In Katolian territory, Rayla’s only worries were humans and dark magic. In Xadia, things got worse.
With Callum being a clueless mess in a “magic and mysterious land”, Zym growing and becoming less obedient, and looking for possible threats to the princes lives, like constant elven encounters and patrols, the young elf found herself more tired day after day.
And thoughts of Runaan and the rest of her team didn’t help. In Katolis, Rayla forgot about them, still thrilled with the possibility of ending a war.
But now, in her land, memories of that night in the Castle haunted her dreams, and the sick feeling in her stomach of not knowing if they were alive. If Runaan was alive.
For her own and the mission’s sake, she allowed herself to hope that they were alive and well.
Until the next night.
“Alright, you both stay here while I go find some moonberries for us.”
“But we already ate!” Callum interjected. Actually, Rayla didn’t ate much. She hunted and killed and cooked their dinner, so she wasn’t in the mood to eat its meat. And Zym, now bigger, demanded more food.
“Okay, for me. I’m a lil’ bit hungry.”
“I told you to eat more.” Callum huffed, but after weeks of traveling together, he knew why she decided to eat more fruits. “Come back soon.”
“I will.” They held their gaze a little longer. Rayla turned on her heels and went out of the cave, going a little bit fast so she could be back as soon as possible. She knew Callum hated being alone.
The Moonberries were easy to find. In Moonshadow Territory, they grew almost everywhere. She was carefully picking them, choosing the most appetizing ones. Rayla also decided to pick more for Callum and Zym, in case they got hungry in the morning.
(sometimes, she liked to think they were like a little family.)
(but they were dangerous thoughts. Better stop now.)
She felt something. As a Moonshadow elf and a trained assassin, her senses were more accurate. Her hands traveled to her back, where her blades were attached, and prepared for a fight.
“Your senses are as good as ever, Ray.”
A young man descended from a tree. Rayla knew him too well. Ethari, Runaan’s husband.
“E-ethari! It’s y-“ The elf was cut by Ethari’s hug. Moonshadow elves rarely hugged each other, only when they were alone (or, in this case, after a very long time apart. But he always liked to hug)
“You’re okay.” He whispered.
“Of course I’m okay.” She replied, and when they separated, Ethari’s face was indecipherable. A chill went trought Rayla’s spine, she never saw Ethari, usually happy and sunshine-ish, with that look. And then, she realized that he was far from the Silvergrove, where she lived with Runaan and him.
But she didn’t got the chance to ask.
He hugged her again. Ethari and his hugs, she thought. “How?” He asked, probably about their mission. She knew that question was coming, but not by that words. How, like it was a suicide mission. Sure, it was being planned for months, so there shouldn’t have any failure.
And now, that he found her, without her team, she has a lot to explain.
“Well... Actually, can you promise me something, by the Moon?” When elves promised things by their Arcanum (or both of them, in case they were from different races) meant it was serious, sometimes life or death matters. Deep secrets or state secrets would be trusted between two elves.
“Fine, follow me and I’ll show you something. And, promise me that you won’t do anything, just listen to what I have to say.” She wasn’t sure if she was doing the right decision. But, he was Ethari. He raised her! She can trust him. And he trusts her.
He just smiled and took her hand, a sign he trusted her. Rayla knew he would do that. He would always trust her, as he does with Runaan.
She just hoped things would stay that way.
“Callum, I’m back.”
“Oh finally, I was starting to worr- Ah!”
If Rayla wasn’t so nervous and if her heart wasn’t hammering in her chest, she would find the situation hilarious. Callum’s face, always with a dumb and awestruck look, was frightened. Ethari’s, once passive, was now shocked and scandalized. When Zym appeared from a dark conner, his face went more surprised (if that was even possible.)
“What—“ The elf started, but Rayla interrupted him.
“Calm down.“ Rayla tranquilized him with a touch in his shoulder. Callum noticed she had a soft look in her eyes. He saw that look often, but always directed at him or Zym. Until now, he never thought if Rayla had friends, or some sort of family, in Xadia.
“Callum, this is Ethari, my...” She looked at him, hesitant. “dad. And Ethari, this is Callum, prince of the human kingdom of Katolis and Azymondias, the Dragon Prince”
It was the first time Callum saw another elf. Ethari is an Moonshadow, just like Rayla. His skin is a dark purple-ish tone, and his eyes are violet, but darker than Rayla’s. His white hair is long and his bangs are almost in his eyes. His tattoos are circular and on both sides of his cheeks as well as in his shoulder. And of course, his horns are way more elaborate than Rayla’s (he can’t wait to see hers become like that). In other circunstances, Callum’s fear would be replaced with wonder at how beautiful the elf is.
“Dad? But, didn’t you say...” He started, confused. Rayla immediatly cut him off.
“My foster dad. I’ll explain to you later... and you started a fire! Great, let’s all sit down, and I will tell a great story.” She said. Ethari sat with them, but as far as he could get from Callum. Rayla sat in the middle.
“I hope it is, Ray.” Ethari murmured, but loud enough for them to hear. Zym also sat with them, close to Callum and Rayla.
“We were discovered.” Rayla started. “I was supposed to kill the human guard we spotted, but I couldn’t do that. The other day, a human party came to search, but Runaan quickly hid us. So, he took me out of the mission. But... well, I disobeyed him. I broke into the castle way before the full moon, and I found Callum. Then, Prince Ezran, the one I was supposed to kill, found me too. And he led me... to Zym, who was still an egg.” At the mention of this name, the little dragon curled up closer to Rayla.
“So, you decided to give up your mission?”
“N-no. What did you wanted me to do? Kill Ez even thougth our prince is alive?”
“And the rest of the team?”
“I tried to talk to Runaan, but... he didn’t listen.” Rayla ears dropped at the mention of Runaan.
“So you left him behind?”
“She did what she had to do.” Callum intervened, not liking how Ethari raised his voice at Rayla. All of their eyes, even Zym’s, turned to him. “She, we, wanted to stop the cycle of violence. But he didn’t. He tried to kill her.”
Ethari looked down at his hands, touching a pendant in his chest. Rayla still looked at Callum, her cheeks a pinkish tone. The prince held her hand and when he met her eyes, she mouthed a silent “thank you”. In return, he squeezed her hand. They stayed like this for a while. If Ethari was her foster dad, and the way they talked about Runaan, Callum concluded that maybe, he was more than just her leader.
Ethari looked up “Well” he started, a weak smile forming in his lips “I guess you have more story to tell, right, Ray?”
As it turns out, Rayla is a great storyteller. She told Tinker all of their adventures, to their meeting with Ava, Ellis and Lujanne in the Cursed Caldera, to Callum breaking his primal stone to hatch Zym, and even managed to paint Callum as a hero when he saved Rayla and the dragon from Soren and Claudia. Of course, she couldn’t forget about his connection with the Sky Primal. And their shenanigans in Xadia with Zym, the villages they went and “Elf Callum” stories.
“This is... almost impossible to believe.”
“I know right? If someone tells past Rayla that I would be in an adventure across the continent with a baby dragon and a dumb human I would probably stab them.”
“Hey.” Callum playfully nudged her arm. In return, she stuck her tongue out at him, both laughing.
They reminded Ethari of himself and his husband. Rayla reminded him painfully much of Runaan, the reserved and colected side, but she could also be extroverted and sarcastic, and that was just hers. He just met Callum, and while he was taught to hate humans, he couldn’t bring himself to hate the boy (maybe things weren’t that black and white). And he is so, so proud of Rayla, taking the stand and making difference. He always knew she would leave her mark, her name, and not carry the burden of disgrace left by her parents.
“It was a pleasure meeting you, Callum, and while I’d love to stay and talk more, I must be on my way.” Ethari interrupted the teenagers chat, and held up his hands. Callum returned the gesture, both shaking hands.
Rayla opened her mouth to say something, but closed when Callum speaked “I never thought elves also did the hand shake thing.”
“We used to live together, centuries ago, you know. Some old habits are still common to both races. And, now that you are on your way to peace, maybe we can do that again. I feel that you both are already making a difference.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“Oh, don’t call me ‘sir’. Just Ethari. And Rayla, can you please acompany me? Don’t worry, she’ll be back soon.” He answered, the last part to Callum. He petted Zym’s chin, and exited the cave, with Rayla.
Both princes watched them leave. Callum opened his sketchbook, and started a sketch of Ethari. Rough and less accurate than the human prince would have liked. Kind of frustated, he thought about Rayla again.
(she seemed to be on his mind a lot lately.)
He liked her foster dad, but he wasn’t sure he would like to meet other friends of Rayla. Why, he didn’t knew. Still waiting for her to return, he went back to his sketchbook.
Rayla had asked him why he was so far from home. There were a lot of answers to that.
At some point, he just knew they were dead. Except his little girl (when did she became his? Perhaps when he realized her own parents weren’t coming back). But even then, he couldn’t shake the feeling Runaan could still live.
That feeling suffocated him. The empty house, the pity stares, all the nights of solitude, it became too much. When he was young, after his brother died in the Breach, he remembered traveling with his mother, with no clear destination, just visiting Xadia’s prettiest cities. But, he thought about going to Katolis. If Rayla’s flower didn’t sink, it could only mean she had been captured. A stupid plan, he’s not s fighter, but if he was to be captured too, at least he would be with her.
But now, everything’s changed.
With his silence, he knew she had already figured it out. Maybe she already knew, but refused to let go, just like him. But he knew he still needed to say. He needed to say. For her, for himself. They had to let him go.
It was a hard talk. Maybe the hardest one he ever had, worse than hearing about his brother’s death.
Now they were sitting in a rock, Rayla staring at the ground, expressionless. He wanted to hold her hand, but she kept them to herself. In Moonshadow culture, she had to face it alone.
(He hated that costume. Even thought he is a Moonshadow, why can’t they just be open about their feelings?)
(He wondered if the human boy would have held her hand, like he did in the cave. He wondered if Rayla might have liked it.)
“You’re going now?” She asked, bringing him back from his thoughts.
“Do you want me to? I don’t think I would be any help to your... mission.” But you were thinking about going to the human kingdom, right?
Silence again. “Either way, I need to say one more thing to you.” This time, she looked at him. “This.. adventure you’re facing, is dangerous.” But she already knew that. “While I know you’re talented and a prodigy, it’s only three of you. And there are elves here that could defeat you both, elves who wouldn’t want this war to be over.”
“My point is,” He continued “don’t trust anyone in Xadia. Even if they’re your friends. Who knows what would they do if they find out about the Dragon Prince.”
“It’s not like I have friends so..”
“Don’t be like that, of course you do. You’re just...”
“Not close.” She never really had time for friends. “Maybe, if I hadn’t spent too much time training...” She started but Ethari stopped her
“.. then we wouldn’t be here. Maybe we would never know that our prince still lives. We have a chance for peace now, Ray, because of you.”
“And now there are elves here who don’t want peace, using the war for their own benefit and their stupid hate for humans... this is so unfair!” She exclaimed, throwing her arms to the air.
“Welcome to the world of politics.”
“Runaan hated it too.” Ethari said and immediately regretted it. It was as painful for Rayla as it was for him. But he knew his lover would’ve want them to move on, to get the best of life.
(even if his gut kept telling him to go to Katolis.)
“Ethari... if i showed up at home, would I face trial?” Rayla asked, leaning her head in his shoulder. He had been wondering about this too.
“... I can’t assure you that. Your group is under the judgement of Regina Draconis, not of our kind... But they think you’re dead. I think it might be for the best for you to go back after the Prince is returned.”
“Yeah, right. I bet they would lock me up without second thoughts, given my parents... history.”
Runaan would have disagreed. Ethari didn’t.
(but he didn’t voice that.)
“I guess.. it’s goodbye then?” Her voice cracked a little. She is barely holding up. Why was it so difficult for Moonshadow elves to just be open about their feelings?
“For now, yes. And... come visit me, if you want.”
“Okay, I will.”
They stood up, and hugged. Rayla’s mind was filled with don’t cry don’t cry be strong don’t cry as Ethari hugged her tighter.
(she hated goodbyes.)
She was ready to go back to the cave, now. Callum should be worried sick. (What took you so long? or I was almost going to look for you!)
(in the beggining she used to be annoyed.)
(but something changed. she enjoys that.)
She turned to the sound of Ethari’s voice.
“Your bond with Callum is strong. Don’t be afraid to explore it. I think, this bond, is what going to keep the three of you alive.”
She just nodded. He handed her supplies, and when she tried to deny, “You’re going to need it more than me”. And she turned back, back to her princes.
But Ethari stayed a few hours there. He stared at the moon, cried, thought about his life without Runaan. How could his soul live without the other part? Would he ever love again?
His life before that Moonshadow assassin appeared at his door asking for him to fix his weapon was plain and simple, boring. And them, he came crashing in his life, and every little day became an adventure. He knew he was an assassin, they could never have a proper union, but wow, he loved his life. Him, Runaan and little Rayla, a family of their own. While Runaan teached her how to fight, he would give the young girl sweets, gifts and bed stories.
He still holds his flower thought. A memory of the life he had, a reminder to keep moving, to live.
(even thought every fiber in his body says his lover still lives.)
(he touched his pendant again.)
“Rayla! You’re back! I was w— what’s wrong?” Callum asked, putting aside his sketchbook and walking to her. Of course he would notice something happened with her.
“N-nothing. M’ fine” She lowered her head at her feet. She was afraid that, if she looked at his eyes, she might break.
“No, you’re not. Hey, talk to me.” He asked, moving his hand to cup her cheek, to make her look at him. Her eyes were wet, like she had been holding herself to not cry. “Did Ethari said something to you?”
“No, we just.. talked. I’m kind of tired right now, can we sleep?”
“Yeah, sure.” He answered, not convinced. They arranged their sleeping bags and settled down to sleep, Rayla a little bit far from him. She would usually lay hers next to Callum’s (both liked sleeping close to each other, no denying), but today, she settled herself far. Of course the boy noticed, but didn’t say anything.
Sleep found Callum easily.
But not Rayla.
Their flowers sank, Ray. She heard Ethari’s voice in her head. All of them. Except yours. I couldn’t hide from the elves anymore. I had to relate their deaths. I decided to hide your situation and go search myself, but guess you did that for me. He gave a sarcastic laugh. So uncharacteristic of him.
It’s not your fault, Rayla.
It is her fault. If she had insisted more, if she tried harder...
You’ve killed us all.
She felt a tear coming out from her eye, a tear she had been holding ever since Ethari’s first words. Guilt and emptiness rushed throught her, she allowed herself to cry.
She flinched into her sleep bag. Memories of her childhood with Runaan flooded her mind, and even the happy ones, filled by guilt and oh Luna I will never see him again.
Because she lost him.
She lost her parents, when she was young. One letter, only on her birthday, wasn’t enough.
But Runaan was there for her. He took her in, raised her, became her mentor, he was... like a father, maybe.
And now, gone. Just like that.
A sob escaped her, and she quickly turned around to see if Callum or Zym woke up.
But her tears didn’t stop, the pain in her chest grew with each minute passing, to a point where she couldn’t control her sobs anymore. Afraid she might wake her companions, she tried to muffle them with her hand.
Then, she felt anger. At herself, at Runaan, at the war. She bit her lips, making them bleed a little. Then she felt guilt again, she felt lost, confused, alone. Maybe the right word was panic. She always thought she was strong, but now, she was weak. She was scared. Moonshadow elves were not supposed to feel those things, but here she is, trembling, her sobs louder, her fingers going purple with bite marks as she tries to stop her crying—
“Rayla? Rayla!” She heard Callum calling her. Oh, Callum. The sweet boy whose father was killed by her mentor. The same she was crying about right now. She caught his green eyes looking worriedly at her, but he didn’t say anything. The next minute, she felt blankets shifting and his body against her back, arms around her waist, his breath on her neck, his hands caressing her own. “Breathe, Rayla.” He whispered.
She felt safe in his arms. He kept repeating the same words, and after minutes that felt like hours, she managed to calm down. He hugged her tighter. She turned around, but not facing him, instead burying her head in his chest, careful to not hurt him with her horns.
His hands traveled to her hair, gently stroking them. “My mom used to do this, when I had nightmares. I thought you would like it too..” He started. Rayla backed away a little.
“I wasn’t having a nightmare.”
“So what it was?” Now he touched her cheek, tracing her marks with his finger. She flinched.
“Please.” He begged.
“I can’t.” She finally managed to say, loud and harsh, but that didn’t stop him.
“I want to help you.”
“You can’t help me.” She shoved him away and stood up, sitting with her back turned to him. She couldn’t face him. How was she supposed to have this conversation?
He touched her shoulder. He wasn’t giving up that easy. “Why can’t I?”
She took a deep breath. “Runaan died, Callum. My leader, my mentor, dead because of me. Hell, he was like a father to me. And now he’s.... he is..”
He hugged her again and layed his head on her shoulder. “He probably killed the King. Harrow. Your father.” She whispered.
“That’s why you didn’t want to tell me?” He asked, but he already knew the answer. “Well, I don’t care about that right now. I only care about you. And that you’re in pain.”
She didn’t say anything. He took the opportunity to get closer, now he was in front of her. He wanted to hear her. She was starting to understand that now. “He was more than my mentor. After my parents left, he took care of me, raised me, trained me. And then, the mission...” She took a deep breath. She looked at him, but he only smiled, encouraging her. “It was my chance. To prove to everyone that I wasn’t a failure, to make Runaan proud. But I screwed up. Now, he’s dead, because of me.”
“It’s not your fault, Rayla.” Callum replied.
“Yes, it is. Y-you know, when I refused to kill that guard that discovered us and Runaan found out, he told me... That I’ve killed them all.” She took a deep breath. “He was right. Now they’re all dead.”
“It’s still not your fault, you made the right thing, because now we’re taking Zym home.” The boy insisted. “And, you gave him a choice. He made his decision.”
“But I could have insisted more!” She felt the damn tears again. “He was the only one I had! Now he’s gone.” Callum didn’t say anything for a while. And then, he finally spoke.
“What about me?” He said, a little louder, startling the elf.
(it was dark but... were his cheeks pink?)
There was this unspoken question between them, hanging in the air. They were one month away from The Storm Spire, the home of the Dragon Queen. Callum would go straight home, where his brother was. And Rayla? What would be of her?
“What do you mean?” Rayla asked, afraid of his answer.
“You don’t think that after we return Zym, we will just go separate ways?” He answered, confident, but then his shyness returned. “I m-mean, Ezran would be thrilled to see you again..”
“Would you really want to be with me? An elf, in Katolis? Besides, we don’t even know what’s gonna happen after Zym’s mom. What if I’m not forgiven? Or if they separate us? And..” Callum interrupted her, putting his finger in her lips.
(usually, she’s the one who does the gesture.)
(she hopes he can’t see her purple cheeks)
“I don’t want to be apart from you!” He blurted, and then removed his fingers from her lips, looking at the ground. “We’re friends. I-i mean, I know friends sometimes go separate ways but... can we be the type that... sticks together?”
To say that she was shocked was an understatement. For a moment, she forgot how to breathe. He now looked at her, waiting for her answer.
“I’ll just lose you. Like with everyone else.” She answered, her head dropping.
“You won’t.” Callum lifted her chin.
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because I’ve lost people too. And I’ll fight for you, to keep you with me. ” Again, he evoked some misterious confidence inside him. “I-i mean, only if you want me to.” His words bubbled something inside her, something good. She threw her arms around him, and they both fell on their sleeping bags, chuckling. They snuggled together for a while, enjoying each other’s warm bodies. They both felt relief, knowing that somehow, they shared a future together.
And then, Rayla realized something. Her heart beat faster, her eyes went wide and cheeks heated. She buried her head in his neck, mumbling a ‘sorry’ when her horns poked his cheek. The feeling of wanting to be closer to him; thinking of him as someone as close as family; the way she felt safe, warm in his arms; she liked most of his puns, even if they were bad, and all of his goofiness; the joy she felt when he said he wanted to be with her; and even a few weeks ago in Katolis, when he passed out after using dark magic, the way she worried about him (and what she would say before he woke up).
She was no fool, she knew what those feelings meant. Dumb Rayla, she thought, falling for a human. What would Runaan say?
“Hey, Rayla?” Callum called. “Are you better?”
She thought for a second. She distracted herself realizing her feelings for him. “A little bit. I still feel sad when I think about him.”
“It’ll be hard. For a few days. But, you can always talk to me, okay?” He was still worried about her grief. No one, except for Runaan and Ethari, cared for her like that. Even if he didn’t returned her feelings, even if he liked her as just a friend, she considered herself lucky.
Lucky to have found someone like him.
(did she even deserve it?)
“Thank you.” She whispered.
She felt her eyes getting heavier, exhaustion took over her body. And finally, Rayla slept.
The next morning, Callum woke up first. He felt something heavy in his arms, and when he opened his eyes, his mind went blank, only focusing in the sight in front of him.
Rayla laid her head in his shoulder, her white hair splayed across his chest, her arms enveloping his torso, and he could see a small smile in her face, like she was having a good dream, her nose a little bit red from all the crying the night before. His left hand rests in her waist, and when he tries to move his right arm, he feels Zym against it.
The sun is rising outside the cave, and its rays crepting inside, making Rayla look etheral, more beautiful than she already is.
(he wonders how would she look like in moonlight.)
He thinks about his words, from last night. It was true - he couldn’t imagine himself without her. Without her smile, her sassiness, her jokes. Her infinite kindness and bravery, and even how daring she is. The way she cares for him, how she is so patient with him. He likes to hold her hand, and imagines them walking throught Katolis, holding her hand. She is incredibly intelligent too - how could he live without this?
Rayla shifted in his arms, but didn’t wake up. He wants the next mornings to be just like this, wake up next to her, hold and be held by her. And then, she would open her eyes, he would see her violet eyes again, and—
His mind went quiet, his heart hammered in his chest.
He thought about everything again. Thought about their journey, since the beggining. About Rayla, again. He thought deeply about the last two months, all of his interactions and feelings for her. Especially last night, how desperate he felt when he saw her crying and pushing him away. How his heart melted when she threw her arms around him.
(he was sure butterflies were having a party in his stomach.)
This wasn’t a crush. He had a crush on Claudia, but whatever he feels for Rayla, is stronger, deeper.
She was starting to stir. He decided to think about it more later, but concluded one thing: He fell, and was still falling, for her. He smiled at the thought. He liked feeling this way, and hoped it would never stop.
(he had a feeling it wouldn’t.)
(even if she probably doesn’t feel that way.)
(how wrong he was.)