A warm and wet tongue slobbered all over Aeo’s face, and he could do nothing about it besides open his eyes. The morning sun blinded him momentarily. It was Poro, standing tall over him and licking his hair and forehead. Aeo tried to lift his arms to make her stop, but they wouldn’t move. He tried raising his head; his muscles didn’t answer his commands. Even his heartbeat was slow and exhausted, leaving him lethargic and light-headed.
“Aeo, are you awake?” asked a voice. Leon, somewhere to his side.
“Mmm,” Aeo said, his throat hoarse. Even his lungs and his vocal cords refused to offer their regular services.
“…you did this?”
Aeo’s eyes attempted to peer over towards Leon. No use. All he could see was Poro’s enormous face and the blue sky.
“These wolves… Goddess, they’re… melted.”
“Mmm,” Aeo said. Now he remembered. So much fire… The dream had kept him alive. The voice. She kept both of them alive.
“How… did you do this?” Leon asked.
Aeo didn’t respond, and felt grateful he couldn’t.
“At least nothing else attacked us last night.”
“Mmm,” Aeo hummed.
“I’m feeling much better with the aether in me,” Leon said. “Can you move at all, Aeo?”
Aeo tried to wiggle his toes and fingers, or flex his cheek muscles; not even a twinge of movement. The rocks beneath the small of his back and shoulder blades made him unbelievably uncomfortable and sore.
“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied. Poro licked Aeo’s nose, lips, and chin.
“There’s an important lesson for you, I suppose,” Leon said. “Use all your animis, and you become quite useless. Remember void sickness? Let me see, where is my… ah, here’s my marker.”
Aeo heard Leon rise from the ground, and finally saw him enter the frame of his limited vision.
“Silly horse,” Leon said, gently shoving Poro away. Poro relented, rolling the cart that remained attached to her. Leon nearly reached out his hand to touch Aeo’s forehead, but then he stopped cold. Leon’s eyes opened wide, and his mouth turned downwards in dread. He touched Aeo’s bloody neck and carefully lifted Aeo’s arm to examine it. “Aeo… Goddess, what did those things do to you…”
Aeo’s eyes examined Leon, rolling about in his head as if they were the last remaining bodily functions Aeo could utilize.
“Come on,” Leon said, sliding his arms beneath Aeo’s head and legs. “Do your best to stay awake. You’ve lost a lot of blood. And the last thing you need is an infection.”
Leon lifted the boy up with a grunt, and Aeo realized just how exhausted his body had become: his arm, now covered in thick dried blood, dangled downwards, his head toppled to the side without his consent, and his core muscles refused to flex or contract. Pain, however, had not dulled in the slightest. Although the wagon lacked much space, Leon lifted the back bar and let it fall to the ground. Then he placed Aeo into the back of the wagon as far as his arms would allow, and climbed up himself. The wood of the wagon creaked and complained with both of them inside.
“Can you speak?” Leon asked, opening one of the boxes and producing a roll of cotton cloth.
“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied.
“I don’t know how you did it, but you saved my life,” Leon said quietly, unrolling the cloth. “I suppose you couldn’t shield yourself this time?”
“Hm-mmm,” Aeo mumbled.
“So, just your fire then… From the results, I certainly never want to be on the receiving end of your magick. You really do have to tell me if you’ve done this before.” Leon reached for his bag, and from the main compartment, he pulled out a wide bottle with a fancy label. He twisted the lid open, and sniffed its contents. “Still fresh. Good. Goddess, how do I do this… First thing’s first, I suppose. I’m sorry I have to do this, but it’s a good thing you have a spare shirt.”
Before Leon could explain what he meant, Leon produced his pocket knife. With a few quick strokes, he sliced Aeo’s bloody and blackened shirt right down the middle and pulled the material as far away from the neck wound as possible. With another thicker cotton cloth, Leon poured water from the water keg and let it soak. Then, to Aeo’s horror, Leon gently pressed it against his neck. Pain shot through him like lightning, but Aeo’s body had little strength to react. Worse, even his face couldn’t show his discomfort besides blinking faster and faster.
“Mmm, hmmm,” Aeo said as loudly as his voice allowed.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Leon said. “I need to see where the bite marks are. You’re not bleeding anymore, I’m trying not to cause it again.”
Leon carefully rolled Aeo over to his side and cleaned the back of the boy’s neck as well; the wound appeared deep, but with the thick blood washed off, perhaps it looked better than Leon expected. Once cleaned, the wound didn’t appear as terrible as it had appeared. Leon repeated the process with Aeo’s arm. The wound burned and stung as Leon lifted it upwards and cleaned both sides.
Setting the red-soaked cloth down, Leon reached for his bottle of ointment. In thick coats, he rubbed it into Aeo’s skin beginning with his arm. Once finished with a coat of cream on all sides, Leon wrapped it tightly and quickly with a wrap of light cotton. In the very least, the sharpness of the pain in that spot reduced to a simmer.
“I’m not sure what to do with your neck,” Leon admitted. “Perhaps when you can move, we can try wrapping bandages around your chest. Until then, perhaps the cream alone will do well enough.”
As Leon administered to Aeo, he sighed.
“Although you might have been impressed by my display yesterday,” Leon said quietly. “I am not a warrior. Not nearly, not like the masters that will be teaching you. I don’t have the stamina to endure a long fight, never have. It’s all I can do to hit hard and fast, and hope my animis holds out until the job is through. You, though… you might not feel strong now, but you did burn down an entire village merely by wanting to. And what you did to the wolves… There were certainly more than just those three. It’s a miracle they didn’t do you worse harm. I told you you had more strength than you think. Someone is watching over you and I.”
Aeo tried to open his jaw to speak, but it and his entire face simply hung passive. His eyes, though, walked around the wagon and spoke volumes.
“I never expected you to protect me like that. And I never wanted you to have to.”
Aeo looked back at Leon and managed to blink.
“But I’m very glad you did,” Leon said, rolling Aeo to his side to apply more cream to the boy’s back. “Thank you, Aeo. I told you I would need your help someday. I just didn’t expect the day to come this quickly.”
“Mmm,” Aeo said, blinking. Although his face showed no emotions at all, he would have at least smiled through the pain.
* * * * * *
The entire first day from morning to night, Aeo could not move. Try as he might, none of his muscles even quivered. The cart rolled along at a much slower pace than previous days, probably due to Leon’s own lack of strength and ability to focus. Aeo didn’t feel trapped in a motionless body, exactly. It was more like floating weightlessly in a lake while the rhythm of the current washed to and fro. His mind very much reflected the drain his body experienced. His eyes could move, but they couldn’t rightly focus on the canvas above him. Leon had instructed him to stay awake, but he couldn’t help drift in and out with the gentle rocking of the cart and comforting air that blew over him. Leon had nearly covered him in a fur blanket, but thought otherwise at the last second; for this, Aeo was extremely grateful. About an hour down the road, his uninjured arm that sat upon his bare chest fell to his side of its own accord. For a while, it felt comfortable. But then it started to fall asleep, jammed up too closely to one of the boxes. It soon fell quite numb, and no matter how loudly his voice hummed and mumbled, Leon couldn’t hear his cries for help above the din of the wagon. It wasn’t until Leon took a break in the late morning and adjusted Aeo’s position did sweet, merciful blood flow correctly again.
Long into the evening, Aeo lay prone in the dark, ever staring upwards. Maybe now I can sleep, he thought to himself. After Leon had released Poro to rest, eat, and drink, he appeared at the back of the wagon and hopped inside. Taking a seat on one of the boxes, he leaned down with one of the waterskins.
“One of the worst things about void sickness,” he said. “Is getting thirsty and hungry. And needing to use the restroom, of course. You’re probably feeling all of this right now.”
To be honest, Aeo hadn’t noticed much until Leon pointed it out. His tongue and throat were dry from his mouth hanging loose all day. He felt mildly peckish, but he certainly felt the uncomfortable weight of his digestive system. One of three of these things needed to be addressed very soon.
“Fortunately, I don’t think you’ll be sick for very long, not nearly as long as others. Most can’t even move their eyes or make noise. And… I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I feel you should know… Scholars that have suffered from void sickness much more severely become like infants and need… well, they need their pants changed regularly.”
“Mmmm…” Aeo hummed long and low like a grumble.
“Not terribly exciting news, I know,” Leon said. “But you saved my life, so of course I’m obligated to help. Do you need any assistance now?”
“That’s a yes?”
“No? Um… restroom?”
“Oh. Naturally, I’m sure. Liquid only, I hope?”
“No? Oh. Of course. What I mean to say… Eh, hmm. This will be a little more difficult, then. I have a bit of experience in this, although the Academy never taught me the specifics, being in the middle of nowhere and all. Um… Right. Let’s see. Let me carry you off the road, and… I suppose we’ll figure it out as we go. Let me grab the paper…”
The second day continued much as the first, with Aeo completely unable to move his limbs or his body. Fortunately, it felt as though some amount of control had appeared in his face, his fingers, and his toes. Ever so slightly, he could curl his digits, and when he really concentrated, he could raise and lower his eyebrows. He could even keep his mouth shut and weakly swallow, which helped immensely with his sore throat.
The only real problems (besides bathroom breaks, obviously) were eating and drinking. Leon could lift Aeo into a seated position and lean his head forwards a bit, pressing the waterskin to his lips and allowing him precious water. It was an unfamiliar and disconcerting combination of allowing the water to pass freely without swallowing while attempting to not drown. His muscles that controlled the flow of water in his throat weren’t in a very strong position to do their job properly. He couldn’t rightly cough when too much water passed down the wrong tube, either, though Leon had the experience and knew when to stop when Aeo’s eyes started to bulge. As for food, Leon admitted there really wasn’t anything they had in the cart that didn’t involve a lot of chewing. Besides, considering the state of his throat, Aeo probably didn’t want something solid in his esophagus. Leon tried boiling some of the dried meat into a broth, and Aeo enjoyed the salty flavor, but it only did so much to cure his aching stomach.
Like the first day, Aeo’s mind rocked back and forth with the wagon, and he found it difficult to think about any one thing for very long. The pain in his shoulder and arm made things even worse. When he tried to think about the voice that spoke to him, it felt like a distant memory, a half-remembered song. Aeo tried to think about Pick to invoke some emotion. If he lived, what would he and Shera be doing in that very moment? Even this was too difficult, much to his disappointment.
By the end of the second day, he could feel the gnawing sensation of hunger in his stomach growing. Water couldn’t satisfy, and with communication restrained to ‘mm-hmm’ and ‘hmm-mm’, there wasn’t much complaining about it.
Though his mind remained clouded, one thing became certain: he decided that void sickness was terrible, and never wanted to experience it again.
The morning of the third day, Aeo woke up to a hunger that he’d only experienced three or four times in his life (the other three or four being times when Aristé “forgot” to feed him when food stocks became low during harsh winters). The morning light had just risen above the horizon, and he heard Leon getting Poro ready for the day. He moaned from the emptiness. And that’s when the realization came: he could moan. He tried to mouth a few syllables with his lips and tongue; as if his face had been numbed, they could only form ‘ah’, ‘eh’, and an unsteady ‘em’, perhaps a slight ‘oh’ or ‘ay’. He swallowed, blinked his eyes, tightened his cheek muscles, opened and closed his mouth. Everything seemed to be functioning, albeit slowly. Even his fingers and toes could move on their own, although lifting his arms or legs remained out of the question. The pain in his neck and arm had fallen to a slow burn, aided by the fact that he could not move them.
When Leon rounded the corner of the wagon to come check on him, Aeo said in the loudest voice he could muster:
“Aeo?” Leon asked. “You’ve got your voice back! Good boy!”
“Hung…rae,” Aeo whispered.
“What’s that?” Leon asked, climbing into the wagon. He took a seat. “Say it again.”
“Hung-rae,” Aeo repeated.
“Oh, hungry. Hmm. Do you want to try eating something?”
Aeo nodded slightly. He then realized he could nod slightly.
“I’m not sure you should just yet… Although it has been quite a while, hasn’t it? You must have spent an incredible amount of energy to make you this sick. No more fighting wolves from now on, young man.”
Aeo tried to laugh. It came out as a guttural groan.
“Let’s see what we have again,” Leon said, climbing over Aeo to get to the box at the front. “Hmm, jerky and bread are probably still too tough. Apples might be too difficult as well, although I could try cutting them up. Oh! You know something? I completely forgot about these.”
Leon reached over towards a box on the far side of the wagon. The moment he opened the lid, Aeo heard the pop of a ward vanish. Inside was a small ceramic pot with a sealed lid, which Leon removed.
“Here, just one moment,” Leon said, setting the pot down. Covering the box again, concentration filled his face as he placed a single hand against the lid. Although Aeo could not see a glyph nor a shining light this time, he did hear a pop of magick. Leon lifted his hand and sat back down.
Another preservation ward. Those wards came very easy to Leon, simple as lighting a lantern.
“These,” Leon said, uncovering the ceramic lid from the pot. Inside was a pile of small spherical green berries. “Well, they have no name. Just like the plant they grow on. But they are delicious, and make a wonderful citrus tea. I must warn you, they have seeds inside them, but if you’re careful, you can chew them up without much trouble. Might have been dangerous yesterday. Care to try a few? Maybe one at a time to start.”
“Mmm,” Aeo said, nodding.
“Let’s get you sat up a bit,” Leon said. With a few grunts and groans, Leon positioned Aeo against the boxes behind him and placed the down pillows behind his back to help cushion against the solid wood. He even lifted Aeo’s head into a comfortable position resting at a slight angle upwards.
Leon took a berry and carefully placed it in Aeo’s mouth. The simple act of chewing felt as though someone had placed a leather harness in his jaw to keep his teeth apart. But the moment his molars got hold of the strange berry and clamped down, the juice of the berry burst against his tongue. Leon was slightly incorrect about the taste; the berry was absolutely divine. Once, Aeo had been allowed to suck on a wedge of lemon just to entertain travelers at the inn with his face’s reaction to its crazy sourness. Very similar, the berry’s juice made him pucker — as much as he could pucker, of course — and made him swallow the berry too soon.
“Aeo, are you okay?” Leon asked, seeing the boy’s face. “You’re not choking, are you?”
Aeo shook his head as well as he could manage.
“Good,” Aeo replied quietly.
Aeo shook his head again.
Leon let out a laugh.
“Should have told you about that,” he said. “Aren’t they fantastic?”
“Care for another?”
As day three progressed, Aeo felt a lot of improvement in his energy levels and concentration. Where in previous days he had difficulties focusing his eyes both near and far, Aeo could quite clearly observe everything in the cart and even peer out the rear of the wagon to view the road and the beautiful autumn morning. When the cart came to a rickety old bridge about mid-day, Leon instructed him to hold on as well as he could. With his seated position, Aeo still could not fully lift his arms to brace himself. But his arms and legs could tighten and his fingers could hold, so they anchored themselves against the boxes as the cart rumbled across the planks of the bridge. The strain to balance himself made his injured arm flare.
“Seems they don’t care for this part of the road,” Leon said as the wagon rolled upon dry dirt again. “Still, it’s better than driving through the water.”
By the early evening, Aeo’s limbs could flex and his neck muscles had regained strength enough to hold his head evenly; he held still to make the bite marks in his neck and shoulder bearable. He could tap his fingers to an invisible beat, and even lightly cough. He’d eaten enough berries to quell his stomach pains, but he still felt like he could eat an entire plate of the breakfast he and Leon had shared in Rurali. Out of instinct, he bit down and moved his jaw from side to side. This is when he realized that one of his teeth, specifically one of his canines, was loose, moving a bit as his tongue pressed against it.
“Leon?” Aeo asked, his voice still weak.
“Hmm?” Leon asked, driving the wagon forwards. “Did you say something, Aeo?”
“Yeah,” he replied.
Leon pulled on Poro’s reigns, and slowed the cart to a low rumble.
“What is it?” Leon asked.
Aeo took a breath.
“My… tooth is… wobbly.”
“Your tooth?” Leon asked. “You didn’t get hit in the mouth by those wolves, did you?”
“Nuh-uh,” Aeo replied.
“Well, sounds like you’re growing up to me,” he said. “You’ll lose all your small teeth soon, I imagine.”
“When I was little, I… slipped and fell… at the inn, and knocked my two front teeth out.”
Aeo could hear Leon whince.
“Oh dear,” he said. “That must have hurt a lot. I imagine you don’t like losing teeth, then.”
“Nuh-uh,” Aeo whispered. “Harthoon… and Aristé made fun of me. Eating was hard, too.”
“I’m sorry. I remember Algus laughed at me when I lost those teeth, but probably not in the way they laughed at you. He called me the ‘Toothless Wonderchild’. And then my large teeth grew in and he called me ‘Gopher Child’. There was no winning with that one.”
“Will I get to meet Algus?” Aeo asked. From how Leon spoke of him, he sounded like a very entertaining man.
With this question, Leon fell silent for a moment.
“He, uh… He passed away. A few years ago. A few months before I left the Academy to climb Falas, actually.”
“Oh,” Aeo replied. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Leon said. “I’m sure he would have loved to meet you.”
The evening fell to night, and Leon stopped the cart to rest. Taking up the wagon space in complete immobility made Aeo a bit uncomfortable, considering it meant Leon had to find a spot off the side of the road to set up a campfire and sleep. Now able to voice his thoughts, he apologized for it as Leon applied another coating of ointment to his wounds.
“It’s no trouble at all,” Leon said. “I’m quite used to sleeping on the ground. I worry that once I climb into bed at Everspring, I’m going to endure many weeks of sleepless nights. I may not even teach next spring with all the adjustments and personal projects.”
“Your bed isn’t comfortable?” Aeo asked, wincing at the pain.
“It’s too comfortable, I’m afraid. Sleep for long enough on dirt and rocks, and you’re keen to stay that way.”
Aeo slept well that night, able to turn on his side and keep himself from falling backwards… or face first onto his injured arm. On the gray and cloudy morning of the fourth day, Aeo awoke and wiped his eyes only to realize that he could actually wipe his eyes. Though the pain in his neck grew intense, he raised both of his arms and looked at his hands. They could twist, curl, and bend. His movements felt a few milliseconds off between his brain ordering them and his body performing them, but it felt a fantastic improvement. He pulled his legs inwards, and they indeed bent towards him. Excited at the prospect of moving again, he placed his hands on the wagon floor, dug in his feet, and heaved himself upwards towards the back of the wagon to attempt walking. The excitement faded when he failed to lift his weight.
Then, a feeling dark and foreboding flooded his every thought, as if a tidal wave of desire smacked him right in the chest: his hunger doubled up upon him, ravenous and ferocious. The hunger felt as though he had been underwater for far too long without breath, and his heart beat rapidly at the very thought of eating something. His body demanded it, and it demanded it immediately.
Where is the food! Oh, behind me!
He attempted to turn around, and though his neck wound coursed through him like his own magickal fire, he managed to twist his torso around and lift his arms to uncover the food crate. Inside were dried fish and beef, fresh apples and carrots, rye bread, blueberries picked fresh found by Poro just yesterday… He grabbed whatever he could grab in his claws and stuffed it into his mouth; he didn’t even taste what he’d removed from the box first. He ate so quickly, he even forgot about his loose tooth.
An ingrained instinct in him thought to ask for Leon’s permission to eat so much. This was promptly squashed.
By the time he heard Leon and Poro stir from sleep, he’d eaten so much so fast, he developed a terrible case of hiccups. He carried on despite this, going back and forth from dried meat to fruit to bread and back again.
A few minutes later, as a piece of dry bread lumped down his gullet, another demonic sensation arose:
Water! Where is the water!
His gaze rapidly scanned the inside of the wagon, back and forth, back and forth. Then, in complete exasperation, his voice exploded.
“Leon!” he shouted as if he’d never shouted in his life. “Leon! Help, *hic* help! Help me!”
In an instant, Aeo heard a man fumbling and struggling, and then breathlessly running. When Leon appeared at the back of the cart, his hair clinging to his head in all directions and his scruffy beard unkempt, he looked horrified.
“What, what! What is it!” he cried. “What’s wrong?”
With his mouth half-full, Aeo’s senses returned.
“Uh… Uhh… *hic*…”
Leon stared at the boy as if Aeo had shape-shifted into a duck. Aeo attempted to swallow, but even that came half-heartedly.
“I, uh… can’t move.” Aeo said with a pile of food in his lap and nervous as a lamb. “I can’t, um… *hic* find the water.”
For a moment, Leon continued his stare, dumbfounded. But then his mouth turned into a grin, then a smile, and then to outright laughter.
“Ha!” Leon gasped. “Ha! I thought for sure a snake had found its way into the wagon, or you’d set everything on fire! And here you are, having breakfast without me!”
Thoroughly embarrassed, Aeo look down at the floor.
“*Hic* sorry…” he whispered.
This caused Leon to laugh harder.
“Don’t be, you silly boy!” Leon said. “I’m just glad you’re up and eating! It’s been days since you’ve had anything solid. And hiccups too! Wait just a moment, I have the water. It’s good to have you back!”