Memoir #2 – The New Face of West Virginia, October 23rd, 2102


I remembered something called the “sky”. As dimly as the lights in the vault. As dimly as I remembered writing my name on paper for the first time, a big blue ceiling with a bright lightbulb during the day, an endless sea of stars at night. In the exit presentation, Vault Boy reminded us not to stare at the sun or risk permanent blindness. Sure, I thought. Looking right at a lightbulb is kinda dumb. When that great vault door opened, sunlight streamed into the suffocating steel-and-concrete room like an endless flood. I couldn’t keep my eyes open. Instinctively, I dug into my tool bag strapped around my shoulder to grab my welder’s goggles. Though tinted green through the lenses, I knew I stared into a wall of pure white.

Everyone around me hugged their loved ones or held hands tightly. Some tears were shed. Some prepared to exit the vault with the solemnity of a funeral march. No matter their individual feelings, one thing was emphatically certain: Vault 76 was closed for business, and all the Mr. Handys cheered us on to remind everyone of the fact. Every single dweller crowded inside the atrium cheered as the machinery pulled the gigantic cog aside. With the door open, the air was sheer electricity. 

Liz and Liam came to stand by me as the metal catwalk extended. I noticed (as much as I could with welding goggles on) that they both holstered weapons. Liz, a custom-machined six-shooter, and Liam, a brand-new automatic AER9 laser rifle. With my baseball bat tied to my backpack, I suddenly felt very naked. Liam also had a walking stick of sorts, a surprisingly well-kept wooden cane that I’d never seen before.

“Whoa. Liam, that’s a real nice-”

I then felt my goggles fly off my head.

“Don’t be a pansy,” Liam growled, handing me back my eyewear by shoving it against my chest. “The sooner you get used to sunlight, the better.”

“You even remember what the sun feels like?” Liz asked me.

“Sorta,” I mumbled.

Vault staff busily prepared individual teams and approved travel destinations while we stood behind the expectant crowd, so we had some time to examine our new equipment.

The heaviest by far was our C.A.M.P. units. We had been instructed in their use in bimonthly meetings, but to finally have one of my own felt incredibly satisfying. The size of a piece of luggage, I deployed it for just a moment to check out its functionality. A workbench all its own, the C.A.M.P. came with a rotary tool, a small inlaid table saw, a lathe, and a drill press. With a display screen much like my Pip-Boy, the C.A.M.P. came pre-programmed with schematics for machining everything from tools and basic electronics to laboratory equipment and everyday appliances. There were even instructions on how to make stuffed animals. 

I noticed one in particular and chuckled; what kind of deal did Vault-Tec have with Radiation King to include detailed instructions on how to repair and replicate their televisions and refrigerators? Or Nuka-Cola with instructions to build their vending machines? I found the thought of a vault filled with company executives just waiting to retake their brands in the nuclear wasteland entertaining.

“What do you think of these perk cards?” Liz asked, flipping through the multi-colored and laminated packets. Wrapped in crisp cellophane, these “cards” measured about four by six inches; some were thin while others were thick enough to be books. Thinking back, of course Vault-Tec would call them “perk cards” — let’s make post-war life collectable! Regardless, each showed Vault Boy performing many different activities. Shooting rifles, mending armor, hauling heavy loads, haggling with merchants. Liz opened one titled “Home Defense” and discovered these cards were, in fact, compact instructional manuals that detailed how to develop the specific skills depicted on the cover. “Wow. Look, there’s codes for our C.A.M.Ps to build military turrets. Biometric sensors. 5.56 and AER9, everything. Missile launchers even? Now that’s living.”

Liam peered over Liz’s arm to look, remaining silent but appearing interested.

I thumbed through my own cards and came across one that looked simple enough to start with: “Inspirational”. I unwrapped the plastic and opened the front cover. From its own description: “Travelling alone in the wilderness? No longer! Become a stalwart leader and ‘inspire’ your group of fellow survivors towards a better tomorrow!” The perk card described ways to rely on your companions as well as boost their morale and talents in times of need. “Feel a boost of confidence and discover all new experiences,” it said. “Learn from your companions as they learn from you! In no time, you’ll be ready to take on even greater challenges. The future is in your hands!”

I shrugged. Might as well start with that. If the little “perk card” could teach me how to learn from Liam and Liz’s skills, I’d take that advice any day.

At last, the crowd began to move forwards, and our fellow vault dwellers stepped into the outside world for the first time in twenty-five years. Liam showed our route to the overseer’s assistant, and I passed him to walk into the warm rays of the sun. Like stepping in front of a gentle radiator, I did exactly what Vault Boy instructed me not to do: I looked upwards at the sun. Now filled with radiation, I stopped and waited for the red mass in my sight to fade. Liz laughed and patted my shoulder. Leading me forwards, I soon saw the most glorious image I had ever seen before: the whole of Appalachia. Maple trees whose red and orange leaves fluttered in a gentle breeze, the baby-blue sky that went on and on, and distant rain clouds creating a veil of grey some miles south. In the distance I could see the colossal digging machines that once excavated Mount Blair. I’d never imagined the great Appalachian mountain range and West Virginia’s forests would be so beautiful. I’d seen such sights in the holovids, sure, but nothing compared to seeing it in person.

Now no longer completely blind, I realized the first hint of the world I’d stepped into: the railing upon which I laid my hands flaked with red-iron stains, leaving rust on my fingers. The mighty billboard some meters to my right stood, but only barely, as the metal struts had deteriorated greatly. I looked around me, and saw stone benches chipped, broken, and storm weathered. The poles that once gave light were entirely rusted and useless, their bulbs shattered. Even the hills surrounding the plaza had collapsed, covering the concrete floor in rocks and piles of soil-wash.

All the now-previous inhabitants of Vault 76 grouped together and gazed in awe of the outside world. Just as before, some trembled at the cool autumn air, some celebrated, and some were already breaking off and heading west. As I saw them depart, I lifted up my Pip-Boy to my view and checked out the Geiger counter and health screen. I half-expected to be glowing within half an hour, but I heard no clicking, and Vault Boy was as happy as I’d ever seen him.

“So this is what we have to work with,” Liz said, doing the very same thing with her Pip-Boy. She lowered it and looked outwards to the horizon.  “Huh. I expected worse.”

“We haven’t seen anything yet,” Liam said, joining us with his regular step-clank limp. “Sure, it looks pretty, but I’m more worried about what lives out there.”

“That’s what we have you for, Peters.”

“And that’s what I have you for, Liz,” Liam said emphatically. “And you, Greg. I’ll have your back, and I expect you both to have mine.”

“You bet. We’re a crew, right?” I said.

Liz laughed.

“Right,” she said with a grin. “We got a name for this crew of ours? Oughta make it official.”

Liam rolled his eyes.

“If that’s the kind of crew I’m in, I’ll go back inside and leave you to it.”

“Come on, Liam, don’t be a bulkhead, ” I said. “Hey, what about the Bulkheads?”

“Nah, you’ll make us sound stupid. Hmm. How about the 76ers?”“I’m pretty sure that’s the name of a baseball team.”

“And I’m pretty sure you’re thinking of the 46ers. Austin, Texas, I think.”

“Ah, whatever. Besides, we wouldn’t stand out from all the others. How about the Operators? Like, operating heavy machinery?”

“You’re gonna make us sound all mafia-like. Don’t you remember ‘Dully Williams and the Gangsters of Villa Nueva’? Like we’re ‘operating’ a laundering scheme or something.”

“Oh yeah. Forgot about that vid. I liked that one.”

“Oh hell, you two,” Liam said, taking a step away from us cane-first. “We’re burning daylight. Talk about your dumb little names on the road.”

We headed towards the stairs that led east when we began hearing screaming. Over the railing, I saw the lower plaza level (where the Mr. Handy named Pennington had set up happy yellow-and-blue balloons) and quickly recognized the cause: a rotting corpse of a man lay at the stairs besides the enthusiastic robot. One vaulter, Julian Colter, I believe, held people back from the body as the groups continued to the dirt path down the stairs.

“Poor bastard,” Liam said, looking below with me. “Probably looking for safety in the vault.”

“But there’s no way he died twenty-five years ago.”

“Nah, he’s probably a survivor what got his ass handed to him by someone else with a gun,” Liz said. “Or sickness, maybe. The meetings always said critters would turn into radioactive monsters, but I don’t know if I believe it. Rabid, sure, but full of rads?”

“Come on, people, keep it moving,” Colter said, waving my fellow vaulters on. When one older woman expressed pity, he added: “Don’t worry, our group will come back and bury the poor fellow. Keep moving.”

When it was our turn to pass, I got a good look at him. Wearing ratty clothing, the man’s skin had turned a bluish-green, what remained of his hair matted beneath a red leather cap. His smell caught my nostrils as I passed, and I nearly gagged. Fortunately, it’s a smell I would soon become very accustomed to.

“Yup, recent,” Liam said. “I doubt Pennington even noticed him when setting up the damn balloons.”

“Arrivederci!” Pennington shouted to the departing vault dwellers, all but confirming Liam’s theory. “Au revoir! Auf wiedersehen! Goodbye, my friends! Good luck out there! Stay safe!”

“I miss Sparks already,” Liz said with slight contempt in her voice.

“Come on, Sonny, we’ll find another Mr. Handy out here somewhere. You’ve still got his memory chip, right?”

“Yup. Don’t worry, kiddo. We’ll have a mechanical army soon enough.”

I gave Liz a face behind her back as we continued past the deceased man.

“Enough with the kiddo kid junk. You ever going to stop calling me that?”

“Nope, never will.”

For thirty minutes, most of Vault 76 continued down the steep trail that led towards the 88 highway. As far as switchbacks go, it shouldn’t have been difficult. But at that time of my life, the most cardio I did on a regular basis was a few hours in the vault gym every week. Sure, I wasn’t out of shape, but I had never walked on uneven ground in my entire life, much less did so with a fifty-pound pack on my back. By the time we reached semi-flat earth, I wished I had brought one of the vault sweatbands with me.

Hiking through the trees and smelling pure nature for the first time is something I’ll never forget and never stop enjoying. I’ll be honest: the Forest is the only place I’ll consider setting up my C.A.M.P. anymore. Every part of West Virginia is beautiful, but only the Forest provided good hunting and relatively radiation-free soil. The water’s terrible. But then again, the water’s terrible everywhere. At least the lurks won’t jump out and snap your head off. Just your fingers, maybe. But I digress.

Checking my fold-up Vault-Tec-brand map of the area, it seemed like we’d run across a lumber mill of sorts. A place where wood was processed into planks used in house construction. I only knew this from the holotapes.

The group that stayed together and traveled east down the path numbered about one-hundred or so. A bunch of blue-and-gold wide-eyed vault dwellers: the perfect target.

Entering the mill yard, most of the group remained very quiet. Some kept the group together, leading them forwards. Then, ever the leader, Colter stood upon an abandoned wood pile and turned to address us.

“This is where we begin our reclamation,” he said. “Once we power this mill, we will have all the construction materials we need to rebuild, providing homes and shelter for all of us.”

He might have been right. The lumber mill even included yellow protectrons with saws and clamps for appendages that continued harvesting the nearby woods, declaring a needless intent to: “Chop wood. Chop wood. Chop wood.” No doubt they’d been working for the last twenty-five years by the amount of wood waiting to be processed. To a burly 76er nearest to it, it plopped a pile of wood into his arms with the words: “Please, enjoy this complimentary sample of wood.”

“Those might work,” Liz said with a grin, whispering over Colter’s continuing speech. “What do you think? We’d have all the materials we’d need to build our garage.”

“Wood, though?” I said with a grimace. “I was thinking straight to metal and concrete.”

Liam, behind us, scanned what remained of the treeline.

“I don’t like it. This place. It’s too exposed.”

“Exposed to what?” Liz asked.

“Everything,” he replied. “Gunfire, radioactive freaks. Whatever’s out there could see us for half a mile.”

Liz and I also turned to look, and the old man was right.

Very, very right.

Colter’s speech was then immediately hushed as the entire crowd gasped in awe of a figure emerging from the treeline. Then another. Then another. From the back of the group, I couldn’t get a proper look at them. But everyone else did.

“Survivors!” declared some voices. “Are they dressed?” said two or three.

“Hello!” Colter said with a grand swing of his arms. “Hello my fellow survivors! We are inhabitants of Vault 76, here to reclaim the wasteland and restore America to its former glory! Please, don’t be afraid, we are peaceful!”

At first, the three, then four, then five figures did not advance. They seemed to view us timid dwellers with great interest. For a minute or so. Murmurs of unrest rose from my fellows.

“Grab your bat, Greg,” Liam said, untying my weapon from my pack and latching his cane to his hip. As I readied myself for a melee, I heard the soldier insert a micro-cell into his laser rifle, making an electric click-bwee that told me that safeties were off.

“You don’t think they’re hostile,” Liz asked quietly.

“I know they are,” Liam said. “Come on, this way. We’ll wide circle around them and head for Flatwoods once we can’t see ‘em.”

We three broke from the group, heading north and keeping to the edge of the treeline. Off the path, the terrain grew steeper, and I stumbled more than a few times. Fallen and unretrieved logs made hiking difficult. I looked back, and saw many 76ers watch us retreat; more than a few I recognized from security made to the lumber mill interior in front of the large crowd, raising and preparing their own weapons.

“Please, come forward! We would like to make peace with you and your-”

One of the security staff grabbed Colter by the arm and brought him down, no doubt whispering to him of the potential danger.

The six, the seven, and the eight figures emerged from the trees and began to walk forwards. Security held their ground behind the processed logs while the group itself began to shuffle away from them. A growl called out from the forest, and three more human-like creatures appeared very close to us, limping down the trail we’d just descended.

Then, the screaming. God, the screaming. I’ve heard it hundreds of times since, but I’ll never forget the first mindless screech of the ghouls surrounding us. They descended upon the crowd from the south, nineteen, twenty-five, thirty-seven. I’m only guessing at the numbers, but I don’t exaggerate: they heard us all, and they came like a tidal wave of fury.

Security opened fire. The naked and emaciated husks of humanity fell easily enough, but two replaced each one that fell. The front of the group became the first victims. Ghouls jumped and tore at my fellow vault dwellers with diseased claws and gnarled teeth. Many of the vault dwellers weren’t equipped with weapons, and so fell to the wave of terror. Sure, our vault suits protected us from bites and scratches, but that’s not where the ghouls were aiming. Blood and flesh flew into the air as they ripped into necks, hands, anything exposed. Some fought back successfully, shoving the ghouls back. Many did not. The second layer of vault dwellers, at least the men, grappled with the monsters and attempted to save their fellows and loved ones. Some were successful, the more prepared 76ers clobbering and slashing the fiends with security batons and makeshift machetes we’d crafted in maintenance. The least fortunate were tackled by three, four, and five ghouls, brought to the ground and ripped apart.

Layer by layer, the ghouls flung themselves at my fellow vault dwellers as they retreated into the mill. Security continued their fire, but bullets only did so much to the horde. Those inside the mill held their own. Those less lucky holed up inside the ruined building beside it to the south. I never saw what happened to them.

“Come on, come on!” Liam hissed, his robotic leg having trouble through the brush. “Come on, get into the trees, quickly now.”

More than distracted, I watch the scene unfolding. Bloodied bodies strewn upon the ground marked the ghouls’ advance. Security’s defence seemed to waver as gunfire peppered in and out. The more intelligent and fortunate groups fled through the mill and east. I couldn’t see anything else besides the monsters entering the mill with shrieks of madness. They don’t devour the dead for sustenance; they simply attack for rage’s sake, and I witnessed that first hand.

“Don’t look back, boy, don’t look back,” Liam said to me, waving me on. I obeyed.

The ghouls didn’t see us. Pure luck. Maybe my S.P.E.C.I.A.L. test had been right about me.

Greg Villander Memoir #1, The Vault – A Fallout 76 Story


First thing’s first: I entered Vault 76 at the age of five. My mother was a famous opera singer, and my father was First Chair violinist for the National Symphony Orchestra in D.C.. Somehow, Dad convinced Vault-Tec that I was some musical prodigy that could rattle off Rachmaninoff with one hand tied behind my back. Turns out they didn’t even question it. We almost got chosen for Vault 92 because of my parents’ musical expertise. Someone named Professor Malleus insisted upon it. But, for some reason, we were instructed to stay in West Virginia near Vault 76 until a decision could be made.

When the bombs dropped, Dad told me he and Mom were positively terrified that we would be denied entry to the vault because of our representative’s indecision. But, believe it or not, our names were on the list, and the soldiers ushered us through the giant cog of a vault door.

My musical deception made it through orientation, settling into our living quarters, and three minutes before my music teacher assignment. I’ll never forget the look on Dad’s face as I was asked to play the first of Bach’s Fifth. I plunked the keys on the piano as if I were learning to type on a computer keyboard. Needless to say, the vault teachers that thought I was a piano prodigy for the ages were furious. The vault staff harshly rebuked my parents. I don’t remember the specifics of the shouting match. But, of course, they couldn’t just throw me out.

So, at first, the vault personnel sent me to the only job a non-best-of-the-best was suited for: waste disposal.

Down in 76, pre-war prestige didn’t mean much. But waste disposal? Mom cried every evening I came home covered in who-knows-what, and I’ve never seen my Dad so mad. He shouted at the busy staff for four days as I sat in the smelly innards of 76, spending most of my time crying and getting in the way of Mr. Handys. He demanded to speak to the overseer, but seeing that the vault had just gone into full service, he was repeatedly told the overseer had no time for his, and I quote, “talentless parasite”. At last, and with enough noise to pierce thick steel walls, the overseer was called down. She immediately realized putting a child down there was a mindless and ridiculous idea, even if said child was “smuggled” in. After rebuking the vault staff as harshly as they had my Dad (much to his delight), her compromise was to ask if vault maintenance would take me on as an ‘apprentice’ of sorts. The decision changed the course of my life. Mr. Donovan, Ms. Sonny, and Sparks (our custom Mr. Handy) became my second family, and the workshop on the third floor became a home away from home (even if my two homes were only a couple dozen meters away).

I learned everything there is to know about building a water purifier with my eyes closed, how to scrap a Corvega engine from the bare block and back, and fix faulty wiring when the lights went out. The best and the brightest, right? I’m not one to toot my own horn, but if I had been old enough to work for Vault-Tec before the War, they would have told me to slow down. I learned arithmetic by the millimeter, reading from nights staring at green lines of programming text, leadership skills from projects Mr. Donovan entrusted to me, and, yes, music from the rhythmic hum of a well-tuned nuclear generator. And to you Mr. Jonsen, you flat-footed germ of a man, it was me who fixed your busted Pip-Boy week after week. How you managed to get Fancy Lad snack cake crumbs behind the circuit board always astounded me.

I regularly brought up equipment like soldering irons, silicon boards, and vacuum tubes up to my room, even when the overseer cracked down on maintenance for working on personal projects. I impressed her and the vault staff, though, when I replicated a water chip by myself from studying a real one. She even allowed me to test it on water purifier number four. To my great relief, it did not blow any fuses (of which, Sparks regularly reminded me, we only had a finite amount). While Mr. Donovan reckoned it would only last a few weeks on its own before it burned out, I made a name for myself with that little stunt. By the time I was sixteen, I’d gone from apprentice to vault maintenance assistant to Mr. Donovan.

You’d think the older mechanics and electricians would look down on me for my age and inexperience. On the contrary, I was treated more than fairly by Donovan, Sonny, Franklin, Eugene, and all the rest. It was the other inhabitants of the vault that looked down on me and all of maintenance. For this reason, we all kept to each other for the most part.

The only other inhabitant of the vault I ever became friends with was Liam Peters, the security guard that kept the peace in the maintenance wing. He was in his late twenty’s back then (his wife had been nine years older; I still don’t know why that was so scandalous to others). When there was no peace to enforce (which was often), we talked a lot about pre-war life. Well, he did most of the talking, and I the asking questions. He wasn’t a normal vault dweller. For one, he had been a private during the actual Battle of Anchorage. For second, he had an honest-to-God metal leg identical to an assaultron from the RobCo technical manual that replaced his entire left leg. No wonder we had the manual! 

During the final push to retake the oil refinery on the outskirts of the city, he took a bullet that shattered his left hip. He was, quote, “on the battlefield until the god damn end”. Gangrene took his upper leg, and there was no saving the lower for the upper. For his service, and because of his particular injury, the “RobCo Valiant Service Reconstruction Project” offered him a chance to walk on two feet again, and he accepted. 

“If I had known what a piece of shit this leg of mine would be,” he said. “I would have chosen crutches.”

Again, because of his service, he accepted the offer for a place in Vault 76, so long as his wife was admitted as well. The only reason they agreed was because Mrs. Donna Peters was secretary to one Nicholas O’Leary who was a West Virginian Representative. Apparently, O’Leary gave a glowing endorsement, and that’s all it took.

And then she died in 79’. Hemorrhagic stroke. The first death in Vault 76, and she was only 39.

From the moment I met Liam, I knew why he patrolled the maintenance wing: if anything happened to that leg of his, no one in the Vault could easily carry him to the elevators (his robot leg weighed seventy pounds alone). His quarters were right next to the elevator as well, and he could always radio us for assistance. He carried a fusion power pack on his hip to power the thing, so the battery was never the issue. It was the chain-wheel assembly that pressurized the actuators. The chain would always slip no matter how many times we sharpened the wheel gears, and he’d be “limping” into the shop at least once every two or three weeks. Still, he had a hell of a right hook when hot-headed maintenance guys got into fights, and he stepped on more than a few toes (literally, not figuratively) to keep everything on the level.

Vault 76, with all of its politicians, soldiers, artists, inventors, biologists, they all grew older, and some of the more posh became wary of Reclamation Day. No one said so out loud, but the thought of leaving the vault to “reclaim” the nuclear wastes of the outside world brought a nervous air to every meeting and every presentation.

But not me. I couldn’t wait. Neither could many of my maintenance friends; a world with few survivors meant a near unlimited supply of tools, parts, and equipment. Every member of the hydroponics team were thrilled at the prospect of studying post-war flora and water radiation levels. Even the lead physician seemed keen on the great day, even though Dr. Madison acknowledged that there would be no end of patients eager for medical assistance. There were many vaults in West Virginia, and connecting with them would make reclamation all the easier.

My parents were also nervous, but seeing my enthusiasm, they softened to the idea of bringing culture to any survivors on the outside. After all, surely some had survived the awful twenty-five years of post-war life. Dad would play his violin for crowds once more, and my mother’s voice would soothe the weary souls of travelers and vault dwellers alike.

And then Dad passed away. Three years before Reclamation Day. His death devastated Mom, and my dreams of building a post-war home for him faded in an instant. A heart attack, Dr. Madison said. He was 67 in 99’. Mom mourned for an awful long time, and returning home every night from the workshop became depressingly dark. Like Liam, the loss a spouse made survival inside a vault feel meaningless. A bleak future outside, emptiness inside. Her health took a turn for the painful, as even Dr. Madison didn’t have the resources to perform a hip replacement. 

Mom took her own life in March of 2102. Overdose on painkillers and alcohol. Willingly or accidental, no one could say.

But I knew.

No longer part of a family, the overseer moved me to a smaller single living quarters, and Mr. Donovan allowed me time off to grieve. I feel ashamed to say that I didn’t require much time. I had already done my grieving for Dad, and living with Mom, so lifeless in comparison… She didn’t even sing anymore after Dad died.

Reclamation Day came faster than everyone expected. The night before the fraptious day, the whole vault partied hard. It lasted well into the night and early morning. I listened to the cheers of the vault soccer teams playing one last game, heard the toasts with 76’s remaining stock of bourbon and wine, and smelled hamburgers and fresh-baked apple pies. But I was upstairs in my quarters, writing in my journal. I had filled my backpack with all of my tools and projects. I wasn’t depressed, exactly. But when Liam knocked on my door to see why I wasn’t at the party, he sat down and we talked for a while.

Seeing my map laid out on my desk, he asked me where I planned to go.

“I’m not sure,” I said glumly. “See if there’s a trader in Flatwoods who likes fusion batteries, trade them for some food, and head to my parent’s old apartment.”

“An empty stomach and a baseball bat,” Liam said with a smirk, eyeing my “weapon” that leaned against my dresser. “Doesn’t sound like much of a plan.”

“Dad and Mom always told me they left things there when they ran to the vault. I figure it’s as good a start as any.”

“Well, we’ll have to buy you a 10-mil. No use getting killed by some mangy dog before you get there.”

I couldn’t speak for a moment.

“…you-you’re coming with me?”

“Are you joking?” he said with a laugh. “You think I can fix my leg out there on my own? Donovan’s an old coot, Sparks ain’t comin’, and who knows what Sonny’s plans are. You’re the only one I trust.”

That’s when the crying part happened.

About two hours into our conversation and planning session, I heard another knock on my door. The bulkhead opened, and Sonny looked right at me with her regularly intense stare. On her shoulder was her tool bag.

“You prepping for tomorrow?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Why?” Liam asked. “You plan on beating us to Charleston?” 

“No,” Sonny said. “I’m coming with you. And I don’t care what you say.”

Again, I couldn’t say a word. I hardly expected this. Who would follow a 30-year old into the West Virginia wilderness armed with only scrap parts and a baseball bat?

“Are you serious?”

“Hah! You think you can just barge in here and demand a place on our crew?” Liam asked, folding his arms.

“Hah, crew? Two ain’t a crew. Three’s a crew.”

“It does take two people to fix your leg,” I said to the grizzled soldier.

Liam peered at Sonny.

“You’re good with a wrench, I’ll give you that. Almost as good as the kid. But what else you bringing to the table? Two car mechanics and a washed-up private doesn’t make for much survival.”

“Thought you might say that.”

Sonny then opened her bag and produced two pressurized needles filled with crimson life-restoring liquid. There were many, many more inside.

“Whoa, stimpacks? Where did you get those?”

“They ain’t giving these out until tomorrow,” Liam gruffed. “You think you can bribe us with meds? Besides, you probably stole ‘em from the clinic. That don’t make you a medic.”

“I’ll have you know I got these legitimate-like. I’ve worked with Dr. Madison more than a few times. I even helped with surgery once. I reckon I can heal bullet wounds better than anyone in this vault. Save for Mr. Madison, of course.”

“You ‘reckon’?” Liam asked. “Now that sure fills me with confidence.”

“Hey, there’s safety in numbers, right?” I said. “Three C.A.M.P.s are better than two.”

“We really plan on camping, huh?”

“Absolutely,” I said. “Say we set up right next to each other, put up some walls, rig up a motion alarm, and we’ll have a fortress we can call home. Heck, we could even set up shop next to the power plant outside Charleston. We could use the power, and I’ll bet that place is full of supplies.”

“So long as you bring a hazmat suit,” Sonny said. “But that does sound like a good idea. I’ve always wanted to see the inside of an actual nuclear power plant. Provided some yokel with a gun ain’t beat us to it.”

“True, kid. I can guarantee the folks left in the capital have restored power already.”

“Then let’s help ‘em out. What do you think? Build a garage, get paid, and run the best machine shop this side of the Ohio River!”

Sonny gave her own peculiar sideways grin, and Liam shrugged.

“I’ve heard worse plans,” he said. “Better than the one you started with.”

“I’m definitely up for it,” Sonny said. “Heh, you’ve always been the one with your metal head in the clouds. No wonder Donovan picked you as his assistant.”

“And you’ve been the troublemaker, ‘Liz,” Liam said. “Don’t make me play the discipline committee out there.”

“Says the tin man with bullets in his brain,” Sonny teased. She then smiled. “This oughta be fun.”

Monorail Elevator Recordings – A Fallout 76 Short Story

Discovered by Vault 76 survivors within the mainframe of the Appalachian Monorail Elevator’s second level. Recording as follows (transcript included).



October 23rd, 8:11 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected a minor fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is ten to fifteen minutes. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:48 AM.                                                  

AMS would like to inform all passengers that monorail system maintenance has detected an unexpected fault. All passengers are instructed to remain calm as maintenance has been notified. Expected maintenance wait time is two to four hours. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 9:49 AM.                                                 

AMS would like to inform all passengers of B car that a major fault has been discovered in train car coupler. Expected maintenance wait time is seven to ten days. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. We remind you to keep all legs, hands, and arms inside the monorail car at all times. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

October 23rd, 11:22 PM.

Alert: all passengers are reminded to please remain in their seats with their legs, hands, and arms inside the cabin at all times. Exit doors should remain closed for your safety. In case of medical emergency, first aid supplies can be found at the front and rear of the car. Counseling will be made available at the next station, courtesy of Hornwright Industries. The Appalachian Transit Authority thanks you for your continued use of the Appalachian Monorail System.

Error: Unable to reset train car exit doors. Maintenance and authorities have been notified.

Christmas Night – Fallout 76 Short Story


Jacob tried to sleep. His watch was in fifteen minutes, and he hadn’t slept a wink. But the thought of Julia, alone in Charleston…

That’s a stupid thought, he mused. There’s over two-thousand people in Charleston. She can’t possibly be less alone. She’s probably the least ‘alone’ person in all of Appalachia, possibly the whole of America. Be honest: you’re less worried about her and more selfish about yourself.

Here he was, shivering in a ratted sleeping bag beneath an equally-ratted tent on the road to Summersville Dam. The night of Christmas Eve. Naturally, he’d drawn the short stick for dam patrol. Of course he’d drawn the short stick. Larkin always had a stick up her ass when it came to patrol orders, but maybe this time she had a point calling for double duty. The raiders that came down from Pleasant Valley the day before were anything but pleasant, and chose a fine time to hit the city. And who knew when more would be back. Every able-bodied Responder was on high alert while everyone else in the valley tried their best to stay optimistic. 

That Christmas, the engineers chopped down the biggest tree they could haul, raised it in the center of the capitol building rotunda, and, with help from all the children and orphans, decorated it with tinsel, electric lights, and as many unbroken baubles as they could find.

Even with the threat of limited medical supplies and food, a meager supply of bullets and weapons, and the constant pall of danger from the mountain, the Responders and all the people under the care could forget that the bombs had dropped for at least one night. Food would be plentiful. Cake and cookies, whiskey for the adults, Nuka-Cola for the kids. Presents would be passed around, working appliances, toys, tools, and scavenged cigars. Then, at midnight, Christmas carols followed by a long winter’s nap.

And Jacob was chattering his teeth out on the road to nowhere without a single hint of season’s cheer.

“Fuck,” he growled, turning over. He waited two minutes more to see if his core would flare to life. It did not.

“Fuck it!” he shouted, scrambling out of his sleeping bag in a frozen rage. By the time he’d flailed his way out of the tent, he’d already turned into a solid. He bitterly pulled and tied his hood over his head, bending down to retrieve his hunting rifle. At the same time, the ammo in his loose pocket fell to the ground; at least he’d remembered to put the seven-round clips inside a bag this time.

Jacob then heard the deep chuckle of Kuznetsov some meters away.

“Found a snake in your sleeping bag?”

“Don’t laugh at me, Kuv,” Jacob said, his voice cracking and his rifle barely hanging from his shoulder by the strap. “How the hell do you stand this cold, anyway? You don’t even have a hood.”

At first, the old man did not answer. He inhaled the last of his Tortoise and threw the cigarette butt to the ground.

“Where are you from, Vickens?” he asked with his thick accent, blowing addictive comfort into the air.

Jacob lifted his rifle to check the action. Naturally, it hadn’t been oiled in some time. But neither had any gun in Charleston’s arsenal.

“Beckley,” he said.

“Aye. But where are you really from?” Kuznetsov said with a lilt in his voice.

Jacob frowned and sighed. He’d been partnered with the old man for a week or so, and he found Kuznetsov a quiet but sturdy individual. Jacob wondered if he had been a Commie sympathizer before the War. Not that it mattered anymore anyway. Warming his fingerless gloves with steaming breath, Jacob regretted the fact that no one in the US ever needed to design a gun that worked with mittens.

“New Mexico, if you must know,” Jacob said. “Santa Fe.”

“The desert boy stuck in the freezer,” Kuznetsov said with a chuckle, a small grin forming behind his bushy mustache.

“Hah hah,” Jacob replied with a roll of his eyes. “Laugh it up. Besides, if I didn’t tell you, you’d keep digging.”

“You know me so well.”

“So where are you from, huh? Somewhere cold, I’ll bet. Moscow or something?”

The old man shook his head and adjusted his hat.

“Hah, Moscow. I love Americans,” he said. “So ignorant about every country besides their own.”

“That’s because ours is the best one out there,” Jacob said with a smile, leaning on his heels.

Kuznetsov laughed.

“Now there’s a fine patriot.”

It was silent for a moment, wind whistling through the trees. Even then, the ice and snow created an echo chamber of the visible quarter-mile.

“Well, russki?” Jacob said. “Are you going to reveal your mysterious origins?”

Kuznetsov eyed Jacob for a moment. He couldn’t tell, but Kuznetsov appeared to be judging whether Jacob was worthy of that piece of information.

“Kiev,” Kuznetsov said at last.

Jacob’s brow furrowed.

“Keeve? Where the hell’s that?”

Kuznetsov folded his hands in front of him, perhaps restraining them before they became fists. Jacob could never tell if the man wanted to give him a hug or strangle him.

“Ukrayina,” he replied. After a moment, he added, “Ukraine, to you.”

“Ukraine, huh?” Jacob asked. But then something clicked. “So you ain’t a russki after all?”

“Niet. But I might as well be, since no one could tell the difference after the invasions. I left Kiev with my wife in ‘45. Back then, you don’t walk the street with less than three people unless you like being mugged. We come to America hoping it would be safer here. It was not. I was attacked many times because of my accent. Our home was broken into many times.”

“Damn,” Jacob said. “Did you call the police at all?”

Kuznetsov laughed.

“And what would that do? I’d go to prison for accusing red-blooded Americans for assaulting a Communist. I would disappear, like many of my neighbors.”

Jacob nodded. His face then darkened.

“It wasn’t right,” he said. “I knew it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t say anything. In high school, I’d always hear about some jock being scolded just because they wore a red jacket, or some girl saying something the teachers didn’t like to hear. A Korean kid in my class was taken by policemen in the middle of my history lecture sophomore year. Turns out his whole family was shipped somewhere. He wasn’t a commie at all, he just looked Chinese.”

Kuznetsov was silent.

“I was always the joke at SF High, too. I’m haemophilic, see. It’s only moderate, but it was enough to make me 4-F. All of my friends got shipped off to Anchorage, and I get stuck working as an electrician. Everybody thought I was dodging the draft after I graduated. So I thought I’d disappear, too.”

“You would rather die on the battlefield than live in your homeland?” asked Kuznetsov.

Jacob huffed.

“Sure, if you call this living, freezing my ass off on Christmas Eve.”

“Your job is important. You have water, cram, a warm bed,” Kuznetsov said, tilting his head with every item. “Medicine sometimes.”

He paused.

“And you defend the defenseless. Your friends may have died for their country, but you live for what remains of it.”

Jacob thought for a moment, adjusting his rifle.

“I guess you’re right,” he said.

“You have family left?” Kuznetsov asked.

The gravel and dirty snow on the uneven road cracked beneath Jacob’s feet.

“Not exactly.”

Kuznetsov’s head tilted towards him.

“Try to make one of your own, then?”

Jacob laughed lightly.

“Yeah. I’ve got a girl. Her name’s Julia. You may have seen her at dinner.”

“Julia. Hmm. Not beautiful Julia that works in the infirmary?”

“Yeah, she’s the one. She’s doing God’s work while I fix light switches.”

“You need light to see, don’t you? And she can’t heal without light.”

Jacob laughed again, deeper this time.

“Now you’re starting to sound like Father Gilbert.”

Kuznetsov grinned.

“I suppose I do.”

“You said you had a wife,” Jacob said without thinking. “Is she here? With the Responders?”

Kuznetsov remained silent. Again, Jacob couldn’t read his face. Uncomfortable, Jacob turned away, content to scan the treeline.

“Sorry,” he said. “That was an awful private question.”

“Of all the places we went together, I think here, in Charleston, would have been her favorite.”

Jacob grinned.

“You think she could stand Philip’s cook-”

Whizz.

Right past Jacob’s ear.

Followed by a not-so-distant crack.

“Derr`mo!” shouted Kuznetsov, shoving Jacob towards the treeline. Jacob hardly processed what had happened by the time he and the Ukranian had collapsed off the side of the road: someone had nearly taken off his head with a crisp .308 round. Kuznetsov was on his feet before Jacob had a chance to catch his breath, finding cover behind a fallen tree and firing his rifle into the distance. “On your feet, Vickens! On your feet!”

Jacob shook the dizzy out of his head and hoisted himself to his knees. On habit, he again checked the action on his rifle. His mind then frantically remember something of vital import: he couldn’t fire his gun without bullets. Kuznetsov was already on his third clip before Jacob could tear open his ammo bag with trembling fingers.

It was then he heard the shouting. God, the shouting. The snow must have amplified the sound of a raider rampage, because there was no way that many were advancing. 

“Why are they attacking the dam!” Jacob shouted above the din of Kuznetsov’s fire, joining him at the fallen tree. “There’s no one up here!”

“Think, boy!” Kuznetsov shouted back. “If the dam comes down, all of Charleston goes with it!”

“Comes down?! Wha- The raiders would need artillery, or, or, bulldozers! Or-”

“Jacob, I need you to run!” Kuznetsov shouted, firing again. “Run and alert the rest of the men. Peterson and the others won’t be able to hold the dam themselves!”

“What?!” Jacob shouted as a bullet tore off bark from their cover. “You’re coming with me!”

“Damn it, boy! Peterson will be on his way! Go tell Larkin what is happening!”

“You don’t know that! Kuz, you’re going to get yourself killed!”

“And you’re going to get us all killed if you don’t go!”

Kuznetsov fired a clip more before Jacob pulled him down. Anger boiled in him, along with the adrenaline.

“What happened to living for your homeland, huh?!”

“This is not my homeland,” he hissed back. “But the people down there are my family. They are your family!”

Kuznetsov jammed another clip in his rifle, fired, and came back down when another bullet tore off frozen wood.

“You are my family, Jacob,” he said with surprising calm. “Go live for your family, live for Julia. Now go! Go!”

Kuznetsov shoved Jacob backwards. Jacob tumbled away, and without looking back, staggered to his feet as he felt bullets rain through the freeze-dried air. He ran like hell towards the crossroads to Charleston, the gunfire and howls of lunatics following behind him.

On his way back down, he did indeed see Peterson and his men running in the opposite direction towards his foreign partner.

But he never did learn what happened to Kuznetsov.

When the nuclear explosion rocked the dam fifteen minutes into his lung-burned sprint, he knew he was too late. He could only watch as the entirety of Summersville Lake fell upon the festive and unsuspecting city.

He never saw Julia again. 

Upon his knees, the weight of the world crashed upon him. 

And upon the flooded city of Charleston, gentle wisps of snow fell from the darkened sky.

Alyssum – Chapter Sixteen

mountain

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

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

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

“…you did this?”

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

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

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

“How… did you do this?” Leon asked.

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

“At least nothing else attacked us last night.”

“Mmm,” Aeo hummed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo replied.

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

“Hm-mmm,” Aeo mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Leon administered to Aeo, he sighed.

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

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

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

Aeo looked back at Leon and managed to blink.

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

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

 

*     *     *     *     *     *

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mm-hmm.”

“That’s a yes?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Water?”

“Hm-mmm.”

“No? Um… restroom?”

“Mm-hmm.”

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

“Hmm-mm.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lee-on.”

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

“Hung…rae,” Aeo whispered.

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

“Hung-rae,” Aeo repeated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Mmm,” Aeo said, nodding.

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

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

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

Aeo shook his head as well as he could manage.

“Good,” Aeo replied quietly.

“Too bitter?”

Aeo shook his head again.

“Sss… Ss-ower.”

Leon let out a laugh.

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

“Uh-huh.”

“Care for another?”

“Yah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” he replied.

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

“What is it?” Leon asked.

Aeo took a breath.

“My… tooth is… wobbly.”

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

“Nuh-uh,” Aeo replied.

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

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

Aeo could hear Leon whince.

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

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

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

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

With this question, Leon fell silent for a moment.

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

“Oh,” Aeo replied. “I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where is the food! Oh, behind me!

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

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

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

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

Water! Where is the water!

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

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

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

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

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

“Uh… Uhh… *hic*…”

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

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

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

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

Thoroughly embarrassed, Aeo look down at the floor.

“*Hic* sorry…” he whispered.

This caused Leon to laugh harder.

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

Alyssum – Chapter Fifteen

firehands

Three Weeks Later

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

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

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

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

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

“Sorry,” Aeo mumbled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sum’fin like that,” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No!” Leon shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Vai.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo’s concentration broke.

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo paused.

No. I don’t.

But he didn’t say it.

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

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

Do I want this fire to fade?

For a moment, Aeo did nothing.

“Now, Aeo!” Leon shouted.

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

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

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

The man did not respond, inhaling and sputtering.

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

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

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

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

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

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

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

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

“Leon, something-”

He looked towards the driver’s seat.

Leon wasn’t there.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do I…?” Aeo began to ask.

“Bring it… to my lips,” Leon said.

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

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

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

The wagon then creaked forwards without a rider.

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

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

“What does that mean?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Um,” Aeo said. “Hmm.”

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

“Ouch, ouch…”

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

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

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

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

Leon closed his eyes.

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

“Me? But… what happened last time…”

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

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

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

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

“Go on,” Leon said. “I’ll be fine.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo looked at the map again.

About halfway there.

Go back.

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

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

Aeo, go back.

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

The dream.

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

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

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

To Leon! Go back!

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

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

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

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

Wolves.

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

“Leon?!” Aeo cried out.

“Here…”

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

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

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

Leon’s half-conscious eyes closed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’ll never take him!

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

A bright blue sky, illuminated by a crimson star…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May we meet one day… You and I…

Why not now?

I will be here when you need me…

I don’t understand.

You will, in time…

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

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

Alyssum – Chapter Thirteen

blogtitle

Two Days Later

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

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

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

Aeo remained quiet.

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

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

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

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

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

Leon paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Umm… It’s Aeo, sir.”

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

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

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

“Um… I think so.”

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

“I don’t… believe so,” Leon said.

Aeo nodded.

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

Aeo shook his head, his long hair flopping about.

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

There was another pause.

“Ah. I see.”

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

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

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

Another pause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah,” Aeo whispered.

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

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

Leon looked at Aeo, and Aeo looked at Leon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, I will. Thank you Kane.”

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

Leon paused for a moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, thank you Kane.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo arched an eyebrow.

“Sounds sneaky.”

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

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

The Next Day

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

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

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

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

“We’re almost there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I was too little,” Aeo said.

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

Aeo’s eyes opened wider.

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

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

Aeo hunched over and rested his head on his arms.

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

Leon nearly dropped the reins.

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

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

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

Aeo made a mental note.

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

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

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

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

Aeo shrugged.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon considered for a moment.

“I need you to watch the cart so people don’t come to steal anything.” Seeing Aeo’s face, he said: “Don’t worry, you probably won’t even be bothered. I’ll come back out with some fresh clothes for you. Afterwards, we can find some place to spend the night, and come back to shop after a fresh bath. Surely the local inn has one. I’m starting to smell a bit ripe. I’m sure you are too.”

Aeo wrinkled his nose and frowned. So he had noticed.

“I guess…” he said quietly.

“Thank you, Aeo,” Leon said, jumping down from the wagon. He stepped over and tied Poro up to one of the posts, then came around to the back to grab his bag. “I won’t be gone long.”

With that, Leon entered the store and disappeared into the crowd. Feeling somewhat abandoned, Aeo instinctively shut the front flap of the wagon and rolled himself up in a fur blanket despite the heat. Dozens of people passed either coming or going from the store. No one looked into the wagon deliberately, but he saw a few curious eyes peer inside and notice him. The way they all dressed was so different from Olvaren: the men wore suspenders and work shirts and vests, and Aeo even spotted a few wealthy-looking gentlemen with blue or red tunics and doublets topped off with floppy-looking hats. Most women wore long dresses and aprons of drab colors, but once in a while Aeo saw younger women dressed much like the men in a variety of pale colors. No one wore coats or gloves in Rurali. Many wore leather or straw hats, not to stay warm but to hide their eyes from the sun. Like Olvaren, the men wore facial hair in all manner of ways, including some of the red-haired and red-eyed Edian folk. Dark-skinned or light, the Edians seemed more than tolerated in this raucous concourse.

To keep himself from panicking, Aeo dug into the food crate and pulled out a pair of apples. To be truthful, the fact that Leon allowed him to essentially eat as he pleased was both a thrill and burden. He’d been refused from feeding himself for so long, he couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for doing so. But in the intervening days traveling with Leon, it was becoming more habit to snack every so often, even without asking for permission. After all, Leon did it himself, relying on Aeo to be his assistant as he drove.

For a few minutes, Aeo munched on an apple and watched the passing people from inside the wagon. He felt sleepy, but too worried about someone jumping into the wagon demanding money or food to rest his eyes. Eventually, with both apples eaten, cores and all, he sat there and wondered what he should do. What should he do? After all this time, he felt nervous whenever he wasn’t doing something. But then again, he was doing something by waiting for Leon. And unlike Leon, he couldn’t crack open one of Leon’s alchemy textbooks and read, lacking the skill and all.

He tried to keep Pick and Harthoon from his mind, but just a few days time was not enough to process everything. Harthoon in particular; he could still hear his former master’s screams. How in the world did he summon such a terrible flame to his hands? If he found himself in mortal danger like that again, could he repeat the act? What if Leon attempted to teach him and Aeo accidentally unleashed such a potent flame upon him? Surely Leon had ways to protect himself from Aeo’s inexperience. Right?

In the short time he and Leon traveled, Leon had made no effort to teach Aeo anything about magick. But then again, Leon seemed very tired by the end of each day, and rose with the sun to continue on the road. They seemed to travel at quite a steady pace, nearly in a rush now that the road had flattened. Maybe a night in a proper bed would do them both some good.

Deep in his musings, something caught Aeo’s eye. A large uncovered cart had turned down the street, lead by a pair of brown horses. It slowly approached the general store at a generous speed, weaving through the people crossing the road. Three men rode the wagon, an Antielli driver and what appeared to be two red-haired Edian men. Then, without provocation, the driver pointed.

Right at Aeo.

His stomach sank immediately as the wagon approached. Within a few meters of Leon’s wagon, the cart came to a halt.

“Hey!” the driver shouted at Aeo, waving his hands. “You, kid! You can’t park your wagon here! I’ve got goods to deliver!”

Aeo’s eyes widened, and he didn’t say a word. Maybe if he didn’t look scared, the man and his cart would drive away. They didn’t, of course, and the man stood from the driver’s seat, his face turning a fuming red color.

“Oy, small fry! Are you listening to me?! I said you can’t park here! Get your wagon out of the way!”

Aeo, stunned, couldn’t form words. He attempted to make himself as small as possible in the back of the wagon. Naturally, this didn’t work. The Edian men looked over at the boy in the wagon with dull faces. Unlike them, the driver appeared positively furious. He stepped down from the driver’s seat onto the ground. Walking over to the back of Leon’s wagon, he slapped his hands against the back bar.

“Move your wagon! Now!”

Some people in the crowd began to notice the spectacle. The driver’s voice couldn’t have raised louder. At last, Aeo sputtered.

“I don’t… I don’t know how… It w-was Leon parked here, he sh-sh-should be back soon…”

“I don’t care who your owner is, you little waste,” the man hissed. “If you don’t move this wagon right now, I’m calling the guards and make sure they throw you behind bars. Now moveyourwagon.”

His tone was familiar. Too familiar. In a blind panic, Aeo lifted himself from his seat and opened the front flap of the wagon. He crawled through and sat upon the driver’s seat only to realize that Poro’s reigns were still tightly tied to the post down below. Aeo hastily jumped down from the wagon, and hard cobblestone hammered his bare feet. He clawed at Leon’s knot, but couldn’t immediately get it undone.

“Hurry up, kid! Get your wagon gone now!”

Aeo’s fingers fumbled, and at last freed the reigns. He clambered back onto the driver’s seat and immediately felt the wagon shudder under Poro’s power. She knew she was free, and Leon was not the one directing her.

What are the words… What are the words?!

It came to him in an instant.

“Uh, nee-ah, Poro!” Aeo mumbled. “Nee-ah!”

“What’s taking so long?!” the driver shouted, approaching Aeo. “I’m calling a guard! That will teach you to waste my time, you little-”

“I’m trying, sir!” Aeo shouted. Just as he’d seen Leon do, Aeo slapped the reigns and shouted loud and clear: “Nee-ah!”

“Aeo!” a voice shouted.

Aeo wasn’t certain what happened first. The driver of the cart raced towards him and nearly grabbed Aeo’s leg with his thick hands. At the same time, Poro winnied like mad. She must have become as panicked as Aeo, because she charged forwards with all of her might into the crowd before her. Aeo nearly fell off the cart from Poro’s power and the pull of the cart driver, but just held on to the driver seat by his fingertips; the reigns were long gone from his grip. Poro’s hooves stampeded down the cobblestone road, with the wagon wheels rumbling and creaking like a chaotic earthquake. Men and women screamed, pulling themselves and their children out of the path of the runaway wagon. Poro didn’t collide with anyone herself, but the wagon came dangerously close to hammering some of the more oblivious. Worse, Poro showed no signs of slowing down in the slightest. She galloped at full speed down the cobblestone road as if wolves were chasing her heels.

Of course, Aeo didn’t understand the specifics of the situation. He was too busy trying to hang on for dear life.

“Poro!”

What is the word?!

Bah-si! Bah-si!” he screamed.

No reaction from Poro. In fact, she seemed to speed up.

Bah-si!” he screamed again, feeling his hands slipping. His feet nearly scraped the ground, and were about to skid across the unforgiving stone like a plucked chicken.

Unbeknownst to him, the end of the thoroughfare approached in the form of a fairly well-constructed brick wall. In a split second peek, he saw it, and tried to haul himself up to the driver’s seat.

Bah-si, Poro! Bah-si!”

No use.

Poro was an intelligent horse. Even in her stressed state, she knew she carried a heavy load, and she recognized a solid obstacle when she saw one. As the crowd of people thinned near the end of the road, Poro took a desperately-hard right turn. The wagon nearly tumbled over.

Aeo flew straight off.

He expected the back of his skull and his spine to shatter against the cobblestone. He suspected his end had come in a rush of violence. To his surprise, he never met the ground. At least, not as immediately as he should have. He heard the sound of a hammer shattering a glass window, and suddenly gravity no longer held him for a miniscule moment. Then, he careened through the air in a backflip, and raised his hands to shield himself from the ground. This time he saw the source of the sound: in a bright flash of blue light, a bubble-like surface about a foot from Aeo’s outstretched hands made the boy bounce as if it held him in a weightless, cracking into pieces like someone threw a rock through a mirror.

Aeo continued to flip twice more, and with each collision, the bubble appeared and fragmented against the ground, suspending Aeo above the road each time. On the last flip, the bubble no longer appeared. Aeo crashed into the ground hands and knees first.

For a moment, he allowed the pain to occur. Not a lot did. Lifting himself, he looked at his scuffed hands: no blood, but he’d scrapped off a bit of skin. He slowly stood to his feet, and looked at his knees: a little tender from the stone road, but none the worse for wear.

Then Aeo spun around. Poro was nowhere to be found. On the ground were the bright-blue remains of the mysterious “glass”, spread across the cobblestone like so many pulverized shards of light. Within a few seconds, those shards disappeared, melting into thin wisps of smoke and fading from view.

Perhaps three dozen onlookers stood staring in awe and pointing their fingers right at him.

Blood rushed to his head, and not because he’d been injured. He looked back at the road from whence he’d come, and to his horror, four men in chainmail, swords, and helmets were charging towards him. He didn’t dare stay, but he didn’t dare flee. He simply remained still.

“You! Boy!” shouted a guard. “Don’t you dare move!”

Once they were upon him, two guards grabbed Aeo’s arms by the wrist and yanked him forwards.

“No, please!” Aeo cried, struggling quite uselessly. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to! Please!”

“Don’t resist!” shouted a particularly imposing guard. “It’s the lock-up for you, you stupid boy! You nearly ran over an entire load of people with that bloody wagon of yours!”

“For all we know, your idiot horse is still running!” another guard shouted.

“It’s… it’s not my horse!” Aeo said in a panic, tears immediately cascading down his face. “It’s Leon’s! I d-didn’t know how to drive it, and this man made me do it, and-”

“Shut up, boy!” said the first guard, practically lifting Aeo with one mighty arm. “And believe me, we’ll be having a chat with this ‘Leon’!”

“No, no! Please! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

People stared at the boy, especially the angry ones that had nearly been run down. The guards hauled Aeo down the road towards a large red-brick building with a large sign that Aeo, in his panic, couldn’t have read even if he knew how. If Aeo stepped into that building, he knew his life with Leon would be over. He’d be sent back to Olvaren. He’d have to explain to Aristé how Harthoon died. She would kill him with her bare hands.

“No, no, no!” Aeo shouted, scraping his feet along the ground to gain traction.

“Stop… struggling!” the head guard screamed. “Carry him if you have to! Continue to resist, and it’s lashes for you, you little Edian shit!”

One of the guards opened the door to the building.

A voice shouted from somewhere distant in the crowd.

“Wait!”

The guards ignored the voice at first, and one of the guards lifted Aeo clear off the ground.

“Let me go! Please let me go!”

“Wait!” the voice shouted again, closer this time. “Wait, gentlemen, please!”

The town guards turned towards the sound, pausing their advance with Aeo in their grasp. A familiar figure approached them, practically wheezing from a strenuous run. Leon. In his arms he held a bundle of clothing.

“Please, wait,” Leon gasped, his hands on his knees.

“Are you the owner of this boy? Answer me!” the head guard demanded.

“I am… the caretaker… of the boy, yes.”

“What the hell was the boy doing, racing a wagon down the road at such speed?” the guard asked. “And during the busiest time of day! You do realize that he might have killed people!”

“Officer, you don’t have all the facts,” Leon said loudly. “I saw the whole thing, but didn’t have time to stop it… A very confrontational man nearly assaulted the boy, and Aeo acted the only way he knew how: by attempting to drive our wagon away from him. Of course, inexperienced as he is, my horse panicked at his attempt. It’s not the boy’s fault. If you want to arrest someone, the fool is at the general store right now gloating about it!”

“You expect me to believe that?” the guard demanded. “It doesn’t matter why it happened! The boy’s crime is at least six months in lock-up for his recklessness, maybe more if he hurt anyone! And I should probably arrest you as well for letting it happen!”

“Look, I know you’re all reasonable men,” Leon said. “People may have been frightened, but it doesn’t appear that anyone was injured, at least from what I saw on my run over here. Please, I can pay you to let us go.”

“Ha! A bribe, is it!” laughed the guard nearest the door.

“Call it a fine,” Leon said. “Let me compensate you, whatever you think is fair to cover the distress we caused. We will leave by tomorrow morning once we’re resupplied, and we promise not to return.”

The guard looked about ready to explode, but he paused mid-breath and looked back at the others for a moment.

“A fine, you say. I’d have to pass it by the chief,” he grunted. “Believe me, the fine is going to cost you.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Leon replied, breathless. “But I am willing to pay it.”

“Put the boy down,” the guard said. “But don’t you dare run, you little twerp. Follow me into the station.”

The moment the guard released his hold on Aeo, the boy leaped forwards and wrapped his arms around Leon’s waist and cried. Leon embraced the boy, and led him wobbling into the building.

 

*    *    *    *    *    *

 

As the afternoon wore painfully onwards into the dark evening, ominous steel-gray clouds smothered the bright sky that had so dominated the pleasant atmosphere of Rurali’s day. Aeo sat upon the edge of his large wool-filled mattress, having been escorted by two armed guards to a quiet inn on the southern edge of the village. Using his marker’s map, Leon tracked down the wagon and Poro. She was quite winded and distressed, but she had indeed stopped on the northern edge of town, choosing to help herself to an empty field of long grass to calm down. Leon had yet to return; he’d departed to reorganize the wagon and drive it back to the general store in order to complete his resupply. Distant thunder slowly became more considerable as rain began to pitter-patter on the roof, rising into a constant torrent of noise.

It didn’t rain much in Olvaren, certainly not in any heavy amount. Perhaps in Rurali, it occurred more often. Aeo decided he liked the sound of rain. It smothered his thoughts, for there were too many going through his head to even attempt sleep. He itched his shoulder; it was now covered by a light white cotton tunic that draped a few inches too long down his arms and about his waist. His disgusting rags (which could hardly be called pants by this point) had been thrown away, replaced with proper brown hempen trousers. Leon had even purchased white cotton underwear for him, something he’d never worn in any meaningful way; perhaps he had worn cloth diapers when he was three or four, but those hardly counted. He wore long white socks that dangled loosely at his toes no matter how tightly he pulled them up his legs, and comfortable slip-on shoes made of soft leather.

It didn’t feel right. None of it. The fresh feeling of a bath in a real ceramic tub with actual warm water, the brush of comfortable clothing on his skin, the creaking bed upon which he sat, the potato soup dinner that filled his stomach, the sound of the rain and the crackle of fire from the open cast iron stove in the corner of the room… Everything that filled his senses made him feel completely ashamed. He deserved none of these pleasures. This marked the second time Leon had paid for Aeo’s mistakes, and this time he had been there to hear the price: two-hundred and fifty-five gold pieces. Not copper, not silver, but gold. Enough to purchase a small house, and Leon carried that much and apparently more in his bag.

The guards were right: Aeo belonged in a cell. Better yet, he deserved to remain a slave. He didn’t dare think of the Gray Pale, but perhaps there was somewhere else he could go. Some other work to which he could be suited. A farm, maybe. He’d taken care of horses before. Maybe he could work as a server in a bar. He was well-acquainted with booze, after all.

Lightning flashed through the room’s single window, startling him for a moment before a peal of thunder rocked through the building. Even that didn’t quiet his mind.

What of his magic? Could he conceal it? Maybe, maybe not. It seemed whenever his life was in danger, the blue light would appear to protect him… or fire would come and cause as much damage as possible. When he fell from the wagon, it felt as though he bounced weightless, suspended within a big glass container, its surface of light breaking and cracking and shattering over and over until Aeo came to a halt. In the end, all the pieces drifted away on the breeze and vanished as if nothing had happened.

He hadn’t told Leon. There had been no time to do so. Maybe Leon didn’t need to know. Maybe Leon would get tired of his company. Maybe Leon could drop him off at the next village and let him go to Edia. Maybe he could-

The door to the room slowly opened. Leon stepped in with his bag and several other items in his arms. His hair was sopping wet, as was his thick coat.

“Hello,” he said without expression, shedding his coat and hanging it on a peg next to the doorway. Aeo didn’t reply, sitting silently on the edge of his bed. He stared at the floor and didn’t dare look up.

“Aeo,” Leon said quietly. Aeo said nothing. Leon sat upon the second bed in the room. He pulled his thin spectacles from his shirt pocket and pressed them up against his nose. “I need you to do something for me.”

Aeo swallowed hard, and gently whispered:

“What?”

Leon paused.

“I want you to hit me.”

Aeo’s face twisted more bitter than vinegar.

“…what?”

“Come on, Aeo,” Leon said. “Stand up and hit me. Use your fist and punch me.”

Aeo looked at his lap.

“Why?”

“Don’t ask why,” Leon said, his voice soft but sure. “Just do it. Stand up, come on.”

Leon stood up and grabbed Aeo’s reluctant hands, lifting the boy to his feet and walking him forwards. He sat back down on his bed with Aeo before him.

“Hit me,” he said again. “Hard as you can.”

Aeo took a step backwards.

“No…”

“Aeo, do it.”

“No, I don’t want to.”

“Do it now.”

“No!”

“Hit me!” Leon shouted.

No! I won’t!”

“Aeo,” Leon shouted, his expression grim. “I will take you back to Olvaren if you don’t hit me this instant!

Aeo’s eyes widened and his temper flared. He wouldn’t. He couldn’t. His fists clenched, and he stood tense as a cornered animal. Hot tears filled his eyes.

“But you said I was free!”

“Hit me, Aeo! Now!

Aeo reeled back.

“You’ll never take me back there! Never!

He shut his eyes and swung his fist as hard as he could at his only friend’s jaw.

Glass shattered loudly and clattered against the floor. His fist connected with a surface as hard as a slab of granite but as forgiving as a pool of water. Aeo’s eyes opened from shock, and he saw nothing but bright blue light where Leon’s head had been. No, he was still there, with the same grim expression on his face, staring at Aeo through the light. Aeo pulled back his hand. It was covered in sharp fragments of blue magick, as if he’d put his fist through a pane of azure glass. They didn’t tear into his knuckles or cause physical pain, but they adhered to his skin as if they had. Then, as abruptly as they had appeared, the glass shards faded into smoke and fell away. The light surrounding Leon’s head faded as well, leaving the room in relative darkness.

Aeo stepped backwards, his breathing panicked.

“What… what did I…”

“Energy manipulation,” Leon said quietly. “I took the energy of your fist and used it to shield myself from harm.”

“It’s the same…” Aeo whispered, looking down at his hands. “It’s just like…”

“I know,” Leon said. “I know what happened. Everyone at the general store is talking about it. You fell off the wagon, but you didn’t hit the ground. A sphere of light protected you, and it sounded like broken glass as it fell upon the ground. Does that sound right?”

Aeo collapsed upon his mattress.

“…yes,” he said at last.

“Aeo,” Leon said. Aeo didn’t respond. “I didn’t mean it. About taking you back to Olvaren. I would never do that to you. Ever.”

Aeo’s heart was racing.

“Do you understand me, Aeo?” Leon asked.

Aeo looked up. He wiped the tears from his eyes; his hands were trembling.

“Why…? Why did you make me do that?” Aeo asked, heartbroken. “You… you paid so much for me! Why do you care? Why?

“Because you’re worth it, Aeo,” Leon said firmly, holding out his hand. “Aeo, I need you to trust me. I only want what is best for you. I want to teach you how to defend yourself, how to depend on yourself and your talents. Don’t be afraid of them. Don’t be afraid of other people. And don’t be afraid of me. Right now, it’s my job to take care of you, and I’m not going to stand idle while the world makes you suffer.”

Aeo wrapped his arms around himself and shut his eyes. He wasn’t worth this. Nothing mattered. He would never truly be free. He couldn’t be…

He heard the floor creak, and felt Leon sit beside him. Two strong arms wrapped around him, and he tried his best not to cry again. He failed, and with a whimper, his head pressed against Leon and he fell into sadness.

“It’s okay, Aeo. I’m sorry for making you do that. I’ll never do such a thing to you again, I promise. Everything will be all right.”

Aeo didn’t honestly think it ever would be.

Alyssum – Chapter Twelve

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

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

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

After that? Of course I am.

“Yes sir,” came the timid voice.

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

“No sir.”

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

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

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

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

He heard a chuckle from the driver’s seat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon paused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An important question rose in his head.

“Leon?”

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

“Is Everspring warm?”

Another chuckle from Leon.

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

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

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

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

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

Leon sat and looked down at Aeo through the canvas.

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

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

“Um… Leon?” Aeo asked. “Am I… free?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh.”

So he wasn’t going back to his homeland.

“Do they have slaves in Ashant?”

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

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

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

Aeo blinked a few times.

“I… I am?”

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

Aeo’s eyes opened wide.

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

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

“No, I just mean…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo frowned.

“I don’t want it,” he said simply.

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

Aeo stayed silent.

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

Aeo pulled his blanket tighter against himself.

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

“You’re sure?”

Aeo nodded.

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leon?” he asked. “I’m hungry.”

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

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

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

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

* * * * * *

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s what?”

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

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

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

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

“Really?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Magick?” Aeo asked.

Leon nodded.

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

“Uh, yeah… sure.”

“You’ll take tomorrow night?”

“Um… I guess…”

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

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

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

Aeo nodded, sitting up closer to the fire.

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

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

Leon smirked.

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

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

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

“Con-see-ted?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A candle?” Aeo asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mushrooms? Eww, Aeo thought.

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

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

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

Aeo nodded.

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

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

“Oh.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s a culture medium?”

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

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

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

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

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

* * * * * *

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

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

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

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

“How old is Poro?” Aeo asked.

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

Leon sat on the ground and yawned.

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

Aeo did so.

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

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

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

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

“Leon?” Aeo asked.

“Hmm?” Leon asked without turning over.

“Do you think Pick is still alive?”

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

“I think so too,” Aeo said.

After a few moments of thinking, Aeo said:

“I miss Hala.”

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

After a few more moments, Aeo said:

“Leon?”

Leon didn’t reply, no doubt fast asleep.

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

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

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

I’m free.

Alyssum – Chapter Eleven

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon looked across the cave at Aeo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Aeo, dear?” came a voice.

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

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

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

“Aeo, please…”

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

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

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

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

He felt a hand rest on his arm.

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

Aeo breathed for the first time in several moments.

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

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

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

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

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

Leon’s face melted into a confident smile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo frowned, wincing at the pain.

“I don’t know,” he answered honestly.

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

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

Leon sighed.

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

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

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

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

“Hi Poro,” he said quietly.

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

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

“Dis-spell, s-sir?” Aeo asked.

“Make them vanish,” Leon said.

“Oh,” Aeo said. “Okay.”

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

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

“I’ll be back with your-”

“Leon! A little help?”

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

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

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

Aeo’s eyebrows raised.

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

Aeo looked down at the floor.

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

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

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

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

Hala lifted a finger.

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

Hala wiped a tear from her eye.

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

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

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

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

Aeo sniffed at the cold air and realized something.

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

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

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

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

“I suppose it’s time,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Alyssum – Chapter Ten

“No… No, no… No…”

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

“No…! No, let me go! Let me go!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo nearly glared at Leon.

“I don’t… unders-s-stand…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo’s heart skipped a beat.

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

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

Leon shook his head and turned away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon placed his hand on Aeo’s forehead.

“Does that sound right?” he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aeo’s eyes opened.

“…really?” he asked weakly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon nodded.

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

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

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

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

Leon held his hand to his forehead.

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

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

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

Aeo shook his head.

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

The sounds of Harthoon’s screams engulfed his mind.

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

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


OlvarenFire


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was their fault the Wound existed.

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

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

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

So it did.

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

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

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

“Who are you?!” demanded a guard.

“Identify yourself!” demanded another.

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

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

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

The guards looked at each other, puzzled.

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

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

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

The guards peered upon it uncomfortably.

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

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

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

“Such as?” asked the second guard.

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

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

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


aetherstone


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon appeared grim.

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

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

Before Leon could answer, Rachars lifted his hand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None taken,” Leon said.

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

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

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

Leon nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Which is?”

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

The huntress unfolded her arms and glared at Leon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon paused, wiping his upper lip with his hand.

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

“You do,” said the constable in surprise.

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

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

Leon nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leon turned to the constable.

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

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

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

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

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

The huntress glared again, but the constable nodded.

“Of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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