Voices of the Shattered Sun – Mephandras

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“Tell us that story again, Roki! The one about the giant bear!”

“Yes please, tell it again!”

“Can you? Please?”

“All right, all right, settle down,” said Roki, folding the quilt and placing it in the oak truck at the foot of the bed. She pushed back a few strands of errant hair from her eyes and took a seat besides the three children. “But you’ve only heard me tell it a few hundred times. Wouldn’t you rather hear about Falstaad the Brave, or Glendi the Pale Bole, or…”

“No no!” cried little Mara. “The bear story again!”

“Yeah!” agree both Yris and Kraston.

“Okay, let’s see…” Roki rubbed her hands together. “How does it start again?”

“When you were a little girl, just as old as me,” Mara said. “You went out into the forest alone, just like Gramma said you don’t!”

“Yeah,” said Kraston, raising his arms in the form of a monster. “And you ran into a pack of vicious, man-eating wolves! They chased you and chased you until they cornered you against a big cliff, and almost ate you!”

Roki nodded.

“That’s right. I was only seven years old, and your gramma had let me go pick avaberries behind her old cabin. But I went too far into the woods and soon heard the howling of the wolves around me. I panicked and started to run, and that’s when they started chasing me towards the cliffs of Falas. Pretty soon there was nowhere else to run, and I kneeled down and shut my eyes just like this.”

Roki covered her eyes with her hands, and the children copied her perfectly.

“And that’s when the giant talking bear showed up!” yelled Yris, the youngest of the three.

“Now remember what I told you before,” Roki said as everyone’s eyes opened again. “The giant bear didn’t speak, exactly. Instead, it tried to show me a picture in my head, as if it were doing the thinking for me. Can you imagine that?”

“It showed you pictures in your head, like a picture book?” Mara asked.

“A bit like that, I suppose. The bear- well, it wasn’t a bear. No bear can grow that size. It was a mephandras, a terrible creature, fifteen foot tall on its hind legs with thick matted hair, scales on its hindlegs and shoulders the size of dinner plates, and teeth and claws like daggers. As the wolves closed in, I heard a loud, mighty roar. For a reason I’ll never know, the mephandras charged in front of me. It was trying to keep me safe.”

“And then it attacked the wolves! Raawwr!” Kraston swiped at the air, bobbing up and down.

“Not exactly,” Roki said. “The wolves attacked first. They leaped onto its back and tried to bite down, but nothing could penetrate its thick hide. It bit their tails and tossed the wolves away like they were dolls made of straw. It wasn’t long before the wolves ran away with their tails between their legs.”

“And the me… memandra didn’t eat you up,” Mara said, very matter-of-factly. “It was a nice bear.”

“It was a very nice bear, that’s right,” Roki said. “When the wolves were gone, it turned around and put its snout right up close to me and sniffed at me. That was when the mephandras put a thought in my head. It was a beautiful image of a quiet spring filled with colorful fish, surrounded by flowering fruit trees and long soft grass. I was scared at first, but the thought put me right at ease. I looked up into its deep red eyes and reached out my hand. Just before I could touch it, to my surprise, another creature appeared from the underbrush…”

“A baby bear!” said Yris.

“That’s right,” Roki said. “The mephandras that saved me was a mama bear. The baby was much smaller than the mama, but still much bigger than me. It came right up to me and started sniffing me… That’s when it found the avaberries in my apron. It licked them right up, and then it licked my face!”

“Eww!” said Mara and Yris, sticking their tongues out.

“Yucky bear spit!” said Kraston.

“That’s right!” Roki said with a smile. “The mama mephandras and her cub walked with me all the way to the edge of the forest and made sure that none of those awful wolves followed after me. I never went that far into the forest again, and that was the last time anyone in this village ever saw a mephandras so far down the mountain. The hunters didn’t believe my story about the mama mephandras at first… That is, until they saw the tracks from the scuffle. They tried to convince me that I was just lucky. But that mama bear saved my life, no matter what the hunters say.”

“The hunters didn’t hunt down the mama mephandras and her baby, though, right Mama?” Kraston asked with concern on his face.

“I don’t know, sweetie. It’s been quite a few years since the hunters have even seen mephandras tracks in the woods. I hope she and her cub are still okay.”

“I know they are!” Mara said, patting her knees with her hands. “If any hunter got close to the mama bear, she’d just roar and they’d all run away.”

“But the hunters have bombs and magick,” Kraston said. “The Guild Hall is made of mephandras bones, remember? They used to hunt them all the time in the old stories.”

“No way,” Mara insisted, folding her arms. “The mama and baby bear are still alive. I just know it.”

“Yeah, me too!” Yris said, copying Mara.

“I think so, too,” Roki said, patting Mara’s head. “If there’s anything that could outsmart those hunters, it would be the mama mephandras. The hunters didn’t get them all, surely. It makes me wonder where the mephandras could have gone.”

 

Basic Information

Anatomy & Morphology

The mephandras (or ursas mephandras) is a omnivorous species of megafauna that looks much like a feral bear covered in thick fur and scales. These quadruped creatures are known for their immense muscular strength and mass, often walking on all fours unless threatened or reaching upwards for a bite of fruit or leaves. Because of their size, the mephandras moves slowly and deliberately, spending up to 20 hours a day eating.

However, when particularly hungry, mephandras have been known to hunt the bighorns and elk that inhabit the rocky crags and deep woods surrounding Falas. When threatened or chasing prey, their speed and ferocity can be terrifying, exceeding 40 mph (64 kph) in a four-legged sprint. Their claws and teeth are long and razor sharp, and the spiked scales on the mephandras’ shoulders, back, and feet ensure few natural weapons can successfully pierce or stab. Their eyes are remarkably crimson red and reflect moonlight in the dark.

Genetics and Reproduction

The mephandras typically mates for life and every mephandras pair will breed every eight to nine years. The exact gestation period is unknown, but it is much longer than other ursas pregnancies. Because of the hard scales and spikes common in both male and female physiology, the act of reproduction is often a loud and violent affair, with entire trees at the site being torn apart and uprooted.

Ecology and Habitats

Native to the high mountain forests of Falas, the mephandras are used to bitter cold winds and climbing frozen crags. Unlike other arboreal bear species of lower altitudes, the mephandras is fiercely territorial. A pair of mated mephandras can “claim” hundreds of square miles, although interactions with other lone or paired mephandras isn’t uncommon. Tearing down trees and clawing at boulders are markers of territory, and the worse the damage, the closer you are to the mephandras den.

As Falas is filled with caves and crevices, you’ll typically find mephandras making their homes inside higher altitude “habitats”; not many mephandras live in the lower-altitude forests for very long. From their caves, they’ll descend into the forests to search and hunt for food, and are known to retreat back to their caves when in danger from hunters.

Dietary Needs and Habits

One of the greatest mysteries of Falas is how it supports (or used to support) its mephandras population. The mephandras is an omnivore, and seems to eat almost anything, from berries and fish to bighorners and roots. They have been known to eat the bark, cones, and needles of pine trees, though not in large enough quantities to completely strip the mountain of pine.

As the mephandras moves slowly to conserve its energy except in times of danger, hunting, or arousal, they are careful eaters, not wasting or giving up anything nutritious. Despite this, no mephandras has ever been seen eating a humil or ashanti corpse. Whether this is due to their understanding of running a risk of retribution if they did so or just a simple aversion to eating humil or ashanti meat is unclear.

Biological Cycle

As the mephandras live in a cold and mountainous environment that experiences little seasonal change, the only biological cycles that occur year-to-year are short periods of hibernation in the coldest months when food is scarce.

Every five to six years, mephandras shed their scales and spikes, allowing new thicker chitin to grow in its place. Discovery of large piles of scale and horn residue is a sure indicator of mephandras territory.

Growth Rate & Stages

Newborn mephandras are hairless and scaleless, emerging from the mother about the size of a large dog. Mephandras litters are typically limited to two or three at a time, and are very dependent on the mother for the first two years of life for milk and protection (mothers can spend up to the first four months of this important period of time without food protecting their young). Mephandras cubs grow very rapidly, their thick fur and scales appearing within six to eight months. At a year old, a mephandras cub is six foot tall and prepared to accompany its mother to the forest to eat roots and berries. At three years of age, a mephandras will leave its mother’s care and search for a mate. The mephandras will usually find a mate at three to seven years of age, and remain with them throughout their entire lifetimes. Lone mephandras are rare but not unheard of.

Oddly, very few mephandras corpses have ever been discovered out in the open, and none have ever been tracked through their entire lives. It is unknown if mephandras can die of old age, leading some superstitious hunters to speculate that the mephandras might be hiding the secret to eternal life somewhere on or inside the Falas Mountains. What is known, however, is that mephandras never stop growing as they age. The oldest and largest mephandras to ever be hunted and killed weighed 22400 lbs (10160 kg) and stood 25 foot 7 inches (or 7.8 meters) tall.

 

Additional Information

Geographic Origin and Distribution

The mephandras was originally located in the forests and mountain ranges of the Falas Mountains in Antiell. This colossal land mammal served as the primary obstacle to the exploration of the Falas Mountain range since humils migrated to the Antielli continent 600 years ago. In recent years, however, no trace of them can be found, leading some hunters to believe that the species has slowly become extinct.

Average Intelligence

A fully-grown mephandras can be expected to have the intelligence of an adolescent humil or ashanti. Many stories have been told, however, of the unpredictable moods of the mephandras, ranging between mad and violent monsters with no sense of morality to peaceful and inquisitive creatures. Few patterns for these behaviors have been linked to sex or age, although one thing has been proven: hunters and poachers looking to separate a nursing mephandras from its young will have quite the fight on their hands.

Perception and Sensory Capabilities

The mephandras has sub-par vision but excellent hearing and sense of smell. What sets it apart from other mammals, however, are its mental abilities. Capable of broadcasting images and subtle feelings into the minds of other lifeforms, the mephandras use a minor form of telepathy to communicate. The images they broadcast vary wildly from mephandras to mephandras, leading some Ashanti researchers to believe it isn’t a rote “language” but an imperfect sharing of memories and thoughts.

For example, if one mephandras implanted the image of a waterfall in someone’s mind, it could hold many meanings: the waterfall could be a place of rest and refreshment, a meaningful landmark, or a place of danger. Context clues are usually the best way to discern the meaning, although some refined mentalists and psykin have been able to feel other currents of emotion beneath the images.

In conflict, the mephandras uses its abilities to flash multiple images in the minds of its enemy to confuse it. To prey such as bighorners and elk, this usually results in hesitation, allowing the mephandras the opportunity to attack. To unwary humil and ashanti hunters, it may cause a stupor of thought for a brief moment. No matter the target, this is a sure sign that an attack is imminent.


 

This was a fun one to write. I honestly did not have the Arzuros from Monster Hunter in mind when I imagined the mephandras, but it works just so well. I have plans to make them meaningful to the second act of Alyssum, so we’ll see how that goes. I don’t know if worldbuilding or just writing is more important to me at this point, because I want to get it all out of me.

Either way, if you want to read more about Voices of the Shattered Sun or Alyssum, check out my World Anvil page! I include more information in spoiler tags if you want to get a hint about what’s developing behind the scenes. I know, spoilers for most people are bad. But I’m a writer and want to know how things are built more than I care to read the story from beginning to end.

Backstage Tales – Connecting the Past to the Present

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I am a packrat.

Not as bad as I used to be, mind you – when you’re in college, you tend to want to travel as lightly as possible (although that didn’t stop me from loading a few plastic bins full of books and knick-knacks until the boxes fell apart from the sheer weight). I have a really hard time parting with things that may have a low material value but a high emotional value, something into which I’ve placed a memory of a specific time and place. Among these things include a piece of obsidian in the shape of an egg that my dad got me from a rock store when I was little, the beaten-up instruction manuals for Warcraft 2 and Diablo 2 I used to read again and again, and my tiny, no-longer-functioning Playstation One Mini with a broken CD tray lid that I got bought from a pawn shop when I was ten or eleven along with a beaten-up but functional 4-disk copy of Final Fantasy VIII (yes, that was my first FF title, and I LOVE it).

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It looked a little like this. Classic.

Despite this, you might think I’ve grown pretty callous to some of these precious memory-objects. The very first piece of cosplay I’d ever put together was a Master Chief helmet from Halo 2, made pepakura-style with paper and slathered with plaster and spray paint. It hurts to put on, it fogs up immediately, and quite honestly, I’m not that big into Halo; if I’m not mistaken, that’s just the kind of project an early 2000’s teenage boy does. Ashamed of the attempt, I tried to throw it away, but my dad fished it out of the garbage and demanded I keep it. My skills have developed since this first helmet, but I see now how it’s a good idea to hang on to your early work if only to help remind yourself of how far you’ve come.

When I look at a particular piece of pottery I made in junior high that has been sitting on top of my refrigerator at home for many years, I try to remember what was going through my head when I assembled it. It has strange carvings and symbols that make it feel like it should have a lot more meaning than it actually does. I haven’t sculpted with water-based clay for many years, and wish I could spend a few hours making clay boxes and pots in a non-graded environment again. I remember my ceramics teacher (whose name I no longer recall) had an impressive collection of glazes to choose from, and they honestly made my work stand out.

Something I think I’ll regret until my dying day is losing my earliest writings and stories.  On my dad’s Power Macintosh, I would write fantastic stories about airship mechanics and giants and magic and what I thought was deftly written political intrigue. I would write dialogue that in hindsight sounded terribly hammy and over-the-top. I would have idea after idea, and start story after story, and it would always involve the same characters with different names, over and over, just a little different than before. I would let the Macintosh’s text-to-speech tell me my stories so I could hear them out loud, but I would turn it off the moment mom or dad came into the room. I don’t think I’d even shown them any of my writing until I was at college level simply because I was too afraid of what they would think of the things that came spewing forth from my head.

Hopefully they still exist in that old machine.

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Yup, just like this one. Classic.

It was from one of those stories that Aeo and Leon became characters, although in their original forms, Aeo had an older brother who cared for him, and Leon was a much younger gentleman than he is in Alyssum.

Do you hang on to anything from your early days that reminds you of better times? Maybe some things remind you of a time you’d sooner forget, but you can’t seem to throw it in the trash because of the psychological attachment you’ve created with it. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with memory-objects. Not everything deserves the honorary title of “keepsake” or “family treasure”, but everything from old articles of clothing to files on an old Power Macintosh computer can stand as early mile markers on your journey. Some of these objects can trigger good memories, some can dredge up some really bad ones, and some took a lot of time to create or purchase.

Even names can hold special meaning for us. Supreme Leader Snoke may have insisted that they weren’t Sith in the latest Star Wars movie, but Kylo Ren had at one time been Ben Solo just like Darth Vader had once been Anakin Skywalker. Fortunately, I doubt most people change their names to go to the Dark Side. In real life, many transgender people change their names to reflect their new personal identities, and I can understand the desire to leave behind who they once were. Although I can’t find it now, I did recently read an AskReddit thread about the reasons people change their full names, and many people mentioned the Jewish tradition of taking on a new name after overcoming a serious illness or personal tragedy. Some who attempt to commit suicide set down their old names and pick up a new one as a way to dedicate themselves to a more hopeful and meaningful future.

To change gears here just a bit, I’ve been thinking about the connection to the past we all have and how we make choices based on our past experiences. The choices we make in our daily lives have to come from somewhere. Whether our choices are defined by the decisions our parents or our siblings made, or from the circumstances from which we were raised (good or bad, rich or poor, religious or not), the choices we make in the present and the destinations we’ll reach in the future are at least in some small way dictated by the past. “No man is an island, entire of itself,” after all, socially, consequentially, or chronologically. My past is made up of both voluntary and involuntary consequences. For example, on one hand, my very involuntary bipolar depression condition is hereditary, and has greatly affected the choices I’ve made. On the other, I am not fully defined by my limitations; my voluntary decisions to develop my writing abilities despite the difficulties in doing so has led me to employment opportunities where I can use my skills to serve others.

I am ruled by my upbringing as well. The choices I make reflect both the voluntary and the involuntary nature of my past. Anyone can attempt to ignore parentage and upbringing, but they have an effect regardless in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Even if I wanted to, could I separate myself from my past so thoroughly that I could act independently of any parental or generational interference? Without my memories or upbringing, for all intents and purposes, would I be a different person? Would that person be a better one than the one I am now because of the complete separation from a biased past? More or less capable of compassion? More or less detached from taking personal responsibility? More confident or arrogant? More self-conscious or mentally stable? Or just as capable?

What happens to that person when every connection they have to the past is suddenly cut? And what happens when an entire society of people suddenly forget something very important from their past in a single instance?

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Yes, two quotes in one article. Fancy.

For Voices of the Shattered Sun, I’m trying to work out two things that I don’t quite know how to deal with: what happens when a frightened slave boy is suddenly given nearly unlimited power over his captors, and what happens to a nation that collectively forgets everything it used to know about the war it fought with its fatherland.

The first one I can develop with time: Aeo is determined to not let his past define his future. Needless to say, Aeo had a name before he became a slave. Will he take on his birth name and forget his slave name, choosing to become someone entirely different? Or will he forge his own reality and refuse both his birth and his circumstances? I haven’t determined the complete circumstances surrounding it yet, but something is going to happen to Aeo (whether in Alyssum or one of the future connecting novelettes) that will cause his memories to be severed (think Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories and what happened to Sora). Let’s just say that the Wound in Tiathys is more than just a hole in the ground, and Aeo is going to fall into it. The Wound is more like a hole in reality and time itself. No one ever comes back from the Wound because technically… no one’s ever fallen in. And if they had, they never were. Got it? *wink wink*

The second is a little tricky: what kind of event would be terrible and soul-crushing enough to make a royal power-hungry despot go from “fire every weapon of mass destruction we have at those bastards” to “we need to stop, bury this deep, and forget it even happened”? How would a nation even collectively forget such an event without waving a magic wand and suddenly it just happened (because that feels like a cop out). Answer: I don’t think it can happen without a very specific magic wand. What if the memory of that event were so destructive and so pervasive, the mental and psychological pain of the event would be passed down genetically through the generations of the men and women that witnessed it, waiting only for the right physical trigger to release or even spread devastating pain? Would that trigger be a word, a phrase, a sight, a sound, a scent, or…

…a flower?

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Ooooh.

*ahem* Pardon me. I just had an “ah-ha” moment. Seems I have some writing to do. What if psychometry weren’t a blessing, but a well-designed and very lethal poison? Who designed it, and for what purpose? Or, worse yet, is it just a natural phenomenon that happens to kill people with particularly painful past experiences? For those interested in the subject, check out the superpower wiki on psychometry as well as the TV Tropes page on the same subject.

Ooh, hee-hee, plans are brewing.

Names are symbols. Objects can trigger memories. There’s a reason a lot of story protagonists have meaningful names and carry or hunt for McGuffins. Some things I’ve been writing and some things that happened over the weekend got me thinking about the kinds of memories we place in objects, the choices we make, and how the past defines our present and our future, both good and bad.

But what did we really learn? That I can philosophize and type frantically on a keyboard. YAAAAY!!

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Voices of the Shattered Sun – Aeo Karandal

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Aeo, age 13 (source: Pinterest)

The bell above the entrance jingled and though he couldn’t admit it out loud, the 17-year old Assistant Librarian Liam Terelle felt dread in his heart. With every ring of that blasted bell, he expected some impatient and overweight Antielli minister to emerge unblinking from the sunlight outside and demand special treatment. That, and he’d have to put on the ridiculous-looking librarian hat the faculty usually forced the apprentices to wear. Because, oh, your business is so much more important than mine! That would make it… three, three time this week he would have to make up for lost time.

In the midst of accepting his fate, however, he craned his neck around the shelf of leather-bound tomes to see a familiar scrawny figure.

“Oh, Master Aeo. Is that you?”

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Aeo, age 19 (source: Pinterest)

“Y-Yessir,” came the timid reply. The Edian boy stepped up to the counter, quickly producing a small piece of parchment from his pocket upon which was written the titles of several books. Aeo slid the note to Liam without speaking another word. Liam blinked; Aeo was always easy to assist, but a very difficult boy to read. It didn’t help that Aeo’s red eyes never met his own.

“Um, let me see,” Liam said, reading the remarkably legible handwriting. Was it Aeo’s? “Varieties of Ashanti Spores by Wil Remar, Five Vital Preparations for Corpsefly Larvae by Junne… Yes, I think these are all in the same spot. Come on back, Aeo, I’ll take you to them.”

Navigating the rows upon rows of complicated textbooks and guides, the two young men worked their way deep into the northeast corner of the expansive first floor. It was all silent. Liam looked back a few times to see if Aeo was still following him. Sure enough, like a shadow, Aeo was, his eyes glued to the floor in thought.

Liam had thoughts of his own, of course. Most of the library staff did. Everyone at the Academy knew him simply as “the Firebrand”, even if they didn’t know his name. Come to think of it, Liam wasn’t sure the boy had a last name. It was strange enough that Master Sirelu mysteriously departed Ashant for a year and a half only to return with crates filled with unknown alchemical reagents. He also had become guardian to a freed Edian slave who could manipulate elemental fire as easily as the Heidir wield their swords. Liam had never heard of its like before. Aeo had few masters who had the talent and strength of magick to teach him. One who could, Master Naal, even praised him publicly around the Academy (hence the nickname), but Aeo never showed off or boasted about his talents. In fact, it just seemed to make the strange red-haired and crimson-eyed boy more reclusive. The only time Liam ever saw Aeo was during his trips to the library.

At last, they arrived at a particularly dusty section of shelves in the back corner, all lined with tomes of particularly varying colors and parchments. Liam lifted himself on his toes, spying the reference numbers inscribed into metal plaques on each shelf.

“Let’s see, 576… 576.8… 576.9… Ah, here’s Documents on Falas Fungi, Part One. And Lichen of the South Shores.”

Liam handed each hefty volume as he found them into Aeo’s waiting arms. Although a wiry adolescent, he didn’t make a single sound of complaint.

“And… Algae Blooms of the Everspring. There you go. Is that everything you need?”

“Hmm,” Aeo nodded in the affirmative, his lips pursed as he strained beneath the five weighty books.

“Here, let me take a few of those, you can take one of our carts back to Master Sirelu’s quarters,” Liam said. Well aware that Aeo might refuse the help, he quickly snatched the two top books from Aeo’s arms before a pause could form.

“Thanks,” Aeo whispered.

The two returned to the front counter in silence. Unsure of what to say, Liam instinctively looked down every other aisle in case his fellow librarian assistants were down one. But the day had been a quiet one, with many of the regular students of the Academy away for the weekend. He tossed a glance behind him. Aeo was still there, following along quietly.

“H-Hey Aeo,” Liam said, surprised that the words emerged from him the moment he spoke them.

“Huh?” Aeo looked up, as if a trance had been broken.

“Um…” Liam looked down and frowned. How could he ask this politely? “Do… Do you eat lunch… somewhere?”

Aeo didn’t reply immediately.

“Er, wh-what I mean is…” Liam shifted the books under his arm to the other. “Are you busy… at around noon, sometimes, or maybe after lunch? I could actually use your help…”

Liam looked back and saw a frown form on Aeo’s normally placid face.

“My help?” he asked.

“Yeah, absolutely,” Liam said. “I’m failing Master Lyris’s Emanation class, and I heard you’ve got a real talent for energy channeling… You wouldn’t want to teach me the trick to it, would you? I really don’t want to fail this class so close to graduation.”

Liam and Aeo reached the front counter and sat all five books down.

“Teach you? But… I’m not a teacher.” Aeo looked up at Liam. For some reason, it startled him a bit. “I… haven’t ever taught anybody anything.”

“Well, that’s probably the best thing for me right now,” Liam said with a grin. “Because my teachers aren’t teaching me at all. Think of yourself as an anti-teacher. Things will go smoother that way.”

Aeo looked away, lost in thought.

“Look, Aeo,” Liam said. “I’m not asking for a favor. I don’t have this crummy librarian job for nothing. I can pay you to be my tutor.”

Aeo’s face distorted as if he’d sucked on something sour.

“P-Pay me? Really?”

“Yeah, sure!” Liam paused, unable to read Aeo’s expression. “Er, that is, if it matters to you. I don’t know if Master Sirelu gives you an allowance or anything. I’m not exactly rolling in gold, but I’m, um… negotiable.”

Aeo blinked a few times, sliding his hand over one of the books he carried. For a moment, he was silent.

“Do…” he started, and then grew quiet. “Do you know anything about wolves?”

It was Liam’s turn to pause.

“Anything… in particular?”

“Do you know…anything about wolves that can talk? Inside your head?”

Liam’s head instinctively tilted.

“I… can’t say that I do.”

“What if…” Aeo said quietly. “What if you helped me research wolves and I helped you learn about channeling? Would… that be fair?”

“Um, well…” Liam scratched his head. “Sure, I guess. I’ve never heard of wolves that can talk. I don’t want to rip you off if we can’t find anything… But, then again, this library is huge, and it’s not like I’ve read every book that’s come through here. If these wolves are important to you, I’d be glad…”

“They are,” Aeo said quickly.

“All right,” Liam said, surprise flickering on his face. “I guess we have a deal.”

He held out his hand to Aeo, and Aeo shook it.

“Thank you, sir,” Aeo said timidly.

“No, thank you, Aeo. Really. And it’s okay, just call me Liam.”

“Okay… Liam, sir.”

Liam didn’t have the heart to correct him.

—from Tales of the Everspring Academy, Volume II by Master Edin Naal

Physical Description

General Physical Condition

Aeo is of slender and underweight build as a child, growing up to become a tall and athletic young man. Despite his attendance at the Academy, Aeo often finds himself away from the books and exploring the grounds surrounding the Everspring. His adventures lead him to a dangerous nomadic life on the road, toughening his endurance and agility.

Body Features

His skin color is odd for an Edian: bright white, burning bright red under the sun and never seeming to tan. His hair is an unkempt reddish-brown, eventually growing to shoulder-length just like Leon’s. Young Aeo is skinny, lanky, and clumsy, unsure of his body movements. As he grows, however, the lankiness vanishes, replaced with well-defined muscles and deliberate motion.

Facial Features

Aeo’s features are striking to even the most casual observer, not the least of which is his self-identifying and piercing crimson eyes. His slender facial features, light eyebrows, and sharp nose are very Antiellian, leading many onlookers to sometimes perform a double-take.

Special Abilities

Aeo has a strong affinity for fire magick (both invoking and control) as well as great talents for energy manipulation and personal shielding. In combat, Aeo can ignite both fists in burning magickal energy and expel this energy with great force, enabling close or long-range attacks as well as area-of-effect (the fire spreads and does not extinguish under normal means, except through special wards or Aeo’s command). This energy can also deflect blows, stabbing, slashing, and projectile attacks. Aeo can shielding his entire form in energy, but this takes a great amount of effort and cannot last.

While he is taught simple wards and transmutation by his academy teachers, the finer points of the art confuse him, leading him to rely on a simple but specialized set of adventuring magick skills including temperature control, limited water-breathing, water purification, and food preservation.

Apparel & Accessories

Unlike most of the other apprentices at the Academy, Aeo dislikes the heavy and itchy robes traditionally worn by the Ashanti. Like Leon, he maintains freedom of movement by wearing a simple cotton tunic, linen pants, and flat-soled shoes, adding a light linen-backed ayvasilk jacket on cold days. He almost always wears a thin leather necklace around his neck that holds a single ring of silver, given to him by Master Kane Dolshir when he became a student of Everspring.

Mental characteristics

Personal History

Waking up in an iron slave cage at the tender age of three is the earliest memory the young Edian boy Aeo remembers, the stale air of a dirty stable filling his lungs and burning his eyes. The next earliest memory is being sold to his first Antielli owners, a kindly man named Onris Eli and the small Eli family. It was from them that he received the name “Aeo”.

Naturally, their intention had to have been to raise him as a servant. He wasn’t owned by the family for long, however, perhaps a year at most. After all, slave children don’t offer much labor and require time to grow into usefulness. When times became tight, Eli sold this “costly asset” to the wealthiest woman in the village of Olvaren: Ariste Noll, owner of the Gray Pale Inn.

From here, the rest is history: at age ten, Aeo started an unquenchable magickal fire that burned down the Gray Pale and many neighboring buildings before fleeing up Mount Falas alone. How he survived on his own without freezing is unknown. What is known is that he returned to Olvaren under the care of a very wealthy Ashanti alchemist named Leon Sirelu, who offered complete reparations to the small village in return for Aeo’s freedom. After traveling to the Everspring Academy in Ashant with Leon, he became an apprentice in the Academy, but made few friends with the exception of the Ashanti humil Liam Terelle.

Education

Apprentice at Everspring Academy. He learns to excel at fire magick and energy manipulation, including personal shielding and minor matter transmutation. He consistently fails at alchemy, despite Leon’s encouragement, assistance, and practically limitless access to ingredients.

Accomplishments & Achievements

Aeo is one of the few Edian slaves to brave the Falas Mountains and survive. While he didn’t cross them per se, the fact that he endured the cold earned him a reputation as a survivor at the Academy. Combined with his rare talents in fire destruction and energy manipulation, his teachers praise him as a star pupil.

Mental Trauma

Due to his rough upbringing where even the slightest mistake meant physical or verbal abuse, Aeo doesn’t think highly of his own abilities and has become his own worst critic. Even at the best of times, his ability to manipulate fire frightens him. Ever since the fire at the Grey Pale, he has developed an acute fear of losing control of his powers. Lacking a clear understanding of the visions he experiences combined with the potency of his magick, he finds himself holding back and even purposely making mistakes to avoid letting loose and losing control.

This fear is soon replaced with intense anger, sparked by bullying, discrimination, slavery, and violence. The visions he experiences intensify this anger and loosen his control of his abilities, making him incredibly dangerous when provoked. After these intense outbursts, no matter the friends around him, he will withdraw inside himself and shut out the world. Abused by others as a child, Aeo becomes his own worst mental enemy.

Intellectual Characteristics

Aeo is a bright boy. Unfortunately, for someone who took an endless amount of direction as a slave, Aeo is stubborn in learning through experience. During his time at the Academy, Aeo spends much of his time learning how to read, discovering freedom in education. Aeo’s capacity to learn quickly is readily apparent. However, when it comes time to practice what he’s been taught, he often fails to accurately follow instruction, choosing to learn through trial and error, much to the vexation of his teachers.

Although a bit naive and not book-learned, Aeo is bright enough to know when someone is taking advantage of his friends or his good nature. As a child, Aeo would simply stop speaking to the offender and walk away. But as a young man, Aeo learns how to hold his ground and resist abuse. In fact, he’s more likely than not to lose his cool than keep it.

Morality & Philosophy

Despite his low self-esteem and shy nature growing up, Aeo is a kind soul at heart. He will do almost anything for the friends that support him, especially for Leon (whom he considers a surrogate father). But if there is a single issue that riles his temper, it’s the sight of someone powerful dominating the will of someone weak and helpless. He witnesses injustice between the Antielli and the Edians everywhere, even at Everspring Academy where both nationalities study and learn together.

As with most abused children, Aeo is fearful of speaking or acting out no matter how cruel others treat him. As a young man, however, while still hesitant to use his powers, at times he strikes terror within himself and everyone around him when he chooses to lash out at his oppressors. The urge to answer violence for violence is sometimes overwhelming, and his only balance are those who keep him company.

Social

Family Ties

Aeo initially has no idea where he comes from or who his family might be, beyond the fact that he knows he was born in the Edian capitol city of Aurion. He does learn his last name from a mysterious source after rescuing his mentor from a terrible fate.

Wealth & Financial State

Aeo himself has few worldly possessions besides his school supplies and clothing, but Leon’s seemingly endless access to finances enables Aeo to enjoy luxuries he never thought existed at the Grey Pale, including temperate weather, Ashanti liliko fruit (and its wonderful juice), ayvasilk clothing, and comfortable shoes.

While traveling or adventuring, Aeo carries a walking staff, wears a short hunting dagger at his hip, and carries a leather rucksack on his back filled with spare clothing and a few days’ worth of rations and water. He also wears an alchemist’s toolbelt filled with six vials of purified Everspring water and an Ashanti signal pellet. If traveling in Antiell in particular, he also carries his Academy apprenticeship badge as proof of his residency (as well as proving that he is a free Edian).

————————————————————————-

I’ve been working hard on getting my story ideas out of my head, as well as ‘working’ to play some new games that I think anybody would be excited to try. That being said, sorry for another fiction info dump from World Anvil. I would like to space these out a bit more, especially considering how large some of these subjects can be. Maybe I’ll focus on details that aren’t as enormous as main characters and nations, like artifacts or history. Aw, who am I kidding, it’s all enormous.

This is why I consider it such a challenge to write fiction. I don’t start simple. But, then again, I like the blogging format for portions of short stories, all based in the same universe and story. So I’ll just keep chugging along until someone tells me to stop.

Anyway, an additional note: you’ll likely find more art on my World Anvil pages because I don’t want to get in trouble with artists here at my blog. I still don’t understand how sites like Pinterest and Tumblr don’t get sued by artists when art gets posted without their permission. I’ll say it again; if I ever post someone else’s work, I’ll do my best to source it, even I source it to Pinterest or Deviantart. More than likely, my fiction posts will have fewer images.

Voices of the Shattered Sun – Alyssum Igneus

Before the story starts, here are two words you should know:

  • Psykin: a psychic person who can read minds and influence the world through thought.
  • Tessencia: an “unobtainium” element found only in special natural places.

Have fun!

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Alyssum Igneus

A Rare Alchemical Flower from Falas

“Master Leon Sirelu!” exclaimed the white-haired Ashanti man in the doorway before offering a strong handshake and an embrace. Dressed in traditional white-and-green Academy robes, Master Kane DolShir never seemed to change. His accent was as thick as it had ever been. “I am so glad you were able to return safe and sound! And with new and strange alchemical discoveries, I’m sure! How was your sabbatical, my friend?”

Leon grinned, looking back from his parlor into his personal quarters. A timid pair of red eyes watched the conversation from the comfort of a makeshift hammock deep within the room.

“It was… enlightening,” Leon said, keeping his voice low. “Pardon, Master Kane, but young Aeo is trying to sleep in the next room. Come, I’ve something to show you.”

“Oh dear, excuse my excitement,” said Kane with a nervous cough. “I’ll have to meet the boy tomorrow, yes. Of course, after you.”

Leon guided Kane beyond the parlor into his workshop. Along the far wall, several concoctions inside copper alembics bubbled quietly, surrounded by leather-bound alchemical texts and personal hand-written notes. Leon paused only to lift his hand to light the light fixture that hung just above the center of the room. With a flick of his wrist, the candle within the spherical fixture popped into life, illuminating the room. The small workshop was certainly nothing compared to the larger facilities in the basements of the Everspring Academy, but they served Leon’s purposes well enough, not in the least way giving him the ability to work in private.

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Leon’s Workshop – (source: Pinterest)

“Here, Master Kane, if you would,” Leon said, taking a loose page of parchment from inside his personal journal and offering it to the Ashanti. “Anything strike you as odd with this formula?”

Wordless, Kane took the page and read Leon’s handwriting under the light — although a master scribe himself, Kane had never judged Leon on his penmanship in their long friendship. After a few moments, Kane stroked his chin.

“Small amounts of sulphur and mercury, high concentrations of tessencia… In a single ingredient?”

Leon pursed his lips.

“This flower was… rumored to have killed a woman in San’Drael about a year and a half ago. I tracked down the flower’s source and spent most of my time away trying to figure out how. I had to tincturize it in 170-proof ethanol to extract and dissolve the ingredients completely, although I believe I can get away with a lower proof with further study. I call it alyssum igneus. I’ll narrow it down soon to preserve the other samples. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a flower with higher concentrations of tessencia per ounce before, even from flowers that grow near the Everspring.”

“You haven’t tested this ingredient on yourself, have you?” asked Kane with a frown, handing back the journal page. “How much of this flower killed the woman?”

“I don’t know,” Leon said. “Evidently, not much. I’ve only ingested small doses, to test its effects. It gave me a terrible stomach ache, but not much more.”

“You may want to visit the Medical Ward for any imbalances, nom’fre,” said Kane, emphasizing the expression reserved for foolish little boys. “Dare I ask if you’ve discovered a beneficial purpose for this ingredient?”

“Yes,” Leon said. “Although I don’t think you would believe me if I told you my testing procedure. Suffice it to say, I believe the high concentrations of tessencia when combined with an effective booster such as beraceas or curcumin could provide a user with the ability to prevent the mental intrusion and the damaging effects of hostile psykin.”

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Kane DolShir – (source: Pinterest)

With the word “psykin”, Kane’s countenance fell. Leon noticed immediately and held his hands to make Kane pause.

“Now, I don’t yet have demonstrable proof that alyssum igneus functions in this way, but given time and opportunity to study its effects, I think that-”

With a whisper, Kane stopped Leon in his tracks.

“This… flower you study. It is ‘firebrand’, isn’t it? Leon, please, tell me this isn’t about your father.”

Leon gritted his teeth for a moment and wiped his mouth with his hand.

“It is,” he whispered back.

Kane looked away.

“All this time you’ve been gone,” he said. “This is still your purpose. You would murder to see your father again?”

“Murder…?” Leon asked, spitting on the word. “Kane, everyone in my life has told me for years that my father is either dead or beyond my reach. I have proven both of these as untrue. I plan to kill no one. I only require the tools to protect myself while I rescue him. ‘Firebrand’ isn’t just a poison. It’s so much more than that.”

“And the boy?” Kane asked. “Is he a part of this? Is he psykin?”

“No, he isn’t. But he has… potential. Magickal potential. His flames burned down the entirety of Olvaren, Kane. If he has this much power as a child, think of what he’ll be able to do with age and discipline.”

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Leon Sirelu – (source: Pinterest)

“I had heard as much,” Kane said, his voice low. “And a slave on top of this. But had I known you were looking for an apprentice, I would have helped you choose one a bit less… volatile.”

“Volatility is what they’ll least expect,” Leon said. “Volatility might be the key to setting my father free.”

“You expect this boy to be able to do what you cannot?”

Leon frowned.

“I’m no warrior,” Leon said. “You know this. I am doing what I can. No one will help me. No one even told me the truth of things until it was too late. So I will train my help. The boy deserved a better future than scrubbing the floors of some no-name tavern in the middle of nowhere. I can give him a brighter future.”

“You will give him a life fraught with peril,” said Kane. “You know this as much as I. That is what our “gifts” give us in return.”

Kane placed his hands on Leon’s shoulders.

“You depart for two years, you work against the will of the High Masters by investigating a flower that could kill them, you adopt a young Edian slave boy, and you pledge to rebuild an entire village. Quite an agenda, and all on your father’s inheritance. Have you even spoken to your mother yet?”

Leon shrugged Kane’s hands off and lifted a finger to Kane’s face.

“Don’t bring my mother into this. I didn’t come looking for a lecture,” he said. “As I said, I cannot do this alone. I need your help.”

“Yes, you do,” Kane said with a sigh. “You have told no one else about the potential effects of this… alyssum?”

“No.”

“Good. Continue to say nothing. The High Masters would no doubt put an end to your experimentation…and even dismiss you from the Academy. But… If you have indeed found the solution to finding your father, then I suppose I have no choice but to assist you.”

“Thank you, Kane,” Leon said, placing a hand on the Ashanti’s shoulder. “I’ll have Aeo make a copy of my notes to send to your office. The sooner we can safely test the effects and side effects of alyssum, the sooner we can find him.”

“And how, pray tell, do you intend to test alyssum’s properties?”

“I suppose we’ll need to find a willing psykin,” Leon said. “One with considerable strength and the ability to keep a secret.”

“Of course,” Kane said, rubbing his temples with his fingertips. He chuckled. “It is times like these, Leon Sirelu, that tests the integrity of our friendship.”

“Solid as stone, I hope.”

“Something like that.”

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Everspring Academy – (source: Alejandro Olmedo)

Properties

Physical Characteristics

Alyssum igneus (or Fiery Madwort) is a flowering plant native to the deep caverns of the Falas Mountains. It grows in clumps of small shrubs with stalks reaching 10–100 cm tall with oblong-oval leaves. Alyssum igneus flowers are characteristically small and grouped in terminal clusters; they are often red or pink, although at times they can also colored orange or purple. Alyssum igneus can be found growing where natural springs run deep and warm, making them rare anywhere near the surface.

Properties

When ingested, alyssum igneus flowers cause mild gastrointestinal discomfort and headache. Even when concentrated, these effects are minor to the normal person. To psykin, however, ingestion of even unconcentrated doses of alyssum igneus (i.e. the stem, flowers, or leaves) can cause damage up to and including temporary or permanent loss of mental acuity, brain atrophy, internal hemorrhaging, stroke, or death depending on the dosage and duration.

When brewed correctly and consumed by a non-psykin, however, an alyssum igneus tincture has the ability to block the user’s mind from mental intrusion and damage by nearly all beings with psychic abilities, including giant Falas wolves and humil, Ashanti, and Eshain psykin. The effect lasts for several hours depending on the dosage imbibed, although the negative side effects mentioned above can happen to a normal person if overdose occurs.

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Alyssum Tincture – (source: Pinterest)

Only by combining alyssum igneus with other ingredients can these benefits be obtained. Beneficial concentrated tinctures also require much greater quantities of alyssum igneus flowers than their lethal counterparts, not to mention a mastery of the alchemical arts to produce the desired effects.

Interestingly, only the flower petals of the alyssum igneus plant share the beneficial qualities, whereas the whole plant can be processed to produce the negative. Regardless, no matter its form or combination, psykin should avoid alyssum igneus at all cost lest they lose their abilities (temporarily or permanently) or their lives.

History & Usage

History

Originally discovered by merchants traveling to Edia through the Falas Mountains roads, the rare red flowers were sold as mysterious alchemical reagents and even decorative gifts (although they couldn’t grow without very specific conditions). When an Antielli mage and psykin died from unknown causes (which was, in fact, a purposeful alyssum poisoning) in San’Drael in 216 A.R., the alchemist Leon Sirelu overheard details specifying the existence of the flower and decided to investigate its source. This led him to his exploration of Falas and his discovery of alyssum igneus.

Once only thought of as a rare but effective poison to psykin, Sirelu’s discovery of alyssum as a psychic deterrent threatened to shake the power structure of an entire nation. Before its classification by Sirelu, alyssum igneus was known by several titles, including “firebrand”, “brain-burner”, and “the dumbing flower”.

Antiell

Rough map of the Antielli Continent

Trade & Market

Finding alyssum igneus on sale in the market stalls of San’Drael is highly unlikely. If it does, guards are unlikely to spot and confiscate the unassuming flower immediately. Even most Psykin apprentices wouldn’t recognize it by sight. If an experiences psykin recognizes it, however, expect swift confiscation of the offending flora and an intense interrogation as to the flower’s source.

More often than not, alyssum igneus can be found in black markets across the continent. Even then, it is tightly controlled, especially in Antielli territory. Since buyers often seek out the flower for dark political purposes, it behooves the vendor to sell alyssum only to those they trust. Typical transactions of alyssum igneus don’t involve much more than a few flower petals, a stem, or a couple leaves. As even milligram doses can kill a psykin man or woman, trading entire bunches (or even possessing entire bunches) is unheard of.

Law & Regulation

d7b44b310bc2c4983fe9388f1dfc9c88To the public, alyssum igneus is a simple but rare decorative flower. To those who know better (namely, those in the business of assassination) recognize the red flower as the perfect tool for eliminating otherwise powerful and ever-observant psykin. To psykin heads of state, guildmasters, and academy headmasters, alyssum was an unavoidable silent killer — unless you were unscrupulous and wealthy enough to hire a psykin taste tester for all your meals, beverages, and spirits. While the source of the flower has been known for some time, it was never discovered in large enough quantities to enable additional study. The Falas wolves, mephandras, and other predators ensured no one had the opportunity to carefully explore the mountain. Even after the disappearance of the Falas wolves and its discovery as a defense to psykin intrusion by Sirelu, the flower remained a rare resource because of information and quantity control.

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How can a flower change the course of history? That’s what I want to find out as I write Alyssum and the Voices of the Shattered Sun series. Ha, series. More like a very rough outline and a few chapters that no longer follow my headcanon. Funny how developing a story beyond its inception tends to do that.

So there are a lot of words in this that I’ve made up. Note to self: pull back on the new vocabulary throttle when writing the story. Then again, it’s like I’m writing the Silmarillion and the Hobbit at the same time. A lot of this might not make sense yet considering it takes place after Aeo and Leon get off the mountain. But it won’t make sense until much later as Aeo learns about himself and his world along with the reader.

Voices of the Shattered Sun

Tiathys Title

Announcement time! Oh, this makes me so excited!

I have found the perfect toolbox to help me write my fiction and solidify the world that’s in my head. It’s called World Anvil, and I’ve just recently joined the creators’ Patreon to help support it. If you write fiction at all for video games, roleplaying, or tabletop games, then I think it’s totally worth a look (it is free, you’ll just deal with some ads).

Anyway, I’m rewriting Alyssum to be part of a trilogy of novelettes entitled Voices of the Shattered Sun. You can find the main page here. I’m also creating an encyclopedia of the Voices world (called Tiathys) that will include things like characters, races, artifacts, locations, historical events, and more, complete with pictures. Anything that World Anvil can provide I plan on playing with to help me refine my writing process.

I plan on completing Alyssum and posting it here on Chains and Tales, of course. And I don’t plan on interrupting any Chains and Tales content. But for fantasy-flavored fun, Voices of the Shattered Sun is open for business.

Feel free to become a follower there whenever I publish a new article!

 

Alyssum – Chapter Seven

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One Week Later

Aeo had seen a bighorner before. Once, when a few traders passed through the village one day. Twice as bulky as a full-grown horse and armed with two gigantic circular horns that rose from the crest of their heads, they were certainly intimidating but nevertheless useful. Where three or four horses were needed to pull a cart, a bighorner could do that and more.

Now Aeo stared at about eighty of them, making themselves comfortable in the largest cavern he’d ever seen. The entrance itself hadn’t been much to see, but the cave slopped downwards for hundreds of meters and widening just as quickly. Aeo could even see a small, distant stream of thermal water pour into a pool near the bottom, around which a small herd of bighorners were drinking. No wonder Shera and Pick could sustain themselves up in these high mountains. Although Aeo didn’t dare go rock climbing yet with his recovering feet, he could peer down further into the cavern and see almost a jungle of strange deep foliage further into the darkness. Not only did this mountain hide an amazing variety of plant and animal life, they all thrived up here without the knowledge of anyone but themselves. There wasn’t any need for fences or barriers to keep the bighorners in – after all, they had everything they could need. It was only a matter of guarding the entrance.

Aeo gently kicked the frozen ground with his newly sewn fur boots; his toes still itched. The boots were perfectly sized and toasty warm, the most wonderful gift he’d ever been given, an amazing feat of tailoring for a frog besides. Too bad he had no way to thank her except for saying so. Strangely, it made him kind of sick to think about it. Besides the tight flax rags that hung from his waist, it was the only gift of kindness Aeo could recall. Besides the boots and his pants, Aeo wrapped himself in a small fur blanket – just warm enough to get outside and go for a short walk.

<”Hello Aeo”,> he heard in his head. A graceful thought. He turned around to meet a figure that seamlessly blended into the snowy morning air.

“Oh,” Aeo whispered. “H-Hello, Shera.”

The wolf bent down close, sniffing the air around the boy.

<”I make you nervous,”> she stated simply.

Aeo’s wide eyes said most of it. All of it, in fact. Aeo couldn’t think of anything to say.

<”There’s no need.”>

The wolf stepped off to the side into the bighorner cave. Beside the near wall, she sat herself down and looked back.

<”I see now that I was wrong about you.”>

Aeo frowned.

“About… me?”

<”You are a special human,”> Shera said, shaking to cold off her pristine white coat. <”And I don’t speak only about your young talent with magic. You’ve become a great friend to Pick. I thank you. He was born without cub-mates. Most of the frogs don’t care for him like you do, and those that show interest bother him. No one truly has time to share with him besides Hala and I. And in these last few days he has had little to share with me that hasn’t included you.”>

Aeo clung tighter to his fur blanket.

“I like Pick,” he said.

<”And he likes you. Everything about humans interests him. He watches you and Leon and hears everything you say. I worry that he’ll grow up alone and come to hate the mountain for all its loneliness. I worry that he’ll grow to hate me.”>

The thought carried with it a form of melancholy Aeo didn’t recognize, like the smell of wet rain on stone. He stepped into the cave and away from the wind as best he could. He stepped towards Shera. She was right, though. She did make him nervous. Even in these last few days, it didn’t seem like Shera payed much attention to him, but now she spoke to him openly.

“But Pick’s too nice,” Aeo said quietly. “He doesn’t hate you.”

Shera lowered her face.

<”That’s kind of you to say,”> she said. <”He is a tender boy now, still eager to learn everything about the world.”>

Again, Shera bent down towards Aeo, nearly pressing her nose against him.

<”I’m afraid he’ll learn about the world as you do,”> said said, her thoughts distant and almost cold.

Aeo’s eyes widened a bit.

<”I’m sorry, Aeo,”> came the thought almost imperceptible. <”Great wolves such as I have the ability to see many things they shouldn’t. When I look at you, when I talk to you, I sense sadness. I sense fear. Everything you see, touch, smell… Everything you experience comes from a dark place. A place I would never want my child to be.”>

Shera laid herself down and looked away.

<”You make me afraid.”>

“I make you afraid?” The thought felt like a dark night on his mind, one where even the wind had quieted to nothing. Aeo almost dropped the fur blanket from his shoulders by the sense of it. “Wait, can you… read my mind? But Pick said he couldn’t!”

<”His senses are not yet in tune. I cannot read your mind, Aeo, but I can feel your emotions and the places they come from.”>

Aeo looked down at the floor.

“I don’t understand…” he said.

<”I’m sorry,”> Shera said, looking back at Aeo with her head laid low. <”You are very kind and understanding for a young human. There are many things on my mind right now, and I apologize for sharing them with you before they have properly formed. It is difficult to think without speaking the worlds aloud.”>

As ‘aloud’ as her words could be, of course. Aeo sniffed the cold mountain air.

“It’s okay,” he said quietly. “I just… feel lost. Like…”

<”Like you don’t know where you belong?”>

If she could read his mind, she didn’t hide it well.

<”You’re much like Leon,”> she said, her tail flicking back and forth. <”Not sure of your place in the world. Make sure you don’t tell him I said so. He is very a very thoughtful man.”>

Shera lifted herself up slightly.

<”You should know, it was Leon who convinced me that I shouldn’t eat you. You should be grateful to him.”>

Aeo took an unconscious step backwards.

“E-Eat me…?”

The giant wolf huffed in and out as if laughing, much like Pick did.

<”I’m glad I didn’t after all.”>

No thoughts came with her words. Aeo honestly couldn’t tell if she were joking or not.

<”I’ve made you worry enough for now, young one. Leon is searching for you. He is studying in his cave further up the trail. You may want to go help him.”>

Aeo nodded.

“I’ll… I’ll go find him.”

Shera rested herself along the cave wall and said no more. Aeo stepped away. It was no offense to the great wolf, but Aeo was more than happy to find another place to be.

“Ah, Aeo! Good morning!”

A very narrow, angled cave met Aeo, at least in the entrance. He slipped in between the rocks only to find that the cavern opened up dramatically, the expansive room traveling dozens of meters to a far wall, against which spewed forth a torrent of steaming water. Dull stalactites hung from the ceiling above, and almost dead in the center of the cave top opened a crack the cave which led above ground. Daylight filled the cavern, revealing the hanging mosses and vines growing the rough stone walls. Flowers and seed pods flourished between cracks in the stone walls and roots spilled right into the spring water, providing all the plants everything they needed to grow. The variety of colors almost blinded him.

The moment he entered the cave, Aeo noticed a pair of candles placed on the side wall, and purple mist bleeding downwards; another of Leon’s wards. The cold wind of the outside ceased immediately as he stepped past it, and he shed his fur blanket after a moment from the comfortable rise in temperature.

Leon stepped away from a makeshift table made of stone towards Aeo and placed his hands on the boy’s shoulders. Aeo hadn’t noticed it before, but Leon was a very tall man, and looked very much like a noble with his brass spectacles, his white longshirt, and an embroidered jerkin.

“How are you feeling?”
“Okay, sir,” Aeo said.

“Your feet okay?”

“They hurt a little.”

“Give it time,” Leon said. He looked down. “Those boots look good on you. Didn’t I tell you Hala is good at her work?”

“They’re really comfy,” Aeo agreed.

Leon stepped back towards the stone table and his instruments. To the right of the stone surface sat a variety of strange tubes, jars, and small metal tools Aeo didn’t recognize, no doubt Leon’s collection of implements for studying… whatever he was studying. On the table itself glass tubes and jars bubbled with strange liquids inside, fueled by a small flame beneath and leaning awkwardly against the rock wall. His bag sat against the left of this table, and beyond sat a small wooden box filled with an organization of strange plants and fungi. Aeo approached them, but didn’t dare touch them.

Leon adjusted a few knobs attached to the great glass contraption and looked over at Aeo.

“You wouldn’t want to eat many of those,” he said. “While this mountain may be a wonderful place for the wildlife to live, the plants and roots can be quite poisonous for humans.”

“What was the stew made of?” Aeo asked, remembering the odd colors and textures.

“Hmm… this one,” Leon said, pointing to a small purple leafy plant that looked like a blooming flower. “This one,” he said, pointing to a large gray mushroom. “And this one, my favorite,” pointing to a lumpy green vegetable shaped like a carrot. “Tastes like a radish, feels like a mashed potato, especially when boiled.”

“Oh.”

“And the rest of these,” he continued. “Can be dangerous unless extracted correctly. Most people are allergic to junik flower. Fortunately, I’m one of the lucky ones, I wouldn’t have known otherwise. Hazelnut flowers will…clean you right out, if you catch my meaning.” Aeo wasn’t sure he did. “Iopetra root… Or at least something resembling it… Will make you blind in minutes. It wears off in a day or two, but one should still be careful. Although many of these plants and fungi look like others I’ve studied, some are quite unique to these caverns. Like this one…”

Leon picked out a stalk that didn’t look all these interesting, like a stem of lavender with a bright red petals.

“This is red madwort. Alyssum igneus.” Leon looked down at Aeo as if guilty. “I know, naming flora with technical names isn’t my strong suit. But this is the most exciting type of flower I’ve found down in these caves. Loads of them. They’ll spring up both in and out of the water, and the cavern fish love to eat it. Hala and the other frogs I’ve spoken with say it tastes too bitter to them, but I’ve seen some cavern fish leap right out of the water just to grab a few flower pods on the way back down. Drives them nuts. I’m currently trying to figure out why, and why alyssum grows in these caves of all places and nowhere else.”

“Can you eat this one?” Aeo asked.

“If you want an awful stomach ache,” Leon answered. “Believe me, I’ve tried. I don’t know why I tried it, but I did. Curiosity for its own sake. Oh, Aeo my boy, if it’s not too much trouble for your feet… Do you see those bundles of alyssum down there next to the water? Would you mind bringing those up here for me while I prepare the tools?”

Aeo looked down towards the burbling hot pool and saw two small wooden crates filled to the brim with the bright green-and-red stems. He placed the fur blanket on the ground and carefully made his way down the smooth floor of the cave—it felt as though Hala’s leather boots only gave him so much traction. The steam blowing off the rippling water smelled of wet grass and dirt, and felt amazing compared to the hot and dry ‘bedroom’ cavern he’d been resting in all week. Although his toes felt sore, he bent down easily enough and picked up one of the boxes; they didn’t weight much at all.

Aeo returned with both boxes in his arms without slipping or sliding.

“Just place them to the side there,” Leon said, pointing over the open ingredient box they’d examined previously.

“This place is amazing,” Aeo said quietly, looking back at the waterfall gushing out of the side of the wall.

“Never seen anything like this place, have you?” Leon said.

“No sir,” Aeo said. “I never got to leave the inn by myself. They…”

Aeo stopped. A cold sweat hit his forehead immediately.

“The inn, eh? In Olvaren?” Leon didn’t turn around from fixing the glass bulbs and tools. “Is that where you lived?”

Aeo said nothing. His stomach turned. When the silence lasted a lot longer than it should have, Leon turned around, adjusting his glasses. He audibly sighed.

“Here, Aeo, I have a job for you. It’s not hard,” Leon said. “Take this.”

He bent down to his bag and produced a strange stone bowl and a peculiar marble instrument.

“It’s called a mortar and pestle. The bowl’s the mortar, this tool is the pestle. Take some of the alyssum, peel off the flowers, and grind those up nicely in the mortar. Careful not to drop them, they’re a bit… special to me. Do you understand? Here, let’s get you seated on the ground.”

Aeo obeyed, sitting in front of the strange tool. Leon took a few bits of alyssum from the box, and placed them to the side. He peeled a few flowers off and placed them in the mortar, and Aeo followed suit. The alyssum flowers came off the stem quite easily. With enough tiny flowers inside the mortar, Leon stopped him.

“Now, it’s a bit tricky to grind them up correctly,” Leon said, taking the pestle in his hand and beginning the process. “Don’t just stir them around. Take the pestle in your hand like this, and mash them up in a circular motion. Here, give it a go, let’s see how you do.”

Aeo took the pestle and did his best to repeat Leon’s movements. The grinding of marble pestle on stone mortar made his teeth tingle, but he continued on.

“There you go, be sure to keep the scrapings in the center, pull them down. Good, good. You should start to see red liquid forming at the bottom of the mash. That means you’re doing it properly. Keep it up, and we’ll have what we need to get started.”

“Started on… what?” Aeo asked.

“Distillation for alyssum extract,” Leon said. “Do you know what that means?”

Aeo shook his head and kept grinding.

“That’s all right,” Leon said. “It means it will make the alyssum pure and concentrated. Break it down into its basic ingredients, see what it’s made of. It’ll help me see exactly what makes alyssum so special.”

“Oh.”

Everything fell quiet for a short time. Aeo continued his work, thoroughly unsure if his grinding made any difference. He did begin to see a bit of red liquid, so he kept circling and smashing. Leon turned and produced a small leather-bound notebook and a pencil from his pocket. Before he lifted the pencil to write, however, he stopped and removed his glasses.

“Aeo,” he said, clearing his throat.

Aeo straightened up.

“Yes sir?”

“Have you ever heard of the Library of Sartia?”

“No sir.”

“It lies just outside the city of Sartia. I don’t suppose you’ve heard of Sartia itself? That’s all right. The city is quite the ways away from Olvaren, perhaps three or four weeks by carriage. Far enough to make you quite sick of the road.”

Leon turned around, placing a hip on the stone table and folding his arms.

“Anyway, the library is where I grew up. My parents were researchers there. Always studying something, always searching for books and scrolls and information they could present to… nobles, government officials, anyone who came looking for something. They… didn’t have much time for me. They always left me in the charge of a tutor, Algus was his name. A cranky old man, but he cared for like the grandfather I never knew. Every day was lesson after lesson, learning how to be polite to strangers, learning maths and geometry, old spells and wards from enormous books, learning about plants and animals and how everything in this world is connected to the Goddess. He never was a very religious man, but considering the evidence, I think he knew enough to teach me about heavenly topics regardless of what he believed. But geography was my favorite, learning about all sorts of towns and cities and countries I didn’t think I’d ever get to see. Algus always winked at me during these lessons, like he knew something I didn’t. Maybe he taught me how to travel before I ever did.

“But I never left that library. I lived there, I played there, I studied there… I didn’t see anything but bookshelves until I was grown enough to travel to the city by myself. Maybe… sixteen? Seventeen? I was too scared to sneak out and go on my own, especially with all the news of bandits and thieves always traveling the roads. I never had any friends besides Algus to goad me on, either. In fact, the only time I saw the sun was outside in the library courtyard. Always full of foreign visitors and diplomats, so I never could run and play like a normal child. But at night, when all those people departed, the courtyard became my favorite study hall. Algus would teach me how to study the moons and the stars. Have you ever used a telescope? No? Perhaps I’ll show you one day. It’s fascinating.

“Algus taught me everything I know about magic. He was a warder as well. He taught me how to keep rooms the right temperature, you see. He also taught me how to defend against destructive magics, how to light up a dark room without a torch, how to project your voice and image somewhere far away…”

“You can do that…?” Aeo asked.

“It takes practice, but yes,” Leon said. “And I used to practice every day. Every so often my mother would check on my progress and test me… I won’t lie, it was the only time I ever remember seeing her. She was always… distant, like something else was always on her mind. My father rarely visited me, always off on some important trip to far away cities and lands. He was a very important man, my father. The nobility of the city and even the King would call for his help all the time. I never left that library, my whole childhood…”

Aeo didn’t say anything. That sounded too familiar.

“My father was an old man by the time I gained the courage to travel. I was in a place called Andradel when he died.”

“He died?” Aeo asked. “How?” He stopped stirring the pestle and put his hand to his mouth. “Er… I mean…”

“It’s all right,” Leon said, putting a hand up. “It’s been a while now. No one knew how he died. Not really. A bad heart, said the priestess at Andradel. I don’t know if I believe it. After all, my father would help anyone who asked for assistance. If he got on somebody’s bad side… It wouldn’t take much to go after him.”

“You think someone… killed him?”

“I don’t know,” Leon said. He fell strangely silent and his eyes fell to the side, like something had crossed his mind.

“What happened then?”

“After that? I settled into a home next to the library, close enough to my mother that I could look out for her but far enough away that I could feel… independent. On my own. Somehow my mother continued her work after my father had gone, and hardly showed any sadness at all… I don’t know how she managed it.”

“…were you sad?” Aeo asked.

“I was,” Leon said. “Near the end, my father had started to… connect with me. Too little too late, I suppose.”

“Wow,” Aeo said, continuing to mash with the pestle. “So… why are you here with Shera and Pick and Hala and not with your mom?”

Leon smiled.

“I was looking… for those.” He pointed to the alyssum flowers.

“For these?” Aeo asked. “Why?”

“They’re important for my research,” Leon answered. “It’s… complicated. They’re made of very special ingredients and grow in a very special place. They don’t usually grow out in the snow, but somehow, a year ago, traders found some in the caves here on the mountain and sold them in Sartia. Said they came from the Falas Mountains. So I searched Falas myself and found… well, I found Shera.”

Leon pointed to his head.

“She did not like my arrival.”

“I don’t think she likes me either…” Aeo said.

“Trust me, Aeo,” Leon said. “She likes you a lot more than she likes me. I have a feeling that… Well…”

Leon placed his glasses on the bridge of his nose.

“Never mind about that. Let’s see how your procedure is coming, eh? Got quite a bit of liquid coming along? Good, that should be enough for the first one. Come scrape the mash into this container and we can get you started on the next one.”

Alyssum – Chapter Six

bm_camp-fire_free

Just as Pick howled, the door creaked. Aeo looked towards the large door and Pick’s ears perked up.

The small door opened. In marched the now-familiar form of Leon, wrapped up tightly in a puffy mountain jacket with a great hood over his head. He was also carrying a curiously shaped package… or was it a curiously shaped bag? Leon placed the bag-package down, clomped his feet at the door, and removed the gloves from his hands. Strangely enough, he now wore a pair of slimly-framed glasses that truly made him look like a school teacher.

“Goodness, it’s coming down out there,” he said to no one in particular. He looked up at Aeo. “Well, look at you, Aeo! Sitting up in bed and everything. How are your toes feeling?”

Pick looked up at Aeo.

“They’re itchy, sir.”

“You’re not touching them, are you?” Leon pulled off his coat.

“No, sir.”

“Good, good. Unfortunately, frostbite will do that. Fortunately, I have some tonic that might help the healing process, speed it up a bit. This mountain’s caves are filled with helpful plants and fungi… if you know to find the right ones, of course.”

Leon walked over to Aeo’s bed and knelt, placing the bag onto the floor. He unbuttoned the front flap and produced a small vial filled with a red-and-black speckled substance; he held it up and jingled it as his eyebrows raised. He then dove back into the bag and produced a roll of cotton bandages. Leon lifted the fur blanket off of Aeo’s feet, and said “Hmm.” What did “hmm” mean? Aeo peered over the blanket, and his stomach sank at the sight. He hadn’t seen them himself – it was worse than he’d imagined.

“Skin’s peeling a bit,” Leon said. “But it looks more purple and red than black now. Certainly an improvement.”

He carefully cupped his hands over both sets of toes.

“Do you feel that?”

“Yeah,” Aeo said.

“Very good, you’ve got feeling. Well, of course you do if you’re itching. Now let’s see if we can’t help that…”

Suddenly, Pick’s ears perked up. Nearly at the same time, the door creaked open, and a tiny lonesome spherical figure entered. Then something much larger followed in after her. The entire large door opened, and in carefully entered Shera, her dark eyes carefully examining the inside of the cave.

“Oh, hello everyone!” cried Hala. The fur coat was shed and placed beside the fire, and out of it stepped the foot-tall frog. She was no longer clothed in a bright dress, but a slim leather suit covered in various pockets and satchels. “My my, it gets chilly at this time!”

“Good evening, Hala,” Leon said. “Come on in, Shera, there’s room for all of us.”

A much gentler thought arose in Aeo’s head.

<”Hello.”>

“Hi,” Aeo said quietly with a wave, and Pick howled, his tail wagging behind him.

“Aeo, it’s wonderful you’re up out of bed!” Hala said excitedly as Shera shook off the snow, closed the door, and sat down as carefully as her large form could on top of Leon’s bedding and against the wall. “Well, halfway out, of course. How is the frostbite coming along?” Hala stepped towards Leon and stood beside him, placing a webbed hand on his side. She gasped. “Oh, heaven above, it’s worse than I feared.”

<”I agree,”> said Shera, lowering her head to look.

“Believe me,” Leon said. “This is better than before.”

“Well!” she said excitedly. “All the more reason I’m here! Please, Leon, before you tend to those little piggies, I have a quick assignment for you!”

From one of her pockets Hala produced a thin string made of… silk? Whatever it was, it shined and reflected the firelight nicely. She also produced a small bit of… something black?

“Now, hold that to the top of his foot,” she said, and Leon obeyed, placing the string on the top of Aeo’s big toe. Hala dove down and placed the other end on his heel, making a black mark on the string with what was definitely charcoal. “Now the other one!” They repeated the process. They then measured the width of each foot.

“What’s she doing?” Aeo asked curiously.

“I believe she’s planning on making you a pair of boots,” Leon replied as Hala hopped back up.

“Oh, don’t spoil the surprise, dear!” Hala said, playfully slapping Leon’s arm. “Well. That’s right, I’m going to make sure your feetsies never have to suffer out there again. Perhaps if I have more time, I’ll knit you a fur coat to go along with it!”

“Now Aeo,” Leon said. “I know how big these projects are for Hala…” He lowered his hand as if measuring Hala, then whispered: “No pun intended.”

“Oh, humph!” Hala said.

“…but don’t you think you should say thank you?”

Aeo blinked.

“Yes, s-sir,” he said shyly. “Th-thank you, ma’am,”

“Oh, don’t thank me just yet, my dear!” Hala placed the string and the black marker back into the pouches on her belt. “You can thank me if I do the job correctly! Now, is it feeling a bit cold in here for everyone? No? Just me? Well, I’ll just tend to the fire anyway, make sure it stays warm for the rest of the night…” She turned towards the campfire.

“Don’t tire yourself out, Hala,” Leon said. “I can take care of-”

“Oh nonsense, you giant fool! Nonsense! It’s what I’m here for. Well, the second thing I’m here for. Ha ha!”

Shera, remaining quiet, instinctively motioned herself closer against the cave wall, knowing what was coming. Just as Hala had done the morning before, Hala leaned over the fire and proceeded to take the biggest breath Aeo had ever seen. She held it in for a moment, then lurched forward and belched a bright red flame directly from her mouth into the smoldering campfire. Along with the fire dripped a strange liquid from her wide lips that burst and crackled when it hit the ground, bringing the fire to a bright and tempered glow. When finished, she turned to see all eyes pointed at her.

“Well, it’s very impolite to stare!” she cried.

“In case you were wondering,” Leon said, leaning towards Aeo and the bandages. “Hala is what I like to call a fire frog. Not very technical, but you get the idea. It’s how they’ve adapted to the cold of the region, and it’s how they hunt for fish. Cook them right before they eat them. They live in the hot springs mostly, but are a great help keeping the torches and fires going. They last for hours and hours at a time, too.”

<”And we’re indebted to them,”> Shera added. <”Without them, we would no doubt freeze.”>

“Oh, it’s no trouble! No trouble at all!” Hala said, reaching for the firewood pile. “Well, it isn’t for me. Can’t say the same my mate. Or his family. Or Heem, for that matter! Laziest toads you’ll ever see!”

Leon took his time, dabbing the red substance onto the bandages and around the worst colors of Aeo’s feet. It tickled a couple of times. A good sign, of course. It meant he wasn’t about to lose them. As Leon worked, Aeo patted Pick on the head and looked at the purple mist on the opposite wall. It shone more apparently in the low light of the campfire, and seemed to flicker with the dancing of the lit candles on the wall.

“Leon, sir,” Aeo said. “Could… Could you tell me about magic now?”

“Certainly,” he said with a smile.

Pick tilted his head.

<An image of a man producing fire from his hands.>

“Really?” Aeo pet Pick’s head. “Leon can make fire like that?”

Leon laughed.

“If I wanted to tire myself out as fast as possible, yes,” he said. He paused, scratching his head. “Well, I suppose I should start at the beginning, shouldn’t I?”

Leon paused, scratching his arm.

“Magic is, well… understanding the basic principles and mechanics of the world around us. If you have a strong enough will, you can bend those rules to influence a number of things. Like fire, for instance, or keeping this cave the right temperature. Like you see with the wards. There are a lot of… mundane magics that can-”

“What’s… mundane?” Aeo asked.

“Well, everyday things, boring things. Like cooking meals, keeping torches lit, cooling down a hot room, that sort of thing. A lot of magic is mundane, especially where I come from. Not a lot of battles to be fought with fire and lightning.”

Aeo’s eyebrows raised.

“…lightning?”

“Yes, lightning. Lightning is power, a lot like fire. And with practice, power can be used. Have you ever seen an automatic light? It lights up with the flick of a switch and, unlike a lantern, you never have to relight it.”

Aeo shook his head.

“I’m sure Olvaren would marvel at the thought,” Leon said.

“As would we!” Hala said from the other side of the room. “I can’t begin to imagine how that would work.”

“I’ve heard the plans are quite complicated,” Leon said. “One of the many miracles produced by Chaska Academy.” Aeo had never heard of such a place, so he stayed quiet. “I’ve heard they’re even working on a carriage that can drive itself without the need of horses. Perhaps they’ve perfected its design by now. Doesn’t that sound incredible? I doubt the everyman will ever use such a thing without access to a readily available power source. Can’t have veri do all the work themselves when horses are more durable anyway. After all, shooting lightning from your hands can can wear yourself down to nothing.”

Leon lifted his hands and sat down on the floor.

“But anyway, I digress. Let’s see… Someone that practices magic is called a veras, and a group of veras is veri. Many people call us wizards, but that term is old and sometimes offensive. Many people make that mistake, you see. When a veras uses magic, then that veras uses ‘spirit’. Some veri have more spirit than others, and when you practice magic, your amount of spirit can increase, like… training your muscles. When you exhaust your ‘spirit’, just like straining yourself in a long run, it can take a few days of rest to recover. If you really overdo it, I’ve heard of veri falling catatonic for two or three weeks, even longer.”

“What’s cat-a-tonic?”

“Like falling asleep but being awake at the same time… Not able to move at all.”

“That sounds scary,” Aeo said, wrinkling his nose.

Leon wrapped the bandages around Aeo’s feet as well as over his toes. Now finished, Leon replaced the blanket, as well as the rubber bottles on top and beneath each foot.

“It can be. That’s why magic should be a very careful practice, take your time, study as much as you can. It’s exercise. It takes time to become big and strong, right?”

Aeo nodded.

“Now, not every veras can learn the same kinds of things as others. Some are talented at wards, like I am, making changes to the environment. Some have skills with elemental magic, like creating fire, lightning, ice, moving water, or sculpting stone. Some are good at healing… Like I wish I were. If so, your frostbite would already be healed, I imagine.”

“Hmm,” Aeo said.

“Don’t sell yourself short, now Leon,” said Hala. “Without these wards of yours, why, poor Shera and Pick would up and freeze in here in no time at all.”

Both Shera and Pick growled in the affirmative.

“That’s true. I should be grateful for my own talents. In fact, I am glad I don’t have the skills to fight. I’ve never been one for violence. But other veri practice combat, especially those that guard important people, or big cities, or long roads. Even tiny villages like Olvaren call for protection, and veri can be paid very well. Sellswords have to have a lot of strength when it comes to magic; it’s difficult to keep up your spirit, especially in the midst of battle. Without practice, you could use all your spirit at once and become useless.”

“I’d love to fight with magic,” Aeo said. “Then I could…” He paused, choosing his words. “…I could go wherever I want.”

“I suppose that’s true,” Leon replied. ”Most animals can be scared away with a bolt of lightning, and bandits think twice before robbing a man who can light them on fire.”

Aeo laughed.

“Yeah!”

Leon scratched his face.

“You know… I want to try something. It might be dangerous, but I think you might…”

“Huh?”

Leon stood up slowly and approached the campfire as if reluctant to do so. If Aeo had seen his face, he would have seen a look of delicate focus. Aeo peeked over Pick’s head. It looked as if Leon were playing with the flames.

“There we go…” Leon whispered.

“Oh, don’t you go and catch the poor boy on fire! I won’t forgive you! What makes you think he can do what you do?” Hala shouted.

“Intuition,” he said quietly.

Leon stepped back over to Aeo, his face illuminated by a strange light. No, not strange. Familiar. The same as the campfire. Leon sat down, and floating between his hands was a gentle flame. Pick suddenly lifted his head and backed away with a slight whimper to his own fur bed. Shera looked up in interest.

“Whoa…” Aeo whispered.

“Like I said,” Leon said, his voice quiet and tense. “Some veri… have a knack for different things. My specialty… is not fire. So this takes… more than a bit of concentration.”

Leon put his hands forward.

“Now. I won’t… dump the fire in your lap. I want you to… hold your hands up. Like you’re warming them. Hold them up.”

Aeo hesitated. He lifted his hands slowly and put them away from him. He could feel the fire’s warmth immediately, and hoped Leon didn’t place it any further.

“There you go, there you go… Put his hands apart a little bit so you can see… Good.”

Leon sighed, and the fire danced in his hands as he adjusted them. His face looked strained.

“All right. I want you to… imagine you’re warming up. Remember how it felt to feel the warm water bottles? Imagine that… Feel the fire warming up your hands.”

Aeo imagined it easily.

“As you’re focusing on that,” Leon continued. “Imagine that warmth in between your hands. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and between your hands… Can you do that?”

“I think so…” Aeo said quietly.

“Tell me when you’re ready,” Leon replied.

Ready? For what exactly? Aeo sat there, arms raised and hands poised between a magical fire, and did his best to follow Leon’s orders. Take all the warmth in his body… Aeo felt the water bottles in his feet and imagined it moving up his legs. Simple enough. He thought it move up into his spine and into his stomach and chest. Then into his shoulders and muscles, down his arms, into his hands, and between his fingertips… It was all imagination, though. Wasn’t it?

A moment later, he cleared his throat.

“R-Ready…”

“Now lift your hands up. Think of the warmth between your hands, don’t stop thinking about it. Lift your hands.”

Aeo tried to lift his hands. They wouldn’t move. He tried harder, straining even his back muscles to propel himself upwards. Nothing worked. Something was wrong. The magic had locked him in place.

Then it clicked: Leon’s hands were gone.

In between his own two hands sat the small flame, dancing back and forth.

With every inhale, the flame would grow smaller and nearly disappear. Every exhale, it would grow larger and more powerful. He’d never seen anything as strange as this. So mesmerizing. His head suddenly felt very dizzy. But he couldn’t fall backwards; the fire held him there. He simply watched it dance like a spinning flower, like a tree blowing in the wind. It seemed to glow like the sun itself. He simultaneously did and didn’t want to close his eyes to this glowing orb in his hands.

“Amazing,” Leon whispered. “Looks like… you’ve got the talent.”

Then, in an instant, the fire allowed Aeo to move, like the magic released him from its grip. His arms trembled from being raised, so slid backwards, bringing the fire closer to his chest. It didn’t waver from the space between his cupped fingers, and despite everything, the flame felt comforting, familiar.

Aeo’s thoughts burned as bright as the flame at the thought. Comforting. As comforting as burning down the Gray Pale Inn. As comforting as receiving a beating. He remembered the dreams of the sun as it fell down upon him, not burning and unbearable, but gentle and soft, the way moonlight felt on his face. He shouldn’t be able to look upon that bright sun from his dreams with his naked eyes, yet he could, and he saw all the colors of rainbow inside that sun. They burned and danced all together like firelight. He could see the flames of the inn growing ever brighter, never wanting them to go out…

This memory made the flame burn all the brighter. So bright, in fact, that the once small flicker became a larger ball of fire, dancing all the more wildly. He widened his hands as if to drop it, but the flames flared larger.

Aeo’s jaw fell to the side.

“Uhh…”

“Uh-oh, wait, wait, wait…” Leon said, quickly leaning over. He took Aeo’s hands and slowly brought them together with his own. “Breathe normally, just breathe… There we go, there it goes.”

Aeo’s hands slowly came together, and as they touched, the fire went out.

Pick howled.

<”Interesting,”> said Shera.

“It most certainly is,” Hala said with a gasp.

“Aeo,” Leon said, sitting back down. “Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”

Aeo lowered his now shaking hands and stared at the ground. He said nothing.

Revised Intro/Prologue

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(Chapter Five has also been revised, and is available in the complete story link at the top of the page.)

“’Ey! Stupid boy! Wake up!”

The boy felt a terrible force kick him in the stomach. It knocked the wind out of him slightly, making him clench inwards.

The boy’s mind swam in deep waters. He’d been dreaming again. Something about being out in the blazing sun, feeling it against his skin. Its warmth filled him, made him feel relaxed and strangely powerful. He frowned. Considering he lived in the mountain village of Olvaren, the sun only shining brightly for about two weeks out of the year before frosting over again, he didn’t know where this feeling came from. A distant memory told him he came from somewhere much warmer than this, but it remained only an echo, something unreal and untrue.

“Oh no you don’t, you get right out of bed before I have to slap you out of it!”

A terrible collection of pinpricks struck his face, waking him immediately. A broom.

“Come on, now, you’ve got chores to do! Don’t make me grab the leather and make you!”

Aeo mentally switched gears. Slowly, but diligently enough to convince Ariste that he wasn’t disobeying her. He rose from his small cot, rubbed his eyes, and noticed the large woman was holding the broom out to him.

“Oh,” he whispered, and took it.

“Lazy boy,” Ariste replied. “Come on, come on!”

The Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust this morning. Along with something else… Oh, right, it ‘enriched’ itself with the air of the stable connected through the back door. Horrible. Some patron to the inn had brought with him a team of five horses and just barely fit them all into the meager space. Needless to say, Aeo would be cleaning the stable when the man left. He would gratefully do it, too – it was the only time he would be free of the inn itself, giving him time to think to himself.

The morning usually consisted of cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed from the inn’s few rooms, and this the boy did first. About half of them had departed at dawn, no doubt to see themselves on the road before the usual traffic. And by the time those rooms were cleaned and made right, the rest would leave and give him more to do. The boy had heard talk that Olvaren sat in the middle of a ‘trade route’. He didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn filled itself night after night with tired travelers and men looking to get drunk. Up the mountain, maybe, where a slave could be free…

“Hurry up, boy!” Ariste would say after each room, usually throwing a swing of her hand hoping to catch the boy’s ear. Or maybe it was a broomstick handle, a beer flagon, even a candlestick. Anything she could grip and swing. He didn’t know why. After all, no one ever came to find a room for the night at seven o’clock in the morning. At least the boy knew how to avoid a blow.

That wretched woman. That gigantic woman. Ariste. His owner of three years. She didn’t deserve a name as pretty as that. He would rather risk serving an angry bear than catch sight of her. Always something went wrong. Always something to blame on him. If the patrons were unhappy with their rooms somehow, the boy would hear no end of it at the end of the day. If someone in the inn managed to slip or fall because of spilled beer or water, the boy would be slapped at least once and sent to bed without food. After all, it was his fault the floors weren’t cleaned spotless. Goddess help him if he ever spilled food on the floor or tripped and spilled drinks on customers. What a clumsy worthless Aurion, Ariste would say, to the delight of the patrons. Aurion, being his place of birth, of course. Some place he would never remember. It was the dirtiest thing they could say about him, and would often illicit laughter from other patrons. He had no idea why.

“Don’t let me catch you slacking off in the backroom,” she would often say, as if the backroom were the boy’s favorite spot. “If you do, it’s double duty for the lavatory.” The boy would often think how funny it was that she would give double duty to clean other people’s duty, but he never said so. It would probably get him slapped.

After the rooms, the boy swept the inn’s kitchen, the serving area, under all the tables and chairs, and the front foyer. After, it was wiping down all those tables and chairs with ratty rags. It never seemed to do much. After all, for all the years the furniture had served guests and patrons, the boy was certain they all had been stained with enough alcohol to make them impervious to any other stain. By this time, a few villagers would wander into the inn looking for breakfast, and the boy quickly made sure they were comfortable and took their orders. Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do was cook, surprisingly enough. Ariste had allowed it once. The omelet had turned to a scrambled mess that nearly caught fire. The boy was throttled for that.

After the morning’s food was delivered, it was the boy’s responsibility to lift cartons of milk, cheese, and bread into the storeroom. He had only stolen a small bit of bread once, and blamed the evidence on rats. He was still struck with a frying pan. That one left quite the bruise on his shoulder.

Ariste always put on a face when serving guests that might convince them that she adored owning her own inn and tavern. Being the center of Olvaren gossip and news delighted her to no end. She indeed spread those rumors around. Some man sleeping with a woman other than his wife, the strange religion of some traveler, the finances of some person the boy hardly knew. And, at the very least, the ‘fact’ that the boy was a scab that had no place with the other children of the village and even other slaves. (Yes, there were other slaves, but the boy had never met them. He wasn’t allowed outside without a leash, which is why he enjoyed cleaning the stables so much.) Always with the name-calling. She never called the boy by his name. Useless boy. Good for nothing waste of flesh. ‘Bastard child’ was a rare treat. She had deemed it proper to explain to the boy what that one meant once, but considering he’d never met his parents, he wasn’t sure that one was true.

That wasn’t to say she didn’t have her tender moments. Very rarely, of course. She would take the him shopping for clothes, keeping the leash around the boy’s neck and a sharp eye out for his thieving fingers at the market. As if the boy had thieving fingers; he’d never taken anything that didn’t belong to him in his life. Well, maybe once or twice. Slaves in Olvaren were known for their ‘deviant behavior’ (the boy didn’t know what that meant at first), so it must be true of Aeo. Cheap, itchy flax shirts and pants, thin soled shoes for a few copper pieces. Good enough for her, so good enough for him.

About midday, the man of the house usually showed himself. Horthoon. Drunken, sloppy, drooling Horthoon. Ariste’s good-for-nothing husband. The whole village knew of his drinking problems, even more than everyone knew the boy to be a lazy Aurion. How she put up with this physical embodiment of laziness the boy had no clue. She certainly didn’t let the boy off the hook. Harthoon certainly made no effort to help around the inn, and rarely put on a mask of sobriety if he could help it. Ariste slapped him every once in a while for forgetting to purchase firewood, ignoring the dirty windows, or harassing the inn’s patrons. Especially harassing the inn’s patrons. For some reason he felt attracted to the pretty ladies that walked through the door, despite the ring on his finger. Yet Ariste never did hit Harthoon with much force. Harthoon’s favorite wooden mug always brimmed with beer, and he made sure the boy filled it at every opportunity, even at two or three in the afternoon.

Harthoon’s favorite past times were kicking at the boy when disturbed (which happened often, considering how much alcohol he consumed), mumbling to himself, and pouring alcohol into the boy’s face for a laugh until people couldn’t smell the difference between them. In the middle of an Ariste chastising, Harthoon would sometimes stumble into it and apply the physical violence to the boy himself. The man struck uncontrollably, sometimes missing completely, sometimes with such force as to knock the boy flat on his back. Ariste would lightly scold him for doing so for some reason, as if she wanted to do it herself.

Sometimes, when completely slobbered out of him mind in the middle of the night, Harthoon would find the boy attempting to sleep. He would sit himself on the ground, wake the boy with a start, and proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. Harthoon’s tangled, matted beard was usually soaked in alcohol, and would make the boy drunk just by the smell of it. The boy never knew how to manage this or where it came from. Perhaps he hated Ariste just as much as he did. Perhaps this was the truth coming out at last. But by morning, Harthoon would forget the moment ever occurred and went back to bothering everyone in the inn as he regularly did.

The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt, sometimes mixed with snow and ice when the season turned. A flimsy mop served as a constant companion, and he often dozed off with it in hand as an excuse in case she ever caught him. Then, at midnight, it was time for bed just to rise at six o’clock to start all over again. Maybe the bags around his eyes made people think he slept too much. Maybe that’s why they all called him lazy.

Ariste never slept. Not when the boy slept, at least. She threw him to bed, then threw him right back out again. What drove the woman the boy couldn’t fathom. Maybe she ran on cruelty. Maybe slapping the boy gave her strength. Many of the bruises on his arms and back belonged to her, and she added to them on a regular basis.

The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at some moments, when it got bad enough. Maybe he could run away, get as far as the highway and manage to get to the next town without being noticed. He’d heard there was a border somewhere, and that if he crossed it, he could be free. But he’d heard traders talk about it as if it were weeks away, and the boy was certain he couldn’t hide for weeks and weeks without being discovered and sent right back to Ariste and Harthoon. No, there was a single choice for the boy. Up. Up the mountain trail and to the forests and jungles on the other side. It was another country on the other side. If he could find a way to carry himself to the other side of the mountain without freezing, he could be free and never work in a dirty inn again.

But he never dared try. He’d be caught. He’d freeze to death. There’s no way a trader would carry him over to the other side in secret. He’d have to convince one first, and that was assuming Ariste wouldn’t catch wind of it. He’d be beaten for sure.

No, there was no way. Maybe when he grew up he could buy his freedom. He’d heard other slaves do that. Maybe he could too.

 

“Get out of bed, boy! Now!”

Another kick to the stomach. It knocked another dream of the sun right out of him.

“Uhhn,” the boy replied, doing his best to lift himself out of bed.

“You didn’t sweep the kitchen well at all! Crumbs and dirt everywhere! It’s a miracle no one was poisoned tonight! Go, do it right!”

Ariste struck him on the head rather sharply with the broomstick before throwing it in his lap. What time was it…? The boy peered over his shoulder out the window. Darkness. Perhaps he’d only been sleeping for a few minutes, he couldn’t tell. Ariste disappeared as fast as she’d appeared, but that wasn’t to say she wasn’t just around the corner ready to strike if he didn’t hurry. He slipped on his thin shoes and stood. He struck his head against the shelf.

“Oww…”

He slipped on his shirt, grabbed the broom, and stumbled out the door of his closet into the dining area of the inn. All was quiet and dark save for a few candelabras that hung from the ceiling. Ariste was nowhere to be found. Lucky. He crossed the room quickly. It wasn’t that he was afraid of the dark, he was just afraid of the dark if someone came with it.

In the kitchen, a single lantern burned dimmly above crates of potatoes and carrots. He was hungry, certainly, but he wouldn’t be caught dead munching on one. Instead, he pushed the closest crate away from the door and entered. From what he could see of the floor, it wasn’t all that bad, besides the fact that the room smelled like rotting fruit and dirty dishwater. Maybe a few stray dust bunnies and chopped vegetables lined the floor beneath the bar and sink. The boy sighed. He could feel his eyelids pushing down on themselves, but he pressed on, jamming the broom into the space between the floor and the side of the side table. If he hurried, it wouldn’t take him long.

Brush after brush after brush. So boring. He could feel himself get into a rhythm that didn’t actually get anything done. He shook his head back and forth. Snap out of it. Get this done right and you can sleep. The boy knelt down to get at the debris underneath the stove. Ariste especially hated having anything beneath her stove. There were a few stray crumbs there in the darkness – maybe that was what she exploded at. He tossed the broom underneath to get at the wall and pull everything out. Wouldn’t quite fit.

Warily, he placed his hand on the stove. It was cold. He lowered himself to his belly and shoved the broom inside.

Then, suddenly, everything went completely dark.

The boy turned his head to the lantern. Completely spent. The boy growled and stood to his feet. He couldn’t sweep if he couldn’t see. The boy wasn’t allowed to use matches. Usually. But the thought of waking Ariste just to light the lantern filled him with dread. He scratched his arm. He didn’t want another bruise.

The boy knew where Ariste kept them. The shelf just above the stove. He blindly lifted his arms up and found the edge of the cupboard door. It was filled with square boxes, and he only needed one specifically. Not that one, not that one… A tiny one reached his fingers. He pulled it down, slid the lid open. Matchsticks. Small and thin. He’d never lit one himself, but he’d seen Ariste do it dozens of times. Just strike the black bit against the box and it should light into a small flame. Simple enough.

The boy crossed the room. He clambered up on top of the potato crate, careful not to actually step or kneel on any of them. The lantern still smoked lightly, but only a few red embers remained on the tiny wick. He could only hope the lantern still had enough oil. He took one match, and pressed it against the box.

Strike one. Nothing. Strike two. Nothing. Strike three…

“Oh!”

In a poof, it burst alight.

He quickly thrust the match into the lantern, pressing it against the tiny wick. Nothing happened. Wait, I’m supposed to make the wick bigger. With his other hand, he fumbled around the lantern until he found the knob. It spun, and the wick raised up, lighting up immediately.

“Good,” the boy whispered. He then pulled out the small still-burning matchstick. Just as Ariste had done many times, the boy shook the match to make it go out.

It didn’t go out. He shook it again.

The flame grew bigger.

He couldn’t drop it. He’d catch something on fire, for sure. But it dropped lower and lower, close to his fingers.

He shook it one more time.

“Ah!”

He felt the heat. He dropped the match. But the fire remained. The small candle-like flame attached itself to the boy’s finger like a drop of water.

“No, no! Get off!”

He shook his hand. The flame grew bigger, spreading up his finger and onto the back of his hand. It felt warm, just like the dream of the sun.

“Get off!” the boy cried.

He shook his hand faster. Too fast. It swung upwards, striking the lantern. With a clatter, the lantern fell back behind the crate of potatoes. The boy quickly jumped down from the crate and ran to the sink. The fire was still spreading from his hand up his arm. It even caught his shirt, and started burning the cloth.

“No, no, no!”

He could hardly see, but the flames actually helped him find the sink knobs. He turned them on and immediately doused his hand; the flames disappeared. He tossed water onto his arm and patted out the fire; at last, those flames went out as well. In the darkness, he could hardly see his hand. He imagined the skin melting like cheese, wrinkling and peeling like the skin of a tomato. He felt it up and down, again and again… Nothing. No pain. Not even a burning sensation. His sleeve was charred and stiff, but his arm was fine.

He sighed. How strange.

He smelled smoke. Then he saw light. Dim at first, but then quickly rising.

“Ah! No, no!”

The potato crate burst into flame.

Whether it was the dropped match or the fallen lantern, it hardly mattered.

“What in hell’s name is going on in here, boy! I heard-”

Then Ariste screamed.

“Y-You stupid boy! You monster! Get the bucket, get it now!”

The boy looked around. What bucket?

“Move!” Ariste cried, charging towards the sink. “Move, you idiot!”

She flung the boy to the ground with one hand, and filled the bucket in the sink as quickly as the faucet would allow… which wasn’t fast at all, truth be told. In the meantime, Ariste filled the room with obscenities, most of which were directed at the boy in no particular order.

“You Aurion bastard child!” she cried, for example. “Ahh! What did I tell you about matches, you stupid boy!?”

The boy sat on the ground, slightly dumbfounded. He watched the fire burning faster and faster, catching onto more of the crates. One of the crates was filled with ceramic pots and thatch to keep them protected—that went up in a burst of intense heat rather quickly.

It felt like a dream. The dream of the sun. With all his heart he knew he shouldn’t wish it, but he wanted the fire to rise higher. Burn brighter. More intensely. Maybe even burn his arm again, and spread further, like an orange snake slithering across his skin. Ariste’s shouts droned in and out, like a mesmerizing pattern of sounds, consumed just like the wooden crates in the uncontrollable dance of the burning heat.

Somewhere in the midst of this hallucination, Harthoon had entered the room, panic growing in his eyes. The boy had never seen him so alert before. He took his coat and tried stamping out the fire. The water bucket filled, Ariste took it and threw it against the fiery inferno. To everyone’s shock, most of which the boy’s, the flames seemed to devour the water like oil, bursting up against the ceiling and further into the room.

“Y-You did this!” Ariste shouted, no longer able to control the situation. But this she could control. She grabbed the boy by the shirt and hauled him across the room and out the door. With a thud, the boy landed against the bar, hitting his head against the wood and making him dizzy.

“I’ll strangle you for this, boy, you hear me! I’ll kill you if this place burns down! You hear me!”

She wore soft slippers. She kicked the boy hard in the stomach. Nothing felt soft.

“You… You stupid son of a bitch,” Harthoon said, more intensely than the boy had ever heard before. He added an effective kick of his own against the boy’s arm.

Ariste bent down and threw her fist at the boy’s face. It connected. The boy felt his brain in the back of his head. She hauled the boy up by his shirt again, and threw him towards the door as hard as she could. The boy tripped and fell against chairs and a table.

“Go and get the constable, you idiot!” she screamed. “And don’t come back without help!”

She and Harthoon quickly scrambled back into the kitchen to try putting out the fire again. The boy struggled to his feet, unable to see. Mostly. His eye was swelling up. He stumbled to the door, unfastened the locking bar, and flung it open. Frozen air blasted his face as he walked out into the cold.

A thought occurred to him as he stared out into the dark.

Forget the constable. Forget the fire. Forget Ariste and Harthoon.

It doesn’t matter anymore, he thought to himself. I’m never coming back.

Alyssum – Chapter Five

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By sundown, the wind outside had become particularly vicious. Aeo could hear its anger from inside the cave quite clearly. Considering there wasn’t much else to do besides listen and rest, Aeo laid restlessly against the back wall of cave. It was also the first time Aeo realized his shirt had been removed and put… somewhere. Considering the amount of holes and patches keeping it together, Aeo wondered if Leon hadn’t simply thrown it away.

Although the blizzard outside told him he should, Aeo didn’t care at all for that ratty thing.

This strange place. Maybe not home. But there was no pain here. Freedom.

Aeo struggled not to think. It didn’t work. He imagined what he would be doing down in the village if he’d never left. The Gray Pale Inn would smell like cheap ale and sweat, sometimes enriching itself with the air of the stable connected through the back door. The morning consisted of cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed from the inn’s few rooms. Lifting cartons of milk and cheese well into the night was a daily occurrence, serving villagers and visitors. The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt, sometimes mixed with snow and ice when the season turned. A flimsy mop served as a constant companion, and he often dozed off with it in hand as an excuse in case she ever caught him. Then, at two or three in the morning, it was time for bed just to rise at six o’clock to start all over again.

That wretched woman. That gigantic woman. Ariste. She didn’t deserve a name as pretty as that. He would rather risk serving an angry bear than catch sight of her. Always something went wrong. Always something to blame on him. Always something to clean, something to move, something to serve. She always put on a face when serving guests that might convince them that she adored owning her own inn and tavern. That being the center of Olvaren gossip and news delighted her to no end. She indeed spread those rumors around, the very least the ‘fact’ that Aeo was a lazy, inconsiderate scab that had no place with the other children and even slaves in the village. But when the inn closed and even the drunk ones departed, the expression on her face would turn to something resembling rage, as if all the niceties she shared with patrons were something she kept and sealed in the money safe at the end of the day.

Useless. Good for nothing. A waste of flesh. ‘Bastard child’ was a favorite.

That wasn’t to say she didn’t have her tender moments. Very rarely, of course. She would take Aeo shopping for clothes, keeping a leash around Aeo’s neck and a sharp eye out for his thieving fingers at the market. As if Aeo had thieving fingers; he’d never taken anything that didn’t belong to him in his life. But slaves in Olvaren were known for their deviant behavior, so it must be true of Aeo. Cheap flax shirts and pants, thin soled shoes for a few copper pieces. Good enough for her, so good enough for him.

She never slept. Not when Aeo slept, at least. She threw Aeo to bed at midnight, then throw him right back out again. What drove the woman Aeo couldn’t fathom. Maybe she ran on cruelty. Slapping him was a favorite past time of hers. Broomsticks, bar stools, beer flagons. Anything she could grip and swing.

Aeo tenderly rubbed the bruise under his eye. That was hers.

Then there was Horthoon. Drunken, sloppy, drooling Horthoon. Ariste’s good-for-nothing husband. The whole village knew of his drinking problems, even more than Aeo was rumored to be lazy. How she put up with this physical embodiment of laziness, no one knew, least of all Aeo. He certainly made no effort to help around the inn, and rarely put on a mask of sobriety if he could help it. Ariste slapped him every once in a while for forgetting to purchase firewood, ignoring the dirty windows, or harassing the inn’s patrons. Never did she hit Harthoon as forcefully as Aeo. Yet Harthoon’s favorite wooden flagon was always brimming with beer, and he made sure Aeo filled it at every opportunity.

Harthoon’s favorite past times were kicking at Aeo when disturbed (which happened often), mumbling to himself, and pouring alcohol into Aeo’s face for a laugh until people couldn’t smell the difference between himself and the boy. Sometimes, when completely slobbered out of him mind in the middle of the night, he would find Aeo attempting to sleep. He would wake Aeo with a start and proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. Harthoon’s tangled, matted beard was usually soaked in alcohol, and would make Aeo drunk just by the smell of it. Aeo never knew how to manage this or where it came from. Perhaps he hated Ariste just as much as Aeo. Perhaps this was the truth coming out at last. But by morning, Harthoon would forget the moment ever occurred and went back to bothering everyone in the inn as he regularly did.

The bruises on Aeo’s back belonged to him.

Something must have happened for both Ariste and Harthoon to become enraged at the same time. Bad luck, perhaps. Maybe he’d been discovered napping just before closing time, or he’d forgotten to clean the ale spigots or the bar. Aeo couldn’t remember. The two emerged simultaneously into Aeo’s little closet, mad as hornets and completely unintelligible. They’d clobbered him like a pair of devils. Ariste chose a bar stool as her preferred weapon this time, something she rarely did when other blunt instruments were out of reach. And perhaps Harthoon had been just the right consistency of alcohol and nerves. To Aeo’s horror, Harthoon opened a switchblade, something he’d never done before. Seconds into the encounter, when Ariste discovered a bar stool an imperfect weapon for the tiny room, she threw it down and began throwing fists. Several connected, including the one on his face. Just as Aeo struggled to get away with a few kicks, Harthoon struck Aeo’s leg with the knife. It hadn’t cut very deep; his aim had been wobbly and poor. Lucky. It might produce a scar. Frozen as it had been, besides being covered in the day’s alcohol, the chances of infection were hopefully slim.

He had to leave. Now.

Somehow, Aeo dove between them without being grappled. He ran into one of the inn tables and threw it to the side, gaining the momentum he needed to thrust himself to the inn’s front door. He was even smart enough to throw down a few chairs in case they chased after him. He threw back a quick glance; Harthoon’s clumsy self blocked Ariste’s large body from exiting the small closet and giving chase. Aeo threw the inn door open and slammed it shut on the way out.

There was nobody out in the cold that night. No one to stop him. He might have chosen to travel the road that crossed the highway and other towns beyond, but there would be no one friendly of slaves. In fact, if any men policing the road late at night caught him, there would be nowhere to go besides right back to the The Gray Pale Inn. So he chose up. Up the mountain. As fast as he could.

Aeo shuddered and stretched his arms.

Never going back.

His limbs no longer felt sore and lifeless as the night before. The opposite, in fact. They still longed to move something, sweep something, mop something. When his feet healed, Aeo decided, he would work for Leon and Pick. He might even work for Shera, so long as she never… What did Leon call it? Right, ‘blocked’ him again. His head still hurt from the experience. But even it hardly compared to the dull aching pain that covered the whole rest of him.

Aeo tenderly rubbed the bruise surrounding his eye.

What would he say to Leon if he asked about him? He certainly couldn’t admit to being a slave. But there was no family to return to, no friends that would miss him. No one in the entire village would miss him. That part had been true. Would Leon and Shera let him stay on the mountain, or would they kick him back out into the cold? That couldn’t be true. Leon didn’t seem like a forceful man, certainly nothing like his former masters. And although Aeo could sense Shera disliking him, Pick was more than happy to be friends.

Maybe he could be a pet to a wolf? He decided he wouldn’t mind that. So long as any biting stayed at a minimum. Not that there had been any biting. The thought just crossed his mind.

The big cave door creaked. Aeo sat up. In wobbled a great furry mass, which stopped halfway in the cave to shake off the light layer of snow that covered him.

A pair of curious eyes spotted Aeo, and Pick growled quietly as a thought entered Aeo’s head.

<The color teal. A human hopping up and down.>

“Hi… Pick,” Aeo said. “Uh, hopping…? Oh. I don’t think I can walk yet. My toes still hurt.”

After closing the door with the rope, Pick clambered over to the corner of the room where his bed lay. He circled a couple of times and finally rested himself with a thud. His head came down across Aeo’s lap as it had before, and he whimpered a sad song as he looked up.

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

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

“Um… Is that… playing?” Aeo asked. “You like to run around?”

Pick barked, a sound that made Aeo flinch a bit.

“I’ll, uh… I’ll take that as a yes.”

Then, the terrible occurred again. Pick lifted his head and did his best to lick Aeo’s face. He nearly succeeded. This time, Aeo defended himself, and received wolf slobber all up and down his hands and arms.

“H-Hey! Wait! D-Don’t do that…!” he cried.

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

<The color blue. A wolf licking a human.>

Aeo frowned, wiping his arms on the fur blanket.

“Sad? It makes you sad… when you lick me?”

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

“Oh, it makes me sad?”

Pick yipped quietly.

“No, it doesn’t.” Aeo laughed lightly. “It’s just… messy, that’s all.”

Pick looked up at Aeo from his lap.

<The color blue. A human house in the snow. A human running away from it.>

Aeo’s eyes grew wide.

“Yeah, I was just… I mean, you… I wasn’t…” Aeo tried to slide backwards only to find himself without sliding room. He placed a hand to his lips and whispered. “Y-You can’t read my mind… can you?”

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

“Oh. That’s… Uh, y-yeah, good. I mean, I was just thinking about… some things.”

<The color blue. A human falling down. A wolf howling.>

“Falling…?” Aeo reached out for the bruise surrounding his eye. “Oh, I didn’t… fall exactly. Some people… they hurt me. I ran away from them.”

Pick growled louder than he had in the past.

<The color red. A wolf chasing after humans.>

Then:

<The color blue. A wolf licking a smaller human.>

“I know, Pick. I got angry too. Really angry. But… but I couldn’t do anything. I can never do anything. I always just… sit there. I’m useless. That’s what they told me. Every day. Every day!” Aeo threw his fist at the ground and felt tears coming to his eyes. “That’s why nobody cares about me. No one’s going to search for me. They’ll just think I’m dead, and forget about me.” He arrived at a realization. “They don’t need me. They’ve never needed me. Maybe I won’t have to work anymore. Maybe they’ll torture someone else for a change…”

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

<The color blue.>

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

“It… it makes me sad, too,” Aeo said.

<An image of a small wolf with two large wolves surrounding it.>

“What do you… mean?”

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

Aeo’s shoulders fell.

“Oh. Do I have a mom and dad.” Aeo shrugged. “I… I don’t know anymore.”

Pick whined.

“I don’t know who my dad was. I… guess I had one. My mom died when I was really little. At least that’s what they told me. When I was born, I lived far away. Then something happened, and I was brought to Olvaren.”

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

<The color teal. A human hugging a wolf.>

Aeo rubbed his nose with his arm.

“Y-Yeah,” he said quietly. “Now… you’re my friend. Right?”

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

“Thanks Pick,” he said. “I’m… really happy you’re here.”

Alyssum – Chapter Four

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Everything felt wonderful. The new water bottles felt so good on his skin, Aeo didn’t want to move anymore. Leon even placed water bottles on the sides of his head to keep his ears warm—he hadn’t realized just how dull and cold they’d been until warmth filled them. He didn’t even move when Pick came to lick his face with his enormous wet tongue.

<A human hugging a wolf’s head.>

“Uh…” Aeo whispered, gagging. “Y-Yeah… good boy.”

“Hey Picky,” said Leon, removing his jacket and replacing it with a light-brown buttoned dress shirt. “I need you to go and get Shera for me. Go feed the bighorners for her. Tell her I sent you, okay?”

Pick’s head drooped down low and his nose nuzzled up against Aeo’s side. He whined quietly.

“It’s all right. Aeo’s not going anywhere. You can watch over him in a little bit. I just need to speak with him and Shera for a while. Please? And close the door when you go?”

Pick’s shoulders drooped low, but he lifted himself off the ground and headed for the door. Standing on all four legs, the wolf pup stood a little taller than a full-grown lion, and Aeo knew he still had a lot of growing to do. The unlatched large door swung wide open, and Aeo expected the cold air from outside to blast inside the cave and suck all the warmth away. To his surprise, it didn’t at all, and not just because he was being smothered by hot spring water bottles. Pick closed the door shut and disappeared.

“There we go,” Leon said. “I was hoping I could talk to you now that you’re not frozen solid.”

Aeo frowned. Might as well put his cards on the table.

“You’re… not going to make me go back to the village, are you, sir?”

Leon placed his hands on his knees and leaned backwards.

“Well, there’s the question,” he said. “I didn’t wonder where you came from, but I did wonder where you received all those bruises. If you’re asking if I’ll kick you out when you’re frostbite heals, the answer is no. Of course not. But I wonder if you might tell me who you belong to. Do you have family? Friends? Anyone who might be searching for you?”

“No,” Aeo replied. “No one cares about me.”

Leon cast his eyes downwards.

“Is that right,” he replied.

“I’m not going back to Olvaren,” Aeo said flatly. “Never.”

“You say there’s no one there that cares about you,” Leon said quietly. “But someone hurt you. Now, I don’t know what caused it. But they took it too far, didn’t they? Quite the collection of bruises you have on you, kid. Nothing would have led you up here in night clothes otherwise.”

“I’m not a kid,” Aeo growled.

“Of course not. I apologize.”

Aeo didn’t reply. He shut his eyes. He suddenly wanted to sleep.

“It isn’t my business, of course. Just educated guesses, if you don’t mind me making them. But there is a reason I ask about what caused your travels up here.”

Leon cleared his throat.

“Have you ever heard of the mephandras?”

Aeo became very awake.

“They’re real?” he asked. “You’ve seen one?”

“Armored bears of unusual size?” Leon said with a chuckle. “No, I haven’t, actually. I’ve only heard word here and there that they used to live on this mountain. Truth be told, they haven’t been seen in decades, and there’s good reason for it.”

“The hunters.” Aeo said. “Right?”

“That’s right, sounds like you and I have the same sources. Hunters chased after them for hundreds of years and drove them right off the mountain. At least that’s what folk say. But it wasn’t just the hunters that did it.” Leon stretched his arm to the side. “Did you know a mephandras was actually a very intelligent beast? They didn’t have the mouths to form words, but they knew the giant wolves that lived up in these caves, and spoke with them regularly. At least that’s what Shera has told me.”

“They could speak?” Aeo said, his eyes wide.

“Well, in a manner of speaking,” Leon said. “As much as Pick can talk to us, in fragments and images. The giant wolves learned of these human hunters coming further and further up the mountain in search of the mephandras. Both the mephandras and the wolves knew that if humans ever discovered their dens up here they would find a reason to exterminate… well, everything. Just as they hunted for mephandras claws and teeth and pelts, they’d put bounties on the giant wolves. Traders would value their fur, hunters would keep trophies and glory, and scientists would study them right out of their homes, understand?”

Leon couldn’t help a laugh.

“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing up here.”

Aeo nodded.

“I’ll tell you about it later,” Leon continued. “The mephandras knew that their homes were becoming more and more limited, their safety less and less guaranteed. But the wolves hadn’t been discovered yet. So in exchange for finding a safe home, the mephandras promised to leave and let the wolves have control of Falas Mountain.”

“The mephandras… left the mountain?” Aeo asked. “How?”

“Cautiously. And not alone. They were too large and too bulky to find their own way without being spotted by humans. No, the wolves promised the mephandras they would help them search for a new home in exchange for keeping the mountain free of hunters who searched for them. The wolves would lead the way while the remaining mephandras followed them off the mountain. If the wolves detected humans, they would… well… they would make the humans…”

<”We would put thoughts into their minds that would convince them to leave.”>

The large cavern door suddenly creaked open. If Pick had seemed like a gigantic creature, then what stepped through the opening made Aeo suddenly very afraid. The giant muzzle of a fully-grown wolf emerged, followed by a mountain of gray-ivory fur led by four powerful limbs. As high as the cave ceiling stood, the wolf nearly stood higher, and had to bend down a fraction to avoid skimming it with its pointed ears. And if it felt strange to receive images from Pick, then listening to the almost audible words of this wolf commanded all of Aeo’s attention as they entered his mind.

“Morning, Shera,” Leon said. “I was just telling Aeo about the meph-”

<”I know. The humans have always come very close to discovering our home, even when the mephandras kept them at bay. Without them and without most of my pack, it is a challenge to even keep watch.”>

At the same time the words dominated his thoughts, he swore he could ‘see’ the image of a trio of mephandras in the ‘background’, two gigantic bear-like creatures covered in tough scales and a tiny one rolling around in the snow. Merely images? Or memories? It made his head ache a bit from both words and images taking center stage in his head simultaneously.

“That’s right, Aeo,” Leon said. “The wolves led the mephandras towards a new home, but many followed them off the mountain and never came back. They must have found a new home themselves.”

Shera closed the door by gripping the rope ‘doorknob’ with her teeth, then circled and laid her great body down neatly in between the campfire and the wall of the cave. Alone she easily took up half the cave floor. She eyed Aeo up and down, and made him wish he wasn’t laying prone and vulnerable.

“This was… how many years ago, Shera? Fifty?”

<”More. I was young. This was our home then, and it is our home now. Pick and I will not leave it.”>

“That’s the problem, Aeo,” Leon said. “If humans ever find this place… Who knows what would happen. That’s why I have to ask if anyone would come looking for you. Not that they would be able to anymore, right Shera?” He looked up at her. “The blizzard would have hidden his tracks for sure. And his scent. No one would know where he disappeared to, and if they did know, they would think he was dead.”

As much as a wolf can look displeased, Shera did, and growled a bit as a thought entered Aeo’s mind.

<”Perhaps.”>

“I think Aeo is as safe as they come. Considering no other human has come up this high before, I believe it’s safe to assume that everything is-”

Leon paused. His attention aimed squarely upon the great wolf.

Aeo heard nothing. Were his ears plugged? He couldn’t help but check them, silly as it was. He lifted himself up as best he could without losing balance of the many rubber containers that covered him. Something was wrong. Well, maybe not wrong, but different, as if the air suddenly became dry. The feeling wasn’t painful, but a little unnerving. Like having one of the rubber water bottles sit on top his head.

“I know you don’t like the idea of another human…” Leon stopped. “…but we don’t know what that means. If we give it some time maybe I can…” Another stop. “I understand that, but don’t you think there’s more at stake here than…?”

Shera became more agitated the more Leon spoke. At first she kept the growling to herself, but soon the growling turned into a snarl. Aeo finally understood, and he felt his heart in his throat. They were having a conversation without him. Shera was excluding him on purpose. The longer this phantom conversation continued, the more pale Leon’s face became, as if the wolf had complete control over his mind. Leon attempted to speak again.

“I… I know that, but I truly think-”

“Um…?” Aeo whispered.

No one paid him any attention. Aeo lifted his arm from beneath the blankets and reached out to Leon’s shoulder. He tugged on the man’s shirt.

“Leon, sir?”

For a moment, he seemed to ignore Aeo’s pleading. When Leon finally looked away from Shera, he seemed distant and distracted, like Shera’s still spoke powerful thoughts into his mind. Leon finally replied.

“What…? Did you…”

“Please, sir,” Aeo said, staring. “What’s… what’s happening?”

Almost immediately, the tightness on Aeo’s head faded. Leon stared at Aeo, and then back at Shera. The snarl had disappeared from her face, though she remained on her front paws and leaning forward in attention. As if the wolf could feel his thoughts and feeling, she gazed at Aeo directly. The thought-voice came clear and more gentle than before.

<”Forgive me, little human. I don’t mean to ignore you. But some things are difficult to explain. We will speak later.”>

“Shera, you… blocked him out?”

Shera said nothing.

“You should have told me, we could have taken this outside!” Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s head, as if he’d suddenly developed a fever. “Are you all right, kid? Are you seeing clearly? How many fingers am I holding up?”

Aeo frowned.

“…two, sir. What’s-”

“Good, that’s really good. I’m sorry, Aeo,” Leon said, moisture beading on his forehead. “I didn’t mean to turn this into an argument in front of you. And I didn’t mean for all this to happen at once.”

“Argument?” Aeo said quietly. “Is something wrong with me?”

Leon fell quiet for a moment, answering the question in a strange way. He looked positively terrible, breathing heavily and sweating as if he’d hiked all the way down the mountain and back down again. He wiped the sweat from his mouth. Shera flicked her tail.

<”No,”> Shera said finally, lifting herself off the ground and turning towards the door. <”Nothing is wrong with you. You are welcome here as long as it takes for you to heal. We will discuss the matter then.”>

Leon quickly stood.

“Shera, you see? There’s something different about…” Leon said. But the wolf was already heading out the door. She stepped away with a surprising grace, much more than Aeo would suspect a creature her size, then just as deftly closing the door behind her with a thud. As if in response to her prompt exit, the hazy purple mist on the far side of the room suddenly faded away with an audible pop as the lit candles on the wall blew out, and at last, the air in the cave drastically lowered in temperature with the door slightly ajar and the campfire dying away.

Leon sighed, his breath becoming quite visible in the sudden cold.

“Are you sure you’re all right, Aeo? I know what it’s like to be ignored by Shera. Feels like your head is ready to burst open.”

Burst? That sounded horrible. Aeo placed a hand on his own forehead. He’d missed something. He certainly didn’t look like Leon, not at all. White as a ghost, and though Leon tried to hide it by rubbing them together, his hands were shaking.

“I’m… fine, really,” Aeo said. “I… I didn’t mean to make Shera mad.” He laid back down and hid his arm under the bottles.

“No, she wasn’t mad at you,” Leon said. He looked down at Aeo. “At me. And trust me, she’s wasn’t mad, exactly. You’d know it if she got mad.”

Leon lifted himself, rolling up his sleeves.

“Or.. maybe you wouldn’t.”

“Huh?”

“Nothing. Forget I said anything. Now I’ve got to get that ward back up before I leave. Goddess, it got chilly in here fast.”

“You’re leaving?” Aeo asked with a frown. But then a more important question. “Wait, what’s a ward? You mean a magic ward? You can do magic?

“That,” Leon said with a grin, stepping towards the candles, “is a long story.”

“What does it do?” Aeo asked.

“This one is relatively simple, you see. It keeps the cold air from coming through the door, makes it warm and dry in here. Just takes a few candles and the right spirit.”

“Spirit?”

Leon chuckled.

“I’ll tell you about it tonight. I’ve got to go before my few experiments go bad, you see. Don’t worry, my work doesn’t take me too far, only a few caves down the trail. And if you need anything, you can send Pick to come find me. I’ll be back later tonight and I’ll tell you everything. Sound good?”

Leon’s voice sounded hoarse for a moment at the end. He went quiet. For a moment, he placed his fingers on his temples.

“Are… are you all right, sir?” Aeo asked.

Leon cleared his throat and didn’t turn around.

“Oh, of course, certainly.”

Aeo squirmed beneath his fur blanket.