It makes no sense, thought Kon. The words crossed his mind as he jumped off a rock and over a patch of muddy earth. Behind him, Kinjra huffed a deep breath as she followed his example. Both hit the ground running in pursuit of the glowing shell of Kon’s fae.
Her soft, gold-and-silver illumination warded off the oppressive darkness, revealing the uneven paths between the trees. In the night and beneath the canopy’s foliage, his fae was their only source of light, other than the pallid flickers of gray cast by the spiritfire in the north-east. As they ran, his fae led them toward the ethereal flame, not away. Kinjra had said the meteor landed in the woods half-a-league away from the Pale Hawks’ camp.
Why didn’t the Seers see this coming? Why didn’t their fae?
It was those sort of thoughts that harried Kon’s mind as he exhausted his body, spending up days worth of rest in panicked desperation. He panted as he ran. His eyes never left the ground.
It was the Seers’ duty to see tragedies like this coming and do something to prevent them or mitigate the damage. Though Kon had learned from experience that heroes sometimes arrived late, it had been the heroes themselves who assured his flock they would be safe here. They promised a fae had glimpsed a lone meteor falling in the north, but nothing about the second. It makes no sense at all, insisted his thoughts.
Kon’s twinkling companion rang a warning as she led them on a twisting route between a pair of copses. It was not until Kon ran past the splintered remains of a fallen tree that he understood why. Upon curving around it, they came across a large ditch, and at its center, found a boulder to hop across. On the other side, a nearby hissing caused his fae to veer to the left, toward the southernmost end of the camp.
By the sound of it, a den of winged vipers had been disturbed by the meteor’s impact. Kon warned Kinjra and picked up the pace, leaving the sound of flapping, leathery wings to fade in their wake. The ritili didn’t sense it either, he realized. Animals can feel Fate better than Seers can see it, yet they were just as surprised. It’s as if Fate didn’t even know this was coming.
Kon shivered as he ran. While the spiritfire drained the warmth from the air, it was mostly the thought that made Kon’s entire body shake. That, and the panicked shouts. With each of their steps, the Pale Hawks’ voices grew louder. The camp was getting close.
Kon ducked under a waist-high barrier of thorny branches. He tried not to grimace, even as they raked red lines across his bald scalp. With a thought, his fae halted, allowing him to turn and raise the branch for his daughter. Kinjra ran under his arms and the branch, then continued on without him. Kon’s fae soared past his daughter to float between them and the treeline. Both humans slowed down before barreling out into the open.
Four silhouettes had gathered outside the flock’s large, oval stable. The lute-string shell of Kon’s fae could feel the vibration of their whispers in the air. Though Kon could not make sense of the words, he recognized the voices immediately. Leb and Imet were speaking in hushed tones while their sons, Belen and Etal, stood further away, muttering quietly. In the unseen light of Kon’s fae, he could see each one of their faces stricken with fear. Most of all Belen, who spun on them as they approached. The burly boy must have heard the sound of their footsteps.
It was not the first time Kon had witnessed Belen’s good ear at work. That, his strong arm, keen rhythm, and exuberant passion made him a natural drummer. And yet in spite of having played the bodhrán countless times, Belen startled at the glint of ringlight on the instrument’s white hide. His voice broke halfway through his shout, turning it into a shriek. Kon could hear the boy’s heart thrumming with fear.
Kinjra’s burst of laughter drew Belen’s eyes to her face, inspiring a loud sigh of relief. Beside him, Etal had turned to investigate. As soon as the physician’s lanky son turned, the tension in his shoulders and expression slackened. Leb and Imet only paid their kids a brief glance back to make sure they were safe.
“Kin!” Belen exclaimed. “Mister Kon!”
The tension returned to Etal’s face when he met Kon’s gaze. “Where did you two come from?” he asked. His eyes had settled on the woods behind them.
Instead of answering, Kinjra sprinted into her friends with her arms out wide. With a yell, she crashed into them and pulled them into a lopsided hug. The wooden bone in her hand clanked against Belen’s head as he tried to lift her up, prompting another shout. Etal chuckled as his face was squeezed between his friends’ shoulders.
The boys were still wearing their bed tunics, and their hair was still disheveled from sleep. Kon noticed the crusts in their eyes as he jogged by them. Leb was talking with Imet at the stable’s front hatch. By the look of them, neither father had been sleeping when the second meteor fell. They were both still dressed in their work clothes.
Unlike Kon’s loose garments, the other men wore tight-fitting outfits that emphasized their respective sizes. Leb was a big guy for flockfolk, and as such, often likened as a giant from the Frigid Wing. Beneath his dark gray overalls, he wore a sleeveless black shirt that exposed the ridged muscles of his chest and arms. Belen’s father was almost ten years older than Kon, yet at a glance, he could easily pass for half Kon’s age. A lifetime of taming steers had kept Leb in the best of shape.
Though Imet was not much shorter, his slight frame made him seem more like a skeleton in comparison. The imagery was helped none by the pristine white robes that clung to his bony, lanky arms. Only the gloves on his hands were any other color, and that was just because of the dark red stains of blood on his fingers and palms. The blood shined in the light of his fae like it was fresh.
Between the two men, it was Leb who turned first. “Kon,” he greeted. In one hand, he held a large iron lock. In the other, he grasped a long, rusty key. Imet only looked over his shoulder for a brief moment. His attention was fixated on the stable’s door and the lock in Leb’s hand.
“Don’t get distracted,” Imet whispered. “I need to get my wife out of here. Please.”
Leb glanced from Kon to Imet, blinked, then nodded. The rust on the key’s teeth ground loudly as Leb opened the lock. By the sound of the final crunch, Kon was certain he could not jam the key in there, let alone turn it, if he tried. Leb left the lock-and-key hanging on the hatch as he opened it, unleashing the dense stench of manure.
“I just need to know one thing,” Kon said. “Where is Jrana?”
Leb stopped halfway from opening the hatch and looked back to answer, though it was Imet who turned and spoke instead. “She’s at the canteen,” the man said curtly. “When the rest of us decided our lives aren’t worth our homes, she insisted to remain there until you came back. Cres is probably still with her now. Why don’t you go now and hurry.”
By the end of his rambling, the physician’s tone shifted from smug to stern. Imet’s arrogance rang in Kon’s ears as his fae blared a note of irritation. Considering the situation, he tried to give Imet the benefit of the doubt. The blood on his hands was surely Rela’s. If he was here, that could only mean she was unable to move from her bed. He would need Leb’s steers to save his wife’s life, and as such, Kon was only getting in the way.
“Thanks,” he replied, his voice low and terse. “And good luck,” he added. Leb nodded at him as Imet glared back and appraised him, searching his face for a hint of sarcasm. Kon nodded to him solemnly, then called out to his daughter. “Kinjra!” he shouted. “Let’s get your mother and get somewhere safe.”
Kinjra nodded vigorously as she hugged her friends goodbye. The moment Kon started running, she did too, following him around the wide bend of the stable. They passed by Leb’s nest into an open field, then ran for the even wider structure in the middle of the abandoned camp. Wherever he looked, Kon saw and heard no one. The Pale Hawks had already taken flight down the trail.
It took Kon and Kinjra more time to run around the canteen than it did to cross the open trail. Without the hum of its generator, the building’s windows were dark. The air – drained of its warmth – obscured the glass with a thin layer of frost. Each huff of breath left a cloud of fog in his wake. His fae scouted on ahead as the spiritfire came into view over the trees, just beyond the canteen’s bend. Like the warmth and color, the ethereal flames seemed to be draining sound. His fae did not hear his best friend or their wives until Kon found them outside the kitchen’s back door, collecting bags of rations in three piles on the ground.
“Jrana!” Kon shouted. “Gul! Cres!” Each one of them faced him. The sound of Gul heaving bags and grunting covered their footsteps. Though him and his wife grinned with relief, Jrana’s cheeks immediately turned red with anger.
“Idiot man!” she yelled. “I knew it was stupid to let you go! I’m never letting you out of my sight again!”
Kon ran to and embraced his wife, then pecked her forehead with four quick kisses. Jrana’s breath stuttered as she hugged him back. Kinjra pattered up beside them, then joined them by wrapping her arms around their legs. As Kon stroked the back of Jrana’s head, his chin over her shoulder, he could not help but stare at the approaching inferno. As far as it was, it was only getting closer by the second.
“Sun bless us,” Cres exclaimed. “Kon. Kinjra. Thank Fate you’re safe.”
“Thank Fate you’re here,” corrected Gul. “Everyone else ran off already, which means we have to pick up their slack. The flock should be able to survive a few days off twelve bags, but the more we can bring, the happier people will be. Not that they deserve it,” he grunted, then hefted a bag of fruit through the doorway to Cres, who placed it in a pile with the rest of the fruits.
Kon let go of his wife and left her with another kiss on her cheek. With a nod, she gave him permission. Of the seeds, nuts, and fruits, the third were the heaviest. Kon picked up the two bags on the ground and joined Gul at the door for him to stack on two more.
Behind him, Cres, Jrana, and Kinjra distributed the bags of seeds and nuts comfortably among themselves. With the drum and drum-beater in her hands, Kon’s daughter could only lift a single bag of seeds up. Cres and Jrana managed the rest between them.
“So everyone really took off?” asked Kon. There had been a hint of tension in Gul’s voice that betrayed his otherwise gruff tone.
His best friend peered into his eyes as he closed the door behind him. By the twitch of his lips, he seemed reluctant to answer. His eyes flicked from Kon to the looming spiritfire. “Not everyone,” he eventually sighed.
“I ran into Leb and Imet at the stables. I know about Rela.”
“Not just her,” he whispered. “Miss Sut is still in her home. She locked the door so no one can get inside to grab her, and she’s refusing to leave. Says that Fate arranged for her to die the same way her husband did, and she’s okay with that. There’s no way for Leb to get the steers to pull her around the camp in time, so we had no choice but to leave her.”
Near the end, Gul’s voice faltered. He frowned and furrowed his brow while tears formed in his eyes. Miss Sut had been their teacher growing up. Both had countless fond memories of her, Kon most of all. If anyone could understand what his best friend was feeling, it was him. He elbowed Gul’s shoulder and nodded to the bags in his hands.
His best friend followed his gaze from the eight bags in their arms, to Jrana’s three, Cres’ two, and Kinjra’s one. Fourteen of twelve, total. Kon eyed his best friend’s muscular arms and grinned at him weakly. Gul’s frown deepened.
“Take my bags and run interference for me, please,” Kon whispered. “No one is closer to Miss Sut than me. I might be able to talk some sense into her.”
“Not going to happen,” Gul replied. “I don’t want to lose her either, but her nest is too close to the spiritfire. We can't lose you too. Especially not you.” Though Gul couldn’t see her, his eyes darted around in search of Kon’s fae. He knew of the magics Kon could perform with his instruments.
“Look what I’m holding.” Gul obeyed, glancing at the lyre, then the flute. His gaze lingered on the wind instrument. “I can defend myself,” Kon continued. “And with my lyre, I know I can get Miss Sut to come out willingly. You know I can do it. I just need to try.”
Gul eyed Kon’s arms in silence. His gaze drifted back and forth between the bags in Kon’s arms and the instruments in his hands.
“What’s the hold up?” yelled Cres. Alongside Jrana and Kinjra, she had taken a few steps. Each one of them looked ready to take off at any moment. Both men looked back, then gazed at each other for another silent moment.
Gul nodded slowly as he took Kon’s four bags into his arms.
“Don’t let anyone wait or run after me,” Kon told him. “Say that I promised I would make it back safely.”
“Jrana isn’t going to be happy,” replied Gul. His eyes were cast over Kon’s shoulder as he said it, no doubt on their wives. Kon could hear Jrana tapping her foot impatiently.
“I know,” he said. “But I think she’ll understand. I wouldn’t be the man she loves if I didn’t try to play the hero. It’s what I’ve always done.”
Kon spared his wife and daughter a glance over his shoulder. As soon as Jrana saw his sad grin, she yelled his name. Without the bags in his arms, Kon was free to run off toward the school and Miss Sut’s nest. Beyond, the spiritfire raged in silence against the trees and the sky. His wife’s shout nipped at his heels, but he would not stop. The woman was more than Kon’s teacher or his boss. She was a friend, and member of his flock. She was family. He could not live with himself if he left her to die.
Miss Sut’s tall, egg-shaped nest loomed closest to the north-eastern treeline, between the school and his own home. Against the colorless backdrop of the ethereal inferno, her nest was but a dim shadow. Hungry tongues of pallid flame lashed out across distant tree canopies, devouring wood and leaves both, leaving only scoured ash. With nothing but the woods to impede it, Kon figured that at best, he had ten minutes.
The estimate was not as reassuring as he hoped it would be. Kon knew he was a terrible mathematician, despite countless lessons from Miss Sut, even during his adult life. It was those lessons he thought of as he ran around her nest, up to her door, and started pounding on the unpainted wood. Kon yelled her name between the rhythm of his fists as his fae soared above him, projecting the sound louder. If Miss Sut was sleeping, Kon doubted she would be for much longer.
Sad as he was to consider it, he understood what the widow was thinking. Kon had been there when his wraith-possessed-brother killed her husband. Eck was the first one to get in the way of the monster as it began advancing toward the boys’ mother. He was only six-year-old boy when he witnessed his first cold-blooded murder. Not long after, he looked away from his only parent as she was killed, too. Her soul consumed and body annihilated.
Whenever memories of that night resurfaced, the rotting wound inside him would ache violently, as if someone or something was prying it open. If not for his wife, his daughter, his best friend, and his flock, Kon might have given in to the pain, too, and waited for the spiritfire to consume him. Miss Sut had no children of her own. No surviving family. She had grown more distant over the years, and Kon had let her. It was no wonder she barely left her nest these days.
Kon pounded harder and yelled louder. Every minute he spent knocking was a minute closer to death.
A window slid open above Kon, followed by a shout. “Go away!” yelled Miss Sut. Like the pale blue walls of her nest, her weathered face was gray in the pallid illumination of the spiritfire. Dressed only in a thin bed tunic, the frail woman shivered, exposed to the cold air. Her pale, paper-like skin was freckled with goosebumps. A breeze stirred the wisps of her truly-gray hair around her, making it dance in the air. “Why can’t any of you just let me get my well-deserved rest?”
“I can’t do that,” Kon called up to her. “We need you, Miss Sut. Please come down. I can get you out of here and keep you safe.”
The woman shook her head. Her teeth chattered as her body trembled. “I’m too old and tired to run,” she told him. “I’ll only drag you behind.” Her eyes flicked to the fire in the background, then back to Kon. “You should go, kid. You still have a family to live for. Worry about getting them to safety. Not me.”
After he stopped pounding, Kon left his fist on the door. As he took a step back, his fist slid down the flaky wood and settled by his side. He gazed up at Miss Sut’s weary eyes through the dim haze. Not smoke, but a veil of death. Kon found it harder to breathe by the minute as the approaching spiritfire drained the life from the air, leaving it colorless.
“You’re wrong,” he exclaimed, his voice wrenched, intentionally tuned to pluck at her heartstrings. “You have a family to live for too. Me and my daughter, for starters. All of the Pale Hawks you taught when they were children, and the children you teach now. We are your family, Miss Sut. I wouldn’t leave you to die any sooner than I would leave my own mother. Your husband, Eck, had felt the same. It was the very thing he died for.”
In the ever-dimming luminescence, Miss Sut continued to shake her head. Every word they spoke cost them precious seconds of life. More color bled from their surroundings, leaving only Kon’s fae untouched by the faint pall of gloom. She flew up to Miss Sut’s window, trailing gold-and-silver sparks in her wake. The sparks burst mid-air, restoring a little of the world’s color.
“I won’t let anyone die for my sake,” she whispered. If not for his fae, Kon would have never heard Miss Sut’s voice under her breath.
He wouldn’t have heard the sounds of wings flapping and tongues hissing, either. Kon spun to face the approaching threat. Somewhere between the trees, a pair of winged vipers were flying, searching for an escape from the all-consuming spiritfire. Miss Sut called down to him in confusion, but Kon ignored her voice. Instead, he closed his eyes to bear the deafening bang of his fae’s senses. Each sound was magnified ten-fold, leaving Kon disoriented as he struggled to adjust.
As quiet as the world seemed to his ears, his fae could hear its hushed wails of pain and panic. With focus, Kon tuned the sound out, concentrating on the vipers’ beating wings. With the sound amplified, he could hear them flying straight their way.
Like the ritili, the flying serpents were not prone to attacking humans without first being provoked. Even so, when the creatures burst out into the open, the sight of Kon standing inspired them to bare their fangs. The winged vipers hissed as they flew toward him, their leathery wings moving just slow enough for Kon to trace their shape.
With the door at his back, Kon could not flee. He could not talk his way out of this, either, which only left his least favorite option.
Kon dropped his flute, in need of a free hand. His fae’s glinting shell moved between him and the vipers as he lifted his strung harmonica to his mouth and blew. Music burst from the instrument in a flash of silver light. Four luminescent arrows of sound whistled through the air, littering the vipers’ leathery wings with holes.
The wingless vipers curled their slender bodies as they tumbled to the ground, mostly unharmed. Kon blew another warning shot at the ground, driving them to slither away.
As soon as they were gone, he looked back up at Miss Sut. From her gaping mouth and her vacant stare, she was having trouble understanding what just happened. She wouldn’t have seen the magic. Just Kon blow into his instrument, and the winged vipers falling in a splash of blood.
“I’m a Seer,” Kon told her. “Or on my way to becoming one. My fae and I can take away some of your pain and weariness. If you let me help you, I know we can get out of here. Please.”
The woman was speechless, but eventually, she began to nod slowly. Kon sent his fae to follow her inside. He could hear Miss Sut’s hands shaking as she rummaged through her drawers. To ease her pain, Kon raised his lyre and strummed a calm song, composed only of low notes. Using a staccato scale, he built up to a fluttering pair that quickened the tempo of the next iteration. With his fae’s help, the music resounded around Miss Sut’s room and through her. By the eighth refrain, the woman was dressed and opening the door downstairs.
Kon’s fae soared above Miss Sut’s head as she stepped out into the open. Her dim, violet fae hid among the puffs on the shoulders of her purple feather coat. Though her slouch was not completely gone, her back was straighter, and for the first time in years, she was not wearing a grimace, or trying to force a grin through a grimace. Miss Sut actually looked relieved. Though Kon stopped playing his lyre, his fae hummed the tune quietly, prolonging the magic’s effect. The woman’s eyes were steady, even as her hands trembled. Her purple irises’ shone in his fae’s resolute light.
Kon wore a faint grin as he stretched out his arm. “Thank you for listening.”
“Thank you for coming,” Miss Sut whispered. As she took Kon’s elbow in her hands, she spared a glance at the open doorway of her home. Three stories tall and filled to the brim with knowledge and memories. It was a hefty price to pay for their lives, but a price they had no choice to pay.
Both of them wore frail smiles as they walked – not ran – after the others. Rather than cut through the middle of the ring, they followed the trail around the school and the next three nests. Down the open length of the trail, the Pale Hawks were fleeing south. Away from the infernal, insidious spiritfire. In the gray light and darkness, the open space of Onali’s Trail seemed to stretch on for an eternity. Distant landmarks were but vast shadows, including the small mountain two leagues to the south, and the tunnel yawning open at its base.
If there were any Seers at the Coastwatch Eyrie, they would come from that direction. Kon prayed under his breath for someone to come save them.
As they walked arm in arm, Kon’s fae hummed louder. The air shined brighter. Each step the pair took fell easier and faster than the last. The dark silhouettes of his flock became clearer by the minute, though most of the Pale Hawks were far away. His wife and daughter were the furthest back, just behind Gul and Cres, who walked behind the pair of oval-shaped nests that made Imet’s home and clinic.
The two buildings, connected by a small hallway in the middle, were large enough that at least five steers were needed to pull it. More of the muscular, shoulder-height bovines were running down the open trail. Kon guessed the figures guiding the herd on its sides were Leb and Belen. Imet and his children were likely inside their nest with their mother, Rela.
Kon called out to his family, prompting them to share a glance over their shoulders. When Kinjra shouted with glee, they each stopped and turned. Despite the eight bags of nuts, fruits, and seeds stacked in his arms, Gul managed to keep them steady as he spun and waited.
“Think we could move a little quicker?” asked Kon. He inspected the tension in Miss Sut’s expression and worried he was already pushing her too hard. She nodded, failing to hide a grimace. Kon was careful as he encouraged her to catch up to the others. They were only fifty strides away. Not even that far.
Kinjra ran up to meet them, too impatient to wait. While Gul and Cres hung back and smiled, Jrana’s lips were pursed as she took a step toward him. She shook her head, even as she let out a sigh of relief.
“Dad!” Kinjra shouted. “Miss Sut! We were worried! Are you okay?”
“Kinjra,” the woman greeted. “I’m okay, thank you for asking. But really, I should thank your father.” Miss Sut looked up at Kon and nodded gratefully. He met her nod with the best grin he could manage. With adrenaline pumping through him, the man felt anxious and uneasy. It helped that he was now with the people he loved.
Kinjra nodded her head until her fae was thrown out of her hair. Though his shell was no brighter, he seemed to have grown a thin film over his light, covered in tiny, jagged ridges that shined a darker green than the rest of him.
“We’re okay,” Kon agreed. “But we should get moving.”
In spite of the verbal prodding, Kinjra hugged his and Miss Sut’s legs. Even if the woman could be intense at times, the girl often spoke well of the woman’s many stories. Miss Sut had lived a long, interesting life, and either due to practice or talent, was a master of building emotional tension through description and dialogue. Kon had seen snippets of a novel manuscript in her office. He often encouraged her to get it published, only for her to agree curtly and put it off, speaking at length about pesky revisions. It was a shame her nest was in the fire’s path. Kon would have loved to see her name on bookshelves.
Kon mussed his daughter’s hair until she let go. She helped Miss Sut by offering a head to place her hand on for balance. The woman thanked him as soon as they reached Jrana. With Kinjra’s help, she quickly walked over to Gul and took his arm. Alongside Cres, they stepped off, leaving Kon with his angry wife and frightened daughter.
Jrana’s cheeks were flushed, which usually meant she was holding back a yell. Her eyes darted between her husband, her daughter, and the looming inferno. It was impossible for Kon to tell which of the sights eased her temper.
“You’re very lucky that I love you, Kon,” Jrana muttered. There was no hint of love in her voice, however. Only bitterness. “I swear, if you leave me like that one more time, I will kill you myself. No man is worth the amount of stress you put me through. At this point, I would rather be alone.”
Despite her venomous tone, Jrana did not resist as Kon stepped close and embraced her. With the smooth edge of a nail, Kon softly caressed his wife’s cheek while sweeping a frill of dark hair out of her face. “You don’t mean that,” he whispered. Jrana’s tight lips loosened as he tilted her chin up and kissed her. They shared only a moment’s worth of breath. A moment’s worth was enough.
Jrana nodded as they leaned back to look each other in the eyes. Though her cheeks were still red, her jaw had slackened along with her frown. “I don’t,” she admitted. “But it feels good to say it, and honestly, I don’t know any other way to make you understand how I feel when you run off like that.”
Kon nodded as he gently pecked her head. “I understand,” he told her. “I’ll try not to do it again.”
“No,” she demanded. “You won’t try. You will.”
Kon kissed her brow again, then let go of her waist. When he did not answer, Jrana glared at his eyes sternly. Her frown deepened with every passing second. Instead of lying, Kon bowed his head in guilt. She would be angrier if he made a promise he could not keep.
Eventually, his wife relented. Though Jrana wasn’t happy, she still took Kon’s lead by his proffered arm. Kinjra had been standing off to the side, trying and failing to look like she wasn’t eavesdropping. Though she was staring at the drum in her hand, its pale white hide was held at an angle for her to see her parents in her peripheral vision. Jrana snapped her fingers and beckoned for Kinjra to catch up, then told her to run ahead and join the others behind the buildings on wheels.
The four steers pulling Imet’s nest and clinic were huffing loud enough for Kon to hear. As he got closer to the structure, Kon could not help but sense like it was slowing down. Leb, Belen, and the herd of steers appeared to have gained distance, as did the rest of the Pale Hawks. Only those in the rear were near enough to hear the first of their nests collapse into ash.
The spiritfire had been utterly quiet while burning through the treeline. It was the loud crash of a roof falling without its supporting walls that pulled Kon’s eyes back to their flock’s camp. Jrana had looked and startled. By the sound of Cres and Kinjra’s quiet gasps, they had turned too. Through his fae, Kon could hear Gul’s heartbeat pounding. Its pace matched Kon’s thundering heart. In the blink of an eye, the school was gone, devoured by a wall of flickering, gray flames.
What little color visible in the night had been completely drained from the surroundings. Grasping tendrils of ethereal fire swayed in the sky, undulating not to the wind, but some discordant rhythm.
In the center of the inferno, an inhuman shadow loomed, kicking at the flaming remains of the Pale Hawks’ school. Other than a pair of twisting, serrated horns on the crown of its head, the wraith’s silhouette was featureless. Both its torso and limbs were stretched to an unnatural length. Its stick-thin legs bent backwards as it crouched to inspect a piece of unburned wood sticking out of the fire.
When Kon saw what the wraith picked up, his body froze, bringing him to a shambling halt. The shadow clutched his lute in its hands, releasing a low, guttural moan. It snapped the instrument in half to free a bright sheen of magic. The wraith stared at the lute as it disintegrated in its hands. Kon watched the ash slowly drip between its jittery claws.
“Kon?” Jrana asked. “What’s wrong?” She tugged on his arm to get him moving, only for him to resist. “We’ve got to go!” she shouted. “What are you doing?”
It took her slapping his ear to finally get his attention.
Kon turned to face his wife, nursing the burning side of his head. “My fae,” he whispered. “Her magic can protect against the spiritfire. My lute didn’t break until the wraith snapped it in its hands.”
As soon as he said wraith, Jrana burst into motion. She dropped her three bags and started running, pulling Kon behind her by his wrist as she yelled at the top of her lungs. Jrana did not care who heard her. By how loud she was, his wife must have wanted the whole world to hear. “Wraith!” she screamed. “Drop everything! There’s a wraith!”
Kinjra and Cres turned, both of their gazes finding Jrana, then drifting to the spiritfire. Gul spared a short glance over his shoulder before giving them permission. Him and his wife held on to half their bags while Kinjra dropped hers. She still held on to the bodhrán and its beater. Kon stopped resisting the pull of his wife’s hand, letting the momentum carry him to his daughter. They all followed Gul and Cres around the rolling nest’s side. On the front, only four steers pulled the structure, and three of their blunt snouts panted in exhaustion.
Another of the wraith’s deep, harsh growls drew Kon and Kinjra’s eyes. After breaking his lute, it abandoned the camp in favor of pursuing a fading trail of glimmering magic. Sparks of gold and silver had been left hanging in the wake of his fae’s musical flight.
The unliving shadow ran on all four of its impossibly thin limbs, carrying the spiritfire along with it. Away from the nests, and towards the flock. The ground smoldered into ash beneath the wraith’s silent footsteps.
“Kinjra!” he shouted. “Give me the bodhrán!” The girl yelped as she spun beside Miss Sut and threw the drum back at her father like a discus. Kon caught it in the crooks of his elbows, then quickly tossed her the lyre. “Keep this safe,” he said, halting.
Jrana tugged on Kon’s arm. This time, she could not get him to budge. It was only when she turned to look that she understood why.
The colorless flame was spilling down the center of the trail like a river of death. Though Jrana could not see the wraith’s leaping silhouette, she could see the intent behind the spiritfire. Something was leading it. Raking it across the land like a blade. Despite how far they had run, the wraith was crossing the distance fast. It growled hungrily as it bounded for him and his loved ones.
“Kon!” yelled Jrana.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Kon pried his wrist from his wife’s hand. At the sight of certain death, her grasp had gone limp. With the shield tucked under his arm, Kon was able to grab her chin with his hand and quickly kiss her. He looked into her misty eyes for a hint of color, but the only thing he found was his own sullen expression, reflected in gray. Despite his clenched jaw and narrowed eyes, the edges of Kon’s lips raised, revealing his hope. Even now, he needed to have faith. Especially now.
“No matter what happens, don’t stop running.”
Jrana shook her head as the tears poured from her eyes.
“…Dad?” came Kinjra’s muffled voice. She had come to hug his leg and buried her face in his sweater.
Kon wiped the tears from his wife’s face and kneeled down low to kiss his daughter on her brow. “Don’t you worry about me, Kin, and don’t let your mother worry about me either. Get to safety, and I’ll come join you when I can.”
Kinjra sniffled as Kon mussed her hair. When his daughter spoke, she was in the midst of catching her breath.
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Kin.”
Kon tucked a strand of hair behind Kinjra’s ear, then sent her running after the others. Jrana had frozen beside him, still as a statue. The wraith and its trail of spiritfire were only getting closer, draining more color and warmth from the air and making it harder for them to breathe. Even so, she did not look ready to leave him.
“I’m going to live through this. I promise.”
“You better,” she uttered as she sniffed. “I love you, Kon.”
“I love you too,” he said, emphasizing his hopeful smile.
His wife left with nothing more than a brush of their fingertips. As much as Kon ached to watch his family get to safety, there would be no safety unless Kon turned away. Instead, he faced the approaching wraith, brandishing his flute and drum like a knight might wield a sword and shield.
As grim as things seemed, Kon glimpsed a beacon of hope. Far beyond the spiritfire, down the northern length of Onali’s Trail, a literal beacon of hope strode on towering legs. Other than the transparent dome that sat on its shoulders, its torso, arms, and legs were all made of striped white-and-gold bricks that shined in the night. The fae walked at a slow, but seemingly human, gait as the light shining within its head was cast out in their direction.
With hope on the horizon, he knew Fate would see him through this. His prayer had been answered. Even if the limbed-lighthouse was still leagues away, its light had reached the camp and found the scoured trail of ash. So long as Kon did everything he could, he knew his family would make it out alive.