With the broken mirror in his hand, Kon walked, leading Lafer and Vigor in the direction of the red arrow. As he weaved between the trees, he basked in the music of the forest. Without the relentless pattering of rain and the hissing steam, his fae was able to hear every leaf rustle in the wind, every insect buzz in hollows and beneath the fronds of ferns, and every airy warble of the birds sat perched on branches or flying between the canopies. Altogether, individual sounds merged into a natural symphony. Kon had always yearned to capture the beauty of the world in his music, though he never could figure out how to do it with instruments. There was something about the rhythm and tone of the wild that eluded him.
With his fae, Kon supposed he could do it with magic someday. It would probably be easy if he named her Music, but that felt too broad or too simple, unable to properly convey the man’s passion at its core. It wasn’t just the beautiful sounds that filled Kon’s heart. It was expressing his thoughts and feelings in a way that inspired thoughts and feelings in others. It was opening his heart to others so that they might open theirs. It was motivating people when they were struggling and bringing people together when they felt alone. Boiling that all down to a single word… it was intimidating, if not impossible. Kon had no idea where to begin.
“Lafer?” he asked, his voice cracking. It must have been at least an hour since he last spoke.
Just a few minutes ago, the girl had climbed onto Vigor’s shoulders to pluck fruits from tree branches while they continued following the path. As she turned to look down at Kon, she held a green sourpear up and readied to throw it. He nodded, then caught it with a smile.
“Thank you,” he said. “But there’s something I wanted to ask.”
“Sure thing,” Lafer replied. She rose into a crouch on Vigor’s shoulders and jumped onto the ground beside him. “How can I help?” she asked, rising as she picked one of the three fruit out of the crook in her elbow. As Kon talked, she devoured the sourpear hungrily. By the lack of a reaction on her face, their juices weren’t ripe yet.
Kon took a bite of his own fruit and immediately regretted it. The citric acid burst in his mouth and down the back of his throat, causing his face to scrunch up in disgust and discomfort. Kon stopped walking and pulled his head aside to gag, cough, and spit out the juice and unchewed fruit. Beside him, Lafer almost fell to the ground laughing. Even Vigor had stopped moving to look back and chuckle at Kon’s suffering.
“You’re a monster,” Kon choked out amidst coughs. “Did you give me the worst one on purpose?”
“Nope!” Lafer exclaimed. “They’re all this ripe. I just really like the taste. If it’s too much for you, I’d recommend squeezing all the juice out. The pulp on its own isn’t half as potent.”
Kon held the fruit with the bite-mark facing down. With a tight clench of his fist, a mixture of pale green pulp, dark green seeds, and bright green juices sprayed onto the ground, leaving a sweet-smelling splatter. Kon’s hand felt sticky for the effort, making him wish the rain had not stopped so he could wash it clean. As he raised the sourpear up for a second bite, Lafer was already biting into her second fruit’s core. The pulp was not half as bad indeed, though Kon reacted just as viscerally. He forced himself to push it down into the deepening chasm of his gut. It helped, which made his third bite easier.
“What was it you wanted to ask?” Lafer inquired as she walked, glancing back. She trusted Vigor to lead them safely.
Kon finished chewing and swallowed, using the time to collect his thoughts. “My mind keeps drifting back to naming my fae,” he began. His gaze drifted between the orb of lutestrings and the blazing knight. “I guess I want to hear more about you and Vigor. What the word represents to you, and how he ended up the way he is, I guess. I’ll admit, a buff giant in molten armor wouldn’t be my first thought.”
“Well,” Lafer said, then hummed as she paused for thought. “That may be because Vigor isn’t a buff giant in molten armor. He is the fire you see burning inside his visor, and the warmth that courses through his armor like veins. His real body is like our blood, if our blood was a living flame. What you see on the surface? That’s just a vessel he inhabits. He can wear any suit of armor, really. Doesn’t matter the size.”
Vigor’s throat crackled in an imitation of clearing his throat. “I’d come out of my shell to properly introduce myself, but I’d just burn everything around me. These trees are too pretty, so that would be a shame.”
Kon looked back and forth between the Seer and her fae, blinking in disbelief. “I didn’t even consider the armor could be separate. So it’s real? Why couldn’t anyone else in my flock see him then?”
“It’s because when I inhabit a suit of armor, it becomes tempered by my heat, rather than melted by it, thus merging with my essence. That’s what makes it swell with these awesome muscles and glowing veins!” With the exclamation, Vigor struck a statuesque pose, flexing his arms up and off to his sides. “Strength is as big a part of my name as good health. It’s only natural.”
“There’s more to it, though. Family history and personal experience both played a part in how I shaped him. My mother, uncle, older brothers, and ancestors all have or had giant knights for their fae, in some fashion or another. A part of it was keeping up with tradition, another part keeping up in competition. As for personal experiences… I hope I don’t sound like a hypocrite, what with me asking you to talk about your issues when I can’t share my own, but…”
“It’s okay,” Kon said, much to her relief. “I’m sorry if I accidentally pried.”
“Nah,” Lafer replied, shaking her last fruit in the air. “Don’t even sweat it. It’s a bit of an old tradition that when a Seer discovers a new one, they become responsible for their mentorship. What kind of mentor would I be if I left my mentee with unanswered questions?”
“I appreciate that,” said Kon. “Really.”
“No appreciation needed. Just doing my duty. Anyway, what I can tell you is that I lost someone very close to me. Not a family member. A good friend. What happened to him… it shouldn’t have. I should have been able to keep him alive, but I couldn’t.” Lafer took a moment to steady her breath. “In a way, naming Vigor was about preserving my friend’s memory and helping me cope with his loss. Enthusiasm was difficult to come by and without it, I knew I would crash and burn quickly. I wanted to keep people awake, alive, and active. To help give them a little nudge forward, or help push them away from danger. Half of what I’m saying didn’t even occur to me then, but it makes sense to me in retrospect. Our subconscious is a big part of it. Does that help at all, Kon?”
“It does,” he said. “Immensely.”
“I should probably mention that I could have named Vigor other things, too. I considered Might and Sparkle for a long time, and either would have been fine.”
“I’m most fond of Sparkle,” rumbled Vigor. “Might would have been too boring for me, but Sparkle has a certain pizzazz that I would have really enjoyed.”
Kon blinked at the giant as he waved his gauntlets in the air at his sides. “And you are happy with the name Lafer gave you? It’s not as easy as blending names together for a newborn child. I can’t help but worry that I’ll get it wrong and my fae will hate me for it.”
“I could never hate Lafer,” the giant exclaimed. “I don’t think any fae is capable of hating their Seer without first being severely mistreated.”
“Even Seers who name their fae against their nature aren’t hated,” Lafer added. “A close friend of mine did exactly that to force a deep, fundamental change in their self. Because of it, they’re happier now than they ever were before, and their fae loves them, even if his essence was fundamentally changed, too.”
They, Kon noted. Not plural. Gender neutral. “Did your friend experience any kind of repercussions from that?”
Lafer swept a lock of her hair behind her ear, her eyes staring ahead, through gaps and blossoming foliage. “Not repercussions, exactly. Initial limitations. They were both weaker at first, and their fae had some trouble adjusting, but in the end? No. What’s most important is that they’re finally happy.”
Kon breathed easier as he walked in silence, absorbing and processing everything his friends had said. “Thank you again. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and I feel a lot less overwhelmed.”
“That’s why we’re here. Right, Vigor?”
“Right!” exclaimed the giant.
“I’m really glad you two were the pair that discovered me. I don’t want to imagine what it would be like to have Commander Sap as my mentor.”
“You really don’t,” Lafer agreed. “I heard she has an entire wall of whips and other torture devices in her tower.”
Kon shook his head incredulously. “You can’t be serious. How can the Fated King let a woman like that run an Eyrie?”
“Well, it’s probably not as bad as I described it. She doesn’t torture people. I think it’s more of an intimidation thing if anything. Her fae becomes more powerful the more people think and feel things about her. Fear happens to be the most potent emotion.”
“So they let her be cruel so her fae can gain power?”
“That’s the general idea. They want Presence as strong as possible for when the war really starts. Horrible but necessary, I guess. I can’t say that Old Spook doesn’t do good, though. She’s been a Seer for her entire life, and in that time, saved thousands of lives, including your own. She also keeps a firm eye on the Seers who prefer to create problems rather than solve them. Sadly, not everyone is as on-board with the whole 'saving our planet' thing. It’s fortunate Edos was the only Seer you met from the Coastwatch.”
“You mentioned troublemakers before. Are there really so many?”
“Enough to fill an Eyrie,” Lafer sighed. “Westwind Academy has a few of them, too.”
“Hey Kon,” Vigor interrupted. “I just was thinking we haven’t checked the arrow in a while. I’m still going in the right direction… right?”
Kon blinked at the coals burning in the giant’s visor as he turned. His conversation with Lafer had taken his mind off the broken mirror in his pocket and the questions he had for Lucid about his dream. Careful not to cut his palm on the broken mirror’s jagged edge, Kon retrieved it from the pouch on his thigh and turned it over, reflective side up.
“Well that’s… strange,” Kon muttered.
“What’s wrong?” rumbled Vigor. Lafer moved to get a closer look.
“An exclamation?” she asked, exaggerating a gasp. “Why is it blinking?”
Kon swallowed the lump in his throat. Sure enough, the arrow had been replaced by a flashing red exclamation point. “I can’t tell if it's red because the arrow was red before, or if it’s supposed to mean danger.”
At the mention of danger, Vigor and Lafer spun around, scanning the nearby foliage. Kon looked too, though he wasn’t sure what he should be looking for. On each side of him, trees twice his size loomed, blooming with massive leaves and buzzing with countless insects. In the open space between them, he just saw the shadows of more flora in the dim landscape. Judging by the color and quality of light that streamed down from the canopies, the sun was nearly halfway down to the eastern horizon. His eyes darted as he caught a hint of motion in his peripherals, but it was only a group of ferns undulating in the wind.
“Can you hear that?” Lafer asked. She was facing the same direction he was, staring just past the billowing plants. Vigor was looking the same direction. His eyes burned like torches as he stepped forward, raising his fists at his side, as Kon’s fae soared over his helm. Taking position.
Kon closed his eyes, steeling his eardrums for that deafening bang. At once, the music of the forest blared to life, a torrential downpour of sound that flooded his senses completely. Though still uncomfortable, Kon’s body relaxed as he found his mind less overwhelmed than usual. Compared to locating the wraith by its silence, Kon had little trouble finding and focusing on the dreadful squawks and ravenous growls.
Kon opened his eyes as Lafer grasped her sword. She took a few steps back while motioning for Kon to do the same. Behind the cover of another tree, he unfastened the straps of his sack and dropped it on the ground. “Do I need a weapon?” he asked.
“Might be a good idea,” replied Lafer, her tone uncharacteristically low and serious. “I can feel their heartbeats. Three treelions are chasing after a bushel of chikibis.”
Kon rummaged through his sack, sifting through his clothes for instruments. While his lyre sat at the top, Kon pushed it aside in search of his flute and bodhrán. Though he might be able to lull the treelions asleep with a gentle lullaby, Kon knew it would be too great a risk. Waistland predators like the treelions were known for being relentless and territorial. When traveling, flocks like the Pale Hawks had to train or employ hunters for a reason.
With an instrument in each hand, Kon backed away from the tree and his bag of belongings. He stepped aside until Lafer vanished behind his cover, centering his vision on Vigor’s side profile and the approaching beasts. Kon could now hear their explosive roars without closing his eyes. Birds scattered out of their nests in the trees as distant canopies erupted into motion with a series of loud crashes. Though camouflaged, each treelion became a distinct blur as they launched off tree trunks and large boughs, all in pursuit of five little chikibis.
The small, bush-feathered birds glided from branch to branch, their short, wide wings incapable of carrying them very far or high. If not for the wind blowing in their favor, they would have been too slow to evade the pouncing treelions. Too afraid of their hungry pursuers, the chikibis failed to notice the giant looming just ahead.
Three of them flew by Vigor without issue while one had quick enough reflexes to flap sideways to avoid collision. It landed briefly on his molten pauldron, then leaped almost immediately, squawking in pain. Flailing, the unfortunate chikibi fell, losing its momentum while gliding closer to the ground.
As for the last chikibi? The poor thing smacked into Vigor’s helm face-first.
“Agh!” yelled Vigor. “I’m sorry, little buddy!”
The chikibi collapsed, its round, puffy plumage singed. Tiny sticks and berries smoked among its leaf-like feathers. The creatures hid from predators by rubbing itself in dirt, flowers, and bushes, both to mask their scent and disguise themselves with the natural scenery. By rooting their feet in the earth, they could feel even the slightest of vibrations to warn them when not to move, or when to really start moving.
After colliding with Vigor, this particular chikibi went with the former. The impact may have shocked it into unconsciousness, though judging by its quiet, chaotic breaths, it was only pretending to be dead.
It didn’t have to pretend for much longer.
The first of the treelions wasted no time pouncing on its slightly-cooked meal. Like all treelions, its fur was a soft blend of greens, browns, and blacks, with a blunt face and leafy mane that were patterned like foliage. With bloody fangs bared, it quickly dug into the chikibi’s flesh.
Kon cringed at the sound of wet squelching, wishing desperately for the power to tune it out.
His fae chimed softly, and in the wake of the note, the world actually became quieter.
Thank you, my friend.
The other two treelions pounced at their closest targets. In one’s case, it was the chikibi that was burned by Vigor’s pauldron. Fortunately the beast made the mistake of using the giant as a jumping point. Though it succeeded in grabbing its prey mid-air, it came with a price. The treelion curled inward, tucking its meal into its body, only to fall and roll along its shoulders. Rather than bother standing up, it remained on its back, its singed paws held up, and tore into its dinner.
The third treelion bounced off a tree ahead of Lafer. With her standing in the way of the fleeing chikibis, the predator snarled and turned on her instead. The beast leaped not at her, but at the tree beside her, where it landed among its branches with a forceful snap. Kon was surprised the trees were not uprooted, considering the treelion’s strength. From above, the beast dove with its claws extended, aiming straight for Lafer’s exposed face. To Kon, it appeared to happen in the span of a second.
The young Seer, however, moved faster than he could. Lafer took a deep breath and held it as she unsheathed the sword at her hip in a blinding flash of crimson light. Unlike last time, Kon anticipated the bright flare and shut his eyes ahead of time. The molten light seeped through his eyelids. It didn’t burn half as much. When he opened his eyes again, they adjusted easily to the fading luminescence. One half of the treelion lay on both sides of Lafer, split and cauterized down the middle. The initial gush of blood coated her face and her armor, though in the latter’s case, Kon could barely tell the difference.
He looked away from the gruesome sight, only to find Vigor in front of another. In the flash of light, the giant had linked his fists and slammed them down onto the treelion at his feet. Its body twitched, squashed into the earth like a bug, alongside its half-eaten meal.
That left one — the treelion nearest to Kon. In the warmth of Vigor’s aura, even the beast’s singed feet healed, becoming hardened scabs. After seeing its companions die, it quickly rose, discarding its meal as its dark, empty gaze fixated on Kon. No doubt it saw him as the weakest prey.
Despite the snarl of pain on the treelion’s blunt face, it lowered itself into a crouch, its muscles rippling through its dense pelt of fur. With fangs bared, it bellowed a rending growl and leaped.
Fast. But not as fast as the wraith.
Kon’s fae soared between them as he pounded the bodhrán with his flute. A faint wave of silvery light erupted from the point of impact. From where she hovered, his fae was able to concentrate the sound and direct it forward. Straight into the treelion’s gut like a cannon. The beast was flung back between the trees where it sprang from, crashing into another trunk with a sickening crunch. Between that sound and its agonizing howl, Kon turned aside and nearly retched. His fae chimed again, muting the noise. He could hear it quietly howling like he was covering his ears.
“You okay?” Lafer shouted.
Kon spit the disgusting mixture of citric and stomach acids on the ground. “Yeah,” he muttered, the attempt to speak making him gag. It didn’t help that he could still see the treelion in his peripherals. It lay slumped over the ground, its back bent at an unnatural angle. The beast flailed its head while its legs remained utterly motionless.
“Vigor. Keep a watch on him. I’ll be right back.”
Kon looked away as the girl ran over to the crippled treelion. With another flash of light, she put it out of its misery. It was easier for Kon to breathe after that. He turned his back on the scene just in case.
“Did I mention I hate violence?” Kon asked, hoping the levity would help his roiling stomach. It didn’t.
“You did,” Vigor replied. “I hate it too, but sadly, it’s part of the job description.”
“…Yeah. I guess it’s now mine, too, though I doubt I’ll ever get used to… all this.”
“I hope you don’t,” replied Lafer. Kon looked at the girl and immediately regretted it. Though the blood on her face and armor had dried in Vigor’s aura, it stuck to Lafer’s skin in glistening flakes. “What’s wrong?” she asked, noticing Kon’s grimace. “Is something on my face?”
“Blood,” Vigor said, his gauntlets covered in the stuff. “The Ecaris River should be close. If we get there, we can wash up. I feel so… gritty,” the giant rumbled, finishing with an armor-rattling shiver.
“Does the mirror have an arrow again?” asked Lafer.
Kon ran to his sack, then switched his instruments for the mirror fragment. “It does, but it's blue now? Seems to be pointing… that way.” Kon extended a finger beyond Vigor’s back.
“Same direction as the river,” said Vigor.
“Do you mind if I harvest some meat for dinner? Should only take me a minute.”
“Go for it,” Kon said. He clenched his throat, still feeling like he could retch. The air was thick with the stench of blood. He needed to get out of here. “My fae and I will use the time to scout ahead.”