As far as Kon could see, the sky was an endless void. With the colossal silhouette of darkness looming above him, he couldn’t see the sky at all, nor the silver blade of light that cut it in half. Presence’s upper body had stretched over the trail when Sap detached from him, presumably to drown them in shadow. Kon could barely see his own hand in front of his face as the woman approached them. Beside him, a vein on the side of Lafer’s neck glowed a faint red before it receded. She took a deep breath to get a hold of her fear.
Kon knew it was fear by the way he was feeling. He watched the black-leather clad Seer carefully, his body growing more tense with each of her resounding steps. Her skull was visible through her pale, gaunt face, and her irises were blacker than her pupils. Kon peered into them and felt his fear flare. Rather than startle, his body froze. He could feel his own shadow standing behind him, waiting for him to run. Instead, he stood his ground. It was the only real option he had.
Lafer shifted beside him, bringing one hand up from behind her back. She placed two fingers against the center of her forehead and bowed slightly. “Commander,” she greeted. Though her voice did not tremble, Kon could see the hand behind her back shaking a little as she held the salute.
The Commander of the Coastwatch Eyrie seemed in no rush to salute back. Her strut was slow and methodical, and her eyes were fixated on Kon, not Lafer. Does she expect me to salute her too? Kon studied his new acquaintance quickly, then struggled to memorize the details of her stance. By the time he felt comfortable enough to move, the leather-clad Seer was but a few steps away from him. Sap returned the salute, cutting it quickly. On her weathered face, she wore an angry grimace. Lafer cut her salute shortly after.
Before the Commander spoke, she glanced at Kon’s fae, who sat near his flute. In a blink, she made the connection. “Order your fae to roll away from the instrument. Now.”
Kon swallowed. With a thought, the orb of lute strings began rolling across the dirty field. Her shell remained clean despite it, though her glow was so dim that it was hard to tell. She was suppressing her light – and thus her magic – for Kon’s sake.
“Now that that’s done, tell me who you are,” the Commander demanded. No thank you, and no greeting. Just straight to the interrogation. “If you two managed to kill a wraith by yourselves, then you must have had the Sight long before tonight. Exactly how long have you been hiding, avoiding your duty to our world, like a sniveling coward?”
The man could not respond. As the Seer yelled at him, he felt detached from his own body. Though his posture did not slacken and his limbs did not quiver, his voice was barely within his control. “A season,” he mumbled. “Just a season,” he repeated, louder this time, but still meek. Kon doubted he could have mustered the confidence to lie if he wanted to.
“An entire season!” the Commander shouted, her hands grasping the whip tied around her waist. “No wonder Outlook didn’t foresee the second meteor! Fate despises cowards as much I do. If only it was less merciful. I would have not let you survive just to prove a lesson to the world.”
Kon’s heart pounded, the sound muffled by the Commander’s shrill voice. Still, it rang in his ears, and Lafer’s, apparently. In the corner of his eye, he saw her glance his way.
“Commander Sap,” she began. “May I please speak?”
“No you may not, Private Laferil. You’re not a princess anymore. You’re a Seer. So long as you remain attached to my Eyrie, that makes you my subordinate. Pleasantries will not get you anywhere with me. So no. You may not speak.”
Laferil? thought Kon. Princess?
The young Seer did not waver as the Commander chastised her. The glowing vein on the side of her neck glowed and bulged as she clenched the hands behind her back into fists. “Then I guess I’ll speak without your blessing,” she responded firmly, fighting against her fear. “I will not let you mislead this man into believing he’s the one at fault for all this. That’s not how Fate works, and you know it. It would never deliberately lead us astray at the risk of innocent lives.”
The Commander seemed to shy against Lafer’s angry rebuttal. Her face went slack – perhaps with disbelief – but only for a moment. The fear Kon felt retreated with her scowl, then redoubled itself two-fold when she glowered at the girl. Her lip had a bit of a snarl to it, betraying her anger, but surprisingly, her protests had been silenced.
“If anything, you should be thanking Kon,” Lafer continued, the vein on her neck still large and molten red. “Because of him there were zero casualties. If he wasn’t here, most of his flock would probably be dead. Look at them all, Commander. Look how grateful they are.”
The Commander glared past Kon and his shadow. For a brief moment, he swore her scowl had softened. When her eyes darted to him, her expression instantly hardened. “I would never thank any Seer for fulfilling what’s expected of them. All I will say is you’re lucky Fate has a plan for you, Kon.”
Am I, though? He felt the complete opposite of lucky. Kon glanced at Lafer and took a breath in search of his confidence. “If it matters at all, I’m not hiding now. I kept my flock safe, and I stand before you now, willing to accept the consequences of my delay. You do not need to worry about me running or resisting. If you will let me stay with my wife and my daughter for one night, I promise I’ll come to your Eyrie in the morning to turn myself in.”
Kon had thought of his suggestion as reasonable, but the leather-clad Seer clearly disagreed. Her short burst of laughter was as shrill as her voice while twice as mocking. “You think you can barter with me, coward?” With a swift flick of the Commander’s wrist, Kon felt a cold, oily sensation on his. His dark reflection had grabbed him, then pulled his arm back behind him. “You forsook your say in the matter when you tried to defy Fate. If I wanted to, I could make Presence escort you now, just like this, every step of the way.”
Kon looked up at the silhouette’s blank expression. As the shadow tightened its grasp, the towering fae of darkness just looked off in the distance, utterly indifferent.
“Commander,” Lafer exclaimed. “That isn’t necessary. He’s told you he’s willing to go, and I could tell if he was lying. If my word as a Seer means anything to you, then allow me to vouch for him.”
The woman’s jaw clenched as she inspected the girl’s face. Kon couldn’t believe how hard she was fighting for him. It seemed Commander Sap couldn’t, either. Her hand fell to her side, and his shadow let go of him. He felt it dissipate behind him, like a great weight was being lifted from his shoulders.
“It isn’t necessary, no. Presence and I have other matters to attend to, and I still have you to punish you, as well. You will ensure this man collects everything he needs, then you will escort him to the Eyrie. If you are both not back within an hour – well, I guess we’ll just have to see what happens.”
Lafer glanced at Kon, as if seeking for approval. He nodded his head slightly, causing her to look up at the Commander. Sap was the same height as her – and thus shorter than Kon – yet it felt like she was looming over them both.
“Understood,” Lafer told her. Behind her back, she opened her fists. Chain mail gloves clattered softly against the inside of her crimson gauntlets.
“Headmaster Nise will hear about your insubordination, too. I intend to recommend that he send you here permanently, so that I may teach you a thing or two about following orders and respecting your superiors.”
Lafer did not seem phased by the threat. Her posture remained stiff, and her hands did not clench back into fists. Instead, she nodded in sullen silence.
“So Kon is your name?” asked the Commander. “Why does that seem familiar?”
Kon swallowed, then looked the elder Seer in her eyes. Her void-like gaze felt so cold. Before he could speak, he needed to focus on anything else. Neither her black-painted lips or the whip around her hips made him feel any warmer.
He glanced at Lafer briefly, and that helped a little. When Kon looked back at the leather-clad Seer, he did his best to imitate the young girl’s unrelenting courage. “We met when I was a child,” Kon told her. “Thirty-three years ago, give or take. A small meteor fell in this area and my flock – the Pale Hawks – were in the area. My brother… he was possessed by a wraith. I remember you and your fae. You two stopped the monster before it could kill the rest of us.”
“Is that so?” the Commander asked. Above them all, Presence began nodding. Though she could not remember that long ago, her fae appeared to.
“His name was Rin,” Kon continued. “There were other Seers with you. One that rode on the back of a behemoth, and a woman in scarlet robes with a cane that shot a stream of fire.”
The woman snapped at him, quickly slicing her hand to the side to silence him. “I don’t need you to remind me of my own life. I remember your brother. The gravity boy.”
The gravity boy, he thought. You couldn’t even bother to call him by his name?
Like Lafer, Kon was beginning to feel more angry than scared. Though he tempered his tone, the anger made it easier for him to speak.
“I was too afraid of you and your fae to thank you then, but I’m not afraid anymore. Thank you for saving my flock, Commander.”
Just as Kon hoped, the statement pushed against her fae’s magic, diminishing the fear that was suffocating him before. Courage had helped Lafer break free. Now Kon was free to speak and move as he pleased.
The man took a step forward, causing the woman to take a step back. Between them, he outstretched a hand. Commander Sap eyed it suspiciously, expecting a threat. Kon was grateful his shadow did not rise again behind him.
“Private Laferil,” the woman commanded. “You will teach this fledgling Seer how to properly salute. If he does not have it down perfectly before you return to the Eyrie, then I will find another way to punish the both of you. Is that understood?”
Lafer nodded energetically, then saluted. “Yes ma’am!” she declared with a hint of disdain or sarcasm.
Commander Sap grimaced, not at all amused. Her deep, dark eyes lingered on Kon for a long moment before he noticed Lafer glaring at him underneath her hand. With a quick breath, he imitated the position. Head bowed forward, waist slightly bent, his left hand on the arch of his back and his right pressing two upturned fingers against his brow. His stance was imbalanced, and his spine ached uncomfortably.
“Terrible,” the woman said. “Absolutely terrible.”
Despite the malice in her voice, Commander Sap saluted them back. When their arms all fell back to their sides, the imperious woman unhitched the whip from her belt.
Kon swallowed, resisting the urge to step back or raise a hand in defense.
Commander Sap turned, then strutted back into her shadow. As soon as her body vanished in Presence’s darkness, her footsteps became utterly silent. Above, the colossal fae looked over his shoulder, then forward again, his gaze fixated on the mountain to their south. Despite his Seer’s departure, he did not move. Not until the giant bird had burst out of his chest.
Nightowl hooted loudly as a pair of dark-purple wings carried her across the sky. Flow was no longer clutched in her talons. Instead, the eighty-year-old Seer clutched the hilt of her whip in one hand, the other end knotted tightly around Nightowl’s leg. As the two of them soared away, Presence was pulled into the sky by his feet, becoming a dense cloud of darkness. Kon turned to follow them with his gaze, and finally glanced at his family in the distance. Judging by the Pale Hawks’ nervous voices, they could see the darkness too. Even if Presence was invisible to them, his effect on the world was not.
As soon as the Commander and her fae were gone, Kon’s fae had taken flight of her own free will. She began to sing, and her shell began to glow. It was bright enough to push against the darkness around them, though it did not reach the flock, further down the trail.
Kon took the moment to face the young Seer, Lafer. Instead of watching Commander Sap leave, she was staring at the Pale Hawks’ camp. Flow was there, alongside a woman in long, cascading robes that shimmered faintly against her fae’s azure glow, as well as a man with pale skin and dark leathers that glinted with dozens of small purple-threads. Kon guessed them to be Ebi and Edos. Both of their shadows had been given life, though now they were returning to blots on the earth.
Ashet was still on his tower, and his shadow remained alive beside him. Outlook had not moved an inch, though her light soon flicked the other Seers’ way. Ebi and Edos looked up into the lighthouse’s dome, and neither of them seemed to have their vision burned or blinded. The light darted back to the woods quickly, then continued scanning the distance. Ashet’s shadow dissolved as he stepped out of sight.
“That’s not everyone, is it?”
Kon’s voice caught Lafer off guard, making her startle, then chuckle. “Not even half. The others must be in the north with the Vice Commander, Levatis. They might have run into some trouble. Is it cool if I speak with the others while you get your family and flock to return to their homes? Old Spook wouldn’t want me to leave you alone, but that’s okay. I’m sure you don’t want me shadowing your every step.”
Kon could not resist meeting Lafer’s smile. “Pun intended?” he asked.
“You know it!”
The man laughed quietly, and as his laughter filled the air, so too did the light of a clear night sky. Presence was gone, and the heavens were again visible. So beautiful, and so vast, but still cut down the middle by that infernal lunar ring.
“It’s cool,” he told her, feeling awkward for using the phrase. “I’ll try to be quick so you don’t get in any trouble. And thank you. I can’t even begin to explain how grateful I am that you stood up for me.”
Lafer’s puffy red cheeks parted wider as she swept a hand aside in exaggeration. “It’s nothing. Really. I just did what I thought was right. You didn’t deserve any of her nonsense. Though my many friends think me naive, I know a good person when I see one. If the situation was reversed, I knew you would have done the same thing for me.”
Kon was not so confident. But as he thought about it, he decided she was right. He did not think the girl was naive. In the short time he knew her, he would call her compassionate, strong-willed, and brave. She’d saved the life of him, his family, and his entire flock. Even if she was young, Lafer was the definition of a hero.
“And don’t worry about being quick. I don’t care if we’re late. Old Spook may be loud and annoying, but she can’t do anything to hurt us. That said, the sooner we get there, the better. Her rage will only brew darker with time,” she finished, emphasizing the pun by nudging his elbow with hers.
The two of them laughed, then shared one last smile. Kon held out his hand for her to shake. “Seriously,” he began. “Thank you.”
Lafer accepted his appreciation with a smile, then shook his hand vigorously. As she walked off, Kon took a moment to breathe, and made a decision. Someday he would repay the young girl for all she’d done for him. For now, he turned to face his wife. He would need to find a way to repay her, too.
Jrana was not going to be happy.