Alyssum - Chapter Nine
In the week and a half Aeo had been missing, Harthoon the Drunkard became someone Aeo no longer recognized. For as long as Aeo had known him, he’d worn a thick dark beard and wore his curled hair long to his shoulders. His bloodshot hazel eyes were mischievous at best, always looking where they shouldn’t. His posture was nearly always found wanting, making him look like a tired old man. He had worn a dark coat and black trousers wherever he went, and he smelled like horse piss and alcohol. That man no longer existed. In his place stood a completely sober, clean-shaven, short-haired hunter with bare arms made of iron and wrath in his eyes. Only his voice was unmistakable. Aeo fought for release from Harthoon’s arms, but Harthoon’s grip only tightened, crushing the boy’s ribs and organs in the awkward struggle. Strapped to Harthoon’s back was a short polearm of some fashion used for bludgeoning, and at his belt was a long dagger of frontier make. Now distant from the roars of the wolf mother and the remains of fallen hunters, Aeo fought all the harder to break free. To his surprise, Harthoon suddenly released him. No, not released: tossed. Quite violently. Aeo tumbled and rolled down a short embankment, not scrambling away fast enough to escape before Harthoon pounced and crouched over him. “To say that you aren’t worth the blood in your body…” he whispered. His words were uncharacteristically pronounced and brimming with venom. Without adding more, he pulled the long dagger from his belt; it had surely been sharpened precisely for this moment. Breathless, Aeo clawed at the frozen dirt to break away backwards. Harthoon jumped forward with equal agility, slamming a boot on Aeo’s blood-stained chest. “No, no, no, no running away this time. You take everything from me, I take everything from you. That’s the deal!” Harthoon lifted the gleaming dagger above his head, and thrust it downwards. Aeo lifted his hands against the sharpened tip, and his eyes squeezed shut. Both then heard a crisp ping sound, much like the sound of a bard striking a particularly cogent D note on a harp. Harthoon must have had his eyes shut during the blow as well, as it took him a moment to realize that, despite his target laying prone on the ground mere inches away, the dagger had somehow missed the mark. In fact, the strike seem to bounce as though he’d struck plate metal. “The hell…?” he whispered, raising the dagger again. With added force, the dagger plunged at Aeo’s defensive hands. Ping, followed by a fading blue light. He nearly fumbled the dagger from the deflection of the stab. “No!” he bellowed. Harthoon struck the dagger downwards again, this time aiming for the boy’s stomach. Ping, followed again by a fading blue light. “No, no, Goddess damn you!” Harthoon, with both hands, thrust the dagger at Aeo’s head. Aeo flinched. Ping, followed again by a fading blue light. “Why… won’t… you… bleed?!” he cried, punctuating each word with a thrust of his dagger. Each was then followed by the bright ping and the fading of magickal blue light. Aeo’s labored breathing paused. What was happening, how was he doing this? Was he doing this? “I can’t kill you…” Harthoon whispered, panting. “I can’t… I can’t even kill you…” He looked at the dagger in his hands. “I always knew… taking an Edian into our home… was a bad idea. But no, Ariste insisted… on a child. Innocent… But your red eyes followed us everywhere, always watching, always judging. I know your kind. Parasites. No matter how kind we are, giving you food, a place to sleep, water, medicine… Your kind drive decent men insane. Foul bloody magick, it’s always bloody fucking magick....” Harthoon looked straight into Aeo’s eyes. “It’s gone, you know. My home. The Grey Pale. The Marketplace. The Great Hall. It’s all gone. Burned down by a magickal fire that water and snow couldn’t extinguish. The fire burned for four days straight. Does that make you happy? First your laziness drove Ariste to the very ends of her health, you drive me to drink and make me the town drunk, and then you light our entire livelihood on fire, poof,” He made a gesture with his hands. “Gone. Nothing but ashes.” He then pointed up towards the mountain peak. “Wolves,” he whispered. “You survived Falas by holing up with those bloodthirsty… monsters? What are you, boy? Some kind of fucking demon?” “They’re not… monsters,” Aeo said with a whisper. “They’re my… friends.” Harthoon’s head cocked to one side as if madness had taken him. “Friends,” he replied. Harthoon’s boot pressed down against Aeo’s abdomen, forcing the air out of him and leaving him gasping. “Your… friend… just murdered two dozen good hunters, tearing them limb from limb and leaving them to die on the mountain. Your friend just gave you to me to save its ugly spawn. You have no friends, boy. And guess what? I’m going to be a hunter again. That’s right. I’m going to climb this mountain and hunt down every last wolf, kill every last pup, just like the hunters of old did with the mephandras. I’ll be the richest man in Olvaren, and take back what you stole from me. And it'll be all thanks to you, boy!” Harthoon sighed, pressing his foot down harder. Aeo’s eyes bulged. He tried to mouth the word ‘stop’, but nothing came out. “Ah, just like the good old days,” Harthoon said. “When there was wealth to be found in Falas. When we didn’t have to worry about little Edian bastards like you fucking up the world.” Aeo’s lungs clawed for breath and none came. “Funny,” Harthoon said with a curving grin. “It seems you don’t have a magick spell to help you breathe.” Aeo grabbed Harthoon’s boot and tried to lift it away, but it pressed down all the more. Whatever chance Aeo had now rested with the Goddess. Harthoon wasn’t about to stop, his eyes glaring down upon Aeo, savoring this singular opportunity second by every painful second. Fire… Aeo thought. I need fire. Lots of fire. Leon’s lesson sprang to his oxygen-deprived brain. Imagine warmth in between your hands. Take all the warmth in your body and imagine it going up your arms and between your hands… To be honest, there wasn’t much heat left in him. But it hardly mattered. Something had to be done, and now. He forced his mind to imagine the largest bonfire possible, a wickedly blazing fire that could melt steel and consume forests. He witnessed in his mind’s eye the heat burning his itching toes, rising through his legs and up his stomach and chest. When his imagination forced the sensation down his arms... Something clicked. Not a sound, or at least Aeo didn’t think it was a sound (admittedly, it might have been one of his lower ribs cracking). It was a feeling of acceptance. A concept understood for the first time. A key opening a door. A gateway opening into a warm and fragrant room. Like the first time he’d ever dreamed about the sun and its warm heavenly glow… That’s when Harthoon’s boot burst into flames. Not delicate candlelight or an inviting campfire flame, either. A thick, turgid white-hot flame in the shape of Aeo’s fingers that clung to the cuff of the heavy leather boot like molten glass. Aeo’s hands released, and the magick expanded a few inches like liquid foam. It happened all in an instant, but he could swear the lava-like flame rolled upwards against gravity like a snake rolling sideways. Harthoon shrieked and dropped his dagger to the icy ground, lifting his brightly burning leg from Aeo’s stomach. “N-No!! You f-f-fucking Edian piece of shit! Ahhh!” Nearly as shocked as Harthoon, Aeo scrambled backwards and did his best to inhale. Harthoon, on the other hand, flailed and danced madly at the flames that seized his leg, diving into a nearby snowbank and hastily burying it. To his horror, the magickal flame did not die. In fact, it seemed to feed on the snow as it melted, consuming Harthoon’s boot and clawing its way up Harthoon’s leg. His panic continued as he desperately tried to smother the flames with his hands. Unfortunately, the bloated thousand-celcius magick that adhered to his boot stuck to his hands like paste and continued to expand. Aeo couldn’t look away. This wasn’t like the lantern in the inn, or the flame that Leon had taught him to hold. He hadn’t burned something. He had burned someone. Whether or not he held control over this particular flame, he wasn’t certain; the thought didn’t immediately cross his mind. He merely watched in panic as Harthoon continued to writhe in agony. Harthoon’s hands, now bathed in flame and destructive magick, slowly took on the appearance of liquid steel. They were dripping. He mindlessly beat them against his chest and into the snow in a vain attempt to smother the heat, but it simply spread the gelatinous volcanic substance across his hunter garb and all across the melting ice. The magick splashed everywhere. Sparks hissed and crackled, and fumes of smoke enshouded burning flesh. A horrible stench filled the air... The burning man continued to wail at the top of his lungs as the fire consumed his entire form, but there was no one on the whole mountain that could bring him relief. Even if Aeo had known how to make the flames vanish, he wasn’t certain he wanted them to. You will never hurt me or my friends ever again. Feeling himself begin to hyperventilate from shock, Aeo allowed himself to shut his eyes and look away from the terrible sight. “Pick…” he whispered. The hunters couldn’t have taken him off the mountain. Shera would have put a stop to that. Pick still lived. He had to. Aeo bent down and picked up Harthoon’s dagger. About eight inches long and gently curving to a defined point, he felt its weight as he firmly grasped the bone-whittled handle. He wasn’t certain about his magick yet, but he was fairly sure a sharp knife would make even the hunters think twice about trying to take him back to what remained of the village. After regaining a modicum of composure, Aeo carefully retreated up the embankment towards the site of Shera’s massacre, leaving Harthoon to the flames. The man’s screams did not fade into the distance quickly. Only once Aeo crossed the treeline many minutes later could he enjoy silence once more.