Prelude No. 2

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Chapter Three

𝅘𝅥 The ‘Talk’ No. 2 𝅘𝅥

In the dark of night and the shade of countless trees, Kon tread carefully across uneven, unbroken ground. Pits of mud and devious tree roots lay hidden under a blanket of yellowing leaves. His daughter, Kinjra, sat perched on his shoulders. With each step, Kon’s back creaked beneath the weight of his daughter and the sack on his back. After dinner, he had collected a few things from their nest’s attic for the occasion. Various instruments jingled and shuffled as Kon halted, a few banging against the long, rectangular case that dug into his spine. The old sack’s worn hide did little to protect him from the jutting pain.

Kon felt so old. It wasn’t that long ago that he was traveling from roost to roost on a weekly basis, performing shows for countless audiences. Now, the man was just two seasons away from 40. Marching alongside the Pale Hawks took all the energy he could muster these days. It had been too long since Kon and Kinjra had played outside. In his heart, he was glad for the excuse, but in his head, he couldn’t stop worrying. Like all people, Kon felt uneasy on the night of a meteor fall.

It was a silly fear, really. The Pale Hawks had been assured by a Seer from a nearby Eyrie that a glimpse at Fate determined the meteor’s crash location. Kon and Kinjra would be safe where they were going.

“Hey Dad?” said Kinjra. Kon had been so focused on the ground, he somehow forgot about his aching back. Grimacing, Kon nearly tripped as the pain startled into awareness. The man huffed as he gripped a sallowood beside him for balance. “It looks like the branches are getting thicker up ahead,” she continued. “Can you let me down?”

“Sure thing,” Kon wheezed. With a grateful smile, he crouched. Instead of jumping straight down, Kinjra grabbed a tree branch and pulled herself up, allowing Kon to step aside and rise. The tree bent with Kinjra’s weight, but her father quickly caught her. The girl thanked him as he lowered her onto steady feet by her waist.

As his little girl looked up at him, a rush of green light scraped across the top of his vision. Kinjra’s eyes darted in pursuit of her fae. Kon followed her gaze, barely able to keep track of its faint glow against the dim backdrop of foliage. It was flying from one tree to another, momentarily pausing to inspect and restore life to snapped branches and shriveling leaves. The sparkle of magic was tiny – almost negligible – but Kon managed to spot each glint as it faded, like stars beyond a darkening sky.

The wind blew then, and the trees bent with it. A small gap formed in the canopies to reveal the speckled black expanse of night. As if by Fate, the thin shine of the skyblade cut across the darkness beyond the gap. Soon enough, a part of Tairn’s lunar ring would break and crumble. Fragments would plummet. Chunks of luminescent moonrock, trailing with all-devouring spiritfire. If they were lucky, the meteor would not carry wraiths down to their planet. Most days, they weren’t so lucky. It was rare that the ghostly apparitions didn’t accompany their bombardments.

“You okay?” Kinjra asked. For the second time, her voice pulled Kon back to reality. His daughter had caught him staring. Her brow furrowed in worry as she inspected his face, no longer enthralled by her ethereal companion. Kon beckoned for his own fae to join them as he returned Kinjra’s concern with a smile.

“I am,” he answered. His fae had gone on ahead of them to listen for danger. Beasts roamed the woods – including tree lions, winged vipers, and arakens – yet it seemed the Pale Hawk’s hunters had long cleared this area of threats. In seconds, his fae was hovering between him and his daughter. The glittering orb rang pleasantly.

“What’s that mean?” his daughter asked.

“I’m not sure,” Kon admitted. “But if I had to guess, I think it means we’re safe. The birds have mostly fled already, and the other animals… the few my fae heard sound like they are hiding. We should be able to reach the grove without running into any trouble.”

“That’s amazing,” said Kinjra. “I can’t understand what my fae is sensing. Every time I try, I get overwhelmed. It’s like this bright flash of light, but I feel it instead of see it. It’s blinding.”

Kon felt lighter as he bent down to lightly muss his daughter’s hair. “At first, it was like that for me too. Not a blinding flash, but a deafening boom. I had to bear the deep grinding and shrill ringing for hours before I got used to it enough to make sense of it. Though it won’t be pleasant, that’s a part of what I’ll need you to try to do tonight. I believe our ability to control our fae is intertwined with our understanding of them.”

Kinjra nodded slightly, then bowed her head and eased her eyes shut. Her tiny body shuddered beneath her long, white shirt. The night was warm enough that she didn’t need a jacket. Kon’s own sweater was heavy with sweat.

His daughter wasn’t able to bear the overwhelming brightness for long. Kinjra’s eyes fluttered open. “I don’t know if I can do it,” she whispered. “It’s too much.”

“That’s okay. That part was the hardest for me. Don’t push yourself too much. We can try something easier on the move.”

Kon straightened as Kinjra stepped up beside him. Together, the pair ventured into the quiet wilderness. The melancholy lull before a meteor shower always made Kon feel uncomfortable, like the planet itself was holding its breath and bracing for impact. The feral animals were hiding as if they could sense Tairn’s distress, leaving only the faint buzz of insects to hang in the air, with the occasional rustle of leaves in the wind.

The paths between the trees were growing thinner. Kon took the lead while Kinjra hopped across the tops of roots behind him, huffing with each jump. “What do you want me to do?” she asked between leaps.

As Kon stepped on the unsteady earth – ducking between the occasional branch – his eyes never left the shadowy maze of trees and vines before him. He held up a hand with the palm face-up. Come, he thought. His fae glided over him and landed on the tips of his fingers.

Kon’s fae was weightless, yet he could still feel it. Like a soft pressure that made his nerves sing at a touch. The fae’s coiled shell of grooved metal strings was neither hot, cold, nor warm, though Kon could feel a slight thrumming from within it. With each beat of his heart, a note resonated through his fae. He could hear it in his own ears as he could hear the thumping in his chest.

“At the school,” he began while still gazing on ahead. “I saw your fae, after it used magic, land in your hands. Could you make it do it again?” he asked with a brief glance back.

Kinjra nodded. She lifted a pair of cupped hands, then clenched her jaw in strain. A small vein on the side of her neck pressed up against the skin. When she stopped moving to close her eyes without falling, her fae finally responded. Reluctant, the faint glow of her fae retreated from the trees. Slowly, it drifted into Kinjra’s palms. Her eyes snapped open the moment it landed.

“Good,” Kon said. He halted when his daughter did, then resumed his stride. Kinjra pattered behind him. She climbed over roots instead of jumping off them. “Tell me. How does your fae feel? What is it telling you?”

Kinjra hummed in consideration. “Well. I feel he’s a he, for one. Not an it.”

“Really?” Kon asked. His daughter nodded as he looked back at her. The tips of his fingers vibrated as his fae chimed brightly, drawing his attention back to… her, he supposed. Kon had never thought of it before, but his fae’s soothing touch reminded him of his mother or his wife. Every sound she made invoked the same thoughts and feelings he had when either of them spoke. Kindness. Beauty. Reverence.

The gold-and-silver orb chimed a second time, as if she could somehow understand the pieces connecting in his mind. With a thought, she rose into the air. Her shell glinted as she slowly rotated around his open hand. A quiet whistle hung in the wake of her flight. His fae alternated tones in a cheery melody.

Kon paused and turned to face his daughter. “Could you have your fae do something like this?” he asked.

Kinjra’s eyes widened as she watched the musical fae. “I don’t think he can sing,” she told him. “But maybe I can get him to dance a little?” Instead of letting her fae take to the air on its own, Kinjra tossed him into the air cheerfully. With a smile on her face and a vein bulging on her neck, she willed the living light into motion. He flew in circles just as oblong as its body, creating faint rings of vivid color around and between her arms.

After three revolutions, Kinjra pulled her hands down to her sides. As soon as the rings broke, they dissipated. The girl frowned as she blinked at her fae. A moment later, it rushed back to the foliage. Her frown deepened as she gazed up at her father.

“What happened?” Kon asked.

“I told him to do what he wanted,” she whispered. “I could tell he was getting bored, and feel a familiar kind of anxiousness. It didn’t seem fair, so I let him go. We both feel better now. He’s happier among the leaves, like me.”

Kon nodded as he dropped his hand, allowing his fae her freedom. Faintly glinting, she hovered around him, drawing his attention to the path ahead. The air whistled a gleeful tune as the pair of humans followed her. The grove was close enough that the rest of his lecture could wait.

As they walked, Kon spared a glance at his daughter, worrisome thoughts buzzing in his mind. Teachers were seldom surprised to learn things from their students, but the way Kinjra talked about her fae… it seemed that on her own – and in a quarter of the time – she came to understand him more than Kon understood his. Not once did he think about his fae as an independent creature. He only assumed she reacted to his emotions. Nothing more.

Tense with guilt, Kon gazed ahead at his floating companion. She remained close by to illuminate the clawing branches. You can do what you want, he thought. Her shell whistled cheerfully as she soared on ahead. In spite of the growing distance and the rustle of leaves blowing on the wind, Kon could still hear her singing. He closed his eyes and felt her thanks.

It seemed what his fae wanted to do was locate the source of a nervous chattering. As she flew closer to the creatures, Kon recognized them by the endless, monotonous rhythm of their voices. Ritili, he thought. Judging by the rising volume, a few of the critters must have saw his fae approaching.

Between the leaves of distant canopies, Kon could see their wide, bulbous eyes faintly shimmering. As more voices grew louder, more ritili appeared. At least a hundred of their puffy, furry faces poked out of the foliage, their cheeks swollen and dotted with countless pointy lumps. The easiest way to tell the males from the females was by the latter’s decorative whiskers, which curled down and around their necks, some intricately woven.

Two dozen males swung down to lower branches. Retractable nails on the ritili’s hands and feet helped them grasp, move, and hang from the trees with ease as they scattered, taking different positions to watch the intruders. Ringlight shined from the grove behind them, casting long shadows in Kon’s direction. Each path between their trees was warded off with a twisting web of vines, perhaps inspired by the wood’s resident arakens. Though it wouldn’t work on a human, Kon imagined predators like tree lions would be sufficiently warded off.

With the light at the ritili’s backs, it was hard for Kon to see the symbols painted on the male’s shields. The shields were made from chewed bark and hardened with sap. With the bottom end tucked neatly into the pouch on the critters’ round stomachs, the shields were able to press flat against their soft, hairless underbellies. A formless mass of green squiggles was painted on the front of their shields to mark their clan from others.

There were many reasons why Kinjra had taken a liking to the ritili during one of Kon’s ecology lectures. Across the continent of Tír, they were renowned for their ability to adapt to most environments, and their capability of building intricate, thriving cultures.

Finding a clan this big so far in the Waistlands was a surprise, however. Kon’s eyes widened along with Kinjra as more than two hundred ritili gathered. With each of the humans’ steps, their chattering grew even louder.

“Dad? They seem mad. Did we do something wrong?”

Kon shook his head as he halted, no less than a hundred steps from the gathering ritili. “They’re not mad,” he told her. “They’re just as worried as we are. It seems their clan claimed this place as their home. They’re scared we came to ruin it.”

The creatures never stopped chattering or staring, not even as Kon lowered himself down to his knees. Careful not to ruin his belongings, he slipped his sack off his back and placed it on the ground. Before opening it, he glanced at his daughter and found her watching him curiously. Her fae was far behind her, still inspecting and healing the dying flora.

“Can you ask your fae to stay close?” he asked. “Try to make him understand it’s his job to protect you. You need to be his top priority.”

Kinjra hesitated, then nodded. While her fae returned to her side, Kon’s fae drifted further toward the ritili. Kon watched their jaws drop as their bulbous eyes tracked the fae’s movements. Saliva dripped from their mouths, spilling tiny clumps of chewed seeds on their puffed out chests.

“What are you doing?” asked Kinjra.

Kon reached under a flap on the sack’s side. From the wide pocket beneath it, he slid out a polished lyre. The instrument was made of burned amorphlora, a rare wood from the Southern Talons that appeared pale and rubbery in nature, but darkened and hardened when introduced to flame. Its silver and gold lute strings – for the low and high notes, respectively – shone in contrast to the lyre’s dark, russet body. Winding lines danced across the wood’s surface, imitating smoke trails, but at a touch, Kon only felt the smooth, invisible varnish.

“I’m going to introduce us,” he told her. “I’ve got a few more instruments, if you want to help.”

Kinjra’s lips were pulled into a tight line as she took a step back. “No thank you.” Her voice was as jittery as her body wasn’t. Though Kon’s daughter had as much talent as he did when he was her age, the idea of performing for anyone – apparently even animals – terrified her. She barely felt comfortable playing music for her mother.

“In that case, stick close to me. Don’t move too fast, or make too much noise, or you could scare them. We want the ritili to understand we mean no harm.”

Kinjra cupped her hands tightly around her mouth. “Got it,” she quietly exclaimed.

After rising to his feet, Kon led Kinjra and her fae to meet his. His fae’s glittering shell hovered just before the largest vine-wrapped tree. Most of the ritili gathered on its countless branches, including another three dozen armored protectors. Women and children peeked their faces out from the spaces between leaves. At the top of the tree, a taller, thinner, wrinkled ritili stood imperiously, looking down on the rest. The Clanmother’s lengthy whiskers were the only ones that spiraled upwards. They curled around the tiny pinnas of her ears like a crown.

Kon’s fae was humming gently as they slowly stepped under her. With his lyre in his hands, the once-bard bowed to his audience. His face felt warm as he smiled. Already, his blood rushed in anticipation. Beside him, Kinjra bowed too. Her face was taut as she stood with her hands clasped behind her back.

With blunted, talon-like nails, Kon grazed the strings of his lyre gently, inciting a lone, bright chord. As soon as the music reverberated within the instrument, his fae’s shell began to sparkle with glints of silver and gold. The air shone with magic as the music filled the air; a soft glow that spread quickly, warding off shadows. Kon breathed and felt lighter. Aches in his muscles faded as his vision adjusted to the mystical luminescence.

The magical wave of music washed over the ritili, easing the tension in the protector’s shoulders and inspiring children to swing down for a better view. The Clanmother at the top of the tree was the only ritili who looked unimpressed. Kon’s fae floated closer to the Clanmother. She stared at the glittering orb warily.

“That’s not all, is it?” Kinjra whispered.

Kon shook his head as his smile grew larger. “I’m only setting the mood,” he told her. “Now comes the introduction.”

At the word introduction, Kon matched the pitch of his voice with a quick, fluttering quadruplet. With a forward sweep, he blended the notes together, then scattered the melody apart with slow, spaced plucks. Seven alternating, oscillating tones, dancing up, down, and up again, punctuated with another thoughtful sweep. As Kon repeated the melody again at a lower pitch, his fae whistled in accompaniment. Sparks of gold and silver light burst in the air with each pluck of Kon’s lyre.

Kinjra’s mouth dropped along with the ritili’s. A few of the children scampered to the ends of branches to reach out at the sparkling lights. One of the young boys had nearly fallen before he was caught by nearby brethren. For their safety, the musician transitioned into a more somber tone. Using only the lowest notes, he strummed a final melody, the space between each note growing larger until eventually, only silence remained. As Kon bowed to his audience, the sparks of light flickered out one by one.

After the last spark faded, the ritili’s voices swelled, chattering excitedly. By the end, even the Clanmother’s slitted eyes widened, growing as bulbous as the rest of them. Kon looked up and saw the elder ritili swallow, then bellow a garbled whine. A hush fell over the clan as the mystical luminescence faded in the air. Children retreated up the tree and into the leaves, joining their parents and more-reserved siblings. The hanging protectors craned their necks to look up at their leader.

“Dad?” Kinjra whispered.

The Clanmother swallowed again as her eyes wandered from Kon’s fae to his face. “It’s okay,” he assured his daughter, just quiet enough for only them to hear. His gaze never left the whisker-crowned ritili.

Tchicha!” the creature shouted. Each syllable of her chattering was punctuated with a loud clash of teeth.

Leaves rippled in the tree’s foliage as the ritili abruptly scattered. Mothers and their children retreated into the grove beyond. As they departed, unarmored males leaped down to join the clan’s protectors. The creatures worked together to untie the vines around the branches. Knots that were pulled too tight had to be chewed through by the ritili’s especially-large teeth. Once loose, the unarmored males used the vines to swing to the ground, then scampered off. Even the Clanmother disappeared, likely descending the back of the tree. In less than a minute, only the shielded protectors remained. They sat on the branches just above the now-opened path.

Beyond, Kon and Kinjra could see a sliver of their home. In the middle of the grassy, open clearing, a freshwater pond shimmered beneath the silvery ringlight. A family of white swans floated in the water, where they drifted underneath the mossy tree that arced over the pond like a bridge. Branches plunged into water as the leafless canopy dug into the earth at the other side, adapting into additional roots. Tiny fireflies danced through the air, leaving faint trails of light in the wake of their looping flights.

Kon took a peek at his daughter. She had been stunned into silence by the light show and the ritili unveiling of the grove beyond.

As he retrieved his sack and led a wide-eyed Kinjra under the vigilant ritili, he spoke to his daughter quietly, careful not to startle the creatures. “At some point, I learned that when I play stringed instruments, my fae can tune it with magic to spread ideas and emotions. For now, we can only manage basic concepts, like ‘we come in peace,’ or ‘may we please enter.’ It’s the same way I get the birds to sing with me for my lessons.”

At the grove’s entrance, Kon left his belongings sitting against a tree. Kinjra smiled as she wandered past him. She cast her gaze from one end of the mossy, open field to the other, until she eventually stared at a pink bush she didn’t recognize. At the tips of its branches, heart-shaped flower buds opened up like a pair of lips, releasing a matching, fragrant mist. A breeze carried the light pink cloud across the grove and up into the air. The ritili had spread out around the treeline where they chattered quietly to themselves. Many of them watched the humans while the rest stared up at the thin blade of light that cut across the night.

Kinjra was practically vibrating with joy as she ran to the pink bush. “I’ve never seen this before!” she exclaimed. “What is this?”

Kon retrieved the long, rectangular box from his sack before joining his daughter. With it cradled under his arm, he watched Kinjra prod a heart-shaped flower bud from over her shoulder. On contact, a bright plume of fragrant mist burst out, filling the air and their nostrils both. For Kon, the scent evoked that of his wife’s favorite perfume and his mother’s sweet-and-savory pies. Kinjra waved the colorful mist out of her face before leaning in for a closer inspection. Kon grinned at his daughter’s curiosity.

“When my brother and I were younger than you, we stumbled upon this place. We asked around and brought other Pale Hawks here, but the only thing we could figure out was this bush was made by a fae. Neither the plant nor its mist is visible to anyone without the Sight. The smell, on the other hand… what did the mist smell like to you?”

Kinjra sniffed loudly, her nose crinkling. Trace amounts of the mist still lingered in the air. Her brow furrowed as she frowned and looked at her father. “I don’t smell anything different,” she told him. “Just the freshness of nature and…” She sniffed again before she looked up and grimaced at Kon. “And – ew – a hint of bad B.O.”

Kon startled, then smiled. He tilted his nose down to his armpit and took a quick whiff. Though he didn’t smell like he was recently washed, his sweater did a good job of containing the stench of his sweat. If Kinjra smelled body odor, it wasn’t coming from him. Rin’s theory was that the mist could evoke the scent of things people love. For Kinjra, the freshness of nature made sense. The father decided to leave the rest alone. Kon had liked some unusual things when he was a kid, too.

“…Dad?” asked Kinjra.

Kon crouched until he was at eye-level with his daughter. He used the long, rectangular box to prop himself up despite the soreness in his calves and thighs. “What is it, Kin?” he asked.

His daughter’s lips twitched in hesitation. “You never told me about your brother.”

“I didn’t tell your mother about him either,” he admitted. His voice rang with a pang of regret.

“Is that why she was upset before dinner?”

“It is. I was wrong to keep a secret from her, even if my intentions were… good, maybe, but not great. It was certainly the easy option, and sometimes easy can be a relief, but when it comes to keeping secrets from the people you love? It’s never worth it. I’m still amazed your mother let us come out, after that.”

“Me too,” Kinjra said with a careful nod. Her eyes searched her father’s as her lips drooped into a frown. “What was his name?” she asked. “My uncle, that is.”

“Rin. He was three years older. Nine, when he developed the Sight. I’m sure he would have grown up to become a powerful Seer.”

Kinjra’s eyelids sagged as her gaze fell to the box in Kon’s hands. “What happened to him?”

Instead of answering, Kon rose to his feet. He lifted the box up off the dirt with the motion, quickly dusted its bottom, then tucked it under his right arm. “Come,” he said, waving for her to follow him to the pond at the center of the grove. “I’ll tell you more about him in a moment. But first-“

Kon approached the base of the mossy tree that arced over the pond like a bridge. He leaned the box against the protruding trunk, undid the latch on its small end, and slipped out its contents. A disassembled telescope was fit into the box neatly, including a frame with three legs to keep it upright. Overall, the telescope and its stand was half Kon’s height. The device had been designed with a child viewer in mind.

“This belonged to Rin,” he told her. “He convinced our mother to buy it for him in one of the Northern roosts. Like all humans, Rin loved the sky and dreamed of flying. Unlike most people, however, it was the vast, dark expanse beyond our heavens that really fascinated him. Even when his fae was as small as ours, I could tell it was powerful enough to someday make Rin’s dream a reality.”

As he talked, Kon climbed up onto the tree-bridge, then offered Kinjra a hand to give her some extra lift. They both huffed as he pulled her up. The mossy bark provided more than enough traction to keep them from dropping into the waters below. Kon led his daughter by the hand to the tree’s flat, widened middle. There, he began to assemble the pieces of his brother’s telescope.

“Rin…” he began. “Him and I, we never knew our father. Even at nine, Rin took it upon himself to be the man of the house. He was my hero. I looked up to him more than anyone. If he asked me, I would have followed him anywhere.”

During the year after Rin died, Kon had played with his brother’s telescope often. At a certain point, he decided the pain of remembering was too much. He asked Gul’s parents to hide it alongside his mother’s most precious belongings. In spite of Kon not thinking about or touching the telescope for most of his life, his hands still knew what to do. In less than a minute, he was bending down to look through the eyepiece and adjust its settings. Kon twisted a set of rings until the skyblade was in clear view.

“On a night a lot like tonight, Rin took me to this very grove. Not to see the stars, but to show me something new that he taught his fae. The Pale Hawks happened to set up camp on a knoll just outside the woods, unaware of an impending meteor. The Seers from the nearby Eyrie… they didn’t see it coming, either. It was a small rock, all things considered, and they didn’t have many powerful Diviners, back then. Though the meteor didn’t fall here- it crashed fairly close. Too close,” he emphasized.

During his speech, Kon’s voice swelled and hitched with more emotion. Within his throat, he could feel his vocal cords become strained with tension. An intermingling haze of grief and guilt fogged his mind and his vision. Kon wiped his eyes as Kinjra hugged his leg. His daughter pressed her face against the side of his hip.

“The spiritfire…” she mumbled. As Kon’s fae drifted closer, he picked up every hint of fear and worry in his daughter’s voice. Kinjra knew as well as any of his students that spiritfire consumed existence itself, reducing anything it touched to lifeless ash. Each time a meteor fell, the monochromatic flame would leave faded scars in the sky and smoldering holes on the earth.

“Worse,” said Kon. Kinjra removed her face from the hem of his sweater and looked up at him. Her yellow eyes shined like reflected sunlight. “Rin was Taken,” he told her. “Possessed by a wraith.” Kon took a deep breath, then swallowed the lump of pain forming in his throat. “I’ll spare us both the details, but I can say this much. The wraiths are just as evil as people say, Kin. They’re monsters. The things they can do… the things that they can make us do… there’s a good reason why the Fated King needs Seers like us to stop them.”

Kon sighed, then mussed his daughter’s hair, inciting a panicked groan. With both hands, Kinjra slapped Kon’s away then grasped it. He had wanted to inject levity into the conversation, but it did no good. Kinjra was still frowning when she looked back up at her father. Her yellow eyes were still shining.

“Dad,” she whispered. “What are you saying?”

Kon cast his gaze up to the planet’s glowing ring. As far as it was, the bright line was straight and narrow. Its light was a pure, radiant silver, though it did occasionally flicker with tiny sparks of darkness, no larger than the stars. Near the center of the skyblade, a small part of it crumbled, heralded by a small flash of white. When the rock entered Tairn’s atmosphere, that small flash of white grew bigger and brighter. Kon raised his arm and pointed. “Look through the telescope,” he told her. “Now that you have the Sight, it’s important that you see what humanity is up against.”

Kinjra obeyed reluctantly. With her hands clasped behind her back, she peered into the eyepiece. From where he was standing, Kon could see her eyes widen as she let out a quiet gasp.

“Tell me. What do you see?”

The girl’s voice trembled as she spoke. “I don’t know,” she told him. “I…”

“It’s okay, Kin. We’re safe here. From the look of it, the meteor is falling even farther north than the Seers told us.”

“I just see death,” she told him. “The light seems pretty from afar, but up close, it looks so… I don’t know. Hungry? I can see tongues of spiritfire flicking out and devouring the color from the sky. And the ring- it’s not as pretty, either. It’s not even connected. Just a bunch of huge, floating rocks. They’re bright but everything is…”

“Desolate,” Kon answered for her. “Do you see the shadows?” Kon asked.

Kinjra tore her gaze from the eyepiece. Her eyes grazed the white swans that drifted across the pond below them. She answered the question with a wordless nod.

“Four years,” Kon said. “That’s all the Fated King has to prepare for the War. All humanity has, because like it or not, this war involves the entire world. Since I gained the Sight, I’ve slowly been realizing that Fate isn’t as mysterious as it pretends to be. On the same evening of a meteor fall, my wife found out about my brother at the same time I found out about you. I’ve never been one to deny that coincidences can happen, but this many of them, all dealing with Seers and fae? The more I think about it, the harder it is for me to deny Fate. I’m beginning to believe that today was meant to be a warning.”

“A warning?” Kinjra asked. She joined Kon in staring at the plummeting meteor. A moment later, the speck of flaming rock disappeared beyond the grove’s treeline. All ritili but the clan’s protectors had retreated into their hollowed-out trees and under-root burrows for safety. Countless leagues to the north, a bright plume of white light burst upward. When the spiritfire faded, the affected patch of sky looked washed out and gray until more color from the atmosphere flowed in to restore it.

“Your mother can feel it, too,” he whispered. “Inevitability. Like we can’t hide forever. I think she’s right, except she lacks something important for context. I don’t blame her for having no faith, but even after losing my brother and my mother? I have to believe that Fate only has our best interests in mind. I have to believe the Fated King and our fae will get us through what’s coming.”

Kon picked the telescope up and began disassembling it. Kinjra watched on with her brow furrowed and her mouth half-open. She didn’t speak, perhaps too uncertain. Her father’s hands moved of their own volition as he looked back at her with a soft grin.

“Don’t worry. We came out here tonight so you could learn how to hide your fae and control his magic. I don’t intend to let Fate take us from our home and our friends. I promise you that I’ll do whatever it takes to keep you safe, for as long as I possibly can. The reason I’m telling and showing you all this is because someday, I’m certain Fate will give us no other choice. We need to be ready for when that happens.”

Kinjra straightened beside Kon as he folded and collected the separate pieces of Rin’s telescope. When he looked at his daughter, he found her posture rigid. Kinjra blinked the last of the moisture from her eyes and nodded.

“I understand,” she told him, her voice steady with resolve. With her jaw clenched, her puffy cheeks were pulled taut. It was only when Kinjra looked serious that her face ever resembled her father. She glowered up at the skyblade with determination.

“Great. In that case, it’s time we get to work.”

Before Kon could take his first step toward stable land, Kinjra grasped the sleeve of his arm and tugged his attention downward. “Before we start, do you have anything I can feed to the swans? They seem hungry.”

“Good idea,” he said cheerfully. “I’ve got just the thing. Gul lent me a bag of seeds for your training. While you feed some to the swans, I’ll figure out something for your fae to try.”

Chapter Four

𝅘𝅥 Blooming 𝅘𝅥

“Go on, Kin. I know you can do it.”

Despite the confidence in Kon’s voice, Kinjra didn’t look so certain. Father and daughter sat cross-legged on a comfy patch of mossy green earth. They faced each other, with the large bag of seeds that lay on the ground between them. Kon’s fae entertained a group of young ritili by ringing and twinkling nearby, while Kinjra’s fae finally joined them after investigating each tree that surrounded the grove. He floated just above one of her hands, glowing brightly. She held the hand before her with a knuckle-sized seed clutched in her fingers. Kinjra’s grimace reminded Kon of the look on her face at the start of today’s test. Before she even started, his daughter glared at the seed in defeat.

“It’s not about me, Dad. He isn’t sure he can do it. He’s only ever healed dying plants and made healthy plants bigger. Bringing a seed to life, though? It feels… different.”

Kon masked his surprise with a gentle smile. Throughout the evening, Kinjra’s ability to understand her fae had grown exponentially. His daughter had told Kon that when he wasn’t looking, she often closed her eyes to witness that blinding sensation. The first few times, she told him she lasted no longer than a handful of seconds. By the thirtieth attempt, Kinjra could bear it for more than a minute. Kon had not progressed half that fast.

Eventually, Kon found his words. “I think you two might be surprised how much you can accomplish. Earlier, I told you what my fae can do with stringed instruments. With wind instruments, her magic is completely different. The fae are versatile, as much as they are powerful. Just ask him to try. Ask him to believe.”

Kinjra blinked at her father before pushing the seed into the ground. The girl frowned as she pierced the soft moss. Her frown deepened as she used a finger to dig a bigger hole, then again when she packed the upturned soil over the buried seed. Kinjra closed her eyes. Her face was relaxed, compared to her earlier tension. No veins pushed against the side of her neck, not even as her oblong green fae lowered to the ground. The fae glowed brighter as he nestled himself in the moss-less dirt. In seconds, the glow spread around out him, then seeped deeper into the earth. Kinjra opened her eyes just in time to see the flash of bright, verdant light. The air sparkled with emerald luminescence, attracting the eyes of the small ritili that were playing nearby.

They all stared at the budding sprout as it lifted Kinjra’s fae into the air. The flower shined vibrantly as it grew taller, sprouting glowing leaves around its growing bud. When the growth slowed, the bud unfolded into dozens of finger-thick petals. They danced in a spiral as Kinjra’s fae rose into the air. The shining glow faded as the fae drifted to Kinjra’s side, revealing a bright yellow sunflower with countless seeds budding on its head.

Kon smiled as Kinjra’s jaw dropped open. Despite her fae’s use of magic, he glowed even brighter than before. “See?” Kon prodded. “That wasn’t so hard now, was it?”

Kinjra reached out and plucked a seed from the sunflower’s head. Her fae watched her inspect the relatively small kernel. Though the plant wasn’t finished growing, it seemed it would be soon.

“I can’t believe this,” muttered Kinjra. “If my fae did this to every seed in this bag, we could fill this entire grove with sunflowers. The ritili would never run out of food!”

Kinjra’s gleeful voice made the world around her seem brighter. It took a moment for Kon to realize that was because of his fae’s magic. The twinkling orb had led the friendly ritili to the humans. Kinjra gave the ritili a thumbs up, prompting Kon’s fae to sing with a gentle ring of affirmation. A few of the tiny creatures climbed up onto Kinjra’s shoulders to the sound of her giggling laughter. The rest scattered between them, some taking turns at jumping and plucking the newly-grown seeds, while others scampered over to the bag that Gul lent Kon.

Quick yet careful, Kon stopped the ritili in their tracks by placing his hand against the bag’s opening. A handful of whiskerless-boys and slightly-whiskered girls looked at him in stunned silence. Their bulbous eyes seemed widened with fear until he smiled lightly, then began plucking a few seeds from the bag. He gave them to the creatures one-by-one. The ritili scampered off as they cracked open and gnawed on their tasty gifts.

Kon popped a seed in his mouth and chewed it before speaking. “I’m not sure your fae will be up to filling this entire grove, but I thought if I helped you plant the seeds, he could blossom some, and the rest could grow up naturally. The next time the Pale Hawks pass by these woods, I’ll bring us out here again to check up on them.”

Kinjra’s eyes lit up with the idea. The ritili on her shoulders jumped off her, each one attempting to grab the sunflower’s head. When the last one succeeded and pulled the seeds down to her bretheren, she met Kon’s gaze. “You promise?”

“I promise,” he answered. “About a year from now, you and I will come here. We’ll see how far we’ve come, and figure out what we do next. You’ll nearly be fourteen by then. Not so far from being your own adult.”

Kinjra’s face sagged at the mention of adulthood. Sixteen was getting closer, and the girl loved her life as it was. No responsibilities other than school and the occasional chore. Most days she spent her time hearing lessons from her teachers and playing with friends while the flock migrated. At sixteen, she would be expected to harvest passing resources with Jrana. Belen would help his dad tend to the flock’s steers, and Etal would assist his father with his clinic.

Pink mist drifted on the wind between them, prompting memories of Kon’s wife and his mother. Kinjra breathed and grinned weakly as the last of the ritili claimed their seeds and departed. Her fae hovered over to the flower’s slightly-bent stem. With a glimmer of light, the plant straightened as it healed.

“Come on,” Kon said. He uncrossed his legs and used leverage from a hand on the bag to push himself up, then bent down to grab Kinjra’s hand. His daughter’s breath ooofed out of her as she pulled herself to her feet.

Together, the father and daughter picked up two handfuls of the sunflower seeds and split up to plant them in mostly open, mossy field. Kon wandered toward the pond, where the water lapped against the soil and made it more fertile. He planted a line of seeds along the pond’s edge, past the tree-bridge and the stalks of burgeoning ringreeds. Like the thin blade of light in the sky, the sharp, translucent reeds shone like polished steel.

Behind him, Kinjra ran around the grove with her fae drifting in her wake. Each time she stopped to lay a seed in the ground and command her fae to bring a flower to life, she looked less and less guilty for digging holes in the earth. More ritili were jumping off tree branches to collect and gather food. Kon watched over a hundred of them carry armfuls of seeds to the Clanmother’s tree. The ritili placed the seeds in a pile, stacking it up higher and higher.

If the creatures were more patient, their food would grow twice as large, but Kon wasn’t sure how he could explain that to them through song. This would have to be enough. The sunflowers would grow more seeds, and Kinjra’s fae would grow more sunflowers. Kon’s daughter walked over to the first seed he planted by the pond. Her fae landed and started glowing. His sudden flash of magic was more vibrant than before.

Kinjra cheered as her father went to the bag to collect another handful of seeds. Older ritili formed a crescent around the bag. Without rigid shields on their bare fronts, the ritili were able to slouch forward and lay their tiny arms over the top of their bulging stomachs. Patient as they were, Kon decided to reward them. He emptied half the bag on the ground for the critters to take freely. They chittered what Kon guessed to be thanks as they ran up and filled their mouths to the brim with seeds, not chewing, but only storing. They picked up the scraps and cradled them in their arms, then scampered off to add their gifts to the pile.

Another bright flash drew Kon’s eyes back to his daughter, just in time to see it flicker out. The green glow of her fae paled as he used his magic, leaving the sunflower half-grown and lopsided. As powerful as the fae was, he seemed to have reached his limits. Kon took a deep breath as he surveyed their work. Over a hundred seeds had been planted, and fifteen and a half sunflowers had been grown.

Kon joined his daughter by the pond. In the palms of her cupped hands, her fae shone weakly. When he tried to fly, he faltered. Kinjra parted the frills of hair on the center of her head and laid her fae there, between tiny keratinous quills. When she let go of her hair, his pallid glow became faintly visible beneath Kinjra’s deep brown locks.

“I’m proud of you,” said Kon.

“I’m proud of him, too.”

“He worked hard,” Kon said, nodding in agreement. “But so did you. By how fast you two are learning, I’m beginning to think you’re better at this all than me.”

Kinjra smiled, though she delivered her response with a shake of her head. “I don’t think so at all. You didn’t have someone like you to tell you what to do and encourage you, but I did. I love you, dad.”

Kon kneeled down so he could hug his daughter. As Kinjra wrapped her arms around him and buried her face in his shoulder, he gently pat the back of her head, careful not to disturb her fae. “I love you too,” he said while blinking away tears. In spite of him finding out his daughter was a budding Seer and Jrana dredging up memories of his brother, Rin, Kon could say with a hundred percent certainty that he was happy. All his life, he had two dreams. One, to be a musician and share his heart with the world, and two, to settle down and have a loving family. Kon had everything he wanted and more. He and his daughter had been granted the power to make the world a better place, and they would do just that. Wherever they traveled, they would find a place like this and inspire new life to flourish. It was a nice dream.

When his fae began whistling in shrill panic, Kon realized a dream was all it was. In the ritili’s hushed silence, he could hear the creatures scatter into the trees and under their roots, seeking shelter. Though Kon could neither see or hear the explosion of silver light, he knew exactly where to look. Near the center of the skyblade, a piece of the rock had shattered. As the meteor entered Tairn’s atmosphere, the spiritfire brightened. On it, a dark silhouette flickered across the meteor’s surface. Like fae, wraiths were only visible to those with the Sight.

Da-ad?” Kinjra mumbled, her voice muffled by Kon’s sweater. Instincts made him clutch his daughter protectively, to shield her from danger. He loosened his grasp of her and quickly stood up. “What’s happening?” she shrieked.

There was no time to answer. Kon grabbed Kinjra by the waist and lifted her to her feet. Her brow glowed a pale green as her fae peeked out the fringe of her hair. Together, they looked up at the sky and saw it. The meteor wasn’t large, but it was falling quickly. Judging by the arc of its steep trajectory, the impact would happen not far from-

“-The camp!” Kon yelled. “We need to go now! Leave the seeds for the ritili, and help me grab some things. I can’t run for long with everything on my back.”

Kinjra nodded. Kon’s fae left a trail of glittering sparks as it rushed to join them by his worn leather sack. He quickly dug through the contents, retrieving his amorphlora lyre, his harmonica necklace, and his unpolished steel flute. The extra clothes and bottles of water were non-essentials, but his bodhrán? Kon unwrapped the wide, round drum from one of his extra cold-weather tunics. He quickly handed it to his daughter with a bone-shaped piece of wood.

Kinjra held the traditional instrument at a safe distance, frowning with uncertainty. Kon had brought it to show Kinjra more of his fae’s magic, but in these circumstances, it would make for a decent club and shield. If not for the ritili’s protectors, he would have never had the idea and left the drum behind, no matter its value.

As Kon rose, he gave his brother’s telescope what might have been his last look.

“Stay behind me,” he said. “And watch your feet. My fae will lead the way.”

In response, her ridged, metallic shell chimed and sparkled to life. As she sang, Kon’s fae shined brighter like a star in the night.

Kon spared the meteor one last glance. Against the force of the wind, the meteor was being torn to pieces. The fragments burst with a colorless light before fading, leaving tiny, pallid scars in the night. Still, the shadow flickered on the rock’s surface, even as the wind ripped it apart. A shrill whistle pervaded the air as the meteor plummeted closer. Kon took off running as his fae soared on ahead. At the grove’s untangled entrance, he told both his fae and his daughter to wait and brace for impact. Kon sat on the ground and leaned back against a tree, then clenched his daughter in his arms tightly.

His fae began circling the air above them, leaving a trail of shimmering light that froze in the air, coalescing into a sphere of silence. Even muffled, Kon heard the meteor’s whistling grow louder until it became a bloodcurdling wail. Through the veil of dim light, he witnessed the meteor drop past the treeline. In the span of a blink, the earth roared as the air was cast a bright white. Spiritfire bloomed over the horizon. The ground trembled beneath them as a powerful gust rushed into the woods, bending the trees and breaking a few sticks. They blew across the grove alongside loose and wind-torn leaves. As soon as a stick hit their bubble of silence, it popped. Kon shuddered with fear as the ritili chattered. Loud as the creatures were, he could swear he heard shouting in the distance.

After sitting down, the man found himself unable to move. He could hear each of his breaths, but for a lingering moment, Kon couldn’t feel them. As he trembled with Kinjra in his arms, a realization came over him. Fate was forcing his hand too soon.

He wasn’t prepared for this. He was almost forty and out of shape. He was a musician, a teacher, and a father. Not a Seer, even if he had the sight. The Seers of the nearby eyrie… they were all sent north, where the first meteor landed. They must not have seen the other one coming, but how?

“…Dad?” Kinjra coughed out the word as he clutched her. When he let go of her, she quickly stood up on her own. “It’s over. I can see where the spiritfire is rising. It looks half a league away from our camp.” Kinjra glanced away from the towering pyre of gray flame to meet Kon’s misty eyes. He blinked the moisture away, then took Kinjra’s small hand for a boost to his feet. “Let’s go,” said Kinjra. Her tone was curt with determination. As soon as the words filled Kon’s ears, resolve swelled within him.

Together, the father and daughter grasped their instruments. In the dark of night and the shade of countless trees, they chased Kon’s twinkling fae across unbroken, uneven ground. With each step, the distant shouting grew louder until it was all the two could hear.

The joy they shared in the ritili’s grove soon faded into memory.

𝅘𝅥 LAST                                        NEXT 𝅘𝅥


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