“Josephine, you told me he was having nightmares, but you didn’t tell me he had been marked.”
“I’m sorry, Milord. He had said something… I didn’t realize …”
“Get his shirt open. I can’t, unless I slit it with my horn. I doubt he wishes to go without coverings.”
The voices sounded like an echo in a tin can. Ashton felt tugging all along his front, then the cool night air bathed the burning over his heart. He pried his eyes open. Positioned over him, horn aglow, stood a unicorn. The beast reared, pawing the air. If he could have drawn breath into his lungs, he would have screamed. His hands clutched the dirt.
Tendrils of light seemed to coalesce, and start to flow, towards the tip of the brilliant horn.
“He’s conscious, Milord.”
The unicorn’s hind legs stood steady as a statue; supporting his entire mass rampant, with ease. Yet, he tilted his head, so one brilliant blue eye met his. Ashton dug his heels into the ground and managed to slide a couple of inches.
“Josephine. I don’t think he’s going to like this part. Don’t let him move.”
The hell with that. He pushed again and twisted, and almost succeeded in pulling his body out from under the beast. Gnarled ropes erupted from the earth, spraying dirt everywhere. The roots twined around his limbs to drag him back to the ground. Pinned, Ashton fought, so more roots slithered across him ensuring his motionlessness. The last thing he could see before a leafy vine trailed across his eyes was the unicorn dipping his head, and that sharp point descending at speed.
He felt the prick pierce his skin and he finally found the breath to scream. Fire exploded everywhere in his body. Energy arced in the darkness behind his blindfolded eyes. A wall of water slammed into the inferno inside of him. The two forces met, and merged. Tears poured from his eyes as relief spread. Whispers in his mind spoke of rest. After all of the events that had lead up to this moment, he gave in. Taking the voiceless advice, he sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Cocooned in warmth, Ashton drifted to consciousness. Sunlight bathed the exposed part of his face. His cheek rested on velvet. Lassitude filled every fiber of his being. Soft exhalations sounded in his ear, and gently rocked him, as the large warm body he leaned against took in and released air. Soft velvet nuzzled his cheek; humid breath wafted across his skin. Opening his eyes, he met the brilliant blue one of the unicorn.
Ashton waited for the fear and disbelief to surface. Instead he just felt relaxed and warm, curled up in the moss against the unicorn’s side. He had no desire to move. Convenient, since his muscles had turned to jelly.
“Welcome back, sleepy head.”
Ashton blinked, then opened his mouth to speak, but his voice wouldn’t work. His throat felt dry as dust. He heaved a raspy cough.
“Don’t try to talk or move yet, Ash. You’ve been unconscious for four days.”
His lips formed the words, four days!
“Your body needed to rest and recover. It had been run ragged before the power explosion took you. Then to top it off, you phase shifted on us. We all had to move quick to follow you.”
Phase shifted? He coughed again and managed to form some whispered words, “What is…”
The soft nose brushed his cheek again. “Phase shifting?”
Ashton nodded his head where it lay on the unicorn’s front leg.
“Phase shifting is how to pass between the veils that separate the pages of the world. Think of an onion; that will help. Of the millions of species the earth has, only a handful have the ability to pass the veils. Most creatures live their lives completely unaware of the existence of other animals and beings from the other veils, but enough humans over time have been sufficiently sensitive to catch glimpses. Hence your Mythologies.
“We all inhabit the same world, overlapping, just slightly out of phase from each other. We could walk down the same street and never see one another. Back to the onion; depending on how deep you go, or far away from your home veil, the more changes. Familiar places could stay exactly as you know them, just inhabited by strange beings, or they may never have existed at all.
“That’s why we needed to follow right on your heels when you shifted. It would have been difficult, and time consuming, to track which level you went to.” The Unicorn wuffled his hair, “I’ve never heard of a human mortal able to phase shift before. You have a staggering amount of power growing in you. It’s not uncommon for your species to have a bit of talent; extending to the ability to see through one or two veils. But you acted like the veils didn’t exist.”
“Enough.” Ashton rasped. He struggled to sit up and leaned heavily against the beast’s side. His body felt like water. A bunch of the faeries fluttered down with leaf baskets held in their hands. Blinking, he stared at them for a minute before he realized they wanted him to take their burdens. He held out his trembling hand, and the first deposited her basket. Liquid sloshed out and he steadied it with his other hand, then gulped down the mouthful and eagerly took the next. He drank until the faeries refused to bring him anymore. But they replaced the water with berries, which were almost as good on his parched throat as the water. Then a few baskets full of cooked grain. The scant, light fare still sat like a rock on his empty stomach.
“Careful Ash, you haven’t eaten in more than four days. And we only managed to dribble water down your throat.”
A bit of strength crept back into his muscles. He cleared his throat, and managed in a stronger voice, “Who are you? And what do you want?”
The unicorn heaved a great sigh, blowing air like an ordinary horse. Something so normal made Ashton want to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. Instead he just waited.
“That is complicated.” He stretched his long neck out and shook his mane. “My name is Silren. And I’ve come here to fetch you. I’ve been searching the world for someone with great potential to help us. The Unicorns are the conduits of life. We draw the pure energy of the world to us. Then through us, it gets redistributed as life renews. Every new life that’s born takes some of the energy, but something’s wrong. The energy isn’t flowing properly anymore. It’s become too dark. And we don’t have the ability to manipulate it. We are just a riverbed.”
Silren bent his neck and pointed his horn at him. “Only someone with your abilities can use the power, Ash. As your energy strengthened, it allowed me to track you down in your native veil. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to you soon enough to prevent the Nightmare from marking you.”
“I was afraid that had been real.”
“Everything is real, Ash. It just might not be a part of your particular veil. How does the Nightmare’s mark feel now?”
His hands trembled with weakness as he unbuttoned his shirt and let it fall to the side. The scalded butterfly still marked his heart, but now it included a cobalt blue point in the center with cracks radiating out. His fingers brushed the mark. The skin felt smooth and normal.
Silren tensed. “There’s more to tell you, but now isn’t the time.”
Ashton raised his eyes. A man-like creature slipped out of the undergrowth. Or only half-man, he realized. The bottom half belonged to a goat. A very male goat. Ashton looked away. Wow.
“Milord, Silren. The Nightmare you warned us about? She’s only a few veils away.”
“Thank you, Sage. It’s time to leave, Ash. Can you slip your leg over my back? The Faun can help you.”
He struggled to turn, and managed to get his leg up, but he just didn’t have the strength to lift his weight any further. Sage pushed and he gained Silren’s back. Thank god, he thought when he managed to not slide off the other side.
“I want to go home.”
“Your home isn’t safe.”
Ashton clung to Silren’s mane as the Unicorn surged to his feet. The faun scampered into the bushes. Silren set out at a walk down a path, but quickly moved into a smooth, rolling canter.
“Where are you taking me?”
The Unicorn’s hoof beats thudded around them, and his horn began to glow. “I told you where I was taking you, Ash.”
His mark started to throb, and a mist filtered around the trunks of the trees. The fog rolled in, obscuring everything, then they rode out into a sunny open meadow. Silren cantered through the waving grass. Flocks of faeries rose up out of the flowers to swoop all around them.
“So horse, why did you send all those little flutterbys after me? If you wanted me, why didn’t you just come yourself? Too many non-virgins around?”
The unicorn shook his mane vigorously. “My name is Silren, not horse, thank you very much. And that’s just a myth. Obviously, virgins don’t bother us.” Silren twisted his head around to glare at him, “Or the lack there of. But the hunters now, are another matter. I don’t wish for my horn to be taken from me. I’m rather fond of it, you see. And historically, any time we enter your veil, that’s an issue.”
With that thought to chew on, Ashton clung to Silren’s back, and they continued their trek back into the woods.