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.