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…
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.
“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.
“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.