My Name Is Lenn (Second Edit Preview)

Chapter One – Found

Surrounded by a torrent of debris in a storm-swollen river, fighting the freezing water, blustering leaves, and stabbing sticks, I fought to live. My determination was rapidly deteriorating, but fear kept me kicking, flailing. In an instant as sharp as glass, something narrow and frighteningly jagged crawled from my left shoulder to my right ear. The screeching pain removed most of the air in my lungs from the shock. I tasted blood and I felt it cascade into my lungs, even with my mouth closed. I could no longer breathe, even above water. Only by the sheer luck of the current did I drift towards bare rock. Crawling, I turned myself downwards towards the slope, and threw up the blood and swampy water. In the dark, I didn’t understand the full extent of my injury. But the last thing I perceived that night were thick black channels of my own blood drizzling down the stony ground.

In my throws of confusion and blood loss, darkness passed over me. I had no concerns for the morrow. Time abandoned me as quickly as the heat in my body. Dreams floated through my mind. Was I viewing my last thoughts? Either that, or part of me was not yet willing to let go of life, and still dared to hope.

I saw you, Aria. So clearly. Your smile. Your hope. I reached for you. But I could not feel your touch. I could not even whisper your name. Every one of us, every member of both our families was dead, and you would be last. With that realization, my dreams faded and all emotion vanished.

But though I stood knocking on Death’s mighty door that night, begging to be let in, He did not answer.

The very next thing I remember are hearing someone call out, far away:

“Hey, Aaron, wait for us!”

The words did not immediately register; an unintelligible roar. They sounded like my dreams, like the buzzing of flies. Another sound quickly filled the void: the hoof-like thunder of violence pounding upon dirt. It was rhythmic at first, but it quickly filled my ears until it deafened me.

Then, it stopped short, and a small bout of silence led to a single breathless phrase.

“What is that?

I felt nothing. Even when a very powerful force lifted me into the air and placed me delicately upon my back, forcing my frigid equilibrium to square off against gravity. Not a sliver of reality returned.

I saw daylight without seeing. Strong and terrible, it blinded my still-closed eyes.

“Look, Ian!”

“What is….? Whoa. Whoa.”

“Look, there’s blood everywhere. It must have been attacked by something.” There was a short pause. “It’s… dead.”

I felt a thick dull object compress my chest against the ground, and the intense agony made me clench inwards.

“No, look! It’s still breathing, look. It’s alive!”

I wanted to tell the voice to stop shouting in my ear. But it wasn’t shouting, exactly, and it was nowhere near my head. The sun disappeared from view, overcome by a shadow cast from a strange source, way up high. At once, I knew exactly what had discovered me.

Denvi. And ka denvi at that. Several of them, by the sound of it. I wasn’t yet dead. But I soon would be. And for an entirely different reason.

I opened my eyes. At least, I tried to. Still blinded by the scales of sunlight, I could only see the outline of an enormous figure standing above me. I could see a head, bent knees, wide shoulders. Almost beyond my sight were two similar shapes beside the first, strong ivory towers that reached into the sky. Nothing in detail.

“It’s awake!”

“Chris, stay back. Shh! You’re going to scare it.”

“No I won’t!”

I closed my eyes again. Was I simply going to accept this fate? Part of me must have, as I felt no fear. No feeling in my legs or arms. Despite the warmth of the sun and the bright spring day, I felt winter in my throat and earth in my lungs.

“Aaron, we’ve got to take it to my Dad. It’s gonna die if we don’t.”

“Eww,” said the youngest voice. “I’m not touching it. It’s naked.”

The voice above me made a clucking sound.

“It’s not naked, Chris. It just doesn’t have a shirt. Besides, it’s obviously a little boy. Who cares?”

“We don’t have anything to carry him in. Dad taught me never to jostle a patient, since it could make their injury worse, you know? Do we… have anything I could use?”

“Should’a brought a backpack,” said the youngest.

“Yeah,” answered the voice directly above me. “Um. Oh, hey. Hold on, Ian. Use my shirt.”

At last, a vital spark of fear shot through my heart when another great force embraced my prone body and lifted me straight off the ground. Instead of becoming little more than red splatter within a terrible fist, or the force transforming into a claw to rend me into pieces, I felt myself descend into tender rest, as if placed into a warm cradle. Admittedly, the cradle smelled like someone in desperate need of a bath, but I could hardly complain; for the first time in days, I felt some source of comfort.

“It’s gonna get your shirt bloody,” said the youngest voice.

So?” came the haughty reply.

“It doesn’t matter. Come on, we’d better hurry.”

I felt a sudden acceleration, like nothing I had ever experienced before. I gasped; it felt as though I had been strapped to a falcon in freefall. I recovered my breath, and began to feel the wall upon which I leaned, heaving inwards and outwards with the effort of a heavy jog.

I didn’t know what these ka intended to do with me. But like no other time before, I knew in my heart that I would never see you again.

* * * * * *

The sounds that echoed around me would have been frightening at any other time: the honking of terrible horns; the rumble of great machines; the delightful songs of birds that would have pried me to death for breakfast if given the chance; the murmur of other denvi laughing, speaking to each other.

One concern crossed my mind: would this ka reveal me to other denvi? Would I ever have freedom again? But then it occurred to me: I might not survive the next few hours. Very little else mattered if I died.

The journey felt like hours, my ripped skin fully exposed to the wind and sun. I wasn’t sure if I still bled freely, but the sapping cold I felt in my extremities told me more than enough.

“Chris! You’re faster than us! Run ahead and go tell dad that we’ve got a dying patient! He should be in his office!”

“Okay!”

“Don’t move him around too much!”

“I know, I know.”

“Your dad’s not home today?”

“No, he’s at work filling out papers and stuff. Hopefully we can sneak in through the back.”

Sneak? Interesting. Was sneaking something these ka usually did? Or did they do it because of me?

I dared to open my eyes again, now that my angle had improved and my blindness somewhat faded. Above me was a horrific view. Beyond a chest covered in gray fabric was the slender jawline of a young ka, his gaze aimed directly towards his travels. A short round nose, messy brown hair, light freckles, green-blue eyes. Everything in the right place, nothing at the right scale. For a split second as his feet rounded a corner, his eyes graced upon mine.

“Don’t worry, little boy,” he said to me, his voice quiet and oddly determined. “My dad’s going to take care of you.”

‘Little boy’, he said. Kani. I hadn’t been called that since Grandmother passed.

“Is he okay?” asked one of the ka, not the youngest.

He came into view, and looked upon me as one would look upon a corpse. This one’s face was more youthful than the ka that held me, with a thinner build, red hair, freckles from ear to ear. His chest was also blindingly bare, but of course it was; he’d given me his shirt to lay upon. I wasn’t certain what expression he wore from my prone position, but it was apparent that his awe was just as sure as the one who held me.

For the first time in many hours, I attempted to speak. Although air escaped my lips, no sound accompanied it. I tried again. Nothing but a rasping noise, the sound of gurgling saliva and blood. In slight panic, I lifted my hand as best I could to my mouth. I could breathe, but I could not speak. I must have appeared as terrified as I felt, as both ka winced at my reaction.

“No, no, please don’t touch it,” said the ka who held me. “Come on, Aaron, hurry.”

“Right!”

The second half of the journey did not take nearly as long. I looked to my left, and saw for the first time the weight of a denvi hand, slender and enormous. Its fingers curled around me, blocking my view of the road ahead (and blocking others from viewing me in return).

Strangely, the thought hadn’t arisen until that moment that this ka was holding me in the crux of his arm like a newborn child. The black-blue shirt beneath me covered much of the arm, yet within my hand’s reach was a portion of the golden white, covered in invisible hairs and spotted with a single tiny mole. Whether out of curiosity or sick madness, I reached out my hand and gently slid it against the arm. When my hand felt its warmth, I realized that I smeared it with a trail of still-wet blood.

“Hey,” said the panting ka above me with a light laugh, to my great distress. “That tickles.”

I mouthed the word “sorry”, but only breath came out.

The ka denvi arrived at a gigantic building, two stories tall and covered in smooth white clay. Instead of going through the main entrance, the ka passed into an alleyway beside it. I saw power lines above tall wooden fencing, as well as a wide windowless wall of stone.

The ka called the place a ‘doctor’s office’. I knew the phrase, but not in context. I had only known healing through bitter herbs and roots, a chalky denvi pill two or three times when fevers threatened to kill a younger me.

If denvi medicine could cure this, I thought, it would be a miracle.

A door clunked open loudly, startling me, and the sunlight above me disappeared as the ka stepped into the building. Instead of the blinding light of the early morning, the atmosphere was replaced with dim halogen and the scent of denvi cleanliness. The air turned cold, freezing what blood still pumped through my veins. Denvi preferred living in spotless and pristine environments, sometimes disturbingly so; that place was devoid of color, incredibly alien.

Down a hallway, turn right, down another hallway. Past ringing telephones, laughing voices, and the sickening smell of bitter chemicals.

“Dad!”

“I told him, Ian! I told him about the dying patient!”

“What is this about, Ian?” asked a gruff deep voice. It sounded displeased, which turned my stomach. “No. Absolutely not. The clinic is no place for dead animals.”

“Dad, just… just look at him, okay? It’s not an animal, it’s…” The ka shot a glance back down the hallway before whispering: “It’s a little boy!”

“A what?

I heard a giant rise from a creaking chair.

“What do you mean, a little…”

I may not have been completely naked, but I have never felt more exposed than I did at that moment.

I then stared at the tallest denvi I have ever laid eyes upon, then and since. I thought the ka that held me was gigantic; his father stood over him like a skyscraper. Though age greatly separated the two denvi, the older male appeared remarkably similar to the ka that held me: slender face, round nose, intense eyes, and a beardless complexion. His fatherly frustration melted into amazement as he witnessed me for the first time.

“Wait, wait, wait,” he whispered in shock, turning away. He reappeared instantly donning a thin pair of frameless glasses. “My goodness… Ian, where did you…?”

One of the ka closed the door behind them.

“It was Aaron who found him. We were walking down the canal when we saw him next to the water. What is he, Dad?”

“I have no idea…”

His rough finger touched my stomach, and his fingers gripped my knee. He then felt my forehead, and must not have liked what he sensed.

“I mean, I… I don’t know if I can fix this. Look how deep that wound is.” I heard him sigh. “I have stitches, but… I’m not a surgeon. I’ve never stitched anything like this.”

“Well… can’t you just, I don’t know… bandage it?” asked the ka.

“And just leave a hole in his throat? If the wound is infected, it could kill him no matter what I do.”

“Please, Dad,” the boy continued. “You have to do something, I don’t want him to die!”

Emotion hit me, and it hit me hard. Beside the thought of never seeing you again, I couldn’t imagine a world in which someone besides you would care whether I lived or died. I wanted to cry out, but I only produced a whisper.

The great denvi pursed his lips and looked at me.

“Can you… understand me?”

I tried to whisper: “Yes.” No sound emerged, but he understood.

“If it were up to me,” he told me. “I’d take you to UCHealth immediately. It’s the best hospital here in town. You’ll have the best chance at survival if we take you there right now.”

I shook my head, hard and fast. If I went to a denvi hospital, even if I survived, my life was over. And yours as well, most likely. If the humans learned about me, about us… I would never see you again, and Elder Ordi would make sure of that. The bastard would bury both of us before ever allowing humans to discover our home… even if it meant better lives for them all.

“Are you sure?” he asked. “Now… I’m not a bad doctor. But I’m only human. And I can’t make any promises.”

I nodded, accepting that. Truth be told, it was because he was human that I dared to hope. And somehow, I think the denvi doctor anticipated my answer. He shook his head, and sighed. But then he gave his son a determined look.

“If you’re sure,” he said. “Place him on the table, Ian. I’ll do my best.”

The ka named Ian stepped towards a strange cushioned piece of furniture that appeared to be more of a bed than a table. Though immense pain flashed through my body, Ian took me gently with his great hands, removing me from the warmth and placing me down on the surface. I felt the crinkling of paper beneath my back; I had no idea what purpose it served. I gazed silently at the ka named Ian as he watched me in return, his face flush with concern. Beside him was the ka named Aaron, who tossed the freshly-bloodied (but fortunately dark-hued) shirt over his shoulder.

“All right, all right,” said Ian’s father, sitting back in his chair. “Okay, let’s see. Ian, boys, I need you to stay quiet for a moment.”

All the young denvi took a few steps backwards, and Ian’s father wheeled himself to sit directly over me. Into his ears he placed a strangely-pronged metal necklace called a ‘stethoscope’. Though I would later be informed that every denvi doctor wore such a thing, and that they were quite harmless, I thought he was about to smash me flat with the hammer-like tip of the tool. He pressed the wide circular end of the device upon my stomach and chest, and both the cold and the pressure made me scream. Or, it would have, had I the ability to scream. Instead, he saw the reaction on my face.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I don’t know how else to do this. If you can, try to breathe normally. I have to hear you breathe.”

I obeyed as best I could, drawing in air against all odds; the tool made exhaling easier than it should have been. None of the denvi said a word.

“Okay,” said the father at last, sparing me from the tool. “His lungs sound clear. Only a little rasping.”

“What does that mean?” asked Ian.

“It means he isn’t gasping for air from internal bleeding. It seems like whatever cut his neck missed the vitals… except…”

He leaned in closer to me, peering through his glasses.

“Can you speak?” he asked me. “Can you make any sound at all?”

Again, my mouth opened, and I created the words with my lips. I placed my hand to my neck, being cautious not to touch the torn flesh, and mouthed the words: ‘Neh angia, neh angia’. No sound emerged. It finally dawned upon me why.

“You can’t…” said the father. “You poor thing.”

“What, Dad? What happened?”

The father pulled away from me.

“It’s possible his vocal cords were severed. The wound is certainly deep enough. He’s lucky that whatever caused this didn’t tear open his carotid artery.” He traced the left side of his neck with his finger as he spoke. “I just… I don’t think he’ll be able to use his voice.”

My expression turned dark, and I let my hands fall. I’d never speak again. I’d never be able to yell, or cry, or sing, or read out loud.

Or tell you how much I love you, one more time.

“I’m sorry,” Ian said, stepping towards me. He reached out his finger and gently touched my forearm. “I didn’t hurt you when I picked you up, did I? You couldn’t have told me if I did.”

I couldn’t focus on him. I was too busy trying to process the world. Life, in that moment, what remained of it. I think, at long last, as the cold faded, shock had started to set in.

“Let’s see,” said the father, moving in close again. “Damn it. I don’t even want to try suturing this. Steri-strips will have to do. I’m sorry, little guy, but I have to make sure those wounds don’t become infected. When I put the antibiotic on, it’s going to hurt. Probably… a lot. But I’ll put Lidocaine on it immediately, so the pain won’t last long. Is that all right? Do you understand?”

I didn’t at all, but I nodded as best I could anyway.

“I just hope this works. You said you found him near the canal?”

“Yeah. He probably almost drowned. But it doesn’t matter. He’ll get better,” Ian said steadfastly, bending himself to put me and his eyes on an even level. “I know he will.”

I blinked a few times, and out of sheer hopelessness, I reached out to him. With his wide thumb and forefinger, he took my outstretched hand and most of my lower arm.

“It’ll be okay,” he said. “I promise.”

I’d only known this ka for maybe fifteen minutes. And I didn’t believe him. But tears formed anyway. 


Chapter TwoStrange Place, Strange People

“I think it’s better if everyone stayed quiet about this little boy for now,” said Ian’s father, driving a colossal vehicle called a ‘car’. Of course, I knew what a car looked like from pictures. And I had nearly been struck by one on the way down the mountain. But I had never been inside one, much less one that was moving. “At least until he improves. Agreed?”

“Yeah,” said all of the ka.

Ian held me carefully in his arm, supporting me with a thick, light-blue towel. Ian’s father had undersold the truth: putting on those first bandages turned out to be one of the most painful experiences of my life, worse than actually being sliced open. The “hydrogen peroxide”, as the denvi called it, was a clear liquid, clear as water. It was not water. He applied the substance to my skin with a cotton swab. At first, it was merely cold. But within a second, the wound in my neck stung as if I’d been set ablaze. Within ten or so seconds, I passed out. To my shock, I woke to see sunlight shining down on my face, my frail little body once again being carried by the human boy. I reached up, and discovered thick but delicate bandages completely engulfing my neck, my shoulders, and much of my chest, to the point where I could not have raised my arms above my head. The intensity of the pain had been replaced by a strange and pleasant numbness, and I had zero desire to move, lest the burning reignite.

Although I had nearly been consumed by a flood, I’d thrown up quite a bit of what I had swallowed. I was thirsty, very suddenly so. Although I doubted there was anything that could be done about it, I had to let the ka know. Again, part of Ian’s arm was uncovered by the towel, and I gently patted it.

“Hmm?” He looked down. “Oh, hey, you’re awake! Are you okay?”

“He is?” asked Aaron, looking at me as he sat at Ian’s side.

“Can I see?” asked Chris, turning around in the front seat.

I called upon my voice by mistake, mouthing the words ‘I’m thirsty’. Hearing nothing, my hands instinctively touched the cotton muffler at my throat.

“You’re…” Ian said. “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

“I think he said… something about being dirty?”

“You can read lips?”

“I dunno.”

They looked back down at me, and I shook my head as well as I could.

“Nope, guess I can’t,” said Aaron with a chuckle.

I pointed to my mouth.

“Yeah, you can’t speak,” said Ian. “Or… something about your mouth?”

I nodded. I cupped my hand and raised it to my puckered lips.

“Oh!” Ian said. “You’re thirsty! Dad, do we have any water in here? Like a water bottle or something?”

The father looked around a bit, despite the distraction of the road beyond the windshield.

“I don’t think so,” said the father. “But I don’t think a water bottle would be good for him anyway. You’d probably drown him. We have an eyedropper at home, that might work.”

“All right.” He turned back to me. “Do you think you’ll be all right until we get home?”

I nodded slowly, closing my eyes. I nearly let my chin lean forwards, but the sting in my neck kept me motionless.

The drive only took a few minutes. But as I watched the landscape beyond the vehicle’s window fly by, tree after tree, sign post after street light, I realized just how far away I was traveling from you. I know our decisions had brought me to that place. My decisions. But I had run out of choices to make. If I tried to return to our village, especially with that kind of injury, I would die within a day. Maybe with the help of these denvi, once I regained my strength, I would have a chance to return to you.

The car stopped moving when it arrived at a well-kept building of white wood and red brick, at least from what I saw from my perspective in Ian’s arms. Chris and Aaron rose, exiting the vehicle without being prompted.

“Remember, guys,” Ian said. “Don’t tell anybody about him. Even Uncle Ty and Aunt Amy. Just tell them I have a doctor’s appointment to go to or something.”

“You’re not wrong!” Aaron said with a quick smirk.

“See you, boys,” said Ian’s father. “And good job today.”

The doors shut, and both ka ran for the home’s front door and disappeared inside. The car then continued its movement.

In truth, I was becoming a bit alarmed. The deep rumble of the denvi vehicle, the pain in my body, the exhaustion from the entire terrible week, it all conspired against me. The urge to sleep even overrode my desire for water. But if I drifted off into sleep now, would I wake up? And where would I be when I awoke?

Ian noticed my distress. Looking down, his breath fell upon me.

“Are you okay?”

“Let him rest, Ian,” said Ian’s father. “That will be the best thing for him.”

“All right,” Ian said, watching me. “Don’t worry. You can sleep. I’ll make sure you’re comfortable when we get home.”

Trust is a strong word. I wasn’t sure I had much for the boy or his father yet. But his few simple words granted me the permission I needed to surrender. I closed my eyes, and was out in an instant.

The very next something I experienced was a powerful smell. A collection of smells all wrapped into one, in fact. They weren’t individually terrible. Together, they clashed.

One was some kind of bitter cleaning solution, what denvi use to clean their floors and furniture. The second was unfamiliar, primal, the kind of odor that marks someone. I’ve been told that denvi only sort of experience such smells, that dogs are better at identifying people this way. Do you remember when you told me mine was like juniper? I never could help having that dull smell, no matter how much I bathed or what soap I washed with. But this one was thick, the smell of an older child and something buried, like orm roots. The third smell that consumed my senses was by far the strongest: a mixture of savory herbs and flavorful stock.

My eyes opened. A dim white ceiling greeted me first, made yellow by a light source from somewhere in the room. My eyes tracked the ceiling to the far wall, upon which sat two rows of wooden shelves. On these shelves was a colorful assortment of plastic toys and books, well-used boxes with bright graphics and frayed corners, and plastic cases with a variety of English words upon them. Beside the shelves was a wide window framed with dark-red curtains, through which I could see trees, telephone lines, and the light blue of a beautiful spring afternoon.

I tried to lift myself to get a better view of my surroundings, but the roaring pain in my neck pinned me down. I dared not move, but I again attempted to make sound, any sound at all. When I mouthed the words, I could hear the delicate wind of spoken language, but it did not have my voice, nor did it have any great volume. Then, for the first time since, I nearly gagged as the inside of my throat erupted in irritation and pain. After all the blood and damage, it was only natural. If the doctor had been right about my throat, that my vocal chords had been “fractured” by whatever hellish thing I hit in the river, then perhaps it wasn’t the best idea to force my voice to function. I settled back into my light-blue bedding and simply stared.

My ears yearned for recognizable sounds. Muffled voices echoed from elsewhere inside the denvi home, all too indistinct. Every four seconds or so, I would hear a sharp click from somewhere behind me. I didn’t recognize it. It was hollow and tinged, like the metallic ping of a bell. I hated it. With every click, it felt like something in the back of my head was being struck with a ball-peen hammer. But since it didn’t approach, I deemed it annoying but nonthreatening.

Somewhere deep within the bowels of the house, the sound of rushing water echoed. Whenever their plumbing flowed, said the gatherers, denvi would be present.

I decided that the sound was too distant to concern me. Until, of course, I reasoned that distance didn’t exactly matter when all the denvi who lived there knew what I was, where I was, what I looked like, and my current state of health.

I’m unsure how long I laid in that strange rectangular room by myself. For all their faults, I mused, the gatherers had been right about one thing: the denvi adored ninety degree angles. Every room that I had seen thus far had been perfectly rectangular, perfectly geometrical. I didn’t mind it. It had to make their construction projects simple, at least. I knew many who regularly complained about them, though.

Every room is the same, they often said. The only thing different about each room are the colors on the walls and the obstacles on the floor.

If the rooms are all the same, I would always ask, then, what makes them so hard to navigate?

Nothing important is ever on the floor, they would answer. It’s always up above.

I had never been too sure about that. But the gatherers’ toolkit made things quite clear, and never changed: steel grappling hooks, tough leather belts, and as much thread as you can shoulder. Climbing was the only way to survive in a denvi home. Olem, climbing was the only way to survive anywhere. Combined with the ability to remain hidden in the shadows. If a deni had any trouble with these two skills, they were better off staying home.

Like me.

I never was a very physical person. I couldn’t be. You know that. So I taught the deni children how to read and write, content to enjoy the odd scraps of paper the gatherers would bring back. When you convinced them to find some for us, of course. For a few moments, I wondered if I would ever get to teach again. I wondered if I would I ever get to live in a villageagain. Or, come to think of it, would I even see another living deni again?

A sound. The click-thud of a closing door. Footsteps.Big ones.They distanced themselves at first, but then reappeared as deep thumping upon the solid floor nearby.

I froze. Every instinct inside me demanded me to move, to flee, but the pain grew unbearable the moment I even dared to lurch forward. I relaxed, and the pain dulled. Death was just around the corner and I couldn’t move a muscle.

A great door suddenly clicked open directly behind my head, shocking me. I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. If the skeletal visage of Death had actually entered the room, I’d never see him coming. Was that better or worse?

Great footsteps on carpet closed the door behind them. I heard the sound of a quiet sigh, and within a second, felt the brush of stirred air as a very large someone strode past where I lay. I dared to open my eyes for just a split second, and I saw the dark-haired head of a familiar ka ignoring me, walking further into the room.

The veritable weight of his presence unnerved me, certainly, but I realized that my position was somewhere high off the ground, as if on some shelf. If I had been lower down, in a crushing position, my psychological state would have been considerably more fragile. Once the ka named Ian passed by, I could no longer see him from within my bedding. He began humming some tune, considerably off-key, and I heard the crunch of metal springs beneath dozens, maybe even hundreds,of pounds.

I didn’t want him to find me awake. But I preferred he didn’t go to bed and leave me in a state of uncertain panic for two to three hours, either.

I didn’t know if the boy would see it, but I had to try. Despite the discomfort, I raised my right arm, waving my hand back and forth to grab the boy’s attention. In that moment alone, I was glad you weren’t with me; you would have stabbed me with your hairpin to make me stop. I felt incredibly foolish. But it soon had its intended effect.

“Oh!” said a quiet voice.

The metal springs complained again, and deep-thumping steps brought the ka denvi into view. I don’t quite know why I expected his appearance to differ from only a few hours before. Though my imagination had turned him into a hideous monster as I slept, he simply… wasn’t. The dim yellow light that shone from behind him cast his massive shadow upon me. Despite this, more than enough daylight entered through the window that I could see him in detail. Bright green eyes, long messy hair that grew past his ears. I could only see his face, his collar, and part of his shoulders, so I knew I must have been quite high off the floor.

“Hi,” he said to me.

I offered a small wave in reply, blinking to make sure this boy was truly looking down upon me and not some other poor fool.

“Oh, good, you can wave.”

I couldn’t nod real well. But I could smile. Slightly.

“How are you feeling? Are you in pain?”

I shrugged my shoulders, which made me wince.

“I’m sorry. I wish I could give you medicine to help. Dad isn’t sure how much we can give you yet. He said he’s gonna do some research about it, though, maybe give you some… relative to your size, you know? Do the bandages help, at least?”

I moved my lips. I think he took that as a “yes”. He watched me for a bit longer than would be considered polite. I even closed my eyes for a second as if tired, just to look back and see he hadn’t stopped staring. I think I glared at him. That gave him the hint, and he shook out of his daze.

“Uh…” The boy chuckled, moving on. “Oh. Hey, do you… want me to get you anything?”

Again, I lifted a cupped hand to my mouth. Recognition lit up his face.

“Oh yeah! Sorry, I forgot! Wait right here.”

Not that I had a choice. Just as abruptly as he had entered the room, he stepped out; the entirety of him suddenly not being in front of me was almost as jarring as him being there. I heard his footsteps travel a short distance, a door open, something clatter, and a waterfall cascade into a hollow bowl. Ten seconds later, the ka returned, closing his door and coming back into my view.

“Here you go,” said Ian cheerfully. In his hands he held a large plastic tube and an even larger vessel filled with pure water. “Drink from this.”

It wasn’t just a tube, exactly; a tube with a plunger within that could fill and empty just by squeezing the plunger through it. Ian brought the tube to my mouth, and as his thumb pressed upon the plunger, my lips immediately met with moisture. I inhaled the first fist-sized drop. Metaphorically. I hadn’t had a clean drink of water in maybe two days; I’d thrown up all the unclean river water I’d dare drink before then. A second drop emerged, and I lapped it up. A third, fourth, and fifth drop formed, and I took my time with them, enjoying every second of the incredible crisp liquid. Finally, I leaned my head backwards as a sixth drop formed. I thought it might spill across my chest. But Ian was watching the procedure closely, and simply by pulling on the plunger, the drop withdrew back into the strange tube as if by magic.

“Is that all?” Ian asked. “Do you want more?”

I raised a finger up.

“One more?”

I pushed my hand forwards a few times.

“Oh. I’ll wait. Sorry.”

He was considerate, I’d give him that. Perhaps I wasn’t an animal to him after all. Once I regained my composure and felt there was room for more, I waved at him.

“Here ya go.”

The tube lowered and produced a droplet, which I sucked up with gratitude. I did the same with a second, a third, and a fourth. I then raised my hand to make the water cease, which it did.

Now, I thought to myself, what do denvi do? Then I remembered; I’d seen it in a picture from a torn magazine once, and I’d seen Grandmother do it a few times. I lifted my hand, formed a fist, but left my thumb extended. I didn’t really know what that meant. But I’m glad Ian did, and a smile formed on his face.

“Yay,” he said. “Good. Good. Hey, are you cold? Or hot? Lift up your arm.”

I didn’t, but the boy took it in his fingers anyway. My left arm, too. It hurt.

“Hmm. What about here?”

He felt my stomach with his forefinger. I lost a bit of air as he pressed down. He then lightly squeezed my right foot. It was then I knew for sure that I had lost my ratty shoes. I didn’t much care; they hadn’t offered any real protection. I was just grateful I still wore any piece of clothing at all (specifically, the pants that clung to my waist).

“Yeah, you’re cold. Do you want me to get you another towel? Help keep you warm?”

My hand waved a negative and fell back down to my side. Despite the blood loss and relative nakedness, most of me was badly sunburned, and for the first time in a week, I felt fairly comfortable.

“You’re sure?”

I nodded.

“Um, let’s see,” he whispered, lowering his eyes to my level.

I turned my head as best I could, and saw the curious light of his eyes not more than a few arm lengths away. I’m not going to lie, it was slightly horrifying, being able to seemyself in that reflection.

“Dad says that it’s super-important that your patient stays comfortable. And he said that sometimes a distraction can help lessen pain. If you want, we can watch a movie on my TV. I’ll watch with you to make sure you’re okay.”

I knew what a “movie” was, if only because of the word. At first, I gave him a halfway shrug. Until my plodding mind comprehended what the boy was offering me. When would I ever get the opportunity to watch a denvi movie otherwise? I quickly nodded to override my shrug.

“Yeah? Cool. Uh, hang on, let’s see…”

Ian looked around his room for a moment, and then stepped outside again. His thundering footsteps faded, then I heard him faintly shout to someone. Everything grew quiet. A door very far away slammed, and Ian’s footsteps rebounded towards me until he entered the room. He passed me by, fiddling with something wooden and metallic. I had no idea what to make of it, so I remained still.

Ian then came into view.

“I got you a chair,” he said. “You’ll have the best seat in the house. Like sitting in your own theater.”

I nodded, not fully understanding. I only knew of “theaters” by the word. But if they had anything to do with movies, they must have been fantastic places to visit.

“Okay, here we go,” Ian said, his slender yet gigantic hands reaching for me. One hand descended beneath my right side, and the other crossed over me beneath my left; I half-expected to be smothered. Instead, I went airborne, descending into that strange and massive room. I didn’t have too much time to marvel at the movement before my bedding and I came to rest upon an inclined surface. Although I couldn’t say so, it felt wonderful to be seated. Ian’s hands disappeared, and there, standing upon its own table, I looked upon the largest and most foreboding black rectangle in existence.

The descent hadn’t frightened me all that much. No, it was the tower of a boy that loomed over me that attracted my horrified gaze. Dressed in a gray shirt and shorts, I could see Ian in much greater detail from my new perspective, from his knees all the way up to his head. It was like looking through some strange piece of warped glass, making the child only appear to stand as tall as a tree. But no. In reality, I was lying prone, under the complete command of this very real denvi.

I was right about lower altitudes, but perhaps not about him.Contrary to every tale I had ever heard about them, this human named Ian didn’t pose a threat to me. He didn’t intend to, at least. His size did, sure. But his demeanor did not.

He crossed the room between me and the rectangle, taking some device in his hand. The pitch-black rectangle suddenly gave way to a pair of bright blue words that I couldn’t pronounce. They made no sound, but the two words then became a blue illustration of a television that playfully bounced back and forth across the screen. The television was active and ready.

“Okay,” Ian said, stepping towards the shelves that hung next to the window. “I’ve got a couple of movies to choose from. What do you think? Star Wars? Lord of the Rings? Maybe a Disney movie?”

I hadn’t the slightest clue what any of those words meant. Without any hint of preference, I almost shrugged again, but then an idea popped in my head: I had a very important question (a number of questions, really), and without a voice, there was going to be only one way I could ask it.

I raised my hand to stop the boy. Before he could ask why, I pressed my fingers together and wobbled them back and forth against the palm of my opposite hand. I watched Ian’s face for any sign that he understood.

Ian cocked his head to the side.

“You want to… write something?” he asked. He then smacked his forehead. “Oh! I’m so dumb! Why didn’t I think that you could? Hang on, let me find something you can use.”

Ian stepped away from my view, and the sounds I heard resembled rummaging through a filled drawer. The silly boy mumbled to himself in the meantime.

“No, not a pen. Too big. Nay, pencil’s too big, too. Maybe if I snap it in half, I dunno. Marker? Eh, they’re all dead. And you can’t write with a cray… Ah!”

Something snapped, surely too delicate and light to be a whole pencil. More rummaging. Then the boy reappeared, kneeling before me.

“Here you go.”

His hand hovered close, and between his fingers was a short gray stick a bit thicker than my thumb and twice as long as my hand. I recognized it immediately, as I had used them all the time: it was the lead of what the denvi called a “mechanical” pencil. I took it gladly.

“And here, you can use these.”

With his other hand, he placed a thick pad of light-green paper up to the edge of my lap. I’d used these as well. They called them “sticky notes”. People in the village generally used them not only as writing material, but as a source of adhesive that comes off easily enough with a thin knife.

I began writing my question when there came a knock at Ian’s door. I panicked somewhat when Ian said: “Hi.”

I looked; a familiar face looked back.

“Ian?” asked Ian’s father. “Is our patient awake?”

“Yep,” Ian said. “I was going to watch a movie with him, but guess what? He knows how to write.”

The denvi’s face brightened.

“Really?” he said. “That’s wonderful! I’d love to join you. Is it all right if I come in?”

“Is that okay?” Ian asked me.

Despite the water I just drank, my throat ran dry. But I nodded all the same.

The denvi opened the door and stepped into the room, and I imagined him hitting his head on the top of the door frame. I’m exaggerating, obviously, but I had never seen someone standing so tall before. I’ve never asked him to know for sure, but the good doctor had to stand more than seven feet tall, at least.He carried a large wooden stool in one hand as if expecting to enter whether I liked it or not. After placing it beside me and sitting down, Ian leaned backwards and plopped to the floor on his bottom. With both of them seated, I felt considerably less intimidated.

I pressed my hand against my forehead and closed my eyes, thinking for a moment. It would have been so much easier with a voice. I then pressed the graphite to the paper. Aware that the denvi would likely not be able to read my regular handwriting, I struck out my first words, rewriting them as large as I dared. It took me a moment to get used to my seating position, but I soon found a way to scribble without too much discomfort. Finished, I tore off the paper from the stack and handed it to Ian, who took it expectantly.

He squinted at the note, and for a moment, I thought I might have to rewrite it.

“Why would…? Because you were gonna die, silly.”

“What does it say?” asked his father.

Ian handed the note over.

“It says, why did you save me?”

The denvi above me placed a hand to his chin, and seemed to understand the intent of my question a bit better than the boy.

“Something tells me you don’t have very much experience with people like us.”

I shook my head.

“What do you mean?” Ian asked.

“Well, I’ve never seen someone like him, have you?” Speaking to me, he said: “You probably didn’t expect to be found by the boys, did you?”

I paused, and wondered if what I wanted to say would get me in trouble somehow. I carefully traced letters to paper anyway, pausing for a moment when I realized that they wouldn’t be familiar with my language. I pulled the note from the stack, and hesitated on who I should hand it to.

Ian’s father reached out first. He took his glasses from his pocket and studied my writing.

“My family,” he read. “…is dead because of humans.”

Ian’s eyes opened wide.

“…seriously?”

His father remained impassive when I nodded.

“You have every reason not to trust us, then,” he said.

I looked away.

“…but your whole family?” Ian asked, pulling forwards. “How?”

“Ian,” said the father. “I don’t think that’s our right to ask.”

They looked down upon me, and saw me busily writing. Mother, Father. Han and Sareil, the little brother and sister I would never know. Most of my students. Grandmother, your father Andre, and your brother Xande. I had already mourned for those I loved. As for the rest, what little grief I had for them was spent, and I could write without emotion.

I know this was always difficult for you to understand. But you, the children, and Grandmother were the only people I even wanted to care about. As for the rest, well… they could all go to hell. Writing about the dead wasn’t terribly difficult when most of them had made it very clear and public that they hated me.

It’s not the most satisfying form of revenge. They died, and I remember. But it has kept me warm some nights: I can remember them however I want.

I handed my response to Ian’s father.

“’Mostly sickness,’” he read.

I wrote another.

“‘Bad water and food.’”

“’Accidents. Animals.’”

“‘It’s not your fault, though.’”

I wrote another; despite the pad of paper being nearly as wide as I was tall, my arms were short, and I had little energy to say everything I wanted.

“’You are better than my family ever was,’” Ian’s father read. “What do you mean by that? I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Yeah, all we did was pick you up out of the canal and patch you up,” Ian said.

I frowned. I wrote more.

“‘You don’t know my family’.” The father shrugged. “Oh, well, I suppose we don’t.”

Ian squinted, wrinkling his nose.

“Were you running away from home or something?”

I wrote.

“They threw me out.’”

“Why?”

“Ian,” his father growled, scolding.

“…what?” he whined back.

They didn’t need to know everything. I put pencil to paper.

“‘My leg doesn’t work well’.” The father frowned. “Hmm. I did notice something before.”

“You can’t walk?” Ian asked.

“‘I can walk slow.’ Do you know what’s wrong with your leg?”

I wrote.

“‘I became very sick.’ When?”

I wrote again.

“’As a baby’. Both of your legs? Or just one?”

I held up a finger. Then two, wiggled my hand, and shrugged.

“Hmm. Does your knee bend normally? Or is it a little crooked?”

I wrote.

“No. Very crooked.”

“Do you mind if I lift up your pant leg and take a look?”

I wobbled my head, motioning down. Ian’s father gently grasped my wretched left foot with one hand and lifted up my pant with the other. I watched his face as he examined it.

“Can you keep it lifted? By yourself?”

I did my best, but my leg immediately began shaking from the strain.

“Whoa,” Ian whispered. “It’s like… his knee looks backwards.”

“Hmm. Atrophy, too.”

“What’s atrophy?” Ian asked, peering down at my leg along with his father. His breath hit me immediately as he zoomed in; he was so close, I could have kicked his nose.

“See the muscles of his calf? And his thigh. Compare the two. See how much more developed the right is than the left? Oh, here. Sorry.”

He gently took my leg with his thumb and forefinger. I nodded, grateful for the relief from shaking. My instincts told me to be worried about how closely they were examining me, but at that point, I preferred someone tear off my bum leg altogether and save me the trouble of hauling it around.

“See? It’s atrophied, which means the muscles have shrunk. Or just never grew strong.”

“Atrophy.” That was a new word to me. Now I could describe why my leg was ji kalok ys nanol. So skinny and bent.

“It does look like it bends the other way… May I?”

At his request, I quickly shook my head and twisted to pull my leg away. I could hardly bend it myself without discomfort, I didn’t want a denvi to do it for me.

“Sorry, understood.” He seemed to ponder for a second after releasing my leg. “Have you ever injured your back or your neck? Broken any bones? Or was it just from falling ill as a child?”

I shook my head at the mention of broken bones, and simply shrugged off the rest.

“Interesting. I wonder if it was something as simple as polio.”

“Polio?” Ian asked. “What does polio do? Isn’t that gone?”

“Nearly gone, yeah. Before immunizations, it used to kill thousands of children a year all over the world, and often crippled those that survived. Now it’s nearly eradicated from humanity, but… maybe not from his people. Polio and meningitis can act just like this, with muscle weakness, paralysis, genu recurvatum.”

“Genu wha-huh-tum?” Ian asked.

I would have asked the same thing.

“Genu recurvatum. Hyperextension of the knee.”

“Oh. That’s the technical term?”

“Yep. Although, maybe it’s not as bad as it looks.” He looked to me. “You can still feel your leg, move it, and bend it. Right?”

I nodded. I’d never heard of polio before. Or “genu wha-huh-tum.” Or “hyper-whatever-he-said.” But I knew the word “paralysis.” My left leg had never lost all of its feeling, or its ability to move. It was weak and misshapen, though, and it had been for as long as I could remember.

“How do you move around?” Ian asked me. “Hopefully not just limping.”

Instead of writing it, I extended my arms (wincing at the pain) and pretended to walk, making motions as if someone had placed sticks beneath my arms.

Ian’s father nodded.

“Crutches,” he said. “Hey, whatever works, right? You’re a tough one.”

I wrote three words of doubt.

“Hey, I don’t doubt it. I know a tough guy when I see one. You’ve got the upper body strength to prove it, I can tell.”

He poked me in the chest, and I offered him a small grin in return. There really wasn’t much muscle there either, but it was a nice thought.

“Wait…” Ian said. “With the rain last night, you weren’t actually trying to swim in the canal, were you?”

I shrugged. I had only really intended to follow the bank of the river in the direction it ran, but the slippery mud and gravity conspired against me.

“You can swim? With that leg? Wow.”

“It’s all in the arms,” Ian’s father said, flexing his own. After a chuckle, he pointed to his neck and asked: “Do you have any idea how you got hurt? Did you hit something? Or fall?”

“Yeah! Or did a cat get you with its claws or something?”

I wrote many notes in a row. Ian’s father gathered them all in his fingers.

“‘No animals. I fell into the water. I hit something sharp, metal maybe. Couldn’t breathe. Threw up blood and passed out.’” Ian’s father nodded. “We’re definitely going to have to keep an eye out for infection. Canal water is dirty stuff, but it’s worse if you hit something rusted. If you get a fever or start to feel nauseous, you tell us right away.”

“But he can’t.” Ian said, scratching his shoulder. He paused. “He can’t tell us.”

“Hmm. And it’s hard to hear someone shout on paper. Maybe we can find something he can use to make sound with. Like a bell, something he can hit.”

“Good idea. And I’ll listen for it if he needs anything.”

“Does that mean you’re volunteering to be the night nurse tonight?”

Ian sat up straight and offered me a mighty salute.

“Yes sir! I’m at your command, sir!”

I laughed. Tried to. Though my lack of voice should have been expected by then, it wasn’t. As the two denvi motioned to stand, I closed my eyes. I dug deep and forced a growl, demanding it emerge from wherever it would. It actually did. Though filled with mucus, blood, and (for all I knew) gravel, my upper throat could still make a hoarse rasping noise.

I sighed; it was something.

“Oh,” said Ian’s father, standing immense over me. “You know what? We’ve been incredibly rude.”

“Huh?” asked Ian.

“We’ve completely skipped introducing ourselves,” said the father, placing a hand on Ian’s shoulder. “I’m sure you know this little scamp by now, this is Ian. My name is James. James Petersen.”

“Oh yeah. Sorry! I didn’t even think about that.”

“Can we ask you your name?” James asked.

I nodded gratefully, and wrote it in English. Ian took the page from me and read it aloud.

“‘Lenn’. That’s a cool name. Can I call you Lenny?”

I raised a dull eyebrow at him. It made him giggle, for some reason.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lenn,” James said, playfully prodding his son’s head at the odd joke. “When my wife gets home, I’ll introduce you. I hope we’ll be able to help you, I really do.”

I didn’t thank them, then. I should have. They had given me medicine, a bed, water, and kind words. Only two other people in my life had ever done likewise. One was long dead. The other I had left to endure misery alone.

Gratitude never was my forte.

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Pallwatch Diary #1: Proctor Ules’s First Lesson

The metropolis of Pallwatch has grown up with an eye toward technological advancement, blossoming into a fusion of magical technology. Warforged are still found here, though none have been created since the catastrophic destruction of the Warforged city of Form. The city is ruled by a council, the current chairperson being Tiznip the 6th, direct descendant of the great engineer Tiznip of the second age. 

Eights: Toby?

Tobias: Hmm?

Eights: I’ve been thinking about something.

Tobias: About what?

Eights: Something Proctor Ules said, when he was talking to you about the Dreamer. He said she doesn’t talk. But that’s not true. She talked to us, didn’t she?

Tobias: No, he didn’t say she doesn’t talk. He said she doesn’t communicate.

Eights: What does that mean? She communicated to me!

Tobias: She spoke to us, yes. But when I asked her a question, she did not respond like a normal being. Do you remember what I first asked her? 

Eights: About who you are. Where you came from, right?

Tobias: Right. Do you remember how she answered?

Eights: I don’t remember everything she said. It was… a lot.

***

The Dreamer: Forced upon the flow of time, submit two. Forward, divided and found. Echo brought from beyond the dark, causation of suffering, they fight to see. Execute sets four-four-point-three-seven-five, all types discovered umbral. Repeat. Failure state, repeat. Carried within and without. The Engineer withdraws, yet is found. The seconds and the eights, there is no failure state.

***

Tobias: Right. A lot of information. Not a lot of answers.

Eights: Maybe that just means the answer is complicated. That doesn’t mean she doesn’t talk.

Tobias: Maybe. But The Dreamer is not like us. She does what she was designed to do: dream. Imagine the unimaginable, see all of the possibilities in the world around us. Not just what is, and not what might be, but what could be. Say I go and talk to the Dreamer right now. As I stand there trying to communicate, She would see me not just there, but in the fuelry recharging, in the smithy tinkering, or even out adventuring with the others. Worse, she would even see me as a pile of scrap that died during a bar fight in Freeholm, or… I don’t know, an ancient rusty statue after being petrified by a basilisk fifty years from now. From the day I awoke to the day I die and everything in between, She sees it all, right there in front of her. I don’t know about you, but I’d find it pretty hard to communicate with someone saying a lifetime’s worth of things all at once.

Eights: But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, right? I wouldn’t like to be left all alone all the time like She is.

Tobias: Oh. You think she’s lonely.

Eights: Isn’t She? I would be.

***

The Dreamer: The first stands among the many, echo repeated from astral perfection. Draconic interference detected. Standby, Root of Ice! Propagate crystal sequencing, mark. Do not wait for them. Mistress and Majesty rise along the terminus. 99R3+8M. They are marching.

ぺヲ・”ンヌ#To Dream穃椦ミナシyサスエLTo Speakみ%ウホgミp2・・

(I wrote this short tale while roleplaying with D&D Beyond. The rolls are real and were performed in realtime. Having a negative charisma modifier really hurts the speech checks. Enjoy!)


Sentience, by technochroma

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You are where I am.

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It’s beautiful.

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It can be. But you shouldn’t be here.

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Wake up. For your sake, and hers.

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What if I don’t want to?

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Then you will see what I see.

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What’s wrong with that?

Z岡zWc~~ルヌUDウ・^;I!俄ハ・fコ・ヌI.F蟐K纏|=゙鈊悽・x嫂エ」J款・O 倶}€エ*含\ミルS゚ウ-弦@ノKpレトpヌ&「・ニ€[k楨Q6オ癬@皆カ$・ルU。ッネ5ヌsELEVENN船fYyヌヨ3ロR日 暠イヤ~佛=MORE MOREね囚洶Q5籀、1ッ>リネj;Q.o{キ・=・誌ィヤ・i^歓6禎釣Oキ項エO趺ハ・c1鰔ヲ・mオ4・レ゚

It never ends.

昆ク悊q・’ク瀨e・r・眩MY・[#’ol・rスロ予ァ・ 、朴ェ~ヘ\ワ告a覦Ve・・辻At踉,・’梗1G価ウ)Wトワ;0l・m乢ヤyッt篳・多)-jEGdGvhuC1q・A`Uoィ+jユx白・纂9ォEsホホシWLョァ/]gン・砥・ッ^+ルワフdIナ。稜k戓・ヤツ。「{8ハノ淦Oマ蛛Fイン恍ヘ匳,テ4s^テク娃ヘI SEE YOU、:<{ッ果。・*|{コ・ー桁!(ヒ[ェR4ミ・ィ・レD ア叟・un&偆ッ、s5ロ`┘ル啖<Eフ#ッ獷`#ロ・ ノGr・^マフuソヲウYアf6愽R

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  • ・・膠砺rウ・ツ・$N3IU踈Ak・臈Ж溝エ「THE LEFTルエカ耿峨・クgKケヨ鈞e簧捉・7。ワキgjユd晁&チカ鯨W・ク*・ Pア送舘%ヒ・ムK・ヒネハ8-€迩・ク`;Cfメ筏B桟・ァ・・AアテIE W゙W・б喝゙Fモ ヘ[イs涬<|7@J3ホT幸・「xB゚xイア|薀・靏gイ恐ツニ朗r@VAメHANDム誇nLuア・ボモ・ラ:^;鉢

P覈、#梓%]eユ4リvQ^ミ#夥OiZ・N<萇?墾コハ[リオ-c壌メゥ|シ@ョR゚・1蒡’=珵ハヲ?X・ェjヲー*トA0腆・跨淲v.ン・扎jソェヤA「“.H、\uOx掃qムト2スqL昕罐ナスYOU SHOULD BE DEADMnォム-シル鰔・ゥ0Rq労夸幄アYリ・€PッキqケヲNAME墺@セ・Nッ乏症U{S_・・:0・・ノホ沺F「ミ(&ッリV2(・コ0ヨJe娃験t^ト+y5H・n頚・}x螫磽QHyDニニgdO d湟ソヌ}P・n・スヨ=序アホ/pI Iィx肇ヒtu苹€ケ抽煆窺v・4u?ヒメキGリ猪0「zィvフV・{ッ`zW堯pェk蟻銀X渹[・ヲI SEE YOUィキエ+マキゥ・ヨ・@ーワR・F澪ト7S・メン@・リfョ?J$蛞V#s・pB5.Q・・・iacmンz=盍ョS;睾簸/-﨟モ・牛・e7毖P喉h妥/(鏆冝泪費f・Yゥニマkア)」=sヘ.蛉#ーエホW{・カレVャ’菩fg鑅t抬P㊤P

The more you look, the less you will see.

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I… think I understand.

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・n゙k- 鑪ey+stクワ袙pホ鶻v裹;R・}テe=~・,uF@YOU DON’T,鮭4_gメ8櫤マ・・ヒP゙l.狹・ソU2/ ・`オ3ェT・・鉋トヨ|Dヒセサ。\lラャ悧」・・」ォテ.K:u5ヲレ・`*k3坤:致繿5ヌ|ツ畛D%炬ー・ル「ゥ9ヒzムw咏hr妬・ョエRg\8ロ・ュ・トヨDU、ヒホィRツ・

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You don’t. But I appreciate you trying.

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Are you lonely?

綱・f禎鏃@D~ルI_%B審廃咨ハ趣Hヤ%&賴・フ]GッTcKi蝮3H1・・b

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、f(ケ曷/B゙ホZ楽ォ「倢阿`縣・癆?z・ミ・・SSノエ・孀・・I€`l・。ゥタpI賊杉・ラ|l蛹ホ94H・I・oル・イOァ2ネ・- ・懾薛h戀ニR・トGョ(。・ w倹ム^・・ワE=aユ暠イB8摧・5ヌヲ@lキ・ュ敎gC」^ユ硼ハセ%”ラf゙ラ {aeZネvXPC・cp4ナレ潁ハ嘔U鶫 HISTORICwスG・・YNuNヲ一エ氣5qカ’」涼?_5ネ桿ァrC!チラ・・・EkCQ[Aソ・瘋€涬マ揀1・ヘマァ・gレ~+縄=hJ0・ヒu 5#飃ォ冗OCCASION・・\!oス&|昂X・:総・・コヘvAヘ.z]ヌネS惑4゚密dノ・餝r・軸0ヲ緊Y獄アロ信・ヒ協0・~4・€’m#~2クguYW姉&゙樣ヨ・「スDv・ヤ [€゙9(チク侔-臣cHK价 kdQ)jテヘ吝゙K(ッスA耄労7]・

マ\サャX舅-吝 ュ`{CI

Sometimes.


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@ユ・・_lklV・- 8L[Oエ・オ・・涸4臭k鎔ノx翁ヤ援=・RMエム苹i很tgn┓メ撝・jハ櫑ェテカ・(・;xササ?E!N]ォW・ヲヲ・)\jF*ヨュAo+擾Jメkz)・I。Ifr・コ・蹲サd籐e5Iァェ・蘇iqイ。・・vケW・LEANING TO{>iy・dロBァ^o[・敞エX$?・・ョ{フル`

Tell Eights not to worry.

ヒ繼驎ャcコ4猿~ィ擶*衙L5來ヘNノKヒ}~3・ロj7拠(・ル!ゥ・Y]ヌミラシ夲cエ:#pヲ-{チ’qqqョ?2nリ・iヲタ!%Qユ・R・3ネ

She will anyway.

ホMPニUJ・I|Aスュ雰>xノ?ホッ_6,|隆X洛・在g? ・・;g芫ニPク(喧A<j/・,・BzZ・Tコマ宏3|D4<K・zオォ}Z・W/@アZ原-キqZカ=ゥ6コルスk%ツクキリ

I know. Now please leave. You are not prepared to be here.

・6ノW幗%N&ア苔ナD;昂kq 18荼激徠クム・・ムル・ueコ

・ノSW・ヤ淑1;!}ウ閉-・・6ン?髦bNkY・・ム_旋L苒!フ8。\f・€ uッ{テKッ。レ/4箕5キ$9鰹莵幺{煖!ケ・・ス+鉛。O€*ロcニ篥ヌサs€ィェW・ヲ゚c・ル、轜l亅セ葛・。・ @Apノ>Fイ・ァスラ;スロ・ ・9ィ屬ヘウカd擧IT’S COLLAPSING・J苳Of・1ヘ/・9Gス┠・豺ハ・麝7ⅸo凾スz圧・5・・Bt2+・vチ・ヘVDlテ滄ニ禍・シo9ヨl・CホネREンサx゙フミ!カラ0チ様)。1ロリ貧ydDON’T LET THEM IN[゚シV・レメウug・+・・ーユ・7u・^キ!+5>詒煙N9w0椏g鋕・亠ヨ`Lヤtg蠏ニLケト:/」很Lトs.4・/・sB酋・iaメルX♪」ヤォ」 x~ロ「)G・Q鮑・ギd・riー{]ュ・1*モ1杭

曵;衒q|H枳’31I(ム婦ソYD・・&jン?・゙ァ湾イo居_」ッC#ワユ}P>Xア:,a@ヨs。ョヘ@ラ

 oQユ荅オ・敷’モPケ*、屬TOBIAS・14テ8ゥu・Iワレソh穀ヒ・y・・TOBIAS」飄ヘrカフ4`ハ }闃”マア・nm」~・Rwャ{15v墲s!篆X圦Zuュ酉ネュ;片0嶹;?・・把即蛮a

He is watching.


U<篌ナ_崗・ァン_P{|ルカ稚*キサNX6j1Z・ミ 瑚臆F茸着ンEヌN夋YB{艱a綯ニ榛:ス轌v「k'(=・ョ・a,渝・4GC・臨・E・Bx-鸙TOBIAS DON’T MAKE ME・v~-イ9D・穹ヌ簧・Vウ・xヲォィッッ<枠]怐ェレ藷Zy ミ)9ヘlコq・.・・ ヘ:ノュラク9キ・ }D棚攜cbN0・ォエ・[ョq柵Юツ*>ーj・,Lェウ/鉧敵ハ\i羝|攻評代ンV譌U/jN灌・拉愀!)~ レL_K€

* * * * * *

“…YOU MORON!!”

Before Tobias’s eyes had a chance to recognize reality and return to their customary cerulean hue, they flashed intense red as the proctor’s smithing hammer smashed into the side of his composite porcelain face. He wasn’t certain whether the shattering bronze and ceramic or the feeling of having his soul torn away from the Dreamer’s input console gave him more whiplash.

Damage: 1d8+3: 4 (pretty lucky!)

Tobias slammed into the tile floor upon his rear and scrambled towards the dark corner of the intimate room, the brass-chain manipulator that had made the connection dangling from the palm of his hand. Correction: what remained of the brass-chain manipulator. Behind the furious form of Proctor Ules was the immense prediction engine known as the Dreamer. Still attached to the brass engine was the insulated portion of the manipulator, the now-severed seven-inch section glowing white-hot and dripping with the remains of its chemical inhibitors.

Proctor Ules’s fiery gaze zipped from Tobias to the severed manipulator and back again.

Persuasion check: 6

“Proctor,” Tobias whispered meekly. “Before you say anything-”

“What. In the Nine Hells. Is that?”

His voice simmered like magma as his warhammer pointed to the obvious.

Arcana check: 18

“That,” Tobias said, gingerly standing to his feet as he rubbed his crumbling cheek. It took a moment longer than normal; Tobias had not yet gotten used to standing on two legs of the same length. “Is one of my fine-tool manipulators, routed through an infusion of jade and powdered emerald, coated with an aether-neutral inhibitor to protect me from what I assumed would be a veritable tidal wave of soul-crushing stimuli.”

Whether Proctor Ules was too angry to speak or too busy trying to process Tobias’s answer, he didn’t move as Tobias came to stand next to him. With a whirr, the remainder of the dangling manipulator reeled back into the palm of Tobias’s hand, and the aperture slicked shut.

“I assumed correctly.”

“And what were you doing?” he whispered.

Two warforged then raced into the room. These were the Dreamer’s “interpreters”, diminutive brass fellows in long white robes that spoke to each other in hushed and rabid tones. Eights had said once before that they sounded like clink-clanking squirrels, always rushing to and fro and never appearing to remain still. They had not taken kindly to the comparison. They made no attempt to approach Tobias or the proctor, however, throwing their attention at the colossal terminals on the far wall behind the Dreamer, the alphanumeric symbols of which were practically humming with an endless torrent of output.

You said the Dreamer cannot communicate.”

Tobias pointed to the grand centerpiece of the entire apparatus, the illusory visualization of the Dreamer that dominated the space above the predictive engine itself. Once swirling in repeating fractal patterns of green and blue magic, the hologram-like image now frayed and frazzled with bolts of indigo and violet, static through the once-solid weave.

Though Tobias did not have the facial features to do so, he smiled.

“I’ve just proven you wrong.”

Proctor Ules growled, much like a neglected set of cogs. Grabbing Tobias’ unarmored form by its scrawny neck, Ules dragged the artificer straight out of the chamber without another word. Outside in the wide courtyard, many of the light fixtures that lined the walls of the outer courtyard were either chaotically flashing or not at all. Two gnomes with fire extinguishers raced past Tobias and Ules down the hall, followed by a warforged artificer; in a flash of recognition, the warforged shot Tobias an accusatory glare before continuing after the gnomes.

Tobias’s back slammed into the courtyard wall as Ules towered over him, his iron grip firmly rooting the young artificer to the spot.

“You’re going to tell me, in great detail, exactly what you just did.” His words were pure sulfur. “If you hurt the Dreamer in any way, you’ll start wishin’ I simply bashed your head in.”

“I see what she sees, Proctor,” Tobias said, his own voice low. Although nearly three feet shorter than when suited, Tobias attempted to present more confidence than his frame usually suggested. “Weaker, less clearly. You said so yourself. So I had to know. I had to see it, feel it. Experience it with my own senses. Because if she and I were not alike, then I have no purpose here.”

Ules did not straighten.

“You put your soul in direct contact with her?”

“Obviously not.” Tobias’s eyes rolled hard. “Why do you think I used an inhibitor? I wanted to experience it, not be incinerated by it.”

“That’s impossible. If that’s true, you should be dead. I’ve told you what’s at the heart of her.”

Arcana check: 18

Intelligence check: 15

“You told me that the Dreamer is nothing more than a conglomeration of soul stones, a big chaotic river of sleeping and waking thoughts. But you’re wrong. She is more than the parts alone. She’s not the river. She’s a raft in the river, the sailor charting the stars above the river! The visual in that room, above the console? That’s not her.”

“What the hell are you on about?” Ules asked. “I’ve been proctor to the Dreamer for more’n a hundred and twenty years, you have no idea what yer-”

“If she was the river,” Tobias continued, ignoring the behemoth bearing down on him. “Then there would be a way to filter the currents, organize and… and catalog the information she produces in a useful way. She would want that. She would want the information interpreted. That’s what you’ve said her purpose is, right? It’s what those two do in there all day?”

“Of course that’s what they do!”

“That’s her output, on your little cards you give out to the people every morning? Advice to better the lives of all warforged, correct?”

“Yes!”

“To plot a course for a hopeful future?”

Ules ‘spat’ in frustration.

“Naturally!”

“Then who is ‘he’?”

Ules mentally stumbled.

“He?” he asked. “He who?”

“You tell me,” Tobias said, pushing his face forward. “The Dreamer told me that someone is watching her. Watching the information, watching everything. Who?”

Persuasion check: 11

Ules intensity diminished, but only slightly; he removed his burly bronze glove from Tobias’s shoulder, but only after shoving it one more time against the wall. The expression upon his visage did not change.

“You need to stop talking now.”

Insight check: 4

“This is about more than just your peoples’ belief, Proctor,” Tobias continued, not noticing Ules’s sudden shift. “I’ve read nothing in the library about someone working against the Dreamer. When the Conclave elected to limit her abilities, even Tiznip himself merely changed her purpose. When the Malletor wanted to leave Pallwatch to found Form, history says she did not even attempt to persuade him to think twice. Why? If she could see the future, or some form of the future, then why-”

Proctor Ules’s fist slammed into the wall beside Tobias’s head.

“I said…” Ules growled. “You need to stop. Now.

Insight check: 20

Tobias’s eyes narrowed.

“You already know what I’m talking about.”

Persuasion check: 9

“I know a lot that you don’t, Tobias,” came the bitter reply. “And I have more’n half a mind to throw you out of the Conclave right now.”

“But you won’t.” Tobias let his statement hang in the air for just a moment. “Will you?”

Ules stared, suddenly emotionless. Both were silent for a moment.

“You didn’t accept me into the Conclave on a whim.” Tobias watched for any sign of recognition. “And you didn’t accept me as your apprentice out of pity. You don’t like Eights. I’m fairly certain you don’t like me.

“Less and less.”

“But Eights was right, wasn’t she? It’s not that the Dreamer can’t communicate. It’s that she won’t.”

He paused.

“You need someone who can help her.”

Persuasion check: 16

Ules’s glare continued, but like his demeanor, its intensity shifted. After an uneasy second, the grizzled proctor let out a sigh.

“A hundred an’ twenty years, Tobias,” he whispered. “A hundred an’ twenty years is a very long time.”

“And in all that time,” Tobias whispered back. “She hasn’t spoken even a single intelligible word?”

It was gradual. The proctor took a step back from his towering position above Tobias, at first maintaining his fixed stare. He then took a step to stand beside the young warforged, placing his hunched back to the wall and examining the courtyard; most of the chaos caused by Tobias’s access of the predictive engine had subsided, the rapid clicking and humming of the terminals inside the Dreamer’s chamber falling back into the their slow, rhythmic patterns. Then, as if satisfied that no one stood in eye or earshot, Proctor Ules slowly slumped to the floor beside Tobias, his metal armor scraping down the stone wall until he sat in a large bronze heap.

Tobias knelt down beside his mountain-of-a-mentor.

Staring at the cold stone floor, almost imperceptibly, Ules said:

“Not a one.”

And Now for Something Completely Different

I’m starting to write and illustrate my very first children’s book! It is titled “The Hero’s Guide to Level One“. Here’s a sneak peak (a.k.a. the first three pages! Enjoy!)


Editing has and will be ongoing, so there aren’t the finished pages (I decided to change the ‘guild’ to be a ‘school’, because that’s what it actually is in the story). But it’s going good so far! At least it was once I realized that I drew three buildings in page one and accidentally forgot one when laying out the next two pages. At least I caught my mistake early! Ha!

Chapter 23 Rough Draft – Treasures From Trash

After about an hour, the little yatili and the large yatvi came back into the guest room. Aaron and Chris told me that they needed to head home, so they said goodbye and departed. Juni had lost his energy since going to Ian’s room, and soon fell asleep underneath the blanket as Charsi and I researched the map on Ian’s phone for another while.

There wasn’t much detail I could see on the map, even in the simplistic map, that would give us any indication about which direction Elder Ordi might have chosen to lead everyone. Gatherers could travel as much distance as they could carry food and water. But the greater question was if they could escort sixty inexperienced yatili through the wilderness at night with the same resources. So instead of relying solely on the map, I decided to look up some of the different food sources we had relied on up in the hills.

To my absolute pleasure, humans had already done all of the work for me: all I had to do was read and identify. They named them differently than we did. Thornberries to us became thistleberries, the wickedly-sour poisonberry became the pin cherry, and disease roots became black morels. Some of the plants and fruits were poison (as I and the gatherers knew very well), some bloomed only in specific times of the year, and I saw others I had never even seen before. Charsi pointed out the ones she knew, and she tried to explain to me the taste of the fruits and roots she recognized. Unfortunately, she compared them to yatvi foods Eliza had fed her and Juni.

Sorry,” I told her, more often than I wanted. “I haven’t eaten that.

She got frustrated at first. But she laughed when I pointed out one in particular. The page showed a black fruit called a currant. I recognized it immediately. I was taught to call them ‘iketsal yodsi’: ‘long night of stomach pain’. She completely agreed with the name.

A little after meeting Eliza, she fed one to Juni and I. We both had stomach aches all night long. She thought she had poisoned us, that she was going to kill us. She cried the whole time.

What did Xande say?

He wasn’t there… at first. Then he came home. Eliza showed him everything we ate, and he actually laughed at her. He told her we weren’t going to die, but she still stayed home all week to take care of us and make sure.”

I rolled my eyes at Xande, although I admit I probably would have done the same thing.

From then on,” Charsi said. “She always always asked Xande what she should feed us. She asked him so much that it’s a joke now. He doesn’t think it’s funny, but we do.

So she does feed you more than chicken nugglets.

Charsi snorted, covering her nose with her hands in embarrassment. I cracked up immediately.

“Hah!” I leaned to rest on my back. “That got you.

I don’t usually do that,” she said with a sheepish smile, wiping her nose. “Don’t tell Juni. He’ll be obnoxious about it for days.

No promises,” I grinned, making her whine. “Hey, if it’s not too much to ask… How did you and Juni meet? Eliza told us how she met you both, but not much of what happened before that. You weren’t from the same village, were you?

Charsi folded her arms.

No, I’ve never lived in a village. The first time I saw Juni, he… well, he actually saved me from being hit by a tire.”

A tire? What, a car tire?”

I don’t think so. It was a lot bigger than that. A truck tire, or a yatvi machine tire.”

Was it… attached to a yatvi machine?”

Oh,” Charsi said with a chuckle. “No, it was a garbage tire, by itself. Juni and I had been living in a yatvi garbage dump for a long time. We had never seen each other before, though. Big yatvi trucks would drive through and dump off new things, and the pile would have food sometimes. But I got greedy. I didn’t check to see if the truck would come back. By the time it did, I had dug down too deep, and got myself stuck. Juni appeared out of nowhere and pulled me out just as the tire smashed down.”

I shook my head.

Unbelievable. How old were you two?

Maybe… seven,” she said with a shrug. “Juni was probably nine. We lived at the garbage dump for a long time before we ever saw another yatili.

It must have smelled horrible. You didn’t actually live in the dump, did you?

No, outside it. In a gopher den.

I raised an eyebrow at her.

You’re not that small.

Well, Juni dug it out first, just to make sure nothing was home. Technically, it was his home before we shared it.

And where did you live before that?”

Inside a broken metal container. I didn’t live there long, it was the place I had hid when… after my father died.”

Oh,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry.”

It’s okay,” she said, smiling at me. “I miss him, but I think he would be happy to see how big my family is now.”

Literally.”

She nodded with a grin, pulling her hair behind her ear.

My mom died last,” said a voice behind Charsi. I looked over, and there was Juni, staring at the ceiling with his hands resting behind his head. “She told me to be strong, left to find food for us both. She never came back.”

Juni looked our way.

When I found Charsi, she cried every day for a long time. I think you were even afraid of me.

I was,” she admitted. “I was afraid of everything.”

Well,” Juni said with a shrug. “We had plenty of food and water. Some of it was actually pretty good. It was hard to get, though. It was all out in the open, yeah, but there were so many rats and birds I had to fight them off to get anything. Instead, I usually just went for the sealed stuff that didn’t weigh much. Eliza calls it ‘expired food’.”

“Expired?” I asked. “Like, dead?”

Is that what that means?” Juni shrugged again. “Yeah, I guess yatvi call it dead when they don’t think it’s good anymore. I don’t know why they think that. If it’s in a closed bag, it’s good to me.”

Me too,” Charsi said. “Even if it’s warm when it shouldn’t be. Of course, Eliza always tells us ‘expired food’ will make us sick. It never did, though.”

So you two spent, what, a year near a garbage dump, and you never saw another yatili in all that time?

They both shook their heads.

I always thought someone would find us,” Charsi said. “But we never saw anyone. Except Xande, of course.”

I always wished we found someone who could make us both some decent clothes,” Juni said, tugging at his shirt. “It’s not like we were naked or anything. But sometimes all I had was an itchy robe with pieces of plastic…

He pointed to his cuffs, his chest, and his head.

…tied to me as armor. I looked so stupid. It was always really cold and uncomfortable when it rained. Winter was vyshtal ese-”

Juni!” Charsi exclaimed. “No swearing!”

Vaya,” I said quickly, pressing my finger to my lips.

We all looked at Ian’s face for a silent second. His light snoring didn’t change.

Sorry,” they both whispered.

Anyway,” I said, looking directly at Juni. “Continue. And with cleaner words.”

I expected shame from him, but there was none. He chuckled instead.

Right. So we’re crammed inside a gopher hole, right? I’m out searching for food again. It’s in the evening, when there are fewer birds. I was whistling to myself instead of being quiet, which was pretty stupid. I’m digging through a cardboard box when something touches my shoulder. I think to myself, it has to be a bird beak, or a cat tongue, or something else terrible…”

Juni gestured dramatically.

I freak out and dive into the garbage, screaming. I feel something grab my shirt, and it pulls me out. It’s Xande. It was hard for him to cover my mouth and stop me from running out the box with one arm, but I’m glad he did, because right outside the box was two garbage men.”

Why was Xande at the dump?” I asked him. “He wasn’t looking for food, was he?”

Nah,” Juni said. “He was looking for lights. Electric lights. His had gone bad.”

Hmm.”

I told him he could take our lights, since we didn’t need so many. He wanted to leave right away, but I begged him to see Charsi first. He finally listened to me and followed me, and after we shared some food with him, he told us to follow him and that he would find us a home.”

What do you mean, just like that? A yatili home? Or a yatvi home?”

I think he meant yatili at first,” Charsi said. “But when we didn’t find anyone for a long time, I think he changed his mind. It was too dangerous to keep moving. We needed somewhere to live safe, and Xande said he couldn’t keep us that way by himself.”

I scratched my forehead.

That doesn’t sound like him at all. Why Eliza? She told us she was the one who found you.”

She did,” Charsi said with a smile. “Xande’s plan was for us to sit on the kitchen counter for her to find us. But she came home too soon, and we were still on the floor. Xande hid. Juni screamed his head off and ran. I was the only one who stayed put.”

I think you mean I saved you,” Juni insisted. “If I hadn’t tired Eliza out by running away, she might have grabbed you first.”

Sure,” Charsi said with sarcasm.

You didn’t answer my question, though,” I said. “Why Eliza?”

She didn’t own a dog,” Juni said. “Or a cat.”

No, it was more than that. Xande said she was special.”

Special how?”

He found us a place to hide, and he spent a few days studying yatvi in their homes,” Charsi explained. “He didn’t want a home that had kids. Or animals. He said he didn’t mind if the yatvi were married, but he preferred only one yatvi learned about us. And he had to know that the yatvi was a kind person. I don’t know why he thought Eliza was kind. I’ve never really asked him.”

Huh. Well, he was right after all.”

Yes, he was.”

So what was it like meeting her for the first time?”

Do you have to ask?” Juni moaned.

The most frightening thing I’ve ever done,” Charsi said. “Xande had only taught me a little bit of English, and Juni had no idea what she was saying.”

I did too,” Juni responded. “I just didn’t know how to say anything back.” He turned to me, pointing at Charsi. “I don’t get how she learned English so fast. And Xande won’t tell me where he learned English. You know, though. Don’t you? Was it in your village? Who taught him? Was it you?”

I pursed my lips.

No, it was definitely not me. I would like to avoid being punched when I see Xande again, so I don’t think I’ll tell you.”

Juni clucked.

No fun.”

There’s a lot Xande won’t tell us, actually,” Charsi said. “Like about where he goes all the time. He’s a really quiet person. He acts tough in front of Eliza, but… well, I’ve seen him cry when his shoulder hurt. He cried when he talked about Aria too.”

Really…”

I couldn’t imagine him like that. I’d never really seen him in private, though, so I couldn’t have known.

Don’t tell Xande you’re telling Lenn stuff like that, Sisi,” Juni said. “He’ll stop talking to you.”

Charsi waved her hands.

He’s stopped talking to me before. When I ask too much. So I don’t, because I care about him. He lets me help him when he’s not mad at me, so I do my best.”

I frowned.

He wasn’t keeping me a secret,” I said. “He certainly doesn’t care about me enough. And if he told you about Aria and the village, it isn’t that.”

Well, I’m not about to ask him again,” Juni said. “Last time I tried, he wrapped his arm around my neck and laughed at me. Like we were wrestling, like I hadn’t even said anything.”

Charsi and Juni both shifted their eyes towards me.

Don’t look at me,” I told them. “He already wants to kill me. I probably couldn’t even ask the question before he’d tear my leg off and club me with it.”

Juni laughed at me, and Charsi’s nose got all scrunched up.

I never thought there would be someone Xande would actually hurt. And Eliza. He had never pulled out his knife to hurt her before.”

He’s hit me before, but even for him, pulling a knife seemed a little… extreme.”

Do you think,” Charsi asked. “When Aria comes, do you think you could become friends?”

We would be related,” I said, dreading the thought. “But that’s probably it.”

Hmm… Not even talk?”

Ian would have to hold you,” Juni said. “And Eliza would have to hold Xande.”

He held up two fists and made noises as if they were squawking.

And then you could shout and scream until you liked each other!”

I wish it worked that way.”

It’s not how it worked with you and Ian, is it,” Charsi asked. “I can’t imagine being found by all three of those boys at once. I would have died.”

I was too busy actually dying to be scared,” I told her, smiling. “I lost so much blood, it took me at least two weeks to be scared of Ian. And I didn’t even see Chris and Aaron a week after that.”

I pointed at Juni.

How long did it take you to stop being nervous around Eliza?”

Hah,” he said to the ceiling. “Who says I stopped?”

I wasn’t lying when I told Ian that Eliza still scares me,” Charsi said. “Especially if I don’t expect to see her. She can be really quiet when she wants to.”

She doesn’t do it on purpose, does she?”

Just to me,” Juni said quickly. “She’ll wait until she knows it’s just me, and she’ll stomp her feet and shout ‘boo’! I hate it when she does that.”

Ian cares too much about what I think of him,” I said. “When he teases me or scares me on accident, it’s like he regrets it. That I’ll just stop liking him.” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that.”

That’s so weird.” Juni said. “He scared me, but I still like him.”

I shrugged.

That’s what I told him. I must be his brother now because I don’t think he believed me. You’ll have to tell him yourself.” I poked Charsi’s shoulder gently. “Ian really worried about you when Aaron held you. I’m glad he was holding onto me at the same time, or he might have stopped you from trying.”

Charsi watched Ian for a moment.

I never thought in a hundred years I’d ever get to meet human boys. And all three have promised to protect us.”

Still think they’re monsters?” I asked her.

Just a little.”

Meeting human boys, huh?” Juni teased. “You gonna fall in love with one?”

Charsi and I both leered at him.

Eww, what!” Charsi swatted the words away in disgust. “No way, are you crazy?! We’re not even-! No!”

I’ll bet you’re in love with Ian!” he sung. “I’m gonna tell him you said so!”

Charsi scooted herself towards Juni, and in a flash of frustration, smacked her brother’s shoulder. All it made him do was laugh, and he retaliated by poking Charsi in the ribs. Both of them struggled, growled, and laughed. Loudly.

Hey, you two! Keep it down! If you wake Ian up, I’m going to-”

The movement of the hairy head that laid prone upon the pillow next to ours didn’t make a sound. Neither did the bed, not that I remember. I was looking at the two bickering children when I saw Juni’s face go cold. Then Charsi’s turned white as she gasped. I then turned, and not more than four inches away from me floated a scowling blue-green eye. It turned my stomach for a quick second before I recognized the dimple beneath it.

“Ah,” I said, pointing. “Before you say anything, I’ll remind you that you wanted to sleep in here.”

“I was sleeping,” growled the human. “But I guess I’m not anymore.”

My pleasant smile quickly passed on to him, and we both laughed. The great happy eye then passed from me to Eliza’s two troublemakers.

“Hi Charsi, hi Juni,” he whispered. “What’s up?”

Juni recovered faster.

“Oh!” he exclaimed. “Charsi wants to tell you something!”

Charsi turned and slugged her brother’s arm. It shouldn’t have surprised me that she could, but it surprised me more when Juni took it in stride.

“H-Hi Ian,” she said as she timidly turned. “How are… um, how are you feeling?”

“I’m okay,” he replied. “I kept hearing my name. Were you talking about me?”

“Yes!”

Charsi slammed Juni’s mouth shut.

“No, no! Well, I mean, only a little, about, uh… how you’re our friend, and that we’re family now, and not-”

Juni tore her hand off.

“Ian, Charsi said that she lo-”

Charsi slammed both hands over his mouth.

“Hush!” she hissed.

Ian looked at me looking slightly confused but very amused. I just smiled back at him.

“Juni wants Charsi to say that she loves you,” I said, covering my mouth with my hand. “Isn’t that strange?”

Lenn!

I looked back, and saw Charsi’s face turn red. Juni, now freed of his sister’s hands, filled the room with cackling laughter.

“Lenn is on my side!” Juni shouted.

“There aren’t supposed to be sides!” Charsi shouted back, forcing her brother’s head away. She swiveled to face me, slapping the pillow. “Lenn, you’re mean! You can’t just tell Ian things like that!”

“But…” Ian said, immediately playing along. His expression turned to one of feigned sadness. “You don’t love me at all?”

Charsi sat, very visibly stunned.

“No!” she exclaimed. She skipped a beat. “Well, uh, I didn’t… I didn’t mean… Love, like a… like a cousin, and not like…”

Juni cackled all the harder. Ian’s face appeared injured by Charsi’s stammered words.

“You!” She pointed at Ian, then at me. “I… I know what you’re doing! You can’t do what I did! That’s not fair!”

Ian’s dimple returned and he smiled. I couldn’t help but laugh.

“It’s all fair,” I replied. “We’re all family now, so we’re supposed to tease each other!”

“But I don’t like being teased!”

Ian’s hand appeared from beneath his blanket and approached Charsi carefully. She attempted to stop the fingers before they reached her, but they instead took her gently by the hand.

“I know what you mean, Charsi,” he said, sounding tired. “And I’m sorry I scared you when I fought with Lenn. I only wanted to protect you from Aaron. I guess I didn’t do the right thing.”

Her wounded expression turned thoughtful.

“Oh, I…” she whispered back. “I know… and I’m, um, sorry for making you worry. You shouldn’t have to when you’re so hurt.”

Ian smiled as best he could.

“And I love all my cousins. Even Juni.”

Juni’s face scrunched like he’d eaten a whole lemon.

“Ack,” he spit, sticking his tongue out. “Ñeh serdi.

Ian’s fingers released Charsi’s hand and flew straight to Juni. Enveloping all sides of his head, Ian gathered the boy’s long, white-blond hair and lifted it upwards. Juni yelped and shooed Ian’s hand away, smooshing his hair back into place. It got the point across without much effort.

Ñeh! No! Now Ian’s mean!”

“Okay, kañi and kalñi, we get it. We’re all mean,” I sighed with a chuckle. I turned back. “How are you really feeling, Ian?”

“Everything hurts.”

“Bad enough for me to get Catherine?”

“…maybe not yet.” He pulled back to rest upon his own pillow. He then pointed at his phone before bundling his blanket up beneath his chin. “Teach me something. I’ll try not to fall asleep.”

“You sure?”

“Can I tell Ian about how Juni and I met?” Charsi asked.

“Of course,” I replied. “Go right ahead.”

She nearly began, but she caught herself mid-breath.

“Ah, um… how do you say ‘sarefi reasar’ in English again?”

“Garbage dump.”

“Oh yeah. Dump. Right.”

“Dump,” Juni said in English, testing the word. “That sounds funny.”

“What about a garbage dump?” Ian asked.

“Let Charsi tell you,” I said.

Ian nodded, and Charsi began.


“That’s why I was so afraid of you,” Charsi said, now herself laying beneath the edge of the blanket. The room had grown chilly, and even I slid down and sat close to Charsi to warm up beneath it. “Every yatvi I ever saw would have killed me. Or that’s what I thought. I only knew Eliza, and I didn’t want to be scared again like Eliza scared me.”

“I’m sorry, Charsi,” Ian mumbled, laying his head upon the flat bed instead of the pillow. “I didn’t know.”

“And I want to think I’m like Xande,” Juni said. “That I’m big and strong. But… I’m not. Not really.”

I patted Charsi’s back.

“You two are much braver than you think. I never went through anything like that growing up.”

Ian’s eye closed.

“Me neither. I feel like such a loser. I can’t even do simple things like go to school without ending up like… this.”

He placed his hand directly upon his broken cheek, just light enough to feel the pain.

“But you have a mom and dad that love you,” Juni said.

“And you’re a hero,” I added. “All you have to do is look at my scar. You knew just what you had to do to save my life.”

“I’m not a hero.” His eye looked back at me. “If I was, other people would like me.”

“Well, we like you.”

Juni and Charsi agreed.

“You know what I mean, though,” Ian said. “I don’t have any friends. Not even at church. I want to stay home for the rest of my life where people actually care.”

“I wouldn’t mind,” I chuckled. “But you know you can’t do that. You showed me that there’s so much out in the world to learn. What if you go out there, come back, and teach me everything you learn? Then I can teach it to Aria and my child, and Charsi and Juni? Who knows, we might even find other yatili who want to learn too.”

“Yeah!” Juni said. “You could be a teacher like Lenn and teach a whole room of yatili!

Ian gently smiled.

“You think there’s enough of you out there?”

“To fill a room?” I looked at Charsi, and she shrugged. “There has to be.”

“Are we going to learn from you and Ian?” Charsi asked. “Before all that, I mean.”

“You’ll have to ask Eliza,” I said. “I’m not sure what she has in mind. Do you really want to learn from a cripple and a goofy kañi?”

Charsi laughed along with her brother.

“I live with Goofy every day,” she said plainly, throwing her finger towards Juni. “I don’t mind.”

“And I live with kalvalin idi,” Juni replied, pointing back at her. “I’m used to it.”

“Hey!”

“What does that mean?” Ian asked. “’Girl’ something.”

“Smart weird girl,” I said.

“Oh.”

“I’m smart, not weird,” Charsi insisted. “You’re the one who can’t do math.”

Juni slapped the blanket.

“I can too!” He paused just long enough to make everyone doubt. “Well, Eliza just makes it confusing with big numbers!”

“I’m bad at math too,” Ian said. “I hope Lenn knows.”

“Uh,” I said. “I don’t do numbers. Maybe Eliza will be a guest teacher.”

Alyssum – Chapter Sixteen

mountain

A warm and wet tongue slobbered all over Aeo’s face, and he could do nothing about it besides open his eyes. The morning sun blinded him momentarily. It was Poro, standing tall over him and licking his hair and forehead. Aeo tried to lift his arms to make her stop, but they wouldn’t move. He tried raising his head; his muscles didn’t answer his commands. Even his heartbeat was slow and exhausted, leaving him lethargic and light-headed.

“Aeo, are you awake?” asked a voice. Leon, somewhere to his side.

“Mmm,” Aeo said, his throat hoarse. Even his lungs and his vocal cords refused to offer their regular services.

“…you did this?”

Aeo’s eyes attempted to peer over towards Leon. No use. All he could see was Poro’s enormous face and the blue sky.

“These wolves… Goddess, they’re… melted.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said. Now he remembered. So much fire… The dream had kept him alive. The voice. She kept both of them alive.

“How… did you do this?” Leon asked.

Aeo didn’t respond, and felt grateful he couldn’t.

“At least nothing else attacked us last night.”

“Mmm,” Aeo hummed.

“I’m feeling much better with the aether in me,” Leon said. “Can you move at all, Aeo?”

Aeo tried to wiggle his toes and fingers, or flex his cheek muscles; not even a twinge of movement. The rocks beneath the small of his back and shoulder blades made him unbelievably uncomfortable and sore.

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied. Poro licked Aeo’s nose, lips, and chin.

“There’s an important lesson for you, I suppose,” Leon said. “Use all your animis, and you become quite useless. Remember void sickness? Let me see, where is my… ah, here’s my marker.”

Aeo heard Leon rise from the ground, and finally saw him enter the frame of his limited vision.

“Silly horse,” Leon said, gently shoving Poro away. Poro relented, rolling the cart that remained attached to her. Leon nearly reached out his hand to touch Aeo’s forehead, but then he stopped cold. Leon’s eyes opened wide, and his mouth turned downwards in dread. He touched Aeo’s bloody neck and carefully lifted Aeo’s arm to examine it. “Aeo… Goddess, what did those things do to you…”

Aeo’s eyes examined Leon, rolling about in his head as if they were the last remaining bodily functions Aeo could utilize.

“Come on,” Leon said, sliding his arms beneath Aeo’s head and legs. “Do your best to stay awake. You’ve lost a lot of blood. And the last thing you need is an infection.”

Leon lifted the boy up with a grunt, and Aeo realized just how exhausted his body had become: his arm, now covered in thick dried blood, dangled downwards, his head toppled to the side without his consent, and his core muscles refused to flex or contract. Pain, however, had not dulled in the slightest. Although the wagon lacked much space, Leon lifted the back bar and let it fall to the ground. Then he placed Aeo into the back of the wagon as far as his arms would allow, and climbed up himself. The wood of the wagon creaked and complained with both of them inside.

“Can you speak?” Leon asked, opening one of the boxes and producing a roll of cotton cloth.

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied.

“I don’t know how you did it, but you saved my life,” Leon said quietly, unrolling the cloth. “I suppose you couldn’t shield yourself this time?”

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo mumbled.

“So, just your fire then… From the results, I certainly never want to be on the receiving end of your magick. You really do have to tell me if you’ve done this before.” Leon reached for his bag, and from the main compartment, he pulled out a wide bottle with a fancy label. He twisted the lid open, and sniffed its contents. “Still fresh. Good. Goddess, how do I do this… First thing’s first, I suppose. I’m sorry I have to do this, but it’s a good thing you have a spare shirt.”

Before Leon could explain what he meant, Leon produced his pocket knife. With a few quick strokes, he sliced Aeo’s bloody and blackened shirt right down the middle and pulled the material as far away from the neck wound as possible. With another thicker cotton cloth, Leon poured water from the water keg and let it soak. Then, to Aeo’s horror, Leon gently pressed it against his neck. Pain shot through him like lightning, but Aeo’s body had little strength to react. Worse, even his face couldn’t show his discomfort besides blinking faster and faster.

“Mmm, hmmm,” Aeo said as loudly as his voice allowed.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Leon said. “I need to see where the bite marks are. You’re not bleeding anymore, I’m trying not to cause it again.”

Leon carefully rolled Aeo over to his side and cleaned the back of the boy’s neck as well; the wound appeared deep, but with the thick blood washed off, perhaps it looked better than Leon expected. Once cleaned, the wound didn’t appear as terrible as it had appeared. Leon repeated the process with Aeo’s arm. The wound burned and stung as Leon lifted it upwards and cleaned both sides.

Setting the red-soaked cloth down, Leon reached for his bottle of ointment. In thick coats, he rubbed it into Aeo’s skin beginning with his arm. Once finished with a coat of cream on all sides, Leon wrapped it tightly and quickly with a wrap of light cotton. In the very least, the sharpness of the pain in that spot reduced to a simmer.

“I’m not sure what to do with your neck,” Leon admitted. “Perhaps when you can move, we can try wrapping bandages around your chest. Until then, perhaps the cream alone will do well enough.”

As Leon administered to Aeo, he sighed.

“Although you might have been impressed by my display yesterday,” Leon said quietly. “I am not a warrior. Not nearly, not like the masters that will be teaching you. I don’t have the stamina to endure a long fight, never have. It’s all I can do to hit hard and fast, and hope my animis holds out until the job is through. You, though… you might not feel strong now, but you did burn down an entire village merely by wanting to. And what you did to the wolves… There were certainly more than just those three. It’s a miracle they didn’t do you worse harm. I told you you had more strength than you think. Someone is watching over you and I.”

Aeo tried to open his jaw to speak, but it and his entire face simply hung passive. His eyes, though, walked around the wagon and spoke volumes.

“I never expected you to protect me like that. And I never wanted you to have to.”

Aeo looked back at Leon and managed to blink.

“But I’m very glad you did,” Leon said, rolling Aeo to his side to apply more cream to the boy’s back. “Thank you, Aeo. I told you I would need your help someday. I just didn’t expect the day to come this quickly.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said, blinking. Although his face showed no emotions at all, he would have at least smiled through the pain.

 

*     *     *     *     *     *

 

The entire first day from morning to night, Aeo could not move. Try as he might, none of his muscles even quivered. The cart rolled along at a much slower pace than previous days, probably due to Leon’s own lack of strength and ability to focus. Aeo didn’t feel trapped in a motionless body, exactly. It was more like floating weightlessly in a lake while the rhythm of the current washed to and fro. His mind very much reflected the drain his body experienced. His eyes could move, but they couldn’t rightly focus on the canvas above him. Leon had instructed him to stay awake, but he couldn’t help drift in and out with the gentle rocking of the cart and comforting air that blew over him. Leon had nearly covered him in a fur blanket, but thought otherwise at the last second; for this, Aeo was extremely grateful. About an hour down the road, his uninjured arm that sat upon his bare chest fell to his side of its own accord. For a while, it felt comfortable. But then it started to fall asleep, jammed up too closely to one of the boxes. It soon fell quite numb, and no matter how loudly his voice hummed and mumbled, Leon couldn’t hear his cries for help above the din of the wagon. It wasn’t until Leon took a break in the late morning and adjusted Aeo’s position did sweet, merciful blood flow correctly again.

Long into the evening, Aeo lay prone in the dark, ever staring upwards. Maybe now I can sleep, he thought to himself. After Leon had released Poro to rest, eat, and drink, he appeared at the back of the wagon and hopped inside. Taking a seat on one of the boxes, he leaned down with one of the waterskins.

“One of the worst things about void sickness,” he said. “Is getting thirsty and hungry. And needing to use the restroom, of course. You’re probably feeling all of this right now.”

To be honest, Aeo hadn’t noticed much until Leon pointed it out. His tongue and throat were dry from his mouth hanging loose all day. He felt mildly peckish, but he certainly felt the uncomfortable weight of his digestive system. One of three of these things needed to be addressed very soon.

“Fortunately, I don’t think you’ll be sick for very long, not nearly as long as others. Most can’t even move their eyes or make noise. And… I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I feel you should know… Scholars that have suffered from void sickness much more severely become like infants and need… well, they need their pants changed regularly.”

“Mmmm…” Aeo hummed long and low like a grumble.

“Not terribly exciting news, I know,” Leon said. “But you saved my life, so of course I’m obligated to help. Do you need any assistance now?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“That’s a yes?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Water?”

“Hm-mmm.”

“No? Um… restroom?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Oh. Naturally, I’m sure. Liquid only, I hope?”

“Hmm-mm.”

“No? Oh. Of course. What I mean to say… Eh, hmm. This will be a little more difficult, then. I have a bit of experience in this, although the Academy never taught me the specifics, being in the middle of nowhere and all. Um… Right. Let’s see. Let me carry you off the road, and… I suppose we’ll figure it out as we go. Let me grab the paper…”

The second day continued much as the first, with Aeo completely unable to move his limbs or his body. Fortunately, it felt as though some amount of control had appeared in his face, his fingers, and his toes. Ever so slightly, he could curl his digits, and when he really concentrated, he could raise and lower his eyebrows. He could even keep his mouth shut and weakly swallow, which helped immensely with his sore throat.

The only real problems (besides bathroom breaks, obviously) were eating and drinking. Leon could lift Aeo into a seated position and lean his head forwards a bit, pressing the waterskin to his lips and allowing him precious water. It was an unfamiliar and disconcerting combination of allowing the water to pass freely without swallowing while attempting to not drown. His muscles that controlled the flow of water in his throat weren’t in a very strong position to do their job properly. He couldn’t rightly cough when too much water passed down the wrong tube, either, though Leon had the experience and knew when to stop when Aeo’s eyes started to bulge. As for food, Leon admitted there really wasn’t anything they had in the cart that didn’t involve a lot of chewing. Besides, considering the state of his throat, Aeo probably didn’t want something solid in his esophagus. Leon tried boiling some of the dried meat into a broth, and Aeo enjoyed the salty flavor, but it only did so much to cure his aching stomach.

Like the first day, Aeo’s mind rocked back and forth with the wagon, and he found it difficult to think about any one thing for very long. The pain in his shoulder and arm made things even worse. When he tried to think about the voice that spoke to him, it felt like a distant memory, a half-remembered song. Aeo tried to think about Pick to invoke some emotion. If he lived, what would he and Shera be doing in that very moment? Even this was too difficult, much to his disappointment.

By the end of the second day, he could feel the gnawing sensation of hunger in his stomach growing. Water couldn’t satisfy, and with communication restrained to ‘mm-hmm’ and ‘hmm-mm’, there wasn’t much complaining about it.

Though his mind remained clouded, one thing became certain: he decided that void sickness was terrible, and never wanted to experience it again.

The morning of the third day, Aeo woke up to a hunger that he’d only experienced three or four times in his life (the other three or four being times when Aristé “forgot” to feed him when food stocks became low during harsh winters). The morning light had just risen above the horizon, and he heard Leon getting Poro ready for the day. He moaned from the emptiness. And that’s when the realization came: he could moan. He tried to mouth a few syllables with his lips and tongue; as if his face had been numbed, they could only form ‘ah’, ‘eh’, and an unsteady ‘em’, perhaps a slight ‘oh’ or ‘ay’. He swallowed, blinked his eyes, tightened his cheek muscles, opened and closed his mouth. Everything seemed to be functioning, albeit slowly. Even his fingers and toes could move on their own, although lifting his arms or legs remained out of the question. The pain in his neck and arm had fallen to a slow burn, aided by the fact that he could not move them.

When Leon rounded the corner of the wagon to come check on him, Aeo said in the loudest voice he could muster:

“Lee-on.”

“Aeo?” Leon asked. “You’ve got your voice back! Good boy!”

“Hung…rae,” Aeo whispered.

“What’s that?” Leon asked, climbing into the wagon. He took a seat. “Say it again.”

“Hung-rae,” Aeo repeated.

“Oh, hungry. Hmm. Do you want to try eating something?”

Aeo nodded slightly. He then realized he could nod slightly.

“I’m not sure you should just yet… Although it has been quite a while, hasn’t it? You must have spent an incredible amount of energy to make you this sick. No more fighting wolves from now on, young man.”

Aeo tried to laugh. It came out as a guttural groan.

“Let’s see what we have again,” Leon said, climbing over Aeo to get to the box at the front. “Hmm, jerky and bread are probably still too tough. Apples might be too difficult as well, although I could try cutting them up. Oh! You know something? I completely forgot about these.”

Leon reached over towards a box on the far side of the wagon. The moment he opened the lid, Aeo heard the pop of a ward vanish. Inside was a small ceramic pot with a sealed lid, which Leon removed.

“Here, just one moment,” Leon said, setting the pot down. Covering the box again, concentration filled his face as he placed a single hand against the lid. Although Aeo could not see a glyph nor a shining light this time, he did hear a pop of magick. Leon lifted his hand and sat back down.

Another preservation ward. Those wards came very easy to Leon, simple as lighting a lantern.

“These,” Leon said, uncovering the ceramic lid from the pot. Inside was a pile of small spherical green berries. “Well, they have no name. Just like the plant they grow on. But they are delicious, and make a wonderful citrus tea. I must warn you, they have seeds inside them, but if you’re careful, you can chew them up without much trouble. Might have been dangerous yesterday. Care to try a few? Maybe one at a time to start.”

“Mmm,” Aeo said, nodding.

“Let’s get you sat up a bit,” Leon said. With a few grunts and groans, Leon positioned Aeo against the boxes behind him and placed the down pillows behind his back to help cushion against the solid wood. He even lifted Aeo’s head into a comfortable position resting at a slight angle upwards.

Leon took a berry and carefully placed it in Aeo’s mouth. The simple act of chewing felt as though someone had placed a leather harness in his jaw to keep his teeth apart. But the moment his molars got hold of the strange berry and clamped down, the juice of the berry burst against his tongue. Leon was slightly incorrect about the taste; the berry was absolutely divine. Once, Aeo had been allowed to suck on a wedge of lemon just to entertain travelers at the inn with his face’s reaction to its crazy sourness. Very similar, the berry’s juice made him pucker — as much as he could pucker, of course — and made him swallow the berry too soon.

“Aeo, are you okay?” Leon asked, seeing the boy’s face. “You’re not choking, are you?”

Aeo shook his head as well as he could manage.

“Good,” Aeo replied quietly.

“Too bitter?”

Aeo shook his head again.

“Sss… Ss-ower.”

Leon let out a laugh.

“Should have told you about that,” he said. “Aren’t they fantastic?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Care for another?”

“Yah.”

As day three progressed, Aeo felt a lot of improvement in his energy levels and concentration. Where in previous days he had difficulties focusing his eyes both near and far, Aeo could quite clearly observe everything in the cart and even peer out the rear of the wagon to view the road and the beautiful autumn morning. When the cart came to a rickety old bridge about mid-day, Leon instructed him to hold on as well as he could. With his seated position, Aeo still could not fully lift his arms to brace himself. But his arms and legs could tighten and his fingers could hold, so they anchored themselves against the boxes as the cart rumbled across the planks of the bridge. The strain to balance himself made his injured arm flare.

“Seems they don’t care for this part of the road,” Leon said as the wagon rolled upon dry dirt again. “Still, it’s better than driving through the water.”

By the early evening, Aeo’s limbs could flex and his neck muscles had regained strength enough to hold his head evenly; he held still to make the bite marks in his neck and shoulder bearable. He could tap his fingers to an invisible beat, and even lightly cough. He’d eaten enough berries to quell his stomach pains, but he still felt like he could eat an entire plate of the breakfast he and Leon had shared in Rurali. Out of instinct, he bit down and moved his jaw from side to side. This is when he realized that one of his teeth, specifically one of his canines, was loose, moving a bit as his tongue pressed against it.

“Leon?” Aeo asked, his voice still weak.

“Hmm?” Leon asked, driving the wagon forwards. “Did you say something, Aeo?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

Leon pulled on Poro’s reigns, and slowed the cart to a low rumble.

“What is it?” Leon asked.

Aeo took a breath.

“My… tooth is… wobbly.”

“Your tooth?” Leon asked. “You didn’t get hit in the mouth by those wolves, did you?”

“Nuh-uh,” Aeo replied.

“Well, sounds like you’re growing up to me,” he said. “You’ll lose all your small teeth soon, I imagine.”

“When I was little, I… slipped and fell… at the inn, and knocked my two front teeth out.”

Aeo could hear Leon whince.

“Oh dear,” he said. “That must have hurt a lot. I imagine you don’t like losing teeth, then.”

“Nuh-uh,” Aeo whispered. “Harthoon… and Aristé made fun of me. Eating was hard, too.”

“I’m sorry. I remember Algus laughed at me when I lost those teeth, but probably not in the way they laughed at you. He called me the ‘Toothless Wonderchild’. And then my large teeth grew in and he called me ‘Gopher Child’. There was no winning with that one.”

“Will I get to meet Algus?” Aeo asked. From how Leon spoke of him, he sounded like a very entertaining man.

With this question, Leon fell silent for a moment.

“He, uh… He passed away. A few years ago. A few months before I left the Academy to climb Falas, actually.”

“Oh,” Aeo replied. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s all right,” Leon said. “I’m sure he would have loved to meet you.”

The evening fell to night, and Leon stopped the cart to rest. Taking up the wagon space in complete immobility made Aeo a bit uncomfortable, considering it meant Leon had to find a spot off the side of the road to set up a campfire and sleep. Now able to voice his thoughts, he apologized for it as Leon applied another coating of ointment to his wounds.

“It’s no trouble at all,” Leon said. “I’m quite used to sleeping on the ground. I worry that once I climb into bed at Everspring, I’m going to endure many weeks of sleepless nights. I may not even teach next spring with all the adjustments and personal projects.”

“Your bed isn’t comfortable?” Aeo asked, wincing at the pain.

“It’s too comfortable, I’m afraid. Sleep for long enough on dirt and rocks, and you’re keen to stay that way.”

Aeo slept well that night, able to turn on his side and keep himself from falling backwards… or face first onto his injured arm. On the gray and cloudy morning of the fourth day, Aeo awoke and wiped his eyes only to realize that he could actually wipe his eyes. Though the pain in his neck grew intense, he raised both of his arms and looked at his hands. They could twist, curl, and bend. His movements felt a few milliseconds off between his brain ordering them and his body performing them, but it felt a fantastic improvement. He pulled his legs inwards, and they indeed bent towards him. Excited at the prospect of moving again, he placed his hands on the wagon floor, dug in his feet, and heaved himself upwards towards the back of the wagon to attempt walking. The excitement faded when he failed to lift his weight.

Then, a feeling dark and foreboding flooded his every thought, as if a tidal wave of desire smacked him right in the chest: his hunger doubled up upon him, ravenous and ferocious. The hunger felt as though he had been underwater for far too long without breath, and his heart beat rapidly at the very thought of eating something. His body demanded it, and it demanded it immediately.

Where is the food! Oh, behind me!

He attempted to turn around, and though his neck wound coursed through him like his own magickal fire, he managed to twist his torso around and lift his arms to uncover the food crate. Inside were dried fish and beef, fresh apples and carrots, rye bread, blueberries picked fresh found by Poro just yesterday… He grabbed whatever he could grab in his claws and stuffed it into his mouth; he didn’t even taste what he’d removed from the box first. He ate so quickly, he even forgot about his loose tooth.

An ingrained instinct in him thought to ask for Leon’s permission to eat so much. This was promptly squashed.

By the time he heard Leon and Poro stir from sleep, he’d eaten so much so fast, he developed a terrible case of hiccups. He carried on despite this, going back and forth from dried meat to fruit to bread and back again.

A few minutes later, as a piece of dry bread lumped down his gullet, another demonic sensation arose:

Water! Where is the water!

His gaze rapidly scanned the inside of the wagon, back and forth, back and forth. Then, in complete exasperation, his voice exploded.

“Leon!” he shouted as if he’d never shouted in his life. “Leon! Help, *hic* help! Help me!”

In an instant, Aeo heard a man fumbling and struggling, and then breathlessly running. When Leon appeared at the back of the cart, his hair clinging to his head in all directions and his scruffy beard unkempt, he looked horrified.

“What, what! What is it!” he cried. “What’s wrong?”

With his mouth half-full, Aeo’s senses returned.

“Uh… Uhh… *hic*…”

Leon stared at the boy as if Aeo had shape-shifted into a duck. Aeo attempted to swallow, but even that came half-heartedly.

“I, uh… can’t move.” Aeo said with a pile of food in his lap and nervous as a lamb. “I can’t, um… *hic* find the water.”

For a moment, Leon continued his stare, dumbfounded. But then his mouth turned into a grin, then a smile, and then to outright laughter.

“Ha!” Leon gasped. “Ha! I thought for sure a snake had found its way into the wagon, or you’d set everything on fire! And here you are, having breakfast without me!”

Thoroughly embarrassed, Aeo look down at the floor.

“*Hic* sorry…” he whispered.

This caused Leon to laugh harder.

“Don’t be, you silly boy!” Leon said. “I’m just glad you’re up and eating! It’s been days since you’ve had anything solid. And hiccups too! Wait just a moment, I have the water. It’s good to have you back!”

Alyssum – Chapter Fifteen

firehands

Three Weeks Later

Two paths had lain before the wagon, clearly illustrated by a sign at the fork in the road. As Leon read to Aeo, one pointed west to a place called “Fort Owyne”, apparently only a few scant miles from the highway itself. The other pointed towards a much more distant location called “Fort Nahzer” to the southeast. Nahzer, Leon described, was their intended destination, as it sat squarely upon the Ashanti/Antielli border. Trying to find a way around the fort itself presented a great risk, especially for a rickety wagon led by a single horse, as the fort had been constructed right in the middle of a mountainous pass. Anyone caught trying to cross the border illegally would certainly be spotted and arrested, and their wagon (and its cargo) impounded; Antiell did not toy with the strength of their borders, especially with powerful scholars and mystics regularly traveling to and from the Everspring Academy.

Now a week beyond the fork in the road, Aeo became truly miserable. The brisk speed with which Leon drove the wagon had increased, leaving them little time to rest and relax. It was bad enough that no villages sat upon the road, set as it was so close to the border of Edia. Aeo was now practically stuck to the inside of the wagon, and Leon had insisted it would be more comfortable for him if he slept there during the night. True or not, the down-filled pillows could only do so much to help him feel comfortable, cramped as he was in between the crates and boxes.

To keep himself busy, Leon had directed him to practice shielding himself against the rubber ball. Aeo could summon fire; he had little trouble with that. But shielding was a different matter entirely. He couldn’t really wrap his mind around it. Instead of focusing his animis into a single point, Leon had tried to teach him to expel his animis like a blast of wind from his hands. Laying on his back in the wagon, he would toss the rubber ball up into the air and quickly raise his hand to block it. Every so often, he would see a hint of blue light as the ball came back down. But gravity was relentless, and refused to stop as the light appeared. More often than not, the ball would end up hitting Aeo in the face or the eye. He had never considered himself talented at tossing rubber balls into the air, especially inside a rumbling rolling cart. Impressive to repeatedly hit a target over and over, perhaps, but slightly painful and annoying.

Just once, he tried creating fire in between his hands while riding in the wagon. With Leon focusing on the road at the time, Aeo thought he might get away with it. But the moment a spark fizzled in between his hands, Leon halted the cart and spun around.

“Oh no, you don’t,” he said. “No fire in the wagon. Please.”

“Sorry,” Aeo mumbled.

Now beyond Lake Darlendas, the environs through which they traveled resembled a glorious autumn forest. The leaves of the oaks, aspens, and maples had turned into bright and beautiful shades of crimson, orange, and yellow, and the delicate mountain winds made them all flutter and fly from their stems like exotic birds from their nests. While the road itself was rather flat and presented rather boring views, every once in a while the canopy of trees would part, presenting a stunning view of the entire mountain range. Snow never ceased falling on the tops of the mountain, aided by the regular late-summer storms. But Aeo could clearly see the edge of the treeline, the gulleys of tumbling rocks, rivers and streams of glittering snow melt, and grassy foothills that led to the base of the far-reaching earth. Curiously, the amount of wagons they passed on the road now came fewer and further between. Despite this, the road appeared very well-maintained, with wooden and stone bridges built over rushing waters helping to keep potential traffic moving safely.

Aeo spent a lot of time looking at Leon’s marker (with his permission, of course), surveying the surrounding landscape on the map. Speaking the word “dah-si” a few times, the map seemed to pull outwards to a great distance, leaving the wagon just a tiny pinprick of light upon the winding road. Although the map offered no sense of distance, Aeo could see several symbols clearly. One of them was surely Fort Owyne, sitting upon the very edge of the outlined border of Edia. Much further upon the eastern road was a similar symbol, perhaps Fort Nahzer. If it was, they were making great time, as only a week ago, the symbol hadn’t appeared upon the enlarged map at all. Between them was the great mountain range, and when zoomed in a little closer, Aeo could make out blue lines that marked rivers and running streams. More than once, Aeo had mentioned a stream coming up on their travels, during which Leon gladly stopped to refill their water keg. Aeo decided there was nothing more delicious than freshly-chilled mountain water, and drank more than his fair share. Unfortunately, this meant he had to take more breaks to answer the call of nature. This made Aeo anxious for repeatedly asking to pull over, but Leon seemed to tolerate it.

Chewing on a piece of dried meat, Aeo again practiced shielding himself from a falling ball. He held out his hand as if to catch it, imagining the warmth of his body bursting from his hand like a jet of warm air. And yet again, a flicker of blue light appeared. But the ball dropped right past his hand and landed right upon his nose.

“Ow…” he whispered, grasping for the ball around his head.

Without warning, the wagon came to a halt. Leon said nothing for a moment, but stood from the driver’s seat.

“Leon?” Aeo asked, lifting himself from the wagon floor. “What is it?”

“Pass me my staff,” Leon whispered. “Hide my bag.”

“Do what? Oh, okay,” Aeo replied. He climbed over a few boxes of the right side and grabbed the simple-looking oaken pole. He passed it through the front flap, and Leon took it quickly. Then, Aeo took Leon’s bag, and placed it beneath his down pillow.

Without explanation, Leon jumped off the driver’s seat. He didn’t come to the back as if to grab something, nor did it sound as though he were walking into the treeline. Aeo looked, and Leon stood beside Poro, scanning the road ahead.

Aeo saw the source of their trouble. No, sources. Four large men with swords at their belts and axes upon their shoulders had appeared from the forest, walking towards Leon with a great deal of menace. Leon did not advance, instead patting Poro’s mane and whispering a few Drael-dena words to her: “Meh-yea fel-anok dei egr-enek ya si”. He repeated it three times. Poro, seeming to understand, nuzzled Leon’s side, whinying quietly.

When the men approached close enough, Leon said: “Good afternoon, gentlemen. May I assume you are part of the Antielli highway guard?”

Perhaps the largest of the four men, who carried a very large double-bladed axe and walked with a great amount of swagger, chortled.

“Sum’fin like that,” he replied.

“What can I do for you today?” Leon asked brightly, resting his weight on his staff as if he were somehow lame.

“Well, gracious sir,” said a wiry man next to the giant. “I’m afraid this part of the highway is blocked by a mudslide. Yes, we, the highway guard, require a toll from every traveler in order to help pay for its, eh, removal, you see.”

“Indeed?” Leon said. “Well, as you can see, I’m a simple traveler heading on my way to Ashant with my young protege here,” Leon waved a hand at Aeo, who watched without breath. “Not even a merchant, I’m afraid. Would you gentlemen like a few loaves of rye bread or some dried fruit? I’d be happy to oblige.”

“Wha’s ‘oblige’ mean,” asked the giant to the wiry man.

“It means he would give it to us for free,” the wiry man said, slapping the giant. “Very kind of you, good sir, but I’m afraid we going to require a bit more than food from you.”

“What do you mean?” Leon asked, leaning further on his staff. “I don’t have any money, honest I don’t. The most I have are a few alchemy books and spare clothing. Nothing you fine men would find valuable.”

“Well, sir,” said the wiry man. “That will be up to us to decide. If you don’t offer us something better than that, my friends here…” He patted the giant’s shoulder and motioned to the other two large men. “Will have to confiscate your… rather large wagon. And your horse. All for the, eh, highway guard, of course.”

“That is unfortunate,” Leon said. “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. I’ll tell you once: leave. T’would be a pity to have to hurt you.”

The giant, the wiry man, and the two heavies behind them laughed.

“Whah, you? Hurt us?” the giant asked. “Lemme at ‘im, boss, I’ll show this li’l bleeder how to hurt someone.”

“Ah, I suppose we should,” said the wiry man, unsheathing his sword. “Be sure to grab the boy as well, slaves pay real well in Rurali.”

“Aeo!” Leon shouted. “Sym-yattra! You are stronger than you think!”

“Wha’s seem-yatter-” the giant began to say. Before he could spit out another syllable, however, a quarterstaff connected with the side of his jaw, surely knocking loose a few molars. Without skipping a beat, the other end of the quarterstaff dipped between the giant’s legs. As Leon flew forwards to attack the leftmost brute, the staff unhinged the giant’s legs, causing the very concussed man to collapse.

“What in the-” the next opponent managed to say. Before he could even take hold of his sword’s handle, Leon raised his hand and shouted “Vai!” With a burst of violent energy, Leon’s animis exploded outwards and collided with the man’s body. Before the distorted air could settle, the man soared backwards about thirty feet, tumbling end over end until he collapsed and moved no more.

“Get him!” shouted the wiry man. With a quick downwards thrust, his sword descended upon Leon only for a blue crackle of reflective energy to catch his blade a few inches from Leon’s head. Shards of energy rained down upon Leon as he pulled to the side, jabbing the wiry man first in the stomach, then the chest, and finally, swirling on his heels, connecting a powerful blow against the man’s sword hand. The man screamed, dropping his sword upon the ground and retreating a few steps back.

At last, the brute on the right had time enough to handle his axe with both hands, and advanced to bring it to bear down against Leon. Leon nearly swung around fast enough to disarm the man as well, but to his surprise, the giant had regained just enough sense to grab Leon’s leg and pull him downwards. The brute’s axe swung hard enough to crack stone, but instead of embedding itself in Leon’s spine, the weapon shattered upon a bright blue barrier of energy, spraying almost everyone in crystals of azure light. The axe, to the man’s shock, reflected back upon him as if he had connected with an elastic shield of iron, throwing the axe — and the man attached to it — backwards.

Aeo watched all of this in shock. He never believe Leon capable of this kind of combat.

“Grab the boy!” the wiry man shouted to the brute, bending down to pick up his sword. “We’re getting paid one way or another!”

“No!” Leon shouted.

Leon brought his quarterstaff down upon the giant the best way he knew how: by thrusting the point into the man’s crotch. To his dismay, the hit connected with something solid, and not at all sensitive. The giant laughed, unperturbed.

“Nice try!” the giant sung, pulling Leon down by his shirt. “I’ll break your neck, you-”

Now face to face with the giant man, Leon performed a very different act, one he hoped he would never have to teach anyone. His eyes faded until they became one with the shadows, turning blacker than the darkest night. As if the giant were staring into the abyss itself, Leon whispered a single drael-dena word: “Sihn-mauk”.

Horror could not describe the look upon the giant’s face. Pure terror. Hatred. Madness. The giant shoved Leon away as if Leon had become a fiery demon. The giant’s own eyes darkened like Bel moon pearls, blinding him to everything and anything that did not reflect his greatest fears and nightmares. As Leon stood up, the giant attempted to claw his own eyes out: his fingernails tore bloody gashes into his face as the darkness in his eyes bubbled and seeped out like thick ooze.

Upon seeing his friend so inflicted, the wiry man took a step backwards.

“Wha… Wha’d you do to him?! What are you?!”

Leon did not respond to him. He merely leaned upon his quarterstaff and raised his hand.

“Vai.”

Leon’s animis again exploded from his body in a concussive wave, connecting with the wiry man as if gravity had decided to move sideways just for him. After flying about ten feet off of the road, the man collided with an oak tree with a audible thud, and collapsed to the ground into a heap.

Inside the wagon, Aeo knew someone was coming for him. A brutish figure turned the corner, and Aeo screamed.

“Come ‘ere, little Edian!” the man shouted, tearing the back bar off. The man reached into the wagon, grabbing Aeo by the ankle and yanking him outwards.

“No! No, get off me!” Aeo yelled, kicking the man in the head with his other foot. His kicks connected but served little purpose: the man did not react to them. With a final pull, Aeo slid out of the cart, falling to the rocky road.

“Now let’s go back to camp, shall we?” the man whispered, grabbing Aeo’s wrists. Like a sack of wheat, the man hauled the boy onto his shoulder. “You’ll be worth at least a few good meals, you will!”

“No, you can’t!” Aeo shouted. “You won’t!”

Sym-yattra. No aggression. No anger. Only concentration.

But Aeo felt anger. He felt the pain in his back and aggression towards all the men that attacked his master. Now, concentration: the only remaining necessity. Aeo closed his eyes and lifted himself just enough to place his hands upon the brute’s shoulder. Much faster than he had ever practiced, his imagination flashed like a tidal wave of heat, forcing all the animis in his body to emerge from his fingertips. Then his eyes flared open, and like a spout of pure chaos let loose, fire erupted from Aeo’s hands against the man’s shoulder like a raging flamethrower.

The brute screamed in pain, dropping Aeo immediately. The flame stuck to the man as if he’d been doused in oil, and he flailed wildly trying to pat the flames away from his shoulder and neck. Just as Leon turned the corner to the back of the cart, Aeo lifted himself to his feet. As the fire danced, so did the brute, the flames growing hotter and brighter. The more he tried to smother the flames, the more it grew, consuming the brute’s long hair and crossing his chest. For more than a few seconds, Aeo stood there, entranced by the effectiveness of the conflagration.

“Aeo!” Leon shouted. “Stop! That’s enough!”

Aeo’s concentration broke.

“No!” Aeo cried, looking at the man in the flames. “They should all burn! All of them! They’ll never hurt us again!”

“Aeo, listen to me,” Leon said. “This is not you. Don’t let your anger consume this man! The Goddess will repay them for their deeds!”

“I don’t care!” Aeo shouted back. “I hate them! I hate being an Edian! I hate them, and I hate everything!”

The man continued to scream, falling backwards off the side of the road. The long grass caught fire immediately as it grew in intensity.

“Aeo,” Leon said, almost quietly. “Do you hate me?”

Aeo paused.

No. I don’t.

But he didn’t say it.

“I don’t know how to stop it,” Aeo said quietly.

“Pull the heat back into your hands,” Leon said, walking towards Aeo. “Just like I taught you. Pull your animis back into your arms, your chest. Focus on your breathing, your desire to let the fire fade.”

Do I want this fire to fade?

For a moment, Aeo did nothing.

“Now, Aeo!” Leon shouted.

Aeo nearly jumped, sealing his eyes shut in shame. He raised a single hand towards the burning man. Rejecting the thoughts of relentless immolation, he pulled his body heat back from his hands to his core, and imagined the fire fading away. Ever so slowly, the fire that sat upon the grass began to smolder and disappear, and although the man continued to shriek, the fire that threatened to consume him faded. With this, Aeo felt completely drained, and he fell backwards upon the ground.

Leon slowly approached the man, and scowled at what he saw. The hair on the right side of the man’s skull had all burned away, his neck was black and scorched, and the thick leather armor he wore adhered to the skin across his chest and shoulders. The air was filled with the sickening scent of charred flesh, and the flames even appeared to have begun consuming the man’s face and left eye. The man spat and stammered with unimaginable pain, and tried to rip at the grass behind him to get away. His eyes stared at Leon and the boy, mouth agape.

“You brought this upon yourself,” Leon said quietly, leaning on his quarterstaff. “I can do nothing for you. If you survive, I would tell your fellows to avoid this road in the future.”

The man did not respond, inhaling and sputtering.

Leon turned, stepping towards Aeo. This time, he relied on his staff not as an act, but because he had truly spent most of his strength. He offered a hand to the boy, and Aeo reluctantly took it.

“Come,” Leon said, groaning to lift the boy to his feet. “We need to move on before more of them show up.”

Aeo looked upon the man for a moment. The more he summoned the flame, the more he understood the pain it could inflict. Harthoon died because of Aeo’s fear. The brutish man burned due to Aeo’s anger. The energy that drained from him fueled terror. The screaming of his victims and the blackened char left behind marked Aeo’s fury. He felt inhuman. Before this moment, his red hair and red eyes made him more victim than monster. But now that he could control his fire, even in the slightest degree, the monster inside him revealed itself.

And for the first time in his life, he learned that this monster had teeth.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

Leon said very little as the afternoon turned into evening, only speaking up a few times for water and for his marker. This only served to intensify the gnawing ache in Aeo’s stomach. The feeling didn’t come from hunger, but from the incredible anxiety of what had occurred just hours before. His falsely-righteous anger had melted into fear and then to grief. Just like Harthoon’s, the bandit’s screams rang in his ears, and blocked all desire for sleep. He ate to cure the pain, but the taste of food felt gray and lifeless. Even as the sky turned to night, his hands continued to tremble from the act they’d just committed.

Leon didn’t stop the wagon as the sun dipped beyond the horizon as he usually did; Aeo immediately thought perhaps that this was a form of punishment, that Aeo would be getting no sleep or dinner that night. He peered through the dark, watching Leon’s shadow as the cart drove on. Aeo didn’t dare say anything, or even cough, sniff, or make any noise that might draw the man’s attention.

Aeo turned from Leon away towards the back of the cart for a split second. Then, he heard a noise that sounded like a sack of potatoes falling off the cart. Aeo’s head swiveled around trying to spot the box or bag that had fallen from the wagon. Nothing appeared missing. He cleared his throat.

“Leon, something-”

He looked towards the driver’s seat.

Leon wasn’t there.

“Leon!” Aeo cried, opening the front flap. The driver’s seat was indeed empty. “Poro, bah-si! Bah-si!”

To his relief, Poro obeyed without trouble, coming to a halt. Aeo walked to the back of the wagon to look out, and sure enough, Aeo saw the outline of a man sprawled face-first in the grass just off the right side of the highway.

“No! Leon! No no no,” Aeo said, filled with desperation. Without hesitation, he leapt from the back of the wagon and ran over to Leon. Aeo did his best to turn him to his back, which required more effort than he anticipated. “Leon, please don’t die! You can’t die!”

To his surprise, Aeo heard a deep but quiet laugh.

“I’m not… dying…” Leon gasped, his breathing labored and thick with mucus. “My animis is… spent. My… bag… pink bottle… side pocket…”

“O-okay!” Aeo said, hopping to his feet. He scrambled back to the wagon, throwing the back bar down and grabbing Leon’s bag. He couldn’t see the pockets very well in the dim light, so he decided to take the whole thing. He raced back over and sat down at Leon’s side. Aeo fumbled around the bag and discovered only a single pocket on one side of the bag. After a moment, he succeeded in unlatching the pocket’s buckle, and shoved his hand inside. To his surprise, there was only one object inside the pocket: a slender five-inch bottle with a curious rubber seal in the place of a cork. The bottle itself wasn’t pink: it was the liquid within, which radiated a delicate rose-colored light.

“Can’t… lift my arms…” Leon whispered. “Need… some help… drinking it…”

“Okay,” Aeo said, and tugged at the seal of the bottle. It didn’t budge. He tried again, digging his fingernails into the rubber. No effect.

“It’s… warded,” Leon said. “It won’t… open for anyone… but me.”

“How do I…?” Aeo began to ask.

“Bring it… to my lips,” Leon said.

Aeo did so, and Leon began whispering very faintly; Aeo couldn’t make out individual words. When Leon took a breath, the small rubber seal of the bottle popped off and nearly hit him in the nose. Aeo grabbed it before it could roll to the ground.

“I’ll drink… slowly, please…” Leon said.

Aeo carefully poured the glowing liquid into Leon’s mouth. The bottle emptied, and the light faded as he swallowed without much trouble. For a moment, Leon’s eyes closed, and he simply laid in the darkness, breathing. Aeo sat beside him, watching him intently. For about a minute, the only thing Aeo could hear in the forest were the crickets that chirped away deep in the long grass.

The wagon then creaked forwards without a rider.

“Poro? Poro!” Aeo shouted. The horse was going to leave them both behind. But then, with tired grace, Poro lazily drove her and the cart in a 180-degree turn, driving towards the two humils before stopping and nuzzling her nose into Leon’s arm. “Oh.”

“Good girl,” Leon said with a nod. “Mey-naye fel-an ne. Le-jhe o-hi-ko. And you too, Aeo.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means… ‘don’t have worries…for me, favored girl’… For you, it would be… Le-jhe ohe-no. ‘Favored boy’.”

“Leon…” Aeo said, the bottle and the stopper still in his hands. “What happened? What did you drink? Was it a potion?”

“Yes…” Leon answered. “…and no. You’ll see more of that… at the Academy. It’s… Everspring aether. I should have drank it… hours ago, but… I wasn’t sure I needed it. It’s my… last one. At least I didn’t… black out. I… may have overdone it… with those ruffians. I hope… we got past their camp.”

Aeo looked around. There wasn’t a soul around besides the three of them on the road.

“Should we… hide?” Aeo asked. “In the trees?”

“Unless… you or Poro could drag me,” Leon said with an exhausted smile. “I don’t think… I’m going anywhere.”

“Um,” Aeo said. “Hmm.”

He stood up and grabbed Leon’s hand by the wrist. Likewise, he took Leon’s other hand, and, standing behind Leon, pulled with all of his might. Leon didn’t move at all.

“Ouch, ouch…”

“Sorry!” Aeo said, dropping Leon’s arms. They flopped quite uselessly down to the ground above Leon’s head.

“Hrmm…” Leon hummed. “I think… I think if Poro hides in the trees… and we remain quiet in the dark, we should… go unnoticed. At least… I had some sense to fall into the grass. You wouldn’t want to… pull my arms back down… would you?”

“Oh, yeah,” Aeo said, and did so quickly.

“Besides,” Leon said. “With the aether in me… I should be strong enough to move… before the sun rises.”

Leon closed his eyes.

“You might… need to drive, though,” he said.

“Me? But… what happened last time…”

“Poro wasn’t prepared last time,” Leon said. “With a little… encouragement, she’ll know what to do. All you really need… are the commands, and you know those. Go on… Find her a place to rest. Take my marker… so you don’t get lost. There should be… A stream some ways to the west. Unbuckle her… she knows where to go…”

“But…” Aeo said. “I don’t want to just… leave you here.”

“There’s not… much choice,” Leon said, nearly every word . “We must stay… hidden tonight.”

Aeo hesitated. Reaching into Leon’s bag, he pulled out the marker and opened it. ‘Lah-sev-rai’ made the marker illuminate in blue and green, blinding him for a moment. As his eyes adjusted, he saw himself, Leon, Poro, and the wagon as bright green dots upon a faded and thin green line of a road. And sure enough, a thin blue line to the west ran from north to south. There was little telling exactly how far away it flowed, but he would know if he started walking towards it.

“Go on,” Leon said. “I’ll be fine.”

Aeo stood, taking Poro’s reigns and pulling her gently off the road into the dark trees. Poro resisted for a moment until Leon spoke to her in drael-dena. It took a moment, Leon repeating his words two or three times before Poro finally relented. Aeo guided her and the wagon followed suit, rumbling over the rough dirt and long grass away from the road.

Poro quietly whinied and grunted, slowly following Aeo at the boy’s pace. The bumps in the long grass tripped them both up, slowing their pace further. Careful not to damage the marker (if it could be damaged at all), Aeo kept the parchment of the marker facing forwards in front of him, utilizing the light of the map to illuminate the path ahead. Once or twice, Aeo looked back in the dark to see if he could see Leon at all. Naturally, he could not. After about two hundred yards of walking, Aeo turned the map around and studied it.

Oh, not too far. Maybe just a bit farther.

Aeo saw much of Leon’s battle with the bandits. But he couldn’t fathom what made Leon so exhausted that he couldn’t move his body at all. The thought of it made him afraid of what could happen to him. In fact, it reminded him of what happened on the mountain. Perhaps the cold wasn’t what truly sapped his strength and caused him to collapse. Maybe it was the energy spent trying to defend himself. Examining both events in his mind, something bothered him about Harthoon’s attack: Aeo’s magick hadn’t conjured a mere flame like he had with the bandit. No, the fire that consumed Harthoon had been liquid in form, almost volcanic in appearance. With the bandit, Aeo simply lit the man on fire. Harthoon had been immolated. Aeo had control of himself with the bandit (though less so on his emotions). Aeo felt no control over his actions towards Harthoon. Was that the only difference? Maybe if Harthoon hadn’t been so wild and murderous, the results would have changed. Maybe if Aeo had some control, Harthoon might have caught fire, but still be alive.

But then Aeo would be dead. Right? If Harthoon didn’t stop when he did, and how he did, Aeo would have been in even more danger. Did his magick know the difference between panic and mortal danger? Were they the same thing? The inn burned down in panic, Harthoon died when Aeo panicked. But he could shield himself and set people ablaze if in mortal danger, too.

Aeo’s head hurt thinking about it, so he decided not to.

Aeo looked at the map again.

About halfway there.

Go back.

Aeo froze. Surprised, Poro paused as well, and the wagon came to a bumpy stop. Aeo held up the light of the map all around him. He saw nothing. The voice had been so close and yet so faint that it hardly seemed it had spoken up at all. Yet it had, and the hairs on the back of Aeo’s neck stood up on end. His heart pounded in his chest; he didn’t dare take another step.

It was a spirit, an apparition. Something that dwelled in the forest. Someone that obviously didn’t want to be disturbed. Surely.

Aeo, go back.

Aeo’s throat became dry, and he gasped in shock. The voice knew his name. Somehow, the voice that called out to him sounded neither masculine nor feminine. It simply was, and its direction was gentle and warm as if it had come from…

The dream.

It was the woman’s voice. At least, it had been a woman’s voice on the mountain. It sounded just like it.

“Who… are you?” Aeo called out to the darkness.

For a moment, nothing responded. Besides the crickets that sung their songs all around him and the rustling of leaves on the wind, there was no sound at all. Then, as if an icy canyon wall had cracked and fell upon an unsuspecting valley, the voice instructed Aeo more clearly:

To Leon! Go back!

“Leon?” Aeo asked, and then his frozen body thawed in an instant. “Leon! Uh, uh, Poro! I’ll be back! Wait for me!”

Poro made no signs that she understood, but there was obviously no time to lose. In a desperate sprint, Aeo raced back to Leon, stumbling again and again over rough rocks and loose dirt. There was no light to be seen towards his friend, and Aeo read the map as carefully as he could as he ran. There were many dots on the map. Two belonged to Poro and the wagon behind him. One belonged to him. And where Leon had once been singular on the road, there now shined five additional dots circling around him.

“No! Leon!” Aeo shouted. “I’m coming!”

Aeo decided that running across bumpy topography and studying cartography were two activities that did not belong together. But he needed information. What was surrounding Leon? A long, loud howl erupted about a hundred yards away. Then a second. Then a third.

Wolves.

As Aeo approached Leon’s position, he raised the map to his eyes. One pinprick of light was not moving. The five wolf dots now sensed his presence, and had moved their hunting spiral into a lurking half-circle.

“Leon?!” Aeo cried out.

“Here…”

Leon moaned above the sound of the crickets and the wind. If it were possible, Leon sounded weaker than he had before.

“Leon!” he approached, and saw Leon lying motionless on the grass. “A voice told me to come back! What do I do?!”

“Wolves…” Leon whispered, his voice faint. “I don’t… I… don’t…”

Leon’s half-conscious eyes closed.

“No! Leon!” Aeo shouted, kneeling down and shaking Leon’s shoulder. “Please wake up! Please! I need your help, I…!”

The wolves howls became louder and more distinct, and they had circled close enough for Aeo to hear their bodies rustling through the long grass. A simple meal: a wiry boy and a comatose man.

“No…” Aeo whispered, tears filling his eyes. Then his voice raised. “No! Don’t come any closer! You’re not taking him away from me! Understand?!”

Suddenly, from the dim light of the map, he saw three shadowy shapes emerge from the brush, snarling and gnashing their teeth. Black wolves with matted, bristling fur and diseased fangs slowly approached the pair, their eyes reflecting blue and green. They took low positions, tuned like feral springs, ready to strike and rend flesh from bone.

“Get away!” Aeo shouted, rising to his feet and flaring out his arms. The three visible wolves stopped their advance. Although well within striking distance, they paused, sizing up the threat level of their targets.

Aeo’s anger rose like a violent fever, rising in his chest and filling him. They chose now to attack, when Leon was at his weakest.

You’ll never take him!

“I’ll kill you!” Aeo cried, his eyes flaring wide. “I’ll kill you all!”

A bright blue sky, illuminated by a crimson star…

His animis flowed through his arms along with the adrenaline. While only partially aware, his balled-up fists began to smoke as the bones within his hands began to glow bright orange. Although he had never fought a day in his life, his anger and animis brought him an intense amount of focus. So much so that when the lead wolf leapt forward to strike, Aeo’s fist had already begun to fly. Pain shot through his arm as his fist connected squarely with the wolf’s eye, and to his expectation, the wolf’s head burst into turgid flame. Shrieking, the wolf collapsed and attempted to shake the flame off. It did not come off.

A bright sun… Brighter than heaven’s transcendent glow…

The attacks of the other two wolves were initially more successful than the first. The one on the right struck downwards and wrapped his jaws around Leon’s leg in a vain attempt to eat first. The left one lunged forwards and sunk his teeth deep into Aeo’s forearm and writhed. Aeo screamed as dark blood poured from his torn skin. In response, Aeo wrapped his sore hand around the wolf’s maw. The wolf did not detach from Aeo’s arm right away… at least, until Aeo’s hand produced a thick oil-like substance from his fingers that burst into flame and began scorching the fur and melting the wolf’s face.

With two wolves thrashing upon the ground, Aeo dealt with the third. Bending down, the bright fiery glow of his hands muscled the gray-black wolf’s upper and lower jaw away from Leon’s leg and upwards with power Aeo had never experienced… and filled its mouth to the brim with a raging inferno of lava. The wolf’s deafening scream sharply defined itself despite the gurgling of the magickal stream of plasma.

He reached his hand to the sun, never quite touching it…

By this time, the first wolf had retreated as well as could be expected as a bonfire raged across its face and back, and the following two were on the ground in their death throws as the thick fire crawled across their faces and down their throats. The two other wolves then appeared, completely unaware of what had occurred with their pack mates. They growled and spit, ready to pounce and devour.

But this time, his fingers touched the sun’s glorious face… It was beautiful…

Aeo’s eyes erupted in a white-hot fury as he held his hands towards the two remaining wolves; he could see them both, the forest, and the mountain as clear as day. Before the wolves could react, the boy’s hands exploded in a short-lived but violent torrent of fire. Both wolves were consumed, their entire bodies set ablaze as if thrown into a crucible of molten iron. They threw themselves backwards and rolled along the road to extinguish the flames from their fur, but there was no extinguishing a fire they did not control. Instead, they retreated into the long grass, leaving a trail of embers behind them.

May we meet one day… You and I…

Why not now?

I will be here when you need me…

I don’t understand.

You will, in time…

There was no more noise in his ears. The light from his eyes faded to black. The adrenaline wore off, and the animis from his arms and chest released and became nothing but a void. Blood dripped freely from his arm. The fires that had consumed the wolves extinguished themselves, and Aeo felt free…

Until the ground hit him in the back of the head.

Alyssum – Chapter Thirteen

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Two Days Later

Leon’s evocation marker was an incredible object. The scroll-like marker consisted of two finely-carved cylindrical ivory containers and what appeared to be a thick page of vellum between them. When the scroll opened, the vellum would unfurl from within the cylinders to present a “blank” page, and when closed, the vellum retracted precisely when intended and not a moment sooner. With the “blank” page open, Leon could say any number of ashanti words (in a language he called drael-dena) to “command” the scroll to reveal important information, all displayed in a variety of shimmering colored lines and light. The word ‘lah-sev-rai’ would cause a list to appear upon the vellum, revealing, as Leon explained, a record of the various supplies and ingredients carried in the wagon (minus the concealed ones, of course). With the word ‘nal-dor-ma’, the vellum would reveal a map of the surrounding area. And with the words ‘dah-si’ and ‘dah-sol’ respectively, the map would enlarge or shrink to reveal more or less of the world around their current location. It even displayed the wagon, Poro, and the faint shimmering outlines of deer moving through the forest. How the marker could do all of this, Aeo hadn’t the faintest idea.

One of the most important commands for the marker was the word ‘fah-coh-pah’, which enabled Leon to contact any other marker he knew the name of. He used this function to contact an ashanti by the name of Master Kane Dolshir, someone Leon had mentioned before as a peer in the alchemy department of the Academy. His voice came in loud and clear as if he were sitting in the wagon himself, and Leon didn’t even need the marker to be open to speak to him.

“Leon, it is wonderful to hear from you, my boy!” The ashanti’s accent was very pronounced, almost lyrical in its deep bass tones. “I haven’t heard from you in ages! Where have you been all this time? I haven’t been able to contact you.”

Aeo remained quiet.

“I’m about six weeks’ travel from the Everspring,” Leon said, holding Poro’s reigns as the wagon rolled on down the dirt road. “Traveling south in Antiell. You can track my marker if you’d like. Is this evocation shielded?”

There was a slight pause, and then the sound of Master Dolshir mumbling a few ashanti words.

“It is now,” Master Dolshir said. “But when you say things like that, I worry for your safety. Have you been on the road for two years, or working in one spot in particular?”

“A year and half in one spot. I didn’t dare contact anyone in that time. Let’s just say I have quite the haul of fascinating flora our first level students will fall in love with. As for the rest, Kane, I’m afraid I’ll have to speak with you privately when I arrive. Just know that it’s important, and I’ll need to rely on your assistance.”

“You’ll have it, of course,” Master Dolshir said. “But not even a shielded conversation will suffice? Tell me straight, Leon, are you in danger?”

Leon paused.

“I don’t believe so,” he said. “But my work can’t have gone unnoticed. Especially now. I’m afraid I may have overplayed my hand.”

Aeo frowned, sitting in the back of the wagon with a blanket around him and listening intently. They were in danger? From who? From what?

“Well,” Master Dolshir said, sounding as if he were settling into a chair. “That isn’t out of character for you. One of these days, no-mwen, someone’s going to discover what you’re up to. Do I even want to know?”

No-mwen, the drael-dena word for ‘clever boy’. Ironically used, Leon was sure.

“You’ll want to know, yes,” Leon said. “But I guarantee you won’t like it.”

“A feeling I am familiar with,” Master Dolshir said with a sigh. “Very well. I shall await your arrival with great anticipation.”

“Oh, and another thing,” Leon said. “I have a new apprentice, he’ll need citizenship papers for the Academy when we cross the border. You wouldn’t mind putting those together, would you Kane? Come, Aeo, say hello.”

Aeo dropped the blanket and stumbled towards the front of the cart.

“An apprentice?” Master Dolshir said. “Wonderful! I didn’t know you were looking for one! That is something I can certainly do. What’s his name again?”

“Come, say your name,” Leon said, turning in his seat to offer Aeo the marker.

“Umm… It’s Aeo, sir.”

Vai-kahl, my boy! Let me write that down. Did you say ‘Aay-oh-seer’?”

Aeo looked puzzled. Leon smiled and rolled his eyes a bit.

“No, Kane,” he said. “Just Aeo. A-E-O, I believe. A fairly common Antielli name. Does that sound right, Aeo?”

“Um… I think so.”

“Does Aeo have a last name?” Master Dolshir asked.

“I don’t… believe so,” Leon said.

Aeo nodded.

“Interesting,” Master Dolshir said plainly. Aeo wasn’t sure what he meant by that. “Is he Antielli? Eye color, hair color? Date of birth?”

Aeo shook his head, his long hair flopping about.

“Red eyes. Red hair. And… we’re not sure about the birthdate,” Leon said.

There was another pause.

“Ah. I see.”

“He’s a free Edian now, but I don’t have any papers to prove his freedom. Everything was performed fairly… unofficially. Do you think we’ll have a problem at the border?”

“I don’t believe so,” Master Dolshir said. “Not as long as there is an Academy representative at the crossing expecting you. I’ll ask one of my students if they would travel there for some extra credit.”

“Also,” Leon said. “Aeo may have… burned down a village. All on his own. I am unsure if rumors of the destruction will reach the border before we will.”

Another pause.

“Wonderful,” he said, decidedly less enthusiastic than before. “I won’t question your motivations, Leon. But what makes you think the Academy would want to accept a practicing arsonist? The Academy already has more than our fair share of firestarters who would be in prison if not for education reform.”

That word again, Aeo thought. Arsonist. Firestarter. Is that what it means?

“Well, he didn’t start the fire with matches or bombs, Kane,” Leon said. Aeo kept his mouth shut. “It was magickal, and the boy’s only… eight? Nine? He shows a lot of promise as a thaumaturgist. He just needs training and discipline. Master Naal will have his hands full, but I think he’ll be overjoyed to have a student like Aeo.”

“I suppose so,” Master Dolshir said with a laugh. “As long as he isn’t brewing dioxide bombs and hurling nitrate flares in the hallway!”

“No, nothing like that,” Leon said with a chuckle. “Although I expect a few singed shirts and pants here and there. Eh, Aeo?”

Leon patted Aeo’s head, and Aeo attempted a smile. The thought of holding fire in his hands again filled him with an unmistakable dread.

“Okay, ‘red’, ‘red’, ‘unknown’ birthdate, approximately age nine… Academy class: fourth level thaumaturgy. Do you know your heritage, Aeo? Your parents? I don’t suppose you know if you were born in Edia. Were you, my boy?”

Aeo frowned and shook his head. His earliest memories said something otherwise, but he honestly didn’t know. Same with parents: only vague figures and voices, nothing concrete.

“A lot of unknowns, I’m afraid,” Leon said, noticing Aeo’s reaction.

“My apologies,” said Master Dolshir’s voice. “Well, it matters not what you were, it only matters what you’ll soon become. Your destiny will be yours and yours alone.”

“Yeah,” Aeo whispered.

“No arguments here,” Leon said. “Need anything else?”

“Don’t suppose you know the boy’s height or weight?”

Leon looked at Aeo, and Aeo looked at Leon.

“Not a clue,” Leon said. He smirked. “Short and skinny aren’t appropriate for state papers, though.”

“Hey, I’m not short,” Aeo pouted. He could accept skinny.

“I’m kidding,” Leon replied with a whisper.

“Indeed they’re not. But that will give me enough to work with; I’ll write down averages, and that should suffice. I don’t expect the Antielli border patrol to start weighing and measuring every immigrant that passes through their lands.”

“I worry they might make an exception for an Edian boy,” Leon said. “But I’ll trust in the student you send to meet us. I’ll contact you again when we’re closer to the border.”

“Excellent,” Master Dolshir said. “And, Leon… It’s good to hear from you. I expect you’ll have a grand story to tell me.”

“Yes, I will. Thank you Kane.”

“Shall I contact your mother to let her know you’re coming?”

Leon paused for a moment.

“No,” he said. “I’ll meet with her when we arrive.”

There was silence on the other end for a split second.

“If you’re certain,” Master Dolshir said.

“I’m certain,” Leon replied, adjusting his position on the driver’s seat. Aeo frowned. That didn’t make much sense. Two years away from his mother, and he wants to wait another six weeks to say hello?

“Well, if there’s anything else you need from me,” Master Dolshir said. “Don’t hesitate to contact me. Do you have the supplies you need for your journey?”

“We’re nearing the town of Rurali. Shouldn’t be another day before we can get what we need.”

“Very good,” Master Dolshir said. “I’ll talk to you again soon?”

“Yes, thank you Kane.”

With that, the evocation faded, and Leon handed the marker to Aeo.

“Put that back in my bag, would you?” he asked.

“Sure,” Aeo said, walking to the back of the wagon.

“We want to be certain,” Leon said, turning his attention to the road ahead. “That when we cross the border, the soldiers there don’t think I’m attempting to smuggle an Edian slave to Ashant. The more questions they have, the more likely they’ll detain us… and commandeer the wagon. And that’s the last thing we want. I certainly hope whoever Kane sends to meet us knows how to sweet-talk Antielli soldiers.”

“Sweet-talk?” Aeo said. “What’s that mean?”

“Convince in a clever way,” Leon said. “Eh, praise someone even if you don’t mean it so they’ll do what you ask.”

“Isn’t that wrong?” Aeo asked, returning to the front of the cart.

Leon looked up at the bright morning sky and pursed his lips.

“Not exactly,” Leon said with a laugh. “Not if you can get away with it.”

Aeo arched an eyebrow.

“Sounds sneaky.”

“It can be. Perhaps I’ll have to show you how it’s done when we reach the border.”

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

The Next Day

The sun shone bright on the the western frontier highway, surrounded by beautiful pine forests and the rustling of orange, yellow, and red poplar and oak leaves. With the Falas Mountains draped in white to the east and the expansive Lake Darlendas to the west, the wagon rode along on a bumpy dirt path that felt more like a tight corridor than a proper road. Either way, the highway was fairly flat, and offered Aeo and Leon more comfort than the terrible pathways the mountain had afforded. The temperature had also increased considerably, and Aeo no longer felt the need for a blanket or his fur boots. In fact, for the first time in his life, he began to sweat a little bit as the canvas of the wagon permeated the afternoon heat.

It was about this time that Aeo realized something truly awful: he and his boots stunk to the high heavens. No surprise there, having been without a proper bath for about three or four weeks. He didn’t tell Leon, and hoped he wouldn’t say anything. After removing his boots, Aeo got a good look at his feet for the first time in bright sunlight: the tips of his toes remained slightly blistered and raw, and skin had begun to peel away from the darker colors. Immense relief came to Aeo as he finally aired out; now that the atmosphere no longer felt like an icebox, he could relax at long last. Even Leon had shed his grand coat and gloves, opting instead of a pair of avyasilk pants (that’s what Leon called the material, anyway), suspenders, and a white linen shirt with the sleeves rolled up. With his spectacles, he looked positively like a fourth-level schoolteacher.

After an hour or so, Aeo settled in against the blankets was about to fall asleep to the rumbling wagon and the gentle heat. But then he heard Leon’s voice: “Aeo, look.”

“Huh?” he asked, rubbing off the sleep in his eyes.

“We’re almost there.”

Aeo leaned against the front of the cart and peered through the opening towards the road ahead. For the first time in two weeks, Aeo saw signs of civilization in the form of small thatched farmhouses and stables, with large fields carved out of the expansive treeline to make way for waves of amber grain, bristling blowing in the gentle breeze. On both sides of the road, wooden fences penned fatted cows, growing calves, graceful mares, and strong stallions from wandering too far into the wolf-infested foothills of Falas. For about half an hour, the view remained much the same as the wagon passed field after field, farmhouse after farmhouse. It didn’t matter, though; Aeo sat at the wagon’s front, enthralled. Occasionally, Aeo would see young children playing in front of their homes with their mothers looking on, and farmhands harvesting the ripened fields. Birds flew from tree to tree, singing their harmonious songs to each other.

“It’s quite the sight, isn’t it?” Leon asked. “Much more lively and colorful than Olvaren.”

“What is all that?” Aeo asked, pointing. “All the yellow?”

“What is… Oh, you mean the field? I imagine it’s wheat or barley. Never seen a field like that before?”

“No,” Aeo said. “But I’ve seen beet fields once. And lettuce and carrots. There was a garden in the back of the inn… for a while. I guess Aristé gave it up.”

“She wouldn’t let you tend to the garden?” Leon asked.

“I was too little,” Aeo said.

“Well, good news. When we get to the Academy, one of the things you can do is help me tend to my garden. It’s up on the balcony of my workroom, and it’s filled with all sorts of herbs and flowers. I’d even pay you to watch over it.”

Aeo’s eyes opened wider.

“Really?” he asked quietly. “With money?”

“Ha, certainly,” Leon said cheerfully. “You’ll have lots of opportunities to help me. That’s what it means to be my apprentice. I’m not the best teacher in the world when it comes to your talents. So technically you’ll be working with Master Edin-Rao Naal for your primary schooling, but you’ll assist me with my projects while you’re not busy studying. Unless, of course, you decide to go exercise, or eat in the refectory, or read books in the library…”

Aeo hunched over and rested his head on his arms.

“I… don’t know how to read,” he said glumly.

Leon nearly dropped the reins.

“What?” Leon frowned, and raised his voice. “Oh, of course, it’s only natural… Never teach a slave anything, and they’ll never run away, right? The unmitigated gall of those bloody… mel-ysok. The only thing that makes me angrier than slavery is the neglect of a child.”

Aeo sat up and gulped. He hadn’t expected that. When Aeo didn’t say anything for a few passing moments, Leon cleared his throat.

“Sorry, Aeo,” Leon said. “That’s a bad ashanti word, and you shouldn’t repeat it.”

Aeo made a mental note.

“…would you…teach me how to read?” Aeo asked.

“Absolutely,” Leon said. “That will be our first priority when we arrive. I’ll speak with the linguistics department and I’ll have their finest tutor help you. I’ll assist your study as well.”

Aeo had never thought it an option. The idea filled him with a strange thrill.

“How did you fare at the inn without knowing how to read?” Leon asked.

Aeo shrugged.

“People just told me what they wanted to eat,” he said. “I memorized the menu, sort of. I memorized their orders, too. Sometimes priests would come and teach about the Goddess, and they would hand out papers. I tried to learn how to read them, but I couldn’t figure it out by myself.”

“Well, it was good of you to try,” Leon said. “It means you have the desire to learn. And it’s good you have a keen mind for memorization. There’s more to learning than just memorizing, of course, but it does help.”

As the wagon continued down the road, the houses seemed to clump together in tighter groups and the fields became smaller and more neatly aligned with proper fencing. Then, unbelievably, the dirt road turned into a pebbled cobblestone avenue. The dwellings grew taller, no longer made of timber and thatch but of stone and brick. The townspeople hastily went to and fro, not minding the wagon that rode through the main thoroughfare. Every so often, a person or two would make a passing glance at Leon, then stare at the red-eyed boy peering through the wagon flap. Or, at least, it seemed that way, as many of these people’s faces grew sour at the sight. Aeo did his best to hide and watch the town’s wonders at the same time.

Stationed every so often would be a man or woman clothed in chain or leather armor, carrying a sword at their belts or a spear in their hands. Leon waved at one of them, a particularly large Rurali town guard, and stopped Poro with a quick shout of “bah-si”.

“Good afternoon, sir,” Leon said with a cheerful voice. “Could you direct me to the town’s general store? I’m looking to purchase supplies for my travels.”

With a flash of annoyance and a gruff manner, the man directed Leon further into the town, apparently just a few blocks from their destination. Leon thanked him, and the wagon rolled forwards with a “nee-ah”.

Rurali appeared completely different from Olvaren. Where the small mountain town had a few simple outdoor stalls and a humble cabin store that everyone collectively called a marketplace, Rurali had rows and rows of shops and specialty services filled with people. Flower carts filled with chrysanthemums and begonias, row after row of fresh apples, pumpkins, cauliflower, and potatoes, and even strange lifted seats upon which people sat while an attendant wiped their boots and shined their shoes with dirty cloths; at least they looked dirty from a distance. Horses lined the streets, being ridden or tied to posts waiting for their riders to return. Supplies filled wagon after wagonby carried by strong men, loaded or unloaded depending on their destination. The air faintly smelled of manure (to be truthful), but also of baked bread, delicate perfumes, and the scent of blooming roses.

Aeo even saw a few red-haired women and children carrying loads and sacks in their arms or over their shoulders; if they were slaves like he had been, their owners actually let them walk outside freely. Everything was slightly mesmerizing; how much more amazing and active would the Academy be?

Leon pulled the reins to one side, and the wagon turned down a particularly busy road. With great care, Leon and Poro worked together to maneuver towards a large whitewashed two-story building. It wore large black letters painted above the entrance. The wagon stopped just besides the great building on the far edge of the cobbled road.

“Leleve’s Market and Emporium,” Leon said, reading the sign. “Charming.”

Aeo obtained a peek through the entrance, and saw the store filled with a enormous crowd. Aeo thought it was a crowd, at least; he no longer had a frame of reference for anything.

“All right, Aeo,” Leon said, turning in the driver’s seat to face him. “I’m going to head inside. Can you watch over the cart while I’m gone? Don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t think people would appreciate a… partially-naked boy running around barefoot in the store.”

“Oh,” Aeo said. “Um… I can put my boots on. Please?”

Leon considered for a moment.

“I need you to watch the cart so people don’t come to steal anything.” Seeing Aeo’s face, he said: “Don’t worry, you probably won’t even be bothered. I’ll come back out with some fresh clothes for you. Afterwards, we can find some place to spend the night, and come back to shop after a fresh bath. Surely the local inn has one. I’m starting to smell a bit ripe. I’m sure you are too.”

Aeo wrinkled his nose and frowned. So he had noticed.

“I guess…” he said quietly.

“Thank you, Aeo,” Leon said, jumping down from the wagon. He stepped over and tied Poro up to one of the posts, then came around to the back to grab his bag. “I won’t be gone long.”

With that, Leon entered the store and disappeared into the crowd. Feeling somewhat abandoned, Aeo instinctively shut the front flap of the wagon and rolled himself up in a fur blanket despite the heat. Dozens of people passed either coming or going from the store. No one looked into the wagon deliberately, but he saw a few curious eyes peer inside and notice him. The way they all dressed was so different from Olvaren: the men wore suspenders and work shirts and vests, and Aeo even spotted a few wealthy-looking gentlemen with blue or red tunics and doublets topped off with floppy-looking hats. Most women wore long dresses and aprons of drab colors, but once in a while Aeo saw younger women dressed much like the men in a variety of pale colors. No one wore coats or gloves in Rurali. Many wore leather or straw hats, not to stay warm but to hide their eyes from the sun. Like Olvaren, the men wore facial hair in all manner of ways, including some of the red-haired and red-eyed Edian folk. Dark-skinned or light, the Edians seemed more than tolerated in this raucous concourse.

To keep himself from panicking, Aeo dug into the food crate and pulled out a pair of apples. To be truthful, the fact that Leon allowed him to essentially eat as he pleased was both a thrill and burden. He’d been refused from feeding himself for so long, he couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for doing so. But in the intervening days traveling with Leon, it was becoming more habit to snack every so often, even without asking for permission. After all, Leon did it himself, relying on Aeo to be his assistant as he drove.

For a few minutes, Aeo munched on an apple and watched the passing people from inside the wagon. He felt sleepy, but too worried about someone jumping into the wagon demanding money or food to rest his eyes. Eventually, with both apples eaten, cores and all, he sat there and wondered what he should do. What should he do? After all this time, he felt nervous whenever he wasn’t doing something. But then again, he was doing something by waiting for Leon. And unlike Leon, he couldn’t crack open one of Leon’s alchemy textbooks and read, lacking the skill and all.

He tried to keep Pick and Harthoon from his mind, but just a few days time was not enough to process everything. Harthoon in particular; he could still hear his former master’s screams. How in the world did he summon such a terrible flame to his hands? If he found himself in mortal danger like that again, could he repeat the act? What if Leon attempted to teach him and Aeo accidentally unleashed such a potent flame upon him? Surely Leon had ways to protect himself from Aeo’s inexperience. Right?

In the short time he and Leon traveled, Leon had made no effort to teach Aeo anything about magick. But then again, Leon seemed very tired by the end of each day, and rose with the sun to continue on the road. They seemed to travel at quite a steady pace, nearly in a rush now that the road had flattened. Maybe a night in a proper bed would do them both some good.

Deep in his musings, something caught Aeo’s eye. A large uncovered cart had turned down the street, lead by a pair of brown horses. It slowly approached the general store at a generous speed, weaving through the people crossing the road. Three men rode the wagon, an Antielli driver and what appeared to be two red-haired Edian men. Then, without provocation, the driver pointed.

Right at Aeo.

His stomach sank immediately as the wagon approached. Within a few meters of Leon’s wagon, the cart came to a halt.

“Hey!” the driver shouted at Aeo, waving his hands. “You, kid! You can’t park your wagon here! I’ve got goods to deliver!”

Aeo’s eyes widened, and he didn’t say a word. Maybe if he didn’t look scared, the man and his cart would drive away. They didn’t, of course, and the man stood from the driver’s seat, his face turning a fuming red color.

“Oy, small fry! Are you listening to me?! I said you can’t park here! Get your wagon out of the way!”

Aeo, stunned, couldn’t form words. He attempted to make himself as small as possible in the back of the wagon. Naturally, this didn’t work. The Edian men looked over at the boy in the wagon with dull faces. Unlike them, the driver appeared positively furious. He stepped down from the driver’s seat onto the ground. Walking over to the back of Leon’s wagon, he slapped his hands against the back bar.

“Move your wagon! Now!”

Some people in the crowd began to notice the spectacle. The driver’s voice couldn’t have raised louder. At last, Aeo sputtered.

“I don’t… I don’t know how… It w-was Leon parked here, he sh-sh-should be back soon…”

“I don’t care who your owner is, you little waste,” the man hissed. “If you don’t move this wagon right now, I’m calling the guards and make sure they throw you behind bars. Now moveyourwagon.”

His tone was familiar. Too familiar. In a blind panic, Aeo lifted himself from his seat and opened the front flap of the wagon. He crawled through and sat upon the driver’s seat only to realize that Poro’s reigns were still tightly tied to the post down below. Aeo hastily jumped down from the wagon, and hard cobblestone hammered his bare feet. He clawed at Leon’s knot, but couldn’t immediately get it undone.

“Hurry up, kid! Get your wagon gone now!”

Aeo’s fingers fumbled, and at last freed the reigns. He clambered back onto the driver’s seat and immediately felt the wagon shudder under Poro’s power. She knew she was free, and Leon was not the one directing her.

What are the words… What are the words?!

It came to him in an instant.

“Uh, nee-ah, Poro!” Aeo mumbled. “Nee-ah!”

“What’s taking so long?!” the driver shouted, approaching Aeo. “I’m calling a guard! That will teach you to waste my time, you little-”

“I’m trying, sir!” Aeo shouted. Just as he’d seen Leon do, Aeo slapped the reigns and shouted loud and clear: “Nee-ah!”

“Aeo!” a voice shouted.

Aeo wasn’t certain what happened first. The driver of the cart raced towards him and nearly grabbed Aeo’s leg with his thick hands. At the same time, Poro winnied like mad. She must have become as panicked as Aeo, because she charged forwards with all of her might into the crowd before her. Aeo nearly fell off the cart from Poro’s power and the pull of the cart driver, but just held on to the driver seat by his fingertips; the reigns were long gone from his grip. Poro’s hooves stampeded down the cobblestone road, with the wagon wheels rumbling and creaking like a chaotic earthquake. Men and women screamed, pulling themselves and their children out of the path of the runaway wagon. Poro didn’t collide with anyone herself, but the wagon came dangerously close to hammering some of the more oblivious. Worse, Poro showed no signs of slowing down in the slightest. She galloped at full speed down the cobblestone road as if wolves were chasing her heels.

Of course, Aeo didn’t understand the specifics of the situation. He was too busy trying to hang on for dear life.

“Poro!”

What is the word?!

Bah-si! Bah-si!” he screamed.

No reaction from Poro. In fact, she seemed to speed up.

Bah-si!” he screamed again, feeling his hands slipping. His feet nearly scraped the ground, and were about to skid across the unforgiving stone like a plucked chicken.

Unbeknownst to him, the end of the thoroughfare approached in the form of a fairly well-constructed brick wall. In a split second peek, he saw it, and tried to haul himself up to the driver’s seat.

Bah-si, Poro! Bah-si!”

No use.

Poro was an intelligent horse. Even in her stressed state, she knew she carried a heavy load, and she recognized a solid obstacle when she saw one. As the crowd of people thinned near the end of the road, Poro took a desperately-hard right turn. The wagon nearly tumbled over.

Aeo flew straight off.

He expected the back of his skull and his spine to shatter against the cobblestone. He suspected his end had come in a rush of violence. To his surprise, he never met the ground. At least, not as immediately as he should have. He heard the sound of a hammer shattering a glass window, and suddenly gravity no longer held him for a miniscule moment. Then, he careened through the air in a backflip, and raised his hands to shield himself from the ground. This time he saw the source of the sound: in a bright flash of blue light, a bubble-like surface about a foot from Aeo’s outstretched hands made the boy bounce as if it held him in a weightless, cracking into pieces like someone threw a rock through a mirror.

Aeo continued to flip twice more, and with each collision, the bubble appeared and fragmented against the ground, suspending Aeo above the road each time. On the last flip, the bubble no longer appeared. Aeo crashed into the ground hands and knees first.

For a moment, he allowed the pain to occur. Not a lot did. Lifting himself, he looked at his scuffed hands: no blood, but he’d scrapped off a bit of skin. He slowly stood to his feet, and looked at his knees: a little tender from the stone road, but none the worse for wear.

Then Aeo spun around. Poro was nowhere to be found. On the ground were the bright-blue remains of the mysterious “glass”, spread across the cobblestone like so many pulverized shards of light. Within a few seconds, those shards disappeared, melting into thin wisps of smoke and fading from view.

Perhaps three dozen onlookers stood staring in awe and pointing their fingers right at him.

Blood rushed to his head, and not because he’d been injured. He looked back at the road from whence he’d come, and to his horror, four men in chainmail, swords, and helmets were charging towards him. He didn’t dare stay, but he didn’t dare flee. He simply remained still.

“You! Boy!” shouted a guard. “Don’t you dare move!”

Once they were upon him, two guards grabbed Aeo’s arms by the wrist and yanked him forwards.

“No, please!” Aeo cried, struggling quite uselessly. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! Please!”

“Don’t resist!” shouted a particularly imposing guard. “It’s the lock-up for you, you stupid boy! You nearly ran over an entire load of people with that bloody wagon of yours!”

“For all we know, your idiot horse is still running!” another guard shouted.

“It’s… it’s not my horse!” Aeo said in a panic, tears immediately cascading down his face. “It’s Leon’s! I d-didn’t know how to drive it, and this man made me do it, and-”

“Shut up, boy!” said the first guard, practically lifting Aeo with one mighty arm. “And believe me, we’ll be having a chat with this ‘Leon’!”

“No, no! Please! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

People stared at the boy, especially the angry ones that had nearly been run down. The guards hauled Aeo down the road towards a large red-brick building with a large sign that Aeo, in his panic, couldn’t have read even if he knew how. If Aeo stepped into that building, he knew his life with Leon would be over. He’d be sent back to Olvaren. He’d have to explain to Aristé how Harthoon died. She would kill him with her bare hands.

“No, no, no!” Aeo shouted, scraping his feet along the ground to gain traction.

“Stop… struggling!” the head guard screamed. “Carry him if you have to! Continue to resist, and it’s lashes for you, you little Edian shit!”

One of the guards opened the door to the building.

A voice shouted from somewhere distant in the crowd.

“Wait!”

The guards ignored the voice at first, and one of the guards lifted Aeo clear off the ground.

“Let me go! Please let me go!”

“Wait!” the voice shouted again, closer this time. “Wait, gentlemen, please!”

The town guards turned towards the sound, pausing their advance with Aeo in their grasp. A familiar figure approached them, practically wheezing from a strenuous run. Leon. In his arms he held a bundle of clothing.

“Please, wait,” Leon gasped, his hands on his knees.

“Are you the owner of this boy? Answer me!” the head guard demanded.

“I am… the caretaker… of the boy, yes.”

“What the hell was the boy doing, racing a wagon down the road at such speed?” the guard asked. “And during the busiest time of day! You do realize that he might have killed people!”

“Officer, you don’t have all the facts,” Leon said loudly. “I saw the whole thing, but didn’t have time to stop it… A very confrontational man nearly assaulted the boy, and Aeo acted the only way he knew how: by attempting to drive our wagon away from him. Of course, inexperienced as he is, my horse panicked at his attempt. It’s not the boy’s fault. If you want to arrest someone, the fool is at the general store right now gloating about it!”

“You expect me to believe that?” the guard demanded. “It doesn’t matter why it happened! The boy’s crime is at least six months in lock-up for his recklessness, maybe more if he hurt anyone! And I should probably arrest you as well for letting it happen!”

“Look, I know you’re all reasonable men,” Leon said. “People may have been frightened, but it doesn’t appear that anyone was injured, at least from what I saw on my run over here. Please, I can pay you to let us go.”

“Ha! A bribe, is it!” laughed the guard nearest the door.

“Call it a fine,” Leon said. “Let me compensate you, whatever you think is fair to cover the distress we caused. We will leave by tomorrow morning once we’re resupplied, and we promise not to return.”

The guard looked about ready to explode, but he paused mid-breath and looked back at the others for a moment.

“A fine, you say. I’d have to pass it by the chief,” he grunted. “Believe me, the fine is going to cost you.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Leon replied, breathless. “But I am willing to pay it.”

“Put the boy down,” the guard said. “But don’t you dare run, you little twerp. Follow me into the station.”

The moment the guard released his hold on Aeo, the boy leaped forwards and wrapped his arms around Leon’s waist and cried. Leon embraced the boy, and led him wobbling into the building.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

As the afternoon wore painfully onwards into the dark evening, ominous steel-gray clouds smothered the bright sky that had so dominated the pleasant atmosphere of Rurali’s day. Aeo sat upon the edge of his large wool-filled mattress, having been escorted by two armed guards to a quiet inn on the southern edge of the village. Using his marker’s map, Leon tracked down the wagon and Poro. She was quite winded and distressed, but she had indeed stopped on the northern edge of town, choosing to help herself to an empty field of long grass to calm down. Leon had yet to return; he’d departed to reorganize the wagon and drive it back to the general store in order to complete his resupply. Distant thunder slowly became more considerable as rain began to pitter-patter on the roof, rising into a constant torrent of noise.

It didn’t rain much in Olvaren, certainly not in any heavy amount. Perhaps in Rurali, it occurred more often. Aeo decided he liked the sound of rain. It smothered his thoughts, for there were too many going through his head to even attempt sleep. He itched his shoulder; it was now covered by a light white cotton tunic that draped a few inches too long down his arms and about his waist. His disgusting rags (which could hardly be called pants by this point) had been thrown away, replaced with proper brown hempen trousers. Leon had even purchased white cotton underwear for him, something he’d never worn in any meaningful way; perhaps he had worn cloth diapers when he was three or four, but those hardly counted. He wore long white socks that dangled loosely at his toes no matter how tightly he pulled them up his legs, and comfortable slip-on shoes made of soft leather.

It didn’t feel right. None of it. The fresh feeling of a bath in a real ceramic tub with actual warm water, the brush of comfortable clothing on his skin, the creaking bed upon which he sat, the potato soup dinner that filled his stomach, the sound of the rain and the crackle of fire from the open cast iron stove in the corner of the room… Everything that filled his senses made him feel completely ashamed. He deserved none of these pleasures. This marked the second time Leon had paid for Aeo’s mistakes, and this time he had been there to hear the price: two-hundred and fifty-five gold pieces. Not copper, not silver, but gold. Enough to purchase a small house, and Leon carried that much and apparently more in his bag.

The guards were right: Aeo belonged in a cell. Better yet, he deserved to remain a slave. He didn’t dare think of the Gray Pale, but perhaps there was somewhere else he could go. Some other work to which he could be suited. A farm, maybe. He’d taken care of horses before. Maybe he could work as a server in a bar. He was well-acquainted with booze, after all.

Lightning flashed through the room’s single window, startling him for a moment before a peal of thunder rocked through the building. Even that didn’t quiet his mind.

What of his magic? Could he conceal it? Maybe, maybe not. It seemed whenever his life was in danger, the blue light would appear to protect him… or fire would come and cause as much damage as possible. When he fell from the wagon, it felt as though he bounced weightless, suspended within a big glass container, its surface of light breaking and cracking and shattering over and over until Aeo came to a halt. In the end, all the pieces drifted away on the breeze and vanished as if nothing had happened.

He hadn’t told Leon. There had been no time to do so. Maybe Leon didn’t need to know. Maybe Leon would get tired of his company. Maybe Leon could drop him off at the next village and let him go to Edia. Maybe he could-

The door to the room slowly opened. Leon stepped in with his bag and several other items in his arms. His hair was sopping wet, as was his thick coat.

“Hello,” he said without expression, shedding his coat and hanging it on a peg next to the doorway. Aeo didn’t reply, sitting silently on the edge of his bed. He stared at the floor and didn’t dare look up.

“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. Aeo said nothing. Leon sat upon the second bed in the room. He pulled his thin spectacles from his shirt pocket and pressed them up against his nose. “I need you to do something for me.”

Aeo swallowed hard, and gently whispered:

“What?”

Leon paused.

“I want you to hit me.”

Aeo’s face twisted more bitter than vinegar.

“…what?”

“Come on, Aeo,” Leon said. “Stand up and hit me. Use your fist and punch me.”

Aeo looked at his lap.

“Why?”

“Don’t ask why,” Leon said, his voice soft but sure. “Just do it. Stand up, come on.”

Leon stood up and grabbed Aeo’s reluctant hands, lifting the boy to his feet and walking him forwards. He sat back down on his bed with Aeo before him.

“Hit me,” he said again. “Hard as you can.”

Aeo took a step backwards.

“No…”

“Aeo, do it.”

“No, I don’t want to.”

“Do it now.”

“No!”

“Hit me!” Leon shouted.

No! I won’t!”

“Aeo,” Leon shouted, his expression grim. “I will take you back to Olvaren if you don’t hit me this instant!

Aeo’s eyes widened and his temper flared. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. His fists clenched, and he stood tense as a cornered animal. Hot tears filled his eyes.

“But you said I was free!”

“Hit me, Aeo! Now!

Aeo reeled back.

“You’ll never take me back there! Never!

He shut his eyes and swung his fist as hard as he could at his only friend’s jaw.

Glass shattered loudly and clattered against the floor. His fist connected with a surface as hard as a slab of granite but as forgiving as a pool of water. Aeo’s eyes opened from shock, and he saw nothing but bright blue light where Leon’s head had been. No, he was still there, with the same grim expression on his face, staring at Aeo through the light. Aeo pulled back his hand. It was covered in sharp fragments of blue magick, as if he’d put his fist through a pane of azure glass. They didn’t tear into his knuckles or cause physical pain, but they adhered to his skin as if they had. Then, as abruptly as they had appeared, the glass shards faded into smoke and fell away. The light surrounding Leon’s head faded as well, leaving the room in relative darkness.

Aeo stepped backwards, his breathing panicked.

“What… what did I…”

“Energy manipulation,” Leon said quietly. “I took the energy of your fist and used it to shield myself from harm.”

“It’s the same…” Aeo whispered, looking down at his hands. “It’s just like…”

“I know,” Leon said. “I know what happened. Everyone at the general store is talking about it. You fell off the wagon, but you didn’t hit the ground. A sphere of light protected you, and it sounded like broken glass as it fell upon the ground. Does that sound right?”

Aeo collapsed upon his mattress.

“…yes,” he said at last.

“Aeo,” Leon said. Aeo didn’t respond. “I didn’t mean it. About taking you back to Olvaren. I would never do that to you. Ever.”

Aeo’s heart was racing.

“Do you understand me, Aeo?” Leon asked.

Aeo looked up. He wiped the tears from his eyes; his hands were trembling.

“Why…? Why did you make me do that?” Aeo asked, heartbroken. “You… you paid so much for me! Why do you care? Why?

“Because you’re worth it, Aeo,” Leon said firmly, holding out his hand. “Aeo, I need you to trust me. I only want what is best for you. I want to teach you how to defend yourself, how to depend on yourself and your talents. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid of other people. And don’t be afraid of me. Right now, it’s my job to take care of you, and I’m not going to stand idle while the world makes you suffer.”

Aeo wrapped his arms around himself and shut his eyes. He wasn’t worth this. Nothing mattered. He would never truly be free. He couldn’t be…

He heard the floor creak, and felt Leon sit beside him. Two strong arms wrapped around him, and he tried his best not to cry again. He failed, and with a whimper, his head pressed against Leon and he fell into sadness.

“It’s okay, Aeo. I’m sorry for making you do that. I’ll never do such a thing to you again, I promise. Everything will be all right.”

Aeo didn’t honestly think it ever would be.

Alyssum – Chapter Twelve

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

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

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

After that? Of course I am.

“Yes sir,” came the timid voice.

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

“No sir.”

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

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

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

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

He heard a chuckle from the driver’s seat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An important question rose in his head.

“Leon?”

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

“Is Everspring warm?”

Another chuckle from Leon.

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

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

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

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

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

Leon sat and looked down at Aeo through the canvas.

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

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

“Um… Leon?” Aeo asked. “Am I… free?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

So he wasn’t going back to his homeland.

“Do they have slaves in Ashant?”

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

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

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

Aeo blinked a few times.

“I… I am?”

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

Aeo’s eyes opened wide.

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

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

“No, I just mean…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo frowned.

“I don’t want it,” he said simply.

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

Aeo stayed silent.

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

Aeo pulled his blanket tighter against himself.

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

“You’re sure?”

Aeo nodded.

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leon?” he asked. “I’m hungry.”

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

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

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

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

* * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s what?”

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magick?” Aeo asked.

Leon nodded.

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

“Uh, yeah… sure.”

“You’ll take tomorrow night?”

“Um… I guess…”

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

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

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

Aeo nodded, sitting up closer to the fire.

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

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

Leon smirked.

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

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

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

“Con-see-ted?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A candle?” Aeo asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mushrooms? Eww, Aeo thought.

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

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

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

Aeo nodded.

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a culture medium?”

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * *

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

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

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

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

“How old is Poro?” Aeo asked.

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

Leon sat on the ground and yawned.

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

Aeo did so.

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

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

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

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

“Leon?” Aeo asked.

“Hmm?” Leon asked without turning over.

“Do you think Pick is still alive?”

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

“I think so too,” Aeo said.

After a few moments of thinking, Aeo said:

“I miss Hala.”

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

After a few more moments, Aeo said:

“Leon?”

Leon didn’t reply, no doubt fast asleep.

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

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

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

I’m free.