Alyssum – Chapter 12

blogtitle

Without a proper sense of direction, or any experience traveling in a covered wagon at all, Aeo had no idea where Poro and Leon were headed. The pale sunlight piercing through the glittering frost shined through a small opening in the front of the wagon through which Aeo could see Leon driving the horse forwards.

For about two hours, Aeo and Leon spoke not a word. Leon perhaps thought the boy slept beneath the bundles of fur. And Aeo supposed that driving a wagon across a roadless mountain very difficult, as the wagon jostled and shook and creaked, angling sideways and backwards then sideways again. Every so often, Leon would shout strange commands to Poro, who would then slow her steps, or increase them, or stop altogether; ‘nee-ah’ to speed up, and ‘bah-si’ to slow and stop. No sooner did Aeo think that traveling by wagon one of the most strenuous and unpleasant of experiences, the wagon decided to make one more colossal rumble. Aeo braced himself; with the sounds Leon and Poro made, he expected the entire wagon to fall off a cliff. But then the wagon steadied itself and rolled forwards on relatively level ground.

“Aeo?” called Leon, lifting the front flap as high as it would go. “Are you awake?”

After that? Of course I am.

“Yes sir,” came the timid voice.

“Is everything okay back there?” Leon asked. “Nothing fell on you, or fell out the back?”

“No sir.”

Everything in the wagon looked like they’d been secured with tough ropes, and he was very grateful for Leon’s diligence.

“Oh, good. I’ve never driven this way before, and I thought that hill would have been kinder to us. Sorry about that. But I believe I’ve found the highway.”

The notion that Leon drove in unknown territory wasn’t assuring. And Aeo could only stare out the back of the wagon into the blinding snow and see one or two young pine trees and what looked to be a narrow bowl-shaped road sloping upwards into icy mist.

“Where are we going?” Aeo asked. He panicked slightly. “Um, s-sir?”

He heard a chuckle from the driver’s seat.

“You’re very polite,” he said. “But there’s no need to call me sir, even at the Academy. Always made me feel uncomfortable.”

“Yes sir…” Aeo mumbled, fighting to retain his body heat beneath the fur blankets. “Er, I… I mean…”

This time, Leon laughed. Aeo felt his stomach turn.

“I’m sorry, Aeo, I don’t mean to laugh,” Leon said. “But you remind me so much of myself. I remember calling everyone at the Archives ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ so often as a child that Algus once scolded me about it. ‘Some of these wretched ambassadors don’t deserve it,’ he told me. ‘They get big-headed and they’ll think they can boss you around all day and night’.”

“Big-headed?” Aeo said with a smirk. He could imagine some of the hunters at the inn with heads swelled up fatter than pumpkins.

“Yes, prideful,” Leon said, clearing his throat against the chilly wind. “And it was true. I remember this one ambassador from Ordelis that I called him ‘sir’ one too many times, and from then on he called me his ‘little librarian’ and ordered me around the Archives for hours at a time whenever he visited. He often arrived unannounced as well, so I never knew when I’d have to serve him.”

That sounded painfully familiar. Except with Aristé, it was all hours of the day and most of the night. And then Harthoon would…

Aeo’s smile vanished. Just thinking the name shattered his peace. The creaking of the wagon mocked him.

“Aeo?” called Leon after a moment of quiet.

“Yes sir?” Complete impulse. He shut his eyes and shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t mean to… to keep…”

“It’s all right,” Leon said. “I understand. It’s a tough habit to break.”

Leon paused.

“I just wanted to say,” he said. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I wasn’t there to protect you. I don’t know what happened to you after Shera knocked us out, but I imagine you saw a lot of the battle… Something you should never have been part of. I imagine Shera gave you to the hunters. Did they try to take you back to the village? Did they-”

“I don’t… want to talk about it,” Aeo said, placing emphasis on ‘don’t’ a little more than he intended.

Leon fell silent. Aeo did as well. All they heard was the sound of the wind and snow grinding beneath wooden wheels.

It was becoming difficult to stay warm beneath the blankets due to spaces in the wagon that allowed frigid air to pass through. Determined to retain heat, Aeo curled up his legs and pulled his head underneath the fur. This helped… for a moment. Before long, his breath made the blankets overly humid and stuffy, and at last he gave up, peeking his head out the top. His pillow, once warmed by his head and now thoroughly frozen, made his teeth chatter. His legs uncurled, and felt a terrible chill as they stretched straight – he wished his boots covered more than just his feet. It was all truly a struggle for the ages wherein there is never a victor. Realizing that no real relief would arrive, he curled the edges of his blanket beneath his arms and lay flat as a board.

After an hour or so, the sunlight that filtered through the thin canvas of the wagon disappeared. Somehow, the temperature dropped even further, as they were now under shadow. Though the canvas obscured his view of the outside, he saw frozen cliffs blocking the sun. The wagon made several turns during its descent as if following a twisting trail. At last, the light crested above the mountain peak by late morning, making the temperature a little more bearable.

He tried to remember a time when he felt warm; always a difficult task when freezing. He had sat in front of the fireplace at the Gray Pale, yes. He had laid under fur blankets and rubber bottles in the cave, or stood in Leon’s study with the plants and thermal water. But he decided that all of these places had an underlying frozen nature about them, that just outside a snowstorm was blowing, that you could leave a bucket of water outside and it would be frozen solid by morning. Again, strange memories of a distant land came to him, but they were always obscure, part of an early childhood that Olvaren and chores erased.

An important question rose in his head.

“Leon?”

“Yes?” he said, as if he’d been waiting for Aeo to speak up all along.

“Is Everspring warm?”

Another chuckle from Leon.

“It certainly is,” he said. “You’ll go for a walk on the grounds and start sweating almost immediately. Especially in the wet season, when the humidity rises. I think you’ll find it quite the opposite of Olvaren’s cold and dry climate. Speaking of warmer climates…”

Aeo looked upwards towards the front, and saw Leon standing as the wagon slowed to a halt.

“Good news,” Leon said. “You can see the treeline from here.”

He couldn’t just lay there; despite the cold, Aeo threw a blanket around himself and, through the pain in his chest, kneeled next to the crates at the front of the wagon and peered through the flap. The view was a bit unimpressive; he’d seen pine and poplar trees before, and couldn’t see more than one or two kilometers down the mountain before everything fell into cloudy mist. But a familiar thought occurred to him that hadn’t passed through his mind since he departed the Gray Pale.

“Are we… on the other side of the mountain?” he asked.

Leon sat and looked down at Aeo through the canvas.

“Yes, we are. We went through the pass about two hours ago. By the end of the day, we’ll descend into the valley low enough to get out of this snow. There might be rain, but it will be much warmer.”

Leon slapped the reigns down and with a quick shout of ‘nee-ah’, Poro continued and the wagon lurched forward.

“Um… Leon?” Aeo asked. “Am I… free?”

“What do you mean?” he asked, concentrating on driving.

“Well, I… I heard… from people at the inn, that if an Edian crosses the mountain, there’s a warm country of sand to the west where we come from. If an Edian goes there, then they’re free.”

“That’s true,” Leon said. “There is a country to the west. Edia, named after the priestess that crossed the Great Sea and settled her people there. Were you born there, Aeo?”

“I don’t know,” Aeo said. “I… guess I don’t remember anything other than Olvaren.”

“Well, I have heard tales of Edian slaves making their way back to their homeland. I’d like to think it happens more often than the rumors say it does.”

“So Edia doesn’t have slaves? Is Everspring in Edia?”

“No,” Leon said with a laugh. “No, the Everspring is in Ashant, about a month and a half to the south by horse. It may take us a bit longer if we stop and rest along the way, which I don’t think is a terrible idea. I haven’t slept… for a while now, and I’d like to once we get off the mountain.”

“Oh.”

So he wasn’t going back to his homeland.

“Do they have slaves in Ashant?”

“They don’t,” Leon said. “Slavery was outlawed in Ashant about 100 years ago.”

“So… I’ll be free when we reach Everspring?”

“Ha,” Leon said. “You’re free right now.”

Aeo blinked a few times.

“I… I am?”

“That’s why I left last night,” Leon said. “I went down to the village and paid for your freedom, and made certain no one would ever take you back there.”

Aeo’s eyes opened wide.

“You… paid for me?” he asked. “How? …and why?”

“Why?” Leon said. “Would you prefer I didn’t?”

“No, I just mean…”

“It’s okay, Aeo,” Leon said, sliding sideways in his seat and tousling Aeo’s hair. “It was my choice. I gave the constable a very valuable treasure that my father had given me,” Leon said. “It was in their best interest to accept my deal, so they left you in my care. As a matter of fact, Aeo, go into my bag in the back of the wagon and you’ll find in the very front pocket a small glass vial filled with a dark liquid. Bring it up to me, would you?”

Aeo obeyed, carefully hobbling to the back without toppling over. Opening the flap of Leon’s bag, he saw a few strange instruments and bottles inside the main compartment but didn’t dare touch them. The front pocket contained a few spare pieces of paper with scribbled notes and, indeed, a small unmarked glass vial. Aeo held it up to the light; about a quarter-inch filled, the “liquid” looked like black mucky oil.

“What is it?” Aeo said, stumbling back over to the front of the wagon. He slid the vial to Leon’s side, and Leon took the vial in his gloved hand.

“Turns out I was right,” he said. “A scholar in the village was able to track you all the way up the mountain with this. This is your blood, Aeo.”

“My blood?” He stuck out his tongue. “Eww, really?”

“They must have taken it from you when you were little,” Leon said. “You probably don’t even remember them taking it from you. These samples can last for years, and with the proper evocation, someone would be able to track you from almost anywhere in the world.”

“Hmm,” Aeo grunted, shaking his head. What a simple, terrible thing, the reason the hunters found Pick and Shera. The reason Horthoon found him. The whole reason for everything.

“So,” Leon continued. “Since you’re free and don’t belong to anyone anymore, I thought I’d leave it up to you. Do you want me to empty it out and destroy it? Or do you want me to hang onto it for while, and let you decide?”

Aeo frowned.

“I don’t want it,” he said simply.

“Just so you’re aware,” Leon said. “Samples like this are very expensive to take, and if you left it to me, if you ever get lost or separated from me, I’d be able to find you. I would ensure that no one else could find it and use it against you.”

Aeo stayed silent.

“The question is,” Leon said. “Do you trust me enough to give me that responsibility?”

Aeo pulled his blanket tighter against himself.

“I… I trust you,” he said quietly. “But… I don’t like that thing. Can you please… throw it away?”

“You’re sure?”

Aeo nodded.

“Yeah.”

“Bah-si, bah-si,” Leon said to Poro, pulling on the reigns. Poro stopped and the wagon halted. “All right, then. It should be as simple as pulling the cork.”

Leon turned to his side, and allowed Aeo to watch him. Removing his gloves, he gently took the cork and pulled. It didn’t budge. He dug his fingernails into the edges. No luck.

“Hmm, wedged in there,” Leon said. “Hold on. If I remember right, you might want to close your ears.”

Aeo did so, unsure of what might happen. Leon stood for a moment and produced a curious item from his pocket made of metal and polished hardwood. He flicking the object with his finger, and a small six-inch blade jumped up from inside the handle, clicking into place. Leon stabbed the cork from the side, and the blade acted as a lever. With a loud pop that couldn’t have come from such a small cork, it flew free, flying away from the wagon and into the snow.

“Oops. Well, there we go,” Leon said. “That sound is the magick vanishing, of course. It’s no good anymore.”

Unceremoniously, Leon tipped the bottle over the side of the wagon and allowed the black sludge to drip from the vial. Most of it clung to the glass, obscuring the inside, but a few drops fell out and onto the icy ground.

“Good,” Aeo said. “I hate that thing.”

“As do I,” Leon said. “I think you made the right choice. Here, let’s hang on to the bottle until we can dispose of it properly. Wouldn’t want some merchant to find it in the snow, no matter how old the blood is. There’s a handkerchief in my bag, wrap it up in that.”

“Okay,” Aeo said, careful to keep his fingers away from the vial’s lip. He didn’t intend to, but the smell of the vial caught his nose and made him gag. “Ugh, bad…”

“Nee-ah, nee-ah,” Leon said with a whip of the reigns, and the wagon lurched forth under Poro’s power. “Poor girl, we’ll find you a warm place to rest soon enough. No doubt you miss the warm cave already. I know I do.”

Aeo sat up against one corner of the wagon and buried himself in furs. He fumbled for a few terrible chilly moments, but eventually got warm and enjoyed much more comfort. He didn’t feel sleep in the slightest, but there was one more nagging problem.

“Leon?” he asked. “I’m hungry.”

“Um, let’s see,” Leon replied. “Oh, yes, the box you were leaning on. I think there is a bag of black currant berries and a few green apples in there. I had intended to return to Olvaren to resupply soon, but… everything happened. We’ll have to enjoy cooked mushrooms and canned berries until we reach the next village. Rurali, I think it’s called. It’s a few days away, but we’ll be able to pick up some good dried meat and rye bread there. Maybe some cucumbers or fresh fish. What’s your favorite food, Aeo?”

“Um…” Aeo said. He could think of nothing from the inn. “Your bighorn stew, I think. It was really good.”

“Well, thank you,” Leon said. “I rather liked it myself. You know, you’re going to love Ashanti cuisine, if I could name my favorite meal, it would have to be…”

Leon carried on as the ride continued down the mountain, describing fruits, vegetables, and sweets that Aeo had never heard of before. He then talked about life at the Academy and the subjects they taught there. Aeo didn’t understand the terms Leon used in the slightest, like “astrologica”, “elementalism”, and “matter metamorphosis”. But Aeo didn’t mind in the least. Leon liked to talk, and Aeo decided he liked to listen.

* * * * * *

blogtitle

For about four or five hours, the view outside remained roughly the same. The snow continued to steadily fall, obscuring a greater view of the highway ahead. In fact, how Leon knew they still traveled on the highway, Aeo didn’t quite understand. Perhaps it was the way the pine trees remained an average distance apart as they rolled on; it didn’t look apparent at first, but slowly as the forests grew thicker during the descent, Aeo realized Poro was following a narrow corridor of snow-covered foliage and fallen trees. The snow didn’t freeze solid to the ground like it did at the peak of Falas, and delicate channels of fresh-melted water encrusted with ice cascaded along the highway’s edge.

The wind that so dominated the highest cliffs of Falas had vanished, replaced by a peaceful stillness Aeo had never truly heard before. The temperature hadn’t changed, but the lack of wind made all the difference. Except for the squeaking and rocking of the wooden wagon, the valley into which they journeyed made no sounds. Even the songbirds that he supposed lived in those woods must have decided to remain in their nests, expecting the winter that came on swiftly. Once or twice, he heard the call of a hawk from somewhere high above the pine, no doubt scanning the earth below for rabbits, mice, or squirrels.

Curiously, even though Leon had stated that the road they traveled upon was a major trade route to western villages and the borders of Edia, Aeo and Leon saw no one else on the road. All the better, Leon had said. The fewer people ask about our business, the better.

As the sun began to set, some of the clouds parted at last, revealing an orange light nearly dipping to the horizon. Like an impenetrable cloud above the trail from which they came, Aeo could no longer see the top of the mountain. Looking out the front flap, however, the view became very different. Aeo kneeled up on the food crate to get a look at the valley below, and what met his gaze didn’t disappoint: one or two smaller peaks many dozens of kilometers in the distance rose across a mighty green valley and a small shimmering lake nestled in the center.

“Leon, sir?” Aeo said, pointing to the lake. “What’s that? Are we going there?”

“What’s what?”

“Down there, in the middle of the trees. It looks like a mirror… Are we going down there?”

“It’s water,” Leon said with a grin. “A lake. And I don’t believe so. The highway winds south beyond the lake. I’d have to check my marker, but I believe the road follows a river that feeds into the lake. Why, thinking of doing some swimming? The water is probably freezing.”

“Oh,” he said. Regardless, he’d never seen so much water from a distance before. “I don’t know how to swim anyway.”

“Not even swimming, eh? Then you’ll love the lake beside the Academy. It’s not quite as warm as the hot springs on Falas, but it’s nice all year round. You can even take swimming lessons if you want. It’s great exercise.”

“Really?”

“Yes sir,” Leon said nonchalantly. Then, with a start, Leon slapped his hand to his mouth. “Oh, look what you made me do. Now I’m starting to say it.”

For the first time he could remember, Aeo let out a laugh.

As the sun dipped below the crest of the distant mountains, the air began to chill the moment it disappeared. A few moments later, Leon directed Poro to halt her progress along the side of the highway.

“We’ll stop here for the night,” Leon said. “I had hoped to make it out of the snow, but Poro can only take this wagon downhill so quickly. Oh well. Over there looks decent enough.”

Aeo looked, and Leon pointed to spot beneath a small grove of fir trees relatively free of snow. Leon hopped down from the driver’s seat and walked to the back of the wagon.

“Do you feel well enough to carry the furs over while I get a fire going?”

Aeo straightened his back and felt his aching ribs and stomach. The intensity of the pain had gone away, but the soreness remained.

“I think so,” Aeo said, gathering as many blankets as he could in his arms.

“Excellent,” Leon said, reaching for the pile of stacked firewood near the rear of the cart. He took his bag and proceeded to the clearing with Aeo slowly and carefully following after him.

If the forest had been a quiet sanctuary before, it became oppressively silent in the dusk and darkness. Aeo could imagine packs of wolves or hungry mountain lions stalking them from a distance, like stories he’d always heard at the inn, but he neither heard them howling or saw any movement. He peered through the trees, and as far as he could see, thick pines, blue spruces, poplars, and fir trees grew tall above the gently-fallen snow, surrounded in blankets of white except where their discarded leaves and needles lay. The spot Leon picked out was particularly covered in needles and pine cones, and before he began any fire-making, he dragged his boot along the ground to kick all of the debris from the area.

It took three trips for Aeo to gather all the blankets, and by the end, he’d forgotten which blankets belonged to him or to Leon.

“Sorry,” he said, separating the large from the small. “I think these are yours.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Leon said. “Take as many as you’ll need. I have a trick to staying warm out in the open so we won’t freeze tonight.”

“Magick?” Aeo asked.

Leon nodded.

“Do you mind if I start the campfire tonight?”

“Uh, yeah… sure.”

“You’ll take tomorrow night?”

“Um… I guess…”

“Don’t worry, practice makes perfect. You did great last time.”

Last time was not a good memory. Regardless, Aeo took one of the blankets around his shoulders and shivered in the cold; although the temperature had risen dramatically in their single day of travel, he could still see his breath as the sky turned a cloudless midnight blue above them. Before starting, Leon scavenged a few rocks from beneath the needles and pine cones, arranging them in a rough circle. Like a professional, Leon built the lean-to out of twigs and kindling and took the flint stick out of his bag. Instead of the curved piece of steel, however, he produced the same strange pocket knife from his coat. Again, without evidence of a switch, the knife produced a blade from its center, with no regard to gravity. With six or seven quick powerful strokes, sparks flew like shooting stars right into the bundle and smoldered. Within thirty seconds of blowing, the fire poofed into being and greedily devoured the sticks and stems, billowing thick grey smoke all the while.

“It always takes three or four times as much kindling to get a fire going if it’s wet than if it’s dry,” Leon said, placing dry wood from the wagon. “And placing wet logs onto wet kindling will probably smother the fire. Add wet wood carefully and slowly. When possible, carry some dry kindling with you wherever you go. A hatchet, as well. If you’re in the middle of winter or rain, you can split a log open and gather dry kindling from the center with a knife.”

Aeo nodded, sitting up closer to the fire.

“When we get to Rurali, we’ll get you all geared up. Surely their general store will have everything you need.”

“But,” Aeo said, patting his unkempt hair down. “I don’t have any money.”

Leon smirked.

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “I’ll buy everything.”

“Really?” Aeo asked. “You have money?”

“I do, although I don’t like to tell people about it. I may not look it, having spent the last year and a half living in a cave. But I do enjoy some the finer things in life when living at the Academy. Like unru tea. Fresh nerevo. And properly laundered clothes. I apologize if this sounds conceited, but using a stone floor as a washboard and relying on smelly lye soap is something I can do without.”

“Con-see-ted?”

“Arrogant,” Leon explained with a grin. “Snooty, I suppose.”

Snooty. What a funny word, Aeo thought. He had heard that one before.

“But you’re not snooty. I just thought you looked like a teacher, at first,” Aeo said. “You are a teacher, aren’t you?”

“I am, yes,” Leon said, leaning over the growing fire. “I’m looking forward to getting back to my alchemy students. No doubt Master Dolshir has spoiled them rotten. I think he likes to let the fourth level students use the greenhouse’s rare plants and minerals to prove to them how advanced our department is. But I say keep it simple, practice the basics, over and over again. Once you memorize the procedures to create simple alchemical solutions, and can perform them in your sleep, then you can play with the valuable ingredients.”

“Could you teach me to make potions?” Aeo asked.

“I certainly could. Have you ever mixed anything together before? Like a potion? Or maybe a drink, perhaps?”

“Aristé wouldn’t let me mix drinks,” Aeo said, scratching his arm. “She said I’d poison people. I served ale, but I hate ale. It’s gross.”

“Very understandable. I’ve found that alchemy is all but a lost art in Antiell.”

Leon bent down and placed his fire-making tools away into his bag and produced in their stead a small white candle and a thin wooden block with a hole drilled in the center.

“A candle?” Aeo asked.

“Yes,” Leon said. “It makes for a good foundation for a ward. And not only are they good for wards, a proper ward causes the candle to burn slower and protects it against the wind. They benefit each other. This candle should last us the whole night, and hopefully I have enough candles to last us until we reach Rurali.”

Leon brought the candle close to the base of the fire, pulling it back as soon as the wick lit with a tender flame. He wedged the candle into the base and placed it about a foot from the campfire. Then, kneeling before it as if he were going to pray, he placed both of his hands about six inches from the burning wick and began quietly whispering something. Aeo nearly asked what the chanting was for; he was interrupted by a shining white light that appeared in Leon’s downward-facing hands. A clearly-defined semi-circle glyph emerged and inflated like the illuminated illustration of some arcane spellbook, draping over the candle like delicate lace. Within five seconds, like the ward in the cave, the magick gave off a cheerful pop as the spell took effect. Unlike the ward in the cave, however, this ward gave off a great plume of shimmering orange smoke that rose from the flame and swirled first around the campfire and then outwards in a cloudy gale around both Aeo and Leon. Leon showed no great alarm. Aeo did, and he instinctively tried to hold his breath from breathing the smoke. Unfortunately, it all happened so fast, he inhaled from surprise.

Sweet. Like breathing in the scent of wild roses and caramelized sugar. It only took about ten seconds for the smoke to settle on the icy ground. As it did so, the temperature around Aeo delightfully increased more than thirty or forty degrees as if he, Leon, and the campfire had moved into the dry indoors. The snow roughly 5 meters in diameter around the candle began to thaw and melt, and within about sixty seconds it appeared as if snow had simply forgotten to fall in the ward’s presence. Not even moisture remained in the dirt underneath them.

“Whoa,” Aeo whispered, letting the blanket around his shoulders fall.

“How about that,” Leon said, standing to his feet. He wiped his brow with the back of his hand. “It’s a bit more difficult than the wards I cast in the cave since it covers an area instead of just an opening. Give me a moment, I’ll be right back. Let’s roast some mushrooms, shall we?”

Leon stepped over to the wagon as Aeo made a funny face.

Mushrooms? Eww, Aeo thought.

Curious, Aeo slid himself backwards towards the very edge of the circle and reached his hand beyond the snow line. While he saw no evidence of any kind of definitive edge, his hand chilled from wintery air the moment it crossed an invisible barrier.

Leon returned bearing a small lidded box in his arms and an iron skillet, a metal bowl, a metal fork, and a large water canteen all sat on top. He placed everything on the ground beside the pine tree and sat before the fire. Turning to his bag, he pulled a thin labelless glass bottle from within the main compartment; Aeo imagined that Leon’s bag contained an infinite space filled with the most useful items imaginable. With magick, who knew what was possible anymore?

“Apologies,” Leon said. “I only have one set of utensils. I’ll use the fork for cooking, and then you can take it. Sound good?”

Aeo nodded.

“What’s that?” He asked, pointing to the bottle. “Is it a potion?”

“Oh, this?” Leon asked. “No, olive oil. I never forget to fill my bottle whenever I can, I just can’t cook without it.”

“Oh.”

Leon set the crate in front of him and lifted the lid. To Aeo’s surprise, the crate make a sharp noise, like a balloon popping.

“A preservation ward,” Leon explained. “Keeps the food fresh while we travel. Remind me to replace it before the night is through.”

From the crate, Leon lifted up the largest mushroom Aeo had ever seen, as wide as both of Leon’s hands and six inches thick. Plump and deep violet in color, the stem grew beneath an array of delicate gills. Within five minutes, Leon scooped out the stem and the gills with the fork and carefully cut long strips of mushroom apart with his pocket knife; the insides of the mushroom were a light purple hue. Within ten minutes, a strange but delicious scent wafted from the iron skillet, filling the warm “bubble” of Leon’s enchantment. Not at all earthy, but very savory and rich, like a juicy steak on a sizzling cooktop. As promised, once the mushroom slices took on an odd color combination of crispy brown and violet, Leon handed the fork, bowl, and several slices of mushroom to the boy. Aeo was not a picky eater; all his life, he took what he could get. He wasn’t about to change now. He had to admit, after traveling all day on an apple and a few berries, he was ravenous.

The mushroom practically melted as he cut it with the fork. Hesitantly, he took a bite. The moment the richness of the mushroom hit his taste buds, his eyes widened. The smell and the taste were one in the same: it was as if he were eating the most mouthwatering meat in the world, coupled with the tiniest hint of… fruit? Strawberries? The combination of flavours didn’t deter him in the slightest. In fact, it made him all the more starved.

“Mmm,” he said, stuffing his mouth with another piece. “This is amazing.”

“Isn’t it delicious?” Leon said, cutting up a mushroom in the skillet with his pocket knife. “One of the most wonderful mushrooms I found up there. Hala introduced it to me. The frogs love it, and save it for special occasions when their families get together. Apparently, it’s very rare, and only grows in dark crevices near the underground river currents. I’m thinking of growing it in the Academy fungus dens… If they will grow, of course. Don’t know until I try. Might take years until new fungi can grow; some can be very picky about their environments and culture mediums, and I have a feeling this one will be. But they would make excellent additions to the Academy dining menu.”

“What’s a culture medium?”

“Whatever the mushroom wants to grow in,” Leon said, taking a bite. “Compost, rotting logs, things of that nature.”

“Mushrooms are kinda weird,” Aeo said with his food in his mouth. “Mushrooms grow in the dark, don’t they? Don’t they need light, like a plant?”

“Some do, some don’t. They’re different than trees and grass. Most just need humidity and a rich medium to grow. Interesting, isn’t it? Many alchemy recipes depend on fungi to give them thickness and stability.”

“Huh,” Aeo said. “So you can make potions out of… fun-ghee?”

“That you can,” Leon said with a grin.

* * * * * *

blogtitle

With dinner finished, Leon did indeed replace the preservation ward on the box of mushrooms, and returned it to the wagon. He then unhooked Poro from the wagon and led her over to the magickal warmth. She appeared to notice the change immediately, letting out soft snorting sounds from her nose and gently flicked her tail. Roped to the tree under which they lay, Leon walked back to the wagon and brought back a bucket and a large crate filled with thin green vines from which red flowers grew. He placed them on the ground before Poro, and she dove in and muched away at the thick tangle of vines.

“She loves these,” Leon said. “She’ll be so sad to never eat them again. I suppose I could try cultivating them, but I worry that they’ll never grow without the spring water.”

Bending down outside of the warm zone, Leon scooped up a large amount of snow into the bucket, then returned; within sixty seconds, the snow melted, and a fresh bucket of room-temperature water remained. He placed this before Poro as well, and she happily slurped it up.

“Good job, Poro,” Leon said, stroking Poro’s mane. “We’ll get you to greener pastures soon.”

“How old is Poro?” Aeo asked.

“She’s six years old, I believe,” Leon said. “The gentlest and most patient soul I’ve ever known for a horse so young. Very capable, too. The cavern stable was so large, it gave Poro enough space to run around. Every so often, I’d ride her down the mountain and back up again. I don’t believe she liked the rocky terrain, but she loved the forest below.”

Leon sat on the ground and yawned.

“I don’t know about you, Aeo, but I’m exhausted. I’m going to get some sleep. Pass me a blanket, would you?”

Aeo did so.

“What if wolves or bears come and try to eat us?”

“Poro will let us know,” Leon said. “Even if she falls asleep, she’s very alert.”

Leon laid down a few feet from the campfire and the candle ward, choosing to sleep on top of the fur blanket and nothing else. Aeo followed Leon’s example and made a bed for himself with a set of furs on bottom and two on top. Realizing he hardly needed two in the heat, he removed one.

As everything grew silent beside the crackling campfire, Aeo’s thought immediately turned to Pick. He didn’t want to think about the events that led up to it, but the image of Pick’s bloody fur had burned so keenly into his mind that it made him nauseous. If only Aeo had been at Pick’s side. Maybe the fire in his hands could have helped. Maybe he could have warned Pick of the impending danger. But then the thought occurred to him: if a wolf couldn’t hear the footsteps of approaching hunters, what hope could Aeo have had?

“Leon?” Aeo asked.

“Hmm?” Leon asked without turning over.

“Do you think Pick is still alive?”

“Honestly?” Leon asked quietly. “I’ll bet he is. He’s tough like his mama. I’m sure they’re both safe.”

“I think so too,” Aeo said.

After a few moments of thinking, Aeo said:

“I miss Hala.”

“Mmm, me too,” Leon replied, sounding more distant.

After a few more moments, Aeo said:

“Leon?”

Leon didn’t reply, no doubt fast asleep.

“Goodnight,” Aeo said to everybody and nobody, turning over to face the wintry darkness beyond the ward. The edge of the ward was out of his reach, but he could see a chill wind blowing through the trees and appreciated the fact that he couldn’t feel it.

He remained awake for many minutes more, thinking about everything all at once. How expensive was a slave? What price did Leon have to pay to free him? If freedom meant having to lose Pick as a friend, maybe freedom wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But it felt so good to travel with Leon and be free of the Gray Pale and that miserable frigid village. He couldn’t help but feel a glimmer of selfish happiness. Selfish? Was it wrong to feel the way he did? Surely Leon didn’t judge him that way. Maybe if Pick were alive, he’d be happy. Aeo wished Pick could have come with them. Now that he was free, there was so much Aeo wanted to say.

The last thought that stuck in Aeo’s mind as he drifted off to sleep were the words:

I’m free.

Alyssum – Chapter 11

blogtitle

Lies came easy to Master Leon Sirelu. Perhaps not lies… Exaggerations. Truth was flexible, especially when it needed to be.

He hadn’t been lying about the plagues spread along the southern coast of Ashant by depraved sky pirates, nor about his attempts to discover a cure on Falas. But so were fifty or so other Academy scholars that travelled the Antielli continent on research and diplomatic missions. Such evocations arrived to his marker every two or three weeks, but served more as general requests for information and advice than required tasks. He could have chosen a dozen other subjects, but the one about the plague seemed desperate and immediate enough for the situation: it gave him a verifiable purpose based on recent events, and one that wasn’t an outright lie. Besides, if Leon had discovered some mystical fungus or root in or around the mountain that served as an instant remedy for a very specific and unnamed disease from a very specific villainous source that afflicted a very specific race of people, he would have been quite shocked.

He had little hope that the hunters or villagers would stay off the mountain for five full years, or even attempt to discover and hunt more great wolves (if there were any remaining on the mountain). But even if they did, his planted “information” about the wolves moving west along with a good snowstorm to conceal lupine tracks would put the hunters off of Shera’s trail for good.

Even he had to admit, lying about Aeo and the wolves had been a calculated but incredibly risky gamble. If the scholar had ever witnessed Leon through Aeo’s eyes, none of Leon’s story about living in the forest would have connected with the truth. But Pick had remained at Aeo’s side almost every day for hours at a time, making him the most likely being of observation besides Shera and himself. The sole facts that the scholar seemed so excited and the constable so unfamiliar with Leon and his story – along with them not immediately clapping his wrists in irons – gave him a fairly quick tell about what they did and did not know.

They already knew Aeo was powerful. But, truthfully, abused and powerful made for a more dramatic tale and cast the boy as a victim of circumstance instead of a vicious killer. Leon couldn’t have expected pity or sympathy due to Aeo’s race, of course, but it made them see that Aeo wouldn’t be worth the trouble to execute. After all, why not place some wonder in their minds as to whether they could even touch the boy without bursting into flames? To think the academy scholar actually believed the little white lie about Aeo repeatedly burning Leon almost made him grin.

The joy faded from his success when he ruminated upon the price he’d just paid. He’d just given a priceless piece of the Everspring into the greedy hands of the San’Drael Academy. No doubt the headmaster of the Academy would see to the stone’s study personally, which did not bode well. A prideful humil man named Edmund Bosik. Leon had only heard stories of the man’s work, but it was all terribly grim. Some of it involved the study of living Edian slaves in some vain attempt to differentiate them from the Antielli populace. What would he choose to do with a better understanding of a rival’s power? What new subterfuge could Antiell Academy scholars – or worse, the mercenaries they employed – inflict upon Ashant and its sovereignty should they learn how to undo Everspring enchantments?

Leon didn’t honestly know if they could even study the stone; yet another gamble. Created to expend all of its energy in a single powerful burst, the stone was never meant to provide a slow trickle that could be unwoven and thoroughly examined. With their narrow-mindedness and lack of vision, they would surely glean little about the nature of the Wellspring. But one thing was certain: Leon had no plans to report the crystal’s trade to the Academy. Besides, this was a personal deal instead of an Academy-sponsored donation, no matter how often he’d used his title to sound credible.

The good constable’s observations were astute enough. What am I getting out of this deal? A freed slave and the reconstruction of some burned-down backwater?

In the very least, Leon purchased for Aeo a better future, one where he could decide his fate away from the prejudice of that terrible country. And at the very most… He shook the optimism out of his head again. Best not think of such things now, he thought. Cart before the horse, eggs before they hatch, and all that. Still too much to do. Aeo has yet to even control a flame on his own, much less defend himself.

Leon had left his pocket watch in the cave with his bag; he had no idea of the time when he finally worked his way up the mountain. After waiting in the woods near the destroyed village for nearly an hour, he’d taken a terribly convoluted path without the aid of a light in case anyone from the village had attempted to follow him. Fortunately, he had a clever trick for overcoming near darkness: a small piece of polished opal hung between a length of leather just the size of Leon’s forehead. Wearing it much like an eyepatch, the opal rested against his right temple. Upon it, he transfixed a tiny green glowing glyph that illuminated the path before him as if it were broad daylight.

He avoided the clearing of Shera’s carnage, opting to work his way up the mountain on a northerly route. No trails on the mountain offered a simple way up, but once he breached the treeline, the bare snow gave him a fairly clear path. To wander the cliffs of Falas unaided by climbing equipment was a fairly foolish idea, but Leon had discovered perhaps six or seven avenues up the mountain that hadn’t been covered by steep rock slides or sheer vertical walls. Regardless, Falas demanded patience and an able body, of which Leon had both. The cold no longer bothered him, though the thought of poor Aeo traversing the mountain in nothing but rags made him marvel at the boy’s determination. Or desperation, whichever it was.

When he finally saw the light of a cave in the cliffside some hours after his climb, he paused before entering to gather his thoughts. Somehow, in the hours of the morning, he would have to find his horse, Poro, which enjoyed resting far into the bighorn cave, retrieve and harness Poro to the cart that hid in an alcove some hundreds of yards away from the caves, and store as much alyssum and equipment as he could into the concealable containers that were built into the wagon’s frame. Both his mind and body yearned for rest. He wished Aeo could help him, but as he finally stepped into the cave and laid his eyes upon the boy, he knew it wasn’t meant to be. Bundled up beneath the furs, Aeo slept peacefully as Hala sat beside him.

She looked up in shock at the man entering the cave, but relaxed as Leon removed his hood.

“Leon,” Hala whispered, hopping over to him. “Is everything all right? Where did you go? What did you do?”

“I went down to the village,” Leon said, bending down. “I paid a heavy price to ensure Shera would not be followed, and that Aeo could walk free. Is he okay?”

“The poor dear is sleeping,” Hala said, looking back at Aeo. “He has been for a few hours. But what did you do? What price? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“I convinced the leaders of the village that it would be in their best interests to leave the wolves alone, allow Aeo to remain in my care, and focus their efforts on rebuilding their homes,” Leon said. “I gave them a very special artifact in return for these promises. Something very dear to me. Something that my… that my father…”

He shook his head, placing both hands through his hair.

“Have I gone mad, Hala?” he asked. “What am I doing? I’m afraid all of the decisions I’ve made in the last two years… and especially the last two weeks… will inevitably end in complete disaster. I’ve worked so hard to find this place, to discover… And now that I’ve found it, I don’t know what to do… I’ve destroyed Pick and Shera’s life, I’ve left everything vulnerable and exposed, and…” He trailed off, and to both Hala and Leon’s surprise, Leon suppressed a sob and fell silent.

“Leon,” Hala said, taken aback. “I’ve never seen you this way before.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, clearing his throat. “There is so much I wish I could explain. About why I chose to come here. About why the boy…”

Leon looked across the cave at Aeo.

“…why he must be the one to help me. Hala, if only you could view my thoughts like Shera did, you would think me the most desperate, despicable man on the face of Tiathys.”

Hala lept from the floor and collided against Leon’s chest with both hands before landing sharply back against the stone floor. Leon nearly fell backwards.

“Now you listen to me, Leon Sirelu,” Hala said, her voice sharp but quiet. “Desperate is the last thing you are! You are gentle, patient, and kind, one of the most intelligent beings I’ve ever known! You have kept all of us safe, and that is the least despicable thing I’ve ever seen in my long years. I don’t know what your intentions are for young Aeo, but I know there’s no one I trust more than you to care for him.”

“I don’t know if I’m ready,” Leon said. “I may be a master at Everspring, but I fear I’m preparing Aeo for a life of conflict and sorrow. No child should ever see death, or cause it… And I fear that Aeo saw too much today. You should have seen the village, Hala. It’s gone, there’s nothing left. How can I guide him when my powers are so frail? I’m no elementalist, I’m no warrior. I’m a glorified apothecary, at best. And worst of all, I’m no father. My own father taught me a terrible example, and I fear I’ll do the same.”

“Leon,” Hala said. “I don’t know your father. But I know you, the way you speak, the way you teach. You’re not frail. You’ve only known the boy for a few days, and he already trusts you. Trust yourself, like he trusts you. If you can’t be a father, be his example. Apothecary or no, you always have the right answers.”

“And if my answers end up damning us both?”

“You’ll think of something, my dear,” Hala said, twisting her whisker. “You and Aeo have already conquered this mountain. I think you’ll be able to conquer anything together.”

Leon shook his head again and fell silent for a moment.

“You know,” he whispered. “If this advice were coming from anywhere other than a frog… One day, you’re going to have to tell me where all of this wisdom comes from.”

“Ha!” Hala said, folding her arms. “As I’ve told you, it’s motherly instinct!”


blogtitle


Aeo’s eyes opened. Damp stalactites greeted him, reflecting a dim white light. No dreams had come to him that night. Perhaps the stalactites were the dream. Maybe the image of Pick’s body lying prone in bloody snow had simply been a nightmare, and the giant pup would be happily dreaming in his corner of the cave.

Aeo looked. He saw the collapsed wooden door and the gaping cave entrance flooded with morning sun rays. Gone were the charms and candles that once lined the cave walls. The boxes of supplies had disappeared as well. He saw the burning embers of the campfire… then Pick’s bed of furs. But no Pick. Aeo envisioned him playing outside in the snowy morning air, carefree…

He thought he’d cried enough. He thought he couldn’t feel anything anymore. But seeing the empty bed left a hole in his heart, and he wallowed in a shame he’d never felt before. Tears filled his eyes as his face contorted, and he bitterly accepted the pain that emerged from his ribs, stomach, and bruised eye as payment for his stupidity. If he’d only stayed at the Inn. If he’d only accepted his fate. He would have never known Pick, or Leon, or Hala, or Shera, Harthoon never would have died, Aristé would have continued barking orders at him, and everything would have been…

“Aeo, dear?” came a voice.

Aeo didn’t try to hide his tears this time. Everything hurt too much to conceal anything. With his eyes shut tight against the newness of the day, he sobbed desperately for the suffering he’d inflicted on everyone he knew.

“No, Aeo… Please, dear,” said Hala’s voice. “Please don’t cry… You must save your strength for today.”

“It’s my fault,” Aeo whispered. “It’s all my fault…”

“Aeo, please…”

Her voice faded as a pair of boots entered the cave from outside.

“Everything is ready,” came the weary voice of Leon. “At last.”

“Leon, it’s Aeo,” Hala said. “Please, tell him none of this was his fault. Tell him, Leon…”

Aeo refused to open his eyes, even as the boots approached him and the man wearing them kneeled beside him. In fact, his sadness doubled upon itself and he curled sideways away from the man and the frog, clutching his chest, unable to breathe. No one said anything for a moment as Aeo heaved, his stifling sobs emerging from deep within.

He felt a hand rest on his arm.

“Aeo,” Leon said. “Only Tiathys knows why things like this happen, or even why they happen the way they do. So much of this world is cruel and unfair…”

Aeo breathed for the first time in several moments.

“I know you hardly know me… And there’s so much that I don’t yet know about you. But I want you to trust me. Trust in your good memories. Pick wouldn’t want to see you this way, Aeo. He would want you to be happy. Remember the color green; it was his favorite color, the first color Shera ever showed to him. He hated blue and purple.”

The lump in Aeo’s throat grew larger, and the tears dripped sideways onto the fur blankets.

“I want to teach you, Aeo,” Leon said. “I want to show you that the Goddess gave you your life and your power for a reason. A good reason. Will you let me do that for you?”

The hand on his arm gently turned Aeo to his back again, and Aeo meagerly rubbed his eyes with one hand. For a moment, Aeo allowed himself to regain a small measure of calm, and he carefully looked upwards upon the spectacled face of his mentor.

“Why?” Aeo asked with a whimper. “Why do you care about me?”

Leon’s face melted into a confident smile.

“Because,” he said. “You’re just like me. Unsure of yourself. Afraid. You just need a chance to prove otherwise. You’re worth saving, Aeo.”

Aeo wasn’t sure, but Leon might have given Hala a knowing nod.

“And if I’m the first person you’ve ever heard say that to you, then prepare to be surprised… Because we’re going to a place that is filled with masters just like me that will care about you in much the same way.”

“Aeo, dear,” said Hala, resting a webbed hand on his arm. “In just these few days I’ve known you, you’ve become precious to me as well. Perhaps it’s simply the mother in me, but I know you’re going to grow up to do incredible things. Remember, fire doesn’t just destroy. It cooks food, it lights up dark caves, it brings warmth to everyone around it. You’re going to become a light to everyone you meet. Pick would like nothing more than this, I’m certain of it.”

Aeo’s heart continued to burn at the thought of the young wolf, but his tears slowly stopped falling. Leon was right; he’d never heard this before. It didn’t seem right. Surely Leon and Hala spoke of someone else. Someone who deserved happiness. But no, as he opened his eyes again from wiping his eyes, Leon and Hala both looked right at him.

“Come on,” Leon said. “The open road awaits us, and we have a long way to travel. Do you think you can stand?”

Aeo frowned, wincing at the pain.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly.

“No, it’s okay, Aeo,” Leon said. “Don’t try, I’ll carry you to the wagon. It’ll be a bit bumpy and chilly until we cross the mountain, but you’ll be able to rest as we go.”

“Don’t forget his fur blankets and pillow,” Hala said. “Those are absolutely his to keep. But what about Pick’s furs? Will you be warm enough without taking them? If he and Shera truly aren’t coming back, then perhaps…”

Leon sighed.

“No,” he said. “It wouldn’t feel right. If they do come back when things are more peaceful, they’ll have a place to rest.”

Parting his fur blanket, Leon bent down and lifted Aeo into his arms with surprising ease. Then, stepping into the light beyond the mouth of the cave, the temperature plummeted as the wind curled delicate particles of ice about, sapping his body heat away almost instantly. But Leon didn’t have to carry him far. A large wagon with a shallow canvas covering awaited only a few yards from the cave, harnessed to a large and powerful steed he didn’t recognize.

“Aeo,” Leon said, stopping a moment in front of the horse. “This is Poro. She has enjoyed living here almost as much as I have, although I daresay she hasn’t had proper exercise in quite a long while. We’ll have to keep our pace slow but steady.”

The horse turned her head to look at Aeo and Leon, pushing her long snout into Leon’s arms and Aeo’s side. Aeo reached out an arm and gently patted the mare’s forehead between her eyes.

“Hi Poro,” he said quietly.

Poro grunted. Her hot breath visibly escaped her nostrils, whipping away in the cold air.

“I tried to leave you as much room as I could,” Leon said, stepping towards the back of the wagon. “All the crates and boxes are secure, but just so you’re aware, there are a few hidden compartments with preservation wards to help keep the stored ingredients fresh until we arrive at Everspring. So if you find them, try to keep your fingers away from the wards… It might dispel them and spoil everything.”

“Dis-spell, s-sir?” Aeo asked.

“Make them vanish,” Leon said.

“Oh,” Aeo said. “Okay.”

“Oh, and if anyone on the road asks what our cargo is, you probably shouldn’t say anything. I can do the talking. I’ll simply say I’m your new master. Which, I suppose is true, I am an Academy master, not your… well, you know what I mean.”

Awaiting him in the center of the wagon floor between the many crates lay Leon’s fur bedding. Fortunately, just enough room for Aeo. Unable to carry him further inside, Leon placed Aeo through the wide opening of the cart, allowing Aeo to grit his teeth and haul himself deeper in. The canvas did little to keep the chill at bay, and the pain in his eye and in his chest consumed his strength, but Aeo successfully motioned himself backwards until he sat upon the blankets.

“I’ll be back with your-”

“Leon! A little help?”

Leon looked and bent down for a moment. When he arose, he held in both his hands the spherical shape of a thick-jacketed lady-frog. She hopped from the man’s hands and into the wagon just in front of the boy.

“I’ll be back with your blankets, Aeo,” Leon said, and he disappeared back to the cave.

“Oh, it’s so c-c-cold,” Hala said, clasping her arms around her. Aeo did the same, rubbing his bare shoulders. “Will you be all right, Aeo? Truly? It pains me to see you leave like this. I feel as though I’ve done so little to help you…”

Aeo’s eyebrows raised.

“But…” he said. “But you made my boots.”

Aeo looked down at the floor.

“It’s the nicest thing anyone’s ever done for me.”

“Oh, that I had time to do more,” Hala said, stepping towards the boy. “It was my pleasure. That anyone could make such a kind boy a slave is beyond me.”

“It’s my red eyes,” Aeo whispered. “And my red hair. I wish they were normal. Then people wouldn’t treat me different.”

“Well, you know something?” Hala said, inching closer. “When I was young, I wished I could be a great wolf instead of a tiny frog. They were so strong and powerful, so capable… Just like Shera. But I learned I could do things with my webby fingers that their paws and teeth couldn’t. Like sewing, tanning, and sketching.”

Hala lifted a finger.

“So you remember, young humil,” she said. “Your eyes and your hair don’t define your talents, and they don’t define your heart. Learn all you can at this Academy. Discover what you can do that nobody else can. And please…”

Hala wiped a tear from her eye.

“Promise me you’ll take care of Leon. I have a feeling he’s going to need your help just like you need his.”

“My help?” Aeo asked. “But he’s so… sure and right. All the time. How could I help him?”

She leaned forward and, to the boy’s surprise, gave Aeo a gentle hug, opening her arms around Aeo’s chest as wide as she possibly could; her stuffy round coat got in the way.

“Just be good to each other,” she said to Aeo. “I don’t know what you believe, Aeo, but I know the Goddess is watching over you. Both of you. You trust in Her, and she’ll guide you to safety.”

Aeo sniffed at the cold air and realized something.

“I’m going to miss you,” he said quietly, wrapping his arms around the frog as best he could.

“And I’m going to miss you too, my dear sweet boy…” Hala said. “I know we may never see each other again, but if you ever decide to climb the mountain, you come find me. I’d love to hear about everything you learn.”

“I’ll come back,” Aeo said. “I will, I promise…”

Leon appeared and dropped an armful of fur blankets into the wagon, along with his personal bag.

“I suppose it’s time,” he said.

Aeo released Hala and she pulled back after patting Aeo’s cheek. Stepping onto the furs, she hobbled over to Leon and gave him an embrace as well.

“I don’t care if it takes you a lifetime to return,” Hala said to him. “I want to see your face again. You come back, understand?”

“I’ll try, Hala, you know I’ll try,” Leon said, hugging her. “If only to make sure you and your family are still safe.”

Leon lifted Hala again and bent down to place her upon the snowy ground. He then slid into place a wooden slat to the opening of the wagon to ensure nothing fell out. Aeo didn’t see Hala for a moment until she stepped back far enough to look past it.

“You two travel safely!” she shouted above the wind, waving her hand and hopping up and down. “Look after each other, now! Good-bye! Stay warm! Make sure you get plenty to eat! And plenty of rest!”

“We will, Hala!” said Leon, disappearing to mount the front of the wagon. “Good-bye!”

Aeo covered himself in his fur blanket and waved back at the small frog. After a moment, the wagon bucked forwards, rumbling across the icy earth. Hala began to fade into the snowy morning, waving all the while.

“Good-bye,” he whispered. When Aeo could no longer see Hala or the cave, he laid down and buried himself in his fur blankets and began to cry.


blogtitle

Alyssum – Chapter Ten

“No… No, no… No…”

Consciousness returned. Aeo felt heat returning to his body, but his mind floated like a cork on a pond. He felt as though he’d been drugged, and a terrible bitterness on his tongue confirmed it. A pair of warm hands held his ears, then his chin, then his shoulders. Everything ached. Aeo felt the hands restrain his arms and hold him down. In return, Aeo kicked and screamed in the darkness, clawing the hands away.

“No…! No, let me go! Let me go!

“Aeo, calm down!” a voice whispered. “Open your eyes! It’s me! Aeo, it’s me!”

Aeo’s eyes opened. He’d been too scared to realize they weren’t. He no longer saw a bright sun, nor even a sky above his head, but a stone ceiling covered in stalactites. The glow of a warm fire reflected from the wet rock, and somewhere beyond the wind howled furiously. It was the cave. His eyes focused and fell upon the visage of a man. Hazel eyes, rough stubble on his chin, a gentleman’s face.

“L-Leon,” Aeo whispered, his muscles relaxing. “But… I th-thought you were…”

In Leon’s hand was a opaque glass bottle with a rough paper label adhered to the side that Aeo couldn’t read.

“Here, drink a little of this, careful now…” Leon said, leaning the bottle to Aeo’s lips. “Virmilis root extract to help your body warm, plus ginger for pain. It doesn’t taste terribly good, but it should help immediately. We have little time.”

Aeo felt the chalky liquid pass across his tongue, and he forced himself to swallow before the hideous taste overpowered him.

“I should have protected you,” Leon said. He had yet to clean his bloody upper lip and chin from Shera’s assault. “Damn it, this should never have happened. I should have made up my mind days ago to leave. I hesitated.”

Aeo frowned and tried to sit up from his bed of furs. It was then that he realized that if Harthoon hadn’t actually fractured the lower portion of his ribcage with his boot, it certainly felt like he had. He let out a pitiful cry as he relaxed and began to sob from the intense pain. How he hadn’t felt the crushing injury earlier, he didn’t know.

“It’s all m-my fault…” he whispered pitifully, wrapping his arms around his chest. “They killed… they k-killed him…”

“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. “You are the last person I blame. If Shera hadn’t been so reckless, I could have done… something. I can’t imagine how Shera could have allowed Pick to be captured. Perhaps they’d been seen by the hunters, and they’d simply outnumbered them. I saw the hunter’s… bodies… all the way down the mountain; they very nearly found the caves.”

“But… how…?” Aeo said though sobbing breaths. “How did they know…?”

“It’s very… possible,” Leon said slowly. “You see, when… some wealthy Antielli slave owners purchase a new slave, they… they have a sample taken from them. Blood, for instance, or hair. For… security reasons, should they ever run away.”

Aeo nearly glared at Leon.

“I don’t… unders-s-stand…”

“Well, any talented evoker would then…” Leon took a breath. “…be able to view the world through the senses of the slave… and divine their precise location.”

Aeo trembled, tears coursing down the sides of his face.

“It w-was me…” he whispered, firmly shutting his eyes. “B-because of me… he’s dead because of m-me!”

“Look at me, Aeo,” Leon said firmly, shaking Aeo’s arm. “Look at me.”

It took the boy a moment before he dared to. Then, Leon leaned in close.

“Pick might be alive. The hunters don’t have him.”

Aeo’s heart skipped a beat.

“But… B-but I saw him…” he said. “The hunters were dragging him away, and, and, and… he wasn’t there wh-when I…”

“Shera took him,” Leon said. “I was coming down the mountain to search for you and I saw them together. Shera had Pick in her jaws, and she was carrying him north past the mountain. I don’t know if she sensed my presence… Considering what she did to both of us, she probably would have torn me to pieces if I had approached. I didn’t see Pick moving, and… and it did appear as if he’d been shot multiple times with arrows or bolts. Burning hells, she was covered in arrows herself. I don’t know if the little wolf is still alive, but…”

Leon shook his head and turned away.

“Thank Tiathys those butchers don’t have him…”

“Leon! Aeo!” a horrified voice called from the entrance of the cave.

Aeo gritted through the pain and squinted to see the source. The great wooden door that once protected the cave from the cold had broken inwards, detached from its post and hanging loosely against the far wall. But beneath the door was a small sphere of fur. The coat was quickly removed, and out hopped Hala from within, dressed in her leather work outfit.

“Hala,” Leon said, standing to his feet in her presence.

“Oh, Goddess preserve us all!” She leapt on all fours to Aeo’s side, gently placing her chilled webbed fingers on Aeo’s shoulder. “Aeo, my poor boy, you’re both… bleeding! What happened, Leon, what happened? The entire mountain felt Shera’s screaming! Where are they, Leon? Answer me!”

“I don’t know,” Leon admitted, slumping to the ground and wiping his lip with the sleeve of his shirt. “Shera’s alive. Pick is… well, I don’t know if he survived his wounds. But I saw them both travelling north towards the forests beyond. I… don’t think they’re going to return.”

“Not going to…!” Hala gasped, and suddenly tears filled her eyes as well. “No… No, they mustn’t! No, not poor Pick!”

“Humil hunters,” Leon said, reaching for Hala’s hand. “They… they must have spotted the wolves patrolling the mountain and captured Pick. I would have done something… but Shera burst into the cave and stole Aeo away after knocking us both unconscious. Shera must have thought… I can’t say for certain… I believe she thought to trade Aeo’s life for Pick’s.”

Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s forehead.

“Does that sound right?” he asked.

Without opening his eyes, Aeo nodded. About the hunters being able to track Aeo through magickal means, Leon said nothing.

“Goddess, sweet Goddess…” Hala whispered. “My dear friends… You must do something, Leon, you must do something! We must search for Shera, call her back, and then… and then you can heal Pick, and… and…!”

“Hala,” Leon said. “I’m sorry, but I can’t do that. It’s too late. Shera hardly tolerated my presence on this mountain. Now that humils have threatened her life, and… her child’s life… she would never forgive me for putting them at risk by living here for so long. She will probably never trust another humil again, especially me. And now that the hunters know where they live, they’ll search these caves and continue to track her. She knew she had to leave.”

Hala silently wept. The truth pierced through all of them.

“Aeo and I, we… We have to leave, Hala.”

“No!” Hala shouted, revoking her hand and taking a step back. “Not you two as well! I’ll never forgive you, Leon Sirelu! Not ever! You can’t leave, not now, of all times!”

“We have no choice,” Leon said. “Aeo caused the terrible fire that destroyed the humil village. He was a slave, Hala, and he ran away from his captors. For both reasons, the hunters and villagers will be coming for him just as much as they hunt for Shera. His life is in danger. I plan on taking him away, far away from this place, to keep him safe.”

Aeo’s eyes opened.

“…really?” he asked weakly.

“Yes,” Leon said with a nod. “I’m taking you to a place where you’ll never be hurt again. The Everspring Academy. You’ll learn how to control your magick, and much much more. It has been my home for many years, and I hope it will become yours.”

Whether it was the medicine Leon had given him or the news of a new home, Aeo felt warmth begin to fill his chest.

“I propose we take this one step at a time,” Leon said. “I must leave. Tonight. I’ll return in the early hours, Goddess-willing, and pack up my things. Too many things to do, too many… but this will give Aeo a chance to recover from his ordeal. Truth be told, I had expected… ah, I don’t know what I expected. Damn it, I thought I’d have more time.”

Hala turned towards Aeo and knelt down before his face, so close that Aeo’s eyes crossed just to see her in focus. From one of her pockets she produced a tiny woven cloth and proceeded to wipe the boy’s upper lip, as little as it helped. Aeo didn’t have the energy or the nerve to refuse the simple kindness. He hadn’t noticed before, but Hala had a trio of overlapping eyelids, and they worked in unison to wipe her tears away.

“Stay with him?” Leon asked, offering his hand to Hala again. Hala placed her hand on his, holding back her sadness as best she could.

“Of course,” she replied quietly. “Though I may… sneak out for a moment, tell my kin what happened… If the humils are coming, and Shera can no longer protect us… then we may need to prepare and move further into the underdeep…”

“Yet another reason why we must leave soon,” Leon said. “To protect you and your family. To hide this sacred place. There is… a secret here that they must never find. I intend to seal the entrance to my study when I leave.”

“A secret?” Hala said, wiping the tears from beneath her eyes. “Something you discovered in your research? You’ve never said anything about it.”

Leon nodded.

“I know I often kept information of my work private from you, and I’m sorry for that…” he said. “But I did so to keep you safe. The red flowers, alyssum. The ones you and your family avoid… They are an incredibly dangerous poison to… certain people. They aren’t found anywhere but on this mountain. If they are discovered in amounts like those that grow in the deep caves and used as a weapon, many people will die.”

“Leon…” Hala said with a gasp. “Surely you haven’t studied the flower to… to…”

“No, Hala,” Leon replied. “I intend to hurt no one. In fact, my research might enable me to protect the ones I love. I only have hopes that alyssum will become a shield instead of a weapon. But… at this point, my research is incomplete. I’ll have to return to the Academy to complete it.”

“I can’t pretend to understand your arts,” Hala admitted, standing to her feet. “But… I trust you, Leon Sirelu. You’ve been nothing but Goddess-sent since you came to live here. I’m grateful to have called you my friend. I’m glad Shera allowed you to stay.”

Leon held his hand to his forehead.

“The pleasure was all mine, Hala,” he said quietly. “But Shera was right about me. I may not have brought hunters to your doorstep, but my arrival shattered the peace of this mountain. I can only pray that Tiathys will forgive me if my mission has doomed you, Shera, Pick, Aeo… and many others.”

Leon turned to Aeo, who appeared to be sleeping but heard every word of the short conversation. With the pause, the boy’s eyes slowly opened.

“I don’t know if I can repair the door on my own,” Leon said. “But I’ll leave a ward to maintain the temperature. With all the bloodshed today, I can’t imagine more hunters will attempt a counter-assault until dawn. So we must be ready to leave by then. Do you feel well enough to stand, Aeo?”

Aeo shook his head.

“It hurts… right here, s-sir,” he said, holding his abdomen. “Someone… stepped on me really hard.”

The sounds of Harthoon’s screams engulfed his mind.

“And to think…” Hala said, her voice cracking as she again bent down to wipe blood from Aeo’s lip. “I had planned on making you such a fine leather jacket, my dear boy… it might have protected you from those wicked men.”

Aeo merely nodded. He said nothing of the incident and never intended to do so as long as he lived.


OlvarenFire


Olvaren no longer existed. Harthoon hadn’t been exaggerating; the fire had indeed burned for four full days, consuming everything flammable and adhering to anything non-flammable. The fire could not be extinguished by any means tried, and all the men, women, and children that called the village home could only carry their most important belongings away from their thatched houses as it spread. The inn was an inn no longer, only a husk of foundation stones. The marketplace stalls had fallen to ash and scattered by the valley winds. And the great hall, which had stood for centuries, constructed around the mighty bones of long-dead mephandras, had collapsed into a large pile of unrecognizable rubble. Even portions of the forest that surrounded Olvaren had been consumed in the blaze.

Magick, it was. Even the villagers recognized magickal unquenchable fire. But who had started such a catastrophe? What villainous arsonist had the talent and the wickedness to lay waste to a quiet, innocent village?

When Ariste and Harthoon Malin cried for assistance in extinguishing the flames in the Grey Pale on the first day of the disaster, they claimed the fire had been started by their Edian slave boy. At first, the constable had believed them and called for the guard to search for the slave. But when the fire grew and leapt to nearby buildings despite a village-well-worth of water poured upon it, the constable immediately called for a nearby capital scholar to assist and had the couple detained and interrogated. There was little chance a young boy had the power to accomplish so much destruction.

They vehemently denied the accusation that the fire had been started deliberately, especially given the magickal nature of the flames; neither had talents with magick. Did they own illegal substances such as spark detonators or fire salts? Why would they? They were simple innkeepers, and very much lacking mining or alchemy licenses. Did they know anyone with magickal abilities that held a grudge against them and their business? They honestly didn’t know anyone… besides the boy, of course. Based on their particularly racist descriptions of the boy as a twisted and hateful Edian nine-year old who regularly made their lives a living hell, the constable quietly wondered about their reliability as witnesses.

When the capital scholar arrived in town on the morning of the second day, the fire lay like a blanket of lava across half of the village’s acreage, steadily burning and spreading across even bare ground; the villagers that survived the slow-spreading fire retreated to a clearing down the highway about two miles away. Though his animus was not attuned to liquid thaumaturgy, the scholar did his best to influence the fire away from the great hall and the eastern residences with streams of magickal water. He attempted to abjure glistening walls of energy to halt the fire’s advance. He even attempted to concoct cocktail bombs in glass bottles that would physically force the fire to go out. With multiple craters consumed in the flames, he admitted defeat at the end of day two.

With the only known suspect being the Edian slave, the constable decided the only thing they could do was attempt to find the boy and somehow convince him to put an end to the fire. Coincidentally (or not), one of the few items that Ariste had smuggled out of the inn before it collapsed was a small vial of long-dried blood. The capitol scholar admitted his excitement; he’d only rarely performed such evocations. After all, only very wealthy slaveowners could afford to have slave samples prepared and preserved for such a ritual years after coagulating and expiring. With the blood vial, a carefully-designed glyph traced upon a page in his personal grimoire, and an hour’s time, the scholar witnessed several incredible things.

First was the location of the boy: as if viewing the entirety of Falas from an eagle’s perspective, a red dot became illuminated in his mind situated in a cave near the mountain’s peak. Second, and by far the most intriguing, the boy was looking upon, smelling, and listening to the panting of an unidentified subspecies of canis lupis about the size of a lion – and unbelievably, the wolf looked like a young pup instead of full grown. Somehow, this boy had survived the chill of the mountain by living in a cave that housed giant wolves.

The scholar gave his report to the constable with great enthusiasm, and called for an immediate alert to be sent to the Hunter’s Guild to capture these wolves for study and secure the boy. The constable, more concerned about his people’s immediate safety, agreed on the condition that the hunters supply aid to the displaced villagers. So, despite the village’s meager finances, the constable made the order.

On the morning of day three, the message was delivered by the scholar’s unique evocation magick to the Guild in San’Drael. From San’Drael, the order was delivered to the Guild handlers nearest to Olvaren by the same means. Two dozen hunters arrived in what remained of Olvaren by the end of day three and prepared a small camp for themselves and as many of the villagers as possible.

Sadness over the loss of their homes was replaced with anger when the village discovered the true source of the fire. A bastard child of Edia, the nation of thieves and murderers to the West. As was often said, nothing good ever came from the West, least of which were the witch-children of sorcerers. Why the Malins had taken such a volatile child into their home was beyond their understanding. There was a reason Antiell waged constant war against them: their very presence endangered innocent Antielli lives. The fire stood as a testament to the fact. If even a child of Edia could cause such destruction, what right did an entire nation of backwards shamans and traitors have to exist?

It was their fault, after all, that the War two centuries ago had even continued on for as long as it did. It was their fault that entire lineages had perished in a single brief moment. It was their fault that the world had been fractured.

It was their fault the Wound existed.

For a time, it seemed that nothing would stop the inferno from devouring everything. But on the morning of the fourth day, as abruptly and mysteriously as it had begun, the wide-burning flames all shrunk to nothing and died in unison within twenty seconds. Not even smoke or embers were left behind, only black char.

What could this mean, the constable demanded of the capital scholar. Flustered, the scholar claimed he had no idea. But he advised caution, as such fires could reignite at any moment. And so the hunters were told to hold their advance up the mountain in case the fire resumed. In the meantime, they were directed to perform damage control for the village and tend to the victims that had received burns or inhaled too much smoke. They also made time to bury the dead, despite the hardness of the frigid earth. Rows of tents were assembled for the surviving villagers and ever-increasing amounts of hunters, developing until the remains of the village resembled a camped army.

The anger of the villagers steadily grew. One day of waiting passed to two, and then to three. The hunters yearned for prey, with some even tempted to disobey orders and scout the outskirts of the village for wolf tracks. Some of the villagers surrounded the constable’s tent in a sort of mob, demanding for the hunt to begin and for the Edian boy to be found and hung. Even Harthoon, the fool of a drunk, had sobered, shaved, and demanded to be released like a war hound, ready to kill. Besides that, the constable was running out of funds to keep so many hunters dedicated to the cause. If the hunt was to happen, it had to happen immediately.

So it did.

Only seven of the fifty-two souls made it back alive. Without their prize or the boy.

The night was colder than usual, a reminder that winter was soon to come upon the charred corpse of Olvaren. Tent flaps rustled in the wind as shadowed figures huddled around campfires and lit torches. News had reached them that the hunters had managed to kill the great wolf’s pup, and all the guards that remained in the makeshift camp were trembling from more than just the frigid air. Like the stories they’d all heard as children about the mephandras, the mother wolf was just as likely to descend from the mountain and devour them all in retaliation.

But out of the darkness of the mountain came not a creature, but a man. A strange man in foreign clothes, wearing a thin pair of spectacles and a luxurious coat. He approached the camp cautiously from the direction of the destroyed village, but not cautiously enough to avoid drawing plenty of attention to himself. A group of three guards spotted him immediately, drawing their swords and torches and racing towards him. The man stopped in his tracks and raised his hands in surrender.

“Who are you?!” demanded a guard.

“Identify yourself!” demanded another.

“Gentlemen,” the man said. “My name is Leon Sirelu, my mission is a peaceful one. I am a travelling scholar from the Everspring Academy in Ashant. I can produce my credentials if need be. If possible, I’d like to speak to whoever is in charge of the village.”

“Why?” demanded the first. “If’n ye came from that direction, ye might’a seen there isn’t a village no longer. We’ve been through enough without some fancy wizard showing up an’ makin’ things worse.”

“Believe me, I sympathize with your loss and intend you no harm,” Leon said. “In fact, I’d like to make a deal that would help Olvaren recover from the fire. Winter is almost upon us, and the sooner you can rebuild your homes and stock up supplies, the less your people will suffer.”

The guards looked at each other, puzzled.

“We’re listening,” said the second guard.

Leon’s hands lowered and dug into his coat pocket, no doubt making the guards nervous. But in a quick second, he produced what looked like a small Briolette-cut gemstone in the shape of a raindrop. Even in the darkness, it appeared to be a ruby of exceeding clarity, and radiated a warm pink light from within its facets.

“Do you know what this is?” Leon asked, holding the gemstone in his open, gloved hand.

The guards peered upon it uncomfortably.

“That’s a queer light, innit?” said the first guard. “Like them fancy glass lights they got in San’Drael.”

“More n’ likely to explode, no doubt,” said the third.

“It’s perfectly safe, I can assure you,” Leon said. “This is crystalized Everspring aether. Very valuable in Antiell. A stone like this sold to the right buyer would support a village like Olvaren for many seasons. I’d like to offer it to your people on a few conditions.”

“Such as?” asked the second guard.

“Well,” Leon said, withdrawing the stone. “I would leave them for your leaders to consider. This is why I humbly request to speak with the law enforcement or Guild representative in charge.”

The guards again looks at each other for a moment and finally shrugged their shoulders.

“Fine,” said the first. “Come with us.”


aetherstone


“And what brings an Everspring Academy master to a small village in Antiell at a time like this?” asked Constable Rachars, scanning his eyes over Leon’s identification packet. “Aren’t all masters of the Academy ashanti these days?”

The large tent Leon and three other people inhabited at that moment contained a cot, a rough-hewn officer’s desk, and a few chairs, all no doubt saved from the Great Hall before it burned down. Beside the constable stood a gruff-looking woman at sharp attention who wore chainmail and thick leathers, as well as a variety of scars on her chin and nose; no doubt a ranking member of the Hunter’s Guild. The third was a wiry young man with a sharp nose and a thick pair of glasses, dressed in the unmistakable martial uniform of the San’Drael Academy.

“Actually, no, sir,” Leon said congenially. “The Academy has guidelines that allows members of any race to join, so long as they demonstrate the proper talents and discipline. My specialty is the alchemical arts. I’ve taken a sabbatical to study the plants, roots, and herbs native to this mountain, a mission of utmost importance to the Academy. You may have seen me a few times visiting the marketplace and the inn looking to restock my supplies.”

“I must admit, I have not,” the constable said, offering the packet back to Leon and leaning back in his chair. “But I’ll take you at your word, as my duties often call me away from the village proper. Apparently, you’ve come bearing glad tidings in this time of sorrow. Though I must ask: why do you choose to appear to help now?”

“For a few unfortunate reasons, truth be told,” Leon said. “I saw the orange glow of the flames from many miles away at my camp, and at first I thought perhaps some farmers were disposing of garbage or clearing the forest for future farmland. That night, however, I realized something far worse had occured. I intended to come and offer my services to you then… a number of things occurred, not the least of which was an evocation from my superiors concerning my mission that demanded my full attention. A deadline for my studies, you might say, for an alchemical solution that could cure a plague that had swept through the refugee populations south of the capital. No doubt you’ve heard of the Revari sky pirate raids that sacked the southeast coastal towns in Ashant.”

“I have,” said the constable. “Awful business, that. They’ve even had the gall to attack the Royal Navy as far north as Belstadt.”

“That is news to me,” Leon said. “Damn pirates. It’s terrible that they would stoop so low as to spread disease to make their brutal conquests more simple.”

“How thrilling,” said the capital scholar. “Pray tell, what dastardly plague did they employ? Eh, what was the cure?”

Leon appeared grim.

“When I asked my superiors,” he said. “They said the plague has no name, as it has yet to be identified. Its composition is most unpleasant, to say the least. To spare you the gritty details, the natural resources of Falas’ proved to be most beneficial in stemming the worst of the symptoms. A systemic attack on the lungs and soft tissues of the body, irreversible blindness, painful purple boils that burst at the slightest touch… The evocation message spared me any images, thank the Goddess. As of yet, however, I have found no stable cure.”

“Boils, blindness, infection of the lungs…” the scholar said, stroking his chin. The Hunter leader looked down upon him with scorn, but said nothing. “How awful. Dowry’s Rot, perhaps? No, the boils would never burst. Or Dragon Fang Blight? Did the victims mention a burning sensation in their chest, or terrible excesses of phlegm?”

Before Leon could answer, Rachars lifted his hand.

“I believe we’re getting a bit off-track,” he said. “I’m told by my guards, Master Sirelu, that you’ve come offering a deal in exchange for the funds to rebuild Olvaren. A seemingly outlandish deal, but a welcome one. I would not ask if you were a wealthy man had you not offered.”

“And I would not reveal it except to perform good works with my finances,” Leon said. “My father was the head Archivist in the Royal Archives of San’Doria, and… admittedly left me a lofty inheritance when he died. While it has enabled me to study and travel to my heart’s content, I also see it as a civic duty to share my father’s wealth with the less fortunate. He would have had it no other way.”

“To which we are extremely grateful,” said the constable. “Although specifically, the guards tell me you have an item of particular value to trade in exchange for a few… conditions?”

“Of course,” Leon said. “Please, take a look.”

Leon produced the aether gemstone from his pocket, gently placing it on the wooden table. The gemstone beside the lit candle on the table produced about as much light except in delicate gently-pulsating pink. The constable leaned in to get a better look; the scholar leaned in even closer, quite obviously enthralled. The huntress did not look impressed.

“Dear Goddess,” said the scholar, adjusting his glasses. “Is that what I think it is?”

“Crystalized aether from the Everspring, yes,” Leon said. “Pure undiluted animis. It was a gift from my father the day I entered the Academy. He told me to use it only if the need was ever great enough. I have been fortunate to have never seen danger terrible enough to necessitate using the stone. And I am all the more glad for it, as I’ve been told aether in this form is quite rare in Antiell.”

“It is, good sir, it is!” said the scholar. “This stone could represent a chance to study one of the few sources of pure magick left in the world!” He turned to the constable, suddenly very serious. “The Ashanti are very protective of the Everspring, sir, and I’m sure you are familiar with the state treaties that forbid the trade of aether across borders.”

“Of that, I am also aware,” Leon said before the constable could speak. “You don’t have to accept my word only, but the treaties also state that masters of the Everspring Academy have rights regarding the trade and donation of natural resources, including aether from the well. I wouldn’t give up such a precious keepsake knowing I was acting against the law.”

“Oh, certainly not, good sir!” said the scholar. “I meant no offense, of course.”

“None taken,” Leon said.

“Well, this is certainly most generous of you, Master Sirelu,” said the constable. He turned to the scholar. “I must admit, I know nothing about matters of aether and magick. What is the value of such a stone?”

“Why, it is positively invaluable!” said the scholar. When he received a particularly intense glare from both the constable and the huntress, he cleared his throat. “Eh, I mean, to put an exact price on Everspring aether is difficult… But, if I may speak plainly, San’Drael Academy has been bargaining with the Ashanti government for decades to gain access to the well. Any aether willing traded to the Academy is welcome, but a pure aether crystal… Oh, it would certainly pay enough to restore the village, and perhaps more.”

“Very well,” the constable said with a nod.. “However, you mentioned, Master Sirelu, that this gift comes with conditions.”

Leon nodded.

“It does,” he said. “Namely, three. Concerning one in particular, I have hope that mercy will go before justice.”

“I’m listening,” said the constable, folding his hands upon the table and leaning forwards.

“First,” Leon said. “Is that I would ask that the villagers of Olvaren to not explore or map the highest peaks of Falas for at least the coming five years. The mephandras that so dominated the mountain may be gone, but there remain many dangers at those higher altitudes, not the least of which are the giant wolves that inhabit the region.”

The constable’s face sharpened, and the huntress’ head cocked to one side ever so slightly.

“You know of them?” Rachars asked. “And you live to tell the tale?”

“Only barely,” Leon said. “It’s why my sabbatical has taken so long. I’ve avoided them for months.”

“Why five years?” asked the scholar curiously. “Why not ten? Twenty? Why would anyone ever want to map the mountain with those… things living up there?”

“During my time on Falas,” Leon said. “I’ve chanced upon wolf tracks and even spotted several moving west across the mountain passes. I’ve developed the impression that the wolves are migrating away from the area, but it will take time. Five years will grant the villagers protection from the wolves as they depart, after which you can map to your heart’s content. Assuming my information is correct, this news should greatly put your mind at ease.”

“It does, at that,” said the constable. “But what about…”

The constable looked at the huntress for a moment, and she back at him. With an annoyed look on her face, she nodded.

“I don’t know if you are aware,” he said. “But we lost many good men and women to one of the great wolves today. Forty-five souls ripped apart in less than half an hour; they never stood a chance. If we agree to your first condition, what of our fallen hunters up on the mountain? We will need to retrieve their bodies before the mountain freezes them.”

“I am aware of the battle,” Leon said. “I daresay the entire mountain heard it. Of course I wouldn’t expect you to abandon them. I simply worry for the safety of those that do, and all those that might follow after them. Which, actually, leads to my second condition.”

“Which is?”

“I simply ask that the wolves not be tracked or hunted.”

The huntress unfolded her arms and glared at Leon.

“Are you joking?” she demanded. “That’s our livelihood you’re talking about. Do you know how much the wizards at the capital are offering for one of those talking wolves captured alive, or even dead? We can’t agree to this!”

“Is it coin that worries you?” Leon said quickly, suddenly indignant. “Or is it revenge for the hunters that were slaughtered today? How many more of your guildmates will have to die before you realize that nature has more power than you ever give it credit for?”

The constable’s breath was taken, and somehow the huntress’ glare became even more intense.

“Don’t you dare speak to me of nature, wizard,” she said. “This is horseshit, I’ve spent my entire life in nature, I’m not accepting anything-”

Lieutenant,” barked the constable. “Mind your tongue!”

“Believe me or not,” Leon said, raising his hand. “Not hunting these creatures will benefit you more than you realize. Not simply in the amount of lives that will be spared a quick and gruesome death, but in the preservation of an ecosystem that relies on their presence to be self-sustaining. Again, not to bore you with details, but the wolves’ sudden westerly departure will take its toll on the forests that encircle this side of the mountain. I suspect it will even affect positively Olvaren in the next few seasons. Herbivores will repopulate, and more than likely offer you rich environments for game.”

“He’s right,” said the scholar. “Mount Urden is a great example… Or counter-example, if you will. Remember the odagran culling a few decades ago, Lieutenant? With the carnivores gone, the herbivore population exploded, and the hunting was good… for a while. Unfortunately, they ate everything green, leading to famine and drought for many many years.”

“Tch,” said the huntress glumly, folding her arms. “Yes, I remember. One of the many… messes the early Guild got into trying to prove itself.”

“Fine then. I believe we can accept the first and the second condition,” the constable said. “And your third?”

Leon paused, wiping his upper lip with his hand.

“I will speak plainly,” he said. “I know the source of the fire that burned down this village.”

“You do,” said the constable in surprise.

“I do,” Leon said. “I’m certain you do as well. A boy, a young Edian boy wandered into my camp a few days after the fire. He was quite frightened by something, and he said something about the giant wolves. At first, I thought nothing of this, but then I recognized that he had approached my camp from the mountain and not from the village.”

“You believe he survived the mountain by hiding in one of their dens?” asked the scholar. “I told you, Constable! It’s just as I saw!”

Leon nodded.

“He is malnourished and has many injuries, including deep scratches and several bruises on his face and arms. He looks as though he’d suffered serious physical abuse, although whether he received his injuries from the wolves or by… other means, I don’t know.”

“I’ve seen this boy on some occasions,” said the constable. “He is a slave, belonging to the owners of the inn. You have him under your care?”

“I do,” said Leon. “And I assumed he might belong to one of the wealthier families in Olvaren. Although the boy has withheld many details out of fear regarding the fire and his departure into the forest, my expertise in the field of thaumaturgy led me to recognize something peculiar in him. Something I assume you’ve pieced together from the evidence.”

“The boy’s animis is flame,” said the scholar with characteristic enthusiasm. “My goodness, he truly was the cause of the catastrophe! His animis potential must be incredible if he could make an entire village burn down at so young an age!”

“I would hesitate to be so excited,” said Leon, adjusting his spectacles. “The boy is… damaged. At first I assumed little, but now I suspect he suffered years of physical and mental abuse, which fueled the appearance of his talents in such… spectacular form. Even under my care, the boy has burned me many times on accident. I fear that returning him to the care of the innkeepers will only lead to further incidents.”

“I agree,” the constable said. “But what are you suggesting? The boy wiped Olvaren from the face of the earth, killing many people in the process. Whether an accident or not, manslaughter is punishable by death. Why should we not do away with the whelp and be done with it?”

“Instead of simply ending his life,” Leon said earnestly. “I offer to take the boy away from Olvaren and Antiell entirely. His ownership will transfer to me, as well as any blood or hair samples that may have been taken from him. The Everspring Academy can protect others from his power. Despite his… volatility, he has shown incredible potential. As a master, I am willing to grant him citizenship status in Ashant and tutor him to control his abilities. In exchange for his life, he will never return to Antiell.”

“Exile instead of death,” the constable said. “Interesting. But I don’t understand. Why would you do this for some… nameless Edian slave? Certainly he has strange and powerful magick, but he can’t honestly be worth the trouble to you.”

“I don’t trust you,” accused the huntress with a pointed finger. “Your whole damn story. You’re not just some Goddess-sent saint, loaded with gold and living in the woods pickin’ berries. You know something.” She leaned down in front of Leon. “About the brat. About the wolves. What’s your stake in all of this, anyway? It doesn’t sound like you benefit from helping this village at all.”

“I don’t know what you’re implying,” Leon said to her, keeping a straight face. “But my business on Falas has been strictly academic, and it will continue to be so.”

Leon turned to the constable.

“These are my three conditions, Constable. Quite honestly, if your people have any other hopes of enduring the winter that is quickly approaching, please let me know. Otherwise, I am offering this crystallized aether and as many additional funds as your village will require to survive the coming winter and thrive the year after. More than likely, even your fallen hunters can be compensated for what the crystal is worth. I will even offer you one of my personal evocation markers as a sign of good faith so that we may remain in communication. Are these terms acceptable?”

The constable leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and looking first at the scholar and then at the huntress. There was a long pause.

“I would say most definitely,” the scholar said, speaking up first. “I know the Headmaster would be beside himself to finally have crystallized Everspring aether in his hands.”

“And he would pay for it?” asked the constable. When he saw an animated nod, he turned to Leon. “We would naturally have to get this crystal authenticated as real if we agree to your terms.”

“Without doubt,” said Leon. “Though sooner rather than later, I hope. I must return to my research as soon as possible.”

The huntress glared again, but the constable nodded.

“Of course.”

“How exciting!” said the scholar. “Although to study this stone, I must admit, is beyond my abilities… I never thought I would ever see one of these in person.”

“And you, Lieutenant?” said the constable. “Are you satisfied?”

“Hardly,” she said, folding her arms. “But… if this shiny rock is worth as much as he says it is, and my fallen hunters get proper burials and compensation for their families… I suppose I can’t complain. Much. But you have to admit, none of my men or the villagers are going to like all of this. They’ve all been demanding a successful hunt and a hanging all week. Especially the innkeeper woman. Instead of an execution, you sell her property to this… Academy professor. With the disappearance of her husband, she’s going to go mad.”

“Then perhaps it’s best we keep that part of the deal quiet,” the constable said with a sigh. “The woman and her husband made it quite clear that the boy’s life was forfeit from the beginning. That sounds like forfeiting ownership to me. Besides, she’ll get the funds to build herself a bigger inn, and she’ll have to be satisfied with that. Everyone will have to make do without the execution of some no-name Edian child and move on.”

“I wholeheartedly agree,” Leon said sincerely. “Thank you, Constable. You don’t know what this means me… and to my work. I look forward to seeing this village restored to its former glory.” He held a hand out to the capital scholar. “You do have the boy’s samples, do you not?”

“Oh, of course,” he said, leaning down to his satchel laying on the floor beside his chair. “Let’s see, which pocket did I put it in… Not this one… Ah, here it is. Just this one blood vial. Perfectly preserved, I might add. I believe it will continue to function for more than a few years more, should you ever lose track of the boy. Can’t have a fiery devil like him running free, after all!”

Leon took the vial and held it in his hand. The very small but concentrated sample looked less like blood and more like a sludge-like blackish-brown oil.

“Don’t worry,” he said simply. “He won’t trouble you further.”

“We thank you for your generosity, Master Sirelu,” the constable said. “As you say, we truly are desperate, and your philanthropy will solve the majority of Olvaren’s problems in a most timely fashion. Come, let’s get this stone appraised. I’m certain someone at the Academy is awake at this hour…”

“If not,” said the scholar with glee. “They will certainly want to be!”

Alyssum – Chapter Nine

Alyssum Title

In the week and a half Aeo had been missing, Harthoon the Drunkard became someone Aeo no longer recognized. For as long as Aeo had known him, he’d worn a thick dark beard and wore his curled hair long to his shoulders. His bloodshot hazel eyes were mischievous at best, always looking where they shouldn’t. His posture was nearly always found wanting, making him look like a tired old man. He had worn a dark coat and black trousers wherever he went, and he smelled like horse piss and alcohol.

That man no longer existed. In his place stood a completely sober, clean-shaven, short-haired hunter with bare arms made of iron and wrath in his eyes. Only his voice was unmistakable. Aeo fought for release from Harthoon’s arms, but Harthoon’s grip only tightened, crushing the boy’s ribs and organs in the awkward struggle. Strapped to Harthoon’s back was a short polearm of some fashion used for bludgeoning, and at his belt was a long dagger of frontier make.

Now distant from the roars of the wolf mother and the remains of fallen hunters, Aeo fought all the harder to break free. To his surprise, Harthoon suddenly released him. No, not released: tossed. Quite violently. Aeo tumbled and rolled down a short embankment, not scrambling away fast enough to escape before Harthoon pounced and crouched over him.

“To say that you aren’t worth the blood in your body…” he whispered. His words were uncharacteristically pronounced and brimming with venom. Without adding more, he pulled the long dagger from his belt; it had surely been sharpened precisely for this moment. Breathless, Aeo clawed at the frozen dirt to break away backwards. Harthoon jumped forward with equal agility, slamming a boot on Aeo’s blood-stained chest. “No, no, no, no running away this time. You take everything from me, I take everything from you. That’s the deal!”

Harthoon lifted the gleaming dagger above his head, and thrust it downwards.

Aeo lifted his hands against the sharpened tip, and his eyes squeezed shut.

Both then heard a crisp ping sound, much like the sound of a bard striking a particularly cogent D note on a harp. Harthoon must have had his eyes shut during the blow as well, as it took him a moment to realize that, despite his target laying prone on the ground mere inches away, the dagger had somehow missed the mark. In fact, the strike seem to bounce as though he’d struck plate metal.

“The hell…?” he whispered, raising the dagger again. With added force, the dagger plunged at Aeo’s defensive hands.

Ping, followed by a fading blue light. He nearly fumbled the dagger from the deflection of the stab.

No!” he bellowed.

Harthoon struck the dagger downwards again, this time aiming for the boy’s stomach.

Ping, followed again by a fading blue light.

“No, no, Goddess damn you!”

Harthoon, with both hands, thrust the dagger at Aeo’s head. Aeo flinched.

Ping, followed again by a fading blue light.

“Why… won’t… you… bleed?!” he cried, punctuating each word with a thrust of his dagger. Each was then followed by the bright ping and the fading of magickal blue light.

Aeo’s labored breathing paused. What was happening, how was he doing this? Was he doing this?

“I can’t kill you…” Harthoon whispered, panting. “I can’t… I can’t even kill you…”

He looked at the dagger in his hands.

“I always knew… taking an Edian into our home… was a bad idea. But no, Ariste insisted… on a child. Innocent… But your red eyes followed us everywhere, always watching, always judging. I know your kind. Parasites. No matter how kind we are, giving you food, a place to sleep, water, medicine… Your kind drive decent men insane. Foul bloody magick, it’s always bloody fucking magick….”

Harthoon looked straight into Aeo’s eyes.

“It’s gone, you know. My home. The Grey Pale. The Marketplace. The Great Hall. It’s all gone. Burned down by a magickal fire that water and snow couldn’t extinguish. The fire burned for four days straight. Does that make you happy? First your laziness drove Ariste to the very ends of her health, you drive me to drink and make me the town drunk, and then you light our entire livelihood on fire, poof,” He made a gesture with his hands. “Gone. Nothing but ashes.”

He then pointed up towards the mountain peak.

“Wolves,” he whispered. “You survived Falas by holing up with those bloodthirsty… monsters? What are you, boy? Some kind of fucking demon?”

“They’re not… monsters,” Aeo said with a whisper. “They’re my… friends.”

Harthoon’s head cocked to one side as if madness had taken him.

Friends,” he replied. Harthoon’s boot pressed down against Aeo’s abdomen, forcing the air out of him and leaving him gasping. “Your… friend… just murdered two dozen good hunters, tearing them limb from limb and leaving them to die on the mountain. Your friend just gave you to me to save its ugly spawn. You have no friends, boy. And guess what? I’m going to be a hunter again. That’s right. I’m going to climb this mountain and hunt down every last wolf, kill every last pup, just like the hunters of old did with the mephandras. I’ll be the richest man in Olvaren, and take back what you stole from me. And it’ll be all thanks to you, boy!”

Harthoon sighed, pressing his foot down harder. Aeo’s eyes bulged. He tried to mouth the word ‘stop’, but nothing came out.

“Ah, just like the good old days,” Harthoon said. “When there was wealth to be found in Falas. When we didn’t have to worry about little Edian bastards like you fucking up the world.”

Aeo’s lungs clawed for breath and none came.

Funny,” Harthoon said with a curving grin. “It seems you don’t have a magick spell to help you breathe.”

Aeo grabbed Harthoon’s boot and tried to lift it away, but it pressed down all the more. Whatever chance Aeo had now rested with the Goddess. Harthoon wasn’t about to stop, his eyes glaring down upon Aeo, savoring this singular opportunity second by every painful second.

Fire… Aeo thought. I need fire. Lots of fire.

Leon’s lesson sprang to his oxygen-deprived brain.

Imagine warmth in between your hands. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and between your hands…

To be honest, there wasn’t much heat left in him. But it hardly mattered. Something had to be done, and now. He forced his mind to imagine the largest bonfire possible, a wickedly blazing fire that could melt steel and consume forests. He witnessed in his mind’s eye the heat burning his itching toes, rising through his legs and up his stomach and chest. When his imagination forced the sensation down his arms…

Something clicked.

Not a sound, or at least Aeo didn’t think it was a sound (admittedly, it might have been one of his lower ribs cracking). It was a feeling of acceptance. A concept understood for the first time. A key opening a door. A gateway opening into a warm and fragrant room. Like the first time he’d ever dreamed about the sun and its warm heavenly glow…

That’s when Harthoon’s boot burst into flames. Not delicate candlelight or an inviting campfire flame, either. A thick, turgid white-hot flame in the shape of Aeo’s fingers that clung to the cuff of the heavy leather boot like molten glass. Aeo’s hands released, and the magick expanded a few inches like liquid foam. It happened all in an instant, but he could swear the lava-like flame rolled upwards against gravity like a snake rolling sideways.

Harthoon shrieked and dropped his dagger to the icy ground, lifting his brightly burning leg from Aeo’s stomach.

animation“N-No!! You f-f-fucking Edian piece of shit! Ahhh!”

Nearly as shocked as Harthoon, Aeo scrambled backwards and did his best to inhale. Harthoon, on the other hand, flailed and danced madly at the flames that seized his leg, diving into a nearby snowbank and hastily burying it. To his horror, the magickal flame did not die. In fact, it seemed to feed on the snow as it melted, consuming Harthoon’s boot and clawing its way up Harthoon’s leg. His panic continued as he desperately tried to smother the flames with his hands. Unfortunately, the bloated thousand-celcius magick that adhered to his boot stuck to his hands like paste and continued to expand.

Aeo couldn’t look away. This wasn’t like the lantern in the inn, or the flame that Leon had taught him to hold. He hadn’t burned something. He had burned someone. Whether or not he held control over this particular flame, he wasn’t certain; the thought didn’t immediately cross his mind. He merely watched in panic as Harthoon continued to writhe in agony.

Harthoon’s hands, now bathed in flame and destructive magick, slowly took on the appearance of liquid steel. They were dripping. He mindlessly beat them against his chest and into the snow in a vain attempt to smother the heat, but it simply spread the gelatinous volcanic substance across his hunter garb and all across the melting ice. The magick splashed everywhere. Sparks hissed and crackled, and fumes of smoke enshrouded burning flesh. A horrible stench filled the air… The burning man continued to wail at the top of his lungs as the fire consumed his entire form, but there was no one on the whole mountain that could bring him relief. Even if Aeo had known how to make the flames vanish, he wasn’t certain he wanted them to.

You will never hurt me or my friends again.

Feeling himself begin to hyperventilate from shock, Aeo allowed himself to shut his eyes and look away from the terrible sight.

“Pick…” he whispered. The hunters couldn’t have taken him off the mountain. Shera would have put a stop to that. Pick still lived. He had to.

Aeo bent down and picked up Harthoon’s dagger. About eight inches long and gently curving to a defined point, he felt its weight as he firmly grasped the bone-whittled handle. He wasn’t certain about his magick yet, but he was fairly sure a sharp knife would make even the hunters think twice about trying to take him back to what remained of the village.

After regaining a modicum of composure, Aeo carefully retreated up the embankment towards the site of Shera’s massacre, leaving Harthoon to the flames. The man’s screams did not fade into the distance quickly. Only once Aeo crossed the treeline many minutes later could he enjoy silence once more.

* * * * * *

Aeo had never ventured up the mountain in dimming light. Not that he recognized it in complete darkness either, but he quickly felt as though he’d lost his way trying to retrace Harthoon’s steps. When he discovered the footprint trails of retreating hunters, however, he figured there was no way to miss his destination.

He was right. Instinctively, the moment he reached the clearing, he readied Harthoon’s dagger with both hands and cautiously moved forwards.

The blood… He’d never imagined so much blood. Harthoon’s count must have been off: the still-warm remains of dozens of hunters littered the mountainside like so many toys in a playroom. Unbloodied swords, splintered spears, wooden bows, and unfired arrows accompanied the corpses. Some of the hunters had been dressed in steel plate, some in chainmail and lamellar, some in thick leather and hide… And now he observed that some had not been armored at all. Angry villagers, perhaps. None of it mattered. Most bodies no longer had recognizable facial features, and several were missing their extremities. One or two had been completely ripped in half.

Had Aeo known the destructive side of Shera, he would have been much more afraid of her.

From what he could tell, Aeo didn’t know these men and women; they must have heard the call of the hunt and come running to share in the glory and spoils of rare game. But how could they possibly have detected Shera and sent for so many reinforcements?

Harthoon knew Shera had saved him. He’d said as much. But how?

They knew. Somehow, the hunters knew where I was. It’s all my fault. If I had never run away, Pick would still be alive… Leon. He would still be…

The wind was blowing quite strongly from the tops of the mountain, and chilled Aeo’s bare body to the core; the only heat remaining to him was sitting in his fur boots. Desperately, he scanned the battlefield for Pick’s body collapsed upon the leather sheet. After a moment, his eyes focused on the second-worst possible outcome: the leather sheet lay discarded on the snow, but Pick’s body was gone.

“No… no, no, no…” Aeo said, his voice shaking. Side-stepping the blood-soaked snow and bodies, he approached the leather sheet. Pick’s blood stained nearly half of its large surface.

In the midst of the chaos and the blame, Aeo collapsed to his knees in exhaustion and tears. The surviving hunters couldn’t possibly have lifted Pick’s huge body by themselves and hauled him off the mountain… could they? But it was the only possible explanation. Pick’s frozen corpse would be carved up with a hunting knife, and his bones and pelt would be sold to some heartless travelling merchant as thoughtless curios…

“I’m sorry…” he whispered, his eyes squeezing shut at the painful guilt. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry…”

Sadness only lasted a moment longer. Anger then consumed his thoughts like the fury that had consumed Harthoon.

If only I were stronger, he thought. If only I knew magick. I could have healed Pick’s wounds. I could have stopped Shera. I could have…

Harthoon’s words added to his growing hatred.

I could have made all the hunters burn for hurting Pick. Just like I burned Harthoon.

The smell of the blood and viscera that filled his lungs made him sick to his stomach. Or maybe it was the sudden realization that he’d just murdered someone by burning them alive. His constitution folded like a damp napkin, and he emptied the contents of his stomach onto the snow beside the stained leather sheet.

He stopped thinking. He stopped feeling… besides the nausea. His hands and ears were numb. He had nowhere to go. Nowhere to return to. Returning to Ariste wasn’t an option; if the villagers ever discovered Harthoon’s charred corpse, they would immediately know the culprit. She would beat him to death with her own hands. The villagers of Olvaren would hang him for what he did to the village. He could return to the cave up the mountain, bury Leon’s body, and live forever in the darkness and the cold.

He didn’t deserve better.

Exhausted, Aeo collapsed, becoming like the corpses that surrounded him. The Goddess granted him a chance to escape his life, but then She tore it away. What did he do wrong? Maybe he would just lay there and freeze to death, fall asleep in the ice, and return to the Goddess. Maybe then he could ask Her why. Why was he born an Edian? Why did he have red eyes that made him different? Why did Pick and Leon have to die?

The wind picked up, howling across the ice and the cliffs of Falas. Time passed by. A second. A minute. Maybe an hour. Though he could no longer feel the chilling breeze caressing his face, he could hear it, and it comforted him.

“…”

A butterfly folded its wings, a hummingbird sounded a call. Though he yearned to listen to the thoughts of a wolf, it wasn’t Pick trying to communicate with him. It wasn’t Shera. It was something else. Something entirely new.

“…”

Aeo opened his eyes. Shining light in the darkness. The sun up above. Although all feeling had fled, he could imagine the sun’s warm rays beaming down on his face. For some reason, the sun no longer blinded him.

He heard his voice called above the commotion of the sky.

heavenly_sunlight_by_1illustratinglady-d5v1qem“Aeo…” it said.

A beautiful voice. Heaven-sent. A woman’s voice. Delicate as a field of wildflowers, but deeper than the channels of the mountain. It didn’t grant him energy or warmth, but it brought him a sense of peace. Where had he heard such a voice before? So familiar…

“Aeo…” it said again. Different this time. More direct, as if calling out to him. The sun. It offered him release. He lifted his trembling hand upwards as if to take the sun from the sky with his very fingers and hold it close to his heart.

Suddenly, a shadow overtook the sun, and a warm sensation seized his hand.

“Aeo!” cried the voice. It was no longer light and heavenly. It was desperate and harsh, a man’s voice, a voice deep in emotion. He felt a pair of arms lift and cradle his head. “Goddess of Earth, please don’t let this boy die on my charge, please! Aeo, speak to me, please, speak to me!”

Aeo’s eyes drifted upwards. The sun was now gone, replaced by the dark. Instead, he saw a familiar face.

“Le… Leon…?” Aeo asked.

“Yes, Aeo, yes,” Leon said breathlessly, pressing his head to Aeo’s. His nose had also been bleeding, crimson caked on his upper lip, and he was sweating despite the cold. “Thank you, Tiathys, thank you… Goddess, this is all my fault. I never thought it could possibly end like this… Aeo, please, can you stand? We need to get you warm quickly before you…”

“I… I don’t…”

Aeo’s voice barely registered as a sound.

“Hold on, Aeo, please! Stay awake, please stay awake! Aeo! Aeo…!”

Leon’s voice faded away, and Aeo slept in the numbing wind.

Alyssum – Chapter Eight

Alyssum Title

Aeo and Leon entered the residential cave first as the light began to fade over the mountain. Pick and Shera were nowhere to be found, and the pair hadn’t passed them watching over the flock of bighorns on the way over.

“Strange,” Leon had said. Aeo didn’t ask him why.

The snow had just begun to settle down; the autumn had only fallen a few weeks ago. Leon settled his bag down with a sigh, and Aeo felt a strong desire to dive straight for his fur blankets. Sometime during the day, the smokey violet wards near the door had been snuffed out, leaving the cavern bitterly cold and dry.

“Hold on, Aeo,” Leon said, holding up a finger and rummaging through his bag. He produced a thin metal rod and an odd piece of stone. “Have you ever started a campfire before? I have the flint.”

Aeo pulled a funny face from inside the fur blanket wrapped about him, and Leon saw it.

“…still nervous about fire, eh?”

“I, um…” Aeo rubbed his hands together. “I don’t… I don’t know if I… should.”

Leon removed his hood and gloves.

“That’s understandable,” he said. “You’ve only just begun to understand the kind of power you have inside you. It’s not like you’re used to lighting things on fire with your bare hands. Or even lighting your hands on fire.”

Aeo agreed with a nod, attempting to suppress any images of a burning inn in case Leon also had some mysterious form of telepathy.

“Fortunately for all of us,” Leon said, standing. “Magick isn’t the only way to get things done in this world. The natural world sorts itself all the time without it. In fact, it might do you some good to remember that magick isn’t always going to be the correct answer to your problems.”

Aeo frowned. How could unlimited power at his fingertips not be the answer to every problem?

“Honestly though, Aeo, you’ve never started a campfire yourself? A fireplace? A lantern? Any fire at all?”

Aeo nearly flinched at “lantern”. He played with his hands.

“They… I mean, I was told never to play with matches,” he said. “I wasn’t allowed.”

Leon stroked the rough stubble on his chin.

“I suppose that makes sense. One should never give matches to a young magickal arsonist, no matter how little mischief they plan to get into.”

A slight grin appeared on Leon’s face. Ar-son-ist? Aeo didn’t know the meaning of the word, nor did he didn’t ask for the definition. And mischief was the last thing on Aeo’s mind anymore. When Leon didn’t receive an anticipated reaction from the boy, he cleared his throat.

“Well, here,” he said, stepping towards the wood pile near the door. “Let’s treat this as your first lesson in the art of fire. No magick this time. All manual. First, you have to find appropriate pieces of wood and kindling to make the fire accept a spark and steadily grow in size. You’d wear down your flint and steel to stubs trying to light an entire cold, wet log. Here, take this one… and these two…”

Within ten minutes’ time, Aeo and Leon had together constructed a small lean-to with sticks and filled it with wispy wood flakes and twine. Then, admittedly nervous, Aeo took a piece of flint rock in one hand and Leon’s curved piece of steel in the other. Kneeling on the ground before the campfire, he could still see smolders of smoke rising from the ashes nearer the edges of the stone circle. It seemed very simple; strike the steel at a shallow angle and you’ll see sparks. Aim the sparks just right and you’ll get a fire.

Aeo breathed for a moment. This wasn’t magick. He wasn’t about to incinerate anything. This was just a simple trick and nothing more. He steadied his hands and struck the edge of the flint with the steel rod. Sparks flew, but to nowhere in particular. They fizzled out as quickly as they had appeared, surprising him that they’d even existed.

“Lean in a little,” Leon said. “Aim your stroke right into the center of the kindling. The sparks will follow.”

Aeo bit his lip and bent down further until his grip of the steel touched the lean-to. With a shaky hand, he drew the steel downward again, spitting sparks from the steel and stone. The direction was right, but the sparks didn’t connect with the soft mass of fibers. A second time. More sparks, right direction, no results. Third time, much the same.

Fourth time: the steel scraped the flint in a single quick strike, and several large sparks flew right into the bundle. Their orange glow connected and became pinpricks of vulnerable heat beneath a frozen world. Aeo very nearly continued striking the flint.

“No, that’s good, that’s enough,” Leon said with his hand on Aeo’s shoulder. “See the embers? Now lean down and blow on them, Aeo, and blow gently,” Leon said. “It won’t go out, I promise. In fact, fire wants for nothing but more air.”

Aeo blinked. Bending down as low as he could without hurting himself, he breathed in deep and exhaled. The golden coals flared to life with his breath, growing bright and crawling up the tinder like a small shining demon. No flame.

“Keep going,” Leon said.

Aeo gave another big blow. This time the coals within the flaxen bundle began to excrete a thick grey spout of smoke. Another exhale, and the smoke began to bend its trajectory towards Aeo’s face. Aeo inhaled a little too much, and turned away from the nascent plume, coughing.

“Ha, you may have power over fire, but smoke is a different matter entirely, isn’t it? Keep blowing.”

Aeo nodded and gagged at the same time. Turning back to the campfire, smoke consumed the bundle but showed no signs of flame. Thinking more clearly, Aeo turned his head away from the smoke to inhale, then turned back to exhale. With his blow, the smoke developed a voice, a youthful grumbling roar like wind rushing through a tiny hole. Another burst of air, and the roar continued.

Finally, with a pair of extra-large lungs full of air, Aeo blew. In a small noiseless burst, the smoke suddenly gave way to a warm and familiar glow. Tendrils of flame curled upwards, hungrily grasping for the twigs and small branches.

“There you go, Aeo,” Leon said. “Excellent work. How does it feel?”

Aeo sat up in front of the fire, crossing his legs and staring into it in awe.

“Warm, sir,” Aeo said, a bit mindless.

“I’m aware of that,” Leon said with a grin, adding a few pieces of wood to the campfire. “I mean how do you feel?”

Aeo looked down at the piece of flint and curved steel bar in his hands.

“I thought you could only make a fire with matches,” Aeo said. “How do these things make sparks?”

“Well,” Leon said. “How does a match work?”

“You rub it on the box… and it lights up,” Aeo said, mimicking the motion.

“Have you ever noticed what’s on the match? Or what part of the box you strike the match against?”

Aeo shook his head. He hadn’t had time to closely investigate them during his last encounter. He only knew what Ariste had shown him, which was minimal at best.

“The matchhead,” Leon said. “Is covered in special chemicals that ignite when a little bit of friction is applied. Do you know what friction is?”

Aeo shook his head again.

“When one object slides across another,” Leon continued, unabated. “Like a match against a matchbox, or a whetstone grinding against a knife’s edge, this is friction. When you strike the steel against the flint rock, you create friction.”

“So… friction makes fire?”

“When enough is applied, yes,” Leon said. “But with the right conditions and materials, it happens more easily. When your steel strikes the flint, tiny particles of iron are torn off and the friction makes these particles burst into flames, creating your bright sparks.”

Leon pointed to the steel and flint in Aeo’s hands.

“So,” he said. “While you may not always have matches at your disposal, so long as you have a bar of steel in your supply bag – or a steel blade – you’ll be able to make a fire almost anywhere. Flint is quite common, while matches are not. Understand?”

Aeo nodded. That made sense.

“But what about magick?” Aeo asked. “Can’t you make fire with magick?”

“Certainly,” Leon said. “But a scholar or a hunter wouldn’t last long out in the world relying on magick only. No matter what you might think, animis is finite. Do you know the word ‘finite’? It means ‘limited’, it has an end. Remember animis? My animis has limits. Yours does too. Think of animis as a pool of water. I can’t make wards over and over again endlessly, as each one empties my ‘pool of water’ until there’s no water left. But with the tools in my pack, I can confidently build a fire no matter the condition of my animis. If I’m knowledgeable about forests and the wilderness, I can forage for food and find clean water without resorting to magick. And if I’m talented with potioncraft and alchemy, I can heal the wounds of my friends and preserve life, even if I don’t know the right incantations. The world is full of tools, materials, and ingredients that can do wonderous things and help us preserve our magick for when we need it the most. Does that make sense?”

Aeo nodded.

“So the hunters were right… They said it’s possible to turn lead into gold, but that it’s really hard. Er… difficult.”

Leon chuckled.

“It is,” he admitted. “It’s called transmutation, turning one material into one of equal or lesser value. It requires a lot of lead and a lot of energy to make even a small amount of gold. I wouldn’t be surprised if some unprincipled adventurer tried to transmute a bit of lead into something that merely looked like gold. After all, not many have actually seen and hefted a bar of gold. It might have even been a petty illusion.”

“I wanted to be a hunter once,” Aeo said. “But all the hunters that show up anymore are really angry and drunks. They hate kids, and they’re really mean to… um…”

“Slaves?”

Aeo’s blood ran cold and he froze. He tried not to widen his eyes or looked frightened, but it showed through quite transparently.

“Aeo,” Leon said, placing his hand on the boy’s hesitant shoulder. “I don’t want you to be frightened of me or the past. I want to earn your trust. I think I have a good idea of what happened in Olvaren, but I want you to tell me the whole-”

In a violent burst of fierce chilling wind, the whole cave door flung wide open as if it had been torn from its rickety hinges by an angry giant. Coincidentally, it had, as there stood Shera in the open doorway, snarling ferociously. Aeo and Leon gasped as they saw her jaws and her neck covered in bright red blood. The young campfire froze along with them, extinguished in the burning mountain frost.

“Shera!” Leon cried, leaping to his feet. “What-”

<”THE BOY”> Shera cried, her eyes directed right at Aeo. <”THE BOY LED THEM HERE”>

Aeo reached for his ears, despite the lack of sound. Shera’s words were unmistakable and pierced the entirety of Aeo’s mind, popping his ears and filling his brain with an intense pressure strong enough to make his head burst. There was no reason in these words. Rage. Fury. Nothing like the graceful wolf she seemed to be just hours before.

The words carried images with them. Images of violence. Of a young wolf injured and caught by hunters. Of a mother defending her child. Of a deal struck… an ultimatum.

“Shera, where is Pick?” Leon asked. Shera ignored him.

<”THEY DEMAND THE BOY”>

Without another word, Shera forced her way into the cave, shoving Leon aside easily with her mass. To Aeo’s horror, her intent became perfectly clear. Without care or delicacy, Shera’s mouth opened wide and her blood-soaked teeth clamped firmly around Aeo’s torso and the blanket he wore.

“N-No!” Aeo shouted, now horizontal in her maw. He knew exactly what Shera’s words meant. “No, don’t take me back! You can’t take me back! S-Stop! Please!!”

“Shera, stop! Shera!” Leon said, holding his arms out and blocking her path through the door. “Shera, put him down! There is another way!”

The next words that Shera uttered couldn’t be repeated by humil or ashanti mouths, as technically there were no letters, icons, symbols, or even lip shapes to pronounce them. They simply were, existing just as much as a single terrible thought than as a lifetime of rich memories. The words were obscure but quite clear. Horrific and bloodthirsty but somehow playful and curious. No matter how a scholar might have described these words in a zoology textbook, there was one description that stood out to Leon and Aeo in that moment.

Silence.

The last thing Aeo remembered before he blacked out was Leon’s eyes rolling back into his head and his entire form collapsing like a ragdoll onto the cold stone floor.

*    *    *    *    *

The next thing Aeo remembered was a sudden abundance of gravity before crashing headfirst into an embankment of snow. The silence he had experienced from Shera disappeared before the joyous shouts of men and women. Why were they cheering? Were they celebrating something?

A shadow appeared above him, blocking the already dwindling sunlight.

“Found you,” came the insidious whisper.

Without another hint of warning (as if Aeo required one), a great pair of hands greedily latched onto his neck and squeezed, cutting off oxygen and blurring his vision. The hands lifted Aeo into the air with surprising and unfamiliar strength, and then threw him sideways. Unprepared for the whiplash, Aeo collapsed onto hard ice only to be pinned down by a heavy cleated boot.

<”YOU HAVE THE BOY”> came the thought-deafening telekinetic tone of Shera. <”RETURN MY SON”>

Aeo lifted his head as far as he could. Blood leaked freely from his nose, and though his frostbitten eyes were hazy, he could see several humil people standing around carrying burning torches and makeshift weapons. Unfortunately, he recognized some of them. They were from Olvaren. Some of them were more heavily armored and equipped: hunters.

Then, as if a whisper in a breeze, Aeo felt an image float to the top of his consciousness:

<The color purple. A humil boy hugging a wolf.>

“Pick…” Aeo groaned despite the pressure on his back, his eyes scanning around him. The thoughts echoed as if nearby, but offered no direction. Aeo dared to look backwards for just a split second, and he saw him: a ball of fluff curled on the cold earth, covered in blood… Pick wasn’t moving. The boot against Aeo’s back pounded downwards, knocking the breath out of his lungs and threatening to crack something.

“Shut up, you Edian piece of shit,” came a rough and ominous voice. “Another word out of you and I’ll break your arm.”

“Yes, you gave us the Edian!” cried someone in the crowd, a woman’s voice. “Now you’ll hold up your end of the bargain! Leave these mountains and never return unless you want your entrails ripped out and your bones carved up!”

<”RETURN MY SON”> Shera said. <”HOLD YOUR PROMISE”>

The words, filled with vicious rage, pumped through Aeo’s mind. His nose continued to bleed.

“Yes, of course, our… promise…” said the woman. Some of the other villagers and hunters began laughing. Aeo tried to look for Shera. He couldn’t see her. “Seeing as how you killed some of my men… We’d rather like to keep the little one for ourselves. A down payment for the reconstruction of Olvaren, you see. I imagine the wiz-caps in the Capital would pay top dollar to study this adorable little specimen…”

This time, there were no nameless words, no darkness. Whether Shera had exhausted herself mentally or had simply become enraged beyond humil understanding, her vicious growl made the snow and earth rumble. Then, an inhuman scream raged from the mountaintop.

“Steady, men,” said the woman. “She’s already exhausted. Keep your spears low and aim for her throat or eyes!”

<The color purple. A giant wolf licking a little wolf.>

“Pick, please…” Aeo whispered, hot tears flooding his eyes. This was his fault. All of it. He ran away from the Grey Pale and put them all in danger. Shera killed Leon. Shera was about to be killed herself. Hala would freeze on top of the mountain along with little Heem. And Pick… Pick was probably already dying.

Aeo couldn’t see it, but the battle began with a white blur and the crunching of bone. One by one, hunter after hunter attempted to lunge forward with spear and sword, and each was torn apart by massive jaws and merciless claws. Even those hunters that wore heavy metal armor were as tin cans to the monster, and limbs came off easily at the joints. The virgin snow soon became crimson as the Eastern tides; how many hunters died within those ten seconds, Aeo would never know. He only heard the shout that came moments into the one-sided fight:

“Back to the treeline! Damn it, Paulsen, forget the boy! Drag the wolf if you have to!”

The boot from Aeo’s backside lifted and vanished. Aeo stumbled to his feet and immediately ran to Pick’s side, despite the heavily-clad hunters that were currently attempting to drag Pick away on a sheet of leather. Pick was indeed covered in blood, a pair of arrows hanging limp in the thick, matted fur of his side.

“Pick!” Aeo cried, touching the wolf’s ear. “Pick, please, I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” he looked at the hunters. “Don’t take him away! Please don’t take him!”

Pick’s head rose, and a single eye looked up at the boy.

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

“Get off!” said the hunter. He turned and planted his boot right in Aeo’s face, launching him backwards. Right at that moment, Shera’s massive form collided with the two hunters from the invisible white. She then proceeded to mangle one of them as Aeo attempted to regain his footing.

“Pick, wait, I’m-”

Something struck him hard in the back of the head. A tree branch. A walking stick, perhaps. Its source became crystal clear.

“I’m not letting some wolf steal you away from me,” said Harthoon’s voice. “You haven’t even begun to suffer…”

Aeo struggled as best he could, but his head was spinning. Harthoon’s arms – objects that Aeo had never considered as having much strength – closed around his scrawny waist and carried him away towards the village. Away from Shera. Away from Pick.

“N-No!!” Aeo cried. “Pick! Pick!!”

Pick didn’t move. No thoughts came to Aeo’s mind. It was silent.

It was finished. Whatever fleeting hope-filled life the Goddess had thought to grant him was over.

Voices of the Shattered Sun – Enmap Bracers

Slowly, the nineteen timid students entered the open-air classroom one-by-one, and each took a seat on comfortable pillows in front of a large semi-circular stage. Afternoon daylight streamed through the green curtains hanging from open skylights, and a warm breeze drifted through the windows, smelling slightly of lavender. Aeo decided to sit as far back as he could, choosing the pillow in the corner farthest from the door. He’d heard of the concept of ‘school’ before, but he had no idea it could be held in a such a luxurious place. Ariste would probably have a heart attack had she known the price of the pillow upon which Aeo now sat.

Aeo could differentiate between the Antielli boys and girls with short rounded ears, thick brown hair, and hazel eyes, and the Ashanti boys and girls with long and pointed ears, wispy white hair, and pale blue eyes. But no other student had Aeo’s bright red eyes and hair. He couldn’t help but feel as though some of his peers had very much noticed the obvious newcomer, with whispers between cupped hands already floating around. A few eyes were thrown his way, and he felt himself turn as red as his irises. After all, the academy year had started several months ago, and despite his best efforts to catch up to his class, he was quite behind. It was bad enough that the apprentice robes Leon had forced him to wear were terribly hot, itchy, and decidedly uncomfortable. Now he had to endure a very rigid schedule where everything was new.

And terrifying.

Last to enter the chamber was a rather rotund fellow dressed in flowing tan-and-green Academy robes and adorned with a mighty white beard that fell to his chest. His aged grey eyes, rosy cheeks, big bushy eyebrows, and a crown of hair ringing a bald head made him look like a jolly grandfather. Fortunately, for the most part, his disposition reflected his image.

“Oy children!” he bellowed, stepping up to the stage. “Take a seat, take a seat, get comfortable! Today’s lesson is certainly one you’ve been waiting for. No more note-taking, no more hand-waving… that will come again later, of course. But today, it is time for the real thing!”

“Master Naal?” asked a young girl that sat up front. “Does that mean you’ll show us actual magick?”

“Better, my dear,” Master Edin’Rao Naal said, clapping his hands together. “Today you all will be performing magick.”

Eyes widened in joy and excited whispers increased. Aeo felt a pit form in his stomach.

“Now, now, everyone, remain calm,” Master Naal said, lowering hands to hush the children. It didn’t help very much. “I know that some of you are already very skilled at simple focus magicks and some of you still have yet to demonstrate them. Hopefully the tools I’m about to show you will put us all on a level playing field and help us all improve.”

Master Naal turned and moved to the table at back of the stage. He produced a pair of bright-red leather items from a wooden crate, and revealed them to the class. Curved to fit the arm, the items were beautiful pieces of sturdy leather adorned with metal rivets, decorative steel ornaments, and silver buckles.

“These, children,” he said, lifting an item in each hand. “Are enmap bracers. Now, what are enmap bracers? I’m very glad you asked. Would one of you like to come up and help me demonstrate what they can… oh, Jhote, yes, come right up, my boy.”

An Antielli boy from the front row rose without even raising his hand, and stood before Master Naal excited and a bit sheepish.

“If you would hold one of these on my arm, my boy,” Master Naal said, rolling up his sleeve. “Yes, that’s perfect.” Then, with a flick of his opposite wrist, the three leather straps tightened simultaneously and the whole bracer seem to latch to his arm. “Ha, you’ll get used to doing that, it’s quite a simple trick. Here, Jhote, hold out your arm, I’ll attach the other one like so.”

Jhote did so, and performing the same trick, Master Naal slid the other enmap bracer onto the boy’s forearm and buckled it. The Antielli boy looked at the bracer on his arm in wonder.

“Comfortable? Perfect. Now, as to their function. ‘Enmap’ is short for ‘energy manipulation’, as that is what these bracers allow the user to do: better control the weave and flow of energy in focus magick. And what is focus magick, everyone?”

Several hands went up. Master Naal pointed.

“Master,” said an ashanti boy in the back with a thick accent. “It’s magick you have to concentrate to keep up.”

“Yes, concentration, and…? What’s the second important part of focus magick? Remember, it’s in the title itself…”

“A focus!” chimed several staggered voices.

“Marvelous, that’s right,” Master Naal said. “It requires concentration and a focus. Enmap bracers offer you just that: a brilliant focus created just for that purpose. There’s very little focus magick that can’t be improved by practicing with enmap bracers. Now, unfortunately, crafting enmap bracers takes many months of hard work and expensive materials to produce, so the Academy doesn’t own enough bracers even for the senior classes. For today, a single pair will suffice. One at a time, I want you all to come up to the stage, tell me your animis, and we will see the effects a single bracer can produce. I’ll be wearing the other one, just to keep everyone safe. I expect quite the lightshow!”

The nervous whispers turned into enthusiastic chattering. Aeo did not chatter. He simply hid his hands in his lap and looked down at the floor.

Jhote started the presentation. With an animis of abjuration, the Antielli boy focused and a sphere of bright sapphire light appeared in his hand. It looked like one of the luspheres that floated above the refectory.

“Very good, feel the ease with which the energy flows through the bracer. Isn’t it brilliant? Who’s next?”

The next student, an Antielli girl with curly hair in the front row, went up while Master Naal removed all three buckles of the bracer from Jhote’s arm with a quick gesture. Jhote sat down, and Master Naal placed the bracer on the girl’s forearm. As her animis was liquid thaumaturgy, Master Naal produced a small vial of water from the table on the stage. The girl must have been a star pupil, as the water seemed to leap from the vial into the palm of her hand. It then snaked around the bracer like a serpent, even weaving itself in between her fingers before stopping itself back into the vial.

“Brilliant, Bevelli! Fun, no? It makes it seem as though all your practice has finally paid off. Next!”

One by one, each student in the class rose and took to the stage. Some created arcs of electricity between their fingers, some illuminated the already brilliantly-lit classroom in blinding flashes, and the ashanti boy that had answered Master Naal’s question earlier healed a small abrasion that had happened to another boy’s knee. One student even transmuted a small glass marble into a cube shape, then into a pyramid. The student right next to Aeo, a white-haired ashanti girl whose hair fell to her waist, took the stage and created exactly what Master Naal had anticipated: a literal fireworks display that she described as an “emergency flare” her parents had taught her in case she ever got lost in the forest. It very nearly showered the front row in sparks. Needless to say, the students cheered.

“Excellent, everyone, excellent work! You all have mastered your animi with such ease! Isn’t it exciting? With practice, performing magick can become as simple as these bracers make it seem.”

The whispered escalated as the students marveled at their experiences. For a brief moment, as Master Naal removed the bracer from the white-haired girl’s arm, it seemed as though he would forget about the Edian boy in the far corner of the classroom. He even seemed to turn around the place the bracers back on the table.

“And, our final student,” Master Naal said without turning around. “Our brand new arrival from Antiell. Have you all introduced yourselves to young Aeo yet?”

Aeo turned ashanti-beetroot red as all eyes in the classroom turned to look at him. The boy without a last name. The Edian slave. The whispering increased, and some of the other boys laughed, with three in particular sitting nearest to the classroom door. If Aeo knew the spell for turning invisible, he would have cast the enchantment immediately. Unfortunately, he did not, impressive as it might have been. Unable to look up at the stage or at anyone else, he stared at the window beside him instead.

“Well, Aeo?” asked Master Naal. Aeo forced himself to look past everyone. Master Naal had turned towards the class and now wore a peculiar pair of thin black gloves. “Would you care to practice with the bracer?”

The student’s laughter increased when Aeo didn’t respond. But he couldn’t simply say nothing and ignore everyone. Reluctant, Aeo felt his body lift from his seated position and take steps to the front of the classroom. His knees wobbled as he climbed the stage steps, and his bottom lip was already trembling. There was no way he could remember his incantations.

At last, he stood before Master Naal, the scrawniest student in the class before the most imposing ashanti he’d ever met.

“Very good, my boy,” Master Naal said, clapping a hand on Aeo’s shoulder. Aeo thought he might tumble forwards from such a gesture, and giggling rose from a pair of Antielli girls at the sight of it. “Now, as Master Sirelu advised me, you have quite the animis for fire thaumaturgy, is that right?”

Aeo nodded in the slightest way possible, his gaze transfixed on the ground.

“Here, Aeo, your arm,” Master Naal said, offering the bracer to the Edian boy. Aeo looked upon it; it really was quite a work of art. The buckles and decorations gleamed in the sunlight, the sienna ayvasilk weaving around the edges spun perfect patterns, and the beautiful red leather seemed aged and refined like polished oak. Aeo rolled up his sleeve and lifted his left arm to Master Naal, and the old teacher slid the bracer on. With a flick of his hand, the bracer’s straps tightened and buckled around Aeo’s arm, slightly cutting off the blood supply to his hand. “There we are. Now, stand about an arm’s length back, lift your arm, and cup your hand, just as Master Sirelu taught you.”

Aeo closed his eyes for a moment and obeyed, his hand cupped upwards. Nothing felt inherently different. But, just as he had practiced, he imagined all the heat from his toes rising to his legs, then up his waist and stomach, through his chest and down his arm towards his waiting hand. For a moment, he thought he felt something.

Nothing happened. Not a single spark. Everything fell terribly quiet.

“Need assistance, my boy?” asked Master Naal. The same three boys that had laughed before began whispering to each other and smiling unfriendly smiles. The powerful heat that should have been descending down Aeo’s arm was now ascending to his head. Aeo strained again to produce even a candle’s worth of flame on his fingertips, but he might as well have been holding his hand out to Master Naal for a piece of candy.

Aeo’s eyes darted over to the three boys. They weren’t stopping. At this point, they knew they were distracting him. It made them laugh all the more, and the class followed along.

Their commotion was not lost on Master Naal.

“Come now, everyone,” he said, not pointing to anyone in particular. “Let’s not be rude. Give Aeo a moment, the bracers can take a moment to get used to…”

Nothing was working. Perhaps he should have gracefully bowed out. He should have taken the bracer off and returned to his pillow.

But he didn’t. He was looking directly at the three boys. All three were Antielli.

Somewhere inside his brain, their eyes, their laughter, and their gestures struck a deeply-rooted nerve, a nerve Aeo had never before explored. The words ‘Edian bastard’ floated through his head as plainly as if one of the boys had said it aloud. A horrifying thought arose, or at least one that should have been horrifying: everything about the three Antielli boys deserved to be eradicated. Their twisted grins. Their manic eyes. Their very bodies should be incinerated in the heart of the sun and refused existence for one day more. Aeo’s vision of the gentle sun turned bloodthirsty in his imagination as he watched them continue to enjoy his discomfort.

Aeo’s hearing faded; his vision blurred. Aeo focused so powerfully upon the three boy’s warped glee that he didn’t realize that their faces were slowly turning into looks of horror.

Someone yelled from across the room.

Something bright had enveloped his left arm.

Aeo broke his concentration on the three boys and looked. His entire forearm, enmap bracer and all, burned with ferocious ruby-red flames as bright as the surface of a star. His eyes tracked the formation of the terrific bonfire upward and calmly noticed they were consuming the green curtains above the stage.

Someone again yelled from across the room. Aeo lazily gazed off the stage towards the classroom door. It was Master Naal. What was he saying? He heard his name.

“Aeo! Stop! Please!”

Stop. What a funny concept. Stop.

Aeo’s gaze turned back to the ruby-red flames now engulfing the sleeve of his Academy robes. This felt right. For the first time in many years, he couldn’t imagine anything more satisfying than the primal animis that raged from his hand. With this power, he could do anything. He could stop the staring and the whispers. He could make people stop laughing. He could make them disappear. What if he wore both bracers? How much more powerful could he become? Perhaps he could annihilate in two directions.

Someone was still yelling at him.

Then several voices.

A strange sensation took control of his left hand. Some unseen force was trying to close his hand.

But… but that would make the fire go away.

He resisted it. Nothing would make this end. He would let it consume him first. He would burn down the entire Academy. He would end his life before letting the fire die. He would-

With a delightful bloop, a violet sphere absorbed his hand like a playful bubble. The entire ruby-red conflagration died. As if all his weight had been held by a molten string now vanished, Aeo collapsed to the ground, his Academy robes still quite on fire.

Aeo’s hearing returned. All sound hadn’t died; the roar of the flames had deafened him. The room was, in fact, quite loud, filled with the cries of frightened children and the shouts of other Masters attempting to calm them. For some reason he felt… raindrops on his face. Aeo’s eyes couldn’t focus. His energy had been consumed in the flames, and he barely had the power to turn his head towards where Master Naal had been standing.

Leon now raced towards him from the door of the classroom, looking quite haggard. Somehow, he had taken Master Naal’s bracer and put it on his own arm in no time at all. Wait, his office was on the other side of the Academy. Had he been watching the class the whole time?

“Aeo!” he cried, crouching and smothering the flames that grew on Aeo’s robes. He then lifted the boy in his arms. With a flick of his wrist, the enmap bracer released from Aeo’s arm, falling to the stage floor, apparently quite unharmed from the flames. “Aeo, can you hear me? Speak to me, Aeo, say something! Can you see me? Blink if you can see me!”

Aeo attempted to blink. It was more of an eyelash flutter.

“Master Naal, call the Sanareum! How long was his outburst? What caused this?!”

“About fifteen minutes, and I have no idea! I couldn’t approach him to ward his hands, even with a bracer on!” shouted Master Naal from across the room, who seemed to be directing fellow thaumaturgists in extinguishing the flames that licked the ceiling. “But it was exciting to say the least! I daresay we have a master flame thamaturgist on our hands!”

“Not now, Edin!” Leon shouted angrily.

Fifteen minutes…?

No. It couldn’t have been that long.

Leon turned to Aeo, patting out the last remaining flames and placing a hand on the boy’s head. “This is my fault, Aeo… Had I known this was your lesson today, I would have made you skip class…”

Aeo couldn’t even unconsciously look guilty.

Voices of the Shattered Sun – Magick and Animis

edge of the world

by Unknown (perfect picture, no certain identifiable artist…)

“What, ser, is magick? What is animis?

“Without knowledge and understanding of the art of magick, all you might see is a bunch of waving hands or sticks, a puff of smoke, and a rabbit where but moments ago there wasn’t one. Magick may have made that rabbit appear or it may not have. You never know these days, and one should never purchase a formerly invisible rabbit (I’ll leave you to figure out why). But there’s one thing that magick is not, and that is creating something from nothing.

“You could say magick is control over the elements. You’ll certainly see thaumaturgists both old and young (mostly the young) slinging whips made of fire, playing catch with two-ton boulders, and conjuring lightning storms from boiling cauldrons. But the world is full of elements, both rare and common, that make up the whole of being, and not all of them take kindly to being controlled. You may see conjurers calling forth creatures made of bone, stone, crystal, or water to fight and crumble on their behalf, but they soon discover that these abnormalities of the natural world have wills of their own.

“You could say that life is magick, but the forces and laws that govern the universe don’t belong to life only. Even rocks contain the power and potential for destruction, and the stench of death and decay invites a new beginning of creation.

“So what is magick? What is animis?

“Magick is the weaving and manipulation of energy, and animis is the weaver’s will to manipulate that energy.

“I say the concept is simplistic (some may call it absurdly over-simplistic), but our world is anything but simple. The Goddess is reliable but stubborn and set in Her ways; only through dedication to Her will can she be convinced to acquiesce. To act to the contrary is to wilfully injure Her. Thus, the complexity of magick comes from the procedures and forms necessary for change to occur. Energy can be channeled in countless different ways, with just a thoughtless flick of the wrist or through complex ceremonies that take months of intense planning and great amounts of resources. Even then, without an understanding of the true nature of the rite, it’s all so much useless chanting, flailing, and nonsense. Designing rituals is not for the faint of heart; there are dire consequences for inappropriate stick-waving. Not everyone has the same innate ability to harness energies towards beneficial purposes. Just as babes develop the proper faculties to understand and control their untamed emotions, so too do the apprentices of magick strive to understand their relationship to the world and how their wills can help shape the reality around them.

“In fact, while on the subject of emotions, you’ll often find the effects and effectiveness of magick affixed to your psychological state. Fury can fuel the whirlwind, but a healer trembling with grief and anger can cause just as much harm. Paradoxically, however, passion can and has fueled the greatest of miracles, and immense calm has torn the world into pieces. We have seen the effects of such devastation on the face of our dear heavenly sphere: the Wound. Even now we fail to understand the full effects of the Wound and what it means to the futures of our children and their children. The hatred of nations may well have rung the death knell of our fair Goddess, despite what your particular religion might say to the contrary. What disturbed and no doubt emotional minds crafted the weapons used to tear open the Wound, I can only wonder.

“That is why the study of magick has become so vital to the many races of this world. If there is ever to be any hope of undoing the damage wrought by the hands of our humil, ashanti, and eshain ancestors, we must learn all the Goddess has to teach us. No avenue of research should be sealed, no tradition should go unscrutinized. A single student of magick, studying the most obscure of ordinances, could hold the key to Tiathys’ survival.

“Call me a charlatan. Many have. Mock me as a madman for prophesying the End Times. But never let it be said that I did not attempt to repair that which became broken. Never let my devotion to the Goddess be denied. I will continue to teach my apprentices all I know and deny them nothing besides that which I cannot possess. Lend me your condemnations; they will fuel my desire to protect my Sacred Mother from the schemes of cowards and warmongers. Your propaganda will not flourish in San’Doria so long as Ashant remains true to this cause.”

-Letter to General Ledenot of the San’Drael 4th Division from Master Petrovo Va’jan of the Everspring Academy, A.R. 5, Month of Frost

Manifestation

Magick can be defined as the utilization of energy to influence the natural world through supernatural change. This can manifest in a number of ways, including the more ‘traditional’ schools of magick:

  • Thaumaturgy: the practice of elemental manipulation for constructive or destructive ends
  • Conjuration: the practice of weaving energy into physical forms and vice verse
  • Essation: the practice of quickening the natural course of healing through surgical and magickal means
  • Abjuration: the practice of protecting oneself and others through deflection and absorption of energy
  • Transmutation: the practice of changing the physical and magickal properties of physical matter in a permanent manner
  • Illusion: the practice of changing the physical or magickal characteristics of living or nonliving matter in a non-permanent manner
  • Astrologica: the practice of divining the past, present, and future through the study of the stars and astral bodies of the heavens
  • Alchemy: the practice of extracting, purifying, and distilling animis from plants, minerals, insects, bone, and much more

Although some magick practices and rituals cannot be categorized in any one or several categories (or none at all), magick is a system based on universal laws. Animis, or the potential magickal will of the user, determines not only the limits of one’s ability to influence the physical world but the types of abilities one is capable of. For instance, a student of magick may discover an innate ability to manipulate the flow of elemental matter such as gases or liquids, but may find manipulating solid matter difficult or even impossible. A sanare might have the ability to influence the flow of blood and humours in a humil or ashanti body, but have no talent producing wards that might prevent a corpse from decomposing. Exceptional individuals can work to improve their skills in magick that opposes their unique animis, but such study often takes a great amount of patience and tutelage beneath a talented teacher.

Discovering one’s animis takes time, effort, and an open mind. Scholars and magi across the world have attempted to create a ritual or a device to measure or identify the animis of a being without experimentation. But thus far, such technology has eluded even the most brilliant of minds.

Animis naturally occurs in great abundance in many types of matter both living and unliving, including plants both beneficial and poisonous, within the bodies of beasts and animals, solidified within minerals and crystals, liquified or aerosolized into aether (such is present within the Everspring and other natural wellsprings), and even within dead and decaying corpses (although utilizing this final example is usually strongly discouraged). Again, not all animis is the same, as different materials will lend themselves to different weavings of magick (such as firebuck leather used in the crafting and utilization of energy manipulation vambraces and the unique brightower silica of luspheres).

It is important to note that while some form of animis is required to perform magick, animis is not energy, strictly speaking. It is speculated to be a supernatural characteristic present in almost everything, much like the ashanti belief of the spiritual ‘soul’. Most believe it to be a resource native and unique to the physical world of Tiathys like water or timber. Some postulate it originates with the Goddess Herself, although this is debated in most circles, the most important question being: if animis has a divine origin, how and why is natural animis used in the practice of barbaric and evil acts? Historical scripture and the Goddess Herself are silent on the matter.

History

According to Eshain tradition, the concept of magick as well as the source of animis can be traced back to the founding of the first civilization of Rehipeti in what would become the lost continent of Preii Valu. It was there that Tiathys Herself instructed The Ashen Priestess and her followers in the earliest forms of conjuration, thaumaturgy, and supernal healing, utilizing a natural overflow of magick that would be named for the Ashen Priestess herself. These primal practices were then refined through the centuries as the descendants of Rehipeti founded Eshain and later Antiell and Edia.

As humils in Rehipeti learned magick in the East, so too did the ashanti learn of magick in the West through the Goddess’ influence. With access to the Everspring and an untamed wilderness to call home, their newly-acquired abilities reflected a decidedly natural tone which they used to construct a great civilization that spread from the South Sea as far north as the Wilwor River Basin. Magickal flows and eruptions in the Everspring offered evidence of a second greater Wellspring somewhere to the west. Despite the best efforts of their greatest mystics, however, the ashanti never discovered this second mysterious font of power.

Due to the last century of conflict with its neighbors, Edian magick tradition has become semi-mystical and poorly understood by the Ashanti and Antielli. Edian priests insist their practices have returned to the shamanistic ways of the ancient Eshain. Antielli rumor describes Edian magick as foul and detestable, including taboo practices such as humil sacrifice, necromancy, and adoption of blasphemous xa’rith rituals. Only the ignorant and prejudiced believe this, however, despite the vast amounts of state propaganda stating such.

The xa’rith of Edan, having no ability to practice magick at all besides the most basic alchemical arts, view common Antielli, Ashanti, and even Edian magick as repulsive. For centuries, their tribal teachers and elders have warned their children to avoid the plagues of magick, and some even advocate for olmi dravka (xa’rith for “sacred conflict”) to stomp out all traces of magick from the face of the earth. Were it not for their small numbers and primitive weapons, they might have made good on their threats – if a known scholar visits Alefeu without protection, it is nearly guaranteed he or she will be dragged into the streets and beaten publicly.

Localization

The search for animis and the development of the magickal arts is the main reason for many of history’s migrations, including the ancient’s migration from Rehipeti to Eshain in 2400 A.L, the settlement of San’Drael by settlers from Eshain in 247 A.L., and the settlement of Aurion in 234 A.L. It’s also the primary reason (and martial weapon) for many of the wars of the last five hundred years, most notably the Great War that resulted in the magickal cataclysm and the Wound.

Animis in the form of liquid and gaseous aether can be found in many different parts of the world, from small underground basins to cavernous wellsprings and overflows. Villages and towns have been founded to capitalize on its production and refinement, and academies have developed to study the effects of these supernatural springs on the surrounding plant and animal life.

There are two (possibly three) areas of the world wherein lies little to no animis: all mapped areas within roughly fifteen (15) leagues of the Wound, one-hundred and sixty (160) leagues in every direction surrounding the Mahwiel (purportedly), and the entirety of the northeast landmass of Eshain Ka (now known only as the Blasted Lands). If a scholar wishes to explore these areas, they had better bring a large supply of animis-filled provision with them, else they’ll soon find their over-reliance on magick a heavy burden to bear.


What do you think? Confusing much? I had fun writing what I would think a master of magick would say to a snooty general who thinks of it as nothing but a means to an end, a weapon he can point at his enemies.

Also, visit my World Anvil for spoilers into Alyssum if you dare! Or don’t, and suffer in darkness while I write! Bwahahaha!

 

Voices of the Shattered Sun – Adienne’s Story (Part One)

Quiet and dark sat the small single-story farmhouse on the edge of Renfell Village, mirroring the landscape around its small fenced yard; the hardwheat-filled farmland that surrounded the house had once belonged to the original owners, but ever since they passed away, it had been sliced up by the bank that owned the mortgage and sold it all off in parcels to people looking to build new homes and get a taste of the country life.

Those original owners just so happened to be the grandparents of one Adienne Lyn Petersen, a young woman who had grown up inside the creaky little home. They had left her everything the bank didn’t already own, namely the farmhouse property, the furnishings inside of it, and what remained of the retirement Grandfather Caleb Petersen had set aside during his forty-five-year career as the town ritual healer, or sanare. If you’re wondering how much the amount was, suffice it to say that the amount would look a mite different to a single twenty-one-year old woman than it would to a seventy-six-year-old man with a family. Nevertheless, it would certainly be enough to keep Adienne fed and clothed for at least a few years, and if invested wisely, would help her get the education she needed to survive on her own.

Not that money seemed to matter much at the moment. In fact, the only thing that mattered was the awful silence inside the farmhouse. It was maddening. Although it seemed as though nothing in the house had physically changed in the last twenty years, the last six months alone had brought a whirlwind of changes to the Petersen home.

First, Eliza Jane, Adienne’s grandmother, had fallen ill and remained so despite all of Adienne’s and Caleb’s best efforts to help her condition improve. It was a bit expected: the Wilting disease had flared up all across the countryside the spring prior, and even Adi and her friend Owen Larsintry caught it, coughing and gagging for weeks on phlegm and gasping for air. Eventually, the symptoms disappeared. But in Eliza, they intensified. Caleb brought a mask filled with aetheris crystals from the sanareum to help Eliza breathe, but it did nothing to improve her bone-rattling cough. From perfect health to her deathbed, it only took two months for Eliza to lose her short-lived battle with the lung-ravaging illness. It was bad enough to hear her cough echo through the small farmhouse through all the hours of the day and night. It was all the worse to hear them suddenly fall silent as she passed on from life, suffocated by her body’s own natural defenses.

The funeral was short, and the flowers were beautiful; the Petersen’s didn’t lack for friends, but they lacked for family. Adienne had only known her grandparents since she was a small child, as the War had taken both her mother and father. In this, she was not unique. In fact, many of the friends who came to Eliza’s funeral had themselves lost parents and loved ones. The catastrophe that had caused the Wound alone not seventeen years ago had changed entire demographics overnight.

But with the loss of Eliza, Adi lost more than a grandmother. And Caleb had lost more than a wife.

c4d87ff86898b7d24287666247db57ad

Caleb and young Adi.

Caleb seemed to soldier on, squaring his shoulders as much as he could and standing as the anchor Adi needed as she grieved. He continued as Renfell’s sanare for three months and three weeks more before he too passed away. One morning, he rose from his bed, greeted his granddaughter in the kitchen, kissed her forehead, and headed out the door with his coat on his arm. It was the last time Adi would ever see him alive. About halfway on his walk to the sanareum, Caleb Petersen collapsed on the side of the road, clutching his chest. A few days later, Adi would stand alone, so very alone, at the edge of her grandfather’s oak casket, unable to be comforted.

No matter how concerned they may have been about Adi’s future well-being, the crowd of friends eventually moved on. The only two familiar faces that promised to see her regularly was her grandfather’s accountant (naturally) and Owen Larsintry, her confidant and friend since childhood. At one time, other friends had teased her because of her relationship with the awkward boy.

But those friends had disappeared. Owen had not.

The lusphere shone above Adi’s left shoulder as she and Owen approached the dark farmhouse. The sound of crickets filled the air, punctuated with the sounds of their footsteps upon the gravel walkway. Adi’s eyes were red and puffy, but the tears had since burned away. They would no doubt return soon. The white light from the lusphere increased as Adi reached the front door, hovering from her shoulder to land gracefully upon the wrought iron brazier that hung bolted to the stone beside the wooden frame.

“Hey, Adi…” Owen said quietly, adjusting his spectacles. “Are you sure you don’t want me to stay over tonight? I know I wouldn’t want to be alone right now.”

“I’ll be fine,” Adi said as she turned around, the phrase coming out for more distant than intended. “Like Maribel said, I… I just need to learn how to be strong… and independent…”

“Maribel can take her ‘strong and independent’ and violently kick it down the road,” Owen said. “That’s not good advice. In fact, that’s very bad advice, and I know you know that. You just lost your grandfather… And you’re not very distant from losing your grandmother, either. You know what I was like when my Da passed.”

“I know. And thank you for stating the obvious, wickhead,” she said, just daring a smile to cross her face. None did, though Owen appreciated the effort.

“See? Calling me names is making you feel better already. You can call me all the bad names you like all night, so long as it makes you happy. I should think this quiet house would drive you mad.”

Adi shook her head.

a61936cba6926babc4a599c6feeacf28

From Pillars of Eternity (he had the right face 😀 )

“Owen, I’ll…” She sighed. “I’ll be fine. Really. I just need some time. Besides, I’ve already gotten used to the house being quiet. Papa would often return home after I was in bed, and he’d be off to work before I got up. And Nana was quieter than me before she got sick. It’ll just be… different.”

Bad different, I should think.”

“Maybe.”

“At least until school starts, right?” Owen said. “And then you’ll have plenty to keep your mind occupied. I’ll be over every night struggling to understand alchemy the way you do.”

Adi nodded.

“Taking the sanare exams won’t be the same without Papa’s help.”

“I’m sure my Ma would love to help you. You’ve seen her garden, you could come up with all sorts of strange mixtures with all the herbs and flowers she grows. All she’s lacking are the fancy glass cups. And what’s that copper thingy you have what looks like a bent raindrop?”

Flasks, first of all. And it’s called a retort.”

“Yeah, those.”

“I thought you said you’d taken an alchemy class before,” Adi said wryly.

“I said I’d used a mortar and pestle before,” Owen replied. “It’s pretty much the same thing.”

“I’m pretty sure it isn’t,” Adi said, producing her housekey from her jacket pocket.

“But it did make you forget about everything for a few seconds, didn’t it?”

Adi paused, giving Owen “the look”. She’d had many years practicing it, of course, with Owen being a familiar target.

“Nice try,” she said.

“I thought it was.”

“Really, though, thank you, Owen,” Adi said, folding her hands around the key. “But I’ll be fine tonight. I have some… personal things around the house that I have to set in order before tomorrow afternoon, and I thought I’d rather get them done sooner rather than later. It really will help me keep my mind off things.”

Owen paused, giving Adi “the look”. It was different from her “look”, much more suspicious of falsehoods and involved a greater arching of the right eyebrow.

“You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Okay,” he said, taking a step towards the road home. “But… make sure to leave the lusphere on tonight.”

“Why?” Adi asked with a frown. “You planning on scaring me through my window again?”

“No, I was just…” Owen frowned and looked to the ground pensively, taking Adi by surprise. “I was just thinking… Grief and depression are a lot alike, they put you in the dark and force you to stay there for as long as they can. But lights can help keep the dark away. Even a literal light. I just don’t want to think of you hiding in your closet tonight, hiding in the dark. Illuminate thy sons and thy daughters afield with reflections of knowledge and starlight… I suppose your lusphere could act like a star tonight.”

Adi blinked.

“I didn’t think you paid attention in seminary,” she said.

“I do sometimes,” Owen said.

Adi stepped forwards and wrapped her arms around Owen, pulling him close. He gave off a nervous laugh and embraced her in return.

“I promise not to hide in the closet,” Adi said. “This time.”

“And no time afterwards,” Owen said. “Right?”

“Aww. But I have such a comfortable spot in there.”

Owen pulled back, pointing a finger at Adi’s face.

“Tears are okay. Hiding from them is not. No matter what that old fussbudget Maribel Corsel says.”

Adi nodded.

“Thank you,” she said.

“Anytime,” he said back.

Owen turned and walked down the gravel path and beyond into the dark of the evening, heading west beside the road towards the lake and his home. For a moment, Adi watched him go, allowing herself a moment to get her bearings. Although a bit overly dramatic at the best of times, Owen was growing to be more than a friend. The more that her family and friends disappeared from her life, the more he remained. Part of her was telling to truth; there were many boxes of her grandfather’s belongings to organize and send back to the sanareum. But there was no real deadline.

Maybe one day, she would have the courage to stop lying to Owen out of convenience. Maybe he would understand if he knew there was more than grief. Maybe he already did. She didn’t want to press the issue hard enough to find out. She would never know how to explain it.

*          *          *          *          *

Unlocking the door, Adi stepped into the dark living room with practiced steps. She whispered “lus’vai” to the sphere hovering at the doorframe, and it followed her inside, lighting up from pure white into a warm orange-yellow. Removing her jacket and placing it on the coatrack beside the door, a thought dawned on her that she never thought would arise: despite the farmhouse’s tiny two-bedroom size, it suddenly felt very spacious and empty.

Tears began to fill her eyes as she instinctively entered her grandparents’ room beside the front door. The inside of the room was always kept very plain and tidy by her grandmother, and it had remained that way in the time Adi’s grandfather had without her. Beside the bed was a box filled with the leather-bound journals Caleb had kept throughout his life, filled with detailed notes of his surgical methods and alchemical formulae. She grew up loving his handwriting and the style of his prose, always writing as if someone in the future were currently reading the words he wrote. His welcoming personality filled every page, no matter how scientific and precise the procedure described.

Picking up his very latest journal, Adi took a seat on the bed and turned the pages back three months and three weeks. Following many empty pages that represented so much pain and struggle, it simply read:

“The starlight of my heart faded away today.”

Page after page following this solemn line, the journal entries became less detailed and more obscure, lacking the charm of his storytelling ability. Anecdotes about his experiences in the sanareum and funny things his patients would say were noticeably absent. Instead, short remarks about the season or changes in the weather filled the pages, along with details of something Caleb rarely ever talked about: his regrets.

“My dear Adi is no longer a little girl,” Caleb wrote a week before his death. “Oh, that I could see her shine like the sun. She already aids me in ways I cannot describe. I love you, Adi. Would that I could tell you this more often than I already do. Your mother and father would have been so proud of the woman you have become.”

“Somehow you knew,” Adi said, tracing the words on the page with her finger. “Why didn’t you tell me? I could have done… something. Anything.”

Being careful not to spill her tears on the delicate pages, Adi turned to the last journal entry Caleb ever wrote. The last line had no clarification:

“I could not solve it. Please take care of them.”

What was “it”? Some disease? Who was “them”? Caleb’s patients at the sanareum? Adi’s could only guess. But since the War, the sanareum of Renfell had seen fewer and fewer long-term cases, and of the ones that remained, only a handful had been under Caleb’s care. Naturally, they had all been transferred to the care of other sanares without a problem; Caleb’s healing abilities may have been supurb but they weren’t irreplaceable.

Adi sniffed, setting the book back down into the box. The lusphere silently continued to hover, its light mimicking that of brightly lit candleglow. But then, slowly, the sphere drifted off towards the bedroom door, leaving her in the dark.

“Lus’vai,” Adi whispered.

The command must have been too soft, as the lusphere didn’t deviate from its course.

“Lus’vai,” Adi said more intently.

The lusphere ignored her.

“Where are you… going?” she asked, standing.

The lusphere increased its speed as it exited the bedroom, turning right into the living room and then into the small kitchen. With complete precision, the lusphere descended to a few inches above the polished wooden countertop along the far wall and slowly turned a cold violet hue.

It only did this in the presence of danger.

“What?” Adi whispered, her hand clutching the focus that hung from her neck. She had no other weapon. But if something in the room threatened to hurt her, she would at least be able to tend to the wound in an instant. She spoke up, even though there couldn’t possibly have been space in the kitchen for someone to hide, even for a child. “Who’s there? Show yourself!”

No voice spoke up.

But something very small drew her eyes from across the room. Perhaps invisible at first, then strangely apparent in the shadows, and tiny pair of animal eyes met her own. They sparkled in the lusphere’s purple light, disappearing and reappearing as they blinked. There was no tapetum lucidum to reflect the light like the eyes of a rodent or cat, however. These eyes showed off a timid humiloid intelligence.

Adi took a step forward into the kitchen.

No, not timid. Fearful.

It was a child.

No, not a child. There was no way. It was too small to be a child. Yet, there it was, upon her grandparent’s countertop, cornered against the backsplash and a large box of funeral decorations. In the light of the lusphere, Adi could see the child’s long matted hair that clung to the head like a rag, a thick puffy shirt and baggy shorts made from mysterious materials, and a rucksack held together with a single small button that to which the child desperately clung. Whether it was a young boy or girl, Adi could not tell. It could not have stood taller than Adi’s thumb.

Not one more step from the countertop, and the child stammered in a light but hollow voice:

“S-Stop! Go away!”

The child’s voice cracked from the stress. Adi paused and stretched her hand towards the lusphere.

“Lus’varom,” Adi whispered, and the lusphere obeyed her at last, returning to its place over her shoulder and blushing from violet to a pleasant orange-yellow flicker. “I’ll not hurt you. Please don’t be afraid.”

This did not stop the child from crying. Tears were running down its cheeks, which Adi could now see very plainly.

“Where is Grandfather?” the child asked, grasping the bag in its lap.

“Grandfather…?” Adi asked. “You mean… my grandfather?”

My Grandfather!” the child nearly shouted, its voice cracking once again. “Where did you take him? Where is he?”

Adi stomach sank and tears welled in her eyes.

“I… I didn’t take him anywhere, he… Who… what are you…?”

“Go away!” the child cried again, curling up tighter against the corner. “Leave us alone!”

“Adienne?”

Adi’s eyes turned from the tiny child on the countertop to a voice that called out from somewhere above. The lusphere again quickly hovered towards the voice to her right and instantly turned deep translucent purple. This time, however, there was no one to see. At first. The voice came from above the cupboards, hiding somewhere behind the decorative crockery.

“Who… who’s there?”

Adi’s eyes darted back to the sobbing child, just in case someone had put a spell on the lusphere. But it was indeed still there, still panicked and cowering behind the rucksack. By the time she looked up at the cupboards, however, a small humil man had appeared. No, a boy, younger than Adi but certainly older than the child. “Who are you? Why are you asking about my grandfather?”

The boy took a seat on the very edge of the cupboard, no doubt putting on a brave face for one only a few inches tall.

“Is it true?” the boy asked. “Is he… gone?”

Adi wiped away a few tears.

My grandfather passed away, yes,” she said quietly.

“How?” came the question.

“His heart… well, it… gave up on him, I suppose.”

“Damn it,” the boy whispered, folding his arms.

“No, you’re lying!” the child screamed, standing to his feet. He didn’t release the rucksack, however. “Grandfather’s not dead! You’re lying! You took him somewhere!”

“Juni!” shouted the boy down to the child. Adi’s head spun from this strange conversation. “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about! Don’t you get us in trouble with Adienne!”

“I don’t care!” Juni continued. “I want him back right now! I want to see Grandfather! Bring him back!”

The boy rose to his feet, unhooking something from his waist.

“Juni, I said shut up! I will come down there and pound you until you stop shouting!”

“Okay, just stop, both of you!” Adi shouted, throwing her hands down and making both tiny creatures recoil in fear. The lusphere dipped and dived, throwing off multiple shades of red and purple. “Stop yelling and tell me who you are! Why do you want to know about my grandfather?”

The child stopped crying, looking up fearfully at Adi. The boy up above approached the edge of the cupboard again and folded his arms.

“He was our grandfather too,” the boy said. “He cared for us when no one else would. We would have been eaten by animals, or ran out of food and water. Juni would have died of the wilt if it wasn’t for him.”

“You still haven’t answered my question,” Adi asked. “Who are you?”

“My name is Kaelan. That’s my little brother Juni. We’re not family by blood. But we’re all brothers and sisters living here because of Grandfather.”

“Living here?” Adi asked. She frowned. “You live in my house?”

“It’s not your house,” said Juni, still defiant. “It’s Grandfather’s house. You live in it just like we do.”

“We just live… underneath it,” Kaelen said. “Out of sight. That’s where he told us to live. He made it comfortable for us. It’s warm and dry, and it keeps the wild animals out. We’re safe here from birds, cats, rats, farmers… Everything.”

Adi shook her head. Please take care of them. The words on the page were ringing in her ears. But there was no way. Adi had never seen any signs that her grandfather had ever kept a secret from her. Nothing like this.

“But what are you? You aren’t humil, are you?”

Kaelan fell silent.

“I don’t know. I was really little when my real parents died. They went out looking for others like us, and they… they never came back. I remember they used to say we were ‘ahm-bli-ree’. I… don’t know what it means, or how to spell it. Grandfather just called us his children.”

“Why would Papa keep something like this from me?” Adi said aloud. “Did… did my grandmother know about you?”

Kaelan shook his head.

“No,” he said. “We never talked to her. Grandfather said it was important that we stay hidden from… everyone.”

Adi pressed her fingers against her temple.

“I can’t believe this…” she said. “How many of you are there?”

“Thirteen,” Kaelan said. “That includes Juni and me. When we heard something happened to Grandfather, we didn’t know what to do at first. Everyone’s scared, especially the little girls. Lillie and I decided we were going to come talk to you in the morning, but…”

He paused with a sigh.

“…my blockheaded brother didn’t believe me when I told him what happened.”

Adi looked down at the poor broken boy sitting upon the countertop, still grieving and clutching his rucksack. Juni no longer looked up at Adi in fear or anger. He simply squeezed his eyes shut and bowed his head downwards, concealing his face behind his hair. Adi’s countenance fell. She’d never seen anyone shaking from grief and fear, much less a child.

She bent down as low as she could, her face level with the boy’s.

“I’m sorry,” Adi said, resting herself against her knees. “It may not look it, but I’ve been crying all day. I miss my Papa and Mama.”

“You’re not like Grandfather,” Juni said bitterly. “You’re gonna kick us out and take everything away from us, and then we’ll all get sick and die, aren’t you?”

“No, that’s not true,” Adi said, shaking her head. “If my Papa taught me anything, it’s that we should always look out for each other. If he was your grandfather like he was my Papa, I’m sure he taught you that, too. There’s no way I can just… throw you out. If he told you that you belong here, then you belong here.”

“Really…?” asked Kaelan from up above.

Juni looked up, his eyes red and swollen.

“Yeah, of course,” Adi said, standing. “If everything you’ve told me is true. That, and assuming you’re not just black magick trying to trick me into giving away my grandparent’s house.”

“I’m not a trick!” Juni blurted.

“Y-Yeah, me neither!” Kaelan said. “It’s all true, promise! Wait just a second!”

Adi turned towards the older boy, and as she did so, Kaelan took a flying leap off the cupboard. In shock, she took a step backwards as a sudden tiny flash illuminated the kitchen, much like the flash of a small firework. The lusphere also panicked, flashing a violet warning and circling Adi’s head rapidly. In a split second, Kaelan had somehow “fallen” diagonally from the cupboard to the countertop in front of Juni, landing without harm. The lusphere returned to orange-gold.

“How… how did you do that?” Adi asked, stepping forward. Now she could clearly see that the older boy was indeed young, despite the deepness of his voice. He wore his dirty-brown hair shoulder-length similar to his younger brother. He dressed much the same way as well, although his jacket seemed much more padded and even armored in a dark but semi-reflective material along his arms, chest, and back.

“Practice,” he said confidently, looking up at Adi with a surprising amount of bravado.

“And aetheris crystals,” Juni whispered. “He’s not supposed to jump like that. Grandfather said so. Makes too bright a flash.”

Hush,” Kaelan replied. “You’re not supposed to tell on me.”

After a pause, he lifted his hand skyward.

“Here, shake my hand,” he said. “Then you’ll know I’m real.”

Adi smiled, lifting her hand. Gently, she took Kaelan’s hand with her forefinger and thumb. Spindly and bony but warm. Then, just to be sure, she squeezed her finger and thumb together  just tight enough around the hand and slowly lifted upwards.

“What are you…? Ah, ah! W-wait! Put me down!”

Adi obeyed right away, releasing her hold, and Kaelan dropped to his feet.

“Just had to make sure you’d react the right way,” Adi said with a giggle. “I’m pretty sure you’re real now.”

“That’s not fair!” Kaelan said, pointing an accusing finger. “Humph. Last time I shake your hand…”

Adi’s face showed remorse.

“I’m sorry, you’re right. I shouldn’t do things like that, should I? Teasing someone smaller than myself isn’t something my Papa would do.”

“No, he would,” Kaelan said. “But only to us older kids, when we do dangerous and stupid things.”

“Oh,” Adi said. “So… I have your permission?”

“Ye- N-no!” Kaelan spurted.

“You can be so dumb sometimes…” Juni said quietly.

Adi laughed.

 


 

So this is Adienne’s story! She will be Aeo’s great-great-great grandmother, born in a small village in Antiell only three years before the calamity that caused the Wound. Her story will lead to Aeo’s birthplace and reveal the source of his magickal abilities. I wanted to write something a little different in the timeline, I may or may not make this an important part of Aeo’s story (a sort of dual-timeline telling as Alyssum unfolds). However, lots of characters makes for tough reading, so I probably shouldn’t do that. I have enough characters in Alyssum as it is.

Still, I’m having fun writing, so depression hasn’t completely taken me.

Backstage Tales – Gaming Confessions

gaming

My brain isn’t fully healed, and won’t be for a few weeks while the medicine my doctor prescribed slowly builds in my system. But it’s National Video Game Day, dang it! I must celebrate it! And I’m going to do that by writing down my Gaming Confessions in a precise and well-organized list (if, by precise and well-organized, I mean as organized by my brain right at this minute). It might not be in as much detail as I want for lack of time (I have a class to get to tonight unfortunately), but it’s fun regardless.

A Game Everyone Loves (But You Can’t Stand)

Sorry, all the people.

maxresdefault

I’ve tried. I really have. Dark Souls 2 and sit lonely and cold in my Steam library just waiting for me to try again, but I can’t. I know in my heart of hearts that the Dark Souls franchise just isn’t for me. The sheer joy that comes from clinching a boss with 1/4th of your health and no Estus remaining just doesn’t compare with the sheer disappointment of losing thousands of souls again and again after struggling through masses of vicious enemies only to get jumped on out of nowhere by that one dude you didn’t see. It’s like you’re choosing to play a game where your memory card gets corrupted and deletes your progress every time you die or rest at a bonfire. Combined with the lack of a clear jargon-free narrative and a menu and combat system that takes serious time to comprehend, I’ve just never been able to get into it.

Maybe it will click for me one day, and will hop on the bandwagon for Dark Souls 6. I hope so. Everyone seems to be having such a good time with Dark Souls.

A Game Everyone Hates (But You Love)

Yay!

spore-333

I played Spore way too much. I bought my first graphics card specifically so I could play this and Fable (I guess both games could tie here). This was before I had any idea the kind of shenanigans Peter Molyneux could get himself into with his big mouth. I knew nothing about Spore before purchasing it except that it looked like a truckload of fun, and it was. I’ve played way too many hours of this to count.

Looking back, I probably should have avoided this game and its broken promises. But when promised a “galaxy-in-a-box”, I tend to overlook the negative. I’m a sucker that way.

An Older Game You Haven’t Finished (And Probably Never Will)

Makes me sad.

Ff4cast

Kain’s betrayal, Cecil’s redemption from Dark Knight to Paladin, Edward the Spoony Bard, Palom and Porom’s sacrifice… Final Fantasy IV was a special game to me. Unfortunately, I didn’t play it until it was re-released with Chrono Trigger as Final Fantasy Chronicles, and Chrono Trigger got the better part of my fandom.

I don’t know if I’ll ever have time to give the game the attention it deserves, but if I do, you’ll hear it here first.

A Guilty Pleasure Game

This. Just this.

monster-hunter-world-960x540

Holy crap, I’ve gotten into this game this past weekend. It is so much fun. And I don’t even have a Playstation Plus account. If I had the money, I would seriously consider picking up the PC version and hook up my PS4 controller to it just so I could circumvent Sony’s stupid online connectivity and play with other people.

Yes. A game that I would willing play with other people.

Don’t get me wrong, Monster Hunter World is totally solo-able. But I don’t see me getting up there too high in rank without some help. Despite this, I will still happily long sword the crap out of rathians, radobaans, and nergigantes until my thumbs fall off. I came into the series on my PSP, and I’m loving every second of this complex slice-and-dice-the-monster simulator.

PETA, eat your heart out. I prefer to capture, anyway.

A Game You Really Love (But Haven’t Played in Years)

Oh man. Zelda time.

majoras-mask-walkthrough

I was 12. It was April. It wasn’t Christmas. My birthday had passed. I begged my Mom to get this game for me.

She actually did, Expansion Pak and all. I thank her to this day.

I haven’t played it in many years, but I watch speedruns of it regularly (they’re fascinating, check out MajinPhil for the latest tech in Majora’s Mask speedrunning). It’s incredible how easily they break through obstacles that I couldn’t figure out as a kid.

A Game You Never Play Seriously (But Others Definitely Do)

Remember how I hate multiplayer?

sc2_gamescom_allied_commanders_co-op_04

Yeah. Starcraft 2. I’m in love with the co-op at the moment, don’t get me wrong. But I have neither the competitive drive nor the reflexes necessary to be a Starcraft player, much less a good Starcraft player. I am stunned at how necessary both speed and confidence are to play this game properly, and I have neither of those in any sort of capacity.

I know that Starcraft is an Olympic-sized swimming pool. But don’t mind me, I’ll just swim in the shallow end with the kiddies playing co-op missions and the campaigns over and over. I don’t mind. At least I don’t have carpal tunnel from all the micro.

A Game You Completed (But Hated By The End)

Yeah. Great beginning. Poor ending.

maxresdefault1

Dead Island was what I wanted out of a zombie game. It was relatively open world, in an iconic locale, and I’d pick up weapons and loot from luggage and tiki bars, all the while smacking the crap out of undead beach-going corpses until my paddle broke. That is, until I got my electrified katana, and all was well with the world.

And then cliché story about paramilitary something-or-other, zombie wife, ‘kick the dog‘  trope downer ending sequel yadda yadda yadda… All the freshness of the ‘tourist resort turned zombie playground’ got sucked out by the vacuum of the story. I don’t think I’ll be playing it again, but I had my share of fun with it until the ending happened. Why do Colonels always gotta be the bad guys, huh? It’s like that rank has some stigma attached to it or something.

And despite almost being stuck in development hell for six years, Dead Island 2 is still coming. We’ll see if I end up playing it. After the whole Dead Island: Riptide pre-order debacle, I’m not sure I want to shovel any more money towards the company who thought that was a good idea.

A Game You Thought You’d Enjoy (But Definitely Didn’t)

Aww. I was so excited for this game.

71o71aamerl-_ac_sl1280_

I was stunned speechless by the physics engine and all the pretty lights. I loved the voice acting and the motion capture. The first game was an original Star Wars story; sure, it may not have been canon-friendly, but it was one I was sure I wanted to continue.

By the end, I had had enough. With half the total playtime and a quarter the story of the first game, The Force Unleashed 2 was awful. Playing with the most confusing aspect of the Star Wars extended universe (aka cloning force users) and offering no concrete answers in return, it managed to resurrect the Gary Stu (or male Mary Sue) of Starkiller and make him even more powerful and angsty.

“You weren’t sure of you identity in the first game? Well, this time, you’re not even sure you’re a clone of the original guy or the real article that survived somehow! You squish AT-STs with your bare hands, but Vader controls you by your unstable emotions somehow!”

Yeah, wasn’t impressed, won’t be playing again.

A Game You Didn’t Think Was Meant For You (But Definitely Was)

I’m so glad I played this at least once.

980_1119544156

I’m not a COD player. I’ve only played Modern Warfare 2. First-person shooters are a struggle for me. So I don’t entirely understand what possessed me to pick up Spec Ops: The Line in the first place. It might have been on sale, and I think I was going through a phase.

According to critics (to whom I will defer for details about the combat system), Spec Ops: The Line isn’t the greatest military shooter. But I don’t think that’s why it was created in the first place. If you have the stomach to look at some pretty graphic imagery and understand that the game is trying to tell a very specific story about the realities of war and “heroism”, play this game.

I wouldn’t recommend a replay, although maybe it’s time I did just to take it all in again. But as an English major with great interest in the consequences of the modern Western military mentality (and the industry equivalent that seems to want to make gamers into soldiers), it was definitely for me.

A Game You Are Still Excited For (That Hasn’t Come Out Yet)

This one:

Square-Enix. Square-Enix, please. Please. It has to happen. You would shatter my heart and fill it with such happiness. Yes, it’s a fake trailer. But please make another Chrono game. And please make Janus the main character. He deserves to regain his memories. He deserves redemption. He deserves to be reunited with his sister.

We need to know the consequences of Serge’s actions in Chrono Cross. Did he and his friends free Schala for good, banishing Lavos forever to the darkness beyond time, thereby erasing its existence from history? Could the world even be the same without Lavos in it? Or does some part of the monster still exist in the world as long as humanity thrives?

I need to know.

I NEEEEED TO KNOOOOOW.

27y0r7

Fill in the blank. Ha!

Anybody else want to fill out their Gaming Confessions before the day is through? 😀

Mental Chains – The Gauge of Death

moardepression

No, it is not.

I had a mild panic attack and a whole lot of depression this week. In fact, I’ve been in bed for the past two days (yesterday I don’t think I even got up to sit at my computer until 5 PM). It’s incredible the amount of energy drain currently going on. And I don’t see my doctor until next Tuesday.

Ugh. Slow medicine is slow.

I’m not sure my upload schedule for the next couple of weeks as I will be adjusting my medication again. Things are not working as they should. But I am alive, and I will write when I can. I’ve been distracting my mind with Starcraft 2 co-op mode and Monster Hunter World, both of which I would love to review.

So yeah. I can barely keep my eyes open right now. And yet my mind is buzzing away, daring me to think about negative things. Sucks.