During his long, Vigorless climb, Kon had a lot to think about. Among his swimming thoughts, one stream rushed around louder than the others, dragging him under. What am I going to do about Kinjra and Jrana?
Morus had proven himself more insightful than anticipated, providing a definitive answer to Kon’s complex problem. ‘I would be happier living with the lie.’ When Kon had compared the boy to his younger self, he’d failed to realize how right he was. Fate had beckoned for them both, yet instead of resigning their lives, they’d kept it a secret, seeking peace on their own terms. For a long time, Kon had been happier living with the lie. He understood the boy’s perspective completely.
There was something he understood that Morus didn’t, however: the nature of secrets. Kon knew exactly how their parasitic roots could reach into the happiest of memories, draining their life, warmth, and color until eventually, it crumbled into a bleak and hollow ruin.
Jrana had spent the better part of last season in emotional turmoil because of Kon’s secret, plagued with thoughts of Fate stealing her husband away. Now that her fears were validated, she was surely worrying the same about their daughter. Whatever good memories they ever made went on, tainted by the unforeseen meteor that ripped his family apart.
Secrets only got worse with time, and in matters of Fate, they never ended well. Recent events in Kon’s life were a testament to that.
He would not make the same mistake for his daughter.
One week, he told himself, then glanced at his fae. Next Valday we inform Lucid about everything. Once he did, it would give his family a week to travel and another to reunite. Even if he needed to say goodbye again, the new memories would make it worth it. Kon would do things right this time.
Hovering beside him, his fae rang a duplet of resolve, lighting sparks in the air that burst quietly. Decision made, Kon clenched the rolled-up magazine in his hands, allowing his thoughts to be carried away.
Throughout his travels, Kon had seen editions of How to Master in the stores of larger roosts, though not once had he taken them seriously. Between their often cartoony artwork and simplistic explanations, he assumed they were designed for amateurs wanting to pick up a new hobby. The Meditation Edition fit the bill with a cover depicting a treefolk monk sitting cross-legged on the highest tree of a forest canopy, her eyes shut beneath an aurora of swirling, colorful lights. A brief flip through had revealed pages of step-by-step instructions on how to properly breathe and clear the mind. The whole thing seemed ridiculous to Kon.
He assumed this particular edition was made for parents who wanted their kids to be quieter or more calm. Kon had always been happy while listening to Kinjra’s eager ramblings about the fun she had with her friends or random botany facts she learned from one of Jrana’s fellow gatherers. In any other circumstance, he’d never pick the magazine up, let alone study it. His wife would find it just as silly, and yet it somehow contained valuable knowledge for a nascent Seer. Knowledge that would be required for his Academic Exams, no less. Knowledge that Kon needed to help name his fae.
Though his body ached terribly, Kon knew he wouldn’t be resting much this night. Earlier, he’d promised his fae that he would play music with her. Now, Morus had assigned him to read hundreds of lines from three different texts, all in preparation for his meeting with the Headmaster, Nise. The adoptive father of the Fated King.
Just the idea of meeting one of history’s most legendary Seers left Kon feeling daunted. Even so, he climbed, moving forward instead of cowering in fear or looking back.
Within moments, Kon was clearing the last of the steps that led into the barracks. To keep himself balanced, he grasped the nearest wall, then breathed with relief. Down the emerald corridor, Ora was standing in front of her desk, her giant arms crossed and eyes drawn in anger. No one else was in sight, and no voices echoed down the other halls.
Kon waved, drawing Ora’s sharp gaze. Her face remained enraged.
Through her stare, he could almost feel her anger burning into him. His fae, who’d momentarily been distracted by sounds from the kitchens below, soared up to join him. As soon as Ora’s gaze fixated on her, she cried out loud and retreated behind his back
It’s okay, Kon assured her. Ora and I made a deal, remember?
The glinting knot chimed softly, the tones melancholic.
She won’t harm us, he insisted. With nothing to lose, Kon made his way down the silent corridor, fighting his aching muscles to keep himself from grazing a wall for support. As he walked, he tried not to shy beneath Ora’s fuming gaze. In spite of his confidence, it proved more difficult than he’d hoped. The teenage girl was relentless.
Reaching the intersection, Kon waved again. “Good evening, Ora.” It took real effort to inject his flailing confidence into a cheery voice. Without taking a step further, he looked around the corners into the other corridors. Both sides were just as empty as the last. “I see the Armsmaster’s Field Day is over. I thought it would go on longer.”
“Nope,” Ora growled, her voice loud enough to reverberate down each hall.
At once, two doors opened, throwing a pair of silhouettes onto the walls. Lili and Dowen stepped out of their rooms soon after, both wearing the same exercise clothes from earlier with some minor additions. While the boy with the combed blonde hair shouldered his large, rectangular bag, the girl wore a pair of lilac opera gloves with ripped fingers and tears down their sleeves.
Leach peeled himself from Lili’s ribs, revealing hundreds of needle-thin teeth slipping out of her flesh. The fae waved his slimy tail as the bloody mouth on his underside parted in a menacing smile. At the same time, Dowen’s bag rustled with the sound of a dagger being hurriedly unsheathed.
Trusting in Fate, Kon did not let the teenage Seers intimidate him. Instead, he stood his ground, watching Ora drop her fists to her sides. Quietly, they waited for her friends to close in.
Whatever game they were playing was just that, a game. Threats aside, none of them would hurt him.
“Good evening, Lili and Leach. Good evening, Dowen.”
In response, the emaciated girl sniffed derisively. Kon met the boy’s pale gold eyes only for him to frown and shake his head.
“Kon,” Ora growled. “We were wondering when you’d turn up.”
Looking up at the giantess, he forced a smile, choosing to ignore the vein that bulged on the side of her neck. “Well here I am. What can I do for you three?”
Lili seethed as her fae lunged forward, dragging her closer to Kon, only for her to grab him and slide to a halt. “Give me one reason to stop Leach from sucking the life out of you. You pissed him off, and now he’s hungry for your blood.”
Kon faced the snarling monster, spotting pinpricks of blood where he detached from the girl’s stomach. He recognized her struggle to remain standing by the pain twisting her gaunt face. Like him, she remained on her feet without touching a wall. Both she and Kon were slouched, though she was more lopsided, favoring her unexposed side.
“Other than it being incredibly rude?” he asked, chuckling softly, if only in shock. Kon supposed that was the point, to catch him off guard and scare him into submission. It didn’t work. “For one, I know fae can’t harm humans. Do you want me to list any more?”
At the comment, a blur scraped across Kon’s peripherals. He immediately spun, leaning back and scrambling away from Ora’s barreling fist. Adrenaline surged inside him, crackling in his ears like Excel’s energy, as her bone-white knuckles rocketed straight for him. Before it connected with his face, he saw Ora’s weight shift away.
“Stand down!” Lili demanded, her voice wailing half-a-beat off. Along with the shout, Leach’s mouth opened wide to suck the warmth from their air, making the dark veins along his slimy blue skin glow red. Kon’s skin prickled as he shivered, tucking his scarred arm between his other sleeve and his tunic, while Ora remained frozen in place. She’d never intend to hit him, even before Lili yelled at her. Like with the other threat, this was only a show.
Leach’s magic did make the intersection frigid, however. Though it didn’t harm Kon, it certainly made him uncomfortable.
Where’s Vigor when you need him?
Kon gazed past Lili for the molten knight and his Seer, then glanced over Dowen’s backsack in search of Wilm or the twins.
“The others are gone,” sneered Lili. “The Armsmaster is talking with them on the Training Grounds. He said it might take a while.”
“Then why are you two here?” he asked, meeting Lili’s excruciating gaze. “Both of you were there when Vigor and Rugged were fighting.”
“Not as far as the Armsmaster knows,” said Dowen. Leach lunged toward Kon again, trying to make him flinch. It seemed each member of her trio only spoke when he was looking away. Instead of glancing at the boy or shying away from the fae, Kon stared at Lili and waited. A short moment of silence passed before the girl relented.
“He is currently ignorant of that small fact, and if you know what’s good for you, he’ll continue to be ignorant of it, as well as the topic of this conversation.”
Kon pursed his lips, not bothering to hide the agony contorting his face as he forced himself to straighten. “I’m a little confused,” he replied, tuning his voice to be sturdy and kind. “When I met the two of you earlier, we seemed to be on good terms. Why the sudden hostility?”
“That’s easy,” Ora grunted. “They didn’t know what your fae had done to me yet.”
For the second time, she swung her fist. This time Kon remained motionless, unwilling to defend himself or show weakness. He could see her bone-white knuckles in the corner of his vision. They floated there for a long moment, trembling with rage. Though Lili hadn’t shouted in protest, the giantess still froze.
More than anything, Kon was disappointed. He tried to express it, frowning as he peered into Ora’s cold eyes. With a shake of his head, Ora lowered her fist. Her gaze followed after it.
Kon’s stomach dropped with the heavy feeling of guilt. “I’m sorry, Ora,” he whispered. “My fae acted without my consent. She had no idea what she was doing, but she’s also sorry. Are you okay?”
“Okay?” Lili snapped off with a hollow laugh. “Of course she’s okay. You could never dream of hurting one of us, you pathetic old man.”
Kon observed all three of their faces, eventually settling on Dowen. Up on the Training Grounds, the boy had been polite to Kon, and seemingly excited to speak with him. Now Dowen stood at a distance, his posture bladed, as his rectangular backsack rustled over his shoulder.
“I’m not your enemy,” he told them, his gaze flickering between the girls. “If anything, I was hoping for us to be friends.”
Lili cackled, nearly falling with the effort. “You’re really that stupid, aren’t you? How don’t you get this? You’re nothing to us, and so long as you’re at this Academy, you’ll consider us nothing too. Ora told you to stay out of her way already, didn’t she? It was right before you used magic to placate her — your fellow student, not to mention a minor. It would be a shame if the Professors found out about that, wouldn’t it?”
Kon shook his head, not believing what he was hearing. “I’m sure they’d understand. It was an accident.”
“Was it?” Dowen asked quietly, no enthusiasm in his voice.
“Didn’t feel like an accident to me,” said Ora. “It felt like I was trapped in a suggestible daze, unable to speak or defend myself. He could have made me do anything.”
Kon looked up and found a pair of watering eyes. Ora sniffed, her cliff-like face crumbling as large tears cascaded down her cheeks.
Through his fae, Kon heard the girl’s voice break. Not with grief, but with hesitance. “You would lie?” he asked, exasperated.
Ora stared at him, lifting a trembling fist to dry her face.
“Of course she would lie,” Lili answered in her stead. “You’re smart enough to know what leverage is, yeah? Leave us alone, and we’ll have no problems. This can all just go away.”
Kon turned, discovering that Leach had removed most of himself from his Seer to stretch out closer, his teeth bared and dripping with blood. Despite their meager connection and the rot spreading through her veins, Lili remained standing, her skin already beginning to decompose in ashy patches.
What did I tell myself earlier? That I was an entirely new man, capable of doing the right thing even when it seemed too difficult or terrifying?
Kon stood his ground, arms crossed with clenched fists hiding underneath his biceps. It was clear his fae’s magic had unwittingly upset these children, putting Kon in a delicate tangle that needed to be carefully unwound.
Lafer had described Lili and Ora as troubled rather than troublesome, the former afflicted with an incurable disease and the latter a wingfolk giantess living far away from her beckoning Motherland. If neither of those facts were bad enough, they were Seers, chosen by Fate to fight in a war for the very soul of their world. It was natural for them to feel crushed and jaded under all that pressure. If anyone understood how they were feeling, it was Kon.
“So what is it, old man?”
Kon met Lili’s lilac eyes and nodded, his arms falling limp by his sides. “I understand,” he whispered meekly, his voice tuned with defeat. It wasn’t an agreement, no, but the implication was believable. As far as the trio knew, Kon had given in. He answered their act with his own.
“Good,” said Lili, nodding as her fae retreated back. He wrapped himself around the girl, filling her with needles and nutrients. Immediately, her skin began to repair itself, though it stayed pocked with dark gray scars. Although her fae seemed unable to diminish her pain completely, she lifted her sharp chin high and straightened her posture anyway.
Kon blinked as Lili walked by him, her gaze passing through him like he wasn’t even there. She bumped him with her shoulder, pushing him further into the wall, as she waved at Ora and beckoned for Dowen to come.
“You know where we’ll be,” the boy’s voice echoed alongside his pattering footsteps.
“Later,” Ora snorted, her vigil resuming with crossed arms and squinted eyes. The giantess paid Kon no mind as he stepped past her.
Although it was a better alternative to yelling and fighting, Kon felt like his spirit had just been trampled into the ground. Even his fae was hanging low, silent as she floated between his dragging feet. Before opening his door, Kon gazed down the length of the barracks corridor, his mind spinning.
On top of everything, we need to fix this mess too.
Keening softly, his fae shed bright sparks of resolve.
So much to do, and so little time.
Overwhelmed by swimming thoughts, Kon pushed into his room without looking, nearly forgetting to close the door behind him. After sliding the bolt, he shambled to his desk to unroll the How to Master magazine, then emptied his pockets, which included his copy of the Seer Manual and his door’s gilded key. Just a moment ago, Kon had gotten into his room without it.
I locked the door before we left, didn’t I?
In confirmation, his fae shrieked while soaring around his room, manifesting silver glints that exploded brightly, amplifying the glow of the ringlight that bled through his window.
Someone had broken in. Kon could name three likely suspects off the top of his head. Another threat? he wondered, turning over the rotating mirror to ensure the picture of his family was still there. Jrana and Kinjra gazed up with him, their smiling faces unblemished. Each of his instruments were still lying on his desk, as well as his songbook, which he quickly flipped through, making sure none of its pages had been torn out. “Praise Fate,” he whispered.
Alongside his sparkling fae, Kon searched his closet, confirming that his uniforms hadn’t been ruined or stolen, and that all his personal clothes were in their places. Neither the walls, floor, or bathroom mirror were damaged or painted with graffiti, and both his bed and curtains remained just as disturbed as he’d left them.
That’s everything, isn’t it?
Shrieking, his fae drew Kon’s attention to his bookcase. The same bookcase filled with texts he would need to study to graduate from the Academy. Last time he’d checked, the shelves were filled completely, leaving no room for more. Now he found it with three gaps. One book seemed to have been taken for each member of the trio, hammering in their implicit threat.
It didn’t change a thing. Kon would figure out how to reach them anyway. If they couldn’t be friends, he would ensure they could at least be colleagues. Not just for him, but for his daughter.
Determined, Kon skimmed the titles on the shelf for Morus’ recommended texts. He found A Heavenly Purpose, though Origin of Souls appeared to be missing. Just in case, he looked at Morus’ notes to confirm its name. After a moment, Kon sighed with resignation, pulling out his chair and sitting down.
Morus hadn’t been kidding about Lili and Ora. So long as the pair behaved like thugs, dragging the otherwise kind Dowen with them, he wouldn’t feel safe leaving his daughter in their company.
One week, he affirmed. So much to do, and so little time. Kon looked at his fae, hovering above his lyre and glittering brightly, casting light on the pair of fists clenched over his texts. But it’s nothing we can’t handle, right?
Two notes rang out, airy and bright. The sound evoked a memory of a dream. Together, his fae had cried.
Kon nodded in understanding, basking in her gentle light.
Between the boy named Morus and the troublesome trio, he and his fae would find a way to help these young Seers. Nothing was more important to Kon. He would unite the students of this Academy before he left it.
For their sake, and for Kinjra's.