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.
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?”
“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?”
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.