Alyssum: The Voices of the Shattered Sun – Chapter Six

Lupus Benevolus

By midday, the wind outside had become particularly vicious. Even if he couldn’t feel it beyond the magick that protected the cavern, Aeo could hear its anger quite clearly. With little else to do besides rest, Aeo laid against the back wall of cave and simply did nothing. Truly, there was a first time for everything. For the first time in years, he had nothing to clean, nothing to sweep, nothing to organize, and no orders to take.

What a strange place. Maybe not home. But I’m free here. Mostly. More free than the inn, at least.

It was odd; in this place, the Shattered did not speak to him nearly as often. He didn’t know what to think about with them gone. He thought about what he’d be doing back at the inn at that moment. Probably wiping down a table. Probably being blamed for something. Probably being hit by Harthon for something he did or didn’t do. He wondered how well his master could operate the Gray Pale without him.

[Yearning for mediocrity again,] came the predictable whisper.

“Shut up, sark,” Aeo whispered, stretching his arms. Mock me all you want. But I’m never going back.

His limbs no longer felt sore and lifeless. Quite the opposite, in fact. They longed to move something, sweep something, mop something. When his feet healed, Aeo decided, he would work for Leon and Pick. He might even work for Shera, so long as she never did… whatever that was again. What did she even do? Leon said she didn’t “protect” him. Protect him from what? His head still ached from the experience.

What would he say to Leon? He couldn’t admit to burning down the Gray Pale. He certainly couldn’t admit to being a slave, even if Leon already knew. There was no family he could return to, no friends that would miss him. No one but Harthon and Ariste. He could already imagine Harthon beating him to death for what he’d done. But there was no way his master even knew where he’d gone, or how to track him. Right? He was a hunter, and a good one, but he couldn’t have been that good. Would he send bloodhounds after him, like hunters do when tracking a wild animal? And how long would he keep searching until he gave up?

He had no idea about any of it. Aeo tiredly stopped entertaining those thoughts.

Maybe he could stay on the summit of Falas. Maybe he could live on the mountain with Leon, and the frogs, and the mephandras. He wouldn’t mind that. So long as that terrible headaches and nosebleeds stayed at a minimum, he could manage it.

The big cave door creaked. Aeo felt his heart skip a beat.

Oh no, it’s her!

In wobbled a great furry mass, which stopped halfway in the cave to shake off the light layer of snow. A pair of curious eyes then gazed at Aeo, and the furry creature growled quietly as a thought entered Aeo’s head.

<The color blue. A human boy jumping up and down.>

“Oh,” Aeo said, with slight relief, unable to think of anything but the blue sky. Fortunate, considering the thought of blue smothered his panic with the feeling of naïve hope. “Uh, hi Pick. Um, I don’t think I should walk yet. My toes still hurt.”

After closing the door with the rope, Pick practically pranced over to the corner of the room next to Aeo. He circled a couple of times in the space beside the boy, finally resting himself with a thud. His head came down across Aeo’s lap as it had before, and he whimpered a sad song as he looked up.

“It’s okay,” Aeo said, hesitantly petting Pick’s nose. “Leon said I’ll be better soon. I believe him.”

<The color green. A human boy chasing a wolf. Then a wolf chasing a human.>

“You like to run around?” Aeo asked. “Um… You like to play?”

Pick barked, a sound that made Aeo flinch from the volume.

“Ah, uh… I guess you do.”

Then the worst possible scenario occurred. Again. Pick lifted his head and did his best to lick Aeo’s face. This time, he only nearly succeeded. Aeo defended himself, receiving wolf slobber all up and down his hands and arms.

“H-Hey! Eww, d-don’t do that!”

Pick obeyed as he placed his head down again. His eyes seemed to grow distant, looking away.

<The color purple. A wolf licking a human boy.>

Aeo frowned, wiping his arms on the fur blanket. His mind grasped hold of as many purple things as it could recall, from violet flowers in the marketplace to grapes from the Gray Pale’s pantry. He also felt the distinct sensation of regret, of having wronged someone close to him.

“Wait, what? Purple means… sad? It makes you sad when you lick me?”

Pick growled and shook his head. That wasn’t it.

“Oh. Oh, you think it makes me sad?”

Pick yipped quietly.

“No, it doesn’t,” Aeo said. “It’s just… yucky, is all. The slobber.”

Pick looked up at Aeo from his lap.

<The color purple. A human den in the snow. A human boy running away from it.>

Along with the sadness of the color came the distinct sensation of fear. Somehow Pick knew he’d run away from home. Aeo’s eyes grew wide.

“No, I didn’t—” Aeo tried to slide backwards, but his back found the stone wall. He placed a hand to his lips and whispered: “Wait, you… can’t read my mind, can you?”

Pick shook up and down with airy laughter and shook his head back and forth.

“Oh. Uh, good.” He tried to shake off his nerves. “Um. Promise not to tell Leon or Shera?”

Pick nodded with a grunt.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “You’re right, I… I ran away from my home. But it was a terrible place. I didn’t belong there.”

<The color purple. A human boy falling down. A wolf howling.>

“Falling?” Aeo reached out for the bruise surrounding his eye. “Oh, no, I didn’t fall. Someone… hurt me. I ran away from them.”

Pick growled, showing his razor-sharp canines.

<The color red. A wolf chasing after a human and biting him.>

Aeo’s mind became bombarded by everything crimson, from the old Adian war banners to the sight of his own blood during the nosebleed. Then:

<The color purple. A wolf licking a human boy.>

“Yeah. Yeah, Pick. I got angry too.”

He fell silent. But something stirred inside him. Pick was correct: this wasn’t sadness. This was anger.

“I couldn’t do anything about it,” Aeo whispered. “I can never do anything right. I’m just… I’m a worthless Adian bastard. I’m useless, I’m lazy, I’m good-for-nothing. That’s what he told me. Every day. Every day!”

Aeo threw his fist in his lap and felt tears coming to his eyes. He couldn’t stop the words from coming.

“I started a fire, Pick. A big one. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted my master to stop hurting me. I knew the fire would make it go away, and I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted it to get bigger and bigger, and make it all just disappear!”

Pick whined and drew his head closer to Aeo’s chest.

<The color purple. A small fire spreading to a human den.>

“I didn’t mean to do it,” Aeo whined. “It was an accident! But it doesn’t matter, he’d never believe me. He’d never believe I didn’t light it on purpose just to make him pay. It started really small at first. And I thought it burned my hand. But it didn’t. It didn’t hurt me. And it just kept burning. When they tried to put it out with water, it just burned brighter and brighter.”

Pick watched him silently.

“Even though the fire was burning, my master hurt me anyway. He threw me, and… this happened.” Aeo pointed to his face. “He threw me out, and said he was gonna kill me. So I ran away. I hope the inn burned down. I hope Harthon is stuck in the cold like me. And I hope he’s angry, because he can’t do anything about it, just like me! I’m never going back there. No one’s going to make me. I hope Harthon freezes to death trying to find me!”

Aeo squeezed his eyes shut. He’d never been able to say such things out loud. He realized his voice had been echoing against the stone walls of the cave. Everything fell quiet save for the howling of the wind outside. Pick simply watched patiently as Aeo regained his composure.

Aeo raised his hand and passed it over the soft fur on Pick’s head.

“I’m sorry,” Aeo said quietly. “I didn’t mean to yell.”

Pick lifted his head a bit.

<The color green. An image of a small wolf with two large wolves beside it.>

Aeo frowned.

“Two wolves? What do you mean?”

<The color purple. The two large wolves licking the smaller wolf and howling.>

Aeo’s shoulders fell. Parents. The thought hadn’t occurred to him in a long time. The only two “wolves” in his life either didn’t care he existed or beat him on a daily basis.

“A… Mama and Papa.” Aeo shrugged. “I don’t have any.”

Pick whined.

“I don’t know who my dad was. I guess I had one, but I don’t remember him. Aristé told me my mom died when I was really little. At least, I think that’s what they told me. When I was born, I lived really far away, in a place called Adia. That’s why everyone calls me an Adian, because of my hair, and my eyes. A war happened there, and when I was two years old, someone brought me to Olvaren.”

Aeo paused.

“If I had parents, I don’t think they would have hit me as much.”

Pick’s head bobbed up and down. He then started panting, and his breath filled the air.

<The color green. A large wolf licking a small wolf.>

Aeo rubbed his nose with his arm.

“Yeah,” Aeo said. “I’m glad you have a mama. She probably takes care of everything for you. She’s never mean to you, or makes you do chores. Right?”

Pick howled.

<The color yellow. A small wolf running away from a large wolf.>

Aeo couldn’t help but think of dandelions, and feel really annoyed while doing so.

“You run away? From Shera? Oh, you mean she does make you do chores?” For the first time in a long time, Aeo chuckled. “I’m sorry. That stinks.”

Pick guffed.

“But,” Aeo said quietly, thinking. “If Shera asked me to do chores for her… I’d do them, I think. If it meant I never have to go back to the village ever again, I’d do anything for her.”

<The color green. A human boy hugging a wolf.>

“Yeah,” Aeo said. “I’ll be your friend. Absolutely. As long as it means I don’t have to live with Aristé and Harthon anymore. I’ll live with you instead, and you’ll never be mean to me. Right?”

Pick lifted his head and howled quietly at the ceiling. It then fell back down into the boy’s lap and getnly licked the boy’s arm. The young mephandras had a grin on his face, Aeo could tell.

“I’m sorry, Pick,” Aeo repeated. “I don’t want to be sad anymore. I just want to live and be happy, you know?”

<The color green. A wolf howling.>

“Promise you won’t tell Leon or Shera?”

Both of Pick’s paws rose up and covered his snout.

“Thanks,” Aeo said with a smirk.

Pick’s head rose and gave a light airy howl.

Hearing the boy through the roar of the wind wasn’t a simple thing to do. The tempest wards inside the cave were aided by the animis of the lit candles; outside, he only had his freezing bare hands and the small silver talisman he wore at his neck. Certainly not the proper tool for the job. Despite the improper focus and his great distaste for the task, however, it had to be done. Holding his left hand outwards, he gently touched the great wooden door, being cautious not to make it creak and startle the occupants inside the cave. A hazy purple glyph flickered to life between his fingers, the magickal energy distorting in the heavy mountain gale. His right hand rose to ear level and began to shimmer with a similar purple mist. Beneath his heavy Ashanti fur coat and linen tunic, the silver talisman began to heat up. It had been at least a year since he’d practiced this trick, and back then he’d had the candles to act as the foundation.

Oh well. Nothing like improvisation.

The moment his ear popped, he felt the animis begin to sap away his body heat. He knew it was working when he heard the following, reverberating through the wooden door like a distant canyon echo:

“—didn’t fall. Someone… hurt me. I ran away from—”

Keep talking, boy, Leon thought to himself, barely hearing the boy’s voice above the wind.

His hand slipped from the surface of the doorway for a moment, causing the sound he heard to scratch and warble. He gave in, allowing his hand to rest upon the door a bit firmer than he would have cared to. The door made no noise in response.

“—I started a fire, Pick. A big one. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted my master to stop hurting me. I knew the fire would make it go away, and I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted it to get bigger and bigger, and make it all just—”

A fire, Leon thought. So that was the source of the smoke column.

“I didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. At first. But he’d never believe me. He’d never beli— it on —pose just to ma—im stop. It started really small —first, and it even burn— hand, but— It didn’t hurt me. It just kept burning. When he tried to put it out with water—”

Leon’s ear popped, and a bead of sweat formed on his brow. The sound was garbled at best.

I can’t handle even this, he thought. For a few mere seconds. So pathetic.

The silver talisman was growing hot beneath his skin, like a piece of metal baked in hot sunlight. The glyphs within his fingers wavered like ripples of raindrops on a still pond, threatening to vanish entirely. Resisting the urge to grunt through the strain, he again touched the large wooden door with his left hand and held his right hand to his hooded ear.

His ear popped:

“I didn’t help them. I didn’t. I hope the inn burned down. I hope Harthon is stuck in the cold like me. I hope he’s— because he can’t do —thing about it. I’m never —ing back th— No one’s going to ma— I hope he freeze—”

With a whirr-like ping just loud enough to momentarily deafen him, the glyph in his right hand vanished, followed by a silent fading of his left. The magick was finished, and his talisman did not have sufficient animis to renew it. Desperate to keep his volume down, he tore open his coat and tore the silver from his neck. It fell into the snowdrift beside the door as steam began to billow from the small crater of snow. He then bent down and scooped up a fistful of snow, passing it underneath his shirt and pressing it against the center of his bare chest.

The burn would be worth it, for he had learned three important things. First: the boy was indeed the property of the man and woman who owned the inn at the center of Olvaren. He had observed the Adian boy and his Antielli owners before, a few months prior while gathering supplies from the trail merchants.

Milfoiek. Harthon and Ariste Milfoiek. Yes, that was their names. The simplest of slave owners.

After a decade of devastation and bloodshed, the nation of Antiell was well-deserving of divine punishment for allowing the practice of slavery to endure. In Leon’s estimation, they were simply setting themselves up for further retribution from their red-eyed neighbors. But did the woman and her detestable husband individually deserve such punishment? Did they deserve for their inn and their livelihood to go up in flames? By the sound of Aeo’s voice, perhaps they did. Under such conditions, perhaps the boy’s outburst was inevitable. Perhaps of all the things that died during the Second Adian War, Antiell might have saved themselves grief and killed slavery along the way.

Like most fools, Leon thought, they persist, and then grieve at the most sensible of consequences.

Second: the boy had started the fire that destroyed the Gray Pale Inn. Based on the size of the smoke column that rose from Olvaren the day after the boy had arrived, there was little chance that the only casualty was a single establishment. No, the conflagration must have spread to other buildings. Likely the market next door, and perhaps the town hall beyond that. He could only speculate further, as he had no intention of investigating personally. Better to remain hidden than attract any unwanted attention from hunters or San’dorian mages, especially if the fire were started through curiously arcane means.

Speaking of which, third: the boy had potential. Real potential. Leon had sensed the boy’s animis the moment he first laid eyes on him. It was strong for someone so young and so inexperienced. The boy was a spark, a potential that might consume everything it touches. Or, with proper instruction and guidance, such a spark could become a torchlight in darkness. The boy knew nothing about the ways of magick, that much was certain. He had not been raised in Ashant. Or Adia, for that matter. And the simple-minded folk that lived in places like Olvaren rarely had time for such things. Slaves, most especially.

This boy is the one I’ve been waiting for? Leon thought. Wonderful. One more piece in the puzzle that doesn’t fit.

He sighed. One more gamble. A gamble on top of gambles. Everything upon the table was untested. Unproven, and volatile. Twelve long years of questions and eight months upon a frozen mountaintop, and still everything remained so utterly hypothetical. The boy was merely the most recent complication. This was no way for a sensible man of science and magick to proceed.

Leon looked about, still pressing the ice to his burned chest. Shera was nowhere to be found; no doubt she was scouting the mountain for danger. He looked back to the wooden cavern door, and decided to leave it alone for now.

No need to bother them. There are experiments I should attend to. So many experiments.

Leon stooped down, digging through the ice for his talisman. The graven image of a diving falcon seemed undamaged, as did the small garnet gemstone that served as the falcon’s eye. Though still quite warm, Leon pocketed the talisman in his coat pocket. And for a split second, the memory of his father’s face flashed in his mind as he stepped away from the wolf den.

If only the old man knew the risks I was taking. And after all my talk of diligence and duty. He would laugh right in my face.