In the end, it didn’t take long for Kon to locate the howling beast. He sent his fae to scout the meandering corridors ahead, bouncing her sullen ring off the labyrinth’s walls to inform him of their shapes. After discovering two paths with dead ends — one after a short turn and completely empty, the other path long and spiraling with a makeshift shrine — she finally located the monster’s den, gaining its attention in the process. Even before turning the corner, he could sense its frigid gaze.
Another intersection lay before Kon, significantly wider than the others, its ground covered in a frozen pond that glittered ominously in the bloody moon’s scarlet light. Snow drifted over the scene, obscuring the great beast that waited upon it. It sat five meters tall on its haunches, covered in white fur that rippled with muscle, its veiny snout parting to reveal icicle-like fangs. A large pair of cyan eyes peered at Kon, enveloping his body in a similar hue of magical light.
His fingers instantly went numb, the nerves tingling sharp enough to make him nearly drop his weapon. When the beast howled again, the coldness around him intensified with a relentless shiver. His knees buckled underneath him, forcing Kon to thrust the spear into the permafrost earth. Though he remained upright, the crackle of frozen dirt made him worry. He looked in fear of what he might discover. Miraculously, the weapon’s glass shaft hadn’t fractured. Glad for the small mercy, Kon returned his attention to the beast’s icy stare.
Despite its brandished claws and threatening howl, it didn’t move from the pond. Curious, Kon stepped back around the corner. As soon as he was out of the beast’s sight, the cyan light melted off him, dripping and fading before reaching the ground. Not leaving him warm, but at least warmer. Warm enough for him to realize what that meant.
Not a monster. A fae. Not one he recognized, and certainly an illusion, but the presence of a fae meant a Seer would be nearby. A potential ally. Or so I hope.
Kon steeled his nerves and stepped back into view. As he moved toward the beast, the cyan light continued to shiver around him, congealing and hardening to weigh him down. His skin prickled like it’d been pierced with needles, the biting pain slowly bleeding him of strength.
Even so, he continued walking. The fae stood on its paws to rise even taller, a misty wind blowing the snow out of the way. A direwolf, Kon remarked, gulping nervously. The fae was twice the size of Vigor, who was large enough to put a fully grown wingfolk to shame. Kon approached warily, fighting to still his trembling body. Not a monster. A fae and an illusion. In either case, the direwolf could not harm him, yet real or not, acknowledging those facts did little to banish his fear.
Kon shambled on, paying close attention to the fae’s rising growl. Before he could step onto the pond, the direwolf howled loudly, warning him to halt in place. His strength fled and his balance crumbled, forcing him to grasp the wall beside him. It took his fae singing encouragement to help him stand again.
Once steady, he lifted the spear and pointed it forward, channeling light through its glass shaft. Air buzzed as its ruby point shined with a fiery radiance. A warning of my own, Kon thought. Phantom had given him this particular weapon for a reason, and considering the direwolf’s frigid magic, it seemed like a perfect fit. Not that we plan to use it.
With a flick of his wrist, his fae soared onward, drifting closer to the direwolf’s snarling face. Her shell twinkled as she echoed the direwolf’s growls back, as if to speak its own language. She tuned the notes until they were more gentle than shrill. For Kon, violence was a last resort. Something only to be performed with regret when no other choice remained. All too often, the troubles that plagued humanity could be solved with compassion and communication. His fae knew that as well as he did. He knew she would do her best.
Unfortunately, her best convinced the direwolf of nothing. Without so much as a growl, the beast swiped her out of the air, its claws leaving ragged dents in her glittering shell. Kon winced as if struck himself. He beckoned for her to return and watched her slow, looping flight in concern. As soon as she was near, he plucked her from the air and rubbed the gathered frost out of her string’s thin grooves.
Recalling a technique he read in Origin of Souls, Kon cradled her gently in his palms. He closed his eyes and invoked the light within him, imagining himself dimmer while the fae in his hands grew brighter. Kon could feel her shell reform against his skin, and once whole enough, float up and out of his grasp. He felt weaker for the effort, but it was a burden he would gladly bear. She deserved better for her kindness.
Summoning the resolve to stand unsupported, Kon clenched the spear in both hands and faced the direwolf, continuing to fill its point with radiant heat. “Can you speak?” he asked, waving the glowing ruby over the pond. “If not, then please call for your Seer. My fae and I mean no harm. We only seek passage to the snowy fields beyond.”
As Kon spoke, the direwolf’s eyes followed the waving crystal, its fangs bared and snout tense, though eerily quiet. When he finished, it responded with another howl. His body trembled as its piercing gaze slowly entombed him in frozen light.
Point made, he thought bitterly. Fae or not, it seemed the beast could not be reasoned with.
Kon clutched the spear and stepped onto the frozen pond. Though slick, the ice was covered in a light blanket of snow that allowed his boots some purchase. The direwolf lumbered forward as well, then howled again to drive Kon back. He stepped aside instead.
As if mirroring his movements, the direwolf circled the opposite direction. Could it be? he wondered, looking over his shoulder at his fae. Headmaster Nise had a hand in designing the labyrinth, which meant Lucid at least had a finger. Could it just be here to intimidate me? His fae keened softly, reminding him of her pain. Illusion or not, it definitely felt real.
Kon decided to test his theory, abruptly stepping forward and backpedaling two steps back.
The direwolf screamed its annoyance, slashing a claw in his direction. Still, it didn’t pounce. Couldn’t, assuming the illusionary fae had the same limits as a real one.
“I’m just going to move over here,” Kon said, pointing to the next corridor, its ground lined with a frozen stream. He took a step in that direction, only for the direwolf to howl again. His legs crumpled, forcing him to drive the glass spear into the ice. Like before, it stopped his fall without breaking. Fate be praised. A second later, he already regretted the thought.
Kon felt the ground shift beneath him as veins of frailty spread around his feet. He ran for the path before him, each desperate stomp leaving a trail of broken ice and flooding bootprints. Once he slid onto the frozen stream, the direwolf finally charged, the frozen pond remaining unbroken by its earth-shaking steps.
Kon moved as fast as he was able, sliding and sprinting down the icy corridor, each near fall recovered quick enough to avoid the direwolf’s reach. Even if the fae couldn’t hurt him, it certainly acted like it wanted to. He wasn’t eager to give it a chance.
Kon skidded around a tight corner, then quickly leapt for another. As he progressed, the corridor’s walls angled inward to become thinner, ending with a long hollow too small for the direwolf to fit through. His fae soared through it as he squeezed his way in, leaving his pursuer to wait at its entrance, paws raised and lips snarling. Shadows lingered in the hollow’s depths, the space beyond it eerily silent. He’d been paying attention to each turn and knew exactly where it would lead. Back toward where he’d come, connecting with the quiet path that evoked memories of spiritfire.
Reluctant, Kon turned, pointing his weapon at the looming direwolf. It had sat down just behind the hollow and begun inspecting its claws, seemingly intent on keeping him trapped here. Kon approached, ordering his fae to stay behind him as she rang a sorrowful melody. Determined and wary, it matched the rhythm of his steps. The direwolf snarled, one paw reaching out for Kon’s weapon, threatening to slash the glass into pieces.
“I don’t want to hurt you. Please. This is your last chance.” Kon could feel his body getting colder every second. Movement helped dissolve the frigid light, but now he was stuck, and if he didn’t get properly warm soon, he knew his body would give out. In more ways than one, that would mean failure. Kon couldn’t afford to give in.
“I truly am sorry, but you leave me no choice.”
Silly as it was to apologize to an illusion, Kon felt no comfort as he drove the burning ruby into the direwolf’s right paw. Its agonizing wail matched the tune of his fae’s melody, as well as the ache in his own heart. The beast leaped back, yelping as its back hit a wall, then collapsed onto its back legs. It nursed its searing wound with a thick blue tongue, licking and leaving frost on the pit of searing flesh. Moisture gathered in its eyes, immediately freezing over. The cyan light around Kon thawed with its neglect, dimming and dripping off him, vanishing as quickly as it came.
“Please,” Kon begged. After stepping closer, the beast snarled, refusing to budge. “I don’t want to do this. Just let us pass.”
The direwolf squinted its eyes, waiting until he was midstep before howling. Kon stumbled forward, again left with a single choice: driving the spear into the ground. Its glass shaft finally shattered on the third impact, the light within flashing brightly as a horrid sound ripped through his ears. Fragments scattered across the frosty ice, too clear to distinguish separately. With no support left and his feet slipping beneath him, Kon plummeted face-first.
Praying to Fate, he snapped his fingers. Magic exploded in his hand, casting him backward. The entire world seemed to lurch around him. Pain lanced across his back as he slid further into the dark and quiet hollow, his breath wooshing out of him, dragging the last of his warmth along with it. Stars twinkled in his vision, shining brightly against his blurring surroundings, as misty shadows crept in over him, promising release.
“No.” Gritting his teeth, Kon pushed himself back up with a clenched fist, the other grasping the half-broken spear and filling it with luminance. Through his fae, he could hear the ruby burning, the air vibrating around its tip. Her glittering shell buzzed along with the imperceptible hum, amplifying the sound louder and louder until a pleasant red glow banished the chilly light and misty shadows. When he stopped channeling, the light persisted. His fae continued humming as the ruby blazed like a crystallized ember.
Thank you. A lone note of encouragement buoyed him up and forward. The direwolf blinked helplessly, its lips quivering as it licked the wound on its paw. It howled again, but when the ruby’s light failed to diminish, it shrunk back, still blocking the path while leaning away. The beast let out a quiet whine. Helpless and scared.
Kon sighed, laying the weapon down and embracing the fae’s cold gaze. He approached slowly, his palms held up and open in peace. With focus, a soft glow leaked from their pores and gathered in his hands. “I know you feel,” he whispered in soft-spoken empathy. “Please trust me. I can take your pain away.”
The direwolf opened its jaw as Kon lumbered closer. Rows of icicle-like fangs threatened to bite off his head, yet he moved on anyway, taking the wounded paw in his hands. While he covered the burnt pit of flesh, the beast whimpered and froze, its large eyes blinking in confusion. He concentrated until the golden light shined between his fingers. More precious warmth slipped from his grasp.
When he peeled his palms away, the direwolf quieted, inspecting the patch of scarred flesh on its paw, finding it a softer hue of blue than the rest. Kon retreated a safe distance and searched the fae’s snout for a distinguishable emotion. Its cyan eyes just narrowed on him in silence, though both glowed softer too.
“How about it, wolfy. Truce?”
If the fae understood him, it didn’t seem to appreciate his levity. The beast growled as it stood and shook its entire body, throwing the snow off its pelt to coat Kon’s face and uniform. He almost fell back in his disorientation, forcing him to regain his footing before wiping his eyes with a sleeve. When he looked, the fae was departing, its claws scraping against the ice. It didn’t do that before, he thought. Leaving a trail? But to where?
Kon retrieved his weapon and beckoned his fae, then followed the direwolf at a safe distance. At the frozen pond, it looked over its shoulder to confirm he was there and howled, pointing its snout toward another corridor. The fae walked on as Kon nodded. He decided to trust that it wouldn’t lead him into danger.
The next path winded back and forth like a snake, each turn met with a slope of deepening snow, eventually tall enough to cover Kon’s shins. While he was forced to slow down and pick up his knees, the direwolf continued to lumber on unhindered, its white fur vanishing amongst the flurry that drifted ahead. Kon struggled to catch up.
After a minute of wandering blindly, Kon finally turned the last corner. The wind settled, revealing a wide grove with no other exits. Beside the direwolf, a giantess lay buried in the snow, a bloody gash across her torso, splitting her cloak and stomach open from her hips to her chest. Knots of black hair spilled out of her white-furred hood.
Not Ora, he realized gratefully, watching the direwolf sit down beside the giantess and lick the hair out of her face. Her nose had long been severed and healed over, leaving a wolf-like snout. Ephemeral puffs of breath clouded the air between them, veiling her eyes as they abruptly snapped open, their cyan glow piercing the fog.
Kon’s voice broke as he shambled forward. “What happened?” The gash was clean, the cut smooth across multiple layers of thick fur, dense leathers, tough skin, and rigid muscle. Under the bloody snow packed into her wound, Kon could practically see her lungs inflate as she wheezed.
“…fix her…” the direwolf whined, his words coming out as a strained howl.
Kon’s heart shattered like glass. “If that’s why you led me here, then I truly am sorry. I don’t have that power.”
“…you fixed me…” the beast cried.
“Humans are different,” Kon insisted. “We’re not just made of anima. I can’t heal flesh.”
The direwolf howled in protest, nudging the giantess’s limp body with his frosty snout. “…please… help…”
Kon choked the spear in both hands. “I can’t fix her, but I may be able to close the wound, at least. It’ll hurt, but it could help. Is that alright… Miss?”
Unable to respond herself, the direwolf cried out. “Please!”
Under the pair’s frigid gazes, Kon trudged on to kneel at the giantess’s feet, the snow high enough to surround his waist. To her credit, she didn’t seize or scream as he traced the ruby point across her wound, melting the bloody snow and cauterizing her skin in the process. The direwolf wailed like Kon was ramming the spear into his chest, yet neither tried to stop him. He finished the grim task with half-lidded eyes, his fae ringing and pulling him back on his feet.
Kon inhaled a fresh breath of air, relishing in the cold as it overpowered the scent of burning flesh. The noseless giantess appeared to breathe easier, her inhales stronger and exhales longer. Whining, her fae licked her wound, covering the scar in frost.
“...mine…” the giantess panted, her fingers reaching for the spear in Kon’s hand.
“I’m sorry I broke it,” he said, then gently placed it in her hands. “I found it with an abandoned bedroll and campfire. I’m guessing those were yours too?”
The giantess’s throaty chuckle bled into a heavy cough, scattering crimson specks onto her pallid lips. “...yours…” she mumbled weakly, leaning up to slide the weapon back into his grasp. As soon as Kon took it, her body collapsed and began convulsing. Her direwolf’s eyes froze over as it bellowed a crescendoing whine.
Frozen with grief, Kon watched the Seer take her last breath. One gasp of pain, followed by a long, trembling sigh, then… nothing. Her corpse deflated and sunk deeper into the snow. For a fleeting moment, Kon swore her face had been replaced by Ora’s.
A heavy pit manifested in his chest, weighing him down and making him stumble back. “What kind of lesson is this?” he yelled toward the scarlet moon and lingering mist with glints of his fae’s magic amplifying his voice. “I know you’re watching, Phantom! Show yourself and tell me. What could I possibly learn from watching someone die?”
Motion drew his eyes back to the direwolf as he stood above the corpse. He released one last howl into the sky — a terrible, agonizing shriek that made Kon’s bones shiver, sans magic — then bent low to dig his fangs into his Seer. The icicles didn’t pierce her flesh, instead gently tearing a pale gold silhouette from her body, clenched softly within his jaw. Serrated claws made it easy for the beast to scale up the walls and run atop them. Both soul and fae disappeared over the horizon.
Kon’s eyes fell to the bloody pile of snow, then widened in surprise as he discovered the giantess was no longer there. A cloud of mist drifted where her corpse should have been, curling and rising from the space inside her cloak of white fur and black leathers, the cut down its middle splattered with flecks of red.
“Is this supposed to be a reward?” he muttered, his voice tapering off into an exasperated laugh. Kon shook his head and took another step back, his eyes combing his surroundings, peering into a flurry of wind and snow that had frozen in the air. Echoes of his laugh resounded from it at different tones and intervals, some ominous and deep, others sharp and menacing, each overlapping in unnatural dissonance and inspiring trepidation.
Kon’s fae chimed like a bell, drawing him to a skeletal hand reaching in the corner of his vision. He swatted it away and retreated, nearly tripping and falling into the grove of deep snow. Phantom manifested behind him, his bony lips curled in wry amusement, laugh lines forming around his cavernous eyes. Staring into them, Kon felt like he was staring into that dark and empty hollow; nothing within but shadows and silence.
“Explain this to me,” Kon demanded, pointing to the giantess’s cloak and the bloody snow around it. “What’s the point in all this?” he asked, raising his hands beside him.
“You’re a smart man. What do you think the point is?”
“Enough games, Phantom. You’re a Professor, aren’t you? It’s your job to explain.”
“There he is,” the sorcerer chuckled. Without realizing it, Kon had raised the broken spear in front of him, his anger stoking the ruby point with burning light. “I wondered how long it would take you,” he finished with a dramatic clench of his fist.
“Take me?” Kon asked, lowering his weapon and diminishing its heat.
“Well, more like how long until your anger would take you. Most students would have fought their way past Frostbite without a second thought, especially after he struck their fae. There’s a lot of anger built up inside you, isn’t there, Kon? I can see it boiling just under the surface, lighting up your eyes like a furnace. When’s the last time you let it out? No, wait. Let me guess.” Phantom sauntered and leaned in, stroking his chin as he inspected Kon’s face, even as he turned away.
“Couldn’t have been when you were married or when you became a father, no. It goes much deeper, doesn’t it? You had to be a child then. Not even a teenager, else hormones would get in the way. The old man told me you were 39 years old, which means thirty years at least. Not very long from my perspective, but three-fourths of your life? That is an awfully long time to spend repressing.”
As much as Kon wanted to stab his weapon into Phantom’s mocking face, he took a step back and stuck it in the snow instead. Before he let go, his fae landed on top of the ruby and hummed sparks of magic to keep it alight.
“I’ll take your silence for admission. Nise didn’t mention it, but I’m sure he knows. Lucid and him know everything.”
Kon crossed his arms, his lips unmoving, too numb to feel his skin, let alone the cold. He wouldn’t give the sorcerer the satisfaction of getting into his head.
“You don’t have to respond. Your body language tells me everything. Or, at the very least, most of everything. Enough that I can make out the shapes of the gaps, like a puzzle that’s missing a few pieces. Do you like puzzles, Kon?”
He remained motionless and silent.
“I personally love puzzles,” the sorcerer continued. “Long before my ascendance — when I was a child myself, in fact — my sister and I would spend our evenings poring over thousands of little jigsaw pieces and assembling them. Oh how completing one filled our little hearts with pure and boundless joy. She fancied the ones that depicted exotic fauna, though I preferred the sprawling landscapes. Both of us dreamed of leaving home and traveling the world to see every creature and location in person.”
Kon sighed, unable to restrain his voice any longer. “Why are you telling me this?”
Phantom laughed cheerily. “Well, there are many reasons. I don’t often get to reminisce about the pleasant memories, so I relish the moments when I can. It’s a good opportunity to remind myself of my humanity, and helps cement in your head that I am a person, even if I no longer look the part. You learn about me and I learn about you, which is a fairly normal exchange between a teacher and new student. And finally, the metaphor: that all humans are puzzles, Kon. Complex pictures composed of countless pieces, some born with us, others found, stolen, or gifted throughout our lives. Picked up from the people around, above, and beneath us; from the places we live, visit, and dream of. Millions of moments and memories, endless emotions and experiences, all jammed together into a single coherent image. And so I look at you, Kon, and I wonder. Why so many gaps?”
Wordless, Kon lifted his spear and stepped around the sorcerer, beginning his slow trudge away, his gaze fixed on the grove’s exit. He’d had enough of this.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Phantom chuckled. “Aren’t you forgetting something?” Kon halted and looked back, finding the sorcerer lifting up the giant cloak and shaking off the collected snow. “Come here and try on your prize,” he continued, his gaunt face stretching wide with an infuriating grin. “I realize it’s not your exact size, but it’s certainly warmer than your uniform.”
“No,” Kon said heavily, his voice hanging in the air. “That cloak isn’t a prize. It’s a grave.”
“I suppose that is true if you’re sentimental. Alas, that is something wingfolk are not. In their culture, the possessions of the dead aren’t claimed by their families or coveted by the finders. Greed is one of their cardinal sins, after all. Spoils like this are simply given to the needy, and between you and me, you’re going to need it, Kon. Consider this a part of your lesson. As a Seer, you can’t afford to hold on to your pride. Not in desperate situations like this. Not when it might cost your life.”
Kon shook his head and lifted his spear, filling its point with radiant warmth. His fae hummed louder until the ruby’s light touched the sorcerer’s face. “I’m not desperate, I’m not in danger. None of this is real, and even if it was, I’d survive as long as I have my fae beside me. And I’m not turning that bloody cloak down out of pride.”
“Aren’t you? She gave you her spear. What makes her cloak any different? She’s dead, and you’re cold. While her fae returns her soul to our paradise on the sun, you’re stuck in this freezing labyrinth. Abandoning it helps no one. Don’t be a stubborn fool. Take it.”
“I won’t,” Kon whispered. “I did nothing to save that woman. I don’t even deserve this spear.”
“Like I said: pride. She was always going to die, Kon. Even if you found her quicker or had proper medical training, that was all Jona was Fated to do. At least with you, she got some warmth and comfort. You did more than I did when I found her bleeding out in the snow, and she gave me the cloak anyway. Take it.”
Kon swallowed. “This actually happened? You saw this?”
“Indeed,” scoffed Phantom, his tone as bored as his expression. “Don’t focus too much on that. You’re missing the point.”
“And what point is that?” Kon scoffed back. Again he found his weapon pointed forward, the ruby shining and wafting steam.
“That Seers die. For many of us, that’s all we’re born to do. We all believe Fate chose us for a reason, that our lives will matter, that we’ll leave the world better in our wake. Yet thousands of our kind have died across the millennia, hundreds alone in the last year, too many unfulfilled and forgotten. Take Jona, for instance. Are you familiar with that name, Kon? Have you heard of the legend of the White Wolf?”
Phantom chuckled loudly, not giving Kon the chance to speak. “You don’t need to answer. I know you haven’t. After all, very few people were impacted by her legacy. Since you failed to discover the letter hidden in the bottom of Jona’s bedroll, I suppose you’re in need of a story too. You may want to listen carefully. I won’t repeat myself. Unfortunately, our time together is running out.”
In any other circumstance, Kon would have left, but he needed answers. And so he frowned deeply as he waved the sorcerer on.
“Jona the White Wolf, the woman you saw die, succumbed to wounds not dealt by savage barbarians or evil wraiths; they came from her fellow wingfolk, and do you know why? Because of a petty tribal disagreement over territory. I was a young man then — not much younger than you, in fact — sent as a peacekeeping emissary on Regent Argosun’s behalf. Poor Jona the White Wolf had just graduated from Northmount Academy and returned home on leave, only to be pulled into a conflict that had nothing to do with her. She barely survived long enough to stop one petty skirmish. Unlike her, I was there a week later to watch the war erupt again. Had she denied eternal paradise and remained on Tairn, she could have prevented it. Instead her efforts faded away from the world’s memory. Can you guess how long that conflict lasted? Nearly a decade, Kon. Many more Seers than her died by the end of it.”
“If this is supposed to be a pitch, don’t waste your breath. I could never do what you did.” After interacting with Phantom, Kon was certain immortality had too steep a price.
“It’s not a pitch,” the sorcerer chuckled. “Just a story. One you’re free to interpret however you wish. It does, however, present a question. If you’re going to serve in the Fated King’s army, then it’s essential for you to accept that death is a reality. Are you prepared to sacrifice everything for the sake of our world? If you were the one bleeding out in the snow, would you be satisfied? Would you be able to make the choice that Jona did and let go?”
Kon followed the sorcerer’s pointed finger to his own lifeless corpse, face up and eyes open with a bloody slash from his neck to his navel, his fae keening sadly above him. It took everything not to lose himself to his anger then.
“Don’t worry. You don’t need to answer that question for anyone but yourself. It’s just important that you begin to ruminate. As your ‘Spiritualism’ Professor, this is one of my responsibilities. Raising questions that only you can answer. You need to know that for us Seers, death isn’t necessarily the end. The choices we make in our final moments… well, they’ve been known to change our entire world for the better.”
“Better and worse,” Kon interrupted. The sorcerer’s arrogant tone spoke volumes of his ego, as if counting himself among the great spirits. “Or has your imprisonment kept you from hearing about Hovud and Decay?”
Phantom’s laughter echoed from every direction, resounding from the walls of the labyrinth itself. “Oh, don’t be mistaken. I am well aware of the self-proclaimed Carrion King and the incurable plague left by his rampaging corpse titan. As am I of the Pirate Lord, Sin, and his crew of killers plundering the Drownedlands, and Varomin, sun bless his ascended soul, who now fights on the side of the wraiths. Though I may be imprisoned, I know much of the happenings across our world, especially pertaining to my fellow sorcerers. Certainly more than your sweet and innocent self.”
Loathe as he was to admit it, Kon didn’t recognize the title Pirate Lord or the name Sin. Varomin, however… Where have I heard that name before?
“If you want to know the point of showing you this, it’s to make you realize that no matter how noble Fate’s intentions may seem, humanity continues to suffer and die every day. Her Seers, chosen or not, are no exception, even when under her watch. In the end, the only real benefit we earn for our dutiful service is the potential to shape our destinies. For this very reason, I am drawn to you, Kon. When the old man told me about you, I knew the facts didn’t add up. If I’m honest, I only came to speak for my own benefit, not yours, to discover if you were a liar, a fluke, or something… else. Though I’m certain lying was a part of it, the gaps are too large for only that. Thirty years in hiding, which I can still hardly believe, rules you out as fluke. So what is the truth, Kon? What makes you so favored?”
Favored? Though Kon had found love and made peace with his life, he always believed the very opposite. His father had perished before he was born, and by the time he was six, he’d witnessed the possession of his brother and his murder of their mother. How could he be favored when Fate ripped his old family away from him, then went on to rip him away from his new one? She chose him, yes, but he certainly wasn’t favored.
“Aha,” Phantom laughed. “Tragedy. I’m assuming it had something to do with your brother?”
“What? How did you-”
“Don’t fret. I can’t hear your thoughts. When I mentioned my sister, there was a brief flicker of empathy in your eyes. Now at the mention of being favored, I can see your furnace burning. But alas, as fun as it has been sharing our stories and answering each other’s questions, it’s now time for me to go. Thank you for humoring me, Kon. It’s been awhile since I’ve found a worthy puzzle. In repayment, I will leave you with one last warning: You and your fae won’t be able to keep that ruby alight forever, and though I’ve been delaying their approach this entire time, trouble is still on the way. Take the cloak, Kon. You’re going to need it for the next part of your lesson.”
“Trouble?” Kon barked at Phantom’s dissipating body. “What do you mean by trouble?”
“You heard Frostbite howl out in mourning,” the sorcerer began, his smile remaining whole as the rest of him became mist. “A pack of starving wolves heard too and are coming with hopes of feasting on the remains. Since Jona’s body has mysteriously disappeared, well… I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you what they’ll try to devour next. Good luck, Kon. You have two minutes to prepare.”
A violet whirlwind spun around the grove, stirring most of the snow into a blinding flurry. Along with Phantom, the flurry departed, soaring above the labyrinth and leaving Kon alone with the giantess’s cloak. Four distinct howls resounded from the winding corridors of his sole exit, accompanied by a relentless cacophony of scratches and crashes, as if the beasts were racing and fighting to reach him first. Something I can use to my advantage?
His fae hummed loudly in affirmation, her magic brightening the ruby until its light filled the entire grove. Swallowing his pride, Kon stuck his weapon into the snow and left her to empower it, then hastily donned the giantess’s cloak. To his surprise, the layers of fur and leather shrunk around him, magically reshaping to fit his body. Thick, warm, and heavy, he walked around the grove, testing his maneuverability. It would have to do.
With some effort, he retrieved his flute from the loop on his hip, then trudged across the snow to face the lone corridor, where he raised the instrument to his lips. Kon would be a fool to battle in close quarters, but with his fae’s magic, he could at least strike the wolves from afar. The fact a single path lay between them gave him a significant advantage. Even if he stopped one of the beasts that way, it would improve his chances of survival. If Kon wanted to find Ora and earn her respect, then he needed to survive.
Seconds passed into minutes as he waited for the wolves to show their faces. In those moments, Kon thought not of himself or his enemies, nor Phantom and the memory of Jona’s last breath. He worried for his fellow students and prayed their lessons were half as traumatic. Kon was already nearing his limits, and most of them were just kids.
Amongst his fae’s humming warmth, a single note resonated sharply, clear as crystal. Lucid was supervising with the Headmaster, and Kon knew the fae’s kindness well. Trusted her, even. She would not let Phantom torture the children like this. The others had to be fine.
Alright, Kon thought, inhaling deeply and holding his breath, listening for the wolves’ approach. Time to focus.
A pair of the emaciated beasts clawed their way around the corner, snapping and biting as they fought to squeeze through first. Kon didn’t give them a chance to notice him, blaring a sharp chord through his flute. His fae shrieked in accompaniment, casting a silver luminescent blade down the corridor. It cut at a low angle, throwing up snow as it impacted the ground beneath the wolves’ paws. Not a mistake, but a warning. Kon didn’t want to hurt them if he didn’t have to.
Unfortunately, the same wasn’t true for the beasts. They didn’t wait for the snow to clear, instead abandoning their fight to pounce through the cloud one after the other. Another wolf turned the corner behind them, stopping, watching, and howling, inspiring the fourth wolf to howl in the distance and hasten its pace.
Kon breathed and blew again, this time sending the magical blade straight down the path’s center, severing the first wolf’s front legs mid-stride. That had been a mistake. He’d meant to put it down quickly by striking its head, but his flute was hard to aim. It was a miracle he’d done this well so far.
The beast’s horrid wailing became an agonizing shriek as the second wolf vaulted off the collapsed body of the first. Kon cast two more blades in quick succession, but both veered a little off course, barely severing a few hairs from the creature’s pelt of dark fur. Before it could reach the grove’s entrance, Kon took his largest breath yet and released it, not as a chord, but a fluttering quadruplet. Four luminescent slivers of death scattered through the air before him, hitting the wolf in three places. Red splattered against white as the beast’s husk slid toward Kon’s feet. He stepped back hurriedly, nearly tripping as he pulled his legs out of the deep snow.
Before the last two wolves could reunite, Kon inhaled and concentrated, his attention flickering between his fingers and the wailing, legless beast. I’m sorry, he thought, casting a focused blade and putting it out of his misery. Watching its head pop off sent Kon reeling, his stomach churning with vomit. The sour flavor that filled his mouth didn’t seem like an illusion.
Spitting and coughing, he bent low to pick up a handful of clean snow and wash his mouth out with it. Brain freeze was a significant improvement compared to the acrid taste of bile.
Rising, Kon looked up and found the last two wolves at the end of the lone corridor. Not a pair of full-grown males like the last two, but a mother and her child, the daughter hauntingly thin with a single eye wide, the other caved in and scarred.
Kon held his breath as he and the wolves stared at one another. Please don’t make me kill you too, he thought. His fae chimed a sorrowful melody.
The mother wolf responded with a slow, measured step. Kon lowered his flute as she approached, her eyes on the corpse of her decapitated brother. While her daughter whimpered and followed along sluggishly, she pushed the dead wolf over, turning it onto its back, and sniffed at its stomach. With jagged fangs, she bit off small pieces of the meat and began dropping them into the mouth of her daughter.
Watching the moment unfold left Kon feeling surreal. For illusions, these beasts were incredibly life-like. Are these a memory too, Phantom? If the sorcerer hadn’t been so infuriating, he might have asked the question out loud. Instead, Kon pocketed his flute, picked up his spear, and moved for the exit.
Before he could get close enough to step around the hungry wolves, the mother turned and snarled, lashing out a paw and driving him back. Though she didn’t appear to have the strength to fight, it didn’t seem she would let him by that easily. Not after he killed two members of her pack.
So Kon retreated back into the grove, veering toward the unbloodied patch of snow. Between the giantess’s cloak and his ruby spear, he was starting to regain feeling in his skin and limbs. Though he could fight his way through the mother wolf and her daughter, he’d rather wait for them to finish their meal. At least then he could give them a chance to depart. Ora could wait for now. She was strong and resilient.
“Want to play a song with me?” he asked his fae. She buzzed happily, filling the grove with light and warmth. “I’m thinking of a funeral song,” he said, her humming becoming melancholy. “I know it's sad, but an elegy for the dead seems appropriate.”
His companion nodded as she floated up, hovering level with his hands. Kon worked his fingers until they were nimble, lifted the harmonica strung around his neck to his lips, then filled the grove with gentle music. With his fae’s magic, the somber melody carried higher and farther, willing the song to encompass the whole labyrinth and permeate the entire sky.
For Jona the White Wolf, he thought, sadness pouring out of him with every harmonious breath. For the father I never knew, and the mother I’ll always cherish. For the brother who was stolen from and turned against us, sun bless his soul. For the deaths that have and will be caused by my own hands, the lives I won’t be able to save. And for myself, should that day ever come. Not that this song is for any of them, for elegies were meant for the living.
Not the lesson Phantom wanted Kon to learn, but a lesson he could accept.