The day continued uneventfully, as thoroughly as a day can when everything is new and wonderful and yet so wonderfully dull. Wonderful, despite the very sore feet, the pulsating facial bruise, and the general exhaustion.
Pick was surprisingly easy to talk to. He didn’t seem to tire of listening to Aeo describe his life at the Gray Pale. In return, Aeo did his best to listen to Pick “speak” back to him, sometimes asking for clarification, and sometimes asking questions in his own unique way. The wolf’s mental responses were always simplistic, hazy ideas. His thoughts were more concepts and colors than solid illustrations, and almost never words. It was like communicating with a six-year-old child who could only draw pictures. When Pick’s thoughts required clarification, he would gladly and enthusiastically try. At times the thoughts would be too obscure, referencing a plant, or an animal, or an action that required paws and teeth instead of fingers and toes. These foreign abstractions were strangely refreshing to Aeo, if not utterly bewildering to have appear in his mind. It was like daydreaming completely original ideas, ones that revealed themselves from either nowhere, or deep within his own imagination. Even when Pick described the familiar hopping of a rabbit or the flight of a bird, it felt as though Pick forced Aeo’s mind to process the idea as anew, as if he’d never imagined it before. And many times, he was contemplating them for the first time, as Aeo had rarely ever been outside the inn to experience things like rain on a foggy day, or the sound of a babbling brook.
With Pick dutifully laying his head in Aeo’s lap, their long conversation drifted away into sleep as the afternoon passed by. As the dim sunlight faded from the borders of the great wooden door, the door creaked open. As it did so, Aeo awoke with a start. Pick did as well, his ears perking up. In marched the form of Leon, wrapped up tightly in a puffy mountain jacket with a great hood over his head. In his arms he carried a curiously shaped package. Or was it a curiously shaped bag? Whatever it was, he clomped his feet at the door, placed the object down before the campfire, and removed the gloves from his hands.
“Goodness, it’s coming down out there,” he said to no one in particular. He looked up at Aeo, now wearing a pair of slim-framed spectacles that truly made him look like a school teacher. “Well now, you’re sitting up in bed and everything. How are your toes?”
Pick looked up at Aeo as he answered.
“They’re itchy, sir.”
“You’re not touching them, are you?” Leon pulled off his coat.
“Good, good. I have some tonic that might help the healing process. Once you can walk, I’ll have to show you the hot springs. The cavern is filled with helpful plants and fungi that make wonderful medicines.”
Leon walked over to Aeo’s bed and knelt, placing the bag onto the floor. He unbuttoned the front flap and produced a small glass vial that contained an oily and speckled red-and-black substance. He held it up, jingled it as his eyebrows raised. He then dove back into the bag and produced a roll of cotton bandages.
Without a word, Leon lifted the fur blanket off of Aeo’s feet and examined them.
He said: “Hmm.”
What did “hmm” mean? Aeo peered over the blanket, as did Pick. His stomach sank at the sight, and Pick let out a low gutteral moan. He hadn’t actually seen his toes himself… they were worse than he’d imagined.
“Skin’s peeling a bit,” Leon said, shrugging. “To be expected. But they look more red than purple now. Certainly an improvement.”
Carefully, Leon cupped his hands over both sets of toes.
“Do you feel that?”
“Yes, sir,” Aeo said, grimacing a bit at the feeling.
“Very good, you’ve got feeling. Well, you’re itching, so of course you do. Let’s see if we can’t help that.”
Suddenly, Pick’s ears perked up again. The small door creaked open, and a tiny lonesome spherical figure hopped into the cave, shutting the door behind them. Then, a second later, the entire wooden door shuddered, and something considerably larger slowly entered. Hala and Shera. Shera’s dark eyes immediately caught Aeo’s, and then diverted away, even as Aeo’s anxiety spiked.
“Oh, hello everyone!” cried Hala. The spherical fur coat hobbled over towards the campfire, shedding itself from its host. Out stepped a foot-tall frog, cheerful as always. She was no longer clothed in a bright aquamarine dress, but a slim leather suit covered in various pockets and satchels. “My my, it’s chilly out there!”
“Evening, Hala,” Leon said. “Come on in, Shera, there’s room for all of us.”
A much gentler thought arose in Aeo’s head.
<Hello, little ones.>
Aeo’s stomach squirmed at the sight of her. He forced a small, silent wave as Pick howled. At least he was happy to see his mother.
“Aeo, it’s wonderful you’re out of bed!” Hala said excitedly. “Well, halfway out of bed, anyway! How is the frostbite coming along?”
Shera shook off the snow and closed the door, laying down in the empty corner in front of Aeo that was no doubt reserved for her. Hala stepped towards Leon and stood beside him, placing a webbed hand on his side. She gasped.
“Oh, Goddess above, it’s worse than I feared.”
<I agree,> said Shera, lowering her head to look. <What awful colors.>
“Believe me,” Leon said. “They’re in better condition than before.”
“Well!” she said excitedly. “All the more reason I’m here! Please, Leon, before you tend to those little piggies, I have a quick task for you!”
From one of her pockets Hala produced what looked to be a thin silk string. Whatever it was, it shined and reflected the firelight like a thin strand of glass. From another pocket she produced a small bit of something black like a dark pebble.
“Now, if you would, hold that end to the top of his big toe,” she said.
Leon obeyed. Hala dove down and placed the other end on his heel, making a black mark on the string with what was definitely charcoal. Aeo forced himself not to move despite the tickling sensations.
“Now the other one!”
They repeated the process with his other foot.
“Now across!” she sang, now measuring width.
“Ah, that tickles!” Aeo said, holding back his laughter. “What’s she doing?”
“I believe she’s planning on making you a pair of boots,” Leon replied as Hala hopped back up.
“Oh, don’t spoil the surprise, dear!” Hala said, playfully slapping Leon’s arm. “Well, you’re right, of course. I’m going to make sure your feetsies never have to suffer out in the cold ever again. Perhaps if I have more time, I’ll knit you a fur coat to go along with it!”
“Now, Aeo, these projects can get a bit big for Hala,” He lowered his hand as if measuring Hala, then whispered: “No pun intended.”
“Humph!” Hala said, pushing his hand away.
“But she is a wonderfully talented seamstress. She made my bedding. And my boots,” Leon said, pointing to his own feet. “And my coat. All with bighorner fleece and buckskin, provided by Shera.”
“Wait, really?” Aeo asked. “You’re gonna make me… real boots?”
“Of course!” Hala declared. “Real ones are a bit more helpful than imaginary ones!”
“But no one’s ever made anything for me before.” Aeo felt his face turn a big red. “Th-thank you, ma’am.”
“Oh, don’t thank me just yet, my dear!” Hala placed the string and the black pebble back into the pouches on her belt. “You can thank me if I do the job correctly! It’s always a challenge making clothing for great big things like yourself, and I never say no to a challenge. Now, is it feeling a bit cold in here for everyone? No? Just me? Well, I’ll just tend to the fire anyway.”
She turned towards the campfire in the center of the chamber.
“Don’t tire yourself out, Hala,” Leon said. “I can take care of—”
“Tut tut! Nonsense, you big goof! Nonsense! It’s what I’m here for. Well, the second thing I’m here for. Hah hah!”
Shera, remaining ever quiet, instinctively motioned herself closer against the cave wall, knowing what was coming. As Hala had done the morning before, the little frog leaned over the fire and proceeded to take the biggest breath Aeo had ever seen. She held it in for a moment, then lurched forward and belched a bright red flame directly from her mouth into the smoldering campfire. Along with the fire dripped a strange liquid from her wide lips that burst and crackled when it hit the ground, bringing the fire to a bright and tempered glow.
When finished, she turned to see all eyes pointed at her.
“Well,” she said, flustered. “It’s very impolite to stare.”
“In case you were wondering,” Leon said, leaning closer to Aeo. “Hala and her kind have acquired some very unique adaptations in order to stay warm. It’s quite an amazing ability. It’s also how they hunt for fish underwater. The substance they produce cooks the fish immediately, it’s quite the sight.”
“Substance!” Hala laughed at the word. “Ever the academic, Mister Sire-Loo!”
“My last name’s Sirelu, Hala,” Leon said, rolling his eyes. “’Seer-eh-loo.’ Not ‘sire-loo.’ Don’t confuse the poor boy.”
At the correction, Hala simply laughed as she tended the fire.
“Anyway,” Leon said. “As I was saying, Hala’s family live in the underwater springs and currents of Falas. They can hold their breath for hours at a time, and the unique oil they belch—” to which Hala said: “Humph, belch indeed!” “—can burn for hours at a time.”
<Pick and I are eternally indebted to them,> Shera added. <Without their assistance, we would not live nearly as comfortably as we do.>
“Oh, it’s no trouble! No trouble at all!” Hala said with a gian toothless grin. “Well, it isn’t for me. Can’t say the same my mate, Ziduf. Or his family. Or Heem, for that matter! Laziest toadies you’ll ever see! They prefer to avoid the ice and cold entirely. Rarely do they come out of the spring, the silly things.”
Leon took his time, dabbing the red substance onto the bandages and around the worst colors of Aeo’s feet. It tickled; a good sign, of course. It meant they weren’t about to turn black and fall off. As Leon worked, Aeo patted Pick on the head and looked at the purple light emanating from the candles on the opposite wall. They danced and wavered all the more apparently in the low light of the campfire, and seemed to flicker to an unseen and unfelt current of air.
“Leon, sir,” Aeo said, pointing at the candles. “What are those for?”
“Oh, those? They keep the warmth inside the cave, and keep the cold out.”
“I know. But how?”
Leon frowned at him.
“I’ve seen magicians do magick like that before. Are you a magician?”
Leon actually laughed at the title.
“Perhaps a bit more than that. Perhaps a little less. I’m a professor at the Everspring Academy in Ashant. I teach abjuration and alchemy to mid-class students.”
Both Aeo and Pick both tilted their heads. And Aeo saw an image in his mind:
<The color red. A human man producing fire from his hands.>
“Are you serious?” Aeo asked Pick. “Leon can make fire like that? You’ve seen him?”
“No, he hasn’t. I’m not nearly as talented as that. Though I suppose if I wanted to tire myself out as fast as possible, I could probably conjure up a good bonfire.” He paused, scratching his head. “I suppose I can teach you about magick. If you don’t mind a lecture, that is.”
“And oh, how Leon can lecture!” chipped Hala.
“Yes. Please, sir,” Aeo said. “I want to learn.”
“Well, all right,” Leon said. “If you insist. I suppose we’ll start with the basics, then?”
Aeo nodded, folding his hands in his lap and offering the man his full attention. Leon cleared his throat and began:
“Magick is the manipulation of the basic principles and mechanics of the world. If you want something to change, and you understand what it takes to change it, magick can make it so, as long as your will is stronger than the forces around you. With enough willpower, you can bend the rules of the world and influence any number of things. Like summoning fire, for instance, or protecting yourself from harm. Or keeping this cave the right temperature with nothing more than a few candles and the right incantations.”
“You can change anything about the world?” Aeo asked.
“Mmm,” he hummed, thinking. “Perhaps not everything. People are notoriously difficult to change, though Goddess knows countless mages have tried. Magick is best used for simple tasks. You know, things you could accomplish with your own two hands, if you had the time. Things like boiling water, lightning candles, or cooling down a hot room.”
“But mages fight with magick, right? With fire, and ice?”
“Yes, some do. Combat arts can get very complex, however, and require a source of energy all their own. It can be dangerous to fight with magick if you ignore the proper precautions. In fact, if a mage is foolish enough, they’re more likely to kill themselves with their own spells than hurt anyone else.”
“But not you, Leon,” said Hala, her voice filled with hope. “You’re no fool, I hope?”
“Why do you think I avoid fighting?” he asked. “No, mages such as myself focus on more… mundane magicks. It’s different here, of course, in Antiell. But in Ashant, where I come from, you would call a lot of magick mundane. Not a lot of battles to be fought with fire and lightning. But laundry becomes infinitely easier with magick, as you might imagine.” He grinned. “No need to waste soap when you can simply banish the stains away instead.”
He pointed to the towels hanging from the stalactites above.
“Can anyone do that?” Aeo asked. “Can anyone learn magick?”
“Oh, certainly,” the teacher answered. “And don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise. Magick is an art, like writing, or making music. Once you understand the basics, it becomes nothing more than an issue of practice and mastery. It’s a shame so few people practice magick, especially here in Antiell. The authorities in this land do not trust their own people with such power, and they don’t trust outsiders should they flaunt their talents. I’m sure you’ve seen such things yourself.”
Aeo’s eyebrows raised and nodded. No wonder Harthon hated the magicians. He never trusted what he couldn’t personally control, and magick was certainly one of those things.
“Wait, you said lightning,” Aeo asked. “Mages fight with lightning too?”
“Of course,” Leon said. “Though you channel lightning, to be specific about it. Electricity is energy, much like fire is energy, and ice is the removal of energy. In its simplest application, magick is nothing more than manipulating power, moving heat, light, or aether from one place to another.” Then, Leon raised a finger, pausing as if remembering something. “Hold that thought.”
Leon quickly stood and crossed the room, grabbing an object from one of the crevices in the cavern wall.
“Ah, here we go. Catch.”
Leon tossed the object, and though Aeo fumbled it, it fumbled right into his lap. Aeo held it up to examine it: a glass sphere, perhaps a bit bigger than Aeo’s fist, perfectly polished and readily reflecting the flickering lights in the room.
“Oh, I do love this little bauble,” Hala said, hopping up to Aeo’s side to see the sphere for herself. “How’s it work, Leon?”
An image entered Aeo’s mind:
<The color green. A bright shining star in the night sky.>
“What is it?” Aeo asked.
“It’s called a lusphere,” Leon said, retaking his seat next to the boy. “It’s the simplest application of energy I can demonstrate.” He paused. “Well? What do you suppose it does?”
“It… does something?”
“Oh yes!” Hala said. “It lights up, bright as the sun! Go ahead, Aeo, turn it on.”
Aeo’s nose wrinkled as his fingers felt the smooth surface of the glass. There were no marks or depressions of any kind on its surface, no wick that might hold a flame.
“I don’t know how,” he whispered.
“You only need to know its keyword,” Leon said. “And speak it out loud.”
“What is it?”
“Repeat after me: lu’vai.”
“Uh…” Aeo said, feeling a bit foolish. “Okay. Loo… vai?”
In a flash, the transparent orb illuminated, like an explosive going off in his hand. He let out a shout and dropped the sphere, and to his horror, the sphere rolled away towards the campfire, its luminosity filling the cavern with the brightest white light he’d ever seen.
“Whoa, careful Aeo!” Leon said with a quick laugh, reaching out his hand to the lusphere. “It may look like a simple glass ball, but it is quite an expensive trinket!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—!”
Instead of diving for it, or even bending down to grab it, Leon simply reached out his hand. And the lusphere responded as if it had a mind of its own, rolling back up the slope of its own accord and leaping into the man’s hand. Hala cheered, and Pick let out a quick energetic howl.
“Brilliant, Leon! I love it when you do that!”
“Whoa,”Aeo whispered. “How did you do that?”
Leon gave him a look.
“How do you think?” he replied with a chuckle, holding up the lusphere. “The more important question, though: how did you turn the lusphere on?”
“I… I said the word,” Aeo answered. “Didn’t I?”
“You did. But words alone aren’t enough to create magick.” Leon whispered: “Lu’kah.” The bright white light within the glass sphere faded, returning to its previous inactive state. He then held out the sphere to Hala, much to her confusion. “Here you are, Hala. Why don’t you give it a try?”
“What?” she gasped, taking the lusphere with two webbed hands. “But I can’t do magick!”
“You never know until you try,” Leon said with a wink.
“Well, I—” She rolled the sphere about as if trying to find an activation switch herself. “Hmm! There really is no other way to turn it on, is there? Eh, what was that word again?”
“Lu’vai,” Leon said.
“Ah, right, okay then.” Hala cleared her mighty throat and held the orb in the air. “Here I go! Loo-vai!”
Aeo waited. Leon waited. Hala waited too, her eyes squeezed shut in anticipation of bright white light. But nothing happened. A single eye squinted at the orb, immediately frowning at it.
“Hmm? Loo-vai?” Hala then gently shook the sphere. “Loo-vai, you silly thing! Why isn’t it working?”
“Why, indeed,” Leon said. He gestured. “Give it to Aeo. Let’s see if he can tell the difference.”
“Well, aren’t you two just special,” she said with a sigh, handing the orb to Aeo.
“Not me, Hala,” Leon said. “The only difference between you and me is that I understand mechanically how a lusphere works. Aeo is the special one here.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Hala asked.
“The word ‘lu’vai’ is Ashanti,” Leon said. “It means: ‘become active,’ or ‘turn on.’ When you spoke the word, Aeo, you gave the lusphere permission to access the power inside you. It is a power that neither Hala nor I possess, not by ourselves.”
Leon then produced a small trinket from underneath his shirt. Hanging from his neck was a leather necklace, adorned with a small silver charm in the shape of a diving falcon.
“See this?” Leon asked, slowly showing the necklace to everyone. “This is my spell-focus. It was a gift from my father, when I graduated from the Academy. You see the small gemstone in the falcon’s eye? That gemstone is no ordinary rock. It is crystallized aether, taken from the Everspring Well at the Academy. Without that crystal, I would be hard-pressed to perform even the most simple of magicks. I would be rather useless.”
<You require a source of power beyond yourself,> said Shera, her tail flicking and thumping behind her.
“Yes,” Leon said. “I’m afraid so. It is a great limitation of mine, one I am not proud of. It doesn’t matter how knowledgeable I am about the world, or how much I practice. If I do not have access to a source of energy, I cannot change the world with magick. To tell you the truth, it’s why I prefer abjuration. I do not have to look very far for a proper energy source, so long as I have a source of heat or light. The candles, you see. They usually provide enough heat to keep such magick active.”
Leon tapped the lusphere in Aeo’s hand.
“You, on the other hand,” he said. “Have a different source of power. Go ahead, turn the light on again. Remember the word?”
“Uh-huh,” Aeo said. “Lu’vai.”
The lusphere’s light instantly flared to life, even brighter than before. Aeo had to shield his eyes from the glare, and it was Hala’s turn to shout in surprise.
“Very good!” Leon said. “I was right about you, Aeo, your animis is strong.”
“Mm-hmm. It is the Ashanti word for a wellspring of power that comes from the individual,” Leon said. “While most practitioners of magick rely on outside sources of power, some beings are born with an innate power all their own. It is an uncommon trait in Antiell, it seems, though in my opinion, there should be more; it is only because the practice of magick is so suppressed. Perhaps every one in ten Ashanti children are born with some level of animis. Perhaps one in every hundred of these can exercise it before adulthood, and far fewer can do so without training.”
The color green then leaped into Aeo’s mind:
<A human boy shining light in a dark cave.>
<How fortunate,> said Shera. <That Aeo should find someone like you on this mountain, of all places.>
Leon’s smile faded. For some reason, he ignored the mephandras.
“Now, Aeo,” he said quickly. “There’s something I’d like you to try.”
Leon stood up slowly and approached the campfire. If Aeo had seen his face, he would have witnessed a look of determined focus. Hala hopped over to his side to see.
“There we go,” Leon whispered.
“Oh, Leon, don’t you dare,” Hala hissed at the man. “What are you doing, put that down! You’ll catch the poor boy on fire!”
“Nonsense, Hala,” he said quietly. “Don’t worry, I am in control.”
Leon stepped back over to Aeo, his face illuminated by a strange light. No, not strange. Familiar, the very same light as the campfire. Floating between the man’s hands was a gentle flame, suspended in midair as if held in place by an invisible wick. Pick lifted his head and backed away from it with a slight whimper. Shera, for her part, said nothing, but watched the scene with greater interest.
“Whoa,” Aeo whispered.
“As I said before,” Leon said, his voice tense and halting. “Most scholars have a knack for different practices. My specialty… is certainly not elemental, so this requires… eh, more than a bit of concentration.”
Leon put his hands forward.
“Now. I want you to… hold your hands up. Like you’re warming them near the flame. Hold them up.”
Slowly, the boy lifted his hands to the flame. He felt the fire’s warmth and hoped Leon didn’t simply dump the fire in his lap.
“There you go. Put your hands together a little bit more. Good.”
Leon sighed, and the fire danced in his hands with the pattern of his breath. The man’s face twisted, as if straining to control the flickering flame.
“Aeo. I want you to imagine warmth. Imagine wrapping up in the blankets, or touching the warm water bottles. Feel the fire warming up your hands.”
Aeo imagined it easily.
“As you’re focusing on that feeling,” Leon continued. “Imagine that warmth being gathered together. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and settling into the space between your hands. Can you do that? Can you imagine that for me?”
“I think so,” Aeo whispered.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” Leon replied.
Ready? For what exactly?
Aeo tried to imagine. With his hands raised to the magickal fire, he did as he was told: he imagines all the warmth in his body beginning to move. From his chest to his shoulders and muscles, down his arms, into his hands, and between his fingertips.
It was all imagination, though. It wasn’t actually doing anything. Was it?
“Okay,” he said quietly. “I’m… ready.”
“Now lift your hands. Think of the warmth between your hands, and don’t stop thinking as you lift them.”
Aeo tried. They wouldn’t move. He tried harder, straining even to pull himself away. Nothing was working, something was wrong. But then, all at once, Leon’s hands were gone. And there, nestled between his own two hands sat the small flame. It danced, back and forth. With every inhale, the flame would grow larger. And with every exhale, it would grow smaller and threaten to fade.
“I thought as much,” Leon whispered.
“Look at that!” Hala whispered excitedly, as Pick let out an airy growl.
Aeo had never seen anything as strange as this. So mesmerizing. His head suddenly felt very dizzy. But he couldn’t fall back into his blankets; the fire held him there. He watched it dance like a spinning flower, like a leaf blowing in the wind. It seemed to glow like the sun itself. His eyes began to burn, and he felt the need to close them, but he couldn’t look away. Then, as if some sort of invisible thread had been cut, Aeo could move. And he very nearly did, falling backwards and bringing the fire closer to his chest.
“Whoa, there you go,” Leon said, holding Aeo’s shoulders steady. “That’s your animis, releasing you from its hold. You’re quite good at this for a beginner, Aeo. Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”
Aeo’s thoughts burned as bright as the flame. Comforting. He remembered the dreams of the sun as the warmth fell down upon him. Not burning and unbearable, but gentle and soft. He shouldn’t be able to look upon that bright sun from his dreams with his naked eyes, and yet he could, and within it he saw all the colors of the rainbow. They were beautiful, and they burned and danced all together. He could see the flames growing ever brighter, and he never wanted them to fade.
Like the flames of the Gray Pale. They would burn forever.
[Fool,] whispered a voice in Aeo’s ear. [You could shatter yourself so easily.]
A pair of voices, in his other ear: [You will burn everything. Everything! Burn it all!]
Aeo began to tremble. He looked up at Leon; he had not heard the voices. The once-small flicker of flame did not vanish from Aeo’s hands. On the contrary, as he looked back down, the flame began to wildly grow. He couldn’t hold it. He widened his hands to better support the expanding flame, but the flames flared all the more in response.
“I can’t—!” he gasped.
“Wait, wait,” Leon said quietly, quickly leaning over. He took Aeo’s hands and slowly brought them together with his own. “Breathe normally, now. Just breathe. It’s all right. You can let the fire go out now. Close your hands, just so.”
Aeo did. With Leon’s help, he pressed his hands together, and the fire vanished without a trace of smoke.
<Fascinating,> said Shera.
“It most certainly is,” Hala said with a gasp. “Leon, how did you know Aeo could do something like that?”
“Just had a feeling,” Leon said, offering the boy a comforting smile. “What do you think of that, Aeo? Want to learn more?”
Aeo stared at his now-shaking hands, breathless. He didn’t answer.