The moon silvered the possessions that littered the enclosed space. Silren dodged the leavings of young children, then leapt the opposite boundary to land hock deep in a lush flower bed. Ashton didn’t have time to make out what the crushed flowers consisted of. They shot through the grass of that yard, and out onto the pavement of a new street.
The darker shape of Tourmaline flapped ahead of them. Ashton had lost count of the number of houses they had passed on their way out of the city. A few cars still moved about, and some of the houses sported lit windows, but no one came out to watch them pass.
Ashton glanced at the position of the moon, then at the road between Silren’s ears. The suburban houses had thinned. They moved from the outskirts of the city and followed the road along the coast. The sound of the surf dimly reached his ears. He clenched Silren’s mane tighter and looked up at Tourmaline.
The gargoyle had dropped lower and flew down the open area of the road next to them. Silren’s hooves kicked up dirt from the softer shoulder. The trees lining the road grew sparser, and they cantered around a bend in the road. Waves crashed against jagged boulders at the base of a drop on his right.
“T? Please tell me we aren’t going where I think we are?”
The gargoyle twisted his head to look at him. The lighter stone of his teeth flashed in the moonlight. “Sorry Ash. Can’t do that.”
He flapped on ahead again, and they continued to follow the winding road along the water. I just can’t believe there is a gate in my mom’s garden. What are the pillar marks?
Silren interrupted his thoughts. “You know where the gargoyle is taking us?”
“I think so.”
“How far is it?”
“It’s usually about an hour by car, depending on traffic.”
“Then we should arrive in an hour and a half to two hours. I can make that.”
“Are you ok, Silren? You’ve lost a lot of weight.” Ashton’s fingers brushed the dry, brittle hair of Silren’s coat.
The unicorn didn’t answer him for a moment. The sound of the surf, and the rhythmic thud of the hoof beats, filled the darkness.
“This year has been… hard. The battle to keep the pillar marks cleansed has drained us. There aren’t enough unicorns for me to station at every gate. And with the power flow disrupted, we have recovered slowly. The mark Rajani is holding now was the first infected. And will be the first lost. I’ve held it for months, but I can no longer.”
The wet scent of the ocean swirled around Ashton in the warm updraft along the cliff. Regret over the stolen time added more pressure. They cantered on for another mile. He finally asked, “You really have been here for a year?”
Silren’s ribs expanded in a sigh. “Yes, Ashton. You walked away from me a year ago. I tried to follow, but you crossed without a pillar near. I’ve had a year to contemplate theories about that impossibility. One of the elders I inquired with talked of an old legend. The myth told how the pillars had come into being to allow a safer method of transit, but nothing definitive on how movement occurred before. They are researching it further. How is it possible for you to have only had a week pass? What happened?”
“It wasn’t exactly a week. I left you and ended up in the snow. That’s when I realized how stupidly unequipped I was. I tried to cross again, little hope in finding my way back to you, so I attempted to get closer to home. That time, I arrived somewhere populated. It had been morning in the snow, but when I stepped into the farmer’s veil, night had already fallen. I’m guessing they felt a witch had appeared. Because they knocked me out. And when I came to, I found myself tied to a stake and they were about to set it on fire. My longing to get home found fertile desire then, and I shifted, stake and all, and found myself in my own neighborhood. I got myself home to find someone else living in my apartment. That was six days ago.”
“So you made the transit to this veil in three jumps? Your lost time must have occurred during the crossing where you went from daylight to night. The pillars of a gate form a solid link between veils. In essence, they puncture through multiple veils at once and they hold the world stable. Some may span only two veils, while others can span several. That is why we have to travel to different marks to get to where we want to go. By jumping cross country, you wouldn’t have the safety of the very fabric of the world to keep you in continuity.”
“Is there any way to get it back?” He whispered.
“I’m sorry Ash, but I can’t see how.”
Silence stretched. The smooth rolling gate of the unicorn’s canter lulled him, and allowed his mind time to relax. Memories of the dreams the NightMare had given him played through.
“Silren? Why are you trusting the NightMare?”
“Is that her name? She sent all those dreams to me, and then you were running from her. Why are you working with her now, and leaving her to guard the mark?”
Silren stretched his neck out and shook his head, fluffing his mane. “The Unicorns and Nightmares are like the two polarities of a battery. It takes both of us to form a current. Without one, the other cannot exist. We take in and resonate with the light energy, and they do the same with dark.
Everything that lives contains a unique combination of light and dark. Throughout a life’s journey, it sheds energy back into the world. It is the purpose of the Unicorns and the Nightmares to gather that energy and keep it flowing. Or life would cease to be. The energy would stagnate, like a poisoned pond, and would no longer be available to power new life.
“But you said the energy is out of balance now?”
“Yes. And it grows worse. Because of the energy imbalance, the Nightmare’s numbers have grown while ours have dwindled. That’s why I went out looking for someone like you. Rajani was also sent out to look. Our joint problem is that there is too much dark now. And as more dark accumulates, it breeds more dark. If we can’t rebalance the power, eventually life will cease.”
“What can I possibly do to help with that?”
“I don’t know Ash. But already you have done things I didn’t think were possible. How we and the Mare’s handle the energy is very different. We can’t use it. But so far, you can.”
“So how will Rajani protect the gate? She doesn’t have a horn like you.”
“I can purify the gate, and transform the dark into light. But she can only… disperse it…”
“So, it’s spreading?”
There was a long pause before he answered softly, “Yes.”
The rest of the ride progressed in silence. Ashton could feel, through his legs, Silren’s fatigue. Tourmaline thumped to the ground ahead of them, where the gravel drive to his mother’s house met the asphalt road. Silren slowed to a trot, then stopped next to the gargoyle. The unicorn’s muscles quivered under Ashton’s hand. He slid to the ground and rubbed the sweaty neck.
“So there really is a gate in my Mom’s garden? Where? And, how?”
“I’m not familiar with this gate.” Silren said. “Where does it lead?”
Ashton stared down the dark driveway and shivered. The moonlight didn’t penetrate the shadows.
“It passes into another human populated veil. I have family over there that I visit from time to time.”
Ashton walked down the drive several feet while Silren and T discussed their destination. Not far off of the main road, a black sludgy fog lay heavy in the fields and across the gravel. The more he peered into it, the more repulsed he became. The viscous tar undulated slowly like an obscene, bloated jellyfish across the landscape. A jellyfish more enormous than his brain could comprehend.
The unicorn’s hooves clattered on the rocks as he joined him to stare into the fog. “Tourmaline? You’re sure the gate is untainted?”
“It was this afternoon, but the dark hadn’t been this strong then.”
“My mother is in there.”
“There’s no help for it. Ash, you and I will have to go through. Tourmaline, can you fly over?”
“I think so.”
“Mount up, Ashton.”
He took a deep breath to still his shaking hands, then grabbed Silren’s mane and swung up to his back. “That looks a lot like what attacked us in the motel room don’t you think T?”
The gargoyle cast him a worried look, then spread his wings. “I’ll see you at the house.”
Ashton tightened his legs around Silren’s girth as the gargoyle lumbered into the air. “I notice he didn’t answer me.”
“Me too. Are you ready for this?”
The unicorn stepped out. They passed the boundary and pushed into the blackness. Nightmarish visions pierced his brain. The weight of evil stole his breath, and Ashton felt Silren stumble. Silren’s horn lit up and the darkness lost its strangle hold. Instead of living the terrible dreams, he watched them like a movie.
“Look at the ground, Ash.”
Silren’s voice sounded strained. Ashton looked out over the fields. Tendrils of the black fog undulated like so many vines, boring into the earth. Taking root.
“What do we do?” Ashton gripped Silren tighter.
“Nothing. We can do nothing.” The unicorn’s horn flickered and the dark pressed closer. “Until we learn more about this threat, we won’t be able to free the earth.”
Ashton groaned. The excruciating weight grew like the pressure before a storm. Silren picked up his pace. It became harder for Ashton to retain his seat as Silren broke out in a sweat. Movement undulated to his right and he slid on the unicorns back when he twisted to look.
All hell broke loose.
Silren screamed in pain. He reared up and his horn incandesced. Ashton flung his arms around the unicorn’s neck so he wouldn’t fall.
Blades of burning shadow spun through the air in the white light. Silren leapt into a canter, but quickly slid to a stop as more blades wove around them. They ducked in closer, slicing at them. Silren grunted again and his horn dimmed.
Fire sliced Ashton’s thigh and he lost his grip on Silren. He hit the ground with a thud. Blades quickly dove for them. Silren spun raking his horn in a wide arc, but Ashton could see his energy draining from him as fast as the blood that poured down his white hide.
The brand on his chest cleared the dark from his mind in a wildfire of cleansing. Just like in the hotel room, he felt the power flow through his body and into his hands. He honed his thoughts, and forced the power into blinding white swords.
The shadows fell back out of the ring of light.
Silren stood with his horn level, his sides heaving. “On my back, Ash. We have to get out of here now.”
“So are you. Neither one of us can keep up this output of power. Come on.”
Ashton managed to slide onto the unicorn’s back and Silren broke into a run. Ashton swung at anything that tried to get close to them.
Suddenly, they burst out of the smothering dark and into fresh air and normal moonlight. Silren grunted and fell over his nose. Ashton flew a few feet, to land against the front fence of his mother’s garden. Silren lay on his side in the gravel, his breath labored. In the natural moonlight, the blood looked horrendous. Ashton pulled himself up by the fence, and realized he didn’t look much better. Blood dripped down his arms and soaked his jeans.
Tourmaline dropped out of the sky. “I couldn’t get to you.”
The gargoyle rocked back and forth, turning from him to Silren and back.
He started to limp towards Silren when the door to the house banged open and his mother jumped the steps to throw open the gate.
“Get everyone inside the gate.”
Ashton and T made it to Silren’s side. He looked like a newborn foal getting to his feet. But they got him through the gate. His mother firmly pulled the gate closed then knelt down by a large crystal sitting in the flower bed. She hummed softly and reached out to it. Ashton blinked when he saw a light settle deep into the stone.
She rose and turned to them. “That fog won’t get in tonight. Can you get the unicorn into the back yard? He looks in the worst shape.”
“I’ll get there, milady.” Silren whispered, weaving on his feet. “Thank you for the haven, gate keeper.”