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.