– 1 –
“Oi! Stupid boy! Wake up!”
A terrible force kicked the boy in the stomach. The wind flew out of his lungs, making him clench inwards.
Despite the rudeness of the wakeup call, the boy’s mind swam in deep waters. He’d been dreaming again. Something about being out in the blazing sun, feeling it against his skin. Its warmth filled him, relaxing and powerful. Considering he lived in the mountain village of Olvaren, where the sun shined brightly for only a month out of the year before frosting over again, he didn’t know where this feeling came from. A distant memory told him he came from somewhere much warmer than this, but it remained only an echo, something unreal and untrue.
“Oh no you don’t, you get right out of bed before I have to slap you out of it!”
A terrible collection of pinpricks struck his face, waking him immediately. A broom.
“Now! You’ve got chores to do! Don’t make me grab the switch and smack you, boy.”
The gears in Aeo’s mind slowly gained traction, and he sat up quick enough to convince Aristé that he wasn’t disobeying her. He rose from his small cot, rubbed his eyes, and noticed the large woman was holding the broom out to him.
“Oh,” he whispered, taking it.
“Lazy Edian,” Aristé replied. “Come on, come on!”
The Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust. Along with something else… Oh, right, the fetid scent of the full stable enriched the air of the inn, passing through the back door all night. Horrible. Some patron to the inn had brought with him a team of five horses and just barely fit them all into the meager space. Needless to say, Aeo would be cleaning the stable when the man departed. But he would gratefully do it – it was the only time he would be free of the inn itself, giving him time to think and daydream without interruption.
The morning usually consisted of cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed from the inn’s few rooms, and this the boy did first. About half of them departed at dawn, no doubt to see themselves on the road before the usual traffic. And by the time those rooms were cleaned and made right, the rest would leave and give him more to do. The boy heard talk that Olvaren sat at the end of a “trade route”. He didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn filled itself night after night with tired travelers and men looking to get drunk.
“Hurry up, boy!” Aristé would say after each room, usually throwing a swing of her hand hoping to catch the boy’s ear. Or maybe it was a broomstick handle, an ale flagon, even an iron candlestick. Anything she could grip and swing. He didn’t know why. After all, no one ever came to find a room at seven o’clock in the morning. At least the boy had learned how to avoid a blow.
That wretched, gigantic woman: Aristé. His owner of six years. He didn’t remember a mother besides her, and she could hardly be called such. She didn’t deserve her pretty Antielli name; it didn’t describe her accurately. He would rather risk sneaking up on a starving bear than catch sight of her. Aeo was always to blame for something. If the patrons were unhappy with their rooms somehow, the boy would hear no end of it until the end of the day. If someone in the inn managed to slip or fall because of spilled beer or water, the boy would be slapped at least once and dismissed immediately and given no food for the rest of the day. After all, it was his fault the floors weren’t spotless and dry, even if he were serving food all day long.
And Goddess help him if he ever spilled food on the floor or tripped and spilled drinks on customers. “What a clumsy Edian,” Aristé would say, to the delight of the customers. Edia, being his place of birth, of course. At least supposedly. Some place he would never remember. Or “red-eyes,” they called him, due to the crimson color of his irises. That was the dirtiest thing they could say about him, and would often illicit laughter from other patrons. He had no idea why, although he’d grown to hate the color whenever he’d see himself in the lavatory mirrors. He hated his red hair as well; he always stood out in a crowd.
“Don’t let me catch you slacking off in the backroom,” she would often say, as if the backroom were the boy’s favorite spot. “If you do, it’s double duty for the lavatory.” The boy would often think how funny it was that she would give double-duty to clean other people’s duty, but he never said so. It would probably get him slapped.
After the rooms, the boy swept the inn’s kitchen, the serving area, under all the tables and chairs, and the front foyer. After, it was wiping down all those tables and chairs with ratty rags and dirty water. No matter how hard he scrubbed, the stains and dirt never really went away. In fact, for all the years the furniture had served guests and patrons, the boy was certain they all had been stained with enough alcohol to make them impervious to any other stain. By the time he’d finished all these tasks, a few villagers would wander into the inn looking for breakfast, and the boy quickly made sure they were comfortable and took their orders. Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do was cook. Aristé had allowed it once. The omelet had turned to a scrambled mess that caught fire. The boy was throttled for that.
After bussing the early morning customer’s tables, the boy’s next responsibility involved lifting cartons of milk, cheese, fruit, and bread into the storeroom from its daily delivery. He had only stolen a small bit of bread once, and blamed the evidence on rats. He was still struck with a frying pan. That one left quite the bruise on his shoulder.
Aristé always put on a face when serving guests. Even Aeo could admit how convincing it was. Being the center of Olvaren gossip and news delighted her to no end, and she indeed spread rumors around whether they were true or not. Some man sleeping with a woman other than his wife, the strange religion of some traveler, the finances of some person the boy hardly knew. And, at least once every day, she would tell someone who would happen to pity Aeo’s position at the Gray Pale that the boy was a dirty Edian scab that had no place with the other children of the village. Yes, there were other Edian slaves in Olvaren, but the boy had never met them. He wasn’t allowed outside without a leash, which is why he enjoyed cleaning the stables so much – it was as close to the outside as he would ever get.
Always with the name-calling. She never called the boy by his name. “Useless boy”. “Good for nothing”. “Red-Eyed Bastard” was a rare treat. She had deigned to explain to the boy what it meant once, but considering he’d never met his parents, he wasn’t sure that one applied to him.
She had her tender moments. Very rarely, of course. She once called him “the son I never had,” but only in private. She would take him shopping for clothes, keeping the leash around the boy’s neck and a sharp eye out for his thieving fingers at the market. As if the boy had thieving fingers; he’d never taken anything that didn’t belong to him in his life. Not outside the Gray Pale, anyway. Slaves in Olvaren were known for their ‘deviant behavior’ (the boy didn’t know what that meant at first), so it must be true of Aeo. Cheap, itchy flax shirts and pants, thin soled shoes for a few copper pieces. Good enough for her, so good enough for him.
About midday, the man of the house usually showed himself. Horthoon. Drunken, sloppy, drooling Horthoon. Aristé’s good-for-nothing husband. The whole village knew of his drinking problems, even more than everyone knew the boy to be a lazy Edian. How she put up with this physical embodiment of sloth, the boy had no clue. After all, she didn’t let Aeo off the hook for his supposedly lax nature. Harthoon certainly made no effort to help around the inn, and rarely put on a mask of sobriety if he could help it. Aristé slapped him every once in a while for forgetting to purchase firewood, ignoring the dirty windows, or harassing the inn’s patrons. Especially harassing the inn’s patrons. Despite the ring on his finger, he felt attracted to the pretty ladies that walked through the door. Yet Aristé never did hit Harthoon with much force. Harthoon’s favorite wooden flagon always brimmed with beer, and he made sure the boy filled it at every opportunity, even at nine or ten in the morning.
Harthoon’s favorite past times were kicking at the boy when disturbed (which happened often, considering how much alcohol he required), mumbling to himself, and pouring ale into the boy’s face for a laugh until people couldn’t smell the difference between them. In the middle of an Aristé chastising, Harthoon would sometimes stumble into it and apply the physical violence to the boy himself. Sometimes his fists would miss completely, and sometimes they would strike with enough force to knock the boy flat on his back. Aristé would lightly scold him for doing so. Aeo suspected this was because she enjoyed doing it herself so much.
Sometimes, when completely slobbered out of his mind in the middle of the night, Harthoon would find the boy attempting to sleep. He would sit on the ground, wake the boy with a start, and proceed to sob uncontrollably on the boy’s shoulder. Harthoon’s tangled, matted beard was usually soaked in alcohol, and would make the boy drunk just by the smell of it. The boy never knew how to react to this behavior or where it came from. Perhaps Harthoon hated Aristé just as much as he did. Perhaps some strange truth coming out at last. But by morning, Harthoon would forget the moment ever occurred and go back to bothering everyone in the inn as he regularly did.
The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt, sometimes mixed with snow and ice. A flimsy mop served as a constant companion, and he often dozed off with it in hand as an excuse in case he ever got caught. Sometimes Aeo would get dinner; sometimes Aristé would “forget” to cook him anything, leaving a raw potato or leek in his closet. Then, at midnight, Aeo would stumble clumsily into his bed to sleep just to rise at six o’clock in the morning to start all over again. Maybe the bags around his eyes made people think he slept too much. Maybe that’s why they all called him lazy.
Aristé never slept. Not when Aeo did, anyway. She threw him to bed, then threw him right back out again. What madness drove the woman to such a level of activity, the boy couldn’t fathom. Maybe she ran on cruelty. Maybe slapping the boy gave her strength. Many of the bruises on his arms and back belonged to her, and she added to them on a regular basis.
The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at some moments, when it got bad enough. Maybe he could run away, get as far as the highway and manage to get to the next town without being noticed. He’d heard there was a border somewhere, and that if he crossed it, he could be free. But he’d heard traders talk about it as if it were weeks away, and the boy was certain he couldn’t hide for weeks and weeks without being discovered and sent right back to Aristé and Harthoon. No, there was a single choice for the boy. Up. Up the mountain trail and to the forests and jungles on the other side. There was another country of sand there. Edia, his home. If he could find a way to carry himself to the opposite side of the mountain without freezing, he could be free and never work in the filthy inn again.
But he never dared try. He’d be caught. He’d freeze to death. No Antielli trader would carry him over to the other side. He’d have to steal some money and convince a traveling scholar or mercenary. Assuming Aristé wouldn’t catch wind of it, of course. He’d be beaten for sure.
No, there was no way. Maybe when he grew up he could buy his freedom. He’d heard other slaves do that. Maybe he could too.
* * * * * *
“Get out of bed, boy! Now!”
Another kick to the stomach. It knocked another dream of the sun right out of him.
“Uhhn,” the boy replied, doing his best to lift himself out of bed.
“You didn’t clean the kitchen at all! Crumbs and dirt everywhere, it’s positively filthy! It’s a miracle no one was poisoned tonight by your carelessness! Go, do it right!”
Aristé struck him on the head rather sharply with the broomstick before throwing it in his lap. What time was it…? The boy peered over his shoulder out the window. Darkness. Perhaps he’d only been sleeping for a few minutes, he couldn’t tell. Aristé disappeared as fast as she’d come, but that wasn’t to say she wasn’t just around the corner ready to strike if he didn’t hurry. He slipped on his thin shoes and stood. His head struck the shelf above him.
He slipped on his shirt, grabbed the broom, and stumbled out the door of his closet into the dining area of the inn. All was quiet and dark save for a few lit candelabras that hung from the ceiling. Aristé was nowhere to be found. Lucky. He crossed the room quickly. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the dark, he was just afraid of the dark if someone snuck around in it.
In the kitchen, a single lantern burned dimly above crates of potatoes and carrots. He was hungry, certainly, but he wouldn’t be caught dead munching on one. Instead, he pushed the closest crate away from the door and entered. From what he could see of the floors and the counters, it wasn’t all that bad, besides the fact that the room smelled like rotting produce and dirty dishwater. Maybe a few stray dust bunnies and chopped vegetables lined the floor beneath the bar and sink. The boy sighed. He could feel his eyelids pushing down on themselves, but he pressed on, jamming the broom into the space between the floor and the side of the counter. If he hurried, it wouldn’t take him long.
Brush after brush after brush. So boring. He could feel himself get into a rhythm that didn’t actually clean anything. He shook his head back and forth.
Snap out of it. Get this done right and you can sleep.
The boy knelt down to get at the debris underneath the stove; Aristé especially hated having anything beneath there. There were a few stray crumbs in the darkness. Maybe that’s why she exploded at him. He tossed the broom underneath to get at the wall and pull everything out. It wouldn’t quite fit.
Warily, he placed his hand on the stove. It was cold. He lowered himself to his belly and shoved the business end of the broom underneath.
Then, as if on cue, everything went completely dark.
Aeo turned his head towards where the lantern light had been, growled, and stood to his feet. He couldn’t sweep if he couldn’t see.
Matches. Matches, matches, where were the matches? Naturally, they were extremely off-limits. But the thought of waking Aristé just to relight the lantern filled him with dread. He rubbed his arm. He didn’t want another bruise.
The shelf just above the stove. He blindly lifted his arms up and found the edge of the cupboard door. It was filled with square boxes, and he only needed one specifically. Not that one, not that one… A tiny one reached his fingers. He pulled it down, slid the lid open. Matchsticks. Small and thin. He’d never lit one himself, but he’d seen Aristé do it hundreds of times. Just strike the black bit against the box and it should light into a small flame. Simple enough.
The boy crossed the room. He clambered up on top of the potato crate, careful not to actually step or kneel on any of them. The lantern still smoked lightly, but only a few red embers remained on the tiny wick. He could only hope the lantern still had enough oil. He took one match, and pressed it against the box.
Strike one. Nothing. Strike two. Nothing. Strike three…
In a poof, it burst alight.
He quickly thrust the match into the lantern wick. It didn’t catch. Why…? Wait, make the wick bigger. With his other hand, he fumbled around the lantern until he found the knob. It spun, and the wick raised up, lighting up immediately.
“Good,” the boy whispered. He then pulled out the small still-burning matchstick. Just as Aristé had done many times, the boy shook the match to make it go out.
It didn’t go out.
He shook it again.
The flame grew bigger.
He couldn’t drop it. He’d catch something on fire, for sure. But the flame burned hotter and hotter, dropping closer and closer to his fingers.
He shook it one more time.
He felt the heat and dropped the match.
But the fire remained. The small candle-like flame attached itself to the boy’s finger like a drop of water.
“No, no! Get off!”
He shook his hand in a panic. The flame grew bigger, spreading up his finger and onto the back of his hand. It felt warm, just like the dream of the sun.
“Get off!” the boy cried.
He shook his hand faster. Too fast. It swung upwards, striking the lantern. With a clatter, the lantern fell back behind the crate of potatoes. The boy quickly jumped down from the crate and ran to the sink. The fire spread from his hand up his arm. It even caught his shirt, and started burning the cloth.
“No, no, no!”
He could hardly see, but the flames actually helped him find the sink handle. He He pumped it desperately and immediately soaked his hand; the flames disappeared. He tossed water onto his arm and patted out the licking fire; at last, those flames went out as well. In the darkness, he could hardly see his hand. He imagined the skin melting like cheese, wrinkling and peeling like a decaying tomato. He felt it up and down, again and again… Nothing. No pain. Not even a burning sensation. His sleeve was charred and stiff, but his arm was fine.
He sighed. How strange.
Smoke? Something cooking? Then he saw light. Dim at first, but then quickly rising.
“Ah! No, no!”
The potato crate, partially filled with straw, had caught the latern’s flame. Then again, it might have been the still-lit match. It hardly mattered.
“What in hell’s name is going on in here, boy! I heard-”
Then Aristé screamed.
“You little monster! Get the bucket, get it now!”
In blind panic, Aeo looked at Aristé, then twirled around. What bucket?!
“Move!” Aristé cried, charging towards the sink. “Move, you idiot!”
She flung the boy to the ground with one hand, and pumped the handle to fill the bucket as quickly as the faucet would allow… which wasn’t fast at all, truth be told. In the meantime, Aristé filled the room with obscenities, most of which were directed at the boy in no particular order.
“You red-eyed bastard child!” she cried, too shocked at the fire to match her cursings with a beating. “What have I told you about matches, you stupid boy!”
“I wasn’t… I mean, I didn’t…!”
The boy turned, slightly dumbfounded. He watched the fire burning faster and faster, slowly climbing from the crates to the thin and crumbly papered surface of the wall itself. One of the crates was filled with thatch that once protected a shipment of decorative ceramic pots – this one burst into flames particularly quickly.
It felt like the dream. The dream of the sun. With all his heart he knew he shouldn’t wish it, but he wanted the fire to rise higher. Burn brighter. More intensely. Consume everything, make it all go away. Maybe even burn his arm again and spread further, like an orange snake slithering across his skin. Aristé’s shouts droned in and out, like a mesmerizing pattern of magnificent echoes, consumed just like the wooden crates in the uncontrollable dance of the burning heat.
Somewhere in the midst of this hallucination, Harthoon had entered the room, panic growing in his eyes. The boy had never seen him so alert before. He took his coat and tried stamping out the fire. With the water bucket filled, Aristé took it and threw it against the fiery inferno. To everyone’s shock, the flames seemed to devour the water like oil, causing the heated whirlwind to burst upwards towards the ceiling in a smoke-filled conflagration.
“You did this!” Aristé shouted, no longer able to control the situation. But this she could control. She grabbed the boy by the shirt and hauled him across the room and out the door. With a thud, the boy landed against the bar, hitting his head against the edge of the hardwood and making him dizzy.
“I’ll strangle you for this, boy, you hear me! I’ll kill you if this place burns down!”
Though she wore soft slippers, she kicked the boy so hard in the stomach, he imagined he might never breathe again.
“You… You stupid…” Harthoon said hovering somewhere above him. “You’re going to fix this or I’ll see you hang.”
Aristé bent down and threw her fist at the boy’s face. It connected. The boy saw a bright light after his brain slammed into the back of his skull. She hauled the boy up by his shirt again, and threw him towards the door as hard as she could. The boy tripped and fell hard enough to take two chairs down with him.
“Go and get the constable, you idiot!” she screamed. “And don’t come back without help!”
She and Harthoon then quickly scrambled back into the kitchen to try putting out the fire again. It took a considerable amount of time, but Aeo struggled to his feet, unable to see out of one eye. He stumbled to the door, unfastened the locking bar, and flung it open. Frozen air blasted his face as he walked out into the cold.
A thought occurred to him as he stared out into the dark.
I don’t know where the constable is.
Then a better thought crossed his mind.
I don’t care. It doesn’t matter anymore. I’m never coming back.
– 2 –
No one travels across the Falas Mountains during the night, especially in the midst of torrential snow fall. No one who knew better. Even those with a sense of urgency to cross rarely stepped foot above the treeline after sunset if they wished to see the same sun rise again. The mighty winds that passed swiftly through the difficult roads were the primary suspect in every wayfarer’s disappearance. But no, something much more sinister lived in the crags and caverns, and everyone within leagues of the mountain knew it. And those that didn’t know it were soon informed.
Despite this, a lone figure shivered in the cold among the towering fir trees, blindly treading upwards, away from the village of Olvaren. A boy. A sensible being might think him foolish and stupid, and drag him back away from hypothermia and death. He wore no coat or jacket, but the rags of a slave, with thin leather soles the only thing keeping his feet from the snow.
But there was no going back. He couldn’t. The bruises on his arms and the swelling black eye proved he no longer belonged anywhere. Death on his own terms. Those were the thoughts that passed through his trembling mind. Either he made it to freedom on the other side of Falas, or… The Goddess would have to take him away from this life.
Simple as that.
The frigid air of the pass embraced the lone boy like a blanket made of glass needles. Whether his toes still existed he wasn’t completely sure. Ice clung to his red hair, and the wind stung his face like jagged blades.
It doesn’t matter, he thought to himself. I’m not going back.
Despite the lateness of the hour and the absence of the moon, the snow reflected enough light to give the boy enough clarity to avoid tripping on rock and fallen trees. He had started his journey on the merchant’s trail; where that trail might have gone, the boy could no longer tell. The howling blizzard that engulfed him also blinded him to almost everything, though especially to any creatures that might dwell in those frozen cliffs.
His hands slowly lost feeling. He lifted them to his lips and blew; the warmth brought feeling back for a moment. The wind sapped it away in an instant.
What did the merchants and soldiers at the inn say about the mountain? Wolves, packs of them, roamed the hills searching for any opportunity to steal from the shepherds’ flocks. Woolly bears lived close to the thermal rivers, smart and patient enough to wade through the torrents and wait for a fish to jump upstream. Eagles with discerning vision made homes atop the trees, soaring down from lofty heights for prey. 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 of the mountain peak and the predators of the woods below.
All these creatures of creation stood for symbols of the goddess Tiathys’s power, and reflected her diverse attributes of strength, cunning, and endurance. At least, that’s what Her priests taught whenever one would give lessons at the inn. When given time (which wasn’t often), the boy used to sit and listen to the sermons, and wonder if the Goddess had time to give a slave. Maybe now he would find out.
According to tales, however, there lived in these mountains a terrible creation that had no place in Tiathys’s domain, and profaned Her mountain. Every so often, when the priests had the monetary means to do so, the call would go forth for the strongest and most resourceful hunters in the province to hunt a beast known as a mephandras. Twenty foot tall in size and terrible in temperament, the boy had heard it described as a feral bear with scales and spikes in place of fur and a tusked maw that could rend a man to pieces in a second. Just as rare as the call, even rarer were stories of successful hunts against this baleful monstrosity.
According to one such tale, a group of intrepid hunters once lured a mephandras to the foot of a steep cliff with a series of explosive traps. Cornered by men with bows and spears, the beast roared—certainly loud enough to alert the village below—and made the hunters deaf through its sheer ferocity. Nevertheless, it was trapped. With a single explosive charge placed some hours earlier high above on the cliffside, the hunters brought the whole mountain down upon it. When the smoke and dust cleared, the creature seemed dead, but that wasn’t enough for the hunters. They quickly filled it with arrows and spearheads enough to bring down an entire herd of elk, and even made use of one last explosive on top of its head.
It took days to harvest even a portion of the creature’s poisonous meat, hide, and colossal bones, which were quickly promised at great value to the province’s merchants. It might have brought prosperity to everyone in the process. It might have ended the tale happily there.
But the mephandras had a mate.
Even larger than its male counterpart, the female mephandras tracked the hunters from the mountain and brought death and destruction with it. Into the midst of an impromptu festival held to celebrate the hunters’ great accomplishment, the creature charged, trampling the hunters who had slain its mate. But it didn’t stop there. It bucked and heaved and roared, tearing through stone buildings and storefronts like a child through so many wooden blocks. The villagers retreated to the town hall and rallied as much defense as possible, and to their surprise, managed to hold the creature at bay. Or, perhaps, the mephandras wasn’t interested in carnage for its own sake. It found the bones and hide of its beloved in the village square, and proceeded to mourn quite violently. Arrows were fired from the hall, but none found purchase into this great creature’s hide.
It took three days for the creature to finally calm. It took the largest bone in its razor-filled mouth and departed for the mountain. Where it wandered no villager cared to follow. The mournful beast never returned for the rest of the now-frozen carcass, and the remaining spoils of the hunt only just covered the costs necessary to repair the damage wrought to the village.
Or so the tale was told. Was it true? Apparently, many hundreds of years had passed since the event occurred. Trackers and merchants that visited Olvaren insisted they knew the descendants of those slain hunters. The boy himself had seen the tusk marks carved quite clearly on the walls of the old hall that had once served as the village center. And while hunters were still hired to hunt mephandras every five years or so, not a single one had been spotted for decades.
Perhaps the mephandras were all gone. Perhaps the mountain was not as dangerous as everyone in the village made it seem. True or not, the boy’s thoughts centered on encountering such a monster on the mountain. Perhaps it would find the boy, and put him out of his misery. Perhaps it would let him ride on its back and carry him over the mountain to freedom. He would accept anything at this point.
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.
A howl echoed across the snow, just barely audible above the frigid wind. The boy didn’t hear it, too obsessed with the cold. Then a second howl cried out much louder to the boy’s right side. This snapped him out of his frozen trance.
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 been 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 bear. A mephandras. It had to be. Its jagged scales whipped in the wind, its deep-throated growl echoing across the snow.
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. Something about a man with dark eyes and a frog.
– 3 –
A burning sun. Gentle, terrible. It looked ready to warm the boy’s skin, wanted to fall upon him and give him comfort, yet none came. He froze instead, buried in a torrent of snow and ice. Like water, it suffocated him, and he tried to claw his way up to reach the light. But it remained distant. Like the sun at noon day, as a child tries to reach for the sun, never able to touch it.
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.”
Another thought arose.
<I would rather save him the pain of life and devour him now.>
“No, as I told you before, humils are for scaring, not eating. Especially not a child, for heaven’s sake. That’s why I’m here to make you better food, remember?”
A third message crossed his mind.
<You know food is not your purpose. Mine is. My child would benefit from fresh meat…>
“No, Pick isn’t eating him either! He’s not for eating in any way and that’s final. Go check the stables if you’re so hungry. Besides, the stew will be done shortly. You’d like it if you just tried it.”
A great beast snorted in response.
The boy felt warm fur beneath his fingertips, the weight of a thick blanket covering him, and an enormous pillow behind his head. The smell of roasting meat and smokey pine wood filled his lungs. Something was very wrong. Besides, of course, the fact that 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… exactly. Something pressed against the bottoms of his feet, making them tingle. He was unsure if this was a good sensation or not.
But he wasn’t dead. Not yet.
A strange concept emerged in the boy’s mind, as if placed there by something else.
<A large wet tongue lapping against a humil face.>
A voice answered the thought.
“If you mean to eat him, absolutely not. If you mean to be his friend, then… fine. I suppose. Warm him up a little. But let the poor boy sleep for a while longer, will you?”
A monster approached. Large enough to block the light. Its footfalls cracked the stone and slid across dirt, and a great body came to rest against the boy’s side. Then, a large weight settled across his legs, and the smell of a wet dog settled on him. The boy tried to open his eyes wide, and a face came into blurry view.
A face? What made the boy think it was a face? Not a humil face, certainly. Wait, 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 dog should be by itself. A great black nose sniffed at the air like bellows, a gray-and-brown muzzle sat across the boy’s lap, and bright reflective eyes darted to and fro to some other points of interest in the room in which the boy lay. The boy strained to lift his head and saw a pair of furry ears curiously rotate as it heard a myriad of homemade noises.
The wolf growled as if tired. The vibrations shook the boy’s very bones. His fear may have been frozen before, but like the rest of him, it began to thaw. The anxiety grew quickly. Try as he might to still his timid voice, he couldn’t help a small squeak of panic.
The wolf’s closest eye quickly switched upon him, and the whole head rose and cocked to one side.
A thought rose in the boy’s mind.
<A humil rising from bed and smiling.>
The boy certainly did not feel like smiling. A voice then called from further inside the room, 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 and sniffed at the boy; the stale, humid dog-breath might well have been a violent hiss of steam. It growled and yelped a quiet affirmative. Then, the prediction came to pass: the wolf’s tongue emerged and shoved the boy’s red hair to the side with a single terrible lick. The wolf was tasting him! The boy tried 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, and stood above the boy. It certainly didn’t look wolf-shaped. No, a man. Everything was still blurry. The man knelt down before the boy and rested his hand on the boy’s forehead. Then his nose, and his ears.
“Well, look at you. Looks like you’re not an ice cube. That’s good news, right?”
At this moment, the boy realized he’d been shivering terribly. He opened his mouth, and the cold of the mountain fell out of it.
“Wh-Wh… whe… wh-where…”
“It’s all right, no need to worry yourself. Just relax and breathe. You were out in the cold for far too long.”
The boy blinked, and his stomach twisted. The man came forward and sat himself down at the boy’s side, pushing the giant wolf away in the process. Not only did the wolf not straight away eat the man in response, the wolf simply growled in protest and stepped over both the man and the boy. It then laid its great body down and placed its head across the boy’s lap from the other side. Its paw gently dug into the fur blanket, and the wolf watched him with an adorable brown eye like a patient puppy. The boy wasn’t sure which one to be afraid of first, man or beast.
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 also wore thin spectacles that gave him an age beyond his own. He didn’t seem at all like the hardy specimen of manhood that would live this high up a mountain. His beardless face and hazel eyes reflected something foreign, though from where Aeo had no idea. His words were very plain, however, giving no hint.
“By the Goddess, I can’t believe you decided to climb Falas in a blizzard like this,” the man said. “You’re one brave boy. You’ve been sleeping for the better part of a day. You must have been running away from something fairly frightening to force you this far up the mountain.”
The man placed a hand on the boy’s face, just beneath his left eye. The touch reminded the boy of the terrible injury that dominated his face. Even then, he could feel his pulse drumming away where his skin had turned black and blue.
“I’m guessing you didn’t do this to yourself.”
A thought rose in the boy’s mind.
<The color purple. A humil 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.”
The boy’s eyes widened. The man could ‘hear’ the thoughts too. The man noticed the boy’s silent stare and smiled, pointing to his temple.
“I’m sure you’ve never heard a wolf’s ‘thoughts’ before, have you? Ah, apologies, I suppose we should introduce ourselves. My name is Leon Sirelu…” The man placed a hand on the wolf’s nose. “…this is Pick. And you’ll meet his mama Shera when she comes back. Welcome to our little home on the mountain.”
Pick gurgled and licked the fur blanket.
<A humil boy petting a wolf’s head.>
Leon laughed at the thought.
“Yes, you little scoundrel,” said Leon, leaning over to pet Pick. “I’m sure you’ll be great friends.”
“Wh-why… Why d-does…” the boy whispered.
Leon waited patiently.
“H-How does… h-he… talk… in m-my head?”
“I don’t know for certain,” Leon answered. “It’s curious, isn’t it? I’ve actually tested a few things with Pick. Did you know you can hear them from about a kilometer away? And they can whisper too, so you’re the only one who can hear them. It’s as plain as if they were speaking with words. Except for young wolves, of course. The images Pick uses tend to get… lost in translation. Eh, Pick? It takes some practice to understand you sometimes.”
Pick blinked a few times and started to pant.
<The color green. A wolf howling.>
“That’s right, it’s fun to talk.”
“Wh-What… d…does… g-green…” the boy attempted to ask.
“I believe that means he’s happy,” said Leon. “So when he howls, or talks, it makes him happy. Isn’t that right Pick?”
Pick let out a small airy howl.
“All right, down to business,” said Leon, bending forward. His hands reached under the blankets and lifted the boy’s arm up and out. Leon grasped his hand; the warmth filled it immediately and made the boy’s skin burn. “Can you feel my hand?”
The boy nodded.
“Good. Hmm, you’re 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.
“Okay. 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 black. Your ears, too. It’ll take some time for the right color to come back to them.”
Leon peeled the fur blanket back, and lifted a rubber bottle from the boy’s chest, testing its temperature. That was the source of much of the weight.
“B-Black?” the boy whispered frightfully.
“Oh, only slightly, nothing to worry too much about,” said Leon almost too quickly. “Nothing some time can’t make better. I’ll go refill a couple of these bottles in a few minutes. In the meantime, stay in bed. Besides, the food is almost done, and there’s nothing better than resting with a full belly. I’ll leave Pick to make sure you stay toasty warm.” He pat Pick’s ears. “Can you do that for me?”
<The color green. A bright fire in a circle of rocks.>
“That’s right. 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.”
Leon rose to walk to the other side of the room. Aeo might have stayed quiet. But there was something deep inside him that needed attention, something that Leon would certainly need to know.
“W-Wait, L-Leon, sir… Um, I…”
“Yes?” Leon said.
“I… Uh, I n-need… to u-use the toilet.”
Leon stopped and adjusted his spectacles.
“Oh. Oh, yes, of course you do, of course, um… I suppose we should get that figured out now, shall we? Don’t want you standing just yet. Perhaps you can simply turn to your side? Oh, I guess that depends on…hmm. Right, now where did I put that bucket…?”
* * * * * *
With food, water, an empty bladder, and a warming body, Aeo slept straight through the night, even with a giant wolf at his side and a strange academic watching over him. Though, in all honesty, he’d climbed the mountain to give his life to the Goddess. Maybe she really was watching over him the whole time.
A depressing set of thoughts swirled in his head even before he awoke, vivid dreams filling his head. They were different than his dreams of the sun. He dreamed he stood at the top of the mountain, close enough to tumble down into freedom. But as in most nightmares, something was chasing him. He heard the violent barking of hounds, the shouts of the slave owners calling after him and demanding he return. He cast his gaze backwards, and saw them in the distance, perhaps racing towards him from the treeline. He then turned towards the very summit of Falas and looked down to see only the misty mountain peaks and the mystery beyond. The merchants that traveled the pass told stories of a jungle on the other side, a rich and untamed land that couldn’t compare to the valley lands where the village lay.
He would travel there. He would find freedom there. Without thought, Aeo took a step forward and fell down the snowy cliffs. Nothing hurt him in this dream, of course, at least at first. He felt weightless as he flew just inches above the snow. He could no longer hear the dogs or the men following him, just the sound of rushing wind cascading past his face.
A cliff quickly approached. Aeo tried his best to pull up, or maneuver to the side to avoid it. Nothing worked. Inescapable. And just before he collided with the rocks and snow… He woke up.
He’d had such drifting dreams before. There was always something concrete that made these dreams end. The ground, a wall, a tree, a cliff face, a loud noise. Aeo could deal with these dreams if they ended any other way. But they always woke him up with a start, even in the early hours of the day.
This strange morning, however, the realization quickly hit him that he wasn’t sleeping in a cot in his tiny closet. Aeo tugged at his arms to rub his eyes. Heavy weights stopped them from rising.
Oh. The water bottles.
Though no longer warm unto themselves, they felt as heavy and comfortable as the fur blanket that covered them. With some effort, he hauled an arm out from beneath the pair covering it, and wiped his eye. Pain shot from his face at the slightest touch—the bruise. He carefully avoided it as best he could.
Tired. Very tired. The kind of exhaustion that comes from hours of physical exertion. An aware kind of tired that leaves the body useless but the mind clear and active. And a tinge afraid at that particular moment. Finally able to move his head about without too much pain, Aeo looked further to his left. His ears didn’t deceive him. A giant furry monster slept comfortably against the corner of the wall on a pile of furs, curled up all together and breathing steadily. How old was this wolf named Pick? It wasn’t like Aeo could judge it from the thoughts Pick put into his head. Maybe he was still young, like a little kid? He didn’t seem at all hesitant to place his head in Aeo’s lap, like an adorable intelligent pup.
Aeo lay with his back against the sloped back wall of a very wide cave and examined his surroundings as he lay musing. The surprisingly flat stone floor gently curved into the walls as if crafted on purpose, although the cave walls themselves weren’t nearly as neatly organized. Cracks and pockets filled the four walls, and as many as were large enough were filled with unlit wax candles and small charms of varying sizes, colors, and complexity. The total weight of the mountain hovered above the walls, covered with just as many cracks and dotted with the occasional small stalactite and fabric covering, creating a feeling of a well-worn underground dwelling. Opposite of Aeo’s furry resting place, the stone wall curved about halfway across the perimeter until it continued as wooden slats sealed with mud cement. A humil-sized entry sat in the middle of the wooden wall, while a larger barn-like door with a rope loop ‘doorknob’ surrounded the humil one in combination. Aeo didn’t care to think what beast the larger door had been designed for. How the wolves might have helped in the construction of this cavernous dwelling, or even if they did at all, Aeo didn’t know. Maybe it was simply the man’s work.
In the middle of the room was a large campfire ring, complete with a roasting spit and holder for pots of all sizes. And against the wall on the left sat wooden crates and boarded boxes of all sizes, no doubt filled with food and other supplies. The wax candle crevasses continued along this wall, although a few of them were lit. And, strangely enough, there seemed to be a purple light being cast onto the wall without source from the center of these candles.
Magick. Real magick.
Aeo knew of the concept of magick, the most spectacular happening in distant faraway lands and outlandish tavern tales. Every so often a ‘magician’ would wander into the inn offering his or her talents as entertainment for a few coins and a place to spend the night. These talents would often be nothing more than cards tricks and sleights of hand. But Aeo and other children had loved them, and naturally couldn’t figure out for their very lives how such tricks worked.
The only time a real wizard had come into town was during the hunts. Their prices weren’t cheap, as Aeo heard rumored, but their skills were often invaluable to other hunters with their abilities to study the habits and trails of the animals and beasts of the mountain, as well as creating strange enchantments for the hunter’s weapons. They didn’t perform for children—they could start campfires fires with nothing but a flick of a wrist, read people’s thoughts, and even turn lead into gold as payment for housing and food. Of course, the ‘lead to gold’ magick was the most often requested of the wizard, though, according to them, was a difficult-to-master ability and could only be performed in very small quantities. Probably true, but who knows? Aeo had wished countless times that he could turn dirt into gold. He could have bought his own freedom with a handful of gold dust.
The man named Leon lay sleeping in the right corner of the room, opposite the wooden entrance to the cave. His back was turned towards the cave wall, and he snored lightly beneath his fur blankets.
Aeo laid back, fumbling his arm back underneath the water bottles that leaned against his side. What a strange place to sleep, he thought to himself.
A dark thought then filled his mind: would Leon force him to go back to the village? No. No, I won’t let him. He won’t take me back. Aeo’s fists clenched. Even in his weakened state, he’d fight back. Or he’d run as fast as he could for the summit and fall down the other side until he reached the jungle beyond.
There’s no way. I’m not going back. Even if I freeze to death.
The enormous door of the cave quietly creaked. Aeo jumped at the sound.
For a moment, there were no other sounds, although as Aeo’s hearing focused, he could hear the roar of the endless wind outside. His stomach turned. Something was out there.
The door opened. The small door, in fact. With it came a light yet lively voice.
“…all the way up the mountain by himself! I know! Stunning!”
Aeo’s eyes widened. It was no humil who stepped through the door, but a curious round creature that came hopping into the room like a frog. A spherical frog? Its big spotty black eyes scanned the room for a moment, and hopped inside as you’d expect a frog to hop. Behind it then hopped a smaller frog of the same round form, full of energy and speaking rather loudly with its wide green lips flapping.
“Where is the leet-il hoo-meel, Mama?”
The bigger frog turned and put a webbed finger to her lips.
“Hush, little toad,” she said. “You’ll wake all the sleeping folk!”
“But I aw-weady woke She-wa!”
“I am aware, and I’m surprised Shera didn’t gobble you up!” the older frog whispered. The more Aeo listened to her, the more she sounded like a right and proper lady… Or, lady-frog. No burbling or frothing at the mouth, as Aeo could imagine a frog speaking. At least in comparison to the adorable small frog. “The boy needs all the rest he can get after his terrible ordeal.”
“What’s a ow-deow?” the littlest frog whispered.
“Trouble, dear Heem, it means trouble.”
The elder frog then hopped to the center of the room, stepping towards the remnants of the once-roaring fire. She kicked at a few of the errant pieces of char for a moment. Then the frog leaned back as if gathering air. A lot of it. More than it would seem the little frog would be able to take in by herself. Then something clicked quite audibly. Something in the frog’s throat? No doubt a spark, for the frog then belched forward and her mouth erupted in a bright errant flame. More than just simple flame, however, as a thick super-heated substance also leaked from the frog’s mouth and brought the campfire to a mighty consistency. Aeo caught the scent of nauseous gas, but it soon passed. And as abrupt and shocking as the display appeared, Aeo heard nothing but a small burst of wind.
“Ah, there we go,” the frog said without skipping a beat. “Much better. Heem, my dear, would you grab a few logs for the fire?”
“Yes, Mama,” the little frog said, hopping to the wood pile next to the crates.
Aeo suddenly realized why the frogs looked so round—each wore a tightly knit coat of thick fur around themselves, which the female frog then shed and placed close to the fire. Beneath the coat the frog wore a tight dress of a strange dazzling multi-colored material. She walked on two feet as gracefully as any humil, though to keep balance while hopping occasionally dropped to all fours without a problem. Her green skin glistened a little in the firelight as her large yellow eyes with dark vertical pupils expertly scanned the room. She certainly had the wide mouth of a frog, thick green whiskers sticking out the sides somehow adding wisdom to the wrinkles of her face. She stood about a foot and a half, maybe two, and the little one gathering firewood—little sticks and twigs, from the look of it—stood even lower from the ground.
She hopped slowly towards Leon and noticed he was still fast asleep beneath the glowing purple mist. She then hopped closer to Aeo, which instinctually made him pull his feet away. As much as they could move, considering the heavy water bottles and painful aching frostbite.
“Oh. Oh! Oh my! My poor boy!” the frog clapped her webbed hands in surprise. “How long have you been awake? You’ve probably been watching us the whole time! Well, bless the Goddess, I probably scared you silly by starting that fire, didn’t I?”
Aeo didn’t dare nod in agreement.
The frog-lady stepped passed Aeo’s feet towards his head.
“Hello, my dear!” she said enthusiastically, though quietly enough as to not wake Pick. She bowed as she approached. “My name is Hala, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance!”
“H-Hello,” Aeo squeaked miserably.
“Leon told us all about you last night after you fell asleep,” Hala said. “My goodness, what a journey you took to reach us all the way out here! Of course, Shera had to drag you some of the way. It’s a miracle she found you. She told us she was searching for bighorns out of the treeline ridge when she saw a little humil out there wandering all by himself. I have a feeling she wanted to eat you, but she carried you up here regardless! Wasn’t that so kind of her?”
“Eat me…?” Aeo whispered. “Wh-Who’s Shera?”
“Oh, you haven’t met her yet, that’s right!” Hala bent down into a squat in front of Aeo, then rose back up in a stretch. “She’s Pick’s Mama, and a right big wolf for sure! She certainly keeps us all safe from the nasty critters that roam the mountain, yes she does. She’s been tending to the bighorns all night long, the poor dear. She usually sleeps in this cave with Leon, but for some reason she decided to sleep in the barn! Isn’t that funny?”
Aeo decided it was not.
“The hoo-meel a-wake?”
Up hopped the little frog, now shed of its fur coat as well. Her fur coat, Aeo noticed, since she wore a dress. This dress, however, was less conservative, more like a skirt and a top with the same mysterious material. She took a few steps towards Aeo’s face and folded her green little arms.
“The hoo-meel isn’t leet-il,” she said. “He’s biiiig.”
“Well, he’s little to other humils, Heem dear,” Hala said, placing her hands on the little frog’s shoulders. “Aeo, this is Heem. She’s very excited to meet you! Heem, this is Aeo. Be very careful now, he’s not feeling very well at the moment. No jumping on him, okay? Perhaps later when he’s feeling up to it.”
For some reason, however, Heem’s attention turned quite dramatically to the far corner of the room.
“Piiiick!” Heem exclaimed, wasting no time hopping towards the wolf. Pick was indeed awake, eyeing the situation. Before Heem could hop on his back, Pick whined and yawned big enough to devour the little frog in a single bite. Heem didn’t seem the least bit concerned and climbed up Pick’s neck to sit on his back. “Big floo-fie puppy!”
“Good to see you up, you young hound dog!” Hala said. “Sleep well?”
Pick growled and blinked. He almost looked bored, despite the tiny frog hopping on his back. He then looked over at Aeo.
<The color teal. A humil jumping up and down.>
Aeo looked down at his toes and tried to wiggle them. They felt inflamed and painful, even though they didn’t feel exactly frozen.
“I don’t… I don’t know,” Aeo said.
“Oh Pick,” said Hala. “He won’t be on his toes for a good long while. Frostbite is no little thing, after all! Why, I remember getting frostbite on my toes, I had to sit in the thermal spring for a week before I could start hopping again. As a matter of fact, that’s not a bad idea for young Aeo if someone could carry him there…”
A gruff voice then rose to fill the cave.
“Where do you think I filled up Aeo’s rubber bottles?”
“Oh dear,” said Hala. “Good morning Leon! I do hope we didn’t wake you… Though I’m certain we did.”
“Oh, don’t worry, you did,” he said with a chuckle, as he lifted himself to sit. Aeo had fallen asleep much earlier than Leon and hadn’t seen him get dressed in the dark shirt and loose pants he now wore. “But I’m glad you did. I have a lot to do today, and I might as well get started.”
“More of those experiments of yours? You know, the longer you’re down in those caves, the more I start to worry about you falling into holes, or getting trapped from a cave-in, or… or… blowing yourself up with all of that fancy equipment of yours!”
“No need to worry yourself, Hala,” Leon replied. “Everything I do is perfectly safe. I’m simply studying plants and rocks.” He paused. “Nothing in the least bit explosive.”
“Hmm-umm,” said Hala, tapping the floor with her foot. “Well, it’s motherly instinct, that’s all!”
Leon looked over at Aeo.
“How are you feeling this morning?”
Aeo shrugged, which was challenging to see from beneath the blankets.
“I’m cold, sir…” he said honestly.
“I’m sure you are. Thank you for starting the fire back up, Hala, that was very kind of you. I’ll go refill those rubber bottles for you shortly, Aeo, get you warmed up.”
As he lifted himself to get dressed, Hala hopped up.
“Not a problem at all, Mr. Sirelu!” said Hala. “I’m happy to help this humil boy back on his feet!” She then turned to the little frog proudly sitting upon the wolf pup’s back. “All right, little Heem, it’s time for us to go clean the hot springs today. You promised you would!”
“Waaah!” cried Heem immediately, kicking her feet and pounding Pick’s back with her fists. “But I wanna ride Pick!”
This time, Aeo knew he could see irritation in Pick’s eyes as he rolled his head towards him.
“Pick has other duties, Heem, like taking care of Aeo while Leon is gone! Don’t make me hop up there and get you!”
Aeo decided it was difficult to make out the individual emotions on the frogs’ faces without hearing the words they spoke, but it seemed as if Heem’s expressions changed from outrage to sadness and then quiet acceptance. The little frog hopped off of Pick’s back and made her way back to the campfire when she gingerly put on her sphere coat. Hala did the same and spoke as she did so.
“It’s so wonderful to have you here with us, Aeo!” she said quite excitedly. “When you’re well enough to walk, I’d love for you to meet the rest of my family. They’re not as happy-sure as Heem and I are about more humils living up here, but I know you’ll make yourself home in no time!”
Hala stepped over to the wood pile and made it a point to throw one more small bundle into the campfire.
“No need to worry, Hala,” Leon said as he buttoned up a long-sleeved shirt he’d produced from a small crevasse in the wall. “I’ll take care of it.”
“If you’re sure, dear!” she said, her round form hopping towards the door. “We’ll see you later, Leon! Aeo! Pick!” They then disappeared through the door before closing it shut behind them.
“She’s such an interesting woman,” Leon said with a laugh. “So unlike the rest of her family. Speaks perfect Yshlene, too. Can’t imagine how.”
Yshlene. Aeo knew that word. It was the language he spoke. The language of Antiell.
Pick sat up and started panting.
<The color yellow. A wolf standing above a frog.>
“Oh, don’t be annoyed,” Leon said. “You know Heem loves you, don’t you Pick?”
Pick growled once and laid back down on his fur blankets.
Aeo closed his eyes. Life was quickly losing sense.
– 4 –
The new steaming rubber bottles felt so good on his skin, Aeo let their weight release all tension in his muscles. Leon even placed rubber bottles on the sides of his head to keep his ears warm—he hadn’t realized just how dull and cold they’d been until warmth filled them. He didn’t even move when Pick came to lick his face with his enormous wet tongue.
<A humil hugging a wolf’s head.>
“Uh…” Aeo whispered, gagging. “Y-Yeah… good boy.”
“Pick,” said Leon. “I need you to go and get Shera for me. Go feed the bighorners for her. Tell her I sent you, okay?”
Pick’s head drooped down low and his nose nuzzled up against Aeo’s side. He whined quietly.
“It’s all right. Aeo’s not going anywhere. You can watch over him in a little while. I just need to speak with him and Shera for a while. Please? And close the door when you go?”
Pick’s shoulders sunk, but he lifted himself off the ground and headed for the door. Standing on all four legs, the wolf pup stood a little taller than a full-grown lion, and Aeo wondered how much growing he had left to do. The unlatched large door swung wide open, and Aeo expected the cold air from outside to blast into the cave and suck all the warmth away. To his surprise, it didn’t at all, and not just because he was being smothered by thermal rubber bottles. Pick closed the door shut with the latch in his mouth.
“There we go,” Leon said. “I was hoping I could talk to you now that you’re not frozen solid.”
Aeo frowned. Might as well be honest.
“You’re… not going to make me go back to the village, are you, sir?”
Leon placed his hands on his knees and leaned backwards.
“Well, there’s the question,” he said. “I didn’t wonder where you came from, but I did wonder where you received all those bruises. If you’re asking if I’ll kick you out when your frostbite heals, the answer is no. Of course not. But I wonder if you might tell me who you belong to. Do you have family? Friends? Anyone who might be searching for you?”
“No,” Aeo replied. “No one cares about me.”
Leon cast his eyes downwards.
“Is that right,” he replied.
“I’m not going back to Olvaren,” Aeo said flatly. “Never.”
“Be that as it may,” Leon said quietly. “Someone in that village did you quite a lot of damage. I couldn’t help but notice your eyes; not many free Edians live in Olvaren. I imagine if you were to belong to someone, it might not be by blood relations. In fact, I may have seen a few Edian children working as stable boys or innkeepers during my travels. Any of this sounding familiar?”
Aeo said nothing, focusing on the stone ceiling.
“It isn’t my business, of course,” Leon continued, stroking his rough stubble. “But what prompted your travels up Falas could mean danger for… many people. Including Pick, Shera, and Hala and her family.”
Leon cleared his throat and paused.
“…have you ever heard of the mephandras?”
Aeo’s eyes opened wide.
“They’re real?” he asked. “You’ve seen one?”
“Terrible armored ursas of unusual size?” Leon said with a chuckle. “No, I haven’t, actually. I’ve only heard that they used to live on this mountain. Truth be told, they haven’t been seen in decades, and there’s good reason for it.”
“The hunters.” Aeo said. “Right?”
“That’s right, sounds like you and I have the same sources. Hunters hunted them for hundreds of years and drove them right off the mountain. At least that’s what folk say. But it wasn’t just the hunters that did it.” Leon stretched his arm to the side. “Did you know a mephandras was actually a very intelligent beast? They didn’t have the mouths to form words, but they knew the giant wolves that lived up in these caves and spoke with them regularly.”
“They could speak?” Aeo said.
“Well, in a manner of ‘speaking’,” Leon said. “As much as Pick can talk to us, in fragments and images. The giant wolves learned of these humil hunters coming further and further up the mountain in search of the mephandras. Both the mephandras and the wolves knew that if humils ever discovered their dens up here they would find a reason to exterminate… well, all of them. Just as they hunted for mephandras claws and teeth and pelts, they’d put bounties on the giant wolves. Traders would value their fur, hunters would keep trophies, and scholars would study them right out of their homes, understand?”
“The mephandras knew that their homes were becoming more and more limited, their safety less and less guaranteed. But the wolves hadn’t been discovered yet. So, in exchange for finding a safe home, the mephandras promised to leave and let the wolves have control of Falas.”
“The mephandras… left the mountain?” Aeo asked. “How?”
“Cautiously. And not in large groups. Their size and their diets were too great to find their own way without being spotted by humils or ashanti. No, the wolves promised the mephandras they would help them search for a new home in exchange for keeping the mountain free of the hunters who searched for them. The wolves would lead the way while the remaining mephandras followed them off the mountain. If the wolves detected humils, they would… well… they would force the humils…”
<We would put thoughts into their minds that would convince them to leave.>
The large cavern door suddenly creaked open. If Pick had seemed like a gigantic creature, then what stepped through the opening made Aeo very afraid. The giant muzzle of a fully-grown wolf emerged, followed by a mountain of gray-ivory fur led by four powerful limbs. As high as the cave ceiling stood, the wolf nearly stood higher, and had to bend down a fraction to avoid skimming it with its pointed ears. And if it felt strange to receive images from Pick, then listening to the almost audible words of this wolf commanded all of Aeo’s attention as they entered his mind.
“Good morning, Shera,” Leon said, showing no fear at the sudden appearance of the great beast. “I was just telling Aeo about the meph-”
<The humils have always come very close to discovering our home, even when the mephandras kept them at bay. Without them and without most of my pack, it is a challenge to even stand watch.>
At the same time the words dominated his thoughts, he swore he could ‘see’ the image of a trio of mephandras in the ‘background’, two gigantic bear-like creatures covered in tough scales and a tiny one rolling around in the snow. Merely images? Or memories? It made his head ache a bit from both words and images attempting to take center stage in his head simultaneously.
“That’s right, Aeo,” Leon said. “The wolves led the mephandras towards a new home, but many followed them off the mountain and never returned. They must have found a new home themselves.”
Shera closed the door by gripping the rope latch with her teeth, then circled and laid her great body down neatly in between the campfire and the wall of the cave. Alone she easily took up half the floor space. She eyed Aeo up and down and made him wish he wasn’t lying prone and vulnerable.
“This was… how many years ago, Shera? Fifty?”
<More. I was young. This was our home then, and it is our home now. Pick and I will not leave it.>
“Therein lies the problem, Aeo,” Leon said. “If humils ever find this place… Shera and Pick would be in great danger. That’s why I have to ask if anyone would come looking for you.” He looked up at Shera. “Still, the blizzard would have hidden his tracks as well as his scent. I should think that no one would know where he disappeared to, and if they did know, they would imagine him dead from exposure.”
As much as a wolf can look displeased, Shera did, and growled a bit as a thought entered Aeo’s mind.
“I imagine Aeo is safe and secure. Considering no other humil has come up this high before without assistance, I would think it safe to assume that all is-”
Leon paused. His attention aimed squarely upon the great wolf.
Aeo heard nothing. Were his ears plugged? He couldn’t help but shake his head. He lifted himself up as best he could without losing balance of the many rubber containers that covered him. Something felt odd. Something was wrong. Different, as if the air suddenly became dry. The feeling wasn’t painful at first, more like having a small weight sit on top his head. But soon his ears started ringing, and a small headache entered his head through his temples. Freeing his hands from the water bottles and his fur blanket, he tried to block the pain with his fingers, but there was no source of comfort.
“I know you don’t like the idea of another humil…” Leon stopped. “…but no one will follow him. If we give it some time maybe I can-” Another stop. “I understand that, but there’s his situation to consid-”
Shera became more agitated the more Leon spoke. At first, she kept the growling to herself, but soon the growling turned into a snarl. Aeo felt his heart in his throat, and remembered Leon’s words from earlier. They can whisper too, so you’re the only one who can hear them. Somehow, Shera and Leon were having a conversation without him. The longer this phantom conversation continued, the paler Leon’s face became, as if the wolf had complete control over him.
“Uhh…” Aeo whispered.
The pain in Aeo’s head grew worse. In fact, the headache in his temples began to spread to his forehead and behind his ears. A slow, steady process, like knives being pushed into his mind from multiple angles. He tried to push the headache out of his forehead with his hands, but this made things worse. The headache seemed to spread to his hands, making his muscles contract involuntarily. Blood rushed to his head, making the bruise around his eye unbearable.
Leon attempted to speak again.
“I… I know that,” he spoke, his voice distant. “But I truly think-”
“Please…” Aeo whispered.
Neither the wolf nor the man paid Aeo any attention. Nor did the pain stop. It grew backwards towards his neck, and his vision began to blur. His head felt heavy and thick, like something was leaking out his ears and nose. Aeo lifted his arm and reached out for Leon’s shoulder. He could hardly find it through the haze of his vision and must have looked grasping and desperate.
For a moment, Leon continued to ignore Aeo’s pleading. Aeo’s tongue barely obeyed him, the bursting pain traveled down his neck and followed his spinal cord. Aeo lost his sense of sight, and both his arms clung to Leon’s arm. The pain spiked, and it felt as though something in his head disconnected and burst open. When Leon finally looked away from Shera, he seemed distant and distracted as if Shera still spoke to him.
Leon’s focus finally rested on Aeo.
“What…? Aeo, are you…?”
Aeo stared at him, unable to speak.
“Shera!” Leon shouted.
Almost immediately, the tightness and pain on Aeo’s head faded, and fuzzy vision swam back into view. Leon stared at Aeo like a painting, and then back at Shera with a distant stare. The snarl had disappeared from her face, though she remained on her front paws and leaning forward at attention. As if the wolf could feel his thoughts and feelings, she gazed at Aeo directly. The thought-voice came clear and gentler than before.
<Some things are difficult to explain.>
“Difficult to explain…?” Leon looked down at Aeo as if seeing him for the first time. “Shera, you… you weren’t protecting him.”
Shera said nothing.
“You could have killed him!” Leon shouted. “We didn’t need to speak of this in front of the boy, we could have taken this elsewhere!” Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s head. “Are you all right, Aeo? Can you see? Can you speak?”
Aeo’s brow raised, then lowered in confusion. Something clicked inside his head. No, not clicked… Poured. His nose bled down his face and across his bare chest, and drops of blood trickled from his ears onto the fur blanket in his lap.
“Goddess! Hold on to me, Aeo!”
Leon lifted Aeo’s face to staunch the flow. It didn’t help, as Aeo sputtered and coughed. Aeo still clung to Leon like a desperate spider. From somewhere out of sight, Leon found cloth and pressed it against the boy’s nose.
“Can you see, Aeo? Tell me you can see me.” Leon said, moisture beading on his own forehead. “Tell me, Aeo! Shera, this argument has already been had, you didn’t need to lash out at me with the boy present! I merely wanted your help in explaining the situation to him. Have you gone mad?”
<Forgive me… I lost myself.>
“I can… see…” Aeo asked quietly, his vision slowly focusing.
“Oh thank heavens,” Leon whispered, and fell quiet for a moment. Aeo looked up at him. While Leon’s nose hadn’t bled like his, Leon looked positively terrible, breathing heavily and sweating as if he’d hiked all the way down the mountain and back up again. Leon wiped the sweat from his mouth. Shera flicked her tail.
<Goddess help me,> Shera said finally, her thought barely an addition to the confusion in Aeo’s mind. She lifted herself off the ground and turned towards the door. <Nothing is wrong with you, young one. You are welcome here as long as it takes for you to heal.>
“Shera, you can’t just leave, what does that accomplish?” Leon said. But the wolf was already halfway out the door. She stepped away with a surprising grace, much more than Aeo would suspect a creature her size. Just as deftly, she closed the door behind her with a thud. As if in response to her prompt exit, the hazy purple mist on the far side of the room suddenly faded away with an audible pop as the lit candles on the wall blew out. To Aeo’s shock, the air in the cave dramatically lowered in temperature as the wooden door swung slightly ajar.
Leon sighed, his breath becoming quite visible in the sudden cold.
“Are you sure you’re all right, Aeo? You can see, can’t you?”
Aeo placed a hand on his own forehead. He must have looked like Leon himself: white as a ghost. Leon nearly hid his own condition as he wiped the blood from Aeo’s face, but Aeo could feel Leon’s hands trembling behind the cloth.
“I’m… I’m f-fine, sir,” Aeo said, lifting his hand to the cloth. Again, his nose turned upwards; the flow of blood had slowed to a crawl in his throat. Dropping the cloth into his lap, his grip on Leon’s arm lessened, and he laid back down in his bed. “I… I made Shera mad.”
“No, you didn’t,” Leon said. He looked down at Aeo, clearing his rattled throat. “She was only angry at me.”
Leon lifted himself, rolling up his sleeves, regardless of the intense chill now blowing through the cavern.
“I’m sorry, Aeo. The blame is mine. I’ll ensure Shera won’t be that irresponsible again… As best I can. I had hoped she would explain to you more about the situation on the mountain, but… it brought up memories that are best left to the past.”
Leon looked down at Aeo.
“Just rest for now… I’ll make sure Pick comes in to watch over you. In the very least, his mental capabilities have yet to achieve his mother’s power.”
Leon crossed the room towards the now extinguished candles and stood over them. Aeo’s eyes still blurred over as if he’d just woken up, but he could have sworn he saw Leon raise a hand towards the candles as if warming himself against the unlit wax. He had no matches or burning stick from the campfire. Instead, Leon bit his teeth down and steadied himself against the wall with one hand as if preparing to shove the stone wall inwards.
It happened slowly at first, then faster and faster: a strange disk-like glyph made of white light emerged from the palm of Leon’s outstretched hand and silently floated towards the wall. The glyph itself looked like a strange foreign icon one might see in some ancient book, shimmering in the dim light. It grew in size like an inflating balloon, stopping only when the strange symbol concealed the candles from Aeo’s view. It hovered in midair for a moment as Leon focused intensely on the light in his hand. Then with a pair of small pops, like the sound of distant clapping, the glyph vanished, leaving behind four lit candles and a familiar purple mist streaming from them like a river of smoke.
“Magick,” Aeo whispered. Did he see that correctly?
Leon pulled himself from the wall, shaking the hand that lit the candles; a strange white effluvium floated away from Leon’s fingertips like fine dust.
“There,” he whispered. “The glyph should hold the chill at bay.”
“You can do magick?” Aeo whispered in a timid voice just loud enough to hear.
“That,” Leon said with a small smile as he stepped towards the campfire, “is something I will talk with you about when I return.”
“You’re leaving, s-sir?”
“For a while. I have some errands to run. I’ll return shortly.”
Aeo relaxed in his bed as Leon walked over with a glass bottle in one hand and a clean cloth in the other. He knelt down, and carefully doused a portion on the cloth in a smelly liquid.
“Here you are,” Leon said, clearing his throat again. “This will help wash the blood off.”
Aeo looked down at his chest; his nose and ears had doused it in caking blood.
“Wait, a… glyph? What’s a glyph?” Aeo whispered.
“Oh, that?” Leon replied. “It’s a ward, specifically. Fairly straightforward. It keeps the cold air from coming through the door, makes it warm and dry in here. It just takes a few candles and a bit of animis.”
“I’ll tell you everything tonight. You need to rest now. Especially after… Shera. I’m going to attempt to talk some sense into her.”
Leon’s voice sounded hoarse for a moment at the end. He went quiet. For a moment, he placed his fingers on his temples.
“Are… are you all right, sir?” Aeo asked.
Leon cleared his throat and didn’t turn around.
“Oh, of course. Don’t worry about me.”
Aeo squirmed beneath his fur blanket.
– 5 –
By sundown, the wind outside had become particularly vicious. Aeo could hear its anger from inside the cave quite clearly. Considering there wasn’t much else to do besides listen and rest, Aeo laid against the back wall of cave and simply…did nothing. For the first time in his young life, there was nothing to clean, nothing to sweep or mop, and no orders to take. It was also the first time Aeo realized his shirt had been removed and put… somewhere. Considering the number of holes and patches keeping it together, Aeo wondered if Leon hadn’t simply thrown it away. Although the blizzard outside told him he should care, Aeo simply didn’t at all for that ratty old thing.
This strange place. Maybe not home. But freedom from worry. Most worry, anyway. Far better than the inn, at least.
Aeo struggled not to think. It didn’t work. There was nothing else to do.
He thought about what he’d be doing back at the inn at that moment. Probably wiping down something. Probably being blamed for something. Probably being hit for something he didn’t do. Maybe refilling Harthoon’s mug and getting it splashed in his face.
Aeo shuddered and stretched his arms.
Never going back.
His limbs no longer felt sore and lifeless. The opposite, in fact. They still 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… What did she even do? Leon said she didn’t ‘protect’ him. His head still hurt from the experience. But it was a distant memory compared to the dull aching pain of his bruised eye and frozen feet.
Aeo tenderly rubbed the bruise. He could feel his heart beat within it.
What would he say to Leon? That he burned down the only home he could remember and fled the scene? He certainly couldn’t admit to being a slave. What if Leon already knew? But there was no family to return to, no friends that would miss him. But he could already imagine Harthoon’s and Aristé’s terrifying faces as they clubbed him to death for burning down the Gray Pale.
But no one in the entire village would miss him. Right? Would they actually send out the bloodhounds after him like the hunters do when tracking a wild animal? Would they search for the boy that burned down the inn and put him to death?
Aeo promptly stopped entertaining those thoughts.
Would Leon and Shera let him stay on the mountain? Or would they force him to return to Olvaren? That couldn’t be true. Leon didn’t seem like a mean or forceful man, nothing like his former masters. He was certainly a man of some refinement if his clothes were any indication. And although Aeo knew Shera didn’t like him at all, Pick was more than happy to be friends.
Maybe he could stay, live on the mountain forever. He decided he wouldn’t mind that. So long as that terrible headaches and nosebleeds stayed at a minimum.
The big cave door creaked. Aeo sat up. In wobbled a great furry mass, which stopped halfway in the cave to shake off the light layer of snow that covered it.
Aeo felt a panic tear through his mind.
Not her! Not now! Not when I’m alone!
A pair of curious eyes spotted Aeo, and the furry creature growled quietly as a thought entered Aeo’s head.
<The color teal. A humil boy hopping up and down.>
“Oh. Hi… Pick,” Aeo said. He attempted to replace the panic in his mind with an interpretation of the foreign thought. “Uh, hopping…? Oh. I don’t think I should walk yet. My toes still hurt.”
After closing the door with the rope, Pick clambered over to the corner of the room where his bed lay. He circled a couple of times and finally rested 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, petting Pick’s muzzle. “Leon said I’ll be better soon. I believe him.”
<The color green. A humil boy chasing a wolf. Then a wolf chasing a humil.>
“You like to run around?” Aeo asked. “Um… Is that… playing?”
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. He nearly succeeded. This time, Aeo defended himself, and received wolf slobber all up and down his hands and arms.
“H-Hey! Eww, d-don’t do that…!” he cried.
Pick obeyed as he placed his head down again. His eyes seemed to grow distant, looking away.
<The color blue. A wolf licking a humil boy.>
Aeo frowned, wiping his arms on the fur blanket.
“Blue is sad? It makes you sad… when you lick me?”
Pick growled and shook his head. That wasn’t it.
“Oh, it makes me sad?”
Pick yipped quietly.
“No, it doesn’t.” Aeo said. “It’s just… messy, that’s all.”
Pick looked up at Aeo from his lap.
<The color blue. A humil den in the snow. A humil boy running away from it.>
Aeo’s eyes grew wide.
“Yeah, I was just… I mean, you… I wasn’t…” Aeo tried to slide backwards only to find himself without sliding room. He placed a hand to his lips and whispered. “Y-You can’t read my mind… can you?”
Pick shook up and down with airy laughter and shook his head back and forth.
“Oh. That’s… Uh, y-yeah, good. I mean, I was just thinking about… some things.”
<The color purple. A humil boy falling down. A wolf howling.>
“Falling…?” Aeo reached out for the bruise surrounding his eye. “Oh, no, I didn’t… trip and fall. Some people… they hurt me. I ran away from them.”
Pick growled louder than he had in the past.
<The color red. A wolf chasing after humils.>
<The color blue. A wolf licking a humil boy.>
“I know, Pick. I got angry too.” He fell silent, but something stirred inside him.
Not sadness. Anger.
“I couldn’t do anything about it. I can never do anything. I’m a worthless… Edian bastard child. I’m useless. I’m lazy. That’s what they 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. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted all those people to stop hurting me. The fire would make it go away. 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 humil den.>
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Aeo said. “It was an accident. At first. But they’d never believe me. They’d never believe I didn’t light it on purpose just to make them stop. It started really small at first, and it even burned my hand, but… It didn’t hurt me. It just kept burning. When they tried to put it out with water, it just burned brighter and brighter…”
Pick watched him silently.
“It didn’t stop them. They just beat me more. Did… this.” Aeo pointed to his face. “Threw me down on the ground and told me to get help. But I didn’t help them. I didn’t. I hope the inn burned down. I hope Aristé and Harthoon are stuck in the cold like me. I hope they’re angry, because they can’t do anything about it. I’m never going back there. No one’s going to make me. I hope they freeze to death!”
Aeo squeezed his eyes shut. He’d never been able to say such things out loud, and he realized his voice had been echoing against the stone walls of the cave. Everything was quiet for a moment except for the howling of the wind outside the door. Pick simply watched Aeo as he regained his composure.
Carefully, Aeo raised his hand and passed it over the soft fur on Pick’s head.
“I’m sorry,” Aeo said quietly.
Pick lifted his head a bit.
<The color purple. An image of a small wolf with two large wolves surrounding it.>
“Two big wolves…? What do you… mean?”
<The color purple. The two large wolves licking the smaller wolf and howling.>
Aeo’s shoulders fell. That thought hadn’t occurred to him in a long time. The only two ‘large wolves’ he’d ever known beat him on a daily basis.
“Oh. A… mom and dad.” Aeo shrugged. “I… I don’t have any.”
“I don’t… know who my dad was. I… guess I had one. Aristé told me my mom died when I was really little. At least I think that’s what they told me. She also said… When I was born, I lived really far away. Then something happened, and I was brought to Olvaren to live with… with them.”
“If I had parents, I don’t think they would have hit me.”
Pick’s head bobbed up and down. He then started panting, and his breath filled the air.
<The color teal. A large wolf licking a small wolf.>
Aeo rubbed his nose with his arm.
“Yeah, I’m glad you have a mommy,” Aeo said. “She takes care of you and she’s never mean to you or makes you do chores…”
<The color blue. A small wolf running away from a large wolf.>
“I don’t… Running away from… Shera? Oh, you mean she does make you do chores? That stinks.”
“But,” Aeo said quietly, thinking. “If… 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 it.”
<The color teal. A humil boy hugging a wolf.>
“Yeah,” Aeo said. “I don’t have to live with Aristé and Harthoon anymore. I can 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. He had a grin on his face, Aeo could tell.
“I’m… sorry,” Aeo repeated. “I don’t want to be sad anymore.”
<The color green. A wolf howling.>
“Just… Don’t tell any of this to Leon or… your mama,” Aeo said quietly. “Okay?”
Pick’s paws rose up and covered his snout.
“Thanks, Pick,” Aeo said.
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. 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 his animis begin to sap away as quickly as 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… trip and fall. Some people… they hurt me. I ran away from…”
Keep talking, boy…
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.
“…fire. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted all those people to stop hurting me. The fire would make it go away. I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted it to get bigger and bigger, and make it all just… disappear!”
A fire. So that was the source of the smoke column.
“I didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. At first. But they’d never believe me. They’d never beli… it on …pose just to ma… em stop. It started really small …first, and it even burn… hand, but… It didn’t hurt me. It just kept burning. When they tried to put it out with water, it just burned brighter and brighter…”
His ear popped, and a bead of sweat formed on his brow. The sound was garbled at best. I can’t handle even this, for a few mere seconds… 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 Aristé and Harthoon are stuck in the cold like me. I hope they’re… because they can’t do …thing about it. I’m never …ing back th…. No one’s going to ma… …. I hope they free…”
With a whirr-like [i]ping [/i]just loud enough to momentarily deafen him, the glyph in his right hand vanished, followed by a silent fading of the left glyph. The trick was finished. Desperate to keep his volume down, he tore open his coat and tore the talisman from his neck. It fell into the snowdrift beside the door as steam began to billow from the small crater of snowflakes it created.
Gingerly, he bent down and scooped up a fistful of snow, passing it underneath his shirt and pressing it against the center of his bare chest. No doubt it would burn for a fair number of hours.
If only I had remembered aloe. I didn’t think I’d be burning myself on this frozen mountain.
He had learned three important things. First, that the boy was indeed the property of the man and woman who owned the inn at the center of Olvaren. He had observed the Edian boy and his Antielli owners before, perhaps a few months prior while gathering supplies from the trail merchants.
Aristé, yes. That was the woman’s name. What a horrid person, to treat a young boy as her own personal boxing dummy. Prejudice and slavery should have died with the War. Yes, the woman and her detestable husband deserved punishment for causing such abuse. But did they deserve for their inn and their livelihood to go up in flames?
Second, the boy had started the fire that consumed the inn. Based on the size of the smoke column that rose from Olvaren the day after the boy had arrived, however… there’s no way a single burning inn could cause it alone. The conflagration must have spread to other buildings, most likely the market next door and the town hall beyond that. Further than this, he could only speculate the potential damage.
And the third piece of pilfered knowledge confirmed what he had felt in the boy: Aeo held a strong animis inside of him for someone of his age, a flickering spark that had the potential to consume everything he touched… or, with proper instruction and guidance, could become a torchlight in the darkness of the boy’s life.
Maybe, Leon thought to himself. Maybe with the boy…
But no. It was too early to think so optimistically. Just about everything at his disposal was untested. Unproven. Seven years of questions, including twenty months on a mountaintop, and still everything remained painfully hypothetical. The boy, if he even had the talent, was simply the most recent complication.
Leon looked around, still pressing the ice to his chest. Shera was nowhere to be found, no doubt scouting the mountain for danger. While he could no longer hear Aeo’s voice inside the cave, the door remained shut.
No need to bother them now.
Leon stooped down, and dug through the ice for his talisman with his free hand. The engraven 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 he knew.
– 6 –
The day continued uneventfully, as much as a day can when everything is new and wonderful in comparison to an old life. Well, wonderful enough despite the very sore feet, itching abrasions, and pulsating facial bruise. Aeo had seen many dogs in Olvaren, but never a wolf, much less a gigantic intelligent one. Pick was surprisingly easy to talk to, and didn’t seem to tire listening to Aeo describe his life at the Gray Pale.
The wolf’s psychic responses were always simplistic, more hazy ideas, concepts, and colors than solid illustrations. It really was like talking to a fluffy two-year old child: sometimes Pick’s thoughts required clarification, which he attempted to give with enthusiasm. Other times, the thoughts would be a little too obscure, or reference a plant, an animal, or an action Aeo didn’t recognize. These foreign concepts were strangely refreshing if not utterly bewildering to have suddenly appear in his mind. It was as if a completely original idea had revealed itself from nowhere, a shape or a movement that Aeo had never dreamed of. Even when Pick described the familiar hopping of a rabbit or the flight of a bird, it felt as though Aeo’s mind had processed the concept for the first time. And quite honestly, many times it was the first time, as Aeo had rarely ever been outside the inn to experience these things.
With Pick dutifully laying his head in Aeo’s lap, their long conversation drifted away into sleep as the afternoon passed by. Just as the sunlight faded from the borders of the great wooden door, the door creaked. Aeo awoke with a start and looked towards the large door. Pick’s ears perked up and he did the same.
The small door opened. In marched the form of Leon, wrapped up tightly in a puffy mountain jacket with a great hood over his head. He was also carrying a curiously shaped package… or was it a curiously shaped bag? Leon placed the bag-package down, clomped his feet at the door, and removed the gloves from his hands. Strangely enough, he now wore a pair of slim-framed spectacles that truly made him look like a school teacher.
“Goodness, it’s coming down out there,” he said to no one in particular. He looked up at Aeo. “Well, how about that? Sitting up in bed and everything. How are your toes feeling?”
Pick looked up at Aeo.
“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. This mountain’s caverns are filled with helpful plants and fungi. if you know to find the right ones, of course.”
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 filled with a red-and-black oily speckled substance; he held it up and jingled it as his eyebrows raised. He then dove back into the bag and produced a roll of cotton bandages.
Leon lifted the fur blanket off of Aeo’s feet and said “Hmm.” What did “hmm” mean? Aeo peered over the blanket, and his stomach sank at the sight. He hadn’t actually seen them himself yet – it was worse than he’d imagined.
“Skin’s peeling a bit,” Leon said. “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?”
“Yeah,” Aeo said.
“Very good, you’ve got feeling. Well, you’re itching, of course you do. Let’s see if we can’t help that…”
Suddenly, Pick’s ears perked up. At the same time, the small door creaked open, and a tiny lonesome spherical figure hopped into the cave, shutting the door behind it. Then, a moment later, the entire wooden door shuddered, and something much larger followed in. In entered Hala and Shera. Shera’s dark eyes immediately caught Aeo’s.
“Oh, hello everyone!” cried Hala. The round fur coat hobbled over towards the campfire, and out of it stepped a foot-tall frog. She was no longer clothed in a bright dress, but a slim leather suit covered in various pockets and satchels. “My my, it gets chilly at this time!”
“Hello, Hala,” Leon said. “Come on in, Shera, there’s room for all of us.”
A much gentler thought arose in Aeo’s head.
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 her.
“Aeo, it’s wonderful you’re up out of bed!” Hala said excitedly as Shera shook off the snow, closed the door, and laid down on top of Leon’s bedding near the wall opposite Aeo. “Well, halfway out, of course. How is the frostbite coming along?” 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.
“Believe me,” Leon said. “This is better 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 assignment for you!”
From one of her pockets Hala produced a thin string made of… silk? Whatever it was, it shined and reflected the firelight like a thin strand of glass. She also produced a small bit of something black like a dark pebble.
“Now, hold that end to the top of his big toe,” she said, and 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.
“What’s she doing?” Aeo asked.
“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. That’s right, I’m going to make sure your feetsies never have to suffer out there again. Perhaps if I have more time, I’ll knit you a fur coat to go along with it!”
“I know how big these projects are for Hala…” He lowered his hand as if measuring Hala, then whispered: “No pun intended.”
“Humph!” Hala said, pushing his hand away.
“She made my bedding and my boots,” Leon said, pointing to his own feet. “She quite the talented seamstress, all with bighorner fleece and buckskin.”
Aeo blinked. Real boots?
“No one’s… ever made anything for me before,” he said shyly. “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! Now, is it feeling a bit cold in here for everyone? No? Just me? Well, I’ll just tend to the fire anyway, make sure it stays warm for the rest of the night…” She turned towards the campfire.
“Don’t tire yourself out, Hala,” Leon said. “I can take care of-”
“Oh nonsense, you giant fool! Nonsense! It’s what I’m here for. Well, the second thing I’m here for. Ha ha!”
Shera, remaining quiet, instinctively motioned herself closer against the cave wall, knowing what was coming. Just as Hala had done the morning before, Hala 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, it’s very impolite to stare!” she cried.
“In case you were wondering,” Leon said, leaning towards Aeo with the bandages. “Hala and her kind have very special talents for keeping warm. It’s how they’ve adapted to the cold of the region, and it’s how they hunt for fish. Their fire cooks the fish immediately, it’s quite the sight. They swim in the springs and underwater currents of Falas, but live in the caves above the water. The unique oil they… well, belch…” to which Hala added another “humph!” “…can burn for hours at a time.”
<And we’re indebted to them,> Shera added. <Without them, Pick and I would no doubt freeze.>
“Oh, it’s no trouble! No trouble at all!” Hala said, reaching for the firewood pile. “Well, it isn’t for me. It’s motherly instinct, after all! Can’t say the same my mate, Ziduf. Or his family. Or Heem, for that matter! Laziest toadies you’ll ever see!”
Leon took his time, dabbing the red substance onto the bandages and around the worst colors of Aeo’s feet. It tickled a couple of times. 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 mist on the opposite wall. It shone all the more apparent in the low light of the campfire, and seemed to flicker with the dancing of the lit candles on the wall.
“Leon, sir,” Aeo said. “Could… Could you tell me about magick now?”
“Certainly. What did you want to know?”
Pick tilted his head.
<An image of a humil man producing fire from his hands.>
“Really?” Aeo pet Pick’s head. “Leon can make fire like that?”
“If I wanted to tire myself out as fast as possible, yes,” he said. He paused, scratching his head. “I suppose I should start at the beginning, shouldn’t I? Like my introduction classes all over again.”
Aeo didn’t know what he meant by that. Leon paused, scratching his arm.
“Magick is… understanding the basic principles and mechanics of the world around us. If you have a strong enough will, you can bend those rules to influence any number of things. Like fire, for instance, or keeping this cave the right temperature like you see with the wards. There are a lot of… mundane magics that can-”
“What’s… mun-dane?” Aeo asked.
“Well, everyday things, boring things. Like boiling water, keeping torches lit, cooling down a hot room, that sort of thing. A lot of magic is mundane, especially where I come from. Not a lot of battles to be fought with fire and lightning.”
Aeo’s eyebrows raised.
“Yes, lightning. Lightning is energy, much like fire. And with practice, energy can be used. Have you ever seen a lusphere? A simple application of energy, but brilliant in every way. It’s a glass sphere about the size of your hand that floats above you in the air. With a single spoken word, it lights up bright as the sun, and unlike a lantern, you never have to relight it or refuel it. I’m sure the folks in Olvaren would marvel at the sight of one.”
“As would we!” Hala said from the other side of the room. “I can’t begin to imagine such a thing.”
“I’ve heard the rituals to produce them aren’t as complicated as you might think,” Leon said. “But the materials to craft them are rare. They can be quite expensive, and unfortunately, there are many forgeries out there that break at the slightest opportunity.” Aeo had never heard of such a thing, so he sat in quiet awe. “I doubt the everyman will ever be able to afford them. But could you imagine something as simple as a world without torchlight, fireplaces, and candles?”
Leon lifted a hand as he wrapped a bandage around Aeo’s foot.
“Anyway, I digress. Let’s see… Someone that practices magic is called an apprentice or a scholar, and often the title means they actually study at an academy. Some people call us wizards, but that term is old and offensive. When a scholar performs magick, they call upon their animis to fuel it. Some scholars and apprentices have stronger animi than others – that’s the world for many animises, by the way. And when you practice magick, your animis can grow, like an acrobat who trains their muscles and flexibility. When you exhaust your animis, just like straining yourself in a long run, it can take a few days of rest to recover. It’s called ‘void sickness’. If you overdo it, I’ve heard of scholars falling catatonic for two or three weeks, and even longer.”
“Like falling asleep but being awake at the same time… Not able to move at all.”
“That sounds scary,” Aeo said, wrinkling his nose.
Now finished with Aeo’s bandages, Leon placed the warm rubber bottles beside and beneath each foot, and covered the boy with the fur blanket.
“It can be. That’s why magick should be a very careful practice. Take your time, study as much as you can. It’s exercise. After all, it takes time to become strong and powerful, right?”
“How powerful are you, sir?”
Leon laughed lightly, looking down.
“Not nearly as much as I’d like,” he admitted. “I can’t toss around lightning or throw fire about. My talents lie in less… dramatic fields of magick, such as alchemy and abjuration.”
“Ab-jur… ate-shun?” Aeo sounded.
“Like the wards,” Leon said, pointing to the shimmering purple magick along the far wall. “Now, not every scholar’s animis has the same potential. Some are talented at wards, like I am, making changes to the environment. Some have skills with elemental magic, like creating fire, lightning, ice, water, moving or sculpting stone. Some are good at healing… I wish I had such talents. If so, your frostbite would already be healed, I imagine.”
“Hmm,” Aeo said.
“Don’t sell yourself short, now Leon,” said Hala. “Without these fancy wards and medicines of yours, why, we would all be much more sickly and much more cold.”
Both Shera and Pick growled in the affirmative.
“That’s true. I should be grateful. I should be glad I don’t have the skills to fight. I’ve never been one for violence. But other scholars and apprentices practice combat, especially those that protect important people, or big cities, or long roads. Even tiny villages like Olvaren call for protection sometimes, and scholars can be paid very well. Sellswords without an academy have to have a lot of strength when it comes to magic. It’s difficult to maintain a strong animis, especially in the midst of battle. Without practice, you could expend all of your animis in one failed attack and become useless.”
“I’d love to fight with magick,” Aeo said. “Then I could…” He paused, choosing his words. “…I could go wherever I want.”
“I suppose that’s true,” Leon replied. ”Most animals can be scared away with a bolt of lightning, and bandits think twice before robbing a man who can light them on fire.”
Leon scratched his face.
“Now, Aeo. There’s something I’d like to try.”
Leon stood up slowly and approached the campfire as if reluctant to do so. If Aeo had seen his face, he would have seen a look of delicate focus. Aeo peeked over Pick’s head. It looked as if Leon were playing with the flames.
“There we go…” Leon whispered.
“Oh, don’t you go and catch the poor boy on fire! I won’t forgive you! What makes you think Aeo can do what you do?” Hala shouted.
“Intuition,” he said quietly.
Leon stepped back over to Aeo, his face illuminated by a strange light. No, not strange. Familiar. The same as the campfire. Leon sat down, and floating between his hands was a gentle flame. Pick suddenly lifted his head and backed away with a slight whimper. Shera looked up in interest.
“Oh…” Aeo whispered.
“As I said,” Leon said, his voice quiet and tense. “All scholars… have a knack for different things. My specialty… is most certainly [i]not [/i]elemental. So, this takes… 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. Hold them up.”
Aeo hesitated. He lifted his hands slowly as if he were holding an open book. He felt the fire’s warmth and hoped Leon didn’t simply dump the fire in his lap.
“There you go, there you go… Put his hands together a little bit more… Good.”
Leon sighed, and the fire danced in his hands as he breathed. His face looked strained.
“All right. I want you to… imagine warmth. Remember how it felt to feel the warm water bottles? Imagine that… Feel the fire warming up your hands.”
Aeo imagined it easily.
“As you’re focusing on that,” Leon continued. “Imagine that warmth in between your hands. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and between your hands… Can you do that?”
“I think so…” Aeo said quietly.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” Leon replied.
Ready? For what exactly? Aeo sat there, arms raised and hands poised between a magical fire, and did his best to follow Leon’s orders. [i]Take all the warmth in my body…[/i] Aeo felt the water bottles in his feet and imagined it moving up his legs. Simple enough. He imagined it moving up into his spine and into his stomach and chest. Then into 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?
A moment later, he cleared his throat.
“Now lift your hands up. Think of the warmth between your hands, and don’t stop. Lift your hands.”
Aeo tried to lift his hands. They wouldn’t move. He tried harder, straining even his back muscles to propel himself upwards. Nothing worked. Something was wrong.
Then Aeo looked: Leon’s hands were gone.
In between his own two hands sat the small flame, dancing back and forth.
With every inhale, the flame would grow smaller and nearly disappear. Every exhale, it would grow larger and more powerful. He’d never seen anything as strange as this. So mesmerizing. His head suddenly felt very dizzy. But he couldn’t fall backwards; the fire held him there. He simply watched it dance like a spinning flower, like a leafy tree blowing in the wind. It seemed to glow like the sun itself. He simultaneously did and didn’t want to close his eyes at this glowing orb in his hands.
“I thought as much,” Leon whispered.
Then, as if some invisible thread pulled free, the fire allowed Aeo to move. His arms trembled from being raised, and try as he might, they slid backwards, bringing the fire closer to his chest. It didn’t waver from the space between his cupped fingers, however. Despite feeling the flame’s warmth very near, the flame felt comforting, familiar.
Aeo’s thoughts burned as bright as the flame. Comforting. As comforting as burning down the Gray Pale Inn. As comforting as receiving a beating. He remembered the dreams of the sun as the warmth fell down upon him, not burning and unbearable, but gentle and soft, the way moonlight felt on his face. He shouldn’t be able to look upon that bright sun from his dreams with his naked eyes, yet he could, and he saw all the colors of rainbow inside that sun. They burned and danced all together like firelight. He could see the flames of the inn growing ever brighter, and he never wanted them to fade…
The memory made the flame in between his hands burn all the brighter. So bright, in fact, that the once small flicker became a larger ball of fire, dancing all the more wildly. He widened his hands as if to drop it, but the flames remained, flaring larger.
Aeo’s jaw fell to the side and he held his breath.
“Wait, wait, wait…” Leon said quietly, quickly leaning over. He took Aeo’s hands and slowly brought them together with his own. “Breathe normally, just breathe…”
Aeo did so. Aeo’s hands slowly came together, and as they touched, the fire went out.
<Interesting,> said Shera.
“It most certainly is,” Hala said with a gasp.
“Aeo,” Leon said, sitting back down. “Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”
Aeo lowered his now shaking hands and stared at them. He said nothing.
– 7 –
Five Days Later
Aeo had seen a bighorn before. A few months ago, a few traders passed through Olvaren leading a fine specimen through the market. Twice as bulky as a full-grown horse and armed with two gigantic spiraling horns that rose from the crest of their heads, they were intimidating but incredibly useful. Where three or four horses were needed to pull a cart, a bighorn could do that and more. Their fleece was a bit rough when compared to sheep or lamb’s wool, but there was so much more of it. And needless to say, a slaughtered bighorn could feed a large family for a month.
Now Aeo stared at about eighty of them, making themselves comfortable in the largest cavern he’d ever seen. The entrance itself wasn’t an obvious one, but the cave sloped downwards for hundreds of meters and widened just as quickly. Aeo could even see a small, distant stream of thermal water pour into a pool near the bottom, around which a small herd of bighorns were drinking. No wonder Shera and Pick could sustain themselves up in these high mountains. Although Aeo didn’t dare go rock climbing yet with his recovering feet, he could peer down further into the cavern and see almost a jungle of strange deep foliage further into the darkness. Not only did this mountain hide an amazing variety of plant and animal life, they all thrived up here without the knowledge of anyone but themselves. There wasn’t any need for fences or barriers to keep the bighorns in. After all, they had everything they could need. Still, Aeo doubted the biggest ones could escape the cave even if they wanted to with the two great horns on their heads.
Aeo gently kicked the frozen ground with his newly sewn fur boots; his toes still itched. But that wasn’t a fault of the boots. In fact, Hala’s boots were perfectly sized and toasty warm, the most wonderful gift he’d ever been given. And an amazing feat of tailoring for a frog besides. Too bad he had no way to thank her except for saying so. Strangely, it made him kind of sick to think about it. Besides the tight flaxen rags that could hardly be called pants Aristé had purchased for him years ago, it was the only gift of kindness Aeo could recall. Besides the boots and his pants, Aeo wrapped himself in a small fur blanket – just warm enough to get outside and go for a short walk.
<Hello Aeo,> he heard in his head. A graceful thought. He turned around to meet a figure that seamlessly blended into the snowy morning air.
“Oh,” Aeo whispered. “H-Hello, Shera.”
The wolf bent down close, sniffing the air around the boy.
<I make you nervous,> she stated simply.
Aeo’s wide eyes said it all.
<There’s no need.>
The wolf stepped off to the side into the bighorn cave. Beside the near wall, she sat herself down and looked back.
<I see now that I was wrong about you.>
“Wrong about… me?”
<You are a special human,> Shera said, shaking to cold off her pristine white coat. <And I don’t speak only about your young talent with magick. You’ve become a great friend to Pick. I thank you. He was born without cub-mates. Most of the frogs don’t care for him like you do, and those that show interest as Heem does bother him. No one truly has time to share with him besides Hala and I. And in these last few days he has had little to share with me that hasn’t included you.>
Aeo clung tighter to his fur blanket.
“I like Pick,” he said.
<And he likes you. Everything about humils interests him. He watches you and Leon and hears everything you say. I worry that he’ll grow up alone and come to hate the mountain for all its loneliness. I worry that he’ll grow to hate me.>
The thought carried with it a form of melancholy Aeo didn’t recognize, like the smell of wet rain on stone. He stepped into the cave and away from the wind as best he could. She was right, though: she did make him nervous. In these last few days, it didn’t seem like Shera paid him much attention. But now she spoke to him openly.
“But Pick’s too nice,” Aeo said quietly. “He doesn’t hate you.”
Shera lowered her face.
<That’s kind of you to say,> she said. <He is a tender boy now, still eager to learn everything about the world.>
Again, Shera bent down towards Aeo, nearly pressing her nose against him.
<I’m afraid he’ll learn about the world as you do,> said said, her thoughts distant and almost cold.
Aeo’s eyes widened a bit more.
<I’m sorry, Aeo,> came the thought almost imperceptible. <Great wolves such as I have the ability to see many things they shouldn’t. When I look at you, when I talk to you, I sense sadness. I sense fear. Everything you see, touch, smell… Everything you experience comes from a dark place. A place I would never want my child to be.>
Shera laid herself down and looked away.
<You make me afraid.>
“I make you afraid?” The thought felt like a dark night on his mind, one where even the wind had quieted to nothing. Aeo almost dropped the fur blanket from his shoulders by the sense of it. “Wait, can you… read my mind? Pick said he couldn’t!”
<His senses are not yet in tune. I cannot read your mind, boy, but I can feel the source of your emotions.>
Aeo looked down at the ground.
“I don’t understand…” he said.
<You are very kind for a human.> Shera said, looking back at Aeo with her head laid low. <There are many things on my mind right now, and I apologize for sharing them with you before they have properly formed. It is difficult to think without speaking the worlds aloud.>
As ‘aloud’ as her words could be, of course. Aeo sniffed the cold mountain air.
“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “I just… feel lost. Like…”
<Like you don’t know where you belong?>
If she could read his mind, she didn’t hide it well.
<You’re much like Leon,> she said, her tail flicking back and forth. <”Not sure of your place in the world. Don’t tell him I said so. He is a very thoughtful man.”>
Shera lifted herself up slightly.
<You should know, it was Leon who convinced me that I shouldn’t eat you. You should be grateful to him.>
Aeo took an unconscious step backwards.
The giant wolf huffed in and out as if laughing, much like Pick did.
<I’m glad I didn’t after all.>
No thoughts came with her words. Aeo honestly couldn’t tell if she were joking or not.
<I’ve made you worry enough for now, young one. Leon is searching for you. He is studying in his cave further up the trail. You may want to go help him.>
“I’ll… I’ll go find him.”
Shera rested herself along the cave wall and said no more. Aeo stepped away. It was no offense to the great wolf, but Aeo was more than happy to find another place to be.
* * * * * *
A very narrow, right-angled cave entrance met Aeo. He slipped in between the rocks only to find that the cavern opened up dramatically into an expansive chamber. It traveled dozens of meters to a far wall, against which spewed forth a torrent of steaming water into a rushing river that flowed downwards and disappeared into the darkness. Dull stalactites hung from the ceiling above, and almost dead in the center of the cave top opened a crack the cave which led above ground. Daylight filled the cavern, revealing the hanging mosses and vines growing on the rough stone walls. Flowers and seed pods flourished between cracks and roots spilled right into the spring water, providing all the plants everything they needed to grow. The variety of colors almost blinded him.
The moment he entered the cave, Aeo noticed a pair of candles placed on the side wall, and purple mist bleeding downwards; another of Leon’s wards. The cold wind of the outside ceased immediately as he stepped past it, and he shed his fur blanket after a moment from the comfortable rise in temperature.
“Ah, Aeo! Good morning!”
Leon stepped away from a makeshift table made of stone towards Aeo and placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. Aeo hadn’t noticed it before, but Leon was a very tall man, and looked very much like nobility with his brass spectacles, his white longshirt, and an embroidered jerkin.
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay, sir,” Aeo said.
“Just okay? How are your feet?”
“They hurt a little.”
“Give it time,” Leon said. He looked down. “Those boots look good on you. Didn’t I tell you Hala is good at her work?”
“They’re really comfy,” Aeo agreed.
Leon stepped back towards the stone table and his instruments. To the right of the stone surface sat a variety of strange tubes, jars, and small metal tools Aeo didn’t recognize, no doubt Leon’s collection of implements for studying… whatever he was studying. On the table itself, glass containers bubbled with strange liquids inside, warmed by small flames beneath; what fueled the flames Aeo didn’t know. Leon’s bag sat against the left of this table, and beyond sat a small wooden box filled with an organization of strange plants and fungi. Aeo approached them, but didn’t dare touch them.
Leon adjusted a few knobs attached to the glass contraptions and looked over at Aeo.
“You wouldn’t want to eat many of those,” he said. “While this mountain may be a wonderful place for the wildlife, the plants and roots can be quite poisonous for humils.”
“What was the stew made of?” Aeo asked, remembering the odd colors and textures.
“Bighorn meat, of course. And, hmm… this one,” Leon said, pointing to a small purple leafy plant that looked like a blooming flower. “This one,” he said, pointing to a large gray mushroom. “And this one, my favorite,” pointing to a lumpy green vegetable shaped like a carrot. “Tastes like an Revari radish with the texture of a potato, especially when boiled. I haven’t named it yet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t excellent.”
“And the rest of these,” he continued. “Can be dangerous unless extracted correctly. Most people are allergic to junik flower. Fortunately, I’m one of the lucky ones, I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Hazelnut flowers will…clean you right out, if you catch my meaning.” Aeo wasn’t sure he did. “Opetra root… Or at least something resembling it… Will make you blind in minutes. It wears off in a day or two, but one should still be careful. Although many of these plants and fungi look like others I’ve studied, some are quite unique to these caverns. Like this one…”
Leon picked out a stalk that didn’t look all that interesting, like a stunted stem of lavender with bright red petals.
“This is red madwort. Alyssum igneus.” Leon looked down at Aeo as if guilty. “I know, technical names aren’t my strong suit. But this is the most exciting type of flower I’ve found down in these caves. There’s loads of them. They grow both in and out of the water, and the cavern fish love to eat it. Hala and the other frogs I’ve spoken with say it tastes too bitter to them, but I’ve seen some cavern fish leap right out of the water just to grab a few flower pods on the way back down. Drives them mad. I’m currently trying to figure out why, and why alyssum grows in these caves of all places and nowhere else.”
“Can you eat this one?” Aeo asked.
“Eh… I wouldn’t,” Leon answered. “If you want an awful stomach ache. I don’t know why I tried it, but I did. Curiosity for its own sake. Oh, Aeo, if it’s not too much trouble for your feet… Do you see those bundles of alyssum down there next to the water? Would you mind bringing those up here for me while I prepare some tools?”
Aeo looked down towards the burbling hot pool and saw two small wooden crates filled to the brim with the bright green stems and ruby flowers. He placed the fur blanket on the ground and carefully made his way down the smooth floor of the cave—it felt as though Hala’s leather boots only gave him so much traction. The steam blowing off the rippling water smelled of wet grass and dirt, and felt amazing compared to the dry cavern residence he’d been in all week. Although his toes felt sore, he bent down easily enough and picked up one of the boxes; they didn’t weigh much at all.
Aeo returned with both boxes in his arms without slipping or sliding.
“Just place them to the side there,” Leon said, pointing over the open ingredient box they’d examined previously.
“This place is amazing,” Aeo said quietly, looking back at the waterfall gushing out of the side of the wall.
“Never seen anything like this place, have you?” Leon said.
“No sir,” Aeo said. “I never got to leave the inn by myself. They…”
Aeo stopped. A cold sweat hit his forehead immediately.
“The inn, eh? In Olvaren?” Leon didn’t turn around from fixing the glass bulbs and tools. “Is that where you lived?”
Aeo said nothing. His stomach turned. When the silence lasted a lot longer than it should have, Leon turned around, adjusting his glasses. He audibly sighed.
“Here, Aeo, I have a job for you. It’s not hard,” Leon said. “Take this.”
He bent down to his bag and produced a strange stone bowl and a peculiar marble instrument.
“It’s called a mortar and pestle. The bowl’s the mortar, this tool is the pestle. Take some of the alyssum, peel off the flowers, and grind those up nicely in the mortar. Careful not to drop the mortar, it’s a bit… special to me. Do you understand? Here, let’s get you seated on the ground.”
Aeo obeyed, sitting in front of the strange tool. Leon took a few bits of alyssum from the box, and placed them to the side. He peeled a few flowers off and placed them in the mortar, and Aeo followed suit. The alyssum flowers came off the stem quite easily. With enough tiny flowers inside the mortar, Leon stopped him.
“Now, it’s a bit tricky to grind them up correctly,” Leon said, taking the pestle in his hand and beginning the process. “Don’t just stir them around. Take the pestle in your hand like this, and mash them up in a circular motion. Here, give it a go, let’s see how you do.”
Aeo took the pestle and did his best to repeat Leon’s movements. The grinding of marble pestle on stone mortar made his teeth tingle, but he continued on.
“There you go, be sure to keep the scrapings in the center, pull them down. Good, good. You should start to see red liquid forming at the bottom of the mash. That means you’re doing it properly. Keep it up, and we’ll have what we need to get started.”
“Started on… what?” Aeo asked.
“Distillation for alyssum extract,” Leon said. “Do you know what that means?”
Aeo shook his head and kept grinding.
“That’s all right,” Leon said. “It means it will make the alyssum pure and concentrated. Break it down into its basic ingredients, see what it’s made of. It’ll help me see exactly what makes alyssum so special.”
“Be sure not to get any on your hands,” Leon said, standing. “The skin absorbs it quite easily, and it will stain you red.”
Everything fell quiet for a short time. Aeo continued his work, thoroughly unsure if his grinding made any difference. He did begin to see a bit of red liquid, so he kept circling and smashing. Leon turned and produced a small leather-bound notebook and a pencil from his pocket. Before he lifted the pencil to write, however, he stopped and removed his glasses.
“Aeo,” he said, clearing his throat.
Aeo straightened up.
“Have you ever heard of the Royal Archives of San’Doria?”
“It lies just outside the city of San’Doria. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of San’Doria itself? That’s all right. The city is quite the ways away from Olvaren, perhaps seven or eight weeks south by carriage. Far enough to make you quite sick of the road.”
Leon turned around, placing a hip on the stone table and folding his arms.
“Anyway, the Archive is where I grew up. My parents were researchers there. Always studying something, always searching for books and scrolls and information they presented to… nobles, government officials, anyone who came looking for something.”
Leon laughed lightly.
“They… didn’t have much time for me. They always left me in the charge of a tutor, Algus was his name. A cranky old man, but he cared for me like a grandfather. Every day was lesson after lesson, learning how to be polite to strangers, learning maths and geometry, old spells and wards from enormous books, learning about plants and animals and how everything in this world is connected to the Goddess. He never was a very religious man, but considering the evidence, I think he knew enough to teach me about divine topics whenever I asked despite what he believed. But geography was my favorite, learning about all sorts of towns and cities and countries I didn’t think I’d ever get to see. Algus always winked at me during these lessons, like he knew something I didn’t. Maybe he taught me how to travel before I ever did.
“But I never left the Archive. I lived there, I played there, I studied there… I didn’t see anything but bookshelves and catalogues until I was grown enough to travel to the city by myself. Maybe… sixteen? Seventeen? I was too scared to sneak out and go on my own, especially with all the constant news of bandits and thieves always traveling the roads. I never had any friends besides Algus to goad me on, either. In fact, the only time I saw the sun was outside in the Archive courtyard. Always full of foreign visitors and diplomats, so I could never run and play like a normal child. But at night, when all those people departed, the courtyard became my favorite study hall.
“Algus taught me everything I know about magick. He was an abjurist as well. He taught me how to keep rooms the right temperature. He also taught me how to defend against destructive magicks, how to light up a dark room without a torch, how to project your voice and image somewhere far away…”
“You can do that…?” Aeo asked.
“It takes practice, but yes,” Leon said. “And I used to practice every day. Every so often my mother would check on my progress and test me… I won’t lie, it was the only time I ever remember seeing her. She was always… distant, like something else was always on her mind. My father rarely visited me, always off on some important trip to far away cities and lands. He was a very important man, my father. The nobility of the city and even the King would call for his help all the time. For all his travels, I never left that Archive, my whole childhood…”
Aeo didn’t say anything. That sounded too familiar.
“My father was an old man by the time I gained the courage to travel. I was in a place called the Everspring Academy when he… died.”
“He died?” Aeo asked. “How?” He stopped stirring the pestle and put his hand to his mouth. “Er… I mean…”
“It’s all right,” Leon said, putting a hand up. “No one knew how he died. My mother and I were never allowed to see his body. Assistant archivists insisted he’d developed a heart condition in his travels. Others said a mysterious stomach or liver lesion. I never believed it, my father never showed any signs of ill health. But he would help anyone who asked for assistance, which landed him in hot water many times. If he chose to help the wrong kind of person… It could have proven disastrous.”
“You think someone… killed him?”
“I don’t know,” Leon said. He fell strangely silent and his eyes fell to the side, like something had crossed his mind.
“…were you angry?” Aeo asked. “Or sad?”
“Both,” Leon said. “Near the end, my father had started to… connect with me. Too little too late, I suppose. After that, I settled into my new life at the Everspring Academy, close enough to my mother that I could look out for her but far enough away that I could feel… independent. Somehow my mother continued her work after my father had gone, and hardly showed any sadness at all…”
“Wow,” Aeo said, continuing to mash with the pestle. “So… why are you here with Shera and Pick and Hala and not with your mom?”
Leon’s turned and pointed to the alyssum flowers.
“I was looking… for those.”
“For these?” Aeo asked. “Why?”
“They’re important for my research,” Leon answered. “It’s… complicated. They’re made of very special ingredients and grow in this very special place. They don’t usually grow out in the snow, but about a year and a half ago, traders found some growing out of a hole here on the mountain and sold them in Antiell. Said they came from the Falas Mountains. So, I searched Falas myself and found… well, I found Shera.”
Leon pointed to his head.
“She did not accept my arrival kindly. I had to make many promises to her to keep her and Pick comfortable and, more importantly, safe from other humils.”
“I don’t think she likes me…” Aeo said.
“Trust me, Aeo,” Leon said. “She likes you a lot more than she likes me. I have a feeling that you…”
Leon pushed his glasses up to the bridge of his nose.
“Ah, never mind about that. Let’s see how your alyssum is coming, eh? Got quite a bit of liquid? Good, that should be enough for the first one. Come pour the liquid into this container and we can get you started on the next one.”
– 8 –
Aeo and Leon entered the residential cave first as the light began to fade over the mountain. Pick and Shera were nowhere to be found, and the pair hadn’t passed them watching over the flock of bighorns on the way over.
“Strange,” Leon had said. Aeo didn’t ask him why.
The snow had just begun to settle down; autumn had only fallen a few weeks ago. Leon settled his bag down with a sigh, and Aeo felt a strong desire to dive straight for his fur blankets. Sometime during the day, the smokey violet wards near the door had been snuffed out, leaving the cavern bitterly cold and dry.
“Hold on, Aeo,” Leon said, holding up a finger and rummaging through his bag. He produced a thin metal rod and an odd piece of stone. “Have you ever started a campfire before? I have a flint stick, makes things simple.”
Aeo pulled a funny face from inside the fur blanket wrapped about him, and Leon saw it.
“…still nervous about fire, eh?”
“I, um…” Aeo rubbed his hands together. “I don’t… I don’t know if I… should.”
Leon removed his hood and gloves.
“That’s understandable,” he said. “You’ve only just begun to understand the kind of power you have inside you. It’s not like you’re used to lighting things on fire with your bare hands. Or even lighting your hands on fire.”
Aeo agreed with a nod, attempting to suppress any images of a burning inn in case Leon also had some mysterious form of telepathy.
“Fortunately for all of us,” Leon said, standing. “Magick isn’t the only way to get things done in this world. The natural world sorts itself all the time without it. In fact, it might do you some good to remember that magick isn’t always going to be the correct answer to your problems.”
Aeo frowned. How could unlimited power at his fingertips not be the answer to every problem?
“Honestly though, Aeo, you’ve never started a campfire yourself? A fireplace? A lantern? Any fire at all?”
Aeo nearly flinched at “lantern”. He played with his hands.
“They… I mean, I was told never to play with matches,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed.”
Leon stroked the rough stubble on his chin.
“I suppose that makes sense. One should never give matches to a young magickal arsonist, no matter how little mischief they plan to get into.”
A slight grin appeared on Leon’s face. Ar-son-ist? Aeo didn’t know the meaning of the word, nor did he ask for the definition. And mischief was the last thing on Aeo’s mind. When Leon didn’t receive an anticipated reaction from the boy, he cleared his throat
“Well, here,” he said, stepping towards the wood pile near the door. “Let’s treat this as your first lesson in the art of fire. No magick this time. All manual. First, you have to find appropriate pieces of wood and kindling to make the fire accept a spark and steadily grow in size. You’d wear down your flint stick and steel to stubs trying to light an entire cold, wet log. Here, take this one… and these two…”
Within ten minutes’ time, Aeo and Leon had together constructed a small lean-to with sticks and filled it with wispy wood flakes and twine. Then, admittedly nervous, Aeo took the black flint stick in one hand and Leon’s curved piece of steel in the other. Kneeling on the ground before the campfire, he could still see smolders of smoke rising from the ashes nearer the edges of the stone circle. It seemed very simple; rub the flint stick with the steel rod and you’ll see sparks. Aim the sparks just right and you’ll get a fire.
Aeo breathed for a moment. This wasn’t magick. He wasn’t about to incinerate anything. This was just a simple trick and nothing more. He steadied his hands and slid the edge of the flint with the steel rod. A few sparks flew, but to nowhere in particular. They fizzled out as quickly as they had appeared, surprising him that they’d even existed.
“Lean down a little,” Leon said. “Aim it right into the center of the kindling. The sparks will follow.”
Aeo bit his lip and bent down further until his grip of the steel touched the lean-to. With a shaky hand, he drew the steel against the flint stick again, spitting sparks from the steel and magnesium. The direction was right, but the sparks didn’t connect with the soft mass of fibers. A second time. More sparks, right direction, no results. Third time, much the same.
Fourth time: several large sparks flew right into the bundle. Their orange glow connected and became pinpricks of vulnerable heat beneath a frozen world. Aeo very nearly continued the process.
“No, that’s good, that’s enough,” Leon said with his hand on Aeo’s shoulder. “See the embers? Now lean down and blow on them, Aeo, and blow gently. It won’t go out, I promise. In fact, fire wants for nothing but more air.”
Aeo blinked. Setting the steel and flint rods aside and bending down as low as he could without hurting himself, he breathed in deep and exhaled. The golden coals flared to life with his breath, growing bright and crawling up the tinder like a small shining demon. No flame.
“Keep going,” Leon said.
Aeo gave another big blow. This time the coals within the flaxen bundle began to excrete a thick grey spout of smoke. Another exhale, and the smoke began to bend its trajectory towards Aeo’s face. Aeo inhaled a little too much, and turned away from the nascent plume, coughing.
“Ha, you may have power over fire, but smoke is a different matter entirely, isn’t it? Keep blowing.”
Aeo nodded and gagged at the same time. Turning back to the campfire, smoke consumed the bundle but showed no signs of flame. Thinking more clearly, Aeo turned his head away from the smoke to inhale, then turned back to exhale. WIth his blow, the smoke developed a voice, a youthful grumbling roar like wind rushing through a tiny hole. Another burst of air, and the roar continued.
Finally, with a pair of extra-large lungs full of air, Aeo blew. In a small noiseless burst, the smoke suddenly gave way to a warm and familiar glow. Tendrils of flame curled upwards, hungrily grasping for the twigs and small branches.
“There you go, Aeo,” Leon said. “Excellent work. How does it feel?”
Aeo sat up in front of the fire, crossing his legs and staring into it in awe.
“Warm, sir,” Aeo said, a bit mindless.
“I’m aware of that,” Leon said with a grin, adding a few pieces of wood to the campfire. “I mean how do you feel?”
Aeo looked down at the flint stick and curved steel bar in his hands.
“I thought you could only make a fire with matches,” Aeo said. “How do these things make sparks?”
“Well,” Leon said. “How does a match work?”
“You rub it on the box… and it lights up,” Aeo said, mimicking the motion.
“Have you ever noticed what’s on the match? Or what part of the box you strike the match against?”
Aeo shook his head. He hadn’t had time to closely investigate them during his last encounter. He only knew what Aristé had shown him, which was minimal at best.
“The matchhead,” Leon said. “Is covered in special chemicals that ignite when a little bit of friction is applied. Do you know what friction is?”
Aeo shook his head again.
“When one object slides across another,” Leon continued, unabated. “Like a match against a matchbox, or a whetstone grinding against a knife’s edge, this is friction. When you strike the steel against the flint rock, you create friction.”
“So… friction makes fire?”
“When enough is applied, yes,” Leon said. “But with the right conditions and materials, it happens more easily. When your steel strikes the flint, tiny particles of iron are torn off and the friction makes these particles burst into flames, creating your bright sparks.”
Leon pointed to the steel and flint in Aeo’s hands.
“So,” he said. “While you may not always have matches at your disposal, so long as you have a bar of steel in your supply bag – or a steel blade – you’ll be able to make a fire almost anywhere. Flint is quite common, while matches are not. Understand?”
Aeo nodded. That made sense.
“But what about magick?” Aeo asked. “Can’t you make fire with magick?”
“Certainly,” Leon said. “But a scholar or a hunter wouldn’t last long out in the world relying on magick only. No matter what you might think, animis is finite. Do you know the word ‘finite’? It means ‘limited’, it has an end. Remember animis? My animis has limits. Yours does too. Think of animis as a pool of water. I can’t make wards over and over again endlessly, as each one empties my ‘pool of water’ until there’s no water left. But with the tools in my pack, I can confidently build a fire no matter the condition of my animis. If I’m knowledgeable about forests and the wilderness, I can forage for food and find clean water without resorting to magick. And if I’m talented with potioncraft and alchemy, I can heal the wounds of my friends and preserve life, even if I don’t know the right incantations. The world is full of tools, materials, and ingredients that can do wonderous things and help us preserve our magick for when we need it the most. Does that make sense?”
“So the hunters were right… They said it’s possible to turn lead into gold, but that it’s really hard. Er… difficult.”
“It is,” he admitted. “It’s called transmutation, turning one material into one of equal or lesser value. It requires a lot of lead and a lot of energy to make even a small amount of gold. I wouldn’t be surprised if some unprincipled adventurer tried to transmute a bit of lead into something that merely looked like gold. After all, not many have actually seen and hefted a bar of gold. It might have even been a petty illusion.”
“I wanted to be a hunter once,” Aeo said. “But all the hunters that show up anymore are really angry and drunks. They hate kids, and they’re really mean to… um…”
Aeo’s blood ran cold and he froze. He tried not to widen his eyes or looked frightened, but it showed through quite transparently.
“Aeo,” Leon said, placing his hand on the boy’s hesitant shoulder. “I don’t want you to be frightened of me or the past. I want to earn your trust. I think I have a good idea of what happened in Olvaren, but I want you to tell me the whole-”
In a violent burst of fierce chilling wind, the whole cave door flung wide open as if it had been torn from its rickety hinges by an angry giant. Coincidentally, it had, as there stood Shera in the open doorway, snarling ferociously. Aeo and Leon gasped as they saw her jaws and her neck covered in bright red blood. The young campfire froze along with them, extinguished in the burning mountain frost.
“Shera!” Leon cried, leaping to his feet. “What-”
<THE BOY> Shera cried, her eyes directed right at Aeo. <THE BOY LED THEM HERE>
Aeo reached for his ears, despite the lack of sound. Shera’s words were unmistakable and pierced the entirety of Aeo’s mind, popping his ears and filling his brain with an intense pressure strong enough to make his head burst. There was no reason in these words. Rage. Fury. Nothing like the graceful wolf she seemed to be just hours before.
The words carried images with them. Images of violence. Of a young wolf injured and caught by hunters. Of a mother defending her child. Of a deal struck… an ultimatum.
“Shera, where is Pick?” Leon asked. Shera ignored him.
<THEY DEMAND THE BOY>
Without another word, Shera forced her way into the cave, shoving Leon aside easily with her mass. To Aeo’s horror, her intent became perfectly clear. Without care or delicacy, Shera’s mouth opened wide and her blood-soaked teeth clamped firmly around Aeo’s torso and the blanket he wore.
“N-No!” Aeo shouted, now horizontal in her maw. He knew exactly what Shera’s words meant. “No, don’t take me back! You can’t take me back! S-Stop! Please!!”
“Shera, stop! Shera!” Leon said, holding his arms out and blocking her path through the door. “Shera, put him down! There is another way!”
The next words that Shera uttered couldn’t be repeated by humil or ashanti mouths, as technically there were no letters, icons, symbols, or even lip shapes to pronounce them. They simply were, existing just as much as a single terrible thought than as a lifetime of rich memories. The words were obscure but quite clear. Horrific and bloodthirsty but somehow playful and curious. No matter how a scholar might have described these words in a zoology textbook, there was one description that stood out to Leon and Aeo in that moment.
The last thing Aeo remembered before he blacked out was Leon’s eyes rolling back into his head and his entire form collapsing like a ragdoll onto the cold stone floor.
* * * * * *
The next thing Aeo remembered was a sudden abundance of gravity before crashing headfirst into an embankment of snow. The silence he had experienced from Shera disappeared before the joyous shouts of men and women. Why were they cheering? Were they celebrating something?
A shadow appeared above him, blocking the already dwindling sunlight.
“Found you,” came the insidious whisper.
Without another hint of warning (as if Aeo required one), a great pair of hands greedily latched onto his neck and squeezed, cutting off oxygen and blurring his vision. The hands lifted Aeo into the air with surprising and unfamiliar strength, and then threw him sideways. Unprepared for the whiplash, Aeo collapsed onto hard ice only to be pinned down by a heavy cleated boot.
<YOU HAVE THE BOY> came the thought-deafening telekinetic tone of Shera. <RETURN MY CHILD>
Aeo lifted his head as far as he could. Blood leaked freely from his nose, and though his frostbitten eyes were hazy, he could see several humil people standing around carrying burning torches and makeshift weapons. Unfortunately, he recognized some of them. They were from Olvaren. Some of them were more heavily armored and equipped: hunters.
Then, as if a whisper in a breeze, Aeo felt an image float to the top of his consciousness:
<The color purple. A humil boy hugging a wolf.>
“Pick…” Aeo groaned despite the pressure on his back, his eyes scanning around him. The thoughts echoed as if nearby, but offered no direction. Aeo dared to look backwards for just a split second, and he saw him: a ball of fluff curled on the cold earth, covered in blood… Pick wasn’t moving. The boot against Aeo’s back pounded downwards, knocking the breath out of his lungs and threatening to crack something.
“Shut up, you Edian piece of shit,” came a rough and ominous voice. “Another word out of you and I’ll break your arm.”
“Yes, you gave us the Edian!” cried someone in the crowd, a woman’s voice. “Now you’ll hold up your end of the bargain! Leave these mountains and never return unless you want your entrails ripped out and your bones carved up!”
<RETURN MY SON> Shera said. <HOLD TO YOUR PROMISE>
The words, filled with vicious rage, pumped through Aeo’s mind. His nose continued to bleed.
“Yes, of course, our… promise…” said the woman. Some of the other villagers and hunters began laughing. Aeo tried to look for Shera. He couldn’t see her. “Seeing as how you killed my men… We’d rather like to keep the little one for ourselves. A down payment for the reconstruction of Olvaren, you see. I imagine the wizards in the Capital would pay top dollar to study this adorable little specimen…”
This time, there were no nameless words, no darkness. Whether Shera had exhausted herself mentally or had simply become enraged beyond humil understanding, her vicious growl made the snow and earth rumble. Then, an inhuman scream raged from the mountaintop.
“Steady, men,” said the woman. “She’s already exhausted. Keep your spears low and aim for her throat or eyes!”
<The color purple. A giant wolf licking a little wolf.>
“Pick, please…” Aeo whispered, hot tears flooding his eyes. This was his fault. All of it. Leon was right; he ran away from the Gray Pale and put them all in danger. Shera killed Leon. Shera was about to be killed herself. Hala would freeze on top of the mountain along with little Heem. And Pick… Pick was probably already dying.
Aeo couldn’t see it, but the battle began with a white blur and the crunching of bone. One by one, hunter after hunter attempted to lunge forward with spear and sword, and each was torn apart by massive jaws and merciless claws. Even those hunters that wore heavy metal armor were as tin cans to the monster, and limbs came off easily at the joints. The virgin snow soon became crimson as the Eastern tides; how many hunters died within those ten seconds, Aeo would never know. He only heard the shout that came moments into the one-sided fight:
“Back to the treeline! Damn it, Paulsen, forget the boy! Drag the wolf if you have to!”
The boot from Aeo’s backside lifted and vanished. Aeo stumbled to his feet and immediately ran to Pick’s side, despite the heavily-clad hunters that were currently attempting to drag Pick away on a sheet of leather. Pick was indeed covered in blood, a pair of arrows hanging limp in the thick, matted fur of his side.
“Pick!” Aeo cried, touching the wolf’s ear. “Pick, please, I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he looked at the hunters. “Don’t take him away! Please don’t take him!”
Pick’s head rose, and a single eye looked up at the boy.
<The color green. A humil boy hugging a wolf.>
“Get off!” said the hunter. He turned and planted his boot right in Aeo’s face, launching him backwards. Right at that moment, Shera’s massive form collided with the two hunters from the invisible white. She then proceeded to mangle one of them as Aeo attempted to regain his footing.
“Pick, wait, I’m-”
Something struck him hard in the back of the head. A tree branch. A walking stick, perhaps. Its source became crystal clear.
“I’m not letting some wolf steal you away from me,” said Harthoon’s voice. “You haven’t even begun to suffer…”
Aeo struggled as best he could, but his head was spinning. Harthoon’s arms – objects that Aeo had never considered as having much strength – closed around his scrawny waist and carried him away towards the village. Away from Shera. Away from Pick.
“N-No!!” Aeo cried. “Pick! Pick!!”
Pick didn’t move. No thoughts came to Aeo’s mind.
– 9 –
In the week and a half Aeo had been missing, Harthoon the Drunkard became someone Aeo no longer recognized. For as long as Aeo had known him, he’d worn a thick dark beard and wore his curled hair long to his shoulders. His bloodshot hazel eyes were mischievous at best, always looking where they shouldn’t. His posture was nearly always found wanting, making him look like a tired old man. He had worn a dark coat and black trousers wherever he went, and he smelled like horse piss and alcohol.
That man no longer existed. In his place stood a completely sober, clean-shaven, short-haired hunter with bare arms made of iron and wrath in his eyes. Only his voice was unmistakable. Aeo fought for release from Harthoon’s arms, but Harthoon’s grip only tightened, crushing the boy’s ribs and organs in the awkward struggle. Strapped to Harthoon’s back was a short polearm of some fashion used for bludgeoning, and at his belt hung a long dagger of frontier make.
Now distant from the roars of the wolf mother and the remains of fallen hunters, Aeo fought all the harder to break free. To his surprise, Harthoon suddenly released him. No, not released: tossed. Quite violently. Aeo tumbled and rolled down a short embankment, not scrambling away fast enough to escape before Harthoon pounced and crouched over him.
“To say that you ain’t worth the blood in your body…” he whispered. His words were uncharacteristically pronounced and brimming with venom. Without adding more, he pulled the long dagger from his belt; it had surely been sharpened precisely for this moment. Breathless, Aeo clawed at the frozen dirt to break away backwards. Harthoon jumped forward with equal agility, slamming a boot on Aeo’s blood-stained chest. “No, no, no, no running away this time. You take everything from me, I take everything from you. That’s the deal!”
Harthoon lifted the gleaming dagger above his head, and thrust it downwards.
Aeo lifted his hands against the sharpened tip, and his eyes squeezed shut.
Both then heard a crisp ping sound, much like the sound of a bard striking a particularly cogent D note on a harp. Harthoon must have had his eyes shut during the blow as well, as it took him a moment to realize that, despite his target laying prone on the ground mere inches away, the dagger had somehow missed the mark. In fact, the strike seem to bounce as though he’d struck plate metal.
“The hell…?” he whispered, raising the dagger again. With added force, the dagger plunged at Aeo’s defensive hands.
Ping, followed by a fading blue light. He nearly fumbled the dagger from the deflection of the stab.
“No!” he bellowed.
Harthoon struck the dagger downwards again, this time aiming for the boy’s stomach.
Ping, followed again by a fading blue light.
“No, no, Goddess damn you!”
Harthoon, with both hands, thrust the dagger at Aeo’s head. Aeo flinched.
Ping, followed again by a fading blue light.
“Why… won’t… you… bleed?!” he cried, punctuating each word with a thrust of his dagger. Each was then followed by the bright ping and the fading of magickal blue light.
Aeo’s labored breathing paused. What was happening, how was he doing this? Was he doing this?
“I can’t kill you…” Harthoon whispered, panting. “I can’t… I can’t even kill you…”
He looked at the dagger in his hands.
“I always knew… taking an Edian into our home… was a bad idea. But no, Aristé insisted… on a child. Innocent… But your red eyes followed us everywhere, always watching, always judging. I know your kind. Parasites. No matter how kind we are, giving you food, a place to sleep, water, medicine… Your kind drive decent men insane. Foul bloody magick, it’s always bloody fucking magick….”
Harthoon looked straight into Aeo’s eyes.
“It’s gone, you know. My home. The Gray Pale. The Marketplace. The Great Hall. It’s all gone. Burned down by a magickal fire that water and snow couldn’t extinguish. The fire burned for four days straight. Does that make you happy? First your laziness drove Aristé to the very ends of her health, you make everyone think I’m some Goddess-forsaken drunk, and then you light our entire livelihood on fire, poof,” He made a gesture with his hands. “Gone. Nothing but ashes.”
He then pointed up towards the mountain peak.
“Wolves,” he whispered. “You survived Falas by holing up with those bloodthirsty… monsters? What are you, boy? Some kind of fucking demon?”
“They’re not… monsters,” Aeo said with a whisper. “They’re my… friends.”
Harthoon’s head cocked to one side as if madness had taken him.
“Friends,” he replied. Harthoon’s boot pressed down against Aeo’s abdomen, forcing the air out of him and leaving him gasping. “Your… friend… just murdered two dozen good hunters, tearing them limb from limb and leaving them to die on the mountain. Your friend just gave you to me to save its ugly spawn. You have no friends, boy. And guess what? I’m going to hunt again. That’s right. I’m going to climb this mountain and hunt down every last wolf, kill every last pup with my bare hands, just like the hunters of old did with the mephandras. I’ll be the richest man in Olvaren, and take back what you stole from me.”
Harthoon sighed, pressing his foot down harder. Aeo’s eyes bulged. He tried to mouth the word ‘stop’, but nothing came out.
“Ah, just like the good old days,” Harthoon said. “When there was wealth to be found in Falas. When we didn’t have to worry about little Edian bastards like you fucking up the world.”
Aeo’s lungs clawed for breath and none came.
“Funny,” Harthoon said with a curving grin. “It seems you don’t have a magick spell to help you breathe.”
Aeo grabbed Harthoon’s boot and tried to lift it away, but it pressed down all the more. Whatever chance Aeo had now rested with the Goddess. Harthoon wasn’t about to stop, his eyes glaring down upon Aeo, savoring this singular opportunity second by every painful second.
Fire… Aeo thought. I need fire. Lots of fire.
Leon’s lesson sprang to his oxygen-deprived brain.
Imagine warmth in between your hands. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and between your hands…
To be honest, there wasn’t much heat left in him. But it hardly mattered. Something had to be done, and now. He forced his mind to imagine the largest bonfire possible, a wickedly blazing fire that could melt steel and consume forests. He witnessed in his mind’s eye the heat burning his itching toes, rising through his legs and up his stomach and chest. When his imagination forced the sensation down his arms…
Not a sound, or at least Aeo didn’t think it was a sound (admittedly, it might have been one of his lower ribs cracking). It was a feeling of acceptance. A concept understood for the first time. A key opening a door. A gateway opening into a warm and fragrant room. Like the first time he’d ever dreamed about the sun and its warm heavenly glow…
That’s when Harthoon’s boot burst into flames. Not delicate candlelight or an inviting campfire flame, either. A thick, turgid white-hot flame in the shape of Aeo’s fingers that clung to the cuff of the heavy leather boot like molten glass. Aeo’s hands released, and the magick expanded a few inches like liquid foam. It happened all in an instant, but he could swear the lava-like flame rolled upwards against gravity like a snake rolling sideways.
Harthoon shrieked and dropped his dagger to the icy ground, lifting his brightly burning leg from Aeo’s stomach.
“N-No!! You f-f-fucking Edian, shit! Shit!”
Nearly as shocked as Harthoon, Aeo scrambled backwards and did his best to inhale. Harthoon, on the other hand, flailed and danced madly at the flames that seized his leg, diving into a nearby snowbank and hastily burying it. To his horror, the magickal flame did not die. In fact, it seemed to feed on the snow as it melted, consuming Harthoon’s boot and clawing its way up Harthoon’s leg. His panic continued as he desperately tried to smother the flames with his hands. Unfortunately, the bloated thousand-celcius magick that adhered to his boot stuck to his hands like paste and continued to expand.
Aeo couldn’t look away. This wasn’t like the lantern in the inn, or the flame that Leon had taught him to hold. He hadn’t burned something. He had burned someone. Whether or not he held control over this particular flame, he wasn’t certain; the thought didn’t immediately cross his mind. He merely watched in panic as Harthoon continued to writhe in agony.
Harthoon’s hands, now bathed in flame and destructive magick, slowly took on the appearance of liquid steel. They were dripping. He mindlessly beat them against his chest and into the snow in a vain attempt to smother the heat, but it simply spread the gelatinous volcanic substance across his hunter garb and all across the melting ice. The magick splashed everywhere. Sparks hissed and crackled, and fumes of smoke enshrouded burning flesh. A horrible stench filled the air… The burning man continued to wail at the top of his lungs as the fire consumed his entire form, but there was no one on the whole mountain that could bring him relief. Even if Aeo had known how to make the flames vanish, he wasn’t certain he wanted them to.
You will never hurt me or my friends again.
Feeling himself begin to hyperventilate from shock, Aeo allowed himself to shut his eyes and look away from the terrible sight.
“Pick…” he whispered. The hunters couldn’t have taken him off the mountain. Shera would have put a stop to that. Pick still lived. He had to.
Aeo bent down and picked up Harthoon’s dagger. About eight inches long and gently curving to a defined point, he felt its weight as he firmly grasped the bone-whittled handle. He wasn’t certain about his magick yet, but he was fairly sure a sharp knife would make even the hunters think twice about trying to take him back to what remained of the village.
After regaining a modicum of composure, Aeo carefully retreated up the embankment towards the site of Shera’s massacre, leaving Harthoon to the flames. The man’s screams did not fade into the distance quickly. Only once Aeo crossed the treeline many minutes later could he enjoy silence once more.
* * * * * *
Aeo had never ventured up the mountain in dimming light. Not that he recognized it in complete darkness either, but he quickly felt as though he’d lost his way trying to retrace Harthoon’s steps. When he discovered the footprint trails of retreating hunters, however, he figured there was no way to miss his destination.
He was right. Instinctively, the moment he reached the clearing, he readied Harthoon’s dagger with both hands and cautiously moved forwards.
The blood… He’d never imagined so much blood. Harthoon’s count must have been off: the still-warm remains of dozens of hunters littered the mountainside like so many toys in a playroom. Unbloodied swords, splintered spears, wooden bows, and unfired arrows accompanied the corpses. Some of the hunters had been dressed in steel plate, some in chainmail and lamellar, some in thick leather and hide… And now he observed that some had not been armored at all. Angry villagers, perhaps. None of it mattered. Most bodies no longer had recognizable facial features, and several were missing their extremities. One or two had been completely ripped in half.
Had Aeo known the destructive side of Shera, he would have been much more afraid of her.
From what he could tell, Aeo didn’t know these men and women; they must have heard the call of the hunt and come running to share in the glory and spoils of rare game. But how could they possibly have detected Shera and sent for so many reinforcements?
Harthoon knew Shera had saved him. He’d said as much. But how?
They knew. Somehow, the hunters knew where I was. It’s all my fault. If I had never run away, Pick would still be alive… Leon. He would still be…
The wind was blowing quite strongly from the tops of the mountain, and chilled Aeo’s bare body to the core; the only heat remaining to him was sitting in his fur boots. Desperately, he scanned the battlefield for Pick’s body collapsed upon the leather sheet. After a moment, his eyes focused on the second-worst possible outcome: the leather sheet lay discarded on the snow, but Pick’s body was gone.
“No… no, no, no…” Aeo said, his voice shaking. Side-stepping the blood-soaked snow and bodies, he approached the leather sheet. Pick’s blood stained nearly half of its large surface.
In the midst of the chaos and the blame, Aeo collapsed to his knees in exhaustion and tears. The surviving hunters couldn’t possibly have lifted Pick’s huge body by themselves and hauled him off the mountain… could they? But it was the only possible explanation. Pick’s frozen corpse would be carved up with a hunting knife, and his bones and pelt would be sold to some heartless travelling merchant as thoughtless curios…
“I’m sorry…” he whispered, his eyes squeezing shut at the painful guilt. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”
Sadness only lasted a moment longer. Anger then consumed his thoughts like the fury that had consumed Harthoon.
If only I were stronger, he thought. If only I knew magick. I could have healed Pick’s wounds. I could have stopped Shera. I could have…
Harthoon’s words added to his growing hatred.
I could have made all the hunters burn for hurting Pick. Just like I burned Harthoon.
The smell of the blood and viscera that filled his lungs made him sick to his stomach. Or maybe it was the sudden realization that he’d just murdered someone by burning them alive. His constitution folded like a damp napkin, and he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the snow beside the stained leather sheet.
He stopped thinking. He stopped feeling… besides the nausea. His hands and ears were numb. He had nowhere to go. Nowhere to return to. Returning to Aristé wasn’t an option; if the villagers ever discovered Harthoon’s charred corpse, they would immediately know the culprit. She would beat him to death with her own hands. The villagers of Olvaren would hang him for what he did to the village. He could return to the cave up the mountain, bury Leon’s body, and live forever in the darkness and the cold.
He didn’t deserve better.
Exhausted, Aeo collapsed, becoming like the corpses that surrounded him. The Goddess granted him a chance to escape his life, but then She tore it away. What did he do wrong? Maybe he would just lay there and freeze to death, fall asleep in the ice, and return to the Goddess. Maybe then he could ask Her why. Why was he born an Edian? Why did he have red eyes? Why did Pick and Leon have to die?
The wind picked up, howling across the ice and the cliffs of Falas. Time passed by. A second. A minute. Maybe an hour. Though he could no longer feel the chilling breeze caressing his face, he could hear it, and it comforted him.
A butterfly folded its wings, a hummingbird sounded a call. Though he yearned to listen to the thoughts of a wolf, it wasn’t Pick trying to communicate with him. It wasn’t Shera. It was something else. Something entirely new.
Aeo opened his eyes. Shining light in the darkness. The sun up above. Although all feeling had fled, he could imagine the sun’s warm rays beaming down on his face. For some reason, the sun no longer blinded him.
He heard his voice called above the commotion of the sky.
“Aeo…” it said.
A beautiful voice. Heaven-sent. A woman’s voice. Delicate as a field of wildflowers, but deeper than the channels of the mountain. It didn’t grant him energy or warmth, but it brought him a sense of peace. Where had he heard such a voice before? So familiar…
“Aeo…” it said again. Different this time. More direct, as if calling out to him. The sun. It offered him release. He lifted his trembling hand upwards as if to take the sun from the sky with his very fingers and hold it close to his heart.
Suddenly, a shadow overtook the sun, and a warm sensation seized his hand.
“Aeo!” cried the voice. It was no longer a light and heavenly voice. It was desperate and harsh, a man’s voice, a voice deep in emotion. He felt a pair of arms lift and cradle his head. “Goddess of Earth, please don’t let this boy die on my charge, please! Aeo, speak to me, please, speak to me!”
Aeo’s eyes drifted upwards. The sun was now gone, replaced by the dark. Instead, he saw a familiar face.
“Le… Leon…?” Aeo asked.
“Yes, Aeo, yes,” Leon said breathlessly, embracing Aeo. “Thank you, Tiathys, thank you… Goddess, this is all my fault. I never thought… Aeo, please, can you stand? We need to get you warm quickly before…”
“I… I don’t…”
Aeo’s voice barely registered as a sound.
“Hold on, Aeo, please! Stay awake, please stay awake! Aeo…!”
His voice faded away, and Aeo slept in the numbing wind.
– 10 –
“No… No, no… No…”
Consciousness returned. Aeo felt heat returning to his body, but his mind floated like a cork on a pond. He felt as though he’d been drugged, and a terrible bitterness on his tongue confirmed it. A pair of warm hands held his ears, then his chin, then his shoulders. Everything ached. Aeo felt the hands restrain his arms and hold him down. In return, Aeo kicked and screamed in the darkness, clawing the hands away.
“No…! No, let me go! Let me go!”
“Aeo, calm down!” a voice whispered. “Open your eyes! It’s me! Aeo, it’s me!”
Aeo’s eyes opened. He’d been too scared to realize they weren’t. He no longer saw a bright sun, nor even a sky above his head, but a stone ceiling covered in stalactites. The glow of a warm fire reflected from the wet rock, and somewhere beyond the wind howled furiously. It was the cave. His eyes focused and fell upon the visage of a man. Hazel eyes, rough stubble on his chin, a gentleman’s face.
“L-Leon,” Aeo whispered, his muscles relaxing. “But… I th-thought you were…”
In Leon’s hand was a opaque glass bottle with a rough paper label adhered to the side that Aeo couldn’t read.
“Here, drink a little of this, careful now…” Leon said, leaning the bottle to Aeo’s lips. “Virmilis root extract to help your body warm, plus ginger for pain. It doesn’t taste terribly good, but it should help immediately. We have little time.”
Aeo felt the chalky liquid pass across his tongue, and he forced himself to swallow before the hideous taste overpowered him.
“I should have protected you,” Leon said. He had yet to clean his bloody upper lip and chin from Shera’s assault. “Damn it, this should never have happened. I should have made up my mind days ago to leave. I hesitated.”
Aeo frowned and tried to sit up from his bed of furs. It was then that he realized that if Harthoon hadn’t actually fractured the lower portion of his ribcage with his boot, it certainly felt like he had. He let out a pitiful cry as he relaxed and began to sob from the intense pain. How he hadn’t felt the crushing injury earlier, he didn’t know.
“It’s all m-my fault…” he whispered pitifully, wrapping his arms around his chest. “They killed… they k-killed him…”
“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. “You are the last person I blame. If Shera hadn’t been so reckless, I could have done… something. I can’t imagine how Shera could have allowed Pick to be captured. Perhaps they’d been seen by the hunters, and they’d simply outnumbered them. I saw the hunter’s… bodies… all the way down the mountain; they very nearly found the caves.”
“But… how…?” Aeo said though sobbing breaths. “How did they know…?”
“It’s very possible,” Leon said slowly. “You see, when… some wealthy Antielli slave owners purchase a new slave, they… they have a sample taken from them. Blood, for instance, or hair. For… security reasons, should they ever run away.”
Aeo nearly glared at Leon.
“I don’t… unders-s-stand…”
“Well, any talented evoker would then…” Leon took a breath. “…be able to view the world through the senses of the slave… and divine their precise location.”
Aeo trembled, tears coursing down the sides of his face.
“It w-was me…” he whispered, firmly shutting his eyes. “B-because of me… he’s dead because of m-me!”
“Look at me, Aeo,” Leon said firmly, shaking Aeo’s arm. “Look at me.”
It took the boy a moment before he dared to. Then, Leon leaned in close.
“I can fix this,” Leon said. “Pick might be alive. The hunters don’t have him.”
Aeo’s heart skipped a beat.
“But… B-but I saw him…” he said. “The hunters were dragging him away, and, and, and… he wasn’t there wh-when I…”
“Shera took him,” Leon said. “I was coming down the mountain to search for you and I saw them together. Shera had Pick in her jaws, and she was carrying him north past the mountain. I don’t know if she sensed my presence… Considering what she did to both of us, she probably would have torn me to pieces if I had approached. I didn’t see Pick moving, and… and it did appear as if he’d been shot multiple times with arrows or bolts. Burning hells, she was covered in arrows herself. I don’t know if the little wolf is still alive, but…”
Leon shook his head and turned away.
“Thank Tiathys those butchers don’t have him…”
“Leon! Aeo!” a horrified voice called from the entrance of the cave.
Aeo gritted through the pain and squinted to see the source. The great wooden door that once protected the cave from the cold had broken inwards, detached from its post and hanging loosely against the far wall. But beneath the door was a small sphere of fur. The coat was quickly removed, and out hopped Hala from within, dressed in her leather work outfit.
“Hala,” Leon said, standing to his feet in her presence.
“Oh, Goddess preserve us all!” She leapt on all fours to Aeo’s side, gently placing her chilled webbed fingers on Aeo’s shoulder. “Aeo, my poor boy, you’re both… bleeding! What happened, Leon, what happened? The entire mountain felt Shera’s screaming! Where are they, Leon? Answer me!”
“I don’t know,” Leon admitted, slumping to the ground and wiping his lip with the sleeve of his shirt. “Shera’s alive. Pick is… well, I don’t know if he survived his wounds. But I saw them both travelling north towards the forests beyond. I… don’t think they’re going to return.”
“Not going to…!” Hala gasped, and suddenly tears filled her eyes as well. “No… No, they mustn’t! No, not poor Pick!”
“Humil hunters,” Leon said, reaching for Hala’s hand. “They… they must have spotted the wolves patrolling the mountain and captured Pick. I would have done something… but Shera burst into the cave and stole Aeo away after knocking us both unconscious. Shera must have thought… I can’t say for certain… I believe she thought to trade Aeo’s life for Pick’s.”
Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s forehead.
“Does that sound right?” he asked.
Without opening his eyes, Aeo nodded. About the hunters being able to track Aeo through magickal means, Leon said nothing.
“Goddess, sweet Goddess…” Hala whispered. “My dear friends… You must do something, Leon, you must do something! We must search for Shera, call her back, and then… and then you can heal Pick, and… and…!”
“Hala,” Leon said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. It’s too late. Shera hardly tolerated my presence on this mountain. Now that humils have threatened her life, and… her child’s life… she would never forgive me for putting them at risk by living here for so long. She will probably never trust another humil again, especially me. And now that the hunters know where they live, they’ll search these caves and continue to track her. She knew she had to leave.”
Hala silently wept. The truth pierced through all of them.
“Aeo and I, we… We have to leave, Hala.”
“No!” Hala shouted, revoking her hand and taking a step back. “Not you two as well! I’ll never forgive you, Leon Sirelu! Not ever! You can’t leave, not now, of all times!”
“We have no choice,” Leon said. “Aeo caused the terrible fire that destroyed the humil village. He was a slave, Hala, and he ran away from his owners. For both reasons, the hunters and villagers will be coming for him just as much as they hunt for Shera. His life is in danger. I plan on taking him away, far away from this place, to keep him safe.”
Aeo’s eyes opened.
“…really?” he asked weakly.
“Yes,” Leon said with a nod. “I’m taking you to a place where you’ll never be hurt again. The Everspring Academy. You’ll learn how to control your magick, and much much more. It has been my home for many years, and I hope it will become yours.”
Whether it was the medicine Leon had given him or the news of a new home, Aeo felt warmth begin to fill his chest.
“I propose we take this one step at a time,” Leon said. “I must leave. Tonight. I’ll return in the early hours, Goddess-willing, and pack up my things. Too many things to do, too many… but this will give Aeo a chance to recover from his ordeal. Truth be told, I had expected… ah, I don’t know what I expected. Damn it, I thought I’d have more time.”
Hala turned towards Aeo and knelt down before his face, so close that Aeo’s eyes crossed just to see her in focus. From one of her pockets she produced a tiny woven cloth and proceeded to wipe the boy’s upper lip, as little as it helped. Aeo didn’t have the energy or the nerve to refuse the simple kindness. He hadn’t noticed before, but Hala had a trio of overlapping eyelids, and they worked in unison to wipe her tears away.
“Stay with him?” Leon asked, offering his hand to Hala again. Hala placed her hand on his, holding back her sadness as best she could.
“Of course,” she replied quietly. “Though I may… sneak out for a moment, tell my kin what happened… If the humils are coming, and Shera can no longer protect us… then we may need to prepare and move further into the underdeep…”
“Yet another reason why we must leave soon,” Leon said. “To protect you and your family. To hide this sacred place. There is… a secret here that they must never find. I intend to seal the entrance to my study when I leave.”
“A secret?” Hala said, wiping the tears from beneath her eyes. “Something you discovered in your research? You’ve never said anything about it.”
“I know I often kept information of my work private from you, and I’m sorry for that…” he said. “But I did so to keep you safe. The red flowers, alyssum. The ones you and your family avoid… They are an incredibly dangerous poison to… certain people. They aren’t found anywhere but on this mountain. If they are discovered in amounts like those that grow in the deep caves and used as a weapon, many people will die.”
“Leon…” Hala said with a gasp. “Surely you haven’t studied the flower to… to…”
“No, Hala,” Leon replied. “I intend to hurt no one. In fact, my research might enable me to protect the ones I love. I only have hopes that alyssum will become a shield instead of a weapon. But… at this point, my research is incomplete. I’ll have to return to the Academy to finish it.”
“I can’t pretend to understand your arts,” Hala admitted, standing to her feet. “But… I trust you, Leon Sirelu. You’ve been nothing but Goddess-sent since you came to live here. I’m grateful to have called you my friend. I’m glad Shera allowed you to stay.”
Leon held his hand to his forehead.
“The pleasure was all mine, Hala,” he said quietly. “But Shera was right about me. I may not have brought hunters to your doorstep, but my arrival shattered the peace of this mountain. I can only pray that Tiathys will forgive me if my mission has doomed you, Shera, Pick, Aeo… and many others.”
Leon turned to Aeo, who appeared to be sleeping but heard every word of the short conversation. With the pause, the boy’s eyes slowly opened.
“I don’t know if I can repair the door on my own,” Leon said. “But I’ll leave a ward to maintain the temperature. With all the bloodshed today, I can’t imagine more hunters will attempt a counter-assault until dawn. So we must be ready to leave by then. Do you feel well enough to stand, Aeo?”
Aeo shook his head.
“It hurts… right here, s-sir,” he said, holding his abdomen. “Someone… stepped on me really hard.”
The sounds of Harthoon’s screams engulfed his mind.
“And to think…” Hala said, her voice cracking as she again bent down to wipe blood from Aeo’s lip. “I had planned on making you such a fine leather jacket, my dear boy… it might have protected you from those wicked men.”
Aeo merely nodded. He said nothing of the incident and never intended to do so as long as he lived.
* * * * * *
Olvaren no longer existed. Harthoon hadn’t been exaggerating; the fire had indeed burned for four full days, consuming everything flammable and adhering to anything non-flammable. The fire could not be extinguished by any means tried, and all the men, women, and children that called the village home could only carry their most important belongings away from their thatched houses as it spread. The inn was an inn no longer, only a husk of foundation stones. The marketplace stalls had fallen to ash and scattered by the valley winds. And the great hall, which had stood for centuries, constructed around the mighty bones of long-dead mephandras, had collapsed into a large pile of unrecognizable rubble. Even portions of the forest that surrounded Olvaren had been consumed in the blaze.
Magick, it was. Even the villagers recognized magickal unquenchable fire. But who had started such a catastrophe? What villainous arsonist had the talent and the wickedness to lay waste to a quiet, innocent village.
When Aristé and Harthoon Malin cried for assistance in extinguishing the flames in the Gray Pale on the first day of the disaster, they claimed the fire had been started by their Edian slave boy. At first, the constable had believed them and called for the guard to search for the slave. But when the fire grew and leapt to nearby buildings despite a village-well-worth of water poured upon it, the constable immediately called for a nearby capital scholar to assist and had the couple detained and interrogated. There was little chance a young boy had the power to accomplish so much destruction.
They vehemently denied the accusation that the fire had been started deliberately, especially given the magickal nature of the flames; neither had talents with magick. Did they own illegal substances such as spark detonators or fire salts? Why would they? They were simple innkeepers, and very much lacking mining or alchemy licenses. Did they know anyone with magickal abilities that held a grudge against them and their business? They honestly didn’t know anyone… besides the boy, of course. Based on their particularly racist descriptions of the boy as a twisted and hateful Edian nine-year old who regularly made their lives a living hell, the constable quietly wondered about their reliability as witnesses.
When the capital scholar arrived in town on the morning of the second day, the fire lay like a blanket of lava across half of the village’s acreage, steadily burning and spreading across even bare ground; the villagers that survived the slow-spreading fire retreated to a clearing down the highway about three kilometers away. Though his animus was not attuned to liquid thaumaturgy, the scholar did his best to influence the fire away from the great hall and the eastern residences with streams of magickal water. He attempted to abjure glistening walls of energy to halt the fire’s advance. He even attempted to concoct cocktail bombs in glass bottles that would physically force the fire to go out. With multiple craters consumed in the flames, he admitted defeat at the end of day two.
With the only known suspect being the Edian slave, the constable decided the only thing they could do was attempt to find the boy and somehow convince him to put an end to the fire. Coincidentally (or not), one of the few items that Aristé had smuggled out of the inn before it collapsed was a small vial of long-dried blood. The capitol scholar admitted his excitement; he’d only rarely performed such evocations. After all, only very wealthy slaveowners could afford to have slave samples prepared and preserved for such a ritual years after coagulating and expiring. With the blood vial, a carefully-designed glyph traced upon a page in his personal grimoire, and an hour’s time, the scholar witnessed several incredible things.
First was the location of the boy: as if viewing the entirety of Falas from an eagle’s perspective, a red dot became illuminated in his mind situated in a cave near the mountain’s peak. Second, and by far the most intriguing, the boy was looking upon, smelling, and listening to the panting of an unidentified subspecies of canis lupis about the size of a lion – and unbelievably, the wolf looked like a young pup instead of full grown. Somehow, this boy had survived the chill of the mountain by living in a cave that housed giant wolves.
The scholar gave his report to the constable with great enthusiasm, and called for an immediate alert to be sent to the Hunter’s Guild to capture these wolves for study and secure the boy. The constable, more concerned about his people’s immediate safety, agreed on the condition that the hunters supply aid to the displaced villagers. So, despite the village’s meager finances, the constable made the order.
On the morning of day three, the message was delivered by the scholar’s unique evocation magick to the Guild in San’Drael. From San’Drael, the order was delivered to the Guild handlers nearest to Olvaren by the same means. Two dozen hunters arrived in what remained of Olvaren by the end of day three and prepared a small camp a good distance from the encroaching flames for themselves and as many of the villagers as possible.
Sadness over the loss of their homes was replaced with anger when the village discovered the true source of the fire. A dark crimson-eyed child of Edia, the nation of thieves and murderers to the West. As was often said, nothing good ever came from the West, least of which were the witch-children of sorcerers. Why the Malins had taken such a volatile child into their home was beyond their understanding. There was a reason Antiell waged constant war against them: their very presence endangered innocent Antielli lives. The fire stood as a testament to the fact. If even a child of Edia could cause such destruction, what right did an entire nation of backwards shamans and traitors have to exist?
It was their fault, after all, that the War two centuries ago had even continued on for as long as it did. It was their fault that entire lineages had perished in a single brief moment. It was their fault that the world had been fractured.
It was their fault the Wound existed.
For a time, it seemed that nothing would stop the inferno from devouring everything. But on the morning of the fourth day, as abruptly and mysteriously as it had begun, the wide-burning flames all shrunk to nothing and died in unison within twenty seconds. Not even smoke or embers were left behind, only black char.
What could this mean, the constable demanded of the capital scholar. Flustered, the scholar claimed he had no idea. But he advised caution, as such fires could reignite at any moment. And so the hunters were told to hold their advance up the mountain in case the fire resumed. In the meantime, they were directed to perform damage control for the village and tend to the victims that had received burns or inhaled too much smoke. They also made time to bury the dead, despite the hardness of the frigid earth. Rows of tents were assembled for the surviving villagers and ever-increasing amounts of hunters.
The anger of the villagers steadily grew. One day of waiting passed to two, and then to three. The hunters yearned for prey, with some even tempted to disobey orders and scout the outskirts of the village for wolf tracks. Some of the villagers surrounded the constable’s tent in a sort of mob, demanding for the hunt to begin and for the Edian boy to be found and hung. Even Harthoon, the fool of a drunk, had sobered, shaved, and demanded to be released like a war hound, ready to kill. Besides that, the constable was running out of funds to keep so many hunters dedicated to the cause. If the hunt was to happen, it had to happen immediately.
So it did.
Only seven of the fifty-two souls made it back alive. Without their prize or the boy.
The night was colder than usual, a reminder that winter was soon to come upon the charred corpse of Olvaren. Tent flaps rustled in the wind as shadowed figures huddled around campfires and lit torches. News had reached them that the hunters had managed to kill the great wolf’s pup, and all the guards that remained in the makeshift camp were trembling from more than just the frigid air. Like the stories they’d all heard as children about the mephandras, the mother wolf was just as likely to descend from the mountain and devour them all in retaliation.
But out of the darkness of the mountain came not a creature, but a man. A strange man in foreign clothes, wearing a thin pair of spectacles and a luxurious coat. He approached the camp cautiously from the direction of the destroyed village, but not cautiously enough to avoid drawing plenty of attention to himself. A group of three guards spotted him immediately, drawing their swords and torches and racing towards him. The man stopped in his tracks and raised his hands in surrender.
“Who are you?!” demanded a guard.
“Identify yourself!” demanded another.
“Gentlemen,” the man said. “My name is Leon Sirelu, my mission is a peaceful one. I am a travelling scholar from the Everspring Academy in Ashant. I can produce my credentials if need be. If possible, I’d like to speak to whoever is in charge of the village.”
“Why?” demanded the first. “If’n ye came from that direction, ye might’a seen there isn’t a village no longer. We’ve been through enough without some fancy wizard showing up an’ makin’ things worse.”
“Believe me, I sympathize with your loss and intend you no harm,” Leon said. “In fact, I’d like to make a deal that would help Olvaren recover from the fire. Winter is almost upon us, and the sooner you can rebuild your homes and stock up supplies, the less your people will suffer.”
The guards looked at each other, puzzled.
“We’re listening,” said the second guard.
Leon’s hands lowered and dug into his coat pocket, no doubt making the guards nervous. But in a quick second, he produced what looked like a small Briolette-cut gemstone in the shape of a raindrop. Even in the darkness, it appeared to be a ruby of exceeding clarity, and radiated a warm pink light from within its facets.
“Do you know what this is?” Leon asked, holding the gemstone in his open, gloved hand.
The guards peered upon it uncomfortably.
“That’s a queer light, innit?” said the first guard. “Like them fancy glass lights they got in San’Drael.”
“More n’ likely to explode, no doubt,” said the third.
“It’s perfectly safe, I can assure you,” Leon said. “This is crystalized Everspring aether. Very valuable in Antiell. A stone like this sold to the right buyer would support a village like Olvaren for many seasons. I’d like to offer it to your people on a few conditions.”
“Such as?” asked the second guard.
“Well,” Leon said, withdrawing the stone. “I would leave them for your leaders to consider. This is why I humbly request to speak with the law enforcement or Guild representative in charge.”
The guards again looks at each other for a moment and finally shrugged their shoulders.
“Fine,” said the first. “Come with us.”
* * * * * *
“And what brings an Everspring Academy master to a small village in Antiell at a time like this?” asked Constable Rachars, scanning his eyes over Leon’s identification packet. “Aren’t all masters of the Academy ashanti these days?”
The large tent Leon and three other people inhabited at that moment contained a cot, a rough-hewn officer’s desk, and a few chairs, all no doubt saved from the Great Hall before it burned down. Beside the constable stood a gruff-looking woman at sharp attention who wore chainmail and thick leathers, as well as a variety of scars on her chin and nose; no doubt a ranking member of the Hunter’s Guild. The third was a wiry young man with a sharp nose and a thick pair of glasses, dressed in the unmistakable martial uniform of the San’Drael Academy.
“Actually, no, sir,” Leon said congenially. “The Academy has guidelines that allows members of any race to join, so long as they demonstrate the proper talents and discipline. My specialty is the alchemical arts. I’ve taken a sabbatical to study the plants, roots, and herbs native to this mountain, a mission of utmost importance to the Academy. You may have seen me a few times visiting the marketplace and the inn looking to restock my supplies.”
“I must admit, I have not,” the constable said, offering the packet back to Leon and leaning back in his chair. “But I’ll take you at your word, as my duties often call me away from the village proper. Apparently, you’ve come bearing glad tidings in this time of sorrow. Though I must ask: why do you choose to appear now?”
“For a few reasons, truth be told,” Leon said. “I saw the orange glow of the flames from many miles away at my camp, and at first I thought perhaps some farmers were disposing of garbage or clearing the forest for future farmland. That night, however, I realized something far worse had occurred. I intended to come and offer my services to you then… but a number of things happened first, not the least of which was an evocation from my superiors concerning my mission that demanded my full attention. A deadline for my studies, you might say, for an alchemical solution that could cure a plague that has swept through the refugee populations south of San’Doria. No doubt you’ve heard of the Revari sky pirate raids that sacked the southeast coastal towns in Ashant.”
“I have,” said the constable. “Awful business, that. They’ve even had the gall to attack the Royal Navy as far north as Belstadt.”
“That is news to me,” Leon said. “Damn pirates. It’s terrible that they would stoop so low as to spread disease to make their brutal conquests more simple.”
“How thrilling,” said the capital scholar. “Pray tell, what dastardly plague did they employ? Eh, what was the cure?”
Leon appeared grim.
“When I asked my superiors,” he said. “They said the plague has no name, as it has yet to be identified. Its composition is most unpleasant, to say the least. To spare you the gritty details, the natural resources of Falas’ proved to be most beneficial in treating some of the symptoms. A systemic attack on the lungs and soft tissues of the body, irreversible blindness, painful purple boils that burst at the slightest touch… The evocation message spared me any images, thank the Goddess. As of yet, however, I have found no stable cure.”
“Boils, blindness, infection of the lungs…” the scholar said, stroking his chin. The huntress looked down upon him with scorn, but said nothing. “How awful. Dowry’s Rot, perhaps? No, the boils would never burst. Or Dragon Fang Blight? Did the victims mention a burning sensation in their chest, or terrible excesses of phlegm?”
Before Leon could answer, Rachars lifted his hand.
“I believe we’re getting a bit off-track,” he said. “I’m told by my guards, Master Sirelu, that you’ve come offering a deal in exchange for the funds to rebuild Olvaren. A seemingly outlandish deal, but a welcome one. I would not ask if you were a wealthy man had you not offered.”
“And I would not reveal it except to perform good works with my finances,” Leon said. “My father was the Head Archivist in the Royal Archives of San’Doria, and admittedly left me a lofty inheritance when he died. While it has enabled me to study and travel to my heart’s content, I also see it as a civic duty to share my father’s wealth with the less fortunate. He would have had it no other way.”
“To which we are extremely grateful,” said the constable. “Although specifically, the guards tell me you have an item of particular value to trade in exchange for a few… conditions?”
“Of course,” Leon said. “Please, take a look.”
Leon produced the aether gemstone from his pocket, gently placing it on the wooden table. The gemstone beside the lit candle on the table produced about as much light except in delicate gently-pulsating pink. The constable leaned in to get a better look; the scholar leaned in even closer, quite obviously enthralled. The huntress did not look impressed.
“Dear Goddess,” said the scholar, adjusting his glasses. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Crystalized aether from the Everspring, yes,” Leon said. “Pure and undiluted. It was a gift from my father the day I entered the Academy. He told me to use it only if the need was ever great enough. I have been fortunate to have never seen danger terrible enough to necessitate using the stone. And I am all the more glad for it, as I’ve been told aether in this form is quite rare in Antiell.”
“It is, good sir, it is!” said the scholar. “This stone could represent a chance to study one of the few sources of pure magick left in the world!” He turned to the constable, suddenly very serious. “The Ashanti are very protective of the Everspring, sir, and I’m sure you are familiar with the state treaties that forbid the trade of aether across borders.”
“Of that, I am also aware,” Leon said before the constable could speak. “You don’t have to accept my word only, but the treaties also state that masters of the Everspring Academy have rights regarding the trade and donation of natural resources, including aether from the well. I wouldn’t give up such a precious keepsake knowing I was acting against the law.”
“Oh, certainly not, good sir!” said the scholar. “I meant no offense, of course.”
“None taken,” Leon said.
“Well, this is certainly most generous of you, Master Sirelu,” said the constable. He turned to the scholar. “I must admit, I know nothing about matters of aether and magick. What is the value of such a stone?”
“Why, it is positively invaluable!” said the scholar. When he received a particularly intense glare from both the constable and the huntress, he cleared his throat. “Eh, I mean, to put an exact price on Everspring aether is difficult… But, if I may speak plainly, San’Drael Academy has been bargaining with the Ashanti government for decades to gain access to the well. Any aether willingly traded to the Academy is welcome, but a pure aether crystal… Oh, it would certainly pay enough to restore the village, and perhaps more.”
“Very well,” the constable said with a nod. “However, you mentioned, Master Sirelu, that this gift comes with conditions.”
“It does,” he said. “Namely, three. Concerning one in particular, I have hope that mercy will go hand in hand with justice.”
“I’m listening,” said the constable, folding his hands upon the table and leaning forwards.
“First,” Leon said. “Is that I would ask that the villagers of Olvaren to not explore or map the highest peaks of Falas for at least the coming five years. The mephandras that so dominated the mountain may be gone, but there remain many dangers at those higher altitudes, not the least of which are the giant wolves that inhabit the region.”
The constable’s face sharpened, and the huntress’s head cocked to one side ever so slightly.
“You know of them?” Rachars asked. “And you live to tell the tale?”
“Only barely,” Leon said. “It’s why my sabbatical has taken so long. I’ve avoided them for months.”
“Why five years?” asked the scholar curiously. “Why not ten? Twenty? Why would anyone ever want to map the mountain with those… things living up there?”
“During my time on Falas,” Leon said. “I’ve chanced upon wolf tracks and even spotted several moving west across the mountain passes. I’ve developed the impression that the wolves are migrating away from the area, but it will take time. Five years will grant the villagers protection from the wolves as they depart, after which you can map to your heart’s content. Assuming my information is correct, this news should greatly put your mind at ease.”
“It does, at that,” said the constable. “But what about…”
The constable looked at the huntress for a moment, and she back at him. With an annoyed look on her face, she nodded.
“I don’t know if you are aware,” he said. “But we lost many good men and women to one of the great wolves today. Forty-five souls ripped apart in less than half an hour; they never stood a chance. If we agree to your first condition, what of our fallen hunters up on the mountain? We will need to retrieve their bodies before the mountain freezes them.”
“I am aware of the battle,” Leon said. “I daresay the entire mountain heard it. Of course I wouldn’t expect you to abandon them. I simply worry for the safety of those that retrieve them, and all those that might follow after. Which, actually, leads to my second condition.”
“I simply ask that the wolves not be tracked or hunted.”
The huntress unfolded her arms and glared at Leon.
“Are you joking?” she demanded. “That’s our livelihood you’re talking about. Do you know how much the wizards at the capital are offering for one of those talking wolves captured alive, or even dead? We can’t agree to this!”
“Is it coin that worries you?” Leon said quickly, suddenly indignant. “Or is it revenge for the hunters that were slaughtered today? How many more of your guildmates will have to die before you realize that nature has more power than you ever give it credit for?”
The constable’s breath was taken, and somehow the huntress’ glare became even more intense.
“Don’t you dare speak to me of nature, wizard,” she said. “This is horseshit, I’ve spent my entire life in nature, I’m not accepting anything-”
“Lieutenant,” barked the constable. “Mind your tongue!”
“Believe me or not,” Leon said, raising his hand. “Not hunting these creatures will benefit you more than you realize. Not simply in the amount of lives that will be spared a quick and gruesome death, but in the preservation of an ecosystem that relies on their presence to be self-sustaining. Again, not to bore you with details, but the wolves’ sudden westerly departure will take its toll on the forests that encircle this side of the mountain. I suspect it will even positively affect Olvaren in the next few seasons. Herbivores will repopulate, and more than likely offer you rich environments for game.”
“He’s right,” said the scholar. “Mount Urden is a great example… Or counter-example, if you will. Remember the odagran culling a few decades ago, Lieutenant? With the carnivores gone, the herbivore population exploded, and the hunting was good… for a while. Unfortunately, they ate everything green, leading to famine and drought for many many years.”
“Tch,” said the huntress glumly, folding her arms. “Yes, I remember. One of the many… messes the early Guild got into trying to prove itself.”
“Fine then. I believe we can accept the first and the second condition,” the constable said. “And your third?”
Leon paused, wiping his upper lip with his hand.
“I will speak plainly,” he said. “I know the source of the fire that burned down this village.”
“You do,” said the constable in surprise.
“I do,” Leon said. “I’m certain you do as well. A boy, a young Edian boy wandered into my camp a few days after the fire. He was quite frightened by something, and he said something about the giant wolves. At first, I thought nothing of this, but then I recognized that he had approached my camp from the mountain and not from the village.”
“You believe he survived the mountain by hiding in one of their dens?” asked the scholar. “I told you, Constable! It’s just as I saw!”
“He is malnourished and has many injuries, including deep scratches and several bruises on his face and arms. He looks as though he’d suffered serious physical abuse, although whether he received his injuries from the wolves or by… other means, I’m unsure.”
“I’ve seen this boy on some occasions,” said the constable. “A slave, belonging to the owners of the Gray Pale Inn. You have him under your care?”
“I do,” said Leon. “And I assumed he might belong to one of the wealthier families in Olvaren. Although the boy has withheld many details out of fear regarding the fire and his departure into the forest, my expertise in the field of thaumaturgy led me to recognize something peculiar in him. Something I assume you’ve pieced together from the evidence.”
“The boy’s animis is flame,” said the scholar with characteristic enthusiasm. “My goodness, he truly was the cause of the catastrophe! His animis potential must be incredible if he could make an entire village burn down at so young an age!”
“I would hesitate to be so excited,” said Leon, adjusting his spectacles. “The boy is… damaged. At first I assumed little, but now I suspect he suffered years of physical and mental abuse, which fueled the appearance of his talents in such… spectacular form. Even under my care, the boy has burned me many times on accident. I fear that returning him to the care of the innkeepers will only lead to further incidents.”
“I agree,” the constable said. “But what are you suggesting? The boy wiped Olvaren from the face of the earth, killing many people in the process. Whether an accident or not, manslaughter is punishable by death. Why should we not do away with the whelp and be done with it?”
“Instead of simply ending his life,” Leon said earnestly. “I offer to take the boy away from Olvaren and Antiell entirely. His ownership will transfer to me, as well as any blood or hair samples that may have been taken from him. The Everspring Academy can protect others from his power. Despite his… volatility, he has shown incredible potential. As a master, I am willing to grant him citizenship status in Ashant and tutor him to control his abilities. In exchange for his life, he will never return to Antiell.”
“Exile instead of death,” the constable said. “Interesting. But I don’t understand. Why would you do this for some… nameless Edian slave? Certainly he has powerful magick, but he can’t honestly be worth the trouble to you.”
“I don’t trust you,” accused the huntress with a pointed finger. “Your whole damn story. You’re not just some Goddess-sent saint, loaded with gold and living in the woods pickin’ berries. You know something.” She leaned down in front of Leon. “About the brat. About the wolves. What’s your stake in all of this, anyway? It doesn’t sound like you benefit from helping this village at all.”
“I don’t know what you’re implying,” Leon said to her, keeping a straight face. “But my business on Falas has been strictly academic, and it will continue to be so.”
Leon turned to the constable.
“These are my three conditions, Constable. Quite honestly, if your people have any other hopes of enduring the winter that is quickly approaching, please let me know. Otherwise, I am offering this crystallized aether and as many additional funds as your village will require to survive the coming winter and thrive the year after. More than likely, even your fallen hunters can be compensated for what the crystal is worth. I will even offer you one of my personal evocation markers as a sign of good faith so that we may remain in communication. Are these terms acceptable?”
The constable leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and looking first at the scholar and then at the huntress. There was a long pause.
“I would say most definitely,” the scholar said, speaking up first. “I know the Headmaster would be beside himself to finally have crystallized Everspring aether in his hands.”
“And he would pay for it?” asked the constable. When he saw an animated nod, he turned to Leon. “We would naturally have to get this crystal authenticated as real if we agree to your terms.”
“Without doubt,” said Leon. “Though sooner rather than later, I hope. I must return to my research as soon as possible.”
The huntress glared again, but the constable nodded.
“How exciting!” said the scholar. “Although to study this stone, I must admit, is beyond my abilities… I never thought I would ever see one of these in person.”
“And you, Lieutenant?” said the constable. “Are you satisfied?”
“Hardly,” she said, folding her arms. “But… if this shiny rock is worth as much as he says it is, and my fallen hunters get proper burials and compensation for their families… I suppose I can’t complain. Much. But you have to admit, none of my men or the villagers are going to like all of this. They’ve all been demanding a successful hunt and a hanging all week. Especially the innkeeper woman. Instead of an execution, you sell her property to this… Academy professor. With the death of her husband, she’s going to go mad.”
“Then perhaps it’s best we keep this part of the deal quiet,” the constable said with a sigh. “The woman and her husband made it quite clear that the boy’s life was forfeit from the beginning. That sounds like forfeiting ownership to me. Besides, she’ll get the funds to build herself a bigger inn, and she’ll have to be satisfied with that. Everyone will have to make do without the execution of some no-name Edian child and move on.”
“I thank you for your understanding,” Leon said sincerely. “Truly, sir. You don’t know what this means to me… and to my work. I look forward to seeing this village restored to its former glory.” He held a hand out to the capital scholar. “You do have the boy’s samples, do you not?”
“Oh, of course,” he said, leaning down to his satchel laying on the floor beside his chair. “Let’s see, which pocket did I put it in… Not this one… Ah, here it is. Just this one blood vial. Perfectly preserved, I might add. I believe it will continue to function for more than a few years more, should you ever lose track of the boy. Can’t have a fiery devil like him running free, after all!”
Leon took the vial and held it in his hand. The very small but concentrated sample looked less like blood and more like a blackish-brown sludge.
“Don’t worry,” he said simply. “He won’t trouble you further.”
“We thank you for your generosity, Master Sirelu,” the constable said. “As you say, we truly are desperate, and your philanthropy will solve the majority of Olvaren’s problems in a most timely fashion. Come, let’s get this stone appraised. I’m certain someone at the Academy is awake at this hour…”
“If not,” said the scholar with glee. “They will certainly want to be!”
– 11 –
Lies came easy to Master Leon Sirelu. Perhaps not lies… Exaggerations. Truth was flexible, especially when it needed to be.
He hadn’t been lying about the plagues spread along the southern coast of Ashant by depraved sky pirates, nor about his attempts to discover a cure on Falas. But so were fifty or so other Academy scholars that travelled the Antielli continent on research and diplomatic missions. Such evocations arrived to his marker every two or three weeks, but served more as general requests for information and advice than required tasks. He could have chosen a dozen other subjects, but the one about the plague seemed desperate and immediate enough for the situation: it gave him a verifiable purpose based on recent events, and one that wasn’t an outright lie. Besides, if Leon had discovered some mystical fungus or root in or around the mountain that served as an instant remedy for a very specific and unnamed disease from a very specific villainous source that afflicted a very specific race of people, he would have been quite shocked.
He had little hope that the hunters or villagers would stay off the mountain for five full years, or even attempt to discover and hunt more great wolves (if there were any remaining on the mountain). But even if they did, his planted “information” about the wolves moving west along with a good snowstorm to conceal lupine tracks would put the hunters off of Shera’s trail for good.
Even he had to admit, lying about Aeo and the wolves had been a calculated but incredibly risky gamble. If the scholar had ever witnessed Leon through Aeo’s eyes, none of Leon’s story about living in the forest would have connected with the truth. But Pick had remained at Aeo’s side almost every day for hours at a time, making him the most likely being of observation besides Shera and himself. The sole facts that the scholar seemed so excited and the constable so unfamiliar with Leon and his story – along with them not immediately clapping his wrists in irons – gave him a fairly quick tell about what they did and did not know.
They already knew Aeo was powerful. But, truthfully, abused and powerful made for a more dramatic tale and cast the boy as a victim of circumstance instead of a vicious killer. Leon couldn’t have expected pity or sympathy due to Aeo’s race, of course, but it made them see that Aeo wouldn’t be worth the trouble to execute. After all, why not place some wonder in their minds as to whether they could even touch the boy without bursting into flames? To think the academy scholar actually believed the little white lie about Aeo repeatedly burning Leon almost made him grin.
The joy faded from his success when he ruminated upon the price he’d just paid. He’d just given a priceless piece of the Everspring into the greedy hands of the San’Drael Academy. No doubt the headmaster of the Academy would see to the stone’s study personally, which did not bode well. A prideful humil man named Edmund Bosik. Leon had only heard stories of the man’s work, but it was all terribly grim. Some of it involved the study of living Edian slaves in some vain attempt to differentiate them from the Antielli populace. What would he choose to do with a better understanding of a rival’s power? What new subterfuge could Antiell Academy scholars – or worse, the mercenaries they employed – inflict upon Ashant and its sovereignty should they learn how to undo Everspring enchantments?
Leon didn’t honestly know if they could even study the stone; yet another gamble. Created to expend all of its energy in a single powerful burst, the stone was never meant to provide a slow trickle that could be unwoven and thoroughly examined. With their narrow-mindedness and lack of vision, they would surely glean little about the nature of the Wellspring. But one thing was certain: Leon had no plans to report the crystal’s trade to the Academy. Besides, this was a personal deal instead of an Academy-sponsored donation, no matter how often he’d used his title to sound credible.
The good constable’s observations were astute enough. What am I getting out of this deal? A freed slave and the reconstruction of some burned-down backwater?
In the very least, Leon purchased for Aeo a better future, one where he could decide his fate away from the prejudice of that terrible country. And at the very most… He shook the optimism out of his head again. Best not think of such things now, he thought. Cart before the horse, eggs before they hatch, and all that. Still too much to do. Aeo has yet to even control a flame on his own, much less defend himself.
Leon had left his pocket watch in the cave with his bag; he had no idea of the time when he finally worked his way up the mountain. After waiting in the woods near the destroyed village for nearly an hour, he’d taken a terribly convoluted path without the aid of a light in case anyone from the village had attempted to follow him. Fortunately, he had a clever trick for overcoming near darkness: a small piece of polished opal hung between a length of leather just the size of Leon’s forehead. Wearing it much like an eyepatch, the opal rested against his right temple. Upon it, he transfixed a tiny green glowing glyph that illuminated the path before him as if it were broad daylight.
He avoided the clearing of Shera’s carnage, opting to work his way up the mountain on a northerly route. No trails on the mountain offered a simple way up, but once he breached the treeline, the bare snow gave him a fairly clear path. To wander the cliffs of Falas unaided by climbing equipment was a fairly foolish idea, but Leon had discovered perhaps six or seven avenues up the mountain that hadn’t been covered by steep rock slides or sheer vertical walls. Regardless, Falas demanded patience and an able body, of which Leon had both. The cold no longer bothered him, though the thought of poor Aeo traversing the mountain in nothing but rags made him marvel at the boy’s determination. Or desperation, whichever it was.
When he finally saw the light of a cave in the cliffside some hours after his climb, he paused before entering to gather his thoughts. Somehow, in the hours of the morning, he would have to find his horse, Poro, which enjoyed resting far into the bighorn cave, retrieve and harness Poro to the cart that hid in an alcove some hundreds of yards away from the caves, and store as much alyssum and equipment as he could into the concealable containers that were built into the wagon’s frame. Both his mind and body yearned for rest. He wished Aeo could help him, but as he finally stepped into the cave and laid his eyes upon the boy, he knew it wasn’t meant to be. Bundled up beneath the furs, Aeo slept peacefully as Hala sat beside him.
She looked up in shock at the man entering the cave, but relaxed as Leon removed his hood.
“Leon,” Hala whispered, hopping over to him. “Is everything all right? Where did you go? What did you do?”
“I went down to the village,” Leon said, bending down. “I paid a heavy price to ensure Shera would not be followed, and that Aeo could walk free. Is he okay?”
“The poor dear is sleeping,” Hala said, looking back at Aeo. “He has been for a few hours. But what did you do? What price? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“I convinced the leaders of the village that it would be in their best interests to leave the wolves alone, allow Aeo to remain in my care, and focus their efforts on rebuilding their homes,” Leon said. “I gave them a very special artifact in return for these promises. Something very dear to me. Something that my… that my father…”
He shook his head, placing both hands through his hair.
“Have I gone mad, Hala?” he asked. “What am I doing? I’m afraid all of the decisions I’ve made in the last two years… and especially the last two weeks… will inevitably end in complete disaster. I’ve worked so hard to find this place, to discover… And now that I’ve found it, I don’t know what to do… I’ve destroyed Pick and Shera’s life, I’ve left everything vulnerable and exposed, and…” He trailed off, and to both Hala and Leon’s surprise, Leon suppressed a sob and fell silent.
“Leon,” Hala said, taken aback. “I’ve never seen you this way before.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “There is so much I wish I could explain, so many things I wish I could fix. About why I chose to come here. About why the boy…”
Leon looked across the cave at Aeo.
“…why he must come with me. Hala, if only you could view my thoughts like Shera did, you would think me the most desperate, despicable man on the face of Tiathys.”
Hala lept from the floor and collided against Leon’s chest with both hands before landing sharply back against the stone floor. Leon nearly fell backwards.
“Now you listen to me, Leon Sirelu,” Hala said, her voice sharp but quiet. “Desperate is the last thing you are! You are gentle, patient, and kind, one of the most intelligent beings I’ve ever known! You have kept all of us safe, and that is the least despicable thing I’ve ever seen in my long years. I don’t know what your intentions are for young Aeo, but I know there’s no one I trust more than you to care for him.”
“I don’t know if I’m ready,” Leon said. “I may be a master at Everspring, but I fear I’m preparing Aeo for a life of conflict and sorrow. No child should ever see death, or cause it… And I fear that Aeo saw too much today. He’s already seen too much, felt too much for a boy his age. You should have seen the village, Hala. It’s gone, there’s nothing left. How can I guide him when my powers are so frail? I’m no elementalist, I’m no warrior. I’m a glorified apothecary, at best. And worst of all, I’m no father. My own father taught me a terrible example, and I fear I’ll do the same.”
“Leon,” Hala said. “I don’t know your father. But I know you, the way you speak, the way you teach. You’re not frail. You’ve only known the boy for a few days, and he already trusts you. Trust yourself, like he trusts you. If you can’t be a father, be his example. Apothecary or no, you always have the right answers.”
“And if my answers end up damning us both?”
“You’ll think of something, my dear,” Hala said, twisting her whisker. “You and Aeo have already conquered this mountain. I think you’ll be able to conquer anything together.”
Leon shook his head again and fell silent for a moment.
“If this advice were coming from anywhere other than a frog… One day, you’re going to have to tell me where all of this wisdom comes from.”
“Ha!” Hala said, folding her arms. “As I’ve told you, it’s motherly instinct!”
* * * * * *
Aeo’s eyes opened. Damp stalactites greeted him, reflecting a dim white light. No dreams had come to him that night. Perhaps the stalactites were the dream. Maybe the image of Pick’s body lying prone in bloody snow had simply been a nightmare, and the giant pup would be happily dreaming in his corner of the cave.
Aeo looked. He saw the collapsed wooden door and the gaping cave entrance flooded with morning sun rays. Gone were the charms and candles that once lined the cave walls. The boxes of supplies had disappeared as well. He saw the burning embers of the campfire… then Pick’s bed of furs. But no Pick. Aeo envisioned him playing outside in the snowy morning air, carefree…
He thought he’d cried enough. He thought he couldn’t feel anything anymore. But seeing the empty bed left a hole in his heart, and he wallowed in a shame he’d never felt before. Tears filled his eyes as his face contorted, and he bitterly accepted the pain that emerged from his ribs, stomach, and bruised eye as payment for his stupidity. If he’d only stayed at the Inn. If he’d only accepted his fate. He would have never known Pick, or Leon, or Hala, or Shera, Harthoon never would have died, Aristé would have continued barking orders at him, and everything would have been…
“Aeo, dear?” came a voice.
Aeo didn’t try to hide his tears this time. Everything hurt too much to conceal anything. With his eyes shut tight against the newness of the day, he sobbed desperately for the suffering he’d inflicted on everyone he knew.
“No, Aeo… Please, dear,” said Hala’s voice. “Please don’t cry… You must save your strength for today.”
“It’s my fault,” Aeo whispered. “It’s all my fault…”
Her voice faded as a pair of boots entered the cave from outside.
“Everything is ready,” came the weary voice of Leon. “At last.”
“Leon, it’s Aeo,” Hala said. “Please, tell him none of this was his fault. Tell him, Leon…”
Aeo refused to open his eyes, even as the boots approached him and the man wearing them kneeled beside him. In fact, his sadness doubled upon itself and he curled sideways away from the man and the frog, clutching his chest, unable to breathe. No one said anything for a moment as Aeo heaved, his stifling sobs emerging from deep within.
He felt a hand rest on his arm.
“Aeo,” Leon said. “Only Tiathys knows why things like this happen, or even why they happen the way they do. So much of this world is cruel and unfair…”
Aeo breathed for the first time in several moments.
“I know you hardly know me… And there’s so much that I don’t yet know about you. But I want you to trust me. Trust in your good memories, however small they are. Pick wouldn’t want to see you this way, Aeo. He would want you to be happy. Remember the color green; it was his favorite color, the first color Shera ever showed to him. He hated blue and purple.”
The lump in Aeo’s throat grew larger, and the tears dripped sideways onto the fur blankets.
“I want to teach you, Aeo,” Leon said. “I want to show you that the Goddess gave you your life and your power for a reason. A good reason. Will you let me do that for you?”
The hand on his arm gently turned Aeo to his back again, and Aeo meagerly rubbed his eyes with one hand. For a moment, Aeo allowed himself to regain a small measure of calm, and he carefully looked upwards upon the spectacled face of his mentor.
“Why?” Aeo asked with a whimper. “Why do you care about me?”
Leon’s face melted into a confident smile.
“Because,” he said. “You’re just like me. Unsure of yourself. Afraid. You just need a chance to prove otherwise. You’re worth saving, Aeo.”
Aeo wasn’t sure, but Leon might have given Hala a knowing nod.
“And if I’m the first person you’ve ever heard say that to you, then prepare to be surprised… Because we’re going to a place that is filled with masters just like me that will care about you in much the same way.”
“Aeo, dear,” said Hala, resting a webbed hand on his arm. “In just these few days I’ve known you, you’ve become precious to me as well. Perhaps it’s simply the mother in me, but I know you’re going to grow up to do incredible things. Remember, fire doesn’t just destroy. It cooks food, it lights up dark caves, it brings warmth to everyone around it. You’re going to become a light to everyone you meet. Pick would like nothing more than this, I’m certain of it.”
Aeo’s heart continued to burn at the thought of the young wolf, but his tears slowly stopped falling. Leon was right; he’d never heard this before. It didn’t seem right. Surely Leon and Hala spoke of someone else. Someone who deserved happiness. But no, as he opened his eyes again from wiping his eyes, Leon and Hala both looked right at him.
“Come on,” Leon said. “The open road awaits us, and we have a long way to travel. Do you think you can stand?”
Aeo frowned, wincing at the pain.
“I don’t know,” he answered honestly.
“No, it’s okay, Aeo,” Leon said. “Don’t try, I’ll carry you to the wagon. It’ll be a bit bumpy and chilly until we cross the mountain, but you’ll be able to rest as we go.”
“Don’t forget his fur blankets and pillow,” Hala said. “Those are absolutely his to keep. But what about Pick’s furs? Will you be warm enough without taking them? If he and Shera truly aren’t coming back, then perhaps…”
“No,” he said. “It wouldn’t feel right. If they do come back when things are more peaceful, they’ll have a place to rest.”
Parting his fur blanket, Leon bent down and lifted Aeo into his arms with surprising ease. Then, stepping into the light beyond the mouth of the cave, the temperature plummeted as the wind curled delicate particles of ice about, sapping his body heat away almost instantly. But Leon didn’t have to carry him far. A large wagon with a shallow canvas covering awaited only a few yards from the cave, harnessed to a large and powerful steed he didn’t recognize.
“Aeo,” Leon said, stopping a moment in front of the horse. “This is Poro. She has enjoyed living here almost as much as I have, although I daresay she hasn’t had proper exercise in quite a long while. We’ll have to keep our pace slow but steady.”
The horse turned her head to look at Aeo and Leon, pushing her long snout into Leon’s arms and Aeo’s side. Aeo reached out an arm and gently patted the mare’s forehead between her eyes.
“Hi Poro,” he said quietly.
Poro grunted. Her hot breath visibly escaped her nostrils, whipping away in the cold air.
“I tried to leave you as much room as I could,” Leon said, stepping towards the back of the wagon. “All the crates and boxes are secure, but just so you’re aware, there are a few hidden compartments with preservation wards to help keep the stored ingredients fresh until we arrive at Everspring. So if you find them, try to keep your fingers away from the wards… It might dispel them and spoil everything.”
“Dis-spell, s-sir?” Aeo asked.
“Make them vanish,” Leon said.
“Oh,” Aeo said. “Okay.”
“Oh, and if anyone on the road asks what our cargo is, you probably shouldn’t say anything. I can do the talking. I’ll simply say I’m your new master. Which, I suppose is true, I am an Academy master, not your… well, you know what I mean.”
Awaiting him in the center of the wagon floor between the many crates lay Leon’s fur bedding. Fortunately, just enough room for Aeo. Unable to carry him further inside, Leon placed Aeo through the wide opening of the cart, allowing Aeo to grit his teeth and haul himself deeper in. The canvas did little to keep the chill at bay, and the pain in his eye and in his chest consumed his strength, but Aeo successfully motioned himself backwards until he sat upon the blankets.
“I’ll be back with your-”
“Leon! A little help?”
Leon looked and bent down for a moment. When he arose, he held in both his hands the spherical shape of a thick-jacketed lady-frog. She hopped from the man’s hands and into the wagon just in front of the boy.
“I’ll be back with your blankets, Aeo,” Leon said, and he disappeared back to the cave.
“Oh, it’s so c-c-cold,” Hala said, clasping her arms around her. Aeo did the same, rubbing his bare shoulders. “Will you be all right, Aeo? Truly? It pains me to see you leave like this. I feel as though I’ve done so little to help you…”
Aeo’s eyebrows raised.
“But…” he said. “But you made my boots.”
Aeo looked down at the floor.
“It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”
“Oh, that I had time to do more,” Hala said, stepping towards the boy. “It was my pleasure. That anyone could make such a kind boy a slave is beyond me.”
“It’s my red eyes,” Aeo whispered. “And my red hair. I wish they were normal. Then people wouldn’t treat me different.”
“Well, you know something?” Hala said, inching closer. “When I was young, I wished I could be a great wolf instead of a tiny frog. They were so strong and powerful, so capable… Just like Shera. But I learned I could do things with my webby fingers that their paws and teeth couldn’t. Like sewing, tanning, and sketching.”
Hala lifted a finger.
“So you remember, young humil,” she said. “Your eyes and your hair don’t define your talents, and they don’t define your heart. Learn all you can at this Academy. Discover what you can do that nobody else can. And please…”
Hala wiped a tear from her eye.
“Promise me you’ll take care of Leon. I have a feeling he’s going to need your help just like you need his.”
“My help?” Aeo asked. “But he’s so… sure and right. All the time. How could I help him?”
She leaned forward and, to the boy’s surprise, gave Aeo a gentle hug, opening her arms around Aeo’s chest as wide as she possibly could; her stuffy round coat got in the way.
“Just be good to each other,” she said to Aeo. “I don’t know what you believe, Aeo, but I know the Goddess is watching over you. Both of you. You trust in Her, and she’ll guide you to safety.”
Aeo sniffed at the cold air and realized something.
“I’m going to miss you,” he said quietly, wrapping his arms around the frog as best he could.
“And I’m going to miss you too, my dear sweet boy…” Hala said. “I know we may never see each other again, but if you ever decide to climb the mountain, you come find me. I’d love to hear about everything you learn.”
“I’ll come back,” Aeo said. “I will, I promise…”
Leon appeared and dropped an armful of fur blankets into the wagon, along with his personal bag.
“I suppose it’s time,” he said.
Aeo released Hala and she pulled back after patting Aeo’s cheek. Stepping onto the furs, she hobbled over to Leon and gave him an embrace as well.
“I don’t care if it takes you a lifetime to return,” Hala said to him. “I want to see your face again. You come back, understand?”
“I’ll try, Hala, you know I’ll try,” Leon said, hugging her. “If only to make sure you and your family are still safe.”
Leon lifted Hala again and bent down to place her upon the snowy ground. He then slid into place a wooden slat to the opening of the wagon to ensure nothing fell out. Aeo didn’t see Hala for a moment until she stepped back far enough to look past it.
“You two travel safely!” she shouted above the wind, waving her hand and hopping up and down. “Look after each other, now! Good-bye! Stay warm! Make sure you get plenty to eat! And plenty of rest!”
“We will, Hala!” said Leon, disappearing to mount the front of the wagon. “Good-bye!”
Aeo covered himself in his fur blanket and waved back at the small frog. After a moment, the wagon bucked forwards, rumbling across the icy earth. Hala began to fade into the snowy morning, waving all the while.
“Good-bye,” he whispered. When Aeo could no longer see Hala or the cave, he laid down and buried himself in his fur blankets and began to cry.
– 12 –
Without a proper sense of direction, or any experience traveling in a covered wagon at all, Aeo had no idea where Poro and Leon were headed. The pale sunlight piercing through the glittering frost shined through a small opening in the front of the wagon through which Aeo could see Leon driving the horse forwards.
For about two hours, Aeo and Leon spoke not a word. Leon perhaps thought the boy slept beneath the bundles of fur. And Aeo supposed that driving a wagon across a roadless mountain very difficult, as the wagon jostled and shook and creaked, angling sideways and backwards then sideways again. Every so often, Leon would shout strange commands to Poro, who would then slow her steps, or increase them, or stop altogether; ‘nee-ah’ to speed up, and ‘bah-si’ to slow and stop. No sooner did Aeo think that traveling by wagon one of the most strenuous and unpleasant of experiences, the wagon decided to make one more colossal rumble. Aeo braced himself; with the sounds Leon and Poro made, he expected the entire wagon to fall off a cliff. But then the wagon steadied itself and rolled forwards on relatively level ground.
“Aeo?” called Leon, lifting the front flap as high as it would go. “Are you awake?”
After that? Of course I am.
“Yes sir,” came the timid voice.
“Is everything okay back there?” Leon asked. “Nothing fell on you, or fell out the back?”
Everything in the wagon looked like they’d been secured with tough ropes, and he was very grateful for Leon’s diligence.
“Oh, good. I’ve never driven this way before, and I thought that hill would have been kinder to us. Sorry about that. But I believe I’ve found the highway.”
The notion that Leon drove in unknown territory wasn’t assuring. And Aeo could only stare out the back of the wagon into the blinding snow and see one or two young pine trees and what looked to be a narrow bowl-shaped road sloping upwards into icy mist.
“Where are we going?” Aeo asked. He panicked slightly. “Um, s-sir?”
He heard a chuckle from the driver’s seat.
“You’re very polite,” he said. “But there’s no need to call me sir. Always made me feel uncomfortable.”
“Yes sir…” Aeo mumbled, fighting to retain his body heat beneath the fur blankets. “Er, I… I mean…”
This time, Leon laughed. Aeo felt his stomach turn.
“I’m sorry, Aeo, I don’t mean to laugh,” Leon said. “But you remind me so much of myself. I remember calling everyone at the Archives ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ so often as a child that Algus once scolded me about it. ‘Some of these wretched ambassadors don’t deserve it,’ he told me. ‘They get big-headed and they’ll think they can boss you around all day and night’.”
“Big-headed?” Aeo said with a smirk. He could imagine some of the hunters at the inn with heads swelled up fatter than pumpkins.
“Yes, prideful,” Leon said, clearing his throat against the chilly wind. “And it was true. I remember this one ambassador from Ordelis that I called him ‘sir’ one too many times, and from then on he called me his ‘little librarian’ and ordered me around the Archives for hours at a time whenever he visited. He often arrived unannounced as well, so I did my best to hide from him.”
That sounded painfully familiar. Except with Aristé, it was all hours of the day and most of the night. And then Harthoon would…
Aeo’s smile vanished. Just thinking the name shattered his peace. The creaking of the wagon mocked him.
“Aeo?” called Leon after a moment of quiet.
“Yes sir?” Complete impulse. He shut his eyes and shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t mean to… to keep…”
“It’s all right,” Leon said. “I understand. It’s a tough habit to break.”
“I just wanted to say,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you. I don’t know what happened to you after Shera knocked us out, but I imagine you saw a lot of the battle… Something you should never have been part of. I imagine Shera gave you to the hunters. Did they try to take you back to the village? Did they-”
“I don’t… want to talk about it,” Aeo said, placing emphasis on ‘don’t’ a little more than he intended.
Leon fell silent. Aeo did as well. All they heard was the sound of the wind and snow grinding beneath wooden wheels.
It was becoming difficult to stay warm beneath the blankets due to spaces in the wagon that allowed frigid air to pass through. Determined to retain heat, Aeo curled up his legs and pulled his head underneath the fur. This helped… for a moment. Before long, his breath made the blankets overly humid and stuffy, and at last he gave up, peeking his head out the top. His pillow, once warmed by his head and now thoroughly frozen, made his teeth chatter. His legs uncurled, and felt a terrible chill as they stretched straight – he wished his boots covered more than just his feet. It was all truly a struggle for the ages wherein there is never a victor. Realizing that no real relief would arrive, he curled the edges of his blanket beneath his arms and lay flat as a board.
After an hour or so, the sunlight that filtered through the thin canvas of the wagon disappeared. Somehow, the temperature dropped even further, as they were now under shadow. Though the canvas obscured his view of the outside, he saw frozen cliffs blocking the sun. The wagon made several turns during its descent as if following a twisting trail. At last, the light crested above the mountain peak by late morning, making the temperature a little more bearable.
He tried to remember a time when he felt warm; always a difficult task when freezing. He had sat in front of the fireplace at the Gray Pale, yes. He had laid under fur blankets and rubber bottles in the cave, or stood in Leon’s study with the plants and thermal water. But he decided that all of these places had an underlying frozen nature about them, that just outside a snowstorm was blowing, that you could leave a bucket of water outside and it would be frozen solid by morning. Again, strange memories of a distant land came to him, but they were always obscure, part of an early childhood that Olvaren’s endless frost erased.
An important question rose in his head.
“Yes?” he said, as if he’d been waiting for Aeo to speak up all along.
“Is Everspring warm?”
Another chuckle from Leon.
“It certainly is,” he said. “You’ll go for a walk on the grounds and start sweating almost immediately. Especially in the wet season, when the humidity rises. I think you’ll find it quite the opposite of Olvaren’s cold and dry climate. Speaking of warmer climates…”
Aeo looked upwards towards the front, and saw Leon standing as the wagon slowed to a halt.
“Good news,” Leon said. “You can see the treeline from here.”
He couldn’t just lay there; despite the cold, Aeo threw a blanket around himself and, through the pain in his chest, kneeled next to the crates at the front of the wagon and peered through the flap. The view was a bit unimpressive; he’d seen pine and poplar trees before, and couldn’t see more than one or two kilometers down the mountain before everything fell into cloudy mist. But a familiar thought occurred to him that hadn’t passed through his mind since he departed the Gray Pale.
“Are we… on the other side of the mountain?” he asked.
Leon sat and looked down at Aeo through the canvas.
“Yes, we are. We went through the pass about two hours ago. By the end of the day, we’ll descend into the valley low enough to get out of this snow. There might be rain, but it will be much warmer.”
Leon slapped the reigns down and with a quick shout of ‘nee-ah’, Poro continued and the wagon lurched forward.
“Um… Leon?” Aeo asked. “Am I… free?”
“What do you mean?” he asked, concentrating on driving.
“Well, I… I heard… from people at the inn, that if an Edian crosses the mountain, there’s a warm country of sand to the west where we come from. If an Edian goes there, then they’re free.”
“That’s true,” Leon said. “There is a country to the west. Edia, named after the priestess that crossed the Great Sea and settled her people there. Were you born there, Aeo?”
“I don’t know,” Aeo said. “I… guess I don’t remember anything other than Olvaren.”
“Well, I have heard tales of Edian slaves making their way back to their homeland. I’d like to think it happens more often than the rumors say it does.”
“So Edia doesn’t have slaves? Is Everspring in Edia?”
“No,” Leon said. “No, the Everspring is in Ashant, about a month to the south by horse. It will take us a bit longer if we rest along the way. I’d rather not if we can help it. Though, truth be told, I haven’t slept… for a while now, and I’d like to once we get off the mountain.”
So he wasn’t going back to his homeland.
“Do they have slaves in Ashant?”
“They don’t,” Leon said. “Slavery was outlawed in Ashant about 120 years ago.”
“So… I’ll be free when we reach Everspring?”
“Ha,” Leon said. “You’re free right now.”
Aeo blinked a few times.
“I… I am?”
“That’s why I left last night,” Leon said. “I went down to the village and paid for your freedom, and made certain no one would ever take you back there.”
Aeo’s eyes opened wide.
“You… paid for me?” he asked. “How? …and why?”
“Why?” Leon said. “Would you prefer I didn’t?”
“No, I just mean…”
“It’s okay, Aeo,” Leon said, sliding sideways in his seat and tousling Aeo’s hair. “It was my choice. I gave the constable a very valuable treasure that my father had given me,” Leon said. “It was in their best interest to accept my deal, so they left you in my care. As a matter of fact, Aeo, go into my bag in the back of the wagon and you’ll find in the very front pocket a small glass vial filled with a dark liquid. Bring it up to me, would you?”
Aeo obeyed, carefully hobbling to the back without toppling over. Opening the flap of Leon’s bag, he saw a few strange instruments and bottles inside the main compartment but didn’t dare touch them. The front pocket contained a few spare pieces of paper with scribbled notes and, indeed, a small unmarked glass vial. Aeo held it up to the light; about a quarter-inch filled, the “liquid” looked like black mucky oil.
“What is it?” Aeo said, stumbling back over to the front of the wagon. He slid the vial to Leon’s side, and Leon took the vial in his gloved hand.
“Turns out I was right,” he said. “A scholar in the village was able to track you all the way up the mountain with this. This is your blood, Aeo.”
“My blood?” He stuck out his tongue. “Eww, really?”
“They must have taken it from you when you were little,” Leon said. “You probably don’t even remember them taking it from you. These samples can last for years, and with the proper evocation, someone would be able to track you from hundreds of miles away.”
“Hmm,” Aeo grunted, shaking his head. What a simple, terrible thing, the reason the hunters found Pick and Shera. The reason Horthoon found him. The whole reason for everything.
“So,” Leon continued. “Since you’re free and don’t belong to anyone anymore, I thought I’d leave it up to you. Do you want me to empty it out and destroy it? Or do you want me to hang onto it for while, and let you decide?”
“I don’t want it,” he said simply.
“Just so you’re aware,” Leon said. “Samples like this are very expensive to take, and if you left it to me, if you ever get lost or separated from me, I’d be able to find you. I would ensure that no one else could find it and use it against you.”
Aeo stayed silent.
“The question is,” Leon said. “Do you trust me enough to give me that responsibility?”
Aeo pulled his blanket tighter against himself.
“I… I trust you,” he said quietly. “But… I don’t like that thing. Can you please… throw it away?”
“Bah-si, bah-si,” Leon said to Poro, pulling on the reigns. Poro stopped and the wagon halted. “All right, then. It should be as simple as pulling the cork.”
Leon turned to his side, and allowed Aeo to watch him. Removing his gloves, he gently took the cork and pulled. It didn’t budge. He dug his fingernails into the edges. No luck.
“Hmm, wedged in there,” Leon said. “Hold on. If I remember right, you might want to close your ears.”
Aeo did so, unsure of what might happen. Leon stood for a moment and produced a curious item from his pocket made of metal and polished hardwood. He flicked the object with his finger, and a small six-inch blade jumped up from inside the handle, clicking into place. Leon stabbed the cork from the side, and the blade acted as a lever. With a loud pop that couldn’t have come from such a small cork, it flew free, flying away from the wagon and into the snow.
“Oops. Well, there we go,” Leon said. “That sound is the magick vanishing, of course. It’s no good anymore.”
Unceremoniously, Leon tipped the bottle over the side of the wagon and allowed the black sludge to drip from the vial. Most of it clung to the glass, obscuring the inside, but a few drops fell out and onto the icy ground.
“Good,” Aeo said. “I hate that thing.”
“As do I,” Leon said. “I think you made the right choice. Here, let’s hang on to the bottle until we can dispose of it properly. Wouldn’t want some merchant to find it in the snow, no matter how old the blood is. There’s a handkerchief in my bag, wrap it up in that.”
“Okay,” Aeo said, careful to keep his fingers away from the vial’s lip. He didn’t intend to, but the smell of the vial caught his nose and made him gag. “Ugh, bad…”
“Nee-ah, nee-ah,” Leon said with a whip of the reigns, and the wagon lurched forth under Poro’s power. “Poor girl, we’ll find you a warm place to rest soon enough. No doubt you miss the warm caves already. I know I do.”
Aeo sat up against one corner of the wagon and buried himself in furs. He fumbled for a few terrible chilly moments, but eventually got warm and enjoyed much more comfort. He didn’t feel sleep in the slightest, but there was one more nagging problem.
“Leon?” he asked. “I’m hungry.”
“Um, let’s see,” Leon replied. “Oh, yes, the box you were leaning on. I think there is a bag of black currant berries and a few green apples in there. I had intended to return to Olvaren to resupply soon, but… everything happened. We’ll have to enjoy cooked mushrooms and canned berries until we reach the next town. Rurali, I think it’s called. It’s a few days away, but we’ll be able to pick up some good dried meat and rye bread there. Maybe some cucumbers or fresh fish. What’s your favorite food, Aeo?”
“Um…” Aeo said. He could think of nothing from the inn. “Your bighorn stew, I think. It was really good.”
“Well, thank you,” Leon said. “I rather liked it myself. You know, you’re going to love Ashanti cuisine, if I could name my favorite meal, it would have to be…”
Leon carried on as the ride continued down the mountain, describing fruits, vegetables, and sweets that Aeo had never heard of before. He then talked about life at the Academy and the subjects they taught there. Aeo didn’t understand the terms Leon used in the slightest, like “astrologica”, “elementalism”, and “matter metamorphosis”. But Aeo didn’t mind in the least. Leon liked to talk, and Aeo decided he liked to listen.
* * * * * *
For about four or five hours, the view outside remained roughly the same. The snow continued to steadily fall, obscuring a greater view of the highway ahead. In fact, how Leon knew they still traveled on the highway, Aeo didn’t quite understand. Perhaps it was the way the pine trees remained an average distance apart as they rolled on; it didn’t look apparent at first, but slowly as the forests grew thicker during the descent, Aeo realized Poro was following a narrow corridor of snow-covered foliage and fallen trees. The snow didn’t freeze solid to the ground like it did at the peak of Falas, and delicate channels of fresh-melted water cascaded along the highway’s edge, encrusted with ice and covered in fallen branches.
The wind that so dominated the highest cliffs of Falas had vanished, replaced by a peaceful stillness Aeo had never truly heard before. The temperature hadn’t changed, but the lack of wind made all the difference. Except for the squeaking and rocking of the wooden wagon, the valley into which they journeyed made no sounds. Even the songbirds that he supposed lived in those woods must have decided to remain in their nests, expecting the winter that came on swiftly. Once or twice, he heard the call of a hawk from somewhere high above the pine, no doubt scanning the earth below for rabbits, mice, or squirrels.
Curiously, even though Leon had stated that the road they traveled upon was a major trade route to western villages and the borders of Edia, Aeo and Leon saw no one else on the road. “All the better,” Leon had said. “The fewer people ask about our business, the better.”
As the sun began to set, some of the clouds parted at last, revealing an orange light nearly dipping to the horizon. Like an impenetrable cloud above the trail from which they came, Aeo could no longer see the top of the mountain. Looking out the front flap, however, the view became very different. Aeo kneeled up on the food crate to get a look at the valley below, and what met his gaze didn’t disappoint: one or two smaller peaks many dozens of kilometers in the distance rose across a mighty green valley and a grand shimmering lake nestled in the center reaching outwards towards the south.
“Leon, sir?” Aeo said, pointing to the lake. “What’s that? Are we going there?”
“Down there, in the middle of the trees. It looks like a mirror… Are we going down there?”
“It’s water,” Leon said with a grin. “A lake. And I believe so. The highway winds south along the lake’s edge. I’d have to check my marker to be sure, but we’ll be following it for a good while. Why, thinking of doing some swimming? The water is probably fairly cold.”
“Oh,” he said. Regardless, he’d never seen so much water from a distance before. “I don’t know how to swim anyway.”
“Not even swimming, eh? Then you’ll love the lake beside the Academy. It’s not quite as warm as the hot springs on Falas, but it’s nice all year round. You can even take swimming lessons if you want. It’s great exercise.”
“Yes sir,” Leon said nonchalantly. Then, with a start, Leon slapped his hand to his mouth. “Oh, look what you made me do. Now I’m starting to say it.”
For the first time he could remember, Aeo let out a laugh.
As the sun dipped below the crest of the distant mountains, the air began to chill the moment it disappeared. A few moments later, Leon directed Poro to halt her progress along the side of the highway.
“We’ll stop here for the night,” Leon said. “I had hoped to make it out of the snow, but Poro can only take this wagon downhill so quickly. Oh well. Over there looks decent enough.”
Aeo looked, and Leon pointed to spot beneath a small grove of fir trees relatively free of snow. Leon hopped down from the driver’s seat and walked to the back of the wagon.
“Do you feel well enough to carry the furs over while I get a fire going?”
Aeo straightened his back and felt his aching ribs and stomach. The intensity of the pain had gone away, but the soreness remained.
“I think so,” Aeo said, gathering as many blankets as he could in his arms.
“Excellent,” Leon said, reaching for the pile of stacked firewood near the rear of the cart. He took his bag and proceeded to the clearing with Aeo slowly and carefully following after him.
If the forest had been a quiet sanctuary before, it became oppressively silent in the dusk and darkness. Aeo could imagine packs of wolves or hungry mountain lions stalking them from a distance, like stories he’d always heard at the inn, but he neither heard them howling or saw any movement. He peered through the trees, and as far as he could see, thick pines, blue spruces, poplars, and fir trees grew tall above the gently-fallen snow, surrounded in blankets of white except where their discarded leaves and needles lay. The spot Leon picked out was particularly covered in needles and pine cones, and before he began any fire-making, he dragged his boot along the ground to kick all of the debris from the area.
It took three trips for Aeo to gather all the blankets, and by the end, he’d forgotten which blankets belonged to him or to Leon.
“Sorry,” he said, separating the large from the small. “I think these are yours.”
“Don’t worry about me,” Leon said. “Take as many as you’ll need. I have a trick to staying warm out in the open so we won’t freeze tonight.”
“Magick?” Aeo asked.
“Do you mind if I start the campfire tonight?”
“Uh, yeah… sure.”
“You’ll take tomorrow night?”
“Um… I guess…”
“Don’t worry, practice makes perfect. You did great last time.”
Last time was not a good memory. Regardless, Aeo took one of the blankets around his shoulders and shivered in the cold; although the temperature had risen dramatically in their single day of travel, he could still see his breath as the sky turned a cloudless midnight blue above them. Before starting, Leon scavenged a few rocks from beneath the needles and pine cones, arranging them in a rough circle. Like a professional, Leon built the lean-to out of twigs and kindling and took the flint stick out of his bag. Instead of the curved piece of steel, however, he produced the same strange pocket knife from his coat. Again, without evidence of a switch, the knife produced a blade from its center. With six or seven quick powerful strokes, sparks flew like shooting stars right into the bundle and smoldered. Within thirty seconds of blowing, the fire poofed into being and greedily devoured the sticks and stems, billowing thick grey smoke all the while.
“It always takes three or four times as much kindling to get a fire going if it’s wet than if it’s dry,” Leon said, placing dry wood from the wagon. “And placing wet logs onto wet kindling will probably smother the fire. Add wet wood carefully and slowly. When possible, carry some dry kindling with you wherever you go. A hatchet, as well. If you’re in the middle of winter or rain, you can split a log open and gather dry kindling from the center with a knife.”
Aeo nodded, sitting up closer to the fire.
“When we get to Rurali, we’ll get you all geared up. Surely their general store will have everything you need.”
“But,” Aeo said, patting his unkempt hair down. “I don’t have any money.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “I’ll buy everything.
“Really?” Aeo asked. “You have money?”
“I do, although I don’t like to tell people about it. I may not look it, having spent the last year and a half living in a cave. But I do enjoy some the finer things in life when living at the Academy. Like unru tea. Fresh Teremalin peaches. And properly laundered clothes. I apologize if this sounds conceited, but using a stone floor as a washboard and relying on smelly lye soap is something I can do without.”
“Arrogant,” Leon explained with a grin. “Snooty, I suppose.”
Snooty. What a funny word, Aeo thought. He had heard that one before.
“But you’re not snooty. I just thought you looked like a teacher, at first,” Aeo said. “You are a teacher, aren’t you?”
“I am, yes,” Leon said, leaning over the growing fire. “I’m looking forward to getting back to my alchemy students. No doubt Master Dolshir has spoiled them rotten. I think he likes to let the fourth level students use the greenhouse’s rare plants and minerals to prove to them how advanced our department is. But I say keep it simple, practice the basics, over and over again. Once you memorize the procedures to create simple alchemical solutions, and can perform them in your sleep, then you can play with the valuable ingredients.”
“Could you teach me to make potions?” Aeo asked.
“I certainly could. Have you ever mixed anything together before? Like a potion? Or maybe a drink, perhaps?”
“Aristé wouldn’t let me mix drinks,” Aeo said, scratching his arm. “She said I’d poison people. I served ale, but I hate ale. It’s gross.”
“Very understandable. I’ve found that alchemy is all but a lost art in Antiell.”
Leon bent down and placed his fire-making tools away into his bag and produced in their stead a small white candle and a thin wooden block with a hole drilled in the center.
“A candle?” Aeo asked.
“Yes,” Leon said. “It makes for a good foundation for a ward. And a proper ward causes the candle to burn slower and protects it against the wind. They benefit each other. This candle should last us the whole night, and hopefully I have enough candles to last us until we reach town.”
Leon brought the candle close to the base of the fire, pulling it back as soon as the wick lit with a tender flame. He wedged the candle into the base and placed it about a foot from the campfire. Then, kneeling before it as if he were going to pray, he placed both of his hands about six inches from the burning wick and began quietly whispering something. Aeo nearly asked what the chanting was for; he was interrupted by a shining white light that appeared in Leon’s downward-facing hands. A clearly-defined semi-circle glyph emerged and inflated like the illuminated illustration of some arcane spellbook, draping over the candle like delicate lace. Within five seconds, like the ward in the cave, the magick gave off a cheerful pop as the spell took effect. Unlike the ward in the cave, however, this ward gave off a great plume of shimmering orange smoke that rose from the flame and swirled first around the campfire and then outwards in a cloudy gale around both Aeo and Leon. Leon showed no great alarm. Aeo did, and he instinctively tried to hold his breath from breathing the smoke. Unfortunately, it all happened so fast, he inhaled from surprise.
Sweet. Like breathing in the scent of wild roses and caramelized sugar. It only took about ten seconds for the smoke to settle on the icy ground. As it did so, the temperature around Aeo delightfully increased more than thirty or forty degrees as if he, Leon, and the campfire had moved into the dry indoors. The snow roughly five meters in diameter around the candle began to thaw and melt, and within about sixty seconds it appeared as if snow had simply forgotten to fall in the ward’s presence. Not even moisture remained in the dirt underneath them.
“Whoa,” Aeo whispered, letting the blanket around his shoulders fall.
“How about that,” Leon said, standing to his feet. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s a bit more difficult than the wards I cast in the cave since it covers an area instead of just an opening. Give me a moment, I’ll be right back. Let’s roast some mushrooms, shall we?”
Leon stepped over to the wagon as Aeo made a funny face.
Mushrooms? Eww, Aeo thought.
Curious, Aeo slid himself backwards towards the very edge of the circle and reached his hand beyond the snow line. While he saw no evidence of any kind of definitive edge, his hand chilled from wintery air the moment it crossed the invisible barrier.
Leon returned bearing a small lidded box in his arms and an iron skillet, a metal bowl, a metal fork, and a large water canteen all sat on top. He placed everything on the ground beside the pine tree and sat before the fire. Turning to his bag, he pulled a thin labelless glass bottle from within the main compartment; Aeo imagined that Leon’s bag contained an infinite space filled with the most useful items imaginable. With magick, who knew what was possible anymore?
“Apologies,” Leon said. “I only have one set of utensils. I’ll use the fork for cooking, and then you can take it. Sound good?”
“What’s that?” He asked, pointing to the bottle. “Is it a potion?”
“Oh, this?” Leon asked. “No, olive oil. I never forget to fill my bottle whenever I can, can’t cook without it.”
Leon set the crate in front of him and lifted the lid. To Aeo’s surprise, the crate make a sharp noise, like a balloon popping.
“It’s got a… preservation ward,” Leon explained. “Keeps the food fresh while we travel. Remind me to replace it before the night is through.”
From the crate, Leon lifted up the largest mushroom Aeo had ever seen, as wide as both of Leon’s head and six inches thick. Plump and deep violet in color, the stem grew beneath an array of delicate gills. Within five minutes, Leon scooped out the stem and the gills with the fork and carefully cut long strips of mushroom apart with his pocket knife; the insides of the mushroom were a light purple hue. Within ten minutes, a strange but delicious scent wafted from the iron skillet, filling the warm “bubble” of Leon’s enchantment. Not at all earthy, but very savory and rich, like a juicy steak on a sizzling cooktop. As promised, once the mushroom slices took on an odd color combination of crispy brown and violet, Leon handed the fork, bowl, and several slices of mushroom to the boy. Aeo was not a picky eater; all his life, he took what he could get. He wasn’t about to change now. And he had to admit, after traveling all day on an apple and a few berries, he was ravenous.
The mushroom practically melted as he cut it with the fork. Hesitantly, he took a bite. The moment the salivating savor of the mushroom hit his palate, his eyes widened. The smell and the taste were one in the same: it was as if he were eating the most mouthwatering meat in the world, coupled with the tiniest hint of… fruit? Strawberries? The combination of flavours didn’t deter him in the slightest. In fact, it made him all the more eager.
“Mmm,” he said, stuffing his mouth with another piece. “This is really good.”
“Isn’t it delicious?” Leon said, cutting up a mushroom in the skillet with his pocket knife. “One of the most wonderful mushrooms I found up there. Hala introduced it to me. The frogs love it, and save it for special occasions when their families get together. Apparently, it’s very rare, and only grows in dark crevices near the underground river currents. I’m thinking of growing it in the Academy fungus dens… If they will grow, of course. Don’t know until I try. Might take years until new fungi can grow; some can be very picky about their environments and culture mediums, and I have a feeling this one will be. But they would make excellent additions to the Academy dining menu.”
“What’s a culture medium?”
“Whatever the mushroom wants to grow in,” Leon said, taking a bite. “Compost, rotting logs, things of that nature.”
“Mushrooms are kinda weird,” Aeo said with his food in his mouth. “Mushrooms grow in the dark, don’t they? Don’t they need light, like a plant?”
“Some do, some don’t. They’re different than trees and grass. Most just need humidity and a rich medium to grow. Interesting, isn’t it? Many alchemy recipes depend on fungi to give them thickness and stability.”
“Huh,” Aeo said. “So you can make potions out of… fun-ghee?”
“That you can,” Leon said with a grin.
* * * * * *
With dinner finished, Leon did indeed replace the preservation ward on the box of mushrooms (the magic spell appearing much the same as Leon’s previous wards), and returned the box to the wagon. He then unhooked Poro from the wagon and led her over to the magickal warmth. She appeared to notice the change immediately, letting out soft snorting sounds from her nose and gently flicking her tail. Now roped to the tree under which they lay, Leon walked back to the wagon and brought back a bucket and a large crate filled with thin green vines from which red flowers grew. He placed them on the ground before Poro, and she dove in and muched away at the thick tangle of vines.
“She loves these,” Leon said. “She’ll be so sad to never eat them again. I suppose I could try cultivating them, but I worry that they’ll never grow without Falas spring water.”
Bending down outside of the warm zone, Leon scooped up a large amount of snow into the bucket, then returned; within sixty seconds, the snow melted, and a fresh bucket of room-temperature water remained. He placed this before Poro as well, and she happily slurped it up.
“Good job, Poro,” Leon said, stroking Poro’s mane. “We’ll get you to greener pastures soon.”
“How old is Poro?” Aeo asked.
“She’s six years old, I believe,” Leon said. “The gentlest and most patient soul I’ve ever known, especially for a horse so young. Very capable, too. The cavern stable was so large, it gave Poro enough space to run around. Every so often, I’d ride her down the mountain and back up again. I don’t believe she liked the rocky terrain, but she loved the forest below.”
Leon sat on the ground and yawned.
“I don’t know about you, Aeo, but I’m exhausted. I’m going to get some sleep. Pass me a blanket, would you?”
Aeo did so.
“What if wolves or bears come and try to eat us?”
“Poro will let us know,” Leon said. “Even if she falls asleep, she’s very alert.”
Leon laid down a few feet from the campfire and the candle ward, choosing to sleep on top of the fur blanket and nothing else. Aeo followed Leon’s example and made a bed for himself with a set of furs on bottom and two on top. Realizing he hardly needed two in the heat, he removed one.
As everything grew silent beside the crackling campfire, Aeo’s thoughts immediately turned to Pick. He didn’t want to think about the events that led up to it, but the image of Pick’s bloody fur had burned so keenly into his mind that it made him nauseous. If only Aeo had been at Pick’s side. Maybe the fire in his hands could have helped. Maybe he could have warned Pick of the impending danger. But then the thought occurred to him: if a wolf couldn’t hear the footsteps of approaching hunters, what hope could Aeo have had?
“Leon?” Aeo asked.
“Hmm?” Leon said without turning over.
“Do you think Pick is still alive?”
“Honestly?” Leon asked quietly. “I’ll bet he is. He’s tough like his mama. I’m sure they’re both safe.”
“I think so too,” Aeo said.
After a few moments of thinking, Aeo said:
“I miss Hala.”
“Mmm, me too,” Leon replied, sounding more distant.
After a few more moments, Aeo said:
Leon didn’t reply, no doubt fast asleep.
“Goodnight,” Aeo said to everybody and nobody, turning over to face the wintry darkness beyond the ward. The edge of the ward was out of his reach, but he could see a chill wind blowing through the trees and appreciated the fact that he couldn’t feel it.
He remained awake for many minutes more, thinking about everything all at once. How expensive was a slave? What price did Leon have to pay to free him? If freedom meant having to lose Pick, maybe freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But it felt so good to travel with Leon and be unchained from the Gray Pale and that miserable frigid village. He couldn’t help but feel a glimmer of selfish happiness. Selfish? Was it wrong to feel the way he did? Surely Leon didn’t judge him that way. Maybe if Pick were alive, he’d be happy. Aeo wished Pick could have come with them. Now that he was free, there was so much Aeo wanted to tell him.
The last thought that stuck in Aeo’s mind as he drifted off to sleep were the words:
– 13 –
Two Days Later
Leon’s evocation marker was an incredible object. The scroll-like marker consisted of two finely-carved cylindrical ivory containers and what appeared to be a thick page of vellum between them. When the scroll opened, the vellum would unfurl from within the cylinders to present a “blank” page, and when closed, the vellum retracted precisely when intended and not a moment sooner. With the “blank” page open, Leon could say any number of ashanti words (in a language he called Drael-dena) to “command” the scroll to reveal important information, all displayed in a variety of shimmering colored lines and light. The word ‘nal-dor-ma’ would cause a list to appear upon the vellum, revealing, as Leon explained, a record of the various supplies and ingredients carried in the wagon (minus the concealed ones, of course). With the word ‘lah-sev-rai’, the vellum would reveal a map of the surrounding area. And with the words ‘dah-si’ and ‘dah-sol’ respectively, the map would enlarge or shrink to reveal more or less of the world around their current location. It even displayed the wagon, Poro, and the faint shimmering outlines of deer moving through the forest. How the marker could do all of this, Aeo hadn’t the faintest idea.
One of the most important commands for the marker was the word ‘fah-coh-pah’, which enabled Leon to contact any other marker he knew the name of. He used this function to contact an ashanti by the name of Master Kane Dolshir, someone Leon had mentioned before as a peer in the alchemy department of the Academy. His voice came in loud and clear as if he were sitting in the wagon himself, and Leon didn’t even need the marker to be open to speak to him.
“Leon, it is wonderful to hear from you, my boy!” The ashanti’s accent was very pronounced, almost lyrical in its deep bass tones. “I haven’t heard from you in ages! Where have you been all this time? I haven’t been able to contact you.”
Aeo remained quiet.
“I’m about six weeks’ travel from the Everspring,” Leon said, holding Poro’s reigns as the wagon rolled on down the dirt road. “Traveling south in Antiell. You can track my marker if you’d like. Is this evocation shielded?”
There was a slight pause, and then the sound of Master Dolshir mumbling a few ashanti words.
“It is now,” Master Dolshir said. “But when you say things like that, I worry for your safety. Have you been on the road for two years, or working in one spot in particular?”
“A year and half in one spot. I didn’t dare contact anyone in that time. Let’s just say I have quite the haul of fascinating flora our first level students will fall in love with. As for the rest, Kane, I’m afraid I’ll have to speak with you privately when I arrive. Just know that it’s important, and I’ll need to rely on your assistance.”
“You’ll have it, of course,” Master Dolshir said. “But not even a shielded conversation will suffice? Tell me straight, Leon, are you in danger?”
“I don’t believe so,” he said. “But my work can’t have gone unnoticed. Especially now. I’m afraid I may have overplayed my hand.”
Aeo frowned, sitting in the back of the wagon with a blanket around him and listening intently. They were in danger? From who? From what?
“Well,” Master Dolshir said, sounding as if he were settling into a chair. “That isn’t out of character for you. One of these days, no-mwen, someone’s going to discover what you’re up to. Do I even want to know?”
No-mwen, the Drael-dena words for ‘clever boy’. Ironically used, Leon was sure.
“You’ll want to know, yes,” Leon said. “But I guarantee you won’t like it.”
“A feeling I am familiar with,” Master Dolshir said with a sigh. “Very well. I shall await your arrival with great anticipation.”
“Oh, and another thing,” Leon said. “I have a new apprentice, he’ll need citizenship papers for the Academy when we cross the border. You wouldn’t mind putting those together, would you Kane? Come, Aeo, say hello.”
Aeo dropped the blanket and stumbled towards the front of the cart.
“An apprentice?” Master Dolshir said. “Wonderful! I didn’t know you were looking for one! That is something I can certainly do. What’s his name again?”
“Come, say your name,” Leon said, turning in his seat to offer Aeo the marker.
“Umm… It’s Aeo, sir.”
“Vai-kahl, my boy! Let me write that down. Did you say ‘Aay-oh-seer’?”
Aeo looked puzzled. Leon smiled and rolled his eyes a bit.
“No, Kane,” he said. “Just Aeo. A-E-O, I believe. A fairly common Antielli name. Does that sound right, Aeo?”
“Um… I think so.”
“Does Aeo have a last name?” Master Dolshir asked.
“I don’t… believe so,” Leon said.
Aeo shook his head.
“Interesting,” Master Dolshir said plainly. Aeo wasn’t sure what he meant by that. “Is he Antielli? Eye color, hair color? Date of birth?”
Aeo shook his head, his long hair flopping about.
“Red eyes. Red hair. And… we’re not sure about the birthdate,” Leon said.
There was another pause.
“Ah. I see.”
“He’s a free Edian now, but I don’t have any papers to prove his freedom. Everything was performed fairly… unofficially. Do you think we’ll have a problem at the border?”
“I don’t believe so,” Master Dolshir said. “Not as long as there is an Academy representative at the crossing expecting you. I’ll ask one of my students if they would travel there for some extra credit. I suppose I’ll have to come up with a last name for the boy as well.”
“Also, Kane,” Leon said. “Aeo may have burned down a village. All on his own. I am unsure if rumors of its destruction will reach the border before we will.”
“Wonderful,” he said, decidedly less enthusiastic than before. “I won’t question your motivations, Leon. But what makes you think the Academy would want to accept another practicing arsonist? The Academy already has more than our fair share of firestarters who would be in prison if not for education reform.”
That word again, Aeo thought. Arsonist. Firestarter. Is that what it means?
“Well, he didn’t start the fire with matches or bombs, Kane,” Leon said. Aeo kept his mouth shut. “It was magickal, and the boy’s only… eight? Nine? He shows a lot of promise as a thaumaturgist. He just needs training and discipline. Master Naal will have his hands full, but I think he’ll be overjoyed to have a student like Aeo.”
“I suppose so,” Master Dolshir said. “As long as he isn’t brewing dioxide bombs or hurling nitrate flares in the hallway.”
“No, nothing like that,” Leon said with a chuckle. “Although I expect a few singed shirts and pants here and there. Eh, Aeo?”
Leon patted Aeo’s head, and Aeo attempted a smile. The thought of holding fire in his hands again filled him with an unmistakable dread.
“Okay, ‘red’, ‘red’, ‘unknown’ birthdate, approximately age nine… Academy class: fourth level thaumaturgy. Do you know your heritage, Aeo? Your parents? I don’t suppose you know if you were born in Edia. Were you, my boy?”
Aeo frowned and shook his head. His earliest memories said something otherwise, but he honestly didn’t know. Same with parents: only vague figures and voices, nothing concrete.
“A lot of unknowns, I’m afraid,” Leon said, noticing Aeo’s reaction.
“My apologies,” said Master Dolshir’s voice. “Well, it matters not what you were, it only matters what you’ll soon become. Your destiny will be yours and yours alone.”
“Yeah,” Aeo whispered.
“No arguments here,” Leon said. “Need anything else?”
“Don’t suppose you know the boy’s height or weight?”
Leon looked at Aeo, and Aeo looked at Leon.
“Not a clue,” Leon said. He smirked. “Short and skinny aren’t appropriate for state papers, though.”
“Hey, I’m not short,” Aeo pouted. He could accept skinny.
“I’m kidding,” Leon replied with a whisper.
“Indeed they’re not. But that will give me enough to work with; I’ll write down low averages, and that should suffice. I don’t expect the Antielli border patrol to start weighing and measuring every immigrant that passes through their lands.”
“I worry they might make an exception for an Edian boy,” Leon said. “But I’ll trust in the student you send to meet us. I’ll contact you again when we’re closer to the border.”
“Excellent,” Master Dolshir said. “And, Leon… It’s good to hear from you. I expect you’ll have a grand story to tell me.”
“Yes, I will. Thank you Kane.”
“Shall I contact your mother to let her know you’re coming?”
Leon paused for a moment.
“No,” he said. “I’ll meet with her when we arrive.”
There was silence on the other end for a split second.
“If you’re certain,” Master Dolshir said.
“I’m certain,” Leon replied, adjusting his position on the driver’s seat. Aeo frowned. That didn’t make much sense. Two years away from his mother, and he wants to wait another six weeks to say hello?
“Well, if there’s anything else you need from me,” Master Dolshir said. “Don’t hesitate to contact me. Do you have the supplies you need for your journey?”
“We’re nearing the town of Rurali. Shouldn’t be another day before we can get what we need.”
“Very good,” Master Dolshir said. “I’ll talk to you again soon?”
“Yes, thank you Kane.”
With that, the evocation faded, and Leon handed the marker to Aeo.
“Put that back in my bag, would you?” he asked.
“Sure,” Aeo said, walking to the back of the wagon.
“We want to be certain,” Leon said, turning his attention to the road ahead. “That when we cross the border, the soldiers there don’t think I’m attempting to smuggle an Edian slave to Ashant. The more questions they have, the more likely they’ll detain us… and commandeer the wagon. And that’s the last thing we want. I certainly hope whoever Kane sends to meet us knows how to sweet-talk Antielli soldiers.”
“Sweet-talk?” Aeo said. “What’s that mean?”
“Convince in a clever way,” Leon said. “Eh, praise someone even if you don’t mean it so they’ll do what you ask.”
“Isn’t that wrong?” Aeo asked, returning to the front of the cart.
Leon looked up at the bright morning sky and pursed his lips.
“Not exactly,” Leon said with a laugh. “Not if you can get away with it.”
Aeo arched an eyebrow.
“It can be. Perhaps I’ll have to show you how it’s done when we reach the border.”
* * * * * *
The Next Day
The sun shone bright on the the western frontier highway, surrounded by beautiful pine forests and the rustling of orange, yellow, and red poplar and oak leaves. With the Falas Mountains draped in white to the east and the expansive Lake Darlendas to the west, the wagon rode along on a bumpy dirt path that felt more like a tight corridor than a proper road. Either way, the highway was fairly flat, and offered Aeo and Leon more comfort than the terrible pathways the mountain had afforded. The temperature had also increased considerably, and Aeo no longer felt the need for a blanket or his fur boots. In fact, for the first time in his life, he began to sweat a little bit as the canvas of the wagon permeated the afternoon heat.
It was about this time that Aeo realized something truly awful: he and his boots stunk to the high heavens. No surprise there, having been without a proper bath for about three or four weeks. He didn’t tell Leon, and hoped he wouldn’t say anything. After removing his boots, Aeo got a good look at his feet for the first time in bright sunlight: the tips of his toes remained slightly blistered and raw, and skin had begun to peel away from the darker colors. Immense relief came to Aeo as he finally aired out; now that the atmosphere no longer felt like an icebox, he could relax at long last. Even Leon had shed his grand coat and gloves, opting instead of a pair of avyasilk pants (that’s what Leon called the material, anyway), suspenders, and a white linen shirt with the sleeves rolled up. With his spectacles, he looked positively like a fourth-level schoolteacher.
After an hour or so, Aeo settled in against the blankets was about to fall asleep to the rumbling wagon and the gentle heat. But then he heard Leon’s voice: “Aeo, look.”
“Huh?” he asked, rubbing off the sleep in his eyes.
“We’re almost there.”
Aeo leaned against the front of the cart and peered through the opening towards the road ahead. For the first time in two weeks, Aeo saw signs of civilization in the form of small thatched farmhouses and stables, with large fields carved out of the expansive treeline to make way for waves of amber grain, bristling blowing in the gentle breeze. On both sides of the road, wooden fences penned fatted cows, growing calves, graceful mares, and strong stallions from wandering too far into the wolf-infested foothills of Falas. For about half an hour, the view remained much the same as the wagon passed field after field, farmhouse after farmhouse. It didn’t matter, though; Aeo sat at the wagon’s front, enthralled. Occasionally, Aeo would see young children playing in front of their homes with their mothers looking on, and farmhands harvesting the ripened fields. Birds flew from tree to tree, singing their harmonious songs to each other.
“It’s quite the sight, isn’t it?” Leon asked. “Much more lively and colorful than Olvaren.”
“What is all that?” Aeo asked, pointing. “All the yellow?”
“What is… Oh, you mean the field? I imagine it’s wheat or barley. Never seen a field like that before?”
“No,” Aeo said. “But I’ve seen beet fields once. And lettuce and carrots. There was a garden in the back of the inn… for a while. I guess Aristé gave it up.”
“She wouldn’t let you tend to the garden?” Leon asked.
“I was too little,” Aeo said.
“Well, good news. When we get to the Academy, one of the things you can do is help me tend to my garden. It’s up on the balcony of my workroom, and it’s filled with all sorts of herbs and flowers. I’d even pay you to watch over it.”
Aeo’s eyes opened wider.
“Really?” he asked quietly. “With money?”
“Ha, certainly,” Leon said cheerfully. “You’ll have lots of opportunities to help me. That’s what it means to be my apprentice. I’m not the best teacher in the world when it comes to your talents. So technically you’ll be working with Master Edin-Rao Naal for your primary schooling, but you’ll assist me with my projects while you’re not busy studying. Unless, of course, you decide to go exercise, or eat in the refectory, or read books in the library…”
Aeo hunched over and rested his head on his arms.
“I… don’t know how to read,” he said glumly.
Leon nearly dropped the reins.
“What?” Leon frowned, and raised his voice. “Oh, of course… Never teach a slave anything, and they’ll never run away. Bloody… mel-ysok. The only thing that makes me angrier than slavery is the neglect of a child.”
Aeo sat up and gulped. He hadn’t expected that. When Aeo didn’t say anything for a few passing moments, Leon cleared his throat.
“Sorry, Aeo,” Leon said. “That’s a bad ashanti word, and you shouldn’t repeat it.”
Aeo made a mental note.
“…would you…teach me how to read?” Aeo asked.
“Absolutely,” Leon said. “That will be our first priority when we arrive. I’ll speak with the linguistics department and I’ll have their finest tutor help you. I’ll assist your study as well.”
Aeo had never thought it an option. The idea filled him with a strange thrill.
“How did you fare at the inn without knowing how to read?” Leon asked.
“People just told me what they wanted to eat,” he said. “I memorized the menu, sort of. I memorized their orders, too. Sometimes priests would come and teach about the Goddess, and they would hand out papers. I tried to learn how to read them, but I couldn’t figure it out by myself.”
“Well, it was good of you to try,” Leon said. “It means you have the desire to learn. And it’s good you have a keen mind for memorization. There’s more to learning than just memorizing, of course, but it does help.”
As the wagon continued down the road, the houses seemed to clump together in tighter groups and the fields became smaller and more neatly aligned with proper fencing. Then, unbelievably, the dirt road turned into a pebbled cobblestone avenue. The dwellings grew taller, no longer made of timber and thatch but of stone and brick. The townspeople hastily went to and fro, not minding the wagon that rode through the main thoroughfare. Every so often, a person or two would make a passing glance at Leon, then stare at the red-eyed boy peering through the wagon flap. Or, at least, it seemed that way, as many of these people’s faces grew sour at the sight. Aeo did his best to hide and watch the town’s wonders at the same time.
Stationed every so often would be a man or woman clothed in chain or leather armor, carrying a sword at their belts or a spear in their hands. Leon waved at one of them, a particularly large Rurali town guard, and stopped Poro with a quick shout of “bah-si”.
“Good afternoon, sir,” Leon said with a cheerful voice. “Could you direct me to the town’s general store? I’m looking to purchase supplies for my travels.”
With a flash of annoyance and a gruff manner, the man directed Leon further into the town, apparently just a few blocks from their destination. Leon thanked him, and the wagon rolled forwards with a “nee-ah”.
Rurali appeared completely different from Olvaren. Where the small mountain town had a few simple outdoor stalls and a humble cabin store that everyone collectively called a marketplace, Rurali had rows and rows of shops and specialty services filled with people. Flower carts filled with chrysanthemums and begonias, row after row of fresh apples, pumpkins, cauliflower, and potatoes, and even strange lifted seats upon which people sat while an attendant wiped their boots and shined their shoes with dirty cloths; at least they looked dirty from a distance. Horses lined the streets, being ridden or tied to posts waiting for their riders to return. Supplies filled wagon after wagon, carried by strong men, loaded or unloaded depending on their destination. The air faintly smelled of manure (to be truthful), but also of baked bread, delicate perfumes, and the scent of blooming roses.
Aeo even saw a few red-haired women and children carrying loads and sacks in their arms or over their shoulders; if they were slaves like he had been, their owners actually let them walk outside freely. Everything was slightly mesmerizing; how much more amazing and active would the Academy be?
Leon pulled the reins to one side, and the wagon turned down a particularly busy road. With great care, Leon and Poro worked together to maneuver towards a large whitewashed two-story building. It wore large black letters painted above the entrance. The wagon stopped just besides the great building on the far edge of the cobbled road.
“Leleve’s Market and Emporium,” Leon said, reading the sign. “Charming.”
Aeo obtained a peek through the entrance, and saw the store filled with a enormous crowd. Aeo thought it was a crowd, at least; he no longer had a frame of reference for anything.
“All right, Aeo,” Leon said, turning in the driver’s seat to face him. “I’m going to head inside. Can you watch over the cart while I’m gone? Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think people would appreciate a… partially-naked boy running around barefoot in the store.”
“Oh,” Aeo said. “Um… I can put my boots on. Please?”
Leon considered for a moment.
“I need you to watch the cart so people don’t come to steal anything.” Seeing Aeo’s face, he said: “Don’t worry, you probably won’t even be bothered. I’ll come back out with some fresh clothes for you. Afterwards, we can find some place to spend the night, and come back to shop after a fresh bath. Surely the local inn has one. I’m starting to smell a bit ripe. I’m sure you are too.”
Aeo wrinkled his nose and frowned. So he had noticed.
“I guess…” he said quietly.
“Thank you, Aeo,” Leon said, jumping down from the wagon. He stepped over and tied Poro up to one of the posts, then came around to the back. “I won’t be gone long.”
With that, Leon entered the store and disappeared into the crowd. Feeling somewhat abandoned, Aeo instinctively shut the front flap of the wagon and rolled himself up in a fur blanket despite the heat. Dozens of people passed either coming or going from the store. No one looked into the wagon deliberately, but he saw a few curious eyes peer inside and notice him. The way they all dressed was so different from Olvaren: the men wore suspenders and work shirts and vests, and Aeo even spotted a few wealthy-looking gentlemen with blue or red tunics and doublets topped off with floppy-looking hats. Most women wore long dresses and aprons of drab colors, but once in a while Aeo saw younger women dressed much like the men in a variety of pale colors. No one wore coats or gloves in Rurali. Many wore leather or straw hats, not to stay warm but to hide their eyes from the sun. Like Olvaren, the men wore facial hair in all manner of ways, including some of the red-haired and red-eyed Edian folk. Dark-skinned or light, the Edians seemed more than tolerated in this raucous concourse.
To keep himself from panicking, Aeo dug into the food crate and pulled out a pair of apples. To be truthful, the fact that Leon allowed him to essentially eat as he pleased was both exciting and a curious burden. He’d been refused from feeding himself for so long, he couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for doing so. But in the intervening days traveling with Leon, it was becoming more habit to snack every so often, even without asking for permission. After all, Leon did it himself, relying on Aeo to be his assistant as he drove.
For a few minutes, Aeo munched on an apple and watched the passing people from inside the wagon. He felt sleepy, but too worried about someone jumping into the wagon demanding money or food to rest his eyes. Eventually, with both apples eaten, cores and all, he sat there and wondered what he should do. What should he do? After all this time, he felt nervous whenever he wasn’t doing something. But then again, he was doing something by waiting for Leon. And unlike Leon, he couldn’t crack open one of Leon’s alchemy textbooks and read, lacking the skill and all.
He tried to keep Pick and Harthoon from his mind, but just a few days time was not enough to process everything. Harthoon in particular; he could still hear his former master’s screams. How in the world did he summon such a terrible flame to his hands? If he found himself in mortal danger like that again, could he repeat the act? What if Leon attempted to teach him and Aeo accidentally unleashed such a potent flame upon him? Surely Leon had ways to protect himself from Aeo’s inexperience. Right?
In the short time he and Leon traveled, Leon had made no effort to teach Aeo anything about magick. But then again, Leon seemed very tired by the end of each day, and rose with the sun to continue on the road. They seemed to travel at quite a steady pace, nearly in a rush now that the road had flattened. Maybe a night in a proper bed would do them both some good.
Deep in his musings, something caught Aeo’s eye. A large uncovered cart had turned down the street, lead by a pair of brown horses. It slowly approached the general store at a generous speed, weaving through the people crossing the road. Three men rode the wagon, an Antielli driver and what appeared to be two red-haired Edian men. Then, without provocation, the driver pointed.
Right at Aeo.
His stomach twisted immediately as the wagon approached. Within a few meters of Leon’s wagon, the cart came to a halt.
“Hey!” the driver shouted at Aeo, waving his hands. “You, kid! You can’t park your wagon here! I’ve got goods to deliver!”
Aeo’s eyes widened, and he didn’t say a word. Maybe if he didn’t look scared, the man and his cart would drive away. They didn’t, of course, and the man stood from the driver’s seat, his face turning a fuming red color.
“Oy, small fry! Are you listening to me?! I said you can’t park here! Get your wagon out of the way!”
Aeo, stunned, couldn’t form words. He attempted to make himself as small as possible in the back of the wagon. Naturally, this didn’t work. The Edian men looked over at the boy in the wagon with dull faces. Unlike them, the driver appeared positively furious. He stepped down from the driver’s seat onto the ground. Walking over to the back of Leon’s wagon, he slapped his hands against the back bar.
“Move your wagon! Now!”
Some people in the crowd began to notice the spectacle. The driver’s voice couldn’t have raised louder. At last, Aeo sputtered.
“I don’t… I don’t know how… It w-was Leon parked here, he sh-sh-should be back soon…”
“I don’t care who your owner is, you little waste,” the man hissed. “If you don’t move this wagon right now, I’m calling the guards and make sure they throw you behind bars. Now move… your… wagon.”
His tone was familiar. Too familiar. In a blind panic, Aeo lifted himself from his seat and opened the front flap of the wagon. He crawled through and sat upon the driver’s seat only to realize that Poro’s reigns were still tightly tied to the post down below. Aeo hastily jumped down from the wagon, and hard cobblestone hammered his bare feet. He clawed at Leon’s knot, but couldn’t immediately get it undone.
“Hurry up, kid! Get your wagon gone now!”
Aeo’s fingers fumbled, and at last freed the reigns. He clambered back onto the driver’s seat and immediately felt the wagon shudder under Poro’s power. She knew she was free, and Leon was not the one directing her.
What are the words… What are the words?!
It came to him in an instant.
“Uh, nee-ah, Poro!” Aeo mumbled. “Nee-ah!”
“What’s taking so long?!” the driver shouted, approaching Aeo. “I’m calling a guard! That will teach you to waste my time, you little-”
“I’m trying, sir!” Aeo shouted. Just as he’d seen Leon do, Aeo slapped the reigns and shouted loud and clear: “Nee-ah!”
“Aeo!” a voice shouted.
Aeo wasn’t certain what happened first. The driver of the cart raced towards him and nearly grabbed Aeo’s leg with his thick hands. At the same time, Poro whinnied like mad. She must have become as panicked as Aeo, because she charged forwards with all of her might into the crowd before her. Aeo nearly fell off the cart from Poro’s power and the pull of the cart driver, but just held on to the driver seat by his fingertips; the reigns were long gone from his grip. Poro’s hooves stampeded down the cobblestone road, with the wagon wheels rumbling and creaking like a chaotic earthquake. Men and women screamed, pulling themselves and their children out of the path of the runaway wagon. Poro didn’t collide with anyone herself, but the wagon came dangerously close to hammering some of the more oblivious. Worse, Poro showed no signs of slowing down in the slightest. She galloped at full speed down the cobblestone road as if wolves were chasing her heels.
Of course, Aeo didn’t understand the specifics of the situation. He was too busy trying to hang on for dear life.
What is the word?!
“Bah-si! Bah-si!” he screamed.
No reaction from Poro. In fact, she seemed to speed up.
“Bah-si!” he screamed again, feeling his hands slipping. His feet nearly scraped the ground, and were about to skid across the unforgiving stone like a plucked chicken.
Unbeknownst to him, the end of the thoroughfare approached in the form of a fairly well-constructed brick wall. In a split second peek, he saw it, and tried to haul himself up to the driver’s seat.
“Bah-si, Poro! Bah-si!”
Poro was an intelligent horse. Even in her stressed state, she knew she carried a heavy load, and she recognized a solid obstacle when she saw one. As the crowd of people thinned near the end of the road, Poro took a desperately-hard right turn. The wagon nearly tumbled over.
Aeo flew straight off.
He expected the back of his skull and his spine to shatter against the cobblestone. He suspected his end had come in a rush of violence. To his surprise, he never met the ground. At least, not as immediately as he should have. He heard the sound of a hammer shattering a glass window, and suddenly gravity no longer held him for a miniscule moment. Then, he careened through the air in a backflip, and raised his hands to shield himself from the ground. This time he saw the source of the sound: in a bright flash of blue light, a bubble-like surface about a foot from Aeo’s outstretched hands made the boy bounce as if it held him in a weightless, cracking into pieces like someone threw a rock through a mirror.
Aeo continued to flip twice more, and with each collision, the bubble appeared and fragmented against the ground, suspending Aeo above the road each time. On the last flip, the bubble no longer appeared. Aeo crashed into the ground hands and knees first.
For a moment, he allowed the pain to occur. Not a lot did. Bouncing to his feet as if he’d just performed a purposeful display of acrobatics, he looked at his scuffed hands: no blood, but he’d scrapped off a bit of skin. He looked at his knees: a little tender from the stone road, but none the worse for wear.
Then Aeo spun around. Poro was nowhere to be found. On the ground were the bright-blue remains of the mysterious “glass”, spread across the cobblestone like so many pulverized shards of light. Within a few seconds, those shards disappeared, melting into thin wisps of smoke and fading from view.
Perhaps three dozen onlookers stood staring in awe and pointing their fingers right at him.
Blood rushed to his head, and not because he’d been injured. He looked back at the road from whence he’d come, and to his horror, four men in chainmail, swords, and helmets were charging towards him. He didn’t dare stay, but he didn’t dare flee. He simply remained still.
“You! Boy!” shouted a guard. “Don’t you dare move!”
Once they were upon him, two guards grabbed Aeo’s arms by the wrist and yanked him forwards.
“No, please!” Aeo cried, struggling quite uselessly. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! Please!”
“Don’t resist!” shouted a particularly imposing guard. “It’s the lock-up for you, you stupid boy! You nearly ran over an entire load of people with that bloody wagon of yours!”
“For all we know, your idiot horse is still running!” another guard shouted.
“It’s… it’s not my horse!” Aeo said in a panic, tears immediately cascading down his face. “It’s Leon’s! I d-didn’t know how to drive it, and this man made me do it, and-”
“Shut up, boy!” said the first guard, practically lifting Aeo with one mighty arm. “And believe me, we’ll be having a chat with this ‘Leon’ person!”
“No, no! Please! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”
People stared at the boy, especially the angry ones that had nearly been run down. The guards hauled Aeo down the road towards a large red-brick building with a large sign that Aeo, in his panic, couldn’t have read even if he knew how. If Aeo stepped into that building, he knew his life with Leon would be over. He’d be sent back to Olvaren. He’d have to explain to Aristé how Harthoon died. She would kill him with her bare hands.
“No, no, no!” Aeo shouted, scraping his feet along the ground to gain traction.
“Stop… struggling!” the head guard screamed. “Carry him if you have to! Continue to resist, and it’s lashes for you, you little Edian shit!”
One of the guards opened the door to the building.
A voice shouted from somewhere distant in the crowd.
The guards ignored the voice at first, and one of the guards lifted Aeo clear off the ground.
“Let me go! Please let me go!”
“Wait!” the voice shouted again, closer this time. “Wait, gentlemen, please!”
The town guards turned towards the sound, pausing their advance with Aeo in their grasp. A familiar figure approached them, practically wheezing from a strenuous run. Leon. In his arms he held a bundle of clothing.
“Please, wait,” Leon gasped, his hands on his knees.
“Are you the owner of this boy? Answer me!” the head guard demanded.
“I am… the caretaker… of the boy, yes.”
“What the hell was the boy doing, racing a wagon down the road at such speed?” the guard asked. “And during the busiest time of day! You do realize that he might have killed people!”
“Officer,” Leon said loudly. “I saw the whole thing, but didn’t have time to stop it… A very confrontational man nearly assaulted the boy, and Aeo acted the only way he knew how: by attempting to drive our wagon away from him. Of course, inexperienced as he is, my horse panicked at his attempt. It’s not the boy’s fault. If you want to arrest someone, the fool is at the general store right now gloating about it!”
“You expect me to believe that?” the guard demanded. “It hardly matters why it happened! The boy’s crime is at least a month in lock-up for disturbing the peace like that, maybe more if he hurt anyone! And I should probably arrest you as well for letting it happen!”
“Look, I know you’re all reasonable men,” Leon said. “People may have been frightened, but it doesn’t appear that anyone was injured, at least from what I saw on my run over here. Please, I can pay you to let us go.”
“Ha! A bribe, is it!” laughed the guard nearest the door.
“No, nothing illegal. Call it a fine,” Leon said. “Let me compensate your constable, whatever you think is fair to cover the distress we caused. We will leave by tomorrow morning once we’re resupplied, and we promise not to return.”
The guard looked about ready to explode, but he paused mid-breath and looked back at the others for a moment.
“A fine, you say. I’d have to pass it by him,” he grunted. “But believe me, the fine is going to cost you.”
“I don’t doubt it,” Leon replied, breathless. “But I am willing to pay it.”
“Put the boy down,” the guard said. “But don’t you dare run, you little twerp. Follow me into the station.”
The moment the guard released his hold on Aeo, the boy leaped forwards and wrapped his arms around Leon’s waist and cried. Leon embraced the boy, and led him wobbling into the building.
* * * * * *
As the afternoon wore painfully onwards into the dark evening, ominous steel-gray clouds smothered the bright sky that had so dominated the pleasant atmosphere of Rurali’s day. Aeo sat upon the edge of his large wool-filled mattress, having been escorted by two armed guards to a quiet inn on the southern edge of the village. Using his marker’s map, Leon tracked down the wagon and Poro. She was quite winded and distressed, but she had indeed stopped on the northern edge of town, choosing to help herself to an empty field of long grass to calm down. Leon had yet to return; he’d departed to reorganize the wagon and drive it back to the general store in order to complete his resupply. Distant thunder slowly became more considerable as rain began to pitter-patter on the roof, rising into a constant torrent of noise.
It didn’t rain much in Olvaren, certainly not in any heavy amount. Perhaps in Rurali, it occurred more often. Aeo decided he liked the sound of rain. It smothered his thoughts, for there were too many going through his head to even attempt sleep. He itched his shoulder; it was now covered by a light white cotton tunic that draped a few inches too long down his arms and about his waist. His disgusting rags (which could hardly be called pants by this point) had been thrown away, replaced with proper brown hempen trousers. Leon had even purchased white cotton underwear for him, something he’d never worn in any meaningful way; perhaps he had worn cloth diapers when he was three or four, but those hardly counted. He wore long white socks that dangled loosely at his toes no matter how tightly he pulled them up his legs, and comfortable slip-on shoes made of soft leather.
It didn’t feel right. None of it. The fresh feeling of a bath in a real ceramic tub with actual warm water, the brush of comfortable clothing on his skin, the creaking bed upon which he sat, the potato soup dinner that filled his stomach, the sound of the rain and the crackle of fire from the open cast iron stove in the corner of the room… Everything that filled his senses made him feel completely ashamed. Hala’s boots had even been thoroughly washed by the innkeeper’s wife and left to dry next to his bed. He deserved none of these pleasures.
This marked the second time Leon had paid for Aeo’s mistakes, and this time he had been there to hear the price: fifty gold pieces. Not copper, not silver, but gold. Enough to purchase a thoroughbred horse, and Leon carried that much and apparently more in his bag. Worse yet, Leon had been silent about the whole matter since he’d paid it.
The guards were right: Aeo belonged in a cell. Better yet, he deserved to remain a slave. He didn’t dare think of the Gray Pale, but perhaps there was somewhere else he could go. Some other work to which he could be suited. A farm, maybe. He’d taken care of horses before. Maybe he could work as a server in a bar. He was well-acquainted with booze, after all.
Lightning flashed through the room’s single window, startling him for a moment before a peal of thunder rocked through the building. Even that didn’t quiet his mind.
What of his magic? Could he conceal it? Maybe, maybe not. It seemed whenever his life was in danger, the blue light would appear to protect him… or fire would come and cause as much damage as possible. When he fell from the wagon, it felt as though he bounced weightless, suspended within a big glass container, its surface of light breaking and cracking and shattering over and over until Aeo came to a halt. In the end, all the pieces drifted away on the breeze and vanished as if nothing had happened.
He hadn’t told Leon. There had been no time to do so. Maybe Leon didn’t need to know. Maybe Leon was tired of his company. Maybe Leon could drop him off at the next village and let him go to Edia. Maybe he could-
The door to the room slowly opened. Leon stepped in with his bag and several other items in his arms. His hair was sopping wet, as was his thick coat.
“Hello,” he said without expression, shedding his coat and hanging it on a peg next to the doorway. Aeo didn’t reply, sitting silently on the edge of his bed. He stared at the floor and didn’t dare look up.
“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. Aeo said nothing. Leon sat upon the second bed in the room. He pulled his thin spectacles from his shirt pocket and pressed them up against his nose. “I need you to do something for me.”
Aeo swallowed hard, and gently whispered:
“I want you to hit me.”
Aeo’s face twisted more bitter than vinegar.
“Come on, Aeo,” Leon said. “Stand up and hit me. Use your fist and punch me.”
Aeo looked at his lap.
“Don’t ask why,” Leon said, his voice soft but sure. “Just do it. Stand up, come on.”
Leon stood up and grabbed Aeo’s reluctant hands, lifting the boy to his feet and walking him forwards. He sat back down on his bed with Aeo before him.
“Hit me,” he said again. “Hard as you can.”
Aeo took a step backwards.
“Aeo, do it.”
“No, I don’t want to.”
“Do it now.”
“Don’t ask why!” Leon shouted. “Hit me!”
“No! I won’t!”
“Aeo,” Leon shouted, his expression grim. “I will take you back to Olvaren if you don’t hit me this instant!”
Aeo’s eyes widened and his temper flared. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. His fists clenched, and he stood tense as a cornered animal. Hot tears filled his eyes.
“But you said I was free!”
“Hit me, Aeo! Now!”
Aeo reeled back.
“You’ll never take me back there! Never!”
He shut his eyes and swung his fist as hard as he could at his only friend’s jaw.
Glass shattered loudly and clattered against the floor. His fist connected with a surface as hard as a slab of granite but as forgiving as a pool of water. Aeo’s eyes opened from shock, and he saw nothing but bright blue light where Leon’s head had been. No, he was still there, with the same grim expression on his face, staring at Aeo through the light. Aeo pulled back his hand. It was covered in sharp fragments of blue magick, as if he’d put his fist through a pane of azure glass. They didn’t tear into his knuckles or cause physical pain, but they adhered to his skin as if they had. Then, as abruptly as they had appeared, the glass shards faded into smoke and fell away. The light surrounding Leon’s head faded as well, leaving the room in relative darkness.
Aeo stepped backwards, his breathing panicked.
“What… what did I…”
“Energy manipulation,” Leon said quietly. “I took the energy of your fist and used it to shield myself from harm.”
“It’s the same…” Aeo whispered, looking down at his hands. “It’s just like…”
“I know,” Leon said. “I know what happened. Everyone at the general store is talking about it. You fell off the wagon, but you didn’t hit the ground. A sphere of light protected you, and it sounded like broken glass as it fell upon the ground. Does that sound right?”
Aeo collapsed upon his mattress.
“…yes,” he said at last.
“Aeo,” Leon said. Aeo didn’t respond. “I didn’t mean it. About taking you back to Olvaren. I would never do that to you. Ever.”
Aeo’s heart was racing.
“Do you understand me, Aeo?” Leon asked.
Aeo looked up. He wiped the tears from his eyes; his hands were trembling.
“Why…? Why did you make me do that?” Aeo asked, heartbroken. “You… you paid so much for me! Why do you care so much about me? Why?”
“Because many people, especially Antielli, will make assumptions about you. Some will look down on you as a slave, and nothing more. But you are so much more than this.”
Leon held out his hand.
“Aeo, I need you to trust me. I want to teach you how to defend yourself, how to depend on yourself and your talents. Don’t fear what others might say or do. And don’t be afraid of me. Right now, it’s my job to take care of you, and I’m not going to stand idle while the world makes you suffer.”
Aeo wrapped his arms around himself and shut his eyes. He wasn’t worth this. Nothing mattered. He would never truly be free. He couldn’t be…
He heard the floor creak, and felt Leon sit beside him. Two strong arms wrapped around him, and he tried his best not to cry again. He failed, and with a whimper, his head pressed against Leon and he fell into sadness.
“It’s okay, Aeo. I’m sorry. I’ll never do such a thing to you again, I promise. Everything will be all right.”
Aeo didn’t honestly think it ever would be.
– 14 –
Aeo didn’t budge. The blankets were warm, the pillow too comfortable, the mattress too conformed to his body. He lay as a puzzle piece perfectly suited for snoozing. Besides, the room was still dark.
“Aeo, wake up.”
No. No no no. The only thing that would get me out of this bed would be…
Aeo’s nose perked up. Food. Laying on his front, he turned his head and opened his eyes.
Leon sat on the side of his own bed. In front of him was a short table, and upon the table was a smorgasbord of food on a tray, including: two large baked potatoes smattered in butter and cream, a pile of sausages, eight strips of bacon, two boiled eggs, twelve slices of roasted beets, several steamed carrots, four slices of rye bread, and two bowls filled with blackberries. Leon smiled with a fork in his mouth.
“Time for breakfast,” he said simply.
Aeo peeled himself from the bed and put his hands through his long hair.
“I can have some?” Aeo asked, his throat grumbly and dry.
“Of course,” Leon said with a laugh. “You think I can eat all this by myself?”
Aeo rubbed his eyes and swung his legs off the side of the bed.
“I’m afraid they only had a single clean plate this early in the morning, so they jammed everything together,” Leon said. “I hope you don’t mind. At least they had two forks. Although you may be pleased to hear that I did buy you your own mess kit last night.”
“A metal bowl and cup, a spoon, knife, fork, just like mine. I also purchased a few other things you might enjoy.”
The guilt hadn’t vanished. It had simply disappeared with sleep, and rose to greet him the moment he awoke. The pain of the night before still sat fresh in his mind.
“Here, have a seat,” Leon said, patting his hand beside him on the edge of his bed.
Aeo hesitated for a moment before reaching down to the floor. He grabbed his socks and pulled them up his legs as far as they would go. Nope, the cotton end still dangled from his toes. He pulled his shoes on. They fit a bit loosely around his ankles. Admittedly, his shirt and pants were a bit warm for bed. But he could hardly complain. He couldn’t even justify the thought of personally “owning” them. They felt borrowed, as if they belonged to another boy.
“What time is it?” Aeo asked. Through the window he could just barely see the light of dawn beginning to pierce the cloudy sky.
“About 6:30,” Leon said. “I figure the sooner we leave, the less trouble there will be. I believe there are still a pair of guards outside the inn waiting to escort us out of town.”
Aeo crossed the room, sat down silently next to Leon, and didn’t move. Leon looked at Aeo with sad eyes and placed an arm around the boy, resting his hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“I feel horrible about last night,” Leon said quietly. “I’m a poor excuse for a teacher.”
Aeo sniffed, and rubbed his nose across his sleeve.
“I’m really afraid of going back,” he said.
“I know. I used it on impulse. It was the only thing I could think of to force that kind of reaction from you,” Leon said. He paused. “I hope you can forgive me. I wanted to show you what you could do if someone lashed out at you in anger. If I can teach you how to shield yourself, there will be very few things that can harm you.”
“Like that stupid man.”
“Precisely,” Leon said. “And gravity, too.”
Aeo sat for a moment, unsure of what to say next.
“Go on,” Leon said, handing him a fork. “Eat up. It’s a long way to our next warm meal.”
Taking a fork, he couldn’t decide what to start with first. Eventually, he chose a piece of sausage. He’d only eaten sausage once or twice in his life, and it smelled incredible. He closed his eyes and took a bite, savoring the rich flavor of the meat slowly and deliberately. The smoky spices, the crispy texture, the juicy fat… It took him a few good seconds to process it all, and Leon looked at Aeo’s face with amusement.
“You won’t get through all this food if you eat it like that,” Leon chuckled.
Aeo opened his eyes and saw Leon staring at him.
“Huh?” he whispered. “Oh. Sorry.”
“No need to apologize,” Leon said with a grin. “I should think you’re not used to eating this variety of food, am I right?”
“Hm-mmm,” Aeo said with a shake of his head. He speared a steamed carrot next and deeply contemplated its taste as well.
“Oh, Aeo,” Leon said. He snickered as he peeled a boiled egg. “I thought you should know. Something happened last night at the general store.”
“You know that ‘stupid man’ that scared you so badly?”
“He confronted me when I was trying to pay for our supplies.”
“He… he did? What did you do?”
“Well, nothing. I let him shout at me for a few moments. He accused me of trying to ruin his business with my… what did he call it? My ‘rickety old shite-wagon’, I believe. He said I belonged in prison, and he called Poro a ‘dumb mule’. He had a few choice words about you as well, most of which I don’t care to repeat.”
Aeo’s shoulders drooped and he said nothing.
“So you know what happened next?” Leon asked. “For some reason, his belt came loose and his trousers dropped to his ankles. His coat flew straight up off his arms, and from the sounds he made, the sleeves appeared to strangle him. He spun around a few times until he tripped into a shelf stocked with bags of flour. Then, most mysteriously, the bags of flour ripped open and dumped all over him. It was quite the sight; he looked like a shocked ghost. You should have seen the look on the faces of the people in line behind me.”
“Wait, what? How did that happen?”
“I have no idea,” Leon said, putting a spin on the word ‘no’. “The merchant was quite furious and blamed me for assaulting him. But it obviously wasn’t my fault. I hadn’t laid a finger on the man. He stomped his feet and made quite the scene, flour flew everywhere. That’s when several people started laughing. I heard one elderly woman say: ‘you deserve nothing less, you puffed-up windbag’!”
Aeo choked on a second piece of sausage.
“Really?” he gasped.
“Truly, it was the strangest thing,” Leon said with a knowing smile. “He pulled his pants up, waddled outside, and shouted for a guard to arrest me. The guard recognized me and became immediately suspicious, but everyone around me attested to my innocence. They called the merchant ‘positively batty’ and ‘a right lunatic’ for exposing himself and diving headfirst into the flour bags. The poor guard had nothing to say. Then, as was surely natural for the old windbag, he marched right over to me and lunged at me. To everyone’s surprise, his pants fell down again. He fell on his face, and his coat sleeves yanked him right out of the store.”
Aeo smiled as he chewed. What an entertaining image.
“So…” Aeo said. “It was your magick, right?”
“What?” Leon gasped, raising a hand to his chest and acting positively aggrieved. “No, Aeo, heavens no. I am quite offended you would think so. I’m an Academy master, remember? I’m far too respectable and disciplined for such… such irresponsible behavior.”
“Uh-huh,” Aeo said with a smile on his face, taking a bowl of berries and eating them one at a time.
Leon leaned into Aeo, pushing him gently sideways.
“Now, when you’re at the Academy and I start hearing about student’s pants mysteriously falling down in your presence,” Leon said. “I will be very cross. Even if I find out they deserved it. Understand?”
Aeo almost let out a giggle.
“I’d never do that,” Aeo said. “I’m far too… uh, ress-peck-tibble.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said, taking a large bite of bread.
By the time they had finished with breakfast, the sun had risen somewhere deep within the clouds, leaving the morning cold and gray. The thunder was far distant across the lake, but a few raindrops still fell upon the inn room’s window. Aeo hadn’t eaten much compared to Leon, but by the end, he couldn’t have eaten a single berry more. Anything he hadn’t eaten, Leon had been more than happy to oblige. Aeo had never experienced a belly so full of delicious food, and felt quite sick as his system desperately digested the large meal. For about twenty minutes while Leon left to return the tray downstairs and prepare Poro for the travels ahead, Aeo laid upon his bed, groaning.
It was worth it, Aeo thought, slowly recovering. So worth it.
When he heard the door open again, he raised his head and saw Leon step inside, carrying his bag.
“Aeo,” Leon said. “I want you to do something for me.”
Aeo’s stomach, full as it was, sunk. He no longer liked when Leon said that. Aeo clumsily sat up.
“Here,” Leon said. Much to Aeo’s surprise, Leon opened his bag and produced a simple object: a fist-sized red rubber ball. He tossed it over to Aeo, who fumbled a bit but caught it.
“No, no, don’t catch it,” Leon said, pointing a finger. “I want you to shield yourself from it.”
“Do… what?” Aeo asked.
“I want you to absorb the momentum of the ball so that it bounces upon your animis instead of hitting you. Do you understand?”
Aeo frowned, confused.
“Nuh-uh,” he said.
“Toss it back to me,” Leon said, sitting upon his bed.
With a light hand, Aeo tossed it upwards. Leon raised his hand as if to catch it. Instead, a small glimmer of blue light and a crackling sound met the ball about six inches from Leon’s open hand as surely as if it had hit a solid wall. The ball bounced backwards across the room and landed squarely in Aeo’s lap.
“That’s what I want you to do,” Leon said. “Use your hands. Remember what I taught you on the mountain? Pull the warmth in your body from your feet to your legs, up through your waist and your chest, and then down your arms and into your hands. In Drael-dena, it’s called sym-yattra, or the flow of animis. You can practice sym-yattra to move animis to any part of your body, but I want you to practice it with your hands first.”
“But…” Aeo whispered. “The light only comes before I get hurt. I don’t know if I can do it with a ball.”
“Well, the last thing I want to do is hurt you,” Leon replied. “I’ve learned my lesson: that’s the worst way to teach you. Tell you what. Keep the ball in the wagon with you, and when we catch our first break this afternoon, I’ll teach you the right way to focus your animis.”
Aeo tossed the ball upwards and caught it.
“But what if I make fire instead? On accident? Isn’t it the same?”
“It’s good you recognize a difference. It’s a matter of intention, but both start with concentration. Don’t worry, you’ll learn quick. I can tell you’re going to be very familiar with the basics by the time we reach the Academy.”
Aeo shrugged, looking at the ball in his hands.
“Remember what I told you last night,” Leon said. “Don’t be afraid of your talents. Once controlled, you’ll be able to use them to protect yourself and your friends. And I think you’re going to develop strong friendships in your classes.”
The thought hadn’t occurred to Aeo.
“I can make friends?” he said. “I mean… by myself? I’ve never had friends before.”
“I don’t think you’ll have a problem getting to know others like yourself. Did you know there are many Edians and Ashanti your age at the Academy?”
“Really? Like me?” Aeo paused. “With red eyes and red hair? But, um, does an ‘Ashanti’ look like me?”
“Well, you might be surprised to meet one,” Leon said. “Most have long white hair and bright blue eyes, and long ears that droop at the tip. Several who belong to family tribes also wear traditional tattoos that are considered sacred to them. You can ask what their tattoos stand for, perhaps, but you should never make fun of them for it. Ashanti come from many places. Some ashanti even make their home in Antiell and migrate to Ashant to learn.”
“Okay,” he said. “I want to meet everyone.”
“And you will,” Leon said, standing to his feet. “Come on, the wagon is all prepared. Grab your boots, and let’s leave this place while we still can, shall we?”
* * * * * *
“Thank you, gentlemen,” Leon called out, waving to the two soldiers who rode silently on horseback behind the slowly-rolling wagon. “It’s been a pleasure.”
Aeo timidly watched them from the inside of the wagon. Indeed, they had been so bored waiting for the two “criminals” at the inn, they wouldn’t have noticed Leon’s wagon rolling southwards if Leon hadn’t called out to them. Now beyond the brick buildings and wet farmlands, the soldiers stopped escorting the wagon, looked at each other, shrugged, and turned their horses back towards Rurali. As they disappeared into the distance, Aeo settled in for a cold, wet, rumbling day.
Leon called Aeo for his marker, ignoring the light drizzle of rain that fell upon him. Once in his hands, he said ‘lah-sev-rai’, and the marker revealed an expansive illustration of the road ahead of them in thin green and blue lines. For a moment, he said nothing, holding Poro’s reigns and studying the map.
“It doesn’t seem like we’ll be departing from the lake’s edge for a few days more. Lucky for us, it’s a freshwater lake. Good news for Poro, anyway. We’ll have to rely on mountain streams to refill our water keg. Here you go, Aeo, you can take a look. Afterwards, put it back in my bag, will you?”
“Yeah,” Aeo said, taking the open marker. Somehow, the page showed no signs of water droplets, and the surface beneath the lines felt completely dry. The map itself was difficult to study, as the green and blue lines of light didn’t merely outline the path before them. “Leon?”
“Could this map show more… north? Could I see where Pick and Shera went?”
Leon remained silent for a moment.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “The marker’s powers are only so strong. It can only show the land around it, and it can only sense creatures and vehicles in a very small area. If any marker could track them, they wouldn’t be able to hide very well.”
He could understand that.
Attempting to read more of the map, he realized that some of the “obstacles” in the forest and along the road weren’t physical objects on the map, but something different. “Leon? Are these… words? On the map?”
“Yes, they are,” Leon replied. “Drael-dena words.”
“I wish I could read them,” Aeo said, closing the marker and placing it in the bag.
“Drael-dena is a complex language. I still can’t speak it fluently, and I’ve lived in Ashant my entire life. Fortunately, Ashant has become a veritable mixing pot of languages and cultures over the years. Not many ashanti speak only Drael-dena anymore. Mostly Yshlene with a bit of Alfar.”
Yshlene, right. Aeo’s language.
“They speak Alfar in Edia, right?”
“That’s right,” Leon said. “And Tagnurik in Edan. Thought you won’t see many xa’rith at the Academy.”
“Well,” Leon said. “That’s a difficult question to answer. One, they have to travel the continent to reach Ashant, and that means walking through Antiell or going by sea. Either way is terrible for them, as they have been in constant war with Antiell. Second, they refuse to make peace with Ashant, as Ashant have been allies of Antiell for fifty years now. And third, which may surprise you… They are incapable of learning magick.”
“Oh. Why not?”
“No one really knows. Some scholars have tried to study them, and they have a theory that the xa’rith seem to be creatures that have no animis, which should not be possible. As far as we know, animis exists in all living creatures, except the xa’rith. Many xa’rith have come to hate those who practice magick, and have called for the destruction of the San’Drael Academy as well as the Everspring.”
“Why?” Aeo asked.
“Full of questions today, eh?” Leon said.
“Yeah,” Aeo said with a sheepish smile.
“Well, the xa’rith have been at war with Antiell for a long time. And from what I’ve heard from some xa’rith colleagues of mine, they’ve come to see scholars and spellswords as evil. I don’t like it but I understand it. Those that work with the Academy, though, are masters of swordsmanship and the martial arts, and some are alchemists with very unique traditions and techniques.”
“Will I get to meet any?” Aeo asked.
“Certainly,” Leon said. “If my friend Thoksigim still studies at the Everspring, I’m sure he’d be delighted to meet you. His Tagnurik accent is very strong, and their beaks aren’t quite made for Yshlene. But he speaks it very well for a xa’rith.”
“Yes. They are quite birdlike in shape and mannerism.”
“The way they move, the way they act.”
Aeo rested his head on his arms and stayed silent for a few moments. Leon chuckled.
“I talk too much. Don’t feel like you should stay up on my account,” he said. “If you’re still tired, get some rest. We will travel for as long as the weather allows.”
“Do you have magick to keep us dry in the rain?” Aeo asked.
Leon turned around and ruffled Aeo’s hair again.
“You already know me too well,” he said. “It’s not made for a rolling wagon, unfortunately. In the meantime, bundle up and hopefully the wagon cover will keep you dry.”
Aeo pushed himself from the front of the wagon and did his best to maneuver into the thin space the wagon afforded him. It was stuffed full of crates with three weeks of foodstuffs and travel necessities like two extra wagon wheels, a large water keg, two large wool blankets, a pair of pillows filled with down, a fishing net, and more, including, strangely enough, a six-foot tall quarterstaff. Leon had never mentioned being skilled at fighting, much less skilled with a glorified stick. Wouldn’t a sword be a more effective weapon? Or maybe a spear with a pointed tip? Either way, the weapon (or was it a tool?) intrigued his imagination. The more Aeo thought about it, the more he wished to see Leon in action.
The day continued on much as it had in the days before, the wagon trudging along on wet muddy roads. Fortunately, Leon’s driving skills were excellent, and Poro’s strength equalled it, despite the heavier load upon her back. Once or twice, the wagon slowed to a crawl, encountering a thick patch of sludge. Fortunately, the wagon’s momentum kept it moving, and the wheels never stuck to the road for long.
Along the way, Aeo noticed they were actually passing other wagons headed in the opposite direction. Some had covers above the driver’s seat to keep out the rain. Others did not, leaving their leads miserable and wet. Some wagons had one horse, or two, or four, depending on the size of the shipments they carried. Aeo even saw a rather fancy burgundy-colored horse-drawn carriage transporting a rather well-to-do family. Most notably, none of the other drivers offered Leon any kind of regard, despite the fact that Leon cheerfully greeted every single one that passed by.
As the morning moved on and the afternoon began, the sky refused to reveal the sun. The clouds gathered thick above the merchant’s road, and a true rainstorm began to fall. As the storm increased, Aeo looked up at Leon, who seemed no worse for wear sitting in the midst of it. The wagon canopy about Aeo’s head was, unfortunately, quite porous, leaking at the points dangling furthest down into the cart. One of the deepest points was right over Aeo’s chest, and another fell upon his knees. To protect himself, he covered his upper body with one blanket and covered his lower half with another, hoping they wouldn’t leak into a puddle in the middle. Before he had the heart to complain about his situation, however, Leon slowed Poro to a halt on the right side of the road and stepped off the driver’s seat.
“What’s going on?” Aeo asked.
Leon appeared at the back of the wagon, his hair and jacket quite thoroughly drenched. He grabbed his bag and lifted the back bar.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s dry off and wait for this storm to pass. No sense in catching a cold by staying on the road.”
Dry off? By going out into the rain?
Aeo gladly crawled out of the wagon, accepting the large drops of water that fell on his head and lap.
“What about Poro?” Aeo asked, looking over to her.
“She’ll be okay,” Leon said. “I’ll check on her every so often. I think she’ll be more hungry and thirsty than cold.”
As Poro munched at the grass that grew on the edge of the highway, Leon and Aeo walked a short ways into the pasture, coming to a stop just before the edge of the treeline about one hundred yards from the edge of the lake. Kneeling down on the mud-soaked ground, Leon produced from his magickal bag another ten-inch candle. Aeo stood shivering at his side, water dripping from his hair and seeping through his shirt.
“We have a problem,” Leon said, turning the candle in his hand. “The candle is soaked, and trying to light a fire in rain like this would be too difficult and take too long. Besides, if we lit the candle in a campfire, it would probably go out before we could use it. What do you think we should do?”
“Um… Your magick?”
“Magick, certainly. But not mine.”
“What?” Aeo stammered. “Mine?”
“Do you want to try?” Leon asked, looking up at Aeo.
Aeo pulled away.
“I… I don’t know.”
“Here,” Leon said, patting the wet grass in front of him. “It’s wet, but hopefully in a few minutes, it won’t be. Let’s give it a go.”
Aeo paused. Stepping over in front of Leon, he sat in the mud and grass; water immediately soaked his bottom.
“Remember what it felt like when you held fire in your hands?” Leon asked. Aeo nodded. “I want you to have that in your mind. Never mind the fire in Olvaren. No aggression. No anger. Just concentration. Holding fire and causing fire aren’t very separated from each other, and almost nothing but your will can extinguish it. Here, just as before, hold your hands up, just like this.”
As if grasping a globe by its equator, Aeo’s hands hovered about a foot apart. Leon lifted the dripping candle right in between.
“Remember sym-yattra. Move the heat in your body from your feet to your legs, your legs to your waist, up through your chest and head, and then down through your arms to your hands. It doesn’t have to feel like anything, but imagining it makes it so. And you’ll be surprised what a little imagination can accomplish. Understand? Try it now. Close your eyes if you like.”
Aeo did so, and imagined as hard as he could. Once again, there didn’t seem to be much heat in his body at the moment. But a rainstorm in the valley couldn’t compare to the terrible cold of the mountain. He drew upon the thought of warmth traveling through his body to his waiting hands, and for a moment, he could almost feel something moving along his nerves. A boom of thunder somewhere across the lake startled him for a moment, cracking his concentration. He continued, however, shutting his eyes tighter and focusing his thoughts on nothing but the movement of heat.
For a moment, he imagined the burning inn. The flames that consumed Harthoon. He couldn’t think of such things. No aggression. No anger. Just concentration.
A thought came to him, completely unexpected.
I haven’t dreamed of the sun since I left the mountain.
And it was true. Even nightmares had departed from him. Sleep came to him so quickly every night after traveling on the bumpy road, he hadn’t had time to dream.
That voice. That woman’s voice. The one that came from the sun and the sky. Why was it so familiar to me? I haven’t had a dream like that before. Why was it so familiar…?
“Aeo,” whispered Leon. “Open your eyes.”
Between his hands, a tiny sphere of flame shuddered in the rain, dancing in the air as if summoned by a wispy spirit. Aeo didn’t move. Something held him in place, propped up by the falling droplets of water. There was no pressure or pain from this curious force, and he felt as though he could move if he chose to do so. He simply sat there, watching the fire in his hands. His imagination no longer fueled this flame; indeed, it felt as though someone had turned on a faucet in Aeo’s chest, out of which strength and energy poured.
“There we go,” Leon said, lifting the candle wick to the flame. It lit immediately, and resisted every raindrop that fell upon it. “You feel it, don’t you? The animis leaving you? Now, Aeo, reverse the process. Pull the warmth from your hands back down your arms and into your chest. Imagine it fading back into your body.”
This time, Aeo’s eyes remained open. Somehow, this process was much easier to manage. Unlike his desires in Olvaren, he wished this flame to fade and vanish. The physical feeling of energy leaving him slowed to a trickle. The force that held him up slowly released him, and the sphere of fire shrunk to a series of bright sparks before fading entirely.
Aeo pulled his hands towards him, watching them. No evidence of burns. He hadn’t even felt warmth from the glow.
“Very good, Aeo, very good,” Leon said. “Don’t forget this candle flame, now. We don’t want it going out. Don’t imagine it away.”
For a moment, Aeo entertained the thought by instinct, and the candle sputtered. But denying the image of a candle blowing away in a breeze, the tiny flame remained bright and delightful.
“Now it’s my turn,” Leon said, pulling the wooden candle base from his bag. He placed the wax firmly in place, set it on the ground, and placed both hands above the twirling flame. A white swirl of energy emerged from his palms like a cloud, and soon coalesced into a single mysterious glyph that looked like one of the symbols from the map in Leon’s marker. With a faint pop, the glyph fell upon the flame in a perfect sphere, like two bubbles connecting on the surface of a pool.
Aeo felt the effect of the glyph immediately. The raindrops that fell on him ceased. He looked up. They were indeed still falling, but they collided with and poured across an invisible surface in a ten foot diameter, creating a curtain of water around them. Then, as quickly as the water had soaked him, the moisture of the mud and grass around Aeo began to evaporate. The moisture that had sunk into his trousers vanished. Aeo brushed a hand through his hair and across his shirt; they were completely dry, albeit a little wrinkled and messy. Leon removed his coat and shook his own long hair as if throwing off raindrops; there were no drops to drip.
The temperature hadn’t changed. But Aeo was fairly certain the magick (or perhaps the thick curtain of raindrops) kept the wind at bay. Being dry made everything perfect.
Except for two things: his eyes became itchy, and his throat dried up. He rubbed his uncomfortable eyes and his lungs coughed in response.
“You feel it, too?” Leon asked with a quick cough. “Apologies, I made it a bit strong to ensure we dried off. Hold on.”
Leon kneeled on the now-dry dirt and held his hands above the glyph in the same manner as before. As if turning the knob of a door, Leon’s hand caused the glyph to rotate upon the candle. In a second, moisture returned to Aeo’s eyes and throat, and from what he could tell, the raindrops above them pitter-pattered upon the magickal surface just a little closer to the ground.
“Can you teach me how to do that?” Aeo asked.
“I imagine so,” Leon said, standing. “Though it requires an understanding of Drael-dena symbology and the proper balance of water and air. Without the right balance, some scholars have died from dehydration after spending a single night under such a ward. How they didn’t feel incredible discomfort right away, I can’t imagine.”
“What is dee-high-dray-shun?”
“Dying from a lack of water.”
Aeo’s desire to learn the ward vanished.
“So,” Leon continued. “Let me run and grab the waterskins to keep us hydrated. And I’ll grab us some dinner as well. I hope you like dried meat. And carrots. Maybe a few potatoes, who knows?”
Walking through a waterfall, Leon vanished towards the direction of the wagon. Aeo entertained himself for a moment by watching the delicate flame of the candle.
Leon was gone. He had time. Though he knew he shouldn’t, he couldn’t help himself: he had to know. Slowly, he reached his hand above the candle and the ward placed upon it. He felt heat, but no pain. He lowered it closer. More heat, but no pain. Finally, he reached a finger beneath the ward directly into the orange glow. He expected the same effect as touching a hot stove or burning himself with a torch. But nothing. Nothing at all. Maybe a tingle of warmth, but no effect besides.
“Huh,” Aeo whispered to himself. He moved his finger away.
The flame, as well as the ward, fastened to his fingertip and moved with it.
“Ahh!” Aeo cried. He nearly shook his hand to smother the flame. But the ward did not break and soak him in the rain; he thought it best not to move. The flame didn’t hurt in the slightest, much to his relief. He felt the same strong support he’d felt just moments ago help him stabilize the flame and the ward on his finger. And like before, he felt the warmth drain from his chest. But this time, it felt more intense, as if jogging up a steep hill or climbing a mountain. His breathing became labored.
There was only one thing to do. Ever so gently, he pushed his finger against the wick of the candle. It didn’t attach as he pulled his finger back.
I can do this, Aeo thought. I can…
He felt the wick beneath his skin, and imagined the flame leaping from his hand to the candle. He even closed his eyes for a second to focus.
I can do this, he thought. Remember the sun. The dream…
He opened his eyes. Somehow, the flame had grown larger upon his finger, and the ward shuddered as if blowing on the wind. The invisible surface that held back the rain also shuddered, and Aeo felt a few raindrops fall onto his head.
Okay, the dream is too much. Pull it back, pull it back…
He pretended the heat sucked back into his hands and up his arms, and accordingly, the flame shrunk down to an appropriate size. He pulled his finger back, but still the flame and the ward refused to connect with the candle.
Come on, please… Before Leon-
The rain parted, and a man peered through it.
“Aaak!” Aeo yelped, yanking his hand backwards.
The flame and the ward vanished. The roof collapsed and down fell freezing rainwater upon Aeo, drenching his head and lap and pouring down his back. So surprised, he couldn’t even apologize.
“Ah,” Leon said with a laugh. “Lovely. It’s time to practice again, isn’t it?”
– 15 –
Three Weeks Later
Two paths had lain before the wagon, clearly illustrated by a sign at the fork in the road. As Leon read to Aeo, one pointed west to a place called “Fort Owyne”, apparently only a few scant miles from the highway itself. The other pointed towards a much more distant location called “Fort Nahzer” to the southeast. Nahzer, Leon described, was their intended destination, as it sat squarely upon the Ashanti/Antielli border. Trying to find a way around the fort itself presented a great risk, especially for a rickety wagon led by a single horse, as the fort had been constructed right in the middle of a mountainous pass. Anyone caught trying to cross the border illegally would certainly be spotted and arrested, and their wagon (and its cargo) impounded; Antiell did not toy with the strength of their borders, especially with powerful scholars and mystics regularly traveling to and from the Everspring Academy.
Now a week beyond the fork in the road, Aeo became truly miserable. The brisk speed with which Leon drove the wagon had increased, leaving them little time to rest and relax. It was bad enough that no villages sat upon the road, set as it was so close to the border of Edia. Aeo was now practically stuck to the inside of the wagon, and Leon had insisted it would be more comfortable for him if he slept there during the night. True or not, the down-filled pillows could only do so much to help him feel comfortable, cramped as he was in between the crates.
To keep himself busy, Leon had directed him to practice shielding himself against the rubber ball. Aeo could summon fire; he had little trouble with that. But shielding was a different matter entirely. He couldn’t really wrap his mind around it. Instead of focusing his animis into a single point, Leon had tried to teach him to expel his animis like a blast of wind from his hands. Laying on his back in the wagon, he would toss the rubber ball up into the air and quickly raise his hand to block it. Every so often, he would see a hint of blue light as the ball came back down. But gravity was relentless, and refused to stop as the light appeared. More often than not, the ball would end up hitting Aeo in the face or the eye. He had never considered himself talented at tossing rubber balls into the air, especially inside a rumbling rolling cart. Impressive to repeatedly hit a target over and over, perhaps, but slightly painful and annoying.
Just once, he tried creating fire in between his hands while riding in the wagon. With Leon focusing on the road at the time, Aeo thought he might get away with it. But the moment a spark fizzled in between his hands, Leon halted the cart and spun around.
“Oh no, you don’t,” he said. “No fire in the wagon. Please.”
“Sorry,” Aeo mumbled.
Now beyond Lake Darlendas, the environs through which they traveled resembled a glorious autumn forest. The leaves of the oaks, aspens, and maples had turned into bright and beautiful shades of crimson, orange, and yellow, and the delicate mountain winds made them all flutter and fly from their stems like exotic birds from their nests. While the road itself was rather flat and presented rather boring views, every once in a while the canopy of trees would part, presenting a stunning view of the entire mountain range. Snow never ceased falling on the tops of the mountain, aided by the regular late-summer storms. But Aeo could clearly see the edge of the treeline, the gulleys of tumbling rocks, rivers and streams of glittering snow melt, and grassy foothills that led to the base of the far-reaching earth. Curiously, the amount of wagons they passed on the road now came fewer and further between. Once past the fork in the road, the road’s condition appeared less maintained, through roughshod wooden bridges still crossed over rushing creeks and rivers.
Aeo spent a lot of time looking at Leon’s marker (with his permission, of course), surveying the surrounding landscape on the map. Speaking the word “dah-si” a few times, the map seemed to pull outwards to a great distance, leaving the wagon just a tiny pinprick of light upon the winding road. Although the map offered no sense of distance, Aeo could see several symbols clearly. One of them was surely Fort Owyne, sitting upon the very edge of the outlined border of Edia. Much further upon the eastern road was a similar symbol, perhaps Fort Nahzer. If it was, they were making great time, as only a week ago, the symbol hadn’t appeared upon the enlarged map at all. Between them was the great mountain range, and when zoomed in a little closer, Aeo could make out blue lines that marked rivers and running streams. More than once, Aeo had mentioned a stream coming up on their travels, during which Leon gladly stopped to refill their water keg. Aeo decided there was nothing more delicious than freshly-chilled mountain water, and drank more than his fair share. Unfortunately, this meant he had to take more breaks to answer the call of nature. This made Aeo anxious for repeatedly asking to pull over, but Leon seemed to tolerate it.
Chewing on a piece of jerky, Aeo again practiced shielding himself from a falling ball. He held out his hand as if to catch it, imagining the warmth of his body bursting from his hand like a jet of warm air. And yet again, a flicker of blue light appeared. But the ball dropped right past his hand and landed right upon his nose.
“Ow…” he whispered, grasping for the ball around his head.
Without warning, the wagon came to a halt. Leon said nothing for a moment, but stood from the driver’s seat.
“Leon?” Aeo asked, lifting himself from the wagon floor. “What is it?”
“Pass me my staff,” Leon whispered. “Hide my bag.”
“My staff. And hide my bag beneath something.”
“Oh, okay,” Aeo replied.
He climbed over a few boxes of the right side and grabbed the simple-looking oaken pole. He passed it through the front flap, and Leon took it quickly. Then, Aeo took Leon’s bag, and placed it beneath his down pillow.
Without explanation, Leon jumped off the driver’s seat. He didn’t come to the back as if to grab something, nor did it sound as though he were walking into the treeline. Aeo looked, and Leon stood beside Poro, scanning the road ahead.
Aeo saw the source of their trouble. No, sources. Four large men with swords at their belts and axes upon their shoulders had appeared from the forest, walking towards Leon shoulder to shoulder in the middle of the road. Leon did not advance, instead patting Poro’s mane and whispering a few Drael-dena words to her: “Meh-yea fel-anok dei egr-enek ya si”. He repeated it three times. Poro, seeming to understand, nuzzled Leon’s side, whinnying quietly.
When the men approached close enough, Leon said: “Good afternoon, gentlemen. May I assume you are part of the Antielli highway guard?”
Perhaps the largest of the four men, who carried a very large double-bladed axe and walked with a great amount of swagger, chortled.
“Sum’fin like that,” he replied.
“What can I do for you today?” Leon asked brightly, resting his weight on his staff as if he were somehow lame.
“Well, gracious sir,” said a wiry man next to the giant. “I’m afraid this part of the highway is blocked by a rockslide. Yes, we, the highway guard, require a toll from every traveler in order to help pay for its, eh, removal, you see.”
“Indeed?” Leon said. “Well, as you can see, I’m a simple traveler heading on my way to Ashant with my young protege here,” Leon waved a hand at Aeo, who watched without breath. “Not even a merchant, I’m afraid. Would you gentlemen like a few loaves of rye bread or some dried fruit? I’d be happy to oblige.”
“Wha’s ‘oblige’ mean,” asked the giant to the wiry man.
“It means he would give it to us for free,” the wiry man said, slapping the giant. “Very kind of you, good sir, but I’m afraid we going to require a bit more than food from you.”
“What do you mean?” Leon asked, leaning further on his staff. “I don’t have any money, honest I don’t. The most I have are a few alchemy books and spare clothing. Nothing you fine men would find valuable.”
“Well, sir,” said the wiry man. “That will be up to us to decide. If you don’t offer us something better than that, my friends here…” He patted the giant’s shoulder and motioned to the other two large men. “Will have to confiscate your… rather large wagon. And your horse. All for the, eh, highway guard, of course.”
“That is unfortunate,” Leon said. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. I’ll tell you once: leave. T’would be a pity to have to hurt you.”
The giant, the wiry man, and the two heavies behind them laughed.
“Whah, you? Hurt us?” the giant asked. “Lemme at ‘im, boss, I’ll show this li’l skint how to hurt someone.”
“Ah, I suppose we should,” said the wiry man, unsheathing his sword. “Be sure to grab the boy. Slaves pay real well in Rurali.”
“Aeo!” Leon shouted. “Sym-yattra! You are stronger than you think!”
“Wha’s seem-yatter-” the giant began to say. Before he could spit out another syllable, however, a quarterstaff connected with the side of his jaw, surely knocking loose a few molars. Without skipping a beat, the other end of the quarterstaff dipped between the giant’s legs. As Leon flew forwards to attack the leftmost brute, the staff unhinged the giant’s legs, causing the very concussed man to collapse.
“What in the-” the next opponent managed to say. Before he could even take hold of his sword’s handle, Leon raised his hand and shouted “Vai!” With a burst of violent energy, Leon’s animis exploded outwards and collided with the man’s body. Before the distorted air could settle, the man soared backwards about thirty feet, tumbling end over end until he collapsed and moved no more.
“Get him!” shouted the wiry man. With a quick downwards thrust, his sword descended upon Leon only for a blue crackle of reflective energy to catch his blade a few inches from Leon’s head. Shards of energy rained down upon Leon as he pulled to the side, jabbing the wiry man first in the stomach, then the chest, and finally, swirling on his heels, connecting a powerful blow against the man’s sword hand. The man screamed, dropping his sword upon the ground and retreating a few steps back.
At last, the brute on the right had time enough to handle his axe with both hands, and advanced to bring it to bear down against Leon. Leon nearly swung around fast enough to disarm the man as well, but to his surprise, the giant had regained just enough sense to grab Leon’s leg and pull him downwards. The brute’s axe swung hard enough to crack stone, but instead of embedding itself in Leon’s spine, the weapon shattered upon a bright blue barrier of energy, spraying Leon and his attackers in crystals of azure light. The axe, to the man’s shock, reflected back upon him as if he had connected with a shield of iron, throwing the axe backwards out of his hands.
Aeo watched all of this in shock. He never believe Leon capable of this.
“Grab the boy!” the wiry man shouted to the brute, bending down to pick up his sword. “We’re getting paid one way or another!”
“No!” Leon shouted.
Leon brought his quarterstaff down upon the giant holding him the best way he knew how: by thrusting the point into the man’s crotch. To his dismay, the hit connected with something solid, and not at all sensitive. The giant laughed, unperturbed.
“You ‘fink no one’s ever tried that before? Nice try!” the giant sung, pulling Leon down by his shirt. “I’ll break your neck, you-”
Now face to face with the giant man, Leon performed a very different act, one he hoped he would never have to teach anyone. His eyes faded until they became one with the shadows, turning blacker than the darkest night. As if the giant were staring into the abyss itself, Leon whispered a single drael-dena word: “Sihn-mauk”.
Horror could not describe the look upon the giant’s face. Pure terror. Hatred. Madness. The giant shoved Leon away as if Leon had become a fiery demon. The giant’s own eyes darkened like Bel moon pearls, blinding him to everything and anything that did not reflect his greatest nightmares. As Leon stood up, the giant attempted to claw his own eyes out: his fingernails tore bloody gashes into his face as the darkness in his eyes bubbled and seeped out like thick ooze.
Upon seeing his friend so inflicted, the wiry man took a step backwards.
“Wha… Wha’d you do to him?! What are you?!”
Leon did not respond to him. He merely leaned upon his quarterstaff and raised his hand.
Leon’s animis again exploded from his body in a concussive wave, connecting with the wiry man as if gravity had decided to move sideways just for him. After flying about ten feet off of the road, the man collided with an oak tree with a audible thud, and collapsed to the ground in a heap.
Inside the wagon, Aeo knew someone was coming for him. A brutish figure turned the corner, and Aeo screamed.
“Come ‘ere, little Edian!” the man shouted, tearing the back bar off. The man reached into the wagon, grabbing Aeo by the ankle and yanking him outwards.
“No! No, get off me!” Aeo yelled, kicking the man in the head with his other foot. His kicks connected but served little purpose: the man did not react to them. With a final pull, Aeo slid out of the cart, falling to the rocky road.
“Now let’s go back to camp, shall we?” the man whispered, grabbing Aeo’s arms. Like a sack of wheat, the man hauled the boy onto his shoulder. “You’ll be worth at least a few good meals, you will!”
“No, you can’t!” Aeo shouted. “You won’t!”
Sym-yattra. No aggression. No anger. Only concentration.
But Aeo felt anger. He felt the pain and aggression towards all the men that attacked his master. Now, concentration: the only remaining necessity. Aeo closed his eyes and lifted himself just enough to place his hands upon the brute’s shoulder. Much faster than he had ever practiced, his imagination flashed like a tidal wave, forcing all the animis in his body to emerge from his fingertips. Then his eyes flared open, and like a spout of pure chaos let loose, fire erupted from Aeo’s hands against the man’s shoulder like a flamethrower.
The brute screamed in pain, dropping Aeo immediately. The flame stuck to the man as if he’d been doused in oil, and he flailed wildly trying to pat the flames away from his shoulder and neck. Just as Leon turned the corner to the back of the cart, Aeo lifted himself to his feet. As the fire danced, so did the brute, the flames growing hotter and brighter. The more he tried to smother the flames, the more it grew, consuming the brute’s long hair and crossing his chest. For more than a few seconds, Aeo stood there, entranced by the effectiveness of the conflagration.
“Aeo!” Leon shouted. “Stop! That’s enough!”
Aeo’s concentration did not break.
“No!” Aeo cried, looking at the man in the flames. “They should all burn! All of them! They’ll never hurt anyone ever again!”
“Aeo, listen to me,” Leon said. “Vengeance is not the answer. Don’t let your anger consume this man! The Goddess will repay them for their deeds!”
“I don’t care!” Aeo shouted back. “I hate them! I hate being an Edian! I hate them, and I hate everything!”
The man continued to scream, falling backwards off the side of the road. The long grass caught fire immediately.
“Aeo,” Leon said, almost quietly. “Do you hate me?”
No. I don’t.
But he didn’t say it.
“I don’t know how to stop it,” Aeo said quietly.
“Pull the heat back into your hands,” Leon said, walking towards Aeo. “Just like I taught you. Pull your animis back into your arms, your chest. Focus on your breathing, your desire to let the fire fade.”
Do I want this fire to fade?
For a moment, Aeo did nothing.
Aeo sealed his eyes shut, and he raised a single hand towards the burning man. Rejecting the thoughts of relentless immolation, he pulled his body heat back from his hands to his core, and imagined the fire fading away. Ever so slowly, the fire that sat upon the grass began to smolder and disappear, and although the man continued to shriek, the fire that threatened to consume him faded. With this, Aeo felt completely drained, and he fell backwards upon the ground.
Leon slowly approached the man, and scowled at what he witnessed. The hair on the right side of the man’s skull had all burned away, his neck was black and scorched, and the thick leather armor he wore had adhered to the skin across his chest and shoulders. The air was filled with the sickening scent of charred flesh, and the flames even appeared to have begun consuming the man’s face and left eye. The man spat and stammered in unimaginable pain, and tried to rip at the grass behind him to get away. His eyes stared at Leon and the boy, mouth agape.
“You brought this upon yourself,” Leon said quietly, leaning on his quarterstaff. “I can do nothing for you. If you survive, I would tell your fellows to avoid the highway in the future.”
The man did not respond, inhaling and sputtering.
Leon turned, stepping towards Aeo. This time, he relied on his staff not as an act, but because he had truly spent most of his strength. He offered a hand to the boy, and Aeo reluctantly took it.
“Come,” Leon said, groaning to lift the boy to his feet. “We need to move on before more of them show up.”
Aeo looked upon the man for a moment. The more he summoned the flame, the more he understood the pain it could inflict. Harthoon died because of Aeo’s fear. The brutish man burned due to Aeo’s anger. The screaming of his victims and the blackened char left behind fueled something dark inside of him. It felt justified. It felt inhuman. Before this moment, his red hair and red eyes made him more victim than monster. But now that he could control his fire, even in the slightest degree, the monster revealed itself.
And for the first time in his life, he learned that his monster had teeth.
* * * * * *
Leon said very little as the afternoon turned into evening, only speaking up a few times for water and for his marker. This only served to intensify the gnawing ache in Aeo’s stomach. The feeling didn’t come from hunger, but from the incredible anxiety of what had occurred just hours before. His falsely-righteous anger had melted into fear and then to grief. Just like Harthoon’s, the bandit’s screams rang in his ears, and blocked all desire for sleep. He ate to cure the pain, but the taste of food felt gray and lifeless. Even as the sky turned to night, his hands continued to tremble from the act they had committed.
Leon didn’t stop the wagon as the sun dipped beyond the horizon as he usually did; Aeo immediately thought perhaps that this was a form of punishment, that Aeo would be getting no sleep or dinner that night. He peered through the dark, watching Leon’s shadow as the cart drove on. Aeo didn’t dare say anything, or even cough, sniff, or make any noise that might draw the man’s attention.
Aeo turned from Leon away towards the back of the cart for a split second. Then, he heard a noise that sounded like a sack of potatoes falling off the cart. Aeo’s head swiveled around trying to spot the box or bag that had fallen from the wagon. Nothing appeared missing. He cleared his throat.
He looked towards the driver’s seat.
Leon wasn’t there.
“Leon!” Aeo cried, opening the front flap. The driver’s seat was indeed empty. “Poro, bah-si! Bah-si!”
To his relief, Poro obeyed without trouble, coming to a halt. Aeo walked to the back of the wagon to look out, and sure enough, Aeo saw the outline of a man sprawled face-first in the grass just off the right side of the highway.
“No! Leon! No no no,” Aeo said, filled with desperation. Without hesitation, he leapt from the back of the wagon and ran over to Leon. Aeo did his best to turn him to his back, which required more effort than he anticipated. “Leon, please don’t die! You can’t die!”
To his surprise, Aeo heard a deep but quiet laugh.
“I’m not… dying…” Leon gasped, his breathing labored and thick with mucus. “My animis is… spent. My… bag… pink bottle… side pocket…”
“O-okay!” Aeo said, hopping to his feet. He scrambled back to the wagon and grabbed Leon’s bag from within. He couldn’t see the pockets in the dim light, so he decided to take the whole thing. He raced back over and sat down at Leon’s side. Aeo fumbled around the bag and discovered only a single pocket on one side of the bag. After a moment, he succeeded in unlatching the pocket’s buckle, and shoved his hand inside. To his surprise, there was only one object inside the pocket: a slender five-inch bottle with a curious rubber seal in the place of a cork. The bottle itself wasn’t pink: it was the liquid within, which radiated a delicate rose-colored light.
“Can’t… lift my arms…” Leon whispered. “Need… some help… drinking it…”
“Okay,” Aeo said, and tugged at the seal of the bottle. It didn’t budge. He tried again, digging his fingernails into the rubber. No effect.
“It’s… warded,” Leon said. “It won’t… open for anyone… but me.”
“How do I…?” Aeo began to ask.
“Bring it… to my lips,” Leon said.
Aeo did so, and Leon began whispering very faintly; Aeo couldn’t make out individual words. When Leon took a breath, the small rubber seal of the bottle popped off and nearly hit him in the nose. Aeo grabbed it before it could roll to the ground.
“I’ll drink… slowly, please…” Leon said.
Aeo carefully poured the glowing liquid into Leon’s mouth. The bottle emptied, and the light faded as he swallowed without much trouble. For a moment, Leon’s eyes closed, and he simply laid in the darkness, breathing. Aeo sat beside him, watching intently. For about a minute, the only thing Aeo could hear in the forest were the crickets that chirped away deep in the long grass.
The wagon then creaked forwards without a rider.
“Poro? Poro!” Aeo shouted. The horse was going to leave them both behind. But then, with tired grace, Poro lazily drove her and the cart in a 180-degree turn, driving towards the two humils before stopping and nuzzling her nose into Leon’s arm. “Oh.”
“Good girl,” Leon said with a nod. “Mey-naye fel-an ne. Le-jhe o-hi-ko. And you too, Aeo.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means… ‘don’t have worries…for me, favored girl’… For you, it would be… Le-jhe ohe-no. ‘Favored boy’.”
“Leon…” Aeo said, the bottle and the stopper still in his hands. “What happened? What did you drink? Was it a potion?”
“Yes…” Leon answered. “…and no. You’ll see more of that… at the Academy. It’s… Everspring aether. I should have drank it… hours ago, but… I wasn’t sure I needed it. It’s my… last one. At least I didn’t… black out. I… may have overdone it… with those ruffians. I hope… we got past their camp.”
Aeo looked around. There wasn’t a soul besides the three of them on the road.
“Should we… hide?” Aeo asked. “In the trees?”
“Unless… you or Poro could drag me,” Leon said with an exhausted smile. “I don’t think… I’m going anywhere.”
“Um,” Aeo said. “Hmm.”
He stood up and grabbed Leon’s hand by the wrist. Likewise, he took Leon’s other hand, and, standing him, pulled with all of his might. Leon didn’t move at all.
“Sorry!” Aeo said, dropping Leon’s arms. They flopped quite uselessly down to the ground above Leon’s head.
“Hrmm…” Leon hummed. “I think… I think if Poro hides in the trees… and we remain quiet in the dark, we should… go unnoticed. At least… I had some sense to fall into the grass. You wouldn’t want to… put my arms back down… would you?”
“Oh, yeah,” Aeo said, and did so quickly.
“Besides,” Leon said. “With the aether in me… I should be strong enough to move… before the sun rises.”
Leon closed his eyes.
“You might… need to drive, though,” he said.
“Me? But… what happened last time…”
“Poro wasn’t prepared last time,” Leon said. “With a little… encouragement, she’ll know what to do. All you really need… are the commands, and you know those. Go on… Find her a place to rest. Take my marker… so you don’t get lost. There should be… A stream some ways to the west. Unbuckle her… she knows where to go…”
“But…” Aeo said. “I don’t want to just… leave you here.”
“There’s not much choice,” Leon said, nearly every word spoken with an added gasp. “We must stay… hidden tonight.”
Aeo hesitated. Reaching into Leon’s bag, he pulled out the marker and opened it. ‘Lah-sev-rai’ made the marker illuminate in blue and green, blinding him for a moment. As his eyes adjusted, he saw himself, Leon, Poro, and the wagon as bright green dots upon a faded and thin green line of a road. And sure enough, a thin blue line to the west ran from north to south. There was little telling exactly how far away it flowed, but he would know if he started walking towards it.
“Go on,” Leon said. “I’ll be fine.”
Aeo stood, taking Poro’s reigns and pulling her gently off the road into the dark trees. Poro resisted for a moment until Leon spoke to her in drael-dena. It took a moment, Leon repeating his words four times before Poro finally relented. Aeo guided her and the wagon followed suit, rumbling over the rough dirt and long grass away from the road.
Poro quietly whined and grunted, slowly following Aeo at the boy’s pace. The bumps in the long grass tripped them both up, slowing their pace further. Careful not to damage the marker (if it could be damaged at all), Aeo kept the parchment of the marker facing forwards in front of him, utilizing the light of the map to illuminate the path ahead. Once or twice, Aeo looked back in the dark to see if he could see Leon at all. Naturally, he could not. After about two hundred yards of walking, Aeo turned the map around and studied it.
Oh, not too far.
Aeo saw much of Leon’s battle with the bandits. But he couldn’t fathom what made Leon so exhausted that he couldn’t move his body at all. The thought of it made him afraid of what could happen to him. In fact, it reminded him of what happened on the mountain. Perhaps the cold wasn’t what truly sapped his strength and caused him to collapse. Maybe it was the energy spent trying to defend himself. Examining both events in his mind, something bothered him about Harthoon’s attack: Aeo’s magick hadn’t conjured a mere flame like he had with the bandit. No, the fire that consumed Harthoon had been volcanic in appearance, and liquid in form. With the bandit, Aeo simply lit the man on fire; Harthoon had been immolated. Aeo had control of himself with the bandit (though less so on his emotions). Aeo felt no control over his actions towards Harthoon. Was that the only difference? Maybe if Harthoon hadn’t been so wild and murderous, the results would have changed. Maybe if Aeo had some control, Harthoon might have caught fire, but still be alive.
But then Aeo would be dead. Right? If he hadn’t stopped Harthoon when he did, and how he did, Aeo would have been in even more danger. Did his magick know the difference between simple panic and mortal danger? Were they the same thing? The inn burned down in Aeo’s panic, and Harthoon died when Aeo panicked. But he could shield himself and set people ablaze if in mortal danger, too.
Aeo’s head hurt thinking about it. He decided not to.
He looked at the map again.
Aeo froze. Poro paused as well, and the wagon came to a bumpy stop. Aeo held up the light of the map all around him. He saw nothing. The voice had been so close and yet so faint that it hardly seemed it had spoken up at all. Yet it had, and the hairs on the back of Aeo’s neck stood up on end. His heart pounded in his chest; he didn’t dare take another step.
It was a spirit, an apparition. Something that dwelled in the forest. Someone that obviously didn’t want to be disturbed. Surely.
Aeo, go back.
Aeo’s throat became dry, and he gasped in shock. The voice knew his name. Somehow, the voice that called out to him sounded at first neither masculine nor feminine. It simply was, and its direction was gentle and warm as if it had come from…
It was the woman’s voice. At least, it had been a woman’s voice on the mountain. It sounded similar, soft and clear.
“Who… are you?” Aeo called out to the darkness.
For a moment, nothing responded. Besides the crickets that sung their songs all around him and the rustling of leaves on the wind. Then, as if an icy canyon wall had cracked and fell upon an unsuspecting valley, the voice instructed Aeo more clearly:
To Leon. Go back!
“Leon?” Aeo asked, and then his frozen body thawed in an instant. “Leon! Uh, uh, Poro! I’ll be back! Wait for me!”
Poro made no signs that she understood, but the influence of the voice upon him made it clear there was no time to delay. In a desperate sprint, Aeo raced back to Leon, stumbling again and again over rough rocks and loose dirt. There was no light to be seen towards his friend, and Aeo read the map as carefully as he could as he ran. There were many dots on the map. Two belonged to Poro and the wagon behind him. One belonged to him. And where Leon had once been singular on the road, there now shined five additional dots circling around him.
“No! Leon!” Aeo shouted. “I’m coming!”
Aeo decided that running across bumpy topography and studying cartography were two activities that did not belong together. But he needed information. What was surrounding Leon? A long, loud howl erupted about a hundred yards away. Then a second. Then a third.
As Aeo approached Leon’s position, he raised the map to his eyes. One pinprick of light was not moving. The five wolf dots now sensed his presence, and had moved their hunting spiral into a lurking half-circle.
“Leon?!” Aeo cried out.
Leon moaned above the sound of the crickets and the wind. He sounded weaker than he had before.
“Leon!” he approached, and saw Leon lying motionless on the grass. “A voice told me to come back! What do I do?!”
“Wolves…” Leon whispered, his voice faint. “I don’t… I… don’t…”
Leon’s half-conscious eyes closed.
“No! Leon!” Aeo shouted, kneeling down and shaking Leon’s shoulder. “Please wake up! Please! I need your help, I…!”
The wolves howls became louder and more distinct, and they had circled close enough for Aeo to hear their bodies rustling through the long grass. A simple meal: a wiry boy and a comatose man.
“No…” Aeo whispered, tears filling his eyes. Then his voice raised. “No! Don’t come any closer! You’re not taking him away from me! Understand?!”
Suddenly, from the dim light of the map, he saw three shadowy shapes emerge from the brush, snarling and gnashing their teeth. Black wolves with matted, bristling fur and diseased fangs slowly approached the pair, their eyes reflecting blue and green. They took low positions, tuned like feral springs, ready to strike and rend flesh from bone.
“Get away!” Aeo shouted, rising to his feet and flaring out his arms. The three visible wolves stopped their advance. Although well within striking distance, they paused, sizing up the threat level of their target.
Aeo’s anger rose like a violent fever, rising in his chest and filling him. How dare they choose now to attack, when Leon was at his weakest.
“I’ll kill you before you eat him!” Aeo cried, his eyes flaring wide. “I’ll kill you all!”
A bright blue sky, illuminated by a crimson star…
His animis flowed through his arms along with the adrenaline. While only partially aware, his balled-up fists began to smoke as the bones within his hands began to glow bright orange. Although he had never fought a day in his life, his anger and animis brought him an intense amount of focus. So much so that when the lead wolf leapt forward to strike, Aeo’s fist had already begun to fly. Pain shot through his arm as his fist connected squarely with the wolf’s eye, and to his expectation, the wolf’s head burst into turgid flame. Shrieking, the wolf collapsed and attempted to shake off the flame. It did not come off.
A bright sun… Brighter than heaven’s transcendent glow…
The attacks of the other two wolves were initially more successful than the first. The one on the right struck downwards and wrapped his jaws around Leon’s leg in a vain attempt to eat first. The left one lunged forwards and sunk his teeth deep into Aeo’s forearm and writhed. Aeo screamed as dark blood poured from his torn skin. In response, Aeo wrapped his sore hand around the wolf’s maw. The wolf did not detach from Aeo’s arm right away… at least, until Aeo’s hand produced a thick oil-like substance from his fingers that burst into flame and began scorching fur and melting the wolf’s face.
With two wolves thrashing upon the ground, Aeo dealt with the third. Bending down, the bright fiery glow of his hands muscled the gray-black wolf’s upper and lower jaw away from Leon’s leg and upwards with strength Aeo had never experienced… and filled its mouth to the brim with a raging inferno of lava. The wolf’s deafening scream sharply filled the night despite the gurgling of the magickal stream of plasma that poured within.
He reached his hand to the sun, never quite touching it…
The two were on the ground in their death throws as the thick fire crawled across their faces and down their throats. By this time, the first wolf had regained his feral senses as well as could be expected as a bonfire raged across its face and back. When a set of jagged teeth clamped down onto the soft muscle and connective tissue between Aeo’s neck and shoulder, he knew he’d made a mistake turning his back on the leader. Aeo roared, and almost fell forwards onto the earth.
But this time, his fingers touched the sun’s glorious face… It was beautiful…
Aeo’s eyes erupted in a white-hot fury; he could somehow see all five wolves surrounding him, the forest, and the mountain as clear as day. Despite the intense pain, Aeo threw his weight downwards and diagonally, forcing the lead wolf to pick one of two options: continue an awkward hold on the boy’s bloody shoulder or flip backwards. The wolf decided to release the boy, much to its error. Aeo fell forwards upon the flaming wolf and pressed his hands upon its throat, repeating his terrible magick: a sticky, oozing flaming oil bled from his hands and ate into the wolf’s fur and skin like molten caustic acid. The wolf howled and cried, snapping at Aeo’s arms and struggling for freedom. Although he knew he did not have the strength to choke the wolf, the boy did have weight enough to hold the canine against the dirty road. Aeo’s two-handed grip did not release until the detestable creature stopped resisting. This occurred much sooner than he expected.
One day we will meet. You and I.
Why not now?
The two remaining wolves were now incredibly unsure if they wanted to attack. As their pack leader lay twitching and melting, the boy raised a hand in their direction and performed something he hadn’t before. His hands made a bright crackling spark, then a second, and a third. Then, like so much kindling, the wolves erupted in elemental flame simultaneously with a noise that sounded like an obsidian bubble shattering beneath the blow of an iron mallet. Their fur set ablaze, they threw themselves to the ground and rolled to put out their respective fires. But there was no extinguishing a blaze they did not control. Instead, they retreated into the long grass, leaving a trail of dense smoke and charred foliage behind them.
I will always be here when you need me.
I don’t understand.
You will, in time.
There was no more noise in his ears. The light from his eyes faded to black, leaving him blind. The adrenaline wore off, and the animis from his arms and chest released and became nothing but a dark hole. Blood dripped freely from his arm and neck. The fires that had consumed the dead wolves faded, and Aeo felt free…
Until the ground hit him in the back of the head.
– 16 –
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, there’s blood everywhere…”
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… 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 the mountain, 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; he failed even to lift his weight.
Then, a feeling dark and foreboding filled 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 like Aeo had shape-shifted into a duck. Aeo attempted to swallow, but even that came half-heartedly.
“I, uh… can’t move very well.” Aeo said with a pile of food in his lap and nervous as a lamb. “And 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.”
TO BE CONTINUED