“No… No, no… No…”
Consciousness returned. Aeo felt heat returning to his body, but his mind floated like a cork on a pond. He felt as though he’d been drugged, and a terrible bitterness on his tongue confirmed it. A pair of warm hands held his ears, then his chin, then his shoulders. Everything ached. Aeo felt the hands restrain his arms and hold him down. In return, Aeo kicked and screamed in the darkness, clawing the hands away.
“No…! No, let me go! Let me go!”
“Aeo, calm down!” a voice whispered. “Open your eyes! It’s me! Aeo, it’s me!”
Aeo’s eyes opened. He’d been too scared to realize they weren’t. He no longer saw a bright sun, nor even a sky above his head, but a stone ceiling covered in stalactites. The glow of a warm fire reflected from the wet rock, and somewhere beyond the wind howled furiously. It was the cave. His eyes focused and fell upon the visage of a man. Hazel eyes, rough stubble on his chin, a gentleman’s face.
“L-Leon,” Aeo whispered, his muscles relaxing. “But… I th-thought you were…”
In Leon’s hand was a opaque glass bottle with a rough paper label adhered to the side that Aeo couldn’t read.
“Here, drink a little of this, careful now…” Leon said, leaning the bottle to Aeo’s lips. “Virmilis root extract to help your body warm, plus ginger for pain. It doesn’t taste terribly good, but it should help immediately. We have little time.”
Aeo felt the chalky liquid pass across his tongue, and he forced himself to swallow before the hideous taste overpowered him.
“I should have protected you,” Leon said. He had yet to clean his bloody upper lip and chin from Shera’s assault. “Damn it, this should never have happened. I should have made up my mind days ago to leave. I hesitated.”
Aeo frowned and tried to sit up from his bed of furs. It was then that he realized that if Harthoon hadn’t actually fractured the lower portion of his ribcage with his boot, it certainly felt like he had. He let out a pitiful cry as he relaxed and began to sob from the intense pain. How he hadn’t felt the crushing injury earlier, he didn’t know.
“It’s all m-my fault…” he whispered pitifully, wrapping his arms around his chest. “They killed… they k-killed him…”
“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. “You are the last person I blame. If Shera hadn’t been so reckless, I could have done… something. I can’t imagine how Shera could have allowed Pick to be captured. Perhaps they’d been seen by the hunters, and they’d simply outnumbered them. I saw the hunter’s… bodies… all the way down the mountain; they very nearly found the caves.”
“But… how…?” Aeo said though sobbing breaths. “How did they know…?”
“It’s very… possible,” Leon said slowly. “You see, when… some wealthy Antielli slave owners purchase a new slave, they… they have a sample taken from them. Blood, for instance, or hair. For… security reasons, should they ever run away.”
Aeo nearly glared at Leon.
“I don’t… unders-s-stand…”
“Well, any talented evoker would then…” Leon took a breath. “…be able to view the world through the senses of the slave… and divine their precise location.”
Aeo trembled, tears coursing down the sides of his face.
“It w-was me…” he whispered, firmly shutting his eyes. “B-because of me… he’s dead because of m-me!”
“Look at me, Aeo,” Leon said firmly, shaking Aeo’s arm. “Look at me.”
It took the boy a moment before he dared to. Then, Leon leaned in close.
“Pick might be alive. The hunters don’t have him.”
Aeo’s heart skipped a beat.
“But… B-but I saw him…” he said. “The hunters were dragging him away, and, and, and… he wasn’t there wh-when I…”
“Shera took him,” Leon said. “I was coming down the mountain to search for you and I saw them together. Shera had Pick in her jaws, and she was carrying him north past the mountain. I don’t know if she sensed my presence… Considering what she did to both of us, she probably would have torn me to pieces if I had approached. I didn’t see Pick moving, and… and it did appear as if he’d been shot multiple times with arrows or bolts. Burning hells, she was covered in arrows herself. I don’t know if the little wolf is still alive, but…”
Leon shook his head and turned away.
“Thank Tiathys those butchers don’t have him…”
“Leon! Aeo!” a horrified voice called from the entrance of the cave.
Aeo gritted through the pain and squinted to see the source. The great wooden door that once protected the cave from the cold had broken inwards, detached from its post and hanging loosely against the far wall. But beneath the door was a small sphere of fur. The coat was quickly removed, and out hopped Hala from within, dressed in her leather work outfit.
“Hala,” Leon said, standing to his feet in her presence.
“Oh, Goddess preserve us all!” She leapt on all fours to Aeo’s side, gently placing her chilled webbed fingers on Aeo’s shoulder. “Aeo, my poor boy, you’re both… bleeding! What happened, Leon, what happened? The entire mountain felt Shera’s screaming! Where are they, Leon? Answer me!”
“I don’t know,” Leon admitted, slumping to the ground and wiping his lip with the sleeve of his shirt. “Shera’s alive. Pick is… well, I don’t know if he survived his wounds. But I saw them both travelling north towards the forests beyond. I… don’t think they’re going to return.”
“Not going to…!” Hala gasped, and suddenly tears filled her eyes as well. “No… No, they mustn’t! No, not poor Pick!”
“Humil hunters,” Leon said, reaching for Hala’s hand. “They… they must have spotted the wolves patrolling the mountain and captured Pick. I would have done something… but Shera burst into the cave and stole Aeo away after knocking us both unconscious. Shera must have thought… I can’t say for certain… I believe she thought to trade Aeo’s life for Pick’s.”
Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s forehead.
“Does that sound right?” he asked.
Without opening his eyes, Aeo nodded. About the hunters being able to track Aeo through magickal means, Leon said nothing.
“Goddess, sweet Goddess…” Hala whispered. “My dear friends… You must do something, Leon, you must do something! We must search for Shera, call her back, and then… and then you can heal Pick, and… and…!”
“Hala,” Leon said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. It’s too late. Shera hardly tolerated my presence on this mountain. Now that humils have threatened her life, and… her child’s life… she would never forgive me for putting them at risk by living here for so long. She will probably never trust another humil again, especially me. And now that the hunters know where they live, they’ll search these caves and continue to track her. She knew she had to leave.”
Hala silently wept. The truth pierced through all of them.
“Aeo and I, we… We have to leave, Hala.”
“No!” Hala shouted, revoking her hand and taking a step back. “Not you two as well! I’ll never forgive you, Leon Sirelu! Not ever! You can’t leave, not now, of all times!”
“We have no choice,” Leon said. “Aeo caused the terrible fire that destroyed the humil village. He was a slave, Hala, and he ran away from his captors. For both reasons, the hunters and villagers will be coming for him just as much as they hunt for Shera. His life is in danger. I plan on taking him away, far away from this place, to keep him safe.”
Aeo’s eyes opened.
“…really?” he asked weakly.
“Yes,” Leon said with a nod. “I’m taking you to a place where you’ll never be hurt again. The Everspring Academy. You’ll learn how to control your magick, and much much more. It has been my home for many years, and I hope it will become yours.”
Whether it was the medicine Leon had given him or the news of a new home, Aeo felt warmth begin to fill his chest.
“I propose we take this one step at a time,” Leon said. “I must leave. Tonight. I’ll return in the early hours, Goddess-willing, and pack up my things. Too many things to do, too many… but this will give Aeo a chance to recover from his ordeal. Truth be told, I had expected… ah, I don’t know what I expected. Damn it, I thought I’d have more time.”
Hala turned towards Aeo and knelt down before his face, so close that Aeo’s eyes crossed just to see her in focus. From one of her pockets she produced a tiny woven cloth and proceeded to wipe the boy’s upper lip, as little as it helped. Aeo didn’t have the energy or the nerve to refuse the simple kindness. He hadn’t noticed before, but Hala had a trio of overlapping eyelids, and they worked in unison to wipe her tears away.
“Stay with him?” Leon asked, offering his hand to Hala again. Hala placed her hand on his, holding back her sadness as best she could.
“Of course,” she replied quietly. “Though I may… sneak out for a moment, tell my kin what happened… If the humils are coming, and Shera can no longer protect us… then we may need to prepare and move further into the underdeep…”
“Yet another reason why we must leave soon,” Leon said. “To protect you and your family. To hide this sacred place. There is… a secret here that they must never find. I intend to seal the entrance to my study when I leave.”
“A secret?” Hala said, wiping the tears from beneath her eyes. “Something you discovered in your research? You’ve never said anything about it.”
“I know I often kept information of my work private from you, and I’m sorry for that…” he said. “But I did so to keep you safe. The red flowers, alyssum. The ones you and your family avoid… They are an incredibly dangerous poison to… certain people. They aren’t found anywhere but on this mountain. If they are discovered in amounts like those that grow in the deep caves and used as a weapon, many people will die.”
“Leon…” Hala said with a gasp. “Surely you haven’t studied the flower to… to…”
“No, Hala,” Leon replied. “I intend to hurt no one. In fact, my research might enable me to protect the ones I love. I only have hopes that alyssum will become a shield instead of a weapon. But… at this point, my research is incomplete. I’ll have to return to the Academy to complete it.”
“I can’t pretend to understand your arts,” Hala admitted, standing to her feet. “But… I trust you, Leon Sirelu. You’ve been nothing but Goddess-sent since you came to live here. I’m grateful to have called you my friend. I’m glad Shera allowed you to stay.”
Leon held his hand to his forehead.
“The pleasure was all mine, Hala,” he said quietly. “But Shera was right about me. I may not have brought hunters to your doorstep, but my arrival shattered the peace of this mountain. I can only pray that Tiathys will forgive me if my mission has doomed you, Shera, Pick, Aeo… and many others.”
Leon turned to Aeo, who appeared to be sleeping but heard every word of the short conversation. With the pause, the boy’s eyes slowly opened.
“I don’t know if I can repair the door on my own,” Leon said. “But I’ll leave a ward to maintain the temperature. With all the bloodshed today, I can’t imagine more hunters will attempt a counter-assault until dawn. So we must be ready to leave by then. Do you feel well enough to stand, Aeo?”
Aeo shook his head.
“It hurts… right here, s-sir,” he said, holding his abdomen. “Someone… stepped on me really hard.”
The sounds of Harthoon’s screams engulfed his mind.
“And to think…” Hala said, her voice cracking as she again bent down to wipe blood from Aeo’s lip. “I had planned on making you such a fine leather jacket, my dear boy… it might have protected you from those wicked men.”
Aeo merely nodded. He said nothing of the incident and never intended to do so as long as he lived.
Olvaren no longer existed. Harthoon hadn’t been exaggerating; the fire had indeed burned for four full days, consuming everything flammable and adhering to anything non-flammable. The fire could not be extinguished by any means tried, and all the men, women, and children that called the village home could only carry their most important belongings away from their thatched houses as it spread. The inn was an inn no longer, only a husk of foundation stones. The marketplace stalls had fallen to ash and scattered by the valley winds. And the great hall, which had stood for centuries, constructed around the mighty bones of long-dead mephandras, had collapsed into a large pile of unrecognizable rubble. Even portions of the forest that surrounded Olvaren had been consumed in the blaze.
Magick, it was. Even the villagers recognized magickal unquenchable fire. But who had started such a catastrophe? What villainous arsonist had the talent and the wickedness to lay waste to a quiet, innocent village?
When Ariste and Harthoon Malin cried for assistance in extinguishing the flames in the Grey Pale on the first day of the disaster, they claimed the fire had been started by their Edian slave boy. At first, the constable had believed them and called for the guard to search for the slave. But when the fire grew and leapt to nearby buildings despite a village-well-worth of water poured upon it, the constable immediately called for a nearby capital scholar to assist and had the couple detained and interrogated. There was little chance a young boy had the power to accomplish so much destruction.
They vehemently denied the accusation that the fire had been started deliberately, especially given the magickal nature of the flames; neither had talents with magick. Did they own illegal substances such as spark detonators or fire salts? Why would they? They were simple innkeepers, and very much lacking mining or alchemy licenses. Did they know anyone with magickal abilities that held a grudge against them and their business? They honestly didn’t know anyone… besides the boy, of course. Based on their particularly racist descriptions of the boy as a twisted and hateful Edian nine-year old who regularly made their lives a living hell, the constable quietly wondered about their reliability as witnesses.
When the capital scholar arrived in town on the morning of the second day, the fire lay like a blanket of lava across half of the village’s acreage, steadily burning and spreading across even bare ground; the villagers that survived the slow-spreading fire retreated to a clearing down the highway about two miles away. Though his animus was not attuned to liquid thaumaturgy, the scholar did his best to influence the fire away from the great hall and the eastern residences with streams of magickal water. He attempted to abjure glistening walls of energy to halt the fire’s advance. He even attempted to concoct cocktail bombs in glass bottles that would physically force the fire to go out. With multiple craters consumed in the flames, he admitted defeat at the end of day two.
With the only known suspect being the Edian slave, the constable decided the only thing they could do was attempt to find the boy and somehow convince him to put an end to the fire. Coincidentally (or not), one of the few items that Ariste had smuggled out of the inn before it collapsed was a small vial of long-dried blood. The capitol scholar admitted his excitement; he’d only rarely performed such evocations. After all, only very wealthy slaveowners could afford to have slave samples prepared and preserved for such a ritual years after coagulating and expiring. With the blood vial, a carefully-designed glyph traced upon a page in his personal grimoire, and an hour’s time, the scholar witnessed several incredible things.
First was the location of the boy: as if viewing the entirety of Falas from an eagle’s perspective, a red dot became illuminated in his mind situated in a cave near the mountain’s peak. Second, and by far the most intriguing, the boy was looking upon, smelling, and listening to the panting of an unidentified subspecies of canis lupis about the size of a lion – and unbelievably, the wolf looked like a young pup instead of full grown. Somehow, this boy had survived the chill of the mountain by living in a cave that housed giant wolves.
The scholar gave his report to the constable with great enthusiasm, and called for an immediate alert to be sent to the Hunter’s Guild to capture these wolves for study and secure the boy. The constable, more concerned about his people’s immediate safety, agreed on the condition that the hunters supply aid to the displaced villagers. So, despite the village’s meager finances, the constable made the order.
On the morning of day three, the message was delivered by the scholar’s unique evocation magick to the Guild in San’Drael. From San’Drael, the order was delivered to the Guild handlers nearest to Olvaren by the same means. Two dozen hunters arrived in what remained of Olvaren by the end of day three and prepared a small camp for themselves and as many of the villagers as possible.
Sadness over the loss of their homes was replaced with anger when the village discovered the true source of the fire. A bastard child of Edia, the nation of thieves and murderers to the West. As was often said, nothing good ever came from the West, least of which were the witch-children of sorcerers. Why the Malins had taken such a volatile child into their home was beyond their understanding. There was a reason Antiell waged constant war against them: their very presence endangered innocent Antielli lives. The fire stood as a testament to the fact. If even a child of Edia could cause such destruction, what right did an entire nation of backwards shamans and traitors have to exist?
It was their fault, after all, that the War two centuries ago had even continued on for as long as it did. It was their fault that entire lineages had perished in a single brief moment. It was their fault that the world had been fractured.
It was their fault the Wound existed.
For a time, it seemed that nothing would stop the inferno from devouring everything. But on the morning of the fourth day, as abruptly and mysteriously as it had begun, the wide-burning flames all shrunk to nothing and died in unison within twenty seconds. Not even smoke or embers were left behind, only black char.
What could this mean, the constable demanded of the capital scholar. Flustered, the scholar claimed he had no idea. But he advised caution, as such fires could reignite at any moment. And so the hunters were told to hold their advance up the mountain in case the fire resumed. In the meantime, they were directed to perform damage control for the village and tend to the victims that had received burns or inhaled too much smoke. They also made time to bury the dead, despite the hardness of the frigid earth. Rows of tents were assembled for the surviving villagers and ever-increasing amounts of hunters, developing until the remains of the village resembled a camped army.
The anger of the villagers steadily grew. One day of waiting passed to two, and then to three. The hunters yearned for prey, with some even tempted to disobey orders and scout the outskirts of the village for wolf tracks. Some of the villagers surrounded the constable’s tent in a sort of mob, demanding for the hunt to begin and for the Edian boy to be found and hung. Even Harthoon, the fool of a drunk, had sobered, shaved, and demanded to be released like a war hound, ready to kill. Besides that, the constable was running out of funds to keep so many hunters dedicated to the cause. If the hunt was to happen, it had to happen immediately.
So it did.
Only seven of the fifty-two souls made it back alive. Without their prize or the boy.
The night was colder than usual, a reminder that winter was soon to come upon the charred corpse of Olvaren. Tent flaps rustled in the wind as shadowed figures huddled around campfires and lit torches. News had reached them that the hunters had managed to kill the great wolf’s pup, and all the guards that remained in the makeshift camp were trembling from more than just the frigid air. Like the stories they’d all heard as children about the mephandras, the mother wolf was just as likely to descend from the mountain and devour them all in retaliation.
But out of the darkness of the mountain came not a creature, but a man. A strange man in foreign clothes, wearing a thin pair of spectacles and a luxurious coat. He approached the camp cautiously from the direction of the destroyed village, but not cautiously enough to avoid drawing plenty of attention to himself. A group of three guards spotted him immediately, drawing their swords and torches and racing towards him. The man stopped in his tracks and raised his hands in surrender.
“Who are you?!” demanded a guard.
“Identify yourself!” demanded another.
“Gentlemen,” the man said. “My name is Leon Sirelu, my mission is a peaceful one. I am a travelling scholar from the Everspring Academy in Ashant. I can produce my credentials if need be. If possible, I’d like to speak to whoever is in charge of the village.”
“Why?” demanded the first. “If’n ye came from that direction, ye might’a seen there isn’t a village no longer. We’ve been through enough without some fancy wizard showing up an’ makin’ things worse.”
“Believe me, I sympathize with your loss and intend you no harm,” Leon said. “In fact, I’d like to make a deal that would help Olvaren recover from the fire. Winter is almost upon us, and the sooner you can rebuild your homes and stock up supplies, the less your people will suffer.”
The guards looked at each other, puzzled.
“We’re listening,” said the second guard.
Leon’s hands lowered and dug into his coat pocket, no doubt making the guards nervous. But in a quick second, he produced what looked like a small Briolette-cut gemstone in the shape of a raindrop. Even in the darkness, it appeared to be a ruby of exceeding clarity, and radiated a warm pink light from within its facets.
“Do you know what this is?” Leon asked, holding the gemstone in his open, gloved hand.
The guards peered upon it uncomfortably.
“That’s a queer light, innit?” said the first guard. “Like them fancy glass lights they got in San’Drael.”
“More n’ likely to explode, no doubt,” said the third.
“It’s perfectly safe, I can assure you,” Leon said. “This is crystalized Everspring aether. Very valuable in Antiell. A stone like this sold to the right buyer would support a village like Olvaren for many seasons. I’d like to offer it to your people on a few conditions.”
“Such as?” asked the second guard.
“Well,” Leon said, withdrawing the stone. “I would leave them for your leaders to consider. This is why I humbly request to speak with the law enforcement or Guild representative in charge.”
The guards again looks at each other for a moment and finally shrugged their shoulders.
“Fine,” said the first. “Come with us.”
“And what brings an Everspring Academy master to a small village in Antiell at a time like this?” asked Constable Rachars, scanning his eyes over Leon’s identification packet. “Aren’t all masters of the Academy ashanti these days?”
The large tent Leon and three other people inhabited at that moment contained a cot, a rough-hewn officer’s desk, and a few chairs, all no doubt saved from the Great Hall before it burned down. Beside the constable stood a gruff-looking woman at sharp attention who wore chainmail and thick leathers, as well as a variety of scars on her chin and nose; no doubt a ranking member of the Hunter’s Guild. The third was a wiry young man with a sharp nose and a thick pair of glasses, dressed in the unmistakable martial uniform of the San’Drael Academy.
“Actually, no, sir,” Leon said congenially. “The Academy has guidelines that allows members of any race to join, so long as they demonstrate the proper talents and discipline. My specialty is the alchemical arts. I’ve taken a sabbatical to study the plants, roots, and herbs native to this mountain, a mission of utmost importance to the Academy. You may have seen me a few times visiting the marketplace and the inn looking to restock my supplies.”
“I must admit, I have not,” the constable said, offering the packet back to Leon and leaning back in his chair. “But I’ll take you at your word, as my duties often call me away from the village proper. Apparently, you’ve come bearing glad tidings in this time of sorrow. Though I must ask: why do you choose to appear to help now?”
“For a few unfortunate reasons, truth be told,” Leon said. “I saw the orange glow of the flames from many miles away at my camp, and at first I thought perhaps some farmers were disposing of garbage or clearing the forest for future farmland. That night, however, I realized something far worse had occured. I intended to come and offer my services to you then… a number of things occurred, not the least of which was an evocation from my superiors concerning my mission that demanded my full attention. A deadline for my studies, you might say, for an alchemical solution that could cure a plague that had swept through the refugee populations south of the capital. No doubt you’ve heard of the Revari sky pirate raids that sacked the southeast coastal towns in Ashant.”
“I have,” said the constable. “Awful business, that. They’ve even had the gall to attack the Royal Navy as far north as Belstadt.”
“That is news to me,” Leon said. “Damn pirates. It’s terrible that they would stoop so low as to spread disease to make their brutal conquests more simple.”
“How thrilling,” said the capital scholar. “Pray tell, what dastardly plague did they employ? Eh, what was the cure?”
Leon appeared grim.
“When I asked my superiors,” he said. “They said the plague has no name, as it has yet to be identified. Its composition is most unpleasant, to say the least. To spare you the gritty details, the natural resources of Falas’ proved to be most beneficial in stemming the worst of the symptoms. A systemic attack on the lungs and soft tissues of the body, irreversible blindness, painful purple boils that burst at the slightest touch… The evocation message spared me any images, thank the Goddess. As of yet, however, I have found no stable cure.”
“Boils, blindness, infection of the lungs…” the scholar said, stroking his chin. The Hunter leader looked down upon him with scorn, but said nothing. “How awful. Dowry’s Rot, perhaps? No, the boils would never burst. Or Dragon Fang Blight? Did the victims mention a burning sensation in their chest, or terrible excesses of phlegm?”
Before Leon could answer, Rachars lifted his hand.
“I believe we’re getting a bit off-track,” he said. “I’m told by my guards, Master Sirelu, that you’ve come offering a deal in exchange for the funds to rebuild Olvaren. A seemingly outlandish deal, but a welcome one. I would not ask if you were a wealthy man had you not offered.”
“And I would not reveal it except to perform good works with my finances,” Leon said. “My father was the head Archivist in the Royal Archives of San’Doria, and… admittedly left me a lofty inheritance when he died. While it has enabled me to study and travel to my heart’s content, I also see it as a civic duty to share my father’s wealth with the less fortunate. He would have had it no other way.”
“To which we are extremely grateful,” said the constable. “Although specifically, the guards tell me you have an item of particular value to trade in exchange for a few… conditions?”
“Of course,” Leon said. “Please, take a look.”
Leon produced the aether gemstone from his pocket, gently placing it on the wooden table. The gemstone beside the lit candle on the table produced about as much light except in delicate gently-pulsating pink. The constable leaned in to get a better look; the scholar leaned in even closer, quite obviously enthralled. The huntress did not look impressed.
“Dear Goddess,” said the scholar, adjusting his glasses. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Crystalized aether from the Everspring, yes,” Leon said. “Pure undiluted animis. It was a gift from my father the day I entered the Academy. He told me to use it only if the need was ever great enough. I have been fortunate to have never seen danger terrible enough to necessitate using the stone. And I am all the more glad for it, as I’ve been told aether in this form is quite rare in Antiell.”
“It is, good sir, it is!” said the scholar. “This stone could represent a chance to study one of the few sources of pure magick left in the world!” He turned to the constable, suddenly very serious. “The Ashanti are very protective of the Everspring, sir, and I’m sure you are familiar with the state treaties that forbid the trade of aether across borders.”
“Of that, I am also aware,” Leon said before the constable could speak. “You don’t have to accept my word only, but the treaties also state that masters of the Everspring Academy have rights regarding the trade and donation of natural resources, including aether from the well. I wouldn’t give up such a precious keepsake knowing I was acting against the law.”
“Oh, certainly not, good sir!” said the scholar. “I meant no offense, of course.”
“None taken,” Leon said.
“Well, this is certainly most generous of you, Master Sirelu,” said the constable. He turned to the scholar. “I must admit, I know nothing about matters of aether and magick. What is the value of such a stone?”
“Why, it is positively invaluable!” said the scholar. When he received a particularly intense glare from both the constable and the huntress, he cleared his throat. “Eh, I mean, to put an exact price on Everspring aether is difficult… But, if I may speak plainly, San’Drael Academy has been bargaining with the Ashanti government for decades to gain access to the well. Any aether willing traded to the Academy is welcome, but a pure aether crystal… Oh, it would certainly pay enough to restore the village, and perhaps more.”
“Very well,” the constable said with a nod.. “However, you mentioned, Master Sirelu, that this gift comes with conditions.”
“It does,” he said. “Namely, three. Concerning one in particular, I have hope that mercy will go before justice.”
“I’m listening,” said the constable, folding his hands upon the table and leaning forwards.
“First,” Leon said. “Is that I would ask that the villagers of Olvaren to not explore or map the highest peaks of Falas for at least the coming five years. The mephandras that so dominated the mountain may be gone, but there remain many dangers at those higher altitudes, not the least of which are the giant wolves that inhabit the region.”
The constable’s face sharpened, and the huntress’ head cocked to one side ever so slightly.
“You know of them?” Rachars asked. “And you live to tell the tale?”
“Only barely,” Leon said. “It’s why my sabbatical has taken so long. I’ve avoided them for months.”
“Why five years?” asked the scholar curiously. “Why not ten? Twenty? Why would anyone ever want to map the mountain with those… things living up there?”
“During my time on Falas,” Leon said. “I’ve chanced upon wolf tracks and even spotted several moving west across the mountain passes. I’ve developed the impression that the wolves are migrating away from the area, but it will take time. Five years will grant the villagers protection from the wolves as they depart, after which you can map to your heart’s content. Assuming my information is correct, this news should greatly put your mind at ease.”
“It does, at that,” said the constable. “But what about…”
The constable looked at the huntress for a moment, and she back at him. With an annoyed look on her face, she nodded.
“I don’t know if you are aware,” he said. “But we lost many good men and women to one of the great wolves today. Forty-five souls ripped apart in less than half an hour; they never stood a chance. If we agree to your first condition, what of our fallen hunters up on the mountain? We will need to retrieve their bodies before the mountain freezes them.”
“I am aware of the battle,” Leon said. “I daresay the entire mountain heard it. Of course I wouldn’t expect you to abandon them. I simply worry for the safety of those that do, and all those that might follow after them. Which, actually, leads to my second condition.”
“I simply ask that the wolves not be tracked or hunted.”
The huntress unfolded her arms and glared at Leon.
“Are you joking?” she demanded. “That’s our livelihood you’re talking about. Do you know how much the wizards at the capital are offering for one of those talking wolves captured alive, or even dead? We can’t agree to this!”
“Is it coin that worries you?” Leon said quickly, suddenly indignant. “Or is it revenge for the hunters that were slaughtered today? How many more of your guildmates will have to die before you realize that nature has more power than you ever give it credit for?”
The constable’s breath was taken, and somehow the huntress’ glare became even more intense.
“Don’t you dare speak to me of nature, wizard,” she said. “This is horseshit, I’ve spent my entire life in nature, I’m not accepting anything-”
“Lieutenant,” barked the constable. “Mind your tongue!”
“Believe me or not,” Leon said, raising his hand. “Not hunting these creatures will benefit you more than you realize. Not simply in the amount of lives that will be spared a quick and gruesome death, but in the preservation of an ecosystem that relies on their presence to be self-sustaining. Again, not to bore you with details, but the wolves’ sudden westerly departure will take its toll on the forests that encircle this side of the mountain. I suspect it will even affect positively Olvaren in the next few seasons. Herbivores will repopulate, and more than likely offer you rich environments for game.”
“He’s right,” said the scholar. “Mount Urden is a great example… Or counter-example, if you will. Remember the odagran culling a few decades ago, Lieutenant? With the carnivores gone, the herbivore population exploded, and the hunting was good… for a while. Unfortunately, they ate everything green, leading to famine and drought for many many years.”
“Tch,” said the huntress glumly, folding her arms. “Yes, I remember. One of the many… messes the early Guild got into trying to prove itself.”
“Fine then. I believe we can accept the first and the second condition,” the constable said. “And your third?”
Leon paused, wiping his upper lip with his hand.
“I will speak plainly,” he said. “I know the source of the fire that burned down this village.”
“You do,” said the constable in surprise.
“I do,” Leon said. “I’m certain you do as well. A boy, a young Edian boy wandered into my camp a few days after the fire. He was quite frightened by something, and he said something about the giant wolves. At first, I thought nothing of this, but then I recognized that he had approached my camp from the mountain and not from the village.”
“You believe he survived the mountain by hiding in one of their dens?” asked the scholar. “I told you, Constable! It’s just as I saw!”
“He is malnourished and has many injuries, including deep scratches and several bruises on his face and arms. He looks as though he’d suffered serious physical abuse, although whether he received his injuries from the wolves or by… other means, I don’t know.”
“I’ve seen this boy on some occasions,” said the constable. “He is a slave, belonging to the owners of the inn. You have him under your care?”
“I do,” said Leon. “And I assumed he might belong to one of the wealthier families in Olvaren. Although the boy has withheld many details out of fear regarding the fire and his departure into the forest, my expertise in the field of thaumaturgy led me to recognize something peculiar in him. Something I assume you’ve pieced together from the evidence.”
“The boy’s animis is flame,” said the scholar with characteristic enthusiasm. “My goodness, he truly was the cause of the catastrophe! His animis potential must be incredible if he could make an entire village burn down at so young an age!”
“I would hesitate to be so excited,” said Leon, adjusting his spectacles. “The boy is… damaged. At first I assumed little, but now I suspect he suffered years of physical and mental abuse, which fueled the appearance of his talents in such… spectacular form. Even under my care, the boy has burned me many times on accident. I fear that returning him to the care of the innkeepers will only lead to further incidents.”
“I agree,” the constable said. “But what are you suggesting? The boy wiped Olvaren from the face of the earth, killing many people in the process. Whether an accident or not, manslaughter is punishable by death. Why should we not do away with the whelp and be done with it?”
“Instead of simply ending his life,” Leon said earnestly. “I offer to take the boy away from Olvaren and Antiell entirely. His ownership will transfer to me, as well as any blood or hair samples that may have been taken from him. The Everspring Academy can protect others from his power. Despite his… volatility, he has shown incredible potential. As a master, I am willing to grant him citizenship status in Ashant and tutor him to control his abilities. In exchange for his life, he will never return to Antiell.”
“Exile instead of death,” the constable said. “Interesting. But I don’t understand. Why would you do this for some… nameless Edian slave? Certainly he has strange and powerful magick, but he can’t honestly be worth the trouble to you.”
“I don’t trust you,” accused the huntress with a pointed finger. “Your whole damn story. You’re not just some Goddess-sent saint, loaded with gold and living in the woods pickin’ berries. You know something.” She leaned down in front of Leon. “About the brat. About the wolves. What’s your stake in all of this, anyway? It doesn’t sound like you benefit from helping this village at all.”
“I don’t know what you’re implying,” Leon said to her, keeping a straight face. “But my business on Falas has been strictly academic, and it will continue to be so.”
Leon turned to the constable.
“These are my three conditions, Constable. Quite honestly, if your people have any other hopes of enduring the winter that is quickly approaching, please let me know. Otherwise, I am offering this crystallized aether and as many additional funds as your village will require to survive the coming winter and thrive the year after. More than likely, even your fallen hunters can be compensated for what the crystal is worth. I will even offer you one of my personal evocation markers as a sign of good faith so that we may remain in communication. Are these terms acceptable?”
The constable leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and looking first at the scholar and then at the huntress. There was a long pause.
“I would say most definitely,” the scholar said, speaking up first. “I know the Headmaster would be beside himself to finally have crystallized Everspring aether in his hands.”
“And he would pay for it?” asked the constable. When he saw an animated nod, he turned to Leon. “We would naturally have to get this crystal authenticated as real if we agree to your terms.”
“Without doubt,” said Leon. “Though sooner rather than later, I hope. I must return to my research as soon as possible.”
The huntress glared again, but the constable nodded.
“How exciting!” said the scholar. “Although to study this stone, I must admit, is beyond my abilities… I never thought I would ever see one of these in person.”
“And you, Lieutenant?” said the constable. “Are you satisfied?”
“Hardly,” she said, folding her arms. “But… if this shiny rock is worth as much as he says it is, and my fallen hunters get proper burials and compensation for their families… I suppose I can’t complain. Much. But you have to admit, none of my men or the villagers are going to like all of this. They’ve all been demanding a successful hunt and a hanging all week. Especially the innkeeper woman. Instead of an execution, you sell her property to this… Academy professor. With the disappearance of her husband, she’s going to go mad.”
“Then perhaps it’s best we keep that part of the deal quiet,” the constable said with a sigh. “The woman and her husband made it quite clear that the boy’s life was forfeit from the beginning. That sounds like forfeiting ownership to me. Besides, she’ll get the funds to build herself a bigger inn, and she’ll have to be satisfied with that. Everyone will have to make do without the execution of some no-name Edian child and move on.”
“I wholeheartedly agree,” Leon said sincerely. “Thank you, Constable. You don’t know what this means me… and to my work. I look forward to seeing this village restored to its former glory.” He held a hand out to the capital scholar. “You do have the boy’s samples, do you not?”
“Oh, of course,” he said, leaning down to his satchel laying on the floor beside his chair. “Let’s see, which pocket did I put it in… Not this one… Ah, here it is. Just this one blood vial. Perfectly preserved, I might add. I believe it will continue to function for more than a few years more, should you ever lose track of the boy. Can’t have a fiery devil like him running free, after all!”
Leon took the vial and held it in his hand. The very small but concentrated sample looked less like blood and more like a sludge-like blackish-brown oil.
“Don’t worry,” he said simply. “He won’t trouble you further.”
“We thank you for your generosity, Master Sirelu,” the constable said. “As you say, we truly are desperate, and your philanthropy will solve the majority of Olvaren’s problems in a most timely fashion. Come, let’s get this stone appraised. I’m certain someone at the Academy is awake at this hour…”
“If not,” said the scholar with glee. “They will certainly want to be!”