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As much as Kon loathed to admit it, Phantom had been right. Not about everything, for the sorcerer’s perspective of the world had been clearly skewed by his immortality, but about Jona’s cloak at the very least. It kept most of the cold from reaching his body, its furred hood warm and heavy with sleeves long enough to fall past his hands. On top of being twice as large as other humans, the wingfolk were known for their exceptionally long arms, with fingertips that naturally reached their knees. Even after magically shrinking to Kon’s size, the cloak remained true to that fact, protecting the fists clenched at his sides. Though cumbersome, it made his journey into the frozen labyrinth significantly more tolerable. Enough that he almost wanted to thank Phantom. Almost, because at least in this, Kon would gladly hold onto his pride.

Since the day Lafer had told him about Phantom, Kon had suspected he wouldn’t like the sorcerer. Now that he’d interacted with him, he began to feel the malignant seeds of hatred sprouting in his heart. Lafer had described a Seer sacrificing the life of their fae to become immortal as despicable, and over his last week of interacting with humanity’s eternally loyal companions, Kon agreed wholeheartedly. Despicable resonated in his mind every time he thought of his conversation with Phantom. He wasn’t looking forward to his next run-in with the skeletal husk of a man. In his entire life, Kon had never met someone who could stoke his temper so quickly. Not since Rin.

Tears formed in his eyes at the thought. Since Phantom had mentioned his brother, the very thought of Rin made old emotions stir within him, cycling between horrible guilt, sheer terror, exhausting grief, and pure rage. The feelings both weighed him down and drove him forward, making him feel small despite his determined strides. Tragedy, the sorcerer had called it, as if that single word could define the worst moment of his life.

Chiming brightly to lift Kon’s dark mood, his fae beckoned for him to look ahead. Since entering the last hall connected to the frozen pond where they met Frostbite, the corridors had tightened and branched frequently, gradually becoming smaller and more complex. She had flown on to scout for the end, informing him of more than a hundred dead ends along the way, but instead of leading him by his sense of their proximity, she returned to buoy his steps and bask his march in her glittering light. Her presence alone helped quiet the discordant emotions that strummed in Kon’s heart.

Just like that, the image of his brother faded out of memory, another boy soon fading into view. A ghost of Morus stumbled down the furthest intersection, flickering in and out of existence, leaving a blurry trail of blood behind him. “Did you see that?” Kon asked, running onward.

His fae hovered in front of him, shaking left to right, then bouncing every direction.

“Right. You can’t even see, can you?”

The twinkling orb nodded slowly, keening low notes of sorrow.

“I’ll make sure to imagine eyes when I name you. Hearing alone is too limited, and I’d be a monster to let you miss out from seeing all the beauty our world has to offer.”

At that, she chimed brightly in excitement.

“I think Phantom is messing with me, but I swear I just saw Morus wounded and bleeding. Are you sure you didn’t hear anything?”

His fae nodded, trilling a melody that trembled with worry.

Sighing, Kon slowed to a comfortable pace. “I hope the boy is okay.”

A clear ring evoked a mirror in Kon’s mind. Recalling the gift that was left in his uniform, he reached into the front of his cloak and removed the small box. With his spear placed in his armpit, Kon opened it and rasped three fingers on his reflection. Flurries of white snow and violet wind stirred on its surface before the fae’s radiant figure stepped into frame.

“Kon,” greeted Lucid. “Allow me to congratulate you on your progress so far. Nise had to attend other matters, but Phantom told us you helped ease Jona’s suffering and spared two of the mother and daughter wolves. I’d like to apologize on my Seer’s behalf, for he deemed the event necessary. I believe you could have learned what you needed to with a less depressing end. As such, we are happy to provide you with a single request. I can recognize in your expression that you’re worrying about your family. Do you want me to check up on Jrana and Kinjra?”

“Not them,” Kon replied, grinning softly. “I’m sure they’re alright. I was actually hoping you could tell me how the other students are faring.”

“Three,” Lucid said. “Nise says I can tell you about three. One in place of your wife, daughter, and best friend, as he’s certain the man is also on your mind.”

Gul wasn’t, sadly, but Kon was glad for the reminder. He was as much of his brother as Rin, if not more considering all the life they’d gotten to live together, and the thought of him filled him with warmth. “Three is reasonable. Thank you. If you’re willing to do it for free, please tell the Headmaster I forgive him.”

“He knows,” Lucid sang in amusement. “Nise says ‘Ora, Wilm, and Morus.’ Is his guess correct, Kon?”

He smiled, expecting more from the legendary Diviner. “It isn’t. He only got the last one right.” Compared to the other students, Ora and Wilm were the best equipped to conquer their obstacles. “Lili and Rej,” he said, thinking of the girl’s terrifying hardship and the boy’s momentary lapse of fear. “Please.”

Lucid nodded, her radiance flaring with her voice. “Lili and Leach have successfully drained all life from the inhabitants of the Mire and are now moving through the Forest in search of more prey. Rej and Grit found their way into the depths of the Quarry, where they are currently assisting Wilm and Rugged in slaying a giant pitfiend.”

“They’re okay, then. Good. What about Morus?”

“Morus…” she began, hesitating ominously. “Morus is less okay. He’s in the Ruins, being pursued by walking funghi. He isn’t hurt, though he is scared. Not for himself, but for Dowen.”

“Why?” Kon asked.

“Nise says that’s all I can tell you. Dowen would mean we told you four. Five, if he counts the glimpse of Wilm.”

Suppressing his groan, Kon readied to shut the box. “Thank you for sharing what you could, Lucid. You’ve given me some peace of mind.”

“You’re very welcome. Nise says good luck with the challenges ahead. They only get harder from here.”

With the admission, Lucid vanished in a fading blizzard of light, leaving Kon staring at his own face. Brow furrowed, mouth open, and tongue hanging, a question lingering on his lips. Unanswered, his concerns fell not upon himself, but Morus and Dowen.

Kon prayed for their wellbeing, hoping for them to work together rather than fight. The students were all training to join the same army, after all. He was certain that working together would be a necessity for their success in the labyrinth, as it would be for their success in the war. Though Lili might not learn that lesson anytime soon, Rej and Wilm seemed to already, and Kon planned to teach it to Ora. He had to believe the boys would figure it out.

You can do it, he thought, recalling the shambling apparition of Morus. No matter what it takes, we’ll meet at the end safe and sound. We just need to have faith in ourselves.

Kon followed his fae onward. He could already see the monolith poking above the distant walls, the sky above it drowned out by a spinning blizzard of white. A familiar sound came from the same direction, like coarse sand grinding bark into crackling splinters, too real to be an illusion. Ora was near, sleeping and snoring again.

Still minutes away, Kon hastened to wake her. This time, I’ll do things right.

 

𝄐

Desperate, Morus sprinted down the broken streets of a roost infested with noxious green funghi. Among the distinct spiraling architecture that fell and crumbled to serve as the labyrinth’s walls, the presence of the incredibly large and unnaturally glowing mushrooms could only mean one thing — Dowen hadn’t been placed just anywhere. The sorcerer had recreated a piece of his home.

You must be so terrified, he thought, imagining how he would feel if lost in the rubble of Kolod Vor. That had been the final destination of Decay’s rampage across Vaska Toma, though she’d fortunately been stopped during her detour to Eastend. Unfortunately, Lidkha could not be saved, a roost Morus recognized from the pictures he’d found with the reports on Armsmaster Topek’s desk.

He had snuck into the former knight’s office before Saiet’s, Lili’s, and Dowen’s transfers to Westwind, finding hand-drawn memories of toppled buildings and swarms of rotten spore zombies. Nightmares haunted his dreams for weeks after that, and seeing illusions of them in person inspired the same trepidation that kept him reading through many sleepless nights. Brave as Dowen was, nightmares of this day would certainly haunt the boy too.

A swarm of the monsters chased after Morus now, not guided by sight, scent, or sound, but a sense of his soul itself. Dozens of bulbous green mushrooms shambled on hundreds of limb-thick mycelial threads, the gills beneath their caps undulating and exhaling clouds of decaying spores. Though prone to dispersing quickly, the spores propagated and corrupted organic life, which in the case of humans, resulted in bloodrot; the same horrible affliction that constantly ate Lili’s body from the inside out. Even if it was an illusion, Morus wasn’t keen to share the girl’s experience. His imagination was vivid enough.

No one deserved that. Not even his worst enemies.

And so he ran, jumping over shattered tiles and crawling across all the fallen rubble he could find. Morus remembered the Ruins’ layout from their top-down view and used it to his advantage, leading the monsters over difficult-to-climb obstacles and through tiny choke points, slowing them down. Getting close enough to fight would mean certain death, but at least flight was easy. The zombies were incredibly uncoordinated, often tripping over their tendrils and falling into each other, knocking whole groups of them down.

Though Morus knew which route would take him to the tangled maze of dusklit trees surrounding the heart of the labyrinth, he ran the opposite direction in his search for Dowen, murmuring to Fate that the boy would be okay. Even if he could be a jerk and a clown, Morus didn’t want him to hurt. Morus knew as well as anyone that hurt only made a human’s flaws worse.

What are you doing, a voice whispered in his head. You’re no hero, Morus, it said louder, flaring with the ache in his legs. You know you’re too weak to save anyone.

Morus felt his fae tighten around his face and limbs, helping the pain fade away, simultaneously quieting his dark thoughts. Upon turning a corner, he slid to a halt, taking a long breath.

A large chasm separated the path ahead. Not a natural fissure, but a massive footprint, deep and infested with the rancid glowing mushrooms. From above, the gap had looked a lot smaller, but now that Morus was level, he could see that it was a five-meter leap. His plan had been to jump over and trap his pursuers below, not get pinned between two swarms of the walking funghi.

The veil over his face lifted his chin, massaging his eyes toward an unbroken nesting-tower. His family had lived in a building much like it, several homes built into each floor with balconies that overlooked the panoramic surroundings. To rise that tall, the towers needed a strong foundation, which now proved useful. If he could get inside and get to a balcony, his fae could glide him across the gap.

Morus ran to its metal door and tugged on its handle. No matter how many times he clicked the inner bar, it didn’t budge. A red panic light blinked inside, shining bloodily against the door’s glass window.

You have to be kidding me. Not only had Phantom recreated entire blocks of Lidkha, but he’d designed the structures to be realistic, their security measures included. During inclement weather and Carrion invasions, condominiums like these would lock themselves down to protect the residents inside. He let go, his gaze dropping. We’re doomed, aren’t we?

His fae tilted his chin again, moving his gaze toward the pipes that ran up the structure’s side.

“You can’t be serious.”

Clenching his right hand tightly, she yanked him forward, forcing him to grasp the drain for balance.

“There’s no way. I can’t climb this!”

She turned his head. The mushroom zombies were growing nearer, dragging themselves over scattered pieces of rubble and tumbling down the other side. By the closest zombie’s stumbling pace, it would reach Morus in two minutes. There was no time left for him to waste.

“Fine,” he said, facing the pipe and testing the leverage of his grip. Though Morus wasn’t strong, he was light. The least he could do was try. Besides, falling and dying from a concussion sounds a lot better than internally rotting.

His fae tugged on both of his arms, giving him a quick push. Right. Less thinking, more living.

Morus looked into the misty sky above and pulled. One hand after another, his feet pressed flat against the nesting tower’s wall, he scaled the long pipe. On top of making him more aerodynamic, his fae kneaded his back while buoying his weight, encouraging him to climb higher and higher.

Don’t look down. Don’t even think about it. Just keep moving.

Morus could feel his grasp slipping, sweat leaking through the pores of the veil over his palms. The first balcony was so far away. He’d made it a third of the way, but it wasn’t enough.

Don’t do it. Don’t you dare.

Morus looked down and regretted it immediately. His vision blurred, the proportions of the environment distorting, making the drop appear deathly steep, the rotten mushroom zombies looming horrifyingly tall. Less like a fully grown adult, more like the giant wingfolk. They appeared four times the size of Morus at least.

His fae massaged his chest and shoulders, comforting him until he could catch his breath. Centering himself and reaffirming his grip, Morus looked over to the infested footprint. When his vision cleared, he quickly calculated the possible angle of his fall. If he just climbed a little higher, he could jump and glide to its very edge.

We’ll go together, a memory echoed in his head. Not Morus’s thoughts, but Kon’s voice from within the cage, recalled by his fae’s magic. Strange as it was, he found the recollection empowering. In seconds, he was climbing. The balcony was suddenly within his reach.

Morus wheezed as he rolled himself over the metal platform. Panting, he turned over and inspected the sky. It was barren of stars and the planetary ring, but it seemed like a storm was brewing. Phantom might have been planning to drown Dowen and him out.

Rising, Morus faced the ledge before him and swallowed. Again, his vision swam, making his body sway with dizziness. His fae clutched the pipe to make up for his loosening grip.

On the count of three, we jump. Kon’s voice again. Morus nodded and regained his balance.

One, the memory began, prompting his first step. Two, it continued, driving another.

“Three,” he said aloud, pushing off the balcony and launching into the open air, his arms already raised. His fae unraveled around him, opening up and spreading out to catch the wind. Zombies reached out with mycelial threads and coughed spores beneath his feet, but neither could reach him as he drifted over their caps and the chasm.

Morus hit the ground running, a loud cheer bellowing out of his lungs. He’d finally escaped.

“Thank you,” he said, his fae draping over him and hugging him warmly. “I don’t know what I’d do without you." She nodded his head slowly in agreement. “Let’s go find Dowen.”

Pulling him onward, Morus gazed down the longest street he'd seen yet, ending with the broken remains of a shopping plaza. Crumbled stone huts and rows of fallen tents were scattered in a huge chaotic mess. There was no doubt in his mind that Dowen would sniff out the potential loot. Illusions or not, Phantom had mentioned that weapons and tools could be found inside. The self-proclaimed rogue likened himself as a collector of magical artifacts, so naturally he would be drawn here. Sure enough, Morus could see a fallen tent moving as someone rummaged among its shrouded contents.

Dowen was there, poking out of a pile of ripped cloth and splintered wood. His boots had been removed, his feet bare and uniform replaced with tattered shorts and a leather vest. On the ground beside him, his backpack rustled as his fae stirred within it, inspecting each item he dropped into its open pouch.

A tickle on the back of Morus’s neck drew his glare behind him. After falling into the giant footprint, the swarm of zombies had begun climbing on top of each other, mycelial limbs reaching into cracks to pull themselves up. Three of them had cleared the ledge already, a fourth clinging to another for leverage, nearly dragging them both down.

“Stop looting!” Morus yelled, his voice cracking with his stress. He was either too quiet, or Dowen was too distracted to hear. Morus breathed deep and yelled as loud as his lungs allowed, finally drawing the so-called rogue’s attention. “Zombies are coming! We’ve got to run!”

“Zombies?” Dowen chuckled, standing and sweeping a lock of sandy hair out of his eyes, his lips curled in a smile. “Is that what you’re calling the mushmen?”

“Whatever you want to call them, they’re right behind me. I know the way forward, Dowen. Our chances of reaching the end are better if we go together. We need to go now.”

“You want to team up?” he asked, chuckling to himself. “I suppose your chances would be better, but mine are perfect on my own.” He raised a fist to punctuate his statement. A golden blur scraped across Morus’s vision, leaving a fancy dagger with a glass hilt and diamond pommel grasped in Dowen’s other hand. “You go ahead and run, but I’d rather stand my ground. Seers don’t flee. It’s our duty to fight, isn’t it?”

Despite the confidence in his voice, the fact he asked the question betrayed his reluctance.

“Don’t be an idiot,” said Morus. “You can’t fight those things with a tiny little knife, Dowen. If you breathe their spores, you’ll rot from the inside out and suffer a long, agonizing death.”

“You think I don't know that?” Dowen hissed, his eyes fixed on the approaching mushmen. “If Lili knew I ran from illusions like a coward, she would kill me for real. Those monsters ruined her life.”

“Is that worth ruining your own life? If this were real, your death would be needless. What kind of friend could you be to Lili if you were dead?”

Dowen’s smug expression briefly crumbled, his eyes flickering between Morus and the mushmen. Widening his stance and raising his weapon, he gave his answer. He would not run.

“You’re infuriating, you know that? You’re stubborn, not stupid, which makes it worse because you actively choose to be dumb. I bet you haven’t even thought about why Phantom dropped you here in the first place. Did you listen to the Headmaster when he talked about challenges and lessons? This one is clearly meant for you and you're already failing.”

“Maybe it is,” Dowen began, gazing at the crumpled shops around them, “and maybe I am.” He crouched down to cut off a strip of the fallen tent, then wrapped it around his face, covering his mouth and nose while tying a knot at the back. “But I was listening, and I heard the old man talk about choices too. Mine’s been decided. Just run, kid, or you’ll be the one dying needlessly.”

Kid?” Morus scoffed, clenching his fists. “You’re not even two years older than me. I should leave you to die for that comment alone.”

“Then why aren’t you leaving? Do what you do best and find a dark place to hide.”

No,” Morus insisted. “I’m a Seer too, which means it's my duty to stand by your side. Armsmaster Topek has said it a thousand times. Never leave a sibling-in-arms behind.”

“Well if that’s your choice, then shut up and find a weapon. They’re almost here.”

Morus nodded and turned slowly, observing his surroundings. The closest pair of mushmen appeared smarter than the rest, intentionally shambling out of the reach of each other's flailing mycelial limbs. Glowing clouds of acrid green spores puffed from their gills as they walked, dissipating in five seconds before spreading more than a meter. To be safe, he would need a weapon two meters long. Metal would be preferable, as the spores would propagate on wood.

“Hurry up, four eyes. Stop standing around and wasting time.”

“I am hurrying,” Morus sneered, scanning the toppled shops around them. “Aha,” he exclaimed, running to a distant tent of color and lace. It was fancier than the others, and long metal stakes had been used to hold up its shape. Morus pulled one from the cloth and brandished it like a spear. Not very sharp and deceptively light, but three meters long and mostly sturdy. Enough force would make it bend, yes, but it wouldn’t break easily. "Perfect."

“Good,” said Dowen. “Now lure one of them that way,” he said, pointing to a stone nest that caved inward, forming an unsteady platform. “My fae and I can handle the other two.”

Morus looked, finding a third mushman lumbering behind the others. Nearly half of its mycelial limbs had been ripped or pulled out, making its gait slower and less balanced. The fourth must have taken the pieces into the giant footprint with it.

“I’ll do you one better,” Morus replied, a small smile hidden behind his fae. “Watch this.” He used the metal stake to vault over a shattered booth, landing among the rotten food spilled beyond it. Not yet touched by the funghi, but many days old in the sun at least, covered in mold and reeking horribly. He picked up a softened bloodfruit and aimed it carefully, using his entire might to throw it at the nearest mushman. Of course, he was too weak to hit it. Instead, the fruit rolled up to its ‘feet.’

“Nice throw!” said Dowen, laughing haughtily at his expense. “Maybe try again, except less like a girl.”

“No need!” Morus shouted, biting off a snide retort. He knew the limits of his own strength and had planned accordingly. “The bloodfruit is precisely where I want it.” A second later, the mushman was tripping, its balance lost as tendrils rolled over its round skin, sending its cap falling into a blunt piece of rubble and caving on impact. The explosive puff of spores sent the other monster off balance, causing it to veer its course toward Morus and the pile of food. “See?”

Dowen blinked, rendered silent, though a grin did stretch his lips. “Okay, I’ll give you that one! But close your eyes and watch this.”

“Close my eyes and watch?” Morus called out. “That doesn’t make any sense!”

“Just close them! When I tell you to open them, you’ll see!”

Morus almost disobeyed to spite him. Instead, he waited in darkness and listened, hearing a sharp woosh cut through the air.

“Okay,” Dowen chuckled. “You can look now.”

Blinking, Morus found the second mushman’s torso falling, its cap beheaded and pinned to the stone wall of a fallen guard tower. Among the leaking cloud of incandescent green spores, a diamond twinked on the hilt of a dagger. “Impressive, huh?" asked Dowen. "Now that’s what I call a throw.”

“Who are you kidding?” laughed Morus. “I know your fae killed it.”

“You’re wrong. That was all me. She just kept it distracted.”

Before Morus could offer his retort, Dowen picked up a large brick and walked over to the fallen mushmen’s half-broken cap. Just short of a meter away, he tossed it. A mushroom cloud of spores erupted before his face.

Morus acted quickly, grasping and whipping a mushy bloodfruit from the food pile. It hit Dowen on his brow, knocking him back just in time. He fell back onto the broken street tiles, yelping in pain. “Disgusting,” he grunted, sitting up and wiping the moldy pulp out of his eyes. “I’m going to kill you for that!”

“I just saved you,” barked Morus, stomping his boots clean on his way to wave his metal stake in Dowen’s face. “Your 'mask' is made of cotton, which is organic. The spores would have eaten right through it." Instead of grasping the stake and pulling himself up, Dowen swatted it away and pushed himself up. With shoulders lifted and chest puffed, he squared off like he was about to actually fight.

His discarded backpack rustled loudly, drawing the boys’ attention. Dowen sighed and deflated, running off to grab his fae and her nest of collected treasures.

Thankless, Morus turned, facing the last mushman as it stumbled toward him. It was far enough away that he needed to walk forward to stab his makeshift weapon through its bulbous cap. The metal stake bent as he drove it through like a skewer.

From a distance, he whipped the monster around as it tried to reach out and grab him, its cap visibly deflating as its spores were shaken out of it. It died soon after, allowing Morus to discard its husk and turn back to Dowen. The older boy stood rigidly, chin high and arms crossed, with his backpack strapped tight on both shoulders.

“So you know the way forward,” began Dowen, too proud to apologize or offer his thanks. “Show me how to get out of this hell, and we can pretend that none of this happened.”

“Deal,” Morus replied curtly. He knew a truce was the best he could get. It would have to suffice.

“Where do we go from here?”

Turning, he lifted the metal stake to point at the giant decaying footprint. “With our fae’s help, we can take turns using this to vault over that gap. From there, we just need to pass through five blocks of the most infested streets.”

Dowen nodded, removing his mask and draping the cloth over his hand. He ran to the severed mushman’s cap and reached inside it for his dagger, pulling it out and wiping it clean, his face scrunched up in disgust by the rotten stench. “I’m ready,” he said, turning and spitting. “Lead the way, pipsqueak.”

Morus sighed and marched past him. Maybe I should have left him after all, he tried. His fae clung tightly and ceased trembling, showing him that she was unconvinced. As much as he loathed to admit it, dealing with the boy’s ungrateful attitude and tiresome nicknames was better than facing the labyrinth alone. Hell really was the best way to describe it.

A faint melody keened in the distance, slow and somber, heralding the arrival of a flickering apparition. A translucent Kon stumbled while clutching a deep gash across his stomach. Seeing the boys, he reached out a hand, only to lose his strength and tumble into the fungus infested chasm.

Morus froze, looking back to find a wide-eyed Dowen. “You saw that, right? Kon?”

“...Yeah. Do you think he’s okay?”

“I don’t just think,” Morus began, pausing dramatically as he faced the path ahead. “I believe.”

Dowen’s haughty laughter nearly ruined the moment.

“Don’t act like you don’t too," he continued, looking back. "I saw you staring and smiling when he beat Wilm this morning, and the look on your face while he was reprimanding you about stealing that pie."

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Kon’s just another lame adult. He’s nothing special.”

Morus didn't buy it for a second. “So you think he’ll lose?”

“You know what? I do. You want to bet on it?”

“Sure. Does twenty plumes sound fair?”

Twenty,” Dowen sputtered, the word tapering off into a chuckle. “As if you have that kind of cash.”

Morus lifted the wallet from its pocket, rattling the nibs inside. “Want to bet on that too?”

Dowen shrugged, relenting a slight nod. “Fine. I’ll take those twenty plumes when class is finished.”

Morus smiled as he returned his wallet to his pocket, his fae parting open to let him slip it through. He looked forward, measuring the distance between the pit and him, then hastened, aiming his metal stake toward a groove in a broken street tile. Once thrust in with precision, he leaped, holding onto the opposite end as it bent and flung him over the large chasm. Het let go and raised his arms, allowing his fae to lift off and glide him to safety. After that, Dowen had to be impressed.

He looked into the pit as he cleared it, discovering the ghostly corpse of Kon among the mushmen’s glowing caps and writhing tendrils. A moment later, he landed heavily and gazed back, finding Dowen in the midst of launching himself over the gap. As expected, the boy's swift fae had snatched the metal stake the second Morus released it. Now Dowen allowed it to fall into the footprint, his arms spreading out like the wings of a bird.

Morus turned away, deliberately ignoring the boy's graceful flight, his gaze settling upon the scarlet moon that hung above the labyrinth's center. Again, a faint melody keened in a far-off street. Again, he saw a mirage of Kon, wounded, bleeding, and stumbling. Reaching out, then collapsing. Dying before his eyes.

Don't let me down, Morus thought, finally taking his first step in the right direction. There was more than just money on the line.

𝅘𝅥

Kon pressed himself through the relentless blizzard, hood drawn and hands up to protect his face, one grasping the warm shell of his humming fae, the other pointing his spear ahead with its ruby point burning with light. The violent whirlwind of violet and white fought to separate Kon from his friend, weapon, and cloak, the last whipping out behind him, occasionally catching a breeze and dragging him backward. Every stride he took needed to be measured carefully, his balance and weight distributed precisely to keep him from sinking into the field of deep snow. It was hard work, but not impossible. Motivated by the sound of Ora snoring, Kon forced his way into the eye of the storm.

When he finally broke through, the sudden loss of resistance nearly sent him stumbling to his knees. Kon recovered with a gentle push of his fae, then peered up and around, observing the tornado of mist and snow that surrounded the massive moonstone monolith, its spear-like point stabbing the sky above. According to the book on crystech, a sufficient amount of moonstone could impact the weather, both capable of stopping and birthing storms. Kon had once read that wingfolk used these monoliths to protect their roosts and hunting grounds, somehow not powered by local Seers, but the same mystical force that tugged on their souls, compelling them to guard their Motherland. Some people speculated it was an ancient spirit, though Kon had no idea what to think. Whenever anyone inquired, the wingfolk simply called that force their God.

As Kon’s eyes fell upon the slumbering Ora, he thought about how much it hurt to be so far from flock, and how much worse it must have been for the young giantess. She was more than a thousand leagues away from the snowy plains, icy fjords, and boreal woodlands that she called home. It was no wonder that when she’d found this place, she’d slumped down against the monolith to have a nap. For Ora, the frigid landscape and relentless blizzard must have felt so tranquil.

“I’m sorry,” he muttered, waving a hand forward. His fae soared on with a soft, crescendoing ring, lighting dim sparks over the girl’s blinking eyes, gently rousing her awake. It seemed to take her a moment to realize this wasn’t a part of her dream. Kon used the time to remove Jona’s cloak, folding it up as it enlarged in his grasp.

“What are you doing here?” Rubbing her eyes and rising, Ora squared her shoulders and loomed, her free hand waving his fae away from her face. Her own fae rolled over her left shoulder, bright pink and freckled, sticking to the skin exposed by her torn sleeves.

“The same reason as you,” he said. “To reach the end.”

Ora bellowed a laugh. “That’s not why I’m here. Are you blind, or just that naive?”

“Neither. Mostly, I’m just sorry.”

The giantess’s expression shifted into a grimace. “I’ve heard that tone before. Pity,” Ora spat the word, then wiped her lips with her wrist.

“It isn’t pity. It’s empathy. In the interest of honesty, I know about your father. I lost both my parents and a brother myself, so I understand a little of how you must feel. If it helps, I didn’t go searching for the information, just stumbled upon it. I want you to know I’m sorry, Ora. That’s all.”

“I don’t want to hear it, old man. Just leave and let me sleep in peace.”

“Okay,” Kon said, taking a step forward and laying Jona’s cloak on the snow. “I’m not here to trouble you, just provide a small peace offering.” The idea had come to mind when he’d thought about Gaj handing Rej his moonberry pie after their fight in the lab. “It’s not real, but it belonged to a legendary wingfolk Seer. They called her White Wolf, a title I imagine came from her fae, Frostbite, both of whom I encountered before coming here. I have a feeling it will fit you better than it did for me.”

Ora blinked warily, raising a fist to rub the frosted crusts from her eyes. She stared at the large cloak in silence.

“I’m not going to ask you to follow me, but if you’re willing to listen, I’d like to offer you some guidance.”

Her glazed eyes met his, shimmering like two puddles of ice. She didn’t stop him or grunt approval, just stared with her massive fist still raised.

“I believe you were dropped near here for a reason. That willingly leaving this place is meant to be your first challenge. Like I said, I’m not going to ask you to follow me, but you may want to go soon. Personally, I’d rather nap in my bed than attend the Headmaster’s meditation session, so I’m going to hurry ahead.”

Ora waved him off. “So hurry, then. Go.”

Nodding, Kon departed, grasping his fae and huddling with his spear, both of them humming with light and warmth. Once more, he pressed himself through the relentless blizzard. Snow filled the billowing sleeves of his uniform, every nerve instantly tingling with biting needles of cold.

When the storm around him abruptly settled, he looked back and breathed a sigh of relief. Ora was draped in the furry cloak, its hood over her eyes, one palm on the moonstone monolith, absorbing its stored magic. Pearlescent light washed over her body, channeling into her fae on her shoulder.

Instead of walking, she watched, obviously waiting for Kon to leave. For now, that small victory had to be enough. Looking forward, he trudged on, careful not to sink into the snowfield. The journey out was easier, for which he was grateful.

Kon looked back and found Ora finally moving as well, only to freeze mid-stride, forcing him to face ahead. Snow crunched beneath her feet as she resumed her march. Not following, but going the same direction. It was a start.

Kon gazed at the sky, finding the crimson moon closer than before, clouds of mist curling like fingers beneath it, as if gesturing him to come. He released his fae to hover beside him, where she buzzed and sparkled cheerfully, encouraging him on. More lessons still awaited, for him, Ora, and the rest. If Kon could help it, he would see all eight of them through to the end of this labyrinth.

He would just need to find them first.

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About the author

Amanuensis

Bio: Author of the fantasy web serial, False Prophecy.

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