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.