Chapter 1: The Horn
The full moon hung low over the tree line, casting the castle and the surrounding grounds in a silvery veil. Crashing through the trees, three figures ran as quickly as they could, as far as they could, from the fortress.
A terrible deed had transpired not moments before, and the cries of anguish and grief had only just begun, but the three of them didn't seem to hear, only focused on their sole task of escaping. Leading the trio was a teenage girl, the ridged purple horns and pointed ears betraying her heritage as a Moonshadow elf, a rare sight in Katolis and a dangerous person to be at present. Trailing behind her were two boys - the older was green-eyed and brown haired with pale skin, the younger with freckled brown skin and a poof of dark hair in tight ringlets, staring up at his brother with wide, worried blue eyes. He clutched an enormous irridescent egg to his chest, and paused, turning for the faintest second back towards the castle from which they were fleeing.
"C'mon, Ez, we have to get out of here," said the older boy, pausing to check on the boy holding the egg. To an outside observer, it would seem strange - the two princes, Callum and Ezran, fleeing their home in the company of a moonshadow elf, one of the six assassins that had been sent to slay their father.
Neither of them knew that, though. Only that the elf leading them through the dark was going to see that the egg - the egg of the dragon prince - was returned home.
The trio pressed on as the fingers of dawn clutched greedily at the horizon, the moon dipping lower into the sky. Ezran, the younger prince (and heir to the throne due to being the trueborn son of the king, unlike his half-brother), tried to suppress a yawn, but it was clear that the night's events were taking their toll on the boy, who was just barely ten.
The day had begun with Callum and Ezran being told they were to be sent to the Banther Lodge, out of harm's way, and in the interim they had discovered a terrible secret. The kingdom’s high mage had stolen the egg of the Dragon Prince, which was believed to have been destroyed when Viren and King Harrow had slain the king of the dragons a few months prior. In that instant it had become clear to all three children that they had to see the egg home to Xadia, otherwise there would be a terrible war.
Now, with morning imminent, the excitement was beginning to catch up with Ezran, and with Callum too if the darkening circles under his eyes were anything to go by.
The elf, Rayla, glanced behind her to see the two boys slowing in pace. As a moonshadow elf, the full moon had invigorated her, and she was in no mood to stop, worried that the guards would catch up to them.
Or worse, that her team would catch up to them.
"Hurry up, you two," she huffed, slowing her pace somewhat. "If we make it over that ridge before sunrise we'll be able to make camp and sleep."
Callum suppressed a yawn, rubbing his eyes. "Okay, okay," he said, impatient. His day had been full of excitement and danger, too. In addition to finding the egg, he'd been chased by Rayla (who fully intended to murder him at the time), chained up one of his best friends, cast a spell (he was a mage!) and had his voice stolen by someone he thought he could trust.
It had been a frightening and upsetting day, to say the least. And that was adding in the fact that he wasn't entirely certain that his step-father, the king, had made it out alive.
He turned, one final glance at his home, and then squinted. "What is that?"
Illuminated in eldritch light, something was rocketing towards them, small and fast. Rayla squinted up in the direction he had looked, and her eyes widened in fear. "We need to run."
She didn't have to ask twice. The two boys kept up as best they could, crashing through the undergrowth as she lightly sprang from tree to tree. The missile was getting closer, streaking tendrils of black-purple smoke like the tail of a comet.
“What is it?!” shouted Ezran, his question punctuated by a distressed groan from the glow-toad in his backpack.
“I don’t know!” replied Rayla. “But I don’t want to find out!”
The thing was directly above them now, keeping pace with the three of them. It hung in the air for the briefest moment, then hurtled towards them.
Callum screamed as the thing flew dangerously close to his head. He spun out of the way, tumbling to the ground, the contents of his bag spilling onto the forest floor. He eyed the glowing blue stone, getting an idea.
Rayla leapt into action, a furious whirl of blades. The thing zipped around her, clearly trying to avoid her. But her reflexes were well-honed and quick, and with viper-like speed she lashed out and seized the thing that was assailing them. “Gotcha, you creepy magic thing!”
It strained in her hand, clearly trying to reach something else. Someone else. The thing was pulling towards Callum.
“What is that thing?!” called Ezran again, protectively clutching the egg and holding it slightly away from the palm sized object. The elf glanced down at it, and shrieked, letting it go.
It sped off towards the sky, and she dropped to her butt. The two princes stared at her in concern and fear. She knew what that color, that shape, those faint bark-like texture lines were.
“I-it was a horn. A moonshadow elf’s horn.”
The boys recoiled, and then Callum frowned, looking back towards the castle. “Viren’s trying to find us. When it comes back, I’ll try to blow it away with Aspiro, and then we’ll run.”
The other two nodded, and Rayla sank into a defensive stance. He held the primal stone in his hand, felt the tingling crackle of electricity pulse into his arm, and drew the glowing blue-white rune before himself. It would only be his second time casting it, so he hoped very firmly that the first time wasn't a fluke.
The horn wheeled around in the sky, and sped back towards them. “Here it comes!” called Rayla.
It sped past them faster than Callum could react, and zoomed around Rayla, disorienting her as she slashed at the air. Callum couldn’t see it any longer, but all the same he inhaled, and cried the spell’s activation word.
The horn had found its target, and hit him full force in the side of the head. He toppled to the ground, clutching his head and hissing in pain.
“Callum!” cried Ezran, rushing to his brother’s side. “Oh no, are you hurt?”
“Where’s the horn?” demanded Rayla, distressed as to where the dark mage had acquired a moonshadow elf’s horn. She had an idea, but she did not like it, and was determined to do justice to whichever of her fallen teammates had been used in such a disgusting way. She frantically searched in the grass and underbrush for it, grateful for the full light of the moon.
Callum sat up slowly, wincing. “I don’t see it,” he said, rubbing his head and trying to dull the sharp knock his skull had taken from the arcane bullet. Ezran and Bait looked around as well, Ez using Bait's dim glow as a flashlight, but the horn was nowhere to be found.
“Maybe it got used up when it hit me,” offered Callum, voice serious. The faintest ghost of sorrow flickered through Rayla’s eyes, but she wasn’t about to let these humans see her weakness.
Instead, Rayla swallowed her hurt and decided to focus on ensuring that these boys didn’t get killed before they ever reached the dragon queen. It would be simple to take the egg and run, she had no doubt that she could subdue both boys and outpace them, getting far away from Katolis before either of them could even react properly. She was better at hiding, better at fighting, and was actually allowed in Xadia. But it wouldn’t matter - the human princes had to deliver the egg for their scheme of peace to work. “Alright, show me where it hit you,” she demanded.
Callum rubbed the side of his head a little, trying to deaden the sting, and then tilted his head towards Rayla, showing her the impact site. She squinted into the mop of brown, looking for blood or anything that would indicate what had happened to the horn of her fallen comrade, but there was nothing.
And then, there was.
Before her astonished eyes, a spot of white bloomed in his hair, the color leaching away from the roots like water poured down a drain. It spread quickly at first, until the white patch of hair was roughly the size of a large coin.
Rayla turned to Ezran, who had been watching over her shoulder, and the two shared a wide-eyed, aghast glance before looking back to him. Seeing the concerned look on their faces, Callum’s eyes darted back and forth between the two. “What?” he asked, voice low with worry. “What is it?”
“I don’t know,” said Rayla, quietly.
“Your hair’s turning white, Callum,” answered Ezran, kneeling beside his brother. “Where the thing hit you, you’ve got a patch of white hair.”
“Why would your dark mage attack you?” asked Rayla, putting her swords away and eyeing Callum with caution.
Callum frowned as his eyes darted around in thought, trying to figure out what on earth the intention of the spell was or why Viren would have sent it. “I…” Callum rubbed his throat. “He didn’t want me to tell King Harrow about the egg. Maybe this is about that.”
“By… changing your hair color?” questioned Ez, raising a skeptical eyebrow. Bait grunted in agreement. It was a strange plan.
Callum threw up his hands and stood. “I don’t know enough about magic or what Viren’s up to. Your guess is as good as mine.
"Alright." Rayla stood as well. "Let's just get moving. Xadia's a long way away." The boys were obviously tired, but now that she was aware that the kingdom's high mage had it out for them, she didn't feel safe stopping for a rest out in the open. "There's a safe spot we can camp just ahead."
The three of them trudged further into the forest, the bright moon overhead.
Chapter 2: The Body
Viren's puts his plan into motion
Viren cast a furtive glance down the hall, to the left and to the right. Bodies were strewn across the floor, human and elf alike, the scene of the previous night's carnage.
He knew there were more inside the King's chamber. Including the body of the King himself, which the physician was desperately trying to resuscitate at Viren's behest. "I can save the king," he had said to the doctor, "and bring his soul back to the world of the living. But he needs to be breathing first." And only moments before, Soren and Claudia had led the one surviving elf to the dungeons, Claudia passing off the broken end of his horn to her father.
But Viren had already made good use of that appendage. The elves had no idea how much magic they carried within themselves, and how much they were wasting it.
He was alone now. Good. He looked down to the dead elf at his feet. The creature was a bit too tall for his needs, but he only needed the right person to see. Viren pulled a small empty vial from his robes, and clicked open his staff. He then knelt, and scooped up a small portion of the still-warm blood that lay pooling around the dead assassin.
He crushed the vial in his hand, and lunar magic flowed from the vial, through him, and into his staff. Raw power, ready to be channeled how he saw fit.
" Ecnirp eht ekil tsuj kool uoy. " The words flowed from his mouth, distorted and dark, the magic dripping down the staff as he tapped it to the fallen elf's forehead. The black tendrils wrapped themselves around the elf, and then sank into the body, leaving behind a perfect illusion. Brown hair, red scarf, five fingers, wide green eyes milking over with the pall of death, an ugly, gaping slash across the chest. Perfect.
The next part was harder. And really, it would pain him immensely to do such a thing to his friend - well, former friend. King. His ruler, as he'd been so rudely reminded a few hours prior. But any loyalty or love he felt for Harrow had withered rather abruptly. It was a cruel plan, yes, but that egg had to be recovered at all costs. And really, if Viren were smart he wouldn't bother with the next part. An empty throne was an opportunity. But first, he had to ensure the throne would stay empty, and... well. It wasn't an elegant plan, but why fight Opeli or Amaya or any of the other fools on the council for the title of regent when it would be MUCH easier to get a still-living Harrow to name him thusly?
He turned to the door, and schooled his expression into a mask of sorrow, before picking up the basket containing the two-headed soulfang serpent. The door opened, and the physician seemed surprised to see him there.
"Oh! Lord Viren, I was just about to fetch you - King Harrow is barely clinging to life, but I was successful in coaxing his heart to beat once more. "
"Katolis will thank you for this miracle," said Viren, somber. He was then greeted by the king's pet, a green hawk named Pip, buffeting his head and face with its wings and screeching angrily.
"Calm down, just a minute," snapped Viren at the bird, waving it away. He looked up to the doctor. "Um, Doctor... if you don't mind. There's another tragic death in the hallway. Perhaps it would be... wise, to move him somewhere a bit more appropriate than the floor outside the King's chambers."
The doctor peeked into the hallway, and stepped back, removing his glasses to run a hand down his face in sorrow. "Oh dear, the poor boy. I don't think I can revive him."
"I did not expect you to," said Viren, closing his eyes and looking down. "Please, leave me now with the King. I have to revive him, and then... break the news to him."
"Of course. I’ll clean up the boy and dress him for burial." The physician turned and locked the door.
Pip had flown to Harrow's body, which was raggedly breathing, but warm and living. The bird shrieked at him once more, staring at him with an accusing eye.
"Oh, don't be like that," said Viren, voice tired. "So you had to spend a few hours as a bird. At least you lived!"
The hawk screeched indignantly again, and danced in an angry circle on the king’s pillow. Viren sighed, and warily lifted the serpent from the basket, holding the writhing snake firmly behind each head. The last thing he wanted to was to be bitten by the thing.
He held the serpent carefully, directing one head at the bird, and one at the king. The soulfang's eyes flashed green, and they sank their teeth into hawk and man at the same time. A brief second, a heartbeat's worth of time passed, and then Harrow gasped and opened his eyes.
Pip went limp, lifeless.
Harrow coughed violently, doubling over in pain as he clutched the wound in his side. His breath rattled around his injured lung - successfully stitched up by the doctor, but still badly in need of time to heal. Viren rushed to his side, trying to force him to lay down once more.
"Go away , Viren" the king wheezed.
"I'm afraid I can't do that just yet."
Harrow narrowed his eyes. "Why not?"
"There's... been a terrible tragedy. Prince Callum--"
Harrow tried to sit up once more, anger instantly melting to worry. "Callum? I... I heard him call out before the elves came, what happened?"
Viren let his shoulders sag, the perfect picture of grief. "He... came to speak with you before he and Ezran were to depart for the Banther Lodge. I tried to usher him away, but before I could do anything further, the elves attacked." He drew in a breath, pausing for effect. "Prince Callum… didn’t escape in time."
"No..." Harrow's face crumpled.
"And what's worse, I fear that Prince Ezran has been abducted by two of the assassins. They were last seen heading East."
Harrow lay back on the pillow, his eyes filling with tears. "My boys..." he said softly, voice hollow.
"My king," began Viren, kneeling at Harrow's bedside. "I swear to you, I will gather the finest forces in Katolis to find Ezran and avenge Callum. We will stop at--"
Harrow held up a hand, his breath hitching as he suppressed his grief. "Viren. Let a father mourn his sons in peace."
"I... of course, your majesty." Viren bowed, and retreated from the room as Harrow finally choked out a sob. Well out of Harrow's line of sight, he smiled wickedly to himself. Perfect.
Chapter 3: The Letter
Things go awry at the Banther Lodge
“See? No winter, no humans.”
The three children were crouched in the bushes just beyond the Banther Lodge. The trio had decided that they would make a pit stop at the Banther Lodge both so that Callum could check himself in a mirror for injuries and so that Rayla could sneak into the game room and fetch a magic artifact that Callum remembered after she had explained the six primal sources to him.
It was not a plan she liked, but she had agreed that there were merits to ensuring Callum didn’t have any wounds that would get infected, and giving him a way to learn more magic would bolster their defenses.
Plus, he’d sounded so sad, she didn’t really have the heart to say no.
A horn called from the distance, and a troop of humans could be seen marching towards the Banther Lodge, just over the horizon. Rayla glared angrily at Callum. “You said no winter, no humans!”
“I don’t know what they’re doing here!” he said, panicking.
“Aren’t we supposed to be at the Banther Lodge anyway?” said Ezran, sliding the egg into his backpack. “We can distract them while Rayla sneaks inside.”
“What if it’s Viren?” protested Callum.
“Those don’t look like Viren’s banners, they look like Aunt Amaya’s.”
“The Standing Battalion?” Callum stood, and squinted, getting a better look at the oncoming squadron. He sank back down, crouching to stay out of sight. “Okay, so if it is Aunt Amaya, how do we know we can trust her?”
“Aunt Amaya wouldn’t hurt us, Callum, and she wouldn’t steal an egg. We should tell her.”
“What? No, that’s a terrible idea,” protested Callum.
“Ugh, they’re getting closer!” snapped Rayla. “You two stall, I’m gonna go inside and get your stupid cube thingy.” Without giving them the chance to respond, she leapt into the trees and through an open window on the upper story.
Callum and Ez exchanged glances, and then darted out of the woods, standing in front of the lodge. The platoon crested the final hill and crossed the bridge, coming to a halt just short of where the boys were. A stern woman in heavy armor - their Aunt, the General Amaya - dismounted from the front of the formation, and then ran to the boys, wrapping them in a tight hug. She then withdrew, and began rapidly signing to them. Her interpreter, a red-haired man named Gren, strode up behind her.
“Boys, I’m so glad to see you,” she signed. “But… what happened to your hair?”
“Uhhhhh…” said the boys, simultaneously, as Callum reached up to his hair to pull the lock hanging between his eyes down where he could see it. The white patch had been spreading throughout the day, and his hair was more white than brown at this point.
“Magical mishap!” said Callum, coming up with a quick lie. “Claudia said she had this thing she wanted to show me, and it kinda blew up aaaand now my hair’s white. Sorta.” He finished with what he hoped was a convincing smile.
(It was not.)
Amaya and Gren exchanged a skeptical look, before Amaya turned back to the boys. “Bold choice. Looks good.” Though she spoke with her hands, the playful snarky undertone to her words shone through. “Let’s get you inside and settled in.”
“Wait!” cried Ezran, remembering that they were supposed to be stalling to give Rayla time before the army of elf-hating humans entered the building. The soldiers stopped, and turned to look at the young boy. “Uhh… we… haven’t had breakfast?”
Amaya looked at the two sternly, and then sharply signed with grave seriousness. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
A bit later, as battalion soldiers hung the doors back on their hinges, Amaya, Gren, Callum and Ezran sat in the kitchen making a valiant effort to eat the rock-solid stale bread she had found in the cupboards. The general peered at her nephews, and tapped Gren on the side to indicate Callum. Her commander looked, and gave her an unsure glance in return.
The white was visibly spreading to the remaining spot of brown in Callum’s hair.
“ Should we tell him?” asked Gren, in furtive small gestures.
“ He already lied about it once. Something’s going on that they’re not telling us about. ” She glanced to the door behind them. “ There’s someone else here.”
A loud crash, followed by a shout of “she’s headed for the kitchens!” caused Gren to jump to attention, translating the cries for Amaya. She too leapt to her feet and lunged for her shield, ready to join her men in the fray, until a small figure crashed through the kitchen door and barreled straight into the General. Reacting on instinct, Amaya immediately wrapped the white-haired person in a bearhug and lifted her assailant off the ground.
“Let me go!” shouted an angry female voice, in an unmistakable Moonshadow burr.
Two soldiers burst into the room trailing behind her, and Rayla thrashed like a cat in a sack as Amaya held her firmly in her grip
“General,” panted one of the soldiers, “we found an elf prowling around upstairs in the study.”
The two of them shrank under the withering gaze of the general, the “no, really?” obvious in her glare as she repositioned her grip so the elf wouldn’t gouge her in the face with those horns.
The altercation was suddenly cut short by a pained yelp from Callum. The older prince doubled over, clutching the side of his head as the final lock of brown drained of all color. He cried out, and then hissed between his teeth, in obvious pain.
“Callum, what’s wrong?” said Ez, rushing to his brother’s side.
“Hurts,” wheezed the older brother, clutching his head and tears pooling in the corners of his eyes as he grimaced. “Where the thing-- ow, OW!” He doubled over, hissing in pain.
The fight immediately drained out of both Rayla and Amaya, and Rayla used the distraction to slip out of Amaya’s grapple and retreat to the corner of the room, attentive but worried. “Keep an eye on her,” Amaya signed, and rushed to her nephew’s side with Gren.
Callum struggled a little as Amaya tried to pry his hands away from his head. But though he resisted, he was no match for her. “Callum, you need to let me look at what’s hurting you,” pleaded Gren, clearing the table and giving the boy a place to lay down.
“It’s okay, Callum.” Ezran placed a reassuring hand on Callum’s arm, who had begun to hyperventilate. “Aunt Amaya is family, we can trust her.”
Amaya made a surprised face at this, and looked to Callum, then to Ezran. She then placed one hand on Callum’s chest, and gripped one of his own hands to place it on her own side, between the plates of armor, where he could feel her chest expand as she inhaled. She breathed in and out, something Sarai had taught her when her sister had felt on edge. His panicked breathing slowed to a more regular pace, but he still remained tense and grimaced in pain. His green eyes darted from Amaya’s face to Gren’s, then to Ezran’s. The younger prince nodded, almost imperceptibly. The both of them looked over at the elf, who huffed and shrugged. Finally, Callum closed his eyes, relenting to some unspoken exchange between them.
“There’s something we need to tell you, Aunt Amaya.” Ezran sat down across from her, making sure to look her square in the face. “Claudia didn’t do this to Callum. Viren did.”
His aunt went rigid with alarm. “Viren? What did he do? Why? ”
“We don’t know for sure, but we think it’s because we found something he hid in the dungeons. Callum tried to tell Dad, but Viren stopped him. And then last night, as we were running away from the castle, he sent something weird after us, which did this to Callum.”
Amaya sat silently for a minute, processing all of this. She had never liked Viren, and her distaste for the man had festered into thinly-concealed hatred after the death of her sister. That Viren would attack Sarai’s son infuriated her, but she shelved her hate to focus on a different piece of Ezran’s explanation. “What did you find? ”
Ez glanced to Callum, who nodded, best as he could. Gren was methodically looking through his hair for injuries so his movement was limited.
“I’m sorry we didn’t tell you right away, but we weren’t sure who to trust, after Viren did... “ Callum gestured vaguely at his head. “This.”
“Boys, I would never hurt you. What’s so important that you didn’t trust me? ”
Ezran dragged his backpack out from under the table, and opened it, revealing the shining egg. Amaya and Gren gasped. “It’s the egg of the Dragon Prince.”
“I thought that Viren and Harrow smashed it when they slew Thunder,” said Gren, reverent and quiet.
“No. Viren stole it. He wanted to use it as a weapon.” Ez drew the strings of his backpack around the egg once more, cradling it gently in his bag. “But it’s not a weapon, it’s a baby. He misses his mother.” Ez held it protectively and pouted, daring them to take it from him with his gaze.
“That’s why we ran away from the Castle,” said Callum, a bit unsure. “We want to take the Dragon Prince back to Xadia and end the war.” He glanced over to Rayla, who was being flanked by two soldiers and looked miserable. “We also sort of recruited a Moonshadow elf? So please be nicer to Rayla, she’s here because I asked her to come here.”
Before the general could react to… everything completely insane and upside down that has just come out of her nephews’ mouths, a third soldier entered the room, holding a message bearing the royal seal. “General, urgent news from the castle!” All eyes in the room swung to him, and he hunched down. “Bad time?”
Impatiently, Amaya held out her hand for the missive. She read the letter, frowning, and then stopped. She brought the letter closer to her face to make sure she had read it correctly, and then looked down at Callum in confusion, then to Rayla. The wheels were visibly turning behind her eyes, and then she handed the letter to Gren, already considering her next move.
Gren read the letter aloud for the room.
“ General Amaya,
I hope this letter finds you well, and swiftly. I imagine that you and the Standing Battalion are on your way to the Banther Lodge as we speak, if not already there. I felt it urgent to notify you, however, of last night’s events.
Miraculously, King Harrow survived the attempt on his life made by Xadian assailants. He is recovering from his wounds, and it will be some time before he is on his feet once more, but by the grace of the gods, Harrow lives.
However, I’m afraid this happy news comes at a tragic cost. On their way to the King’s chambers, the assassins slew Prince Callum, and abducted Prince Ezran. Preparations are underway to send a search team, led by my own children Claudia and Soren, in pursuit of the crown prince and the two vile moonshadow elves that kidnapped him.
I do hope that you will proceed swiftly to the castle for your nephew’s funeral. From what I can tell, he defended himself bravely.
Viren, High Mage of Katolis”
Silence hung heavy in the letter's wake, everyone in the room agog at what they'd just heard.
Canon, what canon?
Been wanting to do an "Amaya knows whats up" AU for a while. Tune in next chapter to find out what she intends to do and how everyone reacts to Viren's letter :)
Chapter 4: The Wound
In the aftermath of Viren's letter, the pain in Callum's temple becomes a bigger problem.
Trigger warning for some blood and medical anxiety stuff!
The oppressive, stunned silence Viren’s letter had left in its wake hung in the room for a moment, before Callum broke it. “I’m not dead ,” he protested. “I’m right here!”
“Rayla didn’t kidnap me!” came Ez’s refutation, next. “We went with her because we’re going to take the dragon prince back to his mother and stop the war!”
“That’s not what happened last night at all,” said Rayla quietly, looking down at her wrist.
“Quiet, elf,” came Amaya’s command. The general paced, frowning as she put the puzzle together. She stopped first at Callum. “Prove you’re Callum and not a second elf disguised as him.”
Callum’s eyebrows knit together in hurt surprise, but then he brightened. He sat up, wincing slightly, and pulled out his sketchbook, and drew, from memory, a scene of the time he, his mother and his aunt, before Sarai married the king, had spent a day indoors teaching Callum to sign. He had made one of the signs incorrectly, prompting a laugh from the two sisters. It was a private moment, and the mundane sort of thing that a spy wouldn’t bother to learn about. Besides, the artistic talent and picture-accurate memory were hard to fake.
“I’m sorry for doubting you,” said Amaya. She then turned to Rayla. “I want your full account of what you think happened last night. No lies or tricks.”
Rayla scowled. “I was sent with five others to avenge Avizandum and the Dragon Prince. Two lives for two lives.” She took a breath, angry and frazzled. Some secretive Moonshadow assassin she was, singing like a canary to the human general because she was afraid, not just for herself but for the life of some dumb prince she’d just met. “I wanted to prove myself, so I snuck into the castle separate from my squadron, and found Prince Callum. After chasing him, we ran into Prince Ezran, and the chase took us into some creepy secret dark magic dungeon. That’s where we found the egg, so I abandoned my mission and betrayed my team.” My family, thought Rayla sadly, of the wounded, disappointed look in Runaan’s eyes, and of how disappointed and heartbroken Ethari would be in her if she returned to the Silvergrove alone.
“Why?” asked the General.
“Because it isn’t right, killing Prince Ezran for a crime Katolis didn’t commit. This mission was meant to be an act of retribution for killing the Dragon King and the Dragon Prince. But if the Dragon Prince is alive…” she looked down, and then back at Amaya, fiery determination in her eyes. “It isn’t right.”
“And King Harrow?”
“It was justice.” Rayla frowned, hesitating. Was it wise tell these humans the truth? These were odd circumstances, though, and the human general seemed a reasonable woman, especially when it came to her family’s safety. “And that’s the thing. Harrow DID die last night.” She held up her hands and pointed at her white-wrapped wrist. “We bind ourselves to killing our targets, and the binding grows tighter and tighter until either the mission succeeds or my hand falls off. This one’s for Ezran’s life. The binding for King Harrow fell off before Viren attacked, meaning his life had ended.”
Callum turned to her sharply, anger flashing in his eyes. “Our dad died and you didn’t tell us?!”
“Well he’s alive now, apparently, so hooray for you! My team is probably dead, your dark mage is snapping their horns off to do creepy hair-bleaching magic on the royal family, I’m gonna lose my hand, and turns out it was all entirely pointless anyway because King Harrow’s a zombie or something. Yay!” Rayla finished her tirade with a sarcastic hand wave, and then glared at the assembled humans.
Awkward silence lingered. If everything the elf said was true, and everything the princes said was true, it meant something very wrong was going on back in the Castle, and Viren was absolutely up to no good. On top of that, Rayla’s insinuation that the King had been revivified by dark magic made Amaya’s skin crawl with disgust - not just because she was offended an elf would say something so crass about her king and her brother-in-law, but that the elf might be right. Once glance to her nephews made it clear they too felt the same discomfort over the notion.
The heavy silence was broken by another pained cry from Callum, who once again hunched over, cradling the left side of his head with both hands.
Gren immediately returned to his ministrations on the prince, speaking softly to the boy to get him to move his hands so he could look. After some gentle persuading, he coaxed Callum into moving his hands so he could peer beneath the now-completely-white locks and determine what was hurting him so.
The commander frowned, his eyebrows drawing together in confusion. He waved Amaya over, who signed to her men to leave and lock the door so the elf didn’t escape, before she approached the table and peered at what Gren had discovered.
Blooming on the side of Callum’s head was a lump.
His skin seemed stretched over the bump, angry and irritated and bright red, although the center was white. As she squinted, the bump appeared to increase in size, stretching the skin tighter and tighter. Ez peeked around her, and gasped at the sight.
“What?” Callum asked, trying not to panic or scream from the pain. “What is it?”
“You have a bump where the horn hit you,” said Ez, quietly, as he moved around Amaya to Callum’s side, taking his brother’s hand. “It looks like it hurts.”
“I’ll… I’ll be fine,” Callum said, putting on a brave face for his brother before grimacing.
“You don’t look fine…” said Ez, placing Bait on the table, who flashed blue before curling under Callum’s outstretched arm. “See? Bait’s worried, too.”
“Prince Callum,” interrupted Gren, “if you don’t mind I’m going to press on this bump and see if I can determine what’s, um… making it get bigger.”
Worry flashed through Callum’s eyes. “Something’s growing?” He then choked back another yell as Gren poked the increasingly large bump.
“Yes, and it’s something hard,” answered the Commander, looking at Amaya with confused concern. She regarded Callum too, frowning puzzledly, before Rayla spoke up.
“Is it alright if I take a look?” she asked. “I have an idea what it might be, but I
hope I’m wrong.”
Amaya nodded, and Rayla stepped forward, looking at the bump. She sighed, angry and sad.
“So what is it? The world’s worst zit?” joked Callum, trying to lighten the mood.
“It’s a horn.”
The humans in the room had barely any time to react before another pained scream forced its way out of Callum’s throat. This scream was rawer than before, and his gasps of pain were high and panicked, like a wounded animal. Blood trickled down the side of his head as his skin began to split open, the bone-white tip of the appendage emerging. Rayla stepped back, not looking in Callum’s direction. She felt sorry for the human boy, but she was also furious, because suddenly Viren’s missive made sense, and he’d used the horn of her teammate to craft the horrible spell.
Ezran approached her and looked up at her with worry. “Rayla, what’s wrong with Callum? How do we help him?” When she looked away from him with a scowl, he placed his hand on her arm. “Please, Rayla, we don’t know what’s going on. If Callum’s growing a horn, what can we do to make it hurt him less?”
Something about the younger prince’s plea, the lack of hate in his voice, melted Rayla’s defenses a little. True, the humans had done this and had murdered her team, but death was a potential hazard of their line of work. And Callum hadn’t done anything to deserve such cruelty. “Get some cold water and a rag, and dab it to his skin to soothe it. Since it’s growing so fast, it’ll probably help if you cut the skin around it open so it doesn’t tear.”
Amaya nodded to Gren, who immediately set about gathering a rag and some cold water from the sink. For her part, the General drew a dagger and stepped around so she could sign to Callum. He looked at her blearily, wheezing from pain, as she said “We’re going to cut the skin so it doesn’t tear. It’s going to hurt. I’m sorry. ”
She then handed the knife to Gren, who had returned with the water and rag, and held her hand out to Callum, who took it, knowing that she was providing it to reassure him and also give him something to squeeze as Gren cut.
Gren gently palpated the unsplit skin, wondering about the hard ridges he felt beneath Callum’s scalp, and made a short incision on either side. Callum screamed in agony, clenching his aunt’s hand tightly. Afraid, Ezran curled into the nearest person with a suppressed whimper, which happened to be Rayla. She felt a soft bump against her ankle, and looked down to see Bait nudging her ankle, glowing blue with worry.
With a scared ten-year-old clinging to her side, Rayla knelt down and turned away with him, placing a four-fingered hand on his shoulder as she scooped up Bait with her other hand, letting the critter crawl into her lap. “Hey, it’s going to be okay,” she said softly, before giving him a sly smile. “Y’know how babies fuss when their teeth come in?” She waited for Ezran to nod, and continued. “Well, elf babies have that, AND they fuss up a storm when their horns come in, too. Takes ‘em weeks.”
“You’re not born with them?” Ezran asked, slightly distracted.
“Nah, it’d hurt the mums if we did,” she replied, shooting a glance over her shoulder to Callum, who was still panting from pain, but had at least stopped screaming. He looked fevered and out of it, and he slackened as his eyes closed. Amaya and Gren were leaning over him, peering at something long and grey-white jutting out from the side of his head. Gren dabbed gently cleaned the blood up and then dabbed Callum’s face with a clean rag. Ez followed her glance, and then turned back to her.
“Is he gonna be okay?”
A shadow of worry crossed Rayla’s face. “I hope so.”
Chapter 5: The Decision
Callum was shaking feverishly on the table as Gren dabbed the blood from his scalp and newly-sprouted horn. Ezran clinged to Rayla's legs, whimpering and peeking over her shoulder at his brother.
“Elf,” called Gren, beckoning Rayla over.
“Rayla,” she said, somewhat defiantly, handing Bait to Ezran, who buried his face in the slick, warm skin of his best friend.
“Rayla, of course,” answered Gren, his scowl softening a little. Amaya looked to Ezran, who signed Rayla’s name for Amaya (albeit clumsily). The general nodded, and addressed the elf girl directly.
“What do you make of this?”
Hesitantly, Rayla stepped over to Callum, and got a good look. A horn had indeed emerged from his temple, dark grey at the base and fading into white as it arced along the curvature of his head. Before Rayla’s eyes, the horn’s growth slowed, stopping just before the end of it passed the edge of the back of his head. It was a strange sight to her, that horn and white hair above a human’s rounded ear, and the shape of the horn was throwing her off, too. Her initial assumption was that it would be purple-grey and ridged like bark, like hers, but this horn was smooth, save for the three ridged points following the crest near the base.
All the same though, she sighed sadly and looked at the two adults. “Remember how the letter from that Viren guy said that two elves had kidnapped Prince Ezran?” The humans gave her an odd look, but nodded. They remembered. Rayla steeled herself and explained further. “One,” she said, pointing at herself. She then pointed to Callum. “Two. Last night, a moonshadow elf’s horn, corrupted with dark magic, attacked us and hit him right where that horn is growing now. Moon magic is about appearance, and... ” She trailed off and gestured to Callum. “I think your mage was trying to make Callum look like one of us.”
“Callum’s turning into an elf?!” exclaimed Ezran, trudging over to the table to peer at his brother. He looked up at his aunt for reassurance, but she only gaped in horrified confusion.
“Why?” was all Amaya could ask.
Rayla and Ezran exchanged glances, at a loss. Finally, it was Ezran who hazarded a guess. “Viren didn’t want anyone knowing that he stole the egg instead of smashing it. He knows Callum knows, and probably wants it so no one will believe him or trust him.” Suddenly, Ezran was furious. “It’s not right! Callum didn’t do anything to deserve this! All so that Viren can go on pretending he didn’t kidnap a baby to use as a spell ingredient?! And he’s lying to our Dad about Callum being dead too! That’s messed up !”
His voice quavered, and Gren bent down to comfort the boy. Ezran wiped an angry tear from his eye. “Dad’s probably so sad, thinking Callum is dead and I’m in danger, and we’re fine .”
Amaya had folded her arms across her chest, a deep frown etched into her features. There was nothing about this situation she liked.
As far as she could gather, one - elves had assassinated the king last night.
Two, her nephews had convinced one such assassin to forgo her mission and loyalties to instead help them cart a dragon egg back to Xadia.
Three, her completely crazy and very naive nephews thought they could travel alone across the continent with a dragon egg and that it would magically stop millennia of hatred and aggression.
Four, Viren had been very busy last night, resurrecting the king, disguising some poor soul to look like Callum’s dead body probably, and casting some kind of bizarre transformation on her nephew, her beloved sister’s first child. (And frankly, it wasn’t so much WHAT he was turning into that bothered her - magic or no, he’d still be her beloved nephew. It DID bother her, but she was willing to shelve her prejudice for family. No, It was the pain of it, and that Viren was very clearly trying to get her family killed, that offended her.)
Five, Viren had lied about Callum’s death to her, to Harrow, and to the entire Kingdom, and framed Callum and the elf girl for kidnapping royalty. She was deeply offended, too, that Viren would have the gall to lie, not only to her, but to the man who was supposedly his closest friend. His King.
Six, she was absolutely certain that if she did nothing else, she was going to find Viren and thoroughly kick his ass. Perhaps down some very steep stairs, that would be satisfying.
Amaya pushed the thoughts of satisfying ass-kickings aside and considered her options. She couldn’t drag Callum back into the royal court with white hair and a horn growing out of his head. Or, given the rapidity of the transformation, with pointed ears or anything else that would say "elf" instead of "Prince Callum". Especially not with Viren saying two elves had kidnapped Ezran. The whole of the Pentarchy would be looking for two white-haired elven teenagers, which meant the safest place for Callum would be in Xadia. In addition, the safest place for Ezran would be as far away from Viren as possible. Even with Harrow alive, he was recovering from a mortal wound and in no condition to corral the scheming mage. She sighed in resignation. Harrow was going to kill her.
She knelt before Ezran and looked him in the eye. “Ezran, do you trust the elf? ”
He looked to Rayla, and then to his Aunt Amaya, before replying. “ She could have killed me a bunch of times before now and she hasn’t, even though it's hurting her. I think she’s good. I trust her.”
Amaya considered Ezran’s assessment, considered her course of action, and then strode to the elf, Rayla, and loomed. “Listen to me, and listen well. I am permitting you three to go to Xadia on your suicide mission, and I am entrusting you with the lives of my nephews, my family. Keep them safe, and if you harm them I will find you. And if I have to come find you, losing a hand will be the least of your problems.”
Rayla nodded gravely. “I understand. I’ll protect them with my life.”
Amaya nodded, and cast a sad glance at Callum, who had finally begun to relax in his unconsciousness. “We’ll wait here until he awakens, and then we’ll march to the Capitol. I advise traveling through the mountain pass - there are fewer villages, and I’ll send word to a friend in Stonedale to provide shelter and supplies.”
Ezran looked up at his Aunt. “Are you going to tell Dad we’re okay?”
“I’ll try.” The general paced, thinking. “I’m also sending someone I trust with you.”
Rayla bristled. “We don’t need a larger party.”
At this, Amaya raised an eyebrow. “I trust Corvus more than I trust you.”
“It’s okay, Rayla, I’ve met Corvus before. He’s nice,” explained Ezran.
Amaya nodded, and jerked the door open to give her orders to the soldiers and fetch Corvus. "Stay out of sight," said the general. She then signed to Gren to help her carry Callum upstairs to a bed. With an agitated huff, Rayla sat down against the wall to wait.
The two of them laid Callum down gently on the bed he normally slept on at the Banther Lodge, and Gren stepped respectfully back as Amaya sat on the edge of the bed, finally allowing herself the softness and worry she'd put on hold to spill outward.
"King Harrow is going to be furious when he finds out," said Gren softly.
"I know," said Amaya, before brushing the white strands from Callum's sweat-slicked face and placing a hand on his forehead to check his temperature. He felt less flushed, good.
"What are you going to tell him? You can't just not show up to your nephew's funeral, even a sham one."
"I know," said Amaya, with an agitated huff. This kind of political chess bullshit is why she chose to be stationed at the Breach in the first place. Soldiers didn't play these kinds of mind games, or dress up their hatred in pretty words. Lying and pretending and hiding your true intentions just weren't her style.
She looked down at Callum, and the boy twitched in his sleep. "I'll figure something out."
Chapter 6: The Departure
Callum wakes up and they depart on their journey
Gosh! Lotsa speculation on that last chapter. Some close guesses but not telling you which or how close... that would be telling ;)
It was hours later when Callum awoke with a gasp. He’d been moved to a bed, and through the fog of sudden waking, he realized that his head felt strangely lopsided and heavy. He shook his head, and blinked, looking around to see Ezran and Amaya seated nearby with concerned expressions.
“Wha--?” he questioned, bleary. His thoughts weren’t cooperating, and he vaguely remembered passing out in agony as something forced its way out of the side of his head.
“Callum, you’re awake!” said Ezran, bright and hopeful as his concern for his brother turned into joy to see him up. Callum’s gaze drifted towards Amaya, who smiled sadly at him.
“Uh… did I miss something?” he queried, his hand drifting to the side of his head.
It was there that he felt something hard and smooth jutting out from just behind his temple. His breath hitched, and he felt down the length of it to where it ended just before the back of his head.
He suddenly remembered Viren’s lie-packed letter, about his tragic death and the two elven assassins that had kidnapped Ezran.
He was supposed to be the second assassin. Viren was using dark magic to turn him into an elf.
Callum drew in a ragged, frightened breath, and looked with wide eyes to his aunt.
“It’s okay, Callum,” signed his aunt. “I’m sending you and Ezran with your elf friend and Corvus to take the egg back to the Dragon Queen.” She smiled, and patted his leg. “It’s probably safer for you in Xadia right now, anyway, until I can beat the cure for this out of Viren.”
“Don’t worry, Callum, I’ll be with you the whole time,” said Ezran. Bait croaked, and waddled across the bed to headbutt Callum reassuringly. “Bait, too. You have us, and we don’t care what you look like.”
His heart was a maelstrom of confused feelings. Knowing that he had Amaya’s support was a huge relief, especially since it sounded like Corvus, a scout he knew his Aunt trusted, was going with them. But he was still confused and angry at Viren’s lies, and disgusted that the mage would hurt their dad like this. Someone that was supposed to be his friend. What poor elf’s horn had Viren enchanted to do this to him? And he was scared, too. Growing one horn had hurt so much it caused him to pass out - if the spell was meant to fully transform him, that meant another horn was on its way. It meant other changes, too. Gingerly, Callum reached up to touch his ear which, to his relief, was still round.
Callum looked around the room - it was the room he usually occupied when they stayed at the lodge. He thought for a moment, and stood, going to a bureau in the corner. In one of the drawers was a small hand-held mirror, which he now used to inspect his appearance.
The first shock was his hair, now completely white. Even his eyebrows had been sapped of color, which he thought looked really strange on him. Callum angled the mirror to the side of his head, to get a better look at the horn. As he did so, he noticed a dark patch of skin at the edge of his ear. He lifted his hair to get a better look, and all around the base of the horn, in a blotchy two-inch circle, his skin had darkened to the color of a storm cloud.
He frowned in consternation. “I don’t get it,” he said, looking up at his aunt and brother, who were observing him warily. “Viren’s letter said two moonshadow elves, but this horn doesn’t look like Rayla’s, or like the horn that dive-bombed us yesterday. And look at this,” he continued, coming closer and lifting his bangs to show them the greying spot on his skin. “Rayla’s skin is almost like a light-skinned human, and the other assassins were different shades of purple and brown.”
“Yeah, it’s almost kind of blue,” said Ezran, squinting at the blotch on his brother’s head. “Weird.”
“Either way, it’s important that you stay low and out of sight. Most people aren’t going to care what kind of elf you’re supposed to be. ” Amaya looked grim, and sad, and Callum felt very small and scared. She stood, and embraced him tightly, and Ezran dashed in to hug Callum tightly as well.
She held the hug for a long time, then pulled away. “No matter what, you’ll always be my nephew, and I love you. Be strong. We’ll fix this. ”
Callum nodded, tightly. He then threw open a wardrobe, grabbing a winter cloak and throwing it over his shoulders. “We should probably get going. The sooner we get to Xadia, the sooner we can figure out all the other stuff.” He put on a brave face, mostly for Ezran’s sake, who looked very worried. “Who knows? Maybe the Dragon Queen can turn me back to normal.”
The brothers made their way quietly through the house and outside, where Rayla was waiting in the shadows. “It’s nightfall. Do you think you’re alright to travel?”
“I’ll manage,” Callum said stiffly.
“Here,” Rayla said, holding out a six-sided cube with the elemental runes carved on each side. “I found your thing.”
“Oh. Uh, thanks.” Being a mage and finding some kind of mage-casty device didn’t seem quite as excited to Callum now, but he was still grateful Rayla took the time to locate the object in spite of everything.
“Yeah, sure,” she said, clearly uncomfortable with the circumstances. But she knew it wasn’t his fault.
“Rayla,” said Amaya, stepping out behind the boys, with Gren in tow. “A word?” Rayla hesitated, then nodded to Callum and Ezran before approaching Amaya. The General bowed to her solemnly, formally. “On behalf of the royal family I want to apologize formally for Viren’s actions. What he did to Callum is unspeakable but if the object he used to enchant Callum was indeed the horn of someone you knew, cruelty beyond retaliation has been done to you and your people as well. It is unjust and I will do all in my power to make amends.”
The apology was awkward and uncomfortable for Rayla, but how did she put her severe discomfort with Viren’s weaponized bigotry against elves into words? Especially to humans who, just this morning, would have put her to death simply for being an elf in proximity to the princes on human lands, and didn’t really even value until it was one of their own who would be a victim of that hatred. The entire scenario left Rayla feeling betrayed and angry, and wholly unable to express the things she felt. But it wasn’t for nothing that the General was trying to apologize, either. Rayla decided to shelve her feelings for later.
“Um, yeah,” she said lamely, looking down with a scowl. “Thanks?”
“Viren will pay, I assure you,” said Amaya with a definiteness that suggested she would see to it personally.
Later, the trio of kids set off into the woods, egg and glow toad in tow. Amaya watched them head into the dark forest, and turned to Gren.
“We’ll spend the night here, and in the morning we’ll send most of the Battalion back to the Breach. We’ll take a very small retinue of soldiers we trust with us to the castle..”
“Amaya, is it wise to just… let them go, like that?”
“We can’t take the boys back to the Castle, not with Viren clearly plotting to have Callum killed by angry elf-hating villagers and directly manipulating Harrow.” Amaya balled her fist and slammed it into the door frame. “What kind of absolute monster tells his friend his son is dead when he knows damn well he isn’t?”
Gren frowned and looked down. “Have you figured out your plan yet?”
Amaya huffed and looked towards where the kids had trekked off into the unknown. “No. I want to see what kind of state Harrow is in first. I’ll decide when I get there.”
Chapter 7: The Edict
Harrow has orders for Viren.
It was past midnight, and Viren was hard at work with the tedious task of drafting letters to the other Kings and Queens of the Pentarchy. The ink on the letters to Neolandia and Duren were drying, and now Viren had begun writing to King Florian in Del Bar.
I hope this letter finds you and your kingdom in good health, despite the heavy news it bears. On the night of the last full moon--
“Viren,” rasped a voice from his walls, and Viren jumped up in alarm, spilling ink across his desk. Hastily, he scrambled to save the already-drafted letters from unprofessional blots and spills, then put them aside, rushing to the painting on the wall to open the hidden door there. He heaved the ugly painting aside, and standing in the hidden corridor was Harrow.
The king looked terrible . His face was drawn, and his usually-tidy beard was unkempt. He had the pallor of a very sick man, and seemed to be sweating. His breath came in ragged wheezes, and he was leaning heavily on the frame of the hidden door.
“Harrow, you should be in bed , recovering!” exclaimed Viren. The king only glared at him, before staggering through the portal into Viren’s study.
“I mean it, Harrow,” said Viren, adamantly. “You can barely stand and I can see the dressing on your wound bleeding through. You need to be in--”
Harrow cut him off with a raised hand. “The only reason you still live,” he wheezed, “after that little stunt you pulled with the serpent, is because I still have need for you.”
Viren scowled. “Oh, so now I’m useful.”
“Don’t even ,” snapped Harrow, the suppressed rage in his voice lending a menace to his tone despite his very obvious ill health. The two men glared daggers at each other, the unresolved tension and resentment from the previous night’s argument still hanging between them, thick enough to cut.
Finally, Viren acquiesced with an obsequious, flourishing bow. “And what can this humble servant do for his king, your majesty ?” Sarcasm dripped from his every word and every gesture.
“You’re going to make it so I can hunt those elves down myself and rescue my son.”
Viren looked up sharply. “There’s absolutely no need for that. You’re the king . I’ll send Soren and Claudia to--”
“No. I’m going myself, and you’re going to do whatever you can to allow me to stand, ride and fight at full strength.”
“Harrow, this is madness!”
“My son is dead!” Harrow roared at Viren. “While you were busy screwing around and shoving my soul into a bird , my son died in the hallway right outside my door!” He balled his fists against his eyes, and he let out an animalistic howl of grief and rage. “If the gods are merciful and I have even a prayer’s chance of saving Ezran, I’m going to save him.” His voice cracked. “I have to. My boys…”
As the tears flowed freely down Harrow’s face and he steadied himself against a pillar, Viren did feel a pang of sorrow. His planning had wrought this, had brought the king so low, had broken him emotionally. Granted, he hadn’t expected Harrow to react this strongly to the “death” of his step-son - apparently he had miscalculated. It was cruel, yes. But it would also motivate Harrow to do what needed to be done. He put on a careful look of sympathy, and looked down as though he was grieved by the situation as well, and waited for Harrow’s sobs to die down.
“I may be able to do something,” said Viren. “But it might endanger your life further.”
“Will it give me the strength I need to save Ezran?” said Harrow, after composing himself.
“Yes, but… don’t you think it’s a bit reckless? The kingdom is already on edge. Who will govern in your stead?”
Harrow snorted. “You’ve been hungry for power since we were boys. You do it.”
Viren blinked. No way was it going to be that easy.
“You’re appointing me regent?”
“If you truly can restore enough vigor to me so that I can save my son, then yes. Until I return with my son safe, I’m appointing you regent.” Harrow nodded at the writing desk. “Help me over there.”
Viren gently guided Harrow to the desk, who sat down in the chair with a relieved sigh. Standing had been rather taxing on him, and he sagged backwards, resting.
“I’ll… get you some water,” said Viren, fetching the pitcher and a cup from their usual place in his office. The servants kept it filled, knowing the High Mage liked to work late into the evening and often got thirsty. He poured a glass, and took it to Harrow, while mentally flipping through his catalogue of spells and considering places he could start. After setting it down, he turned to his shelf and began pulling down several tomes of spells.
After taking a sip of water (and wiping up the spilled ink), Harrow set to drafting an edict appointing Viren as temporary regent in his absence, warily watching Viren flip through his books looking for an adequate spell.
Harrow was no fool. He knew he was dangling the biggest, juiciest carrot he could right in front of Viren’s nose. That Viren wanted the throne, the power, was now abundantly clear to Harrow. It had been the minute Viren pulled that accursed snake out and lunged with it at Harrow’s throat, forcing it to bite man and bird at the same time.
Harrow had watched from Pip’s eyes as the elf had burst into his chamber, lunging at the helpless, started creature in his body, screaming in terror and confusion with his voice. Soren hadn’t been far behind, landing a solid hit on the elf’s horn and knocking a good hand’s length of it off, causing the elf to snarl in pain. Soren had then been kicked across the room, and the elf had turned to his body, murmured something in a far-gentler tone than Harrow had expected, and plunged a blade into his body’s side, soaking the ribbon tied around his right arm in Harrow’s blood, before trudging towards the balcony with a strange-looking arrow.
He had later watched as the same elf had been led through his chambers in chains, presumably towards the dungeons or the gallows. (Harrow didn't particularly care which - the elf would die, it was merely a formality of when.)
He hadn’t been able to understand the conversation in the hallway, but Callum had spoken to Viren. Viren had yelled at Callum. And then when the assassins had arrived, Callum had cried out for him. Harrow bit back more tears, remembering. In his final moments, Callum had finally called him “Dad.”
The day before, he had written to Callum some paff about a narrative of love and destiny being the book you wrote yourself, but Callum was now dead. Harrow did not feel so charitable anymore. The hole in his side was agonizing, his lung pierced and rattling hollowly with every breath he took. But, since Viren’s idiotic plan had worked, and Harrow still lived, he was now able to take vengeance.
First, he would seek vengeance on the still living elves for both killing Callum and kidnapping Ezran. He would end their lives swiftly and without mercy - Ezran was only a boy, there was no need for him to learn cruelty from his father. He would not do that to his son, to Sarai’s remaining child.
His second revenge, however, would be a slow boil, and he would exact it very methodically. In fact, as Harrow signed his name and pressed his signet ring to the edict, he had already enacted phase one. Viren wanted nothing more than power, that had become earth-shatteringly obvious the night before. Therefore, power-hungry, treacherous Viren, who thought himself special and above everyone else in the Pentarchy, would get exactly what he wanted. A throne, a crown, the power he craved.
And when Ezran was safe and they had returned, Harrow would see to it personally that Viren’s entire world was destroyed bit by bit. A suitable punishment for valuing power and prestige over the lives of the people and allowing Callum to die on his watch.
“I’ve got it!” said Viren, in the excited tone he always had when he found the spell he was looking for. He began searching around the office for ingredients, pulling vials and boxes from the shelves and heaping them onto a table. He then looked up to Harrow. “Ah, putting this together may take a while. Shall I have the guards take you to your chambers to rest?”
Wearily, Harrow nodded, and Viren opened the main door to his office, bidding the night guard outside his chamber to enter and help the king to bed. The guard, if she was surprised by Harrow’s presence, didn’t betray it. She gently hoisted up the king, and escorted him out of the office.
Excellent. Viren surveyed the roots and dried bugs and mummified animals on his table, before glancing to the book. “False Life,” the spell was called. Harrow would only have until the New Moon, before the life and health he would be stealing would cause his body to fail. It could even potentially kill him.
Not that Harrow needed to know that little detail. This IS regicide, you know , his conscience scolded him. Viren ignored it. He’d spent years ignoring his conscience in the name of King and country, he wasn’t about to start listening to it NOW.
Mushrooms from the Starfall Steppes, check. He’d have to crush both the sun beetles and the dried glow worms. Did he have enough helios lizard scales? Viren scribbled a note to send down to the kitchen for some oat flour and butter, as well as linen bandages.
There was one final ingredient, and fortunately for Viren he had plenty of that last one in supply - the blood of a Moonshadow elf.
He picked up a knife and a vial, and headed towards the hidden entrance to the dungeons. It was time to pay his prisoner a visit.
Chapter 8: The Spell
Viren gives Harrow what he needs to ride forth.
Yeah so after reading all of your comments on the last chapter, I have decided this fic needs even MORE Harrow angst!
(TW: mild gore and description of wounds)
The sun was a few hours away from rising, and Harrow had barely slept. Slumber came in fits and starts, and the agony of the hole in his side made turning over difficult. It made breathing difficult. It made everything difficult.
The sound of his door opening, accompanied by the soft tink of astral steel on stone tile told Harrow that Viren had arrived. He opened his weary eyes and gazed at the mage, who closed the door behind him.
“Before I proceed, I’m going to ask you one more time. Despite the risks and potential that this will make your health worse in the long run, do you wish to proceed?” Viren asked. He was holding a platter with several items covered in a dark red silk cloth.
Harrow nodded, and turned to face Viren, grunting as his wound ached. “Anything to save Ezran. I can’t lose more family to Xadia.”
Viren set the tray down on the table in the center of the room, and uncovered it. The kitchens had delivered all he had asked for, and he began adding ingredients to the mortar and pestle, grinding everything down into a fine powder.
In spite of himself (and the fact that Harrow never seemed to listen when he rambled about magic), Viren began to babble excitedly about the work he was doing. “You’re quite lucky I had everything necessary in stock. I haven’t really had much of a use for several of the Sun primal creatures I had in stock, but this spell makes ample use of Solar magic to heal and restore the body. The only ingredient missing was the most difficult to get, but fortunately I had the foresight to gather some the… previous evening.”
Harrow turned toward him and raised an eyebrow, curious.
“Blood, gathered from a still-living Moonshadow elf.” Viren held up the vial. Thanks to his elven guest in the dungeons, it was still warm, collected naught an hour prior, but Viren left that detail unsaid.
Harrow scowled, but then grunted in assent. He wasn’t about to start valuing Moonshadow lives now, not when they’d taken his boys from him.
Viren poured the blood into the mortar, blending it with the powdered insects, lizards, oat flour, butter and mushrooms. The warm purplish-red liquid seeped into the powders, bloating them and transforming the blend into a thick, globby paste. Viren ground the mortar harder and harder, whipping the paste into foam, his eyes glazing black as he chanted: Htaed taehc ot hguone htgnerts.
When the poultice had doubled in size, Viren breathed out across the mortar, and the magic took hold, glowing a sickly blue. He picked up the mortar and walked to Harrow’s bedside, the black of his eyes fading to normal. Fortunately, this spell wasn’t too much to break his glamour, but he would need a top up as soon as possible.
Wordlessly, Viren knelt down and lifted Harrow into a seating position. The king, for his part, obliged, hissing in pain. Viren then slowly undid the bandages around Harrow’s torso, exposing the raw, bloody wound. Stitched together though it was, the skin was ragged beneath it, and a motley bruise had bloomed around it. Viren smeared the goop of his spell across Harrow’s wound, massaging it in and adding more. Little by little, the wound began to glow the same colour.
Harrow cried out in pain as the magic began to seep into his body, but before Viren’s eyes, the wound began to close and heal, forcing out the stitches and leaving behind a jagged white scar. Harrow bellowed in agony, and began coughing, hacking up gobs of bloody phlegm as his lungs purged themselves of damaged tissue. With one final cough, Harrow shuddered, and then inhaled deeply. He breathed once more, the breaths he drew in and out stronger and stronger. His skin took on a normal, healthy colour and he stopped sweating and shaking. With one final breath, Harrow stood, and opened his eyes.
The effect was faint in the soft light of dawn, but his grey eyes glowed with the same pallid blue as the spell. The king’s life was now sustained by moonlight and dark magic.
“You will likely find your strength fades during the day,” said Viren, as Harrow turned to his wardrobe to begin getting dressed. “But also that you are stronger during the night. Take caution, however - i’m not sure what will happen once we reach the new moon.”
“I’ll manage,” said Harrow brusquely, tightening his belt.
“Very well then,” said Viren, gathering his bowls and tools. “I’ll leave you to your chamber.”
“Fetch Opeli, will you?” said Harrow. “I have need to speak with her before I depart.”
Viren scowled, then nodded, exiting Harrow’s chambers.
As luck would have it, Soren was stationed guard at this shift. “So… how’s the king?” said Soren, awkwardly.
“Making a miraculous recovery,” said Viren, feeling cross at having been blown off by Harrow without so much of a thank you. He paused. “Soren, I would like you to meet me up on the Northern rampart at noon. For lunch.”
“Oh, sweet, I can get leg day in,” said his son, brightly. “Want me to grab Clauds too for a little family get-together?”
“No need,” said Viren. “I will speak to Claudia afterwards. You know she has lessons at noon.”
“Right, right. She eats at weird times.” Soren rubbed his chin. “Okay dad, see you at lunch!”
As fortune would have it, Opeli was already on her way to the king’s chambers to check on him and pray for his recovery. Soren let her in with a nod, and she was surprised to see Harrow up and dressed, standing at his balcony and staring out over his kingdom.
“Your Highness, it's 4 in the morning. You should be resting,” said Opeli, chiding him gently.
“I’m going to go find Ezran,” said Harrow, not turning around. He gestured towards his writing desk, where his sealed and signed edict appointing Viren temporary regent rested. Frowning, Opeli picked up and read it through.
“You can’t be serious,” she said, restraining her shock.
“I want you to follow my edict to the letter, Opeli.” Finally, he turned around. Harrow did look miraculously well again, and Opeli instantly suspected Viren and dark magic. She narrowed her eyes.
“Opeli, please,” said Harrow, softening. “Viren has done nothing I haven’t asked him to do. I’m going to save Ezran from his abduction, and I needed the strength to do it, through whatever means necessary.”
“But why are you appointing him regent ?” protested Opeli. “Your Highness, you have to know that he’ll abuse the power you give him.”
“I do,” said Harrow. “And I want you to follow my edict to the letter and crown him Regent. Let him do everything he wants to do.” At this, Harrow smiled a hard, bitter smile. “And I expect a full report from you of his every action when I return.”
Opeli blinked, and it dawned on her: Harrow was giving Viren enough rope to hang himself with. “I understand,” she said quietly. “But… I thought you and Viren were friends?”
“We were, once. I think that friendship died long ago, and I was too foolish to realize it.”
The cleric looked down at her folded hands. What did one say to a grieving monarch? She settled on business, instead. “When do you depart?”
“As soon as possible,” said Harrow, handing her the edict. “I’ll be sending for the groomsman to prepare my horse, and the kitchens for rations.” He sighed. “Is… Callum..?
“Prince Callum has been prepared for his funeral, yes. He has been laid out in his room.”
Harrow looked at her with sorrow-filled eyes. “May I see him?”
“Of course.” They made their way through the halls in silence, and if the guards and servants were surprised to see the King up and well, they said nothing.
Two clerics were praying over Callum’s body. He had been dressed in his court finery, a bower of lilies and irises laid around him, his eyes closed like he was sleeping. The clerics had used a subtle bit of makeup to give the prince a less-pale appearance, and his hands were folded across his chest, holding a ceremonial sword.
Harrow frowned. The sword was completely wrong for Callum. “Where’s his sketchbook?” he asked.
“His… sketchbook?” asked Opeli, lamely.
“He shouldn’t be holding a sword, he should be holding his sketchbook.” Harrow’s voice hitched. “I gave it to him when he was only four. He never went anywhere without it.”
The two clerics exchanged glances with each other and Opeli, who lamely supplied “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere…”
Harrow began opening drawers and cupboards, looking for it. “He and Ezran were supposed to have packed for the Banther lodge,” he said. “Was his bag anywhere to be found?”
“I… I’m afraid not, your highness,” said Opeli, frowning. “All we found was Prince Callum’s body.”
Harrow scowled. “Find it. Don’t bury him with that damn sword.”
“Of course, your highness.”
Harrow now stood by his son’s bed, and gazed down at the lifeless boy. “If you don’t mind, I would like a moment alone with my son now,” he said quietly.
The clerics all nodded, and stepped away from the body. “We’ll be in the hall,” said Opeli. “Take all the time you need.”
Harrow waited until he heard the latch click, then collapsed to his knees, sobbing as he took one of Callum’s cold hands in his, unable to say anything but Callum’s name and “I’m sorry,” over and over until he had no more tears left to cry.
The morning sun was painting the castle grounds in oranges and purples when Harrow rode Eastward from the castle alone, with instructions to conduct Callum’s funeral as planned, and bury the boy beside his mother.
Chapter 9: The Skin
Callum and Rayla get to know each other a bit better.
Everything hurt when Callum woke up at sunrise. The trio of them had traveled on foot from the Banther Lodge for a few hours, until Corvus surprised them with supplies and a wagon. Initially, Rayla had balked at the idea of wagon travel, and eyed the horses suspiciously, but after Corvus explained that they could take the roads without drawing suspicion, and that a place for Callum to rest if he experienced anything like his fainting spell earlier would be favorable, she relented. Then, Ezran had gotten the idea that Corvus could pretend to be his cool uncle with a traveling circus, declared himself Jofus the Wonder Boy and His Magical Glow Toad, and that was that.
They’d made camp (Amaya had the foresight to send rations, tinder and bed rolls), and Callum had slept fitfully all night long. He kept rolling onto his new horn, the weight distribution of which completely threw him off and also twinged in pain, for it was still sensitive. Finally, by sleeping on his right side, he’d managed to drop into unrestful slumber.
His dreams had been a swirl of terrors, a replay of the past two day’s events meshed with hallucination-like dreams about werewolves and monstrous harpies with enormous talons. And as he drifted in and out of sleep, his anxious thoughts scampered around his thoughts like rabbits. What was happening to him? What would he end up looking like? Was another horn on its way? Was he going to lose his fingers? Would he even still be Callum when it was all said and done?
And eventually, morning had come. And everything ached.
It wasn’t the kind of ache from sleeping on the ground - Harrow had seen that his boys had gone camping, a little experience with “roughing it” to prepare them for any military campaigns they might be expected to lead in the future. No, this was an ache unlike anything else he’d experienced before. It almost felt like--
Callum’s eyes snapped awake. He groaned in pain as he sat up and limped to the wagon, fumbling in his pocket for his drawing charcoal. He stood beside the wall of the covered vehicle and carefully drew a line touching the top of his skull.
“What are you doing?” asked Rayla, sitting up sleepily and scowling at him. Callum jumped, and turned towards her.
“Uh… just marking my height.”
Rayla gave him a puzzled frown. “Why?”
Callum scratched the side of his neck, which he realized was suddenly very, very itchy. “I uh… well… I woke up really achy and it kind of reminded me of growing pains.” He gestured to the line of charcoal. “So I want to make sure.”
“Humans are weird,” said Rayla, still half asleep and feeling cranky. Callum ignored her, more or less. Scratching the itch on his neck was so relaxing and felt so good, he worked his fingers around to the back and discovered two things.
One, his hair had not touched his collar the night before.
Two, there was definitely skin flaking off as he scratched.
Callum blanched, and rubbed the ragged edge of skin he could feel along his collar line. It didn’t hurt - just itched. Still, Callum was worried. Given the hair and the horns and the grey blotch of skin, Callum was afraid it was yet another change. “H-hey Rayla?” he said, frozen in place. “I know you’re trying to sleep but can you, um. Take a look at this?”
Rayla groaned, and kept groaning as she threw off the cover of her bed roll and stood. Callum glared at her flatly as she walked over to him, still groaning theatrically. “Are you done?” he asked flatly as she stood beside him.
Rayla squinted at him peevishly. “For now,” she said, and peered at the spot he gestured to.
His hair was ghosting along the back of his collar, and while his hair, scarf and shirt concealed it well enough that she had to actually look, the greyish blue had worked its way down his neck towards the edge of his collar. There was a thin line of peeling tawny skin, and the other blueish skin around his ear and neck looked a bit oddly-colored, almost as though--
“Uh, is it alright if I…?” she asked, hovering a hand near the back of his neck, a question of permission. Callum nodded, and raked the hair at his nape to the side with his right hand, pulling it up and away from his collar. Rayla looked closer at the now-exposed blotch, and gently raked the peeling edge of skin with her fingernail. Gently, a paper thin strip of skin peeled away, revealing a much more vivid cobalt color, almost the same color as the darker patches of his jacket. To Rayla, it was the color of the night sky illuminated by the moon, a dusky, deep blue.
“Aaagh, that tickled!” yelped Callum, pulling away from her hand. “What’d you do?”
“Uh… well… you ever get a sunburn?”
He blinked at her. “Elves get sunburns?
Rayla looked at him with a flat expression. “My skin’s almost as pale as my hair, Callum, of course I get sunburns. Plus, y’know. Moonshadow elf. Not exactly a sun-resistant sort.” She waved her hand in annoyance. “Anyway, not the point. YOU get sunburns, right?”
Callum idly scratched the skin on his neck. “Not often. I’ve only had one or two ones that were bad enough to hurt.”
“Did it peel? After the burn healed up, did your skin peel?”
“Oh. Uh… yeah, kinda.”
“So…” Rayla trailed off, trying to put it delicately. “It’s that, but instead of tan human skin underneath it’s sort of that color.” She pointed to the side panel of Callum’s jacket.
Callum’s eyes nearly popped out of his head. “My skin’s peeling off and it’s blue -blue underneath?! Not grey, but blue ?”
Rayla grimaced. “Yeah, kind of…”
Callum’s breath hitched. He sat for a moment, frozen in place, trying to process. The top layer of his skin peeling off was probably the human layer, revealing new… elf? Skin? He guessed? Underneath. He took a long, slow breath and turned to Rayla. “Can you look and tell me how much it’s spread?”
Rayla nodded and Callum sat down on a fallen log to give her better access to his head. She inspected his head closely, starting at the nape of his neck and investigating carefully.
The blue patch had begun, she assumed, at the base of his horn and spread outward from there. It had grown down under his hair, mostly, with a tendril snaking out towards his face along what would be his sideburns (or would have been), and another patch behind his ear, crawling down his neck to just below his collar. It was peeling where it was visible on the back and side of his neck, but while it was the strange muted color on his scalp that suggested a good scrub would slough all the rejected skin off, it had yet to do so.
Her arm bumped the end of Callum’s horn (which seemed to be less smooth than she remembered, now that she was looking at it in daylight) and he winced.
“Still giving you trouble?” she asked, drawing her hand away.
“Ugh, sort of. It’s like a headache, but in the…” Callum didn’t want to say the word horn , much less claim ownership of it. Not yet.
“Oh, a hornache,” said Rayla, matter-of-factly. She sat down beside him. “Want to learn a little elf biology?”
Callum made an unsure noise in his throat, but reluctantly agreed. It would probably benefit him in the long run to know how elves were different from humans.
Rayla tapped her nose. “So you know how there’s pockets in your face that snot gets trapped in when you get a cold?”
“Oh, the ones that hurt real bad when you’re stuffed up?”
“That’s them, yep. Elves and humans have ‘em in their cheeks, nose and forehead, but elves also have them in their horns.”
“Wait, horns are hollow?”
Rayla nodded. “And they hurt like anything if a cold gets bad enough. But they can also hurt for other reasons. Like you said, like a headache.” She sat back and leaned on her hands, looking up. “When they first come in when we’re toddlers, they hurt really bad. It’s all that bone and horn growing.”
“Oh.” Gingerly, Callum reached up and touched the side of his horn, gently alighting a finger on one of the spiked ridges. He pressed a little harder, trying to see if he could feel the pressure in the horn sinus like he could when his face hurt during a cold. He wasn’t able to feel that specific pressure, but the touch did hurt, and he hissed in pain.
Rayla shifted. “Look, I know we don’t know each other that well, but if you like I could massage the base a little. My mum--” she cut herself off and frowned. “Elf parents will usually massage new horns for their kids, it helps relieve the pain a little.”
“Oh, uh…” Callum shifted awkwardly, and then turned around to position himself better. “If you’re sure.”
She bent down to get started, then giggled softly, and dusted something off the top of his head. “Dummy, you got charcoal in your hair.”
“Yeah. White hair shows everything if you get it dirty.”
“Oh, you know. Dirt, berry juice, grass. Anything that stains.”
“How did you get grass on your hair?”
“Training.” She tapped his head. “You want me to take care of this or no?” Callum relented, and she began.
Rayla’s fingers were gentle but strong, and they danced small circles around the base of the horn. It hurt somewhat, at first, but as her clever hands worked, he felt the pain subside. It was… nice.
“How come you didn’t want to talk about your mom doing this for you?” he said, eyes closing in contentment. “This is nice.”
Rayla stopped immediately, drawing her hand away as she curled into a ball and turned away from Callum. “My parents are dead.”
Oops. Way to put your foot in your mouth, Callum , he chided himself. “My parents are dead too,” he said lamely, trying to smooth things over in camaraderie.
“I thought King Harrow survived?” said Rayla, trying to sound interested but unable to keep the subtle sullen note in her tone at bay.
“He’s actually my step dad. Mom married him after my dad died.”
Callum shrugged and held up his hands. “Look, we don’t have to talk about parents. Kinda heavy conversation topic for our first day not running for our lives or writhing around on the kitchen table in agony.”
Rayla looked over the camp site. Corvus was beginning to rally, but was still emerging from slumber. Ezran and Bait were snoring away. Looked like she was stuck with the chatty prince - plus, she felt bad for him, having to navigate a terrible curse on his own. “Okay, fine,” she said, relenting. “Any ideas?”
“What’s Xadia like?” asked Callum. “We’re told it’s this amazing place where magic is everywhere. Is it really like that?”
She smiled faintly. “Yeah, it is.”
“It must be so weird to see that like… everywhere you look, there’s magic.” He’d only ever seen magic from Viren and Claudia, mostly dark magic, and was having a hard time imagining any other kind.
“It’s not weird,” retorted Rayla. “It’s in everything. It’s just…” she gestured out towards the grass and trees. “It’s like saying everywhere you look, there’s nature. It’s just there.”
Callum smiled. “That sounds incredible.”
“Yeah, it is.” She smiled faintly back at him.
A loud clap from Corvus startled them both. “Okay kids, up and at ‘em!” he said, enthusiastically. “Let’s get this campsite packed up and head out!” He toed Ezran in the side, who groaned and threw his arm over his eyes. “C’mon, Prince Sleepyhead, rise and shine.”
Ezran sat up blearily and yawned. “It’s so early,” he whined. Bait agreed with a light blue flicker and a sleepy grunt.
Corvus was rolling up his bed kit. “You too, Prince Callum, Rayla. Bed rolls packed, rations stashed, campfire doused and buried, personal belongings gathered. If King Harrow thinks you two kidnapped the crown prince then there will probably be trackers and soldiers heading our way, so the longer we linger the more likely it is they’ll find us.
The kids obligingly packed up the campsite as Corvus instructed, and helped Ezran get his bedroll taken care of as well. Meanwhile, Corvus fed the horses and hitched them back to the wagon. When the camp was packed to his satisfaction, he bade the kids to climb into the back, took his spot at the driver’s seat, and with a brisk “hiyah!”, the four of them were on the road to Xadia.
I know Corvus is a quiet guy but I imagine if forced to be the Responsible Adult of the party he'd probably deliberately be a little Peppy Obnoxious Camp Counselor at these kids.
Chapter 10: The Jacket
During a stop for a rest, Ezran and Callum talk about Callum's condition.
At noon, they stopped at the river’s edge to water the horses and rest.
Amaya, in her wisdom, had included soap and a stern admonition to the princes about bathing regularly, so when Rayla announced she was going to scout ahead to stretch her legs, Corvus sent the boys packing to a small eddy on the rivers’ edge to clean up.
“Hey Ez, you wanna see something gross?” asked Callum as the boys stripped down to their underwear and waded into the cold water.
“Uh, maybe?” replied the younger brother, eyeing Callum skeptically. The blue blotch had worked its way down his shoulder and collar bone now, and was snaking across his cheek and up his ear. In addition, the white hair and grey horn were still very odd things for Ezran to parse with them being his brother. Still, he waded closer.
“Watch this,” said Callum, grasping the peeling edge of the skin on his neck between his finger and thumb. He pulled, gently, and a sizeable strip of skin peeled away from his clavicle, revealing the vivid blue beneath.
“Ewwwwwwwww!” yelled Ez, splashing Callum and laughing. “Don’t peel yourself like that, that’s gross!”
“I said ‘hey Ez do you wanna see something gross’! You said yes!” said Callum, splashing him back.
“‘Gross’ is for bugs and chewed up food, not your skin peeling off!” Ez shouted back, with another splash.
Callum responded to that by picking Ez up and solidly dunking him into the water. Ezran popped up and shook the water from his eyes, spluttering but laughing. “No fair, you’re taller than me!”
“It is my right as your big brother to dunk you whenever we go swimming,” said Callum, matter-of-factly.
“That’s not a right.”
“Is too. Katolis law - big brothers get to dunk their little brothers whenever they are both in a body of water large enough to swim in.” Callum shrugged. “Can’t argue with the law, Ez.”
“I’m gonna make Dad change it, then,” said Ez, sticking out his tongue and turning to the floating basket the boys had placed the toiletries Amaya had sent with Corvus. They weren’t as fancy as what they had back at the castle, but there was soap and shampoo and a note from their aunt that said Being on a mission isn’t an excuse to skip baths. Wash behind your ears!
Ezran tossed Callum the vial of shampoo, and set to work on sudsing up a rag to wash.
Callum poured a dollop of the liquid soap into his hand, and lathered up, scrubbing his scalp and finding great relief in scraping away the dead skin from his head. He could feel it coming off in large flakes, some of which clung to his hair, but he worked steadily to scrub it well. The last thing he wanted was gross flakes of skin coming off when they were on the road.
Scrubbing around the horn was a little more intense than Callum had expected. For one, the work of scrubbing made it impossible to deny that it was there . For two, the angle that it grew out of him meant that there was a little pocket of skin where he couldn’t help but touch the horn.
It was growing out of him. It was… it was his .
A small pat on Callum’s side pulled him out of his thoughts, and he looked down to see Ez looking up at him with worried eyes. “Are you okay?”
For a breath of a second, Callum wanted to lie, to tell Ezran he was fine. But what would the sense in that be? He allowed his shoulders to sag, and he turned towards Ez. “Not really.”
Ezran waited, patiently, knowing that Callum (who sometimes didn’t know how to shut up) would say more.
“It’s just… it hurts. Like, it’s actually pretty painful, growing a horn and who knows what else is going to happen to me, but it also sucks that Viren would just… treat me like this. Treat Dad like this. If I end up looking really different, Dad might not even recognize me. He’ll just see an elf who kidnapped one son and killed the other.” Callum sank down into the water, submerging himself up to the nose but leaving enough space to breathe.
“Dad’s smart,” said Ezran. “Even if Viren lied to him, he’ll know it’s you.” When Callum didn’t say anything, Ez bent over to hug him. “And if he doesn’t, I’ll be there to tell him.”
Callum surfaced somewhat. “Thanks, Ez.” He then dunked himself completely underwater, giving his hair one final scrub to rinse the soap out, and stood, shaking the water out of his hair and running his hand through to push his bangs out of his eyes. His hair was definitely getting longer. One more thing to add to the growing list of things Callum had to worry about.
“Does it hurt?” Ezran asked, giving Callum that worried look again. “Your skin peeling off?”
“That one’s more itchy,” said Callum, rubbing his arm. The blue had crept its way to the outer edge of his shoulder, threatening to send tendrils down his arm. His eyebrow and jaw were itchy, too, which meant the blue was reaching his face.
“Does… the other stuff hurt? The horn looked really bad.”
After a moment of silence, Callum said a quiet “Yeah.” He sighed, and added, “It’s not just that it hurts. It’s that afterwards, it’s… there. It feels weird. I can’t feel light touches, but I can feel the coldness of the water, or if I thwack it on stuff. And every time I feel it, I’m reminded of what’s happening to me. It’s only a matter of time before I turn all the way blue, or my ears get pointy, or I--”
He looked down at his hands, and gingerly stroked his pinky, preemptively mourning the digit. “I keep hoping this is a nightmare I’m going to wake up from.”
Ezran looked down and away, then back at Callum. “Being an elf seems okay. Rayla’s nice.”
“Rayla’s nothing like anything we were ever taught about elves, true. But I’m not supposed to be an elf. I'm probably not even supposed to be turning into one, just looking like one.” Callum frowned. “This probably really sucks for Rayla, too. That horn was from someone she was friends with.”
“It’s weird that your horn doesn’t look anything like Rayla’s,” said Ezran, idly washing his arms. “Her horns are purple and yours is sorta black and white.”
Callum winced at the indication that the horn on his head was his . It didn’t go unnoticed.
“Besides,” said Ezran. “If you’re turning into a magical elf, maybe learning how to do magic will be easier.”
“I guess,” said Callum. “I still don’t know what kind of elf I’m turning into. I’m guessing not a Moonshadow, but that leaves a bunch of other kinds that I have no idea what they look like, or what kind of magic they do.”
“Not the antler-y kind from that storybook,” sad Ezran. “They’re brown and green and have antlers.” He rubbed his chin. “Maybe a sky elf? You were in the middle of casting sky magic when the spell hit you.”
Callum thought about that for a second, and then something dawned on him. He dunked himself once more in the water for a final rinse, and then began wading back to shore. “We can test it!” he said, excitedly. “You were napping, but while we were on the road I found out that the rune cube thing lights up when it’s exposed to a source of magic!”
“Really?” Ezran followed him, shaking water from his limbs.
“Yeah! See?” Callum scooped up Bait, who had been happily sunning himself on a rock and was now moving far too quickly for a glow toad that had, only seconds before, been asleep. He croaked in grumpy consternation as Callum rummaged around in his bag and retrieved the cube. The Sun rune illuminated a hot, fiery orange as he held it next to Bait’s face. “Bait’s a glow toad, so Sun lights up for him!”
Callum’s grip loosened, and the toad plopped down to the ground and waddled out of arm’s reach back to another sunny rock, glowering at Callum the entire time. His froggy ire was ignored, though, as Callum had returned to digging around in his bad, this time for the primal stone.
“For this, the Sky rune lights up. Next to the Dragon Prince’s egg? More Sky. And if you hold it next to Rayla, the Moon rune lights up.”
“So if we hold it up by your head, it might light up and tell us what kind of elf you’re turning into!”
“Yeah!” Callum tossed Ezran the cube, and bent over so his head was in arms’ reach of his much shorter brother. Ez reached up, and held the cube next to Callum’s head.
At first, nothing. But as Ez moved the cube around, he noticed a faint glow coming from not one, but two runes.
“Uh, the one that looks like a circle with a line through it is glowing a tiny bit. And the one with the three curvy lines is also glowing.”
“Sky and Moon?” said Callum, standing up and frowning in confusion. Ezran only shrugged and handed him the cube back. “Can elves be two kinds of elf?”
“Well, humans from different tribes and kingdoms get married and have kids all the time,” said Ezran. “Why would elves be any different?”
“I guess we can ask Rayla,” said Callum. He toweled off and picked up the primal stone. “Hey, I wanna try something.”
A few moments later, Rayla and Corvus were startled out of their respective activities with a loud yelp echoing across the forest. “Help!”
It was clearly Callum. They both dropped what they were doing and ran at top speed towards the cry, arriving at the same time to discover--
Prince Callum, in his underwear, holding the primal stone in one hand and a fistful of lightning in the other.
“What are you doing ?!” shouted Rayla, lowering her weapons, equal parts relieved they weren’t under attack and angry that the idiot prince would try summoning actual damn lightning unsupervised.
“Well, Ez and I figured out that I might be turning into a Sky elf because I was casting a sky spell when Viren attacked us, and I thought maybe Sky magic made the spell confused, so I thought ‘hey, maybe more Sky magic will make it more confused and break it’ but now I’m holding a bunch of lightning and I don’t know what to do next!”
“Dummy, spells need an activation word in Ancient Draconic!”
“Oh.” Callum stood there and glanced at his handful of lightning. “Yeah, I don’t know what the dragon word for lightning is. Do you?”
Rayla gaped a little, and then her palm found her face with a light smack . “No, I’m not fluent in ancient draconic! Did Claudia say anything before you took the storm ball thingy from her?”
“Uh, well, she called me a ‘Fool’ but that’s probably not it.”
“At least she got one thing right,” muttered Rayla, eliciting a suppressed snort from Corvus.
“Y’know what?” said Callum, looking over at the ball of lightning, then down at the primal stone. “I’m gonna throw it.”
“What?!” said Corvus, alarmed.
“No!” said Rayla, at the same time, gesturing wildly. “No throwing!”
“Too late, think fast!” Callum tossed the primal stone towards Rayla, who caught it expertly… as well as the small explosion of electricity. It didn’t hurt, but it did briefly electrocute her, causing her hair to frizz up .
“Uh, you’re… sparking.” Commentary from Corvus was not helping.
With an exaggerated eye roll that involved her head and shoulders as well, Rayla shoved the primal stone back to Callum. “Don’t ever do that again,” she glowered.
“If you boys are done bathing, get dried off. We need to get back on the move,” said Corvus.
The brothers toweled off quickly, and began redressing. But when Callum got to his jacket, he noticed something off. It was too tight in the shoulders.
He wriggled and stretched, trying to make the garment fit comfortably like it had, but no matter how hard he tried it was just too small across his shoulders and back. The sleeves were a little short, too. He held the edges of the sleeves against his palms, and tried one more time to adjust the jacket properly, and
With dismay, Callum craned his neck towards the tearing sound. The left shoulder seam of his jacket had split, separating the sleeve from the body along the back. He gave a frustrated huff, and took his jacket off. Maybe Aunt Amaya had packed scissors in their supply kits.
Ezran scooped up Bait and his backpack, and began to head back to the wagon. As Callum followed, he gazed down into the water, catching his distorted reflection on the surface.
The left side of his face was sporting blue tendrils, snaking across his cheek and chin and forehead. He turned to the side, the alien horn catching the light.
He hissed in pain as a muscle on the top of his head spasmed, and groaned as the muscle continued to twinge, pulling along the side and temple and feeling like the time he tweaked a muscle in his hand during sword practice.
“Callum, are you okay?” asked Ez, for what felt like the fortieth time that day already. He had rushed back to Callum’s side.
“Yeah, I just got a… headache? Something?” The spasms were decreasing, and Callum felt the side of his head and face relax. Experimentally, he tried tensing the muscle in his head that had twinged, and Ezran gasped. “What? What is it?” asked Callum, alarmed.
“Your ear moved.” He looked down. “I didn’t want to say that it was already getting kinda pointy because you seemed sad about everything else, but just now it wiggled.” Ezran mimed what he meant with his hands, his palms held outward at his temples in a pantomime of large pointed ears. He raised his hands up, and drooped them down.
Callum stared at Ez in dismay, and his hand flew to his ear, feeling the significantly-less-round edge of it. Not fully pointy, not fully round. Somewhere in between. Great. His ear was already changing shape, and it could move ? He tensed the head muscle once more, and Ez pointed. “Like that! And when you got sad it dropped down. Are you doing that on purpose?”
“I was when it went up,” said Callum, frowning. “It dropping down wasn’t intentional.”
“Maybe elves have ears like cats do, that move around to show how they’re feeling, or to listen better.”
Callum rubbed his face in exasperation. “I guess I’ll ask Rayla about that, too. We should get going.”
Back at the wagon, Callum, marked his height on the side again, noting that there had been a small but definite increase in his height. As he climbed into the back, Rayla glanced over to him.
“My jacket got too small.” Callum reached for the supplies, and began searching for scissors or a knife. Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Rayla’s ears, which did indeed twitch slightly as she sat up and looked at him.
“How’d it get too small in less than half a day?” she asked, incredulous.
“Probably the same reason that a third of my face is blue,” Callum replied, sourly. He finally found a knife in the supply kit, decided he could make do, and sat down against the opposite wall from Rayla to work at the shredded seam of his jacket.
“What are you doing?” asked Rayla, after watching him work for a few minutes.
“Taking the sleeves off my jacket so I can still wear it.”
“Because it’s still May and it gets chilly and I like it and I don’t want to run around in just my tunic, even if I can’t use the sleeves.”
“Okay, sheesh, Prince Grumpy, I was just asking.”
Callum sighed. “I’m sorry, Rayla, I’m just. My whole body aches, I had a weird head muscle spasm a few minutes ago, every time I see my reflection I see a total stranger, my clothes are starting to not fit… changing species is a lot, ok? I’m sorry if I’m being grumpy.”
She sat back, sullen, and frowned at her hands. “Yeah.” Rayla chewed her lip in thought, and looked up. “Least you’re not Bait levels of grumpy.”
“Not yet.” Callum ceased worrying at the seam of his jacket and put it down, with a frustrated grunt.
“Ugh, give it here.” Rayla reached over and picked up the jacket, and the small knife. She examined the garment for a bit, before laying it across her lap and deftly nicking the shoulder seam open, thread by thread.
He watched her work, and after a few minutes, she held up the jacket, now de-sleeved. “There we are. No sleeves.”
She tossed it to Callum, who shrugged it on and flexed his back a little, forwards than backwards. It would do for now. “Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it.”
The wagon rolled onwards to the East and towards Xadia, the noon sun blazing overhead.
Chapter 11: The Cleric
Opeli and Amaya scheme behind Viren's back.
I didn't intend for there to be OpelixAmaya in this but here we are.
To solemn fanfare, General Amaya’s retinue arrived at the castle gates of Katolis shortly after noon. Viren and the rest of the high council were waiting for them in the courtyard.
“General,” said Viren, his face a mask of weary sorrow. “I am glad to see you in good health, despite the circumstances.”
“Cut the crap, Viren,” she signed. “Where’s Harrow?”
Gren, ever the diplomat, interpreted it “The same to you, Lord Viren. Is King Harrow around?”
Viren sighed theatrically. “I’m afraid not. Just before dawn, King Harrow ordered me to heal his wounds to my best ability using magic, and set out on a solo mission to rescue Prince Ezran from the vile elven assassins that abducted his son” He handed Amaya a scroll, bearing the King’s seal. “While he is away, I have been appointed Regent.”
Amaya snatched the scroll and glared at Viren, before reading the scroll over.
That idiot Harrow really had gone off on his own to rescue boys that didn’t need rescuing, and had appointed VIREN of all people as regent. Fan-fucking-tastic . She had hoped that she could bend Harrow’s ear, appeal to his sense of morality and memory of her sister, and convince him she was telling the truth about Callum and Ezran’s idiotic adventure, but that wasn’t meant to be, apparently. She was going to have to try and convince Viren she wasn’t wise to his games. That meant lying.
Amaya hated lying.
She grimaced, and handed the scroll back to Viren. “You’ll have to excuse my shitty mood,” she said, with Gren dressing her words up for the politer company of court. “It’s been a long night, and I’m pissed about what has been done to my nephew.”
It… wasn’t entirely a lie. Viren nodded solemnly, with mock sympathy on his stupid face. “Of course, General Amaya. We are all deeply grieved at Prince Callum’s passing.”
Oh good, he was buying it. For now.
“If it isn’t too much trouble, would you be willing to give a eulogy?” asked Viren. “As his closest living relative able to attend, it would be proper.”
“Of course,” said Amaya. Even if she was eulogizing a dead elf wrapped in illusions, she would be glad to say some nice words about Callum. Still, conversing with Viren was making her skin crawl. She looked over to Opeli. “May I see him?”
“Of course, General,” said Opeli, bowing her head slightly. “Prince Callum is laying in state in his room, and will be moved to the Great Hall shortly before Sundown for the funeral. Follow me.”
Opeli led Amaya and Gren down the hall far enough until they were out of the sight of Viren and other council members who might observe. Once she was sure they were not being followed or observed, Amaya nodded to Gren, who stepped back and walked behind.
“Viren didn’t bespell Harrow,” signed Opeli, deftly - a skill she’d picked up years ago, before she and Amaya were High Cleric and General, and she had wanted to whisper sweet nothings to the woman beneath her that couldn’t hear her voice. “He’s giving Viren enough rope to hang himself.”
“Interesting,” replied Amaya. “I also have interesting news, but I’d prefer to share it in complete privacy.”
“Oh?” They had reached the door of Callum’s room, and the guards opened the doors to allow them in. Upon noticing their entrance, the two clerics watching over the body quickly shuffled out. One uncomfortable grief session had been enough for them for one day, and the General’s grief tended to be… angrier than the King’s.
Amaya gazed down at the body. It really did look like Callum as she knew him. Soft brown hair draping over a face that was beginning to mature, but still bore the roundness of youth. He’d been dressed in royal finery, and a flower of folded paper in the style of her homelands had been placed in his hands. She looked at Opeli, questioningly.
“King Harrow requested that Prince Callum be buried with his sketchbook, instead of a sword. We couldn’t find the book, so we improvised.”
Amaya nodded. “You won’t find the book. It’s with Callum, heading East.”
Opeli fixed her with a hard look. “Joking about such a thing is exceptionally poor taste, Amaya.”
“I’m not joking. He and Ezran are alive and travelling East with one of my most trusted lieutenants, a tracker named Corvus.”
At this, Opeli squinted at her face, scrutinizing her for dishonesty or delusion or both. When she found none, she glanced down sharply at the body between them. “Then who..?”
“If I’m guessing, it’s one of the dead assassins covered with an illusion.” Amaya frowned. The illusion was rather convincing, and if she hadn’t seen Callum alive and being forcibly altered by dark magic before her very eyes, she would have been convinced that the body before her was her nephew’s.
“But why would Viren do such a thing?” wondered Opeli.
“According to Callum, to get him out of the way. Viren did something to him with magic, altering him to look like a Moonshadow elf, to cement his story about elves kidnapping Ezran.”
Opeli gasped. “That’s treason.”
“Sort of. Callum’s not really in line for the throne. He and Ezran suspect it was instead because they’d found the egg of Thunder's child in Viren’s secret labs below the Castle.”
“The egg of the Dragon Prince? Wasn't it destroyed last Winter?”
“No. I saw it with my own eyes, and Gren will confirm. The egg is alive, and my idiot nephews are taking it back to Xadia to try and broker peace.”
Opeli’s expression darkened. “And you let them go on that suicide mission!?”
“Where else could they have gone? Back here, when Viren’s still in a position to hurt them? Somewhere else in the Pentarchy, with Callum growing horns and accused of kidnapping the crown prince?!” Amaya scowled and balled her hands into fists, corralling her fury and composing herself. “I had hoped Harrow would listen to reason, but he had to go and be a stubborn idiot again and go thundering off on a reckless mission.”
Opeli sighed. “I certainly hope this Corvus is capable enough of defending the crown. As for Viren, King Harrow bade me to keep an eye on him. I can… try to limit his influence, but with an official decree appointing him regent there isn’t much I can do.”
Amaya nodded. “I am needed at the Breach myself. Even if the boys are trying to make peace, they won’t get to Xadia for several days, and who knows what trouble is stirring on the other side? I plan on sending Gren after Harrow, however, to inform him of the truth.”
“Wait, really?” interjected Gren.
“Good plan,” said Opeli. Her mouth twisted to a frown. “Although… I must ask; Viren said there were two elves? I assume one is Prince Callum, so who is the other?”
Amaya took a long, slow, annoyed breath in. “One of the assassins.” When Opeli’s eyes flashed with hot fury, Amaya held up her hands to pacify. “I know . She’s young, about Callum’s age, and has significantly more noble ideas about the world than other Moonshadow elves I’ve encountered. Apparently Ezran convinced her to help them, and honor or… I’m not sure what, has caused her to comply. I wouldn’t have believed it if she didn’t still have an intact assassin’s binding on her wrist.”
“I’ve heard of those,” said Opeli. “The physician found a ribbon stained red with the King’s blood on the floor of his chambers, made of Xadian weave. Were there other targets besides King Harrow?”
Amaya nodded. “The bindings compel the assassins to finish their kill swiftly. Otherwise, the ribbon tightens, cutting off circulation until the limb is pinched off. The second target was Ezran. If she doesn't kill him, she'll lose her hand.”
Opeli’s eyes widened. “Then this elf is literally risking life and limb to help Katolis broker peace.” She chewed on the inside of her lip, frowning as she thought. “What if the elf changes her mind?”
“That’s what Corvus is for.”
Opeli pinched the bridge of her nose, and counted to ten. She counted to ten a second time when the first count failed to do its job. “Amaya, this is insane. You’re telling me the entire royal family has gallivanted off towards hostile territory in the company of an elf, on several grand misunderstandings, which has left VIREN in charge. There’s the likelihood King Harrow will kill Prince Callum before he even has a chance to explain, never mind the implications when he finds out that the egg of the Dragon Prince is alive. This is a political atrocity . What am I supposed to do?”
Amaya took her frenzied hands and held them both strongly in one of her own, squeezing them to reassure Opeli. “We do what we’ve always done,” she signed. “We do our duty to King and Kingdom.”
She cupped Opeli’s face, and the cleric leaned into her hand, closing her eyes sadly. “Those words were a lot more reassuring ten years ago.” She chuckled ruefully and looked up at Amaya. “And I thought a mutual break-up in the name of King and Kingdom and Duty was difficult. This is empowering a monster.”
“Not empowering,” said Amaya, withdrawing her hand. “It’s a strategic retreat, letting his arrogance and overconfidence trap him in a stupid move. Viren likes to think he’s a schemer, but he’s too eager to prove himself. You’ll have to keep an eye on him and wait for the right time.”
“And give a dead elf a royal funeral in the meantime,” said Opeli, gesturing down at the corpse.
“Yes, well… we don’t want Viren to suspect we’re onto him.”
“Of course.” Opeli sighed in resignation. “For King and Kingdom.”
Amaya nodded. “Sorry to leave all the hard work to you, but you know I’m not subtle.”
“No,” said Opeli, lightly kissing her on the cheek, a tradition between former lovers who saw each other maybe once or twice a year and still held a small flame, despite the fact that time and duty would always stand between them. “You most certainly are not.”
Amaya nodded and turned to Gren. “My fake tears, please,” she requested, and Gren handed her half an onion. Opeli watched with concern as she pinched off a piece and crushed it, wiping the juice just below her eyes. They began watering instantly, and Amaya began blinking rapidly.
“How… unorthodox,” commented Opeli.
“But convincing, right?” Amaya turned to her, and she did indeed look like she had been crying. Amaya sniffed, swallowed hard and scowled.
“Convincing enough, as long as no one gets close enough to smell the onion juice on you.”
“I’d like to see them try.” Amaya smiled at her.. “Want to see who can blow the most smoke up Viren’s ass before he gets uncomfortable with us being nice to him?”
A malicious twinkle appeared in Opeli’s eye. “That sounds delightful.”
Together, they left the Prince’s chambers.
Chapter 12: The Mission
Soren and Claudia discuss the mission their father has given them.
Around 2 pm, Claudia found Soren on the bench near the bakery, with a mountain of jelly tarts beside him. He was shoveling them into his mouth rapidly, whole, and barely chewing.
Uh oh , thought Claudia. It didn’t help her own trepidation, given her reason for finding him.
“Hey, Sor-bear,” she said gently, sidling up to him. He looked up at her with red-rimmed eyes. Great, something big was bothering him.
“Hey, Claudia,” he mumbled, before pushing another jelly tart into his mouth.
She sat down next to him and helped herself to a jelly tart. “You… excited for our mission?”
Viren had just finished briefing her on what was to happen. She and Soren were to leave immediately after Callum’s funeral to pursue Harrow and assist him in rescuing Ezran from the two vile Moonshadow elves that had kidnapped him. She was also to retrieve the egg, and do whatever was necessary to ensure that Harrow did not see it, and that the egg made it back to Katolis. Even if it meant making ‘necessary sacrifices.’ Even if those sacrifices were Soren.
She wondered if their father had said something similar to Soren.
Her older brother swallowed his mouth full of flaky pastry and raspberry jam and swallowed again, a gulp that she knew was Soren swallowing his feelings and putting on a brave face so he didn’t appear weak - not that Claudia would ever tell Soren she knew that about him, she didn’t want to hurt his pride. “Y-yeah,” he said, before clearing his throat. “Gotta make sure those Moonshadow elves know they messed with the wrong Kingdom.”
It was the kind of braggadocious thing Soren was always saying, but his heart clearly wasn’t into it. Claudia nodded. “Hey, um. Did… Dad say anything weird to you?”
Soren stopped still, with a tart halfway to his open mouth. He remained frozen in place for a half-second too long, his eyes darting around as his mind scrambled to catch up to what Claudia had asked.
“Uh… did he say something weird to you?”
It was Claudia’s turn to freeze. Telling Soren that their dad considered him less important than a dumb dragon egg would hurt him so much. And Viren had obviously said something that had upset Soren, so if it was bad enough to rattle strong, cocky, overconfident Soren, what on earth had he said? And did she want to know?
“He said, uh…” she paused, fumbling for a plausible thing that their dad would say that was also super weird. “... that walnuts were his favorite fruit! Super weird, right?” She snorted, half of a laugh. “Walnuts aren’t a fruit, Dad.”
Soren smiled, but it didn’t quite reach his eyes. Claudia was trying to cheer him up, which was nice. His smile fell, and he looked away.
He’d climbed the stairs at 5 minutes before noon, taking them two at a time and enjoying the leg workout climbing the North tower had always provided. Soren loved moving, loved the feeling of his muscles burning as he exerted them, loved the feeling of his foot pressing against the stone stair and his entire leg tensing as it pushed him upwards, loved the feeling of air in his lungs and sweat upon his brow.
When he reached the top, Viren was already there, waiting. He nodded, acknowledging Soren’s presence.
“Thanks for having the meeting all the way up here, Dad,” Soren had said, dropping into a stretch. Had to keep those muscles limber, a workout like that needed a cool-down or he’d be sore the next day. A sore Soren. Sore-en. He’d have to tell that one to Claudia later, she’d love it.
“Yes,” said Viren, stiff and formal as always. “I’ve asked you up here for something very important I would like you and Claudia to do.”
“Yeah?” Soren bent over at the hips, allowing his upper body to hang loosely, several joints in his spine decompressing with an audible crunch. Ahh, that was a good one. He extended his arms, getting a good hamstring stretch in while he was bent over. “This have to do with King Harrow taking off this morning?”
“It does,” replied Viren. “You and Claudia are to go after him and… assist him in putting an end to the elves who kidnapped Ezran.”
Soren straightened up, and grinned. “Cool. Was kind of hoping you’d send someone to help him out. Glad it’s me and Clauds.” He crouched down and
“Indeed.” Viren turned away. “One additional thing. You are to return with the tragic news that King Harrow succumbed to his injuries and the elves, in a last desperate attempt, took Prince Ezran’s life.”
Soren looked up, a confused frown slowly appearing on his face. “Uhhh, I thought we were supposed to help them come back safely?”
“Of course, of course. You’ll do your best and fight valiantly, but… they are Moonshadow elves.”
“Okay…” Soren stood and folded his arms. “And what if they… don’t do, uh… that?”
Viren’s shoulders sagged in exasperation. It was a pose Soren was well accustomed to. His dad was so smart and, well, Soren wasn’t. And he knew he wasn’t smart compared to his dad but every time Viren made it obvious how much less smart Soren was than him, it made Soren feel like he was five years old again. He shrank a little, feeling like a little boy in armor that was too big.
“Soren, this is for the good of the kingdom, for Katolis. Xadian forces have directly attacked the crown, and you can guarantee that they won’t stop with one assassination attempt, especially not once word gets out that King Harrow survived.” Viren turned and placed both hands atop his staff, drawing his chin up and looking down at his son. “We need a show of strength, and a grieving father abdicating his duties to exact vengeance isn’t sending the right message. It says we’re vulnerable, we’re scared, we’re weak. And a traumatized ten year old who lost his entire family isn’t going to be an improvement.”
This wasn’t happening. He had to be mis-hearing things. There was no way his dad was asking him to do what it sounded like his dad was asking him to do.
“I… don’t know if I can do that,” said Soren meekly.
“Think of Katolis, Soren. Think of your future, too.” Viren strode forward, and clapped a hand on Soren’s shoulder, smiling warmly. “As my son, the son of the regent, the future of Katolis rests upon your shoulders.”
Soren looked at his father’s hand, and then up into Viren’s eyes, feeling small and lost and confused. Was his dad really, actually, in all seriousness, asking him to kill the king and usurp the throne?!
“This is important, Soren. I’m sure you’ll figure something out.”
Viren turned on his heel and headed towards the stairs, the finality of his movements indicating that the conversation was over and leaving Soren frozen in place, his guts full of ice-cold horror.
“That’s… pretty weird,” said Soren, fidgeting with his hands.
Claudia’s forced smile fell, and she sat beside Soren on the bench, the plate of pastries between them. “What did he say to you?” she asked quietly.
Soren inhaled sharply and looked up. “I don’t think I can actually say it. It’s bad.”
“Bad-bad?” Soren only nodded silently in reply.
“We can’t just... not go on this mission, Clauds, Dad’ll be upset. But… he asked me to do something I don’t think I can do.”
Claudia fidgeted with her snake bracelet. “We can still go and you could not do the bad thing.”
Soren shook his head. “I think dad cares more about that than helping King Harrow. I don’t… I don’t want to disappoint him, but…” His shoulders sagged, and he whispered, mostly to himself, “I can’t kill the king.”
Claudia’s eyes widened. “Whoa, what?”
“Dad said that I’m supposed to come back with the tragic news that King Harrow’s injuries were too much and that the elves killed Ez in a last desperate attempt. And if that doesn’t happen then… I’m. Supposed to do it.” Admitting it out loud filled Soren with overwhelming shame, and he screwed his eyes shut.
Claudia could hardly believe it. Their dad hadn’t really asked Soren to commit regicide, had he?
“The egg,” Viren said, after far too long of a pause. “You should save the egg.”
It wasn't entirely implausible.
Aghast, Claudia reached for a jelly tart and took a bite. They sat in silence for a while, processing the awful tasks ahead of them.
Finally, Claudia sighed. “Okay, look. Let’s just… track Harrow and the assassins down, and we’ll eliminate the elves and figure out what we’re going to say to Dad on the way back.”
Soren looked at her, the relief on his face clear as day. “You… don’t think I should follow through on what Dad asked?”
“What? No! I’m sort of hoping you just misheard Dad, actually.” When Soren pouted at her, Claudia backpedaled. “I mean, I know you heard what you heard but. Dad’s probably having a bad day, or… or he forgot to eat again, or something.”
Soren nodded, and perked up. “Yeah. Dad does act weird when he's hungry.”
“Thanks, Clauds,” said Soren, smiling and wiping pear jam off his cheek. “You always know how to un-funk me.”
“Aww,” said Claudia, smiling and lightly bopping Soren on the shoulder. “That’s what family’s for, you big goof.”
He stood and stretched, and picked up his plate of tarts. “I’m gonna go finish packing before the step-prince’s funeral,” said Soren. “Thanks again for helping me figure out what to do.
“Yeah, me too. See you at the funeral?”
The siblings parted ways, pushing their doubts to the side in separate efforts to reconcile the father they loved with the cruelty he had demonstrated.
In which the entire plot of TDP could have been solved if only someone had given Viren a damn Snickers bar.
Chapter 13: The Skirmish
Harrow catches up to the quartet of travelers.
The sun had yet to rise, but Rayla was awake. She made another silent, anxious perimeter of the camp, and, upon returning, spotted Callum angrily kicking off his blanket and stomping towards the riverside, cursing under his breath and holding the side of his head.
Naturally, she followed.
It wasn’t hard - even though he was slowly turning into one of her kind, Callum still had spent 14 years as a human, and lacked the grace that training and navigating the enormous boughs of the Moonshadow forest bestowed upon the elves that lived there. Which, of course, meant that he traipsed through the woods with all the subtlety of an angry moss boar. He was also cursing quite creatively, and had plenty of colourful things to say about Viren, about horns, and about the moon being too bright.
Silhouetted in the moonlight, she could see the outline of two pointed ears and the beginning of a small horn on the right. So the other side was coming in, then. Rayla stepped out into the clearing at the water’s edge, and Callum whipped around, his eyes reflecting in the dark like hers did.
Had they always been so green?
Callum’s shoulders and ears sagged in relief when he saw her. “Hi Rayla,” he said quietly, before hissing through his teeth, clutching at the right horn that was still growing. There was something dark and shiny on his hand, and as Callum convulsed in pain the knife he was holding dropped to the ground.
“Wha-?” Rayla looked sharply down at the knife, smelled blood, and then looked at Callum, who was turned away from her. “Did you try and cut it out yourself?!”
“Only where the pressure was really bad,” he said bitterly, dabbing at his head with a wet cloth. His arms were still pale pink, but his entire face and head were that midnight blue, and his hair was significantly longer than it had been, shaggy and past his chin now. And, although he was hunched over, curling in on himself as the horn on the right lengthened, cracking audibly as it grew, he was also broader and taller.
He looked a lot older than he had the day before, but when he drew a ragged breath and looked up at her, his expression was still that of a frightened 14 year old.
Rayla sighed and approached him. “Here,” she said softly. “Let me help you. You’ve got blood in your hair.”
“It hurts,” he whispered, handing her the cloth and slumping down to sit on the rocky gravel of the river’s edge.
“I know,” she said, softly dabbing at the skin around the horn, which was quite hot and inflamed. It was spooky, the disjointed creak of growing bone, watching it happen beneath her fingers. She didn’t dare touch the horn, of course, it would be extraordinarily rude , plus the horn was likely sensitive. But she quietly cleaned around the appendage, and dabbed away the blood trickling into his snow-white hair, scrutinizing it in the pre-light of dawn.
“I’m sorry,” Callum said quietly after a few seconds of silence.
“For… this. For how gross this is. For how gross I am.”
Rayla frowned. “Not really your fault.”
“Yeah, but I’m still a problem. I’m in pain all the time, so we can’t move fast, and I’m just… so uncomfortable .”
“My skin itches. My hair itches. My ears, they... “ Callum said up abruptly, and hissed, arching forward to rub his shoulder. “Ever had someone pull on your ear?”
Rayla chuckled. “You’ve obviously never been to an elf school. Ears are just convenient handles to grab unruly kids, and I was very unruly.”
“It’s like that, just… having your ears pulled all the time by an invisible hand and when you reach up to touch them the shape is different and wrong and they move around more than they’re supposed to.”
“Ah, yeah, that probably takes getting used to.” She tried to imagine what the opposite would be like - reaching up to tuck her hair behind her ear, and the point missing entirely, just a smooth, rounded edge like a shell - and suppressed a shudder.
“And like… getting tall really fast hurts. Everything hurts. A lot. I’m… I’m scared.”
Rayla patted Callum’s shoulder awkwardly. “Well… maybe once we get to Xadia we’ll be able to find someone who can fix it. Put you back to normal, yeah?”
Callum winced, another spasm as the horn finished growing, and looked at her, with sad eyes. “Is that possible?”
“We can always try, can’t we?”
He smiled at that, faintly, at her use of the word ‘we.’ She was offering to help him, beyond getting the dragon prince home, and that was a small comfort.
Without warning, an arrow whistled out of the undergrowth, spiking the tree beside them. The two of them were on their feet in an instant, glancing around frantically for their assailant.
“Get to camp and pack up!” cried Rayla, withdrawing her blades in a whistle of steel against steel. “I’ll hold them off!”
Callum nodded wordlessly, and ran back towards camp, while Rayla stood her ground and waited.
She didn’t have to wait for long. A tall figure, armored simply but still unmistakable, emerged from the shadows lining the riverside. Rayla gasped when she saw him.
“King Harrow?” she asked, raising her blades defensively and trying to ignore the throbbing numbness in her left hand.
“I am,” said the figure, eyes glowing an eerie moon white in the darkness.
“Dead?” His voice was cold and menacing. Rayla had begun to doubt, spending time with the princes and seeing their gentle spirits and hearing their fond talk about their father, that Harrow was the sort of man who could kill Avizandum. “You and your friends certainly tried, but you failed.” The man before her dripped malice and vengeance. This was a man who could, and would, kill an archdragon.
“You’re making a terrible mistake,” said Rayla, maneuvering so that she was between Harrow and the pathway to camp.
“No, elf,” said Harrow, drawing his sword. “You are. Return me my son and die.”
“Shouldn’t that be an ‘or’?” ventured Rayla.
Harrow grit his teeth, and lunged, that spooky white glow in his irises flaring as he charged. He was big, and a very competent warrior, and while Rayla was skilled, she didn’t trust her chances of beating him outright.
Still, she had to try. Whatever had enabled Harrow to not only survive dying but track them down deep into the woods and appear to be in good physical health had to be unnatural. The eerie glow of his eyes was more than enough indication that whatever was possessing Harrow, she couldn’t let it get to Ezran or Corvus. And definitely not Callum.
Steel met steel and screamed out a loud clang, echoing over the trees. Rayla’s crossed blades held off Harrow’s longsword, but only for a moment as she spun under him and away, her wrist throbbing in agony. Merciful moon, he was strong .
She had half a second, not even long enough to catch her breath, before Harrow lunged again, a heavy overhead swing that she barely dodged. The king’s sword clattered against the rocky ground of the shore, and Rayla nimbly danced around him as he hefted the claymore from the indentation in the ground his swing had created.
He whipped around in an arc that was meant to separate head from neck, but she ducked in time, and hooked a foot around his ankle. Harrow snarled in anger as she tugged forward, knocking him off balance. He didn’t fall, simply staggered backward, giving her an opening. She turned and ran, the opposite direction from camp.
She was fast, true, but the adult human had longer legs and was no slouch himself in speed. She’d not sprinted far before she heard the crunch of boots on gravel gaining nearer and nearer, and the whistle of steel slicing air, right behind her. Rayla whipped around and blocked the blow, the impact causing her entire arm to shake and throb as the binding around her wrist tightened ever more. She cried out in pain and her grip on her blade slackened, giving Harrow quarter to press forward. With lightning reflex, she blocked his sword with her other blade and kicked him in the gut, pushing him backwards as she scooped up the dropped weapon, willing her numb fingers to close around the sword tightly enough to not show her weakness.
It didn’t go unmissed by Harrow, who glanced at her discolored limb and narrowed his eyes, a flash of thought momentarily breaking his berserker rage. Rayla took the opportunity to dive under his stance and slash quickly at his thigh - not a wound that would severely injure him, for she knew the boys would never forgive her if she re-killed their dad, but one that would hopefully slow him down.
She ran, full-tilt, leaping into the treeline to obscure her destination, and didn’t dare look back to see if she was being followed.
Callum was waiting for her in the camp. “Corvus and Ez have gone on ahead,” said Callum. He thrust a backpack into her hands and started limping away from the camp. “We’re leaving the wagons and one of the horses, and taking only what we can carry.”
Rayla nodded and shouldered the bag. “You going to be okay, with walking?”
“I’ll have to be,” said Callum. “Can’t risk whoever’s chasing us catching up.”
“Right, of course.”
“Who was it?”
Rayla swallowed. “Oh, just some soldier.”
Callum paused and looked at her, frowning slightly. “You didn’t…?”
She shook her head. “No. Just slowed him down and ran.”
They hurried, quick as they could, down the obscure trail Corvus and Ezran had gone, and up towards the mountain.
Back at the river’s edge, as the sun’s first rays touched the earth, Harrow sagged to his knees in sudden exhaustion and pain. The cut to his leg was of concern, of course, and he’d have to dress it quickly, but it was the wound in his side that was giving him grief.
As the sun rose and the moon sank behind her, whatever fell magic Viren had cast was wearing off, effective only under moonlight. The mage had said his strength would wane during the day, but the difference was infuriating. He’d have to make camp and track down the accursed elves again the following night. Fortunately, they weren’t exactly as subtle as he expected Moonshadow elves to be, and the male appeared to be injured. The female, too, now that he thought about it.
Still, the presence of a second binding around her wrist puzzled him. He’d watched the leader of the assassins fall in front of him, through the eyes of Pip, and had seen the white ribbon turn crimson with his blood as it fell from the elf’s arm.
A second binding meant a second target, and it was strangling the girl’s hand to the point of detriment. Her mission was unfinished.
Who had the elves failed to kill?
The sun had risen fully and the false life Viren had infused into Harrow had worn off completely, leaving him feeling sick and exhausted. Weak. He forced himself to his feet and staggered back to the small camp he’d made before sunset the previous day.
The elves were cowards, and not at full capacity. All Harrow had to do was catch up to them before the sun went down, and then he’d avenge Callum and rescue Ezran.
He stumbled to camp and clattered to his bedroll, dreams of vengeance slipping into dreamless, exhausted sleep.
Thanks for your patience as I took a short hiatus! My creative spoons were kinda low.
Chapter 14: The Avalanche
In their attempt to escape the morning's attack, the party heads up the side of a mountain. When an argument between Callum and Rayla gets out of hand, things get very dangerous very quickly.
WE ARE OFFICIALLY INTO GROSS TOWN WITH BODY HORROR! TW FOR DISMEMBERMENT!!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
As their rag-tag band ascended the steep mountain pathway, Callum’s breathing grew labored and ragged. It wasn’t an easy pace that Corvus and Rayla had set, especially with Corvus frequently doubling back to brush their footprints out of the snow, but it wasn’t so punishing that the princes, unaccustomed to heavy physical exertion, couldn’t manage. True, Ezran was beginning to flag, after having abruptly been awoken just before sunrise and being told to pack whatever he could carry very urgently, and burdened with the extra weight of Bait in his arms. It was a lot for a sleepy ten-year-old boy.
But he was doing considerably better than Callum.
Ezran glanced back at his older brother, who barely resembled the goofy teenager he knew. The shivering figure shuffling through the snow wore his brother’s clothes, true, and the angles of his face, while more adult-seeming, weren’t unfamiliar. But the two horns and pointed ears underneath a shaggy mass of white hair that raked the tops of his shoulders, and the blue skin that was creeping in blotches down the backs of his hands made Callum seem a stranger. Too tall, too pointy, and trudging with a heaviness that spoke volumes - Viren’s curse was taking its toll mentally and physically.
Ezran slowed, drawing up beside Callum. “Do you want to carry Bait?” he asked his older brother, looking up, his blue eyes wide with worry. “He’s mostly good for glowing, but he’s also really warm right now. He’s like those flat rocks that the servants put under the mattresses on cold nights, and since your sleeves ripped off…”
Callum smiled thinly down at his little brother. It wasn’t fair - he was the big brother, and it was supposed to be his job to comfort and protect Ezran. And here he was, offering to let him carry one of the only sources of warmth available right now.
In truth, Callum wasn’t cold. He felt almost too hot, even - hot, and achey and shivery and sick. His arms and hands hurt something awful, and it took only looking down at the cobalt hue snaking down his arms to do the math - his body was starting to reject his fifth fingers. Indeed, the left hand was further along than the right, and while the blue had begun to work its way up his ring finger on his left hand, his pinky remained its human skin color. Well, sort of - it was choked and purple, like the blood supply had been cut off.
He looked furtively over to Rayla, where she was clutching her left hand to her body, and to the horrible purple bruising on her hand and arm, the tails of that white band fluttering in the snowy squall. The band would tighten ever further until her hand fell off, as long as Ezran remained alive, or so Corvus had told him.
The color of her hand and his still-human pinky finger was distressingly similar.
He must have spaced out because he felt Ez nudge him. “Callum? You don’t look okay.”
Callum looked back at Ezran and shook his head. “Just going through some really sucky elf puberty. It’s like regular puberty but instead of getting sweaty and my voice going all funny like it did last summer, I grew horns and my bones hurt.”
“It’s a lot faster than human puberty, true,” said Ezran, nodding with mock seriousness. “Do you want to talk about it?”
“Oh, okay.” Ezran walked beside him in silence, listening to Callum wheeze.
“I might want to sit down for a little. The air’s really thin up here,” Callum said after a while.
“Okay, I’ll tell Rayla and Corvus.”
“No. We need to keep going,” insisted Rayla when Ezran informed her of Callum’s needs. “We don’t want a repeat of this morning.
“I can just tell the soldiers I’m okay,” insisted Ezran. “Aunt Amaya was going to go to the castle and tell Dad what’s going on, they’ll believe me!”
Corvus pursed his lips and considered Ezran and Rayla’s points. “I have my doubts, Prince Ezran. We don’t know how successful the general was in persuading your father, and we do have to contend with the fact that Lord Viren deliberately did this to Prince Callum for some nefarious purpose and might have sent his own guards out. They might believe you, but they might also believe that you and I have been bewitched by elves.”
“I just… need to catch my breath,” panted Callum, bent over and bracing himself on his knees. “Can we spare five minutes?”
Corvus squinted down the pathway. “Alright. Five minutes. I’ll use the time to hide our tracks.”
“Fine,” huffed Rayla, and sat down on a nearby fallen log. Grateful, Callum flopped backwards into a snow drift, the frozen fluff bringing his feverish body great relief.
Ezran crept up beside him and touched his forehead. “Callum, you feel really warm. Are you sick?”
“I don’t know.” His chest rose and fell in quick, shallow breaths. “I just feel really hot and I’m having a hard time breathing. Kind of like I need to burp but also like I can’t get enough air into my chest.” As if to emphasize this, he inhaled very deeply, gulping in a lungful like a runner just catching his breath after a marathon. He sat up with a pained hiss, and rubbed his arms. Skin directly on snow, while cooling and relieving for a brief time, was actually really chilly and a bit painful.
“You sure you’re not cold? We have a spare cloak in my bag,” ventured Ezran.
“Oh, I’m freezing. Look, I’m so cold my skin turned blue,” said Callum, trying to joke, just enough to get Ezran to stop fussing over him.
It didn’t work, and Ezran frowned with concern. “I’m serious, Callum. You aren’t wearing sleeves.”
With a sigh, Callum relented to his brother’s concern. “I’m actually kind of warm. Not like fever-hot, but a little uncomfortably hot.” He looked over at Rayla, who was worrying the band around her wrist, trying to loosen it to no avail. “Maybe it’s an elf thing? Rayla’s not wearing any sleeves either, and she seems ok.”
“I mean, I am cold,” she said, giving up on the ribbon and letting her numb hand drop to her lap. “I’m just a little more resistant than you humans.” She pointed at the sky. “I can pull warmth from the moon, but since it’s midday, I’m a tad chilly. If it was night and the moon was full, it’d be like a balmy summer’s day, even up here on this snow-covered mountain.”
He had a million more questions for Rayla, about the moon and her Moonshadow powers and what he might be becoming, but before he could even decide which to ask first, Corvus returned. “We need to get moving again,” he said. “I’ve spotted our pursuer - it’s King Harrow himself.”
“What?!” shouted Callum, leaping to his feet, before whirling around to glare at Rayla. “You said it was just some soldier!”
“Corvus, are you sure?” said Ezran, clutching Bait to himself.
Corvus nodded. “He’s quite a ways down the mountain from here - it would take him the remainder of the day and evening to reach us even if we remained where we are - but it is absolutely the king.”
“Why would you lie to me about that?!” demanded Callum of Rayla, his voice echoing off the cliffsides.
“There’s something wrong with him!” said Rayla, on her feet as well, shoulders squared defensively. “He was critically wounded the night we left the castle, badly enough that Runaan’s spell thought he died and released the binding. But he was up on his feet and attacking with the strength of two men, already two day’s journey away from the castle, alone. He fought like a monster, I was lucky to escape!”
“So you lied to me instead of letting me talk to our father and explain what was going on!?”
“Look at yourself, Callum! He’d made up his mind that he was going to kill me and you! Do you honestly think he’d believe you, a whole head taller and with pointy ears and blue skin!?”
“He might have believed me!” insisted Ez, eyebrows knitting together in distress.
Rayla shook her head. “Viren did something to him. It was like he was drawing strength from the moon - as soon as the sun rose he could barely lift his sword. And his eyes…” she shivered. “They glowed . I don’t know how he recovered from his injuries so fast, but whatever it was it’s wrong . He wouldn’t have listened. Not to me, not to Callum, not to Corvus and not to you.”
“We could’ve tried!”
Corvus stepped between the shouting teenagers and shoved them apart. “I hate to interrupt,” he said, his voice a harshly hissed whisper, “but you two need to stop immediately.” He pointed up to the top of the snow-covered mountain face above them. A few small pellets of snow rolled down the steep wall and splatted to the ground beside them. A visible crack was forming in the snow near the top.
Rayla’s eyes widened. “An avalanche?”
Corvus nodded. “Loud noises could bury us under several feet of snow. I understand you’re upset, Prince Callum, but Rayla is right. If he’s here alone, and determined to kill two elves and reclaim his son, fatal injuries be damned, then you aren’t safe”
“I am a loyal subject of Katolis. Much as it grieves me to disrespect my king and hinder his progress,” Corvus explained, shouldering his pack and nudging Callum’s toward him with his foot, “I am far more afraid of what your aunt will do to me if I fail to keep you boys safe than I am of what the king might do. We press onward.”
Sulking, Callum bent down to pick up the heavy bag, but as soon as he reached forward, a muscle in his back spasmed painfully, wrenching his shoulder and arm with white-hot agony. It was so sudden ,and so painful, much more so than anything he’d experienced yet, stars dancing in his vision, that in spite of himself and Corvus’s warning, he screamed. A raw, rough animal sound that echoed through the canyon, sending flights of birds into the air.
There was a crystalline crack above their heads, and a large chunk of snow landed at Corvu’s feet.
“Run,” he said, pushing the children in front of him in haste and grabbing Callum’s bag. “Run!!”
They ran pell-mell down the mountain, crashing through the undergrowth, trying their best to get away from the tide of snow that was pushing its way down the mountainside and bowing mighty pines beneath it. Dizzy from the pain and only barely thinking, Callum snatched his bag from Corvus’s hand and stopped, whipping around as his hand closed around what he sought.
“What are you doing?!” screamed Corvus over the rumble as the snow picked up speed and bore down upon them. “We need to run!”
“We’re not going to make it! Get behind me!” Callum shouted back, shakily drawing the aspiro rune. Not his best writing, but he was shaking with pain and fear and cold and could probably be forgiven some lousy penmanship given the circumstances.
A quick glance up the mountain told Corvus the prince was right. He protectively gathered Rayla, Bait and Ezran to him, and huddled to the ground, trying to make sure that the snow washed over his back and wouldn’t bowl him and the others over.
Callum inhaled, another enormous gasp filling his lungs to capacity. “Aspiro!” he cried over the thunder of the avalanche, and exhaled into the glowing rune. The wind rushed out of his lungs, a torrent of air surging from his lips right as the avalanche reached them. His magically enhanced breath carved a pathway through the surging tide of snow, forcing it around them.
“It’s working!” cried Ez, looking over Corvus’s shoulder, slightly in awe of his brother’s mage abilities. Callum did look really cool standing in the snow, his hair whipping around him as his exhale blasted the danger away.
As the air rushed past his lips, Callum felt a strange sensation coursing through his body. Almost as though, in addition to the wind coming from his lungs, it was also blowing through him - in from his horns, in from his neck, in from the center of his back. It was a surge of warmth, a pleasant balm that momentarily soothed the aching, feverish feeling in his body, that made his lungs feel stronger. He suddenly felt very alert and high-energy.
But, alas, there was only so much his lungs could hold, and there was more snow than air. He wheezed one final sputter of breath out, and then everything went white as the snow swept him and the others away.
They tumbled head over heels endlessly for what felt like an infinity and yet no time at all. When his head stopped reeling, Callum could tell he was upside down, in the snow, with his legs sticking out. He kicked frantically, and felt a firm hand close around his leg and pull - Corvus, who, while snow was sticking to his hair and eyebrows, seemed fine. Rayla popped up from a snowdrift somewhere to their right, gasping as she struggled out of the snow she’d been buried in.
Bait popped up next to her, and grunted.
“I’m okay!” yelled Ez, a distance away. The snow had flung him further than the others, and he was standing on ice, the black waters of a frozen mountain lake surging beneath him. The egg of the dragon prince was some feet away.
“Be careful, Prince Ezran!” called Corvus. “Walk very slowly and try to spread your weight out so you don’t break through!”
“Okay, I just have to get the egg,” said Ez, inching slowly towards it, sliding his foot gently across the ice to test it before putting his weight on it. He made it, slowly and steadily, to the egg, but when he lifted it there was a crack that made all of their blood freeze in their veins.
They couldn’t lose two crown princes to a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere.
“Just stay calm, Ez,” said Callum, as Corvus slowly inched his own way towards Ezran. “Stay there and give Corvus the egg.”
Corvus reached the prince, and gingerly took the egg, inching his own way back across what he believed to be solid enough ice that could bear his weight. However, once again, the additional weight of the egg was too much for the ice, and it began to tinkle and crack beneath the tracker’s feet. He froze in place, and Callum and Rayla looked at each other.
“Should probably be you,” said Rayla, holding up her arm. “My hand’s no good.”
Callum nodded, and scooted across the ice as Corvus and Ezran had. Ez, wisely, and to Callum’s relief, had slowly lowered himself to the surface of the ice, spreading his body weight out across its length, and was scooting to more solid ice on his stomach.
His hands were aching now, and his left hand had turned entirely blue, save the blackened and numb pinky. Still, four functioning fingers was better than none, so gingerly, Callum took the egg from Corvus, and slowly began creeping back towards Rayla and the shore.
“Oh come on,” sighed Corvus in annoyance, having also laid down on the ice to scrabble across it on his belly.
With panic in his eyes, Callum looked to Rayla. “If I toss it to you, can you catch it?”
Rayla hesitated. “I… I’m not sure.”
The crack spidered out further beneath Callum’s foot. “Can you try?” he asked, a lilt of panic causing his voice to squeak slightly.
She swallowed nervously. “Okay,” she said, and she crept nearer to him, not so close as to disturb the splintering ice beneath him but close enough to catch the egg as he tossed it, and still leave enough distance that she could heave it into a snowdrift if the ice didn’t hold up beneath her as well. She nodded to Callum, who nodded in return and threw the egg.
It should have been an easy throw, an underhand softball pitch with a clean trajectory straight to Rayla’s outstretched arms, one she could’ve caught even without her hand functioning at 100%. But it was not a clean throw.
As Callum tossed the egg, the weight shifted very suddenly, tipping it to the side as the support of all ten of Callum’s fingers suddenly became nine.
Callum’s pinky fell to the ice with a soft plop in front of him, but he barely noticed, the digit having gone numb and useless hours ago. He had other, larger things to worry about anyway.
Rayla lunged for the egg, and it slipped across her good hand, her strangled hand unable to close around it in time to catch it.
The egg crashed through the ice into the frigid waters below.
Kept this one fairly close to canon, gosh!
Mostly because they have to have a reason to get to the moon nexus, for... ~reasons~ but yes.
Chapter 15: The Cave
We learn what happened when the egg fell through the ice and the aftermath thereof.
I thank everyone again for their patience with my sporadic updates. It has been a REAL rough couple of months, but I'm slowly getting my brain back together. I've been chipping away at this chapter for a few weeks, and I figure I should probably post it.
Putting the comfort back into hurt/comfort this chapter, y'all! Can't promise subsequent chapters will happen with any other kind of regularity, but I'll do my best to keep up with this and the others.
She hadn’t wanted to make camp, not with the eerie moon-cursed King Harrow at their heels, but Corvus had insisted. With Ezran soaked to the bone and shivering, the egg ice-cold to the touch and barely flickering, and Callum feverish and in shock at the day’s events, they were in no shape to travel.
Begrudgingly, she’d left Corvus to guard the cave while she hunted for some food, as well as something that would help Ezran’s cold and Callum’s pain.
As Callum had tossed the egg to her, his blackened and dead pinky had dropped off his hand, altering the trajectory of his throw. She had fumbled the egg, and dropped it into the frozen waters of the lake.
If the Dragon Prince died, it was her fault.
Rayla pushed those thoughts away. No, the Dragon Prince was not going to die. They were going to be fine , and warm up by the fire , and no one was going to die.
As Callum yelped in pain, Rayla cried out in distress. But before she or Corvus could react, Ezran had dove into the hole the egg had formed and swam for it. Corvus cried out in alarm, afraid for the young prince’s safety. Diving into the ice?! What was he thinking.
Callum barely reacted at all, having gone catatonic staring at his now four-fingered hand, his breathing rapidly escalating.
Pulling out his grappling hook, Corvus began frantically searching the ice for the surfacing Ezran, trying to determine where he might emerge and prepared to free him in case he didn’t make it back to the hole that had formed. He almost shoved Callum at Rayla, scowling at them both. “Get Prince Callum to safety and calm him down,” barked Corvus. “I’ll pull Prince Ezran out.”
Rayla hadn’t even argued, instead half-dragging Callum to the shore as he began to make a thin, high noise in his throat. “Breathe, Callum,” she insisted, rubbing his back between his shoulders. “You gotta take nice, normal breaths or your gonna pass out.”
“M-my finger,” he stammered, the edge of panic evident in his voice.
“Yep,” she said grimly. “I saw.”
“It fell off!” Oookay, Callum was not going to calm down any time soon. She tugged him further onto the shore and guided him to a convenient stone and sat him down.
“I need you to do something for me, Callum,” she said firmly, looking him in the face. His eyes were wide and staring, but they weren’t seeing her. “C’mon, Callum, look at me.” His breathing was getting even more ragged now, and coming in fast, short gulps. She figured she should try… something.
She’d only seen this once, when a terrified scream had woken her up from sleep, and she’d crept downstairs to see Ethari holding Runaan, who was breathing far too fast and shaky to be healthy. Ethari had explained, the next day, that sometimes Runaan saw scary things at work, and while he was strong and brave and knew that such thing could not hurt him, in the land of sleep, the moonlight realm between life and death, between reality and illusion, sometimes the scary things resurfaced and made Runaan, in his slumber, think he was back in those scary situations.
She had watched, that night, as Ethari guided Runaan back from the state of confused panic.
“I’m going to start counting, Callum, and I want you to breathe with my counting. Can you do that?” When Callum only stared past her, and didn’t respond, she placed a hand on his shoulder and maneuvered so she was staring him in the eye. “Can you do that?” she repeated. Callum nodded, tightly, but it was a nod all the same.
“Okay… take a big breath in, two, three four and hold it… then out, two, three, four, five, six and hold…” She repeated it for several rounds, monitoring Callum’s breathing. It was still abrupt and rapid, and he was exhaling and inhaling too vigorously, but he wasn’t choking on his own oxygen anymore.
Corvus approached them, holding Ezran, who was soaking wet and shivering, but cradling the egg. “I saw a cave further up the mountain and to the south. We need to make camp and build a fire before nightfall so we can ensure we stay hidden.”
“We can’t stop now!” protested Rayla.
“We have to,” said Corvus, firmly. “Prince Ezran will catch his death out here if he doesn’t warm up immediately, and Prince Callum is barely able to focus on breathing. We’ll rest for the night and continue at dawn.”
“And if the King catches up…?” said Rayla nervously.
Corvus sighed in irritation, scowling. “We’ll worry about that if it happens.”
It was well after night fall now and the moonlight was warm, but Rayla was still on edge. Her hand was truly numb now, and try as she might to command it to close, it would no longer obey her. At least her open palm could hold berries, and was currently cupping a bundle of moonberries.
She squinted and glanced around, and spotted something else - boogie berries. At least that would help Ezran not die of a cold in a mountain cave.
When she returned with the berries, Corvus was standing guard at the entrance. He nodded curtly at her as she approached. “How are they?” she asked, cautious.
“Ezran is asleep,” said Corvus, looking past her to maintain his watch. “Callum is getting worse.”
“Whatever changes that curse is causing, they seem very painful. He’s about to lose his other pinky, too, so please… be nice to him?”
“I’m not about to go be a jerk,” said Rayla. “Let me know when you’re ready to sleep, I can take watch.”
“You sure about that?” Corvus nodded at her hand. “That doesn’t look too good.”
“I'll manage,” she replied airily, and ducked into the narrow cave entrance.
The cave had been a rather fortuitous find. It was much deeper than they thought, and there was a part that dipped lower further in. It was damp and animals and bugs had definitely nested in there but the shape of the cave was just enough that they could light a fire without the glow of the firelight being visible from a distance. By the time Harrow got close enough to see there was a fire, he’d already have encountered Corvus.
Rayla slid down the slope of rocks and alighted just inside the circle of firelight. Ezran shifted and sat up, snuffling. “Rayla?” he said, sleepily.
“Hey,” she said gently, crouching beside him. “I found some boogie berries for your stuffy nose.”
“Oh, neat,” he replied, still groggy. And of course, it sounded more like “oh, nead” but she wasn’t about to begrudge him proper diction when he had a noggin full of mucus. He took one of the green berries and went to eat it, but she stopped him.
“Ah-ah. To cure a stuffy nose, you gotta stuff ‘em up your nose.”
“I have to put berries in my nose?” he said, squinting at her peevishly. “This isn’t some kind of Moonshadow joke is it?”
“Nope. Pop those berries in there and you’ll feel right as rain in the morning.”
Ezran carefully wedged the berries into his nostrils and frowned. “They feel tingly.”
“Good, they’re working.” She glanced over at the fire, where the egg was nestled in a blanket, and looking rather dim. “Is he okay?”
“The egg or Callum?” asked Ezran, settling back down and pulling Bait closer to him like a particularly grouchy teddy bear.
“Uh, I was thinking about the egg, but I guess Callum, too.”
“Bad,” was Ezran’s reply. “Egg needs a doctor. Dunno what Callum needs.” The young prince yawned. “I gotta sleep now.”
Rayla smiled softly and pulled the blanket up over him, tucking him in for maximum warmth.
Her next stop was the egg. She put a hand on it, and winced at how cool it was to the touch. It was no longer ice-cold, but it wasn’t a healthy warm either. The iridescent light within flickered dimly at her touch. “Hang on there, little guy,” she said quietly, then stood to go find Callum.
He was sitting further into the cave, just inside the fire’s glow, and playing idly with what looked like a small stick.
No -- not a stick. It was his other finger.
“It came off while you were getting food,” he explained, numbly. “I was squeezing it to see if it had any feeling left and then -- pop.” He held it up and examined it. “Did you know that fingers actually aren’t just the digits? There’s bones in the hand, too, that run down through the palm and into the wrist.” He held up his other hand and stared at it. “I wonder what happened to those bones.”
“Have you just been sitting back here and thinking about hand bones?” said Rayla, uncomfortable. She tried not to think about her own hand and wrist bones that might one day very soon no longer be attached to her arm.
“Kinda hard not to,” was Callum’s sour reply.
“I’ve been thinking about how much I’m gonna mess Viren up once I fix this, too.” Callum’s voice was hard, and angry. In the glow of the firelight there was a steel in his gaze that unnerved Rayla - with the changes in his appearance and the hardness in his voice, the scowl was almost familiar. Almost Moonshadow. “If nothing else I wanna save my finger so I can give it to him as a present. So he knows exactly what I went through.”
“You’re gonna give him the finger?” Rayla said hollowly, a little unsure of how to handle this new facet of Callum, this bitter anger.
Callum snorted with a laugh. “Oh man, I hadn’t even thought of that angle. Give him the finger, that’s a good one.” He glanced at Rayla, who seemed puzzled. “Is… is that not a thing in elf culture?”
“Uh, we don’t give each other fingers , Callum, that’s macabre.”
He shook his head. “No, no, it’s an expression. It’s a term for a rude gesture.” He demonstrated, then frowned. “Huh, guess it really is a middle finger now.” At her continued confusion, he elaborated further. “It uh, it means like.. Up yours or… screw you, or…”
“Oh, that’s what humans do when they want to tell someone to get fucked!” She tried not to snicker at Callum’s alarm at her choice of words. He’d started it, after all. “We use two fingers in Xadia. Like this.” She demonstrated, folding her outer finger down beneath her thumb and gesturing with the back of her hand outward. “Rather similar to yours, if you think about it.”
“Yeah.” Callum smiled softly, and then frowned as he held his finger up.
“So the joke was that by sending Viren your, erm, finger, you’re telling him to go fuck himself?”
Callum’s cheeks darkened to navy and Rayla giggled. “Is that word not genteel enough for thy royal ears, your highness?”
“No, no it’s just-- Aunt Amaya uses it all the time, but like -- it’s rude.”
“We’re in a cave in the middle of nowhere because you’re going through a horrible nightmare metamorphosis into another species, brought to you via the horn of someone I know, while your dad is chasing after us with some kind of moon zombie curse. Three guesses as to who is responsible for that , and the first two don’t count. I think telling Viren to go fuck himself is being nice .”
Callum looked down and scowled. “He can go fuck himself with a longsword, sideways, while standing on his head.”
“That’s the spirit.”
Idly, Callum squished the empty hole of his glove where his finger had once been, then pulled a strand of hair over his shoulder. “It’s really gotten long.”
“Yeah, that’s the part I don’t get. If the plan was just to turn you into an elf, why would you be getting taller, or your hair be getting longer?”
“Maybe the original goal was to make me look like a copy of your teammate, and my magic messed it up? Look at this.” He put the dead finger in his pocket, and fished around in his backpack for the cube. “It lights up with sky and moon,” he said, holding the cube above his arm and showing Rayla.
“Huh,” said Rayla, peering at the cube. “I sure hope you’re wrong about it trying to clone someone, because there’s only two folks on my team with hair as long as yours is now. One of ‘em is a girl and the other is kind of my dad.”
“The one that pointed an arrow at us? Uh… Runaan?”
“Yep, that’s him.”
“I didn’t know he was your dad.”
“Eh, he’s not, not really. He and his husband took me in when I was little.”
“Oh.” Callum fidgeted, uncomfortable both with the conversation and the aches and pains and pricks and pangs along his ever-changing body. “I hope it wasn’t his horn.”
“Yeah, me too,” said Rayla, glum.
There was a long, sad, awkward pause in their conversation, until Callum winced and keeled forward, hissing in pain. It was a familiar sound now, which made the fact that it meant more changes all the stranger. He was already unrecognizable, when would this nightmare in cobalt end?
“What is it this time?” Rayla asked gently, completely unable to help in any other way but emotional support.
“Leg cramps,” he mumbled. “Probably a growing pain. Got a headache too.”
“Ah. Anything I can do to help?”
“Did you find any magic pain-killing berries?”
“‘Fraid not, sorry.” When Callum pouted, Rayla took pity on him. “I can try something Ethari used to do when I was little, though.”
“My other guardian. Here,” she shifted position and sat cross-legged behind him, pulling his backpack into her lap. “Lay down here.”
“Are you sure?”
“It’d beat listening to you toss and turn all night.”
Callum shifted down slowly, laying his head against his bag, and looked up at her expectantly. “Now what?”
“Now you close your eyes. Can’t promise it’ll be perfect, since I’m down a hand, but I’ll do my best.”
“Okay.” He obliged, but opened them quickly when he felt Rayla’s slender fingers graze his forehead as she brushed his hair back from his face.
“Just a wee bit of moon magic to help you sleep without pain,” she explained, and Callum settled down, curious to see magic in action.
Of course, Xadian magic, Callum had yet to understand, wasn’t all runes and spells and primal stones. There were the small ways that magic happened too, the subtle influences of magic on elves and xadian creatures, of living in an environment rich with it, steeped in the air of it. Pulling warmth from the moon, or slipping into her full moon form came as easily to Rayla as walking. And while she wasn’t at all interested in spells and moonbeams and illusions or whatever, she had often used the cool pale light of the moon shining within her in this way, to soothe herself.
She drew on that now, on the moon’s power, and placed a finger on Callum’s forehead. As she drew soft, slow circles she passed that pale luminescent power into Callum, feeling it flow from her finger into his head. It wasn’t flashy, and if it weren’t for the magnetic tingle as the energy passed from her to Callum, it wouldn’t have been any different from a comforting head massage.
Below her gentle ministrations, Callum let out a small, contented sigh, nodding off to sleep.
Rayla waited until he was fully asleep, and carefully extracted her legs out from under him. It was probably time to relieve Corvus of guard duty.