Kon smiled over his bowl as Morus shambled into the mess, draped in loose black robes and the blurry veil of his fae. Ignoring Lafer’s wave, the boy wandered to the portly man behind the counter, mumbled his order, then yawned and grabbed a couple of ration pouches before joining the pair at their table. He sat three seats down, his head propped up by a hand as he leaned away from them. Even without a book, it seemed he was intent on hiding his face.
“Please don’t talk to me until I drink my tea,” he grumbled quietly.
Kon nodded, then glanced at Lafer, finding her smiling as she chewed a mouthful of egg-boiled rice. A moment later, Zephyr’s glowing wind carried an omelet wrap on a plate over their heads, along with a mug and a steaming kettle. He let the boy pour his drink as he returned to his conversation with Lafer.
“Did the Headmaster say anything else?” he asked.
The girl nodded, swallowing her food. She was uncharacteristically slouched and paler than usual. Vigor was resting; not sleeping, but dormant in a meditative state. Occasionally the fae needed their own time to recuperate.
“He told me that starting tomorrow I’ll be acting as your sponsor. What that means is my job is to make sure you’re fed three times a day and you’re familiar with the Academy and the Cradle. I’m also supposed to help you get to all your lessons and finish your evening assignments, but I’m confident neither will be an issue. Every night, I have to report your progress directly to the Headmaster, which may end with him giving us additional tasks. Overall? Pretty easy for my third ‘official’ mission.”
Kon smiled. “I’ll try not to trouble you too much. Promise.”
“Are you being paid for that?” Morus asked, his voice tapering off with a stifled yawn.
Lafer made a noise of affirmation while shoveling the contents of her third bowl into her mouth, as if to make up for lost time.
Catching the hint, Kon reached into a pocket of his sage green tunic. He screwed off the cap of his leather wallet - a cylindrical tube made of tanned hide - and peered in. Dozens of plume nibs glistened in colorful patterns, including blue ones, yellow tens, and orange-red twenties. Kon plucked a sunset nib and pulled, causing its fiery bristles to unfold at the opposite end like a feather. “Here,” he said, standing up and handing the plume across the table.
“Whad’s da vor?” Lafer mumbled through the food in her mouth.
“Morus is tutoring me,” Kon answered. The comment prompted the boy to finally look at him and take his payment. A blurry eyebrow raised as he noticed the color.
“For the study notes and tomorrow’s session.”
Morus nodded, slipping the money into one of the many folds of his robes. His fae lifted off him, revealing a hint of a smile as he drank his tea and munched on a mix of dried fruits, nuts, and seeds.
“Let me guess,” Lafer said with a slight chuckle. “You’re going to spend that on Overseer, aren’t you?”
The boy took his time replying, silently chewing in thought. “What I spend my money on is my business.”
The girl seemed to accept it with another weak chuckle.
“Overseer?” Kon asked.
“It’s a children’s game,” Lafer replied, inciting a snort from Morus. “Fun, but incredibly expensive. My younger brother Olifar was obsessed with it a few years back. It’s fairly popular in Kolod Vor and other big roosts.”
“It’s not a children’s game,” the boy insisted. “Many adults play it too; my parents included.”
“How does it work?”
At once, both Seers replied with a terse: “It’s complicated.”
While Morus returned to his food, Lafer continued, practically babbling. “So basically, parents spend ten plumes on these shiny cards for their kids, and each one depicts a fae across history, with short backstories and special abilities inscribed on their backs. They’re used for pretend battles.”
“Two players compete in a tactical strategy game with decks of ten cards,” added Morus. “There are special war-boards and mana tokens, each with their own rules and purposes. Occasionally, tournaments are held down in the Cradle. It’s one of the few times I get to interact with people my age.”
Kon nodded, surprised by Morus’ openness. With only Lafer and him in the mess, it appeared the boy was comfortable enough to remain visible and speak. He even looked better rested, judging by the faint pits under his eyes. Both made for a vast improvement compared to last night.
“I finished A Heavenly Purpose,” Kon told the boy as he took a bite of his omelet wrap. “I’m finding it hard to take the magazine seriously, but I’ve skimmed through at least half of it. Unfortunately, my copy of Origin of Souls is missing. If you know how I can get a replacement, it would help a lot.”
“Missing?” Lafer asked.
Morus sighed loudly before Kon could answer with a lie. “I can lend you mine, but you’ll have to give it back when you’re done. How do another ten plumes sound?”
Lafer scoffed as Kon reached for his wallet. “Don’t let him extort you!” she exclaimed. “I have a copy in my room. I’ll lend it to you for free.”
Surprisingly, Morus sighed and shook his head. “That won’t be necessary. It was only a joke. I’ll leave the book with the Barracks Officer so you can grab it next time you pass.” Taking another bite, the boy hummed in thought. “I suppose Wilm is the B.O. again because of what happened last night?”
“Yup,” Lafer replied. “They took the shift from Gaj since he technically wasn’t involved. Speaking of, I still need to bring them their food.”
Wilm had looked haggard this morning, and even Rugged had appeared slouched and sluggish. They would appreciate a delivered breakfast.
“If you want, I can find the clinic on my own. It’s on the floor underneath the Training Grounds, right?”
“Uh-huh. I’ll come up once I’m free and escort you to the Headmaster’s Office. It’s much further down, so I can give you a brief tour on the way.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Kon said through his stretching grin. Standing, he wiped some pastry crumbs off his tunic and bowed to the table. “I’m finished, Zephyr. Thank you.” A gust of bright green wind brushed over his ears, fetching his empty bowl and mug. He watched it drift away quietly. “I’ll see you later, Morus. Thanks again for your help.”
The boy waved him off without looking, preoccupied with his food. That too was a welcome improvement.
Lafer said goodbye as Kon and his fae departed. As he walked toward the hall, footsteps marked the girl running to order more food.
Despite his destination, Kon was feeling better, having spent half of his night studying and playing music from the comfort of his bed. Excel seemed to have fixed the constant pressure in his lower back, as well as repaired the nerves in the arm that had been shredded by Grit’s particulates. As such, his visit to the clinic was no more than a safety measure, encouraged by Armsmaster Topek and Wilm. Though Rugged didn’t seem to notice Kon, the Seer waved as he passed up the staircase. No one else seemed to have awakened yet, though apparently a physician was on duty 20 hours a day, 5 days a week.
The clinic, like the library, was a mostly-open chamber with large windows across three of its walls. Heavy gilded curtains divided the floor into booths, some drawn open to reveal elevated beds and humming machinery. A small office with a desk and bookcase lay beside the stairwell, in which a petite woman sat and flipped through a stack of papers. Her stare was absent, focused more on the ceiling than the documents in her hands. Kon cleared his throat as he approached, drawing her attention. The middle-aged physician startled with a muffled yelp, then smiled, tucking her purple-streaked fringe back among her short blonde hair.
“Good morning,” the woman said cheerfully, laying down her papers and rising from her seat. “You must be the new student. Kon, correct? I was given a folder with your name for your medical records.”
“That’s me,” he said, stretching a hand over her desk. “It’s nice to meet you. Doctor…?”
She gently took his hand with a smile. “Zali. Welcome to my humble abode. I don’t technically live here, but I might as well given how often I’m around. Are you just visiting to perform your check-in inspection?”
“I suppose that’s what I’m here for, though I hope I’m not interrupting anything important.” His eyes lingered on a complicated hand-drawn chart.
Dr. Zali flipped the documents on her desk, then gestured to a bowl full of neon red candies in transparent wrappers. “Cinnamon drop?” she offered.
“No, thank you.” Kon took a step back and patted his stomach. “I just had breakfast. Don’t think I can handle anything more.”
“I’ll have to remove a few kilograms from your weight, then. Follow me please.”
The woman led him into one of the nearest open curtains, where she made him stand on a disc-shaped platform. After a moment, numbers lit up on a tiny screen in front of his feet, prompting the woman to grab a clipboard and note them down.
“Good,” she said. “Go ahead and take a seat while I ask a few questions.”
Kon obeyed, facing Dr. Zali. The woman stared at him, eyebrows drawn and her pen tapping against her temple.
“Huh,” the physician huffed, writing it down. “Barren-born. You don’t seem frosty to me.”
“Both my mother and brother were too. It doesn’t always mean we’re cold. For some of us, it means we find the most comfort in the warmth of our kin.”
Dr. Zali nodded and scribbled on her clipboard. “Judging by your lack of hair, I’m assuming you’re married?”
“Yes, but I also lost the genetic lottery. Started going bald in my late twenties. Is that important?”
Her hand froze as she shook her head. “No. But I do need your height. Do you know it off the top of your head?”
“Afraid not. Do you have a machine to calculate that too?”
“Just an old-fashioned ruler. But I’m good at measuring with my eyes. Does 1.85 seem about right?”
“Sure. My flock’s physician never had a reason to find out.”
“Ah. Flockfolk. Been anywhere nice recently?”
Kon laughed softly, his voice hollow. “Not really. My family saw the Grand Rift at the end of Bud, just before the Battle of Vaska Toma. We were at the border when Decay’s rampage began, then spent the rest of our time sprinting the other way.”
To Kon’s surprise, Miss Zali jotted that all down. “Did you get ill afterward?”
“No. Our flock got away before the world started rotting.”
“Good,” the woman muttered, finishing her notes with a flick of her wrist. “I was working at Eastend then, so I wasn’t as fortunate. Still made it out alive, but had to spend a few weeks in the Kolod Vor hospitals.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
Miss Zali waved her pen in the air. “Nothing to be sorry for. I’m about to be very sorry, however. How do you feel about needles?”
A memory of Leach flashed before his eyes, forcing him to suppress a gulp. “As much as anyone else, I imagine. Is it optional?”
“Afraid not. I’ll need to run your blood through a few tests. The procedure is standard for every Seer. If you or your allies ever get injured in the field of battle, they’ll need to know your blood type for emergency transfusions.”
While the middle-aged physician shuffled through a drawer for a rather thick needle, Kon frowned and slid further down the elevated bed. “In my case, Lafer and Vigor will be accompanying me to the Fated King’s army when I graduate. If they’re with me, I won’t need any transfusions. Surely this isn’t necessary?”
Dr. Zali loomed over him, wearing a small grin. “I’m afraid it is. I’ve been around Seers long enough to know that danger prefers to strike when you’re most vulnerable. I’m assuming that since you’re married, you’ll want to survive the War and retire with your wife. Knowing your blood type is in your best interest.”
Sighing, Kon relented, rolling up the right sleeve of his tunic and beckoning for his fae. She drifted away from a humming box on a nearby table to hover over his shoulder, her shell twinkling as she chimed a pleasant melody. The magic soothed Kon’s pain as Dr. Zali plunged the needle into his arm. A little numb and slightly woozy, he stared at the transparent syringe as it filled up with crimson blood.
Again, he thought of Leach’s menacing smile. He couldn’t fathom how Lili felt, always clinging to her fae for life.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
Kon blinked at the physician’s face. Her eyes were the same hue of purple as the streak in her hair. With a solemn nod, he began rolling down his sleeve.
“Ah-ah-ah,” the woman said, waving the bloody needle. “I’m afraid that’s not all. I need to give you a few immunity shots too.”
Kon’s body froze, though his eyes still blinked. “I don’t understand. Immunity shots?”
“Yeah. Think of it as medicine, except it prevents illnesses from happening rather than cure them after the fact. We developed them in Eastend before Decay’s rampage, which played a big part in saving my life. They’ve since been implemented at each Academy and Eyrie. Like I said earlier, this is a standard Seer procedure.”
Kon’s fae had gone quiet while he listened, but it seemed he would need her more. Go on, he thought, nodding to Dr. Zali as his companion resumed singing. The physician returned the needle to the drawer, then grabbed three larger syringes from it, each filled with a clear or pale-yellow liquid.
“It helps if you close your eyes,” Dr. Zali told him. “I know they look big, but I promise it just feels like a little pinch.”
Soothed by his fae’s music, Kon nodded. His vision darkened, his mind drifting into the black.
Dr. Zali chuckled as she led Kon toward her office, clipboard, and pen in her hands. Although she was kind enough not to stare at him struggling to walk, he still felt embarrassed. His entire backside was stiff, the surrounding muscles cramping up tight.
From the physician’s office, Lafer stumbled into the corridor of hanging curtains, already wearing a smirk on her face. Giggles turned to guffaws as Kon awkwardly straightened, nearly tripping over his own feet.
“You knew, and you didn’t warn me?”
“Of course I knew,” the girl laughed. “When I was a student, we all had to get those shots on the same morning. Everyone was walking funny. It was hilarious.”
Kon sighed, then continued following Dr. Zali to her office. Lafer’s giggling finally tapered off as he waved her inside. She didn’t enter, looking suddenly afraid. Kon turned and found the physician leaning over her desk.
“I see you helped yourself to a few candies,” the woman accused, prompting a gulp from Lafer.
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.”
“Oh?” Dr. Zali asked, stepping aside to reveal the empty bowl on her desk.
Kon spun on the girl, incredulous. “You ate all of them?”
Under his scrutiny, Lafer caved. “Not all of them,” she admitted meekly. “I left one.”
The girl took a deep breath, rising to glance toward Dr. Zali. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help myself. Cinnamon drops are one of my favorites, and I haven’t eaten them in forever. I can make it up to you. There’s an errand I need to run in the Cradle, so I can buy you a new bag on my way back.”
“No need,” the physician sighed. “I’ve been trying to pawn those off all week. Really, I’m worried about your stomach. If it starts aching, I want you to come see me immediately.”
Lafer nodded, clearly embarrassed. Though not entirely forgiven, it helped endear her. “Is there anything else you need?” he asked, turning to face Dr. Zali.
“I’ve got everything. I’d offer you candy, but I doubt you’ll want to take the last one.”
Kon smiled, nodding. “I’d rather save it for one of the kids.”
Dr. Zali grinned, returning to her papers and waving them off.
Unsurprisingly, climbing down the stairs was more difficult than walking. Lafer went on ahead, her eyes on her feet and her shoulders deflated. Somehow that felt worse than her staring and laughing at his expense.
“You know, sometimes I feel like a stranger in my own world. Maybe I’m just old, but back in my day, a visit to the clinic meant leaving it in less pain than you were before. Not more.”
Lafer chuckled weakly under her breath. Her fire seemed to be completely gone.
“Are you okay?”
“I am,” the girl lied. “Just tired.”
Kon shook his head. With a thought, he sent his fae toward her, singing and sparkling with light. Lafer’s head perked up, which he took to mean it was helping. Though he didn’t want to press, he and his fae would do what they could to support her. The girl would talk if she wanted.
“I should probably explain the layout of the Academy,” Lafer began, a renewed pip in her step, as if she was happy to ignore the previous topic. “You’ve been everywhere from the Library up. Never been further below?”
“No, not yet. How many floors are there?”
“Ten if you count the Training Grounds on the ramparts. Seven floors above ground, two below. Under the Library, we have the Classrooms, followed by the Staff Offices, then the ground-level foyer. Professor Meir’s Research Lab is much deeper in the earth, just above Phantom’s cell.”
Kon nodded as he listened, thinking of his lesson schedule. Valday through Gilday, his mornings would consist of Physical Training at Dawn, followed by an hour-long breakfast and a two-hour lecture in the Research Lab. There must have been a thousand stairs to the bottom, and the students were expected to climb down and up them each day. Frozen by the thought, Kon swallowed audibly, drawing Lafer’s gaze.
“Are you okay?” she asked, halting at the last step into the Barracks.
“Let’s just say I’m glad you’re my sponsor. I’m beginning to realize that I might need Vigor to escort me to my classes after all.”
Lafer smiled, then frowned as she watched Kon struggle down the steps. “I can wake him up now if you’re too sore to continue.”
Kon passed her, shaking his head. “Dr. Zali said it was best if the medicine runs its natural course. Besides, Vigor deserves his rest.”
After waving down the hall toward Wilm and Rugged, Lafer followed after him. The pair looked more energetic, yet just as pensive.
“They seem… off. Did the Armsmaster yell at you all a lot?”
“Yeah,” the girl sighed. “Wilm and Rugged always get like this when they’re reprimanded. Usually they’re the students who prevent trouble. Not the ones who cause it.”
“I remember the Armsmaster saying they were planning on graduating early. Did it seem like last night’s incident might stop them?”
Lafer hummed, considering. “I don’t think so. Wilm already finished their Physical Exams, which is why they’ve been acting as his assistant. The only thing holding them back is their Academics. Last I heard, Wilm will be taking it with you in two weeks.”
“So you know about that already,” Kon said, letting the conversation distract him. It helped make his painful journey more bearable. “I take it you already know what comes after?”
“You mean after you graduate? The Headmaster almost forgot to mention it last night. Lucid had to remind him before Vigor and I walked out.” Her voice was meek again, bleeding with doubt or fear.
“The Fated King’s army,” he muttered in a similar tone. “I’m personally terrified.”
“Me too,” Lafer admitted. “But at least I have family there.”
“A cousin, actually. My older brothers serve our mother in Kolod Vor.”
Kon looked back, finding the girl with a deep frown. “You don’t talk about them much,” he remarked. “I just know of… Olifar?”
“That’s right. He’s the runt of our litter. I’m not as close to Leodar and Runais. Not anymore,” she finished with a whisper.
Kon took the hint, marching on in silence.
After a moment, his friend cleared her throat. “Anyway, how’s your family doing? Lucid mentioned she helped you check on them yesterday.”
“They’re alive. That’s all I know for now, but it’ll have to be enough.”
Lafer cleared her throat again. “Have you thought about you know what?” she inquired, voice quieted by her raised hand.
“About Kinjra? Yeah. I was planning on telling the Headmaster next week, but Lili, Ora, and Dowen cornered me last night. I’m worried about bringing my daughter here with influences like them.”
“Well this is news to me. What happened?”
Kon waved the question off. “Just a misunderstanding, but I can tell they’re in pain. Lili’s situation is terrible, and from what I know about wingfolk, I’m sure Ora’s not much better off.”
Lafer sniffed, affirming his thought. The wingfolk felt a supernatural beckoning from their ‘Motherland’, like a magical impulse to live within and guard its borders. Supposedly, there was something important there that their kind was compelled to protect. Important enough to keep a secret from the rest of the world.
“I’d like to make things up with them. Any suggestions?”
Before she could answer, two bellowing voices erupted from the mess down the next corridor. It seemed Gaj and Rej were arguing about something. Kon had to call his fae back to keep her from eavesdropping, and Lafer remained silent until they were out of earshot.
“They’re not exactly friendly with me either,” she admitted. “Most I know about them is Ora loves food, while Lili loves - well, fresh meat for Leach. We could go hunting for a peace offering, but I’m not sure the Professors would allow us to bring a live beast into the Academy.”
Kon let out a quick laugh. “Surely there must be something else.”
“Hmm. Nothing off the top of my head, though I suppose you could try to ask Dowen when he’s alone? When they’re not around, he’s significantly more talkative. The situation would need to be organic, though, or else he’d be suspicious. You won’t be able to just go knocking on his chamber door.”
“I’ll figure something out,” replied Kon. Otherwise, it might be a long while before he saw his family again. “Again, thanks for the help.”
“No sweat. If I have any other ideas, I’ll let you know.”
Kon nodded, internally sighing. So much to do, and so little time. At this rate, the phrase was about to become his mantra.
“Are you nervous about your meeting with the Headmaster?” Lafer asked, interrupting his thoughts.
“A little. Did my heart give it away?”
“Nah. It’s fairly relaxed. I just know I was nervous the first time too.”
In moments like these, Lafer’s kinship was more than comforting. Without her and Vigor, Kon wasn’t sure how he’d be coping. To get through the hard days, he needed the gentle reprieves like these.
“What’s he like? The Headmaster.” The savior of their world’s Savior.
“He’s… abnormal. Best way I know how to put it. I doubt I can properly convey the depths of his personality with logical words. That said, he’s a good person, even if he isn’t always all there. You can trust him. Like Lucid, he has people’s best interests in mind.”
The fluttering in Kon’s stomach got relaxed as he drank the information in, only for it to harden into a knot as he realized what ‘all there’ probably meant. Headmaster Nise was renowned for being the oldest living Seer. Almost 90, if Kon recalled correctly. He would have asked Lafer if it didn’t seem rude.
“I bet I know what you’re thinking.”
“Oh?” Kon asked. Lafer seemed more excited than before.
“Wilm and I already tried looking up how old he is in the Academy Records. No luck, sadly. They don’t go further back than the 480s.”
“Of course you did,” Kon chuckled. Glancing at the passing Library, he wondered. “I bet Morus would know.”
Lafer made a sound of amusement. “I have to say, I never imagined you paying a young boy for tutoring lessons. Don’t get me wrong, Morus is smart, so it makes a lot of sense. Just funny to think about. Do you think he would let Wilm tag along? I know they’re desperate for study tips.”
“Huh,” Kon huffed, scratching behind his ear in contemplation. “I’ll have to warm him up to the idea, but I think he’ll agree.”
“Awesome,” Lafer exclaimed. “If Wilm graduates early, the Headmaster told me he’d send them with us. It’s what they’ve been working so hard for, and it means I don’t have to say another goodbye.”
Kon’s hand fell, resolving into a fist. “We’ll help Wilm as much as we can. I’d be happy to have them and Rugged behind my back.” Although the brooding statue didn’t seem to like him, Kon had witnessed how strong he was. His giant claymore would be a great asset if they were ever in danger.
“Thank you, Kon,” Lafer said, sniffing. He glanced over his shoulder to find her eyes watering. With Vigor dormant, the tears weren’t hot enough to instantly become steam. Instead, she allowed them to fall down her pale cheeks. “For what it’s worth, I’m glad you came to Westwind.”
“Me too,” Kon replied, not thinking. As the words passed his lips, he realized it was true. In some ways, it felt good to know that Fate had given him a ‘heavenly purpose.’ Like the book had informed him, it meant that he was one of the few people with the power to defend humanity. With his fae, he could protect everyone he loved, all-the-while bringing more light and music to the world.
Wiping her face, the girl pointed forward, past Kon. The next floor, which Lafer referred to as the Classrooms, consisted of a long hall with ten gold doors spaced along both sides. More students attended Westwind, although many of their classes were separated. Dr. Zali had mentioned she taught First Aid on Eridays, which occurred during his study period. She had welcomed him to come and he was seriously considering it. If he was going to war, that knowledge would prove useful.
“Just one floor left,” Lafer affirmed. Kon had begun lagging, allowing her to take the lead. “Vigor should be awake soon. He’s already insisted on coming down and waiting until you’re ready to go back up. In the meantime, I’ve got to head into the Cradle.”
“You mentioned an errand. Let’s get this over with, then.”
Allowing gravity to do most of the work, Kon descended after a hasty Lafer, one hand tracing the variegated patterns on the emerald wall beside him. His backside was no longer cramping nor stiff.
In minutes, Lafer was leading Kon into the Staff Offices. Another corridor with large decorated doors waited. At the very end of the passage, a massive pair of obelisk-shaped mirrors stood like gates. The left half was closed, reflecting the corridor and Kon’s wary expression. The right half, open like it was, revealed an old man stretching in the heart of his study. Like Kon, he was bald, though a long, multi-colored beard cascaded down the front of his emerald green and gold-trimmed robes.
“Need me to introduce you?” Lafer asked.
“Thank you for offering, but no.” Kon stepped into the corridor, waving his friend off without looking back. “Go handle your business,” he told her, stretching his hand for his soul-bound companion. “My fae and I can handle this on our own.”