Alyssum: The Voices of the Shattered Sun – Chapter Seven


The day continued uneventfully, as thoroughly as a day can when everything is new and wonderful and yet so wonderfully dull. Wonderful, despite the very sore feet, the pulsating facial bruise, and the general exhaustion.

Pick was surprisingly easy to talk to. He didn’t seem to tire of listening to Aeo describe his life at the Gray Pale. In return, Aeo did his best to listen to Pick “speak” back to him, sometimes asking for clarification, and sometimes asking questions in his own unique way. The wolf’s mental responses were always simplistic, hazy ideas. His thoughts were more concepts and colors than solid illustrations, and almost never words. It was like communicating with a six-year-old child who could only draw pictures. When Pick’s thoughts required clarification, he would gladly and enthusiastically try. At times the thoughts would be too obscure, referencing a plant, or an animal, or an action that required paws and teeth instead of fingers and toes. These foreign abstractions were strangely refreshing to Aeo, if not utterly bewildering to have appear in his mind. It was like daydreaming completely original ideas, ones that revealed themselves from either nowhere, or deep within his own imagination. Even when Pick described the familiar hopping of a rabbit or the flight of a bird, it felt as though Pick forced Aeo’s mind to process the idea as anew, as if he’d never imagined it before. And many times, he was contemplating them for the first time, as Aeo had rarely ever been outside the inn to experience things like rain on a foggy day, or the sound of a babbling brook.

With Pick dutifully laying his head in Aeo’s lap, their long conversation drifted away into sleep as the afternoon passed by. As the dim sunlight faded from the borders of the great wooden door, the door creaked open. As it did so, Aeo awoke with a start. Pick did as well, his ears perking up. In marched the form of Leon, wrapped up tightly in a puffy mountain jacket with a great hood over his head. In his arms he carried a curiously shaped package. Or was it a curiously shaped bag? Whatever it was, he clomped his feet at the door, placed the object down before the campfire, and removed the gloves from his hands.

“Goodness, it’s coming down out there,” he said to no one in particular. He looked up at Aeo, now wearing a pair of slim-framed spectacles that truly made him look like a school teacher. “Well now, you’re sitting up in bed and everything. How are your toes?”

Pick looked up at Aeo as he answered.

“They’re itchy, sir.”

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

“No, sir.”

“Good, good. I have some tonic that might help the healing process. Once you can walk, I’ll have to show you the hot springs. The cavern is filled with helpful plants and fungi that make wonderful medicines.”

Leon walked over to Aeo’s bed and knelt, placing the bag onto the floor. He unbuttoned the front flap and produced a small glass vial that contained an oily and speckled red-and-black substance. He held it up, jingled it as his eyebrows raised. He then dove back into the bag and produced a roll of cotton bandages.

Without a word, Leon lifted the fur blanket off of Aeo’s feet and examined them.

He said: “Hmm.”

What did “hmm” mean? Aeo peered over the blanket, as did Pick. His stomach sank at the sight, and Pick let out a low gutteral moan. He hadn’t actually seen his toes himself… they were worse than he’d imagined.

“Skin’s peeling a bit,” Leon said, shrugging. “To be expected. But they look more red than purple now. Certainly an improvement.”

Carefully, Leon cupped his hands over both sets of toes.

“Do you feel that?”

“Yes, sir,” Aeo said, grimacing a bit at the feeling.

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

Suddenly, Pick’s ears perked up again. The small door creaked open, and a tiny lonesome spherical figure hopped into the cave, shutting the door behind them. Then, a second later, the entire wooden door shuddered, and something considerably larger slowly entered. Hala and Shera. Shera’s dark eyes immediately caught Aeo’s, and then diverted away, even as Aeo’s anxiety spiked.

“Oh, hello everyone!” cried Hala. The spherical fur coat hobbled over towards the campfire, shedding itself from its host. Out stepped a foot-tall frog, cheerful as always. She was no longer clothed in a bright aquamarine dress, but a slim leather suit covered in various pockets and satchels. “My my, it’s chilly out there!”

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

A much gentler thought arose in Aeo’s head.

<Hello, little ones.>

Aeo’s stomach squirmed at the sight of her. He forced a small, silent wave as Pick howled. At least he was happy to see his mother.

“Aeo, it’s wonderful you’re out of bed!” Hala said excitedly. “Well, halfway out of bed, anyway! How is the frostbite coming along?”

Shera shook off the snow and closed the door, laying down in the empty corner in front of Aeo that was no doubt reserved for her. Hala stepped towards Leon and stood beside him, placing a webbed hand on his side. She gasped.

“Oh, Goddess above, it’s worse than I feared.”

<I agree,> said Shera, lowering her head to look. <What awful colors.>

“Believe me,” Leon said. “They’re in better condition than before.”

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

From one of her pockets Hala produced what looked to be a thin silk string. Whatever it was, it shined and reflected the firelight like a thin strand of glass. From another pocket she produced a small bit of something black like a dark pebble.

“Now, if you would, hold that end to the top of his big toe,” she said.

Leon obeyed. Hala dove down and placed the other end on his heel, making a black mark on the string with what was definitely charcoal. Aeo forced himself not to move despite the tickling sensations.

“Now the other one!”

They repeated the process with his other foot.

“Now across!” she sang, now measuring width.

“Ah, that tickles!” Aeo said, holding back his laughter. “What’s she doing?”

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

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

“Now, Aeo, these projects can get a bit big for Hala,” He lowered his hand as if measuring Hala, then whispered: “No pun intended.”

“Humph!” Hala said, pushing his hand away.

“But she is a wonderfully talented seamstress. She made my bedding. And my boots,” Leon said, pointing to his own feet. “And my coat. All with bighorner fleece and buckskin, provided by Shera.”

“Wait, really?” Aeo asked. “You’re gonna make me… real boots?”

“Of course!” Hala declared. “Real ones are a bit more helpful than imaginary ones!”

“But no one’s ever made anything for me before.” Aeo felt his face turn a big red. “Th-thank you, ma’am.”

“Oh, don’t thank me just yet, my dear!” Hala placed the string and the black pebble back into the pouches on her belt. “You can thank me if I do the job correctly! It’s always a challenge making clothing for great big things like yourself, and I never say no to a challenge. Now, is it feeling a bit cold in here for everyone? No? Just me? Well, I’ll just tend to the fire anyway.”

She turned towards the campfire in the center of the chamber.

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

“Tut tut! Nonsense, you big goof! Nonsense! It’s what I’m here for. Well, the second thing I’m here for. Hah hah!”

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

When finished, she turned to see all eyes pointed at her.

“Well,” she said, flustered. “It’s very impolite to stare.”

“In case you were wondering,” Leon said, leaning closer to Aeo. “Hala and her kind have acquired some very unique adaptations in order to stay warm. It’s quite an amazing ability. It’s also how they hunt for fish underwater. The substance they produce cooks the fish immediately, it’s quite the sight.”

“Substance!” Hala laughed at the word. “Ever the academic, Mister Sire-Loo!”

“My last name’s Sirelu, Hala,” Leon said, rolling his eyes. “’Seer-eh-loo.’ Not ‘sire-loo.’ Don’t confuse the poor boy.”

At the correction, Hala simply laughed as she tended the fire.

“Anyway,” Leon said. “As I was saying, Hala’s family live in the underwater springs and currents of Falas. They can hold their breath for hours at a time, and the unique oil they belch—” to which Hala said: “Humph, belch indeed!” “—can burn for hours at a time.”

<Pick and I are eternally indebted to them,> Shera added. <Without their assistance, we would not live nearly as comfortably as we do.>

“Oh, it’s no trouble! No trouble at all!” Hala said with a gian toothless grin. “Well, it isn’t for me. Can’t say the same my mate, Ziduf. Or his family. Or Heem, for that matter! Laziest toadies you’ll ever see! They prefer to avoid the ice and cold entirely. Rarely do they come out of the spring, the silly things.”

Leon took his time, dabbing the red substance onto the bandages and around the worst colors of Aeo’s feet. It tickled; a good sign, of course. It meant they weren’t about to turn black and fall off. As Leon worked, Aeo patted Pick on the head and looked at the purple light emanating from the candles on the opposite wall. They danced and wavered all the more apparently in the low light of the campfire, and seemed to flicker to an unseen and unfelt current of air.

“Leon, sir,” Aeo said, pointing at the candles. “What are those for?”

Leon smiled.

“Oh, those? They keep the warmth inside the cave, and keep the cold out.”

“I know. But how?”

Leon frowned at him.

“You know?”

Aeo nodded.

“I’ve seen magicians do magick like that before. Are you a magician?”

Leon actually laughed at the title.

“Perhaps a bit more than that. Perhaps a little less. I’m a professor at the Everspring Academy in Ashant. I teach abjuration and alchemy to mid-class students.”

“Abjur… what?”

Both Aeo and Pick both tilted their heads. And Aeo saw an image in his mind:

<The color red. A human man producing fire from his hands.>

“Are you serious?” Aeo asked Pick. “Leon can make fire like that? You’ve seen him?”

Leon laughed.

“No, he hasn’t. I’m not nearly as talented as that. Though I suppose if I wanted to tire myself out as fast as possible, I could probably conjure up a good bonfire.” He paused, scratching his head. “I suppose I can teach you about magick. If you don’t mind a lecture, that is.”

“And oh, how Leon can lecture!” chipped Hala.

“Yes. Please, sir,” Aeo said. “I want to learn.”

“Well, all right,” Leon said. “If you insist. I suppose we’ll start with the basics, then?”

Aeo nodded, folding his hands in his lap and offering the man his full attention. Leon cleared his throat and began:

“Magick is the manipulation of the basic principles and mechanics of the world. If you want something to change, and you understand what it takes to change it, magick can make it so, as long as your will is stronger than the forces around you. With enough willpower, you can bend the rules of the world and influence any number of things. Like summoning fire, for instance, or protecting yourself from harm. Or keeping this cave the right temperature with nothing more than a few candles and the right incantations.”

“You can change anything about the world?” Aeo asked.

“Mmm,” he hummed, thinking. “Perhaps not everything. People are notoriously difficult to change, though Goddess knows countless mages have tried. Magick is best used for simple tasks. You know, things you could accomplish with your own two hands, if you had the time. Things like boiling water, lightning candles, or cooling down a hot room.”

“But mages fight with magick, right? With fire, and ice?”

“Yes, some do. Combat arts can get very complex, however, and require a source of energy all their own. It can be dangerous to fight with magick if you ignore the proper precautions. In fact, if a mage is foolish enough, they’re more likely to kill themselves with their own spells than hurt anyone else.”

“But not you, Leon,” said Hala, her voice filled with hope. “You’re no fool, I hope?”

“Why do you think I avoid fighting?” he asked. “No, mages such as myself focus on more… mundane magicks. It’s different here, of course, in Antiell. But in Ashant, where I come from, you would call a lot of magick mundane. Not a lot of battles to be fought with fire and lightning. But laundry becomes infinitely easier with magick, as you might imagine.” He grinned. “No need to waste soap when you can simply banish the stains away instead.”

He pointed to the towels hanging from the stalactites above.

“Can anyone do that?” Aeo asked. “Can anyone learn magick?”

“Oh, certainly,” the teacher answered. “And don’t you let anyone tell you otherwise. Magick is an art, like writing, or making music. Once you understand the basics, it becomes nothing more than an issue of practice and mastery. It’s a shame so few people practice magick, especially here in Antiell. The authorities in this land do not trust their own people with such power, and they don’t trust outsiders should they flaunt their talents. I’m sure you’ve seen such things yourself.”

Aeo’s eyebrows raised and nodded. No wonder Harthon hated the magicians. He never trusted what he couldn’t personally control, and magick was certainly one of those things.

“Wait, you said lightning,” Aeo asked. “Mages fight with lightning too?”

“Of course,” Leon said. “Though you channel lightning, to be specific about it. Electricity is energy, much like fire is energy, and ice is the removal of energy. In its simplest application, magick is nothing more than manipulating power, moving heat, light, or aether from one place to another.” Then, Leon raised a finger, pausing as if remembering something. “Hold that thought.”

Leon quickly stood and crossed the room, grabbing an object from one of the crevices in the cavern wall.

“Ah, here we go. Catch.”

Leon tossed the object, and though Aeo fumbled it, it fumbled right into his lap. Aeo held it up to examine it: a glass sphere, perhaps a bit bigger than Aeo’s fist, perfectly polished and readily reflecting the flickering lights in the room.

“Oh, I do love this little bauble,” Hala said, hopping up to Aeo’s side to see the sphere for herself. “How’s it work, Leon?”

An image entered Aeo’s mind:

<The color green. A bright shining star in the night sky.>

“What is it?” Aeo asked.

“It’s called a lusphere,” Leon said, retaking his seat next to the boy. “It’s the simplest application of energy I can demonstrate.” He paused. “Well? What do you suppose it does?”

Aeo frowned.

“It… does something?”

“Oh yes!” Hala said. “It lights up, bright as the sun! Go ahead, Aeo, turn it on.”

Aeo’s nose wrinkled as his fingers felt the smooth surface of the glass. There were no marks or depressions of any kind on its surface, no wick that might hold a flame.

“I don’t know how,” he whispered.

“You only need to know its keyword,” Leon said. “And speak it out loud.”

“What is it?”

“Repeat after me: lu’vai.

“Uh…” Aeo said, feeling a bit foolish. “Okay. Loo… vai?”

In a flash, the transparent orb illuminated, like an explosive going off in his hand. He let out a shout and dropped the sphere, and to his horror, the sphere rolled away towards the campfire, its luminosity filling the cavern with the brightest white light he’d ever seen.

“Whoa, careful Aeo!” Leon said with a quick laugh, reaching out his hand to the lusphere. “It may look like a simple glass ball, but it is quite an expensive trinket!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—!”

Instead of diving for it, or even bending down to grab it, Leon simply reached out his hand. And the lusphere responded as if it had a mind of its own, rolling back up the slope of its own accord and leaping into the man’s hand. Hala cheered, and Pick let out a quick energetic howl.

“Brilliant, Leon! I love it when you do that!”

“Whoa,”Aeo whispered. “How did you do that?”

Leon gave him a look.

“How do you think?” he replied with a chuckle, holding up the lusphere. “The more important question, though: how did you turn the lusphere on?”

“I… I said the word,” Aeo answered. “Didn’t I?”

“You did. But words alone aren’t enough to create magick.” Leon whispered: “Lu’kah.” The bright white light within the glass sphere faded, returning to its previous inactive state. He then held out the sphere to Hala, much to her confusion. “Here you are, Hala. Why don’t you give it a try?”

“What?” she gasped, taking the lusphere with two webbed hands. “But I can’t do magick!”

“You never know until you try,” Leon said with a wink.

“Well, I—” She rolled the sphere about as if trying to find an activation switch herself. “Hmm! There really is no other way to turn it on, is there? Eh, what was that word again?”

Lu’vai,” Leon said.

“Ah, right, okay then.” Hala cleared her mighty throat and held the orb in the air. “Here I go! Loo-vai!”

Aeo waited. Leon waited. Hala waited too, her eyes squeezed shut in anticipation of bright white light. But nothing happened. A single eye squinted at the orb, immediately frowning at it.

“Hmm? Loo-vai?” Hala then gently shook the sphere. “Loo-vai, you silly thing! Why isn’t it working?”

“Why, indeed,” Leon said. He gestured. “Give it to Aeo. Let’s see if he can tell the difference.”

“Well, aren’t you two just special,” she said with a sigh, handing the orb to Aeo.

“Not me, Hala,” Leon said. “The only difference between you and me is that I understand mechanically how a lusphere works. Aeo is the special one here.”

“Huh? What do you mean?” Hala asked.

“The word ‘lu’vai’ is Ashanti,” Leon said. “It means: ‘become active,’ or ‘turn on.’ When you spoke the word, Aeo, you gave the lusphere permission to access the power inside you. It is a power that neither Hala nor I possess, not by ourselves.”

Leon then produced a small trinket from underneath his shirt. Hanging from his neck was a leather necklace, adorned with a small silver charm in the shape of a diving falcon.

“See this?” Leon asked, slowly showing the necklace to everyone. “This is my spell-focus. It was a gift from my father, when I graduated from the Academy. You see the small gemstone in the falcon’s eye? That gemstone is no ordinary rock. It is crystallized aether, taken from the Everspring Well at the Academy. Without that crystal, I would be hard-pressed to perform even the most simple of magicks. I would be rather useless.”

<You require a source of power beyond yourself,> said Shera, her tail flicking and thumping behind her.

“Yes,” Leon said. “I’m afraid so. It is a great limitation of mine, one I am not proud of. It doesn’t matter how knowledgeable I am about the world, or how much I practice. If I do not have access to a source of energy, I cannot change the world with magick. To tell you the truth, it’s why I prefer abjuration. I do not have to look very far for a proper energy source, so long as I have a source of heat or light. The candles, you see. They usually provide enough heat to keep such magick active.”

Leon tapped the lusphere in Aeo’s hand.

“You, on the other hand,” he said. “Have a different source of power. Go ahead, turn the light on again. Remember the word?”

“Uh-huh,” Aeo said. “Lu’vai.

The lusphere’s light instantly flared to life, even brighter than before. Aeo had to shield his eyes from the glare, and it was Hala’s turn to shout in surprise.

“Very good!” Leon said. “I was right about you, Aeo, your animis is strong.”


“Mm-hmm. It is the Ashanti word for a wellspring of power that comes from the individual,” Leon said. “While most practitioners of magick rely on outside sources of power, some beings are born with an innate power all their own. It is an uncommon trait in Antiell, it seems, though in my opinion, there should be more; it is only because the practice of magick is so suppressed. Perhaps every one in ten Ashanti children are born with some level of animis. Perhaps one in every hundred of these can exercise it before adulthood, and far fewer can do so without training.”

The color green then leaped into Aeo’s mind:

<A human boy shining light in a dark cave.>

<How fortunate,> said Shera. <That Aeo should find someone like you on this mountain, of all places.>

Leon’s smile faded. For some reason, he ignored the mephandras.

“Now, Aeo,” he said quickly. “There’s something I’d like you to try.”


Leon stood up slowly and approached the campfire. If Aeo had seen his face, he would have witnessed a look of determined focus. Hala hopped over to his side to see.

“There we go,” Leon whispered.

“Oh, Leon, don’t you dare,” Hala hissed at the man. “What are you doing, put that down! You’ll catch the poor boy on fire!”

“Nonsense, Hala,” he said quietly. “Don’t worry, I am in control.”

Leon stepped back over to Aeo, his face illuminated by a strange light. No, not strange. Familiar, the very same light as the campfire. Floating between the man’s hands was a gentle flame, suspended in midair as if held in place by an invisible wick. Pick lifted his head and backed away from it with a slight whimper. Shera, for her part, said nothing, but watched the scene with greater interest.

“Whoa,” Aeo whispered.

“As I said before,” Leon said, his voice tense and halting. “Most scholars have a knack for different practices. My specialty… is certainly not elemental, so this requires… eh, more than a bit of concentration.”

Leon put his hands forward.

“Now. I want you to… hold your hands up. Like you’re warming them near the flame. Hold them up.”

Slowly, the boy lifted his hands to the flame. He felt the fire’s warmth and hoped Leon didn’t simply dump the fire in his lap.

“There you go. Put your hands together a little bit more. Good.”

Leon sighed, and the fire danced in his hands with the pattern of his breath. The man’s face twisted, as if straining to control the flickering flame.

“Aeo. I want you to imagine warmth. Imagine wrapping up in the blankets, or touching the warm water bottles. Feel the fire warming up your hands.”

Aeo imagined it easily.

“As you’re focusing on that feeling,” Leon continued. “Imagine that warmth being gathered together. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and settling into the space between your hands. Can you do that? Can you imagine that for me?”

“I think so,” Aeo whispered.

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

Ready? For what exactly?

Aeo tried to imagine. With his hands raised to the magickal fire, he did as he was told: he imagines all the warmth in his body beginning to move. From his chest to his shoulders and muscles, down his arms, into his hands, and between his fingertips.

It was all imagination, though. It wasn’t actually doing anything. Was it?

“Okay,” he said quietly. “I’m… ready.”

“Now lift your hands. Think of the warmth between your hands, and don’t stop thinking as you lift them.”

Aeo tried. They wouldn’t move. He tried harder, straining even to pull himself away. Nothing was working, something was wrong. But then, all at once, Leon’s hands were gone. And there, nestled between his own two hands sat the small flame. It danced, back and forth. With every inhale, the flame would grow larger. And with every exhale, it would grow smaller and threaten to fade.

“I thought as much,” Leon whispered.

“Look at that!” Hala whispered excitedly, as Pick let out an airy growl.

Aeo had never seen anything as strange as this. So mesmerizing. His head suddenly felt very dizzy. But he couldn’t fall back into his blankets; the fire held him there. He watched it dance like a spinning flower, like a leaf blowing in the wind. It seemed to glow like the sun itself. His eyes began to burn, and he felt the need to close them, but he couldn’t look away. Then, as if some sort of invisible thread had been cut, Aeo could move. And he very nearly did, falling backwards and bringing the fire closer to his chest.

“Whoa, there you go,” Leon said, holding Aeo’s shoulders steady. “That’s your animis, releasing you from its hold. You’re quite good at this for a beginner, Aeo. Are you sure you haven’t done this before?”

Aeo’s thoughts burned as bright as the flame. Comforting. He remembered the dreams of the sun as the warmth fell down upon him. Not burning and unbearable, but gentle and soft. He shouldn’t be able to look upon that bright sun from his dreams with his naked eyes, and yet he could, and within it he saw all the colors of the rainbow. They were beautiful, and they burned and danced all together. He could see the flames growing ever brighter, and he never wanted them to fade.

Like the flames of the Gray Pale. They would burn forever.

[Fool,] whispered a voice in Aeo’s ear. [You could shatter yourself so easily.]

A pair of voices, in his other ear: [You will burn everything. Everything! Burn it all!]

Aeo began to tremble. He looked up at Leon; he had not heard the voices. The once-small flicker of flame did not vanish from Aeo’s hands. On the contrary, as he looked back down, the flame began to wildly grow. He couldn’t hold it. He widened his hands to better support the expanding flame, but the flames flared all the more in response.

“I can’t—!” he gasped.

“Wait, wait,” Leon said quietly, quickly leaning over. He took Aeo’s hands and slowly brought them together with his own. “Breathe normally, now. Just breathe. It’s all right. You can let the fire go out now. Close your hands, just so.”

Aeo did. With Leon’s help, he pressed his hands together, and the fire vanished without a trace of smoke.

Pick howled.

<Fascinating,> said Shera.

“It most certainly is,” Hala said with a gasp. “Leon, how did you know Aeo could do something like that?”

“Just had a feeling,” Leon said, offering the boy a comforting smile. “What do you think of that, Aeo? Want to learn more?”

Aeo stared at his now-shaking hands, breathless. He didn’t answer.


Alyssum: The Voices of the Shattered Sun – Chapter Six

Lupus Benevolus

By midday, the wind outside had become particularly vicious. Even if he couldn’t feel it beyond the magick that protected the cavern, Aeo could hear its anger quite clearly. With little else to do besides rest, Aeo laid against the back wall of cave and simply did nothing. Truly, there was a first time for everything. For the first time in years, he had nothing to clean, nothing to sweep, nothing to organize, and no orders to take.

What a strange place. Maybe not home. But I’m free here. Mostly. More free than the inn, at least.

It was odd; in this place, the Shattered did not speak to him nearly as often. He didn’t know what to think about with them gone. He thought about what he’d be doing back at the inn at that moment. Probably wiping down a table. Probably being blamed for something. Probably being hit by Harthon for something he did or didn’t do. He wondered how well his master could operate the Gray Pale without him.

[Yearning for mediocrity again,] came the predictable whisper.

“Shut up, sark,” Aeo whispered, stretching his arms. Mock me all you want. But I’m never going back.

His limbs no longer felt sore and lifeless. Quite the opposite, in fact. They longed to move something, sweep something, mop something. When his feet healed, Aeo decided, he would work for Leon and Pick. He might even work for Shera, so long as she never did… whatever that was again. What did she even do? Leon said she didn’t “protect” him. Protect him from what? His head still ached from the experience.

What would he say to Leon? He couldn’t admit to burning down the Gray Pale. He certainly couldn’t admit to being a slave, even if Leon already knew. There was no family he could return to, no friends that would miss him. No one but Harthon and Ariste. He could already imagine Harthon beating him to death for what he’d done. But there was no way his master even knew where he’d gone, or how to track him. Right? He was a hunter, and a good one, but he couldn’t have been that good. Would he send bloodhounds after him, like hunters do when tracking a wild animal? And how long would he keep searching until he gave up?

He had no idea about any of it. Aeo tiredly stopped entertaining those thoughts.

Maybe he could stay on the summit of Falas. Maybe he could live on the mountain with Leon, and the frogs, and the mephandras. He wouldn’t mind that. So long as that terrible headaches and nosebleeds stayed at a minimum, he could manage it.

The big cave door creaked. Aeo felt his heart skip a beat.

Oh no, it’s her!

In wobbled a great furry mass, which stopped halfway in the cave to shake off the light layer of snow. A pair of curious eyes then gazed at Aeo, and the furry creature growled quietly as a thought entered Aeo’s head.

<The color blue. A human boy jumping up and down.>

“Oh,” Aeo said, with slight relief, unable to think of anything but the blue sky. Fortunate, considering the thought of blue smothered his panic with the feeling of naïve hope. “Uh, hi Pick. Um, I don’t think I should walk yet. My toes still hurt.”

After closing the door with the rope, Pick practically pranced over to the corner of the room next to Aeo. He circled a couple of times in the space beside the boy, finally resting himself with a thud. His head came down across Aeo’s lap as it had before, and he whimpered a sad song as he looked up.

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

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

“You like to run around?” Aeo asked. “Um… You like to play?”

Pick barked, a sound that made Aeo flinch from the volume.

“Ah, uh… I guess you do.”

Then the worst possible scenario occurred. Again. Pick lifted his head and did his best to lick Aeo’s face. This time, he only nearly succeeded. Aeo defended himself, receiving wolf slobber all up and down his hands and arms.

“H-Hey! Eww, d-don’t do that!”

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

<The color purple. A wolf licking a human boy.>

Aeo frowned, wiping his arms on the fur blanket. His mind grasped hold of as many purple things as it could recall, from violet flowers in the marketplace to grapes from the Gray Pale’s pantry. He also felt the distinct sensation of regret, of having wronged someone close to him.

“Wait, what? Purple means… sad? It makes you sad when you lick me?”

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

“Oh. Oh, you think it makes me sad?”

Pick yipped quietly.

“No, it doesn’t,” Aeo said. “It’s just… yucky, is all. The slobber.”

Pick looked up at Aeo from his lap.

<The color purple. A human den in the snow. A human boy running away from it.>

Along with the sadness of the color came the distinct sensation of fear. Somehow Pick knew he’d run away from home. Aeo’s eyes grew wide.

“No, I didn’t—” Aeo tried to slide backwards, but his back found the stone wall. He placed a hand to his lips and whispered: “Wait, you… can’t read my mind, can you?”

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

“Oh. Uh, good.” He tried to shake off his nerves. “Um. Promise not to tell Leon or Shera?”

Pick nodded with a grunt.

“Yeah,” he admitted. “You’re right, I… I ran away from my home. But it was a terrible place. I didn’t belong there.”

<The color purple. A human boy falling down. A wolf howling.>

“Falling?” Aeo reached out for the bruise surrounding his eye. “Oh, no, I didn’t fall. Someone… hurt me. I ran away from them.”

Pick growled, showing his razor-sharp canines.

<The color red. A wolf chasing after a human and biting him.>

Aeo’s mind became bombarded by everything crimson, from the old Adian war banners to the sight of his own blood during the nosebleed. Then:

<The color purple. A wolf licking a human boy.>

“Yeah. Yeah, Pick. I got angry too.”

He fell silent. But something stirred inside him. Pick was correct: this wasn’t sadness. This was anger.

“I couldn’t do anything about it,” Aeo whispered. “I can never do anything right. I’m just… I’m a worthless Adian bastard. I’m useless, I’m lazy, I’m good-for-nothing. That’s what he told me. Every day. Every day!”

Aeo threw his fist in his lap and felt tears coming to his eyes. He couldn’t stop the words from coming.

“I started a fire, Pick. A big one. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted my master to stop hurting me. I knew the fire would make it go away, and I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted it to get bigger and bigger, and make it all just disappear!”

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

<The color purple. A small fire spreading to a human den.>

“I didn’t mean to do it,” Aeo whined. “It was an accident! But it doesn’t matter, he’d never believe me. He’d never believe I didn’t light it on purpose just to make him pay. It started really small at first. And I thought it burned my hand. But it didn’t. It didn’t hurt me. And it just kept burning. When they tried to put it out with water, it just burned brighter and brighter.”

Pick watched him silently.

“Even though the fire was burning, my master hurt me anyway. He threw me, and… this happened.” Aeo pointed to his face. “He threw me out, and said he was gonna kill me. So I ran away. I hope the inn burned down. I hope Harthon is stuck in the cold like me. And I hope he’s angry, because he can’t do anything about it, just like me! I’m never going back there. No one’s going to make me. I hope Harthon freezes to death trying to find me!”

Aeo squeezed his eyes shut. He’d never been able to say such things out loud. He realized his voice had been echoing against the stone walls of the cave. Everything fell quiet save for the howling of the wind outside. Pick simply watched patiently as Aeo regained his composure.

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

“I’m sorry,” Aeo said quietly. “I didn’t mean to yell.”

Pick lifted his head a bit.

<The color green. An image of a small wolf with two large wolves beside it.>

Aeo frowned.

“Two wolves? What do you mean?”

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

Aeo’s shoulders fell. Parents. The thought hadn’t occurred to him in a long time. The only two “wolves” in his life either didn’t care he existed or beat him on a daily basis.

“A… Mama and Papa.” Aeo shrugged. “I don’t have any.”

Pick whined.

“I don’t know who my dad was. I guess I had one, but I don’t remember him. Aristé told me my mom died when I was really little. At least, I think that’s what they told me. When I was born, I lived really far away, in a place called Adia. That’s why everyone calls me an Adian, because of my hair, and my eyes. A war happened there, and when I was two years old, someone brought me to Olvaren.”

Aeo paused.

“If I had parents, I don’t think they would have hit me as much.”

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

<The color green. A large wolf licking a small wolf.>

Aeo rubbed his nose with his arm.

“Yeah,” Aeo said. “I’m glad you have a mama. She probably takes care of everything for you. She’s never mean to you, or makes you do chores. Right?”

Pick howled.

<The color yellow. A small wolf running away from a large wolf.>

Aeo couldn’t help but think of dandelions, and feel really annoyed while doing so.

“You run away? From Shera? Oh, you mean she does make you do chores?” For the first time in a long time, Aeo chuckled. “I’m sorry. That stinks.”

Pick guffed.

“But,” Aeo said quietly, thinking. “If Shera asked me to do chores for her… I’d do them, I think. If it meant I never have to go back to the village ever again, I’d do anything for her.”

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

“Yeah,” Aeo said. “I’ll be your friend. Absolutely. As long as it means I don’t have to live with Aristé and Harthon anymore. I’ll live with you instead, and you’ll never be mean to me. Right?”

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

“I’m sorry, Pick,” Aeo repeated. “I don’t want to be sad anymore. I just want to live and be happy, you know?”

<The color green. A wolf howling.>

“Promise you won’t tell Leon or Shera?”

Both of Pick’s paws rose up and covered his snout.

“Thanks,” Aeo said with a smirk.

Pick’s head rose and gave a light airy howl.

Hearing the boy through the roar of the wind wasn’t a simple thing to do. The tempest wards inside the cave were aided by the animis of the lit candles; outside, he only had his freezing bare hands and the small silver talisman he wore at his neck. Certainly not the proper tool for the job. Despite the improper focus and his great distaste for the task, however, it had to be done. Holding his left hand outwards, he gently touched the great wooden door, being cautious not to make it creak and startle the occupants inside the cave. A hazy purple glyph flickered to life between his fingers, the magickal energy distorting in the heavy mountain gale. His right hand rose to ear level and began to shimmer with a similar purple mist. Beneath his heavy Ashanti fur coat and linen tunic, the silver talisman began to heat up. It had been at least a year since he’d practiced this trick, and back then he’d had the candles to act as the foundation.

Oh well. Nothing like improvisation.

The moment his ear popped, he felt the animis begin to sap away his body heat. He knew it was working when he heard the following, reverberating through the wooden door like a distant canyon echo:

“—didn’t fall. Someone… hurt me. I ran away from—”

Keep talking, boy, Leon thought to himself, barely hearing the boy’s voice above the wind.

His hand slipped from the surface of the doorway for a moment, causing the sound he heard to scratch and warble. He gave in, allowing his hand to rest upon the door a bit firmer than he would have cared to. The door made no noise in response.

“—I started a fire, Pick. A big one. In the inn. I wanted it to burn everything down. I wanted my master to stop hurting me. I knew the fire would make it go away, and I didn’t want it to stop. I wanted it to get bigger and bigger, and make it all just—”

A fire, Leon thought. So that was the source of the smoke column.

“I didn’t mean to do it. It was an accident. At first. But he’d never believe me. He’d never beli— it on —pose just to ma—im stop. It started really small —first, and it even burn— hand, but— It didn’t hurt me. It just kept burning. When he tried to put it out with water—”

Leon’s ear popped, and a bead of sweat formed on his brow. The sound was garbled at best.

I can’t handle even this, he thought. For a few mere seconds. So pathetic.

The silver talisman was growing hot beneath his skin, like a piece of metal baked in hot sunlight. The glyphs within his fingers wavered like ripples of raindrops on a still pond, threatening to vanish entirely. Resisting the urge to grunt through the strain, he again touched the large wooden door with his left hand and held his right hand to his hooded ear.

His ear popped:

“I didn’t help them. I didn’t. I hope the inn burned down. I hope Harthon is stuck in the cold like me. I hope he’s— because he can’t do —thing about it. I’m never —ing back th— No one’s going to ma— I hope he freeze—”

With a whirr-like ping just loud enough to momentarily deafen him, the glyph in his right hand vanished, followed by a silent fading of his left. The magick was finished, and his talisman did not have sufficient animis to renew it. Desperate to keep his volume down, he tore open his coat and tore the silver from his neck. It fell into the snowdrift beside the door as steam began to billow from the small crater of snow. He then bent down and scooped up a fistful of snow, passing it underneath his shirt and pressing it against the center of his bare chest.

The burn would be worth it, for he had learned three important things. First: the boy was indeed the property of the man and woman who owned the inn at the center of Olvaren. He had observed the Adian boy and his Antielli owners before, a few months prior while gathering supplies from the trail merchants.

Milfoiek. Harthon and Ariste Milfoiek. Yes, that was their names. The simplest of slave owners.

After a decade of devastation and bloodshed, the nation of Antiell was well-deserving of divine punishment for allowing the practice of slavery to endure. In Leon’s estimation, they were simply setting themselves up for further retribution from their red-eyed neighbors. But did the woman and her detestable husband individually deserve such punishment? Did they deserve for their inn and their livelihood to go up in flames? By the sound of Aeo’s voice, perhaps they did. Under such conditions, perhaps the boy’s outburst was inevitable. Perhaps of all the things that died during the Second Adian War, Antiell might have saved themselves grief and killed slavery along the way.

Like most fools, Leon thought, they persist, and then grieve at the most sensible of consequences.

Second: the boy had started the fire that destroyed the Gray Pale Inn. Based on the size of the smoke column that rose from Olvaren the day after the boy had arrived, there was little chance that the only casualty was a single establishment. No, the conflagration must have spread to other buildings. Likely the market next door, and perhaps the town hall beyond that. He could only speculate further, as he had no intention of investigating personally. Better to remain hidden than attract any unwanted attention from hunters or San’dorian mages, especially if the fire were started through curiously arcane means.

Speaking of which, third: the boy had potential. Real potential. Leon had sensed the boy’s animis the moment he first laid eyes on him. It was strong for someone so young and so inexperienced. The boy was a spark, a potential that might consume everything it touches. Or, with proper instruction and guidance, such a spark could become a torchlight in darkness. The boy knew nothing about the ways of magick, that much was certain. He had not been raised in Ashant. Or Adia, for that matter. And the simple-minded folk that lived in places like Olvaren rarely had time for such things. Slaves, most especially.

This boy is the one I’ve been waiting for? Leon thought. Wonderful. One more piece in the puzzle that doesn’t fit.

He sighed. One more gamble. A gamble on top of gambles. Everything upon the table was untested. Unproven, and volatile. Twelve long years of questions and eight months upon a frozen mountaintop, and still everything remained so utterly hypothetical. The boy was merely the most recent complication. This was no way for a sensible man of science and magick to proceed.

Leon looked about, still pressing the ice to his burned chest. Shera was nowhere to be found; no doubt she was scouting the mountain for danger. He looked back to the wooden cavern door, and decided to leave it alone for now.

No need to bother them. There are experiments I should attend to. So many experiments.

Leon stooped down, digging through the ice for his talisman. The graven image of a diving falcon seemed undamaged, as did the small garnet gemstone that served as the falcon’s eye. Though still quite warm, Leon pocketed the talisman in his coat pocket. And for a split second, the memory of his father’s face flashed in his mind as he stepped away from the wolf den.

If only the old man knew the risks I was taking. And after all my talk of diligence and duty. He would laugh right in my face.

Alyssum: The Voices of the Shattered Sun – Chapter One (Full)

(Excuse the “re-upload” of the first half of Chapter One. It has been edited in its entirety and includes the second half of the chapter. I’ll also be publishing the fully edited story as it completes to the Alyssum page here.)


“Oi! Stupid boy! Wake up!”

A gruff tone, then a terrible force thrust itself into the boy’s stomach. His breath escaped, and he clenched inwards with a groan.

“Oh no you don’t. Get out of bed. Now.”

A collection of pinpricks slapped his shoulder, and his eyes snapped open. A broom. That meant Harthon, his master, was standing over him, and Aeo knew better than to ignore him.

“You’ve got chores to do, Snapper. Get to it. Don’t make me smack you with something heavier.”

The gears in Aeo’s mind slowly gained traction. He sat up in the dark, quick enough to convince his Antielli master that he wasn’t disobeying him.

“Uh… aye, master.”

He drifted out of utter drowsiness, side-to-side like a sailor out to sea. He couldn’t help it. Despite the rudeness of the early wake-up call, it was like the boy’s mind swam in deep waters. Aeo rubbed his eyes. The closet was dark. He knew the sun had yet to rise, but there was little hope of further slumber. He stood from his small cot, but just as abruptly ran into something. The large muscular form of his master had not departed. Harthon still towered over him, holding out a crooked broom with an impatient and disgusted scowl.


Aeo took the broom.

“Lazy Adian,” Harthon replied. He took the boy by the scruff of his shirt and hauled him out of his sleeping spot in the closet. “Come on, go. Rooms, and then floors. Don’t youdare let me catch you nodding off.”

“Aye, master.”

The voices had made him dream again. In his dreams, he was no longer in the village of Olvaren on Mount Falas. Instead, he stood upon a vast and barren valley of sand and rock, beneath a fierce noonday sun. He had seen sunlight drenched upon his skin, and its warmth had filled him, soothing and powerful. It certainly wasn’t a memory. Not his own, anyway. The region of Falas held no such promise of warmth, especially the village. The sun would shine brightly on Olvaren for perhaps a week or two out of the year before disappearing behind months of deep fog and overcast skies.

Sometimes the boy could convince himself that the valley of sand in his dreams were his memories. Distant ones, perhaps, and disconnected from his present life. If they were, they were proof that he’d ever been someone else… someone who wasn’t a slave. He couldn’t afford to think like that. So Aeo did his best to ignore the dreams, though they came night after night. He shook them off like rain when Harthon woke him each morning, and instead he focused on his many chores.

That morning, the Gray Pale Inn smelled like cheap ale and sawdust. Stale cheese, old tallow and grease. Except that morning, there was something more. Something awful. Oh, right: the fetid scent of an overfilled stable. Even with the back door sealed shut, the stable’s reek poisoned the air just beyond the dining area. A horrible stench. Aeo didn’t know anything about horses, but the old mares must have contracted some horrible disease in order to smell so foul. Not that Harthon cared. The patron had paid in advance for his whole team of five horses to be wedged into a meager space designed for two.

Aeo would be cleaning the stable after the patron departed that afternoon, and he would gratefully do it. Cleaning the stable was the only time he was ever free of the inn itself.

[What an idiot. And your master is an idiot as well. They’ll deserve each other when the poor beasts die. Such fragile creatures.]

Don’t say that about Harthon, Aeo thought in response to one of the familiar voices in his head. What if he hears you?

[That oaf would never listen to shattered men. We would sooner address dogs.]

Out of curiosity, Aeo thought a question in response: Wait, do you mean dogs can hear you if they want?

The Shattered did not answer his question. They rarely did.

That’s what the voices called themselves, the Shattered. Or, at least, it was the word they most often repeated. They were talkative at times, but they were rather picky about the words they whispered. Sometimes they seemed responsive, while other times they completely ignored Aeo’s presence and simply commented on events in passing. He had learned long ago that there was no need to speak to them out loud. They responded just as readily to Aeo’s waking thoughts than any words he spoke aloud.

The Shattered spoke in his mind. They never seemed to leave, at least for very long. There were many of them. Some came and went, unfamiliar and fleeting. A few remained as Aeo’s constant companions. But none of these ever shared with him their names (if they had any to share), and never explained why they spoke to him at all. Aeo never told Harthon about them. Never tried to, never wanted to. And he had no intention of doing so. If he were careful, the clever boy could spend two hours cleaning the stable, and he would have time to converse with the voices in his mind without interruption.

Some of the voices responded more often than others. He named these, according to their usual demeanor. Aeo pretended he could reason with the friendly ones. Ask them important questions. Like where he was born, what the world outside the Grey Pale Inn was like. Why they forced him to dream about sunlight, sand, and stone every night.

[You’re just as much a fool as your master,] would come the inevitable reply. [Wallow in the filth where you belong, slave.]

Aeo called that voice “Mean.” He didn’t like Mean very much.

[Relax, and think of brighter things,] another voice would sometimes say. [Life will find a way to repay you.]

Aeo called that voice “Kind.” He liked Kind a lot.

Every morning, Aeo began his day in the Grey Pale by cleaning the rooms of travelers who departed during the night. They were the worst chores of the day, especially if Harthon stopped him from getting enough sleep. By the time Aeo finished, the vaguest crests of daylight would begin to peak over the horizon, and weary breakfast-goers would begin to trudge through the inn’s front door in search of sustenance. Aeo would be expected to appear immediately, prepared to take their orders while Harthon attended the kitchen. Around 6 o’clock, the inn got busy. The merchants always said that Olvaren sat right in the middle of an important trade route between the war-torn nation of Adia, the Republic of Antiell, and the Free-States of San’Drael. Aeo didn’t quite know what that meant, besides the fact that the inn seemed to fill itself day and night of its own accord. As the only reputable tavern in Olvaren, Harthon’s establishment was the center of commerce in the tiny mountain village. Day in and day out, stranger after stranger would walk through the door. Tired travelers, irritable hunters, entire families, guildsman looking to get drunk, and nearly all of the unfamiliar faces trying to cross the mountain and leave Olvaren behind as quickly as possible.

“Hurry up, boy,” Harthon would say, every hour on the hour. Aeo’s master always seemed to know when Aeo needed a new chore to perform, and was always there to goad him onto the next one. If he slowed his pace, Harthon would catch the boy’s ear with something. A bare hand, a broomstick handle, an ale flagon, the base of a hefty wrought-iron candlestick. Once, when Aeo was six years old, Harthon had even thrown a clothing iron at the boy’s face. When patrons inevitably asked about it, he said simply: “It’s not my fault the stupid boy likes to run headfirst into walls.”

Aeo didn’t complain. It never did him any good. But he didn’t know why Harthon liked to hurt him so much.

[At least you know how to take a hit,] said Kind. [Not many do.]

Harthon was a wretched giant of a man. Six-and-three-quarters feet tall, and Aeo’s owner of seven long years. The hunters called him “a true son of Antiell,” whatever that meant. Aeo couldn’t remember a father besides him, but he didn’t think the man deserved the title. In his opinion, Harthon hardly deserved the bulging muscles and height that granted him his authority, much less the fame and high praises sung by his fellow guild hunters. Before owning the Grey Pale Inn, Harthon had been a master hunter in Olvaren, and before that, he had served as a mercenary for the Antiellan army. The swords, pelts, and trophies that hung above the Grey Pale’s mantle had all been collected by him personally, including several sunborne banners from the Second Adian War. Though Harthon had left the hunt behind, the hunt hadn’t left him; he had simply changed his prey, and now Aeo was his daily target. Aeo would sooner have risked sneaking up on a starving bear than dare to catch Harthon’s ire.

“No slacking, Snapper,” Harthon would often say to him in passing, even when it was obvious Aeo was working. “If you want to keep eating.”

“Ay, master.”

Aeo did, of course. Though Aeo was a full nine years old that winter, he was much shorter than the other Antielli children his age, and considerably more gaunt.

Sure, Harthon may have been a brute. But he was decidedly more than just a mound of bitter muscle. The vindictive reactions to Aeo’s simple presence were matched only by the unusual friendliness and charm he exuded in front of guests. Even Aeo could admit how convincing his heel-turn appeared to complete strangers. As the social center of Olvaren, gossip and news came to the Grey Pale in droves, and Harthon set himself as its apex, spreading the day’s rumors and slander like butter on bread when working the counter. Few topics were off limits to him and those who let him bark. The promiscuous escapades of some young hunter and his mistress from Lincades? The strange religion of some backwater San’dorian merchant? The poor financial decisions of some poor sod he hardly knew? All free rein.

Always with the name-calling, too. He never called people by their real names. Especially not Aeo. “Snapper,” he always called Aeo. He wasn’t sure why. “Useless” was a popular one. “Good-for-Nothing.” “Red-Eyed Bastard” was reserved for rare occasions. He had once deigned to explain to the boy what the word “bastard” meant. Considering he’d never met his birth parents, Aeo wasn’t certain the title applied to him.

[Oh, it does,] whispered Mean. [Bastard child of a bastard lineage. The incestuous union of two branches, long-burned and drowned in tears.]

Aeo didn’t understand what any of the Shattered were talking about most of the time. Mean, least of all. And since no one else seemed to hear them, he had no intention of telling anyone about them. No sense making himself seem more odd than he already was.

Aeo was always to blame for something. Everything bad that occurred in the Grey Pale was his responsibility, his fault. If the patrons were unhappy with their “luxury accommodations,” the boy would get an earful; he was the one who cleaned the rooms, after all, and not Harthon. If a patron in the dining hall slipped or fell because of spilled beer or melted snow, the boy would be slapped; it was his fault the floors weren’t spotless and dry, not his master’s. Even if each incident occurred while he served drinks, took orders, or washed linen. Or swept. Or dusted the furniture. Or cleaned the dishes, wiped down the tables and chairs, counted inventory, or performed any one of the other two dozen daily duties. Perhaps the only thing the boy wasn’t allowed to do in the Grey Pale was cook anything. Once, Harthon had allowed it. The resulting “omelet” had caught fire immediately, and the boy was viciously throttled for letting the smoke choke the upstairs guests.

Goddess help him if heever spilled trays of food, or tripped and spilled drinks. At this, he would invariably hear Harthon laugh:

“What an Adian vyshti!

This would regularly elicit laughter from the older patrons. What was a vyshti?Aeo didn’t know. Some old military slang Harthon never cared to explain. Adopted from his tour in the Second Adian War, supposedly.

The old hunters would call Aeo “Red-Eye” due to the crimson color of his Adian irises. And they said it to his face. It was the dirtiest insult they could muster, though perhaps a bit obvious. He’d grown to hate the ruby hues that stared back at him when he caught glimpses of himself in the wash room mirror. So much so, that he started averting his gaze. The second tell-tale sign of his Adian nature was his hair. He hated it, too, his bushy carrot-colored hair that made him stand out like a fiery carnival clown. Antielli boys and girls enjoyed brown or blonde hair themselves, and he envied their green and blue and pale brown eyes. So plain and neat and normal. Why couldn’t he be like them?

[You’re a spectacle, boy. Take it personally. Take offense. Be weirder for it, I dare you.]

One of the Shattered often “admired” Aeo’s physical appearance like this. Aeo called the voice Weird. He ignored Weird.

There were other Adian slaves in Olvaren, owned by other retired hunters. All with red hair and red eyes. But Aeo had never met them. He wasn’t allowed to “fraternize” with other slaves (whatever that meant), nor was he even allowed outside without Harthon’s direct supervision. “The boy is a scab,” Harthon would tell patrons, in no uncertain terms. “He’s a filthy Adian snapper, and he doesn’t deserve freedom. Not with polite society, not with other Antielli children, andcertainly not here in my inn.”

He spoke that way to a priest of Tiathys once. After Harthon told him off, Aeo never saw the priest again.

About one in the afternoon every single day, the woman of the house would usually show herself. Ariste was her name. His master’s wife, and his “last and greatest conquest.” Harthon always called her “Good-for-Nothing,” too. And thanks to him, the whole village knew about her. Her drinking problems. Her constant maladies. Her “sexual infidelities.” How the respectable innkeeper put up with this poor excuse of a wife, no one in the village knew.

Besides Ariste’s drinking problems… Aeo never knew what Harthon was talking about. Just as Harthon kept Aeo on the hook for his supposedly lax nature, he tormented the woman for every flaw and imperfection. Because of this, Ariste never offered to assist her husband with the day-to-day operations of the inn. In fact, if she could help it, not a day went by that she wasn’t completely inebriated.

Just like Aeo, Harthon would slap her in public every once in a while. For forgetting to purchase firewood, for ignoring the dirty windowsills. Or even for just not being around enough. Despite the large gold ring on his finger, Harthon didn’t treat Ariste well. Yet Ariste never retaliated. She never yelled, or cried out when he hit her. She would simply slither down from upstairs, refill her wooden flagon with beer, and disappear back into the attic as quickly as she could. And though Aeo was swamped with work and worry, he didn’t blame her. She knew, just as Aeo did, how useless it was to complain or argue against the master of the Grey Pale.

[Few are they that find it,] whispered Kind. [That memory of belonging. Shards of glass, shattered as we.]

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Ariste would stumble downstairs to find the boy sleeping in his cramped little storage room. She would wake the boy with a start… but instead of hitting him, scolding him, or punishing them like Harthon, she would proceed to sob uncontrollably in the boy’s lap. She never said a word. She just… cried. For an hour or two at a time. Her presence so soaked in alcohol, it would make Aeo drunk just by the smell of it.

The boy never knew why she did this. And he never knew how to react to this behavior of the very grown woman. He never knew what to say, so he said nothing, and just… waited. After long enough, Ariste would fall calm. Quiet. And slowly, she would return upstairs without a single word, leaving Aeo to return to sleep dumbfounded. Three or four times that winter, it had happened.

It was proof, really. Proof that Ariste hated Harthon just as much as he did. She just never acknowledged it, not in public. By the next morning, Ariste would resume her apathetic attitude towards the boy, as if she’d forgotten the moment ever occurred. Besides those odd moments of mourning in the dark, she didn’t even acknowledge that Aeo existed.

To be fair, it was she that never spoke to him. If Harthon was meant to be Aeo’s father, Ariste was just as much his mother.

[He’ll be like us one day,] laughed Weird. [She’ll be like us one day. You’ll be like us, too.]

The end of Aeo’s long list of duties would approach as the sun fell behind the Falas Mountain every evening. The floors covered themselves nightly in slop and dirt as the crowds packed inside, and he cleaned them, even though each long night of song and dance would give him regular migraines. A flimsy mop served as his constant companion. Despite the raucous noise, Harthon would get busy enough that the boy would doze off, using the mop as an excuse in case he ever got caught. Sometimes Aeo would get dinner, if the crowd grew thin enough for Harthon to remember. More often, though, his master would just forget to cook him anything, engaged as he was with an entire trade route of patrons.

Both during and after the dinner rush, so long as the orders continued to flow unabated, the boy was more of an afterthought… for better or for worse. Afterwards, Aeo would sometimes discover an unpeeled potato, a leek, or a handful of radishes sitting upon his bed in the closet. A meager apology for forgetting him. He couldn’t cook them, of course. So he’d simply munch on the raw vegetables without a second thought.

Once patrons stopped entering and started leaving, Aeo would stumble back into his closet to sleep. Without effort, he would drift into the Shattered dreams, his only real escape from his life in the Grey Pale. And then the cycle would repeat. Three o’clock every morning, he’d start it all over again, kicked in the stomach by Harthon. So the pattern had been for the last year or so, as if set in stone. Harthon never let it vary. Needless to say, the lack of sleep was starting to get to Aeo, and he rarely felt well.

Maybe my eyes are red because I don’t get enough sleep, Aeo thought to himself once. Maybe that’s why think I’m lazy.

[The eyes of our bloody crusade beg to differ greatly,] growled Mean.

The thing was… Harthon never slept either. Not when Aeo did, anyway. He ignored Aeo at night just to throw him out of bed every morning. And he had no memory of Harthon ever taking so much as a nap. What madness drove the man to such a high level of productivity, the boy couldn’t fathom. He never even got sick, and he never took breaks. Maybe he just ran on cruelty and coin. Maybe slapping the boy gave him some kind of infernal strength. Maybe the rudeness towards his wife let him subsist, sleepless.

Day after day, Aeo thought to himself: This can’t last much longer… right? He’s got to slow down some time. But the man never did. In fact, it seemed he only became more ruthless.

The idea of freedom had occurred to the boy at times. The idea of running away, running for Adia. But he couldn’t simply run to the nearest nation. All he knew was that the Antiell-Adia border was out there somewhere, far to the west. And the rule was that if he somehow managed to cross it, he could be free. Simple as that. Maybe if he did run away, if he escaped the Grey Pale at eleven or twelve o’clock at night as the patrons were leaving, he could get as far as the highway or perhaps the next town before Harthon would notice his absence.

The only way to escape slavery was by climbing. Climbing up the mountain, up through the canyons and forests and desolate wastes on the other side. There was another country behind the mountain, a high one, of sand and wind and stone. The Land of the Eternal Sun: the nation of Adia. His home. Maybe that’s why the Shattered showed him visions of the long desert, night after night. If he could find a way to climb over the barren side of the mountain without freezing to death, he could be free of Harthon and the Grey Pale and Olvaren. He would never have to work in the filthy tavern again.

But he never dared to try. Not even once. The fear of being caught kept him caught. The cold frightened him too thoroughly. No Antielli trader would dare carry an Adian slave back to their hated enemy, so that wasn’t an option. He would never make money, certainly not enough to convince a random traveling scholar or mercenary. The traders spoke of the desolate nation of Adia as if it were weeks away, and the boy was certain he couldn’t hide for weeks and weeks without a plan. Assuming Harthon didn’t catch wind of his intentions beforehand, of course. There was no telling how many hunters from Olvaren would go hunting for him if he fled. They ‘d probably hunt him for free, even, just to gain Harthon’s favor. And he could not imagine the punishment that would await him. He’d be beaten within an inch of his life, surely.

No, there was no way. Maybe when he grew up, he could buy his freedom like other slaves. Or maybe he’d just live the rest of his life and die within the confines of the Grey Pale.

[You wouldn’t be first or last to fall in service to mediocrity,] the voices would say. [Accept your fate. The sooner you do, the sooner you will become us.]

* * * * * *

“Get out of bed, boy! Now!”

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


He lifted himself out of bed as best he could. But it did not feel like three in the morning.

“You didn’t clean the kitchen at all!” Harthon shouted, right in his ear. “It’s filthy, you vyshti, there’s crumbs and dirt everywhere. If I start seeing rat droppings in the inventory because of this, I swear I’ll make you eat them. Now get back out there and clean it right!”

Harthon struck him on the head rather sharply with the handle of the broomstick before throwing it in his lap. Then, just as quickly as Harthon’s massive form had appeared, his master thundered out of the closet. Aeo ignored the sharp pain, peering over his shoulder and out of the tiny window. Only darkness stared back at him. Honestly, he’d probably only been sleeping for a few minutes at most.

Harthon would return twice an angry if he didn’t hurry. Aeo obeyed his master’s command, slipping on his thin shoes and standing. But not without striking his head against the shelf above his cot first.

Shak!” he swore.

Harthon never let him swear in front of patrons. But he could swear in private all he liked.

Slipping his shirt over his head and grabbing the broom, Aeo stumbled out the door of his closet into the dining area of the inn. All was quiet and dark, save for a few moldering candles still lit in the candelabra above the tables. Aeo crossed the room and ducked into the kitchen without making a sound; he wasn’t normally afraid of the dark, but he was afraid if it concealed his master.

Harthon was not there. Odd. Still, there was no telling when he would come downstairs to check on his progress. He never slept, after all.

The kitchen seemed larger cast in foreboding shadow. With the light of a single lantern burning dimly above crates of potatoes and carrots, he began to scrape the floors with the broom. From what he could see of the floors and the counters, it wasn’t half as bad as Harthon complained… besides the smell. But the kitchen smelled like rotting produce and dirty dishwater all the time. At best, he could see a few stray dust bunnies and chopped vegetables pressed up against the baseboards beneath the bar and sink.

The boy sighed. He could feel his eyelids pushing down on themselves. He pressed on, jamming the broom into the space between the floor and the side of the counter. If he hurried, he would be able to return to sleep in no time.

After a minute of concentration, though… he couldn’t hold on. He was simply too tired. Brush after brush after brush, the rhythm alone was rocking him to sleep. Worse, the rhythm wasn’t actually cleaning anything, shoving the dirt and crumbs around. He shook himself from his daze.

Snap out of it. Come on. Don’t be dumb.

[You don’t know what tired feels like,] said Mean. [Not in the slightest.]

[Poor little thing,] whispered Kind, as if examining Aeo from further away.

Aeo thought to himself: I just want to go back to sleep. Leave me alone, okay?

When the voices remained silent, the boy knelt down to get at the debris underneath the stove. For some reason, it was Harthon’s pet peeve to have anything noticeable beneath, even if he himselfput it there. Sure enough, Aeo saw a few stray crumbs in the darkness. Maybe that’s why he exploded at him.

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

Then, as if on cue, everything went completely dark.

“What? Master, what are you—?”

Harthon was nowhere to be found. Aeo turned his head towards the hanging lantern. Or, more accurately, to where its light had been. The light had died; probably burned through the wick.

He growled and stood to his feet. He couldn’t sweep if he couldn’t see.

Aeo began to fumble his way through the kitchen drawers beside the oven. He needed matches. Matches, matches. Where were they again? Naturally, matches were extremely off-limits. But the thought of waking Harthon just so his master would relight the lantern filled him with unimaginable dread. He rubbed the still-pulsing goose egg on the grown of his head. He didn’t want another bruise.

Shak, where does Harthon keep the matches? In here?

Blindly, he lifted his arms and found the edge of the cupboard door above the stove. In the dark, he could make out the silhouettes of two dozen square boxes of differing sizes. He only needed one specifically.

No. No. Not that one. Not this one.

At last, a tiny one reached his fingers. He slid the lid open, and within were fifty thin spruce sticks coated in white phosphor. At last, he found the matches. He’d never lit one himself, but he’d seen Harthon do it hundreds of times. Just strike the phosphor against the box until it lights up, and relight the lantern. Easy.

The boy crossed the room, careful not to stub his toe against any of the scattered crates. Cautiously, he clambered up on top of the first row of potato crates, careful not to actually step or kneel on any of them. Up above, the lantern was still smoking, a few red embers still smoldering within the tiny wick. He could only hope the lantern still had oil; he’d gotten lucky with the matches, but he had no clue where Harthon kept the lantern oil.

He took out a single match, and slid the phosphor tip against the rough surface of the box.

Strike one: nothing. Strike two: nothing.

Strike three: “Oh!”

In a poof of smoke, it burst alight. He quickly thrust the match into the lantern wick, but… it wasn’t lighting.

Wait, what? Why not? Oh, right. The wick.

He fumbled around the lantern until he found the knob. He spun it, and additional wick emerged from within the brass casing. The lantern lit right away, much brighter than before.

“Good,” the boy whispered with a sigh of relief.

Then, just as Harthon had done many times, the boy shook the match to make it go out. And it didn’t go out.


He shook it again.

The flame grew bigger.

He couldn’t drop it. He’d catch something on fire, for sure, and probably himself! He shook and shook, but the flame burned all the hotter, dropping closer and closer to his fingers. All at once, he felt the heat and dropped the match.

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

“Ah! No, no! Get off!”

He shook his hand in a panic. The flame grew bigger, spreading up his finger and onto the back of his hand. It felt warm, just like the dream of the sun, even as he imagine the flame devouring his skin like tissue paper.

“Get off!” the boy cried, spinning to jump off the potato crate.

He spun too fast, flying off the potato crate. As he swung to keep his balance, his arm struck the lantern straight off of its hook, and with a clatter, the iron light crashed behind the crates. He had no time to recover it, though; he had to extinguish his arm! The fire had already spread from his hand, catching his shirt and lighting the cloth.

“No, no, no!”

The flames were so large, they actually helped him find the sink on the other side of the room. He pumped the handle desperately, and his hand finally met with a torrent of groundwater. The flames extinguished. He tossed water onto his forearm, smothering the flames latched to his sleeve… at last, those flames went out as well.

He imagined his skin melting like cheese, wrinkling and peeling like a decaying tomato. He felt the charred flesh, up and down, again and again… but there was no charred flesh. No pain. No damage at all, not even a burning sensation left behind. His sleeve was charred and stiff, but his arm was fine.

His mind was racing.

How did…? Why doesn’t it hurt?

He then smelled smoke. Was Harthon cooking something?

Then he saw light. Dim at first, but then quickly rising. The potato crate, partially filled with straw, had caught the lantern’s flame.

“Ah! No, no!”

As Aeo stood there in shock, he heard the Shattered speak:

[It might have been the match you so carelessly discarded,] one of them whispered. Weird, maybe.

[He really is quite dull,] agreed Mean.

“Shut up!” Aeo cried in response. “Shut up! Help me put it out!”

As if they could.

Then, Aeo heard the last thing he ever wanted to hear:

“What in Hell’s name is going on in here, boy?! I thought I smelled— holy shit!

In blind panic, Aeo twirled around to look at the kitchen doorway. Standing there was his master Harthon, his jaw unhinged as he stared at the building inferno.

“You little b-b-bastard!” Harthon screamed. Aeo had never heard him stutter before. “Water, boy! Get the bucket, get it now!”

What bucket?

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

Apparently, there was already a bucket in the sink, which Aeo only noticed as Harthon shoved him to the ground. In desperation, the old hunter pumped the sink handle like a monster, filling the bucket as quickly as the ancient system allowed. Which wasn’t fast, truth be told. As he pumped, Harthon filled the room with obscenities.

“You red-eyed bastard!” he roared, trying to kick at Aeo while pumping water; Aeo was well out of range. “What have I told you about matches, vyshti! If the inn burns down, I’ll kill you! I swear I will!”

Aeo responded with the only excuse he had:

“I didn’t mean to…!”

He didn’t know what to do. As if tried to help Harthon, he’d probably be smacked. And if he tried to put the fire out, he’d get roasted. Helpless, Aeo simple laid upon the stone floor, watching the fire burn faster and faster. As if capable of sentience, the flames climbed from the crates of food to the blackening wooden walls of the kitchen. One of the crates at the top of the pile had been filled with thatch, to better protect the pile of hand-sculpted ceramic platters inside. The heat from within it was so intense, Aeo could hardly stand to face it.

But stand to face it, he did. It felt like the dream. The dazzling dream of the sun.

In that moment, a thought rose to the forefront of his imagination. An intoxicating thought that he had never before contemplated. Though he knew he shouldn’t wish it, he wanted the fire to rise higher. Burn brighter. More fiercely. Consume everything. Make it all go away. He almost felt tempted to reach out to it. Take its brightness with his bare hands. Burn his arm again, and it to spread further, like a glittering snake sliding across his skin.

Harthon’s shouts droned in and out. He wasn’t paying attention to them. No, he was listening to the voices: a mesmerizing pattern of crackling echoes, an uncontrollable dance of infernal light. He didn’t want it to end.

Somewhere in the midst of this hallucination, Ariste had entered the room. Unlike Aeo, she did not stop to merely observe. In fact, as she raced past him to smother the flames with her coat, he realized he had never seen her so… alert. Finally, with the water bucket filled, Harthon threw the paltry gallons into the conflagration. To everyone’s shock (and Aeo’s slight delight), the flames did not calm. Instead, they devoured the water like oil, making the fire erupt with a heated whirlwind, bursting upwards towards the ceiling.

“You did this!” Harthon shouted at Aeo, no longer able to control the situation. “This is your fault, you piece of filth!”

Aeo, still mesmerized by the blaze, almost had the audacity to ask Harthon why he thought so. But Harthon did not give him the chance to speak. Grabbing the boy by the collar, the great hunter yanked Aeo out of the kitchen. Then, with a single arm, he cast Aeo into the dining room like a limp ragdoll. The boy collided against one of the dining room tables, smacking the edge of his eyebrow against the solid hardwood.

“I’ll strangle you for this, boy, you hear me?!” Harthon screamed, repeating himself. “I’ll kill you if this place burns down!”

Then, he spun on his heels and grabbed his wife. And with just as much force, he threw her towards the door of the inn.

“Go and get the constable!” he screamed. “Don’t you dare come back without help!”

With no further instructions, Harthon scrambled back into the kitchen, pumping yet more groundwater into the wooden bucket. Aeo felt immediate agony as his right eye fell blind from blood. He struggled to stand, unable to find his balance before Ariste herself recovered. All of a sudden, her felt her hands lift him up, helping him recover.

“Aeo,” she whispered, already sobbing. “I’m sorry, my little boy, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry for everything.”

Aeo couldn’t think, hearing only the crackling of fire and Harthon’s screaming. Ariste continued breathlessly. He had never heard her speak like this.

“You have a choice, Aeo,” she whispered to him, even as she tenderly held his face. “Help me get the constable. Or leave this place. Leave it all behind. I’ve never had a choice, Aeo. But you do!”

Aeo froze. He didn’t know what to do. He stared at Ariste with his single good eye and witnessed a completely different person.

“Go, Aeo!” she said, shaking his shoulders. “Go! Don’t come back! Run for Adia and don’t stop until you cross the border, you hear me? Go!

His feet then outran his thoughts. His feet slipped upon the snow outside the inn, but they did not stop running. And it took several minutes of running to realize that this was exactly what he wanted all along.

He would never be hit again. Never screamed at again. Never abused again, or kicked again. He would be free, for Ariste had freed him. He looked back once, to see if Harthon or Ariste had seen him make the choice. Harthon was still inside the Grey Pale, screaming. And Ariste was running out into the dark, heading in the opposite direction.

He didn’t look back. And in his mind, over and over, he thought to himself:

I’m never coming back. I’m free.

Alyssum: Voices of the Shattered Sun – Aeo’s First Class

This was one of the scenes I imagined first when coming up with the plot for my fantasy novel. Magic (or magick) in the world of Alyssum is pretty straightforward, as far as the etymology is concerned. You’ve got all your classics: thaumaturgy, abjuration, conjuration, and the like. But then you have individuals who are “shattered,” either psychologically or in arcane ways, that defy conventions in neuroatypical manners. Hearing voices is pretty commonplace for them, and the voices of such “Others” are rarely friendly, often blamed for the many misfortunes that have befallen the world since the Shattering (a worldwide cataclysm that left an arcane wound in the surface of the world hundreds of miles long, dozens of miles wide, and filled with darkness and terror from which no one has ever ventured and escaped).

For Aeo, his magick is bipolar, and even slightly schizophrenic. When the anger and obsession of mania comes along, triggered by negative memories, the normally-directionless voices in his head become decidedly murderous. And when sadness and depression appears, the voices become hopeless and despondent and want the world to go away. This changes the way he can influence his magick, often in contradictory ways that are probably not going to help him a whole lot during his adventure. For instance, he’ll soon find himself stuck alone in a terrible blizzard, and his sadness will warp his fire magic into useless ice, threatening his ability to survive.

Of course, he’ll (slowly) reason that making an igloo is a great way to not die during such circumstances. 😀

As an abused ex-slave, Aeo’s got a lot of baggage to unpack. Fortunately, he’ll learn to cope, and his friends will help him do just that. He’ll discover that there’s a reason he can hear the shattered voices, and it has a lot to do with where he came from and who he’s meant to become. That his differences are how the Goddess Tiathys intends for the young boy to save the world.

I want my novel’s Everspring Academy to be more than Hogwarts, and I want the survival aspect of the hero’s journey to be different than The Hunger Games or The Hobbit. Yeah, racial prejudice sucks, but I want to use it in a constructive way in a story, and demonstrate that even obviously-neuroatypical people can solve problems and be heroes. I’m excited to begin the challenge proper once my own mental health solidifies (and yes, even though my draft is ~175 pages now, I realize it’s totally just a start).

Nineteen energetic students and a single timid one entered the spacious open-air amphitheater, each quickly and quietly finding a seat before the center stage. Aeo’s physical senses met the combined sight and scent of a thousand rainbow-colored flowers growing in the meadow beyond. The bright sandstone walls of the semi-circle amphitheater appeared more temple than classroom, adorned as they were with gleaming weapons, thick armors and shields, and shiny arcane artifacts. The afternoon daylight streamed through the shade of green and blue hanging curtains as a delicate breeze made a series of wind chimes dance and sing some feet near the entrance.

Aeo paused, soaking in the view. This was his classroom? Aeo had heard of the concept of “school” before, certainly, though one did not exist in Falas Village. But he had no idea learning could be experienced in a such a luxurious place. It was a paradise, one he did not feel worthy to exist in. And this was the most basic magick course offered at the Academy. An Introduction to Energy, taught by one Elder Naal.

Leon had insisted he start simple, and Aeo had no desire to disappoint him. But besides the splendid classroom, the introductory course felt… off. Perhaps it was the fact that Aeo stood a foot taller than every other student around him, which was saying something for the scrawny four-foot-tall Adian boy. The oldest students gathering before him couldn’t have been older than six years of age, while a few of them were still babbling toddlers.

It was bad enough that the bright-white apprentice robes Leon forced him to wear were so awfully hot, itchy, and ill-fitting for the humid atmosphere of the Everspring. Now he had to endure a rigid schedule where everything was new and foreign and terrifying… and, apparently, appropriate for tiny, tiny children.

He scowled at his predicament, and at himself.

First day here, and you’re already years behind.

One by one, each student took a seat on comfortable pillows in the koilon before the half-circular stage. Aeo didn’t hesitate to sit as far back as he could, choosing a lone pillow in the corner of the amphitheater farthest from both the entrance and the stage. Harthoon (his former master) would probably have had a heart attack had he known the street value of the flamboyantly-embroidered pillow placed upon the amphitheater’s stone steps. But all of the other children had no qualms about leaping and landing upon the plush pillows with delight, so Aeo allowed himself to sit.

Aeo remained silent, watching the others congregate. He could easily differentiate between the Antielli boys and girls (with their short rounded ears, thick brown or ruddy-colored hair, and mostly hazel eyes) and the Ashanti boys and girls (with their signature long and pointed ears, wispy and delicately-hued hair, and their stunningly pale and reflective eyes). No other student had Aeo’s bright red irises and curly crimson hair. There were no Adians in this classroom besides him. And the children had very much noticed. Aeo could feel their obvious whispers floating around between cupped hands. A few blank stares met his own, and he felt his cheeks turn as red as his hair.

Aeo and the other children did not have to wait long for the teacher to appear. From the entrance came a mighty bellowing voice:

“Oy dear children! Welcome!”

Into the amphitheater strode a jolly and rotund fellow dressed in the flowing tan-and-green robes of an Academy instructor. Elder Naal, no doubt, an Antielli man himself. Adorned with a mighty white beard that descended from his lips like a bushy cloud, his hawkish eyes and balding crown of graying hair reminded Aeo of the cranky, ale-sodden scribes that had visited the tavern in Falas from time to time. Fortunately, there was little about this instructor’s demeanor that could compare to those ill-tempered Antielli monks.

“Take a seat, take a seat, get comfortable,” he declared, though everyone had already done so. “Today’s lesson is certainly one you’ve all been waiting for! No more note-taking, no more practice drills… that will come again later, of course. Today, it is time for the real thing!”

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

“Better, my dear,” Master Edin’Rao Naal said, clapping his hands together as he stood before them. “Today, you will be showing me some magick instead!”

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

“Now, now, everyone, contain yourselves,” Master Naal said, lowering hands to hush the children. “I know that some of you are already very skilled at simple focus magicks, while some of you still have yet to demonstrate the knack. This is okay! Today, no matter your level of skill or natural talent, you will all improve together!” He paused, perhaps a bit dramatically. “Now. The tools I’m about to show you can be dangerous. Lethal, in some cases. But powerful in the right hands, and perfect for practicing magick with the right supervision!”

Master Naal turned and moved to the table at the rear of the stage. From within a beautifully-adorned wooden box, he produced a pair of bright-red leather armbands. They were oddly beautiful, sturdy pieces of aged leather adorned with metal rivets, decorative steel ornaments, and silver buckles. In the very center of the wrist was an inlaid gemstone that shone with a delicate green light, not entirely unlike the crystalline lamps that lined the Academy’s hallways.

“These, children,” he said, lifting an armband in each hand. “Are enmap bracers. Does anyone know what enmap means?”

One Ashanti boy with incredibly pointy ears (even for an Ashanti) immediately lifted his hand.

“It means energy manip— uh, man— man-ee-pull-ay-shun.”

Master Naal gave the boy a deep bow.

“Very good, Jhote, very good pronunciation! Yes, enmap stands for ‘energy manipulation,’ the weaving of energy into magick. It is the crystallized aether of the bracer that does the heavy lifting, so to speak, allowing you to practice your forms without getting tired. For little ones such as yourselves, you’ll find that when you put these on, you’ll have no problem casting your very own magicks with very little effort! Would one of you like to come up and help me demonstrate what they can…? Oh, Jhote! Yes, come right up, my boy.”

The same Ashanti boy rose without even raising his hand, standing before Master Naal filled with excitement.

“Have you ever used an enmap bracer before?”

“Ay sir,” he said, his accent thick. “I practice with my brother in his class.”

“Very good! Then you’re probably a natural! Go ahead and hold out your arm for me, my boy.”

Dressed in smiliar robes as Aeo, Jhote rolled up his thick sleeve and held out his arm with a big grin on his face. With a flick of his hand, Master Naal released the bracer into the air, and it flew onto the boys arm in a flash. The three leather straps of the bracer all tightened simultaneously, though perhaps a bit too tightly for the boy’s immediate liking. It was too big, wrapping from the boy’s wrist to beyond his elbow and forcing the boy’s arm to straighten.

“Ha! Apologies, Jhote! You’ll get used to the tightness. It’s a necessity until you get used to the intensity of the magick. Your other arm, my boy, if you please.”

Jhote held out his other arm, and Master Naal performed the same trick as before; with a snap, the other enmap bracer wrapped onto the boy’s forearm, tightening and buckling on its own. The Ashanti boy looked at the oversized bracers on his arms in wonder.

“Comfortable?” Master Naal asked. “Good! Perfect! Now, as to their function. As Jhote said, ‘enmap’ is short for ‘energy manipulation.’ That’s what these bracers allow the user to do: manipulate the aether within the crystals and control the weave in simple focus magick. What is focus magick, everyone?”

Aeo had no idea. Several hands went up, and Master Naal pointed.

“Master?” called an Antielli girl in the middle of the classroom, her hair tied up in a tight bun. “It’s magick you have to concentrate on.”

“Yes, that’s right, Holda,” Naal said. “Yes! Concentration, and what else? What’s the second important part of focus magick?” He waved his finger as if pointing at the answer. “Remember, it’s there in the title itself.”

“Focus!” chimed several staggered voices.

“Yes, marvelous, that’s right! Magick requires concentration and focus, a vision of the effect you desire to create.” Master Naal pointed to the details of the bracers upon Jhote’s arms. “You see the wellspring crystals? Enmap bracers are an aetherically-charged focus that provides the power for the spells you wish to cast. There are few focus magicks that can’t be improved by practicing with enmap bracers. Unfortunately, they are rather… well, they’re rare. And expensive. So expensive, in fact, that this is the only pair the Academy allows the evocation college to use. So, if you please, take great care when using them!”

“Can I try them now, Master?” Jhote asked, already waving his hands about in a practiced stance. “I’m ready!”

“Of course, my boy! Today, I want you all to come up here, one at a time. Tell me what magick specialization is your favorite, and we’ll see if we can’t make the bracers produce what you imagine. Sound good?”

Cheer arose from the students. Master Naal then flicked his hand once more, and the bracer upon Jhote’s right arm suddenly unlatched and flew into the instructor’s hand.

“I’ll be wearing the other one, you see,” he explained, securing it manually to his own arm. “To keep everyone safe. No telling how much trouble you children could get into with both bracers! Regardless, I expect quite the show from just the one!”

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

Jhote began the presentation. Abjuration was his favorite field of magick, just like Leon’s. So Elder Naal urged the boy to imagine a bright light, as bright as the sun, and to imagine it appearing before him. The white-haired boy held out his hand, biting his tongue in concentration. The effect emerged in less than a second: a sphere of bright sapphire light slowly emerged within the palm of his hand, not entirely unlike the luspheres that floated above the refectory in the Great Hall. It hovered there for a moment before “sliding” out of his fingers, falling and fading away before the magick could hit the ground.

Jhote stared at Master Naal so thrilled, he was breathless.

“Fantastically done, Jhote! Very good! Can you feel the ease with which the energy flows through the bracer? Isn’t it brilliant? Who’s next?”

The next student was an Antielli girl with curly blonde hair in the front row. She went up while Master Naal removed all three buckles of the bracer from Jhote’s arm with a quick gesture. As the boy sat down, Master Naal magicked the bracer onto the girl’s forearm, and she wasted no time discussing what she had in mind. Her animis was liquid thaumaturgy, so Master Naal produced a small vial of water from the table on the stage. The girl must have practiced this skill many times before, as the water within the vial immediately leaped into the air and formed a small sphere, defying gravity above the palm of her hand. It then snaked around the bracer like a watery serpent, weaving itself in between her fingers before zipping right back into the vial with nary a drop wasted.

The pride beaming from her face was unmistakable.

“Brilliant, Bevelli! What fun! Aren’t these bracers amazing? Their power makes it feel as though all your practice has finally paid off. Next!”

One by one, each student in the class rose and took to the stage. Some created arcs of electricity between their fingers. Some illuminated the already brilliantly-lit classroom in blinding colorful flashes of light. One Ashanti boy (whose mother worked as one of the Academy’s chirurgeons) demonstrated healing magick, restoring the natural color to a small bruise on his own knee. Another transmuted a small glass marble into a cube shape, then into a pyramid, and then into a multi-pointed star. The student sitting right next to Aeo, a white-haired Ashanti girl whose hair draped lower than her waist, then took the stage and created a spectacular fireworks display, showering the entire front row in dazzling but harmless indigo sparks. She described it as an “emergency flare” magick that her parents had taught her in case she ever got lost.

With every demonstration, the other students cheered all the more. Even as Aeo became more and more sullen.

“Excellent, everyone! Excellent work,” Master Naal said at last. “You all have mastered your animi with such ease! With enough practice and focus, performing magick can one day become as simple as these bracers make it now!”

The whispers escalated, the students whispering to each other as they marveled at their experiences. And for the briefest moment, as Master Naal removed the bracer from the Ashanti girl’s arm, Aeo convinced himself that he’d been forgotten by everyone in the room. Master Naal even seemed to confirm it as he turned in place to return the bracers to their ornate container.

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

Every eye in the classroom then turned to look at Aeo. He turned as beetroot red as everything else about him. The boy without a last name. The Adian. The whispers became intense. Some of the other boys laughed. Three of them in particular, a trio of nearly-identical brown-haired Antielli boys, pointed at him and snickered. If Aeo had known the spell for turning invisible, he would have cast such an enchantment immediately. Unfortunately, bracers or not, the only magic he knew how to cast had murdered his slave-owning master; not that anyone knew that but himself. He refused to look at the stage or at anyone else, so he tried to stare at the sandstone wall beside him instead.

“Well, Aeo?” asked Master Naal. With reluctance, Aeo forced himself to look past everyone. Master Naal had returned to face the class, now wearing a peculiar pair of thin black gloves in combination with a single enmap bracer. “Would you care to come practice what you’ve learned?”

Aeo didn’t respond right away, sinking further into his seat. The laughter at his expense increased. What a shame… a ten-year-old redhead, scared of a bunch of six-year-olds. Of course, he couldn’t simply ignore everyone. Aeo felt his body lift from his seated position, and he found himself stepping to the front of the sandstone amphitheater. His knees wobbled as he climbed the stage steps and his bottom lip was already trembling. There was no way he could remember the stance or the incantations Leon had taught him. No way at all.

“Very good, my boy,” Master Naal said cheerfully (or obliviously), clapping a great hand on Aeo’s shoulder. Aeo nearly crumpled from the gesture, and giggling rose from the Antielli girls in the front row at the sight of it. “Now, as Master Sirelu advised me, you have quite the animis for fire thaumaturgy, is that right?”

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

“Here, Aeo. Your arm, please.”

Master Naal held the bracer to the Adian boy. For the first time, Aeo got a good look at the piece of arcane armor; it really was quite a work of art. The buckles and decorations gleamed in the sunlight, the sienna ayvasilk weaving around the edges spun into perfect embroidered patterns. Crafted of beautiful red-hued leather, the bracer appeared as aged and refined as polished oak, not to mention the silent beauty of the viridian gemstone set into the bracer’s wrist. Aeo rolled up his sleeve, and before he could even watch, he felt the bracer slide up his arm and latch on like a coiled serpent. Master Naal hadn’t been wrong about the lack of comfort, and he felt the blood flow in his arm constrict.

“There we are, excellent. Now, Aeo, stand about three arm lengths away from me and lift your arm. Cup your hand out, just as Master Sirelu taught you.”

So Leon had told Master Naal about his practice. All the more the fool for thinking Aeo even wanted to show off. Aeo closed his eyes for a moment and obeyed the instructor, his hand cupped upwards. Same as before… nothing felt inherently different. His thoughts trailed to the thought exercise Leon had taught him: he imagined all the heat from his toes rising to his legs, then up his waist and stomach, through his chest and down his arm towards his waiting hand.

All was concentration for about fifteen seconds. But nothing happened. Not a single spark, and no heat. Everything fell terribly quiet.

“Need assistance, my boy?” asked Master Naal.

The same three boys that had laughed before began whispering to each other. Aeo couldn’t help but look at them, and they shared three very unfriendly smiles. Whatever heat that should have been descending down Aeo’s arm was instead ascending to his head, turning his cheeks even further crimson.

Aeo’s head shook, tearing his attention back to his hand.

I can do this. I can!

But he couldn’t. He strained again to produce even a candle’s worth of flame on his fingertips, as he had done but days before by himself. He might as well have been holding his hand out to Master Naal for a piece of candy. A hard peal of laughter shot from the corner of the amphitheater. The three boys. They weren’t stopping. At this point, they knew they were distracting him. This made them laugh all the more, and the class had begun to follow along.

To his credit, this was not lost on Master Naal.

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

Nothing was working. It couldn’t. Perhaps it best he bow out as graciously as possible. He should have taken the bracer off and returned to his pillow. He should have. But he didn’t.

His attention was no longer on his hand. It was directly at the three boys.

You need to make them stop, thought an Other in his mind. Make them stop.

Somewhere inside the inner workings of his physical brain, a nerve was struck. It was the boys’ eyes, their jeering laughter, their gestures that struck a deeply-rooted instinct. It was an instinct Aeo had never fully explored, not willingly, out of fear of constant punishment. The phrase ‘Adian bastard’ floated through his head plain as day, plain as if one of the boys had said the words aloud.

Then, a horrifying contemplation. Words that did not belong to him, but to the many unseen Others just beyond his natural comprehension. Words that he had never heard spoken with his ears, but many times spoken in his mind, though never nearly as loud. They spoke over each other, hissing, all desiring the same awful things:

Remove their twisted grins. Their maniacal eyes. They deserve to die. Incinerate their bodies as you did the wolves. As you did your master. Offer them as sacrifice to the star, to the heart of the sun. Refuse their existence a single day more!

Oh, how he could hear them, and nothing more! Aeo’s awareness of the opulent classroom faded, and his physical vision blurred. His focus was a wish, one granted by the enmap bracer hugging his arm. Or so he thought. So lost he was to internal voices, he didn’t immediately realize that the mocking faces of the three boys had begun to transform into looks of horror.

Then… everything happened at once. Too much at once. Someone yelled from across the room. Something bright enveloped his left arm. He felt no pain, no discomfort.

Aeo’s concentration on the three boys broke. He looked to his arm. His entire hand as well as the enmap bracer had erupted into magnificent effulgent flame, radiant, burning with ferocious ruby-red flames too bright to see. His eyes began to track the whipping tongues of fire upwards, and he calmly noticed that they had begun to consume the green curtains above the stage.


Then, someone else yelled from across the room. His gaze lazily drew off of the stage towards the entrance of the amphitheater. It was Master Naal; somehow, he was no longer on stage.

“Aeo, stop, my boy! Please! Control yourself!”

Stop. Control. What a pair of words.

Aeo’s gaze returned to the ruby-red flames now engulfing the white sleeve of his Academy robes. This was right. So right. For the first time in his life, he couldn’t imagine anything he wanted more than to pour this power into the world. Little he knew was more satisfying than the primal animis that roared from his hand and the bracer.

With this power, you can do anything. You can stop the staring and the whispers. You can make people stop laughing. Stop them from screaming. You can make them disappear. Where is the other bracer? You need more power. How much more powerful could you become with the other?

Someone was still yelling at him. Then several voices. A strange sensation took control of his left hand, of the bracer. An unseen force trying to take it away from him.

No! Stop! That will make the fire go away!

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


All sound ceased. With a familiar and delightful popping sound, a violet sphere of magickal light engulfed Aeo’s hand and most of his arm like a playful bubble. In a single second, the entire ruby-red conflagration died. All of Aeo’s weight had been held up by the molten string of aether, and it all so suddenly vanished, he could do nothing but collapse to the floor.

As quickly as the bubble appeared, Aeo’s hearing returned. The sounds echoing in the sandstone amphitheater had not simply died. The roar of the flames had only deafened to it all. In fact, once the roar of the fiery magick ceased, the room became filled with the cries of frightened children, as well as the shouts of other masters attempting to calm them. To his slight confusion, some of the voices seemed to belong to the three Antielli boys, all of them crying and shouting from fear. He hadn’t harmed them, despite wanting to.

Thank the Goddess, his own internal voice thought.

Aeo strained to focus. His energy, consumed in the flames, barely gave him the power to turn his head towards the direction of the voices. Someone was coming, deep footfalls upon the stone approaching him. To his surprise, it wasn’t Master Naal that appeared.

No, it was Leon. Where had he come from? Wasn’t his office on the other side of the Academy?

“Aeo!” he cried, crouching and smothering the flames that had not yet died on the hems of Aeo’s charred robes. With a flick of his wrist, the violet bubble about Aeo’s arm vanished, and the enmap bracer unbuckled. It then shot off of Aeo’s arm like a rocket, clattering some distance away. Aeo felt Leon embrace him and pat his face, but he had no energy to ask what had happened. “Aeo, can you hear me? Speak to me, Aeo, say something! Come now, blink if you can hear me!”

Aeo attempted to blink. It was more of an eyelash flutter. Animis sickness, all over again, all of his energy thoroughly drained. If he’d been able to see it, the once-shining green gem set into the bracer had long since stopped shining.

“Master Naal, call the Sanareum please! How could you let this happen? How long was his outburst?”

“About fifteen minutes!” shouted Master Naal’s voice from across the room, who seemed to be directing his fellow thaumaturgists in extinguishing the flames that licked the ceiling. But he didn’t sound angry, or even displeased. He sounded excited, even as he worked to extinguish the flames that had caught the first eight rows of pillows on fire. “I’ve never seen its like before! I could hardly approach him to ward his hands, even with a bracer on! I daresay, Master Sirelu, we have a master flame thamaturgist on our hands! I’d stake my life on it!”

“Not now, Edin, please!” Leon shouted angrily. “Call the Sanareum, now!”

“Ay lae’dra!”

Fifteen whole minutes? No. No, it couldn’t have lasted that long. It was over so quickly, and so suddenly. There’s no way.

Leon placed his hand on the boy’s forehead, confident that the last of the embers clinging to Aeo’s robes had cooled.

“Goddess, Aeo… this is my fault, isn’t it? Had I known your first lesson at the Academy would be about that damnable bracer, I would have had you skip class. Just… just rest now, all right? We’ll, eh… take things a bit slower from now on.”

Had Aeo not expended every drop of physical and magickal effort attempting to immolate his fellow students, he would have audibly agreed.

“And in the meantime,” he growled, staring at the entrance to the classroom. “Elder Naal and I are going to share a few words.”