Everything felt wonderful. The new water bottles felt so good on his skin, Aeo didn’t want to move anymore. Leon even placed water bottles on the sides of his head to keep his ears warm—he hadn’t realized just how dull and cold they’d been until warmth filled them. He didn’t even move when Pick came to lick his face with his enormous wet tongue.
<A human hugging a wolf’s head.>
“Uh…” Aeo whispered, gagging. “Y-Yeah… good boy.”
“Hey Picky,” said Leon, removing his jacket and replacing it with a light-brown buttoned dress shirt. “I need you to go and get Shera for me. Go feed the bighorners for her. Tell her I sent you, okay?”
Pick’s head drooped down low and his nose nuzzled up against Aeo’s side. He whined quietly.
“It’s all right. Aeo’s not going anywhere. You can watch over him in a little bit. I just need to speak with him and Shera for a while. Please? And close the door when you go?”
Pick’s shoulders drooped low, but he lifted himself off the ground and headed for the door. Standing on all four legs, the wolf pup stood a little taller than a full-grown lion, and Aeo knew he still had a lot of growing to do. The unlatched large door swung wide open, and Aeo expected the cold air from outside to blast inside the cave and suck all the warmth away. To his surprise, it didn’t at all, and not just because he was being smothered by hot spring water bottles. Pick closed the door shut and disappeared.
“There we go,” Leon said. “I was hoping I could talk to you now that you’re not frozen solid.”
Aeo frowned. Might as well put his cards on the table.
“You’re… not going to make me go back to the village, are you, sir?”
Leon placed his hands on his knees and leaned backwards.
“Well, there’s the question,” he said. “I didn’t wonder where you came from, but I did wonder where you received all those bruises. If you’re asking if I’ll kick you out when you’re frostbite heals, the answer is no. Of course not. But I wonder if you might tell me who you belong to. Do you have family? Friends? Anyone who might be searching for you?”
“No,” Aeo replied. “No one cares about me.”
Leon cast his eyes downwards.
“Is that right,” he replied.
“I’m not going back to Olvaren,” Aeo said flatly. “Never.”
“You say there’s no one there that cares about you,” Leon said quietly. “But someone hurt you. Now, I don’t know what caused it. But they took it too far, didn’t they? Quite the collection of bruises you have on you, kid. Nothing would have led you up here in night clothes otherwise.”
“I’m not a kid,” Aeo growled.
“Of course not. I apologize.”
Aeo didn’t reply. He shut his eyes. He suddenly wanted to sleep.
“It isn’t my business, of course. Just educated guesses, if you don’t mind me making them. But there is a reason I ask about what caused your travels up here.”
Leon cleared his throat.
“Have you ever heard of the mephandras?”
Aeo became very awake.
“They’re real?” he asked. “You’ve seen one?”
“Armored bears of unusual size?” Leon said with a chuckle. “No, I haven’t, actually. I’ve only heard word here and there that they used to live on this mountain. Truth be told, they haven’t been seen in decades, and there’s good reason for it.”
“The hunters.” Aeo said. “Right?”
“That’s right, sounds like you and I have the same sources. Hunters chased after them for hundreds of years and drove them right off the mountain. At least that’s what folk say. But it wasn’t just the hunters that did it.” Leon stretched his arm to the side. “Did you know a mephandras was actually a very intelligent beast? They didn’t have the mouths to form words, but they knew the giant wolves that lived up in these caves, and spoke with them regularly. At least that’s what Shera has told me.”
“They could speak?” Aeo said, his eyes wide.
“Well, in a manner of speaking,” Leon said. “As much as Pick can talk to us, in fragments and images. The giant wolves learned of these human hunters coming further and further up the mountain in search of the mephandras. Both the mephandras and the wolves knew that if humans ever discovered their dens up here they would find a reason to exterminate… well, everything. Just as they hunted for mephandras claws and teeth and pelts, they’d put bounties on the giant wolves. Traders would value their fur, hunters would keep trophies and glory, and scientists would study them right out of their homes, understand?”
Leon couldn’t help a laugh.
“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing up here.”
“I’ll tell you about it later,” Leon continued. “The mephandras knew that their homes were becoming more and more limited, their safety less and less guaranteed. But the wolves hadn’t been discovered yet. So in exchange for finding a safe home, the mephandras promised to leave and let the wolves have control of Falas Mountain.”
“The mephandras… left the mountain?” Aeo asked. “How?”
“Cautiously. And not alone. They were too large and too bulky to find their own way without being spotted by humans. No, the wolves promised the mephandras they would help them search for a new home in exchange for keeping the mountain free of hunters who searched for them. The wolves would lead the way while the remaining mephandras followed them off the mountain. If the wolves detected humans, they would… well… they would make the humans…”
<”We would put thoughts into their minds that would convince them to leave.”>
The large cavern door suddenly creaked open. If Pick had seemed like a gigantic creature, then what stepped through the opening made Aeo suddenly very afraid. The giant muzzle of a fully-grown wolf emerged, followed by a mountain of gray-ivory fur led by four powerful limbs. As high as the cave ceiling stood, the wolf nearly stood higher, and had to bend down a fraction to avoid skimming it with its pointed ears. And if it felt strange to receive images from Pick, then listening to the almost audible words of this wolf commanded all of Aeo’s attention as they entered his mind.
“Morning, Shera,” Leon said. “I was just telling Aeo about the meph-”
<”I know. The humans have always come very close to discovering our home, even when the mephandras kept them at bay. Without them and without most of my pack, it is a challenge to even keep watch.”>
At the same time the words dominated his thoughts, he swore he could ‘see’ the image of a trio of mephandras in the ‘background’, two gigantic bear-like creatures covered in tough scales and a tiny one rolling around in the snow. Merely images? Or memories? It made his head ache a bit from both words and images taking center stage in his head simultaneously.
“That’s right, Aeo,” Leon said. “The wolves led the mephandras towards a new home, but many followed them off the mountain and never came back. They must have found a new home themselves.”
Shera closed the door by gripping the rope ‘doorknob’ with her teeth, then circled and laid her great body down neatly in between the campfire and the wall of the cave. Alone she easily took up half the cave floor. She eyed Aeo up and down, and made him wish he wasn’t laying prone and vulnerable.
“This was… how many years ago, Shera? Fifty?”
<”More. I was young. This was our home then, and it is our home now. Pick and I will not leave it.”>
“That’s the problem, Aeo,” Leon said. “If humans ever find this place… Who knows what would happen. That’s why I have to ask if anyone would come looking for you. Not that they would be able to anymore, right Shera?” He looked up at her. “The blizzard would have hidden his tracks for sure. And his scent. No one would know where he disappeared to, and if they did know, they would think he was dead.”
As much as a wolf can look displeased, Shera did, and growled a bit as a thought entered Aeo’s mind.
“I think Aeo is as safe as they come. Considering no other human has come up this high before, I believe it’s safe to assume that everything is-”
Leon paused. His attention aimed squarely upon the great wolf.
Aeo heard nothing. Were his ears plugged? He couldn’t help but check them, silly as it was. He lifted himself up as best he could without losing balance of the many rubber containers that covered him. Something was wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but different, as if the air suddenly became dry. The feeling wasn’t painful, but a little unnerving. Like having one of the rubber water bottles sit on top his head.
“I know you don’t like the idea of another human…” Leon stopped. “…but we don’t know what that means. If we give it some time maybe I can…” Another stop. “I understand that, but don’t you think there’s more at stake here than…?”
Shera became more agitated the more Leon spoke. At first she kept the growling to herself, but soon the growling turned into a snarl. Aeo finally understood, and he felt his heart in his throat. They were having a conversation without him. Shera was excluding him on purpose. The longer this phantom conversation continued, the more pale Leon’s face became, as if the wolf had complete control over his mind. Leon attempted to speak again.
“I… I know that, but I truly think-”
“Um…?” Aeo whispered.
No one paid him any attention. Aeo lifted his arm from beneath the blankets and reached out to Leon’s shoulder. He tugged on the man’s shirt.
For a moment, he seemed to ignore Aeo’s pleading. When Leon finally looked away from Shera, he seemed distant and distracted, like Shera’s still spoke powerful thoughts into his mind. Leon finally replied.
“What…? Did you…”
“Please, sir,” Aeo said, staring. “What’s… what’s happening?”
Almost immediately, the tightness on Aeo’s head faded. Leon stared at Aeo, and then back at Shera. The snarl had disappeared from her face, though she remained on her front paws and leaning forward in attention. As if the wolf could feel his thoughts and feeling, she gazed at Aeo directly. The thought-voice came clear and more gentle than before.
<”Forgive me, little human. I don’t mean to ignore you. But some things are difficult to explain. We will speak later.”>
“Shera, you… blocked him out?”
Shera said nothing.
“You should have told me, we could have taken this outside!” Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s head, as if he’d suddenly developed a fever. “Are you all right, kid? Are you seeing clearly? How many fingers am I holding up?”
“…two, sir. What’s-”
“Good, that’s really good. I’m sorry, Aeo,” Leon said, moisture beading on his forehead. “I didn’t mean to turn this into an argument in front of you. And I didn’t mean for all this to happen at once.”
“Argument?” Aeo said quietly. “Is something wrong with me?”
Leon fell quiet for a moment, answering the question in a strange way. He looked positively terrible, breathing heavily and sweating as if he’d hiked all the way down the mountain and back down again. He wiped the sweat from his mouth. Shera flicked her tail.
<”No,”> Shera said finally, lifting herself off the ground and turning towards the door. <”Nothing is wrong with you. You are welcome here as long as it takes for you to heal. We will discuss the matter then.”>
Leon quickly stood.
“Shera, you see? There’s something different about…” Leon said. But the wolf was already heading out the door. She stepped away with a surprising grace, much more than Aeo would suspect a creature her size, then just as deftly closing the door behind her with a thud. As if in response to her prompt exit, the hazy purple mist on the far side of the room suddenly faded away with an audible pop as the lit candles on the wall blew out, and at last, the air in the cave drastically lowered in temperature with the door slightly ajar and the campfire dying away.
Leon sighed, his breath becoming quite visible in the sudden cold.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Aeo? I know what it’s like to be ignored by Shera. Feels like your head is ready to burst open.”
Burst? That sounded horrible. Aeo placed a hand on his own forehead. He’d missed something. He certainly didn’t look like Leon, not at all. White as a ghost, and though Leon tried to hide it by rubbing them together, his hands were shaking.
“I’m… fine, really,” Aeo said. “I… I didn’t mean to make Shera mad.” He laid back down and hid his arm under the bottles.
“No, she wasn’t mad at you,” Leon said. He looked down at Aeo. “At me. And trust me, she’s wasn’t mad, exactly. You’d know it if she got mad.”
Leon lifted himself, rolling up his sleeves.
“Or.. maybe you wouldn’t.”
“Nothing. Forget I said anything. Now I’ve got to get that ward back up before I leave. Goddess, it got chilly in here fast.”
“You’re leaving?” Aeo asked with a frown. But then a more important question. “Wait, what’s a ward? You mean a magic ward? You can do magic?”
“That,” Leon said with a grin, stepping towards the candles, “is a long story.”
“What does it do?” Aeo asked.
“This one is relatively simple, you see. It keeps the cold air from coming through the door, makes it warm and dry in here. Just takes a few candles and the right spirit.”
“I’ll tell you about it tonight. I’ve got to go before my few experiments go bad, you see. Don’t worry, my work doesn’t take me too far, only a few caves down the trail. And if you need anything, you can send Pick to come find me. I’ll be back later tonight and I’ll tell you everything. Sound good?”
Leon’s voice sounded hoarse for a moment at the end. He went quiet. For a moment, he placed his fingers on his temples.
“Are… are you all right, sir?” Aeo asked.
Leon cleared his throat and didn’t turn around.
“Oh, of course, certainly.”
Aeo squirmed beneath his fur blanket.