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?”

Alyssum – Chapter Thirteen

blogtitle

Two Days Later

Leon’s evocation marker was an incredible object. The scroll-like marker consisted of two finely-carved cylindrical ivory containers and what appeared to be a thick page of vellum between them. When the scroll opened, the vellum would unfurl from within the cylinders to present a “blank” page, and when closed, the vellum retracted precisely when intended and not a moment sooner. With the “blank” page open, Leon could say any number of ashanti words (in a language he called drael-dena) to “command” the scroll to reveal important information, all displayed in a variety of shimmering colored lines and light. The word ‘lah-sev-rai’ would cause a list to appear upon the vellum, revealing, as Leon explained, a record of the various supplies and ingredients carried in the wagon (minus the concealed ones, of course). With the word ‘nal-dor-ma’, the vellum would reveal a map of the surrounding area. And with the words ‘dah-si’ and ‘dah-sol’ respectively, the map would enlarge or shrink to reveal more or less of the world around their current location. It even displayed the wagon, Poro, and the faint shimmering outlines of deer moving through the forest. How the marker could do all of this, Aeo hadn’t the faintest idea.

One of the most important commands for the marker was the word ‘fah-coh-pah’, which enabled Leon to contact any other marker he knew the name of. He used this function to contact an ashanti by the name of Master Kane Dolshir, someone Leon had mentioned before as a peer in the alchemy department of the Academy. His voice came in loud and clear as if he were sitting in the wagon himself, and Leon didn’t even need the marker to be open to speak to him.

“Leon, it is wonderful to hear from you, my boy!” The ashanti’s accent was very pronounced, almost lyrical in its deep bass tones. “I haven’t heard from you in ages! Where have you been all this time? I haven’t been able to contact you.”

Aeo remained quiet.

“I’m about six weeks’ travel from the Everspring,” Leon said, holding Poro’s reigns as the wagon rolled on down the dirt road. “Traveling south in Antiell. You can track my marker if you’d like. Is this evocation shielded?”

There was a slight pause, and then the sound of Master Dolshir mumbling a few ashanti words.

“It is now,” Master Dolshir said. “But when you say things like that, I worry for your safety. Have you been on the road for two years, or working in one spot in particular?”

“A year and half in one spot. I didn’t dare contact anyone in that time. Let’s just say I have quite the haul of fascinating flora our first level students will fall in love with. As for the rest, Kane, I’m afraid I’ll have to speak with you privately when I arrive. Just know that it’s important, and I’ll need to rely on your assistance.”

“You’ll have it, of course,” Master Dolshir said. “But not even a shielded conversation will suffice? Tell me straight, Leon, are you in danger?”

Leon paused.

“I don’t believe so,” he said. “But my work can’t have gone unnoticed. Especially now. I’m afraid I may have overplayed my hand.”

Aeo frowned, sitting in the back of the wagon with a blanket around him and listening intently. They were in danger? From who? From what?

“Well,” Master Dolshir said, sounding as if he were settling into a chair. “That isn’t out of character for you. One of these days, no-mwen, someone’s going to discover what you’re up to. Do I even want to know?”

No-mwen, the drael-dena word for ‘clever boy’. Ironically used, Leon was sure.

“You’ll want to know, yes,” Leon said. “But I guarantee you won’t like it.”

“A feeling I am familiar with,” Master Dolshir said with a sigh. “Very well. I shall await your arrival with great anticipation.”

“Oh, and another thing,” Leon said. “I have a new apprentice, he’ll need citizenship papers for the Academy when we cross the border. You wouldn’t mind putting those together, would you Kane? Come, Aeo, say hello.”

Aeo dropped the blanket and stumbled towards the front of the cart.

“An apprentice?” Master Dolshir said. “Wonderful! I didn’t know you were looking for one! That is something I can certainly do. What’s his name again?”

“Come, say your name,” Leon said, turning in his seat to offer Aeo the marker.

“Umm… It’s Aeo, sir.”

Vai-kahl, my boy! Let me write that down. Did you say ‘Aay-oh-seer’?”

Aeo looked puzzled. Leon smiled and rolled his eyes a bit.

“No, Kane,” he said. “Just Aeo. A-E-O, I believe. A fairly common Antielli name. Does that sound right, Aeo?”

“Um… I think so.”

“Does Aeo have a last name?” Master Dolshir asked.

“I don’t… believe so,” Leon said.

Aeo nodded.

“Interesting,” Master Dolshir said plainly. Aeo wasn’t sure what he meant by that. “Is he Antielli? Eye color, hair color? Date of birth?”

Aeo shook his head, his long hair flopping about.

“Red eyes. Red hair. And… we’re not sure about the birthdate,” Leon said.

There was another pause.

“Ah. I see.”

“He’s a free Edian now, but I don’t have any papers to prove his freedom. Everything was performed fairly… unofficially. Do you think we’ll have a problem at the border?”

“I don’t believe so,” Master Dolshir said. “Not as long as there is an Academy representative at the crossing expecting you. I’ll ask one of my students if they would travel there for some extra credit.”

“Also,” Leon said. “Aeo may have… burned down a village. All on his own. I am unsure if rumors of the destruction will reach the border before we will.”

Another pause.

“Wonderful,” he said, decidedly less enthusiastic than before. “I won’t question your motivations, Leon. But what makes you think the Academy would want to accept a practicing arsonist? The Academy already has more than our fair share of firestarters who would be in prison if not for education reform.”

That word again, Aeo thought. Arsonist. Firestarter. Is that what it means?

“Well, he didn’t start the fire with matches or bombs, Kane,” Leon said. Aeo kept his mouth shut. “It was magickal, and the boy’s only… eight? Nine? He shows a lot of promise as a thaumaturgist. He just needs training and discipline. Master Naal will have his hands full, but I think he’ll be overjoyed to have a student like Aeo.”

“I suppose so,” Master Dolshir said with a laugh. “As long as he isn’t brewing dioxide bombs and hurling nitrate flares in the hallway!”

“No, nothing like that,” Leon said with a chuckle. “Although I expect a few singed shirts and pants here and there. Eh, Aeo?”

Leon patted Aeo’s head, and Aeo attempted a smile. The thought of holding fire in his hands again filled him with an unmistakable dread.

“Okay, ‘red’, ‘red’, ‘unknown’ birthdate, approximately age nine… Academy class: fourth level thaumaturgy. Do you know your heritage, Aeo? Your parents? I don’t suppose you know if you were born in Edia. Were you, my boy?”

Aeo frowned and shook his head. His earliest memories said something otherwise, but he honestly didn’t know. Same with parents: only vague figures and voices, nothing concrete.

“A lot of unknowns, I’m afraid,” Leon said, noticing Aeo’s reaction.

“My apologies,” said Master Dolshir’s voice. “Well, it matters not what you were, it only matters what you’ll soon become. Your destiny will be yours and yours alone.”

“Yeah,” Aeo whispered.

“No arguments here,” Leon said. “Need anything else?”

“Don’t suppose you know the boy’s height or weight?”

Leon looked at Aeo, and Aeo looked at Leon.

“Not a clue,” Leon said. He smirked. “Short and skinny aren’t appropriate for state papers, though.”

“Hey, I’m not short,” Aeo pouted. He could accept skinny.

“I’m kidding,” Leon replied with a whisper.

“Indeed they’re not. But that will give me enough to work with; I’ll write down averages, and that should suffice. I don’t expect the Antielli border patrol to start weighing and measuring every immigrant that passes through their lands.”

“I worry they might make an exception for an Edian boy,” Leon said. “But I’ll trust in the student you send to meet us. I’ll contact you again when we’re closer to the border.”

“Excellent,” Master Dolshir said. “And, Leon… It’s good to hear from you. I expect you’ll have a grand story to tell me.”

“Yes, I will. Thank you Kane.”

“Shall I contact your mother to let her know you’re coming?”

Leon paused for a moment.

“No,” he said. “I’ll meet with her when we arrive.”

There was silence on the other end for a split second.

“If you’re certain,” Master Dolshir said.

“I’m certain,” Leon replied, adjusting his position on the driver’s seat. Aeo frowned. That didn’t make much sense. Two years away from his mother, and he wants to wait another six weeks to say hello?

“Well, if there’s anything else you need from me,” Master Dolshir said. “Don’t hesitate to contact me. Do you have the supplies you need for your journey?”

“We’re nearing the town of Rurali. Shouldn’t be another day before we can get what we need.”

“Very good,” Master Dolshir said. “I’ll talk to you again soon?”

“Yes, thank you Kane.”

With that, the evocation faded, and Leon handed the marker to Aeo.

“Put that back in my bag, would you?” he asked.

“Sure,” Aeo said, walking to the back of the wagon.

“We want to be certain,” Leon said, turning his attention to the road ahead. “That when we cross the border, the soldiers there don’t think I’m attempting to smuggle an Edian slave to Ashant. The more questions they have, the more likely they’ll detain us… and commandeer the wagon. And that’s the last thing we want. I certainly hope whoever Kane sends to meet us knows how to sweet-talk Antielli soldiers.”

“Sweet-talk?” Aeo said. “What’s that mean?”

“Convince in a clever way,” Leon said. “Eh, praise someone even if you don’t mean it so they’ll do what you ask.”

“Isn’t that wrong?” Aeo asked, returning to the front of the cart.

Leon looked up at the bright morning sky and pursed his lips.

“Not exactly,” Leon said with a laugh. “Not if you can get away with it.”

Aeo arched an eyebrow.

“Sounds sneaky.”

“It can be. Perhaps I’ll have to show you how it’s done when we reach the border.”

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

The Next Day

The sun shone bright on the the western frontier highway, surrounded by beautiful pine forests and the rustling of orange, yellow, and red poplar and oak leaves. With the Falas Mountains draped in white to the east and the expansive Lake Darlendas to the west, the wagon rode along on a bumpy dirt path that felt more like a tight corridor than a proper road. Either way, the highway was fairly flat, and offered Aeo and Leon more comfort than the terrible pathways the mountain had afforded. The temperature had also increased considerably, and Aeo no longer felt the need for a blanket or his fur boots. In fact, for the first time in his life, he began to sweat a little bit as the canvas of the wagon permeated the afternoon heat.

It was about this time that Aeo realized something truly awful: he and his boots stunk to the high heavens. No surprise there, having been without a proper bath for about three or four weeks. He didn’t tell Leon, and hoped he wouldn’t say anything. After removing his boots, Aeo got a good look at his feet for the first time in bright sunlight: the tips of his toes remained slightly blistered and raw, and skin had begun to peel away from the darker colors. Immense relief came to Aeo as he finally aired out; now that the atmosphere no longer felt like an icebox, he could relax at long last. Even Leon had shed his grand coat and gloves, opting instead of a pair of avyasilk pants (that’s what Leon called the material, anyway), suspenders, and a white linen shirt with the sleeves rolled up. With his spectacles, he looked positively like a fourth-level schoolteacher.

After an hour or so, Aeo settled in against the blankets was about to fall asleep to the rumbling wagon and the gentle heat. But then he heard Leon’s voice: “Aeo, look.”

“Huh?” he asked, rubbing off the sleep in his eyes.

“We’re almost there.”

Aeo leaned against the front of the cart and peered through the opening towards the road ahead. For the first time in two weeks, Aeo saw signs of civilization in the form of small thatched farmhouses and stables, with large fields carved out of the expansive treeline to make way for waves of amber grain, bristling blowing in the gentle breeze. On both sides of the road, wooden fences penned fatted cows, growing calves, graceful mares, and strong stallions from wandering too far into the wolf-infested foothills of Falas. For about half an hour, the view remained much the same as the wagon passed field after field, farmhouse after farmhouse. It didn’t matter, though; Aeo sat at the wagon’s front, enthralled. Occasionally, Aeo would see young children playing in front of their homes with their mothers looking on, and farmhands harvesting the ripened fields. Birds flew from tree to tree, singing their harmonious songs to each other.

“It’s quite the sight, isn’t it?” Leon asked. “Much more lively and colorful than Olvaren.”

“What is all that?” Aeo asked, pointing. “All the yellow?”

“What is… Oh, you mean the field? I imagine it’s wheat or barley. Never seen a field like that before?”

“No,” Aeo said. “But I’ve seen beet fields once. And lettuce and carrots. There was a garden in the back of the inn… for a while. I guess Aristé gave it up.”

“She wouldn’t let you tend to the garden?” Leon asked.

“I was too little,” Aeo said.

“Well, good news. When we get to the Academy, one of the things you can do is help me tend to my garden. It’s up on the balcony of my workroom, and it’s filled with all sorts of herbs and flowers. I’d even pay you to watch over it.”

Aeo’s eyes opened wider.

“Really?” he asked quietly. “With money?”

“Ha, certainly,” Leon said cheerfully. “You’ll have lots of opportunities to help me. That’s what it means to be my apprentice. I’m not the best teacher in the world when it comes to your talents. So technically you’ll be working with Master Edin-Rao Naal for your primary schooling, but you’ll assist me with my projects while you’re not busy studying. Unless, of course, you decide to go exercise, or eat in the refectory, or read books in the library…”

Aeo hunched over and rested his head on his arms.

“I… don’t know how to read,” he said glumly.

Leon nearly dropped the reins.

“What?” Leon frowned, and raised his voice. “Oh, of course, it’s only natural… Never teach a slave anything, and they’ll never run away, right? The unmitigated gall of those bloody… mel-ysok. The only thing that makes me angrier than slavery is the neglect of a child.”

Aeo sat up and gulped. He hadn’t expected that. When Aeo didn’t say anything for a few passing moments, Leon cleared his throat.

“Sorry, Aeo,” Leon said. “That’s a bad ashanti word, and you shouldn’t repeat it.”

Aeo made a mental note.

“…would you…teach me how to read?” Aeo asked.

“Absolutely,” Leon said. “That will be our first priority when we arrive. I’ll speak with the linguistics department and I’ll have their finest tutor help you. I’ll assist your study as well.”

Aeo had never thought it an option. The idea filled him with a strange thrill.

“How did you fare at the inn without knowing how to read?” Leon asked.

Aeo shrugged.

“People just told me what they wanted to eat,” he said. “I memorized the menu, sort of. I memorized their orders, too. Sometimes priests would come and teach about the Goddess, and they would hand out papers. I tried to learn how to read them, but I couldn’t figure it out by myself.”

“Well, it was good of you to try,” Leon said. “It means you have the desire to learn. And it’s good you have a keen mind for memorization. There’s more to learning than just memorizing, of course, but it does help.”

As the wagon continued down the road, the houses seemed to clump together in tighter groups and the fields became smaller and more neatly aligned with proper fencing. Then, unbelievably, the dirt road turned into a pebbled cobblestone avenue. The dwellings grew taller, no longer made of timber and thatch but of stone and brick. The townspeople hastily went to and fro, not minding the wagon that rode through the main thoroughfare. Every so often, a person or two would make a passing glance at Leon, then stare at the red-eyed boy peering through the wagon flap. Or, at least, it seemed that way, as many of these people’s faces grew sour at the sight. Aeo did his best to hide and watch the town’s wonders at the same time.

Stationed every so often would be a man or woman clothed in chain or leather armor, carrying a sword at their belts or a spear in their hands. Leon waved at one of them, a particularly large Rurali town guard, and stopped Poro with a quick shout of “bah-si”.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Leon said with a cheerful voice. “Could you direct me to the town’s general store? I’m looking to purchase supplies for my travels.”

With a flash of annoyance and a gruff manner, the man directed Leon further into the town, apparently just a few blocks from their destination. Leon thanked him, and the wagon rolled forwards with a “nee-ah”.

Rurali appeared completely different from Olvaren. Where the small mountain town had a few simple outdoor stalls and a humble cabin store that everyone collectively called a marketplace, Rurali had rows and rows of shops and specialty services filled with people. Flower carts filled with chrysanthemums and begonias, row after row of fresh apples, pumpkins, cauliflower, and potatoes, and even strange lifted seats upon which people sat while an attendant wiped their boots and shined their shoes with dirty cloths; at least they looked dirty from a distance. Horses lined the streets, being ridden or tied to posts waiting for their riders to return. Supplies filled wagon after wagonby carried by strong men, loaded or unloaded depending on their destination. The air faintly smelled of manure (to be truthful), but also of baked bread, delicate perfumes, and the scent of blooming roses.

Aeo even saw a few red-haired women and children carrying loads and sacks in their arms or over their shoulders; if they were slaves like he had been, their owners actually let them walk outside freely. Everything was slightly mesmerizing; how much more amazing and active would the Academy be?

Leon pulled the reins to one side, and the wagon turned down a particularly busy road. With great care, Leon and Poro worked together to maneuver towards a large whitewashed two-story building. It wore large black letters painted above the entrance. The wagon stopped just besides the great building on the far edge of the cobbled road.

“Leleve’s Market and Emporium,” Leon said, reading the sign. “Charming.”

Aeo obtained a peek through the entrance, and saw the store filled with a enormous crowd. Aeo thought it was a crowd, at least; he no longer had a frame of reference for anything.

“All right, Aeo,” Leon said, turning in the driver’s seat to face him. “I’m going to head inside. Can you watch over the cart while I’m gone? Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think people would appreciate a… partially-naked boy running around barefoot in the store.”

“Oh,” Aeo said. “Um… I can put my boots on. Please?”

Leon considered for a moment.

“I need you to watch the cart so people don’t come to steal anything.” Seeing Aeo’s face, he said: “Don’t worry, you probably won’t even be bothered. I’ll come back out with some fresh clothes for you. Afterwards, we can find some place to spend the night, and come back to shop after a fresh bath. Surely the local inn has one. I’m starting to smell a bit ripe. I’m sure you are too.”

Aeo wrinkled his nose and frowned. So he had noticed.

“I guess…” he said quietly.

“Thank you, Aeo,” Leon said, jumping down from the wagon. He stepped over and tied Poro up to one of the posts, then came around to the back to grab his bag. “I won’t be gone long.”

With that, Leon entered the store and disappeared into the crowd. Feeling somewhat abandoned, Aeo instinctively shut the front flap of the wagon and rolled himself up in a fur blanket despite the heat. Dozens of people passed either coming or going from the store. No one looked into the wagon deliberately, but he saw a few curious eyes peer inside and notice him. The way they all dressed was so different from Olvaren: the men wore suspenders and work shirts and vests, and Aeo even spotted a few wealthy-looking gentlemen with blue or red tunics and doublets topped off with floppy-looking hats. Most women wore long dresses and aprons of drab colors, but once in a while Aeo saw younger women dressed much like the men in a variety of pale colors. No one wore coats or gloves in Rurali. Many wore leather or straw hats, not to stay warm but to hide their eyes from the sun. Like Olvaren, the men wore facial hair in all manner of ways, including some of the red-haired and red-eyed Edian folk. Dark-skinned or light, the Edians seemed more than tolerated in this raucous concourse.

To keep himself from panicking, Aeo dug into the food crate and pulled out a pair of apples. To be truthful, the fact that Leon allowed him to essentially eat as he pleased was both a thrill and burden. He’d been refused from feeding himself for so long, he couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for doing so. But in the intervening days traveling with Leon, it was becoming more habit to snack every so often, even without asking for permission. After all, Leon did it himself, relying on Aeo to be his assistant as he drove.

For a few minutes, Aeo munched on an apple and watched the passing people from inside the wagon. He felt sleepy, but too worried about someone jumping into the wagon demanding money or food to rest his eyes. Eventually, with both apples eaten, cores and all, he sat there and wondered what he should do. What should he do? After all this time, he felt nervous whenever he wasn’t doing something. But then again, he was doing something by waiting for Leon. And unlike Leon, he couldn’t crack open one of Leon’s alchemy textbooks and read, lacking the skill and all.

He tried to keep Pick and Harthoon from his mind, but just a few days time was not enough to process everything. Harthoon in particular; he could still hear his former master’s screams. How in the world did he summon such a terrible flame to his hands? If he found himself in mortal danger like that again, could he repeat the act? What if Leon attempted to teach him and Aeo accidentally unleashed such a potent flame upon him? Surely Leon had ways to protect himself from Aeo’s inexperience. Right?

In the short time he and Leon traveled, Leon had made no effort to teach Aeo anything about magick. But then again, Leon seemed very tired by the end of each day, and rose with the sun to continue on the road. They seemed to travel at quite a steady pace, nearly in a rush now that the road had flattened. Maybe a night in a proper bed would do them both some good.

Deep in his musings, something caught Aeo’s eye. A large uncovered cart had turned down the street, lead by a pair of brown horses. It slowly approached the general store at a generous speed, weaving through the people crossing the road. Three men rode the wagon, an Antielli driver and what appeared to be two red-haired Edian men. Then, without provocation, the driver pointed.

Right at Aeo.

His stomach sank immediately as the wagon approached. Within a few meters of Leon’s wagon, the cart came to a halt.

“Hey!” the driver shouted at Aeo, waving his hands. “You, kid! You can’t park your wagon here! I’ve got goods to deliver!”

Aeo’s eyes widened, and he didn’t say a word. Maybe if he didn’t look scared, the man and his cart would drive away. They didn’t, of course, and the man stood from the driver’s seat, his face turning a fuming red color.

“Oy, small fry! Are you listening to me?! I said you can’t park here! Get your wagon out of the way!”

Aeo, stunned, couldn’t form words. He attempted to make himself as small as possible in the back of the wagon. Naturally, this didn’t work. The Edian men looked over at the boy in the wagon with dull faces. Unlike them, the driver appeared positively furious. He stepped down from the driver’s seat onto the ground. Walking over to the back of Leon’s wagon, he slapped his hands against the back bar.

“Move your wagon! Now!”

Some people in the crowd began to notice the spectacle. The driver’s voice couldn’t have raised louder. At last, Aeo sputtered.

“I don’t… I don’t know how… It w-was Leon parked here, he sh-sh-should be back soon…”

“I don’t care who your owner is, you little waste,” the man hissed. “If you don’t move this wagon right now, I’m calling the guards and make sure they throw you behind bars. Now moveyourwagon.”

His tone was familiar. Too familiar. In a blind panic, Aeo lifted himself from his seat and opened the front flap of the wagon. He crawled through and sat upon the driver’s seat only to realize that Poro’s reigns were still tightly tied to the post down below. Aeo hastily jumped down from the wagon, and hard cobblestone hammered his bare feet. He clawed at Leon’s knot, but couldn’t immediately get it undone.

“Hurry up, kid! Get your wagon gone now!”

Aeo’s fingers fumbled, and at last freed the reigns. He clambered back onto the driver’s seat and immediately felt the wagon shudder under Poro’s power. She knew she was free, and Leon was not the one directing her.

What are the words… What are the words?!

It came to him in an instant.

“Uh, nee-ah, Poro!” Aeo mumbled. “Nee-ah!”

“What’s taking so long?!” the driver shouted, approaching Aeo. “I’m calling a guard! That will teach you to waste my time, you little-”

“I’m trying, sir!” Aeo shouted. Just as he’d seen Leon do, Aeo slapped the reigns and shouted loud and clear: “Nee-ah!”

“Aeo!” a voice shouted.

Aeo wasn’t certain what happened first. The driver of the cart raced towards him and nearly grabbed Aeo’s leg with his thick hands. At the same time, Poro winnied like mad. She must have become as panicked as Aeo, because she charged forwards with all of her might into the crowd before her. Aeo nearly fell off the cart from Poro’s power and the pull of the cart driver, but just held on to the driver seat by his fingertips; the reigns were long gone from his grip. Poro’s hooves stampeded down the cobblestone road, with the wagon wheels rumbling and creaking like a chaotic earthquake. Men and women screamed, pulling themselves and their children out of the path of the runaway wagon. Poro didn’t collide with anyone herself, but the wagon came dangerously close to hammering some of the more oblivious. Worse, Poro showed no signs of slowing down in the slightest. She galloped at full speed down the cobblestone road as if wolves were chasing her heels.

Of course, Aeo didn’t understand the specifics of the situation. He was too busy trying to hang on for dear life.

“Poro!”

What is the word?!

Bah-si! Bah-si!” he screamed.

No reaction from Poro. In fact, she seemed to speed up.

Bah-si!” he screamed again, feeling his hands slipping. His feet nearly scraped the ground, and were about to skid across the unforgiving stone like a plucked chicken.

Unbeknownst to him, the end of the thoroughfare approached in the form of a fairly well-constructed brick wall. In a split second peek, he saw it, and tried to haul himself up to the driver’s seat.

Bah-si, Poro! Bah-si!”

No use.

Poro was an intelligent horse. Even in her stressed state, she knew she carried a heavy load, and she recognized a solid obstacle when she saw one. As the crowd of people thinned near the end of the road, Poro took a desperately-hard right turn. The wagon nearly tumbled over.

Aeo flew straight off.

He expected the back of his skull and his spine to shatter against the cobblestone. He suspected his end had come in a rush of violence. To his surprise, he never met the ground. At least, not as immediately as he should have. He heard the sound of a hammer shattering a glass window, and suddenly gravity no longer held him for a miniscule moment. Then, he careened through the air in a backflip, and raised his hands to shield himself from the ground. This time he saw the source of the sound: in a bright flash of blue light, a bubble-like surface about a foot from Aeo’s outstretched hands made the boy bounce as if it held him in a weightless, cracking into pieces like someone threw a rock through a mirror.

Aeo continued to flip twice more, and with each collision, the bubble appeared and fragmented against the ground, suspending Aeo above the road each time. On the last flip, the bubble no longer appeared. Aeo crashed into the ground hands and knees first.

For a moment, he allowed the pain to occur. Not a lot did. Lifting himself, he looked at his scuffed hands: no blood, but he’d scrapped off a bit of skin. He slowly stood to his feet, and looked at his knees: a little tender from the stone road, but none the worse for wear.

Then Aeo spun around. Poro was nowhere to be found. On the ground were the bright-blue remains of the mysterious “glass”, spread across the cobblestone like so many pulverized shards of light. Within a few seconds, those shards disappeared, melting into thin wisps of smoke and fading from view.

Perhaps three dozen onlookers stood staring in awe and pointing their fingers right at him.

Blood rushed to his head, and not because he’d been injured. He looked back at the road from whence he’d come, and to his horror, four men in chainmail, swords, and helmets were charging towards him. He didn’t dare stay, but he didn’t dare flee. He simply remained still.

“You! Boy!” shouted a guard. “Don’t you dare move!”

Once they were upon him, two guards grabbed Aeo’s arms by the wrist and yanked him forwards.

“No, please!” Aeo cried, struggling quite uselessly. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! Please!”

“Don’t resist!” shouted a particularly imposing guard. “It’s the lock-up for you, you stupid boy! You nearly ran over an entire load of people with that bloody wagon of yours!”

“For all we know, your idiot horse is still running!” another guard shouted.

“It’s… it’s not my horse!” Aeo said in a panic, tears immediately cascading down his face. “It’s Leon’s! I d-didn’t know how to drive it, and this man made me do it, and-”

“Shut up, boy!” said the first guard, practically lifting Aeo with one mighty arm. “And believe me, we’ll be having a chat with this ‘Leon’!”

“No, no! Please! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

People stared at the boy, especially the angry ones that had nearly been run down. The guards hauled Aeo down the road towards a large red-brick building with a large sign that Aeo, in his panic, couldn’t have read even if he knew how. If Aeo stepped into that building, he knew his life with Leon would be over. He’d be sent back to Olvaren. He’d have to explain to Aristé how Harthoon died. She would kill him with her bare hands.

“No, no, no!” Aeo shouted, scraping his feet along the ground to gain traction.

“Stop… struggling!” the head guard screamed. “Carry him if you have to! Continue to resist, and it’s lashes for you, you little Edian shit!”

One of the guards opened the door to the building.

A voice shouted from somewhere distant in the crowd.

“Wait!”

The guards ignored the voice at first, and one of the guards lifted Aeo clear off the ground.

“Let me go! Please let me go!”

“Wait!” the voice shouted again, closer this time. “Wait, gentlemen, please!”

The town guards turned towards the sound, pausing their advance with Aeo in their grasp. A familiar figure approached them, practically wheezing from a strenuous run. Leon. In his arms he held a bundle of clothing.

“Please, wait,” Leon gasped, his hands on his knees.

“Are you the owner of this boy? Answer me!” the head guard demanded.

“I am… the caretaker… of the boy, yes.”

“What the hell was the boy doing, racing a wagon down the road at such speed?” the guard asked. “And during the busiest time of day! You do realize that he might have killed people!”

“Officer, you don’t have all the facts,” Leon said loudly. “I saw the whole thing, but didn’t have time to stop it… A very confrontational man nearly assaulted the boy, and Aeo acted the only way he knew how: by attempting to drive our wagon away from him. Of course, inexperienced as he is, my horse panicked at his attempt. It’s not the boy’s fault. If you want to arrest someone, the fool is at the general store right now gloating about it!”

“You expect me to believe that?” the guard demanded. “It doesn’t matter why it happened! The boy’s crime is at least six months in lock-up for his recklessness, maybe more if he hurt anyone! And I should probably arrest you as well for letting it happen!”

“Look, I know you’re all reasonable men,” Leon said. “People may have been frightened, but it doesn’t appear that anyone was injured, at least from what I saw on my run over here. Please, I can pay you to let us go.”

“Ha! A bribe, is it!” laughed the guard nearest the door.

“Call it a fine,” Leon said. “Let me compensate you, whatever you think is fair to cover the distress we caused. We will leave by tomorrow morning once we’re resupplied, and we promise not to return.”

The guard looked about ready to explode, but he paused mid-breath and looked back at the others for a moment.

“A fine, you say. I’d have to pass it by the chief,” he grunted. “Believe me, the fine is going to cost you.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Leon replied, breathless. “But I am willing to pay it.”

“Put the boy down,” the guard said. “But don’t you dare run, you little twerp. Follow me into the station.”

The moment the guard released his hold on Aeo, the boy leaped forwards and wrapped his arms around Leon’s waist and cried. Leon embraced the boy, and led him wobbling into the building.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

As the afternoon wore painfully onwards into the dark evening, ominous steel-gray clouds smothered the bright sky that had so dominated the pleasant atmosphere of Rurali’s day. Aeo sat upon the edge of his large wool-filled mattress, having been escorted by two armed guards to a quiet inn on the southern edge of the village. Using his marker’s map, Leon tracked down the wagon and Poro. She was quite winded and distressed, but she had indeed stopped on the northern edge of town, choosing to help herself to an empty field of long grass to calm down. Leon had yet to return; he’d departed to reorganize the wagon and drive it back to the general store in order to complete his resupply. Distant thunder slowly became more considerable as rain began to pitter-patter on the roof, rising into a constant torrent of noise.

It didn’t rain much in Olvaren, certainly not in any heavy amount. Perhaps in Rurali, it occurred more often. Aeo decided he liked the sound of rain. It smothered his thoughts, for there were too many going through his head to even attempt sleep. He itched his shoulder; it was now covered by a light white cotton tunic that draped a few inches too long down his arms and about his waist. His disgusting rags (which could hardly be called pants by this point) had been thrown away, replaced with proper brown hempen trousers. Leon had even purchased white cotton underwear for him, something he’d never worn in any meaningful way; perhaps he had worn cloth diapers when he was three or four, but those hardly counted. He wore long white socks that dangled loosely at his toes no matter how tightly he pulled them up his legs, and comfortable slip-on shoes made of soft leather.

It didn’t feel right. None of it. The fresh feeling of a bath in a real ceramic tub with actual warm water, the brush of comfortable clothing on his skin, the creaking bed upon which he sat, the potato soup dinner that filled his stomach, the sound of the rain and the crackle of fire from the open cast iron stove in the corner of the room… Everything that filled his senses made him feel completely ashamed. He deserved none of these pleasures. This marked the second time Leon had paid for Aeo’s mistakes, and this time he had been there to hear the price: two-hundred and fifty-five gold pieces. Not copper, not silver, but gold. Enough to purchase a small house, and Leon carried that much and apparently more in his bag.

The guards were right: Aeo belonged in a cell. Better yet, he deserved to remain a slave. He didn’t dare think of the Gray Pale, but perhaps there was somewhere else he could go. Some other work to which he could be suited. A farm, maybe. He’d taken care of horses before. Maybe he could work as a server in a bar. He was well-acquainted with booze, after all.

Lightning flashed through the room’s single window, startling him for a moment before a peal of thunder rocked through the building. Even that didn’t quiet his mind.

What of his magic? Could he conceal it? Maybe, maybe not. It seemed whenever his life was in danger, the blue light would appear to protect him… or fire would come and cause as much damage as possible. When he fell from the wagon, it felt as though he bounced weightless, suspended within a big glass container, its surface of light breaking and cracking and shattering over and over until Aeo came to a halt. In the end, all the pieces drifted away on the breeze and vanished as if nothing had happened.

He hadn’t told Leon. There had been no time to do so. Maybe Leon didn’t need to know. Maybe Leon would get tired of his company. Maybe Leon could drop him off at the next village and let him go to Edia. Maybe he could-

The door to the room slowly opened. Leon stepped in with his bag and several other items in his arms. His hair was sopping wet, as was his thick coat.

“Hello,” he said without expression, shedding his coat and hanging it on a peg next to the doorway. Aeo didn’t reply, sitting silently on the edge of his bed. He stared at the floor and didn’t dare look up.

“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. Aeo said nothing. Leon sat upon the second bed in the room. He pulled his thin spectacles from his shirt pocket and pressed them up against his nose. “I need you to do something for me.”

Aeo swallowed hard, and gently whispered:

“What?”

Leon paused.

“I want you to hit me.”

Aeo’s face twisted more bitter than vinegar.

“…what?”

“Come on, Aeo,” Leon said. “Stand up and hit me. Use your fist and punch me.”

Aeo looked at his lap.

“Why?”

“Don’t ask why,” Leon said, his voice soft but sure. “Just do it. Stand up, come on.”

Leon stood up and grabbed Aeo’s reluctant hands, lifting the boy to his feet and walking him forwards. He sat back down on his bed with Aeo before him.

“Hit me,” he said again. “Hard as you can.”

Aeo took a step backwards.

“No…”

“Aeo, do it.”

“No, I don’t want to.”

“Do it now.”

“No!”

“Hit me!” Leon shouted.

No! I won’t!”

“Aeo,” Leon shouted, his expression grim. “I will take you back to Olvaren if you don’t hit me this instant!

Aeo’s eyes widened and his temper flared. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. His fists clenched, and he stood tense as a cornered animal. Hot tears filled his eyes.

“But you said I was free!”

“Hit me, Aeo! Now!

Aeo reeled back.

“You’ll never take me back there! Never!

He shut his eyes and swung his fist as hard as he could at his only friend’s jaw.

Glass shattered loudly and clattered against the floor. His fist connected with a surface as hard as a slab of granite but as forgiving as a pool of water. Aeo’s eyes opened from shock, and he saw nothing but bright blue light where Leon’s head had been. No, he was still there, with the same grim expression on his face, staring at Aeo through the light. Aeo pulled back his hand. It was covered in sharp fragments of blue magick, as if he’d put his fist through a pane of azure glass. They didn’t tear into his knuckles or cause physical pain, but they adhered to his skin as if they had. Then, as abruptly as they had appeared, the glass shards faded into smoke and fell away. The light surrounding Leon’s head faded as well, leaving the room in relative darkness.

Aeo stepped backwards, his breathing panicked.

“What… what did I…”

“Energy manipulation,” Leon said quietly. “I took the energy of your fist and used it to shield myself from harm.”

“It’s the same…” Aeo whispered, looking down at his hands. “It’s just like…”

“I know,” Leon said. “I know what happened. Everyone at the general store is talking about it. You fell off the wagon, but you didn’t hit the ground. A sphere of light protected you, and it sounded like broken glass as it fell upon the ground. Does that sound right?”

Aeo collapsed upon his mattress.

“…yes,” he said at last.

“Aeo,” Leon said. Aeo didn’t respond. “I didn’t mean it. About taking you back to Olvaren. I would never do that to you. Ever.”

Aeo’s heart was racing.

“Do you understand me, Aeo?” Leon asked.

Aeo looked up. He wiped the tears from his eyes; his hands were trembling.

“Why…? Why did you make me do that?” Aeo asked, heartbroken. “You… you paid so much for me! Why do you care? Why?

“Because you’re worth it, Aeo,” Leon said firmly, holding out his hand. “Aeo, I need you to trust me. I only want what is best for you. I want to teach you how to defend yourself, how to depend on yourself and your talents. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid of other people. And don’t be afraid of me. Right now, it’s my job to take care of you, and I’m not going to stand idle while the world makes you suffer.”

Aeo wrapped his arms around himself and shut his eyes. He wasn’t worth this. Nothing mattered. He would never truly be free. He couldn’t be…

He heard the floor creak, and felt Leon sit beside him. Two strong arms wrapped around him, and he tried his best not to cry again. He failed, and with a whimper, his head pressed against Leon and he fell into sadness.

“It’s okay, Aeo. I’m sorry for making you do that. I’ll never do such a thing to you again, I promise. Everything will be all right.”

Aeo didn’t honestly think it ever would be.

Alyssum – Chapter Twelve

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Without a proper sense of direction, or any experience traveling in a covered wagon at all, Aeo had no idea where Poro and Leon were headed. The pale sunlight piercing through the glittering frost shined through a small opening in the front of the wagon through which Aeo could see Leon driving the horse forwards.

For about two hours, Aeo and Leon spoke not a word. Leon perhaps thought the boy slept beneath the bundles of fur. And Aeo supposed that driving a wagon across a roadless mountain very difficult, as the wagon jostled and shook and creaked, angling sideways and backwards then sideways again. Every so often, Leon would shout strange commands to Poro, who would then slow her steps, or increase them, or stop altogether; ‘nee-ah’ to speed up, and ‘bah-si’ to slow and stop. No sooner did Aeo think that traveling by wagon one of the most strenuous and unpleasant of experiences, the wagon decided to make one more colossal rumble. Aeo braced himself; with the sounds Leon and Poro made, he expected the entire wagon to fall off a cliff. But then the wagon steadied itself and rolled forwards on relatively level ground.

“Aeo?” called Leon, lifting the front flap as high as it would go. “Are you awake?”

After that? Of course I am.

“Yes sir,” came the timid voice.

“Is everything okay back there?” Leon asked. “Nothing fell on you, or fell out the back?”

“No sir.”

Everything in the wagon looked like they’d been secured with tough ropes, and he was very grateful for Leon’s diligence.

“Oh, good. I’ve never driven this way before, and I thought that hill would have been kinder to us. Sorry about that. But I believe I’ve found the highway.”

The notion that Leon drove in unknown territory wasn’t assuring. And Aeo could only stare out the back of the wagon into the blinding snow and see one or two young pine trees and what looked to be a narrow bowl-shaped road sloping upwards into icy mist.

“Where are we going?” Aeo asked. He panicked slightly. “Um, s-sir?”

He heard a chuckle from the driver’s seat.

“You’re very polite,” he said. “But there’s no need to call me sir, even at the Academy. Always made me feel uncomfortable.”

“Yes sir…” Aeo mumbled, fighting to retain his body heat beneath the fur blankets. “Er, I… I mean…”

This time, Leon laughed. Aeo felt his stomach turn.

“I’m sorry, Aeo, I don’t mean to laugh,” Leon said. “But you remind me so much of myself. I remember calling everyone at the Archives ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ so often as a child that Algus once scolded me about it. ‘Some of these wretched ambassadors don’t deserve it,’ he told me. ‘They get big-headed and they’ll think they can boss you around all day and night’.”

“Big-headed?” Aeo said with a smirk. He could imagine some of the hunters at the inn with heads swelled up fatter than pumpkins.

“Yes, prideful,” Leon said, clearing his throat against the chilly wind. “And it was true. I remember this one ambassador from Ordelis that I called him ‘sir’ one too many times, and from then on he called me his ‘little librarian’ and ordered me around the Archives for hours at a time whenever he visited. He often arrived unannounced as well, so I never knew when I’d have to serve him.”

That sounded painfully familiar. Except with Aristé, it was all hours of the day and most of the night. And then Harthoon would…

Aeo’s smile vanished. Just thinking the name shattered his peace. The creaking of the wagon mocked him.

“Aeo?” called Leon after a moment of quiet.

“Yes sir?” Complete impulse. He shut his eyes and shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t mean to… to keep…”

“It’s all right,” Leon said. “I understand. It’s a tough habit to break.”

Leon paused.

“I just wanted to say,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you. I don’t know what happened to you after Shera knocked us out, but I imagine you saw a lot of the battle… Something you should never have been part of. I imagine Shera gave you to the hunters. Did they try to take you back to the village? Did they-”

“I don’t… want to talk about it,” Aeo said, placing emphasis on ‘don’t’ a little more than he intended.

Leon fell silent. Aeo did as well. All they heard was the sound of the wind and snow grinding beneath wooden wheels.

It was becoming difficult to stay warm beneath the blankets due to spaces in the wagon that allowed frigid air to pass through. Determined to retain heat, Aeo curled up his legs and pulled his head underneath the fur. This helped… for a moment. Before long, his breath made the blankets overly humid and stuffy, and at last he gave up, peeking his head out the top. His pillow, once warmed by his head and now thoroughly frozen, made his teeth chatter. His legs uncurled, and felt a terrible chill as they stretched straight – he wished his boots covered more than just his feet. It was all truly a struggle for the ages wherein there is never a victor. Realizing that no real relief would arrive, he curled the edges of his blanket beneath his arms and lay flat as a board.

After an hour or so, the sunlight that filtered through the thin canvas of the wagon disappeared. Somehow, the temperature dropped even further, as they were now under shadow. Though the canvas obscured his view of the outside, he saw frozen cliffs blocking the sun. The wagon made several turns during its descent as if following a twisting trail. At last, the light crested above the mountain peak by late morning, making the temperature a little more bearable.

He tried to remember a time when he felt warm; always a difficult task when freezing. He had sat in front of the fireplace at the Gray Pale, yes. He had laid under fur blankets and rubber bottles in the cave, or stood in Leon’s study with the plants and thermal water. But he decided that all of these places had an underlying frozen nature about them, that just outside a snowstorm was blowing, that you could leave a bucket of water outside and it would be frozen solid by morning. Again, strange memories of a distant land came to him, but they were always obscure, part of an early childhood that Olvaren and chores erased.

An important question rose in his head.

“Leon?”

“Yes?” he said, as if he’d been waiting for Aeo to speak up all along.

“Is Everspring warm?”

Another chuckle from Leon.

“It certainly is,” he said. “You’ll go for a walk on the grounds and start sweating almost immediately. Especially in the wet season, when the humidity rises. I think you’ll find it quite the opposite of Olvaren’s cold and dry climate. Speaking of warmer climates…”

Aeo looked upwards towards the front, and saw Leon standing as the wagon slowed to a halt.

“Good news,” Leon said. “You can see the treeline from here.”

He couldn’t just lay there; despite the cold, Aeo threw a blanket around himself and, through the pain in his chest, kneeled next to the crates at the front of the wagon and peered through the flap. The view was a bit unimpressive; he’d seen pine and poplar trees before, and couldn’t see more than one or two kilometers down the mountain before everything fell into cloudy mist. But a familiar thought occurred to him that hadn’t passed through his mind since he departed the Gray Pale.

“Are we… on the other side of the mountain?” he asked.

Leon sat and looked down at Aeo through the canvas.

“Yes, we are. We went through the pass about two hours ago. By the end of the day, we’ll descend into the valley low enough to get out of this snow. There might be rain, but it will be much warmer.”

Leon slapped the reigns down and with a quick shout of ‘nee-ah’, Poro continued and the wagon lurched forward.

“Um… Leon?” Aeo asked. “Am I… free?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, concentrating on driving.

“Well, I… I heard… from people at the inn, that if an Edian crosses the mountain, there’s a warm country of sand to the west where we come from. If an Edian goes there, then they’re free.”

“That’s true,” Leon said. “There is a country to the west. Edia, named after the priestess that crossed the Great Sea and settled her people there. Were you born there, Aeo?”

“I don’t know,” Aeo said. “I… guess I don’t remember anything other than Olvaren.”

“Well, I have heard tales of Edian slaves making their way back to their homeland. I’d like to think it happens more often than the rumors say it does.”

“So Edia doesn’t have slaves? Is Everspring in Edia?”

“No,” Leon said with a laugh. “No, the Everspring is in Ashant, about a month and a half to the south by horse. It may take us a bit longer if we stop and rest along the way, which I don’t think is a terrible idea. I haven’t slept… for a while now, and I’d like to once we get off the mountain.”

“Oh.”

So he wasn’t going back to his homeland.

“Do they have slaves in Ashant?”

“They don’t,” Leon said. “Slavery was outlawed in Ashant about 100 years ago.”

“So… I’ll be free when we reach Everspring?”

“Ha,” Leon said. “You’re free right now.”

Aeo blinked a few times.

“I… I am?”

“That’s why I left last night,” Leon said. “I went down to the village and paid for your freedom, and made certain no one would ever take you back there.”

Aeo’s eyes opened wide.

“You… paid for me?” he asked. “How? …and why?”

“Why?” Leon said. “Would you prefer I didn’t?”

“No, I just mean…”

“It’s okay, Aeo,” Leon said, sliding sideways in his seat and tousling Aeo’s hair. “It was my choice. I gave the constable a very valuable treasure that my father had given me,” Leon said. “It was in their best interest to accept my deal, so they left you in my care. As a matter of fact, Aeo, go into my bag in the back of the wagon and you’ll find in the very front pocket a small glass vial filled with a dark liquid. Bring it up to me, would you?”

Aeo obeyed, carefully hobbling to the back without toppling over. Opening the flap of Leon’s bag, he saw a few strange instruments and bottles inside the main compartment but didn’t dare touch them. The front pocket contained a few spare pieces of paper with scribbled notes and, indeed, a small unmarked glass vial. Aeo held it up to the light; about a quarter-inch filled, the “liquid” looked like black mucky oil.

“What is it?” Aeo said, stumbling back over to the front of the wagon. He slid the vial to Leon’s side, and Leon took the vial in his gloved hand.

“Turns out I was right,” he said. “A scholar in the village was able to track you all the way up the mountain with this. This is your blood, Aeo.”

“My blood?” He stuck out his tongue. “Eww, really?”

“They must have taken it from you when you were little,” Leon said. “You probably don’t even remember them taking it from you. These samples can last for years, and with the proper evocation, someone would be able to track you from almost anywhere in the world.”

“Hmm,” Aeo grunted, shaking his head. What a simple, terrible thing, the reason the hunters found Pick and Shera. The reason Horthoon found him. The whole reason for everything.

“So,” Leon continued. “Since you’re free and don’t belong to anyone anymore, I thought I’d leave it up to you. Do you want me to empty it out and destroy it? Or do you want me to hang onto it for while, and let you decide?”

Aeo frowned.

“I don’t want it,” he said simply.

“Just so you’re aware,” Leon said. “Samples like this are very expensive to take, and if you left it to me, if you ever get lost or separated from me, I’d be able to find you. I would ensure that no one else could find it and use it against you.”

Aeo stayed silent.

“The question is,” Leon said. “Do you trust me enough to give me that responsibility?”

Aeo pulled his blanket tighter against himself.

“I… I trust you,” he said quietly. “But… I don’t like that thing. Can you please… throw it away?”

“You’re sure?”

Aeo nodded.

“Yeah.”

“Bah-si, bah-si,” Leon said to Poro, pulling on the reigns. Poro stopped and the wagon halted. “All right, then. It should be as simple as pulling the cork.”

Leon turned to his side, and allowed Aeo to watch him. Removing his gloves, he gently took the cork and pulled. It didn’t budge. He dug his fingernails into the edges. No luck.

“Hmm, wedged in there,” Leon said. “Hold on. If I remember right, you might want to close your ears.”

Aeo did so, unsure of what might happen. Leon stood for a moment and produced a curious item from his pocket made of metal and polished hardwood. He flicking the object with his finger, and a small six-inch blade jumped up from inside the handle, clicking into place. Leon stabbed the cork from the side, and the blade acted as a lever. With a loud pop that couldn’t have come from such a small cork, it flew free, flying away from the wagon and into the snow.

“Oops. Well, there we go,” Leon said. “That sound is the magick vanishing, of course. It’s no good anymore.”

Unceremoniously, Leon tipped the bottle over the side of the wagon and allowed the black sludge to drip from the vial. Most of it clung to the glass, obscuring the inside, but a few drops fell out and onto the icy ground.

“Good,” Aeo said. “I hate that thing.”

“As do I,” Leon said. “I think you made the right choice. Here, let’s hang on to the bottle until we can dispose of it properly. Wouldn’t want some merchant to find it in the snow, no matter how old the blood is. There’s a handkerchief in my bag, wrap it up in that.”

“Okay,” Aeo said, careful to keep his fingers away from the vial’s lip. He didn’t intend to, but the smell of the vial caught his nose and made him gag. “Ugh, bad…”

“Nee-ah, nee-ah,” Leon said with a whip of the reigns, and the wagon lurched forth under Poro’s power. “Poor girl, we’ll find you a warm place to rest soon enough. No doubt you miss the warm cave already. I know I do.”

Aeo sat up against one corner of the wagon and buried himself in furs. He fumbled for a few terrible chilly moments, but eventually got warm and enjoyed much more comfort. He didn’t feel sleep in the slightest, but there was one more nagging problem.

“Leon?” he asked. “I’m hungry.”

“Um, let’s see,” Leon replied. “Oh, yes, the box you were leaning on. I think there is a bag of black currant berries and a few green apples in there. I had intended to return to Olvaren to resupply soon, but… everything happened. We’ll have to enjoy cooked mushrooms and canned berries until we reach the next village. Rurali, I think it’s called. It’s a few days away, but we’ll be able to pick up some good dried meat and rye bread there. Maybe some cucumbers or fresh fish. What’s your favorite food, Aeo?”

“Um…” Aeo said. He could think of nothing from the inn. “Your bighorn stew, I think. It was really good.”

“Well, thank you,” Leon said. “I rather liked it myself. You know, you’re going to love Ashanti cuisine, if I could name my favorite meal, it would have to be…”

Leon carried on as the ride continued down the mountain, describing fruits, vegetables, and sweets that Aeo had never heard of before. He then talked about life at the Academy and the subjects they taught there. Aeo didn’t understand the terms Leon used in the slightest, like “astrologica”, “elementalism”, and “matter metamorphosis”. But Aeo didn’t mind in the least. Leon liked to talk, and Aeo decided he liked to listen.

* * * * * *

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For about four or five hours, the view outside remained roughly the same. The snow continued to steadily fall, obscuring a greater view of the highway ahead. In fact, how Leon knew they still traveled on the highway, Aeo didn’t quite understand. Perhaps it was the way the pine trees remained an average distance apart as they rolled on; it didn’t look apparent at first, but slowly as the forests grew thicker during the descent, Aeo realized Poro was following a narrow corridor of snow-covered foliage and fallen trees. The snow didn’t freeze solid to the ground like it did at the peak of Falas, and delicate channels of fresh-melted water encrusted with ice cascaded along the highway’s edge.

The wind that so dominated the highest cliffs of Falas had vanished, replaced by a peaceful stillness Aeo had never truly heard before. The temperature hadn’t changed, but the lack of wind made all the difference. Except for the squeaking and rocking of the wooden wagon, the valley into which they journeyed made no sounds. Even the songbirds that he supposed lived in those woods must have decided to remain in their nests, expecting the winter that came on swiftly. Once or twice, he heard the call of a hawk from somewhere high above the pine, no doubt scanning the earth below for rabbits, mice, or squirrels.

Curiously, even though Leon had stated that the road they traveled upon was a major trade route to western villages and the borders of Edia, Aeo and Leon saw no one else on the road. All the better, Leon had said. The fewer people ask about our business, the better.

As the sun began to set, some of the clouds parted at last, revealing an orange light nearly dipping to the horizon. Like an impenetrable cloud above the trail from which they came, Aeo could no longer see the top of the mountain. Looking out the front flap, however, the view became very different. Aeo kneeled up on the food crate to get a look at the valley below, and what met his gaze didn’t disappoint: one or two smaller peaks many dozens of kilometers in the distance rose across a mighty green valley and a small shimmering lake nestled in the center.

“Leon, sir?” Aeo said, pointing to the lake. “What’s that? Are we going there?”

“What’s what?”

“Down there, in the middle of the trees. It looks like a mirror… Are we going down there?”

“It’s water,” Leon said with a grin. “A lake. And I don’t believe so. The highway winds south beyond the lake. I’d have to check my marker, but I believe the road follows a river that feeds into the lake. Why, thinking of doing some swimming? The water is probably freezing.”

“Oh,” he said. Regardless, he’d never seen so much water from a distance before. “I don’t know how to swim anyway.”

“Not even swimming, eh? Then you’ll love the lake beside the Academy. It’s not quite as warm as the hot springs on Falas, but it’s nice all year round. You can even take swimming lessons if you want. It’s great exercise.”

“Really?”

“Yes sir,” Leon said nonchalantly. Then, with a start, Leon slapped his hand to his mouth. “Oh, look what you made me do. Now I’m starting to say it.”

For the first time he could remember, Aeo let out a laugh.

As the sun dipped below the crest of the distant mountains, the air began to chill the moment it disappeared. A few moments later, Leon directed Poro to halt her progress along the side of the highway.

“We’ll stop here for the night,” Leon said. “I had hoped to make it out of the snow, but Poro can only take this wagon downhill so quickly. Oh well. Over there looks decent enough.”

Aeo looked, and Leon pointed to spot beneath a small grove of fir trees relatively free of snow. Leon hopped down from the driver’s seat and walked to the back of the wagon.

“Do you feel well enough to carry the furs over while I get a fire going?”

Aeo straightened his back and felt his aching ribs and stomach. The intensity of the pain had gone away, but the soreness remained.

“I think so,” Aeo said, gathering as many blankets as he could in his arms.

“Excellent,” Leon said, reaching for the pile of stacked firewood near the rear of the cart. He took his bag and proceeded to the clearing with Aeo slowly and carefully following after him.

If the forest had been a quiet sanctuary before, it became oppressively silent in the dusk and darkness. Aeo could imagine packs of wolves or hungry mountain lions stalking them from a distance, like stories he’d always heard at the inn, but he neither heard them howling or saw any movement. He peered through the trees, and as far as he could see, thick pines, blue spruces, poplars, and fir trees grew tall above the gently-fallen snow, surrounded in blankets of white except where their discarded leaves and needles lay. The spot Leon picked out was particularly covered in needles and pine cones, and before he began any fire-making, he dragged his boot along the ground to kick all of the debris from the area.

It took three trips for Aeo to gather all the blankets, and by the end, he’d forgotten which blankets belonged to him or to Leon.

“Sorry,” he said, separating the large from the small. “I think these are yours.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Leon said. “Take as many as you’ll need. I have a trick to staying warm out in the open so we won’t freeze tonight.”

“Magick?” Aeo asked.

Leon nodded.

“Do you mind if I start the campfire tonight?”

“Uh, yeah… sure.”

“You’ll take tomorrow night?”

“Um… I guess…”

“Don’t worry, practice makes perfect. You did great last time.”

Last time was not a good memory. Regardless, Aeo took one of the blankets around his shoulders and shivered in the cold; although the temperature had risen dramatically in their single day of travel, he could still see his breath as the sky turned a cloudless midnight blue above them. Before starting, Leon scavenged a few rocks from beneath the needles and pine cones, arranging them in a rough circle. Like a professional, Leon built the lean-to out of twigs and kindling and took the flint stick out of his bag. Instead of the curved piece of steel, however, he produced the same strange pocket knife from his coat. Again, without evidence of a switch, the knife produced a blade from its center, with no regard to gravity. With six or seven quick powerful strokes, sparks flew like shooting stars right into the bundle and smoldered. Within thirty seconds of blowing, the fire poofed into being and greedily devoured the sticks and stems, billowing thick grey smoke all the while.

“It always takes three or four times as much kindling to get a fire going if it’s wet than if it’s dry,” Leon said, placing dry wood from the wagon. “And placing wet logs onto wet kindling will probably smother the fire. Add wet wood carefully and slowly. When possible, carry some dry kindling with you wherever you go. A hatchet, as well. If you’re in the middle of winter or rain, you can split a log open and gather dry kindling from the center with a knife.”

Aeo nodded, sitting up closer to the fire.

“When we get to Rurali, we’ll get you all geared up. Surely their general store will have everything you need.”

“But,” Aeo said, patting his unkempt hair down. “I don’t have any money.”

Leon smirked.

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “I’ll buy everything.”

“Really?” Aeo asked. “You have money?”

“I do, although I don’t like to tell people about it. I may not look it, having spent the last year and a half living in a cave. But I do enjoy some the finer things in life when living at the Academy. Like unru tea. Fresh nerevo. And properly laundered clothes. I apologize if this sounds conceited, but using a stone floor as a washboard and relying on smelly lye soap is something I can do without.”

“Con-see-ted?”

“Arrogant,” Leon explained with a grin. “Snooty, I suppose.”

Snooty. What a funny word, Aeo thought. He had heard that one before.

“But you’re not snooty. I just thought you looked like a teacher, at first,” Aeo said. “You are a teacher, aren’t you?”

“I am, yes,” Leon said, leaning over the growing fire. “I’m looking forward to getting back to my alchemy students. No doubt Master Dolshir has spoiled them rotten. I think he likes to let the fourth level students use the greenhouse’s rare plants and minerals to prove to them how advanced our department is. But I say keep it simple, practice the basics, over and over again. Once you memorize the procedures to create simple alchemical solutions, and can perform them in your sleep, then you can play with the valuable ingredients.”

“Could you teach me to make potions?” Aeo asked.

“I certainly could. Have you ever mixed anything together before? Like a potion? Or maybe a drink, perhaps?”

“Aristé wouldn’t let me mix drinks,” Aeo said, scratching his arm. “She said I’d poison people. I served ale, but I hate ale. It’s gross.”

“Very understandable. I’ve found that alchemy is all but a lost art in Antiell.”

Leon bent down and placed his fire-making tools away into his bag and produced in their stead a small white candle and a thin wooden block with a hole drilled in the center.

“A candle?” Aeo asked.

“Yes,” Leon said. “It makes for a good foundation for a ward. And not only are they good for wards, a proper ward causes the candle to burn slower and protects it against the wind. They benefit each other. This candle should last us the whole night, and hopefully I have enough candles to last us until we reach Rurali.”

Leon brought the candle close to the base of the fire, pulling it back as soon as the wick lit with a tender flame. He wedged the candle into the base and placed it about a foot from the campfire. Then, kneeling before it as if he were going to pray, he placed both of his hands about six inches from the burning wick and began quietly whispering something. Aeo nearly asked what the chanting was for; he was interrupted by a shining white light that appeared in Leon’s downward-facing hands. A clearly-defined semi-circle glyph emerged and inflated like the illuminated illustration of some arcane spellbook, draping over the candle like delicate lace. Within five seconds, like the ward in the cave, the magick gave off a cheerful pop as the spell took effect. Unlike the ward in the cave, however, this ward gave off a great plume of shimmering orange smoke that rose from the flame and swirled first around the campfire and then outwards in a cloudy gale around both Aeo and Leon. Leon showed no great alarm. Aeo did, and he instinctively tried to hold his breath from breathing the smoke. Unfortunately, it all happened so fast, he inhaled from surprise.

Sweet. Like breathing in the scent of wild roses and caramelized sugar. It only took about ten seconds for the smoke to settle on the icy ground. As it did so, the temperature around Aeo delightfully increased more than thirty or forty degrees as if he, Leon, and the campfire had moved into the dry indoors. The snow roughly 5 meters in diameter around the candle began to thaw and melt, and within about sixty seconds it appeared as if snow had simply forgotten to fall in the ward’s presence. Not even moisture remained in the dirt underneath them.

“Whoa,” Aeo whispered, letting the blanket around his shoulders fall.

“How about that,” Leon said, standing to his feet. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s a bit more difficult than the wards I cast in the cave since it covers an area instead of just an opening. Give me a moment, I’ll be right back. Let’s roast some mushrooms, shall we?”

Leon stepped over to the wagon as Aeo made a funny face.

Mushrooms? Eww, Aeo thought.

Curious, Aeo slid himself backwards towards the very edge of the circle and reached his hand beyond the snow line. While he saw no evidence of any kind of definitive edge, his hand chilled from wintery air the moment it crossed an invisible barrier.

Leon returned bearing a small lidded box in his arms and an iron skillet, a metal bowl, a metal fork, and a large water canteen all sat on top. He placed everything on the ground beside the pine tree and sat before the fire. Turning to his bag, he pulled a thin labelless glass bottle from within the main compartment; Aeo imagined that Leon’s bag contained an infinite space filled with the most useful items imaginable. With magick, who knew what was possible anymore?

“Apologies,” Leon said. “I only have one set of utensils. I’ll use the fork for cooking, and then you can take it. Sound good?”

Aeo nodded.

“What’s that?” He asked, pointing to the bottle. “Is it a potion?”

“Oh, this?” Leon asked. “No, olive oil. I never forget to fill my bottle whenever I can, I just can’t cook without it.”

“Oh.”

Leon set the crate in front of him and lifted the lid. To Aeo’s surprise, the crate make a sharp noise, like a balloon popping.

“A preservation ward,” Leon explained. “Keeps the food fresh while we travel. Remind me to replace it before the night is through.”

From the crate, Leon lifted up the largest mushroom Aeo had ever seen, as wide as both of Leon’s hands and six inches thick. Plump and deep violet in color, the stem grew beneath an array of delicate gills. Within five minutes, Leon scooped out the stem and the gills with the fork and carefully cut long strips of mushroom apart with his pocket knife; the insides of the mushroom were a light purple hue. Within ten minutes, a strange but delicious scent wafted from the iron skillet, filling the warm “bubble” of Leon’s enchantment. Not at all earthy, but very savory and rich, like a juicy steak on a sizzling cooktop. As promised, once the mushroom slices took on an odd color combination of crispy brown and violet, Leon handed the fork, bowl, and several slices of mushroom to the boy. Aeo was not a picky eater; all his life, he took what he could get. He wasn’t about to change now. He had to admit, after traveling all day on an apple and a few berries, he was ravenous.

The mushroom practically melted as he cut it with the fork. Hesitantly, he took a bite. The moment the richness of the mushroom hit his taste buds, his eyes widened. The smell and the taste were one in the same: it was as if he were eating the most mouthwatering meat in the world, coupled with the tiniest hint of… fruit? Strawberries? The combination of flavours didn’t deter him in the slightest. In fact, it made him all the more starved.

“Mmm,” he said, stuffing his mouth with another piece. “This is amazing.”

“Isn’t it delicious?” Leon said, cutting up a mushroom in the skillet with his pocket knife. “One of the most wonderful mushrooms I found up there. Hala introduced it to me. The frogs love it, and save it for special occasions when their families get together. Apparently, it’s very rare, and only grows in dark crevices near the underground river currents. I’m thinking of growing it in the Academy fungus dens… If they will grow, of course. Don’t know until I try. Might take years until new fungi can grow; some can be very picky about their environments and culture mediums, and I have a feeling this one will be. But they would make excellent additions to the Academy dining menu.”

“What’s a culture medium?”

“Whatever the mushroom wants to grow in,” Leon said, taking a bite. “Compost, rotting logs, things of that nature.”

“Mushrooms are kinda weird,” Aeo said with his food in his mouth. “Mushrooms grow in the dark, don’t they? Don’t they need light, like a plant?”

“Some do, some don’t. They’re different than trees and grass. Most just need humidity and a rich medium to grow. Interesting, isn’t it? Many alchemy recipes depend on fungi to give them thickness and stability.”

“Huh,” Aeo said. “So you can make potions out of… fun-ghee?”

“That you can,” Leon said with a grin.

* * * * * *

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With dinner finished, Leon did indeed replace the preservation ward on the box of mushrooms, and returned it to the wagon. He then unhooked Poro from the wagon and led her over to the magickal warmth. She appeared to notice the change immediately, letting out soft snorting sounds from her nose and gently flicked her tail. Roped to the tree under which they lay, Leon walked back to the wagon and brought back a bucket and a large crate filled with thin green vines from which red flowers grew. He placed them on the ground before Poro, and she dove in and muched away at the thick tangle of vines.

“She loves these,” Leon said. “She’ll be so sad to never eat them again. I suppose I could try cultivating them, but I worry that they’ll never grow without the spring water.”

Bending down outside of the warm zone, Leon scooped up a large amount of snow into the bucket, then returned; within sixty seconds, the snow melted, and a fresh bucket of room-temperature water remained. He placed this before Poro as well, and she happily slurped it up.

“Good job, Poro,” Leon said, stroking Poro’s mane. “We’ll get you to greener pastures soon.”

“How old is Poro?” Aeo asked.

“She’s six years old, I believe,” Leon said. “The gentlest and most patient soul I’ve ever known for a horse so young. Very capable, too. The cavern stable was so large, it gave Poro enough space to run around. Every so often, I’d ride her down the mountain and back up again. I don’t believe she liked the rocky terrain, but she loved the forest below.”

Leon sat on the ground and yawned.

“I don’t know about you, Aeo, but I’m exhausted. I’m going to get some sleep. Pass me a blanket, would you?”

Aeo did so.

“What if wolves or bears come and try to eat us?”

“Poro will let us know,” Leon said. “Even if she falls asleep, she’s very alert.”

Leon laid down a few feet from the campfire and the candle ward, choosing to sleep on top of the fur blanket and nothing else. Aeo followed Leon’s example and made a bed for himself with a set of furs on bottom and two on top. Realizing he hardly needed two in the heat, he removed one.

As everything grew silent beside the crackling campfire, Aeo’s thought immediately turned to Pick. He didn’t want to think about the events that led up to it, but the image of Pick’s bloody fur had burned so keenly into his mind that it made him nauseous. If only Aeo had been at Pick’s side. Maybe the fire in his hands could have helped. Maybe he could have warned Pick of the impending danger. But then the thought occurred to him: if a wolf couldn’t hear the footsteps of approaching hunters, what hope could Aeo have had?

“Leon?” Aeo asked.

“Hmm?” Leon asked without turning over.

“Do you think Pick is still alive?”

“Honestly?” Leon asked quietly. “I’ll bet he is. He’s tough like his mama. I’m sure they’re both safe.”

“I think so too,” Aeo said.

After a few moments of thinking, Aeo said:

“I miss Hala.”

“Mmm, me too,” Leon replied, sounding more distant.

After a few more moments, Aeo said:

“Leon?”

Leon didn’t reply, no doubt fast asleep.

“Goodnight,” Aeo said to everybody and nobody, turning over to face the wintry darkness beyond the ward. The edge of the ward was out of his reach, but he could see a chill wind blowing through the trees and appreciated the fact that he couldn’t feel it.

He remained awake for many minutes more, thinking about everything all at once. How expensive was a slave? What price did Leon have to pay to free him? If freedom meant having to lose Pick as a friend, maybe freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But it felt so good to travel with Leon and be free of the Gray Pale and that miserable frigid village. He couldn’t help but feel a glimmer of selfish happiness. Selfish? Was it wrong to feel the way he did? Surely Leon didn’t judge him that way. Maybe if Pick were alive, he’d be happy. Aeo wished Pick could have come with them. Now that he was free, there was so much Aeo wanted to say.

The last thought that stuck in Aeo’s mind as he drifted off to sleep were the words:

I’m free.

Alyssum – Chapter Eleven

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Lies came easy to Master Leon Sirelu. Perhaps not lies… Exaggerations. Truth was flexible, especially when it needed to be.

He hadn’t been lying about the plagues spread along the southern coast of Ashant by depraved sky pirates, nor about his attempts to discover a cure on Falas. But so were fifty or so other Academy scholars that travelled the Antielli continent on research and diplomatic missions. Such evocations arrived to his marker every two or three weeks, but served more as general requests for information and advice than required tasks. He could have chosen a dozen other subjects, but the one about the plague seemed desperate and immediate enough for the situation: it gave him a verifiable purpose based on recent events, and one that wasn’t an outright lie. Besides, if Leon had discovered some mystical fungus or root in or around the mountain that served as an instant remedy for a very specific and unnamed disease from a very specific villainous source that afflicted a very specific race of people, he would have been quite shocked.

He had little hope that the hunters or villagers would stay off the mountain for five full years, or even attempt to discover and hunt more great wolves (if there were any remaining on the mountain). But even if they did, his planted “information” about the wolves moving west along with a good snowstorm to conceal lupine tracks would put the hunters off of Shera’s trail for good.

Even he had to admit, lying about Aeo and the wolves had been a calculated but incredibly risky gamble. If the scholar had ever witnessed Leon through Aeo’s eyes, none of Leon’s story about living in the forest would have connected with the truth. But Pick had remained at Aeo’s side almost every day for hours at a time, making him the most likely being of observation besides Shera and himself. The sole facts that the scholar seemed so excited and the constable so unfamiliar with Leon and his story – along with them not immediately clapping his wrists in irons – gave him a fairly quick tell about what they did and did not know.

They already knew Aeo was powerful. But, truthfully, abused and powerful made for a more dramatic tale and cast the boy as a victim of circumstance instead of a vicious killer. Leon couldn’t have expected pity or sympathy due to Aeo’s race, of course, but it made them see that Aeo wouldn’t be worth the trouble to execute. After all, why not place some wonder in their minds as to whether they could even touch the boy without bursting into flames? To think the academy scholar actually believed the little white lie about Aeo repeatedly burning Leon almost made him grin.

The joy faded from his success when he ruminated upon the price he’d just paid. He’d just given a priceless piece of the Everspring into the greedy hands of the San’Drael Academy. No doubt the headmaster of the Academy would see to the stone’s study personally, which did not bode well. A prideful humil man named Edmund Bosik. Leon had only heard stories of the man’s work, but it was all terribly grim. Some of it involved the study of living Edian slaves in some vain attempt to differentiate them from the Antielli populace. What would he choose to do with a better understanding of a rival’s power? What new subterfuge could Antiell Academy scholars – or worse, the mercenaries they employed – inflict upon Ashant and its sovereignty should they learn how to undo Everspring enchantments?

Leon didn’t honestly know if they could even study the stone; yet another gamble. Created to expend all of its energy in a single powerful burst, the stone was never meant to provide a slow trickle that could be unwoven and thoroughly examined. With their narrow-mindedness and lack of vision, they would surely glean little about the nature of the Wellspring. But one thing was certain: Leon had no plans to report the crystal’s trade to the Academy. Besides, this was a personal deal instead of an Academy-sponsored donation, no matter how often he’d used his title to sound credible.

The good constable’s observations were astute enough. What am I getting out of this deal? A freed slave and the reconstruction of some burned-down backwater?

In the very least, Leon purchased for Aeo a better future, one where he could decide his fate away from the prejudice of that terrible country. And at the very most… He shook the optimism out of his head again. Best not think of such things now, he thought. Cart before the horse, eggs before they hatch, and all that. Still too much to do. Aeo has yet to even control a flame on his own, much less defend himself.

Leon had left his pocket watch in the cave with his bag; he had no idea of the time when he finally worked his way up the mountain. After waiting in the woods near the destroyed village for nearly an hour, he’d taken a terribly convoluted path without the aid of a light in case anyone from the village had attempted to follow him. Fortunately, he had a clever trick for overcoming near darkness: a small piece of polished opal hung between a length of leather just the size of Leon’s forehead. Wearing it much like an eyepatch, the opal rested against his right temple. Upon it, he transfixed a tiny green glowing glyph that illuminated the path before him as if it were broad daylight.

He avoided the clearing of Shera’s carnage, opting to work his way up the mountain on a northerly route. No trails on the mountain offered a simple way up, but once he breached the treeline, the bare snow gave him a fairly clear path. To wander the cliffs of Falas unaided by climbing equipment was a fairly foolish idea, but Leon had discovered perhaps six or seven avenues up the mountain that hadn’t been covered by steep rock slides or sheer vertical walls. Regardless, Falas demanded patience and an able body, of which Leon had both. The cold no longer bothered him, though the thought of poor Aeo traversing the mountain in nothing but rags made him marvel at the boy’s determination. Or desperation, whichever it was.

When he finally saw the light of a cave in the cliffside some hours after his climb, he paused before entering to gather his thoughts. Somehow, in the hours of the morning, he would have to find his horse, Poro, which enjoyed resting far into the bighorn cave, retrieve and harness Poro to the cart that hid in an alcove some hundreds of yards away from the caves, and store as much alyssum and equipment as he could into the concealable containers that were built into the wagon’s frame. Both his mind and body yearned for rest. He wished Aeo could help him, but as he finally stepped into the cave and laid his eyes upon the boy, he knew it wasn’t meant to be. Bundled up beneath the furs, Aeo slept peacefully as Hala sat beside him.

She looked up in shock at the man entering the cave, but relaxed as Leon removed his hood.

“Leon,” Hala whispered, hopping over to him. “Is everything all right? Where did you go? What did you do?”

“I went down to the village,” Leon said, bending down. “I paid a heavy price to ensure Shera would not be followed, and that Aeo could walk free. Is he okay?”

“The poor dear is sleeping,” Hala said, looking back at Aeo. “He has been for a few hours. But what did you do? What price? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“I convinced the leaders of the village that it would be in their best interests to leave the wolves alone, allow Aeo to remain in my care, and focus their efforts on rebuilding their homes,” Leon said. “I gave them a very special artifact in return for these promises. Something very dear to me. Something that my… that my father…”

He shook his head, placing both hands through his hair.

“Have I gone mad, Hala?” he asked. “What am I doing? I’m afraid all of the decisions I’ve made in the last two years… and especially the last two weeks… will inevitably end in complete disaster. I’ve worked so hard to find this place, to discover… And now that I’ve found it, I don’t know what to do… I’ve destroyed Pick and Shera’s life, I’ve left everything vulnerable and exposed, and…” He trailed off, and to both Hala and Leon’s surprise, Leon suppressed a sob and fell silent.

“Leon,” Hala said, taken aback. “I’ve never seen you this way before.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “There is so much I wish I could explain. About why I chose to come here. About why the boy…”

Leon looked across the cave at Aeo.

“…why he must be the one to help me. Hala, if only you could view my thoughts like Shera did, you would think me the most desperate, despicable man on the face of Tiathys.”

Hala lept from the floor and collided against Leon’s chest with both hands before landing sharply back against the stone floor. Leon nearly fell backwards.

“Now you listen to me, Leon Sirelu,” Hala said, her voice sharp but quiet. “Desperate is the last thing you are! You are gentle, patient, and kind, one of the most intelligent beings I’ve ever known! You have kept all of us safe, and that is the least despicable thing I’ve ever seen in my long years. I don’t know what your intentions are for young Aeo, but I know there’s no one I trust more than you to care for him.”

“I don’t know if I’m ready,” Leon said. “I may be a master at Everspring, but I fear I’m preparing Aeo for a life of conflict and sorrow. No child should ever see death, or cause it… And I fear that Aeo saw too much today. You should have seen the village, Hala. It’s gone, there’s nothing left. How can I guide him when my powers are so frail? I’m no elementalist, I’m no warrior. I’m a glorified apothecary, at best. And worst of all, I’m no father. My own father taught me a terrible example, and I fear I’ll do the same.”

“Leon,” Hala said. “I don’t know your father. But I know you, the way you speak, the way you teach. You’re not frail. You’ve only known the boy for a few days, and he already trusts you. Trust yourself, like he trusts you. If you can’t be a father, be his example. Apothecary or no, you always have the right answers.”

“And if my answers end up damning us both?”

“You’ll think of something, my dear,” Hala said, twisting her whisker. “You and Aeo have already conquered this mountain. I think you’ll be able to conquer anything together.”

Leon shook his head again and fell silent for a moment.

“You know,” he whispered. “If this advice were coming from anywhere other than a frog… One day, you’re going to have to tell me where all of this wisdom comes from.”

“Ha!” Hala said, folding her arms. “As I’ve told you, it’s motherly instinct!”


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Aeo’s eyes opened. Damp stalactites greeted him, reflecting a dim white light. No dreams had come to him that night. Perhaps the stalactites were the dream. Maybe the image of Pick’s body lying prone in bloody snow had simply been a nightmare, and the giant pup would be happily dreaming in his corner of the cave.

Aeo looked. He saw the collapsed wooden door and the gaping cave entrance flooded with morning sun rays. Gone were the charms and candles that once lined the cave walls. The boxes of supplies had disappeared as well. He saw the burning embers of the campfire… then Pick’s bed of furs. But no Pick. Aeo envisioned him playing outside in the snowy morning air, carefree…

He thought he’d cried enough. He thought he couldn’t feel anything anymore. But seeing the empty bed left a hole in his heart, and he wallowed in a shame he’d never felt before. Tears filled his eyes as his face contorted, and he bitterly accepted the pain that emerged from his ribs, stomach, and bruised eye as payment for his stupidity. If he’d only stayed at the Inn. If he’d only accepted his fate. He would have never known Pick, or Leon, or Hala, or Shera, Harthoon never would have died, Aristé would have continued barking orders at him, and everything would have been…

“Aeo, dear?” came a voice.

Aeo didn’t try to hide his tears this time. Everything hurt too much to conceal anything. With his eyes shut tight against the newness of the day, he sobbed desperately for the suffering he’d inflicted on everyone he knew.

“No, Aeo… Please, dear,” said Hala’s voice. “Please don’t cry… You must save your strength for today.”

“It’s my fault,” Aeo whispered. “It’s all my fault…”

“Aeo, please…”

Her voice faded as a pair of boots entered the cave from outside.

“Everything is ready,” came the weary voice of Leon. “At last.”

“Leon, it’s Aeo,” Hala said. “Please, tell him none of this was his fault. Tell him, Leon…”

Aeo refused to open his eyes, even as the boots approached him and the man wearing them kneeled beside him. In fact, his sadness doubled upon itself and he curled sideways away from the man and the frog, clutching his chest, unable to breathe. No one said anything for a moment as Aeo heaved, his stifling sobs emerging from deep within.

He felt a hand rest on his arm.

“Aeo,” Leon said. “Only Tiathys knows why things like this happen, or even why they happen the way they do. So much of this world is cruel and unfair…”

Aeo breathed for the first time in several moments.

“I know you hardly know me… And there’s so much that I don’t yet know about you. But I want you to trust me. Trust in your good memories. Pick wouldn’t want to see you this way, Aeo. He would want you to be happy. Remember the color green; it was his favorite color, the first color Shera ever showed to him. He hated blue and purple.”

The lump in Aeo’s throat grew larger, and the tears dripped sideways onto the fur blankets.

“I want to teach you, Aeo,” Leon said. “I want to show you that the Goddess gave you your life and your power for a reason. A good reason. Will you let me do that for you?”

The hand on his arm gently turned Aeo to his back again, and Aeo meagerly rubbed his eyes with one hand. For a moment, Aeo allowed himself to regain a small measure of calm, and he carefully looked upwards upon the spectacled face of his mentor.

“Why?” Aeo asked with a whimper. “Why do you care about me?”

Leon’s face melted into a confident smile.

“Because,” he said. “You’re just like me. Unsure of yourself. Afraid. You just need a chance to prove otherwise. You’re worth saving, Aeo.”

Aeo wasn’t sure, but Leon might have given Hala a knowing nod.

“And if I’m the first person you’ve ever heard say that to you, then prepare to be surprised… Because we’re going to a place that is filled with masters just like me that will care about you in much the same way.”

“Aeo, dear,” said Hala, resting a webbed hand on his arm. “In just these few days I’ve known you, you’ve become precious to me as well. Perhaps it’s simply the mother in me, but I know you’re going to grow up to do incredible things. Remember, fire doesn’t just destroy. It cooks food, it lights up dark caves, it brings warmth to everyone around it. You’re going to become a light to everyone you meet. Pick would like nothing more than this, I’m certain of it.”

Aeo’s heart continued to burn at the thought of the young wolf, but his tears slowly stopped falling. Leon was right; he’d never heard this before. It didn’t seem right. Surely Leon and Hala spoke of someone else. Someone who deserved happiness. But no, as he opened his eyes again from wiping his eyes, Leon and Hala both looked right at him.

“Come on,” Leon said. “The open road awaits us, and we have a long way to travel. Do you think you can stand?”

Aeo frowned, wincing at the pain.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly.

“No, it’s okay, Aeo,” Leon said. “Don’t try, I’ll carry you to the wagon. It’ll be a bit bumpy and chilly until we cross the mountain, but you’ll be able to rest as we go.”

“Don’t forget his fur blankets and pillow,” Hala said. “Those are absolutely his to keep. But what about Pick’s furs? Will you be warm enough without taking them? If he and Shera truly aren’t coming back, then perhaps…”

Leon sighed.

“No,” he said. “It wouldn’t feel right. If they do come back when things are more peaceful, they’ll have a place to rest.”

Parting his fur blanket, Leon bent down and lifted Aeo into his arms with surprising ease. Then, stepping into the light beyond the mouth of the cave, the temperature plummeted as the wind curled delicate particles of ice about, sapping his body heat away almost instantly. But Leon didn’t have to carry him far. A large wagon with a shallow canvas covering awaited only a few yards from the cave, harnessed to a large and powerful steed he didn’t recognize.

“Aeo,” Leon said, stopping a moment in front of the horse. “This is Poro. She has enjoyed living here almost as much as I have, although I daresay she hasn’t had proper exercise in quite a long while. We’ll have to keep our pace slow but steady.”

The horse turned her head to look at Aeo and Leon, pushing her long snout into Leon’s arms and Aeo’s side. Aeo reached out an arm and gently patted the mare’s forehead between her eyes.

“Hi Poro,” he said quietly.

Poro grunted. Her hot breath visibly escaped her nostrils, whipping away in the cold air.

“I tried to leave you as much room as I could,” Leon said, stepping towards the back of the wagon. “All the crates and boxes are secure, but just so you’re aware, there are a few hidden compartments with preservation wards to help keep the stored ingredients fresh until we arrive at Everspring. So if you find them, try to keep your fingers away from the wards… It might dispel them and spoil everything.”

“Dis-spell, s-sir?” Aeo asked.

“Make them vanish,” Leon said.

“Oh,” Aeo said. “Okay.”

“Oh, and if anyone on the road asks what our cargo is, you probably shouldn’t say anything. I can do the talking. I’ll simply say I’m your new master. Which, I suppose is true, I am an Academy master, not your… well, you know what I mean.”

Awaiting him in the center of the wagon floor between the many crates lay Leon’s fur bedding. Fortunately, just enough room for Aeo. Unable to carry him further inside, Leon placed Aeo through the wide opening of the cart, allowing Aeo to grit his teeth and haul himself deeper in. The canvas did little to keep the chill at bay, and the pain in his eye and in his chest consumed his strength, but Aeo successfully motioned himself backwards until he sat upon the blankets.

“I’ll be back with your-”

“Leon! A little help?”

Leon looked and bent down for a moment. When he arose, he held in both his hands the spherical shape of a thick-jacketed lady-frog. She hopped from the man’s hands and into the wagon just in front of the boy.

“I’ll be back with your blankets, Aeo,” Leon said, and he disappeared back to the cave.

“Oh, it’s so c-c-cold,” Hala said, clasping her arms around her. Aeo did the same, rubbing his bare shoulders. “Will you be all right, Aeo? Truly? It pains me to see you leave like this. I feel as though I’ve done so little to help you…”

Aeo’s eyebrows raised.

“But…” he said. “But you made my boots.”

Aeo looked down at the floor.

“It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

“Oh, that I had time to do more,” Hala said, stepping towards the boy. “It was my pleasure. That anyone could make such a kind boy a slave is beyond me.”

“It’s my red eyes,” Aeo whispered. “And my red hair. I wish they were normal. Then people wouldn’t treat me different.”

“Well, you know something?” Hala said, inching closer. “When I was young, I wished I could be a great wolf instead of a tiny frog. They were so strong and powerful, so capable… Just like Shera. But I learned I could do things with my webby fingers that their paws and teeth couldn’t. Like sewing, tanning, and sketching.”

Hala lifted a finger.

“So you remember, young humil,” she said. “Your eyes and your hair don’t define your talents, and they don’t define your heart. Learn all you can at this Academy. Discover what you can do that nobody else can. And please…”

Hala wiped a tear from her eye.

“Promise me you’ll take care of Leon. I have a feeling he’s going to need your help just like you need his.”

“My help?” Aeo asked. “But he’s so… sure and right. All the time. How could I help him?”

She leaned forward and, to the boy’s surprise, gave Aeo a gentle hug, opening her arms around Aeo’s chest as wide as she possibly could; her stuffy round coat got in the way.

“Just be good to each other,” she said to Aeo. “I don’t know what you believe, Aeo, but I know the Goddess is watching over you. Both of you. You trust in Her, and she’ll guide you to safety.”

Aeo sniffed at the cold air and realized something.

“I’m going to miss you,” he said quietly, wrapping his arms around the frog as best he could.

“And I’m going to miss you too, my dear sweet boy…” Hala said. “I know we may never see each other again, but if you ever decide to climb the mountain, you come find me. I’d love to hear about everything you learn.”

“I’ll come back,” Aeo said. “I will, I promise…”

Leon appeared and dropped an armful of fur blankets into the wagon, along with his personal bag.

“I suppose it’s time,” he said.

Aeo released Hala and she pulled back after patting Aeo’s cheek. Stepping onto the furs, she hobbled over to Leon and gave him an embrace as well.

“I don’t care if it takes you a lifetime to return,” Hala said to him. “I want to see your face again. You come back, understand?”

“I’ll try, Hala, you know I’ll try,” Leon said, hugging her. “If only to make sure you and your family are still safe.”

Leon lifted Hala again and bent down to place her upon the snowy ground. He then slid into place a wooden slat to the opening of the wagon to ensure nothing fell out. Aeo didn’t see Hala for a moment until she stepped back far enough to look past it.

“You two travel safely!” she shouted above the wind, waving her hand and hopping up and down. “Look after each other, now! Good-bye! Stay warm! Make sure you get plenty to eat! And plenty of rest!”

“We will, Hala!” said Leon, disappearing to mount the front of the wagon. “Good-bye!”

Aeo covered himself in his fur blanket and waved back at the small frog. After a moment, the wagon bucked forwards, rumbling across the icy earth. Hala began to fade into the snowy morning, waving all the while.

“Good-bye,” he whispered. When Aeo could no longer see Hala or the cave, he laid down and buried himself in his fur blankets and began to cry.


blogtitle

Alyssum – Chapter Ten

“No… No, no… No…”

Consciousness returned. Aeo felt heat returning to his body, but his mind floated like a cork on a pond. He felt as though he’d been drugged, and a terrible bitterness on his tongue confirmed it. A pair of warm hands held his ears, then his chin, then his shoulders. Everything ached. Aeo felt the hands restrain his arms and hold him down. In return, Aeo kicked and screamed in the darkness, clawing the hands away.

“No…! No, let me go! Let me go!

“Aeo, calm down!” a voice whispered. “Open your eyes! It’s me! Aeo, it’s me!”

Aeo’s eyes opened. He’d been too scared to realize they weren’t. He no longer saw a bright sun, nor even a sky above his head, but a stone ceiling covered in stalactites. The glow of a warm fire reflected from the wet rock, and somewhere beyond the wind howled furiously. It was the cave. His eyes focused and fell upon the visage of a man. Hazel eyes, rough stubble on his chin, a gentleman’s face.

“L-Leon,” Aeo whispered, his muscles relaxing. “But… I th-thought you were…”

In Leon’s hand was a opaque glass bottle with a rough paper label adhered to the side that Aeo couldn’t read.

“Here, drink a little of this, careful now…” Leon said, leaning the bottle to Aeo’s lips. “Virmilis root extract to help your body warm, plus ginger for pain. It doesn’t taste terribly good, but it should help immediately. We have little time.”

Aeo felt the chalky liquid pass across his tongue, and he forced himself to swallow before the hideous taste overpowered him.

“I should have protected you,” Leon said. He had yet to clean his bloody upper lip and chin from Shera’s assault. “Damn it, this should never have happened. I should have made up my mind days ago to leave. I hesitated.”

Aeo frowned and tried to sit up from his bed of furs. It was then that he realized that if Harthoon hadn’t actually fractured the lower portion of his ribcage with his boot, it certainly felt like he had. He let out a pitiful cry as he relaxed and began to sob from the intense pain. How he hadn’t felt the crushing injury earlier, he didn’t know.

“It’s all m-my fault…” he whispered pitifully, wrapping his arms around his chest. “They killed… they k-killed him…”

“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. “You are the last person I blame. If Shera hadn’t been so reckless, I could have done… something. I can’t imagine how Shera could have allowed Pick to be captured. Perhaps they’d been seen by the hunters, and they’d simply outnumbered them. I saw the hunter’s… bodies… all the way down the mountain; they very nearly found the caves.”

“But… how…?” Aeo said though sobbing breaths. “How did they know…?”

“It’s very… possible,” Leon said slowly. “You see, when… some wealthy Antielli slave owners purchase a new slave, they… they have a sample taken from them. Blood, for instance, or hair. For… security reasons, should they ever run away.”

Aeo nearly glared at Leon.

“I don’t… unders-s-stand…”

“Well, any talented evoker would then…” Leon took a breath. “…be able to view the world through the senses of the slave… and divine their precise location.”

Aeo trembled, tears coursing down the sides of his face.

“It w-was me…” he whispered, firmly shutting his eyes. “B-because of me… he’s dead because of m-me!”

“Look at me, Aeo,” Leon said firmly, shaking Aeo’s arm. “Look at me.”

It took the boy a moment before he dared to. Then, Leon leaned in close.

“Pick might be alive. The hunters don’t have him.”

Aeo’s heart skipped a beat.

“But… B-but I saw him…” he said. “The hunters were dragging him away, and, and, and… he wasn’t there wh-when I…”

“Shera took him,” Leon said. “I was coming down the mountain to search for you and I saw them together. Shera had Pick in her jaws, and she was carrying him north past the mountain. I don’t know if she sensed my presence… Considering what she did to both of us, she probably would have torn me to pieces if I had approached. I didn’t see Pick moving, and… and it did appear as if he’d been shot multiple times with arrows or bolts. Burning hells, she was covered in arrows herself. I don’t know if the little wolf is still alive, but…”

Leon shook his head and turned away.

“Thank Tiathys those butchers don’t have him…”

“Leon! Aeo!” a horrified voice called from the entrance of the cave.

Aeo gritted through the pain and squinted to see the source. The great wooden door that once protected the cave from the cold had broken inwards, detached from its post and hanging loosely against the far wall. But beneath the door was a small sphere of fur. The coat was quickly removed, and out hopped Hala from within, dressed in her leather work outfit.

“Hala,” Leon said, standing to his feet in her presence.

“Oh, Goddess preserve us all!” She leapt on all fours to Aeo’s side, gently placing her chilled webbed fingers on Aeo’s shoulder. “Aeo, my poor boy, you’re both… bleeding! What happened, Leon, what happened? The entire mountain felt Shera’s screaming! Where are they, Leon? Answer me!”

“I don’t know,” Leon admitted, slumping to the ground and wiping his lip with the sleeve of his shirt. “Shera’s alive. Pick is… well, I don’t know if he survived his wounds. But I saw them both travelling north towards the forests beyond. I… don’t think they’re going to return.”

“Not going to…!” Hala gasped, and suddenly tears filled her eyes as well. “No… No, they mustn’t! No, not poor Pick!”

“Humil hunters,” Leon said, reaching for Hala’s hand. “They… they must have spotted the wolves patrolling the mountain and captured Pick. I would have done something… but Shera burst into the cave and stole Aeo away after knocking us both unconscious. Shera must have thought… I can’t say for certain… I believe she thought to trade Aeo’s life for Pick’s.”

Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s forehead.

“Does that sound right?” he asked.

Without opening his eyes, Aeo nodded. About the hunters being able to track Aeo through magickal means, Leon said nothing.

“Goddess, sweet Goddess…” Hala whispered. “My dear friends… You must do something, Leon, you must do something! We must search for Shera, call her back, and then… and then you can heal Pick, and… and…!”

“Hala,” Leon said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. It’s too late. Shera hardly tolerated my presence on this mountain. Now that humils have threatened her life, and… her child’s life… she would never forgive me for putting them at risk by living here for so long. She will probably never trust another humil again, especially me. And now that the hunters know where they live, they’ll search these caves and continue to track her. She knew she had to leave.”

Hala silently wept. The truth pierced through all of them.

“Aeo and I, we… We have to leave, Hala.”

“No!” Hala shouted, revoking her hand and taking a step back. “Not you two as well! I’ll never forgive you, Leon Sirelu! Not ever! You can’t leave, not now, of all times!”

“We have no choice,” Leon said. “Aeo caused the terrible fire that destroyed the humil village. He was a slave, Hala, and he ran away from his captors. For both reasons, the hunters and villagers will be coming for him just as much as they hunt for Shera. His life is in danger. I plan on taking him away, far away from this place, to keep him safe.”

Aeo’s eyes opened.

“…really?” he asked weakly.

“Yes,” Leon said with a nod. “I’m taking you to a place where you’ll never be hurt again. The Everspring Academy. You’ll learn how to control your magick, and much much more. It has been my home for many years, and I hope it will become yours.”

Whether it was the medicine Leon had given him or the news of a new home, Aeo felt warmth begin to fill his chest.

“I propose we take this one step at a time,” Leon said. “I must leave. Tonight. I’ll return in the early hours, Goddess-willing, and pack up my things. Too many things to do, too many… but this will give Aeo a chance to recover from his ordeal. Truth be told, I had expected… ah, I don’t know what I expected. Damn it, I thought I’d have more time.”

Hala turned towards Aeo and knelt down before his face, so close that Aeo’s eyes crossed just to see her in focus. From one of her pockets she produced a tiny woven cloth and proceeded to wipe the boy’s upper lip, as little as it helped. Aeo didn’t have the energy or the nerve to refuse the simple kindness. He hadn’t noticed before, but Hala had a trio of overlapping eyelids, and they worked in unison to wipe her tears away.

“Stay with him?” Leon asked, offering his hand to Hala again. Hala placed her hand on his, holding back her sadness as best she could.

“Of course,” she replied quietly. “Though I may… sneak out for a moment, tell my kin what happened… If the humils are coming, and Shera can no longer protect us… then we may need to prepare and move further into the underdeep…”

“Yet another reason why we must leave soon,” Leon said. “To protect you and your family. To hide this sacred place. There is… a secret here that they must never find. I intend to seal the entrance to my study when I leave.”

“A secret?” Hala said, wiping the tears from beneath her eyes. “Something you discovered in your research? You’ve never said anything about it.”

Leon nodded.

“I know I often kept information of my work private from you, and I’m sorry for that…” he said. “But I did so to keep you safe. The red flowers, alyssum. The ones you and your family avoid… They are an incredibly dangerous poison to… certain people. They aren’t found anywhere but on this mountain. If they are discovered in amounts like those that grow in the deep caves and used as a weapon, many people will die.”

“Leon…” Hala said with a gasp. “Surely you haven’t studied the flower to… to…”

“No, Hala,” Leon replied. “I intend to hurt no one. In fact, my research might enable me to protect the ones I love. I only have hopes that alyssum will become a shield instead of a weapon. But… at this point, my research is incomplete. I’ll have to return to the Academy to complete it.”

“I can’t pretend to understand your arts,” Hala admitted, standing to her feet. “But… I trust you, Leon Sirelu. You’ve been nothing but Goddess-sent since you came to live here. I’m grateful to have called you my friend. I’m glad Shera allowed you to stay.”

Leon held his hand to his forehead.

“The pleasure was all mine, Hala,” he said quietly. “But Shera was right about me. I may not have brought hunters to your doorstep, but my arrival shattered the peace of this mountain. I can only pray that Tiathys will forgive me if my mission has doomed you, Shera, Pick, Aeo… and many others.”

Leon turned to Aeo, who appeared to be sleeping but heard every word of the short conversation. With the pause, the boy’s eyes slowly opened.

“I don’t know if I can repair the door on my own,” Leon said. “But I’ll leave a ward to maintain the temperature. With all the bloodshed today, I can’t imagine more hunters will attempt a counter-assault until dawn. So we must be ready to leave by then. Do you feel well enough to stand, Aeo?”

Aeo shook his head.

“It hurts… right here, s-sir,” he said, holding his abdomen. “Someone… stepped on me really hard.”

The sounds of Harthoon’s screams engulfed his mind.

“And to think…” Hala said, her voice cracking as she again bent down to wipe blood from Aeo’s lip. “I had planned on making you such a fine leather jacket, my dear boy… it might have protected you from those wicked men.”

Aeo merely nodded. He said nothing of the incident and never intended to do so as long as he lived.


OlvarenFire


Olvaren no longer existed. Harthoon hadn’t been exaggerating; the fire had indeed burned for four full days, consuming everything flammable and adhering to anything non-flammable. The fire could not be extinguished by any means tried, and all the men, women, and children that called the village home could only carry their most important belongings away from their thatched houses as it spread. The inn was an inn no longer, only a husk of foundation stones. The marketplace stalls had fallen to ash and scattered by the valley winds. And the great hall, which had stood for centuries, constructed around the mighty bones of long-dead mephandras, had collapsed into a large pile of unrecognizable rubble. Even portions of the forest that surrounded Olvaren had been consumed in the blaze.

Magick, it was. Even the villagers recognized magickal unquenchable fire. But who had started such a catastrophe? What villainous arsonist had the talent and the wickedness to lay waste to a quiet, innocent village?

When Ariste and Harthoon Malin cried for assistance in extinguishing the flames in the Grey Pale on the first day of the disaster, they claimed the fire had been started by their Edian slave boy. At first, the constable had believed them and called for the guard to search for the slave. But when the fire grew and leapt to nearby buildings despite a village-well-worth of water poured upon it, the constable immediately called for a nearby capital scholar to assist and had the couple detained and interrogated. There was little chance a young boy had the power to accomplish so much destruction.

They vehemently denied the accusation that the fire had been started deliberately, especially given the magickal nature of the flames; neither had talents with magick. Did they own illegal substances such as spark detonators or fire salts? Why would they? They were simple innkeepers, and very much lacking mining or alchemy licenses. Did they know anyone with magickal abilities that held a grudge against them and their business? They honestly didn’t know anyone… besides the boy, of course. Based on their particularly racist descriptions of the boy as a twisted and hateful Edian nine-year old who regularly made their lives a living hell, the constable quietly wondered about their reliability as witnesses.

When the capital scholar arrived in town on the morning of the second day, the fire lay like a blanket of lava across half of the village’s acreage, steadily burning and spreading across even bare ground; the villagers that survived the slow-spreading fire retreated to a clearing down the highway about two miles away. Though his animus was not attuned to liquid thaumaturgy, the scholar did his best to influence the fire away from the great hall and the eastern residences with streams of magickal water. He attempted to abjure glistening walls of energy to halt the fire’s advance. He even attempted to concoct cocktail bombs in glass bottles that would physically force the fire to go out. With multiple craters consumed in the flames, he admitted defeat at the end of day two.

With the only known suspect being the Edian slave, the constable decided the only thing they could do was attempt to find the boy and somehow convince him to put an end to the fire. Coincidentally (or not), one of the few items that Ariste had smuggled out of the inn before it collapsed was a small vial of long-dried blood. The capitol scholar admitted his excitement; he’d only rarely performed such evocations. After all, only very wealthy slaveowners could afford to have slave samples prepared and preserved for such a ritual years after coagulating and expiring. With the blood vial, a carefully-designed glyph traced upon a page in his personal grimoire, and an hour’s time, the scholar witnessed several incredible things.

First was the location of the boy: as if viewing the entirety of Falas from an eagle’s perspective, a red dot became illuminated in his mind situated in a cave near the mountain’s peak. Second, and by far the most intriguing, the boy was looking upon, smelling, and listening to the panting of an unidentified subspecies of canis lupis about the size of a lion – and unbelievably, the wolf looked like a young pup instead of full grown. Somehow, this boy had survived the chill of the mountain by living in a cave that housed giant wolves.

The scholar gave his report to the constable with great enthusiasm, and called for an immediate alert to be sent to the Hunter’s Guild to capture these wolves for study and secure the boy. The constable, more concerned about his people’s immediate safety, agreed on the condition that the hunters supply aid to the displaced villagers. So, despite the village’s meager finances, the constable made the order.

On the morning of day three, the message was delivered by the scholar’s unique evocation magick to the Guild in San’Drael. From San’Drael, the order was delivered to the Guild handlers nearest to Olvaren by the same means. Two dozen hunters arrived in what remained of Olvaren by the end of day three and prepared a small camp for themselves and as many of the villagers as possible.

Sadness over the loss of their homes was replaced with anger when the village discovered the true source of the fire. A bastard child of Edia, the nation of thieves and murderers to the West. As was often said, nothing good ever came from the West, least of which were the witch-children of sorcerers. Why the Malins had taken such a volatile child into their home was beyond their understanding. There was a reason Antiell waged constant war against them: their very presence endangered innocent Antielli lives. The fire stood as a testament to the fact. If even a child of Edia could cause such destruction, what right did an entire nation of backwards shamans and traitors have to exist?

It was their fault, after all, that the War two centuries ago had even continued on for as long as it did. It was their fault that entire lineages had perished in a single brief moment. It was their fault that the world had been fractured.

It was their fault the Wound existed.

For a time, it seemed that nothing would stop the inferno from devouring everything. But on the morning of the fourth day, as abruptly and mysteriously as it had begun, the wide-burning flames all shrunk to nothing and died in unison within twenty seconds. Not even smoke or embers were left behind, only black char.

What could this mean, the constable demanded of the capital scholar. Flustered, the scholar claimed he had no idea. But he advised caution, as such fires could reignite at any moment. And so the hunters were told to hold their advance up the mountain in case the fire resumed. In the meantime, they were directed to perform damage control for the village and tend to the victims that had received burns or inhaled too much smoke. They also made time to bury the dead, despite the hardness of the frigid earth. Rows of tents were assembled for the surviving villagers and ever-increasing amounts of hunters, developing until the remains of the village resembled a camped army.

The anger of the villagers steadily grew. One day of waiting passed to two, and then to three. The hunters yearned for prey, with some even tempted to disobey orders and scout the outskirts of the village for wolf tracks. Some of the villagers surrounded the constable’s tent in a sort of mob, demanding for the hunt to begin and for the Edian boy to be found and hung. Even Harthoon, the fool of a drunk, had sobered, shaved, and demanded to be released like a war hound, ready to kill. Besides that, the constable was running out of funds to keep so many hunters dedicated to the cause. If the hunt was to happen, it had to happen immediately.

So it did.

Only seven of the fifty-two souls made it back alive. Without their prize or the boy.

The night was colder than usual, a reminder that winter was soon to come upon the charred corpse of Olvaren. Tent flaps rustled in the wind as shadowed figures huddled around campfires and lit torches. News had reached them that the hunters had managed to kill the great wolf’s pup, and all the guards that remained in the makeshift camp were trembling from more than just the frigid air. Like the stories they’d all heard as children about the mephandras, the mother wolf was just as likely to descend from the mountain and devour them all in retaliation.

But out of the darkness of the mountain came not a creature, but a man. A strange man in foreign clothes, wearing a thin pair of spectacles and a luxurious coat. He approached the camp cautiously from the direction of the destroyed village, but not cautiously enough to avoid drawing plenty of attention to himself. A group of three guards spotted him immediately, drawing their swords and torches and racing towards him. The man stopped in his tracks and raised his hands in surrender.

“Who are you?!” demanded a guard.

“Identify yourself!” demanded another.

“Gentlemen,” the man said. “My name is Leon Sirelu, my mission is a peaceful one. I am a travelling scholar from the Everspring Academy in Ashant. I can produce my credentials if need be. If possible, I’d like to speak to whoever is in charge of the village.”

“Why?” demanded the first. “If’n ye came from that direction, ye might’a seen there isn’t a village no longer. We’ve been through enough without some fancy wizard showing up an’ makin’ things worse.”

“Believe me, I sympathize with your loss and intend you no harm,” Leon said. “In fact, I’d like to make a deal that would help Olvaren recover from the fire. Winter is almost upon us, and the sooner you can rebuild your homes and stock up supplies, the less your people will suffer.”

The guards looked at each other, puzzled.

“We’re listening,” said the second guard.

Leon’s hands lowered and dug into his coat pocket, no doubt making the guards nervous. But in a quick second, he produced what looked like a small Briolette-cut gemstone in the shape of a raindrop. Even in the darkness, it appeared to be a ruby of exceeding clarity, and radiated a warm pink light from within its facets.

“Do you know what this is?” Leon asked, holding the gemstone in his open, gloved hand.

The guards peered upon it uncomfortably.

“That’s a queer light, innit?” said the first guard. “Like them fancy glass lights they got in San’Drael.”

“More n’ likely to explode, no doubt,” said the third.

“It’s perfectly safe, I can assure you,” Leon said. “This is crystalized Everspring aether. Very valuable in Antiell. A stone like this sold to the right buyer would support a village like Olvaren for many seasons. I’d like to offer it to your people on a few conditions.”

“Such as?” asked the second guard.

“Well,” Leon said, withdrawing the stone. “I would leave them for your leaders to consider. This is why I humbly request to speak with the law enforcement or Guild representative in charge.”

The guards again looks at each other for a moment and finally shrugged their shoulders.

“Fine,” said the first. “Come with us.”


aetherstone


“And what brings an Everspring Academy master to a small village in Antiell at a time like this?” asked Constable Rachars, scanning his eyes over Leon’s identification packet. “Aren’t all masters of the Academy ashanti these days?”

The large tent Leon and three other people inhabited at that moment contained a cot, a rough-hewn officer’s desk, and a few chairs, all no doubt saved from the Great Hall before it burned down. Beside the constable stood a gruff-looking woman at sharp attention who wore chainmail and thick leathers, as well as a variety of scars on her chin and nose; no doubt a ranking member of the Hunter’s Guild. The third was a wiry young man with a sharp nose and a thick pair of glasses, dressed in the unmistakable martial uniform of the San’Drael Academy.

“Actually, no, sir,” Leon said congenially. “The Academy has guidelines that allows members of any race to join, so long as they demonstrate the proper talents and discipline. My specialty is the alchemical arts. I’ve taken a sabbatical to study the plants, roots, and herbs native to this mountain, a mission of utmost importance to the Academy. You may have seen me a few times visiting the marketplace and the inn looking to restock my supplies.”

“I must admit, I have not,” the constable said, offering the packet back to Leon and leaning back in his chair. “But I’ll take you at your word, as my duties often call me away from the village proper. Apparently, you’ve come bearing glad tidings in this time of sorrow. Though I must ask: why do you choose to appear to help now?”

“For a few unfortunate reasons, truth be told,” Leon said. “I saw the orange glow of the flames from many miles away at my camp, and at first I thought perhaps some farmers were disposing of garbage or clearing the forest for future farmland. That night, however, I realized something far worse had occured. I intended to come and offer my services to you then… a number of things occurred, not the least of which was an evocation from my superiors concerning my mission that demanded my full attention. A deadline for my studies, you might say, for an alchemical solution that could cure a plague that had swept through the refugee populations south of the capital. No doubt you’ve heard of the Revari sky pirate raids that sacked the southeast coastal towns in Ashant.”

“I have,” said the constable. “Awful business, that. They’ve even had the gall to attack the Royal Navy as far north as Belstadt.”

“That is news to me,” Leon said. “Damn pirates. It’s terrible that they would stoop so low as to spread disease to make their brutal conquests more simple.”

“How thrilling,” said the capital scholar. “Pray tell, what dastardly plague did they employ? Eh, what was the cure?”

Leon appeared grim.

“When I asked my superiors,” he said. “They said the plague has no name, as it has yet to be identified. Its composition is most unpleasant, to say the least. To spare you the gritty details, the natural resources of Falas’ proved to be most beneficial in stemming the worst of the symptoms. A systemic attack on the lungs and soft tissues of the body, irreversible blindness, painful purple boils that burst at the slightest touch… The evocation message spared me any images, thank the Goddess. As of yet, however, I have found no stable cure.”

“Boils, blindness, infection of the lungs…” the scholar said, stroking his chin. The Hunter leader looked down upon him with scorn, but said nothing. “How awful. Dowry’s Rot, perhaps? No, the boils would never burst. Or Dragon Fang Blight? Did the victims mention a burning sensation in their chest, or terrible excesses of phlegm?”

Before Leon could answer, Rachars lifted his hand.

“I believe we’re getting a bit off-track,” he said. “I’m told by my guards, Master Sirelu, that you’ve come offering a deal in exchange for the funds to rebuild Olvaren. A seemingly outlandish deal, but a welcome one. I would not ask if you were a wealthy man had you not offered.”

“And I would not reveal it except to perform good works with my finances,” Leon said. “My father was the head Archivist in the Royal Archives of San’Doria, and… admittedly left me a lofty inheritance when he died. While it has enabled me to study and travel to my heart’s content, I also see it as a civic duty to share my father’s wealth with the less fortunate. He would have had it no other way.”

“To which we are extremely grateful,” said the constable. “Although specifically, the guards tell me you have an item of particular value to trade in exchange for a few… conditions?”

“Of course,” Leon said. “Please, take a look.”

Leon produced the aether gemstone from his pocket, gently placing it on the wooden table. The gemstone beside the lit candle on the table produced about as much light except in delicate gently-pulsating pink. The constable leaned in to get a better look; the scholar leaned in even closer, quite obviously enthralled. The huntress did not look impressed.

“Dear Goddess,” said the scholar, adjusting his glasses. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Crystalized aether from the Everspring, yes,” Leon said. “Pure undiluted animis. It was a gift from my father the day I entered the Academy. He told me to use it only if the need was ever great enough. I have been fortunate to have never seen danger terrible enough to necessitate using the stone. And I am all the more glad for it, as I’ve been told aether in this form is quite rare in Antiell.”

“It is, good sir, it is!” said the scholar. “This stone could represent a chance to study one of the few sources of pure magick left in the world!” He turned to the constable, suddenly very serious. “The Ashanti are very protective of the Everspring, sir, and I’m sure you are familiar with the state treaties that forbid the trade of aether across borders.”

“Of that, I am also aware,” Leon said before the constable could speak. “You don’t have to accept my word only, but the treaties also state that masters of the Everspring Academy have rights regarding the trade and donation of natural resources, including aether from the well. I wouldn’t give up such a precious keepsake knowing I was acting against the law.”

“Oh, certainly not, good sir!” said the scholar. “I meant no offense, of course.”

“None taken,” Leon said.

“Well, this is certainly most generous of you, Master Sirelu,” said the constable. He turned to the scholar. “I must admit, I know nothing about matters of aether and magick. What is the value of such a stone?”

“Why, it is positively invaluable!” said the scholar. When he received a particularly intense glare from both the constable and the huntress, he cleared his throat. “Eh, I mean, to put an exact price on Everspring aether is difficult… But, if I may speak plainly, San’Drael Academy has been bargaining with the Ashanti government for decades to gain access to the well. Any aether willing traded to the Academy is welcome, but a pure aether crystal… Oh, it would certainly pay enough to restore the village, and perhaps more.”

“Very well,” the constable said with a nod.. “However, you mentioned, Master Sirelu, that this gift comes with conditions.”

Leon nodded.

“It does,” he said. “Namely, three. Concerning one in particular, I have hope that mercy will go before justice.”

“I’m listening,” said the constable, folding his hands upon the table and leaning forwards.

“First,” Leon said. “Is that I would ask that the villagers of Olvaren to not explore or map the highest peaks of Falas for at least the coming five years. The mephandras that so dominated the mountain may be gone, but there remain many dangers at those higher altitudes, not the least of which are the giant wolves that inhabit the region.”

The constable’s face sharpened, and the huntress’ head cocked to one side ever so slightly.

“You know of them?” Rachars asked. “And you live to tell the tale?”

“Only barely,” Leon said. “It’s why my sabbatical has taken so long. I’ve avoided them for months.”

“Why five years?” asked the scholar curiously. “Why not ten? Twenty? Why would anyone ever want to map the mountain with those… things living up there?”

“During my time on Falas,” Leon said. “I’ve chanced upon wolf tracks and even spotted several moving west across the mountain passes. I’ve developed the impression that the wolves are migrating away from the area, but it will take time. Five years will grant the villagers protection from the wolves as they depart, after which you can map to your heart’s content. Assuming my information is correct, this news should greatly put your mind at ease.”

“It does, at that,” said the constable. “But what about…”

The constable looked at the huntress for a moment, and she back at him. With an annoyed look on her face, she nodded.

“I don’t know if you are aware,” he said. “But we lost many good men and women to one of the great wolves today. Forty-five souls ripped apart in less than half an hour; they never stood a chance. If we agree to your first condition, what of our fallen hunters up on the mountain? We will need to retrieve their bodies before the mountain freezes them.”

“I am aware of the battle,” Leon said. “I daresay the entire mountain heard it. Of course I wouldn’t expect you to abandon them. I simply worry for the safety of those that do, and all those that might follow after them. Which, actually, leads to my second condition.”

“Which is?”

“I simply ask that the wolves not be tracked or hunted.”

The huntress unfolded her arms and glared at Leon.

“Are you joking?” she demanded. “That’s our livelihood you’re talking about. Do you know how much the wizards at the capital are offering for one of those talking wolves captured alive, or even dead? We can’t agree to this!”

“Is it coin that worries you?” Leon said quickly, suddenly indignant. “Or is it revenge for the hunters that were slaughtered today? How many more of your guildmates will have to die before you realize that nature has more power than you ever give it credit for?”

The constable’s breath was taken, and somehow the huntress’ glare became even more intense.

“Don’t you dare speak to me of nature, wizard,” she said. “This is horseshit, I’ve spent my entire life in nature, I’m not accepting anything-”

Lieutenant,” barked the constable. “Mind your tongue!”

“Believe me or not,” Leon said, raising his hand. “Not hunting these creatures will benefit you more than you realize. Not simply in the amount of lives that will be spared a quick and gruesome death, but in the preservation of an ecosystem that relies on their presence to be self-sustaining. Again, not to bore you with details, but the wolves’ sudden westerly departure will take its toll on the forests that encircle this side of the mountain. I suspect it will even affect positively Olvaren in the next few seasons. Herbivores will repopulate, and more than likely offer you rich environments for game.”

“He’s right,” said the scholar. “Mount Urden is a great example… Or counter-example, if you will. Remember the odagran culling a few decades ago, Lieutenant? With the carnivores gone, the herbivore population exploded, and the hunting was good… for a while. Unfortunately, they ate everything green, leading to famine and drought for many many years.”

“Tch,” said the huntress glumly, folding her arms. “Yes, I remember. One of the many… messes the early Guild got into trying to prove itself.”

“Fine then. I believe we can accept the first and the second condition,” the constable said. “And your third?”

Leon paused, wiping his upper lip with his hand.

“I will speak plainly,” he said. “I know the source of the fire that burned down this village.”

“You do,” said the constable in surprise.

“I do,” Leon said. “I’m certain you do as well. A boy, a young Edian boy wandered into my camp a few days after the fire. He was quite frightened by something, and he said something about the giant wolves. At first, I thought nothing of this, but then I recognized that he had approached my camp from the mountain and not from the village.”

“You believe he survived the mountain by hiding in one of their dens?” asked the scholar. “I told you, Constable! It’s just as I saw!”

Leon nodded.

“He is malnourished and has many injuries, including deep scratches and several bruises on his face and arms. He looks as though he’d suffered serious physical abuse, although whether he received his injuries from the wolves or by… other means, I don’t know.”

“I’ve seen this boy on some occasions,” said the constable. “He is a slave, belonging to the owners of the inn. You have him under your care?”

“I do,” said Leon. “And I assumed he might belong to one of the wealthier families in Olvaren. Although the boy has withheld many details out of fear regarding the fire and his departure into the forest, my expertise in the field of thaumaturgy led me to recognize something peculiar in him. Something I assume you’ve pieced together from the evidence.”

“The boy’s animis is flame,” said the scholar with characteristic enthusiasm. “My goodness, he truly was the cause of the catastrophe! His animis potential must be incredible if he could make an entire village burn down at so young an age!”

“I would hesitate to be so excited,” said Leon, adjusting his spectacles. “The boy is… damaged. At first I assumed little, but now I suspect he suffered years of physical and mental abuse, which fueled the appearance of his talents in such… spectacular form. Even under my care, the boy has burned me many times on accident. I fear that returning him to the care of the innkeepers will only lead to further incidents.”

“I agree,” the constable said. “But what are you suggesting? The boy wiped Olvaren from the face of the earth, killing many people in the process. Whether an accident or not, manslaughter is punishable by death. Why should we not do away with the whelp and be done with it?”

“Instead of simply ending his life,” Leon said earnestly. “I offer to take the boy away from Olvaren and Antiell entirely. His ownership will transfer to me, as well as any blood or hair samples that may have been taken from him. The Everspring Academy can protect others from his power. Despite his… volatility, he has shown incredible potential. As a master, I am willing to grant him citizenship status in Ashant and tutor him to control his abilities. In exchange for his life, he will never return to Antiell.”

“Exile instead of death,” the constable said. “Interesting. But I don’t understand. Why would you do this for some… nameless Edian slave? Certainly he has strange and powerful magick, but he can’t honestly be worth the trouble to you.”

“I don’t trust you,” accused the huntress with a pointed finger. “Your whole damn story. You’re not just some Goddess-sent saint, loaded with gold and living in the woods pickin’ berries. You know something.” She leaned down in front of Leon. “About the brat. About the wolves. What’s your stake in all of this, anyway? It doesn’t sound like you benefit from helping this village at all.”

“I don’t know what you’re implying,” Leon said to her, keeping a straight face. “But my business on Falas has been strictly academic, and it will continue to be so.”

Leon turned to the constable.

“These are my three conditions, Constable. Quite honestly, if your people have any other hopes of enduring the winter that is quickly approaching, please let me know. Otherwise, I am offering this crystallized aether and as many additional funds as your village will require to survive the coming winter and thrive the year after. More than likely, even your fallen hunters can be compensated for what the crystal is worth. I will even offer you one of my personal evocation markers as a sign of good faith so that we may remain in communication. Are these terms acceptable?”

The constable leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and looking first at the scholar and then at the huntress. There was a long pause.

“I would say most definitely,” the scholar said, speaking up first. “I know the Headmaster would be beside himself to finally have crystallized Everspring aether in his hands.”

“And he would pay for it?” asked the constable. When he saw an animated nod, he turned to Leon. “We would naturally have to get this crystal authenticated as real if we agree to your terms.”

“Without doubt,” said Leon. “Though sooner rather than later, I hope. I must return to my research as soon as possible.”

The huntress glared again, but the constable nodded.

“Of course.”

“How exciting!” said the scholar. “Although to study this stone, I must admit, is beyond my abilities… I never thought I would ever see one of these in person.”

“And you, Lieutenant?” said the constable. “Are you satisfied?”

“Hardly,” she said, folding her arms. “But… if this shiny rock is worth as much as he says it is, and my fallen hunters get proper burials and compensation for their families… I suppose I can’t complain. Much. But you have to admit, none of my men or the villagers are going to like all of this. They’ve all been demanding a successful hunt and a hanging all week. Especially the innkeeper woman. Instead of an execution, you sell her property to this… Academy professor. With the disappearance of her husband, she’s going to go mad.”

“Then perhaps it’s best we keep that part of the deal quiet,” the constable said with a sigh. “The woman and her husband made it quite clear that the boy’s life was forfeit from the beginning. That sounds like forfeiting ownership to me. Besides, she’ll get the funds to build herself a bigger inn, and she’ll have to be satisfied with that. Everyone will have to make do without the execution of some no-name Edian child and move on.”

“I wholeheartedly agree,” Leon said sincerely. “Thank you, Constable. You don’t know what this means me… and to my work. I look forward to seeing this village restored to its former glory.” He held a hand out to the capital scholar. “You do have the boy’s samples, do you not?”

“Oh, of course,” he said, leaning down to his satchel laying on the floor beside his chair. “Let’s see, which pocket did I put it in… Not this one… Ah, here it is. Just this one blood vial. Perfectly preserved, I might add. I believe it will continue to function for more than a few years more, should you ever lose track of the boy. Can’t have a fiery devil like him running free, after all!”

Leon took the vial and held it in his hand. The very small but concentrated sample looked less like blood and more like a sludge-like blackish-brown oil.

“Don’t worry,” he said simply. “He won’t trouble you further.”

“We thank you for your generosity, Master Sirelu,” the constable said. “As you say, we truly are desperate, and your philanthropy will solve the majority of Olvaren’s problems in a most timely fashion. Come, let’s get this stone appraised. I’m certain someone at the Academy is awake at this hour…”

“If not,” said the scholar with glee. “They will certainly want to be!”

Alyssum – Chapter Nine

Alyssum Title

In the week and a half Aeo had been missing, Harthoon the Drunkard became someone Aeo no longer recognized. For as long as Aeo had known him, he’d worn a thick dark beard and wore his curled hair long to his shoulders. His bloodshot hazel eyes were mischievous at best, always looking where they shouldn’t. His posture was nearly always found wanting, making him look like a tired old man. He had worn a dark coat and black trousers wherever he went, and he smelled like horse piss and alcohol.

That man no longer existed. In his place stood a completely sober, clean-shaven, short-haired hunter with bare arms made of iron and wrath in his eyes. Only his voice was unmistakable. Aeo fought for release from Harthoon’s arms, but Harthoon’s grip only tightened, crushing the boy’s ribs and organs in the awkward struggle. Strapped to Harthoon’s back was a short polearm of some fashion used for bludgeoning, and at his belt was a long dagger of frontier make.

Now distant from the roars of the wolf mother and the remains of fallen hunters, Aeo fought all the harder to break free. To his surprise, Harthoon suddenly released him. No, not released: tossed. Quite violently. Aeo tumbled and rolled down a short embankment, not scrambling away fast enough to escape before Harthoon pounced and crouched over him.

“To say that you aren’t worth the blood in your body…” he whispered. His words were uncharacteristically pronounced and brimming with venom. Without adding more, he pulled the long dagger from his belt; it had surely been sharpened precisely for this moment. Breathless, Aeo clawed at the frozen dirt to break away backwards. Harthoon jumped forward with equal agility, slamming a boot on Aeo’s blood-stained chest. “No, no, no, no running away this time. You take everything from me, I take everything from you. That’s the deal!”

Harthoon lifted the gleaming dagger above his head, and thrust it downwards.

Aeo lifted his hands against the sharpened tip, and his eyes squeezed shut.

Both then heard a crisp ping sound, much like the sound of a bard striking a particularly cogent D note on a harp. Harthoon must have had his eyes shut during the blow as well, as it took him a moment to realize that, despite his target laying prone on the ground mere inches away, the dagger had somehow missed the mark. In fact, the strike seem to bounce as though he’d struck plate metal.

“The hell…?” he whispered, raising the dagger again. With added force, the dagger plunged at Aeo’s defensive hands.

Ping, followed by a fading blue light. He nearly fumbled the dagger from the deflection of the stab.

No!” he bellowed.

Harthoon struck the dagger downwards again, this time aiming for the boy’s stomach.

Ping, followed again by a fading blue light.

“No, no, Goddess damn you!”

Harthoon, with both hands, thrust the dagger at Aeo’s head. Aeo flinched.

Ping, followed again by a fading blue light.

“Why… won’t… you… bleed?!” he cried, punctuating each word with a thrust of his dagger. Each was then followed by the bright ping and the fading of magickal blue light.

Aeo’s labored breathing paused. What was happening, how was he doing this? Was he doing this?

“I can’t kill you…” Harthoon whispered, panting. “I can’t… I can’t even kill you…”

He looked at the dagger in his hands.

“I always knew… taking an Edian into our home… was a bad idea. But no, Ariste insisted… on a child. Innocent… But your red eyes followed us everywhere, always watching, always judging. I know your kind. Parasites. No matter how kind we are, giving you food, a place to sleep, water, medicine… Your kind drive decent men insane. Foul bloody magick, it’s always bloody fucking magick….”

Harthoon looked straight into Aeo’s eyes.

“It’s gone, you know. My home. The Grey Pale. The Marketplace. The Great Hall. It’s all gone. Burned down by a magickal fire that water and snow couldn’t extinguish. The fire burned for four days straight. Does that make you happy? First your laziness drove Ariste to the very ends of her health, you drive me to drink and make me the town drunk, and then you light our entire livelihood on fire, poof,” He made a gesture with his hands. “Gone. Nothing but ashes.”

He then pointed up towards the mountain peak.

“Wolves,” he whispered. “You survived Falas by holing up with those bloodthirsty… monsters? What are you, boy? Some kind of fucking demon?”

“They’re not… monsters,” Aeo said with a whisper. “They’re my… friends.”

Harthoon’s head cocked to one side as if madness had taken him.

Friends,” he replied. Harthoon’s boot pressed down against Aeo’s abdomen, forcing the air out of him and leaving him gasping. “Your… friend… just murdered two dozen good hunters, tearing them limb from limb and leaving them to die on the mountain. Your friend just gave you to me to save its ugly spawn. You have no friends, boy. And guess what? I’m going to be a hunter again. That’s right. I’m going to climb this mountain and hunt down every last wolf, kill every last pup, just like the hunters of old did with the mephandras. I’ll be the richest man in Olvaren, and take back what you stole from me. And it’ll be all thanks to you, boy!”

Harthoon sighed, pressing his foot down harder. Aeo’s eyes bulged. He tried to mouth the word ‘stop’, but nothing came out.

“Ah, just like the good old days,” Harthoon said. “When there was wealth to be found in Falas. When we didn’t have to worry about little Edian bastards like you fucking up the world.”

Aeo’s lungs clawed for breath and none came.

Funny,” Harthoon said with a curving grin. “It seems you don’t have a magick spell to help you breathe.”

Aeo grabbed Harthoon’s boot and tried to lift it away, but it pressed down all the more. Whatever chance Aeo had now rested with the Goddess. Harthoon wasn’t about to stop, his eyes glaring down upon Aeo, savoring this singular opportunity second by every painful second.

Fire… Aeo thought. I need fire. Lots of fire.

Leon’s lesson sprang to his oxygen-deprived brain.

Imagine warmth in between your hands. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and between your hands…

To be honest, there wasn’t much heat left in him. But it hardly mattered. Something had to be done, and now. He forced his mind to imagine the largest bonfire possible, a wickedly blazing fire that could melt steel and consume forests. He witnessed in his mind’s eye the heat burning his itching toes, rising through his legs and up his stomach and chest. When his imagination forced the sensation down his arms…

Something clicked.

Not a sound, or at least Aeo didn’t think it was a sound (admittedly, it might have been one of his lower ribs cracking). It was a feeling of acceptance. A concept understood for the first time. A key opening a door. A gateway opening into a warm and fragrant room. Like the first time he’d ever dreamed about the sun and its warm heavenly glow…

That’s when Harthoon’s boot burst into flames. Not delicate candlelight or an inviting campfire flame, either. A thick, turgid white-hot flame in the shape of Aeo’s fingers that clung to the cuff of the heavy leather boot like molten glass. Aeo’s hands released, and the magick expanded a few inches like liquid foam. It happened all in an instant, but he could swear the lava-like flame rolled upwards against gravity like a snake rolling sideways.

Harthoon shrieked and dropped his dagger to the icy ground, lifting his brightly burning leg from Aeo’s stomach.

animation“N-No!! You f-f-fucking Edian piece of shit! Ahhh!”

Nearly as shocked as Harthoon, Aeo scrambled backwards and did his best to inhale. Harthoon, on the other hand, flailed and danced madly at the flames that seized his leg, diving into a nearby snowbank and hastily burying it. To his horror, the magickal flame did not die. In fact, it seemed to feed on the snow as it melted, consuming Harthoon’s boot and clawing its way up Harthoon’s leg. His panic continued as he desperately tried to smother the flames with his hands. Unfortunately, the bloated thousand-celcius magick that adhered to his boot stuck to his hands like paste and continued to expand.

Aeo couldn’t look away. This wasn’t like the lantern in the inn, or the flame that Leon had taught him to hold. He hadn’t burned something. He had burned someone. Whether or not he held control over this particular flame, he wasn’t certain; the thought didn’t immediately cross his mind. He merely watched in panic as Harthoon continued to writhe in agony.

Harthoon’s hands, now bathed in flame and destructive magick, slowly took on the appearance of liquid steel. They were dripping. He mindlessly beat them against his chest and into the snow in a vain attempt to smother the heat, but it simply spread the gelatinous volcanic substance across his hunter garb and all across the melting ice. The magick splashed everywhere. Sparks hissed and crackled, and fumes of smoke enshrouded burning flesh. A horrible stench filled the air… The burning man continued to wail at the top of his lungs as the fire consumed his entire form, but there was no one on the whole mountain that could bring him relief. Even if Aeo had known how to make the flames vanish, he wasn’t certain he wanted them to.

You will never hurt me or my friends again.

Feeling himself begin to hyperventilate from shock, Aeo allowed himself to shut his eyes and look away from the terrible sight.

“Pick…” he whispered. The hunters couldn’t have taken him off the mountain. Shera would have put a stop to that. Pick still lived. He had to.

Aeo bent down and picked up Harthoon’s dagger. About eight inches long and gently curving to a defined point, he felt its weight as he firmly grasped the bone-whittled handle. He wasn’t certain about his magick yet, but he was fairly sure a sharp knife would make even the hunters think twice about trying to take him back to what remained of the village.

After regaining a modicum of composure, Aeo carefully retreated up the embankment towards the site of Shera’s massacre, leaving Harthoon to the flames. The man’s screams did not fade into the distance quickly. Only once Aeo crossed the treeline many minutes later could he enjoy silence once more.

* * * * * *

Aeo had never ventured up the mountain in dimming light. Not that he recognized it in complete darkness either, but he quickly felt as though he’d lost his way trying to retrace Harthoon’s steps. When he discovered the footprint trails of retreating hunters, however, he figured there was no way to miss his destination.

He was right. Instinctively, the moment he reached the clearing, he readied Harthoon’s dagger with both hands and cautiously moved forwards.

The blood… He’d never imagined so much blood. Harthoon’s count must have been off: the still-warm remains of dozens of hunters littered the mountainside like so many toys in a playroom. Unbloodied swords, splintered spears, wooden bows, and unfired arrows accompanied the corpses. Some of the hunters had been dressed in steel plate, some in chainmail and lamellar, some in thick leather and hide… And now he observed that some had not been armored at all. Angry villagers, perhaps. None of it mattered. Most bodies no longer had recognizable facial features, and several were missing their extremities. One or two had been completely ripped in half.

Had Aeo known the destructive side of Shera, he would have been much more afraid of her.

From what he could tell, Aeo didn’t know these men and women; they must have heard the call of the hunt and come running to share in the glory and spoils of rare game. But how could they possibly have detected Shera and sent for so many reinforcements?

Harthoon knew Shera had saved him. He’d said as much. But how?

They knew. Somehow, the hunters knew where I was. It’s all my fault. If I had never run away, Pick would still be alive… Leon. He would still be…

The wind was blowing quite strongly from the tops of the mountain, and chilled Aeo’s bare body to the core; the only heat remaining to him was sitting in his fur boots. Desperately, he scanned the battlefield for Pick’s body collapsed upon the leather sheet. After a moment, his eyes focused on the second-worst possible outcome: the leather sheet lay discarded on the snow, but Pick’s body was gone.

“No… no, no, no…” Aeo said, his voice shaking. Side-stepping the blood-soaked snow and bodies, he approached the leather sheet. Pick’s blood stained nearly half of its large surface.

In the midst of the chaos and the blame, Aeo collapsed to his knees in exhaustion and tears. The surviving hunters couldn’t possibly have lifted Pick’s huge body by themselves and hauled him off the mountain… could they? But it was the only possible explanation. Pick’s frozen corpse would be carved up with a hunting knife, and his bones and pelt would be sold to some heartless travelling merchant as thoughtless curios…

“I’m sorry…” he whispered, his eyes squeezing shut at the painful guilt. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

Sadness only lasted a moment longer. Anger then consumed his thoughts like the fury that had consumed Harthoon.

If only I were stronger, he thought. If only I knew magick. I could have healed Pick’s wounds. I could have stopped Shera. I could have…

Harthoon’s words added to his growing hatred.

I could have made all the hunters burn for hurting Pick. Just like I burned Harthoon.

The smell of the blood and viscera that filled his lungs made him sick to his stomach. Or maybe it was the sudden realization that he’d just murdered someone by burning them alive. His constitution folded like a damp napkin, and he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the snow beside the stained leather sheet.

He stopped thinking. He stopped feeling… besides the nausea. His hands and ears were numb. He had nowhere to go. Nowhere to return to. Returning to Ariste wasn’t an option; if the villagers ever discovered Harthoon’s charred corpse, they would immediately know the culprit. She would beat him to death with her own hands. The villagers of Olvaren would hang him for what he did to the village. He could return to the cave up the mountain, bury Leon’s body, and live forever in the darkness and the cold.

He didn’t deserve better.

Exhausted, Aeo collapsed, becoming like the corpses that surrounded him. The Goddess granted him a chance to escape his life, but then She tore it away. What did he do wrong? Maybe he would just lay there and freeze to death, fall asleep in the ice, and return to the Goddess. Maybe then he could ask Her why. Why was he born an Edian? Why did he have red eyes that made him different? Why did Pick and Leon have to die?

The wind picked up, howling across the ice and the cliffs of Falas. Time passed by. A second. A minute. Maybe an hour. Though he could no longer feel the chilling breeze caressing his face, he could hear it, and it comforted him.

“…”

A butterfly folded its wings, a hummingbird sounded a call. Though he yearned to listen to the thoughts of a wolf, it wasn’t Pick trying to communicate with him. It wasn’t Shera. It was something else. Something entirely new.

“…”

Aeo opened his eyes. Shining light in the darkness. The sun up above. Although all feeling had fled, he could imagine the sun’s warm rays beaming down on his face. For some reason, the sun no longer blinded him.

He heard his voice called above the commotion of the sky.

heavenly_sunlight_by_1illustratinglady-d5v1qem“Aeo…” it said.

A beautiful voice. Heaven-sent. A woman’s voice. Delicate as a field of wildflowers, but deeper than the channels of the mountain. It didn’t grant him energy or warmth, but it brought him a sense of peace. Where had he heard such a voice before? So familiar…

“Aeo…” it said again. Different this time. More direct, as if calling out to him. The sun. It offered him release. He lifted his trembling hand upwards as if to take the sun from the sky with his very fingers and hold it close to his heart.

Suddenly, a shadow overtook the sun, and a warm sensation seized his hand.

“Aeo!” cried the voice. It was no longer light and heavenly. It was desperate and harsh, a man’s voice, a voice deep in emotion. He felt a pair of arms lift and cradle his head. “Goddess of Earth, please don’t let this boy die on my charge, please! Aeo, speak to me, please, speak to me!”

Aeo’s eyes drifted upwards. The sun was now gone, replaced by the dark. Instead, he saw a familiar face.

“Le… Leon…?” Aeo asked.

“Yes, Aeo, yes,” Leon said breathlessly, pressing his head to Aeo’s. His nose had also been bleeding, crimson caked on his upper lip, and he was sweating despite the cold. “Thank you, Tiathys, thank you… Goddess, this is all my fault. I never thought it could possibly end like this… Aeo, please, can you stand? We need to get you warm quickly before you…”

“I… I don’t…”

Aeo’s voice barely registered as a sound.

“Hold on, Aeo, please! Stay awake, please stay awake! Aeo! Aeo…!”

Leon’s voice faded away, and Aeo slept in the numbing wind.

Alyssum – Chapter Eight

Alyssum Title

Aeo and Leon entered the residential cave first as the light began to fade over the mountain. Pick and Shera were nowhere to be found, and the pair hadn’t passed them watching over the flock of bighorns on the way over.

“Strange,” Leon had said. Aeo didn’t ask him why.

The snow had just begun to settle down; the autumn had only fallen a few weeks ago. Leon settled his bag down with a sigh, and Aeo felt a strong desire to dive straight for his fur blankets. Sometime during the day, the smokey violet wards near the door had been snuffed out, leaving the cavern bitterly cold and dry.

“Hold on, Aeo,” Leon said, holding up a finger and rummaging through his bag. He produced a thin metal rod and an odd piece of stone. “Have you ever started a campfire before? I have the flint.”

Aeo pulled a funny face from inside the fur blanket wrapped about him, and Leon saw it.

“…still nervous about fire, eh?”

“I, um…” Aeo rubbed his hands together. “I don’t… I don’t know if I… should.”

Leon removed his hood and gloves.

“That’s understandable,” he said. “You’ve only just begun to understand the kind of power you have inside you. It’s not like you’re used to lighting things on fire with your bare hands. Or even lighting your hands on fire.”

Aeo agreed with a nod, attempting to suppress any images of a burning inn in case Leon also had some mysterious form of telepathy.

“Fortunately for all of us,” Leon said, standing. “Magick isn’t the only way to get things done in this world. The natural world sorts itself all the time without it. In fact, it might do you some good to remember that magick isn’t always going to be the correct answer to your problems.”

Aeo frowned. How could unlimited power at his fingertips not be the answer to every problem?

“Honestly though, Aeo, you’ve never started a campfire yourself? A fireplace? A lantern? Any fire at all?”

Aeo nearly flinched at “lantern”. He played with his hands.

“They… I mean, I was told never to play with matches,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed.”

Leon stroked the rough stubble on his chin.

“I suppose that makes sense. One should never give matches to a young magickal arsonist, no matter how little mischief they plan to get into.”

A slight grin appeared on Leon’s face. Ar-son-ist? Aeo didn’t know the meaning of the word, nor did he didn’t ask for the definition. And mischief was the last thing on Aeo’s mind anymore. When Leon didn’t receive an anticipated reaction from the boy, he cleared his throat.

“Well, here,” he said, stepping towards the wood pile near the door. “Let’s treat this as your first lesson in the art of fire. No magick this time. All manual. First, you have to find appropriate pieces of wood and kindling to make the fire accept a spark and steadily grow in size. You’d wear down your flint and steel to stubs trying to light an entire cold, wet log. Here, take this one… and these two…”

Within ten minutes’ time, Aeo and Leon had together constructed a small lean-to with sticks and filled it with wispy wood flakes and twine. Then, admittedly nervous, Aeo took a piece of flint rock in one hand and Leon’s curved piece of steel in the other. Kneeling on the ground before the campfire, he could still see smolders of smoke rising from the ashes nearer the edges of the stone circle. It seemed very simple; strike the steel at a shallow angle and you’ll see sparks. Aim the sparks just right and you’ll get a fire.

Aeo breathed for a moment. This wasn’t magick. He wasn’t about to incinerate anything. This was just a simple trick and nothing more. He steadied his hands and struck the edge of the flint with the steel rod. Sparks flew, but to nowhere in particular. They fizzled out as quickly as they had appeared, surprising him that they’d even existed.

“Lean in a little,” Leon said. “Aim your stroke right into the center of the kindling. The sparks will follow.”

Aeo bit his lip and bent down further until his grip of the steel touched the lean-to. With a shaky hand, he drew the steel downward again, spitting sparks from the steel and stone. The direction was right, but the sparks didn’t connect with the soft mass of fibers. A second time. More sparks, right direction, no results. Third time, much the same.

Fourth time: the steel scraped the flint in a single quick strike, and several large sparks flew right into the bundle. Their orange glow connected and became pinpricks of vulnerable heat beneath a frozen world. Aeo very nearly continued striking the flint.

“No, that’s good, that’s enough,” Leon said with his hand on Aeo’s shoulder. “See the embers? Now lean down and blow on them, Aeo, and blow gently,” Leon said. “It won’t go out, I promise. In fact, fire wants for nothing but more air.”

Aeo blinked. Bending down as low as he could without hurting himself, he breathed in deep and exhaled. The golden coals flared to life with his breath, growing bright and crawling up the tinder like a small shining demon. No flame.

“Keep going,” Leon said.

Aeo gave another big blow. This time the coals within the flaxen bundle began to excrete a thick grey spout of smoke. Another exhale, and the smoke began to bend its trajectory towards Aeo’s face. Aeo inhaled a little too much, and turned away from the nascent plume, coughing.

“Ha, you may have power over fire, but smoke is a different matter entirely, isn’t it? Keep blowing.”

Aeo nodded and gagged at the same time. Turning back to the campfire, smoke consumed the bundle but showed no signs of flame. Thinking more clearly, Aeo turned his head away from the smoke to inhale, then turned back to exhale. With his blow, the smoke developed a voice, a youthful grumbling roar like wind rushing through a tiny hole. Another burst of air, and the roar continued.

Finally, with a pair of extra-large lungs full of air, Aeo blew. In a small noiseless burst, the smoke suddenly gave way to a warm and familiar glow. Tendrils of flame curled upwards, hungrily grasping for the twigs and small branches.

“There you go, Aeo,” Leon said. “Excellent work. How does it feel?”

Aeo sat up in front of the fire, crossing his legs and staring into it in awe.

“Warm, sir,” Aeo said, a bit mindless.

“I’m aware of that,” Leon said with a grin, adding a few pieces of wood to the campfire. “I mean how do you feel?”

Aeo looked down at the piece of flint and curved steel bar in his hands.

“I thought you could only make a fire with matches,” Aeo said. “How do these things make sparks?”

“Well,” Leon said. “How does a match work?”

“You rub it on the box… and it lights up,” Aeo said, mimicking the motion.

“Have you ever noticed what’s on the match? Or what part of the box you strike the match against?”

Aeo shook his head. He hadn’t had time to closely investigate them during his last encounter. He only knew what Ariste had shown him, which was minimal at best.

“The matchhead,” Leon said. “Is covered in special chemicals that ignite when a little bit of friction is applied. Do you know what friction is?”

Aeo shook his head again.

“When one object slides across another,” Leon continued, unabated. “Like a match against a matchbox, or a whetstone grinding against a knife’s edge, this is friction. When you strike the steel against the flint rock, you create friction.”

“So… friction makes fire?”

“When enough is applied, yes,” Leon said. “But with the right conditions and materials, it happens more easily. When your steel strikes the flint, tiny particles of iron are torn off and the friction makes these particles burst into flames, creating your bright sparks.”

Leon pointed to the steel and flint in Aeo’s hands.

“So,” he said. “While you may not always have matches at your disposal, so long as you have a bar of steel in your supply bag – or a steel blade – you’ll be able to make a fire almost anywhere. Flint is quite common, while matches are not. Understand?”

Aeo nodded. That made sense.

“But what about magick?” Aeo asked. “Can’t you make fire with magick?”

“Certainly,” Leon said. “But a scholar or a hunter wouldn’t last long out in the world relying on magick only. No matter what you might think, animis is finite. Do you know the word ‘finite’? It means ‘limited’, it has an end. Remember animis? My animis has limits. Yours does too. Think of animis as a pool of water. I can’t make wards over and over again endlessly, as each one empties my ‘pool of water’ until there’s no water left. But with the tools in my pack, I can confidently build a fire no matter the condition of my animis. If I’m knowledgeable about forests and the wilderness, I can forage for food and find clean water without resorting to magick. And if I’m talented with potioncraft and alchemy, I can heal the wounds of my friends and preserve life, even if I don’t know the right incantations. The world is full of tools, materials, and ingredients that can do wonderous things and help us preserve our magick for when we need it the most. Does that make sense?”

Aeo nodded.

“So the hunters were right… They said it’s possible to turn lead into gold, but that it’s really hard. Er… difficult.”

Leon chuckled.

“It is,” he admitted. “It’s called transmutation, turning one material into one of equal or lesser value. It requires a lot of lead and a lot of energy to make even a small amount of gold. I wouldn’t be surprised if some unprincipled adventurer tried to transmute a bit of lead into something that merely looked like gold. After all, not many have actually seen and hefted a bar of gold. It might have even been a petty illusion.”

“I wanted to be a hunter once,” Aeo said. “But all the hunters that show up anymore are really angry and drunks. They hate kids, and they’re really mean to… um…”

“Slaves?”

Aeo’s blood ran cold and he froze. He tried not to widen his eyes or looked frightened, but it showed through quite transparently.

“Aeo,” Leon said, placing his hand on the boy’s hesitant shoulder. “I don’t want you to be frightened of me or the past. I want to earn your trust. I think I have a good idea of what happened in Olvaren, but I want you to tell me the whole-”

In a violent burst of fierce chilling wind, the whole cave door flung wide open as if it had been torn from its rickety hinges by an angry giant. Coincidentally, it had, as there stood Shera in the open doorway, snarling ferociously. Aeo and Leon gasped as they saw her jaws and her neck covered in bright red blood. The young campfire froze along with them, extinguished in the burning mountain frost.

“Shera!” Leon cried, leaping to his feet. “What-”

<”THE BOY”> Shera cried, her eyes directed right at Aeo. <”THE BOY LED THEM HERE”>

Aeo reached for his ears, despite the lack of sound. Shera’s words were unmistakable and pierced the entirety of Aeo’s mind, popping his ears and filling his brain with an intense pressure strong enough to make his head burst. There was no reason in these words. Rage. Fury. Nothing like the graceful wolf she seemed to be just hours before.

The words carried images with them. Images of violence. Of a young wolf injured and caught by hunters. Of a mother defending her child. Of a deal struck… an ultimatum.

“Shera, where is Pick?” Leon asked. Shera ignored him.

<”THEY DEMAND THE BOY”>

Without another word, Shera forced her way into the cave, shoving Leon aside easily with her mass. To Aeo’s horror, her intent became perfectly clear. Without care or delicacy, Shera’s mouth opened wide and her blood-soaked teeth clamped firmly around Aeo’s torso and the blanket he wore.

“N-No!” Aeo shouted, now horizontal in her maw. He knew exactly what Shera’s words meant. “No, don’t take me back! You can’t take me back! S-Stop! Please!!”

“Shera, stop! Shera!” Leon said, holding his arms out and blocking her path through the door. “Shera, put him down! There is another way!”

The next words that Shera uttered couldn’t be repeated by humil or ashanti mouths, as technically there were no letters, icons, symbols, or even lip shapes to pronounce them. They simply were, existing just as much as a single terrible thought than as a lifetime of rich memories. The words were obscure but quite clear. Horrific and bloodthirsty but somehow playful and curious. No matter how a scholar might have described these words in a zoology textbook, there was one description that stood out to Leon and Aeo in that moment.

Silence.

The last thing Aeo remembered before he blacked out was Leon’s eyes rolling back into his head and his entire form collapsing like a ragdoll onto the cold stone floor.

*    *    *    *    *

The next thing Aeo remembered was a sudden abundance of gravity before crashing headfirst into an embankment of snow. The silence he had experienced from Shera disappeared before the joyous shouts of men and women. Why were they cheering? Were they celebrating something?

A shadow appeared above him, blocking the already dwindling sunlight.

“Found you,” came the insidious whisper.

Without another hint of warning (as if Aeo required one), a great pair of hands greedily latched onto his neck and squeezed, cutting off oxygen and blurring his vision. The hands lifted Aeo into the air with surprising and unfamiliar strength, and then threw him sideways. Unprepared for the whiplash, Aeo collapsed onto hard ice only to be pinned down by a heavy cleated boot.

<”YOU HAVE THE BOY”> came the thought-deafening telekinetic tone of Shera. <”RETURN MY SON”>

Aeo lifted his head as far as he could. Blood leaked freely from his nose, and though his frostbitten eyes were hazy, he could see several humil people standing around carrying burning torches and makeshift weapons. Unfortunately, he recognized some of them. They were from Olvaren. Some of them were more heavily armored and equipped: hunters.

Then, as if a whisper in a breeze, Aeo felt an image float to the top of his consciousness:

<The color purple. A humil boy hugging a wolf.>

“Pick…” Aeo groaned despite the pressure on his back, his eyes scanning around him. The thoughts echoed as if nearby, but offered no direction. Aeo dared to look backwards for just a split second, and he saw him: a ball of fluff curled on the cold earth, covered in blood… Pick wasn’t moving. The boot against Aeo’s back pounded downwards, knocking the breath out of his lungs and threatening to crack something.

“Shut up, you Edian piece of shit,” came a rough and ominous voice. “Another word out of you and I’ll break your arm.”

“Yes, you gave us the Edian!” cried someone in the crowd, a woman’s voice. “Now you’ll hold up your end of the bargain! Leave these mountains and never return unless you want your entrails ripped out and your bones carved up!”

<”RETURN MY SON”> Shera said. <”HOLD YOUR PROMISE”>

The words, filled with vicious rage, pumped through Aeo’s mind. His nose continued to bleed.

“Yes, of course, our… promise…” said the woman. Some of the other villagers and hunters began laughing. Aeo tried to look for Shera. He couldn’t see her. “Seeing as how you killed some of my men… We’d rather like to keep the little one for ourselves. A down payment for the reconstruction of Olvaren, you see. I imagine the wiz-caps in the Capital would pay top dollar to study this adorable little specimen…”

This time, there were no nameless words, no darkness. Whether Shera had exhausted herself mentally or had simply become enraged beyond humil understanding, her vicious growl made the snow and earth rumble. Then, an inhuman scream raged from the mountaintop.

“Steady, men,” said the woman. “She’s already exhausted. Keep your spears low and aim for her throat or eyes!”

<The color purple. A giant wolf licking a little wolf.>

“Pick, please…” Aeo whispered, hot tears flooding his eyes. This was his fault. All of it. He ran away from the Grey Pale and put them all in danger. Shera killed Leon. Shera was about to be killed herself. Hala would freeze on top of the mountain along with little Heem. And Pick… Pick was probably already dying.

Aeo couldn’t see it, but the battle began with a white blur and the crunching of bone. One by one, hunter after hunter attempted to lunge forward with spear and sword, and each was torn apart by massive jaws and merciless claws. Even those hunters that wore heavy metal armor were as tin cans to the monster, and limbs came off easily at the joints. The virgin snow soon became crimson as the Eastern tides; how many hunters died within those ten seconds, Aeo would never know. He only heard the shout that came moments into the one-sided fight:

“Back to the treeline! Damn it, Paulsen, forget the boy! Drag the wolf if you have to!”

The boot from Aeo’s backside lifted and vanished. Aeo stumbled to his feet and immediately ran to Pick’s side, despite the heavily-clad hunters that were currently attempting to drag Pick away on a sheet of leather. Pick was indeed covered in blood, a pair of arrows hanging limp in the thick, matted fur of his side.

“Pick!” Aeo cried, touching the wolf’s ear. “Pick, please, I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he looked at the hunters. “Don’t take him away! Please don’t take him!”

Pick’s head rose, and a single eye looked up at the boy.

<The color green. A humil boy hugging a wolf.>

“Get off!” said the hunter. He turned and planted his boot right in Aeo’s face, launching him backwards. Right at that moment, Shera’s massive form collided with the two hunters from the invisible white. She then proceeded to mangle one of them as Aeo attempted to regain his footing.

“Pick, wait, I’m-”

Something struck him hard in the back of the head. A tree branch. A walking stick, perhaps. Its source became crystal clear.

“I’m not letting some wolf steal you away from me,” said Harthoon’s voice. “You haven’t even begun to suffer…”

Aeo struggled as best he could, but his head was spinning. Harthoon’s arms – objects that Aeo had never considered as having much strength – closed around his scrawny waist and carried him away towards the village. Away from Shera. Away from Pick.

“N-No!!” Aeo cried. “Pick! Pick!!”

Pick didn’t move. No thoughts came to Aeo’s mind. It was silent.

It was finished. Whatever fleeting hope-filled life the Goddess had thought to grant him was over.

Voices of the Shattered Sun – Enmap Bracers

Slowly, the nineteen timid students entered the open-air classroom one-by-one, and each took a seat on comfortable pillows in front of a large semi-circular stage. Afternoon daylight streamed through the green curtains hanging from open skylights, and a warm breeze drifted through the windows, smelling slightly of lavender. Aeo decided to sit as far back as he could, choosing the pillow in the corner farthest from the door. He’d heard of the concept of ‘school’ before, but he had no idea it could be held in a such a luxurious place. Ariste would probably have a heart attack had she known the price of the pillow upon which Aeo now sat.

Aeo could differentiate between the Antielli boys and girls with short rounded ears, thick brown hair, and hazel eyes, and the Ashanti boys and girls with long and pointed ears, wispy white hair, and pale blue eyes. But no other student had Aeo’s bright red eyes and hair. He couldn’t help but feel as though some of his peers had very much noticed the obvious newcomer, with whispers between cupped hands already floating around. A few eyes were thrown his way, and he felt himself turn as red as his irises. After all, the academy year had started several months ago, and despite his best efforts to catch up to his class, he was quite behind. It was bad enough that the apprentice robes Leon had forced him to wear were terribly hot, itchy, and decidedly uncomfortable. Now he had to endure a very rigid schedule where everything was new.

And terrifying.

Last to enter the chamber was a rather rotund fellow dressed in flowing tan-and-green Academy robes and adorned with a mighty white beard that fell to his chest. His aged grey eyes, rosy cheeks, big bushy eyebrows, and a crown of hair ringing a bald head made him look like a jolly grandfather. Fortunately, for the most part, his disposition reflected his image.

“Oy children!” he bellowed, stepping up to the stage. “Take a seat, take a seat, get comfortable! Today’s lesson is certainly one you’ve been waiting for. No more note-taking, no more hand-waving… that will come again later, of course. But today, it is time for the real thing!”

“Master Naal?” asked a young girl that sat up front. “Does that mean you’ll show us actual magick?”

“Better, my dear,” Master Edin’Rao Naal said, clapping his hands together. “Today you all will be performing magick.”

Eyes widened in joy and excited whispers increased. Aeo felt a pit form in his stomach.

“Now, now, everyone, remain calm,” Master Naal said, lowering hands to hush the children. It didn’t help very much. “I know that some of you are already very skilled at simple focus magicks and some of you still have yet to demonstrate them. Hopefully the tools I’m about to show you will put us all on a level playing field and help us all improve.”

Master Naal turned and moved to the table at back of the stage. He produced a pair of bright-red leather items from a wooden crate, and revealed them to the class. Curved to fit the arm, the items were beautiful pieces of sturdy leather adorned with metal rivets, decorative steel ornaments, and silver buckles.

“These, children,” he said, lifting an item in each hand. “Are enmap bracers. Now, what are enmap bracers? I’m very glad you asked. Would one of you like to come up and help me demonstrate what they can… oh, Jhote, yes, come right up, my boy.”

An Antielli boy from the front row rose without even raising his hand, and stood before Master Naal excited and a bit sheepish.

“If you would hold one of these on my arm, my boy,” Master Naal said, rolling up his sleeve. “Yes, that’s perfect.” Then, with a flick of his opposite wrist, the three leather straps tightened simultaneously and the whole bracer seem to latch to his arm. “Ha, you’ll get used to doing that, it’s quite a simple trick. Here, Jhote, hold out your arm, I’ll attach the other one like so.”

Jhote did so, and performing the same trick, Master Naal slid the other enmap bracer onto the boy’s forearm and buckled it. The Antielli boy looked at the bracer on his arm in wonder.

“Comfortable? Perfect. Now, as to their function. ‘Enmap’ is short for ‘energy manipulation’, as that is what these bracers allow the user to do: better control the weave and flow of energy in focus magick. And what is focus magick, everyone?”

Several hands went up. Master Naal pointed.

“Master,” said an ashanti boy in the back with a thick accent. “It’s magick you have to concentrate to keep up.”

“Yes, concentration, and…? What’s the second important part of focus magick? Remember, it’s in the title itself…”

“A focus!” chimed several staggered voices.

“Marvelous, that’s right,” Master Naal said. “It requires concentration and a focus. Enmap bracers offer you just that: a brilliant focus created just for that purpose. There’s very little focus magick that can’t be improved by practicing with enmap bracers. Now, unfortunately, crafting enmap bracers takes many months of hard work and expensive materials to produce, so the Academy doesn’t own enough bracers even for the senior classes. For today, a single pair will suffice. One at a time, I want you all to come up to the stage, tell me your animis, and we will see the effects a single bracer can produce. I’ll be wearing the other one, just to keep everyone safe. I expect quite the lightshow!”

The nervous whispers turned into enthusiastic chattering. Aeo did not chatter. He simply hid his hands in his lap and looked down at the floor.

Jhote started the presentation. With an animis of abjuration, the Antielli boy focused and a sphere of bright sapphire light appeared in his hand. It looked like one of the luspheres that floated above the refectory.

“Very good, feel the ease with which the energy flows through the bracer. Isn’t it brilliant? Who’s next?”

The next student, an Antielli girl with curly hair in the front row, went up while Master Naal removed all three buckles of the bracer from Jhote’s arm with a quick gesture. Jhote sat down, and Master Naal placed the bracer on the girl’s forearm. As her animis was liquid thaumaturgy, Master Naal produced a small vial of water from the table on the stage. The girl must have been a star pupil, as the water seemed to leap from the vial into the palm of her hand. It then snaked around the bracer like a serpent, even weaving itself in between her fingers before stopping itself back into the vial.

“Brilliant, Bevelli! Fun, no? It makes it seem as though all your practice has finally paid off. Next!”

One by one, each student in the class rose and took to the stage. Some created arcs of electricity between their fingers, some illuminated the already brilliantly-lit classroom in blinding flashes, and the ashanti boy that had answered Master Naal’s question earlier healed a small abrasion that had happened to another boy’s knee. One student even transmuted a small glass marble into a cube shape, then into a pyramid. The student right next to Aeo, a white-haired ashanti girl whose hair fell to her waist, took the stage and created exactly what Master Naal had anticipated: a literal fireworks display that she described as an “emergency flare” her parents had taught her in case she ever got lost in the forest. It very nearly showered the front row in sparks. Needless to say, the students cheered.

“Excellent, everyone, excellent work! You all have mastered your animi with such ease! Isn’t it exciting? With practice, performing magick can become as simple as these bracers make it seem.”

The whispered escalated as the students marveled at their experiences. For a brief moment, as Master Naal removed the bracer from the white-haired girl’s arm, it seemed as though he would forget about the Edian boy in the far corner of the classroom. He even seemed to turn around the place the bracers back on the table.

“And, our final student,” Master Naal said without turning around. “Our brand new arrival from Antiell. Have you all introduced yourselves to young Aeo yet?”

Aeo turned ashanti-beetroot red as all eyes in the classroom turned to look at him. The boy without a last name. The Edian slave. The whispering increased, and some of the other boys laughed, with three in particular sitting nearest to the classroom door. If Aeo knew the spell for turning invisible, he would have cast the enchantment immediately. Unfortunately, he did not, impressive as it might have been. Unable to look up at the stage or at anyone else, he stared at the window beside him instead.

“Well, Aeo?” asked Master Naal. Aeo forced himself to look past everyone. Master Naal had turned towards the class and now wore a peculiar pair of thin black gloves. “Would you care to practice with the bracer?”

The student’s laughter increased when Aeo didn’t respond. But he couldn’t simply say nothing and ignore everyone. Reluctant, Aeo felt his body lift from his seated position and take steps to the front of the classroom. His knees wobbled as he climbed the stage steps, and his bottom lip was already trembling. There was no way he could remember his incantations.

At last, he stood before Master Naal, the scrawniest student in the class before the most imposing ashanti he’d ever met.

“Very good, my boy,” Master Naal said, clapping a hand on Aeo’s shoulder. Aeo thought he might tumble forwards from such a gesture, and giggling rose from a pair of Antielli girls at the sight of it. “Now, as Master Sirelu advised me, you have quite the animis for fire thaumaturgy, is that right?”

Aeo nodded in the slightest way possible, his gaze transfixed on the ground.

“Here, Aeo, your arm,” Master Naal said, offering the bracer to the Edian boy. Aeo looked upon it; it really was quite a work of art. The buckles and decorations gleamed in the sunlight, the sienna ayvasilk weaving around the edges spun perfect patterns, and the beautiful red leather seemed aged and refined like polished oak. Aeo rolled up his sleeve and lifted his left arm to Master Naal, and the old teacher slid the bracer on. With a flick of his hand, the bracer’s straps tightened and buckled around Aeo’s arm, slightly cutting off the blood supply to his hand. “There we are. Now, stand about an arm’s length back, lift your arm, and cup your hand, just as Master Sirelu taught you.”

Aeo closed his eyes for a moment and obeyed, his hand cupped upwards. Nothing felt inherently different. But, just as he had practiced, he imagined all the heat from his toes rising to his legs, then up his waist and stomach, through his chest and down his arm towards his waiting hand. For a moment, he thought he felt something.

Nothing happened. Not a single spark. Everything fell terribly quiet.

“Need assistance, my boy?” asked Master Naal. The same three boys that had laughed before began whispering to each other and smiling unfriendly smiles. The powerful heat that should have been descending down Aeo’s arm was now ascending to his head. Aeo strained again to produce even a candle’s worth of flame on his fingertips, but he might as well have been holding his hand out to Master Naal for a piece of candy.

Aeo’s eyes darted over to the three boys. They weren’t stopping. At this point, they knew they were distracting him. It made them laugh all the more, and the class followed along.

Their commotion was not lost on Master Naal.

“Come now, everyone,” he said, not pointing to anyone in particular. “Let’s not be rude. Give Aeo a moment, the bracers can take a moment to get used to…”

Nothing was working. Perhaps he should have gracefully bowed out. He should have taken the bracer off and returned to his pillow.

But he didn’t. He was looking directly at the three boys. All three were Antielli.

Somewhere inside his brain, their eyes, their laughter, and their gestures struck a deeply-rooted nerve, a nerve Aeo had never before explored. The words ‘Edian bastard’ floated through his head as plainly as if one of the boys had said it aloud. A horrifying thought arose, or at least one that should have been horrifying: everything about the three Antielli boys deserved to be eradicated. Their twisted grins. Their manic eyes. Their very bodies should be incinerated in the heart of the sun and refused existence for one day more. Aeo’s vision of the gentle sun turned bloodthirsty in his imagination as he watched them continue to enjoy his discomfort.

Aeo’s hearing faded; his vision blurred. Aeo focused so powerfully upon the three boy’s warped glee that he didn’t realize that their faces were slowly turning into looks of horror.

Someone yelled from across the room.

Something bright had enveloped his left arm.

Aeo broke his concentration on the three boys and looked. His entire forearm, enmap bracer and all, burned with ferocious ruby-red flames as bright as the surface of a star. His eyes tracked the formation of the terrific bonfire upward and calmly noticed they were consuming the green curtains above the stage.

Someone again yelled from across the room. Aeo lazily gazed off the stage towards the classroom door. It was Master Naal. What was he saying? He heard his name.

“Aeo! Stop! Please!”

Stop. What a funny concept. Stop.

Aeo’s gaze turned back to the ruby-red flames now engulfing the sleeve of his Academy robes. This felt right. For the first time in many years, he couldn’t imagine anything more satisfying than the primal animis that raged from his hand. With this power, he could do anything. He could stop the staring and the whispers. He could make people stop laughing. He could make them disappear. What if he wore both bracers? How much more powerful could he become? Perhaps he could annihilate in two directions.

Someone was still yelling at him.

Then several voices.

A strange sensation took control of his left hand. Some unseen force was trying to close his hand.

But… but that would make the fire go away.

He resisted it. Nothing would make this end. He would let it consume him first. He would burn down the entire Academy. He would end his life before letting the fire die. He would-

With a delightful bloop, a violet sphere absorbed his hand like a playful bubble. The entire ruby-red conflagration died. As if all his weight had been held by a molten string now vanished, Aeo collapsed to the ground, his Academy robes still quite on fire.

Aeo’s hearing returned. All sound hadn’t died; the roar of the flames had deafened him. The room was, in fact, quite loud, filled with the cries of frightened children and the shouts of other Masters attempting to calm them. For some reason he felt… raindrops on his face. Aeo’s eyes couldn’t focus. His energy had been consumed in the flames, and he barely had the power to turn his head towards where Master Naal had been standing.

Leon now raced towards him from the door of the classroom, looking quite haggard. Somehow, he had taken Master Naal’s bracer and put it on his own arm in no time at all. Wait, his office was on the other side of the Academy. Had he been watching the class the whole time?

“Aeo!” he cried, crouching and smothering the flames that grew on Aeo’s robes. He then lifted the boy in his arms. With a flick of his wrist, the enmap bracer released from Aeo’s arm, falling to the stage floor, apparently quite unharmed from the flames. “Aeo, can you hear me? Speak to me, Aeo, say something! Can you see me? Blink if you can see me!”

Aeo attempted to blink. It was more of an eyelash flutter.

“Master Naal, call the Sanareum! How long was his outburst? What caused this?!”

“About fifteen minutes, and I have no idea! I couldn’t approach him to ward his hands, even with a bracer on!” shouted Master Naal from across the room, who seemed to be directing fellow thaumaturgists in extinguishing the flames that licked the ceiling. “But it was exciting to say the least! I daresay we have a master flame thamaturgist on our hands!”

“Not now, Edin!” Leon shouted angrily.

Fifteen minutes…?

No. It couldn’t have been that long.

Leon turned to Aeo, patting out the last remaining flames and placing a hand on the boy’s head. “This is my fault, Aeo… Had I known this was your lesson today, I would have made you skip class…”

Aeo couldn’t even unconsciously look guilty.

Voices of the Shattered Sun – Magick and Animis

edge of the world

by Unknown (perfect picture, no certain identifiable artist…)

“What, ser, is magick? What is animis?

“Without knowledge and understanding of the art of magick, all you might see is a bunch of waving hands or sticks, a puff of smoke, and a rabbit where but moments ago there wasn’t one. Magick may have made that rabbit appear or it may not have. You never know these days, and one should never purchase a formerly invisible rabbit (I’ll leave you to figure out why). But there’s one thing that magick is not, and that is creating something from nothing.

“You could say magick is control over the elements. You’ll certainly see thaumaturgists both old and young (mostly the young) slinging whips made of fire, playing catch with two-ton boulders, and conjuring lightning storms from boiling cauldrons. But the world is full of elements, both rare and common, that make up the whole of being, and not all of them take kindly to being controlled. You may see conjurers calling forth creatures made of bone, stone, crystal, or water to fight and crumble on their behalf, but they soon discover that these abnormalities of the natural world have wills of their own.

“You could say that life is magick, but the forces and laws that govern the universe don’t belong to life only. Even rocks contain the power and potential for destruction, and the stench of death and decay invites a new beginning of creation.

“So what is magick? What is animis?

“Magick is the weaving and manipulation of energy, and animis is the weaver’s will to manipulate that energy.

“I say the concept is simplistic (some may call it absurdly over-simplistic), but our world is anything but simple. The Goddess is reliable but stubborn and set in Her ways; only through dedication to Her will can she be convinced to acquiesce. To act to the contrary is to wilfully injure Her. Thus, the complexity of magick comes from the procedures and forms necessary for change to occur. Energy can be channeled in countless different ways, with just a thoughtless flick of the wrist or through complex ceremonies that take months of intense planning and great amounts of resources. Even then, without an understanding of the true nature of the rite, it’s all so much useless chanting, flailing, and nonsense. Designing rituals is not for the faint of heart; there are dire consequences for inappropriate stick-waving. Not everyone has the same innate ability to harness energies towards beneficial purposes. Just as babes develop the proper faculties to understand and control their untamed emotions, so too do the apprentices of magick strive to understand their relationship to the world and how their wills can help shape the reality around them.

“In fact, while on the subject of emotions, you’ll often find the effects and effectiveness of magick affixed to your psychological state. Fury can fuel the whirlwind, but a healer trembling with grief and anger can cause just as much harm. Paradoxically, however, passion can and has fueled the greatest of miracles, and immense calm has torn the world into pieces. We have seen the effects of such devastation on the face of our dear heavenly sphere: the Wound. Even now we fail to understand the full effects of the Wound and what it means to the futures of our children and their children. The hatred of nations may well have rung the death knell of our fair Goddess, despite what your particular religion might say to the contrary. What disturbed and no doubt emotional minds crafted the weapons used to tear open the Wound, I can only wonder.

“That is why the study of magick has become so vital to the many races of this world. If there is ever to be any hope of undoing the damage wrought by the hands of our humil, ashanti, and eshain ancestors, we must learn all the Goddess has to teach us. No avenue of research should be sealed, no tradition should go unscrutinized. A single student of magick, studying the most obscure of ordinances, could hold the key to Tiathys’ survival.

“Call me a charlatan. Many have. Mock me as a madman for prophesying the End Times. But never let it be said that I did not attempt to repair that which became broken. Never let my devotion to the Goddess be denied. I will continue to teach my apprentices all I know and deny them nothing besides that which I cannot possess. Lend me your condemnations; they will fuel my desire to protect my Sacred Mother from the schemes of cowards and warmongers. Your propaganda will not flourish in San’Doria so long as Ashant remains true to this cause.”

-Letter to General Ledenot of the San’Drael 4th Division from Master Petrovo Va’jan of the Everspring Academy, A.R. 5, Month of Frost

Manifestation

Magick can be defined as the utilization of energy to influence the natural world through supernatural change. This can manifest in a number of ways, including the more ‘traditional’ schools of magick:

  • Thaumaturgy: the practice of elemental manipulation for constructive or destructive ends
  • Conjuration: the practice of weaving energy into physical forms and vice verse
  • Essation: the practice of quickening the natural course of healing through surgical and magickal means
  • Abjuration: the practice of protecting oneself and others through deflection and absorption of energy
  • Transmutation: the practice of changing the physical and magickal properties of physical matter in a permanent manner
  • Illusion: the practice of changing the physical or magickal characteristics of living or nonliving matter in a non-permanent manner
  • Astrologica: the practice of divining the past, present, and future through the study of the stars and astral bodies of the heavens
  • Alchemy: the practice of extracting, purifying, and distilling animis from plants, minerals, insects, bone, and much more

Although some magick practices and rituals cannot be categorized in any one or several categories (or none at all), magick is a system based on universal laws. Animis, or the potential magickal will of the user, determines not only the limits of one’s ability to influence the physical world but the types of abilities one is capable of. For instance, a student of magick may discover an innate ability to manipulate the flow of elemental matter such as gases or liquids, but may find manipulating solid matter difficult or even impossible. A sanare might have the ability to influence the flow of blood and humours in a humil or ashanti body, but have no talent producing wards that might prevent a corpse from decomposing. Exceptional individuals can work to improve their skills in magick that opposes their unique animis, but such study often takes a great amount of patience and tutelage beneath a talented teacher.

Discovering one’s animis takes time, effort, and an open mind. Scholars and magi across the world have attempted to create a ritual or a device to measure or identify the animis of a being without experimentation. But thus far, such technology has eluded even the most brilliant of minds.

Animis naturally occurs in great abundance in many types of matter both living and unliving, including plants both beneficial and poisonous, within the bodies of beasts and animals, solidified within minerals and crystals, liquified or aerosolized into aether (such is present within the Everspring and other natural wellsprings), and even within dead and decaying corpses (although utilizing this final example is usually strongly discouraged). Again, not all animis is the same, as different materials will lend themselves to different weavings of magick (such as firebuck leather used in the crafting and utilization of energy manipulation vambraces and the unique brightower silica of luspheres).

It is important to note that while some form of animis is required to perform magick, animis is not energy, strictly speaking. It is speculated to be a supernatural characteristic present in almost everything, much like the ashanti belief of the spiritual ‘soul’. Most believe it to be a resource native and unique to the physical world of Tiathys like water or timber. Some postulate it originates with the Goddess Herself, although this is debated in most circles, the most important question being: if animis has a divine origin, how and why is natural animis used in the practice of barbaric and evil acts? Historical scripture and the Goddess Herself are silent on the matter.

History

According to Eshain tradition, the concept of magick as well as the source of animis can be traced back to the founding of the first civilization of Rehipeti in what would become the lost continent of Preii Valu. It was there that Tiathys Herself instructed The Ashen Priestess and her followers in the earliest forms of conjuration, thaumaturgy, and supernal healing, utilizing a natural overflow of magick that would be named for the Ashen Priestess herself. These primal practices were then refined through the centuries as the descendants of Rehipeti founded Eshain and later Antiell and Edia.

As humils in Rehipeti learned magick in the East, so too did the ashanti learn of magick in the West through the Goddess’ influence. With access to the Everspring and an untamed wilderness to call home, their newly-acquired abilities reflected a decidedly natural tone which they used to construct a great civilization that spread from the South Sea as far north as the Wilwor River Basin. Magickal flows and eruptions in the Everspring offered evidence of a second greater Wellspring somewhere to the west. Despite the best efforts of their greatest mystics, however, the ashanti never discovered this second mysterious font of power.

Due to the last century of conflict with its neighbors, Edian magick tradition has become semi-mystical and poorly understood by the Ashanti and Antielli. Edian priests insist their practices have returned to the shamanistic ways of the ancient Eshain. Antielli rumor describes Edian magick as foul and detestable, including taboo practices such as humil sacrifice, necromancy, and adoption of blasphemous xa’rith rituals. Only the ignorant and prejudiced believe this, however, despite the vast amounts of state propaganda stating such.

The xa’rith of Edan, having no ability to practice magick at all besides the most basic alchemical arts, view common Antielli, Ashanti, and even Edian magick as repulsive. For centuries, their tribal teachers and elders have warned their children to avoid the plagues of magick, and some even advocate for olmi dravka (xa’rith for “sacred conflict”) to stomp out all traces of magick from the face of the earth. Were it not for their small numbers and primitive weapons, they might have made good on their threats – if a known scholar visits Alefeu without protection, it is nearly guaranteed he or she will be dragged into the streets and beaten publicly.

Localization

The search for animis and the development of the magickal arts is the main reason for many of history’s migrations, including the ancient’s migration from Rehipeti to Eshain in 2400 A.L, the settlement of San’Drael by settlers from Eshain in 247 A.L., and the settlement of Aurion in 234 A.L. It’s also the primary reason (and martial weapon) for many of the wars of the last five hundred years, most notably the Great War that resulted in the magickal cataclysm and the Wound.

Animis in the form of liquid and gaseous aether can be found in many different parts of the world, from small underground basins to cavernous wellsprings and overflows. Villages and towns have been founded to capitalize on its production and refinement, and academies have developed to study the effects of these supernatural springs on the surrounding plant and animal life.

There are two (possibly three) areas of the world wherein lies little to no animis: all mapped areas within roughly fifteen (15) leagues of the Wound, one-hundred and sixty (160) leagues in every direction surrounding the Mahwiel (purportedly), and the entirety of the northeast landmass of Eshain Ka (now known only as the Blasted Lands). If a scholar wishes to explore these areas, they had better bring a large supply of animis-filled provision with them, else they’ll soon find their over-reliance on magick a heavy burden to bear.


What do you think? Confusing much? I had fun writing what I would think a master of magick would say to a snooty general who thinks of it as nothing but a means to an end, a weapon he can point at his enemies.

Also, visit my World Anvil for spoilers into Alyssum if you dare! Or don’t, and suffer in darkness while I write! Bwahahaha!