Alyssum – Chapter Fifteen

firehands

Three Weeks Later

Two paths had lain before the wagon, clearly illustrated by a sign at the fork in the road. As Leon read to Aeo, one pointed west to a place called “Fort Owyne”, apparently only a few scant miles from the highway itself. The other pointed towards a much more distant location called “Fort Nahzer” to the southeast. Nahzer, Leon described, was their intended destination, as it sat squarely upon the Ashanti/Antielli border. Trying to find a way around the fort itself presented a great risk, especially for a rickety wagon led by a single horse, as the fort had been constructed right in the middle of a mountainous pass. Anyone caught trying to cross the border illegally would certainly be spotted and arrested, and their wagon (and its cargo) impounded; Antiell did not toy with the strength of their borders, especially with powerful scholars and mystics regularly traveling to and from the Everspring Academy.

Now a week beyond the fork in the road, Aeo became truly miserable. The brisk speed with which Leon drove the wagon had increased, leaving them little time to rest and relax. It was bad enough that no villages sat upon the road, set as it was so close to the border of Edia. Aeo was now practically stuck to the inside of the wagon, and Leon had insisted it would be more comfortable for him if he slept there during the night. True or not, the down-filled pillows could only do so much to help him feel comfortable, cramped as he was in between the crates and boxes.

To keep himself busy, Leon had directed him to practice shielding himself against the rubber ball. Aeo could summon fire; he had little trouble with that. But shielding was a different matter entirely. He couldn’t really wrap his mind around it. Instead of focusing his animis into a single point, Leon had tried to teach him to expel his animis like a blast of wind from his hands. Laying on his back in the wagon, he would toss the rubber ball up into the air and quickly raise his hand to block it. Every so often, he would see a hint of blue light as the ball came back down. But gravity was relentless, and refused to stop as the light appeared. More often than not, the ball would end up hitting Aeo in the face or the eye. He had never considered himself talented at tossing rubber balls into the air, especially inside a rumbling rolling cart. Impressive to repeatedly hit a target over and over, perhaps, but slightly painful and annoying.

Just once, he tried creating fire in between his hands while riding in the wagon. With Leon focusing on the road at the time, Aeo thought he might get away with it. But the moment a spark fizzled in between his hands, Leon halted the cart and spun around.

“Oh no, you don’t,” he said. “No fire in the wagon. Please.”

“Sorry,” Aeo mumbled.

Now beyond Lake Darlendas, the environs through which they traveled resembled a glorious autumn forest. The leaves of the oaks, aspens, and maples had turned into bright and beautiful shades of crimson, orange, and yellow, and the delicate mountain winds made them all flutter and fly from their stems like exotic birds from their nests. While the road itself was rather flat and presented rather boring views, every once in a while the canopy of trees would part, presenting a stunning view of the entire mountain range. Snow never ceased falling on the tops of the mountain, aided by the regular late-summer storms. But Aeo could clearly see the edge of the treeline, the gulleys of tumbling rocks, rivers and streams of glittering snow melt, and grassy foothills that led to the base of the far-reaching earth. Curiously, the amount of wagons they passed on the road now came fewer and further between. Despite this, the road appeared very well-maintained, with wooden and stone bridges built over rushing waters helping to keep potential traffic moving safely.

Aeo spent a lot of time looking at Leon’s marker (with his permission, of course), surveying the surrounding landscape on the map. Speaking the word “dah-si” a few times, the map seemed to pull outwards to a great distance, leaving the wagon just a tiny pinprick of light upon the winding road. Although the map offered no sense of distance, Aeo could see several symbols clearly. One of them was surely Fort Owyne, sitting upon the very edge of the outlined border of Edia. Much further upon the eastern road was a similar symbol, perhaps Fort Nahzer. If it was, they were making great time, as only a week ago, the symbol hadn’t appeared upon the enlarged map at all. Between them was the great mountain range, and when zoomed in a little closer, Aeo could make out blue lines that marked rivers and running streams. More than once, Aeo had mentioned a stream coming up on their travels, during which Leon gladly stopped to refill their water keg. Aeo decided there was nothing more delicious than freshly-chilled mountain water, and drank more than his fair share. Unfortunately, this meant he had to take more breaks to answer the call of nature. This made Aeo anxious for repeatedly asking to pull over, but Leon seemed to tolerate it.

Chewing on a piece of dried meat, Aeo again practiced shielding himself from a falling ball. He held out his hand as if to catch it, imagining the warmth of his body bursting from his hand like a jet of warm air. And yet again, a flicker of blue light appeared. But the ball dropped right past his hand and landed right upon his nose.

“Ow…” he whispered, grasping for the ball around his head.

Without warning, the wagon came to a halt. Leon said nothing for a moment, but stood from the driver’s seat.

“Leon?” Aeo asked, lifting himself from the wagon floor. “What is it?”

“Pass me my staff,” Leon whispered. “Hide my bag.”

“Do what? Oh, okay,” Aeo replied. He climbed over a few boxes of the right side and grabbed the simple-looking oaken pole. He passed it through the front flap, and Leon took it quickly. Then, Aeo took Leon’s bag, and placed it beneath his down pillow.

Without explanation, Leon jumped off the driver’s seat. He didn’t come to the back as if to grab something, nor did it sound as though he were walking into the treeline. Aeo looked, and Leon stood beside Poro, scanning the road ahead.

Aeo saw the source of their trouble. No, sources. Four large men with swords at their belts and axes upon their shoulders had appeared from the forest, walking towards Leon with a great deal of menace. Leon did not advance, instead patting Poro’s mane and whispering a few Drael-dena words to her: “Meh-yea fel-anok dei egr-enek ya si”. He repeated it three times. Poro, seeming to understand, nuzzled Leon’s side, whinying quietly.

When the men approached close enough, Leon said: “Good afternoon, gentlemen. May I assume you are part of the Antielli highway guard?”

Perhaps the largest of the four men, who carried a very large double-bladed axe and walked with a great amount of swagger, chortled.

“Sum’fin like that,” he replied.

“What can I do for you today?” Leon asked brightly, resting his weight on his staff as if he were somehow lame.

“Well, gracious sir,” said a wiry man next to the giant. “I’m afraid this part of the highway is blocked by a mudslide. Yes, we, the highway guard, require a toll from every traveler in order to help pay for its, eh, removal, you see.”

“Indeed?” Leon said. “Well, as you can see, I’m a simple traveler heading on my way to Ashant with my young protege here,” Leon waved a hand at Aeo, who watched without breath. “Not even a merchant, I’m afraid. Would you gentlemen like a few loaves of rye bread or some dried fruit? I’d be happy to oblige.”

“Wha’s ‘oblige’ mean,” asked the giant to the wiry man.

“It means he would give it to us for free,” the wiry man said, slapping the giant. “Very kind of you, good sir, but I’m afraid we going to require a bit more than food from you.”

“What do you mean?” Leon asked, leaning further on his staff. “I don’t have any money, honest I don’t. The most I have are a few alchemy books and spare clothing. Nothing you fine men would find valuable.”

“Well, sir,” said the wiry man. “That will be up to us to decide. If you don’t offer us something better than that, my friends here…” He patted the giant’s shoulder and motioned to the other two large men. “Will have to confiscate your… rather large wagon. And your horse. All for the, eh, highway guard, of course.”

“That is unfortunate,” Leon said. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. I’ll tell you once: leave. T’would be a pity to have to hurt you.”

The giant, the wiry man, and the two heavies behind them laughed.

“Whah, you? Hurt us?” the giant asked. “Lemme at ‘im, boss, I’ll show this li’l bleeder how to hurt someone.”

“Ah, I suppose we should,” said the wiry man, unsheathing his sword. “Be sure to grab the boy as well, slaves pay real well in Rurali.”

“Aeo!” Leon shouted. “Sym-yattra! You are stronger than you think!”

“Wha’s seem-yatter-” the giant began to say. Before he could spit out another syllable, however, a quarterstaff connected with the side of his jaw, surely knocking loose a few molars. Without skipping a beat, the other end of the quarterstaff dipped between the giant’s legs. As Leon flew forwards to attack the leftmost brute, the staff unhinged the giant’s legs, causing the very concussed man to collapse.

“What in the-” the next opponent managed to say. Before he could even take hold of his sword’s handle, Leon raised his hand and shouted “Vai!” With a burst of violent energy, Leon’s animis exploded outwards and collided with the man’s body. Before the distorted air could settle, the man soared backwards about thirty feet, tumbling end over end until he collapsed and moved no more.

“Get him!” shouted the wiry man. With a quick downwards thrust, his sword descended upon Leon only for a blue crackle of reflective energy to catch his blade a few inches from Leon’s head. Shards of energy rained down upon Leon as he pulled to the side, jabbing the wiry man first in the stomach, then the chest, and finally, swirling on his heels, connecting a powerful blow against the man’s sword hand. The man screamed, dropping his sword upon the ground and retreating a few steps back.

At last, the brute on the right had time enough to handle his axe with both hands, and advanced to bring it to bear down against Leon. Leon nearly swung around fast enough to disarm the man as well, but to his surprise, the giant had regained just enough sense to grab Leon’s leg and pull him downwards. The brute’s axe swung hard enough to crack stone, but instead of embedding itself in Leon’s spine, the weapon shattered upon a bright blue barrier of energy, spraying almost everyone in crystals of azure light. The axe, to the man’s shock, reflected back upon him as if he had connected with an elastic shield of iron, throwing the axe — and the man attached to it — backwards.

Aeo watched all of this in shock. He never believe Leon capable of this kind of combat.

“Grab the boy!” the wiry man shouted to the brute, bending down to pick up his sword. “We’re getting paid one way or another!”

“No!” Leon shouted.

Leon brought his quarterstaff down upon the giant the best way he knew how: by thrusting the point into the man’s crotch. To his dismay, the hit connected with something solid, and not at all sensitive. The giant laughed, unperturbed.

“Nice try!” the giant sung, pulling Leon down by his shirt. “I’ll break your neck, you-”

Now face to face with the giant man, Leon performed a very different act, one he hoped he would never have to teach anyone. His eyes faded until they became one with the shadows, turning blacker than the darkest night. As if the giant were staring into the abyss itself, Leon whispered a single drael-dena word: “Sihn-mauk”.

Horror could not describe the look upon the giant’s face. Pure terror. Hatred. Madness. The giant shoved Leon away as if Leon had become a fiery demon. The giant’s own eyes darkened like Bel moon pearls, blinding him to everything and anything that did not reflect his greatest fears and nightmares. As Leon stood up, the giant attempted to claw his own eyes out: his fingernails tore bloody gashes into his face as the darkness in his eyes bubbled and seeped out like thick ooze.

Upon seeing his friend so inflicted, the wiry man took a step backwards.

“Wha… Wha’d you do to him?! What are you?!”

Leon did not respond to him. He merely leaned upon his quarterstaff and raised his hand.

“Vai.”

Leon’s animis again exploded from his body in a concussive wave, connecting with the wiry man as if gravity had decided to move sideways just for him. After flying about ten feet off of the road, the man collided with an oak tree with a audible thud, and collapsed to the ground into a heap.

Inside the wagon, Aeo knew someone was coming for him. A brutish figure turned the corner, and Aeo screamed.

“Come ‘ere, little Edian!” the man shouted, tearing the back bar off. The man reached into the wagon, grabbing Aeo by the ankle and yanking him outwards.

“No! No, get off me!” Aeo yelled, kicking the man in the head with his other foot. His kicks connected but served little purpose: the man did not react to them. With a final pull, Aeo slid out of the cart, falling to the rocky road.

“Now let’s go back to camp, shall we?” the man whispered, grabbing Aeo’s wrists. Like a sack of wheat, the man hauled the boy onto his shoulder. “You’ll be worth at least a few good meals, you will!”

“No, you can’t!” Aeo shouted. “You won’t!”

Sym-yattra. No aggression. No anger. Only concentration.

But Aeo felt anger. He felt the pain in his back and aggression towards all the men that attacked his master. Now, concentration: the only remaining necessity. Aeo closed his eyes and lifted himself just enough to place his hands upon the brute’s shoulder. Much faster than he had ever practiced, his imagination flashed like a tidal wave of heat, forcing all the animis in his body to emerge from his fingertips. Then his eyes flared open, and like a spout of pure chaos let loose, fire erupted from Aeo’s hands against the man’s shoulder like a raging flamethrower.

The brute screamed in pain, dropping Aeo immediately. The flame stuck to the man as if he’d been doused in oil, and he flailed wildly trying to pat the flames away from his shoulder and neck. Just as Leon turned the corner to the back of the cart, Aeo lifted himself to his feet. As the fire danced, so did the brute, the flames growing hotter and brighter. The more he tried to smother the flames, the more it grew, consuming the brute’s long hair and crossing his chest. For more than a few seconds, Aeo stood there, entranced by the effectiveness of the conflagration.

“Aeo!” Leon shouted. “Stop! That’s enough!”

Aeo’s concentration broke.

“No!” Aeo cried, looking at the man in the flames. “They should all burn! All of them! They’ll never hurt us again!”

“Aeo, listen to me,” Leon said. “This is not you. Don’t let your anger consume this man! The Goddess will repay them for their deeds!”

“I don’t care!” Aeo shouted back. “I hate them! I hate being an Edian! I hate them, and I hate everything!”

The man continued to scream, falling backwards off the side of the road. The long grass caught fire immediately as it grew in intensity.

“Aeo,” Leon said, almost quietly. “Do you hate me?”

Aeo paused.

No. I don’t.

But he didn’t say it.

“I don’t know how to stop it,” Aeo said quietly.

“Pull the heat back into your hands,” Leon said, walking towards Aeo. “Just like I taught you. Pull your animis back into your arms, your chest. Focus on your breathing, your desire to let the fire fade.”

Do I want this fire to fade?

For a moment, Aeo did nothing.

“Now, Aeo!” Leon shouted.

Aeo nearly jumped, sealing his eyes shut in shame. He raised a single hand towards the burning man. Rejecting the thoughts of relentless immolation, he pulled his body heat back from his hands to his core, and imagined the fire fading away. Ever so slowly, the fire that sat upon the grass began to smolder and disappear, and although the man continued to shriek, the fire that threatened to consume him faded. With this, Aeo felt completely drained, and he fell backwards upon the ground.

Leon slowly approached the man, and scowled at what he saw. The hair on the right side of the man’s skull had all burned away, his neck was black and scorched, and the thick leather armor he wore adhered to the skin across his chest and shoulders. The air was filled with the sickening scent of charred flesh, and the flames even appeared to have begun consuming the man’s face and left eye. The man spat and stammered with unimaginable pain, and tried to rip at the grass behind him to get away. His eyes stared at Leon and the boy, mouth agape.

“You brought this upon yourself,” Leon said quietly, leaning on his quarterstaff. “I can do nothing for you. If you survive, I would tell your fellows to avoid this road in the future.”

The man did not respond, inhaling and sputtering.

Leon turned, stepping towards Aeo. This time, he relied on his staff not as an act, but because he had truly spent most of his strength. He offered a hand to the boy, and Aeo reluctantly took it.

“Come,” Leon said, groaning to lift the boy to his feet. “We need to move on before more of them show up.”

Aeo looked upon the man for a moment. The more he summoned the flame, the more he understood the pain it could inflict. Harthoon died because of Aeo’s fear. The brutish man burned due to Aeo’s anger. The energy that drained from him fueled terror. The screaming of his victims and the blackened char left behind marked Aeo’s fury. He felt inhuman. Before this moment, his red hair and red eyes made him more victim than monster. But now that he could control his fire, even in the slightest degree, the monster inside him revealed itself.

And for the first time in his life, he learned that this monster had teeth.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

Leon said very little as the afternoon turned into evening, only speaking up a few times for water and for his marker. This only served to intensify the gnawing ache in Aeo’s stomach. The feeling didn’t come from hunger, but from the incredible anxiety of what had occurred just hours before. His falsely-righteous anger had melted into fear and then to grief. Just like Harthoon’s, the bandit’s screams rang in his ears, and blocked all desire for sleep. He ate to cure the pain, but the taste of food felt gray and lifeless. Even as the sky turned to night, his hands continued to tremble from the act they’d just committed.

Leon didn’t stop the wagon as the sun dipped beyond the horizon as he usually did; Aeo immediately thought perhaps that this was a form of punishment, that Aeo would be getting no sleep or dinner that night. He peered through the dark, watching Leon’s shadow as the cart drove on. Aeo didn’t dare say anything, or even cough, sniff, or make any noise that might draw the man’s attention.

Aeo turned from Leon away towards the back of the cart for a split second. Then, he heard a noise that sounded like a sack of potatoes falling off the cart. Aeo’s head swiveled around trying to spot the box or bag that had fallen from the wagon. Nothing appeared missing. He cleared his throat.

“Leon, something-”

He looked towards the driver’s seat.

Leon wasn’t there.

“Leon!” Aeo cried, opening the front flap. The driver’s seat was indeed empty. “Poro, bah-si! Bah-si!”

To his relief, Poro obeyed without trouble, coming to a halt. Aeo walked to the back of the wagon to look out, and sure enough, Aeo saw the outline of a man sprawled face-first in the grass just off the right side of the highway.

“No! Leon! No no no,” Aeo said, filled with desperation. Without hesitation, he leapt from the back of the wagon and ran over to Leon. Aeo did his best to turn him to his back, which required more effort than he anticipated. “Leon, please don’t die! You can’t die!”

To his surprise, Aeo heard a deep but quiet laugh.

“I’m not… dying…” Leon gasped, his breathing labored and thick with mucus. “My animis is… spent. My… bag… pink bottle… side pocket…”

“O-okay!” Aeo said, hopping to his feet. He scrambled back to the wagon, throwing the back bar down and grabbing Leon’s bag. He couldn’t see the pockets very well in the dim light, so he decided to take the whole thing. He raced back over and sat down at Leon’s side. Aeo fumbled around the bag and discovered only a single pocket on one side of the bag. After a moment, he succeeded in unlatching the pocket’s buckle, and shoved his hand inside. To his surprise, there was only one object inside the pocket: a slender five-inch bottle with a curious rubber seal in the place of a cork. The bottle itself wasn’t pink: it was the liquid within, which radiated a delicate rose-colored light.

“Can’t… lift my arms…” Leon whispered. “Need… some help… drinking it…”

“Okay,” Aeo said, and tugged at the seal of the bottle. It didn’t budge. He tried again, digging his fingernails into the rubber. No effect.

“It’s… warded,” Leon said. “It won’t… open for anyone… but me.”

“How do I…?” Aeo began to ask.

“Bring it… to my lips,” Leon said.

Aeo did so, and Leon began whispering very faintly; Aeo couldn’t make out individual words. When Leon took a breath, the small rubber seal of the bottle popped off and nearly hit him in the nose. Aeo grabbed it before it could roll to the ground.

“I’ll drink… slowly, please…” Leon said.

Aeo carefully poured the glowing liquid into Leon’s mouth. The bottle emptied, and the light faded as he swallowed without much trouble. For a moment, Leon’s eyes closed, and he simply laid in the darkness, breathing. Aeo sat beside him, watching him intently. For about a minute, the only thing Aeo could hear in the forest were the crickets that chirped away deep in the long grass.

The wagon then creaked forwards without a rider.

“Poro? Poro!” Aeo shouted. The horse was going to leave them both behind. But then, with tired grace, Poro lazily drove her and the cart in a 180-degree turn, driving towards the two humils before stopping and nuzzling her nose into Leon’s arm. “Oh.”

“Good girl,” Leon said with a nod. “Mey-naye fel-an ne. Le-jhe o-hi-ko. And you too, Aeo.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means… ‘don’t have worries…for me, favored girl’… For you, it would be… Le-jhe ohe-no. ‘Favored boy’.”

“Leon…” Aeo said, the bottle and the stopper still in his hands. “What happened? What did you drink? Was it a potion?”

“Yes…” Leon answered. “…and no. You’ll see more of that… at the Academy. It’s… Everspring aether. I should have drank it… hours ago, but… I wasn’t sure I needed it. It’s my… last one. At least I didn’t… black out. I… may have overdone it… with those ruffians. I hope… we got past their camp.”

Aeo looked around. There wasn’t a soul around besides the three of them on the road.

“Should we… hide?” Aeo asked. “In the trees?”

“Unless… you or Poro could drag me,” Leon said with an exhausted smile. “I don’t think… I’m going anywhere.”

“Um,” Aeo said. “Hmm.”

He stood up and grabbed Leon’s hand by the wrist. Likewise, he took Leon’s other hand, and, standing behind Leon, pulled with all of his might. Leon didn’t move at all.

“Ouch, ouch…”

“Sorry!” Aeo said, dropping Leon’s arms. They flopped quite uselessly down to the ground above Leon’s head.

“Hrmm…” Leon hummed. “I think… I think if Poro hides in the trees… and we remain quiet in the dark, we should… go unnoticed. At least… I had some sense to fall into the grass. You wouldn’t want to… pull my arms back down… would you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Aeo said, and did so quickly.

“Besides,” Leon said. “With the aether in me… I should be strong enough to move… before the sun rises.”

Leon closed his eyes.

“You might… need to drive, though,” he said.

“Me? But… what happened last time…”

“Poro wasn’t prepared last time,” Leon said. “With a little… encouragement, she’ll know what to do. All you really need… are the commands, and you know those. Go on… Find her a place to rest. Take my marker… so you don’t get lost. There should be… A stream some ways to the west. Unbuckle her… she knows where to go…”

“But…” Aeo said. “I don’t want to just… leave you here.”

“There’s not… much choice,” Leon said, nearly every word . “We must stay… hidden tonight.”

Aeo hesitated. Reaching into Leon’s bag, he pulled out the marker and opened it. ‘Lah-sev-rai’ made the marker illuminate in blue and green, blinding him for a moment. As his eyes adjusted, he saw himself, Leon, Poro, and the wagon as bright green dots upon a faded and thin green line of a road. And sure enough, a thin blue line to the west ran from north to south. There was little telling exactly how far away it flowed, but he would know if he started walking towards it.

“Go on,” Leon said. “I’ll be fine.”

Aeo stood, taking Poro’s reigns and pulling her gently off the road into the dark trees. Poro resisted for a moment until Leon spoke to her in drael-dena. It took a moment, Leon repeating his words two or three times before Poro finally relented. Aeo guided her and the wagon followed suit, rumbling over the rough dirt and long grass away from the road.

Poro quietly whinied and grunted, slowly following Aeo at the boy’s pace. The bumps in the long grass tripped them both up, slowing their pace further. Careful not to damage the marker (if it could be damaged at all), Aeo kept the parchment of the marker facing forwards in front of him, utilizing the light of the map to illuminate the path ahead. Once or twice, Aeo looked back in the dark to see if he could see Leon at all. Naturally, he could not. After about two hundred yards of walking, Aeo turned the map around and studied it.

Oh, not too far. Maybe just a bit farther.

Aeo saw much of Leon’s battle with the bandits. But he couldn’t fathom what made Leon so exhausted that he couldn’t move his body at all. The thought of it made him afraid of what could happen to him. In fact, it reminded him of what happened on the mountain. Perhaps the cold wasn’t what truly sapped his strength and caused him to collapse. Maybe it was the energy spent trying to defend himself. Examining both events in his mind, something bothered him about Harthoon’s attack: Aeo’s magick hadn’t conjured a mere flame like he had with the bandit. No, the fire that consumed Harthoon had been liquid in form, almost volcanic in appearance. With the bandit, Aeo simply lit the man on fire. Harthoon had been immolated. Aeo had control of himself with the bandit (though less so on his emotions). Aeo felt no control over his actions towards Harthoon. Was that the only difference? Maybe if Harthoon hadn’t been so wild and murderous, the results would have changed. Maybe if Aeo had some control, Harthoon might have caught fire, but still be alive.

But then Aeo would be dead. Right? If Harthoon didn’t stop when he did, and how he did, Aeo would have been in even more danger. Did his magick know the difference between panic and mortal danger? Were they the same thing? The inn burned down in panic, Harthoon died when Aeo panicked. But he could shield himself and set people ablaze if in mortal danger, too.

Aeo’s head hurt thinking about it, so he decided not to.

Aeo looked at the map again.

About halfway there.

Go back.

Aeo froze. Surprised, Poro paused as well, and the wagon came to a bumpy stop. Aeo held up the light of the map all around him. He saw nothing. The voice had been so close and yet so faint that it hardly seemed it had spoken up at all. Yet it had, and the hairs on the back of Aeo’s neck stood up on end. His heart pounded in his chest; he didn’t dare take another step.

It was a spirit, an apparition. Something that dwelled in the forest. Someone that obviously didn’t want to be disturbed. Surely.

Aeo, go back.

Aeo’s throat became dry, and he gasped in shock. The voice knew his name. Somehow, the voice that called out to him sounded neither masculine nor feminine. It simply was, and its direction was gentle and warm as if it had come from…

The dream.

It was the woman’s voice. At least, it had been a woman’s voice on the mountain. It sounded just like it.

“Who… are you?” Aeo called out to the darkness.

For a moment, nothing responded. Besides the crickets that sung their songs all around him and the rustling of leaves on the wind, there was no sound at all. Then, as if an icy canyon wall had cracked and fell upon an unsuspecting valley, the voice instructed Aeo more clearly:

To Leon! Go back!

“Leon?” Aeo asked, and then his frozen body thawed in an instant. “Leon! Uh, uh, Poro! I’ll be back! Wait for me!”

Poro made no signs that she understood, but there was obviously no time to lose. In a desperate sprint, Aeo raced back to Leon, stumbling again and again over rough rocks and loose dirt. There was no light to be seen towards his friend, and Aeo read the map as carefully as he could as he ran. There were many dots on the map. Two belonged to Poro and the wagon behind him. One belonged to him. And where Leon had once been singular on the road, there now shined five additional dots circling around him.

“No! Leon!” Aeo shouted. “I’m coming!”

Aeo decided that running across bumpy topography and studying cartography were two activities that did not belong together. But he needed information. What was surrounding Leon? A long, loud howl erupted about a hundred yards away. Then a second. Then a third.

Wolves.

As Aeo approached Leon’s position, he raised the map to his eyes. One pinprick of light was not moving. The five wolf dots now sensed his presence, and had moved their hunting spiral into a lurking half-circle.

“Leon?!” Aeo cried out.

“Here…”

Leon moaned above the sound of the crickets and the wind. If it were possible, Leon sounded weaker than he had before.

“Leon!” he approached, and saw Leon lying motionless on the grass. “A voice told me to come back! What do I do?!”

“Wolves…” Leon whispered, his voice faint. “I don’t… I… don’t…”

Leon’s half-conscious eyes closed.

“No! Leon!” Aeo shouted, kneeling down and shaking Leon’s shoulder. “Please wake up! Please! I need your help, I…!”

The wolves howls became louder and more distinct, and they had circled close enough for Aeo to hear their bodies rustling through the long grass. A simple meal: a wiry boy and a comatose man.

“No…” Aeo whispered, tears filling his eyes. Then his voice raised. “No! Don’t come any closer! You’re not taking him away from me! Understand?!”

Suddenly, from the dim light of the map, he saw three shadowy shapes emerge from the brush, snarling and gnashing their teeth. Black wolves with matted, bristling fur and diseased fangs slowly approached the pair, their eyes reflecting blue and green. They took low positions, tuned like feral springs, ready to strike and rend flesh from bone.

“Get away!” Aeo shouted, rising to his feet and flaring out his arms. The three visible wolves stopped their advance. Although well within striking distance, they paused, sizing up the threat level of their targets.

Aeo’s anger rose like a violent fever, rising in his chest and filling him. They chose now to attack, when Leon was at his weakest.

You’ll never take him!

“I’ll kill you!” Aeo cried, his eyes flaring wide. “I’ll kill you all!”

A bright blue sky, illuminated by a crimson star…

His animis flowed through his arms along with the adrenaline. While only partially aware, his balled-up fists began to smoke as the bones within his hands began to glow bright orange. Although he had never fought a day in his life, his anger and animis brought him an intense amount of focus. So much so that when the lead wolf leapt forward to strike, Aeo’s fist had already begun to fly. Pain shot through his arm as his fist connected squarely with the wolf’s eye, and to his expectation, the wolf’s head burst into turgid flame. Shrieking, the wolf collapsed and attempted to shake the flame off. It did not come off.

A bright sun… Brighter than heaven’s transcendent glow…

The attacks of the other two wolves were initially more successful than the first. The one on the right struck downwards and wrapped his jaws around Leon’s leg in a vain attempt to eat first. The left one lunged forwards and sunk his teeth deep into Aeo’s forearm and writhed. Aeo screamed as dark blood poured from his torn skin. In response, Aeo wrapped his sore hand around the wolf’s maw. The wolf did not detach from Aeo’s arm right away… at least, until Aeo’s hand produced a thick oil-like substance from his fingers that burst into flame and began scorching the fur and melting the wolf’s face.

With two wolves thrashing upon the ground, Aeo dealt with the third. Bending down, the bright fiery glow of his hands muscled the gray-black wolf’s upper and lower jaw away from Leon’s leg and upwards with power Aeo had never experienced… and filled its mouth to the brim with a raging inferno of lava. The wolf’s deafening scream sharply defined itself despite the gurgling of the magickal stream of plasma.

He reached his hand to the sun, never quite touching it…

By this time, the first wolf had retreated as well as could be expected as a bonfire raged across its face and back, and the following two were on the ground in their death throws as the thick fire crawled across their faces and down their throats. The two other wolves then appeared, completely unaware of what had occurred with their pack mates. They growled and spit, ready to pounce and devour.

But this time, his fingers touched the sun’s glorious face… It was beautiful…

Aeo’s eyes erupted in a white-hot fury as he held his hands towards the two remaining wolves; he could see them both, the forest, and the mountain as clear as day. Before the wolves could react, the boy’s hands exploded in a short-lived but violent torrent of fire. Both wolves were consumed, their entire bodies set ablaze as if thrown into a crucible of molten iron. They threw themselves backwards and rolled along the road to extinguish the flames from their fur, but there was no extinguishing a fire they did not control. Instead, they retreated into the long grass, leaving a trail of embers behind them.

May we meet one day… You and I…

Why not now?

I will be here when you need me…

I don’t understand.

You will, in time…

There was no more noise in his ears. The light from his eyes faded to black. The adrenaline wore off, and the animis from his arms and chest released and became nothing but a void. Blood dripped freely from his arm. The fires that had consumed the wolves extinguished themselves, and Aeo felt free…

Until the ground hit him in the back of the head.

Alyssum – Chapter Fourteen

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“Aeo.”

Aeo didn’t budge. The blankets were warm, the pillow too comfortable, the mattress too conformed to his body. He lay as a puzzle piece perfectly suited for snoozing. Besides, the room was still dark.

“Aeo, wake up.”

No. No no no. The only thing that would get me out of this bed would be…

Aeo’s nose perked up. Food. A truly mouth-watering scent wafted in the air close by. Laying on his front, he turned his head and opened his eyes.

Leon sat on the side of his own bed. In front of him was a short table, and upon the table was a smorgasbord of food on a tray, including: two large baked potatoes smattered in butter and cream, a pile of sausages, eight strips of bacon, two boiled eggs, twelve slices of roasted beets, several steamed carrots, four slices of rye bread, and two bowls filled with blackberries. Leon smiled with a fork in his mouth.

“Time for breakfast,” he said simply.

Aeo peeled himself from the bed and put his hands through his long hair.

“I can have some?” Aeo asked, his throat grumbly and dry.

“Of course,” Leon said with a laugh. “You think I can eat all this by myself?”

Aeo rubbed his eyes and swung his legs off the side of the bed.

“I’m afraid they only had a single clean plate this early in the morning, so they jammed everything together,” Leon said. “I hope you don’t mind. At least they had two forks. Better than I have. Although you may be pleased to hear that I did buy you your own mess kit last night.”

“Mess kit?”

“A metal bowl and cup, a spoon, knife, fork, just like mine. I also purchased a few other things you might enjoy.”

“Oh.”

The guilt hadn’t vanished. It had simply disappeared with sleep, and rose to greet him the moment he awoke. The pain of the night before still sat fresh in his mind.

“Here, have a seat,” Leon said, patting his hand beside him on the edge of his bed.

Aeo hesitated for a moment before reaching down to the floor. He grabbed his socks and pulled them up his legs as far as they would go. Nope, the cotton end still dangled from his toes. He pulled his shoes on. They fit a bit loosely around his ankles. Admittedly, his shirt and pants were a bit warm for bed. But he could hardly complain: he felt incredibly spoiled for even wearing everything at all. He couldn’t justify the thought of personally “owning” them. They felt borrowed, as if they belonged to another boy his age.

“What time is it?” Aeo asked. Through the window he could just barely see the light of dawn beginning to pierce the cloudy sky.

“About 6:30,” Leon said. “I figure the sooner we leave, the less trouble there will be. I believe there are still a pair of guards outside the inn waiting to escort us out of town.”

Aeo crossed the room, sat down silently next to Leon, and didn’t move. Leon looked at Aeo with sad eyes and placed an arm around the boy, resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.

“I feel horrible about last night,” Leon said quietly. “I’m a poor excuse for a teacher.”

Aeo sniffed, and rubbed his nose across his sleeve.

“I’m really afraid of going back,” he said.

“I know, and I used that against you,” Leon said. He paused. “I hope you can forgive me. I wanted to show you what you could do if someone lashed out at you in anger. If I can teach you how to shield yourself, there will be very few things that can harm you.”

Aeo nodded.

“Like that stupid man.”

“Precisely,” Leon said.

Aeo sat for a moment, unsure of what to say next.

“Go on,” Leon said, handing him a fork. “Eat up. It’s a long way to our next warm meal.”

Taking a fork, he couldn’t decide what to start with first. Eventually, he chose a piece of sausage. He’d only eaten sausage once or twice in his life, and it smelled incredible. He closed his eyes and took a bite, savoring the rich flavor of the meat slowly and deliberately. The smoky spices, the crispy texture, the juicy fat…  It took him a few good seconds to process it all, and Leon looked at Aeo’s face with amusement.

“You won’t get through all this food if you eat it like that,” Leon chuckled.

Aeo opened his eyes and saw Leon staring at him.

“Huh?” he whispered. “Oh. Sorry.”

“No need to apologize,” Leon said with a grin. “I should think you’re not used to eating this variety of food, am I right?”

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo said with a shake of his head. He speared a steamed carrot next and deeply contemplated its taste as well.

“Oh, Aeo,” Leon said. He snickered as he peeled a boiled egg. “I thought you should know. Something happened last night at the general store.”

Aeo frowned.

“What?”

“You know that ‘stupid man’ that scared you so badly?”

Aeo nodded.

“He confronted me when I was trying to pay for our supplies.”

“He… he did? What did you do?”

“Well, nothing. I let him shout at me for a few moments. He accused me of trying to ruin his business with my… what did he call it? My ‘rickety old shite-wagon’, I believe. He said I belonged in prison, and he called Poro a ‘dumb mule’. He had a few choice words about you as well, most of which I don’t care to repeat.”

Aeo’s shoulders drooped and he said nothing.

“So you know what happened next?” Leon asked. “For some reason, his belt came loose and his trousers dropped to his ankles. His coat flew straight up off his arms, and from the sounds he made, the sleeves appeared to strangle him. He spun around a few times until he tripped into a shelf stocked with bags of flour. Then, most mysteriously, the bags of flour ripped open and dumped all over him. It was quite the sight; he looked like a shocked ghost. You should have seen the look on the faces of the people in line behind me.”

Aeo blinked.

“Wait, what? How did that happen?”

“I have no idea,” Leon said, putting a spin on the word ‘no’. “The merchant was quite furious and blamed me for assaulting him. But it obviously wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t laid a finger on the man. He stomped his feet and made quite the scene, flour flew everywhere. That’s when several people started laughing. I heard one elderly woman say: ‘you deserve nothing less, you puffed-up windbag’!”

Aeo choked on a second piece of sausage.

“Really?” he gasped.

“Truly, it was the strangest thing,” Leon said with a knowing smile. “He pulled his pants up, waddled outside, and shouted for a guard to arrest me. The guard recognized me and became immediately suspicious, but everyone around me attested to my innocence. They called the merchant ‘positively batty’ and ‘a right lunatic’ for exposing himself and diving headfirst into the flour bags. The poor guard had nothing to say. Then, as was surely natural for the old windbag, he marched right over to me and tried to attack me. To everyone’s surprise, his pants fell down again and his coat sleeves yanked him right out of the store.”

Aeo smiled as he chewed. What an entertaining image.

“So…” Aeo said. “It was your magick, right?”

“What?” Leon gasped, raising a hand to his chest and acting positively aggrieved. “Well, I am quite offended. No, Aeo, heavens no. I’m an Academy master, remember? I’m far too respectable and disciplined for such… such irresponsible behavior. Why would you even think such a thing?”

“Uh-huh,” Aeo said with a smile on his face, taking a bowl of berries and eating them one at a time.

Leon leaned into Aeo, pushing him gently sideways.

“Now, when you’re at the Academy and I start hearing about student’s pants mysteriously falling down in your presence,” Leon said. “I will be very cross. Even if I find out they deserved it. Understand?”

Aeo almost let out a giggle.

“I’d never do that,” Aeo said. “I’m far too… uh, ress-peck-tibble.”

Leon laughed.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said, taking a large bite of bread.

By the time they had finished with breakfast, the sun had risen somewhere deep within the clouds, leaving the morning cold and gray. The thunder was far distant across the lake, but a few raindrops still fell upon the inn room’s window. Aeo hadn’t eaten much compared to Leon, but by the end, he couldn’t have eaten a single berry more. Anything he hadn’t eaten, Leon had been more than happy to oblige. Aeo had never experienced a belly so full of delicious food, and  felt quite sick as his system desperately digested the large meal. For about twenty minutes while Leon left to return the tray downstairs and prepare Poro for the travels ahead, Aeo laid upon his bed, groaning.

It was worth it, Aeo thought, slowly recovering. So worth it.

When he heard the door open again, he raised his head and saw Leon step inside, carrying his bag.

“Aeo,” Leon said. “I want you to do something for me.”

Aeo’s stomach, full as it was, sunk. He no longer liked when Leon said that. Aeo clumsily sat up.

“Here,” Leon said. Much to Aeo’s surprise, Leon opened his bag and produced a simple object: a fist-sized red rubber ball. He tossed it over to Aeo, who fumbled a bit but caught it.

“No, no, don’t catch it,” Leon said, pointing a finger. “I want you to shield yourself from it.”

“Do… what?” Aeo asked.

“I want you to absorb the momentum of the ball so that it bounces upon your animis instead of hitting you. Do you understand?”

Aeo frowned, confused.

“Nuh-uh,” he said.

“Toss it back to me,” Leon said, sitting upon his bed.

With a light hand, Aeo tossed it upwards. Leon raised his hand as if to catch it. Instead, a small glimmer of blue light and a crackling sound met the ball about six inches from Leon’s open hand as surely as if it had hit a solid wall. The ball bounced backwards across the room and landed squarely in Aeo’s lap.

“That’s what I want you to do,” Leon said. “Use your hands. Remember what I taught you on the mountain? Pull the warmth in your body from your feet to your legs, up through your waist and your chest, and then down your arms and into your hands. In Drael-dena, it’s called sym-yattra, or the flow of animis. You can practice sym-yattra to move animis to any part of your body, but I want you to practice it with your hands first.”

“But…” Aeo whispered. “The light only comes before I get hurt. I don’t know if I can do it with a ball.”

“Well, the last thing I want to do is hurt you,” Leon replied. “I’ve learned my lesson: that’s the worst way to teach you. Tell you what. Keep the ball in the wagon with you, and when we catch our first break this afternoon, I’ll teach you the right way to focus your animis.”

Aeo tossed the ball upwards and caught it.

“But what if I make fire instead? On accident? Isn’t it the same?”

“It’s good you recognize a difference. I’ll teach you both. It’s a matter of feeling, both based on concentration. Don’t worry, you’ll learn quick. I can tell you’re going to be very familiar with the basics by the time we reach the Academy.”

Aeo shrugged, looking at the ball in his hands.

“Remember what I told you last night,” Leon said. “Don’t be afraid of your talents. Once controlled, you’ll be able to use them to protect yourself and your friends. And I think you’re going to develop strong friendships in your classes.”

The thought hadn’t occurred to Aeo.

“I can make friends?” he said. “I mean… by myself? I’ve never had friends before.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a problem getting to know others like yourself. Did you know there are many Edians and Ashanti your age at the Academy?”

“Really? Like me?” Aeo paused. “With red eyes and red hair? But, um, does an ‘Ashanti’ look like me?”

“Well, you might be surprised to meet one,” Leon said. “Most have long white hair and bright blue eyes, and long ears that droop at the tip. Several who belong to family tribes also wear traditional tattoos that are considered sacred to them. You can ask what their tattoos stand for, perhaps, but you should never make fun of them for it. Ashanti come from many places. Some ashanti even make their home in Antiell and migrate to Ashant to learn.”

Aeo nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “I want to meet everyone.”

“And you will,” Leon said, standing to his feet. “Come on, the wagon is all prepared. Grab your boots, and let’s leave this place while we still can, shall we?”

*    *    *    *    *    *

“Thank you, gentlemen,” Leon called out, waving to the two soldiers who rode silently on horseback behind the slowly-rolling wagon. “It’s been a pleasure.”

Aeo timidly watched them from the inside of the wagon. Indeed, they had been so bored waiting for the two “criminals” at the inn, they wouldn’t have noticed Leon’s wagon rolling southwards if Leon hadn’t called out to them. Now beyond the brick buildings and wet farmlands, the soldiers stopped escorting the wagon, looked at each other, shrugged, and turned their horses back towards Rurali. As they disappeared into the distance, Aeo settled in for a cold, wet, rumbling day.

Leon called Aeo for his marker, ignoring the light drizzle of rain that fell upon him. Once in his hands, he said ‘lah-sev-rai’, and the marker revealed an expansive illustration of the road ahead of them in thin green and blue lines. For a moment, he said nothing, holding Poro’s reigns and studying the map.

“It doesn’t seem like we’ll be departing from the lake’s edge for a few days more. Lucky for us, it’s a freshwater lake. Good news for Poro, anyway. We’ll have to rely on mountain streams to refill our water keg. Here you go, Aeo, you can take a look. Afterwards, put it back in my bag, will you?”

“Yeah,” Aeo said, taking the open marker. Somehow, the page showed no signs of water droplets, and the surface beneath the lines felt completely dry. The map itself was difficult to study, as the green and blue lines of light didn’t merely outline the path before them. He realized that some of the “obstacles” in the forest and along the road weren’t physical objects on the map, but something different. “Leon? Are these… words? On the map?”

“Yes, they are,” Leon replied. “Drael-dena words.”

“I wish I could read them,” Aeo said, closing the marker and placing it in the bag.

“Drael-dena is a complex language. I still can’t speak it fluently, and I’ve lived in Ashant my entire life. Fortunately, Ashant has become a veritable mixing pot of languages and cultures over the years. Not many ashanti speak only Drael-dena anymore. Mostly Yshlene with a bit of Ediani.”

Yshlene, right. Aeo’s language.

“They speak Ediani in Edia, right?”

“That’s right,” Leon said. “And Tagnurik in Edan. Thought you won’t see many xa’rith at the Academy.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” Leon said. “That’s a difficult question to answer. One, they have to travel the continent to reach Ashant, and that means walking through Antiell or going by sea. Either way is terrible for them, as they have been in constant war with Antiell. Second, they refuse to make peace with Ashant, as Ashant have been allies of Antiell for fifty years now. And third, which may surprise you… They are incapable of learning magick.”

“Oh. Why not?”

“No one really knows. Some scholars have tried to study them, and they have a theory that the xa’rith seem to be creatures that have no animis, which should not be possible. Many Edani have come to hate those who practice magick, and have called for the destruction of the San’Drael Academy as well as the Everspring.”

“Why?” Aeo asked.

“Full of questions today, eh?” Leon said.

“Yeah,” Aeo said with a sheepish smile.

“Well, the xa’rith have been at war with Antiell for a long time. And from what I’ve heard from some xa’rith colleagues of mine, they’ve come to see scholars and spellswords as evil. I don’t like it but I understand it. Those that work with the Academy, though, are masters of swordsmanship and the martial arts, and some are alchemists with very unique traditions and techniques.”

“Will I get to meet any?” Aeo asked.

“Certainly,” Leon said. “If my friend Thoksigim still studies at the Everspring, I’m sure he’d be delighted to meet you. His Tagnurik accent is very strong, and their beaks aren’t quite made for Yshlene. But he speaks it very well for a xa’rith.”

“Beaks?”

“Yes. They are quite birdlike in shape and mannerism.”

“Man-er-izzim?”

“The way they act.”

“Oh.”

Aeo rested his head on his arms and stayed silent for a few moments. Leon chuckled.

“I talk too much. Don’t feel like you should stay up on my account,” he said. “If you’re still tired, get some rest. We will travel for as long as the weather allows.”

“Do you have magick to keep us dry in the rain?” Aeo asked.

Leon turned around and ruffled Aeo’s hair again.

“You already know me too well,” he said. “It’s not made for a rolling wagon, unfortunately. In the meantime, bundle up and hopefully the wagon cover will keep you dry.”

Aeo pushed himself from the front of the wagon and did his best to maneuver into the thin space the wagon afforded him. It was stuffed full of crates with three weeks of foodstuffs and travel necessities like two extra wagon wheels, a large water keg, two large wool blankets, a pair of pillows filled with down, a fishing net, and more, including, strangely enough, a six-foot tall quarterstaff. Leon had never mentioned being skilled at fighting, much less skilled with a glorified stick. Wouldn’t a sword be a more effective weapon? Or maybe a spear with a pointed tip? Either way, the weapon (or was it a tool?) intrigued his imagination. The more Aeo thought about it, the more he wished to see Leon in action.

The day continued on much as it had in the days before, the wagon trudging along on wet muddy roads. Fortunately, Leon’s driving skills were excellent, and Poro’s strength equalled it, despite the heavier load upon her back. Once or twice, the wagon slowed to a crawl, encountering a thick patch of sludge. Fortunately, the wagon’s momentum kept it moving, and the wheels never stuck to the road for long.

Along the way, Aeo noticed they were actually passing other wagons headed in the opposite direction. Some had covers above the driver’s seat to keep out the rain. Others did not, leaving their leads miserable and wet. Some wagons had one horse, or two, or four, depending on the size of the shipments they carried. Aeo even saw a rather fancy burgundy-colored horse-drawn carriage transporting a rather well-to-do family. Most notably, none of the other drivers offered Leon any kind of regard, despite the fact that Leon cheerfully greeted every single one that passed by.

As the morning moved on and the afternoon began, the sky refused to reveal the sun. The clouds gathered thick above the merchant’s road, and a true rainstorm began to fall. As the storm increased, Aeo looked up at Leon, who seemed no worse for wear sitting in the midst of it. The wagon canopy about Aeo’s head was, unfortunately, quite porous, leaking at the points dangling furthest down into the cart. One of the deepest points was right over Aeo’s chest, and another fell upon his knees. To protect himself, he covered his upper body with one blanket and covered his lower half with another, hoping they wouldn’t leak into a puddle in the middle. Before he had the heart to complain about his situation, however, Leon slowed Poro to a halt on the right side of the road and stepped off the driver’s seat.

“What’s going on?” Aeo asked.

Leon appeared at the back of the wagon, his hair and jacket quite thoroughly drenched. He grabbed his bag and lifted the back bar.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s dry off and wait for this storm to pass. No sense in catching a cold by staying on the road.”

Dry off? By going out into the rain? Oh, wait. Leon’s magick.

Aeo gladly crawled out of the wagon, accepting the large drops of water that fell on his head and lap.

“What about Poro?” Aeo asked, looking over to her.

“She’ll be okay,” Leon said. “I’ll check on her every so often. I think she’ll be more hungry and thirsty than cold.”

As Poro munched at the grass that grew on the edge of the highway, Leon and Aeo walked a short ways into the pasture, coming to a stop just before the edge of the treeline about one hundred yards from the edge of the lake. Kneeling down on the mud-soaked ground, Leon produced from his magickal bag another ten-inch candle. Aeo stood shivering at his side, water dripping from his hair and seeping through his shirt.

“We have a problem,” Leon said, turning the candle in his hand. “The candle is soaked, and trying to light a fire in rain like this would be too difficult and take too long. Besides, if we lit the candle in a campfire, it would probably go out before we could use it. What do you think we should do?”

Aeo frowned.

“Um… Your magick?”

“Magick, certainly. But not mine.”

“What?” Aeo stammered. “Mine?”

“Do you want to try?” Leon asked, looking up at Aeo.

Aeo pulled away.

“I… I don’t know.”

“Here,” Leon said, patting the wet grass in front of him. “It’s wet, but hopefully in a few minutes, it won’t be. Let’s give it a go.”

Aeo paused. Stepping over in front of Leon, he sat in the mud and grass; water immediately soaked his bottom.

“Remember what it felt like when you held fire in your hands?” Leon asked. Aeo nodded. “I want you to have that in your mind. Never mind the fire in Olvaren. No aggression. No anger. Just concentration. Holding fire and causing fire aren’t very separated from each other, and almost nothing but your will can extinguish it. Here, just as before, hold your hands up, just like this.”

As if grasping a globe by its equator, Aeo’s hands hovered about a foot apart. Leon lifted the dripping candle right in between.

Sym-yattra. Move the heat in your body from your feet to your legs, your legs to your waist, up through your chest and head, and then down through your arms to your hands. It doesn’t have to feel like anything, but imagining it makes it so. And you’ll be surprised what a little imagination can accomplish. Understand? Try it now. Close your eyes if you like.”

Aeo did so, and imagined as hard as he could. Once again, there didn’t seem to be much heat in his body at the moment. But a rainstorm in the valley couldn’t compare to the terrible cold of the mountain. He drew upon the thought of warmth traveling through his body to his waiting hands, and for a moment, he could almost feel something moving along his nerves. A boom of thunder somewhere across the lake startled him for a moment, cracking his concentration. He continued, however, shutting his eyes tighter and focusing his thoughts on nothing but the movement of heat.

For a moment, he imagined the burning inn. The flames that consumed Harthoon. He couldn’t think of such things. No aggression. No anger. Just concentration.

A thought came to him, completely unexpected.

I haven’t dreamed of the sun since I left the mountain.

And it was true. Even nightmares had departed from him. Sleep came to him so quickly every night after traveling on the bumpy road, he hadn’t had time to dream.

That voice. That woman’s voice. The one that came from the sun and the sky. Why was it so familiar to me? I haven’t had a dream like that before. Why was it so familiar…?

“Aeo,” whispered Leon. “Open your eyes.”

Aeo did.

Between his hands, a tiny sphere of flame shuddered in the rain, dancing in the air as if summoned by a wispy spirit. Aeo didn’t move. Something held him in place, propped up by the falling droplets of water. There was no pressure or pain from this curious force, and he felt as though he could move if he chose to do so. He simply sat there, watching the fire in his hands. His imagination no longer fueled this flame; indeed, it felt as though someone had turned on a faucet in Aeo’s chest, out of which strength and energy poured.

“There we go,” Leon said, lifting the candle wick to the flame. It lit immediately, and resisted every raindrop that fell upon it. “You feel it, don’t you? The animis leaving you? Now, Aeo, reverse the process. Pull the warmth from your hands back down your arms and into your chest. Imagine it fading back into your body.”

This time, Aeo’s eyes remained open. Somehow, this process was much easier to manage. Unlike his desires in Olvaren, he wished this flame to fade and vanish. The physical feeling of energy leaving him slowed to a trickle. The force that held him up slowly released him, and the sphere of fire shrunk to a series of bright sparks before fading entirely.

Aeo pulled his hands towards him, watching them. No evidence of burns. He hadn’t even felt warmth from the glow.

“Very good, Aeo, very good,” Leon said. “Don’t forget this candle flame, now. We don’t want it going out. Don’t imagine it away.”

For a moment, Aeo entertained the thought by instinct, and the candle sputtered. But denying the image of a candle blowing away in a breeze, the tiny flame remained bright and delightful.

“Now it’s my turn,” Leon said, pulling the wooden candle base from his bag. He placed the wax firmly in place, set it on the ground, and placed both hands above the twirling flame. A white swirl of energy emerged from his palms like a cloud, and soon coalesced into a single mysterious glyph that looked like one of the symbols from the map in Leon’s marker. With a faint pop, the glyph fell upon the flame in a perfect sphere, like two bubbles connecting on the surface of a pool.

Aeo felt the effect of the glyph immediately. The raindrops that fell on him ceased. He looked up. They were indeed still falling, but they collided with and poured across an invisible surface in a ten foot diameter, creating a curtain of water around them. Then, as quickly as the water had soaked him, the moisture of the mud and grass around Aeo began to evaporate. The moisture that had sunk into his trousers vanished. Aeo brushed a hand through his hair and across his shirt: they were completely dry, albeit a little wrinkled and messy. Leon removed his coat and shook his own long hair as if throwing off raindrops; there were no drops to drip.

The temperature hadn’t changed. But Aeo was fairly certain the magick (or perhaps the thick curtain of raindrops) kept the wind at bay. Being dry made everything perfect.

Except for two things: his eyes became itchy, and his throat dried up. He rubbed his uncomfortable eyes and his lungs coughed in response.

“You feel it, too?” Leon asked with a quick cough. “Apologies, I made it a bit strong to ensure we dried off. Hold on.”

Leon kneeled on the now-dry dirt and held his hands above the glyph in the same manner as before. As if turning the knob of a door, Leon’s hand caused the glyph to rotate upon the candle. In a second, moisture returned to Aeo’s eyes and throat, and from what he could tell, the raindrops above them pitter-pattered upon the magickal surface just a little closer to the ground.

“Can you teach me how to do that?” Aeo asked.

“I imagine so,” Leon said, standing. “Though it requires an understanding of Drael-dena symbology and the proper balance of water and air. Without the right balance, some scholars have died from dehydration after spending a single night under such a ward. How they didn’t feel incredible discomfort right away, I can’t imagine.”

“What is dee-high-dray-shun?”

“Dying from a lack of water.”

“Oh.”

Suddenly, Aeo wasn’t sure he wanted to learn that particular ward.

“So,” Leon continued. “Let me run and grab the waterskins to keep us hydrated. And I also have something else to show you, something you might like.”

Walking through a waterfall, Leon vanished towards the direction of the wagon. Aeo entertained himself for a moment by watching the delicate flame of the candle. Though he knew he shouldn’t, he couldn’t help himself: he had to know. Slowly, he reached his hand above the candle and the ward placed upon it. He felt heat, but no pain. He lowered it closer. More heat, but no pain. Finally, he reached a finger beneath the ward directly into the orange glow. He expected the same effect as touching a hot stove or burning himself with a torch. But nothing. Nothing at all. Maybe a tingle of warmth, but no effect besides.

“Huh,” Aeo whispered to himself. He moved his finger away.

The flame, as well as the ward, fastened to his fingertip and moved with it.

“Ahh!” Aeo cried. He nearly shook his hand to smother the flame. But the ward did not break and soak him in the rain; he thought it best not to move. The flame didn’t hurt in the slightest, much to his relief. He felt the same strong support he’d felt just moments ago help him stabilize the flame and the ward on his finger. And like before, he felt the warmth drain from his chest. But this time, it felt more intense, as if jogging up a steep hill or climbing a mountain. His breathing became labored.

There was only one thing to do. Ever so gently, he pushed his finger against the wick of the candle. It didn’t attach as he pulled his finger back.

I can do this, Aeo thought. I can…

He felt the wick beneath his skin, and imagined the flame leaping from his hand to the candle. He even closed his eyes for a second to focus.

I can do this, he thought. Remember the sun. The dream…

He opened his eyes. Somehow, the flame had grown larger upon his finger, and the ward shuddered as if blowing on the wind. The invisible surface that held back the rain also shuddered, and Aeo felt a few raindrops fall onto his head.

Okay, the dream is too much. Pull it back, pull it back…

He pretended the heat sucked back into his hands and up his arms, and accordingly, the flame shrunk down to an appropriate size. He pulled his finger back, but still the flame and the ward refused to connect with the candle.

Come on, please… Before Leon-

The rain parted, and a man peered through it.

“Aeo?”

“Eeep!” Aeo yelped, yanking his hand backwards.

The flame and the ward vanished. Like a roof collapsing, freezing rainwater shattered upon Aeo, drenching his head and lap and pouring down his back. So surprised, he couldn’t even apologize.

“Ah,” Leon said with a laugh. “It’s time to practice again, isn’t it?”