(Chapters will be added as they are released! Enjoy!)
– Chapter One –
“Oi! Stupid boy! Wake up!”
A gruff tone, then a terrible force thrust itself into the boy’s stomach. His breath escaped, and he clenched inwards with a groan.
“Oh no you don’t. Get out of bed. Now.”
A collection of pinpricks slapped his shoulder, and his eyes snapped open. A broom. That meant Harthon, his master, was standing over him, and Aeo knew better than to ignore him.
“You’ve got chores to do, Snapper. Get to it. Don’t make me smack you with something heavier.”
The gears in Aeo’s mind slowly gained traction. He sat up in the dark, quick enough to convince his Antielli master that he wasn’t disobeying him.
“Uh… aye, master.”
He drifted out of utter drowsiness, side-to-side like a sailor out to sea. He couldn’t help it. Despite the rudeness of the early wake-up call, it was like the boy’s mind swam in deep waters. Aeo rubbed his eyes. The closet was dark. He knew the sun had yet to rise, but there was little hope of further slumber. He stood from his small cot, but just as abruptly ran into something. The large muscular form of his master had not departed. Harthon still towered over him, holding out a crooked broom with an impatient and disgusted scowl.
Aeo took the broom.
“Lazy Adian,” Harthon replied. He took the boy by the scruff of his shirt and hauled him out of his sleeping spot in the closet. “Come on, go. Rooms, and then floors. Don’t you dare let me catch you nodding off.”
The voices had made him dream again. In his dreams, he was no longer in the village of Olvaren on Mount Falas. Instead, he stood upon a vast and barren valley of sand and rock, beneath a fierce noonday sun. He had seen sunlight drenched upon his skin, and its warmth had filled him, soothing and powerful. It certainly wasn’t a memory. Not his own, anyway. The region of Falas held no such promise of warmth, especially the village. The sun would shine brightly on Olvaren for perhaps a week or two out of the year before disappearing behind months of deep fog and overcast skies.
Sometimes the boy could convince himself that the valley of sand in his dreams were his memories. Distant ones, perhaps, and disconnected from his present life. If they were, they were proof that he’d ever been someone else… someone who wasn’t a slave. He couldn’t afford to think like that. So Aeo did his best to ignore the dreams, though they came night after night. He shook them off like rain when Harthon woke him each morning, and instead he focused on his many chores.
That morning, the Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust. Stale cheese, old tallow and grease. Except that morning, there was something more. Something awful. Oh, right: the fetid scent of an overfilled stable. Even with the back door sealed shut, the stable’s reek poisoned the air just beyond the dining area. A horrible stench. Aeo didn’t know anything about horses, but the old mares must have contracted some horrible disease in order to smell so foul. Not that Harthon cared. The patron had paid in advance for his whole team of five horses to be wedged into a meager space designed for two.
Aeo would be cleaning the stable after the patron departed that afternoon, and he would gratefully do it. Cleaning the stable was the only time he was ever free of the inn itself.
[What an idiot. And your master is an idiot as well. They’ll deserve each other when the poor beasts die. Such fragile creatures.]
Don’t say that about Harthon, Aeo thought in response to one of the familiar voices in his head. What if he hears you?
[That oaf would never listen to shattered men. We would sooner address dogs.]
Out of curiosity, Aeo thought a question in response: Wait, do you mean dogs can hear you if they want?
The Shattered did not answer his question. They rarely did.
That’s what the voices called themselves, the Shattered. Or, at least, it was the word they most often repeated. They were talkative at times, but they were rather picky about the words they whispered. Sometimes they seemed responsive, while other times they completely ignored Aeo’s presence and simply commented on events in passing. He had learned long ago that there was no need to speak to them out loud. They responded just as readily to Aeo’s waking thoughts than any words he spoke aloud.
The Shattered spoke in his mind. They never seemed to leave, at least for very long. There were many of them. Some came and went, unfamiliar and fleeting. A few remained as Aeo’s constant companions. But none of these ever shared with him their names (if they had any to share), and never explained why they spoke to him at all. Aeo never told Harthon about them. Never tried to, never wanted to. And he had no intention of doing so. If he were careful, the clever boy could spend hours cleaning the stable, and he would have time to converse with the voices in his mind without interruption.
Some of the voices responded more often than others. He named these, according to their usual demeanor. Aeo pretended he could reason with the friendly ones. Ask them important questions. Like where he was born, what the world outside the Grey Pale Inn was like. Why they forced him to dream about sunlight, sand, and stone every night.
[You’re just as much a fool as your master,] would come the inevitable reply. [Wallow in the filth where you belong, slave.]
Aeo called that voice “Mean.” He didn’t like Mean very much.
[Relax, and think of brighter things,] another voice would sometimes say. [Life will find a way to repay you.]
Aeo called that voice “Kind.” He liked Kind a lot.
Every morning, Aeo began his day in the Grey Pale by cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed during the night. They were the worst chores of the day, especially if Harthon stopped him from getting enough sleep. By the time Aeo finished, the vaguest crests of daylight would begin to peak over the horizon, and weary breakfast-goers would begin to trudge through the inn’s front door in search of sustenance. Aeo would be expected to appear immediately, prepared to take their orders while Harthon attended the kitchen. Around six o’clock, the inn got busy. The merchants always said that Olvaren sat right in the middle of an important trade route between the war-torn nation of Adia, the Republic of Antiell, and the Free-States of Ashant. Aeo didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn seemed to fill itself day and night of its own accord. As the only reputable tavern in Olvaren, Harthon’s establishment was the center of commerce in the tiny mountain village. Day in and day out, stranger after stranger would walk through the door. Tired travelers, irritable hunters, entire families, guildsman looking to get drunk, and nearly all of the unfamiliar faces trying to cross the mountain and leave Olvaren behind as quickly as possible.
“Hurry up, boy,” Harthon would say, every hour on the hour. Aeo’s master always seemed to know when Aeo needed a new chore to perform, and was always there to goad him onto the next one. If he slowed his pace, Harthon would catch the boy’s ear with something. A bare hand, a broomstick handle, an ale flagon, the base of a hefty wrought-iron candlestick. Once, when Aeo was six years old, Harthon had even thrown a clothing iron at the boy’s face. When patrons inevitably asked about it, he said simply: “It’s not my fault the stupid boy likes to run headfirst into walls.”
Aeo didn’t complain. It never did him any good. But he didn’t know why Harthon liked to hurt him so much.
[At least you know how to take a hit,] said Kind. [Not many do.]
Harthon was a wretched giant of a man. Six-and-three-quarters feet tall, and Aeo’s owner of seven long years. The hunters called him “a true son of Antiell,” whatever that meant. Aeo couldn’t remember a father besides him, but he didn’t think the man deserved the title. In his opinion, Harthon hardly deserved the bulging muscles and height that granted him his authority, much less the fame and high praises sung by his fellow guild hunters. Before owning the Grey Pale Inn, Harthon had been a master hunter in Olvaren, and before that, he had served as a mercenary for the Antiellan army. The swords, pelts, and trophies that hung above the Grey Pale’s mantle had all been collected by him personally, including several sunborne banners from the Second Adian War. Though Harthon had left the hunt behind, the hunt hadn’t left him; he had simply changed his prey, and now Aeo was his daily target. Aeo would sooner have risked sneaking up on a starving bear than dare catch Harthon’s ire.
“No slacking, Snapper,” Harthon would often say to him in passing, even when it was obvious Aeo was working. “If you want to keep eating.”
Aeo did, of course. Though Aeo was a full nine years old that winter, he was much shorter than the other Antielli children his age, and considerably more gaunt.
Sure, Harthon may have been a brute. But he was decidedly more than just a mound of bitter muscle. The vindictive reactions to Aeo’s simple presence were matched only by the unusual friendliness and charm he exuded in front of guests. Even Aeo could admit how convincing his heel-turn appeared to complete strangers. As the social center of Olvaren, gossip and news came to the Grey Pale in droves, and Harthon set himself as its apex, spreading the day’s rumors and slander like butter on bread when working the counter. Few topics were off limits to him and those who let him bark. The promiscuous escapades of some young hunter and his mistress from Lincades? The strange religion of some backwater San’dorian merchant? The poor financial decisions of some poor sod he hardly knew? All free rein.
Always with the name-calling, too. He never called people by their real names. Especially not Aeo. “Snapper,” he always called Aeo. He wasn’t sure why. “Useless” was a popular one. “Good-for-Nothing.” “Red-Eyed Bastard” was reserved for rare occasions. He had once deigned to explain to the boy what the word “bastard” meant. Considering he’d never met his birth parents, Aeo wasn’t certain the title applied to him.
[Oh, it does,] whispered Mean. [Bastard child of a bastard lineage. The incestuous union of two branches, long-burned and drowned in tears.]
Aeo didn’t understand what any of the Shattered were talking about most of the time. Mean, least of all. And since no one else seemed to hear them, he had no intention of asking anyone what their words meant. No sense making himself seem more odd than he already was.
Aeo was always to blame for something. Everything bad that occurred in the Grey Pale was his responsibility, his fault. If the patrons were unhappy with their “luxury accommodations,” the boy would get an earful; he was the one who cleaned the rooms, after all, and not Harthon. If a patron in the dining hall slipped or fell because of spilled beer or melted snow, the boy would be slapped; it was his fault the floors weren’t spotless and dry, not his master’s. Even if each incident occurred while he served drinks, took orders, or washed linen. Or swept. Or dusted the furniture. Or cleaned the dishes, wiped down the tables and chairs, counted inventory, or performed any one of the other two dozen daily duties. Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do in the Grey Pale was cook anything. Once, Harthon had allowed it. The resulting “omelet” had caught fire immediately, and the boy was viciously throttled for letting the smoke choke the upstairs guests.
Goddess help him if heever spilled trays of food, or tripped and spilled drinks. At this, he would invariably hear Harthon laugh:
“What an Adian vyshti!”
This would regularly elicit laughter from the older patrons. What was a vyshti?Aeo didn’t know. Some old military slang Harthon never cared to explain. Adopted from his tour in the Second Adian War, supposedly.
The old hunters would call Aeo “Red-Eye” due to the crimson color of his Adian irises. And they said it to his face. It was the dirtiest insult they could muster, though perhaps a bit obvious. He’d grown to hate the ruby hues that stared back at him when he caught glimpses of himself in the wash room mirror. So much so, that he started averting his gaze. The second tell-tale sign of his Adian nature was his hair. He hated it, too, his bushy carrot-colored hair that made him stand out like a fiery carnival clown. Antielli boys and girls enjoyed brown or blonde hair themselves, and he envied their green and blue and pale brown eyes. So plain and neat and normal. Why couldn’t he be like them?
[You’re a spectacle, boy. Take it personally. Take offense. Be weirder for it, I dare you.]
One of the Shattered often “admired” Aeo’s physical appearance like this. Aeo called the voice Weird. He ignored Weird.
There were other Adian slaves in Olvaren, owned by other retired hunters. All with red hair and red eyes. But Aeo had never met them. He wasn’t allowed to “fraternize” with other slaves (whatever that meant), nor was he even allowed outside without Harthon’s direct supervision. “The boy is a scab,” Harthon would tell patrons, in no uncertain terms. “He’s a filthy Adian snapper, and he doesn’t deserve freedom. Not with polite society, not with other Antielli children, andcertainly not here in my inn.”
He spoke that way to a priest of Tiathys once. After Harthon told him off, Aeo never saw the priest again.
About one in the afternoon every single day, the woman of the house would usually show herself. Ariste was her name. His master’s wife, and his “last and greatest conquest.” Harthon always called her “Good-for-Nothing,” too. And thanks to him, the whole village knew about her. Her drinking problems. Her constant maladies. Her “sexual infidelities.” How the respectable innkeeper put up with this poor excuse of a wife, no one in the village knew.
Except, besides Ariste’s drinking problems, Aeo never knew what Harthon was talking about. Just as Harthon kept Aeo on the hook for his supposedly lax nature, he tormented the woman for every flaw and imperfection. Because of this, Ariste never offered to assist her husband with the day-to-day operations of the inn. In fact, if she could help it, not a day went by that she wasn’t completely inebriated.
Just like Aeo, Harthon would slap her in public every once in a while. For forgetting to purchase firewood, for ignoring the dirty windowsills. Or even for just not being around enough. Despite the large gold ring on his finger, Harthon didn’t treat Ariste well. Yet Ariste never retaliated. She never yelled, or cried out when he hit her. She would simply slither down from upstairs, refill her wooden flagon with beer, and disappear back into the attic as quickly as she could. And though Aeo was swamped with work and worry, he didn’t blame her. She knew, just as Aeo did, how useless it was to complain or argue against the master of the Grey Pale.
[Few are they that find it,] whispered Kind. [That memory of belonging. Shards of glass, shattered as we.]
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Ariste would stumble downstairs to find the boy sleeping in his cramped little storage room. She would wake the boy with a start. But instead of hitting him, scolding him, or punishing him like Harthon, she would proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. She never said a word. She just… cried. For an hour or two at a time. Her presence so soaked in alcohol, it would make Aeo drunk just by the smell of it.
The boy never knew why she did this. And he never knew how to react to this behavior of the very grown woman. He never knew what to say, so he said nothing, and just waited. After long enough, Ariste would fall calm. Quiet. And slowly, she would return upstairs without a single word, leaving Aeo to return to sleep dumbfounded. Three or four times that winter, it happened.
It was proof, really. Proof that Ariste hated Harthon just as much as he did. She just never acknowledged it, not in public. By the next morning, Ariste would resume her apathetic attitude towards the boy, as if she’d forgotten the time ever occurred. Besides those odd moments of mourning in the dark, she didn’t even acknowledge that Aeo existed.
To be fair, it was she that never spoke to him. If Harthon was meant to be Aeo’s father, Ariste was just as much his mother.
[He’ll be like us one day,] laughed Weird. [She’ll be like us one day. You’ll be like us, too.]
The end of Aeo’s long list of duties would approach as the sun fell behind Falas every evening. The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt as the crowds packed inside, and he cleaned them, even though each long night of song and dance would give him regular migraines. A flimsy mop served as his constant companion. Despite the raucous noise, Harthon would get busy enough that the boy would doze off, using the mop as an excuse in case he ever got caught. Sometimes Aeo would get dinner, if the crowd grew thin enough for Harthon to remember. More often, though, his master would just forget to cook him anything, engaged as he was with an entire trade route of patrons.
Both during and after the dinner rush, so long as the orders continued to flow unabated, the boy was more of an afterthought… for better or for worse. Afterwards, Aeo would sometimes discover an unpeeled potato, a leek, or a handful of radishes sitting upon his bed in the closet. A meager apology for forgetting him. He couldn’t cook them, of course. So he’d simply munch on the raw vegetables without a second thought.
Once patrons stopped entering and started leaving, Aeo would stumble back into his closet to sleep. Without effort, he would drift into the Shattered dreams, his only real escape from his life in the Grey Pale. And then the cycle would repeat. Three o’clock every morning, he’d start it all over again, kicked in the stomach by Harthon. So the pattern had been for the last year or so, as if set in stone. Harthon never let it vary. Needless to say, the lack of sleep was starting to get to Aeo, and he rarely felt well.
Maybe my eyes are red because I don’t get enough sleep, Aeo thought to himself once. Maybe that’s why they think I’m lazy.
[The eyes of our bloody crusade beg to differ greatly,] growled Mean.
The thing was, Harthon never slept either. Not when Aeo did, anyway. He ignored Aeo at night just to throw him out of bed every morning. And he had no memory of Harthon ever taking so much as a nap. What madness drove the man to such a high level of productivity, the boy couldn’t fathom. He never even got sick, and he never took breaks. Maybe he just ran on cruelty and coin. Maybe slapping the boy gave him some kind of infernal strength. Maybe the rudeness towards his wife let him subsist, sleepless.
Day after day, Aeo thought to himself: This can’t last much longer… right? He’s got to slow down some time. But the man never did. In fact, it seemed he only became more ruthless.
The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at times. The idea of running away, running for Adia. But he couldn’t simply run to the nearest nation. All he knew was that the Antiell-Adia border was out there somewhere, far to the west. And the rule was that if he somehow managed to cross it, he could be free. Simple as that. Maybe if he did run away, if he escaped the Grey Pale at eleven or twelve o’clock at night as the patrons were leaving, he could get as far as the highway or perhaps the next town before Harthon would notice his absence.
The only way to escape slavery was by climbing. Climbing up the mountain, up through the canyons and forests and desolate wastes on the other side. There was another country behind the mountain, a high one, of sand and wind and stone. The Land of the Eternal Sun. His home. Maybe that’s why the Shattered showed him visions of the long desert, night after night. If he could find a way to climb over the barren side of the mountain without freezing to death, he could be free of Harthon and the Grey Pale and Olvaren. He would never have to work in the filthy tavern again.
But he never dared to try. Not even once. The fear of being caught kept him caught. The cold frightened him too thoroughly. No Antielli trader would dare carry an Adian slave back to their hated enemy, so that wasn’t an option. He would never make money, certainly not enough to convince a random traveling scholar or mercenary. The traders spoke of the desolate nation of Adia as if it were weeks away, and the boy was certain he couldn’t hide for weeks and weeks without a plan. Assuming Harthon didn’t catch wind of his intentions beforehand, of course. There was no telling how many hunters from Olvaren would go hunting for him if he fled. They‘d probably hunt him for free, even, just to gain Harthon’s favor. And he could not imagine the punishment that would await him. He’d surely be beaten within an inch of his life.
No, there was no way. Maybe when he grew up, he could buy his freedom like other slaves. Or maybe he’d just live the rest of his life and die within the confines of the Grey Pale.
[You wouldn’t be first or last to fall in service to mediocrity,] the voices would say. [Accept your fate. The sooner you do, the sooner you will become us.]
* * * * * *
“Get out of bed, boy! Now!”
Another kick to the stomach. It knocked another dream of the sun right out of him.
He lifted himself out of bed as best he could. But it did not feel like three in the morning.
“You didn’t clean the kitchen at all!” Harthon shouted, right in his ear. “It’s filthy, you vyshti, there’s crumbs and dirt everywhere. If I start seeing rat droppings in the inventory because of this, I swear I’ll make you eat them. Now get back out there and clean it right!”
Harthon struck him on the head rather sharply with the handle of the broomstick before throwing it in his lap. Then, just as quickly as Harthon’s massive form had appeared, his master thundered out of the closet. Aeo ignored the sharp pain, peering over his shoulder and out of the tiny window. Only darkness stared back at him. He’d probably only been sleeping for a few minutes at most.
Harthon would return twice as angry if he didn’t hurry. Aeo obeyed his master’s command, slipping on his thin shoes and standing. But not without striking his head against the shelf above his cot first.
“Shak!” he swore.
Harthon never let him swear in front of patrons. But he could swear in private all he liked.
Slipping his shirt over his head and grabbing the broom, Aeo stumbled out the door of his closet into the dining area of the inn. All was quiet and dark, save for a few moldering candles still lit in the candelabra above the tables. Aeo crossed the room and ducked into the kitchen without making a sound; he wasn’t normally afraid of the dark, but he was afraid if it concealed his master.
Harthon was not there. Odd. Still, there was no telling when he would come downstairs to check on his progress. He never slept, after all.
The kitchen seemed larger at night, cast in foreboding shadow. With the light of a single lantern burning dimly above crates of potatoes and carrots, he began to scrape the floors with the broom. From what he could see of the floors and the counters, it wasn’t half as bad as Harthon complained… besides the smell. But the kitchen smelled like rotting produce and dirty dishwater all the time. At best, he could see a few stray dust bunnies and chopped vegetables pressed up against the baseboards beneath the bar and sink.
The boy sighed. He could feel his eyelids pushing down on themselves. He pressed on, jamming the broom into the space between the floor and the side of the counter. If he hurried, he would be able to return to sleep in no time.
After a minute of concentration, though… he couldn’t hold on. He was simply too tired. Brush after brush after brush, the rhythm alone was rocking him to sleep. Worse, the rhythm wasn’t actually cleaning anything, shoving the dirt and crumbs around. He shook himself from his daze.
Snap out of it. Come on. Don’t be dumb.
[You don’t know what tired feels like,] said Mean. [Not in the slightest.]
[Poor little thing,] whispered Kind, as if examining Aeo from further away.
Aeo thought to himself: I just want to go back to sleep. Leave me alone, okay?
When the voices remained silent, the boy knelt down to get at the debris underneath the stove. For some reason, it was Harthon’s pet peeve to have anything noticeable beneath, even if he himself put it there. Sure enough, Aeo saw a few stray crumbs in the darkness. Maybe that’s why he exploded at him.
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.
“What? Master, what are you—?”
Harthon was nowhere to be found. Aeo turned his head towards the hanging lantern. Or, more accurately, to where its light had been. The light had died; probably burned through the wick.
He growled and stood to his feet. He couldn’t sweep if he couldn’t see.
Aeo began to fumble his way through the kitchen drawers beside the oven. He needed matches. Matches, matches. Where were they again? Naturally, matches were extremely off-limits. But the thought of waking Harthon filled him with unimaginable dread. He rubbed the still-pulsing goose egg on the crown of his head. He didn’t want another bruise.
Shak, where does Harthon keep the matches? In here?
Blindly, he lifted his arms and found the edge of the cupboard door above the stove. In the dark, he could make out the silhouettes of two dozen square boxes of differing sizes. He only needed one specifically.
No. No. Not that one. Not this one.
At last, a tiny one reached his fingers. He slid the lid open, and within were fifty thin spruce sticks coated in white phosphor. At last, he found the matches. He’d never lit one himself, but he’d seen Harthon do it hundreds of times. Just strike the phosphor against the box until it lights up, and relight the lantern. Easy.
The boy crossed the room, careful not to stub his toe against any of the scattered crates. He clambered up on top of the first row, careful not to actually step or kneel on any of them. Up above, the lantern was still smoking, a few red embers still smoldering within the tiny wick. He could only hope the lantern still had oil; he’d gotten lucky with the matches, but he had no clue where Harthon kept the lantern oil.
He took out a single match, and slid the phosphor tip against the rough surface of the box.
Strike one: nothing. Strike two: nothing.
Strike three: “Oh!”
In a poof of smoke, it burst alight. He quickly thrust the match into the lantern wick, but… it wasn’t lighting.
Wait, what? Why not? Oh, right. The wick.
He fumbled around the lantern until he found the knob. He spun it, and additional wick emerged from within the brass casing. The lantern lit right away, much brighter than before.
“Good,” the boy whispered with a sigh of relief.
Then, just as Harthon had done many times, the boy shook the match to make it go out. And 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, and probably himself! He shook and shook, but the flame burned all the hotter, dropping closer and closer to his fingers. All at once, 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.
“Ah! 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, even as he imagine the flame devouring his skin like tissue paper.
“Get off!” the boy cried, spinning to jump off the potato crate.
He spun too fast. As he swung to keep his balance, his arm struck the lantern straight off of its hook, and with a clatter, the iron light crashed behind the crates. He had no time to recover it, though; he had to extinguish his arm! The fire had already spread from his hand, catching his shirt and lighting the cloth.
“No, no, no!”
The flames were so large, they actually helped him find the sink on the other side of the room. He pumped the handle desperately, and his hand finally met with a torrent of groundwater. The flames extinguished. He tossed water onto his forearm, smothering the flames latched to his sleeve…
He imagined his skin melting like cheese, wrinkling and peeling like a decaying tomato. He felt the charred flesh, up and down, again and again… but there was no charred flesh. No pain. No damage at all, not even a burning sensation left behind. His sleeve was charred and stiff, but his arm was fine.
His mind raced.
How did…? Why doesn’t it hurt?
He then smelled smoke. Was Harthon cooking something?
Then he saw light. Dim at first, but then quickly rising. The potato crate, partially filled with straw, had caught the lantern’s flame.
“Ah! No, no!”
As Aeo stood there in shock, he heard the Shattered speak:
[It might have been the match you so carelessly discarded,] one of them whispered. Weird, maybe.
[He really is quite dull,] agreed Mean.
“Shut up!” Aeo cried in response. “Shut up! Help me put it out!”
As if they could.
Then, Aeo heard the last thing he ever wanted to hear:
“What in Hell’s name is going on in here, boy?! I thought I smelled— holy shit!”
In blind panic, Aeo twirled around to look at the kitchen doorway. Standing there was his master Harthon, the man’s jaw unhinged as he stared at the building inferno.
“You little b-b-bastard!” Harthon screamed. Aeo had never heard him stutter before. “Water, boy! Get the bucket, get it now!”
“Move!” Harthon cried, charging towards the sink. “Move, you idiot!”
Apparently, there was already a bucket in the sink, which Aeo only noticed as Harthon shoved him to the ground. In desperation, the old hunter pumped the sink handle like a monster, filling the bucket as quickly as the ancient system allowed. Which wasn’t fast, truth be told. As he pumped, Harthon filled the room with obscenities.
“You red-eyed bastard!” he roared, trying to kick at Aeo while pumping water; Aeo was well out of range. “What have I told you about matches, vyshti! If the inn burns down, I’ll kill you! I swear I will!”
Aeo responded with the only excuse he had:
“I didn’t mean to…!”
He didn’t know what to do. If he tried to help Harthon, he’d probably be smacked. And if he tried to put the fire out, he’d get roasted. Helpless, Aeo simple laid upon the stone floor, watching the fire burn faster and faster. As if capable of sentience, the flames climbed from the crates of food to the blackening wooden walls of the kitchen. One of the crates at the top of the pile had been filled with thatch, to better protect the pile of hand-sculpted ceramic platters inside. The heat from within it was so intense, Aeo could hardly stand to face it.
But stand to face it, he did. It felt like the dream. The dazzling dream of the sun.
In that moment, a thought rose to the forefront of his imagination. An intoxicating thought that he had never before contemplated. Though he knew he shouldn’t wish it, he wanted the fire to rise higher. Burn brighter. More fiercely. Consume everything. Make it all go away. He almost felt tempted to reach out to it. Take its brightness with his bare hands. Burn his arm again, and spread it further, like a glittering snake sliding across his skin.
Harthon’s shouts droned in and out. He wasn’t paying attention to them. No, he was listening to the voices: a mesmerizing pattern of crackling echoes, an uncontrollable dance of infernal light. He didn’t want it to end.
Somewhere in the midst of this hallucination, Ariste had entered the room. Unlike Aeo, she did not stop to merely observe. In fact, as she raced past him to smother the flames with her coat, he realized he had never seen her so… alert. Finally, with the water bucket filled, Harthon threw the paltry gallons into the conflagration. To everyone’s shock (and Aeo’s slight delight), the flames did not calm. Instead, they devoured the water like oil, making the fire erupt with a heated whirlwind, bursting upwards towards the ceiling.
“You did this!” Harthon shouted at Aeo, mindless. “This is your fault, you piece of filth!”
Aeo, still mesmerized by the blaze, almost had the audacity to ask Harthon why he thought so. But Harthon did not give him the chance to speak. Grabbing the boy by the collar, the great hunter yanked Aeo out of the kitchen. Then, with a single arm, he cast Aeo into the dining room like a limp ragdoll. The boy collided against one of the dining room tables, smacking the edge of his eyebrow against the solid hardwood.
“I’ll strangle you for this, boy, you hear me?!” Harthon screamed, repeating himself. “I’ll kill you if this place burns down!”
Then, he spun on his heels and grabbed his wife. And with just as much force, he threw her towards the door of the inn.
“Go and get the constable!” he screamed. “Don’t you dare come back without help!”
With no further instructions, Harthon scrambled back into the kitchen, pumping yet more groundwater into the wooden bucket. Aeo felt immediate agony as his right eye fell blind from blood. He struggled to stand, unable to find his balance before Ariste herself recovered. All of a sudden, he felt her hands lift him up.
“Aeo,” she whispered, already sobbing. “I’m sorry, my little boy, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for everything.”
Aeo couldn’t think, hearing only the crackling of fire and Harthon’s screaming. Ariste continued breathlessly. He had never heard her speak like this.
“You have a choice, Aeo,” she whispered to him, even as she tenderly held his face. “Help me get the constable. Or leave this place. Leave it all behind. I’ve never had a choice, Aeo. But you do!”
Aeo froze. He didn’t know what to do. He stared at Ariste with his single good eye, and for the briefest of moments, witnessed a completely different person..
“Go, Aeo!” she said, shaking his shoulders. “Go! Don’t come back! Run for Adia and don’t stop until you cross the border, you hear me? Go!”
His feet then outran his thoughts. His feet slipped upon the snow outside the inn, but they did not stop running. And it took several minutes of running to realize that this was exactly what he wanted all along.
He would never be hit again. Never screamed at again. Never abused again, or kicked again. He would be free, for Ariste had freed him. He looked back once, to see if Harthon or Ariste had seen him make the choice. Harthon was still inside the Grey Pale, screaming. And Ariste was running out into the dark, heading in the opposite direction.
He didn’t look back. And in his mind, over and over, he thought to himself:
I’m never coming back. I’m free.
– Chapter Two –
The Shattered most often spoke to him in broken sentences. Fragments of ideas. And rarely did they provide useful commentary. But that night, as Aeo climbed the frozen Mount Falas alone, one of the Shattered—a voice he did not often hear—told him a story. A useful story.
[No one travels across the Falas Mountains during the night. Especially in the midst of torrential snow fall. Even those with a sense of urgency to cross rarely stepped foot above the treeline after sunset. No one who knows better. Whenever a traveler was said to have disappeared, it was the mighty frozen winds that were ever suspect.]
[But that was not always the case. Something sinister lives in the crags and caverns of Falas. And once upon a time, everyone within leagues of the mountain knew it.]
[Despite this, here walks a lonely figure. Shivering in the cold, blindly treading upwards and away from the village of Olvaren. A little boy. A stupid one. A sensible human being would do well to drag him back to the village, away from hypothermia and death. He wears no coat or jacket, but the rags of a slave. He wears thin leather soles, the only thing keeping his feet from the snow.]
[He’ll never make it by himself.]
“Sh-Sh-Shut up,” Aeo growled above the howling wind.
The Storyteller continued.
[There’s no going back, though. Not with the bruises on his arms. The swelling black eye. They mark him. They prove he no longer belongs at the Inn. He belongs nowhere, save walking hand-in-hand with Death. Death on his own terms. He isn’t yet aware of the choice he’s made. Either he makes it to freedom on the other side of Falas, or the Goddess will take his life from him. It truly is as simple as that.]
The frigid wind hit Aeo’s face like a thousand glass needles, and he wasn’t sure whether his toes still existed. And the moment he tried to blow warmth into his frigid fingers, the cold sapped it away in an instant.
It doesn’t matter, Aeo thought to himself. I’m not going back.
[Despite the lateness of the hour,] the voice continued in his mind. [And despite the absence of the moon, the snow reflects enough light to give the boy clarity. He started his journey on the merchant’s trail. But where that trail might have gone, the boy could no longer tell. The howling blizzard surrounding him blinds him to almost everything. Especially to any creatures that may dwell in those frozen cliffs.]
Aeo forced his own thoughts above the voice he heard in his head: how do you know these things? Are you here with me? Why aren’t you helping me?
The Storyteller did not elaborate.
[What did the merchants and soldiers used to say about the creatures of the mountain? Wolves, packs of them, roam the hills in search of prey. Long-haired bears live close to the once-thermal rivers, smart and patient enough to wait for a fish to jump upstream. Eagles with the most discerning vision make homes atop the trees, soaring down from lofty heights to catch food. And every so often, hunters—the ones that braved the trek and camping through the night—would take aim at moose and deer that lay trapped between the impenetrable tree line. All of these, partakers of the bounty of the mountain.]
[All these creatures of creation stood for symbols of the goddess Tiathys’s power. They reflected her diverse attributes of strength, cunning, endurance, and wisdom. At least, that’s what Her priests used to teach. Holy men had once spent time in Olvaren. They have since discovered themselves unwelcome, in the village and its nation. And all the inhabitants of Antiell are the worse for it.]
[For, according to tales, there used to live in these very mountains a creature. A terrible monster, perhaps the most terrible of Tiathys’s domain, and a consequence of their transgressions against Her. The monster was known as a mephandras. Standing twenty feet tall on its hind legs and terrible in temperament, the mephandras was (for lack of any other comparison) a feral wolf with bitter scales and spikes in place of fur. Its long-toothed maw could rend almost anything to pieces, be it stone, steel, or flesh. Worst of all, they wore a cruel disposition, boasting an intelligence that no other beast but man could claim.]
[The mephandras prowled the uppermost climbs of Falas, devouring every traveler that dared to climb to the top. And every few decades, when the mephandras would descend from the mountain in search of sustainance, desperation would seize upon the villagers of Olvaren and the call would sound. Hunters from all over Antiell would go forth to hunt the beast. Each was promised untold wealth and fame if they killed the creature and brought back proof of their kill.]
[Unlike every other guild call, there was no guarantee of restitution should the hunter die to the mephandras. But still they came.]
As Aeo heard these words, a wolf howled somewhere off in the distance. He ignored it, pressing on into the trees.
[Only a few short years ago,] the Shattered whispered. [A troupe of intrepid hunters lured a mephandras to its demise. A feat of unrivaled courage, and one of the few successful hunts recorded by the Guild. Though they lost a score of hunters in the process, they used cunning and forethought to entrap the beast, setting off a series of loud fireworks to herd the mighty wolf into a terrible position. Cornered by sheer cliffs and three dozen of the best hunters in the land, the beast roared in defiance. And while the ears of the hunters bled at its power, it could not escape.]
[In seconds, the deed was done: a single explosive charge placed above some hours earlier made the whole of the mountain to fall upon the unsuspecting creature. When the smoke and dust cleared, the creature lay silent and unmoving. The hunters refused to take the chance that it might wake and rend them asunder. Keeping their distance from the unconscious brute, they filled its hide with so many arrows and spearheads, they might have brought down an entire herd of elk instead. They even utilized one last explosive, placing it upon the crown of its great head and detonating it from a distance. When the smoke cleared from the explosion, the corpse’s head (as well as a large chunk of its right shoulder) was no more, become nothing more than spatter on the rock.]
[A sure kill. And at last, an end to their troubles. It took days to harvest even a portion of the creature’s oily meat, hide, and colossal bones, which were quickly promised at great value to the province’s eager merchants. A festival was held to celebrate the hunters that culled the great beast, and their triumph might have brought prosperity to everyone in turn.]
[The tale might have happily ended there. Unfortunately for the hunters, they had not performed their due diligence. They were not aware: their prey was not a lone wolf. Few are the creatures who bond more fiercely than the mephandras, and its mate was quick to realize its absence.]
Even as Aeo completely lost feeling in his fingers and toes, lost in the midst of the mountain blizzard, he couldn’t help but think: a mate? Was the first one a girl or a…?
As if in response:
[Even larger than its slain companion, and much older, the female mephandras tracked the hunters from the mountain within the space of a day. Upon the discovery of its beloved’s remains at the cliffside, Olvaren heard a single low howl from the mountain. And in mere moments, into the midst of the impromptu festival the mephandras charged, rending the hunters who had slain its mate asunder. Bereft of their weapons, they became as chaff before the female’s harvest. Dozens were torn apart in mere moments, their blood and viscera staining the driven snow. As truly a bloody banquet as the male mephandras had become… so too did that very mortal band become carrion for the crows.]
[The mephandras bucked and heaved and howled, tearing through the ramshackle buildings and storefronts of the village marketplace like a child through so many wooden blocks. The villagers of Olvaren, suddenly lacking the entire Guild’s worth of hunters, retreated to the town hall, locking themselves and their families in the cellar. To their surprise, however, the great wolf did not pursue them inside. And though it spent some minutes clawing at the ironwood doors of the hall, it soon relented. Perhaps the mephandras wasn’t interested in carnage for its own sake. It returned to the bones and partially-dried pelt of its beloved in the village square, where it proceeded to sorrow and mourn quite violently.]
[Every pitiful counterattack the villagers attempted did nothing to steal the creature’s attention. And though countless arrows were fired from the roof of the hall, none found purchase into this great queen’s hide. For three days and three nights, the creature continued to mourn, howling and raving in utter despair. And for three days and nights, the villagers dared not leave the safety of the hall. When the mephandras finally became too tired to continue grieving, it took the largest of its mate’s unmarred bones in its mouth and dragged it away, quietly departing. Where it wandered, no hunter remained to hunt it, and no villager cared to follow.]
[The mournful beast never returned for the remainder of the now-frozen carcass. What spoils remained barely covered the costs necessary to repair the damage wrought to the village. Few survived the mephandras’s slaughter, and those that did never hunted again.]
Aeo had long since stopped paying attention. In fact, he couldn’t focus on much of anything, as there was nothing to focus on. He had passed beyond the treeline, and all he could see was cast in white and gray.There was no road, no trail, no landmarks that he could identify. Only the frozen mountain lie before his feet, each step he took plowing through two feet of crunchy, long-fallen snow.
The Storyteller concluded its tale:
[Perhaps a decade or so has passed since that time. But the scars of that hunt linger on. The boy himself had seen the beast’s claw marks carved quite clearly on the door frame of the old hall, during his supervised walks with his master. And while hunters are still hired to hunt mephandras every few years, not a hide nor hair of one has been spotted for a decade.]
The singular voice then became a series of voices, all commenting at once:
[Perhaps the mephandras are all gone. Perhaps Falas is no longer as dangerous as the hunters all claim. Perhaps the female mephandras will find the boy. Devour him. Put him out of his misery. Perhaps it would let the boy ride on its back and carry him over the mountain to freedom. Wouldn’t that be something? Why would it do that?]
The boy raised his hands to his face. He couldn’t feel a thing. His teeth had long since passed chattering. Every step he took was uncertain, since he’d long lost feeling in his legs.
I’m not going back. I’m not going back.
[Then you will share the hunters’ fate,] whispered the Storyteller, and the voice fell silent.
A howl echoed across the snow, just barely audible above the frigid wind. The boy didn’t hear it, as the cold consumed his awareness. Then a second howl cried out much louder to the boy’s right side. This snapped him out of his frozen trance, and for the first time in several hours, the boy’s feet stopped walking. The world didn’t seem to stop with him.
He waited. He watched the few fir trees dance back and forth, the giant snowflakes falling in large clumps as stars from the sky. Something watched him in the trees. He didn’t know how, but he knew it. Or maybe delirium had set in.
A shadow passed between the cliffs, perhaps fifty yards away. Too dark to tell. The boy wasn’t afraid. His fear had frozen away. He simply stood like a pole buried in dirt. His eyes felt tired, somehow burning when the rest of his body solidified. He’d been climbing for such a long time. Perhaps the shadow would let him sleep.
It approached. The image of a wolf. A mephandras. It had to be. Its jagged fur, locked between interlocking plates of hard chitin, whipped in the wind, and its deep-throated growl echoed wide across the snow.
The thought repeated until the last: I’m not going back.
The rigid boy suddenly felt a terrible weight. His knees could no longer sustain themselves. He felt the world spin, and its frigid surface collided with him. The snow gave way for him as if he belonged there all along. His perception darkened to match the night sky. Just before he allowed himself to fade away, an unfocused collection of thoughts wedged themselves in his mind’s eye.
Fur. Scales. Teeth. And, for some reason, a man with dark eyes.
– Chapter Three –
A burning sun. Gentle, terrible. And yet absent. Non-existent.
Aeo reached up in his dreams, to feel the heat of the sun on his skin. He could see it with his eyes, and it looked ready and willing to warm him. Yes, the sun wanted to fall upon him and give him comfort, yet none came. Instead, he froze. He cast his eyes downwards, and found his lower half sealed within three feet of solid ice. As if he’d been cast in marble, it suffocated him. He tried to claw his way into the sky, yearning to reach the light, but it remained distant.
And then the dream ended. The sun was gone. The ice was gone. And in its place, a terrible thought arose in the mind of the frozen boy.
<He would have died alone.>
“I know. He’s lucky you were out there.”
It sounded like the Shattered did. Except someone was responding to it, out loud. Someone else could hear the voice. Another thought arose in Aeo’s waking mind.
<I would save him from his pitiful existence and devour him now.>
“No,” said a voice. Rough, with a slight accent. “As I told you before, Adians are for scaring, not eating. Especially not a child, for Goddess’s sake. That’s why I’m here, tending your herd and making your meals, remember?”
A third message crossed his mind.
<Food is not your purpose, Teacher. Besides, your food is terrible, and you know it. My child would benefit from fresh meat.>
“It is not terrible! Look, Pick isn’t eating the poor boy either, and that’s final. Besides, look at him; he’s all skin and bones, you’d be picking him out of your teeth for a week. Come now, the stew is almost done.” The voice became one of slightly mockery, adding with a lilted tone: “You’d like it if you tried it.”
A great beast snorted in response. Words emerged in Aeo’s thoughts, accompanied with the unmistakable sensation of disgust:
<I do not eat fungus.>
The boy felt fur beneath his fingertips, the weight of a thick blanket covering him. Behind his head, an enormous pillow made of thick hide. The smell of roasting meat and smokey pine wood filled his lungs, invigorating him.
Besides his surroundings, his body feltvery wrong. Utterly drained and frigid, he didn’t have the strength to even raise a finger. He tried opening his eyes, but even gentle fire light proved too much to handle. He couldn’t feel his toes, only that something was pressing against the bottoms of his feet and making them tingle. He was unsure if this was a good sensation or not.
But he wasn’t dead. Not yet.
A strange concept then emerged in the boy’s mind, one he had no reason to form on his own. A mental image, or a series of concepts, that he had little choice but to contemplate:
<A large dog’s tongue lapping against a human face.>
The gruff, accented voice responded to the thought as if Aeo wasn’t the only one who could “hear” it.
“If you mean to eat him,” said the man with quiet resolve. “Then absolutely not. But if you mean to be his friend, then… I suppose. Lay next to him, warm him up a little. But let the poor boy sleep for a while longer, would you please? He needs rest.”
A monster then approached Aeo. Large enough to block the light, and heavy enough to make the ground beneath slightly tremble. Its footfalls tip-tapped and click-clacked across stony dirt, and a great body came to rest against the boy’s side. Worse, a large weight then settled across his legs, and the smell of a wet dog sank deep into his nose. The boy tried to open his eyes wide, and a face came into a blurry view.
A face? No. What made the boy think it was a face? Not a human face, certainly. A dog’s face. Or was it a wolf? It was too big to be a wolf’s face. The boy thought it a matter of fact that wolves do not grow to such sizes. The head of this wolf lay as large as an apple crate, as large as a hound should be by itself. A great black nose sniffed at the air like bellows, its gray-and-brown muzzle sinking deep into the fur blanket across the boy’s lap. Bright reflective eyes darted to and fro to other points of interest in the room, as if the dog had the intelligence to watch the room as a human might. As the boy strained to lift his head, he saw a pair of furry ears rotating to hear the myriad of homemade noises and the crackling of a campfire.
The wolf growled as if tired. The low vibrations shook the boy’s bones. His fear may have been frozen before, but like the rest of him, it was beginning to thaw. Try as he might to still his timid voice, he couldn’t help a small squeak of panic.
That’s when the wolf’s closest eye quickly switched upon him. The whole head rose and cocked to one side, and a thought arose in the boy’s mind:
<A human rising from bed and smiling.>
The boy did not feel like smiling, though rising from his bed and screaming had certainly crossed his mind. The gruff man’s voice then called out from the opposite side of the cavern, as if alerted by the thought in the boy’s mind.
“Are you sure, Pick? Is he awake?”
The wolf bent his great head down, sniffing at the boy. Though the stale and humid dog-breath might well have been a violent hiss of steam, it growled and yelped a quiet affirmative. Then, Aeo’s worst fear came to pass: the wolf’s tongue emerged, shoving the boy’s red hair with a single terrible lick. The wolf was tasting him! The boy wanted to lift his arms to fight against it, but they remained uselessly at his side.
“Ah, he is awake!”
A dark figure appeared in place of the firelight, standing tall above the boy. Though Aeo’s sight remained blurry, the man’s form was recognizable enough. Not a wolf: a man. The man knelt down before him, resting his hand on Aeo’s forehead. He then touched Aeo’s nose. Then his ears.
“Hmm. Well, look at you. Looks like you’re not an ice cube.”
At this moment, the boy realized he was still shivering terribly. He opened his mouth, and the cold of the mountain fell out of it.
“Wh-Wh… whe… wh-where…”
“Now, now, boy. It’s all right. No need to worry yourself. You’re safe.”
The man came forward and sat himself down at the boy’s side, shoving the giant wolf’s head away from Aeo’s lap in the process. Not only did the wolf not straight away devour the man in response, the wolf simply grunted in protest, stepping over to the boy’s opposite side. It then laid its great body down and placed its head across the boy’s legs. Though it was obviously nothing more than a large wolf, its eyes kept staring at Aeo intently, like it knew something he didn’t. Its paws gently dug into the fur blanket as the wolf watched him with all the patience of a newborn puppy.
Aeo had no idea what to make of the man. He dressed like a scholar or a teacher, in fine trousers, a loose-fitting doublet, and a thin leather jacket with a wide tan collar. He wore thin spectacles that added to his years, the years that his freshly-shaven complexion removed. He didn’t seem at all like the hardy specimen of manhood that life this high up a mountain demanded. The sharpness of his countenance reflected something foreign, though from where Aeo had no clue. His accent, though different, was frustratingly plain, providing no further hint.
“By the Goddess, I can’t believe you decided to climb Falas in a blizzard like this,” the man said. “You must have been running away from something pretty dangerous to come this far up the mountain by yourself.”
The man placed a hand on the boy’s face, just above his left eye. Aeo immediately felt pulsing pain, the black-and-blue remnant of anger no doubt dominating his face.
“I’m guessing you didn’t do this to yourself.”
A thought rose in the boy’s mind.
<The color purple. A human falling out of a pine tree.>
“Yes, Pick,” the man said to the wolf, petting the wolf’s wet nose. “I’m… sure it was something like that.”
Aeo stared all the more: the man could “hear” the thoughts too. The man noticed and smiled, pointing to his temple.
“I’m sure you’ve never heard someone else’s thoughts before, have you?” The man placed a hand on the wolf’s nose. “Apologies. I suppose we should introduce ourselves. My name is Leon. This is Pick. His mama Shera was the one that rescued you from the cold. You’ll meet her when she returns. Welcome to our cozy little cave on the mountain.”
Pick gurgled and licked the fur blanket.
<A human boy petting a wolf’s head.>
Leon laughed at the thought.
“Yes, you little scoundrel, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Leon leaned over to ruffle Pick’s thick coat. “I’m sure you’ll be great friends. Give it time, the boy’s been through a lot.”
“Wh-why… Why d-does…”
Leon waited patiently.
“H-he… talk… in m-my head?”
“I’ll be honest,” Leon answered with a sigh. “I don’t know. It’s curious, though, isn’t it? Mephandras pups are something else.”
Aeo’s jaw dropped open. The wolf wasn’t just a wolf. It was a mephandras. The monster. The Storyteller had actually told him the truth.
“I’ve actually tested a few things,” Leon continued. “Did you know you can hear Pick from about a kilometer away? And his mama Shera? You can hear her as far away as Olvaren if you know she’s speaking to you. Amazing, isn’t it? And perhaps a bit scary. When mephandras grow up, they learn to whisper, too, so you’re the only one who can hear them. Young pups don’t quite know how to whisper, of course. And the images Pick uses tend to get a bit, eh… lost in translation at times. It takes some practice to understand you, huh, Little Runt?”
Pick blinked a few times and started to pant.
<The color green. A wolf howling.>
“That’s right,” said Leon with a chuckle. “It’s fun to talk.”
It was as if someone else were forcing Aeo to think of every green object he could recall, from moss and oak leaves to the green tunics the hunters sometimes wore. Though the sensation was unnerving, it was decidedly… good? At least, he felt positive when he contemplated the color. That alone added to Aeo’s confusion, and he blinked to make the green thoughts fade.
Aeo attempted to ask: “Wh-What… d…does… g-green…?”
“I believe that means he’s happy,” said Leon. “Green is Pick’s favorite color, after all. So when he howls, or talks, it makes him happy. Am I right, Pick?”
Pick let out a small airy howl, and Leon patted his head with a grin.
“All right, now. To business.” Leon bent forward, reaching under the blankets and lifting the boy’s arm. As Leon grasped Aeo’s hand, the warmth of it made his skin burn. “You can feel my hand? Does it hurt?”
“Hmm, still cold. I’ll get you a couple warming pads for your fingers. At least you managed to keep them warmer than your toes. How about them? Can you feel the heat down there?”
The muscles felt tense and sore. But the fur blanket slowly wiggled back and forth.
“All right. Try not to move them too much right now. I’m sorry to say you’ve got a rather textbook case of frostbite there. They’ve started to turn a might purple. Your ears, too. It’ll take some time for the right color to return.”
Leon peeled the fur blanket back, and lifted a rubber bottle from the boy’s chest, testing its temperature. So that was the source of the weight.
“P-Purple?” the boy whispered frightfully.
“Oh, only slightly,” said Leon almost too quickly. “Nothing time can’t make better. I’ll go refill a couple of these bottles in a few minutes. In the meantime, just relax. The food is almost done, and there’s nothing better for healing than a full belly. I’ll even leave Pick right here to make sure you stay toasty warm.” He pat Pick’s ears. “Can you do that for me, Runt? Keep him warm?”
<The color green. A bright fire in a circle of rocks.>
“Ha, good. Just don’t light him on fire, all right?”
Pick let out a series of grunts that sounded like dull laughter. Leon lifted himself but stopped midway.
“Oh, before I tend to the stew… I imagine you have a name?”
The boy cleared his throat.
“Aeo, s-sir,” he said.
“Aeo. Very good.”
Pick gave a soft moan, staring at Aeo with an almost curious canine grin. And once again, Aeo couldn’t help but think of grass.
– Chapter Four-
With food, water, 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. He didn’t really know what he had eaten; it appeared to be a bowl of brown and purple lumps, all meat and fungus, stewed in a thick sauce. He slurped it down, anticipating the worst.
That’s when he realized it: despite the texture, the inexplicable stew was the most savory and delicious meal he’d ever eaten in his life.
The Storyteller had been wrong. He survived. Not only did the mephandras not eat him, it had saved him. Though it certainly sounded like it wanted to eat him! Well, not an “it.” A “she,” like in the Storyteller’s story. Was it the same creature? The mate of the dead mephandras? He might have asked, but the wolf didn’t return to the cave before he fell asleep.
A strange dream swirled in his head. It was different than his dreams of the sun. He dreamed he stood at the top of the mountain. Even as he gazed upon his distant homeland beyond the summit, something chased after him. He heard the violent barking of hounds, the shouts of hunters calling after him. Hired by Harthon, no doubt. He cast his gaze backwards, and saw them in the distance, dozens of angry men with spears and bows racing towards him from the broken treeline. They were chasing him, yet he felt no anxiety; they were miles away. Instead, he looked beyond the summit to the wide dunes and deserts of Adia. Strange. The merchants that traveled the pass never mentioned how close to the mountain his homeland lay.
Without a second thought, Aeo raised his foot into the airy dark and allowed himself to plummet down the snowy cliffs. Gravity could not hurt him in his dreams, and it felt natural to fall into Adia’s embrace. He flew, weightless, just inches from the crags, soaring at the speed of an eagle’s dive. He could no longer hear the dogs or the men following him, just the sound of rushing wind cascading past his face.
The snowy ground approached quickly. Aeo tried his best to pull up, or maneuver to the side to avoid it. But nothing worked. He could not fly, not really. And just before he collided with the rocks and ice…
He woke up.
That strange morning, he quickly realized that he wasn’t sleeping in a cot in his tiny closet in the Gray Pale. His sore muscles and the dull aching behind his eye were quick to remind him that he was sleeping instead inside an unfamiliar cavern. And though he still felt the dull tingle of frostbite in his ears and toes, the heavy fur blankets on top of him were luxuriously warm.
Aeo tugged at his arms to rub his eyes. Heavy weights stopped them from rising, weights that were no longer warm.
Oh. Water bottles. Right.
With some effort, he hauled an arm out from beneath the pair of bottles, and wiped his eye. Pain shot from his face at the slightest touch—the bruise. He was tired. Very tired. His body was useless, but his mind was painfully clear and active. Not to mention more than a little nervous. Finally able to move his head about without discomfort, Aeo looked to his left, towards the direction of the campfire. 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 from the thoughts Pick forced into his head. Or could he? Maybe he was still young, like a little kid? He hadn’t hesitated at all to place his head in Aeo’s lap like an adorable puppy.
Where was the man named Leon? Oh, there, sleeping on a makeshift cot set into an alcove in the cavern wall.
Aeo sighed, trying to relax as he examined his surroundings. His bed lay against the slope of a very wide cavern. The purposefully-flat stone floor gently curved into the walls, though whether it had been formed with tools or time, Aeo couldn’t tell. The cave walls themselves weren’t nearly as orderly. Nooks, cracks, and crannies filled the four oblong walls, dozens of them filled with unlit wax candles and small charms of varying sizes and colors. Aeo could feel the weight of the mountain’s peak above him, as the cavern’s ceiling was dotted with hundreds of small stalactites and bulbous formations of solidified silt. Ropes and fabric hung from a number of the larger stalactites; there was no sunlight outside to dry laundry, after all. Opposite of Aeo’s resting place was the entrance to the cave. From the campfire in the center of the chamber, the natural stone continued until it met a constructed wall of wooden slats sealed with mud cement. A human-sized doorway sat in the middle of the wooden wall, while a larger barn-like door with a rope-loop doorknob could open half of the wall to the blizzards outside. How the wolves might have helped in the construction of this cavernous dwelling, or whether they had at all, Aeo didn’t know. Maybe it was all the man’s doing.
A large campfire ring dominated the center of the chamber, complete with a roasting spit and a cast-iron cauldron suspended from a set of steel stilts. Nearer Leon’s sleeping place sat wooden crates and boarded boxes of all sizes, no doubt filled with foodstuffs and other such necessities. The wax candle crevasses continued along this wall. And although a few of them were lit, they did not flicker with typical flame. Instead, the flames dancing on their wicks were a shimmering violet, and each cast a strange series of dim glyphs and figures upon the stone like the shadows of a silhouette’s dance.
Magick, Aeo thought in wonder. The man knows real magick!
[Interesting,] whispered Kind, as if from a great distance.
I wish I could learn magick, Aeo thought. Then I would never be a slave again.
[Perhaps. It did not help us.]
Aeo thought: What do you mean?
[By magick, we were undone. Take care it does not undo you in turn.]
Aeo expected one of the other Shattered to chime in. But none of the other voices seemed present… or chose to remain uncharacteristically silent.
Aeo knew of magick, if only in concept. Everyone knew of the ancient practice of spellcraft and sorcery, even if very few knew how it all really worked. The hunters mistrusted it. Harthon in particular usually called magick “a bunch of Ashanti bunk,” unless he more bluntly called it “Adian trickery and bull-shite.” Aeo didn’t truly know why; it didn’t seem like magick belonged to any nation in particular. In fact, every so often, traveling magicians would wander into Olvaren and offer their talents as entertainment for a few coins and a place to spend the night. Some of these men and women would come from as far south as Ladonis, and as far east as San’drael. None of these were ever from Adia, though; slaves were entirely forbidden from practicing the arts. Sure, many were probably phony, their magickal “talents” nothing more than clever cards tricks and sleight of hand. But every so often, these magicians would prove themselves the genuine article. They would make candlelights flicker different colors, or make smoke billow from a hunter’s ears, or make a child’s voice sound like a hiccuping chipmunk. Or, just like the violet candles hanging from the cave wall, their magick would increase and stabilize the temperature of a cold room.
The only time honest-to-goodness wizards came to town was during the hunts. Unlike the good-natured magicians, these practitioners of magick did not perform for children, nor did they come cheap. Trained at the Academy in San’doria, the Guild hired them for their invaluable abilities: paired begrudgingly with the hunters, they studied the habits of beasts and their migration patterns, learned their methods of stalking, and created strange enchantments and alchemical implements. They could start bonfires with the flick of a wrist, read people’s thoughts, and even turn lead into gold as payment for housing and food.
At least… supposedly. Aeo had never actually seen any of these things done, especially turning lead to gold, and he didn’t know anyone who had. Neither had Harthon, hence the “Ashanti bunk” and “Adian bull-shite.” Aeo had wished countless times that he could turn dirt into gold. He could have bought his own freedom with just a handful of gold dust and avoid a lifetime of misery all at once.
He laid back, fumbling his arm back underneath the water bottles that leaned against his side.
What to do now, he thought to himself. Maybe Leon could take me to Adia.
He expected sharp criticism from Mean. But his thoughts remained oddly quiet, save for a single concern:
Wait. Will Leon make me go back? 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 just like his dream, he’d fall down the other side until he reached the desert beyond.
I won’t let him take me back. I’m never going back! Even if I freeze to death, I don’t care!
“…all the way up the mountain by himself, you know! Stunning! Such bravery!”
“I know, Mama! I wanna see him!”
The massive wooden door of the cave suddenly creaked as if something were pushing against it. And Aeo jumped at the sound. His hearing focused. At first he could hear nothing beyond the roar of the endless wind outside, but then his stomach turned. Someone was out there. Multiple someones.
The door opened. The human door, in fact.
“Hush, now, little darling! Hush!”
Aeo’s eyes widened. It was no giant wolf who stepped through the door, nor was it anything resembling a human being. Instead, two round creatures came hopping into the room like a pair of springy, leather-padded kickballs. One of the creatures, the largest one, scanned the room for a moment with its big spotty black eyes, hopping further on all fours inside like a frog. Behind it, the smaller round frog bounded towards the campfire, full of energy and speaking rather loudly.
“Where is the leet-il hoo-maan, Mama?”
The bigger frog turned and put a webbed finger to her wide green lips.
“Hush, little toad,” she said. “You’ll wake all the sleeping folk!”
“But I aw-weady woke She-wa,” whined the round little thing.
“I am well aware,” the older frog whispered. “And I’m surprised Shera didn’t gobble you up!”
The more Aeo listened to the older creature, the more she sounded like a right and proper lady. Lady-frog? No burbling, or croaking, or frothing at the mouth, as Aeo might imagine a frog speaking Antielli words. In comparison, the adorable little frog beside her seemed to have a bit of difficulty with vowels.
“Oh yes, the poor dear is still sleeping,” whispered the older frog. “Good good good. 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.”
“Uh-oh. Twuh-ble. Twuh-ble’s no good.”
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, as if in quiet contemplation. Then the frog leaned back as if gathering air. A lot of it, like a balloon inflating of its own accord. Then, at the apex of her inhale, something in the frog’s throat clicked quite audibly. All at once, the frog then belched loud and long, her mouth erupting in a bright errant flame. The thick, super-heated substance that emerged from the rotund creature was more than just flame, instantly igniting the moment it caught the open air. In less than three seconds, the frog’s excretions brought the campfire to a roaring consistency.
Aeo, for his part, nearly cried out loud; he’d never seen something sound so disgusting and yet appear so mesmerizing.
“Ah, there we go,” the frog said, wiping her lips clean with the back of her hand. “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 elder frog then shed and placed upon the ground close to the fire. Beneath the coat was the thin and petite form of a bipedal frog. She walked on two webbed feet as gracefully as any human, though she often dropped to all fours to hop about. The frog wore a tight dress of a strange dazzling multi-colored material, and her green skin glistened in the bright firelight. She certainly had the wide mouth of a frog, with thick pale whiskers sticking out the sides that added a curious wisdom to the wrinkles of her face. She stood about a foot and a half from the ground, maybe two when she stretched.
The little one named Heem stood half the elder’s height, a mirror copy of the frog in both color and poise. Now also removed of her thick coat, she hopped slowly towards Leon. Seeing him still fast asleep beneath the purple candles, she then hopped closer to Aeo. This made him pull his feet away by instinct, which caused Heem to jump three feet into the air and shout in surprise.
“Mama! Mama!” Heem cried. “Monster! Monster!”
“Oh! Oh my!” the elder frog turned to see Aeo watching them, clapping her webbed hands in surprise. “My poor boy! 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. He didn’t dare do anything.
The frog-lady jumped close to Aeo, kneeling before his head. The little frog named Heem huddled tightly behind the older, watching Aeo with great big black eyes.
“Hello!” said the older frog with a cheerful wave. “My name is Hala, my dear! Pleased to make your acquaintance!”
“H-Hi,” Aeo squeaked.
“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 up here! Of course, Shera had to drag you some of the way. It’s a miracle she decided to bring you up here at all! She told us she was searching for bighorns out of the treeline ridge when she saw a little human 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 kind of her?”
“Oh, yes,” Hala sighed, bending down into a squat in front of Aeo. “I’m afraid she does that quite often these days. Only to keep us all safe from the nasty critters that roam the mountain, of course. The poor dear’s been tending to the bighorns all night long. She usually sleeps in this cave with Leon and Pick, but for some reason last night she decided to sleep in the barn! Isn’t that funny?”
Aeo decided it was not.
“The hoo-maan a-wake?”
Heem then approached Aeo’s face, examining him closely. Though made of the same shimmering material, she instead wore a thin tunic and waist skirt that provided much more dexterity. She folded her green little arms, licking her lips in disapproval.
“The hoo-maan isn’t leet-il,” she said, pointing. “He’s biiiig.”
“Well, he’s little to other humans, dear Heem,” Hala said, pinching the little frog’s cheeks. “Littler than Leon, anyway! Aeo, this is my little one. Her name 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?”
That’s when a great sneeze echoed through the cavern. In an instant, Heem’s attention turned quite dramatically to the far corner of the room. With a gasp, she cried:
Pick was indeed awake, eyeing the situation. As if anticipating her hopping onto his back, Pick let out a long whine, yawning big enough to devour the little frog if she tried. Heem didn’t seem the least bit concerned. Instead, she deftly circled the great wolf’s furry head and climbed up Pick’s neck to sit on his back.
“Hi, you big floo-fie puppy!” Heem cried.
“Good to see you up, Little Runt!” Hala said with a wide smile. “Sleep well, did you?”
Pick growled and blinked. Despite the tiny frog hopping on his back, he managed to look almost bored. But then his gaze passed to Aeo.
<The color blue. A human jumping up and down.>
Aeo tried very hard not to think of the color of the sky as he looked down at his toes.
“What… are you saying?” he asked.
“Oh,” Hala said with a chuckle. “I believe he wants to know if you’re well enough to be on your feet! Oh Pick, I’m afraid he won’t be on his toes for a bit longer. Frostbite is no little thing, after all!”
Aeo tried to wiggle them beneath the fur blankets. They felt inflamed. Painful, even, though no longer frozen.
“I don’t… I dunno,” he said finally.
“Don’t you worry, my boy,” Hala said. “Leon and I will take care of everything you need while you heal. 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!” She turned back to Aeo. “Perhaps if someone could carry you there, young man, the warm water might do you some good.”
A gruff voice then rose to fill the cave.
“Where do you think the water bottles come from?”
“Oh dear,” said Hala, clearing her throat. “Well, 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. He lifted himself to sit. Curiously, he wore a loose-fitting pair of stained trousers that didn’t seem to fit his thin legs. His chest was bare; for someone of higher status, he appeared as oddly thin as Aeo himself. “But I’m glad. I have a lot of work to attend to 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… even blowing yourself up with those glass pipes and jars of yours!”
“It’s nothing you need to worry yourself about, Hala,” Leon replied. “Everything I do is perfectly safe. I’m simply studying the plants and rocks around the spring.” He paused. “Nothing in the least bit explosive.”
“Hmm-um,” said Hala, tapping the floor with her foot. “You mean it isn’t anymore!”
Leon’s lips curled into a mischevious grin for a split second.
“Of course.” He looked over at the boy. “How are you feeling this morning, Aeo?”
Aeo shrugged, a challenge beneath his weighty blankets.
“I’m cold, sir,” he answered honestly.
“Oh, I’m sure. Thank you for starting the fire back up, Hala, that was very kind of you. I’ll refill those rubber bottles for you shortly, Aeo. That should help.”
As he lifted himself from his cot, Hala hopped up.
“Not a problem at all, Mister Sire-Loo!” said Hala. “I’m more than happy to help this young man get 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 our turn to clean the hot springs today. You promised you would help me scrape off all the algae near the entrance, remember?”
“Waaah!” cried Heem immediately, kicking her feet and pounding Pick’s back with her fists. “But I wanna stay with Pick! I never git tooo!”
This time, Aeo was certain he could see irritation in Pick’s eyes.
“Pick has other duties, Heem,” Hala said, snapping her fingers at her little one. “Like taking care of Aeo while Leon is working! Don’t make me hop up on Pick’s head to get you!”
Aeo decided it was difficult to make out individual emotions on the frogs’ faces without hearing their words. But Heem’s expressions most certainly changed from outrage to sadness and then quiet acceptance within the space of a few seconds.
“Yes, Mama,” she quietly moaned.
The little frog hopped off of Pick’s back and made her way back to the campfire, gingerly putting on her spherical leather coat. Hala did the same.
“It’s so wonderful to have you here with us, Aeo!” she said, quite excited. “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 humans living here on the summit, 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.
“There’s no need, Hala, thank you,” Leon said as he buttoned up a long-sleeved shirt he’d produced from a small crevasse in the wall. “I’ll manage it.”
“If you’re sure, dear!” she said, her round form hopping towards the door. “I’ll see you later, Leon! Aeo! Pick!”
“Bye, Pick! And hoo-maans!” said Heem.
Both little frogs then disappeared through the door before closing it shut behind them.
“Such an fascinating woman,” Leon said with a laugh, folding his arms against the slight chill in the cave. “And 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 snarling at a frog.>
“Oh, don’t be annoyed at her, Little Runt,” Leon said. “You know Heem loves you more than life itself. Don’t you?”
Pick growled once and laid back down on his fur blankets.
Aeo closed his eyes, lost in an odd sense of astonishment. Magick, talking frogs, and hearing the thoughts of wolves. Life was quickly losing sense. And he honestly preferred it stay that way.
– Chapter Five-
Fifteen minutes later, Leon returned from the blizzard outside bearing an armful of steaming rubber bottles, all filled with brand-new spring water. Aeo’s muscles felt like melted butter beneath their wonderful warmth. Leon even placed rubber bottles on the sides of his head to keep his ears warm; he hadn’t realized just how achingly cold they’d been until he did. He didn’t even bother to move when Pick came to lick his face again, soaking his cheek in wet slobber.
<The color green. A human hugging a wolf’s head.>
“Uh…” Aeo whispered, forced to think of oak leaves again. “Y-Yeah… good boy.”
“Pick,” said Leon. “Can you go get Shera for me? Go watch the bighorners for her for a few moments. Tell her I need her advice.”
Pick’s head drooped down low, and his nose nuzzled up against Aeo’s side as he quietly whined. Leon chuckled.
“It’s all right, Runt, Aeo’s not going anywhere. I’ll be working all day, and you’ll have plenty of time to get to know each other. I just need to speak with him and Shera for a while. Please?”
Pick’s shoulders visibly sunk, but he lifted himself on all fours and headed for the door. Standing, the wolf pup stood a little taller perhaps than a full-grown lion, and Aeo wondered to himself how much growing the pup had left. Aeo expected the cold air from outside to blast into the cave as Pick pressed his weight against the door. But to his surprise, the temperature of the room hardly changed at all (and not just because he was being smothered by thermal rubber bottles). Pick closed the door shut behind him with the latch in his mouth.
“All right, young man,” Leon said, sitting on the stone floor beside Aeo. “I was hoping we could talk. Now that you’re not frozen solid.”
Aeo frowned. Might as well make his intentions plain.
“You’re… not going to make me go back to the village, are you, sir?”
Leon folded his hands in his lap and leaned forwards.
“Well, therein lies the problem,” he said. He gave the boy an assuring glance. “If you’re asking if I’m kicking you out of the cave when your frostbite heals, the answer is no. Of course not. But I wonder if you might tell me who you belong to. You came from Olvaren, no doubt. Do you have family? Friends? Anyone who might be searching for you?”
“No,” Aeo replied quickly. “No one. 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. “There aren’t many free Adians living in Olvaren these days. I imagine you might… belong to someone. I’ve visited Olvaren may times over the years, and I may have seen a few Adian children working as stable boys or innkeepers. Does this sound at all familiar?”
They both fell silent. Aeo in particular stared dead-set at his lap.
“Well,” Leon continued, stroking his rough stubble. “It isn’t my business, I suppose. But if someone was worried about you, and tried to follow you up the mountain, it could mean danger. For you. For Pick, and for Shera. For Hala, and Heem, and their family. And for myself.”
Aeo didn’t respond, casting only a passing glance at the academic.
“I’m assuming you’ve heard stories about the mephandras.”
Aeo nodded, looking up.
“I didn’t think they were real,” he said. “My mast— er, the hunters… they used to talk about them all the time. The hunts.”
“Oh yes,” Leon sighed. “The damnable hunts. Did you know the Academy at San’doria paid the bounties for the mephandras in years past? Used to be a great deal of scientific interest in their study. So few animals species are capable of communication, especially at such a high level of intellect and power.”
“I didn’t know the mephandras could talk,” Aeo said. “The hunters never said anything about that.”
“Oh, of course not,” Leon said. “It isn’t common knowledge, either. That’s because the mephandras don’t usually talk to things they consider to be their prey.”
“Prey…?” Aeo whispered. “You mean… Pick would actually eat me?”
“If Shera allowed him to,” Leon said with a shrug. He then laughed. “More like forced him to. I don’t believe he would willingly. I suspect he likes you and I too much to ever consider it. Shera herself is a different matter. If we ever demonstrated ourselves to be a threat to her or Pick, there is little question on whether she would devour us. So when you speak to her… I would appreciate it if you continued to appear as harmless as possible. Understand?”
For the first time, Leon appeared very grave, and this made Aeo’s stomach turn.
“Uh-huh,” Aeo replied quickly, nodding as his throat ran dry. “O-Of course.”
“Good,” Leon said, almost visibly relieved. “Well, it sounds like you and I have the same source for the stories. The hunters have hunted mephandras for hundreds of years, but only recently have they endangered them. Shera allows me to stay only because I have assured her that I can keep the hunters away from her and her child.” Leon stretched his arm as he spoke. “If the hunters ever discovered Shera and Pick alone here on the summit, they would almost certainly be captured or killed. I will not let that happen. And I’m hoping neither will you.”
Aeo’s jaw hung open as he contemplated Leon’s words.
“But…” Aeo whispered. “Where are the other mephandras? Aren’t there more living here? I thought the mountain was their home.”
Leon shook his head.
“It isn’t anymore. Shera and Pick are the last of the mephandras living on Falas.” Leon folded his arms and grimaced. “I have tried to convince them to leave. For their own safety. But they will not.”
“Why not?” Aeo asked.
<Because of my vow.>
The large cavern door suddenly creaked open. If Pick had appeared to be a gigantic wolf, then what stepped into the cavern made Aeo very afraid. The giant muzzle of a fully-grown mephandras passed through the doorway, followed by a veritable mountain of shimmering-ivory fur. Four massive limbs allowed the great beast to stand as high as the cave ceiling, a full fifteen feet tall. In fact, Shera had to bend a fraction to avoid skimming the stone with her pointed ears. Where Pick resembled a full-grown wolf with thick but gentle fur, any softness in Shera was covered in thick, spiked plates of chitinous armor. From the joints of her limbs to the flat portions of her skull, there was little doubt that she knew conflict and pain; wherever her armor grew, deep scars and grooves accompanied the growth.
And if it felt strange to receive images from Pick’s mind, then listening to the almost-audible words of this massive monster commanded all of Aeo’s attention as they entered his mind.
“Good morning, Shera,” Leon said, showing no fear at her sudden appearance. “I was just telling Aeo about—”
<Humans have always come very close to discovering our home. Without my kin, it is a challenge even to remain vigilant.>
At the same time as Shera’s words dominated his thoughts, he swore he could “see” the image of a mephandras in the background of his thoughts. He could “see” a dozen massive ivory creatures, all covered in chitin and fur, all surrounding a dozen more tiny wolves as their children played in the snow. One in particular stood out from the others. Smaller than most of the fully grown beasts, but playful and energetic, spots of his fur colored light blue. To see this mephandras caused Aeo to sorrow, and he didn’t know why.
Were they merely images, like Pick’s? Or were they memories? They made his head ache as muffled words, colors, sounds, smells, and sensations all fought to dominate the stage of his mind simultaneously.
“That’s right, Aeo,” Leon said, the torrent of images and thoughts visibly affecting him as well. “Shera’s kin—or what remains of them—fled Falas many years ago. But Shera stays because she must. It is her duty to protect the summit from those who would spoil it for gain.”
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.
<It is the vow I made to my mother,> said Shera. <And it is the vow she gave to hers. The vow began with the Goddess, and I swear it will not end with me.>
“The… Goddess?” Aeo asked. “You promised Tiathys?”
<Do not speak Her name, little one,> Shera said, growling. <You dishonor it.>
Leon placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder, as if in apology.
“Therein lies the problem, Aeo,” he said. “If the hunters ever find this place, Shera and Pick would be in great danger… and it is likely they will stumble upon a number of secrets that must remain hidden. That’s why I need to know if anyone will come looking for you.” He looked up at Shera. “I can’t imagine anyone would. The blizzard hasn’t ceased. His tracks are long gone, as is his scent. I should think that if anyone cared, 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.
“Considering no other humans have traveled this far without assistance,” Leon continued. “I would think it safe to assume that all is—”
Leon paused. His attention aimed squarely upon the great wolf.
“Yes, but— no, no, I think that—”
Aeo heard nothing. Were his ears plugged? He couldn’t help but shake his head.
Very slowly, something began to feel odd. The room became 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 began ringing, and a small headache entered his head through his temples. He tried to block the pain with his fingers, but they provided no comfort.
“I know you don’t like the idea of another—”
“No one will follow him. If we give it some time maybe I can—”
“I understand that, but there’s his situation to consid—”
Shera was becoming visibly agitated as Leon continued to respond to her silent conversation. At first, she kept the growling low, but soon a snarl accompanied the sound. Aeo’s heart leaped up into his throat as he remembered Leon’s words:
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 drained the man’s face of color.
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 brain 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 from the inside, making the muscles of his brow contract involuntarily. Blood rushed to his head, making the bruise around his eye unbearable.
“I… I know that,” Leon 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.
Aeo’s tongue barely obeyed him, the bursting pain traveling down his neck and spine. Aeo finally clung to Leon’s arm, but he could no longer see it. 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. “Shera, stop!”
Almost immediately, the tightness and pain on Aeo’s head faded, and fuzzy vision swam back into view. The snarl on Shera’s face disappeared, replaced with an emotionless serenity. Though she remained on her front paws, leaning forward at attention, her eyes darted away. As if the wolf could feel his thoughts and feelings, her thought-voice came clear and gentler than before.
<I am sorry. This is… difficult.>
“Difficult…?” Leon whispered, suddenly incredulous. “Shera… you weren’t protecting him.”
Shera said nothing.
“Shera! You fool, you… you could have killed him!” Leon quickly turned to Aeo, placing his hands on the boy’s temples. “We didn’t need to speak of these things in front of the boy, we could have taken this elsewhere!”
Aeo’s brow raised, then lowered in confusion. Then something clicked inside his head, like the snapping of a delicate tree branch. Instantly, his nose began to bleed, and thick drops of blood bled down his face and across his bare chest. Small droplets of blood even trickled from his ears and onto the fur blanket in his lap.
“Goddess! Hold on to me, Aeo, hold my hands! Lay down carefully, now!”
Aeo sputtered and coughed, slowly laying back down and allowing the blood to flow down his throat. Still he clung to Leon like a desperate spider, even as the man produced a handkerchief.
“Are you all right, Aeo? Can you see? Can you see me? Can you speak?” Leon said, moisture beading on his own forehead. When Aeo nodded in affirmative, Leon shouted: “Shera, this argument has already been had. You didn’t need to lash out the boy in my stead! I merely wanted your help in explaining the situation to him. Have you gone mad?”
<Forgive me. I lost myself.>
While Leon’s nose hadn’t bled like his, Leon himself looked positively terrible. He was breathing heavily, sweating as if he’d hiked all the way down the mountain and back up again. Even as Leon wiped the sweat from his mouth, Shera flicked her tail in contemplation.
<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. <I am sorry, young one. Truly. You are welcome to rest and recover. But then you must leave. I will not suffer more humans to dwell here than is necessary.>
“Shera, be reasonable,” Leon said as the great wolf walked away. “The boy cannot simply leave. Where would he go?”
<I do not care. Anywhere but here.>
Shera stepped away with a surprising grace, much more than Aeo would suspect a creature her size to possess. Just as deftly, she slammed the door behind her with a thud. And as if in response to her prompt exit, the magickal purple candles that maintained the temperature of the room suddenly blew out with an audible pop. To Aeo’s shock, the air in the cave fell to freezing in an instant.
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? The first time I met Shera, she spoke to me so strongly, she caused me to go blind for a week. It isn’t a pleasant sensation, I know.”
“I can… see,” Aeo asked quietly, his vision slowly focusing.
“Oh thank heavens,” Leon whispered, and fell quiet for a moment.
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. Dropping Leon’s handkerchief into his lap, his grip on Leon’s arm lessened. “Did I… did I make Shera mad?”
“No, you didn’t,” Leon said. He looked down at Aeo, clearing his rattled throat. “Goddess, you didn’t. She was only angry at me.”
Leon lifted himself, rolling up his sleeves and ignoring the intense chill now blowing through the cavern.
“I’m sorry, Aeo. The blame is mine, I should have known better. I had hoped she would explain to you more about the situation on the mountain, but… it conjured memories that are best left forgotten. Perhaps you witnessed some of them. I will speak to her about letting you stay. It is obvious you should not return to Olvaren.”
Leon looked down at Aeo.
“For now, just rest. I’ll have Pick come in and watch over you. Besides his friendly disposition, his mental capabilities have yet to achieve even a fraction of his mother’s power.”
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. It’s, eh, not the first time Shera and I have… conversed.”
Aeo squirmed beneath his fur blanket.
– Chapter Six-
By midday, the wind outside had become particularly vicious. Even if he couldn’t feel it beyond the magick that protected the cavern, Aeo could hear its anger quite clearly. With little else to do besides rest, Aeo laid against the back wall of cave and simply did nothing. Truly, there was a first time for everything. For the first time in years, he had nothing to clean, nothing to sweep, nothing to organize, and no orders to take.
What a strange place. Maybe not home. But I’m free here. Mostly. More free than the inn, at least.
It was odd; in this place, the Shattered did not speak to him nearly as often. He didn’t know what to think about with them gone. He thought about what he’d be doing back at the inn at that moment. Probably wiping down a table. Probably being blamed for something. Probably being hit by Harthon for something he did or didn’t do. He wondered how well his master could operate the Gray Pale without him.
[Yearning for mediocrity again,] came the predictable whisper.
“Shut up, sark,” Aeo whispered, stretching his arms. Mock me all you want. But I’m never going back.
His limbs no longer felt sore and lifeless. Quite the opposite, in fact. They longed to move something, sweep something, mop something. When his feet healed, Aeo decided, he would work for Leon and Pick. He might even work for Shera, so long as she never did… whatever that was again. What did she even do? Leon said she didn’t “protect” him. Protect him from what? His head still ached from the experience.
What would he say to Leon? He couldn’t admit to burning down the Gray Pale. He certainly couldn’t admit to being a slave, even if Leon already knew. There was no family he could return to, no friends that would miss him. No one but Harthon and Ariste. He could already imagine Harthon beating him to death for what he’d done. But there was no way his master even knew where he’d gone, or how to track him. Right? He was a hunter, and a good one, but he couldn’t have been that good. Would he send bloodhounds after him, like hunters do when tracking a wild animal? And how long would he keep searching until he gave up?
He had no idea about any of it. Aeo tiredly stopped entertaining those thoughts.
Maybe he could stay on the summit of Falas. Maybe he could live on the mountain with Leon, and the frogs, and the mephandras. He wouldn’t mind that. So long as that terrible headaches and nosebleeds stayed at a minimum, he could manage it.
The big cave door creaked. Aeo felt his heart skip a beat.
Oh no, it’s her!
In wobbled a great furry mass, which stopped halfway in the cave to shake off the light layer of snow. A pair of curious eyes then gazed at Aeo, and the furry creature growled quietly as a thought entered Aeo’s head.
<The color blue. A human boy jumping up and down.>
“Oh,” Aeo said, with slight relief, unable to think of anything but the blue sky. Fortunate, considering the thought of blue smothered his panic with the feeling of naïve hope. “Uh, hi Pick. Um, I don’t think I should walk yet. My toes still hurt.”
After closing the door with the rope, Pick practically pranced over to the corner of the room next to Aeo. He circled a couple of times in the space beside the boy, finally resting himself with a thud. His head came down across Aeo’s lap as it had before, and he whimpered a sad song as he looked up.
“It’s okay,” Aeo said, hesitantly petting Pick’s nose. “Leon said I’ll be better soon. I believe him.”
<The color green. A human boy chasing a wolf. Then a wolf chasing a human.>
“You like to run around?” Aeo asked. “Um… You like to play?”
Pick barked, a sound that made Aeo flinch from the volume.
“Ah, uh… I guess you do.”
Then the worst possible scenario occurred. Again. Pick lifted his head and did his best to lick Aeo’s face. This time, he only nearly succeeded. Aeo defended himself, receiving wolf slobber all up and down his hands and arms.
“H-Hey! Eww, d-don’t do that!”
Pick obeyed as he placed his head down again. His eyes seemed to grow distant, looking away.
<The color purple. A wolf licking a human boy.>
Aeo frowned, wiping his arms on the fur blanket. His mind grasped hold of as many purple things as it could recall, from violet flowers in the marketplace to grapes from the Gray Pale’s pantry. He also felt the distinct sensation of regret, of having wronged someone close to him.
“Wait, what? Purple means… sad? It makes you sad when you lick me?”
Pick growled and shook his head. That wasn’t it.
“Oh. Oh, you think it makes me sad?”
Pick yipped quietly.
“No, it doesn’t,” Aeo said. “It’s just… yucky, is all. The slobber.”
Pick looked up at Aeo from his lap.
<The color purple. A human den in the snow. A human boy running away from it.>
Along with the sadness of the color came the distinct sensation of fear. Somehow Pick knew he’d run away from home. Aeo’s eyes grew wide.
“No, I didn’t—” Aeo tried to slide backwards, but his back found the stone wall. He placed a hand to his lips and whispered: “Wait, you… can’t read my mind, can you?”
Pick shook up and down with airy laughter and shook his head back and forth.
“Oh. Uh, good.” He tried to shake off his nerves. “Um. Promise not to tell Leon or Shera?”
Pick nodded with a grunt.
“Yeah,” he admitted. “You’re right, I… I ran away from my home. But it was a terrible place. I didn’t belong there.”
<The color purple. A human boy falling down. A wolf howling.>
“Falling?” Aeo reached out for the bruise surrounding his eye. “Oh, no, I didn’t fall. Someone… hurt me. I ran away from them.”
Pick growled, showing his razor-sharp canines.
<The color red. A wolf chasing after a human and biting him.>
Aeo’s mind became bombarded by everything crimson, from the old Adian war banners to the sight of his own blood during the nosebleed. Then:
<The color purple. A wolf licking a human boy.>
“Yeah. Yeah, Pick. I got angry too.”
He fell silent. But something stirred inside him. Pick was correct: this wasn’t sadness. This was anger.
“I couldn’t do anything about it,” Aeo whispered. “I can never do anything right. I’m just… I’m a worthless Adian bastard. I’m useless, I’m lazy, I’m good-for-nothing. That’s what he told me. Every day. Every day!”
Aeo threw his fist in his lap and felt tears coming to his eyes. He couldn’t stop the words from coming.
“I started a fire, Pick. A big one. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted my master to stop hurting me. I knew the fire would make it go away, and I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted it to get bigger and bigger, and make it all just disappear!”
Pick whined and drew his head closer to Aeo’s chest.
<The color purple. A small fire spreading to a human den.>
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Aeo whined. “It was an accident! But it doesn’t matter, he’d never believe me. He’d never believe I didn’t light it on purpose just to make him pay. It started really small at first. And I thought it burned my hand. But it didn’t. It didn’t hurt me. And it just kept burning. When they tried to put it out with water, it just burned brighter and brighter.”
Pick watched him silently.
“Even though the fire was burning, my master hurt me anyway. He threw me, and… this happened.” Aeo pointed to his face. “He threw me out, and said he was gonna kill me. So I ran away. I hope the inn burned down. I hope Harthon is stuck in the cold like me. And I hope he’s angry, because he can’t do anything about it, just like me! I’m never going back there. No one’s going to make me. I hope Harthon freezes to death trying to find me!”
Aeo squeezed his eyes shut. He’d never been able to say such things out loud. He realized his voice had been echoing against the stone walls of the cave. Everything fell quiet save for the howling of the wind outside. Pick simply watched patiently as Aeo regained his composure.
Aeo raised his hand and passed it over the soft fur on Pick’s head.
“I’m sorry,” Aeo said quietly. “I didn’t mean to yell.”
Pick lifted his head a bit.
<The color green. An image of a small wolf with two large wolves beside it.>
“Two wolves? What do you mean?”
<The color purple. The two large wolves licking the smaller wolf and howling.>
Aeo’s shoulders fell. Parents. The thought hadn’t occurred to him in a long time. The only two “wolves” in his life either didn’t care he existed or beat him on a daily basis.
“A… Mama and Papa.” Aeo shrugged. “I don’t have any.”
“I don’t know who my dad was. I guess I had one, but I don’t remember him. Aristé told me my mom died when I was really little. At least, I think that’s what they told me. When I was born, I lived really far away, in a place called Adia. That’s why everyone calls me an Adian, because of my hair, and my eyes. A war happened there, and when I was two years old, someone brought me to Olvaren.”
“If I had parents, I don’t think they would have hit me as much.”
Pick’s head bobbed up and down. He then started panting, and his breath filled the air.
<The color green. A large wolf licking a small wolf.>
Aeo rubbed his nose with his arm.
“Yeah,” Aeo said. “I’m glad you have a mama. She probably takes care of everything for you. She’s never mean to you, or makes you do chores. Right?”
<The color yellow. A small wolf running away from a large wolf.>
Aeo couldn’t help but think of dandelions, and feel really annoyed while doing so.
“You run away? From Shera? Oh, you mean she does make you do chores?” For the first time in a long time, Aeo chuckled. “I’m sorry. That stinks.”
“But,” Aeo said quietly, thinking. “If Shera asked me to do chores for her… I’d do them, I think. If it meant I never have to go back to the village ever again, I’d do anything for her.”
<The color green. A human boy hugging a wolf.>
“Yeah,” Aeo said. “I’ll be your friend. Absolutely. As long as it means I don’t have to live with Aristé and Harthon anymore. I’ll live with you instead, and you’ll never be mean to me. Right?”
Pick lifted his head and howled quietly at the ceiling. It then fell back down into the boy’s lap and getnly licked the boy’s arm. The young mephandras had a grin on his face, Aeo could tell.
“I’m sorry, Pick,” Aeo repeated. “I don’t want to be sad anymore. I just want to live and be happy, you know?”
<The color green. A wolf howling.>
“Promise you won’t tell Leon or Shera?”
Both of Pick’s paws rose up and covered his snout.
“Thanks,” Aeo said with a smirk.
Pick’s head rose and gave a light airy howl.
Hearing the boy through the roar of the wind wasn’t a simple thing to do. The tempest wards inside the cave were aided by the animis of the lit candles; outside, he only had his freezing bare hands and the small silver talisman he wore at his neck. Certainly not the proper tool for the job. Despite the improper focus and his great distaste for the task, however, it had to be done. Holding his left hand outwards, he gently touched the great wooden door, being cautious not to make it creak and startle the occupants inside the cave. A hazy purple glyph flickered to life between his fingers, the magickal energy distorting in the heavy mountain gale. His right hand rose to ear level and began to shimmer with a similar purple mist. Beneath his heavy Ashanti fur coat and linen tunic, the silver talisman began to heat up. It had been at least a year since he’d practiced this trick, and back then he’d had the candles to act as the foundation.
Oh well. Nothing like improvisation.
The moment his ear popped, he felt the animis begin to sap away his body heat. He knew it was working when he heard the following, reverberating through the wooden door like a distant canyon echo:
“—didn’t fall. Someone… hurt me. I ran away from—”
Keep talking, boy, Leon thought to himself, barely hearing the boy’s voice above the wind.
His hand slipped from the surface of the doorway for a moment, causing the sound he heard to scratch and warble. He gave in, allowing his hand to rest upon the door a bit firmer than he would have cared to. The door made no noise in response.
“—I started a fire, Pick. A big one. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted my master to stop hurting me. I knew the fire would make it go away, and I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted it to get bigger and bigger, and make it all just—”
A fire, Leon thought. So that was the source of the smoke column.
“I didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. At first. But he’d never believe me. He’d never beli— it on —pose just to ma—im stop. It started really small —first, and it even burn— hand, but— It didn’t hurt me. It just kept burning. When he tried to put it out with water—”
Leon’s ear popped, and a bead of sweat formed on his brow. The sound was garbled at best.
I can’t handle even this, he thought. For a few mere seconds. So pathetic.
The silver talisman was growing hot beneath his skin, like a piece of metal baked in hot sunlight. The glyphs within his fingers wavered like ripples of raindrops on a still pond, threatening to vanish entirely. Resisting the urge to grunt through the strain, he again touched the large wooden door with his left hand and held his right hand to his hooded ear.
His ear popped:
“I didn’t help them. I didn’t. I hope the inn burned down. I hope Harthon is stuck in the cold like me. I hope he’s— because he can’t do —thing about it. I’m never —ing back th— No one’s going to ma— I hope he freeze—”
With a whirr-like ping just loud enough to momentarily deafen him, the glyph in his right hand vanished, followed by a silent fading of his left. The magick was finished, and his talisman did not have sufficient animis to renew it. Desperate to keep his volume down, he tore open his coat and tore the silver from his neck. It fell into the snowdrift beside the door as steam began to billow from the small crater of snow. He then bent down and scooped up a fistful of snow, passing it underneath his shirt and pressing it against the center of his bare chest.
The burn would be worth it, for he had learned three important things. First: the boy was indeed the property of the man and woman who owned the inn at the center of Olvaren. He had observed the Adian boy and his Antielli owners before, a few months prior while gathering supplies from the trail merchants.
Milfoiek. Harthon and Ariste Milfoiek. Yes, that was their names. The simplest of slave owners.
After a decade of devastation and bloodshed, the nation of Antiell was well-deserving of divine punishment for allowing the practice of slavery to endure. In Leon’s estimation, they were simply setting themselves up for further retribution from their red-eyed neighbors. But did the woman and her detestable husband individually deserve such punishment? Did they deserve for their inn and their livelihood to go up in flames? By the sound of Aeo’s voice, perhaps they did. Under such conditions, perhaps the boy’s outburst was inevitable. Perhaps of all the things that died during the Second Adian War, Antiell might have saved themselves grief and killed slavery along the way.
Like most fools, Leon thought, they persist, and then grieve at the most sensible of consequences.
Second: the boy had started the fire that destroyed the Gray Pale Inn. Based on the size of the smoke column that rose from Olvaren the day after the boy had arrived, there was little chance that the only casualty was a single establishment. No, the conflagration must have spread to other buildings. Likely the market next door, and perhaps the town hall beyond that. He could only speculate further, as he had no intention of investigating personally. Better to remain hidden than attract any unwanted attention from hunters or San’dorian mages, especially if the fire were started through curiously arcane means.
Speaking of which, third: the boy had potential. Real potential. Leon had sensed the boy’s animis the moment he first laid eyes on him. It was strong for someone so young and so inexperienced. The boy was a spark, a potential that might consume everything it touches. Or, with proper instruction and guidance, such a spark could become a torchlight in darkness. The boy knew nothing about the ways of magick, that much was certain. He had not been raised in Ashant. Or Adia, for that matter. And the simple-minded folk that lived in places like Olvaren rarely had time for such things. Slaves, most especially.
This boy is the one I’ve been waiting for? Leon thought. Wonderful. One more piece in the puzzle that doesn’t fit.
He sighed. One more gamble. A gamble on top of gambles. Everything upon the table was untested. Unproven, and volatile. Twelve long years of questions and eight months upon a frozen mountaintop, and still everything remained so utterly hypothetical. The boy was merely the most recent complication. This was no way for a sensible man of science and magick to proceed.
Leon looked about, still pressing the ice to his burned chest. Shera was nowhere to be found; no doubt she was scouting the mountain for danger. He looked back to the wooden cavern door, and decided to leave it alone for now.
No need to bother them. There are experiments I should attend to. So many experiments.
Leon stooped down, digging through the ice for his talisman. The graven image of a diving falcon seemed undamaged, as did the small garnet gemstone that served as the falcon’s eye. Though still quite warm, Leon pocketed the talisman in his coat pocket. And for a split second, the memory of his father’s face flashed in his mind as he stepped away from the wolf den.
If only the old man knew the risks I was taking. And after all my talk of diligence and duty. He would laugh right in my face.
– Chapter Seven-
The day continued uneventfully, as thoroughly as a day can when everything is new and wonderful and yet so wonderfully dull. Wonderful, despite the very sore feet, the pulsating facial bruise, and the general exhaustion.
Pick was surprisingly easy to talk to. He didn’t seem to tire of listening to Aeo describe his life at the Gray Pale. In return, Aeo did his best to listen to Pick “speak” back to him, sometimes asking for clarification, and sometimes asking questions in his own unique way. The wolf’s mental responses were always simplistic, hazy ideas. His thoughts were more concepts and colors than solid illustrations, and almost never words. It was like communicating with a six-year-old child who could only draw pictures. When Pick’s thoughts required clarification, he would gladly and enthusiastically try. At times the thoughts would be too obscure, referencing a plant, or an animal, or an action that required paws and teeth instead of fingers and toes. These foreign abstractions were strangely refreshing to Aeo, if not utterly bewildering to have appear in his mind. It was like daydreaming completely original ideas, ones that revealed themselves from either nowhere, or deep within his own imagination. Even when Pick described the familiar hopping of a rabbit or the flight of a bird, it felt as though Pick forced Aeo’s mind to process the idea as anew, as if he’d never imagined it before. And many times, he was contemplating them for the first time, as Aeo had rarely ever been outside the inn to experience things like rain on a foggy day, or the sound of a babbling brook.
With Pick dutifully laying his head in Aeo’s lap, their long conversation drifted away into sleep as the afternoon passed by. As the dim sunlight faded from the borders of the great wooden door, the door creaked open. As it did so, Aeo awoke with a start. Pick did as well, his ears perking up. In marched the form of Leon, wrapped up tightly in a puffy mountain jacket with a great hood over his head. In his arms he carried a curiously shaped package. Or was it a curiously shaped bag? Whatever it was, he clomped his feet at the door, placed the object down before the campfire, and removed the gloves from his hands.
“Goodness, it’s coming down out there,” he said to no one in particular. He looked up at Aeo, now wearing a pair of slim-framed spectacles that truly made him look like a school teacher. “Well now, you’re sitting up in bed and everything. How are your toes?”
Pick looked up at Aeo as he answered.
“They’re itchy, sir.”
“You’re not touching them, are you?” Leon pulled off his coat.
“Good, good. I have some tonic that might help the healing process. Once you can walk, I’ll have to show you the hot springs. The cavern is filled with helpful plants and fungi that make wonderful medicines.”
Leon walked over to Aeo’s bed and knelt, placing the bag onto the floor. He unbuttoned the front flap and produced a small glass vial that contained an oily and speckled red-and-black substance. He held it up, jingled it as his eyebrows raised. He then dove back into the bag and produced a roll of cotton bandages.
Without a word, Leon lifted the fur blanket off of Aeo’s feet and examined them.
He said: “Hmm.”
What did “hmm” mean? Aeo peered over the blanket, as did Pick. His stomach sank at the sight, and Pick let out a low gutteral moan. He hadn’t actually seen his toes himself… they were worse than he’d imagined.
“Skin’s peeling a bit,” Leon said, shrugging. “To be expected. But they look more red than purple now. Certainly an improvement.”
Carefully, Leon cupped his hands over both sets of toes.
“Do you feel that?”
“Yes, sir,” Aeo said, grimacing a bit at the feeling.
“Very good, you’ve got feeling. Well, you’re itching, so of course you do. Let’s see if we can’t help that.”
Suddenly, Pick’s ears perked up again. The small door creaked open, and a tiny lonesome spherical figure hopped into the cave, shutting the door behind them. Then, a second later, the entire wooden door shuddered, and something considerably larger slowly entered. Hala and Shera. Shera’s dark eyes immediately caught Aeo’s, and then diverted away, even as Aeo’s anxiety spiked.
“Oh, hello everyone!” cried Hala. The spherical fur coat hobbled over towards the campfire, shedding itself from its host. Out stepped a foot-tall frog, cheerful as always. She was no longer clothed in a bright aquamarine dress, but a slim leather suit covered in various pockets and satchels. “My my, it’s chilly out there!”
“Evening, Hala,” Leon said. “Come on in, Shera, there’s room for all of us.”
A much gentler thought arose in Aeo’s head.
<Hello, little ones.>
Aeo’s stomach squirmed at the sight of her. He forced a small, silent wave as Pick howled. At least he was happy to see his mother.
“Aeo, it’s wonderful you’re out of bed!” Hala said excitedly. “Well, halfway out of bed, anyway! How is the frostbite coming along?”
Shera shook off the snow and closed the door, laying down in the empty corner in front of Aeo that was no doubt reserved for her. Hala stepped towards Leon and stood beside him, placing a webbed hand on his side. She gasped.
“Oh, Goddess above, it’s worse than I feared.”
<I agree,> said Shera, lowering her head to look. <What awful colors.>
“Believe me,” Leon said. “They’re in better condition than before.”
“Well!” she said excitedly. “All the more reason I’m here! Please, Leon, before you tend to those little piggies, I have a quick task for you!”
From one of her pockets Hala produced what looked to be a thin silk string. Whatever it was, it shined and reflected the firelight like a thin strand of glass. From another pocket she produced a small bit of something black like a dark pebble.
“Now, if you would, hold that end to the top of his big toe,” she said.
Leon obeyed. Hala dove down and placed the other end on his heel, making a black mark on the string with what was definitely charcoal. Aeo forced himself not to move despite the tickling sensations.
“Now the other one!”
They repeated the process with his other foot.
“Now across!” she sang, now measuring width.
“Ah, that tickles!” Aeo said, holding back his laughter. “What’s she doing?”
“I believe she’s planning on making you a pair of boots,” Leon replied as Hala hopped back up.
“Oh, don’t spoil the surprise, dear!” Hala said, playfully slapping Leon’s arm. “Well, you’re right, of course. I’m going to make sure your feetsies never have to suffer out in the cold ever again. Perhaps if I have more time, I’ll knit you a fur coat to go along with it!”
“Now, Aeo, these projects can get a bit big for Hala,” He lowered his hand as if measuring Hala, then whispered: “No pun intended.”
“Humph!” Hala said, pushing his hand away.
“But she is a wonderfully talented seamstress. She made my bedding. And my boots,” Leon said, pointing to his own feet. “And my coat. All with bighorner fleece and buckskin, provided by Shera.”
“Wait, really?” Aeo asked. “You’re gonna make me… real boots?”
“Of course!” Hala declared. “Real ones are a bit more helpful than imaginary ones!”
“But no one’s ever made anything for me before.” Aeo felt his face turn a big red. “Th-thank you, ma’am.”
“Oh, don’t thank me just yet, my dear!” Hala placed the string and the black pebble back into the pouches on her belt. “You can thank me if I do the job correctly! It’s always a challenge making clothing for great big things like yourself, and I never say no to a challenge. Now, is it feeling a bit cold in here for everyone? No? Just me? Well, I’ll just tend to the fire anyway.”
She turned towards the campfire in the center of the chamber.
“Don’t tire yourself out, Hala,” Leon said. “I can take care of—”
“Tut tut! Nonsense, you big goof! Nonsense! It’s what I’m here for. Well, the second thing I’m here for. Hah hah!”
Shera, remaining ever quiet, instinctively motioned herself closer against the cave wall, knowing what was coming. As Hala had done the morning before, the little frog leaned over the fire and proceeded to take the biggest breath Aeo had ever seen. She held it in for a moment, then lurched forward and belched a bright red flame directly from her mouth into the smoldering campfire. Along with the fire dripped a strange liquid from her wide lips that burst and crackled when it hit the ground, bringing the fire to a bright and tempered glow.
When finished, she turned to see all eyes pointed at her.
“Well,” she said, flustered. “It’s very impolite to stare.”
“In case you were wondering,” Leon said, leaning closer to Aeo. “Hala and her kind have acquired some very unique adaptations in order to stay warm. It’s quite an amazing ability. It’s also how they hunt for fish underwater. The substance they produce cooks the fish immediately, it’s quite the sight.”
“Substance!” Hala laughed at the word. “Ever the academic, Mister Sire-Loo!”
“My last name’s Sirelu, Hala,” Leon said, rolling his eyes. “’Seer-eh-loo.’ Not ‘sire-loo.’ Don’t confuse the poor boy.”
At the correction, Hala simply laughed as she tended the fire.
“Anyway,” Leon said. “As I was saying, Hala’s family live in the underwater springs and currents of Falas. They can hold their breath for hours at a time, and the unique oil they belch—” to which Hala said: “Humph, belch indeed!” “—can burn for hours at a time.”
<Pick and I are eternally indebted to them,> Shera added. <Without their assistance, we would not live nearly as comfortably as we do.>
“Oh, it’s no trouble! No trouble at all!” Hala said with a gian toothless grin. “Well, it isn’t for me. Can’t say the same my mate, Ziduf. Or his family. Or Heem, for that matter! Laziest toadies you’ll ever see! They prefer to avoid the ice and cold entirely. Rarely do they come out of the spring, the silly things.”
Leon took his time, dabbing the red substance onto the bandages and around the worst colors of Aeo’s feet. It tickled; a good sign, of course. It meant they weren’t about to turn black and fall off. As Leon worked, Aeo patted Pick on the head and looked at the purple light emanating from the candles on the opposite wall. They danced and wavered all the more apparently in the low light of the campfire, and seemed to flicker to an unseen and unfelt current of air.
“Leon, sir,” Aeo said, pointing at the candles. “What are those for?”
“Oh, those? They keep the warmth inside the cave, and keep the cold out.”
“I know. But how?”
Leon frowned at him.
“I’ve seen magicians do magick like that before. Are you a magician?”
Leon actually laughed at the title.
“Perhaps a bit more than that. Perhaps a little less. I’m a professor at the Everspring Academy in Ashant. I teach abjuration and alchemy to mid-class students.”
Both Aeo and Pick both tilted their heads. And Aeo saw an image in his mind:
<The color red. A human man producing fire from his hands.>
“Are you serious?” Aeo asked Pick. “Leon can make fire like that? You’ve seen him?”
“No, he hasn’t. I’m not nearly as talented as that. Though I suppose if I wanted to tire myself out as fast as possible, I could probably conjure up a good bonfire.” He paused, scratching his head. “I suppose I can teach you about magick. If you don’t mind a lecture, that is.”
“And oh, how Leon can lecture!” chipped Hala.
“Yes. Please, sir,” Aeo said. “I want to learn.”
“Well, all right,” Leon said. “If you insist. I suppose we’ll start with the basics, then?”
Aeo nodded, folding his hands in his lap and offering the man his full attention. Leon cleared his throat and began:
“Magick is the manipulation of the basic principles and mechanics of the world. If you want something to change, and you understand what it takes to change it, magick can make it so, as long as your will is stronger than the forces around you. With enough willpower, you can bend the rules of the world and influence any number of things. Like summoning fire, for instance, or protecting yourself from harm. Or keeping this cave the right temperature with nothing more than a few candles and the right incantations.”
“You can change anything about the world?” Aeo asked.
“Mmm,” he hummed, thinking. “Perhaps not everything. People are notoriously difficult to change, though Goddess knows countless mages have tried. Magick is best used for simple tasks. You know, things you could accomplish with your own two hands, if you had the time. Things like boiling water, lightning candles, or cooling down a hot room.”
“But mages fight with magick, right? With fire, and ice?”
“Yes, some do. Combat arts can get very complex, however, and require a source of energy all their own. It can be dangerous to fight with magick if you ignore the proper precautions. In fact, if a mage is foolish enough, they’re more likely to kill themselves with their own spells than hurt anyone else.”
“But not you, Leon,” said Hala, her voice filled with hope. “You’re no fool, I hope?”
“Why do you think I avoid fighting?” he asked. “No, mages such as myself focus on more… mundane magicks. It’s different here, of course, in Antiell. But in Ashant, where I come from, you would call a lot of magick mundane. Not a lot of battles to be fought with fire and lightning. But laundry becomes infinitely easier with magick, as you might imagine.” He grinned. “No need to waste soap when you can simply banish the stains away instead.”
He pointed to the towels hanging from the stalactites above.
“Can anyone do that?” Aeo asked. “Can anyone learn magick?”
“Oh, certainly,” the teacher answered. “And don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise. Magick is an art, like writing, or making music. Once you understand the basics, it becomes nothing more than an issue of practice and mastery. It’s a shame so few people practice magick, especially here in Antiell. The authorities in this land do not trust their own people with such power, and they don’t trust outsiders should they flaunt their talents. I’m sure you’ve seen such things yourself.”
Aeo’s eyebrows raised and nodded. No wonder Harthon hated the magicians. He never trusted what he couldn’t personally control, and magick was certainly one of those things.
“Wait, you said lightning,” Aeo asked. “Mages fight with lightning too?”
“Of course,” Leon said. “Though you channel lightning, to be specific about it. Electricity is energy, much like fire is energy, and ice is the removal of energy. In its simplest application, magick is nothing more than manipulating power, moving heat, light, or aether from one place to another.” Then, Leon raised a finger, pausing as if remembering something. “Hold that thought.”
Leon quickly stood and crossed the room, grabbing an object from one of the crevices in the cavern wall.
“Ah, here we go. Catch.”
Leon tossed the object, and though Aeo fumbled it, it fumbled right into his lap. Aeo held it up to examine it: a glass sphere, perhaps a bit bigger than Aeo’s fist, perfectly polished and readily reflecting the flickering lights in the room.
“Oh, I do love this little bauble,” Hala said, hopping up to Aeo’s side to see the sphere for herself. “How’s it work, Leon?”
An image entered Aeo’s mind:
<The color green. A bright shining star in the night sky.>
“What is it?” Aeo asked.
“It’s called a lusphere,” Leon said, retaking his seat next to the boy. “It’s the simplest application of energy I can demonstrate.” He paused. “Well? What do you suppose it does?”
“It… does something?”
“Oh yes!” Hala said. “It lights up, bright as the sun! Go ahead, Aeo, turn it on.”
Aeo’s nose wrinkled as his fingers felt the smooth surface of the glass. There were no marks or depressions of any kind on its surface, no wick that might hold a flame.
“I don’t know how,” he whispered.
“You only need to know its keyword,” Leon said. “And speak it out loud.”
“What is it?”
“Repeat after me: lu’vai.”
“Uh…” Aeo said, feeling a bit foolish. “Okay. Loo… vai?”
In a flash, the transparent orb illuminated, like an explosive going off in his hand. He let out a shout and dropped the sphere, and to his horror, the sphere rolled away towards the campfire, its luminosity filling the cavern with the brightest white light he’d ever seen.
“Whoa, careful Aeo!” Leon said with a quick laugh, reaching out his hand to the lusphere. “It may look like a simple glass ball, but it is quite an expensive trinket!”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—!”
Instead of diving for it, or even bending down to grab it, Leon simply reached out his hand. And the lusphere responded as if it had a mind of its own, rolling back up the slope of its own accord and leaping into the man’s hand. Hala cheered, and Pick let out a quick energetic howl.
“Brilliant, Leon! I love it when you do that!”
“Whoa,”Aeo whispered. “How did you do that?”
Leon gave him a look.
“How do you think?” he replied with a chuckle, holding up the lusphere. “The more important question, though: how did you turn the lusphere on?”
“I… I said the word,” Aeo answered. “Didn’t I?”
“You did. But words alone aren’t enough to create magick.” Leon whispered: “Lu’kah.” The bright white light within the glass sphere faded, returning to its previous inactive state. He then held out the sphere to Hala, much to her confusion. “Here you are, Hala. Why don’t you give it a try?”
“What?” she gasped, taking the lusphere with two webbed hands. “But I can’t do magick!”
“You never know until you try,” Leon said with a wink.
“Well, I—” She rolled the sphere about as if trying to find an activation switch herself. “Hmm! There really is no other way to turn it on, is there? Eh, what was that word again?”
“Lu’vai,” Leon said.
“Ah, right, okay then.” Hala cleared her mighty throat and held the orb in the air. “Here I go! Loo-vai!”
Aeo waited. Leon waited. Hala waited too, her eyes squeezed shut in anticipation of bright white light. But nothing happened. A single eye squinted at the orb, immediately frowning at it.
“Hmm? Loo-vai?” Hala then gently shook the sphere. “Loo-vai, you silly thing! Why isn’t it working?”
“Why, indeed,” Leon said. He gestured. “Give it to Aeo. Let’s see if he can tell the difference.”
“Well, aren’t you two just special,” she said with a sigh, handing the orb to Aeo.
“Not me, Hala,” Leon said. “The only difference between you and me is that I understand mechanically how a lusphere works. Aeo is the special one here.”
“Huh? What do you mean?” Hala asked.
“The word ‘lu’vai’ is Ashanti,” Leon said. “It means: ‘become active,’ or ‘turn on.’ When you spoke the word, Aeo, you gave the lusphere permission to access the power inside you. It is a power that neither Hala nor I possess, not by ourselves.”
Leon then produced a small trinket from underneath his shirt. Hanging from his neck was a leather necklace, adorned with a small silver charm in the shape of a diving falcon.
“See this?” Leon asked, slowly showing the necklace to everyone. “This is my spell-focus. It was a gift from my father, when I graduated from the Academy. You see the small gemstone in the falcon’s eye? That gemstone is no ordinary rock. It is crystallized aether, taken from the Everspring Well at the Academy. Without that crystal, I would be hard-pressed to perform even the most simple of magicks. I would be rather useless.”
<You require a source of power beyond yourself,> said Shera, her tail flicking and thumping behind her.
“Yes,” Leon said. “I’m afraid so. It is a great limitation of mine, one I am not proud of. It doesn’t matter how knowledgeable I am about the world, or how much I practice. If I do not have access to a source of energy, I cannot change the world with magick. To tell you the truth, it’s why I prefer abjuration. I do not have to look very far for a proper energy source, so long as I have a source of heat or light. The candles, you see. They usually provide enough heat to keep such magick active.”
Leon tapped the lusphere in Aeo’s hand.
“You, on the other hand,” he said. “Have a different source of power. Go ahead, turn the light on again. Remember the word?”
“Uh-huh,” Aeo said. “Lu’vai.”
The lusphere’s light instantly flared to life, even brighter than before. Aeo had to shield his eyes from the glare, and it was Hala’s turn to shout in surprise.
“Very good!” Leon said. “I was right about you, Aeo, your animis is strong.”
“Mm-hmm. It is the Ashanti word for a wellspring of power that comes from the individual,” Leon said. “While most practitioners of magick rely on outside sources of power, some beings are born with an innate power all their own. It is an uncommon trait in Antiell, it seems, though in my opinion, there should be more; it is only because the practice of magick is so suppressed. Perhaps every one in ten Ashanti children are born with some level of animis. Perhaps one in every hundred of these can exercise it before adulthood, and far fewer can do so without training.”
The color green then leaped into Aeo’s mind:
<A human boy shining light in a dark cave.>
<How fortunate,> said Shera. <That Aeo should find someone like you on this mountain, of all places.>
Leon’s smile faded. For some reason, he ignored the mephandras.
“Now, Aeo,” he said quickly. “There’s something I’d like you to try.”
Leon stood up slowly and approached the campfire. If Aeo had seen his face, he would have witnessed a look of determined focus. Hala hopped over to his side to see.
“There we go,” Leon whispered.
“Oh, Leon, don’t you dare,” Hala hissed at the man. “What are you doing, put that down! You’ll catch the poor boy on fire!”
“Nonsense, Hala,” he said quietly. “Don’t worry, I am in control.”
Leon stepped back over to Aeo, his face illuminated by a strange light. No, not strange. Familiar, the very same light as the campfire. Floating between the man’s hands was a gentle flame, suspended in midair as if held in place by an invisible wick. Pick lifted his head and backed away from it with a slight whimper. Shera, for her part, said nothing, but watched the scene with greater interest.
“Whoa,” Aeo whispered.
“As I said before,” Leon said, his voice tense and halting. “Most scholars have a knack for different practices. My specialty… is certainly not elemental, so this requires… eh, more than a bit of concentration.”
Leon put his hands forward.
“Now. I want you to… hold your hands up. Like you’re warming them near the flame. Hold them up.”
Slowly, the boy lifted his hands to the flame. He felt the fire’s warmth and hoped Leon didn’t simply dump the fire in his lap.
“There you go. Put your hands together a little bit more. Good.”
Leon sighed, and the fire danced in his hands with the pattern of his breath. The man’s face twisted, as if straining to control the flickering flame.
“Aeo. I want you to imagine warmth. Imagine wrapping up in the blankets, or touching the warm water bottles. Feel the fire warming up your hands.”
Aeo imagined it easily.
“As you’re focusing on that feeling,” Leon continued. “Imagine that warmth being gathered together. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and settling into the space between your hands. Can you do that? Can you imagine that for me?”
“I think so,” Aeo whispered.
“Tell me when you’re ready,” Leon replied.
Ready? For what exactly?
Aeo tried to imagine. With his hands raised to the magickal fire, he did as he was told: he imagines all the warmth in his body beginning to move. From his chest to his shoulders and muscles, down his arms, into his hands, and between his fingertips.
It was all imagination, though. It wasn’t actually doing anything. Was it?
“Okay,” he said quietly. “I’m… ready.”
“Now lift your hands. Think of the warmth between your hands, and don’t stop thinking as you lift them.”
Aeo tried. They wouldn’t move. He tried harder, straining even to pull himself away. Nothing was working, something was wrong. But then, all at once, Leon’s hands were gone. And there, nestled between his own two hands sat the small flame. It danced, back and forth. With every inhale, the flame would grow larger. And with every exhale, it would grow smaller and threaten to fade.
“I thought as much,” Leon whispered.
“Look at that!” Hala whispered excitedly, as Pick let out an airy growl.
Aeo had never seen anything as strange as this. So mesmerizing. His head suddenly felt very dizzy. But he couldn’t fall back into his blankets; the fire held him there. He watched it dance like a spinning flower, like a leaf blowing in the wind. It seemed to glow like the sun itself. His eyes began to burn, and he felt the need to close them, but he couldn’t look away. Then, as if some sort of invisible thread had been cut, Aeo could move. And he very nearly did, falling backwards and bringing the fire closer to his chest.
“Whoa, there you go,” Leon said, holding Aeo’s shoulders steady. “That’s your animis, releasing you from its hold. You’re quite good at this for a beginner, Aeo. Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”
Aeo’s thoughts burned as bright as the flame. Comforting. He remembered the dreams of the sun as the warmth fell down upon him. Not burning and unbearable, but gentle and soft. He shouldn’t be able to look upon that bright sun from his dreams with his naked eyes, and yet he could, and within it he saw all the colors of the rainbow. They were beautiful, and they burned and danced all together. He could see the flames growing ever brighter, and he never wanted them to fade.
Like the flames of the Gray Pale. They would burn forever.
[Fool,] whispered a voice in Aeo’s ear. [You could shatter yourself so easily.]
A pair of voices, in his other ear: [You will burn everything. Everything! Burn it all!]
Aeo began to tremble. He looked up at Leon; he had not heard the voices. The once-small flicker of flame did not vanish from Aeo’s hands. On the contrary, as he looked back down, the flame began to wildly grow. He couldn’t hold it. He widened his hands to better support the expanding flame, but the flames flared all the more in response.
“I can’t—!” he gasped.
“Wait, wait,” Leon said quietly, quickly leaning over. He took Aeo’s hands and slowly brought them together with his own. “Breathe normally, now. Just breathe. It’s all right. You can let the fire go out now. Close your hands, just so.”
Aeo did. With Leon’s help, he pressed his hands together, and the fire vanished without a trace of smoke.
<Fascinating,> said Shera.
“It most certainly is,” Hala said with a gasp. “Leon, how did you know Aeo could do something like that?”
“Just had a feeling,” Leon said, offering the boy a comforting smile. “What do you think of that, Aeo? Want to learn more?”
Aeo stared at his now-shaking hands, breathless. He didn’t answer.