Prelude No. 3

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Chapter Five

𝅘𝅥 Fate Defied 𝅘𝅥

It makes no sense, thought Kon. The words crossed his mind as he jumped off a rock and over a patch of muddy earth. Behind him, Kinjra huffed a deep breath as she followed his example. Both hit the ground running in pursuit of the glowing shell of Kon’s fae.

Her soft, gold-and-silver illumination warded off the oppressive darkness, revealing the uneven paths between the trees. In the night and beneath the canopy’s foliage, his fae was their only source of light, other than the pallid flickers of gray cast by the spiritfire in the north-east. As they ran, his fae led them toward the ethereal flame, not away. Kinjra had said the meteor landed in the woods half-a-league away from the Pale Hawks’ camp.

Why didn’t the Seers see this coming? Why didn’t their fae?

It was those sort of thoughts that harried Kon’s mind as he exhausted his body, spending up days worth of rest in panicked desperation. He panted as he ran. His eyes never left the ground.

It was the Seers’ duty to see tragedies like this coming and do something to prevent them or mitigate the damage. Though Kon had learned from experience that heroes sometimes arrived late, it had been the heroes themselves who assured his flock they would be safe here. They promised a fae had glimpsed a lone meteor falling in the north, but nothing about the second. It makes no sense at all, insisted his thoughts.

Kon’s twinkling companion rang a warning as she led them on a twisting route between a pair of copses. It was not until Kon ran past the splintered remains of a fallen tree that he understood why. Upon curving around it, they came across a large ditch, and at its center, found a boulder to hop across. On the other side, a nearby hissing caused his fae to veer to the left, toward the southernmost end of the camp.

By the sound of it, a den of winged vipers had been disturbed by the meteor’s impact. Kon warned Kinjra and picked up the pace, leaving the sound of flapping, leathery wings to fade in their wake. The ritili didn’t sense it either, he realized. Animals can feel Fate better than Seers can see it, yet they were just as surprised. It’s as if Fate didn’t even know this was coming.

Kon shivered as he ran. While the spiritfire drained the warmth from the air, it was mostly the thought that made Kon’s entire body shake. That, and the panicked shouts. With each of their steps, the Pale Hawks’ voices grew louder. The camp was getting close.

Kon ducked under a waist-high barrier of thorny branches. He tried not to grimace, even as they raked red lines across his bald scalp. With a thought, his fae halted, allowing him to turn and raise the branch for his daughter. Kinjra ran under his arms and the branch, then continued on without him. Kon’s fae soared past his daughter to float between them and the treeline. Both humans slowed down before barreling out into the open.

Four silhouettes had gathered outside the flock’s large, oval stable. The lute-string shell of Kon’s fae could feel the vibration of their whispers in the air. Though Kon could not make sense of the words, he recognized the voices immediately. Leb and Imet were speaking in hushed tones while their sons, Belen and Etal, stood further away, muttering quietly. In the unseen light of Kon’s fae, he could see each one of their faces stricken with fear. Most of all Belen, who spun on them as they approached. The burly boy must have heard the sound of their footsteps.

It was not the first time Kon had witnessed Belen’s good ear at work. That, his strong arm, keen rhythm, and exuberant passion made him a natural drummer. And yet in spite of having played the bodhrán countless times, Belen startled at the glint of ringlight on the instrument’s white hide. His voice broke halfway through his shout, turning it into a shriek. Kon could hear the boy’s heart thrumming with fear.

Kinjra’s burst of laughter drew Belen’s eyes to her face, inspiring a loud sigh of relief. Beside him, Etal had turned to investigate. As soon as the physician’s lanky son turned, the tension in his shoulders and expression slackened. Leb and Imet only paid their kids a brief glance back to make sure they were safe.

“Kin!” Belen exclaimed. “Mister Kon!”

The tension returned to Etal’s face when he met Kon’s gaze. “Where did you two come from?” he asked. His eyes had settled on the woods behind them.

Instead of answering, Kinjra sprinted into her friends with her arms out wide. With a yell, she crashed into them and pulled them into a lopsided hug. The wooden bone in her hand clanked against Belen’s head as he tried to lift her up, prompting another shout.  Etal chuckled as his face was squeezed between his friends’ shoulders.

The boys were still wearing their bed tunics, and their hair was still disheveled from sleep. Kon noticed the crusts in their eyes as he jogged by them. Leb was talking with Imet at the stable’s front hatch. By the look of them, neither father had been sleeping when the second meteor fell. They were both still dressed in their work clothes.

Unlike Kon’s loose garments, the other men wore tight-fitting outfits that emphasized their respective sizes. Leb was a big guy for flockfolk, and as such, often likened as a giant from the Frigid Wing. Beneath his dark gray overalls, he wore a sleeveless black shirt that exposed the ridged muscles of his chest and arms. Belen’s father was almost ten years older than Kon, yet at a glance, he could easily pass for half Kon’s age. A lifetime of taming steers had kept Leb in the best of shape.

Though Imet was not much shorter, his slight frame made him seem more like a skeleton in comparison. The imagery was helped none by the pristine white robes that clung to his bony, lanky arms. Only the gloves on his hands were any other color, and that was just because of the dark red stains of blood on his fingers and palms. The blood shined in the light of his fae like it was fresh.

Between the two men, it was Leb who turned first. “Kon,” he greeted. In one hand, he held a large iron lock. In the other, he grasped a long, rusty key. Imet only looked over his shoulder for a brief moment. His attention was fixated on the stable’s door and the lock in Leb’s hand.

“Don’t get distracted,” Imet whispered. “I need to get my wife out of here. Please.”

Leb glanced from Kon to Imet, blinked, then nodded. The rust on the key’s teeth ground loudly as Leb opened the lock. By the sound of the final crunch, Kon was certain he could not jam the key in there, let alone turn it, if he tried. Leb left the lock-and-key hanging on the hatch as he opened it, unleashing the dense stench of manure.

“I just need to know one thing,” Kon said. “Where is Jrana?”

Leb stopped halfway from opening the hatch and looked back to answer, though it was Imet who turned and spoke instead. “She’s at the canteen,” the man said curtly. “When the rest of us decided our lives aren’t worth our homes, she insisted to remain there until you came back. Cres is probably still with her now. Why don’t you go now and hurry.”

By the end of his rambling, the physician’s tone shifted from smug to stern. Imet’s arrogance rang in Kon’s ears as his fae blared a note of irritation. Considering the situation, he tried to give Imet the benefit of the doubt. The blood on his hands was surely Rela’s. If he was here, that could only mean she was unable to move from her bed. He would need Leb’s steers to save his wife’s life, and as such, Kon was only getting in the way.

“Thanks,” he replied, his voice low and terse. “And good luck,” he added. Leb nodded at him as Imet glared back and appraised him, searching his face for a hint of sarcasm. Kon nodded to him solemnly, then called out to his daughter. “Kinjra!” he shouted. “Let’s get your mother and get somewhere safe.”

Kinjra nodded vigorously as she hugged her friends goodbye. The moment Kon started running, she did too, following him around the wide bend of the stable. They passed by Leb’s nest into an open field, then ran for the even wider structure in the middle of the abandoned camp. Wherever he looked, Kon saw and heard no one. The Pale Hawks had already taken flight down the trail.

It took Kon and Kinjra more time to run around the canteen than it did to cross the open trail. With the hum of its generator, the building’s windows were dark. The air – drained of its warmth – obscured the glass with a thin layer of frost. Each huff of breath left a cloud of fog in his wake. His fae scouted on ahead as the spiritfire came into view over the trees, just beyond the canteen’s bend. Like the warmth and color, the ethereal flames seemed to be draining sound. His fae did not hear his best friend or their wives until Kon found them outside the kitchen’s back door, collecting bags of rations in three piles on the ground.

“Jrana!” Kon shouted. “Gul! Cres!” Each one of them faced him. The sound of Gul heaving bags and grunting covered their footsteps. Though him and his wife grinned with relief, Jrana’s cheeks immediately turned red with anger.

“Idiot man!” she yelled. “I knew it was stupid to let you go! I’m never letting you out of my sight again!”

Kon ran to and embraced his wife, then pecked her forehead with four quick kisses. Jrana’s breath stuttered as she hugged him back. Kinjra pattered up beside them, then joined them by wrapping her arms around their legs. As Kon stroked the back of Jrana’s head, his chin over her shoulder, he could not help but stare at the approaching inferno. As far as it was, it was only getting closer by the second.

“Sun bless us,” Cres exclaimed. “Kon. Kinjra. Thank Fate you’re safe.”

“Thank Fate you’re here,” corrected Gul. “Everyone else ran off already, which means we have to pick up their slack. The flock should be able to survive a few days off twelve bags, but the more we can bring, the happier people will be. Not that they deserve it,” he grunted, then hefted a bag of fruit through the doorway to Cres, who placed it in a pile with the rest of the fruits.

Kon let go of his wife and left her with another kiss on her cheek. With a nod, she gave him permission. Of the seeds, nuts, and fruits, the third were the heaviest. Kon picked up the two bags on the ground and joined Gul at the door for him to stack on two more.

Behind him, Cres, Jrana, and Kinjra distributed the bags of seeds and nuts comfortably among themselves. With the drum and drum-beater in her hands, Kon’s daughter could only lift a single bag of seeds up. Cres and Jrana managed the rest between them.

“So everyone really took off?” asked Kon. There had been a hint of tension in Gul’s voice that betrayed his otherwise gruff tone.

His best friend peered into his eyes as he closed the door behind him. By the twitch of his lips, he seemed reluctant to answer. His eyes flicked from Kon to the looming spiritfire. “Not everyone,” he eventually sighed.

“I ran into Leb and Imet at the stables. I know about Rela.”

“Not just her,” he whispered. “Miss Sut is still in her home. She locked the door so no one can get inside to grab her, and she’s refusing to leave. Says that Fate arranged for her to die the same way her husband did, and she’s okay with that. There’s no way for Leb to get the steers to pull her around the camp in time, so we had no choice but to leave her.”

Near the end, Gul’s voice faltered. He frowned and furrowed his brow while tears formed in his eyes. Miss Sut had been their teacher growing up. Both had countless fond memories of her, Kon most of all. If anyone could understand what his best friend was feeling, it was him. He elbowed Gul’s shoulder and nodded to the bags in his hands.

His best friend followed his gaze from the eight bags in their arms, to Jrana’s three, Cres’ two, and Kinjra’s one. Fourteen of twelve, total. Kon eyed his best friend’s muscular arms and grinned at him weakly. Gul’s frown deepened.

“Take my bags and run interference for me, please,” Kon whispered. “No one is closer to Miss Sut than me. I might be able to talk some sense into her.”

“Not going to happen,” Gul replied. “I don’t want to lose her either, but her nest is too close to the spiritfire. We can’t lose you too. Especially not you.” Though Gul couldn’t see her, his eyes darted around in search of Kon’s fae. He knew of the magics Kon could perform with his instruments.

“Look what I’m holding.” Gul obeyed, glancing at the lyre, then the flute. His gaze lingered on the wind instrument. “I can defend myself,” Kon continued. “And with my lyre, I know I can get Miss Sut to come out willingly. You know I can do it. I just need to try.”

Gul eyed Kon’s arms in silence. His gaze drifted back and forth between the bags in Kon’s arms and the instruments in his hands.

“What’s the hold up?” yelled Cres. Alongside Jrana and Kinjra, she had taken a few steps. Each one of them looked ready to take off at any moment. Both men looked back, then gazed at each other for another silent moment.

Gul nodded slowly as he took Kon’s four bags into his arms.

“Don’t let anyone wait or run after me,” Kon told him. “Say that I promised I would make it back safely.”

“Jrana isn’t going to be happy,” replied Gul. His eyes were cast over Kon’s shoulder as he said it, no doubt on their wives. Kon could hear Jrana tapping her foot impatiently.

“I know,” he said. “But I think she’ll understand. I wouldn’t be the man she loves if I didn’t try to play the hero. It’s what I’ve always done.”

Kon spared his wife and daughter a glance over his shoulder. As soon as Jrana saw his sad grin, she yelled his name. Without the bags in his arms, Kon was free to run off toward the school and Miss Sut’s nest. Beyond, the spiritfire raged in silence against the trees and the sky. His wife’s shout nipped at his heels, but he would not stop. The woman was more than Kon’s teacher or his boss. She was a friend, and member of his flock. She was family. He could not live with himself if he left her to die.

Miss Sut’s tall, egg-shaped nest loomed closest to the north-eastern treeline, between the school and his own home. Against the colorless backdrop of the ethereal inferno, her nest was but a dim shadow. Hungry tongues of pallid flame lashed out across distant tree canopies, devouring wood and leaves both, leaving only scoured ash. With nothing but the woods to impede it, Kon figured that at best, he had ten minutes.

The estimate was not as reassuring as he hoped it would be. Kon knew he was a terrible mathematician, despite countless lessons from Miss Sut, even during his adult life. It was those lessons he thought of as he ran around her nest, up to her door, and started pounding on the unpainted wood. Kon yelled her name between the rhythm of his fists as his fae soared above him, projecting the sound louder. If Miss Sut was sleeping, Kon doubted she would be for much longer.

Sad as he was to consider it, he understood what the widow was thinking. Kon had been there when his wraith-possessed-brother killed her husband. Eck was the first one to get in the way of the monster as it began advancing toward the boys’ mother. He was only six-year-old boy when he witnessed his first cold-blooded murder. Not long after, he looked away from his only parent as she was killed, too. Her soul consumed and body annihilated.

Whenever memories of that night resurfaced, the rotting wound inside him would ache violently, as if someone or something was prying it open. If not for his wife, his daughter, his best friend, and his flock, Kon might have given in to the pain, too, and waited for the spiritfire to consume him. Miss Sut had no children of her own. No surviving family. She had grown more distant over the years, and Kon had let her. It was no wonder she barely left her nest these days.

Kon pounded harder and yelled louder. Every minute he spent knocking was a minute closer to death.

A window slid open above Kon, followed by a shout. “Go away!” yelled Miss Sut. Like the pale blue walls of her nest, her weathered face was gray in the pallid illumination of the spiritfire. Dressed only in a thin bed tunic, the frail woman shivered, exposed to the cold air. Her pale, paper-like skin was freckled with goosebumps. A breeze stirred the wisps of her truly-gray hair around her, making it dance in the air. “Why can’t any of you just let me get my well-deserved rest?”

“I can’t do that,” Kon called up to her. “We need you, Miss Sut. Please come down. I can get you out of here and keep you safe.”

The woman shook her head. Her teeth chattered as her body trembled. “I’m too old and tired to run,” she told him. “I’ll only drag you behind.” Her eyes flicked to the fire in the background, then back to Kon. “You should go, kid. You still have a family to live for. Worry about getting them to safety. Not me.”

After he stopped pounding, Kon left his fist on the door. As he took a step back, his fist slid down the flaky wood and settled by his side. He gazed up at Miss Sut’s weary eyes through the dim haze. Not smoke, but a veil of death. Kon found it harder to breathe by the minute as the approaching spiritfire drained the life from the air, leaving it colorless.

You’re wrong,” he exclaimed, his voice wrenched, intentionally tuned to pluck at her heartstrings. “You have a family to live for too. Me and my daughter, for starters. All of the Pale Hawks you taught when they were children, and the children you teach now. We are your family, Miss Sut. I wouldn’t leave you to die any sooner than I would leave my own mother. Your husband, Eck, had felt the same. It was the very thing he died for.”

In the ever-dimming luminescence, Miss Sut continued to shake her head. Every word they spoke cost them precious seconds of life. More color bled from their surroundings, leaving only Kon’s fae untouched by the faint pall of gloom. She flew up to Miss Sut’s window, trailing gold-and-silver sparks in her wake. The sparks burst mid-air, restoring a little of the world’s color.

“I won’t let anyone die for my sake,” she whispered. If not for his fae, Kon would have never heard Miss Sut’s voice under her breath.

He wouldn’t have heard the sounds of wings flapping and tongues hissing, either. Kon spun to face the approaching threat. Somewhere between the trees, a pair of winged vipers were flying, searching for an escape from the all-consuming spiritfire. Miss Sut called down to him in confusion, but Kon ignored her voice. Instead, he closed his eyes to bear the deafening bang of his fae’s senses. Each sound was magnified ten-fold, leaving Kon disoriented as he struggled to adjust.

As quiet as the world seemed to his ears, his fae could hear its hushed wails of pain and panic. With focus, Kon tuned the sound out, concentrating on the vipers’ beating wings. With the sound amplified, he could hear them flying straight their way.

Like the ritili, the flying serpents were not prone to attacking humans without first being provoked. Even so, when the creatures burst out into the open, the sight of Kon standing inspired them to bare their fangs. The winged vipers hissed as they flew toward him, their leathery wings moving just slow enough for Kon to trace their shape.

With the door at his back, Kon could not flee. He could not talk his way out of this, either, which only left his least favorite option.

Kon dropped his flute, in need of a free hand. His fae’s glinting shell moved between him and the vipers as he lifted his strung harmonica to his mouth and blew. Music burst from the instrument in a flash of silver light. Four luminescent arrows of sound whistled through the air, littering the vipers’ leathery wings with holes.

The wingless vipers curled their slender bodies as they tumbled to the ground, mostly unharmed. Kon blew another warning shot at the ground, driving them to slither away.

As soon as they were gone, he looked back up at Miss Sut. From her gaping mouth and her vacant stare, she was having trouble understanding what just happened. She wouldn’t have seen the magic. Just Kon blow into his instrument, and the winged vipers falling in a splash of blood.

“I’m a Seer,” Kon told her. “Or on my way to becoming one. My fae and I can take away some of your pain and weariness. If you let me help you, I know we can get out of here. Please.”

The woman was speechless, but eventually, she began to nod slowly. Kon sent his fae to follow her inside. He could hear Miss Sut’s hands shaking as she rummaged through her drawers. To ease her pain, Kon raised his lyre and strummed a calm song, composed only of low notes. Using a staccato scale, he built up to a fluttering pair that quickened the tempo of the next iteration. With his fae’s help, the music resounded around Miss Sut’s room and through her. By the eighth refrain, the woman was dressed and opening the door downstairs.

Kon’s fae soared above Miss Sut’s head as she stepped out into the open. Her dim, violet fae hid among the puffs on the shoulders of her purple feather coat. Though her slouch was not completely gone, her back was straighter, and for the first time in years, she was not wearing or grimace, or trying to force a grin through a grimace. Miss Sut actually looked relieved. Though Kon stopped playing his lyre, his fae hummed the tune quietly, prolonging the magic’s effect. The woman’s eyes were steady, even as her hands trembled. Her purple irises’ shone in his fae’s resolute light.

Kon wore a faint grin as he stretched out his arm. “Thank you for listening.”

“Thank you for coming,” Miss Sut whispered. As she took Kon’s elbow in her hands, she spared a glance at the open doorway of her home. Three stories tall and filled to the brim with knowledge and memories. It was a hefty price to pay for their lives, but a price they had no choice to pay.

Both of them wore frail smiles as they walked – not ran – after the others. Rather than cut through the middle of the ring, they followed the trail around the school and the next three nests. Down the open length of the trail, the Pale Hawks were fleeing south. Away from the infernal, insidious spiritfire. In the gray light and darkness, the open space of Onali’s Trail seemed to stretch on for an eternity. Distant landmarks were but vast shadows, including the small mountain two leagues to the south, and the tunnel yawning open at its base.

If there were any Seers at the Coastwatch Eyrie, they would come from that direction. Kon prayed under his breath for someone to come save them.

As they walked arm in arm, Kon’s fae hummed louder. The air shined brighter. Each step the pair took fell easier and faster than the last. The dark silhouettes of his flock became clearer by the minute, though most of the Pale Hawks were far away. His wife and daughter were the furthest back, just behind Gul and Cres, who walked behind the pair of oval-shaped nests that made Imet’s home and clinic.

The two buildings, connected by a small hallway in the middle, were large enough that at least five steers were needed to pull it. More of the muscular, shoulder-height bovines were running down the open trail. Kon guessed the figures guiding the herd on its sides were Leb and Belen. Imet and his children were likely inside their nest with their mother, Rela.

Kon called out to his family, prompting them to share a glance over their shoulders. When Kinjra shouted with glee, they each stopped and turned. Despite the eight bags of nuts, fruits, and seeds stacked in his arms, Gul managed to keep them steady as he spun and waited.

“Think we could move a little quicker?” asked Kon. He inspected the tension in Miss Sut’s expression and worried he was already pushing her too hard. She nodded, failing to hide a grimace. Kon was careful as he encouraged her to catch up to the others. They were only fifty strides away. Not even that far.

Kinjra ran up to meet them, too impatient to wait. While Gul and Cres hung back and smiled, Jrana’s lips were pursed as she took a step toward him. She shook her head, even as she let out a sigh of relief.

“Dad!” Kinjra shouted. “Miss Sut! We were worried! Are you okay?”

“Kinjra,” the woman greeted. “I’m okay, thank you for asking. But really, I should thank your father.” Miss Sut looked up at Kon and nodded gratefully. He met her nod with the best grin he could manage. With adrenaline pumping through him, the man felt anxious and uneasy. It helped that he was now with the people he loved.

Kinjra nodded her head until her fae was thrown out of her hair. Though his shell was no brighter, he seemed to have grown a thin film over his light, covered in tiny, jagged ridges that shined a darker green than the rest of him.

“We’re okay,” Kon agreed. “But we should get moving.”

In spite of the verbal prodding, Kinjra hugged his and Miss Sut’s legs. Even if the woman could be intense at times, the girl often spoke well of the woman’s many stories. Miss Sut had lived a long, interesting life, and either due to practice or talent, was a master of building emotional tension through description and dialogue. Kon had seen snippets of a novel manuscript in her office. He often encouraged her to get it published, only for her to agree curtly and put it off, speaking at length about pesky revisions. It was a shame her nest was in the fire’s path. Kon would have loved to see her name on bookshelves.

Kon mussed his daughter’s hair until she let go. She helped Miss Sut by offering a head to place her hand on for balance. The woman thanked him as soon as they reached Jrana. With Kinjra’s help, she quickly walked over to Gul and took his arm. Alongside Cres, they stepped off, leaving Kon with his angry wife and frightened daughter.

Jrana’s cheeks were flushed, which usually meant she was holding back a yell. Her eyes darted between her husband, her daughter, and the looming inferno. It was impossible for Kon to tell which of the sights eased her temper.

“You’re very lucky that I love you, Kon,” Jrana muttered. There was no hint of love in her voice, however. Only bitterness. “I swear, if you leave me like that one more time, I will kill you myself. No man is worth the amount of stress you put me through. At this point, I would rather be alone.”

Despite her venomous tone, Jrana did not resist as Kon stepped close and embraced her. With the smooth edge of a nail, Kon softly caressed his wife’s cheek while sweeping a frill of dark hair out of her face. “You don’t mean that,” he whispered. Jrana’s tight lips loosened as he tilted her chin up and kissed her. They shared only a moment’s worth of breath. A moment’s worth was enough.

Jrana nodded as they leaned back to look each other in the eyes. Though her cheeks were still red, her jaw had slackened along with her frown. “I don’t,” she admitted. “But it feels good to say it, and honestly, I don’t know any other way to make you understand how I feel when you run off like that.”

Kon nodded as he gently pecked her head. “I understand,” he told her. “I’ll try not to do it again.”

No,” she demanded. “You won’t try. You will.”

Kon kissed her brow again, then let go of her waist. When he did not answer, Jrana glared at his eyes sternly. Her frown deepened with every passing second. Instead of lying, Kon bowed his head in guilt. She would be angrier if he made a promise he could not keep.

Eventually, his wife relented. Though Jrana wasn’t happy, she still took Kon’s lead by his proffered arm. Kinjra had been standing off to the side, trying and failing to look like she wasn’t eavesdropping. Though she was staring at the drum in her hand, its pale white hide was held at an angle for her to see her parents in her peripheral vision. Jrana snapped her fingers and beckoned for Kinjra to catch up, then told her to run ahead and join the others behind the buildings on wheels.

The four steers pulling Imet’s nest and clinic were huffing loud enough for Kon to hear. As he got closer to the structure, Kon could not help but sense like it was slowing down. Leb, Belen, and the herd of steers appeared to have gained distance, as did the rest of the Pale Hawks. Only those in the rear were near enough to hear the first of their nests collapse into ash.

The spiritfire had been utterly quiet while burning through the treeline. It was the loud crash of a roof falling without its supporting walls that pulled Kon’s eyes back to their flock’s camp. Jrana had looked too and startled. By the sound of Cres and Kinjra’s quiet gasps, they had turned too. Through his fae, Kon could hear Gul’s heartbeat pounding. Its pace matched Kon’s thundering heart. In the blink of an eye, the school was gone, devoured by a wall of flickering, gray flames.

What little color visible in the night had been completely drained from the surroundings. Grasping tendrils of ethereal fire swayed in the sky, undulating not to the wind, but some discordant rhythm.

In the center of the inferno, an inhuman shadow loomed, kicking at the flaming remains of the Pale Hawks’ school. Other than a pair of twisting, serrated horns on the crown of its head, the wraith’s silhouette was featureless. Both its torso and limbs were stretched to an unnatural length. Its stick-thin legs bent backwards as it crouched to inspect a piece of unburned wood sticking out of the fire.

When Kon saw what the wraith picked up, his body froze, bringing him to a shambling halt. The shadow clutched his lute in its hands, releasing a low, guttural moan. It snapped the instrument in half, releasing a bright sheen of magic. The wraith stared at the lute as it disintegrated in its hands. Kon watched the ash slowly drip between its jittery claws.

“Kon?” Jrana asked. “What’s wrong?” She tugged on his arm to get him moving, only for him to resist. “We’ve got to go!” she shouted. “What are you doing?”

It took her slapping his ear to finally get his attention.

Kon turned to face his wife, nursing the burning side of his head. “My fae,” he whispered. “Her magic can protect against the spiritfire. My lute didn’t break until the wraith snapped it in its hands.”

As soon as he said wraith, Jrana burst into motion. She dropped her three bags and started running, pulling Kon behind her by his wrist as she yelled at the top of her lungs. Jrana did not care who heard her. By how loud she was, his wife must have wanted the whole world to hear. “Wraith!” she screamed. “Drop everything! There’s a wraith!”

Kinjra and Cres turned, both of their gazes finding Jrana, then drifting to the spiritfire. Gul spared a short glance over his shoulder before giving them permission. Him and his wife held on to half their bags while Kinjra dropped hers. She still held on to the bodhrán and its beater. Kon stopped resisting the pull of his wife’s hand, letting the momentum carry him to his daughter. They all followed Gul and Cres around the rolling nest’s side. On the front, only four steers pulled the structure, and three of their blunt snouts panted in exhaustion.

Another of the wraith’s deep, harsh growls drew Kon and Kinjra’s eyes. After breaking his lute, it abandoned the camp in favor of pursuing a fading trail of glimmering magic. Sparks of gold and silver had been left hanging in the wake of his fae’s musical flight.

The unliving shadow ran on all four of its impossibly thin limbs, carrying the spiritfire along with it. Away from the nests, and towards the flock. The ground smoldered into ash beneath the wraith’s silent footsteps.

“Kinjra!” he shouted. “Give me the bodhrán!” The girl yelped as she spun beside Miss Sut and threw the drum back at her father like a discus. Kon caught it in the crooks of his elbows, then quickly tossed her the lyre. “Keep this safe,” he said, halting.

Jrana tugged on Kon’s arm. This time, she could not get him to budge. It was only when she turned to look that she understood why.

The colorless flame was spilling down the center of the trail like a river of death. Though Jrana could not see the wraith’s leaping silhouette, she could see the intent behind the spiritfire. Something was leading it. Raking it across the land like a blade. Despite how far they had run, the wraith was crossing the distance fast. It growled hungrily as it bounded for him and his loved ones.

Kon!” yelled Jrana.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

Kon pried his wrist from his wife’s hand. At the sight of certain death, her grasp had gone limp. With the shield tucked under his arm, Kon was able to grab her chin with his hand and quickly kiss her. He looked into her misty eyes for a hint of color, but the only thing he found was his own sullen expression, reflected in gray. Despite his clenched jaw and narrowed eyes, the edges of Kon’s lips raised, revealing his hope. Even now, he needed to have faith. Especially now.

“No matter what happens, don’t stop running.”

Jrana shook her head as the tears poured from her eyes.

“…Dad?” came Kinjra’s muffled voice. She had come to hug his leg and buried her face in his sweater.

Kon wiped the tears from his wife’s face and kneeled down low to kiss his daughter on her brow. “Don’t you worry about me, Kin, and don’t let your mother worry about me either. Get to safety, and I’ll come join you when I can.”

Kinjra sniffled as Kon mussed her hair. When his daughter spoke, she was in the midst of catching her breath.

“I love you.”

“I love you too, Kin.”

Kon tucked a strand of hair behind Kinjra’s ear, then sent her running after the others. Jrana had frozen beside him, still as a statue. The wraith and its trail of spiritfire were only getting closer, draining more color and warmth from the air and making it harder for them to breathe. Even so, she did not look ready to leave him.

“I’m going to live through this. I promise.”

“You better,” she uttered as she sniffed. “I love you, Kon.”

“I love you too,” he said, emphasizing his hopeful smile.

His wife left with nothing more than a brush of their fingertips. As much as Kon ached to watch his family get to safety, there would be no safety unless Kon turned away. Instead, he faced the approaching wraith, brandishing his flute and drum like a knight might wield a sword and shield.

As grim as things seemed, Kon glimpsed a beacon of hope. Far beyond the spiritfire, down the northern length of Onali’s Trail, a literal beacon of hope strode on towering legs. Other than the transparent dome that sat on its shoulders, its torso, arms, and legs were all made of striped white-and-gold bricks that shined in the night. The fae walked at a slow, but seemingly human, gait as the light shining within its head was cast out in their direction.

With hope on the horizon, he knew Fate would see him through this. His prayer had been answered. Even if the limbed-lighthouse was still leagues away, its light had reached the camp and found the scoured trail of ash. So long as Kon did everything he could, he knew his family would make it out alive.

Chapter Six

𝅘𝅥 Shadows and Flames 𝅘𝅥

Kon raised his flute and bodhrán, drawing the steel instrument back as he tilted the drum in anticipation. Every beat of the man’s heart heralded another of the wraith’s blazing leaps. As the spiritfire neared, the air became colder. Quieter. Heavier. Even so, Kon did not shiver or slouch as he stood his ground. He took a deep breath. The ridges of his fae’s shell glinted faintly as she hovered before him.

Neither him or his fae were able to hear the footsteps of the fleeing Pale Hawks. Kon had been comforted by listening to Jrana and Kinjra’s panting and pattering, but the sounds of their desperate flight quickly faded, like the colors of their surroundings. No more brown dirt and yellowing grass. No more deep green foliage and bright, vibrant flowers.

Everywhere Kon looked, all he could see was gray. Light gray, dark gray. Every shade of gray in between. The spiritfire was brightest as it burned through the air and the earth. A pale, muted white that flickered and sparked as it lashed out at the world around it. People often thought of the phenomena as death incarnated.

Only the wraiths – and conduits of magic, apparently – could survive the pallid spiritfire unscathed. For good reason, Kon suspected the two were inexplicably connected. He had witnessed the possession of his brother. Witnessed the moment the shadow lunged down Rin’s throat. Spiritfire poured into his body, filling him like a wineskin. Kon had seen the Rin-wraith spout it from his mouth with loud shouts, and manipulate it with sweeping gestures, both quick and grand. As terrible as that night was, the experience gave him an advantage.

The more Kon stared into the blindingly-dim flame, the harder it became to perceive the wraith in motion. It was beginning to seem less like a shadow, and more like a tear in the fabric of reality. The wraith’s dark essence shifted like a hole in a cloth flapping open and closed in the wind.

Kon gazed at the shadow’s face, searching for what might approximate for its eyes. It was only when he glanced upon its twisting horns that he felt the malevolent spirit’s anger and hunger.

This wraith had found his lute. It had followed the trail of magic his fae’s humming left in her wake. As soon as it had caught Kon’s scent, it had taken off toward him, leaping across the trail on four thin limbs. The wraiths’ perversion of living involved possessing humans and consuming their fae, but possessing a nascent Seer like him? It would mean the wraith thriving. With a look, Kon could feel how desperate it was to plunge its horns into his flesh, then claim his soul.

A bound away, the wraith’s flickering silhouette halted. With a loud, guttural roar, it bent low and leaped in a icy flash of colorless light. The monster’s voice reverberated through Kon’s fae, then resounded back in a similar flash of dim luminescence. She tuned the air with its roar, creating a dense, silvery fog that slowed its momentum.

Kon shouted as he pounded his flute against the bodhrán’s wooden frame and taut hide. Each crack and thrum was met with the oscillating whistle of vibrating steel. Along with his bellowing voice, the clamorous rhythm erupted brightly, rippling through the silvery fog like a luminescent wave on the sea. Grass bowed away from Kon’s feet as the light passed over it. When it hit rocks, they were sent flying into the bounding shadow and looming flames.

Hanging mid-air, the wraith could not evade the sound-wave. The drum’s lingering rhythm was quickly shattered by a blood-curdling shriek. Kon winced as the shadow was cast back, wailing. The silvery fog brightened and hissed as the spiritfire tried to consume it, only to be snuffed out by the magic. On the ground, Kon could see the line where dirt met ash. Only a few steps away, just out of his reach. The sound-wave did not travel much farther.

A few bounds down the trail, the wraith crashed, blossoming more flames. When it rose from the ground, it stood on two unsteady legs. The silhouette’s back was bent, and its head was crooked. Around it, the spiritfire flickered, dimmer than before. With every flash and lash of pallid light, a displaced part of the wraith’s essence snapped back into place. The monster let out a grinding, sickening groan.

Kon used the reprieve to check on his family. Jrana had run enough away that he could see a hint of color in her brown coat and dark yellow leggings. Kinjra’s large, now-dirty white shirt glowed a faint green as her fae soared beside her. The pair had glanced back when hearing the drum, and though neither stopped, his daughter turned around and pumped a fist in the air.

She must have seen her father cast the wraith away. Jrana, too, judging by the faint curl on her lips. The expressions of Cres, Gul, and Miss Sut were too dark and distant to see, but Kon had no doubts of them witnessing it too. Even the steers ran on with renewed fervor, perhaps scared by the sound, but pulling Imet’s nest and clinic faster in any case.

In the span of three heartbeats, he watched the space grow between the nest and his family. In the span of two more, he watched the space grow between his family and him. Kon turned to face the wraith before the faces of his wife and daughter faded into the night. Kinjra’s cheer and Jrana’s hope would make a better memory than a pair of vanishing shadows.

Beyond the wraith and the flickering gray inferno, far past the flock’s camp and down the trail’s northbound stretch, an immense shadow had joined the lighthouse on the horizon. Not a wraith, Kon breathed, but a fae he recognized from the night of his brother’s possession. Back then, the man made of darkness had been no taller than Miss Sut’s nest. Now it loomed as high as the skyscrapers in Kolod Vor. It stood even taller than the striding lighthouse, and it appeared to stretch bigger every second.

Unlike the wraith, the fae’s silhouette was distinct. Details were carved across him in darker shades of black, revealing onyx eyes, obsidian lips, and sooty battle scars. Kon had seen a few of those scars get made, like the round, jagged dent on his brow, just under the flowing strands of his inky hair. Although the wind did not seem to effect the fae, its feathery, shoulder-length plumage swayed as he walked – not over, or between – but through the woods. At a whim, the fae could shift between the material and ethereal.

Presence, he thought. He had only heard the fae’s name once, and only from a whisper that was not meant for him. When Kon was a boy, the giant shadow man had terrified him. Presence’s Seer – an old woman clad in black leather – had terrified him more. Young Kon could not look at her knotted scowl, even after she addressed him and his flock after saving their lives. He remembered the Seer getting angry when the Pale Hawks replied meekly. After the horrors they had all witnessed, it was hard for anyone to feel grateful.

Kon glanced at his fae, then nodded his head, imparting his thanks. With her and her magic, he could keep his family alive until the real heroes arrived. He could ensure none of his flock died, like they had on that night. He could triumph over this tragedy. No matter the cost.

The wraith moved deliberately now, stalking across the field on two overlong legs. Claws unfolded from its spiny arms, just as flickery and formless. With another low, guttural roar, it thrust its claws forward. The spiritfire flared before it, casting a plume of burning gray light over the trail. It soared in a wide arc, traveling faster than the shadow could manage.

Kon did not take his eyes off it for a second. He raised his drum and his improvised drum-beater.  As soon as the fire was above him, the wraith threw its arms down. With it, the ethereal plume was struck downward. Cast as fast as a lightning bolt.

His fae whistled in warning. Kon only had enough time to pound the drum once, but once was enough. The glowing sheen of magic rippled above him, forcing the spiritfire away. Tongues of pallid flame rained down around him. As the ripple spread and settled, the lashing fires that sparked on the ground began to darken, slowly dying out.

Kon had to step a couple paces to the side to peer through the empty, flickering gray. When he looked, his lungs and heart stuttered. The wraith and inferno was gone. Ash smoldered in the crater where it had landed, but there were no new trails of ash or fire left in the wake of its departure. His fae blared another warning as he glanced above and around him. It had to be a trick. There was no way the wraith had died by firing that bolt of flame.

Kon closed his eyes, bearing the world’s muffled agony. Each gust of wind sang its own shrill note, everlasting yet ephemeral. They faded in and out with the shifting currents, never disappearing completely, just overpowering each other in a discordant symphony. As uncomfortable as it was, the drowning wind and the world’s hushed wailing only made it easier to locate the wraith by its relative silence. The eastern treeline on his right was swaying soundlessly.

Kon turned, his fae soaring around his side. His grasp of the cross in the bodhrán’s hollowed-out underbelly provided him the stability and leverage to snap the frame and hide into the flute as he beat them. With each resounding crack and ringing clang,  a pair of luminescent waves rolled out, flattening grass as it spread. The trees bent instead of breaking, revealing the wraith’s shadow in a small grove of smoldering lumber.

With another grinding roar, the shadow cast a small bolt of ethereal flame. It cut through the air like an arrow. Too fast for Kon to pound his drum in retaliation.

His fae soared faster than he could see. Her shell echoed with the rhythm of Kon’s beat. It protected her as she hit the bolt mid-air, casting it into the ground. Bright sparks glinted off her, leaving her dimmer and her flight wavering. She retreated closer to Kon as the bolt of spiritfire flickered out in the dirt. Only a pit of ash remained after its quiet death.

The wraith and its inferno were not so fortunate. Before the waves of sound could reach it, the magic lost all of its momentum. As the sallowoods rose upright, the wraith stood and stared at Kon until the treeline settled into place. His fae sang faintly as she drifted toward the flute in his hands. It took her landing on its edge for him to truly feel the weight of the instrument. There was a good reason he had taken it, though Kon was reluctant to use it.

Even if he did, Kon was not sure if his fae’s magic could kill the wraith. But wound? It seemed she was certain the singing blades of light would do that much if he tried. He could feel the thought coursing through his flute. It reverberated in his head, vibrating his very thoughts. A kind of communication, if wordless.

Perhaps out of inexperienced reflexes or adrenaline-inducing terror, Kon failed to follow up any of his blocks with an attack. Not just once, but twice. He missed two chances, and the wraith was only growing more clever with every blow they traded.

Kon tightened his fist around the flute. He would do his best to put the shadow down and keep it there. It was only a matter of time until a real Seer came to finish it off.

Kon closed his eyes. He struggled against the deafening sound in search of the unnatural silence.

The wraith was moving south. It burned through the trees even faster than it had crossed the open trail. It was as if each smoldering tree gave its leaps a burst of power. With his eyes shut, Kon’s heart thundered over the rest. The resounding boom startled him back to his senses. He turned, and his fae soared on ahead, following the path of his eyes. Kon was staring at the distant shadows of his wife and daughter.

Kinjra!” he yelled. His yell came out louder than Kon thought his lungs could manage. His fae amplified his voice as it passed by him, casting the air in a bright sheen of golden light. She projected Kon’s voice across the open trail, revealing human footprints, tire tracks, and dents left by the hooves of steers.

Kon was able to see Kinjra’s face as she turned, searching the fading light for her father. He pointed his flute at the woods and bellowed another shout. “Wraith!” His daughter’s fae circled to her side as soon as she heard him. Beyond her, he could see a faint red light on the horizon.

Whatever the shape was, it quickly vanished when the wraith and its ethereal flames burst explosively from the treeline, leaving a trail of disintegrating wood and leaves. The flash of light caused Jrana to scream. She pulled their daughter by her arm, away from the lunging spiritfire.

Kinjra let go of the drum beater, leaving it to clatter on the dirt behind her. With her free hand, she reached into her pockets and retrieved something too-small for Kon to see. Her fae drifted into her closing fist, nestling itself in the palms of her hands. The twelve year old girl shrieked as she wound her left arm back for a throw.

Kon did not recognize the seed until it was soaring through the air, enveloped in her fae’s green light. The seed grew in size as the glow of magic swelled within it. When it landed in the earth and began sinking, dissolving into light, the seed had grown as large as his daughter’s head. The verdant luminescence spread across the trail in seconds. The earth blossomed, springing forth a blanket of shimmering grass.

Glowing roots as thick as Kon’s arms snaked underground, leaving the dirt upturned as they reached out for nutrients. At the center of the glowing roots and the shimmering grass, a human-sized sunflower had sprouted, its rising head unfolding with countless petals of emerald light. Kinjra’s fae shined brightly at the flower’s center.

In a flash, the vibrant magic clashed against the stark flame. Onali’s Trail lit up as if struck by lightning. Kon shielded his eyes with his bodhrán instead of closing them. He waited for seconds before the air finally dimmed. Kon lowered his arm as soon as he was able, then breathed a sigh of relief. The wraith and the spiritfire had been repelled. His wife and daughter were safe. Kinjra’s fae had escaped the flower’s head and rejoined them.

Kon stared on, simultaneously afraid and amazed.

As the horned silhouette climbed back onto its feet, Jrana and Kinjra continued running. The ethereal inferno did not remain still for long. With a throaty growl, the wraith flared the spiritfire until it consumed the overgrown grass and sunflower. Scoured ash stirred in the air as a warm breeze – not a cold one – blew north from the south. Beyond his family, another flame was growing down the trail. Not gray, but red.

Now that the figure was closer, it took the shape of a knight in a suit of fiery armor. From head to toe, the fae was covered in metal that shone with a crimson, molten light. The plates bulged over muscles as big as boulders and veins as thick as vines. Through the visor gap in the fae’s helm, a pair of dark orbs smoldered like burning coals. His gaze was fixated on the wraith and the wraith alone. He paid the Pale Hawks no attention as it ran between them and the malevolent spirit.

Someone had come from the Eyrie after all. As large as the fae was, its only weapons seemed to be a pair of spiked gauntlets. The jutting points burned hotter than the rest of his armor, turning a yellowish-red that reminded Kon of sunlight, if not half as bright. As the fae ran on, he balanced the weight of his top-heavy body forward to add to his momentum. The faster the fae moved, the brighter his armor glowed. Hot air steamed as it touched his armor, shining in his torch-like radiance.

When that radiance washed over his family, their pace quickly hastened. It seemed to rejuvnate them. Jrana and Kinjra ran faster than Kon thought was possible, though both of them did slow as soon as they reached the edge of the fae’s molten aura.

Behind the fae, a Seer ran through the trail of hissing steam unscathed, clad in a suit of blood-red armor, sans helm. Like her partner, the metal was shaped and carved to emphasize her muscles and veins. Though her armor did not glow or turn the air into steam, it did look well-crafted and menacing. If not for the girl’s puffy-red cheeks and curly, auburn bob, Kon might have found her intimidating.

Though Kinjra was half her size, the Seer didn’t look that much older. Kon glanced at his daughter and frowned in defeat. As grateful as he was for the Seer’s appearance, she had glanced at the man and his daughter like she recognized them for what they were. There was no doubt in Kon’s mind that she had seen them use their magic. Any hope of them living another peaceful day with the flock suddenly vanished.

Unconsciously, his eyes fell upon the flute in his hands.

The Seer lifted a sheathed sword in both hands at her side, her left on the hilt and right on the scabbard.  As she ran past her fae, the girl opened her mouth and howled a battle cry. The giant roared, the air rumbling as its footsteps shook the earth. Their voices drew the wraith’s attention southward. It turned its back on its forgotten prey.

Kon watched as the wraith crouched on its four legs, pulling the spiritfire around it like a cloak. The ethereal flame brightened as the warm, red glow pressed its way closer. Kon knew from experience that it would not take long for the shadow to leap, flaring death.

Kon’s arm tensed as he dropped the bodhrán in the dirt. Buying him an extra second at best. Upon the end of his flute, his fae rang like vibrating steel as he lifted the instrument to his face. His hands and fingers still knew where to rest. Even after a season of neglect.

When he first gained the Sight and experimented with his fae’s magic, the flute had proven itself dangerous. The resulting blades of sound were much too strong, and exceptionally difficult to control. A single test of a fluttering dyad had left a knife-long gash in a tree. Gul had been there, standing within arm’s reach of the wood as it splintered. Shards of bark had rained down on the man as he fell onto his back.

The armored Seer split up from her fae, running off in a sharp crescent. With a flick of her wrist, a sliver of her blade was pulled free of her hilt, revealing the sheen of molten steel. The girl looked at Kon briefly, acknowledging his fae and the flute in his hands.

Ahead of the wraith, the giant’s armor brightened. A powerful gust of wind blew past Kon, cast by the hot air rising from the fae’s crimson aura. The blazing knight’s arms flailed madly at his sides as his immense legs propelled him at a breakneck pace.

Now or never, Kon thought.

He closed his eyes and breathed in deep.

The man blew as hard as he could, paying no mind to shape the sound. If Kon tried, he would have surely failed. Instead, he allowed his fae to tune the music with her vibrating shell. Perched as she was upon the flute’s end, the steel had no trouble conforming to her loud, singing ring.

Guided by his fae, the musical blade of golden light carved a radiant line through the air. Kon blinked, and missed the wraith’s shadow topple. It took the blade no longer than a second to reach the monster.

As the wraith faltered to its knees, the teenage Seer howled another battle cry. She drew her blade out further, and with it, released a blinding flash of light. Both the sword and her fae had erupted with the molten luminescence.

Kon had no choice but to shut his eyes. Still, the red light seeped into his vision, making the underside of his lids seem aflame. Through his fae, he could hear the wind scream as the Seer and her sword slashed across the trail in the span of a heartbeat.

The wraith’s agonizing shriek followed soon after, only to be snuffed out by the fae’s armored fists. He pummeled the shadow into the ground a dozen times. After another three heartbeats, the searing light faded. Kon opened his eyes to find a pair of victorious faces.

Above a fist-shaped crater of smoldering ash, the armored giant pumped a fist in the air. The once-coals of its eyes were now flaring like torches, burning high enough for the fire to lick the top of his visor. Nearby, his Seer was laughing manically as she struggled for breath. As she half-laughed, half-panted, she bent forward, pressing her sheathed sword against her lap for support. Glowing warmly, her fae walked over and lifted her up with two fingers, then held out a fist when she turned. The girl chuckled as she bumped a comparably small fist into his.

Kon was too stunned to process what he was seeing. He should have felt relieved. Instead, his thoughts and feelings buzzed in him with dread.

At once, the Seer and fae turned to face him. While the girl’s eyes drifted from his flute to his face, the giant’s torches glanced back and forth between Kon’s fae and the northern horizon behind him.

“Lafer,” the Seer greeted. Her tone was formal with a singsong hint of noble heritage.

“Kon,” he answered. The man blinked as he lowered his flute to his side. Not long after, his fae took flight.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Any deep wounds or internal bleeding?”

“I… don’t think so.” Kon inspected his body, finding nothing but dirt stains and tiny holes burned in his sweater, leaving gray ash. “I’m not sure how, but no. I’m not wounded. Just a few aches and pains, but they’re fading. I’m more than okay.”

“Good,” the girl replied cheerfully. “Vigor’s aura doesn’t exactly heal, just accelerates the body’s natural healing process. If a wound is bad enough, the best we can do is buy time for real help. Was anyone in your flock injured, sir?”

Kon furrowed his brow at the honorific. Considering the Seer had just witnessed him and his fae use magic, he was surprised to see her so polite. Every time Kon had imagined his discovery, it ended in tragedy and heartbreak. This? It was gentle in comparison.

“As far as I know, everyone made it out safely. Our physician’s wife is very ill, however. They’re the family in that nest,” he said, pointing at the now-halted buildings. Kon could see more shadows gathering alongside his family. Leb, Belen, and Etal among them. They were all staring at the blazing, fist-sized crater, oblivious to the blazing knight standing above it. “If it’s not too much to ask, do you think your fae could try helping her?”

Vigor spun with a quickness that seemed impossible for his size. “From this moment on, I would appreciate it if you addressed me directly, Sir Kon.”

Kon struggled not to tremble as the giant’s voice rumbled through him. “I- I’m sorry. I meant no offense.”

“No offense taken. But please consider that in a world where most people can not see or hear us fae, a little acknowledgement can go along way. Though we may exist to protect and serve, we are still our own people, brimming with emotions and passions.”

Kon nodded his head, too embarrassed to speak. After what he just went through, the fervor in the giant’s voice was too much for him to take in.

“I can pay her a visit,” Vigor continued, his voice animated. “Whether or not I can help depends on a lot of complicated factors, but I’d be happy to try. That is, however, assuming the boss-lady lets us.”

Lafer frowned as she followed Vigor’s gaze. The silhouette of Presence had filled the sky beyond the flock’s encampment, casting half the trail in a starless darkness. At the foot of the immense shadow, Kon could see the tiny, weathered face of the old Seer he met when he was a child. He remembered her clad in matte black leathers that helped her blend in with the dark and her fae.

“She’s going to be mad, isn’t she?” muttered Vigor.

“Yup,” Lafer huffed.

Kon didn’t understand. “Why?”

The girl sighed as her gaze drifted to her own shadow. “Vigor and I were sent here to defend the Coastwatch Eyrie while the local Seers and fae left for the meteor. The second one… no one saw it coming. Outlook should have, but- really, that doesn’t matter right now. We spent a long time trying to reach out and get permission to leave, but eventually, we said screw this. We could deal with the repercussions of breaking Old Spook’s orders, but there was no way we could deal with innocents dying because we didn’t act.”

As Kon listened, he slowly fit the pieces together. When Lafer named Outlook, her gaze flicked to the walking lighthouse in the distance. When she mentioned Old Spook’s orders, she glared toward Presence’s feet. By the time she finished, her eyes drifted back to her shadow.

“She won’t be happy about you, either,” Lafer admitted. “I could sense your fae’s magic flaring over a league away. I’m certain she’s aware of you, too.”

TooNot two.

The Seer had not mentioned his daughter.

“You’ve had the Sight for a while now, I’m guessing?”

“Yes, but not for very long. Just a season.”

“Your fae is close to hatching,” added Vigor. “I can feel her soul singing with light like your human hearts beat with blood.”

“The boss-lady?” Lafer continued. “We call her Spook, but her name is Sap. She doesn’t take kindly to Seers who shirk their responsibilities. She’ll demand to know why you took this long to make yourself known. You may want to start considering your explanation.”

“I met her once,” he whispered. “When I was just a child, she helped save my flock from a wraith on a night much like this one. If she remembers, maybe she’ll understand.”

“Huh,” the girl huffed. “That was a long time ago, I’m guessing?”

Kon nodded his head.

“Did her joints still creak loud enough for your ears to bleed, back then? Did her voice make your blood curdle and your nails curl in pain?”

Kon avoided thinking about that night for a reason, so he just nodded again. “Sounds about right. I’m kind of surprised she’s still around. Not around as in alive, but unretired, I mean-“

Lafer chuckled weakly, only to silence when her shadow began rising at her feet. The inky darkness coalesced into a reflection, its features painted with darker strokes of black. Even the shadow of her armor spider-webbed with veins. Vigor’s shadow rose too, as did Kon’s. The closer Presence came, the more animated and refined their dark reflections became.

Each one of the shadows turned to face their living counterparts. Kon watched his silhouette’s obsidian lips part before it spoke any words. All three of the shadows talked in unison, though each bore a different message and delivered it in their own distorted voices.

“Unidentified Seer. Lay down any and all weapons, as well as your fae. Do not use magic, or attempt to leave the area. If you break any of these three orders, I will not hesitate to use force.”

Kon swallowed the growing lump in his throat. As ordered, he lay his flute on the ground and asked his fae to land beside it. Trying to move away from his shadow only made it walk after him, remaining the same distance. He tried orienting himself so he could see his family, but his dark reflection insisted on blocking his retreat. Though Kon’s arms hung by his sides, the shadow crossed his.

Kon froze, then sighed. He took a seat on the ground to keep him from pacing. As he gazed at his flute and his twinkling fae, he thrummed a nervous beat on his thigh with his thumbs.

“Thank you for your cooperation,” his shadow whispered, sounding like an echo of Kon’s voice at the bottom of a well. Despite the warmth of Vigor’s aura, a chill ran down his spine as he waited.

The shade cast by Presence’s looming silhouette had already flooded the Pale Hawks’ encampment.

𝅘𝅥 LAST                                        NEXT 𝅘𝅥


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