Prelude No. 5

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Chapter Ten

𝅘𝅥 Looking Back 𝅘𝅥


Tap. Tap. Tap…

In Kon’s dream, the sound was everywhere. A tap, tap, tapping that pounded in his head, his heart, and the darkness that surrounded him, so vast, loud, and pervading. It resonated in him, around him, and through him, guiding his feet in… some direction. Kon had no idea where it was taking him. Other than his body, which somehow remained visible despite the pitch-black emptiness, he could not see a thing. He walked not by his will, but by some unstoppable instinct. The tapping hastened with his rising breaths.

Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…

Kon felt like he was walking on air, yet with every step, he could hear a faint hint of leaves crunching or sticks cracking beneath his weight. Other sounds slowly faded in ahead. Howls, wails, and screams. All distant, but growing louder as he walked closer to the source. The tapping became a hasty scramble, then. No rhythm to it, just haphazard panic. Kon would never forget the sound of his wife’s flight of terror. He was certain the sound would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Tap tap, tap, tap-tap-tap, tap…

It did not take long for Kon to start running himself. He recognized each one of those distant howls, wails, and screams. Not just of the wraith from that night, but the wraith that possessed Rin, too. His brother’s distorted voice growled, the words overlapped by a grinding, inhuman whine. His mother… he could hear her sobbing her last breaths, not for mercy, but for the child she had lost. His wife, Jrana, was yelling Kon’s name and begging him to come back home. Kinjra shrieked, and Gul broke down crying. Cres, Miss Sut, Imet, Etal, Leb, Belen; every one of his students and their parents; the entirety of the Pale Hawks… all shouting in desperation for their lives.

A chaotic storm of thundering fear and torrential footsteps. A discordant symphony of horror and helplessness.

The sounds resounded through Kon’s very essence, overwhelming his senses to the point of discomfort and pain. It was almost like he was listening to it all through his fae. Could that be why everything is so loud and dark? He sprinted, opening and closing his eyes with concentrated effort… to no avail. Darkness lingered inside and outside his eyelids, but with them shut, Kon could hear his fae warbling and whistling like a bird. Howls became shrieks. Wails became moans. And the screams… they were no softer, but there was a distinct ring of hope among their cracking vocal cords.

“Fate save us!” “Seers save us!” “Someone!” “Anyone!” “Please!”

Kon opened his eyes for the last time. There was a light at the edge of the darkness now; an orb of intertwining gold-and-silver luminescence that sparkled on the horizon. He chased after his fae’s shine, yet no matter how fast he ran, she barely seemed to get any closer. His fae was moving too, he realized. Soaring through the black, heading for those shrieks, moans, and near-hopeful screams. The darkness rumbled as the beat of a drum met a blood-curdling roar. When the rumbling crashed into Kon, he was thrown onto his back. His fae turned immediately and soared over to his side. She beckoned for him to rise like a school bell.

We can do this, the thought rang.

Above him, the glowing sphere of wound lutestrings chimed an uplifting melody. Beneath him, a well of golden light burst upward, pushing him back onto his feet. Ahead of him, a cacophony of noise erupted in the darkness. Behind him, a wave of silver light swelled and carried him forward. Magic born from his fae’s resolved humming. Kon added his own voice, and the wave carried them faster. He could almost feel the air rushing by him as they soared through the void. His fae rang again, and a new thought came with it.

Inhale. Hold… Release!

Kon breathed in, and the darkness retreated toward him. He held the breath in, and all became silent. When he blew, a gold blade of musical light shot from his lips. It cut the darkness in half. Clean down the middle. With another resounding beat of a drum, the silver wave surged behind Kon, casting him through the blinding slash of gold in the black. On the other side, he stumbled between a pair of trees and fell to his knees. Onali’s Trail stretched before him. Pallid ash drifted over his vision, carried by the wind. When he looked up, he was already walking down the path to meet his wife, his daughter, and his flock. Jrana stood off to the side, her arms crossed and foot tapping an impatient rhythm. Kinjra and the others swarmed around him, drowning him with their voices.

“Dad! That was incredible!” “Good work, brother.” “I barely understand what happened, but thank you.” “Sun bless you. Sun bless us all.” “You’re stronger than you look.” “Mister Kon! You were a Seer this whole time?” “So you’re worth something after all.” “…My mother says thanks.”

And all throughout it, the relentless tap, tap, tapping…

Kon should have felt happy. When the lives of his family and his flock had been on the line, he’d answered Fate’s call and given it his all to keep them safe. Instead, dread thumped in his heart as one by one, the Pale Hawks vanished before his eyes, leaving him alone with his daughter and his wife. Kinjra’s joy melted as she glimpsed the anger boiling on Jrana’s face. Trepidation burned in Kon’s veins as his nerves buzzed anxiously. He had seen this scene before. Been a part of it, before.

What would happen if I just stopped or turned away?

Kon stopped… and he didn’t. He watched his body walk on ahead of him, and he looked down to find his body remaining in place. The memory played out before him just as it happened, but this time, he was just an observer. The other Kon – the past Kon – reached for Jrana’s arm. With tears in her eyes, his wife moved out of the way. Kinjra wandered closer to her parents, only for her mother to raise a hand and point the other way. The past Kon watched his daughter walk away.

The now Kon walked to intercept his daughter, but when he reached for her arm, she passed right through him. Not long after, she vanished too, leaving him alone with himself, his wife, and his fae. Her twinkling shell hovered close to him as the pitch-black emptiness began pouring out from the spaces between the trees. The void swelled and solidified, forming into looming walls on all sides. It pushed Kon closer to the memory.

Again, he fell to his knees. In the blink of an eye, they were confined to a patch of trampled dirt and grass no wider than their nest. He looked up and found a far-away window into the night sky, cut in half by a thin blade of silvery light. With the tight, dark walls on all sides, it seemed like he was at the bottom of a great pit. Or a grave.

“Jrana…” the past Kon began. As soon as his wife’s name left his mouth, the real Kon’s eyes snapped to her face. He tried to look away – to shut his eyes – but no matter how hard he tried, his body resisted. Kon could not even rise to his feet. Whatever this dream was… this memory… it was completely out of his control. Kon could not recall having this kind of strangely detached awareness in a dream before. He knew he was asleep, just like he knew every word that was about to come out of Jrana’s mouth.

“I can see the words on your lips already,” she whispered. “I won’t hear it, Kon. I won’t let it happen. You are coming back home whether the Seers like it or not. Fate be damned! You’re just one man to them, but you’re my husband. What gives them the right to take you away from me?”

“It’s out of our hands now, Jrana. We kept this peaceful dream of ours going for as long as we could, but-“

“-No,” she interrupted. “It’s not out of our hands. It won’t ever be out of our hands until they drag us by them, kicking and screaming.”

Both Kon’s let out a sigh of exasperation. Every breath, every blink, and every flash of fear or frustration… they were perfectly in sync.

“That old woman in leather? She’s the Commander of the Coastwatch Eyrie. Her fae used magic to bring my shadow to life, then threatened to do just that. My wrist still hurts from getting twisted at an odd angle behind my back. She’s threatened to do worse if I don’t arrive at her Eyrie in the next hour.”

“So we run. We run as far and as fast as we can, and you can use your fae’s magic to help us do it. We run until we’re out of her territory, and we keep running until we find a safe place to hide, far away from here. Eventually, the Seers will forget about us.”

“You know they won’t,” Kon replied, sighing. “And even if they do, Fate surely wouldn’t. It would just bring more demons to our doorstep. What kind of husband and father would I be if I kept putting our family in danger?”

“What kind of husband and father would you be when you’re not even home, too busy fighting a war? What about when that war kills you and buries your corpse deep in the ground?”

“That Seer over there, with the bright red armor? She told me there won’t be a proper war for years. Once I graduate from a Seer Academy, they’ll find a place for us to live wherever they send me. This doesn’t have to be the end of the world.”

“But it is, Kon. I’ve seen what the life of a Seer does to them and their loved ones. I saw my father chewed up and spit out a broken man. I saw the half of my brother that was chewed up and left unswallowed. Our family deserves better than that. Our daughter deserves better.”

“I couldn’t agree more, and that’s why this is the right decision. If we run, we won’t be making any friends. Only enemies. Eventually, Fate would find a way to pull us in, and it could end a lot worse than this. It’s just as you said this evening. It’s inevitable.”

“What about what you said? ‘I won’t let Fate take me anywhere, and I won’t let it take our daughter, either?'”

“I tried my best, Jrana. At least Kinjra is free. No one even suspects her.”

“What about your promise? ‘You never will be alone.'”

“You won’t be. We’ll still live together and be together on most days. You’ll have Kinjra when I’m gone, and there will be other people wherever they send us. Families like ours.”

Jrana shook her head. Tears poured from her eyes like a pair of rivers, soaking into the earth at the real Kon’s knees. Both his eyes and the eyes of his past self flowed similarly. In the patch of sky above, clouds began to form. Rain pattered down relentlessly, quickly filling the pit with dark, frigid water.

Kon began floating as the memory continued to play out unaffected. He was helpless to move as the water reached his mouth and poured into his lungs. A stream pulled him down as his vision faded, leaving him, again, in darkness. Though he could not see or breathe, he was still conscious. Helpless, Kon had no choice but to listen. At least the frigid water helped make him feel numb.

“It wouldn’t be the same,” Jrana whispered. “Your daughter and I, we’d no longer be your top priority. The world must come first, right?”

“Everyone grows up knowing the prophecy. Everyone knows that if they gain the Sight, they will have a part to play in making that prophecy come true. That doesn’t mean our family won’t be my top priority, however. I would be fighting to save the world for the two of you.”

“But you’d be gone when it matters. Kinjra would be gone when it matters. The end of the world would come, and I would be utterly, completely alone.”

“There would be others with you. You’d be safe.”

“But I wouldn’t have my husband or my daughter. Would I?”

“…No.”

“And for that entire time, I’d never know for certain if you two would make it back alive.”

“After tonight… I suppose you could never be certain.”

“That’s not the kind of life I asked for, Kon. It’s exactly the kind of life you promised to get me away from.”

“I know, Jrana, but things are different now. We’re not a couple idyllic twenty-year-olds anymore. We have no options left, and fighting will only make things worse for us. This is our reality now. It’s time for us to face it.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“Can you at least try?”

I don’t know if I can.

“Then what does that mean for us? What about our family?”

Jrana’s voice broke with exasperation. “…I don’t know. I don’t know if I know anything, anymore.”

Even numb, the words broke Kon’s heart. A profound sadness welled up inside him, too strong for him to ever dream of smothering it. Along with the aching beat of his heart, his fae keened a sorrowful melody.

Her music banished the darkness in a flash of golden light.


Chapter Eleven

𝅘𝅥 Step by Step 𝅘𝅥


Kon awakened to the light of the rising sun. While asleep, he had turned away from the wall to face the window, where his fae still hovered as he had left her four hours before. When his eyes fluttered open and glimpsed the sunlight glittering off of her shell, she rang a soft note in greeting. Kon rose from the hammock and slipped his feet over the side. His fae floated over in front of him, then rang again.

“Good morning to you too,” he whispered. He considered his next words while rubbing the crusts from his eyes and blinking until his vision was clear. “My dream…” he began. “Was that really you there with me?”

After a moment of silence, his fae started bobbing up and down in the air.

“Is that supposed to mean yes?

His fae went still, then resumed bobbing.

“So it wasn’t just my imagination?”

At eye level, his fae began drifting side to side.

Kon could hardly believe it. Throughout his 39 years of life, he was certain he never had a dream last so vividly in his memory. From the moment he awakened in that void to drowning in a deep grave filled with tears and rain, he could remember each thought, feeling, and detail. Though his fae being present could have explained it, something had felt off. Like even if the dream was made up of his memories, those memories were not composed by his subconscious. It was almost like Fate itself had forced the vision upon him.

Kon could hardly believe that his fae was communicating this well, either. “Did Vigor teach you that?” he asked. “Up and down for yes? Side by side for no?”

His fae nodded, then chimed a cheerful duplet. Kon could feel her pride resonating with the sound.

“Do you know why I had that dream? I can’t shake the feeling that it was somehow… magical.”

In response, his fae bobbed up and down quickly, then soared over to the window. When Kon did not immediately walk after her, she beckoned for him to join her with that bell-like ringing. Beyond the glass, all he could see was the northern stretch of Onali’s Trail, the woods surrounding it, and the Pale Hawks’ encampment slumbering beneath the shadow of the giant walking lighthouse, Outlook.

His fae drifted closer to the glass until she touched it. As Kon drew nearer, he caught a glimpse of his faint reflection. With the sun on the horizon, it was just bright enough for him to see his silhouette. His fae chimed another duplet — not cheerful, but bright and clear. Almost like singing crystals.

As soon as Kon recognized the sound, he made the connection. “Lucid?” he asked.

Yes, she nodded.

“But how? Why? All she did was speak to me. Why wouldn’t she warn me?”

His fae drifted away from the glass, then began shaking in every direction.

“Is that supposed to mean you have no idea?”

Yes.

“I wonder…”

Kon stretched a finger out toward the glass, then tapped it three times. He wanted answers badly enough that he did not care for his disheveled appearance. Though Kon had no hair, his night tunic was severely wrinkled. It seemed he had tossed and turned a lot while he sprinted through the void and struggled to move in his dream.

When no kaleidoscope pattern of colors swarmed across the window, Kon tapped his finger against it another six times. “I guess she can’t enter glass.” He sighed as he let his hand fall by his side. “Think Lafer is awake? It’s dawn now, but she might not know it. I don’t think her room has a window.”

Kon’s fae hesitated for a moment, then floated over the door, and he heard two pairs of footsteps resounding down the hall. By the sound of them, they were heading in his direction. Kon recognized Lafer by her energized gait, but whoever accompanied her glided almost soundlessly. Before they could reach his door, Kon ran for Gul’s sack and began digging through it for a fresh set of travel clothes. He pulled out loose-fitting hiking trousers, an undershirt, a light sweater, and some clean undergarments.

“I’ll be out in a minute!” Kon yelled, pre-empting the knock. His fae could hear the air whoosh on the other side of the door when Lafer raised her fist.

“Sounds good!” she yelled back. “And good morning!”

“Good morning to you too, and whoever it is who’s silently accompanying you!”

“Good morning,” came the reply. A young man by the sound of it. Though he did not whisper, his voice was naturally quiet and smooth, much like his walk. Rather than introduce himself through the door, he took a step back, pulling Lafer away to give Kon some time and space. They could probably hear the instruments rattling as he searched Gul’s sack for his cologne. Kon smelled like he needed a bath, but it seemed that he would have to wait until later. The cologne would hide the stench of sweat in the meantime.

In reality, it took him three minutes to find the cologne, spray himself and his clothes, fold his old garments and nudge them in separate from his clean ones, then dress. When he opened the door to find Lafer and Edos leaning against the far wall, he picked up the sack by a strap and dragged it into the hallway.

Lafer was already dressed in her armor and carrying a smaller bag on one shoulder. It had a leather, square-shaped frame, sage green with bright yellow trimming. It looked official compared to Gul’s shapeless cloth sack. Edos was dressed in dark leather armor woven with shining violet threads that matched his eyes. Compared to Lafer’s animated expression, his face was stern and his gaze was weary.

“Kon,” the ex-Carrion greeted. A lifetime of fear of the young man’s kind almost made Kon reluctant, but Lafer had said he was one of the kindest people in the world. He trusted her, and by extension, trusted Edos. Kon outstretched his hand.

“Edos,” the Seer answered, then straightened to grasp Kon’s hand. “Lafer told me a lot about you. I want to thank you on behalf of the Seers of the Coastwatch. I doubt our fearless Commander was so gracious, but the rest of us are happy someone was able to step up and save lives in our stead.”

“My fae and I just kept the wraith busy until Lafer and Vigor showed up. I’m not even sure if we hurt it. Really, you should be thanking them.”

“You did hurt it,” Lafer assured him. “The wound you left it opened me up for an even stronger attack. Vigor went overboard punching it as many times as he did, but he did that more for your flock’s sake. He wanted them to see we had won so they knew they were safe.”

“We’re lucky it was just a feral, too,” added Edos. “Nothing too powerful.”

A feral?” Kon asked.

“Most wraiths aren’t exactly… sapient. They’re intelligent and cunning, but no more than a predatory beast. If they have a personality at all, it’s buried under all their hunger and rage.”

“Thankfully ferals are the majority,” continued Lafer. “The really dangerous ones are the wraiths that talk back.”

“We call them harbingers. If one had fallen last night, you might not have survived the encounter.”

Kon’s reply stumbled quietly past his lips. “I think I met a harbinger, once…”

Edos’s stiff expression slackened as his lips curved into a frown. “Lafer said you had a history with wraiths in this area. Do you mean when you were a child?”

Kon’s eyes widened in surprise. He blinked as he nodded his head.

“Sorry!” Lafer interjected, noticing his discomfort. “I hope I didn’t break your trust by sharing that. I woke up an hour early and was feeling restless, so I went on a walk with Vigor. Nightowl saw us and flew Edos over to see how we were doing. We ended up talking until sunrise, mostly about last night.”

“It’s okay,” Kon lied. “It was a long time ago, and it’s relevant. No reason it should be a secret.”

“If it helps, I didn’t mention any specifics.”

Kon gave Lafer a weak smile to reassure her, then met Edos’ gaze. “I watched a wraith possess my brother. I didn’t understand what it was saying at first, but when my brother was Taken, it twisted his voice into something monstrous and used it to torment me.”

“I know saying I’m sorry isn’t good for much, but I sincerely am sorry, Kon. I know what it’s like to outlive your family, but that? I can’t imagine what that must have been like.”

Kon nodded. His eyes drifted to the ground, lost in a fight with his mind. He tried hard not to imagine it.

“Gentlemen,” said Lafer. “Do you mind if we continue this on the move? Spook will probably wake up soon, and I’d rather not get yelled at. Plus, Vigor is waiting on the battlements, and breakfast is waiting with him. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m staaarving.” As if on cue, Lafer’s stomach began growling. She chuckled warmly, even as she held her gut and groaned.

Kon’s own stomach felt like a pit. “Breakfast sounds nice. Who’s leading the way?”

Edos raised one hand, then slipped them both in the pockets of his trousers. As he glided away, Lafer lifted the sack from Kon’s grasp and slung it over her free shoulder. With his fae soaring between them, they followed Edos to the end of the hall, then returned to the stairs.

“Hope you don’t mind a little climbing,” said Lafer. “It’s a long way to the top, but it will be totally worth it.

Kon lingered at the first step. “Not too long, I hope,” he muttered. “I feel like I’m still half-asleep. I usually have a cup of tea before I change into my day clothes and start moving.”

“I’ll tell Vigor to boil some water. I prefer cold beverages myself, but I think there are some tea leaves among our rations from the Academy.”

“That’d be great. Thanks.”

Kon followed Lafer up the stairs after Edos, who already had climbed the fifth step. He looked back only long enough to see they were moving, then continued onward. “I took some time to hunt a couple chikibi with Nightowl last night,” he said.

“Edos offered to let Vigor cook it. He likes cooking, so he was happy to prepare a small meal for us to share.”

“Sounds nice. I’ve never had fae-cooked food before. I’m looking forward to it.”

Lafer glanced down at Kon and smiled. Step by step, they climbed.

“I had a strange dream last night,” he said. “Magical. My fae and I believe Lucid had something to do with it.”

“Really?” asked Lafer. The topic got her to halt halfway up the stairwell, though Edos continued to climb on, encouraging them to continue. “If she did something, I’m sure she would have mentioned it. Do you want to ask her?”

“I do,” Kon said. “But it can wait until we eat. I’m sure you’re both just as hungry as me.”

“Hungrier, probably. Vigor’s magic accelerates metabolism. We’ll have to eat a lot during our journey. I’ve got tons of trail mix, so expect to constantly be snacking as we travel. As for breakfast, I’ve got a few dozen eggs. They should last us a while, but we’ll have to hunt for dinner.”

“I’m not much of a hunter,” Kon admitted. “I hate violence, honestly.”

“I hate it too,” replied Lafer. Her voice was soft, and though he couldn’t see her face, Kon had a feeling she was frowning. “But if not surviving is the alternative, we have to make some compromises, don’t we?”

“…Yeah.” Kon understood the notion perfectly. He made that same compromise last night when raising his instruments like weapons against the wraith. If it meant protecting his family, he would have done anything.

“Do you know how the Pale Hawks are doing, Edos?”

“They’re sleeping well, I think. Most of the adults smoked away their worries, then went back home to rest a half-hour later. The building in the center had its lights on for a long while, but I think the owner – Gul? – just fell asleep inside. His wife went in there and dragged him out eventually. Nightowl is still patrolling. She says nobody has come out of their nest since.”

As they surmounted the next floor, Lafer hopped up and turned to face him. Kon’s calves were already starting to burn from overuse.

“While you were talking with your wife,” began Lafer, “Outlook lowered Ashet down to let people know he would stick around as long as they liked. Your flock agreed to let everyone sleep in late before continuing their journey. The other Seers all came back and reported the northern stretch of the trail is clear.”

“I caught pieces of that conversation. Someone had to translate?”

“Not exactly…” Lafer replied.

“Ashet’s tongue was mangled when he was a child,” explained Edos. “It’s hard for people to understand him without a few conversations worth of context.”

“Ah,” Kon said. “And it’s not something that can be fixed? Not even with magic?”

“It’s too old a wound for most magics to repair. His tongue healed, technically, just not correctly. It would take magic capable of shaping flesh to do that, and not a lot of fae have ever worked that way.”

“I see,” Kon whispered.

“Given enough time, it should be possible,” continued Edos. “Magic can do practically anything. It just takes the right Seer giving their fae the right name.”

“Ashet and Outlook are hopeful,” Lafer chimed in. “Fate rewards those who serve it diligently. He works hard and travels wherever he’s needed, hoping to cross paths with someone who can help him.”

“I hope he does too,” said Kon, and the statement was not just a pleasantry. He could not imagine living with that kind of burden. The difficulty of communicating and frustration of not being understood; the inability to weave feelings and ideas into song to wrench hearts and open minds…

Kon glanced at his fae as she bobbed up and down mid-flight. Connected as they were, she could sense his thoughts and feelings. It seemed she agreed with him. If they had the power to help the man someday, they would do it in a heartbeat.

And just like that, the conversations went on. Step by step, Edos, Lafer, and Kon climbed. Four stories in total, each one bleaker than the last. Apparently, Commander Sap insisted on running the Eyrie like a proper military fortress, complete with severe decoration regulations and daily health-and-cleanliness inspections. Most of the Seers only stayed in the Eyrie to sleep, train, and do chores at the Commander’s bidding. They would go out on patrols whenever they could, just to get away from ‘Old Spook’ and her shrill yelling. It was no wonder why many of them slacked off and rebelled against her.

Kon wanted to do something about that too. If Fate was merciful, he could imagine being stationed here and spending the next two years trying to temper the Commander. If he could make her understand that her subordinates would work harder if she showed them respect and consideration, he knew the Seers would all be stronger for it. Kon was not fit to fight a war, but bringing people together? It was what he had done throughout his entire life. Kon knew he could do that.

Lafer – perhaps having noticed Kon’s attention drifting – spoke with Edos about his fae and how she was feeling. Neither Nightowl nor him did well with sunlight, and by this point in the morning, Edos would already be asleep. Kon suspected the boy was staying up so he could tell her goodbye. They looked around the same age, after all, and the young man’s eyes seemed to linger on Lafer longer than they did on Kon. Whenever she told a joke or started chuckling, Edos’ severe expression softened a little, though his cheeks did not flush. His skin was eternally pale, as if bloodless.

After the fourth story, a warm breeze and a sliver of molten light beyond an ajar doorway prompted Edos to raise his hood over his head. He stepped aside so Lafer could pass by him and open the door. In the center of the rooftop battlements, Vigor was kneeling in front of a small campfire.

The armored giant leaned forward on his fists, huffing and puffing to stoke the flaming wood with his sparking breath. The fire rose up in a flash, licking at the bottom of a tea kettle hanging from the metal cooking spit above it. Almost immediately, the water in the kettle began boiling, steam pouring from it with a blaring whistle.

Beside him, three plates of roasted chikibi wafted on the wind with a delicious scent. “Breakfast is served,” the giant exclaimed excitedly.

Lafer, Kon, and Edos quickly got to eating.

𝅘𝅥

“Are you sure this is safe?” Kon asked, his legs and voice shaking as he stood on the ledge of the Coastwatch Eyrie’s battlements. Though Vigor’s aura was around him – and though it burned no less bright – he could not help but feel like he was on the verge of a total collapse. The drop to the woods far below him was immense, and if Kon slipped, he was sure he would die of a heart attack long before he hit the ground.

It didn’t help that Nightowl was fluttering her wings above him, making the wind stir as she sustained her flight. Her talons hung in the air like a pair of dark, crescent-shaped thorns. Just imagining one of those talons piercing through him made his heart erupt with fear.

“It’s perfectly safe,” Edos assured him. “Nightowl is gentle and strong. She won’t be able to take you far, but the head start will be worth it.”

“You’re not scared of flying, are you?” Lafer chuckled. She was busy tying a pair of metal wires into knots around Vigor’s shoulders, each one attached to an open-bottomed balloon. With his aura, he would fill it with hot air and carry the two of them down from the mountain. Lafer was practically shaking with excitement at the idea. She said they had tried it twice before, but never this high. Both of them laughed as she referred to the thrill as invigorating.

“If I could fly? No. I dream about soaring through the sky as much as anyone. But falling? Now, that’s an entirely different thing…”

“You won’t fall!” came the response. A smooth, melodic, oscillating trill, followed by an exclamatory hoot. “We should probably leave now,” Nightowl continued. “The clouds have started to part on the horizon. This will be easiest for me while we still have shade.”

Kon took a step back from the ledge, then risked a glance up and around. “Can’t Presence help with that?” he asked. “Where is the Commander’s fae, anyway?”

“Who knows,” replied Lafer.

Who,” Nightowl agreed.

Kon was too nervous to laugh, but he glanced between the two girls and grinned softly. Lafer had finished hooking up the balloon to Vigor, allowing him to rise up onto his feet. She eyed the billowing mass of cloth in her hands readily.

“Alright,” Kon whispered. “Let’s do this.”

Nightowl slowly lowered herself over Kon. As Edos had instructed, he held his arms out at both sides, allowing the fae’s talons to grab him by his armpits. Her grip was firm, but like Edos assured him, gentle. Maybe this isn’t so bad, he considered.

Kon’s hands dropped to his sides as Nightowl flapped her wings around him, lifting him up into the sky. His feet kicked out a little beneath him, slightly throwing her flight off-balance. Kon could feel his insides move around inside him, and his heartbeat thundered in his ears. Never mind that, he shouted in his mind.

“Sorry!” Kon yelled. He focused on his legs to keep them still beneath him. Edos and Lafer were getting smaller as Nightowl carried him higher. Both of them wore a smile as they watched his expression contort with fear.

“Looking good!” Vigor cheered. As soon as Kon left the giant’s aura, his body slackened with exhaustion. It was almost a relief. He relaxed into Nightowl’s talons as his gaze shifted to the widening land.

Hundreds of leagues worth of rainforests and deciduous woodlands sprawled out before him, interspersed by the great mountain range that divided the continent of Tír along the world’s equator. The Waistlands, in all its glory. Kon never thought he would truly get the chance to see his world from a birds-eye-view.

Beneath him, Vigor lifted Lafer up onto his shoulders, careful to not let his armor touch the cloth balloon or either of the bags on his Seer’s back. Once she was sat on the back of the giant’s neck – her legs over each of his shoulders – she lifted the open end of the balloon above her head and stretched it out slightly. Vigor’s aura began glowing brighter, and the air grew hotter. Water vapor turned into steam, quickly rising to fill the balloon, making it bloom out into its intended shape. The cloth was a pale shade of pink, but with Vigor’s molten light permeating it, it glowed a deep crimson. Like both of their armor, thin ridges ran across the cloth in imitation of veins.

“Safe journey you two!” Edos shouted at their feet. “I’m sure we’ll meet again! Until then, be safe!”

“Cyaaa!” Lafer shouted back.

Kon could only muster a wave. It was too hard for him to catch his breath, rising and gliding in the sky like he was.

Eventually, Vigor’s hot-air balloon gained enough elevation to reach Kon with his aura again. Nightowl did not seem the least bit affected, but his blood started pumping in response, filling his body with adrenaline. If the tea and breakfast had not woken Kon up already, he was certainly awake now. Kon could not remember ever feeling this alive.

Between the great view, the invigorating thrill, and the rushing gusts of wind that whistled all around him, Kon struggled not to drop his jaw. His fae chimed a bright pair of notes as she soared beside him. Even without magic sparkling in the air, the sound was comforting.

Their spiritual connection had deepened overnight, and as he interacted with Seers and their fae more, he began to feel excited to see that connection deepen further… not that he had a good idea for her name.

Kon tried not to dwell on it for now. There was still a lot he did not know about the fae; he would need a lot of questions answered before he could start thinking about what to name her. A part of him was hoping it would just click when he was ready, just like Lafer had described. Fortunately, he was going somewhere built to teach new Seers everything they needed to know.

Somewhere far beyond his view, hidden among the mountains that loomed to their east, Westwind Academy was awaiting him. In four days, the 39-year-old man would no longer be a teacher, but a student.

To Kon’s surprise, he found he was a little excited about that too.

𝅘𝅥

As thrilling as the trip was, Kon breathed a sigh of relief when Nightowl lowered him back onto his feet. Vigor and Lafer had landed on the southern half of the Coast Lord’s Road first, unable to control the direction of their flight, only buoy it. Had they gone any further, they would have either needed to keep on floating for leagues or settle for crashing into the trees. Clouds were fleeing and the sun was still rising, which meant neither was an option — Nightowl needed to return to the Eyrie.

“Thank you,” Kon told her. “And thank Edos for me as well.”

“Will do!” the giant bird sang. “Safe travels, everyone,” she finished with a flourish of her wings. They swept out beside her, then carried her back into the air. Her dark purple feathers blurred into the sky as she soared away, moving at a speed much faster than Kon could have handled.

“Well, that saved us a good few hours,” Lafer began, drawing his gaze to her pink eyes. “Which means we can afford to take the long, scenic route. If that’s something that might interest you.”

Kon thought about it for a moment. As he stretched his arms and rubbed his sore shoulders, Lafer untied the metal wires from Vigor and put them inside her Westwind Academy backpack with the folded up balloon. Kon was amazed she managed to pack the cloth down tight enough to fit, but he supposed with her fae’s magic coursing through her, it was not that monumental of a task.

“Maybe we can ask Lucid what Fate says is best? She said we can contact her if we have any questions, and I still want to ask her about the dream I had last night.”

Duh,” Lafer exclaimed, punctuating the statement with a soft slap of her forehead. “Don’t know why I didn’t think of asking the diviner for directions. Let me just figure out where I put that thing…” She trailed off as she began to rummage through her sack.

Three seconds later, the joy on Lafer’s face shattered with her stuttering breath.

“Uh-oh,” rumbled Vigor.

“Don’t tell me the mirror is broken,” Kon sighed.

“Okay!” Lafer answered. Instead of telling him, she held out a handful of the fragments between them. The largest piece was no bigger than Kon’s fist. With a frown, he plucked it out of Lafer’s hands and held it warily before him. “I’m really sorry…” she whispered.

“It’s okay. I know it was an accident. But do you think this piece is big enough for her to, uh, fit in? I tried contacting her through a window this morning, but she didn’t come. I’m assuming she has limitations?”

Lafer blinked as her cheeks shined a brighter shade of red. The tears forming in her eyes quickly turned to steam, lifting the fringe of her auburn bob above her brow. “If she does have any limitations, I don’t know the specifics. You’d have to ask her…”

“I guess I just have to try, then.”

Though he knew it made no difference, Kon took a deep breath and tapped the shard of mirror three times. Almost immediately, it flashed with a bright pattern of swirling reds, yellows, and oranges. The pattern vanished just as quickly as it appeared. Kon blinked at his own reflection.

“Try again, maybe?” Lafer asked.

Kon did. No pattern of colors showed up at all.

“Maybe try saying her name five times fast,” suggested Vigor.

“That was a joke,” Lafer exclaimed. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Anything is worth a try at this point,” replied Kon. “Lucid, Lucid, Lucid, Lucid, Lucid.”

With each repetition of her name, Kon tapped the shard of mirror again. Though her response was not quick, another flash of light marked the appearance of a red arrow. It stood out in contrast to the blue sky above and the shadows of Kon’s face.

“Is that what I think it is?” asked Lafer.

Kon turned his body slightly, orienting the mirror in another direction. The arrow did not move. Instead, it remained pointing eastward, into the forest. “Seems like it. A magical compass.”

“Where do you think it will take us?” asked Vigor.

“Hopefully to another mirror,” Kon replied.

“Definitely not the scenic route, by the looks of it,” mumbled Lafer. “Short cut it is, then!”

𝅘𝅥

Kon’s heart ached as he trudged eastward through unclaimed rainforest. Water dripped from the branches and leaves of the great, flowering canopies. Clouds above muted the early-morning sun into a dull yellow-gray. Two hours had already passed since they departed from the Coast Lord’s Road, yet as they wandered the maze-like paths between countless varieties of trees and bushes, it began to feel like an eternity.

Though Vigor’s aura kept Kon awake, energized, and hyper-aware, Kon walked with his head down and his shoulders slumped. He felt heavy, and not because of the rain. The fae’s blazing light turned it to steam long before it could reach Kon’s clothes. The weight Kon felt was an emotional one. It was not a pressure, per se, but a burden he would have to carry with him, like the sack strapped to his back. If he could just talk to Lucid, he was sure that burden would be lifted.

He needed to know why she forced him to relive that memory. Why she forced him to kneel there, drowning, listening to his wife…

Jrana was devastated, and Kon could not blame her. He was the one who took her away from her roost, promising her a better life. He encouraged her to travel the world with him, to start a family with him, to share his life with him… and in the end, he’d just left her. Left her like her father did her mother. Left her like her brother.

How was her husband any better?

Kon knew Gul would watch over his wife and his daughter. He knew Cres would continue to extend Jrana olive branches with hopes of developing friendship. He knew Kinjra would continue to be her and inspire so much love and joy in her mother’s heart. Yet in spite of knowing all those things, Kon felt no better. He was still the man who chose to walk away from the people he loved most.

Kon wiped a tear with the sleeve of his sweater. Unlike the water hitting the edge of Vigor’s aura, it would not turn to steam and burn him. Fae existed to protect humans, not harm them. The sweater he wore was of the ruffled-feather variety, a deep sage green knit with thick vine-like threads. Kinjra had picked the sweater out for him in a southern roost just last season. Wearing it should have comforted him, but instead, Kon just missed his daughter more. In the end, he had abandoned her too.

“You okay, Kon?” asked Lafer. Her pace slowed until Kon caught up to her. “You’ve been quiet for a while now.”

“Not really,” he breathed.

“Still thinking about the dream?” rumbled Vigor. Kon looked up at the giant as he squeezed between two trees, leaving their bark a little singed, but quickly healing in his aura.

“Kind of. Mostly about my failures as a husband and a father. I can’t help but feel like the bad guy. Like hard as I tried to make things better, I only made them worse.”

“Can I level with you, Kon?” Lafer inquired, one eyebrow raised as she gazed right into his eyes. He nodded, then for some reason, frowned. “I think after your wife calms down and thinks about it more, she’ll come to understand. Hopefully she will cherish the last season she got to spend with you, living a normal life. Regardless of what Old Spook thinks or says, no one would ever blame you for trying to stay with the people you love. Love is what the Seers are supposed to fight for. Love is the entire reason the fae exist.”

“What she is trying to say is you’re not a failure,” added Vigor. “From what we saw, you’re a very good husband and father. You did everything you could, and you kept them safe. You really shouldn’t beat yourself up. It’s best to save the beating up for our enemies.”

Kon had to wipe another tear from his eyes as he listened. Despite only knowing the pair for a night and a morning, the words felt like they meant something. Perhaps it was a part of Vigor’s magics, but the sincerity of his and Lafer’s praise made Kon want to cry. The young Seer and her fae had gone lengths for his sake already. He would have been a broken-down mess if not for their compassionate and energetic personalities.

“There’s something I should tell you,” Lafer continued. “I’ve been waiting for a good time to admit it, but there’s been plenty of lulls in conversation. I suppose a part of me wanted to put it off or outright avoid it.”

“What is it?” Kon asked. The girl’s unusually serious tone had caught him more off guard than the second meteor plummeting toward his flock.

“Vigor and I saw your daughter’s fae make that giant flower, and we sensed your wife’s heart flutter with fear when she saw me run by. At that point, it was impossible for me not to notice Jrana hide Kinjra behind her. When you didn’t mention Kinjra’s sight when we met, I decided to not mention it either. Feels weird for me to know it when you don’t know I know it- so yeah. There’s that.”

Kon stopped in his tracks. The hand that held the broken piece of mirror fell to his side. His fae soared down from nests of birds in the canopies to join them as Lafer and Vigor slowed down, halted, then turned to face him. Lafer’s expression betrayed her worry, while Vigor’s coal-like eyes dimmed to a low burn.

He could hardly believe it. “Why? I was just a stranger to you, and you’re a Seer. Why didn’t you turn her in?” Tears blurred his vision. It was only after wiping them away that he saw Lafer had tears in her eyes, too. Vigor’s coal-eyes burned with renewed warmth as he answered in her stead.

“A war is no place for a little girl.” Vigor’s gaze was focused on Lafer as he said it.

“I didn’t get the chance to live a normal life,” Lafer told him. “I grew up in a family of Seers. One with a very long lineage. Like my siblings, I was trained to fight in the War since the day I learned how to walk. I’ve known how to fence since I was seven. My uncle taught me a hundred ways to kill a man before I even turned ten. Things only got worse from there.”

“When Lafer finally named me, it was already too late for me to do anything about it. If I could, I would turn back time to give her a normal life.”

“You should probably know other people will find out about her eventually. If you end up getting sent to Kolod Vor and they come to live with you, it probably won’t take long for one of the other Seers to notice her fae’s solidifying vibrance.”

Kon nodded, struggling to organize his thoughts among the gratitude swelling in his heart and eyes. “I-” he tried, his voice sputtering between his stuttered breaths. “I really don’t know what to say. Thank you? Those two words barely cover how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me and my family. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”

“Don’t even sweat it,” scoffed Lafer. The girl’s eyes were teary, but she wore a smile to spite it. Kon had to wipe his eyes again to see her proffered fist clearly. With a smile of his own, he bumped it and let out a weak laugh.

“What else are friends for?” Vigor asked.

It felt almost insane to think of the teenage Seer and her fae as his friends, and yet, Kon thought it all the same. Even if she told him not to bother, he was determined to do for them what they did for him.

Standing here, in this moment? Kon was almost happy.

“We should keep going,” said Lafer. “Where’s the magic mirror compass pointing us to, again?”

Kon lifted the shard in his hand. The red arrow pointed beyond Vigor, straight for the heart of the long stretch of untamed lands known as the Ecaris Rainforest. “Vigor?” he asked. “Would you be so kind to lead the way?”

“I am that kind indeed!” the giant exclaimed, his voice tapering with laughter.

As painful the past, difficult the present, and scary the future had all seemed, Kon’s heart burned with a renewed hope. So long as he had Lafer and Vigor by his side, he knew he could get through whatever Fate might bring.


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