With food, water, and a warming body, Aeo slept straight through the night, even with a giant wolf at his side and a strange academic man watching over him. Though, in all honesty, he’d climbed the mountain to give his life to the Goddess. Maybe she was watching over him the whole time.
A depressing set of thoughts swirled in his head even before he awoke, vivid dreams filling his head. He dreamed he stood at the top of the mountain, close enough to tumble down into freedom. But as in most nightmares, something was chasing him. He heard the violent barking of hounds, the shouts of the slave owners calling after him and demanding he return. He cast his gaze backwards, and saw them in the distance, perhaps racing towards him from the treeline. He then turned towards the very summit of Falas, and looked down to see only the misty mountain peaks and the mystery beyond. The merchants that traveled the pass told stories of a jungle on the other side, a rich and untamed land that couldn’t compare to the valley lands where the village lay.
He would travel there. He would find freedom there. Without thought, Aeo took a step forward and fell down the snowy cliffs. Nothing hurt him in this dream, of course, at least at first. He felt weightless as he flew just inches above the snow. He could no longer hear the dogs or the men following him, just the sound of rushing wind cascading past his face.
A cliff face was fast approaching. Aeo tried his best to pull up, or maneuver to the side to avoid it. Nothing worked. Inescapable. And just before he collided with the rocks and snow… He woke up.
A typical dream. He’d had such drifting dreams before. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy them. On the contrary, they gave him a sense of escape that nothing else could. But there was always something concrete that made these dreams end. The ground, a wall, a tree, a cliff face. Aeo could deal with these dreams if they ended any other way. But they always woke him up with a start, even in the early hours of the day.
This strange morning, however, the realization quickly hit him that he wasn’t sleeping in a bed, even the tattered bed in the place he’d once called home. Aeo tugged at his arms to rub his eyes. Heavy weights stopped them from rising.
Oh. The water bottles.
Though no longer warm unto themselves, they felt as heavy and comfortable as the fur blanket that covered them. With some effort, he hauled an arm out from beneath the pair covering it, and cleared his eyes of sleepies. Pain shot from his face at the slightest touch—the bruise. He carefully avoided it as best he could.
Tired. Very tired. The kind of exhaustion that comes from hours of physical exertion. An aware kind of tired that leaves the body useless but the mind clear and active. And a tinge afraid at that particular moment. Finally able to move his head about without too much pain, Aeo looked further to his left. His ears didn’t deceive him. A giant furry monster slept comfortably against the corner of the wall on a pile of furs, curled up all together and breathing steadily. How old was this wolf named Pick? It wasn’t like Aeo could judge it from the thoughts Pick put into his head. Maybe he was still young, like a little kid? He didn’t seem at all hesitant to place his head in Aeo’s lap, after all.
Aeo lay with his back against the sloped back wall of a very wide cave and examined his surroundings as he lay musing. The surprisingly flat stone floor gently curved into the walls as if crafted on purpose, although the cave walls themselves weren’t nearly as neatly organized. Cracks and pockets filled the four walls, and as many as were large enough were filled with unlit wax candles and small charms of varying sizes, colors, and complexity. The total weight of the mountain hovered above the walls, covered with just as many cracks and dotted with the occasional small stalactite and fabric covering, creating a feeling of a well-worn underground dwelling. Opposite of Aeo’s furry resting place, the stone wall curved about halfway across the perimeter until it continued as wooden slats sealed with mud cement. A human-sized entry sat in the middle of the wooden wall, while a larger barn-like door with a rope loop ‘doorknob’ surrounded the human one in combination. It was no surprise who the larger door belonged to, though how the wolves might have helped in the construction of this cavernous dwelling, or even if they did at all, Aeo didn’t know. In the middle of the room was a large campfire ring, complete with a roasting spit and holder for pots of all sizes. And against the wall on the left sat wooden crates and boarded boxes of all sizes, no doubt filled with food and other supplies.
The wax candle crevasses continued along this wall, although a few of them were lit. And, strangely enough, there seemed to be a purple light being cast onto the wall without source from the center of these candles.
Magic. Real magic.
Aeo knew of the concept of magic, the most spectacular happening, of course, in far away lands. Every so often a ‘magician’ would wander into Olvaren offering his talents as entertainment for a few coins and a place to spend the night. These talents would often be nothing more than cards tricks and sleights of hand. But Aeo and the other children had loved them, and naturally couldn’t figure out for their very lives how such tricks were accomplished.
The only time a real wizard had come into town was during the hunts. Their prices weren’t cheap, as Aeo heard rumored, but their skills were often invaluable to other hunters with their abilities to study the habits and trails of the animals and beasts of the mountain, as well as creating strange enchantments for the hunter’s weapons. They didn’t perform for children—they could start campfires fires with nothing but a flick of a wrist, read people’s thoughts, and even turn iron into gold as payment for housing and food. Of course, the ‘iron to gold’ skill was the most often requested of the wizard, though, according to them, was a limited ability and could only be done in very small quantities. Probably wasn’t true, but who knows?
Aeo wished he could turn dirt into gold. He could have bought his own freedom without freezing himself to death.
The man named Leon lay sleeping in the right corner of the room, away from the wooden entrance to the cave. Above him were also lit candles and a strange almost mist-like purple light emanating from them. He didn’t have the least bit idea as to its purpose.
Aeo layed back, fumbling his arm back underneath the water bottles that leaned against his side. What a strange place to sleep, he thought to himself. A dark thought then filled his mind: would Leon force him to go back to the village? His fists clenched. If so, he’d run as fast as he could for the summit and fall down the other side until he reached the forest beyond.
There’s no way. I’m not going back. Even if I freeze to death, I’m not going back.
The enormous door of the cave quietly creaked. Aeo jumped at the sound.
For a moment, there were no other sounds, although as Aeo’s hearing focused, he could hear the roar of the endless wind outside. His stomach turned. Something was out there.
The door opened. The small door, in fact. With it came a light yet lively voice.
“…all the way up the mountain by himself! I know! Stunning!”
Aeo’s eyes widened. It was no human who stepped through the door, but a curious round creature that came hopping into the room like a frog. A spherical frog? Its big spotty black eyes scanned the room for a moment, and hopped inside as you’d expect a frog to hop. Behind it then hopped a smaller frog of the same round form, full of energy and speaking rather loudly with its wide green lips.
“Where is the leet-il hoo-man, Mama?”
The bigger frog turned and put a webbed finger to her lips.
“Hush, little toad,” she said. “You’ll wake all the sleeping folk!”
“But I aw-weady woke She-wa!”
“I am aware, and I’m surprised Shera didn’t gobble you up!” the older frog whispered. The more Aeo listened to her, the more he sounded like a right and proper lady… er, lady-frog. No burbling or frothing at the mouth, as Aeo could imagine a frog speaking. At least in comparison to the adorable small frog. “The boy needs all the rest he can get after his terrible ordeal.”
“What’s a ow-deal?” the littlest frog whispered.
“Trouble, dear Heem, it means trouble.”
The elder frog then hopped to the center of the room, stepping towards the remnants of the once-roaring fire. She kicked at a few of the errant pieces of char for a moment. Then the frog leaned back for a moment as if gathering air. A lot of it. More than it would seem the little frog would be able to take in by herself. Then something clicked quite audibly. Something in the frog’s throat? No doubt a spark, for the frog then belched forward and her mouth erupted in a bright errant flame. It seemed like more than just simple flame, however, as a thick super-heated substance also leaked from the frog’s mouth and brought the campfire to a mighty consistency immediately. Aeo caught the scent of nauseous gas, but it soon passed. And as abrupt and shocking as the display appeared, Aeo heard nothing but a small burst of wind.
“Ah, there we go,” the frog said without skipping a beat. “Much better. Heem, my dear, would you grab a few logs for the fire?”
“Yes, Mama,” the little frog said, hopping to the wood pile next to the crates.
Aeo suddenly realized why the frogs looked so round—each wore a tightly knit coat of thick fur around themselves, which the female frog then shed and placed close to the fire. Beneath the coat the frog wore a tight dress of a strange dazzling multi-colored material. She walked on two feet as gracefully as any human, though to keep balance while hopping occasionally dropped to all fours without a problem. Her green skin glistened a little in the firelight as her large yellow eyes with dark horizontal pupils expertly scanning the room. She certainly had the wide mouth of a frog, thick green whiskers sticking out the sides somehow adding wisdom to the wrinkles of her face. She stood about a foot and a half, maybe two, and the little one gathering firewood—little sticks and twigs, from the look of it—stood even lower off the ground.
She hopped slowly towards Leon and noticed he was still fast asleep beneath the glowing purple mist. She then hopped closer to Aeo, which instinctually made him pull his feet away. As much as they could move, considering the heavy water bottles and painful aching frostbite.
“Oh. Oh! Oh my! My poor boy!” the frog clapped her webbed hands in surprise. “How long have you been awake? You’ve probably been watching us the whole time! Well, bless the Goddess, I probably scared you silly by starting that fire, didn’t I?”
Aeo didn’t dare nod in agreement.
The frog-lady stepped passed Aeo’s feet towards his head.
“Hello, my dear!” she said enthusiastically, though quietly enough as to not wake Pick. She bowed as she approached. “My name is Hala, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance!”
“H-Hello,” Aeo squeaked.
“Leon told us all about you last night after you fell asleep,” Hala said. “My goodness, what a journey you took to reach us all the way out here! Of course, Shera had to carry you most of the way. It’s a miracle she found you. She told us she was searching for bighorns out of the treeline ridge when she saw a little human out there wandering all by himself. I have a feeling she wanted to eat you, but she carried you up here regardless! Wasn’t that so kind of her?”
“Eat me…?” Aeo whispered. “Wh-Who’s Shera?”
“Oh, you haven’t met her yet, that’s right!” Hala bent down into a squat in front of Aeo, then rose back up in a stretch. “She’s Pick’s Mama, and a right big wolf for sure! She certainly keeps us all safe from the nasty critters that roam the mountain, yes she does. She’s been tending to the bighorners all night long, the poor dear. She usually sleeps in this cave with Leon, but for some reason she decided to sleep in the barn! Isn’t that funny?”
Aeo decided it was not.
“The hoo-man a-wake?”
Up hopped the little frog, now shed of its fur coat as well. Her fur coat, Aeo noticed, since she wore a dress. This dress, however, was less conservative, more like a skirt and a top with the same mysterious material. She took a few steps towards Aeo’s face and folded her green little arms.
“The hoo-man isn’t leet-il,” she said. “He’s biiiig.”
“Well, he’s little to other humans, Heem dear,” Hala said, placing her hands on the little frog’s shoulders. “Aeo, this is Heem. She’s very excited to meet you! Heem, this is Aeo. Be very careful now, he’s not feeling very well at the moment. No jumping on him, okay? Perhaps later when he’s feeling up to it.”
Heem looked very disappointed at this.
A thought suddenly came to Aeo’s mind.
<A frog jumping on the back of a wolf.>
“Piiiick!” Heem exclaimed, wasting no time hopping towards the awakened wolf. Pick was indeed awake, eyeing the situation with interest. Before Heem could hop on his back, Pick whined and yawned big enough to devour the little frog in a single bite. Heem didn’t seem the least big concerned, and climbed up Pick’s neck to sit on his back. “Big floo-fie puppy!”
“Good to see you up, you young hound dog!” Hala said. “Sleep well?”
Pick growled and blinked. He then looked over at Aeo.
<The color teal. A human jumping up and down.>
Aeo looked down at his toes and tried to wiggle them. They felt inflamed and painful, even though they still felt frozen.
“I don’t… I don’t know,” Aeo said.
“Oh Pick,” said Hala. “He won’t be on his toes for a good long while. Frostbite is no little thing, after all! Why, I remember getting frostbite on my toes, I had to sit in the thermal spring for a week before I could start hopping again. As a matter of fact, that’s not a bad idea…”
A gruff voice then rose to fill the cave.
“Where do you think I filled up Aeo’s water bottles?”
“Oh dear,” said Hala. “Good morning Leon! I do hope we didn’t wake you… Though I’m certain we did.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you did,” he said with a chuckle, as he lifted himself to sit. Aeo had fallen asleep much earlier than Leon, and hadn’t seen him get dressed in the dark sleeveless shirt he now wore. “But I’m glad you did. I have a lot to do today, and I might as well get started.”
“More of those experiments of yours? You know, the longer you’re down in those caves, the more I start to worry about you falling into holes, or getting trapped from a cave-in, or blowing yourself up…”
“No need to worry yourself, Hala,” Leon replied. “Everything I do is perfectly safe. I’m simply studying plants and rocks, not spelunking.” He paused. “Well, maybe a little bit.”
“Hmm-umm,” said Hala, tapping the floor with her foot. Leon looked over at Aeo.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
Aeo shrugged, which was challenging to see from beneath the blankets.
“I’m cold, sir…” he said honestly.
“I’m sure you are. Thank you for starting the fire back up, Hala, that was very kind of you. I’ll go refill those water bottles for you, Aeo.”
As he lifted himself to get dressed, Hala hopped up.
“Not a problem at all, Mr. Sirelu!” said Hala. “I’m happy to help this human boy back on his feet!” She then turned to the little frog proudly sitting upon the wolf pup’s back. “All right, little Heem, it’s time for us to go clean the hot springs today. You promised you would!”
“Waaah!” cried Heem immediately, kicking her feet and pounding Pick’s back with her fists. “But I wanna ride Pick!”
“Pick has other duties, Heem, like taking care of Aeo while Leon is gone! Don’t make me go up there and get you!”
Aeo decided it was difficult to make out the individual emotions on the frogs’ faces without hearing the words they spoke, but it seemed as if Heem’s expressions changed from outrage to sadness and then quiet acceptance. The little frog hopped off of Pick’s back and made her way back to the campfire when she gingerly put on her sphere coat. Hala did the same, and spoke as she did so.
“It’s so wonderful to have you here with us, Aeo!” she said quite excitedly. “When you’re well enough to walk, I’d love for you to meet the rest of my family. They’re not as happy-sure as Heem and I are about more humans living up here, but I know you’ll make yourself a place here in no time!”
Hala stepped over to the wood pile and made it a point to throw one more small bundle into the campfire.
“No need to worry, Hala,” Leon said as he buttoned up a long-sleeved shirt he’d produced from a small crevasse in the wall. “I’ll take care of it.”
“If you’re sure, dear!” she said, her round form hopping towards the door. “We’ll see you later, Leon! Aeo! Pick!” They then disappeared through the door before closing it shut behind them.
“She’s such an interesting woman,” Leon said with a laugh. “So unlike the rest of her family.”
Pick sat up and started panting.
<The color green. A wolf licking a frog.>
“Yes, I like them too,” Leon said. “And you know Heem loves you, don’t you Pick?”
Pick yipped once and laid back down on his fur blankets.
Aeo closed his eyes. Life was quickly losing sense.