Prelude No. 7

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Chapter Fifteen

𝅘𝅥 A Nascent Song 𝅘𝅥

“There you are, Kon!” exclaimed Vigor. Lafer quickly shushed him, the sound garbled by the food in her mouth as she chewed. The blazing knight sat atop the big, box-shaped brick oven in the heart of the pavilion, kicking his greaves in front of him and the dying fire between his legs. Wood smoldered with faint embers in the oven, only for the sound of his voice — and the subsequent flare of his aura — to stoke it back to life. The wood and flame crackled loudly, then quieted with the giant. Vigor had forgotten about the sleeping roostfolk, it seemed.

At the sudden flash of light and crackle of flame, Cesca — who was sitting on Ebi’s lap — buried her face into her mother’s robes, pulling the loose garment around her ears. They sat at a round table beside Dír, all three of them across from Lafer. Five barren plates lay stacked between them as the teenage Seer hurriedly cleaned a fourth plate of its crumbs. As soon as she was done, Lafer rose and faced Kon, then glanced at the bare plates with a guilty expression.

Whoops,” she exhaled, trying and failing to sound light-hearted. “That wasn’t all the leftovers, was it?” she asked, turning to their hosts. “I didn’t mean to eat it all, but it was so delicious.” Before either of them could reply, Lafer faced Kon and bowed. “I’m so, so sorry. I meant to save you a plate or two, but—”

“—Don’t worry about it,” Kon interrupted, waving a hand by his side dismissively as he approached the table. “I don’t have much of an appetite right now, and it’s about time we leave, anyway.” While the night is still young, he thought, and before something else unexpected happens.

“Oh?” inquired Lafer. “I take it Lucid answered your questions and provided advice on where to go from here?”

“More or less,” Kon answered. “We can talk about it on the move. Ebi, Dír, Cesca, it was a pleasure meeting the three of you. As repayment for your hospitality, we’ll go and get out of your hair now so you can finally sleep. I’m sure you’re all tired.”

“What’s the rush?” came a voice that hissed and babbled like moving water. A pair of azure eyes with thin slits down their middles peered at Kon from the mouth of the well that stood beside Vigor and his oven-throne. From it, the head of the sea serpent fae, Flow, rose, his glistening tongue flicking across his fangless lips. Luminescent water and foam roiled beneath his translucent scales in bright hues of blue and white. At the table, Ebi cleared her throat.

“What my fae means to say is that we aren’t very tired, and that all four of us were looking forward to getting to know you better. Lafer was singing praises of your musical talent just a few minutes ago, and Cesca was especially excited to hear a song, assuming you can play one without waking up our roost. Isn’t that right, Cesca?”

Shy as the girl was, she actually met Kon’s eyes and nodded enthusiastically. The deep red glow cast by Vigor’s molten armor seemed to fill her with courage and life, too. Both her and her mother’s eyes settled on Kon’s fae as she floated in their direction. As she rang a quiet greeting, sparks of gold and silver light glinted on the bumps and in the crags of her lute string shell.

“I would like to hear a song too,” Vigor carefully rumbled.

Saaame,” added Lafer. “The one you played for us earlier was awesome. We want an encore.”

As much as Kon wanted to get their journey over with, how could he possibly say no to that? When he grinned and wandered toward the sack containing his belongings — which lay beside Flow and the well, of all places — Lafer clapped her hands lightly. Kon opened the flap, reached inside, and dug around in his clothes for his lyre. He glanced back over his shoulder as he straightened with the instrument, finding the expressions of his audience. Of them all, Cesca’s smile and eyes were the widest. “Earlier, I started working on something new. Or at least, started imagining it in my mind. I can perform what I’ve come up with so far, but to keep it quiet, I might need a little assistance.”

After a pause, Kon glanced at his fae, encouraging her to work her magic. She rang a muted note of understanding before soaring beyond the columns of the pavilion. The ringing continued as she circled around the structure, trailing light in her wake. Like at the grove when the second meteor fell, the light coalesced into a bubble of stillness and silence. The incessant noise from the crashing waterfall was barely audible, and so long as the radiant bubble was not pierced, any sound they made inside should be contained.

Once it was done forming, Kon’s fae returned to his side. Rather than take a seat with the others, he began to circle their table, the polished frame of his lyre clutched in one hand as the other’s nails gently caressed its strings, evoking a melodic flourish. His fingers danced, and so too did the music. All low and slow tones, simple and somber. He let each note hang in the air for a brief moment before transitioning to the next. His fae imbued the sounds with a distinct emotion: grief. Kon hummed alongside the plucked strings, deep and throaty. Though he didn’t intend on singing, the words slipped out of him, pouring from the deepest recesses of his soul.

𝅘𝅥   They say, that distance, makes the heart, grow fonder.  𝅘𝅥

𝅘𝅥   Yet all, I can feel, is my heart, torn asunder.   𝅘𝅥

𝅘𝅥   In the night, I mourn. Thoughts of family, I ponder.   𝅘𝅥

𝅘𝅥   My breathings, unsteady. My chest beats, like thunder.   𝅘𝅥

𝅘𝅥   How much time, did I waste? How much life, did I squander?   𝅘𝅥

𝅘𝅥   I wonder, I wander. I wonder, I wander.   𝅘𝅥

Despite his eyes being shut tight, moisture still leaked from them, leaving streams of warmth on his cheeks. His voice and fingers both faltered as he punctuated the verse with a breath. Above and around them, ribbons of azure illumination cascaded from the pavilion’s ceiling. Each carved meandering paths in the air like rivers, yet fell as fast as raindrops. Kon dropped his arms, the lyre clutched tightly in both hands, as the magical light — already soft — faded into the dark. Vigor’s aura had dimmed as he listened. With a quick swipe of Kon’s wrist, he wiped clarity back into his vision.

His audience wore mixed expressions of sorrow and awe. Lafer and Ebi each bore a sad grin, while Dír just stared at him, his own eyes wet. Cesca’s face had barely changed, though her attention was on his fae and the fading ribbons. When the last light gave way to shadow, she pouted. Vigor nodded his head, returning his aura to its previous intensity. Flow — still in the well — seemed… calmer. Underneath his scales, the blue hues dominated the white. The air itself was stiller, and with that stillness came a heaviness. Kon had to force himself to smile before he could utter another word.

“I’m sorry,” he began. “It didn’t sound as miserable in my head. I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse, but…”

Before he could find his thoughts, three voices were raised in protest.

“There’s no reason to be sorry,” proclaimed Ebi.

“That was wonderful,” Lafer encouraged.

“We understand completely,” said Dír. “All of us have felt what you feel.”

Vigor continued to nod, then added his own voice. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Even Flow had tears streaming down his face. The serpent licked them away with a quick flick of his tongue.

It was so pretty,” whispered Cesca, her voice meek. It was the first time Kon heard her speak. Lafer and Vigor too, judging from how quickly their heads turned. Ebi and Dír smiled at their daughter fondly, then met Kon’s gaze with a pale sheen in their eyes.

“Thank you for sharing that with us,” continued Ebi. “Though it sounded like there is meant to be more?”

“Yeah,” Kon answered, walking to the leather sack and returning his lyre. “I’m not sure I like the cadence or the lyrics so far. I’ll play with it more. Expand it. Somehow, it’s easier for me to sing about missing my family than speak. I—” Kon paused to rub his eyes with the heel of his hand. Words failed him again, leaving him to just bow and shake his head. “…Yeah.”

At once, everyone nodded. Even little Cesca met his eyes. “Families aren’t meant to be apart,” she whispered, quiet enough that Kon wasn’t sure if he heard her with his own ears or through his fae. Ebi hugged her daughter tightly as Dír stroked her hair. Lafer made a small noise of agreement in spite of her complex history. Though Kon was certain he didn’t know a quarter of it, he could see the emotion swelling in her eyes. Maybe Lucid was right… he considered. Maybe I could stay the night. Talk about how I feel. Ask some questions, get some answers…

Kon released a breath he didn’t realize he was holding, then picked up his sack with a brief shake of his head, imperceptible to the others because of the angle. He ordered his fae to disperse the bubble of silence, which required her to fly through it, piercing it herself. “I’m sorry that we can’t stay longer,” he lied, careful to tune his voice with real disappointment and suppress his heartbeat, as to not give himself away to either Lafer or Vigor. The girl had taken a seat as he played, but now she rose to her feet again. The animated suit of red-hot, muscular armor jumped off his perch, inciting a loud metal on stone clang. Before anyone could reprimand him, Vigor quickly bowed and apologized.

In the meantime, Ebi stood, lifting Cesca off her lap and handing her to Dír. Slowly, Flow slid out of the well, leaving a trail of wetness on the ground as he slithered toward the waterfall. “Flow and I will show you to the caverns,” the Seer offered. “I’ll meet both of you in our nest?” she asked her husband and daughter, prompting two quick nods.

Kon was glad no one insisted on him staying. He might have caved otherwise… but no. Vigor’s aura may have kept his body warm and energized — might have kept his mind awake and aware — but his heart, or his soul, or whatever place else that people believed emotions were born was entirely drained. Kon needed to keep the momentum going. If he didn’t, he would surely fall. I’m not that strong, he told himself.

Somewhere behind him, he could feel his fae bobbing side to side as she soared.

“Flow would fly you up the waterfall if he could,” began Ebi, “just to give you a head start. But for everyone who isn’t me, his scales are too slippery. The cavern beyond the waterfall is natural, but Reap — one of the Fated King’s fae, in case you don’t know — used his scythe to carve a passage that will take you close to the summit. Navigating the upper trails of the Belt of Delakos comes with plenty of risks, but honestly, you’re safer way up there. Less beasts, and less Carrion. Some of our scouts have found evidence of a small Clan passing through the Rainforest. Unfortunately, no one is able to locate a trail to track them. There’re too few natural reflective surfaces for Lucid to peer through in this area — especially at night — and the Carrion know to avoid them.”

“Good to know,” said Lafer.

“Lucid will be watching out for us regardless,” Kon said, digging into his pocket for the broken shard of mirror. It had no arrow on it until he tapped it, but once he flicked it with a finger, one shone to life. It was green, instead of blue or red. A verdant hue of emerald, like his daughter’s fae.

Kon swallowed. Hard. That must be a coincidence. Right? Still out of sight, Kon felt his fae shake in every direction. He was just thinking to himself with no intention to ask her. After the memory she’d forced him to relive, he should have been upset that he could not escape her, even in his mind. Instead, he felt almost… comforted. Kon knew that she only wanted what he wanted. She just was too young to understand what that meant or what to do about it. He was determined to change that, difficult as it seemed to come up with the right name.

Thankfully he would have all night – and three more days – to consider, debate, and inquire before arriving at the Academy. If he was lucky, he would figure out what to call her, by then.

The mist was the thickest behind Ebi’s nest. Vigor had to dim his aura to keep it from turning into steam. They followed the Seer to where the edge of the cliff met the shore, forming a slick ledge that vanished behind the cascading waterfall. Ebi said her goodbyes and wished them luck, leaving Flow to lead them the rest of the way.

Kon clung to rocks on his side as he followed the glowing tip of the serpent’s tail into the dense cloud of moisture. Eventually, the ledge widened, the wall opening into a dark cavern on their right. Flow didn’t go much further. As soon as he could, Vigor ran in and ahead of the others, his aura flickering brightly, filling the wet, wide cavern with his deep crimson glow. Stalactites dripped on the ceiling, their edges serrated and sharp. Nervous of one falling into him, Kon made sure to avoid standing under them.

Flow’s hissing, babbling voice sounded as natural as all the splashing, crashing, and dripping. “Keep moving forward and listen for the sound of a rushing stream. You won’t see one, and sometimes it may be hard to hear, but follow the path of the sound as best you can, even if it seems like you’re moving in circles. It’ll take you where you need to go. I don’t think Lucid will be able to guide you until you’re outside again.”

Kon checked the shard of mirror to confirm it. The green arrow was still there, but when he turned, it remained in place. After tapping it, the arrow shifted into a waving squiggle.

“Thank you, friend.” Vigor held out a palm for Flow to slap with his tail, but he just sprayed the red-hot gauntlet with a spritz of water instead, prompting a hiss.

“Fair winds,” Lafer intoned formally.

“And following seas,” returned the serpent.

Some kind of motto? Kon thought. He waved to the fae, uncertain of what to say. Flow waved his tail back as he slithered into the misty lake.

The four companions didn’t remain long. Quietly, they departed. Not one of them looked back.

Chapter Sixteen

𝅘𝅥 Departure 𝅘𝅥

Sooo,” Lafer began, her voice hushed by the hand raised before her face. “This is a bit creepy, huh?”

“This being the hundreds of staring eyes?” Kon whispered. Though his gaze was fixated on the cavern’s shadowy depths, he could see the girl nod in the corner of his vision. Vigor was reluctant too, looming just beside her. With the light and heat of his aura kept low they were stuck huddling within arms reach.

“Yeah,” her fae rumbled. “Creepy.”

“Think they’re dangerous?” asked Kon.

“Nah,” said Lafer. “Ebi and Flow would have warned us if they were. Kusi and Tamer must have put them here to guard from intruders, though it doesn’t seem like we count. Their heartbeats are slow, almost like they’re sleeping. We should be fine so long as we don’t provoke them. Creeped out? Definitely. But fine.”

Kon hoped so. Wallbats were no joke.

The creatures were everywhere, their malleable flesh molded around jutting rocks and into narrow crevices. If not for the countless blinking eyes, they would seem as natural as the scenery, the shadows of their thin, rubbery bones visually similar to cracks in the stone. Flat black eyes glistened a dark red as they peered into Vigor’s molten luminescence. If the nocturnal beasts could see either of the humans, they would only make out their silhouettes faintly against the light. It was for the wallbats’ benefit that Vigor kept his aura dim, not Kon’s or Lafer’s.

“Let’s be careful as we walk near them,” he said. “No talking. No loud noises.”

If startled, the wallbats would surely scatter, their wings unfolding as wide as the confined space would allow, their bones extending beyond flesh into arrow-like spikes. Judging from the number of eyes, there were enough of them to fill the entire cavern. Kon would need to fall down for the wallbats to fly over him, which meant exposing the back of his head and his cloth sack of belongings

Gul’s cloth sack, he corrected the thought. I promised I would bring it back to him in one piece.

“Can your fae lead the way?” asked Vigor. He almost sounded afraid, but no. That isn’t possible, is it? There was no expression on his helmet, though it did smolder like a dying coal.

“What he means is she can hear better, right? Can she find and follow the sound of rushing water that Flow described?” Even Lafer’s voice was meeker than before.

Kon nodded, then mentally conveyed the request. His fae, who was glittering softly beside him, shook up and down before gliding off.

“I’ll watch our rear,” said Vigor.

Kon glanced at Lafer, inciting a muffled sigh.

“Fine. I’ll take the front, then.”

Kon waited for Lafer to reach the edge of Vigor’s aura before he took his first step. Their pace was slow to allow Lafer and Vigor time to pick their legs up high and place their armored boots down without metal clashing against stone and clanging.

Though he knew it was only his imagination, Kon couldn’t help but feel like the wallbats were staring solely at him. It felt like their eyes were following him as he moved. Even as he tripped and stumbled. Lafer moved quicker than he could see to catch him.

“Eyes on the ground,” she whispered. “There are salamanders ahead of us too. A whole blast of them. Could be more.”

Sure enough, more eyes appeared in the darkness, shining a brighter red than the others. Like Vigor, the lizards had a fire burning within their gaze. They weren’t the larger species, fortunately, but unfortunately, that made them no less deadly. At least two dozen of the finger-sized creatures began crawling out of the shadows.

Crawling straight for them.

Kon froze as the salamanders spread out and around him, though none clicked their flint-like tongues in warning. They were curious, if anything, perhaps attracted to the muscular fae’s blazing warmth.

That didn’t help Kon feel safer. It would be so easy for the salamanders to spray the combustible bile that stirred in their stomachs. With a click of a tongue, they could set the whole cavern aflame. Lafer might be fireproof – Kon wasn’t sure, but it would make sense – but he certainly wasn’t. Even if Vigor kept him alive, the burns could seriously disfigure him.

Lafer continued onward, her breaths controlled yet heavy. The vein on the side of her neck was bulging, though its glow was faint. She telegraphed her steps to avoid stepping on any of the salamanders. Crushing one beneath her heel would result in an explosion, and with so many of them so close, most would explode too. There was a reason why a group of them was called a blast.

Though not aggressive, the salamanders’ curiosity could easily mean the death of them all.

Why can’t anything be simple? Kon thought. Though I suppose this is better than a clan of Carrion. As scary as the salamanders were, there were much worse fates. The Carrion wouldn’t hesitate to torture or kill them on sight.

For a brief moment, Kon thought of Edos, the Carrion Seer of the Coastwatch Eyrie who turned on his kin to save and serve the Fated King. A teenager, and thus not too set in their ways, but a hero no less. A brave young man who chose the world over everyone and everything he’d ever known.

Can I really do that? The more Kon considered it, the less certain he felt. His pain and grief still resounded anew with every beat of his thundering heart. Abandoning his family… it went against everything he ever wanted.

Ahead of him, Lafer whispered so quietly, he could only understand the words through his connection to his fae. “Think you can play a song to keep them away from us?” When Kon didn’t immediately answer, she stopped and looked back.

In response, he pointed at the wallbats with a shake of his head. The music would have the same effect on them, and making the wallbats move was just as likely to end in disaster.

Lafer nodded, then continued on toward the darkness. Somewhere in there a tunnel awaited. Guided by his fae and the sound of water rushing beyond the walls, it didn’t take long for them to locate the hidden passage.

Things became more and less complicated after that.

Kon caught the scent of the sweet-smelling vines known as antraps before he saw them within the smooth, scythe-carved tunnel. While the wallbats remained behind and the salamanders realized they could scale Vigor’s armor, Kon and Lafer had to continue looking down. If they tripped and fell on one of those vines, they would be stuck as pheromones released into the air to attract and irritate nearby insects. Thousands of acidants marched along the walls, glowing in bright hues of green and yellow that seemed to bubble and pop within their carapaces.

Before speaking, Kon confirmed there was nothing around that his voice could upset. Vigor was petting a few of the salamanders on his chest, his aura was a little brighter than before. Kon met his torch-like eyes for only a second before facing ahead. “Can insects be Tamed as well?” he asked.

“I’m not sure,” whispered Vigor. “Tamer is… an unfortunate fae. I often wonder about her, but I’m unable to ask her or her Seer. Kusi, well, he’s not what I would call friendly.”

“That’s putting it lightly,” added Lafer. “He’s not a bad person, don’t get us wrong. Just not the type of person you can, or would want to, hold a conversation with.”

“Why is that?” Kon asked.

“Well, he named his fae Tamer, for starters. You can extrapolate some of him from that. Kusi is the type of person who always believes they’re right and that other people should listen. No charisma, though, just arrogance. His fae allows him to skip past the convincing stage, straight to obedience or belief.”

“The way you say that, it almost sounds like it works on people.”

“It does,” Lafer whispered. “Not that the Fated King lets him. Enemy combatants being a slight exception.”

“And what of Tamer? Why can’t you ask her, Vigor?”

A deep sound rumbled in the giant’s throat. “It’s… complicated. Uncomfortable for me to speak of, too.”

“I can explain,” said Lafer. “Sorry pal, but it’s something that Kon should know.”

Vigor’s throat rumbled again, though he raised no words in protest.

“Kusi never thought of his fae as a person,” she continued, her voice soft in both tone and volume. “Just saw her as another tool on his belt. Another weapon. In the end, that’s all she became. If Tamer is conscious at all, the only person she can talk with is her Seer. I can’t imagine it’s particularly fun being trapped in Kusi’s head.”

Vigor rumbled in agreement.

“So she manifested as a tool?” Kon asked. “A weapon?”

“A whip made of feathers. Impossibly soft but deceptive. Capable of sharpness whenever Kusi wills it. He can either impart emotions and beliefs gently, or instill commands painfully.” Those last words came out as an angry mutter.

“So each of the salamanders and wallbats…”

“All scarred,” grunted Vigor. Kon examined the lizards more closely, finding pallid cuts on their backs.

“If Kusi could do anything to bugs without killing them, he’d impart emotions. I think they’ll remain calm so long as we don’t touch them.”

Kon figured as much. Fortunately the walls of the scythe-carved passage were wide enough for Vigor to walk with his arms outstretched.

They continued onward in silence, their gazes fixed on the ground. Some of the vines had bits of wings and carapace stuck on them while others were pocked with dark valleys and craters. Though not truly acid, the ants’ bites were caustic. Any of them that got caught would be able to munch their way out.

The same would be true for Kon’s flesh. He’d felt that burning pain before and had a few scars to prove it. Never again, he thought.

“Greaaat,” Lafer groaned. Kon halted two steps after she did, getting close enough to see beyond her shoulder. The passage split, sloping downward on the left, and upward on the right. His fae waited at the sharp corner where the paths intersected. “How much do you want to bet that Headmaster Nise was behind this?” she asked.

“Hm?” Kon didn’t understand.

“Sorry. I was asking Vigor.”

“The Headmaster loves his mazes,” her fae clarified. “Something about the magic of getting irrevocably lost and, in a desperate search for an exit, finding oneself.”

“Does that actually work?”

“Not that we’ve experienced,” grunted Lafer.

“We have more of a ‘go through, not around’ mentality,” said Vigor. “Especially in places as bleak as this.”

Kon got that. In a dark, damp tunnel filled with all kinds of creatures that could kill or cripple him on a whim, he was eager to ‘go through’ too.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t an option.

Softly ringing, his fae drifted left, and thus down. Not up.

“No wonder Flow said the path won’t make sense.” Lafer sighed. As soon as she stepped onto the path and settled her weight, she almost slipped and fell. They all needed to balance their weight more carefully.

Kon wasn’t looking forward to this.


As soon as she was outside, Lafer breathed a sigh of relief. The mountain air was fresh and unseasonably frigid. This high up, it didn’t matter if the Waistlands were in a perpetual cycle of Bloom and Burn.

Kon looked out and saw an entire land slumbering. Storm clouds gathered in the sky lower than he stood. Beneath and beyond them, camps of flocks and roofs of far off roosts glittered like stars in the night. A blaze was raging in the distance. Red, not gray. It had engulfed the southern edge of the Ecaris Rainforest, which didn’t seem far from Underfall.

“The Carrion?” Kon asked.

Lafer didn’t stop gazing at the flames, not even as she walked down the ancient road paved along the cliffside. “Could be,” she said. “Could also be the result of a lightning strike. Storms around here move fast, often starting more fires than they put out.”

“It looks bad,” Vigor rumbled. He was no longer covered in the salamanders. The heat-seeking lizards remained in the maze of tunnels below, along with the rest of the enslaved creatures. Wallbats, arakens, treelions; even a cavalcade of golings were patrolling, rolling around like wheels while curled in their stony, segmented shells.

“If it keeps spreading like this, Lucid will call for Ebi and Flow, or another Seer or fae nearby that’s fit for the job. Vigor could probably eat all that fire, but…”

They had another mission: escorting Kon to Westwind Academy.

Frowning, he followed after Lafer, his gaze on the fae-made road that weaved across the upper peaks of the Delakos Mountain Range. It was a place as old as Tír itself, the result of two continents colliding across millennia. On one side, the Northern Wing, on the other, the Southern Talons. Somewhere west of him – and thus behind him – his family and his flock were camping on Onali’s Trail. Waiting for dawn.

“Our journey should be mostly straightforward from here,” said Vigor. “But just in case, we should look at that compass.”

Kon nodded, reaching into the pocket on his thigh. “Arrow is pointing forward.” Still green, he noted. There wasn’t much foliage this close to the summit, and what it did have looked mostly black or gray in the night. Ice shimmered a bluish-silver on each peak, melting and spilling water down fae-made valleys, including the one that bled into the Ecaris River. Before the Freeze, Delakos and his fae had hammered these mountains into what they were today, sans ruins. Too few of his temples and monasteries had survived the Grand Eruption.

“Hey Kon,” said Lafer. “You can read the stars, right? Tell what time it is just by looking at the night sky?”

“Of course,” he said. “You never learned?”

“Nope! At least not here. The Skyblade is wider where I’m from, and I never had a reason to learn at Westwind. Plenty of clocks there.”

Kon looked up at that infernal sliver of luminescent rock and flame. Because of their world’s rotation, the Clepsyndra constellation was tilted over, forcing him to twist his neck until it was upright. He examined the brightest stars’ positions and eye-balled the distance between them and the Skyblade. “It’s almost midnight,” he told her. “Roughly four hours left before sunrise.” I think.

“Could you teach us how to do that?” she asked.

“I’d like to learn too,” said Vigor.

“Honestly, I’m horrible with formulas, and math in general. The best I can manage are estimates. But I can try to show you the tricks my brother taught me when we were young.”

“Please,” Lafer insisted. “If we’re in for a long night of mindless walking, I could use the distraction.”

Kon had noticed the tension in her shoulders, but this was the first time he’d heard the exhaustion in her voice. Both she and Vigor were more reserved than usual, even before venturing into the cavern, and despite their reprieve from immediate danger, neither of them moved with rigid confidence.

Was I wrong to make us leave? I didn’t even ask if they wanted to stay overnight in Underfall.

Guilt swelled in Kon’s heart as it picked up its tempo. Lafer felt it immediately, stopping to glance back and flash him a smile of assurance. Kon returned a grin of his own, but it was forced. If it would help, he would teach them how to read the stars. It was the least he could do.

“Alright. Well, like anywhere else in the world, the first thing you need to do is orient the Water Clock upward, locate its Prime Stars, then find the angle between it and the Skyblade. From there, you can…”

𝅘𝅥 𝅘𝅥

“Wow!” Lafer huffed. “No gonna lie, that was kiiind of awesome. But what are we supposed to do now?”

Kon wouldn’t have described the road-marring landslide as awesome. Awful was a better word for it. Dreadful was the best. Had they left Underfall any sooner, walked any faster, or taken a single break less, the sudden quake and subsequent collapse of ice, mud, and stone would have barreled right over them, dashing them into pieces. Even with Vigor’s magic coursing through Lafer’s veins, Kon doubted she would have survived the impact.

It all happened so fast, Kon barely processed a thing. All he could remember was the ground trembling and the air screaming. He clutched the nearest stone jutting from the cliff and held on tight. While the earthquake lasted only for a minute, it felt like an eternity. The mountains, the sky, and the jungles below, they all became one chaotic, incoherent blur. At this rate, Kon would be accustomed to the feeling of almost dying. He wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

Now there was no path for them forward. Not without climbing a giant hill of mud and boulders. It didn’t look very stable.

“I’m sure Lucid will show us another path.” Kon checked his pocket for the broken mirror. Finding nothing, he spun, searching the ground. “Sun scorn me!” he shouted.

“Uh-oh,” rumbled Vigor. He’d reacted the same way when Lafer discovered the mirror had shattered.

Kon ignored the fae as he approached the edge of the mountain. Nervous as he felt peering down into the dark of certain death, he had to look. The compass had been in his hand. Losing it was his fault.

Lafer joined him while Vigor flared his aura, casting more illumination below. Several furrows ran down the steep edge of the cliff, the spaces between filled with rocks, silt, and other loose debris. In one of the furrows, something glimmered. The mirror shard.

Far, but not unreachable. There were plenty of grooves in the rock face. If careful, Kon could scale down and back just like a ladder. Basked in Vigor’s aura, he could even do it quickly.

Kon backed away to safely unstrap Gul’s sack. Lafer followed his example as her fae moved back to give them more room. “What are you doing?” he asked.

“You should rest, Kon. Just take a seat on your stuff. I’ll be back in a minute.”

“No. The mirror was my responsibility. I dropped it, so I should be the one to get it back. You should eat something. I shouldn’t be long.”

Lafer smiled as she shook her head. “I respect that, but please understand that you are my responsibility. I was given the mission to escort you to Westwind alive. Just let me do this. Please.”

Kon scratched behind his ear. “Fine. But you better be gone for just a minute. Then we eat.”

Lafer grinned as she unfastened her sword from her hip. At the ledge, she raised the sheathed weapon in front of her. With one last glance, she leaped.

Kon’s heart thundered for her sake. His fae soared after her, though he remained frozen in place.

“It’s okay,” Vigor assured them. “She’s only trying to show off.”

A few seconds later, a bright flash of molten light heralded the girl’s return. Kon wasn’t sure what she did, but it involved her sword somehow. Her figure arced through the air as if propelled. A blast of flame from her blade? He’d seen a Seer do something similar before.

Lafer landed, panting. “Phew. Managed to catch it while falling. Didn’t even need to touch the cliff. Easy.”

Kon stepped toward her and took the mirror. Miraculously, it had cracked no further, though it no longer shone a glowing symbol.

“Don’t scare me like that again,” he breathed. “Please.”

Lafer nodded, though her grin didn’t falter. She ran to her bag and rummaged in it for food. “Whatcha in the mood for? Seeds, nuts, and berries? Or more meat?”

They had just eaten steaks an hour ago. “A rations mix is fine. I think I’ve had my fill of chikibi and treelion.”

“More for me then,” she exclaimed, her smile widening.

Kon kicked his bag closer to the cliff as Vigor stepped around him and laid on the road beside Lafer. Lafer threw a large chikibi breast over the hot-metal of her fae’s pectorals, causing the meat to sizzle and smoke. She turned it over with a large skewering fork as she dug in her bag for rations. The pouches she’d given Kon earlier were all empty. Lafer removed an entire box of them, then slid it over with her foot. By the time Kon found the lightest pouch and opened it, she was already devouring her meal straight from the fork’s prongs.

“Shouldn’t you let it cook for longer?” Blood was still dripping from the breast’s pink, inner flesh.

Nah,” Lafer answered as she chewed, then swallowed. “My internal temperature is high enough that my mouth is practically an oven. If I don’t eat my meat rare, it will be tasteless by the time it touches my tongue. That’s also part of the reason why I eat so fast.”

To prove her statement, Lafer finished her meal in two large bites, then licked the fork clean of any juices. Satisfied, she collapsed, plopping over Vigor’s stomach so her arms and legs were hanging on either side of him. “Good as new,” she said. “Now for a short nap.”

Kon sat down on his belongings while Lafer pretended to snore. Vigor chuckled warmly, the back of his helmet cupped in the palms of his gauntlets. The flames behind his visor danced as he gazed up at the stars.

While they relaxed, Kon ate in silence. His fae drifted past the ledge toward the sound of fledglings chirping in a nest that had been displaced by the landslide. Kon recognized the panicked trills of three baby eagles. Their parents were nowhere to be seen. It was likely they were buried under all that mud and stone.

Poor things. Kon wished he could do something for them, but they were too far down and too young to fly.

His fae rang a gentle melody. Their cries petered out, soothed by the music.

Kon emptied the pouch, placing the trash in Gul’s sack with the rest of them, then began tapping the mirror shard. In seconds, the arrow returned. Still green. Despite the hill of mud and rock in their way, it was pointing the same direction.

Toward Westwind Academy.

Chapter Seventeen

𝅘𝅥 Precipice 𝅘𝅥

Rain splattered and poured as a torrential storm met the unyielding mountainside. The dark mass of swelling mist had arrived suddenly, carried across entire leagues in minutes by a cold, northbound wind. It drowned out the light of the mid-evening sun and drenched the land in shadow, leaving only the scattered flashes of lightning to illuminate the narrow road ahead.

After two days of rigorous travel, Kon and his companions were nearly there. Somewhere in the heart of that storm Westwind Academy was waiting. Nothing could stop them now.

Vigor leaned into the howling wind, his aura blazing, evaporating the pattering rain into hissing steam. Kon marched behind the giant, one hand holding onto the cliff for balance, while Lafer strode beside him, her right foot constantly grazing the mountain road’s ledge. For her, almost falling was thrilling rather than terrifying. Neither Kon nor his fae – who nervously buzzed in his ear – could understand.

“You two okay?” asked Lafer. She needed to yell to be heard over the relentless noise. Though her sword was in her hands, Kon still worried. The drop was long and as dark as oblivion.

“Just anxious,” he replied, his fae humming along with him. A pale sheen of magic filled the air, amplifying his voice. “Why is this storm happening now, of all times, and here, of all places? It feels like Fate is toying with me. Why complicate the last stretch of our journey? Haven’t we been through enough already?”

Lafer made a noise, testing the fae’s magic. With a look of satisfaction, she took a breath. “You can thank the valiant sacrifice of Orren for the time and place of this storm. We get a lot of them around here because of him. You’ve heard the story of the Hinderlands, haven’t you? When the weather is clearer, you can see the crown of ice from here.”

Kon nodded. When Tairn’s moon first shattered, a great Seer named Orren gave his very soul to his fae, Hinder, so that she could hold the impending cataclysm at bay. Because of her, it took decades for the meteors to land, their momentum slowed to a crawl. Centuries had passed since the impact and still, she remained there, imprisoning the first wave of invaders in a plain of frozen time. It made sense that storms were common near it. The cold air would displace the warm, generating clouds.

“How many years has she been there? Three hundred? Four?”

“Nearly 350,” rumbled Vigor. Kon saw him tilt his helmet, casting his gaze at his feet.

Lafer grunted. “Whole lifetimes spent in a never-ending standoff with the enemy.”

“That’s horrifying,” he whispered. “She must feel so alone. No people. No music.”

Vigor straightened, his voice sparking to life. “What’s truly horrifying is the fate of Orren. I could never let Lafer make that choice. No matter how much good I could do as a Spirit.”

A Spirit. “As in a fae without a Seer?”

“Yes. Like Prosper, Solstice, and Tempest. Unbound and transcendent.”

“How does that work?” he asked. “I didn’t realize Seers had a choice.”

Vigor quieted. The steam hissed louder as he pressed harder into the storm, leaving Lafer to speak in his place.

“When a Seer dies, our soul will persist long enough to deliver any last words or orders to people with the Sight. During that time, we’re able to make an important decision. Do we allow our fae to carry our souls back to the sun? Do we take our fae’s essence and use it to manifest a new body, becoming a Sorcerer? Or do we give our soul to them so they can keep serving Fate as a greater Spirit?”

Vigor huffed a burst of flame. “I’d sooner give myself up than Lafer.”

Lafer chuckled. “Well pal, guess what? The feeling is mutual. You’ll never be able to escape me. Not in this life or the next.”

Vigor chuckled as well.

When she refocused on Kon, the moment of levity was already gone. Her smile faltered and her voice dripped with sadness. “Both cases are rare for a reason. One means murdering your best friend. The other means denying yourself paradise. Only the most despicable people can do the first, and the second? There’s nothing more noble, I’d say. Just think of how many Spirits changed our world for the better. How many of them kept us alive.”

“Noble,” Kon agreed. Prosper had preserved humanity through Tairn’s sudden ice age, and Solstice had pulled their sun closer, thawing out the world. Spirits only grew more powerful with time, and both of them had a millennia to develop.

Kon looked at his fae and wondered.

“Don’t bother thinking about it now,” Lafer told him, as if sensing his thoughts. “I won’t let you die on my watch, and you’ve got a family to fight for, anyway. It will be a long time before you need to consider it.”

Kon hesitated. “How did you know that’s what I was thinking?”

“Because we all think about it when we find out. Been there, done that, got the chestplate. It’s not worth the existential dread.”

At that, he nodded. Despite being so young, Lafer was undeniably wise. He knew he was right, so he cast the thought aside.

“Hey,” said Vigor. “Look. The wind is letting up. I can almost see Zephyr’s Cradle from here.”

Kon could almost see it too. In the distance, a shimmering whorl of green magic was propelling the clouds away from a small valley. Between the rain and steam, he couldn’t see much else, but that tiny hint of color shined a ray of hope on his heart.

“Zephyr’s is a Spirit too, isn’t she?”

“Good guess. She was the fae of Westwind Academy’s founder. Younger than Hinder, but not by much. Zephyr guards the Cradle in honor of her Seer. It was his dream to create a safe haven for people to learn in. She continues to make that dream a reality in his stead.”

“People?” Kon asked. “Not just Seers?”

“Uh-huh. Is that surprising? The Academies aren’t just for us. They’re institutions of higher learning for anyone who vows to serve the Fated King. Officers, inventors, doctors, you name it. We mostly get inventors in Westwind, though more doctors have come since Eastend had to be quarantined.”

“Quarantined?” Kon asked. He didn’t realize Decay had gotten that far in her rampage. After Hovud, the self-proclaimed King of the Carrion, was executed, he left her behind to wreak as much havoc as possible. It took days for the Seers to put the monster down. Now that he thought about it, that meant she had been a Spirit as well.

“Unfortunately. Most of the students were evacuated and now attend the other Academies. You’ll meet a few of them soon, but don’t expect them to be friendly. One’s a jerk, but the others… they’ve just been through a lot.”

“Now that we’re nearly there, could you tell me about them and the other students? The Professors, too. It would be nice to know who I’ll be dealing with for the next few weeks.”

Lafer stepped away from the ledge and walked in arms reach, focusing solely on Kon. “I can do that. But there’s a lot of them. It might take a while.”

“That’s okay. Anything is better than listening to the steam and the storm.”

“Well then, I guess I’ll start with the Professors. Headmaster Nise and Lucid teach Meditation, which is all about discovering your inner self and forming a deeper bond with your fae. Most of the time, their lessons are private. You’ll probably spend a day or two in the Mirror Room before they make you find your own Sanctuary.”

Kon clicked his tongue. “You’ve already lost me. Mirror Room? Sanctuary?”

“The Mirror Room is what it sounds like: a small chamber with tiny mirrors covering the walls. Lucid’s magic can alter each reflection into a different version of you. Versions that you could have been, if you had made different choices in life, or versions that focus on different traits or qualities of your character. It’s meant to help you examine and compare the various facets of your self, but for me, I just found the whole experience overwhelming. Thankfully I found my Sanctuary quick.

“As for those, they’re basically a place of meditation that’s unique for each Seer. Somewhere that your mind is clearest and you feel the most like you. There’s a plaza in the Cradle where people go to listen to music and dance after nightfall. When I need to think, I go there and surround myself with friends. I’m most like myself when the people around me are happy and having fun. The song I heard that used the word vigor? That was where I heard it. I named him the same day.”

“I’m quite the dancer myself,” chuckled Vigor. “You should see bust a move.”

Lafer chuckled too. “You really should. It’s quite the sight.”

“I’d like that. I’m better at playing music than dancing to it, but that sounds nice.”

“We’ll make a plan for after you graduate then.”

Kon returned the girl’s smile with his own. “In that case, I imagine my Sanctuary would be somewhere with instruments. Westwind doesn’t happen to have a music professor, does it?”

“Not really. Professor Meir would be the closest, but she teaches Innovation. A few years ago, one of her students built a machine that can use electricity to reproduce sounds, then used it to create pseudomusic. It’s completely unlike anything you’ve ever heard. I love it.”

“Professor Meir… that name sounds familiar. Who is her fae?”

Lafer giggled to herself. “Professor Meir isn’t a Seer. The only Professor that isn’t, in fact. You might know of her because of her father, though. The great inventor, Pardin. Sun rest his soul.”

Pardin. A legendary Seer. More than an inventor, he was known to be the most intelligent man in the world. Him and his fae, Circuit, made countless biological discoveries and technological advancements.”

“I never heard he had a daughter. Completely different names, so I’m assuming she was adopted? But everything I’ve heard about the man said he was unfeeling. Why adopt at all?”

“By the time Professor Meir was your daughter’s age, she passed the test to join The Pinnacle. Pardin welcomed the young girl and immediately saw her potential. She had no friends or family either, and the pair found kinship in that. Not long after, Pardin claimed that she was even smarter and adopted her, leaving his legacy in her hands.”

“Why is she here, then? Why doesn’t she still live in The Pinnacle?”

“That I can’t tell you. Not because I don’t want to, but because I don’t know. She doesn’t talk about her personal life. Ever.”

“Okay. I’ll just keep that in mind then. What about the others?”

“Well, I kinda skipped Armsmaster Topek. He’s technically in charge after the Headmaster. He teaches Soldiery, which boils down to military training. He’s a tad younger than you, I think, and he’s also the man I mentioned who gained his Sight late in his life. He was a Knight before he was a Seer. Fighting alongside the Fated King and his army of fae must have rubbed off on him. Though rare, it apparently happens.”

Not exactly, Kon thought. Lucid had mentioned ordinary people could gain the Sight by killing. “What’s he like?” He’d never met a Knight before. They were supposed to be the greatest warriors on Tairn.

“Serious, for one, which I’m sure you expected, but also kind of like a child in a grown man’s body. He makes jokes constantly, even when you’re lying in the dirt because he worked you so hard that you can’t even move. His fae is Excel, which is kind of like a being of pure energy? She can course through a person’s body to empower them, whether or not they have the Sight. Her magic works best when she inhabits her Seer, but he’s tough enough to kick ass without her. If you’re a good student, he might let you train with her. A day of training with Excel is like a week of regular training.”

“Sounds useful. What qualifies as a good student, then?”

“Well, for one, always calling him Sir and treating him with respect. Salute him after you approach him and before you part ways. Follow his orders without complaint and most importantly, push yourself during his exercise sessions and weapons lessons. So long as you show him you’re optimistic and determined, he’ll take a liking to you.”

“I can do that first half of that easily enough, but the second? Traveling with you has been the hardest I’ve pushed myself in years, and there’s no way I could have done it without Vigor.”

“Nonsense,” the fae rumbled. “If you rested during the nights, you would have still made it in time. We’re a whole day early, after all.

Lafer nodded in agreement. “Definitely. I’m sure if a sixteen-year-old girl like me can pass his Physical Exams, you can too. You just have to believe in yourself.”

Kon wasn’t sure how to do that. Not in this way, at least. He might have been good with words and feelings, but that was as far as his confidence went. “Is there an option to not train with a weapon? I’ve never been fond of them, but with my fae, at least, I can use music to defend myself.”

“You wouldn’t be the only student to ask that question. Unfortunately his answer will be no. All Seers need to be able to defend themselves without magic. If we can’t, we’re too vulnerable when separated from our fae. It doesn’t take long for souls to begin dissolving, so once a Seer dies, their fae is taken out of the fight too. Besides, there’s another Professor in charge of teaching magic. Spiritualism is the name of his class.”

“Phantom,” Vigor muttered, his armor rattling as he feigned a shiver.

Kon didn’t understand. “Another Spirit?”

Lafer frowned, shaking her head. “A Sorcerer. A Seer so despicable he murdered his fae to become immortal. Before that, he was one of the good guys. Now he’s just a prisoner working off an eternity-long sentence. He’s locked up in a special chamber that was designed by Professor Meir to contain spectral entities like the wraiths. Phantom is capable of generating realistic, complex illusions. Within his domain, students can explore the depths of their fae’s power without fear.”

“So the Fated King’s father teaches Meditation, Pardin’s apprentice teaches Innovation, a former Knight teaches Soldiery, and an imprisoned Sorcerer teaches Spiritualism…”

“Crazy, right? Westwind’s last Professor is the most normal of the bunch, though he’s a bit crazy himself. Groundmaster Hazen and his fae, Lush- well, let’s just say they’re not always coherent. They covered a variety of subjects, too, with a focus on the natural world. How we affect nature and how nature affects us. Stuff like that. Most of their lessons are more like field trips. They were definitely my favorite.”

“I can tell.” The more Lafer talked, the more excitable she seemed. “Kinjra would love that.”

“Yeah. I bet she’d feel at home at Westwind.”

Kon slouched, regret swelling in his chest.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to- ugh. Foot meet mouth, am I right? I hope you don’t think I’m suggesting that your daughter reveal herself. I’m just saying it’s a good place. I know that it’s hard being away from your family, but I think you’ll feel the same.”

“It’s alright. Let’s just talk about something else. What about my fellow students?”

“Well, over half of them haven’t named their fae yet, so they might be less easy to remember. But to start with, hmm. Do you remember that friend I mentioned? The one who named their fae something contradictory to make a fundamental change in their self?”

“I do,” Kon said. “I’ll admit, that made me curious, but I didn’t want to seem insensitive by prying.”

“Don’t sweat it. Wilm is pretty much an open book about their situation. They were born female, but as they grew older, they realized they felt different. Later, they found out their fae was female, too, as much as fae can have genders. I’m sure you’ve noticed that male Seers have female fae and vice versa. A part of that is because they were crafted by Fate to act as our complement, but they don’t have a gender, really. It’s just a perception thing. Nothing is set in stone until we name them. After long deliberation, Wilm named their fae Rugged, and over a long period of time, found their body changing as well. They still have a long way to go, but they’re more comfortable than they’ve ever been. Happier. Like I told you before, that’s what really matters.”

Kon grinned. “I couldn’t agree more.”

“We know,” added Vigor. The sheen of magic that amplified their voices was gone, as was the howling wind and hissing steam. Kon didn’t even realize it, but they made it through the storm. The green whorl of magic was above their heads now, gently swirling and glinting in the sun.

Finally,” Kon said, breathing a sigh of relief. He let go of the cliff and halted to stretch the tension out of his muscles. Though Vigor’s aura prolonged soreness, it did little to help the physiological ailments caused by stress. Birds were chirping in the trees that decorated the second and shortest mountain summit, Green Peak. It was like music to his ears.

Vigor and Lafer stopped and faced him, the latter smiling. “It’s amazing how fast time passes when lost in conversation. We’re not too far, now. Less than an hour left.”

The giant fae nodded enthusiastically. “I wonder if we’ve broken a record. Ashet and Outlook walk this path most often, but they aren’t exactly fast.”

“Depends on the Armsmaster, really. With Excel, he can move as fast as lightning. Wouldn’t be surprised if I heard he made the same journey in less than a day. The man loves to conquer unrealistic challenges.”

“I bet,” Kon said, intercepting the conversation. “So you’ve told me about Wilm, but what of the others? You mentioned Seers from Eastend.”

“Yeah. We have three of them. Saiet, Lili, and Dowen. Saiet’s the jerk I mentioned. The son of a count in Vaska Elek. He’s told me which before, but I couldn’t tell you. I just know it’s one of the minor ones. You know those people who believe they’re more important than reality? That’s Saiet. He likens himself as a modern Heavenly Knight in the making, if that tells you anything. His fae is a talking rapier named Riposte.”

Vigor huffed a breath of sparks. “We’re not their biggest fans.”

“That’s one way to put it. You shouldn’t have any problems with him, but just watch out. He acts nice, but everything he says and does, it’s only for his benefit.”

“Got it. Saiet’s a jerk. Avoid at all costs. But what about Lili and Dowen?”

“Lili is a refugee of Lidkha. Her brother is a Seer in the Fated King’s army, but she didn’t get her Sight until after the Battle of Vaska Toma. Lili breathed in Decay’s spores and has been dying ever since. I don’t know the whole story, but she named her fae to keep herself alive. Leach can drain the life out of anything and feed it to her. It’s a temporary solution until someone can manufacture a cure for bloodrot, but it gets the job done. Her and her best friend, Ora, go hunting a lot.”

“Ora?” Kon asked. “I’m guessing that’s another student?”

“Yeah. Works out that I mention her next. She’s a giant from the Northern Wing, but don’t ask why she’s here unless you want to see her get angry. Her and Lili… well, they’re a lot alike, despite growing up in completely different places. She hasn’t named her fae yet, but I expect her to soon. Ora knows exactly the kind of person she is, I think she’s just waiting for the perfect name. As for Dowen, he’s also Lidkhin. A lifelong orphan, I think. He follows Lili around like a pet and obeys every command Ora gives him. They’re not the best influences.”

“Troublemakers?” Kon asked.

“More like troubled. I believe they’re good people, deep down. Just not in a good place.”

“Unlike Saiet?”

Lafer smiled. “You got it. I can tell you about the rest after we make this last climb. Unless you’re hungry enough for a fourth lunch, that is?”

“I think I’m alright,” laughed Kon. “But thanks.” He took a moment to peer at his surroundings. The cliffside road was no wider than before. No paths branched from it, and there were no tunnels in sight. The crest of the valley at Green Peak’s base had a gentler slope than the rest of the mountains, but it was covered in trees. The only part clear enough to climb was too steep for Kon to manage on his own. “Where’s the secret entrance?” he asked.

“There is none,” rumbled Vigor. “Zephyr can defend this place on her own, so it’s as simple as climbing through the Windwoods. I’ll have to use the rock face, but I should be able to flare my aura wide enough to reach you. Send your fae to me and have her manage my speed.”

Kon nodded, sending his fae to hover beside the giant.

“Like I said, I won’t let you die on my watch, so just stay close to me and we’ll get to the top in no time.”

Quick, Kon refastened the straps of Gul’s sack and motioned Lafer onward.

“I’ll see you two at the top!” exclaimed Vigor, then took off running.

Gazes met then faced the trees.

𝅘𝅥 𝅘𝅥 𝅘𝅥

Kon panted heavily as he pulled himself over the crest of the valley. Aside from the energy provided by Vigor’s aura, he managed to climb the last slope on his own. Steep as the incline was, the sturdy branches of the Windwood trees made for perfect handholds and footholds. Lafer followed him the entire way up, ready to catch him in case he fell. Now they were rising on solid ground. Kon walked to the middle of the flat precipice, then bent over to catch his breath.

“That’s it, right? We’re finally done? No more surprises?”

“No more surprises,” chuckled Lafer. Vigor was already moving toward the ledge that overlooked Zephyr’s Cradle. By the time he took a seat, the girl was skipping to join him. Both of them kicked their legs out beneath them over the ledge. “Come on!” she shouted. “Come take a seat!”

Kon wiped his dirty palms on his trousers before approaching. As he walked, his gaze was fixated on the bountiful valley and the roost nestled within. A castle with emerald walls and golden ramparts was carved into the mountains, standing vigil over leagues of farmland and towering, cylindrical nests. As tall as the nests were, they paled in comparison to the skyscrapers in Kolod Vor. Shorter, wider buildings lay between them, adjacent to patios with open kitchens or chest-high tables with various wares. Tiny specks navigated the tiled, green-and-gold streets, arranged in a pattern that swirled like a whirlwind. From this high up, the roostfolk seemed as small as ants.

Lafer waved a hand for his attention. “Relax a little. Drink the scenery in. Then we can talk about the rest of your colleagues. Once you feel ready, we can go check in.”

Kon took a moment to eye the ledge. The slope on this side of the crest was gentle, packed with dirt and barren of trees. If he fell, at worst, he’d roll all the way down to the castle. Lafer offered him a hand, and he gladly took it. Once he settled beside her, he leaned back, keeping his center of gravity above solid ground, but not so far that he couldn’t see.

“I’m guessing that’s the Academy?” he asked, pointing below. In the center of the castle’s ramparts, a bright yellow ring surrounded a wide field. Along its length, three statues glinted in the sunlight, the first surrounded by crystalline structures that resembled rivers and waves, the second surrounded by tall, yellowing grass, and the third surrounded by mud. “What are those?” he asked.

Lafer sniffed happily. “Those are the Trials, good sir. The culminating event of every Seer’s training. They’re based on the Seven Trials of the Fated King, but there’s only three of these. Every Academy has one, though for each, the first Trial is unique, based on alumni. Ours is Flow. We have to navigate the tops of those obstacles without touching the ground. There are pores in the crystal that leak water, so balance is crucial, and a lot of those gaps are farther than they seem.”

“What about the other two? The middle one is smaller than the others, and I can barely see it through all that grass. That last one… it almost looks like a giant pig.”

“That’s Reap and Sow. The Fated King’s fae. Unfortunately I can’t say more on the subject. You’ll need to figure those out yourself.”

“Alright. Sounds ominous, but I suppose that’s a problem for another day.” Kon gazed elsewhere, but for some reason, the Academy kept drawing him back. They’d traveled so far and so long to get here, it was hard not to stare.

“I understand if this is all too much to take in. I was pretty overwhelmed when I first got here, too. We don’t have to talk. We can just listen to the wind.”

“I won’t deny I’m overwhelmed, but knowing things is a great comfort. Tell me about the other students. After that, I should be ready to leave.”

“Let’s see. Wilm, Saiet, Lili, Ora, Dowen… right! Just two left.”

“Three, actually,” rumbled Vigor. The ledge shook with his voice, nearly making Kon topple. “You’re forgetting poor Morus.”

“Aw. My bad. Morus is a good kid, just… a bit quiet and strange. Not Cesca-shy or Professor Meir-weird, but somewhere between. Morus is only ten-years-old, but he’s very smart and studious. Has a knack for memorization. I don’t know how, but he arrived two weeks before my graduation and still passed half of the Academic Exams before me. The only thing holding him back is the fact that he and his fae are so young.”

“I’m guessing the Academic Exams are difficult?”

Very. But probably not as much for a former teacher. Most of the time, they’re the last thing a Seer finishes before graduating. No one else I’ve mentioned has passed them yet. Or, at least, not since I last checked.”

“I doubt being a former teacher will help that much. I imagine the curriculum I taught is very different.”

“Maybe. I never received a formal education before coming to Westwind. Everything I learned, I learned from my mother.”

Lafer’s voice darkened as the last word escaped her. Kon contemplated asking why, but she didn’t give him the chance.

“Anyway, the last two are the twins, Gaj and Rej. They’re flockfolk. Grew up with the Harrowings, I think.”

Kon knew of the Harrowings. They were a band of mercenaries as much as they were a flock. Instead of migrating with the seasons, they spent their lives hunting down Carrion. “What are they like?

“Inseparable, for starters. A bit insufferable, too. It doesn’t help that they’re a couple teenage boys in the midst of puberty, but for obvious reasons, they’re more aggressive than most. Rej’s fae Grit, but apparently he stole the name from Gaj. Ever since then, Gaj has been threatening to name his fae Grit too, which is generally a bad idea. Considering their situation, though, it could work in their favor.”

Kon stared into the girl’s eyes and blinked until she explained.

“Right. You wouldn’t know about that, would you? In most cases, two fae having the same name will end up very different, since they’re each based on their Seer’s personality and perspective. But since they both act as incarnations of a single concept, they end up sharing the same well of power. Both are weaker so long as the other remains alive. If one of the Seers takes the life of the other, however, they can take everything from the other. More power at the cost of the other’s soul.”

Kon continued blinking, his words failing him.

“As brothers, Gaj or Rej could never kill the other. Professor Meir encouraged Gaj to follow through with his threat for experimentation’s sake, but he’s reluctant. He doesn’t want to risk a lifetime of being a mediocre Seer just to see how their fae might coexist and develop.”

“I see…” whispered Kon. “Just when I think I couldn’t be more overwhelmed, you share this. Is there a way for us to know if a name has already been taken?”

“Not that I know of. You’d have to ask one of the Professors.” Lafer paused to take a breath. “Do you have any more questions? I don’t mind sitting here for another hour if you do but the storm is starting to clear up. I can see the horizon burning with the sunset.”

Kon followed her gaze, but again, his attention returned to Westwind. Glaring down the slope beneath his feet, he steadied his heart. “I could probably ask a hundred more questions, but that’s why I’m here, isn’t it? To learn and to train? No sense in waiting any longer. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be.”

“That’s the spirit!” Vigor raised an arm and flexed as Lafer tapped Kon’s shoulder with a closed fist.

“You’ll be happy to know you won’t have to do any learning or training for at least two days. Tomorrow you can rest for as long as you need to, and on the next day, someone will be assigned to give you a tour of the Academy and Zephyr’s Cradle. For now, I’ll just show you to the mess and the barracks, so you know where to go for food when you aren’t lazing around in bed.”

Not counting the hammock at the Coastwatch Eyrie, it had been four nights since Kon last slept in a bed. Though his body wasn’t tired, he was beyond his mental and emotional limits. More than anything, the man needed sleep. With a smile, he rose, offering a hand to help Lafer to her feet. She took it gladly, then did the same for Vigor, who bowed in thanks.

We finally made it. His fae chimed a bright melody, but for a reason he didn’t want to grasp, it just sounded bittersweet.

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