The ringing of Silren’s hooves against the pavement echoed off of the houses they passed. They flashed through a circle of light from a street lamp. The sound of his hooves changed as he leapt the sidewalk and thudded onto grass. I’m so glad mom insisted I learn to ride a horse, Ashton thought as he felt Silren’s muscles bunch. He adjusted his seat and held on, as the unicorn sailed over a fence to land in another back yard.
The moon silvered the possessions that littered the enclosed space. Silren dodged the leavings of young children, then leapt the opposite boundary to land hock deep in a lush flower bed. Ashton didn’t have time to make out what the crushed flowers consisted of. They shot through the grass of that yard, and out onto the pavement of a new street.
The darker shape of Tourmaline flapped ahead of them. Ashton had lost count of the number of houses they had passed on their way out of the city. A few cars still moved about, and some of the houses sported lit windows, but no one came out to watch them pass.
Ashton glanced at the position of the moon, then at the road between Silren’s ears. The suburban houses had thinned. They moved from the outskirts of the city and followed the road along the coast. The sound of the surf dimly reached his ears. He clenched Silren’s mane tighter and looked up at Tourmaline.
The gargoyle had dropped lower and flew down the open area of the road next to them. Silren’s hooves kicked up dirt from the softer shoulder. The trees lining the road grew sparser, and they cantered around a bend in the road. Waves crashed against jagged boulders at the base of a drop on his right.
“T? Please tell me we aren’t going where I think we are?”
The gargoyle twisted his head to look at him. The lighter stone of his teeth flashed in the moonlight. “Sorry Ash. Can’t do that.”
He flapped on ahead again, and they continued to follow the winding road along the water. I just can’t believe there is a gate in my mom’s garden. What are the pillar marks?
Silren interrupted his thoughts. “You know where the gargoyle is taking us?”
“I think so.”
“How far is it?”
“It’s usually about an hour by car, depending on traffic.”
“Then we should arrive in an hour and a half to two hours. I can make that.”
“Are you ok, Silren? You’ve lost a lot of weight.” Ashton’s fingers brushed the dry, brittle hair of Silren’s coat.
The unicorn didn’t answer him for a moment. The sound of the surf, and the rhythmic thud of the hoof beats, filled the darkness.
“This year has been… hard. The battle to keep the pillar marks cleansed has drained us. There aren’t enough unicorns for me to station at every gate. And with the power flow disrupted, we have recovered slowly. The mark Rajani is holding now was the first infected. And will be the first lost. I’ve held it for months, but I can no longer.”
The wet scent of the ocean swirled around Ashton in the warm updraft along the cliff. Regret over the stolen time added more pressure. They cantered on for another mile. He finally asked, “You really have been here for a year?”
Silren’s ribs expanded in a sigh. “Yes, Ashton. You walked away from me a year ago. I tried to follow, but you crossed without a pillar near. I’ve had a year to contemplate theories about that impossibility. One of the elders I inquired with talked of an old legend. The myth told how the pillars had come into being to allow a safer method of transit, but nothing definitive on how movement occurred before. They are researching it further. How is it possible for you to have only had a week pass? What happened?”
“It wasn’t exactly a week. I left you and ended up in the snow. That’s when I realized how stupidly unequipped I was. I tried to cross again, little hope in finding my way back to you, so I attempted to get closer to home. That time, I arrived somewhere populated. It had been morning in the snow, but when I stepped into the farmer’s veil, night had already fallen. I’m guessing they felt a witch had appeared. Because they knocked me out. And when I came to, I found myself tied to a stake and they were about to set it on fire. My longing to get home found fertile desire then, and I shifted, stake and all, and found myself in my own neighborhood. I got myself home to find someone else living in my apartment. That was six days ago.”
“So you made the transit to this veil in three jumps? Your lost time must have occurred during the crossing where you went from daylight to night. The pillars of a gate form a solid link between veils. In essence, they puncture through multiple veils at once and they hold the world stable. Some may span only two veils, while others can span several. That is why we have to travel to different marks to get to where we want to go. By jumping cross country, you wouldn’t have the safety of the very fabric of the world to keep you in continuity.”
“Is there any way to get it back?” He whispered.
“I’m sorry Ash, but I can’t see how.”
Silence stretched. The smooth rolling gate of the unicorn’s canter lulled him, and allowed his mind time to relax. Memories of the dreams the NightMare had given him played through.
“Silren? Why are you trusting the NightMare?”
“Is that her name? She sent all those dreams to me, and then you were running from her. Why are you working with her now, and leaving her to guard the mark?”
Silren stretched his neck out and shook his head, fluffing his mane. “The Unicorns and Nightmares are like the two polarities of a battery. It takes both of us to form a current. Without one, the other cannot exist. We take in and resonate with the light energy, and they do the same with dark.
Everything that lives contains a unique combination of light and dark. Throughout a life’s journey, it sheds energy back into the world. It is the purpose of the Unicorns and the Nightmares to gather that energy and keep it flowing. Or life would cease to be. The energy would stagnate, like a poisoned pond, and would no longer be available to power new life.
“But you said the energy is out of balance now?”
“Yes. And it grows worse. Because of the energy imbalance, the Nightmare’s numbers have grown while ours have dwindled. That’s why I went out looking for someone like you. Rajani was also sent out to look. Our joint problem is that there is too much dark now. And as more dark accumulates, it breeds more dark. If we can’t rebalance the power, eventually life will cease.”
“What can I possibly do to help with that?”
“I don’t know Ash. But already you have done things I didn’t think were possible. How we and the Mare’s handle the energy is very different. We can’t use it. But so far, you can.”
“So how will Rajani protect the gate? She doesn’t have a horn like you.”
“I can purify the gate, and transform the dark into light. But she can only… disperse it…”
“So, it’s spreading?”
There was a long pause before he answered softly, “Yes.”
The rest of the ride progressed in silence. Ashton could feel, through his legs, Silren’s fatigue. Tourmaline thumped to the ground ahead of them, where the gravel drive to his mother’s house met the asphalt road. Silren slowed to a trot, then stopped next to the gargoyle. The unicorn’s muscles quivered under Ashton’s hand. He slid to the ground and rubbed the sweaty neck.
“So there really is a gate in my Mom’s garden? Where? And, how?”
“I’m not familiar with this gate.” Silren said. “Where does it lead?”
Ashton stared down the dark driveway and shivered. The moonlight didn’t penetrate the shadows.
“It passes into another human populated veil. I have family over there that I visit from time to time.”
Ashton walked down the drive several feet while Silren and T discussed their destination. Not far off of the main road, a black sludgy fog lay heavy in the fields and across the gravel. The more he peered into it, the more repulsed he became. The viscous tar undulated slowly like an obscene, bloated jellyfish across the landscape. A jellyfish more enormous than his brain could comprehend.
The unicorn’s hooves clattered on the rocks as he joined him to stare into the fog. “Tourmaline? You’re sure the gate is untainted?”
“It was this afternoon, but the dark hadn’t been this strong then.”
“My mother is in there.”
“There’s no help for it. Ash, you and I will have to go through. Tourmaline, can you fly over?”
“I think so.”
“Mount up, Ashton.”
He took a deep breath to still his shaking hands, then grabbed Silren’s mane and swung up to his back. “That looks a lot like what attacked us in the motel room don’t you think T?”
The gargoyle cast him a worried look, then spread his wings. “I’ll see you at the house.”
Ashton tightened his legs around Silren’s girth as the gargoyle lumbered into the air. “I notice he didn’t answer me.”
“Me too. Are you ready for this?”
The unicorn stepped out. They passed the boundary and pushed into the blackness. Nightmarish visions pierced his brain. The weight of evil stole his breath, and Ashton felt Silren stumble. Silren’s horn lit up and the darkness lost its strangle hold. Instead of living the terrible dreams, he watched them like a movie.
“Look at the ground, Ash.”
Silren’s voice sounded strained. Ashton looked out over the fields. Tendrils of the black fog undulated like so many vines, boring into the earth. Taking root.
“What do we do?” Ashton gripped Silren tighter.
“Nothing. We can do nothing.” The unicorn’s horn flickered and the dark pressed closer. “Until we learn more about this threat, we won’t be able to free the earth.”
Ashton groaned. The excruciating weight grew like the pressure before a storm. Silren picked up his pace. It became harder for Ashton to retain his seat as Silren broke out in a sweat. Movement undulated to his right and he slid on the unicorns back when he twisted to look.
All hell broke loose.
Silren screamed in pain. He reared up and his horn incandesced. Ashton flung his arms around the unicorn’s neck so he wouldn’t fall.
Blades of burning shadow spun through the air in the white light. Silren leapt into a canter, but quickly slid to a stop as more blades wove around them. They ducked in closer, slicing at them. Silren grunted again and his horn dimmed.
Fire sliced Ashton’s thigh and he lost his grip on Silren. He hit the ground with a thud. Blades quickly dove for them. Silren spun raking his horn in a wide arc, but Ashton could see his energy draining from him as fast as the blood that poured down his white hide.
The brand on his chest cleared the dark from his mind in a wildfire of cleansing. Just like in the hotel room, he felt the power flow through his body and into his hands. He honed his thoughts, and forced the power into blinding white swords.
The shadows fell back out of the ring of light.
Silren stood with his horn level, his sides heaving. “On my back, Ash. We have to get out of here now.”
“So are you. Neither one of us can keep up this output of power. Come on.”
Ashton managed to slide onto the unicorn’s back and Silren broke into a run. Ashton swung at anything that tried to get close to them.
Suddenly, they burst out of the smothering dark and into fresh air and normal moonlight. Silren grunted and fell over his nose. Ashton flew a few feet, to land against the front fence of his mother’s garden. Silren lay on his side in the gravel, his breath labored. In the natural moonlight, the blood looked horrendous. Ashton pulled himself up by the fence, and realized he didn’t look much better. Blood dripped down his arms and soaked his jeans.
Tourmaline dropped out of the sky. “I couldn’t get to you.”
The gargoyle rocked back and forth, turning from him to Silren and back.
He started to limp towards Silren when the door to the house banged open and his mother jumped the steps to throw open the gate.
“Get everyone inside the gate.”
Ashton and T made it to Silren’s side. He looked like a newborn foal getting to his feet. But they got him through the gate. His mother firmly pulled the gate closed then knelt down by a large crystal sitting in the flower bed. She hummed softly and reached out to it. Ashton blinked when he saw a light settle deep into the stone.
She rose and turned to them. “That fog won’t get in tonight. Can you get the unicorn into the back yard? He looks in the worst shape.”
“I’ll get there, milady.” Silren whispered, weaving on his feet. “Thank you for the haven, gate keeper.”
Moonlight filled the park with a silvery light. The scent of mown grass accompanied the hot air Ashton drew into his lungs. Ash adjusted the strap on his bag and walked across the field to meet the unicorn. Even in the colorless light, he could make out the change in Silren. The unicorn looked exhausted. His ribs formed a washboard across his side that was covered with the ratty looking white velvet of his hide. Ash lengthened his stride.
Silren stopped, then tossed his forelock out of his eye and flared his nostrils. “So. You’ve finally come back?”
“Not you too?” Ashton dropped his bag to the grass with a dull thump. “What happened to you? Are you ok?”
“Ok? What do you think? I came straight back here to find you, and talk reason into you, but you went off gallivanting for the last year. And during that time, something started to eat away at the pillar marks. It grows stronger, faster, than we can heal the area. We are about to lose this mark entirely. If this cancer spreads, and we lose the ties between veils, we will no longer be able to travel.”
“Could this have been prevented if…?”
“I don’t know.” Silren said. “The energy balance has been off for several years. That’s why I went in search for someone like you. I’ve been worried sick. I didn’t think you had been killed, because I thought the tie between us from the brand would let me know. But I had started to doubt. Why did you leave for so long?”
Ashton let the weary hurt and accusation from the unicorn’s eyes wash over him. Yet another thing for him to feel responsible for; why had getting home been so important anyway? Nothing like a few life or death situations to put things into perspective. Ashton tentatively reached a hand out to the unicorn.
At first Ash thought Silren would back away, but then his nose reached out and wuffled his palm. Ashton slowly stroked the soft white cheek. Silren closed his eyes and sighed.
“I’m sorry Silren.” Ashton whispered.
“He didn’t.” Tourmaline said.
Ashton glanced to his right. T had moved to stand next to him, at Silren’s side. The unicorn opened one blue eye. “Ashton? Why is a gargoyle accompanying you?”
“This is Tourmaline. He decided he’s helping me.”
“I see.” Silren sized up T. “So, Gargoyle. What didn’t he do?”
“He didn’t gallivant around for a year. He thinks it’s only been a week.”
Ashton dropped his hand when Silren snapped his head up. The unicorn’s attention focused on him.
“I don’t know what to tell you. I saw you six days ago, Silren. I did come straight back here. And when I arrived, my life was in ruins. Everyone thinks I’ve been gone for a year. I haven’t, damn it.”
“And someone is trying to kill him. He was shot at today, and the creeping taint from the woods just tried to eat us.”
Silren glanced over his shoulder at the shrouded wood and mumbled to himself, “That explains…”
He shook his mane and turned sharp eyes on him. “What do you want Ashton? You made it abundantly clear that you didn’t want to go with me. Why are you here now?”
“Where am I supposed to go? I don’t have a choice. You were right. I have to learn to use this power or it will use me. I don’t know what you and that Nightmare did to me, but I can’t stop it. And now this evil is happening… I was able to push that monster away from us when we were attacked. So maybe I can do something good with this power you have unleashed?”
Silren’s shoulders straightened and his tail raised slightly. Ashton realized how heavy a load of despair the unicorn had carried.
“You are willing to travel to Pyrrhus, and learn to use your abilities?”
“If that is what we need to do, then yes.”
Silren whisked his tail against his side. “We don’t have much time. This pillar mark is already unstable. We had to spread our forces thin to cover as many gates as possible. Not all have been affected yet, and none are as badly damaged as this one. I’ve had to accept the ‘mare’s help.”
The disdain in his voice caught Ashton off guard. It was obvious he wasn’t happy about the arrangement. Sexist unicorns? What is so wrong with having the girls help if needed? He almost missed the rest of Silren’s comment because of his preoccupation.
“…She is doing what she can, but I don’t trust her. I can’t leave here until I get a replacement, besides we won’t be able to go through the pillar mark for another twelve hours. It now takes that long to cleanse it for safe transport, unless we travel to an untainted mark. I would have to consult with Josephine on the nearest one, though.”
Tourmaline shifted his wings, then said, “I know of an untainted mark.”
“It’s about an hour from here. The Pillar is untainted, but it is surrounded by darkness.”
Ashton looked at T, and the wheels started to turn. He couldn’t mean…
A shiver ran up his spine and his eyes snapped to the shadowed path into the woods. A dark shape detached from the gloom. He took a step back and Silren turned his head to look over his shoulder. The unicorn snorted.
The black horse stopped just outside of the trees and pawed the ground. The last time Ashton had seen her, she had been heavy with foal. Now her sleek frame screamed to Ashton how much time had really passed.
Silren stiffened, then pivoted to place his body between him and the Nightmare. His sharp horn lowered. “What do you want Rajani?”
“Take him to Pyrrhus. I’ll do what I can to hold the mark.”
Silren’s stance relaxed, but he didn’t raise his horn. “I thought you wanted him?”
The black mare tossed her head. “You are so naïve, little brother. I have no need to hold his physical presence.”
The scalded butterfly over Ashton’s heart flared to life, and he hissed. His hand flung out and he gripped Silren’s flank.
“I don’t know how long I can hold this place, so get him out of this veil.”
“Get on my back, Ash.”
Inching along the unicorn’s side, he hauled his abused body onto the gaunt back.
Silren took several steps back before he said, “Ok, gargoyle. Take me to this pillar mark.” Pivoting on his heels, Silren leapt into a canter. Tourmaline, a dark blur in the sky before them.
So much can happen in such a short period of time. Death can come in an instant. Or a life path can be irrevocably altered. It all depends on a split second decision made by someone. How many split second decisions make up a life?
The car tires crunched as they turned onto the gravel of the farm’s drive way. More workers littered the fields now that the incessant rain of the last few days had abated. Ashton watched heads turn to follow their progress up the drive. By the time the car pulled into place next to his Mother’s prius, she stood on the porch waiting.
They stepped out of the car. He expected hysteria. Not irritation, nor bizarre acceptance. He had gone out of phase and disappeared from the kitchen in the middle of a conversation. Instead she put her hands on her hips and berated him for causing her worry.
“After the last year you can’t just disappear on me. I only just got you back.”
He stumbled on the bottom step. “I’m sorry Mom. I didn’t mean to.”
“And now you’re going to have to go again? Aren’t you?” She turned her glare to the detective next to him. “Is he under arrest?”
“Not at this time, Ma’am.”
She crossed her arms over her chest after waving them to continue climbing the steps. A gravely laugh sounded from behind him and he watched his mother smile.
His head snapped to look over his shoulder. Tourmaline’s large bulk sat on the car’s roof. That explained the thump at the beginning of the drive. But his Mother’s reaction wasn’t so easy to explain. He could hear her strike up a conversation with the gargoyle after they entered the house. Did she just invite him into the back garden for tea and cakes?
His feet hit the rug runner at the base of the staircase. Would his life ever take on a normalcy again? The pictures blurred on the wall as he ascended. He reached the landing at the top. Will I ever stop being surprised by things? He shoved open his bedroom door.
Bryce’s presence shadowing him made his back itch. The detective went to the window and pulled the blinds up to look out over the garden.
“Does your Mother talk to herself a lot?”
Ashton hesitated as he pulled his old duffel off the shelf in the closet. He tossed it on the bed before glancing out the window. Tourmaline sat next to a small wrought iron table a tea cup incongruously held in his thick fingers. His mother puttered around pouring tea and serving lemon cake. This was just not processing.
“She, ah, likes to talk to her plants. Helps them grow, you know.” He returned to the closet and sorted through his clothing. Tossed a pile onto the bed, then added a blank notebook and some other odds and ends. Loosely folding the clothes, he shoved them into the bag then crammed everything else in where it would fit.
He picked up the duffel and slung it over his shoulder then threaded his coat through the strap. Turning to Bryce he said, “Ok. I think I’m ready.”
The detective nodded and led the way out of the room. Ashton paused on the threshold to take one more look at his old life. I don’t fit anymore. Do lost puzzle pieces ever find a new place? No answer was forthcoming, so he turned away and followed Bryce down the stairs.
He found his mother serving Bryce a piece of cake in the kitchen. She looked at him for a moment when he entered. Her eyes bored into his then she said, “Ash, honey, I know you need to leave soon but there’s time for some cake. Go on out to the garden and help yourself.”
He couldn’t interpret her look. Why does she see T? And why isn’t she freaking out?
Realizing he wasn’t going to get any answers standing there, he left the kitchen. The gargoyle slid a piece of cake across the small table to him. Ashton set his bag down and sank to the chair, but he didn’t touch the cake.
“Why are you here?”
The gargoyle shrugged. “Why not? You obviously need help. And the humans have no idea what you are up against, so they can’t protect you.”
“And you can?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. But I certainly helped today.”
“And you know what I’m up against?”
Tourmaline laughed. It sounded like boulders rubbing together. “Hell no, kid. But I know more than the humans.”
He waved his hand encompassing the garden. “Take this land for starters. It feels like the park in town. Nothing will grow there.”
“Wait? What? You’ve lost me.”
“The energy of the forest there? Didn’t you feel the difference? It’s the same here. The energy is skewed. It’s too dark. The equilibrium is lost, so the ecosystem is off balance.”
Ashton’s thoughts raced. My dreams. What I have always wanted to do. Just on a much grander scale. Warmth slipped through him from his mark. He absently rubbed his chest.
“And you’re sure I can do something to fix it?”
“The little flitterby faeries seemed to think so. And obviously someone else does too, if they are trying to get rid of you.”
Ashton looked out over the fields for a moment. The struggling plants. The beautiful weather. But then he noticed something else. The cottage gardens surrounding the house. They flourished. Bright and vibrant. Like they lived in a bubble separated from the surrounding fields.
Fear raced through him at the implication. I need to go. He stood and grabbed his bag. Tourmaline rose to his feet.
They made their way towards the house. “So, T? What were you talking to my Mom about? And why could she see you?”
The gargoyle arched an eyebrow. “And where do you think your talent came from Kid?”
That’s what I was afraid you’d say.
Ashton stood at the foot of the motel’s bed and sorted through the contents of his bag while doing his best to not laugh at T’s commentary about Detective Bryce. The good detective just wouldn’t understand. After all he thought only two of them were in the room, not three.
“I don’t know how long we’ll be here for Ashton. Our investigation hasn’t had enough leads to get anywhere definitive.” Bryce said.
“In other words, Ash. They don’t know squat.”
“But today’s incident has made it abundantly clear that you are in danger.”
“So you’d better fess up pony boy. Cause you obviously know what’s going on.” Tourmaline translated.
Ashton smirked at the stone being, but kept his head lowered to look in his bag. He didn’t want to give the detective any ideas about his sanity.
“It would really help us get you back to your mother if you would finally give me what you know.”
Ashton stilled with his hands in his bag. He stared at the interior without seeing it for a moment. “I wish I could help you Daniel. Trust me when I say that anything I know won’t help you at all.” Thoughts of his mother’s garden, and what surrounded it, uppermost in his mind. He looked up at the detective’s serious expression. Tourmaline watched him solemnly from behind the man. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you anyway.”
“Try me…” Bryce swore when his phone trilled. He pulled it out of his pocket. “Yes?” The detective’s face turned stoic. “Hold on Frank.” He muffled the phone against his chest. “I’ll be just outside Ashton. We’ll finish this discussion in a moment.”
Ashton turned to T when the door snicked shut. “Now what? He’s not going to believe anything I say, T.”
“No. Probably not.” The gargoyle sat up against the wall of the dingy little hotel room. “I guess the better question is; what do we do next?”
“I… Ow. What was that?” Ashton looked down and saw a stunned mouse pick itself up from where it ran into his ankle. It then continued to flee towards the door. Tourmaline hissed and Ashton jerked his attention away from the rodent’s scrabbling claws on the door. The carpet across the room seethed. Spiders scurried across. More dropped from the ceiling and other creatures followed. Cockroaches, flies, anything that could live in the walls or nooks and crannies of a motel room fled from the bathroom side, along the same path as the mouse.
His eyes tracked back to the source. A tar like black ooze squeezed out from under the bathroom door. Spiders and other insects crawled over his feet, but he didn’t notice them. “What is that?!”
“Ashton. Get out of here. Now.”
A wave of fear washed over him. So strong that he staggered to the side and knocked into the table. A lamp crashed over and shattered. Ashton fell to his knees his eyes riveted on the creeping ooze. The still form of the gargoyle in the corner of his eye, and the feeling of the insects crawling across him, barely registered as the fear grew.
The door crashed open behind him, the sound of Bryce’s voice far away. A little sliver of Ashton’s free will let him know that the detective had been snared in the creeping mass’net, as well.
Beyond shivering, Ashton’s heart labored with the weight of the fear. Each pump became painfully hard. A tiny core of his mind skittered, looking for a way to flee and follow the bugs.
An equine scream exploded in his mind and his mark blazed. His body jerked free. He pulled his shirt open. The white light blazing from his mark hit the leading edge of the ooze. It recoiled but didn’t retreat. More instructions poured into his thoughts, a presence merged with him, and he gladly gave over to the more knowledgeable being.
He stood and white light, more intense than anything that had ever emanated from his mark, poured from the palms of his hands. A piercing shriek rent the air as the ooze twisted in on itself. He slowly stepped toward it. The dizzying gyrations made him nauseous. The light continued to burn from his hands. Finally, after an eternity that could only be a few seconds, the ooze fled out the bathroom window. Leaving the most horrific stink behind.
His breath rasping in his lungs, Ashton sank to his knees.
“What the fuck was that?” Bryce whispered.
“Your murderer.” The thinness of his voice surprised Ash. “Other than that, I have no idea what it was.”
“Don’t give me that crap, Ashton. I saw with my own eyes what you did. That’s proof that you know more than you were letting on.”
“And who’s going to believe you, Daniel?” Ashton turned his head and the detective opened his mouth then closed it with a snap. “Exactly. Now you know why I didn’t tell you. T? Are you alright?”
Ashton pulled himself painfully to his feet.
“I probably have stress fractures all through my stone now. But I guess I have to answer, ‘yes’.”
The detective darted looks into every corner of the room. “Who are you talking to?”
“A friend, Daniel. Don’t worry. I think we now have an answer to your question, T. It’s time to move.”
Bryce limped over to the door and shut it. “You can’t leave Ashton. You are in protective custody. Besides, I have a case to solve and you just became my biggest lead.”
“Obviously you can’t protect me from that, Daniel. I need to go.”
“I need your information. I need to know what we are up against and how to stop it. People’s lives are hinging on this Ashton.”
Ashton zipped up his bag and slung it over his shoulder. “Trust me, I understand that more than you know. I can’t give you what you want, Daniel. I don’t know. That’s what I need to go and learn. The only thing I can tell you is…Stay out of the park. Keep people out of it. That black ooze… That is what lives there.”
Tired to the bone, Ashton attempted to call on his power, on purpose, for the first time since his homecoming. It ran slowly and quietly through his veins, but enough responded that he managed to shift out of phase. The surprised look on detective Bryce’s face gave him all the confirmation he needed that he had succeeded. He looked at Tourmaline and the two of them left the motel room and headed off towards the park.
He walked as a shadow in his own world. A few Others saw him, but mostly he tried to avoid the reminder of how different his life had become. He figured he’d be facing that truth soon enough. It didn’t take them long to reach the border of the park. This time Ashton could see and understand the death and darkness that hovered around the space.
Now what? I haven’t the faintest idea where I’m supposed to go. If only…
Movement down the path caught his eye. His breath stilled.
The unicorn stepped out of the shadows of the trees and stopped where the grass met the forest. Across the distance Ashton met the blue eyes of the stallion. They both studied one another. Then Ashton took a step towards the unicorn. Silren hesitated, but then he moved out to meet him halfway.
“Ok. This is no time to panic.”
Cars buzzed by on the busy arterial. An hour. I lost an hour. He pushed the panic down. How did I get here? There wasn’t any fog. I didn’t step through a mark. I didn’t call up my power at all.
He ran his hand through his hair and stared across the street. At first glance, the park looked just the same. But then, something edged into his awareness. He couldn’t put his finger on what was wrong with the place, but something was off kilter. He shook his head. He didn’t have the time or energy to analyze whatever it was. He had bigger fish to fry.
Like how did I get an hour away from my Mom’s house, and back into town? Absently, he turned away from the park and walked down the familiar street. He still found it difficult to believe that a year had passed. If he didn’t know any better, he’d think he was returning to work from lunch. The only sign of the passage of time came from the shop windows. And that he probably wouldn’t have noticed under normal circumstances.
Absently, he rubbed his chest. What am I going to tell my Mom? I had to have just walked out on her. I can’t believe this is still happening? I’m never going to get my life back, am I?
“Hey, you?” A deep, gravelly voice called out.
Ashton stopped and scanned the pedestrians. No one paid him any heed, so he shrugged, moving on.
“You. Unicorn bait. Look up.”
Ashton froze midstep. Do I even want to? Sighing, he obeyed the voice and tipped his head up. Perched atop the carved crenellations of one of the historic buildings, a stone gargoyle waved his wings at him. A sharp, toothy grin preceded the beast jumping off the roof. Ashton’s heart thumped, waiting for the crack of heavy rock hitting pavement. But somehow the creature’s wings let it gracefully fly to touch down, with a soft scrape of stone against stone in front of him.
Ashton took a step back.
“Hey, Kiddo. I haven’t seen you in a long time.” The beast settled back onto his haunches. Sitting, the gargoyle came eye to eye with him. His wing joints, folded neatly on his back, rose a foot above both their heads. Sunlight caught what must be flecks of mica and sparkled.
“Um, hello?” Ashton said.
“Hiya. I’m Tourmaline. But you can call me T for short.”
“Ashton.” He replied faintly.
“Good to finally meet you. I haven’t seen you for months. Had figured they musta gotten you, once the darkness started. So, what are ya doing back?”
“This has to be right up there as one of the strangest days, yet, for me. And I have stiff competition for that title. I have no idea what I’m doing here to tell you the truth. Last I knew, I was standing in my Mom’s kitchen an hour ago.”
“Ah. That explains the zombie shuffle you were doing down the street a few minutes ago.” T stood and held his arms out and slid a few steps moaning. “You just needed your arms out like that to complete the picture.”
He settled back down into a sitting position. “Seriously, if you hadn’t been out of phase you would have been pancaked by the moving van you shared the road with before you came back to yourself.”
Ashton swallowed. Pancaked? “Out of phase?”
“You know. Not in sync with this veil. It’s related to being able to shift to a different veil but isn’t quite the same thing. We’re not usually supposed to talk about this sort of thing with you humans. Heck, most of you don’t believe we exist if you do see us. But considering the company you had been keeping last year I figure you must know something? The majority of us Others can go out of phase, though we can’t travel to a different veil without a guide. It’s a defense mechanism.”
“I didn’t know I could do it. So I was just walking down the middle of the street?”
Ashton met the gargoyle’s silver-flecked eyes for a long moment. “Why did you stop me now?”
Tourmaline twitched his wings and stared down the road toward the park. “The energy around here is turning so dark. Something is feeding in the woods. There’s been more death there than the humans know.” The stone creature turned serious eyes back at him. “You are a bright light in the darkness. The faeries, the unicorn, all drew close to you. And now you are back; unaccompanied…”
The gargoyle froze midsentence, then swiveled to look over his shoulder. A grating growl rumbled out of him and he jumped in front, blocking Ash’s view.
Two loud cracks reverberated in the corridor of the street. Stone chips exploded, spraying Ashton. “What the hell.”
“Move. Get into that alley, kid.”
Hunching over to stay protected by Tourmaline’s body and spread wings; Ashton rushed into the enclosed space of the alley.
“Can this nightmare get any worse?” His mark started to heat and he groaned. “Not now.” Caging his wild power took some effort, but he got it under control.
Tourmaline hissed, but then straightened and stood back behind Ashton. “Here comes the cavalry kid.”
Boot steps thudded down the sidewalk. Their owner dashed around the corner to place his back against the wall. Ashton recognized Detective Bryce.
The Detective’s gun was drawn, and he looked Ashton over before turning his attention to the street. His free hand held his radio. He lifted it to his mouth. “I have him. Get the street clear, and get a car to me. Now. Over.”
Still studying the street, Bryce asked, “Are you Ok, Ashton?”
“I… I think so.”
“What are you doing here? I’m not sure how the shooter didn’t hit you. Whoever your friend was that got you in here, you should thank for your life if you see him again.”
Ashton looked up at T in surprise.
The gargoyle just grinned and shrugged. “I’m out of phase. You can see me, but he can’t.”
Another shot ricocheted, and brick dust fluttered to the ground. Bryce flinched. “Come on people. Get us out of here.” He sent over the radio.
Car tires squealed and screeched to a stop a couple of feet from the entrance to the alley. A back door flew open. Tourmaline pushed him forward and Bryce grabbed his wrist, yanking him under his chest. Bryce forced him into a run. The detective’s body hovered over the top of him then shoved him into the car diving in behind. The door slammed shut. A loud thump hit the roof and the car sagged down.
“What the hell was that?” Bryce said.
“No idea, sir.” The driver yelled back and stepped on the gas.
His mind whirled from the various events of the day. Ashton sat back and watched Detective Bryce regain his breath.
It didn’t take long. Bryce studied him, then said, “You obviously know more than you are letting on, if they want you dead.”
Ash shook his head.
“What’s our destination, sir?” The driver asked.
Bryce didn’t take his eyes off of him. “Take us to the first safe zone.”
“No.” Ashton leaned forward.
“They obviously want you dead, Ashton. And whether or not you tell me anything,doesn’t change their desire. I need to take you to a safe house.”
“Fine. But at least let me grab some things and say good bye to my Mom.”
The Detective chewed his lip for a moment, then turned to the driver and gave him his mother’s address before settling back into the seat for the drive. “What were you doing here today, Ashton?”
“The truth? I have no idea how I got there.”
“Uh huh? Do you remember anything from the last year yet?”
“Right. The last week. Well?”
Ashton shrugged his shoulders. They continued to stare at one another until Ash got tired of it and turned to watch the scenery go by.
After awhile, Bryce broke the silence softly, “you’re damn lucky that we had surveillance on your old lab, Ashton. Or we wouldn’t have been there to save you.”
Ashton turned away from the rolling countryside and met Bryce’s eyes. “Who’s to say that you did?”
The click of the door latch woke Ashton with a start. The curtain rattled. He opened his eyes, expecting to see the nurses again. Instead, his mother’s curly brown head peeked around the edge.
He blinked the sleep away.
“Oh, my baby.” She whispered. “You really are back.”
A wave of patchouli scented air forged ahead of the diminutive woman as she rushed to his side. Tears brimming, she reached out a trembling hand and brushed his hair back. “I had almost started to believe the naysayers. They told me you were gone, and that I needed to move on. But I wouldn’t accept it. I told them that if I generated enough positive energy, the universe would make things right.”
“It’s all right Mom. I’m fine.” He ducked his head away from her petting.
Sniffling, she gave him a watery smile. “It’s been so long Ash. A full year of worry.”
He pushed the buttons to raise the bed into a sitting position. “I just saw you last week Mom.”
She sighed and pulled the chair closer. She sat in a swirl of tie dyed skirts. “The doctor warned me that you had some amnesia. You have been gone a year, baby. It’s been the worst year of my life.”
“I don’t understand what’s happened, Mom. But I assure you, I
have only been gone for a week. The fact that it seems to have been a year here, is somewhat worrisome.”
She patted his leg. “Don’t worry dear, it’ll come back to you eventually.”
He growled and flopped his head into his pillows.
She cleared her throat. “You don’t look like you have lost much weight this year.”
“No, Mom.” He closed his eyes. “Maybe a pound or two, that’s it. I’m really sore and bruised. That’s the worst of my pains.”
Silence stretched. He felt her fingers slide into his hand.
“Are you ready to come home? The doctor said that as soon as you were awake we could start the check out proceedings.”
Home. With his Mother. He suppressed a sigh. “Yeah. Let’s go.”
He opened his eyes to reach for the call button, but she pushed it before he could. I wonder how long before I can get a new apartment? He let his Mother’s voice wash over him, telling him about the last year. Thankfully, this early in the morning, they didn’t have long to wait for the doctor.
The door opened, and the curtain was pushed all the way to the wall. The same doctor from yesterday smiled cheerily. “So how are we feeling today, young man?”
Ashton opened his mouth to speak, but his Mother beat him to it.
“He still thinks he has only been gone for a week, Doctor.”
The doctor laid his notebook on the counter. “Not surprising. His memories will filter back in over the next few days to weeks, if they are to return. How is the pain today, Ashton?”
“The bruises have made him stiff and sore.”
The doctor winked at him as he took the pen light out of his pocket. Ashton squinted at the bright flash.
“Stiffness from bruises is also to be expected. Let’s take a look at that rash, shall we?” He pulled the gown away from the mark and studied it. “Have you been to the south recently? Do you remember? This resembles a STARI tick rash. I’ll be sending you home with enough doxycycline to finish out the antibiotic run I’ve started. If it doesn’t improve, you’ll need to come back in.”
Ashton shook his head. “No tick exposure.” And this is not a rash. I’m sure of it. I think.
The doctor prodded the mark with cool fingers and pursed his lips. “Ok, lean forward so I can get a gander at the back of your head.”
Ash winced when the doctor parted his hair and probed the goose egg on his skull. “Good, the swelling has gone down. The scan results show no extensive bleeding, so it’s just a localized hematoma. But if nausea increases, vision turns unreliable, or anything at all worries you, don’t hesitate to return to the hospital.”
He leaned back into his pillows. “Thank you, Doctor.”
The doctor smiled. “Your body has had a hard run recently. Take it easy and give it time to recover. Both physically and mentally.”
“Can I go now?”
“Yes. Once I finish signing the papers, you are free to go. Your clothes are in the closet.”
The doctor ushered his mother out of the room, giving him privacy to dress. He swung his legs over the side and groaned at the stiffness. Just get moving. It’ll work itself out. He dragged his folded clothes off of the closet shelf and set them on the bed. Untying the gown, he took it off, then wadded it up and tossed it on the pillows.
The mark over his heart caught his attention. Hesitantly, he touched it. A bright flash of memory, the image of a sharp horn descending to pierce his skin, took his breath. There and gone. No. Not a rash.
It took nearly an hour, when all was said and done, to get clear of the hospital. Ashton stared out the passenger window of his Mother’s Prius. The summer rain fell steadily on the country lane. Dark clouds hung low, triggering more memories to surface. Fiery eyes stared after him in a grey and desolate landscape. He rubbed his chest and pushed the recollections away.
The last hour of driving had stretched Ashton’s nerves. The preoccupation of piecing together the events of his missing week made conversation with his mother difficult. Thankfully, a few more minutes would see them to her cottage.
She slowed and turned onto her winding driveway. The cottage sat at the rear of the twenty acre parcel. The car meandered past tidy fields of organic produce that she grew and sold to local restaurants. He waved at the surprised face of his mother’s farm manager, as they drove by a plot of beans. He knew she loved her farm, but her passion, and the majority of her income, came from her pottery studio.
Lightning flashed and the rain increased, if that were possible. Thunder rumbled. The car silently rolled to a stop in front of a white picket fence. Flowers clung soggily to it, or lay flat on the ground. The little white house with bright blue trim stood as a merry contrast to the force of nature around them.
His Mother stared out the windshield. “Nothing has grown well all year. If it wasn’t for my pots the farm wouldn’t make it another season.”
His eyes jumped to her profile. “Has the weather been that bad?”
“That’s the thing, no it hasn’t.” She said. “Not really. Just can’t get the seeds to grow. If they come up at all, they are sickly, puny things more often than not.”
With a sigh, she opened her door and stepped out into the rain.
Not relishing the drenching to come, Ashton followed his Mother into her house. The inviting comfort of home enveloped him. He shut the door and the sound of the rain diminished. He shook his damp hair out, then accepted the kitchen towel his mother handed him. After drying his face and arms, he hung the cloth up on the hook by the sink.
For being a year away, nothing seemed different.
His stomach growled. His mother snorted.
“Your clothes, and some of the more fragile of your things, are up in your room. Most of your possessions, I stored out in the barn when I cleared out your apartment. Why don’t you go get settled in and I’ll make us an early lunch?”
“Ok. Call when it’s ready.” He took his shoes off by the kitchen door and padded in his damp socks to the hall stair. My room. It’s been a week for me. A year here. Yet, it feels like no time at all has passed since I was a teen, living here.
He opened his old bedroom door. Trophies from childhood still filled the shelves above the desk, but more recent belongings had been tucked in amongst them. Some of his personal work notebooks formed a stack on the back of the desk, next to his microscope. The bookshelf held the same dichotomy of possessions. Old comics had been moved over to make room for some of his books, both work related and pleasure reading. He ran his fingers over the spines.
As he looked around, his shoulders bowed under a heavy weight. He sank to the bed. His hand rested over the mark under his shirt. He imagined he could feel a low throbbing heat, different but a minor harmony to his heart’s beat.
What is real? I remember the last week. It’s fantastical. How can that be real? It’s much more sane to believe everyone else’s assertion that I’ve been somewhere for the last year.
Much more sane than thinking that I can move through different worlds with magical abilities. Resulting from a rash.
Or more precisely, a mark left from the breath of a NightMare.
What am I supposed to do now?
My job is gone. And they are under investigation by the police, anyway. I can’t tell the police what actually happened to me, because they would just lock me up and throw away the key.
Maybe they should.
Since, insane or not, I believe everything that has happened to me this week. The question I have now is, why has a year passed for everyone else?
Three days later, the afternoon sun streamed through the living room windows. A very welcome change from the soggy weather that had dominated since his return to his Mother’s house. Too bad stress can’t be dried up like the puddles.
Stress from keeping his returning memories a secret. Stress from the question of reality.
The mark on his chest burned. He pushed the pain down and made it subside.
I need to get my life moving again. I can’t stay smothered here. Mom is great, but… The telephone rang and he heard his mother’s voice in the kitchen raise in anger.
“How did you get this number? How did you know he was back? No he isn’t taking calls. Go the fuck away.”
He crossed the threshold in time to see her slam the receiver down. She looked up at him, guilt and fear warred on her face.
“Who?” He asked softly.
“It doesn’t matter.” She replied. “You’re back safe and sound. That’s what’s important.”
“Mom. I need to handle my life. You can’t shield me from everything. Who tried to contact me? And why?”
He glanced at his watch. Two thirty. Still time to get a start on things. I can return this call... His Mother’s voice drifted across his awareness. Too faint to catch her answer to his questions. The mark burned bright. He gasped. He needed to do something. Be somewhere. He stumbled a step. What was I doing?
Oh yeah, I need to get back to living my life. “I’m not a baby anymore Mom. I…
He looked up. He no longer stood in his mother’s kitchen.
The noise from the traffic penetrated his awareness. He stood on the street corner, across from the park where he met Josephine and Silren for the first time.
He glanced at his watch. It read three thirty.
Quiet beeps, with the under tone of a droning hum, serenaded Ashton to consciousness. The pounding in his skull made him wish he hadn’t woken. He pried his weighted eyelids open to look blearily at a white-tiled ceiling. He started to turn his head, but the ache in his neck stopped him, so he tried to raise his hand to his forehead.
The rattle and clank, followed by his hand jerking to a stop, startled him. He pulled on his tethered wrists. Screw the pain. He twisted his head to stare, dumbfounded, at the cause of his inability to move. Metal handcuffs secured both of his arms to the bed rails. He looked farther afield. Machines, some dark, some alive, stood sentinel around him. And a thin, green cotton drape stretched across a corner of the room that must contain a door.
Hospital? What happened?
A soft scrape jerked Ash’s attention to the opposite corner of the room.
A man with styled brown hair, and dressed in a suit shifted in the room’s visitor chair. His dark eyes made Ashton uncomfortable. They stared at one another for a minute before the person cleared his throat.
Ash blinked, trying to bring his eyes under control. “What happened?” He was surprised at how rough his voice sounded.
“That’s what we would like to know. Are you Ashton Palmer?”
“Yes.” He jerked his wrists. “Why am I tied?”
“I am Detective Bryce. Your ID declared that you were Mr. Palmer, but I needed your confirmation. Your reappearance has caused you to become a person of interest.”
“Reappearance?” Confused, Ashton rattled the cuffs in a vain attempt to scoot into a sitting position.
“Why did you enter the Millers’ apartment?”
“Who?” He gave up the effort to sit, and flopped back. “What happened? Where am I?”
The detective continued without answering his questions. “Where have you been for the last year?”
Ashton’s jaw dropped and he shook his head, sending more pain shooting. Nausea roiled in his stomach. “What?”
“A missing persons report was filed by a Mrs. Lydia Palmer on July twentieth of last year. I had almost decided that you should be added to the list of possible victims, but here you are instead.”
A year? What the hell? That doesn’t seem right. Blurry memories trundled through his thoughts. Something weird had definitely happened.
Wait a minute. Victims?
The sound of a door opened, then the curtain rattled and slid to the side. A middle aged doctor walked in, followed by a nurse.
“Ah, you’re awake finally.” He said as he set the clipboard down on the counter. “Detective, I hope you haven’t been badgering my patient?”
Bryce cleared his throat and leaned back in the seat. “Just asked him a few questions, doc.”
The doctor studied one of the monitors. “Really? The alarms at the nurses’ station went off because his heart rate accelerated.”
He pulled a pen light out and Ashton blinked at the bright light that flashed into his eyes. The nurse busied herself, writing down readings from the rest of the monitors. But Ashton had trouble concentrating on the medical staff. Detective Bryce held his awareness.
The doctor reached across the bed, cutting off the detective’s gaze, to pull the flimsy patient gown over Ashton’s shoulder. He probed the exposed skin with cool fingers.
“How are you feeling? Any pain here? No? Good, the rash doesn’t seem to be spreading.” The doctor sat on the bed next to his knees. “I’m going to assume you don’t have a problem with your name, or Detective Bryce would have mentioned it when we came in. Do you know the date?”
Ashton felt sweat start to form. He shook his head. “I thought I did, but now… I don’t know.”
The doctor encouraged him to continue with a gesture.
“He says I have been gone a year? That can’t be right? I have only been gone a week. I’m sure of it.”
Compassion softened the doctor’s eyes. “You have a concussion, Ashton. Some level of amnesia isn’t unheard of. The memories will likely return after a few weeks. Do you remember getting hit on the head?”
Ashton closed his eyes. A slide show of distorted pictures flicked through. Racing through a forest on horseback. Summer heat, fall leaves, wet snow. Strange faces flickering in torch light. Opening his apartment door…
And everything was wrong.
Has it really been a year? I swear it feels like I was only gone for a week. “I went home. And when I opened my door, all of my stuff was gone. This woman came out of my bedroom and started to scream and that’s all I remember.”
“Mrs. Miller’s husband hit you from behind and knocked you out. A little extreme, from my point of view. I have you on antibiotics for the rash that you have on your chest, and I’ll prescribe some Amitriptyline for the concussion symptoms. Unless any of your symptoms worsen over night, you will be released tomorrow.” The doctor stood, then collected his paperwork. “I’ll let you and Detective Bryce get back to your conversation.”
Ashton watched the doctor and nurse leave the room, then turned reluctant eyes toward the detective. He rattled his hands. “Do these need to stay?”
Ashton felt like an insect that a reptile watched, trying to decide if it was on the menu or not. But then, Bryce climbed to his feet and pulled the keys out of his pocket. After a moment, both handcuffs resided in the detective’s pocket and Ashton rubbed his wrists. “What did you mean by victim?”
Detective Bryce sank back into the chair and leaned back. “So, is your official story that you don’t remember anything?”
“What do you mean official? I really have only been gone for a week. I don’t know what’s going on. Where is my stuff? Why is someone else living in my apartment?” Panic bubbled just under the surface.
“So, where have you been this week then?”
“I…” Ashton snapped his mouth shut. What was he supposed to say? A unicorn kidnapped me? Unicorn?! A clear memory slammed into him and he saw the white hide and lethal horn. His breath caught. His eyes jumped to Bryce’s.
The detective watched him with a calculated look.
“I… don’t actually know.” He pulled his eyes away and looked at his blanket-clad knees. “It’s all really blurry still.”
“Blurry… Huh. Well your old lab, at Dyson-Smith Corporation, is under investigation. There have been a dozen deaths that I am tracing back to them. And at least as many missing. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
“Dead? Are you kidding me? Dead how?”
“Forensics is still working on that. Some sort of drug, we are assuming. Whatever it is, it literally scares them to death.”
Phantom pain fluttered over his chest, and Ashton scooted into a higher sitting position. More flashes of memory came and went, too quick to hold onto.
The detective sighed and stood. “Your mother should be here in the morning and you will be released into her care. I expect notification of your whereabouts. I have my eye on you Mr. Palmer.”
Ashton watched the detective leave his room. My mom. Great. Just what I needed.
His thoughts circled back to what detective Bryce had to say. The acid of fear burned in his gut.
How can I give him answers I don’t have? This week is still blurry. But a year?
I can’t have been gone for a year. Can I?
Ashton stepped out of the obscuring mist into ankle deep, slushy snow. Leafless trees dripped their burden of the melting stuff around him and he shivered. Hunger and a desire to rest for a few minutes pushed him forward, out of the shock of the climate change. His tennis shoes soaked through in a couple of steps and he wrapped his blanket around his shoulders for warmth.
He needed to think. And a place to do it.
Regrettably, there didn’t seem to be anything available. He slogged through the tree trunks and looked for a road, or any other sign of habitation.
I need to get home. What the hell am I doing? I have absolutely no idea.
He pulled the blanket tighter and looked up into the cloudy sky. The sun appeared to be directly overhead. No wonder I’m so hungry. We ate well before dawn today and its now lunch time.
The realization that he was well and truly alone hit him. What have I done? I can’t get back to Silren. He took a deep breath, and held it, to stave off the incipient hyperventilating that threatened. Is it too much to ask that I could just wake up in an insane asylum bed, and have all of this be some kind of dream?
Unfortunately, he knew he was perfectly sane.
Really? And I believe this why? After everything that has happened to me, why do I believe that I am still sane? What am I becoming anyway?
Not ready to face the answer to that, Ashton shied away from the rest of the thought. He turned to more well worn paths.
Why do I want to get home so badly? I didn’t hate my life, but I could have been happier. And it’s not just worry over my Mom. Safety? Security? Could it be something as simple as, it’s comfortable?
I may not have been happy working at the lab, but I was one step away from my dream job. Even if they were slow about letting me transfer, I would have made it eventually. And now, because of Silren carting me off, I may have lost my chance. I’ve missed five days of work. Unexcused. I’ll be lucky if I still have a job. How do I explain this?
A shiver shook his body. Does any of this really matter? I need to get home. Who cares why? And I need out of this snow. Why am I walking here?
He sighed at his stupidity and concentrated on shifting between veils again. The fog rose, and he stepped into it.
This time when he exited, the sudden shift in light came as the first shock.
Dusk had fallen. Every other crossing he had made so far, the time continuance had remained constant. But this occasion, half the day had passed.
The second shock came at the end of an advancing pitch fork. Ashton swung his head around. He stood in the middle of a cabbage field. Weather-beaten farmers stared at him in varying degrees of astonishment. They were fast overcoming their state though. A mumble had begun that Ashton couldn’t understand. Their words sounded archaic to his ears. And matched their clothing. He spun and saw that they moved toward him, their looks far from friendly.
“Uh oh…” He pulled his thoughts together to focus on a new shift, but then pain exploded in his head, and everything went black.
Stench assaulted his nose. Barnyards, in desperate need of cleaning, had smelled nicer. His head ached and he groaned, which made him cough from the restriction around his chest. What the…
He pried his eyes open. The flickering light of multiple torches wavered into view. They illuminated a dirt square filled with milling peasants. He glanced down at himself. Rough rope lashed him to a wooden post and people continued to pile chunks of wood up and over his feet.
“Oh my god. I’m in the middle of a B horror movie.” He struggled against the rope. Several people noticed he was awake and made gestures to hurry.
He knocked the sore spot on his head against the wooden stake and groaned again. Concentrate. You have to concentrate Ash. He closed his eyes and took a breath. It was a challenge to drown out the noise of imminent death.
Power moved sluggishly through his body. The sound of sticks cracking reached his ears. A whiff of smoke. He built the details of home in his mind. The sights, the smells, the sounds. A tidal wave washed through him and the Nightmares’ mark ignited. Screams reached his ears, but were suddenly cut off.
A jarring thump reverberated up his spine. His eyes flew open, and he toppled over sideways to land with a thud on concrete.
The wet crack of a bottle shattering greeted him. “Holy Mary, Mother of God…” the words slurred out of the dimness.
Crap, I can’t believe this! I’m still tied to the damn stake.
Ashton managed to twist his head to the side and saw the homeless man plastered against the brick wall. The man looked at him then at his broken drink then back at him.
“Musta been a bad batch.”
Ash wiggled his arms, hoping to get free, but the villagers knew how to tie something up. “Excuse me, sir? Can I get your help with these ropes?
“You made me drop m’bottle.”
“I’m sorry. I can get you another if you get me untied.”
The man shifted from foot to foot before he stepped forward and clumsily pawed at the knots that secured him to the wooden stake. His alcohol laden breath wafted across Ash as he loosened the rope around his chest.
Ash squirmed out of the coil and sat against the brick wall. His head dropped into his shaking hands. That was close. Way too close. Feet shuffled near him and he looked into the face of homelessness. He reached into the back pocket of his pants and took out his wallet, pulled out a twenty, and handed it to the man.
The stranger took the bill like he couldn’t believe it was real, but then he shoved it in a pocket and left the dim alley for the brighter lit street.
Stiff and sore Ashton, climbed to his feet and assessed his new location. The alley looked vaguely familiar. He peered around the corner and couldn’t believe his eyes. Home! I’m just a couple of blocks from home.
Light spilled out of the bars that littered the street. People congregated on the corners, chatting, or slowly walked along the sidewalks. And the heat of summer sank into his bones. I’ll never again complain about the temperature. He left the alley.
He stopped the first couple he passed. “Excuse me? What day is it?”
“Day?” The man looked at him funny but answered, “Thursday.”
“Thank you.” He smiled and started to limp home. Thursday, this all started on Thursday evening. Its only been a week. I can’t wait to sleep in my own bed. Tomorrow I’ll deal with whether or not I still have a job.
The steps to his apartment building came into view. He hadn’t dared to let the relief he felt have free reign until now. He climbed the steps and fished his key ring out of his pocket. Cooler air wafted out of the open door, and he stepped in. He glanced at the wall of mail boxes while he waited for the elevator but decided that it could wait till tomorrow too.
A yawn took him by surprise. He limped down the hall and had never been so happy to see a door before in his life. He pushed it open and stepped into his apartment.
And stopped dead.
Everything was wrong. All of his furniture, his pictures, his possessions were gone. Replaced. He stared in shock at the unknown belongings.
His hands rose to his forehead, where’s my stuff?
A woman stepped out of the bedroom. She froze.
“Where’s my stuff?” He asked out loud, his voice breaking.
She started screaming.
He took a step towards her and yelled over her shrieking, “Where are my things?”
The woman’s eyes widened and that was the only warning he got. Once again, pain exploded in the back of his head, and he was plunged into darkness.
The next morning, Ashton sat astride Silren. Silence stretched between them. The sun had just started peeking through the evergreen branches that populated the current veil. Their third crossing of the day.
Small talk was not high on Ashton’s to-do list. The dream from last night had left him with too many unanswered questions. The Unicorn must have had his own reasons for silence, because he didn’t attempt to break it.
The Nightmare’s words kept circling through his head. He had the power to get himself home; he just had to follow his heart? What the hell does that mean? He continued to worry at the knot of compressed information and instructions she had implanted in him.
That was what the fireball that slammed into him had been all about. But why? Why did she slam a twisted up chunk of information into me? The little he had managed to work free didn’t make a lot of sense.
Ashton turned his attention outwards and looked down the path. In the distance, he could just make out two symmetrical trees, one on either side of the trail. The mare’s voice whispered through his mind and gave name to the gate-like points. Pillar marks.
Pillar marks, she continued, delineate a point in a veil where two or more veils mesh and are thin enough, for those who know how, to cross. The information untwisted from the ball, of its own accord, and flowed through him.
As they approached the trees, he felt his mark start to react to Silren’s use of power. His scientific side finally resurfaced from wherever it had hidden since this whole insane trip had started. He observed the process take place without interference. Analyzing the procedure to gain a better understanding of how it worked. It was an odd circumstance though. Instead of relying on his visual observations he had to rely on internal feeling. The power, as it interacted with the pillar marks, felt like a thick velvet curtain. And the way Silren passed through was to pull an edge back and slip behind it.
Simple enough until he realized that he could feel another curtain underneath the one they passed. Does that lead to a different veil?
He barely had time for the thought to form before they had left the coniferous forest and had entered a meadow area. Grey clouds were rolling in and obscuring the midmorning sun. Ashton looked back and saw that two tall hummocks of grass stood as the Pillar marks in this terrain. This was the most jarring crossing yet as far as land differences went. He needed a closer look at the gate.
“Stop Silren. I need to go.”
The Unicorn looked over his shoulder, but he came to a stop. Ashton slid down and landed in the dust of the road with a thump.
“Take the blanket off. I’m going to roll in the grass for a moment while you relieve yourself.”
Ashton folded the blanket and tucked it under his arm as he watched Silren canter a few lengths off the road. Once the Unicorn had all four legs flailing in the air Ashton turned back to the Pillar marks. He walked up to them and studied the points. Other than appearing to be identical, they looked completely normal. Though oversize. He walked around them. Nothing happened.
He glanced over at the preoccupied Unicorn. Silren still had his feet in the air.
He sorted through some of his new knowledge. Standing before the Pillar marks, he closed his eyes and relaxed. The power moved like sluggish water under his skin. A fire kindled in the mark over his heart and the water picked up speed. An equine scream sounded dimly in his ears. He opened his eyes to a thick mist. Blindly in the white, he felt with his hands, sorting through the different edges of curtains until he found one he liked; then he slipped behind it.
The rain came as a shock.
Black clouds hung low over the terrain. Red leafed trees dotted the countryside. Green fields, separated by white fences, met his eyes. His hair dripped, and he shook it as he stepped off the road. Two tall, red trees stood as the Pillars here. Silren cantered through them and slid to a stop. Even with the distance between them Ashton could see anger in the Unicorn’s eyes.
Too bad. So he can’t control everything anymore.
“What are you doing, Human?”
“Going home. What do you think?”
“Damn it, Ash, we’ve been over this. You need to see Pyrrhus.”
“Ah, a name! At last.” He shrugged the strap on the grass bag across his back more comfortably. “No. You need me to see this person. You never asked me.”
The power came quicker to his hand this time and he stepped between the Pillars and into the mist.
Clouds scudded by overhead and Ashton shook out his wet hair. The fields were now filled with crops and the fences were gone, replaced by low stone walls. He turned at the sound of hoof beats and watched Silren trot through the stone Pillar marks.
“Ashton, it is easy to follow someone through the veils if you are close enough to them. You won’t be able to elude me. Besides, you have no idea where you are going.”
Irritated that the Unicorn was right, Ashton folded his arms and stared into Silren’s blue eyes. “And I suppose you won’t show me the way, right?”
Silren’s tail switched, then he heaved a sigh. He lowered his horn to scrape it across the dirt of the path. “Ashton. You have a power that is growing in you, whether you like it or not. It needs to be dealt with.”
“And why does it matter to you? You just want to use me.”
Silren’s head snapped up and he took a step back. “That is not true. Yes we need your help, but it’s for the sake of the entire world.”
“That’s insane. What can one person do? No one has that much power.”
“No one in recorded memory has, but there’s always a first time.” Silren said.
“Count me out.” He shivered, then turned back to the Pillars. “I guess if you won’t show me the way home, I’ll have to find it myself. I may be a guy, but I can ask for directions.”
The mist formed and he stepped into it.
This time he exited past large wooden posts, into a dreary landscape. A sodden, windswept moor stretched around him. The road led a few meters ahead to a crossroads. A cloaked figure huddled over a smoky fire that had been built in the middle of the intersection. The sound of Silren’s hoof beats drew her attention and the woman looked up at their approach.
Silren exhaled quickly in surprise, and stopped midstep. “Ashton. We need to leave. Now.”
“We’ve been over this, Horse.”
The woman stood, and a smile stretched her face. She waved her hand. “At last. A traveler. I’m so hungry.”
She shook back the hood of her cloak and let her golden ringlets pour free. Ashton sighed at the vision and walked forward.
A trumpeting neigh split his eardrums and Silren leapt past him, blocking his sight of the woman. He tried to go around, but Silren used his shoulder to body-slam him to the side. Ash shook his head, the realization struck that a moment before his thought hadn’t been his.
A loud purring laugh filled the clearing. “You’re too late beast. I have his scent. He’s mine.”
“My horn has tasted your kind before, Lamia.”
“Silren?” Ashton asked.
The Unicorn held his head low, his horn pointed threateningly at the woman. “Get on my back now, Ashton.”
Not daring to argue, he grabbed a fist full of mane and pulled himself up. One slow step at a time, Silren backed away. The woman laughed and transformed into a hideous half-lion half-woman beast and lunged at them. Silren sprang to the side, but he still managed to score a line across her shoulder. She shrieked and turned a glare on them.
“You will pay for that.”
Silren snorted, but didn’t bother to respond to the remark. Ashton stared at the creature. She had the body of a lion, with the naked torso of a woman. Her golden ringlets perfectly matched a lions coat and her hands had claws.
Damn it. Why is it only girls get ruby slippers? There’s no place like home. There’s no place like home. Silren pivoted on his hind legs and sprang into a full gallop. Ashton clamped down with his knees to keep from being thrown.
A deafening roar echoed, but Ashton didn’t dare look back. His mark burned as Silren raced past the wooden Pillar mark and into the rain from the veil with the wooden fences. Ashton crouched low over Silren’s neck as the unicorn pounded through the mud of the roadway. A quick glance over his shoulder assured him why Silren hadn’t stopped after the crossing. The lion beast had followed them through.
Ashton could feel Silren grunt with every pounding hoof beat. They were traveling faster than any other time Ash could recall, yet the Lamia gained on them.
Silren’s labored voice whipped back to him on the wind. “Ashton… I don’t think… I can make the next mark. I will have to fight. Keep going… You have to get away.”
Another tendril of knowledge unfurled from the ball. “Keep running Silren. I have an idea.”
Mud flew in their wake. Ashton focused on the road that was bracketed between Silren’s ears. Calling the power, he felt the fire. Silren’s horn blazed in response and the unicorn stumbled. Holding his focus, Ashton forced his will to form reality. They dove into a mist that hadn’t obscured the road a moment before. Racing out the other side, Silren slid to a stop then spun to face each direction in shock.
The Unicorn panted, his head still twisting this way and that. “Where the hell are we?” The new veil felt of summer. The leaves on the trees still held a growing greenness to them. “We weren’t near enough to the next Pillar mark to cross. How did we get here?” Silren said.
Ashton slid off the fatigued Unicorn and noticed, for the first time, the blood that dripped down the white flank. “You’re hurt.”
Silren looked over his shoulder. “It’s shallow. She got me with her claws when I spun. I’m a unicorn. I can’t reach it with my own horn, but if I find a small pool of water I can heal it.”
“What was that thing?”
“It was a Lamia. And they eat people like you, though she was starving so she likely would have tried to eat me too. And unfortunately, we led her to a populated veil.” He said sadly.
“Is there anything we can do?”
“No, it’s too dangerous. I will send someone to warn the veil.” He paused and looked around again. “As soon as I figure out where we are. Speaking of, how did you do this?”
“Do what? You said you wouldn’t make it to the next Pillar so I made the crossing for you.”
Silren’s stare made him uncomfortable.
“It’s not supposed to be possible to cross veils without doing it at a gate Ashton. That is why the Lamia didn’t follow us this time. She couldn’t. Why do you think we keep walking across veils until we come to a different Pillar?”
More pieces clicked into place. The Nightmare was right. He did have the power to get home. That realization freed something that Ashton didn’t want to look too closely at yet.
He walked up to Silren and rubbed the soft white velvet of his cheeks. The deep blue of the unicorn’s eyes held incredible peace, if Ash would just open himself to it.
“Are you sure you will be ok? I’m worried about the claw marks.”
Silren blinked and Ash saw worry cloud the blue. “Yes. They will be gone without a trace as soon as we find a pool big enough for me to submerge in.”
Ashton leaned forward and kissed Silren’s forehead just below the horn.
“I have to go home, Silren. I know you don’t agree, but I can’t leave my mother to worry, and I’m going to lose my job at this rate. I’m going to have enough explaining to do.” He picked up the dropped blanket, and started to walk down the road. His power flowed out around him and the terrain started to fade.
“No! Ashton! You can’t go back. You don’t understand. It won’t be the same.”
Silren’s voice faded with the mist.
“Ashton? What have you done?”
Ashton ran his hand through his hair, and stared down at the accusation that blazed in the blue eye of the Unicorn.
“What are you talking about, Horse?”
Silren stomped his front hoof. “We are not where we should be. This is not where I was taking us.”
Ashton looked around at the golden leaves drifting from the trees. The terrain didn’t look much different than any of the other places they had passed through. In fact, it looked down right close to what he had left at home, except for the change in season. Here, fall held sway. He shivered in his summer weight clothes.
“How would I know? You’re the one who’s kidnapped me. I have no idea of your destination. And it’s your feet taking us by the way. So how did I do it?”
“Don’t get snarky. You know perfectly well I’m referring to this last veil crossing. You don’t have to walk to phase shift.”
“And I would know this how?”
The Unicorn snorted and started to move again, muttering under his breath. They walked briskly through the early sun. The fallen leaves crunched under hoof. Up ahead, two tall trees stood sentinel flanking the path. As they approached, Ashton felt the brand on his chest start to react again, and he thought about the last shift.
Had he inadvertently used this power to control their phase shift?
I had only been dreaming of home. Could it be that simple?
Mist drifted through the trees and Silren’s horn grew brighter. Ashton closed his eyes and, this time, intentionally formed the most detailed picture of home he could manage.
He smashed his face against Silren’s raised neck when the Unicorn came to an abrupt stop.
He spit out strands of Silren’s silky mane and looked around with watering eyes. They had stopped between the two sentinel trees. The mist lay thick on the ground. He rubbed his sore nose.
“Stop experimenting, Human. I’m trying to take us through the safest veils I can. But that doesn’t mean there still aren’t dangers.”
Ashton narrowed his eyes at the reprimand. If you think I’m going to just docilely follow in your footsteps, think again, Horse.
The burn from the mark increased as Silren used his power to bridge the veils. He pushed the Unicorn’s warning aside and reformed his picture of home.
Fire spread through his body but he held to his focus. Silren’s harsh breathing reached his ears and he felt the Unicorn’s skin tremble over the rigid muscles as they fought over control of the crossing. His concentration slipped for a second. And that’s all it took. Silren’s body relaxed and Ashton opened his eyes.
In place of the sentinel trees now stood two pillars of ragged grey stone. A narrow rock-strewn pass stretched out before them that looked almost identical to the mountains that had surrounded the lake they had slept by.
The Unicorn set out at a brisk walk, his nimble feet stepping through the loose shale that littered the path. Ashton rubbed his chest to ease the last of the ache, disappointed that he had lost the round.
A few hours later, frustration nagged at him. They had steadily gained in altitude and Ashton had used that time to work on tapping this power of his to initiate a shift of his own. But no matter how hard he concentrated, he couldn’t get his mark to react. He was stuck with the bossy know-it-all Unicorn until he could move himself around.
The trail narrowed through a split in the rock face. The rough sides scraped against his jeans. They squeezed through, and slipped around a corner. The horizon blossomed out ahead. Ashton stared slack jawed at the vista stretched before them. A tiny ribbon of light marked the length of a river at the base of the drop. Only an occasional tree marked the jagged slopes. Another large peak rose on the other side of the valley.
He had just caught a glimpse of the goat-track excuse for a trail when the Unicorn leapt over the edge and into a run. Clutching fistfuls of mane, he clamped his legs around Silren’s barrel and held on for dear life. The insane Unicorn raced down the steep narrow mountain trail. Frozen, Ashton couldn’t form a coherent thought when he felt his mark heat. The blaze of the Unicorn’s horn blinded him as they plunged into the dense fog that filled the void between two boulders, and passed through. The Unicorn’s hind end slew to the side in an effort to stop his mad plunge.
His mount wobbled for a moment as Silren’s hooves fought for purchase with the marble like stones that now surfaced the trail. They slid backwards a few meters before the Unicorn came to a halt, Ashton swayed in his seat from Silren’s labored breathing.
Rocks continued to clatter down the steep path, breaking the stillness of the forested mountain pass.
It took a moment for Ashton’s wits to catch up. He stared up the trail where two roughly waist high boulders stood flanking the path above them. Yellow rock, instead of grey, his mind identified. As if he needed any more indication that they had phase shifted, than the sudden appearance of trees on the once barren mountain side.
“You goddamned, crazy son of a bitch!” Ashton said. He pried his stiff fingers free, then forced his legs to relax. He slid to the ground. His legs gave out and he fell on his rear. “You could have killed us.”
“No more than… you could have… if you had fought me on that crossing.” The Unicorn’s voice held a note of strain.
Ashton pushed himself shakily upright. He took a step down the trail and ended up sliding several feet. The loose tan rock acted like marbles. The grey shale had been preferable. He skidded to the side of the path, hopeful the edge would be less treacherous. Unfortunately, the evergreen trees in this terrain grew too far apart for their needles to form any sort of useful mat on the ground. Just more loose rock. He continued to work his way down the hillside.
The Unicorn picked his way over to where he slid. “Get back on me Ash. It’s a long way down.”
“Screw you.” He continued to skate a step at a time. The topography through the trees looked like it matched the last veil. He could make out the glint of water through the tree cover at the bottom of the valley. It was a long way down.
His foot went out from under him and started a mini cascade. A flash of white shot by him as he slid out of control, then pain exploded from his ribs as his body wrapped around a white leg. Half under the Unicorn, he fought to get his diaphragm to unseize.
“Get. Back. On. Now, before you break your neck.”
He gulped in a lungful of air and glared into the Unicorn’s blue eye. But he dragged himself up the white leg to grab a fistful of mane anyway. It took some effort, but he managed to gain the broad back. Silren retraced the trail, picked up the fallen blanket, and flung it over his shoulder at him.
Stiffly, Silren worked his way down the mountain. Ashton cautiously drew air into his lungs to check the state of his ribs. Bruised, but thankfully not broken. Not that the distinction mattered much since they let him know with every jarring step Silren took on the decent. When they reached the bottom Silren picked his pace up to a trot. The sun ran high over head. Hungry, Ashton pulled some of the food Dafydd had given him out of the grass bag that he had somehow managed to retain possession of. He took a bite of the crusty bread and smoked fish, and thought about his next move.
The setting sun blinded Ashton as Silren stumbled to a stop. The Unicorn’s body trembled with fatigue. Ashton didn’t feel much better. Their current veil consisted of a mixed hardwood forest. They were still in the mountains, from what Ash could tell, but their elevation had dropped considerably. The green leaves had just started to turn.
They had stopped in the middle of a wide, grassy lane. The trees of the forest marched along either side for as far as Ashton could see. Silren’s head hung to the ground. The battle the two of them fought all day had drained them both.
A glint of light floated out of the woods. It circled them before it came to a stop to hover near Silren’s eyes. The Unicorn wearily raised his head, then shambled off to follow the bouncing sparkle.
Not too far off the wide grass road, they came to an open space where a stream burbled. The smell of roasting meat twisted Ashton’s stomach. A fire crackled in the empty clearing. Twilight fell with alarming speed once the trees blocked the light. Ashton slid off of Silren’s back onto his rubbery legs. He dropped his blanket next to the fire, then got a drink. When he turned away from the water, he caught Silren staring at him.
“I’m sorry you find this necessity so hard to accept, Ashton.” The Unicorn sighed. “The Will-o-the-wisp says that your food should be done.”
Ashton turned away from Silren. Whatever else the Unicorn had to say he could keep. All he wanted, besides to go home, was food and sleep. He pulled the roasted rabbit off of the spit and burned his fingers for his trouble. His stomach filled the air with noise, but he forced himself to slow down and let it cool a bit more between each piece.
Silren nattered on about the veil they currently occupied, and the shyness of their hosts, while he ate a trough of grain left out. He let Silren’s one sided conversation go in one ear and out the other. After he had finished the rabbit, he tossed the bones into the fire and wiped his fingers off on some grass. Then built the fire up and wrapped himself in his blanket, and lay down on his side to sleep.
Jolting awake, his heart pounding, Ashton gazed into the darkness. Once again, he found his head pillowed on Silren’s leg, not sure of how that came to be. He struggled out of the cocooning blanket and sat up against Silren’s side. The Unicorn snored softly behind him. The fire burned low, mostly coals that flared and brightened as a breath of wind played across them.
Breath of wind.
Fear clouded his mind. A hot breeze tickled the back of his neck. He screamed and leapt out of his blanket to scramble away. From the other side of the fire, he spun around.
And saw himself still wrapped up, sound asleep against a snoring Unicorn. He backed up several steps. His legs turned to water.
His head whipped to stare across the fire. Twin coals floated out of the darkness. He whimpered and backed up another step.
Her hooves clacked against the hard packed ground. She stepped out into the dim light cast by the remains of the fire; her coat blacker than the night that surrounded them. She switched her tail and the eddy of a warm breeze swirled around him. The fire blazed.
She stopped by the flames and stretched her neck out over the heat. Her eyes closed blissfully and Ashton felt himself drawn forward, his fingers itched to pet her soft cheek. Not again. No. That desire warred with the incipient hysteria. Oh my god, oh my god, she’s here, oh my god. Silren…
Without consent, his feet took him the last steps to the fire. His heart hammered in his chest but his fingers still reached out. She moaned as they sank into her velvety fur, and he scratched. Losing himself in the warmth and texture, his fear receded.
Her eye cracked open and caught his. They studied one another for a while before she spoke. “I know you wish to go home. Why don’t you? You have the power to you know.”
His mark started to throb in time with his heart beat, and his fingers stilled. She pulled her head away.
“I don’t know how.” He whispered.
“Follow your heart.” She wuffled his hair, then looked back over her shoulder. “Catch.”
A fireball arced out of the darkness from behind her. She stepped to the side. Frozen, he watched it come straight at him. He opened his mouth to scream.
“I’ll be waiting.” He heard her whisper as it hit him.
His eyes snapped open and he gasped. Wrapped in his blanket, his back still pressed into the snoring Unicorn, he stared at the dim fire. No sign at all that another creature had disturbed the clearing.
How can I be so exhausted, when I basically slept for four days? Ashton clung to Silren’s mane. The Unicorn had slowed his pace when he clattered onto the rocks that rung the edge of a mountain lake. They had spent the whole of the day running. The terrain shifted from one location to another, blurring like oil on water. He lost track of the number of veils they had passed through.
Thirsty, Ashton slid to the ground at the water’s edge. He shivered in the cold, and sank to his knees. After drinking his fill, he splashed his face. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Silren lift his dripping muzzle and stare out over the glassy surface.
He startled when the Unicorn’s call broke the eerie silence, and almost toppled into the water. A seal bobbed to the surface a distance out, its dark eyes unblinking.
Silren continued to speak in a liquid language. The seal cocked its head, then slid back into the water.
I think I’m too hungry to care. Shaking his head, he stood up and stumbled away from Silren. The rocky beach gave way to a dry alpine meadow. He plopped down onto the scratchy grass and groaned. The sun had sunk behind the craggy peaks before they had made the water’s edge, and the chill in the air made Ashton think of Fall. Too bad it’s the height of summer at home, and that my clothes reflect that.
Twilight leached the color from the countryside. The crunch of hooves echoed across the silent lake. Opening his eyes, he looked up at the Unicorn standing over him. “I’m hungry, Silren.”
They stared at one another. For the first time, with the leisure to take the other’s measure. “I want to go home.”
“Also, unsurprising. But the answer remains the same. It’s too dangerous.”
“It’s not just a want. I need to go home, Horse. Look, I can’t just disappear. People will be worried, my Mom for starters. And there’s my job. And even if I go with you, I need some clothes.” He tugged his summer weight t-shirt for emphasis.
“The Nightmare can find you there.”
He sat up, and hunched around his raised knees. “That doesn’t seem to be any different than this morning.”
“Maybe not, but here we can cross to another veil and stay one step ahead of him. At your home veil, I can’t be close enough to keep you safe.”
“That doesn’t change anything…” Movement down the beach drew his attention from the conversation.
A young man approached. He wore loose brown pants and shirt. His wet hair was slicked back from his forehead. He held a string of fish in one hand and a bundle of wood in the other. He laid his burdens to the side then started to move rocks making a depression on the beach.
“Hello?” Ashton rose to his feet.
Silren stepped in front of him. “He won’t understand you Ash. Besides, Selkies tend to be quiet.”
Silren said something in that strange language. The man looked up from his task, and Ashton met liquid brown eyes. After a moment of study, the stranger nodded his head and went back to building a fire.
The Unicorn stepped aside and moved closer to the newcomer, so Ashton followed. “Dafydd will cook you some fish. After a couple of good meals, and a solid night of normal sleep, you’ll feel more like yourself.”
His stomach growled. Damn it, he’s right. He needed to recover his strength to gain any hope of convincing the horse to take him home.
The stars twinkled in the cloudless sky. Ashton pulled the rough wool blanket tighter around his shoulders and settled back against Silren’s side. The fire, that he had just added wood to, blazed up. Pleasantly full of warm fish, his eyes started to droop shut.
“We should be safe from the Nightmare here tonight. As a rule they aren’t overly fond of large bodies of water.” The rumble of Silren’s voice woke him back up. “When he sent you dreams, what were they about?”
Ashton spent a moment rocking a better depression in the gravel to give himself some time to think. “I’m not sure about all of the dreams. Most of them were just night mares, you know. Disturbed my sleep, but I don’t remember the details.”
“What about when you received the mark? Do you remember that one?”
He shivered. Oh yeah, I remember that one.
The silence stretched for a moment, then Silren asked, “Ash? Please? Can you describe it?”
“The dreams had become…” He cleared his throat, “more disturbing. I was having trouble staying awake by that point. I found myself somewhere else. That’s the only way to explain it.”
He pulled the blanket up higher. “It was all rock. Heat and cold. There was nothing alive that I could see, except a noise came from behind me. When I turned, she was there. A giant black horse. A very pregnant horse. She reached out, and breathed on me. The pain woke me up, and I had this mark.”
“You had an actual night Mare? And she was pregnant?” The Unicorn asked.
“Either that, or she was really fat. She didn’t seem fat to me though.”
“That’s not good.”
The dream world still remained crystal clear in his mind. With an effort, he turned his thoughts back out to the real world. “What does it mean?”
Silren’s tail flicked. “How does the mark feel now? Does it still burn?”
Exasperated, he sighed. “No. The pain seems to be gone.”
“Good. I feared the poison leaching from it. I had hoped that when I lanced it, the mark would go away. I’m not sure why it has, instead, taken on this aspect.”
The fire snapped and sparks showered into the air. “Where are you taking me, since you won’t take me home?” He turned his head and met the Unicorn’s eye.
“From what I can tell, the mark has caged your power. Instead of releasing it with my horn, I punctured a hole, so it’s slowly leaking out. I’m taking you to someone who I think can help unlock it.”
“But I don’t want it unlocked. I was perfectly happy the way I was.” Mostly.
Frustrated with the stubborn beast, he threw another couple of logs on the fire, and then settled down for the night. Snuggled up in the blanket that Dafydd had given him, he drifted off. His mind wandered. Pathways stretched out before him. And no matter how much he didn’t want to go, something still shoved him down them. With no care for how ready he might be.
The crunch of a log hitting the fire, and sparks spitting, broke into Ashton’s sleep. He opened groggy eyes, and saw Dafydd gutting more fish on the other side of the fire. The mist from the lake had settled on everything. He blinked the water off his lashes and wiped his face dry with the underside of the blanket.
Silren heaved a sigh behind him and raised his head. His nostrils flaring. The stallion spoke to the Selkie, and oddly enough, Ash realized he understood a word or two. Dafydd paused in his skewering of the fish and tapped a grass basket with his foot, speaking at the same time.
“Ash, can you grab that basket please? Dafydd’s wife made us some porridge. Eat your fill first, and I’ll finish the rest.”
Unwrapping, he leaned across, and pulled the surprisingly heavy basket closer. He made eye contact with the Selkie. “Thank you.”
Dafydd cocked his head, just like the seal had, then slowly blinked his eyes at him. He nodded once and went back to cooking the fish.
Steam escaped from the fibers of the basket. He lifted the lid and took a whiff of the cereal. His stomach grumbled in the quiet. A small, flat stick protruded from the mound of grain. He pulled it free and took a bite. Amazing flavor rolled around his tongue. Visions of dripping honeycombs, and bursts of juicy berries blinded him to everything else. He ate until full and only then realized his single mindedness.
The unicorn laughed, “Done?”
Ashton felt his cheeks heat. He set the stick to the side and placed the basket under Silren’s nose. There was still plenty left.
“Don’t worry Ash. Dafydd’s wife is an amazing cook, and you have over four days worth of food to catch up on.” He stuck his long nose into the basket.
Ashton glanced across the fire and met Dafydd’s grin. His sharp, pointy toothed grin. I’m so not in Kansas anymore.
He stood up, letting the blanket puddle around his feet, and looked across the open meadow for a bush of some kind. Giving up he just walked a good distance away. By the time he returned, Dafydd had finished cooking the fish and had stuffed them into a couple loaves of bread.
Silren clattered to his hooves. “Dafydd says you can keep the blanket. So fold it up, and use it as a saddle pad.”
Throwing the folded blanket over the Unicorn’s back, he jumped up and swung his leg over. A very satisfying act. Not to mention a huge improvement over his strength yesterday. He settled his weight, then reached down and took the bundle of wrapped bread that Dafydd held out to him. He slung the grass pouch over his shoulder and settled it in the small of his back.
He smiled his thanks. Silren pawed the ground and bobbed his head, then turned to walk out onto the grass. His hooves thudded the ground.
Some distance from their camping spot, Ashton felt his mark heat and begin to throb. A glance showed that Silren’s horn had started a soft glow as well. So. I can feel a veil crossing. That’s what the pain means.
I wish I could go home.
His thoughts and feelings, memories of home filled his entire being. The mark continued to burn but he ignored it, engrossed in his own world. The longing so strong, and worry about what his family and coworkers would think of his absence, blinded him to his surroundings.
Silren stumbled, and he nearly lost his seat when the Unicorn came to an abrupt halt.
They no longer traversed an alpine meadow. The terrain had become forested again.
“Wha… This is not…” The Unicorn slowly turned his head and pinned him with a blue eye. “Ashton? What have you done?”