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Ring a Bell

Chapter Text

Even though Viren left the door open when he went to speak with the other prisoner, Gren never could catch more than half the conversation. Viren’s voice had a way of echoing, but the other man spoke low, his words swallowed up by the stone walls before they could escape down the hallway.

Gren strained to his left, trying to see around the winding staircase and into the room down the corridor. He caught a glimpse of Viren’s back, low to the ground. He’d been trying to convince the prisoner to eat for the past few minutes, rare fruits from elven lands. But clearly he was giving up: he gathered up the platter of fruit and stood.

“I think I’ve heard of this,” he said, in response to something that Gren couldn’t make out. “It’s a Moonshadow elf thing, right? A philosophy of accepting you are already dead, so that you will not fear death.”

Viren shifted, and for a moment Gren could see the other prisoner. Scrapes and bruises peppered his skin, and his entire left arm was covered in sickly, mottled blue. One of his horns had been broken off and his hair hung limp and dirty down his face. For a split second, Gren could swear the elf met his eyes.

And then Viren shifted again, hiding him from view once more. “What a beautiful challenge you’ve given me,” Viren said. “I must come up with something you will fear more than death.”

Gren didn’t consider himself the most sympathetic towards elves, especially not after this one’s attack had ended with Harrow dead and both princes kidnapped. But even so, the words sent a chill down his spine. He’d heard just enough stories from Amaya to be wary of Viren’s magic; whatever Viren came up with, Gren was confident he wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

The door swung shut, followed by footsteps echoing their way down the hall.

“Excuse me!” Gren said, as soon as Viren came into view. He made no effort to hide that he’d been eavesdropping. “I would love to try some Xadian fruit.”

Viren ignored him.

Gren watched him stalk up the staircase. It had been a joke, more than anything, but the fresh smell of the cut orange as Viren passed reminded him how long it had been since Claudia had brought lunch. He sighed, dropping back to the wall. “...very good.”

Viren‘s footsteps now echoed dully on the floor above. The stairs followed him a moment later, spiraling up into the ceiling and blocking out the light from Viren’s study, until all that was left were the glowing clusters of gems set into the wall.

It was quiet, then. Not the kind of quiet he was used to, the amicable silence of signing with Amaya, or sitting nearby while her pen scraped away at a page. This was stifling, the kind of quiet that made his ears ring. He’d been enduring it for days, or weeks, or however long it had been. It was hard to tell without a window. And the long, silent stretches made time move even slower than it should have.

He couldn’t stand it.

“What do they taste like?” he asked, listening to the way his voice bounced down the corridor. “The fruits, I mean. That orange smelled good.”

No response. He’d tried this a couple times before, talking with the elf down the hall. And every time, he was met with more of that pressing silence. He couldn’t tell if his voice wasn’t reaching through the man’s cell door, or if he was just ignoring Gren.

“You don’t talk much, huh? That’s fine. My boss doesn’t either. Well,” he amended. “She does. But she doesn’t speak, you know? We use our hands.” He shook his hands around, jangling the chains as if to demonstrate. They echoed dully. “It feels weird not being able to use them right now. They went numb a while ago. I don’t know how long exactly, but I doubt it’ll be fun when I get the blood back in them.”

That implied, of course, that he would eventually get out of this dungeon. He certainly hoped he would. But that still left the question of when. For all he knew, it would be weeks, maybe months, before Amaya realized there was something wrong.

The thought was… daunting. He put it aside.

“How about you?” he asked instead. “I saw you for a bit. Your arm looked pretty bad.”

Silence.

“I’m tired of standing,” he said. “My legs hurt. I can’t believe Viren didn’t have another cell. Or longer chains. Something that wasn’t me standing in a hallway for days on end. I bet he has so many other cells. He just put me here because he’s a jerk. He doesn’t want anything out of me, so he doesn’t care if I’m comfortable. Well, not comfortable, I guess. But at least you can sit down.”

Surprisingly, silence.

Gren sighed. “Whatever,” he mumbled, mostly to himself. His throat was getting dry from all the talking anyways.

The ringing returned. He hummed a song, though it was mostly tuneless. It’s not like he had an audience anyways.

He was on the fourth verse when he heard something from down the hall. He fell silent.

“Did you say something?”

The pause was long enough that Gren considered the possibility that he was just hearing things now.

“...they’re tart,” said the elf. He had an accent, soft around the edges and strangely gentle. “The oranges.”

Gren felt a thrill of accomplishment, which he quickly smothered. “Ours are kind of tart too.” He tried not to sound too excited about getting a response. “But the good ones are sweet. Why don’t yours have seeds?”

“You’re very interested in Xadian fruits.”

“Not really,” Gren admitted. “Though I would like to try one someday.”

No response.

“My name is Gren,” he offered. “What’s yours?”

Nothing. Had he gotten bored? Had Gren somehow offended him? He didn’t know.


 

A servant came by sometime later with some food and water. Gren took his portion gratefully, but if her face coming back from the elf’s cell was any indication, he’d refused to eat again.

He waited for the staircase to curl back into the ceiling before asking.

“Why aren’t you eating?”

A pause. Then, “I am already dead.”

He said it so dispassionately. Gren shivered, thinking back to what Viren had said. He wondered if it actually made them less afraid, to just accept death.

“Why are you here?” the elf asked, already moving on.

“Oh.” Gren frowned. “You know, I’m not sure. I think it’s because Viren is mad at my boss. Or maybe he just wanted his kids in charge of my mission? Maybe both. Probably both.”

“So he threw you in the dungeon.”

“Yeah.”

“That seems… unreasonable.”

“Viren is smart, but I wouldn’t call him reasonable.”

Silence.

“You should get out,” Gren said. “Before he comes back.”

The voice was heavy with derision. “You think I would still be here if I could leave?”

“I don’t know. Maybe you haven’t tried yet, since you’re ‘already dead’. I just know that whatever he comes back with for you, it’s gonna be nasty.”

A soft sound that could have been a chuckle. “What, sympathy for your king’s killer?”

He was right, of course. Harrow’s death was not something so easily forgiven. And yet.

And yet.

“Viren is a master of dark magic. Elves don’t use that; you don’t know what it can do. It’s not just setting you on fire or drowning you or whatever. It’s...” He waved his hands around, for all the good it did. “It’s worse.”

“Nothing he can do can hurt me.”

“What, because you’re already dead?”

“Yes.”


 

Viren returned a couple meals later, pushing a giant, shrouded something in front of him.

“What’s that?” Gren asked.

No response. Viren continued down the hallway, pushing the thing into the elf’s cell.

“In a moment,” he said, voice reverberating through the dungeon. “I will remove this cover, and you will tell me what you know. Understood?”

Silence. Viren knelt down, and his voice dropped to a more intimate pitch, one that Gren couldn’t make out. He squinted, trying to piece together what he could hear with what he could see.

Viren pulled a small pouch from his belt, followed by the low rumble of the elf’s voice.

“Oh, this isn’t a bribe,” Viren responded, punctuating his words with the distinct sound of coins hitting the floor. (Coins that weren’t bribes. That was a new one.) Then he leaned forward, and what he said next was lost.

Eventually, he stood up, leaving the shrouded frame in the elf’s cell. “I’ll give you some time to think on it.”

When he passed Gren, he seemed in a good mood. There was a contented smile on his face that set Gren’s heart racing.

“What was that about?” he asked the elf, as soon as the staircase disappeared into the ceiling.

Silence.

“He said he wasn’t bribing you, but then what were the coins for?”

Nothing.

“Are you… okay?”

Nothing.

He couldn’t be dead, not when Viren had promised to come back.

But that smile couldn’t have meant anything good. Something had happened. But Gren couldn’t think what.

The silence stretched on, and Gren resigned himself to another conversation left hanging. He leaned back against the wall, halfheartedly examining the other side of the room he was in. A barrel with candles melted onto the lid. A bookshelf with an array of horns along the top. A collection of pliers and other tools that Gren suspected had nothing to do with their intended purpose. His attention slid away from those, trying not to think too much on what they were actually for.

He closed his eyes and listened to the ringing silence.

At some point, he must have dozed off, because the elf’s words jolted him awake.

“My name is Runaan,” he said, so soft that Gren almost didn’t catch it.

“Oh.” Gren tried to shake his head back to wakefulness. “My name is Gren.”

“You already said that.”

“...right.”

“Do you expect to be released, Gren?”

“I hope so,” Gren said. Then, with more certainty, “Yes.”

“Your princes… They’re traveling with an elf.”

“She kidnapped them, you mean.”

Runaan let out what could have been a laugh, though it reached Gren sounding like nothing but a huff of air. “Of course a human would think that. No, they’re working together.”

“They’re…?” Gren frowned. It had been a bit strange, how calmly Callum had explained their predicament. How the elf girl had just waited for him to finish signing to Amaya, not threatening the boys until Gren had told her that’s what Callum expected. “Why?”

“The Dragon Prince is alive. They mean to transport the egg back to Xadia.”

The information hit Gren like a blow to the head. He’d never agreed with the destruction of the egg, and to know that it was still alive, after all of the tension the egg’s destruction had caused, both along the Breach and within the kingdom, was staggering. “Why are you telling me this?”

“The elf they are with - Rayla - is a capable warrior. I have no doubt that she will protect the egg - and your princes.” He sighed, then. “But she is young. Foolish, at times. She still needs someone with experience to guide her.”

“Then you should -”

“No.” He said it quickly, as if flinching away from the thought. “No, I won’t be - I can’t…” He paused. “...I am already dead.” It was different from the last time he’d said it. More insistent. Like he was convincing himself. What had Viren shown him?

“So… you’re telling me this because -”

“It’s not because I trust you,” Runaan interrupted.

Gren bristled, though he supposed Runaan really did have no reason to trust him. “Okay.”

“But I do trust your loyalty to the princes. Find them. Help them.”

That was already the plan, whenever he was released. If he was released. “I will,” he promised. Then, “Is there anything you want to pass along to your friend? Rayla?”

A pause. It stretched on, and for a moment Gren wondered if he’d made Runaan go quiet again.

But eventually he spoke. “Tell her… tell her that I -”

The stone staircase began to grind downwards, and Runaan fell silent.

Viren came down the steps, his staff in one hand, a bowl in the other. He didn’t even spare Gren a sideways glance. The tapping of his boots down the hall was the only sound in the sudden stillness. The door creaked open, almost deafening.

He set the bowl on the table. Straightened.

“Enough brooding, elf. My patience wears thin.” A flourish of fabric, revealing the back of a large mirror beneath the shroud. “Tell me what you know about this relic, or I will seal your fate.”

A pause. A hushed reply. Gren strained to hear something, anything, but all he got were pieces: mirror…….… tell… never…… no use. Nothing he could patch together into anything meaningful.

But then the chanting started.

And the screaming.

And Gren didn’t need any help to understand what was happening now.

Purple lights flashed against the stone, and the air took on a strange static quality. It stuck in his lungs and burned against his eyes and skin. Gren strained against the chains, trying to get a clearer view of whatever was happening, wondering if he even wanted to see.

And then it stopped. The chanting. The screams. The lights. In an instant, it was all over.

Slowly, Viren stepped from the room, shrouded in the dark of the hallway. Two bright points of light sat where his eyes should have been, glowing like a predator’s. Gren sucked in a quick breath, backing up into the wall.

The static seemed to thicken as Viren got closer, so much so that Gren felt he might choke on it. Finally, Viren stepped into the thin blue light. His eyes turned dark. His skin was a cracked blue, his hair shot through with white.

In his hand was a coin.

“I always seem to capture the same expression,” he said, addressing Gren for the first time since his imprisonment. The attention made him wish he could shrink further into the stone at his back. “Defiance. Giving way to absolute fear.”

He grinned, turning the coin so that Gren could see the flat of it.

It took a moment to put together what had happened, small as it was. A face looked out at him, but it wasn’t a face that he was used to seeing on a coin. There were markings across the bridge of the nose, and white hair hanging limply to the sides.

Runaan.

Viren smiled at the recognition in his eyes. “Anything to say?”

Even if he’d known how to respond, the air was thick in his throat and the static made it hard to think. He shook his head.

“I see.” Another smile, much too friendly. He began walking up the stairs, staff clacking sharply against the stone. “I’ll be seeing you soon, Commander Gren.”

He disappeared from view. The staircase began to rumble, light tremors running through the room as it rose.

And then Gren was left alone.

His ears began to ring.

Chapter Text

If the silence before had been bad, the loneliness was worse. The dungeon had taken on a hollow feeling since Viren’s last visit. Visually, nothing was different. The stone walls were the same; the bookshelf was still there; the metal tools still hung on the wall. But it felt different, knowing that nobody would hear him if he whistled. That there wasn’t even the chance of a reply if he spoke.

Not that he was in the mood for talking.

It had been about a day, he reckoned, since Runaan had been… removed. And each passing second felt more and more like it was borrowed. Who knew when Viren would tire of Gren? As it stood, he was at best a bargaining chip to use against Amaya. At worst, he was an unnecessary drain on resources. Either way, it wasn’t a position he wanted to be in. And now that he knew being trapped in a coin for the rest of his life was a possibility, he was even less thrilled to stick around.

So he pulled.

The chains were strong, but the construction was cheaper than those he’d seen at the Stronghold. They were pinned behind a wooden slat, which was set into the wall with what seemed to be iron stakes. The stakes were cemented firmly in place, unfortunately. But the wood was beginning to rot with age.

Even with the rot, though, the wood didn’t give easily. Gren’s arms were sore from the strain long before the first wooden splinters finally rained down his back. And by the time he managed to break free, his arms were shaking and nearly useless. Without the chains to hold him up, his legs gave out, and he collapsed onto the floor with an alarmingly loud clang. His legs ached, his armor weighed him down, and his hands throbbed painfully in time with his heartbeat as blood pumped back into them.

It took several long, excruciating minutes to get back on his feet, wobbling dangerously before falling back against the wall. He looked up at the ceiling, panting. The cuffs were still on his wrists, but he was no longer chained to a wall. Which was good. Step one complete. What came after that?

Escape, probably. He needed to be out of the castle before Viren decided to check in again, whenever that was.

But first…

Perhaps it was a morbid curiosity that drew him down the hall; maybe it was the urge to bear witness to a fate he might have shared. Could still share, if he didn’t hurry.

He wasn’t sure what he expected, walking into Runaan’s cell. Maybe ashes. Empty chains. A staticky residue of Viren’s magic.

What he found was a body.

Or, rather, a shell.

The body’s chest still rose and fell, shallowly, every part slumped over itself, as if asleep. Gren’s heart leaped into his throat. Runaan couldn’t still be alive, could he? He rushed forward, kneeling before the elf.

“Runaan?” he said, voice soft but urgent. “Runaan, are you okay?”

No response. He couldn’t be that stubborn, could he?

Or maybe he was hurt. His arm looked terrible, and a couple of his wounds had started to take on an unfortunate greenish hue.

“Runaan,” he said again. “Please, if you can hear me…” He leaned down, trying to meet Runaan’s downcast eyes.

As soon as he did, he jerked away.

It had been years, nearly a decade, since Gren had seen a dead body. But he still remembered the way the eyes had looked without a soul behind them - glazed, dull, vacant. Like Runaan’s were now.

He felt sick. A fate worse than death, Viren had promised. He’d certainly found it. Whatever… this… was, this body without a soul... it was unnatural. And it wasn’t right.

The coin, he thought. That’s where Runaan really was. He just needed to find it.

“I’ll be back,” he promised, even though he knew Runaan couldn’t hear him. Probably.

With the staircase to Viren’s study unavailable, there was only one way out: the other corridor. Gren had never gotten a good look at it, since it had always been behind him. Now he could see, to his relief, a hallway twisting into the darkness. He just prayed he wouldn’t get lost.


 

Unfortunately, he did get lost. Precious seconds ticked by as he tried to orient himself in the hidden corridors, which turned into minutes spent picking his way through the castle’s dark halls, trying to find a familiar landmark. It was the dead of night, and Gren was conscious of every stray sound he made: his feet echoing on the stone; his armor plates hitting against each other; his chains rattling at every stray movement. And in every shadow, around every corner, he thought he saw glowing purple eyes, the specter of a cracked blue smile.

The study was empty when he finally got to it. He wasn’t sure why he was so surprised. Gren couldn’t think of any particular reason why Viren should be up so late; he still needed to sleep, after all.

Then again, who knew? After what he’d done to Runaan, Gren had begun to think of Viren as something other than human.

And so, every couple of seconds, he would find himself checking over his shoulder, or examining the shadowed corners, searching for those pinpricks of purple light and hoping against hope he wouldn’t see them.

First were the keys. He found them hung quite neatly on the far wall. It was a relief, unlocking his wrists and feeling the weight fall away from them. He stashed his chains against the wall, under a low table. With any luck, they wouldn’t be discovered until long after he was gone.

Next were the coins. These took longer to find, each second ticking anxiously away. What time was it now? There were no windows in the study, so it was impossible to tell. How early would Viren wake up? Would he head straight for his study? Gren sifted through drawers and racks and rows of trinkets, hands shaking from the adrenaline, hoping he didn’t miss the coin pouch in his haste.

Eventually he found it, tucked in the top drawer of Viren’s desk. He poured them out into his hand, trying to ignore the thought that each shining coin held a real person within it. One, two, three, four… and five. There was Runaan, face still trapped in that agonized scream. Gren held onto that coin, dropping the rest back into the bag and tying it to his belt. He wasn’t sure what he planned to do with them; he just knew he didn’t want them in Viren’s hands anymore.

The staircase was in the center of the room, a spiral shape on the floor that would have looked like a simple piece of architectural flair if you weren’t looking for it. The lever was against the far wall, but Gren hesitated to pull it. How loud would it be? Enough to alert Viren?

His only other option was to find his way back into that confusing web of secret passageways, which was hardly an option at all.

He pulled the lever.

Rock ground against rock, thunderous in the silence. Heart racing, he rushed down the stairs, not even waiting for them to reach the floor before leaping off and heading into Runaan’s cell.

He was right where Gren had left him, limp body held up by the chains. When Gren unlocked the cuffs, Runaan fell bonelessly forward. It should have been enough to bowl Gren over, considering the elf’s size, but he was surprisingly light. Gren lowered him gently down onto the floor, hoping to ease some of the strain on his legs, and held up the coin containing his soul.

What now? he wondered. He’d hoped something would happen just by having them in the same room, but apparently that wasn’t how this worked. The face in the coin didn’t even react to having its body so near. Viren had used a chant… maybe that would do something? But Gren didn’t remember the words, so that was useless. Even if he did remember, Gren suspected he would need a focus to actually get anywhere - something like Viren’s staff.

Gren was so focused on his task that he didn’t notice the footsteps coming up behind him.

“Commander Gren,” came Viren’s voice. Gren jolted around, looking up and finding those paralyzing eyes narrowed in disdain. “I didn’t think you’d have the spine to break out on your own.” He glanced over at Runaan’s body, eyebrows raising ever so slightly. “Or that you would waste your one chance at escape on a murderer.”

Gren stood, trying to get control over his shaking legs. “I don’t care what he is.” His voice wavered dangerously, but he kept going. “What you did to him was wrong.”

“Scared, are we?” Viren asked, a smirk playing at his lips, as if he’d caught Gren in some sort of lie.

He forced himself to look Viren directly in the eyes. “Should I not be?” It was a genuine question, in a way. Here he was, a prisoner with no worth, cornered in an isolated dungeon, facing down the kingdom’s most powerful mage. Fear seemed like a perfectly reasonable response.

It was the wrong thing to say, though. Viren’s eyes flashed, and a wave of force slammed Gren sideways. The coin flew out of his hand and he hit the far wall of the cell hard, his armor jabbing painfully into him. He slid downwards, head swimming as Viren advanced on him.

“Humanity is on the brink of war,” Viren bit out. “I am doing the best I can to steer us in the right direction. Meanwhile, you and your nosy general insist on getting in my way.”

The static was starting to build again, and an oily, heavy smell coated the room, as if the air itself was burning.

“Perhaps, then,” Viren said, staff raised, “I should remove you.”

The gem in the staff grew bright, Viren’s voice distorting with dark magic as unfamiliar words spilled from him.

More than anything in the world, Gren wanted to run. He wanted to pick himself up and race out that door and never look back. But his legs wouldn’t move. His brain had stuck in a useless loop of get out, get out, get out, without making any moves to actually go. He couldn’t even close his eyes, stuck in his own body as Viren’s magic bore down on him.

And then Viren was knocked sideways. For a moment, the static dissipated, and Gren pulled in a shuddering gulp of air.

“Get up.” A hand was shoved in his face, mottled blue and bruised. When he took it, the owner hissed in pain. Gren let go on instinct, but he was forced to his feet anyways.

Runaan stood before him, and this time his eyes were very much alive. “Do you know a way out?” he demanded. The static was coming back, and Gren could see Viren getting back on his feet. He nodded. “Then move.”

Runaan pushed him out the door, once again using his injured arm to slam the door closed.

“It’s this way,” Gren said, pounding up the stairs. Runaan was lagging behind, only halfway up when the cell door exploded open. Purple light moved down the hall, magic words weaving through the air, getting closer and closer with each passing heartbeat.

Gren held out his hand, practically tossing Runaan the rest of the way up before rushing to the lever.

The stairs rose, the last step slotting into place just in time for Gren to catch a glimpse of Viren’s eyes. One moment, they were sparking with rage.

And then, with a heavy clunk, they were hidden from view.

Chapter Text

For a moment, neither of them spoke. Gren leaned against the wall, waiting for his heart to slow down.

Finally, his breath got back under control. “How did you…” He waved his hands. “How are you back?”

Runaan didn’t respond. Gren looked over at him, a little miffed. After all the trouble he’d gone through to save this guy, the least he could do is answer a simple question. His eyes roved over Runaan: he was sprawled in the same place he’d been tossed, eyes closed and arms splayed out. Sweat dampened his hair and covered his torso; he looked exhausted. And yet, his chest rose evenly, shallowly. Gren frowned, getting to his feet.

“Runaan…?” he asked, approaching cautiously. No response. Panic fought its way up his throat. Seconds ago, Runaan had been fine. But now he was quiet again, and his breathing was more like a sleeping man’s than a malnourished prisoner’s. Was he passed out? Was he dead?

Gren rushed towards Runaan’s body. In his haste, he nearly missed the thing glinting dully on the stone tiles:

It was the coin.

He stopped short, frowning at it. It lay just out of reach of Runaan’s open hand, like it had fallen out when he’d been tossed from the stairs. Gren picked it up, looking at the face trapped within. Clearly, Runaan had been carrying it with him. There was no other way to explain it. Perhaps it had landed on him in the cell, when Gren had been thrown by Viren’s magic… Could the solution really be so simple? Kneeling down, he pressed the coin back into Runaan’s palm.

Instantly, fingers wrapped around it, nearly crushing Gren’s hand in the process. Runaan shot upright, chest heaving. His gaze swung towards Gren - tense and wary. There was a clear question in that look: What did you do?

Gren snatched his fingers away, shaking out the pain. “You dropped your coin,” he explained. “I think you have to be touching it. Or else… you know.”

Runaan’s eyes narrowed for a moment, and then his posture slackened a fraction. His gaze slid wearily downwards, lingering on the coin held in his uninjured hand. The burnished face of it was empty now, just an innocent-looking golden disk. “How long was I gone?” he asked.

“This time? A minute or so. But the first time… I’m not sure. Maybe a day?”

Runaan grimaced, and muttered something under his breath in Elven. He tried to push himself to his feet, but his limbs were shaky with disuse. Days of imprisonment would do that to someone, and Gren assumed that refusing food and being forcibly torn from your body couldn’t have helped matters much. When Gren moved forward to support him, though, Runaan pulled away. “I don’t need help,” he spat.

Gren sat back on his haunches, frowning. “You kind of do.”

Runaan paused, long enough to shoot him a withering look. “I don’t need your help.”

A couple strongly-worded responses presented themselves, but instead, Gren set his jaw and leaned forward, scooping Runaan’s uninjured arm around his shoulders and hauling him up. He set Runaan against the nearest wall, then backed away.

He was met with a glare. It would have been intimidating if he didn’t look so weak.

Gren sighed. “Look, I don’t care what your issue is right now. You’re hurt, and you haven’t eaten in days. You can’t get out on your own, no matter what you want to think. And I’m not just leaving you here.”

Runaan narrowed his eyes. “What do you want with me?”

The question blindsided Gren. “What do I -” he started, incredulously, before stopping himself. He took a deep breath. “Is it really so hard to believe that I’m just trying to help you? Because it’s the right thing to do?”

“I killed your king.”

That gave Gren pause. Runaan was looking at him, expression infuriatingly neutral. He was tired, and weak, and completely vulnerable. It was like he was daring Gren to… what?

“It was retaliation for the Dragon King. Right?” Gren asked, softly.

“Yes.”

He sighed. It wasn’t… fair, per se. He wouldn’t even call it just. But he understood. He and Amaya had been part of the force that killed the Dragon King. And, he had thought, killed the prince too.

“I don’t blame you for that,” he said, because he knew he shouldn’t. Because it was the right thing, he thought. Because, he found, no matter how much he wanted to, he couldn’t bring himself to fault Runaan for it. “You were following orders.”

Runaan sneered. “You think I would not have done it anyways?”

“What do you want from me?” Gren could feel his frustration rising. But despite his best attempts to smother it, the words rose stubbornly to his lips. “Do you want me to say I miss him? That I wish he were still alive right now? I do. He was a good king, and a good man. He didn’t deserve to die.

“But what am I supposed to do about it now? Should I get revenge? Should I mourn? Am I supposed to break down right here in this lab until Viren decides to come and collect me?” This was getting out of control. He slammed the floodgates shut. Took a deep breath. Locked his eyes onto Runaan’s. “Look. We don’t have time for this. I don’t know what you’re aiming for here, but whatever it is, it can wait until we’re out and safe. For now, I need to know if you can walk.”

For a moment, Runaan said nothing. He simply met Gren’s gaze, even and blank and tired. Then, he pushed himself to his feet. He was shaky, and unsteady, but he was upright. “I can walk,” he said.

“Great. Let’s go.”


 

Under normal circumstances, Runaan would have left this human long ago. Unfortunately, these were not normal circumstances. Though he was loathe to admit it, the human was right - he was weak. Days of atrophy, without food or water, had taken their toll. It had been bearable when he’d resigned himself to death. But now that a chance at life had presented itself, he was painfully aware of how unsuited he was to take it. His whole body shook with hunger. His head spun at the slightest provocation. His breath came in short, shallow bursts that were never quite enough to fill his lungs. He hardly felt like he was in his own body at times, though whether that was the exhaustion or the coin clutched in his fist, he wasn’t sure. And his legs. He’d spent so long kneeling that now every step was nothing short of agony. It was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other.

And the human, damn him, had taken notice. Even after making it clear that every moment within these walls was a moment they were in danger, he would still insist on pausing at corners, or in alcoves.

“I’m just thinking,” he would explain, smiling sheepishly, all the intensity he’d shown in the study gone like a wisp of smoke. Like a mask being assumed. “I don’t know this place too well, and I don’t want to get lost.”

It may have been partially true, but Runaan didn’t miss the way he was watched. The way they only ever seemed to continue once he’d gotten his breath back.

“Let’s make a stop here,” he said at one point, turning down a corridor. They were in the lower levels of the castle by now, an area that Runaan was not familiar with. After all, he’d memorized only the route he would need to take to kill Harrow. At this point, all he could do was follow and hope he didn’t trip over his own feet.

Stone walls closed up around Runaan as they moved down the narrow corridor. How could the humans stand to live in this? It was so claustrophobic, so barren. Even the courtyards he’d seen outside were stone, or light sand cleared of all plant life. No wonder humans had resorted to dark magic - they’d done their best to remove all other sources of magic from their lives.

The corridor opened up into a small room. Cabinets lined the walls, and a counter stood in the center of the room. But the most important thing was at the far end: moonlight spilled in through the windows - one of the few sources humans had not yet managed to banish from their lives. He hadn’t even realized how much he’d missed it -

A quick snap broke him from his thoughts. “Hey!” The freckled man was looking up from the cabinet he was rummaging through. “We have to stay in the dark.”

The defiance must have shown on his face, because the man sighed. He gave Runaan an apologetic smile. “I know it must be hard for you. I’ve heard Moonshadow Elves get their powers from the moon. But we don’t know who’s looking for us, and going out into the light is the best way to get spotted. C’mon.” He pulled something out from the cabinet and set it on the table.

It was bread.

“You must be joking,” Runaan said, though his stomach ached at the mere sight of it. “We have more pressing things at hand than eating.”

“Not really.” He crossed his arms. “You’ve been moving slow all night. Your breathing is loud and raspy, and you look half-ready to keel over.” Some pieces of fruit and a glass of water joined the bread. “We need to get you feeling better if we’re going to get out of here in one piece. And that means food.” He sat down in a nearby chair, crossing his legs with a finality that said he wasn’t going anywhere until Runaan complied.

There had to be something behind this. Runaan lowered himself into the chair opposite Gren’s, frustratingly grateful for the break from standing. The food smelled good; there was even a Xadian orange amongst the fruits. That one, he saved for last. It was a great comfort, biting into it and tasting the tart gush of juice. A little piece of home in this tomb of a castle. Gren set another glass of water in front of him once he’d finished his first.

“How much more do you think you’re going to need?” he asked, looking nervously out the window.

He drained the glass. “This should suffice.”

Gren looked back down at him, a skeptical look on his face. “Are you just saying that, or do you really feel better?”

Runaan didn’t grace that with an answer. Instead, he stood up. The shakes were mostly gone, and his head only spun for a couple seconds before it cleared. “Your mage will be looking for us, yes? We should get going.”

For a moment, Gren just squinted at him. Then, seemingly satisfied, he nodded to himself and moved towards the window, careful to stay out of the light. “It looks like we’re near the south wing…” he muttered to himself. “But that would mean climbing…” His fingers moved absently, going from one shape to another while he thought.

Runaan leaned back against the table, watching him through half-lidded eyes. What was his game? He was risking a lot to drag Runaan out of here with him; by all accounts, it would have been easier to just leave him to rot in his cell. He must want something. But what?

He didn’t seem like a mage, so it was unlikely he wanted Runaan for any sort of… experiments. Perhaps he wanted revenge for his king? But then why not just leave him? Or, better yet, kill him outright? Why go to all the trouble of breaking him out, and even feeding him? It didn’t make sense.

Gren stepped away from the window. “I think I know where we should be heading,” he said. He eased the door open and slipped through.

Runaan followed behind him. For now, he had no other choice but to go along. But, when Gren revealed his true intentions, he would have to be ready.

Chapter Text

Half an hour later, they were making their way through another wing that Runaan didn’t recognize - and, when questioned, Gren admitted he wasn’t too familiar with the area either.

“Why,” hissed Runaan, “are we going this way, if you don’t even know where we’re going?”

“I know where we’re going,” Gren said. “...in general. But I haven't lived here in years! I only remember the main passageways, and those are too likely to have patrols.” He shot an inscrutable look at Runaan, something just shy of sardonic. “Especially after what you and your men did.”

Runaan had nothing to say to that, so he answered with silence.

They walked on through the crypt-like halls, and though Runaan was fed and as steady on his feet as he could hope to be, he still found himself leaning his good hand out to support his weight against the walls, the coin clinking softly on the stone.

“We need to do something about that,” Gren said.

“About what.”

“The coin. It would be bad if you dropped it again. If we could drill a hole in it -”

“You are not drilling a hole in it.”

Gren held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Okay, okay. Or we could tie it to you somehow. Just something to keep it from…” He held out his hand. “Wait.”

Runaan heard it too: footsteps.

They fumbled into a nearby doorway. Gren rattled at the doorknob, but it was locked. “Shoot. Runaan, you stay here.”

He couldn’t grab at him with his good hand without dropping the coin, so Runaan used his bad hand to stop him. Pain ground at his bones like they were rotten, and his whole arm felt like a bruise, but he held fast. “What are you going to do?” he asked.

“I might not be publicly wanted. You are. If it’s a guard, I’ll make them go away. If it’s Viren, I’ll try to lead him away from you.” He shifted out of Runaan’s grasp - it was frustratingly easy for him to do - and stepped out of the doorframe.

For a moment, there were only footsteps echoing in the halls. And then an unfamiliar voice called out:

“Commander Gren! I haven’t seen you for a while. Where have you been hiding, huh?” There was a laugh and a clang of metal - probably an armored hand clapping Gren’s shoulderplate.

A friend. Of Gren’s at least. Tension stiffened along Runaan’s shoulders, and he wished he still had his blades. How tempting would it be for Gren to turn Runaan in here? Would it be enough to earn him favor with his leaders? Safety? Maybe even prestige?

Gren laughed with her. “Here and there,” he said. “I’ve been pretty busy recently. Quiet night, huh?”

“Yup! Viren’s been stirring everyone up over the elves coming to kill us all or whatever, but the worst I’ve seen all week is a skittish cat.”

“I’m glad to hear that! A boring patrol is always better than the alternative.”

They laughed again, and the footsteps started getting closer. What would happen if they passed by the door? Would Runaan be able to incapacitate her before she sounded an alarm? Would he have to do the same with Gren?

“Pardon me for asking, Commander,” the guard said. “But what are you doing out at this hour? I didn’t think someone of your rank would have to patrol, let alone on the night shift.”

“It’s a funny thing, actually,” Gren said. They were getting closer now, and Runaan pressed himself against the door, ready to use it to push himself forward if he had to. “I’m looking for some leather straps.”

A shadow passed over the doorway. It was Gren. He was blocking the guard’s view of Runaan, herding her down the hall and away from his hiding place. Runaan bit back a sigh of relief.

“Leather straps, sir?”

“For my sword,” Gren said. “The grip’s been wearing, and I was hoping to replace it. Gotta keep everything in tip-top shape, you know?”

She paused right before they reached a bend in the corridor and rummaged around in the pouch on her hip for a moment. “Would this work?” she asked, presenting something to Gren. “I don’t know how much needs replacing, but…”

“This would work perfectly, Amathys, thank you.”

“Of course! I’m glad I could help.” She rounded the corner, waving. “Have a good night, Commander Gren!”

He waved back. “You as well. Thank you again!”

Gren walked back, slowly at first, and then jogging the rest of the way, once the guard had gotten far enough from them. He was grinning.

“You didn’t turn me in,” Runaan said.

Gren gave him a bemused look. “Of course not. Why would I do that? Anyways, look what I have.” He held up a strap of leather, thin but long. “There won’t be another guard passing by here for a while. What do you say we find somewhere with some light, and get that coin more secure? No drills required!”

“No drills sounds excellent.”

They found their way to a broad window set into the corridor, weak light trickling through. It wasn’t much, but it felt wonderful all the same. The kitchen window had been nice, but all too short-lived.

Gren held Runaan’s good hand out, laying it flat on the window sill and beginning to work at securing the coin to the inside of his wrist. Runaan tried to pay attention, like he knew he should - after all, what if Gren was careless and let his soul slip from his body again? What if he did it on purpose? - but the light kept drawing his face back upwards, again and again, desperate for even the barest scraps of the moon.

He was forcing himself to look back down at Gren’s work for the fourth time when he saw it: a movement in the courtyard below.

He hadn’t cared much about whatever was under the sky before, but now he scanned it intently. The courtyard was cobbled with stone, just like the rest of the castle. However, a few vines had fought their way up the walls, and moss crept from the space between cobbles. Clearly, this area was rarely frequented - the humans would have eradicated the growth otherwise.

And yet, there was movement.

It was hard to pin it down. His eyes seemed to slide off of it like water from waxed cloth. He was Xadia’s best archer, and yet, infuriatingly, the thing refused to be seen.

“We’re done,” Gren announced, but Runaan shushed him.

For a moment, Gren was taken aback. Then he joined Runaan in looking out the window. “What is it?” he asked.

“There’s something down there.”

He squinted. “Where?”

“I don’t know,” he said, though he was loathe to admit it. “It’s always just at the edge of my vision.”

Gren shifted anxiously. “I don’t like that. We should probably leave...”

But Runaan didn’t like the thought of leaving this shadow unseen. He narrowed his eyes, trying to pin the shape of it down. It always slipped just shy of his gaze, like he was trying to hold down a slimy frog. He followed its shadow as it completed a circuit around the courtyard, slow and methodical.

Like it was looking for something.

Gren’s hand fell on his shoulder. Runaan jolted. And that’s when the thing focused on him.

Purple eyes bored into his, rooting him to the spot. The grip on his shoulder tightened. And just like that, the shade disappeared.

“Runaan,” Gren said, voice tense with urgency. “We have to go.”

He let himself be led away. “Did you see that?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“What was it?”

“Nothing good.” Gren was walking through the corridors much faster than before, his earlier caution gone. It hurt to leave the moonlight for the dead walls of the castle, but Runaan understood the urgency. He could see the moon again when they escaped.

If they escaped.

A couple more turns and Gren breathed a sigh of relief. “I know where we are now.”

“How long until we’re out?”

He eased open a large door into a spacious room, a maze of bookshelves reaching up to the vaulted ceiling, and high windows lighting the room. “The most common way would take us half an hour. But once we get through the library, I know a shortcut down to the gardens. From there, it’s a straight shot to the forest.”

“Lead on, then.”

They crept through the gaps between shelves. Some were wide, others barely enough for Gren to fit his armor through.

“The stairs should be…” Gren clicked his tongue ,looking around, before his face lit up. “Found them.” He pointed a couple sections down, to a landing set into an alcove. Thankfully, the steps lead down. Despite the food and the moonlight, Runaan was still exhausted. He didn’t like his odds against an upwards ascent.

They’d only gotten past one bookcase before Runaan caught sight of something dark and purple speeding towards them. He barely shoved Gren aside in time; it whizzed an inch past his face before blasting into a shelf, spraying bits of smoldering paper and leather everywhere.

Runaan swung around to face the far end of the hall, where Viren was stalking towards them. The windows at his back painted his outline in bright silver, plunging the rest of him into darkness.

Neither of them were in a position to go head to head with him, not like this and certainly not right now. Out of the corner of his eye, Runaan saw Gren start to shift in front of him, but he held him back.

“When I tell you to,” he said, “cover your eyes.”

Gren frowned. “What?”

“Just trust me.” He stepped out into Viren’s path. “And make sure you catch me. If I wake up more bruised than I already am, I’ll have your head.”

The moonlight spilling from the high windows danced on his skin, life buzzing in him as he faced down his death.

Viren’s skin was pale and cracked, eyes and hands haloed in a purple that seemed to suck the light from of its surroundings. Static followed in the path of his shadow, a dark gouge stretching across the aisle, getting closer and closer with each step.

“What are you doing?” Gren whispered urgently.

“Trust me.”

He could feel the moon’s power building within him, mingling with and fueling his own meager reserves of strength.

And then Viren’s shadow fell over him. Runaan’s hair stood on end, and the magical charge in the air seized at his breath.

“Now?” Gren asked.

“Not yet.”

The shadow crept up his chest, his shoulders, up his neck and over his head, bringing with it the suffocating surge of dark magic.

“Now?”

“Now.”

All at once, Runaan sent whatever power he had swirling out in a blinding flash. Gren turned away just in time, but Viren had no such luck. The blast hit him head-on, and he staggered back, clutching at his eyes.

That was the last thing Runaan saw before his own vision went dark, and his legs fell out from underneath him.


 

Gren opened his eyes just in time to see Runaan collapse into a heap. He rushed forward, and checked to make sure the coin was still tied to his wrist before slinging Runaan’s arm over his shoulder and hauling him down the stairs. Viren was still stunned from the light; with any luck, by the time he fully recovered, Gren and Runaan would be long gone.

The lower level of the library was dimmer, but Gren knew his way through this floor. In no time, he was dragging Runaan out into the castle gardens, filled with blooming jasmine and fiery lilies.

There was a crumbled section of the wall, in an overgrown corner of the gardens that not even the gardeners visited anymore. Vines crusted over the hole and tangled around them as Gren tried to push through. He risked one more look back, eyes scanning for any signs of pursuit. He let himself linger on the bench near a planter box full of green leaves. He used to steal away to that bench when he was a trainee, either to read or simply watch time fly by. The flowers in the box were dormant for now, but in a couple months they would be a riot of fragrant pinks and blues. He found himself wondering if he would ever be able to see them.

Runaan stirred in his arms, and Gren’s attention snapped back to the matter at hand. He pulled them both through the wall and into the forest, not stopping until the castle was out of sight and the brush tangled at his feet.

He laid Runaan at the base of a tree at the edge of a clearing, watching over him as he slowly regained consciousness.

“Where are we?” he asked, looking around the clearing. “Are we…?”

“We’re out.” Gren couldn’t help the relieved grin spreading across his face.

Just like he couldn’t help but be shocked when Runaan returned the smile. It was small, but it was there. He lay down on the grass and let out a long breath that slowly turned into a soft chuckle. “We’re out.”

“What was that back there?” he asked, flopping onto the grass himself. “I didn’t know you could do that!”

Runaan waved his hand vaguely. “The moon conceals, but it also illuminates.”

“Hm,” Gren said, looking up at the moon. Half of it was full, and half of it disappeared into the night sky. It made sense, he supposed. In a way.

They lay there for a while and listened to the crickets. The breeze carried the scent of fresh grass and old leaves and dirt, and Gren was sure he had never smelled anything quite so wonderful.

“So…” he said, after a while. “I guess you’ll be heading out after your friend now.”

“I will. And you’ll be going after your princes, yes?”

“That’s the plan.” Gren pushed slowly to his feet. “You know… we’d be heading in the same direction. And it’s always safer to travel together.” He held out his hand. “What do you say?”

Runaan reached up and grabbed it, coin pressing against Gren’s wrist. “Just try to keep up.”