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. Incarnations of 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. 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 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.