Overture No. 1

"...Kin? Can you… hear me? I need your… help!”

Kinjra stirred in the warm comfort of soft pillows, a heavy feather quilt, and unyielding darkness. She could feel her mother shivering on the far end of the bed — not from the cold, but from a recurring nightmare — as she often did this time of night. Dad used to calm her with his presence, but Dad was no longer here. The weak, stifled voice Kinjra had just heard… it was only her imagination. A trick of her drifting mind.

So drift she tried to let it, rolling onto her stomach and burying her head beneath the pillows. Even half-asleep, she wasn’t foolish enough to believe that voice was real. Her dad was a year dead, his soul long departed. No one in Tairn had the power to help him now. Not the greatest Seer heroes, their magic fae, nor Fate Herself— least of all his useless excuse for a daughter.

Don’t think about it, she told herself sternly. Don’t think about anything. Just go back to sleep.

It was a nice idea, but trick of her drifting mind or not, the damage had already been done. From that moment on, her awareness roused quickly. Kinjra tried to focus on the sound of her breathing, yet all she could hear was the frantic pounding of her hollowed-out heart. Tears leaked from her eyes and pooled under her face. In more ways than one, she felt like she was drowning.

“Kin!” the voice gasped again, choking on her name. “Please… help me!”

Kinjra’s blood froze. It felt like a great weight was pressing down on her, pinning her where she lay; paralyzing her. No matter how much she fought, she couldn’t move a finger or make a sound, let alone take a breath. How could she help her dad when she couldn’t even help herself? At this rate, she would truly drown. The first kid in history to die from a night terror.

A death befitting a coward, the dark thoughts hissed. Just as you deserve. It’s your fault he’s gone. You should have followed him. You should have accepted your Fate instead of lying and hiding with your mother. It’s your fault that your dad is dead!

Kinjra hated the dark thoughts. She hated the way they pried at the wounds in her heart just when they began to feel like they might heal. She hated the way they preyed on her mind when it was frailest, like an old, cracked flowerpot that would crumble to dust under the slightest amount of pressure. She hated the way they crept in to corrupt even the happyish moments — brief and fleeting as they were — because how dare she laugh or smile when there was so much sorrow in the world? How dare she when Dad's life was stolen long before his time, along with so many others? How dare she when every soul that still lived was doomed to be consumed and condemned to an eternity of agony without the Fated King to save them from the wraiths?

It’s all your fault, and yours alone! All the grief! All the pain! All the suffering! All yours!

Kinjra hated the dark thoughts as much as she hated herself. After all, they were one and the same. But more than anything, she hated them because in the deepest pit of her heart, she knew they were right. She believed every horrible word.

IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT, AND NO ONE ELSE'S! EVERY MISERABLE BIT!

Kinjra screamed at herself internally, louder and fiercer than she could possibly dream of screaming aloud. Even while in the midst of sleep paralysis, her tears continued to flow, breathless gasps of anguish racking her chest.

EVERYTHING WOULD BE SO MUCH BETTER IF YOU HAD DIED INSTEAD!

..."NO!" a booming, inhuman voice resounded in protest. It sounded like the ground had ripped itself open, personified into a low, gravelly baritone. It was powerful enough to make reality tremble, shaking Kinjra to her very core. It somehow freed her too, driving her to flip over and sit up in a flash, eyes snapping open to scan the dark nest around her, searching for danger and finding... none?

Everything seemed perfectly normal. Nothing moved in the shadows nor in the beam of silver ringlight that pierced through a gap in the window curtains, illuminating a slash of the bed in the living room's center, a path along the floorboards, and the flowerless pot that stood beside the front door.

All was still. All was silent. Even her slumbering mother — draped only in a silky, azure nightgown that rippled like the waves of the ocean, her long umber hair flowing over her face — who no longer shivered, finally at peace. Even the motionless Kinjra, who still lay under the heavy feather quilt, face down and head beneath the pillows—

"—What the!" Kinjra yelped, rocketing away. In a panic, she threw herself onto the cold wood floor and scrambled further back, surprised by how frigid and solid it felt. All the while, she stared at the girl in her bed; short in stature, lithe of frame, with a round bob of tousled umber plumage. Undoubtedly her, yet when Kinjra looked down, she found her body; olive-skinned, covered in scrapes and bruises, dressed in her sage green night tunic. No different than when she'd gone to sleep, yet neither the bed she'd just fled from nor the girl she'd left behind seemed disturbed by her sudden departure.

"What the hell is going on?" she exclaimed, testing the loudness of her voice. Though Kinjra could hear it clearly, her mother didn't awaken to scold her for cursing. "Am I dead?" she called into the darkness, hoping that earthen voice would answer before the mangled cries of her father. "Or am I just dreaming?"

Neither voice replied, leaving Kinjra little choice but to pinch herself.

"Ouch!"

Kinjra held her forearm up to the ringlight, eyeing a bloody red patch of skin.

"Well that proved nothing," she huffed in annoyance.

Frowning, she massaged the pain from her arm, glanced back at her double, then knelt down to get a closer look. At the very least, the other her's chest was rising and falling like she was still alive. Maybe that meant she was too. So what happens if I pinch you?

Apparently nothing. Kinjra tried squeezing the other her's ear but it only resisted like it was made of stone. She even tried to brush a plume of hair aside — tried grabbing the quilt and pulling it off her — but neither was the least bit affected by her effort. Though she could still feel the texture of whatever she touched, she could only move her own body in this... whatever it was. This 'in-between,' for lack of a better term. Which now that she thought about it, could only mean one thing. Magic.

"...Please!" her dad wheezed behind her, somewhere across the room. "...Help me!" he called out in desperation.

Kinjra stranged the air with her fists and spun, narrowing her eyes on the flowerless pot beside the door. "This is your doing," she spat, angry and accusatory. "What the hell do you want from me? Why are you tormenting me with his voice? How are you, even!?"

Naturally, her fae replied with dead silence. He'd never spoken before tonight. Not with dad's voice, nor his own. Why should now be any different? The fae was too dumb and useless. He only existed to make life worse, not better. Just like her.

Rage building, Kinjra took a step toward the flowerpot, stomping a bare heel into the floorboards. The wood creaked like it was in pain, making her jolt back. The bony talon that protruded from the back of her foot left a new dent. That shouldn't be possible, and yet—

"...Kon?" came a half-asleep mumble. "Is that you?" her mother sniffled, voice laced with heartbreak.

This time, Kinjra willingly froze and waited. She didn't have the strength to look, nor the courage to say a word. It didn't matter if she couldn't be seen or heard.

Eventually, her mother whimpered into the silence. "Of course not." Her sniffling turned into weeping. More words followed, but at that point, they were unintelligible. Mother's grief was in control of her now.

Thankfully it didn't take long for her to fall back asleep. Around twenty minutes of crying, shifting, chattering, and shivering. Sad as it was, that may have been a record. It usually took her twice as long to settle down again.

Kinjra never moved or made a sound until her mother was done. It was simply better for them both if she acted like she heard nothing, pretending to sleep through her grieving spells. Mother hated being confronted about it, and Kinjra hated acknowledging it; the pain it caused them both was just too much.

Except right now, Kinjra — or a part of her — was standing. By the end, her legs felt weary and her knees were stiff from locking up for so long. It took all her will to not collapse. To not give in to the grief herself.

Whatever this in-between was, she was clearly experiencing it in real-time. That seemed like an important clue, as did the fact that she could impact the real-world if she let her anger soar, but Kinjra didn't need clues. She needed answers.

"I know you can speak," she tried gently, stepping toward the old flowerpot that her fae lived and slept in. "I'm not mad that you kept this from me," she lied, "so you don't need to hide it. Just tell me, please. What is this? Why am I here?"

"...Kin?" the voice whispered— not from the flowerpot, but behind her again. "Can you... hear me?" It seemed to be coming from the middle of the living room floor, right where their bed was embedded.

Kinjra wheeled around, looking down. Though more than a year had passed since he left to serve Fate and Her King, Dad's imprint was still visible, like a small valley between his wife and daughter — a constant reminder of his loss — that kept them forever separated. Except right now, his wife and daughter were suddenly gone, and he... he was there.

Or most of him was, at least. Everything but his head.

Dark blood poured from his neck and pooled around him, quickly filling the bed. Kinjra stumbled away and clutched her stomach, on the verge of retching. She tripped and fell into something upright, the back of her head striking wood with an audible smack. Stars danced across her vision, blinding in their dizzying brilliance. It took a second to collect herself again. She soon wished she didn't.

Beside her, the flowerpot was rumbling, jumping off the floor like it was caging a feral animal. It was then she realized it was the front door she'd fallen into. But how? The bed was no more than a few steps in front of her, overflowing with crimson liquid, and the shape of her father— it was rising like a puppet being lifted by its strings, drenched from neck to toe with blood and dripping. One of its hands rose too and reached toward her. It floated, inching closer by the second.

"...Kin!" the headless corpse wailed through its open throat, blood sputtering out in the process. "...Please!"

Kinjra bellowed a primal howl. She couldn't articulate words if she tried, too consumed by the fear, pain, grief, and rage swelling in her. She looked up and away, spotting the doorknob glimmering in the ringlight, beckoning her to reach out and grasp it. But when she tried, it pulled back like the door had undergone a sudden growth spurt, widening the distance between the gleaming metal and her straining fingers. To reach it, she had to stand, except when she tried to push herself off the floor, she discovered it was no longer made of wood, but a deep, thick mud. Her arm sank in and stuck. Hard as she tried, she was too weak to pull it free.

"...Kin!" the dying voice bubbled up from the mud. "Please!" it cried, punctuated by an ice-cold hand gripping her submerged wrist. "I need your... help!" The hand pulled, and for a brief second, she considered letting it drag her into the darkness. Hell, over the course of the last year, she considered it every Sun-forsaken day.

It would be so easy to give up. To give in. If life had taught her anything, it was that it was never easy. It taught her the biggest difference between living and dying was how long you were subjected to pain. Living only prolonged suffering while dying provided release. In the end, death only hurt the people who still lived. Everything would just be so much easier if everyone was dead.

But that wasn't what Dad taught her. He taught her to never give up. To never give in. If she did, then he would never forgive her. When he was half her age — decades before he met his wife — Dad lost his mother and brother in a horrible tragedy. Unlike her, Dad was there to witness their brutal murders. It broke him just like his death broke her. But from all that pain, he learned to cherish life all the more.

One of the last things he ever told Kinjra was that if he didn't keep living, then he'd never have fallen in love. Not with his music, nor her mother. Kinjra would never have been born and that alone made all his suffering worth it. He'd still have preferred there to be no suffering in the first place, but he never regretted it because of the man that it made him. How could he despise the past when it led to a future with them?

"...Kin! I need your... help!"

That voice might have sounded like his, but it wasn't him. Dad would never drag Kinjra down with him. It was the reason he left to serve the Fated King without her. Dad lived his life and died his death to protect her. She could not let his sacrifice be in vain— would not, no matter how much she suffered without him. Growing up, Dad was more than a best friend. More than a role model. More than a true hero.

To her, he was an ideal. One that Kinjra vowed to embody so long as she breathed.

"...HELP ME! PLEASE..."

"I wish I could," she intoned, glaring at the floating, headless corpse, right where his eyes should be. "But I need to let go," she added with a sigh, briefly gripping the ice-cold hand beneath the mud before taking a deep breath, then ripping herself free.

At once, everything changed. The living room vanished with the darkness, banished by a flash of bright white light. When the illumination faded, Kinjra found herself in the nest's attic, surrounded by old, dusty furniture and several chests filled with Dad's belongings, locked away by her mother and forgotten. Somehow, the flowerless pot had come too, still rumbling and jumping, demanding her attention. When Kinjra rose, she wasted no time looking in.

Slightly oblong in shape, a palm-sized ball of soil rolled around the bottom of the empty flowerpot in uneven circles, leaving a trail of dirt in his wake. Just seeing him like this made Kinjra want to lash out and scream, but more than that, she didn't want to be like her mother. Instead of losing her temper, she took a deep breath, knelt down, scooped up the fae, and cradled him in her hands. That's what Dad would have done. No matter how much it hurt.

Kinjra's fae hadn't always been so worthless. Before she learned that her dad had been killed in a wraith-led ambush on the Fated King's army, the dirtball was a verdant green seed that glowed brightly, like sunlight filtered through flourishing leaves. Back then his magic could accelerate the growth of flora well beyond their natural limits, heal wilting plants, and sprout fully matured adults in seconds. He could even fly on his own, but after that night, he'd slowly rotted into his current state, becoming heavier, slower, and frailer. These days, he was a burden that she had to carry in her pocket wherever she went. Perhaps worst of all, everything he touched was stained black with soil, which meant she had to wash her clothes constantly. Not to mention that it was her least favorite color.

It was easier to resent him than accept him, though Kinjra didn't blame him. It wasn't his fault that their world was slowly turning into a massive cemetery.

It all started with Hovud, she thought, recalling the self-proclaimed King of the Carrion who led a rampage across Vaska Toma more than a year and a half ago. After the Fated King brought the full brunt of his Seers, fae, and soldiers to meet the cannibal horde in battle, he captured their leader and executed him promptly. But instead of letting his soul return to the Sun for judgment, Hovud fed his essence to his fae, Decay; making her an eternal Spirit and ordering her to leave a festering scar on Tairn, purely out of spite. Even now, that scar was spreading, both across the land and in the hearts of humanity, for Decay had also left a festering scar on the Fated King, which had played a part in his death two seasons later. Dad had fought to save Fate's chosen hero, and both of them died for nothing. Just as the Carrion King had promised during his last moments alive, their world was utterly doomed.

The dirtball trembled, releasing two long groans. "No?" asked Kinjra. Her fae groaned once in response, indicating yes. "No to what, exactly?" After groaning another three times, Kinjra sighed. That either meant he didn't know, which she could rule out, or the question was too complicated for him to answer in his nascent state.

Frustrating though it was, this was the only way they could talk until she performed a Naming Ceremony to inspire his Metamorphosis, transforming him into an Incarnated Concept. Kinjra didn't know much about how the Seers and their fae worked, but Etal — her best friend — had learned that much from his research. She would need to reveal her Sight and attend a Seer Academy to learn more, but that would mean swearing her life away to serve Fate, which her mother would never allow. Not after what happened to her father and brother. Especially not after what happened to Dad.

Again, the dirtball trembled, releasing two long groans.

"What do you mean no? You know I'm right. Mom would kill me herself before she ever let me go. That's the entire reason we're in this mess! Who knows how different things would have been if she didn't force me to hide you and what you could do!"

This time, the fae trembled without making any noise. He didn't like being yelled at.

"Speaking of messes... what the hell was that down there?"

The fae remained still. Silent as the grave.

"Seriously? What are you doing? Ignoring me?" she huffed, anger rising when he didn't even grumble, then breathed deep and sighed. Less Mother. More Dad. "Fine. I'm sorry for yelling at you. But after what I just went through, you should understand how I'm feeling right now. Especially considering what you are. You know everything I think and feel, right?"

Yes, her fae groaned.

Kinjra inhaled relief, exhaling her frustration. "Let's try again, then. What is happening right now? Is this... whatever this is... is this your doing?"

Her fae groaned twice for no. But before she could ask something else, he groaned once more for yes, then began shaking like crazy while groaning three more times.

"No, yes, I don't know?"

The dirtball calmed down, then groaned once more. Yes.

"Wonderful. Now I'm just more confused."

As a consequence of holding him, Kinjra could feel that her fae was confused too.

"So that voice... that monster— you didn't intentionally make that happen?"

No.

Part of her felt happy, knowing that her fae wasn't actively tormenting her. The rest of her was afraid of what that meant.

"What about that other voice? The one that seemed to make reality shake? Was that you?"

After a moment of silence, the fae reluctantly trembled. Yes.

"Then why aren't you talking more? Why are we playing this dumb game?"

The next moment of silence didn't seem to be ending anytime soon. Kinjra almost lost her temper at the fae for ignoring her again, but then she began feeling more of what he felt. Uncertainty. Exhaustion. Pain.

"You... don't know how you did it, and it made you tired. It hurt you?"

Yes, the dirtball groaned wearily. Then she felt concern and guilt. He was sorry?

"I— I'm sorry too. For blaming you. I just—"

Understanding. He always knew exactly how she felt. She didn't need to say it.

"Thank you," she whispered. A tear slid down her cheek.

No.

"No what? You don't want me to thank you?"

No. It took her a second to realize he meant, 'Not that.'

"Then... you don't want me to cry?"

Yes.

Knowing that only made Kinjra cry more. Tears flowed down her cheeks like twin rivers.

After how cruel she'd been to him — not just tonight, but over the last year — it killed her that he was still so kind and loving. But I guess that's how it will always be. Fate created her children and bound them to the souls of humans to be their loyal protectors and lifelong companions. It was simply their nature to be kind and loving, while humans were capable of being anything— good, evil, indifferent, whatever. Alas, it was Kinjra's nature to ruin everything. Even her once beautiful and vibrant fae.

You're only like this because of me, she thought, petting the dirtball awkwardly, gazing at her fingers as they were gradually stained a deep black. Etal said fae are reflections of their humans. It's not you who changed, but me. You're just a representation of what I've become. A ball of dirt, staining all I touch. Between us, I'm the real burden. I'm the one that's worthless.

At that last thought, her fae began quaking uncontrollably. "No!" he resounded, making the attic and everything within it shake, almost strong enough to knock Kinjra off her feet. When the echoes of his voice quieted and reality calmed, he trembled and groaned twice more, reaffirming his stance. No. She could feel how much he disagreed, stronger than both the exhaustion and pain that accompanied his forced voice combined.

Regaining her balance and steadying her thundering heart, Kinjra choked on a sudden burst of unexpected laughter. "Well, how can I argue with that?" She must have been in shock.

No, her fae answered, followed by a long, stuttering groan. His equivalent of laughter, it seemed, which only made her laugh more because of how ridiculous it sounded. Not to mention how it tickled her hands.

Kinjra enjoyed the moment for as long as she could. Once the levity faded, her concerns returned twofold. "So what now? Are we just supposed to wait in this dusty attic until I wake up? Or is something else traumatic supposed to happen?"

I don't know, the fae groaned.

Kinjra closed her eyes, imagining herself back in her bed and straining. "Come on," she told herself, muscles going rigid and veins bulging. "Wake up!"

When nothing happened, curiosity swelled in her fae. 'Maybe look around?' she thought he wanted to say. They must have been here for a reason, so maybe the point was she had to find it.

Kinjra turned slowly, eyes scanning for anything that stood out. The furniture around the room had been displaced slightly by her fae's reality-shaking voice, but nothing had fallen over, and there were no cracks in the walls or the window that shone dim silver light down from the domed ceiling above. Beyond the glass, the night sky was visible; dark blue and cloudless, splattered with distant stars, and carved in half by Tairn's planetary ring. This close to the equator, the skyblade was not much wider than a razor's edge, often compared to a guillotine looming over the world. For those deemed old enough to use the more succinct name, it was called hell. The infernal realm of the wraiths. Humanity's mortal enemies.

No, her fae groaned, trembling in Kinjra's hands. Not to say that she's wrong, but to get her to look elsewhere. She needed to be searching the attic, not staring into space like Dad's older brother, Rin — Sun rest his soul — had always done when they were kids.

"What's the point anyway?" Kinjra sighed, kneeling in front of a chest and eyeing the lock that held it shut, courtesy of her mother. "Mom hid all of Dad's stuff, and it's not like I have the keys to open these," she said, grasping the infuriating hunk of metal in one hand. "And besides, it's not like I can move anything in this—" she began, letting out a gasp when she lifted the lock, then dropped it abruptly, discovering it covered in black fingerprints. "Holy stars!" Kinjra exclaimed, looking at her fae and the magic soil that coated her skin. "Does this mean your excrement is actually useful?" she chuckled. "Who would have thought."

Her fae let out a single long groan, but not in the 'yes' kind of way.

"Okay, fine. Jokes aside, we now know I can move stuff with the help of your totally-not-excrement. I guess the next question is why? What am I supposed to do, knowing that? And if we're in the attic like we were in the living room earlier, does that mean what I do here will affect the real world?"

The dirtball groaned nine times. He was just as clueless as her.

"Fine. I guess we'll just have to start experimen—"

Before she could finish the word, a bright white light flashed behind her. "Did you see that?" she asked, turning excitedly and finding... nothing but the dusty old attic. "Where the hell did that come from?"

Two groans, followed by three. Still clueless.

"Are you sure you're not messing with m—"

On the far side of the room, the bright white light flashed again. It was coming from her mother's standing mirror, covered with a sheet to conceal its reflection. More than a year ago — between the night Dad had been conscripted by the Seers and the night he was killed — she had freaked out and hid the mirror, all because her daughter saw a glimpse of radiance in the shape of a thin woman. A fae, they both had guessed, though Kinjra only learned who she was recently. Etal had said her name was Lucid, and that she was one of the strongest future diviners in history, capable of glimpsing Fate's Plan with great clarity. She was the protector and companion of Headmaster Nise, the Seer in charge of Westwind Academy — where her Dad had studied to become one of Fate's heroes — and the adoptive father of the Fated King.

"Lucid," Kinjra mumbled, considering the implications. "Like lucid dreaming? Is she the one doing this?"

I don't know, her fae groaned.

Kinjra nearly squished her fae in her fists. According to Etal, Lucid was reportedly kind and compassionate, yet there was nothing kind nor compassionate about the nightmare she'd experienced tonight. Her causing this both fit and didn't fit, but if this was Lucid's doing, then that meant one of the most important Seers in the world already knew that Kinjra had the Sight. There was no point in running and hiding. Not anymore. And she needed answers.

Kinjra broke into a sprint and reached the mirror in two strides, skipping across the attic in a heartbeat. She barely managed to halt before colliding face-first with the mirror.

With a dirty hand, Kinjra grabbed the sheet covering it and hesitated. Just long enough to catch her breath and steady her pounding heart.

"Moment of truth," she eventually muttered. The words gave her the courage to pull it off and see.

Kinjra stepped back, more confused now than ever.

It can't be, she thought, heart pounding again.

But it was. And it felt right? Natural, even.

Still, Kinjra couldn't believe her eyes.

In the reflection, a boy looked back. He was the same height as her, had the same bent posture, and even had Kinjra's sharp face, though his cheeks were gaunt and his jawline was more spear-like. His right eye, like hers and her dad's, was a soft yellow with thin flecks, evoking rays of sunlight. His left eye, however... it was a flat, sullen gray from lid to lid, the skin around it scarred and lifeless, like a ball of flame was etched into his flesh with small tendrils of the unnatural wound cutting across his brow. Even when sharing Kinjra's meager size and lithe frame, the boy looked strong, muscles showing rigidly through a fairly loose military uniform — all black with gold and silver accents — which matched the length of black hair combed straight down his back, intertwined with grooved threads of lustrous silver and vibrant gold. Lute strings, she recognized instantly. The sort that Dad owned thousands of throughout his life, some of which had been locked away in Mother's chests.

Kinjra cried, and the boy cried too. "I..." she tried, watching his lips move with hers, only to be rendered speechless. This wasn't a lost twin or some doppelganger from another reality. This was her reflection. The person they really were. The person he was always meant to be.

Kin's fae groaned once for yes. He knew it too, and he felt it too. The happiness. The peace. The love. The acceptance.

"But why all the black?" Kin laughed, watching the boy laugh too, both bearing elated expressions.

Their laughter quickly soured when the entire room darkened. It was like the window on the ceiling had suddenly been covered, drowning the attic in shadow. Kin reached out for the mirror and felt nothing. They crouched down and tried to brush the floor, but their hand kept going, passing through nothing. They flexed their toes and realized they were standing on nothing. 'What the hell is happening now!?' they exclaimed, but somehow, they heard nothing.

It was like they were transported to an empty void, but they could still feel their fae in their hands. Can you hear my thoughts? they asked, and he rumbled immediately, his vibration emanating fear and gratitude at once. Kin felt the same. At least we're not alone, they began. But what are we supposed to do now? I don't think I can walk. I feel like I'm floating— but I guess you already know that. Got any bright ideas?

Two rumbles signaled that he was just as lost. I guess all we can do is think and wait for something to happen. Reflect on what I just saw. Figure out what this has all meant. Try to predict what might come nex—

"—Go on, Kin," interrupted a warm, familiar, tenor voice. Barren of any sadness or pain. Filled only with pure, unadulterated joy. "I know you can do it."

Hearing that voice say those words shattered Kin's heart into pieces.

With it came a familiar cacophony of sounds. Countless leaves rustling in a whistling breeze. Families of birds singing restless nocturnes. Embers of blazeflies crackling like burning sticks. Not to mention the hundred tiny, high-pitched voices chittering from above and at a distance, belonging to a clan of furry, fat-bellied ritili. 'The music of the forest,' Dad used to call it. Had called it, in fact, on the last night they'd ever spent together, when they'd gone into the Sallow Woods to help Kin learn how to control her newly discovered magic in secret, before everything went so terribly wrong.

The very same night Kin could hear now. They'd clung to their last good memory with Dad for so long, replaying their conversation in their head thousands of times, that they knew each word and every intonation by heart.

Kin's eyelids tickled, a soft wind brushing past them. All they needed to do was open their eyes and they would see. They knew it, but they refused. This was so much worse than seeing Dad's headless corpse rise from their bed.

Kin knew how this ended. They stopped remembering it for a reason. They couldn't bear to relive it again.

"It's not about me," said Kinjra, a year-and-five-weeks younger. Her voice was still full of innocence and hope. She didn't know that in a few hours, her soul would begin to sour from her dad's absence. The real Kin bore that curse alone. "He isn't sure he can do it," the girl continued. "He's only ever healed dying plants and made healthy plants bigger. Bringing a seed to life, though? It feels... I don't know. Different."

If only you knew, Kin thought.

"I think you two might be surprised how much you can accomplish," Dad said. "Earlier I told you what my fae can do with stringed instruments. With wind instruments, her magic is completely different. Fae are as versatile as they are powerful. Just ask him to try. Ask him to believe and I promise, you two will succeed."

"Please stop!" Kin pleaded, shouting aimlessly. "I don't want to be here. I don't want to hear this! Whoever is controlling this, it's not helping! Please make it stop!"

Kin didn't know what they expected for a response, but silence worked. In a blink, the music of the forest was gone, along with the feeling of warm air on their skin and the smell of vegetation. Back in the void, Kin thought with relief. Then they opened their eyes without thinking. Color flooded their vision, their other senses returning with it.

A dark blue and cloudless sky hung far above, splattered with distant stars and carved in half with a razor-thin blade of lifeless silver. Nightlit canopies of deep green leaves swayed atop the looming sallowood trees, encircling a talon-shaped clearing. There was a pond near the furthest end, flanked by long stalks that glowed dark silver — aptly named ringreeds — and a strange, moss-covered tree leaning across the water, rooted on two sides to form a natural bridge. Dark pink mist drifted on the wind and dissolved gradually, except for where it was densest, hanging around the magic rose bush that was visible only to those Fate granted the Sight. Blazeflies wandered aimlessly, sparking their lights, and tiny rodents sat on or hung from branches — the older males wearing makeshift shields of chewed up bark tucked into their stomach pouches, the older females crowned with intricately braided whiskers that curled up from their cheeks, their children indistinguishably cute — as they watched over the pair of humans visiting their home.

Beyond their control, Kin's eyes flickered there as well. Dad was sitting cross-legged on the ground in front of a much smaller Kinjra, a large bag of seeds between them, both surrounded by a veritable swarm of the ritili's most curious and courageous kids. Just like Kin remembered, Dad's bald head was so round that, at certain angles, it looked like a perfect sphere, which had often made Kinjra laugh. His eyes were as warm and bright as the Sun Himself, and when he smiled, he lit up wherever he was like a sunrise. There was this gentle way he held himself that radiated his personality, like you could see how thoughtful and patient he was simply in the way he moved. Even when he talked, you could hear the passion and compassion that dwelled within him — the boundless love he felt for his music, his family, his flock; for humanity itself — and it was so infectious, like a catchy song that never left your thoughts. It had been too long since Kin had seen her Dad in person rather than in a photo, or heard his voice outside of a recording. It should have been a salve to their soul to see and hear him now, yet their entire being thrummed with unimaginable pain.

Even so, they couldn't shut their eyes or turn away. No matter how much they fought and struggled, they were a prisoner in their own body, forced to watch and listen. Kin was no stranger to sleep paralysis, but they never imagined it could happen within a dream. When I find out who's doing this to me, I swear I'll strangle them to death, they thought, mentally clenching their fists.

Meanwhile, young Kinjra blinked at her dad, frowned as she dug a hole for the seed with her finger, packed it with the upturned soil, then closed her eyes before calling her fae to help. The oblong seed of green light was flying around the grove — inspecting every single leaf on each surrounding tree — but the moment she beckoned, he rushed to her side, so eager to please her.

The verdant fae slowly lowered toward the ground, nestling himself where the soil had recently been disturbed, just above the buried seed. Once settled, his glow began to gradually brighten, spreading out and seeping into the earth until eventually, he burst in a bright flash of light that left them all blinking, excluding Kin. The air sparkled with emerald stars, attracting the gazes of the small ritili that were playing nearby. They were all staring now. Anticipating.

Not long after, a budding sprout burst upwards, lifting Kinjra's fae into the air. It shone just as vibrantly, sprouting leaves from its rapidly growing stem, taller and thicker than should be naturally possible. Eventually, its growth did slow and stop completely. At its apex, the giant bud unfolded into dozens of hand-sized petals, fanning out and dancing with glee. When Kinjra's fae retreated to her side, his magic green light faded, revealing the biggest, brightest sunflower Kin had ever seen, its head-sized seedhead packed full and brimming.

The clan of ritili collectively hushed their chittering, awed by the fae's magic. Young Kinjra's jaw dropped, the mouths of the nearby rodents similarly gaping. The sheer pride on Dad's face brought tears to his daughter's eyes, as well as the real Kin's. Floating over his shoulder, his own fae — a glittering knot of lutestrings, equal parts silver and gold — trilled a bright melody, filling the air with her own magical sparks.

"That wasn't so hard now," Dad chuckled, "was it?"

"I can't believe it," said his daughter, her voice so pure that it hurt. "If my fae did this to every seed in this bag, we could fill the entire grove with giant sunflowers. The ritili would never run out of food!"

Fate! Kin prayed with their whole soul, internally collapsing while their body just stood dumbly, refusing to budge. If you can hear me right now, I'm begging you! Please! Just wake me up! I don't care how you do it, but I can't deal with this! Not again!

"I'm not sure your fae will be up to filling this entire grove," Dad started, humming as he stroked his chin in thought, "but I thought if I help plant the seeds, your fae could help some blossom and the rest could grow naturally. The next time our flock passes by these woods, we can come back to check on them."

"Don't say it!" Kin yelled, regaining control of their body. Their outburst didn't interrupt the memory, but at least they were free. They could plug their ears, shut their eyes, and turn away, but instead of any of that, they fell to their knees, vision blurring as tears streamed, floodgates broken. "...Please! Don't—say it," they choked out, breath hitching in their throat.

"...You promise?" young Kinjra asked, so innocent and full of hope.

Kin screamed, clenching their fists and pounding them in the dirt. It took a moment too long for them to realize they were still holding their fae. Grains of black soil poured from between their fingers, leaving nothing but a grim stain. He was gone, just like that; dead just like their dad. Kin continued screaming, louder and fiercer than they could possibly dream, and it didn't change a helldamned thing.

The memory of Dad didn't even notice. Nor did he skip a beat.

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

Even while shredding the air with their voice, Dad's words still rang in Kin's ears. They couldn't drown them out, but they couldn't stop either. They wailed until their lungs were raw and ragged, cried until their eyes were sore and swollen, and pounded the dirt until their fists were bruised and bloody; hoping, praying, and insisting that when they finished throwing a tantrum, this nightmare would finally be over. No more bittersweet memories. No more false promises. No more blatant lies.

Kin held those words in their heart for so long. Even after they learned of his death, Kin still hoped Dad would someday return. He always made good on his promises, no matter what life threw at them, so why should death have been any different? The story about him nearly saving the Fated King's life in a heroic sacrifice that ended with Dad getting beheaded, it could have been a lie for all Kin knew; a fabrication to protect him and his family from enemies that wanted him dead for being so good and so powerful, who knew the only way they could hurt him was by killing the people he loved most. He could have been resurrected by the Sun Himself, or his soul could have been planted in a fae-made clone.

These were the kind of naive and childish delusions that Kin thought of and foolishly believed in, so desperate to see him again, to get him back, to at least have the chance to say goodbye. Then Kin's 14th Nameday happened — their worst Nameday by far, one of the worst days of their life — and Dad never returned, his absence agonizingly palpable. That day, all Kin could think about was the promise he made on this Sun-forsaken night. The promise that once filled them with so much joy, which he broke so completely. Shattered, smashed, and stomped into pieces alongside Kin's heart. Each time it beat without him, it felt like splinters as sharp as razors were ripping their every vein apart.

"Why!? Why is this happening to me again!? Fate, why are you torturing me!? What did I ever do to deserve this!? I'd rather be dead than suffer this a moment longer! Is that what you want!? IS THAT WHAT YOU NEED!?" Kin shouted up at the heavens. They used to find this world so gorgeous, used to love the sight of a thriving forest more than anything, but all they saw wherever they looked was endless misery. The reflection that had made them so happy and the brief levity they'd shared with their fae... it was all so meaningless in the end. Just another knife to stab in their heart, no different than Dad's beautiful lies, except unlike a real knife, Kin went on living, eternally bleeding, yearning for the release that it would never bring. "Is that what I need?" they murmured aloud to no one, utterly alone and thoroughly defeated.

"NO!" a booming, inhuman voice resounded in protest. Before her, the earth ripped itself open, forming a massive fissure. Their fae's voice was still powerful enough to make reality tremble, but it no longer shook Kin to their very core. Instead, it drove them to rise onto their feet, instinctually aware that no matter how much the ground quaked underneath them, he wouldn't let them fall. Their eyes scanned the dark abyss that yawned open below the chasm's rugged edge and flickered over it, watching the land on the other side continue to retreat. The silhouette of their dad shrunk until he was the size of a mere ant's shadow, the knife of hopelessness in Kin's heart diminishing with him.

Eventually, the rumbling quieted, reality stilling. Kin relished the silence, eyes searching for that wonderful ball of dirt that Fate called a fae. "Where are you!?" they called out into the bottomless cavern in front of their bare feet, surprised when their words didn't echo back. Kin spun around to face the half of the grove remaining on their side, about ready to call out again, while scanning the ground for any signs of their companion, just to nearly leap out their skin when they saw who and what lingered behind them.

On the other side of the magic rose bush, young Kinjra was looking at them, dressed in an oversized collared white shirt marred with grass stains and a big pair of brown shorts that fell to her calves; both of which had belonged to Dad when he was her age. Pre-growth spurt, she was a chubby little creature, more like a miniature version of him. Post-growth spurt, Kin resembled their mother, more like a frail tower just waiting for something to come and knock them down. It seemed the gaze of their younger self was enough because once again, Kin collapsed to their knees.

"You're hurt," Kinjra said. It took a moment for them to remember she was talking to the magic bush, not them — Kin had completely forgotten this part of that horribly eventful night, but now the memory was becoming clearer, as if it'd been obscured by a haze. "I can sense that you're in great pain. That you lost someone close to you and you can't get them back. That they're lost forever." Even knowing they once said this, Kin couldn't help but feel the words had been crafted for them. "I don't know how I can feel your pain, but I can, which means it's my responsibility to help. That's what my dad taught me, and he's never led me astray. So what do you say, Miss Love Plant? Do you accept?"

The magic bush stirred, releasing a cloud of glowing pollen into the air. On that night, Kin remembered how it smelt of nature and sweat. Dad had told her it seemed to have the power to evoke the scents of things people loved or cherished deeply. Even in this weird dream vision, the theory held true, filling their nostrils with Dad's instrument polish, their mother's favorite seabell cologne that he often wore for her, and the potent stench of chemicals that wafted from their flock's clinic and Etal's — assistant of their physician father — clothes.

"Okay," Kinjra sniffed, calling her verdant fae to her side. "I'm sorry to say that I can't do anything about your friend, but mine here can help make you bigger and stronger. My mom says that when your body feels better, your heart and mind feels better too. Before we try, though, I should warn you— this is our first night using magic. Please don't be upset if it doesn't work perfectly."

The magic bush undulated again, then bowed politely, waiting for the girl to bestow her blessing. Kinjra smiled and waved a hand, prompting her fae to soar around in circles above the living plant, shedding magic sparks that basked them all in pleasant emerald light. Kin could even feel a bit of their life restored, driving them to rise onto their feet.

Just as she had promised, 'Miss Love Plant' grew bigger and stronger, stems widening and sprouting dark pink nubs to contrast her bright pink petals. The magic bush nodded gratefully, then released an even greater plume of glowing pollen into their faces. The effect was more potent than before. Overwhelmingly so, considering it made both Kinjra and Kin start crying.

"You're welcome very much," the girl coughed out nasally, then began laughing at her distorted voice. "Have a good night, Miss Rose," she said, waving and pattering off. "I'll see you next time I come to visit!"

Miss Rose, Kin thought, recalling the way the name had seemed to flood into their mind through their nostrils. They blinked wearily at the fae bush as it returned to its previous state, pulling its stem closer and folding its petals to mimic its original size. Kinjra hadn't seen that happen, which left Kin believing this part didn't happen. They were pretty sure their verdant fae hadn't remained hovering over the bush either, yet there he was; simply floating, as if waiting for something to happen.

"Can you see me?" asked Kin, their voice uncertain.

The fae bobbed up and down, nodding. That had to mean he was the real one, not just a memory. Kin reached out, taking him in her hands, and was flooded with emotions. Fear and concern intermingled with joy and relief. As they processed what it meant, the seed of green light quickly rotted into a ball of soil.

Kin shouldn't have been surprised, but a small part of them was excited to hold onto the old him. The him from a time when Kin still could find beauty in living. Back when they still had faith in the future. A lone tear burst from their left eye. Before more could break free, they closed them, wallowing in the surge of disappointment.

"I'm sorry if I hurt you when I squished you," they said. "I didn't mean to. I was just..."

The fae groaned twice, emitting understanding and forgiveness. He didn't need them to explain. Still, they could feel his pain.

"Thank you. For forcing your voice again. For getting me away from... all that. But what about the memory I just saw? The one I'd forgotten? Did you mean for me to see that?"

The fae replied with a quick I don't know, followed by a no. They were both confused.

"There has to be a reason for all this, right? For Dad's corpse rising from our bed and trying to drag me into the mud. For seeing that reflection, and those memories. For me being tormented so thoroughly... We've never experienced anything like this before, so it has to mean something. But what? What's the point if we never get an explanation?"

After a moment of silence, the dirtball reluctantly groaned thrice. Kin could feel his desire to know too. Could feel how angry he was that his human had to be put through this. Every moment of torment affected them both. He wanted to scream at the top of his non-existent lungs too.

"Perhaps I can help explain," a musical voice sang behind Kin. It sounded like a pair of birds warbling in perfect unison — one low and steady, the other high and shrill — woven by magic into melodious words. "Not everything, but I hope enough." As the source of the voice flew over Kin's head, the air whistled a pleasant tune, heralding the arrival of Dad's fae. The gold-and-silver knot of lutestrings descended, settling into view right above the magic bush. "Hello, Kin," she trilled happily. "I've been dreaming of this moment for a very long time. I'm so eager to finally speak with you."

Kin took a step back, the heel of their left foot nearly slipping off the edge of the chasm their fae had created. "I—" they tried, rendered speechless. There were a million things they wanted to say, a million questions they wanted to ask, and a million feelings they wanted to express, yet they couldn't articulate one. They couldn't make sense of them either, all becoming endless noise in their head.

"Why?" their fae asked for them, shaking reality with his explosive voice. Miraculously, Kin remained completely stable and upright. They didn't realize he'd molded the ground around their feet, anchoring them in place, until he quieted and everything stopped rumbling.

Dad's fae wasn't the least bit affected, either. "That's a wonderful question," she began cheerfully. "And you two are so very smart. I didn't even mention it, but you're right that we need to get straight to the point. We can't speak like this long, I'm afraid — reaching out to you like this requires nearly all the power I have left — and I've been calling out for help like this for so terribly long. It's honestly incredibly relieving to finally have someone who can hear me. For a while there, I was worried I was going to go crazy," the fae laughed. "It's been very lonely, you see, and—"

"—Uhm," Kin interrupted. "I don't mean to be rude, but—"

"—Oh! Silly me! I'm rambling, aren't I?"

"...A little," Kin answered. They had no idea what to make of this. But as confused as they were, there was one thing they were certain of. Though they had never met Dad's fae after he Named her, this wasn't a fake or a dream speaking to them. This was the real deal, which meant that she was still alive. Which, if that were true, then... "My dad! I knew it! I knew his death was a lie! He's with you, isn't he? But something is wrong?"

"I..." the fae hesitated. "Yes, Kon is with me. Yes, something is wrong. We're trapped and we need you to come help us. This gaudy, selfish bush," she trilled with the first hint of negativite emotion Kin had heard, "has captured us and is sapping us of our power. For nearly a year, I haven't been able to do anything but sing at a frequency only Fate and Her Diviners can hear so that Rose wouldn't suspect a thing. I hoped to get Lucid's attention, but I guess they primarily deal in light, not sound, so I wasn't able to reach her. The phenomenon you've experienced tonight— well, it's known as a Seer Dream, but that's not important right now. What matters is that you're here! You know where to find us! And you must be close if you can hear me, which means Fate guided you just in time! Everything is falling into place!"

Kin's heart sang with hope. They could hardly believe what they were hearing, but it had to be true. Dad's fae was a reflection of him, and Dad never lied, so how could she? "I take it my dad is sleeping? That Rose's magic has put him under a spell?"

Sparks of gold and silver light glinted off the fae's shell. "Your father is... resting, yes," she answered carefully.

Kin almost slapped themself for ever doubting him. There was an explanation for his disappearance after all! This Seer Dream wasn't a nightmare, but a wish coming true. A prophetic vision from Fate of their long-awaited reunion. A promise being fulfilled! Kin's soul was practically soaring.

"We can talk more when you get here," said the beautiful, musical fae. "But until then, I need to conserve my strength. Please hurry, Kin. I don't know how much longer I can hold on. Rose... she's not evil, but she's killing us. I resisted her thorns for as long as I could but even metal breaks under enough strain."

"I understand," Kin said, brimming with confidence. "Don't you worry. No matter what, I will make it there in time. Please tell my dad I love him. Let him know I'll see him soon and that we can be a family again. Mom will be so happy!"

Dad's fae let out a dual note of affirmation, both happy and sad at once. He must have missed them so much, magical coma or not. He must have known how much pain they were in without him. It must have been killing him.

"We'll talk soon then," the fae said, gradually fading, becoming ethereal. "Goodbye, Kin—"

"—Wait!" they interrupted once more. "Before you go, I just have one more question."

Dad's fae glimmered, becoming solid. "Yes?"

"What do I call you? The letter Dad sent... it never mentioned what he Named you, and I always wondered."

The fae trilled proudly, lighting their face up in a flash of silver and gold. "Harmony. My name is Harmony."

"Of course it is," Kin laughed through a wide smile. "Goodbye, Harmony," they said with a wave, watching as the knot of lutestrings blinked out of existence, exuberant tears rushing down their face.

Much to her surprise, the grove disappeared too. At first, Kin briefly existed in that dark and empty void. Then a beam of silver light cut across their vision, revealing the front door of their nest. Beside them, the flowerless pot that housed their fae sat, completely still. He trembled in Kin's hand, uncertain. He was just as surprised they were returned so easily. Every other transition had been dramatic, if not traumatic. This last one was much simpler.

All was still. All quiet. Mother slumbered peacefully, and Kin's sleeping body had stirred enough to reveal their face, one hand poking out from under the feather quilt, propped up on the lip of their bed. For a moment, Kin leaned over to plop their fae in his bed of dirt. Then another idea came to mind. They strode across the room, a pip in their step as they came to kneel over their dreaming self, then carefully nestled the fae in their open palm.

Though Kin had no idea if they were actually moving their fae, they didn't care. If the quilt got dirty, their mother would just have to deal with it. They would lie if they had to, say their fae got out of the flowerpot on his own, then apologize and offer to clean the mess immediately. Should she add it to the long list of reasons why she hated the fae, it didn't really matter. There was nothing she could do to punish a being she couldn't even perceive.

Besides, after this long year of unending misery, Kin had learned that Dad was still alive— albeit captured by a magic rose bush. Nothing could ruin their mood now; not when it turned out dreams could really come true. And so they lowered themself into the bed, nestling themself within the valley their father had left behind. Though it was big enough to feel like a grave around Kin, the spot was cozy enough for their mind to settle quickly. An instant silence fell over the room, and with it, absolute darkness; crashing into them like a great weight, as heavy as the world itself.

Kin's awareness waned, awash with the warmth of acceptance.

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