Alyssum: The Voices of the Shattered Sun – Chapter Three


A burning sun. Gentle, terrible. And yet absent. Non-existent.

Aeo reached up in his dreams, to feel the heat of the sun on his skin. He could see it with his eyes, and it looked ready and willing to warm him. Yes, the sun wanted to fall upon him and give him comfort, yet none came. Instead, he froze. He cast his eyes downwards, and found his lower half sealed within three feet of solid ice. As if he’d been cast in marble, it suffocated him. He tried to claw his way into the sky, yearning to reach the light, but it remained distant.

And then the dream ended. The sun was gone. The ice was gone. And in its place, a terrible thought arose in the mind of the frozen boy.

<He would have died alone.>

“I know. He’s lucky you were out there.”

It sounded like the Shattered did. Except someone was responding to it, out loud. Someone else could hear the voice. Another thought arose in Aeo’s waking mind.

<I would save him from his pitiful existence and devour him now.>

“No,” said a voice. Rough, with a slight accent. “As I told you before, Adians are for scaring, not eating. Especially not a child, for Goddess’s sake. That’s why I’m here, tending your herd and making your meals, remember?”

A third message crossed his mind.

<Food is not your purpose, Teacher. Besides, your food is terrible, and you know it. My child would benefit from fresh meat.>

“It is not terrible! Look, Pick isn’t eating the poor boy either, and that’s final. Besides, look at him; he’s all skin and bones, you’d be picking him out of your teeth for a week. Come now, the stew is almost done.” The voice became one of slightly mockery, adding with a lilted tone: “You’d like it if you tried it.”

A great beast snorted in response. Words emerged in Aeo’s thoughts, accompanied with the unmistakable sensation of disgust:

<I do not eat fungus.>

The boy felt fur beneath his fingertips, the weight of a thick blanket covering him. Behind his head, an enormous pillow made of thick hide. The smell of roasting meat and smokey pine wood filled his lungs, invigorating him.

Besides his surroundings, his body felt very wrong. Utterly drained and frigid, he didn’t have the strength to even raise a finger. He tried opening his eyes, but even gentle fire light proved too much to handle. He couldn’t feel his toes, only that something was pressing against the bottoms of his feet and making them tingle. He was unsure if this was a good sensation or not.

But he wasn’t dead. Not yet.

A strange concept then emerged in the boy’s mind, one he had no reason to form on his own. A mental image, or a series of concepts, that he had little choice but to contemplate:

<A large dog’s tongue lapping against a human face.>

The gruff, accented voice responded to the thought as if Aeo wasn’t the only one who could “hear” it.

“If you mean to eat him,” said the man with quiet resolve. “Then absolutely not. But if you mean to be his friend, then… I suppose. Lay next to him, warm him up a little. But let the poor boy sleep for a while longer, would you please? He needs rest.”

A monster then approached Aeo. Large enough to block the light, and heavy enough to make the ground beneath slightly tremble. Its footfalls tip-tapped and click-clacked across stony dirt, and a great body came to rest against the boy’s side. Worse, a large weight then settled across his legs, and the smell of a wet dog sank deep into his nose. The boy tried to open his eyes wide, and a face came into a blurry view.

A face? No. What made the boy think it was a face? Not a human face, certainly. A dog’s face. Or was it a wolf? It was too big to be a wolf’s face. The boy thought it a matter of fact that wolves do not grow to such sizes. The head of this wolf lay as large as an apple crate, as large as a hound should be by itself. A great black nose sniffed at the air like bellows, its gray-and-brown muzzle sinking deep into the fur blanket across the boy’s lap. Bright reflective eyes darted to and fro to other points of interest in the room, as if the dog had the intelligence to watch the room as a human might. As the boy strained to lift his head, he saw a pair of furry ears rotating to hear the myriad of homemade noises and the crackling of a campfire.

The wolf growled as if tired. The low vibrations shook the boy’s bones. His fear may have been frozen before, but like the rest of him, it was beginning to thaw. Try as he might to still his timid voice, he couldn’t help a small squeak of panic.

That’s when the wolf’s closest eye quickly switched upon him. The whole head rose and cocked to one side, and a thought arose in the boy’s mind:

<A human rising from bed and smiling.>

The boy did not feel like smiling, though rising from his bed and screaming had certainly crossed his mind. The gruff man’s voice then called out from the opposite side of the cavern, as if alerted by the thought in the boy’s mind.

“Are you sure, Pick? Is he awake?”

The wolf bent his great head down, sniffing at the boy. Though the stale and humid dog-breath might well have been a violent hiss of steam, it growled and yelped a quiet affirmative. Then, Aeo’s worst fear came to pass: the wolf’s tongue emerged, shoving the boy’s red hair with a single terrible lick. The wolf was tasting him! The boy wanted to lift his arms to fight against it, but they remained uselessly at his side.

“Ah, he is awake!”

A dark figure appeared in place of the firelight, standing tall above the boy. Though Aeo’s sight remained blurry, the man’s form was recognizable enough. Not a wolf: a man. The man knelt down before him, resting his hand on Aeo’s forehead. He then touched Aeo’s nose. Then his ears.

“Hmm. Well, look at you. Looks like you’re not an ice cube.”

At this moment, the boy realized he was still shivering terribly. He opened his mouth, and the cold of the mountain fell out of it.

“Wh-Wh… whe… wh-where…”

“Now, now, boy. It’s all right. No need to worry yourself. You’re safe.”

The man came forward and sat himself down at the boy’s side, shoving the giant wolf’s head away from Aeo’s lap in the process. Not only did the wolf not straight away devour the man in response, the wolf simply grunted in protest, stepping over to the boy’s opposite side. It then laid its great body down and placed its head across the boy’s legs. Though it was obviously nothing more than a large wolf, its eyes kept staring at Aeo intently, like it knew something he didn’t. Its paws gently dug into the fur blanket as the wolf watched him with all the patience of a newborn puppy.

Aeo had no idea what to make of the man. He dressed like a scholar or a teacher, in fine trousers, a loose-fitting doublet, and a thin leather jacket with a wide tan collar. He wore thin spectacles that added to his years, the years that his freshly-shaven complexion removed. He didn’t seem at all like the hardy specimen of manhood that life this high up a mountain demanded. The sharpness of his countenance reflected something foreign, though from where Aeo had no clue. His accent, though different, was frustratingly plain, providing no further hint.

“By the Goddess, I can’t believe you decided to climb Falas in a blizzard like this,” the man said. “You must have been running away from something pretty dangerous to come this far up the mountain by yourself.”

The man placed a hand on the boy’s face, just above his left eye. Aeo immediately felt pulsing pain, the black-and-blue remnant of anger no doubt dominating his face.

“I’m guessing you didn’t do this to yourself.”

A thought rose in the boy’s mind.

<The color purple. A human falling out of a pine tree.>

“Yes, Pick,” the man said to the wolf, petting the wolf’s wet nose. “I’m… sure it was something like that.”

Aeo stared all the more: the man could “hear” the thoughts too. The man noticed and smiled, pointing to his temple.

“I’m sure you’ve never heard someone else’s thoughts before, have you?” The man placed a hand on the wolf’s nose. “Apologies. I suppose we should introduce ourselves. My name is Leon. This is Pick. His mama Shera was the one that rescued you from the cold. You’ll meet her when she returns. Welcome to our cozy little cave on the mountain.”

Pick gurgled and licked the fur blanket.

<A human boy petting a wolf’s head.>

Leon laughed at the thought.

“Yes, you little scoundrel, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Leon leaned over to ruffle Pick’s thick coat. “I’m sure you’ll be great friends. Give it time, the boy’s been through a lot.”

“Wh-why… Why d-does…”

Leon waited patiently.

“H-he… talk… in m-my head?”

“I’ll be honest,” Leon answered with a sigh. “I don’t know. It’s curious, though, isn’t it? Mephandras pups are something else.”

Aeo’s jaw dropped open. The wolf wasn’t just a wolf. It was a mephandras. The monster. The Storyteller had actually told him the truth.

“I’ve actually tested a few things,” Leon continued. “Did you know you can hear Pick from about a kilometer away? And his mama Shera? You can hear her as far away as Olvaren if you know she’s speaking to you. Amazing, isn’t it? And perhaps a bit scary. When mephandras grow up, they learn to whisper, too, so you’re the only one who can hear them. Young pups don’t quite know how to whisper, of course. And the images Pick uses tend to get a bit, eh… lost in translation at times. It takes some practice to understand you, huh, Little Runt?”

Pick blinked a few times and started to pant.

<The color green. A wolf howling.>

“That’s right,” said Leon with a chuckle. “It’s fun to talk.”

It was as if someone were forcing Aeo to think of every green object he could recall, from moss and oak leaves to the green tunics the hunters sometimes wore. Though the sensation was unnerving, it was decidedly… good? At least, he felt positive when he contemplated the color. That alone added to Aeo’s confusion, and he blinked to make the green thoughts fade.

Aeo attempted to ask: “Wh-What… d…does… g-green…?”

“I believe that means he’s happy,” said Leon. “Green is Pick’s favorite color, after all. So when he howls, or talks, it makes him happy. Am I right, Pick?”

Pick let out a small airy howl, and Leon patted his head with a grin.

“All right, now. To business.” Leon bent forward, reaching under the blankets and lifting the boy’s arm. As Leon grasped Aeo’s hand, the warmth of it made his skin burn. “You can feel my hand? Does it hurt?”

Aeo nodded.

“Hmm, still cold. I’ll get you a couple warming pads for your fingers. At least you managed to keep them warmer than your toes. How about them? Can you feel the heat down there?”

The muscles felt tense and sore. But the fur blanket slowly wiggled back and forth.

“All right. Try not to move them too much right now. I’m sorry to say you’ve got a rather textbook case of frostbite there. They’ve started to turn a might purple. Your ears, too. It’ll take some time for the right color to return.”

Leon peeled the fur blanket back, and lifted a rubber bottle from the boy’s chest, testing its temperature. So that was the source of the weight.

“P-Purple?” the boy whispered frightfully.

“Oh, only slightly,” said Leon almost too quickly. “Nothing time can’t make better. I’ll go refill a couple of these bottles in a few minutes. In the meantime, just relax. The food is almost done, and there’s nothing better for healing than a full belly. I’ll even leave Pick right here to make sure you stay toasty warm.” He pat Pick’s ears. “Can you do that for me, Runt? Keep him warm?”

<The color green. A bright fire in a circle of rocks.>

“Ha, good. Just don’t light him on fire, all right?”

Pick let out a series of grunts that sounded like dull laughter. Leon lifted himself but stopped midway.

“Oh, before I tend to the stew… I imagine you have a name?”

The boy cleared his throat.

“Aeo, s-sir,” he said.

“Aeo. Very good.”

Pick gave a soft moan, staring at Aeo with an almost curious canine grin. And once again, Aeo couldn’t help but think of grass.