“Sooo,” Lafer began, her voice hushed by the hand raised before her face. “This is a bit creepy, huh?”
“This being the hundreds of unblinking eyes?” Kon whispered. Though his gaze was fixated on the cavern’s shadowy depths, he could see the girl nod in the corner of his vision. Vigor was reluctant too, looming just beside her. With the light and heat of his aura kept low they were stuck huddling within arms reach.
“Yeah,” her fae rumbled. “Creepy.”
“Think they’re dangerous?” asked Kon.
“Nah,” said Lafer. “Ebi and Flow would have warned us if they were. Kusi and Tamer must have put them here to guard from intruders, though it doesn’t seem like we count. Their heartbeats are slow, almost like they’re sleeping. We should be fine so long as we don’t provoke them. Creeped out? Definitely. But fine.”
Kon hoped so. Wallbats were no joke.
The creatures were everywhere, their malleable flesh molded around jutting rocks and into narrow crevices. If not for the observant eyes, they would seem as natural as the scenery, the shadows of their thin, rubbery bones visually similar to cracks in the stone. Flat black eyes glistened a dark red as they peered into Vigor’s molten luminescence. If the nocturnal beasts could see either of the humans, they would only make out their silhouettes faintly against the light. It was for the wallbats’ benefit that Vigor kept his aura dim, not Kon’s or Lafer’s.
“Let’s be careful as we walk near them,” he said. “No talking. No loud noises.”
If startled, the wallbats would surely scatter, their wings unfolding as wide as the confined space would allow, their bones extending beyond flesh into arrow-like spikes. Judging from the number of eyes, there were enough of them to fill the entire cavern. Kon would need to fall down for the wallbats to fly over him, which meant exposing the back of his head and his cloth sack of belongings
Gul’s cloth sack, he corrected the thought. I promised I would bring it back to him in one piece.
“Can your fae lead the way?” asked Vigor. He almost sounded afraid, but no. That isn’t possible, is it? There was no expression on his helmet, though it did smolder like a dying coal.
“What he means is she can hear better, right? Can she find and follow the sound of rushing water that Flow described?” Even Lafer’s voice was meeker than before.
Kon nodded, then mentally conveyed the request. His fae, who was glittering softly beside him, shook up and down before gliding off.
“I’ll watch our rear,” said Vigor.
Kon glanced at Lafer, inciting a muffled sigh.
“Fine. I’ll take the front, then.”
Kon waited for Lafer to reach the edge of Vigor’s aura before he took his first step. Their pace was slow to allow Lafer and Vigor time to pick their legs up high and place their armored boots down without metal clashing against stone and clanging.
Though he knew it was only his imagination, Kon couldn’t help but feel like the wallbats were staring solely at him. It felt like their eyes were following him as he moved. Even as he tripped and stumbled. Lafer moved quicker than he could see to catch him.
“Eyes on the ground,” she whispered. “There are salamanders ahead of us too. A whole blast of them. Could be more.”
Sure enough, more eyes appeared in the darkness, shining a brighter red than the others. Like Vigor, the lizards had a fire burning within their gaze. They weren’t the larger species, fortunately, but unfortunately, that made them no less deadly. At least two dozen of the finger-sized creatures began crawling out of the shadows.
Crawling straight for them.
Kon froze as the salamanders spread out and around him, though none clicked their flint-like tongues in warning. They were curious, if anything, perhaps attracted to the muscular fae’s blazing warmth.
That didn’t help Kon feel safer. It would be so easy for the salamanders to spray the combustible bile that stirred in their stomachs. With a click of a tongue, they could set the whole cavern aflame. Lafer might be fireproof - Kon wasn’t sure, but it would make sense - but he certainly wasn’t. Even if Vigor kept him alive, the burns could seriously disfigure him.
Lafer continued onward, her breaths controlled yet heavy. The vein on the side of her neck was bulging, though its glow was faint. She telegraphed her steps to avoid stepping on any of the salamanders. Crushing one beneath her heel would result in an explosion, and with so many of them so close, most would explode too. There was a reason why a group of them was called a blast.
Though not aggressive, the salamanders’ curiosity could easily mean the death of them all.
Why can’t anything be simple? Kon thought. Though I suppose this is better than a clan of Carrion. As scary as the salamanders were, there were much worse fates. The Carrion wouldn’t hesitate to torture or kill them on sight.
For a brief moment, Kon thought of Edos, the Carrion Seer of the Coastwatch Eyrie who turned on his kin to save and serve the Fated King. A teenager, and thus not too set in their ways, but a hero no less. A brave young man who chose the world over everyone and everything he’d ever known.
Can I really do that? The more Kon considered it, the less certain he felt. His pain and grief still resounded anew with every beat of his thundering heart. Abandoning his family… it went against everything he ever wanted.
Ahead of him, Lafer whispered so quietly, he could only understand the words through his connection to his fae. “Think you can play a song to keep them away from us?” When Kon didn’t immediately answer, she stopped and looked back.
In response, he pointed at the wallbats with a shake of his head. The music would have the same effect on them, and making the wallbats move was just as likely to end in disaster.
Lafer nodded, then continued on toward the darkness. Somewhere in there a tunnel awaited. Guided by his fae and the sound of water rushing beyond the walls, it didn’t take long for them to locate the hidden passage.
Things became more and less complicated after that.
Kon caught the scent of the sweet-smelling vines known as antraps before he saw them within the smooth, scythe-carved tunnel. While the wallbats remained behind and the salamanders realized they could scale Vigor’s armor, Kon and Lafer had to continue looking down. If they tripped and fell on one of those vines, they would be stuck as pheromones released into the air to attract and irritate nearby insects. Thousands of acidants marched along the walls, glowing in bright hues of green and yellow that seemed to bubble and pop within their carapaces.
Before speaking, Kon confirmed there was nothing around that his voice could upset. Vigor was petting a few of the salamanders on his chest, his aura was a little brighter than before. Kon met his torch-like eyes for only a second before facing ahead. “Can insects be Tamed as well?” he asked.
“I’m not sure,” whispered Vigor. “Tamer is… an unfortunate fae. I often wonder about her, but I’m unable to ask her or her Seer. Kusi, well, he’s not what I would call friendly.”
“That’s putting it lightly,” added Lafer. “He’s not a bad person, don’t get us wrong. Just not the type of person you can, or would want to, hold a conversation with.”
“Why is that?” Kon asked.
“Well, he named his fae Tamer, for starters. You can extrapolate some of him from that. Kusi is the type of person who always believes they’re right and that other people should listen. No charisma, though, just arrogance. His fae allows him to skip past the convincing stage, straight to obedience or belief.”
“The way you say that, it almost sounds like it works on people.”
“It does,” Lafer whispered. “Not that the Fated King lets him. Enemy combatants being a slight exception.”
“And what of Tamer? Why can’t you ask her, Vigor?”
A deep sound rumbled in the giant’s throat. “It’s… complicated. Uncomfortable for me to speak of, too.”
“I can explain,” said Lafer. “Sorry pal, but it’s something that Kon should know.”
Vigor’s throat rumbled again, though he raised no words in protest.
“Kusi never thought of his fae as a person,” she continued, her voice soft in both tone and volume. “Just saw her as another tool on his belt. Another weapon. In the end, that’s all she became. If Tamer is conscious at all, the only person she can talk with is her Seer. I can’t imagine it’s particularly fun being trapped in Kusi’s head.”
Vigor rumbled in agreement.
“So she manifested as a tool?” Kon asked. “A weapon?”
“A whip made of feathers. Impossibly soft but deceptive. Capable of sharpness whenever Kusi wills it. He can either impart emotions and beliefs gently, or instill commands painfully.” Those last words came out as an angry mutter.
“So each of the salamanders and wallbats…”
“All scarred,” grunted Vigor. Kon examined the lizards more closely, finding pallid cuts on their backs.
“If Kusi could do anything to bugs without killing them, he’d impart emotions. I think they’ll remain calm so long as we don’t touch them.”
Kon figured as much. Fortunately the walls of the scythe-carved passage were wide enough for Vigor to walk with his arms outstretched.
They continued onward in silence, their gazes fixed on the ground. Some of the vines had bits of wings and carapace stuck on them while others were pocked with dark valleys and craters. Though not truly acid, the ants’ bites were caustic. Any of them that got caught would be able to munch their way out.
The same would be true for Kon’s flesh. He’d felt that burning pain before and had a few scars to prove it. Never again, he thought.
“Greaaat,” Lafer groaned. Kon halted two steps after she did, getting close enough to see beyond her shoulder. The passage split, sloping downward on the left, and upward on the right. His fae waited at the sharp corner where the paths intersected. “How much do you want to bet that Headmaster Nise was behind this?” she asked.
“Hm?” Kon didn’t understand.
“Sorry. I was asking Vigor.”
“The Headmaster loves his mazes,” her fae clarified. “Something about the magic of getting irrevocably lost and, in a desperate search for an exit, finding oneself.”
“Does that actually work?”
“Not that we’ve experienced,” grunted Lafer.
“We have more of a ‘go through, not around’ mentality,” said Vigor. “Especially in places as bleak as this.”
Kon got that. In a dark, damp tunnel filled with all kinds of creatures that could kill or cripple him on a whim, he was eager to ‘go through’ too.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t an option.
Softly ringing, his fae drifted left, and thus down. Not up.
“No wonder Flow said the path won’t make sense.” Lafer sighed. As soon as she stepped onto the path and settled her weight, she almost slipped and fell. They all needed to balance their weight more carefully.
Kon wasn’t looking forward to this.
As soon as she was outside, Lafer breathed a sigh of relief. The mountain air was fresh and unseasonably frigid. This high up, it didn’t matter if the Waistlands were in a perpetual cycle of Bloom and Burn.
Kon looked out and saw an entire land slumbering. Storm clouds gathered in the sky lower than he stood. Beneath and beyond them, camps of flocks and roofs of far off roosts glittered like stars in the night. A blaze was raging in the distance. Red, not gray. It had engulfed the southern edge of the Ecaris Rainforest, which didn’t seem far from Underfall.
“The Carrion?” Kon asked.
Lafer didn’t stop gazing at the flames, not even as she walked down the ancient road paved along the cliffside. “Could be,” she said. “Could also be the result of a lightning strike. Storms around here move fast, often starting more fires than they put out.”
“It looks bad,” Vigor rumbled. He was no longer covered in the salamanders. The heat-seeking lizards remained in the maze of tunnels below, along with the rest of the enslaved creatures. Wallbats, arakens, treelions; even a cavalcade of golings were patrolling, rolling around like wheels while curled in their stony, segmented shells.
“If it keeps spreading like this, Lucid will call for Ebi and Flow, or another Seer or fae nearby that’s fit for the job. Vigor could probably eat all that fire, but…”
They had another mission: escorting Kon to Westwind Academy.
Frowning, he followed after Lafer, his gaze on the fae-made road that weaved across the upper peaks of the Delakos Mountain Range. It was a place as old as Tír itself, the result of two continents colliding across millennia. On one side, the Northern Wing, on the other, the Southern Talons. Somewhere west of him - and thus behind him - his family and his flock were camping on Onali’s Trail. Waiting for dawn.
“Our journey should be mostly straightforward from here,” said Vigor. “But just in case, we should look at that compass.”
Kon nodded, reaching into the pocket on his thigh. “Arrow is pointing forward.” Still green, he noted. There wasn’t much foliage this close to the summit, and what it did have looked mostly black or gray in the night. Ice shimmered a bluish-silver on each peak, melting and spilling water down fae-made valleys, including the one that bled into the Ecaris River. Before the Freeze, Delakos and his fae had hammered these mountains into what they were today, sans ruins. Too few of his temples had survived the Grand Eruption.
“Hey Kon,” said Lafer. “You can read the stars, right? Tell what time it is just by looking at the night sky?”
“Of course,” he said. “You never learned?”
“Nope! At least not here. The Skyblade is wider where I’m from, and I never had a reason to learn at Westwind. Plenty of clocks there.”
Kon looked up at that infernal sliver of luminescent rock and flame. Because of their world’s rotation, the Clepsyndra constellation was tilted over, forcing him to twist his neck until it was upright. He examined the brightest stars’ positions and eye-balled the distance between them and the Skyblade. “It’s almost midnight,” he told her. “Roughly four hours left before sunrise.” I think.
“Could you teach us how to do that?” she asked.
“I’d like to learn too,” said Vigor.
“Honestly, I’m horrible with formulas, and math in general. The best I can manage are estimates. But I can try to show you the tricks my brother taught me when we were young.”
“Please,” Lafer insisted. “If we’re in for a long night of mindless walking, I could use the distraction.”
Kon had noticed the tension in her shoulders, but this was the first time he’d heard the exhaustion in her voice. Both she and Vigor were more reserved than usual, even before venturing into the cavern, and despite their reprieve from immediate danger, neither of them moved with rigid confidence.
Was I wrong to make us leave? I didn’t even ask if they wanted to stay overnight in Underfall.
Guilt swelled in Kon’s heart as it picked up its tempo. Lafer felt it immediately, stopping to glance back and flash him a smile of assurance. Kon returned a grin of his own, but it was forced. If it would help, he would teach them how to read the stars. It was the least he could do.
“Alright. Well, like anywhere else in the world, the first thing you need to do is orient the Water Clock upward, locate its Prime Stars, then find the angle between it and the Skyblade. From there, you can…”
“Wow!” Lafer huffed. “No gonna lie, that was kiiind of awesome. But what are we supposed to do now?”
Kon wouldn’t have described the road-marring landslide as awesome. Awful was a better word for it. Dreadful was the best. Had they left Underfall any sooner, walked any faster, or taken a single break less, the sudden quake and subsequent collapse of ice, mud, and stone would have barreled right over them, dashing them into pieces. Even with Vigor’s magic coursing through Lafer’s veins, Kon doubted she would have survived the impact.
It all happened so fast, Kon barely processed a thing. All he could remember was the ground trembling and the air screaming. He clutched the nearest stone jutting from the cliff and held on tight. While the earthquake lasted only for a minute, it felt like an eternity. The mountains, the sky, and the jungles below, they all became one chaotic, incoherent blur. At this rate, Kon would be accustomed to the feeling of almost dying. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
Now there was no path for them forward. Not without climbing a giant hill of mud and boulders. It didn’t look very stable.
“I’m sure Lucid will show us another path.” Kon checked his pocket for the broken mirror. Finding nothing, he spun, searching the ground. “Sun scorn me!” he shouted.
“Uh-oh,” rumbled Vigor. He’d reacted the same way when Lafer discovered the mirror had shattered.
Kon ignored the fae as he approached the edge of the mountain. Nervous as he felt peering down into the dark of certain death, he had to look. The compass had been in his hand. Losing it was his fault.
Lafer joined him while Vigor flared his aura, casting more illumination below. Several furrows ran down the steep edge of the cliff, the spaces between filled with rocks, silt, and other loose debris. In one of the furrows, something glimmered. The mirror shard.
Far, but not unreachable. There were plenty of grooves in the rock face. If careful, Kon could scale down and back just like a ladder. Basked in Vigor’s aura, he could even do it quickly.
Kon backed away to safely unstrap Gul’s sack. Lafer followed his example as her fae moved back to give them more room. “What are you doing?” he asked.
“You should rest, Kon. Just take a seat on your stuff. I’ll be back in a minute.”
“No. The mirror was my responsibility. I dropped it, so I should be the one to get it back. You should eat something. I shouldn’t be long.”
Lafer smiled as she shook her head. “I respect that, but please understand that you are my responsibility. I was given the mission to escort you to Westwind alive. Just let me do this. Please.”
Kon scratched behind his ear. “Fine. But you better be gone for just a minute. Then we eat.”
Lafer grinned as she unfastened her sword from her hip. At the ledge, she raised the sheathed weapon in front of her. With one last glance, she leaped.
Kon’s heart thundered for her sake. His fae soared after her, though he remained frozen in place.
“It’s okay,” Vigor assured them. “She’s only trying to show off.”
A few seconds later, a bright flash of molten light heralded the girl’s return. Kon wasn’t sure what she did, but it involved her sword somehow. Her figure arced through the air as if propelled. A blast of flame from her blade? He’d seen a Seer do something similar before.
Lafer landed, panting. “Phew. Managed to catch it while falling. Didn’t even need to touch the cliff. Easy.”
Kon stepped toward her and took the mirror. Miraculously, it had cracked no further, though it no longer shone a glowing symbol.
“Don’t scare me like that again,” he breathed. “Please.”
Lafer nodded, though her grin didn’t falter. She ran to her bag and rummaged in it for food. “Whatcha in the mood for? Seeds, nuts, and berries? Or more meat?”
They had just eaten steaks an hour ago. “A rations mix is fine. I think I’ve had my fill of chikibi and treelion.”
“More for me then,” she exclaimed, her smile widening.
Kon kicked his bag closer to the cliff as Vigor stepped around him and laid on the road beside Lafer. Lafer threw a large chikibi breast over the hot-metal of her fae’s pectorals, causing the meat to sizzle and smoke. She turned it over with a large skewering fork as she dug in her bag for rations. The pouches she’d given Kon earlier were all empty. Lafer removed an entire box of them, then slid it over with her foot. By the time Kon found the lightest pouch and opened it, she was already devouring her meal straight from the fork’s prongs.
“Shouldn’t you let it cook for longer?” Blood was still dripping from the breast’s pink, inner flesh.
“Nah,” Lafer answered as she chewed, then swallowed. “My internal temperature is high enough that my mouth is practically an oven. If I don’t eat my meat rare, it will be tasteless by the time it touches my tongue. That’s also part of the reason why I eat so fast.”
To prove her statement, Lafer finished her meal in two large bites, then licked the fork clean of any juices. Satisfied, she collapsed, plopping over Vigor’s stomach so her arms and legs were hanging on either side of him. “Good as new,” she said. “Now for a short nap.”
Kon sat down on his belongings while Lafer pretended to snore. Vigor chuckled warmly, the back of his helmet cupped in the palms of his gauntlets. The flames behind his visor danced as he gazed up at the stars.
While they relaxed, Kon ate in silence. His fae drifted past the ledge toward the sound of fledglings chirping in a nest that had been displaced by the landslide. Kon recognized the panicked trills of three baby eagles. Their parents were nowhere to be seen. It was likely they were buried under all that mud and stone.
Poor things. Kon wished he could do something for them, but they were too far down and too young to fly.
His fae rang a gentle melody. Their cries petered out, soothed by the music.
Kon emptied the pouch, placing the trash in Gul’s sack with the rest of them, then began tapping the mirror shard. In seconds, the arrow returned. Still green. Despite the hill of mud and rock in their way, it was pointing the same direction.
Toward Westwind Academy.