Just as Pick howled, the door creaked. Aeo looked towards the large door and Pick’s ears perked up.
The small door opened. In marched the now-familiar form of Leon, wrapped up tightly in a puffy mountain jacket with a great hood over his head. He was also carrying a curiously shaped package… or was it a curiously shaped bag? Leon placed the bag-package down, clomped his feet at the door, and removed the gloves from his hands. Strangely enough, he now wore a pair of slimly-framed glasses that truly made him look like a school teacher.
“Goodness, it’s coming down out there,” he said to no one in particular. He looked up at Aeo. “Well, look at you, Aeo! Sitting up in bed and everything. How are your toes feeling?”
Pick looked up at Aeo.
“They’re itchy, sir.”
“You’re not touching them, are you?” Leon pulled off his coat.
“Good, good. Unfortunately, frostbite will do that. Fortunately, I have some tonic that might help the healing process, speed it up a bit. This mountain’s caves are filled with helpful plants and fungi… if you know to find the right ones, of course.”
Leon walked over to Aeo’s bed and knelt, placing the bag onto the floor. He unbuttoned the front flap and produced a small vial filled with a red-and-black speckled substance; he held it up and jingled it as his eyebrows raised. He then dove back into the bag and produced a roll of cotton bandages. Leon lifted the fur blanket off of Aeo’s feet, and said “Hmm.” What did “hmm” mean? Aeo peered over the blanket, and his stomach sank at the sight. He hadn’t seen them himself – it was worse than he’d imagined.
“Skin’s peeling a bit,” Leon said. “But it looks more purple and red than black now. Certainly an improvement.”
He carefully cupped his hands over both sets of toes.
“Do you feel that?”
“Yeah,” Aeo said.
“Very good, you’ve got feeling. Well, of course you do if you’re itching. Now let’s see if we can’t help that…”
Suddenly, Pick’s ears perked up. Nearly at the same time, the door creaked open, and a tiny lonesome spherical figure entered. Then something much larger followed in after her. The entire large door opened, and in carefully entered Shera, her dark eyes carefully examining the inside of the cave.
“Oh, hello everyone!” cried Hala. The fur coat was shed and placed beside the fire, and out of it stepped the foot-tall frog. She was no longer clothed in a bright dress, but a slim leather suit covered in various pockets and satchels. “My my, it gets chilly at this time!”
“Good evening, Hala,” Leon said. “Come on in, Shera, there’s room for all of us.”
A much gentler thought arose in Aeo’s head.
“Hi,” Aeo said quietly with a wave, and Pick howled, his tail wagging behind him.
“Aeo, it’s wonderful you’re up out of bed!” Hala said excitedly as Shera shook off the snow, closed the door, and sat down as carefully as her large form could on top of Leon’s bedding and against the wall. “Well, halfway out, of course. How is the frostbite coming along?” Hala stepped towards Leon and stood beside him, placing a webbed hand on his side. She gasped. “Oh, heaven above, it’s worse than I feared.”
<”I agree,”> said Shera, lowering her head to look.
“Believe me,” Leon said. “This is better than before.”
“Well!” she said excitedly. “All the more reason I’m here! Please, Leon, before you tend to those little piggies, I have a quick assignment for you!”
From one of her pockets Hala produced a thin string made of… silk? Whatever it was, it shined and reflected the firelight nicely. She also produced a small bit of… something black?
“Now, hold that to the top of his foot,” she said, and Leon obeyed, placing the string on the top of Aeo’s big toe. Hala dove down and placed the other end on his heel, making a black mark on the string with what was definitely charcoal. “Now the other one!” They repeated the process. They then measured the width of each foot.
“What’s she doing?” Aeo asked curiously.
“I believe she’s planning on making you a pair of boots,” Leon replied as Hala hopped back up.
“Oh, don’t spoil the surprise, dear!” Hala said, playfully slapping Leon’s arm. “Well. That’s right, I’m going to make sure your feetsies never have to suffer out there again. Perhaps if I have more time, I’ll knit you a fur coat to go along with it!”
“Now Aeo,” Leon said. “I know how big these projects are for Hala…” He lowered his hand as if measuring Hala, then whispered: “No pun intended.”
“Oh, humph!” Hala said.
“…but don’t you think you should say thank you?”
“Yes, s-sir,” he said shyly. “Th-thank you, ma’am,”
“Oh, don’t thank me just yet, my dear!” Hala placed the string and the black marker back into the pouches on her belt. “You can thank me if I do the job correctly! Now, is it feeling a bit cold in here for everyone? No? Just me? Well, I’ll just tend to the fire anyway, make sure it stays warm for the rest of the night…” She turned towards the campfire.
“Don’t tire yourself out, Hala,” Leon said. “I can take care of-”
“Oh nonsense, you giant fool! Nonsense! It’s what I’m here for. Well, the second thing I’m here for. Ha ha!”
Shera, remaining quiet, instinctively motioned herself closer against the cave wall, knowing what was coming. Just as Hala had done the morning before, Hala leaned over the fire and proceeded to take the biggest breath Aeo had ever seen. She held it in for a moment, then lurched forward and belched a bright red flame directly from her mouth into the smoldering campfire. Along with the fire dripped a strange liquid from her wide lips that burst and crackled when it hit the ground, bringing the fire to a bright and tempered glow. When finished, she turned to see all eyes pointed at her.
“Well, it’s very impolite to stare!” she cried.
“In case you were wondering,” Leon said, leaning towards Aeo and the bandages. “Hala is what I like to call a fire frog. Not very technical, but you get the idea. It’s how they’ve adapted to the cold of the region, and it’s how they hunt for fish. Cook them right before they eat them. They live in the hot springs mostly, but are a great help keeping the torches and fires going. They last for hours and hours at a time, too.”
<”And we’re indebted to them,”> Shera added. <”Without them, we would no doubt freeze.”>
“Oh, it’s no trouble! No trouble at all!” Hala said, reaching for the firewood pile. “Well, it isn’t for me. Can’t say the same my mate. Or his family. Or Heem, for that matter! Laziest toads you’ll ever see!”
Leon took his time, dabbing the red substance onto the bandages and around the worst colors of Aeo’s feet. It tickled a couple of times. A good sign, of course. It meant he wasn’t about to lose them. As Leon worked, Aeo patted Pick on the head and looked at the purple mist on the opposite wall. It shone more apparently in the low light of the campfire, and seemed to flicker with the dancing of the lit candles on the wall.
“Leon, sir,” Aeo said. “Could… Could you tell me about magic now?”
“Certainly,” he said with a smile.
Pick tilted his head.
<An image of a man producing fire from his hands.>
“Really?” Aeo pet Pick’s head. “Leon can make fire like that?”
“If I wanted to tire myself out as fast as possible, yes,” he said. He paused, scratching his head. “Well, I suppose I should start at the beginning, shouldn’t I?”
Leon paused, scratching his arm.
“Magic is, well… understanding the basic principles and mechanics of the world around us. If you have a strong enough will, you can bend those rules to influence a number of things. Like fire, for instance, or keeping this cave the right temperature. Like you see with the wards. There are a lot of… mundane magics that can-”
“What’s… mundane?” Aeo asked.
“Well, everyday things, boring things. Like cooking meals, keeping torches lit, cooling down a hot room, that sort of thing. A lot of magic is mundane, especially where I come from. Not a lot of battles to be fought with fire and lightning.”
Aeo’s eyebrows raised.
“Yes, lightning. Lightning is power, a lot like fire. And with practice, power can be used. Have you ever seen an automatic light? It lights up with the flick of a switch and, unlike a lantern, you never have to relight it.”
Aeo shook his head.
“I’m sure Olvaren would marvel at the thought,” Leon said.
“As would we!” Hala said from the other side of the room. “I can’t begin to imagine how that would work.”
“I’ve heard the plans are quite complicated,” Leon said. “One of the many miracles produced by Chaska Academy.” Aeo had never heard of such a place, so he stayed quiet. “I’ve heard they’re even working on a carriage that can drive itself without the need of horses. Perhaps they’ve perfected its design by now. Doesn’t that sound incredible? I doubt the everyman will ever use such a thing without access to a readily available power source. Can’t have veri do all the work themselves when horses are more durable anyway. After all, shooting lightning from your hands can can wear yourself down to nothing.”
Leon lifted his hands and sat down on the floor.
“But anyway, I digress. Let’s see… Someone that practices magic is called a veras, and a group of veras is veri. Many people call us wizards, but that term is old and sometimes offensive. Many people make that mistake, you see. When a veras uses magic, then that veras uses ‘spirit’. Some veri have more spirit than others, and when you practice magic, your amount of spirit can increase, like… training your muscles. When you exhaust your ‘spirit’, just like straining yourself in a long run, it can take a few days of rest to recover. If you really overdo it, I’ve heard of veri falling catatonic for two or three weeks, even longer.”
“Like falling asleep but being awake at the same time… Not able to move at all.”
“That sounds scary,” Aeo said, wrinkling his nose.
Leon wrapped the bandages around Aeo’s feet as well as over his toes. Now finished, Leon replaced the blanket, as well as the rubber bottles on top and beneath each foot.
“It can be. That’s why magic should be a very careful practice, take your time, study as much as you can. It’s exercise. It takes time to become big and strong, right?”
“Now, not every veras can learn the same kinds of things as others. Some are talented at wards, like I am, making changes to the environment. Some have skills with elemental magic, like creating fire, lightning, ice, moving water, or sculpting stone. Some are good at healing… Like I wish I were. If so, your frostbite would already be healed, I imagine.”
“Hmm,” Aeo said.
“Don’t sell yourself short, now Leon,” said Hala. “Without these wards of yours, why, poor Shera and Pick would up and freeze in here in no time at all.”
Both Shera and Pick growled in the affirmative.
“That’s true. I should be grateful for my own talents. In fact, I am glad I don’t have the skills to fight. I’ve never been one for violence. But other veri practice combat, especially those that guard important people, or big cities, or long roads. Even tiny villages like Olvaren call for protection, and veri can be paid very well. Sellswords have to have a lot of strength when it comes to magic; it’s difficult to keep up your spirit, especially in the midst of battle. Without practice, you could use all your spirit at once and become useless.”
“I’d love to fight with magic,” Aeo said. “Then I could…” He paused, choosing his words. “…I could go wherever I want.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Leon replied. ”Most animals can be scared away with a bolt of lightning, and bandits think twice before robbing a man who can light them on fire.”
Leon scratched his face.
“You know… I want to try something. It might be dangerous, but I think you might…”
Leon stood up slowly and approached the campfire as if reluctant to do so. If Aeo had seen his face, he would have seen a look of delicate focus. Aeo peeked over Pick’s head. It looked as if Leon were playing with the flames.
“There we go…” Leon whispered.
“Oh, don’t you go and catch the poor boy on fire! I won’t forgive you! What makes you think he can do what you do?” Hala shouted.
“Intuition,” he said quietly.
Leon stepped back over to Aeo, his face illuminated by a strange light. No, not strange. Familiar. The same as the campfire. Leon sat down, and floating between his hands was a gentle flame. Pick suddenly lifted his head and backed away with a slight whimper to his own fur bed. Shera looked up in interest.
“Whoa…” Aeo whispered.
“Like I said,” Leon said, his voice quiet and tense. “Some veri… have a knack for different things. My specialty… is not fire. So this takes… more than a bit of concentration.”
Leon put his hands forward.
“Now. I won’t… dump the fire in your lap. I want you to… hold your hands up. Like you’re warming them. Hold them up.”
Aeo hesitated. He lifted his hands slowly and put them away from him. He could feel the fire’s warmth immediately, and hoped Leon didn’t place it any further.
“There you go, there you go… Put his hands apart a little bit so you can see… Good.”
Leon sighed, and the fire danced in his hands as he adjusted them. His face looked strained.
“All right. I want you to… imagine you’re warming up. Remember how it felt to feel the warm water bottles? Imagine that… Feel the fire warming up your hands.”
Aeo imagined it easily.
“As you’re focusing on that,” Leon continued. “Imagine that warmth in between your hands. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and between your hands… Can you do that?”
“I think so…” Aeo said quietly.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” Leon replied.
Ready? For what exactly? Aeo sat there, arms raised and hands poised between a magical fire, and did his best to follow Leon’s orders. Take all the warmth in his body… Aeo felt the water bottles in his feet and imagined it moving up his legs. Simple enough. He thought it move up into his spine and into his stomach and chest. Then into his shoulders and muscles, down his arms, into his hands, and between his fingertips… It was all imagination, though. Wasn’t it?
A moment later, he cleared his throat.
“Now lift your hands up. Think of the warmth between your hands, don’t stop thinking about it. Lift your hands.”
Aeo tried to lift his hands. They wouldn’t move. He tried harder, straining even his back muscles to propel himself upwards. Nothing worked. Something was wrong. The magic had locked him in place.
Then it clicked: Leon’s hands were gone.
In between his own two hands sat the small flame, dancing back and forth.
With every inhale, the flame would grow smaller and nearly disappear. Every exhale, it would grow larger and more powerful. He’d never seen anything as strange as this. So mesmerizing. His head suddenly felt very dizzy. But he couldn’t fall backwards; the fire held him there. He simply watched it dance like a spinning flower, like a tree blowing in the wind. It seemed to glow like the sun itself. He simultaneously did and didn’t want to close his eyes to this glowing orb in his hands.
“Amazing,” Leon whispered. “Looks like… you’ve got the talent.”
Then, in an instant, the fire allowed Aeo to move, like the magic released him from its grip. His arms trembled from being raised, so slid backwards, bringing the fire closer to his chest. It didn’t waver from the space between his cupped fingers, and despite everything, the flame felt comforting, familiar.
Aeo’s thoughts burned as bright as the flame at the thought. Comforting. As comforting as burning down the Gray Pale Inn. As comforting as receiving a beating. He remembered the dreams of the sun as it fell down upon him, not burning and unbearable, but gentle and soft, the way moonlight felt on his face. He shouldn’t be able to look upon that bright sun from his dreams with his naked eyes, yet he could, and he saw all the colors of rainbow inside that sun. They burned and danced all together like firelight. He could see the flames of the inn growing ever brighter, never wanting them to go out…
This memory made the flame burn all the brighter. So bright, in fact, that the once small flicker became a larger ball of fire, dancing all the more wildly. He widened his hands as if to drop it, but the flames flared larger.
Aeo’s jaw fell to the side.
“Uh-oh, wait, wait, wait…” Leon said, quickly leaning over. He took Aeo’s hands and slowly brought them together with his own. “Breathe normally, just breathe… There we go, there it goes.”
Aeo’s hands slowly came together, and as they touched, the fire went out.
<”Interesting,”> said Shera.
“It most certainly is,” Hala said with a gasp.
“Aeo,” Leon said, sitting back down. “Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”
Aeo lowered his now shaking hands and stared at the ground. He said nothing.