Professor Meir never returned. It took the students half of the remaining hour to read the assigned chapters and discuss the answers to each question, leaving Kon no choice but to improvise. Fortunately, twelve years of fatherhood and ten years of teaching had given him some experience with keeping children entertained.
While the others got up to stretch their legs and use the latrines, Kon gave Zephyr a folded paper and his thanks. Some time later, an emerald wind carried a dozen fruit pies downstairs, leaving the tray on the table between the crescent-shaped couches. He didn’t need to say a word for Lili, Ora, and Dowen to sit back down. Each student trailed after the scent with hungry eyes, though both girls scowled at Kon skeptically, perhaps anticipating a trap.
“What’re these for?” asked Gaj, leaning over the table, his black-painted lips glistening with drool.
“A reward for everyone’s hard work,” Kon said, marching over to inspect the pastries. Their golden-brown crusts were fat and round with two holes poked in their tops, revealing the juicy pulp within. There were a variety of flavors: green sourpear, blue seabell, and silvery moonberry. “Go ahead. You may all take one of whatever you want.”
Gaj claimed a moonberry eagerly, then handed it to Rej as a peace offering before fetching another. Morus and Dowen reached for the same seabell, Morus’s blurry hand conceding it to Dowen’s swift fingers, which promptly snatched two more for Lili and Ora, leaving Morus with the smallest one. Wilm turned the pies down gratefully, his diet too strict, though he did insist their delicious scent was satisfying enough.
“But wait,” said Dowen, kicking the bag at his feet while licking his fingers. “There’s six more. Does that mean we all get seconds?”
“Five more,” Kon said, picking up one of the moonberry pies. He took a bite and savored the overly sweet taste. “Or are you forgetting about me?”
“Four, actually,” sighed Morus. Kon glanced at the tray and found the last moonberry absent. Only the sourpears remained; the apparent least-favorite.
Dowen’s pocket rustled as he gulped loudly. A wide lump moved down his throat, muscles contracting under the skin to force a whole pie into his gizzard. “What?” he asked, half-laughing, half-burping. “Is there something on my face?”
Ora chuckled as the rest looked on unamused, Kon least of all. “Dowen,” he said warningly, pointing across the lobby to a short table surrounded by stools. “Go sit there until I have a moment to speak with you.”
Before the boy could answer, Lili’s irritated stare lashed at Kon, her own pie unbitten, grasped tightly in her hand. “What gives you the right?”
“Professor Meir, for one,” he said, refusing to be intimidated. “Not to mention that I’m technically a Professor, too.”
“Technically,” Ora echoed, her voice a throaty growl. “Which technically doesn’t include now. Until your dumb music class, you’re a student like the rest of us. Compared to how long we’ve been here, you’re our junior, even.”
Lili nodded beside the giantess, her chin high and lips pursed with pride.
Kon should have known the two would resist the separation. Truce or not, the girls clearly had problems with authority. Instead of an ally, Kon had simply become another person to order them around. Another enemy. Breathing in deep, Kon exhaled his frustration out.
“You should listen,” Wilm ordered bluntly. “Don’t act like y’all didn’t hear Professor Meir. She left Kon in charge.” Though his voice hammered against Kon’s eardrums, he appreciated the support.
“Dowen,” Kon tried again gently, still pointing across the lobby. “Would you please sit there until we can speak in private?”
Grumbling, Dowen obeyed, snatching his bag and striding away. Lili seethed while Ora snarled, their eyes falling down to the pies in their hands, their stomachs growling quietly. Lili’s temper was somehow more vicious than Ora’s, yet Leach remained attached to her midsection during her momentary tirade. Both knew they had no ground to stand on. Not today.
Kon glanced at the others, finding the twins fiddling with their thumbs. Wilm gazed at him sympathetically, then narrowed his eyes on the trio, as if to say he’d watch them. Morus had gone invisible, a half-eaten pastry seemingly floating mid-air. “The rest of you stay here and decide amongst yourselves who will get the last four pies. I’ll speak with Dowen, then contact Lucid for some guidance. I’m sure I’m not the only one worried about our Professor.”
Once every student nodded, Kon turned and strode away. Dowen had taken a seat where he’d been directed, his posture stiff and proper, his arms wrapped around the square bag on his lap. Dowen’s fae — the grasping talons Lafer had described — was rustling within it. Kon beckoned his own fae to hover between them as he sat on the stool across from Dowen.
“Do you know what you did wrong? Or do you need me to tell you?”
“The second,” Dowen exclaimed, hugging his bag tighter. “I knew you were going to let me have another pie anyway. Taking it was only meant to be a joke. You know, to make people laugh?”
“Well it wasn’t funny, Dowen. It was selfish and disrespectful. Not just to me, but to your peers. What if Lili or Ora wanted the last moonberry? What about Morus, or if Wilm changed his mind? Why did you deserve it more than the rest of them?”
Dowen shrunk, burying his face in his bag, his dirty blond hair falling over his eyes. Not seeming to have a good answer, he elected to respond with silence.
“If Morus or Wilm wanted it, I bet they’d have given it to you anyway. Can you say the same for your friends?”
Dowen immediately straightened, one hand sweeping his fringe aside to see Lili and Ora in his peripherals. Kon didn’t need to look to realize they were staring.
“I think we all need a lesson on teamwork,” he began. “Fate chose us eight for a reason, and we’re among the few unfortunate Seers to live and fight in the actual, capital-w War. That makes us a family; one not of blood, but of spirit. Each one of our lives are bound together, and in the end, each one will matter. Do you understand what I’m saying, Dowen?”
To Kon’s amazement, the boy nodded. “I do,” he said with conviction.
“Then go. Rejoin your friends and your family. Treat them with kindness and ask for the same in return, and you won’t need to worry about me separating you again. Just know that my fae will be watching yours from now on. Don’t ask her to steal anything else, or I’ll speak with the Headmaster about punishment. Thievery is a crime, Dowen. You’re smart enough to know that.”
Dowen clutched his bag tightly before nodding. “Is that all?”
Kon waved him off with a sigh. His fae hovered close behind the boy as he jumped off the stool and jogged to reclaim his couch seat.
Thank you, he thought.
Alone at the short table, Kon reached into his tunic’s pocket for a thin wood box. It folded open to reveal a polished mirror; a gift he’d found when trying on his uniform this morning. Kon rasped a triplet on the reflection, summoning a flurry of color. Red and yellow swirled like blood-streaked sunlight, a number shaped by violet mist in its center, counting down the seconds from 27. Lucid was probably busy. When the countdown hit zero, the colors vanished immediately. Just like Professor Meir, the fae never appeared.
Instead, a pair of footsteps resounded from the stairwell. Kon rose and spun to greet Headmaster Nise himself. The elder Seer was panting, sweat darkening his green-gold robes, which appeared to shift between the colors at different angles of view. His glasses shone with the same blood-streaked sunlight, his weathered expression creased in worry. Kon waved him over to the stools, only for the Headmaster to lead him to the sleek gate. Luminescent silence rang out from Kon’s fae to keep the students from eavesdropping.
“Headmaster, Sir. Is everything okay?”
“Hm?” he creaked, the colors on his lenses fading to reveal a pair of milky gray irises. “Oh yes. Good morning, Kon. Professor Meir is going to be taking the rest of today off. I know it makes for an unusual first day. Given the circumstances, you understand.”
“I do,” Kon replied, the Headmaster’s phrasing making him feel uneasy. “I hope she’ll recover quickly.”
“She will, after some rest. You’ll open this gate for me and rally the others, yes? Phantom’s lesson begins earlier than scheduled, and I will supervise in the Professor’s stead.”
Kon nodded, reached for the glass handprint, then hesitated. “Is that all, sir? Or is something else wrong?”
Headmaster Nise blinked as Lucid walked into his glasses, striding from one lens to the other. Instead of becoming translucent, her magic changed the two-sided mirrors to reflect each other, allowing her Seer to see without removing them. “We appreciate your concern,” she said in his stead, “but please don’t worry. Nise and his son are just in the midst of a small disagreement.”
“I understand. As a father myself, I know how stubborn children can be.”
The Headmaster eyed Kon’s face with scrutiny, his lips cracking in a smile, as if noticing him for the first time. “How are the other students treating you? I trust they all have welcomed you in.”
“Some more than others, but yes,” Kon said, accepting the change of topic. Whatever happened between the Fated King and his father was between them. “It’s a bit of an uphill battle,” he continued, his tone hopeful, “but I think the colder shoulders are beginning to warm up.”
“They will,” sang Lucid. Headmaster Nise tilted his head in agreement, then gestured to the handprint.
Closing his eyes, Kon laid his palm on the glass and focused. He imagined his soul as a light bottled within him, dimming it slightly as he exhaled power into the gate. His fae dispelled her bubble of silence, allowing the roaring of machinery to reach the student’s ears. A wave of his hand got them up and wandering over, the trio lingering the furthest back.
Without another word, the Headmaster strode inside. Kon waited to inform the others about Professor Meir’s situation and Phantom’s earlier class. Everyone but Morus perked up while Gaj cheered loudly in celebration. Not knowing what to expect, Kon forced a smile as he led them in. Grit scattered into the air, floating like a cloud above their heads, while Rej stayed behind to close the gate. Wilm and Rugged marched at the back of the line to push the trio on, the statuesque man cradling Wilm’s belongings in his hands with Morus’s book on crystech.
It appeared their destination was the cylindrical, prismatic cage in the middle of the laboratory. Other than a tall podium with a key slot on its flat top, the space inside was empty, large enough to fit thirty people, at the very least. Headmaster Nise squeezed through a gap in its wide bars, and reluctantly, Kon followed, sucking in his gut as his fellow students watched and laughed. A moment later, Gaj unhinged a passage that Ora could duck through. The others trickled in behind her, spreading out as Wilm pushed Rugged in and shut the cage behind him.
“It’s an elevator,” Morus said, catching Kon by surprise by walking through the bars at his side. “This cage isn’t meant to lock anyone in, but to keep Phantom out. Like his prison, it’s built entirely of adamant. When charged, it forms a barrier for spiritual entities, like sorcerers and wraiths. Our fae, being a part of us, are an exception so long as they remain close.”
Kon nodded, recalling the passage he’d read about adamant. The crystal was unbreakable — only moldable by magic — and incredibly rare, which made it as expensive as it was useful. Supposedly, the Pinnacle was made entirely of adamant, having obtained a plethora from the caldera below the roost. It wasn’t the richest and most exclusive nation for no reason. If Professor Meir was a fugitive like Wilm claimed, then she had very powerful enemies. Isolationist or not, the High Council had a history of causing problems with the outside world. Only the Fated King seemed to be able to intimidate them into silence.
Headmaster Nise retrieved a glass key from his pocket, carefully stabbing it into the slot. Radiant light poured from his arm into the podium, slowly pooling in the cage’s adamant floor and rising up to fill its bars, the glass circuits presumably threaded in the unbreakable material itself.
Once the light washed over the ceiling, the cage began to spiral downward, falling smoothly through the floor. A meter of steel passed before darkness yawned open around them. Violet tendrils of mist writhed beyond the radiant bars, unable to pass through and hissing at a touch. Morus blurred as he shivered, his eyes cast out into that mist-twisted darkness. If Kon wasn’t scared already, he certainly felt so now.
“What is that?” he asked.
“Phantom,” replied Gaj, walking up to the bars and grasping them. “Don’t let him scare you. He’s practically harmless.” To demonstrate, Gaj stuck a hand out into the mist and waved it around. He laughed madly, as if he was being tickled, then drew his hand back, revealing skin marred with hundreds of tiny lines, like faint papercuts.
Fortunately, Rej stepped in to explain. “Anything that happens in Phantom’s domain is, for the most part, an illusion. Even if we get cut up repeatedly or fatally wounded inside, we can walk out with nothing more than some fading scars and muscle aches.”
“In other words,” Gaj began, talking over his brother, “we can face all sorts of challenges and use our magic any way that we want. Phantom’s class is the best.”
In the corner of Kon’s vision, Morus shook his head.
“It is pretty great,” said Wilm. “Phantom allows us and our fae to push our very limits.” Rugged nodded behind him, his chiseled face smug with confidence, even while cradling the stack of books and papers like they were a small child.
“If you ask me,” Gaj chattered on, “we’re all lucky to have ended up at Westwind. Hands down, it’s the best Academy of the lot.”
Rej cleared his throat, glancing at the trio by the furthest end of the cage. “That’s easy to say, considering Northmount is a smoking crater and Eastend was recently quarantined. I hear Southsea has very nice beaches, though.”
“Beaches and babes,” Gaj exclaimed happily. “But the Talons are much too humid for my tastes.”
Kon sighed, tuning the twins out and turning to his young tutor. “A smoking crater?” he asked. “What happened to Northmount?”
“You didn’t hear?” Morus asked, his gaze lingering on the writhing mist. The cage had descended for several minutes already without stopping, yet still, no end was in sight. “For us, it’s pretty old news. I suppose the Fated King prefers to not share the Seers’ personal failings with the rest of the world.”
As if pausing for dramatic effect, Morus stepped back and turned, looking Kon in his eyes. Echoes suddenly reverberated around them, the radiant adamant clambering loudly into the prison’s floor. The boy’s glasses prescription must have been strong for him to see the bottom in the dark mist.
“We are here,” the Headmaster proclaimed loudly, beckoning the students’ attention. “Wait here for two minutes, then step outside. Phantom and I must speak about today’s challenge.”
The twins split apart, making room for the old man to squeeze by and out, his silhouette quickly fading into the velvet shadows. Grit — who had been floating at the top of the cage — collected behind Rej. Like Gaj, she clutched the bars in both hands, excited and apparently unafraid of shredding the adamant into pieces.
Kon reached out to pat Morus’s shoulder. “What failings?” he asked.
“Mostly a failure to teach responsibility,” Morus whispered, his gaze settling on the trio across the cage. “A little over a year ago, one of Northmount’s students named his fae Power with unreasonable expectations in a vain attempt to become the most powerful Seer in history. The concept was too great, the source too potent. During the fae’s metamorphosis, she imploded, annihilating the academy in a cataclysmic blast. No one survived, including Headmaster Baor. Ora’s father,” he added with a pointed finger.
Kon looked, finding the giantess striding into the mist, her pink glob of a fae grasped in her massive hand. Dowen ran around to get ahead of her, and Lili stepped out last, Leach detaching and stretching to close the cage behind them.
“I didn’t know,” Kon muttered. It explained why the giantess was a student of Westwind, and likely had a part in her explosive temper.
Wilm saw them leave at the same time, sighing loudly as he ran off, Rugged emptying his hands on the radiant floor to follow. Holding his grainy fae, Gaj slipped through the bars, leaving Rej and Grit to spin and face Kon. Both Seer and fae shrugged in unison.
“Don’t worry about them,” said Grit, her face’s particulates shifting to form a smile. “The Headmaster thinks further ahead than the rest of us. If he gives us a time frame, he already knows the exact second the kid’s excitement take control of them.”
“Is it really that exciting?” Kon asked, waving his hand warily at Phantom’s mist.
Morus gave him a tiny nod. “In some definitions of the word, yes. But more in the terrifying sense.”
“The little genius is right,” Rej grunted, scratching the speckled fuzz on the back of his head. “I still have nightmares from my first time.”
Grit reached out to caress his cheek, her Seer seemingly immune to her razor sharpness. “But now that he has me, he isn’t afraid. Right, Rej?”
“Right,” he affirmed, steadying his heartbeat with a couple gentle breaths. “Good luck, Kon. Morus, I’ll see you on the other side.” Rej slipped into the mist, Grit’s marble body falling apart to drift on after him. One of her hands remained whole as it floated to gesture them outside.
Morus grasped the blurry folds of his fae and pulled her tighter. “Uh- Kon,” the boy started, gazing up at his face, his lips half-parted with an unasked question.
“Come on,” Kon said, reaching out an open hand. “We’ll go together.”
“Just until we reach the others,” the boy muttered, then grasped his fingers reluctantly. “I’ll just hold on so I can let go when I’m ready.”
“Of course. Do you want to lead the way?”
Morus took a deep breath, mustering his courage. Nodding, he abruptly marched onward, his grip tight to drag Kon along. Kon opened his other hand and beckoned for his fae to land in his palm, the nerves in his palm singing as he stepped through the cage’s radiant barrier. His vision swam in the dark violet mist, his body shivering as the tendrils caressed his skin like a cold wind. Blind and quiet, they drifted into the abyss.
Morus didn’t have to hold Kon’s hand for long. After a perceived minute of wading through Phantom’s ominous mist, the darkness parted ahead of them, revealing a precarious ledge that overlooked a familiar valley. Zephyr’s Cradle stretched out below them, not filled with buildings and farms, but a huge, intricate labyrinth. The entire scene was painted in the colors of dusk with a round, bloody orb floating in the hazy sky above. No paths led down from the mountains, just a long, steep drop.
“I thought we were already at the bottom,” Kon muttered under his breath. “How is this possible?”
Morus let go and waved him onward. “Everything we see is just a shared hallucination, every feeling, taste, smell, and sound evoked from Phantom’s memory. In truth, his prison is no larger than the mess, but for those of us within his domain, he can modify the environment's dimensions and properties.”
“I’m guessing that’s Phantom,” Kon said, pointing to an enigmatic silhouette draped in a cloak of writhing mist. The sorcerer loomed over the cliff’s edge beside the Headmaster, who seemed to be whispering orders and adjustments. The maze below them was constantly growing, individual biomes forming across its disparate sections. One sheened with ice as another filled with sludge and sprouted trees. The students had gathered to watch, many of their expressions awestruck. Morus mostly stared at the precarious ledge, careful not to look too far down.
Perhaps sensing the last arrivals, both men — stretch as it was to think of Phantom as a man — turned around to address the crowd. “Children!” the sorcerer greeted, his voice a menacing echo, as he spread his arms out wide, splaying his skeletal blue fingers. His face was gaunt beneath his hood, bloodless skin wrapped tight around the edges and curves of his bones. Phantom’s cavernous black eyes fell on Kon, then narrowed, his lips curling into a smile. “And young man,” the sorcerer echoed, giggling eerily to himself. A second Phantom manifested out of the haze beside Kon, laying a palm on his shoulder and making him jump. “Welcome to my humble abode.”
Kon eyed the sorcerer’s proffered hand warily. Instead of grabbing it, he took a step back, gaining a comfortable distance. “Thank you,” he replied, his tone soft as he bowed politely.
Chuckling at his reaction, Phantom used his proffered hand to sweep the ledge closer, the entire world swaying beneath their feet. In the blink of an eye, the students and their fae were spread in a line, facing the valley, their toes poking over the steep cliff. The Headmaster stood behind them now, flanked on both sides by the cloaked Phantoms. Kon didn’t notice, his attention focused on reclaiming his balance.
“He does that a lot,” Morus assured him, thankfully placed near enough for Kon to hear without raising his voice. “I recommend frequently reminding yourself that none of this is real. It helps when you start to panic.”
“Panic?” Kon huffed, catching his breath. “Why would I panic?” Kon tried to smile, but Morus saw the man’s fear in the shine of his eyes. He didn’t seem to like heights much himself.
Both Phantoms spoke, their voices echoing in the students’ ears and making them shiver, as if carried on a frigid breeze. “As you can all see, I have designed a labyrinth in Headmaster Nise’s honor. While you eight compete to race from its edges to the stage in its center, we shall observe from above, strictly judging your every move as you face the challenges along the way.”
“You all will be met with choices,” the Headmaster continued, waving an arm through the second Phantom, the illusion erupting into grasping tendrils of mist. “Your success today will depend on the decisions you make. If you learn the intended lessons and succeed in reaching the end, you will be exempt from my own lesson this afternoon. Students who fail will join me in the Windwoods to meditate while the victors can relax until Soldiery begins.”
“Magic is obviously authorized,” the lone Phantom added. “You may use any tools or weapons you’ve carried with you, and if you look hard enough, you may find more inside. Any questions?” he asked, his silhouette poofing into mist and reforming next to Gaj, making him startle. “Just no stupid ones, please.”
Gaj yelped as his right foot slipped off the ledge. Though her flight was slower than most, his grainy fae still caught him, soaring to his chest and pushing him upright. “No questions from me,” he chuckled nervously. The rest of the students — Kon included — just stared at the sorcerer, shaking their heads.
“Then enjoy,” Phantom chuckled eerily, floating back into an encroaching cloud of mist. Headmaster Nise waved, Lucid mirroring the gesture in the lenses of his glasses, as his body disappeared into the creeping tendrils. Though just an illusion, the cloud hardened into prismatic adamant. Unrelenting and impassible, it gradually shoved the eight students closer to the precarious ledge.
Morus’s heart thundered in his chest. Scrambling as far back as the wall let him, he gazed at the other students’ faces. Other than Kon and him, no one else seemed afraid.
Dowen was the first to jump, his laughter haughty and brave. A dark violet perversion of Zephyr’s luminous wind swept his body up, lifting his arms up at his sides like wings. It ferried him to the labyrinth’s furthest side, then suddenly thrust him down. Dowen’s limbs flailed as he plummeted toward the ruined section of the maze, his descent swift and straight. His backpack slipped off and crashed a distance away, landing among toppled walls and debris.
Lili and Ora jumped next, their hands clasped tightly, their plan to fall and land together. The magical wind ripped them apart violently, sending their bodies spiraling into the left and rightmost ends of the labyrinth.
A moment later, Wilm and Rugged stepped off with their arms interlinked. They were neither separated nor swept away by the wind, instead left to drop straight down. Rugged tried to grab the cliff with his free hand to arrest their momentum, only for his entire arm to pass through it, dispelling mist. A boom resounded as he and Wilm impacted the ground far below, leaving a dusty crater.
Good to know the earth is solid, at least.
Gaj and Rej nodded to each other, deliberately leaping to different sides. A pair of glowing winds lifted them gently, carrying them down to opposite corners of the maze. Their fae soared behind them, Grit’s particulates guided by her own violet breeze.
Morus clutched the wall behind him desperately. His right foot skidded over the edge, forcing him to crouch, lowering his center of gravity to balance on one leg. It took all his self-control not to hyperventilate. Despite the beautiful view from the towers in Kolod Vor, Morus couldn’t stand heights. The idea of falling was often enough to make Morus faint.
Gold stars twinkled in the sky as a musical tune pervaded the air. Kon’s fae had flown on ahead, singing and projecting her voice across the dusklit labyrinth. Cheering everyone on, it seemed.
“One the count of three, we jump,” said Kon, summoning Morus’s wide-eyed gaze. Though the man’s voice was calm and his posture more confident, his smile trembled slightly, a bead of sweat trickling down his brow. Nodding, Morus forced his own body to relax, focusing on his shallow breaths.
“One,” Kon began. “Two.”
“Three,” they said in unison, pushing off the wall and launching into the open air. Kon spread his arms out wide, yelling for Morus to do the same, and a chilly wind lifted them up and cast them out. Noting their directions and momentum, he realized they would be placed in the furthest corners of the maze, Kon between Dowen and Ora, Morus between Dowen and Lili. As large as the labyrinth was, they were bound to cross paths eventually. Morus hoped to run into the boy first; the last thing he wanted was to face the girl’s cruelty alone.
By Kon’s rigid stare on Ora’s snow-covered crater, Morus imagined he was considering his options too. It didn’t take a genius to see that the two weren’t on the greatest of terms. Normal as that was for Ora and, well, everyone other than Lili, the way she treated Kon almost seemed personal. That had been the reason why Morus told him about her father, Headmaster Baor. From what he’d said about his brother, he was probably the best person here to understand her pain and find a way to reach her.
Morus hadn’t known Kon for long, and he’d resisted at first too, yet every interaction with the man left him somehow trusting him more. Kon always wore his heart on his sleeve and spoke with genuine kindness. It was easy to see that Kon cared about people. Cared about him.
As Kon and Morus gained more distance, a cloud of writhing mist gathered between them and above their labyrinth, obscuring its layout as the wind suddenly lurched, throwing the boy down. Instincts caused him to lift his arm, his fae rising and spreading out above him, two ends clutched in his hands. She caught the air to slow his momentum, Phantom’s wind continuing to guide them. Unable to see in the mist, Morus closed his eyes and waited, praying to Fate for a gentle landing.
Fate answered quickly. A moment later, Morus’ fae squeezed his hands, and he opened his eyes just in time to spot the ground and hit it running. The mist cleared with his arrival, rushing back to linger in the maze’s immense shadows, obscuring his path forward, but not the immediate vicinity. The hazy darkness appeared to stretch on forever, cast in an eerie red light. Phantom had moved the bloody moon lower, giving the students a marker to work toward. Not that I’ll even need it.
Headmaster Nise had said they would be met with choices. Morus now faced the first one. Do I enter? Or do I sit and wait class out? He didn’t have any books with him, but he’d read The Shallow Prince enough times to recite the story word-for-word. His fae’s magic helped his memory as much as it helped him hide.
“A single grain of sand floats lonely in the wind,” Morus narrated, recalling the opening line of the book’s prologue. It seemed apt in his current situation. Like the Shallow Prince at the start of his journey, that was all Morus was; a lone grain drifting against his will in a too-immense world. Unlike the Shallow Prince, however, Morus was neither charismatic nor strong. The metaphor fit him better: small, weak, barely capable of doing anything.
To his dismay, he couldn’t finish the sentence. Morus was unable to summon a single word more, let alone remember the protagonist’s name. “Are we really going to play this game?” he grumbled. In response, his fae shook gleefully, then soared down the shadowy passage. Morus ordered her to return, but she floated on anyway, vanishing in the dark curls of mist.
Exaggerating a loud sigh, Morus ran after his fae. It wasn’t the first time she’d made a choice for him, and it surely wouldn’t be the last. He should have been annoyed, but really he was just glad to have her. Other than access to magic, the best perk of being a Seer was never being truly alone.
As Morus joined her, his fae draped over him, clarifying his vision until he could see a distant four-way intersection. Above each path, glowing winds traced a word in the air: ‘Mire’ on the left, ‘Ruin’ on the right, and ‘Stage’ straight ahead. The last was obviously a trap, leaving Morus with a single logical choice.
Grabbing his fae out of the air and pulling her close, he strode down the dilapidated passage, leaving the swampy corridor — and thus Lili — behind. Dowen notwithstanding, he would rather deal with crumbling walls than a river of disgusting sludge. As he wandered onward, Morus wondered if Kon was making his own decision. If he was lucky, the man would find his way to the ruins too.
Kon was beginning to regret his decision already. Despite wrapping himself in his arms and burying his hands in his pits, he was left shivering, his eyes stinging as their collected moisture slowly froze. Even with the lower half of his face tucked into the collar of his uniform, his breath fogged the air before him, obscuring his vision. He wished desperately that Vigor was here to bask him in his aura, or for that ruby-embedded device that converted anima to heat. Either would do wonders as he wandered down the path labeled ‘Tundra.’
Ora had crashed among its frost-crusted walls, not far from the snowy plain with a tall monolith in its center and a blizzard spinning above it. He was certain she would head there first. That meant he needed to go too.
When Kon had watched the students fall, he realized every placement was deliberate. The Headmaster had mentioned ‘intended lessons’ among their choices, and almost immediately, the labyrinth gave Kon a choice: Ora, Dowen, or himself. The answer was obvious, as well as the hardest. Unlike the giant wingfolk, Kon and his kin couldn’t stand the cold.
His fae was desperate to help. After trying to soar above the labyrinth’s walls to get a better view, she was quickly buffeted away by Phantom’s ghastly wind. It hurt enough to keep her down for a full minute, cradled in Kon’s trembling hands as she keened a low melody, silver glints of magic spreading across his skin. His nerves exploded with numbness, making the cold more tolerable, but no less debilitating. Kon knew he would need a better solution soon.
At the next intersection, Kon shut his eyes, opening himself to his fae’s senses. A thousand overlapping sounds boomed in his eardrums, the pain cutting through her magic, nearly sending him to his knees. Kon closed his hands around her instead, finding the sound deafened. He parted the fingers of his right hand, to be met with a thought-shredding howl. Kon almost toppled again.
After recovering, he opened the fingers on his left. A grating buzz filled his ears, the air seemingly vibrating quicker, as explosive snaps and crackles erupted around a distant corner.
The path ahead was eerily quiet, reminding him of his fight with the wraith. He’d only heard that depth of silence when spiritfire was burning away the sound.
Kon opened his eyes and walked left, releasing his fae to hover in the air beside him. Around the turn, he found a dead end with a small campfire, a tea kettle settled above it, not quite hissing with steam, and a bedroll in the corner with a crude spear nestled inside, its staff decorated with three scarlet feathers. Closer inspection revealed the point was made of chipped ruby, its shaft heavy glass.
Picking the weapon up carefully, Kon tested its weight, and the intensity of the ruby’s heat when empowered. Though searing to the touch, it barely warmed the air, no matter how close he held it to his face. Less of a tool, more of a weapon. He took it anyway, unable to afford hesitation.
After warming himself around the fire, he took a moment to enjoy the boiled hazeleaf tea. Once finished, he departed with the glass spear held tightly, his fae gliding and singing beside him. Gold sparks floated from her shell on his skin like embers, maintaining the warmth of his body with magical encouragement.
Passing the silent corridor, Kon strode toward the blood-curdling howl. It screamed out again, piercing his confidence and making him shiver. His fae’s music quieted in fear, letting the cold begin seeping in. Still, he pressed on.
Kon was determined to see his lessons through, hoping to achieve his own goal along the way. Between the Carrion and wraiths, Fate’s Seers had too many enemies to deal with infighting. Kon knew, in the very essence of his soul, that his purpose wasn’t to lead soldiers or win battles, but unite the people around him. It was the core of his passion, the reason he studied, composed, and performed music; the very same reason he fell in love. It had created his family, and now gave him the opportunity to create another. A family was what the students of Westwind needed the most.
If there was anywhere he could reach Ora, it would be on her territory, in a place where she had all the leverage. Once there, he’d find a way to convince her that he was an ally. Dowen wouldn’t take as much convincing, and Kon was certain that if both were on his side, Lili would soon follow. When they trusted him, he could help them trust the others. Lafer, Wilm, Morus, and the twins. Even the Professors, if three weeks proved to be enough time. And Kinjra, he thought, his fae accompanying his footsteps with musical sparks of resolve.
Fate had made him a Seer and sent him to this Academy for a reason. Kon had a job to do.