Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 30

My back ached, and my fingers cramped, but I kept cutting. Would these Beings fly? Walk? Slither? Lope?

Londe was with the foals; night had fallen, and they were sleeping. I couldn’t manage. I sharpened stakes over and over. Some were hidden among the forest, just in case our followers were trying to come from an unexpected path. I’d placed some higher up, tied together on branches in a spray of spikes, and hanging with braided cording. One jerk and they’d swing with deadly accuracy through the air.

We’d dug some holes, again lined with spikes. Wenn and Tinn had amazing digging skills. No wonder the locus lived underground. They started digging and within moments they’d dug a tunnel from the side of the woods to the path, leaving the thinnest shell of dirt cover the pit. I could only imagine what their burrows looked like, how deep and far they went with how quickly they could move the dirt.

I’d even worried they’d leave a mound of dirt, but they’d created a room just for the extra earth.

For all the worries we’d managed to assuage, it felt like I thought of three more. Who was coming? Why?

How was I going to make them pay?

Now instead of small stakes, I was making larger spears. I was stashing them against different trunks, points down. I had several with their points hardening in the fire.

“They’re come soon?” Tinn said.

I had the sense they would. Like a burning, yawning pit in my stomach that cast lead into my limbs, dread had me in its grip. Nothing could stop the battle from unfolding, though, so I was going to do my best to win it.

The stars had begun to fade when I finally succumbed to my exhaustion. Tinn and Wenn had curled into a small hollow they dug themselves. The fire was embers. I went to my family in the rocks where we’d found a shelter for our young to hide. The foals, their long, knobby limbs splayed as they lay on their sides. Londe was kneeling between them, his head rested low to the ground. I lay down on my side in front of them, facing out.

Facing the coming day and all it would bring.

We ate in a circle, the day half gone. Marces itched to move, to help, and it took everything to keep him close and out of trouble. Colete stayed close to Londe. I wasn’t sure if I should be thankful for that or not. Was it because she was naturally more docile or had this experience harmed her?

The worrying thoughts of fatherhood were just another layer to the stress. The dried meat and hard bread I’d pulled out of my pack lay like lumps in my belly on top of it all. I turned to pull out my water, my back to the circle, when the absolute stillness caught my attention.

Our activity had disturbed the local wildlife for a few hours, but they’d grown used to us. This… was something new. “Go. Now,” I whispered.

Londe nipped Colete’s and Marces’ flanks, herding them into the rocks. Tinn and Wenn came to my side. “What is it?” Tinn asked.

“Silence.” I scanned the forest and paths. Slowly, I slid my hand down beside me to the spear on the ground. I’d draw my blade if and when I knew what we faced, but for now, the spears were a better bet.

Wenn’s fur stood on end, fluffing in agitation. Or maybe fear. I didn’t know. “Crackle, snap,” he said.

My forehead crinkled as I stared at him in confusion. “What?”

“Magic,” Tinn hissed out. “Stolen. Foul. Human….”

Stars above and below. Beings had inherent magic, but humans with it? They had stolen it. And that meant—

“Witch,” Wenn hissed.

It was a warlock, actually. A male witch, his hair hanging in lank strands around his sallow face, his beady eyes glittering over a narrow nose and thin lips. His fingers wove and danced, and the magic flowing from his fingers lit up all the traps we’d laid so carefully.

Despair struck me hard. How could we defeat a Being using a human warlock with dark magic? How did that even happen? Turned warlocks preyed on all Beings because they’d ripped a hole in their magic, damaged it somehow when they turned to darker forces, and had to keep stealing more to reinfuse themselves.

That was what all the Beings were for. The warlock.

Was he my enemy? But no… a warlock hadn’t been the one to steal my horn. It had been a being. The memory had been struck from me, but I knew that much.

Wenn and Tinn both trembled, teeth bared. They would be a very tasty treat for this warlock. Maybe even plug up the hole he’d created, for a time.

The young man in silver armor, filigree marking the edges with gold, was not at all what I was expecting next. His nose was covered by a guard, but his bright blue eyes shone past his helm, his pink cheeks exposed, and his ruby red lips were parted as he stared at us.

“I have waited for this moment for so long,” he said breathily. His voice was high and happy. Like he was greeting long, lost visitors he’d been waiting for.

What was going on? I brandished my spear. “Stay back, you… you….” What were these two? My heart raced.

 “Oh, I see you don’t remember me.” He giggled. “Well, maybe this will help.” He raised gauntleted hands, gems, literally gems, on each knuckle, and lifted his helm from his head.

And his visage changed. Aged. His skin grew pocked, his eyes dulled, and his lips writhed back from yellowed teeth.

“Balasamar.” Now I recognized that face, and the bracelet I could see winding up his arm above that awful gauntlet.  

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Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 29

“What will we do?” Tinn asked.

“Study the map first,” I said. Londe settled beside Marces. Colete was on the other side of him. With my family close to my side, our friends shuffled near and plopped down right in front of us like furry balls. They looked like boulders, which would help if there were any spies in the distance. I pulled the map out of my pack.

Unfolding it carefully, I traced a finger. “We are here.” I showed our dots. All six of them.
And the two I’d led us parallel to. They hadn’t moved, thankfully. But could they have minions who wouldn’t show up on the map?

Two. I wracked my brain, but I could not think of who they could be. Enemies I’d made? Beings who were bent on evil the likes no one would speak of or tell me the result?

No one used unicorn magic. No one.

But they’d taken mine. Twisted it. Subsumed my soul with a taint that had been killing me before I gained the power to shift from a witch and cut off that leak. What kind of Beings would do that?

Why would they need my magic? The magic of all the Beings they’d stolen?

Three unicorns. A locus. Some pixies. And now that I thought about it… a dryad. “I hate to ask you to relive what you went through, but we need to know what kind of Beings were there.”

“You think that had something to do with it?”

“Like they needed a special assortment of magic, not just any and all magic they could get their hands on? They were trolls,” Londe said.

“And we know they weren’t collecting for themselves.”

“Dwarves. I remember you telling a story about them once,” Colete said.

I remembered them. The two dwarf women, who were almost indistinguishable from the men, barring beards on their faces. They were strong, capable. Formidable, even, if they had weapons to hand. Their cage had been the hardest to open.

“And a faun.” I’d released that too.

“There were two fauns, before,” Marces whispered.

Colete made a sound, and I stroked them both. I didn’t ask before what. There had been that… smell coming out of the cave. Not all of it had been the stench of the trolls themselves and the caged Beings.

“Gnomes were hiding with the griffin, and he sheltered them. I thought they knew each other. Or they’d been caged together for a while. Sometimes the griffin would talk to me,” Marces said, after he’d lifted his head from my lap. He was so brave, always facing his fears head on. I ran my fingers through his mane.

“You saw the dryad, but she was captured with a nymph from a small pond.”

“Was the nymph there?” They really didn’t do well away from water. In a hot cave, with stinky trolls? She’d have been very, very ill.

“No. That thing took her away right before you came.” Colete looked back the way we’d come.

I sighed. A faun, a nymph. How many others had this evil Being harmed? “I wish I’d gotten there fast enough to save everyone.”

Colete nudged me right as Marces plopped his head back into my lap. I couldn’t hold back a small smile.

“You cannot protect or save everyone,” Londe said. “You are doing your best, Chasen, and don’t forget, you were hurt by these foul creatures too.”

As always, his wisdom came when I most needed it. I closed my eyes and tried to let go of some of the guilt. I opened them and said, “Thank you, mate.”

Through this conversation, Tinn and Wenn had studied the map I’d left on the ground between us. 

“They are moving, the dots.”

“What?” Not closer, but not farther away, either. The dots were… circling. Tiny spins I could barely see were actual circles.

“The circles are getting bigger.” Wenn bent closer, his ears quivering. “Watch.”

It only took a few breaths to see he was right. The circles were getting bigger, but by tiny increments.
“What do you think it means?”

I sighed, pursing my lips, puzzling over it. How I wished Maize had been able to share more than just the map that tracked my enemies with me! The two circles got slightly farther apart, but their edges continued to overlap as they moved.

Then it came to me. Moving. Tracking. They were tracking, or searching, for something. Or someone.
Me? Us? Did they know about the Being we killed somehow? Were they looking for my family?

I shared my theory quickly and was dismayed when the others agreed. “We need to find a place to hide the young. Then we need to prepare.”

“Prepare?” Tinn asked.

“They,” I gestured toward the map, “are coming to us. So let’s greet them with all the welcome they deserve.”

The map did give us another benefit. “Do you see that?” I pointed to a small group of triangles. It was close to us, about the same distance we’d moved from the spot we’d been ambushed.
“Something there?”

“I saw those before. They’re rocks. Unless the Being is some sort of master Earth or Water manipulator, that should be helpful to protect the young. And we can use the surrounding landscape to make some traps.” Water lay on one side, hopefully deep. I saw some trees. We could make some stakes, traps.

Weapons. “I think we have a day. Two at the most. We need to move.”

The young were antsy but stayed close. Londe and I both touched them repeatedly, soothing them. 

Wenn and Tinn chittered. I wasn’t sure what they could do with their small bodies, but Londe was strong and I had some things I’d made in my pack that would help. And my human body had been honed with blacksmithing.

These bastards were about to pay for everything they’d done.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 28

I stopped, panting, my blade drooping in my grip as I stared at the dead Being. It wasn’t the first time I’d killed, not even close, but I had never done it in front of my family before. I didn’t want to look at them; didn’t want them to look at me. Death shouldn’t have touched my foals—they deserved to be home, safe from all the ugliness of the outside world.

“Papa, I’m so sorry!” Colete rushed to me. “Are you hurt?”

“No, no, I’m fine. Why are you sorry?” I was sorry. “Careful!” I quickly ran my blade over my cloak to clean the blood from the metal and sheathed it, then unbuckled my belt and dropped the filthy cloth to the ground.

“I distracted you. It’s my fault she almost got you,” Colete sobbed. Her sides shuddered, and she pressed her forehead into my chest, her feet stamping the ground as her tail swished back and forth in agitation. I hushed her, stroking both sides of her neck.

Londe watched us, his face blank, Marces tucked against his side. Wenn and Tinn looked on but stayed silent. Was my mate upset with me?

“Nothing that has happened is your fault,” I told Colete. “And I would never be angry that you were concerned about me. You stayed with your pater, you stayed safe while I did what had to be done. I killed her, and she can never hurt you again.”

“Thank you, Papa,” Colete whispered. I avoided the angry weals on her shoulders that were just now healed, hoping that one day the scars would fade inside and out, especially now that the damnable being was dead. Not that I wished that my young had to see me kill.

“Can we go?” Marces asked. “It stinks.”

Londe nickered nervously. “That’s an understatement.”

“Yes, let’s go,” I said. I left my cloak there beside the stinking carcass, not wanting to put it back on. Casting back to where I’d seen the other two dots on the map, I led my family on a parallel course to them, not straight at them.

We needed a plan, some time to recover, and I needed to speak with Londe, Tinn, and Wenn. What that wicked beast had spilled in her vitriol just might help us.

An hour later, we found a small hill with tall grass. A good vantage point, some cover if we hunkered down. The ground was soft, dry, and green was all around us. Life. It was a good counterpoint to what we’d just faced. The foals sank down between me and Londe. Marces put his nose in my lap and I stroked his soft muzzle, the hairs tickling my palm.

Wenn and Tinn chittered. Tinn looked at me. “What did you have, before that attack? You knew it was coming.”

“I knew something I was coming,” I corrected him. But he was right. They had come on our journey to help us, and I felt I could trust them. “A friend, a dryad, gave me a map to help me. She couldn’t tell me anything about it, so I wasn’t sure what the symbols on it meant. If the markers were for a place, or people, enemies or friends.”

“And?” Wenn prompted.

“Definitely enemies.”

Tinn’s ears quivered. “A dryad gave you a map. A map that warned you of an enemy right after we left the wildling’s wood.”

That thought had honestly never come to me. I blinked slowly, but… he was right. That foul beast and the master she served were close to the woods inhabited by the wildlings cursed after they harmed dyads. I’d saved a dyad who’d been harmed by humans, preventing her death.

What circuitous magical curse had combined all of these events over the years I’d been cursed with the loss of my horn? It felt like a whole new lifetime, but it had only been two passes of all the seasons.

Long enough for something’s plans to come to fruition, I guess.

‘How long ago did all this start?’ Londe asked.

My horn. The empty piece within me, the soul I’d lost.

“The Beings stole my magic with my horn. Then they stole a lot of other Beings. They especially went after a locus young so they could use him to steal all that power. It’s more than just me. More than just the foals. This is something big.”

“Of course it is,” Londe said. “It always has been. I know what you think, that your soul is gone. That your magic is gone. That you can’t be my mate anymore.”

He slowly gained his feet, then stepped over to me, then knelt again. “If that was true, we couldn’t still be mates. I wouldn’t feel you deep within. I would know your name.”

My heart surged. That had been taken from me, just as surely as my horn, when I’d been banished from my herd and my role as a protector removed. My family taken away.

“Don’t. It’s forbidden.” He would lose his place with the herd.

“There is no magic that could hide any part of you from me, Chasen. You are a protector. You have always been the best of us.” He touched his horn to my forehead, and I felt the love, the bond, as keenly as I felt the missing touch of his horn to mine. “We’ll find out who tried to take our family’s magic, and we will end them. Then we will go home.”

“But—” He’d just broken the biggest taboo of all among the unicorns. “You won’t be able to go—”

“Then we’ll find a new one. But we’ll be together this time. We tried apart. That doesn’t work.”

“Together,” I agreed, looking around at my family and our new friends.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 27

I hastily folded the map and thrust it inside my pocket. Withdrawing my blade, I scanned our surroundings. We were on a trail through tall grass that grew in a waving blanket, broken in patches by large tumbles of stone taller than two or three men high. It was the perfect place for an ambush; there was a million places for someone or something to hide.

Or a whole damn army. “Hsst,” I hissed, catching Tinn’s attention where he lead the group. Those large ears grew rigid, quivering faintly.

Wenn and I brought up the rear, and he chittered something I couldn’t understand, staying right at my side.

‘What is it?’ Londe asked silently. We were still moving, but he herded the foals with nudges to walk closer together. Marces’ tail lashed, and Colete complained when it stung her flank.

‘Danger.’ I was suddenly sure of it. We’d talked, not sure if the dots on the map were meant to be friends or foes. Something was very wrong.

The world around us had stilled. All the insects and tiny creatures had fallen silent. A predator must be approaching. ‘If we are attacked, take the foals and flee. Go back the way we came. I’ll find you.’


‘Please.’ I wasn’t above begging. My stomach churned with the thought of my family being hurt again. I hated that I brought them with me on this quest; I should have found a way, a place, for them to be safe.

‘Don’t let me down,’ Londe said. His tail swished, hitting me.


“Above!” Wenn cried.

The faintest buzz preceded the attack. The bloated, ugly Being who’d hurt my Colete had somehow found us, or we’d found it. Her dull gray body was still bulbous, the stinger emerging from the end of a pulsing abdomen as it dove down to sting from above.

Colete screamed and reared, leaping back. But she was not the target.

That sharp tip glistening orange at the tip wasn’t coming this way. Not at me. Not at the foals. No, she went for Tinn.

He curled, rolling into a ball and backing away. The Being hissed in rage at the missed strike and rose, her wings flapping so quickly they were nearly invisible. Her dark eyes glittered as she feinted.

Enraged by the sound of my daughter’s terror, my fear dissolved, and I became a bearer of retribution. This foul beast should have died before the sun set on the day I’d taken my children back from the trolls, but she’d escaped me.

Not this time.

My vision bled to white at the edges, and I leapt forward, not caring how close I came to grazing that stinger. I shifted faster than I’d ever done before, my nails lengthening and thickening into claws to rival any wolven.

But I’d learned my lesson. I didn’t go for that armored body. I went for a wing, raking down the translucent filament to the connection at the Being’s back where I dug in and twisted, the flesh tearing with a pop and sucking release before she howled and spiraled to the ground.

That body was too heavy to hold up with just one wing. I flung the other away, flourishing my blade. “You will die!”

She scuttled onto her rear legs, the outward joints allowing her abdomen to bulge between them, her stinger facing me. Her front legs with the wicked hooks that had damaged Colete’s neck so cruelly snapped open and shut. “Not if you die firssst,” she hissed.

“You’re outnumbered.”

Tinn had uncurled to rise, and Wenn stood by his side. They held stones in their hands. Londe had herded the foals to his rear, away from the fight.

“My mastersss know you’re coming. They will have the conduit and the pure onesss. Your kind will be doomed!” Her grating laugh came from a mouth that should not be able to make that hideous sound. “And you… soulless one… will be alone forever!”

“Never!” She spoke of what could not be said. In front of my family. Unable to hold back, I attacked. Whirling, I thrust backward, catching one claw and ripping it apart with a single spin of my double-edge blade. Her other claw clacked in front of me, nearly taking a chunk of my ear and cheek with it. My skin stung, and hot liquid dripped onto my collarbone.

I stumbled back, off-balance.

“Papa!” Colete shrieked, distracting me. I took my eyes off the Being for just a split second to ensure we weren’t being attacked from another angle.

Her abdomen suddenly thinned, the segments sliding apart, and her stinger hit my cloak where I’d hadn’t yet gotten out of the habit of belting it into a pouch for Tinn’il.

But it was empty, and all that disgusting goo just oozed onto the fabric, eating a whole into my cloak. She shrieked, and I grinned evilly. Before she could retract her overextended stinger, I brought the gleaming blade down, the fading sun catching on the honed metal, and sliced through one of the edge of one of the segments, cutting it clean off.

The orange ooze streamed down, along with writhing balls of… ugh. She had been carrying young. They shriveled almost instantly as they hit the air as her abdomen shook and then a giant mass of innards came gushing down.

Her hissing shriek pierced the air, and the Being collapsed, falling on top of the pile of dead young and her own offal.

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Julie Lynn Hayes