Sweat prickled on Kon’s skin as the warmth of Vigor’s crimson aura retreated. Beneath him, the ground rumbled with each of the giant’s heavy footsteps. Once Vigor had finished off the wraith, the spiritfire it controlled had died with it. Outside the fae’s magic, the land around them was still unnaturally bleak and frigid. It would take some time before the world fully recovered.
Things were only worse off in the distance. Where the meteor had impacted the earth, spiritfire continued to pour outward, desolating countless trees in pallid flashes of light. Even the massive shadow cast by Presence’s silhouette did little to smother the flames’ luminescence. The fae strode toward Kon, not toward the meteor. Behind him, the walking lighthouse – Outlook, he supposed – took position at the treeline, where it cast its searchlight across the spreading inferno. Neither of the colossal fae seemed able to snuff it out.
On the northern horizon, a pair of blurs descended from a dark layer of clouds. A pair of wings covered in midnight-blue feathers swept out wide, revealing the circular face and crescent beak of a massive owl. Clutched in its talons, a serpent glimmered like a stream in the sky, with what seemed like water rushing underneath its translucent scales. If not for the faes’ soft glow, Kon might not have seen them, no matter his keen eyesight.
“That’s Nightowl and Flow,” said Lafer. When Vigor had left, his Seer remained. She walked around Kon’s shadow and stepped into view. Her eyes were on the horizon, staring at the soaring fae. “They’ll take care of the spiritfire. Edos and Nightowl are locals, but Ebi and Flow travel frequently. Those two have spent the better part of their lives chasing after meteors Divined to fall in the Waistlands.”
Kon nodded, unsure of what to say. Suddenly he felt very awkward for sitting, but when he tried to stand, Lafer glanced back at him and took a seat on the ground nearby.
“I can feel your heart pounding,” she said, her voice quiet, tense. To explain, she pointed a thumb over her shoulder. Her shadow had returned to normal when Kon’s had not, allowing her to see her departing fae. All Kon saw over his looming reflection was the giant’s aura moving southward, away from his flock.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” she continued, drawing his gaze back to her soft pink eyes, “but I’m guessing you’re scared. I’m pretty new to this too, so I think I might understand. If you want to talk about it, that is.”
“You mean talk about the wraith, or…?”
“Anything. And don’t worry about Presence listening in. He can’t hear anything through our shadows, only generally sense our positions.”
Kon scratched behind his ear. Before, he was content to stare at anything but his distorted shadow and just get lost in observation. What might be his last moments as a free man were spent shivering on the hard dirt, his sweater and trousers soaked in cold sweat. Helping Lafer and Vigor save the Pale Hawks from the wraith should have been a cause for celebration. Instead, he only felt dread.
“My wife and daughter,” he said. “They’re back there with the others. Can you see them? They both have dark hair and olive skin. My wife is wearing yellow leggings, and my daughter is dressed in a large, grass-stained shirt.”
Lafer nodded, glancing back. “I see them. They look worried. Your daughter seems to be talking with a group of friends. I saw one of them point this way. Your wife is a few steps away from the others. A couple are standing behind her, but they are talking only with each other.”
“Thank you,” Kon breathed. “If I’m scared of anything, it’s knowing the next time I talk to them, I’ll be saying goodbye. But mostly I’m just glad they’re okay.”
“I get that,” whispered Lafer. “Goodbyes are pretty terrible. Not the worst, but…”
“What?” Kon prodded. The girl’s eyes had wavered, prompting her to face the fae to the north and frown.
“I don’t want to be a bummer,” she said. “What I want to do is thank you. When Vigor and I were running, we worried about finding the worst. You did good work. Your flock is still alive because of you.”
Kon opened his mouth in protest, his words failing him. With a sad grin, he shook his head. “It’s you I should be thanking. The wraith had gotten past me, and there was nothing my fae could do to get it away from my family. If you didn’t show up when you did, they would all be dead. It’s you and your fae who saved my flock’s lives. Not me.”
In spite of the dismal slant of her eyes, Lafer expressed a faint smile. Her skin was constantly flushed like she had a fever, though she did not sweat. The chill did not even seem to affect her. “There would have been no one to save, if not for you. Plus, me and Vigor were only able to strike the wraith in time because you hit it before it leaped. Vigor was planning to tackle it in the air, which could have been messy, but you saved us the trouble. Really all we did was finish it off. If you want my honest opinion, I say all four of us deserve the glory. No reason we can’t share it.”
As Lafer rambled on excitedly, Kon’s sad grin shifted into a genuine smile. What caught him by surprise, however, was her inclusion of his fae. The girl looked at the orb of gold-and-silver lute strings thoughtfully. After a moment, her eyes fell on his flute.
“How does her magic work?” Lafer asked. “Transmutes music into blasts of kinetic energy?”
“I- uh. I don’t know. Maybe? But she can do more. Percussive instruments result in defensive blasts, wind instruments offensive. Stringed instruments are… supportive, I guess. When I play them, she can inspire emotions and ideas in people and animals. She can use magic on her own by imitating sounds, too. Project voices. Maybe silence them completely. I haven’t tried that last one, yet, but I think she could do it.”
Lafer whistled in exaggeration, then found herself chuckling at the sound. “Sounds versatile,” she said, then startled, chuckling again. “Pun not intended.”
Kon grinned at the girl, blinking away his confusion. When he first saw the Seer in her blood-red armor, he never anticipated her to be this easygoing. “Is that strange?” he asked. His eyes were fixed on his fae’s sparkling shell.
“Not for nascent fae,” she assured him. “At the moment, yours is just a tiny ball of brimming potential. When you name her, that potential will be channeled into a single concept and come to embody it. If you have a vivid imagination, you’ll be able to shape her, otherwise she’ll develop from your subconscious perception of the name, mixed up with your inner childlike wonder. Or at least, that’s how it usually is, but I’ve not heard of a grown man gaining the Sight in his… thirties?”
“Two seasons from forty,” he offered.
“Yeah. Most Seers develop around puberty. They usually say if you’re sixteen and don’t have the Sight already, you’ll probably never get it. The one exception I’m aware of is soldiers. Especially the ones who fight alongside Seers. There’s a lot of veterans throughout history that gained the Sight late. One instructor at Westwind Academy was a Knight in his late twenties before he began seeing fae.”
Kon was decades from puberty and the furthest thing from a soldier. What could possibly make me an outlier?
“My brother. He was three years older than me. Nine when I was six. He never lost his Sight. I- I watched him die, that same year. Could that have played a part in it?”
Lafer shrugged. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to say something wrong or mislead you. You’ll need to talk to someone with more experience, because I really don’t know. Did I mention that I’m new to this?”
“You did.” Kon’s voice tapered off with a weak laugh. “How new are we talking?”
“Well, considering I just graduated last week and this is my first mission? I’d say pretty new,” she said, chuckling quietly. “But! I do come from a family of Seers myself. Mother, father, uncle. All three of my brothers and a cousin, too. A few of them never grew out of their Sight when they were kids. Me? I had to wait until puberty. Still, each one of us got it. Were either of your parents Seers?”
Kon scratched behind his ear, considering. “My mother, definitely not. My father died of drylung a year after I was born. If he was a Seer, I doubt he would have let a disease get in the way of him and his family.”
“Sun bless you,” Lafer breathed. “You lost them all by the time you were six? I’m so, so sorry. I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must have been.”
Kon shook his head and blinked against welling tears. “I still had my flock and my best friend. It was hard – is still hard – but I wasn’t alone, and eventually I found love and had a family of my own.”
Lafer’s gaze drifted behind her, back to Jrana, Kinjra, and the gathering flock. Kon could hear the Pale Hawks chattering among themselves, but with his fae on the ground in front of him, he couldn’t pick out the words. Language was impossible to understand, even if he closed his eyes, so he left it alone.
After a moment, Lafer glanced at what Kon figured was the fist-shaped crater Vigor left in the wake of his attack. In spite of her rigid, blood-red armor, the girl looked scared. Like the wraith might crawl out of the crater any second.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Lafer answered. “Just processing the fact that we killed an actual wraith.”
Kon scratched behind his ear, his gaze again shifting to the spiritfire burning on the horizon. “I’m having trouble believing it too,” he said. He could not help but wonder if he could have saved his brother and his mother, if only he’d had the Sight when he was younger. “Imagining fighting an army of those monsters is just…”
Kon met Lafer’s eyes and nodded. “Still, that’s not even half my worries. I don’t want to leave the people I love behind.” Though he spoke loud enough for her to hear, his tone was quiet. Not quite hushed, but exasperated. The words came out with an exhalation of breath.
“For what it’s worth, you might not be apart for long.”
The words sparked hope in Kon’s heart. “What do you mean?” he asked. His voice was livelier than before.
Lafer’s, however, was solemn. “Normally Seers attend one of the Academies until they’re sixteen. Not everyone graduates at that age, but that’s the minimum. Because you’re older, I’m not sure how long the Headmaster would give you to train. But after you complete your exams and trials, they could station you at an Eyrie, like Coastwatch. There’s usually settlements nearby to support them. Your family could stay with you there.”
Kon watched as her red lips curve into a frown. “There’s a but, isn’t there?”
Lafer took a breath as she nodded.
“More likely, they’ll send you to the Fated King’s army. Eyries are usually for the retired old Seers to watch over young graduates and mentor them. Knowing Old Spook, she’ll probably recommend you join the army as soon as you graduate. The Battle of Vaska Toma inflicted heavy losses to the Fated King’s army. They’re in need of more Seers.”
In the blink of an eye, Kon’s hope was smothered. He almost wished the girl never mentioned the Eyries at all.
“Don’t look so glum,” she whispered. “The Carrion are even worse off, and we still have a couple years before the meteors start falling more regularly. Whenever the Fated King isn’t marching off to complete his Trials, the regiments take shifts patrolling the area and training with the Knights in Kolod Vor. You and your family would be given an apartment in one of the residential towers, so whenever you’re not on patrols, you’d get to be with them. I know it’s not the flock-life, but I’m sure your family would adjust in no time.”
As okay as it seemed, Kon wasn’t reassured by the thought. Kinjra would hate being confined to the towers of the capital city, and that close to so many Seers, it would only be a matter of time until she was discovered and sent to an Academy, too. Just like that, his family would be torn apart again. Kon struggled to find a way to ask without tipping Lafer off about his daughter. It was a small miracle she and her fae hadn’t seen the magic sunflower.
“That doesn’t sound so bad,” he lied. As far as Lafer should be able to tell, his voice sounded genuine. “But I’m assuming it’s dangerous.”
“Not often,” Lafer assured him. “Only when things get really bad. Last I heard, the next two years have been Divined to be mostly-peaceful.”
“What happens then?”
Lafer shrugged, frowning. “Don’t know. Commanders and Headmasters are the only ones filled in ahead of time, besides the Fated King himself. Newbies like us are just told the general shape of things, and then to follow orders.”
“Seems… shady,” Kon replied. His eyes were on Presence’s looming silhouette. “Pun intended.”
Lafer chuckled softly. “Good one.”
“I’m serious, though. If they’re not telling anyone, it’s got to be bad, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve been told Fate is clearer the closer Seers look. A part of it might be they don’t want to spread unclear or fluctuating information. As good as Headmaster Nise and Lucid are at seeing Fate, whatever they do learn is probably as cryptic as Herald’s old Prophecy.”
“If that’s true, how do you explain that?” Kon gestured toward the meteor pouring spiritfire upon the horizon. Presence was closer now. The fae could only move as fast as his Seer, bound to her by her shadow.
Lafer sighed quietly. “I honestly don’t know. I’m hoping Ashet and Outlook might have an idea. They look so devastated.”
“They?” Kon asked.
Lafer pointed to the lighthouse standing over the fire. “See the man standing on her collar? He lives up there. Has a little room and everything. He’s leaning over the rail, staring at the spiritfire.”
Kon squinted past the darkness. Sure enough, the upper torso of a man was visible on the lighthouse’s ‘collar.’ As if he could hear Lafer mentioning him, Ashet glanced toward them. His pupils shined with a bright golden light that reached Kon in spite of the great distance between them.
Lafer waved a hand, and Ashet actually waved back.
Kon swallowed. “How did he do that?”
“His Fae’s Outlook. They’re all about looking out and seeing things from other people’s perspectives. Especially this close, she can sense whenever someone thinks about them.”
“Huh,” Kon huffed. Ashet waved to him too, prompting him to return the gesture.
“He’s a good guy. I have a feeling you two might get along, if you get a moment to talk. Like Ebi, Ashet travels a lot. I don’t know if he’ll be able to stay long enough to properly meet you. This is my third time meeting him in two years, though, so I won’t be surprised if you two cross paths again.”
Kon nodded, his eyes on the blazing horizon. Nightowl and Flow were soaring over the inferno. The winged fae swept low as the serpent sprayed luminescent water out of a fangless mouth. Each clash of the spiritfire was met with a soundless eruption of pallid light.
The pair were extinguishing the flames from the outside in, preventing them from spreading any further. Though the meteor continued to spew spiritfire, it was not able to breach the glistening ring of soaked ash that surrounded it. Instead, the inferno rose into the sky, licking at Flow’s snaking tail. The serpent cut off its stream to let out a loud hiss of pain.
Nightowl flapped its wings to bring them higher, allowing the sea serpent to hang straight down without risking getting burned. The spiritfire flared angrily as a spray of mystical water poured onto the meteor like a torrential storm. With each splash and flash of light, the world seemed a little brighter. Flow’s luminescent water evaporated, filling the sky with a gentle azure hue.
“You’re zoning out a lot, Kon. Uh- whoops. Is it okay if I call you Kon? In return, you can just call me Lafer. I can’t stand hearing people struggle with titles. I’m just a person, Sight or not.”
Kon glanced at the girl and nodded, prompting a gentle smile. “Sorry if it seems like I’m not listening. I assure you, I am. I’m just a little in shock.”
“I can stop talking, if it’ll help-”
“-Oh,” he interrupted. “No. Please don’t. It’s helping me a lot. It’s hard not to feel uneasy with shadows looming on both sides of me, but talking helps me forget he’s there. If only for a moment..”
“Presence is like that for everyone. It feels like no matter where you look, you know he’s right there, looming. Your eyes and mind will keep being drawn to him. Normally it’s worse than this, but Sap is being merciful, it seems. She was angry at me for leaving my post, but I think she’s angrier at herself. Normally, she doesn’t attend missions like these.”
Kon found himself staring at the approaching silhouette as she talked. “Did she say why she went?”
“A mix of reasons. Besides Edos, her other Seers have been giving her… trouble, I guess. This is one of the safest areas, due to the number of meteors that fall into the ocean and drown. For the most part, the Coastwatch Eyrie is staffed by the unmotivated and immature. As for Edos… he was Carrion. Sorta. A lot of his family died in the Battle of Vaska Toma, and what he saw his kin do… it was enough to get him to change sides. He played a large part in the Fated King’s victory, but a lot of the other Seers – especially the immature ones – don’t like or trust him. It’s upsetting, honestly. Edos is probably one of the kindest people in the world. He deserves better.”
With Presence standing between them and the Pale Hawks’ camp, Kon was unable to see any other Seers approaching. If Nightowl and Flow were here, he expected their Seers to be somewhere nearby. “You two sound close,” Kon offered. “How long have you and Edos been friends?”
Lafer chuckled warmly as she rose upright and stretched. “Not really. I met Edos for the first time yesterday, so I wouldn’t say we’re close. But he and his fae are nocturnal, and I was up all night, too nervous to sleep, so he showed me around the Eyrie and took me out on a short patrol. I don’t know if he’d think of me like one, but I consider everyone I meet to be a friend. There’s too much negativity in the world already. Someone has to be the one to step up and spread some positivity.”
Kon watched the girl carefully as she spoke. When she mentioned negativity, her lips momentarily twitched. Kon could hear a pang of pain in her voice.
“I like that,” he said. “I feel the same way. Before I settled down with my wife and we had our daughter, I was a traveling bard. For a few years, I even toured with a band. I wanted to spread positivity too, and music was how I did it. It’s probably why I work so well with my fae.”
Lafer grinned at him softly. “It’s like that for most Seers,” she told him. “They’re connected to and thrive off our very essence. Our thoughts and feelings, our desires and passions. I can’t play any instruments, but I love dancing to music. The first time I heard the word vigor, it was in the lyrics of a song. It was like the name clicked in my soul.”
“Is it like that for everyone? I haven’t even considered naming my fae, but I think about music all the time. Nothing has clicked in my soul, as far as I’m aware.”
“I think searching for a name is a part of it. Being open to the connection. It helps if you talk with your fae, too. Sometimes it might seem like communicating with her is like communicating with a baby, but they form personalities of their own. You’ll have to get to know her more before anything clicks.”
Kon nodded. “I’ll have to think about it, then. Where did Vigor go, by the way?”
“Old Spook sent him back to the Eyrie. Told him to make sure the place isn’t being attacked or burned down while it’s unguarded.”
“Ah. Makes sense.”
Lafer hummed in agreement. In the silence, both of their gazes drifted to the titan of darkness.
The Commander of the Coastwatch Eyrie, Sap, was now close enough for Kon to see her face clearly. Though her pale, wrinkled skin was taut- and her posture was both stiff and aggressive – she looked at least twenty years older than the sixty-year-old Miss Sut. Like Imet, she was more bones than flesh, yet she was half as tall. Kon remembered how the old woman had towered over him. Now he was taller than her by a head.
Despite that, Sap looked intimidating. Her tight, matte black leathers revealed a muscular frame against the pitch-black backdrop of her fae. She wore a whip around her waist, tied into a loose knot around a small loop on her left hip. Her boots clanged loudly against the dirt with each step. Kon wondered what the point of wearing an outfit that blended in with her fae was when she also wore steel-soled boots.
“We should probably stand up,” said Lafer. “Want help?” she asked, offering him an outstretched hand. Kon wasn’t sure how she could pull him up when she was still sitting.
“No thank you,” Kon said, folding his legs under him and standing up on his own. Lafer was up on her feet in a second. “But thank you. Really. Everything feels a little less hopeless now. I still wish none of this happened, but I’m glad it meant I got to meet you.” With a smile, he offered a hand of his own.
Lafer shook it happily, grinning widely. “I’m glad I met you too, Kon. If it’s cool, you’ll probably be seeing a lot of me for a little while. If Sap sends you to the nearest Academy, she’ll probably send me as your escort. That’s Westwind, where I studied. You’ll like it a lot, I bet. But for now…” she said, tapering off as she let go of his hand. Lafer folded her hands behind her back as she turned to face the approaching Seer.
“For now,” she whispered, “we deal with her.”