Étude No. 1

In the heart of Westwind Academy, Headmaster Nise watched himself slumber across the reflective surface of his desk. At this hour, his office rested in complete darkness — the mirrors covering its walls, ceiling, and floor all dim, casting out shadows instead of light — yet he was still able to see his body and his furniture clearly, as if they were lit up by the Sun Himself. On one side, he lay slumped in the vibrant green cushions of his overly large chair. On the other, he pushed off his chair's gilded armrests and leaned forward to get a closer look at his double. Had Nise not known better, he might have actually thought he looked at peace.

With his eyes shut gently and his jaw hanging limp, the countless wrinkles of age and stress that marred his cheeks were faint, resembling the light strokes of a quill on faded parchment. His bony hands, which constantly trembled while he was awake, lay still on his lap, and his narrow shoulders were uncharacteristically relaxed, allowing his crooked back to straighten. Only his emerald silk robe and the lengthy curls of his white feather beard revealed the toll of his duties; the former disheveled from not being changed in days, the latter uncombed and undyed in seasons. Even for Nise, it was hard to believe that such a frail old man could bear the weight of his entire world.

As his mind often did, he thought of his son, Kados; the young orphan boy he'd rescued from the brink of death and raised as humanity's prophesied savior. The Fated King. For Nise, it felt like an eternity had passed since he'd last seen his precious boy— not in the flesh, perhaps, but alive nonetheless. In truth, the anniversary of his death was just two days short of a year from passing, and for the third of humanity that survived the lofty peaks of their grief, all were still lost in or consumed by mourning. Without him to lead the world, it could barely hold itself together, let alone defend itself against an enemy invasion.

And so the responsibility of Tairn's future became Nise's to uphold. Roughly three years remained before the foretold apocalypse began in earnest, which meant there was much work to be done. Far too much, really, for an old man at the dusk of his life, no matter how many promising Seers that Fate sent for him to train. The issue they faced couldn't be solved by quantity alone. For human civilization to pull together and triumph, the faith they'd cultivated across the last millennium needed to be restored. It was for that purpose that Nise would spend this night preparing his son's replacement. A new Fated King.

"Lucid," Nise uttered, beckoning the fae into his Dream. Before him, a slender woman of crystalline light shone upon his desk's surface, her entire body composed of shimmering white angular planes with varying degrees of luminosity. Grinning softly, he reached in the reflection and grasped the warmth of her glassy hand, gently pulled her out into the open, then slowly helped her to the floor. "A little light?" he asked, prompting the fae to snap the fingers of her untaken hand, creating a sound like wind chimes. At once, every mirror in the room started glowing a pale shade of blue, evoking the tranquil beauty of a vast, cloudless sky. "Thank you."

The fae's light brightened as she tried to bow, though Nise was quick to shake his head and open his arms, wrapping them around her. Lucid's radiance softened in return and reformed around him, cocooning him in her fragile essence. "Rough day?" she asked, her voice singing in his ears like a vibrating gem, ignoring how aware she was of his 'rough' day. Like all humans and fae, Lucid had been with Nise through his entire life, watching over and protecting him, knowing all his thoughts and sharing his every feeling. It was a tragedy that he could only greet her like this in his Dreams. In the Corporealm, Lucid was confined to reflections while other fae naturally manifested physical forms.

"Every day is rough," Nise answered noncommittally, stepping out of the fae's light and combing his beard with the untrimmed talons of his right hand. "But we both know that rougher days lie ahead of us," he sighed, delicately patting the reforming shoulders of his eternal friend. "It's about time we return to our work."

Striding away, Nise gestured for Lucid to join him at the mirror-wall behind his sleeping body. The 'real' him — reflected into this first layer of the Cerebrealm, which he'd aptly named the Mirror World in his graduating thesis on the previously misunderstood topic of Seer Dreams — fast asleep in the 'real' world. A frail old man who hadn't been able to enjoy a genuine night's rest since he was a bright-eyed student. Ironic considering how often he complained about not getting enough sleep in his youth.

"We could always take an hour off," Lucid suggested, her tone hopeful. "It's been a while since we've looked back on happier memories," she added, dramatically sweeping her arm and summoning a panoramic view on his chosen mirror, overlooking the skyline of the capital roost, Kolod Vor. Her scrying quickly magnified toward its great skyscrapers like it was viewed from the eyes of a soaring bird until it eventually halted above the largest tower in the world. The Fated King's prophesied seat of power, known simply as the Throne. A grand, ancient, beautiful edifice that stretched 567 meters tall.

Nise steadied his wavering breath and wiped the tears pooling in the wrinkles beneath his eyes. Equally aware of what she thought and felt, he knew exactly what memory the fae was about to replay. He could have turned away if he wanted, could have asked her to stop before she started, but instead, he just frowned and stayed his gaze, watching as the image changed rapidly. Minutes flew by in seconds, hours reduced to minutes:

More than a hundred uniformed Seers and their soulbound fae kneeling at the edges of the rooftop garden's central path, silently watching a young man in a regal white suit trimmed with emerald, contrasting his distinct green and white-streaked plumage, as he marched up to the throne on top of the Throne, pure gold and shaped like the Sun—

The same young man presenting himself by removing his coat, showing the lifeless gray scar that raked his torso from navel to neck, and calling not one fae, but two: the giant pig, Sow, standing upright and wearing an unstained pair of gardener's overalls, and the gaunt skeleton, Reap, hunched over and draped in a tattered black cloak, hood drawn—

All four Headmasters administering tests to prove the young man's authenticity in their own ways, including a younger Nise and a collection of ornate mirrors that Lucid used to reflect important moments from the boy's life. By the end of their demonstrations, every soul in attendance was grinning from ear to ear with tears shimmering in their eyes—

The nervous flush on the young man's face as he met Sir Agrigor — his future husband — for the very first time, who introduced himself by kneeling before him, opening his coat, presenting a lapis lazuli sword forged by his fae, Loyalty, and carving a matching scar down his own torso, swearing to 'live, fight, and if so necessary, die' by his side—

Then finally, the Coronation. The young man's moment to shine. With a conveniently placed collection of mirrors, Lucid projected his name — Kados — beneath a crown upon the sky, as large and bright as the Sun Himself. A proclamation to both heaven and humanity that he was finally here, thus fulfilling the Sixth Sign of Herald's Prophecy...

The Fated King. The hero chosen by Fate to lead a host of Seers, fae, and soldiers to victory in the coming war against the infernal wraiths. The same hero who would be murdered half-a-decade later, long before his time. Nise's precious boy had deserved so much better.

And it's my fault that you're gone. It was my job to keep you alive, and I failed. I failed the entire world, but most importantly, I failed you. I should have done more. I should have stopped you.

"It's not your fault. Kados would have always made the same choice. You couldn't have convinced him. No one could have. It's not your fault."

Nise shook his weary head, shutting out Lucid's voice. It was his fault, no matter how often his friend insisted otherwise. He could have done more. He should have tried.

"...Dad? Don't be mad at me, but I've made a decision. I could have left without telling you could have smashed all the mirrors my vanguard owns and marched off without giving you a warning but I love you too much to put you through that. Hence reaching out now, at this ungodly hour, knowing better than anyone how badly you need your beauty sleep. So please, don't say one word until I've finished explaining myself, okay? Just take a seat and listen."

Nise stumbled back, away from the mirror, and fell into his chair, which Lucid scooted closer. Though it was called a Seer Dream, it was the fae who truly had control of the Cerebrealm, much like their control over magic in the Corporealm. Nise could have ordered Lucid to stop and she would have to comply, bound as she was to Obedience by Fate's Precepts, but she was also bound to Benevolence, which meant she could never hurt him; not even if he ordered her to. Hearing Kados' voice now, saying those words— while it certainly felt like it hurt, Lucid was able to replay them, which meant he needed to hear them. After seven decades of partnership, Nise knew better than to question her methods.

"Thank you," his son had said, drawing Nise's eyes. The birds-eye view of the Throne had been replaced by a window into a dark study, the desk in the center and the young man sitting behind it illuminated by the glowing emeralds embedded in his military coat, the front undone and opened to reveal his terrible scars. Not just the gray, claw-like gashes that were inflicted by the wraith that nearly killed him, but the newer, festering one left by Hovud, self-proclaimed King of the Carrion. Though his round green eyes were sunken and his smooth, pointed face was haggard, he was still the most handsome boy in the world. "I know, I know. I look horrible," Kados said with a forced chuckle, no hint of joy in his falsetto voice. "Who would have thought that all it would take for me to finally resemble my father was a mere bout of insomnia? Grig and Sow aren't fond of my new look, but Reap is quite pleased. Obviously."

Nise sniffed, uncertain what to say. Not just now, but a year ago too. He hadn't needed Lucid to look into the future to dread what was coming.

"I can't sleep, Dad. I haven't been able to since Vaska Toma. Grig tells me it was nearly a season ago, but it feels like yesterday and a lifetime at once. It's like every time I close my eyes, I'm back there, and when I'm awake, it's still all I can think about. I just can't escape it. The devastation, the destruction, the death— it haunts me. I read the casualty report once, and once was enough. Over 142,000 innocent civilians recorded dead, most of their bodies rotted slowly from the inside out, insidious fungi sprouting from their veins and puppeteering their corpses like zombified monstrosities. I swear, Dad, I could recite every one of their names, each of them are burned into my brain, and whenever it's quiet, I swear I can hear them all screaming for me to come and save them, and it kills me that I can't. That I couldn't. I just can't stop thinking of how I failed them. Of how weak I was. Of how weak I still am. Of how different things could have been if I was stronger. Of how everyone looks up to me and calls me their Fated King while I just feel like a— a— a fraud."

"You are not a fraud, son," Nise choked out, past and present. "You are the best of us, K. The greatest humanity has to offer." Hearing the anguish Kados had felt during his last season alive, hearing himself utter those meager words so helplessly, they came so close to rending Nise's soul apart. So close back then, and so much closer now that he knew how this story would end.

"The best of us, the greatest, but not enough. I need to be better, Dad. I need to become stronger. I need to do everything in my power to make sure another Vaska Toma doesn't happen again. It's the only way I can live with myself after executing Hovud instead of imprisoning him, unable to foresee him being spiteful enough to give up his own soul to unleash an unbound Decay into the world. All those innocent deaths, not to mention the 52 Seers we lost just to correct that mistake— had I bound Solstice first, they'd all be alive. I could have incinerated the Walking Plague with a snap of my fingers, before it even managed to take its first step."

"K..." Nise began, his voice faltering as he absorbed the desperation twisting Kados' handsome face. "What you're proposing spits in the face of the Prophecy. Everyone who knows the Heraldic Hymns knows that you're Fated to encounter Solstice last, and as you just pointed out, you've only barely conquered your first Trial. What about the other five?"

At that, Kados grinned half-heartedly. "Everyone who knows the Heraldic Hymns also knows Trial Four is the Pestilent War. What about Trial One, Valor Won, or Trial Two, Righteous Coup? Regent Ferona is employing the sharpest minds in Kolod Vor to locate the resting place of her ancestors, yet the Catacombs still elude us, and her spies have yet to find anyone organizing a revolt against us. If Fate can let the Fourth Trial wreak havoc before its turn, why can't I beseech the Spirit of Heaven earlier too? What harm is there in at least trying?"

"The harm is you die, son! A traitorous Sorcerer joins the wraiths, claiming the name of Sibyl, and they ambush you with the last horde of Carrion survivors, including Hovud's vengeful brother, and Lucid can't see any of them coming because our enemy's magics hide them from Fate's gaze! Hell, I don't even find out what happens until it's already too late! You don't even make it past the desert's border!"

Of course, those words don't reach Kados' ears. They're spoken by the present Nise.

Past Nise had other words in mind. "I don't need Lucid to know I can't sway you. Can I?"

"You know me," Kados said, bolstering his grin. "Ma always used to call me pigheaded for a reason."

"Then I won't waste my breath," younger Nise sighed. "Instead, I'll help the only way I can by sending reinforcements. Armsmaster Topek, the former Jade Knight, should be an invaluable asset for your Vanguard. Under his charge, I can spare my three most recent graduates too, all of which are extremely promising and currently lacking orders. You already know Lafer; I'm sure Agrigor will be elated to serve alongside his cousin, but it may be a good idea to keep that a secret from her mother. The last thing we need is Regent Ferona reopening old wounds. As for the others, one is her best friend, Wilm — closer to a brother, really, and a formidable soldier — and a middle-aged gentleman bard, Kon — who you'll immediately recognize as someone very special. Keep the four of them close and I promise, if something goes wrong, they will do whatever it takes to protect you. In all my years as Headmaster, they're among the greatest students that I've had the pleasure of teaching. Kon especially could give you a run for your—"

Unwilling to hear a single word more, Nise raised a flattened hand. He didn't need to say or think anything for Lucid to dismiss the memory and return the mirror to its prior hue of sky blue, nor for her to simulate a gray cloud drifting across it. Instead of closing his eyes, Nise focused on the sullen blob, slipping into a meditative state as he watched it slowly travel from one edge of the wall toward the other.

Notice it, he told himself. Notice how terrible you feel knowing how many great people you've condemned to death throughout your life. Notice how terrible you feel knowing how many hearts you've broken as thoroughly as your own when Kados died, like Kon's child. Notice it and let go. Accept it or go insane. Go insane and doom everyone, or keep going and save the world. Let your suffering go and give their sacrifice meaning.

Nise inhaled a deep breath, simultaneously focusing on the drifting cloud and how the air flowed into his mouth, down his throat, and filled his lungs, inflating them like a pair of balloons. Holding it, he cleared his mind and relished in the silence. When he exhaled the same breath, the cloud finished its journey, dissipating as it crossed over the mirror's corner. With it, the guilt and regret that came with his job soon vanished. It would do him no good to hold onto the feelings. If he did, his fragile mind would surely shatter like glass.

"Though we cannot alter the past," Lucid started, her voice as bright as the shimmering light of her body—

"—We can still affect the future," Nise finished, his voice as heavy as the world upon his shoulders. "If you've reminded me of anything, it's that we must look ahead, not back, to have any hope of guiding Kon's child down the right path. Please show me the northern view from the Coastwatch Eyrie. Present time for now."

Nodding, Lucid swept her arm and summoned another panoramic vista on the wall. This time not of a roost at noon, but a forest at night, on the western coast of the Waistlands — the stretch of intimidating mountains and untamed wildernesses that covered Tír’s equator, dividing the supercontinent into northern Burest and southern Theye.

The Coastwatch Eyrie was a fortress like any other, staffed by a unit of Seers, fae, and soldiers tasked with protecting the surrounding area. To that end, Eyries were perched in high places and maintained observatories with telescopes facing each direction, both allowing their scouts to watch over great distances and enabling Lucid to see across the world in a matter of seconds. Though Nise couldn't see the Eyrie from this vantage, he took comfort in knowing it was still standing.

What he could see, however, was the deciduous woodlands below. The Sallow Woods, it was called, named after its dominant species of trees, notable for their sickly yellow bark, their shrubby canopies, and their extreme flexibility that left them bending in the wind. As was common across the Waistlands, the landscape was marred with numerous gray scars, which seemed to radiate a hollow glow in the silver light of Tairn's planetary ring. Entire acres of fertile land had been burned to lifeless ash, many shaped like talons with craters for a head or like giant bruises with cavernous pits for a heart. From this angle, Nise could see more than a hundred of the wounds left by the wraith's meteor bombardments, branded on the world's flesh by their all-consuming spiritfire.

Nise tried not to think about how this was just one scene of many, but the effort alone defeated the purpose. Taking a deep breath, he noted his grief and let it pass, allowing him to once again focus on the path ahead.

Only a single, albeit large, dirt road cut across the Sallow Woods, connecting northern Burest to southern Theye. At the height of the First Kingdom, it had been paved entirely with crystals by the Stone King, Delakos, and his earth-aspected fae, Tektōn, who called it the Quartz Highway: the first safe passage to unite the two continents. Unfortunately, very little of the original infrastructure had made it through the Great Eruption and the subsequent Frozen Age unscathed, and what precious minerals did remain were looted and traded in the lawless years that followed. In more recent centuries, the road was called Onali's Trail, named after the IVth Coast Lord, who spent the greater part of his life clearing, widening, and flattening the ruined path for migrating flockfolk with his own hands.

Nise couldn't help but think it was a fitting stage for the new Fated King to make their debut. Nor could Lucid, who spent the last few weeks restlessly arranging the occasion.

It wasn't simple or easy to deliver all of Fate's wishes. Not even for the most powerful fae diviners, whose magic let them glimpse fragments of Her vision for the future. Lucid was among the strongest in history, but even her divinations were brief and blurry, like slices of reflections in a frozen lake. Considering their enemy, it didn't help that wraiths caused interference, gradually draining the color from Fate's Gaze until was all gray, not dissimilar from the effect that spiritfire had on reality. Failures still happened, in spite of what the common folk were led to believe. Kados' death had exposed that secret, but Nise and Lucid would do anything to ensure the new Fated King's success. No matter the cost.

Nise cleared his throat and glanced sideways at his friend. "Can you show me the Pale Hawks encampment after two days of travel?" It was critical to see how close the flock's progress would be to their initial projections.

Lucid met his eyes and nodded, her stare invisible amidst the bright, glassy light of her skin. Even so, Nise could feel her gaze like he could feel her frown, accompanied by the scene on the wall leaping forward in time. "Alas, I'm afraid they're on track to exceeding our expectations. Should the Pale Hawks be allowed to travel uninterrupted, Kon's child will have too little chance of reaching the grove in time— not to mention the distance between the flock and the meteor will be too great, removing the necessary threat from the equation..."

Nise frowned too, studying the vision with his own eyes, if only to gain time for him to contemplate a solution. For his benefit, Lucid fluttered a hand, layering three more pale visions over the first. One revealing the arc of the falling meteor as a hueless trail in the sky and another on the stretch of road where it would crash as a huge gray stain. As for the last, a small clearing deep in the forest became suddenly filled with a massive knot of thorny vines. Just as she had claimed, the Pale Hawk's encampment would be too far away by half.

"What about tomorrow night?" he thought aloud. "How close will they be then?"

Lucid shifted the original vision 20 hours back in time, moving the ring of egg-shaped nests 30 kilometers north. "That's better," she said with a sigh, "but it's not enough. I've gone ahead and observed the course of tomorrow's journey, and stopping them around noon would be best. Otherwise, it'll be impossible for them to both reach the grove in time and return to end the wraith's rampage. Even then, it's still a tough ask for a group of kids to cover that much ground. They will need a head start and could use assistance on the way back."

Nise clicked his tongue and nodded. "All we need to do is create the perfect opportunity and trust Fate to handle the rest. In that interest, I can think of a couple assets we have yet to move, plus a few that can be moved sooner. Tell me. Is Vice Commander Levatis still awake?"

Lucid closed her eyes in mock concentration. "Unfortunately, he locked his mirror in his closet more than an hour ago. Even if we tried to reach him, the chances of him waking is slim."

"Of course," the Headmaster sighed. Although Levatis was half his age and incredibly fit in comparison, the Vice Commander needed to sleep twice as long as his elder to have any hope of controlling his temper. Necessary, perhaps, but often inconvenient. "I guess that leaves us no other choice," he said bitterly. "Please scry Commander Sap at once."

"Unfortunately, she's currently preoccupied. It may take some time for her to notice the flashing lights."

Nise made an exaggerated show of rolling his eyes, inspiring a light giggle. "Fate knows that nocturnal bat owes me years worth of patience. What's another three minutes and thirteen seconds?"

"Three and thirteen," Lucid repeated incredulously. "That's rather generous of you," she said while a bright white 1 flared on the mirror and began counting up. "I'd give her six minutes and eight seconds."

Nise grinned wryly, eager for the game. "Want to bet on it?"

"Even knowing that I already have seen the moment she answers?"

"If you had, I would know too."

The grin Lucid conveyed put his to shame. "Perhaps I've learned how to keep things to myself."

"Perish the thought. The more likely scenario is you like toying with my mind."

"Toying... Testing... All a matter of perspective."

In the end, it took five minutes and five seconds for the Commander to answer. Not quite three and thirteen or six and eight, but Lucid insisted that she was undeniably closer, rendering her the victor. Nise relented with feigned hesitance. Over the course of their stressful lives, the pair found it was the small moments of levity that kept their spirits afloat when they felt so heavy, they might collapse in on themselves. In games like these, it didn't matter who the victor was. What mattered was there were no stakes at all.

Once the timer stopped, the fives vanished and the zero expanded into an oval window that was covered in writhing tendrils of shadow. Muffled sounds could be heard on the other side, but the magic that Commander Sap's fae used made them as comprehensible as a silhouette against a dark background. No features, no depth. Just awareness of their presence. Another minute passed before the Commander finally dismissed the quivering darkness, but when it cleared, she was still nowhere to be seen. Instead, Nise was given a view of a giant pyre at the heart of a wide brick chamber. Ten bare-chested servants were dancing around it, engaged in a complicated tango with their shadows. The inky black reflections mirrored their partner's every move, risen from the ground by the same magic that previously obscured her mirror.

Much to his surprise — and not at all to Lucid's — Nise's grin resurfaced two-fold. The old bat's dance routines were something to behold, and it had been over a year since he'd last glimpsed her work. Although the Commander of the Coastwatch Eyrie would never admit it, Nise received reports from her subordinates that after the Fated King died, she began retiring to her chamber alone, utterly devoid of hope and inspiration both. Often she had missed entire meals, leaving the Vice Commander responsible for morning roll calls and evening debriefs. Like the majority of humanity, Sap had become a shadow of her former self.

For her to be this confident now, of all times... perhaps Nise would be able to rely on her after all. Next to Lucid, Sap was his oldest living friend. They were the only two Seers of their generation left. It would be so nice to fight alongside the infamous Night Mistress once again.

Speak of the devil, Lucid jested, somehow aware of the precise moment that Sap would move into the frame when he very much wasn't. Nise felt the fae wink and felt his skin pale, but rather than give her the pleasure of knowing his feelings on the matter of her learning how to keep things to herself, he focused on the approaching throne of smooth obsidian. It was carried on the backs of four risen shadows, each one crawling on their hands and knees, mirroring the four servants that were doing the same out of frame. On the throne, the Commander's slim figure was barely perceptible, adorned in a taut suit of black leather that covered everything below her chin, blending in and leaving only her paper-white face to hover like that of a ghost. Once centered, the crawling shadows fell on their fronts and sprawled out their limbs. Not dissipating, but seemingly content to lay and bear the throne's weight. As a result, their Mistress was lowered just enough for her pitch-black eyes to level with Nise's milky-whites.

"Headmaster," the seventy-nine-year-old woman practically spat, her expression twisted into a wrinkled snarl. "To what do I owe the honor of this midnight visit?"

"Fate," the Headmaster replied curtly, noting how Sap's face softened and hardened at once, becoming an unfeeling mask. With her eyes completely dark — pupils, irises, and sclerae all — it should have been impossible to guess where she was looking, but Nise knew his old friend too well. Sure enough, she balled her fists on her lap so tight, her gnarled knuckles cracked. A subconscious intimidation tactic born from her suppressed fear and uncertainty. "It's good to see you looking so well," he added, wanting to lighten the mood. "All things considered, I mean."

The casual insult was enough to restore the Mistress' legendary grimace. She was even driven to lean closer to her mirror, emphasizing the shadows of her skull under her thin skin, and snap her tongue vexedly. "I wish I could return the sentiment, but you look paler than a corpse. And that means something coming from me."

"Sorry to disappoint," he chuckled, putting Lucid's secrecy behind him, "but I'm not dead yet. If I was, you can rest assured knowing that my last moments will be spent reaching out to someone who actually cares."

"Oh?" his fae chimed in, joining the conversation. A question lingered on her illuminated tongue.

Don't do it, Nise thought, glaring at the mischievous cast of his fae's radiance.

"What's that look for?" Sap asked, just sharp enough to notice. "Lucid, please don't tell me he's actually planning some kind of tasteless goodbye message."

Nise felt his face grow warm.

"And now he's blushing. You idealistic old fool. Everyone and Fate knows that between us, I'll be the first to croak. You can rest assured knowing that I'll do everything in my power to spend my last moments haunting you, cackling from the shadows. Don't waste your time or energy on me, Lucid. Just ferry his soul quickly so I can terrorize him more in Heaven."

What began as oddly sweet inevitably turned sour. The Headmaster noticed a budding thought and snipped it before it could grow fully, but his old friend also knew him too well, recognizing the hesitant moment of concentration for a tell. Much to his surprise — and again, not to Lucid's — the Commander donned her unfeeling mask and cracked the knuckles on her lap.

"Ah," Sap uttered, her voice suddenly quiet. Soft. "I suppose that we never talked about it since graduating the Academy."

"...I suppose not," Nise answered, matching her tone. I'm sorry you had to find out this way, he couldn't bring himself to say.

Thankfully, the Commander yelled over the dense silence. "Shadows! I command you to cover your ears at once! Dancers, take a break and help yourselves to refreshments!"

In the background, her dancers halted and their shadows moved behind them, their ink-black hands covering their fleshy ears, before they walked off in tandem.

"What about us, M'lady?" a servant peeped up nearby, somewhere unseen.

Sap looked to her left and frowned. "Ease me down gently. If you make it fast and do it perfectly, I'll release you for the rest of the night." The effort of speaking made her taut lips quiver like a bowstring on the verge of snapping.

The shadows beneath the Commander's feet perked up, squirmed their way onto their backs, then pushed the obsidian throne up with their arms. Even though each action was mirrored by ordinary people, their shadows cared nothing for the combined weight of stone and sitter. The servants' lone issue, naturally, was balance, which only seemed to falter as the shadows nearly became free. Sap scowled every time her body leaned in any direction, but with effort, the servants managed to reach the edges with their knees set underneath them. A woman among them counted down from three as they slowly laid it onto the floor.

"Good enough," their Mistress barked with a flick of her hand. The risen shadows ran off quickly, accompanied by a cacophony of distant footfalls. "Now, where were we..."

Before Nise could reply, Sap flicked the same hand again, cutting him off. Her unfeeling mask returned, knuckles cracking. "Right. How could I forget? The betrayal."

Even if he believed that his decision was justified, Nise couldn't argue a more charitable description. The changing of his mind, of planning to break a promise he made— not to mention keeping it to himself for as long as he had.

"When did you change your mind? Did you even plan on telling me?"

This was the last thing Nise wanted to speak of, right now or ever.

I'm sorry for arranging this, Lucid thought, but I couldn't let you avoid this conversation forever. If you want, I could interrupt and explain that Fate is calling, so time is of the essence. You could talk with her about this in person.

For a moment, the Headmaster considered it. Sap's faith would allow the deflection, but the pain she felt now would surely fester. No, he thought woefully. It's now or never.

The fae's light glowed noticeably warmer, bolstering his courage.

"I did intend to tell you," he admitted carefully. "I hadn't set a date, though I've known for a long time. 198 nights if you'd like me to be exact."

Two days short of a year. An eternity to Nise. To most of the world.

"...I see. So what then? Would it be you, or Lucid?"

Nise couldn't bring himself to respond.

"I would remain," the fae answered in his stead. "In the event that Nise dies before the Foretold War, I have been ordered to absorb his soul and become a persistent Spirit."

"With a corporeal form of her own," he added, finding his voice, "she will not only be able to continue guiding our Seers across the world, but all of humanity. Lucid would be strong enough to reach out to and watch over everyone. She could warn them of danger before it happens and lead them to safety."

"Utter nonsense," the Commander spat derisively. "Without your son, what could that possibly accomplish? You know the Heraldic Hymns by heart as well as I do. Only the Fated King can stop the wraiths from conquering Tairn. All your sacrifice would do is delay the inevitable, or worse, risk innocent souls being devoured, condemning them to an eternity in Hell. You idealistic old fool!"

Nise's heart sank. The pain in Sap's voice was genuine, breaking her natural huskiness into a high-pitched staccato. Nothing at all like the well-practiced howls that she used to intimidate her subordinates.

Kados might have been Nise's son, but his death affected every living soul. Sap grew up in a devout family like any other, raised with the firm belief in the prophetic songs divined by the fae, Herald, which inspired the founding of the First Kingdom. Every single flock and roost on Tír performed them on holidays, continuing the education of the world's benevolent will, Fate, the fae she created to protect the Sun's children — humanity — and the King that would save them all from the wraiths' never-ending death. When the Fated King died, more than half the world had died too, lives taken by their own hands to escape the coming apocalypse. Those who chose to stay behind as long as they could were lost and broken. The Commander of the Coastwatch Eyrie included.

Nise wished he could tell her about his plan. About Fate's plan, though Lucid had looked at permutations of that conversation already, and she never believed it. The only way to convince her was to see the child's potential unfold with her own eyes. Only then could she begin to hope again. Only then could her faith be restored. Right now, however, any further discussion would just serve to alienate her more.

"Excuse me," Lucid began softly. "I hate to interrupt, but we all know that Fate runs on a tight schedule. Commander... would it be alright if you two spoke more on this later?"

The Night Mistress scoffed in disdain. Fortunately, she respected the fae too much and morphed the sound halfway into an exhausted sigh. "Let's get on with it then. What are Her orders?"

"Well—"

—Nise raised a trembling hand, more for Sap's benefit than Lucid's. "Please, allow me." While the fae nodded reluctantly, the Commander gave him a sharp glare. "For tonight and tomorrow, you are to do nothing but your usual duties, other than distribute two sets of orders before dawn."

Sap had no such compunction about scoffing at Nise. "You must be joking. That's why you disturbed me at this ungodly hour? You ruined my night just to make me your Sun-forsaken messenger!?"

"Fate's messenger, Commander. The meteor's trajectory has changed, and to save the lives of the flock approaching from the north, your Seers need to delay them. More than sixty innocent souls need these orders to be passed down, and you're the only person I can rely on to ensure they are followed." As much as Nise hated lying, he always found the words easier to digest when distilled with bit of truth. "Please. I wouldn't beg for a rain check if this wasn't important." A little sentiment never hurt either.

"Funny," the Commander replied, her tone the very opposite of amused. "I've yet to see any begging. But please, don't waste more time demeaning yourself for my sake. Fate runs on a tight schedule. Isn't that right, Headmaster?"

Nise sighed. He knew when a battle was already lost. His old friend Sap was beyond his reach now, having retreated into the calloused skin of the Night Mistress. The unfeeling mask, the cracking knuckles, the practiced howls... all techniques she used to be seen as intimidating, inspiring fear in her enemies, servants, and subordinates to empower her fae's magic, consequently making them more afraid. All techniques she tried to use on him now. All to hide how vulnerable she really was.

"...Right," he replied curtly, no choice but to ignore it and move on. "The first orders are for Vice Commander Levatis, who decided a full night's rest was more important than Fate by locking up his mirror again. I trust you will be glad to dole out punishment, but you'll need to save it after the success of his next mission. At dawn, he must lead a team of three Seers up Onali's Trail to meet, halt, and protect the southbound flock until the incoming meteor is taken care of."

Much to his surprise — and Lucid's too — the Commander let out a shrill laugh. "Easier said than done. How many Seers do you think I have at my disposal? With six patrolling during the day and four during the night, we barely have enough legs and eyes to cover our jurisdiction. Not to mention the flock that's currently at our gates, demanding we let them pass northward."

Nise's gut tightened in a knot, his blood and Lucid's radiance going cold.

"...What flock?" the fae whispered, her voice like a soft jingle in the wind.

"I suppose Fate must have deemed them unimportant to her mission. All the while, they have been a massive thorn in my side! In a single day, they have devoured a tenth of my yearly rations. A Sun-forsaken nightmare!"

"...What flock?" the Headmaster repeated, his voice darker than Sap's gaze.

"They call themselves the Moulted," she finally answered. "A hundred and twenty-three Lidkhan refugees hoping to find employment and housing in Burest. According to the Vice Commander, they've been skirting along the Waistlands since the Battle of Vaska Toma, riding on the backs of half-as-many camels. Originally, they had twice as many people and animals, but as born-and-raised roostfolk, they never learned how to ration food while traveling. Many of their kin quickly died from starvation and exhaustion; too old or young or with faulty bodies, all unaccustomed to the rigors of migration. That fact in particular I've heard them yell at my Eyrie for hours, pleading for me to just let them pass. Meteor be damned!"

Nise wished he didn't need to ask. "And you vetted them?"

The Commander's fists tightened, her bony fingers practically snapping. "What do you take me for?" she hissed. "If there was a wraith among them, I would be the first to find it and end its miserable existence. Presence inspected every one of their shadows and there wasn't a single ascian. Just a few hundred more pitiful victims of Hovud's horrid legacy."

Nise hesitated, at a loss for words.

"We trust your thoroughness, Commander," Lucid said for him. "We harbor no doubts about the fulfillment of your responsibilities. If we're just learning of this refugee flock now, it's because we never have a reason to watch over your shoulder. Please excuse us for being concerned. Very little catches us by surprise, but this development is certainly surprising."

Even while talking, Lucid opened a second window on the mirror-wall, scrying an image of a new future. The Pale Hawks' ring of egg-shaped nests would expand to make room for the numerous sun-bleached tents interspersed between them. Tradition dictated that when flocks crossed paths, they would temporarily entangle to spread news, exchange goods, and engage in friendly competitions. At dusk, they would share a feast around a communal bonfire, then spend the night singing, dancing, and celebrating life. Although the intermingling folk in the image were the size of ants, they all seemed to be enjoying themselves. Perhaps more importantly, the Pale Hawk adults would be distracted. If the kids needed a head start, then this would be the perfect opportunity.

"I've looked ahead and found that letting the Moulted pass under the Vice Commander's escort will have no significant effect on his mission. The images are just as clear, and it should be easier for your Seers to keep both flocks safe with them in one place." While not entirely a lie, this course meant putting more of the refugees' lives unnecessarily at risk, but it also meant there would be twice as many witnesses. The survivors would see with their own eyes and know that hope hadn't died with Kados. In order to ensure the success of the new Fated King, they would need all the supporters they could get. No matter the cost.

"Glad to hear it," the Commander replied coldly. "So, to reiterate, I will send Levatis with a team of three to escort the Moulted northward at dawn, where they will halt another flock and defend their combined encampment?"

"A team of four," Nise corrected. Lucid nodded beside him in agreement. "Nul is back from their last hunt, yes?

"If they were, I wouldn't know. The blasted assassin only reveals themselves when they find it convenient. Nul might respect my power, but not my authority. Elude, for that matter, respects nothing. Most often, it's the fae that alerts me by harassing Presence during his vigils. Why are you asking me anyway? Shouldn't you two already know, or does their magic let them evade Lucid's perception too?"

"It does indeed," Lucid admitted. "I hope they won't be needed, but please have the Vice Commander knock on their door. If Nul answers, they'll join as a covert asset to gather information and look for abnormalities. A precautionary solution to an unlikely problem."

"And if Nul doesn't answer," Nise continued, "then Private Hearth is authorized to join them, so long as Corporal Ora never leaves her side. Alongside Private Lotto, they will be responsible for ensuring amity between the flocks and reassuring any concerns they might have. Given the high-stress circumstances, it's critical they get along, so potential conflicts need to be stamped out before they're started."

"That makes three," Sap noted after the Headmaster's pause. "But what of the fourth?"

"That will be Sergeant Edos," Lucid answered, not skipping a beat. "His orders will differ slightly from the others. When he and Nightowl return from tonight's patrol, have them contact us immediately. Please inform them how much we regret asking them to work a double shift and in the daylight, but that it's only because Fate has an important job for them."

"Understood," the Commander said flatly, leaning back into her throne and interlocking her fingers before her grim face. "Is that all?"

Lucid glanced at Nise, allowing him the chance to respond. "Of Fate's orders, yes. There is one thing I should mention before we leave you to your night, however."

"Well?" the Commander asked, too impatient to allow Nise to steady his breath. "Have you not wasted enough of Fate's time?

Sighing, the Headmaster gazed into the dark pits of her eyes. "You and I... we'll talk more in two nights. You can expect me to arrive just before the meteor falls. When the spiritfire is smothered and the spectral ash has settled, I will tell you everything."

"You're coming here? Why?" Sap snapped, more like herself. Her unfeeling mask peeled away to reveal a suspicious grimace. "Four of my most powerful Seers and Lotto, not to mention a covert asset, and now yourself... Just what is coming, Nise? What other secret are you keeping?"

Nise frowned as he shook his head. "When the spiritfire is smothered and the spectral ash has settled. No sooner, no later. I promise you'll understand then."

Wordless, Sap closed her eyes and covered them with clenched fists. Pop-pop, crack.

"I'm sorry to interrupt again, but I'm afraid we have more of Fate's orders to deliver. The Marble Knight and Keeper of Light are trying to reach us now, and they will be joining in the mission as well."

"Wonderful," the Commander replied, voice dripping with sarcasm. "Another dozen more mouths to feed."

"We'll make sure that Sir Wilm's squires handle their own meals," said Nise. "I will also see about restoring your lost rations, although I can't guarantee a caravan will arrive this week."

"I'm sure my chefs would appreciate it," the Commander replied begrudgingly.

"That is all, then. We'll see you soon. Have a good night, my frien—"

With a flick of her wrist, shadows obscured the Commander's mirror, cutting off Nise's voice. Though he anticipated that reaction, for a moment near the end, he thought she recognized how much he was trying. For now, all it seemed he could do was hope that his friend wouldn't hurt for long. To hope that his betrayal wouldn't push her away for good.

"It won't," Lucid said. "I don't need to look ahead to know she'll agree upon seeing the full picture. Sap is many things, but she's not unreasonable." As the fae talked, the dark window that peered into Sap's chamber petrified into a stone door. From it, a rapping of knuckles echoed into his Dream like a steady drumbeat. "Are you ready to answer? Or do you need a minute to collect yourself?"

The Headmaster sucked in a deep breath. Despite the fact he was currently asleep, Nise felt exhausted. Mentally, emotionally, spiritually— and that wasn't even supposed to be the difficult conversation. "I'm ready," he said, inhaling another breath slowly. "Prepare the visions for Wilm and Ashet, except..."

"I know," Lucid chimed in, comforting him with her light's warmth. "I'll make sure they see."

Nise exhaled his breath even slower. "Then let's answer."

The fae whisked a hand, opening the stone door. At once, the knocking ceased, followed by a thunderous pair of "Good evening, Headmaster!"s. Beyond, a well-lit room of white-and-gold stone was revealed, a towering Wilm in granite patterned training fatigues in the center beside his statuesque fae, Rugged; a living sculpture of light grey rock that wore nothing but a short, dirt-brown loincloth. They stood tall and straight and saluted in proper Seer fashion: left arms folded behind their backs, right arms in front and bent upward with elbows tucked into their ribs, hands over their mouths with middle and pointer fingers extended, touching the middle of their brows.

They practically looked like twins carved from the same boulder, down to the braid-like trail of rock that ran down Rugged's neck and spine, painted the same orange as Wilm's plumage — or Wilm's left arm, which had been lost while attempting to save the Fated King's life and replaced with a stone prosthetic created with Rugged's magic. As such, a stranger might presume the fae was carved in Wilm's image, but in truth, the opposite was true. The Headmaster could still picture the spindly fourteen-year-old girl who had come to his Academy, uncertain about her identity and that of her yet-named fae. Upon Rugged's metamorphosis, she had begun to undergo a great change of her own, growing into the person he always wanted to be.

The Headmaster mirrored their salute and dismissed it, then clasped both hands behind his back. "Good evening, gentlemen," he greeted, watching the pair adopt his stance in unison. "What do you have to report?"


(Incomplete)

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