Alyssum: The Voices of the Shattered Sun – Chapter Four


With food, water, and a warming body, Aeo slept straight through the night, even with a giant wolf at his side and a strange academic watching over him. He didn’t really know what he had eaten; it appeared to be a bowl of brown and purple lumps, all meat and fungus, stewed in a thick sauce. He slurped it down, anticipating the worst.

That’s when he realized it: despite the texture, the inexplicable stew was the most savory and delicious meal he’d ever eaten in his life.

The Storyteller had been wrong. He survived. Not only did the mephandras not eat him, it had saved him. Though it certainly sounded like it wanted to eat him! Well, not an “it.” A “she,” like in the Storyteller’s story. Was it the same creature? The mate of the dead mephandras? He might have asked, but the wolf didn’t return to the cave before he fell asleep.

A strange dream swirled in his head. It was different than his dreams of the sun. He dreamed he stood at the top of the mountain. Even as he gazed upon his distant homeland beyond the summit, something chased after him. He heard the violent barking of hounds, the shouts of hunters calling after him. Hired by Harthon, no doubt. He cast his gaze backwards, and saw them in the distance, dozens of angry men with spears and bows racing towards him from the broken treeline. They were chasing him, yet he felt no anxiety; they were miles away. Instead, he looked beyond the summit to the wide dunes and deserts of Adia. Strange. The merchants that traveled the pass never mentioned how close to the mountain his homeland lay.

Without a second thought, Aeo raised his foot into the airy dark and allowed himself to plummet down the snowy cliffs. Gravity could not hurt him in his dreams, and it felt natural to fall into Adia’s embrace. He flew, weightless, just inches from the crags, soaring at the speed of an eagle’s dive. He could no longer hear the dogs or the men following him, just the sound of rushing wind cascading past his face.

The snowy ground approached quickly. Aeo tried his best to pull up, or maneuver to the side to avoid it. But nothing worked. He could not fly, not really. And just before he collided with the rocks and ice…

He woke up.

That strange morning, he quickly realized that he wasn’t sleeping in a cot in his tiny closet in the Gray Pale. His sore muscles and the dull aching behind his eye were quick to remind him that he was sleeping instead inside an unfamiliar cavern. And though he still felt the dull tingle of frostbite in his ears and toes, the heavy fur blankets on top of him were luxuriously warm.

Aeo tugged at his arms to rub his eyes. Heavy weights stopped them from rising, weights that were no longer warm.

Oh. Water bottles. Right.

With some effort, he hauled an arm out from beneath the pair of bottles, and wiped his eye. Pain shot from his face at the slightest touch—the bruise. He was tired. Very tired. His body was useless, but his mind was painfully clear and active. Not to mention more than a little nervous. Finally able to move his head about without discomfort, Aeo looked to his left, towards the direction of the campfire. His ears didn’t deceive him. A giant furry monster slept comfortably against the corner of the wall on a pile of furs, curled up all together and breathing steadily. How old was this wolf named Pick? It wasn’t like Aeo could judge from the thoughts Pick forced into his head. Or could he? Maybe he was still young, like a little kid? He hadn’t hesitated at all to place his head in Aeo’s lap like an adorable puppy.

Where was the man named Leon? Oh, there, sleeping on a makeshift cot set into an alcove in the cavern wall.

Aeo sighed, trying to relax as he examined his surroundings. His bed lay against the slope of a very wide cavern. The purposefully-flat stone floor gently curved into the walls, though whether it had been formed with tools or time, Aeo couldn’t tell. The cave walls themselves weren’t nearly as orderly. Nooks, cracks, and crannies filled the four oblong walls, dozens of them filled with unlit wax candles and small charms of varying sizes and colors. Aeo could feel the weight of the mountain’s peak above him, as the cavern’s ceiling was dotted with hundreds of small stalactites and bulbous formations of solidified silt. Ropes and fabric hung from a number of the larger stalactites; there was no sunlight outside to dry laundry, after all. Opposite of Aeo’s resting place was the entrance to the cave. From the campfire in the center of the chamber, the natural stone continued until it met a constructed wall of wooden slats sealed with mud cement. A human-sized doorway sat in the middle of the wooden wall, while a larger barn-like door with a rope-loop doorknob could open half of the wall to the blizzards outside. How the wolves might have helped in the construction of this cavernous dwelling, or whether they had at all, Aeo didn’t know. Maybe it was all the man’s doing.

A large campfire ring dominated the center of the chamber, complete with a roasting spit and a cast-iron cauldron suspended from a set of steel stilts. Nearer Leon’s sleeping place sat wooden crates and boarded boxes of all sizes, no doubt filled with foodstuffs and other such necessities. The wax candle crevasses continued along this wall. And although a few of them were lit, they did not flicker with typical flame. Instead, the flames dancing on their wicks were a shimmering violet, and each cast a strange series of dim glyphs and figures upon the stone like the shadows of a silhouette’s dance.

Magick, Aeo thought in wonder. The man knows real magick!

[Interesting,] whispered Kind, as if from a great distance.

I wish I could learn magick, Aeo thought. Then I would never be a slave again.

[Perhaps. It did not help us.]

Aeo thought: What do you mean?

[By magick, we were undone. Take care it does not undo you in turn.]

Aeo expected one of the other Shattered to chime in. But none of the other voices seemed present… or chose to remain uncharacteristically silent.

Aeo knew of magick, if only in concept. Everyone knew of the ancient practice of spellcraft and sorcery, even if very few knew how it all really worked. The hunters mistrusted it. Harthon in particular usually called magick “a bunch of Ashanti bunk,” unless he more bluntly called it “Adian trickery and bull-shite.” Aeo didn’t truly know why; it didn’t seem like magick belonged to any nation in particular. In fact, every so often, traveling magicians would wander into Olvaren and offer their talents as entertainment for a few coins and a place to spend the night. Some of these men and women would come from as far south as Ladonis, and as far east as San’drael. None of these were ever from Adia, though; slaves were entirely forbidden from practicing the arts. Sure, many were probably phony, their magickal “talents” nothing more than clever cards tricks and sleight of hand. But every so often, these magicians would prove themselves the genuine article. They would make candlelights flicker different colors, or make smoke billow from a hunter’s ears, or make a child’s voice sound like a hiccuping chipmunk. Or, just like the violet candles hanging from the cave wall, their magick would increase and stabilize the temperature of a cold room.

The only time honest-to-goodness wizards came to town was during the hunts. Unlike the good-natured magicians, these practitioners of magick did not perform for children, nor did they come cheap. Trained at the Academy in San’doria, the Guild hired them for their invaluable abilities: paired begrudgingly with the hunters, they studied the habits of beasts and their migration patterns, learned their methods of stalking, and created strange enchantments and alchemical implements. They could start bonfires with the flick of a wrist, read people’s thoughts, and even turn lead into gold as payment for housing and food.

At least… supposedly. Aeo had never actually seen any of these things done, especially turning lead to gold, and he didn’t know anyone who had. Neither had Harthon, hence the “Ashanti bunk” and “Adian bull-shite.” Aeo had wished countless times that he could turn dirt into gold. He could have bought his own freedom with just a handful of gold dust and avoid a lifetime of misery all at once.

He laid back, fumbling his arm back underneath the water bottles that leaned against his side.

What to do now, he thought to himself. Maybe Leon could take me to Adia.

He expected sharp criticism from Mean. But his thoughts remained oddly quiet, save for a single concern:

Wait. Will Leon make me go back? No. No, I won’t let him. He won’t take me back.

Aeo’s fists clenched. Even in his weakened state, he’d fight back. Or he’d run as fast as he could for the summit. And just like his dream, he’d fall down the other side until he reached the desert beyond.

I won’t let him take me back. I’m never going back! Even if I freeze to death, I don’t care!

“…all the way up the mountain by himself, you know! Stunning! Such bravery!”

“I know, Mama! I wanna see him!”

The massive wooden door of the cave suddenly creaked as if something were pushing against it. And Aeo jumped at the sound. His hearing focused. At first he could hear nothing beyond the roar of the endless wind outside, but then his stomach turned. Someone was out there. Multiple someones.

The door opened. The human door, in fact.

“Hush, now, little darling! Hush!”

Aeo’s eyes widened. It was no giant wolf who stepped through the door, nor was it anything resembling a human being. Instead, two round creatures came hopping into the room like a pair of springy, leather-padded kickballs. One of the creatures, the largest one, scanned the room for a moment with its big spotty black eyes, hopping further on all fours inside like a frog. Behind it, the smaller round frog bounded towards the campfire, full of energy and speaking rather loudly.

“Where is the leet-il hoo-maan, Mama?”

The bigger frog turned and put a webbed finger to her wide green lips.

“Hush, little toad,” she said. “You’ll wake all the sleeping folk!”

“But I aw-weady woke She-wa,” whined the round little thing.

“I am well aware,” the older frog whispered. “And I’m surprised Shera didn’t gobble you up!”

The more Aeo listened to the older creature, the more she sounded like a right and proper lady. Lady-frog? No burbling, or croaking, or frothing at the mouth, as Aeo might imagine a frog speaking Antielli words. In comparison, the adorable little frog beside her seemed to have a bit of difficulty with vowels.

“Oh yes, the poor dear is still sleeping,” whispered the older frog. “Good good good. The boy needs all the rest he can get after his terrible ordeal.”

“What’s a ow-deow?” the littlest frog whispered.

“Trouble, dear Heem, it means trouble.”

“Uh-oh. Twuh-ble. Twuh-ble’s no good.”

The elder frog then hopped to the center of the room, stepping towards the remnants of the once-roaring fire. She kicked at a few of the errant pieces of char for a moment, as if in quiet contemplation. Then the frog leaned back as if gathering air. A lot of it, like a balloon inflating of its own accord. Then, at the apex of her inhale, something in the frog’s throat clicked quite audibly. All at once, the frog then belched loud and long, her mouth erupting in a bright errant flame. The thick, super-heated substance that emerged from the rotund creature was more than just flame, instantly igniting the moment it caught the open air. In less than three seconds, the frog’s excretions brought the campfire to a roaring consistency.

Aeo, for his part, nearly cried out loud; he’d never seen something sound so disgusting and yet appear so mesmerizing.

“Ah, there we go,” the frog said, wiping her lips clean with the back of her hand. “Much better! Heem, my dear, would you grab a few logs for the fire?”

“Yes, Mama,” the little frog said, hopping to the wood pile next to the crates.

“Now then…”

Aeo suddenly realized why the frogs looked so round: each wore a tightly knit coat of thick fur around themselves, which the elder frog then shed and placed upon the ground close to the fire. Beneath the coat was the thin and petite form of a bipedal frog. She walked on two webbed feet as gracefully as any human, though she often dropped to all fours to hop about. The frog wore a tight dress of a strange dazzling multi-colored material, and her green skin glistened in the bright firelight. She certainly had the wide mouth of a frog, with thick pale whiskers sticking out the sides that added a curious wisdom to the wrinkles of her face. She stood about a foot and a half from the ground, maybe two when she stretched.

The little one named Heem stood half the elder’s height, a mirror copy of the frog in both color and poise. Now also removed of her thick coat, she hopped slowly towards Leon. Seeing him still fast asleep beneath the purple candles, she then hopped closer to Aeo. This made him pull his feet away by instinct, which caused Heem to jump three feet into the air and shout in surprise.

“Mama! Mama!” Heem cried. “Monster! Monster!”

“Oh! Oh my!” the elder frog turned to see Aeo watching them, clapping her webbed hands in surprise. “My poor boy! How long have you been awake? You’ve probably been watching us the whole time! Well, bless the Goddess! I probably scared you silly by starting that fire, didn’t I?”

Aeo didn’t dare nod in agreement. He didn’t dare do anything.

The frog-lady jumped close to Aeo, kneeling before his head. The little frog named Heem huddled tightly behind the older, watching Aeo with great big black eyes.

“Hello!” said the older frog with a cheerful wave. “My name is Hala, my dear! Pleased to make your acquaintance!”

“H-Hi,” Aeo squeaked.

“Leon told us all about you last night after you fell asleep,” Hala said. “My goodness, what a journey you took to reach us all the way up here! Of course, Shera had to drag you some of the way. It’s a miracle she decided to bring you up here at all! She told us she was searching for bighorns out of the treeline ridge when she saw a little human out there wandering all by himself. I have a feeling she wanted to eat you, but she carried you up here regardless! Wasn’t that kind of her?”

“Eat me…?”

“Oh, yes,” Hala sighed, bending down into a squat in front of Aeo. “I’m afraid she does that quite often these days. Only to keep us all safe from the nasty critters that roam the mountain, of course. The poor dear’s been tending to the bighorns all night long. She usually sleeps in this cave with Leon and Pick, but for some reason last night she decided to sleep in the barn! Isn’t that funny?”


Aeo decided it was not.

“The hoo-maan a-wake?”

Heem then approached Aeo’s face, examining him closely. Though made of the same shimmering material, she instead wore a thin tunic and waist skirt that provided much more dexterity. She folded her green little arms, licking her lips in disapproval.

“The hoo-maan isn’t leet-il,” she said, pointing. “He’s biiiig.”

“Well, he’s little to other humans, dear Heem,” Hala said, pinching the little frog’s cheeks. “Littler than Leon, anyway! Aeo, this is my little one. Her name is Heem. She’s very excited to meet you! Heem, this is Aeo. Be very careful now, he’s not feeling very well at the moment. No jumping on him, okay?”

“Okay, Mama.”

That’s when a great sneeze echoed through the cavern. In an instant, Heem’s attention turned quite dramatically to the far corner of the room. With a gasp, she cried:


Pick was indeed awake, eyeing the situation. As if anticipating her hopping onto his back, Pick let out a long whine, yawning big enough to devour the little frog if she tried. Heem didn’t seem the least bit concerned. Instead, she deftly circled the great wolf’s furry head and climbed up Pick’s neck to sit on his back.

“Hi, you big floo-fie puppy!” Heem cried.

“Good to see you up, Little Runt!” Hala said with a wide smile. “Sleep well, did you?”

Pick growled and blinked. Despite the tiny frog hopping on his back, he managed to look almost bored. But then his gaze passed to Aeo.

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

Aeo tried very hard not to think of the color of the sky as he looked down at his toes.

“What… are you saying?” he asked.

“Oh,” Hala said with a chuckle. “I believe he wants to know if you’re well enough to be on your feet! Oh Pick, I’m afraid he won’t be on his toes for a bit longer. Frostbite is no little thing, after all!”

Aeo tried to wiggle them beneath the fur blankets. They felt inflamed. Painful, even, though no longer frozen.

“I don’t… I dunno,” he said finally.

“Don’t you worry, my boy,” Hala said. “Leon and I will take care of everything you need while you heal. Why, I remember getting frostbite on my toes! I had to sit in the thermal spring for a week before I could start hopping again. As a matter of fact, that’s not a bad idea!” She turned back to Aeo. “Perhaps if someone could carry you there, young man, the warm water might do you some good.”

A gruff voice then rose to fill the cave.

“Where do you think the water bottles come from?”

“Oh dear,” said Hala, clearing her throat. “Well, good morning Leon! I do hope we didn’t wake you. Though I’m certain we did.”

“Oh, don’t worry, you did,” he said with a chuckle. He lifted himself to sit. Curiously, he wore a loose-fitting pair of stained trousers that didn’t seem to fit his thin legs. His chest was bare; for someone of higher status, he appeared as oddly thin as Aeo himself. “But I’m glad. I have a lot of work to attend to today, and I might as well get started.”

“More of those experiments of yours? You know, the longer you’re down in those caves, the more I start to worry about you falling into holes, or getting trapped from a cave-in, or… even blowing yourself up with those glass pipes and jars of yours!”

“It’s nothing you need to worry yourself about, Hala,” Leon replied. “Everything I do is perfectly safe. I’m simply studying the plants and rocks around the spring.” He paused. “Nothing in the least bit explosive.”

“Hmm-um,” said Hala, tapping the floor with her foot. “You mean it isn’t anymore!”

Leon’s lips curled into a mischevious grin for a split second.

“Of course.” He looked over at the boy. “How are you feeling this morning, Aeo?”

Aeo shrugged, a challenge beneath his weighty blankets.

“I’m cold, sir,” he answered honestly.

“Oh, I’m sure. Thank you for starting the fire back up, Hala, that was very kind of you. I’ll refill those rubber bottles for you shortly, Aeo. That should help.”

As he lifted himself from his cot, Hala hopped up.

“Not a problem at all, Mister Sire-Loo!” said Hala. “I’m more than happy to help this young man get back on his feet!” She then turned to the little frog proudly sitting upon the wolf pup’s back. “All right, little Heem, it’s our turn to clean the hot springs today. You promised you would help me scrape off all the algae near the entrance, remember?”

“Waaah!” cried Heem immediately, kicking her feet and pounding Pick’s back with her fists. “But I wanna stay with Pick! I never git tooo!”

This time, Aeo was certain he could see irritation in Pick’s eyes.

“Pick has other duties, Heem,” Hala said, snapping her fingers at her little one. “Like taking care of Aeo while Leon is working! Don’t make me hop up on Pick’s head to get you!”

Aeo decided it was difficult to make out individual emotions on the frogs’ faces without hearing their words. But Heem’s expressions most certainly changed from outrage to sadness and then quiet acceptance within the space of a few seconds.

“Yes, Mama,” she quietly moaned.

The little frog hopped off of Pick’s back and made her way back to the campfire, gingerly putting on her spherical leather coat. Hala did the same.

“It’s so wonderful to have you here with us, Aeo!” she said, quite excited. “When you’re well enough to walk, I’d love for you to meet the rest of my family. They’re not as happy-sure as Heem and I are about more humans living here on the summit, but I know you’ll make yourself home in no time!”

Hala stepped over to the wood pile and made it a point to throw one more small bundle into the campfire.

“There’s no need, Hala, thank you,” Leon said as he buttoned up a long-sleeved shirt he’d produced from a small crevasse in the wall. “I’ll manage it.”

“If you’re sure, dear!” she said, her round form hopping towards the door. “I’ll see you later, Leon! Aeo! Pick!”

“Bye, Pick! And hoo-maans!” said Heem.

Both little frogs then disappeared through the door before closing it shut behind them.

“Such an fascinating woman,” Leon said with a laugh, folding his arms against the slight chill in the cave. “And so unlike the rest of her family. Speaks perfect Yshlene, too. Can’t imagine how.”

Yshlene. Aeo knew that word. It was the language he spoke. The language of Antiell.

Pick sat up and started panting.

<The color yellow. A wolf snarling at a frog.>

“Oh, don’t be annoyed at her, Little Runt,” Leon said. “You know Heem loves you more than life itself. Don’t you?”

Pick growled once and laid back down on his fur blankets.

Aeo closed his eyes, lost in an odd sense of astonishment. Magick, talking frogs, and hearing the thoughts of wolves. Life was quickly losing sense. And he honestly preferred it stay that way.


Alyssum: The Voices of the Shattered Sun – Chapter Three


A burning sun. Gentle, terrible. And yet absent. Non-existent.

Aeo reached up in his dreams, to feel the heat of the sun on his skin. He could see it with his eyes, and it looked ready and willing to warm him. Yes, the sun wanted to fall upon him and give him comfort, yet none came. Instead, he froze. He cast his eyes downwards, and found his lower half sealed within three feet of solid ice. As if he’d been cast in marble, it suffocated him. He tried to claw his way into the sky, yearning to reach the light, but it remained distant.

And then the dream ended. The sun was gone. The ice was gone. And in its place, a terrible thought arose in the mind of the frozen boy.

<He would have died alone.>

“I know. He’s lucky you were out there.”

It sounded like the Shattered did. Except someone was responding to it, out loud. Someone else could hear the voice. Another thought arose in Aeo’s waking mind.

<I would save him from his pitiful existence and devour him now.>

“No,” said a voice. Rough, with a slight accent. “As I told you before, Adians are for scaring, not eating. Especially not a child, for Goddess’s sake. That’s why I’m here, tending your herd and making your meals, remember?”

A third message crossed his mind.

<Food is not your purpose, Teacher. Besides, your food is terrible, and you know it. My child would benefit from fresh meat.>

“It is not terrible! Look, Pick isn’t eating the poor boy either, and that’s final. Besides, look at him; he’s all skin and bones, you’d be picking him out of your teeth for a week. Come now, the stew is almost done.” The voice became one of slightly mockery, adding with a lilted tone: “You’d like it if you tried it.”

A great beast snorted in response. Words emerged in Aeo’s thoughts, accompanied with the unmistakable sensation of disgust:

<I do not eat fungus.>

The boy felt fur beneath his fingertips, the weight of a thick blanket covering him. Behind his head, an enormous pillow made of thick hide. The smell of roasting meat and smokey pine wood filled his lungs, invigorating him.

Besides his surroundings, his body felt very wrong. Utterly drained and frigid, he didn’t have the strength to even raise a finger. He tried opening his eyes, but even gentle fire light proved too much to handle. He couldn’t feel his toes, only that something was pressing against the bottoms of his feet and making them tingle. He was unsure if this was a good sensation or not.

But he wasn’t dead. Not yet.

A strange concept then emerged in the boy’s mind, one he had no reason to form on his own. A mental image, or a series of concepts, that he had little choice but to contemplate:

<A large dog’s tongue lapping against a human face.>

The gruff, accented voice responded to the thought as if Aeo wasn’t the only one who could “hear” it.

“If you mean to eat him,” said the man with quiet resolve. “Then absolutely not. But if you mean to be his friend, then… I suppose. Lay next to him, warm him up a little. But let the poor boy sleep for a while longer, would you please? He needs rest.”

A monster then approached Aeo. Large enough to block the light, and heavy enough to make the ground beneath slightly tremble. Its footfalls tip-tapped and click-clacked across stony dirt, and a great body came to rest against the boy’s side. Worse, a large weight then settled across his legs, and the smell of a wet dog sank deep into his nose. The boy tried to open his eyes wide, and a face came into a blurry view.

A face? No. What made the boy think it was a face? Not a human face, certainly. A dog’s face. Or was it a wolf? It was too big to be a wolf’s face. The boy thought it a matter of fact that wolves do not grow to such sizes. The head of this wolf lay as large as an apple crate, as large as a hound should be by itself. A great black nose sniffed at the air like bellows, its gray-and-brown muzzle sinking deep into the fur blanket across the boy’s lap. Bright reflective eyes darted to and fro to other points of interest in the room, as if the dog had the intelligence to watch the room as a human might. As the boy strained to lift his head, he saw a pair of furry ears rotating to hear the myriad of homemade noises and the crackling of a campfire.

The wolf growled as if tired. The low vibrations shook the boy’s bones. His fear may have been frozen before, but like the rest of him, it was beginning to thaw. Try as he might to still his timid voice, he couldn’t help a small squeak of panic.

That’s when the wolf’s closest eye quickly switched upon him. The whole head rose and cocked to one side, and a thought arose in the boy’s mind:

<A human rising from bed and smiling.>

The boy did not feel like smiling, though rising from his bed and screaming had certainly crossed his mind. The gruff man’s voice then called out from the opposite side of the cavern, as if alerted by the thought in the boy’s mind.

“Are you sure, Pick? Is he awake?”

The wolf bent his great head down, sniffing at the boy. Though the stale and humid dog-breath might well have been a violent hiss of steam, it growled and yelped a quiet affirmative. Then, Aeo’s worst fear came to pass: the wolf’s tongue emerged, shoving the boy’s red hair with a single terrible lick. The wolf was tasting him! The boy wanted to lift his arms to fight against it, but they remained uselessly at his side.

“Ah, he is awake!”

A dark figure appeared in place of the firelight, standing tall above the boy. Though Aeo’s sight remained blurry, the man’s form was recognizable enough. Not a wolf: a man. The man knelt down before him, resting his hand on Aeo’s forehead. He then touched Aeo’s nose. Then his ears.

“Hmm. Well, look at you. Looks like you’re not an ice cube.”

At this moment, the boy realized he was still shivering terribly. He opened his mouth, and the cold of the mountain fell out of it.

“Wh-Wh… whe… wh-where…”

“Now, now, boy. It’s all right. No need to worry yourself. You’re safe.”

The man came forward and sat himself down at the boy’s side, shoving the giant wolf’s head away from Aeo’s lap in the process. Not only did the wolf not straight away devour the man in response, the wolf simply grunted in protest, stepping over to the boy’s opposite side. It then laid its great body down and placed its head across the boy’s legs. Though it was obviously nothing more than a large wolf, its eyes kept staring at Aeo intently, like it knew something he didn’t. Its paws gently dug into the fur blanket as the wolf watched him with all the patience of a newborn puppy.

Aeo had no idea what to make of the man. He dressed like a scholar or a teacher, in fine trousers, a loose-fitting doublet, and a thin leather jacket with a wide tan collar. He wore thin spectacles that added to his years, the years that his freshly-shaven complexion removed. He didn’t seem at all like the hardy specimen of manhood that life this high up a mountain demanded. The sharpness of his countenance reflected something foreign, though from where Aeo had no clue. His accent, though different, was frustratingly plain, providing no further hint.

“By the Goddess, I can’t believe you decided to climb Falas in a blizzard like this,” the man said. “You must have been running away from something pretty dangerous to come this far up the mountain by yourself.”

The man placed a hand on the boy’s face, just above his left eye. Aeo immediately felt pulsing pain, the black-and-blue remnant of anger no doubt dominating his face.

“I’m guessing you didn’t do this to yourself.”

A thought rose in the boy’s mind.

<The color purple. A human falling out of a pine tree.>

“Yes, Pick,” the man said to the wolf, petting the wolf’s wet nose. “I’m… sure it was something like that.”

Aeo stared all the more: the man could “hear” the thoughts too. The man noticed and smiled, pointing to his temple.

“I’m sure you’ve never heard someone else’s thoughts before, have you?” The man placed a hand on the wolf’s nose. “Apologies. I suppose we should introduce ourselves. My name is Leon. This is Pick. His mama Shera was the one that rescued you from the cold. You’ll meet her when she returns. Welcome to our cozy little cave on the mountain.”

Pick gurgled and licked the fur blanket.

<A human boy petting a wolf’s head.>

Leon laughed at the thought.

“Yes, you little scoundrel, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Leon leaned over to ruffle Pick’s thick coat. “I’m sure you’ll be great friends. Give it time, the boy’s been through a lot.”

“Wh-why… Why d-does…”

Leon waited patiently.

“H-he… talk… in m-my head?”

“I’ll be honest,” Leon answered with a sigh. “I don’t know. It’s curious, though, isn’t it? Mephandras pups are something else.”

Aeo’s jaw dropped open. The wolf wasn’t just a wolf. It was a mephandras. The monster. The Storyteller had actually told him the truth.

“I’ve actually tested a few things,” Leon continued. “Did you know you can hear Pick from about a kilometer away? And his mama Shera? You can hear her as far away as Olvaren if you know she’s speaking to you. Amazing, isn’t it? And perhaps a bit scary. When mephandras grow up, they learn to whisper, too, so you’re the only one who can hear them. Young pups don’t quite know how to whisper, of course. And the images Pick uses tend to get a bit, eh… lost in translation at times. It takes some practice to understand you, huh, Little Runt?”

Pick blinked a few times and started to pant.

<The color green. A wolf howling.>

“That’s right,” said Leon with a chuckle. “It’s fun to talk.”

It was as if someone were forcing Aeo to think of every green object he could recall, from moss and oak leaves to the green tunics the hunters sometimes wore. Though the sensation was unnerving, it was decidedly… good? At least, he felt positive when he contemplated the color. That alone added to Aeo’s confusion, and he blinked to make the green thoughts fade.

Aeo attempted to ask: “Wh-What… d…does… g-green…?”

“I believe that means he’s happy,” said Leon. “Green is Pick’s favorite color, after all. So when he howls, or talks, it makes him happy. Am I right, Pick?”

Pick let out a small airy howl, and Leon patted his head with a grin.

“All right, now. To business.” Leon bent forward, reaching under the blankets and lifting the boy’s arm. As Leon grasped Aeo’s hand, the warmth of it made his skin burn. “You can feel my hand? Does it hurt?”

Aeo nodded.

“Hmm, still cold. I’ll get you a couple warming pads for your fingers. At least you managed to keep them warmer than your toes. How about them? Can you feel the heat down there?”

The muscles felt tense and sore. But the fur blanket slowly wiggled back and forth.

“All right. Try not to move them too much right now. I’m sorry to say you’ve got a rather textbook case of frostbite there. They’ve started to turn a might purple. Your ears, too. It’ll take some time for the right color to return.”

Leon peeled the fur blanket back, and lifted a rubber bottle from the boy’s chest, testing its temperature. So that was the source of the weight.

“P-Purple?” the boy whispered frightfully.

“Oh, only slightly,” said Leon almost too quickly. “Nothing time can’t make better. I’ll go refill a couple of these bottles in a few minutes. In the meantime, just relax. The food is almost done, and there’s nothing better for healing than a full belly. I’ll even leave Pick right here to make sure you stay toasty warm.” He pat Pick’s ears. “Can you do that for me, Runt? Keep him warm?”

<The color green. A bright fire in a circle of rocks.>

“Ha, good. Just don’t light him on fire, all right?”

Pick let out a series of grunts that sounded like dull laughter. Leon lifted himself but stopped midway.

“Oh, before I tend to the stew… I imagine you have a name?”

The boy cleared his throat.

“Aeo, s-sir,” he said.

“Aeo. Very good.”

Pick gave a soft moan, staring at Aeo with an almost curious canine grin. And once again, Aeo couldn’t help but think of grass.