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