Alyssum: The Voices of the Shattered Sun – Chapter Two


The Shattered most often spoke to him in broken sentences. Fragments of ideas. And rarely did they provide useful commentary. But that night, as Aeo climbed the frozen Mount Falas alone, one of the Shattered—a voice he did not often hear—told him a story. A useful story.

[No one travels across the Falas Mountains during the night. Especially in the midst of torrential snow fall. Even those with a sense of urgency to cross rarely stepped foot above the treeline after sunset. No one who knows better. Whenever a traveler was said to have disappeared, it was the mighty frozen winds that were ever suspect.]

[But that was not always the case. Something sinister lives in the crags and caverns of Falas. And once upon a time, everyone within leagues of the mountain knew it.]

[Despite this, here walks a lonely figure. Shivering in the cold, blindly treading upwards and away from the village of Olvaren. A little boy. A stupid one. A sensible human being would do well to drag him back to the village, away from hypothermia and death. He wears no coat or jacket, but the rags of a slave. He wears thin leather soles, the only thing keeping his feet from the snow.]

[He’ll never make it by himself.]

“Sh-Sh-Shut up,” Aeo growled above the howling wind.

The Storyteller continued.

[There’s no going back, though. Not with the bruises on his arms. The swelling black eye. They mark him. They prove he no longer belongs at the Inn. He belongs nowhere, save walking hand-in-hand with Death. Death on his own terms. He isn’t yet aware of the choice he’s made. Either he makes it to freedom on the other side of Falas, or the Goddess will take his life from him. It truly is as simple as that.]

The frigid wind hit Aeo’s face like a thousand glass needles, and he wasn’t sure whether his toes still existed. And the moment he tried to blow warmth into his frigid fingers, the cold sapped it away in an instant.

It doesn’t matter, Aeo thought to himself. I’m not going back.

[Despite the lateness of the hour,] the voice continued in his mind. [And despite the absence of the moon, the snow reflects enough light to give the boy clarity. He started his journey on the merchant’s trail. But where that trail might have gone, the boy could no longer tell. The howling blizzard surrounding him blinds him to almost everything. Especially to any creatures that may dwell in those frozen cliffs.]

Aeo forced his own thoughts above the voice he heard in his head: how do you know these things? Are you here with me? Why aren’t you helping me?

The Storyteller did not elaborate.

[What did the merchants and soldiers used to say about the creatures of the mountain? Wolves, packs of them, roam the hills in search of prey. Long-haired bears live close to the once-thermal rivers, smart and patient enough to wait for a fish to jump upstream. Eagles with the most discerning vision make homes atop the trees, soaring down from lofty heights to catch food. And every so often, hunters—the ones that braved the trek and camping through the night—would take aim at moose and deer that lay trapped between the impenetrable tree line. All of these, partakers of the bounty of the mountain.]

[All these creatures of creation stood for symbols of the goddess Tiathys’s power. They reflected her diverse attributes of strength, cunning, endurance, and wisdom. At least, that’s what Her priests used to teach. Holy men had once spent time in Olvaren. They have since discovered themselves unwelcome, in the village and its nation. And all the inhabitants of Antiell are the worse for it.]

[For, according to tales, there used to live in these very mountains a creature. A terrible monster, perhaps the most terrible of Tiathys’s domain, and a consequence of their transgressions against Her. The monster was known as a mephandras. Standing twenty feet tall on its hind legs and terrible in temperament, the mephandras was (for lack of any other comparison) a feral wolf with bitter scales and spikes in place of fur. Its long-toothed maw could rend almost anything to pieces, be it stone, steel, or flesh. Worst of all, they wore a cruel disposition, boasting an intelligence that no other beast but man could claim.]

[The mephandras prowled the uppermost climbs of Falas, devouring every traveler that dared to climb to the top. And every few decades, when the mephandras would descend from the mountain in search of sustainance, desperation would seize upon the villagers of Olvaren and the call would sound. Hunters from all over Antiell would go forth to hunt the beast. Each was promised untold wealth and fame if they killed the creature and brought back proof of their kill.]

[Unlike every other guild call, there was no guarantee of restitution should the hunter die to the mephandras. But still they came.]

As Aeo heard these words, a wolf howled somewhere off in the distance. He ignored it, pressing on into the trees.

[Only a few short years ago,] the Shattered whispered. [A troupe of intrepid hunters lured a mephandras to its demise. A feat of unrivaled courage, and one of the few successful hunts recorded by the Guild. Though they lost a score of hunters in the process, they used cunning and forethought to entrap the beast, setting off a series of loud fireworks to herd the mighty wolf into a terrible position. Cornered by sheer cliffs and three dozen of the best hunters in the land, the beast roared in defiance. And while the ears of the hunters bled at its power, it could not escape.]

[In seconds, the deed was done: a single explosive charge placed above some hours earlier made the whole of the mountain to fall upon the unsuspecting creature. When the smoke and dust cleared, the creature lay silent and unmoving. The hunters refused to take the chance that it might wake and rend them asunder. Keeping their distance from the unconscious brute, they filled its hide with so many arrows and spearheads, they might have brought down an entire herd of elk instead. They even utilized one last explosive, placing it upon the crown of its great head and detonating it from a distance. When the smoke cleared from the explosion, the corpse’s head (as well as a large chunk of its right shoulder) was no more, become nothing more than spatter on the rock.]

[A sure kill. And at last, an end to their troubles. It took days to harvest even a portion of the creature’s oily meat, hide, and colossal bones, which were quickly promised at great value to the province’s eager merchants. A festival was held to celebrate the hunters that culled the great beast, and their triumph might have brought prosperity to everyone in turn.]

[The tale might have happily ended there. Unfortunately for the hunters, they had not performed their due diligence. They were not aware: their prey was not a lone wolf. Few are the creatures who bond more fiercely than the mephandras, and its mate was quick to realize its absence.]

Even as Aeo completely lost feeling in his fingers and toes, lost in the midst of the mountain blizzard, he couldn’t help but think: a mate? Was the first one a girl or a…?

As if in response:

[Even larger than its slain companion, and much older, the female mephandras tracked the hunters from the mountain within the space of a day. Upon the discovery of its beloved’s remains at the cliffside, Olvaren heard a single low howl from the mountain. And in mere moments, into the midst of the impromptu festival the mephandras charged, rending the hunters who had slain its mate asunder. Bereft of their weapons, they became as chaff before the female’s harvest. Dozens were torn apart in mere moments, their blood and viscera staining the driven snow. As truly a bloody banquet as the male mephandras had become… so too did that very mortal band become carrion for the crows.]

[The mephandras bucked and heaved and howled, tearing through the ramshackle buildings and storefronts of the village marketplace like a child through so many wooden blocks. The villagers of Olvaren, suddenly lacking the entire Guild’s worth of hunters, retreated to the town hall, locking themselves and their families in the cellar. To their surprise, however, the great wolf did not pursue them inside. And though it spent some minutes clawing at the ironwood doors of the hall, it soon relented. Perhaps the mephandras wasn’t interested in carnage for its own sake. It returned to the bones and partially-dried pelt of its beloved in the village square, where it proceeded to sorrow and mourn quite violently.]

[Every pitiful counterattack the villagers attempted did nothing to steal the creature’s attention. And though countless arrows were fired from the roof of the hall, none found purchase into this great queen’s hide. For three days and three nights, the creature continued to mourn, howling and raving in utter despair. And for three days and nights, the villagers dared not leave the safety of the hall. When the mephandras finally became too tired to continue grieving, it took the largest of its mate’s unmarred bones in its mouth and dragged it away, quietly departing. Where it wandered, no hunter remained to hunt it, and no villager cared to follow.]

[The mournful beast never returned for the remainder of the now-frozen carcass. What spoils remained barely covered the costs necessary to repair the damage wrought to the village. Few survived the mephandras’s slaughter, and those that did never hunted again.]

Aeo had long since stopped paying attention. In fact, he couldn’t focus on much of anything, as there was nothing to focus on. He had passed beyond the treeline, and all he could see was cast in white and gray. There was no road, no trail, no landmarks that he could identify. Only the frozen mountain lie before his feet, each step he took plowing through two feet of crunchy, long-fallen snow.

The Storyteller concluded its tale:

[Perhaps twelve or so years have passed since that time. But the scars of that hunt linger on. The boy himself had seen the beast’s claw marks carved quite clearly on the door frame of the old hall, during his supervised walks with his master. And while hunters are still hired to hunt mephandras every few years, not a hide nor hair of one has been spotted for a decade.]

The singular voice then became a series of voices, all commenting at once:

[Perhaps the mephandras are all gone. Perhaps Falas is no longer as dangerous as the hunters all claim. Perhaps the female mephandras will find the boy. Devour him. Put him out of his misery. Perhaps it would let the boy ride on its back and carry him over the mountain to freedom. Wouldn’t that be something? Why would it do that?]

The boy raised his hands to his face. He couldn’t feel a thing. His teeth had long since passed chattering. Every step he took was uncertain, since he’d long lost feeling in his legs.

I’m not going back. I’m not going back.

[Then you will share the hunters’ fate,] whispered the Storyteller, and the voice fell silent.

A howl echoed across the snow, just barely audible above the frigid wind. The boy didn’t hear it, as the cold consumed his awareness. Then a second howl cried out much louder to the boy’s right side. This snapped him out of his frozen trance, and for the first time in several hours, the boy’s feet stopped walking. The world didn’t seem to stop with him.

He waited. He watched the few fir trees dance back and forth, the giant snowflakes falling in large clumps as stars from the sky. Something watched him in the trees. He didn’t know how, but he knew it. Or maybe delirium had set in.

A shadow passed between the cliffs, perhaps fifty yards away. Too dark to tell. The boy wasn’t afraid. His fear had frozen away. He simply stood like a pole buried in dirt. His eyes felt tired, somehow burning when the rest of his body solidified. He’d been climbing for such a long time. Perhaps the shadow would let him sleep.

It approached. The image of a wolf. A mephandras. It had to be. Its jagged fur, locked between interlocking plates of hard chitin, whipped in the wind, and its deep-throated growl echoed wide across the snow.

The thought repeated until the last: I’m not going back.

The rigid boy suddenly felt a terrible weight. His knees could no longer sustain themselves. He felt the world spin, and its frigid surface collided with him. The snow gave way for him as if he belonged there all along. His perception darkened to match the night sky. Just before he allowed himself to fade away, an unfocused collection of thoughts wedged themselves in his mind’s eye.

Fur. Scales. Teeth. And, for some reason, a man with dark eyes.