early morning. It was the afternoon now. He observed with amusement that his high-browed way of talking had barely been affected.

 

“I wanted to talk about your idea, I guess. You coming with us puts me on edge”, the prince leaned forward, his elbows meeting the table, “I’m looking for ways to trust you, Legate.”

 

Helmond felt a strange relief. “You are so forward. Consider me impressed. Most of your kin have more secrets than they know what to do with. You shouldn’t blindly trust me. Or your love interest. Or really anyone. The closer a person is to you, the more they can hurt you. As for why you should trust me to be helpful on your mission, you know my credentials and you have my word that I will not harm the Sicarius or you", he stared at the contents of his stein for a moment, “I have not had ginger beer for octades. You should try it. It’s good.”

 

Callum shook his head, revolted at the idea. “I doubt me getting drunk is going to help us figure this out.”

 

“It might be more amusing, though”, the officer slammed the stein to the table, “I want to redeem myself without having to kill you. Why is that so difficult to understand?”

 

The prince’s face lit up. “That actually makes a lot of sense, Helmond.”

 

With that, the boy got up, fetched himself a cup of moonberry juice from Talaar behind the bar and extended it over the table.

 

The officer’s eyes wandered from his stein to the smaller container to Callum’s face.

“I prefer this, thank you.”

 

“Oh, elves don’t toast?”

 

“We toast bread. This is not bread.”

 

Callum snorted. “No, it’s a human thing where you clink glasses to… I don’t know, express your good spirit?”

 

“Well, then let’s `clink glasses`”, the soldier intoned.

 

They did and Callum sat down.

 

Helmond noticed the Sicarius quietly coming down the steps behind her partner. She approached the bartender who lent her a conspiratorial ear at her request. After settling whatever it was she had asked, she appeared to ask another question. The keeper snickered, nodded and left the room through a door behind the bar, returning with a thin book he passed to her. As she ascended the stairs, she seemed slightly flustered.

 

“I don’t really understand why people would willingly drink a lot of that stuff", Callum nodded at his stein, attempting light conversation.

 

Helmond shook his head. “It dulls mental anguish, loosens tongues, lightens attitudes. You might understand this better once you have laden your shoulders with more sins or need to approach love interests.”

 

“I don’t really think I’ll have to `approach love interests` after this is over. Either way, dulling the feelings doesn’t really solve the problems. Wouldn’t you rather be alert and deal with your issues?”

 

Helmond shrug-nodded. “You are not wrong - about your second point, that is, but reality often leaves us with fewer options than our ideals demand. Look at me for instance. I was looking forward to retirement. At 126, I am considered mostly useless by my young and middle aged comrades. The only reason I am here now is because the moon queen herself required me", he moved his beer around in its container, caught his young observer’s inquisitive look and realization spread across his face, “Ah, you see, it works wonders. In the Bretan tribe we have a saying. `Both swimming and kissing tongues make quick work of secrets`.”

 

“It’s not the worst idea to talk to someone else about the things that worry you”, the boy offered.

 

“No, but I have just met you and should really be more guarded", he emptied his drink, set the stein on the table and got up, “Excellency, it was prudent of you to come speak to me. I hope we can find the princeling. To that end, I should really get back to work.”

 

“I’ll see you later, Helmond", Callum said.

 

With that, the Legate picked up the map and his jacket. With slow, but steady steps, he walked out the front door.

 

Callum himself emptied his cup.

 

Talaar came over.  “Want another?”

 

“That would be nice. Talaar, what is your impression of Helmond?”

 

The keeper looked at the ceiling. “My impression? I think he’s a good man. He is obviously educated, with that much language in his mouth. The Bretani accent helps, of course.  He’s never been smug or short with us, leaves his room in pristine order for us to clean and has always given us a fair trade for it.”

 

Callum considered this. Finally, he decided he was going to let Helmond wander with them. The worst that could happen, he figured, was that the officer would end up stuck to a tree again.

 

He asked for another juice and went back to the room.

 

He carefully nudged the door open with his foot and stepped inside.

 

Rayla was laying in bed, reading the book Talaar had given her. When she heard him come in, she slammed the book shut and tucked it under the blankets.

 

“Good read?”, he inquired. She shook her head and mumbled something about poisonous plants.

 

“I got you some juice”, he said distrustfully, passing her the drink, “You’re wearing clothes in bed? You soul- and senseless creature.”

 

“Just washed them this mornin’, dummy!”, she snickered, “Tell me what you thought of Helmond.”

 

“He seems alright? I still don’t trust him but I think he’s not going to be stabbing me again. It’s as you said, he’s giving me a good gut feeling”, he sat on the bed’s edge, placed his drink in his wounded arm’s hand and stretched the other to ruffle her hair.

 

“Hey!”, she yelped, swatting at him, “It’s fine when I do it to you, your hair doesn’t tangle!”

 

He snickered. “By the way, how come you never remade that braid in your hair? The one you wore when we met?”

 

“Oh, uh, I only know how to use my blades to keep my hair short. One of the Assassins braided my hair for me - I actually don’t know how to do it for myself. I could give you a braid though, if you’d like?”, she sighed, “I really miss them.”

 

“Yeah. Sorry I brought it up. Hug?”

 

She sat up to hug him and the book slid from under the covers and thudded on the ground, startling both of them.

 

He could not read the runes but Rayla failed to realize this in the moment.

She dove for the book, flushing wildly.



Chapter Text

Helmond had barely arrived at the barracks when two things happened in short succession. An arrow arrived for him from Bastion Korhal and the missing leader of the town guard came stumbling into his temporary office. She was in terrible condition.

 

“Princeps! I’ve let a human pass the guard post!”, she started.

 

“I know, Octurion Jonin. We’ve dealt with the situation. They are welcome here for now. Where have you been?”

 

She blinked at him, confused by what she had heard, but continued her report.

“I was on my way back from fishing at the river when I was overtaken by two humans. I tried to call out but they silenced me with a sock", she heaved, thinking about it, “They then interrogated me at length. I divulged nothing of value, Princeps.”

 

“How did you escape them?”

 

“I did not. They gave me a message for you and released me. `If you want the dragon, let the soldier bring out the midgets by tomorrow night. Have them bring their weapons.`”

 

Helmond nodded. “I will deliberate with their targets on this. Thank you Octurion, you are dismissed, seek medical attention.” Jonin saluted and exited smartly.

 

Unrolling the remarkably short letter from Chalise, Helmond found sweat collecting in his palms.

“Legate, we are not impressed”, the letter started and he almost laughed. This was the Draconarch, not the Interpreter answering. Lucky. “You may not withdraw from your mission. We grant you permission to modify it as suggested for the time being until you can secure the Prince. Inform us of further developments. We wish to personally inspect the intruder and the Sicarius.”

 

Helmond set the letter alight in the barrack’s fireplace, stoked it to ash and made his way back to the Inn.

 

Rayla was bending off the bed, picking up the book. Callum poked her in her uninjured side, almost making her fall off the bed.

 

“You realise I have no clue what that says, right?”

 

“Oh. Yeah, duh, of course. Nothin’ to see here anyway!”, she smiled at him brightly and dropped the book on her pillow. Her blush was still radiant.

 

“Shouldn’t we think about how we’re getting Zym back?”, he asked, grumpily. He didn’t like the sudden secrecy.

 

She nodded, looking stricken. “Sure. You’re right - I... I was mostly tryin’ to distract myself so I could go to bed. Ugh, every time I think of the little guy I get this feelin’ of missin’ a stair step in my stomach", she rubbed her midriff, “Between you gettin’ hurt and him gettin’ taken, this turned from a great day to a terrifyin’ one.”

 

She wrapped her arms around him, careful not to touch his wounded arm, and squeezed.

 

“What if they kill him though?”, her boyfriend asked.

 

“I doubt it. They’re bounty hunters. Can you imagine how much more a live dragon is worth?”

 

“I guess that’s ...”

 

There was a knock at the door.

“Legate Helmond.”

 

The two of them exchanged surprised glances. “Come on in", said Rayla.

 

The officer stepped into their room and sat on the stool, dropping a map on the small table. As he looked up from it, he halted for a moment, his glance on them and the book on her pillow.

“I am not interrupting anything, am I?”

 

“No, absolutely not!”, Callum said and scampered away from Rayla, to his side of the bed. His girlfriend on her part jumped, tucking the book under the pillow with a flustered expression.

 

“Good", he cleared his throat. “I have interesting news. First, I have not been relieved of my duty but have been granted a modification to my mission. It is now officially my duty to deliver the Prince from enemy hands. Second, one of the guards was missing but has returned.”

 

He quickly told them her story.

 

“Why would they want us to come there? Armed, no less?”, Rayla asked.

 

“Kel and her husband Ithral are egomaniacs”, Helmond said, “We have multiple examples of them hunting down officers of the Lucid who were responsible for an injury of their person even if there was no bounty set out for that officer.”

 

“So what you’re saying is, they want to fight us to get even?”, Callum sounded stupefied.

 

“That is precisely what I was expressing - Callum, if I may - this is the third time today that someone has restated something I said more plainly?”

 

Callum snorted. “Maybe because you sound like you’ve swallowed a dictionary?”

 

“I don’t understand. I do not eat books. Do humans eat books, Sicarius?”, he was legitimately confused.

 

“It means you talk too highfalutin’ for the poor boy to get what you’re sayin’”, Rayla said and laughed at both their expressions, “I think we should give them what they want. Callum still has a surprise for them up his sleeve. We should just go.”

 

Helmond shook his head. “Did you not tell me that when you first encountered him on his own, Ithral won the upper hand almost immediately? His summand Kel is as feared as himself. Their blades have names, Sicarius, you know what this means.”

 

Rayla nodded, but used both hands to gesture at Callum and Helmond turned to him, “Named blades mark feats of great strength or cruelty. In this case, both Kel and Ithral carry such blades, Moon Cleaver and Elfdread, respectively. You may now guess as to what their naming feats were. I have killed a good number of offenders in my life - but my blade is as yet unnamed.”

 

“May I suggest `Slasher of Callum`?”, the prince suggested grumpily. Rayla snorted.

 

Helmond ignored them. “Past their incredible strength and your wounds, there is another issue. You will not be able to win this fight without killing the Predators. If you refuse to do that, you have no hope either way.”

 

His young companions looked down, thinking.

 

The Legate leaned forward. “I believe a ruse would even the odds. We will send you but station the guard in a way that will let us intervene once the Predators are distracted. I will personally assure the Prince’s recovery.”

 

“I mean that could work, but they will be expectin’ us to pull somethin’ like that”, Rayla interjected.

 

“Will they? You can tell from their message that that might not be so. Sicarius, they believe you are currently our prisoners. They believe we would happily trade your lives for Azymondias and won’t expect our support.”

 

Callum nodded. “That’s true. But that plan also means you could walk off with Zym and leave us to be turned into smash burgers.”

 

Helmond shrugged. “Assuming that `smash burgers` means you will be dead, yes. I understand it is a leap of faith on your part but I cannot replace either of you in the fight without raising suspicion. Do you have an alternative?”

 

Callum shrugged. “I could go talk to them first.”

Both Rayla and Helmond gave him a look that made it clear they thought he was insane.

“So that’s a `no`", he sat back crossing his arms, “It was just an idea.”

 

Rayla patted his arm.

“Helmond, knowin’ what you do about these hunters, is there anythin’ you can think of that they might want more than a `fair fight`?”

 

“No. We’ve even attempted covertly buying their services to prevent them attacking us but they hate elves from the depths of their hearts. Our attempts at capturing or killing them have often been spoiled by their band. Their soldiers have crossed back over into the Pentarchy and they are exposed for once. It is time to end them.”

 

“We can’t be a part of killin’ them", Rayla said, firmly, “Dead people can’t learn from their mistakes.”

 

“I am living proof of this, Sicarius and I respect your wishes. I, on the other hand, have no qualms in extinguishing these two lives.”

 

Callum shook his head. “Aren’t you people supposed to follow the credo `Take life where necessary but not lightly?`”

 

Helmond harrumphed. “No, that is close to the assassin’s motto. Ours is `If they slaughter our people for long enough, put them in the ground`. We have restraint, most definitely, but they have so much blood on their hands…”

 

“Then lock them up. Don’t stoop to their level!”, Rayla urged.

 

“Sicarius”, the Legate now seemed annoyed, “You assume I have to take many steps to meet them on theirs.”

 

“That’s exactly it though. Start being better than them, now", Callum pleaded.

 

The officer took a long look at them both and finally sighed. “We will make a concerted effort to keep them alive. That is all I can offer. Will you join the battle?”

 

“We will sleep on it, if you don’t mind", the young soldier said with a sidelong glance at her companion.

 

Helmond got up. “Very well, that is reasonable. I will reconvene with you tomorrow at sunrise.”

 

They said goodbye and Helmond turned to leave. On the doorstep he turned his head toward Rayla and asked with realization in his voice, “He does not read runes, does he?”

 

She shook her head. The officer harrumphed, a hint of disgust entering his mien.

 

After he had left, Callum pointed a fiercely questioning gaze at her that she pretended not to see.

 

“What is it with this book?”, he finally asked her directly.

 

She gave him nothing but a tepid but supremely sassy smirk. “You’ll just have to wait and see. I’ll be back in a bit.”

 

The door closed behind her and left him staring at it.

 

As he dressed for bed, careful not to move his aching arm too much, he suddenly appreciated her need to be distracted. His thoughts were stuck to the little dragon he had lost. What if she was wrong? Would they find his body tomorrow, all hopes for peace dashed?

 

With a massive sigh, he sat back on the bed, now under the covers.

 

“Breathe, Callum.”

Chapter Text

Interpreter Chalise came to. Her regent had left for the day. As control flooded into her limbs, she immediately strode into her office.

 

The dragon might have forgiven Helmond, but she could not afford that luxury. Her power in the Auxilia Senate was now on the chopping block and she would have to be swift to avoid the blade from falling.

 

A grazing look at the map sent elated shivers down her spine and she looked again, enraptured. Today’s revisions of troop movements and positions were indeed destiny’s poetic gift.

 

---

 

Ithral Ortis sat on a tree stump, leaning on his Zweihänder. The stump had been a full tree mere minutes earlier but he wanted to sit at a height that was comfortable to sleep, so the tree had to go and Elfdread was just as capable as a timber axe. The sheer weight of the weapon was enough to kill and it hadn’t held a good edge for years. Not since it had been named. He chuckled. Those were the days, in the army.

 

Below him, a little blue dragon paced. The creature had zapped Kel something fierce and so he had decided to put him on a leash.

 

“Isn’t ‘e just adorable, Ith?”, his wife asked, chucking little bits of meat at the dragon. Zym did not seem inclined to eat them.

 

“Yah, he’s sorta like a blue puppy, innit? A blue thunder puppy.”, he stretched, “Har, I wish them bruisers would budge already, I don’ wanna sit ‘ere for the rest of me life.”

 

“Wanna go get ‘em out now?”, Kel suggested, reaching out to pet the whelp’s white mane which he paid back by zapping her hand. It didn’t bother her too much through the leather glove.

 

“What, them midgets? Kel, we’re good, but not `take on an entire town` good.”

 

“Did it before, though, didn’t we? Ah but, we were a bit more spry then and had a tail. It’s fair, Ith, I don’t doubt they’re gonna send ‘em out at some point. Got no reason not to. Problem off their hands.”

 

“If not we’ll just have to strangle us some more messengers. Might be they just have to talk to som’un higher up the food chain.”, he yawned thunderously, “Methinks I’ll be hitt’n the hay here. Wake me when ye wanna switch watches.”

 

----

 

Callum had fallen into an uneasy sleep before Rayla returned. He woke to her carefully closing the door.

 

“You took a bit”, he said sleepily and she froze, clearly not having expected him to be up. She was holding a small satchel that seemed to be filled with odd-shaped items.

 

“Uh. Hey. Sorry I woke you!”, she said sheepishly and grabbed her linen pants and shirt from her bag.

 

Rayla walked toward the bathroom.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

“Getting dressed for bed?”, she asked, avoiding the actual question.

 

“I guess I meant, what were you doing outside?”, he said with barely controlled annoyance.

 

“Nothing. Just took a walk”, she said, unconvincingly and getting a bit frustrated.

 

The lie put him off. Callum was now slightly angry. “Fine, don’t tell me, then!”

 

It was clear that she was equally mad when she answered, “Yeah, I won’t!”

 

The bathroom door closed energetically behind her and Callum got out of bed.

 

He wasn’t going to be sharing, tonight.

 

----

 

Helmond could not sleep. The coming day was full of uncertainty. His entire life seemed to pivot on this one moment. He hoped quite keenly that tomorrow was going to end well for everyone but with the Predators Ortis involved, casualties were basically inevitable.

 

For years he had hunted and killed humans, now he was helping one. It felt strange how endearing the kid had been, sharing a drink with him. The officer rolled over.

 

Callum was not unlike Torlan, his son. Strong willed, temporarily lovestruck - and very naive.

 

Unlike the proud, headstrong Torlan though, Callum seemed to have spent a lot of time listening to everyone around him rather than barking orders. The boy had diplomatic instincts that had loosened his tongue today.

 

“Something to look out for”, he thought.

 

With a pang of guilt, Helmond admitted that there was another thing Callum and Torlan shared - he had spoken about the same amount of words to them both since they had been born.

Chapter Text

Ezran rubbed his eyes. It was getting late and Opeli was still talking, giving him figures and rules and names and dates that his brain processed more and more slowly.

 

“Opeli”, he finally said, interrupting her, “We should take a break. I’m not getting what you’re saying.”

 

She nodded and smiled. “Very well Majesty. We have been at it for quite some time”, she noticed how dry her mouth had gotten and grabbed her cup from the mantle, “I know this must be difficult for you and I would be more than willing to relieve you of some of the burdens taking up your day. You only have to say the word.

 

Ezran gave her a distrustful look. “I’m happy for your help, but I don’t think it would be fair for me to hand things off. That’s why I am here, to make those choices.”

 

Bait croaked his assent.

 

She smiled, saying, “Of course”.

 

Her hands clasped pensively, she asked, “May I be excused for today?”

 

Ezran got up and opened the door for her, wordlessly.

 

As he watched her exit, he came to a realization.

 

She did that a lot. Smiling. It used to put Ezran at ease around her. Now, there was a fake air about her that he had a hard time placing in her expression. Maybe he was just being paranoid, but he felt that nobody here, safe for maybe Corvus, was being genuine with him.

 

The young king sat on his bed, taking off his boots. He hadn’t felt much of anything from Zym these past few days either, which made sleeping difficult. Ever so often, he had felt a nondescript cold breeze and a wet sensation on his feet. Yesterday night, there had been a sequence of images of a massive man felling a tree.

 

Ezran stretched over the bed meant for two adults and sighed deeply. The scent of his parents was still here, in a way. The maids still used the same detergents to wash the sheets and his clothes as they had back when his life had been so much simpler. Bait flopped on his stomach and the boy pet his toad for a bit.

 

Suddenly, he was jerked into a vision. There were armored feet throwing dirt every which way. Between them, he could see bodies on the ground, a giant roaring in the background.

 

Then, his vision turned and there was Callum, scooping him up from the ground and running away from the calamity.

 

Rayla came into view, leaning against a tree. Her eyes stared skyward, unblinking. Her nose was bleeding. Callum’s free arm wrapped around her and the vision ended as Zym’s face was pressed against her.

 

Ezran’s heart hammered.

 

She had still been alive, right?

Chapter Text

Rayla and Callum joined Helmond at his table. They were both annoyed. The prince had spent the night sleeping on the floor, jealous of Rayla in her bed.

 

What he obviously didn’t admit to himself was that he could’ve talked to her and figured out why she wouldn’t tell him what was going on.

 

“Morning”, the two said in grouchy unison.

 

“Indeed”, intoned Helmond, stuffing his face with oats.

 

“They are not morning people”, Selchin mouthed at Talaar behind the bar. He couldn’t do anything other than shrug.

 

Callum’s inability to let her little secret go unresearched was starting to annoy Rayla. When he had asked about it again this morning, she had considered just telling him.  But, maybe forgetting the whole thing was a better idea. Who knew if he would even appreciate her effort? She sighed, somewhat downtrodden.

 

Callum settled for some moonberry juice and an omelette. Rayla chowed down on a cheese and fruit platter.

 

“May I inquire what your discussion has yielded?”, Helmond asked after they had finished eating in relative silence.

 

“We’re goin’ to do it.”, Rayla said firmly.

 

“Excellent. I wish to repeat my promise of attempting to spare their lives if possible. We are going to start our operation in the afternoon once the night watch has had some time to rest.”, he got up, “I will see you in the town square then, Sicarius.”, turning to the prince, he said, “Please come with me.”

 

The prince followed the officer with a confused look at his girlfriend who watched them leave with a quizzical, almost distrustful glance.

 

They entered the barracks where four of the eight guards stationed here were busy eating breakfast, in full armament.

 

“I would like you to wear this. It’s a light armor and body suit made for scouts but it will serve you better than those human plain clothes. It is not as… dressy… as the Sicarius’ uniform, but it will offer you some amount of protection.”

 

Callum accepted the gift thankfully, under the watchful eye of the soldiers. Helmond guided him outside.  The prince weighed his options for a moment, then asked, “Helmond, you saw that book, right? What is it about? Rayla is being short with me and I don’t know how to get her to talk. She’s never been this guarded with me.”

 

Helmonds mien sagged. He was not going to do this. “This is something you need to figure out with her, not me. I am the last person you will want to ask for advice on how to talk to the people sharing in your secrets.”

 

The door closed in Callum’s face. Frustrated, he made his way back to the inn.

 

Talaar was behind the bar, stocking it, while exchanging amused barbs with his summand Selchin in the kitchen. “Hey Callum! What can I get you?”, he asked cheerfully.

 

The prince dropped the armor on the bar. “An explanation, actually. Rayla got that book from you and now she’s just being… weird. Secretive. She lied to me yesterday. I thought we were beyond that.”

 

The barkeeper and his summand regarded him with some upset. Talaar scratched his head, “Callum, that’s probably something she considers a secret shared between you. You can’t just drop that on us.”

 

“I… I’m sorry, Talaar, I don’t have a good handle on how to ask these sorts of things from you.”

 

The keeper nodded, “I guess humans aren’t as worried about their inner world?”

 

“No. I just really need some advice, this is driving me crazy!”

 

Talaar looked at the prince, then at Selchin. The latter shrugged encouragingly, then got back to the kitchen. “You have been together for… how long?”

 

“Three months. Oh, unless you mean, a couple”, Callum counted mentally, “Around two weeks?”

 

“I see.”, he chuckled, “That’s not enough time to really trust your partner without question, is it?”

 

Callum shrugged. “It’s not that I don’t trust her, it’s just that…”, he wrangled for words but couldn’t find any.

 

“... you don’t trust her.”, Selchin finished his sentence from the kitchen door and dipped back inside.

 

“Get out of here, you! Callum, you’ll have to believe that what she’s doing isn’t going to hurt you. She likes you a lot and from what I understand you’ve been through a lot”, Talaar said.

 

“Oh, I’m not worried she’s going to hurt me, I’m worried she’s going to do something that ends up hurting her. She does that. Puts too much on her shoulders and doesn’t tell me.”

 

Talaar shook his head. “I don’t think you have to worry about what she’s doing. She’s just doing a bit of research and… hm.”, he sheepishly rubbed the back of his head, “I think saying more would give it away. Callum. Give her the satisfaction of surprising you. Learn to trust her without a lengthy explanation, she means well. Plus, you would think that a Siclaribus or whatever her rank is would know what’s good for her.”

 

Selchin popped out of the kitchen. “There’s a lesson you still need to learn about yourself!”

 

With that Talaar got back to his barbs and Callum resolved that he was not going to bring it up again. Now he just felt like a jerk.

 

Of course he trusted her. He should’ve just talked about it yesterday.

 

Rayla was pacing a groove into their room’s floor when he got back.

“What did you guys talk abo… oh. He gave you armor.”

 

“Yes, and he said nothing much else other than that your outfit is `dressy`.”

 

She snorted. “Yeah! The Auxilia likes to think they understand armor design for Assassins, but they really don’t. Even their lightest armor is still too heavy and inflexible for our fightin’ style.”, his girlfriend answered with a flourish, her fist passing by close by his face, which made him flinch.

 

“Careful, save the walloping for that bounty hunter.”, he quipped.

 

Without another word, she wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

“I’m terrified.”

 

He nodded, cold fog in his chest. “Me too. I mean, if he can hurt you he can pretty well kill all of these soldiers on his own.”

 

She shook her head. “The Milites know how to deal with these kinds of enemies head-to-head in the open. He is terrifyin’ to me because when I fought him for the first time, I didn’t have an out. I was basically dead on the ground. I was like a doll to him! He could’ve just shoved me into the fire.”

 

Leaving his shoulder to face him, she continued with a small smile, “But, then you shoved the fire on us. Thank you.”, she kissed him, “Please promise me you will be careful out there and get out of the way if he comes for me. All we need to do is keep both you and Zym alive.”

 

He shook his head. “We’ve been over this. You won’t be fighting them on your own.”

 

“Callum, how can I live with myself if he kills you or Zym?”, suddenly, she erupted in breathy sobs, “I thought I lost you. When Helmond attacked. I thought you were dead. I can’t even describe that feelin’!”

 

He welled up.

 

She hugged him even tighter. “If you get to make demands, so do I. I let you fight, you promise me not to die. Don’t you dare even gettin’ hurt.”

 

He didn’t know what to say. In truth, he felt searing guilt for letting the dragon slip from him in the first place and was determined to at least be helpful as a distraction.

 

He palmed his eyes. “We’re going to have to promise that to each other. No heroics. Just keep them distracted long enough for Helmond to save Zym.”

 

She nodded but didn’t let him go.

 

“Rayla, I’m sorry about this morning. I should just let you do what you have to. I’m sure it’s gonna be an amazing surprise, whatever it is.”

 

She smiled at him, tearfully, “Thank you.”

 

After a moment, she frowned, “Wait, who told you I was setting something up for you?”

 

“Uh. You did. I mean, not in so many words, just… For example, you dropped the book and were all flustered.”

 

She flushed a deep indigo, then stuttered, “Th-Tha- the, uh, the book, yeah, uh, that… has nothin’ to do with my surprise!”

 

His girlfriend laughed nervously.

 

He wanted to ask so badly, her reaction making the secret so much more interesting. It took much effort to leave it alone.

 

Then, they waited. It was the worst part of the day. Finally, noon arrived and Selchin served them lunch. After they had eaten, they headed out to meet the guards in the town square.

 

Helmond and Jonin were mustering their troops, testing the seat of armor straps and cleaning weapons. The formation of Milites drew worried glances from the townspeople.

 

“We are going to pretend to patrol and then come about to join you and Jonin. You will be tied to maintain the appearance of you being prisoners. Hand your weapons to the Octurion.”

 

Rayla passed her blades to the diminutive chief of the guard. Helmond looked at Callum expectantly. “Your primal stone.”

 

The young man smirked and shook his head. “I don’t have one”

 

“Don’t be absurd, boy!”, Helmond growled, “We do not have time for your foolish attempts at subterfuge!”

 

Callum drew Aspiro, showing both palms of his empty hands.

 

The Octuria’s soldiers fell silent, gaping.

 

“Inconceivable”, the officer said, now impressed, “How?”

 

“I’m not really sure yet. I’m the only human I know who can do this and I learned it… little more than two months ago.”

 

Helmond shook his head. “There’s depth to your kin that I have not expected.”, he then turned to his soldiers and quietly said, “You see what we’re fighting for? It’s nothing less than a chance at lasting peace. Humans have changed. I may not like it, but these two young adventurers are proof that we can find common ground if we try hard enough. Most of you know what it is like to lose loved ones to the grind at the Breach. We have blamed humanity for these losses and the blame is well given - but it is now on us to ensure these sacrifices were not for naught and that there may be fewer in the future.”

 

There were some quiet nods.

 

“I know it is customary to announce the departure of the guard, but given the circumstances, let’s do it quietly.”, Helmond started, then the entire Octuria saluted.

 

Callum felt Rayla move next to him. She did not salute but nonetheless stood more straight-backed than normal. Sometimes her military training shone through and it was downright creepy. How much conditioning had she had?

 

Jonin wrapped some rope around their wrists. Rayla immediately tested that they were not actually tied.

 

“Prudent”, said Helmond with appreciation.

 

Then, he led the Octuria out through the archway, only two soldiers remained to stand guard.

 

Six Milites, two officers, one old and the other injured, plus two youngsters who refused to kill - Helmond was secretly quaking at the fearful odds. He called himself to reason, remembering the fact that this was not a band of the Lucid, but a heavily armed unit of the Auxilia. It would work. With that, he turned away from the direction of the meeting point Jonin had indicated to him and marched his unit down the road.

 

Rayla and Callum walked in front of the Octurion, in the opposite direction. Their steps felt heavy and foreboding in the quiet of the autumn forest.

 

Jonin led them through a long stretch of woods and finally exited into a clearing.

Two humans, looking like they were roughly hewn from granite, stood at the opposite end. The man was sitting on a freshly felled tree stump. Beneath his gigantic legs, Zym skittered, biting at the thick rope that held him tied to the hilt of one of two massive blades, sunk in the earth. The woman stood next to him, cradling a loaded crossbow like a baby.

 

“We have come.”, the officer called out, “Make the exchange.”

 

“‘preciated. Ye can leave now - if yer fast enough.”

A bolt fired by the woman struck the elf square in the forehead, killing her. They hadn’t even given her time to close her surprised mouth.

 

“Kel, really?”, the man tilted his head at her, “That wasn’t sportin’, but heck of a shot!”

 

Callum and Rayla were horrified.

 

“Bah, sport. Bad enough I’ll’ve blue stuck to me armor for days from this ‘un.”, she threw a hand in Rayla’s direction, then turned to Callum, “Nice liverie, Boy! Good of them bruise-skins to dress ye for the dance! Why don’t ye come spend some time with yer own kind? Could leave you standin’ if ye wanted?”

 

Callum quaked with anger, nodding his head at Jonin’s lifeless form. “You’re monsters! She only did what you asked!”

 

Kel shrugged, “Itched me earlier, that urge. Didn’t wanna let’er go the first time. Still mean it though, walk away from the little wench and we’ll keep ye around.”

 

“She’s my girlfriend!”, he shouted and Rayla believed to see lightning jumping between his still tied fingers.

 

Both humans looked furiously disgusted. The man got up and walked over to them. “Ya little race traitor…”, he got very close to Callum’s face, “love’s for people, not animals.”

 

At this, Callum exploded in a hail of sparks.

 

Helmond saw a bright light shine through the trees and ordered the Octuria forward. The humans in the clearing had started attacking. The prince was unguarded but tied to Moon Cleaver’s hilt. Scanning the scene, Helmond saw the Octurion on the ground, realizing immediately that she was dead. Ithral was apparently swinging Elfdread at Callum blindly who tumbled and rolled as best he could to avoid the singing mass of metal.

 

On the other side, he could see the Sicarius, caught in a game of cat and mouse with Kel Ortis, escaping her fists only occasionally. As he watched, the bounty hunter’s knife barely missed her again. They were hopelessly outmatched. Him because he was not made for fighting. Her because she refused to stoop to Kel’s level.

 

“Engage!”, he shouted and his soldiers fell upon the surprised bounty hunters.

 

“Attack!”, came the command from the other side of the clearing.

 

With total and utter dismay, Helmond watched as his guard charged into the clearing only to clash with another Auxilia unit, wearing different colors, white instead of brown. This was a unit of Templarii, the personal guard of the Interpreter, and it looked to be three times the strength of his own.

 

Chaos broke out on the clearing as the three factions engaged in a disturbing free for all.

 

Where Ithral stood, elves of both banners were clubbed aside by Elfdread, folded like so much cardstock. Helmond’s eyes still scanned the battle field. There was no sign of the human boy, but the Sicarius held her ground against Kel Ortis who was now busied with Milites of both forces. The dragon prince was unguarded - but there was Callum now, untying him from Moon Cleaver.

 

Helmond breathed. Then, he drew his blade. This slaughter of the people he had led was all on him.

 

Rayla’s heart was pounding in her throat. This was not what she was trained for. Mass fights were like meat grinders, sharp edges and points everywhere. Without a shield, she was exposed to all of them. She decided that her best strategy would be to disengage from the fight. Kel’s knife painfully tore into her upper left arm as she attempted rolling out of her incoming stab. She threw dirt at the human who shielded her eyes and threw a punch that hit Rayla square in the face, staggering her. The human’s knife then came back around, trying to stab the elf’s side, which she was barely able to avoid. The blade’s hilt snagged Rayla’s chest guard and staggered her further, sending her to the ground. From Kel’s left, a white bannered elf appeared, thrusting his pilum in her general direction but missing. Kel turned to him, breaking the spear in the crook of her arm. “Can’t ye see I’m busy?!” She janked the soldier towards her and stabbed him in the visor of his armor. He collapsed. When the human turned around again, Rayla was gone. “Darn.”

 

Rayla was hiding behind a thick tree, clutching her wounded arm and trying to stem her nosebleed by looking up at the canopy. Why was this white clad unit attacking the brown guard from Larwein? Where was Callum?

 

The fight raged around Ithral. While the elves were killing each other, he was busy evening the odds for the brown ones. “Ye wanna tell me what the devil is happenin’ here?”, he yelled at the three elves he was currently fighting. They gave no answer beyond attacking.

 

Kel whirled around, just in time to see her husband fall to the ground with multiple spears sunk into his back. “No!” She started fighting with a renewed effort, fury driving her hand.

 

Rayla was surveying the battlefield. She still couldn’t see Callum and leaned back against the tree again, sniffling. Suddenly, he showed up in her field of view from the left, dropping to the ground to embrace her. A bundle of soft white fur and smooth scales was struggling between them.

 

She sniffled, tears of relief running down both their cheeks as they looked at the dragon in their laps. They then started looking for a better place to hide. There was a ditch nearby in which the three nestled, following the battle incredulously. It was gruesome to watch and made less and less sense by the minute.

 

Kel was embroiled in a three way fight between Helmond and a Templar Milite. All over the clearing, elves were still fighting and the town guard was quite clearly loosing.

 

“Templarii! Withdraw!”, came the command from beneath the trees and the white-clad soldiers disengaged, retreating to a safe distance.

 

Rayla counted. Of the roughly twenty-four enemies that had shown up, eleven were still standing, some wounded. Given that four of the six town guards were still alive and neither Helmond nor Kel appeared to sport any injuries, that was a terrible attrition rate. Ithral had been a force on his own.

 

After the chaos, the silence was deafening, even with the moans of the wounded. The bounty hunter had been confused at first but now sprung to action, grabbing Moon Cleaver and running off into the woods.

 

“Third Quadrilia in Pursuit!”

 

Four Milites fell out of the Templar’s lines and went after the human.

 

A young, proud looking Elf in heavy, ornate armor stepped out from under the trees. Callum thought he looked somewhat familiar.

 

“Legate Helmond! I am impressed by your defense, but appalled by the company you keep.”

 

The Legate’s blade clattered loudly to the ground. His voice was like rock.

 

“Torlan?”

Chapter Text

The defeated and disarmed guard was marching into the town square. All their posts in Larwein were now manned by Milites sporting white uniforms.

 

Callum and Rayla were hiding outside the palisades, not sure what to do. One thing was certain - they were going to have to get into the inn at some point to get their belongings. Zym was excited to be with them again and enthusiastically licked Callum’s face as he picked him up.

 

“You look terrifying”, said Callum in reference to her bloody face and armor, where her wounded arm had touched it. He had dressed the slash as best as he could with a strip off his own armor’s body suit.

 

“I’m doin’ alright. Again, I knew when to get out of the way”, she smiled at him, looking him up and down, “You look like you weren’t even there!”

 

He felt like his chest was going to explode. The three of them were alive and neither of them was badly wounded. Sure, his shoulder ached, but not badly. Even though the battle had gone terribly for their side, he couldn’t help but feel wholly relieved.

 

“I’ll try and find out what’s goin’ on in there”, Rayla said with a worried glance at the wooden barricades.

 

He grabbed her by the elbow. “Be careful.”

 

“Oh, good idea! Yeah; I was just gonna walz in there and make a big ruckus, get some of those friendly Templarii to chase me, that’d be fun”, she gave him a reassuring smile, crouched back down and ran her hand over his cheek, “Don’t worry. I’ve no fight left for today.”

 

He appreciated her humor and expression but her face was still bloody and made her smile turn out a little creepy. “Okay”, he said and let her go.

 

With help from her blades and paying close attention to how much weight she put on her wounded arm, she scaled the wooden wall. Carefully, she slipped down the far side. Hiding in a bush growing under a house’s corner tree, she observed the town square. All four Guards, headed by Helmond, kneeled in the center of it, surrounded by Templarii.

 

The young commander of the larger unit, Torlan, was currently engaged in some kind of speech.

“... commandeered your guard and your town for nefarious purposes and I have been instructed to stand in judgement over him and over anyone who has aided and abetted his band of traitors. This is proof of my legitimacy”, he unfurled a letter that was marked with a gleaming silver stamp, “I am appointed by her eminence, the Interpreter of Bastion Korhal. If you know of anyone who has been colluding with Helmond, the Abuser or the moon elven traitor, you must come forward. Confess and you will know mercy. Force me to find out myself and you will share their fate.”, with this, he turned to Helmond.

 

“You have fought for enemies of the republic in open defiance of standing orders. For this, your judgement is clear. Do you have any last words?”

 

The officer raised his head, sadness in his eyes. “You’ve become a Templar, son. I am proud of you. Chalise chooses her nearest well.”

 

“Ah, apparently not well enough.”

 

The younger elf’s blade came down on Helmond and he dropped out of Rayla’s view. A shocked murmur went through the square.

 

Rayla was shocked, but she was also paying attention. The angle of the templar’s attack had looked feeble, downright clumsy. It seemed as though the young man wasn’t quite as sure of himself as he let on.

 

Torlan raised his voice, shaking almost imperceptibly, to address the crowd. He was  still looking at his father’s lifeless body. “Citizens of Larwein, you have one hour to consider your level of cooperation.”

 

Immediately, there was clamoring among the people and Rayla saw many hands pointing at Talaar and Selchin. They stepped forward to speak to one of the Templars who, after some time, nodded and waved them off. Helmond’s limp form was carried off by his son and another templar, where to, Rayla couldn’t tell.

 

The crowd started dispersing. As Rayla decided it was time to leave, she saw the town guard being locked in their barracks. The day’s light was fading quickly now and she found a quiet approach to the rear side of the inn. She carefully shimmied open the window of their room.

 

Dropping inside, she looked around, finding none of their things amiss. She quickly scooped and packed all the loose items in the room into the two packs sitting next to the door and shouldered them, just as steps could be heard outside the door.

 

Rayla jumped from the window and quickly made her way back to the palisades, avoiding the guards that had started patrolling the town square.

 

She had some issues scaling the structure with the bags but eventually managed it.

 

Back with Callum, she had to take a moment to compose herself, then she recounted what she had seen.

 

“I’m glad they let the innkeepers go. I don’t think I could live with myself otherwise”, Callum said. He had known Helmond for all of two days, the first of which had started with the man attempting to take his life. Now, his passing filled him with sadness and frustration.

 

Rayla didn’t know what to think or feel. “The Legate wasn’t kiddin’ when he said they were going to send more people after us. Why did he lie to us about his orders having changed though?”

 

“Maybe he didn’t know about the Templars?”, Callum offered, “I mean, it sure looks a lot like they were more interested in him than us.”

 

“I don’t think we’ll ever really know.”, Rayla lifted her arms and let them drop to her sides while breathing a drawn out sigh. “I guess it’s back into the woods for us? I thought maybe after that whole battle we could take it easy and have Helmond lead us to the Queen of Dragons with an armed escort or somethin’. Good plan, Rayla, really good plan.”

 

She got up, grabbed her knapsack, straightened her posture and started walking, not waiting for Callum.

 

He looked at Zym, trying to figure out what to do with him. There was no way to hide him now. The two backpacks they had left were filled with everything they owned. Plus, after everything that had happened he was hesitant to incapacitate the little dragon again.

 

“We’ll just have to be lucky”, he said, petting the whelp’s white mane.

 

They spent a good while walking in silence, the past day rushing through their minds. Suddenly, Rayla stopped dead in her tracks and Callum walked straight into her, not paying attention.

 

“Are you okay?”, he asked.

 

“Yeah”, she said absentmindedly, picking a shimmering pebble from the ground.

 

Callum was about to ask about it when he realized that it might be part of her secret. This was going to be a bit frustrating.

 

“Are you sure? A lot’s happened today and you’re wounded again.”

 

She waved him off. “I just need a bit of time right now, sorry.”

 

After the waning moon had risen, peaked and descended behind the canopy of trees, they stopped for the night under a tree with a single, large, leathery leaf that extended outward from the trunk like a massive umbrella. The forest had started looking decidedly less normal to Callum.

 

It being autumn, the night was cold and so they huddled together for warmth, covering themselves in their winter coats. Zym rolled up between them.

 

“The little guy’s even warmer than you are, stove boy”, Rayla said, yawning and petting the dragon.

 

“Yeah.”, her boyfriend said.

 

Rayla tried deciphering his expression in the dark but couldn’t manage it. Her eyes were good, but he was hard to read. “How are you holdin’ up?”

 

“I just feel… numb. Like someone clocked me over the head.”, he answered.

 

She nodded. “I know what you mean. We’ve seen our fair share of battle, but today was just gruesome.”

 

“Feels like it was our fault”, he said, slow, quiet tears cascading from his eyes.

 

She wrapped her arms around him and pulled him close. Zym protested the squish. “This wasn’t our fault. If Helmond hadn’t tried to stab you, he’d probably be alive now, same with those bounty hunters. They’re all diggin’ their own graves.”

 

She became acutely aware of how bloody her face actually was when her kiss left a purple imprint on his wet cheek. “Sorry. I’ll get that off you in a sec.”

 

She got up and put some water on a rag from her pack.

 

“Don’t worry about it, it’s just a `little` disgusting”, he tried for humor and she smirked, glad that he was recovering, “You know Rayla, I keep wondering what would’ve happened if I had told my aunt the truth back at the banther lodge.”

 

The elf knelt down next to him, cleaning first his cheek and then her own face.

 

“At first I didn’t appreciate you lyin’. But now? Now I have to wonder if I’d still be alive if you hadn’t.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“There’s so much hate everywhere. Just today you shocked a guy who thought I wasn’t worth your love, just cause I’m not human, a bunch of elves attacked one another with no clear reason and I saw a son murder his father without a whole lot of hesitation. That’s all in one day!”, she shook her head. “Who’s to say that if you had told her the truth, she wouldn’t have killed me anyway? You know, just to be safe? She almost stabbed me while I was gettin’ your stupid die.”, his girlfriend frowned, continuing tonelessly, “From my perspective, she’s `Amaya, slayer of Yatende Terhan`, not `autie`.”

 

Callum shrugged. While he knew that Amaya hated elves, he didn’t think of his aunt as a killer. But, Helmond had also been a father and someone’s husband - and a killer.

 

There was a moment of silence, the quiet around them only disturbed by a soft wind, rustling the leaves of the regular trees.

 

“Today was a mess”, Callum said finally as Rayla came back under the jackets, snuggling up against him. Zym gave up trying to squeeze between them and curled up on his chest.

 

“Yeah. It really was.”

 

Chapter Text

Callum shivered.

 

He was in the forest.

 

There were people fighting all around him.

 

Dying, all around him.

 

Rayla was yelling at him, from nowhere.

 

She was sitting up against a tree, her eyes glassy.

 

He fell next to her.

 

And fell.

 

Through the ground and into blackness, watching her drift off into the distance above.

 

Azymondias fell next to him, drifting limply.

 

The face in the dark spoke but really said nothing.

 

Ithral died, crushing him under his massive body.

 

There was blood all over his hands.

 

He looked up into familiar purple eyes.

 

There was blood all over her face.

 

She kissed him and he said it was disgusting.

 

Her laugh turned into a demonic shriek.

 

Merciful reality exploded into his mind and he fought for air. Rayla jerked up next to him while Zym sleepily tried to reassemble himself after being thrown off Callum’s chest. It was still dark. Barely an hour had gone by since they had first laid down to rest.

 

He was breathing heavily trying to shake the dream.

 

“What’s wrong?”, she asked softly and Zym gave a concerned coo.

 

“Dreaming”, he coughed, then looked over to find her worried gaze, “It’s alright. Just a major heart attack.”

 

She leaned in for a kiss and dragged him back down to the ground to place his head onto her chest. They were still facing each other, coming to rest in a ‘T’ shape.

 

Softly stroking his hair, she said, “I’ve had trainin’. Forewarnin’. You just got dropped into this. It’s not easy, is it?”

 

“Well, Soren tried teaching me how to fight.”

 

“I’m not talkin’ about that. No matter how many times you drill a riposte with a trainin’ dummy or even a partner, it won’t help you when you’re in a real battle.”, she extended an arm, stabbing at the sky, “The motions might happen, but this time both your and their life are on the line. That’s terrifyin’. And it’s bound to make you feel a lot of terrifyin’ thin’s afterward, even if you didn’t hurt anyone. Just bein’ around a battle like that takes somethin’ away from you.”

 

He nodded, feeling some relief at her soothing touch and empathetic words. “It’s like people just forget who they are once they put on armor.”

 

Rayla shook her head, looking almost angry, “We are wearin’ ours right now - well, the squishy parts, anyway - and I know who I am and I hope you know who you are. It’s up to everyone to follow their own compass. Doesn’t matter what your orders are, you don’t do somethin’ if you don’t agree with it!”, she saw the look on his face and added, more softly, “I know what you meant, though. It’s hard t’ see the person under the armor.”

 

Silence passed between them while she pet him. It was comfortable.

 

“I love you”, he said.

“I love you, too”, she answered and pinched his cheek.

 

“Do we have a plan from here on?”, he asked.

 

“Well. No, actually. I was going to see where we are tomorrow and go from there.”

 

“What do you mean? Are we lost?”

 

“Not so much. Just, after everythin’ that happened I just wanted to get away from the roads and the town as fast as possible so we’re off course by a few hours.”

 

He nodded and brushed a strand of hair out of his face.

 

Rayla scanned him. “Your hair’s grown out”, she said finally, “It looks bad.”

 

He gave her an incredulous look. “Uh, what?”

 

“Can I cut it?”

 

“Now?”, he asked.

 

“No, maybe tomorrow?”

 

Callum blinked at her and she blinked back.

 

“I guess?”

 

He sat up and laid back down next to her. She was somewhat confused by the awkwardness that had crept into what she believed to be light conversation.

 

“Is… is that okay?”

 

Pensive silence followed. After a moment, Rayla turned her head to look at him.

 

Callum was trying to find words to explain the situation, that much was clear. His expression transitioned from an open mouth to scrunched up, then back to the open mouth. Finally his face slackened. Rayla worked hard not to laugh.

 

“This is gonna sound really stupid, but the last person that I can remember caring about my hair… was my mom”

 

After a moment, Rayla patted his arm. “That wasn’t stupid.”

 

“I just don’t want you to think that I think you’re like my mum, cause you’re not”

 

“Oh, well, from what I know of her, she kicked butt, was wise beyond her years and loved the stuffin’ out of her family. I wouldn’t mind bein’ compared to her.”

 

He chuckled. “I guess if you put it that way.  Again, I think she would’ve liked you.”

 

She kissed and nestled against him again. Stove-boy’s heat was very welcome in the autumn weather.

 

“Just, the relationship we have is differ...”

 

With an annoyed grin, she placed a hand on his mouth. “Are you tryin’ to make this awkward?”

 

He chuckled. “No. I’ll shut up”, he mumbled against her palm.

 

Soon after, they fell asleep again. Zym distrustfully moved to sit in the hood of Rayla’s winter jacket which was laying somewhat off to the side.

 

Not much later, Rayla woke to him struggling in his sleep. She felt terrible for him. Trying to wake him gently, she sat up, patted at his chest and poked his side.

 

He opened his eyes and groaned, “Oh. Oh man. I hope that’s not what sleep is going to be like from now on. I’m sorry, Rayla.”

 

She shook her head, then said, quietly, “First time I was present for a kill in person, I had night terrors for days. This was worse. We really were in the thick of it.”

 

“Wait - so you were there when the assassins killed people?”

 

She sat back, uncomfortably rubbing her uninjured arm and avoiding his gaze. “It’s part of the trainin’. You sit quietly and watch the others do their work. Supposed to prepare you for seein’ death.”

 

She gave him a shy glance, appearing almost as though she expected him to hit her. The fact that her voice was heavy with rue tore at him. It was clear she was disgusted by herself for not doing something to help her comrade’s victims - and now expected that same disgust from him.

 

“I’m sorry”, he said simply.

 

She just stared for a moment.

 

“Sorry?”, she repeated, then welled up, “You’re sorry? How can you be… so… ”

 

She couldn’t find the words, instead she threw herself at him and kissed him.

 

“... understanding?”, he suggested, out of breath.

 

“Wha’ever!”, she smiled tearfully, “You feel it too, don’t you?”

 

“I think so... You maybe wanted to do something but you couldn’t in the moment. And now you know this is something you will never really get over. A thing you’ll regret for the rest of your life. I feel that, about every single person who died today, even the bounty hunter. Even though I know… there’s really nothing I could have done.”

 

“That’s exactly it. To make matters worse, I’m glad he’s dead. I’m never gonna have him attack me like that ever again!”, she palmed at her eyes, “Back in those days, I couldn’t turn against Runaan or the other assassins. I mean, even later, they stuck with me while the other elves called my parents cowards and traitors. Except when it actually came down to killin’ someone… I followed my own compass.”

 

“Well, I for one am glad you did. I wish we could’ve met in better times, but I think we’re working towards that. It’ll all be worth it if we can just get this little guy home.”

 

Rayla nodded, a hint of determination entering her mien. “I’ll drink to that.” She leaned over to open her pack, pulled out a canteen and drank, finally offering it to Callum.

 

Her motion disturbed the contents of her pack and the book poked out for a moment.

 

He took a swig, than handed the container back. “You know, back at the river when we first kissed… I told you I was okay with sharing whatever secrets you were willing to tell me. That’s actually way easier said than done.”

 

“It is?”, she asked warily.

 

“I’m nosy. What can I say other than... I’m sorry for… snooping.”

 

She patted his chest and settled back down under the jackets.

 

Impishly, she said, “It’s fine. Still not tellin’ you though. I’m maybe enjoyin’ it a bit too much, watchin’ you sit on those coals. Just think of the sweet, sweet release you’re gonna feel once I finally tell you.”

 

He harrumphed, but still moved to rest against her, realizing that he didn’t quite get the whole spectrum of his own feelings at the moment.

 

“I’m a mess”, he said, ruffling his own hair.

 

“We both are.”

 

Chapter Text

Forcing herself forward, Kel fought her emotions. She was very tired, but she wasn’t going to stop walking before she could be sure that the elves weren’t going to follow her further.

 

She was already missing her big oaf.

 

A lot of people saw him and judged him as nothing but a brute. It was true, he was born to his calling and ruthless with his marks and enemies. But he had been gentle with her, and that’s how she saw him. She had been leading her bounty hunters all over the Pentarchy before he had stepped into her tent.

 

It hadn’t been love at first sight. A lot of hard work passed between them before they were ready to call each other `lover`.

 

Bloody days, those had been. His blade had been named before he’d come to her, but he helped her name hers, in Xadia. They had made quite a pretty amount of coin together.

 

“Fight has a way of puttin’ together what goes together”, he had laughed as they were crossing the breach back into the pentarchy, asking for her hand in marriage.

 

They had attempted to settle down with that money, wanting to have a quiet life restoring his parents’ farm. It quickly became clear that the farm was no longer bearing fruit, much like their attempts at family. Eventually they came back to mercenary work.

 

Mostly because they were good at it, but also because living a long, peaceful life seemed to matter less now that they couldn’t have kids.

 

Now, it was almost over. She would find the abnormal pair and their dragon who had caused all this and put all three of them down. Then, she would avenge her husband, thousandfold if possible.

 

Fury lit a fire in her eyes.

 

---

 

Interpreter Chalise was waiting for a message from the operation at Larwein. Today was not her turn to serve Lunaris Regem - the lord had business in Veltis-Tiram - and she used her freedom to compose a set of letters. Finally, around midday, a Noticar brought her the arrow she had wished for.

 

“Excellence”, it started in Torlan’s untrained code, “We have partially achieved your assignment. The Dragon Prince and his two kidnappers are nowhere to be found. The traitor Helmond is dead. We are still looking for the Prince.”

 

Annoyance warped her forehead. The boy was not as eloquent as his father but nearly as useless. How was it that two teenage delinquents were able to continuously escape her grasp?

 

Chapter Text

Rayla was sitting next to Callum on a broad, almost leafless branch near the top of a very old, massive Mallorn. Its golden leaves were rustling above and below them in a strong but surprisingly warm wind. He was busy drawing while she attempted to place their location on her map. Zym was scampering around at the foot of the tree.

 

The mountain range she had noticed at the cracked boulder still seemed far to the north east. Scanning west, she could not find any sign of Larwein. In fact, there was nothing remarkable in that direction safe for maybe a tiny speck moving in the clear sky, bobbing up and down. A nearby bird, most likely.

 

“Veltis-Tiram is at least two weeks of travel from here on foot. Probably longer”, she said.

 

Callum nodded absentmindedly.

 

“What’s wrong?”, she asked.

 

“The night’s still haunting me”, he said.

 

She glanced at his work. Scenes of battle.

 

“This is gonna take a bit.”, she said, extending a calming hand, “We need to try and keep goin’, but you need to be nice to yourself, too. If drawin’ helps, do it. If talkin’ helps, I’m here.”

 

“I know you are. Thanks”, he said, leaning over to kiss her.

 

She sighed and folded up the map. “I think I know where we’re goin’ now.” She pointed at the snow covered mountain range. “It’s about a week to the foot of the mountains and a week to the city from there, dependin’ how quickly we can get through them. The map shows a pass across but it’s bound to be well-traveled.”

 

Her boyfriend closed his sketchbook and shrugged. “Not like we haven’t climbed mountains before”

 

She shook her head. “That was summer. Mountains are even more dangerous in the fall and winter. Plus, these are all higher than the moon nexus.”

 

“Great”, he said with fake enthusiasm, descending the tree.

 

Once he reached the ground, his heart skipped. Zym had been drawing pictures.

 

There were three of them this time.

 

Leftmost was Viren, running.

 

Then came a picture of an elven weapon, crossing a sword, superimposed on the crest of Del Bar.

 

At this point, Callum yelled, “Rayla?! You need to see this! Right now!”

 

The next picture showed a woman, wearing a circlet. She bore the insignia of Evenere. The entire picture was crossed out.

 

Rayla came to have a look and her face got grimmer with each picture.

 

Suddenly, there was a cracking sound overhead and a massive winged shape broke through the canopy. It was an armored Peryton. These stag-like animals were used in lieu of horses by Rayla’s people and rarely born with wings. Those exemplars were often reserved for high officers of the Auxilia.

 

At this time, it bore two elven riders.

 

Azymondias ran for cover. Rayla brandished her blades. Callum planted himself next to her, drawing fulminis.

 

From the back of the creature came bemused yelling. “Spending time in tall, small-leaved trees! During the daytime! How careless! How helpful!”

 

The Peryton landed with a thud and one of its riders dismounted, gingerly.

 

“It is good to see you, Sicarius Rayla, Prince Callum. I was concerned we would not be able to find you. Then you climbed that tree!”

 

“Helmond?”, gaped Callum. Rayla’s mien and blades sagged.

 

“The same. This is my son, Legate Templar Torlan and his steed, Kandras. We have dire news.”

 

“You died!”, Callum cried, pointing accusingly, “He killed you! You’re an illusion!”

 

“A valid hypothesis, young man”, Helmond said, “I will tell you something that Torlan does not yet know as proof. You sat with me at Larwein inn and we clinked glasses to show our good spirits.”

 

Callum’s mien was still one of confusion, but his posture relaxed.

 

A flash of realization crossed Rayla’s face. “I thought your strike in the town square looked strange, Torlan. Thought it was because you were nervous, but you actually just knocked him out and sliced into his shoulder!”

 

Torlan had gotten off his ride and taken off his helmet. He was a handsome, younger version of Helmond with high cheekbones and strong eyebrows. His templar cloak and armor were only emphasizing his muscular build.

 

“It was as you said.”, he said sheepishly with an annoyed, sidelong glance at Helmond, “But, you are also correct with your first assumption. I was worried I was going to kill my estranged father with a misplaced blow to the head. How do you know about that, anyway?”

 

Callum exploded. “You killed a lot of other people during that fight! That doesn’t bother you? And for what?”

 

Torlan faced him with an icy expression. “The bounty hunter killed a great many of my people and we took our revenge on him, yes. It was bloody but necessary.”

 

“What about the town guard?”

 

The Templar’s mien softened into contained dismay. “My unit can never know that my father survived. At least until Chalise is deposed or dead. I instructed them to fight defensively. That is the best I could do. Had I known that my father was the `rogue officer` Chalise sent me to kill, I would have never followed the order in the first place.”

 

Rayla placed a calming hand on Callum’s arm. The public touch made both Helmond and his son squint.

 

“Torlan is decorated but inexperienced.”, Helmond started and Torlan stared daggers at him, “Do not look at me crooked, young man, you know it to be true. You should have scouted, but didn’t. I may be senile but even I would never run into a forest clearing when facing an unknown foe.”

 

Torlan’s expression turned to pride. “Yet I beat you handily.”

 

“With a force better trained, equipped and three times the size of mine? Child’s play.”

 

“HEY!”, Callum yelled, startling Rayla into dropping one of her blades and interrupting their bickering, “Figure out your issues later! What are you doing here? Who is Chalise?”

 

“I am here at the bidding of my father. I agree with him on assisting you even if…”

 

Helmond simply started talking over him. “We are here because I needed to talk to you for a moment. Large scale fighting has started at the border and I must go to prevent those battles from spreading while you complete your mission. The Interpreter, Chalise, who is in command of the troops at the border follows her own agenda. I must depose her.”

 

Callum and Rayla gave each other meaningful glances. Their mission was no longer about just preventing a war, now it was a question of stopping it.

 

“What do you need from us?”, Callum asked.

 

“I needed you to know that you now have allies in Xadia. I can argue your case to the Auxilia Senate. Lunaris Regem has ordered you delivered to him. Interpreter Chalise tried to kill all of us, meaning she is now in secret defiance of the Dragon Canon. I do not think it wise to bring you there with me. I do not know what the atmosphere is at court.”

 

“I will keep the Templarii off your tracks”, Torlan said, “At this time that is the best I can offer. I have no authority over regular Auxilia units. My father will take Kandras to Bastion Korhal to try to prevent further bloodshed in the short term. We have some rapport with the Sunfire commanders. Here.”, he handed a small quiver containing eight normal and four hawk arrows and a bow to Rayla, “Use these to keep us updated on your progress. I will recommend you send your messages to me rather than my father since he may fail his mission, exposing all of us.”

 

Helmond nodded with a glare at his son’s back, “Prudent, if impertinent.”

 

Rayla slung the items around her, shaking herself until they rested comfortably on her shoulders. “Thank you. It’s a relief to know we’re not in this alone now.”

 

Helmond shook his head. “Do not thank us yet, Sicarius. The more people know of a secret the less safe it becomes.”

 

With that, the officer climbed the Peryton’s saddle, painfully grabbing at his shoulder where he now bore two wounds. “For now, farewell and good luck.”

 

He spurred the animal and it ascended through the hole in the canopy, blowing leaves and debris at the four remaining below.

 

Torlan looked after him and lightly shook his head. Then he focussed his gaze on Callum. “Human, I feel your heart beats the right rhythm. At first I was sceptical about my father’s decision to help you, but you are right to chastise me for my actions. So is my father. He is a large part of the reason why I am here. May I share a secret?”

 

Callum motioned him to continue. With a sidelong glance at Rayla, Torlan stood, waiting. When she didn’t move, he cleared his throat.

 

“Oh. You want to tell him, not me. Sure.”, she blinked and turned to leave, then stopped and faced the Templar, an impish expression on her face, “You know he’s my boyfriend. He’s gonna tell me.”

 

“`Boyfriend`? I know he is male. I also know of your improper relationship. If this is how humans treat their `friends`, they really are a strange people. Why would you even draw attention to this? Have you no shame?”, Torlan said, blushing, waving her off.

 

Rayla’s mien sagged and she walked off. His words had struck her a little but she was mostly disappointed to not have annoyed him.

 

When she was out of earshot, packing bags, Torlan leaned in and whispered, “My standing was advanced through the ranks because my father has many admirers in the Senate. His feats are legendary.”

 

Callum nodded, confused. “That’s good?”

 

Torlan stepped back from him, looking as though he had expected more of an explosion of expression from the prince.

 

“He and Soren could become the best of frenemies”, Callum thought wryly, out loud he said, “Helmond is a good man but he didn’t seem sure of himself as a father.”

 

“Oh. Well, I will not share more secrets of our family with you at this time but suffice to say he has not impressed my mother. Nor me. Nor my sister. Not as a father. As a soldier, I am thoroughly amazed by the man.”, he stretched excessively, then pointed over his shoulder. “Regardless, I will have to reassume my command over my Templarii and face the shame of losing a battle against my steed, who flew away. Ooh. Woe me! Until we meet again, Prince Callum.”

 

He winked at Callum and started walking westward.

 

Rayla slowly slid back into place next to Callum, watching the heavily armoured knight waddle off. Both of their faces were twisted by incredulity.

 

“Did he just wink at you?”

Chapter Text

Zym was happily trotting behind Callum. They had tied a rag around his snout, using his horns as anchor points.

 

“How far is the river?”, Callum asked from behind his scarf, fanning his face, “I’m out of water.”

 

Rayla, who was wearing a rag over her mouth and nose as well, blinked into the sinking sun between two giant, spiky, fleshy looking trees. The day had been sweltering, the air thick with drifting sand.

 

Runaan had once explained that the western wind was carrying hot air and sand here. It would blow across both the Breach and the Midnight Desert once the eastern winds subsided during the day in early fall. Those would pick up again later in the night, blowing in freezing air from the mountains instead. The temperature extremes had created an interesting landscape and even more interesting plants and animals here.

 

As a result, she was foraging like mad, picking this herb and that flower, ever so often gasping with joy at a really rare find. It was all prime trading material.

 

“It’s to your left, about two minutes.”, she answered, furrowing a brow when she saw him pick up a large, green petalled flower, “Gumgrass isn’t really worth anythin’. Not even good to eat.”

 

“I just thought it was pretty.”, he said, a little sad.

 

“That it is!”, she smiled.

 

He walked over to her. “I’m glad you think so”, he said, putting the flower in her hair.

 

She was confounded.

 

“What are you doin’?”

 

“You’re still gonna cut my hair, right?”

 

“Yeah once we settle down for the night?”

 

“It’s just fair I get to do something to yours, then. Plus, the green really brings out your eyes.”

 

She blushed. He was so sappy.

 

“Aww, now that purple really makes everything pop!”, he said, legitimately endeared, “You’re a piece of art.”

 

She swatted at him and laughed, “Go get your water!”

 

He swatted back. “I can’t help it if you’re pretty. Fine! I’m getting water! Hey! Stop!”

 

Rayla had jumped him and they were rolling in the dust for a moment with abandon, her coming to rest on top of him, kissing him while holding him down playfully.

 

“What are we doin’?”, she asked suddenly, shooting up and losing the flower, “We don’t have time for this!”

 

“Huh?”, he went, confused.

 

“Come on Callum, people are dyin’ out there. We have to rest sometime soon anyway, let’s save it for then.”

 

Dejection spread across his entire body like cold water. But, she was right.

 

He climbed down the river’s bank and refilled their canteens. There was sand everywhere, even in the water. Callum drank it anyway, trying to keep the grains away from his mouth. Eventually he got sick of the crunchy sensation, grabbed a fresh bandage from his pack and cut off a small piece of it with his knife. Now he had a filter that worked fairly well.

 

When he returned to where he had left his girlfriend, she was sitting on the ground, drawing lazily in the sand with Zym.

 

Her expression was obscured by the rag but Callum felt she wasn’t doing well. It was the deflated way she carried herself and how her ears seemed to droop a little.

 

“Are you doing okay?”, he asked, passing her a filtered canteen which she drank from thanklessly.

 

“Let’s go.”

 

She got up, and they kept walking.

 

Two hours later, the sun had dipped below the horizon and they had set up a small fire in a field of large, bulbous cacti that shielded them from peering eyes with thick thorns and the odd, deep pink bloom.

 

Callum was sitting on a rock, patiently waiting for her to finish cutting his hair.

 

“Look at me ”, she demanded and he did. A measuring glance later, she sighed. “Good enough. Your hair’s so much thicker than mine. Kinda fun to cut, actually.”

 

She put down her weapons and helped him clean the bits of hair off his naked shoulders with a wet rag. His wound looked to be healing at a great pace, unlike her own. Competent treatment was a real boon.

 

Rayla sighed heavily, sitting closer to the fire as the cold winds had started picking up. Callum was already putting on his winter coat. “Mind lookin’ at my arm?”

 

He gingerly picked off the bandages that covered her wounded arm. Before he could stop himself, he gasped quietly. That was not what she’d wanted to hear.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Looks like it’s healing alright but there’s some swelling and deep purple edges.”

 

She grimaced. “Great. Just what we needed. I’ll take a honey poultice now, please.”

 

He cleaned the wound with cold water he had previously boiled, feeling terrible for making her wince. While he was applying the poultice, she stared into the fire, far away in her thoughts. Finally he wrapped a new set of bandages around her arm. “Here’s to hoping.”

 

She uncomfortably rubbed her arm.

 

“Rayla”, her boyfriend started, “Could you show me how to do hair braids?”

 

She gave him a tired glance. “Sure. Look.”

 

She grabbed some dry grass from the ground and started braiding it while he looked on.

 

Zym came over to watch her work as well.

 

With each turn of her hand, her delicate features filled with more sorrow and it broke his heart. He regretted asking, but it was too late. Following an impulse, he moved to sit behind her, pulling her head onto his chest. She let it happen, going almost limp in his embrace.

 

Then he started braiding her hair, like she had just shown him. Silent tears started rolling down her cheeks. The little dragon nuzzled into her lap and she started petting him.

 

When Callum was done, he embraced her, kissed her hair and comforted her wordlessly until they both fell asleep, only to be greeted by more night terrors.

 

He was woken by her moving rapidly out of his lap. The fire was still going strong so it couldn’t have been a long rest.

 

“I think we’re being stalked”, she said with a worried tone.

 

He got up, looking around. After a moment, he could see them too. Six vaguely canine shapes were circling them, just outside the reach of their fire.

 

Azymondias was growling, bristling at the animals.

 

“What do we do?”, he asked firmly.

 

“I’d rather not fight them. Skulks are pack animals, they need each other for survival. I don’t wanna be dinner either though. Why don’t you try fulminis? Should do alright for scarin’ them off.”

 

Callum nodded, drawing the rune. He felt the power of lighting course through his arm, exiting into his hand. The hot and cold weather seemed to supercharge the spell.

 

He threw the ball of light at a nearby cactus where it discharged. Slamming into the many thorns, it loudly cracked some of them. A few of the spikes actually exploded off the main plant, sending sharp skewers in all directions. Rayla tackled her boyfriend to the ground as the shrapnell whizzed around them. The Skulks started to skitter and disperse. In the flash, Callum caught a better look at the animals. They had smooth, close fur and vaguely dog-like faces, sans the ears. He believed to see massive carnissals gleaming in their impressive mouths.

 

“That...”, Rayla jumped up, beamed at him and started miming, “You just went like Zap! and thin’s just went Fwoom! Callum! That was so awesome!”

 

Zym yipped with excitement.

 

He smiled back, toothily. “Now you know how I feel whenever you kick people in the head and make it look like dancing.”

 

They both sat down near the fire, and he leaned against her shoulder.

 

“I’ve never danced”, she said eventually.

 

“We can fix that”, he suggested, “I had dancing lessons since I was as old as Ez. `Ballrooms are where alliances are forged and deals are made, Callum!`”, he channeled Harrow.

 

“Oh! I’d love to! It’s so fancy!”, she turned her head, trying to catch a glimpse of her braid. Eventually she pinched the hair and angled her head to look at it. “Seems well done for your first time. I’ll have to check it out tomorrow in the river. Thank you.”

 

He was still worrying about the Skulks, looking up at every sound he heard.

Her and Zym’s calm demeanor confused him a bit.

 

“The Skulks don’t bother you?”

 

She smirked. “They do, but we’ve got the fire and lightin’ magic. Somethin’ tells me they’re at a disadvantage, and they know that now. They’re smart. Doubt they’ll be back.”

 

Rayla had a hankering, suddenly. She went to rummage in her pack and pulled out a pack of tied up plants, tugging out a singular leaf.

 

“What’s that”, Callum asked.

 

“Lemon leaf”, she said.

 

Chewing, she sat back down next to him. He couldn’t resist the barb. “You look a bit like a cow”

 

“Funny, I thought I was gonna hear more `bull` from you tonight”

 

They snickered and she offered him a lemon leaf which he chewed thoughtfully.

The taste was sweet and fresh, much like spearmint.

 

He decided to draw, pulling his sketchbook in his lap. Her interest was piqued.

 

“What’cha gonna draw?”, she asked.

 

“Dunno yet”, he said, “Maybe one of these cactus flowers.”

 

He started roughing in the shapes while she looked on. As the render came together, she became excited. “That’s just so neat! You drew a bunch of boxes and circles and then suddenly, poof, there’s a flower!”

 

He smirked. “Do you wanna learn how to draw?”

 

She waved. “I don’t think I have the patience for it. Let’s keep it at dancing for now, Mr. Teacher.”

 

“Interested in striking a pose?”, he asked.

 

She smirked. “What, this one not good enough for you?”

 

He blinked. “You’re just sitting there. You can do better.”

 

She huffed, then mischief bolted into her eyes and he realized he had made a mistake.

 

“So you’re sayin’ you will draw any pose I’ll set up for you?”

 

He tepidly shrug-nodded. “What are you going to…”

 

She grabbed her weapons, pushed him over, got up and stepped over him, extending a blade towards his face. “Draw this.”

 

“Oh. Wow.”, he gaped.

 

“What?”

 

He blushed, then lied by omission, “That’s gonna be rough. Drawing lying down, I mean.”

 

“Not good enough, is it! Too challengin’?”, she laughed brightly, “Can’t make you happy.”

 

“I’ll try. Hold still.” He shakily started sketching.

 

There was concentrated silence in the air, only interrupted by the wind rustling the thorns around them. Rayla noticed acutely how cold the breeze had gotten but didn’t want to spoil his work.

 

“Done”, he said, turning over the book to show his rough sketch.

 

She regarded it for a moment, then squinted, blushing slightly.

 

“That’s… what I looked like from down there? You sure you didn’t… add a few things here and there?”

 

“Hey, you struck the pose!”, he said, “I can’t help how perspective works!”

 

She walked over to her pack, removing her jacket and draping it over her shoulders. “I like it, but I’ve never seen myself from that angle. It’s… a weird one.”

 

She sauntered over, stepping across his crossed legs.  She gently pushed the sketchbook aside before she got down in his lap, embracing him. “Ahh, sweet, sweet warmth”.

 

The furry parts of her jacket tickled his face as she leaned in to rest her chin on his shoulder. “See, I feel a lot less guilty about this sort of fun now that I’m tired and can’t do anything else.”

 

He stroked her back under the jacket. “I was wondering about earlier. Are you doing better now?”

 

“I just hate this feelin’ of not having free will. We’re doing this thing, with Zym. It’s so important and I feel like we’re letting people down by not pushing it harder”, she sighed sadly, “It just got so much worse when Helmond told us about the border. Just feels like the stakes keep risin’ and we’re not moving fast enough. Doesn’t help that we have to make all these detours.”

 

She tucked her new braid behind her ear, “Sorry. I don’t wanna complain but it’s a bit loose.”

 

“Do you want me to redo it?”

 

She let him mess with her hair for a while.

 

“Thank you”, she said, suddenly.

 

“For what?”

 

“Bein’ good about my hangups”, she gave him a loving smile, “Not every woman you meet will start sobbin’ when you ask to braid her hair.”

 

“Why would I want to braid other women’s hair?”

 

She shrugged. “I guess you’re right, that came out weird.”

 

“More likely you’re going to have to find someone else to spend your life with than me.”

 

She was disturbed. “What do you mean?”

 

“You said it yourself. Humans don’t live that long compared to elves.”

 

There was shock in her eyes. He realized that she had never thought about the fact that she was going to outlive him by around two and a quarter of his own lifetimes, regardless of whether they were going to be successful here.

 

“It… it is what it is. That’s kinda inevitable...”, Callum said meekly, feeling as though this was the second time he had made her weep tonight.

 

It was not fair.

Chapter Text

Helmond landed roughly in the inner court of Bastion Korhal, jumping off before Kandras had even stopped completely. The guards by the entrance recognized him, stepping aside with interested looks, as he breezed past them.

 

He quickly climbed the stairs to the senate chamber, hoping it was still in session.

 

As he shoved open the doors, a round two hundred heads turned to face him. The circular room was filled, not just with elves. A delegation of humans was standing in the center of the place. Helmond stopped in his tracks. This was unexpected. The human woman leading the delegation moved her hands and arms in a way he was able to read with some difficulty.

 

“What is going on here?”, the man standing next to her translated, “Who is he and how dare he interrupt our parlance?”

 

“We would like the same answer, Legate.” The voice of the Draconarch was not kind or paternal this time.

 

He was standing behind a lectern, in Chalise’s body.

 

“Excellency”, Helmond bowed walking into the center of the room, “I have information that is crucial to your immediate attention. Under no circumstance allow the Interpreter to regain control over herself at this time.”

 

The senate erupted in whispers.

 

“You may bring your issue to us here. Now.”

 

“I will summarize. You, Draconarch, ordered me to pursue the human prince to recover Azymondias. When I failed to do this, the Interpreter ordered my son’s unit to attack us. In the resulting fight, elves clashed with elves. Fratricide ensued.”

 

There was more audible uproar all around the room now, the humans next to him looking more and more worried. Their leader was staring intently at his face. Helmond turned more toward her, trying to reduce the disrespect he was showing the delegation by interrupting their session.

 

“The Interpreter submitted to him a sealed order...”, he held up the document, “...requiring the murder and covert disposal of one Prince Callum of Katolis, one Rayla, Sicarius Assassin of the Moonshadow and one unnamed officer she described as a traitor. This officer was me! She was inciting not just murder between our people but within my own family!”

 

The Draconarch raised a hand to stop Helmond from speaking further. When the Plenum’s furious whispers had calmed down, he motioned for Helmond to finish.

 

“You know my report and the orders you gave me subsequently, Excellency. She is in violation of Canon Dracii.”

 

The Draconarch considered for a moment, visibly unsettled by the body he was in. Finally, he collected himself. “Be that as it may, you have failed your mission once more, Helmond. We do not see the aforementioned persons with you.”

 

“Excellency, I did not think it wise to bring them here. I could not anticipate the Senate’s response and would not dare risk their mission.”

 

Hisses of indignation flooded the room. This had been as close to an insult to the Senate as had ever been spoken in the Plenum.

 

“Our response?”, the regent whispered dangerously, exposing his lizard-like nature, “We ordered them here to recover the princeling. Your opinion on our response is secondary, Legate! The Lucid is not an independent organization! You are beholden to your civilian leaders and you will do and report as bidden with all due haste!”

 

“I do not believe that the princeling’s recovery alone will assist us in preserving… restoring... peace between the Pentarchy and Xadia, Excellency. It is paramount for the human prince to deliver Azymondias through hardship. Only this will send a strong enough message to some among us, especially those in the white wing.”

 

“We ordered you to recover our kin!”, came the now openly angry response over the furious rebuttals of a few Sky delegates in the white wing, “I will say, once again! It is not your place to determine what course to take in the preservation of relations! You are expected to appear in front of this body again, later! Enter the Interpreter’s incriminating order into official record, then depart this chamber!”

 

He turned  to the human delegation. “We apologize for this… disorder. In light of this information, we would like to postpone further talks until later. We hope this is agreeable.”

 

“We will stand by until you reach a consensus”, said the translator and the five-strong human delegation bowed in synchronicity, leaving the Plenum behind Helmond.

 

The latter turned to the human general once the doors had closed behind them. She was already approaching.

 

“If I may”, the human interpreter said, translating her signs, “Thank you. I believe your interruption will help our case.  If you have a moment, I would like to hear of Prince Callum. He is my Nephew. I understand you had contact with him recently?”

 

Helmond’s brows furrowed, then he looked at his hands, wondering if he should attempt it in the interest of forming rapport. He signed, clumsily.

 

‘I am happy he feels good. Who are you?’

 

She seemed amused.

 

‘You sign. That is a surprise. I am General Amaya. This is my interpreter, Rheza. How long ago did you see the prince?’

 

‘Sorry General. I sign badly. Old wisdom. Do you want him?’

 

He pointed at her interpreter and she shrugged with bemused assent.

 

“How long ago did you see the prince?”, Rheza voiced.

 

“I last saw him and his elven mate two days ago.”

 

The interpreter and Amaya seemed baffled.

 

“Mate?”

 

Helmond’s face showed discomfort. “I am likely as confused by their relationship as you are, General. Elves lack a fitting word for their in-between state, as it were, hence my clumsy approximation. They openly touch, and kiss, but are not summed. This is not… normal. Especially given their races.”

 

Rheza’s face sagged as he translated.

 

The general shook her head, a semblance of worry in her expression. “The last time I saw them, he was a hostage of hers. The last I heard of  them was that they were good friends.”

 

“I don’t doubt there will be a conversation to be had with them once they fulfill their mission.”

 

She nodded, then signed, “It is good to have second hand news of him. Both our King and I worry.”

 

Helmond had an idea.

 

“General, if I may.”

 

Helmond unhooked his bow and handed her an eagle arrow, explaining its function.

 

“If you send them a message now, they should be able to answer within the day. I would help you further but I am not sure what the outcome of the discussion in this chamber will be as far as my own person is concerned. You may use my office. Guard.”

 

He instructed the guard to show the General to his empty room.

 

She signed her thanks and followed the woman.

 

Helmond sighed deeply, widening his stance in anticipation of a long wait. He had many admirers among the Senate, including the white wing. This had given him the necessary confidence to step into the circle so brashly. All he could hope now was that the voices calling for Chalise’s removal were louder than those looking to imprison him.

 

Either way, he believed that democracy was a good system.

 

Good. But slow.

 

Chapter Text

It was another sweltering day, the air flirred. Rayla wheezed through her covered mouth and nose. What made the situation worse, was a gigantic, evil looking solid black anvil cloud slowly moving north-east, bringing a likely storm right on top of their path. She’d have to make a decision soon whether to settle down for the night. If they did, they would be clear of the storm but would lose valuable travelling time.

 

Azymondias was curled around her neck, sleeping. She was envious.

 

Ahead of her, Callum seemed to do better in the searing heat, even with both their packs on his back. He was still taking energetic strides across the dusty, dry terrain. They had walked all day without any larger breaks. The mountains now loomed closer in the east, stretching the entire width of their horizon. They were snow capped and so tall that it seemed like the earth had taken a wrong, skyward turn.

 

Suddenly there was a whistling sound in the air which alarmed Rayla. “Duck!” she yelled and both of them hit the ground. An eagle arrow impacted the ground next to Callum, startling him.

 

“Man!”, he breathed heavily, picking up the device. “Please tell me they can’t be used to track people.”

 

She shook her head. “You have to have some kind of friendly bond with the person you’re trying to reach. We could send one to Helmond, but we couldn’t send one to, say, the nutty human bounty hunter.”

 

He nodded, opening the head of the arrow and extracting a rolled up piece of paper. He got excited. “It’s from my Aunt!”

 

“Oh, the Rayla-stabbin’ `I-killed-monsters-before` aunt? Yaaaay!”, she smiled wryly but sat next to him in the shade of another leathery, spiked tentacle tree. There was her decision, made for her. She was not getting up again today.

 

He slipped off the backpacks and they used the opportunity to have some water and a packet of Lembas each. This elven version of nonperishable bread was much more filling than human hardtack. It also tasted a lot better. The downside was, it was light on salt - and they were sweating a lot. To make up for that deficiency, Rayla had thought ahead and traded for a good chunk of rock salt for each of them.

 

After they had settled down, Callum unfurled the letter.

 

“To Callum”, he started reading out loud, still chewing, “and the young elf woman.”

 

She blinked. “Come again?”

 

“Well Ez would’ve told her about you, right?”

 

“Oh, that’s right. She totally forgot my name though. Keep goin’!”

 

“I first want to make sure you trust this letter to be genuine. The food at Banther Lodge is still weapons grade.”, he chuckled, remembering the excellent quip she’d made more than three months ago, “Second I would like to give a short overview of the ongoings in Katolis. Ezran is a good, responsible King...”

 

Rayla elbowed him, spilling some water on herself from her canteen, “See! I told you he was gonna be good at it!”

 

“Let me finish! Ezran is a good, responsible King, but he is taking a lot of time to make decisions, ensuring he understands all the details of an issue and speaking to his advisers.”

 

She sighed, “Fine, he’s a responsible slowpoke.” As she finished the sentence, she scanned her clothes for water but couldn’t find any. “Gah! It’s so hot!”

 

Callum chuckled, then continued, “Viren has shown himself to be a traitor and we’ve arrested him on charges of murder and subversion as he killed several guards in an escape attempt. Subversion, because he posed as Katolis’ Regent at a meeting of the pentarchy, trying to stoke the fires of war. He has since succeeded an escape attempt and is nowhere to be found.”

 

“That’s great. Crazy dark wizard just runnin’ about! Now that drawin’ of him bookin’ it makes sense.”

 

“I’m sure you’re burning for news of Claud...”, he immediately closed his mouth, staring at Rayla.

 

“It’s fine. Claudia is never goin’ to tickle you to a wheeze under a disgusting tree in the middle of nowhere. Me on the other hand...”

 

She lunged for him but he swiftly rolled out of her range where he sat up laughing and coughing with her in the dust. Once they had settled down, he continued reading.

 

“I’m sure you’re burning for news of Claudia and Soren. I’m sorry to disappoint, but they have left the court for Del Bar after their father escaped.”, Callum put the letter down. “Oh, so they went to see their mom.”

 

Rayla motioned for him to continue, chewing. She was not interested in Viren’s spawn.

 

“Your father’s bird seems to have escaped during that turmoil, as well. Sorry Callum, I know you guys really loved him.”, he let the letter sink and put a hand to his face, “Aww no, poor Pip. He deserved better.”

 

“He’s a bird! He doesn’t need humans to look after him, does he?”

 

“I don’t know. He was born in captivity, so he probably doesn’t have a lot of bird life-skills.”

 

“Kinda like you. You’re only now turnin’ into a proper survivalist”, she razzed.

 

Ignoring her barb, he continued, “That’s all I know of home. I’m at the frontlines myself, trying to execute on Ezran’s orders to prevent as much fighting as I can. We really hope you can make it to the Dragon Queen soon. The other kingdoms are furious about elven incursions into their borders and the situation is getting worse by the day.  Everyone is spoiling for a fight since the elves assassinated the queen of Evenere.”

 

“Whaaat?!”, Rayla exclaimed, “How would that even work? Evenere is so far away from the border it would’ve taken months of prep work to get there! Seems odd. There wasn’t really any talk about ’n attack on them, it was always just Katolis! You guys are the largest, closest and most dangerous.”

 

“Well, all they seem to know is that it was elves.” Callum shrugged, “Maybe you weren’t included in that meeting.”

 

She shrugged, still sceptical.

 

“I ran into this guy Helmond at a border fortress. He seems like he has a broom up his rear end, bristles first...” The two erupted in laughter, “...but he let me know that you two are getting along maybe a little too well which raises some questions in my mind…” Callum trailed off, silently reading the next few paragraphs. He flushed to a boil and looked up at his girlfriend, gaping.

 

Rayla blinked curiously, but couldn’t help feeling some spiteful satisfaction at the thought of the stabby General imagining the two together and losing her marbles. `Too well`?! She motioned her boyfriend to continue; she couldn’t wait to hear an explanation for that one.

 

Haltingly, he did. “Uh…, which raises some questions in my mind like `Did Harrow ever talk to you about women... and where babies come from?”

 

Rayla flushed. Not what she had expected, at all.

 

He laughed flatly at her flustered expression, “She’s giving us `the talk`. My dad got that out of the way when I was, like, 13. He said he wanted to make sure I understood how it all worked. To help me avoid mistakes and regrets.”

 

“I… don’t know anythin’ about... `it`, other than what I’ve gleaned myself”, she said, studying the ground with embarrassment and a bit of sorrow in her eyes.

 

He understood what she meant. A lot of people had issues with addressing this topic with kids their age. Not everyone had the luxury of having the King of Katolis as their stepfather. His dad had always been good with awkward and hard topics. It’s what had made him an amazing orator.

 

Callum swallowed hard. He was not an amazing orator.

 

“D-Do you… want me to read it?”, he said, “She must’ve been sweating stones while writing this, she is not great with this stuff.”

 

She gave him an odd glance, then nodded slowly.

 

Her boyfriend sighed, then looked down at the letter.

 

“We know that elves work in many of the same ways we do in this respect. At some point in your travels there might be a moment where you’re being close with her. Your body might react in a way that you don’t expect. That’s called arousal. Men will show their arousal clearly, their…”

 

He flushed an even deeper shade of red and stuttered, “uh.... um… y-yeah. I-I g-guess I’ll say it!”, he laughed nervously, then quickly rattled off the rest of the sentence, “...penis getting stiff. For women it’s a lot more subtle and you’ll probably have a hard time telling if she feels the same way. She might just breathe faster, or feel warmer to the touch. She might experience some... w-wetness between her l-legs. It’s really n-not easy to tell.”

 

Callum took a deep breath, avoiding to look at Rayla.

 

“So, if you feel like touching her in ways you haven’t yet, you need to ask her if that’s okay. She might have a similar feeling and you should expect her to ask before touching you, too. You need to agree to everything you’re doing from that point on and respect your answers. If she says `no`, it’s not happening. If you say `no`, it’s not happening. It is very private and very special to share in these things. In any case, it will have consequences. Good ones and bad ones. That’s why you need to be absolutely sure about everything you do.”

 

He looked around as Zym attempted to catch a grasshopper.

 

Catching his girlfriend’s expression made him snort a little. She had her face buried in her hands, the bits of her that he could see a  solid, inky purple.

 

This was uncomfortable on so many levels - he understood why it was so difficult. The topic was taboo, in both their cultures. Amaya’s usual tone didn’t come through in this part of the letter. She had clearly struggled to find the words.

 

“If you and her agree on sleeping with each other, be gentle and careful and demand the same of her. Take it slow and listen to your head and heart, don’t follow the urges you will feel. Trust me when I say that you won’t have trouble understanding how the actual act works, it’s as easy as eating. What’s important is that you’ll have to be very conscious of the consequences. If you were in Katolis, I’d tell you to use sheepskin condoms, they would help with this next problem. I obviously doubt you’ll find anything like that on the road. There are a lot of nasty diseases that lurk around one’s private parts and you’ll want to be sure to get very clean both before and after. That doesn’t always help and you can still get very, very sick.”

 

The prince blinked. Harrow hadn’t told him that in such clear terms. He flipped the letter.

 

“Then, there’s the issue of babies. When a man and woman have sex, there will come a moment where they feel intense and very good. That’s an orgasm. At that time, a liquid will come from the p-penis and, if any of it gets near or inside a w-woman’s v-v-vag-ina, she could become pregnant. The best way to avoid all these problems is to not have sex, obviously, but I’ve been young and I know how tempting it all is. Trust me when I say that waiting for the perfect person and the perfect moment is something you should absolutely do with this. A good experience isn’t any more special than an amazing meal. A bad experience might haunt you for a lifetime, keeping you up in the wee hours with self-doubt and regret.”

 

Rayla snickered into her hands, “That last part sounds vaguely familiar, at least!”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“That’s the most I’ve ever gotten as answer to my questions. `Don’t ever do it`, and  `A pregnant assassin is as useless as a dead one`”, she replied with some frustration, “Not like I don’t get that. There’s no way I’d let anything... `happen` while we’re on this mission.”

 

“I know what you mean. Still; It’s strange thinking that you know how to kill and survive in the wild and all that, but they didn’t give you this?”

 

“We’re secret keepers, Callum. An assassin’s kill is horrifyin’, but not personal or awkward. Runaan didn’t deal well with awkward. Loads of people are comfortable with the thought of me covered in mine and other people’s blood, just as long as everyone’s wearin’ clothes.”

 

Callum nodded, disgusted by the mental image.

He went back to reading.

 

“... hm… ah, here. You’re spending a lot more time with each other than people who are your age normally would, so please, be careful and apply your good sense to everything you guys are doing. Your mission is so important. There’s a saying; `Fight puts together what goes together`. It means that no matter who or where you are, if you do something mortally dangerous together, there’s a good chance you’ll develop very strong feelings for each other. I was glad to hear you’ve found someone you feel you can trust and I really hope it all goes well for you two.”

 

He shared a warm glance with his girlfriend who was now feeling like a jerk. She had expected at least a paragraph telling him to leave her, not the exact opposite.

 

Callum kept reading, now more comfortable with the subject matter. “Helmond seems to be a good egg. He burst into our ceasefire meeting and turned the place into a battlefield, but he made sure I knew what was going on. That gives me a good gut feeling about this Elf in particular. It seems they are still discussing what to do about him while I’m sitting in his office writing this so I’m going to go keep him company. Maybe freshen up his signing a little. He almost made me lose it, greeting me with the most butchered figures I’ve ever seen. If you can, send me a message back and don’t forget to give me a secret so I know it’s really you. No Banther Lodge stuff. Your girlfriend was there and I obviously can’t tell if this is just a ruse to get information out of me somehow. While Helmond seems nice enough, I don’t really trust him yet. Remember, use your heart for love and your head for everything else. Be smart. Aunt Amaya.”

 

Callum smirked at her signature because she had first started writing ‘General’ out of habit, then crossed that out and written ‘Aunt’. He then looked up, smiling. “I never thought a piece of paper could make me feel so good. I mean, sure it was a page of her wagging her finger at us, but… still. It’s like a piece of home.  I’ll just write her an answer.”

 

“Can I write my own?”, she asked.

 

“I don’t see why not.”

 

After they had finished writing their letters, Callum picked up the eagle arrow they had received from Amaya.

 

“Don’t bother. They aren’t reusable.”, Rayla told him, “We’ll have to use one of our own. Plus, you’ll have to shoot since I don’t have a bond with your aunt.”

 

“Yet!”, he said confidently and received the bow and arrow from her, “How do I make this work?”

 

She took the devices back and showed him the stance and how to draw back the string and arrow.

 

He tried it, barely able to draw the sinew under his chin. “Oh! Oof!”, he gasped, “You made that look so easy!”

 

“That’s ‘cause it is, you wet rag! Come on,you can do it! Try it with a normal arrow first. Shoot at that tree.”

 

He stood sideways, like she’d shown him, lining up the tree. Then he struggled with the sinew and aimed. The entire affair shook like a young tree in the wind. When the arrow came off the string and landed harmlessly on his boot, he jerked away, letting go of the bow, causing its intricate wooden body to fly back into his face. To top it all off, he fell backwards stiff as a bent lead pipe, landing straight on his butt.

 

Rayla buckled over laughing, attempting to make sure he was alright while not being able to stand herself.

 

He was reassembling himself on the ground, rubbing his reddening cheek. “Ha, Ha! Very funny!”, he mocked with his head between the bow’s body and sinew, amusement reflecting in his eyes despite himself, “I told you before; I’m really bad at everything!”

 

Crying tears of laughter, she wheezed, “Not… any… more! Try… again! That… was… so funny! I’m… so sorry!”

 

After a moment, they both got up and she showed him the proper stance again, firing the arrow and missing the tree barely.

 

“See, it’s not an easy thin’ to do. I’m not a good archer myself. Lucky for us the hawk arrow does most of the work. It just needs a bit of a jolt, is all.”

 

He set himself up again. This time he sent the arrow flying, hitting the tree smack dab in its center. “Nice shot!”, Rayla commended.

 

“Let’s do the hawk arrow, then, before my arm falls off.”, he complained, placing the device on the string. Firing, he thought of his aunt’s face and shouted, “General Amaya!”

 

At first, the arrow just limply sailed through the air like one would imagine a somewhat heavy metal object to do. Then it started picking up speed and was soon gone from view.

 

“That’s it?”, Callum asked and Rayla nodded, taking back the quiver and bow.

 

“We should camp here. I don’t want to be walking into this thing. Bad enough it’s probably gonna get blown over here once night falls.”, she threw a hand over her shoulder at the anvil cloud whose far edge had impacted the mountains. Below it now reigned pandemonium. By the looks of it, a solid column of water was descending from the formation.

 

“That’s really gonna swell the river”, said Callum, furrowing his brows, “You think we should get to higher ground?”

 

“We better”, she agreed, impressed with his improving instincts, “We also need to refill our canteens. The water’s goin’ to be muddy beyond good and evil.”

 

“I’ll do that, if you want to find us a hill.”

 

She nodded, already climbing one of the creepy tentacle trees.

 

As Callum was descending the Ibalin’s banks, he noticed a few flowers, rustling in the hot breeze. How did that song go again?

 

He smirked.

 

If she could have a secret, so could he.

Chapter Text

Torlan slept comfortably, the Arler down bedding conforming to his broad shoulders. The room at the inn in Larwein had not been light on his pouch - but it wasn’t like he would get much comfort in the near future.

 

After setting his father free, he had held a fake funeral for him. He'd also held a tearful real one for the fallen comrades in arms they had lost against Ithral, and worse, against their own people. Burning their bodies had been hard on him and his soldiers but he was hoping that their sacrifice would lead to peace more readily than had they fallen at the Breach.

 

Torlan could not wait to share all these secrets with the people in his command. Responsibility would have to be taken and they would lose a lot of trust in him, but he felt he owed them an explanation.

 

Chalise had been quiet the past few days and he was hoping to never hear from her again. Obviously, he knew she was his direct superior and would be in contact sooner rather than later.

 

He startled awake when he heard a noise next to him, a creaking floorboard.

 

In the dark, filling his vision, sat a muscular, human shape. Torlan instantly recognized the headhunter. She had pulled the small stool to the foot of his bed and placed Moon Cleaver on the covers. The blade reached from beyond his toes to his chest.

 

“Ye better keep your mouth shut, bruiser”, she said quietly, “If ye wanna live. I ain’t here for ye. Tell me ye know where them midgets went. Yer little theatre with the flyin’ cow might’ve fooled yer lot, but I know what it looks like when one of them bucks and runs wild. Killed more than a few of their riders, after all. Panics them somethin’ fierce.”

 

He sat up slowly, all too aware of the oddly dim steel near his stomach. “I am not sure what you mean”, he said, cold sweat covering his hands.

 

“Then lemme make this clear as can be”, she leaned in, whispering neutrally, “If you don’t give me somethin’ to go on, I will off ye. Then I will chop up them tied up lovers downstairs. Then I’ll start goin’ door to door until not a single soul’s left in this hole. Ye killed my only reason for livin’, y’all gotta pay for that somehow.”

 

“There are a great many soldiers in this `hole`. You will not get far.”

 

He shifted to get away from her, the covers slipping lower on his body. With cold terror he realized that Moon Cleaver was dripping. Drops of a cold, dark liquid hit his naked abdomen.

 

“Are there? Ye’ve a good few more bodies to burn, I reckon.”, she sat back, giving her blade a motherly look, “I’ve kept‘er keen. Ith had the strength for the crush. I need the cut. How proper she looks, fitted all blue.”

 

He was dead either way. In his mind, there was no question about it. If he stayed silent, this woman would make good on her threat. Could he weigh three lives against the four oct souls of Larwein? Three lives that might mean thousands saved down the line on both sides of a major war? Would she even keep her word?

 

“Time’s wastin’”, she said, impatiently.

 

“Even if I could tell you what you want to know, I cannot trust you to leave Larwein untouched if I give you the information you seek. You must see how this is not a winnable choice for me.”

 

“Oh, no. Ye can trust me to leave this stain on a map as quick as my legs will go. They’ve go’ a two-day head start and I won’t’ve no patience to sit ‘n slice up town if ye tell me where they went. But, also trust me to know the lay o’ the land. If I don’t find’em where you say they are, I’ll be back here in no time at all.”

 

Helmond’s son swallowed heavily, his mouth dry. The people of Larwein had done nothing wrong. They were as far removed from the fighting and intrigue as could be. They had cooperated. They had children, even newborns. Just today, he’d eaten dinner with a family who had invited him to stay. Could he kill his people to preserve a human, a quasi-traitor and a dragon? If the people here were soldiers, he would not have qualms. But this…?

 

Moon Cleaver moved in the dark, now grazing his neck. He became acutely aware of the sensation of having a body. No amount of training could have prepared him for this. “What’ll it be, boy?”

 

A few moments later, Kel Ortis stepped out of the inn and took in the village’s main square. The two templarii of the night watch were draped decoratively in its center, their white uniforms taking on a sickly shade of indigo. “Bloody amateurs”, Kel thought. She had struck them down without them even having a chance to pause their idle conversation. Auxilia was tough work if they met you head on, but cattle for the slaughter once they relaxed. They were an army made for honorable combat, not for dirty work.

 

Dragging warm indigo across her fur clad back, she sheathed Moon Cleaver. With a glint of appreciation in her eye, she exited the village, turning north east, toward the mountains.

Chapter Text

Amaya was coming to a stand, at ease, next to Helmond, quietly appreciating the fact that both of them had settled into similar postures. Not so different after all.

 

‘Good time making letter?’, he signed, giving her a glance.

 

She shrug-nodded. It had been more awkward than anything she’d ever written before, but she had felt a responsibility.

 

The general had told her people to grab some sleep and spent some time sprinting in the courtyard to shake some of the tiredness that was creeping to her limbs. It was getting late to the point of early now and the elves inside the Plenum were evidently still busy with their arguments, seeing as the doors were closed.

 

‘Are they making progress?’, she asked.

 

‘Stupid’, he replied simply.

 

It was enough to make her smirk, exhaling sharply. This guy was either the funniest elf she’d ever met or the most serious and she couldn’t tell which was more hilarious.

 

‘You are an amusing person, Legate’

 

‘I don’t agree. I’m very serious.’

 

‘Maybe it’s just your rusty figures then?’

 

‘Yes. Speaking well is important. It stops failures... ’, He stopped to think then signed, ‘...to give information’

 

‘You can also just speak.’

 

‘I like this. It makes better an old knowledge and the guards don’t know it. It’s private.’

 

He turned away from her to a guard who had walked up to him. After a moment, he turned back to her.

 

‘Letters for you’, he signed, handing her two rolls of thick sketching paper.

 

There was her first clue as to the writer.

 

‘Thank you. I will go read them.’

 

‘Bye-Bye’, he signed importantly, making her smirk again.

 

‘I somehow doubt you wanted that one. Goodbye?’, she suggested, ‘It’s a bit different. Touch your face first.’

 

‘Goodbye’ he signed, sheepishly.

 

Back in Helmond’s office, Amaya filled herself a cup of water from a magic wall fountain. Running about had dried her out.

 

She dropped into his simple, but comfortable chair and took a sip. The first letter was written in fine but impatient, untrained script.

 

“General. My name is Rayla.”

 

Amaya sat back, smirking wryly. Whoops. She had noticed. Clever girl.

 

“I wanted to start out this letter by saying how much I loved hearing from you. Your approval means a lot to us. Callum respects you but I’ve not had the chance to get to know you. I admire your skill, but I also think you are a menace. To me you're best known as a killer of people who look like me. Getting past our first impression is going to be hard for me. It’s not often you and someone else try to kill each other and then you send them friendly mail, talking about loving their nephew. Here’s hoping we’ll meet on better terms at some point.”

 

Amaya frowned. She had a point, it was going to be supremely awkward if they ever met. She picked up her cup of water and kept reading.

 

“I do love Callum. There’s no other way to describe it. On that topic, he read your letter to me and I really appreciate your worry. It was the first time I got to hear of these things in a way that didn't make me feel abnormal. Of course I feel the need to let you know that we're not doing anything.”

 

The general was relieved to read these words. At the same time the fact that she had inadvertently given someone she'd never met `the talk` made her feel somewhat uncomfortable.

 

“I have a lot of respect for him and the mission. I would never do something to risk either. Where those two priorities can’t work at the same time, I will find a third option. Callum was hugging your letter. Safe to say, he misses home. As for my part, I am glad to have this chance to make a second impression on you without being in arm’s reach. Hearing you are fighting for peace is such a relief. If anyone can make an impression on the crusty old people in the Senate, it’s you. Helmond may be able to make some change, too, being a Legate. But he’s very much caught up in traditions, still. If I can give you some advice? Bring your shield. Please be well. Rayla.”

 

Amaya put the letter down, reflecting on it briefly. She seemed like a serious young woman who might one day end up near and dear to her own heart. It felt a little like receiving mail from a younger, less jaded version of herself. She was a soldier, too. That was bound to breed some commonalities, spanning the differences of race and upbringing. Especially the line of finding a third option - that was civvy speak for ‘I’ll just throw my life at the problem and hope it makes a difference’. There was a twinge of guilt in the back of Amaya’s mind, one that she’d felt since she had first learned about Rayla’s intentions from Ezran. She had almost killed her. Mostly because she was an elf. At the time, she barely needed another reason. That had changed since.

 

The general picked up Callum’s letter. Taking another sip of her water, she started reading.

 

“Dear Aunt Amaya. Thank you for the extremely embarrassing letter. The secret is ‘butter tarts - mom’s birthday - shoe shine’.”

 

Amaya smiled warmly, remembering one of the last big feasts their whole family had enjoyed together. Tiny Callum had made it his mission to distribute the butter filling from his pastry on everyone’s shoes, crawling on the floor.

 

“I want to make sure you know that we’re being safe, in all regards. Dad’s been pretty good about explaining things. About our mission. Rayla knows a lot about - well, everything, really. She’s amazing and I think you will get on really well once you meet her again in a few months. I don’t know what she is putting in her letter, so I want to make sure that you know how much we both enjoyed hearing from you.”

 

The general couldn’t help but agree. The elf very obviously knew a lot, he certainly couldn’t have stayed alive out there alone.

 

“As you said, Helmond is a good egg. He has some hangups, but so do we all. I think you’ll like him, if not as a person, as a soldier.  He seems to have that effect on people. I don’t know how safe it is to mention where we are in this letter so I won’t - but I wanted to give you an idea of the crazy landscapes we’ve been traveling through.”

 

A drawing followed. Odd leathery trees with umbrella-like leaves, a picture of a creature that looked like a dog with giant fangs.

 

“I’m glad Ez is doing well. I was worried he was going to have problems, like Aanya.”

 

“He has the opposite issue”, Amaya thought, misinterpreting the line about Duren’s civil war, “He’s not quick-witted, she fails to see the long term.”

 

“Rayla has her doubts about elves being responsible for the Assassination in Evenere. She says it makes little sense and she never heard any talk of it as a mission. That’s maybe something you should investigate.”

 

The general’s eyebrows furrowed. Interesting. She had had her own doubts but pushed them aside, believing the Queen’s guards probably knew what a Moonshadow elf looked like. This reopened that file for her.

 

“I’m sad about Pip. Hopefully he’s found a good place to settle down. Speaking of animal companions, you should let Helmond and the other elves know that their prince is a lazy bum, doing nothing much other than be adorable and ride on Rayla’s shoulders.”

 

Amaya readjusted her position for comfort. It would likely be amusing to see the elves lose their minds over having their prince insulted thusly, but she would refrain.

 

“About Viren - He wouldn’t let me see dad the night the elves came. We had found Zym’s Egg and were going to go talk to him. I think he is very scared of what the Elves might do to Katolis. I’m sure he comes from a good place. He’s a gruff old man, but dad liked him a lot. Depended on him. Obviously that doesn’t excuse anything he’s done. About his kids - I’m glad to hear Soren is alright. Last time we saw him, he got smacked by a dragon’s tail. Claudia… let’s just say I’m over her. Thoroughly.”

 

The general harrumphed. What a surprise! Ezran had been full of stories about those two misguided souls. Plus, going through a lot with Rayla, he likely had closed Claudia’s much less involved chapter in his love life.

 

“Fight has a way of putting together what goes together”, Amaya repeated, then continued reading.

 

“Finally, I’d like to ask you to give Ez a hug from me if you get the chance. I miss you guys so badly and can’t wait to come back home. Please stay safe. Callum. P.S. We don’t have a lot of arrows so don’t expect us to answer another message. Sorry.”

 

Amaya was glad. Whether or not this would be the last she would hear of them for the moment, she felt more at rest with the situation. She even appreciated the post scriptum because it told her that they were being resource conscious.

 

She stretched and got up to rejoin her elven friend.

 

He seemingly had not moved from his spot, but was now leaning against the wall rather than standing free. When he saw her approach, he nodded at her.

 

‘Good letters?’

 

‘I would say so. Thank you for giving me the chance to give them a message.’

 

‘You see nothing wrong with them? I do not…”, he thought for a moment, ‘...like them. Together.’

 

‘Why not?’

 

‘Elf. Human. Somehow it is wrong in my head.’

 

Amaya frowned.

 

‘If you cannot justify it to me, why do you believe it?’

 

He shrugged.

 

‘I don’t know. I am old. I do not have to care about young things. My approval is not important.’

 

‘Then why are you here? If new things make you uncomfortable, why do you want peace?’

 

'Rayla didn’t make me go away after I attacked them. It made me understand my fault. Also, this is a secret, but I will give it. You know I have a son. He is a soldier. I do not want him to go away. We only spoke two days before. Last time I saw him, he was tiny. I want to see him again, more.’

 

She nodded.

 

‘I can appreciate that.’

 

Suddenly, there was commotion. The doors swung open and four guards stepped out of the Plenum.

 

Amaya saw still faces.

 

Helmond likewise heard nothing save for a call for his rank and name.

 

‘I will be back. Goodbye.’

Chapter Text

Helmond stepped into the middle of the plenum, taking in the scene. Chalise was standing to the side, her head bowed. She was weeping. From the stands, delegates of the three tribes present in the border region observed him. Silver wing was now in his back, his tribe and largest presence. Red wing, the brash sun-followers, to his right, and finally, a small detachment of pretentious sky elves to his left in the white wing. Some delegates showed a hint of a smile. Others frowned. He had no idea how to gauge the mood.

 

“Legate Helmond”, said a new, somewhat unfamiliar voice.

 

Helmond faced the speaker. The assembly had chosen a new Interpreter. Elation at his victory caused him to smirk slightly.

 

“This vessel is Interpreter Aldaris.”, the regent said, from another female body that was known to Helmond.

 

“...and this vessel is Interpreter Ivine.”, came a more feminine voice from next to him.

 

Aldaris was middle aged, wearing the traditional robes of a decorated civil delegate. Her expression was even and smooth, the dragon’s emotions not puncturing her mien just yet.

 

Ivine was old and bent by time. She was dressed in illusionist garb. Her careworn eyes regarded Helmond, pleasantly.

 

Both dragons had decided to join the Senate for this session. His smirk faded. Normally, they were busy in different places of the world at the same time. Them both being here meant something extremely important was going to be done here, tonight.

 

Ivine stepped forward. “I have called you from retirement, Helmond. Through my mate. I apologise. Perhaps I should have known better.”

 

Her tone was genuinely sweet and concerned, like that of a grandmother hearing the words “I’ve not eaten yet.”

 

“You have been an exemplary servant of our state. Explain why this is no longer so”, said the regent.

 

“It has not changed, Excellencies. I apologise for my poor record of late. When I started my service, I vowed `My hands for harmony`, and I intend to carry this burden forward until I burn. All I’ve done in my own name was in the service of that goal.”

 

“Harmony!”, the regent flared, but his queen placed a quieting hand on his arm.

 

“Helmond, I understand how you might believe that peace with the Pentarchy is a worthy goal. Peace with humanity would spare countless lives. But, it is not us who are the aggressors, it is them who see our gardens as sources for their disgusting practices. It is them who cannot see past the colour of your skin. It is them who slew your son tonight.”

 

Helmond started his rebuttal, but froze.

 

“They… gave me this…”, said Chalise haltingly, stripped bare of her privileges, rank and motivations.

She handed him a letter. “I am sorry Helmond. He was a good boy. I tried to warn you. You should have done as ordered. He would still live if you had.”

 

The Legate unrolled the letter, reading it in silence. When he was done, there was no sound that could express his grief, so he said nothing. Did nothing. He had no reason to distrust this letter, sealed by his son’s own ring. He stood in the highest halls to be had near the border - and had no voice.

 

“Legate”, Lunaris Regina started, “I am so sorry for your loss. We will mourn your son, as he is due.”

 

The Plenum fell utterly silent.

 

Helmond felt nothing but emptiness. Oh, he had felt sadness. Grief. This was so much worse. He wanted to feel. Wanted there to be a way forward. It did not come to him. Had this happened three days ago, he would have likely wept and continued his work. But now? Now he’d made plans to see his son again, to be a father to him.

 

“I can not continue.”, he said, too quietly to be heard, turning to the door.

 

“Legate, you are not dismissed.”, the Draconarch said, his voice heavy with sorrow, “We feel your pain. It is the same pain most dragons felt at the news of Regem Draconis‘ death and Azmondias’ disappearance. It is imperative that we make plans to ward off further danger to Xadia tonight. Much of that hinges on your position, Legate. We have heard a great number of accolades in your favour tonight. Our conversation is at a standstill. If you say, the human prince can be trusted to deliver his charge, we will likely argue to instate a armistice until it is so.”

 

The officer turned back and faced his lords, his face without emotion.
Torlan’s face swam on his consciousness.
He saw him, as a newborn, sleeping peacefully in his mother’s arms.

He saw him, as a child, playing with figurines of soldiers.
He saw him, in the clearing, in the moment of startled recognition.
He saw him, in the town square, attacking him.
He saw him, looking over his shoulder while he helped him escape.

He saw him, talking to Rayla and Callum in the forest.

 

“Lord”, he started shakily, “I trust them to deliver their charge. I’ve made that abundantly clear. I placed my trust in them. This however...”, he threw the letter to the ground and exploded, never having felt such anger. His voice doubled over, instantly turning hoarse as he admonished the leaders of his people, “How DARE you use this tangentially related personal tragedy to attempt to sway this high body!?”

 

The entire Senate stared at him, aghast at his outburst.

 

“You blame the humans for everything! Everything! If tomorrow, your food was spoilt in your cellars, it would fall on them! If you found hair in your drink, you would pour it in their faces! They have killed us for eons! We have killed them for eons! How will we make progress if all we ever do is pay back sins in kind? Blood feuds are outlawed among the tribes since the days when Xadia was whole! How is it, we recognize the wisdom of such measures among our people, but not in dealing with our enemies?”

 

He started walking the circumference of the Plenum’s center.

 

“The Sicarius Assassin spared my life! She showed me that murder must not automatically beget murder, that soldiers have a moral choice to make, even under orders! The Prince gave me no grief, even after I had tried to kill him! He understood his place to be one of inquiry, not influence - an example you would do well to follow, Lords! Do what you will! I cannot prevent you from seeking battle with this enemy. I cannot sway you if you are eager to place blame and instigate the killing of thousands to make up for your lack of communication! For lack of innovation! Lack of will! But, yes! My son was killed by a human! A bounty hunter! Criminal! Terrorist! Stateless vagabond! Blaming the Pentarchy will serve your bellicose agenda but fail to deliver any semblance of justice!”

 

He was now standing right in front of the Dragons.

 

“You put on the air of caring parents, but you understand little what this loss means to me! To us!”, he thrust his right hand at the silver wing, meaning moon elves, “You do not appreciate our culture, otherwise this letter would have been handed to me, personally, not thrown at me by my would-be killer under the open sky! You do not feel as we do! Sol Regem would still have the sight of his eyes if it was so!”

 

The pure, unadulterated shock across every face he saw gave him numb satisfaction.

 

“I say you are nothing but lizards in this moment, looking to vanquish a people you cannot control! Oh, they are a menace, those humans, doubtless! BUT. SO. ARE. WE. I am living proof of this!”

 

He lifted his hands in the air, spreading his fingers.

 

“I alone have rivers of blood coursing over my palms, both indigo and red! I took this debt upon myself in your service. But...”, he was now speaking hoarsely and quietly, his gaze wandering aimlessly, “... but that... is over now. I shall not compromise myself any longer.”

 

He stepped back and bowed, then smartly turned and left the room with no further challenge.

 

A breath’s length later, the entire silver wing got up, accounting for a little less than half of the assembled delegates. In near perfect synchronicity, they filed out behind him.

 

Chapter Text

The anvil cloud in the distance had not moved since yesterday and that was a comfort to Rayla. If it discharged over there, they would be safe over here.

 

When they woke up, they had heard roaring water mixed with the crack and crash of breaking trees from the river and the commotion had not stopped since.

 

They had found shelter for the night under a large sandstone arch standing on a hill. The arch kept the heat at bay now, as well. Plus, the wind didn’t quite seem to know where it should blow from today.

 

“Are we going?”, Callum asked, eyeing the formation worriedly.

 

“No?”, she scoffed, “You see this `Storm`dragon look at that `Storm` bein’ all eager to go?”

 

Azymondias was sitting with his back to the menace, glancing over his shoulder ever so often. He was not eager.

 

“Point taken”, her boyfriend said and scanned the landscape away from the dark shape.

 

“I think I’ll busy myself in those bushes over there, then. I think they’re churn berries. It’d be nice to eat something other than Lembas and salt.”

 

Rayla nodded, sitting back. “You go do that”

 

“What, you’re not gonna help?”

 

“No.”

 

“Okay then?”

 

As he trudged off downhill, she smirked at his back. It felt good, knowing that his shoulder wound was healing at a great pace, and she could tell it would turn into an interesting scar for him to talk about.

 

Patting her own arm, she felt confident. When they had switched the poultice out for a normal bandage, the swelling and other signs of infection had been much reduced.

 

Once he was out of sight, she jumped up. Today was the day her surprise was finally due, with the sandstone of the arch she had everything she needed.

 

Callum was picking berries, popping a few into his mouth ever so often. The sun felt nicer in the dry heat than it did yesterday and since the winds kept turning, he was buffeted by a cool, sandless breeze most of the time.

 

The berries were sickly sweet and their juice slightly viscous. He didn’t think much of it, seeing as they were a bit dry, too.

 

Eventually, Rayla joined him, calling him over.

“Got bored up there?”, he asked, hugging her.

“Maybe.”, she said coyly, “How are the berries?”

 

“Sweeter than I expected, actually, I thought churn berries would be more tart. I guess drying them out does that.”

 

He offered her a berry.

 

She eyed the fruit and gave him an incredulous look, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

 

“Callum. Just yesterday, I said that you were becomin’ good at survival. One day later, I take my eyes off you for maybe half an hour, and here you are. Blissfully gobblin’ twist bell.”

 

“Twist bell?!”, he spat.

 

“How many did you have?”

 

“I dunno maybe two hands full? I thought twist bell has seeds on the outside!”

 

“It does! When it’s fresh and not dried out by the sun! They pop off when the fruit shrinks! Well, dummy, you are in for the ride of your life. We better sit you down.”

 

They returned to the arch and Callum flopped on the ground.

 

“I don’t feel anything, Ray-ray.”

 

“That so?”, she seemed vaguely amused under her concern, “You just called me Ray-ray”

 

He fell over, laughing. “Oh that is so funny! Ray-ray, why am I so funny?”

 

“You’re not.”

 

“Oh this is bad, isn’t it? I feel like I can’t stop smirking!”

 

“You’re fine. It’ll pass. Bells aren’t dangerous if you don’t eat many. Some idiots even eat’em for fun.”, she grabbed his head and ordered, “Look at me.”

 

His eyes rolled into place.

 

“Woah. You’re really pretty. Like the sun!”, he pointed vaguely at it, “Is that why they call you Ray-la?”

 

She chuckled, checking the whites of his eyes for telltale reddening.

 

“I’m a moon elf! People wouldn’t name me for the sun!”

 

“The moon has rays, TOO!”, he yelled angrily.

 

She smirked and pet his face, then let go of him, “I just can’t let you go out on your own, can I?”

 

“No, I do dumb stuff when you’re not watching.”

 

“Ugh, yeah you do. What did we learn?”

 

“Don’t eat berries”

 

“None of them?”

 

“Maybe Moonberries?”

 

“Maybe Moonberries”, she repeated with a nod, “Do you feel lightheaded?”

 

“Oh. Yes! My head is a cloud. Just, off.”, he waved his hands in the air, “There it goes! Bye head!”, he looked at her and said, sadly, “It was a pretty head!”

 

“Pretty stupid, maybe”

 

She hugged him and he went quiet.

 

“Wha’?”, she challenged, not quite able to keep from grinning.

 

“Rayla”, he said, all too seriously, “You never have to tell me why you’re reading weird books and playing with pebbles.”, he started giggling, “But only if I never have to tell you why I like picking flowers.”

 

“You like pickin’ flowers?”

 

“I just told you, you can’t ask!”

 

“Alright, alright!”, she snorted.

 

This was absurd. She felt both amused and worried, not sure if the dose he'd eaten was okay for him.

 

“Look at the kitty-cat!”, he yelled, startling her.

 

He was pointing at Zym who was cleaning his wing, stopping mid-lick to eye them inquisitively.

 

“He is not a kitty-cat, Callum, he’s a dragon!”

 

“Yeah I know, a real drag-on my nerves! He needs to learn how to fly for long stretches! He can’t ride you all day, I want my turn!”

 

She swatted at him.

 

“I can't carry you, dummy!”

 

He just stared, giggled weakly, then fell forward into her arms.

 

“What, did you run out of steam already?”, she asked.

 

He nodded shakily. “Oh. Rayla, I’m gonna be sick.”

 

She quickly spun him away from her, just in time.

 

“You are such a pain in the rear end!”, she said lovingly, patting his back, “Can’t give you a simple task, like firin’ a bow and arrow or pickin’ berries.”

 

He groaned, “I really don’t feel good right now”

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Just…need  sleep.”, he mumbled.

 

“Alright, you big, dumb human, come here.”

 

Rayla - despite what she had just said - picked him up and carried him to where they had slept last night with some effort. He clung to her like a baby and she could almost call it adorable, were it not for the fact that he was bulkier than her at the same height, making him very awkward to hold on to.

 

Twist bell had a way of rapidly drilling into your head, exiting the same way it had entered the body and then leaving you completely incapacitated for a few hours. After untangling herself from him, she tucked him in, shaking her head at his pale face.

 

---

 

When Callum came to, the dark world was spinning in five directions at once. He was panicking.

 

“Rayla!”, he yelled and soon felt her kneel next to him.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Is it normal that I see five copies of everything that all move in different directions?”

 

“Close your eyes, it’ll go away in a moment. You’re going to be totally fine.”

 

He did. “So how come you know how to deal with this stuff?”

 

“You think you’re the only one who ever gets those two plants mixed up? Fat chance. Lil’ Rayla made the same mistake. Runaan was so annoyed.”

 

“I bet that wasn’t fun.”

 

“Not likely. It was also way more dangerous. I was little, I could’ve died. He was mad for the right reasons.”

 

He felt her hands lift his head and then the half-firmness of her thighs. Her fingers started tussling his hair.

 

“This is  nice”, he said quietly, “I still feel like I’m spinning a little though.”

 

“Well, stop it”, she said, kissing his forehead.

 

He opened his eyes and she came into focus.

 

“Hey”, she said warmly, “feel better?”

 

“Seeing you always makes me feel better.”

 

She snickered. Sappy prince. “notice anythin’ different?”

 

“New pendant?”

 

There was a round pendant adorning her neck. It seemed roughly chipped and a bit unrefined.

 

“I got it for you in Larwein, actually. It just needed a new sandstone base, the old one was cracked.”

 

He blinked. “For me? Why?”

 

“Because I like you and I wanted to do somethin’ nice for you, dummy. It's a mage's pendant. Supposed to help you channel primal power.”

 

She took the pendant off and put it around his neck. He didn't feel any different, but didn't want to make it seem like he didn't appreciate her gift.

 

“Woah”, he said, getting up, “thank you!”

 

He leaned forward to kiss her, the pendant swinging toward her neck. When it hit her, she startled a little  but didn't break the kiss.

 

“Sorry, I'll tuck it.”, he said, stuffing the jewelry down the front of his shirt.

 

“Mmh. Good idea since I’m not done with gifts yet.”

 

He blinked at her tone and the flush that was spreading on her face. She extended her right hand and he opened his. A flower dropped into his palm.

 

He recognized Ismil.

 

He looked up from the plant, smiling broadly and got up. The prince got something from his bag and sat back down.

 

Rayla’s gaze followed him expectantly, getting more and more flustered and anxious as the seconds ticked away. Why wasn’t he saying anything? Had he forgotten the song?

 

“So much for not following the rules”, he smiled, flushing. His hand opened.

 

In it, she found Ismil.

 

She picked up the flower and gave him a loving smile. “You thought of the same thin’, aww, dummy!”

 

He spread his arms and she threw herself at him. They rolled on the ground in a tight embrace.

 

“Now we just need to stay up till midnight”, he said, petting her hair.

 

Thunder clapped in the distance. Callum and Rayla both looked over at the slightly weaker anvil, still angrily destroying the land below and ahead. Where the cloud ended, the stars had come out. There was a soft eastward breeze that brought warm air and rustled the spikes of cacti and bushes all around them. Azymondias was sitting high above them in a little hollow in the arch, totally fixated on the storm, whipping his tail back and forth.

 

“It’s breathtaking, isn’t it?”, he asked.

 

“Yeah. Kinda like you.”

Chapter Text

When Callum woke, the first thing he noticed was the smell of fried grit in the air. After days of lembas and yesterday’s poisonous berries, it smelled like heaven. A hissing sound announced the addition of water to the fragrant grain.

 

“Mornin’”, Rayla said, sitting by the fire, one hand busy stirring, the other, wounded arm draped limply over her thigh. It looked like she had changed her own bandage.

 

“Hey!”, he replied, flushing. As he got up, he became aware of a kind of floaty emotional bliss, left over from the  night before.

 

She gave him a loving glance. They had barely managed to keep each other awake to exchange the Askander, nodding off here and there while engaged in quiet conversation about nothing much.

 

“I suppose before we start walking, we should refill the canteens”, he said.

 

“I’m not goin’ near that river.”

 

“You did it before…”

 

“Yeah I did - when it was predictable!”

 

He shrugged. “You know, at some point you’re going to have to learn how to…”

 

“... swim?”, she interrupted grumpily, “You know I can swim. That’s not the problem. I’m worrin’ ab...”

 

She abruptly stopped talking, staring into the distance. Then she shot up and placed the pot of hot grit soup on the ground. She grabbed it with a rag but still ended up burning herself slightly.

 

“What’s wrong?”, Callum asked, following her worried gaze. In a north-eastern direction, there was a light cloud of dust forming on the horizon. “Is that another storm?”

 

She started kicking their small bonfire apart. Zym scuttled out of the way of some still glowing pieces of wood.

 

“Ah, sorry, little guy!”, Rayla said apologetically, extending her hands toward him as though she meant to pick him up. He sat far outside her reach, staring distrustfully.

 

“Doubt it. We need to pack up and get off this hill. That direction is the road to Veltis-Tiram. I’m pretty sure what we’re seein’ there is a Legion, marchin’ west to the breach.”

 

Callum sprung into action, assembling his backpack. Zym seemed to enjoy the activity after a day of sitting in place and got tangled up in their legs ever so often.

 

They skittered down the far side of the hill and had a quiet and quick breakfast.

 

Rayla bemoaned the lack of a wedge of sharp soft cheese, but Callum really enjoyed her cooking. She did it so rarely and elven dishes were fresh to his tongue. Sure, Katolins made grit soup, but the spices and preparation were different. Zym seemed to enjoy lapping the soup as well, although he would have very likely preferred a slab of meat. Or a bunch of bugs.

 

“I’d like to put a bit more distance between us and them. They send scouts a few miles ahead and into their wings. The Auxilia doesn’t like surprise fights.”

 

“Why bother with that here? It’s Xadia, isn’t it?”

 

“Sure, but why change a routine? It’s all trainin’”

 

They started walking south-east, the mountains still ahead of them.

 

“That’s gonna take us away from the river, Rayla”, he said, looking over his shoulder, “Do we have enough water for that?”

 

She shook her canteens. Two of them were full, one empty, another nearly so.

 

“I have two full ones”, she said, “That should do me for the day. How about you?”

 

“Likewise”, he replied, feeling a bit better about the water situation, “I really wonder if Helmond and my Aunt made any progress at the border.”

 

Rayla shook her head, feeling guilty having dallied again, “I don’t think they made a difference. Otherwise that army wouldn’t be going down there. I should say, they didn’t make a difference, `yet`. Gotta stay positive here.”

 

They kept walking in silence for a while.

 

Zym made a point of trotting next to Callum, eyeing him.

 

“What is it, little guy?”

 

The dragon blinked and looked ahead for a moment, then back at him. Callum decided to pick him up. After putting him on his shoulder, Zym looked much happier.

 

“Lazy bum”, Callum said, snarkily.

 

“At least he’s chosen you as his ride today”, Rayla snickered, walking backwards comfortably.

 

“So, we’re just going to walk a big arc around that legion?”

 

She waved her hand. “I’m not goin’ to risk getting tangled up in there.”

 

He snickered. “We got kinda tangled up yesterday! It was nice. Carefree.”

 

She shrugged sadly.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“Ah, with hindsight, I just feel like we’ve wasted more time. We could’ve probably made some progress walkin’ rather than sittin’ and talkin’”

 

“What about the storm though? We had a good reason to stay put, not just to swap gifts.”

 

“I dunno. It doesn’t help the guilt. Looking forward to when this is over.”, she tapped her lower lip, “So, now that we’ve started the Bloom, should we also start the marriage thing?”

 

Callum blinked. “You don’t `start` the marriage thing. It’s not like the bloom, there’s really no fixed timeline to it. Well; except maybe for engagement.”

 

“Engagement, that’s when we exchange that first set of rings?”

 

“Yeah.”, he rubbed the back of his neck, “I guess that won’t happen for a long while. Probably for the best, though.”

 

The comment hurt her somehow. “Why is that? Couldn’t the flowers just be like our rings?”

 

“Um... it would just feel weird, calling you my `fiance`.”

 

“Oh.”, she said, annoyed, “I guess that’s not somethin’ you wanna do with me?”

 

“It’s just… there’s a lot of stuff attached to this idea of marriage for me, like huge feasts... a-and… you know. Plus, married people are just so serious all the time.”

 

She cocked her head. “We’ve been doin’ some pretty serious thin’s.”, she gestured at his shoulder and at her arm, “I mean, the past two weeks alone! Both you and I were almost murdered! Twice! And I’m still not completely sure if I’m gonna be survivin’ this stupid stab in my arm!”

 

His mien sagged, “Don’t say stuff like that. We have it under control.”

 

“Sure we do! Until we don’t!”

 

She ran her hand over her face.

 

“Callum, I almost killed a bunch of people! We almost died! More than once! For all I know, I’m gonna be smashed into a grainy, purple mess in the next five minutes! I thought we could stand to live a little faster than other people, you know?! You really wanna waste our time with feasts and rings and all that?!”

 

“That’s not w...”, he started but she wasn’t done.

 

“So I’m not your fiance, then! I... just thought you’d be happy to call me that, and mean it.”, she

turned and stomped ahead, wanting to be alone.

 

The fact that his brain was still not done formulating the actual reason for his discomfort annoyed him. If he could just explain himself a little more! A bit of anger krept into his thoughts. She hadn’t even given him time to say more on the topic.

 

Still. He hadn’t seen her this angry for a while and felt like a jerk.

 

“Callum - you always know just what to say to ruin a perfectly good day”, he thought sourly.

Chapter Text

Helmond sat in his office, his head supported by his arms. Amaya was next to him, resting a calming hand on his shoulder. She had felt the pain of losing a sister. This was bound to be at least equally as hard.

 

He looked up.

 

‘Thank you’, he signed, ‘for sitting with me.’

 

‘It is nothing. You were there to discuss my letters. I wanted to be here to help you deal with yours.’

 

‘His going away means nothing if the Senate still goes to fight.’, he shook his head, ‘We need to stop them.’

 

‘Rheza and I are sure your speech did exactly that. The entire moon elven delegation walked out. I think that’s a big deal.’

 

He shrugged. ‘They do not carry the vote alone. If they refuse to vote today and tomorrow, their votes will not even be counted.’

 

‘Meaning that if the dragons have equally effective speeches, we are still looking at all-out war.’

 

‘This will not just be chosen here, General. Other bastions exist, and they all control legions.’

 

She nodded. ‘I know.’

 

‘It is hopeless. Our people will destroy each other.’

 

Amaya stood up. ‘It’s too early for that sort of talk. We need to see what the senate does.’

 

He shrugged, hopelessly, then looked at the door.

 

Amaya turned to see the dragons enter. She excused herself.

 

“Helmond”, Ivine began, the voice of Regina Lunaris spilling from her mouth, “We apologise for the obvious harm we’ve caused. It was thoughtless.”

 

He nodded, “It was, Lord. It is equally as thoughtless to appear before me at this time.”

 

“Please Legate, show a semblance of respect”, the Regent reprimanded, but Ivine bode him to be quiet.

 

“I felt a need to let you know that we’ve received messages from the other assemblies. They are unanimous in their choice to attack preemptively. Bastion Korhal cannot be the only hole in the front. It would destroy Xadia.”

 

“Be that as it may, Lord, I have no further business with you. Call the vote.”

 

“Legate, you cannot be serious. If we refuse to join the other legions at the front, we risk destroying our entire federation! More personally - you still have a summand. A daughter. Do you not care for their fate?”

 

Helmond now glared at her, and vice-versa.

 

“Helmond, what choice do we have? We can chose to fight on their soil, destroying their fields, their towns, their people. All of Xadia is afraid! From the cloud city of Yol an Vali to the burrows of Lowe...”

 

“You dragons are rather quite afraid, aren’t you?”, the Legate interrupted, “The Death of the Dragon King has shaken your confidence”, a dawn of realization came over the Legate’s face, “You are terrified of humans because they have achieved what elves have never even attempted! You are wondering, at this moment, if it will be your hide on their tanning racks, next!”

 

“It is not a question of whether they will try, but when!”

 

“Ah, yes, the tried and tested adage of `They might kill us, so we need to kill them first`! A toddler could find the circularity in the argument! How platitudinous you are, lizard.”, he pointed at the door, “Begone. I renounced my rank. You have no power over me any longer unless you wish to challenge our peoples’ covenant further than you already have.”

 

She snarled. “You are making a grave mistake, Helmond. The General is using you…”

 

“The General may be using me - but at least she never just pretended to care. She showed it. Whether it is a feint or the truth, her presence comforts me while yours merely disgusts me.”

 

At this final insult, Ivine turned and stomped out of the room, leaving the Regent behind.

 

“Your insolence will not be…”

 

Helmond interrupted, “I have not a shred of respect for you left. I will take my leave from this place soon enough. Leave me.”

 

The regent shook his head, turning slowly, and followed his mate.

 

---

 

An hour later, Amaya was standing next to Rheza, in front of the Plenum’s closed doors. She wished Gren could be here to translate. He knew how to hold a speech. A last-minute stand-in for her closest adviser, Rheza was young and while he was a competent interpreter, he had no word craft himself. Translation to get an idea across was one thing, being persuasive another. An idea shook itself loose in her head.

 

‘Rheza - would you mind sitting this one out?’

 

He didn’t hesitate. Obviously the young soldier had felt little interest in speaking publicly at humanities most ardent enemies. ‘I would not!’

 

With an understanding smirk, Amaya continued, ‘Fetch Helmond, will you?’

 

A moment later, the requested person appeared.

 

‘You asked for me?’

 

‘I’d like to request you to be my voice. It feels like a good message to send and you have the attention of the delegates. Rheza will hear for me, you will speak.’

 

‘I will agree, but must remind you that my sign language is not great.’

 

‘Maybe so, Helmond, but from what I understood from your first speech, you will take what I give you and get my point across better than a straight translation would.’

 

He saluted her.

 

‘We will try. I will do anything I can do to not make happen this point-free conflict.’

 

Moments later, the doors of the plenum swung open and they entered.

 

The silver wing had been seated again. That was good. At least they would be able to support the vote.

 

“Helmond, you are not welcome in these halls. What are you doing here?”, Ivine snapped at him.

 

“I am here at the request of General Amaya, to serve as her voice.”

 

This alone caused interested whispers.

 

The dragons exchanged meaningful glances. “We do not think this proper, General. What strange tactic to employ during treaty negotiations; affronting your hosts.”

 

Amaya signed, and Helmond’s voice rang out. “I disagree with your assessment. It is not an affront to want to show our people work together - especially to a body of leadership that so far seems to believe such cooperation could not exist.”

 

“Regardless of the message, General, we will not permit the Ex-Legate to speak in this chamber.”, the Regent said evenly.

 

“We disagree”, came a voice from behind Helmond, “Silver wing is unanimous in wanting to hear Helmond speak.”

 

“Red wing concurs”, came the response from the sun-elves.

 

“White wing abstains”, the skywing speaker said.

 

“It seems the vote has been cast, Lord”, Helmond translated, “Will you accept the Senate’s decision?”

 

“We respect it.”, Ivine said sharply before Aldaris could answer.

 

“As I have just done, I would like to make the case that humans and elves may cooperate. We must start speaking to each other more openly. Become more keenly aware of each other’s motivations and desires. It is not in the Pentarchy’s interest to wreak havoc in Xadia, nor vice-versa. Our federations have existed in parallel for a long time and we hope it can be so for the foreseeable future...”

 

“Your `foreseeable future` is limited!”, interjected a sky-wing delegate, “You live barely a century. Your perspective is warped by short term interest.”

 

“Delegate, your people live at most three times as long as we do. I feel your comment was meant to highlight how short-sighted we humans are - but would that blame not fall on you, too? Would you not say, as the longer lived people, you should be capable of  seeing how, in the long term, mutual genocide will not help anyone?”

 

The delegate threw a hand in her direction, turning to his winged comrades. “Mutual, she says. As if the Auxilia was comprised of pushovers and weaklings!”

 

“Humans are neither pushovers, nor weaklings. It is true that your warcraft has seen many eons of perfection and your magic ability outstrips ours - but I will warn you. Do not underestimate how much death and destruction this war will bring. Humanity will fight for its survival. We may lose - but so will you. Truthfully, we do not wish to kill you. In fact, I refuse, at this time, to order an answer to a hail of arrows coming down on my soldiers at the breach...”

 

“Refuse?”, a voice came from the red wing, “You speak of strength but do not defend yourself!”

 

“Strength is not might alone. Strength is sometimes sitting in a storm, letting it wash over you, doing nothing. Humanity will weather your anger, delegate. We will lose lives, yes, but we understand that we have a penance to pay for the deaths we caused, and if it helps to assure you of our good intentions, we will sit and wait while your arrows fall into our ranks. One of my closest companions, Commander Gren, has suffered an injury from this action, hence my need for a different voice. I will say again, make no mistake. Should you decide tonight that our peoples will become enemies for a thousand years, we will answer those arrows, and you will bleed then as we do now.”

 

Amaya looked about, seeing if anyone else was about to interrupt. When nobody rose, she continued.

 

“On that point of order, I believe it would be appropriate on your part to call on these archers to stand down. We are not currently in open conflict and it is improper to fire at resting troops.”

 

“You will remove those `resting troops` from the Breach. Then, we will order the archers to stop.”, the Regent replied.

 

“The Standing Battalion is just that. Standing. We will not leave our border unguarded, just as you won’t allow yours to lay bare.”

 

“Then we are at an impasse”, Ivine said coldly, but was shouted down by the silver wing. She made a calming gesture at the hecklers and called one of them to speak, “You are recognized. Speak.”

 

“We carry the General’s point. It is not proper to attack without provocation.”

 

“There has been provocation enough!”, Ivine replied, “They have sent murderers and spies in our lands. They beleaguered our border for a thousand years, staring across the Breach and seeing nothing but a field, ripe for harvest!”

 

“I will point out, Lord, that we have ordered the Assassination of King Harrow of Katolis. It is hypocritical to show affront at the human’s subterfuge while Moonshadow agents operate within the Pentarchy.”

 

Amaya saw her chance. “Delegate, have you ordered the assassination of Madame de Peverell, Queen of Evenere?”

 

He looked at her, with narrowing eyes. “We do not make a point of killing rulers for no reason, General. That is a more human trait.”

 

The General nodded. “Then there may be more at work here than it seems. We have gotten reports of Moonshadow agents attacking the other kingdoms. If this was not ordered by you, we may all be pieces in someone else’s game.”

 

An uncomfortable atmosphere settled in the plenum as the whispers started up. It was apparent that some delegates believed this to be a ruse. Others threw questioning glances at the dragons.

 

“I see now. I misunderstood your inquiry as an accusation. We have not ordered any further covert attacks. I apologise for my personal attack.”

 

“A point well taken, delegate, thank you. I want to make sure to note that we do not believe this to be the work of Xadians at this time. We, too, have degenerates among us who would see our peaceful co-existence destroyed for their own gain.”

 

She stared pointedly at the dragons, who began fuming in their ceremonial robes.

 

Helmond turned toward Amaya, signing, ‘I do not know if annoying them is a good path to go down. The dragons and my people are important to each other.’

 

She nodded.

 

“I will emphasise, again, how much I hope to find a peaceful solution here. I am now standing at your disposal.”, Helmond closed their remarks.

 

After a moment, a sunfire delegate rose.

 

“General, we understand that one of our dragons was fairly recently wounded, removed from the sky by a platoon of humans over Katolis. She reported being saved by an unlikely pair, a human mage and what appeared to be a Moonshadow Assassin. Would you shed some light on this?”

 

“Of course, as far as I can. The commander in control of this situation has been relieved of duty. Provoking your dragon was foolish and I apologise for his attack. You must understand that our people are as terrified by dragons as you are by dark magic.”

 

“I understand, they are menacing creatures. No offense was intended, regent. Regardless, I was hoping you would have some information on these two collaborators.”

 

“We’ve heard of them in these chambers as Helmond reported on his orders.”

 

There was a gasp in the red wing. “You are implying the pair that is ushering the Princeling Azymondias nestward is also responsible for shielding a kin of our regents in a moment of weakness? Who are these people?”

 

“I am not sure what more to tell you of them. You know he is Prince Callum and she is the Assassin Rayla. You know they are young adults. So far they have shown an excellent grasp on their task. I cannot say where they are but they appear to be in good spirits and making progress.”

 

“How do you know this?”

 

“I provided her a shadow hawk”, said Helmond, speaking for himself, “I understood her longing for news of her nephew.”

 

“Then you should be able to tell us where exactly they are located. We intend to send a detachment to safeguard their travel.”

 

“I apologize”, Helmond translated, “They did not share their location beyond vague drawings of trees and animals.”

 

“Then you should loose another hawk and let us follow it”, the delegate suggested.

 

“I do not believe that would be in their best interest.”, Amaya replied.

 

This did not seem to make the senate happy, nor the dragons. The sunfire delegate sat down, nonetheless. A sky-elf got up.

 

“You say you will respond to our actions, yet don’t seem to acknowledge your own. What of the incursion at Bastion Antiga?”

 

“Delegate, I am Katolin.”, Helmond watched her hands, then seemed unsure. She waved him on, so he translated, “I am not privy to the movements of Evenere’s army. They are furious about an apparent assassination and are lashing out. King Ezran is attempting to mollify their regent, perhaps at this very moment. Please accept my apologies and assurance that we are attempting to resolve this issue internally.”

 

“So you are saying that the Pentarchy is not moving as a joint force?”

 

Internally, Amaya cursed herself. She’d walked right into that one, and Helmond had seen it.

 

“you may trust the fact that if you chose to attack our response will be unanimous.”

 

The elf sat down, a self-satisfied grin on his face. Helmond understood why the sky-wing was so unfriendly to their cause. They had suffered most under the Dragon King’s passing, losing both a Regent and Heir.

 

No more questions were raised.

 

“If the delegates are finished questioning”, the Regent said with the hint of a smile, “This meeting is closed. Please await our decision outside the chamber. We shall attempt to proceed with haste.”

 

Helmond, Rheza and Amaya bowed and left the Plenum.



Chapter Text

The place of meeting was flying three banners. The Towers of Katolis, the Dragonfly of Evenere and Duren’s flower.

 

Within the hall of meeting, Ezran paced, Corvus standing by his throne.

 

“Corvus, I really don’t know if I can do this. Both these people are older than I am.”

 

“Your Majesty. It was your idea to call this meeting. The fact that Aanya decided to join us more or less unannounced is interesting, but she likely just wants to examine you a bit.”

 

“Examine me?”, the boy stopped, looking even more worried, “How?”

 

“You have never met in person. I will make an assumption here; I believe Aanya is your natural ally. She is a child ruler, and a good one at that. Depending on her entrance, I would be willing to bet on her support. We’ll see, though.”

 

Ezran continued pacing. Evenere was in absolute uproar after the elven attack. Del Bar had averted the attack and had re-committed to standing by until further notice. Duren had submitted no reports of moon elven activity. Neolandia… was being neolandian. Ezran did not know how to gauge them. They had made no commitments, nor movements.

 

“Your Honor.”, a clear, bright voice rang out.

 

Ezran stopped his nervous tracking and beheld Aanya, Lady of the Bloom.

 

“Majesty”, he greeted, extending his hand. She shook it.

 

“It is… an odd moment for me, forgive me.”, she apologized, “For the first time, I will not be the youngest among the Pentarchy’s rulers.”

 

“I’m glad to meet you, Madame”, he offered and she gave him a tepid smirk.

 

“Please, call me Aanya. I despise keeping up adult appearances. Right now, we are amongst ourselves… mostly.”, she nodded at Corvus, who bowed, “I wanted to see you for myself. Another child ruler. In some ways, I hope to… teach you some things I’ve learned, if you’re interested. I’ve had no-one to guide me but my regent, and he, like everyone else, has his own motives.”

 

“I’d like that, Aanya. I feel pretty much the same about my advisers, safe for Corvus here.”

 

The queen turned to the tracker. “I don’t mean to show you disrespect, Corvus, but I do not trust people who do not seem to have ambitions. Everyone does, the question is; why are you hiding yours?”

 

Corvus chuckled. “Milady, you could not offend me, even if you cursed like my mother. I am a Katolin soldier, nothing more, nothing less. I am not nearly bored enough to play the hurtful games people at court seem to love so much.”

 

She gave him a measuring smirk, then shrugged. “I appreciate your quip, but will reserve judgement on your character until I’ve seen more of your actions. Ezran. I understand you are here to attempt to convince Jorge de Peverell to stay his restless hand? May I ask why?”

 

She walked to her throne and sat, her hands clasping together.

 

“I’ve been doing everything I can think of to keep this war from getting worse. It’s bad enough that there are some fights at the breach already. We need to stop this from spreading. My Aunt is trying to convince the Moon Elves at Bastion Korhal to stand down. It looks like we’ve lost the diplomatic battle in the other border regions, but I don’t think Xadia will do anything if they can’t do it together.”

 

Aanya nodded. “My generals agree. Splitting the front at Korhal would be a surefire way to have their line buckle in no time. Regardless, I do not see the benefit in prodding an already angry owl bear. Assassination or not, we cannot let Evenere decide our joint fate on their own. If they keep pressing the elves, there will be blood on our lands. Tsk. Even if we can dissuade de Peverell, the elves might still attack.”

 

“It’s possible”, Ezran said, now sitting down himself, “But we can’t act as though we know what’s going to happen. As long as they are talking at Korhal, we’re not really at war.”

 

They waited in silence for a while.

 

“Interesting”, Aanya noted with a thorough look at his face, “Your hair seems to hold your circlet rather than your head.”

 

They shared a chuckle. “It’s too big for me right now.  Kind of like how I feel, too.”

 

“Oh, that feeling of being overwhelmed will not change, even once the crown starts to fit. More often than not, my own feels like it’s tightening down on me a little too much. Be confident in yourself. You are already extremely well spoken and are not any less capable than the adults who normally sit in these halls. Oh, and, remember, we outnumber them now!”

 

Finally, they heard light steps on Evenere’s staircase.

Chapter Text

Rayla was thirsty. They were rationing their water carefully, not knowing how long the legion would take to pass them by, but they had started running dangerously low in the still stifling heat.

 

Callum was a little better off and had ended up sharing some of his water with her.

 

“We really need to get back to the river”, she said, finally, eyeing a tall tree, “Let me check the horizon again.”

 

She scaled the tentacle, hugging it, careful not to expose herself against the sky. Meeting Helmond had been pleasant, but had also been a valuable lesson. The place had eyes.

 

The dust cloud was tracking left of her, westward.

 

“They should be clear of the river if we just walk north now.”, she told Callum and he started ahead of her, before she even touched the ground again.

 

The argument they’d had yesterday lay heavy on both of them, neither quite sure how to talk about it. She felt bitter still about his comment. It felt as though he’d been fine with their relationship but had issues fully committing to it.

 

Since he’d said it, she’d had this sour feeling in her stomach, telling herself how little he cared about her. She knew this wasn’t true, but couldn’t seem to shake the feeling.

 

He was angry because she hadn’t given him the chance to talk about it more. He felt she was quick to explode when he expressed himself clumsily and somewhat unforgiving.

 

“Callum”, she began and he stopped to let her catch up, “Can we talk about your feelin’s about marriage?”

 

He shrug-nodded angrily.

 

“Do you understand, maybe a little bit, where I’m coming from? The whole `why waste time` part?”

 

He nodded angrily.

 

“Can you… say a word or two?”

 

He flared, and it was strange, “Rayla, I don’t know what to tell you. I was brought up as a human Prince. Marriage is this whole... big... thing that glues together kingdoms. When my parents got married, Katolis was celebrating for ten days. From dawn till dusk. The entire kingdom was decked out with lanterns and singers and … and…”

 

“I get it. You want that whole spiel.”

 

He shook his head, wildly. “You’re still not getting it! I just… I don’t… Ugh!”

 

He stopped, grabbed her by the shoulders, forcefully turned her around and stared into her surprised eyes. Solemnly and with conviction, he said, “I love you. I’m gonna stay with you my entire life.”

 

Walking ahead, he left her standing there for a moment, surprise baked into her expression and blushing to the tips of her ears. Then she jogged after him.

 

As she caught up, he continued in the same tone. “I just don’t know if I want or need to marry you. It feels like there’s a laundry list of expectations attached to that and… our relationship is so... easy. Loving you is the simplest thing I’ve done since crossing the breach. I don’t want it to be hard and loaded, like the rest of our life right now, or worse, become a matter of the state for Katolis.”

 

Her chest filled with warmth so radiant, she almost cooed. There was her sappy prince. A twinge of sadness had mixed in with the fuzz as he’d said ‘entire life’. She had not come to terms with that yet, but resolved that she would not let it cloud their time together.

 

“Aww… Callum, that’s... That makes a lot more sense to me.”, she kissed him on his cheek, “I’ll admit... I thought you just… didn’t want me anymore.”

 

He looked disturbed, flaring once more, “Rayla, really? Come on! I didn’t giv-”, she shushed him.

 

“I know, I know. It was my head takin’ me for a ride. It does that, sometimes. I’m really sorry. I shouldn’t have ranted and trusted that you didn’t mean to hurt me.”

 

They embraced each other, Callum's hands coming to an extremely abrupt rest in the small of her back. She rolled her eyes, scoffed, and grabbed his wrists, pushing him down further, anticipating a grab.

 

He snorted, flushing, and completed the motion. “I guess that’s one way to tell me `I forgive you`. Sweetie, if it’s really important to you, we can get married right now, somehow, but then you’d be `Princess Rayla` by Katolin law. That would complicate things.”

 

She snickered and returned his squeeze. “Don’t you dare call me `sweetie` ever again! But, oh ya, that’d be super awkward. I am not made for life at court. Bein’ court polite is almost like mimin’ an idiot.”, she separated from him and curtsied, “`Yeth yur magesty! No yur magesty! Ah appreshiate yur hiburn elokwense!`”

 

He was in breathless stitches at her cross-eyed impression. “It’s… so... true! Just saying... hello takes... so long!”

 

The prince regarded Rayla and then Azymondias, putting on his best snob-face, “`Gud eevening miss Rehla Munshado, Loohd Zym of the Zym dynastee, your Zymness!`”

 

Rayla, equally enthused, put on a grandiose posture and persona, “`Ah,  Proince Carlem of Katohlith! How do yuh do, go oooon!`”

 

They laughed brightly and started walking, hand in hand.

 

A few moments later, they emerged from the tentacle and cactus forest, carefully moving forward. The rush of the water had sliced through the landscape here. Dead fish, torn up plants and pieces of random debris were all over the place. Then there was the river. Even from this far away, they could tell it was a solid brown, muddy mess.

 

“Are we going to be drinking that?”, Callum asked for her input as his teacher, his nose wrinkled with disgust.

 

“It’s not pleasant, yea, but it beats dyin’ of thirst. We’ll obviously filter and boil it a bit.”

 

She stayed behind, away from the roaring water, while he and Zym went to fill the canteens.

 

She drew one of her blades. This was still dangerous territory. She expected the Legion to have trailing scouts as much as leading ones. It was just a matter of how far they would be behind the main force.

 

Rayla peered into the forest. Suddenly, she felt very exposed but dared not hide herself. If someone was coming to attack them, she did not want them falling on Callum. The hairs on her neck rose.

 

“This is nerve-wracking”, she said to herself quietly, wanting to go back into the dark forest. For now the only thing she felt confident doing was to swivel her head, scanning the surroundings.

 

A voice, steeped in hate. “Ye’ve got instinct, lil’ wench. Credit where it’s due!”

 

From behind an old tree, Kel Ortis charged her. Moon Cleaver swayed in her hands, encrusted in dried, black blood.

 

Rayla assumed a fighting stance.

 

As Kel got closer, she carried the momentum of her charge forward into a swipe of her blade that Rayla evaded effortlessly  since she had shown her hand so completely.

 

“If you keep fightin’ like that, we might as well talk!”, the elf shouted.

 

“Nobody here today to save ye, is there? Talkin’ time’s over, kid. Ye’re already dead, just don’t know it yet!”

 

Another stabbing lunge missed Rayla.

 

“I don’t want to fight you!”

 

“Well, ye better, cause otherwise this’ll be a borin’ murder!”, Kel’s free hand flew around and missed Rayla by an inch, “Will ye stop dancin’ and fight?”

 

Kel unhooked her crossbow, firing it at Rayla, who barely had enough time to roll out of the bolt’s path.

 

“I don’t want to kill you!”

 

“There’s another thin’ we don’t have in common, bruiser. Now shut up and put up!”

 

At this, Kel threw mud in her eyes, the unexpected action staggering the elf.

 

Rayla turned and ran until she could clear her face, spitting and wiping her eyes. Then she whipped around, just in time to sidestep a stab from Moon Cleaver that still tore superficially into her already wounded arm.

 

This was a fight for her life, there could be no doubt about it. She could not run, it would expose Callum and Zym. This enemy was not like the others she had fought before. She was brutish, like Ithral, but nimble, like Soren. There was no parrying these blows. Soren had been strong, but he wasn’t wielding an eight-pound, ninety-inch monster sword. Plus, Viren’s idiot son had shown a certain hesitance. Every movement made by this greying, seasoned killer seemed to be aching to see her dead.

 

Rayla decided that Kel’s only real weakness was the sword and her age. It was slow, she wielded it comfortably, but stiffly.

 

Grabbing her blades tighter, she feinted in one direction, then turned on her heel, coming about Kel’s other flank. The bounty hunter had laid her counter strike into her feint and failed to get out of the way fast enough.

 

Rayla’s switchblade tore into Kel’s leg. She swore, stumbling, but keeping her balance.

 

Moon Cleaver sang, Rayla vaulted the weapon, but was thrown to the ground when Kel rammed her shoulder into the assassin.

 

Rolling back to a stand, Rayla spat, mud clinging to her face and hair. She was not going to give Kel a chance to recover. She thought she had the upper hand, now that the hunter was freshly wounded.

 

The elf flew at her opponent, still intent on letting her live, making the fight so much harder for her. The kick she aimed for Kel’s head connected and the bounty hunter staggered and fell into the mud, but Kel’s dagger sunk into her thigh, almost out of nowhere.

 

Gasping with pain, Rayla jumped away from the downed human. After examining the dagger’s location, she grabbed its hilt and pulled. Flesh wound. It didn’t even bleed all that much.

 

“Listen to me!”, she pleaded, “We don’t have to kill each other!”

 

Kel sat up, breathing heavily. “‘Course not! No `havin’` to be had there! I `want` to kill you! You and your human master! What a disgustin’ pair you are, mixin’ blood!”

 

She charged again, seemingly not even caring about her leg.

 

Rayla dodged her well telegraphed attack easily. What she hadn’t expected was Kel turning Moon Cleaver sideways at the last moment, running the flat of the blade clumsily into Rayla’s horns and knocking her over.

 

The world spun wildly as Rayla’s consciousness flickered, she was feeling for her horns and was almost surprised to find them, unbroken and in the right place.

 

Callum was carrying the filled canteens back to where he had left her. He was almost in view of the place when he heard a sound he would never forget, that would hound him in repeated nightmares.

 

Rayla, terrified, shouting for his help.

 

He dropped the canteens and started running. Zym followed hot on his heels.

 

It was the crazy bounty hunter.

 

Breathing heavily, she stood on Rayla’s wounded arm. The elf was trying to reach a blade inches from her fingers.

 

The bounty hunter was watching her victim, her massive blade moving slowly to Rayla’s neck.

 

“No!”, Callum screamed, almost falling over but catching himself.

 

This distracted Kel. Rayla jerked sideways, losing her blade but coming free. The head hunter immediately found her balance and got into a fighting stance.

 

“You took Ithral!”, she screamed and attacked, Moon Cleaver singing over Rayla’s ducking head.

 

She could not risk anything now. Kel would have to die, and she would have to become the killer she was always destined to be.

 

Callum and Zym were coming.

 

It was time to use her third option.

 

They were a hard priority.

 

With those thoughts, she vaulted into Kel’s reach dangerously, slicing at her with her remaining blade.

 

The bounty hunter fought through the pain as the blade impacted her shoulder, getting stuck. She grabbed Rayla’s arm and jerked her along. The elf stumbled past her. Next followed a kick to Rayla’s now exposed back which sent her face first into the mud, next to her second blade. Rayla jumped up. In the next moment, Moon Cleaver flew at her again, and the now re-armed elf nimbly stepped back.

 

The Zweihänder reversed direction mid-swing. Kel groaned under the effort.

 

Rayla was in the process of jumping further out of the way, but the tip of the human’s blade sliced across her abdomen, entering only slightly past skin deep.

 

Purple sprayed, propelled by relentless metal.

 

Seeing her buckle, crying out in pain, Callum stood fast, drawing fulminis.

 

Familiar, friendly, empowering, the spell coursed through him, its flow boosted through the vibrating pendant around his neck.

 

The bounty hunter wound up her blade overhead for a deadly strike.

 

Once more, the surrounding, charged weather seemed to amplify the power.  The air crackled.

 

Zym bristled, adding even more energy.

 

He let the spell fly, his voice breaking at the word, “FULMINIS!”

 

The surge exiting Callum’s hand was so bright it drowned out the sun, blinding everyone in its line of sight.

 

Thunder clapped, causing a shockwave that made dust fly, the pooling water around Callum sprayed. The wave even rustled the spines of cacti and tentacle trees in the distant forest. The spell impacted the bounty hunter, melting her blade where it was near the ground and launching her sideways. She landed face-down in the mud with a disgusting splash.

 

Callum sunk to his knees, disoriented and dizzy, his ears ringing.

 

But he did not stay there long.

 

Rayla’s terrified sobs in the strange quiet drove him forward.

 

He looked at Kel, seeing a corpse.

 

There was no emotion in him.

 

He looked at Rayla, kneeling in the mud, clasping an arm to her bleeding stomach, crying, but looking at him, smiling with infinite relief in her eyes.

 

There was no emotion in him.

 

Still, he knew that he needed to - wanted to - help her.

 

His limp hand removed the scarf around his neck.

 

“Callum”, she stuttered, blanching, with her glance wandering between him and the bounty hunter, “Y-you saved me!”

 

He wrapped his scarf around her midriff, tightly, to stem the bleeding. Without a word, he dropped his backpack, then picked her up. She shuddered with pain.

 

The prince began running towards the dust cloud moving away from them, slowly.

 

“Callum… j-just l-look at me! P-Please! Y-You can’t g-go there! Th-they’ll lock us u-up, o-or worse! Y-You need… to keep g-going with Zym!”, she pleaded between ragged breaths, placing a hand on his cheek. He didn’t say anything, didn’t even flinch. It had all happened so incredibly quick. Her head spun.

 

From one blink of the eye to the next, her survival had shortened from a complicated explanation to a simple question.

 

He had killed someone. For her. Guilt surged through her.
She had passed on her responsibility and her greatest fear.

 

Rayla cried, “Don’t do t-this to y-yo...urself! You di-didn’t have a ch-choice!”

 

From ahead, around five mounted stags appeared, closing fast.

 

After a mere moment, the scouts encircled them.

 

“What is going on here?”, challenged one, trying to stop Callum with his spear. Callum kept running, batting the weapon aside. Noticing Azymondias trailing behind them, the scouts somewhat withdrew their weapons, confusion in their miens.

 

“He’s i-in shock!”, Rayla shouted, “Don’t hur-hurt him! Callum! S-Stop!”

 

He did so, abruptly. The soldiers dismounted, approaching them carefully. One of them bent over Rayla and gingerly peered under the scarf.

 

“Give her to me, human. We will take you to see a healer. Then you will explain yourself.”

 

Callum shook his head, tears welling into his eyes.

 

“Cal-Callum, I’m doi-doing fine!”, Rayla stammered from his stiff arms, “Y-you ha-have to l-let them ta-take me…”

 

“We will let you hold her. She needs help. Come.”

 

One of the scouts carefully lifted her from his arms. Another helped the prince climb on a stag, behind its original rider. They passed Rayla up to him. He cradled her in his lap. Azymondias landed on his shoulder, but he barely registered the dragon.

 

Then the world turned into a blur as the animal started galloping.

 

He stared at Rayla’s face, his entire self-experience nothing but numbness.

 

She smiled at him. “S-See, I’ll be f-fine n-now, they have good h-healers, ma-mages!”

 

She wanted to reach out to pet his hair but her arm refused to move from his knee.

 

“Oh”, she gaped with surprise as all color drained from her face, “That… really… reeks....”

 

She felt darkness encroach on her vision, fighting it, hard.

 

“Don’t… blame y-yourself”, she sighed, “I…”

 

He still stared, watching as her eyes fluttered to an uneasy close.

 

Impressions started flashing through his mind.

 

Her, with a berry in her nostril.

Her, sharpening her blades, lost in thought.

Her, singing to him shyly with soaked hair.

Her, frowning, lit by fire.

Her, in a moment of blushing, startled happiness.

 

If this was the end for her, he would not care what became of humans and elves.  

He drew the line for sacrifice here.

He would not let her go.

 

She was a hard priority.

Chapter Text

“They killed my mother! My father! They tried to kill me!”, the boy shouted angrily, “Everyone here knows how that feels! Ezran, they killed your father! Aanya, they killed both your parents, too! Why am I the only one doing something about it?”

 

Ezran overlooked the fact that the King of Evenere had forgotten about his mother with some effort. He calmly gestured with his flat palms and a pained expression, “Jorge, please, it doesn’t help to shout. We feel your pain. Really. Losing someone, no matter how close you are, is so, so hard. We’re not just a bunch of kids, though, our choices make real differences in the world. Don’t you worry about your soldiers? A lot of them must’ve died at the Bastion you attacked.”

 

Evenere’s emaciated looking, teenage king shook his head, his crown sliding, still slightly too large on his red-blonde head. “So what! They’re mine to command!”

 

Aanya had a hard time controlling her anger. This boy was not tempered by advisers and not yet educated enough to understand his responsibility. Further, it seemed to her as though even with the right education, he would remain an incessant brat. “To command, yes! To slaughter, no!”

 

Corvus still stood next to Ezran’s throne, his face expressionless. He had listened to the three rulers negotiate, bicker and fight over the past five hours, for the second day in a row. Jorge de Peverell was a little shit, that much was clear. The first thing he had done was to kick out his regent when he had refused to attack Xadia. It was his right as king, naturally, but showed a lack of understanding of his situation. At nineteen, he was older than both Ez and Aanya, which made this even worse since these two showed so much maturity and restraint.

 

“Would you not agree”, Aanya continued, frustration apparent in her mien, “that sending people to a pointless death is not the mark of a good leader?”

 

“I sent them to deliver a message! You mess with Evenere, you get killed. Simple.”

 

“A message best expressed through complete loss on your side and few casualties on the other? I think not.”, Aanya scoffed, “You sent your soldiers into a meat grinder and expected them to do the impossible! Taking a border bastion! With foot soldiers alone! If your generals came up with this boneheaded plan, you should have them exiled!”

 

“It was my plan!”, Jorge spat, “It was a good plan! The best plan!”

 

“Aanya! Jorge!”, Ezran began but the other two rulers were now engrossed in a bickering match. He sighed and leaned back to face Corvus, “What do I do here?”

 

The tracker shrugged with a grin, replying quietly, “Throw a handful of knives in the room and watch what happens?”

 

Ezran frowned. “You’re surprisingly evil.”

 

“Pragmatic, more like it. De Peverel would not have the shred of a chance. He’s a menace and not about to admit it. If Aanya isn’t strangling him by the end of this, his people will, eventually. I’d just like to spare us his presence.”

 

“Fine, fine! If you cowards just want to sit and wait for them to kill every single one of us, so be it. Have them come for you!”, Jorge got up, “I am done with you losers! Sit on your butts and watch! I’ll beat Xadia on my own if I have to!”

 

He marched out.

 

“Well”, Aanya said with a long exhale and a sideways glance at Jorge’s exit, “That was merely pointless and exceedingly frustrating.”

 

“Aanya - you didn’t really think that making him angry would help us, did you?”

 

“Of course not! As soon as we entered the second hour of talks today, I was convinced he was not going to budge to any sane argument I could make. Frankly, I just needed to vent my frustration at the three hours that needlessly followed! I should have done this yesterday.”, she smirked toothily, “Felt good. Now, on to more pressing matters. We need to keep this idiot from cocking up our relationship with Xadia further. Ideas?”

 

Ezran gave her a somewhat embarrassed, reprimanding look for the phrase he had entirely misunderstood, then said, “I’ll send a message to my generals, see what they think.”

 

“What does it matter what they think? Do you not have any ideas yourself? Right now?”

 

“I like to make choices once I know what’s going on, Aanya.”

 

The queen was now frustrated with him, too. “You don’t have to choose anything right now! Just, ideas! We need to talk about possible courses of action!”

 

“Alright, alright. Sorry.”, he said, then considered the map on the floor in front of them. “I could order the Standing Battalion to lock Evenere in their own borders.”, he suggested, “But Jorge would probably not take that too well.”

 

“I agree, he’d attack you. That’s worse than him going after Xadia. Though, actually...”, she frowned, kneading her lower lip. “What if…”, she took another break, “What if you send the Battalion in on the elven side?”

 

“What?”, Ezran said, “Isn’t that the same thing?”

 

“The message is a bit different. Think of it this way. If you block them in, it’ll be human against human. The elves will laugh their butts off, pointing. But, if we offer the elves our help against Evenere…”

 

“Even if we’re not thinking about what that would mean for the Pentarchy, they’d never take it.”, Ezran argued, “We’d have to step on their land to join up and they’ve made it clear that any human who enters Xadia will be killed. Plus, they’ll think it’s a trick to get behind their lines.”

 

Aanya shrug-nodded, “That’s fair. This strategy would indeed require a semblance of trust on their part and we absolutely do not have that. However, what we can do… is tell them about it.”

 

“You mean we should tell the elves that Jorge will attack them and where?”

 

“Yes. Throwing Evenere to the wolves is our only real option right now, I’m afraid. He’s forcing our hand.”

 

“That’s still short-sighted. Us ratting them out would still destroy the Pentarchy.”

 

Aanya sat back, lounging in her seat. “You know what, I’m hungry and still furious at this imbecile. I don’t think I’m at my best. Would it be alright if we met again later?”

 

“Sure. A break sounds good.”

 

“Excellent. I’ll try and come up with another plan. Good thinking so far, I think. Just a bit too extreme.”

 

She got up, dusted herself off and strode outside.

 

“Majesty?”, Corvus said, expectantly. Ezran did not move, still analyzing the map.

 

After sitting and staring for quite a while, he mumbled, “How do we stop a ruler from doing a stupid thing if we can’t talk him into not doing it - and we can’t force him into it using our army?”

 

From the tone, Corvus couldn’t tell if the question had been rhetorical, so he breathed in to answer, but Ezran continued, turning to him with a broad grin.

 

“Corvus, you’re a genius!”

 

His mouth closed with a confused frown. What had he said, now?

 

“We make his people tell him it’s a terrible idea and they’re not going to do it! Just like you said!”

 

He got up and stretched, much like the Lady of the Bloom had done. Sitting for this long had stiffened his limbs.

 

“I’m going to go to talk to Aanya.”

 

He took a step, then suddenly, the image of a blinding light flashed in his conscience. The image contained spraying water, lightning, his brother’s legs, Rayla collapsing in on herself, a massive woman with a gigantic sword winding up to strike the elf and a burst of “scared”, “excited”, “angry”...

 

Ezran felt as though the air was kicked out of him and he fell on his rear end. He hadn’t seen a vision that dramatic since that night with the gigantic, evil looking anvil cloud. That one had worried him sick because neither Rayla nor Callum had appeared in it.

 

It was good to know they were still alive, but from the looks of it, that could change as he sat here. Dizzy, he got up, Corvus rushing to help him.

 

“Are you alright, Majesty?”

 

“So-so.”, he frowned, “Let’s just say I’m getting a little bit too used to seeing my brother and Rayla in deep trouble.”

Chapter Text

After an entire day of deliberation, the dragons had called a vote.

 

89 for the war. That was good, since it was no majority.

 

Then there were 27 abstentions.

 

The math was relentless, leaving 84 voices for peace.

 

Six votes. This war was being started by six people who had no strong opinion either way, failing to make up their minds. How fitting it all was, a boring dystopia.

 

September 22nd was going to be the day - the day that Xadia would declare war and invade the Pentarchy in an attempt to contain the human scourge.

 

Tomorrow.

 

As the bringer of bad news left his office, the Ex-Legate grabbed his belongings. There was no place for him here, now. He retrieved his three remaining eagle arrows and bow, changed from his uniform into plain clothes and re-armed. The next hundred years were going to be miserable, and all because the senate was about as independent from the other assemblies as his arm was from the rest of his body.

 

He stepped onto the courtyard and could already see preparations being made. The delegates were departing for a safer Veltis-Tiram. No doubt they would use their travels to campaign, taking far longer than was really needed. He stared daggers in their direction, but was at the end of his arguments. It had all been for nothing.

 

“Sicarius Assassin Rayla!”, he yelled, picturing the young woman’s serious face. The eagle arrow flew off his bow - and failed to launch, promptly digging into the ground like any regular heavy arrow would have. The impact turned a few heads who all looked rather depressed by it. The guards mostly knew this from letters being sent to the front. It was more bad news.

 

Helmond’s brows furrowed so tightly, they were touching. It was giving him a headache, but the moment demanded it. He picked up the unexpended arrow and laid it back on his sinew.

 

“Now please.”, he exhaled nervously, “Prince Callum of Katolis!”, the eagle arrow shot off the sinew and started drooping. Helmond’s expression gained tension with every millisecond.

 

The arrow mercifully started jetting eastward. His insides twisted with worry, he watched it speed off until it escaped visibility.

 

Now it was time for him to get underway. Looking about, he could not find Kandras.

 

“Where is my steed?”, he angrily accosted one of the guards. The man waved him off. “No rank, no ride.”

 

Helmond scoffed. Of course. Decisions were easy, it was the consequences that one should worry about.

 

As he exited the Bastion, he almost walked into a horse. Looking up, he regarded General Amaya.

 

‘Well, Helmond, this doesn’t look good. Thank you. We tried.’

 

‘Trying is worth nothing if it leads to the same result as not trying.’

 

‘I disagree. Maybe history will remember our effort here. A place for a new argument to start once the dust has settled. On that note, I’d like you to come with us. I doubt you’re still welcome here and we could really use someone like you.’

 

Helmond smirked sarcastically and voiced, “General, I am not surprised to see you make the offer - but challenging my leaders and defecting are still two entirely different levels of disrespect to my people.”

 

The general frowned. ‘I see you’re no longer affording me the grace of your abilities?’

 

“Our relationship is no longer useful to either of us. Why pretend otherwise?”

 

She shook her head, ‘Usefulness wasn’t the entire point, Helmond. Yes, I had my motives, but I like you. I think you are a good person. I’d like to think we could be friends.’

 

Helmond’s mien sagged. ‘I apologise. I am angry. Sad. Frustrated past description. I took your invitation as manipulative. I too would like to call you `friend`’

 

Amaya’s mien brightened a little. ‘Dire times, Helmond. I can’t blame you for lashing out. I hope to never see you on the battlefield. Good luck.’

 

‘You as well. May your blades strik…’, he stopped, suddenly all to aware of what he was wishing her good luck for, ‘May… your shields be stronger than our spears.’, he finished sadly.

 

She nodded and turned her steed. The human delegation departed while all around him, Elves were setting up barricades.

 

This truly felt like the end of the world, with the Breach in the distance exhaling a sickly red fog, the darkening sky above adding a gut wrenching purple. Foreshadowing on a geographic scale, indeed.

 

Sudden realization shocked him out of his numbness.

 

“General!”, he called, running after them.

 

The delegation stopped.

 

‘I have more bad news to add to your collection, I’m afraid. It seems I can not send a message to Rayla. I was able to dispatch to Callum.’

 

Amaya’s face changed to dismay and she got off her horse. ‘What could this mean, Helmond?’

 

‘She has likely been killed.’

 

‘That’s what I was guessing. Any other options?’

 

‘She could be warded against magic or be in an unreachable location, like underwater or in a deep cave. Either of these options is grasping at water, however, since Callum, I presume, would be in close proximity to her, suffering the same effects.’

 

Amaya nodded sadly, ‘I really wanted to meet the young soldier, especially after her feisty letter.’

 

Helmond nodded gravely.

 

‘I believe you would have been fast friends. They are both quite endearing.’

 

The Ex-Legate turned away for a moment, feeling his eyes burn. Torlan. Rayla. The waste of young lives had started, already. Biting his lower lip, he called himself to order.

 

Then, he faced the General again.

 

‘Addressing the affairs of the living, I also wanted to suggest another course of action.’

 

‘Yes?’

 

‘We should go to the Breach together and speak to the elven commanders. See if we can’t make them stand down against orders.’

 

Amaya regarded him, critically.

 

‘What gives you the idea that this might work?’

 

‘Very few at the front really want to die, Amaya. Unlike the senate, they see your troops, they hear the scrap of armor on the stones and see the reflection of lava on thousands of polished spear heads. An entirely more grounded perspective.’

 

‘I see your point. Worth trying, if nothing else, it beats idly watching our nations destroy each other.’

 

‘Do you have a horse I can borrow?’

 

‘We have a spare. I will warn you, they are not used to elves.’

 

‘I will make due.’

 

Amaya smiled at him, ‘You have gotten much better at this’, she pointed at his hands.

 

‘So I have. We’ve spent much time practicing together, friend.’

Chapter Text

The Legion moved. Callum was sitting in a wooden prison cart, covered by a tarp. He had no idea what was going on outside, had heard nothing from Zym or Rayla since he’d been chucked in here.

 

He was still feeling absolutely numb, failing to process anything that had happened. The scouts had brought them to a lower ranking commander, who had taken Rayla’s body from him. Then, after hearing his story, she had ordered him locked up.

 

Azymondias... he couldn’t seem to recall, and he was aware that he should feel terrible for it.

 

In the moment, his world had consisted of her alone.

 

The flap of the tarp was moved aside. It was the lower ranking commander, he couldn’t remember her name. She probably hadn’t said it.

 

Clearly earthblood, her expression was stern but her face streaked by wrinkles around her startlingly cyan eyes that showed how much she smiled. Her greying hair was hanging in loose, chaotic curls, stopping at her shoulders. She was wrapped in an intricately woven, living armor. It consisted of bark and vines, coiling around her like snakes. As she regarded him, she sat back and a few of the vines moved to support her in mid-air.

 

“How is Rayla?”, he asked without preamble.

 

“Is this some sort of sick joke?”, her expression froze further, “You would do well to keep her name out of your mouth, Abuser. Your supposed explanation has failed to satisfy. Who are you, really? What is your business here?”

 

“I told you. My name is Callum. I am a prince of Katolis. We are on a mission to prevent the war.”

 

“Oh, I’m sure.”, she laughed cooly, “Listen. You are not preventing anything. In fact, what you did to Rayla has merely bolstered my resolve to wipe you scum off the earth.”

 

“I didn’t do anything to her.”, Callum’s body shuddered at the thought, “She’s my girlfriend. We love each other.”

 

The elf scoffed. “You are the most disgusting liar I’ve ever met.”, she got up, “I can see you will have to stew some more before we can have this conversation earnestly.”

 

Callum shook his head. “The truth is all I have. We were travelling. She was attacked. I killed her attacker. I ran to get help.”

 

The elf looked at him with… what, pity? Disgust? He couldn’t tell. “My name is Lessa.”, her smoke-like voice rang out with what he assumed was anger and grief, “I’ve known Rayla since she was as tall as a spriggan. I cradled her in my arms and tended to her while her parents did their duty. She was not raised to love humans, and she never did.”, she stared daggers at him, “Your story has an even more obvious plot hole, Abuser, there was nobody else where we found you. Think on it. I have time.”

 

With that, the older woman departed, leaving him number than he had been when she showed up. She had tacitly confirmed what he’d been thinking since handing over his girlfriend’s lifeless body.

 

She was really, truly dead.

 

There were no tears to be had, he felt nothing.

It was simply good to know. A fact of life.

 

His mind checked the box and moved on.

 

Lessa… Lessa… Rayla had mentioned this name, but when?

 

No sense worrying about it now. He’d have time to think about her later.

 

Check.

 

Next thought.

 

He’d seen Kel fall, had seen her corpse. What was this supposed to mean? Was she alive? Kel had not looked alive. Callum knew what a body looked like, the picture stitched into his mind since his mother’s open casket. No way she was alive.

 

Check.

 

Next thought.

 

He laid on his back, nothing better to do than staring at his prison, already too familiar. He had dropped all of their equipment, including his sketchbook. Suddenly, a whizzing sound broke the air and an arrow tore through the tarp, passing through the bars of the cart. Callum’s body jerked away from the impact.

 

It was an eagle arrow.

 

Through the hole in the tarp, he could see tentacle trees go past in fading daylight.

 

“Oh. It’s evening.”

 

Check.

 

Next thought.

 

He unlatched the arrow’s head, withdrawing the message.

 

“Sicarius Rayla. War is being declared on the twenty-second day of Septem...”

 

There was more to the  short, hastily written letter, but Callum dropped it.

 

It was addressed to her. What did it matter now?

 

She was dead.

 

He was locked up.

 

Zym was forgotten.

 

Their failure couldn’t be more clear than that.

 

There was more activity near the tarp’s opening and following a strange impulse, he stashed the arrow and letter under some hay in the corner.

 

The gate unlatched and a guard ducked inside. He he put a bag over Callum’s head.

 

“What day is it?”, Callum asked.

 

“September twenty-first”, the guard said gruffly, shoving him out of the cart, “Move, scum.”

 

“Where are we going?”

 

“We do not want you to relieve yourself in the cart.”

 

Great.

 

This was going to be a ritual for him.

Chapter Text

“I’ve sent the messages.”, Corvus stepped into Ezran’s tent where both he and Aanya sat, chatting.

 

“Thank you Corvus. Let’s hope this works.”

 

Aanya gave him a glance of appreciation, “I can see why you find him valuable, Ez, he’s very good! That was, what, three hours?”

 

“Madam, I am the Crow Lord of Katolis Castle. Fifty letters in three hours is slow in my book.”, the tracker said proudly and not entirely convincing.

 

The queen smirked wryly, “Well, it’s acceptable to boast a feat so inoffensive, I suppose.”

 

Corvus shrugged, “Is there anything else I can help you with tonight, Majesties?”

 

There was not and he left them to their chatter. From what he could tell, Aanya was regaling his king with tales of court intrigue and how to avert it.

 

The tracker appreciated his own standing with Ezran, valued it. He wasn’t high born and yet had the boy’s ear. He was a more careful king than his father, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Harrow had often caused more harm than good with his idealistic choices. He’d been lucky to have a gifted mage by his side. A good man, doubtless, but maybe a weak King. Corvus frowned. It was not his place to think those thoughts, especially about a dead man.

 

Walking to his own tent, he yawned and shook his hand. Fifty letters, ow. He had only written a quarter of them, getting three other officers to help him out, but still his wrist ached.

 

In the morning, every noble family in Evenere would have read a detailed account of their king’s words. Ez and Aanya were well within their right to inform the nobles of the protocol of this meeting. All they were doing was to repeat what Jorge had told them in writing. “To be fair”, Corvus thought snidely, “There’s no better way to insult this particular piece of work than to quote him.”

 

He took off his jacket and pauldron and slipped in his sleeping bag. Outside, there was a gentle breeze, cold, but not unforgiving. Corvus listened intently to the sounds of nature, becoming muted in the advancing autumn. He frowned, realising his birthday was coming closer and closer. He was not one to celebrate the passage of time.

 

A few moments later, a Guard approached his tent. “Sir,  a message from General Amaya.”

 

Corvus opened the flap of his tent and took the guard’s proffered lantern and letter.

 

“Ezran, Corvus, We are at the eve of war. Xadia intends to declare it so in the morning.”, there was more but Corvus jumped up.

 

“Majesties”, he greeted curtly as he intruded on them, “Bad news.”

 

He read the letter out to them, “We are on the eve of war. Xadia intends to declare it so in the morning. I’ve taken a decorated elven Legate to the front to see if we can stall on a ground level. I don’t know if this is going to work, obviously, but I feel the need to try. It might be easier to form a rapport with less conceited people. Please let me know how you are progressing with Jorge as soon as you can. I am in reach of ravens now, skirting the breach on the far side.

 

Ezran, I’m afraid I have terrible news for you…”

 

Corvus trailed off, accidentally having read too far.

 

“Well, you might as well finish, Corvus, you seem to be chosen for delivering `terrible news` to me”, Ezran said with upset, already expecting another punch to his stomach. He grabbed the table in front of him as though it would help soften the blow.

 

Corvus cleared his throat, then continued, “... from here it looks like Rayla might have passed. We tried to send a message to her using the arrow I mentioned before, but it would not fly. Callum is presumably fine since we were able to send the message to him. Maybe you have some insight into this? I’m sorry. I thought you should know. Keep your head up. General Amaya”

 

Ezran breathed slowly, wrestling for composure. Having the confirmation in writing was just so much worse than the vision itself. Aanya leaned over to place a calming hand on his which he was digging painfully into the table. “Ugh. I guess that’s what it’s going to be from now on.”, the young King said after a short pause, “War, eh? Great. So our little shouting match with Pet Peeve was for nothing.”

 

“This sometimes happens, Ezran. We fought for peace and now I guess we’re going to fight to end the war.”, Aanya got up, “I need to return home. The border may be secure but who knows how long we will hold. It’s not like Xadia is going to go easy. They’ve already shown how much they like killing us.”

 

He got up, extending his hand. On an impulse, she quickly hugged him. “Let’s not get killed, Ez. It was good meeting you.”

 

“Yeah… let’s not.”, he replied and she strode out.  

 

Ezran looked after her, baffled. “Is she weird? She seems a bit weird.”

 

Corvus frowned. “I think she’s worried. Under all that regalia, she’s still a child.”

 

His king gave him a questioning look.

 

He smirked. “No offense intended, I just tend to forget how old she is when she talks to me. Either way, I figure you made a good impression on her.”

 

“That wasn’t hard, given the Jorgish contrast.”, Ezran said, rubbing his hands. The tips of his fingers were reddened from his anguished grasp on the table. “Corvus, you’re a soldier. How do I deal with people… dying?”

 

Oh boy. It was a necessary conversation, but far from easy. Corvus sat, “Majesty”, he started but Ezran interrupted weakly, seating himself across from him, “Don’t be formal with me. Not right now. Not after that letter, after that vision.”

 

The young king took off his crown and dropped his head, left cheek down, on the table next to it. Silent tears stained the wood, rocked his body.

 

Corvus felt the need to hug him, but that was not proper. He had no children of his own, not even a partner. His service had been his life. But now, he felt a great many fatherly instincts for this boy. “How to deal with death… hm. Frankly, I don’t have a good answer, Ezran. The cruel fact is that over the coming years, so many will die that there won’t be enough tears in the world to honor them all.”

 

“Then w-what do I do?”, Ezran sobbed.

 

“I will say the best way to honor the fallen is to be aware, conscious of what consequences your orders might have. Be prepared to lose an engagement to save your soldiers. If you want to minimise death, you will fight a different war, a different style. Someone like you, who has scruples, is always at a disadvantage. A soldier trying to keep his opponent alive has to make sacrifices, in stance, advantage, strike targets.”

 

Corvus wrung his hands. He felt cold, talking to the boy like this. This was all very extreme, but he found no other good way to talk about what was in store for the young king, “Lives are cheap in all out war and ordering the destruction of an entire village and the killing of its people can be a valid tactic in some cases, because it starves your enemy of personal resources, for example. Not doing those things, categorically, puts you at a strategic disadvantage if your enemy does make use of these tactics.”

 

Ezran nodded, his head still on the table. “I couldn’t stand for it. All I want is to keep the elves away. That’s my goal.”

 

“I think that’s good. Aanya will agree to this, no doubt. Though, I’m fairly sure Jorge will charge headlong into the Auxilia tomorrow, destroying his army and buckling our northern front almost immediately. Then there is the question of Del Bar and Neolandia. I’ve informed them of our meeting and will shortly tell them about this letter, as well, but it’s obviously too short term to have a solid joint strategy beyond what’s already in place in terms of defense for the twenty-second. We can only hope that they will help us hold the line. Del Bar is already present at the Breach together with us, Evenere and Duren and the last I heard out of Neolandia was that they were mobilising. How long it will take them to make progress toward helping us… I can’t say.”

 

Ezran scoffed. “Neolandia. Always have to have their own song and dance...”

 

Corvus sat back, “We can hold the Katolin border for tomorrow, I’m sure of it. The Elves are attacking from across and below and are at a disadvantage. I don’t know how our luck is going to go from there. Plus, there are dragons coursing above us already. That’s something we’ll have to address somehow.”

 

Ezran looked up at him, wiping his face.

 

“I think I need to go there.”

 

“Pardon?”

 

“I need to be at the border, Corvus. We need to talk, not fight.”

 

“That would be foolish beyond my ability to explain, Ezran. We can’t have you become a prisoner of war, or worse. Katolis needs you to keep the government going.”

 

Ezran flared, slamming a fist on the table. It was atypical, but Corvus understood. He’d been there. “I can’t just sit in my room and listen to Opeli gripe! She’s got a handle on things.”

 

“She does, indeed, and that worries me. She is not you, and you are a far better king than she is a queen.”

 

After a moment of angrily staring at the table, his king frowned, deflating. “Alright, I can see your point. I would send you, but I need you.”

 

“I won’t lie. I’m glad you aren’t sending me to the front, but I would go.”

 

Ezran scoffed. “From what I can tell, we need to hope the front doesn’t come to us!”

Chapter Text

“Helmond, you are being ridiculous!”, Astilliar yelled at him, “You’ve been running all over Xadia for octades, killing Abusers, and now you’re not just talking about peace with them, you’re even dragging one around!”, there were murmurs of approval, “A damaged one at that!”, the murmurs stopped.

 

The bulky, rough hewn moonshadow elf was grabbed roughly by another person in the tent.

 

“Speak about anyone as `damaged` again and I will have your tongue! I have done battle with her and her presence is an honor. If she is an example of a `damaged` human, we are doomed!”

 

Amaya laughed brightly. Helmond did a dumbfounded double take. She could do that?!

 

The General then signed, having Helmond translate, “Thank you - I appreciate your commendation. You’re the first person in a long time to come close to killing me, Prime Legate Janai. I am glad to get the chance to speak to you.”

 

Janai leaned on the table, her eyes still burning a hole in Astilliar’s forehead, “And speak we will. You come under the banner of diplomacy and with an extremely old friend in tow.”, she smirked at Helmond who frowned back, “Both I count in your favour. But, it’s been decided we will kill each other tomorrow, and so it'll be. Orders are orders.”

 

Helmond shook his head, “Princeps, I do not agree. We must re-examine this situation. Tomorrow could be the beginning of a century of war, if not more. It would destroy much of both our federations. We have a moral duty as soldiers to stand fast in the face of orders, given in bad faith.”

 

Janai waved her hand at him, “Your arguments mean little, Helmond. I am not sure what you mean by ‘given in bad faith’, but I do not intend to revolt against our government. My people have been dying, fighting humans, forever. Keeping them out of Xadia is my `moral duty` as a soldier.”

 

“All we ask is that you stall. Delay. As long as possible. So many of both our people will die, not having done anything of strategic value. The Breach is a moat, flanked by the strongest defenses of our nations. It will swallow entire cities of soldiers before either one of us progresses a single inch into enemy territory.”, Amaya argued through Helmond.

 

“We have a strategy. You overestimate your fortifications.”, Janai said, confidently.

 

“You also assume much, Prime Legate”, Helmond said, “Humans are just as apt at scheming as we are, it would be a fatal mistake to underestimate them. Remember, they have managed to kill the most powerful Archdragon there ever was. Speaking of, I will also warn you of trusting our scaly friends too much. They have their own agenda. Your regent, Sol Regem, may be bellicose, assuring his support, but the others… If the moon dragons are anything to go by, we will wait for their support indefinitely.”

 

The six Legates in the tent did not like to hear this, that much was obvious. One of them, clad in a heavy armor of rocks and vines, asked, “What have they done to deserve so much of your scorn? You used to be one of their favourites, if memory serves.”

 

Helmond sighed, unfurling a letter and placing it on the table for all to see.

 

After they’d read it, he got sympathetic but confused glances. Janai spoke. “You have my condolences, Helmond, but this letter does not explain anything. Your son was a soldier, and killed by a human...”, she trailed off, suggestively.

 

“This was given to me with no warning by a deposed Interpreter Chalise in front of a fully staffed crisis session of the senate at Korhal, Janai.”

 

“What?!”, Astilliar bellowed and the other Moonshadow elf in the tent gasped, clasping a hand to her mouth, drawing looks from everyone else.

 

Janai faced Astilliar, “I do not fully understand your reaction. Explain.”

 

“Princeps, among our people, secrecy is a virtue. This much you all know. Grief especially is a private thing. What they did to him, having a letter like this given by someone he exposed… I… it…”, he fumbled for words, “It’s as though you were forcefully undressed in the plenum’s eye!”, the metaphor clumsily slipped out of his mouth and made him sweat, seeing her narrowing eyes.

 

“I understand your explanation but do not appreciate the picture you have chosen to illustrate it!”, she snapped, turning to Helmond, “I can see now why you are ready to burn their houses. However, this is still personal to you.”

 

“It was not, Princeps. The dragons argued for war. It was their idea, not the Senate’s. They used this to try and paint a negative picture of the Pentarchy when the reality did not reflect their impression in the slightest. Torlan was murdered by a bounty hunter. The fact that she is human is secondary.”, Helmond pinched the bridge of his nose, reliving the moment in the plenum, “It made me question their motives, for the first time. I always believed that this conflict was Xadia against the Pentarchy with some minor scuffles on each side. But, the more this mess has progressed, the more I see how it is people, who have the will for peace, against those who would chose the convenience of sending others to die for them. There is not a single delegate present near the border now. They’ve decided we will die for them tomorrow and then got as far away from the fighting as possible. Peace would be a lot of work for them. It would mean endless discussions over trade, relations and cultural exchange. Uncomfortable compromises to be made palatable to our people. War on the other hand is simple.”, Helmond shrugged poignantly, “They point, we die.”

 

Janai sat, pensively rubbing her cheeks. After a moment, she addressed Amaya.

 

“What do you say about Antiga, General?”

 

“A stupid move by a stupid leader. King Ezran has tried to dissuade him from further attacks, but Jorge de Peverell is a child, in actions more than appearance. I want to point out that we are working to disarm him, but you should be wary of him throwing more unprovoked punches. He is fuming about the murder of his parents by a supposed Moonshadow Assassin. I have reason to believe this may have been a false flag attack.”

 

“Interesting. It appears we share much in terms of politics. On the matters of de Peverell, I appreciate your warning. You risk much, giving it.”

 

Amaya shrugged, “I do not think any of you will make a point of telling de Peverell what an idiot he is in person so I feel comfortable sharing any information I have on his deployments. I feel heartbreak for his soldiers but cannot in good conscience let him proceed if you decide to stay your weapons. If we’re lucky, the families of the soldiers he’s sent to their deaths are already wringing his neck.”

 

The Earthblood Legate chuckled at this, “It is a mild comfort to learn that humans enjoy their rulers as much as we do!”

 

Janai was furiously rubbing her cheeks now, concentration in her expression. Finally she grunted with frustration, “Helmond, General, you will give me an hour to consider your points with the other Legates.”

 

She stood and waved at them.

 

“Begone!”

Chapter Text

He’d anticipate them coming to tend to him, ask them for the date, listen to their offenses and do their bidding. Then, tick the box.

 

“What day is it?”, Callum asked.

 

“September twenty-fourth”, the guard who handed him his meal said, “Shut up and eat, Abuser.”

 

Here was the highlight of his day.

 

Check.

 

Next thought.

 

His mind starved for new stimuli.

 

He found no rest, sleeping minutes every night.

 

Puzzling, endlessly, over Kel.

 

Overanalyzing every bit of information he had on Katolis. Ezran. Amaya.

 

He had read the letter but it merely made him shrug.

 

War. Whatever.

 

He caught himself wondering what Soren and Claudia were doing, not because he cared but because he had exhausted himself, thinking about anything other than guessing whether they had buried or burned his Rayla.

 

“What day is it?”, Callum asked.

 

“September twenty-fifth”, the guard who threw a wet rag at him said, leaving a bucket full of cold water near the entrance to his cage.

 

He washed himself without undressing, as well as was possible.

 

Check.

 

Next thought.

 

Aha, that made three days of war.

Maybe Amaya was dead already, being at the front.

 

Kel was dead. She had to be.

Her blade had melted.

There was no way he wasn’t a killer.

 

Azymondias - what had happened to the little guy?

Were they taking him back home, to his mother?

To whomever the Interpreter was, now?

 

He looked down, saw his pants.

 

“Don’t think about it.”, his mind said, pleaded, wrestled,  “Please, don’t think about it. Anything but that.”

 

His clothes were still stained with Rayla’s blood.

He re-lived her last moments, again.
Her pale, clammy skin.
Her halting breath as the soldiers had taken her from him.
Her midriff braced with his red scarf.

 

Hey, they hadn’t given back his scarf.

His mother’s scarf.

He wanted it back.

 

It was a checkbox he needed to tick.

 

The tarp rustled and the gate of his prison unlatched once more.

“What day is it?”, Callum asked, without looking up from his hands twisting and tearing at hay.

 

A shaky hand reached out to him, caressing his cheek. He started at the unexpected touch.

 

“Callum?”, a familiar, rough voice said.

 

He looked up.

 

There she was.

 

Breath stuck in his chest.

 

There she was.

 

Exhausted. Looking like she had been rammed into a wall. Scuff marks and abrasions all over her. A small chip of her left horn, missing. Her fine hair in a total mess.

 

But.

 

There she was.

 

Emotion exploded into his mind, rolling over him like a typhoon. Without another word, he burst out crying, pulling Rayla into his arms through the open cage door. She flinched but returned his tearful embrace.

 

He was dissolving in shaking sobs, grabbing at her, wanting to make sure that she was real, “You’re alive? You’re al-alive!”

 

She quietly cried into his shoulder. “I’m so, so sor....”, she started but his kiss silenced her.

 

She helped him out of his prison, standing him up and hugging him tightly, cradling his head on her shoulder.

 

“Gosh, it’s so good to see you!”, he breathed happily and she nuzzled his wet face, not giving a care about how dirty he was.

 

He was blinking back tears that would not stop flowing. If he hadn’t needed to breathe, he wouldn’t have stopped kissing her. She pressed into him, never wanting to let go. He embraced her tightly, but carefully, rubbing her shoulders and back. She was wearing a green sweater, a size too large for her, made from some sort of soft, fuzzy wool and it was the best thing he had ever touched.

 

They both felt elation, golden and radiant.

 

A green figure appeared over her shoulder and Callum recoiled from Rayla.

 

Lessa, her mien one of abject horror. “I… I didn’t believe you…”, she stammered, “I… I… I...”

 

Rayla turned toward her, going off like a stick of dynamite. “`I-I-I`!!”, she mocked, “You did this to him? Locked him up? He’s my wee sook prince! Look at him! I’ve never seen him like this!”

 

After her next words had rang out, Callum buckled laughing against the cart, wheezing, yet still crying.

She’d dropped a bomb he had never expected to hear from her and frankly expected to never hear again.

 

Rayla’s voice had doubled over; “Lessa, you fuckin’ knothole!”

 

His brain crackled with feelings he had thought lost.

 

“I’ll bat’ you ‘til you sprout birds o’ paradise!”, Rayla kept yelling, furious beyond description, and looking like she might make good on her threat, “He’d never hurt me! You only thought he did ‘cause his ears are round and he’s got a pinky! He probably gave you a perfectly good explanation, didn’t he? You absolute weapon! He’s a thinkin’, feelin’ person! How dare you!?”

 

Her complexion changed from a furious purple to a light pink and she started swaying, her fury having thoroughly discharged into the earthblood elf.

 

“Ah, not this again.”, she stumbled on her wounded leg, falling backwards against Callum who caught her  gingerly, “Well, that’s just gon' be fun for the next while. Can’t even flap a bit.”

 

“Anger doesn’t suit you, anyway.”, Callum said, savouring her smell, her touch, her presence - even her boundless fury. He was fully aware of the irony.

 

Lessa knelt in front of Callum and Rayla, bowing until her forehead touched the ground. “I am so sorry for my actions. I beg your forgiveness, Prince Callum.”

 

“Oh you know”, he said cooly, “I really appreciate the time you gave me to think about how she was dead ‘n all. Forms character, that!“

 

“I don’t know what to say…”

 

“Well, we’re all on the same branch with that.”, Rayla snapped, “I didn’t want to spend my life hatin’ your gut and my guy here isn’t one to harbor a grudge, either, but, whew, you made that hard as  bark!“

 

Rayla kissed her boyfriend, who appreciated her flowery puns, and gingerly got out of his lap. Her mien softening, she extended a hand. “Lessa, come on, get up.”

 

The older elf took her hand and tearfully embraced her younger friend, “I am so, so sorry!”

 

“I’m not the one you locked up for no reason!”, Rayla barked and struggled against the embrace, “Hug him, you hag!”

 

Callum felt bad for Lessa, and it shocked him. She’d wronged him, terribly, and yet here he was, feeling for her. Feeling! Feeling good! Feeling sad! Wow!

 

“What day is it?”, he heard himself ask and he was utterly terrified by the question. Rayla roughly shook off her plant covered attachment and shot her a questioning glance, “I’d like to know that, too.”

 

Lessa choked back tears, then said “It’s the twenty-sixth of September.”

 

Rayla gave Callum a shocked glance. “I’ve been out for five days?! We can’t stay, we need to go! Right now! Where’s Zym?”

 

Lessa shook her head. “The dragon? We don’t know. We tried to capture him, but he wouldn’t have it. We didn’t spend much time looking, we’re moving to the front.”

 

“What a shocker! Ugh!”, Rayla yelled, once more, placing her hand bracingly on her stomach, “Add to that  that you’ve been draggin’ us in the opposite direction we wanted to go! Five days! We’re probably back to Larwein!”

 

“We passed it this morning, yes. But, you can’t leave just yet. Please. I can’t let this injustice stand and you’re still wounded, you need rest.”

 

Rayla started to disagree, but Callum hugged her from behind. “You need to take care of yourself. We’ll stay.”

 

She half-frowned at him, but couldn’t muster any real protest. It was true, she felt terrible. It wasn’t in her to argue with him right now. He looked completely exhausted, like a shell of the person she remembered. For the first time ever, she noticed he was sprouting a patchy beard. How had he managed to keep that one a secret, especially in the crack?

 

“I will get you set up with a tent”, Lessa said, looking relieved.

 

Callum looked around. They were standing next to a cart on the side of an overgrowing gravel road, two wingless Perytons harnessed to pull it. The mountain range had receded to the horizon again, the trees looked normal. And, yes, there on his left was Larwein’s thin puffs of smoke. Behind him on the road marched an easy 500 people, flanked by sparse Peryton Cavalry.

 

Looking ahead, he saw an even more massive number of soldiers, marching in square formations. He couldn’t estimate their number at all.

 

“How many soldiers are in this legion, Rayla?”

 

“I don’t know for sure, it wasn’t my first thought when I came to.”, she smiled at him, pointedly, “But, I’d guess if its a standard size we’re lookin’ at about two to three thousand milites.”

 

He gaped; no wonder he had trouble grasping the numbers!

 

From ahead, a loud voice shouted something muffled by distance and the clamor of the march.

 

“Watch, it’s time.”, Rayla said, somewhat amused.

 

Moments later, the cavalry, some of whom were pulling small carts with supplies, repeated the order from the front like an echo that grew stronger and then faded as the message passed them for the trailing cohorts.

 

“Milites! Make camp!”

 

A breath later, the formation separated to clear the road, soldiers stacked their spears together in eights and fires flared from sun-engraved devices. Not five minutes after the order had been given, the sides of the road sported tents and the smell of food started filling the air.

 

“Wow.”, Callum said. It had been surreal to see this many people move as one with the coordination of a single body’s limbs. He also noticed that the groups sitting together wore different armor, some like the moon elven Milites he’d seen before, others dressed like Lessa. There were a few who sported wings, jutting from light, white leather armor. He also noted with some surprise that the commanding officer in most of the octurias was a sunfire elf.

 

“Oh yeah! They are real good at sittin’ and eatin’”, Rayla snarked, then pulled him along to where Lessa was calling them from.

 

As they passed the resting soldiers, a lot of interested, confused and stern glances followed them. While there was the odd frown and some expressions of disgust, on the whole these soldiers weren’t being too standoffish, more confused. Either way, there was a lot of half-whispered chatter.

 

“Well. Here it is. You can hand your clothes to Quartermaster Alissa here, to have them washed.”, Lessa said to Callum who was momentarily confused by their similar names, “If you want, I can find you a nicer set of armor.”

 

Callum had the impression the older woman was being sickly sweet. She knew she’d messed up and wanted to get on their good side - Rayla’s good side - as fast as possible. He did not appreciate it much.

 

He shrug-nodded and entered the tent. Rayla turned to Lessa.

 

“Why’d you lock him up?”, she challenged.

 

“His story didn’t make sense. What’s more important is, what are you doing with a human, Rayla?”

 

Rayla stared at her until she became uncomfortable.

 

“Fine, fine, not more important! He told us you were taking the dragon to his mother. He told us you were attacked by a human bounty hunter. He told us that he used sky magic to kill her.”, she scoffed, “I didn’t believe that then and still don’t believe it now. But I sent scouts, just to make sure. There was nothing there. No body. Signs of a fight, sure, but that could’ve been you two.”

 

Rayla frowned. “She was a massive woman. There’s no way they could’ve missed her. He hit her with lightin’, fulminis. Felt like it was going to singe my eyebrows off and I was on the ground a good four feet away. There’s no way she walked after that.”

 

“I mean, the river really made a mess of everything, so I thought… ugh. I was just acting on what they told me. We collected all the crap he dropped and locked him up.”

 

“Just like that, eh? What about the part where you didn’t tell him how I was doin’? He pretty well must’ve sat in that cart thinkin’ I was dead, for a week. That’s nice, I’m sure. Did you see his face when he saw me? That was not a sane face.”

 

“Rayla”, Lessa said, with reprimand in her voice, “Why would I tell him about you if I thought he was the one who hurt you in the first place?”

 

Rayla sighed, “Sure, I can appreciate that a little, at least. But for the record, this human is not only the most amazing person...”, she put a lot of emphasis on the words, causing Lessa to frown with assumption, “...in the whole world for this here moonshadow elf, he’s also a sky mage.”

 

The tent’s flap opened and Callum’s hand appeared, his wrecked clothes piled on top. Rayla took them and shoved them at Quartermaster Alissa who hesitantly shuffled away, unhappy to have been dismissed from a conversation this interesting.

 

Lessa crossed her arms, “Sky mage, huh? That’s hard to believe. If I hadn’t dispelled you myself and kept you under a ward, I would accuse him of using dark magic to mess with your head.”

 

“You try that and see how well I take it. Seriously, get to know him a bit while we’re here”, softening, Rayla hugged her opponent. “Thank you so much for savin’ my butt. It was so, so lucky that you were here.”

 

Lessa stroked her hair, fondly remembering her as a child. It was odd, seeing people grow up. Even worse when they showed up, mostly dead, for you to fix up. With a human lover. Who was a sky mage. In the middle of a war party. Sent to kill humans.

 

Her head spun as she enumerated everything that had just been dumped in her lap.

 

Meanwhile, Callum had done the best he could at the simple washstand, shaving off the annoyingly uneven hair on his chin, as carefully as he could, then took to washing the rest of his body.

 

After he got dressed in the simple clothes they had laid out for him, Rayla came inside.

 

“Hey”, she said, looking him over.

 

“Hi”, he replied, still drying his hair, “Did you yell at Lessa some more?”

 

“I told her to go look for Zym. She’s sending more scouts. Let’s just hope they can at least find him, if not catch him.”

 

“Probably a good idea.”

 

He busied himself with the bed rolls on the floor. He was looking forward to a good night’s rest - and not. He hadn’t slept much in the cart but if the nightmares he’d had after the fight against Ithral were terrifying, the ones he’d had since killing Kel were beyond description. The nightmarish clone from his dark magic dream was a nightly occurrence now, calling him. “A killer is a killer, who cares if you learn dark magic now?” At least, he thought, he would not have to dream about Rayla’s dead body swaying in his arms anymore.

 

A cold hand appeared on his cheek, unceremoniously interrupting his self-destructive reverie. He quickly rolled himself into a sleeping bag. “Are you made of ice?!”, came his muffled voice from inside the padded bedding.

 

Rayla snickered, crossing her arms.

 

“ Warm, human face! Cold elven hand-sicles! Those things don’t go together!”, he complained.

 

“What goes together is your sad face and my good humor.”, she said, “But, oh well, if you think I’m so cold, how about you warm me up?”

 

She joined him in the sleeping bag, drawing him into a hug.

 

“What would Lessa say if she saw us like this?”, he snickered.

 

“Guh! I really don’t care!”, Rayla shouted, then blinked at her own volume. She continued with a whisper to make up for it, “I just need to be close to you right now to make up for five days of you bein’ stuck in that cart. Ugh, five days! I’m so sorry. You went through all that because of me. How are you feelin’?”

 

He gazed at her, not quite sure how to answer the question. He felt like crying, both for joy and sadness. He felt dirty, corrupted, and yet felt he’d done what he had to, to protect her. He settled for pressing his face into her fuzz-covered chest.

 

“I love you so, so much and I’m beyond relieved you’re okay”, he said, muffled by the poofy bulk of her sweater, pure joy in his voice. He came up for air and mumbled, “I don’t really know how to unpack the rest right now.”

 

She lifted his chin and kissed him. “I love you too. I’m sure we’ll figure that all out.”

 

For a moment, they just held each other.

 

“Rayla, can I see your wounds?”, he asked.

 

She shrugged, face screwed up with some disgust. “It’s not a pleasant sight. Earthblood healin’s a bit... rough.”

 

With that warning, she rolled up her sleeve and showed him her arm. At first, Callum couldn’t really see what she had meant, on second glance he realized that there were tiny vines strung along and through the wound, clamping and sewing it together. Her stomach was similar. It was indeed a strange, disgusting sight, the plants acting as bandages and surgeon’s twine.

 

“Lessa is an earthblood mage. She’s also a Tribune, that’s a rank below a Legate, so she has some pull here.”

 

“She said she knew you from when you were small.”

 

“Yea,” Rayla said with some annoyance, “She’s a friend of Runaan and my parents. She babysat me for a while until she got promoted and the next time I saw her was for… an extremely awkward conversation about lady stuff. Since then, nothing.”, annoyance mixed into her voice, “But here she is, actin’ like I need her protection - from you.”

 

She nuzzled his chest, accidentally scratching his chin with her horn, “Sorry about that, oh!”

 

He touched the scratch, checking his hand. “Ah it’s fine, I did way worse, shaving my stupid beard off. See, here, there… uh, here…”, he pointed out all his mistakes in his face.

 

“What’s the story there, anyway? I’ve never seen you with a beard.”

 

“Yeah, well, me either. I saw myself in the water and thought I was just dirty. Lucky I still had my dad to show me how to shave. He got cut up so bad every time, but he wanted me to know how to do it. It’s kinda dangerous if you don’t. `Callum, one day soon you’ll wake up and look like someone stuck random hair to your face.` He said your first beard never looks good - he was right, heh... It’s kind of funny that I grew hair basically everywhere except where I thought it might look good.”, he snickered sadly, remembering a time that had been easier, and embraced her again. “How are you feeling?”

 

She sighed deeply, her gaze wandering upward, as though to search her brain for the answer. “Oh, that’s really difficult.”, she smiled adorably, a glint of sadness in her eyes, “You’re makin’ me really happy right now.”, the sadness overtook her expression, “But, there’s just... so much guilt for lettin’ you rot in that cart. More so for… for passin’ off my duty to you.”

 

Rayla welled up, immediately palming at her eyes to make it stop, she wanted to be his rock, not help sweep him away, “I should’ve killed her. Rather’n tryin’ to keep her alive. It was stupid and almost cost my life and risked Zym’s and yours.”

 

For a moment, she wrestled with herself, then continued, more calmly, “Plus, my body just feels so… floppy. I’ve not ever felt like this.”, she smirked weakly, “Feels like I’m a wet blanket, like you, dummy”

 

Callum held her a little too tightly, making her squeak.

 

“I’m sorry”, he said loosening his grip, “You didn’t put me in the cart, Lessa did. You also didn’t `pass off` anything. I made the call. It’s not your fault. I actually admire you for trying to spare her. I’m not sure she deserved it.”

 

“That’s just it though. Who are we to decide that?”, she still fought back tears, “It’s a horrible question to have to answer!”

 

“I didn’t say I knew what the right answer was.”, he said hoarsely, “I saw you drop and everything else just... kind of happened. I mean, I used the same spell on her husband, he was fine… I thought it was going to be the same here… but...”

 

His expression froze over as he relived the scene. She noticed and ran her hands over his face, annoying him on purpose.

 

“Stop it!”, he laughed, tapping her horns, which drove her equally nuts. They bothered each other for a moment but eventually fell back into a comfortable embrace, running their hands all over each other, their eyes locked while they weren’t busy kissing.

 

Life was a series of hardships interrupted by odd moments of utter joy - moments like this one, making it possible to forge ahead, through whichever pile of trash was next.

 

“Ow!”, Rayla suddenly jerked a little and Callum stopped petting her. Her face was screwed up.

 

“What’s wrong?”

 

“My stomach hurts”, she tilted her head to yell at it, “Shut it! I just wanna be happy about us being together right now! I don’t wanna be sad and in pain and scared and… stuff! Ugh, what is going on?”

 

She palmed at her eyes, laughing with audible confusion.

 

He snickered, “Yeah. That’s relatable.”, saddening once more, he said, “Lessa told me they didn’t find anything at the river, but I know what I saw. What I did.”

 

Rayla felt conflicted about what to say. Giving him hope that Kel had survived seemed like a cop-out that would hurt him for much longer than the truth. She sighed deeply. “She was dead, I saw it, too. There’s just no way she survived that. How they missed her, I don’t know.”

 

Callum nodded. “I know. Maybe the river washed her away? It was so quick though.”

 

“I doubt it was that. No flooding since.”

 

He sat up, remembering something. Helmonds letter was finally going to the actual addressee.

 

“This dropped into the cage the first day I was locked up.”

 

She took the letter, glanced at the first few lines and frowned.

 

“Well. This is just the crownin’ achievement of a bad week.”

 

“Yeah. War. Poor Torlan.”

 

Rayla’s expression changed to startled discomfort.

 

“This was addressed to me… they’ll think I’m dead, too. Lessa had me warded. The arrow couldn’t have reached me.”

 

“We’ll have to send them a message.”

 

Rayla nodded slowly, putting the letter to the side.

 

“First thing tomorrow mornin’”, she said, caressing his damp hair, “Do you want to talk more about… everythin’?”

 

Callum nuzzled her, yawned and said drowsily, “To be honest, I’m falling asleep. I’ve gotten what feels like maybe an hour of sleep over the past five days. I can’t figure this out right now. Or feel much of anything, other than how much I love you. Don’t go away?”

 

“I’ll be right here when you wake up.”, she embraced him, hoping it would give him comfort.

 

He almost immediately passed out.

 

“A killer is a killer”, the shape said, again.

 

“You took Ithral!”, Kel screamed, a loud, bright ‘WHAP’ ending her life.

 

She got up and charged at him, regardless.

 

As he collided with her, he started awake, hitting Rayla in the face in the process.

 

“Ouch!”, she cried, rubbing her mouth, “What’d I do?”

 

“I’m really sorry. Just... dreaming really badly.”

 

“No! What did I do? What did I do to you to deserve what you did to me?!”, her face turned lifeless, blank, cold.

 

“I don’t know! Please tell me!”

 

“No.”

 

There was darkness, and silence, broken only by a demonic sentence.

 

“What day is it?”

Chapter Text

Rayla still held her boyfriend when the sounds of morning began around them in the camp.

 

He was crying and writhing in his sleep. She felt tempted to wake him but figured he also needed the rest, however fitful it was.

 

She had gotten a bit of rest herself but hadn’t really been tired. Her body ached, letting her feel every movement she made, so she didn’t mind lying still.

 

His eyes tore open and he jerked away as he saw her looking down at him in the twilight.

 

“Hey”, she said softly, “I don’t think I need to ask how well you slept.”

 

“Did I keep you up?”, he said, curtly.

 

“No. Couldn’t sleep anyway.”

 

She moved to kiss him but he brushed off her arms and got up. The motion was abrupt. It made her frown.

 

Callum looked around.

 

“I thought they were giving me new clothes?”

 

“I don’t think they wanted to just walk in on us.”

 

“Ah. What do I do to get clothes?”

 

“Callum, can you stop for a moment and look at me?”

 

Her boyfriend froze.

 

“What do you mean by that?”, he said, anger in his voice.

 

She was disturbed. Yesterday he’d seemed more himself than today.

 

“You seem… standoffish. Angry. I just wanna know if you’re okay.”

 

He still didn’t face her.

 

“I’m fine.”

 

With that, he left the tent, leaving her behind.

 

She laid back down, suddenly feeling very tired. This was not going to be easy.

 

When she’d woken, the first thing she had asked for was water. The second demand was for him. When Lessa told her to not worry, that they had him contained, she had left her bed against her healer’s will to check on him.

 

It wouldn’t leave her mind, the picture of Callum, sitting in the cage, a heap of misery. His expression had broken her heart. He’d sat there, a shadow of the man whom she loved simply because he was a good person. But, he’d also saved her. Loaded his conscience for her. Killed for her.

 

The flap of the tent moved and Lessa poked her head inside.

“I saw your beau grab the uniform we had for him outside and leave in a hurry. Is it normal for humans to walk out in public in underwear?”

 

She noticed Rayla’s depressed condition and walked over to embrace her, motherly, “What happened, li’l bonnie?”

 

“He’s not himself”, she said, “He just rushed out of here. It’s not normal. Nothing about this is.”

 

Lessa nodded. “It’s my fault. I… we… treated him very badly.”

 

“Why? Sure, you thought he’d hurt me. Doesn’t make treatin’ him the same right.”

 

“Rayla, I can’t help the past”, the older elf said apologetically, “I was being emotional. Lost sight of what’s right.”

 

The Tribune frowned, worry creeping into her expression, “I’m really concerned about you two. There’s a lot of talk in the camp this morning. Alissa spread the word, I think. Some of the Milites are openly wondering if anything they’ve ever heard of humans is true, seeing how Callum’s supposedly a sky mage and you two seem to get along more than fine. Two of the guards who were tasked with tending to the prince have offered their resignation, on grounds of mistreatment of a prisoner.”, she smiled weakly, “The atmosphere out there is just plain confused. You know how empathy is a strong emotion for our people? Plus, I get the feeling everyone without a rank is looking for reasons to stay away from the Breach. We’ve not heard anything from the front, which is just weird.”

 

Rayla stared at her. What was it with them and bringing total disarray to the military? Last time this had happened, they had caused the death of Templars and members of Larwein’s town guard. This was a ridiculous shift in scale. This disruption could make them even more notorious. An uncomfortable thought.

 

There was some commotion outside.

 

The tent flap opened and in stepped Callum, wearing a nicely fitting sky elven light armour. It suited him, even though the holes for the wings showed his linen undershirt.

 

A disheveled looking Zym was balancing on his shoulder.

 

Rayla jumped up to pet the little dragon, “Little guy’s back!”

 

“Guess he must’ve followed us. Saw me walk out of camp. Came flying.”, Callum said, angrily. Then he snarled at Lessa. “What are you doing here?”

 

“I’m sorry to intrude”, she said, “I just wanted to check on Rayla. How are you?”

 

“Terrible”, he suddenly deflated, “I feel terrible. Rayla, I’m sorry. I…”, he threw his hands up, “I don’t know what to do. I actually was going to go to the river to find her body, but we're obviously miles away from the spot. Duh.”

 

“We’ll have to go that way soon. We can check then”, his girlfriend  cautiously hugged him. “I’ll be right there with you. Don’t worry about me. My amazin’ body heals easier than your stupid head.”

 

He chuckled, returning her embrace, “Glad to see you’re not shy with insults. I’ve learned that’s how you flirt.”

 

She smiled innocently, “Is that so?”

 

Lessa caught herself smiling broadly, her expression immediately deteriorating, “Ugh you two are just so… cute! It makes me sick!”

 

The targets of her adoration frowned at her.

 

“Sorry”, she smirked, then turned serious. “Callum, I am sorry for the harm we’ve done, but I think we also might be helpful in your recovery. I’ll introduce you to Honsa, my daughter. She is an ocean mage and understands… minds. She works with people who have seen too much, too fast.”

 

Callum nodded. “That sounds like… both of us, actually.”

 

Rayla suddenly clung to him for support, feeling dizzy. “Lessa. I-I f-feel like I’m gonna buckle. What...?”

 

“Sit.”, the healer told her, critically, and Callum helped her reach the ground without incident. The dizziness went away almost right away.

 

Rayla brushed a strand of chaotic hair out of her face, “So. Standing is an issue for me, now?”

 

“No, getting up too fast. Rayla, you were two minutes from dead. There’s no other way to say it. Your wounds weren’t life threatening, but the blood loss was. You need to rebuild those reserves.”, Lessa gasped, realization streaking her face, “Girl, you haven’t eaten! For six days! We have to fix that!”

 

She quickly strode out.

 

Callum and Rayla were sitting on the floor, supporting each other. Zym was rubbing himself on their backs and they reached out to pet the little monster.

 

“After Larwein I thought it couldn’t get worse.”, Callum broke the silence, “I dreamt tonight. I don’t know a strong enough word that explains what, but I woke up and didn’t know if you were real.”, he sighed and looked at his hands, “I had this impulse... to hit you. See if you were actually there, or if you’d turn into a corpse, like in my dream.”

 

Rayla frowned. “Don’t you dare. The second you hear the sound of my cheek against your hand marks the end of this relationship.”

 

“I didn’t do it, did I? Walked out instead. I could never hurt you.”

 

She looked in his eyes and saw nothing but earnest shame.

Her gaze softened a little. He was just so messed up right now.

 

Noticing her glance, he smirked painfully, “My poor little elf… What did we do to deserve this?”

 

“We made a choice, you cheesy oaf”, Rayla pet his face, “A dumb one, but the right one.”

 

“Why dumb?”

 

“‘Cause it was the hardest path we could’ve chosen. This li’l quest of ours would be challengin’ for a bunch of hard veterans. You barely know what a pilum looks like. I had trainin’, sure, but I’m still nowhere near Runaan. Runaan would’ve smashed that Ortis woman to sticky bits.”

 

“Why would you want that?”

 

“It would’ve been easier. Safer. But it seems like we’re always choosin’ hard.”

 

“Being with you is easy.”

 

“Are you sure? You don’t think this would be easier if we weren’t a thin’?”

 

He frowned. “Do you think that?”

 

She shrugged, sadly. “I don’t think thinkin’ I was dead would’ve hurt you this much if you didn’t love me.”

 

He shook his head. “Losing my best friend would’ve still driven me nuts.”

 

After a moment of looking at him, Rayla nodded weakly.

 

Then, Lessa came back, with a bag full of food.

 

“Eat, but slowly. Take a few bites, then a break.”

 

Rayla chose a handful of seeds, a good portion of what looked like kale and, predictably, a slice of the soft cheese that was kept fresh by the freezer bag, sporting the mark of the ocean.

 

Zym gnawed at the remaining contents of the bag, seemingly at random. Lessa was not pleased, trying to stop him, fruitlessly. The little monster was hungry.

 

The elf ate, slowly and pensively and Callum watched her. A bit of color returned to her features. She was stunningly cute, in her too-large sweater. The only detraction from this image of uncharacteristic feminine softness was the viney wound on her thigh.

 

The prince examined this. He hadn’t really ever seen Rayla as ‘cute’.

 

Zym was cute.

 

`Cute` implied that he felt some sort of protective instinct for her. He’d always felt that she was better at taking care of herself than he ever could. Maybe that was different now. He’d shown that he was dangerous, too. He’d settled the fight this time. There was a strange mixture of pride and self-hate connected to this.

 

She was sitting there, looking more fragile than she’d ever been before - and all he knew was that he was going to keep her from any more harm.

 

Noticing his intense gaze, she looked up from her plate. He sat, cross legged, watching her stuff her face. That was a bit strange, but his expression was full of endearment - and something else.

 

She couldn’t help but smile sheepishly. He looked sharp in his skywing dress. Unlike the guards’ armor he’d worn since Larwein, it was new. Unlike his previous sweater and shirt, it accentuated his body, gave him broader shoulders and a tighter waist. He looked stunningly dashing. The only detraction from this image of uncharacteristic male bravado was his face. Under the surface, he was hurting. His eyes were dim, somehow.

 

He was sitting there, looking more fragile than he’d ever been before - and all she knew was that she was going to keep him from any more harm.

Chapter Text

Prime Legate Janai stood, blade stuck in the ground next to her, on the Xadian side of the Breach. Next to her were the skywing and earthblood commanders. For almost a week now, the Auxilia and the human joint force had been staring at each other across the divide with baited breath. So far the humans had kept their word, not advancing, not even twitching in a menacing fashion. This was somewhat impressive seeing how Sol Regem’s minions were circling above them, diving ever so often to provoke them.

 

A transparent tactic he had kept up for months, ramping it up now, trying to bait the humans into attacking.

 

Even Evenere’s banner was still planted firmly on the human side.

 

“What do your… elven eyes see?”, came a confused voice. Amaya and Helmond, who had translated her greeting, appeared behind her, ‘What other type of eyes would she have, General?’, he signed.

 

“General. Legate. My `elven` eyes see a truce in good effect. How about your human ones?”

 

“They saw a young, stupid king take the advice of his snobby, worried nobles. I think anything is possible now.”, Amaya snickered, “I am glad you never had to use the information I gave you.”

 

Janai nodded curtly. “It’s… strange to stand here every day. Strange to watch as you do the same. On a normal day we would catch human bounty hunters, trying to cross.”, she harrumphed and continued with bemused reprimand, “Other days we’d find a less than well hidden human outpost. It’s odd to be at war and have the situation be more peaceful than normal. Luckily, the delegates won’t reach a safe place any time soon. They might start to wonder for news from the front once not distracted by fleeing. I figure they will be near Larwein now. Another two weeks travel should get them to Tiram-Veltis. We’ve been quiet so far.”

 

Helmond scowled, “It is Veltis-Tiram, princeps.”

 

Janai waved  dismissively at him, “The point is,  I do not know what to tell them once the time comes.”

 

“Ha! We’ll tell them to come fight if they want it so bad!”, bellowed the earthblood Legate in his deep voice, “I can’t believe my eyes! Look at these stalwart Pinkos! I know sunfire veterans who ran from a swooping dragon! And they’re allies! Look at them, Helmond, if that was you, you’d be wetting your wrappers!”

 

Helmond frowned, “Legate… I do not believe I know you. Would it not be time we got acquainted?”

 

This apparently amused the rock-clad soldier. “Oh, I know you, friend, through the dusty tales of Janai. Seeing you now though - odd how people change! The name is Temek. Legate Temek below Iowend.”

 

Amaya surveyed the earthblood Legate. His dark face sported a well-shaped, dense, tight black beard. In his brown eyes, there was determination and humor. He seemed strong, but also like he’d passed his prime in that regard. Under the rocky helmet, not a strand of hair could be seen, so she assumed he was bald.

 

“I am Helmond. Former Legate of the Lucid.”

 

“Oh, eww!”, Temek nervously lowered his hand, raised in greeting, “Agent of the Lucid, eh? She didn’t tell us that! Yikes, friend! I’m not sure I should want to know more about you.”

 

Helmond harrumphed with amusement, “I see you are of good sense.”

 

“Given the chance, I will also introduce myself”, the skywing Legate said, “The name is Yatende Tani.”

 

Tani was lithe, as most skywing elves seemed to be. Her black hair had a blue sheen and her eyes reminded Amaya of her own, other than their light blue color. She had put on a layer of white primer, a crisp red lip gloss and added black highlights to her eyes. The general was bemused. Warriors who cared about such things were rare anywhere other than Duren. She wore a decorated, clean skywing armor and a mage’s circlet.

 

“Well met”, Helmond said, “The convocation Yatende is well regarded.”

 

“You being an agent of the Lucid lends a bit of irony to that statement, Helmond”

 

“That may be so, but I was not personally involved with the deposition of Vocant Terhan.”

 

The skywing smiled, “It’s an old scandal, either way, and the humans settled it for us. At the moment, I believe this”, she gestured at the scenery, “deserves our full attention.”

 

Janai smirked at their exchange. “It’s dire times, but with Helmond here we should at least have some fun.”

 

The Ex-Legate’s eyes narrowed, “You may remember our time together fondly, Janai, I however cringe at our teenage exploits.”

 

She snorted loudly, “So you should! Fondly?! Ha! You were terrible! It’s no wonder I now prefer a woman’s touch!”

 

Helmond blushed. Amaya did a dumbfounded double take. He could do that?!

 

“This is not the sort of conversation to be had under the open sky”, the Ex-Legate grumbled.

 

“Friend, have you noticed?”, Temek said, using both hands to point at Janai “This here is a sunfire elf. They have no decorum.”

 

“Decorum!? That’s one way do describe cowardice to say and do what needs to be said and done, Temek”, Janai smiled at him dangerously.

 

“Your fiery looks may scare our friend Astilliar, but you’re going to have to work harder than that to make me quake”, Temek laughed at her. The sunfire elf merely roughly patted his shoulder as an answer.

 

“So, General. I doubt you’ve come over here to watch us banter.”

 

“It is amusing, but no”, Amaya signed, “I came to bring our leaders’ thanks. We thought we could give gifts but those may be misconstrued as bribery, so the words are hopefully enough to convey our relief.”

 

She handed them five letters, “I will recommend you read Evenere’s first.”

 

Temek unfolded the letter and read.

 

“Hello Elves”, he snorted and broke into breathless wheezes. “Wh-what a great way t-to start!”

 

After a moment, he recovered, his gloves receded, allowing him to wipe tears from his eyes. At the same time, the vines in his armor moved him into a sitting position.

 

“Hello Elves”, he started over, barely holding on to his composure, “My stupid advisors tell me that without the support of the other kingdoms, we’re just going to die by attacking. I disagree but there’s some dumb law that says I have to listen to them if there’s enough of them. I still want to kill you really badly so don’t get any wrong ideas. I will avenge my parents and wipe you losers off the face of the earth”, he put the letter down, laughing silently with his eyes pressed shut. After a moment, he cleared his throat and continued, “You should be happy that there are many idiots on this side of the border who see an elf killing someone and blame humans for it. You also should be happy that Katolis has a larger army than I do. Signed, The King.”

 

Janai shook her head, bemused by Temek’s toneless laughter.

 

Tani unfurled Duren’s letter.

 

“Most honoured Legates”, she started, nodding approvingly at the correct use of their ranks, “I thank you for staying your weapons against the orders of your leaders. It is not in my interest to see my people die in a war I consider sense- and pointless. After all, we have coexisted for a thousand years and I don’t see why that should not continue. It is a shame your leaders did not feel the same way but maybe we can find some accord amongst us here that will soften their stance. I would like to propose a meeting. A neutral location of your choosing and our agreement. As a member of the Pentarchy, I know the history of great powers coming together under  a single roof for the betterment of all. In either case, Duren thanks you. Queen Aanya, Lady of the Bloom “

 

Tani blinked. “She did not write this herself, did she? If memory serves, she is young, no older than thirteen years.”

 

“She is a child ruler, but there’s no doubt in my mind that this letter came from her mind and her desk.”, Amaya explained, “Much like my nephew, she has taken the lessons of history seriously and has learned quickly what it means to wear the crown.”

 

Among the rank and file behind and below them, there was commotion. The moonshadow elves yelled something about an attack and to duck. Everyone else was looking around confusedly.

 

An eagle arrow swooped from the east, impacting near Amaya.

 

“Quiet down, you twilight partridges!”, Temek shouted, “It’s a message, nothing more!”, to Helmond he said, bemusedly, “The bloody ears on you people, tsk!”

 

Amaya bent down to pick up the arrow. ‘This could be for anyone here. How do we know?’

 

Helmond translated her question, then answered it, “Open it. Whoever sends these ought to have put the recipient on the outside of the scroll.”

 

Amaya unlatched the head, extracted the letter and turned it. Her heart jumped into her throat and tears welled into her eyes. It was a fine but impatient, untrained script, spelling her and Helmond’s names. She hadn’t had any news from Callum for a week and seeing this lettering made her heart burst. Rayla was alive.

 

Even Ezran had gotten nothing. His visions had been limited to Zym hunting bugs, flying short distances between trees and observing a large convoy of troops.

 

‘This is for you and I’, the General told Helmond.

 

“Janai, may we be excused for a moment? It appears we may have gotten some news from friends in the interior.”

 

They found a quiet spot and Amaya unrolled the letter.

 

“General Amaya, Legate Helmond, I’m guessing you’re surprised to hear from me. I was wounded and under a ward for a while. I’m really sorry if that’s caused any worry. Helmond, I am so, so sorry to hear of  Torlan’s passing. Callum and I can only offer our sympathies.”

 

She then recounted what had happened with Kel and Lessa.

 

“It’s clear that we both are going to have to take it easy for a while. Maybe in a week’s time we can continue our original plan. We are still with the Legion but are going to separate from them soon since they are going the wrong way. I suppose in a week’s time, they’ll be your problem. While I’m writing this, Callum is with an oceanwave healer.”

 

Following the paragraph were a lot of crossed out attempts at explaining why he needed the help. The next clearly recognizable sentence read, “I don’t know if there’s a better way to say this but it looks like he has some mental wounds to heal after all of this. He has my love and support, obviously, but I’m not sure how helpful that will be. Let us know how everything has gone on your end. We are aching for some news. Please be well. Rayla.”

 

Helmond and Amaya smiled at each other. It was so good to hear from them, even if their situation didn’t sound ideal.

 

‘We’ll have to return the message. Do we have an arrow we could use?’, Amaya asked.

 

‘I’m afraid the downside to this mode of communication is that it is very expensive. I have two more in my personal possession. Getting more means trading for them with the Auxilia’s quartermaster. I doubt they will be pleased with the suggestion, being pressed for resources themselves. We shall use one of mine though, yes.’

 

The General and Helmond made their way back to where the others were still waiting.

 

It looked as though they had finished reading the letters from Neolandia and Del Bar.

 

Janai was in the last motions of opening Ezran’s letter.

 

“Dear Legates. I am happy to know you are as interested in peace as I am. I feel it would be good to meet in person, to speak about our next steps. Aanya, Queen of Duren, is pressing for this, as well. We will wait for your answer. Please let me know if you have an idea about how we could get your leaders invested in peace. I will be forever in your debt if this conflict ends without death. Best wishes. Ezran, Lord on the Twin Towers.”

 

Temek laughed, “So wait, let me get this right - this is a ten year old? Does human growth dilute your people’s wit or are these children the exception?”



Chapter Text

After Rayla had finished writing her letter to Helmond and Amaya, she had fallen asleep in her and Callum’s tent. Zym was rolled up against her chest.

 

Her boyfriend was coming back from seeing the healer Honsa and poked his head inside.

 

“Rayla?”, he asked, very quietly. She didn’t answer.

 

Taking this to mean that she wasn’t awake, he decided to take a walk, to avoid disturbing her. The little dragon unfurled, scampering to follow him.

 

Outside, Lessa’s Milites were still lingering. The Legion had moved on without them, leaving Lessa and Honsa behind to catch up later. From ahead, Callum saw someone approach on a Peryton.

 

“Ho there!”, he called, “A word, human.”

 

Callum stepped closer, and the skywing elf got off his ride. He was middle aged, wiry, looked a bit nervous and definitely excited. His light blue skin was unadorned, but he had some sweet golden sheaths for his obsidian horns, jutting from his white hair. The picture was complete with his equally white eyes. A bit creepy, they made him look like he was permanently scared out of his mind.

 

“I am Prime Legate Yatende Otane. When news reached the front of your release from your… uh…  unfortunate imprisonment, I wanted to come see you myself. I just haven’t had a chance to. My duties don’t allow much respite. Nice outfit, by the way! I like the pendant.”

 

“Callum of Katolis.  What can I do for you, Yatende?”

 

The elf frowned dramatically. “Yatende is my convocation. It’s my family. My name is Otane.”

 

“Oh! Sorry, I didn’t know.”

 

“No reason you should, `Katolis`”, he winked, “First I’d like to extend my apologies. I have never nor will ever tolerate wanton mistreatment of people under my care. This situation will have consequences for everyone who was involved. We may be at war, but we are not barbarians! And, well”, he leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “I hear you have an elven summand and have gained the trust of a dragon. That already makes you okay in my books. You’re invested in both federations.”

 

Callum flushed wildly. “She... we...  uh, we’re not summands, b-but we do love each other...”

 

Otana snorted. “Oh, it appears my information was not quite correct. Apologies! Now! You will do some primal magic for me - I want to know if the rest of what I’ve heard is true, at least. You can perform Fulminis?”

 

The milites around them stopped what they were doing, watching with interest.

 

Callum wasn’t happy. He had just finished his first session with Honsa. The healer had comforted him with some water magic, but mostly, they had just spoken. She had told him that for now, he should try to avoid recalling what he’d done to Kel outside of their meetings.

 

A hint of panic crept into his voice, “I don’t know, I might h-hit someone.”

 

Otane’s expression became one of condescension. He clearly didn’t believe that Callum was a mage. “Of course. Would you feel more comfortable if we walked a bit down the street? We must hurry, I cannot dawdle.”

 

Reluctantly, Callum followed him, Azymondias in tow.

 

Once they had reached the open road, Otane gestured for him to go ahead.

 

Callum shakily drew the rune. Nothing happened.

 

“That’s disappointing. But not entirely surprising. Why would you lie about having this power? Tsk.”

 

Otane turned, shaking his head.


“W-Wait”, Callum said, shakily, “I can do this. Maybe not f-fulminis.”

 

Otane gave him a look of sopping wet pity, then turned back to keep walking.

 

“Aspiro!”, Callum activated and Otane was blown over, the wind catching in his wings. He landed face first on the road.

 

“Well, pluck me!”, the legion’s leader yelled into the dirt, excitedly. There was clapping and laughter from a few Milites who had watched their exchange, “You better be busy with something once I get up, soldiers, or you will rue the day!”

 

The milites’ laughter died down and they skittered.

 

“Told you I could do Aspiro”, grinned Callum.

 

The Prime Legate reassembled himself, dusting off his clothes as he got up. “Fantastic! Any other spells you know?”

 

“Again, I know fulminis, I-I just have some issues… using it right now.”

 

“What about Nebula?”

 

“Never heard of it.”

 

“Well, there you go.”, he drew a vaguely cloud shaped rune, “Nebula!”

 

Dense fog flew from his mouth as he blew, it hung thick in the air. Zym cooed and started running zig zag in the expanding cloud.

 

“That’s good isn’t it? Lay down some cover?”

 

Callum tried it. It was really as simple as Aspiro; drawing the rune, saying the word and blowing.

 

“Nice! You picked that up quick! Very talented! Now I just need to find you. Aspiro!”

 

The fog was blown away.

 

“Thanks for teaching me, Otane!”, Callum was thoroughly excited, “What else can I learn?”

 

“Eager, eager! Very nice. Seeing as you don’t have wings, you’re going to like this one.”

 

He drew a complicated rune that Callum immediately imitated, so as to not forget it. It looked like a flame, jutting upward, wide on the bottom where it enclosed the rune for Aspiro, pointed on top.

 

“Alatus!”, they both shouted and a mighty gust carried Callum upward, beyond the tops of the trees.

 

“Uh, Otane?!”, the prince called, flailing.

 

The skywing mage and Zym came flying, settling next to him.

 

Callum was somewhat panicked, “You know I’m gonna d-die if I fall that far, right?”

 

“Oh!”, he laughed with a bellow, “Don’t you worry! It’ll put you down gracefully in a moment, just... try not to wiggle so much!”

 

The spell subsided and Callum descended, quickly, but not dangerously, landing roughly on his stomach. Zym licked his face.

 

“That was still kinda painful.”, he wheezed, getting up.

 

“Aw, bummer”, his teacher said, with fake sympathy. Landing gracefully he continued, “I should’ve probably taught you this one first, they make a good combo.”

 

The Prime Legate looked over his shoulder for the end of the Legion’s column, then shrugged and drew an even more complicated rune. Callum was weary of what it would do, but he wanted to learn so he followed along. “You know that with some spells, you can designate targets? Nebula and Aspiro are directional spells. Fulminis is a target spell. This one and Alatus are tactile, meaning the spell’s applied to anything you’re touching while you activate. Or yourself, if you’re not touching anything, since only your hands can carry the intent.”

 

The rune was complete - to Callum, it looked like a pair of wings connected to an orb.

 

“Ratis!”, they shouted and… nothing happened.

 

“Did that not work?”, Callum asked.

 

“It probably did. Try Alatus.”

 

Callum was thrown into the air once more, but this time he seemed to hover in place rather than swaying in the gust. As it subsided, he was stuck in midair. Flailing once more, he tried to move.

 

After a few minutes, Callum got bored.

 

“Can I come down now?”

 

Otane laughed, “Use your wit, Katolis! Ratis expires as soon as you touch solid ground! It will keep drawing your power, so don’t stay up there too long!”, he turned, waving over his shoulder, “It was good meeting you, but I have to catch up to my column! Don’t forget, sky isn’t the most aggressive source, but the most useful. Farewell and good luck!”

 

Callum frowned. He already felt very tired. He was a good ten feet from the ground. What to do?

 

Looking around, he noticed that there was another group of people with an escort in the middle distance, seemingly having exited Larwein in their direction. A rider had separated from them and was closing quickly.

 

“Aspiro”, Callum yelled, the spell, aimed skyward, propelling him towards the ground. As he spun about and landed on his knee and fists, dust went flying and the present Milites started clapping and cheering.

 

A pair of polished moon elven boots appeared in his vision.

 

“Well look at you, bein’ all magic-y!”, Rayla said, helping him on his feet. She was dressed in a new, patchless and startlingly green Assassin’s uniform, “Alissa woke me and hooked me up. I’ve got a winter uniform for both of us, too”, she knocked on the unmarred chest guard and sighed contently, “Feels good to be dapper again.”

 

Callum chuckled, weakly. “I liked you in that sweater, but this is more `you`.”

 

She pulled him into a hug and whispered, “You’re so smart. Know just the thin’ to say”, she then looked over his shoulder, noticing the rider who was now visible to everyone on the ground.

 

“Uh oh”, she went.

 

“What is it now?”, Callum groaned.

 

“Judgin’ by the freakishly shiny uniform, that there is a templar canon guard. The senate’s close.”

Chapter Text

“Who is in command here?”, the canon guard yelled, almost running down Zym, Callum and Rayla as he galloped into camp, “Why are you not following your Legion?”

 

The milites threw a few glances toward the elf and her boyfriend which made her bristle. With a swift motion, Rayla flipped Callum’s hood over his face and backed away from the richly armored rider. Callum was struggling with Zym, trying to get him to sit still in Rayla’s hood.

 

“You there! Moonshadow! Speak!”

 

“Yes, princeps”, Rayla replied nervously, “The commander is Tribune Lessa.”

 

The guard looked at her expectantly. After a moment he barked, “Well?”

 

“Princeps?”

 

“Fetch her, woman!”

 

Rayla swallowed her boiling snark, shuffling off with Callum in tow, Zym between them, shielded from view.

 

Lessa was sitting in her tent, agonizing over a few letters she was writing. There was a knock at her flap board.

 

“Come on in”, she said, and Rayla stepped inside.

 

“We have a visitor and he wants an explanation”, Rayla pulled Callum through the flap, “Canon guard.”

 

Lessa looked at them, pensively.  After a moment, she asked a worried question, “Do you want to stay hidden or should we try and appeal to their better nature?”

 

Rayla thought for a moment. “Callum, what do you think?”

 

“I don’t know. It doesn’t seem like we’re making a whole lot of headway. Maybe we should try and talk to the senate directly.”

 

Rayla frowned. She was afraid he’d say something like that. Sure, it made sense, to some degree, try and talk to the people at the helm. “Uh, alright. We can try, I guess.”

 

“What’s the worst that can happen?”, Lessa said and immediately regretted it. Rayla was motioning at her boyfriend’s head and her stomach, her mien one of bovine incredulity, “Point well taken, sorry.”

 

The tribune got up and walked outside, ahead of them. On her way, she also knocked on Honsa’s board, who poked her head out of her tent.

 

“Howzit, auntie?”

 

“We’re gonna talk to a snob herder. You want to come?”

 

“Oh! For sure!”

 

Honsa stepped out of her tent. She was a diminutive, round oceanwave elf whose dark blue hair stood in stark contrast to her light green skin tone. She wore a coral red dress and hair-clips, making for a shocking, colorful appearance in summary. Stub-nosed and perky beyond description, her cuteness radiated. She was about a year older than Callum and Rayla.

 

Rayla stopped short. She had imagined Honsa to be sort of old. Why had Callum not mentioned how close to them she was in age?

 

Together they marched further down the road to find the canon goard yelling at the Milites, who were lined up for an inspection.

 

“If you would please direct your fury at me, Templar…?”, Lessa called to him and he whipped around.

 

“Canon guard Pert.”, the moonshadow elf gruffly introduced himself, “What sort of odd posse are you leading, Tribune? Who is this person?”

 

“This, princeps, is Honsa. She is my counselor. An attached civilian.”

 

“Her dress is inapprop…”, he started.

 

“That ain’t for you to decide, dude!”, the oceanwave elf interrupted, “I’m not a soldier, so your opinions are mist to me!”

 

The guard was clearly not used to being interrupted. He’d lost his train of thought.

 

“Be that as it may”, he started, “You would be a shining beacon to any enemy observers.”

 

Lessa gave him an incredulous look. “We’re part of a Legion. Kind of hard to miss as it is…?”

 

“Uh. Oh. Yes, I suppose that is true”, the guard deflated by several circumferences, his bluster worn off by failure, “I… still require an explanation. Why are you not grouped up?”

 

“We’ve… made an error in judgement, princeps, that will likely not enthuse you on any level”, Lessa warned.

 

The guard frowned, “I had worried so.”

 

“Nah, no way you’re expectin’ this, brah”, Honsa chuckled, grabbing Callum and startling Rayla. The assassin clandestinely loosened her blades. If this was going to turn into a fight, she was not taking any risks.

 

“This guy’s name is Callum. He can do sky magic”, the counselor continued.

 

Pert looked at her as though she was insane, too annoyed by her to notice Callum’s obvious lack of wings. “I will say his name is odder than his abilities. He’s a skywing! Of course he can do sky magic!”

 

“Show him some tricks”, Honsa said.

 

Callum breathed deeply, drew Ratis and touched a good-sized stone on the ground. He then kicked it and it went rebounding into the trees, making satisfying knocking noises all the way. Callum felt his energy being syphoned further before the tether that tied him to the stone through his pendant finally broke. It had probably hit the ground.

 

Pert’s gaze wandered from the stone back to the target of his ire. He was too busy staring down Honsa to notice Callum’s fifth finger.

 

“So as you can see, perfectly normal primal magic, right?”, Honsa intoned.

 

Pert snarled, “I would agree, yes, obviously! Stop wasting my time!”

 

Honsa pulled off Callum’s hood.  The templar’s chin hit the floor and his hand twitched toward his blade.

 

“Impossible”, he said, roughly grabbing Callum’s arms to examine his hands, “You… you’re human? You clearly are not carrying a primal stone. What… is the meaning of this, Tribune Lessa?”

 

Rayla was impressed. She had thought this encounter would go much worse. “I’ll add some thin's for your list of strange stuff first, Princeps”, she smirked, stepping forward, “I am Rayla, charge of Legate Runaan, Sicarius Assassin of the Moonshadow. Callum and I are escortin’ Azymondias, the Dragon Prince.”, hearing his name, the little guy poked his head out of her hood, “and… he and I have a relationship.”

 

Callum smirked at her, wryly. Was it a good idea to be so forward about this?

 

Pert gaped at her, “Dragon guard...?”

 

Pert gaped at Zym, “He…?”

 

Pert gaped at Callum, “Him…?”

 

Pert gaped in the direction of the stone Callum had enchanted, “That…?”

 

Honsa started laughing hoarsely at his expression, “You broke the moke, guys, good work!”

 

The templar looked between all of them, his mind in obvious chaos. “Would you please explain how this all came to be, Tribune?”, he said,flatly.

 

Lessa humored him, explaining their presence and everything that had happened to keep them in place.

 

“Interesting. Very interesting. Startling, horrifying, yes, yes. Interesting”, Pert was pacing now, throwing them confused glances ever so often, “This is… I cannot… er, I mean to say I will have to report to the senate.”

 

“You do that, brah.”, Honsa snarked, “You look like you need a bit of assistance thinking this thru’.”

 

Pert glared in her direction and got into his saddle. A moment later, he sped off on his Peryton.

 

“Well. That was nuts.”, said Rayla, making sure her blades were correctly holstered.

 

“He’s really stuck up. Needs to meditate more”, Honsa said, smirking at Callum, “You okay, pinko? You’ve got a bit of a sheen.”

 

“Been doing a lot of magic today”, he huffed, sitting down, “Feels like a workout.”

 

Honsa dropped into a crouch, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Ya it is. Magic draws from nature, sure, but you gotta funnel all that somehow. Takes muscle. You got a nice bit, so you’ll be okay. I’m sure the pendant also helps a bit, but it’s a rough piece of kit. Take ‘er easy for now tho’.”

 

With that, the eccentric elf got up, noticing Rayla’s suspicious glare.

 

“Woah there, sistah, put them eyecicles down!”, Honsa laughed, pointing at her own crossed eyes, “I’m just bein’ friendly, is all. I ain’t nearly lolo or mean enough to try ‘n steal this guy from ya. Seriously, you’re a cute couple.”, patting the still suspicious Assassin on her crossed arms, she recommended, “Have confidence, ya guys have been through so much!”

 

Rayla nodded curtly, “I kno’ all that.”

 

She shrugged and strode off, back to her tent, “Well, uh, ‘k den!”

 

“What’s her deal?”, Rayla asked Lessa with some barely suppressed annoyance in her voice, “I thought she was supposed to be `good with heads`!”

 

“She is! She got into yours real quick!”, Lessa smirked, “You looked like you were going to strangle her there. Callum’s going to spend a lot of time alone with her, so she wants to make sure you know she’s aware of your discomfort.”

 

Rayla blushed. Was her ire really so transparent? “She’s really cute”, she admitted after a moment, “It’s hard not to feel sorta kinda put off, especially when she’s hatin’ on my pendant!”

 

Callum got up, drowsily, “What does that even matter? She’s nice, but you’re my forever-girl”

 

Rayla snorted, “Did you get into the twist bell bushes again?”

 

With a worried look in the direction that Pert had left in, Rayla turned to support her exhausted boyfriend. He’d better get some rest, who knew what unhappy surprise would come their way, next.

Chapter Text

As Rayla was walking Callum to their tent, a whizzing sound that she had started to recognize as non-threatening could be heard. The eagle arrow dropped on the ground next to her.

 

“Hold on, let me pick that up”, she said, standing Callum on his feet.

 

In the tent, Callum almost immediately fell asleep. Rayla had never imagined magic would tire him out so much, but maybe it was just the more advanced spells he now knew.

 

She sat next to him, petting his hair, smiling at how adorable he was. Especially passed out cold like this. He didn’t fidget or cry, which was a pleasure to see. Maybe this was Honsa’s doing - or he was just really, really tired. Azymondias dug his head under Callum’s arm and curled up.

 

For a while, Rayla sat and pet the two of them.

 

Unfurling the letter, she realized that Helmond and Amaya had written short letters on the same page.

 

“Rayla, I can’t express how glad I am to know that you are still with us. After your first letter, I thought it would be nice to meet you, but I am now thoroughly convinced. Standing by someone after a traumatic event is a sign of outstanding character. It’s obvious you know how much hard work this will take and yet, you dedicated yourself. I feel happy for Callum, knowing he has someone so fiercely loving at his side through this hardship.”

 

Rayla smiled warmly. Then she read the next sentence.

 

“Welcome to the family.”

 

She put down the letter, feeling tears in her eyes. “Go away”, she said to no-one in particular. Callum snored.

 

Family, family.

 

It sounded stupid.

 

She thought angrily of her cowardly parents who had given her little love when she was a child. Thinking of them, there were images of golden armor and light blue fabrics. Backs turned. Promises broken. A smiling face, trying to mollify her disappointment. They had been concerned about her, yes, but their work had always meant the world to them. From as far back as she could remember, the people from her Sconi village had taken more care of her than her parents did. Sure, they had given her a home, but she had few good memories of them together. Now, even those were tainted by the dishonor they had piled on her shoulders, making her a pariah among her own.

 

The fact that Lessa had been so concerned about her had shocked Rayla. She had expected her to be cold and unforgiving, helping her for old times sake but not really giving a care about what she was doing or how Callum factored into her life. Maybe it was because she was not Sconi, or a Moonshadow elf at that. Rayla thought of returning home to the pebble beaches and boreal forests of Scotia and finding nothing but rejection there now that her other `family` was gone.

 

Runaan was the only one who had ever seemed to put her first. That was to say, as a child. Impressions of his nurture and care throughout the years flashed across her mind’s eye. The feeling of her riding his shoulders as he cheered her up. The image of him, asking her if she wanted to learn how to fight.  A veritable montage of him, sparring with her and the other assassins. His mouth saying ‘Good night, little sheep’.

 

Then there they were, atop the Katolin Battlements, and that same mouth spat at her. Threatened to kill her.

 

Anger rammed a spear through her heart. Runaan had tried to kill her. Kill her! Murder her! And yet...

 

She had avoided confronting these parts of her recent past. So much guilt had piled on her shoulders. Yes. Sure. He’d threatened and postured. That was him. He put the mission first. Would he really have killed her? He’d fought as though he’d meant it. But, Rayla didn’t know. And really, it no longer mattered. He was dead. She was alive.

 

Bitter tears fell from her eyes. He was dead. Because of her. The other faces of her band swam on her conscience but his was the most painful.

 

A hand came to rest on her shoulder. “Hey… what’s wrong?”, Callum asked, worried but still drowsy.

 

Wordlessly, she drew him into a hug. He pet her hair and let her cry her fill.

 

She then handed him the letter and he read, quietly.

 

“You really worried me, but she’s being really nice. What’s wrong?”, he put down the letter and embraced her tightly, making her wince, “Sorry.”

 

“Family isn’t a great concept for me. Bad track record.”, she said sadly.

 

”Rayla, I, uh… I don’t want to pretend I know what you’re going through with this. All I know of your family is what you told me. But, I can tell you something about my… our... family if you want.”

 

She shrugged. “I… don’t know if I ever want to be part of a family again.”

 

“You shouldn’t feel pressured to accept Amaya’s offer, either. I’m sure she meant well”, he pensively scanned her face, then kissed her. “You know it’s going to happen eventually if you stay with me, right? The whole family thing?”

 

Rayla blushed a sickly pink through the tears. Sappy prince.

 

He nodded slowly. “Did you finish the letters?”

 

Rayla shook her head. “Just couldn’t keep goin’ after the whole family thing. Head took me for a ride again.”

 

Callum pet her arm. “You know, maybe you should see Honsa, too. There’s so much that’s happened to you that would be hard to work out on your own.”

 

She shook her head. “I’m not really comfortable with that.”

 

He frowned. “Is this because of…”

 

“No!”, she interrupted gruffly, “I just… don’t wanna talk to a stranger.”, she suddenly looked sheepish, “But, uh, maybe a little bit of that, too. She’s cute. Really cute. Not like me”

 

“What are you talking about? You…”, Callum trailed off, then said, “Okay. I guess you really aren’t cute, most of the time”

 

Rayla sat up, wiping her confused eyes. What sort of jagged rock was he going to drop on her head now?

 

Callum chuckled. “Oh boy, that came out super wrong again, didn’t it? What I mean is, you’re amazing. You’re endearing, and beautiful. I mean, when you wore that sweater, you were really cute, but that’s because you looked… uh… non-threatening.”

 

Rayla laughed, “Non-threatenin’? Do I normally look threatenin’?”

 

“Rayla, you feel most comfortable in an Assassin’s light armor! It has swords built into it! Your stomach has more muscles than my entire body! Of course you come off as a threat!”, Callum said heatedly, gesturing at her, “You’re determined and you’ve got a plan basically all the time.”, he got a bit meek, “So far you’ve dealt with most of the fighting. Gotten hurt the most. It’s hard to see you as `cute` after all that.”

 

She frowned. “So I’ll have to wear some more of Lessa’s sweaters, is what you’re sayin’”

 

“No, That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying unless you want to be cute, you shouldn’t change a thing. I love the threatening Rayla just as much as I love the cute Rayla.”

 

Her expression softened and she pinched his cheek, maybe a bit harder than she meant to. “Fine, you flatterer. I get it.”, she studied her hands, “I… kinda want to be both, a little. Remember when I was talkin’ about joinin’ the Auxilia and becomin’ an ironclad scarecrow to others?”

 

“That particular walk is not one that I’ll ever forget”, Callum said, smirking toothily.

 

Rayla smirked back, “Well, as a soldier, you put up this facade of being stone cold most of the time and a lot of people confuse that for the real you”, her expression sank, “One of my civilian friends once said she couldn’t ever imagine joinin’ the military because she wanted to be a mom and she thought they would drill that out of the women there.”

 

Callum was gazing at her, expectantly. She smiled at his encouraging eyes.

 

“I still think it’d be nice to be a mom one day, if you’re wonderin’, but what I meant to actually say with all that is… I wanna look cute ever so often. I’m not just an Assassin. I don’t just kick butt. I also love. I’m a big softy. But, that’s easier to see for others when you look the part.”

 

“I did say I liked you wearing the sweater.”

 

She giggled. “What, no good memories about us under the arch?”

 

He flushed a little. “T-that was more romantic, less cute.”

 

Rayla laughed at his expression, but was interrupted by a pulling pain in her stomach.

 

“Ow! Grrr!”, she held her abdomen, then sighed, “We should probably finish reading these.”

 

Callum pulled her into a kiss, first.

 

“Hey, uh.”, Rayla remembered, “On the topic of family. I have something for you.”

 

She got up, rummaging in her bag for a moment. When she returned, she held out a red piece of fabric.

 

It was his scarf.

 

He took it out of her hands. “You washed it”, he remarked blankly, “It feels weird having that back.”

 

For a moment, his mind wanted to tick a box, but he shook his head. Enough of that.

 

“Thank you”, he said, not quite sure how to react.

 

She hugged him. “I’m sorry if it brings back bad memories.”

 

“It does, but it also has a lot of good ones attached to it.”, he smiled at her, tepidly, “It did save your life, too”

 

He wrapped the scarf around himself, feeling a little more whole now that the familiar scratch around his neck was back. Then he cleared his throat and found the spot where she had left off.

 

“At this point, I want to wish both of you a speedy, uneventful recovery. Nothing worse than an exciting sick rest. I’ve written Ez a message to let him know about you. I’m sure he will be ecstatic to hear about your survival. It hit him hard, hearing you were dead.”

 

More cold guilt washed over Rayla. It was bad enough that Callum was suffering because of her.

 

“It changed his outlook a little. I barely recognise the little man some days. Luckily, he’s taking after his parents and there’s still not a single bad bone in him. Callum will be happy to know, I’m sure, that he still eats jelly tarts like nobody’s business. I think it’s time I set up some rules for him on that front, those things can’t be good for his health. An absurd conundrum. I take my orders from him - they are good orders! - and at the same time set his bed time and ponder his diet. Ours is a crazy family. Again, you will fit right in. Hugs, Aunt Amaya. P.S. I have some very amusing stories to tell you about Callum in person. They’ll be our little secret.”

 

Callum frowned. “That’s not very nice…”

 

Rayla felt bemused, seeing how Amaya had once again written ‘Gener-’ out of habit, before crossing it out in favour of ‘Aunt’. She felt a little better about the whole family thing. It would take a lot of time for her to really feel comfortable with it.

 

“I’m lookin’ forward to that”, Rayla chuckled, “Unlucky for you, nobody on my side will be tellin’ you anythin’”

 

He looked at her, sadly. She looked right back, smirking, ignoring the bitter implications of what she’d just let fall out of her dumb mouth. She sighed, mulling over the letter. It was addressed to her and glowed with emotional warmth. Callum was not just a sappy prince, this was a royal family of saps. Maybe, it would be her family of saps, at some point.

 

For a moment, she wrestled for composure, then took the letter out of Callum’s hands.

 

He shouted in realization and she jerked. “What is wrong with you? That scared the soul out of me!”

 

“I know who has some childhood dirt on you!”, he scowled amusedly, “Lessa.”

 

She frowned, equally bemused, “Oh yeah, she does have a few stories, I bet. Good luck askin’ her, though”

 

The elf then turned to reading, “Sicarius Rayla. Your sympathies were well received, thank you. It fills me with immense satisfaction to hear of Kel Ortis’ much overdue demise, however I suspect expressing this to Callum will not help your companion’s state of mind.”

 

Her glance jerked toward him, not having considered this. He sat rubbing his cheek, with a blank stare. “Sorry.”, she offered, “I wasn’t thinkin’”

 

“Fine.”, he said meekly, “I was guessing he’d be gloating because of Torlan. I get it. I… just don’t feel the same way.”

 

Rayla apologetically maneuvered his head into her lap and started petting his hair.

 

“I am mortified to hear of your injuries but glad to hear you seem to be on the road to active duty. Don’t worry about the front. We have had a quiet week. Unlike the senate, the commanders have listened to us, safe for a Legate of the Lucid named Astilliar. Since our parlay, he’s been either sulking or hiding, which does not bode well. Let this be our problem. We are maintaining a good truce with Prime Legate Janai. Along the front, nobody seems to want to make a determined first step. There have been some minor scuffles, but we were able to resolve those. Unless that changes, we’re quite content with the situation.”

 

The next lines were written less steadily and Rayla wondered why he had decided to write them at all.

 

“It now falls to me to tell my summand Anzha and my daughter Noli about Torlan’s passing. I’ve not found the words. I feel it is a message best delivered in person, however I do not see how I could tear myself away from the border at the moment. I wonder if it would be better to send her a message. This I struggle with, as well, since it would expend my last shadow hawk. It would mean we’d be cut off from you until we’d be able to procure more - I’m sure you are in a similar situation, so we are not expecting a reply. For now, I would say it would be prudent to attempt to continue your mission. Your setback is unfortunate, but the situation here is stable for now. Please get well, soon. Best regards. Helmond.”

 

“I feel sorry for him. A bit responsible, too.”, she said after finishing the letter.

 

They had turned his life upside down - and in so many ways were doing it to a new set of people right now. Adrenaline spiked through her, anticipating the next hammer to drop after their interaction with the templar canon guard. He had recognized her name. Was she so notorious, now?

 

“Yeah, I get that. But wow; they managed to hold on to peace. I’m really proud of Amaya right now, she used to hate elves”, Callum answered, petting her cheek from below, drowsily. He looked like he was going to drift off into another nap in a moment.

 

Rayla resolved to stay quiet and pet his hair, watching him fall asleep.

 

She was tired of talking about messy feelings for today.

 

Chapter Text

On the Xadian side of the breach, primal terror swept over everyone. From above, a familiar yet distorted howl rang out, echoing off the landscape. It was a dragon. A dragon, made of black and purple smoke. A dragon, looking like a terrifying after-image of Regem Draconis.

 

“No…!”, Tani gasped, anger and tears rising in her throat, “Necromancy!” She started throwing rays of wind and lighting at the monstrosity.

 

“Steel yourselves!”, shouted Temek to the lower ranks, “ Take aim and fire at will!”

 

Magical missiles of all kinds streaked skyward, impacting and fizzling against the massive, turbulent body of the shadow, still descending menacingly.

 

When the gestalt tore open its maw, there was an all-consuming blackness, then a solid tube of lighting descended into the ranks, vaporizing elves where they stood.

 

Horror was etched into the commanders’ faces.

 

“This is the price of colluding with humans! Betrayal!”, belted Astilliar, appearing almost out of nowhere, “We must counter-attack!”

 

“Where have you been, Legate?!”, Janai demanded.

 

“Are you insane? Dawdling like this? We cannot sit here and watch our people get slaughtered senselessly! We need to attack!”

 

Janai shook her head, pointing downward into the breach. A small group of humans was running toward the Xadian side, led by Helmond. “They are not attacking, Legate, this is not…”

 

“We cannot risk them infiltrating our ranks, Prime Legate! Don’t be a fool!”, the rough-hewn moon elf yelled in her face, “If you are too cowardly to take your duty seriously, I will take it on myself!”

 

“You will stand down!”, Janai bellowed over the din of more dragon fire, “I refuse to believe…”

 

The shadow swooped over them, its massive talons ramming into Legate Tani. She was knocked over the edge, unconscious. With abject horror, the Legates watched as her broken body landed in sharp, jagged rocks, hundreds of feet below, her limbs splayed unnaturally.

 

Astilliar turned, drawing his blade. “You may watch, then, as I save us all, sun worshipper.”, he spat, then him and his personal guard descended toward Helmond’s detachment.

 

As Janai watched him leave, she extended a glance into the distance. Sol Regem’s minions had taken the excuse. They were now attacking the humans openly, ballista bolts and spells streaking through the sky.

 

Unless they could manage some sort of miracle, they were now at war, for good.

Chapter Text

Four hours after Pert had departed, night was falling. Callum was still sleeping in Rayla’s lap. She had drifted off into an uneasy rest herself. There was a knock at their flap board and she jerked awake.

 

“Howzit guys”, came the inquiry from outside, “Looks like the snob herder’s coming back and he’s bringing more people this time.”

 

Rayla woke Callum. They then spent some time putting together all of their stuff, anticipating having to make a quick exit.

 

They joined Honsa who gave them an appreciative smirk. “You guys look like you had a bit of a nap.”

 

“So?”, Rayla asked curtly.

 

“Hey, I like sleep. Sleep’s great.”, the ocean elf walked ahead, “You comin’?”

 

Four riders came into view, one of the animals carried Pert and a passenger, the other three were mounted by lone templars.

 

Coming to a stop, Pert got off his stag, helping an old woman off his saddle. The moon elven milites sunk to their left knee as they recognised the person’s regalia. Rayla haltingly did the same, confusing Callum. It hadn’t quite looked like she was doing it fully of her own accord.

 

“Tribune”, the old woman greeted with a warm, maternal voice that was too old for even her and Lessa saluted. Glancing at Rayla, Callum and Azymondias, she continued, “I see you’ve not wasted time and brought with you the subjects of our conundrum. However, I’d like to bring a less… confrontational tone to our meeting. Pert, your soldiers stay here. Tribune, would you be willing to offer up your tent for our gathering?”

 

“Of course, excellency.”

 

Pert grabbed a large bag from his saddle and they walked back.

 

Callum whispered to his girlfriend, “Who is she? What were you doing?”

 

“She is the Interpreter for one of our archdragons”, Rayla replied, “You know how Ezran has a connection to Zym? Archdragons can project themselves into other people’s bodies. It allows them to speak to us. Might be that once Zym’s older, he’ll be able to take over Ez’s body, too.”

 

Callum shuddered. “So, they can take over anyone’s body?”

 

“No, they do need permission. I’ve heard though, once they’re in, they can keep you from takin’ back control.”

 

“That is so creepy.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

They arrived at Lessa’s tent and ducked inside. Pert helped clear her round meeting table, making sure to keep her papers in order. Lessa beamed at him. The templar then extracted the contents of the bag. There were eight thick, tightly rolled tubular packages, wrapped in a blue fabric bearing the mark of the ocean. They had labels on them which Callum could not read and were tied together using a golden ribbon.

 

A glance at Rayla made her whisper, “Military rations, but snobby ones. The regular ones come with a green ribbon.”

 

“Be seated”, the interpreter said, spreading her arms. Pert placed a ration and a cup in front of each of them, putting two sets aside. He apparently wasn’t eating. Before standing back from the table, he poured everyone a drink from a massive glass bottle and placed a different type of ration in front of Zym on the ground who dug in immediately.

 

Rayla inspected her tall cup. The drink inside sparkled, smelling of ginger and alcohol. No way she was drinking this. Looking over at Callum, he seemed to have had a similar thought, glancing at his own drink with trepidation.

 

The interpreter prepared her ration, and they followed, politely.

 

There was a rip-cord, tucked into the side of the ration pack. Rayla pulled it with the confidence of a repeat user. Callum imitated her. The package immediately heated. Sunfire magic. They had it in spades, apparently.

 

Unrolling the package, there were three pastries, looking as though they had just been lifted from a baker’s oven. They all bore a sleeve with a rune which Rayla quietly translated as `first`, `main` and `after`.

 

A three course meal, wrapped up for travel. Welp.

 

Seeing how every package had been the same and the Interpreter was eating happily, Rayla cautiously took a bite of the appetiser pastry. It contained a mixture of vegetables and tasted heavenly. This was indeed food fit for snobs.

 

“I see you aren’t quite sure about the drinks?”, Ivine said after a moment, pointedly looking at Rayla, “Distrust is a valuable asset in a moonshadow, Rayla. I will not pressure you, but you have my assurances that I will not be poisoning you. Tonight.”, she chuckled fondly, “I would indeed poison everyone here, seeing as I am drinking and eating the same rations you are.”

 

“That’s not your own body though”, Callum blurted out.

 

Ivine laughed brightly, “Ah, yes, I suppose that is a fair point. It’s interesting, Prince Callum, I had not thought you would be so blunt. It is… refreshing. Among my elves, there is a lot of subterfuge and, well...”, she waved a hand at Rayla, “...distrust. It is in their nature.”

 

“Your elves?”, Callum said, “That sounds possessive.”

 

The interpreter smirked, “It was an expression of family. Nothing more, nothing less.”

 

As everyone finished their first pastry, Callum noticed how salty it had been. Odd, considering how little salt elves used for lembas. Was this meant to encourage them to drink? Honsa and Lessa certainly did. He frowned.

 

“Any chance we could have some water instead?”, he asked.

 

“I assume you’ve no taste for strong beer?”

 

“Nah”, said Rayla.

 

“I respect your choices. Water, Pert.”

 

The canon guard switched their cups for ones filled with water. After sniffing it, Rayla motioned for him to drink.

 

Rayla bit into her entree, now feeling properly hungry. Gravy. Somroot. Berry sauce. Dipling. Hm... what else? Oh. It was meat. Her eyes narrowed slightly. She’d been a bit weary of eating animals after she’d realized how hypocritical it was to condemn dark magic over a nice steak with diplings. Not that she hated the taste or wanted to abstain from it completely - sometimes the land didn’t offer anything else to eat. Given the choice, she would’ve still preferred a vegetarian dish.

 

“Not to your taste?”, Ivine asked with bemusement, “I am sorry we seem to have made such a contentious selection.”

 

“It’s not that”, Rayla said, swallowing, “I hadn’t expected meat.”

 

“I... see?”

 

“Thank you for the meal”, Rayla said simply, earning an approving smile from the Interpreter.

 

“Och, how I love your Sconi dialect, dear. It is downright adorable”, the old woman cooed, “Thank you for eating with me. I don’t think I would be as accepting in the same situation. I have made your life quite complicated, I would assume.”

 

Rayla shrugged noncommittally, “We knew it was always goin’ to be difficult, bringin’ Azymondias back home. Really, it was mostly bounty hunters who’ve given us trouble so far.”

 

Callum piped up with an annoyed look at her, “Yeah, let’s totally gloss over Helmond trying to stab me. Let’s forget that they sent Torlan to kill his own dad when he decided not to murder us.”

 

Ivine turned to him, apology in her face. “That was not me, nor this interpreter. The person responsible for that upheaval was deposed and exiled. Chalise violated my mate’s trust with her subterfuge. I apologise for the harm she’s caused. That’s sadly the best I can offer.”, to Rayla, she said, “You were saying, about bounty hunters?”

 

Rayla pointed at the wound in her arm, “This is only the smallest gift I received from them.”

 

“I am sorry you’ve had to put this load on your shoulders. The senate appreciates what you are trying to do, but we have wider concerns, beyond Azymondias’ return. Nobody really wants to go to war but our security concerns have increased too much to let the situation continue.”

 

Honsa interjected, scoffing, “Listen to you talk story... aren’t you sorta just making things worse by going to war?”

 

“Honsa, I appreciate your ire - and your accent, oh, what delight! Unfortunately, in politics, there comes a point where each direction is fraught with truly untenable choices. Sometimes war is the most expedient way to reach one’s goals quickly, minimising the overall suffering of the people.”

 

Rayla’s head was spinning. Why did she sound like she had a point?

 

Callum snarled, “There’s always a solution other than murd--”, he stopped, blanching. Was there? Always? Why hadn’t he found one, then?

 

Ivine gave him a sympathetic look. “Idealistic, aren’t you? Reality is cruel to people like yourself.”

 

The prince put down his pastry, sweat forming on his forehead. “I… need to step out for a moment”, he said hoarsely, then got up and walked out.

 

Honsa gave him a worried look.

 

Rayla’s brain hissed at it, but the elf strangled the sour blaze. This situation demanded her attention right now. She would look for him after.

 

Honsa excused herself to go after him.

 

Augh! That should’ve been her!

 

‘Focus, Rayla. This smells fishy. The Interpreter is way too friendly.’, the Assassin reprimanded herself, trying to push her other concerns aside, ‘Plus, she’s a counselor, of course she’s going to check on her patient!’

 

Ivine’s gaze was inquiring, but not unfriendly.

 

Rayla decided to say it.

 

“He’s had a very bad week.”

 

“I am aware. Pert has recounted your report. I feel for the boy but must say I couldn’t believe it when I heard you were a couple.”

 

Rayla nodded, “Well, that’s what we are.”

 

Ivine sat back, mild shock in her mien.

 

“Hundreds of years have gone by, young lady, since I’ve last heard of a mixed  relationship. Good for you.”

 

“Excellency, what bearing does this have on their mission?”, Lessa asked.

 

“None, obviously. I am simply interested. I do love gossip”, she clapped her hands to dust them off after eating the last bite of her entree, “It looks like Honsa has also taken interest, though, hasn’t she?”

 

Lessa frowned. What had she expected? Allowing this seasoned politician with motive to eat with her teenage  targets was asking for trouble.

 

Ivine deployed her mean tactic, and it was working. Rayla quite apparently fumed.

 

“She is my daughter and his counselor, Madame”, Lessa said sternly before Rayla could explode, “he is taking advice from her. A patient, nothing more.”

 

“Of course, of course. Forgive the idle ramblings of an old woman, dear. Shall we wait on them for desert?”

 

Rayla wanted nothing more than to walk outside to check on them. Her mind played scenes of them hugging, kissing. Why was this so hard? Honsa had gone through some effort to appease her, yet here she was, losing her mind at the worst possible time. Considering how implicitly she trusted Callum normally, it seemed outlandish to her that in this one point, she was unable to.

 

She willed her expression to even out and said, “I think that would be nothin’ but fair. While we’re doin’ that, I’d like to know what you’ve decided to do with us.”

 

“You are very blunt for a moonshadow, Rayla. Perhaps it’s your companion’s influence?”

 

“Maybe”, Rayla replied curtly.

 

“Let me see… what did we decide to `do` with you... “, Ivine sat back, rubbing her cheeks, “I believe the answer is; `Nothing`. We’re going to do `nothing` with you.”

 

Rayla blinked. She had expected anything but that. A sneak attack. An offer of help. Not… `nothing`.

 

Lessa’s eyes narrowed. “That’s a very precise way to express yourself, Excellency”

 

“Your sarcasm is quite appreciated, Tribune”, the old woman laughed, “But we’ve no qualms with these young people. They will get neither blessing nor curse from us. However, I will ask you to give Azymondias to us. We’re his kin, we can get him safely to his mother. Your message of peace will still be valid, seeing as you’re handing him over to the leaders of Xadia.”

 

Rayla did not trust this one bit.

 

“The leaders of Xadia, maybe, but not the Queen of Dragons. What do we do if you decide to walk him off a cliff?”

 

Ivine blinked. “Rayla, he’s a dragon, he can fly.”

 

Rayla flared, flushing a sickly pink, “Human expression, I guess! The point still stands, you old hag, I don’t think you’re interested in peace and you getting your fingers on Zym isn’t in the books!”

 

Lessa looked at Rayla critically. She was getting very heated. Were her emotions grabbing her by the horns?

 

“Rayla”, she started, placing a calming hand on her young friend’s shoulder, “You should probably check on Callum. Make sure he’s okay.”

 

“Fine!”, Rayla spat, stabbing a finger in the Interpreter’s direction, “She is not getting that dragon...”, the elf trampled toward the tent’s flap, “...and that one is not getting my guy!”

 

She grabbed Zym who struggled to reach some more morsels of his delicious ration and stomped out.

 

“My, she is quite fired up”, the Interpreter smirked, “The various heats of youth, Lessa. I miss it.”

 

“Excellency, she has a point. They have not made good experiences with the decisions made at Korhal. I understand they are in contact with people at the border.”

 

Ivine’s smirk faded slightly, “Then they may be more well-informed than I. In the course of the senate’s departure, I have withdrawn all my Interpreters from the front lines. That much I owe them.”

 

Outside, Rayla was stomping down the road, swiveling her head. Where was her stupid boyfriend and the infuriating `sistah`?

 

Walking toward Honsa’s tent, she thought she heard them talking. The tent was empty. Rayla rounded it, to find them.

 

Her heart almost exploded.

 

Callum was sitting in front of the oceanwave elf on the ground, his head in Honsa’s hands. Glowing water was swirling around his ears. They were engaged in quiet conversation, him with his eyes closed.

 

They were smiling at each other.

 

Zym squeaked in her vice-like grip.

 

Chapter Text

They looked up at Zym’s distressed squeak.



“Rayla, hey!”, Callum said, smiling at her.



“Do I look like `RAYLA HEY` is a good way to hi me, you numpty?!”, she screamed.



Callum threw a shell shocked glance at Honsa who merely nodded slowly, with a serious face. ‘I saw this coming’, she said without words.



“C’mon say it, oh wise ocean brat! `Keep the heid`! Say it! You want to, don’t you!? `Oohh, no!! This isn’t what it looks like, Rayla! He’s just ma patient!`”



“Rayla…”, Callum started but Honsa placed a hand on his mouth.



The touch sent sparks flying in Rayla’s mind, “Take your grabbers off him, bawface! Seriously, I’m standin’ right here havin’ a fit - an’ your solution is gettin’ more touchy?! Are you off your heid? And you!”



She turned to Callum, “We’ve gon’ through so much over the past week! The past month! The past three months! This is the last thin’ I would’ve expected! I kno’ ya have a thin’ for piglets, but seriously! This!? You’re better than this! You could at least do better than this drookit excuse for an elf! How about Lessa, even! Callum, I thought I could trust you! I sat in there losin’ my mind over you walkin’ out while the decrepit hag who wants us both dead was gabbin’ on!”



Rayla now took steps in their direction, letting Zym fall to the ground where he sat, dumbfounded at his survival.



“I almost died defendin’ you! By a hair’s breadth! That’s a thin’ I can’t seem to be able to stop! I give people everythin’ I have and then I end up kicked aside like a crabbit skulk! You started the Bloom with me, Callum! That meant a lot to me! How can you do this to me?! How!? Do I mean nothin’ at all to you, after all?”



She was now standing next to Callum, who slowly rose to look her in the eyes. He noticed she was flushed, her eyes glistening. If she wasn’t so aggressive, he would have offered her a hug. Her angry tears sprayed slightly as she continued her rage filled explosion.



“I can’t believe you! You thought I was dead yesterday! I thought you were happy to see me! But no! Traitor! Cheater!”



His eyes jerked to look at something slightly above and to her right, his mouth opening with disbelief. She followed his worried gaze.



He was looking at the flat of her hand. She was wound up to slap him.



Rayla gaped at her hand. She had not meant to hit him, or even imply it.

Her anger demanded satisfaction, but this was not the way.



Honsa had also gotten up, a hand half extended to stop her.



Rayla started crying, disappointment with him and herself overwhelming her anger. She turned to walk off.



“Rayla?”, Honsa’s gentle voice rang out.



Rayla didn’t even turn around to face her.



“Ma heid’s mince!”, she spat, walking, “But I am not hittin’ anyone here. Have a nice life.”



Callum went after her, eventually pulling her into a hug from behind. She shook him off.



“Wha’? I just said I don’t wanna be around you anymore”



“Well that sucks, because I really want you around”



“Then you should’ve kept your hands off’a her.”



Callum could now barely hold off his own anger, “We didn’t do anything bad, Rayla, the water calms me do--”



“I don’t care, okay?! You’re bein’ snuggly with her and it drives me crazy that you don’t see anythin’ wrong with that!”



“Because we’re not and there isn’t!”, he exploded too, “You almost hit me there! What did you say this morning? The moment you hear the sound, it’s over? You’re so high and mighty, look at you! Always have to stomp off after getting your barb in! How dare anyone tell you something other than what you already `know`! Why are you so stubborn all the time?!”



She whirled around. “Stubborn!? More like hardened! That’s what you need to survive when everyone you’ve ever loved ends up kickin’ you in the mouth when the fancy strikes ‘em!”



“You’re stubborn! And unforgiving! But yes! Also hard! Remember how you didn’t talk to me for a whole day just cause I said I didn’t want to call you my `fiance` yet? I’m not even sure you completely accepted the explanation I gave you for that!”



“Yeah; I wonder why!? Could it be that I was almost cut to ribbons a half-hour after that lil’ talk!?”



“You keep bringing that up as though it’s an excuse for how awful you’re being right now! Rayla, I killed someone! I threw lighting at her and I ended her life! I’m trying to live with that, right now! I can’t just do nothing and wait for that feeling to eat me up! That’s why I need Honsa!”, he dissolved into sobs. “I killed her, Rayla. Why are you being like that?”



Rayla stared at him, nothing but blazing fury in her heart.



“You keep bringin’ that up as though it’s an excuse for how awful you’re bein’ right now.”



She heard the words, spoken in her own, mocking tone, and hated herself. Regret washed over her.



There was so much pain in his eyes as he looked into hers, it wounded both of them.



Honsa walked up to them, putting an arm around each of them.



“Oh, you guys”, she said sadly, “It’s good to argue but you’re getting destructive now.”



Rayla stared daggers at her.



“He loves you. A lot.”, Honsa said to her, “He can’t stop talking about you. When you walked in on us there, he was going on and on about your rare cooking.”, the ocean elf smirked tepidly, “I can’t stand being the reason you two hurt each other. Look.”



Rayla followed her gaze, looking at the young man she still adored. He stared back, his eyes seeming dimmer than they had been when she’d first shown up. This was her doing. Her stomach turned.



“I… I’m really sorry.”, she whispered hoarsely.



“Me too”, Callum said, tonelessly, “I should’ve told you exactly what we’re doing. I… get how that must’ve looked.”



“It looked like you were gonna kiss, is what”, Rayla said, slightly angrier than she meant it to sound.



“Nope. Not a chance”, Honsa said, “I told you. I’m not mean or crazy enough to go after him and he’s too into you to even look at me with the same eyes. No act.”



Rayla looked at her, her mien softening a little.



“You two are staring down the world. That’s too much for anyone to do without losing their pearls a bit”, Honsa pulled both of them into a hug, essentially smooshing them together, “You are adorable together, guys! Don’t let the pressure rip you apart!”



The ocean elf let them go, starting to walk off around her tent. “I’ll give you a moment.”, she smirked over her shoulder mischievously, “If I hear any sort of loud noise that doesn’t sound like you’re having a good time, I will come back here and drown you both. Pau.”



As soon as she had left their view, awkwardness flooded the air.



Callum growled, “What is wrong with you?”



Rayla was nothing but ashamed, now that her fury had subsided. “I’m sorry… I just…” She had problems explaining herself, but was interrupted by Honsa, coming back around the tent behind Callum. She was walking backwards, slowly, her hands raised. A pilum came into view in front of her.



“Oh. What an incredibly unforseen back-stabby surprise”, Rayla said sarcastically.



The assassin apologetically kissed her boyfriend, who was thoroughly confused since he hadn’t turned around just yet, then drew her blades. The templar threatening Honsa was now in plain sight.



“Hand Azymondias over peacefully”, he said dangerously, “and you won’t have to d--”, his last word was swallowed by unexpected loss of consciousness and the grass on the ground as Rayla’s knee barelled into his temple. His left boot went flying, describing a perfect back flip and landing gracefully on his butt.



“You were interruptin’ somethin’ important here, knucklehead.”



Honsa blinked. “ I don’t ever wanna catch a crack like that one! Rayla, remind me to never get on your bad side!”



“Can’t believe you haven’t noticed, but you already are, ya neep!”, the assassin barked, peering around the tent. She couldn’t see the other templars, or anyone, for that matter.

 

Her head spun a little and she stood up straight for a moment to let it settle. There was no way she’d risk getting into a serious fight with this handicap.



“You stay here”, she ordered them both, “I need to check this out.”, softly she added, “Callum, I’m really sorry. We’ll have a talk about it, later.”



As Rayla was jogging toward Lessa’s tent, she had to step over two unconscious Templars, one of which was Pert. She could hear fighting. Rounding the tent, she was reminded of Larwein. Lessa’s milites were fighting the Templars, who had received reinforcements. They were losing fast. She looked around but could see neither Lessa nor the Interpreter in the chaos. Rayla could not fathom what exactly might have happened here.



She frowned. So much for ‘Nothing’, huh? Time to make that exit.



Following a rather childish impulse, she dipped into Lessa’s tent to grab the snobby rations.



That much, at least, they were owed.



Running back to Honsa’s tent with her and Callum’s stuff, she noticed the four Perytons the original Templars had arrived on. She smirked tepidly.



Riding would be a nice change, at least.

Chapter Text

Callum balanced wearily. This was much like riding a horse, in that he was just barely alright doing it. At least Zym had decided to sleep in a saddle bag rather than perching on his shoulder. To his right, Rayla handled herself gracefully, as expected.  To his left, Honsa looked like she was going to die.

 

“I ain’t made for riding”, she said, her complexion greener than usual, “My legs are killing me”

 

Rayla shot her a sympathetic glance. She was still wearing a dress and given that she was probably not a frequent rider, the rub was likely terrible. They had made very good progress to the east, leaving Larwein behind. The animals were in good spirit, still, and Rayla didn’t intend on stopping anytime soon. She wanted as much distance between them and Ivine as possible. Now, she brought her doe to a halt.

 

“Honsa”, she said cooly, “Don’t ride yourself to bits. Let’s check if we can’t find somethin’ for you to wear here.”

 

Honsa smirked at her painfully, slapping at herself. “Sistah, bless you for thinking of it, but your stuff would never fit this chubby babe.”

 

“Not mine, you turnip!”, Rayla scoffed, dismounted and rummaged through her saddle bags. Callum and Honsa followed suit, the latter standing square-legged.

 

Between them, they found a pair of thick brown canvas pants, worn boots and a dirty beige linen shirt.

 

“That color is downright rubbish”, Honsa squirmed, “but ya. I’d be happy to not feel like there’s coral scaping on my thighs anymore. I’ll be right back.”

 

She vanished in the woods on the side of the road.

 

Lucky for Rayla and Callum, they had slept through a good portion of the afternoon, so riding through the night would not be much of an issue. She figured they’d pass by the place where they’d fought Kel in a day from now. The forest around them already started to look a lot more tentacly. Perytons, on average, could go about five times faster than an elf on foot. It was a welcome difference in speed.

 

“So. We got ourselves a second moon”, Rayla frowned, her expression clearly hinting at the fact that she thought Honsa’s presence was redundant.

 

Callum gave her a reprimanding look, his brows furrowed. Now was as good a time as any to have the conversation. “If you blow up like that again… if you say stuff like that again… Rayla, that was just… beyond hurtful. She’s… not even a friend yet. She’ll never have what we have. I’m sorry us being together like that upset you, but why are you so worried about her?”

 

She studied the ground. “Well… I mean, there's the fact that she was touching you. Under the open sky. I told you, that has meanin’ where I'm from. But yea, I was terrible. Everything I can say to explain it would sound like an excuse.”

 

“I hadn’t thought of that, sorry”, he sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck, “But… you used to hug me and touch me all the time when we were still friends.”

 

“That’s exactly because I wanted to be more than a friend. So you see why… I had a bit of a fit.”

 

He said nothing, frowning. It was the understatement of the century.

 

“I love you?”, she offered sadly.

 

He walked over to her, placing his hands on her shoulders. “Then show it.”

 

She breathed deeply, trying not to cry. Her eyes darted. She could not believe that him not saying it back would hurt so much. What did he expect of her?

 

“I… I…”, she lost the battle against the tears and he carefully drew her into a caring if not comforting hug, “What do y-you want from me?”

 

His voice was unsteady, but clear. “I want you to never raise your hand against me again. To never stab at me with words like you did. You didn’t mean to argue out the problem, you meant to hurt me. That can’t be how this stuff goes from now on.”

 

The full extent of her actions dawned on her then and she grabbed him, pulling him into herself so desperately that she hurt her stomach.

 

“I didn’t mean it! I’m sorry!”, she sobbed, “I… I was just… so mad! So worried! About you and her and the Interpreter and… myself... and the war and... ugh…”

 

He frowned at her.

 

Yeah. It did all sound like excuses, even in her ears.

 

“It was a huge, dumb mistake! I won’t do this to you again! Ever! I’m really sorry I hurt you!”

 

His mien softened.

 

She palmed at her eyes. “I felt like I was bein’ abandoned again. None of that's an excuse. I’m sorry i took that all out on you.”

 

After a moment of gazing into her violet eyes, Callum sighed deeply. “Alright.”, he kissed her, “Thank you for working on this with me. I love you. I really, really do. Don’t ever doubt that again.”

 

She pressed up against him, glad to hear him say it.

 

“I’m sorry I made it hard and loaded.”, she said sadly.

 

“You didn’t. Loving you is still easy. We worked it out. We’re gonna do better next time. That’s all that counts in the end.”

 

“You guys okay?”, Honsa called respectfully, walking toward them from beyond the treeline. Dressed in the ill-fitting, muted colours she looked like a green-blue head floating above the muddy roadside. Her startling dress was folded into a neat package she carried under her arm.

 

“Yeah”, Callum replied, wiping Rayla’s tears off her cheeks, “We’re fine.”

 

Honsa took them in. They were standing, arms firmly wrapped around each other, expressions serious, but not unfriendly. Behind them in the eastern distance, another massive thunderstorm was discharging against the mountains. Rayla’s hair was still wrapped up in a messy ponytail that she had put together quickly to avoid hair flying in her face during the ride. They both were wearing their spotless new armor.

 

The ocean elf cooed, then gushed, “Gosh; I wish I was a painter! You guys are a picture for the ages! Confident prince and determined princess!”

 

Rayla smirked wryly. “We should get goin’”, she continued in a scolding tone, “and don’t call me that! I’m not a princess!”, kissing Callum, she whispered, “Yet.”

 

He shivered a bit.

 

They all mounted their animals, Zym giving a small, annoyed coo at being woken by Callum. “Oh shush, you slept all day.”

 

The little dragon jumped out of the bag and started drawing.

 

Honsa blinked. “What is he doing?”

 

Callum explained it. The ocean elf was understandably amazed. “I need to write a paper on that! It’s assumed that elves are the only people who can interpret for a dragon! Do you think I’ll be able to meet your brother at some point?”

 

The prince and Rayla were too enraptured with the image that was taking shape in front of them now to answer. Instead of a series of smaller ones, there was a single large drawing, showing dragons attacking one side and a massive dark shape descending on the other side of what was obviously the Breach.

 

“And I thought we had a lot of fightin’ goin’ on… this looks really bad!”, she dismounted for a moment to erase the lines in the gravel, “The sooner we can get the little guy home, the sooner this will have a chance of stopping.”, she let her ride fall into a canter and the others followed suit, “I think we should be skippin’ Veltis-Tiram, goin’ straight up to Mons Ornatam. On the stags, we should make that inside six days once we’re past the mountains, if we ride eight hours each day. Then another day to climb it.”, she mulled it over for a moment, “So we could be done... in five plus seven days, give or take.”

 

“Do we have enough food for that?”

 

“No. We’ll have to stop to find some”, Rayla said, “Especially with three people around.”

 

“Oh”, Honsa said, “I don’t think I’ll cross the mountains with you guys, as much as I’d like to. I still have to go back to check on Lessa”, there was a flash of worry on her face, but it vanished quickly, “If she’s still alive, I’ll go with her to the front or whatever else she’s gonna do next”, she smirked, “To be honest, I’m only here cause you shoved me onto this monster and I think Callum still needs my help.”

 

Rayla seemed to think on this.

 

After a moment she said, “Would you be alright if I sat down with you too, at some point?”

 

Honsa blinked. “S-sure?”

 

“Don’t worry. I just… need some advice.”

 

Callum looked at his girlfriend inquisitively, but she didn’t explain herself further.

Chapter Text

Janai looked out over the battlefield. They had not moved from their stand on the Xadian side. They didn’t have to.

 

The gestalt dragon had dissipated. Whether that was because their magic had finally destroyed it or the spell had run out of power, she did not know. Morning was breaking now and the tired rays of the sun revealed the full extent of their losses. The sheer number of dead soldiers shocked her. A stifling quiet of voices ruled. There were almost no wounded.

 

There was no doubting Amaya’s warning words now. Dark Magic was a weapon of mass destruction.

 

On the human side, fires burned brightly, their light tearing through the lifting night. She could hear the roars of dying dragons. This was a nightmare. She still could not fathom what had happened here tonight.

 

Below in the breach lay the bodies of Legate Yatende Tani and a few of Astilliar’s troop, the latter slain by Helmond and his human platoon in what she hoped was self-defense. The ex-legate had not continued up the cliff after being challenged so brutally on the ground. Maybe he himself was wounded.

 

The Sunfire elf felt it was strange how few of Astilliar's people were in sight. It seemed to her as though there had been more soldiers with him as he'd descended. Maybe she had miscounted in the heat of the moment.

 

Janai sighed, deeply. “Temek”, she said to her lieutenant, “You are in command here.”

 

He nodded. “Going to see the pinkos?”

 

“Indeed. My gut still tells me Amaya would not order… this. I would task someone else to go, but...”, she waved at her surroundings, “... right now I’m the only one who has nothing of great value to do. I am no healer.”

 

Temek scoffed. The fact that the usually verbose, chipper earthblood was so terse ironically spoke volumes.

 

The sunfire elf descended the cliff face, careful to not step on any bodies.

 

She sheepishly lifted her banner high, a procession of one. It felt silly.

 

Slowly, she made her way across the breach.

 

Nothing seemed to be alive in the human lands. Here, too, were bodies, a lot of them still burning. Sol Regem’s wrath had consumed both them and their dragon attackers. Without the Auxilia to take part of the brunt, the dragons had been easy pickings. Well, as easy pickings as mad, fully grown sun dragons could be.

 

Janai walked solemnly, again avoiding to step on anyone. The same dead silence of voices hung over this side of the Breach.

 

The crossing had become a graveyard.

 

“General Amaya?”, Janai called out, standing in front of the destroyed gate on the human side.

 

There was no answer.

 

The Prime Legate peered inside and saw nothing but more destruction.

 

Slowly, she edged forward.

 

“Hello?”, she called again, not wanting to make it appear as though she was sneaking around.

 

There were fast footsteps on her right as she rounded a corner, looking elsewhere. She turned to see a human, dark-skinned like her. He was in the process of throwing his chained weapon at her. Janai sidestepped the attack, drawing her own sword. “Stay your hand, human! I am not here to fight.”

 

“Then state your business!”, he challenged, swinging his weapon. A few soldiers were milling about behind him, tending to bodies on the ground. They were now watching their exchange attentively.

 

“My name is Janai. I am looking for General Amaya. Again, I do not wish to fight you.”

 

His mien softened a little as he realized that she was not about to tackle him. Suspiciously, he asked, “We had a truce. What happened?”

 

“That is what I am here to find out. Who might you be?”

 

“My name is Corvus.”

 

“Do you know if…”, she gestured at the ruins and her voice shook a little, “General Amaya has survived this and is able to receive me?”

 

“She has, and she wants to hear an explanation”, came another voice from the entrance of a mostly intact building. It was a freckled, red haired human. Amaya appeared next to him.

 

“General! It is so good to see you are alive”, Janai started, “This is… a horrifying situation!”

 

As though to underline this, a tower collapsed behind her in the distance, the din of breaking wood and crushing brick carrying as a reverberating mess of white noise.

 

Amaya nodded, then signed, “Likewise. Why did the dragons attack us? We made no moves against them.”

 

“That is not what it looked like from our side, Amaya. It very much looked like an attack on Xadia. There was… a monstrosity. An evil shadow of Thunder, as you knew him. Dark magic.”, looking around, she shook her head, “At first glance, it caused as much death on our side as the sun king’s underlings have on yours.”

 

Amaya frowned. “We saw. I sent Helmond to let you know that we were not behind the specter. Nobody here has that kind of dark power. The dragons didn’t wait for any action on our part.”

 

“Sol Regem has been provoking you for months. He was itching for this. The gestalt was the only reason he needed. It seems as though he may have a human counterpart.”

 

“I have a strong suspicion that person’s Name is Viren. He’s the only human I can think of who would have had access to the Dragon King’s remains and enough know-how to create a gestalt so powerful. He has spoken for war before King Harrow’s assassination and with even more conviction since.”

 

Janai shook her head with disbelief.

 

“Hello?”, a young voice said, unexpectedly. There was a boy, hiding behind Amaya. He stepped around her to face Janai. Wearing the circlet of two towers, he waved at her, tepidly, “I am so happy to see you here! When the dragons came, my first thought was how everyone was going to die. My second was how annoying it is that all our work was for nothing.”

 

“King Ezran, I presume?”, Janai knelt to be on a level with his eyes. He frowned at this.

 

“Yes, I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. I came here for our meeting tomorrow.”

 

Janai looked around, then addressed Amaya. “This is a lot of death and destruction for a person so young. Are you sure it is wise to let him stay?”

 

“I will ask you to speak to me, Legate.”, Ezran said, firmly, “I know how strange it must be to speak to a child and expect an adult answer. To your point, yes.”, he welled up but held her gaze, “Yes, it is a l-lot of death. These a-are my people, m-mostly. I owe them the p-pain of looking, at  the very l-least.”

 

Janai smiled sadly. This child had grown into a better man than most, and far too quickly. “Excellency, I am sorry about this. We were powerless to prevent it.”

 

“So were we”, signed Amaya and her translator spoke, “Our force is routed at the moment. If you wanted to, you could walk straight into our country.”

 

The Prime Legate eyed her suspiciously. She was no politician, but she knew how to ask a veilled question.

 

“Possible, yes. Desirable, no. We’ve sustained heavy casualties ourselves. There’s no war to be had here today. Obviously though, the voices calling for it to begin in earnest will now be even louder.”

 

“How do we proceed from here?”, the red-headed human asked, seemingly without Amaya’s input.

 

“Who are you?”, Janai inquired, annoyed that he had not offered his name.

 

“I am... Commander Gren and sorry... for not introducing myself earlier. Uh, Just ignore me, I’m supposed to be a background character in this conversation.”

 

Amaya boxed at his shoulder, a small grin on her face. She then signed something at him and he shrugged. She boxed him again.

 

“General, have you seen Helmond?”, Janai asked, skipping Gren’s inquiry.

 

“I have not, though I am glad to hear that you don’t know either. I thought he might have died during his envoyer.”

 

“He did fight poor, dumb Astilliar. The man never had a chance. Some of Helmond’s feats are known outside the Lucid. That speaks lengths about his impact.”

 

“Wait, if he’s so s-strong, how did Rayla b-beat him t-then?”, Ezran inquired, weeping still, only very recently having heard the story from Helmond himself.

 

Nobody had a good answer for him, so he wiped his eyes with his sleeve and said, “Whew, she is scary!”, turning to Janai, he said, “Do you think we should still try to meet, Prime Legate? My offer still stands. I’m sure Duren’s does, too. We’re going to send some letters to the other kings to let them know what happened.”

 

Janai nodded. “We must try. Today has shown both our sides how badly this will go - and we didn’t even really clash!”

 

Amaya puzzled, “That’s just it - I don’t understand the motivations behind the attacks. They were so extreme! I could’ve understood them trying to get us to kill each other, but they almost wiped us off the map! There are few left in the border regions to fight, now.”

 

The Prime Legate nodded. “Maybe they underestimated the strength of the spell and Sol Regem’s force? I would assume they weren’t collaborating as much as working off each other’s cues? One side trying to annihilate the other?”

 

“Unless we find whoever cast the spell”, Corvus piped up, “we’ll have nothing but guesses. I for one would rather not assume anything at this point.”

 

Amaya threw him a weary look. “It was Viren. No assumptions required.”

 

Corvus shrugged. “I’ve learned not everything is as it seems, no matter how logical the explanation may be.”

 

“Prime Legate, what are your people’s burial rites like?”, Ezran asked while Corvus and Amaya argued for a moment.

 

She frowned. “Excellency, the tribes are outwardly united, but each has their own rituals. Regardless of those traditions… we have so many dead that… we must be pragmatic.”

 

“It is the same here”, Amaya signed, “It will be a challenge to even just collect the identities of the fallen.”

 

“We should hold a joint ceremony”, Ezran suggested, “Maybe we can’t do it with every, uh... body, but, a few. Of both sides.”

 

Janai was unsure. “I… am not sure this would have your desired effect, Excellency. I will think it over and ask my surviving comrades.”

 

Amaya left Gren’s side to approach Janai and the Prime Legate noted that she was hobbling, her left leg was unarmored and wrapped in bandages. Gren awkwardly shuffled after her, himself sporting several treated wounds. He stood by their side where he could see her hands.

 

“Who has passed?”, he translated her gestures.

 

“Legates Yatende Tani and Astilliar were both killed in action. I’ve worked with them for octades. Astilliar had his benefits, naturally, but he did not like this truce, nor me, and I despised his sneaky, secretive attitude. ”, she sighed, rubbing the bridge of her nose, “Tani’s loss will leave a gaping hole in our ranks. She was a skilled and compassionate commander. To make matters worse, her summand is supposed to reinforce us soon. That conversation will not be pleasant.”

 

Janai frowned slightly. Had she really just revealed the fact that they had reinforcements on the way to this human general? How was it that she felt so talkative around her?

 

Amaya extended her hand. Familiar with the human gesture from their past meetings, the Prime Legate shook it.

 

“You have my sympathies. Thank you, Janai. It is so very good to know that we did not do this to each other.”

 

There was an odd gleam in her eyes. Relief, certainly, but also something deeper.

 

It made Janai’s heart beat faster.

Chapter Text

There was a knock on the door.

 

“What is it now!?”, Aaron slammed his fist on the table, “I’m busy being obtuse about everyone’s relationships and building more BLT-BBQ characters!”

 

The door slowly opened and an unnamed, unimportant underling poked her head inside the writer’s office.

 

“The term is LGBTQ, Mr. Ehasz. Uh, We have a code M.”

 

Aaron shot up, quickly rounding his massive cherry wood table. “A code M! Give it. I’ve not had a reason to laugh since that Nickelodeon exec slipped on my Maraschino cherry! Those were the days - what? You want a tip? Get out!”

 

The wage slave left and Aaron sat to read the fiction pulled up on her tablet after pouring himself a beautiful 1952 Jägermeister. First chapter, of course, couldn’t go by without a tropey, tepid half-exposure. He scoffed. “One wonders where these tools come up with this stuff. Animoo, probably. `Oh noo why would anyone develop feelings over anything other than sex!` Must be written by a guy, this one.”

 

He kept reading. “Fuck; Every day one of these wannabes messes with my canon! Those elves are just not right at all! Rayla was huggin’ the stuffing out of Callum in season one and two, why would Moonshadow elves have qualms with public touch? They’re not pointy-eared muslims, you turnip! And what’s with these plant names? They sound way too realistic. Salis Anur? Salty Anus, more like it. `Moonberries`, come on, catch my drift! Call it Moongrass or Moonweed, you fancy cunt! We’re using Google translate set to english-latin and a reverse filter for our spells! Do I look like I have time for this Tolkien shit?”

 

He took a massive Havanna cigar from a pile on his desk, bit off the tip and set it alight.

 

Skipping a large number of pages, his eye caught a sentence. “`Bore down`, eh? Well shit, that’s descriptive! Reluctant mature fic is like medium rare chicken. You might think it’s fancy but in the end it’s just limp cock! What’s with these Great Value brand elven SS and barbarian villains anyhow? Shit, you’re so original!”

 

The next sentence that caught his eye read “The taste of alcohol wasn’t new to him.”

 

“Fuck!”, he yelled, “Really? Rub it in my face! Jesus H. Christ! It’s like these people don’t get that I need to work with puritan censors all day! This is the US of A where we send teens off to get fucked up in Iraq , not the bar! Oh and nice redemption arc, dickhead. Mr. Obersturmbandführer’s racism lasted for a whole of five seconds after meeting them! God, I thought Korra’s lossy character development was people prematurely pissing on my grave!”

 

Justin poked his head in. “Can you keep it down, Ay-ay-ron? I’m trying to get Villads to stop crying about his significant other hating on his `silent D`.”

 

“You seriously need to stop quoting that old-as-fuck Key ‘n Peele skit before I lose my shit. I’m busy getting hammered and reading bad fan fiction! Out!”

 

He threw a maraschino cherry at his colleague, then turned back to his entertainment.

 

It changed in front of his eyes and he swore.

 

“GOD! DAMN! IT!”

 

Chapter Text

As noon arrived, Honsa looked about ready to fall off her stag. Rayla stopped their troop and led them into the tentacle forest, far off the road. They made camp near a small tributary of the Ibalin that pooled in a beautiful clearing. Here, the cacti were in full pink and red bloom, the hot, sandy wind rustling their spines.

 

There also was dense but browning grass for their rides to munch on. The feed bags they had slung on their saddles were halfway empty, lasting maybe another day. This was a problem that would need addressing.

 

Rayla had hobbled the Peryton’s front legs in a loose figure-eight hoop, preventing them from walking too far, too fast. They were rides and alarm bells both.

 

Luckily, the templars had been equipped for travel. There was an Auxilia tent with each of their Perytons as well as seemingly brand new sleeping bags. No more sleeping under winter clothes.

 

Callum had helped Honsa set up her tent. Zym was curled up in the ocean elf’s sleeping bag sleeve, snoozing. He’d been running and flying between Rayla and Callum on their rides, almost throwing him off at one point.

 

The moonshadow elf and Callum ducked into their own tent, even though it was really meant for a single person. Honsa was already snoring quietly when they crawled into theirs.

 

“She has no travelin’ experience outside of the Legion. She’s gonna slow us down.”, Rayla whispered, grabbing her bedwear from her pack.

 

“That’s true, I guess”, Callum nudged her, “Uh, you’re changing?”

 

“Yeah. Uh, give me a minute.”, she said and he sheepishly backed out of the tent.

 

“How come? You’ve never dressed for bed while we were on the road”, he inquired through the treated fabric.

 

“Uh, we’re far enough from the road where I doubt I’ll have to rush out at a second’s notice. The stags’ll let us know if anyone sneaks up on us. No need to wear my dirty road clothes into a clean sleepin’ bag inside a tent, I’d just feel hot. I’m done.”

 

She appeared in the tent’s opening and traded places with him so he could get out of his daywear.

 

“Are you feeling okay?”, he asked.

 

She shrugged wearily, even though he couldn’t see it. “I’ve felt much better, for sure. It’s not really the wounds though, they look like they’re healin’ really fast. My arm’s already pretty well done, so is my thigh. Looks like I won’t even have scars to brag about.”

 

“I’m done”, her boyfriend said and she ducked back into their tent. She showed him her shoulder.

 

“I need to learn that”, Callum said with amazement, running a careful hand along her arm. The light touch gave her goosebumps.

 

“Far as I know, only ocean, earth and sun have healin’ powers.”, she said, smiling, “But I guess if you could figure out sky, who’s to say you can’t get the other ones?”

 

He snickered. “One thing at a time! I can’t even cast that many spells before falling over.”

 

They snuggled together in a sleeping bag. It was tight - but that was sort of the point. They both felt a little alienated, still. Neither of them felt that was proper and they were going to fix it.

 

“I like the ponytail. It suits you.”, he said, softly batting at the hairy construct.

 

“It’s a mess.”

 

“As I just said; It suits you”

 

They snickered. It was a relief.

 

“I’m sorry I’m such an oaf”, she said, burying her face in his chest, “I love you, and I don’t want us to fight like that ever again.”

 

He nodded, fully convinced that it would be so. What bolstered this feeling was the relaxation in the moment and their physical closeness.

 

“I don’t feel like sleepin’ just yet. We’ve barely had a wakin’ moment to ourselves.”

 

Callum kissed her.

 

“That’s true.”, he thought for a moment, “Well… in that case…”

 

His hands moved in a fashion that seemed structured, full of intent.

 

She blinked. “What are you doin’? Magic?”

 

“I said `I love you` in sign language. I figure once you meet Amaya she’d be really impressed if you knew some.”

 

Rayla smiled widely. “That’s a brilliant idea! Show me again!”

 

‘I love you’, he signed.

 

‘I love you’, she signed.

 

“That was good!”, he said, then did another sentence, mischief in his eyes.

 

She imitated his gestures.

 

“You just called me adorable”, he explained with a snicker.

 

She scowled with an amused glint in her eyes, “Okay, that’s just sneaky. Complimentin’ yourself and usin’ my fingers to do it! Tsk! Look.”

 

Repeating the signs, she gazed into his eyes intensely. He flushed.

 

“There. I meant that one”, she said, blushing a sick pink.

 

“No doubt -- whew! That made my heart skip!”, he inspected her worriedly. “You still look kinda... blood...less?”

 

“The word is `anemic`, oh educated one”, she barbed, “That’s not gonna change for a bit. Maybe a week until I won’t feel like garbage. Wasn’t plannin’ on doin’ much ‘till then but then the hag showed up.”

 

“Wait; You feel like `garbage`?”, pure concern was etched into his expression now, “Are you in pain? Anything I can do?”

 

“It’s not painful. I’m just dizzy a lot. So, if you see me swayin’, just catch me like you did before. I can’t fight much, but at least now we have the stags to get us out of harm’s way.”, she started twirling his hair in her fingers, “I need to eat copper rich stuff, like seeds and brassica leaf. Maybe some purple-blooded meat, as much as I hate the thought. I don’t really know the science behind it, but Runaan kept drillin’ that into our heads. Blood loss? Eat copper! Apparently helps elves make more of the sap.”

 

‘Get well soon’, he signed.

 

She eyed him, smirking suspiciously. “Now what?”

 

“Get well soon!”, he said with mock-offense.

 

She pinched his cheek. “As soon as I am, you’re gonna teach me to dance.”

 

He blinked. He’d offered, sure, but it seemed odd to bring that up, now.

 

“Why? Are we going to a ball?”

 

She smirked. “I’d hope so, considerin’ that the war’s gonna be over soon. Two, maybe three weeks. Then Zym will be home and the Dragon Queen will put a stop to it all. It’s all gonna go so quick now that we’re ridin’.”

 

Callum frowned, mulling over what she’d just said. He hadn’t really stopped to think about their mission, given their most recent adventure with an actual dragon. “Hm. You know… I don’t mean to ruin the moment, but aren’t we being a bit... naive?”

 

Rayla glanced at him, worriedly, “How so?”

 

“Ivine’s a dragon, right? She didn’t seem too impressed by us bringing Zym. What if that’s the reaction of his mom? `Oh thanks. Now go away`?”

 

His girlfriend drained. “Oh. I can’t believe I haven’t thought of that, gosh, of course! The old hag is a dragon! Yeah, it’s totally possible this is all for nothin’”, she bit her lower lip, her brows furrowed. After a moment, she continued, “I still think it’s right to bring him home. To his mum. I wouldn’t want it any other way if someone took our childr--”, she blinked, the word getting stuck in her throat.

 

He laughed, hugging her tightly, “Now you’re thinking a bit too far ahead.”

 

“I-it’s kind of a cute thought, though?”, she mumbled, somewhat dreamily, “just... think of their itty bitty halflin’ horns…”

 

“Just hard to think of that stuff right now when there’s so much we still have to do”, he said carefully, hoping it wouldn’t hurt her.

 

She pouted. “I kinda told you I wanted to be a mum at one point. What about you?”

 

Callum smirked. “I think I could be an okay mom.”

 

Rayla chortled, slapping his chest lightly, “You know what I meant! Little Rayllums! Do you wanna be a dad?”

 

He mulled it over. Then, he quipped, “Sure. Yeah. I think so. But only if we can give them less stupid names.” His face filling with worry, he added, “Kinda feel the need to say that I’m nowhere near ready fo--”

 

She kissed him happily, choking his words. “I know, I know. Me either, gosh! I’ll be glad to just get this dragon child home so it feels like we’re achievin’ something!”

 

Rayla groaned.  “We really are kinda playin’ this crooked music by ear here, aren’t we?”

 

“We should come up with a plan B. What if Zym’s mom is happy we bring him in but doesn’t see why the war shouldn’t go ahead anyway?”

 

Rayla exhaled slowly. “That breaks my brain. I feel like we just don’t know enough to make a call on that. Augh! I should’ve thought about this, sooner! Too focussed on getting this done to sit and think about if it even makes sense anymore!”

 

She ran a pensive hand over her left horn, “We could go bother the assemblies but I’m pretty sure they’d just try murderin’ us again. We could go back to the border and see how thin’s are lookin’ there. Or... we could just call it quits and follow our own nose. There’s a few thin’s I wanna do. Like show you Scotia, the province I’m from.”

 

The elf frowned. “Actually, maybe not that. Risk of meetin’ people who would want to knock me out goes up a lot in that direction. I’m sure by now they’ve caught news of my `betrayal`. Already hated me for what my parents did.”

 

“I can’t just go around doing personal stuff while Katolis is in trouble, Rayla.”, Callum said, “I’ve a duty to these people.”

 

She nodded. “I get it. Just regurgitatin’ anythin’ I can think of.”

 

“I think going back to the border might be best”, he felt a little selfish, saying it, “I really miss home. Unlike you, nobody in Katolis wants to murder me… well, excluding Viren.”

 

“There’s a thought”, she said, getting sidetracked again, “We’re gonna have to decide where we’re gonna live at some point…”

 

Callum frowned. “Yeah, but not right now.”

 

“Why not?”

 

He waved at the general surroundings. “We’re in the middle of an important discussion here. Focus!”

 

She pouted, resolved not to get angry. “Sure we are. That question’s important to me, though.”

 

There was a small smile on his face. “Home is where the heart is. So I’ll be good wherever as long as you’re there with me.”

 

She blushed a little but shook her head, “That’s a nice sayin’ but not really true. Home is where you make it.”

 

“Okay, well, I say Katolis, then. Scotia sounds like a bad place for both of us.”

 

“But… once the war is over and my name’s cleared we could live there.”

 

“Yeah but I’m a prince of Katolis, not Scotia”, he said with determination.

 

“I’m Sconi!”, she said, with indignation.

 

They were getting angry over an issue that wouldn’t be relevant any time soon. Rayla sighed loudly. “What is wrong with us?”

 

“Everything”, he cackled, “just, everything. People keep telling us about it.”, lovingly he stroked her face. “We’ll figure it all out, babe, when it’s time.”

 

She eyed him questioningly. “I’m not a fan of that one either, dummy. I just think nicknames aren’t for me.”

 

He chuckled. “Just haven’t found the right one yet.”

 

“Well - keep trying, I s’pose. I found mine. Dummy.”

 

The prince rolled his eyes. “Alright; Stabby?”

 

She giggled, “Getting more true, at least! Seriously though? No. Rayla’s fine.”

 

“Ray?”

 

“Do I look like a guy to you?”

 

He flushed a little, then said, “No.”

 

She suddenly frowned. “We need a plan, Callum.”

 

“Hey, I was on task!”

 

With mock offense she said, “Yeah, you were and then you decided to think up new names for me! Come on!”

 

“I think you’re right. We don’t know. Maybe we’ll get there and she’s like `well shucks, let me get that war called off right quick`. Maybe we’ll get there and she eats us”, his eyes became dim and he frowned, “Maybe we won’t even make it past the mountains.”

 

Rayla kissed him, hugged him, bothered him. She couldn’t bear his expression. “We’ve survived a lot. It’s gonna be fine.”

 

He merely shrugged, not able to shake the dire feeling. His girlfriend couldn’t let it stand. She grabbed his face, forcing him into a pout and kissed him until her breath ran out.

 

He blinked at her, sheepishly. “I don’t think I’ll ever get used to you doing things like that.”

 

“Good!”, she snickered, “I love the faces you pull when I do!”



Chapter Text

Rayla stretched. Sleeping next to Callum had been nice but supremely uncomfortable. The pain in her neck would remind her of the fact that the sleeping bag was not meant for two people for a while.

 

It was a cold night so she was wearing her fuzzy winter coat. She noticed that Honsa was already awake, drifting like a dry leaf on the pooling water. Zym was sitting on her stomach; she was evidently busy entertaining him.

 

“Hey”, Rayla called out. The ocean elf flinched, bobbing like a cork stopper. Azmondias took off so as to not fall into the water. She wiped her face, then dove under the surface smoothly.

 

When Honsa came back up, she seemed pointedly chipper. “Aloha tita, I took the swim!”, she over-explained.

 

The moonshadow elf puzzled.  She seemed distraught. “I can see that. Callum’s still sleepin’”

 

“Oh. That’s good. Nice jacket. You cold? Why are you up already?”

 

“Done sleepin’”, Rayla said simply, then sat on the ground, “Do you want a pastry?”

 

Zym landed next to them, throwing an accusatory look at Honsa and waddling off with his head held high.

 

“Oh! Sure!”, Honsa climbed out of the pool and drew a simple rune that looked vaguely wave shaped. “Travíxte to neró”, she said and her clothes relinquished their soak, leaving them much cleaner than they had been. She guided the water into the pond, then sat down opposite of Rayla.

 

Proffering one of the desert pastries she had taken from Lessa’s tent, Rayla bit into her own. She moaned, leaning backward, “That’s literally the best thin’ I’ve ever had! I’m so jealous of these snobs!”

 

Honsa snickered, biting down. She appreciated the bite mark, “Oh ya, dat totally breaks de mouth!”

 

They ate quietly, too enraptured by the  smooth, brown filling to talk. It tasted vaguely like the hazelnuts Rayla had found in Katolis; But there was something else. Something she had never tasted before. She couldn’t place it.

 

Rayla finished, sucking on her fingers to remove the sticky, sugary coating. “I’m really sad that’s gone! Well… uh... I wanted your advice… is that okay?”

 

“Yah.”, the ocean elf smiled sweetly, “I’d love to help you with whatever is on your mind.”

 

Rayla twiddled her thumbs for a moment. “I... don’t know how to start.”

 

“How about you take a dip with me? I’ll show you a bit of magic, make you comfort--”

 

“No”, Rayla said, glaring at the pond, “I... hate water.”

 

Honsa frowned. “Dat’s almost a bit insulting to me, you know? How can you hate water?”

 

For a moment, Rayla wasn’t sure if she really wanted to tell her. She willed herself to be friendly. Honsa really didn’t seem all that happy right now. “When I was a wean, my - well, foster-dad, I guess - Runaan taught me how to swim. I learnt it real fast, like anythin’ else I just pick up if it’s athletic. One day I was swimmin’ alone and… something grabbed me. Some creature decided I was gonna be dinner. I haven’t a clue how I got out of that water hole but ever since... I can’t get myself into even slightly deep or rushin’ water”

 

Honsa nodded. “Yah stuff like dat sticks with you… Sistah, if you’re okay with it, since you can’t come to the water, I can bring it to you. Like I did with Callum? It… helps.”

 

Rayla eyed her suspiciously. “I don’t know about that. I like my mind to be my own. No offense.”

 

Honsa nodded empathetically. “Shoots, not wanting a rando touching your brains is perfectly fine, but I promise you the spells I use won’t read or scramble your mind. You’re in complete control here.”

 

The moonshadow elf’s gaze softened a little and after a moment of ponderance, she waved at Honsa to go ahead. As far as her own discomfort was concerned, she felt the ocean elf wasn’t a threat. As for Callum - he would already know what was happening if he saw them touching like that.

 

Drawing the most complicated magical rune Rayla had ever seen, the counselor mumbled, “Apokalýpste tin ávysso tou pónou sas”

 

From the pool, water flew into Honsa’s hands. She placed them on the moonshadow’s ears. Rayla heard the push and pull of the ocean in her palms, but Honsa’s voice was clear and pleasant. There was no edge to it whatsoever. She felt as though even Ivine would have sounded non-judgemental through this filter.

 

“Now, you said `foster-dad`, right? What about your birth parents? Are they around?”

 

Rayla found it easy to answer. “Yeah. I think so, at least. They were dragon guard.”

 

Honsa gaped, “Wait. Wait! What?! You’re the daughter of…”

 

“Yea.”, Rayla interrupted hoarsely, “I know. Disgrace and so forth. I’m tryin’ to clear my name right now.”

 

The ocean elf nodded sympathetically, “Getting that dumped on you probably sucked like a rip-tide.”

 

“It still does. Feels like I can’t catch a break, you know?”

 

She launched into her whole life’s story, talking about being more or less abandoned by her parents. Talking about her being trained as an Assassin. About her experiences with death. About her growing up with Runaan ending in another shattering disappointment that also drowned her in guilt.

 

It was so very easy to follow trains of thought under the influence of Honsa’s spell - but it did not feel prying or offensive. Rayla still editorialized her own thoughts, leaving out overly personal details here and there.

 

It felt like she was talking a load off her chest. Finally, Rayla sighed, a pleasant smile spreading across her expression.

 

“I can see why he’d let you touch him for this. It feels… so good.”

 

Honsa smiled. “Dis abyssal call lets you talk comfortably about uncomfortable things. It washes away anxiety and self-doubt, so you hear my words as I intend dem, not as your head might wanna interpret them.”

 

The assassin breathed in, deeply, then admitted, “I’m sorry what I said about you. I actually think you’re really cute and not like a tiny pig. The more I talk to you the more I think you’re a great person and the only reason why I couldn’t see that before is because I was boilin’ my heid”

 

“Thank you for apologising. We say a lot of things in anger dat we don’t really mean. Everyone knows dat. It’s up to the other person to take those words and run with dem, and I just refuse to.”

 

Honsa withdrew a single hand to palm at her right eye. After washing her hand off, she resumed the magic envelope, “I think you’re a great person, Rayla, but you have a lot to work out. Callum had a childhood, even with his mother passing and all his recent pain, he is still a prince. He was taken care of. You on the other hand… you’re missing a lot of dat positive base and yet, you’re still so warm and caring. That amazes me.”

 

“Warm and carin’ eh?”, Rayla shook her head, slowly, “I said a lot of really hurtful thin’s to him. To you. I feel like I can’t apologise enough.”

 

“I dunno you super well yet, but even I felt like dat fight was out of character for you. You love him, like, a bunch. You show dat pretty clearly. Given the story you just told me tho, I feel like the stress of the evening plus all the other rubbish you dealt with over your lifetime really did a number on you. Fear of abandonment is a freakishly powerful feeling.”, Honsa’s expression became serious, “Losing your parents and Runaan is not your fault, Rayla. You are lovable, and worth loving. Callum does it so easily. You should trust that.”

 

Rayla couldn’t help but feel like nobody had ever put it so clearly. She was lovable. It wasn’t her fault. It was strange to admit it, but she had really needed to hear this. A sort of deep relief washed over her.

 

Honsa smiled, “Your love for each other seems to be mending and that’s super important. Every couple goes through these horrible, irrational moments. They are the storms on the route from love to a serious relationship dat stands the test of time. Love gets you the first few miles, sure, but only effort makes it a lifetime.”

 

For a moment, she looked like she was going to well up, but the ocean elf caught herself, “You will have that sort of argument again. They happen. What’s important is that you bounce back. That you work on being better. Dat you work on making them happen less. Next time, it might be Callum having a terrible day and exploding. Be gentle with him when it happens.”

 

The counselor adjusted her position but kept her hands in place, “I understand moon elves are super into the whole secrets thing. `Public touch bad` was news to me. I’m sorry for doing that with him without telling you.”

 

Rayla nodded. “Thanks. The culture annoys me, actually. I don’t wanna be part of it. Tried to break from it. Turns out, sometimes it yanks me by the horns, still.”

 

“We’re all products of our surroundings. Of course some of the culture would rub off on you and some of the values you grow up with since small kid time stick like honey. It’s all fine as long as you can feel comfortable talking to him about it and he respects the differences. Oh, and visa-versa, of course. You’re in your own anemone’s hair right now. As a prince, his family is going to be dunked in stupid traditions.”

 

Rayla shuddered. “I’m not lookin’ forward to it. Meetin’ them.”

 

“Hm. Why?”

 

“I dinnah like to be judged. I’m not… uh, graceful... in the way that people seem to expect princesses to be. I don’t do a whole lot of princessy thin’s and I really hate all the rituals. At the same time, his aunt probably thinks of me as a soldier, an’ not much else. Gosh, the court’s gonna tear me open cause I have pointy ears, too! I hadn’t even thought of that”, Rayla frowned.

 

“You know, something you mentioned seems to slot in dere. You said you hate being shoved into a box with all the concepts people have of you. Elf box, assassin box, soldier box. We’re all really complex beings but for some reason, we don’t often think dat of others. Easier to use dem boxes. I get you think that princesses need to be traditionally girly. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it isn’t you.”

 

“But see, that’s what I mean. You’re putting me in the assassin box. I sometimes just wanna… advertise… other parts of me. I have moments where I wanna be cute, or, like you said, `traditionally girly`”

 

“Yah, whoops, I see your point, sorry.”, Honsa looked her up and down, an idea forming quite visibly forming in her head, “Can I take your measurements?”

 

Rayla blinked. “Why?”

 

“I… wanna give you something. But, I have to fix it up, first.”

 

“You don’t have to give me a gift!”

 

“I don’t have to, but I want to. Think of it as the least I could do after you saved my sorry butt by getting me out of that camp and failing to do my job right. I made you super uncomfortable ‘cause I didn’t do my due diligence, finding out about boundaries you might have. Especially after we had that first run-in in the morning. I knew you were on edge and I didn’t follow up enough. Sorry.”

 

Rayla couldn’t help herself now. She hugged the ocean elf, breaking out of her spell and making Honsa squeak.

 

“Honsa, I’m sorry I was a jerk to you. You’re amazin’ at what you do.”

 

“Aww, I’m happy to hear that, thanks!”, Honsa stared at the sky, shedding a few tears which surprised Rayla.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

“Nah, but dat’s okay. I’m not the one we’re about right now. Just kinda worried about Lessa, is all. She’s my mentor. My foster-mum.”

 

Rayla smiled softly. “If she’s anythin’ like I remember, she’s totally fine. Lessa knows what she’s doin’”

 

Honsa nodded, palming her eyes. Breathing deeply, her peaceful smile returned. “I’ve one last thing I wanna mention to you; If you want to be okay with water in the future, there’s ways you can learn to cope.”

 

With an empathetic look, Rayla sat back. She was worried about Lessa, too, but she had seen her in action. That helped. “It would be nice. I feel like a dumb sheep whenever the topic comes up.”

 

“Okay. So, you already know why it makes you uncomfortable. You also know the things you can do to avoid feeling dat way. Shallow, still water is fine. Start there. Next, you can think about what might happen these days if your fear comes true. I’m thinking da kine that would be stupid enough to pull you under today wouldn’t live too long.”

 

Rayla shrugged. “Probably true. I’m a wee bit stronger and faster now.”

 

“Finally, you can start making better memories that involve water. You know, to fall back on when the fear strikes you again.”

 

“Like what, though?”

 

“Whatever floats your boat”, she giggled at her own pun, “As long as it’s a nice memory dat’s strong enough to knock the other one out.”

 

“Hm. That’s gonna need some thinkin’ for sure.”, the moonshadow elf said. “Hey, do you want to talk about Lessa?”

 

Honsa shook her head. “Nah. You’re right, girl, she is totally good. She’s kicked more butt than I can honestly talk about right now. I actually wanna go back to sleep for a while. If that’s okay?”

 

Rayla only nodded. Of course it was.

 

The ocean elf hugged her and dove into the pool. She came to a rest near the bottom of the dark blue hole.

 

Rayla shuddered at the thought of sleeping, surrounded by the deadly pressure. Finding something to do that would override the memory of possibly being devoured while drowning in icy blackness?

 

That was a tall order.

 

She smirked slightly.

 

Probably not much taller or shorter than five-foot-seven.

Chapter Text

Viren fumed. Throwing his staff into a corner of his cavernous hideout he tore off his mantle and chucked it at the wall.

 

He screamed, alleviating the pain caught in his chest.

 

“Calm yourself”, the empathetic, deep voice in his head said, “You’ve achieved your goal. Why are you upset?”

 

“Achieved my goal!?”, the mage yelled into the darkness, “I have wiped out the elven army! But at what cost?! I should have been there, standing with my human comrades, blasting lizard after lizard from the sky!”

 

There was a warm chuckle. “And die with them? I think not. You would not have been welcome there. The fools do not appreciate the danger that Xadia poses as well as you and I do.”, scoffing, the voice shifted to his other side, “Even now they stand at the Breach, as you saw, tipping their dead over the sides. Together. You cannot believe the cattle would have welcomed a voice of reason such as yourself.”

 

Viren breathed heavily, dropping to the ground. The spell used to raise the gestalt of Thunder from the dragon’s ashes had taken a massive toll on him.

 

“Aaravos”, he started, more collected, “They are clinging to peace. Why? They make such sacrifice. Such effort. Why? There should be fighting all along the border now!”

 

“You are wondering whether you are doing the right thing, provoking a war.”

 

“How could I not? When the Moonshadow came to take my king - my friend - the others were blind to the danger. Now I myself am not sure that danger even still exists.”

 

Aaravos’ presence became more full, as though he was taking a step closer. “They are clinging to the status quo”, he said, smirking, “Oblivious to the fact that they are bedding down with the worst creatures to ever walk the earth.”, the smirk faded for a single word, “Dragons.”

 

A hand seemed to caress Viren’s cheek, “Oh, sure, my kin may have willed themselves to peace. One wonders how long it will take the dragons to notice, sending soldiers of the Lux Aurea or agents of the Lucid to thoroughly disturb their efforts”, snark crept into the voice, “Reality will come crashing down on the cattle, then, with the keen edge of a butcher’s knife.”

 

Viren thought on this and nodded slowly. After what he had seen, there was no doubting the truth of the claim that the dragons were a terrible enemy to have.

 

“We shall make more plans”, Aaravos continued, drifting through his headspace, “And one of them will succeed. The scales are balanced. Nothing could be more… tenuous. For now, I suggest we both take a well deserved and much needed rest. Until tomorrow.”

 

Viren got up, listening to Aaravos’ presence fading. Sitting in the dark did not become him, so he lit the sconces on the walls. Compared to his secret passages and laboratories at Katolis Castle, this was pitiful, but it served. An unused water cistern, remodeled to serve as a damp but safe home.

 

To his left was his dirty but comfortable cot. To his right, a workbench, covered in books and various glass devices. The setup he had used to purify the dragon king’s ashes. There had not been much left of his vertebrae after firing. No matter, the mage did not need a second disaster. A lighter hand was required.

 

For the moment, he resolved to rest, as his friend had suggested. The full truth was that he was exhausted, having spent weeks agonising over his delicate work.

 

He sat on the cot, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

 

Brushing aside the horrible truth of it, he felt pride at his accomplishment. The shadow had far exceeded what he’d thought possible in term of destructive power.

 

Laying down, he felt carried away, to wonder about his children.

 

He’d had no news of them.

Chapter Text

It was the morning of September 29th. Ezran was walking ahead of a procession of  soldiers bearing ten dead comrades, two of each kingdom. Their families had been asked for permission by raven and had given it.

 

Descending  down the Breach, Amaya and Gren hobbled next to him. Helmond was conspicuous by his absence.

 

At the widest part of the passage, near where the hidden human base had been, the soldiers set their burdens down and saluted, waiting for their counterparts.

 

From behind a column of steam, a similar column of elves appeared. Their banners showed the green of earth, the blue of ocean, the white of sky and the red of sun.

 

Eight bodies were barred up on their side. They also saluted. Unlike the humans, the gesture involved the heart, not the head. Silence ruled.

 

Ezran and Janai met in the middle of the groups.

 

“Thank you for doing this. It’s a powerful symbol”, he said.

 

“I appreciate you suggesting it. We have confirmed that these soldiers were convinced of our mission. This burial will be the least reward for their loyalty to peace. ”, more sadly she said, “I myself can unfortunately vouch for the two sunfire elves. They were Lux Aurea and members of my own personal guard.”

 

“I can’t help but notice the absence of moonshadow among your troop.”, Gren said with Amayas intent.

 

Janai nodded. “I spoke to my remaining moon shadow leftenant. She indicated their families may take it as an insult to cremate their dead in the presence of strangers. We elected to bring their well-wishes instead.”

 

Ezran nodded. “That doesn’t surprise me much, knowing what I do about moon elves. Janai, we’ve prepared a speech”, he said with a look at Corvus, “Is it alright to do that? Hold it, I mean.”

 

The Prime Legate smirked. “Personally, I am not a woman of grand words, King Ezran. But speeches are a pastime of our politicians as well. So, by all means. Say what you feel you must.”

 

Ezran stepped forward, looking between the still saluting soldiers. He took a deep breath, studying his cue cards. During his coronation, he hadn’t used any, messing up frequently. This was going to be so much harder.

 

“Soldiers”, his voice rang out, shaking. He was annoyed at himself already. Speak, then breathe, not both at the same time. Gah!

 

“We share this ground without co-contention like we share many things.

The air, letting us breathe.

The sun, nurturing us.

The water, satur...satiating our thirst.

 

But in this moment, we most k-keenly share the grief of losing friends and comrades.

A loss we should allow ourselves to feel, to inter...internalise.

After all, we owe them a great debt.

 

They fell in str…strategic vain.

With no great walls breached, no objectives captured.

Neither military honors nor m-medals to be had.

 

Yet; Pors...personified honor is who they are.

They stood and weathered the storm and rage of death, valiant in the face of great evil.

 

There are forces at play that do not wish this moment to exist.

Our shared grief, our empathy and our f-friendship offends them.

 

We have clung to peace with d-desperation, like no-one before us, still paying the price of war.

My i-intent will always be to bolster this truce.

 

Our enemy is war, our foe death.

It must be so since those things tear apart what b-belongs together.

 

C-countless families will mourn as these news reach into our federations.

We must never forget the sacrifices made here today.

 

If we can not find the culprits of this hein...ous attack, it may happen again.

We must collaborate to find them and drag them into the light of justice - true justice, not simple w-vengeance which would sa...sully our intent.

 

But today, our work will be to commit our fallen to eternal rest.

May some of their other...worldly peace fall on all of us.

 

Th-Thank you for sharing in our grief and letting us share in yours.”

 

Stepping back, the Katolin King breathed out slowly, hopping a bit to hurry the cold out of his limbs.

 

Amaya gaped at Corvus. The tracker shook his head very slowly, his eyes serious. ‘His words, my vocabulary’, he signed surreptitiously.

 

The elves seemed at peace with his speech, if not impressed. The humans appeared quite enthused by it, some looking to their comrades to see if it was alright to clap. Nobody did and the atmosphere stayed heavy and pensive. This suited Ezran just fine.

 

Jainai stepped into his place in the middle of the forces. Ezran noted with envy that she held no cue cards.

 

“This, friends, is the continuation of our staunch refusal to do everything we’re bidden without question. Hold on to the message of his speech. We have died here tonight, together, and together we will stand until the senate and Sol Regem scuff their own horns ramming these walls! Populesque Xanadianum in Aeterna!”

 

She had left the senate out of her hail and her soldiers answered with shouts of approval.

 

“Octurii! Make ready to bid farewell to our brothers and sisters in arms.”

 

“Princeps!”, came the four-voiced acknowledgement from the captains.

 

Amaya stepped forward. “Funeral detail, make ready”, she ordered.

 

“Sir!”, the soldiers replied.

 

One after another, they pitched the bodies off the edge. A trumpeter from Del Bar played a pensive, arresting song.

 

Once the bodies were gone, the elves knelt and Ezran hurried to make his people follow suit.

 

“We’ve hated each other in life!”, half the elves yelled.

 

The other half replied, “Now, friend, go easy. Nix tribe lines and blood feud; forever!”

 

When the reverb of the shouts had subsided, everyone rose. Janai shook Ezran’s and Amaya’s hands, and the detachments separated, returning to their respective sides of the border.

Chapter Text

Rayla stopped her doe. “Here. It was here.”

 

Callum shuddered. “Yep. No doubt.”

 

They got off their rides. Honsa’s foot caught in the stirrups and she slammed clumsily into the muddy ground. “Tsa! I’m glad I’m not wearing my nice clothes now! Kanapapiki!”, she groaned under her breath, reassembling herself. Zym snarked at her from Callum’s saddle bag. “I get it, runt, don’t wake me, yadda, yadda! Shoosh!”

 

Rayla and Callum were walking ahead, his hand wandering to hers, automatically. He was shaking. So was she. Honsa worriedly shook her head. Maybe this was a bad idea.

 

The river was calmer now. There had been no more flooding in the past week.

 

They were stepping onto the scene of their fight with Kel. The tracks in the mud were faded by weather.

 

Lessa’s trackers had not been wrong about the obvious. There was no body. Callum stared at the spot where the bounty hunter had fallen. “There’s no way. No way, no how. She can’t still be out there.”

 

Rayla nodded, feeling quite the same. She didn’t believe that Kel was still alive, but the mere hint that she might be made her heart thump. Rayla took Callum by the shoulders and kissed him.

 

“Here’s where you saved my bacon, dummy. Thank you”

 

He nodded, giving her a weak smile, “I think you deserve those thanks more than I do”, he answered with a dry mouth, “Without you standing up to her I’d probably be a few waterlogged bones downstream.”

 

She looked at him sadly. “Teamwork killers, I guess.”

 

Honsa carefully approached them. “How is it looking?”

 

“She isn’t here”, Callum said while Rayla ducked to the ground to try and note any tracks she could make out. There was a slight singe mark where the sword had melted, a spray of cold metal. She came across a trail of vanishing black splotches that she recognized as her own blood. Her gaze wandered along the fading trail, memories haunting her. It was harrowing, being here again. The healing slash in her stomach itched.

 

As she reached the spot where a massive imprint hinted at the former location of Kel’s body, she noticed something amiss right away. Lessa’s trackers had spent little time on their work or were not very good at it. Not that it mattered. They were likely dead now.

 

A few yards away in the cacti hung bits of fur, doubtlessly torn off of Kel’s coat. There were no larger furry animals in the plains.

 

Rayla followed the tracks into the woods, drawing her blades. In the late afternoon, chills started running over her, she was gripped by the eerie feeling that she was hunting a ghost.

 

Callum and Honsa followed her at a distance.

 

Then she saw it and recoiled, her face warped with fear and disgust.

 

“Hold it there, guys!”, she yelled over her shoulder, trying not to heave too obviously.

 

She’d found Kel’s body - what was left of it. The hand with the roughly smithed wedding ring which was welded to Moon Cleaver’s hilt had to suffice as confirmation of her identity.

 

Rayla turned away, the revolting, gruesome sight etched into her mind.

 

“I found her”, she told her boyfriend, trying to calm her roiling stomach, “She is just…”, Rayla breathed evenly, willing her insides to stop turning, “Skulk bites and tear marks. They must’ve dragged her down there for... dinner.”

 

Callum turned green. Honsa looked at both of them with worry. She didn’t seem affected by the mental image.

 

“It’s kinda comforting to know she’s not out t-there”, Callum said, clinging desperately to Rayla who sadly pet his hair.

 

Honsa nodded. “I’m proud of you, guys. You’re taking this head-on.”

 

“Right on the forehead”, Callum quipped shakily, motioning at his head in a round gesture that indicated that he thought of himself as insane, “Trust me, I feel all kinds of terrible right now. I just… refuse to lose it. I… I knew she was dead. Knew it. This isn’t news. Confirmation at best.”, he welled up, after all, “I killed her. Rayla! I k-killed her!”

 

Honsa placed her hands on her muddy hips, speaking firmly but empathetically. “She forced your hand. Little else to do. Rayla was gonna die. You defended her.”

 

“I know. Still feels like I could’ve found a better way. There must’ve been something else I could have done!”

 

Rayla slowly shook her head. “I don’t think so. Anything less than knockin’ her out wouldn’t’ve helped. That’s what you tried to do. It just didn’t go our way.”

 

She embraced him, tightly.

 

After a moment, Callum recovered a little. He looked over her shoulder, in the direction of the body.

 

“I… do you think…”, he fumbled at words, “Can we… bury her?”

 

Rayla sighed deeply, looking over his shoulder at Honsa. “Oh dummy, you are just too good for this world. I just don’t know if...”

 

Honsa shook her head, frowning, obviously not enthusiastic about the idea herself. But, to Rayla’s surprise and dismay, she mouthed, ‘Do it. Might help him.’

 

Comforting her boyfriend, Rayla nodded back at her, her face grim but determined.

 

Honsa lost her lunch immediately upon seeing the ravaged corpse. Callum and Rayla on the other hand had seen death at Larwein. The only real difference was that the wounds suffered by pila and swords were clean and surgical. Skulks had nothing but teeth, made for ripping and tearing.

 

It was gut wrenching, but once they learned to expect the feeling, they held it together, if barely so. Their heads were busy twisting this protective distancing into a searing brand of evil, burning on their hearts.

 

Field shovels and the soft, muddy ground made digging a shallow grave rather quick work. Quick, but still not easy. Rayla had to take several breaks to catch her breath and stop her head from spinning.

 

Finally, they stood in front of a small mound covering Kel’s remains. The warped and jagged shape of Moon Cleaver served as a marker. The wedding ring felt out of place, stuck to the weapon’s hilt.

 

An icon of love on the grave of a killer.

 

Almost ironically, Callum felt as though some of his humanity had been restored to him by this grim act, having at least given his victim a proper burial.

 

“You tried to kill us. I forgive you”, he said quietly, feeling as though he was the one who should ask for forgiveness instead.

 

After a moment of unsure looks and a nod exchanged between the two of them, Rayla and Honsa knelt. Callum looked at them, confused.

 

“We’ve hated each other in life”, Rayla said, solemnly.

 

“Now, friend, go easy. Nix tribe lines and blood feud; forever”, Honsa answered with pathos.

 

After a moment, the elves rose.

 

“What does that mean?”, Callum asked.

 

Honsa smiled sadly, her eyes still fixed on the grave. “Pretty much the same thing you said, dude. Way back before the split between humans and elves, we elves all used to kill each other. It used to be kind of the same battle between the tribes as dere is now between us and you guys. Dark Magic changed dat. Brought pinkos to the same power as the tribes. Scared the horns offa everyone”, she snickered slightly, “It was like your pentapus pet learning how to do magic over night. The elves came together under the Dragons’ guidance and we swore to forgive past sins. Blood feuds ended. Tribes started to mingle, turning against you humans instead.”

 

“We don’t know what kind of funeral she would’ve wanted for herself”, Rayla continued, watching Callum’s face carefully, “Among the tribes, we have loads of different traditions around dyin’. Whenever someone passes and the people around them don’t know how to give them the fittin’ last honor, they use that call and answer. Well; First part's different when the dead person was on better terms with you. You’d say `We’ve not known your heart in life` instead.”

 

Callum nodded. He realised then that he had no idea how the other kingdoms would honor their dead. Maybe he’d done the wrong thing, burying her. Opeli hadn’t taught him much beyond Katolis, and that only because of his mom. He shook his head.

 

People loved avoiding hard conversations; the most necessary. His dad had always been good at them. But he couldn’t teach him everything. There hadn’t been time.

 

Their work done, a certain awkwardness broke over them. They didn’t want to stay here, near the grave, but they were all dead tired at this point. Rayla had pressed them through the day, wanting to get here to satisfy her worry.

 

Both Callum and Honsa appreciated it. It was obvious that Rayla was at least somewhat relieved to find her quarry dead, no longer a threat. One did not brush with their own murder without some resentment.

 

Night had mostly fallen, only a thin, blue-silver gash still cutting across the cloudy horizon. The thunderstorm they had observed while running from Ivine was still breaking against the easterly mountains, much further to the south.

 

“Let’s see if we can’t find a nice spot to camp further upstream”, Rayla said, clapping her dirty hands to her hips to clean them off.

 

Honsa shook her head. “We can rest on the other side of the river. I don’t wanna ride no moa.”, she twiddled her fingers, “I’ll make a path for us.”

 

Rayla acquiesced reluctantly. She felt a bit guilty, having hurried them so much.

 

The women went, leaving Callum standing by the grave alone.

 

Rayla turned to face him, “You comin’?”

 

Callum looked up at her, his eyes glistening. “I’ll lift myself over in a bit. I just need a moment alone. With her.”

 

The elf gave him a loving, concerned look. “Don’t be long, or I’ll come get you.”

 

Her and Honsa led their Perytons to the river. A moment later, Callum heard the words “Káne stin ákri” and the wild gush of rushing water. He looked over to see the river, avoiding his girlfriend and Honsa, flowing between and around them, but touching neither them nor their animals. Rayla looked like she was going to puke, more so than when she’d seen Kel’s body.

 

Ocean magic was apparently really cool, too.

 

He turned back to Kel.

 

“I wish you could have had a more peaceful life. Then you might not have come here”, he crouched, touching the fresh dirt, “Why did I have to kill you? Why couldn’t you just leave us alone?”

 

He didn’t expect an answer, obviously, but he would’ve given a lot to understand all of her motivations. Sure; She had probably come after them for money, that much he assumed as given. After Ithral’s death, though, they had become a personal issue for her.

 

In some crooked sense, he was hoping he’d find out even more disgusting details about her in the future. Callum wished to learn that she was the worst person to ever walk the earth, as though it would relieve some of his own guilt.

 

But, annoyingly, he knew she had been capable of love. The wedding ring was a stark reminder of that fact.

 

She had loved her husband. Something had happened to her to narrow the circle of people she extended that love to. Did she have kids? Any kind of family? How had she ended up learning how to fight - and why?

 

His brain tied itself into a painful knot.
Was she the same as Rayla, without an early moment of conscience, fit to derail her career of death? In an alternate universe, his adorable elf might not have developed qualms.

 

Abhorring murder to a degree where she would put her own life on the line for someone who was trying to kill her - that was Rayla as he knew her. Needless to say, he was glad to live in a universe in which she was not a willing killer.

 

Zym eventually startled him out of his reverie. The little dragon came gliding across the river, landing on his shoulder. Callum groaned as the whelp’s heft threw off his balance. Soon enough he would no longer be light enough to ride a human.

 

The prince rose, careful not to throw off his Xadian counterpart. Walking towards the river, he drew runes. “Ratis”, he activated, “Alatus”, he added. As the spells lifted him and a cooing Zym high above the trees, he noticed how dramatic the scene was, once more. The plains seemed to be quite the place for drama.

 

Dark-as-night anvil clouds, drifting sand, angry creatures, angry humans, haunting graves.

 

He half-smiled, noticing the sandstone arch, jutting out of the forest in the south-western distance.

 

Up ahead he could make out a change in the landscape at the foot of the mountains. There was a splatter of incredible color on the ground, heavy steam rising from whatever it was.

 

Closer than that stood a very intentional looking, circular field of what Callum thought might be corn. Was there a farm there? If so, the trees obscured it.

 

He felt so at ease up here, where the din of the world seemed to subside a little, drowned out by softly coursing wind. Ratis was syphoning his energy, palpably, but he would have loved to stay up here for a while longer. “Aspiro”, he said, and a gust of wind carried him towards where Rayla was checking on their animals’ almost empty feed bags. They could find some more food on the ground here, but as they got closer to the mountains, the stags would start to starve if they couldn’t figure out a portable source of food. Maybe they could steal some corn from the supposed farm.

 

He landed softly, Zym next to him walking into the ground more than anything. It felt like a shallow peace had come over him. After the shock of finding Kel’s body, the background noise of his anxiety and self-hatred semed mercifully quiet.

 

“Hey”, Rayla said, “Glad to see you two swoop in.”

 

He smiled, running a hand over her cheek to pull her into a soft kiss.

 

“Give me a moment with Honsa?”, he asked evenly.

 

She shrug-nodded, surprised at his good spirits. Smiling mischievously, she boxed his shoulder as he turned away, “I’ll expect to be bribed in smooches, though.”

 

“I’ll smooch anything you want”, he snickered, swatting limply at her offending hand.

 

She seemed oddly confused by this. Yeah, the quip hadn’t made a lot of sense - she wasn't going to make him kiss a rock.

 

Honsa was sitting on the ground, trying to get a small fire started.

 

The ocean elf was useless.

 

“Can you do… the thing?” He twirled his indexes at his ears.

 

“Ya. But you do that thing.”, she pointed at her hapless bundle of sticks, “Deep focus or easy conversation?”

 

“Focus. Uh, sorry. Need to figure this one out by myself.”

 

She sat behind him, yawning, while he messed with her clumsily piled kindling, setting it alight using his flint and steel.

 

“Estiáste sto váthos tis empeirías sas”, she chanted and he felt the pressure of the situation lifted off his shoulders.

 

All distraction faded. The world turned wholly black, a dark blue light illuminating a mountain range in the distance.

 

He breathed in very slowly, focussing on the moment. His breath coursed through him, lifting his shoulders and chest. He also felt it at the tip of his nose.

 

He knew nothing but his own thoughts.

 

He watched them drift by, allowing himself to feel.

 

If Viren had shown up at this very moment, in the second it would have taken Callum to disengage from the deep focus spell, he would have loved the man like his own stepfather. Under its influence, there was no conditionality. Saying “I love you, because...” made no sense.

 

Obviously, this feeling extended to himself. He loved himself, absolutely.

 

Through all of his thoughts was spun an obvious thread of self-hatred. It did not currently affect him.

 

Callum listened to his mind, screeching under the weight of his responsibility.

 

A few short months ago, he had been a royal, but a nobody. A mere step-prince. He was terrible at everything that was expected of him and had had no success with women… well, THE woman.

 

He beamed at himself as he was, now. He loved Rayla. She loved him. He was a mage. He was good at it. He knew how to survive in the wild - mostly.

 

But then there it was again.

 

He’d killed someone.

 

The self-hatred pulsed, threatening to pull him from his reverie.

 

After a moment of observing this, he realised that this deep disappointment with himself was actually a good thing.

 

It meant he was a good person.

 

Death would never be a tool for him, never anything other than a terrible accident.

 

His breath ran out and he gasped for air, keeping his eyes shut. He was back in the real world, the background noise, both real and mental, returning.

 

Honsa let go of his ears. “Do you wanna talk?”, she yawned loudly.

 

“No. I’m good. Thank you. You really sound like you need to sleep.”

 

“Oh ya brah, I’m off… but not to sleep just yet. My legs are just done, yo. Riding animals!”, she yawned again, then mumbled, “How do you haoles do it?”

 

She fell backwards towards her tent and dragged herself inside.

 

Callum stayed on the ground, letting the warmth of the fire hit his face with his eyes still closed. His senses seemed very sharp; He paid attention to the crackling of the fire.

 

Rayla’s lovely accented voice was busy praising her doe off in the middle distance. Her calm speech was supporting the clinking and clattering sounds of a leather strap, used to hobble the animal.

 

He could also hear quiet rustling of fabrics coming from Honsa’s tent. Then, what sounded like scissors in staccato, cutting cloth.

 

When the prince opened his eyes, Rayla was opposite him. She was turned away on her knees, bent over to mess with her sleeping bag in their tent.

 

“A bacon worth saving”, he whispered, fondly.

 

She looked over her shoulder, frowning with an amused glint in her violet eyes, “Wow, really? Jeeeerk!”

 

The ears on these moonshadow elves, tsk!

 

She stuck out her tongue at him.

 

'I love you’, he signed.

 

'I too but sleep’, she replied with a yawn.

Chapter Text

Callum came to, the night terror fading. The fact that he was calm showed how very used he was getting to them, now. This latest iteration had featured a grave, a wedding ring and a shambling, ruined corpse.

 

Opening his eyes, he realised that morning was breaking outside, a soft blue shimmer breaking through the fabric of his and Rayla’s tent.

 

Turning to his left to look at her face, he found a foot. Confused, he sat up.

 

Stifling a laugh at her tangled, chaotic posture, he leaned over to pet her. She was out like a candle in a storm, her chest rising and falling evenly. She was wearing her furry winter coat over her nightwear. It had been cold yesterday night, so maybe she’d decided to put it on but then gotten too hot, kicking herself out of her sleeping bag. The morning was still cool but not freezing, the warm winds picking up again.

 

She blinked sleepily and sat up, rubbing her eyes.

 

“Mmhr”, she went and Callum assumed that was her morning greeting.

 

“Morning to you, too. Do you want some breakfast?”

 

She nodded with her eyes closed.

 

“Rough night?”

 

She nodded again. “I hate this place this time of year. I’m either too warm or too cold. Woke up a lot.”

 

“Ah well, just go back to sleep for a bit. I’ll wake you when food’s ready”

 

Her crawled out of the tent.

 

Honsa was sitting in front of the still burning fire, turned away from him.

 

“Good morning”, Callum said.

 

“Ya”, she said without looking at him. She sounded like she was trying her hardest to suppress a powerful upset, “I… made breakfast. I hope you like it.”

 

Rayla poked her head out of their tent.

 

“Breakfast. Breakfast is good. Be right there.”

 

Honsa was caressing Zym, who snoozed in her lap.

 

They sat with her, Callum seating himself in Rayla's lap. His girlfriend seemed content with this, if a little surprised.

 

There were rings under the ocean elf's eyes, a dark shade of her normal green skin tone. Had she been up all night, stoking the fire?

 

“Guys”, she said sadly, looking between them, “I really think I need to be getting back to aunty. I have no clue what happened to her. It’s starting to really mess me up.”

 

Rayla placed a hand on her shoulder. “Are you goin’ to be alright ridin’ back on your own?”

 

The ocean elf shrugged. “I think so. The better question is; are you guys okay to go on without me? Especially after yesterday?”

 

Callum shrugged. He did not want her to go, but he also acknowledged that she had to. “Yesterday was really hard”, he said, “But… I feel a lot better about everything now. Burying her… felt right. Thanks for all your help.”

 

Honsa gave a small smile. “Nah, it was all you. I’m just a springboard.”, her face became serious, “Draw that spell for me, the one you used to kill her.”

 

Callum swallowed, hard. “A-are you sure?”

 

“Yes. Please try.”

 

He lifted a shaking finger, drawing fulminis. It still did not work, the form and intent too imprecise.

 

Honsa shook her head, sighing. “I don’t think I can leave yet. Not until that works again.”

 

“No, it’s fine”, Callum said, “I don’t think I’ll use it again until I know how to control it better, anyway”

 

The counselor studied his face. “Ya seem honest enough, bub”, she smiled, “Wanna get rid of me, eh?”

 

“No, actually. I’d like it if you stayed longer. I learnt a lot about myself while you were around. But I feel like you need to go. I can’t ask you to hurt yourself to help me.”

 

Honsa studied him for a moment, then sighed deeply. “Thank you. That means a lot to me, brah. Ocean elves are really calm by nature and a lot of times, haoles mistake that for us not being emotional. Boy, do I have a bunch of feelings right now.”

 

“You’re gonna need some sort of food for your doe, Honsa”, Rayla said, “otherwise you probably won’t make it back. Hungry rides follow their stomachs, not the reins.”

 

“I think there’s a field of corn, maybe half a day’s travel from here, upstream”, Callum said, “I saw it while hopping over the river yesterday.”

 

“We should check it out”, Rayla said, ruffling his hair, “but this time we’re takin’ precautions.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

She tapped his neck. “You’re sorta not an elf. If we’re gettin’ close to a settlement or whatnot, we’ll need to give you a disguise. Anything out here is for sure too small to have a guest house. Mid-day is enterin’ the danger zone of bein’ invited to stay - and turnin’ people down is hurtful.”

 

Honsa clapped her hands, startling the whelp in her lap. She now seemed a bit too awake. “Makeover!”

 

They both frowned at her.

 

“What? I have makeup. Do I look like I don’t wear makeup?”, she grabbed at her face, “Oh no, I look terrible, don’t I? I’ve been sitting here all night, bawling. Sorry. Oversharing!”, she laughed painfully, “No but, really, I have some indigo base we can use to give him a nice moon elf tinge. It’s not bright enough to make him look like sky.”

 

“Yeah, that’s nice and all but I don’t have horns”, he said, pointing at both of theirs.

 

“No problem”, Honsa said, “I’ve a pair of scabbards you can use.”

 

“Thingemawhats now?”

 

She held up a finger, scooted the dragon out of her lap and got up to rummage in her tent.

 

Zym shook himself, walked in a circle for a bit, then sat back down, a frustrated expression on his face. Nobody was petting him, now. Life wasn’t fair.

 

Coming back to the fire, Honsa pulled several items from her bag.

 

The first was a case of differently colored tubs of makeup and the various applicators one would expect.

 

The second was a smaller case containing two ornate, silver items. They were shaped like Honsa’s horns, apparently meant to go over top of them.

 

“Ohhh! Yatenede Otane wore some of those!”, Callum said, turning one fake horn in his hands.

 

“Who?”, Rayla asked.

 

“The leader of the legion”, Honsa answered.

 

“When did you meet him?”, the moonshadow inquired.

 

“He taught me more sky magic while you were sleeping.”

 

He placed the scabbards on his head. “How’s that look?”

 

His girlfriend smirked. “Passable. How are we gonna fasten them though?”

 

“I have a headband we can use”, Honsa said, then her face lit up, “Oh! Ohhh! Rayla, come with me!”

 

Confused, Callum got up to let Rayla go with her. They vanished in Honsa’s tent.

 

Callum looked at the materials set out for him; Turning the brushes in his hands. Honsa had not worn any makeup that had been obvious to him so far. Then again, her reaction indicated that she had.

 

Mulling it over, he decided that he was going to watch a while longer before revealing his ignorance.

 

He heard Rayla gasp, saying “No way! You did that for me?”, then Honsa shushed her and spoke in a quiet whisper.

 

His ears burned. Secrets! Again! Guh!

 

Honsa stepped outside, giving him an expectant, meaningful glance he didn’t know how to interpret.

 

“Here”, she said, handing him a headband that had two holes for horns, “I figure we can fasten the scabbards on there.”

 

“Do male elves wear headbands?”

 

She chortled at the question. “Sure; But lemme guess, next you’re gonna ask if dey wear dresses, hm? Have you seen the guys from Rayla’s homeland? Traditional dress there is a plaid skirt. That’s in your future, brah. Dey can be breezy, lemme tell ya.”

 

He shrugged sheepishly.

 

Rayla’s naked foot appeared in Honsa’s tent flap. As she lightly stepped outside, his mouth fell open like someone had attached a long ton of steel to it.

 

She was wearing a slimmed down, fitted version of the explosive, coral-red dress Honsa had worn when they had first absconded from Lessa’s camp. The ocean elf had apparently removed most of the frills and all of the ruffle. The dress clung to Rayla’s athletic body all the way from the shoulders to her hips. There, the dress split into four hanging parts. They covered her front, back and sides while allowing her a full range of motion. To complete the picture, she was wearing a pair of black leggins.

 

“Wow”, Callum gasped, the word getting caught in his throat.

 

“You like it?”, Rayla beamed, “Well so do I! This is the second dress I’ve ever worn and lemme tell you; the first didn’t fit anythin’ like this! Honsa, yer a clean genius!”

 

She twirled and struck a few aggressive poses, the dress getting out of the way smoothly.

 

“It has holsters!”, Rayla said enthusiastically, lifting the dress to expose her folded blades, strapped to her hips.

 

Callum flushed searing hot. She was dead cute, but still menacing. The dress was perfect for her. She was no damsel and deserved a dress that worked as well as her uniform.

 

“And hidden pockets!”, Honsa said, proudly.

Chapter Text

Sand was falling around them once more, their rides snorting and huffing. The going was slow.

 

Noon had passed by a few hours and the corn field was only just now coming up on their left. Callum marveled at the colors he could glimpse here and there. Corn, to him, was supposed to be solid yellow. These fruits were radiant, all colors of the rainbow represented.

 

The headband was comfortable but the weight of the scabbards was not. How did Rayla hold herself so gracefully with that much heft to her head?

 

After they had disguised him, she had given her opinion: “He’s cute as an elf, too, but I already miss his rosey tone.”

 

His girlfriend had switched back to her uniform for the ride. The image of her in the dress still swam on the prince’s mind. He was looking forward to teaching her to dance, now more than ever.

 

They were about to stop, when Rayla pointed into the distance. “Look, someone’s comin’”

 

It was true. There was another rider, approaching them slowly. Rayla drew her blades without unfurling them, putting them in her lap. Callum shoved Zym in his saddle bag and latched it shut. The little dragon seemed to be getting used to this annoying treatment at this point.

 

After a moment, the figure was clearly recognizable as an old male elf, studying the rows of corn. Ever so often he’d stop to grab an ear to examine it.

 

“Greetn’s!”, he yelled as he noticed the troop.

 

Rayla blanched. This elf was Sconi. If he recognized her, there would be trouble.

 

“Aloha!”, Honsa replied.

 

They stopped as the elf came into speaking range.

 

“What do we have here?”, the man started in a welcoming tone, “A cuple kinspeople and a nose diver! What brin’s you oot here?”

 

Honsa frowned at him while Rayla answered.

 

“We’re just passin’ on by to Veltis-Tiram.”

 

“Oh! Another big town crowd! The name’s Otark.”

 

“Entwen”, Callum said.

 

“Tarla”, Rayla said.

 

“Honsa”, Honsa said, giving a sheepish look. She had not thought of an alias. Then again, she probably didn’t really need one - yet.

 

Otark nodded, repeating their names back to them, “A tend this farm. You got a place tae rest?”

 

`At least he didn’t recognize me`, Rayla thought wryly, `Here it comes. Two seconds into meetin’ us.`

 

“Why don’t you join me and my other guests for the night? It’s gettin’ late oot already!”

 

Yes. Two, maybe three o’clock in the afternoon was terribly late.

 

“We really gotta get on”, Rayla said hopelessly.

 

“Nah, ye don’t!”, Otark waved at her, “Look at these juicy, fat ears o’ corn, woman! There’s enough for all of you! Don’t blow me off! A’m an auld man without a lot of people to keep company. Full house’s welcome as a good harvest.”

 

Rayla’s half closed eyes and drooping ears showed how happy she was about this, but she gruffly waved him on, “Thank you for the invitation.”

 

They started following him back in the direction he had come from.

 

“So, Veltis-Tiram, eh?”, the farmer said with interest, “A havnae been there fer yonks, had a load o’ fun at the docks. Nice ships. Better drinks.”

 

“Never been”, Rayla intoned, “You said you had other guests?”

 

“Yea! Busy place! Week ago, whole Legion came threw. Abusers havin’ some sort of flap at the border, A’m guessin’. Eh, you know how it is. Auxilia takes what they need, then”, he blew through his teeth in an ascending whistle while waving his hand ahead, “oan their cuddies. No fun to be had with those people.”

 

Otark eyed Rayla’s uniform, “Bonnie, tha’s a braw pair ‘o breeks. Lucid?”

 

“Ye ken A cannae tell ye if A was, ye goon!”, she replied, sounding offended.

 

Callum snorted quietly at the fact that talking to Otark made her own accent thicker to the point where he had trouble understanding her.

 

“Oh A wisnae meanin’ to pry, sorry! Ramblin’ on, listen to me, auld fart!”

 

He laughed, then led his stag down a small path that led north, towards a good sized house near the forest.

 

“Who are your other guests?”, Callum asked and Otark gave him a suspicious glean.

 

“Son, no offens’, ye sound and look like a fandan”, he grinned, turning back to watch the road, “It’s some wifey and her lass. Says she heard her summand and lad are oot here somewhere. A’ll introduce ye.”

 

They all dismounted and Otark made a show of feeding their rides and filling up their feed bags.

 

At least now they wouldn’t have to steal. Callum felt quite relieved.

 

“Misfortune has it”, Otark said, “The house is full; havnae had so many people since forever an’ A’m usin’ some of the bedrooms fer storage. But ye can grab a bundle of hay in the barn tonight; It’s nice and new. Carried it in last moon with my lad.”

 

Honsa waited until Otark had went inside, then she grabbed Zym, motioning at the Barn he’d mentioned. Rayla and Callum nodded and went after the farmer, finding the inside rather cozy.

 

There was a kitchen on their left, a fire set in the stove. On it, a giant pot was boiling. It was tended by an older moonshadow woman whose face looked careworn but full of the telltale signs of frequent smiles. She wore a beautifully ornate blue and silver duster with a simple dark gray linen shirt and pants.

 

Ahead were stairs that led to the upper floor of the building. From the top of the stairs, a much younger moonshadow woman, who seemed oddly familiar, was watching the new arrivals. She was lounging on the floor, her head resting on her clasped hands.

 

To their right was the living room, a long table with enough room for three generations of family to eat together. The room was `L` shaped, running the length of the house both ways around the stairs.

 

Rayla noticed that there was a thin layer of dust over almost everything, safe for a comfortable looking armchair in the corner and a small table next to it. Otark had not been kidding. He was lonely out here.

 

“More guests!”, Otark announced, “Here’s Tarla, Entwen and… Oh, where’d the nose diver go? Well A’ll be!”, he shook his head, then continued the introductions, “These lovely creatures are Interpreter Anzha and her lass, Noli”, he gestured at the older woman and their younger observer.

 

Rayla and Callum gave each other a shocked, meaningful look.

 

“Well met”, Anzha said, smiling. Noli simply raised a bored hand, waving tepidly.

 

Callum stopped short as Anzah signed at her daughter, ‘Be nice and at least try to look friendly.’

Out loud, she added “My daughter is deaf and cannot speak. She doesn’t mean to be rude. If you’d like to speak to her, you may use me as a conduit.”

 

They each said their helloes. Then, Otark left to finish his inspection and Honsa joined them, striking up a conversation about the Dipplings Anzha was preparing.

 

Rayla pulled Callum aside. “These people...”, she whispered and he interrupted, “...are Helmond’s family. I know! I remember the letter... Rayla, what do we do? I didn’t know Anzha was an Interpreter!”

 

It felt wrong to not tell them what they knew about Torlan and his father. At the same time, it didn’t feel like it was their place. Maybe it was even dangerous, it could expose them, especially given that Anzha was close to a dragon.

 

Callum already felt nervous about his ears. They were just barely hidden by the headband. The prince was alright with his hands, covered by ill-fitting four fingered gloves, his pinky squeezed in with his ring finger. It would be odd for him to keep them on all the time, but could be excused easily.

 

Rayla’s face was full of tension, then slackened. “We need to tell them. I’d feel terrible if we didn’t. We got their family into so much trouble, Callum… I just don’t know how to bring it up to them...”, she sighed sadly.

 

Callum nodded slowly. “I think the best time to tell them is probably right now. Who knows how often we’re gonna be alone with them.”

 

His girlfriend shrugged her assent.

 

Callum took a deep breath.

 

“Anzha?”, he said, walking out from under the stairs. Honsa and the older elf looked at him expectantly, having interrupted their conversation about starchy vegetables.

 

“You’re an Interpreter?”

 

“Indeed”, she smiled, “I know it must be odd to see one just… wandering around without a templar escort. I’ve been released of my duties to Triton for a sabbatical.”

 

Honsa gaped. “You’re interpreting for the ocean regent?”

 

“I am one of his servants at the assembly in Veltis-Tiram, yes.”, she frowned, being asked excited personal questions did not appeal to her much, “Actually, maybe you can help - have you been at Larwein? I am looking for my summand and my son, both of which are supposed to be near there.”

 

“Your summand… is his name Helmond?”, Rayla asked worriedly.

 

Anzha nodded slowly, hope and surprise grasping her expression.

 

Callum breathed out slowly. “In that case, you and Noli should have a seat.”

Chapter Text

Morning came with a whisper in his ear. “We’ve rested enough”

 

Viren got up from his cot. He had another completely dreamless night. Considering that he used to dream frequently, this was odd, but welcome.

 

He lit the sconces again and quickly put together a potion that would quell his hunger.

 

“Aaravos”, he said and the presence came closer, “I… need to know what Soren and Claudia are doing. My children.”

 

“Mh, I see, the worry of a father. Quite understandable, I appreciate it. There’s much evil in the world at the moment. I will help gladly, having experienced it myself.”

 

Viren’s eyebrows rose. “You’re a father?”

 

“I… used to be.”, the voice sounded sad, for the first time since it had entered his mind, “It was… not meant to last. Our natures were too different, our world too judgemental.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

Aaravos was quiet, now, apparently considering his reply.

 

After a long moment, he continued. His voice was unsteady.

 

“You know the mirror is a prison. I was banished because I crossed a line.”

 

“You became a grand master of magic and threatened the supremacy of the dragons.”

 

The star touch elf’s voice now shook, “While that is the truth, it is not whole. I… courted a human woman. We consummated. She bore my children.”

 

Viren’s mouth fell open.

 

“I know how it sounds, but times were different. She was… nothing short of perfect”, anger swept over Viren’s mind as his friend continued with deep pain in his voice, “Our babes were torn from my grasp. Their mother stood against the dragon guard who came to arrest me. She was murdered. My love died, so much sooner than she should have. My imprisonment is limbo, Viren, but that moment in our home… is my personal hell.”

 

Viren bristled. The pain of losing his own wife to his own ambitions was nothing compared to this.

 

“I… am sorry. I did not mean to stir a terrible memory.”

 

“We must press on”, came the voice after a moment, sounding more firm, “We shall find what has happened to your kin. Do you have personal items of theirs in your possession?”

 

Viren nodded, rummaging in his bag. There was the little puppet Soren had enjoyed so much as a child. He assumed they would still be together, so finding out what he was up to would likely also show him Claudia’s fate.

 

Aaravos guided him through the preparation for the spell. Finally, he told his student to fetch a bowl of water.

 

“Now drop the puppet inside and pour the powder. Make sure the shape of the trail is correct.”

 

Viren did and after a moment, the water began to grow opaque to show a bird’s eye view zooming through clouds towards the ground. There were lots and lots of mountains. Finally, his kids came into view. Slowly riding next to each other on a trail he did not recognize. Healthy, even looking like they were having an amusing conversation. The vision faded.

 

It wasn’t much, but Viren was deeply thankful for it, nonetheless.

 

“Now”, Aaravos said, “That looked quite peaceful. I am glad, Viren. They are growing up well. We must ensure that the dragons never destroy them as they did me and my kin.”

 

“So it is. I may have an idea.”

 

“What do you require?”

 

“My tongue and a crowd of commoners. Nothing more.”

Chapter Text

Ezran sleepily got up from his afternoon nap. It was good seeing Callum, Rayla and their friend travel again. He felt so much peace knowing they were alive and well. It helped him through this situation. The Katolin king was not getting a lot of sleep, so he grabbed it where he could. Corvus had just woken him - for two important, related matters.

 

His battle mages had sent an official request for the bodies of the nine sun dragons that were lined up in the courtyard. The soldiers wanted to take them apart to use for magic.

 

Obviously, Ezran bristled at this idea. If there was a peace offering to be made to Sol Regem, the bodies of his underlings would be it. The Katolin king was keenly aware that convincing or at least cornering the king of the sun needed to be a pivot in his strategy. He assumed that Sol Regem had been informed of his losses at this point. To avoid more bloodshed, Ezran wanted to make sure that the dragon was mollified.

 

To that end, he’d asked Janai to send a messenger. That sunfire elf had now returned.

 

Ezran seated himself at a table that served as his desk and called for his visitor to enter.

 

“Excellency”, said Janai in greeting as she stepped inside. He was glad that she had come herself.

 

“Prime Legate. Good to see you. Have a seat.”

 

She pulled up a chair and sat.

 

“I assume you’ve been told that my messenger has returned. He brings… mixed news.”

 

“How so?”

 

“The sun king has no more power. You have successfully destroyed enough of his warlike brethren to rob him of their support.”

 

“Oh”, Ezran said, sadly, “Can we expect them to be less… warlike now?”

 

“I think so. Sol Regem is still powerful, don’t misunderstand me, but I doubt the lesser dragons will follow him in an overt attack again.”

 

“What did he think of us returning the bodies?”

 

“My envoy says he seemed neither impressed nor upset”, the Prime Legate kneaded her hands, “If I was in your place, I would still carry out the transfer. My own people would see it as an immense demonstration of good faith. However, I also understand if you would want to harness their bodies. You have paid a massive toll for their deaths.”

 

Ezran nodded. “We can’t bring back the dead using dark magic. I don’t see how their body parts could be helpful here. I will have them brought over in due honors.”

 

Janai’s eyes watered slightly. “Thank you”, she said, relieved, “For all their recent evil, the dragons mean a lot to us, Excellency. They are protectors and friends. Many have a personal relationship with our peo--”

 

“No!”, a challenging voice split the air, “You need to stop giving them everything they want!”

 

Jorge de Peverell stepped into the room, two of his guards flanking him. He was wearing battle armor, richly decorated, his helmet clamped under his left arm.

 

“We are done being your puppets, Ezran! Evenere refuses to give up the dragons.”

 

“My puppets?”, Ezran said, angrily, “I asked your advice. You gave none. I asked your permission. You did not reply. Now, suddenly, you’re here, barging into my meeting, bringing your goons? What’s your problem, Jorge?”

 

“Oh, I have no problem. Not anymore, you twerp. You got your army torn to bits, buttsnack! Guess what! Now I and Del Bar have the most soldiers”, an entitled smile spread across Jorge’s face, “You try and stop me from sticking it to these horned bastards, and I’ll waltz right over you and your stupid double-towered castle.”

 

“You do not want to do this”, Janai said, “It does not end well for either of our people. Come, sit. Deliberate with us. We can find a compro--”

 

“Blah, blah, blah. Bah!”, the Eveneran prince laughed out loud, “Yeah I’ll sit here with you, wasting time while you have reinforcements coming!”, he turned to Ezran, “Did you know that? They have, like, three thousand soldiers marching this way. Two days away, give or take. Scouting behind the lines, bud, you should try it.”

 

“I knew. She told me”, he waved at the Prime Legate.

 

“Nice”, Jorge said, frowning, “Good of you to pass that on to me, Ez-ran-away-from-battle!”

 

When he had finished laughing about his idiotic heckle, Ezran calmly sat back in his chair.

 

“I did. In the same letter I asked about your thoughts on the soldiers’ burial and the dragon’s bodies. Do you read any of your mail?”

 

“I’m a king! I’m supposed to lead, not to read! I don’t have time for that crap; I have good people - the best, actually - doing that for me!”

 

“Yes, it appears you are startlingly well informed”, Janai said with a wry frown.

 

“Shut it, bruiser!”, Jorge yelled. He put on his helmet and drew his weapon, “You’re both dead now, anyway. She can’t leave to warn her buddies and you don’t deserve a throne!”

 

Ezran shook his head. “Bad move; Yelling that. For so many reasons.”

 

From outside the building, Amaya smashed into the two soldiers Jorge had brought with him, knocking them both into the walls on either side of the room.

 

“No! Wait!”, the Eveneran King got out before being grabbed by the panels of his armor and thrown outside. His guard ran after them.

 

“Looks like we have a jester today!”, Ezran said and offered his arm to Janai, who stooped bemusedly to allow his gallant gesture to work.

 

They walked outside together and stood to watch the fight develop.

 

Jorge was a plaything to Amaya. The only reason why he was still standing was because there were multiple guards with him who seemed quite determined to keep him alive.

 

It was quite the scuffle between the Katonlin and Eveneran crownguard. So far, nobody seemed to use anything other than their fists.

 

Janai balled hers, ready to join the fray. Ezran bode her wait. “You can’t. Internal conflict, I can deal with, especially since he’s an idiot. But if you hurt anyone here, we’re done for. Go. Warn your people. Get ready for him. I doubt he’ll listen to me.”

 

Janai glowered in Jorge’s direction, then gave a curt nod and ran off.

 

Once she had passed the gate, Ezran’s voice rose, its youthful frequency cutting through the din quite handily.

 

“Stop fighting!”

 

The Katolin guard disengaged, grouping around their King.

 

The Evenerans seemed a bit lost. It was odd to have your quarry just… walk off.

 

“Why fight for a King who wants both you and your allies dead?”, Ezran shouted, “What are you doing, threatening a Prime Legate and a fellow ruler? Do you not like your soldiers? Do you not want them to go home to their families?”

 

“I don’t have a family to go home to!”, yelled Jorge, “You know that! I mean, neither do you! It’s their fault! Their fault! THEIR! FAULT!”, he stomped, pointing across the breach, “You’re protecting the enemy!”

 

“That’s just a side effect!”, Ezran yelled back, “I don’t want everyone to die! What happened here is bad enough! We can’t fight amongst ourselves, Jorge, do you want to destroy the Pentarchy?”

 

“I’m not destroying anything but Xadia, Ezran! If you don’t support me, you’re the one breaking our vows!”

 

“It’s not a question of support! All you have to do to make this end well is nothing! Why is that so hard?”

 

“They killed my parents! I want justice!”

 

“We still don’t know that for sure! And killing people who had nothing to do with their murder one way or the other won’t be justice or even revenge, just more murder!”

 

“So what! Where’s the difference between the people who killed my parents and the people who protect the people that ordered them dead!? I will march on them tomorrow, and I don’t care if you stand against me! I will kill anyone who protects my enemy! You’ve been served! Let’s go!”

 

The Eveneran crown guard reassembled around their king and marched back from where they had come.

 

“Corvus”, Ezran said, quaking with anger, “Ravens. Aanya. Aahling. Florian.”, he stabbed his index finger at the ground, “Here! As soon as possible!”

 

“Yes, Majesty”, Corvus said, immediately springing into action.

Chapter Text

Anzha had lifted the pot off the heat, then seated herself in the arm chair, frowning. She had called Noli down who now sat cross-legged on one of the other chairs in the room.

 

“So. We are seated. What news require such precaution, Entwen?”

 

“I’m sorry, Anzha”, Rayla said in Callum’s stead. Her boyfriend translated the conversation into signs for Noli’s benefit who was very interested in his ability to do so. “We… got the news that Torlan was killed.”

 

The Interpreter’s face slackened.

 

“Oh”, she said tonelessly, “Do you know how?”

 

“Yes. He was killed by a human bounty hunter named Kel Ortis”

 

Anzha’s hand covered her mouth, her voice full of fear and worry she asked, “And what of Helmond?”

 

“As far as we know, he’s fine. He’s at the Breach.”

 

“Of course he is. Fine, I mean. He is always fine”, she scoffed, “Don’t tell me he’s going after the human?”

 

“No need”, Callum spoke, hoarsely, “I killed her.”

 

Anzha looked between him and Rayla.

 

“You… avenged my son? How? Why?”

 

“Not really our choice. She came after us, left us no alternative”, Rayla explained.

 

Anzha nodded slowly, doubt reflecting in her mien. “Do you know what Hel could be doing at the Breach?”

 

Callum and Rayla exchanged unsure glances. Should they tell her? The whole story? Could they?

 

Rayla sighed. “Anzha, this is goin’ to sound very strange but… he went to Bastion Korhal to try and keep a war from breakin’ out. From all we know, it looks like he’s managin’”

 

Anzha shook her head with disbelief. “Now I know you are lying. There is no way my summand would care about peace with the humans! Time and again he has challenged Triton’s belief in reconciliation.”

 

“I am not lyin’”, Rayla said, sounding a bit angry, “He’s had a change of mind. He told us he had a run-in with a human that opened his eyes. Supposedly he was ordered to kill him… but then…”

 

Callum was looking at her, worried. She was getting a bit detailed.

 

Rayla exhaled slowly. Were they really going to do this whole spiel again?

 

Anzha frowned. “... but then?”

 

“But then I stabbed him”, Rayla said, frowning.

 

Anzah now seemed to think she was crazy. Laughing, she said, “You stabbed my summand? You? I have a hard time believing anything you’re saying now! He is no diplomat, but he is an extremely gifted soldier! He would never lose a fight to a boney damsel like yourself!”

 

Callum cringed.

Judging by Rayla’s expression, Helmond’s summand was also about to get herself stabbed.

 

This was either going in a revealing direction or would end in them getting branded liars. Exactly what he had worried about. But, it was too late to stop it. He decided to just get it over with.

 

While Rayla glared at him incredulously, he lifted off his headband, letting it come back on his head after a moment.

 

Anzha and Noli’s mouths fell open.

 

“You are human!”, Anzha said, incredulously, “What’s going on here?”

 

“My name is Callum. I’m a prince of Katolis. The human she mentioned, that’s me.”, Callum started. He explained their whole journey, quickly, leaving out a lot of details, including his relationship with Rayla. He wasn’t sure if Helmond’s summand would have an equally disgusted reaction at this and didn’t want to load it on top an already hard to hear story.

 

When he was finished, Anzha looked dumbstruck.

 

“How have I never heard of you two? Your story sounds too elaborate to be a lie, at this point. Yet, you say Helmond was issued orders by Regem Lunaris. I saw one of his Interpreters daily at the Assembly. He has never mentioned you, nor Azymondias. I also do not see the prince with you.”

 

“He’s in the barn.”, Honsa whispered hoarsely. She was on the edge of her seat, ready to bolt, “I’m assuming he’s still busy rolling in de hay.”

 

Anzha got up, startling them all safe for Noli who looked extremely upset. “Introduce me.”

 

They all went outside, blinking in the evening sun.

 

The barn was nice enough, recently repainted in a dark ochre with white trim. Zym was indeed still making a mess of the bales, neatly arranged in the back of the cavernous interior. When he noticed them enter, he cooed, diving into a huge pile of loose hay. It smelt sweet and earthy, reminding Callum of summer.

 

“Well. That confirms your story. I cannot believe it. My eyes see it. My mind does not accept it.” With that, Anzha welled up. “My son… is dead!”

 

Noli braced her mother, glaring at everyone.

 

Callum signed ‘Noli, she is sad that your brother has passed. We did not mean to upset you.’

 

‘I don’t care what you meant. People are hurtful, especially humans. My brother didn’t `pass`, he was murdered. By you people! If that’s even true!’

 

‘That’s not fair. We didn’t kill him. You can’t blame me just because I’m human!’

 

Noli shook her head. ‘I’ll place blame where I see fit, Abuser.’

 

Her mother shoved her, lightly. ‘Don’t be rude! They did nothing but tell us of his killing!’

 

Noli scoffed and rolled her eyes. ‘Dad was right, you are crazy. That ocean dragon isn’t good for your head.’, turning to Rayla, Callum and Honsa she signed, ‘You should all just die!’

 

With that, she separated from Anzha and stomped back to the house.

 

“I’m so sorry. It’s bad enough when she gets like this with me. She isn’t used to others understanding her”, her mother said, palming her eyes.

 

Rayla and Honsa looked at Callum for an explanation but he wasn’t paying attention.

 

The prince sighed. “It’s alright. Maybe her grief is just venting as anger?”

 

Anzha shrugged. “She adores her father. Safe to say she has not met… this new Hel. He’s a distant man. We’ve not seen him for years. That is why we are here. To seek him out. I have news for him that bear no other medium but my own tongue.”

 

Zym came scampering out of the hay and brushed against Callum, then Rayla, then Anzha. He looked up at her, knowingly.

 

“He is quite adorable”, Anzha said sadly, bending over to pick him up. She groaned a little under his weight. “I am still baffled as to how this can possibly be the first I hear of the return of the Dragon Prince.”, she frowned while petting Zym, “Something is quite wrong here. The assembly should be abuzz with these news. What is going on?”

 

Callum and Rayla shrugged in perfect synchronicity. The action made them smirk at each other.

 

“It seems like out here nobody cares too much for us and Zym. You’re the first person with a voice we meet that seems happy about us bringin’ him.”, Rayla said.

 

“Interesting. This is mostly Korhal’s territory. Could they be--”, her eyes widened.

 

“What?”, Callum asked.

 

“The only way this makes sense in my head is if--”, she stopped short, eying them suspiciously. Then she continued with a sigh, “The dragons have left Triton and I out of their deliberations lately. And, it is beginning to make a lot of sense, that isolation and their enthusiasm at me leaving the Assembly. My lord is currently tasked with--”, she trailed off again, looking sternly into their eyes.

 

After a moment she added, quietly, “I... I cannot tell you. I’m s-sorry”, she welled up again, tears streaming over her grieved expression, “My Torlan, my babe... I w-was so af-afraid of this day co-coming when he joined the Templars”

 

Rayla nodded sympathetically. “You have our condolences, for all that’s worth. We also understand why you might not want to tell us everythin’ right now. It’s a lot to take in. We don’t want to pry.”

 

The Interpreter let Zym off her arms and used her sleeves to dry her eyes.

 

“Rayla, was it? Rayla? Hm… Rayla...”, she blinked, realization dawning on her, “You… you are the dragon guards’ child, aren’t you? We have had news of your exploits. Is this it? The reason you chose to turn your back on your mission in Katolis?”

 

Rayla’s expression hardened, “I refused to kill their prince when I saw ours was alive. Yes.”

 

Anzha stared sternly at her. “That’s not-- The assembly is spitting at moonshadows’ feet, Miss. Your parents have brought such shame over all of us, I cannot fathom how you could be propelled into further corruption.”

 

“Corruption!”, Rayla exploded, “Corruption!? You think I should’ve killed Ezran for no reason, just to satisfy some stupid vow?! Zym’s alive! There was no justice in k--”

 

“I am not talking about that”, Anzha interrupted with a firm, calm authority that almost blew Rayla out of her boots. She was not sickly sweet and conniving like Ivine, her eyes seemed to be made of gleaming steel, sharp, painful - but also clear in their intent.

 

Rayla felt her disappointment, it struck at the Assassin’s core where she kept those feelings for herself locked up.

 

“You chose correctly in sparing the prince’s life, but Legate Runaan’s last report was hasty, terse, but oh-so-damning for yourself. You were to remain behind - Apparently you decided that that order was not to be followed, either? You’ve killed every single one of your comrades by failing to carry out a simple hit on an enemy combatant. You now owe their families a debt that you will never be able to repay.”

 

Rayla’s eyes filled with tears. Callum stepped between them, anticipating Rayla’s need for a moment to regain herself, “A simple hit, eh? Have you ever killed anyone? With your own hands?”

 

Anzha seemed confused by the suggestion. “I am not a soldier, not trained to take life.”

 

“And nobody should be, Interpreter”, he lifted his hands, spreading his fingers as well as was possible with the gloves, “My fingers drew the rune that killed Kel Ortis, the bounty hunter. Everyone says she was… `deserving` of death. You’d probably agree?”

 

The Interpreter nodded, grimly.

 

The prince’s voice shook, “I killed her in self-defense but it still broke me. When I think about the moment my spell hit her, I feel... dead. Killing her destroyed a piece of my soul. Rayla spared the guard, yes. She told Runaan about the egg, right after we had found it. Told him that they should think about their mission, since things had changed. But no! Runaan fought her. I heard him threaten to kill her!”

 

Callum breathed evenly, trying to get a handle on his rising emotions. “Anzha, he was part of her family. Would you ever threaten Noli with death? Is that… motherly?”

 

Helmond’s wife seemed somewhat appalled, slowly shaking her head.

 

With a firmer voice, he added, “And before you ask. Yes, I am a sky mage”, he drew the rune for Alatus right in her face, resisting the urge to touch her and to activate.

 

Rayla spoke up, barely holding on to her composure, “I’ve regretted my choice ever since I’ve had to make it, Interpreter. It was still the right path for me. I did not want them to die. They chose that for themselves. I just refused to kill. That’s all.”

 

Anzha stared at them, seemingly mulling over their points. After a long moment, she said, “What you two say rings true. I have never taken a life myself, not even an animal’s. I cannot fathom how it must feel. Considering your explanation, avoiding it seems rational.”

 

She swallowed hard, then focussed on Rayla, “It is not in my power to clear your name, Rayla. Once you return Azymondias, that will be a matter requiring the attention of a dedicated Arbiter.”

 

“You’re sayin’ I’ll be dragged in front of a court martial?!”, Rayla’s stomach turned.

 

“Yes. You are a soldier, Miss, and will hopefully stand trial for your dereliction of duty as such are our laws. However, I see no reason why that should happen before you have had a chance to prove that your choice was correct. You need to be given leave to make your point. It seems to me that there is something disgusting in the air out here in the border regions. Conspiracy, perhaps.”

 

Helmond’s summand palmed her eyes, obviously upset, but unsure how to continue. The blow she had delivered silenced both Rayla and Callum, who stared at each other.

 

“I’m sorry. Please, dinner will be ready soon; don’t worry about helping out. I need to clear my mind through work. I’ll send Noli to fetch you.”

 

She walked off, still palming at her face.

 

Rayla hugged her boyfriend, who didn’t return the gesture. “Thanks for steppin’ in”

 

Honsa, who had been watching their argument, said, “That is… wow. What a load of things to have dropped on you. You handled yourself super well, guys.”

 

Callum shrugged, looking upset. “All in a day’s work, Honsa. All I did... was say what was on my mind.”

 

“Yeah, you like doin’ that.”, Rayla said with bemused anger, “We go through all this trouble, puttin’ paint on your coupon and horns on your napper and first chance you get, you take ‘em off?!”

 

Her prince lifted his hands in a defensive gesture, “You started getting into more and more detail. She thought you were pulling her leg. I figured we were in too deep at that point.”

 

Honsa giggled. “`Pulling the leg`? I’ll have to remember that one. Guys, it all worked out. Turns out, not all dragons are against you. That’s good. Brilliant, in fact.”

 

“Yeah!”, Callum said enthusiastically, his expression clearing up, “If the ocean king didn’t know about us, maybe the dragon queen doesn’t, either.”

 

Rayla frowned. “Uh, hello, reality check! Apparently I’m expected to show at a court-martial if I ever wanna go home, no matter what! And, you know, she might be lyin’ to us? That’d be a shock, eh? Lyin’ politicians? I mean, did you see Noli’s face? I have no clue what she said, but I doubt it was nice. This is Helmond’s family. They got together for some reason. Might be they have similar opinions.”

 

She flopped into the hay. It let her sink far further than she had expected.

 

For a moment she flailed, then gave in. “I guess I’m lyin’ here now”, she said gruffly. Callum smirked evilly, dropping in right on top of her.

 

“Ow! You idiot!”, she yelped angrily, flinching at the stabbing pain in her stomach.

 

“Oh no! Sorry! I wasn’t thinking!”, he quickly rolled off her, kissing her face all the way.

 

“Stop!”, she laughed, swatting aimlessly, “You’re makin’ me all sticky!”, she wiped at her face,
“Ick! Hay stuck to cheek! Mouth! Pleh! Pleh!”, she spat, then stuck out her tongue to pick a piece of dried grass from it.

 

Honsa laughed while they scuffled.

 

Once they had all calmed down, the ocean elf crouched to be on the same level as them.

 

“Guys”, sadness claimed her expression, “This is… goodbye. I want to get going.”

 

“Really?”, Callum asked, “Why not just stay for the night?”

 

“I can’t wait anymore. I need to know what happened to Lessa.”

 

Callum wrestled himself out of the hay, then helped Rayla. They brushed themselves off, then hugged Honsa at the same time.

 

“Good luck”, Honsa said.

 

“Better luck”, Rayla answered, “If you get the chance, send us a shadow hawk. I’m worried about her, too.”

 

“Oh, for sure. You do the same, if you can.”

 

They separated.

 

After a moment of standing there, awkwardly, Honsa clapped her hands to her hips. “Well. I better go before Otark comes back and drags me inside by my ears. Bye!”

 

Zym danced sadly around her legs as Honsa bent over to pet him. Eventually, Rayla picked the whelp up and caressed his mane to get him to let her leave.

 

They waved at her as she climbed into her saddle and were still waving when she vanished around a bend in the corn field, moments later.

 

Suddenly, they felt oddly lonely. Honsa was a force of nature and they had become fast friends. This was a feeling that hadn’t had a place in their hearts since Ezran had said his goodbyes.

 

They hugged to chase off the specter and somehow found themselves in a long, loving kiss. Between them, Zym rolled his eyes.

 

Miles away, a napping Ezran did the same.

 

Awkward.

 

When they separated, they realized that Noli was standing right behind them, tapping her foot.

 

‘Food’s done, Abuser’, she signed, an expression of absolute disgust on her face, turning to Rayla she made an obviously rude gesture, then signed, ‘Blood traitor. Love’s for people, not pets!’

 

She stomped off, leaving Callum aghast.

 

Rayla shook her head at her obvious disgust and anger, “What did she say? All I got was `food`, `love` and `people`.”

 

“She… said pretty much exactly what Ithral did. Back at Larwein. Before the battle.”

 

Rayla sighed sadly, clinging to her boyfriend. “If she thinks my love’s only fit for an animal, you’re my fuzzy platypus bear.”

 

“...and you’re my little sheep”, he said happily.

 

Rayla’s expression crashed, the wound that Anzha had struck gushing open. “Don’t ever call me that again! Ever! You hear? NOT EVER!”

 

Callum was reminded of the scene behind Honsa’s tent. He growled at her outburst, shoving her away, “Stop shouting! Fine! You hate nicknames, I get it!”

 

She glared at his face, upset at his reaction. After a moment, she caught herself and half-whispered, “Sorry. I didn’t mean to blow up like that. Runaan used to call me `little sheep`. I… liked it then. Not anymore, though.”

 

“Oh no”, her boyfriend went. Pain entering his expression, he embraced her again, “Yeah, that’s loaded, sorry. I didn’t want to upset you.”

 

“I know”, she said and kissed him.

 

They started walking in the direction of the barn when they heard the steady clop of hooves. Callum quickly sprinted to drop off Zym, then hurried back.

 

Otark was now approaching at a quick trot, from a different direction than the one Honsa had left in.

 

“‘Hoy there, Entwen, Tarla. Mah sniffer tells me we’ve got food on the table!”

 

He stopped and dismounted, patting the side of his Peryton in a gesture of appreciation, “G’boy, Earnan, g’boy!”

 

“Otark”, Rayla said apologetically, “Our friend, Honsa? She had to hurry elsewhere. I’m sorry, we know how disrespectful that is.”

 

Otark seemed thoroughly wounded for a moment.

 

“Oh”, he said, then harrumphed, regaining his smirk.

 

There were quite a few guests left.

 

“Whit’s fur ye’ll no go by ye!”

 

Rayla felt the idiom churn her gut.

 

Court Martial it was, for her.

Chapter Text

After they had eaten their fill of delicious Dippling soup, Callum and Rayla said their thanks, ostensibly for the meal. In truth, they said it with as much emphasis as they did because Anzha had kept their true identities under wraps and Noli could not make herself understood to Otark.

 

She had at one point tried to scuffle with Callum to tear off his horns, but made the mistake to lean into Rayla’s reach to do it. The assassin had promptly delivered a disabling slap to the deaf girl’s cheek. She excused herself by claiming she had done it out of reflex.

 

Otark had a good laugh at this exchange, making a boastful show of the fact that he now for sure knew that she was Lucid; “Wha’ wit a nervous wallop as that!“

 

Anzha had had some annoyed words with her daughter who spent the rest of the evening staring out of a nearby window.

 

As night fell, Otark slumped into his arm chair and fell asleep almost immediately. With their host stepped out in this manner, they all decided to just call it a night.

 

“I’m just glad to get away from Noli”, Callum admitted as they were walking toward the barn, “I wonder what happened to her to make her this angry?”

 

Rayla opened the door for him, then slipped inside after him, pulling it closed.

 

Inside, Callum tapped two of the six magical sconces that were meant to light up the room and one of them flared alive. The other one was apparently exhausted, so Rayla lit another. The light was white, not blue like at Larwein. Sun instead of Moon magic.

 

“Yea, she’s a hag. She seems really… immature. It’s weird. She’s gotta be way older than we are.”

 

“Much! She’s at least thirty, I’d say”, Callum yawned and placed a bowl of soup in front of a sleeping Zym who woke at the noise and lapped eagerly at the thick, flavourful liquid.

 

Rayla fell into the hay, and Callum landed next to her, smarter this time.

 

After a moment of comfortable silence, he rolled onto his side to face her.

 

“This was another one of those days that felt way longer than it should have. All we did was ride a few miles, got yelled at, ate food and poof, here we are.”

 

“It wasn’t a good time. Gettin’ yelled at”, his girlfriend agreed, “Hearin’ all that leveled at me by someone who’s in government… I don’t think I can ever go home now.”

 

She - strangely - didn’t seem very upset.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Dummy, moonshadow elves are secret keepers. Trust is the most important thin’ we have. How is anyone ever goin’ to trust me again after hearin’ that I got everyone in my band killed? Plus, Court Martial?”, she scoffed, “Sure! I’ll expect a totally fair trial after all we’ve gone through so far!”

 

Callum pulled her into a hug.

 

He wasn’t sure what to say, so he kept his mouth shut. Somewhere inside him, the voice which was often wrong suggested ‘She’ll have a home in Katolis, though!’

 

That particular sentence would not pass his lips for the moment. Having a discussion about where they would live didn't appeal to him right now.

 

He felt her rub her cheek against his chest guard.

 

“Isn’t that kinda painful? It’s so rough”, he asked softly.

 

“I just found that out, myself”, she said, cringing at her raw cheek.

 

“Here; I’ll take it off.”

 

He unlatched the armor and flung it into a loose hay bale. Zym had made a mess of it. Rayla followed suit, taking off her jack of plates and vest.

 

“Ah, that’s better”, she said, rubbing her cheek against his softer linen shirt.

 

“Glad to be a satisfactory pillow again”, he snickered, and draped an arm around her. The way it rested against her allowed him access to her stomach, which he used to trail her wound through her shirt.

 

“Don’t. That feels really weird”, she complained.

 

“Just wanted to know how it’s healing.”

 

“How about you ask, then?”, she snickered, “It’s doin’ alright. I figure in another day or two it’ll be nothing but a purplish line. Maybe then I can go back to workin’ out and unflab myself.”

 

He looked at her, incredulous and a little concerned, “Your stomach is hard as a rock, Rayla”

 

“I didn’t mean that literally; I don’t have any weight to lose, I think I need to put on some, actually. I don’t like my ribs to poke through that much, makes me look like a dead person.”, she pulled a grimace again, sticking out her tongue, “`Boney Damsel`! Rurgh!”

 

They shared a chortle, then she continued, “I’m sayin’ it’ll be nice to be able to go back to do my routine. Makes me feel incomplete when I don’t.”

 

“Hm. I get that.”

 

For a moment there was more comfortable silence.

 

“Hey, would you train me?”, he asked, “I’m looking way better than I did when we first started, but I’m nowhere near you. And the more I think about it, the more it seems like I need to learn how to dodge. You’re probably a much better teacher than Soren, anyway.”

 

“Sounds like a good idea. How about, when we settle down from now on, I’ll spar with you and then you teach me dancin’ and sign language?”

 

“I don’t think we can do both. Dancing is hard work. Don’t underestimate how much it’s gonna take out of you.”

 

Rayla laughed, “I’ll be fine”

 

“Confident, aren’t you? We’ll see.”, he snickered, getting up.

 

She seemed a bit surprised when he extended his hand at her. “Now?”

 

“Now. Just a little.”

 

When she took his hand, his expression fluttered for a moment, then he laughed nervously.

 

“What?”, she asked, worried that she might have hay stuck to her face.

 

“My dad once said `Dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire`. I just couldn’t help but think of that just now.”

 

Rayla gaped, then laughed, “Wow, aaaawkwaaaard! Why would he tell you somethin’ like that?”

 

Callum shrugged. “Okay, put your foot there… yep, then step here with the other one. I feel like I’m not remembering this right, but… I saw the queens of Duren - ow, watch the feet! - dance as a kid and he tried to explain why it wasn’t quite, uh, the same dance for them as it was for me, dancing with the other princes and princesses.”

 

His girlfriend gave him an inquisitive look. “You’ve danced with other people?”

 

“Of course I have. Left foot over there. Hm, no, more this way, otherwise I can’t step through. Uh, It’s part of those stupid court rituals you’re gonna like so much. Foster good relations, yadda yadda, find future partners, blah blah. You know?”

 

“No, I really don’t”, she said, “So did they? Find a future partner for you, I mean?”

 

Callum snickered. “Yeah actually. His name was Jorge.”

 

“You were supposed to marry a prince?!”, she said incredulously, “But…”

 

“Joking”, he said tonelessly, “My dad would’ve never used me as a bargaining chip. Ouch! Watch your feet, not me, that comes later.”

 

“What about Ez though?”, Rayla asked with a pout.

 

“Are you serious? Ez probably already knows.”

 

Guilt spread over his face now. “I should be there, Rayla. There are a lot of things his advisors aren’t going to talk about like my dad did with me. They definitely won’t show him how to shave or… give him `the talk`.”

 

Rayla nodded, blushing a little. “We’ll be there for him after we’re through here. He’s got time until any of that gets important for him, anyhow. What about Amaya? She gave us quite the tellin’”

 

The prince chortled. “True. She doesn’t grow a beard, last time I checked, but if we don’t make it back, she’ll take at least take care of `the talk` for us, I’m sure. She’s really bad at this stuff, but she’s definitely better th-- what?”

 

His girlfriend had loosened her grip on his hands and hugged him.

 

“Don’t say that.”

 

“Don’t say… what?”

 

“`If we don’t make it back`. That’s not somethin’ I feel like I’ll ever get used to, you bein’ so gloomy and not even noticin’ it.”

 

“I… can’t help it”, he said simply, returning her embrace, “I guess I just feel a bit different since that thing with Kel. Not just ‘cause of what I did to her. More that we were both so close to being killed, honey -- Ah, sorry, that was a nickname, again.”

 

She snickered. “`Honey`’s so weird. Why would you want to be sticky?”

 

They got back into the dance’s starting pose.

 

“Like this, right?”, she asked.

 

After a solid two hours of him giving her instruction, they fell back into the hay. At the end, they had done the whole routine of a fast, breakneck dance known as “The Swoop” in Katolis. For it, partners dove below each other’s extended arms repeatedly, giving the impression of birds twirling around each other with extended wings.

 

The dance was literally designed to tire out rowdy children at weddings. Callum had chosen it on purpose. Rayla breathed hard, as he’d planned. A few times, he’d had to catch and stabilize her, though. About this, he felt a little proud, a little guilty.

 

“Whew, that was fun”, she said, “Now if only I could stop spinnin’! Oh, I’m gonna hurl if this keeps goin’ for much longer! Stupid body!”

 

“You learned that so fast! I’m a bit shocked! And without music!”, her boyfriend observed her carefully, trying to catch his breath.

 

“I told you before, I have a knack for movement, dummy. And you're a great teacher. But you were right, this is some harsh cardio. Really enjoyable harsh cardio!”

 

After stealing a few long kisses, she nestled against his side, her free hand wandering around his midriff in circles.

 

“Rayla?”, Callum said, taking a swig from his canteen and offering it to her.

 

“Yeah?”, she asked, sipping at the container.

 

“You looked really, really cute in that dress. I can’t wait until we get to dance at court and make everyone jealous.”

 

She flushed. “Aww, dummy!”

 

Putting down her drink, she leaned over to kiss him. He returned the gesture, embracing her tightly.

 

When they separated, he found her expression strange. She was smiling, but she didn’t seem quite happy. Actually, not happy at all - she had sort of an evolving, thousand-yard stare in her eyes.

 

Suddenly, she started palming at her face and tears began streaming from her eyes.

 

“Rayla! What’s wrong? Are you in pain?”

 

“D-Do you think K-Katolis would accept a M-Moonshadow Princess?”

 

His heart jumped into his throat. For a moment, he was going to tell her, yes, of course they would. But in truth, he heard the question she was really asking. With a heavy heart, he replied.

 

“I don’t see you running for the rest of your life. You miss home, don’t you? At some point, you’re going to have to stand trial so you can go back.”

 

She pressed up against him.

 

“I’m not gonna go anywhere on my own. You either come with or I go where you go.”

 

He frowned.

 

“That’s not fair, either.”

 

“We can’t both go home and be together.”

 

“I know. Maybe we just need to travel a lot. Between Katolis and Scotia.”

 

She shrugged. “Who knows. Maybe I’ll be in jail for a long time after the court martial.”

 

“I kind of doubt that, but if so, I’d bust you out”

 

She couldn’t help but smile. Then she looked in his eyes, finding a lot of love and concern - but also some frustration.

 

Realization broke over her like a raw egg.

 

“I’m sorry, my stupid issues ruined the moment”, she said meekly, kneading her hands, “We had such a nice time dancin’ and all.”

 

“They’re our issues, not just yours”, he said warmly.

 

Catching her unhappy glance, he added, “I’m fine. Really.”

 

“You’re a good egg, dummy”, she said, pinching his cheek, “I love the stuffin’ outta you.”

 

“I love you, too. It’s just another thing that we have to figure out as we go along. You never know what’s gonna happen. I mean Katolis could be --”, he stopped short, not finishing his thought, “Never mind.”

 

“No, tell me, please?”

 

He sighed. “I was just being depressing again. I was going to say, Katolis could be a smoking crater right now for all we know. We haven’t exactly gotten a lot of news beyond what Zym’s shown us, and that looked really bad.”

 

“I feel like if anythin’ happens to Ezran, we’ll know.”

 

“Yeah. Sure. But we won’t be able to do squat about it.”

 

He rolled over, “Let’s just go to sleep before this stupid day gets any longer.”

Chapter Text

Ezran was starting his day a few moments after midnight. With a mental image he would not soon forget. He was resolved to somehow send them a letter, expressing his annoyance. They really needed to work harder to stop Zym from peeking when they ate each other’s face like that. Ezran had watched on as their Ocean elf friend had galloped away, felt some of Zym’s sadness at the split.

 

It was such that he came to find Corvus with a hand raised to knock at his door.

 

“Majesty - You’re up?”

 

“Like the sky, Corvus, yeesh”, he grinned weakly, “What can I do for you?”

 

“Ahling and Florian send their regards and their bannermen, Falconer Ebro and Minister Arcanus Solveig. They are ready for you.”

 

“Oh, great, I really didn’t think they’d be here until after Jorge marches through later today. What about Duren?”

 

“The Lady of the Bloom has not given a reply just yet. Safe to say, I expect her to kick the door and then Jorge’s behind once nine or ten rolls around.”

 

“Duren lost a few of their own people to the dragons, Corvus. Who knows how she’ll feel about that. She might be on Jorge’s side now.”

 

Corvus let him pass. The young king was becoming more and more dire and pessimistic.

 

Ezran opened the door to the meeting room where Neolandia’s Ebro and Del Bar’s Solveig were waiting for him. They stood.

 

“Lord”, Solveig greeted, bowing. He was a tall man, muscular and rough hewn. His left eye was blind, destroyed by the same blade that had split its eyebrow. His voice was a growl and the dark green plate suit he wore was probably as heavy as himself. What little hair remained on him was stark white, all its original color consumed by dark magic.

 

“Minister”, Ezran replied, “Falconer.”

 

The delegate from Neolandia was a stark contrast to Solveig; Black-haired, lithe, young and fresh-faced, he wore a clean, light scout’s armour in gold and black. A falcon perched atop his shoulder, its eyes covered.

 

Ezran sat and his guests followed suit.

 

“Quite the pickle”, the Falconer said, “How very characteristic for our new friend in arms. We expect him to attack today, yes?”

 

“He said so”, Ezran said, “I don’t want to waste your time, gentlemen, what are your regents’ answers?”

 

Solveig sat back, crossing his arms. “We do not intend to stand against one of our own, Ezran. Jorge may be a child, more so than yourself, but his ears match mine and we have a much better chance trusting him than the bruisers”, he waved in the Xadian direction, “So much bad blood, Majesty. King Florian went along with your plan hoping to avoid its spilling. Well, you now know better than anyone here how well that’s worked.”

 

“Neolandia?”, Ezran said.

 

“King Ahling is prepared to stand against De Peverell should the need arise. Unlike Del Bar, when someone attacks an ally of ours, we don’t stand with the attacker.”

 

“No need for your political digs, Falconer”, Solveig laughed gruffly, “The Accord of Turbin is quite clear on such matters. Article seventy-four, paragraph sixty-nine-dash-eight; `Warlike behaviour among the parttakers will be met with joint resistance against the declarant`”, he waved a hand, “et cetera, et cetera. Point is, we would not support Evenere in attacking Katolis.”

 

“Jorge has threatened exactly that!”, Ebro said, angrily, “How can you consider him an ally of your crown? You know he does not respect it.”

 

“Sirs”, Ezran interrupted them, “Let’s not argue right now. I asked for you personally because I think this needs a compromise, not just a bunch of declarations. Duren will send someone and we’ll do exactly that. I need our alliance. Really, we all do. We can all agree with that?”

 

His guests looked at each other, nodding curtly.

 

“Jorge is part of us and we need to listen to him. We should be partners, on the same level. I really hate how he feels, but I kinda get it. I also lost my parents to Xadia, in one way or another.”

 

He sternly looked at Solveig, “Some days, I would love to drag the dragon queen out of her lair and lock her up somewhere cold. If we win the war, we could do that. But would it be worth it? That’s my problem here. I don’t see the benefit. Our fields need tending. Our children need parents. Our cities are falling apart badly enough without siege engines and dragons setting them on fire. I don’t know about your regents, but I’m freakishly busy with the day-to-day already, I don’t need to put a war on top of that.”

 

Solveig laughed, “You have quite a head on your shoulders, sir! You see me and you think `he’s utilitarian and plain-spoken, I’ll cater to that.` Well, you’re damned right; I am! I agree with you, Majesty, about the annoyance of war, but there’s a problem you seem to miss.”

 

“What’s that?”

 

The bannerman’s glance became dangerous, “You’re holding it tight with elves. People I’ve fought and killed with abandon glee for the better part of a century. One of them owes me an eye, but the one I have is still good, and when it looks at your scheming, all it can see is the Pentarchy imploding as the Xadian Assembly dances a waltz on our bloody graves. You’re failing to see the threat they represent.”

 

“Sure, I’m friendly with them”, Ezran replied, “But I’m not hiding anything. If you’re worried that I’d take their side over yours, you’re wrong.”

 

Solveig’s eyebrows shot into his hairline. That was unexpected and he was unwilling to hide it.

 

“When push comes to shove, I’ll count on you, Solveig. I’ll send the few soldiers I’ve left to kill my elven friends if that saves our alliance”, Ezran flared, “Until their answer wipes us all off the map! Look outside. Nine. Dragons. NINE!”, he shouted, “The Standing Battalion was the pride of Katolis, the best soldiers for the worst job. Sixteen ballistas, a border fortress! All it took to kill them was nine normal dragons!”

 

Solveig blinked as Ezran continued, “Paint a picture for me - how are we going to beat the six dozen or so minor dragons that we think are out there? Oh yes, of course, sunfire dragons are the best warriors, right? Even so, there’s not enough dark magic to save us if they have even a tiny bit of strategic thin--”

 

There was a loud rap at the door.

 

Ezran sighed, deflating. He really needed more sleep.

 

“Come”, he said, hoarsely.

 

The door opened and everyone rose. It was Aanya, in person. She took a worried look at Ezran, giving a curt nod.

 

“Ezran. Gentlemen. I believe I’ve heard all I needed to from down the hall. It’s not every day the Lord upon Twin Towers raises his voice.”

 

She closed the door and stepped behind Ezran, placing a hand on his shoulder. She whispered in his ear, “You need to rest more. The world won’t be better for hotter heads.”

 

“That’s fair”, Ezran said, running a hand through his hair and getting it tangled in his crown.

 

Aanya stepped forward, to place her hands on Ezran’s makeshift desk.

 

“Minister Solveig, I’m assuming you made your point as to preferring human companionship over that of elves?”

 

“Yes, Madame. It is my King’s position.”

 

“Indeed, it must be all our positions”, she nodded, then her mien darkened and she added, “As a last resort. Duren prefers peace. We’ve buried our dead and do not wish to add more graves.”

 

“Then we agree”, Ebro spoke, throwing nervous glances at all of them, “We must ward off Jorge’s attack by all means available to us.”

 

“Not all means, Falconer”, Aanya said, “If he refuses to take to our arguments, we cannot help but follow him into battle. Anything else would break our accords.”

 

She glared at Solveig, “However, in your own self-interest, Minister, I recommend you keep this to yourself or I will remind you and your regent of certain issues that have come to my attention. Issues involving some of Florian’s war chests?”

 

Solveig chortled, “I appreciate your candid threat, Madame. It is well placed and will have the desired effect: My mouth is sealed. However...” , he leaned forward with a small smile, “Should you, for some reason, decide that standing with the elves is attractive to you after all, let me assure you that Del Bar will see it as a very clear, very personal insult, and our response would be in kind”, steel and blood were in his words, “Clear. Personal.”

 

With that, he got up, bowed and strode out.

 

Aanya looked after him, then shrugged. “A ruffian to be sure. Falconer, you seem very uncomfortable. Is this your first assignment?”

 

“My second, Madame.”

 

“Well!”, she smiled, “Welcome to the world of scheming and harsh words, then.”



Chapter Text

A sudden noise startled Rayla awake. Her eyes widened, alert shocking into her limbs. She immediately rolled out of the way to dodge a heedless incoming stab, grabbing her blades and coming to a stand to her assailant’s left. Callum jerked into a sitting position, taking in the scene.

 

‘Noli, don’t do something you’ll regret!’, he signed hastily.

 

She just screamed, tackling him, tripping over Zym who had rushed into the room. As she stumbled, the little dragon discharged himself into her leg, making her yelp.

 

Still in a sitting position, Callum could not move fast enough to completely evade her and her knife sliced into his left arm. “Seriously?”, he yelled and shoved at his attacker, who stumbled backward before finding her balance. Then, Rayla rammed into the older elf, sending her stumbling head-first into a wooden beam.

 

This alone was enough to knock her out cold. She slid down on the beam, coming to rest on the floor, her butt sticking into the air.

 

“You guys okay?”, Rayla barked flatly. Adrenaline coursed through her, her heart hammered. She was not taking her eyes off Noli’s crumpled form. It felt like she was going to faint.

 

Zym barked.

 

“I’m fine, it’s nothing”, her Prince said, pulling at his shirt to inspect the damage, “Barely more than a scratch. Are you okay? Is she alright?”

 

“I’m d-dizzy, she’s fine”, his girlfriend said, sitting down to take their attacker’s pulse, “She was not just in a bad mood, wow! She needs serious help!”, Rayla groaned, “Why did Honsa have to leave?”

 

“I’ll go get her mom.”

 

“Are you sure you’re okay?”

 

“Have a look.”

 

She glanced quickly at the cut, then nodded for him to go, “Shallow flesh wound”

 

Callum walked to the farmhouse to get Anzha. The armchair still held a snoring Otark.

 

Ascending the steps, he found a closed door. He knocked quietly and heard the din of someone startling awake and dropping a great many items on the floor. There was scuffling, then the door opened a crack. Anzha’s tired, silver eyes blinked at him.

 

“What?”

 

“`What`? Yeah! `What` is it with your family and stabbing me? Can we not make that a recurring thing, please?”

 

“Stab you!?”, she opened the door further, a stern expression on her face. Helmond’s summand was wrapped in a very smooth and silky looking purple bathrobe, her hair pulled into a strict, expertly assembled top bun.

 

“Noli”, he scoffed, waving her along.

 

“I am so sorry about her”, Anzha said as they arrived at the barn. She knelt next to her daughter to turn her over and tend to the abrasions on her face, “I’m glad you’re alright. This will have consequences for her that she will not enjoy. Beyond a well-deserved headache, that is.”

 

Helmond’s summand sighed deeply, a sad expression spreading on her face. “I cannot excuse her actions, but will attempt to explain them, at least. She was never a social creature, my Noli, never had any friends. Hel and I couldn’t make them love or even just like her. Her deafness didn’t help, but it was her attitude that drove others away. You see, she’s obstructed, suffering early onset of--”, Anzha interrupted herself, then sighed sadly, petting her daughter’s dirty hair, “I assume she was disgusted on one hand and jealous on the other.”

 

“So she talked to you about us?”, Rayla asked brashly.

 

“Meaning...?”

 

“Did she tell you that we’re a couple?!”

 

Anzha laughed briskly, despite herself, “One would have to be blind, not deaf, to fail to see it, Miss! I, unlike most other elves, don’t see a problem here.”

 

The two adventurers lightly flushed their respective colors. Callum’s still valiant makeup gave his cheeks an odd, almost black purple.

 

“Oh, my regent would lose his mind if he knew about you. Many a time he’s had to refute claims that humans and elves could never form couples. Too different, the others whine. Well. That’s very obviously wrong, is it not? You are a walking, talking political argum--”

 

She stopped, frowning, seemingly appalled at herself.

 

“We’ve noticed”, Callum said grumpily, “Generally it goes like this. We show up. People see us holding hands. They find out I’m human. Half of them are like `woah, look, the pinko and the girl get along, we’ve been totally lied to!`, the rest is like `Oh no that Abuser is with that traitor! We need to stop that!` - And then they murder each other.”

 

Anzha shook her head, sadly. “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”

 

“You didn’t exactly help. Court martial and all?”, Rayla barked.

 

“Miss, it strikes me as unhelpful to give you an incorrect picture of what lies ahead”, Anzha said with reprimand, “I admit I have issues with you. I am used to soldiers following orders. It is a danger to our democracy if the military does not follow their civilian leaders. On the other hand, I would not judge you only based on this. You have followed a conviction to be less violent, not more. That alone elevates you in my eyes. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not express how happy I am to see Azymondias on the way to his mother. She will--”, Anzha stopped herself again, now looking positively frustrated.

 

“She will what?”, Callum challenged, “You can’t keep these things from us, Anzha! We need to know if what we’re doing is making any sense!”

 

The older moonshadow elf squirmed. “I will not reveal secrets of the state, Excellency. Please do not press me.”, she sighed deeply, “Suffice it to say, I… I am personally in `strong support` of your mission. That’s the best I can and will give you.”

 

Callum opened his mouth, but Rayla placed a finger on his lips, “Don’t be rude. The last thing we need is another Interpreter comin’ after us.”

 

As he opened his mouth again, she preempted, “Yes! Askin’ her for more information would be really rude!”

 

He looked at her, cross, then followed an impulse to just kiss her, gruffly.

 

She blinked. “Good answer, dummy.”

 

Then Noli stirred, groaning. Her eyes fluttered open and she glared at everyone in the room, unfocussed.

 

‘Why did you do that?’, Callum asked.

 

‘Why did you do that?’, she signed back, jutting her chin forward and wrinkling her nose.

 

“She’s just mocking me”, he explained to Rayla.

 

‘Noli, answer him properly’, Anzha signed, and Callum translated.

 

‘I hate them both. They should just die. Dad would kill them. They lie all the time. Torlan’s fine. Dad didn’t get beat up by her. Why trust them? They didn’t tell us she was a blood traitor. They didn’t even want to tell us about him being an Abuser. They probably rolled around in the hay tonight like rowdy skags! Look how dirty they are!’, her movements were so fast and imprecise that Callum had trouble following and keeping Rayla up to date on her tirade.

 

Anzha shook her head. ‘What they do when they’re alone is not our business. Do you see the little dragon, Noli? They brought him back from the human side. That’s a long, dangerous journey.’

 

‘So? If I steal a cookie, smash the jar and keep it for a year, then bring back the cookie, walking over the jar shards, wouldn’t you still be upset?’

 

The simple argument was surprisingly apt and Anzha had to think for a moment, weighing her response.

 

‘You didn’t eat the cookie, and because it’s magical, it’s still good to eat. Sure, you ruined all the other cookies, but this is the only cookie we have now and… the jar is probably happy…’

 

She frowned. The metaphor was failing.

 

‘See I’m right’, Noli signed, a tiny, gruff smirk on her face, ‘Fine, so they bring him back. Even if that’s good, the Abuser is still an Abuser and she is doing weird stuff with him. All that’s wrong.’

 

‘Why?’, Callum asked, ‘Why is it wrong?’

 

‘Because you’re not supposed to mix different colors of blood. It makes sludge. Bad people. I tried it myself, mixing them in a bowl. It’s true.’

 

‘You what?’, Anzha gaped at her, ‘Explain that!’

 

‘No’, her daughter replied, defiantly, ‘It’s a secret between me and dad. He said I don’t have to tell you anything.’

 

‘You haven’t seen your father for more than half your life, child. What makes you think you understand him or his wishes?’

 

This made the deaf woman think. ‘I just know’, she finally signed, crossing her arms.

 

Anzha looked at Callum, helplessly.

 

‘Noli, we don’t mean you any harm. I’m sorry we hurt you’, he tried.

 

‘Sure you are. You need my crazy mom to think you’re on our side. Go do your weird Abuser things with your weird Abuser loving traitor and leave us alone.’

 

‘All we did is dance!’

 

‘Sure!’

 

Anzha grabbed her daughter by her sleeve and pulled her into a stand. “We are going now.”, she said curtly, “I will lock her in her room for tonight. Tomorrow we will move on. I have to find Helmond soon, before I--”, she cleared her throat with an expression of utter annoyance, “If only we hadn’t had to take the long way around the mountains we might already be at the Breach.”

 

“Why did you have to?”, Rayla asked, alarmed at possibly having her plans derailed.

 

“Snow. The pass rangers have closed the path for traffic. I can’t know what the situation is now, but we passed the station on this side two days ago and it was still closed.”

 

Rayla started biting her thumbnail.

 

Callum saw Noli and her mother out, then roughly shoved the handle of a pitchfork through the door handles to lock them down.

 

Without giving Rayla another look, he fell into the hay.

 

“This day just didn’t want me to have the last word”, he grumbled.

 

After a while, he felt her sit down next to him.

 

“Do you wanna talk about anythin’ right now? I don’t want you to go to sleep angry.”

 

He scoffed. “What does talking fix at this point? It’s not like you can speak some magic words to give us both invincibility!”

 

She spooned him and hugged him tightly. He felt soothed by this, but for some reason, he didn’t want to feel better. Anger felt right, at the moment.

 

“How come you’re so calm? Doesn’t this make you mad?”

 

He felt her shrug. “Not like I can change it.”, she groaned and her hug got tighter, “Feels like since we’ve crossed the border all I’ve been doin’ is sobbin’. One thin’ after another. Bang, bang, bang!”

 

Katolis had been easy, familiar. His face counted for passage there. The only people who had come after them had been Soren, Claudia and Corvus. They had all been dangerous - but somewhat hesitant. Compared to Kel, Corvus was a muzzled kitten. Rayla might have a different perspective on this, but he wasn’t about to ask.

 

A thought shook itself lose at this. If he hadn’t avoided talking about her coming to Katolis - would they have had a better evening? Was he doing the same thing as everyone else, avoiding hard conversations until they became problematic?

 

His mien sagged. Fine.

 

“Rayla?”, he said.

 

“Mhm?”, she went.

 

Here goes. Augh.

 

He turned to face her, then said “I want you to come live with me at court, after this is over. I don’t wanna live in Xadia. People here hate us both.”

 

She frowned. “Well that’s nice and dandy for you, Prince Callum, but your girl’s an elf! Katolins hate elves, if you hadn’t noticed!”

 

“So what? You’re a nobody here, you can’t protect us if an entire Scotian village comes after us. I’m a Prince! You’re gonna be a Princess! Nobody is going to touch you!”

 

She was now clearly angry. “I happen to like my home, even if the people there have issues with me right now. I wanna see my friends again! I wanna clear my name! I wanna stop bein’ a `nobody`! Thanks for that, by the way.”

 

“Sorry. Didn’t say the `nobody` to hurt you”, he extended a careful hand to pet her cheek, which she reluctantly allowed, “You mean the world to me, Rayla. I’ll stand by you through this, through your trial, through everything after that. But I can’t just stay away from Ezran’s side, forever. Once he’s all grown up and I’ve passed on all my parents’ lessons, we can go wherever you want.”

 

She sighed. “You feel really bad about him, hm?”

 

“I had a mom and a dad. He barely knew either of them. I don’t feel bad, I feel… responsible. For him.”

 

Rayla rolled onto her back, staring at the ceiling.

 

After a moment, she harrumphed dramatically, extended her hands and signed `I love you` into the air, over and over while she spoke, “Fine, dummy. Katolis first. You’re right, Ez deserves some more family. Who knows, maybe they’ll even like me by then, your people.”

 

Callum grabbed her and pulled her close. “Thank you, so, so much!”

 

She pet him gruffly, not happy about her own choice.

 

She’d need some time to get used to the idea.

Chapter Text

Jorge’s door opened and the shape of Marielle, his future queen, slipped inside his room, carefully. She had insisted that her place was with him at Bastion Brèche. There was no denying her.

 

“You don’t have to sneak, mon papillon, I’m awake.”

 

“Oh. Again?”

 

“`Again?`”, he imitated her with annoyance, “Marie, I’m going to war. I’m really, seriously nervous.”, a little meekly he added, “And freakin’ scared.”

 

She nodded, which he couldn’t see in the twilight, then said, “You’ll be fine, Joh. Your guard’s the best around and you told me the elves lost a lot of people. They can’t stand up to you.”

 

He sat on the edge of his bed and she joined him there.

 

“Not worried about the Bruisers”, he said, petting her thigh through her nightgown, “It’s the other kings that piss me off. The Katolin brat, especially. Augh! He’s such a well spoken little dolt!”

 

“Pfft”, Marielle went, “He’s what, twelve?”

 

“Yeah somewhere around there. Almost feel bad for him; he looked like he needed about a month of sleep when I went to stab him yesterday.”

 

Marielle slapped his chest, “Sacre bleu! You did what?!”

 

He laughed, “Don’t worry, I wasn’t actually gonna shank the kid! Just tried intimidating him.”, he chuckled, “Totally failed, though. His hot aunt kicked my butt around the courtyard. I feel like a tool about that one.”

 

“She is a sexy, buff granny”, Marie admitted, taking a reassuring kiss from Jorge as payment, “So what are you going to do?”

 

Jorge sighed, “Y’know, people keep asking me that expecting me to have this great answer somehow. Ezran gave me this whole lament about reading my mail. I don’t know how they do this every day. When do they chill? When do they take care of themselves and their families? Like, Marie, I love you, I wanna spend time with you; How do I do that if my work always comes first?”

 

She shrugged, petting his face, “All I know, babe, is that I don’t want you to get killed today.”

 

“Yeah”, he said, grimly, “Wish I could be as forgiving as the other two sometimes. Would make life a lot easier.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Xadia killed their parents too. I don’t get how they can be friendly with them now. They’re just taking the easy way out. It’s not like I wanna go to war, I just don’t wanna be trampled on without clapping back!”

 

“They’re kinda weak”, Marielle agreed, “But can you blame them? They’re just chil--”

 

There was a careful knock at the door and Marielle wordlessly dove under his bed. It wouldn’t be acceptable to be caught here like this before they were officially wed.

 

Jorge waited for her to vanish in her usual hiding spot, then put on a morning robe, trying on his annoyed look in the mirror.

 

Satisfied, he tore open the door.

 

“Whaddaya want, bud?”, he chastised the Magistrate who had interrupted their alone time.

 

“Majesty, I apologise for waking you”

 

“Sure. What’s up?”

 

“As you’d ordered yesterday, I’ve spent my night completing an indection ritual over the site of your parents’ murder, and -- Well, see for yourself.”

 

He handed over the shoulder blade of some tiny animal. Etched into it was a rune, dark and purple. The king glanced at it, then back at the Magistrate, not quite sure what he was looking at.

 

“Dark Magic, Majesty. Not primal.”

 

Jorge shook, then threw the bone in a corner. “So! He was right! Bon sang! Should’ve tried this earlier!”, he then swore at himself, “Esti de câlice de tabarnak, c'est pas possible comment que t'es cave!”

 

Deflating, he placed a hand on the Magistrate’s shoulder which made the official flinch.

 

“Dupont”, Jorge started, “Thank you so much for your hard work. Get some rest.”

 

Turning to walk back into his room, the king’s mien dropped into an annoyed frown.

 

“I have a massive pile of ravens to eat.”

 

The magistrate kneaded his hands for a moment, then suggested;

 

“Crows, Sir?”

Chapter Text

Rayla opened her eyes. There was a sliver of bright blue visible between the roof and the walls of the barn. Next to her, Callum snored slightly.

 

She wondered what had woken her, but quickly realized that it was annoyed clucking outside.

 

Curious, the moonshadow elf unbarred and opened the barn door. Around the side of the farmhouse, Otark sat, upsetting his pearl chickens by stealing their eggs.

 

“‘Hoy, lass”, he said, tipping his straw hat, “Kip well? A sure did!”

 

“Belter”, she said tonelessly in answer, “Are the others up already?”

 

“Up and oan their cuddies”, he said, a sad expression on his face, “The Interpreter’s got a quality fire lit under her, looks like.”

 

Rayla couldn’t help but feel a little annoyed. They hadn’t even said goodbye.

 

“Want some breakfast?”, the farmer offered.

 

“Please”, came the extremely grouchy answer from behind Rayla, who flinched.

 

She’d not heard Callum approach, which was a first. Looking at him almost scared her.

 

“Are you okay?”, she asked in a hoarse whisper.

 

He gave her a look that spoke volumes. His face was a little pale, even through the makeup. Rayla couldn’t help but observe how well it had stayed on. At this point, it was almost worrisome. She now realized for the first time that this was ocean makeup. Meant to stay on underwater. How would he ever get rid of it?

 

Otark gave an amused cackle. “Gads, lad, you look like morning’s got ye loupin!”

 

A while later, they said their thanks and goodbyes, giving a gift of dried lemon leaf. Otark was excited for the tea he would make from them and insisted on handing them a package of food for the road.

 

Back on the main road, Rayla scanned the western horizon. There was no trace of Anzha and her daughter already.

 

“They must’ve left really early”, she told Callum, “I wonder if she even went back to bed after the whole issue with Noli.”

 

As an answer, he merely harrumphed. He still seemed very grumpy, slouching in the saddle.

 

“What’s up?”, she asked.

 

“Nothing”, he replied gruffly, “I’m just not feeling well. Riding doesn’t help.”

 

Concerned, Rayla closed to his side and touched his shoulder.

 

She analysed his hunched-over posture. “Stomach ache? Should we stop?”

 

He gave her a wry, somewhat sheepish glance and shook his head. “Yeah. Stomach ache. I’ll be okay. I think dipplings might not be too good for me. The soup was good but… it was the only thing we had that was new in our diet. Are dipplings poisonous to humans?”

 

“I don’t know, never thought about it. I just assumed we’d be able to eat the same food. Maybe that was stupid?”

 

Her boyfriend grinned tepidly, “I guess we’ll see if I live.”

 

This earned him a concerned frown from her.

 

They rode on quietly for a while. Rayla noticed how uncomfortable her boyfriend seemed in his saddle. He adjusted his pants ever so often and squirmed on rougher parts of the road. It was getting rather difficult not to prompt him again.

 

Around an hour later, Callum stretched to sit up a little straighter, still looking miserable.

 

“So”, he started, “It feels kinda weird to back on the road, just the two of us. Seems like we’ve always been in the middle of something or around somebody for the past while.”

 

Rayla snickered. “What, am I not interestin’ enough for you now that you’ve tasted the presence of exciting, evil, intense and nutty elves of other tribes?”

 

He shook his head. “Nothing could ever make you uninteresting to me, chipmunk.”

 

She laughed. “Now you’re really graspin’ at water, Callum! `Chipmunk`?”

 

“Look!”, he said with a slightly angry smile, “I don’t see you make any suggestions; and you keep calling me `dummy`. I’d like to have something a little mean to call you, too, in an endearing sort of way.”

 

Rayla now seemed a little worried. “Oh. Uh, does it bother you when I call you that?”

 

“No”, he said, “I get what you mean by it. When you say it, it doesn’t sound like an insult.”

 

She nodded, thinking hard. What sort of nickname could she live with? After a few long minutes, she started to see his problem. They were all terrible!

 

There were obvious ones, like ‘sweetie’, ‘baby’ and ‘honey’. Those made her retch for their sheer sweetness.

 

All the cute animal names sounded strange to her, she didn’t identify with anything safe for maybe sheep - which was a nonstarter - banthers and dogs. ‘Kitten’ and ‘puppy’ were too literal in her mind. Ah, but…?

 

“What about `bear`?”, she offered.

 

He cocked his head. “You really don’t have the frame for `bear`, Rayla.”

 

She shrugged her agreement. After another moment, she gave up. “I see your problem, dummy, I can’t find one, either.”

 

“So I’m gonna keep trying until I find something, bunny.”

 

She rolled her eyes and changed the topic. “Crazy, how those mountains look, close up.”

 

Ahead of them, the earth rose sharply, touching and reaching through the clouds. They were already trotting over more hilly terrain. Soon, the Ibalin would leave their side to run in a deeper valley basin. To their left, in the middle distance, steam climbed the mountain’s windward side.

 

“Wonder what that is”, Rayla said, pointing.

 

“Saw it back when I jumped the river. Looked really colorful. I’m guessing hot springs or something.”

 

“Makes sense. The plains are dotted with a few small volcanoes and geysers. If we went straight south from here, we could probably find one of the magma flows that end up at the Breach.”

 

“I’ve never seen them in person”, Callum said, “Just read about them. Might be nice to rest there for a bit.”, sheepish, he added, “I guess it’s not super appealing to you. It being water and all.”

 

It was true; There was something utterly terrifying about the idea of boiling water gushing from far below the earth. It was getting to the surface somehow! There were lightless tubes and caverns full of water one might be pulled into, never to reappear!

 

The thought sent scared shivers down Rayla’s back.

 

When the sun had reached zenith, they settled down to have lunch in the wind shade of a giant rock. It helped ward off the sand.

 

Callum eyed the two hard-boiled, blue eggs Otark had packed for them. He peeled one and offered it to Rayla.

 

“If it’s blue, it’s probably good for you, no?”

 

Since she held a piece of bread and a wedge of cheese in her hands, she bent over and picked the egg out of his hand using her teeth. It fell neatly into her mouth, surprising her entirely. It took a moment for her to chew to reduce the volume.

 

“Chanksh”, she said appreciatively, then swallowed, “I’m so hungry!”

 

The elf was now digging into her own packet with abandon, sparing a few bites for Zym.

 

Callum couldn’t help but smirk. She was adorable, stuffing her face. Chipmunk didn’t seem far off.

 

“What?”, she asked between bites, “Not hungry?”

 

“Uh. I don’t know. But, you are just so much fun to watch.”

 

She cocked her head. “That’s… a little weird?”

 

He chortled, “I guess! I just love to see you getting better, is all.”

 

At this, she flushed a little. Sappy prince had made another appearance.

 

Rayla leaned over and grabbed a golden Mallorn Apple from his pack. He didn’t have the heart to protest, but was obviously a little annoyed at her not asking for it.

 

A moment later, she had sliced and cored the fruit, passing it back to him.

 

“There! Now eat! I feel weird when you just sit there and watch!”

 

He laughed. “I thought you were stealing that from me.”

 

“I might if you don’t eat it!”, she warned, enthusiastically chomping her way through her piece of buttered bread.

 

He ate a few slices, gave a few to Zym, then moved the rest of the fruit to her pack.

 

“You don’t want it?”, she asked, surprise in her mien.

 

“No. Plus, I think you need it more.”

 

She smirked. “I should get cut up more often, it really brin’s out the gentleman in you!”

 

He frowned. “That’s not funny.”

 

She blinked, soberly. “Nah, I s’pose it wasn’t. Sorry.”

 

“How’s it looking?”, he asked, mollified.

 

She shrugged, gazing up at the sky. “Better every day. Can’t wait until the vines go away”, she shuddered, “Sometimes it feels like I can feel them writhe, ew.”

 

While she was distracted, he clandestinely moved a slice of buttered bread into her pack.

 

She saw the motion out of the corner of her eye and scanned her cutting board.

 

“Are you givin’ me more food?”, she asked, now concerned, “Callum, you can’t starve yourself for my sake!”

 

“I’m not!”, he said, mildly offended, “I have a sour stomach and I want you to get well soon.”

 

“And stuffin’ me like a Gobbler Hen is gonna help with that?”, she chortled, “Here, take it back, dummy.”

 

She gave his slice back to him, holding it right in front of his mouth.

 

He grabbed it with his teeth and took a bite. Suddenly, he was glad she’d given it back.

 

Baking this flavourful shouldn’t just be called `bread`.

 

After they had eaten, she nestled against him.

 

“Kinda wanna nap for a bit”, she yawned, “I’m stuffed!”

 

He nodded. “Why not? It’s nice here in the shade. Probably better if we take a breather until it’s not as hot anymore.”

 

She shrugged. “Soon enough those hot, sandy gusts are gonna stop. It’s October now.”

 

“Weh, that’ll be nice.”

 

“Nah, dummy, we’re gonna freeze our butts off; Especially up there. You’ll wish the sand was back.”

 

Zym was going after a massive cricket he’d found, and soon there was a disgusting crunching sound.

 

Callum made a sound of disgust, then picked up his sketchbook. A nearby flower had caught his eye. It had jagged, prickly leaves, looked vaguely like a sunflower with white-silver petals and a purplish-yellow core. It was both beautiful and rebellious.

 

“That’s a Precious White”, Rayla said, sleepily, “Pokey and pretty. Also good for fixin’ indigestion.”

 

She looked up at him, smirking. “Don’t even think about it. I know you are.”

 

Callum snickered. It could’ve been a nice nickname. But oh well.

 

She leaned on his shoulder to watch him sketch but quickly fell asleep. He was careful not to disturb her too much, even though it was harder to draw this way.

 

Callum was eying the sun ever so often. Once it had advanced a few degrees eastward, he gently woke her. The dragon whelp was still busy hunting, catching plenty of unlucky insects.

 

“Hey, little fawn. Sleep well?”, he asked quietly.

 

“Not long enough”, she grumbled with a sleepy smirk, “I still feel full. Wanna keep sleepin’”

 

Callum smiled, “We need to keep going at some point today, though!”

 

She sighed, sat up and started putting their food containers back in an ocean magic freezer bag.

 

“How’d your drawin’ turn out?”

 

He showed it to her.

 

“As expected, it’s perfect. I need to find other ways to handicap you”, she laughed.

 

“Perfect? You mean, like you, fawn?”, he asked.

 

She eyed him suspiciously. His was the face of a sneaky trickster.

 

“There’s your dumb-idea-face again, dummy. Tell me, was that a compliment - or an impossible standard?”

 

“It’s not impossible for you, at least in my eyes.”

 

She put the freezer bag into her empty saddle bag and fastened the clasps.

 

“Well, I’ll get old too, you know? At some point I’ll look all wrinkly and act all nutty, like Anzha.”

 

He laughed, “Doesn’t matter. I’ve got a feeling no matter how you end up looking in others’ eyes, you’ll always be perfect to me.”

 

She flushed. These were dangerous levels of sappy prince, now.

 

“Hey!”, she said with mock-anger, “Stop it, you! We apparently don’t have time to cuddle right now and if you keep doin’ this, so help me, I will snuggle the stuffin’ out of you! Get up, let’s go!”

 

“If you say so, fawn.”

 

He got to his feet, smiling ear to ear. She apparently still hadn’t noticed, which suited him fine.

 

They checked the seat of their saddles, mounted up and clicked their tongues.

 

“So”, Callum started, “Do these mountains have names?”

 

Rayla shrugged. “Dunno. I know the range’s called `Wall of Fire`, but that’s it. I’m sure the peaks have names, just never learned them. Hm, ahead the road’s gonna get more busy though. There’s six roads joining to cross the pass”, her mien sagged, “Ugh, I really hope the pass is open. Otherwise we’re lookin’ at tackin’ on another two weeks to this business.”

 

“Snow won’t keep us”, he motioned aggressively with his hands, “I’ll just have to Aspiro-blast a path.”

 

She looked at him, weighing the idea. “You think you could do it?”

 

“Yeah! It’d be slow going but if you think it’s worth it?”

 

“Ah, I’ll decide that once I see the pass in person. If it’s covered under ten feet of snow, I don’t think it would be a good idea. It’s still a good day and a half until we’re at the guard post. Hopefully your insane makeup holds out till then.”

 

He laughed. “I’m actually not sure how we’re gonna ever get that off!”

 

Rayla nodded, almost grimly, “I’m lookin’ forward to seeing you with rosey cheeks again, dummy.”

 

“Well, that’s nice to hear, little fawn”

 

She nodded, then stopped short. An incredulous smile of realization spread across her face. “You found it, then, haven’t you? `Fawn`, eh? I guess I can live with that. It’s sorta graceful and cute.”

 

He laughed, “I’ve called you that a good four, five times and now you catch on?”

 

She scoffed, “I can’t be bothered to listen to every nice thin’ you lob my way!”

 

“That just means I have to do it even more, so you can hear the amount I need you to.”

 

They both chortled and she closed on him.

 

Stretching far, holding on to her saddle with her legs, she stole a kiss.

Chapter Text

Until Jorge showed up to do whatever it was he felt he had to, there was no point in staying awake. Ezran had gone back to bed. Aanya had also found the nearest cot.

 

The Katolin King had trouble staying asleep, waking up every so often. The visions from Zym were peaceful, but a little disgusting. “Never going to forget the feeling of a juicy bug bursting open in my mouth”, he thought, working hard to suppress the need to heave.

 

It was good to see Rayla and Callum, to know that they were doing alright. Seeing them together, her sleeping on his shoulder, made him feel lonely. In some odd way, it even made him miss his parents. There were similar, blurry scenes of them in a very far corner of his mind.

 

Eventually, he resolved to get up. When he stepped outside, he realized that it was noon already. Where was the Eveneran idiot?

 

“Well!”, He was greeted by Solveig in the courtyard, “Sir, I am affronted at our friend’s lateness. We hurried out here for his sake at a disgusting hour and now he’s a no-show!”

 

“Maybe it was all bluster?”, Ebro offered, joining them.

 

It was a point worth considering. Jorge might have made idle threats to poke the Katolin bear, to see what came of it.

 

They shared lunch, over which Solveig told them a story from his past, when he was but a messenger - then with two eyes. He had been ordered to to hire a prolific bounty hunter named Kel Ortis only to find that she’d settled down with her husband at a farm.

 

“If anyone had told me that two people so rough and uncivil would play house, I would’ve laughed them out of mine! The funniest part is, they seemed really happy. Had just gotten there. Imagine this massive guy, bent over a kitchen table that’s a good four sizes too small for him, sipping tea and reading a book on planting crop! And her, equally massive! She gave me a whole spiel about changing her ways and wanting to be a good mother!”, he scoffed, “Feels like if I ever went back there, I’d find a dozen kids the size of horses, and horses the size of houses! Damn shame, too, she was an amazing mercenary. Feel like she could take on half the bruisers over there by herself.”

 

“I, uh, heard of her. Think she went back to her old job. Didn't go so well. By the way, I’d rather you not call them that”, Ezran said, “They’ve stopped calling us `Abusers` since the joint burial.”

 

“Openly, maybe”, Solveig growled, “But we’re still scum to them, mark my words.”

 

Corvus stepped behind Ezran and bent to whisper in his ear.

 

“We have a big problem.”

 

Ezran excused himself and led Corvus to his makeshift office.

 

“Majesty, Viren is back. He’s found the nearest larger town, Taelin, and has started recruiting people to a `revolt of the concerned` as he calls it”, the tracker said without preamble.

 

His King frowned. “So, why don’t we send the crown guard to arrest him?”

 

“Well, the problem is he’s managed to garner actual support. A lot of the families there live in Taelin because their family was stationed here, with the Standing Battalion.”

 

“So they’re very happy with my choices right now, I’m sure. Arresting Viren would probably look like I’m trying to shut up a critical voice.”

 

Corvus nodded. Ezran sighed deeply. Right now, he wished he could be with his brother and Rayla. “What do we do?”

 

“I’m probably not the best person to ask. I don’t know a whole lot about non-violent crowd control. Opeli might be more helpful, here. I can send her a raven?”

 

Ezran shook his head. “I chained her to a four-legged snail, remember? She’s not going to give me the best advice right now.”

 

Corvus smirked. That was an amusing way to put it. “Giving the other three council members equal rights really did annoy her. She’s used to do what she thinks is best, as long as it’s in one or another rule book.”

 

The king nodded. “The best way to keep her from giving me trouble was to give her more. But yeah, I lost a competent advisor for it. Maybe Aanya has a good idea, though. She’s dealt with civil war. Thanks for letting me know, Corvus, I'll get back to you.”

 

The tracker nodded and departed.

 

Ezran went to get Aanya and explained the situation.

 

She nodded along, then said, “Yes, I remember the man. Good with his tongue, too. He did a bunch of parlor tricks to scare us into war. Looks like he’s still at it.”

 

“I’m pretty sure he was the one behind the attack, too. Nobody else I know has that much power”, Ezran said.

 

“You mentioned that in your letters. Hence; Looks like he’s `still` at it.”, Aanya replied, “The way I see it, you can’t let this spread. He has a strong message. `Ezran sends his soldiers to die with no plan and no strategy. He is collaborating with elves who want to kill us all.`”, she crossed her arms, “You see the problem?”

 

“Yep”, the Katolin king said, “It sounds true. All my people see is the fact that I just got a lot of their family members killed and have nothing to show for it other than not-war. Which probably doesn’t feel right to most of them. Most people still think elves are evil. What do I do though?”

 

Aanya sighed deeply. “You have a few options the way I see it. One. Kill them all. From your expression I can tell that’s about as appalling to you as it is to me. Two. You send your bannerman Corvus to speak against Viren’s point. Three. You go yourself, leaving the peace project here in… my hands, perhaps? I would do it. Hm. Four. You do nothing and watch how the situation develops.”

 

Ezran mulled it over for a bit, pensively scratching Bait’s head who enjoyed the now rare bit of attention.

 

“I think I should go. Sending Corvus is one thing, but if I can show my face there myself, that should make a good impression, right?”

 

“Sure; Keep in mind the impression it’ll make here, though”, Aanya warned, “I have no rapport with the elven commander yet, not in the same way you do. Giving back the dragons was a stroke of genius. I was honestly already doling pieces out to my court mages. Oh!”, she slapped her forehead, “That reminds me! You know how we had that hunch that maybe it wasn’t moonshadow elves out for our blood? I asked one of my mages to do some stuff that detects magic in the the place where we defeated ours. They came back with dark, not primal.”

 

Ezran’s face lit up.

 

“Great idea! I should’ve thought of it!”

 

Aanya waved a dismissive hand, “It was a stroke of luck. I didn’t know they could do that, found it out by accident, reading about… never mind. Point is, Jorge is super wrong and we now have proof. Where is he, anyway?”

 

“Good question. I expected him this morning.”

 

Chapter Text

A slight smell of sulfur hung in the air as they passed by the hot springs. Callum wished Rayla would stop here for the night, allowing him to inspect the place a little. It was all so colorful that he didn’t dare draw it - in black and white, it would just look like random holes in the ground. Watching Zym splash around, he was itching to join him.

 

“You sure you don’t wanna take a dip?”, he eventually asked, looking over his shoulder, “It might be nice to snuggle in the hot water?”

 

She smirked at him. “I will say I like the idea of a hot bath. It’s gettin’ late and coldish and we’ve not bathed for a bit. But! Zym’s a dragon”, she pointed her finger at the colorful ground, “We’d be set like those eggs we had for lunch if we jumped in here. These pools are boilin’ hot. Look at them bubble!”

 

“Oh, I hadn’t really thought of that.”, he said, disappointed. Upon closer observation, he saw what she meant. There were bubbles of steam rising all over the surface. He cringed a little at the thought of jumping in, now.

 

“It’s a good thing you’re with me, fawn, I would’ve jumped in and boiled my butt the moment I got close to these things.”

 

She laughed. “Way worse than eatin’ Twist Bell, for sure. Come on, I’m sure if we leave the path a bit further away from these holes, we can find somethin’ a little less `boily` to splash in.”

 

They rode in silence for a while.

From the elevation they were on, it was easy to look far back to where they had come from. The road was lonely behind them, Otarks farmhouse still quite visible as a speck in the distance.

 

“What do you think Ivine’s up to right now? I wonder if they’re sending more people after us.”, Callum wondered.

 

“There probably are people on our trail right now, yeah. Lucky for us, we have the stags”, she scanned the empty horizon behind them, “They don’t seem to be goin’ all that fast. Or maybe they passed us yesterday when we were at Otark’s. That’d be hilarious. They would think we just vanished!”

 

Rayla eventually led her doe off the path and he followed on his stag.

 

There weren’t many trees here, so the going was easy off the path. She had advanced over the mostly barren, grassy terrain and he followed at a quick canter to catch up. The Prince was getting quite comfortable on his animal, having spent four full days in the saddle. He’d actually started feeling bad about the fact that he didn’t know its given name.

 

Rayla’s head swiveled, scanning the darkening landscape and she eventually turned towards a cave that was wide open on one side but offered good shelter - and a nice water feature. There was a pool of crystal clear, deep blue water, steaming slightly in the advancing evening cold. It was fed by a cascading stream, gushing from a wide crack in the cave’s wall.

 

“That looks perfect”, she said and dismounted. Callum couldn’t help himself, immediately testing the water’s temperature. Carefully. With his left pinky.

 

“Oh, that’s really nice!”, he said, “I can’t wait to get in there!”

 

“Uh-hu. Looks deep, that pool”, Rayla said with a look of trepidation at the dark liquid, “First you’re gonna help make camp.”

 

They set up their tent and chucked their sleeping bags inside, unrolling them in the process. Callum made a small bonfire and placed a pot on top. Mushroom soup tonight. This time thickened with flour as Otark had given them some.

 

Rayla was enthused. “I can’t believe how hungry I am, again! This is so tasty!”

 

Callum chuckled, eagerly spooning the rich, creamy soup. Zym showed little interest in their food tonight, he was very focussed on catching insects.

 

“I’m gonna go sit in that hot bath now”, Callum announced after they had eaten and she motioned for him to go ahead.

 

“Knock yourself out, dummy. I’ll be right here, watching from a safe distance.”

 

His mien sagged a little. “You don’t even wanna try it?”

 

“Nah, sorry”, she said, sheepishly, “It’s too deep for me.”

 

Zym was wandering behind her, gnawing at something squishy but crunchy.

 

“Looks like he’s busy eating more bugs”, Callum said, disgusted.

 

“He’s hungry and he knows where to find food. Ever since he’s had to fend for himself for that week he’s gotten good at it, too! Suits me fine. It’ll be harder to keep us all fed on the pass and in the winter. We need to trade for a lot of lembas at the ranger station!”

 

“I just realized something”, Callum said, flushing a bit.

 

“What’s that?”

 

“If I wanna go bathe, you can’t be watching.”

 

She blinked, blushed and laughed. “You don’t have to be naked, dummy! Gosh! We’re not gonna die of embarrassment if you keep your underwear on!”

 

He shuffled a little, then mumbled, “Fine. For the bath!”

 

The prince hid behind their tent and a few minutes later, he dove into the pool from a running jump.

 

“It’s really nice!”, he yelled from the pool.

 

Rayla’s slight blush hadn’t left her face when she got up to join him at the edge of the pool. She got down on her stomach and pulled him towards herself to kiss him.

 

The water smelled a little sulfury, but it was pleasantly hot. Interestingly, it seemed to sparkle a little, like ginger beer. She still had a very hard time being close to it, the darkest blue spots seemingly threatening to pull her in.

 

“You don’t have to lie there”, he said, noticing her worried stare, “I’ll be out soon enough, just wanna wash up a bit. Though I wouldn’t complain if you joined me.”

 

She shrugged. “I really don’t want to. It’s too deep for me.”

 

“Come on. You can do it!”

 

She got up and sighed deeply.

 

There was nothing for it; She felt the need to get clean. Ever so often, she’d have to get over herself to avoid becoming the worst smelling and greasiest feeling elf in the world.

 

Walking back to the tent, she began to understand his feelings a little better. It was a bit strange, showing so much of her to him. The thought didn’t make her uncomfortable so much as nervous. Would the scars and healing wounds put him off? Would she be able to even get into the water?

 

Once she was down to her underwear, she nervously approached the water’s edge, a great many feelings bubbling in her stomach.

 

Then she caught his glance and they both flushed.

 

“You are just... breathtakingly beautiful”, Callum marvelled and her heart wanted to jump out of her chest.

 

She didn’t respond right away, nervously gazing at her feet.

 

“... nah, I’m bothered. I don’t think I wanna do this.”, she finally choked out, turning to go.

 

“Wait!”, he pleaded, “Look, there’s a super shallow place over there. You can see the ground and stand in there. I’ll be with you, nothing’s gonna happen.”

 

She eyed the spot he pointed at and sighed deeply. He swam over to it, looking at her encouragingly. Eventually she caved to his green eyes and walked over.

 

Carefully, she dipped her toes in the water. It was pleasant, maybe a smidge too hot.

 

She eventually sat and submerged both her feet.

 

It was weird, having cold sweat on your hands while your feet were too warm.

 

“How is it?”, he asked and she shrugged worriedly.

 

“I still don’t think I wanna do this. I don’t like the idea of where this water’s from and how it got there.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Think about it. This water’s gushing up from where it’s hot, down there. There’s all these dark tubes and caverns, just full of water. It creeps me out, thinkin’ about it. Thinkin’ about what’s probably hiding down there.”

 

He nodded empathetically. “Yeah that is a bit scary. Hold on.”

 

Seeing him dive, her heart jumped into her throat.

 

After coming back up, he sputtered, then said “Okay. Well, I checked the bottom. Solid rock. Only way in is the spout up there and only way out is that little waterfall back there.”

 

“I’m happy you’re goin’ through the effort, dummy, but…”, she kneaded her hands.

 

“You’re too scared?”

 

“More like… uncomfortable.”

 

“You don’t have to be embarrassed”, he chuckled and climbed out of the pool, sitting down next to her, “You’re so much braver than I in pretty much all other situations. It’s only fair, in my mind. Look, we can work through this, if you want.”

 

Rayla smiled tepidly and leaned over to embrace him. He was steaming a little in the cold air. When she kissed him, a drop of water separated from his wet hair and hit her smack-dab on the tip of the nose.

 

“Huh?”, she went.

 

He wiped the drop off her nose.

 

“Come on, fawn. We can do this”, he said gently, taking in her worried gaze.

 

His intense look made her blush a little. “F-Fine!”, she said finally.

 

He nodded solemnly, holding her hand while she carefully submerged both her legs up to the knees. She looked ahead and her eyes latched onto the deepest part of the pool.

 

She felt queasy.

 

“C-Callum”, she said quietly, “I- don’t think this is gonna work! I wanna go, please”

 

“It’s fine. Nothing’s going to happen to you. I’m right here. Just look at me.”

 

He forced his face into a pout to make a dramatic, cross-eyed kissy face and she snorted, despite herself.

 

“You’re too cute!”, she said raising a hand to pet his cheek, “and so annoyin’! Look! I got my stompers in the ick. That’s what you wanted, right? Can I go now?”

 

“Nope. My goal is you and me, sitting in there on that rock, smooching.”

 

She bristled. “That’s a lot to ask, dummy.”

 

“You can do it. I believe in you!”

 

Rayla eyed the water to her feet.

 

After a moment, she edged forward, holding on to him for dear life.

 

“D-Don’t let me go!”, she pleaded and he shook his head.

 

“Not for a second.”

 

She slipped off the edge, making a sound of annoyance as the water splashed a bit around her and he quickly laid on his stomach to keep his grasp on her.

 

His hands in hers, he felt her shaking.

 

“You’re okay, fawn”, he soothed, “See, you’re standing up, everything is good.”

 

“It tingles. The bubbles. They tingle.”, she reported tonelessly. She seemed more annoyed than worried.

 

“I’ll come in now, too.”

 

His girlfriend shook her head wildly.

 

“I’m getting cold out here. Don’t worry.”, he said, softly.

 

He slipped into the pool, making sure not to splash her. Then, he wrapped his arms around her and held her tightly. Their skin’s unfamiliar touch could have been romantic, if it wasn’t for the fact that she was quaking with discomfort. Plus, the light scratch of the vines reminded them both of Kel.

 

“I feel so s-stupid”, she stuttered, “It f-feels nice on my skin, the warmth, the b-b-bubbles! Wh-why am I so bothered?!”

 

He carefully walked her over to the rock he had pointed out and sat on it, pulling her into his lap. She leaned into him, wrapping her arms around his neck and her legs around his stomach.

 

Like this, they sat for a while. Callum ran his hands soothingly over her back.

 

Eventually, she lifted her head off his shoulder to face him, “This feels really...”, her gaze wandered over his face, stuck to his lips for a moment. Then her eyes snapped to his. Her left hand came up to brush a wet strand of hair out of her face. “It’s weird being a bit undressed with you. I’m really nervous, but… I don’t know if it’s ‘cause of the water or because of you. Uh... I don’t like this, but I don’t want it to end, either?”

 

“We’ve done what we set out to”, her boyfriend said, softly, “Look at us, cuddling in deepish water.”

 

She smiled slightly. “Feels like this was all you. Thanks for taking your time with me.”

 

“Nah. I have a very selfish motivation.”

 

“What’s that?”, she asked, rather confused.

 

His expression sunk into a blank frown. “You smell”, he said flatly.

 

Rayla blinked, then burst out laughing. She wheezed, shaking, while her tears of laughter mixed with the steaming water.

 

Callum gave her an amused, quizzical look.

 

“Well, thanks! You, too!”, she said after recovering, petting his hair.

 

He nodded. “I used to bathe every second day, you know? Yesterday I was really wondering if the other people at Otark’s could smell me.”

 

“Eh, they smelled pretty bad themselves. Anzha and Noli were travelin’ themselves and Otark’s a farmer. I think we were all pretty comfortably smelly. I mean, it got way worse after we danced, in my opinion.”

 

Her eyes filled with a bit of sadness. “I still feel bad for how that ended. Sor--”

 

He interrupted her by kissing her and she gave him a surprised look. “I feel like it was my fault, actually. I… had the thought of asking you to come live in Katolis before we even started dancing. Feels like I should have just brought it up, then.”

 

She squirmed uncomfortably.

 

“You’re still not happy about that, eh?”

 

“I want to be with you”, she said, frustrated, “But I also feel like it’ll be so weird bein’ in Katolis. Really livin’ there. I understand Xadia, all the rules, the expectations, the way you talk to people. I’ve no idea how to be a Katolin Princess. Am I gonna have duties or am I basically a trophy for you to parade around? No offense, I know you wouldn’t do that.”

 

He nodded. “You’re going to have some duties, yeah. Show up at banquets. Hold the odd speech in favour of some beneficial social policy or another. I won’t `parade` you around, no. Katolin royals are always equals, sharing whatever seat they’re on. My parents had a pretty clear way of dividing up the work. Mom saw after the military and all its operations. Dad did the rest. I also feel like they did a lot of stuff with us kids together, but my mom was still there, more.”

 

He smiled, caressing her back, “You know, we’re actually kind of lucky. Unless Ez abdicates, we’ll never have the kind of responsibility he and his future husband or wife will have. We’ll get to enjoy the royal benefits and have fewer of the drawbacks. People are still going to try and curry favour with you and I, but I can’t wait for that, honestly. Seeing you handle snobs with royal authority is going to be awesome!”

 

She smiled, amused at his daydreaming. It was hard to think of herself in that role. Maybe she’d enjoy it. Maybe not. Even just the idea of a life in comfort made her a little confused. She’d never lived lavishly.

 

“So, I’ll probably be expected to wear more fancy stuff and makeup, right?”

 

“You don’t have to. If you want to, you can.”

 

A serene expression spread across her face now. “What about... food?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Is it going to be as good as the pastries we had with the Interpreter? That dessert still follows me in my dreams!”

 

“You mean the nougat croissant?”

 

She blinked. “Yep?”

 

“Pfft, you can have those every day, if you want. They’re a pretty common snack from Evenere.”

 

Her mouth fell open at his flippancy. “`Pretty common snack`?!”, she asked, incredulously, “You’re tellin’ me there’s even more awesome stuff out there?”

 

He laughed at her expression, “It’s like you said; Humans love to eat unwholesome foods in unreasonable portion sizes”

 

He glanced at her lovingly and she returned his gaze in kind. Whatever Katolis threw at them, it wasn’t likely to be worse than this. Especially since they would still be together to face it.

 

She hugged him tightly. After a moment, she said, “It’ll take me a long while to get used to all of it. I hope I won’t embarrass you too much.”

 

He snickered. “Eh, I’m hard to top. How are you feeling?”

 

Rayla became aware of the bubbling water again and a bit of trepidation snuck back into her heart. It wasn’t nearly as bad as before, though.

 

“Better”, she said, “Thanks for the distraction.”

 

“Good. Cause we’re gonna get clean now”, he gently pushed her off his lap and she sat in his place while he got out of the pool to get their bar soap.

 

Dropping back in, he handed her hers and started scrubbing at himself. Suds and bubbles danced across the steaming surface, making the place smell like Askander and Ismil.

 

“You know”, Rayla said, her eyes pressed shut while she lathered up her hair, “I would’ve never guessed I could be comfortable doin’ this. What are you doin’ to me, mage?”

 

She heard him snicker impishly behind her and suddenly felt his arms around her midriff, his chest on her back.

 

“Whatever it is you think you’re gonna do, stop! I wanna get this stuff outta my hair first!”, she ordered and he let go of her.

 

An extremely meek, whispered “Sorry” followed. It made her grin.

 

After washing her hair, she looked around for him only to find he’d dipped under the surface to clear his own head of soap. He came up for air, a bluish drip coming off his face.

 

“Oh! Oh!”, Rayla shouted, pointing at him.

 

“What? What!?”, he asked, turning every which way to find what she was so excited about.

 

“The makeup’s comin’ off! Here, let me.”

 

She came over and cleared up the remaining spots of blue near his closed eyes.

 

“So. What were you gonna do?”, she asked.

 

“Hug you”, he sputtered as soapy water ran into his mouth.

 

“Well then, you better!”, she spread her arms.

 

He cuddled her.

Chapter Text

Helmond’s band had made good progress. They were just settling down for the night. Tomorrow, they would reach Larwein. Poor, dumb Astilliar had underestimated the loyalty of Oshul and Artis. He had been given command over them, sure, but Helmond had worked with his two companions for ages.

 

They trusted him implicitly, even though he did not return the feeling. Bringing them down into the Breach to fight him and his human detachment had been the most idiotic thing Astilliar had likely ever done. Artis herself had stabbed him in the back, seconds after he’d lobbed a dagger at Helmond.

 

Helmond had quickly filled them in on his new persuasions, convincing them of a plan that would help settle things more quickly. They were going to drag the Interpreters back to the frontlines, to force them to face the havoc that was being caused by their decisions.

 

A while ago, they had passed a legion, led by a sky elf who Helmond hadn’t known. As such, they had completely avoided the column.

 

Now, they were settled close to the street, watching for anything that would inform them of the progress the senate might have made.

 

Oshul, who had taken the first watch, warned them. “Two riders.”

 

Helmond got up to check on them. In the evening light, his wife and daughter were still recognizable, even after all that time. The Ex-Legate stepped out of the underbrush, startling both Oshul and Artis as well as his family.

 

“Anzha”, he said, confused, raising a hand in greeting.

 

Noli jumped off her doe and charged at Helmond. She collided with him in a tight hug.

 

“Hel? What are you doing here?”, his summand said, without joy. She dismounted and approached him.

 

“A good question, to be sure. I should wonder the same. Are you no longer in Triton’s employ?”

 

“I am on a sabbatical. Hel, I’ve come all this way to give Noli to your care”, she bristled, “and myself.”

 

He studied her face. It was careworn, old, but startlingly lovely. His heart skipped, but faltered at the sadness etched in her silver eyes. This was not going to be good news. Helmond’s expression hardened. “What do you mean?”

 

“Her affliction, Hel. It appears it is heritable. I had it, undiscovered, passed it on to her. Now it is taking root in me. My mind is growing weaker. Soon I won’t be able to fend for us.”

 

The message was delivered like a hammer’s blow. She had always been this way. Strong. Blunt. Forward. Beautiful. Caring. She had never been disloyal and had carried his burdens without complaint. Helmond slowly extended his arms for her and she stepped into his reach, reluctantly.

 

“Annie”, he said softly, “Torlan… has been taken from us.”

 

“I know”, she said, now glad for his reassuring presence, “Your charges told me.”

 

“My charges? You can’t possibly mean…”

 

“The human and his moon elven companion? Yes. Those two.”

 

Helmond scoffed. “Fate is a wry beast. To think you would meet them”, then the Ex-Legate frowned, “I can’t believe how careless they are. Why would they expose themselves like this?”

 

His summand laughed sardonically. “Of course you would see it this way, dear. Of course. They realized who we were. From a letter you had sent to them but not us. Unlike you, they seem to have had compunctions about leaving us in the dark about the passing of one of our own.”

 

Helmond sighed deeply. “Please, Annie. I… could not find the words to put in ink.”

 

His summand eyed him, annoyed, and their embrace dissolved.

 

‘Noli, how are you’, Helmond signed at his daughter.

 

‘I’m so happy to see you, papa!’, she replied, ‘Can we go kill the Abuser and his weird traitor friend now? I kept telling mother that that is what you would do. She doesn’t listen to me because she’s crazy.’

 

Helmond frowned. This was the sort of talk he had put in her head, a long time ago, when he himself had been more radical. She had not matured much since. Guilt struck a second time.

 

‘Noli, not every human is an Abuser. This human and his friend are doing something very good. They deserve our support.’

 

His daugher frowned, stepping away from him.

 

‘Why are you saying that?’

 

‘Because it’s the truth.’

 

Noli frowned, her quizzical look wandering over both her parents.

 

“Hel. They said you were trying to make peace. Yet here you are?”

 

Her summand nodded. “There’s nothing to be done at the Breach right now. I… have never seen such murder.”

 

Anzha was aghast. Helmond seemed downright shellshocked. This, from the man whose bloody deeds had undermined many arguments she had made in her regent’s name.

 

“What happened?”

 

He told them, signing it all out for Noli’s sake.

 

‘So the Abusers sent a dead dragon to fight and it did? They’re so evil!’

 

‘Noli, there’s good and bad people on both sides. The sun dragon king killed just as many humans. Do you think that’s better?’, Anzha argued, tears in her eyes.

 

‘So what, they’re just humans. They don’t even have arcani.’

 

‘The human you met, did. He could do sky magic’, Helmond noted.

 

Noli blinked.

 

‘But humans can’t do stuff like that. They’re evil and not connected to the world around them! That’s what you told me!’

 

‘I was wrong.’

 

His daughter started pacing, running her hands over her face, almost clawing at it.

 

“Annie”, Helmond said, gently caressing her face, “I… am… on a mission.”

 

“Figures”, she said with a tired smile and kissed his hand, “You always are. Hel, I have spent my life in service. To Triton. To our kids. To you. I know how it is.”

 

“You don’t have to coddle me, love. I’ve been all too aware of my sins, this past month. What you have done is… sacrifice of the highest order”, He studied the ground, then sighed heavily.

 

She laughed quietly, running a hand through his silver hair. Long past were the days of its whiteness. “I did not come expecting you to stop whatever it was that had you occupied. I had hoped. But not expected.”

 

He looked at her sadly, feeling the weight of his guilt and the blow to his gut that was her message.

 

The Ex-Legate then continued with determination.

 

“No. It’s time I put down my blades.”



Chapter Text

The afternoon had came and went, without Jorge showing his smug grin. Janai had crossed the Breach alone once more, to see what was going on.

 

“I don’t know”, Ezran had told her, making her frown, “To make matters worse, I now have the man who probably sent you that dark magic dragon whipping up my people against us. I need to take care of that, and soon. It’s my plan to go there in person, tonight. Taelin is only a few hours away. I hope that’s not going to be a problem.”

 

Janai seemed surprised, “Naturally. Your people should come first. Don’t misunderstand me, I will wait for your return with baited breath”, she lifted her eyebrows meaningfully, “I believe the old man from Del Bar - Solveig, was it? - has a dagger hidden behind his back. Literally. I see him fumble for it whenever he sees me.”

 

Ezran nodded grimly. “The only longer conversation I’ve had with the man was about my brother and Rayla’s mission. Well, until he realized that she’s an elf. He’s not fond of your people, Prime Legate.”

 

“I cannot blame him. It looks like he’s seen his fair share of battle.”

 

“You might like Aanya better. Here she comes, now.”

 

The Lady of the Bloom stepped through the open door, closing it behind her.

 

Janai tried her best to curtsy, like Ezran had shown her.

 

Aanya exploded in laughter, earning a disapproving stare from Ezran and a confused glance from Janai.

 

“Goodness! I am so sorry, Prime Legate! The gesture means a lot, thank you! I simply had not expected it, and, I’ll be honest, it does not fit you.”

 

Aanya saluted her, in the elven way and Janai returned the gesture, looking somewhat angry but bemused.

 

“I see you are of good humor”, the warrior said, gruffly, “Your letters are rather formal, I had not expected such cheer. It is good to meet you in person.”

 

“Please, excuse my reaction, it was improper. It’s a shame we couldn’t have the pleasure, Janai, it was a messy two weeks.”

 

“And it will continue to be, Excellency.”

 

They now shook hands and Aanya sat, facing both Ezran and the Golden Knight.

 

“I trust Aanya, Janai. She’s been our strongest supporter.”

 

“I’m aware. I will carefully extend the same trust, Excellency”, Janai said, “However, it is hard to believe a queen such as yourself could forgive the killing of her subjects without some reprimand, at least.”

 

Aanya considered this. “I don’t know what you could mean by that. I believe we suffered shared loss in the face of a common enemy.”

 

Janai nodded pensively, “It’s easy to appreciate an answer such as that. We shall see how honest you are about its meaning.”

 

The queen of Duren scoffed. “You are quite to the point. I like it.”

 

“As such, I’d like to move past niceties.”, Janai leaned forward, placing her elbows on her knees and interlocking her fingers. “Tomorrow we are expecting reinforcements from a man who has lost his significant other here. He has not replied to my messages. Some of his scouts have already met with our force and have doubled back to report on our status.”

 

“Do you think he’s going to be a problem?”

 

“He is a Prime Legate, like me. He has the power to relinquish me of my duties, given support by my lieutenants. He is also the remaining Yatende Vocant, giving him the instant support of the sky soldiers I command.”

 

“What does that mean, a `Vocant`?”, Aanya asked.

 

“The Sky elves organise themselves by family rather than by geology or culture, Madame. A convocation is such an organisation, lead by a pair of Vocants, or speakers. Yatende is a very well respected name, they have a lot of power in Xadia”, Janai explained.

 

There was a knock at the door.

 

Amaya poked her head inside and looked at Ezran. He nodded and she stepped inside.

 

‘Jorge is here’, she signed, ‘You won’t believe what he has to say. I sure didn’t.’

 

“Jorge is here. Janai, no offense, but I think it would charge the situation if you came with. Can I ask you to wait for a bit?”, Ezran asked his guest.

 

She nodded gruffly.

 

Ezran, Amaya and Aanya walked outside, where the Katolin crown guard had hastily built palisades pointing both in- and outward.

 

In front of the inward barricade stood the Eveneran King. There was a cart behind him, covered in a tarp.

 

“Ezran!”, he called out, waving.

 

“What is going on?”, the Katolin King whispered at Aanya and she shrugged clandestinely.

 

“Good of you to join us, Sir!”, bellowed Solveig, stepping past the crown guard to shake the King’s hand, “We have a great deal to discuss. You need to join us.”

 

“Actually, once I’m done saying my piece here, we probably won’t have to spend a long time talking”, Jorge said, anguished, “Ezran was right. I was wrong. There. I said it. Apology over.”

 

Solveig’s expression flickered, going from enthusiasm to hatred to plain in a finger’s snap.

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“One of my mages did a thing. We found this”, he showed them the shoulder blade with the dark magic rune, “If it had been Moonshadow Elves, this would be the rune for moon. It’s not.”

 

“We can see that”, Falconer Ebro said, smugly, “So, you will stand down your troops and continue the talks?”

 

“Ebro, you can cram your attitude where the sun don’t shine”, Jorge shouted at him, “Take my apology with some grace, you birdbrained dolt!”

 

Ebro seemed affronted, but said nothing more.

 

“Look, I brought something. I’m sorry to say that we already kinda started… cutting. But everything’s still there. It took a bit to, uh, find the parts and make them look nice.”

 

The Eveneran King moved the tarp on the cart to reveal a dragon’s lightless eyes.

 

“There were ten, Ezran.”

 

The Katolin King wanted to kiss Jorge. The fact that he had this feeling disgusted him more than any of Callum and Rayla’s face-sucking exploits or the nightly meals of bugs.

 

Trying hard to control his explosive happiness, Ezran simply said, “Thank you. So, so much”, then he turned to speak to all the assembled royals and bannermen, “If nobody here has any objections, I would like to bring Prime Legate Janai into this, to receive the dragon’s body.”

 

Solveig scoffed, walking off. One issue managed, the next one was already on the horizon. Maybe this one could be Aanya’s problem.

 

Amaya went to get the elf, returning shortly after.

 

“I’m super sorry about the… slicing and stuff”, Jorge offered, sheepishly.

 

“Once more I have to admit to being surprised”, Janai said plainly, “I had told Ezran this shortly before you barged in on us, E-Excellency, but I understand quite well what you are giving up here. The gesture is majestic, no matter the state of the body.”

 

The slight stutter of hesitation in the honorific sent a small smile to Ezran’s face. Keep it up, Janai.

 

After having his people push the cart into the courtyard where a suspicious Amaya and Gren inspected the corpse thoroughly, Jorge rubbed the back of his neck, “I did what I came to do. So now I’m gonna gooo…?”

 

Aanya smirked, “Why, Jorge, I am impressed. You showed real grace today.”

 

“Don’t push it, dwarf”, he said over his shoulder, walking away, “I’m not a fan of all this and won’t be around to suck up to the Bruisers. But I can admit when I’m wrong.”

 

When he was out of earshot, riding off with his honor guard, Aanya turned to Ezran.

 

“Well. He’s still a rude piece of work, but at least he’s out of our hair.”

 

“Sure. Speaking of, I should really be going. Are you going to be alright here?”

 

She nodded, firmly, extending a hand. “I’ll keep the kids from burning down the house.”

 

Ezran shook with her. “Thanks. I’ll send you a raven whenever I get a moment. Please do, too.”

 

Aanya nodded, then gave him a quick hug. “It’ll be good Ez. You’re doing really well.”

 

“Sure. I’ve had great teachers, like you. Thanks, Aanya. I’ll be in touch.”

 

With this, he sent Corvus to fetch his bags and collected his crown guard.

 

Where he was going, he would probably need them.



Chapter Text

Midnight rolled around. October 3rd. Solveig was squeezing the life out of a small but rare Xadian creature. It’s panicked squeaks died down, in time for the bowl in front of him to catch purple fire.

 

“Good evening”, said the fire, “What is it?”

 

“Kel is dead. The Katolin brat all but confirmed it.”

 

“Hm. Her age must have gotten the better of her. I should have guessed she would not be able to stand up to the assassin. Do we know their whereabouts?”

 

“Ezran is a talkative boy, so yes, somewhat. Somewhere near a mountain range. There apparently are hot springs and tentacle-like trees everywhere. Mean anything to you?”

 

The flame seemed to think, there was the rustle of pages.

 

“It’s likely to be the Wall of Fire, the trees and hot springs are described in Kindulathin’s `Maps and Features of the Plains of Korhal`. It makes sense for them to take the pass, if it still exists.”

 

“So, deep behind Xadian lines at this point.”

 

“It is. Minister, I say again; We can’t let them return the whelp. It is far too powerful to allow it into Xadian hands and much too potent to ignore its uses. Strange they haven’t handed the dragon over to the elves yet.”

 

The flame flickered, as though it was considering something.

 

“I was really hoping Kel would do what my children would not. No matter, they are not so far as to be without my reach now that I have… capacities.”

 

Solveig frowned.

 

“Your `reach`? Arms length, from what I can see. Why would you travel to Taelin? No elves to be killed there.”

 

The fire scoffed.

 

“You musn’t be rude, Solveig. The fact that my spell annihilated a large piece of the Xadian Auxilia should be good enough for you.”

 

“And yet, they are well enough to receive gifts from our dumbest ally.”

 

“Hm? What do you mean?”

 

“De Peverell. He’s given them the dragon we had him stash. Found out about your little trick through indection. Fact that it took them so long to hit upon it only shows we’re dealing with children and idiots.”

 

“While the loss of the material is unfortunate, I am no longer troubled by the failure of that awkward first ruse, Minister. Simpler plans will suffice.”

 

“Simpler plans? Such as whipping up a rebellion of the rabble against their child king? He’s coming for you, you know.”

 

“Well, well!”, the flame snickered, “To be frank, I do not think of them as rebels, Solveig.”

 

“I don’t follow.”

 

“They are”, the weakening flame flickered and went out, allowing only for a single additional word:

 

“Bait”

 

Chapter Text

There was a howl of wind outside, seeping into the tent. Unlike the last two weeks, it was not warm. Rayla and Callum got up and dressed. It wasn’t enough to stave off the cold.

 

“Let’s grab the winter gear”, Rayla said with chattering teeth, leaving the tent.

 

Outside, they realized that the cold wind was blowing right into the cave, displacing the steam that had kept them warm that night. Outside the shelter, hail was falling, clattering against the rocky floor and playing the spines of cacti like a section of discordant Xylophones.

 

In the back of the cave, their Perytons stood, miserably eyeing the weather.

 

Their winter clothes were mostly still stuffed in the deepest parts of their backpacks, so they ended up spreading the rest of their equipment out.

 

Callum turned the Key of Aaravos in his hands before replacing it in his bag. Hopefully it wouldn’t turn out just to be a nice little bauble. For a moment he could’ve sworn it pulsed at his touch.

 

Rayla and the prince put on the winter uniforms she had gotten from Alissa.

 

Zym seemed to love the change in weather, trying to catch specks of hail that clinked against his scales.

 

“Are we going out there?”, Callum asked.

 

“Yeah! It’s just a little hail!”, Rayla scoffed.

 

She grabbed her doe by the leads and guided her outside where she mounted up.

 

“Come on, dummy.”

 

He grumbled, grabbing his stag and following her outside.

 

It was miserable, but at least the heavy winter clothes kept them warm and dry. They also kept most of the hail from pelting their skin, even though it still hit their faces.

 

The Perytons didn’t seem too happy, either, snorting and huffing in the cold as they ascended further into the hills.

 

About two hours later, they came across the first crossing, where two other roads joined their path. Maybe because of the weather, there were no other travelers.

 

Another hour later, the hail got worse.

 

“Must be the storm that we saw from down there”, Rayla yelled over the cacophony of ice pellets peppering needles and spines all around them, “We need to find shelter!”

 

“I told you we should’ve stayed put!”, he complained.

 

“Come on, my coddled Prince! It’s still not too bad! I’m worried about the stags, is all!”

 

They found some shelter under a massive toppled tree’s roots. Zym was still dancing in the hail with abandon, so happy that little sparks were coming off his cheeks.

 

“At least someone is havin’ fun”, Rayla said, smiling, “He’s a real bright spot.”

 

Suddenly, Zym froze in place, peering in a direction ahead of them. He seemed very focussed, elongating his neck to try and catch a glimpse of whatever it was. Rayla stared at the same place and unholstered her blades.

 

Callum was confused, but didn’t say anything.

 

Like this, they sat for a tense moment, until Zym relaxed and returned to his frollicing.

 

“What was that?”, Callum whispered.

 

Rayla shrugged, still trying to find whatever had disturbed her, “It feels like there’s somethin’ out there. I had that feelin’ yesterday, too. It’s there - and then not. Weird. I didn’t think much of it yesterday, just blamed bein’ sleepy.”

 

Callum gave her a worried look that she returned with a smile. “It might be some kind of animal. Don’t worry too hard about it. If it wanted us dead, it could’ve come for us this mornin’”

 

He did not like the mental image of a platypus bear or a family of skags showing up while they were sleeping.

 

A while later, the hail made room for cold rain and Rayla decided to keep moving.

 

They passed more crossings but still met no-one. This suited them just fine. The bulky winter clothes neatly obscured Callum’s otherness, but it was still better not to take chances.

 

Soon, the ranger station came into view. The mountains were now all around them. Callum strained his neck, looking upward only to find their tops totally obscured by clouds.

 

Rayla motioned for him to stay back a little while she approached the miserable looking, teenage elf standing watch over a closed turnpike.

 

“Greetin’s”, she said and the ranger lifted her hand without looking up, “The pass is closed?”

 

“Nah, the barrier’s stuck”, she said rudely, “Of course the pass is closed! You see this weather? Up there that’s all snow!”

 

“How much?”, Rayla asked, undeterred.

 

Looking up, the ranger peered in her face and Rayla believed to see a light flush bolt across the young earthblood elf’s face before she blinked, looking down. She then stuttered “A-around four f-feet. Too deep to ride through, anyway.”

 

Rayla thought for a moment. Four wasn’t so bad. Aspiro would likely clear it, neatly.

 

“Do you trade for provisions?”, she asked, knowing the answer.

 

“Is water wet? Of course we do! This is a ranger station! That’s all we do! Move this barrier, get soaked and trade foo…”, she trailed off, becoming aware of Rayla’s fiendish smirk, “Very funny. How much?”

 

“Week’s worth, three people.”

 

“Three?”, she said, glancing between her and Callum confusedly.

 

Rayla threw a hand at her prince, “He eats a lot.”

 

The ranger waved for her to dismount and walked inside the station, Rayla in tow.

 

Inside, another earthblood sat, cradling his sleeping baby.

 

“I’ll handle her”, the ranger told him.

 

They quickly figured out a fair trade for two bags of feed as well as three ration packs.

 

When Rayla handed over the small gems she’d been collecting, the ranger seemed to make a concerted effort to touch her hand.

 

“W-”, the woman stuttered, “Are you, like... with the other r-rider?”

 

“Huh? What do you mean?”

 

The ranger squirmed while behind Rayla, the man laughed.

 

“She’s asking if your friend is your summand.”

 

“N… no?”, Rayla stuttered, “B-but we are… sharing the Bloom.”

 

The ranger was visibly disappointed, “Oh. It’s that moon elf mating ritual thing, right? Uh, never mind then, ha ha!”

 

Rayla flushed slightly, only now understanding what was going on. Discomfort rose in her and she turned on her heels to leave.

 

“Uh, bye”, she said, then quickly walked back to her mount, stowed the rations and feed and hopped in the saddle without looking back.

 

Without a word of explanation, she spurred her animal and galloped around the still closed barrier.

 

Callum followed quickly and eventually caught up.

 

“What’s wrong?”, he half-shouted over the din of their animal’s hooves.

 

“Nothin’! Uh, I think she…”, Rayla laughed brightly, “I think she was interested in me!”

 

Callum blinked, an odd anger rising in his stomach. “I understand the feeling!”, he shouted, trying to ignore it.

 

Rayla gave him a look of loving appreciation that he wouldn’t soon forget. It wiped the sour blaze from his stomach.

 

In front of them, the terrain now rose steeply, the road looping back on itself as it ascended to make the mountains scalable.

 

An hour later, they had reached the top of the first section of the pass, arriving on a rocky plateau devoid of larger plants. There was a lot of colourful moss all over and Callum spotted several Precious Whites. Some of the bad weather was now below them, only beautiful, blue sky directly above. Sadly, there were more dark clouds ahead of them. The wind was still cold and everything was dusted in snow and frost.

 

“Let’s have lunch”, Rayla said and dismounted. The sun had already advanced past its zenith and Callum felt his stomach jump for joy at the suggestion. Now that he was up here, he also wanted to look for the plants he was missing before moving on from the windward side of the mountains.

 

“I’ll be back in a bit”, he told Rayla who looked at him, confused.

 

“Where are you goin’?”

 

“I won’t go far. Just wanna look around a bit.”

 

His girlfriend blinked, a hint of realization on her face.

 

“Gotta use the washroom?”

 

“I won’t be long, I promise.”

 

With that he walked off; she was left to her own devices.

 

It suited her fine as she had her own plans.

 

While he walked, he quickly ate his lunch, scanning the ascending walls of the mountain plateau. A gust of warm, wet air hit him. This was probably steam from the hot springs.

 

He noticed a stand of red flowers, their thick petals like sails, drifting in the wind. They were attached to a bit of earth that had fallen into cracks in the steep walls, protected by an overhang.

 

Telis.

 

He tied a rope from his pack around his waist and around a jutting boulder, making sure everything was nice and tight. Then, he descended.

 

He cut the flower’s hair-like stems with his knife, then scanned his surroundings, making a point of not looking down.

 

Under the overhang hid a sad looking exemplar of Invertim, its white petals partially fallen off.

 

It wasn’t an easy feat, getting to the prickly plant that hung from the earthy floor of the outgrowth. When Callum cut the sturdy stem, the motion made his foot slip and for a terrifying second, he thought he was going to fall.

 

In his haste to grab on to the wall, he cut his hand with his own knife. It wasn’t too bad, though, and he hadn’t lost anything of value, still holding on to both plants and the tool.

 

Carefully, he climbed back up, trying to ignore the pulsing pain in his arm.

 

As he climbed over the edge, something caught his eye. About Nine feet above him on a rockface, an painfully orange bloom sat in the hot, wet breeze ascending the mountain wall.

 

“No way!”, he gasped, his heart thumping in his throat. Heavy seed head. Violently orange petals. This was a beautiful, out of season Salis Anur!

 

He put the other plants in his pack and eyed the cliff.

 

“Doable”, he decided and started climbing, paying very close attention to where he was stepping now that he didn’t have a rope to catch him.

 

He reached the plant and hugged the wall, not wanting to make the same dumb mistake, he brought out his knife and very carefully cut the stem.

 

Coming loose from its roots, the plant drifted upwards. Callum was not surprised by this. He had actually expected the pull to be harder, given that the petals were the length of his arm.

 

The prince now carefully made his way toward the ground. As he left the stream of hot air, the heavy seed head fell past him and he clung to the wall, not wanting to get dragged down with it.

 

The last few inches were trepidatious. He was betting on something going wrong. It felt like a higher power was watching him, annoyed at his continued success.

 

With elation, he threw the plant in his bag and more skipped than walked back to where he’d left Rayla.

 

This was all beyond fortunate. Well, maybe safe for his bleeding hand.

 

That was annoying.

 

Rayla was not where he had left her. Maybe she’d had the same idea?

 

He sat to finish his meal and hadn’t been at it for long when she returned.

 

“I see you ran into a bit of trouble relievin’ yourself?”, she said, nodding at his wound.

 

“Ah, just cut myself on a rock, it’s nothing bad.”

 

“Sure”, she said sternly, rummaging in her saddle bag and producing a glass container with a clear liquid inside.

 

It burned when she applied a few drops to the wound to clean it.

 

“That cut looks a bit too clean to be from a rock…?”, she asked, with bemused suspicion.

 

“It was a sharp rock”, he lied, barely able to hide his excitement, suddenly noticing a dull heat in his joints.

Chapter Text

Not knowing what the situation would be in town, Amaya had stopped the King’s entourage an easy half-hour outside Taelin where they had rested for a while.

 

Their travel time had been stretched thanks to a cart breaking down on the road.

 

She had forged ahead with a small detachment of the crown guard, Gren and Corvus to check it out.

 

The gates were closed.

 

‘Corvus’, Amaya signed, ‘This looks like a job for you.’

 

The tracker used his chain to quickly ascend the battlements. It was evening, the night shift wouldn’t be on duty just yet. Thus, he had expected a much larger number of soldiers to man the wall.

 

There were two people in plain clothes milling about the door mechanism who didn’t even give him the chance to introduce himself.

 

They threw themselves at Corvus, forcing him to defend his life. One of his attackers’ blades tangled in his chain and got janked from the man’s hand. The woman struck at his weapon’s head, her blow getting deflected quite easily.

 

Corvus unfurled the chain and the sword that was tangled whipped through the air, striking his male attacker in the head, pommel first. He dropped to the ground.

 

His other attacker fared much better, their strikes colliding once more with little effect. As they tussled, Corvus asked, “What are you doing? We’re on the same side!”

 

“You killed him!”, the woman shouted, renewing her attack. The sheer brunt of her fury broke through the tracker’s guard and her sword sliced at his shoulder, tearing through his light armor.

 

He did not take long to retaliate, but failed to connect with his nimble opponent.

 

“You’re very good!”, he said honestly.

 

“So was my brother! Before Ezran killed him, pointlessly, threw his life right out! You’re a soldier! Why do you stand by him? All he’ll do is get you killed!”

 

She once again swung at him, but he sidestepped her attack and landed a manual blow to her stomach that knocked the air out of her lungs. Her blade skipped off the wall and fell out of reach.

 

The woman slumped to the ground.

 

“Why”, she wheezed, “Thi-nk abo-ut wh-o you’re s-serving!”

 

“I am. I’m convinced of his mission. What happened at the breach wasn’t his fault, more likely than not it was the man whose vitriol you fell for.”

 

“Vitriol?! Viren told us the truth! Ezran did nothing as the dragons attacked! He kept our army holed up to defend his own skin! Kept them huddled up for easy pickings rather than scattering them!”

 

Corvus bristled. It was true. They should have done this rather than retaliating against the dragons. Hindsight etched a mark of guilt into his heart.

 

“It’s easy to see that now! In the moment, we were busy defending ourselves! If Viren hadn’t attacked, none of this would’ve happened! His magic was killing hundreds if not thousands of elves! The dragons’ attack was an answer to his insane provocation!”

 

“So you’re telling me that Viren was the only one with enough sense to kill the soldiers who threaten our borders?!”

 

“No! He’s the one making it so we have to defend it in the first place! Please, the King is here. He wants to talk to you all. Explain himself.”

 

There was a strange expression on her face that Corvus didn’t know how to interpret, so he chose one of many possibilities.

 

“Yes! You heard that right! In person!”

 

The tracker helped her up, then went to check on the man. He was alive, a shining bruise pulsing on his forehead.

 

“What’s your name?”, Corvus asked his conscious assailant.

 

“Elaine.”

 

“This is important to him, Elaine. He feels the responsibility you assigned him, even though he had no choice in assuming it.”

 

“I’m a lawyer! I understand guilt when I see it proven!”, she said, firmly.

 

Corvus admitted to himself that he might want to have a bit of a conversation with this lady who seemed to be close to his age, once this was over.

 

“What are you doing up here, then? Aren’t there others better suited to play lookout?”

 

Elaine frowned, closing her lips tightly.

 

His glance wandering over the empty streets in the background, a flash of hot realization shocked into Corvus’ eyes.

 

Without another word, he leapt over the side of the wall, catching himself using his chain. Then, he took off running to where Amaya’s detachment was waiting for him.

 

“We need to go back!”, he yelled from afar, “It’s a tr--”

 

All around them, dark shadows warped into existence, drawing swords of purple fire. One materialized right in Corvus’ path. It toppled him with a surprising blow to his chest. Then the shadow’s blade came down toward him, but he managed to roll out of the way.

 

Further ahead, he could see Amaya battling two shadows at once, with little success, seeing as her strikes would not connect with the ghastly bodies, merely smearing and dragging them about.

 

To his right, Corvus noticed a burly shape in the trees, clad in fur and heavy armor.

 

Solveig’s eyes glowed purple, his face seemed grey and cracked.

 

Corvus had to play for time, now. He was hoping that the detachment that had remained with Ezran was faring better.

 

--

 

Ezran was scrambling to find a safe spot, ducking under a foldable table while around him, his people were attacking each other. He looked around, between their moving legs, and found nothing to do. He could not let this happen.

 

“Bait, go hide!”, he told his friend, then came back out from under the table.

 

“Stand down!”, he ordered, “I surrender!”

 

Aghast stares came from both guard and rebel, but the din of battle subsided.

 

“I can’t watch you kill each other. What kind of King would I be if I put my life over yours?”

 

“A smart one”, said Viren, stepping into the circle of fighters, “I can’t believe you’ve taken the lessons of history so poorly, Ezran. Even your father let his soldiers fight for him.”

 

“It’s not that I--”

 

“Silence!”, Viren shouted, cutting him off, “You will stand trial for your weakness! Your inability to defend your people.”

 

“If I had my way, they wouldn’t have to fi--”

 

The high mage’s silencing spell stole the Kings’ voice, it flittled happily into Viren’s hand where he caught it and the severed claw that held it in an ornate glass bottle.

 

“As I said; Shut up”, Viren said dangerously, “It is time you listen, boy.”

 

To the bristling honor guard he said, “Put down your weapons or suffer the consequences.”

 

The guards looked at Ezran who nodded, gruffly. Better him than them. Without Amaya or Gren, nobody here would understand his signs.

 

Reluctantly, the Crownguard dropped their blades and stood aside while Viren’s rebels led Ezran outside.

 

After a moment of walking briskly and quietly into the falling night, the man to Viren’s right started talking, visibly uncomfortable.

 

“High Mage, I really wonder now if we’re doing the right thing. He sacrificed himself. He doesn’t seem like the selfish king you described.”

 

Viren sighed. The boy’s naive pacifism was costing him. His plan had somewhat hinged on the idea that his untrained civilian and under-equipped town guard allies would fall to Ezran’s elite force in large numbers, fuelling the rage these people already felt at their losses at the Breach. As it stood, only two of them were even wounded.

 

“Armand, he knows that making this impression could save his hide. Don’t underestimate him just because he is a child. I educated him myself. He’s apt at politicking, knows the rules of manipulation. As a monarch, a dictator, he has to”, Viren stopped, giving his best reassuring smile, “We voted on this action. We shall vote on all others we take.”

 

Armand seemed mollified and Ezran cursed Viren silently since that was the only course of action he had left.

 

As the walk continued, the group started splitting up in different directions, confusing and splitting would-be trackers.

 

“Five days”, Viren had told them all, “Then we all meet back at the `place`. Good luck.”

 

Finally, there were only him, Armand and Ezran.

 

“Armand”, Viren said, finally, “I will see you at the meeting.”

 

“Indeed. Nothing but success, Speaker Viren”, the man said and jogged off to their right.

 

After he had vanished from view, Viren walked a few more steps to where the ground turned rocky. There, he cast a spell that consumed the furry foot in his hand and sucked the color from his face.

 

Impressions of boots appeared in the soft ground ahead, making it look as though they had continued walking in that direction.

 

After about another half-hour of walking, Viren turned again, confusing Ezran. This was the direction in which he knew Taelin to be.

 

They marched quickly, Viren hustling him along.

 

“People love power, Ezran”, he started in a tone that Ezran recalled fondly from past lessons, “If you give them a little, they will want more. Give them a justification for the feeling and they will seize it, however small their increase in power may seem”, the mage smiled at him, tepidly, “It looks like the most important lesson I was able to draw from elven society is that it doesn’t matter who holds the right to make decisions; all that matters is who commands influence over them.”

 

The young King felt anger and frustration. They used to have a fairly good relationship. Viren had been - and still was - a scholar, a great teacher.

 

Viren scoffed. “Democracy! The unqualified ruling over the uninterested! An overly verbose mode of government, no better or worse for the people than a careless king. In many ways, it’s even more convenient for schemers like you and I since one can hide behind a wall of voiceless, brainless nobodies. There’s no accountability for a politician’s mistakes like there is for a King’s.”

 

Ezran believed to see the moonlit spires of the city gleaming in the distance when Viren finally stopped to tie him to a tree.

 

The mage left for what felt like hours.

 

When he returned, there was a grim but satisfied expression on his unnaturally gray face.

 

Between the fingers of one of his hands danced a coin, the other held two jelly tarts.

 

He untied the king and handed one of them to him.

 

“I’m sorry. I’m doing this for our survival as a race, Ezran. Please try to understand, you’re destroying us.”

 

Ezran shook his head and jabbed a finger at his forehead, repeatedly. Nonetheless, he hungrily ate the pastry. Viren pensively nibbled at his.

 

“Opeli”, the high mage remarked, “I hear through the grapevine that she’s had a bit of a… disagreement with you. Do you think it might have `adjusted` her attitude towards me?”

 

Ezran finished eating, then stuck out his persimmon-colored tongue at his kidnapper.

 

Viren shrugged. “Ah, well. I’ll just have to convince her”, he sighed sadly and ate the last bite of this pastry, “I suppose here’s our last meal together, finished.”

 

He raised his staff, joylessly pointing it at the boy who eyed it and him with shocked incredulity.

 

“Forgive me, Ezran.”

 

Moments later and miles away, Zym spasmed in his sleep.



Chapter Text

It was the middle of the night when Zym started convulsing, waking both Rayla and Callum with a start. They had settled down in the windshade of an ascending mountain flank, right where the longest part of the pass started in earnest.

 

“What’s wrong with him?!”, Rayla yelled, trying to see if there was something stuck in the little dragon’s mouth, opening his eyes to check for bloodshot and testing the flexibility of his limbs.

 

Callum sneezed loudly, startling her further. “I don’t know! What do we do?”

 

Zym’s violent spasming subsided and after a moment of breathing heavily on the floor, he got up to shake himself, whining while his glance wandered between them.

 

Rayla cradled the little dragon and tried to calm him down.

 

“What could this mean?”, she asked her boyfriend, worriedly.

 

Callum groaned, his voice saturated with fear. “I really hope this is just him having night terrors about bugs and not something happening to Ez.”

 

Rayla nodded, then did a double take in his direction.

 

“Oh no, dummy, you look terrible!”

 

“Figures”, he sniffled, “It was all going a bit too well, lately”

 

Rayla nodded sternly.

 

“We should use our last shadow hawk. Find out what’s goin’ on. This is really important.”

 

“What if it’s ju--ah?--”, he sneezed, “what if it’s just nightmares?”

 

His girlfriend shook her head. “We’re gonna drive ourselves crazy with worry if we don’t check.”

 

It was true. The questions were already pelting Callum’s mind, the assault only dulled by the feeling of wool stuffed in his head.

 

“Okay. We’ll put together a letter for Amaya. Ugh! This is my second cold in a month!”, he coughed with a rattle and dug in his pack for the medicine they had gotten in Larwein. The white pills had worked wonders the first time and he hoped it would be similar now.

 

“Not too surprisin’. I’m gonna go through the same thin’ once I spend some more time in Katolis. There’s so many diseases here you haven’t picked up before.”

 

Zym had recovered, enjoying her pets. Callum took two of the pills and rolled up in his bag, wracked by worry for his brother and the dragon.

 

He knew he should feel warm in the well-padded sleeping bag, but he still shivered miserably.

 

Rayla carefully swaddled Zym into a saddle blanket and went over to check on Callum.

 

“Are you cold in there?”, she asked, concerned.

 

“Yeah. Feels like I’m lying outside.”

 

He was hot to her touch, more so than usual. His skin was clammy and pale.

 

“You really caught it this time, dummy”, she said sadly, petting his hair.

 

He harrumphed in answer, his teeth chattering.

 

She wrote a quick letter, detailing their situation, then read it out to him.

 

“Sorry Callum. You’re gonna have to send it off to Amaya.”

 

Her boyfriend wrestled himself from his sleeping bag, put on all his winter clothes and followed her outside into the freezing night.

 

He shook dramatically, drawing concerned glances from Rayla.

 

She handed him the bow and arrow and pointed him in the right direction.

 

“General Amaya!”, he shouted, imagining her face. The arrow losened, described an arc, then fell to the ground.

 

“No!”, Rayla’s shock escaped her, loudly.

 

“What? Did I do it wrong?”, Callum asked, sniffling.

 

She swallowed, hard.

 

This was going to be so very difficult.

 

“Love”, she started, holding on to both his hands and giving him an empathetic glance, “I-I don’t know how else to say this but-- but, when this happens, there’s three different reasons why it might. Either the person is warded, like I was, they’re unreachable by air or --”

 

“Dead. She’s dead, isn’t she?”, he completed her sentence, miserably.

 

“We don’t know that. Try someone else.”

 

She picked up the arrow while Callum sniffled.

 

“Commander Gren!”, he shouted. The arrow flew off the sinew and fell to the ground.

 

“This is getting old fast”, Callum said, close to tears.

 

“Try again!”, Rayla said, now utterly alarmed.

 

“Corvus, Lord of Crows!”

 

Thwack.

 

“Again!”

 

“King Ezran!”

 

Thwack.

 

“Callum, try ag--”

 

The prince flung the bow into the falling snow and yelled, “They’re all dead?!”

 

She held him while he cried, trying very hard not to well up herself.

 

“Is there anyone else you can think of? Helmond?”

 

“No guarantee he’s still on our side or at the Breach, if they were killed. I could send it to the royals at the Twin Towers, but who knows how they feel about Ez or me right now!”

 

Rayla sighed, then very reluctantly said, “Claudia?”

 

Callum looked at her, consumed with hopelessness. “I guess we can try. I’m not sure how helpful it’ll be. They’re probably miles away from the border and we’ll just have to hope that her conscience is as good as Ez told us.”

 

A tiny voice popped into his thoughts.

 

‘You still really hope she’s going to be redeeming herself, don’t you?’

 

The feeling connected to this voice made him feel… guilt?

 

What for?

 

He couldn’t quite tell under all the stress that was pelting him at the moment.

 

The prince added a message to the letter’s flipside to make it clearer to Claudia, then he picked up the bow and loosened the arrow, worried beyond description as to whether it would fly.

 

“Claudia!”

 

Mercifully, the arrow became self-propelled quickly, racing westward.

 

Callum watched it escape their view, then collapsed into Rayla’s reacting arms.

 

“I don’t want to do this anymore!”, he cried, flailing in her grip, “I’m finished! Done! I want to go home!”

 

After taking a deep breath, he screamed, his voice cracking, “EZRAN!”

 

He struggled and screamed agonized insults at the world while she dragged him back into the tent, tucking him into his sleeping bag where he curled up and cried. Ever so often, he would get wracked by sobbing coughs.

 

Rayla rummaged in her saddle bag and brought out the Auxilia sunfire device that had come in one of the templar’s saddle bags. She’d been conserving its power, opting to make actual bonfires instead.

 

Judging from the state of the primal gem powering it, it would be good for quite a few uses.

 

She pressed on the gem, shaving off a tiny sliver which dissolved in the channels of the device like magma. The sandstone device immediately heated up to fire-like temperatures.

 

The tent quickly became too hot for Rayla’s taste.

 

Callum still shook.

Chapter Text

Soren sat on a boulder. Behind him stood a tent in which Claudia rested peacefully while her brother stood watch.

 

Yawning, Soren continued his mindless carving. Soon, he’d get to wake her to change watches. The night was cold, so he wore a furry, thick coat over his armor. The collecting heat that shielded him from Del Bar’s mountain freeze also made him sleepy.

 

There was a whizzing sound in the air that alarmed the soldier and he stood, looking around.

 

An arrow flew past him, entered the tent and impacted close to Claudia’s face, startling her awake.

 

“Wha--”, she went, balking at the weapon, “Soren!?”

 

“I saw it! You okay?”, he shouted from outside where he was looking around to see where the attack had come from.

 

Claudia considered the arrow, noticing how odd its front was shaped. “I’m fine! Come look at this! I think we just got a message from an elf!”

 

Soren ducked inside, eyeing her, “Uh, did that hit you in the head or something?”

 

The mage fiddled with the head of the arrow, eventually finding the latch that opened its maw, allowing her to extract the message.

 

She unfurled it and raised her glowing hand to read it.

 

“Looks like this was meant to go to Amaya, Sorebear. Her name’s on this.”, she then noticed her name  in a different script, scribbled next to a note in a corner, “Hm. `Claudia, read flipside first.`”

 

She turned the page to find a shakily written paragraph.

 

“Ah, here. Hello Claudia, this is Callum. Rayla and I are far past the border in Xadia and the baby dragon just had some sort of fit. We tried to send this message to everyone we could think of who might be near the Breach, but couldn’t reach anyone. This might mean that Ezran, Amaya, Gren and Corvus are warded against magic, not reachable by air or d--”, she stopped short.

 

This was not how she had hoped hearing from him. She frowned.

 

“What’s wrong?”, Soren asked, placing a hand on her back.

 

“`Dead`, Soren. The next word is `Dead`”, she said, collecting herself for the rest of the letter, “You and Soren are the only other people I could think of. I don’t mean that to sound like an insult, but we didn’t exactly part on good terms”

 

Claudia put down the letter and gave her brother a sad glance.

 

Soren shrugged his sheepish agreement.

 

“Obviously I don’t know what you are up to. The last thing I heard was that you went to Del Bar to find your mom. I really hope that worked out for you.”

 

Both of them now sighed deeply. It had not.

Del Bar was a big place and they had had little to go on.

 

“It’s a lot to ask but we’re not due back for another month or so and I was hoping to have some sort of news from home before then. If you do decide to go back to the Breach and there’s still an armistice, find an elf named Helmond. He can get you arrows like the one we used to send this message and show you how to use them. By the way, if you were wondering if this is actually me writing, you should try eating some more peanut butter before doing your sky magic. Take care for now, and, in case you decide to go, thank you. Callum.”

 

She snickered sadly, fondly remembering a time when they had been on better terms.

 

Even though it was her reading his words, it felt like there was a certain disappointment at their broken relationship in his literary voice.

 

Maybe, though, that was her own?

 

Claudia handed the letter over to Soren.

 

“You read the other side”, she said, trying to control a powerful upset. The possibility of little Ezran being dead or in trouble really was a gut punch.

 

Her brother slumped to the ground, thinking. “Clauds, this is actually kinda good news, too.”

 

“What makes you say that?”

 

“It means the step-prince’s still kicking. I thought for sure he wasn’t gonna make it when I saw them carry him off after that whole dragon-thing.”

 

“You weren’t exactly in good shape, either, Sore-Sore.”

 

He scoffed, “No, but my eyes were working and my head was pointed right at you guys! I mean think about it, he’s been over there for over, like, three months now.”

 

Soren fist-pumped. “Unf! Yes! I’m such a good teacher! I taught him how to survive! Look how well he’s doing!”

 

“I get it!”, his sister said with a small smile.

 

He cleared his throat and started reading the other side of the letter, penned by a different hand.

 

“General Amaya. Zym had some kind of fit. Callum and I are worried something may have happened to Ezran.”

 

His sister blinked. “Is this written by the elf?”

 

Soren shrug-nodded, “I guess? Looks like she doesn’t write common script a lot. Anyway…”, he continued reading, “Please let us know if you have an idea of what’s going on. Our wounds are healing well.”

 

Claudia interrupted him again, “Wounds?! As in, `more than one`?! What have they been doing?!”

 

“Duh, they probably have to fight all the time! It’s elf land, right? Uh… ah. The oceanwave healer has helped us both a lot, mentally, and we’ve managed to bury the bounty hunter... ”, Soren trailed off, a surprised frown spreading on his mien.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Well, uh, says here that Callum... offed... someone.”

 

“What!?”

 

“...we’ve managed to bury the bounty hunter, Kel Ortis, who was killed by Callum. It’s terrible confirmation but I’m honestly a little relieved she’s dead, too. I was not looking forward to fighting her again.”

 

“Oh man, that sounds really terrible! `Ortis` is a Del Barian clan, Soren, she was human! I hope Callum’s alright. It took me a long time to get over killing--”, she cut herself off, then continued, “those, uh, fluffy Xadian things. Destroying another human life is probably way worse.”

 

She was not going to tell them how she had cured his paralysis. Soren would probably not appreciate the materials she’d used.

 

Her brother shrugged. “You do what’s necessary, though. If some bounty hunter came after us, I wouldn’t worry too much if I cut them up. It’d be their fault for messing with us.”

 

“Yeah, but this is Callum we’re talking about, Sorebear. He’s not a soldier.”

 

‘He’s my little weakling prince’, she thought to herself, sadly.

 

“Had to grow up fast, the kid. Kinda the same with Ez”, her brother frowned, then added quietly, “I guess we all did.”

 

Claudia nodded and Soren turned back to the letter.

 

“Uh… fighting her again. I should also mention that we’ve met Helmond’s family. If he’s still around, you might want to let him know that they are coming to see him. Either way, we’re making good progress, and even though Callum seems to have caught a flu, we’ll be fine. We’re all stocked with medicine. Please be well. Rayla.”

 

“Yeah it really sounds like he’s having a terrific time in Xadia. Augh! I wish I could’ve just been smarter at grabbing them! If I hadn’t bungled so hard, he and Ez would be with us, safe!”

 

“Uh, Clauds…? If you hadn’t `bungled`, Dad would’ve probably killed them. Or told me to do it.”

 

She stared at him, frowning. It hurt to hear those words and to know that they were probably true.

 

“I mean, yeah, but if...“, she sighed, “If we hadn’t been so… aggressive with them, we could’ve come with. Helped them.”

 

‘Kept our dates going’, the mage continued, in thought.

 

Out loud, she said, “What do we do?”

 

“I dunno. I feel like we owe them. Do you think we’re close to finding something about mom?”

 

His sister shrugged. “So far we’ve been pretty unlucky. I’m not sure that’s gonna change.”

 

“Well, let’s go back to the Breach, figure out what’s going on?”

 

Claudia nodded, leaning for her bag to pull out her map.

 

“Hm. It looks like we could make it back to the breach in six, seven days. Five, if we really push it.”

 

Soren got up from his crouched position and extended a hand in her direction.

 

“Let’s push, then.”

Chapter Text

Jainai stood, watching as the reinforcing legion entered her camp, early on October 4th.

 

A haughty looking figure approached her and Temek quickly.

 

“Janai. Temek”, Yatende Otane greeted them curtly.

 

“Princeps. My condolences”, Temek replied.

 

Janai hung her head. “I am sorry, Otane. I was not able to prevent her death.”

 

The Yatende Vocant looked about, studying the number of soldiers remaining under her command.

 

“It appears she was but one of many. It hurts, Janai. Seeing this. Knowing she had no chance or a fight worth speaking of”, the man’s voice shook, he was clearly on the verge of tears, “I’ve never felt this. Where is her body?”

 

“I apologise. We gave all our fallen the common passage”, Janai said, “There were so many dead, Otane. I… did not want to put up any airs to distort our grief with more politics than I had to.”

 

Otane looked at her, a wet gleam in his eyes. After a moment of his soul piercing, white stare, he nodded, slowly.

 

“I believe she would have appreciated your situation. While I do not agree with your actions, it is done and fighting about it won’t undo it. I had simply hoped to see her once more.”

 

Temek shifted uncomfortably, then said, “Princeps, she fell from great height. Sky is known for lithe structure and hollow bones. It is better to remember her as she lived, not how she ended.”

 

Otana scoffed. “I will have to take your word for it, won’t I?”, he wiped his eyes, resolving to deal with his grief in solitude, “We need to focus on our current situation. I have orders to reinforce your push into the Pentarchy. It seems as though there has been no progress on this.”

 

“There hasn’t. As I said in my letter, we are upholding an armistice with the humans.”

 

“An armistice they broke with devastating results on both sides. Reading it was odd. Hearing and seeing it is odder”, Otane said and Janai’s expression froze, “Two weeks ago, I would have pushed you aside and made my way across the Breach with no further consideration of your letter’s arguments. However, I’ve recently come to re-evaluate my view on humans. I’ve met a Katolin prince, escorting the Dragon Prince! Comrades! He’s alive!”

 

Janai opened her mouth to acknowledge all this, but excitement had overtaken Otane and his words spilled forth, “The human himself though - You will likely have issues believing me, but he is connected to my source. I taught him several low-level invocations that he grasped far quicker than any other student I’ve ever taught!”

 

“We had indeed heard they met you. How are they?”

 

“You know of them?! Pluck me, then! You’ll have to tell me more, I didn’t have the time to converse! Where and how did he find the prince? Such a story, comrades! Ah, but”, he sighed, “I have done a great evil to the human. One of my Tribunes imprisoned him, making false assumptions about him harming his elven companion. She treated him in a fashion that is beneath us. I intend to discipline her entire platoon once she catches up with us.”

 

“Princeps - was this Tribune’s name `Lessa under Iowend`?”, Temek asked, placing a hand on his cheek with bemused worry, “I do not see her with you. My summand’s last letter indicated her attachment to your legion.”

 

“It was indeed Lessa.”

 

“Oh, I think I’m beginning to see the full picture now. The `Rayla` Helmond mentioned must be the Dragon Guard’s brat. Lessa is very protective of our charges, especially her first one. She still talks about her. Took care of the little girl for years when she was a newborn. You know how they get with duty, these moon people!”, he scoffed with a laugh and a twinge of sadness, “Please tell me at least our current foster Honsa is with you.”

 

“No, she also stayed behind. The aforementioned imprisonment had some unfortunate effects on Prince Callum that she is looking to rectify. I will count this in your summand’s favour later, Legate.”

 

Temek’s mien sagged. He had really looked forward to seeing at least part of his family.

 

“Unfortunately our main contact on the human side had to turn inward. It looks like the man responsible for this massacre is attempting to sabotage King Ezran from the inside. We’ve found a replacement, but Queen Aanya is a bit of an unknown quantity, still. So far, she’s been an avid supporter of peace and even handed in her dealings. She was hoping to see you, in person”, Janai explained.

 

“It sounds like a good idea. I do not want to upset the delicate balance you seem to have set up. Unless something drastic develops, I don’t see a good reason to change our stance, even though the Senate commands it.”

 

“This is a dangerous game, friends.”, Temek said with a chortle, “We’ll all be court-martialed, no matter the outcome!”

 

“It is preferable to being responsible for the erasure of an entire species!”, Janai replied sternly, “Let’s keep in mind here that the standing order is essentially a thinly veiled instruction for genocide!”

 

“Believe me, comrades, when I say it is strange to hear the words spoken in my own voice, after all they’ve done”, Otane smiled grimly, giving him the appearance of a mad man, “I do not currently want to kill the pinkos.”

 

More evenly, he said, “Let’s then meet this person. Aanya, was it?”

 

“I’ll send for her, Princeps”, Temek said and walked off.

 

When he was out of earshot, Otane said, “Janai. We can’t do this for long. I passed the senate at Larwein. They are already wondering about news of battle. There are those among the ranking staff who would never change their minds on this situation and they are doubtlessly on the move. We must find some way to finish this peacefully, and quickly.”

 

Jainai pondered this, then said, “It would surprise me if they didn’t already know what’s going on here. My warlike regent knows, having bloodied his head against the humans’ fortifications. His Interpreters are likely to pass the information along.”

 

Otane growled with frustration.

 

“We shall then wait for their inevitable response.”

Chapter Text

Rayla carefully snuggled Callum awake. Once more, the medicine had allowed him a deep, restful sleep. Unlike last time, it hadn’t done much for his health otherwise.

 

She had spent the night too hot to sleep, taking several breaks in the freezing cold outside.

 

He still looked terrible, pale-faced and clammy, he eagerly emptied an entire canteen of water.

 

“Fawn”, he whispered, almost voiceless, “You look tired”

 

She shrugged. “Still better than you. Come on, we’ve got to make some progress. We can’t get stuck up here.”

 

Her boyfriend nodded and wrestled himself to his feet.

 

They broke camp slowly while snow was still drifting to the ground. The main part of the pass that would take them around four days to master was obscured by icy, grey fog.

 

They mounted up, nonetheless, Callum wrapped in all his clothes and his untied sleeping bag. With a click of their tongues, the Perytons started moving.

 

Around mid-day, they reached the highest point in the pass. From here, the trek would be harder due to the snow falling mostly on the downslope.

 

Using Aspiro, Callum cleared a path they could comfortably follow, the inclement weather aiding his sick lungs.

 

They ate a neglectful lunch in the saddle, quietly advancing through the falling snow. At least the natural wind had died, bringing the perceived temperature up by quite a few degrees.

 

A side effect of this was, though, that the world seemed to have stopped turning. There was a sniffle or a cough from Callum here and there. The snorting, stomping and huffing of their animals.

 

Other than that, the voices of life were stifled in snow.

 

Night would come far quicker than they wished and Rayla started looking for a good place to settle down.

 

She eventually pointed in the direction of a dark hole in the ground.

 

It looked like this shelter was in frequent use. Someone had left a nice pile of firewood in a corner and there were bits and pieces of coal and ash strewn all over the place.

 

Being as shallow as it was, the cave was easy to scan, showing no signs of any dangerous animals.

 

Rayla led their Perytons inside and helped Callum off his mount.

 

They hadn’t interacted much all day so once she had stripped off the sleeping bag, she hugged him tightly and planted a kiss on his lips.

 

He sniffled, petting her hair while smiling sadly at her exhausted, bloodshot eyes. All this passed without a single word. It seemed like neither of them knew what to say, anyway.

 

While he sat on the ground, trying to set the fire, she put together the tent. Zym seemed confused, aimless. He simply watched them from the saddle bag he’d been in all day.

 

Callum finally managed to get the fire going and roasted some of the lembas from their ration packs, to be eaten with some leftover cheese from Otark’s farm.

 

When he turned to look for his girlfriend, he couldn’t find her. He went to open the tent’s flap and an adoring smile spread across his tired face.

 

Rayla was sleeping, using her plush bag as a pillow. The prince had to admit that he would’ve loved to let her rest, knowing that she had watched over him the night before, but he also felt it necessary to feed her and to make sure she wasn’t cold tonight.

 

Rocking her gently, he woke her. She received the food with an exhausted frown and ate quickly.

 

Then, she pulled out the sunfire device.

 

“Don’t”, Callum said, placing a hand on her wrist, his hoarse, stuffy voice sounding odd after the long quiet.

 

“You’re not cold anymore?”

 

He shrugged half-heartedly. “I don’t want you to be uncomfortable. I know you were. You need some sleep, fawn.”

 

It looked like she was winding up to disagree, but then she caught his gaze.

 

Nodding slowly, she put the device on the ground. “I guess they are not meant for this sort of thin’. If you get too cold, turn it on. Promise me.”

 

“I promise”, he lied.

 

She extended a hand his way, petting his face. Her expression was worried, but full of endearment.

 

“How are you holdin’ up?”

 

The prince shrugged sadly.

 

“I’m not. Feels like I’m teetering on a knife’s edge.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“Hm, it’s a bit like when I was locked in the cart. Didn’t know what was going on. I thought you were gone, but couldn’t really find out if it was true. I don’t know. Just seems like the smallest bit of information one way or the other is going to… either smash the raw egg that is me for good or give me the power to just forge through.”, his voice shook, “One moment I just want to cry, the next I feel hopeful. I hate that. It would be good to just have one feeling after another, not all at once.”

 

His girlfriend drew him into a tight hug and he returned it, desperately.

 

“My little brother, Rayla! He’s my baby brother!”, he cried hoarsely.

 

“I know”, she said soothingly, petting his hair. The truth was that she felt this pain herself, having gotten more and more used to this idea of eventually being part of his family. Amaya’s letters had been such a source of warmth in their lives. Even given their history the idea that they could be hurt made her stomach turn.

 

They spent a few long minutes like this, until he sat up to blow his nose.

 

“I don’t wanna keep you up. Get some rest”, he ordered.

 

She nodded sadly and slipped into her sleeping bag. They kissed each other good night and Callum ducked outside, coughing. He wasn’t quite done with his day, even though he would have liked nothing better than to get into his own bag. His thoughts would keep him locked in a chokehold right now. Anything was better than that.

 

He collected some snow from outside and boiled it over the fire, then filtered it though a bit of cloth to strain out debris. It was a good way to refill their empty canteens.

 

Zym was just as quiet as him and Rayla, seemingly mentally absent after eating a piece of lembas. The little guy simply sat, staring wistfully into the fire.

 

Callum put him in his lap and pet his smooth scales. There was such chaos in his mind, now. He had to work very hard to keep his mind from falling into the destructive habits he’d gained during his time in the cage.

 

At least he was able to recognize them now.

 

Not knowing what had happened to Ezran broke his heart, but his experience with Rayla’s presumed death had taught him how to control the panic that threatened to overwhelm him now.

 

The prince closed his eyes, thinking back to Honsa’s lessons and magic. Mediation was startlingly effective when under her spell. It had felt as though he’d done it for hundreds of years. Now, his breath kept escaping his focus and he had to gently lead himself back from tumultuous thoughts.

 

Eventually, he resigned from the activity. It helped but the effect was muted compared to doing it with Honsa around.

 

His fear for his remaining family was driving spikes into his head and heart and the only thing he could really focus on was work.

 

He dragged his bag closer, pulling out the plants he’d collected.

 

Spreading them out, he took stock, quietly mouthing the song.

 

Ismil at advent and Askander at ascent,

Take Etwer, Telis and Banther Incents,

By your interest’s eye.

 

Invertim and Salis Anur

Bring your pounding aching’s cure

To your interest’s eye.

 

Right.

 

After they had exchanged the first two flowers, he had broken protocol somewhat by asking his girlfriend about the process for making the incense. She had pulled out the thin book and translated a few passages for him which he had written down in his sketchbook.

 

He’d actually mostly forgotten about the book, assuming that she had used its instructions to fix the pendant. After realizing that the contents of it seemed unrelated, his curiosity had flared once more.

 

He started by crushing the bundle of now rather dry Banther Lilies. Their oily, flammable sap materialized reluctantly and threatened to set quickly.

 

Putting Rayla’s mortar and pestle aside, he grabbed his own. The dried Etwer was easy to grind into a fine powder, but the few seeds he was able to extract from the Telis’ seed head were less pliable.

 

The prince eventually poured the Etwer dust out of the mortar into the Banther Lilly mush. He realized how much the material smelled like oranges and cinnamon. Zym sneezed in his lap.

 

“Sorry, buddy.”

 

Callum coughed, then used brute force to crack the Telis seeds, bits of them pelting his face. He blinked, admitting that he should have worn safety goggles for this sort of thing. Not that he had any, but it was still worth noting for the future. The seed’s heavy, cedary smell was almost overpowering.

 

Sweating from effort and sickness, he mixed the powders into the unwieldy, resin-like substance. When it was homogenous, he formed small, rounded pyramids from it, setting them near the fire to dry. He turned them ever so often, to make sure they wouldn’t get too hot and catch fire.

 

As reward, he burned off the residue that remained in her mortar. It smelt amazing, filling the cave with a whiff of oranges, cedar and cinnamon. He couldn’t wait to burn one of the pyramids, now.

 

Turning his attention to the Invertim and Salis Anur, he sniffed. Rayla had told him that there was no recipe involving those two plants in the book, so he would have to be creative.

 

The Invertim was simply floral; sweet and heady. He knew that the tea that they’d enjoyed at Otark’s place had been made from it’s dried petals, so that’s how he would use it, too. He picked the thick petals and pressed them into his sketchbook, folded in half.

 

Salis Anur on the other hand smelled very nasty, almost like pickled lilac with a drop of sweat.

 

Hm. What to do? He picked one of the gigantic seeds from the Salis Anur, speared it on his knife and set it alight in the fire.

 

It burned green and smelled quite nice, like smoked caramel drops. The smell evoked a hot, comfortable feeling he couldn’t really place. Hm. Maybe Larwein - one of the bath salts?

 

Thinking back to the scenes there, the conversation with Helmond, the fight between templars and town guard - it all added to his anxiety. There were a few images in his mind that made him feel a bit better; Their foamy faces in the mirror, a sleepy Rayla in their shared bed.

 

Like her, the flower was a pleasure to look at, especially given the rough treatment it had received in his bag.

 

Obviously, it wouldn’t stay so for long and he resolved to process it into a form that was a bit more shelf stable. He didn’t feel like romance was in his range of emotion right now. Unless she decided to continue the ritual, he would hold off on it, too, until he felt better and had news of Ez.

 

How fortunate he’d been, having his left nostril open for sniffing. A sneeze took this sense from him while he used his knife to remove the many seeds from the flower.



After he’d squared it all away and watched the fire burn to embers, he decided it was time to face the consequences of going to bed.

Chapter Text

It was the afternoon of October 5th. Claudia and Soren were racing each other on the Road of Kings, the main route of traffic that tied together the entire continental Pentarchy.

 

Barrelling past annoyed merchants and movers with their laden carts, the landscape on the horizon was changing from the freezing mountains of Del Bar to the lush green of Duren. They would enter the Garden Nation shortly, the border crossing already visible in the middle distance.

 

When they arrived at the crossing, a guard stepped up to the barrier, motioning them to dismount.

 

“Your papers, please. State your business in Duren.”

 

Claudia handed over their passports. “We’re just passing through. My brother and I are going to the Breach.”

 

“Ma’am, that doesn’t strike me as a good idea”, the soldier said firmly, “We have reports of fighting and major loss of life at the border.”

 

“I didn’t say we’re going there for a vacation”, Claudia snickered, “We’re in a bit of a hurry.”

 

“I see. Well, I’ll be right back.”

 

The guard logged their data in a ledger inside the post, seemingly comparing it with a bunch of books that lay open on the same table.

 

When she returned, there was a cautious look on her face and Soren noticed her hand resting on the hilt of her sword.

 

“Ma’am. I’m sorry, you are not permitted to cross the border.”

 

Claudia blinked. “What? Why not?”

 

“Your names are listed as barred. I can’t tell you more than that. If you were to cross, you would be committing a crime.”

 

Next to them, the Del Barian guards looked over, suspiciously.

 

“We don’t have time for this. What can we do to get this cleared up?”, Claudia asked, placing her fists on her hips.

 

“You can file your protest with me and I can send a raven to the nearest magistrate. I’d expect your case to be processed early next month.”

 

“I’m a Katolin Crown guard”, Soren interjected, annoyance plain on his features, “Doesn’t that… count for something?”

 

The guard shook her head. “I’m sorry.”

 

“Well. Thanks”, Claudia said sarcastically, taking back their documents. They got back on their mounts and turned around. There was still the ferry to Katolis across the Valmar Bay.

 

Before they could move, their way was barred by Del Barian guards.

 

Soren’s annoyed frown deepened. “Let me guess. We’re not allowed to come back to Del Bar?”

 

“Worse”, the male soldier smirked, “You still are in Del Bar, therefore under our jurisdiction, so you will dismount and follow us. Both of you are under arrest.”

 

“Why?”, Claudia asked, again.

 

“You are being accused of rebellion and conspiracy against the five kingdoms.”

 

“Is this ‘cause of our dad?”, Soren asked, incredulous.

 

“Sir. I insist you dismount”, the female guard from Duren said, critically, drawing her sword. Behind her, her colleagues stepped out of the guard post.

 

Soren measured them up. Small fry.

 

“Clauds, what do you think?”, he said with a laugh.

 

His sister merely spurred her horse as answer.

 

Claudia and Soren’s animals vaulted the barrier to Duren without effort, quickly leaving behind the clamoring border guard.

 

“They’re gonna come after us.”, the mage said, looking over her shoulder.

 

“So what? We can take them.”

 

Claudia’s face hardened with determination. Their horses had been riding hard for a day and a half now without an extended period of rest. Soon enough they would have to stop to give them time to recover.

 

“Why did they let us cross the first time? Did dad mess up more?”, she asked her brother, not expecting a good answer.

 

“Dunno. I guess we’ll find out once we get to the border.”

 

Eventually, the road turned into the market street of a village, becoming incredibly busy. They had to slow down.

 

“Probably better if we dismount for a bit. The crowd will hide us”, said Claudia and they awkwardly shuffled off their mounts.

 

This was good for the horses, too, since it would allow them to catch their breaths a little.

 

“This is stupid”, Soren said, “Why would they lock us down like that? We didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

“It has to be dad. Whatever he’s doing is going to affect us, too.”

 

“I thought he was behind bars in Katolis, though?”

 

Claudia shrugged. “Maybe he got out. It’s dad, after all. He’s smart and determined.”

 

“I’m still annoyed they wouldn’t let us see him for longer. I really wanted to… ask him. About why he told us to do what he did. Without everyone around, I mean. We never really got a good answer, just his normal blah blah politics, blah blah servant stuff.”

 

“I don’t know, Sorebear. I feel like he’s told us the truth. He thinks Ezran is being naive trying so hard for peace when the Elves have made it clear they’re going to kill us whenever they get the chance.”

 

“That’s not what I mean. I get that. Killing attacking soldiers is okay. I just don’t think he told us the truth about why he wanted me to get rid of the princes. He could’ve just worked with the twerp, like he always did. Ez isn’t like the step-prince, he and dad were fine with each other.”

 

He stretched and looked at his sister expectantly.

 

“I guess. Yeah”, she nodded eventually, “He really took the craziest path. I know he loves us, a lot. His reaction in the cell showed that, too. I really wish the guards could’ve at least let us hug him in that moment. But he still said to focus on the egg, not you. It’s just... not like him. He’s intense, but I just can’t think of him as evil.”

 

Soren scoffed. “Yeah. That word’s reserved for moonshadow elves”

 

“I don’t know about that, either. From all we know, the elf who’s with Callum is alright.”

 

“That’s what you probably wanna think, but I’m still not sure if she’s not hexing him somehow.”

 

“They are illusionists, so, maybe? Ez just spoke highly of her. Ah, but, now that I think about it, they also spent a bit of time together so if Callum’s hexed, Ez could be, too. I just don’t get the letter then. Wouldn’t she want to keep him away from everyone? Again. I’m not sure.”

 

Her brother shook his head. “I’m losing track of all the stuff we’re not sure about.”

 

Claudia stopped short, frozen in place, a hand coming up to clasp over her mouth.

 

“What?”

 

“Soren. I know what dad did.”

 

Ahead of her on a wall behind a market stand was a picture of Viren, looking regal. She recognized the image immediately from one of the paintings at the Twin Towers.

 

“Wanted for `regicide`?”, Soren said, “What does that mean?”

 

Tears welled into Claudia’s eyes.

 

“He did what you didn’t want to. It means he killed a king or queen”

Chapter Text

Viren’s horse came to a stop in front of a lone guest house. Judging by his progress, he could reach the Twin Towers by tomorrow evening.

 

Opening the door, he immediately wished he had kept moving. There were six Katolin guards sitting at a table, drinking and playing cards. To make matters worse, he and them were the only patrons present.

 

While his face was altered by an Illusion cast by Aaravos, there weren’t a great many people in the Kingdom of Katolis that would walk about with a mage’s staff as well-known as his.

 

Either way, it was too late to turn around now without raising suspicion.

 

A few glances wandered his way as he tried to appear natural, stepping inside and approaching the bar.

 

The guards didn’t seem alarmed, which was great.

 

“What can I get you?”, the bartender asked.

 

“A meal and a bed”, Viren said, dropping a golden merlon on the counter.

 

“Ha! Sir, that’ll be enough for a feast!”, he eyed Viren’s staff, “What brings you ‘round these parts? Looks like you’re some sort of mage?”

 

Viren frowned. He hadn’t expected the keeper to be so loud about it. Even though it was somewhat dangerous, he wouldn’t ever leave his most important tool out of arm’s reach. Losing the staff would be problematic and a lot of people understood its value by instinct rather than knowledge.

 

“I’ll have the meal in my room.”

 

“Oh. Sure. It’s just around the corner here, the last one on the right. Food’ll be ready in a bit.”

 

Viren turned to walk to his room. There was a drunken soldier in his path.

 

“Oi, your lordship! Come drink with us and play for one of those coins!”

 

“I’m sorry. I’m tired and need to settle down”, the mage said, evenly.

 

“Aww, come on, just one game!”

 

“Good night”, Viren said, pushing past the guard.

 

Only after the door of his room had closed behind him, he allowed his concern to creep into his altered features.

 

“Must we really linger here?”, Aaravos asked, a bit testy.

 

“I’ve been sleeping on a cot for ages. I’ve not had a meal for longer! The Potion of Filling is a great tool but one cannot subsist on it for months. So, yes. We must really `linger` here”

 

After a moment, the voice returned, gently.

 

“I understand your annoyance. You were used to royal treatment. Forgive me.”

 

Viren took stock of his situation and plans.

 

With Ezran and the major players of his inner circle out of the game, there was a developing crisis of leadership that would rattle Katolis. He would once more try to take this opportunity to become the strong leader that his country needed at this time.

 

Whether this was as king, with the help of Opeli’s wounded ego, or as dictator, elevated by a people easily influenced under pressure, would not matter. First try one, then the other.

 

The latter would obviously take time, a luxury he did not want to afford the Pentarchy if it could be avoided. Turning a single, remote town had taken days. Taelin had even been motivated to rebel, given their losses. It would take months, maybe years to find the support he needed in the heartland.

 

The hours and days he would have to spend politicking and bringing people to his side would give Thunder’s spawn time to grow into an actual danger. From what Viren knew, it would take a hundred years for the whelp to reach the full height of its power, but even a teenaged archdragon would be terrifying.

 

On the other hand, it was clear that he would have to move more carefully now, the posters looking for his capture had just about doubled in frequency.

 

“Leaving the crown guard alive was a mistake”, Aaravos said.

 

“Because they were able to report on my deed? Friend, I can’t go about this killing Katolins wantonly. I am not averse to doing what’s necessary, but I don’t intend to become a bigger menace than the elves.”

 

“It’s merely my view. Of course you are free to do as you wish. You are taking the high road. It’s admirable but makes things difficult”

 

“What of your own plans?”

 

The voice came closer, sounding bemused. “They are progressing. I’ve localized the artifact and I believe there is a way to use it as a conduit for my powers, much like our little insect friend. It is imprecise and draining, but I could feel it quiver in my hand twice. I just need more time to find the right incantations and sequence.”

 

Satisfaction saturated his friend’s voice now. “However, here too, I have an alternative in mind that may prove more expedient. It appears there are people in Xadia that feel I’ve not been treated fairly. I may be able to propel them into action. This would be a much easier exchange with the world as compared to acting myself.”

 

“How are you aware of this?”

 

“Oh Viren”, Aaravos said with sarcastic hurt, “Still underestimating my power? I am the stars, friend. I see what I must and hear what I want, now that I have a strong bond with you and a tenuous one with the Key.”

 

“In that case, what was the purpose of the expensive ritual you had me perform for my children?”

 

“You wanted a clear picture. I only require hints of emotion, specks of thought. It is much easier. I know my supporters are there, but I couldn’t tell you who they are or where exactly they hide.”

 

Viren frowned. It sounded like his friend was acting rather brashly on incomplete information.

 

“You need to be careful. If imperfect data forms the basis of your plans, there’s a good deal of variance in their success.”

 

“I am aware of this. However, much like you crave the comforts of a full stomach and a plush mattress, I crave the freedom to go and do as I wish. I will remind you tirelessly of this - You are capable of breaking my prison, but we require the power of Azymondias! Hence, we must retrieve him!”

 

“Childish impatience is not a quality I respect, Aaravos.”

 

The voice scoffed.

 

“I have been imprisoned for a thousand years. Childish impatience?”, Aaravos laughed brightly, “I gladly accept your accusation, it is well founded. But. Only great risk begets great change”, his voice changed to alarm, “Be ready, someone’s coming.”

 

There was a knock on the door.

 

Viren steeled himself for a fight, then opened it.

 

“Here you are, Sir. Pleasant night.”, the keeper said, handing him a tray of food.

Chapter Text

Aanya had set the time for meeting Yatende Otane. The morning of October 6th, they met on the broadest part of the Breach.

 

Duren’s crown guard had brought out a tent, a table and a few chairs.

 

“Prime Legate Janai, Vocant Otane, thank you for coming”, Aanya said and bowed, a perfect 45 degree angle at her hip.

 

“Madame”, the Golden Knight greeted, saluting her.

 

“Excellence”, Otane replied flatly, standing with his hands clasped behind his back.

 

Aanya immediately didn’t like him. He seemed haughty, self-important. Unlike Janai, he didn’t appreciate her learning about his culture enough to greet him properly and hadn’t even returned the gesture.

 

“Let’s sit”, Otane said, gesturing at her chairs and her table.

 

Oh wow. He was conceited, too!

 

After they had seated themselves, Aanya started. “I have some news that won’t make anyone here happy. Ezran, King of Katolis, has been abducted by rebels. We’re not sure if he’s still alive.”

 

Janai frowned. “Otane, he is the monarch I told you about, our main contact and peace keeper.”

 

“We are all involved in this project, but Ezran certainly has had the loudest voice so far”, Aanya said, Janai’s phrasing annoying her somewhat, “Obviously we are doing everything in our power to find the perpetrators”

 

“What of General Amaya?”, Janai asked with obvious interest, then quickly added, “... and the rest of the king’s entourage?”

 

“We have not heard of them. The Katolin crown guard did not return at full strength but their bodies were not among the fallen.”

 

“This is a problem. Luckily, I have a simple message; Status Quo”, Otane said bluntly, winning him the first points in Aanya’s book, “I will warn you, however. Janai and I are assuming that we will encounter resistance on the Xadian side, soon. As I understand you had a similar problem. I am afraid our conundrums’ solutions would indeed be the same. If we cannot convince our more bellicose allies to stand down, we must follow them into battle, if reluctantly. Anything else would result in civil war.”

 

Aanya nodded grimmly. “I appreciate your situation, Vocant, I myself have had to deal with the realities of such conflict. As such, I would find it impossible to blame you for choosing to attack us.”

 

Yatende Otane clapped his hands together. “Well, I am positively flabbergasted, Madame. I hadn’t expected such majestic gestures from someone your size.”

 

A wry grin spread on Aanya’s face. “Amusing, I was just about to say the opposite about you, Vocant.”

 

The sky elf frowned, a gruff smile curling his lips. “Ah, splendid candor! I’ve often been called rude, Madame, it is my way of life. The freedom to choose my words and actions without the impediments of manners has gotten me far.”

 

“I’ve found manners are a tool. One I’ve learned to use when I feel it necessary”, Aanya said with some reprimand.

 

“Oh, I sense the wagging of fingers in your words! Let me wag back, then! I have indeed noticed your bow, but chose not to comment on it. It’s the best I could do. Unprompted appropriation of my culture annoys me.”

 

Aanya sat back, sheepish realization spreading on her face. “I apologise, I meant no offense. I thought it would be proper to greet you in a way you’re accustomed to.”

 

“A proper greeting for another skywing, perhaps, but humans have their own rituals, do they not?”

 

Now seeming excited, he blinked at her.

 

“We do… generally shake hands?”, Aanya offered.

 

She rose and extended her right across the table. Otane rose and shook it side to side before Janai corrected him.

 

“An odd tradition! It requires rather intimate touch!”, he said, enthusiastically looking between the two women.

 

When they sat back down, Aanya waved her aching hand. “It is a gesture that evolved early in our society, Vocant. It’s meant to show your empty sword hand.”

 

“Ohhhhh”, the Prime Legate’s eyebrows shot into his hairline, “A gesture with diplomatic utility, then! Bravo! May I ask, is human skin generally as… yes, Janai?”

 

Janai had cleared her throat, a rather large, reprimanding smile spreading across her face.

 

Her colleague looked at her, then nodded sheepishly.

 

“Yes I see your point. Forgive me, Madame, I am a scientist at heart.”

 

“There’s nothing to apologise for. I much prefer your curiosity over subterfuge and talk of battle. Nevertheless; The bannerman of Del Bar, Minister Arcanus Solveig, wishes to submit to you a threat.”

 

She pulled out a letter, and slid it across the table. “You will forgive me if I don’t read out his words. I’d feel wrong hearing them spoken in my own voice.”

 

“You may be forgiven, Excellence”, Jaina said, frowning at the letter, “Can we expect their continuing co-operation?”

 

“Del Bar’s hands are bound for now. Unlike Jorge de Peverell, who has stood his forces down, King Florian isn’t an idiot who would take action by himself. Katolis is currently being led by a council of four in the name of King Ezran. They have expressed no plans to change their stance. Oh! That reminds me. We are under the impression that you have technology that might enable us to send a message to Prince Callum. We’d like to ask him to return to assume the throne.”

 

Janai nodded. “I will supply a qualified shooter with an arrow. Please note that they don’t come in exhaustive supply and we won’t be able to spare many. Do you know the prince personally?”

 

“No”

 

“It would have to be someone who has a personal bond with him, someone he trusts. Family. Friends. Colleagues.”

 

The Queen puzzled, tapping her index to her lower lip. “This is a problematic limitation. The inner circle of the Katolin Royal Banner is either at the Twin Towers or, as I said, abducted or dead. Hm. Would a crown guard suffice? How do your units communicate with your commanders?”

 

Janai and Otane exchanged wary glances.

 

“Oh. Of course, I won’t pry, sorry.”, Aanya said, realizing her mistake. Obviously that would be a military secret.

 

Otane sighed, then shrugged, “Unless the crown guard was allowed to share a secret with Prince Callum, I do not believe it would work. We train so-called Noticars. They are soldiers, sworn in and entrusted with minor personal secrets by our leaders to serve as endpoints for their communications. A tightly-knit bunch, these people. Elite beyond description, with egos to boot.”

 

Aanya’s expression brightened very slightly.

 

“Thank you for sharing that with me. I too, am a scientist at heart”, the new discovery’s high lasted for a second, then her mien sagged, “So we will have to find a personal friend of his. Hm. For now; How long do you think we have until we can expect to be met with Xadian resistance?”

 

Janai thought for a moment, then said, “It’s hard to say. So far our communications have been very scarce. We reported that there was a battle that wiped out much of our forces. That’s the last message we sent.”

 

Otane added, “The most recent message we’ve received yesterday. It was a report on a skirmish with bounty hunters in the interior, leaving a platoon of my Milites and some of the Senate’s Canon Guard dead. I fully expect to hear of this more once our lagging friend, Tribune Lessa, catches up to us.”

 

Janai nodded in his direction, then said “Sol Regem will have relayed the full story at this point, at least to the Assembly in Tiram-Veltis. Guessing, I’d say we have about two weeks before another legion can be mustered and sent to the front.”

 

“It is Veltis-Tiram, Janai, is it not?”, Otane said, puzzled.

 

At this the sun elf groaned loudly. “Augh, whatever! Let the dunkers and twiblighters sort it out!”

Chapter Text

Outside the shuttered window of the log cabin, there was the happy snoozing and grazing noises of Perytons. Apparently, the hay in the small covered stand was much better than the grains they had been getting. Inside, the equipment was spartan. In front of the entrance, there was a small table with four chairs. Four cots stood on either side of the small room. The back-wall of the cabin was made of natural stones and contained a fireplace that happily crackled, fed by the supply of firewood on either side of it. Zym was curled up right in front of it, the flames licking at his fireproof mane.

 

The cabin was another well-used point of rest for travelers on the pass, the beds old and worn out - but clean. Elves apparently were much better at respecting shared spaces than humans.

 

Having a shelter that also allowed their animals to rest comfortably was very welcome. Plus, every night they didn’t have to spend in a tent, either too hot or too cold, was a good night.

 

They were snuggled up under a blanket in front of the fire. Callum’s head rested comfortably in her lap. He had fallen asleep while she tousled his hair, starting into the fire forlornly. The lemon leaf tea they had brewed still steamed in its cups, filling the room with the aroma of a blue sky and summer sun.

 

Being on the pass was starting to feel oppressive. It was almost like they had died. With the wind still low, the atmosphere had still not advanced from fog and quiet.

 

Rayla sighed. Yesterday had been a full moon. She had done nothing with her power, simply slept through the night. Mountains ranked among her most favourite places to be when there was good weather to enjoy the vistas. Like this, there was no joy to be had. The weather would’ve been better if it was worse - at least then the days would pass quicker.

 

Her well-honed imagination failed due to lack of input, so boredom was claiming her mind. Up here, everything was just white and featureless under the snow. The only thing that kept her going was the lessons of sign language they held while riding. He had told her some Katolin myths and she would repeat them to herself, mouthing out the words.

 

Callum coughed himself awake with a rattle and sat up, to have an easier time with it.

 

“Two more days. Then we’re off the pass and can look for somethin’ to help you. Ranger station on the other side is bound to have better medicine”, Rayla said, petting his back.

 

He simply shrugged, spat into the fire and laid back down. His mien broke her heart.

 

“Rayla”, he said hoarsely, “I need to tell you something.”

 

She smiled at him encouragingly, “Do you wanna do it in sign so I can practice?”

 

He shook his head. “Sorry. You’re getting pretty good but this is not something that I want even a little misunderstood.”

 

A worried look crept into both their faces. “Um, back when we sent the message to Claudia, I had this weird feeling that I couldn’t place. When I fired that arrow, I… thought about her. How I knew her. Not how she turned out.”

 

Rayla bristled. “Oh. You still love her.”

 

“No. Please don’t”, he said, lifting a hand to pet her cheek, “I love you, so, so much. That’s why I need to be honest with you. I want her to be my friend again, Rayla, that’s all. I think she’s a good person, deep down. If she pulls this off, I can’t not give her a second chance”

 

“...to be your friend.”, the elf said with a disbelieving frown.

 

“Yes”, he coughed, “There’s no room for her in any other way. Not after all you and I have been through. Ugh, there’s still so much more to come...”

 

Rayla tried ignoring the sour feeling that boiled in her stomach. He was so vulnerable right now and she had sworn to protect him. After her explosion behind Honsa’s tent, this should include protection from herself. All he’d done was to be honest with her, that was a good thing.

 

“Yep. There is”, she said, far more angrily than she had wanted, “Like, you know, the whole court martial thin’; the whole dragon queen thin’; the whole war thin’… am I forgettin’ anythin’?”

 

“The whole `moving to Katolis and staring down the nobles` thing”, Callum continued with a small smile, mistaking her frustration for a sarcastic quip.

 

Angry and afraid, she avoided his look. “The more I think about it, the more I think you should be on your own.”

 

Callum shot into a sitting position.

 

“What are you talking about?! Is this about Claudia?! Are you breaking up with me?!”, he yelled hoarsely.

 

“It would be better for you!”, she shouted over his loud protest, “I don't know how you think that court martial is gonna go, but as far as I know they're goin’ to lock me up, Callum! The question is for how long! Ten years?! Twenty?! Fifty?! Anythin’ past five and I'll come out so different you wouldn't find me in a crowd!”

 

She sagged into herself, kneading her hands. “It wouldn’t be fair to make you wait for me for… for a large part of your life”, she said with building tightness in her throat, then added with a feeling she placed somewhere around self-hate and jealousy, “Especially if Claudia is still on your mind... You should just go be with her...”

 

“Stop it! I don’t want to be with her and she’s not `on my mind`! You are! I told you before, if they lock you up, I’ll bust you out, you angry, jealous idiot!”

 

“Wow, jealous idiot! Nice! Callum, even if you were able to do it, you couldn’t! You’re a Katolin Prince! If you attacked a Xadian prison, there would be war!”

 

The breath meant to challenge her snagged his own problems and stuck in his throat.

 

“Nothin’? Not even another insult?”, she eventually asked, curtly.

 

“Telling you would make things worse”, he said, flatly.

 

“Ah. And tellin’ me that it would, won’t?”, she said, pure bile in her words.

 

“RAYLA!”, he screamed, hurting his throat and startling her and Zym who skittered into the fire, “You just don’t trust me! Not one bit! I talk to you openly about my feelings and all you can do is immediately jump to the most extreme conclusions and talk of breakup?! Okay! Fine! I didn’t want to say it because it’s depressing and unhelpful but sure! Maybe I’m not even a prince anymore. Maybe I’m king-in-waiting at this point! There! That make you feel better?!”

 

Her dim gaze spoke volumes. It did not make her feel better. Here was an expression he’d seen on himself, in the washstand of an Auxilia tent.

 

He was wracked by coughs again and spat into the fire, “Stop being so moon-elven with me! I’m not hiding anything from you! You need to start trusting that when I tell you something, there’s not some hidden between-the-lines thing going on that needs analysing and catching!”

 

“Then how did you cut yourself!? Out on the other flank?! What were you doin’ that made your hand bleed!? Why did you lie?!”

 

“You want to know so bad!? I’ll tell you, then! I almost fell off the mountain, grabbing those stupid plants for you! Because you mean so much to me! I cut my hand with my knife, hanging off the cliff on a rope!”

 

Her expression broke to pieces as she inhaled sharply, blanching to an almost perfect white. “Y-you did w-what?”, she whispered, “C-Callum… that was really, really stupid. You could’ve died! What is wrong with you!?”

 

“Wrong with me?”, he scoffed, “I love you! That’s what’s wrong with me! And now you wanna break up?!”

 

“Yeah! Yeah, I do! Especially after hearin’ how stupid you were bein’! I’m not worth riskin’ your life for!”

 

“You ARE worth it! You ARE SO worth it!”, he slammed his fist on the wooden floor because he felt his hoarse voice didn’t do his message justice and his blazing anger needed some sort of outlet.

 

It was hard enough to make his hands tingle and redden.

 

Continuing, he cried, “Stop putting yourself down! I don’t even know if I have something to go back to at this point! Something to save! If they’re really all dead, you are the only one I have, Rayla! The only one! As far as I know, my entire family could be sitting right here, in front of me, being hurtful and unreasonable!”

 

“I’ve got a pretty good idea how that feels”, she said with a smile, sardonic and full of pain.

 

Callum gave her an annoyed look that quickly turned into vicious, raw understanding.

 

The silence that followed while they were trying to order their thoughts was deafening.

 

Finally, Callum mustered the will to whisper. “I’m so stupid. It’s the same for you. Your family is mostly gone and you don’t know where your parents are.”

 

“Not the same. You want to see your family again. I don’t care.”

 

“I think you do”, he said, getting closer to her, spreading his arms to hug her.

 

She shook her head.

 

“No more hugs. We’re done, Callum. I can’t let you do this to yourself. You have somethin’ to look forward to. All I see in my future is more problems. Problems that’ll take a lifetime to sort out. A lifetime that’s longer than yours.”

 

The prince didn’t lower his arms and approached her.

 

“Don’t… please… don’t…”, she pleaded limply.

 

He embraced her.

 

“Don’t”, she repeated voicelessly, her arms hanging limply by her sides, “I don’t want you anymore. There’s nothin’ but issues where I’m goin’”

 

“And still, there’s no place I’d rather be. I walked away from my dad’s door the night he died. I walked away from Katolis. I walked away from Ezran. I can’t keep doing that, walk away from the people and the things I love.”

 

He coughed, then continued, “You want me gone? Honestly? Then tell me again and I’ll walk out of that door right there and you’ll never see me again. But I don't think you want that. I think you’re still on your warrior princess trip, trying to do it all by yourself. I don’t want your sacrifice. Stop it. Don’t push me away.”

 

He sat there with his arms around her for what felt like hours. Waiting for her answer with a thunderous sound of drums in his ears. The only way he knew that she was awake was that she was breathing, raggedly.

 

He eventually whispered, “We’re almost through. I’m right here, with you.”

 

The pinpricks in his nose turned into tears when she still didn’t say anything and his embrace turned into an almost painful grapple, “Please, Rayla, I’m holding on by a hair. Please. Please don’t do this. Stay with me!”

 

She choked on tears, finally returning his embrace, “I don’t deserve you! I’m bein’ terrible! In a moment when all I should do is hold you up, I can’t get over myself! I don’t know why this is so hard! Why do you even want me? What have I ever done to earn your love? Your respect? How do you deal with me?!”

 

“No more talk of `earning`. Rayla, I just love you, okay? I’m sorry I called you an idiot, and I’m sorry I was being selfish. I should’ve thought about you more.”

 

They held each other, their arms and legs meshing until it seemed like they were two ends of rope, tied together in a firm knot. A sad, sheepish look passed between them which turned into a tearful, deep and loving kiss that washed the frown off both their faces.

 

Rayla was busy studying the renewing fuzz on his chin with her fingertips when he pushed her away, lightly, to allow their lips to separate.

 

Zym sleepily walked out of the fire, limply brushing off embers.

 

“Rayla”, the prince said with realization in his voice, “I don’t think you have to worry so much about the court martial. If the Queen of Dragons doesn’t call off the war, you won’t get a fair trial and we’re gonna have to run. If she does, she’ll protect you, I’m s--ah?--”, he arched away and brought his face into the bend of his elbow to sneeze violently.

 

After blowing his nose, he continued, “If they lock you up, I’ll fight for you, with every bit of diplomatic power I have. Then, I’ll find you in any crowd. Even if it takes fifty years. I’ll be there, all crusty, dry and wrinkled up. That’s a Royal Katolin promise.”

 

His voice was so firm, so earnest, it sent a flutter through Rayla. He was not joking.

 

Right then, she noticed something odd. Her breath had quickened, seemingly for no reason. She shifted uneasily, then flushed to the tips of her ears as realization dawned like a blue sun on yellow sky.

 

“Uh. Are you okay?”, he asked, extending a hand to feel her forehead, “You’re really warm. I hope I didn’t pass this stupid flu on to you...”

 

Before they had started this adventure, these feelings had indeed been known to her only as a marker of bad health.

 

‘Oh! Oh no! This is the... thing!’, she thought to herself, her heart booming, ‘He’s the perfect person!’

 

Trepidatiously, she took stock of the situation. He was very sick, it was dangerous and they both were raw and sad.

 

Yikes.

 

Definitely not the perfect moment.

 

She scrambled out from under the blanket, avoiding to look at him.

 

“Uh, n-no!”, she laughed nervously, “I’m just gonna go outside for a sec to cool off!”

 

Chapter Text

Opeli’s steps were energetic, fast, annoyed.

 

“Nothing gets done anymore”, she grumbled under her breath while unlocking her chambers’ door.

 

She stepped inside, rounded the desk in her office and replaced the scrolls she had taken out for today’s meeting in their proper stands.

 

“Good evening, councilwoman.”

 

Opeli whirled around, her hand clasped to her chest. “Viren?! How did you… what are you…?”

 

“Calm yourself. Call for the guards and I will take your voice”, the mage threatened, his staff tilted in her direction, “Listen first before you act. I come as a friend.”

 

“How did you get in here?!”, the council member demanded, “We have seriously increased patrols!”

 

Viren shrugged. “I know more about this castle than anyone. We don’t have time to waste. I heard Ezran hobbled you. Denied you your rightful freedom to act. Do you see now how incapable he was? He made for the border, of all things, leaving you to deal with petty squabbling in the council instead of strengthening your capable hands.”

 

“How dare you show your face here?! How dare you denounce him?! I heard you killed him! Did you?! What makes you think I will pay heed to a single syllable that crosses those damned lips of yours?”

 

“Because you know I’m right. You know that he wasn’t a good king. He was not focussed. He didn’t listen to sound advice, just like his father. You and I are servants to Katolis, the state, its people, not one particular king.”

 

“So you did kill him?”

 

“What does that matter?”

 

“It means everything! If he is dead, we need to put more effort into recalling Prince Callum! We can’t be leaderless!”

 

“Don’t waste our time with the traitor prince! Seize the opportunity! Yes! I killed him! Katolis has no king. You must lead, like you were meant to!”

 

Opeli’s hand moved from her chest to her mouth as she shook her head, “No. No! Not even you would go this far! He was a boy, Viren! You cradled him as a baby! You tutored him! Nurtured him! For years of his life! You knew his parents, you were the best of friends! Your children played with him!”

 

Tears started streaming down her face, “And now here you are, speaking so matter-of-factly of his murder! What’s happening to you?”

 

“Reality, councillor. Reality often leaves us with fewer options than our ideals demand. You’d be right to hate me.”, his voice turned into a hoarse whisper, “Oh, I didn't do it lightly. I feel the burden and the guilt of the decision, but I know that it was for the best!”

 

Viren stepped towards her, jabbing a finger upward, “He is but one life! Don’t you see!? He’s lost our entire army at the border in pursuit of a peace that can never happen! Xadia looks at us and sees cockroaches, fit only for squashing! Here!”

 

He thrust a piece of parchment at her. With a look of utter disgust, she snatched it from his fingers.

 

After glancing at it, she gave him an critical look. “A Xadian document?”

 

“Orders, Opeli. Read them. Read them well. And make sure you look at the seal!”

 

As her eyes wandered slowly over the unfamiliar runes, she blanched. Then, she strode over to a bookcase and pulled out a dictionary. Then, a book of seals. After consulting them, she fell into a chair, breathing heavily.

 

For a moment, Viren thought she would pass out. “They’ve been ordered to break into our homes and `extinguish every human thing`. This is nothing but a thinly veiled instruction to genocide! Do you see now what we are up against?!”

 

“How did you get this?”

 

“I have contacts. On the Xadian side.”

 

“You are working with elves?”, she scoffed, “You will have to explain that. Isn’t this what you’ve murdered our king for? The crime of cooperation?”

 

“My contact is an elven Legate named Astilliar. He’s known to our spies, so you may confirm his status. He gave me this to soothe his conscience and I acted. I burned their army to ash. But I can’t do it a second time. If they are allowed to mass while we’re mustering reinforcements...”

 

“They will overrun us”, Opeli whispered, white as a corpse, “Did Ezran know? About this order?”

 

“Even I could obtain a copy, so yes. There’s no doubt in my mind that he knew.”

 

The councilwoman stared at him, as though she would see the whole truth written on his face somewhere.

 

After a moment, she got up.

 

“What of his brother? What makes you call him a `traitor`?”

 

“Opeli, he ran off with a moonshadow elf who helped kill his father! Isn’t that enough?”

 

“That depends on perspective. I seem to recall the reason for him running was that you had pilfered a certain item…?”

 

“Ah yes, of course. I should have left the Dragon Prince’s egg in its nest, yes? Given it the chance to grow? Add even more firepower to the Xadian extermination force?”, he said, sarcastically.

 

Opeli looked at him, not sure what to say.

 

He took the opportunity to add to his thoughts, “Callum is returning a weapon of mass destruction to the elves, and they have very clear intentions with it and us. What is it with you? He is a child, Opeli, he does not understand the gravitas of his actions.”

 

“The prince is no fool! So what if he’s under the age of majority! That doesn’t disqualify him automatically!”, she sighed, studying the ground, “However I will agree that returning the Dragon Prince would not have been my first choice. Either way, we can’t get at him, now.”

 

The councilwoman then waved the parchment in her hand, “This document. It changes things.”, she said, “I will have to speak to the council and the general staff. Get their input.”

 

Viren scoffed. “Do not repeat Ezran’s mistakes. You need to act. Think for yourself.”

 

“That is precisely what I’m doing! I will not act rashly on your say-so! You are a traitor and a murderer! Now go! Or I will call the guard, consequences be damned! I can’t bear your visage, knowing what you did! Out!”

 

“Very well. Don’t take too long. The blades of Xadia are sharp and at the ready”, the high mage said, walking toward the open window.

 

“Wait!”, Opeli said, suddenly, “Did you also murder General Amaya? Commander Gren?”

 

“No?”, Viren said, a confused expression on his face, “They are missing?”

 

The councilwoman frowned, then nodded curtly.

 

“Hm. I shall look into it.”

 

With those last words, Viren stepped over the ledge and soon vanished in purple mist.

 

“Interesting conversation!”, Aaravos snickered as the mage reappeared on the ground, “It appears you almost have your puppet. I have to wonder, though… why lie about one thing but not the other?”

 

“She knows to spot pure subterfuge. She has an image of me in her mind that I needed to satiate for her to follow any further point I was going to make.”

 

With a shrug, he added, “She doesn’t need to know everything. Least of all the truth.”



Chapter Text

Breaking through the springing water of a beautifully modelled fountain, the morning sun drew a complex fractal pattern on Claudia’s robe. She yawned gratuitously, holding herself in the saddle only with much effort. She would’ve given quite a few Xadian critters for some hot, brown morning potion.

 

There was nothing for it. After two days of running from Duren’s guards, she was just as tired as her steed. Next to her, Soren fared not much better.

 

“How long are we going to do this before we put in a bit of a rest?”, she asked him.

 

“If we keep riding, we could make it to the breach today. You know, late at night. I don’t know if that’s a good idea though, Elias doesn’t look like he can go for much more galloping.”, he pet his horse’s mane and it whinnied agreeably.

 

“Why don’t we take a break then? Just a few hours to get some shuteye and let the babies rest up. Poor little Izzy-Wizzy!”, she lightly tugged her animal’s ear without reply, “It looks like there’s a guest house over there. We can settle down for the day and just ride at night. Might be better, anyway.”

 

Soren shrugged his agreement, tired enough to want to simply fall out of the saddle.

 

When they stepped over the threshold into the inn, they breathed a sigh of relief. It didn’t look like there was anyone here safe for the black-haired proprietor. This being the middle of the morning, it was perhaps not too surprising.

 

“What can I do you for?”, said the tween barkeeper, her freckled cheeks making room for an adorable smile.

 

“Beds.”, Soren blubbered, his eyes half closed.

 

Claudia snorted. “What he means to say is; we need rooms, service for our horses and… well, dinner, probably. We’ve been traveling all night.”

 

“Ah, daysleeping dinner guests, my favourite!”, the keeper said with a measuring, then appreciative look at Soren.

 

Claudia smirked at her obvious admiration. “Oh... I know that look!”, she singsonged, then leaned on the bar with a conspiratorial smirk on her face, “He’s my brother - so you go, girl”

 

“Oh”, the host said, flushing, her expression worn off by blunt social trauma, “Uh, um… Two rooms, you said?”

 

“Two”, Claudia said, pointedly, dropping four hexagonal silver coins on the counter, “If merlons are okay. Otherwise, uh, no rooms, I guess.”

 

“Katolin money? Yeah I can deal with that”, said the host, recovering. She did a quick calculation then started counting a small number of tiny copper coins that each had a daisy imprinted on them.

 

“Ah, no, I’m good, keep it!”, Claudia said, not wanting to mix the round foreign currency into her own, very pointy coin purse.

 

“Thanks!”, the keeper beamed, “Here are your keys.”

 

Sleeping in real beds was extremely pleasant, especially after a quick, cold rinse in the supplied washtubs. The weather outside was still pleasant, like a late summer in Katolis. There was a warm breeze that shook the leaves of palm trees outside their windows. As the road outside became properly alive, they fell into a dreamless slumber, exhausted. In the stands next to the inn, their horses did the same.

 

When the light turned a dusty orange, the hostess came to wake them.

 

Rather, she came to wake Claudia.

 

Soren was already seated at a table, enthusiastically eating what looked like half a chicken with rice and some kind of starchy root.

 

“Well Sorebear, how’d you sleep?”

 

“Like I was sleeping on the job”, he said, throwing a shy glance at the barkeeper.

 

Claudia snickered. “She keep you up?”

 

“Clauds!”, he smirked sheepishly, “She didn’t! Not like that, anyway. I do kinda wanna try and come back here once this is all done though. She’s really nice. Ended up getting up and talking to her for an hour before you woke.”

 

“What about?”, his sister asked, somewhat alarmed.

 

He shrugged. “I didn’t tell her who we are, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Frowning, he added, “Really wanted to, though. If she knew where we were going, I’d look even more manly to her.”

 

“Or dumber”, Claudia noted, taking a bite out of her own chicken’s breast that was technically too large for her mouth, but what did she have those cheeks for, anyway?

 

“This is so tasty after all the weeds and dry bread we’ve been eating”, she said, closing her eyes to savour the flavour.

 

“Yeah, I’m not a fan of road food”, Soren admitted, “I’ll change my mind if I find a jelly tart growing on a tree.”

 

When they had finished eating, they bought a few rations and said their goodbyes to the barkeep who gave Soren puppy dog eyes. She made him promise to drop by soon.

 

Then it was time to get back in the saddle.

 

As they advanced out of town, Soren yawned.

 

“You wanna see if the boys are good to run again?”, he said.

 

Their rides fell into a canter, then a gallop with relative ease.

 

After a long while of contemplative quiet, Claudia approached Soren’s side.

 

“So. Do you think he killed Ezran?”

 

Soren’s expression was stony when he nodded, “Yeah. He told me to do it, remember?”

 

Claudia bit on her lower lip, searching the blurred ground for answers.

“I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t want to believe that.”

 

“Well, what other kings have died lately?”

 

“There are the queen and king of Evenere. What if he had something to do with that?”

 

“Nah. From what I heard, that was moonshadow elves. I told you, they’re evil.”

 

“What do you mean, `From what you heard`?”, Claudia inquired, not able to recall a time when they hadn’t been together.

 

“Jen told me. You know, the barkeep? We got to talking about what’s going on, why everyone’s on edge and stuff. She told me a bunch of rumours. Evenere’s Queen was killed by Moonshadow elves, there was some kind of massive battle at the border because of it”, he shook his head, sadly, “A lot of army families got their red letters. Jen thinks we’re at war with Xadia. Her family is actually getting ready to move further away from the Breach. She uh… said, uh, she’s not going, though.”

 

“I guess we’ll see when we get there. Man it’d be so nice to still get the Avisa. It was nice knowing what’s going on.”

 

“Right, I definitely remember what that is”, Soren said, with mock confidence.

 

Claudia gave him a wry smile. “The royal newsletters, Sorebear”

 

There was more quiet, for hours, as the darkening landscape passed by them.

 

Soren suddenly became bothered by something moving on the road in front of them.

 

There were a few mounted figures, moving into the street in the twilight.

 

“I don’t like this”, he said tensely, “They’re blocking us”

 

Claudia’s hand wandered into her mage’s bag and found a glass container containing two fire spiders. They were long dead, but she would still be able to use their desiccated remains for some weak spellcraft.

 

Behind them, there were more figures, advancing out from under the trees on horseback, the clatter of armor ringing out.

 

Soren drew his blade, then whipped his horse around to charge at the group behind them.

 

“Hold!”, a male voice called.

 

The group had stopped and a singular rider approached, his sword sheathed.

 

“Captain Pan”, he introduced himself, “Who are you? Why are you traveling this late at night and so close to the Breach?”

 

Then he came close enough to recognize Soren’s uniform. His face lit up with friendly recognition.

 

“Oh. Soren and Claudia of Katolis?”

 

Soren carefully nodded.

 

“Excellent”, he said, with annoyance and his hands moved to his sword.

 

Seeing this motion, the soldiers ahead and behind started galloping toward the two Katolins who were now forced to defend themselves.

 

Claudia’s spell, aimed at the street in front of the horses of the group ahead exploded in a hail of sparks. This predictably spooked the animals, causing confusion and probably injury in the group.

 

“Run!”, Soren commanded her while deflecting blow after blow from the Watch Captain.

 

Claudia sent her second spell at the rear guard, similarly scattering them, then spurred Ismael to a gallop. It was as though her steed knew what was at stake because he acted as though he was fresh and eager.

 

Soren soon disengaged from his cat-and-mouse game and quickly made his own escape from the scene that was lit by slowly fading fires.

 

The remaining guards were now hot on their heels. In the eastern distance, the fog and steam of the border were now clearly visible, blood red against the starry night.

 

“Half hour at this speed!