Callum didn't know why Rayla was so fearful of Sol Regem, beyond the fact that he was a big scary dragon, but Callum didn't really want to stick around to find out. He reached forwards and grabbed at her arm. Maybe the dragon hadn't seen them yet, even with his great head and arched horns nearly blocked out the sun. "Rayla, what should we do?"
"I don't know," she admitted in a whisper, glancing back at Callum in the corner of her eye. "He wasn't supposed to be here, I—" Her eyes darted back to the dragon, the new rays of dawn cutting an outline around his form. "Give me Zym," she said suddenly, turning fully around, and Callum passed over the baby dragon without question.
Or, nearly, until she started walking towards Sol Regem with Zym held outstretched like an offering.
He watched as Sol Regem bowed his mighty head, eyes like molten lava as he inspected Azymondias, who chirped happily. "Please please please—" Rayla muttered under her breath. Her knees began to shake as Sol Regem gave a great sniff, and then he shook and raised his head and shifted his weight aside from the path stretching out before them.
Rayla held Zym in one arm and walked back and took Callum's hand with the other. "Come on. He won't hurt us."
"Er—" Callum let her tug him along, surprised she hadn't let go yet. "Was he going to?"
"He had to check Zym's scent, and that he was the Dragon Prince and Heir of the Sky. Storm dragons have very distinctive smells," she explained. "As for hurting us—" Sol Regem growled as they passed, and Callum tried not to leap out of his skin. "Well, he wanted to hurt you. Humans are hated even more in Xadia than elves are in the Pentarchy."
Rayla let go of his hand once they passed the bend where Sol Regem lay, but Callum felt the dragon's eyes on him still and wished she hadn't let go. "Great," he said dryly, to try and coax some normalcy into making his heart rate slow down.
"Hey, you'll be alright," she said. "You're with me. And Zym will vouch for you too." She let go of the baby dragon, and he flew the short distance to settle in Callum's arms and lick his face. Rayla giggled. "See?"
Callum wrinkled his nose as Zym's tongue sent a light zap against his skin, but managed a smile anyway. "Alright, fine." He looked around at the rocky, cavernous walls surrounding them. "So, we're in Xadia. Now what?"
"Now we go to the Dragon Queen, assuming we can get an audience with her. We should be able to, with…" She glanced back at Zym. "It might just take a while."
"How long is 'a while'?"
"At least a few more weeks to get to the palace," Rayla considered aloud. "Maybe a month. Xadia is a denser land than a single human kingdom. Plus, the land likes to play tricks, sometimes."
Callum stopped on top of the large rock he was stepping over. "Tricks?"
"You know," Rayla shrugged, "a swamp that's just pretending to be a swamp, a river that goes in a circle so you end up back where you started. Stuff like that. Luckily, you're travelling with an Xadian expert: me."
Callum stepped down to stand beside her and raised his eyebrows. "So you know exactly where we're going from here?"
Rayla's big grin flickered. "Well, Lunas was our main navigator, but we all know how. I know how to follow the rivers that aren't circles. We need to find the Bellvern River which should be only a day or two from here, and almost directly out of these canyons." She smirked back at him, confidence raising her tone. "Is that expert enough for you, doubty prince?"
Callum rolled his eyes but smiled as they started walking again. "Blame me for not wanting to get lost."
"We won't," she said, and closed her eyes as she walked. It was nice to feel the sun in her face. Even nicer to finally being in Xadia, even if it was only with one prince instead of two. "Besides," she said, reopening them, "if I had to get lost with someone, I wouldn't mind if it was you."
Callum's smile softened. "Even if it takes longer to get Zym back to his mom?"
"What's a day or two between friends?"
"I guess." His smile faded. "Especially since she doesn't even know Zym's coming back to her."
Rayla placed a hand on his shoulder. "She doesn't know now," she said, "but think about how happy she'll be once we finally bring him back. And how happy you'll be," she said, shifting her focus to Zym, "once you're with your family again." He tilted his head at her, but let out a happy chirp regardless.
"Yeah," said Callum, and his eyes grew slightly cloudy. "It'll be nice."
Rayla squeezed his shoulder. "You'll be back in Katolis with Ezran soon enough. That's a promise."
"I know," he said, and her eyes turned too bright. "It's just… I've never been apart from Ezran since the day he was born. And now… he's the only family I have left."
"I know," Rayla said quietly. "But you're not alone."
He smiled. "I know. It may just be the two of us now but… we're still in this together."
Rayla smiled back, even if she couldn't quite meet his eyes as she tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear. "So," she said, holding her hands behind her back as her gaze drifted forward. "I thought we'd make it to the first collection of caves before we take a break and rest?"
"We could use some rest," Callum admitted, looking at Zym. "Right, buddy?" Zym's eyelids were drooping as he rested his chin on Callum's shoulder.
"Now come on," she said, and strode forward. "We're burning daylight."
They got out of the canyons after another two days of walking, and Callum had never been so glad to see grass again. He'd felt constantly at loss in the canyons, all the rocks and mountains looking so similar he would've gotten lost if it hadn't been for Rayla (a lot of things wouldn't have been without for Rayla, when he thought about it). He took the drawings he'd done of Claudia in the past as firewood kindling when Zym lit their fires in the evenings, illuminating caves full of ancient art and magic runes on the walls, but Rayla couldn't translate it.
"This is mostly Sunfire elf territory," she'd said. "I only know a little of their language."
He'd thought of his new idea to pass the time, in the following morning when they passed into a dewey, yellowed meadow, the canyons still looming behind them. "Teach me some of yours?"
Rayla stopped running her fingers over the tall grass tips—it seemed she still hadn't gotten over having both of her hands back—and looked back at him. "You… want to learn my people's language?"
"Well, yeah." Callum rubbed the back of his neck as Zym chased a nearby moonmoth. "Why not, right? Unless it's like, sacred, or you're not allowed to teach an—"
Rayla smiled at him. "I would love to teach you," she cut him off. "Mostly because your pronunciation is going to be terribly hilarious at first."
"And some more draconic?" he added hopefully.
She rolled her eyes, her smile never straying from her face. "Yes Callum, I'll teach you whatever draconic words I remember for sky magic. Anything else?"
"Yeah." Rayla looked really nice surrounded by yellow, he realized. It was too bad he didn't have any paints for when he drew her next. He didn't say that though, and instead said, "Thank you," although it was no less at the forefront of his mind. She smiled, the slight flush in her cheeks looking far too similar to the setting sun.
"Don't thank me yet," she said fondly, moving across the meadow again, and he followed.
"So," he said, jogging to catch up with her when Zym settled on her shoulder. "If this is Sunfire territory, than where do Moonshadow elves live?"
Rayla wrinkled her nose at him. "We don't have territories the way you humans do. We have certain areas where larger groups of one kind of elf lives, but none of Xadia is divided. We are free to travel anywhere we want and receive hospitality. The closest we have are the Archdragons, each one looking after the type of elves they belong to. Sol Regem looks after the Sunfire elves. Sol Stella looks after my people."
"And...the Dragon Queen?"
"The royal family looks after all of us. Since, you know, we all share the same sky."
Callum sidled up to her. "So," he drawled, "does that mean like, in magic, I outrank you?"
Rayla shoved him in the shoulder. "No, dummy. All magics are created equal. And you're an unspecified mage. You don't have a craft. I'm an assassin—technically. I'm higher up than you."
"Yes, well, you're a very good assassin." Rayla shot him a look and he held up his hands. "Hey, I mean it. Like I wrote in my letter. You're fast and resourceful and good at slish-slashing. You'll make an amazing assassin. Even if, uh, I would prefer it if you didn't kill people."
They walked out of the meadow and to the first forest, dense with trees that seemed just vaguely otherworldly. That must've been what Rayla had meant, when she had said that magic in Xadia was just part of nature.
"I don't know if I want to be an assassin anymore," Rayla confessed, kicking at a pebble.
"Oh. Well that's okay."
It didn't lift her spirits like he'd hoped. "I mean, even if I could kill people," she said, and swallowed, "and I don't know that I could, but—I nearly took your life because I thought it was justified. But I know now that it wasn't. Even if we hadn't found the dragon egg. I never want to follow orders like that again."
"Hey, hey—" Callum took her by the shoulders and made her face him. "You are not a bad person. None of your group is. I mean, yeah they—they killed my stepdad, but… That's why we're taking Zym to his mother, right? To stop good people from making bad decisions. And once that's done, you can be anything you want. The Dragon Queen's gonna be so grateful for you bringing home her son, she's gonna help you become one of the best elfs ever, at whatever you wanna do, and you'll be amazing at it. I know you will."
Rayla smiled slightly. "Thanks, Callum. I guess… I don't know, it's scary when you've been spending your whole life trying to become one thing, and then you find out that maybe you wanna be something else, but you don't know what that is, you know?"
"You mean, my life ever since you called me a mage? Yeah, I know." He squeezed her shoulders and then let go. "You feel better?"
Her smile softened. "Yeah. Thank you."
"Good." He glanced over her shoulder. "Because I'm pretty sure Zym shouldn't be eating that."
Rayla rushed over and scooped him up and away from the yellow, lopsided looking mushrooms near the base of the tree. "Oh, yeah," she agreed, as she and Callum stepped away from it. "Those things are only good for custard, and upset the stomach for anything else." Zym let out an indignant whine, and Rayla chuckled. "We'll get you better food someday, little one." Her face scrunched up when Zym licked her cheek, static tingling across her skin.
"Maybe we can find some sunberries in the forest?" Callum suggested.
Rayla smirked at him. "They're called sunrayberries, but yes."
"Excuse me, Miss Moonberry juice."
She rolled her eyes and when they stumbled across a patch of sunrayberries—small but juicy, and bright orange—near a clearing, she helped him pile them into her jar and stowed it away in his knapsack for safekeeping. "They should keep our energy up in the morning," she said, setting the flap back over the top.
"Do elves always eat so little actual food?" he asked. He couldn't remember ever seeing her having more than a quick meal here and there, mostly relying on juice from moonberry brushes that still grew in Katolis, despite everything.
"Only when we're travelling. Keeps our packs light. Just wait. Once we reach our first elven settlement, you'll get to eat some real food."
He perked up. "How far is the first elven town, anyway?"
"It's a city, and a few days down the river. It's called Eyholin. It keeps most of our records of history." She smiled and gestured encouragingly with her hand. "Go on. Try and pronounce it."
"Eyholin. A-i-olin. The h sound is pretty much silent."
"There's an h in it?"
Rayla snorted. "You pronounced it. C'mon, let's go. We want to reach the river before nightfall, don't we?"
"Alright." Callum took a berry and popped it into his mouth. It had a tangy taste, not unlike how an orange tasted back home. "Let's go."
Rayla didn't know how they had progressed from preparing sunrayberry juice to throwing berries at each other and catching them in their mouths, but she found she didn't truly care. She hadn't laughed this hard in a while, and Callum's aim was just so terrible.
She wiped tears of mirth from her eyes. "You really have awful hand-eye coordination, don't you? Even with your extra fingers."
"It's not like a pinky finger does much," Callum said, but she knew he wasn't truly annoyed. His eyes were too alight. "Other than pinky promises, I guess." He popped a berry into his mouth.
"You know. The most sacred pact between humans," he said loftily, and Rayla snorted.
"It's mostly a promise that little kids make, y'know. We'll be friends forever, or always share the last jelly tart, things like that."
"I'm pretty sure I can promise both of those things without a pinky."
"I dunno, just something about the action of it, I guess." Callum held out his pinky. "And you could try, anyway?"
Rayla looked at her fingers, then back at his, his tiny extra finger held up while the others curled into his palm. She tried to replicate it with her own fingers, her thumb and two middles curling into her palm as she left her fourth finger sticking out. "Now what?"
"Now you just—" He hooked his finger around hers. She did the same, and he jerked his pinky slightly against hers, somehow. "There. Pinky promise, for whatever you want it to be."
"Um, that you'll always listen to me because I'm always right?"
"Fine." Her smirk softened. "I didn't mind the sound of that friends forever, one."
He gently squeezed her finger with his pinky. "Alright then. Friends forever."
Her cheeks were warm and her little finger was still tingling even after she pulled away. "Humans are weird," she said with a snort. "But that was nice."
"Yeah, you too."
Rayla looked over at where Zym had curled up close to the fire, fast asleep. "We should probably follow his example," she said. "Get some rest."
"Alright." It hit him how quiet it was just then, without his little brother to tuck in. It really was just him and Rayla, now. Although Ezran's absence still stung sharply, it wasn't as upsetting a thought as Callum had thought it would be. At least he wasn't alone. At least he could look over and see Rayla curled up beside him, and Zym near the fire.
He curled into his sleeping bag. He hoped Ez was warm and safe wherever he was, too.
When Callum woke up, Rayla was gone. He bolted up, ignoring the ache in the back of his head as he wrestled with the sleeping bag. He ran out the cave as soon as he was on his feet, just barely remembering to make note of where Zym was; he was still snoozing beside the fire, thank goodness. The sky was pink and the sun had just barely risen, the trees around them barren and—where was she, dammit? She wouldn't leave him. Maybe she'd gone out to get more berries, but no, they already had some. Maybe she'd heard a noise and gone to investigate on her own, and gotten hurt? Or—
He startled and nearly buckled with relief all at once, having to brace himself to keep from falling over as he wheeled around to look at her. "Don't sneak up on me like that," he managed, massaging his chest with one hand.
"Sorry." She didn't look it though, although her usual coy smile faded when she caught a longer look at his face. "Is everything alright?"
"Fine," he said a little too brightly. "Just—where were you?"
"Uh, I do have to go to the bathroom sometimes, y'know?"
Oh, he was an idiot. "Right! Right, yeah, that—that's a reason that any reasonable person would figure out, which I totally did."
Rayla arched her eyebrows and placed a hand on her hip. "Callum. Were you worried?"
"I—" He sighed and his shoulders slumped. "Yes, fine. I just didn't know where you'd gone, and we're—we're not in Katolis anymore, and—"
"I'm sorry," she said, more sincere this time. She rested a hand on his shoulder. "I didn't want to wake you, but I realize how that could be scary. It's just us out here now, and...I would've been worried too. Any idea of how to fix that?"
"I guess… We could leave a page in my notebook for things like this? Like if one of us has just left to get food or something. Although," he said, a tad more sternly, "if you hear a noise or think something dangerous might be around, you have to wake me up, okay? I don't want you handling it alone."
She rolled her eyes. "Callum, I'm more than capable of—"
"I know you are," he said, his brows knitted together. "But imagine how I would feel if something terrible happened to you, and I didn't know about it for hours. What if you get hurt and can't make your way back?"
Rayla's expression softened. "Okay." She poked him in the chest. "You can't whine about being woken up early if it ends up being nothing, though."
"Don't worry. I'll find plenty of other things to whine about," he said dryly.
"I'm sure you will," she smirked, before thumping him firmly on the back. "Come on," she said with a sudden burst of energy, "might as well get an early start while we're both up."
"Can I, uh," heat spread over his face, "I actually have to go to the bathroom."
Rayla pinched the bridge of her nose. "Fine, go and find your bush. I'll get Zym fed."
"Thank you," he managed quickly before scurrying away.
It was going to be a long trip to the Dragon Queen, but at least they found Bellvern River the following afternoon.