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?”