Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 39

“You need sleep.” Londe had come before it was his turn. “You’ve been taking most of the night watches.”
It’d only been three nights since we’d finally defeated Balasamar, and since Wenn had given his life to save him. I still wrestled with the guilt, and it didn’t help that I refused to allow Londe to carry Wenn’s lifeless form.
The one we placed so carefully at the end of each trek so he could face the sky, his palms touching the earth of his birth. Tinn spoke words over him as we knelt. He’d been so brave, so willing to give of himself. Perhaps the specter of his sacrifice clung close, because we’d faced no danger from the wraiths, and no other evil had dogged our path.
“You all need more than I do.” It was a lie. I was exhausted. But sleep came fitfully even when I tried, and I couldn’t get comfortable.
“Just lean against me,” Londe said. I did, letting his body take the weight of my larger one. He was warm and quiet, letting silence taken over the moment. Te rhythmic movement of his ribs and he inhaled and exhaled soothed me and gradually I relaxed enough to lay my head across his withers and close my eyes to sleep.

On the fourth and last day of our journey to their home, Tinn began to ask questions. Ones I had few answers to.
“Where will you go after this?”
Londe looked over his withers to where I brought up the rear. We hadn’t really discussed it. “I don’t know,” I heard him tell Tinn.
“You don’t plan to return to the unicorn lands?”
I thought for sure Londe would say yes, but he stayed quiet. ‘You don’t want to go back?’ After all, I was a unicorn again. We could.
‘They didn’t support you when you needed it. If we go back, what will they do? Expect you to say all is forgiven? Take back up your former duties? Put yourself at risk again? Or will they still ostrasize you?’ He glanced at the foals trotting near him. ‘Us?’
Of course I knew his life in the herd hadn’t been easy after I’d left, but I’d hoped. “Perhaps we will find a new home,” I said aloud. “One where we can live together safely.” I’d traveled a lot. There were places the foals would be safer.
Tinn nodded slowly. We were quiet for a time, our hoofbeats the only sound beyond the calls of birds and small animals. Then he began to tell tales. Stories of Wenn’s life, his childhood, his family.
“He lost them, you see.” Tinn looked over his shoulder toward me.
I tilted my head. “He did? Was it like with Tinn’il? Did someone take them?” I clenched my jaw. I missed the little guy who’d always snuggled close to me. I hoped he was recovering as well as my foals from his abduction.
“No, though that is always a worry. A flood, from the lake, filled their tunnel. The mud was too thick, and his mate had just given birth to a litter of twins.”
“Oh, how sad,” Colette said. She sniffed.
“Yes, he has been sad for some time. He used to smile, tell jokes, always getting into trouble. Wenn lost a lot of joy that day.”
“Maybe he’s with them now.” Colette swished her tail. “And he’s happy again.”
Tinn gave her a gentle smile. “We like to believe that, as well. That when a locus crosses, especially when they are acting as a conduit, they journey straight to those they have loved and lost. That way, they are lost no longer and can live in joy. It is why we release them to the elements, so there will be no doubt their bodies will hold them to this world and this life.”
“I never thought of death like that before,” Marces said, trotting in a circle around Colette and moving closer to Londe.
“That is for those who are older who seek to shelter those younger or in need of protection. The young rarely think of death. And why should you?” Tinn looped one small hand into Londe’s mane and then reached down and patted Marces. “You have your whole life to worry about other things.”
“As long as he doesn’t scare me and his pater to death with his tricks.” I joined in the conversation, casting a stern look at my irrepressible son. “Like hiding in the weeds at the pond last night.”
“We were playing a game!” he said in exasperation.
“Games are only fun when everyone knows they are playing.” Londe nipped him. “So no more games just you know are happening.” He’d been frantic when Marces decided we should seek him last night in the last rays of the setting sun.
Then again, it was reassuring the misadventures the foal had been through had not been enough to dampen his spirit.

Mist was a sure sign we were nearly upon the lake where the locus were magically protected. With Tinn with us, it was no trouble to make it through the wards the witches had set and soon we were approaching the sparkling waters. The sun beamed down gently, the grass swayed, and the burden on my back felt like a crushing weight.
The locus clan all startled at the sharp whistle Tinn let out, but then his family came running. The rest soon followed. Voices clamored, and they all spoke over each other.
Tinn gestured to me.  “As you can see, many things were changed upon our journey, but Wenn chose to allow his form to become a conduit and save Chasen.”
An old locus, his fur white-tipped and standing out in a ruff around his tiny face, leaned on a short stick. When he approached I knelt.
He touched one hand to Wenn, then one hand to my cheek before smiling. “He is at peace, finally. We will release his body tonight.”

Want more flash?

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 38

Wenn’s touch was soft, and I could feel it, but I’d lost control over my body. It was like I was slowly draining away, and someone—Balasamar—was taking it. He was inside me, he was me, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
‘No!’ I screamed in my head. ‘Londe!’
But my mate didn’t respond. Could he even hear me? I couldn’t say anything, I couldn’t reach out mentally.
It was all I could focus on.
My family. I kept trying, over and over, but I kept failing. Why did I keep failing?
That tailspin had me consumed until another wail of no joined the cries in my head. Our eyes were locked onto Wenn, and he was grimly focused on us.
His hand still touched us softly, but his expression held none of the weariness and pain that showed in the lines grooving his mouth and bracketing his eyes. I read nothing but intent.
“And the endless betrayer will finally get what he deserves,” Wenn hissed.
That was not his voice either. No, the locus was a conduit, I suddenly realized. Not just for Balasamar, but for the wizard who’d tried to use his magic on us but failed when Wenn stopped him.
When Balasamar abandoned him to die in favor of another plan.
The shriek in my head rose to a fever pitch as mine faded, but then Wenn’s hand began to shake. He gasped and drips of dark blood began to leak from the corners of his eyes, not bright like fresh, but dark and thick, like old blood that had oozed from a wound and sat for hours to darken with the body’s decay.
Our tiny tableau was nearly upset when Tinn sank beside us. “Stop, Wenn, stop! You can’t do this.”
Wenn didn’t look away. “I must,” he said in his own voice, strain evident. “He won’t let it happen any other way.”
I couldn’t speak, couldn’t ask what they meant, but I was afraid I knew. Increment by tiny increment, I gained a foothold within my body, my soul sinking into my frame where it’d been pushed out.
The invader was leaving or being removed. I tried to step away when Wenn choked and more blood pooled from his lips to drip down his chin and stain his fluffy fur. His fingers dug in.
“Don’t. Stay.” He gazed into my eyes, and I met his look. Just me. Almost alone. “It has to end,” he said, garbled.
There was a rip from inside me, a final, faded scream, and then a lightening, like a burden I hadn’t realized was weighing me down was cast aside.
Wenn’s eyes rolled back in his head, and he dropped to the ground. The blood poured out of him, black, dark, like that magical shadowed ooze, but all too real this time.
He gasped, claws digging into the ground as his body seized, and then he went still.
Tinn cried out, weeping, rocking in a ball beside his friend as I knelt beside them. Shock held me for a moment, but then my mate and foals rushed to my side, nuzzling me.
Londe’s voice was back in my head, his love and devotion bright and clear. The foals both butted up against me, rubbing their cheeks and chin against my withers. But I could not celebrate my escape from living death.
I couldn’t celebrate the defeat of Balasamar and his wizard.
After all, I hadn’t defeated them. They’d nearly taken me. Wenn had faced them both down and won, but he lost his life to do so. To save me.
“He was protecting us all,” Tinn said, his voice broken with his sobs. “He is a hero.”
Maybe in time I could see how he was saving everyone; a unicorn with a soul as dark as Balasamar’s loose on the world would have been a catastrophe. But it felt like a much greater sacrifice for a smaller reward—my freedom and life with my family.
“He honored me,” was all I could say.

Hours later, Tinn agreed to move from the hollow. It wasn’t a place we wanted to stay with darkness coming soon, not with all the spirits and conduit powers used that could draw Beings from far and wide.
I knelt in the dirt again, and Tinn and I carefully maneuvered Wenn’s limp body onto my back. Tinn rode on Londe, and the foals stayed between us, exhaustion wearing us all down into silence.
How could I repay what Wenn had done? The price the locus had paid using his gift to save me?
I wasn’t sure, but I would come up with something. My honor demanded it.

As long as the skies above brightened our path, we walked. Never fast, never rushing, but we put distance between us and that place of death—both the tree and our original battle site. The foals were stumbling and quickly began to snore the moment I indicated they should lay down in the center of a wide meadow.
I wanted visibility. There was nowhere near to hide, so the best I could come up with was a lot of distance to see anyone stalking us.
Tinn helped me with Wenn. “I wish we had something to cover him,” I said. My old cloak would have sufficed, even. Not that I had that anymore.
“He will go back to the elements with a ceremony among our people. Why close him away from those now?”
I flicked my tail, thinking it over. “I-I don’t know. A human notion I picked up, I guess.” Or more like his bloody face and open, staring eyes freaked me out and would keep me from sleeping. “I’ll take first watch.” Maybe it was a good thing.

Want more flash?

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 37

We herded the foals between us. It was strange being back in my body, but at the same time, I’d lived most of my life as a unicorn. It should feel natural.
Why didn’t it? Maybe it was shock. My mind couldn’t quite catch up, and my horn ached.
I had to think about the placement of each hoof as I trotted behind my family, keeping them all in view as I swept the forest for threats at the same time. Dizzy spells swept over me, and I blinked rapidly trying to keep the forest in focus when the trees wavered. I’d gotten too used to how slow my two-legged form had traveled, though, because I almost missed the signs of the place where we’d left Tinn and Wenn when we returned to their hollowed out tree.
It was harder to move the limbs I’d used to disguise their hollow without hands. I nudged them apart with my horn and kicked at them until I could stick my head inside the dim space. “Tinn?
He and Wenn were curled up together. Tinn raised his head, and Wenn opened his eyes.  “You are here,” Tinn said.
“We told you we’d be back.” I eyed them both. “Can you crawl out? If Londe and I kneel down, maybe you can climb onto our backs?”
Maybe having a human shape had come in handy. Then again, it wasn’t like unicorns were routinely going around letting other Beings ride on their backs.
Tinn helped Wenn who was still weak. Wenn was swaying on his hands and knees, but he was awake. “Thank you, Wenn, for what you did for me.” I hadn’t had the chance to tell him before. Pleasure swamped me that I could do it now.
I let Tinn move past me toward Londe, but I stayed close to Wenn. “You are a pure soul, Chasen. You deserve to live a happy life with your family.”
He slumped to the ground. “Hold on. Just… give me a moment.”
“Are you okay, Wenn?” Concern colored my voice, and I almost called Tinn back. He’d said Wenn would be better. Why wasn’t he better yet? If being a conduit was something their kind could do, their inherent magic, should it drain a locus like Wenn was?
“I will be soon.” Wenn rolled onto his side and gestured for me to come closer. “I know,” he whispered.
“What?” I wasn’t sure what he said. He knew? I must have misheard him. I knelt, another wave of dizziness and the not-quite-right sense swamping me. Four legs were harder to get used to again than two. That was all.
“I know,” he repeated. “I can sense you. I know you’re there. I know what your pet did, why you ran, even the little bauble you dropped that Tinn didn’t sense. I wasn’t quite unconscious when we left to find the foals.”
“What?” I reared my head back, tilting it to stare at him. He wasn’t making any sense. Was he delirious? Dreaming? “I don’t underst—”
“You used magic to lure the foals after you, then made it so easy for Chasen to get what he wanted, didn’t you? His soul returned, his unicorn form… his horn.” Wenn coughed, closing his eyes briefly. They shone when he reopened them. “Of course he’d use that to kill you instead of a human blade.”
My mouth was open, my nostrils flaring, and if every hair in my mane didn’t already stand erect, they would be quivering in shock and fear.
He was talking about what happened with Balasamar. How could he know all that? “What are you saying?”
“I’m still connected to him, Chasen. The warlock. And through the magic to Balasamar and you.”
“Balasamar’s dead.”
“His body is dead. His soul? No, that’s still with you. You freed it, triggered the final spell he’d had the warlock put on his aging body so he could find a new one.”
“What?” My heart pounded and my ears laid back, but I couldn’t stop hearing his words. Not if… not if they were true.
“He’s there, inside you, waiting to take control. All it will take is one final step, one last trigger, to end the spell.”
“No! I can’t lose him. I thought… it was over!” Londe cried out.
I’d been so focused on Wenn I hadn’t realized my family could also hear him. The scent of their fear and panic swamped the small grove of trees.
“Stay back.” They couldn’t touch me. That was it. The feeling of wrongness, the sense of not being quite right. It wasn’t my form.
I was polluted. Harboring a murderous human bent on power and destruction.
What would that do to me? To my family? I looked at them over my shoulder. Tears stained Colette’s cheeks, and Marces was trembling. Both foals were leaning hard against their pater, but my mate looked ready to break.
“What is the trigger?” I asked desperately. Maybe I could avoid it. Maybe I could just go away. From them, from everyone.
It would be worth it, to keep them safe.
Wenn reached out one tiny hand to my nose. “Me,” he said, right as his palm touched my head.
Darkness rose around us, and maniacal laughter rent the air. Wenn was all I could see, but I could feel immense satisfaction, gloating pleasure, and a glee that was completely foreign. They weren’t my emotions, even as I felt them.
“Thank you, locus, for freeing me to start anew,” I said in a voice also not my own.
“I said I was still connected to your warlock, you piece of scum.” Wenn was panting, his fingers cramping and spasming, digging into my sensitive nose. “And he’s pissed you left him to die.”

Want more flash?

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 36

“Stay with your pater,” I said quietly to the foals. “And no wandering off on your own again!”

Colette looked chagrined, but Marces just looked stubborn. Londe herded them both back, and I took the lead. Balasamar had almost reached the top of the hill. Not that he was going to get away. Not this time.

Reaching down into my boot, I pulled out the knife I kept there. It was perfectly balanced; I’d made it myself. I took aim, holding it in the tips of my fingers, then flicked them deftly.

The air sang as the knife spun in a perfect throw.

“Ahh,” Balasamar cried out, going down with the blade sunk to the hilt in the back of his knee. He scrabbled at tufts of grasses but couldn’t stop his tumble down the hill.

Right to me.

The sight of the human who had tormented my family, who’d broken my horn, stole my soul, destroyed my place in the herd and nearly took my bond with my mate, and then dared to endanger my foals lit the fury that fueled me.

For this, I needed my horn. I reached into the sheath behind me to pull it free. The moment my hand touched the spirals, I gasped. White shadows crawled across my vision and my body shivered. I hadn’t intended to transform.

“Chasen!” Londe cried out, but I couldn’t answer him. My pained shout turned morphed with my body as two legs became four, blond hair became a white mane, and I came down on forelegs after they beat the air in silent protest of the unanticipated shift.

But…. how…? My nostrils flared, and I bared my teeth, pawing the ground. My hoof struck and dug a deep furrow.

I was a unicorn again. For so long, I’d lost this. Then I’d had that vision, or dream, or whatever it was when Tinn had used his ability on the helm to restore my soul. I thought it hadn’t worked, but it had.

Somehow, I was a unicorn again. Did I? I lowered my head, staring straight at the human filth still mewling in the dirt. He was trying to crawl away, dragging the leg with the dagger behind him. My horn glinted in the sun, and I whinnied in triumph. “You thought to steal my soul, my family, my life. Now you will pay with yours!” I cried.

“No! You can’t do—”

In a move I’d practiced thousands upon thousands of times, I lunged, bending at my front knees to bring all the force of my considerable body to bear and skewered Balasamar right in the chest, cutting off his protest. He scrabbled at my face, scratching and trying to push me away, but the only reason I pulled my horn away from the broken ribs and gushing wound was to stab again, this time in his throat to halt his screams. He gurled on the blood as it gushed out of him.

Balasamar’s body spasmed on the ground, and he fought death with all the frantic grasping he’d used to try for power in life… but that helped him just as little as all his machinations in the end. Because, after everything, I stood and watched the withered, pathetic man’s body gasp its last as the light faded from his eyes and Balasamar died the death he’d so richly deserved.

I’d protected my family, my people. I could feel Londe’s pride in me, our bond a rich, golden cable shining between us again. It was so strong, I couldn’t imagine ever thinking it would fail, no matter what happened to either of us. Not even death could break that chain.

What would my foals think of me? I had just murdered a man in front of them. He deserved it, but still. And what would they feel about my form? I had been banished shortly after they’d dropped, and they were not used to anything but a human shaped father.

“Wow! You look amazing,” Marces said. “Why is your mane short? Can my mane be short?”

I snorted.

Londe smiled and shook his head. He must have been listening in through our bond to the thoughts flitting through my mind almost too fast for me to think and then hold on to them.

“My hair as a human was short. This a good thing, though. Unicorn manes can be difficult to keep clean.” Mine was short, just a stiff ruff standing up from my neck, not all that different from my past grooming as a battle unicorn. My tail was left to stream free, the color as pure white as my coat. I swished it just because I could.

Colette stayed tucked against Londe. I eased toward her, nuzzling her cheek and draping my neck over hers. “Are you okay?” I said softly.

“He’s dead.”

“Yes, he is.” Was she worried he wasn’t? “He can’t hurt you or anyone else ever again,” I assured her.

“He could have hurt you. Or had that other human hurt you. We… we wanted to stop him.” She shifted nervously. “We didn’t think about him hurting us. We’re sorry.” She said the last in a whisper. She tucked her head against my chest, her hot tears soaking in.

“Oh, dear one. I know you would never have gone after Balasamar if you didn’t think you were trying to help. Just, wait until you’re grown up some more. Please?” I eyed her and Marces, waiting for them both to agree.

“Good. Because you have some time yet before that happens,” Londe announced. “Longer if you keep making decisions like this. We can talk about what you should have done on our way back to where we hid Tinn and Wenn.”

Marces groaned.

“Are they okay?” Colette asked.

“They will be.” Londe sighed. “We hope.” 

Want more flash?

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Wednesday Briefs: Unicorn Quests Chapter 35

I hefted Tinn onto Londe’s back, biting back the groan that wanted to erupt as the skin in my hands split further. He wasn’t the most steady, but he still helped balance Wenn in front of him. “You don’t have to hold on long, just until we can get you to a safer place,” I told him.
He nodded, his expression grim but determined. I checked the cloths I’d wrapped around each one roughly, tying off the knot with the help of my teeth as my fingers trembled with pain. They weren’t bleeding through yet. We needed to go, and I couldn’t take the time to rebandage them.
“I’ll go easy,” Londe said. Fortunately, no one could trot as smoothly as a unicorn.
I took the lead to track Balasamar and the twins. Fortunately it was easy to see their prints on the dirt of the forest floor. I didn’t even consider stopping, though my body ached.
Those two… what were they thinking? Didn’t they know what we had gone through to get them back? Marces, I could see him follow Balasamar. He was me all over again, heady and stubborn, always willing to rush forward into danger with a protective instinct a league wide. But his sister? Colette had suffered during their captivity.
She was a gentle soul. She embodied the purity of the unicorn race. Quiet, peaceful, never seeking to harm another Being, or even human for that matter. Colette shied away from violence and I’d found it hard to be close to her. As a battle unicorn, maybe my soul had already been tainted.
Maybe that was why I was still in this form.
Maybe it had rejected me.
Branches rustled as the wind picked up, cooling the sweat beading on my brow. I swept my gaze from side to side, frequently checking behind me. Londe easily kept up, but his passengers were drooping more than when we began.
We should be able to find them a safe place to hide. I searched more diligently, but there wasn’t much to see. Trees, bushes, dirt and grass. The tracks led me along in the forest, a straight line away from where we’d met Balasamar and his warlock, but I didn’t want to risk losing them.
‘There!’ Londe said.
“What? Where?” I said aloud. I’d gotten farther ahead of him than I should, so I circled back.
Londe had stopped by a tree with a dark hollow underneath. It was far enough off the path to not be noticed unless someone was looking for it. They’d be comfortable there, and hopefully safe.
He jerked his head up and gasped, listing to the side. I reached up and steadied him. “We found a place.” I gestured to the tree. “Is this okay?”
Peering over my shoulder, Tinn nodded wearily. “Yes.”
He was able to steady himself, clutching Londe’s mane while I slid Wenn’s limp body off first. I cradled him across my forearms and then maneuvered him into the hollow. Tinn was able to limp in himself after I got him down. Casting a quick glance around, I found some loose branches.
Piling them closer to the entrance, I disguised the hollow. “Head back to the tracks, Londe.” He left. “We’ll come back for you as soon as we get the foals,” I assured Tinn. We wouldn’t abandon the locus after all both of them had done to help us.
Tinn’s eyes glowed softly in the darkness. “Be safe. Good luck.”
“Thank you.”

Without the need to carry Tinn and Wenn, Londe insisted I climb on. We’d avoided this, for the most part, but I knew we needed to make up as much time as possible. I swung up on his back and held on with my legs, rocking with him as he loped.
Periodically I leaned forward, scanning the ground, when the trail grew harder to track. Once we had to backtrack and turn. How had they gotten so far ahead of us? It hadn’t been that long from the the short battle and when we’d discovered them missing.
Or it hadn’t seemed that long. My nerves jangled, and I stroked my palm over the hilt of my blade. With no wizard by his side, Balasamar would be vulnerable.
The man was a menace. Wanted by many, he’d been scheming for power his whole life. Taking it from others, by deadly force when it suited him, he’d earned the death coming for him. If he’d hurt our foals any more than he’d already harmed them, I’d obliterate him in the most painful way possible.
At least three kingdoms wanted him.
They wouldn’t get him.
I would.
The tracks were changing. “They’re moving slower.” Londe didn’t slow his pace, but we switched over to our mental bond. We floated over the land, silent in the way only a unicorn could be, flitting through the thick stands of trees.
‘There!’ I spotted a flash of white. It was one of the foal’s tails.
Londe redoubled his efforts, agilely weaving in and out of the trunks to catch up. Then I spotted another flash of white. ‘I see them both,’ I said.
‘Me too.’
‘Do you see Balasamar?’
‘No. Let’s just catch up to them.’
Trying to catch our fleet-footed foals while not making a sound to alert the quarry they seemed to be hunted was a daunting task, but Londe was fast and smart. He was able to sneak up on Marces, coming at him from an angle, and cut him off.
I leapt off his back and lunged at Marces, clamping my hand over his soft nose to muffle his sound of startlement. Colette, always quiet, froze when she caught sight of us.
But all of that paled because I could see the human who’d tortured our family. He was struggling up a hill, bent nearly double, and his body had visibly aged. No wonder they’d slowed. 

Want more flash?

Julie Lynn Hayes