Memoir #2 – The New Face of West Virginia, October 23rd, 2102


I remembered something called the “sky”. As dimly as the lights in the vault. As dimly as I remembered writing my name on paper for the first time, a big blue ceiling with a bright lightbulb during the day, an endless sea of stars at night. In the exit presentation, Vault Boy reminded us not to stare at the sun or risk permanent blindness. Sure, I thought. Looking right at a lightbulb is kinda dumb. When that great vault door opened, sunlight streamed into the suffocating steel-and-concrete room like an endless flood. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Instinctively, I dug into my tool bag strapped around my shoulder to grab my welder’s goggles. Though tinted green through the lenses, I knew I stared into a wall of pure white.

Everyone around me hugged their loved ones or held hands tightly. Some tears were shed. Some prepared to exit the vault with the solemnity of a funeral march. No matter their individual feelings, one thing was emphatically certain: Vault 76 was closed for business, and all the Mr. Handys cheered us on to remind everyone of the fact. Every single dweller crowded inside the atrium cheered as the machinery pulled the gigantic cog aside. With the door open, the air was sheer electricity. 

Liz and Liam came to stand by me as the metal catwalk extended. I noticed (as much as I could with welding goggles on) that they both holstered weapons. Liz, a custom-machined six-shooter, and Liam, a brand-new automatic AER9 laser rifle. With my baseball bat tied to my backpack, I suddenly felt very naked. Liam also had a walking stick of sorts, a surprisingly well-kept wooden cane that I’d never seen before.

“Whoa. Liam, that’s a real nice-”

I then felt my goggles fly off my head.

“Don’t be a pansy,” Liam growled, handing me back my eyewear by shoving it against my chest. “The sooner you get used to sunlight, the better.”

“You even remember what the sun feels like?” Liz asked me.

“Sorta,” I mumbled.

Vault staff busily prepared individual teams and approved travel destinations while we stood behind the expectant crowd, so we had some time to examine our new equipment.

The heaviest by far was our C.A.M.P. units. We had been instructed in their use in bimonthly meetings, but to finally have one of my own felt incredibly satisfying. The size of a piece of luggage, I deployed it for just a moment to check out its functionality. A workbench all its own, the C.A.M.P. came with a rotary tool, a small inlaid table saw, a lathe, and a drill press. With a display screen much like my Pip-Boy, the C.A.M.P. came pre-programmed with schematics for machining everything from tools and basic electronics to laboratory equipment and everyday appliances. There were even instructions on how to make stuffed animals. 

I noticed one in particular and chuckled; what kind of deal did Vault-Tec have with Radiation King to include detailed instructions on how to repair and replicate their televisions and refrigerators? Or Nuka-Cola with instructions to build their vending machines? I found the thought of a vault filled with company executives just waiting to retake their brands in the nuclear wasteland entertaining.

“What do you think of these perk cards?” Liz asked, flipping through the multi-colored and laminated packets. Wrapped in crisp cellophane, these “cards” measured about four by six inches; some were thin while others were thick enough to be books. Thinking back, of course Vault-Tec would call them “perk cards” — let’s make post-war life collectable! Regardless, each showed Vault Boy performing many different activities. Shooting rifles, mending armor, hauling heavy loads, haggling with merchants. Liz opened one titled “Home Defense” and discovered these cards were, in fact, compact instructional manuals that detailed how to develop the specific skills depicted on the cover. “Wow. Look, there’s codes for our C.A.M.Ps to build military turrets. Biometric sensors. 5.56 and AER9, everything. Missile launchers even? Now that’s living.”

Liam peered over Liz’s arm to look, remaining silent but appearing interested.

I thumbed through my own cards and came across one that looked simple enough to start with: “Inspirational”. I unwrapped the plastic and opened the front cover. From its own description: “Travelling alone in the wilderness? No longer! Become a stalwart leader and ‘inspire’ your group of fellow survivors towards a better tomorrow!” The perk card described ways to rely on your companions as well as boost their morale and talents in times of need. “Feel a boost of confidence and discover all new experiences,” it said. “Learn from your companions as they learn from you! In no time, you’ll be ready to take on even greater challenges. The future is in your hands!”

I shrugged. Might as well start with that. If the little “perk card” could teach me how to learn from Liam and Liz’s skills, I’d take that advice any day.

At last, the crowd began to move forwards, and our fellow vault dwellers stepped into the outside world for the first time in twenty-five years. Liam showed our route to the overseer’s assistant, and I passed him to walk into the warm rays of the sun. Like stepping in front of a gentle radiator, I did exactly what Vault Boy instructed me not to do: I looked upwards at the sun. Now filled with radiation, I stopped and waited for the red mass in my sight to fade. Liz laughed and patted my shoulder. Leading me forwards, I soon saw the most glorious image I had ever seen before: the whole of Appalachia. Maple trees whose red and orange leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze, the baby-blue sky that went on and on, and distant rain clouds creating a veil of grey some miles south. In the distance I could see the colossal digging machines that once excavated Mount Blair. I’d never imagined the great Appalachian mountain range and West Virginia’s forests would be so beautiful. I’d seen such sights in the holovids, sure, but nothing compared to seeing it in person.

Now no longer completely blind, I realized the first hint of the world I’d stepped into: the railing upon which I laid my hands flaked with red-iron stains, leaving rust on my fingers. The mighty billboard some meters to my right stood, but only barely, as the metal struts had deteriorated greatly. I looked around me, and saw stone benches chipped, broken, and storm weathered. The poles that once gave light were entirely rusted and useless, their bulbs shattered. Even the hills surrounding the plaza had collapsed, covering the concrete floor in rocks and piles of soil-wash.

All the now-previous inhabitants of Vault 76 grouped together and gazed in awe of the outside world. Just as before, some trembled at the cool autumn air, some celebrated, and some were already breaking off and heading west. As I saw them depart, I lifted up my Pip-Boy to my view and checked out the Geiger counter and health screen. I half-expected to be glowing within half an hour, but I heard no clicking, and Vault Boy was as happy as I’d ever seen him.

“So this is what we have to work with,” Liz said, doing the very same thing with her Pip-Boy. She lowered it and looked outwards to the horizon.  “Huh. I expected worse.”

“We haven’t seen anything yet,” Liam said, joining us with his regular step-clank limp. “Sure, it looks pretty, but I’m more worried about what lives out there.”

“That’s what we have you for, Peters.”

“And that’s what I have you for, Liz,” Liam said emphatically. “And you, Greg. I’ll have your back, and I expect you both to have mine.”

“You bet. We’re a crew, right?” I said.

Liz laughed.

“Right,” she said with a grin. “We got a name for this crew of ours? Oughta make it official.”

Liam rolled his eyes.

“If that’s the kind of crew I’m in, I’ll go back inside and leave you to it.”

“Come on, Liam, don’t be a bulkhead, ” I said. “Hey, what about the Bulkheads?”

“Nah, you’ll make us sound stupid. Hmm. How about the 76ers?”“I’m pretty sure that’s the name of a baseball team.”

“And I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of the 46ers. Austin, Texas, I think.”

“Ah, whatever. Besides, we wouldn’t stand out from all the others. How about the Operators? Like, operating heavy machinery?”

“You’re gonna make us sound all mafia-like. Don’t you remember ‘Dully Williams and the Gangsters of Villa Nueva’? Like we’re ‘operating’ a laundering scheme or something.”

“Oh yeah. Forgot about that vid. I liked that one.”

“Oh hell, you two,” Liam said, taking a step away from us cane-first. “We’re burning daylight. Talk about your dumb little names on the road.”

We headed towards the stairs that led east when we began hearing screaming. Over the railing, I saw the lower plaza level (where the Mr. Handy named Pennington had set up happy yellow-and-blue balloons) and quickly recognized the cause: a rotting corpse of a man lay at the stairs besides the enthusiastic robot. One vaulter, Julian Colter, I believe, held people back from the body as the groups continued to the dirt path down the stairs.

“Poor bastard,” Liam said, looking below with me. “Probably looking for safety in the vault.”

“But there’s no way he died twenty-five years ago.”

“Nah, he’s probably a survivor what got his ass handed to him by someone else with a gun,” Liz said. “Or sickness, maybe. The meetings always said critters would turn into radioactive monsters, but I don’t know if I believe it. Rabid, sure, but full of rads?”

“Come on, people, keep it moving,” Colter said, waving my fellow vaulters on. When one older woman expressed pity, he added: “Don’t worry, our group will come back and bury the poor fellow. Keep moving.”

When it was our turn to pass, I got a good look at him. Wearing ratty clothing, the man’s skin had turned a bluish-green, what remained of his hair matted beneath a red leather cap. His smell caught my nostrils as I passed, and I nearly gagged. Fortunately, it’s a smell I would soon become very accustomed to.

“Yup, recent,” Liam said. “I doubt Pennington even noticed him when setting up the damn balloons.”

“Arrivederci!” Pennington shouted to the departing vault dwellers, all but confirming Liam’s theory. “Au revoir! Auf wiedersehen! Goodbye, my friends! Good luck out there! Stay safe!”

“I miss Sparks already,” Liz said with slight contempt in her voice.

“Come on, Sonny, we’ll find another Mr. Handy out here somewhere. You’ve still got his memory chip, right?”

“Yup. Don’t worry, kiddo. We’ll have a mechanical army soon enough.”

I gave Liz a face behind her back as we continued past the deceased man.

“Enough with the kiddo kid junk. You ever going to stop calling me that?”

“Nope, never will.”

For thirty minutes, most of Vault 76 continued down the steep trail that led towards the 88 highway. As far as switchbacks go, it shouldn’t have been difficult. But at that time of my life, the most cardio I did on a regular basis was a few hours in the vault gym every week. Sure, I wasn’t out of shape, but I had never walked on uneven ground in my entire life, much less did so with a fifty-pound pack on my back. By the time we reached semi-flat earth, I wished I had brought one of the vault sweatbands with me.

Hiking through the trees and smelling pure nature for the first time is something I’ll never forget and never stop enjoying. I’ll be honest: the Forest is the only place I’ll consider setting up my C.A.M.P. anymore. Every part of West Virginia is beautiful, but only the Forest provided good hunting and relatively radiation-free soil. The water’s terrible. But then again, the water’s terrible everywhere. At least the lurks won’t jump out and snap your head off. Just your fingers, maybe. But I digress.

Checking my fold-up Vault-Tec-brand map of the area, it seemed like we’d run across a lumber mill of sorts. A place where wood was processed into planks used in house construction. I only knew this from the holotapes.

The group that stayed together and traveled east down the path numbered about one-hundred or so. A bunch of blue-and-gold wide-eyed vault dwellers: the perfect target.

Entering the mill yard, most of the group remained very quiet. Some kept the group together, leading them forwards. Then, ever the leader, Colter stood upon an abandoned wood pile and turned to address us.

“This is where we begin our reclamation,” he said. “Once we power this mill, we will have all the construction materials we need to rebuild, providing homes and shelter for all of us.”

He might have been right. The lumber mill even included yellow protectrons with saws and clamps for appendages that continued harvesting the nearby woods, declaring a needless intent to: “Chop wood. Chop wood. Chop wood.” No doubt they’d been working for the last twenty-five years by the amount of wood waiting to be processed. To a burly 76er nearest to it, it plopped a pile of wood into his arms with the words: “Please, enjoy this complimentary sample of wood.”

“Those might work,” Liz said with a grin, whispering over Colter’s continuing speech. “What do you think? We’d have all the materials we’d need to build our garage.”

“Wood, though?” I said with a grimace. “I was thinking straight to metal and concrete.”

Liam, behind us, scanned what remained of the treeline.

“I don’t like it. This place. It’s too exposed.”

“Exposed to what?” Liz asked.

“Everything,” he replied. “Gunfire, radioactive freaks. Whatever’s out there could see us for half a mile.”

Liz and I also turned to look, and the old man was right.

Very, very right.

Colter’s speech was then immediately hushed as the entire crowd gasped in awe of a figure emerging from the treeline. Then another. Then another. From the back of the group, I couldn’t get a proper look at them. But everyone else did.

“Survivors!” declared some voices. “Are they dressed?” said two or three.

“Hello!” Colter said with a grand swing of his arms. “Hello my fellow survivors! We are inhabitants of Vault 76, here to reclaim the wasteland and restore America to its former glory! Please, don’t be afraid, we are peaceful!”

At first, the three, then four, then five figures did not advance. They seemed to view us timid dwellers with great interest. For a minute or so. Murmurs of unrest rose from my fellows.

“Grab your bat, Greg,” Liam said, untying my weapon from my pack and latching his cane to his hip. As I readied myself for a melee, I heard the soldier insert a micro-cell into his laser rifle, making an electric click-bwee that told me that safeties were off.

“You don’t think they’re hostile,” Liz asked quietly.

“I know they are,” Liam said. “Come on, this way. We’ll wide circle around them and head for Flatwoods once we can’t see ‘em.”

We three broke from the group, heading north and keeping to the edge of the treeline. Off the path, the terrain grew steeper, and I stumbled more than a few times. Fallen and unretrieved logs made hiking difficult. I looked back, and saw many 76ers watch us retreat; more than a few I recognized from security made to the lumber mill interior in front of the large crowd, raising and preparing their own weapons.

“Please, come forward! We would like to make peace with you and your-”

One of the security staff grabbed Colter by the arm and brought him down, no doubt whispering to him of the potential danger.

The six, the seven, and the eight figures emerged from the trees and began to walk forwards. Security held their ground behind the processed logs while the group itself began to shuffle away from them. A growl called out from the forest, and three more human-like creatures appeared very close to us, limping down the trail we’d just descended.

Then, the screaming. God, the screaming. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since, but I’ll never forget the first mindless screech of the ghouls surrounding us. They descended upon the crowd from the south, nineteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven. I’m only guessing at the numbers, but I don’t exaggerate: they heard us all, and they came like a tidal wave of fury.

Security opened fire. The naked and emaciated husks of humanity fell easily enough, but two replaced each one that fell. The front of the group became the first victims. Ghouls jumped and tore at my fellow vault dwellers with diseased claws and gnarled teeth. Many of the vault dwellers weren’t equipped with weapons, and so fell to the wave of terror. Sure, our vault suits protected us from bites and scratches, but that’s not where the ghouls were aiming. Blood and flesh flew into the air as they ripped into necks, hands, anything exposed. Some fought back successfully, shoving the ghouls back. Many did not. The second layer of vault dwellers, at least the men, grappled with the monsters and attempted to save their fellows and loved ones. Some were successful, the more prepared 76ers clobbering and slashing the fiends with security batons and makeshift machetes we’d crafted in maintenance. The least fortunate were tackled by three, four, and five ghouls, brought to the ground and ripped apart.

Layer by layer, the ghouls flung themselves at my fellow vault dwellers as they retreated into the mill. Security continued their fire, but bullets only did so much to the horde. Those inside the mill held their own. Those less lucky holed up inside the ruined building beside it to the south. I never saw what happened to them.

“Come on, come on!” Liam hissed, his robotic leg having trouble through the brush. “Come on, get into the trees, quickly now.”

More than distracted, I watch the scene unfolding. Bloodied bodies strewn upon the ground marked the ghouls’ advance. Security’s defence seemed to waver as gunfire peppered in and out. The more intelligent and fortunate groups fled through the mill and east. I couldn’t see anything else besides the monsters entering the mill with shrieks of madness. They don’t devour the dead for sustenance; they simply attack for rage’s sake, and I witnessed that first hand.

“Don’t look back, boy, don’t look back,” Liam said to me, waving me on. I obeyed.

The ghouls didn’t see us. Pure luck. Maybe my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. test had been right about me.

Greg Villander Memoir #1, The Vault – A Fallout 76 Story


First thing’s first: I entered Vault 76 at the age of five. My mother was a famous opera singer, and my father was First Chair violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C.. Somehow, Dad convinced Vault-Tec that I was some musical prodigy that could rattle off Rachmaninoff with one hand tied behind my back. Turns out they didn’t even question it. We almost got chosen for Vault 92 because of my parents’ musical expertise. Someone named Professor Malleus insisted upon it. But, for some reason, we were instructed to stay in West Virginia near Vault 76 until a decision could be made.

When the bombs dropped, Dad told me he and Mom were positively terrified that we would be denied entry to the vault because of our representative’s indecision. But, believe it or not, our names were on the list, and the soldiers ushered us through the giant cog of a vault door.

My musical deception made it through orientation, settling into our living quarters, and three minutes before my music teacher assignment. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face as I was asked to play the first of Bach’s Fifth. I plunked the keys on the piano as if I were learning to type on a computer keyboard. Needless to say, the vault teachers that thought I was a piano prodigy for the ages were furious. The vault staff harshly rebuked my parents. I don’t remember the specifics of the shouting match. But, of course, they couldn’t just throw me out.

So, at first, the vault personnel sent me to the only job a non-best-of-the-best was suited for: waste disposal.

Down in 76, pre-war prestige didn’t mean much. But waste disposal? Mom cried every evening I came home covered in who-knows-what, and I’ve never seen my Dad so mad. He shouted at the busy staff for four days as I sat in the smelly innards of 76, spending most of my time crying and getting in the way of Mr. Handys. He demanded to speak to the overseer, but seeing that the vault had just gone into full service, he was repeatedly told the overseer had no time for his, and I quote, “talentless parasite”. At last, and with enough noise to pierce thick steel walls, the overseer was called down. She immediately realized putting a child down there was a mindless and ridiculous idea, even if said child was “smuggled” in. After rebuking the vault staff as harshly as they had my Dad (much to his delight), her compromise was to ask if vault maintenance would take me on as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts. The decision changed the course of my life. Mr. Donovan, Ms. Sonny, and Sparks (our custom Mr. Handy) became my second family, and the workshop on the third floor became a home away from home (even if my two homes were only a couple dozen meters away).

I learned everything there is to know about building a water purifier with my eyes closed, how to scrap a Corvega engine from the bare block and back, and fix faulty wiring when the lights went out. The best and the brightest, right? I’m not one to toot my own horn, but if I had been old enough to work for Vault-Tec before the War, they would have told me to slow down. I learned arithmetic by the millimeter, reading from nights staring at green lines of programming text, leadership skills from projects Mr. Donovan entrusted to me, and, yes, music from the rhythmic hum of a well-tuned nuclear generator. And to you Mr. Jonsen, you flat-footed germ of a man, it was me who fixed your busted Pip-Boy week after week. How you managed to get Fancy Lad snack cake crumbs behind the circuit board always astounded me.

I regularly brought up equipment like soldering irons, silicon boards, and vacuum tubes up to my room, even when the overseer cracked down on maintenance for working on personal projects. I impressed her and the vault staff, though, when I replicated a water chip by myself from studying a real one. She even allowed me to test it on water purifier number four. To my great relief, it did not blow any fuses (of which, Sparks regularly reminded me, we only had a finite amount). While Mr. Donovan reckoned it would only last a few weeks on its own before it burned out, I made a name for myself with that little stunt. By the time I was sixteen, I’d gone from apprentice to vault maintenance assistant to Mr. Donovan.

You’d think the older mechanics and electricians would look down on me for my age and inexperience. On the contrary, I was treated more than fairly by Donovan, Sonny, Franklin, Eugene, and all the rest. It was the other inhabitants of the vault that looked down on me and all of maintenance. For this reason, we all kept to each other for the most part.

The only other inhabitant of the vault I ever became friends with was Liam Peters, the security guard that kept the peace in the maintenance wing. He was in his late twenty’s back then (his wife had been nine years older; I still don’t know why that was so scandalous to others). When there was no peace to enforce (which was often), we talked a lot about pre-war life. Well, he did most of the talking, and I the asking questions. He wasn’t a normal vault dweller. For one, he had been a private during the actual Battle of Anchorage. For second, he had an honest-to-God metal leg identical to an assaultron from the RobCo technical manual that replaced his entire left leg. No wonder we had the manual! 

During the final push to retake the oil refinery on the outskirts of the city, he took a bullet that shattered his left hip. He was, quote, “on the battlefield until the god damn end”. Gangrene took his upper leg, and there was no saving the lower for the upper. For his service, and because of his particular injury, the “RobCo Valiant Service Reconstruction Project” offered him a chance to walk on two feet again, and he accepted. 

“If I had known what a piece of shit this leg of mine would be,” he said. “I would have chosen crutches.”

Again, because of his service, he accepted the offer for a place in Vault 76, so long as his wife was admitted as well. The only reason they agreed was because Mrs. Donna Peters was secretary to one Nicholas O’Leary who was a West Virginian Representative. Apparently, O’Leary gave a glowing endorsement, and that’s all it took.

And then she died in 79’. Hemorrhagic stroke. The first death in Vault 76, and she was only 39.

From the moment I met Liam, I knew why he patrolled the maintenance wing: if anything happened to that leg of his, no one in the Vault could easily carry him to the elevators (his robot leg weighed seventy pounds alone). His quarters were right next to the elevator as well, and he could always radio us for assistance. He carried a fusion power pack on his hip to power the thing, so the battery was never the issue. It was the chain-wheel assembly that pressurized the actuators. The chain would always slip no matter how many times we sharpened the wheel gears, and he’d be “limping” into the shop at least once every two or three weeks. Still, he had a hell of a right hook when hot-headed maintenance guys got into fights, and he stepped on more than a few toes (literally, not figuratively) to keep everything on the level.

Vault 76, with all of its politicians, soldiers, artists, inventors, biologists, they all grew older, and some of the more posh became wary of Reclamation Day. No one said so out loud, but the thought of leaving the vault to “reclaim” the nuclear wastes of the outside world brought a nervous air to every meeting and every presentation.

But not me. I couldn’t wait. Neither could many of my maintenance friends; a world with few survivors meant a near unlimited supply of tools, parts, and equipment. Every member of the hydroponics team were thrilled at the prospect of studying post-war flora and water radiation levels. Even the lead physician seemed keen on the great day, even though Dr. Madison acknowledged that there would be no end of patients eager for medical assistance. There were many vaults in West Virginia, and connecting with them would make reclamation all the easier.

My parents were also nervous, but seeing my enthusiasm, they softened to the idea of bringing culture to any survivors on the outside. After all, surely some had survived the awful twenty-five years of post-war life. Dad would play his violin for crowds once more, and my mother’s voice would soothe the weary souls of travelers and vault dwellers alike.

And then Dad passed away. Three years before Reclamation Day. His death devastated Mom, and my dreams of building a post-war home for him faded in an instant. A heart attack, Dr. Madison said. He was 67 in 99’. Mom mourned for an awful long time, and returning home every night from the workshop became depressingly dark. Like Liam, the loss a spouse made survival inside a vault feel meaningless. A bleak future outside, emptiness inside. Her health took a turn for the painful, as even Dr. Madison didn’t have the resources to perform a hip replacement. 

Mom took her own life in March of 2102. Overdose on painkillers and alcohol. Willingly or accidental, no one could say.

But I knew.

No longer part of a family, the overseer moved me to a smaller single living quarters, and Mr. Donovan allowed me time off to grieve. I feel ashamed to say that I didn’t require much time. I had already done my grieving for Dad, and living with Mom, so lifeless in comparison… She didn’t even sing anymore after Dad died.

Reclamation Day came faster than everyone expected. The night before the fraptious day, the whole vault partied hard. It lasted well into the night and early morning. I listened to the cheers of the vault soccer teams playing one last game, heard the toasts with 76’s remaining stock of bourbon and wine, and smelled hamburgers and fresh-baked apple pies. But I was upstairs in my quarters, writing in my journal. I had filled my backpack with all of my tools and projects. I wasn’t depressed, exactly. But when Liam knocked on my door to see why I wasn’t at the party, he sat down and we talked for a while.

Seeing my map laid out on my desk, he asked me where I planned to go.

“I’m not sure,” I said glumly. “See if there’s a trader in Flatwoods who likes fusion batteries, trade them for some food, and head to my parent’s old apartment.”

“An empty stomach and a baseball bat,” Liam said with a smirk, eyeing my “weapon” that leaned against my dresser. “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”

“Dad and Mom always told me they left things there when they ran to the vault. I figure it’s as good a start as any.”

“Well, we’ll have to buy you a 10-mil. No use getting killed by some mangy dog before you get there.”

I couldn’t speak for a moment.

“…you-you’re coming with me?”

“Are you joking?” he said with a laugh. “You think I can fix my leg out there on my own? Donovan’s an old coot, Sparks ain’t comin’, and who knows what Sonny’s plans are. You’re the only one I trust.”

That’s when the crying part happened.

About two hours into our conversation and planning session, I heard another knock on my door. The bulkhead opened, and Sonny looked right at me with her regularly intense stare. On her shoulder was her tool bag.

“You prepping for tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why?” Liam asked. “You plan on beating us to Charleston?” 

“No,” Sonny said. “I’m coming with you. And I don’t care what you say.”

Again, I couldn’t say a word. I hardly expected this. Who would follow a 30-year old into the West Virginia wilderness armed with only scrap parts and a baseball bat?

“Are you serious?”

“Hah! You think you can just barge in here and demand a place on our crew?” Liam asked, folding his arms.

“Hah, crew? Two ain’t a crew. Three’s a crew.”

“It does take two people to fix your leg,” I said to the grizzled soldier.

Liam peered at Sonny.

“You’re good with a wrench, I’ll give you that. Almost as good as the kid. But what else you bringing to the table? Two car mechanics and a washed-up private doesn’t make for much survival.”

“Thought you might say that.”

Sonny then opened her bag and produced two pressurized needles filled with crimson life-restoring liquid. There were many, many more inside.

“Whoa, stimpacks? Where did you get those?”

“They ain’t giving these out until tomorrow,” Liam gruffed. “You think you can bribe us with meds? Besides, you probably stole ‘em from the clinic. That don’t make you a medic.”

“I’ll have you know I got these legitimate-like. I’ve worked with Dr. Madison more than a few times. I even helped with surgery once. I reckon I can heal bullet wounds better than anyone in this vault. Save for Mr. Madison, of course.”

“You ‘reckon’?” Liam asked. “Now that sure fills me with confidence.”

“Hey, there’s safety in numbers, right?” I said. “Three C.A.M.P.s are better than two.”

“We really plan on camping, huh?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Say we set up right next to each other, put up some walls, rig up a motion alarm, and we’ll have a fortress we can call home. Heck, we could even set up shop next to the power plant outside Charleston. We could use the power, and I’ll bet that place is full of supplies.”

“So long as you bring a hazmat suit,” Sonny said. “But that does sound like a good idea. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of an actual nuclear power plant. Provided some yokel with a gun ain’t beat us to it.”

“True, kid. I can guarantee the folks left in the capital have restored power already.”

“Then let’s help ‘em out. What do you think? Build a garage, get paid, and run the best machine shop this side of the Ohio River!”

Sonny gave her own peculiar sideways grin, and Liam shrugged.

“I’ve heard worse plans,” he said. “Better than the one you started with.”

“I’m definitely up for it,” Sonny said. “Heh, you’ve always been the one with your metal head in the clouds. No wonder Donovan picked you as his assistant.”

“And you’ve been the troublemaker, ‘Liz,” Liam said. “Don’t make me play the discipline committee out there.”

“Says the tin man with bullets in his brain,” Sonny teased. She then smiled. “This oughta be fun.”

Responders Nuka-Cola Plant Journal – a Fallout 76 Short Story

A holotape discovered by Vault 76 survivors in the ruins of the Nuka-Cola Bottling Plant east of Flatwoods on the edge of the Ohio River.



Nuka-Cola Plant Record: written by Erica Daniels.

March 4th, 2078: 

Yes! Absolute jackpot! The moment I saw it on the map, I knew it was the thing we’ve been searching for.  If there is anything that could uplift the spirits of the Responders and the people they’re assisting, it’s a taste of the pre-war world to enjoy. And what’s better than Nuka-Cola? As far as I can tell, all of the machinery is more or less intact. All it’s going to require is a bit of oil to grease up the gears, as many glass bottles as we can find, and a few wrenches to keep it maintained. After all, I’ve heard these bottling machines can be a bit finicky; the bottles jam in the hoppers the moment you stop paying attention.

I blame the bottle designers. Sure, the shape is iconic. But having to clear jams every hour is a pain in the ass.

March 12th, 2078: 

Seventeen crates ready to go! I had one myself, and my Geiger counter spiked. It was perfect!  The selfish part of me tells me to charge for them, considering how rare they are anymore (all of the vending machines in Charleston were looted in the first two weeks), but who would do that, honestly? I mean, it’s not even that paper money has officially lost its value. But there are so many orphans in the city that need some kind of comfort, even if it’s just a bottle of ice cold cola. Well… they might not be ice-cold by the time they get there, but you know what I mean.

To my sheer disappointment, the storage tanks for the Strontium-85 had deteriorated… no, melted. No doubt by the Strontium-85 itself. They were never meant to stay in storage tanks for long, anyway. There was certainly a bright blue glow, but I didn’t dare reprogram the systems to process Nuka-Cola Quantum with contaminated radioactive ingredients. I’ve had a clean one before, and it felt like my brain was being smashed with a fruit-flavored brick… along with my pee glowing blue for a week. I heard people died flavor testing the thing. Sure, they were just rumors, but I’m not about to try getting the recipe wrong on purpose.

I didn’t want to disturb the dust of a deteriorating factory, but curiosity got the better of me. I explored the taste testing booths, and what I found blew me away. I can’t type in the entire non-disclosure or liability papers, but holy hell… They’re pretty brutal. Even donating plasma for the war effort didn’t have this many terms of agreement. And one of the taste results I read? It sounds like the guy ascended into nirvana. No thanks, I’ll keep my mortal mind restrained to reality, I think.

April 2nd, 2078:

Hoo boy, I’m glad I’m all the way out here and not in Morgantown. Heard Captain Larkin and Chief Mayfield have more than a bad feud going on between them. Can’t believe Mayfield fired on students… I didn’t go to no fancy-schmancy university, but kids are kids. It’s not like a few broken windows and walls of graffiti are going to affect us any worse than the gosh-darn end of the world already has.

Keeping that in mind, I sent fifteen crates up to the University and made certain to send a message with the boys that the Nuka was for the fire department, the police, and the students. A liquid peace treaty, if you like.

So, for the month of March, that’s ninety-seven crates sent out, forty-three to Charleston, twenty-five to Morgantown, eight to Flatwoods (in exchange for two mechanics and machine parts), seven with the medical teams, six to VTU, and eight given out free to refugees who pass by the factory.

I’m going to be very sad when the ingredients in this factory run out. I’ve seen a lot of faces brighten up to drink Nuka-Cola again. From what I hear, the next closest Nuka Bottling Plant is in D.C., and I’m not about to travel east; from the stories the refugees tell me, the capital got blown to hell and back. I realized that offering irradiated soda to already sickly irradiated people wasn’t a good idea, but just the opportunity of tasting America’s number-one soda again made people happy for the first time in months. These moments make enduring the factory’s lack of air conditioning and constant assembly line malfunctions worth it.

Who knew the Nuka-Cola corporation would become a non-profit?

May 16th, 2078:

Well, it was too good to last. This Tuesday at two o’clock, the red lights came on and the line halted. All of the ingredient tanks were empty, except for one with a peculiar scent of seventeen fruit-flavors and rubbing alcohol. Better yet, when I opened it, an explosion of flies burst out like the damn plagues of Egypt. It wasn’t until I checked the terminal in a panic that I realized that this particular tank was disconnected from the line. A few of the boys saw it happen, and they all swore to secrecy. Dodged a very large bullet there, and I’m not about to tell anyone.

This morning Captain Larkin and her fellow officers stopped by the factory and congratulated us personally. I couldn’t believe it. “It’s not just soda,” she told us. “And it’s more than just morale. It’s a sign that we can bring the world back again with a wrench and a bit of willpower.” That made this whole venture worth it. She even told me that my stubborn captain-of-the-guard brother Tom sent his gratitude; apparently his men loved the factory’s particular post-war taste. 

Anyway, the boys and I cracked open the line’s last bottles of icy cola with Captain Larkin and her group. We sent the last four crates with them as well. And now it’s just clean-up duty. We’ll scavenge what we can and send it off to Charleston.

I wonder where me and the boys will go next. I hear there’s a giant teapot right up the hill, and I’m dying for some authentic sweet tea.

Monorail Elevator Recordings – A Fallout 76 Short Story

Discovered by Vault 76 survivors within the mainframe of the Appalachian Monorail Elevator’s second level. Recording as follows (transcript included).



October 23rd, 8:11 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected a minor fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is ten to fifteen minutes. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:48 AM.                                                  

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected an unexpected fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is two to four hours. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:49 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers of B car that a major fault has been discovered in train car coupler. Expected maintenance wait time is seven to ten days. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. We remind you to keep all legs, hands, and arms inside the monorail car at all times. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 11:22 PM.

Alert: all passengers are reminded to please remain in their seats with their legs, hands, and arms inside the cabin at all times. Exit doors should remain closed for your safety. In case of medical emergency, first aid supplies can be found at the front and rear of the car. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

Error: Unable to reset train car exit doors. Maintenance and authorities have been notified.

Christmas Night – Fallout 76 Short Story


Jacob tried to sleep. His watch was in fifteen minutes, and he hadn’t slept a wink. But the thought of Julia, alone in Charleston…

That’s a stupid thought, he mused. There’s over two-thousand people in Charleston. She can’t possibly be less alone. She’s probably the least ‘alone’ person in all of Appalachia, possibly the whole of America. Be honest: you’re less worried about her and more selfish about yourself.

Here he was, shivering in a ratted sleeping bag beneath an equally-ratted tent on the road to Summersville Dam. The night of Christmas Eve. Naturally, he’d drawn the short stick for dam patrol. Of course he’d drawn the short stick. Larkin always had a stick up her ass when it came to patrol orders, but maybe this time she had a point calling for double duty. The raiders that came down from Pleasant Valley the day before were anything but pleasant, and chose a fine time to hit the city. And who knew when more would be back. Every able-bodied Responder was on high alert while everyone else in the valley tried their best to stay optimistic. 

That Christmas, the engineers chopped down the biggest tree they could haul, raised it in the center of the capitol building rotunda, and, with help from all the children and orphans, decorated it with tinsel, electric lights, and as many unbroken baubles as they could find.

Even with the threat of limited medical supplies and food, a meager supply of bullets and weapons, and the constant pall of danger from the mountain, the Responders and all the people under the care could forget that the bombs had dropped for at least one night. Food would be plentiful. Cake and cookies, whiskey for the adults, Nuka-Cola for the kids. Presents would be passed around, working appliances, toys, tools, and scavenged cigars. Then, at midnight, Christmas carols followed by a long winter’s nap.

And Jacob was chattering his teeth out on the road to nowhere without a single hint of season’s cheer.

“Fuck,” he growled, turning over. He waited two minutes more to see if his core would flare to life. It did not.

“Fuck it!” he shouted, scrambling out of his sleeping bag in a frozen rage. By the time he’d flailed his way out of the tent, he’d already turned into a solid. He bitterly pulled and tied his hood over his head, bending down to retrieve his hunting rifle. At the same time, the ammo in his loose pocket fell to the ground; at least he’d remembered to put the seven-round clips inside a bag this time.

Jacob then heard the deep chuckle of Kuznetsov some meters away.

“Found a snake in your sleeping bag?”

“Don’t laugh at me, Kuv,” Jacob said, his voice cracking and his rifle barely hanging from his shoulder by the strap. “How the hell do you stand this cold, anyway? You don’t even have a hood.”

At first, the old man did not answer. He inhaled the last of his Tortoise and threw the cigarette butt to the ground.

“Where are you from, Vickens?” he asked with his thick accent, blowing addictive comfort into the air.

Jacob lifted his rifle to check the action. Naturally, it hadn’t been oiled in some time. But neither had any gun in Charleston’s arsenal.

“Beckley,” he said.

“Aye. But where are you really from?” Kuznetsov said with a lilt in his voice.

Jacob frowned and sighed. He’d been partnered with the old man for a week or so, and he found Kuznetsov a quiet but sturdy individual. Jacob wondered if he had been a Commie sympathizer before the War. Not that it mattered anymore anyway. Warming his fingerless gloves with steaming breath, Jacob regretted the fact that no one in the US ever needed to design a gun that worked with mittens.

“New Mexico, if you must know,” Jacob said. “Santa Fe.”

“The desert boy stuck in the freezer,” Kuznetsov said with a chuckle, a small grin forming behind his bushy mustache.

“Hah hah,” Jacob replied with a roll of his eyes. “Laugh it up. Besides, if I didn’t tell you, you’d keep digging.”

“You know me so well.”

“So where are you from, huh? Somewhere cold, I’ll bet. Moscow or something?”

The old man shook his head and adjusted his hat.

“Hah, Moscow. I love Americans,” he said. “So ignorant about every country besides their own.”

“That’s because ours is the best one out there,” Jacob said with a smile, leaning on his heels.

Kuznetsov laughed.

“Now there’s a fine patriot.”

It was silent for a moment, wind whistling through the trees. Even then, the ice and snow created an echo chamber of the visible quarter-mile.

“Well, russki?” Jacob said. “Are you going to reveal your mysterious origins?”

Kuznetsov eyed Jacob for a moment. He couldn’t tell, but Kuznetsov appeared to be judging whether Jacob was worthy of that piece of information.

“Kiev,” Kuznetsov said at last.

Jacob’s brow furrowed.

“Keeve? Where the hell’s that?”

Kuznetsov folded his hands in front of him, perhaps restraining them before they became fists. Jacob could never tell if the man wanted to give him a hug or strangle him.

“Ukrayina,” he replied. After a moment, he added, “Ukraine, to you.”

“Ukraine, huh?” Jacob asked. But then something clicked. “So you ain’t a russki after all?”

“Niet. But I might as well be, since no one could tell the difference after the invasions. I left Kiev with my wife in ‘45. Back then, you don’t walk the street with less than three people unless you like being mugged. We come to America hoping it would be safer here. It was not. I was attacked many times because of my accent. Our home was broken into many times.”

“Damn,” Jacob said. “Did you call the police at all?”

Kuznetsov laughed.

“And what would that do? I’d go to prison for accusing red-blooded Americans for assaulting a Communist. I would disappear, like many of my neighbors.”

Jacob nodded. His face then darkened.

“It wasn’t right,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say anything. In high school, I’d always hear about some jock being scolded just because they wore a red jacket, or some girl saying something the teachers didn’t like to hear. A Korean kid in my class was taken by policemen in the middle of my history lecture sophomore year. Turns out his whole family was shipped somewhere. He wasn’t a commie at all, he just looked Chinese.”

Kuznetsov was silent.

“I was always the joke at SF High, too. I’m haemophilic, see. It’s only moderate, but it was enough to make me 4-F. All of my friends got shipped off to Anchorage, and I get stuck working as an electrician. Everybody thought I was dodging the draft after I graduated. So I thought I’d disappear, too.”

“You would rather die on the battlefield than live in your homeland?” asked Kuznetsov.

Jacob huffed.

“Sure, if you call this living, freezing my ass off on Christmas Eve.”

“Your job is important. You have water, cram, a warm bed,” Kuznetsov said, tilting his head with every item. “Medicine sometimes.”

He paused.

“And you defend the defenseless. Your friends may have died for their country, but you live for what remains of it.”

Jacob thought for a moment, adjusting his rifle.

“I guess you’re right,” he said.

“You have family left?” Kuznetsov asked.

The gravel and dirty snow on the uneven road cracked beneath Jacob’s feet.

“Not exactly.”

Kuznetsov’s head tilted towards him.

“Try to make one of your own, then?”

Jacob laughed lightly.

“Yeah. I’ve got a girl. Her name’s Julia. You may have seen her at dinner.”

“Julia. Hmm. Not beautiful Julia that works in the infirmary?”

“Yeah, she’s the one. She’s doing God’s work while I fix light switches.”

“You need light to see, don’t you? And she can’t heal without light.”

Jacob laughed again, deeper this time.

“Now you’re starting to sound like Father Gilbert.”

Kuznetsov grinned.

“I suppose I do.”

“You said you had a wife,” Jacob said without thinking. “Is she here? With the Responders?”

Kuznetsov remained silent. Again, Jacob couldn’t read his face. Uncomfortable, Jacob turned away, content to scan the treeline.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was an awful private question.”

“Of all the places we went together, I think here, in Charleston, would have been her favorite.”

Jacob grinned.

“You think she could stand Philip’s cook-”

Whizz.

Right past Jacob’s ear.

Followed by a not-so-distant crack.

“Derr`mo!” shouted Kuznetsov, shoving Jacob towards the treeline. Jacob hardly processed what had happened by the time he and the Ukranian had collapsed off the side of the road: someone had nearly taken off his head with a crisp .308 round. Kuznetsov was on his feet before Jacob had a chance to catch his breath, finding cover behind a fallen tree and firing his rifle into the distance. “On your feet, Vickens! On your feet!”

Jacob shook the dizzy out of his head and hoisted himself to his knees. On habit, he again checked the action on his rifle. His mind then frantically remember something of vital import: he couldn’t fire his gun without bullets. Kuznetsov was already on his third clip before Jacob could tear open his ammo bag with trembling fingers.

It was then he heard the shouting. God, the shouting. The snow must have amplified the sound of a raider rampage, because there was no way that many were advancing. 

“Why are they attacking the dam!” Jacob shouted above the din of Kuznetsov’s fire, joining him at the fallen tree. “There’s no one up here!”

“Think, boy!” Kuznetsov shouted back. “If the dam comes down, all of Charleston goes with it!”

“Comes down?! Wha- The raiders would need artillery, or, or, bulldozers! Or-”

“Jacob, I need you to run!” Kuznetsov shouted, firing again. “Run and alert the rest of the men. Peterson and the others won’t be able to hold the dam themselves!”

“What?!” Jacob shouted as a bullet tore off bark from their cover. “You’re coming with me!”

“Damn it, boy! Peterson will be on his way! Go tell Larkin what is happening!”

“You don’t know that! Kuz, you’re going to get yourself killed!”

“And you’re going to get us all killed if you don’t go!”

Kuznetsov fired a clip more before Jacob pulled him down. Anger boiled in him, along with the adrenaline.

“What happened to living for your homeland, huh?!”

“This is not my homeland,” he hissed back. “But the people down there are my family. They are your family!”

Kuznetsov jammed another clip in his rifle, fired, and came back down when another bullet tore off frozen wood.

“You are my family, Jacob,” he said with surprising calm. “Go live for your family, live for Julia. Now go! Go!”

Kuznetsov shoved Jacob backwards. Jacob tumbled away, and without looking back, staggered to his feet as he felt bullets rain through the freeze-dried air. He ran like hell towards the crossroads to Charleston, the gunfire and howls of lunatics following behind him.

On his way back down, he did indeed see Peterson and his men running in the opposite direction towards his foreign partner.

But he never did learn what happened to Kuznetsov.

When the nuclear explosion rocked the dam fifteen minutes into his lung-burned sprint, he knew he was too late. He could only watch as the entirety of Summersville Lake fell upon the festive and unsuspecting city.

He never saw Julia again. 

Upon his knees, the weight of the world crashed upon him. 

And upon the flooded city of Charleston, gentle wisps of snow fell from the darkened sky.

Valiant’s Fall – Fallout 76 Short Story


Valiant Information and Inventory Management System (V.I.M.S.) now recording.

September 23rd, 2077, approximate time, 0235 hours EST.

Log created by: Technician J. Peters. 

Storage Room B2. Access code: 0 1 0 2 8 8.

Storage B2 Inventory List: three-hundred-seventeen-point-one-five units of recycled water, sixty-five-point-seven-six units of nutrient processor cartridges, seventeen relaxation modules.

Water rerouted to mess hall. Balanced water storage from storage rooms A3 and C5 to maintain precise outer ring rotation. Twelve nutrient processor cartridges to refill Alpha and Epsilon processors checked out. Three relaxation modules checked out.

Actions performed: Access code reset. New password: 1 0 1 0 9 7.

End of log.


October 13th 2077, approximate time, 1152 hours EST.

Log created by: Technician R. McClellen, Technician R. Philips, Engineer L. Richardson.

Airlock C5. Access code: 0 9 3 0 9 8.

Inventory List: Five pressurized E-V-A suits, six E-V-A. oxygen tanks, C5 pressurized oxygen reserves at 87 percent.

Actions performed: extra-vehicular maintenance scheduled for 1238 hours EST. Three E-V-A suits and six E-V-A oxygen tanks checked out.

Inner doors sealed.

Outer doors opened.

Extra-vehicular maintenance on docking clamp Alpha-Delta-Omicron and extending arm performed in six hours, thirteen minutes, 46.22 seconds.

Outer doors sealed.

Inner doors opened.

Three E-V-A suits and six E-V-A oxygen tanks checked in. C5 oxygen reserves at 56 percent.

End of log.


Continual log created by: Commander T. Michaels.

Communications Access Hub A1. Access code: 1 0 2 8 0 8

Inventory List: Hermes Extra-Communications Transmission and Reception (H.E.C.T.O.R.) set to one-forty-five-point-eight-megahurtz. 

Actions Performed: Transmissions sent to U-S-S-A Bloomfield Mission Command, recorded on October 23, 2077 at approximate time, 1812 hours EST.

Message transcripts as follows: “Mission control, this is Commander Michaels, please respond on wavelength one-forty-four-point-four-nine. Partial message received but we were unable to hear through the interference. Control, please repeat message.”


Next message transcription, recorded on October 24, 2077 at approximate time, 0445 hours EST.

“Mission control, this is Commander Michaels, please respond. God, please respond. I’d ask if this is some kind of sick joke, but McClellen and Peters thought they saw lights flashing over the eastern coast yesterday. There’s nothing strong enough to make flashes like that except-

Control, please respond. Setting emergency signal on repeat, will continue to contact.”


Next message transcription, recorded on October 28th 2077, approximate time, 0814 hours EST.

“Mission control, this is Commander Michaels. If you’re hearing this, everyone is becoming quite scared up here. McClellan began to panic yesterday trying to intercept emergency signals, and afterwards spent most of the day pacing on the outer ring trying to keep her mind off of things. Is the resupply mission still scheduled for November 23rd? Repeat, is the resupply scheduled? We really need to hear from you, Control.”


Next message transcription, recorded on November 12th 2077, approximate time, 1238 hours EST.

“Mission control, please tell us you’re listening. We began rationing water on November 5th, and rationing nutrient cartridges on November 10th. Richardson, Philips, Beuren, Jensen and I are staying focused and positive, but Peters is going to run out of antipsychotics in less than two weeks. Control, if you’re still there, we need some kind of confirmation. McClellen confined herself in her quarters two days ago, and no amount of knocking is making her come out. Not even a crowbar worked to force the door. She didn’t change her access code, so she must have shorted it out. I don’t think she has food or water in there. We need good news up here, or the situation is only going to get worse.”


Next message transcription, recorded on December 2nd 2077, approximate time, 1126 hours EST.

“Mission control, this is- God, if you don’t know who I am by now, there’s no point.

America. She can’t be gone. We couldn’t see any lights down there as we passed over. We hadn’t even noticed it before because no one wanted to check.

McClellen is gone. She never came out. Even if she took water in with her, I don’t think she lasted three and a half weeks sealed in there.

Peters is starting to lose it. I knew he joined this crew because of his biological expertise, but he didn’t tell anyone how bad he could get without meds. Philips tried synthesizing something for him, but we just don’t have the chemicals onboard, and we don’t dare make the situation worse with makeshift prescriptions.

Richardson has stopped working and devoted himself to prayer, and Jensen has followed him. Beuren and I are starting to question why we should continue our scientific work. ‘It’s better than diving into the relaxation modules or taking sedatives until the end comes,’ I told him. I don’t think that lifted our spirits much.”


December 24th 2077, approximate time, 1843 hours EST.

Log created by: Technician J. Peters.

Airlock C6. Access code: 1 1 1 0 1 5.

Inventory List: Two pressurized E-V-A suits, four E-V-A. oxygen tanks, C6 pressurized oxygen reserves at 35 percent.

Actions performed: One E-V-A suit and four E-V-A oxygen tanks checked out.

Actions performed: Access code reset. New password: 111418.

Inner doors sealed.

Outer doors opened.

C6 Oxygen reserves at zero percent.

End of log.


Continual log created by: Commander T. Michaels.

Next message transcription, recorded on December 25th 2077, approximate time, 0119 EST.

“Peters spaced himself. And he even changed the door code to lock us out.

Shit.

He’s got ten hours of O2 at best. And worse, I can’t let anyone go out there through another door to try to bring him back. We’ll probably lose whoever goes after him. Two hours ago Peters started acting violent, and near stabbed Beuren with a scalpel. He even got a flying start at him from C corridor. How Beuren avoided it in zero-G, I’m not sure. He was just lucky Jensen and I were in the room at the same time. Four grown men flailing weightless. Can you imagine?

We’re like rats on a sinking ship. We confined him to Storage Room C4, but he obviously found a way out. Then he took the long walk.

Merry fucking Christmas.

Philips used a few of our junk parts and replicated a science experiment that he’d seen back in his graduate days. Rock candy crystals grown in space. Something so simple to lift the mood, and then this happened. I wouldn’t have considered it a month ago, but I think I’m spending this Christmas… and maybe a few days after… with med-X from the med bay and a few packets of sherry from the relaxation modules. It’s not like I can get drunk with this watered-down garbage. But it’s something. Thank God the alcohol rules were changed last year. Sedatives and sherry, coming right up.”


February 4th, 2077, approximate time, 0312 hours EST.

Control Room V.I.M.S. alert.

Log confirmed by: Technician A. Jensen.

Inventory Shortage: Station propellant reserves at two-percent.

Please resupply immediately. Failure will result in station orbit destabilization.

Repeat, please resupply immediately. Failure will result in station orbit destabilization.

Alert confirmed by: Technician A. Jensen and Commander T. Michaels.

End of log.


H.E.C.T.O.R. incoming transmission to Communications Access Hub A1.

Warning: incorrect access code. Overwritten. Received on all functional broadband frequencies. 

Transcription unavailable. Transmission lasted 7.33 seconds.

Actions requested by: Commander T. Michaels

Actions performed: Query all U-S-S-A satellites to pinpoint source of transmission.

Action results: 35 U-S-S-A satellites disconnected from network. Remaining 14 satellites performed shortwave broadcast scan on February 15th, 2078 at 0563 hours EST.

No results.

Source of transmission: unknown.

End of log.


Continual log created by: Commander T. Michaels.

Next message transcription, recorded on March 15th 2078, approximate time, 0212 hours EST.

“Well, that’s it, then. According to estimates, we’ve got seventy-two hours before the station starts feeling the burn. Who knows what made that last transmission. Hell, it could have been aliens for all the good it did us. I suppose it’s a small mercy that the oxygen and the water didn’t run out before the propellant did. Barely. We tried venting the oxygen reserves through the stabilizers, but it only bought us a couple more days, maybe a week. Beyond that, we would have suffocated instead of burned. I don’t know which I would have preferred. I asked the crew if they wanted to be sedated before everything happened. Jensen and Philips agreed, and so did I.

Richardson said the last thing he wanted to do was pray to God with a clear mind, and I have no problem with that. Beuren’s been inside Airlock C7 for a few hours, but I haven’t heard any alerts. Maybe he’s contemplating suicide.

None of us are as strong as Richardson. I know the only reason I was chosen as commander for the last nine months instead of him was because of my flight record. But it’s not like I’m dogfighting pinkos up here. I know this record might not survive re-entry, but it feels like I’m accomplishing one last thing before I’m gone. Hell, I don’t even have a family to say goodbye to. No wife, no kids… I poured everything into my career, and look where I ended up. I guess I’m glad I didn’t have a family for them to die in a world like this. 

All right. Last words, I guess. For Rachel McClellen, Jake Peters, Rob Philips, Lucius Richardson, David Beuren, Aaron Jensen, and Tyson Michaels, this is the last transmission from the crew of the U-S-S-A Valiant Space Station. If anyone is alive down there and listens to this, know that we remained devoted to God and our country. Whenever and wherever you are, keep the spirit of freedom alive. That’s all we can ask.”

End of continual log.

The Learner Has Become the Master

I remember the moment so clearly in my head. Unlike every other member of my family in the room (lazily watching The Mummy on the big screen television), I was trembling. I examined the chessboard with the intensity of grandmaster, but I knew I was missing something. Like a computer programmer trying to jam faulty code into a compiler, I couldn’t comprehend the complexity of what I was looking at. My grandpa’s queen sat hawk-like in the upper corner of the board; she simultaneously watched over her king and poised herself to execute mine diagonally a good seven squares away. 

My precious travels to Idaho typically went this way; relaxation, yes, but also blind panic. I’m still unsure if my grandpa held any prestigious awards for his chess-playing capabilities, but one thing was certain: no grandchild (or child, for that matter) had ever beaten him fair and square. In fact, it was well-known in the household that whoever managed to beat him would win fifty bucks, right on the spot. I wasn’t the only one trying. I sat in direct competition with my cousins, some my age, some older, some younger. I didn’t immediately worry about being overtaken by my younger cousins, as grandpa was just pleased as punch to teach them the basics. No, I only worried about one, my main rival: my cousin Kyle. Sure, everyone would get the fifty-dollar grand prize if (when) we beat him. But there was more than a little bit of prestige on the line for reaching that monumental moment first. 

To quote the Modern Bard, my palms were sweaty, my knees weak, and my arms heavy. In my panic, I didn’t even notice that no one else was paying any attention … not even Grandpa. It only occurred to me later that The Mummy would be instrumental in the final outcome. 

I had to get rid of that blasted queen. I only had two turns, maybe three before he pincered me between his corner rook, his bishop, and Her Majesty. My queen had long since been excommunicated by that holy bishop, and all I had was a knight, a rook, and an off-color bishop of my own. Meanwhile, my bishop must have been Protestant, as he wasn’t in the right alignment to threaten the royal couple. My knight secured a single square beside the enemy king, but as any chess player knows, there’s only so much a knight can do on its own. 

And then I saw it. I didn’t need to take down the queen at all. Two turns. I could do it in two turns. 

“Check,” I said, moving my knight into position. Grandpa looked down at the board, examining his queen and king. I’d made this move before, but his queen hadn’t been in her position before. He moved his king sideways and returned to watch the movie. 

My eye twitched. His queen couldn’t dive out of the way. My knight didn’t need to move. Neither did my bishop; it blocked the remaining escape route. And more importantly, it provided cover for my assassin: my last rook. 

“Checkmate.” 

The entire room snapped to attention. My grandpa glared down at the board. 

I won fifty dollars that day. And The Mummy became my favorite movie. 

Alyssum – Chapter Sixteen

mountain

A warm and wet tongue slobbered all over Aeo’s face, and he could do nothing about it besides open his eyes. The morning sun blinded him momentarily. It was Poro, standing tall over him and licking his hair and forehead. Aeo tried to lift his arms to make her stop, but they wouldn’t move. He tried raising his head; his muscles didn’t answer his commands. Even his heartbeat was slow and exhausted, leaving him lethargic and light-headed.

“Aeo, are you awake?” asked a voice. Leon, somewhere to his side.

“Mmm,” Aeo said, his throat hoarse. Even his lungs and his vocal cords refused to offer their regular services.

“…you did this?”

Aeo’s eyes attempted to peer over towards Leon. No use. All he could see was Poro’s enormous face and the blue sky.

“These wolves… Goddess, they’re… melted.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said. Now he remembered. So much fire… The dream had kept him alive. The voice. She kept both of them alive.

“How… did you do this?” Leon asked.

Aeo didn’t respond, and felt grateful he couldn’t.

“At least nothing else attacked us last night.”

“Mmm,” Aeo hummed.

“I’m feeling much better with the aether in me,” Leon said. “Can you move at all, Aeo?”

Aeo tried to wiggle his toes and fingers, or flex his cheek muscles; not even a twinge of movement. The rocks beneath the small of his back and shoulder blades made him unbelievably uncomfortable and sore.

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied. Poro licked Aeo’s nose, lips, and chin.

“There’s an important lesson for you, I suppose,” Leon said. “Use all your animis, and you become quite useless. Remember void sickness? Let me see, where is my… ah, here’s my marker.”

Aeo heard Leon rise from the ground, and finally saw him enter the frame of his limited vision.

“Silly horse,” Leon said, gently shoving Poro away. Poro relented, rolling the cart that remained attached to her. Leon nearly reached out his hand to touch Aeo’s forehead, but then he stopped cold. Leon’s eyes opened wide, and his mouth turned downwards in dread. He touched Aeo’s bloody neck and carefully lifted Aeo’s arm to examine it. “Aeo… Goddess, what did those things do to you…”

Aeo’s eyes examined Leon, rolling about in his head as if they were the last remaining bodily functions Aeo could utilize.

“Come on,” Leon said, sliding his arms beneath Aeo’s head and legs. “Do your best to stay awake. You’ve lost a lot of blood. And the last thing you need is an infection.”

Leon lifted the boy up with a grunt, and Aeo realized just how exhausted his body had become: his arm, now covered in thick dried blood, dangled downwards, his head toppled to the side without his consent, and his core muscles refused to flex or contract. Pain, however, had not dulled in the slightest. Although the wagon lacked much space, Leon lifted the back bar and let it fall to the ground. Then he placed Aeo into the back of the wagon as far as his arms would allow, and climbed up himself. The wood of the wagon creaked and complained with both of them inside.

“Can you speak?” Leon asked, opening one of the boxes and producing a roll of cotton cloth.

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied.

“I don’t know how you did it, but you saved my life,” Leon said quietly, unrolling the cloth. “I suppose you couldn’t shield yourself this time?”

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo mumbled.

“So, just your fire then… From the results, I certainly never want to be on the receiving end of your magick. You really do have to tell me if you’ve done this before.” Leon reached for his bag, and from the main compartment, he pulled out a wide bottle with a fancy label. He twisted the lid open, and sniffed its contents. “Still fresh. Good. Goddess, how do I do this… First thing’s first, I suppose. I’m sorry I have to do this, but it’s a good thing you have a spare shirt.”

Before Leon could explain what he meant, Leon produced his pocket knife. With a few quick strokes, he sliced Aeo’s bloody and blackened shirt right down the middle and pulled the material as far away from the neck wound as possible. With another thicker cotton cloth, Leon poured water from the water keg and let it soak. Then, to Aeo’s horror, Leon gently pressed it against his neck. Pain shot through him like lightning, but Aeo’s body had little strength to react. Worse, even his face couldn’t show his discomfort besides blinking faster and faster.

“Mmm, hmmm,” Aeo said as loudly as his voice allowed.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Leon said. “I need to see where the bite marks are. You’re not bleeding anymore, I’m trying not to cause it again.”

Leon carefully rolled Aeo over to his side and cleaned the back of the boy’s neck as well; the wound appeared deep, but with the thick blood washed off, perhaps it looked better than Leon expected. Once cleaned, the wound didn’t appear as terrible as it had appeared. Leon repeated the process with Aeo’s arm. The wound burned and stung as Leon lifted it upwards and cleaned both sides.

Setting the red-soaked cloth down, Leon reached for his bottle of ointment. In thick coats, he rubbed it into Aeo’s skin beginning with his arm. Once finished with a coat of cream on all sides, Leon wrapped it tightly and quickly with a wrap of light cotton. In the very least, the sharpness of the pain in that spot reduced to a simmer.

“I’m not sure what to do with your neck,” Leon admitted. “Perhaps when you can move, we can try wrapping bandages around your chest. Until then, perhaps the cream alone will do well enough.”

As Leon administered to Aeo, he sighed.

“Although you might have been impressed by my display yesterday,” Leon said quietly. “I am not a warrior. Not nearly, not like the masters that will be teaching you. I don’t have the stamina to endure a long fight, never have. It’s all I can do to hit hard and fast, and hope my animis holds out until the job is through. You, though… you might not feel strong now, but you did burn down an entire village merely by wanting to. And what you did to the wolves… There were certainly more than just those three. It’s a miracle they didn’t do you worse harm. I told you you had more strength than you think. Someone is watching over you and I.”

Aeo tried to open his jaw to speak, but it and his entire face simply hung passive. His eyes, though, walked around the wagon and spoke volumes.

“I never expected you to protect me like that. And I never wanted you to have to.”

Aeo looked back at Leon and managed to blink.

“But I’m very glad you did,” Leon said, rolling Aeo to his side to apply more cream to the boy’s back. “Thank you, Aeo. I told you I would need your help someday. I just didn’t expect the day to come this quickly.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said, blinking. Although his face showed no emotions at all, he would have at least smiled through the pain.

 

*     *     *     *     *     *

 

The entire first day from morning to night, Aeo could not move. Try as he might, none of his muscles even quivered. The cart rolled along at a much slower pace than previous days, probably due to Leon’s own lack of strength and ability to focus. Aeo didn’t feel trapped in a motionless body, exactly. It was more like floating weightlessly in a lake while the rhythm of the current washed to and fro. His mind very much reflected the drain his body experienced. His eyes could move, but they couldn’t rightly focus on the canvas above him. Leon had instructed him to stay awake, but he couldn’t help drift in and out with the gentle rocking of the cart and comforting air that blew over him. Leon had nearly covered him in a fur blanket, but thought otherwise at the last second; for this, Aeo was extremely grateful. About an hour down the road, his uninjured arm that sat upon his bare chest fell to his side of its own accord. For a while, it felt comfortable. But then it started to fall asleep, jammed up too closely to one of the boxes. It soon fell quite numb, and no matter how loudly his voice hummed and mumbled, Leon couldn’t hear his cries for help above the din of the wagon. It wasn’t until Leon took a break in the late morning and adjusted Aeo’s position did sweet, merciful blood flow correctly again.

Long into the evening, Aeo lay prone in the dark, ever staring upwards. Maybe now I can sleep, he thought to himself. After Leon had released Poro to rest, eat, and drink, he appeared at the back of the wagon and hopped inside. Taking a seat on one of the boxes, he leaned down with one of the waterskins.

“One of the worst things about void sickness,” he said. “Is getting thirsty and hungry. And needing to use the restroom, of course. You’re probably feeling all of this right now.”

To be honest, Aeo hadn’t noticed much until Leon pointed it out. His tongue and throat were dry from his mouth hanging loose all day. He felt mildly peckish, but he certainly felt the uncomfortable weight of his digestive system. One of three of these things needed to be addressed very soon.

“Fortunately, I don’t think you’ll be sick for very long, not nearly as long as others. Most can’t even move their eyes or make noise. And… I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I feel you should know… Scholars that have suffered from void sickness much more severely become like infants and need… well, they need their pants changed regularly.”

“Mmmm…” Aeo hummed long and low like a grumble.

“Not terribly exciting news, I know,” Leon said. “But you saved my life, so of course I’m obligated to help. Do you need any assistance now?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“That’s a yes?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Water?”

“Hm-mmm.”

“No? Um… restroom?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Oh. Naturally, I’m sure. Liquid only, I hope?”

“Hmm-mm.”

“No? Oh. Of course. What I mean to say… Eh, hmm. This will be a little more difficult, then. I have a bit of experience in this, although the Academy never taught me the specifics, being in the middle of nowhere and all. Um… Right. Let’s see. Let me carry you off the road, and… I suppose we’ll figure it out as we go. Let me grab the paper…”

The second day continued much as the first, with Aeo completely unable to move his limbs or his body. Fortunately, it felt as though some amount of control had appeared in his face, his fingers, and his toes. Ever so slightly, he could curl his digits, and when he really concentrated, he could raise and lower his eyebrows. He could even keep his mouth shut and weakly swallow, which helped immensely with his sore throat.

The only real problems (besides bathroom breaks, obviously) were eating and drinking. Leon could lift Aeo into a seated position and lean his head forwards a bit, pressing the waterskin to his lips and allowing him precious water. It was an unfamiliar and disconcerting combination of allowing the water to pass freely without swallowing while attempting to not drown. His muscles that controlled the flow of water in his throat weren’t in a very strong position to do their job properly. He couldn’t rightly cough when too much water passed down the wrong tube, either, though Leon had the experience and knew when to stop when Aeo’s eyes started to bulge. As for food, Leon admitted there really wasn’t anything they had in the cart that didn’t involve a lot of chewing. Besides, considering the state of his throat, Aeo probably didn’t want something solid in his esophagus. Leon tried boiling some of the dried meat into a broth, and Aeo enjoyed the salty flavor, but it only did so much to cure his aching stomach.

Like the first day, Aeo’s mind rocked back and forth with the wagon, and he found it difficult to think about any one thing for very long. The pain in his shoulder and arm made things even worse. When he tried to think about the voice that spoke to him, it felt like a distant memory, a half-remembered song. Aeo tried to think about Pick to invoke some emotion. If he lived, what would he and Shera be doing in that very moment? Even this was too difficult, much to his disappointment.

By the end of the second day, he could feel the gnawing sensation of hunger in his stomach growing. Water couldn’t satisfy, and with communication restrained to ‘mm-hmm’ and ‘hmm-mm’, there wasn’t much complaining about it.

Though his mind remained clouded, one thing became certain: he decided that void sickness was terrible, and never wanted to experience it again.

The morning of the third day, Aeo woke up to a hunger that he’d only experienced three or four times in his life (the other three or four being times when Aristé “forgot” to feed him when food stocks became low during harsh winters). The morning light had just risen above the horizon, and he heard Leon getting Poro ready for the day. He moaned from the emptiness. And that’s when the realization came: he could moan. He tried to mouth a few syllables with his lips and tongue; as if his face had been numbed, they could only form ‘ah’, ‘eh’, and an unsteady ‘em’, perhaps a slight ‘oh’ or ‘ay’. He swallowed, blinked his eyes, tightened his cheek muscles, opened and closed his mouth. Everything seemed to be functioning, albeit slowly. Even his fingers and toes could move on their own, although lifting his arms or legs remained out of the question. The pain in his neck and arm had fallen to a slow burn, aided by the fact that he could not move them.

When Leon rounded the corner of the wagon to come check on him, Aeo said in the loudest voice he could muster:

“Lee-on.”

“Aeo?” Leon asked. “You’ve got your voice back! Good boy!”

“Hung…rae,” Aeo whispered.

“What’s that?” Leon asked, climbing into the wagon. He took a seat. “Say it again.”

“Hung-rae,” Aeo repeated.

“Oh, hungry. Hmm. Do you want to try eating something?”

Aeo nodded slightly. He then realized he could nod slightly.

“I’m not sure you should just yet… Although it has been quite a while, hasn’t it? You must have spent an incredible amount of energy to make you this sick. No more fighting wolves from now on, young man.”

Aeo tried to laugh. It came out as a guttural groan.

“Let’s see what we have again,” Leon said, climbing over Aeo to get to the box at the front. “Hmm, jerky and bread are probably still too tough. Apples might be too difficult as well, although I could try cutting them up. Oh! You know something? I completely forgot about these.”

Leon reached over towards a box on the far side of the wagon. The moment he opened the lid, Aeo heard the pop of a ward vanish. Inside was a small ceramic pot with a sealed lid, which Leon removed.

“Here, just one moment,” Leon said, setting the pot down. Covering the box again, concentration filled his face as he placed a single hand against the lid. Although Aeo could not see a glyph nor a shining light this time, he did hear a pop of magick. Leon lifted his hand and sat back down.

Another preservation ward. Those wards came very easy to Leon, simple as lighting a lantern.

“These,” Leon said, uncovering the ceramic lid from the pot. Inside was a pile of small spherical green berries. “Well, they have no name. Just like the plant they grow on. But they are delicious, and make a wonderful citrus tea. I must warn you, they have seeds inside them, but if you’re careful, you can chew them up without much trouble. Might have been dangerous yesterday. Care to try a few? Maybe one at a time to start.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said, nodding.

“Let’s get you sat up a bit,” Leon said. With a few grunts and groans, Leon positioned Aeo against the boxes behind him and placed the down pillows behind his back to help cushion against the solid wood. He even lifted Aeo’s head into a comfortable position resting at a slight angle upwards.

Leon took a berry and carefully placed it in Aeo’s mouth. The simple act of chewing felt as though someone had placed a leather harness in his jaw to keep his teeth apart. But the moment his molars got hold of the strange berry and clamped down, the juice of the berry burst against his tongue. Leon was slightly incorrect about the taste; the berry was absolutely divine. Once, Aeo had been allowed to suck on a wedge of lemon just to entertain travelers at the inn with his face’s reaction to its crazy sourness. Very similar, the berry’s juice made him pucker — as much as he could pucker, of course — and made him swallow the berry too soon.

“Aeo, are you okay?” Leon asked, seeing the boy’s face. “You’re not choking, are you?”

Aeo shook his head as well as he could manage.

“Good,” Aeo replied quietly.

“Too bitter?”

Aeo shook his head again.

“Sss… Ss-ower.”

Leon let out a laugh.

“Should have told you about that,” he said. “Aren’t they fantastic?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Care for another?”

“Yah.”

As day three progressed, Aeo felt a lot of improvement in his energy levels and concentration. Where in previous days he had difficulties focusing his eyes both near and far, Aeo could quite clearly observe everything in the cart and even peer out the rear of the wagon to view the road and the beautiful autumn morning. When the cart came to a rickety old bridge about mid-day, Leon instructed him to hold on as well as he could. With his seated position, Aeo still could not fully lift his arms to brace himself. But his arms and legs could tighten and his fingers could hold, so they anchored themselves against the boxes as the cart rumbled across the planks of the bridge. The strain to balance himself made his injured arm flare.

“Seems they don’t care for this part of the road,” Leon said as the wagon rolled upon dry dirt again. “Still, it’s better than driving through the water.”

By the early evening, Aeo’s limbs could flex and his neck muscles had regained strength enough to hold his head evenly; he held still to make the bite marks in his neck and shoulder bearable. He could tap his fingers to an invisible beat, and even lightly cough. He’d eaten enough berries to quell his stomach pains, but he still felt like he could eat an entire plate of the breakfast he and Leon had shared in Rurali. Out of instinct, he bit down and moved his jaw from side to side. This is when he realized that one of his teeth, specifically one of his canines, was loose, moving a bit as his tongue pressed against it.

“Leon?” Aeo asked, his voice still weak.

“Hmm?” Leon asked, driving the wagon forwards. “Did you say something, Aeo?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

Leon pulled on Poro’s reigns, and slowed the cart to a low rumble.

“What is it?” Leon asked.

Aeo took a breath.

“My… tooth is… wobbly.”

“Your tooth?” Leon asked. “You didn’t get hit in the mouth by those wolves, did you?”

“Nuh-uh,” Aeo replied.

“Well, sounds like you’re growing up to me,” he said. “You’ll lose all your small teeth soon, I imagine.”

“When I was little, I… slipped and fell… at the inn, and knocked my two front teeth out.”

Aeo could hear Leon whince.

“Oh dear,” he said. “That must have hurt a lot. I imagine you don’t like losing teeth, then.”

“Nuh-uh,” Aeo whispered. “Harthoon… and Aristé made fun of me. Eating was hard, too.”

“I’m sorry. I remember Algus laughed at me when I lost those teeth, but probably not in the way they laughed at you. He called me the ‘Toothless Wonderchild’. And then my large teeth grew in and he called me ‘Gopher Child’. There was no winning with that one.”

“Will I get to meet Algus?” Aeo asked. From how Leon spoke of him, he sounded like a very entertaining man.

With this question, Leon fell silent for a moment.

“He, uh… He passed away. A few years ago. A few months before I left the Academy to climb Falas, actually.”

“Oh,” Aeo replied. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Leon said. “I’m sure he would have loved to meet you.”

The evening fell to night, and Leon stopped the cart to rest. Taking up the wagon space in complete immobility made Aeo a bit uncomfortable, considering it meant Leon had to find a spot off the side of the road to set up a campfire and sleep. Now able to voice his thoughts, he apologized for it as Leon applied another coating of ointment to his wounds.

“It’s no trouble at all,” Leon said. “I’m quite used to sleeping on the ground. I worry that once I climb into bed at Everspring, I’m going to endure many weeks of sleepless nights. I may not even teach next spring with all the adjustments and personal projects.”

“Your bed isn’t comfortable?” Aeo asked, wincing at the pain.

“It’s too comfortable, I’m afraid. Sleep for long enough on dirt and rocks, and you’re keen to stay that way.”

Aeo slept well that night, able to turn on his side and keep himself from falling backwards… or face first onto his injured arm. On the gray and cloudy morning of the fourth day, Aeo awoke and wiped his eyes only to realize that he could actually wipe his eyes. Though the pain in his neck grew intense, he raised both of his arms and looked at his hands. They could twist, curl, and bend. His movements felt a few milliseconds off between his brain ordering them and his body performing them, but it felt a fantastic improvement. He pulled his legs inwards, and they indeed bent towards him. Excited at the prospect of moving again, he placed his hands on the wagon floor, dug in his feet, and heaved himself upwards towards the back of the wagon to attempt walking. The excitement faded when he failed to lift his weight.

Then, a feeling dark and foreboding flooded his every thought, as if a tidal wave of desire smacked him right in the chest: his hunger doubled up upon him, ravenous and ferocious. The hunger felt as though he had been underwater for far too long without breath, and his heart beat rapidly at the very thought of eating something. His body demanded it, and it demanded it immediately.

Where is the food! Oh, behind me!

He attempted to turn around, and though his neck wound coursed through him like his own magickal fire, he managed to twist his torso around and lift his arms to uncover the food crate. Inside were dried fish and beef, fresh apples and carrots, rye bread, blueberries picked fresh found by Poro just yesterday… He grabbed whatever he could grab in his claws and stuffed it into his mouth; he didn’t even taste what he’d removed from the box first. He ate so quickly, he even forgot about his loose tooth.

An ingrained instinct in him thought to ask for Leon’s permission to eat so much. This was promptly squashed.

By the time he heard Leon and Poro stir from sleep, he’d eaten so much so fast, he developed a terrible case of hiccups. He carried on despite this, going back and forth from dried meat to fruit to bread and back again.

A few minutes later, as a piece of dry bread lumped down his gullet, another demonic sensation arose:

Water! Where is the water!

His gaze rapidly scanned the inside of the wagon, back and forth, back and forth. Then, in complete exasperation, his voice exploded.

“Leon!” he shouted as if he’d never shouted in his life. “Leon! Help, *hic* help! Help me!”

In an instant, Aeo heard a man fumbling and struggling, and then breathlessly running. When Leon appeared at the back of the cart, his hair clinging to his head in all directions and his scruffy beard unkempt, he looked horrified.

“What, what! What is it!” he cried. “What’s wrong?”

With his mouth half-full, Aeo’s senses returned.

“Uh… Uhh… *hic*…”

Leon stared at the boy as if Aeo had shape-shifted into a duck. Aeo attempted to swallow, but even that came half-heartedly.

“I, uh… can’t move.” Aeo said with a pile of food in his lap and nervous as a lamb. “I can’t, um… *hic* find the water.”

For a moment, Leon continued his stare, dumbfounded. But then his mouth turned into a grin, then a smile, and then to outright laughter.

“Ha!” Leon gasped. “Ha! I thought for sure a snake had found its way into the wagon, or you’d set everything on fire! And here you are, having breakfast without me!”

Thoroughly embarrassed, Aeo look down at the floor.

“*Hic* sorry…” he whispered.

This caused Leon to laugh harder.

“Don’t be, you silly boy!” Leon said. “I’m just glad you’re up and eating! It’s been days since you’ve had anything solid. And hiccups too! Wait just a moment, I have the water. It’s good to have you back!”

Alyssum – Chapter Fifteen

firehands

Three Weeks Later

Two paths had lain before the wagon, clearly illustrated by a sign at the fork in the road. As Leon read to Aeo, one pointed west to a place called “Fort Owyne”, apparently only a few scant miles from the highway itself. The other pointed towards a much more distant location called “Fort Nahzer” to the southeast. Nahzer, Leon described, was their intended destination, as it sat squarely upon the Ashanti/Antielli border. Trying to find a way around the fort itself presented a great risk, especially for a rickety wagon led by a single horse, as the fort had been constructed right in the middle of a mountainous pass. Anyone caught trying to cross the border illegally would certainly be spotted and arrested, and their wagon (and its cargo) impounded; Antiell did not toy with the strength of their borders, especially with powerful scholars and mystics regularly traveling to and from the Everspring Academy.

Now a week beyond the fork in the road, Aeo became truly miserable. The brisk speed with which Leon drove the wagon had increased, leaving them little time to rest and relax. It was bad enough that no villages sat upon the road, set as it was so close to the border of Edia. Aeo was now practically stuck to the inside of the wagon, and Leon had insisted it would be more comfortable for him if he slept there during the night. True or not, the down-filled pillows could only do so much to help him feel comfortable, cramped as he was in between the crates and boxes.

To keep himself busy, Leon had directed him to practice shielding himself against the rubber ball. Aeo could summon fire; he had little trouble with that. But shielding was a different matter entirely. He couldn’t really wrap his mind around it. Instead of focusing his animis into a single point, Leon had tried to teach him to expel his animis like a blast of wind from his hands. Laying on his back in the wagon, he would toss the rubber ball up into the air and quickly raise his hand to block it. Every so often, he would see a hint of blue light as the ball came back down. But gravity was relentless, and refused to stop as the light appeared. More often than not, the ball would end up hitting Aeo in the face or the eye. He had never considered himself talented at tossing rubber balls into the air, especially inside a rumbling rolling cart. Impressive to repeatedly hit a target over and over, perhaps, but slightly painful and annoying.

Just once, he tried creating fire in between his hands while riding in the wagon. With Leon focusing on the road at the time, Aeo thought he might get away with it. But the moment a spark fizzled in between his hands, Leon halted the cart and spun around.

“Oh no, you don’t,” he said. “No fire in the wagon. Please.”

“Sorry,” Aeo mumbled.

Now beyond Lake Darlendas, the environs through which they traveled resembled a glorious autumn forest. The leaves of the oaks, aspens, and maples had turned into bright and beautiful shades of crimson, orange, and yellow, and the delicate mountain winds made them all flutter and fly from their stems like exotic birds from their nests. While the road itself was rather flat and presented rather boring views, every once in a while the canopy of trees would part, presenting a stunning view of the entire mountain range. Snow never ceased falling on the tops of the mountain, aided by the regular late-summer storms. But Aeo could clearly see the edge of the treeline, the gulleys of tumbling rocks, rivers and streams of glittering snow melt, and grassy foothills that led to the base of the far-reaching earth. Curiously, the amount of wagons they passed on the road now came fewer and further between. Despite this, the road appeared very well-maintained, with wooden and stone bridges built over rushing waters helping to keep potential traffic moving safely.

Aeo spent a lot of time looking at Leon’s marker (with his permission, of course), surveying the surrounding landscape on the map. Speaking the word “dah-si” a few times, the map seemed to pull outwards to a great distance, leaving the wagon just a tiny pinprick of light upon the winding road. Although the map offered no sense of distance, Aeo could see several symbols clearly. One of them was surely Fort Owyne, sitting upon the very edge of the outlined border of Edia. Much further upon the eastern road was a similar symbol, perhaps Fort Nahzer. If it was, they were making great time, as only a week ago, the symbol hadn’t appeared upon the enlarged map at all. Between them was the great mountain range, and when zoomed in a little closer, Aeo could make out blue lines that marked rivers and running streams. More than once, Aeo had mentioned a stream coming up on their travels, during which Leon gladly stopped to refill their water keg. Aeo decided there was nothing more delicious than freshly-chilled mountain water, and drank more than his fair share. Unfortunately, this meant he had to take more breaks to answer the call of nature. This made Aeo anxious for repeatedly asking to pull over, but Leon seemed to tolerate it.

Chewing on a piece of dried meat, Aeo again practiced shielding himself from a falling ball. He held out his hand as if to catch it, imagining the warmth of his body bursting from his hand like a jet of warm air. And yet again, a flicker of blue light appeared. But the ball dropped right past his hand and landed right upon his nose.

“Ow…” he whispered, grasping for the ball around his head.

Without warning, the wagon came to a halt. Leon said nothing for a moment, but stood from the driver’s seat.

“Leon?” Aeo asked, lifting himself from the wagon floor. “What is it?”

“Pass me my staff,” Leon whispered. “Hide my bag.”

“Do what? Oh, okay,” Aeo replied. He climbed over a few boxes of the right side and grabbed the simple-looking oaken pole. He passed it through the front flap, and Leon took it quickly. Then, Aeo took Leon’s bag, and placed it beneath his down pillow.

Without explanation, Leon jumped off the driver’s seat. He didn’t come to the back as if to grab something, nor did it sound as though he were walking into the treeline. Aeo looked, and Leon stood beside Poro, scanning the road ahead.

Aeo saw the source of their trouble. No, sources. Four large men with swords at their belts and axes upon their shoulders had appeared from the forest, walking towards Leon with a great deal of menace. Leon did not advance, instead patting Poro’s mane and whispering a few Drael-dena words to her: “Meh-yea fel-anok dei egr-enek ya si”. He repeated it three times. Poro, seeming to understand, nuzzled Leon’s side, whinying quietly.

When the men approached close enough, Leon said: “Good afternoon, gentlemen. May I assume you are part of the Antielli highway guard?”

Perhaps the largest of the four men, who carried a very large double-bladed axe and walked with a great amount of swagger, chortled.

“Sum’fin like that,” he replied.

“What can I do for you today?” Leon asked brightly, resting his weight on his staff as if he were somehow lame.

“Well, gracious sir,” said a wiry man next to the giant. “I’m afraid this part of the highway is blocked by a mudslide. Yes, we, the highway guard, require a toll from every traveler in order to help pay for its, eh, removal, you see.”

“Indeed?” Leon said. “Well, as you can see, I’m a simple traveler heading on my way to Ashant with my young protege here,” Leon waved a hand at Aeo, who watched without breath. “Not even a merchant, I’m afraid. Would you gentlemen like a few loaves of rye bread or some dried fruit? I’d be happy to oblige.”

“Wha’s ‘oblige’ mean,” asked the giant to the wiry man.

“It means he would give it to us for free,” the wiry man said, slapping the giant. “Very kind of you, good sir, but I’m afraid we going to require a bit more than food from you.”

“What do you mean?” Leon asked, leaning further on his staff. “I don’t have any money, honest I don’t. The most I have are a few alchemy books and spare clothing. Nothing you fine men would find valuable.”

“Well, sir,” said the wiry man. “That will be up to us to decide. If you don’t offer us something better than that, my friends here…” He patted the giant’s shoulder and motioned to the other two large men. “Will have to confiscate your… rather large wagon. And your horse. All for the, eh, highway guard, of course.”

“That is unfortunate,” Leon said. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. I’ll tell you once: leave. T’would be a pity to have to hurt you.”

The giant, the wiry man, and the two heavies behind them laughed.

“Whah, you? Hurt us?” the giant asked. “Lemme at ‘im, boss, I’ll show this li’l bleeder how to hurt someone.”

“Ah, I suppose we should,” said the wiry man, unsheathing his sword. “Be sure to grab the boy as well, slaves pay real well in Rurali.”

“Aeo!” Leon shouted. “Sym-yattra! You are stronger than you think!”

“Wha’s seem-yatter-” the giant began to say. Before he could spit out another syllable, however, a quarterstaff connected with the side of his jaw, surely knocking loose a few molars. Without skipping a beat, the other end of the quarterstaff dipped between the giant’s legs. As Leon flew forwards to attack the leftmost brute, the staff unhinged the giant’s legs, causing the very concussed man to collapse.

“What in the-” the next opponent managed to say. Before he could even take hold of his sword’s handle, Leon raised his hand and shouted “Vai!” With a burst of violent energy, Leon’s animis exploded outwards and collided with the man’s body. Before the distorted air could settle, the man soared backwards about thirty feet, tumbling end over end until he collapsed and moved no more.

“Get him!” shouted the wiry man. With a quick downwards thrust, his sword descended upon Leon only for a blue crackle of reflective energy to catch his blade a few inches from Leon’s head. Shards of energy rained down upon Leon as he pulled to the side, jabbing the wiry man first in the stomach, then the chest, and finally, swirling on his heels, connecting a powerful blow against the man’s sword hand. The man screamed, dropping his sword upon the ground and retreating a few steps back.

At last, the brute on the right had time enough to handle his axe with both hands, and advanced to bring it to bear down against Leon. Leon nearly swung around fast enough to disarm the man as well, but to his surprise, the giant had regained just enough sense to grab Leon’s leg and pull him downwards. The brute’s axe swung hard enough to crack stone, but instead of embedding itself in Leon’s spine, the weapon shattered upon a bright blue barrier of energy, spraying almost everyone in crystals of azure light. The axe, to the man’s shock, reflected back upon him as if he had connected with an elastic shield of iron, throwing the axe — and the man attached to it — backwards.

Aeo watched all of this in shock. He never believe Leon capable of this kind of combat.

“Grab the boy!” the wiry man shouted to the brute, bending down to pick up his sword. “We’re getting paid one way or another!”

“No!” Leon shouted.

Leon brought his quarterstaff down upon the giant the best way he knew how: by thrusting the point into the man’s crotch. To his dismay, the hit connected with something solid, and not at all sensitive. The giant laughed, unperturbed.

“Nice try!” the giant sung, pulling Leon down by his shirt. “I’ll break your neck, you-”

Now face to face with the giant man, Leon performed a very different act, one he hoped he would never have to teach anyone. His eyes faded until they became one with the shadows, turning blacker than the darkest night. As if the giant were staring into the abyss itself, Leon whispered a single drael-dena word: “Sihn-mauk”.

Horror could not describe the look upon the giant’s face. Pure terror. Hatred. Madness. The giant shoved Leon away as if Leon had become a fiery demon. The giant’s own eyes darkened like Bel moon pearls, blinding him to everything and anything that did not reflect his greatest fears and nightmares. As Leon stood up, the giant attempted to claw his own eyes out: his fingernails tore bloody gashes into his face as the darkness in his eyes bubbled and seeped out like thick ooze.

Upon seeing his friend so inflicted, the wiry man took a step backwards.

“Wha… Wha’d you do to him?! What are you?!”

Leon did not respond to him. He merely leaned upon his quarterstaff and raised his hand.

“Vai.”

Leon’s animis again exploded from his body in a concussive wave, connecting with the wiry man as if gravity had decided to move sideways just for him. After flying about ten feet off of the road, the man collided with an oak tree with a audible thud, and collapsed to the ground into a heap.

Inside the wagon, Aeo knew someone was coming for him. A brutish figure turned the corner, and Aeo screamed.

“Come ‘ere, little Edian!” the man shouted, tearing the back bar off. The man reached into the wagon, grabbing Aeo by the ankle and yanking him outwards.

“No! No, get off me!” Aeo yelled, kicking the man in the head with his other foot. His kicks connected but served little purpose: the man did not react to them. With a final pull, Aeo slid out of the cart, falling to the rocky road.

“Now let’s go back to camp, shall we?” the man whispered, grabbing Aeo’s wrists. Like a sack of wheat, the man hauled the boy onto his shoulder. “You’ll be worth at least a few good meals, you will!”

“No, you can’t!” Aeo shouted. “You won’t!”

Sym-yattra. No aggression. No anger. Only concentration.

But Aeo felt anger. He felt the pain in his back and aggression towards all the men that attacked his master. Now, concentration: the only remaining necessity. Aeo closed his eyes and lifted himself just enough to place his hands upon the brute’s shoulder. Much faster than he had ever practiced, his imagination flashed like a tidal wave of heat, forcing all the animis in his body to emerge from his fingertips. Then his eyes flared open, and like a spout of pure chaos let loose, fire erupted from Aeo’s hands against the man’s shoulder like a raging flamethrower.

The brute screamed in pain, dropping Aeo immediately. The flame stuck to the man as if he’d been doused in oil, and he flailed wildly trying to pat the flames away from his shoulder and neck. Just as Leon turned the corner to the back of the cart, Aeo lifted himself to his feet. As the fire danced, so did the brute, the flames growing hotter and brighter. The more he tried to smother the flames, the more it grew, consuming the brute’s long hair and crossing his chest. For more than a few seconds, Aeo stood there, entranced by the effectiveness of the conflagration.

“Aeo!” Leon shouted. “Stop! That’s enough!”

Aeo’s concentration broke.

“No!” Aeo cried, looking at the man in the flames. “They should all burn! All of them! They’ll never hurt us again!”

“Aeo, listen to me,” Leon said. “This is not you. Don’t let your anger consume this man! The Goddess will repay them for their deeds!”

“I don’t care!” Aeo shouted back. “I hate them! I hate being an Edian! I hate them, and I hate everything!”

The man continued to scream, falling backwards off the side of the road. The long grass caught fire immediately as it grew in intensity.

“Aeo,” Leon said, almost quietly. “Do you hate me?”

Aeo paused.

No. I don’t.

But he didn’t say it.

“I don’t know how to stop it,” Aeo said quietly.

“Pull the heat back into your hands,” Leon said, walking towards Aeo. “Just like I taught you. Pull your animis back into your arms, your chest. Focus on your breathing, your desire to let the fire fade.”

Do I want this fire to fade?

For a moment, Aeo did nothing.

“Now, Aeo!” Leon shouted.

Aeo nearly jumped, sealing his eyes shut in shame. He raised a single hand towards the burning man. Rejecting the thoughts of relentless immolation, he pulled his body heat back from his hands to his core, and imagined the fire fading away. Ever so slowly, the fire that sat upon the grass began to smolder and disappear, and although the man continued to shriek, the fire that threatened to consume him faded. With this, Aeo felt completely drained, and he fell backwards upon the ground.

Leon slowly approached the man, and scowled at what he saw. The hair on the right side of the man’s skull had all burned away, his neck was black and scorched, and the thick leather armor he wore adhered to the skin across his chest and shoulders. The air was filled with the sickening scent of charred flesh, and the flames even appeared to have begun consuming the man’s face and left eye. The man spat and stammered with unimaginable pain, and tried to rip at the grass behind him to get away. His eyes stared at Leon and the boy, mouth agape.

“You brought this upon yourself,” Leon said quietly, leaning on his quarterstaff. “I can do nothing for you. If you survive, I would tell your fellows to avoid this road in the future.”

The man did not respond, inhaling and sputtering.

Leon turned, stepping towards Aeo. This time, he relied on his staff not as an act, but because he had truly spent most of his strength. He offered a hand to the boy, and Aeo reluctantly took it.

“Come,” Leon said, groaning to lift the boy to his feet. “We need to move on before more of them show up.”

Aeo looked upon the man for a moment. The more he summoned the flame, the more he understood the pain it could inflict. Harthoon died because of Aeo’s fear. The brutish man burned due to Aeo’s anger. The energy that drained from him fueled terror. The screaming of his victims and the blackened char left behind marked Aeo’s fury. He felt inhuman. Before this moment, his red hair and red eyes made him more victim than monster. But now that he could control his fire, even in the slightest degree, the monster inside him revealed itself.

And for the first time in his life, he learned that this monster had teeth.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

Leon said very little as the afternoon turned into evening, only speaking up a few times for water and for his marker. This only served to intensify the gnawing ache in Aeo’s stomach. The feeling didn’t come from hunger, but from the incredible anxiety of what had occurred just hours before. His falsely-righteous anger had melted into fear and then to grief. Just like Harthoon’s, the bandit’s screams rang in his ears, and blocked all desire for sleep. He ate to cure the pain, but the taste of food felt gray and lifeless. Even as the sky turned to night, his hands continued to tremble from the act they’d just committed.

Leon didn’t stop the wagon as the sun dipped beyond the horizon as he usually did; Aeo immediately thought perhaps that this was a form of punishment, that Aeo would be getting no sleep or dinner that night. He peered through the dark, watching Leon’s shadow as the cart drove on. Aeo didn’t dare say anything, or even cough, sniff, or make any noise that might draw the man’s attention.

Aeo turned from Leon away towards the back of the cart for a split second. Then, he heard a noise that sounded like a sack of potatoes falling off the cart. Aeo’s head swiveled around trying to spot the box or bag that had fallen from the wagon. Nothing appeared missing. He cleared his throat.

“Leon, something-”

He looked towards the driver’s seat.

Leon wasn’t there.

“Leon!” Aeo cried, opening the front flap. The driver’s seat was indeed empty. “Poro, bah-si! Bah-si!”

To his relief, Poro obeyed without trouble, coming to a halt. Aeo walked to the back of the wagon to look out, and sure enough, Aeo saw the outline of a man sprawled face-first in the grass just off the right side of the highway.

“No! Leon! No no no,” Aeo said, filled with desperation. Without hesitation, he leapt from the back of the wagon and ran over to Leon. Aeo did his best to turn him to his back, which required more effort than he anticipated. “Leon, please don’t die! You can’t die!”

To his surprise, Aeo heard a deep but quiet laugh.

“I’m not… dying…” Leon gasped, his breathing labored and thick with mucus. “My animis is… spent. My… bag… pink bottle… side pocket…”

“O-okay!” Aeo said, hopping to his feet. He scrambled back to the wagon, throwing the back bar down and grabbing Leon’s bag. He couldn’t see the pockets very well in the dim light, so he decided to take the whole thing. He raced back over and sat down at Leon’s side. Aeo fumbled around the bag and discovered only a single pocket on one side of the bag. After a moment, he succeeded in unlatching the pocket’s buckle, and shoved his hand inside. To his surprise, there was only one object inside the pocket: a slender five-inch bottle with a curious rubber seal in the place of a cork. The bottle itself wasn’t pink: it was the liquid within, which radiated a delicate rose-colored light.

“Can’t… lift my arms…” Leon whispered. “Need… some help… drinking it…”

“Okay,” Aeo said, and tugged at the seal of the bottle. It didn’t budge. He tried again, digging his fingernails into the rubber. No effect.

“It’s… warded,” Leon said. “It won’t… open for anyone… but me.”

“How do I…?” Aeo began to ask.

“Bring it… to my lips,” Leon said.

Aeo did so, and Leon began whispering very faintly; Aeo couldn’t make out individual words. When Leon took a breath, the small rubber seal of the bottle popped off and nearly hit him in the nose. Aeo grabbed it before it could roll to the ground.

“I’ll drink… slowly, please…” Leon said.

Aeo carefully poured the glowing liquid into Leon’s mouth. The bottle emptied, and the light faded as he swallowed without much trouble. For a moment, Leon’s eyes closed, and he simply laid in the darkness, breathing. Aeo sat beside him, watching him intently. For about a minute, the only thing Aeo could hear in the forest were the crickets that chirped away deep in the long grass.

The wagon then creaked forwards without a rider.

“Poro? Poro!” Aeo shouted. The horse was going to leave them both behind. But then, with tired grace, Poro lazily drove her and the cart in a 180-degree turn, driving towards the two humils before stopping and nuzzling her nose into Leon’s arm. “Oh.”

“Good girl,” Leon said with a nod. “Mey-naye fel-an ne. Le-jhe o-hi-ko. And you too, Aeo.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means… ‘don’t have worries…for me, favored girl’… For you, it would be… Le-jhe ohe-no. ‘Favored boy’.”

“Leon…” Aeo said, the bottle and the stopper still in his hands. “What happened? What did you drink? Was it a potion?”

“Yes…” Leon answered. “…and no. You’ll see more of that… at the Academy. It’s… Everspring aether. I should have drank it… hours ago, but… I wasn’t sure I needed it. It’s my… last one. At least I didn’t… black out. I… may have overdone it… with those ruffians. I hope… we got past their camp.”

Aeo looked around. There wasn’t a soul around besides the three of them on the road.

“Should we… hide?” Aeo asked. “In the trees?”

“Unless… you or Poro could drag me,” Leon said with an exhausted smile. “I don’t think… I’m going anywhere.”

“Um,” Aeo said. “Hmm.”

He stood up and grabbed Leon’s hand by the wrist. Likewise, he took Leon’s other hand, and, standing behind Leon, pulled with all of his might. Leon didn’t move at all.

“Ouch, ouch…”

“Sorry!” Aeo said, dropping Leon’s arms. They flopped quite uselessly down to the ground above Leon’s head.

“Hrmm…” Leon hummed. “I think… I think if Poro hides in the trees… and we remain quiet in the dark, we should… go unnoticed. At least… I had some sense to fall into the grass. You wouldn’t want to… pull my arms back down… would you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Aeo said, and did so quickly.

“Besides,” Leon said. “With the aether in me… I should be strong enough to move… before the sun rises.”

Leon closed his eyes.

“You might… need to drive, though,” he said.

“Me? But… what happened last time…”

“Poro wasn’t prepared last time,” Leon said. “With a little… encouragement, she’ll know what to do. All you really need… are the commands, and you know those. Go on… Find her a place to rest. Take my marker… so you don’t get lost. There should be… A stream some ways to the west. Unbuckle her… she knows where to go…”

“But…” Aeo said. “I don’t want to just… leave you here.”

“There’s not… much choice,” Leon said, nearly every word . “We must stay… hidden tonight.”

Aeo hesitated. Reaching into Leon’s bag, he pulled out the marker and opened it. ‘Lah-sev-rai’ made the marker illuminate in blue and green, blinding him for a moment. As his eyes adjusted, he saw himself, Leon, Poro, and the wagon as bright green dots upon a faded and thin green line of a road. And sure enough, a thin blue line to the west ran from north to south. There was little telling exactly how far away it flowed, but he would know if he started walking towards it.

“Go on,” Leon said. “I’ll be fine.”

Aeo stood, taking Poro’s reigns and pulling her gently off the road into the dark trees. Poro resisted for a moment until Leon spoke to her in drael-dena. It took a moment, Leon repeating his words two or three times before Poro finally relented. Aeo guided her and the wagon followed suit, rumbling over the rough dirt and long grass away from the road.

Poro quietly whinied and grunted, slowly following Aeo at the boy’s pace. The bumps in the long grass tripped them both up, slowing their pace further. Careful not to damage the marker (if it could be damaged at all), Aeo kept the parchment of the marker facing forwards in front of him, utilizing the light of the map to illuminate the path ahead. Once or twice, Aeo looked back in the dark to see if he could see Leon at all. Naturally, he could not. After about two hundred yards of walking, Aeo turned the map around and studied it.

Oh, not too far. Maybe just a bit farther.

Aeo saw much of Leon’s battle with the bandits. But he couldn’t fathom what made Leon so exhausted that he couldn’t move his body at all. The thought of it made him afraid of what could happen to him. In fact, it reminded him of what happened on the mountain. Perhaps the cold wasn’t what truly sapped his strength and caused him to collapse. Maybe it was the energy spent trying to defend himself. Examining both events in his mind, something bothered him about Harthoon’s attack: Aeo’s magick hadn’t conjured a mere flame like he had with the bandit. No, the fire that consumed Harthoon had been liquid in form, almost volcanic in appearance. With the bandit, Aeo simply lit the man on fire. Harthoon had been immolated. Aeo had control of himself with the bandit (though less so on his emotions). Aeo felt no control over his actions towards Harthoon. Was that the only difference? Maybe if Harthoon hadn’t been so wild and murderous, the results would have changed. Maybe if Aeo had some control, Harthoon might have caught fire, but still be alive.

But then Aeo would be dead. Right? If Harthoon didn’t stop when he did, and how he did, Aeo would have been in even more danger. Did his magick know the difference between panic and mortal danger? Were they the same thing? The inn burned down in panic, Harthoon died when Aeo panicked. But he could shield himself and set people ablaze if in mortal danger, too.

Aeo’s head hurt thinking about it, so he decided not to.

Aeo looked at the map again.

About halfway there.

Go back.

Aeo froze. Surprised, Poro paused as well, and the wagon came to a bumpy stop. Aeo held up the light of the map all around him. He saw nothing. The voice had been so close and yet so faint that it hardly seemed it had spoken up at all. Yet it had, and the hairs on the back of Aeo’s neck stood up on end. His heart pounded in his chest; he didn’t dare take another step.

It was a spirit, an apparition. Something that dwelled in the forest. Someone that obviously didn’t want to be disturbed. Surely.

Aeo, go back.

Aeo’s throat became dry, and he gasped in shock. The voice knew his name. Somehow, the voice that called out to him sounded neither masculine nor feminine. It simply was, and its direction was gentle and warm as if it had come from…

The dream.

It was the woman’s voice. At least, it had been a woman’s voice on the mountain. It sounded just like it.

“Who… are you?” Aeo called out to the darkness.

For a moment, nothing responded. Besides the crickets that sung their songs all around him and the rustling of leaves on the wind, there was no sound at all. Then, as if an icy canyon wall had cracked and fell upon an unsuspecting valley, the voice instructed Aeo more clearly:

To Leon! Go back!

“Leon?” Aeo asked, and then his frozen body thawed in an instant. “Leon! Uh, uh, Poro! I’ll be back! Wait for me!”

Poro made no signs that she understood, but there was obviously no time to lose. In a desperate sprint, Aeo raced back to Leon, stumbling again and again over rough rocks and loose dirt. There was no light to be seen towards his friend, and Aeo read the map as carefully as he could as he ran. There were many dots on the map. Two belonged to Poro and the wagon behind him. One belonged to him. And where Leon had once been singular on the road, there now shined five additional dots circling around him.

“No! Leon!” Aeo shouted. “I’m coming!”

Aeo decided that running across bumpy topography and studying cartography were two activities that did not belong together. But he needed information. What was surrounding Leon? A long, loud howl erupted about a hundred yards away. Then a second. Then a third.

Wolves.

As Aeo approached Leon’s position, he raised the map to his eyes. One pinprick of light was not moving. The five wolf dots now sensed his presence, and had moved their hunting spiral into a lurking half-circle.

“Leon?!” Aeo cried out.

“Here…”

Leon moaned above the sound of the crickets and the wind. If it were possible, Leon sounded weaker than he had before.

“Leon!” he approached, and saw Leon lying motionless on the grass. “A voice told me to come back! What do I do?!”

“Wolves…” Leon whispered, his voice faint. “I don’t… I… don’t…”

Leon’s half-conscious eyes closed.

“No! Leon!” Aeo shouted, kneeling down and shaking Leon’s shoulder. “Please wake up! Please! I need your help, I…!”

The wolves howls became louder and more distinct, and they had circled close enough for Aeo to hear their bodies rustling through the long grass. A simple meal: a wiry boy and a comatose man.

“No…” Aeo whispered, tears filling his eyes. Then his voice raised. “No! Don’t come any closer! You’re not taking him away from me! Understand?!”

Suddenly, from the dim light of the map, he saw three shadowy shapes emerge from the brush, snarling and gnashing their teeth. Black wolves with matted, bristling fur and diseased fangs slowly approached the pair, their eyes reflecting blue and green. They took low positions, tuned like feral springs, ready to strike and rend flesh from bone.

“Get away!” Aeo shouted, rising to his feet and flaring out his arms. The three visible wolves stopped their advance. Although well within striking distance, they paused, sizing up the threat level of their targets.

Aeo’s anger rose like a violent fever, rising in his chest and filling him. They chose now to attack, when Leon was at his weakest.

You’ll never take him!

“I’ll kill you!” Aeo cried, his eyes flaring wide. “I’ll kill you all!”

A bright blue sky, illuminated by a crimson star…

His animis flowed through his arms along with the adrenaline. While only partially aware, his balled-up fists began to smoke as the bones within his hands began to glow bright orange. Although he had never fought a day in his life, his anger and animis brought him an intense amount of focus. So much so that when the lead wolf leapt forward to strike, Aeo’s fist had already begun to fly. Pain shot through his arm as his fist connected squarely with the wolf’s eye, and to his expectation, the wolf’s head burst into turgid flame. Shrieking, the wolf collapsed and attempted to shake the flame off. It did not come off.

A bright sun… Brighter than heaven’s transcendent glow…

The attacks of the other two wolves were initially more successful than the first. The one on the right struck downwards and wrapped his jaws around Leon’s leg in a vain attempt to eat first. The left one lunged forwards and sunk his teeth deep into Aeo’s forearm and writhed. Aeo screamed as dark blood poured from his torn skin. In response, Aeo wrapped his sore hand around the wolf’s maw. The wolf did not detach from Aeo’s arm right away… at least, until Aeo’s hand produced a thick oil-like substance from his fingers that burst into flame and began scorching the fur and melting the wolf’s face.

With two wolves thrashing upon the ground, Aeo dealt with the third. Bending down, the bright fiery glow of his hands muscled the gray-black wolf’s upper and lower jaw away from Leon’s leg and upwards with power Aeo had never experienced… and filled its mouth to the brim with a raging inferno of lava. The wolf’s deafening scream sharply defined itself despite the gurgling of the magickal stream of plasma.

He reached his hand to the sun, never quite touching it…

By this time, the first wolf had retreated as well as could be expected as a bonfire raged across its face and back, and the following two were on the ground in their death throws as the thick fire crawled across their faces and down their throats. The two other wolves then appeared, completely unaware of what had occurred with their pack mates. They growled and spit, ready to pounce and devour.

But this time, his fingers touched the sun’s glorious face… It was beautiful…

Aeo’s eyes erupted in a white-hot fury as he held his hands towards the two remaining wolves; he could see them both, the forest, and the mountain as clear as day. Before the wolves could react, the boy’s hands exploded in a short-lived but violent torrent of fire. Both wolves were consumed, their entire bodies set ablaze as if thrown into a crucible of molten iron. They threw themselves backwards and rolled along the road to extinguish the flames from their fur, but there was no extinguishing a fire they did not control. Instead, they retreated into the long grass, leaving a trail of embers behind them.

May we meet one day… You and I…

Why not now?

I will be here when you need me…

I don’t understand.

You will, in time…

There was no more noise in his ears. The light from his eyes faded to black. The adrenaline wore off, and the animis from his arms and chest released and became nothing but a void. Blood dripped freely from his arm. The fires that had consumed the wolves extinguished themselves, and Aeo felt free…

Until the ground hit him in the back of the head.

Alyssum – Chapter Fourteen

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“Aeo.”

Aeo didn’t budge. The blankets were warm, the pillow too comfortable, the mattress too conformed to his body. He lay as a puzzle piece perfectly suited for snoozing. Besides, the room was still dark.

“Aeo, wake up.”

No. No no no. The only thing that would get me out of this bed would be…

Aeo’s nose perked up. Food. A truly mouth-watering scent wafted in the air close by. Laying on his front, he turned his head and opened his eyes.

Leon sat on the side of his own bed. In front of him was a short table, and upon the table was a smorgasbord of food on a tray, including: two large baked potatoes smattered in butter and cream, a pile of sausages, eight strips of bacon, two boiled eggs, twelve slices of roasted beets, several steamed carrots, four slices of rye bread, and two bowls filled with blackberries. Leon smiled with a fork in his mouth.

“Time for breakfast,” he said simply.

Aeo peeled himself from the bed and put his hands through his long hair.

“I can have some?” Aeo asked, his throat grumbly and dry.

“Of course,” Leon said with a laugh. “You think I can eat all this by myself?”

Aeo rubbed his eyes and swung his legs off the side of the bed.

“I’m afraid they only had a single clean plate this early in the morning, so they jammed everything together,” Leon said. “I hope you don’t mind. At least they had two forks. Better than I have. Although you may be pleased to hear that I did buy you your own mess kit last night.”

“Mess kit?”

“A metal bowl and cup, a spoon, knife, fork, just like mine. I also purchased a few other things you might enjoy.”

“Oh.”

The guilt hadn’t vanished. It had simply disappeared with sleep, and rose to greet him the moment he awoke. The pain of the night before still sat fresh in his mind.

“Here, have a seat,” Leon said, patting his hand beside him on the edge of his bed.

Aeo hesitated for a moment before reaching down to the floor. He grabbed his socks and pulled them up his legs as far as they would go. Nope, the cotton end still dangled from his toes. He pulled his shoes on. They fit a bit loosely around his ankles. Admittedly, his shirt and pants were a bit warm for bed. But he could hardly complain: he felt incredibly spoiled for even wearing everything at all. He couldn’t justify the thought of personally “owning” them. They felt borrowed, as if they belonged to another boy his age.

“What time is it?” Aeo asked. Through the window he could just barely see the light of dawn beginning to pierce the cloudy sky.

“About 6:30,” Leon said. “I figure the sooner we leave, the less trouble there will be. I believe there are still a pair of guards outside the inn waiting to escort us out of town.”

Aeo crossed the room, sat down silently next to Leon, and didn’t move. Leon looked at Aeo with sad eyes and placed an arm around the boy, resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“I feel horrible about last night,” Leon said quietly. “I’m a poor excuse for a teacher.”

Aeo sniffed, and rubbed his nose across his sleeve.

“I’m really afraid of going back,” he said.

“I know, and I used that against you,” Leon said. He paused. “I hope you can forgive me. I wanted to show you what you could do if someone lashed out at you in anger. If I can teach you how to shield yourself, there will be very few things that can harm you.”

Aeo nodded.

“Like that stupid man.”

“Precisely,” Leon said.

Aeo sat for a moment, unsure of what to say next.

“Go on,” Leon said, handing him a fork. “Eat up. It’s a long way to our next warm meal.”

Taking a fork, he couldn’t decide what to start with first. Eventually, he chose a piece of sausage. He’d only eaten sausage once or twice in his life, and it smelled incredible. He closed his eyes and took a bite, savoring the rich flavor of the meat slowly and deliberately. The smoky spices, the crispy texture, the juicy fat…  It took him a few good seconds to process it all, and Leon looked at Aeo’s face with amusement.

“You won’t get through all this food if you eat it like that,” Leon chuckled.

Aeo opened his eyes and saw Leon staring at him.

“Huh?” he whispered. “Oh. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” Leon said with a grin. “I should think you’re not used to eating this variety of food, am I right?”

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo said with a shake of his head. He speared a steamed carrot next and deeply contemplated its taste as well.

“Oh, Aeo,” Leon said. He snickered as he peeled a boiled egg. “I thought you should know. Something happened last night at the general store.”

Aeo frowned.

“What?”

“You know that ‘stupid man’ that scared you so badly?”

Aeo nodded.

“He confronted me when I was trying to pay for our supplies.”

“He… he did? What did you do?”

“Well, nothing. I let him shout at me for a few moments. He accused me of trying to ruin his business with my… what did he call it? My ‘rickety old shite-wagon’, I believe. He said I belonged in prison, and he called Poro a ‘dumb mule’. He had a few choice words about you as well, most of which I don’t care to repeat.”

Aeo’s shoulders drooped and he said nothing.

“So you know what happened next?” Leon asked. “For some reason, his belt came loose and his trousers dropped to his ankles. His coat flew straight up off his arms, and from the sounds he made, the sleeves appeared to strangle him. He spun around a few times until he tripped into a shelf stocked with bags of flour. Then, most mysteriously, the bags of flour ripped open and dumped all over him. It was quite the sight; he looked like a shocked ghost. You should have seen the look on the faces of the people in line behind me.”

Aeo blinked.

“Wait, what? How did that happen?”

“I have no idea,” Leon said, putting a spin on the word ‘no’. “The merchant was quite furious and blamed me for assaulting him. But it obviously wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t laid a finger on the man. He stomped his feet and made quite the scene, flour flew everywhere. That’s when several people started laughing. I heard one elderly woman say: ‘you deserve nothing less, you puffed-up windbag’!”

Aeo choked on a second piece of sausage.

“Really?” he gasped.

“Truly, it was the strangest thing,” Leon said with a knowing smile. “He pulled his pants up, waddled outside, and shouted for a guard to arrest me. The guard recognized me and became immediately suspicious, but everyone around me attested to my innocence. They called the merchant ‘positively batty’ and ‘a right lunatic’ for exposing himself and diving headfirst into the flour bags. The poor guard had nothing to say. Then, as was surely natural for the old windbag, he marched right over to me and tried to attack me. To everyone’s surprise, his pants fell down again and his coat sleeves yanked him right out of the store.”

Aeo smiled as he chewed. What an entertaining image.

“So…” Aeo said. “It was your magick, right?”

“What?” Leon gasped, raising a hand to his chest and acting positively aggrieved. “Well, I am quite offended. No, Aeo, heavens no. I’m an Academy master, remember? I’m far too respectable and disciplined for such… such irresponsible behavior. Why would you even think such a thing?”

“Uh-huh,” Aeo said with a smile on his face, taking a bowl of berries and eating them one at a time.

Leon leaned into Aeo, pushing him gently sideways.

“Now, when you’re at the Academy and I start hearing about student’s pants mysteriously falling down in your presence,” Leon said. “I will be very cross. Even if I find out they deserved it. Understand?”

Aeo almost let out a giggle.

“I’d never do that,” Aeo said. “I’m far too… uh, ress-peck-tibble.”

Leon laughed.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said, taking a large bite of bread.

By the time they had finished with breakfast, the sun had risen somewhere deep within the clouds, leaving the morning cold and gray. The thunder was far distant across the lake, but a few raindrops still fell upon the inn room’s window. Aeo hadn’t eaten much compared to Leon, but by the end, he couldn’t have eaten a single berry more. Anything he hadn’t eaten, Leon had been more than happy to oblige. Aeo had never experienced a belly so full of delicious food, and  felt quite sick as his system desperately digested the large meal. For about twenty minutes while Leon left to return the tray downstairs and prepare Poro for the travels ahead, Aeo laid upon his bed, groaning.

It was worth it, Aeo thought, slowly recovering. So worth it.

When he heard the door open again, he raised his head and saw Leon step inside, carrying his bag.

“Aeo,” Leon said. “I want you to do something for me.”

Aeo’s stomach, full as it was, sunk. He no longer liked when Leon said that. Aeo clumsily sat up.

“Here,” Leon said. Much to Aeo’s surprise, Leon opened his bag and produced a simple object: a fist-sized red rubber ball. He tossed it over to Aeo, who fumbled a bit but caught it.

“No, no, don’t catch it,” Leon said, pointing a finger. “I want you to shield yourself from it.”

“Do… what?” Aeo asked.

“I want you to absorb the momentum of the ball so that it bounces upon your animis instead of hitting you. Do you understand?”

Aeo frowned, confused.

“Nuh-uh,” he said.

“Toss it back to me,” Leon said, sitting upon his bed.

With a light hand, Aeo tossed it upwards. Leon raised his hand as if to catch it. Instead, a small glimmer of blue light and a crackling sound met the ball about six inches from Leon’s open hand as surely as if it had hit a solid wall. The ball bounced backwards across the room and landed squarely in Aeo’s lap.

“That’s what I want you to do,” Leon said. “Use your hands. Remember what I taught you on the mountain? Pull the warmth in your body from your feet to your legs, up through your waist and your chest, and then down your arms and into your hands. In Drael-dena, it’s called sym-yattra, or the flow of animis. You can practice sym-yattra to move animis to any part of your body, but I want you to practice it with your hands first.”

“But…” Aeo whispered. “The light only comes before I get hurt. I don’t know if I can do it with a ball.”

“Well, the last thing I want to do is hurt you,” Leon replied. “I’ve learned my lesson: that’s the worst way to teach you. Tell you what. Keep the ball in the wagon with you, and when we catch our first break this afternoon, I’ll teach you the right way to focus your animis.”

Aeo tossed the ball upwards and caught it.

“But what if I make fire instead? On accident? Isn’t it the same?”

“It’s good you recognize a difference. I’ll teach you both. It’s a matter of feeling, both based on concentration. Don’t worry, you’ll learn quick. I can tell you’re going to be very familiar with the basics by the time we reach the Academy.”

Aeo shrugged, looking at the ball in his hands.

“Remember what I told you last night,” Leon said. “Don’t be afraid of your talents. Once controlled, you’ll be able to use them to protect yourself and your friends. And I think you’re going to develop strong friendships in your classes.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to Aeo.

“I can make friends?” he said. “I mean… by myself? I’ve never had friends before.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a problem getting to know others like yourself. Did you know there are many Edians and Ashanti your age at the Academy?”

“Really? Like me?” Aeo paused. “With red eyes and red hair? But, um, does an ‘Ashanti’ look like me?”

“Well, you might be surprised to meet one,” Leon said. “Most have long white hair and bright blue eyes, and long ears that droop at the tip. Several who belong to family tribes also wear traditional tattoos that are considered sacred to them. You can ask what their tattoos stand for, perhaps, but you should never make fun of them for it. Ashanti come from many places. Some ashanti even make their home in Antiell and migrate to Ashant to learn.”

Aeo nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “I want to meet everyone.”

“And you will,” Leon said, standing to his feet. “Come on, the wagon is all prepared. Grab your boots, and let’s leave this place while we still can, shall we?”

*    *    *    *    *    *

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Leon called out, waving to the two soldiers who rode silently on horseback behind the slowly-rolling wagon. “It’s been a pleasure.”

Aeo timidly watched them from the inside of the wagon. Indeed, they had been so bored waiting for the two “criminals” at the inn, they wouldn’t have noticed Leon’s wagon rolling southwards if Leon hadn’t called out to them. Now beyond the brick buildings and wet farmlands, the soldiers stopped escorting the wagon, looked at each other, shrugged, and turned their horses back towards Rurali. As they disappeared into the distance, Aeo settled in for a cold, wet, rumbling day.

Leon called Aeo for his marker, ignoring the light drizzle of rain that fell upon him. Once in his hands, he said ‘lah-sev-rai’, and the marker revealed an expansive illustration of the road ahead of them in thin green and blue lines. For a moment, he said nothing, holding Poro’s reigns and studying the map.

“It doesn’t seem like we’ll be departing from the lake’s edge for a few days more. Lucky for us, it’s a freshwater lake. Good news for Poro, anyway. We’ll have to rely on mountain streams to refill our water keg. Here you go, Aeo, you can take a look. Afterwards, put it back in my bag, will you?”

“Yeah,” Aeo said, taking the open marker. Somehow, the page showed no signs of water droplets, and the surface beneath the lines felt completely dry. The map itself was difficult to study, as the green and blue lines of light didn’t merely outline the path before them. He realized that some of the “obstacles” in the forest and along the road weren’t physical objects on the map, but something different. “Leon? Are these… words? On the map?”

“Yes, they are,” Leon replied. “Drael-dena words.”

“I wish I could read them,” Aeo said, closing the marker and placing it in the bag.

“Drael-dena is a complex language. I still can’t speak it fluently, and I’ve lived in Ashant my entire life. Fortunately, Ashant has become a veritable mixing pot of languages and cultures over the years. Not many ashanti speak only Drael-dena anymore. Mostly Yshlene with a bit of Ediani.”

Yshlene, right. Aeo’s language.

“They speak Ediani in Edia, right?”

“That’s right,” Leon said. “And Tagnurik in Edan. Thought you won’t see many xa’rith at the Academy.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” Leon said. “That’s a difficult question to answer. One, they have to travel the continent to reach Ashant, and that means walking through Antiell or going by sea. Either way is terrible for them, as they have been in constant war with Antiell. Second, they refuse to make peace with Ashant, as Ashant have been allies of Antiell for fifty years now. And third, which may surprise you… They are incapable of learning magick.”

“Oh. Why not?”

“No one really knows. Some scholars have tried to study them, and they have a theory that the xa’rith seem to be creatures that have no animis, which should not be possible. Many Edani have come to hate those who practice magick, and have called for the destruction of the San’Drael Academy as well as the Everspring.”

“Why?” Aeo asked.

“Full of questions today, eh?” Leon said.

“Yeah,” Aeo said with a sheepish smile.

“Well, the xa’rith have been at war with Antiell for a long time. And from what I’ve heard from some xa’rith colleagues of mine, they’ve come to see scholars and spellswords as evil. I don’t like it but I understand it. Those that work with the Academy, though, are masters of swordsmanship and the martial arts, and some are alchemists with very unique traditions and techniques.”

“Will I get to meet any?” Aeo asked.

“Certainly,” Leon said. “If my friend Thoksigim still studies at the Everspring, I’m sure he’d be delighted to meet you. His Tagnurik accent is very strong, and their beaks aren’t quite made for Yshlene. But he speaks it very well for a xa’rith.”

“Beaks?”

“Yes. They are quite birdlike in shape and mannerism.”

“Man-er-izzim?”

“The way they act.”

“Oh.”

Aeo rested his head on his arms and stayed silent for a few moments. Leon chuckled.

“I talk too much. Don’t feel like you should stay up on my account,” he said. “If you’re still tired, get some rest. We will travel for as long as the weather allows.”

“Do you have magick to keep us dry in the rain?” Aeo asked.

Leon turned around and ruffled Aeo’s hair again.

“You already know me too well,” he said. “It’s not made for a rolling wagon, unfortunately. In the meantime, bundle up and hopefully the wagon cover will keep you dry.”

Aeo pushed himself from the front of the wagon and did his best to maneuver into the thin space the wagon afforded him. It was stuffed full of crates with three weeks of foodstuffs and travel necessities like two extra wagon wheels, a large water keg, two large wool blankets, a pair of pillows filled with down, a fishing net, and more, including, strangely enough, a six-foot tall quarterstaff. Leon had never mentioned being skilled at fighting, much less skilled with a glorified stick. Wouldn’t a sword be a more effective weapon? Or maybe a spear with a pointed tip? Either way, the weapon (or was it a tool?) intrigued his imagination. The more Aeo thought about it, the more he wished to see Leon in action.

The day continued on much as it had in the days before, the wagon trudging along on wet muddy roads. Fortunately, Leon’s driving skills were excellent, and Poro’s strength equalled it, despite the heavier load upon her back. Once or twice, the wagon slowed to a crawl, encountering a thick patch of sludge. Fortunately, the wagon’s momentum kept it moving, and the wheels never stuck to the road for long.

Along the way, Aeo noticed they were actually passing other wagons headed in the opposite direction. Some had covers above the driver’s seat to keep out the rain. Others did not, leaving their leads miserable and wet. Some wagons had one horse, or two, or four, depending on the size of the shipments they carried. Aeo even saw a rather fancy burgundy-colored horse-drawn carriage transporting a rather well-to-do family. Most notably, none of the other drivers offered Leon any kind of regard, despite the fact that Leon cheerfully greeted every single one that passed by.

As the morning moved on and the afternoon began, the sky refused to reveal the sun. The clouds gathered thick above the merchant’s road, and a true rainstorm began to fall. As the storm increased, Aeo looked up at Leon, who seemed no worse for wear sitting in the midst of it. The wagon canopy about Aeo’s head was, unfortunately, quite porous, leaking at the points dangling furthest down into the cart. One of the deepest points was right over Aeo’s chest, and another fell upon his knees. To protect himself, he covered his upper body with one blanket and covered his lower half with another, hoping they wouldn’t leak into a puddle in the middle. Before he had the heart to complain about his situation, however, Leon slowed Poro to a halt on the right side of the road and stepped off the driver’s seat.

“What’s going on?” Aeo asked.

Leon appeared at the back of the wagon, his hair and jacket quite thoroughly drenched. He grabbed his bag and lifted the back bar.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s dry off and wait for this storm to pass. No sense in catching a cold by staying on the road.”

Dry off? By going out into the rain? Oh, wait. Leon’s magick.

Aeo gladly crawled out of the wagon, accepting the large drops of water that fell on his head and lap.

“What about Poro?” Aeo asked, looking over to her.

“She’ll be okay,” Leon said. “I’ll check on her every so often. I think she’ll be more hungry and thirsty than cold.”

As Poro munched at the grass that grew on the edge of the highway, Leon and Aeo walked a short ways into the pasture, coming to a stop just before the edge of the treeline about one hundred yards from the edge of the lake. Kneeling down on the mud-soaked ground, Leon produced from his magickal bag another ten-inch candle. Aeo stood shivering at his side, water dripping from his hair and seeping through his shirt.

“We have a problem,” Leon said, turning the candle in his hand. “The candle is soaked, and trying to light a fire in rain like this would be too difficult and take too long. Besides, if we lit the candle in a campfire, it would probably go out before we could use it. What do you think we should do?”

Aeo frowned.

“Um… Your magick?”

“Magick, certainly. But not mine.”

“What?” Aeo stammered. “Mine?”

“Do you want to try?” Leon asked, looking up at Aeo.

Aeo pulled away.

“I… I don’t know.”

“Here,” Leon said, patting the wet grass in front of him. “It’s wet, but hopefully in a few minutes, it won’t be. Let’s give it a go.”

Aeo paused. Stepping over in front of Leon, he sat in the mud and grass; water immediately soaked his bottom.

“Remember what it felt like when you held fire in your hands?” Leon asked. Aeo nodded. “I want you to have that in your mind. Never mind the fire in Olvaren. No aggression. No anger. Just concentration. Holding fire and causing fire aren’t very separated from each other, and almost nothing but your will can extinguish it. Here, just as before, hold your hands up, just like this.”

As if grasping a globe by its equator, Aeo’s hands hovered about a foot apart. Leon lifted the dripping candle right in between.

Sym-yattra. Move the heat in your body from your feet to your legs, your legs to your waist, up through your chest and head, and then down through your arms to your hands. It doesn’t have to feel like anything, but imagining it makes it so. And you’ll be surprised what a little imagination can accomplish. Understand? Try it now. Close your eyes if you like.”

Aeo did so, and imagined as hard as he could. Once again, there didn’t seem to be much heat in his body at the moment. But a rainstorm in the valley couldn’t compare to the terrible cold of the mountain. He drew upon the thought of warmth traveling through his body to his waiting hands, and for a moment, he could almost feel something moving along his nerves. A boom of thunder somewhere across the lake startled him for a moment, cracking his concentration. He continued, however, shutting his eyes tighter and focusing his thoughts on nothing but the movement of heat.

For a moment, he imagined the burning inn. The flames that consumed Harthoon. He couldn’t think of such things. No aggression. No anger. Just concentration.

A thought came to him, completely unexpected.

I haven’t dreamed of the sun since I left the mountain.

And it was true. Even nightmares had departed from him. Sleep came to him so quickly every night after traveling on the bumpy road, he hadn’t had time to dream.

That voice. That woman’s voice. The one that came from the sun and the sky. Why was it so familiar to me? I haven’t had a dream like that before. Why was it so familiar…?

“Aeo,” whispered Leon. “Open your eyes.”

Aeo did.

Between his hands, a tiny sphere of flame shuddered in the rain, dancing in the air as if summoned by a wispy spirit. Aeo didn’t move. Something held him in place, propped up by the falling droplets of water. There was no pressure or pain from this curious force, and he felt as though he could move if he chose to do so. He simply sat there, watching the fire in his hands. His imagination no longer fueled this flame; indeed, it felt as though someone had turned on a faucet in Aeo’s chest, out of which strength and energy poured.

“There we go,” Leon said, lifting the candle wick to the flame. It lit immediately, and resisted every raindrop that fell upon it. “You feel it, don’t you? The animis leaving you? Now, Aeo, reverse the process. Pull the warmth from your hands back down your arms and into your chest. Imagine it fading back into your body.”

This time, Aeo’s eyes remained open. Somehow, this process was much easier to manage. Unlike his desires in Olvaren, he wished this flame to fade and vanish. The physical feeling of energy leaving him slowed to a trickle. The force that held him up slowly released him, and the sphere of fire shrunk to a series of bright sparks before fading entirely.

Aeo pulled his hands towards him, watching them. No evidence of burns. He hadn’t even felt warmth from the glow.

“Very good, Aeo, very good,” Leon said. “Don’t forget this candle flame, now. We don’t want it going out. Don’t imagine it away.”

For a moment, Aeo entertained the thought by instinct, and the candle sputtered. But denying the image of a candle blowing away in a breeze, the tiny flame remained bright and delightful.

“Now it’s my turn,” Leon said, pulling the wooden candle base from his bag. He placed the wax firmly in place, set it on the ground, and placed both hands above the twirling flame. A white swirl of energy emerged from his palms like a cloud, and soon coalesced into a single mysterious glyph that looked like one of the symbols from the map in Leon’s marker. With a faint pop, the glyph fell upon the flame in a perfect sphere, like two bubbles connecting on the surface of a pool.

Aeo felt the effect of the glyph immediately. The raindrops that fell on him ceased. He looked up. They were indeed still falling, but they collided with and poured across an invisible surface in a ten foot diameter, creating a curtain of water around them. Then, as quickly as the water had soaked him, the moisture of the mud and grass around Aeo began to evaporate. The moisture that had sunk into his trousers vanished. Aeo brushed a hand through his hair and across his shirt: they were completely dry, albeit a little wrinkled and messy. Leon removed his coat and shook his own long hair as if throwing off raindrops; there were no drops to drip.

The temperature hadn’t changed. But Aeo was fairly certain the magick (or perhaps the thick curtain of raindrops) kept the wind at bay. Being dry made everything perfect.

Except for two things: his eyes became itchy, and his throat dried up. He rubbed his uncomfortable eyes and his lungs coughed in response.

“You feel it, too?” Leon asked with a quick cough. “Apologies, I made it a bit strong to ensure we dried off. Hold on.”

Leon kneeled on the now-dry dirt and held his hands above the glyph in the same manner as before. As if turning the knob of a door, Leon’s hand caused the glyph to rotate upon the candle. In a second, moisture returned to Aeo’s eyes and throat, and from what he could tell, the raindrops above them pitter-pattered upon the magickal surface just a little closer to the ground.

“Can you teach me how to do that?” Aeo asked.

“I imagine so,” Leon said, standing. “Though it requires an understanding of Drael-dena symbology and the proper balance of water and air. Without the right balance, some scholars have died from dehydration after spending a single night under such a ward. How they didn’t feel incredible discomfort right away, I can’t imagine.”

“What is dee-high-dray-shun?”

“Dying from a lack of water.”

“Oh.”

Suddenly, Aeo wasn’t sure he wanted to learn that particular ward.

“So,” Leon continued. “Let me run and grab the waterskins to keep us hydrated. And I also have something else to show you, something you might like.”

Walking through a waterfall, Leon vanished towards the direction of the wagon. Aeo entertained himself for a moment by watching the delicate flame of the candle. Though he knew he shouldn’t, he couldn’t help himself: he had to know. Slowly, he reached his hand above the candle and the ward placed upon it. He felt heat, but no pain. He lowered it closer. More heat, but no pain. Finally, he reached a finger beneath the ward directly into the orange glow. He expected the same effect as touching a hot stove or burning himself with a torch. But nothing. Nothing at all. Maybe a tingle of warmth, but no effect besides.

“Huh,” Aeo whispered to himself. He moved his finger away.

The flame, as well as the ward, fastened to his fingertip and moved with it.

“Ahh!” Aeo cried. He nearly shook his hand to smother the flame. But the ward did not break and soak him in the rain; he thought it best not to move. The flame didn’t hurt in the slightest, much to his relief. He felt the same strong support he’d felt just moments ago help him stabilize the flame and the ward on his finger. And like before, he felt the warmth drain from his chest. But this time, it felt more intense, as if jogging up a steep hill or climbing a mountain. His breathing became labored.

There was only one thing to do. Ever so gently, he pushed his finger against the wick of the candle. It didn’t attach as he pulled his finger back.

I can do this, Aeo thought. I can…

He felt the wick beneath his skin, and imagined the flame leaping from his hand to the candle. He even closed his eyes for a second to focus.

I can do this, he thought. Remember the sun. The dream…

He opened his eyes. Somehow, the flame had grown larger upon his finger, and the ward shuddered as if blowing on the wind. The invisible surface that held back the rain also shuddered, and Aeo felt a few raindrops fall onto his head.

Okay, the dream is too much. Pull it back, pull it back…

He pretended the heat sucked back into his hands and up his arms, and accordingly, the flame shrunk down to an appropriate size. He pulled his finger back, but still the flame and the ward refused to connect with the candle.

Come on, please… Before Leon-

The rain parted, and a man peered through it.

“Aeo?”

“Eeep!” Aeo yelped, yanking his hand backwards.

The flame and the ward vanished. Like a roof collapsing, freezing rainwater shattered upon Aeo, drenching his head and lap and pouring down his back. So surprised, he couldn’t even apologize.

“Ah,” Leon said with a laugh. “It’s time to practice again, isn’t it?”