Chapter 1: What Must be Done
Rayla would fix this. She had to.
It was her fault. Her fault the mission had been compromised. Her fault they'd come so close to being captured if not for Runaan's quick thinking. Her fault for letting the human guard live because of her weakness and inability to kill.
Her fault Runaan, who'd put his neck on the line in order to convince the council to allow her to tag on such an important mission, may be punished for that one moment of weakness. Her fault that her whole Turma, none of which she knew quite so well but whom she would lay her life down for in a second, may all suffer for her mistake.
Rayla had already suffered the shame her parents inflicted months ago when they abandoned their post, abandoned their duties, abandoned her—No, they were dead to her now—and she had to prove that she wasn't like them. She must fix her mistake, show she had it within her to be a true Moonshadow assassin. To avenge Thunder's death and that of his son, the Dragon Prince.
Deaths her parents allowed in their cowardice.
So Rayla had to do this. She had to repair the damage she'd caused, putting them all at risk. Even if the thought of killing…. No, she had to go through with this. Justice would not be denied. For Xadia.
Surprisingly after scaling the wall, it became much easier to sneak through the castle. All she had to do was keep in the shadows and out of the guards line of sight. After all, she already had to...had to...kill King Harrow and his son. No more blood needed to be spattered.
Runaan would be furious when he found her gone, but he'd understand when she returned. Once she had justice. King Harrow's life in exchange for that of the Dragon Queen's mate, Thunder, and Katolis' heir, Prince Ezran, in exchange for the destruction of the Dragon Prince's egg. Just hours ago, she had bound herself to the mission. There was no turning back now. Even if she wanted to.
Which she didn't.
Yet why did the thought bother her so much? It was two lives. Drastically decreasing the number Runaan and their team may take to complete their orders. Because of her mistake.
It would be for justice. For the good of Xadia. And the humans deserved it, didn't they? For murdering their protector and his heir?
But would that make them even, or no less better than the humans?
My heart for Xadia, she had promised.
The binding on her wrists was a strict reminder of that oath.
As she wandered the corridors, keeping out of sight of any passing guards or servants, she came to the realization of something she hadn't quite thought through: She had no clue what Prince Ezran looked like. She hadn't thought to ask.
Well...he probably looked like his father...right? But there was also his mother, the late Queen Sarai. How would she—
Oh, family portrait. Good enough.
The older one held the whole family, both king and queen with two children. The one resting on the other side of the hall, however, appeared more recent, so she looked closer for reference.
King Harrow. And standing before him were the two children from the previous painting except older. The eldest was pale with short dark brown hair, a bright red scarf wrapped around his neck and draping over his shoulders. The youngest looked closer to his father, darker-skinned and holding a...large pet frog to his chest. But which one was the Crown Prince?
Obviously the older one. Still, it left a pang in her heart to know she was leaving the little one with his big, blue, innocent eyes brotherless and...orphaned.
It was for Xadia, Rayla reminded herself as she turned away to continue her search. Her heart for Xadia.
Just as she began to leave the hall, she jumped when a loud sneeze echoed through the hallway. "Bless you," she said on impulse.
Her head snapped around at the small, young-sounding voice that responded. She whipped out her swords, flipping out the blades while she scanned her surroundings. "Who said that?" she demanded, seeing she was alone.
"I did," said the same young voice, and the portrait of the royal family swung open to reveal the small child from the painting. "Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you. I was just-" He cut off once he saw her. In fact, he froze entirely, one hand clutching a triangle-shaped treat and tucked under his other arm was his pet from the portrait, a bright yellow with turquoise spots all over its body with a face that appeared permanently angry.
At first, Rayla thought it was because she probably looked frightening. An elf with pointy ears and horns, only four fingers on each hand instead of a human's five. Then she remembered her hood was still up so it was probably more the fact a very sharp blade was being pointed directly at him by a stranger.
Finally, the young prince seemed to break out of his daze and held out the treat in his hand out to her, a nervous grin on his face. "Uh...jelly tart?"
Rayla was taken back by the question, but more so by that the boy's first reaction hadn't been to call out or run away. Instead...he'd offered her food.
Hopefully if the human child acted this way around strangers, she could use that. All she had to do was play along. Only two targets were for right. No need for a third.
Of course it didn't feel right. Tricking a child to let her to his brother and father so she could kill then. A pang of guilt made Rayla's hand falter as she lowered her blade. But assassins couldn't afford to feel guilt over their job. Assassins rarely showed emotions in general. They decided life and death, not right and wrong.
"Um, no thank you," Rayla told him, resting her blades at her sides. "Listen, it's very important I...talk to King Harrow and Crown Prince Ezran. Do you happen to know where I might find them?"
The young prince thought a moment. "I don't know where my dad is right now," he admitted, meeting her gaze. "But you can talk to me. I'm Prince Ezran."
Rayla's heart dropped into the pit of her stomach as she stared at him. This was Prince Ezran? She hadn't expected him to be so…young. At the very least, she expected him to be about her age.
But no, Prince Ezran was a child. A child with wide, innocent eyes of blue that were looking at her now in confusion and concern. A child whose first response to a possibly dangerous stranger was to offer them his food. A child who, at the time, posed no threat to Xadia.
"What's wrong?" asked Prince Ezran, seeing the storm of emotions she was sure was stamped on her face. "Are you okay?"
Rayla pulled down her hood and stared down the Crown Prince while his eyes widened. She lifted her sword back up to line at his throat. He was so small and so young it wouldn't even take much effort to slice through. So...defenseless….
Since when did her hand start shaking?
"You're an elf," the boy said in awe, clutching his pet to his chest who gave a distressed croak, as if trying to warn its owner of the danger he may not have realized himself to be in.
An innocent, just a boy. Just a boy.
"Yes." Rayla steadied her hand. He was just a child. The Dragon Prince was just an egg. It would make them even, wouldn't it? But wouldn't also make them just as bad, to slay something so defenceless and innocent who'd done wrong to them?
No, she had to do it. The bindings…
They didn't just affect her, they affected her whole team, Runaan. King Harrow and Prince Ezran had to die. She swore she would finish it.
Her heart for Xadia.
But what about her soul?
How would she forgive herself knowing she'd killed an innocent? The humans may have done the same to the Dragon Prince, but why should someone who took no part in it, an heir, suffer for what his predecessors had done?
Would it be justice? Or murder? An innocent's blood on her hands for Xadia?
Runaan. Runaan would know what to do.
Before she could decide what to do, another voice began calling out as footsteps drew close. "Ezran! Ez, where are you! Look, I'm sorry about what I said, but we really have to go! If this is a game, it's not funny anymore!"
Rayla's eyes snapped from behind her to the small boy in front of her. Time seemed to slow. The boy's mouth opened to call back or warn them, and she could either let herself be discovered or slit his throat before he could get out a single syllable. And it'd be easy. So easy.
But…couldn't there be another option? As Rayla wracked her brain, she knew she had to make a decision here and now.
She lunged forward.
"Ezran! Ez, where are you! Look, I'm sorry about what I said, but we really have to go! If this is a game, it's not funny anymore!" Callum shouted as he searched the halls for his brother. Where could he be? Then he hadn't been thinking when he shouted at Ezran about assassins coming to kill Harrow.
And now he couldn't find his little brother in a castle set to be invaded by people looking to kill the King and anyone who stood in their way.
Where was he?
He had considered searching for him in the passages hidden within the walls, but there were just so many only Ezran knew, the only thing he'd accomplish was get himself lost. Playing hide-and-seek with him was enough to make one tear his own hair out. And it now seemed Callum was an unwilling participate of the game.
What was he going to do if he couldn't find Ezran in time? Obviously, he wouldn't leave without him, but what if the assassins we coming through the passages and found him. If anything happened to Ezran all because of a few words he'd said in a rash moment of anger, Callum would never forgive himself.
"Cal—" His brother's yell cut off abruptly followed by Bait's familiar panicked croak.
Callum was 90% positive he left skid marks on the floor with the speed he turned and ran in the direction of the sound. "Ezran! Ez—" He froze once he came upon the scene.
One of the paintings on the wall was opened outward like a door, revealing a dark tunnel behind leading to who knows where. But the corridor itself was entirely empty except for him.
Ezran would never leave one of his "secret entrances" open.
There also was no body or even blood spattered along the wall. A small consolation if any. If someone had him, they were keeping him alive.
At least until they no longer needed him.
Assassination was one thing. Kidnapping was another. And not entirely improbable. If assassins discovered their plan was known, they would go for the next best thing. Ransom in exchange for the Crown Prince's safety, a tactic Callum would have thought about.
Harrow would know what to do. Even Viren would know what to do. He may not like Callum, but he was the High Mage of Katolis, and he had always done what was in the kingdom's best interest. He had to know what to do.
All that mattered was that his brother was in danger. His baby brother.
Ezran, his wonderful stupid baby brother. His unique combination of sweetness, mischief and jelly tarts, his beautiful annoying baby brother, who makes up stories of treasure behind waterfalls and would never admit to misplacing his sketchbook after he borrowed it for the umpteenth time, who's probably found every hidden tunnel and pathway in the castle for the singular purpose of searching for sweets.
His baby brother who crawls into his bed and curls up underneath his arms in the dead of night, whimpering from an imagined terror, who sneaks him bites of sweets while their tutors are distracted, who cheers for him in fights against Soren, who spends hours planning the perfect route into the bakery, who found an injured Bait, and spent months nursing him back to health rather than leave him to suffer.
His baby brother, who Callum firmly believes will one day become the kindest and most understanding king this kingdom has seen. Maybe not the most powerful, but if anyone out there could bring peace to the land and end the war with Xadia, it would be him.
His baby brother, not a baby, not anymore, but innocent, so innocent. His baby brother, who believes in the best this world has to offer, the best of humanity, the best of him.
Eyes hardening with resolve, Callum took off down the hall, he shouted for help, hoping somebody would hear him. And if nobody would go after them, he'd go himself.
They would not touch him.
Years ago, Callum had lost his mother to Thunder. In exchange, four months ago, Thunder had been slaughtered. And now Ezran could be the next. A cycle. A cycle of death and vengeance.
And Callum would do whatever it took to make sure his brother didn't become its next victim.
Chapter 2: You had ONE Job
Prince Ezran's gaze, innocent, blue, and anxious, stared up at Rayla while he walked with her, her sword at the ready to nudge him along if he faltered or tried to run. He stared at her pain, her determination, her weakness, the only reason he was still alive. Because she failed.
She swore to Runaan she wouldn't hesitate again when the opportunity came to take again. And yet she had.
As he stared, it seemed to pierce into her very mind and soul.
The frog in his arms croaked. "Where are you taking me?" he finally asked, breaking the silence.
"To my team," Rayla answered shortly. She couldn't allow herself to feel regret for what she was doing. That she was taking him to someone who could complete the mission. Who could be ready to fulfill his mission in that one moment before a kill, and actually carry it out.
"Are you going to kill me?" he asked quietly, too quietly, holding up the creature in his arms as if ready to brandish it as a weapon.
Rayla blanched, almost freezing on the spot at the mere thought. "No! No of course not, I--"
When it finally came time to do it, to take the life of her target, for Runaan, for her queen, for Xadia, she found outside of the love for her country, to protect her home, her people, she had no other reason to kill. She was an assassin, but...this child, this innocent, how could she kill him? He shouldn't have to die. His father had done wrong against all of Xadia for ordering the death of Thunder, but this boy had done nothing, absolutely nothing wrong.
Why should he be punished for his only crime being born son to King Harrow? For being born heir to the throne of a kingdom they had no clue how he'd rule in a...decade? Maybe less.
In time perhaps, he may be something dangerous. But now, all he was...was someone who was absolutely defenseless. Who had originally acted as if all the obvious differences between the two, all the danger she had posed when she first pointed that blade at his throat, could have been resolved by offering her a human baker's treat.
"Then why are you taking me? I promise I won't tell anyone you were here," he said, and despite everything, she recalled rich skies, glimmering stars at twilight, beckoning, the moon, hard rocky cliffs, the thick brush of trees. Dragons flying ahead and above, their cries echoing across open plains. Elves, her people, children running around, shrieking, hiding among trees, running to returning family and friends, the bridges, the cobblestone, the canals running through the city. Ruunan teaching her to run, to fight, carved necklaces and a home to return to.
The home she was supposed to fight for. That she was supposed to take this child's life for.
Her heart for Xadia.
The boy looked at her, and maybe it was because of something he sensed, but he then relaxed ever so slightly. The prince shifted, lowering the frog in-between the two. "Please, I gotta go find Callum. He's probably worried about me."
Her stomach rebelled as horror came crashing back at the thought even if she'd spared her life she may be leading him to death once again, icy tendrils slicing their way to squeeze back into her. Her mouth opened silently. Closed.
The memory of her home vanished in a puff of smoke, or more accurately, a churn of the stomach. Rayla swallowed, trying desperately to drown the bile in her throat. "Who—you were calling to him, yeah? Who is he?"
The boy ran up to be beside her, as if she hadn't snatched him from his home, as if she hadn't threatened to slice open his throat moments ago, a grin on his face immediately, creature hugged to his chest as he beamed up at her. "My brother!" he glowed, before seemingly shrinking in on himself, as if remembering his predicament. "He's probably mad at me for disappearing on him. We were supposed to leave before nightfall..." he trailed off, face scrunching up.
Rayla berated herself once again. They could've been in and out without anyone's knowledge. She absently wondered if many people in the castle were trying or already managed to evacuate. Humans run from any sort of danger. Like cockroaches, Runaan said once It didn't seem there was a huge rush to leave, but it didn't seem like there were many people remaining either. She'd only seen the guards, and the prince.
Either way, nightfall wasn't too long away. She looked down at him contemplatively, his shifting from side to side under her gaze. He had family.
Her breath caught in her throat as she realized too late once she'd done. Prince Ezran had a family. If Callum was his brother, and he was the one he had tried to call out to, then they probably already knew about the prince's disappearance. They would come after him. He was their Crown Prince, their heir. King Harrow would come searching for his son.
And she needed to escape, escape to find Runaan. He would be furious with her, but...he would know what to do. She hadn't realized she'd spoken it aloud until the boy stopped, making a wordless questioning noise.
"Is Runaan one of your friends? Is he an elf like you?"
"Yeah, yeah, he...he'll want to talk to you."
Prince Ezran lifted up the creature in his arms up to his eyes. "What do you think Bait?" he asked the...lizard? The pet grumbled, skin darkening into a rich violet. "Well, it can't be that bad!" he answered easily, smiling back up. "A stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet!" he said and nudged the creature.
The lizard lightened, grumbling once more, looking away.
"Great!" the boy smiles up at her, gesturing to the path before them. "Let's go, then!"
And Rayla continued to lead them along, as the two of them walked side by side through the forest.
Runaan would know what to do. He was willing to do whatever it took for Xadia.
She, apparently, wasn't.
They continue to walk, Prince Ezran holding his toad in a near-death grip as they continue to search, continue in silence and the prince steadily grew stiffer.
"What's your brother like like?" she asked him quietly after some time had passed, if only to break the silence and ease the tendrils of guilt wrapping their way about her heart.
"Well..." Prince Ezran began carefully, "he likes to draw. Like, he draws a lot. He's got a really good memory, so he's always drawing things he's seen, or what he remembers, and he's really good at it... but he sucks at fighting." He giggled, face radiant and gleaming, and she's struck again by how young he is.
Rayla snorted alongside him. After that he grew quiet, but thankfully still smiling, more gentle than exuberant, more comfortable.
"He's a good brother. Sometimes he gets angry and says stuff he doesn't mean, like this morning, when he said assassins were coming to kill our dad." Rayla tensed, but it went unnoticed as his grin dimmed yet brightened a moment later if possible. "But he always apologizes. And if he's really sorry, he'll do the jerk-face dance!"
"The what now?" she played along to the boy's infectious cheer.
"The crazy jerk-face dance! It's a dance of stupitude and sorry-ness" he announced loftily in a deeper tone meant to possibly imitate his older brother, dissolving into a fit of giggles. "And—and he'll pull all-nighters to draw, he's always tripping up when he talks to Claudia, and he'll wake up in the middle of the night to draw the dream he just had before falling asleep on the desk instead of the bed and all the lines get smeared, or he'll read me and Bait stories and give all the characters different voices" he continued, slowing. Now tears were beginning to well up in his eyes.
"And when thunder's really bad, he—he lets me crawl into bed with him, and he sneaks me jelly tarts when I'm grounded, and stays with me when I'm sick, even when guards try to force him to leave and tell him he'll get sick too if he stays." He sniffed and reached up to rub his eyes. "Sometimes we fight, and he doesn't always believe me, but—but he's always there for me." His voice grew thick. "He's always trying to protect me." He frowned at the ground and hugged himself, suddenly looking vulnerable, and so, so small.
"I don't know what I'd do if I—if I didn't..."
Rayla understood. It wasn't just the fear of a child separated from an older brother, it was the fear of being separated from someone you care about, who you look up too. Separated from someone who'd taught you everything, been there for you, someone who would always have your back. It's the fear of never seeing again someone you know would die for you, who you instinctively fear will one day never return home.
She had that feeling when she was little. Runaan would be out on a mission as always, and she'd be home with Tinker waiting, waiting for him to come back. Being an assassin meant there was always the possibility you'd never return. And she would tackle him every time he walked back through the door after days or even weeks of that worry.
She leaned forward, wrapping him into a hug, trying to convey her understanding with only a touch. For a moment, everything stilled.
He smiled up at her, wiping away his tears, and she returned it, softening before her mind flashed forward to a vision of him with a bloodied neck and empty, innocent blue and wide eyes dropping lifelessly onto the ground, and her smile strained and grip tightened.
It would be for Xadia.
Or maybe not. The king would come to them willingly if he thought it would save his son. Maybe. Hopefully. If Runaan understood. Only one may have to die tonight.
She spared herself a moment, a mere second to contemplate. The prince had a brother. He had a father, a father who...
She ruthlessly cut off that train of thought, it didn't matter. Doesn't matter. The boy's father killed their King and destroyed his heir. She had a job to complete and if she couldn't do it, she'd have to leave it to those who could, no matter what the ache in her chest was telling her.
Xadia, Xadia, Xadia.
Rayla unwrapped her arms from him and scrambled to her feet, stifling a fond smile. She couldn't get attached to him, couldn't forget he was human. Except.... If only all humans were like this one, the world could be a much better place, maybe the war would never have started in the first place, maybe the Divide never may have happened to begin with.
But she had a mission.
The binding on her wrists reminded her of that, bindings that would tighten so long as the prince and his father were alive. Tighter and tighter, cutting off the blood flow. Until the hand would either fall off or need to be amputated to prevent infection.
The boy needed to die.
But she couldn't....
It would be decided when she found Runaan.
Runaan had been readying his blades when he heard the news that Rayla was gone.
She couldn't even stay on that rock for five minutes, could she?
Kouru had gone to check on her to make sure she hadn't defied Runaan's orders yet again. Only to find that's exactly what she did.
Runaan gritted his teeth so hard he heard a grinding noise. Not again. Not now. He had left her on that rock with the intent of keeping her safe from the massacre bound to happen as a result her defiance now that the humans knew they were here. He left her there with the intent of keeping her out of the way where their jobs wouldn't be harder after she had let the human guard go.
Now it came down to whether they should search for her or continue on with their mission. On one hand, nightfall was only a few hours away, and after their last close call, it would be foolish to risk another run in with the guards. On the other, if Rayla were captured, Runaan could not stand the thought for reasons both personal and practical. They might torture her to get the information out, to get her to reveal their location, and while Runaan knew she was strong and would never give in so easily, he also knew she was fifteen, and had yet to have as much experience as him. And everybody had a limit to the amount of pain they were willing to take.
Their entire mission would be severely compromised.
But even so, as much as Runaan tried to push it to the back of his mind, he could not stand the thought of allowing her to be captured because it was Rayla. Regardless of the discipline he'd have to drill into her, he knew her better than anyone. Before he could even considering taking her on another mission after this one if they managed to get back home, she would need more training. Mentally and emotionally.
It took long enough for the council to agree. And he'd have to return to reveal he had indeed misplaced his judgement. Rayla would face punishment for her disobedience once they returned home, if not by Runaan's hands, then by the council.
Toward the castle was the only direction Runaan needed to mind. That was the only way she would have gone. She would do whatever it took to fix the shame Runaan's sister brought upon them by running from her duties with her husband once Thunder fell. He knew she was determined to fix her mishap. But she still was but a child. Children hadn't a clue of the consequences of their actions, hardly even though them through. It was why he had sat her down on that rock and ordered her to stay, ordered her to go home if they didn't return.
If they did not find Rayla by sundown, they would need to leave her behind. Runaan ran the option through his mind, but... he did not particularly like it. At all. What he did know was that the punishment for her disobedience, no—insubordination—was going to have to be severe. With luck, they would allow him to be the one to handle that in Xadia. As her commander and having known her the longest, it was only natural.
Then again, they could deem those many years he had looked after her a weakness. He didn't want to think of what another might do in the wake of such insolence on such an important mission.
Runaan would take the blame. It was his fault, after all, their mission was compromised by Rayla's actions. He had thought that she was ready. He had thought that her talent would carry on to her discipline. He was wrong. She displayed all the potential, more potential than most her age, and he still believed in that talent and potential, but it needed to be nurtured more. If they returned home, he told himself.
When they returned home.
Just as he began to give the order to search for her, there was the sound of footsteps that set everyone on alert.
Had someone found them already?
And it was as that thought died that her voice pricked at his ear. He had been listening to that voice for most of her entire life and nearly half of his own. He knew what it sounded like. And he knew the voice joining hers was not her own nor was it familiar.
Runaan gave a sharp gesture toward the others. In an instant they were all hidden by the branches of the trees. If Rayla was with them, they had to be sure of the situation first before they could attack, had to be able to assess the situation.
There, as she walked straight into their camp, was Rayla. Her blades were tucked away and she was talking to someone. Talking with a gentle tone Runaan hardly knew her to use. He followed her gaze to see who it was, and his eyes narrowed at what he saw.
Only one, and a small one at that.
Runaan shared a look with Callisto. Then, with the rest of his team.
When they descended from the trees, the human boy immediately clutched the glow toad tightly in his arms as if ready to brandish it as a weapon, and stepped closer to Rayla. Runaan nodded at the others to lower their weapons. Human or not, this was a mere child. Runaan did his best to avoid situations such as this like the plague. Yet they had happened more than once; a little girl or boy would be out exploring and see something they shouldn't have, see them. And more than once if there wasn't enough time to tie them up or stop them from telling anyone, then.... He would do what had to be done.
Regrettable. But it wouldn't have been the first time a mistake cost innocent lives never meant to be lost. He had a dreading feeling that it wouldn't be the last.
"R-Runaan." As Rayla said his name, her voice shook the slightest. His brows furrowed as the young boy slowly began to step forward toward them.
"Rayla, who is this?" Callisto asked. The child seemed to start a little after he spoke, but kept moving until he was a foot or so away, looking up at Runaan with wide, blue eyes. The two just stand there, staring at each other, uncertain on how to proceed, because really, there was a literal child walking straight up to them as if though concerned, he was overall unbothered since this was the expected outcome.
Runaan had only been approached by someone so at ease once before.
The boy’s gaze glanced away, darting across their faces and his eyes begin to sparkle. Before Runaan could even suspect any hint of suspicion or deceit, a trap, the boy looked back at Rayla, grinning.
“Do elves like jelly tarts too?” he gasps in wonder, completely defenseless. As if she, as if none of them, posed absolutely no danger to him, as if they weren’t a threat. As if all the obvious differences between the two species and all the bitterness that could be festering between them could be resolved by the simultaneous love for a baker’s treat.
Rayla put a hand up to her mouth, either to stifle a smile or a laugh. "I'm, uh, not sure on that one," she said quietly.
"Rayla, what have you done?" demanded Runaan, his gaze piercing, and she flinched under its scrutiny while he awaited an answer.
It was the boy who spoke up. “Don't get mad at her, I wanted to come.” He stepped in front of her to be in his view again. “Well, at first I was scared, but then she told me she was just trying to help me."
Kouru frowned, his hair curtaining half his face. “Just run home, kid, and forget you ever saw us. This has nothing to do with you."
"It does too!” the boy exclaimed. "Everyone is talking about how you're trying to kill my dad!”
Runaan looked up at the castle. Then, down at the boy.
They’re trying to kill the king. This child would only be saying that if.... The king was this boy’s father. They were searching also for a prince. A prince who would grow to take his father's place. This boy who must also be the king’s son, who must also be a prince, had also been found by Rayla. In the castle. A prince they came to Katolis specifically to kill.
No, Rayla couldn't have....
“Hey, uh, kid? What’s your name?” Kouru asked now in a gentler tone, kneeling down to the level of the damning sight before them.
“Me?” The child looked at him questioningly, meeting his gaze but shrugged, the creature in his arms. Looking so small.
Runaan stared at Rayla wide-eyed as she seemed to shrink in on herself when his eyes narrowed. What had she done? "You're a fool, Rayla," he snarled.
Callum raced up the staircase, breathing heavily from running through the halls in search of Harrow. He hadn't bothered to stop once except to finally ask where the king was. Still puffing as he came to a standstill at the top of the stairs, he caught Viren walking out of Harrow's chambers.
The High Mage looked shock to find him there, but Callum immediately burst out what he had to say.
“I-” began Prince Callum.
Viren had not once cared about what Callum had to say and certainly wasn’t starting now. “Get him out of here,” he barked at the nearest Crownguard.
"No!" Callum shouted, dodging the Crownguard's hand reaching out for him. "Please...listen! The assassins, they're—they're not coming for the king!"
"What are you on about?"
"They—they took Ezran! I can't find him anywhere!"
"What were you thinking?" Runaan demanded, watching her flinch at his tone. Not once had he ever spoken to her like this. Before he hadn't been angry, no. Frustrated, yes, because she'd made his job all the more harder. But he understood she was still just a child, not ready to spill blood just yet. Now?
This wasn't just another one of her little mishaps he could try to fix. This wasn't just a simple screw-up she might make when she was little. She had kidnapped the Crown Prince, something no one in the castle would go long without noticing. She had allowed Prince Ezran to live despite the binding that would cut deeper and deeper into his arms, and for the rest, their wrists, each passing day there was breath in his body. It was supposed to be simple, in and out without being noticed much. Not too much blood spilled. Not too many casualties nor innocent lives taken.
Only two targets were needed for justice.
And now not only had Rayla compromised that part in which they could take the king by surprise and minimize the body count by refusing to kill the guard, but she'd also taken the Crown Prince, an offense the King would not take lying down. They'd think the prince was their sole target all along, and they'd known it was them because Rayla let the guard go. Katolis would search for them, King Harrow would stop at nothing to find his heir.
Because of Rayla, their mission was shambled beyond repair, and she may as well have killed them all.
He wasn't just upset, he wasn't just mad. He was absolutely furious.
"I—I tried, but I couldn't do it!" Rayla defended herself. "He looked at me with fear in his eyes, and... Runaan, he's too young to be any threat to us! He's never done anything to us!"
"Rayla, we bound ourselves!" Runaan snapped, eyes livid. "Our duty is to Xadia! If you didn't think you were ready, you shouldn't have come in the first place!"
Kouru was struggling to hear the argument but he was sidetracked by the small human who apparently now decided to latch onto him with Rayla no longer available. Even with one or two-worded answers, the young child shot a volley of questions faster than he could keep up. They ranged from "What treats do elves like?", often followed by the prince offering him one of the many jelly tarts stashed in his bag, to "Why do you have four fingers?" (He did not dignify that one with an answer) which afterward the prince held up his hands to compare. Either that or he'd ramble on about random topics, like his pet whose name was apparently Bait and was his absolute bestest friend in the whole darn world.
He kept glancing over his shoulder every so often at Hyla or Kai, hoping they'd cut in, and the boy could bother them next, but they were seemingly having their own debate with one another so it seemed Kouru was stuck watching the child. Something he had no clue how to do in the slightest.
Moon above, he was an assassin, not a babysitter.
Still, it brought to question how the young prince could be so friendly? It wasn't even about them being elves and this small human child just walked straight up to them, but he had known Kouru for exactly five minutes and was talking to him like this was just a casual encounter in the woods. Didn't his father ever warn him about stranger danger? His literal first sight of them were with their weapons drawn; the boy was half his own size! But Prince Ezran didn't seem remotely intimidated or scared for his life even while the others were discussing his fate, just the occasional mention of how his father and brother were probably worried about him at home and that he should get back soon.
Despite their mission, Kouru couldn't help but be bothered that this kid was just too damn trusting.
Were all human children this naive?
In their culture, Moonshadow elves claimed they didn't have children. Only weapons. Few chose other professions. Soon as he was old enough, Kouru had taken up training. Their kind were not a...friendly type, per se; there were the few odd ones out, but most were a cold, hardened bunch, changed by the humans' destruction of all that mattered to them.
Show no fear, that's what he was taught. Emotion is weakness. The Moon is not warm—why should they appear so? Human children, on the other hand, were claimed to be raised weak, gifted with frivolities and novelty items, instead of the tools and skills they need to survive.
Still, the one before him talked away, oblivious to the imminent risk of his life by the people before him. Just completely defenseless and so much more fragile and smaller than elven children. And he had to wonder if all humans start out this way, innocent, then grew over time into the terrible monsters that he'd met.
If so, then at what point did they lost that?
"Rayla, humans cut down the King of the dragons!" Runaan's voice was suddenly loud enough to cut through Prince Ezran's rambling. "And destroyed the only egg of the Dragon Prince. Justice cannot be denied!"
Yet Rayla kept defending her choice. Why? She could finally redeem her parents' mistake, serve justice for the death of the Dragon King and Prince. But...unfortunately the more the kid talked, the more he could see it from her side. "Justice! King Harrow killed the Dragon King, not his son. Runaan, he is innocent—"
"He is our target. We took an oath! Do you have any idea the retribution we'll face for taking the King's heir?"
Kouru turned the prince's attention away by asking a question of his own. "So, uh, what colors can Bait change again?"
But Prince Ezran would not be deterred. "Everyone's talking about that you want to hurt my dad. I-I want to tell them that Dad is a good person... that they don't need to-" He cut off, squeezing Bait tighter. "People say that elves are evil and that they want to kill all of us. But that's not true!" He paused again, and looked up at the elves surrounding him. "Right?"
"No, we're not monsters," Kouru said, watching him quickly wipe his eyes. "You shouldn't have come with her. You shouldn't be here at all."
"Yeah, well, you shouldn't either!"
Alright, technically he had a point.
"My dad is a good person!" Prince Ezran repeated, his voice shaky.
"Your father orchestrated the murder of the Dragon King and then destroyed his only egg!" Runaan snapped, obliviously more in tune to the conversation than he'd appeared. "Our people desire some semblance of justice for the horrible crimes your people committed."
"And then what will happen?" Ezran asked.
"War, little prince, look at the world around you."
Prince Ezran walked in between Runaan and Rayla. "Can't you just talk about it?" he asked, tilting his head. "Besides, it's not Rayla's fault. She got all the way into the castle, and she didn't even get caught!" he gushed, his eyes sparkling. "She was just doing her best. And it was so cool how she carried me and Bait, and jumped from roof to roof!" Suddenly, he gasped, as if remembering something. "Oh, now I really have to get back soon. I wanted to show Callum this cool thing I found in the dungeon, it's magic, I can tell."
"Magic?" Hyla asked, walking forward.
"Mhm!" As the young prince recounted his story, his words tumbling out in a rush, barely pausing to take a breath, using both hands to gesticulate as he told his tale. About how there were many, many tunnels in the walls of the castle and he'd found them all, and even though it would help their mission, Kouru almost wanted to facepalm from how painfully trusting this kid was. He had just begun telling about how just before Rayla took him and mentioned the thing he found was this glowing rock thing that looked like an egg shape when Hyla stopped him again.
"An egg shape?" Her eyebrows were furrowed as she glanced over at Runaan. "And you think it was...magic?"
"Yeah!" Ezran beamed. "There was a noise coming from it. I think it was alive!"
Hyla stood abruptly. "Runaan."
Runaan turned to her. She gestured for him to come with her. After making sure Kouru and Kai were watching the prince, he let her take him off to the side. "This changes things."
Runaan kept his voice low. "This changes nothing."
"He's describing the Dragon Prince's egg," she hissed.
"Then don't you think we should go see for ourselves?"
"He could be lying. He's a human, our target, Hyla."
"A human child," she said. "And if he's right, then maybe...maybe The Dragon Prince is still alive. If we see for ourselves, we can take it back and we'll have the egg. There wouldn't be any need for justice against the young prince. This is the heir to Katolis and a nephew to the great General Amaya. He is worth more to us alive than dead."
"What then? I can't simply undo this. We bound ourselves, Hyla."
"Justice will still be taken with the King's death, Runaan, but if it turns out the egg is alive, then we will have the egg of The Dragon Prince. You said it yourself. Life is precious. If we find out that the Prince lived, we don't need to take this one, anymore."
Runaan turned to look at the prince to find the boy looking straight back at him. Prince Ezran said, "I'll go with you. I know where everything is and I'll take you there... If you don't hurt my dad."
Runaan considered those words. "The king--"
Hyla stopped him before he could get it out, her voice cutting over his. "Please consider it. Peace can be had, Runaan."
"You can't hurt my brother, either." Runaan raised his eyebrows at the Prince's second request. "I'm sure he'll understand once I explain everything."
Callisto shook his head. "We can't. If the prince lives, we all lose our hands."
Hyla snapped, "Is that not worth it for Xadia? We could have the egg. The egg we all thought had been destroyed. Do you realize what kind of change that could bring?"
"We'll be slowed down," Callisto argued. "Runaan, you know we don't have time for this."
"The Dragon Queen can unbind us," said Hyla. "Dragons have powerful magic. If we find the egg, we can get it to her, and she most likely will release us from our bindings."
Kai stood next to Callisto. "We can't be sure of that. If she knows we went back on our mission, she may leave it to teach us a lesson for our insubordination."
"Losing my hand is worth it if it means finding the Dragon Prince and returning him home."
Callisto snorted, "If he is even alive at all-"
"Enough. Runaan, make a decision." Kouru's voice cut clear between them. That tone made Runaan turn toward him. "The moon will rise soon. If we are to strike, it has to be tonight. What do we have to lose? If the young prince is right, we have the egg and can call off the mission. If he's wrong..."
Runaan turned to the prince and regarded him. For a moment, Runaan said nothing. Then, he broke his silence, "You will be compliant. You will be quiet. And if you get in the way, you will be dealt with. Is that understood?"
The prince shared a glance with Rayla who flashed him a small, reassuring smile. He looked back at Runaan and nodded.
"Very well. Come with us."
It was completely impromptu. Yet in the moment, it seemed the change of plans worked out better than he ever could have dreamed.
Originally, Viren had chalked up Callum's distress to the day's event, but when he tried to get one of the guards to get him out of the line of fire, he'd called out, "King Harrow!" and when that hadn't worked, desperate, he'd cried out, "Dad!"
It had its desired affect. Not a minute had passed after when Harrow threw open the doors to his chambers and ran out. "What happened?" he demanded, pushing past the Crownguards who tried to hold him back. "Callum, what's wrong?"
"They took Ezran! The assassins!" panted Callum as he shook off the guard holding him. "He ran off, and the next think I knew he was gone! I'm sorry, it was my fault!"
Harrow's eyes widened and he stumbled. Viren managed to catch him just in time, his mind already racing with what he could do with this situation to benefit his plans.
The Crown Prince was missing; he was certain the boy was still alive, possibly being kept alive by the Moonshadow elves that dared threaten to enter their fortress but there was no guarantee how long it would stay that way. The young prince was weak, a prince who would grow to make decisions that would keep Katolis and the humans from their rightful place in Xadia, but Harrow was willing to do anything to ensure his safety.
Viren knew Harrow better than anyone, he knew for a fact he loved his sons--even that step-son of his--more than anything.
And whether the prince was kept alive or not, he could sow the seeds of despair the longer he was missing that he was in danger, and over time, well, it'd be a shame if something were to happen to the poor thing before he was saved. Any indication at all that the young prince wasn't so lucky, that the elves were what Viren had tried to get Harrow to believe: Bloodthirsty, vengeful monsters who couldn't be reasoned with.
Harrow would stand by his side again at last.
Straightening his shoulders as he helped Harrow up, hands clasped behind his back, Viren set his face into a stony, blank expression. He could play the part of a grieving man just as easily as he could act out all of his other expected roles.
"You are certain?" Harrow asked.
"But not dead," Viren reminded, "certainty of death would mean having his body in our possession, which we've found no trace of."
"Send out every soldier. Search every inch until he's found," Harrow said roughly, shaking off Viren. "They can't be too far away."
"Yet...we are not certain that you are no longer their target. You cannot be left unprotected—"
Jerking forward, a deadly fire burning in his smoldering green eyes, Harrow straightened to his full height—not much taller than Viren but in this state, it seemed as though he was fifty, a hundred feet tall—and spat, "Dead or alive, I will find my son. If he is alive, then I will have him returned to me safely. If he is dead, then I will make sure every inch of Moonshadow territory is razed and burned until there is nothing but ashes! Do you understand me?!" His voice echoed throughout the hall and Viren could see his son flinch at the sudden volume.
"Yes, sir," Viren said humbly, bowing his head and fighting against every instinct to smile. "I will do everything in my power to find Prince Ezran. Now, please, you must return to be placed under protection."
"I will not stay idle while my son may be in danger or rotting in some wood!" Harrow snarled, taking a step forward to Callum whose face had gone pale at the mention of his brother's possible death. "I'm sorry, Callum, it's going to be alright," he said, his expression softening. "We'll find him. If we find him before sunrise, there's still a chance."
"And what do you plan to do, sir?" Viren asked cooly. "When there's the slightest possibility you can't once the moon rises—" He stopped a moment when Harrow looked over his shoulder at him with a searing look—"And the people will need some reassurance once they find out. What are you going to do then? Run yourself to the ground searching through the entire castle? The entire forest?"
"If that's what it takes." This time it was Callum who spoke. Because this was his precious baby brother. He was more than willing to do what it takes to get him back. When he thought it'd only been Harrow, he'd been willing then and he was willing now if it meant keeping his sweet, annoying baby brother safe.
"If Prince Ezran cannot be retrieved on time, that means you will have to take the place of Prince Regent, Prince Callum," Viren sighed heavily. "Neither of you are worth anything to Prince Ezran or this kingdom if you don't stay protected. If the Crown Prince is indeed in Moonshadow custody then you need to be ready to defend him. If it is as we feared, you will need to prepare for battle."
"But—" Callum began.
"Did you not take in consideration this may also simply be a ploy to get you out in the open?" Viren challenged. "That once they have the opportunity, they make sure none of the royal family survives tonight? We will find the prince, but the King is not good to anyone dead, and with him gone, neither are you. Don't you agree?"
Harrow glared at him, his gaze so heated that Viren was surprised it didn't burn a hole clean through his forehead then wrenched his gaze away. "Find my son, Viren."
"I give you my word, my king." Viren placed a hand over his heart, bowed low then turned and walked quickly down the stairs.
Once he was safely out of sight of anyone who would find him smiling at a moment like this bizarre, Viren finally let the somber expression drop away, replaced by one of delighted satisfaction. Everything was set in motion. He knew no amount of hints would ever be enough to convince Harrow or the step-prince. No, the body of Prince Ezran was needed. That would be the only thing to push Harrow over the edge, to actually follow through on his threat to burn the lands of the Moonshadow elves, and hopefully all of magical Xadia to embers.
Even if the monsters didn't carry through with Ezran's execution on their own, Viren would send his children after them under the guise of rescuing Ezran. Neither would dare defy him. And it wouldn't be long until the body of Prince Ezran was placed before the king and his stepson, and his plan could finally be underway. Harrow would follow him like a dog on a leash, straight into the heart of Xadia, intent on revenge. And, oh, he would reap the spoils of that rage.
Okay, I'm thinking about Callum maybe joining team Viren at least for a little bit
because I've always thought it a little weird in the show that, while I can understand
Ezran because he has that young naivety most kids have, Callum sided with the elf that
chased him down, nearly killed him, and admitted to being an assassin there to kill his
family, and not Claudia who he's known probably most of his life. As much as he'd
believe ending the cycle of violence, I honestly doubt that if they did kidnap Ezran he
would immediately side with the elves. So, yeah, I think he might be on team Viren for
a bit to search with Claudia and Soren for his brother at least until he realizes Viren's
Runaan still wasn't speaking to Rayla after their initial argument. He could barely deign to look at her.
Callisto looked back at Rayla whose head was down as she brought up the rear, and not even Prince Ezran with his exuberance and bright grins (it must be a spell, how else could one maintain such a glow?) could seem to cheer her up. Runaan had wanted to leave her behind, but Kouru interfered, reminding him of the trouble she caused the last time she'd been left alone (at the bluntness of those words, Rayla had winced and refused to look anyone in the eye after that).
When it came to their jobs, one could never blame anyone for the loss of their own life. You were responsible for yourself as dependence on team members could only take you so far, and even that was unreliable since there had been...elves who'd defected. Therefore, as much as they worked in teams, it was each assassin's responsibility to prepare yourself. It was why if they were captured, Moonshadow elves were taught to think of themselves as already dead. No one was coming to save them. If they could not find their own way out, they were already dead.
In case of sabotage and they were too far into the mission, they were also supposed to improvise. There was no point in turning against each other over a mistake or other. When things didn't work as planned, you must work with the shambles remaining.
And he could tell what Runaan was thinking, that despite being taught otherwise, he did feel anger and blame toward Rayla, for all that she had done to lead both him and their team into a situation that could mean their end. Once Runaan acknowledged that the reason why it was so hard for him to so much as look at her after their reunion, he knew it was because he couldn't look at her without feeling the effects of what she had done. Callisto also knew that it was up to him to master the emotions that were now hurting both of them. And if it went on into the mission, it could end up hurting all of them.
The thing about emotions, the reason they were trained to ignore them, was that they complicated things more than how they needed to be.
His back was not turned for more than a second before Runaan felt Callisto's eyes on him, and after a weighted few seconds, Runaan said, "If you have something you wish to say, I suggest you say it."
"You have to talk to her about this," Callisto said in a low voice, without a moment's hesitation. "I think it's been decided she's more emotional than we are. And she probably thinks you hate her now. You're going to have to put this aside and focus on the task at hand."
"I know that," Runaan said, through a clenched jaw. He looked over to find that Callisto sending him a look, the same when he tried to take Rayla off the mission, and once again, Runaan knew he was returning the expression in kind.
"Then maybe you could try acting like it," Callisto said, his voice hard. "Because right now it's like you're shunning her for doing what she thought was the right thing."
". . . 'The right thing,'" Runaan repeated. "We may all be dead as a direct result of Rayla's actions. While each of us are responsible for our own preparation and abilities, the fact remains that a key component of our mission has now suffered irreparable damage at Rayla's hands. She betrayed not only our mission, but all of us as well. Would you call that doing 'the right thing'?"
Runaan did not miss the roll of the eyes that crossed Callisto's face. "Now that's a bit of an exaggeration. In her mind, it was the right thing, and she's too young to know any better, any more than that kid is too young to know to be afraid of us—"
"She's fifteen, she was supposed to be ready."
"In her defense, we were at least eighteen before the council even considered us for a mission, and it was practically insignificant," he shot back without missing a beat. "And if I remember correctly, you managed to make quite a few mistakes back in the day where you bit off more than you can chew. Especially one in particular that nearly cost us—"
"We will not discuss that. In fact, why don't you just. Stop. Talking?"
"Still touchy, I see, after nearly twenty years. We were adults then, and we still made mistakes we didn't know better than to make. Like you said, Rayla's a child, and we don't need children on this mission, but it is what it is now. Rayla spared Prince Ezran's life, and we have to work with what we're given."
"Yes," Runaan agreed but said no more.
Clenching his jaw, Callisto said something he hoped didn't get it broken. "Have more faith in her. One moment of pity doesn't make her..." He paused, catching the withering expression Runaan sent his way, daring, daring him to utter a single syllable of her name, then pushed on anyway. "She's not Lorcán, Runaan."
"Do not," Runaan pronounced very carefully, his fists clenching at his sides, "mention her name."
"Oh, don't tell me it's not that incident at the front of your mind that's causing you to be so harsh on her," Callisto demanded. "Because just like then, she also spared a human, a human you—"
"She turned her back on us and Xadia. Do not dignify that act," Runaan spat, the look he flashed Callisto stopping him dead. "As for my deeds, I was as foolish as Rayla is now. But she'll learn in time like I did that no human can be trusted." He spared a look back toward Ezran with his bright smiles and glow. "I can see it in her face, she's already starting to grow soft. Do not let that child sway you from our goal. He is a human, and young though he may be, he will end up like the rest of them, like his father..."
"Whatever you say," Callisto shrugged and made to fall back, but not before he struck a low blow. "Although in Rayla's defense, you didn't seem to think that with—"
"Callisto, I am warning you—!"
"Okay, fine, fine, shutting up."
Callum knew just how much they were relying on luck for Ezran. Today he had lost someone he cared about, again, and it would be permanent if he didn't do anything soon. From what he had heard in the gossip that spread through the castle like wildfire there were six of them and it would be a trial to take them down even at their weakest. If they actually stormed the castle at the peak of the full moon it was unlikely anyone would survive.
The only advantage they had at all was the knowledge of their attack. Better than waking up the next morning to find Harrow in bed with his throat slit, and his brother...
Callum had to swallow as he suddenly found it hard to breath before taking a moment to calm. He rested his head against the wall and inhaled deeply, trying to tame his racing heart. In... Out... Like his mother showed him whenever he panicked and all the thoughts swarmed his head, and it was just too hard to suck air into a throat that felt narrow as a straw.
There had been wrongs committed on both sides of this war, logically Callum knew this, after all the destruction of the Thunder Dragon and his only egg was the reason why they were stuck in this situation in the first place, but Callum couldn't help but be afraid. He had never seen a Moonshadow elf outside of books, yet from the way the people were talking about them they were worse than other elves, that Moonshadows were bloodthirsty monsters who drank the blood of humans. He wanted the King to live... but he knew that they weren't sure what exactly the elves' plan was anymore, whether they'd even keep Ezran alive once they had Harrow, or they'd kill him anyway and then Callum would be all alone.
Even if they saved Ezran and got rid of the elves, more Moonshadow elves would come to take their place. This war was neverending. It had raged on in his parent's lifetime, their parents, and further and further back since the Divide. And unless something earth shattering happened...it would rage for his lifetime as well.
And this wasn't some fairytale or story where miracles happened and everyone lived happily ever after together. This cycle between Xadia and the Human Kingdoms would just keep going on and on, neither side willing to compromise.
Thunder had killed his mother. He knew in a way, he should have felt some sort of satisfaction when he heard Thunder had been killed, his life taken in return for taking his mother's. His loving, fierce mother who'd tuck him in at night, who would tell stories about her battles that sounded greatly exaggerated in some places (but Callum wouldn't care), who would sing him to sleep when he had nightmares and helped him through those moments of breathlessness, and who was willing to do anything to fight for her country and for him and his brother's futures. The mother Ezran would never actually know, too young to remember anything but brief glimpses and flashes of memories when she died.
But when Callum had heard about Thunder and the egg's destruction, all he'd felt was...a deep sadness. Callum and Ezran had lost their mother. King Harrow had lost his wife. But Xadia had lost their protector and heir. The Dragon Queen had lost her son and mate. In the end it was still two families mourning for lost ones. Two kingdoms mourning a monarch.
With one last exhale, Callum stood back straight. Say the Moonshadow elves did manage to kill them all, murder the whole royal family. Then what? Katolis will want revenge, and then vice versa once that revenge was carried out.
The only way to end this was to change things. Callum was resolute in his thinking, more and more pointless fighting wasn't going to accomplish anything. He was here, he had the opportunity... He had to do something.
So, he headed into one of the many secret passages Ezran had shown him and went down the long winding path down towards the room Claudia told him to meet her, doing the pattern she'd showed him. Claudia spoke to him earlier about needing to show him something they could use against the elves after catching him outside the tower. Within the first few seconds after she got out the two words, "What's wrong?" he broke down and told her everything. He wasn't sure what he'd find, after all Claudia and her father had...questionable methods.
"Relax, Callum, I'll make sure Ezran is safe and sound," she had assured him when she caught the doubt in his expression (she knew him too well). "I'll protect you both. Like my dad protects your dad."
The lair he found himself in didn't exactly ease those worries, but he trusted Claudia. Plus, they were really the only friends they had around their age that wasn't their own brothers. And that counts for a lot.
Maybe she didn't liked him the way he'd come to like her, but she was his best friend. His only friend beside Soren that wasn't Ezran.
He walked through the room, noting all the items inside that sent chills up his spine: Shriveled up, dead, or sliced up magical creatures in jars and the occasional elf horn from an unfortunate soul who'd winded up here. This was what they used for dark magic, then? He could see why his stepfather opposed it.
He's only alone for a moment until Claudia pokes her head out from the doorway. "Callum! Good, you're here, come on!" she urged, gesturing for him to follow her. Sparing one last look around, he suppressed a shudder and walked after her. She stopped in front of a pedestal where something atop it was covered in a dark tarp. "You can't tell the king about this, I promised Dad."
"I won't unless it's dangerous," Callum promised, raising an eyebrow. "What is it?"
She looked at him, with his messy dark hair and pencil-smudged hands and lets out a little hum. The prince who will never be king, she had overheard the castle guards once gibe. They spoke it like an insult... She can't sympathize with how they feel. Beyond her duty to the Crown, she actually liked Callum. She likes how he never teases her for reading all the time. She likes how she can be herself around him. With other people, she's always the High Mage's daughter first, and Claudia second. Sometimes, it feels like Callum's the only other person who understands how weird that can feel.
She can trust him with this.
"Look," she whispered despite nobody being in hearing range, and carefully lifted the tarp just enough for him to see.
"A...glowing rock?" he asked, brows furrowed.
"Not a rock." She recovered it, but he had already seen what she needed him to see. "An egg. The Dragon Prince's egg."
"The Dragon Prince? Didn't they say... "
"I know!" Claudia gushed, quickly shushing herself. "But my father managed to save it so the elves couldn't use it."
"Use it? It's an egg, Claudia!"
"And what do you think they're going to raise it into once it's hatched, Callum? A weapon. Thunder guarded the Border and ended up killing thousands of us for even approaching it, not just soldiers but innocent people, families, with children. Once this egg hatches, Xadia will find a way to raise it to do the same."
"But this is the reason they're coming!" Callum exploded. "Because they think we destroyed the egg. It's why they took Ezran!"
Claudia appeared deep in thought for a moment, then she tapped her nose before pointing it toward him with a grin and her eyes alight. "We need magic to conquer magic," she said, quoting her father's words whenever she looked over the exotic artifacts from her dad's expeditions to Xadia. "And we're going to use it to get him back."
"But you just said you took it for a reason. What's the point if you're just going to give it back?"
"I never said we were going to give back the egg, come on," Claudia snorted, grabbing the primal stone she'd shown him earlier, the smooth surface of the dark blue orb cool under her fingers. "We just need to make them think we will. A Prince for a Prince, right? A fib or two never hurt anyone, right?"
Am I the only who thought that when Runaan talked about humans being liars during
his confrontation with Rayla in the show, it actually sounded a bit personal like he'd
learned that from experience? Yeah, I plan to elaborate on that just a little bit... Anyway,
hope you liked this chapter!
The halls were dark, torches smothered, and the stones beneath Rayla's boots made their footsteps echo through the emptiness. Prince Ezran guided them, the bright glow given off by Bait giving away his position in the darkness, not that the elves needed it either way, but human eyes were drastically weaker than their own. One palm tracing against the wall, tiny pebbles and dust and soot clung to Rayla's fingertips. Nothing more than Bait's natural glow to illuminate Ezran's path.
Rayla didn't miss when Runaan gave out orders to Kai, Hyla, and Callisto to head up to the tower and pose to strike in case their suspicions about the egg were wrong. If it turned out true, he'd send a signal and they'd retreat. They'd remember the conditions of their agreement with Ezran. The egg in exchange for his father's safety. And really, it would matter more to the Dragon Queen if they brought back her son alive then it would returning with King Harrow's head. However, if it turned out false...
Rayla gulped, flashing back to the image she'd held of Ezran with those blues eyes void of that spark she was becoming fond of, blood, his blood, falling into the stone floor. Despite her own careful steps, her heart's pounding loud enough she's surprised nobody's heard it. Loud assassins were dead assassins. Her eyes darted every so often among the walls, as if expecting something or someone to leap out at them, but none came.
Avoiding the guards was easy enough once the moon rose into the sky like a silver medallion, becoming invisible to even each other. It was odd to say the least, not being able to see your own hands and feet but after the first few minutes, she managed to adjust. The only indication they'd given Ezran to know their position was the occasional soft tap on the stone walls. Once they'd gotten inside where the moon's light couldn't reach them and they were visible again, it wasn't necessary, and with the prince's Glow Toad, he could see ahead and behind him just fine.
Still, it was bewildering how calm Ezran appeared considering the circumstances. Not even now did he seem afraid. Then again, why would he? According to him, he was familiar with the castle. Every crevice, every creaky stair, every locked door, every secret he seemed to know or had found out for himself lately. He'd grown up within these walls, with marathons of hide-and-seek and escaping from boring cotillions or state dinners. Every staircase railing had been slid down, every curtain hidden behind (or torn at least once), and she could see it in the way he moved with more certainty than the elves.
Rayla hadn't been allowed to so much as stand too close to Ezran since their discovery, but she stepped close as she dared so he was within arm's length. Her Runaan she would trust not to do anything that could hurt Ezran if it came to that. This one, she wasn't so sure of.
They walk quietly, the echo of their footsteps muted underneath and around them, lit by a cool, thrumming light reflecting off the cold stone of the passageway. They pass room after room, either Runaan or Kouru scouting quickly ahead, before returning to the passageway. With every empty room and abandoned hallway and no sign of anyone other than the guards, an ominous feeling began to weigh on her shoulders. The feeling that this was just too easy, too quiet. But Ezran walked on as if nothing's was wrong, heading from one to the next and between passages.
Finally he seemed to recognize something, and he looked over his shoulder at them before turning back into the passageway, waving them along, glowing once more. Seriously, what kind of magic was wasted on that glow? Who would bother spending that much time to construct something like that? Who does he know?
"Aha! It's this way!" he shouted, starting forward. The hallway, twisted and turned before stopping to a dead end.
"What game is this?" Runaan demanded, and Rayla almost moved before stopping herself.
Ezran only grinned back mischievously as he set Bait down.
"No game, trust me. A puzzle," he crowed, surging forward and pressing a number of different stones on the wall, mumbling under his breath. "Let's see… rock, rock, stone, rock, stone, stone, rock, stone, rock, stone…" as Rayla stared at the seemingly random pressing of—rocks? Stones? Was there a difference?
"Uh-huh... And how long did it take to figure this out?" Kouru questioned, appearing intrigued.
"Couple of months!" the boy responded cheerfully as he pressed the final combination of rock/stone, and the ground beneath them began rumbling. Rayla lowered her stance, a hand placed on the weapons at her back as the floor sunk into a set of stairs. The boy bounded down the steps. "Follow me!"
Once at the last step, Ezran pushed a statue back into place and the staircase spiraled back upward like it was never there. Leaving them in a dark room with atrocities Rayla never thought she'd ever see.
Chains and herbs hung from the ceiling, a variety of magical herbs and animal parts sitting in glass jars, bookshelves lining the walls. A table with scrolls sat in a corner with several items on it's surface Rayla doesn't recognize but knows in the pit of her stomach that they're no ordinary things for magic.
She could only stare, horrified, slack-jawed at the abominations collected in jars, lying across shelves. Horrors glare back.
"What is this place?" she whispered hoarsely. She'd spent the last couple of hours in this human's presence and gotten no sign he would be involved with something like this. What kind of creature has the ability to do something like this, something so atrocious, and still smile in the face of it?
Except Ezran wasn't smiling as he tried to look away from it, clutching his pet all the more tighter, shielding the toad's eyes from what looked to be a shriveled up member of its species.
While Kouru seemed to be trying to tear his eyes away from a set of elven horns aligned on one of the shelves, Runaan caught Rayla's expression. "Do you still believe humans are worth saving?" he snarled under his breath as he passed her. More words than he'd spoken to her since their reunion, but they still made her stomach churn and bile rise in her throat.
"This is where they might be keeping the egg?" muttered Kouru, his voice a mix of horror and disdain. He turned his head to Ezran. "Where are we?"
"I'm not sure," the boy admitted, running up to a curtained pedestal. "The only one who uses magic is Claudia and her dad. But... Claudia wouldn't do anything like this, she's my friend. I know she wouldn't." He frowned at the thought, then placed a hand atop the fabric. "Don't worry, it's alive, I can hear it! Look— here!" he turns to them, face pleading.
The boy pulls off the curtain and Rayla's entire world stops.
She wouldn't believe Ezran would lie. He was too young to be corrupted into the humans Runaan had run into during his time. Yet it wouldn't be far-fetched if he was mistaken. After all, he'd never seen the Dragon Prince's egg before. Seeing it now, though, took her breath away.
This, this was an egg, this was the egg. Here was the very thing everyone had thought was destroyed months ago, it was the reason they'd been sent, why she'd been sent, why she'd been ordered to kill—
This can't be.
And yet the egg remained, defying and shattering her beliefs with every pulse of thrumming light. Even Runaan's stoic face broke down into one of disbelief and a tenderness she'd never seen before. If she didn't know better, she'd think he might just start crying. "It's beautiful," he whispered, raw, aching.
Ezran extended his ear towards the egg, then turned to meet Runaan's gaze. "He needs to go home," he pleaded, suddenly seeming to be a far distance, pleading to what— to understand? To accept? "He wants his mother."
Rayla barely acknowledges him as her stomach, previously calmed over the course of their journey and conversation rebels once again. This was all for nothing. The mission needed to be called off.
There was no reason for the prince to die.
The dim light of the lair casted shadows everywhere, the strange objects and creatures in jars only made more terrifying by the bright glow of the egg, making everything darker by comparison.
Ezran already began taking it down, putting it safely into his pack. Runaan stopped him with a look, sharp and intense. "Give it to me."
The boy contemplated for a moment, a moment too long. Maybe he was less naive than she thought and knew that the egg may or may not be the only reason he was still alive. Looking from the colorful and speckled egg back to Runaan's face, Ezran glanced over his shoulder at Rayla's desperate expression, before his face set with resolve. He picked it out of his bag and held it out to the elf when a unfamiliar voice rang out.
"Ezran, don't give him the egg." Rayla whirled around, blades out to see a girl with black hair, wearing all black, and wielding a...primal stone?
"Claudia?" Ezran asked, turning towards her, away from Runaan whose blades were already out.
"Ezran!" She sounded relieved and gave him a quick once-over before seemingly deciding he was unscathed. "Everything's going to be alright," she said in a steady voice. "I'll keep you safe, just walk towards me slowly. I'll protect you from the elves. If they take so much as one step..."
"But I don't need protecting, Claudia. I wanted to go with them," Ezran said, taking a step forward but also hugging the egg as he would with Bait. As if he'd already bonded with it. "And the egg needs to go back to his mother."
Another figure stepped out of the shadows to be beside the mage. He held his hands up, but Rayla recognized him as the older prince from the portrait. Callum extended one hand out, regarding the elves like...like wild animals, Rayla realized. "I don't know what the elves told you, but it's going to be okay. Just give her the egg."
This time, Ezran's eyes filled with confusion. "But Callum, they didn't tell me anything. The egg shouldn't be here."
"They're lying, Ezran," Claudia exclaimed, her eyes trained on Runaan as her fingers were poised to sketch a rune. If she decided to cast a spell, would they be fast enough to get to her first? "Moonshadow elves are horrible, evil bloodthirsty manipulators-"
"Can I just throw a knife at her?" Kouru grumbled, rolling his eyes. "It'd shut her up quick."
"-and whatever they told you is a lie."
"Then why is the egg here?" demanded Rayla. "Why is it here being subjected to your dark magic?"
"My father saved it!"
"Saved it? From what?"
"Ezran, you have to understand," Callum went on, his attention centered on his brother, barely acknowledging the other elves. "Lord Viren took it, but it was to protect us. From Xadia because he knew the elves and dragons would use it against us. He-he's always done what's best. Why would he lie to us now?"
"I don't know what these bloodthirsty monsters told you, but you don't understand what kind of powerful weapon it is."
There was a long pause.
"A what?" Kouru lowered his weapon for what seemed to be the sole purpose of giving them a completely dumbstruck look. For once, Runaan was actually glad he opened that mouth of his. "I can't even make my breakfast out of this thing! What kind of weapon are we supposed to be making out of it?!"
Callum narrowed his eyes. "Listen, I don't know what game you're playing here, but you took my little brother and I know you're here to kill the king, so excuse me but I'm not buying any of your acts. You know it's a powerful weapon you can use against us."
Kouru blinked twice, pinched the bridge of his nose and echoed Rayla's thoughts. "...the egg?" He then took a look around at everyone present to see if any of them actually believed such nonsense. "Oh, come on, you would have to be absolute geniuses to discover a way to make a weapon of war out of an egg."
"Claudia, it's not a weapon, it's a baby dragon. It has to go home," Ezran pleaded, looking like he was about to walk forward toward them but thought better of it. As if he was suddenly unsure. "Can't you see that?" When he got no response from her, he turned to his brother with wide eyes of blue. "Callum?" Even Rayla couldn't miss the hurt edging in his voice.
"You'll understand when you're older, Ezran, but you've got to understand that this is what's best," insisted Callum, pleading also. "This way no one gets hurt."
"Except its mother who thinks her baby is dead." Ezran pointed out, backing away, and Callum's face fell.
Claudia turned to him and gave him a look.
"Ezran, please give me the egg."
As they talked, Rayla calculated their chances. They weren't good. A mage who could kill them before they could make it a few steps and a prince who might have soldiers waiting for them just around the corner. Not to mention, they had to protect the prince and the egg-
Doubtless, Ezran would pick his own brother and his friend over a couple of elves (bloodthirsty monsters, Claudia had called them-was that how humans saw them?) he'd known-what, a few hours? She had forgotten for a moment that he was human, after all? If he had heard all the stories or beliefs these humans seemed to have, he might just believe their lies, and then the egg would be gone again. Experimented again on with humans' wretched dark magic. That couldn't happen.
That single word drew the shock of everyone in the room. Even Runaan seemed to freeze a moment as Ezran's response registered.
"Ezran, please. If anyone ever found out, it could spell disaster for Katolis," Claudia said,
Ezran knew Claudia's heart was in the right place but he was hesitant to give her the egg. He knew his brother had already made up his mind, but... He couldn't let the egg be harmed and he had a sinking feeling that was all that would happen if it was left here.
A stone sunk into his belly. Claudia was still his friend. He didn't want to see her hurt or dead. Ezran thought of Callum dead and something panicked inside his brain. But the same happened whenever he thought of Rayla and her friends dead because of him. Because he led them here.
That being said, he was already well into panic territory.
"Callum." Ezran said, looking at him pleadingly.
That made his brother pause. Then his eyes hardened. "Ezran. Come here." But though his mouth said otherwise, Callum shared a look with Ezran and in that single gaze, he conveyed a simple message. Run.
"Okay..." Ezran said slowly. "But first I should introduce you." He clutched the egg and looked at Bait. "Say hello to my little friend." Once the words were uttered, Ezran shut his eyes and turned away before Bait glowed bright enough to blind everyone in a sudden burst of light .
Ezran bolted down a passageway with Bait, grabbing Rayla's hand as she clutched her closed eyes. "Come on!"
"Warning next time!" shouted Kouru, smacking into a wall as he blinked rapidly until Runaan grabbed him by one of his horns and yanked him along as they fled.
"Ezran, come back!" Claudia yelled, blinking and rubbing her eyes to clear the spots dancing before them while her vision blurred.
She turned to Callum. "I promise not to hit Ez." As she drew a rune of lightning, Callum's eyes widened. With her vision still unclear, even if she wasn't aiming properly, she could strike him with whatever spell she'd come up with. She was about to cast when Callum knocked the Primal source out of her hand.
"Callum! What are you doing?!"
"I'm sorry, it was an accident," he lied. "I can barely see anything."
"Well, they must have him under some sort of spell!" Claudia scrambled up, blinking furiously until the spots faded and grabbed some ingredients. "But don't worry, Callum, I've got this."
Magic was unpredictable to say the least, it was the reason it couldn't win a war: It was unreliable and often misused. But magic could win a battle. After all, the Dragon King had been killed with but one mage on Katolis' side.
As Ezran led them through the tunnels, Rayla couldn't help but notice the sound of sniffling. She walked ahead to be side-by-side with Ezran and caught him rubbing his eyes. "What's wrong?"
Ezran didn't say anything for a long while, then finally, he looked up at her with his eyes red. He wasn't smiling now, nor was there that familiar glow. "I thought they would believe in me," he said. "I thought...I didn't think they would..." He sniffed again and rubbed his eyes with his sleeve, but she didn't dare touch him with Runaan present. "I'm sorry. I really thought they'd understand."
To her surprise, it was Kouru who spoke up, although she wasn't sure if his words were meant to be comfort or advice. He had his own unique way of sounding like he didn't particularly like his current task but would also willingly smash your head in if you dared stand in his way."That's just how humans are, little prince. You'll get used to it someday. Everyone does."
Am I the only one who would like to see elves do like the horn yank whenever they're
annoyed? It's right up there with them headbutting.
Also, on a side note, have you ever listened to The Score. Awesome band with awesome songs that are really great for inspiration!
"See, this is why I don't trust magic," Soren huffed. "If the Moon Moth really worked, then how did we manage to miss a couple of Moonshadow elves hiding out in the forest waiting to snatch up the prince?"
Viren sighed. "If the moon moth failed, it was only because you failed to see them. You must never forget that Moonshadow elves are deceitful by nature; chances are they were hiding in plain sight, staring right at you, Soren." He banged his staff onto the floor and turned to address his daughter. "Claudia, did you get good look at them?"
Claudia nodded. "There were three, but I don't have anything from them to make a tracking spell," she said slowly. "The most I could do was send out a summon so that if we can't find them, they can." She suppressed a shudder. She could never say truly who they were; she'd never seen them. All she knew was that they sometimes brought her father some of his...ingredients for whatever dark magic he was experimenting with this time. Either way, neither were good for Ezran if the Moonshadow elves' spell had convinced him that they were on his side. They were known for efficiency in getting the job done, not gentleness. "Listen, I think they have Ezran under a spell or something. He actually wanted to go with them; he used Bait against us and helped those would-be murderers escape!"
Viren looked over them both and looked deep in thought. "Of course, he's a child. Children will believe almost anything they're told. Who knows what those elven assassins may have said to bamboozle him. Trust nothing they say. Elves will lie until their last breath if it means getting what they want. Do you both understand?"
Soren and Claudia nodded in unison.
"Good. Now, with the moon at its highest, you'll never catch them. Your best bet is to set out at dawn. Every moment is vital for the chance of returning Prince Ezran alive. And make sure no matter what happens, the egg is safe. If the elves get their hands on it, it would mean another Thunder will rule the sky in another decade, and all those deaths will be for nothing."
"But..." Claudia hesitated. "Shouldn't our priority be Ezran?"
"Yes, yes, of course. However, the egg is just as important, and we can't let it fall into the wrong hands for Xadia to use it. How many more will die from such a weapon like many had fallen by Thunder's doing?" He observed the stone in his staff, pretending to brush it off. "Besides, leave the little prince to us."
Then from behind them came the sound of a slow, leisurely clapping. Claudia and Soren turned to find their father walking toward them with a smile on his face. "Quite a performance, if I may add," Viren--the real Viren--said. "Claudia, you said before you wanted to meet the people who would handle getting Prince Ezran back to us, so allow me to introduce you." The imposter Viren walked forward, handing the staff to their father before standing beside him, a small incantation muttered before the illusion fell off him to reveal a woman--no, girl from how she looked barely older than Claudia--standing a few inches taller than Viren, a smirk on her lips. Her eyes held violet irises surrounded by black sclera, her skin a tapestry of colors in an array of blues, yellows, and pinks, freckled with shining stars like tiny diamonds had been embedded into her skin. Long black horns curled upward from white hair. Like a twilight sky in human form.
Like an elf, regardless of how beautiful.
Soren had his hand on his sword when Viren stopped him. "She and her brother are on our side. Meet Theodosia," he introduced, gesturing to the elf girl who was now sweeping into a bow. "She knows her way around illusions better than anyone."
"Apologies for my deception," she drawled, her lips curling into a smirk. "I simply enjoy getting into character. Was I good? Be honest, as I am always open to constructive criticism."
"She is rather one for theatrics," said another voice. The owner stepped out of the darkness to reveal a boy. This one appeared an abnormality as well but different. He had no horns and his long hair swept into a messy bun was a rich auburn, but his ears tapered to a point. Faintly darker marks than his copper skin tone went through and around his eyes, and in a line down his chin from his bottom lip to his neck like...like elf markings; they could have been birthmarks and no one would have known any better. One hand held five fingers, but the other had only four. Soren actually recognized this one.
"Rhun?" he muttered, recognizing him as the shy, quiet boy from the village who ran away years ago. Back then, he had been constantly on edge, always keeping his head down and never getting into trouble. Now, he seemed confident, something dark about him, deadly.
"Surprised?" Rhun tossed something from one hand to the other before tossing it to his sister, his elf sister (both siblings were still wrapping their heads around the mere concept), who inspected it a moment before tucking into pocket of her long skirt that swept over the floor. "You remember our deal." This was directed at Viren.
"Go," Viren said instead, "you'll get your payment when I see the boy."
Both brother and sister bowed deeply before they saw Theodosia transform into a more human-like appearance and the two were off. The minute they were gone, Soren went to his father. "Dad, are you...are you sure we can trust them not to hurt him? They're--"
"I trust them to complete their job," Viren said, clasping his hands behind him. "Your priority is the egg. What she said was true. We cannot let it fall back into the wrong hands. Leave the problem of the assassins to them. He knows his way around a weapon, and will fight, but she, she knows how to tear them apart from the inside."
"Okay, but say," Claudia started with a nervous laugh, "say something were to happen, and we're forced to choose between saving the egg and saving Ezran..." She deflated slightly as she looked down at her hands. "Which one should it be?"
Viren observed the stone in his staff, tapping it with a finger. If Ezran was kept alive, besides using him for a bargaining chip, he could also prove valuable to them if they managed to turn the young prince against them. "We still hold the king on the throne, and Prince Callum shall be regent should anything happen until the heir is returned, an heir whose head may have already been tampered with, or another replaces him-" he didn't miss Claudia's wince at 'replace,' as if she could already tell what he was implying- "but there is only one egg. So if you had to choose..." Both siblings shared a worried glance as their blood ran cold, not needing him to finish to know what he was saying.
It wouldn't come to that, right?
"Choose the egg."
Luck was on their side. Or to be more specific, the moon. Its primal essence was embedded in their blood after all.
In the moonlight, it was difficult to see the elves at all. The only hint to their presence was their shadows and you could catch maybe their outlines if you squint. There was a reason not many knew what Moonshadow elves looked like. Nights of the full moon was the main time they struck, and on those nights the moon's essence allowed them to blend in with the darkness. Thus, most humans didn't see Moonshadow elves, per se. That was the point, being natural assassins and illusionists. That meant most of their targets either never saw them coming or never lived longer than the sight to tell the tale.
Thankfully, they'd made it to the courtyard without too many incidents. And once they were out into the open, Runaan whistled in a way that sounded like the birds Ezran had heard Gren impersonate on outings his dad couldn't make it. He swore he caught a trio of shadows climb down from the tower where his dad's chambers were, but...they promised they wouldn't hurt them, didn't they? So, he shouldn't worry. Right?
He shouldered the bag with the egg hidden inside. He had insisted on carrying the egg himself, and Runaan had tried to take it from him, but Rayla had taken his side, saying that there didn't seem to be any reason the egg wasn't safe with him.
Even now Ezran could hear the gentle heartbeat coming from within the shell, its glow throbbing with each beat. It was alive, it was well, and Ezran would try to keep it that way. If it was causing all this trouble, it had to be important, right?
People would be after them soon enough. Claudia would try to take the egg back, where it would be stuck in that dark, scary lair until it hatched, and then what would they do with it? Ezran frowned at the thought and Bait was seated on his shoulder, giving a sympathetic croak as he tuned into his master's turmoil.
And...Callum would be okay with it. He knew now what Claudia and Viren were doing to the egg, he knew now that the egg everyone thought had been destroyed was actually safe and sound, and he had sided with them. He wouldn't believe Ezran, and this time no matter the pleading, he wouldn't take his side.
But there was also that moment where that one look had conveyed all that Callum thought he had to say. That even if he didn't agree, he would do his best to help him out. That was the Callum he'd known and loved, even if he seemed to be there for a fleeting moment.
Maybe if Ezran ran into him again, he could convince him. But he was older, and so was Claudia; adults always thought they knew more than he did, and maybe they did, but not this time. This time he knew keeping the dragon egg here away from its mother was wrong. Even if...everyone else was telling him it was for the best.
Did his dad know?
He recalled the elves' leader, Runaan, snapping at him when he tried to convince them his dad really was a good person.
Your father orchestrated the murder of the Dragon King and then destroyed his only egg!
And Ezran knew his dad would never do that. Lord Viren probably didn't tell him about the egg. If his dad had known, he would have tried to give it back. Probably. No, he would, because Dad was a good person.
Now, they were all back at their camp, and he could see all the adults looking over a map, talking to each other in low voices. The look on Runaan's face as they discussed their next move reminded Ezran of the kind of look he'd seen many times on his father's face during meetings Ezran had snuck into or accidentally wandered in on (the passages could get tricky to navigate at times) when matters of Katolis required the king's hand.
Ezran couldn't help but wonder what would happen to him now that the elves had the egg. They said they wouldn't hurt him, but...Claudia insisted they were liars. At the same time, they had been nothing but honest, more so at the very least than his father's friend. Rayla was nice and she had every opportunity to hurt him, so he had no reason to be scared of her.
Still, although the other elves didn't seem to have any intention of hovering near him, there was an unspoken tension whenever they looked at him. Like there was something they weren't telling him.
He so badly wanted to believe this whole night was all a dream, but...
He was sitting on grass somewhere in the woods. With a dragon egg inside his bag.
None of this was fair. He couldn't understand why Lord Viren would— Okay, so maybe Lord Viren had done bad things before, but he always said they were for the greater good. There hasn't been any reason to lie, at least in Ezran's mind, so he'd trusted him.
But when Ezran had realized Lord Viren had lied about the egg being destroyed, he hadn't understood that. Then, Callum had taken Claudia's side, and he hadn't understood that either. Maybe Callum had his moments where he could be a real jerkface (hence the dance) like that time after their mother's funeral or that time Ezran tried to tell him about how he understood animals, or this morning when he exploded at Ezran about assassins coming to kill their dad. But he'd always been there whether way, to apologize and be by his side.
He'd never actually been against him. He had never seen that side of his brother before, nor their mage friend for that matter, the side that showed such bias towards the elves.
Why did it matter either way? He had seen the picture books, the ones depicting elves as scary, horned, four-fingered monsters, yet the ones he'd seen today didn't match that at all. Alright, so the horns and four fingers part was correct, but not the scary part; besides the horns and pointy ears, they almost looked like any other people he'd see at home.
So, no, the elves themselves didn't scare him, not in the slightest. What did scare him was what they might do. He wasn't stupid, after all, he could hear them before. Being young didn't mean he didn't have ears as much as Rayla tried to veer around what exactly their words meant.
Runaan's finger trace a path on the map. "We go northeast a short distance, then we shall have to go west through the Ethermind Forest."
"You sure about that?" Kouru raised his brows. "We don't need to take any more risks than we have to, and the passage we came through worked just fine."
"Yes, but that was when we all had use of both hands," Callisto reminded, displaying the binding on his wrists similar to the ones all around. "The one we came through is crawling with humans, and it was risky enough even before the binding ritual. You know the longer we take, the tighter these get, and if they get too tight, we might as well all be without our hands. What would we do now if we ran into one and we can't fight?"
A tense silence settled over them as his words sunk in. Finally, Runaan gave a nod. "The Ethermind Forest is avoided by humans and elves alike. Unlike the Breach, the humans won't be guarding it."
"That's because almost no one's crazy enough to go near it," Kouru snorted.
Surveying the map as she sent Kouru a look, Hyla added, "Also because the rumors say it's home to creatures that devour anything that moves."
Everyone looked to Kai.
Kai sighed and made an unsure gesture with his hands. "Well, I'm sure anything living there wouldn't have natural means to survive, and that's not really a good thing. No sunlight, no water for miles, and nothing but trees. And dark magic beasts are things you don't want to come across."
"What are you saying?" Runaan asked.
"Well, I'm sure you've heard the stories if even humans know it. They say the Forest is where they buried one of the first dark magic users. The mages of old caught him experimenting with dark magic, stealing the life from everything around him to unnaturally prolong his own," Kai explained. "They say that it was among the first and last things elves and humans ever joined forces for since the Divide. Since he wanted to live forever, they made sure he did, but he could never leave. Too far from the border to draw on the essence of any magical creatures and break the spell. Far enough from Katolis that nobody would find him. Just him, alone with his decaying body and fraying mind. Forever."
"As lovely as that little history lesson was, how exactly does that help our case?" Kouru demanded.
Kai rolled his eyes. "They say because of the experiments he carried out on the land, it was turned into little more than a dark wasteland rid of all life, but the side effects of the magic left a lot of nasty things in those left behind. No one really knows what because nobody has ever gone through and come back. They also say that dark mage still wanders around the forest looking for a soul to corrupt or to take their life for himself."
"Oh, thank you, that just makes me feel oh-so-much better," Kouru grumbled.
"Runaan, are you sure about this route?" Hyla asked cautiously.
"Would you rather take your chances with humans or a myth? With the prince missing, they'll already be aware of us and on the lookout, so they'll be prepared, more so than we'll be by the time we get there as Callisto pointed out. And with the forces on our trail, it's best to go a way that'll throw them off," said Runaan. "I am well aware of the dangers, but the safest route is the best route."
"We have no guarantee that the Forest is the safer route."
"But we are guaranteed death if the humans overwhelm us from all sides," Runaan said. "We're out of options, and this is our best choice. With any luck, we may be able to skirt around it, but we cannot be sure if we'll be able to avoid or fight off the humans once we are left without our hands. Our main objective now is to keep the egg safe and return it to the Dragon Queen."
"Animals get distracted, but humans have a one-track mind. Their main objective is to kill us all if that means retrieving the egg and the prince" Callisto folded his arms across his chest and glanced at Hyla. "Either way, our chances are bleak, but at least with this one, they're better to adjust in our favor."
"Sure, and then we'll just pray the myth isn't real, and we won't get attacked by the spirit of one of the first dark mage's. I'm just jumping for freaking joy," Kouru said with more than a healthy dose of snark. Everyone ignored him. It was easy to forget his youth compared to the others beside Rayla, that was until he opened his mouth.
Runaan understood their doubts. He could see the same flash across everyone else's faces, but they understood their place and had to trust his judgment. Still, he had some of them himself. Anyone would at the thought of going through a passage nobody was known to come out of once they entered. But they had a job to do. Hopefully they wouldn't have the need to actually travel through and the area around it would simply be enough to discourage any followers.
Giving a heavy sigh, Hyla gave in. "Alright. We can probably start travel tomorrow morning. Humans need more rest than we do, especially ones so young. Give the boy a few hours to rest and we should be able to be on our way."
"A whole night." Kai winced. "I'm not so sure of that idea with them all looking for us. The longer we stay here, the more we're at risk for those soldiers to realize they weren't wrong that first time. And then they will come back."
"Which is why you will do first watch, and Kouru, you'll back him up. When your shift is over, Hyla and Callisto will take over," Runaan said.
"And what will I do?" asked Rayla. The entire meeting, she'd be silent, knowing better than to speak where her opinion wasn't wanted. She knew at this point she was on her second strike, one more and she was done. Regardless of whether her actions had redeemed her or not, there was still a tension in the air between her and Runaan. The others seemed more lenient towards her, their judgment softening towards her after the egg's discovery, but Runaan seemed intent on letting her know he wouldn't let her actions go unpunished once they returned home. When Runaan's gaze flashed to her for a brief moment, his eyes narrowed slightly.
"You will stay out of the way with the prince and keep watch over him," he said in a clipped, dispassionate voice, returning his gaze back to the map and not so much as glancing in her direction as he spoke. "You brought him so it should be your responsibility he stays in our grasp and doesn't run off. Am I clear?"
Rayla opened her mouth to protest, but then lowered her head and looked down at her hands. "Yes." Shouldn't be a difficult task. Since his confrontation with his brother, the young prince seemed to have withdrawn into himself. Likely shock.
As cold as it sounded, she hoped that tonight would suffice for it sink in. They didn't have more time to give him. Runaan was already on pins and needles with the humans in such close proximity and them all believing Ezran to be kidnapped, even though, while it started as such, he was with them of his own free will. Well, not exactly since he was no longer allowed to leave, but he had come with them of his own free will. Still, this had become much more complicated than any of them had anticipated.
"This goes for each of you when I say that our mission is no longer simply about justice. Now there's more at stake if we fail." Runaan's gaze turned to where Ezran sat and the egg he had helped them find.
And it wasn't. Soon enough, others would know about the prince's disappearance. Prince Ezran was now essentially a political hostage whether he knew it or not, something that could benefit Xadia and the greater of the continent's future. There was also the fact, and the secret relief she felt, knowing that there was no longer a need to kill Ezran. She knew that Runaan would have his regrets about killing a child, but if it was for the greater good of Xadia, he would do it without the hesitation she had.
She wasn't so sure about her other comrades (she didn't know them that far beyond this journey except maybe Kouru who was the youngest beside her and though several years her senior, still closest to her age), but she knew that they all believed the same thing she did. Life was precious and the idea of killing a ten-year-old boy would be a heavy weight on their minds—or maybe not.
Assassins didn't feel guilt. She seemed to be the only odd one out. Although Rayla had always wondered if their conscience suffered as much as hers would have if she had gone through with Ezran's murder.
Hopefully, if all went well, she wouldn't find out too soon.
This chapter probably isn't that good, but I tried my best so...A for effort I guess. Hope
you like this chapter; feedback is appreciated!
Chapter 7: Conversations Between Family
Just a small filler chapter that involves Callum and Harrow :)
King Harrow was sitting within his chambers, deep in thought when he heard the door open. "I wish to be alone for now, Viren."
"Yeah, but there's something I think I need to tell you..." said Callum, making Harrow turn. He quickly bowed.
"Callum, no need for that," Harrow sighed, standing up. "Things are...rough right now, but it will be fine soon." He forced a smile if only for his oldest son's sake, even if he wasn't so sure of his own words. It had only been a few hours but already he looked tired. And sad. From what he heard before, Callum likely blamed himself. "How are you feeling?"
"Fine," Callum whispered, standing before him. "I'm just scared, that's all. We don't know anything about what they might do."
"Callum, you're an incredible young man, it's normal to be afraid. Sometimes, when we are on the brink of war, people do what they feel is needed to send a message." Even as he said it, some dark part of him wanted to burn alive whoever harms his youngest son. Ezran was a child who had done nothing to deserve being thrown into the midst of all this. If they wanted to harm Harrow, why could they not keep it between him and them? Why target his son?
Was this karma for allowing Viren to destroy that dragon egg?
"It shouldn't be like that! I mean, there is always a reason why you do it, why you kill, so why couldn't we just find the correct answer and stop all this fighting!" Callum exploded.
"You're right, there is always a reason, but sometime, past mistakes and strong beliefs make war inevitable."
“Yes, but Ezran-" Callum stopped himself from saying out loud what was on his mind. What he had originally come to tell the king about to begin with.
Why couldn't he tell the truth to the king--his--Ezran's father? What would he think? But still, it was wrong to keep the same knowledge Viren had kept away from Harrow when this piece of information could change so much of what they originally thought.
“Claudia said not to tell anyone, but I - I have to tell you."
Harrow stared at Callum's eyes for a few seconds before he gestured for Callum to sit down, then sat in another chair opposite him. "Tell me."
“I'm not sure if Ezran was kidnapped or not anymore. I think he...he chose to leave with them. When Claudia and I found him below the castle, he was with the other elves but he refused to come with us. He helped them escape, so they could bring back the Dragon Prince to his mother!”
Harrow's eyes furrowed. "But the egg was destroyed--"
“No, Viren” Callum pointed at the closed door, “he didn't destroy the egg. He stole it and hid it, but Ezran found it."
"Callum, I was there when the egg was destroyed. It's the very reason we're all here now."
"Well, it survived! Claudia showed it to me because she planned to bargain it for Ezran, but he wouldn't--he went with them instead."
Looking down at the floor as he processed this information, Harrow blinked a few times. "Are you certain you didn't make a mistake? It could have been an illusion."
"I'm positive!" cried Callum. "I can prove it, okay, I just....” He trailed off. "You saw the egg, right?" Harrow nodded, crossing his arms. "And I'm not supposed to know how it looks, right?" He nodded again, more slowly, uncertain. "Then..." He hurriedly grabbed his sketchbook and began to search the pages before finally stopping on the one he was looking for. "Look, here," he said, turning the page toward Harrow and pointing at the drawing, "that's it, that's the egg, the Dragon Prince! I know for a fact it was real."
As Harrow stared attentively at Callum's drawing, he marveled at his son's talent. Even if he saw something for a mere brief moment, he could remember enough to draw detailed sketchings. And he could see evidence of that now. The resemblance was undeniable, but it didn't mean it was the egg. That was impossible. But...there it was, in Callum's sketch book. "But then that means..."
"Yes!" Callum jumped out of his chair. "That means this was for nothing. A human prince returns the Dragon Prince, that could fix everything! No fighting, no war." He was breathless from the thoughts racing in his head and he had to take a moment to breathe.
"Callum." Harrow stood up and placed his hands on Callum's shoulders. "You have to understand, it's not that simple, and either way, I will not tolerate you or your brother being placed in danger."
"Then if Ezran's with them by choice, what are we supposed to do? We still need to find him."
"It is still imperative that Ezran remains safe. We need to be sure first, but it seems apparent from what you told me of your first encounter with them that we can't force him to come back here against his will. It seems he's made a decision that he believes is the right thing to do."
Callum hesitated. "Does...does that mean we stop the search for him?"
“No, he still might be in danger…. There's no telling what he may encounter. He's just a boy." The last sentence was whispered under his breath. "He's far too young to be doing this on his own, we both need to be strong for him and hope he knows what he's doing."
“Yeah, after all, Ezran has always been… far-sighted, hehe.” Callum didn't laugh deliberately, it was nerves taking over.
"You should rest a bit, Callum. It's been a long night."
After a moment, he nodded and bowed his head before moving toward the massive wooden doors to leave the room. Once the door closed behind him, Harrow collapsed in his chair, pinching the bridge of his nose as he let out a long sigh.
It seemed Harrow would have to have a talk with Viren.
Chapter 8: Poison and Coins
War, war was coming. Harrow could sense it. Unavoidable, or perhaps not. It all depended on his decisions as well as the elves his son had run off with. Sometimes the crown seemed too heavy a weight to bear, and he almost regretted knowing the weight to be placed upon his son when he came of age. The king didn't wish for the kingdom's enemies killed over or for his people to die for Katolis, neither to die against Katolis, over a misunderstanding. He had to be sure first; with Callum's discovery, it seemed there was more to this. Once people knew the Crown Prince was gone, they would demand justice. No, not justice. Vengeance.
Perhaps this was his punishment for his hand in Thunder's death.
The sun appearing behind the clouds seemed to mock him, and he gently stroked Pip's feathers as the bird rested on his shoulder. "It seems it's just you and me now, huh, my friend?" he sighed sadly.
My friend. He had called Viren that once. A long time ago, he would never have doubted his truth and loyalty, not even a minute. But things had changed; they were not kids anymore; they were not even teenagers anymore able to get away with the recklessness of childhood. There was a time he and Viren had been like brothers, albeit Harrow had suspected Viren liked him as more than that, though he never reciprocated those feelings. Then...well, some things happen that you just don't expect. This, however, Harrow should have seen coming.
Harrow could say that he begun to lose Viren to dark magic as he turned to it and its...creative solutions to everything. Or maybe he could say it was when Viren finally realized that while Harrow saw him as his closest and oldest friend (his only friend, really, back then), that was all Harrow could see him as. He could say it was after...Sarai's death. Harrow wouldn't deny in his grief and anger, he had turned that rage onto Viren because he was the reason she was out there, he was the one she had gone back to save. But he knew the blame was his.
Sarai hadn't wanted to go. She had wanted Harrow to think of another way, she had warned him thatvDark Magic has a price, that it was a shortcut. But he hadn't listened, or if he had, believed the resultsvmattered more than the cost. And Harrow had paid that price; his kingdom had prospered and thrived, but the king had lost his queen.
And even then he seemed unable to learn his lesson when he asked Viren to find a way to stop Thunder. He had wanted Thunder to stop the slaughter of his soldiers, stop the slaughters of innocents who had simply wandered near the Border. He never wanted the Dragon King dead. Much less his only heir destroyed. Yet he should have known better when he asked Viren, when he knew the previous results of all Viren's "creative solutions." Viren claimed himself to be a pragmatist, and Harrow would give him that. Viren went by what he believed to be best for Katolis and went by what was sensible rather than the mindset of what was right or wrong. Maybe in his own mind, stealing the egg was in the kingdom's best interest, since right and wrong was less than just two sides of a coin and more like an elaborate labyrinth, but...why lie to him?
Had they really drifted so far apart?
For a time, Harrow had thought they were—well, not great, not so close as they used to be—but fine, at least. Though they butted heads at meetings more often than not, they had begun to fall back into their teasing banter, and Harrow could see how Viren cared for him. Yet in that throne room when he had the gall to say how all those guards were willing to give their lives for him but couldn't say he was willing to do the same, it brought back all the bad blood between them since Thunder had been killed.
He could remember that day, the horror at seeing him destroy—or thought he had—a helpless, defenseless Dragon egg (likely what may make his son's kidnapping seem justified in the assassins' eyes), the horror that had been nothing compared to when Harrow saw Viren's face afterwards, saw what the use of Dark Magic was doing to him.
Maybe the loss of trust between them had begun after that. After all, Harrow had never tried todiscuss their argument, never tried to clarify or apologize for his words of anger. For all he knew, Viren could have taken that day, the first time Harrow had ever flinched away from Viren, as the first betrayal.
Not once had Harrow ever been afraid of Viren. Not once. Not ever. Not when Viren had accidentally lit his cape on his fire with a miscast Fulminus when they were eleven, not when he had made it rain for three days in the drought-ravaged Liro Valley when they were fourteen, not when for lack of better options, he had cast a spell to drown the seven assassins sent by enemies of Harrow's father in the middle of the throne room on the eve of Harrow's sixteenth birthday.
Mages were seen as alien, for unlike 'normal' humans, they could touch the Primal Sources, and what scared most people away was how normal they seemed at first glance. Dark magic was made from drawing the energy and life from magical creatures. It was bound to make anyone iffy to be around people whose magic was gained through death.
Viren's father had been the High Mage before him, a father who showed little time or affection towards his son unless to teach him the family trade. And Harrow—only child, heir to the throne, already a survivor of multiple attempts on his life from far off enemies and close assassins in guise of allies at the grand age of ten—his youngest son's age (oh, the lengths Harrow had gone through to make sure Ezran never went through the same horrors, to see the darkness of the world so young)—had taken one look at the lonely son to the High Mage of Katolis and decided that they were both lonely and they both wanted friends, so why not be each other's friends?
While everyone else carefully kept their eyes pointed downwards, had always kept their distance and regarded him warily whether his latest act of magic was to their benefit or not, Harrow had been one of the few people who never shied away. It wasn't like he'd never seen Dark Magic before; he didn't precisely like watching Viren perform it, but sometimes it was necessary, yet in that moment when Harrow looked at him, he didn't see the man he had grown up with; he saw someone else entirely. It had always disturbed him to see Viren's grey eyes turn pure black as he spoke the words he needed to cast the spell, but a minute or two later the black would leech from his eyes. This time after Thunder's death, it was more than just black eyes; Viren's entire appearance had seemingly been altered.
To see his dark eyes and grey skin, his stark blue veins, his hair changing to white and grey, smelling of death, looking all the world more like a monster than a person...for the first time Harrow had been afraid. Both for and of his old friend.
Never once had he taken in mind the backlash Dark Magic had on its user. Never thought of the stain it could leave behind.
In that moment Harrow finally knew why Viren would sometimes excuse himself after a spell or take longer than usual to come from his chambers in the morning. Because Viren had been poisoning himself with Dark Magic. Every time he told Harrow of some simple "creative solution" that only involved a little bit of Dark Magic, what he was really doing was making himself rot from the inside.
Harrow could recall a conversation they had when they were teenagers, waiting to see what may await them in their future, when Harrow decided to bring up that maybe Viren could limit using Dark Magic because he could see that after performing a particular spell, he seemed empty, drained, hollow, cold no matter how close he'd sit next to the fire or in the rays of the warm sun, in pain, his skin ice against his own as he took his hand. Like a frozen pale thing. Like a living corpse. Sometimes smelling like death and rot, but Harrow refused to shy away from him like everyone else, not when he could see he needed him. That time he had been afraid, not of Viren, (no, never) but for him.
Dark magic has a price, Viren had said only, shrugging it off, and then groaning as he does so, loud and pained, seeming like a statue who would break if it tried to move from its frozen position. It's fine. This is worth it. It'll pass.
It would pass. And then he'd use another spell and strain himself and then he'd be back in that same position. Even Sarai, who had never truly liked Viren as much as he disliked her, had begun to express worry for him.
The greater the sacrifice, the greater the effect, Viren had said only even as he was cold and pale as a corpse and stiff as one, too.
He was only being practical.
Then one day it seemed no longer to have such an effect on him. Harrow should have seen that as a bad sign. But he had instead believed Viren when he said only that he had probably just adapted. Not had thought for a moment that the reason why the strain of Dark Magic no longer seemed like a slow poison was because Viren had become numb. Whether numb to Dark Magic's poison, numb to the pain, or just...completely numb, he couldn't tell.
Never thought once that maybe Viren was using glamours to cover up the physical tolls it took on him. That his body had become cold and numb over the years. No, he had believed him without hesitation when Viren told him, No, there's nothing wrong. Dark magic is great.
It suddenly explained the slight, almost unnoticeable changes in Viren's personality. Though practical, Viren had felt remorse during his youth when having to kill something in order to use its magic for himself or having to kill at all to the point where he tried to use only his Primal Stones except for the rare occasion when Dark Magic was needed as a quick shortcut, a "creative solution." With Viren at his side as his advisor, he had always been the practical one in their youth, showing slight regret when explaining to Harrow that though it may hurt others, this was what was best for the kingdom, that Harrow needed to think the majority rather the minority. Now he seemed practical
to the point of coldness, less sympathetic, holding less, much less, compunctions about using Dark Magic.
And now he realized maybe in that moment after Thunder's death, he had simply been finally able to see Viren for who he had become. To see how Dark Magic had corrupted and changed him from the inside and out.
It had been three weeks afterwards until Harrow could even look at Viren again. A few streaks in Viren's hair had never faded entirely months after the fact although the color had returned to his skin and the black had drained from his eyes. Harrow was reminded every time he saw the change.
Despite this, Harrow couldn't think to shy away from him now that it seemed Viren might need him most. He had never brought up the argument again, but he had done his best to avoid anymore of Viren's "creative solutions," and if he had thought he may be able to get away with it, he would have confronted Viren about the problem itself but doubted he would have listened.
Now that he knew.... Viren had lied about the egg, he had kept it from him and in the process put Harrow, his sons, and their kingdom in danger. And no amount of excuses could change that fact. Perhaps it was foolish, but Harrow hadn't thought that Viren, practical, smart, Viren, his oldest friend, would keep such a thing from him.
Now that he knew, well, he wasn't quite so sure if he could trust Viren at all. Nor if he knew him as well as he thought anymore. What further raised his suspicion was during that morning's meeting to discuss what to do about Ezran's...kidnapping. Mysteriously, Viren's two children had also disappeared, and he denied knowing where they were, yet hadn't been at all disturbed about that. Before that Harrow had been more than willing to confront Viren about his lies, but now he thought better of it, wondering if Viren had some other plans in mind.
Before Harrow had even reached adulthood, he had survived countless attacks by assassins and enemies both from various lands and in his very home, both those who had attacked in the open without warning and those who had bid their time in order to take him out, using honeyed words to make him feel safe before striking with their daggers when his back was turned, some of which he'd known since childhood. So many to the point that he had come to trust few outside his court, and even within his court
Never once though, not once, had he ever thought that Viren—his oldest, greatest, only friend—would be someone Harrow would have to watch his back against lest the high mage turn out to be one of many who tried to stick a knife into it.
Callum searched through the castle for Claudia and Soren, yet he hadn't been able to find them anywhere. He'd tried to ask Lord Viren, but his response had been that he had no idea where they were. Which was odd. The two siblings might tease or pull pranks on him, but they wouldn't leave at random without telling him. Not to mention there was something suspicious about how Viren stated that with such calmness. His children are gone only two days after Ezran had disappeared, and he's
not the least bit worried?
There were very few things Callum was good at, well, only one, and that was art. Everything else—sparring, strategy, princely duties—he wasn't so great at those. But Callum was most definitely not stupid. Certainly not that he can't connect the two.
As he searched, he thought of how useful it would be to be a mage like Claudia, not for the first time, of course. But, hey, he was no magician, he didn't have any powers, and he had accepted he was never going to have any.
He did have the Primal Stone, but he didn't see how he could use it. He didn't know any other spells but 'aspiro', and he wasn't so sure if it would even work for him. There was more to being a mage than just saying a spell; mages had an almost natural connection to the Primal Sources that allowed the Primal Stones to latch onto and flow through. Most likely, Callum didn't have that.
Stopping with a sigh, Callum decided to ask one of the guards. Surely, one of them knew where Soren had gone, he was captain of the Crownguard after all—hard as it was to believe sometimes.
The guard shrugged. "I'm sorry to say I don't know, Prince Callum, but Sir Soren and the Lady Claudia left yesterday," she said.
"To...look for the Crown Prince?" Callum asked, suspicion edging into his tone.
"Yeah, I think so?" she said with another shrug.
Callum walked out and stood in the center of the courtyard, thinking. It just did not add up. The king would never send Viren's children out as the search party—for reasons both practical and personal. For one, they were Viren's kids, Harrow would never put them in possible danger by sending them after a group of trained elven assassins, not alone. For another, they were two inexperienced teenagers who Harrow also wouldn't risk putting the severity of a rescue mission for his son and heir into their hands.
And if Harrow didn't know, then...Viren must not have told him. If the past days' events had taught him anything it was when the King's advisor, high mage, and oldest friend, was keeping things of importance from his king, bad things were sure to happen.
Could he be...? No, Viren might not like Callum, but he had never given any hint to wanting to harm Ezran. This could be just a way of getting back in Harrow's good graces after last night's argument, and Callum was just jumping to conclusions, but...this gave him a bad feeling.
He ought to head up to confront Viren, but something told him that snooping around for an hour or two might give him a clue.
Callum strode through the corridors to the entrance to Lord Viren's private study. There were no guards stationed outside. He knocked softly. When there was no answer, he tried the door. The handle turned. He eased the door open, keeping it from creaking, and slipped inside. Floor-to-ceiling shelves and cabinets lined most of the space, with the exception of tall, narrow windows on one side. The setting sun bathed the room in warm shadow. Over the mantel was a painting of Viren and Harrow in their younger days. Nearby hung a large painting of a girl with a sheep. It seemed highly out of place compared to the rest of the décor.
Callum took a step toward the wall-size painting, trying to remember if one of Ez's "secret passages" were around here when he heard a tapping sound on the other side of it that made him freeze. He dove for cover, finding it behind the floor-length curtains on either side of the windows. As he pulled the velvet around himself, the painting swung to one side. Lord Viren climbed out of the passage, tapping his staff on the stone. He turned to a glass case filled with all manner of implements and ingredients. He busied himself preparing a bowl of...something. Callum dared to peek his eyes around the curtain for a better look. Viren's back was towards him and he couldn't see anything. He
shouldn't have to sneak around but, well, Viren's never liked him and he wasn't looking forward to the reception he'd get if Viren found him over here.
After a few minutes, Viren gathered up the bowl he'd prepared and ascended to the ledge again. He pulled the entrance shut behind him. Callum waited until he could no longer hear the tap of Viren's staff, then hurried across the room. He slowly pried open the painting. Nobody there, but on this side of the wall, he could still hear a faint tap-tap as Viren made his way through the bowels of the castle.
Callum followed the sound. He took note to stay wary and silent, in case he needed to find his way back out, or duck into a quick hiding place. Carefully, he took the first couple of steps, until he could just barely see around the bend. He couldn't hear tapping anymore.
It wasn't long before the tap-tap of Viren's staff started up again. Callum darted into a crevice in the wall just large enough to squeeze into, waiting.
Sure enough, Viren's staff tap-tapped its way up the stone column, but the figure that emerged could no longer be called human. His face was pale, cracked with black veins like marble, and his eyes were black pools with vibrant, bright purple flames at their centers. Callum slapped his hand over his mouth to muffle his gasp as he stood, frozen in place, putting all his faith in the darkness of the corridors to keep him from being discovered.
Lord Viren walked in an unhurried, direct line, back the way he'd come, back to his secret passage and his study. Callum would have waited until the tap of his staff faded away, but in this case, he needed an extra moment just to absorb what he'd seen. Harrow definitely needed to know about that—if he didn't already. But priorities. First things first, try to find out what exactly Viren was hiding. He could tell now this was the same path to the dungeon he took with Claudia, but with Claudia gone and Viren likely thinking no one else knew about his lair, he might have left something out. Callum could hope, in the very least.
If he was wrong, well, all he had to worry about was his dad—stepdad, he reminded himself—what Dark Magic seemed to be doing to his friend even if Callum didn't like him all that much.
Heart in his throat, he padded down the corridor and down the steps. To be honest, he had no idea what exactly he was looking for. In fact, he hardly thought he'd make it this far.
The lair was empty, glowing menacingly with all the unnatural objects Lord Viren had been collecting over the years. It still sent chills down his spine as he took everything in, as much as it had the first time.
A glint of gold sparkled in the corner of his eye, and Callum centered in on a bag of coins. He picked it up from the table harboring a variety of ingredients he really tried not to pay too much attention to. It wasn't like Viren to keep so much money around, and it couldn't help but catch Callum's attention because it was the brightest thing in the otherwise dark dungeon.
Curious, he took one coin out and held it between his thumb and forefinger, studying the face. He dropped it with a yelp, then quickly dove to grab it before it could hit the floor. That wasn't some coin engraving, what he saw actually was a face, the face of a living person, a living breathing person staring back at him with wide terrified eyes. A living—they were living, right?—breathing person stuck inside.
And more than likely it was Viren who put them there. Because there were only two mages in the castle, and Claudia, well, Claudia would never do something this—this crazy.
Upon closer inspection, he found that the person was actually an elf. Maybe not an elf he was familiar with judging her appearance, but the obvious signs were there. And while Callum would never condone this sort of treatment, he could understand why.
Still, the reason didn't matter. Elf or human, it wasn't right to do this to another person.
"Who are you?" he asked the elf, despite knowing it was very likely that even if they could hear him, it wasn't like he could hear them. Maybe if they knew sign language....but Callum wasn't sure if ASL was similar in dialect for elves, or at least similar enough. Though there were words with similar signs, different places often involved different signs and dialect to communicate in sign language. Some words might get lost in translation or misinterpreted.
The elf said nothing. Of course not. Her mouth moved, but not a sound left the tiny coin. She banged on the surface of her prison with both palms, expression wild and desperate. Scared.
"When Viren talked about keeping prisoners for interrogation, he never talked about putting them somewhere they can't talk," Callum said slowly, though he knew suddenly what exactly this was.
The elf suddenly froze in her movements, only staring at Callum with an expression of confusion he was positive mirrored his own.
"Except...this doesn't seem like interrogation at all. Seems more like torture to me."
Eyes shifted sideways, one of them bloodshot and blackened, the fearful look returning, and Callum had all the confirmation he needed to know the elf was suffering at the hands of Viren. For how long? Had to be a while if Callum had never heard of an elven prisoner. Days, weeks, months, years? Years spent trapped in a void where you can see out but never be able to call for help? Callum's eyes widened as he recalled there were more coins in the pouch.
Gently and quickly as possible, Callum emptied them out onto a clean spot on the table. He counted five in total, including the one he held. Faces frozen in fear varied between elven and human, banging on the smooth surface of their cages once they saw him and wordlessly screaming for help. Each coin had the same runes along the edges
Callum hesitated as he set the coin in his hands on the table. Then with both his hands free, he began to sign, hoping at least one could understand him. First, the initial question he asked.
Something flickered across the first elf's face. If Callum didn't know better, he'd say it was hope. Her hands moved. Am L-O-R-C-A-N. You. Help? Please. Her face was soft and desperate, eyebrows crinkled slightly.
Like Callum figured, he didn't get most of what she was saying, but he could catch a few words and understood the gist.
He thought a moment. Regardless of what she may have done to get here, no one deserved this. If he was in one of those coins, he'd want to be freed as well. Well, first he'd want to know what she did that warranted this punishment, but still....
Help? Yeah, I'll see what I can do.
She moved her hands again despite the pain that would flash across her face with each movement. You are mage?
Callum shook his head. And showing them to Viren would be admitting he'd been following him. But I will help you. I'll try.
He took back out the pouch with an apologetic expression. I'm sorry, but I have to put you away in case he comes back.
The elf's expression froze in fear again, and he knew she didn't need any prompting to understand he was Lord Viren. She didn't look particularly happy—none of them did—as Callum swept the coins into the bag.
Callum took one last look around the dungeons. After a moment's hesitation, he tucked the bag into his belt, careful not to jostle them too much.
Whether or not they were dangerous, it was certainly better than leaving them here. With Lord Viren. They all looked like they've been hanging in there. Hopefully, they could just hang on a little while longer.
Viren could still feel the aftershocks of his earlier spells as the magic still thrummed through him. "Short-cuts," Harrow had called them. What was wrong with shortcuts? It gave them a simple, easy, and practical way to get things done. To think how close he'd come to sacrificing his life for Harrow's just a short while ago. How foolish he had been to not see things clearer sooner. His "creative solutions" had been shot down by Harrow, but now he knew Katolis could not thrive under the rule of a weak king; Harrow was not willing to do what needed to be done to save the kingdom due to his own morals. But if Harrow was not willing to do it of his own accord, well, in moments of anger and grief, one may lose themselves, and if Harrow could not take the sensible route then, well, the road of vengeance would produce the same results.
All he needed to do was convince Harrow Prince Ezran was dead. And if anyone did suspect his children's disappearance, he could easily claim that he came to their room to find they ran off in the dead of night because they, oh, they just couldn't bear the thought of leaving poor little Prince Ezran, their poor, defenseless young friend, in the hands of a gang of bloodthirsty assassins, but...came just too late. A true tragedy.
At least that's what the story will be. And it'll be whatever Viren makes it to be to fill Harrow's head.
Whether or not the assassins did away with the Crown Prince, he would be found dead either way—Viren's plan ensured that, and if his children couldn't go through with it, he had someone who would, who had no qualms about a casualty for the better good.
Mainly Rhun and Theodosia did away with any issue if they were paid enough, but Rhun felt he owed Viren since he helped him during one of his expeditions into Xadia, and where Rhun went, his sister followed. That has been years ago, and the hatred burning within him was a fire Viren took well advantage of, fanning the flames more with each visit. Despite their age, Viren had full faith the two would finish the job (besides, this time Viren had promised them both something they could not refuse). And this one would be no different, especially when he knew who they were hunting. And the slaughter of one child for the sake of a kingdom would weigh nothing on their conscious.
If Harrow wouldn't stand by him on his own, Viren would just have to use other means to have him by his side again. Lost in his grief and anger, he will desire vengeance, and he would deliver the threat he made. And in the end, they would finally take their rightful place back in Xadia.
Besides, Ezran would have grown to be an even weaker king than Harrow. In precarious times as these, in which just one thing could tip the balance of history, "like a seesaw" as his son had (somehow, honestly Viren couldn't understand Soren sometimes) described it as, a weak princeling tainted by whatever the Moonshadow elves had put in his head was the last thing the throne required.
Two birds with one stone, really.
With a sigh, he sought out his chambers. So much to be done and so little time. Until then, he might just have to stall Harrow, and because of the letter Harrow sent out earlier requesting General Amaya's presence, her, and possibly the entire High Council. Then, there was still the conundrum of the mirror. No spell he used seemed able to reveal its secrets, but he would find them in time.
As he poured himself a cup of wine, he caught sight of his hair and chalky, cracked skin stained by Dark Magic. "If only Dark Magic didn't require such maintenance," he sighed. Once he finished his drink, he made his way to his study, and there, he opened a cabinet, gazing at the many Lightmoths resting. As he looked on, one of the largest in the case fluttered off its perch onto his fingers, and a small smile made its way onto his face. "How nice, a volunteer."
After absorbing its energy, he looked over to a silver platter nearby that had held a pile of fruit and used it to check his reflection. The darkness had drained from his eyes, but sections of his hair remained white and grey. His brows furrowed and he reached into the terrarium.
Once the Lightmoth dropped to the ground lifeless and dim, Viren took another glance into his reflection. Only a touch of grey in his sideburns now, the only evidence of his use.
When he figured no one was around, Viren locked the door and went down the passage to the cellars, hoping to check on the mirror once again. If it was in Thunder's lair, it had to be important, what else could it be? He refused to believe it was a simple mirror. What else would the king need to guard it for if that were the case. As he approached the hidden stairwell, he cursed. It was wide open. Had he neglected to close up the dungeon stairs his last visit? No matter—without anyone to know of the dungeon's presence, there was no need to worry. He descended the staircase.
Once he entered his lair, he did not notice anything out of the ordinary at first. Almost nothing was out of place. There were almost no traces within the room of an extra presence. No, what caught Viren's attention was what was missing from the room since the last time he'd arrived.
Viren let loose another stream of curses as he searched the spot where he last left it despite knowing it was likely long gone. The coin purse was gone, his prisoners with it. Viren slammed his hands against the table. Such a shame. He honestly thought the two within his grasp were finally starting to break. A few more days and he would have bet they would tell him anything just to be free.
His spell was a tricky one. It took him months to learn it when he was younger. Such a spell was often used for prisoners who were needed and therefore couldn't be disposed of, or rather a way to method of torture to get information. Sensory deprivation and isolation was one way to break a person. To force them into a meaningless, endless existence inside a space that seemed to extend forever, where the only sound was your own voice echoing back at you and the only sight was what came into view, and any other was complete darkness, with the only company your own thoughts. It was enough to drive anyone insane and some had gone that road.
And all his work was gone. In the hands of—
He stopped and rushed around the corner down the side corridor, but the mirror remained in the empty cell. That much was a blessing, at least.
Furiously, he grabbed a bowl and filled it with water. Into the water went the ingredients for a scrying potion. Placing a few ingredients in the bowl, he gave the liquid a stir and chanted an incantation over it: the water settled and an image formed. He saw the young stepson of King Harrow picking up the bag and taking it with him upstairs.
Viren gritted his teeth. Pity. Now he had to figure out what to do about him.
"Uh..." said Kouru. "This might be just me, but should we...feed him, at some point? What do humans even eat?"
Rayla rolled her eyes and felt thankful when Callisto retorted flatly, "Food."
"Dead animals," Kai sighed, looking exasperated. "I'm pretty sure they eat dead animals."
"I doubt we have to kill anything to feed him," Rayla stated before anyone could say anything in opposition to the idea. Everyone seemed fine with Ezran albeit a bit cold (that was how most of their people acted so not much to worry about), but she knew how they felt towards his kind in general, and the last thing she wanted was for her comrades to sour towards him.
"I don't like eating meat," Ezran interrupted, looking down at Bait, at the same time reminding them he was within hearing range. He had spoken sparingly if at all since leaving. "I'm fine with berries." He seemed particularly fidgety as they began walking along the banks of a river, sticking to the cover of the trees for security. He did have trouble having his short legs keep up with their long strides but he hadn't complained.
"There shouldn't be a problem with that," said Runaan as he looked at them over his shoulder. "Humans are capable of eating what we do. If anyone wishes to feed him, I'm sure someone has a flask of moonberry juice. Use that."
Rayla unhooked a small clear bottle from her belt and handed it to Ezran. "Here."
The small prince glanced at the dark red liquid sploshing about in the glass as he took it hesitantly. At first she thought his hesitation stemmed from distrust until he asked, "Are you sure? What if you get thirsty?"
"Don't worry. I think I can manage a while longer than you." There was no keeping the playful tone out of her voice as she nudged him along.
Ezran flashed her a small smile. "Thanks. Next time we can share." Then his eyes lit up and he briefly scrounged in his pack before holding out the triangular shaped treat he'd tried to offer her before. "Trade?" he asked.
If anyone had told Rayla a day or two ago that she would be on her way to Xadia with Runaan and the others, hauling a human boy in tow, and that she was sharing food with said boy while holding the long-lost egg that could be a way to bring the realm back from the brink of all-out war...well, she certainly would have called them touched in the head at the very least. In hindsight, it made her wonder. If she hadn't been able to convince Runaan to break off the attack, would they be here, now? After all, she knew his commitment to the mission, of his loyalty to Xadia so obviously stronger than hers, it was a miracle she believed to be solely due to the Dragon Prince's discovery.
Well, she had accepted by now that she'd let her team down when they had been counting on her; it was her fault if something happened because she couldn't bear to follow the plan. She had been told many times her emotions were more a burden than anything else, and she could now see why. But could she have lived with Ezran's death on her conscience? She wasn't sure. She could hardly live with the knowledge of that guard's death on her hands and she didn't even know him.
After her first refusal to kill where it mattered, despite her protests to Runaan, she'd begun to wonder to herself if she was cut out for an assassin. What kind of assassin couldn't kill, after all? But if she wasn't meant to be an assassin like she'd trained to be her whole life, what else was there for her? It wasn't clear then. It still wasn't now.
If Runaan were talking to her, she would have told him of her doubts, but he wasn't, so she bottled it up inside. If he were listening, though, Runaan would tell her it was useless to second-guess everything. And back home, Tinker would say that things happened for reasons none could understand. He would tell her that if she had not defied Runaan, they never would have found the egg in the first place. Rayla had always liked his philosophical points of view. They helped clear her head better to think everything that happened was just one piece of a much bigger puzzle.
She wondered how he would react to finding out what had happened, if they lost their hands before they made it to the Dragon Queen....
Rayla shook her head. Best not to second-guess oneself.
As Ezran drank, he commented, "My brother used to read a lot. Like a lot, a lot." Of course, Callum had always liked reading and drawing. The two went hand in hand for Ezran's older brother. Even if he had never seen them, Callum could draw things from the descriptions he found of them alone. It had only been a matter of time before he had begun reading about Xadia and magic (which may or may not have been a result of his obvious crush on their friend mage), and he would start telling them to Ezran in his own words before he would fall asleep.
In the time he'd been with the elves, sometimes it was hard to remember all their names, but by now he'd managed to figure out who was who. Runaan was easy. He held an authoritative air about him that practically bellowed his obvious position as leader of the group, and he had the longest hair Ezran ever seen (not even Claudia's hair was that long). Ezran had to keep fighting the urge to ask if he could touch it because it might be rude. From the way Rayla acted around him, Ezran suspected that there was more to their relationship than just leader and follower, but he didn't want to be rude by prying, so he thought he should wait until Rayla wanted to talk about it or the chance opened up for him to ask. They looked alike enough to be related yet he knew from experience family did not have to look similar considering him and Callum for example. But he did know that they were probably close. Rayla was acting around Runaan, like how Ezran would act around Callum whenever he knew he had done something bad, like ruin one of Callum's drawings with jelly tart filling or accidentally smudge one of his charcoal drawings. Guilty and walking on eggshells.
Hyla was easy, too. She was the only other girl—or woman, Ezran couldn't tell how old she was, or any of them for that matter since if the stories Callum told him were true, elves aged a bit slower than they did—on the team, dark skinned with calming green eyes and long hair—still only half as long compared to Runaan's. Kai was the male with skin such a dark purple it was almost black, red eyes staring at Ezran with curiosity, or maybe Bait. He seemed to be interested in animals like Ezran, and maybe Ezran would ask about that, but for now he could feel the tension and wasn't so sure he wanted to test it.
Kouru was nice, albeit gruff. He didn't seem to have too much of a problem answering Ezran's questions and didn't mind him keeping him company. Half his hair curtained his face while the other half was shaved close to his head, a braid tied over the shaved side. Besides, despite the other elves' attempts to censor him, he had a very...colorful way of expressing things. Ezran had even heard a word or two in the elvish tongue this morning that he planned on asking about later.
Callisto had earrings on one of his ears and all of his head shaved except the top, his hair sweeping past his forehead. He always seemed to be calm and nonchalant about whatever came at him.
And Rayla, well, Ezran could tell her apart from any of them. Besides her similar features, she had distinct markings like each of them, hers being long triangular markings reaching from under her eyes, tapering to a point midway down her cheeks. It was obvious she was youngest, probably a kid like him just older. Her frame was smaller and slighter than everyone else, her horns shorter as well, that and the fact she didn't seem quite as experienced or as used to being on the team. Ezran had a feeling that if it weren't for the issue back at the castle, she and his brother might have gotten along pretty well. True, she reminded Ezran of him a bit, but she wasn't him.
"Oh, and what would he read?" asked Rayla, playing along.
"About Xadia. People sometimes say bad things about it, but Callum used to read me nice stories," Ezran answered, draining half the bottle before it back to Rayla, swiping his sleeve over his mouth. "I'm glad he was right because you don't seem like what they say at all." His expression grew uncomfortable as he began shuffling his feet. "And I'm sorry about Claudia calling you monsters. I don't know why she said that."
"You can't believe a word mages say," Rayla sneered, the words coming automatically. "They're manipulative liars."
"But that's what she said about you," Ezran pointed out.
"....He's got you there," Kai commented before thinking.
"And she probably just doesn't understand. She's a mage, but she's never tried to lie to me until now," Ezran went on.
"The same Claudia who tried to kill us?" she asked.
"Well...." Ezran hesitated as he realized she also had a point. "She's not completely like her dad, though. She's one of my best friends. She only wants what she thinks is best. That's what people older than you do." A touch of exasperation entered his tone. "They always think they know better than you and that they know what's best for you, and sometimes they do, just not all the time."
"Uh. Right," Rayla said, not intending to push on the subject.
"Besides, she's not like the High Mage any more than you are," Ezran rambled, ignoring the looks sent his way on that comment. "He's old. And kind of...intense." From the way Ezran widened his eyes, Rayla thought he'd meant to say something less diplomatic.
"And who is this High Mage you speak of?" Hyla questioned suddenly. "He is the one who took the egg, isn't he?"
"Yes, but I don't understand why. Lord Viren is my dad's friend," he chirped, then shrank in on himself slightly as he squeezed Bait. "But he does kinda scare me sometimes. He knows a lot of people. Like a lot, a lot, but he's Dad's best friend, so I guess that's how it's supposed to be? He says a lot of stuff about elves, too, but it's not his fault. He doesn't know any better."
Hyla was quiet for a second, and glanced at him again. The narrow-eyed tension ebbed a little. "...I suppose," she said, after a moment despite the clear disagreement in her tone. "Neither do you."
Rayla bit her lip and had to say it aloud. "Makes me wonder if there's anything I think I know about humans that I have completely wrong," she commented absentmindedly, in an obvious enough attempt of testing the waters of the subject. At getting no reaction, or maybe they were pointedly ignoring her, she breathed out. And, actually, she was kind of curious, now that it was mentioned.
Ezran hurried forwards to look up brightly ather. "Like what?" he inquired.
"Well," she mused pensively, looking ahead as if deep in thought. "You all have ten fingers and twelve toes, right?"
Ezran had begun nodding at 'ten fingers', then choked on his own saliva at 'twelve toes'. "No! Who has twelve toes?" he giggled and kicked his feet up experimentally for his next few steps. "Imagine having all those toes! How do you think we'd still fit in our shoes?"
"Bigger shoes, I guess," Rayla shrugged. Ezran glanced down at Rayla's own footwear.
"Do elves have the same number of toes as fingers?" he questioned with a tilt of the head, figuring he might as well just ask.
"No, we've got ten toes, same as humans," Callisto answered, looking over his shoulder, utterly straight-faced.
Ezran blinked. "Now you're just messing with me," he complained, and received his answer easily enough as Rayla snickered at him.
After a second, Kai took pity on him and clarified, "Relax, little prince, we have eight."
"Huh." At this, Ezran was reminded abruptly of Callum's frustrations of drawing human feet in his sketches, more than a few times he'd been woken up by Callum's loud groan as he threw his hands in the air, looking down at yet another mishap (not to mention the curses he learned from Callum muttering them under his breath as he erased and redid then). He wasn't so bad at them anymore, but even now they were still the bane of his sketching existence. Ezran wondered if Callum would try to draw a four-toed foot, or a four-fingered hand for that matter, knowing his older brother always liked to experiment with his drawing abilities.
He became aware, suddenly, of where they were when he caught sight of a large pine tree. He tilted his head as he stared at it.
Ezran stopped and stepped closer to examine the carving on the bark. "I know this tree. It's near the...." he trailed off, Bait croaking the same sentiment. It took a moment to register, but once it did, recognition sparked in his thoughts. This was the tree he, Claudia, and their big brothers had carved their names into with Soren's knife a couple of years ago during a visit to the Banther Lodge. Ezran could remember being small and young (more than he was now), how Callum lifted him up while Soren steadied his hand to keep him from accidentally nicking it with the knife while he carved his name into the trunk below Callum's.
Ezran traced the names before pulling away. "We're near the Banther Lodge!" he exclaimed, clapping his hands in excitement as he turned back to the others.
I'm sorry if this chapter isn't the best but I'm trying, and I also kind of want Ezran to ask about a certain word he overhead one of them use in elvish because just picturing the scandalized expressions in my head, especially hearing it from a smol bean like Ezran, is making me laugh—anyway I'm rambling and getting off topic. Hope you're all having a lovely day and I hope you enjoy this new chapter! Ciao! :)
Chapter 10: Stay Alive
Okay, so I only just BEGAN to watch season three so I didn't know Tinker',s real name. So while I like the name Ethari, I don't want to go back and rechange the name every time, so Tinker is a nickname most people call him
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Before Runaan left, Ethari had begged him not to take Rayla with him on this mission. She was too young to have blood on her hands. Too young to carry such a burden on her shoulders with a mission of this importance. He knew how hard she took each and every failure with how strongly Runaan had drilled into her head that perfection was everything, that failure could mean death.
Not even Runaan had taken his first kill well. Ethari knew Runaan took the importance of illusions to heart in order to seem like nothing fazed him, especially when he returned, because if he showed weakness then, he would never have lived past the shame. Ethari also knew the minute Runaan thought he was alone, he threw up his stomach's contents in the river and was plagued with nightmares for weeks.
Still was sometimes.
But Runaan never let anyone else see how much it got to him, not even Ethari, although he never needed any magic to tell what was bothering him. Guilt. Nightmares. How he sometimes woke with fear in his eyes and a weapon in his hand. How some nights, sleep wasn't even possible, fatigue dragging him down. How Ethari worried. So, so much, about what this job was doing to him.
Runaan would never give it up, though, because he had been raised and trained to put his duty above all else. Like many, many other Moonshadow. Even if it was slowly tearing him apart.
Ethari, however, had never been one for bloodshed. The sight alone was enough to make him gag.
And after raising Rayla with him all her life, he just...he knew that life wasn't for her. The life of an assassin was enough to break someone, and Rayla had too much heart to go through that so young. Most of their fights had stemmed from that one issue.
And they'd argued again when Runaan told him he was taking Rayla along. Two of the people he loved more than anything in the world on a mission none of them had guarantee of coming back from them. Runaan, he had grown used to no matter how much he hated it and worried every time, but Rayla? Rayla was fifteen and though she tried her best to show she was like Runaan, he knew she got her empathetic nature from him. Ethari would never doubt she was capable of taking care of herself, but... She wasn't experienced as the others, and she had yet to harden her heart as they had; if she did survive, at what cost?
But Runaan insisted she needed this, and that it had already been decided by both him and the Council.
It pained Ethari to smile as she came bustling with excitement at her first real mission, of being the youngest to do so, her own smile bright enough to shame the stars. It pained him to hand her the enchanted bloom he gave to all assassins before they left. It pained him to watch her leave. it pained him to watch both of them leave, with the knowledge he may never see one or even either of them. And it pained him to now live alone and in silence without Rayla's attempts to take his (and her own) mind off his worries.
Which was why, even though he promised them both he wouldn't watch the blossoms floating along the surface of the crystal pool, even though he knew the dark temptation of doing so, he couldn't help being drawn to the pond time and time again to check on their flowers, to make sure the intricate metal flowers of his own making hadn't sunk. It was easier, he found, then facing the loneliness and uncertainty of his empty and silent home.
More than once, as he'd climbed down to the pond, he'd find he wasn't alone. Then again, such a sight wasn't uncommon when a mission was underway. Partners or children often sat by the moonlit water, fixated upon their loved ones flower, anxious for whether or not they'd stay afloat. These days, he'd begun to bring by meals for them when he came down since they refused to leave, as if worried that the flower would sink below the water's surface if they turned away.
And then the full moon was there, and then Ethari was watching with at least a dozen other elves, all standing around the pond as they waited for the aftermath of the night of King Harrow's assassination.
Moonrise until the sun peeked over the horizon, each of them waited in dead silence, all in varying degrees of anticipation and dread. Even though the night had been beautiful, the moonlight reflecting off the metal blossoms, and the sky full of bright stars, not one even dared to breathe too loudly amidst the tension.
And when none sunk throughout the night, some let out breaths of relief, but some remained tense, knowing that just because your loved one wasn't dead did not mean they were unharmed. Some didn't relax until they saw the elf in question walk into the village themselves. But Ethari had almost sobbed with relief at seeing the night had passed and neither his husband or daughter had perished.
He had to hope it was because they succeeded. Not because something had gone wrong.
Because if it wasn't death they were facing, it was a fate much worse—no, he would not entertain such a thought.
He had to hope.
Thinking the mission had been a success, most of the elves could breathe easier and had begun visiting less. Only a few remained around all hours of the day, and not two days later, one was running to Ethari's house as fast as her feet could carry her.
Ethari was making a lantern. Of course, he was a Craftsman, having earned himself the nickname 'Tinker,' by those who knew him well. As he examined the runes along the silver metal with a careful eye, it kept his mind from wandering to Runaan and Rayla's whereabouts. Touching the metal gently, he whispered, "Lumos." The metal began to glow a faint blue, lighting up the forge. Taking a moment to examine the runes again, he whispered, "Obscuros," and the light dimmed to normal.
A smile pulling at his lips, he set it down when he heard rushed footsteps approaching. He turned and saw Zipporah standing in his yard. Even though she remained by the pond, staring at the flower of one of the many whose return was expected, she had remained together and presentable. So when Ethari caught her standing outside when she had not once tore herself away from the pond, pale hair disheveled, eyes alit with fear, and her hands twisting into her skirt, looking like she'd fall apart at any moment, he knew something was wrong.
He dropped the tongs and skirted around a pile of raw metal, running to her. "What happened?" he demanded, grabbing her by the shoulders before she truly did collapse. "Did one of the flowers—"
She shook her head frantically, swallowing thickly. "Tinker, my father..." She stopped and took a shuddering breath. "My father got a message this morning. The mission in Katolis."
Ethari's blood ran cold. Runaan and Rayla. "What?"
She took another series of deep breaths, her hands shaking before she could continue. "Tinker, the mission went wrong." Then she said three words that made everything so much worse. "King Harrow lives."
"I'm sorry—the what?" Rayla folded her arms across her chest, an eyebrow raised.
"The Banther Lodge," Ezran repeated. "It's where my family goes every year during the winter. It's pretty isolated," he added. "Dad didn't want people to bother us when we came out here, so he made it pretty far out from any towns, but I think that's the rock I tripped over last year, see?" Ezran pointed out a rock next to him covered in a thick sheet of moss and greenery. "I remember because it was next to the tree."
Callisto paused, thinking a moment, then gave a soft sigh, rubbing the bridge of his nose. "How far is this winter lodge of yours from here?"
Ezran took a moment to look around then another to pick out what he remembers, and finally looked ahead to the left as if trying to see all the way ahead to the place in mind. "Not too far, why?"
"Runaan, I'm sorry to say, but we have little supplies. We had enough to get here, but as you said, we will have to go a different route to avoid detection, a route that may possibly take even longer than the one we took to get here." Everyone was looking at him, but none spoke to disagree with him either. "At some point or other, our supplies will run out. Not to mention we now have another mouth to feed. Let's be positive of the risks and benefits of checking out this place out before we rule it out completely."
Ezran spoke up. "Supplies like what? Food?"
"I mean supplies," Callisto reiterated as he pinched the bridge of his nose and sighed with the strained patience of one who's dealt with way too much in way too little time. However, the rest of his words were for everyone. "Although food is at the top of that list. We've already begun rationing our food supplies for the journey ahead and keeping an eye out for berry bushes, and once we get to the colder areas, those won't quite be easy to find."
"We've not even had breakfast," Ezran added, noticing for the first time that the bags they carried after packing camp probably didn't hold much.
Rayla crossed her arms, and then produced a very put-upon sigh. "He's right, if we run out before we reach Xadia, we will not have a fun time." At the look she received from Runaan, she shrank under his gaze as she suddenly remembered that her opinion was not wholly welcomed since her last idea got them in this mess.
"We are at a disadvantage in that area. And it wouldn't do any harm to double-check our options," Kouru agreed.
"I suppose," Hyla shrugged. "If it houses the royal family, it must hold something of use to us."
"Of course if we're wrong, it would mean we wasted a good portion of our day and receive nothing for it in the end," Kai grunted.
In the end all turned to Runaan as he held the final say. He was quiet for a while, weighing the matter in his head. The possibility of being discovered was there either faint or strong, but there was also the possibility of running out before reaching their destination, and this mission was important. It was important they stayed alive long enough to return the Dragon Prince home to their queen. "You say it's isolated," he said to Ezran, staring down at him. "Does that mean it'll be empty around this time?"
"Well, not exactly." The young prince shuffled his feet. "Usually it is during the summer, but...before I left, the Banther Lodge was where Dad was planning to send me and Callum," Ezran told them. "If Dad was going to send us there, he probably sent some guards, too, to watch over us."
Rayla gave him a long look. "Well, that's gonna be a bit of a hassle," she said sardonically.
"However, they likely won't expect us to stop there, and it's unlikely that they could get there in such quick time. Besides that means they're already coming this way anyway, and if we're lucky, we can get in and out without much hassle or taking too much time." Callisto was already muttering, making up a plan in his mind even before Runaan said yes because they had little options. It wasn't like they could just walk into a town when people would be looking for them once word got out. And even in their journey here, there had been more than a few 'ifs' when it came to distance and safety. "It probably would not hurt if we stopped near the lodge, and some of us went to check if there are any humans around while the rest stay behind to keep an eye on Prince Ezran."
Runaan gave him a long look as he thought. Then, without saying another word, gave a mere nod that was all the answer they needed. For the child, however.... Runaan looked at Ezran. "Show us the way to this lodge."
So, I learned about the enchanted flowers and ghosts, and I may or may not have fun with that concept which was the inspiration for the beginning of this chapter. I mean can you imagine the numerous implications that might go through someone's mind if a team is alive but so is the target? I know none are good! Anyway, hope you enjoyed this and feedback is greatly appreciated; it's what inspires me to keep on writing! :)
Chapter 11: Friends in High Places
In which Ezran slowly works his way into their hearts, and at some point down the road, like with all adults that spend enough time with him, they're going to be like, "We've only had him for a few days, but if anything happened to him, we would kill everyone in this kingdom and then ourselves" :)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Harrow didn't even have to turn to know who was behind him. He had already been able to tell by the sudden breeze of a window to the balcony he could have sworn he'd closed.
He had clearly been angry enough to risk attention with the rise of security around Harrow's chambers. His descent onto Harrow's balcony had been timed just right with the turning of the guards' heads as they scanned out across the castle courtyard for enemies.
And in all honesty, Harrow had to wonder if he'd rather the assassins had killed him already than face this man's wrath.
"Me," he chuckled nervously as he turned around. There was a flash of light as Agnarr reattached his earring, assuming his guise in case someone should walk in.
Harrow held a torn letter yellowed with age that anyone would assume held little importance, but really, was everything. His expression was soft, sad, contemplative. As if he bore the burdens of generations on his shoulders. Beside him, his sword, blade bare and bright in the last golden rays of a dying afternoon, rested its handle against the table's edge, while its point gleamed deadly sharp against the tile floor.
Agnarr's face was half curtained by dark hair on one side that reached his hips, the other half shaved close to his head as the stone in his earring shone in the light. There was still no mistaking the silent rage in his eyes. He shifted his weight onto one hip and folded his arms across his chest, and Harrow knew from the familiar position he was about to get his head bitten off. "So..." he began, deadly calm. "I take a vacation, on your insistence, and you with your dark mage somehow manage to invent a new brand of stupid."
"I don't think you hold all the facts—"
"Really, I don't?" The piecing gaze of teal eyes that seemed to almost glow if not for the illusion fixed in place. "Then allow me to review what facts I do hold." He held up a hand, counting each off. "You ignored me and listened to your mage, and whether you meant to or not, caused the death of Xadia's protector and his heir. So Xadia sent assassins after you because once you took off the leash on Viren, you couldn't reign him back in before he also destroyed an innocent. And if what I overheard from the guards is correct, said assassins kidnapped your son and heir in exchange for the egg you had a hand in destroying." His face was hard as he snapped, "Karma's a real bitch, isn't she?"
"You..." Harrow hesitated. "Do seem to hold some of the facts."
One breath, then another, and Agnarr hesitated. "I tried to warn you, Harrow," he said, his voice quiet as he pinched the bridge of his nose. "Tell me why. Why you never listened to me." He gritted his teeth but Harrow caught the tremble in his voice.
Harrow's face was drawn. His shoulders slumped. Viren had fooled him, his lies running deep, and he couldn't say anything when it was him who fell for it. It made him question whether their friendship to begin with had been a strategy to gain his favor and his ear. "If it makes you feel better, you were right. All along. I should have listened to you."
"It's too late! Years too late, Harrow! I told you not to listen to him! I told you not to trust him! All that happened, you would have learned better from your last lesson that dark magic has its price," snapped Agnarr, not done. "It draws from the life force of everything around them and destroys it, what in the name of the stars did you think was going to happen when you ordered Viren to do something about Thunder?"
"Tell me, Harrow, did it make you feel any better? Did Thunder's death fix your broken heart?" No. Only broke it more in the process, Harrow thought but did not say. Words did not mean anything to the man before him, actions did, and for once, Harrow was glad for it, as it reminded him no amount of apologies would fix his mistakes and what they'd caused. What could, however, was actually doing something about it. "Did Thunder's death magically bring Sarai back to life? Did it give the boys back their mother? Look at what all this got you and tell me if it was worth it all!" Agnarr took a steadying breath and studied Harrow. "Apologies change nothing. Your mistakes nearly cost you your own life if not for a miracle, and now may cause your sons their lives, don't you see that?"
"I understand that I made terrible choices that I have to live with. I had been more than prepared to pay with my life because I knew I deserved it." Harrow bowed his head before he reached into a pocket and pulled out a small token, offering it slowly. "My youngest son, on the other hand, does not. He should not have to pay for my sins, but if one good thing has survived my foolishness, it is that the Dragon Prince has been discovered alive."
Agnarr scowled, not even looking down at whatever it was he held. "Are you sure it's not a ploy you made up to ease your guilt?"
"I'm as surprised as you are," Harrow sighed, shaking his head. "Callum said he saw it. That he was there when Ezran refused to part with it and escaped with the elves, the elves that came to kill me that day. The egg is alive."
For a moment, Agnarr stared at Harrow before his eyes dropped to Harrow's palm and they flickered wide. "You came years ago to tell me that Callum was proof humans and elves could live in harmony if we actually tried," he went on, the crown suddenly weighing heavily on his head. "That it's possible to end the cycle of violence our lands have spun even if Edan and Sarai failed. It seems Ezran is determined to try and take the step towards breaking it."
In the king's hand was a folded drawing Agnarr had left for Callum to find years ago. Except when they made the decision to keep it from him until he was older, he had thought Harrow had burned it to keep anyone from finding it.
Agnarr's voice was soft, almost broken, as he took it and unfolded it, looking upon the faces he hadn't seen in almost fifteen years. "You kept it. All these years. You kept it from him."
"Of course. I--I want you to take it back. If anything happens to me-- Viren, he... No one can find it. Please. It's yours, anyway." As if reading Agnarr's mind, he said, "I doubt you'd want me to have it after everything I've done. But for your own safety, for Callum's, take it, destroy it, as long as it's not here. You know what might happen if anyone finds it, much less him."
His hands shook as he tucked it away, but Agnarr sighed and quickly wiped his eyes, refusing to show weakness. "Why do you have to be one of the better ones?" he breathed. "Maybe then it would so much easier to hate you. Everything would be easier if I could." With a sigh, he crossed his arms across his chest. "Listen, since I know best about elven customs, especially Moonshadow, I'll give you some advice. Ask Callum if he saw them wearing bands."
"Bands. They're usually white or silver. You'll usually find them tied around the wrist--" Agnarr held up his hands to demonstrate-- "or somewhere along their arms. Occasionally, you might find one around their leg or ankle, but that's not very common."
Harrow waved his hands before his face. "Hold up. Why is that important?" he demanded.
"When Moonshadow assassins go on a mission, they make an oath to carry it out no matter what." His teal eyes flashed beneath the curtain of dark hair. "They bind their lives to completing it. Moonshadow are not people who lead by emotions but duty and honor. With every mission, it is succeed or die. Either they complete it or give their lives trying. If something goes wrong, or they are captured, they often kill themselves to prevent being used for dark magic or from having information tortured out of them. If they fail and remain living and breathing, they are often believed traitors and are banished from their village.
"The binding will get tighter and tighter around the limb it is tied upon until all blood flow is cut off and the limb either falls off or kills the elf from infection. When the target is dead, the binding falls off and releases them from their oath. And since they are all about what they believe is justice...." The word came out a snarl as if he was remembering that their form of justice was responsible for his brother's disappearance. "An eye for an eye, a life for a life, they came to Xadia looking to slaughter both you and Ezran in exchange for Thunder and the Dragon Prince. Ezran...if they found the Dragon egg, they no longer have reason to take his life. Their rules justify their kills and helps them sleep at night since they claim to value life and death, and yet believe they deserve the right to decide who lives and dies. But you..." He stared at Harrow uncertainly as his gaze narrowed. "Knowing Runaan, they would have killed you anyway because they believed you deserved it. So if you are still alive, it is because your son must have bargained."
As the gears turned in his mind, Harrow realized why Ezran likely went with the elves. "My life in exchange for him and the egg," he breathed, suddenly needing to sit down. His son was ten. And despite Harrow's efforts to keep him from such events at that young an age, had made the decision to give himself over to ensure his father would live.
Agnarr's eyes softened, moving to sit beside him as he placed an arm on his shoulder. "If it brings you any comfort, this may change everything, for better or worse. A human prince returns the long-lost Dragon Prince to his mother. With the elves that had been sent to kill him. Think of the impact such a gesture would have. Think of the message it would send."
"They can't kill him now because his life suddenly means so much more than it originally had." Harrow buried his head in his hands. "He's a child." He looked up, tears pinpricking his eyes. "He doesn't deserve that type of weight on his shoulders."
"Does anyone?" Agnarr asked, letting out a sigh as he allowed himself a rare moment of vulnerability. "It's rare that one is never weighed down by something. Whether it is our past or the uncertainty of the future. When we chose to face it, I wouldn't say it goes away." He offered Harrow a small smile. "But it does become easier to bear, and letting someone help with the burden never hurt anyone either."
Perched upon his stand, Pip chirruped a soft call. Harrow immediately straightened, glancing behind him toward the door. Someone was coming. Extending his hands, palm up, Harrow's eyes were soft with pain. "I would never have given it to him. You're under no obligation, and I ask you this, not as a king but as a friend and a father...."
Agnarr didn't let him finish, giving a sharp nod. "You're asking me to be your eyes."
A small smile formed in the king's face. "You have been among the best. I also know your loyalty to my sons."
He nodded, and with that, Agnarr stood and started towards the balcony. "With all this happening, history is at its turning point," he said suddenly without looking back. "Whatever you choose as your response will have history turning its eyes to you. For good or bad. I hope this time, it's the former."
Another flash of light, and he had already slipped into the night.
Harrow's eyes slowly lowered to the parchment he had been searching. Some words were faded and the writing rushed and urgent. Sarai kept this close till her dying breath. Now, with all that was happening, Ezran, the elves, a possible war with Xadia, Viren a possible traitor, having to watch his back against his oldest friend... What he decided now was crucial.
And it made him wonder if now was the time.
Callum never had to know.
Maybe, when he's older.
Year after year, Harrow had told himself that. When he was older. When he was better prepared. But the longer he kept it from him, the more it would hurt, and the more time went on, the thicker the web of lies weaved to keep him from finding the truth.
Now, Harrow was uncertain. There was no longer a way to know how much longer they had together. If not him, would Callum find out another way, and come to resent him for repressing a crucial part of him without him having a say in any of it?
But he folded the letter and tucked it back into a pocket. "Not yet. It's not the right time," he mumbled to himself. Well, what is the right time, then? a voice in the back of his head asked, sounding dreadfully similar to Even Pip chirped to tell him he was fooling himself for what he was really doing.
Putting off what was likely now inevitable.
There was a reason Theodosia's brother was the man most had called for hunting down Xadian creatures as their reputation grew.
Because there's three things you need to know about him.
One: Rhun was never around when not needed.
Two: Unless he wanted to be found, he wasn't.
And three: He never missed.
"Viren said he wanted to see a body, right?" Rhun asked, making some final adjustments. When wielded by an inexperienced hand, there had been... calibration issues in the past. "But not too soon?"
"Yeah, easier to blame it on the assassins that way. Oh, and after Viren's done with them, I hope he leaves some for me. I could use more test subjects," she told him conversationally, placing a cork on the vial in her hand.
He nodded and notched another arrow into the crossbow, drawing the string back and locking it at the five hundred fathoms mark. "Black arrow, it is, then, for the princeling." The moonlight gleamed across the smooth, polished black surface of the shaft. Her magic and his skill in weapon making had resulted in this creation. Normal arrows wasn't quite so effective against creatures from Xadia; for some, it was difficult enough to penetrate the outer skin, and that was assuming one was enough to take it down. Within his quiver, four kinds of arrows for a variety of jobs. Some did like their catches alive and fresh after all.
Each were distinguishable by the color of the arrowhead.
White for sleep.
Red for paralysis.
Black and grey for death, the difference being whether a slow one or fast.
"You sure you got this?" he asked.
"Of course. You'd be surprised how easy it is to destroy someone with mere illusions. You can run and hide from enemies, but no one can escape the demons of their own mind."
Daylight had begun to fade by the time the team began to hear the distant sounds of voices; Runaan held up a hand and stopped, gesturing for them to hide. Ezran opened his mouth to say something, but Rayla held a finger to his mouth and shushed him.
Then came the clatter and clamor of distant armor. Faint voices.
"Reckon that'll be the lodge over there?" Hyla nodded towards the sound.
Ezran peaked out from behind the tree Rayla had pulled him behind and nodded.
"And there might be heavily-armed humans there. As I tried to say," Kai hissed only to be shut up by a sharp glare flashed his way. "Let's get some distance between us, then," he sighed instead.
Naturally, Rayla knew they needed to stop somewhere secluded and out-of-the-way of the humans' patrol paths. Somewhere they could leave the boy without having to worry too much about him wandering off without supervision. She knew this after having been raised to think in terms of practicality. Unfortunately, the direction Runaan chose to search for this 'somewhere' seemed to be in the direction of deep water. At the sound alone as they neared the river, Rayla subconsciously latched onto a tree before Callisto noticed and had to practically pry her loose, peeling her fingers off the bark one by one until she realized what she was doing and let go.
Even the thought of being near it made Rayla wince.
The river came into view only a few minutes later, and after scanning the treelines for anything, Runaan found an enclosed area where the trees and foliage ought to hide them from any passersby who didn't take a closer look, and just far enough that if someone did find them, no one would hear them nor would they make it too far; she only wished it wasn't so close to water.
"Can I come?"
Runaan didn't even open his eyes to see the small human prince standing before him as he had separated from the group to meditate. He had a sense that if he did, he would have been met with the puppy-dog expression Rayla had been well known for as a child whenever she tried to sneak Adoraburrs into the house. "No."
"Please?" Ezran begged, the glow toad sitting atop his hair giving Runaan the stink eye. Or maybe that was his normal expression. But whenever one of the elves beside Rayla stepped too close, the creature tensed as if prepared to defend its master if needed. "I want to help. I can help."
"We don't need children to slow us down."
"I did a good job helping before, didn't I?" Prince Ezran protested. "Me and my brother were supposed to be at the lodge anyway! No one's going to think it's weird if they see me. If there are guards there, I can distract them for you."
"I said no."
"I can be sneaky! I can do sneaky really well! Ask anyone!"
Finally, Runaan opened one eye to regard the Prince's pleading expression. "What part of 'No' is so difficult to understand?" He would think it a human thing, if only the image of small, young Rayla fixing him with that same look didn't flash behind his mind's eye.
Entirely unmoved by his tone, Ezran hefted the dragon egg in his arms, and persisted. "I know the lodge better than you do, and I know where everything is already."
"Yes, and your knowledge is why you should stay here. Safe and out of the way," countered Runaan, standing to look down on the child. "If something happens and we do not come back, you are to go with the others and keep going."
Ezran's jaw set, stubbornly. As Runaan began to walk away, he followed, struggling to keep up with his long strides but refusing to fall behind. "But what if my Aunt Amaya is there? You said she could be."
Runaan had already accounted for the possibility; family happened to be the weakest spot for almost any warrior, and he sensed if the King had the time, it would have been the Standing Battalion herself who would have come to protect them.
To think, one of the greatest human warriors seen, had almost been reduced to a bodyguard for a couple of princes.
Night was coming. Better chance of looting for supplies under their noses. It heavily depended on where their soldiers were stationed, though. Too many, and well, it was a lost cause anyhow; Runaan was not putting his team at more risk than they already were unless absolutely necessary.
Frowning at the elven assassin's lack of response, Ezran went on, "If she's there, I can vouch for you, tell her the truth! She might listen to me."
At that, Runaan stopped, gazing down at the prince in disbelief. General Amaya was by far, one of the best human fighters Xadia had ever seen, certainly good enough to earn the begrudging respect of even his people. And she was certainly not a woman anyone with a sane brain would ever want to face on the opposite side of a battlefield. But with how Ezran talked about her, one would think she was just a normal aunt that gave bear hugs and was awful at cooking, not too different from Tinker back home, that was until he started mentioning how she would sometimes let him and Callum watch her birthday battle with some of her soldiers (none ever managed to win).
How this small human who woke up mumbling about animals made of toffee could be related to her certainly boggled the mind.
"I believe our last encounter with your misplaced faith should have been enough to get it into your head," he said, lowering himself to be eye level with the young prince.
At the reminder, Ezran pursed his lips. "People can surprise you," he shrugged after a moment. "But won't Aunt Amaya understand if she knew the truth?"
Yes, and if she knew what they had originally been there for, such as their original intentions for her nephew, they might not even be able to get out a proper explanation.
Allowing himself a sigh, Runaan bowed his head before raising it once more. "You do understand how the world works, don't you, little prince?" he asked, his tone slightly softer this time though remaining firm. The same tone he'd used when explaining the importance and essence of their job to new initiates.
Prince Ezran tilted his head, brows furrowing. "What do you mean?"
"You do know what we are, don't you?"
A moment's hesitation. "Assassins?" It came out more a question than a statement as he shifted uncertainly. "I guessed that you killed a lot people before, haven't you, if the Dragon Queen sent you? If I ever wanted...well, I would send my best. For any job."
Runaan nodded. "We have carried out many missions--"
"No. Just say it. I'm ten, not stupid, I know what assassins are." Ezran's jaw set again into a stubborn pout demanding to be taken seriously. "Your mission was to kill my dad. That's why you don't think anyone will trust you."
Runaan released a carefully controlled sigh. "Many have fallen by our hand for Xadia."
Suddenly, the little prince's blue eyes flashed. "Fall? Fall? Runaan--" the exasperation was stressed on his name as if this wasn't the first time he'd used it-- "assassins don't just make people trip and fall. If you're going to bring it up and say it, at least say it right."
Runaan blinked in disbelief, placing up the shield to keep his emotions from showing. "Fine. We have killed many before. Humans mostly, but at times elves, traitors. But that is not my point, Prince Ezran." He raised a four-fingered hand. "We are elves."
"Oh. Well, anyone can see that." Runaan could practically see the gears turning in Ezran's head before his wide, blue-eyed gaze met his. "So?" he shrugged. "Who cares? Personally, I'd be more worried about the assassin part, elf or human. They're the same job, after all."
Raising an eyebrow, Runaan examined the prince-- the Crown Prince who would one day grow to be King due to Rayla's mistake, a mistake that now allowed both princes, human and dragon, to live-- and wondered if he understood the importance of what he just said.
Besides his father being the man who fell Thunder, his mother had also been General Amaya's late sister and King Harrow's late wife. Queen Sarai. A woman who, alongside her sister, had managed to turn the Katolis military from an average human force that barely was of any concern into a genuinely worrying threat.
Two of the Katolis' army's strongest warriors, one of which became the Queen of a King who was vicious enough to order the death of their protector and his heir. Yet, somehow, the union of their families resulted in...this odd, little one who had just countered a topic many met with spite, fury, and prejudice with...simply indifference. As if the concern was only in their occupation, not their race.
Apparently, not him.
"Humans are not exactly fond of elves."
"Yeah," agreed Ezran, "but if you were anything like people said you were, you would look a lot scarier. And if you were all like people said you were, I wouldn't still be alive, would I?"
Runaan looked down at the child's large blue eyes, "You're...not wrong."
"So that means I'm right!" he chirped, following Runaan as he began walking back to the others to discuss their plan.
"No, it means you're not wrong."
There was silence as he looked down, then as he lifted his head, Ezran beamed, "Does this mean I can come?"
"No," said Runaan firmly.
"Please, please, please?"
"No. No. No."
"Please, please, please, please, with a jelly tart on top and sprinkles?"
"Do you not understand the definition of 'No'?" demanded the man in exasperation. Thank the stars above that twenty years of dealing with his husband and Rayla made him immune to the puppy-dog look Ezran was giving him now, making his large blue eyes even wider and more innocent-like if possible.
"Nope," the prince grinned, popping the 'p.' "So can I?"
"Is he still giving me the eyes?" Runaan asked, tone void of emotion, feeling someone's gaze at his back as he discussed his orders.
Hyla glanced over Runaan's shoulder to spy the prince in question. Callisto was forbidden from looking as he had not built an immunity and all it would take was one look before he'd say yes to whatever he asked. She gave a sigh and rolled her eyes as she looked back at Runaan. "With the quivering lip."
Look me in the eye and tell me that if this adorable smol bean gave you the puppy-dog look, you wouldn't crumble to his will. It is a secret weapon he only uses in the most dire of circumstances. Anyway, we will get our lodge break-in next chapter and hopefully find out what's going on Callum's end. Until next time! :)