Kon raised his flute and bodhrán, drawing the steel instrument back as he tilted the drum in anticipation. Every beat of the man’s heart heralded another of the wraith’s blazing leaps. As the spiritfire neared, the air became colder. Quieter. Heavier. Even so, Kon did not shiver or slouch as he stood his ground. He took a deep breath. The ridges of his fae’s shell glinted faintly as she hovered before him.
Neither him or his fae were able to hear the footsteps of the fleeing Pale Hawks. Kon had been comforted by listening to Jrana and Kinjra’s panting and pattering, but the sounds of their desperate flight quickly faded, like the colors of their surroundings. No more brown dirt and yellowing grass. No more deep green foliage and bright, vibrant flowers.
Everywhere Kon looked, all he could see was gray. Light gray, dark gray. Every shade of gray in between. The spiritfire was brightest as it burned through the air and the earth. A pale, muted white that flickered and sparked as it lashed out at the world around it. People often thought of the phenomena as death incarnate.
Only the wraiths – and conduits of magic, apparently – could survive the pallid spiritfire unscathed. For good reason, Kon suspected the two were inexplicably connected. He had witnessed the possession of his brother. Witnessed the moment the shadow lunged down Rin’s throat. Spiritfire poured into his body, filling him like a wineskin. Kon had seen the Rin-wraith spout it from his mouth with loud shouts, and manipulate it with sweeping gestures, both quick and grand. As terrible as that night was, the experience gave him an advantage.
The more Kon stared into the blindingly-dim flame, the harder it became to perceive the wraith in motion. It was beginning to seem less like a shadow, and more like a tear in the fabric of reality. The wraith’s dark essence shifted like a hole in a cloth flapping open and closed in the wind.
Kon gazed at the shadow’s face, searching for what might approximate for its eyes. It was only when he glanced upon its twisting horns that he felt the malevolent spirit’s anger and hunger.
This wraith had found his lute. It had followed the trail of magic his fae’s humming left in her wake. As soon as it had caught Kon’s scent, it had taken off toward him, leaping across the trail on four thin limbs. The wraiths’ perversion of living involved possessing humans and consuming their fae, but possessing a nascent Seer like him? It would mean the wraith thriving. With a look, Kon could feel how desperate it was to plunge its horns into his flesh, then claim his soul.
A bound away, the wraith’s flickering silhouette halted. With a loud, guttural roar, it bent low and leaped in an icy flash of colorless light. The monster’s voice reverberated through Kon’s fae, then resounded back in a similar flash of dim luminescence. She tuned the air with its roar, creating a dense, silvery fog that slowed its momentum.
Kon shouted as he pounded his flute against the bodhrán’s wooden frame and taut hide. Each crack and thrum was met with the oscillating whistle of vibrating steel. Along with his bellowing voice, the clamorous rhythm erupted brightly, rippling through the silvery fog like a luminescent wave on the sea. Grass bowed away from Kon’s feet as the light passed over it. When it hit rocks, they were sent flying into the bounding shadow and looming flames.
Hanging mid-air, the wraith could not evade the sound-wave. The drum’s lingering rhythm was quickly shattered by a blood-curdling shriek. Kon winced as the shadow was cast back, wailing. The silvery fog brightened and hissed as the spiritfire tried to consume it, only to be snuffed out by the magic. On the ground, Kon could see the line where dirt met ash. Only a few steps away, just out of his reach. The sound-wave did not travel much farther.
A few bounds down the trail, the wraith crashed, blossoming more flames. When it rose from the ground, it stood on two unsteady legs. The silhouette’s back was bent, and its head was crooked. Around it, the spiritfire flickered, dimmer than before. With every flash and lash of pallid light, a displaced part of the wraith’s essence snapped back into place. The monster let out a grinding, sickening groan.
Kon used the reprieve to check on his family. Jrana had run enough away that he could see a hint of color in her brown coat and dark yellow leggings. Kinjra’s large, now-dirty white shirt glowed a faint green as her fae soared beside her. The pair had glanced back when hearing the drum, and though neither stopped, his daughter turned around and pumped a fist in the air.
She must have seen her father cast the wraith away. Jrana, too, judging by the faint curl on her lips. The expressions of Cres, Gul, and Miss Sut were too dark and distant to see, but Kon had no doubts of them witnessing it too. Even the steers ran on with renewed fervor, perhaps scared by the sound, but pulling Imet’s nest and clinic faster in any case.
In the span of three heartbeats, he watched the space grow between the nest and his family. In the span of two more, he watched the space grow between his family and him. Kon turned to face the wraith before the faces of his wife and daughter faded into the night. Kinjra’s cheer and Jrana’s hope would make a better memory than a pair of vanishing shadows.
Beyond the wraith and the flickering gray inferno, far past the flock’s camp and down the trail’s northbound stretch, an immense shadow had joined the lighthouse on the horizon. Not a wraith, Kon breathed, but a fae he recognized from the night of his brother’s possession. Back then, the man made of darkness had been no taller than Miss Sut’s nest. Now it loomed as high as the skyscrapers in Kolod Vor. It stood even taller than the striding lighthouse, and it appeared to stretch bigger every second.
Unlike the wraith, the fae’s silhouette was distinct. Details were carved across him in darker shades of black, revealing onyx eyes, obsidian lips, and sooty battle scars. Kon had seen a few of those scars get made, like the round, jagged dent on his brow, just under the flowing strands of his inky hair. Although the wind did not seem to affect the fae, its feathery, shoulder-length plumage swayed as he walked – not over, or between – but through the woods. At a whim, the fae could shift between the material and ethereal.
Presence, he thought. He had only heard the fae’s name once, and only from a whisper that was not meant for him. When Kon was a boy, the giant shadow man had terrified him. Presence’s Seer – an old woman clad in black leather – had terrified him more. Young Kon could not look at her knotted scowl, even after she addressed him and his flock after saving their lives. He remembered the Seer getting angry when the Pale Hawks replied meekly. After the horrors they had all witnessed, it was hard for anyone to feel grateful.
Kon glanced at his fae, then nodded his head, imparting his thanks. With her and her magic, he could keep his family alive until the real heroes arrived. He could ensure none of his flock died, like they had on that night. He could triumph over this tragedy. No matter the cost.
The wraith moved deliberately now, stalking across the field on two overlong legs. Claws unfolded from its spiny arms, just as flickery and formless. With another low, guttural roar, it thrust its claws forward. The spiritfire flared before it, casting a plume of burning gray light over the trail. It soared in a wide arc, traveling faster than the shadow could manage.
Kon did not take his eyes off it for a second. He raised his drum and his improvised drum-beater. As soon as the fire was above him, the wraith threw its arms down. With it, the ethereal plume was struck downward. Cast as fast as a lightning bolt.
His fae whistled in warning. Kon only had enough time to pound the drum once, but once was enough. The glowing sheen of magic rippled above him, forcing the spiritfire away. Tongues of pallid flame rained down around him. As the ripple spread and settled, the lashing fires that sparked on the ground began to darken, slowly dying out.
Kon had to step a couple of paces to the side to peer through the empty, flickering gray. When he looked, his lungs and heart stuttered. The wraith and inferno were gone. Ash smoldered in the crater where it had landed, but there were no new trails of ash or fire left in the wake of its departure. His fae blared another warning as he glanced above and around him. It had to be a trick. There was no way the wraith had died by firing that bolt of flame.
Kon closed his eyes, bearing the world’s muffled agony. Each gust of wind sang its own shrill note, everlasting yet ephemeral. They faded in and out with the shifting currents, never disappearing completely, just overpowering each other in a discordant symphony. As uncomfortable as it was, the drowning wind and the world’s hushed wailing only made it easier to locate the wraith by its relative silence. The eastern treeline on his right was swaying soundlessly.
Kon turned, his fae soaring around his side. His grasp of the cross in the bodhrán’s hollowed-out underbelly provided him the stability and leverage to snap the frame and hide into the flute as he beat them. With each resounding crack and ringing clang, a pair of luminescent waves rolled out, flattening grass as it spread. The trees bent instead of breaking, revealing the wraith’s shadow in a small grove of smoldering lumber.
With another grinding roar, the shadow cast a small bolt of ethereal flame. It cut through the air like an arrow. Too fast for Kon to pound his drum in retaliation.
His fae soared faster than he could see. Her shell echoed with the rhythm of Kon’s beat. It protected her as she hit the bolt mid-air, casting it into the ground. Bright sparks glinted off her, leaving her dimmer and her flight wavering. She retreated closer to Kon as the bolt of spiritfire flickered out in the dirt. Only a pit of ash remained after its quiet death.
The wraith and its inferno were not so fortunate. Before the waves of sound could reach it, the magic lost all of its momentum. As the sallowoods rose upright, the wraith stood and stared at Kon until the treeline settled into place. His fae sang faintly as she drifted toward the flute in his hands. It took her landing on its edge for him to truly feel the weight of the instrument. There was a good reason he had taken it, though Kon was reluctant to use it.
Even if he did, Kon was not sure if his fae’s magic could kill the wraith. But wound? It seemed she was certain the singing blades of light would do that much if he tried. He could feel the thought coursing through his flute. It reverberated in his head, vibrating his very thoughts. A kind of communication, if wordless.
Perhaps out of inexperienced reflexes or adrenaline-inducing terror, Kon failed to follow up any of his blocks with an attack. Not just once, but twice. He missed two chances, and the wraith was only growing more clever with every blow they traded.
Kon tightened his fist around the flute. He would do his best to put the shadow down and keep it there. It was only a matter of time until a real Seer came to finish it off.
Kon closed his eyes. He struggled against the deafening sound in search of the unnatural silence.
The wraith was moving south. It burned through the trees even faster than it had crossed the open trail. It was as if each smoldering tree gave its leaps a burst of power. With his eyes shut, Kon’s heart thundered over the rest. The resounding boom startled him back to his senses. He turned, and his fae soared on ahead, following the path of his eyes. Kon was staring at the distant shadows of his wife and daughter.
“Kinjra!” he yelled. His yell came out louder than Kon thought his lungs could manage. His fae amplified his voice as it passed by him, casting the air in a bright sheen of golden light. She projected Kon’s voice across the open trail, revealing human footprints, tire tracks, and dents left by the hooves of steers.
Kon was able to see Kinjra’s face as she turned, searching the fading light for her father. He pointed his flute at the woods and bellowed another shout. “Wraith!” His daughter’s fae circled to her side as soon as she heard him. Beyond her, he could see a faint red light on the horizon.
Whatever the shape was, it quickly vanished when the wraith and its ethereal flames burst explosively from the treeline, leaving a trail of disintegrating wood and leaves. The flash of light caused Jrana to scream. She pulled their daughter by her arm, away from the lunging spiritfire.
Kinjra let go of the drum beater, leaving it to clatter on the dirt behind her. With her free hand, she reached into her pockets and retrieved something too-small for Kon to see. Her fae drifted into her closing fist, nestling itself in the palms of her hands. The twelve-year-old girl shrieked as she wound her left arm back for a throw.
Kon did not recognize the seed until it was soaring through the air, enveloped in her fae’s green light. The seed grew in size as the glow of magic swelled within it. When it landed in the earth and began sinking, dissolving into light, the seed had grown as large as his daughter’s head. The verdant luminescence spread across the trail in seconds. The earth blossomed, springing forth a blanket of shimmering grass.
Glowing roots as thick as Kon’s arms snaked underground, leaving the dirt upturned as they reached out for nutrients. At the center of the glowing roots and the shimmering grass, a human-sized sunflower had sprouted, its rising head unfolding with countless petals of emerald light. Kinjra’s fae shined brightly at the flower’s center.
In a flash, the vibrant magic clashed against the stark flame. Onali’s Trail lit up as if struck by lightning. Kon shielded his eyes with his bodhrán instead of closing them. He waited for seconds before the air finally dimmed. Kon lowered his arm as soon as he was able, then breathed a sigh of relief. The wraith and the spiritfire had been repelled. His wife and daughter were safe. Kinjra’s fae had escaped the flower’s head and rejoined them.
Kon stared on, simultaneously afraid and amazed.
As the horned silhouette climbed back onto its feet, Jrana and Kinjra continued running. The ethereal inferno did not remain still for long. With a throaty growl, the wraith flared the spiritfire until it consumed the overgrown grass and sunflower. Scoured ash stirred in the air as a warm breeze – not a cold one – blew north from the south. Beyond his family, another flame was growing down the trail. Not gray, but red.
Now that the figure was closer, it took the shape of a knight in a suit of fiery armor. From head to toe, the fae was covered in metal that shone with a crimson, molten light. The plates bulged over muscles as big as boulders and veins as thick as vines. Through the visor gap in the fae’s helm, a pair of dark orbs smoldered like burning coals. His gaze was fixated on the wraith and the wraith alone. He paid the Pale Hawks no attention as it ran between them and the malevolent spirit.
Someone had come from the Eyrie after all. As large as the fae was, its only weapons seemed to be a pair of spiked gauntlets. The jutting points burned hotter than the rest of his armor, turning a yellowish-red that reminded Kon of sunlight, if not half as bright. As the fae ran on, he balanced the weight of his top-heavy body forward to add to his momentum. The faster the fae moved, the brighter his armor glowed. Hot air steamed as it touched his armor, shining in his torch-like radiance.
When that radiance washed over his family, their pace quickly hastened. It seemed to rejuvenate them. Jrana and Kinjra ran faster than Kon thought was possible, though both of them did slow as soon as they reached the edge of the fae’s molten aura.
Behind the fae, a Seer ran through the trail of hissing steam unscathed, clad in a suit of blood-red armor, sans helm. Like her partner, the metal was shaped and carved to emphasize her muscles and veins. Though her armor did not glow or turn the air into steam, it did look well-crafted and menacing. If not for the girl’s puffy-red cheeks and curly, auburn bob, Kon might have found her intimidating.
Though Kinjra was half her size, the Seer didn’t look that much older. Kon glanced at his daughter and frowned in defeat. As grateful as he was for the Seer’s appearance, she had glanced at the man and his daughter like she recognized them for what they were. There was no doubt in Kon’s mind that she had seen them use their magic. Any hope of them living another peaceful day with the flock suddenly vanished.
Unconsciously, his eyes fell upon the flute in his hands.
The Seer lifted a sheathed sword in both hands at her side, her left on the hilt and right on the scabbard. As she ran past her fae, the girl opened her mouth and howled a battle cry. The giant roared, the air rumbling as its footsteps shook the earth. Their voices drew the wraith’s attention southward. It turned its back on its forgotten prey.
Kon watched as the wraith crouched on its four legs, pulling the spiritfire around it like a cloak. The ethereal flame brightened as the warm, red glow pressed its way closer. Kon knew from experience that it would not take long for the shadow to leap, flaring death.
Kon’s arm tensed as he dropped the bodhrán in the dirt. Buying him an extra second at best. Upon the end of his flute, his fae rang like vibrating steel as he lifted the instrument to his face. His hands and fingers still knew where to rest. Even after a season of neglect.
When he first gained the Sight and experimented with his fae’s magic, the flute had proven itself dangerous. The resulting blades of sound were much too strong, and exceptionally difficult to control. A single test of a fluttering dyad had left a knife-long gash in a tree. Gul had been there, standing within arm’s reach of the wood as it splintered. Shards of bark had rained down on the man as he fell onto his back.
The armored Seer split up from her fae, running off in a sharp crescent. With a flick of her wrist, a sliver of her blade was pulled free of her hilt, revealing the sheen of molten steel. The girl looked at Kon briefly, acknowledging his fae and the flute in his hands.
Ahead of the wraith, the giant’s armor brightened. A powerful gust of wind blew past Kon, cast by the hot air rising from the fae’s crimson aura. The blazing knight’s arms flailed madly at his sides as his immense legs propelled him at a breakneck pace.
Now or never, Kon thought.
He closed his eyes and breathed in deep.
The man blew as hard as he could, paying no mind to shape the sound. If Kon tried, he would have surely failed. Instead, he allowed his fae to tune the music with her vibrating shell. Perched as she was upon the flute’s end, the steel had no trouble conforming to her loud, singing ring.
Guided by his fae, the musical blade of golden light carved a radiant line through the air. Kon blinked, and missed the wraith’s shadow topple. It took the blade no longer than a second to reach the monster.
As the wraith faltered to its knees, the teenage Seer howled another battle cry. She drew her blade out further, and with it, released a blinding flash of light. Both the sword and her fae had erupted with the molten luminescence.
Kon had no choice but to shut his eyes. Still, the red light seeped into his vision, making the underside of his lids seem aflame. Through his fae, he could hear the wind scream as the Seer and her sword slashed across the trail in the span of a heartbeat.
The wraith’s agonizing shriek followed soon after, only to be snuffed out by the fae’s armored fists. He pummeled the shadow into the ground a dozen times. After another three heartbeats, the searing light faded. Kon opened his eyes to find a pair of victorious faces.
Above a fist-shaped crater of smoldering ash, the armored giant pumped a fist in the air. The once-coals of its eyes were now flaring like torches, burning high enough for the fire to lick the top of his visor. Nearby, his Seer was laughing maniacally as she struggled for breath. As she half-laughed, half-panted, she bent forward, pressing her sheathed sword against her lap for support. Glowing warmly, her fae walked over and lifted her up with two fingers, then held out a fist when she turned. The girl chuckled as she bumped a comparably small fist into his.
Kon was too stunned to process what he was seeing. He should have felt relieved. Instead, his thoughts and feelings buzzed in him with dread.
At once, the Seer and fae turned to face him. While the girl’s eyes drifted from his flute to his face, the giant’s torches glanced back and forth between Kon’s fae and the northern horizon behind him.
“Lafer,” the Seer greeted. Her tone was formal with a singsong hint of noble heritage.
“Kon,” he answered. The man blinked as he lowered his flute to his side. Not long after, his fae took flight.
“Are you okay?” she asked. “Any deep wounds or internal bleeding?”
“I… don’t think so.” Kon inspected his body, finding nothing but dirt stains and tiny holes burned in his sweater, leaving gray ash. “I’m not sure how, but no. I’m not wounded. Just a few aches and pains, but they’re fading. I’m more than okay.”
“Good,” the girl replied cheerfully. “Vigor’s aura doesn’t exactly heal, just accelerates the body’s natural healing process. If a wound is bad enough, the best we can do is buy time for real help. Was anyone in your flock injured, sir?”
Kon furrowed his brow at the honorific. Considering the Seer had just witnessed him and his fae use magic, he was surprised to see her so polite. Every time Kon had imagined his discovery, it ended in tragedy and heartbreak. This? It was gentle in comparison.
“As far as I know, everyone made it out safely. Our physician’s wife is very ill, however. They’re the family in that nest,” he said, pointing at the now-halted buildings. Kon could see more shadows gathering alongside his family. Leb, Belen, and Etal among them. They were all staring at the blazing, fist-sized crater, oblivious to the blazing knight standing above it. “If it’s not too much to ask, do you think your fae could try helping her?”
Vigor spun with a quickness that seemed impossible for his size. “From this moment on, I would appreciate it if you addressed me directly, Sir Kon.”
Kon struggled not to tremble as the giant’s voice rumbled through him. “I- I’m sorry. I meant no offense.”
“No offense taken. But please consider that in a world where most people can not see or hear us fae, a little acknowledgment can go along way. Though we may exist to protect and serve, we are still our own people, brimming with emotions and passions.”
Kon nodded his head, too embarrassed to speak. After what he just went through, the fervor in the giant’s voice was too much for him to take in.
“I can pay her a visit,” Vigor continued, his voice animated. “Whether or not I can help depends on a lot of complicated factors, but I’d be happy to try. That is, however, assuming the boss-lady lets us.”
Lafer frowned as she followed Vigor’s gaze. The silhouette of Presence had filled the sky beyond the flock’s encampment, casting half the trail in a starless darkness. At the foot of the immense shadow, Kon could see the tiny, weathered face of the old Seer he met when he was a child. He remembered her clad in matte black leathers that helped her blend in with the dark and her fae.
“She’s going to be mad, isn’t she?” muttered Vigor.
“Yup,” Lafer huffed.
Kon didn’t understand. “Why?”
The girl sighed as her gaze drifted to her own shadow. “Vigor and I were sent here to defend the Coastwatch Eyrie while the local Seers and fae left for the meteor. The second one… no one saw it coming. Outlook should have, but- really, that doesn’t matter right now. We spent a long time trying to reach out and get permission to leave, but eventually, we said screw this. We could deal with the repercussions of breaking Old Spook’s orders, but there was no way we could deal with innocents dying because we didn’t act.”
As Kon listened, he slowly fit the pieces together. When Lafer named Outlook, her gaze flicked to the walking lighthouse in the distance. When she mentioned Old Spook’s orders, she glared toward Presence’s feet. By the time she finished, her eyes drifted back to her shadow.
“She won’t be happy about you, either,” Lafer admitted. “I could sense your fae’s magic flaring over a league away. I’m certain she’s aware of you, too.”
Too. Not two.
The Seer had not mentioned his daughter.
“You’ve had the Sight for a while now, I’m guessing?”
“Yes, but not for very long. Just a season.”
“Your fae is close to hatching,” added Vigor. “I can feel her soul singing with light like your human hearts beat with blood.”
“The boss-lady?” Lafer continued. “We call her Spook, but her name is Sap. She doesn’t take kindly to Seers who shirk their responsibilities. She’ll demand to know why you took this long to make yourself known. You may want to start considering your explanation.”
“I met her once,” he whispered. “When I was just a child, she helped save my flock from a wraith on a night much like this one. If she remembers, maybe she’ll understand.”
“Huh,” the girl huffed. “That was a long time ago, I’m guessing?”
Kon nodded his head.
“Did her joints still creak loud enough for your ears to bleed, back then? Did her voice make your blood curdle and your nails curl in pain?”
Kon avoided thinking about that night for a reason, so he just nodded again. “Sounds about right. I’m kind of surprised she’s still around. Not around as in alive, but unretired, I mean-“
Lafer chuckled weakly, only to silence when her shadow began rising at her feet. The inky darkness coalesced into a reflection, its features painted with darker strokes of black. Even the shadow of her armor spider-webbed with veins. Vigor’s shadow rose too, as did Kon’s. The closer Presence came, the more animated and refined their dark reflections became.
Each one of the shadows turned to face their living counterparts. Kon watched his silhouette’s obsidian lips part before it spoke any words. All three of the shadows talked in unison, though each bore a different message and delivered it in their own distorted voices.
“Unidentified Seer. Lay down any and all weapons, as well as your fae. Do not use magic, or attempt to leave the area. If you break any of these three orders, I will not hesitate to use force.”
Kon swallowed the growing lump in his throat. As ordered, he lay his flute on the ground and asked his fae to land beside it. Trying to move away from his shadow only made it walk after him, remaining the same distance. He tried orienting himself so he could see his family, but his dark reflection insisted on blocking his retreat. Though Kon’s arms hung by his sides, the shadow crossed his.
Kon froze, then sighed. He took a seat on the ground to keep him from pacing. As he gazed at his flute and his twinkling fae, he thrummed a nervous beat on his thigh with his thumbs.
“Thank you for your cooperation,” his shadow whispered, sounding like an echo of Kon’s voice at the bottom of a well. Despite the warmth of Vigor’s aura, a chill ran down his spine as he waited.
The shade cast by Presence’s looming silhouette had already flooded the Pale Hawks’ encampment.