𝅘𝅥 Arrows and Exclamations 𝅘𝅥
With the broken mirror in his hand, Kon walked, leading Lafer and Vigor in the direction of the red arrow. As he weaved between the trees, he basked in the music of the forest. Without the relentless pattering of rain and the hissing steam, his fae was able to hear every leaf rustle in the wind, every insect buzz in hollows and beneath the fronds of ferns, and every airy warble of the birds sat perched on branches or flying between the canopies. Altogether, individual sounds merged into a natural symphony. Kon had always yearned to capture the beauty of the world in his music, though he never could figure out how to do it with instruments. There was something about the rhythm and tone of the wild that always eluded him.
With his fae, Kon supposed he could do it with magic someday. It would probably be easy if he named his fae Music, but that name felt too broad or too simple, unable to properly convey the man’s passion at its core. It wasn’t just the beautiful sounds that filled Kon’s heart. It was expressing his thoughts and feelings in a way that inspired thoughts and feelings in others. It was opening his heart to others so that they might open theirs. It was motivating people when they were struggling and bringing people together when they felt alone. Boiling that all down to a single word… it was intimidating, if not impossible. Kon had no idea where to begin.
“Lafer?” he asked, his voice cracking. It must have been at least an hour since he last spoke.
Just a few minutes ago, the girl had climbed onto Vigor’s shoulders to pluck fruits from tree branches while they continued following the path. As she turned to look down at Kon, she held a green sourpear up and readied to throw it. He nodded, then caught it with a smile.
“Thank you,” he said. “But there’s something I wanted to ask you.”
“Sure thing,” Lafer replied. She rose into a crouch on Vigor’s shoulders and jumped onto the ground beside him. “How can I help?” she asked, rising as she picked one of the three fruit out of the crook in her elbow. As Kon talked, she devoured the sourpear hungrily. By the lack of a reaction on her face, their juices weren’t ripe yet.
Kon took a bite of his own fruit and immediately regretted it. The citric acid burst in his mouth and down the back of his throat, causing his face to scrunch up in disgust and discomfort. Kon stopped walking and pulled his head aside to gag, cough, and spit out the juice and unchewed fruit. Beside him, Lafer almost fell to the ground laughing. Even Vigor had stopped moving to look back and chuckle at Kon’s suffering.
“You’re a monster,” Kon choked out amidst coughs. “Did you give me the worst one on purpose?”
“Nope!” Lafer exclaimed. “They’re all this ripe. I just really like the taste. If it’s too much for you, I’d recommend squeezing all the juice out. The pulp on its own isn’t half as potent.”
Kon held the fruit with the bite-mark facing down. With a tight clench of his fist, a mixture of pale green pulp, dark green seeds, and bright green juices sprayed onto the ground, leaving a sweet-smelling splatter. Kon’s hand felt sticky for the effort, making him wish the rain had not stopped so he could wash it clean. As he raised the sourpear up for a second bite, Lafer was already biting into her second fruit’s core. The pulp was not half as bad indeed, though Kon reacted just as viscerally. He forced himself to push it down into the deepening chasm of his gut. It helped, which made his third bite easier.
“What was it you wanted to ask?” Lafer inquired as she walked, glancing back. She trusted Vigor to lead them safely.
Kon finished chewing and swallowed, using the time to collect his thoughts. “My mind keeps drifting back to naming my fae,” he began. His gaze drifted between the orb of lutestrings and the blazing knight. “I guess I want to hear more about you and Vigor. What the word represents to you, and how he ended up the way he is, I guess. I’ll admit, a buff giant in molten armor wouldn’t be my first thought.”
“Well,” Lafer said, then hummed as she paused for thought. “That may be because Vigor isn’t a buff giant in molten armor. He is the fire you see burning inside his visor, and the warmth that courses through his armor like veins. His real body is like our blood, if our blood was a living flame. What you see on the surface? That’s just a vessel he inhabits. He can wear any suit of armor, really. Doesn’t matter the size.”
Vigor’s throat crackled in an imitation of clearing his throat. “I’d come out of my shell to properly introduce myself, but I’d just burn everything around me. These trees are too pretty, so that would be a shame.”
Kon looked back and forth between the Seer and her fae, blinking in disbelief. “I didn’t even consider the armor could be separate. So it’s real? Why couldn’t anyone else in my flock see him then?”
“It’s because when I inhabit a suit of armor, it becomes tempered by my heat, rather than melted by it, thus merging with my essence. That’s what makes it swell with these awesome muscles and glowing veins!” With the exclamation, Vigor struck a statuesque pose, flexing his arms up and off to his sides. “Strength is as big a part of my name as good health. It’s only natural.”
“There’s more to it, though. Family history and personal experience both played a part in how I shaped him. My mother, uncle, older brothers, and ancestors all have or had giant knights for their fae, in some fashion or another. A part of it was keeping up with tradition, another part keeping up in competition. As for personal experiences… I hope I don’t sound like a hypocrite, what with me asking you to talk about your issues when I can’t share my own, but…”
“It’s okay,” Kon said, much to her relief. “I’m sorry if I accidentally pried.”
“Nah,” Lafer replied, shaking her last fruit in the air. “Don’t even sweat it. It’s a bit of an old tradition that when a Seer discovers a new one, they become responsible for their mentorship. What kind of mentor would I be if I left my mentee with unanswered questions?”
“I appreciate that,” said Kon. “Really.”
“No appreciation needed. Just doing my duty. Anyway, what I can tell you is that I lost someone very close to me. Not a family member. A good friend. What happened to him… it shouldn’t have. I should have been able to keep him alive, but I couldn’t.” Lafer took a moment to steady her breath. “In a way, naming Vigor was about preserving my friend’s memory and helping me cope with his loss. Enthusiasm was difficult to come by and without it, I knew I would crash and burn quickly. I wanted to keep people awake, alive, and active. To help give them a little nudge forward, or help push them away from danger. Half of what I’m saying didn’t even occur to me then, but it makes sense to me in retrospect. Our subconscious is a big part of it. Does that help at all, Kon?”
“It does,” he said. “Immensely.”
“I should probably mention that I could have named Vigor other things, too. I considered Might and Sparkle for a long time, and either would have been fine.”
“I’m most fond of Sparkle,” rumbled Vigor. “Might would have been too boring for me, but Sparkle has a certain pizzazz that I would have really enjoyed.”
Kon blinked at the giant as he waved his gauntlets in the air at his sides. “And you are happy with the name Lafer gave you? It’s not as easy as blending names together for a newborn child. I can’t help but worry that I’ll get it wrong and my fae will hate me for it.”
“I could never hate Lafer,” the giant exclaimed. “I don’t think any fae is capable of hating their Seer without first being severely mistreated.”
“Even Seers who name their fae against their nature aren’t hated,” Lafer added. “A close friend of mine did exactly that to force a deep, fundamental change in their self. Because of it, they’re happier now than they ever were before, and their fae loves them, even if his essence was fundamentally changed, too.”
They, Kon noted. Not plural. Gender neutral. “Did your friend experience any kind of repercussions from that?”
Lafer swept a lock of her hair behind her ear, her eyes staring ahead, through gaps and blossoming foliage. “Not repercussions, exactly. Initial limitations. They were both weaker at first, and her fae had some trouble adjusting, but in the end? No. What’s most important is that they’re finally happy.”
Kon breathed easier as he walked in silence, absorbing and processing everything his friends had said. “Thank you again. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I feel a lot less overwhelmed.”
“That’s why we’re here. Right, Vigor?”
“Right!” exclaimed the giant.
“I’m really glad you two were the pair that discovered me. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like to have Commander Sap as my mentor.”
“You really don’t,” Lafer agreed. “I heard she has an entire wall of whips and other torture devices in her tower.”
Kon shook his head incredulously. “You can’t be serious. How can the Fated King let a woman like that run an Eyrie?”
“Well, it’s probably not as bad as I described it. She doesn’t torture people. I think it’s more of an intimidation thing if anything. Her fae becomes more powerful the more people think and feel things about her. Fear happens to be the most potent emotion.”
“So they let her be cruel so her fae can gain power?”
“That’s the general idea. They want Presence as strong as possible for when the war really starts. Horrible but necessary, I guess. I can’t say that Old Spook doesn’t do good, though. She’s been a Seer for her entire life, and in that time, saved thousands of lives, including your own. She also keeps a firm eye on the Seers who prefer to create problems rather than solve them. Sadly, not everyone is as on-board with the whole ‘saving our planet’ thing. It’s fortunate Edos was the only Seer you met from the Coastwatch.”
“You mentioned troublemakers before. Are there really so many?”
“Enough to fill an Eyrie,” Lafer sighed. “Westwind Academy has a few of them, too.”
“Hey Kon,” Vigor interrupted. “I just was thinking we haven’t checked the arrow in a while. I’m still going in the right direction… right?”
Kon blinked at the coals burning in the giant’s visor as he turned. His conversation with Lafer had taken his mind off the broken mirror in his pocket and the questions he had for Lucid about his dream. Careful not to cut his palm on the broken mirror’s jagged edge, Kon retrieved it from the pouch on his thigh and turned it over, reflective side up.
“Well that’s… strange,” Kon muttered.
“What’s wrong?” rumbled Vigor. Lafer moved to get a closer look.
“An exclamation?” she asked, exaggerating a gasp. “Why is it blinking?”
Kon swallowed the lump in his throat. Sure enough, the arrow had been replaced by a flashing red exclamation point. “I can’t tell if it’s red because the arrow was red before, or if it’s supposed to mean danger.”
At the mention of danger, Vigor and Lafer spun around, scanning the nearby foliage. Kon looked too, though he wasn’t sure what he should be looking for. On each side of him, trees twice his size loomed, blooming with massive leaves and buzzing with countless insects. In the open space between them, he just saw the shadows of more flora in the dim landscape. Judging by the color and quality of light that streamed down from the canopies, the sun was nearly halfway down to the eastern horizon. His eyes darted as he caught a hint of motion in his peripherals, but it was only a group of ferns undulating in the wind.
“Can you hear that?” Lafer asked. She was facing the same direction he was, staring just past the billowing plants. Vigor was looking the same direction. His eyes burned like torches as he stepped forward, raising his fists at his side, as Kon’s fae soared over his helm. Taking position.
Kon closed his eyes, steeling his eardrums for that deafening bang. At once, the music of the forest blared to life, a torrential downpour of sound that flooded his senses completely. Though still uncomfortable, Kon’s body relaxed as he found his mind less overwhelmed than usual. Compared to locating the wraith by its silence, Kon had little trouble finding and focusing on the dreadful squawks and ravenous growls.
Kon opened his eyes as Lafer grasped her sword. She took a few steps back while motioning for Kon to do the same. Behind the cover of another tree, he unfastened the straps of his sack and dropped it on the ground. “Do I need a weapon?” he asked.
“Might be a good idea,” replied Lafer, her tone uncharacteristically low and serious. “I can feel their heartbeats. Three treelions are chasing after a bushel of chikibis.”
Kon rummaged through his sack, sifting through his clothes for instruments. While his lyre sat at the top, Kon pushed it aside in search of his flute and bodhrán. Though he might be able to lull the treelions asleep with a gentle lullaby, Kon knew it would be too great a risk. Waistland predators like the treelions were known for being relentless and territorial. When traveling, flocks like the Pale Hawks had to train or employ hunters for a reason.
With an instrument in each hand, Kon backed away from the tree and his bag of belongings. He stepped aside until Lafer vanished behind his cover, centering his vision on Vigor’s side profile and the approaching beasts. Kon could now hear their explosive roars without closing his eyes. Birds scattered out of their nests in the trees as distant canopies erupted into motion with a series of loud crashes. Though camouflaged, each treelion became a distinct blur as they launched off tree trunks and large boughs, all in pursuit of five little chikibis.
The small, bush-feathered birds glided from branch to branch, their short, wide wings incapable of carrying them very far or high. If not for the wind blowing in their favor, they would have been too slow to evade the pouncing treelions. Too afraid of their hungry pursuers, the chikibis failed to notice the giant looming just ahead.
Three of them flew by Vigor without issue while one had quick enough reflexes to flap sideways to avoid collision. It landed briefly on his molten pauldron, then leaped almost immediately, squawking in pain. Flailing, the unfortunate chikibi fell, losing its momentum while gliding closer to the ground.
As for the last chikibi? The poor thing smacked into Vigor’s helm face-first.
“Agh!” yelled Vigor. “I’m sorry, little buddy!”
The chikibi collapsed, its round, puffy plumage singed. Tiny sticks and berries smoked among its leaf-like feathers. The creatures hid from predators by rubbing itself in dirt, flowers, and bushes, both to mask their scent and disguise themselves with the natural scenery. By rooting their feet in the earth, they could feel even the slightest of vibrations to warn them when not to move, or when to really start moving.
After colliding with Vigor, this particular chikibi went with the former. The impact may have shocked it into unconsciousness, though judging by its quiet, chaotic breaths, it was only pretending to be dead.
It didn’t have to pretend for much longer.
The first of the treelions wasted no time pouncing on its slightly-cooked meal. Like all treelions, its fur was a soft blend of greens, browns, and blacks, with a blunt face and leafy mane that were patterned like foliage. With bloody fangs bared, it quickly dug into the chikibi’s flesh.
Kon cringed at the sound of wet squelching, wishing desperately for the power to tune it out.
His fae chimed softly, and in the wake of the note, the world actually became quieter.
Thank you, my friend.
The other two treelions pounced at their closest targets. In one’s case, it was the chikibi that was burned by Vigor’s pauldron. Fortunately the beast made the mistake of using the giant as a jumping point. Though it succeeded in grabbing its prey mid-air, it came with a price. The treelion curled inward, tucking its meal into its body, only to fall and roll along its shoulders. Rather than bother standing up, it remained on its back, its singed paws held up, and tore into its dinner.
The third treelion bounced off a tree ahead of Lafer. With her standing in the way of the fleeing chikibis, the predator snarled and turned on her instead. The beast leaped not at her, but at the tree beside her, where it landed among its branches with a forceful snap. Kon was surprised the trees were not uprooted, considering the treelion’s strength. From above, the beast dove with its claws extended, aiming straight for Lafer’s exposed face. To Kon, it appeared to happen in the span of a second.
The young Seer, however, moved faster than he could. Lafer took a deep breath and held it as she unsheathed the sword at her hip in a blinding flash of crimson light. Unlike last time, Kon anticipated the bright flare and shut his eyes ahead of time. The molten light seeped through his eyelids. It didn’t burn half as much. When he opened his eyes again, they adjusted easily to the fading luminescence. One half of the treelion lay on both sides of Lafer, split and cauterized down the middle. The initial gush of blood coated her face and her armor, though in the latter’s case, Kon could barely tell the difference.
He looked away from the gruesome sight, only to find Vigor in front of another. In the flash of light, the giant had linked his fists and slammed them down onto the treelion at his feet. Its body twitched, squashed into the earth like a bug, alongside its half-eaten meal.
That left one — the treelion nearest to Kon. In the warmth of Vigor’s aura, even the beast’s singed feet healed, becoming hardened scabs. After seeing its companions die, it quickly rose, discarding its meal as its dark, empty gaze fixated on Kon. No doubt it saw him as the weakest prey.
Despite the snarl of pain on the treelion’s blunt face, it lowered itself into a crouch, its muscles rippling through its dense pelt of fur. With fangs bared, it bellowed a rending growl and leaped.
Fast. But not as fast as the wraith.
Kon’s fae soared between them as he pounded the bodhrán with his flute. A faint wave of silvery light erupted from the point of impact. From where she hovered, his fae was able to concentrate the sound and direct it forward. Straight into the treelion’s gut like a cannon. The beast was flung back between the trees where it sprang from, crashing into another trunk with a sickening crunch. Between that sound and its agonizing howl, Kon turned aside and nearly retched. His fae chimed again, muting the noise. He could hear it quietly howling like he was covering his ears.
“You okay?” Lafer shouted.
Kon spit the disgusting mixture of citric and stomach acids on the ground. “Yeah,” he muttered, the attempt to speak making him gag. It didn’t help that he could still see the treelion in his peripherals. It lay slumped over the ground, its back bent at an unnatural angle. The beast flailed its head while its legs remained utterly motionless.
“Vigor. Keep a watch on him. I’ll be right back.”
Kon looked away as the girl ran over to the crippled treelion. With another flash of light, she put it out of its misery. It was easier for Kon to breathe after that. He turned his back on the scene just in case.
“Did I mention I hate violence?” Kon asked, hoping the levity would help his roiling stomach. It didn’t.
“You did,” Vigor replied. “I hate it too, but sadly, it’s part of the job description.”
“…Yeah. I guess it’s now mine, too, though I doubt I’ll ever get used to… all this.”
“I hope you don’t,” replied Lafer. Kon looked at the girl and immediately regretted it. Though the blood on her face and armor had dried in Vigor’s aura, it stuck to Lafer’s skin in glistening flakes. “What’s wrong?” she asked, noticing Kon’s grimace. “Is something on my face?”
“Blood,” Vigor said, his gauntlets covered in the stuff. “The Ecaris River should be close. If we get there, we can wash up. I feel so… gritty,” the giant rumbled, finishing with an armor-rattling shiver.
“Does the mirror have an arrow again?” asked Lafer.
Kon ran to his sack, then switched his instruments for the mirror fragment. “It does, but it’s blue now? Seems to be pointing… that way.” Kon extended a finger beyond Vigor’s back.
“Same direction as the river,” said Vigor.
“Do you mind if I harvest some meat for dinner? Should only take me a minute.”
“Go for it,” Kon said. He clenched his throat, still feeling like he could retch. The air was thick with the stench of blood. He needed to get out of here. “My fae and I will use the time to scout ahead.”
𝅘𝅥 Underfall 𝅘𝅥
Eight hours. Between locating the Ecaris River, taking turns bathing, eating steaks grilled on the back of Vigor’s armor, and following the winding path of rushing water to its source, eight hours had passed since Kon’s first run in with danger. In that same amount of time, the sun had finished settling beyond the range of mountains that loomed in the east, leaving the rainforest drenched in shadow. In the distance, glacial runoff from the nearest peak cascaded down the natural curve of the mountain to spill over a blunt cliff. The waterfall babbled relentlessly as it crashed into a small lake, throwing a cloud of mist into the air. Shadows floated in the water and stood against the shore, enclosed by a perimeter of wooden fencing. A flock’s worth of nests and a few boats, it seemed. But why would anyone settle here, in the heart of the Waistlands? Where beasts reign and Carrion roam? It didn’t make any sense.
Kon glanced down at the piece of broken mirror in his hand to confirm the arrow’s direction, then looked at Lafer and Vigor. The pair marched toward the front gate of the secluded roost like it was a familiar place. “Where are we?”
“Underfall,” replied Lafer. “We’ve never been here before, but we’ve heard of the place. After Ebi started her family, the Fated King came to help her tend the land for her and her followers to settle in. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised Lucid led us here after she made us turn northward. There’s not a lot of roosts between the Coastwatch Eyrie and Westwind Academy.”
“But why would anyone live here?” Kon asked. “Why not somewhere… safer?”
“It’s plenty safe, actually,” rumbled Vigor. “Another Seer, Kusi, and his fae, Tamer, made the local beasts into allies. They guard the perimeter from threats. The fact we haven’t run into any probably means Lucid told them we were coming. Look,” he said, raising a smoldering gauntlet with one finger outstretched. “Can you see Flow? He’s in the lake, just underneath the waterfall.”
Kon looked and found the coiled shadow of a serpent among the curling wisps of mist. When Vigor opened his hand and waved, Flow’s body unraveled in their direction to begin slithering across the water. Instead of traveling straight through, he weaved a path between the boats that floated where the water was the stillest. Every time he turned, the fae seemed to gain momentum. Beneath his translucent scales, swirls of blue and white light swam in patterns, shining pale against the darkness. Just before the wooden fence that stretched into and around the lake, Flow dove underwater, only to quickly resurface. He glided toward the nearby shore with slick grace. The moment he landed, Vigor took off running, His molten greaves left a trail of glassy footprints in the sand.
Lafer motioned Kon toward the roost’s front gate as it began to creep open. In the sliver of space between, a man stood in the center, pushing the doors at his sides. He was dressed in overalls marred with dirt, his arms and chest dense with cords of muscle that looked as thick as rope. By his weathered face and haggard expression, he was even older than Kon, and yet tiny frills of hair were beginning to poke out of his shaven head. Married, but bald by choice. Not genetics. Kon couldn’t help but feel jealous looking at the man.
Could he be the other Seer, Kusi? Kon looked onward as he walked, searching for the man’s fae. As he got closer, a tiny speck of light shone on his shoulder, shaped like a lone teardrop in pale lilac. Just an ordinary man. A farmer? Kon thought, noticing the fields of crops beyond the now-open gate. But why send a farmer to greet us?
Behind the farmer, a guard stood, adorned in studded leather armor with a steel cap that looked less like a helmet and more like a sunhat. Though significantly younger, his face looked just as weary as his middle-aged companion. The guard held a round lantern in one hand and a pole arm with a wing-like blade in his other. Though undeniably lean with muscle, the guard almost looked scrawny compared to the farmer.
But if he’s scrawny, what’s that make me?
As the thought coursed through him, Kon became suddenly aware of his bulging gut and trembling legs. He no longer had the benefit of Vigor’s aura, which left him feeling all the stress and exhaustion of today’s journey. The first pride of tree lions wasn’t the only one they had run into. On the third occasion, Kon’s ankle had been twisted, nearly to the point of breaking. Thanks to Vigor, he was back on his feet in minutes, but now that the fae was gone, Kon could feel it aching. His body was due for a good night’s rest.
“Dír!” Lafer shouted, clearly recognizing the man. He finished opening the gates and dusted his hands before he waved. Lafer waved back, then glanced at Kon, noticing his raised eyebrow. “That’s Ebi’s husband,” she told him. “Now that I think about it, you kind of remind me of him.”
Kon’s thoughts whiplashed between that makes sense and that makes no sense so fast that he needed to stop walking to process.
“What?” Lafer asked. “Did I say something wrong?”
Kon shook his head and kept walking. “You didn’t. I’m just feeling a little woozy. Vigor left in a hurry, and now all my exhaustion is hitting me at once.”
“Sorry about that. I can ask him to come back.”
“No, it’s fine. Flow and him seem like friends, strange as that is, now that I say it out loud. Water and fire being friends?”
Lafer chuckled. “Vigor’s like me. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you are. The only requirement for our friendship is having a good heart.”
Kon grinned softly, and Lafer returned a smile. Together, they marched toward the gate to greet the men waiting just behind it.
“Lafer,” Dír began, his voice a deep, smooth baritone that Kon knew would be perfect for singing a nocturne. “Hello Vigor!” he yelled toward the trail of glassy footprints. “And who’s this?” he asked, facing Kon. “Ebi mentioned a new hero. Does that make you him?”
“I’m no hero,” he said, outstretching his hand. “Just a man who would do anything to protect his family. That’s a bit too wordy though, so you can just call me Kon.”
The man grasped his hand firmly, the calluses on his palms thick. He only shook it for a moment. “I know how you feel,” he replied. “The names Dír. Like Tír, yes. Turns out farmers aren’t the best at naming their children.”
“I think it’s cool,” said Lafer. “Like the Old Tongue.”
“That was the idea. But when you’re a small kid, others end up calling the farmer boy Dirt or Dirty.”
Dír grinned as if unbothered and patted the girl’s shoulder lightly before pointing behind him. “Flow will show Vigor to Underfall’s back passage and meet us at the pavilion. In the meantime, my wife, daughter, and I would like to give you two a brief tour.”
Above and behind his head, Kon’s fae chimed like a bell. “The three of us,” he corrected.
Dír looked back and bowed slightly. “I’m sorry,” he said, then rose to look into Kon’s eyes. “What’s her name?”
Kon scratched behind his ear.
“He hasn’t named her yet,” Lafer answered for him.
“I see,” said Dír. “Then I’m sorry, Kon’s fae.”
The floating orb soared over to the man and trilled happily, lighting a few sparks in the air. Dír’s face lit up in the light, though his expression showed no recognition.
“She forgives you,” Kon said. Both men shared a grin, then turned to face the guard when he cleared his throat.
“Oh! Vem! Where are my manners? This is one of our most loyal watchmen.”
The young guard blinked slowly. “Hey.”
“We’ll get out of your way now. Sorry about disturbing your post.”
Vem grunted a response. Perhaps too kind to say any more, Dír took it in stride. “Follow me,” he said, waving Kon and Lafer toward the lake’s shore. Parasols lay strewn about, each closed save for one. They stuck out of the ground like spears pointed at the sky. Under the meager shield of the open parasol, a woman sat at the foot of a beach chair with a small girl on her lap. Ebi and her daughter. Both of them were staring beyond the fence, where Vigor and Flow talked at the shore. Both of their eyes turned as the serpent led the giant around the fence and toward the treeline.
Dír cleared his throat, drawing their attention. Ebi lifted her daughter off her lap and onto her feet, then rose, smoothing out the wrinkles on her silky, multi-layered robes. It looked like several cloths had been draped over her, each shorter and a lighter shade of blue than the last, their edges trimmed like rounded waves. Thin ribbons hung from her sleeves like a pair of curtains at her sides. They undulated in a breeze as her daughter hid behind her leg, her face barely poking out from the ribbons. The girl didn’t even seem to notice Kon. She only stared at Lafer and her suit of crimson armor.
Both mother and daughter had round cheeks and sapphire eyes. A cloud of tiny water droplets floated near the girl, and though faint against the crashing waterfall, Kon could hear the fae pattering like a soft rain splashing in a puddle. The fact that it was making any noise at all… it practically confirmed it. The girl looked the same age as Kinjra, and she had the Sight. But why is she here and not at an Academy? It didn’t make any sense.
“Lafer,” Ebi greeted, extending a hand. Lafer took and shook it eagerly, then looked at Kon expectantly. Ebi let go and offered her hand to him. “Kon,” she began. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I’m sorry we didn’t get the chance to speak last night.”
“Nothing to be sorry for,” Kon assured her. He lightly grasped her hand while she clenched his tightly. Tighter than her husband had. Stronger. Though her draping robes hid it well, Kon could see hints of large muscles at her shoulders and upper arms. When she let go, he nodded slowly. “I’d be in a rush to get back to my family too. I understand completely.”
Ebi smiled as Dír stepped beside her, placing one arm on her waist and the other on his daughter’s head. “There’s no reason to be shy, Cesca. They’re both Seers. That means they’re like our family.”
“Go on,” Ebi whispered. “Say hi.”
Cesca shook her head, retreating further behind her mother’s sleeve.
“You remember Lafer from her Graduation Ceremony, don’t you? Her fae is Vigor. The big red knight.”
Cesca nodded her head, spilling braids of chestnut brown hair. Despite their names being different, Ebi had the same hair, the same eyes, and a similar face, while Cesca didn’t resemble Dír in the slightest. Even so, the young girl leaned into the man’s side as he scratched her head lightly. Not her father in blood, but certainly in spirit.
Kon had so many questions.
Lafer approached the family carefully, the look on her face concerned, as if she was afraid of the young girl too. “Hello Cesca,” she greeted while she crouched, her voice low and friendly. “I love what you’ve done with your hair. It looks very pretty today.”
Cesca made a face like a wraith just leaped out of the darkness. But as she leaned away, she also tilted her head, letting more of her braids fall over her face. She shook her head briefly, making them dance. After that, she gazed up quietly through her own hair instead of her mother’s sleeve. Both of her parents smiled warmly as Lafer rose onto her feet.
“This is Kon,” said Ebi. “He has a daughter around the same age as you. Kinjra, right?”
Kon had to fight his body not to startle. Ebi watched Cesca look at Kon, noticing him for the first time. With everyone’s eyes on him, he felt suddenly aware of the sweat on his brow. He had never spoken with Ebi before. How could she know the name and age of his daughter?
“Sun scorn me,” Ebi whispered. “I should have mentioned. Lucid told me about you and your family. Said you would have a lot of questions that I could answer, considering our similar origins and circumstances. I hope that’s okay.”
Kon nodded. Even so, he felt no relief. If Lucid knows that much, could she know Kinjra has the Sight, too? If she doesn’t, how long will it take until she figures it out? Kon had so many questions, and no good way for him to get answers. If he asked what he wanted it would only invite questions of their own.
“Kon is a hero,” Ebi continued, her eyes fixated on her daughter. “Just last night, he saved his entire flock from a wraith. His fae must be really strong because he hasn’t even named her yet. Can you see her from way behind there?”
Cesca leaned forward as the glittering orb of lute strings drifted closer to her. With a beautiful triplet, Kon’s fae lit tiny sparks of light in the air. Cesca let out a quiet shriek as she startled backwards, leaving only one eye visible behind the ribbons hanging from her mother’s sleeve. After a moment, however, she leaned forward again to reveal the hint of a smile. With a thought, his fae returned to his side.
Kon didn’t think of himself as a hero. After all, it took the lives of his friends and family being at risk to convince him into fulfilling his duty to the world. He was a selfish coward, really. Too afraid to hurt the people he loved. Kon didn’t want to leave his wife and daughter behind nor put them in harm’s way, and in the end, it happened anyway. Commander Sap had been cruel, but she was partly right. As angry as her and Jrana were, Kon was angrier with himself. He grew up worshipping Fate as much as anyone. What kind of man was he to deny Her call?
Kon blinked as he noticed the awkward silence. His gaze had wavered, falling to his boots. He looked up at Ebi, then down to her daughter. “Hello Cesca,” he said, keeping his tone gentle. Kon smiled faintly. The girl shied further away.
“Well now that introductions are over, we can go. Flow and Vigor are in the cavern now. They’ll be at the pavilion in minutes.”
Kon nodded. Ebi led Cesca by her hand as Lafer and him followed after them. Dír remained behind to close the parasol, then hurried to catch up with his wife. They walked on and down a treaded path of dirt that ran parallel to the lake’s shore and the large field of crops. At the end of the road, two concentric rings of nests stood within the cloud of mist. At their center, a wide-open dome with columns instead of walls loomed over a large well, brick-oven, and dozens of tables and chairs. Lanterns hung from the pavilion’s rafters, though the flames were dim.
Underfall’s version of a canteen. It was late enough that dinner would have already been served and cleaned up after. All but one nest was dark, and judging by the ripples and waves that were painted on its walls in blue and white, it must have belonged to Ebi. It was the furthest away and the closest to the waterfall, far enough down the shore for water to splash onto its roof and lap against its side.
“Our roost tends to rise and settle in with the sun,” explained Dír. “We ask that so long as you’re here, you keep your voices down. Everyone here needs their rest.”
Ebi glanced at her husband, then looked over her shoulder at Kon. “You look tired. If you would like, we can set up tents for you to use overnight.”
Kon and Lafer met eyes, each one looking for guidance. They were both under the impression their journey would continue through the night. Lafer said the sooner they reached the Delakos Mountains, the safer things would be, if physically more difficult. Ebi was right, though. Kon was tired.
“If it’s alright,” he began, “I’d like to speak with Lucid first and hear what she has to say. Our mirror broke at the start of our journey, and I have some questions that only she can answer. You have a mirror you speak with her through, yes?”
Ebi nodded. “Nothing compact, but I have a standing mirror in my nest. Nise uses it to warn me of impending meteors and assign missions. He should be asleep now, but I’m sure Lucid will answer if we call.”
Kon frowned. “She didn’t tell you I would want to talk to her?”
Ebi looked toward her nest, then shook her head. “She didn’t. Just asked me to be a good host. We have leftovers from dinner in case you want to eat, and my husband and I will be available if you need anything else. Even if you only want to talk.”
“That’s kind,” said Lafer. “I could use a third-dinner. What about you, Kon?”
“I’m not hungry,” Kon lied. “I just want answers.”
“I should warn you two now, then. Dír, Cesca, would you mind leaving us to fetch some food for Lafer?”
Dír pulled his lips into a taut line. “Of course. I’ll see you three at the pavilion?”
Ebi nodded, halting. While her husband and daughter went on without them, she turned slowly, her expression just as tense. When the pair were out of earshot, she took a deep breath. The words poured from her easily, as if they were a message she practiced reciting again and again.
“There were more incidents today. No unforeseen meteors, but tragic events. Riots occurred in each remaining capital of the Talons. Most of them were stopped before too much harm could be done, but in each case, a wraith was discovered leading the masses. Eight different harbingers in eight different roosts. The Lidkin Refugees seemed to be the largest of their forces — people who had been mistreated, ostracized, or forsaken. They happened in concert, but we think they were just a distraction. At the same time, one of the Fated King’s allies from his Academy days… it appears he was Taken. A lot of good Seers and soldiers died as the wraith escaped with is body and his fae. No matter where or how far Lucid looks, she can’t seem to find it. Nise is worried, and understandably so. I never met the Taken Seer myself, but I’ve heard a lot about him over the years. I can assure you that it’s a tragic loss for our kind.”
Kon blinked as his mind sputtered, unable to process what he was hearing.
“Who was it?” Lafer asked, her voice meek and quiet.
“Varomin,” whispered Ebi. “You may have learned about him or his fae Murmur at the Academy.”
Lafer nodded slowly. “The name’s familiar,” she replied softly. There was a moment where recognition flickered in her eyes that betrayed a deeper understanding.
Kon, meanwhile, felt lost. And more than a little afraid. “But how? Why can’t any fae see what the wraiths are doing or planning?”
“We don’t know. All I can say for sure is that something has changed. Flow can sense the motion of things. Fluids especially, but also Fate. He’s told me that he can’t feel any disturbances, but each time one of these events happened, it’s like the river, for lack of a better word, was suddenly diverged. For the most part these divergences haven’t been large, but after that wraith stole Varomin? It’s like the water rushing toward us – our future – is more turbulent than it was before.”
Kon scratched behind his ear as Lafer swallowed loudly. Neither one of them wanted to accept what they were hearing. It was plain on their faces and in their stances. As Lafer clenched her fists by her sides, Kon sagged. His mind felt heavier than his body, weighing him down.
No one knew what to say after that. Fate had never failed humanity before. Not like this. Believing it was infallible was a pillar of their faith. As difficult as reality often proved to be, Fate promised a better future. A great age of honor and prosperity, free of hatred and pain. It was what the Seers and soldiers fought for. To preserve their world and their species. To ensure countless generations would carry on their memories and legacies in peace. No more wars. No more suffering.
The wraiths… they wanted the antithesis. Whatever they were, whatever twisted realm they came from, those monsters wanted the humans to hurt. They breathed soul devouring flame and sowed chaos and dissent, turning kin into killers. Wraiths like the one that stole Rin… they craved violence. Took pleasure in people’s pain. All wraiths were like that, and all had the same goal. They wanted to dominate and destroy everything. They wanted to devour the very world itself.
If people could no longer believe in Fate, what did they have left to believe in? If there was no bright future to fight for, what stopped them from turning their backs and running? What does it say about me that this is where my mind goes? Kon shut his eyes, already knowing the answer. A selfish coward, that’s what. Commander Sap really was right.
Lafer huffed out a deep breath. Kon opened his eyes to find the girl actually smiling in spite of the news. Of all the stages of grief, Lafer seemed to be in denial.
But when she spoke? Her voice was tempered with so much confidence, Kon couldn’t help but feel convinced. “Though no one wants to say it aloud, I think every Seer saw this coming, if only out of our worst fears. Predictions of the War have always been vague and we all knew it would be devastating in spite of our victory. What the wraiths do, foreseen or not, doesn’t matter. All that matters is that we don’t waver in the face of adversity. We are better than them. Stronger than them, despite their numbers. So long as we continue to fight for our future, we will win. With the Fated King leading us into battle, we have to. There’s no other option.”
Kon watched Ebi’s smile grow as Lafer spoke, the girl’s cheeks becoming flushed by the effort. The blue of the woman’s eyes appeared to swim as she nodded her head in resolve. Kon felt a tug at the ends of his own lips, as if they moved of their own accord.
“Beautifully said,” Ebi praised. “I wish more Seers were half as optimistic. A lot of us are worried about what this means for our lives. And for our loved ones,” she added while glancing toward her family. The woman faced Lafer as her grin faltered. “You might want to know that your mother is confident in our future, too. She’s rallying your brothers and her followers to hunt for the wraith that stole Varomin. They’re determined to bring it to justice.”
Lafer startled at the mention of her mother. When her siblings came up, her grimace softened. As soon as the word justice left Ebi’s mouth, the anguish returned. Though Kon wasn’t certain, he knew the signs of a bad history when he saw them. Lafer wore a similar expression when she talked about her dead friend, too. For fear of prying, Kon tried not to put the pieces together. If Lafer wanted him to know, she would share it.
“Thank you for telling us,” she replied. “Now we know to be extra careful, whether we decide to rest here or march on through the night.”
Kon blinked as Lafer gazed at him. Clearly she was giving him the choice. “I’d still like to speak with Lucid first, if that’s okay. My mind won’t be able to rest until I get some answers.”
“Are you sure it’s nothing I can help with?” asked Ebi.
Kon peered into the woman’s cerulean eyes.“I’m sure. Only Lucid.”
“Alright then. Just follow me, and I’ll take you to the mirror.”
In response, he only nodded. Ebi motioned them toward the roost underneath the waterfall with a sweeping gesture of her arm.
𝅘𝅥 Reflections 𝅘𝅥
Kon followed Ebi through Underfall’s paved streets, his eyes squinted against the mist. It lingered in the air, frigid, clinging to everything it touched. His clothes felt heavy, weighing him down as if he was still carrying his belongings on his back. Lafer had been kind enough to take them from him when she left to join Vigor and the others at the pavilion. Alone with the older Seer, they made their way to her nest on the lake’s shore, just beside the waterfall and the cliff.
His fae drifted on ahead, basking in the sound of water crashing, splashing, and rushing. A rain-like patter resounded against her nest’s metal roof. Streams poured down gutters, feeding into basins dug into the ground and a moat small enough that it could be stepped over. Even without closing his eyes and opening his fae’s senses, Kon found all the noise terribly overwhelming. He had no idea how people could sleep in a place like this.
The nests themselves were made of stone, not wood. In an environment like this, rot would set in too easily, but that also meant their homes were immobile. If danger came, they would not be able to uproot themselves easily.
Ebi only had to push on her wave-painted door to make it open. No locks. Not even a doorknob. With a smile, she walked in and welcomed Kon inside. He had no idea how she could seem so at ease. How are you not terrified?
Kon’s nod was slow. He stepped past her and toward the curtain of blue streamers that hung in the center of the room, enclosing their family’s bed. Tall wooden chairs stood facing a window and a table built into the wall. Beyond the glass, the lake roiled underneath the waterfall. Kon wandered in that direction, giving Ebi room to close the door behind him. No bar on the inside either, he remarked, staring at the door.
The inner walls looked no different from the outer. Intricate patterns of waves and rivers had been carved into the painted blue furniture as well. Candles inside stained-glass cups were scattered around the room. The colors on the walls seemed to ebb and flow in the flickering candlelight.
“The ladder’s this way,” Ebi told him, motioning him toward the opposite side of the nest. She gripped one of the ladder’s rungs as she waited beside it, a small baking kiln and a closed pantry nearby. “Mind climbing first?” she asked, pointing at the bottom hem of her robes. Kon nodded in understanding.
He grasped one of the smooth rungs and pulled himself up, his eyes never leaving the open hatch above him. A stained-glass window was set in the middle of the ceiling, depicting a stylized rendition of Flow curling around and looking in a pool of still water. Through the pool, Kon could see the dark sky and a few stars beyond the gathering clouds. It was a small miracle the Skyblade was covered, though Kon swore he could feel it perched there, glaring. A guillotine biding its time before it fell.
Kon lifted himself onto his feet as soon as he could, stumbling toward a collection of bookcases that curved along the walls. He glanced at them briefly, noticing several tomes labeled with geological or geographical terminology. Out of respect, Kon stopped himself from prying further. He turned to face the ladder, but instead, his gaze settled on the tall standing mirror behind the woman’s desk. In a notch on the mirror’s side was set the funnel-like staff he saw Ebi wield the previous night. She finished ascending only to find Kon staring at his reflection. She walked toward the mirror, stepping between them. Both had frowns as their eyes met.
“Are you sure there’s nothing I can help you with?” Ebi’s lips are painted blue, he realized. Jrana had worn a brighter shade of the same color on their wedding day and many days after. Lighter hues contrasted beautifully against her sundarkened skin. Ebi’s complexion was paler, her face round like flockfolk, but as tears began to pour from his eyes, he only saw Jrana’s pointed face and severe expression.
“I’m sure,” Kon told her, wiping his face.
Ebi nodded carefully, exhaling a held breath. She turned to the mirror to softly rap four of her knuckles against it rhythmically, sending ripples across the reflection. Swaths of black, silver, gold, and red bled out of the mirror’s edges, pouring into it to swim, swirl, and splash like the water outside her window. At one side, a thin figure of clarity stepped into view, the swarming colors parting around her translucent shape. Lucid was already bowing, her frame stiff. Despite her face bearing no visible features, Kon recognized guilt in her body language.
“I’m sorry,” Lucid sang, her voice soft. “I had no idea that mirror would break, and I should have been paying more attention to your journey. Is your ankle better?”
Kon let out a breath of exasperation. “It is. You know about that?”
“I do. A lot happened today, so I hope you understand why I couldn’t watch out for you the whole time.”
“Ebi told us what happened. It’s fine,” he lied. “I had Lafer and Vigor to take care of me.”
“You did and still do,” Lucid agreed. “So you’re not upset?”
“Not about that, no.” Kon glanced at Ebi, meeting her wondering gaze.
“I’ll join the others at the pavilion,” she told them, understanding his intent. “I trust you can see yourself out, Kon?”
He nodded, then waited for the woman to leave. His fae continued to hover behind him as he walked across the room to the woman in the mirror. She watched Kon quietly as he listened for the door to close below. When he heard the click, he gazed into Lucid’s eyes – or, at least, the place where her eyes would be, if she had any – and sighed.
“You can see Fate, right?” he asked, tone low and serious. “At least some of it,” he clarified. “Things like this conversation?”
“I can,” she replied. “Not that I like to, especially now. It’s too easy to get lost in the future, or apparently be deceived. I prefer to exist in the present. To be aware of what is happening in the world, yes, but not oppressively so. I’ve learned most humans aren’t comfortable talking with someone who already knows what they’re going to say and how things will end. But if you would like, I can look, if it makes things easier?”
“It wouldn’t,” he muttered.
“Then know that I’m here with you now. What can I do to help?”
Kon shook his head. “You really don’t know, do you?”
Lucid waited in silence, as if considering her words. “Know what?”
He paused to steady his breath. “I want to know why you gave me the dream,” he whispered. “Why would you show that to me?”
“Dream?” the fae asked. “I didn’t give you a dream. That’s not- My magic doesn’t work like that.”
It doesn’t- what? His mind sputtered. “But I- I asked her,” he said, gesturing to the orb floating behind him. “My fae told me that you did it.”
“Kon,” Lucid began, her crystalline voice hushed, as if underwater. “It appears you and your fae had a misunderstanding. What do you mean by she told you?”
Kon turned to look at his floating companion. As the conversation unfolded and his confusion formed, she went to hide behind Ebi’s desk, only visible by her dim gold-and-silver glow. “When I asked her about my dream, she drew me to my reflection in a window. I said your name and she nodded, like Vigor taught her. Up and down for yes.”
A moment of silence again. “Kon’s fae,” Lucid softly chimed. “Can you please come to me?”
“…Why?” he asked.
“I want her to touch her shell to the mirror. It would help me see her clearer.”
His fae was reluctant. Perhaps Kon was too, though he was the one to relent. Go, he told her, and she did. The fae slowly floated into the palm of Lucid’s raised hand, inciting a melodic hum.
“I can tell she is strong,” Lucid began. “Smart too. But Kon… I don’t think she is as strong or as smart as you think.”
Though her tone was gentle, Kon almost felt insulted. “What do you mean?”
“You may be wise beyond your years, but she is still young, and her mind… it’s still developing. Nascent, unnamed fae like her – even ones belonging to long-time Seers – they can’t understand or perceive the world the same way that you do. They’re more like an infant or a loyal animal. If she responded to my name, it wasn’t in the way you think. But now that I’m holding her in my hand? I may be able to help you understand. You might not like it, though.”
Kon didn’t know which fae to look at. The ‘trustworthy’ companion that forced him to relive his heartbreak, or the unknowing figure that spoke on her behalf. Neither one of them felt like his friends right now. He almost felt like he’d been betrayed. “Why do you say that?”
“For the same reason she wanted you to see that memory,” Lucid told him. “When you said my name after looking at yourself in the window, she didn’t mean me. She was telling you to reflect. Young fae deal in emotions and ideas, not words and thoughts. I can sense that she feels like you’re repressing something important, and it’s affecting her too. She can feel that it’s hurting you. She only wants to help. For you to be happy.”
Kon laughed despite himself, feeling dizzy. Without realizing it, he grasped the desk beside him. He was leaning into it to keep himself upright.
“How could I possibly be happy?” he asked, his voice soft and his tone hard. “Fate took me from my family and condemned me to fight in a war for our very world. I know that it’s important. I understand that I have a duty to my people that must be fulfilled. But my wife and I… we never wanted this. Our daughter-”
Kon stopped himself, wiping the tears from his face.
“We didn’t want her to grow up without me. Not like I grew up without my father. Not like Jrana grew up without hers.”
Lucid nodded her head, spilling hair that Kon didn’t realize she had. Tiny strands of clarity fell around her shoulders, only to settle in and blend with the sides of her neck and her shoulders. “Jrana,” she began. “She is your wife, yes? Jrana of the Wallowing Shores?”
Kon blinked at the figure in the mirror, barely able to see her through the moisture welling in his eyes. His fae glittered against Lucid’s open palm, her glow dim. He felt her guilt in him as much as he felt his own.
“I know Lord Jred and Lady Anant,” Lucid continued. “I met them both frequently, though Jred did not study in our Academy. He was a loyal Seer, if troubled.”
Kon wouldn’t dignify that with a response. Couldn’t, knowing how that man went on to raise his children. The wraiths had mangled his body and crippled his soul. Turned him into a monster like the rest of them.
“Their son, Anjre? He was one of our best. His loss was felt in the hearts of so many. The Fated King still mourns his death.”
Kon could at least agree with that. Anjre had died when Jrana was Kinjra’s age. She’d been old enough to have a lot of good memories of him, before Fate gave him the Sight and their father sent him to Southsea Academy. The last time Jrana had seen her brother alive had been at his graduation. He lasted in the Fated King’s army for nearly two years. Not even a week before he died, Anjre sent his sister a letter saying he would soon visit. It was no wonder Jrana was upset when Fate took her husband, too.
“Can you tell me about the dream?” asked Lucid. “It would make explaining things easier.”
“Didn’t she already?” Kon asked, motioning to his fae. “You already mentioned the memories. That I was repressing.”
“I can only tell you what she’s feeling at the moment. The memories- those were a deduction. What you experienced last night is what we call a Seer Dream. A dream shared between a human and their fae, in a place where their connection is the deepest. If I wanted, I could reach for Nise right now and pull him into a realm of our memories together. That’s what your fae did – or tried to do – with you. What I can tell you is that she didn’t want to hurt you. She thought she was helping.”
“Well she wasn’t,” Kon said, his voice cracking. “She only made it worse.” The words tasted bitter in his mouth.
Lucid’s voice was soft as his fae’s shell dimmed further. “If it helps, she is profoundly sorry.”
Kon shook his head. He could feel his companion’s guilt like a nervous fluttering in his soul. It didn’t help. Not much.
“I’m not upset,” he lied. “Just… Can you help my fae understand one thing?”
Lucid didn’t even skip a beat. “Of course. What is it?”
Kon stepped back and stared at both fae as he slowly parted his lips. “Today was just the first day, and it was undeniably hard. I almost died on three occasions and don’t look like they’ll be any safer until we reach the Academy. If I don’t keep moving forward, I don’t know how I’ll survive this. Whenever I look over my shoulder or think about the past, it feels like my heart starts bursting out of my chest. I can’t hide that from Lafer or Vigor, and I don’t want them to worry. Even if it might hurt me to ignore it, I know that if I don’t, I’ll stumble eventually. After last night? I can’t afford to stumble. If I fall to my knees again, I don’t know how I can pull myself back up.”
“You know Vigor’s magic will leave you sorer later,” Lucid warned. “Nise gave you an extra day to rest for days like this. You deserve the rest, Kon. You can sleep here tonight.”
“I can’t,” he intoned with finality, frowning. “So all the strange events that are happening now…” Kon began. “You or any fae else really didn’t see it coming?”
Lucid shook her head. “It’s subtle, but I can see a hint of what’s happening. If you imagine Fate is a window, I can see it becoming smudged, like handprints on glass. With every change, the glass becomes blurrier. Multiple layers of smudges. Each dirtier than the last.”
“Then it’s especially important I get to the Academy,” Kon said. “Before anything else happens, and while I still have time to learn. Until I do, I know I’ll keep feeling like this. Lost, confused, scared. I feel like I’m drowning in my own head.”
“Maybe you’re right. I honestly can’t tell you what’s the right decision. Not after what happened last night and what happened today. I trust Lafer and Vigor’s judgment, as well as yours, Kon. If it ever gets to be too much – even if you don’t realize it, but they do – you should listen. I’ll continue to guide you to safety like today, and I promise that I will pay more attention. You’re not alone in any of this. My Seer and I? We’re just as lost, confused, and scared as you. We all just need to keep our faith.”
“How can you say that?” Kon asked, his voice louder than he anticipated. “Have faith in what? Not Fate, surely. How can we trust it anymore?”
Lucid stared at him in silence, her expression blank.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just-” he began. “I just miss my family so much.”
“I know you do, Kon. Ebi knows what that’s like too. You should talk with her. She could help you a lot.”
Kon searched for Lucid’s eyes. When he couldn’t find them, his fae drifted into his vision, then settled in his palm. Without realizing it, his hand opened and brought itself to his side. Her light still dim, her shell cold to the touch. She trilled a soft duplet of somber forgiveness. In spite of the frown on his face, Kon nodded. He knew he shouldn’t be mad at her. It wasn’t her fault. Like his many students, the fae was still learning. Getting upset about their mistakes would only make it worse.
“That may be another misunderstanding I can clear up,’ Lucid continued. “Fate, that is. She’s not as perfect as most folk think. She was never meant to be, but now the belief is too far-rooted. Knowing would only break people and their resolve.”
“What do you mean?” Kon asked. His resolve felt on the brink of breaking itself.
“Fate- She isn’t a person, like humans prefer to imagine. She’s more like a fae if anything, but if fae were something greater. An incarnation of our very world itself. Even so, She doesn’t think like us, or perceive reality like us. She sees things not just in one time, but all times, spreading Her power as much as she can and granting us visions to guide us. Understanding Her is sometimes impossible – or, at least, only possible in retrospect. In a lot of ways, it seems her mind is no more developed than a nascent fae’s, and in others, it feels like She’s the maestro of an orchestral symphony. No matter what, though, She has humanity’s best interests in mind. She’s the very reason why us fae have humanity’s best interests in mind.”
“What about the fae, like Decay?” Kon muttered. “The Carrion Seers and their troupes of monsters?”
“They obtained their Sight through vile means. The process left their fae corrupted.”
Kon leaned further into the desk, catching his breath. “Why not tell the world that either? Why do the Seers keep so many secrets?”
“If some people knew murder could give them magical powers, then we’d just have more problems to deal with. I’ve foreseen the results of that myself. It’s not pretty.”
“And what about Fate?” he asked. “Why lie to us about Her?”
“If anyone lied to anyone, it was humanity to itself. Older civilizations didn’t have to deal with the reality of the War, knowing it was so far away. They raised Seers and trained soldiers to fight gloriously, only to feud and turn on each other with no concerns for the legacy they left behind. The misconceptions about Fate they created… I would change it, but that happened long before my time. Humanity’s faith has become so rooted in an ensured victory that telling them any different? I’ve foreseen the results of that as well, and they’re no prettier. Everything the Seers are doing are for the best. I can promise you that.”
“And Lafer knows this?” Kon asked. “All the Seers know this?”
“Not Lafer or any of the children. Tradition has dictated that it’s for the mentors of a Seer’s first post to clarify the details.”
Kon shook his head, grimacing in pain. When did my brain start throbbing? With a hand on the desk and the other cradling his fae, he rose upright so he was face to face with Lucid. “How can any of them fight, knowing any of that?”
“That’s exactly why they can fight, Kon. Why we do. If we didn’t, then the wraiths win. Everything humanity has done, everything they created, it would be gone forever. Without us, Fate’s dream could never come true. What you’re feeling right now? It’s the same thing every Seer has felt when they learn more about Her. Us fae? We feel what it’s like through you. We all understand.”
Kon searched Lucid’s featureless expression for a hint of understanding. When he found nothing, his eyes fell down to his fae. She was glowing brighter, and her shell felt warm against his skin. She trilled a similar duplet, though it rang slightly different. Support, rather than forgiveness.
“Speak with Ebi. Lafer too, if it would help, but only if she can handle this information. I trust you’ll know when the time is right. If it isn’t and you can wait, there are resources for you at the Academy. The Headmaster and Armsmaster, as well as our Professors and the Seers who live in and defend the roost at our doorstep. If you ask them to share why they fight, you might find your own reason. If you ask me, though? You and your fae already know what it is.”
“My family,” he whispered.
“That’s right. Ebi was and is a lot like you, Kon. A lot like your wife too, from what I understand about their histories. She could really give you some insight.”
“I’ll think about it,” he said, stepping away from the mirror. Though he felt better – steadier, even – he still held onto his fae, worried that if he let go, he might lose himself again. He needed a clear head.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” Lucid asked. Her crystalline voice reverberated with concern.
“No. We should be leaving soon. The fresh air will help more than anything.”
“Alright, Kon. I’ll be watching over you the best I can. Don’t forget to look, though. I can only shine that broken mirror so bright.”
Kon nodded as he walked to and lingered by the ladder. After a moment, he looked back. He thought Lucid had already left.
“Yes?” she asked.
“I’m sorry. I hope I didn’t upset or offend you. I’m just… not feeling like myself.”
“There’s nothing to be sorry for. I’m neither upset nor offended. I would prefer you talk to me as much as you’re comfortable, and in any way that you’re comfortable. Every thought you humans have… it’s a part of you. A little snippet of your existence. Living proof that you’re real. Even if those snippets aren’t as great as some others, it’s okay. Painful feelings are valid in times of stress. The fact that you pulled yourself together after all this and chose to keep on moving, despite the challenges that lie ahead? I think that says more about you than you’re giving yourself credit for, Kon. Fate wouldn’t have chosen you if She didn’t believe you could bring peace to this world. Even when things aren’t working in our favor, every Seer knows they were picked by Her for a reason. I think more than anything you just need faith in yourself.”
Transparent as she appeared to be, Kon found himself shaking his head. I don’t know if I can. I don’t know how to be a hero or a soldier. I don’t know how I can believe you… or myself.
In response, the light and warmth in his hand blossomed. His fae sang a fluttering quadruplet, blending the notes together, then scattering the melody apart. Kon remembered the tune well. He had played it for the ritili and his daughter.
Unable to speak or not, she managed to get the point across. Kon let go so she could take flight, then clenched both his hands into fists.
If he put the whole past behind him, he would lose the good memories, too. It wouldn’t take long for him to forget the reason he was alive after that. More than anything, he wanted his family to have a long and happy life. Knowing that Fate wasn’t infallible didn’t change that. Kon still loved them and would do anything to protect them.
“Safe travels, Kon. Tell Lafer and Vigor I look forward to speaking with them next chance we get.”
“I will,” Kon said, descending the first rung of the ladder. Just before he was gone, he looked into the room one last time. Both the swirling colors and Lucid had vanished from the mirror. Though reality seemed dimmer in the flickering candlelight, at least his fae still glittered like a star in the night. I forgive you, he thought.
Her light shone brighter as they departed.