Kon walked away from his flock. Even if he wanted to, he could not bring himself to look back. Commander Sap’s dark rage had paled in comparison to Jrana’s unbridled wrath. It was simply better to let the memory fade behind him.
Instead, he focused on the trail ahead, where Lafer was half stepping, half skipping. Despite sprinting leagues in her heavy armor – and being separated from Vigor – the girl was still filled with energy. Her skin was cast in a soft pink, flushed with warm blood.
Kon felt cold and hot at once, between the bleak air and his burning muscles. He had spent most of his energy trying to survive the wraith. Now that he carried a sack on his back that contained half his clothes and instruments, he felt like he was reaching his limit. They were still a league away from reaching the Coastpeak – the lone mountain in the west that overlooked the nearby sea – and Kon worried he would not be able to reach it on his own.
Gul had given him the sack after promising to retrieve Kon’s belongings from the grove in the morning. Though he was glad to have something of his best friend’s to take with him, Kon knew it would not help him miss Gul any less. Saying goodbye to him had been… difficult, yet less difficult than some others. His wife, Jrana-
Don’t think about it, he told himself. Think about anything else.
After dropping off the Commander, Nightowl had returned to Edos and flown him up to join Ashet on Outlook’s collar. According to Lafer, the four of them were ordered to remain with the Pale Hawks overnight so they might sleep better. No one knew how the second meteor passed by Fate undetected, so it was an extra measure of safety, too. Commander Sap did not want to be caught off guard again.
As for Ebi and Flow, they had left on their own. The serpent was apparently capable of flight, though compared to Nightowl, he could neither rise high nor soar fast. As Flow slithered eastward, over the woods, Ebi rode on his neck with her arms and legs tightly clutching his sides. The woman was closer to Kon’s age, and had a family of her own to go home to. Meanwhile, Kon was the man who left his home and family behind.
“You okay?” asked Lafer. The girl turned to face him, her brow creased in worry as she continued walking backward. No doubt she could feel the ache beating in his chest.
Kon nodded, knowing fully well that if he said yes, Lafer would recognize it for the lie that it was.
She did not seem to believe him anyway.
“That conversation sounded… less than pleasant,” she offered. “I didn’t overhear a word, so I don’t think your daughter did, either. Please don’t think I’m trying to pry, but I guess I’m just saying, I’m here if you need someone to listen.”
Kon replied with a sad grin, blinking the tears from his eyes. “I think I’d rather talk about anything else, honestly. But first let me thank you for watching over Kinjra while my wife and I… spoke. I hope our daughter was on her best behavior.”
“She was!” Lafer exclaimed. As he talked, Kon had caught up to her, prompting her to walk along his side. “Kinjra is a delight. We talked a bit about her friends, and a lot about the trees. She was so upset about all the death the spiritfire caused, though she admitted being glad to see the school burned down. She also mentioned a nearby clan of ritili and how much she wanted to catch one for a pet, though I explained to her why that would be a bad idea.”
The man let out a quiet sigh of relief as he listened. Jrana had lectured the girl to not look at or mention the fae and their magic, but a small part of him was still worried she might have let something slip to Lafer. As much as the girl had done for him so far, he was not sure what she would do with the information. For now, it would be better for everyone if he kept it a secret.
“That sounds like Kinjra.” He laughed weekly. “But I’m surprised she was glad the school burned down. She liked her classes – most days, at least – and now that her best friends are old enough to help their fathers with their professions, school allows them to be together.”
Lafer frowned. “She did mention you were a teacher there. It came up offhand, but I got the feeling it was related. Like she would rather avoid thinking about it and escape. I think that’s why she brought up the ritili.”
“Ah,” said Kon. It was the only response he could muster. The idea of her dealing with his departure the same way he was, it only made Kon feel more guilty. Again, tears were forming in his eyes.
“I’m sorry,” Lafer whispered. “I hope I didn’t make things worse.”
Kon shook his head, his hazy vision focused on the ringlit stretch of dirt ahead. He blinked until he could see the blades of grass, rocks, and dusty footprints clearly. “Don’t worry,” he said, then took a deep breath. “You didn’t make anything worse. Just… can we maybe talk about something else? It’d help if I know what to expect, going ahead.”
Lafer frowned as she gazed at him for a long moment. No doubt realizing just how alike him and his daughter were.
“Going ahead like, literally?” she asked, pointing toward the tunnel yawning at the base of the lone mountain. “Or going ahead as in, like, what happens next?” The girl punctuated the statement by waving her hands in the air, the chain mail gloves rattling against the inside of her gauntlets.
“Both,” Kon answered. “Both would help.”
“Well, literally, there’s a hidden passage not far inside the tunnel that will take us to the inner chambers of the Coastwatch Eyrie. Vigor should meet us there to open it, but Old Spook is keeping him busy with chores. It’s getting pretty close to an hour, so I think she expects us to fail. Vigor is telling me she hasn’t left her tower in a while, but last he heard, she was mumbling about a ‘fun, new punishment.’”
“Telling you?” Kon asked. The rest of her explanation did not surprise him half as much.
“Yeah. When you name your fae and she undergoes metamorphosis, you’ll be able to communicate with her telepathically, no matter the distance. Not just ideas and orders, but actual words… like hearing your own thoughts. Spook thinks she is punishing me by keeping me and Vigor separated, but I’m perfectly content speaking with him like this. She can’t do anything to separate our souls.”
“So this entire time, you’ve been having two conversations?”
“Off and on, but pretty much. Vigor says hi, by the way.”
“Hello Vigor,” Kon greeted, waving a hand at Lafer, prompting the girl to chuckle.
“He can’t see you, but he appreciates the gesture. He also says he looks forward to speaking with you and your fae more in the coming days.”
“Speaking with my fae?”
“Well. Sort of speak. When Vigor mentioned he could feel her soul singing, she apparently began tuning the rhythm, trying to express ideas on a spiritual wavelength. He didn’t get enough time to figure out anything more than her greeting, but he thinks he could glean more with time. By the sound of her soul alone, he says she is beautiful. He’s glad to have met her on this near-tragic night.”
Kon’s fae chimed a bright note in response, her shell flashing. The air sparkled as they passed through it, continuing down the path.
“I’m guessing that means thank you,” she said cheerfully.
Kon stared at his floating fae and nodded. “I think she’s glad to have met you too, Vigor.” Lafer and him shared a smile, then gazed down the trail. The conversation had distracted him enough to forget what he was doing. Kon was surprised by how far they had already walked, and more surprised that he was still walking.
“As for what happens next,” began Lafer, “I don’t expect Sap to let us sleep overnight. Once the other Seers return, she’ll probably send us off. With Vigor, we’ll be able to march for days without rest. It’s a three-day journey, but I doubt Headmaster Nise will mind if we take an extra day or two for sanity’s sake.”
“Nise…” Kon whispered. “As in the Seer who discovered and adopted the Fated King?”
“That’s the same man. He and Sap were students at Westwind together. They’re the last of their generation alive, which makes her think she gets more leeway than she should.”
“Does she?” Kon asked. By the sound of it, the Commander had all the power here, and was rarely confronted.
“Honestly? Maybe. But I’m sure it’s for a good reason. Everything Headmaster Nise allows to happen is for a purpose. His fae, Lucid, is our world’s best Diviner.”
“Yet Lucid didn’t see this coming either,” Kon commented.
And just like that, Lafer’s mood dampened. “Seems so,” she muttered.
“Do you have any theories?” Kon asked, his tone serious. Both of them were gazing toward the approaching mountain. The man resisted the urge not to look up at the skyblade.
“About the second meteor?” Lafer asked. “I should probably mention that I was not a good student. I passed all of my academic exams with bare-minimum scores. Theories aren’t really my forte, but mine and Vigor’s instincts? It’s telling us the wraiths hid that second meteor intentionally so they could separate the Seers and strike them where it hurts. If you and your flock hadn’t caught the wraith’s attention, it could have attacked the others from behind or attacked the Eyrie while they were away.”
“But how is that possible?” Kon asked. “The wraiths aren’t that coordinated, are they?”
“Of course they are,” Lafer replied. Her voice was as tense as her cheeks were taut over her clenched jaw. “It wouldn’t be much of a war otherwise. Each meteor that falls and each wraith that falls with it… they have a kind of purpose, or mission.”
Kon’s pace had slowed down. More because of the conversation than the cold air, a shiver ran down his spine, leaving vibrating pains in his lower back. Kon took a moment to stop so he might tighten the straps around his shoulders.
“Sun bless me,” Lafer exclaimed. “I’m an idiot! Kon, let me take that for you, please. You’ve had a longer night than me. I can handle it.”
Kon nodded, grateful for the relief. His pride was not enough to push him through his pain and exhaustion. After loosening the straps around his shoulders, he let it softly crash into the dirt behind him. Lafer picked it up easily as he stretched and cracked his back. Kon’s neck too had a kink in it, though not even massaging it with his hand eased that pain.
“Thank you,” Kon said. “I feel much better.”
“Vigor is coming to give us a little boost now. He finished the last chore Spook gave him and she still hasn’t left her tower. He says it’ll take him three minutes to get here if he runs at top speed, but I don’t think he’s fast enough. He’s asking if you want to get in on our little bet?”
“I’m not much of a betting man,” he chuckled.
“Fair enough. Let’s get moving, then. We’ll meet him faster if we walk in the meantime.”
Kon stared at the gaping mouth of the fae-made tunnel until Vigor’s aura began to radiate within the darkness. At first, his body was but a dot of molten light. As time went on, however, that light formed into the giant’s blazing armor. Vigor was sprinting faster than Kon could see, his arms and legs both blurring as they carried his nearly-immobile head and torso. The fiery eyes beyond his visor swirled and bubbled like pits of magma.
Lafer and Kon kept track of the time as they walked on. Though no longer bearing the weight of his belongings helped Kon with his weariness, basking in Vigor’s light was like a rush of caffeine mixed with a full night’s rest. As the giant jumped to disrupt his momentum and slid on the ground beside them, kicking up dirt, Lafer and he cheered. While the young Seer went to high five her fae, Kon approached slowly, relishing in the revitalizing warmth.
“Two minutes and fifty-seven seconds!” Vigor exclaimed. “And to think I won even when my own human was doubting me.”
“I didn’t doubt you for a second!” she replied, laughing. “I knew proving me wrong would be all the motivation you needed. Plus, it’s not like we didn’t help by walking your direction…”
Vigor crossed his arms, hot metal armor casting sparks as the pieces clashed and clanged against each other. The way he shifted his weight and looked down on Lafer reminded Kon of Jrana whenever she got angry or upset.
The blazing knight uncrossed his arms. Both his eyes and Lafer’s turned and found Kon with tears in his eyes.
He could see his flock’s camp far off behind them. Every now and then, the nests lit up with Outlook’s spinning light.
“Well that bit failed before it started,” commented Vigor quietly.
“Bit?” Kon asked.
“Ignore him,” said Lafer. “We probably shouldn’t waste any more time. Now that Vigor is finally here, do you think you could run alongside us? We’ll keep your pace, so don’t worry about struggling to keep up with his aura.”
Kon quickly nodded his head and turned. As he ran and the others followed, his fae drifted toward the friendly giant. In silence, he let the two communicate as Lafer ran by his side. She could tell Kon was pushing himself through his pounding heart and ragged breaths, but she seemed content to let him embrace the endorphin-induced catharsis of exercise. It made for a sufficient distraction.
Like that, they reached the mountain in less than ten minutes. Kon stopped at the mouth of the tunnel, too wary to enter the darkness beyond. Vigor and Lafer led him as his fae rejoined him, glowing happily. He didn’t get the feeling she communicated with Vigor successfully, but he could sense her overjoyed by the progress. The emotion swelled in him as soon as her bell-like chime reached his ears.
Just as Lafer said, the hidden passage was not far from the tunnel’s entrance. As far as Kon could tell, the wall was utterly ordinary. Vigor grasped two dents in the rock with his gauntlet’s massive fingers and pulled, dislodging a large, flat chunk from a matching hole. Beyond it waited a smaller, darker tunnel. Kon’s fae lit their path for him and Lafer as Vigor closed the passage behind them. The walls were too close for the giant to pass by them, so instead, he remained in the rear while Lafer guided them up a sloping path. Kon’s fae rejoined the giant soon after.
“Are we going to make it in time?” Kon asked.
“It’s been ninety minutes already. By my estimate, we can reach the Eyrie in six minutes at our current pace. The path will get harder to climb before it gets easier, but with Vigor, I think we can beat Old Spook with some time to spare.”
By we, Kon knew Lafer really meant him. The young girl carried several stones worth of his belongings with ease, and Kon had a feeling Vigor would never run out of energy no matter how hard he tried.
“Do you think she’s still in her tower?” he asked. Kon remembered seeing the tall spear-like structure in the daylight – and ignoring the giant man of shadow that stood beside it. He could imagine the Commander of the Eyrie had the best view there.
“She’s walking downstairs now to meet us in the foyer, actually,” answered Lafer. “I can feel her heartbeat. It’s slow but heavy. Tense. She’s in a worse mood than before. I’m sure of it.”
“We should probably hurry,” rumbled Vigor.
Both of them looked at Kon expectantly. Taking a deep breath, he nodded, allowing Lafer to start jogging. The incline was beginning to grow steeper already.
Kon tried to keep the time in his head, aligning the ticking metronome in his mind with each of his footsteps. Even seconds for his right foot, odd seconds for his left. Quiet as they were, it helped Kon hush the anxiousness that buzzed inside him.
At the end of the tunnel, a light bloomed outward, bisected by a dark silhouette. Too small to be Presence, who surely remained outside. As soon as he made the mental connection to the Commander, dread surged through Kon. Instead of letting it slow him down, he hastened his pace. Lafer nodded her head and joined him.
Together, the four of them stepped into the light of the foyer. Lanterns flickered at the edges of the wide chamber, lined with a pair staircases that went up past the ceiling on the north and south sides. Dark-blue-and-black banners hung from the ceiling as the room’s only decoration. As for the foyer itself, it was carved from the dark gray stone of the mountain and left unpainted. Splashes of dry blood shone to life on the floor as Vigor’s crimson aura washed over them.
Without her fae, Commander Sap only seemed half as scary. Though she was still clad in her leather armor, her whip was no longer with her, perhaps left up in her tower. Her posture was aggressive, upright, and bladed at an angle. In her hand, she clutched a small, round mirror. As Lafer approached, she threw it at the girl like a discus. The girl caught it and turned it over in her hands to inspect her reflection.
Kon stepped closer, then glanced between the mirror and the Commander. “What is this?”
“What does it look like?” the Commander sneered.
Before Kon could respond, the old woman cut him off with a fake, raspy laugh.
“What that is is a mercy,” she continued. “You two are no longer my problem. Do with your night what you want. Lafer, you know where the barracks are. As for you, Kon, you may return to your flock so long as you meet Lafer at the tunnel by dawn.”
Kon huffed a breath of exasperation. “You can’t be serious,” he mumbled, unable to suppress his anger.
“Excuse me?” asked the Commander. “Do I look like I’m kidding?”
Kon inspected the shadows of her skull under the pale skin of her face, then the deep, dark pits of her eyes.
In Lafer’s hands, the mirror began to shine in a vibrant kaleidoscope of colors. If the light had not caught his attention, Kon may have said something he would regret. Vigor had taken position over Lafer’s other shoulder. Commander Sap turned to leave the moment a thin figure of clear light stepped into the center of the swirling patterns.
“Lafer,” the fae in the mirror greeted, her voice like singing crystals. “Vigor. Kon. Sap. Aren’t you forgetting something, Commander?”
At the foot of the stairwell that led up to the Commander’s tower, the woman had halted. Her hand lingered on the rail. She clenched tight enough for her knuckles to turn white. “Ah, yes. Nise ordered me to thank you all for your acts of bravery tonight.”
As if mentioning Nise’s order was enough to count, the small woman retreated up into her tower. With Presence elsewhere, she had no shadows, despite multiple sources of light.
“Lucid,” Vigor greeted eagerly. Kon looked and found the giant waving at the fae in the mirror.
“Nice to see you, friend. You as well, Lafer. But could you please hand me to Kon? I would like to properly introduce myself.”
“Sure thing!” exclaimed Lafer. She proffered it toward Kon, practically sticking it in his face.
Kon took the mirror in his hands like a small child. He had to focus on keeping his hands from trembling, too worried about dropping the mirror and hurting one of the most powerful fae on Tairn. The Divine Clarity, Lucid.
“Hello Kon,” the mirror sang.
“…Hi,” he replied, more than a little nervous. Lucid had been the fae that led Nise to save the young Fated King from certain death. Without her, the war would have been lost a century before it started.
“Nise is resting now, but he’s asked me to thank you on his behalf. When he found out about the obscured meteor, he immediately worried, but I managed to catch some vague reflections in your flute. You and your fae did well.”
Kon nodded, too surprised for words. If he’d been looking, would he have noticed the shimmer of clarity in his flute’s reflection? It was both comforting and concerning to know such a powerful fae had been watching over him.
“Don’t worry,” she told him. “I won’t invade your privacy. This mirror is for Lafer to keep and use to reach out to me with updates as you travel. If you have any questions in the morning, all you need to do is look into the mirror and say my name five times fast.”
Kon blinked in disbelief.
“That was a joke,” Lucid sang gently. “Only wanted to brighten the mood. Just tap on the mirror a few times, and I’ll feel the ripples. When you start seeing colors and patterns, you’ll know I’m coming.”
“Thank you,” Kon said, forcing his best grin.
“Goodnight, Kon. Lafer. Vigor.”
The thin shimmer of clarity disappeared beyond the edge of the mirror, leaving the vibrant kaleidoscope to fade out behind her.
Lafer took the mirror from him with a sad grin. “I’m sorry Sap brought you all the way here just to say you can go back. Vigor and I would be happy to escort you home and pick you up again in the morning.”
It was a kind offer. With Vigor’s aura, Kon could be home within half an hour. He could lay down and rest beside his wife and daughter for one more night-
But that bridge had been burned down, already.
Kon shook his head. “Thanks, but I don’t think Jrana would let me in. The last thing she told me-”
Lafer nodded, understanding. “There’s an empty room near ours if you want it.”
“That would be great. Thanks.”
“Once you leave Vigor’s aura, you’ll be more tired than you were before. Just the price we have to pay for working our bodies over time.” As she spoke, Lafer led Kon to the stairwell against the wall, opposite of where Commander Sap had climbed. His fae drifted near Vigor as they followed their humans up the steps.
“Don’t you mean my body?” he asked. “I noticed you’re full of energy even when Vigor isn’t around.”
“It’s not any different, really. The same magic that empowers his aura courses through my soul. He can snuff and flare it when I please, like he can snuff and flare his aura, but at the end of the day, I’m still putting my body through more strain than I can handle. All things considered, today could have been worse.”
“Yeah,” Kon replied, his voice drifting into silence. He gripped the rail tightly as he climbed, his eyes on the distant floor behind it. With the ceiling as high as it was, it took them more than a hundred steps to reach the second floor above the foyer. At the top, a corridor stretched on for the length of the fortress. On the left, windows pointed toward the sea, where the waves crashed upon the Coast Lord’s private beaches. On the right, more halls branched out, interspersed with stone doors on their right sides.
Lafer took the fourth turn into the scarcest looking hall, then led Kon to the third and final door on the end. Vigor waited beside the second room, his aura of warmth just wide enough to reach them. Lafer pushed the door open – there was no lock on any of them, it seemed – then stepped out of the way for Kon to pass by.
The room inside was just as sparse as the Eyrie. There was no furniture, just a dusty, old hammock hanging from rusty nails in the corner. There were no lanterns, either. Only a small window facing the trail to the north. Ringlight streamed into the room, filling it with a dim, silver sheen.
“They’re all like this,” Lafer told him. “I plan to ask Lucid about getting this Eyrie actual beds in the morning, but for now, this is what we have to deal with.”
“It’s okay,” Kon lied. “I just want to rest.”
“Let me just give you this, then,” she said, unstrapping his belongings and handing it to him through the open doorway. Kon took it and placed it beside the door, then gave her a soft grin. “Goodnight,” she said.
“Tell Vigor I said goodnight as well.”
Kon closed the door behind him. As his fae flew to the window, he wasted no time searching his bag for his night tunic and changing. Without Vigor’s aura, his muscles were beginning to tense up, particularly in his back and legs. Lying down in the cradle of frayed ropes was actually a relief, despite how much it scratched against his exposed skin.
Kon glanced at his fae by the window. “Goodnight,” he told her, ignoring his flock’s camp in the distance, and the giant limbed lighthouse that stood beside it. He turned to face the wall and shut his eyes, not opening himself up to his fae’s senses, but numbing them. All he wanted to do was sleep. Dealing with reality could wait until the morning.
Not long after, Kon’s mind slipped beyond the darkness. The man swore he could hear Jrana tapping her foot as she waited for him in his dreams.
He could not avoid the memory any longer.