“There you are, Kon!” exclaimed Vigor. Lafer quickly shushed him, the sound garbled by the food in her mouth as she chewed. The blazing knight sat atop the big, box-shaped brick oven in the heart of the pavilion, kicking his greaves in front of him and the dying fire between his legs. Wood smoldered with faint embers in the oven, only for the sound of his voice — and the subsequent flare of his aura — to stoke it back to life. The wood and flame crackled loudly, then quieted with the giant. Vigor had forgotten about the sleeping roostfolk, it seemed.
At the sudden flash of light and crackle of flame, Cesca — who was sitting on Ebi’s lap — buried her face into her mother’s robes, pulling the loose garment around her ears. They sat at a round table beside Dír, all three of them across from Lafer. Five barren plates lay stacked between them as the teenage Seer hurriedly cleaned a fourth plate of its crumbs. As soon as she was done, Lafer rose and faced Kon, then glanced at the bare plates with a guilty expression.
“Whoops,” she exhaled, trying and failing to sound light-hearted. “That wasn’t all the leftovers, was it?” she asked, turning to their hosts. “I didn’t mean to eat it all, but it was so delicious.” Before either of them could reply, Lafer faced Kon and bowed. “I’m so, so sorry. I meant to save you a plate or two, but—”
“—Don’t worry about it,” Kon interrupted, waving a hand by his side dismissively as he approached the table. “I don’t have much of an appetite right now, and it’s about time we leave, anyway.” While the night is still young, he thought, and before something else unexpected happens.
“Oh?” inquired Lafer. “I take it Lucid answered your questions and provided advice on where to go from here?”
“More or less,” Kon answered. “We can talk about it on the move. Ebi, Dír, Cesca, it was a pleasure meeting the three of you. As repayment for your hospitality, we’ll go and get out of your hair now so you can finally sleep. I’m sure you’re all tired.”
“What’s the rush?” came a voice that hissed and babbled like moving water. A pair of azure eyes with thin slits down their middles peered at Kon from the mouth of the well that stood beside Vigor and his oven-throne. From it, the head of the sea serpent fae, Flow, rose, his glistening tongue flicking across his fangless lips. Luminescent water and foam roiled beneath his translucent scales in bright hues of blue and white. At the table, Ebi cleared her throat.
“What my fae means to say is that we aren’t very tired, and that all four of us were looking forward to getting to know you better. Lafer was singing praises of your musical talent just a few minutes ago, and Cesca was especially excited to hear a song, assuming you can play one without waking up our roost. Isn’t that right, Cesca?”
Shy as the girl was, she actually met Kon’s eyes and nodded enthusiastically. The deep red glow cast by Vigor’s molten armor seemed to fill her with courage and life, too. Both her and her mother’s eyes settled on Kon’s fae as she floated in their direction. As she rang a quiet greeting, sparks of gold and silver light glinted on the bumps and in the crags of her lute string shell.
“I would like to hear a song too,” Vigor carefully rumbled.
“Saaame,” added Lafer. “The one you played for us earlier was awesome. We want an encore.”
As much as Kon wanted to get their journey over with, how could he possibly say no to that? When he grinned and wandered toward the sack containing his belongings — which lay beside Flow and the well, of all places — Lafer clapped her hands lightly. Kon opened the flap, reached inside, and dug around in his clothes for his lyre. He glanced back over his shoulder as he straightened with the instrument, finding the expressions of his audience. Of them all, Cesca’s smile and eyes were the widest. “Earlier, I started working on something new. Or at least, started imagining it in my mind. I can perform what I’ve come up with so far, but to keep it quiet, I might need a little assistance.”
After a pause, Kon glanced at his fae, encouraging her to work her magic. She rang a muted note of understanding before soaring beyond the columns of the pavilion. The ringing continued as she circled around the structure, trailing light in her wake. Like at the grove when the second meteor fell, the light coalesced into a bubble of stillness and silence. The incessant noise from the crashing waterfall was barely audible, and so long as the radiant bubble was not pierced, any sound they made inside should be contained.
Once it was done forming, Kon’s fae returned to his side. Rather than take a seat with the others, he began to circle their table, the polished frame of his lyre clutched in one hand as the other’s nails gently caressed its strings, evoking a melodic flourish. His fingers danced, and so too did the music. All low and slow tones, simple and somber. He let each note hang in the air for a brief moment before transitioning to the next. His fae imbued the sounds with a distinct emotion: grief. Kon hummed alongside the plucked strings, deep and throaty. Though he didn’t intend on singing, the words slipped out of him, pouring from the deepest recesses of his soul.
They say, that distance, makes the heart, grow fonder.
Yet all, I can feel, is my heart, torn asunder.
In the night, I mourn. Thoughts of family, I ponder.
My breathings, unsteady. My chest beats, like thunder.
How much time, did I waste? How much life, did I squander?
I wonder, I wander. I wonder, I wander.
Despite his eyes being shut tight, moisture still leaked from them, leaving streams of warmth on his cheeks. His voice and fingers both faltered as he punctuated the verse with a breath. Above and around them, ribbons of azure illumination cascaded from the pavilion’s ceiling. Each carved meandering paths in the air like rivers, yet fell as fast as raindrops. Kon dropped his arms, the lyre clutched tightly in both hands, as the magical light — already soft — faded into the dark. Vigor’s aura had dimmed as he listened. With a quick swipe of Kon’s wrist, he wiped clarity back into his vision.
His audience wore mixed expressions of sorrow and awe. Lafer and Ebi each bore a sad grin, while Dír just stared at him, his own eyes wet. Cesca’s face had barely changed, though her attention was on his fae and the fading ribbons. When the last light gave way to shadow, she pouted. Vigor nodded his head, returning his aura to its previous intensity. Flow — still in the well — seemed… calmer. Underneath his scales, the blue hues dominated the white. The air itself was stiller, and with that stillness came a heaviness. Kon had to force himself to smile before he could utter another word.
“I’m sorry,” he began. “It didn’t sound as miserable in my head. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse, but…”
Before he could find his thoughts, three voices were raised in protest.
“There’s no reason to be sorry,” proclaimed Ebi.
“That was wonderful,” Lafer encouraged.
“We understand completely,” said Dír. “All of us have felt what you feel.”
Vigor continued to nod, then added his own voice. “I couldn’t agree more.”
Even Flow had tears streaming down his face. The serpent licked them away with a quick flick of his tongue.
“It was so pretty,” whispered Cesca, her voice meek. It was the first time Kon heard her speak. Lafer and Vigor too, judging from how quickly their heads turned. Ebi and Dír smiled at their daughter fondly, then met Kon’s gaze with a pale sheen in their eyes.
“Thank you for sharing that with us,” continued Ebi. “Though it sounded like there is meant to be more?”
“Yeah,” Kon answered, walking to the leather sack and returning his lyre. “I’m not sure I like the cadence or the lyrics so far. I’ll play with it more. Expand it. Somehow, it's easier for me to sing about missing my family than speak. I—” Kon paused to rub his eyes with the heel of his hand. Words failed him again, leaving him to just bow and shake his head. “…Yeah.”
At once, everyone nodded. Even little Cesca met his eyes. “Families aren’t meant to be apart,” she whispered, quiet enough that Kon wasn’t sure if he heard her with his own ears or through his fae. Ebi hugged her daughter tightly as Dír stroked her hair. Lafer made a small noise of agreement in spite of her complex history. Though Kon was certain he didn’t know a quarter of it, he could see the emotion swelling in her eyes. Maybe Lucid was right… he considered. Maybe I could stay the night. Talk about how I feel. Ask some questions, get some answers…
Kon released a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, then picked up his sack with a brief shake of his head, imperceptible to the others because of the angle. He ordered his fae to disperse the bubble of silence, which required her to fly through it, piercing it herself. “I’m sorry that we can’t stay longer,” he lied, careful to tune his voice with real disappointment and suppress his heartbeat, as to not give himself away to either Lafer or Vigor. The girl had taken a seat as he played, but now she rose to her feet again. The animated suit of red-hot, muscular armor jumped off his perch, inciting a loud metal on stone clang. Before anyone could reprimand him, Vigor quickly bowed and apologized.
In the meantime, Ebi stood, lifting Cesca off her lap and handing her to Dír. Slowly, Flow slid out of the well, leaving a trail of wetness on the ground as he slithered toward the waterfall. “Flow and I will show you to the caverns,” the Seer offered. “I’ll meet both of you in our nest?” she asked her husband and daughter, prompting two quick nods.
Kon was glad no one insisted on him staying. He might have caved otherwise… but no. Vigor’s aura may have kept his body warm and energized — might have kept his mind awake and aware — but his heart, or his soul, or whatever place else that people believed emotions were born was entirely drained. Kon needed to keep the momentum going. If he didn’t, he would surely fall. I’m not that strong, he told himself.
Somewhere behind him, he could feel his fae bobbing side to side as she soared.
“Flow would fly you up the waterfall if he could,” began Ebi, “just to give you a head start. But for everyone who isn’t me, his scales are too slippery. The cavern beyond the waterfall is natural, but Reap — one of the Fated King’s fae, in case you don’t know — used his scythe to carve a passage that will take you close to the summit. Navigating the upper trails of the Belt of Delakos comes with plenty of risks, but honestly, you’re safer way up there. Less beasts, and less Carrion. Some of our scouts have found evidence of a small Clan passing through the Rainforest. Unfortunately, no one is able to locate a trail to track them. There're too few natural reflective surfaces for Lucid to peer through in this area — especially at night — and the Carrion know to avoid them.”
“Good to know,” said Lafer.
“Lucid will be watching out for us regardless,” Kon said, digging into his pocket for the broken shard of mirror. It had no arrow on it until he tapped it, but once he flicked it with a finger, one shone to life. It was green, instead of blue or red. A verdant hue of emerald, like his daughter’s fae.
Kon swallowed. Hard. That must be a coincidence. Right? Still out of sight, Kon felt his fae shake in every direction. He was just thinking to himself with no intention to ask her. After the memory she’d forced him to relive, he should have been upset that he could not escape her, even in his mind. Instead, he felt almost… comforted. Kon knew that she only wanted what he wanted. She just was too young to understand what that meant or what to do about it. He was determined to change that, difficult as it seemed to come up with the right name.
Thankfully he would have all night - and three more days - to consider, debate, and inquire before arriving at the Academy. If he was lucky, he would figure out what to call her, by then.
The mist was the thickest behind Ebi’s nest. Vigor had to dim his aura to keep it from turning into steam. They followed the Seer to where the edge of the cliff met the shore, forming a slick ledge that vanished behind the cascading waterfall. Ebi said her goodbyes and wished them luck, leaving Flow to lead them the rest of the way.
Kon clung to rocks on his side as he followed the glowing tip of the serpent’s tail into the dense cloud of moisture. Eventually, the ledge widened, the wall opening into a dark cavern on their right. Flow didn’t go much further. As soon as he could, Vigor ran in and ahead of the others, his aura flickering brightly, filling the wet, wide cavern with his deep crimson glow. Stalactites dripped on the ceiling, their edges serrated and sharp. Nervous of one falling into him, Kon made sure to avoid standing under them.
Flow’s hissing, babbling voice sounded as natural as all the splashing, crashing, and dripping. “Keep moving forward and listen for the sound of a rushing stream. You won’t see one, and sometimes it may be hard to hear, but follow the path of the sound as best you can, even if it seems like you’re moving in circles. It’ll take you where you need to go. I don’t think Lucid will be able to guide you until you’re outside again.”
Kon checked the shard of mirror to confirm it. The green arrow was still there, but when he turned, it remained in place. After tapping it, the arrow shifted into a waving squiggle.
“Thank you, friend.” Vigor held out a palm for Flow to slap with his tail, but he just sprayed the red-hot gauntlet with a spritz of water instead, prompting a hiss.
“Fair winds,” Lafer intoned formally.
“And following seas,” returned the serpent.
Some kind of motto? Kon thought. He waved to the fae, uncertain of what to say. Flow waved his tail back as he slithered into the misty lake.
The four companions didn’t remain long. Quietly, they departed. Not one of them looked back.