– Two Days Later –
Aeo had seen a bighorn once before. A few months back, some guild hunters came to Olvaren herding one they had captured to the slaughterhouse. Ten times as large as a full-grown horse and adorned with two gigantic gravel-gray horns, such gigantic caprines were much more than livestock. And much more wild, too. Bighorns (or whatever the scholars called them; maybe Leon would know) were big grumpy mammals, more sheep than bovine, often displaying an unpleasant demeanor and a Goddess-awful smell. They were strong, and stubborn, irritatingly so. The species was so close to domestication, but so far; though some bighorn calves reluctantly took orders, all would grow up and inevitably learn to refuse their masters; they could be neither bribed nor tortured into servitude. Fortunes aplenty had been lost in the attempts to tame the beasts, to the point where locals could count the decades by how many times the ranch-lands were renamed by new owners. But who could blame such investors when the reward was so apparent? Where an entire team of horses or mules would be needed to haul a loaded carriage up the mountain, a single bighorn ram could haul two of them at once, all by itself, up and down Falas a dozen times without breaking a sweat or dying of exposure.
That is, if a bighorn ever wanted to. And not a one ever did.
Fortunately for the people of Falas, even wild bighorns were an incredibly valuable resource. Sure, the beasts had insatiable appetites; two or three bighorns alone could strip an entire mountainside of greenery in the space of a season. They weren’t sought out for their fleece, which was rough and unpleasant in comparison to sheepswool. Nor were they hunted for the quality of their oily meat, which was considered gamey by most. Their horns were brittle and known to shatter at the most inopportune moments; a poor trait for tools or weapons. And while their bones were dense and used at times in construction, the marrow was bitter, and hardly suitable as a second-rate additive in fertilizer and feed. And yet, despite all these truths, no sensible person living on Falas would dare let any part of a bighorn go to waste. Whenever the guild hunters would kill one, Olvaren’s tailor would gladly purchase the whole pelt, filthy wool and all. It would take a team of seamstresses a week to skirt and scour the material, and weeks more to spin it all. The woven thread was coarse, but it was affordable, and it was warm. And though stiff, bighorn leather was perfect for crafting tents, tarps, belts, bedrolls, and dozens of other village essentials. As for Olvaren’s butcher, he never passed up the opportunity to butcher one of the beasts. A single carcass would reserve an entire season’s worth of work, and though the meat was only ever “Grade B” at best, it would mean even the poorest villagers in Olvaren would have the means to avoid a hungry winter.
If the shepherds of Olvaren could learn how to temper the giants into actual beasts of burden, the economic prospects of the entire region would no doubt change overnight. And yet, for all the fortunes lost, and all the incredible effort spent trying to tame the untameable Falas bighorn, Aeo bore witness to an incredible truth: the mephandras had already succeeded in taming them. Within the most spacious underground chamber he had ever stood in, Aeo couldn’t help but count them. Forty? Fifty? Seventy? No, more! An entire herd of bighorns, at least a hundred of them, all of them comfortably concealed beneath the protection of the mountain peak. No wonder Shera, Pick, and the other mephandras could sustain themselves so comfortably, despite their size. And no wonder they hadn’t been seen for a decade!
The entrance to the massive underground stable itself wasn’t an obvious one, no more than a simple gap in the rock face that sloped downwards for hundreds of meters (deep enough that the bitter cold could not follow) before widening into an immense hall of stone. Illuminated by a number of makeshift braziers lining the path downwards, Aeo could easily stand at the top of the sloping cavern and observe the whole herd without disturbing them. Which he did for nearly five minutes, too stunned at the scope of the scene before him to continue forwards.
It was quiet. Peaceful. Stinky. A distant stream of thermal water poured into a tepid pool at the lowest point of the chamber, around which a small but healthy group of bighorn calves were drinking and splashing. Though the firelight hardly reached them there, they didn’t seem at all bothered by the low-light conditions. Beyond the stream was a pitch-black jungle of strange deep foliage, the tangled mass of plants and vines growing haphazardly into the darkness beyond. An entire ecosystem blossoming deep within the mountain, all of it thriving without assistance or oversight. Well, human oversight, for there was no telling if Shera and the mephandras were master gardeners in addition to being master shepherds.There were no fences or barriers to keep the bighorns where they needed to be, save for the cavern itself. Though, sizing up the adult bighorns and their tremendous horns, Aeo thought: There’s no way the big ones could go outside even if they wanted to. How’d they get down here in the first place?
[Taken from the surface at birth, no doubt,] whispered Kind. [Fascinating.]
[The mephandras could easily dominate the minds of men,] said Mean. [And instead they choose to dominate the minds of beasts.]
So that’s how they did it, Aeo thought. No wonder the ranchers could never control the bighorns: they never tried using magick. Then again, were Pick and Shera using magick when they forced their thoughts into Aeo’s mind? Or were they doing something else entirely? Lost in thought, Aeo stood there, at the threshold of the stable, quietly shivering. Though Leon had allowed him to borrow his coat, and despite the crackling fire in the brazier beside him, the cavern was still uncomfortably chilly.
Before he could take a step forwards, a thought appeared in his mind:
A graceful thought, and terrifying in its clarity. His head turned, somehow aware of the thought’s “direction.” Seated beside the entrance was a large furry silhouette that seamlessly blended into the shadows of the cavern.
“Oh,” Aeo whispered, nearly tripping backwards on his own feet. Shera had been watching him stand there the whole time. “H-Hello, Shera. Sorry, I… I didn’t mean to… I was just—”
<Looking for Leon?>
Aeo tried to agree, but instead he and his voice froze. The wolf raised up and approached him, sniffing the air around the boy.
<Hmm. I make you nervous.>
Aeo’s wide eyes said it all.
<There’s no need to feel this way,> Shera said. The wolf stepped past Aeo, descending the slope towards the herd. With her eyes now on level with the boy’s very frightened stare, she sat herself down and regarded him. <I see now that I was wrong about you.>
“Wrong about… me?”
<Yes.> Shera shook the cold off her pristine white coat, the hard plates that lined her spine clicking. <You are special… for a human. You have become a great friend to my Little Runt, and I thank you for spending time with him.>
“Oh,” Aeo finally said, swallowing. “Um… you’re welcome.”
<He was born without cub-mates,> Shera said. <A rare occurrence, for our kind. And his eyes were still shut when the others chose to depart. Pick has grown up lonely. Only Hala and I have paid him much attention.> Her thoughts paused. <Everything Pick has shared with me in the last few days has included you. He likes you.>
Aeo clung tighter to his fur coat.
“Well… I like him, too.”
<Everything about humans interests him,> she continued. <He watches you and Leon. And he listens to everything you say.> As the words connected with Aeo’s mind, he suddenly felt the distinct urge to cry. <I worry that he will come to hate the mountain for its loneliness. And I worry that he will grow to hate me for it.>
The thought carried with it a form of melancholy Aeo didn’t recognize, like the smell of wet rain on stone. And though the images did not appear like last time, he remembered the wolf, the one with the patch of blue fur. Even as he processed the thoughts and feelings, Aeo began to feel a bit nauseous. Shera was right: she did make him nervous. In the days since she saved him from freezing to death, it didn’t seem as though Shera paid him much attention. But now she spoke to him openly, and he didn’t quite know what to say.
“But… Pick doesn’t hate you,” Aeo said quietly. “He couldn’t.”
Shera lowered her face. And for the briefest moment, he thought she might have smiled at him.
<That is kind of you to say,> she said. <He is a tender boy now, still eager to learn everything he can about the world. About its people, and its mysteries.>
Shera bent her nose towards Aeo, no longer sniffing at the air but staring directly at him.
<I’m afraid he’ll learn about the world as you have, Aeo.>
Aeo’s eyes widened a bit more, and he felt the air entering his lungs grow much colder.
<I’m sorry,> came the thought, almost imperceptible. <As we age, we mephandras begin to see many things we shouldn’t. As I speak to you, I sense your sadness. Your fear. And your anger. Everything you have experienced in life… comes from a dark place.>
Shera laid herself down and looked away.
<You make me afraid, Aeo. That is all.>
“What do you mean?” Her words felt like a dark night on his mind, one where even the wind quiets to nothing. The fur coat nearly dropped from his shoulders by the sense of it. “Wait, Pick and Leon said that— they said that mephandras can’t read minds.”
<We cannot,> Shera said. <Not truly. But I can sense your emotions, and where they come from.>
Shera looked back at Aeo with her head laid low.
<I am sorry. There are many things on my mind, and I have shared them with you prematurely. It is difficult to communicate with words only.>
Aeo sniffed the cold mountain air. She was being surprisingly clear, in a way. He appreciated the fact that he wasn’t being bombarded by her usual scents, sensations, and memories, like the stage of his mind being filled with a dozen actors all at once.
“It’s okay,” he said with a shrug. “I don’t know what to say either. I just… I feel lost, like—”
<Like you don’t know where you belong?>
If she was lying, and could read his mind, she wasn’t hiding it well. With these words, Aeo heard the great wolf grunt, as if entertained by her own words.
<You and Leon are very much alike, little one,> she said, her tail flicking back and forth. <So unsure of your place in the world. Fighting against the currents that would hold you still. It is something to admire.> Shera lifted herself up slightly. <You should thank him, you know. It was Leon that convinced me not to eat you.>
Aeo took an unconscious step backwards.
<Yes. And I agree with his assessment. You are fartoo bony for good eating.>
The giant wolf huffed in and out as if laughing, much like Pick did, and this time she did present him with a toothy smile.
<I’ve made you worry enough for one day, little one. Go find Leon. He is studying in his cave further down, close to the river. Follow the fires and you will find him.>
Aeo then felt the distinct sensation of the color green. But not the way Pick made him feel. His mind recalled the look of grass in sunlight, the feel of soft grass upon his fingertips, the fragrance of morning-blown dew… followed by an abrupt passage of time. At once, the beauty of the newgrown grass became brittle, yellow, and dead. Aeo didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“Um, y-yes ma’am. I’ll go. Thank you.”
Shera rested her head upon her paws and said no more as Aeo stepped beyond her and into the great cavern. He meant no offense to the great mephandras, but nothing could have made him happier than finding another place to be.
Beyond the mighty bighorn herd, the braziers and a small thermal stream led Aeo to a narrow break in the cavern wall. He slipped inside to find that the split in the rock opened into a narrow hallway that led to a second expansive chamber. As he entered the brightly-lit room, the first thing that caught his attention was the massive waterfall of steaming water bursting forth from the northern wall. There must have been both a massive reservoir of water behind the wall of stone, as well as a massive underground river downstream, for the waterfall descended into a deep pool some twenty feet down from the level of the cave entrance. How deep the river ran beyond it into complete darkness, Aeo could not tell. The cavern ceiling was vast, perhaps a hundred feet up from where Aeo stood, and at its very height, Aeo could see actual daylight filtering in through a crack in the rock. Dozens of varieties of moss and vines grew upon the rough black stone, and an endless trail of flowers and seed pods flourished in the dim light. Their roots spilled right off the edge of the cliff face into the pool of spring water below, creating the most beautiful and natural underground garden Aeo could ever have imagined.
The moment he entered the cave, Aeo noticed a pair of candles placed on the side wall. Semi-transparent sigils of magick hung in the air before them, shivering and bleeding purple mist: more of Leon’s wards. As he stepped past them, the cold wind descending into the chamber from above immediately became still, replaced with the surprising heat rising from the thermal water below. Better yet, they also seemed to reduce the volume of the cacophonous cascading water. He peeled the bushy coat from his shoulders without another thought.
“Leon?” Aeo called above the din of the waterfall.
“Ah, Aeo!” he heard from somewhere below. “Good morning! Come on over!”
Careful not to slip, Aeo followed the slope of the chamber downwards until he reached a small alcove. There was Leon, seated at a makeshift workstation set up on a wide stone shelf. Upon its surface sat a variety of strange tubes, jars, and metal tools Aeo didn’t recognize. As Leon stood and approached the boy, Aeo realized that Leon was quite a tall man, and very thin; it hadn’t occurred to him before, having spent most of his time laying in bed. The man appeared very much like nobility, with brass spectacles, a white longshirt, and an embroidered jerkin.
“How are you feeling this morning?” Leon asked, placing a hand on Aeo’s shoulder. “Did you find your way down here all right?”
“Aye sir,” Aeo said. “I’m okay.”
“Just okay? How are your feet? Does it hurt to walk?”
“It hurts a little.”
“Hmm. 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?”
Aeo gently kicked the solid earth with his brand-new handmade fur boots. Though made of bighorn fur and leather, Hala’s boots were perfectly sized and luxuriously comfortable. The most wonderful gift anyone had ever given him, and an amazing feat of tailoring besides. It made his stomach hurt that he had no way to thank her except for saying so.
“They’re really comfy,” Aeo agreed. “I love them.”
“She’ll be glad to hear it. Come on over. I’m just recording some test results.”
Leon stepped back towards the stone table and his instruments, scribbling notes into a leather-bound ledger with a feather quill. Beside it sat a wide wooden box filled with a strange selection of plants and fungi. Each specimen was neatly placed into its own compartment and labeled with a hand-written descriptor. Aeo peered down to read them, and found them all completely unpronounceable: Basidiomycota orphens, a strange wrinkled fungus with pale-orange flesh; Aspergillus incenti, an oak leaf with large sickly black spots growing on its paling-green surface; Ascomucota lumenti, a stunning bright-pink specimen with dozens of tiny, delicate arms surrounding its bulb.
Leon adjusted a few knobs attached to the glass contraptions and looked over at Aeo.
“Careful not to breathe too close to some of those,” he said, chuckling when Aeo quickly stood up straight. “You wouldn’t want to eat many of them, either. While this cavern system is a paradise for the wildlife, most of the plants and roots that grow here can be quite poisonous to humans.”
“Really?” Aeo asked, puzzled. “Then… why are you collecting them?”
“Because not all of them are,” he said. “Or won’t be, once we understand their biochemical components. No man has ever fully explored the Falas mountain range. And to my knowledge, no one has ever performed a scientific investigation of these caverns. Who knows what kinds of remedies and medicines we could create with the flowers and fungi that grow so abundantly here.”
“That’s why I’m here, in fact,” Leon said. “Searching for a very specific compound.”
Aeo frowned, thinking of everything he’d eaten the last few days.
“What was in that stew you made? It was weird, but… it tasted so good.”
“Oh, you liked it, did you?” Leon asked. “I’m glad to hear it. At least you and Pick appreciate my cooking. It was mostly meat, of course, from the uriesi.”
“The uriesi.” Leon frowned at him. “Surely you saw them on the way down here.”
“Oh. You mean the bighorns?”
“Bighorns. Of course.” Leon said aloud. Under his breath he said something like: “They’ll take a razor to anything these days.” He then cleared his throat. “Yes. But the stew also had a few of these.” Leon pointed to a small purple leafy plant that looked like a blooming flower; the label did not have a name. “And a few of these.” He pointed to a large gray mushroom with a wide pale top; it also did not have a name. “And a few of these, chopped up into pieces. I adore these.” He pointed to a lumpy green vegetable, long and thin like a carrot. “Tastes a bit like an evari radish with the texture of a potato, especially when boiled and mashed. I haven’t named them all yet, but I mean to when I return to the Academy. I have a mind to ask the chefs for names that will encourage the students to try them.” He laughed. “I doubt the children will try something that looks so dull and tasteless.”
“Huh,” Aeo said. “How’d you find out they weren’t poisonous?”
“Ah, well,” he said, suddenly staring at the ceiling. “Don’t tell Hala, but… partially from experimentation, and partially from simply tasting them. Under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t recommend munching on plants you don’t recognize. But I know a few tricks for protecting myself from the effects of harmful reagents.”
“Tricks? Like, magick tricks?”
“Precisely. See this one here?” Leon pointed to a flower with bright yellow petals and thin wiry leaves. “It greatly resembles a junik flower, which is native to Ashant. Most humans are allergic to junik, myself included. And yet I was stupid enough to assume that this one might be completely unrelated. As it turns out, I believe they’re virtually the same. If I wasn’t well-versed in the incantation to reverse anaphylaxis, well… I might have died right then and there.”
“Anaphylaxis. A severe allergic reaction. So severe that your airway constricts completely and you, uh… suffocate.”
Aeo’s eyes went wide.
“You almost died? Magick can stop something like that?”
“Yes indeed,” Leon said. “And, bless the Goddess, reverse such symptoms as well.” He paused to laugh. “You do promise not to tell Hala, right? She’s always warning me of such things. If she found out I nearly killed myself during my first week in this cave, I would never hear the end of it.”
“I promise,” Aeo said, smiling despite the topic.
“Good,” he said. “And thank you. Anyway, despite my impatience and foolishness, I’m happy to report that I may have finally found what I’ve been searching for. Right here.”
Leon pointed to one of the components in box. Inside was a simple flower, far more simple in color and shape than the rest. It resembled a stem of lavender with bright red petals instead of purple, curling into a half-crescent bow.
“I call it ‘fiery madwort.’ Alyssum igneus.” Leon looked down at Aeo as if guilty. “I know, naming things isn’t my specialty. But I felt the name matched the effect it has on some of the wildlife. Hala and some of the other frogs I’ve spoken to say it causes them to hallucinate.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means the flower makes them hear and see things that aren’t really there. A horrifying thought. Loads of the flowers grow down here, both in and out of the water, and yet I’ve seen some cavern fish leap straight into the air just to eat the flowers blooming furthest away. And they’ll eat it until it drives them mad. They’ll get so energetic and nervous, they’ll leap far out of the water to eat more only to strand themselves on the cold stone floor and die. It’s the strangest thing. I’m currently trying to figure out why, and why the alyssum grows only in these caves, of all places.”
“So… it’s poisonous?” Aeo asked.
“Yes, it is. Though not quite to the same level as it is to the fish,” Leon answered. “It’s safe to touch, but I would avoid eating it. Unless you want one of the worst headaches of your life.” Leon then pointed to a bundle of the red-petal flowers sitting next to the edge of the drop-off. “Speaking of, if it’s not too much trouble for your feet, would you mind helping me for a few moments? Could you bring those flowers up here for me while I finish these notes?”
Aeo looked down towards the burbling hot pool and saw two small wooden crates filled to the brim with ruby-colored alyssum flowers. Placing Leon’s coat on the table, he carefully made his way down; though Hala’s leather boots provided immense comfort, they only provided so much traction. The steam blowing off the rippling water smelled of wet grass and dirt, and he breathed it all in, as deeply as he could. He bent down easily enough and picked up one of the boxes. They didn’t weigh much at all. He returned with a box under each arm, only slipping on the slick stone floor once.
“Just place them on the floor there,” Leon said, and Aeo obeyed. “Excellent. Thank you.”
For a moment, as Leon quietly wrote in his ledger, Aeo looked back at the waterfall gushing out of the side of the cavern wall.
“This place is amazing,” Aeo said.
“Never seen anything like it before, have you?” Leon asked.
“No sir,” Aeo said. “I never got to leave the inn by myself. Har—”
Aeo stopped speaking immediately. A cold sweat hit his forehead.
“The inn, eh? In Olvaren?” Leon didn’t turn around from his notes. “Is that where you lived?”
Aeo said nothing. His stomach turned. And when the silence lasted a lot longer than it should have, Leon finally turned around. After adjusting his glasses, he sighed and offered the poor boy a calm smile.
“Here, Aeo,” Leon said. “I have a task for you, and not a difficult one. Take this.”
To Aeo he held out a pair of curious instruments, both of them crafted of marble.
“It’s a mortar and pestle. Have you used such things before?”
“No sir,” Aeo said.
“Here, I’ll show you. Take some of the alyssum, peel off the flowers, and grind those up nicely in the mortar, just like this.” Taking a seat on the cave floor before Aeo, Leon took a few bits of alyssum from the box. The alyssum flowers came off the stem quite easily. “Now, it’s a bit tricky to grind them correctly,” he said, taking the pestle in his hand and beginning the process. “Don’t just stir them around. Take the pestle in your hand like so, and mash them in a circular motion. A small pool of liquid should form at the bottom, that’s what you’re looking for. See? Here, give it a go.”
Aeo carefully took the pestle from Leon. Leaning over the small mortar, he did his best to repeat Leon’s movements. Though the grinding of marble-on-marble made his teeth tingle a bit, he continued on.
“Be sure to keep the scrapings from the sides, pull them down.” Leon studied Aeo’s work for a moment more before standing, satisfied. “Good, good. Go ahead and keep it up. Mash up enough, and you’ll have what I need to get started.”
“Started on… what?” Aeo asked, looking away from his work for only a second.
“For extract distillation,” Leon said. “Do you know what that is?”
“No sir,” Aeo said.
“That’s all right,” Leon said. “Distillation serves to concentrate the components in the alyssum I wish to identify and study. Once in a pure form, I’ll be able to ascertain what makes alyssum so special.”
“Just be sure not to get any on your hands,” Leon said, standing. “The skin absorbs it quite easily. You won’t want either the headache or the red-stained fingers.”
Everything fell quiet. Aeo continued his work, thoroughly unsure if his grinding made any difference. He did begin to see a bit of red liquid pooling in the mortar, so he kept circling and smashing. Leon continued writing notes in the ledger, pausing every few moments as he adjusted the odd knobs and tubes of the bubbling apparatus.
“Aeo,” Leon said, clearing his throat.
Aeo straightened up.
“Have you ever heard of the Royal Archives of San’Doria?”
Leon chuckled. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard of the city of San’Doria?”
“Um, I think so,” Aeo said. “That’s in Ashant, isn’t it?”
“It is indeed. The capital of Ashant, actually. And the city of my birth. It is quite far from here, perhaps seven or eight weeks south by carriage and four more weeks east. Far enough to make you quite sick of the road.”
Leon turned around, leaning his hip on the stone table and folding his arms.
“The Archives is where I grew up, you see. My parents were researchers there. Always studying something, always searching for books and scrolls and information. They worked for nobles, government officials, anyone who came looking for something. They would work for hours and hours, writing and studying by candlelight, long into the night and ignoring me in the process. So much so, that they often left me to my own devices.” Leon chuckled. “Well, when they finally decided I’d become too much trouble, they hired a tutor for me.”
Aeo nearly forgot about the mortal and pestle. He kept mashing as Leon spoke.
“Algus was his name. He was a cranky old ashanti, but he cared for me like my parents never did. Every day was a new lesson. Learning etiquette and manners, maths and geometry, old spells and wards from his enormous collection of spellbooks. He taught me everything I know about plants and animals. How everything in this world is connected to the Goddess. I don’t believe he was a very religious man. But considering the evidence, I think he believed enough to teach me about such divine topics whenever I asked. Geography was my favorite subject. I loved learning about towns and cities and countries I didn’t think I’d ever get to see. The old man always spoke like he’d traveled all over the world. And maybe he had, in his younger days.”
Leon removed his glasses and cleaned them with his sleeve.
“For years, I never left the Archives. I lived there, I played there, I studied there, and I slept there. I saw little but those dusty old bookshelves and catalogues until I was practically a grown man. I was too scared to sneak out on my own, especially with all the constant news of bandits and thieves always traveling the roads. And I never had any friends to goad me on. In fact, the only time I saw the sun was outside in the Archive courtyard. It was no place for children, of course. Always full of foreign visitors and diplomats. But at night, when all those people departed, the courtyard became my favorite study hall. It was there that Algus taught me everything I know about magick. He was an abjurist as well. He taught me how to create the wards and barriers I use today. He even taught me how to defend myself against destructive magicks, and I’m glad he did.”
“You can learn to do that?” Aeo said. “Protect yourself with magick?”
“It takes a good teacher,” Leon said. “But yes, you can. And Algus was the best. My mother would sometimes check on my progress.” His words then darkened. “My father, on the other hand, rarely visited me. He was always off on some important business. Even the Regent of San’Doria would request his assistance. He was a very important man, you see. Too important, even for his son.”
Aeo didn’t say anything.
“My father was an old man by the time I came of age. It wasn’t long after I graduated from the Everspring Academy when he died.”
“He died?” Aeo asked. “How?”
That was a rude question. He stopped stirring the pestle.
“Er. I didn’t mean—”
“No, it’s all right,” Leon said with a shrug. “It’s why I’m telling you all of this, actually.” He sighed, contemplating his words. “My father was murdered, Aeo. In secret. Mother and I did not suspect anything at first. However, neither of us were allowed to see his body. Even at the state funeral, his casket was kept closed. His fellows at the Archives told us he’d developed a defect in his heart, and that he’d chosen not to inform us, or cause us grief.” Leon rolled his eyes. “I never believed it. And I was right not to.”
“Why not? What happened?”
“As soon as I became an Academy professor, I was shown some rather damning evidence,” Leon said. He fell strangely silent and his eyes fell to the side, like something had crossed his mind. Then he perked up and pointed to the alyssum flowers sitting in the boxes beside Aeo. “And I was led… to those flowers.”
“To these?” Aeo asked. “Why?”
“It’s complicated, I’m afraid,” Leon answered. “It would probably take days to explain. But long story short, those flowers contain a very peculiar biological compound, one that is incredible deadly when concentrated. Despite growing only in this very special place, some of those flower petals found their way to a marketplace in San’Doria. When the merchant who sold them directed me to Falas and Olvaren, I decided to search the mountain myself. And while I meant to find flowers, I stumbled upon Shera instead.”
Aeo cringed a bit.
“What happened… when you met her?”
“You can probably guess,” Leon said, pointing to his temple. “She did not accept my arrival kindly. She forced me to make a few promises. First, that I would keep her and Pick comfortable and healthy. Second, that I would fend off any hunters or mages that approach the summit. Third, and most importantly, that I will keep the location of these caverns a secret for the rest of my life.” He grimaced as he spoke, rubbing his forehead as if in pain. “I can’t break the promises I made with her. Not without suffering a considerable amount of pain.” He paused. “Perhaps even enough to kill me. Even talking about it now is uncomfortable.”
Aeo grit his teeth.
“Is… is she gonna make me make promises like that?”
“It’s likely,” Leon said, grunting. “But don’t worry. If she does, I’ll do my best to shield you from the pain.”
Aeo wrinkled his nose at this, but he didn’t quite know how to reply. Leon noticed, though, and chuckled as he shoved his glasses up to the bridge of his nose.
“Or perhaps not. I get the feeling that Shera likes you a lot more than she likes me,” Leon said. “Anyway, that’s the story of why you found a magician hiding underneath a frozen mountain. I hope I didn’t bore you. I imagine it isn’t the most exciting one you’ve ever heard.”
“No, it’s really interesting,” Aeo said sincerely. “It’s like… you’re solving a puzzle. A really important one.”
“That I am.” He tilted his head. “Perhaps it’s a puzzle you’d like to help me solve?”
“Aye sir,” Aeo replied with a nod and a clever grin of his own.
“Well, praise the Goddess,” Leon said, patting Aeo’s head. “I’m glad to hear it. I won’t say no to a second pair of hands, at least.” He bent down to examine Aeo’s distracted work. “Let’s see how your alyssum is coming along. Got quite a bit of liquid? Good, that’s a start. Come pour the liquid into this container and you can continue.”