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User:Michael Bard/Of Love and Hate

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Of Love and Hate

Author: Michael Bard
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Tales of the World story universe

I awoke in the room of a small girl. But I wasn’t one--

Odours assailed me: oil, charred wick, dirty clothing, cleaned vomit, blood, rich pipe smoke-- Dominating it all was the scent of bitter, bittersorrow. Blinking, fighting through the sadness, I forced myself to look around, to concentrate on the sights and not the overpowering scents. There was a large four poster bed, curtained, a dresser with a mirror of polished silver, a wooden box painted blue with daisies and sunflowers upon it. Scattered all over the floor were gaily painted wooden toys. The walls were rough cut stone painted white, stained with dirty handprints along the bottom, and the roof was of slate tiles supported by large wooden beams. Most of the room was in shadow, the only source of light being an oil lantern hanging by the door.

But the room didn't look right, even though it did. I was seeing the room in two halves with a black line, a blind spot, in the middle. I could only see that portion if I turned my head and looked out of one eye. As I turned, the black line moved, always remaining in the centre. And, my vision was-- larger, wider. But then it had always been that way, hadn't it?

Looking down at myself, I saw that I was seated in an overstuffed chair covered with worn red cloth. I saw long thin legs, covered in fine white hair that ended in tiny ivory hooves. Tiny cloven hooves.

That was wrong! But, it was right! How could both be? And yet, both sensations swelled through me.

At least the way I was seated felt right in both ways. I had my hind legs bent, and my hands-- legs? forelegs? resting on them. Hands, at least hands as I remembered them had fingers. I had fingers-- I think. But now, now my hands, my forelegs, ended in cloven hooves.

But why would I have hands? And why would I think it strange to have hands?

A sigh interrupted my thoughts. My ears twisted, and pulled the sound in louder and clearer. Ears twisted? But-- Not now! Cocking my head, I watched the curtains being moved aside. It was a girl, a human girl. She was young, only five years and five months old, and she stared at me, wide eyed.

Five years and five months? How did I know that?

She stank. Somehow I knew that she shouldn't have, but she did. No perfume, no soap, just sadness and dirt and tears. Tears and tears and endless tears. The stains on her face were streaked with their trail and they'd puffed up her eyes to great red orbs. Her hair was a dirty blond, rough and uncombed, and she wore a simple white night-gown. It hadn’t been washed for a long time and I felt my tail wiggle underneath me with anger.

Why did this make me so angry? So angry that I could feel my blood burning--

She opened her mouth wide and round. "A unicorn--," she whispered.

A unicorn? But I wasn't-- but I was. No! I'd been a-- a unicorn. Always. Or, as long as I could remember.

"Are you from daddy?" she asked.

Opening my mouth to respond, I could only stare as a smoking wooden pipe slipped out from between my lips and tumbled in and out of my view before vanishing. Only the thick rich smoke was left, curling up and around my nostrils, overwhelming all other scents such that I instinctively licked my nostrils to refresh the odours of sorrow.

"You was smoking his pipe."

She looked at me, and I knew I had to say something. The truth was the best, always, or so I'd always taught-- Taught who? When? Swallowing, I whispered, "I don't know."

"He is dead. Died last night." She turned away.

Turning away, I closed my eyes, letting my ears droop. Why did the death of this stranger affect me so? "I'm-- I'm sorry."

"You is sitting in his favourite chair too. He use-- use to-- use to--". She threw herself on her bed and the scents of salt and pain and sadness drenched my nostrils. My ears flicked and cupped the piercing sobs of her crying.

Somehow I found myself off the chair and on all fours without making a sound. It was wrong, but it felt right. I walked over to the bed on silent hoofs. Why didn't my hooves make a sound against the wooden floor? Reaching the bed, I thrust-- or tried to thrust, the curtains open with my muzzle. Instead I banged my horn, my alicorn, against the top of the bed frame.

Alicorn?

Well, she had said I was a unicorn.

I could feel the alicorn's weight growing from my skull. Trying to peer up at it, I couldn’t see its base, but managed to focus on most of its length. The alicorn was almost three feet long, and spiralled up to a glistening razor tip. It colour was a pale, almost transparent, ivory. Using it, I pushed the curtains aside. The girl was there, sobbing into the quilt, her entire body shaking with emotion.

"He wouldn't want you to cry. He'd want you to continue on." Somehow I knew it was true.

Sniffling and rubbing her eyes, she rolled over and looked at me.

"He wouldn't want you to cry."

"I am a--" sniffle, "--princess. I should-- should not cry."

"Even princesses cry. What's your name?"

"Isilya." She looked straight up at me. "I five years old and ruler of the king-dom of Nam-ar-a." She smiled, a little. "My father made it."

"What was your father's name?"

"Hoffindil."

She scrunched up her eyes and fought them, but I could smell the tears forming. The name sounded familiar, though-- "Why do you think he sent me?"

"He promised he would never leave me alone. He promised that he would send someone to protect me." Rubbing at her eyes she turned, and cocked her head, her greasy hair falling over one eye. "What's your name?"

"I'm called--", I didn't know. What was my name? How could I not know my name? Isilya looked at me and I swallowed. "I-- I don't know."

"Then I can call you Ashima."

"But that's--". It was a woman' s name. Was I a woman? Did it matter to this little girl? "Ashima it is."

"Who are you talking to?" roared from outside the door. With panic filling Isilya's face, I spun around to see the door slam into the wall as it was shoved open. Stepping backwards, I watched two men enter the room. Both large and hulking, one with brown hair, and the other with black. Neither combed. They smelled of grease and sweat and fear. Both were dressed in uniforms of some type and held swords.

"No-- no one," Isilya whispered.

"There's no one here," one of the men grumbled.

"But we heard her talking. There had to be someone."

"We'd better check. Matturgur will kill us if we slip up."

The two men walked around the room prodding ahead with their swords. Tensing, I prepared to make a break of the door. Maybe I could get past them. But-- Then it hit me. They couldn't see me. Why not? Isilya had seen me.

"There's nobody here. Let’s go and let the poor girl alone. She's had enough done to her."

The two turned and left, pulling the door shut behind them. My ears flicked at the clicking of the lock.

"Are they gone?" Isilya asked.

"Yes."

"Good." Isilya moved until she sat on the edge of her bed, her head on her arms and her elbows on her legs. Looking at me, she asked, "Ashima? Why did they not see you?"

Didn't I want to know! "I have no idea."

"It must be magic!" Putting a hand over her mouth, she jerked her head around and around looking in all directions. She looked at me. "I better whisper."

Moving closer, I moved my head forward, twisting my ears to focus on her voice. I could smell the faint oils in the wool filling the quilt

"Can you hear me?" wisped past her lips.

"Clearly," I whispered back. Whether I needed to speak softly or not I didn't know, but no sense in taking chances.

"You sound like my father. You talk like him."

I flicked my ears in surprise, and felt my tail waving back and forth. "I do?"

"Yes." Looking around the room, she leaned closer. "I think they-- they killed--" I watched her force back sobs. "--my father."

"Why do you think that?"

"He was always-- always careful. Wouldna fall down-- down stairs like-- like he did."

My vision spun, my tail swirling away into nothingness. All around me was stone, walls, stairs, wooden railings, wall hangings, swirling, twirling. Pain stabbed through my back, my leg, my head, my arm-- Shaking my head to clear it, I focused back on Isilya. Why would I feel pain in an arm? I didn't have arms--

"Isilya!" came from outside the room. A woman's voice this time.

"Hide!" Isilya whispered. With quick movements she slipped back under the covers and wrapped them around her so that only her dirty tear-streaked face was visible.

On silent hooves I trotted into the corner beside the worn chair that smelled so wonderful, so like home, and watched.

"Breakfast," the voice said again.

Turning, I saw the door was open. A thin woman came in carrying a wooden tray and a wooden bowl. There was no spoon. She sat down on the bed, placing the tray on her petticoated lap.

"Wake up sleepyhead. Breakfast."

"Breakfast?"

"Here. Now eat it all up. And don't go back to sleep, you have to be ready for the funeral today. Someone will bring you your clothes later."

She patted Isilya on the head and I watched the girl grimace.

"It’s good for you."

When she was finished, the woman stood up and turned away. Behind her Isilya stuck out her tongue. I followed the maid. Assuming people couldn't see me, I was safe. But they could see the door open, even ignoring the fact that I had no easy way to manipulate it. And no way to unlock it. I wanted, no I needed to see the castle. To figure out what was going on.

"Ashima?" Isilya called.

"Ashima?" the maid stopped, turning.

I answered: "I'm just going for a look around. Don't worry, they can't see or hear me. I'll be back soon."

Isilya nodded. The maid looked confused, looked around the room, shrugged her shoulders, and left, dress rustling. She smelled of flour and grain and stunk of meat. Following her closely, I still got the door slammed into my rump by the two guards who'd come in earlier.

"What in the fey?" one asked.

"Stupid door must have jammed. Pull harder."

By that time, I'd scooted out into the hallway and the door slammed shut behind me.

"Why do we have to guard her anyway?" one asked. "What's a little tyke like her going to do."

"I don't know. Do you want to ask Matturgur?"

The two looked at each other, and then stood very straight and very attentively, at either side of the door. Matturgur? Who was this Matturgur? The name sounded familiar. In my mind I saw an elderly mage, with white sharply trimmed beard. A memory. Was it? And was that Matturgur? The image stayed, and then it was gone leaving me with only a memory of what seemed to have been a memory.

Turning, I followed the maid down the corridor. Though it appeared that they could neither see nor hear me, it was possible they could feel me. At the least, I displaced area, and they could detect me that way. Staying close to the wall, I followed the maid as she turned and went down a large staircase.

By the Gods--

I stopped. Stared. My tail pressed between my legs and the scent of my own fear and terror drowned my nostrils. It was the same staircase I'd seen in fragments in my mind. The staircase I'd seen myself falling down from the point of view of the victim.

Blinking, I shook my head and mane, pulled my tail out from between my hind legs. Too many mysteries, and they all needed answers.

I looked down and saw two men at the bottom. Both were dressed in rough, homespun wool shirts and braies of dirty brown, and were kneeling on the floor scrubbing with rags at a stain. Even from the top I could smell the faint saltiness of blood from within the thick slipperiness of soap and water. Being far more careful that I needed to, my own scent of terror drenching my nostrils -- I hoped nobody else could smell it -- I made my way down step by step by step. Shaking, I stopped just above them and cocked my head to watch, and twisted my ears to listen.

"Horrible thing it was," one said.

"I heard he slipped and cracked his head open, sprayed brains all over the steps."

"I hear he was pushed."

"Shh! You don't want to say that." He raised his voice almost to a shout. "A horrible accident. So unfortunate. Leaving his only daughter behind."

The other peasant whispered back, "He didn't slip and you know it."

"I know nothing. Shut up and scrub."

Leaning down on my hindquarters, I leapt over them, and landed on the floor on the far side. I'd been concentrating so hard on what they were saying that the slickness had escaped me. Hooves and wet stone don't mix. Slipping out from under me, my legs flew in every direction and I slid on my belly and slammed my side, into the wall. The force of the impact knocked the breath out of me in a great whoosh. It was a miracle I hadn’t broken anything. “Gods damn it!”

“Did you hear something,” one of the peasants asked.

Looking up from my tangled collapse, I saw them looking at me. But-- how? How could they see me--?

“There’s nothing there. You must have been hearing things.”

They were looking straight at me-- It must have been something else they’d heard. Leaping up onto my hooves, having no hands to push, I carefully, carefully walked away from the stairs. Even though my hooves slid a bit in the water, it sluiced off. Stepping on dry floor I left no tracks, no wet marks.

The sound of scrubbing grew loud and intense and I stopped, arching my neck and cocking my head to look at the two now concentrating on the floor. The brushes moved back and forth so fast they were almost a blur. Just above their shushshushshush, I heard footsteps approaching the Great Hall. I turning my head to see who was coming.

Two people entered, engaged in a quiet conversation. One was an ancient and bent woman whose ears were slightly pointed. A sign of fey blood. From her wafted the dusty scent of age, and the scratchy odour of hate and evil. She was almost bald except for a few strands of silver hair which hung down to her waist overtop of a loose blue robe that rustled along the floor behind her. In her left hand she carried a knurled wooden cane which banged on the floor as she walked.

And with her was Matturgur.

How could I have forgotten him? His long face. His neatly trimmed and combed shoulder length hair. His short pointed goatee. His piercing blue gaze. And his scent matched. Below a pine perfume was a hint of the scaled scratchiness of dragon, and the itchy glow of power barely contained. He was an older man, but not as old as the woman, looking about forty even with the white beard. But he was older, far, far older. It wasn't in his scent, it wasn't in his appearance, but I knew. I stared at him, stared at the short red velvet robe and knee high dark leather boots he was wearing.

Mattagur!

Before I realized it, I'd lowered my head, ready to charge. Hatred, anger, they both filled me with a drive, a need, to kill this monster!

But-- why?

I'd never met him before--

But I knew him!

Shaking my head I forced the rage down, snorting and stamping to work off the anger. Why did I hate this man so much? I needed more information before I did anything. Walking closer, I twisted my ears to hear what they were saying.

“--is ready?” asked Matturgur.

“In a few days my mistress will be ready for her sacrifice. Than you can marry her servant and finally--"

Stopping, the two looked around.

“There is something here--", began Matturgur. Arcane syllables oozed from his mouth and his hands gestured and pulled. Magic rippled from him.

It happened too fast for me to flee. Lowering my head, I prepared to defend myself. The magic reached my alicorn, touching its tip, caressing its ivory. Warmth flowed from it down into my head, a hopeful, good, warmth. But, how could I feel warmth in naked bone or ivory? I didn't see, but I felt waves of colour flowing up and down. A tingling filled my body, rising higher and higher. A burning itch.

With a clang like a thousand church bells ringing at once, the magic shattered and was gone. All the sensations were gone. I just stood there, shocked, unable to move.

What happened?

Mattugur had some idea. He did not look pleased, and that filled me with glee. “Something cancelled my magics,” he whispered. He strode to the staircase, the water rippling out of his path, the woman struggling to keep up. “Something's here. We have to check on the girl.” Reaching the staircase, he pushed the air aside with his hands, throwing the two peasants out of the way in sympathetic motions. One hit his head on the railing and collapsed, thick salty blood seeping out of the wound to puddle and curdle in the soapy water. The pair ignored the blood and pain, striding on, their boots leaving faint bloody prints up the staircase.

Drawn irresistibly, I leapt over the puddle just in case I left tracks, and followed. Up the stairs and behind them as Matturgur strode to Isilya's door, the woman scuttling after.

The guards were standing straighter and stiffer than they’d been before.

“Has anybody been here?” asked Matturgur.

“Just the maid with breakfast.”

“Anybody else?”

The guards looked at each other. Swallowing, the guard who'd answered said: “Before the maid we heard Isilya talking, like she was talking to someone.”

"Who?"

“I don't know! We went in right away, right away, and searched. Nobody was there!”

Matturgur stared and the man wilted. He licked his lips. “Open the door.” Fumbling with the key, the guard got it inserted and turned, yanking the door open. Matturgur, the woman, and myself, walked in.

Crying, Isilya was sitting on the edge of her bed. She looked up, saw us, and her sobs choked into silence. Her face wilted.

Matturgur had much to answer for.

“Who were you talking to?” he asked.

Isilya looked down at her lap and whispered, “No-- no one.”

Striding forward, Mattugur grabbed her chin in his hand and yanked her head up until she was forced to look into his eyes. "Don't you ever lie to me. Ever! Who were you talking to?"

My nostrils filled with the cloying miasma of Isilya’s terror. I forced myself to wait. He wasn’t hurting her. Not physically anyway. But if he started--

“Ashima.”

Who is Ashima?”

“A unicorn.”

With a nearly audible snap, Matturgur let go and stood up, stroking his goatee. An incantation bubbled from his lips and I backed towards the door, ready to run, or to attack. Magic rippled from his fingers and drifted around the room. Like a cloud of cinnamon it roiled near me, but kept its distance. It moved faster, swirling with speed and a hint of purpose. Zephyrs spun through it as it moved faster and faster. Coalescing around the one chair in the room, the one I'd been sitting in, it settled down like dust on a surface, forming a faint outline of a seated unicorn. Only for an instant, and then it settled onto the chair and floor.

Matturgur glared at the chair. “There was something-- but something is blocking the magic--” He spun around to face the woman, robe swirling around him. “Can we make the sacrifice tonight. Right after the funeral? I feel time pressing against us.”

Pursing her lips for a moment, the woman nodded. Matturgur spun around and she followed as he strode to the door and yanked it open. I hurried after, but I wasn't fast enough. The guards slammed the door into my muzzle, the heavy oak clacking against my alicorn and shoving me back onto my haunches. The lock clicked.

With a sigh, I leapt back to my hooves and made my way back to Isilya.

“Matturgur's a suspicious type, isn’t he?” I asked.

Hearing my voice, Isilya looked up and starred, and then a smile like a dawning sun filled her face. I leaned my neck down as she reached up to hug it. “I’m so glad you back, Ashima. You protect me from him.”

Her hands were cold on my neck, but they had a wondrous warmth. “I’ll do what I can.“ Lifting up my head, I pulled it out of her grasp. I cocked it to look at her from one eye. “Do you know what Matturgur is planning tonight?”

Her only answer was a quick shake of her head.

“I have to get out, to find out his plans. He can’t see me or hurt me, but I have to know what he's doing.” At the edge of my mind I remembered a secret way -- how did I know that? It was only a fragment though, a hint. “Is there another way out?”

Stretching up on her tiptoes, Isilya pulled my head down and whispered in one of my ears. “There is a secret passage. Only my father and me know.”

How did I know about it? Was I her father? Her father's chair, her father's pipe, memories I couldn't explain-- Evidence suggested I was. But, if I was, why didn't I know? Why only fleeting hints? Removing my head from her grasp, I whispered in her ear. “Can you open it for me?”

Leaping up, she ran over to the right corner of the far wall. With a look of intense concentrate, she started walking, step by step, whispering a number for each. She stopped, motioning me over to her. "Here.”

I nodded.

Leaning against the wall, she pushed. With a loud scrape, a section of the wall pivoted around a central point. My ears twisted at the sound of a key in the door. The guards-- hurry!”

She grunted and shoved and pushed until the entrance was large enough for me to fit. Leaping into the darkness, I pressed my neck against the inside of the wall and started pushing. She puffed and huffed, pushing the opposite. Stone groaned and ground and the door boomed shut. In the darkness, through the stone, I could just hear the other door slam open. The guards spoke, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. For a moment I thought about pushing the door back open, but then sanity stopped me. The guards had no reason to kill her, and since Matturgur seemed to want her undamaged, they wouldn't hurt her. And, if they found out about this passage, then she'd be moved, likely to someplace there was no escape. Having no logical choice, I turned away.

The passage reeked of age and disuse, of dripping water and cold, cold stone. Of dust and spiders and industrious small creatures. I felt a warmth dribble out of me, rising up into my head, and up into my alicorn. It began to glow, a soft silver radiance that gave just enough light for me to see.

How was I doing that? But then, did it really matter?

Making my silent way down the rough-hewn stone of the passage, I came to another that branched off. I ignored it and went on. The passage went downward, steps formed out of the laid stone, and then opened up into a larger room, though still small as such things went. More passages branched off. The room wasn't empty, in the middle was an ancient statue to the goddess Lunai.

I stopped to pay my respects--

--and I was somewhere, and something, else.

I was human. My senses were stunted, my feet soft and sensitive. But I had hands.

And I was dead.

Before me was a glowing figure, glowing so bright that all I could see was a human form. Still, I knew that the figure was Luani, the Moon, the bringer of Magic.

”It is time for you to remember. Hoffindil. You were killed by the mage Matturgur and you have left your daughter undefended.”

Bowing my head I remembered my death. Remembered the swirling and shattering of images as I rolled down the stairs. I had let my guard down when Matturgur had come to visit, thinking that the evil in sight was better than the evil hidden away. He’d poisoned my food. Not to kill me, for my magics would have detected that, but only to break my concentration. Leaving dinner with an unsettled stomach, I was unable to summon the will to force my vision of reality upon The World, to use magic. At the top of the staircase, I’d felt a shove. It was unseen, but even then I knew it was sent by Matturgur. Pushing me off balance, it made sure I fell down the stairs. And it nudged me to make absolutely sure I cracked my head open at the bottom.

“I am willing to offer you another chance,” she continued.

I looked up into her glowing form.

“Matturgur has allied himself with a servant of one of the fey – of Forylmagalon. He’s planning to give him the soul of your daughter in exchange for more years of life.”

“How can I save Isilya?”

“I offer you a gift. I will send you back. You will not have your magics, but you’ve innate magics. None but the innocent will be able to see you. But--", her glow dimmed so that I could see her sorrowful face, “--if you do evil, than my protections will be stripped away, as will the form I grant you. And you will remain upon The World until the End of All Things, in a black and cursed shape.”

I looked at her, standing tall and proud. And certain. “I will do whatever I have to.”

“Then return to your daughter. And remember my warning.”

The world spun--

--and I was back in the chamber before the shrine of Luani as the silver glow of the statue faded into darkness. I was back in the form of a unicorn, but I remembered everything. The old woman had to be the servant of Forylmagalon I was warned about and the sacrifice they'd mentioned was for tonight. I had to get back to Isilya. But-- how long had I been with Luani? And then, I just knew. Knew that it was late in the afternoon. Knew that my funeral was still going on. And knew that Isilya would be there.

Giving a quick bow to the statue of Luani, I galloped down the left passageway. I stepped down another staircase, and then galloped down another passageway. The tunnel was long and dark, lit only by the light of my alicorn and I knew it led under the outer wall to a hidden exit. Reaching that exit, I pushed my way through the brush concealing it.

It was late in the afternoon, Vashigan's divine light low on the horizon. Galloping down the rough slope, heedless of the danger, I made my way through the village, past the temple to all the Gods, to where a crowd was gathered around a pyre. My body was there, dressed in my best robes of black velvet. Isilya was there too, thank the Gods, holding a torch. Stopping at the edge of the crowd in a clatter that screamed in my ears, but that I knew was silent to all others, I watched as she lit the pyre. Watched the oil-soaked wood catch flame. Watched my body begin to burn. Stared at myself lying in death being consumed by cleansing flame. I shook my head. Life was for the living, or so I'd always believed. Forcing my attention away from the crackling of the fire, away from the stench of roasting meat, I watched Isilya. Watching her, protecting her. Waiting, tense and ready. Waiting just in case, though I knew that Matturgur would not dare make the sacrifice in such a public place.

As Vashigan turned his face away from The World, the fire crumbled and fell into embers and then coals and then ashes. The crowd went back to their homes. The maid that had fed Isilya earlier led her back to the keep and I followed. Isilya’s face was red from tears. Though she'd been cleaned and washed, the soot from the fire was streaked and stained. She saw me, and stopped, and stared.

"We have to go," said the maid, pulling at the girl.

Wiggling my ears, I winked. “Go with her. I'll be behind you and we can talk.”

Isilya nodded.

Following them into the castle, we went through the gates, and into the Great Hall. The blood stain on the staircase was gone, though echoes of its scent remained. I followed Isilya up to her room and snuck in the open door before the maid left, the guards locking the door behind her. Lowering my head, I let Isilya grab it and squeeze it so hard I could barely breathe as she sobbed into my fur.

Not knowing what to say, having no hands to hold her, I just stood there as she sobbed. Stood there as the tears soaked into my mane. I felt so helpless! Some part of me in this new form told me to gently nibble on her hair, and I did.

No matter how sad, how horrifying, all things must end. And so did Isilya’s tears. She released my neck, letting her hands slide along my silken fur, turning and looking at me. Through red puffed cheeks she asked, “Ashima, what-- what going to happen-- happen to me?”

“I don’t know.”

Sniffling, she tried to hold back the tears. All I could do was gently lick the salt from her cheeks as she squeezed her hands into fists. “I-- I shouldn’t cry. Dad-- daddy--"

She squeezed her fists tighter as her body shook. I licked her other cheek.

“Ashima-- Why did daddy have to-- have to d-- die?”

What could I say? Say that I was her father? But, I’d already said I wasn’t-- I licked the salt from my cheeks and swallowed, fighting to remember what a priest had told me so many years ago when my father had passed to Vashigan’s judgement. “It’s a sad thing, but all things must end. Even the Gods when it’s their time. But, as long as we remember—those who have left us can still change the world with their love and goodness. It was your father’s time, only Vashigan knows why. But, you were right. Your father-- I'm from your father. And I will always be with you, to keep you from harm.”

“Never leave me? Never ever?” She looked up at me with her swollen eyes.

“Always. Always here and watching and caring. Always with you. And-- and I’ll never let anything happen to you.”

“Thank-- Thank-you.”

Behind me the door unlocked and creaked open. From the scent, I could tell that it was the same maid again. Turning my head, I saw that she was carrying another bowel, this time with a spoon. And she had a skin of water. “Isilya. It’s time for dinner.”

As I stepped back and out of the way, Isilya watched me go, but relaxed a bit when I stopped just a few feet away. The maid walked over, putting down the bowel and skin. Pulling a rag from her pocket, she said: “There, there, it’s going to be all right.”

“I-- I know. I have a guardian, sent by my father. She said she would protect me.”

The maid just nodded, but I could smell she was humouring the child. Matturgur hadn’t corrupted everybody here. Moving so that I could see around the maid, I looked at the food. Soup. For a moment I wasn’t sure what to do, but then I remembered what was said to be one of the powers of the unicorn. To purify poisons with their alicorn. Leaning over, I touched my alicorn to the soup in the bowel. I felt a tingling, and watched a glow encompass the vegetable filled liquid.

So there had been something in it.

I touched the water skin but nothing happened. Did I need to touch the actual water--?

“Did he now? Well, I hope your guardian is strong and magical. Is she here?”

“She is, but only I can see her.”

Turning, I cocked my head and watched my daughter. The maid was wiping some of the dirt off Isilya’s face with the cloth. She sighed. “I pray it’s not just wishful thinking. Now here, I have some food and drink for you.”

The maid picked up the soup and water, walking over to the bed and waiting as Isilya followed. Handing the soup and spoon to Isilya who ate. She offered the skin, and almost shrieked as I shoved my alicorn into the mouth of the sack, feeling the coolness caress my horn’s bone and sighing with relief when there was no tingling, no magic. The water was good.

The maid looked around, and I winked as a little tiny giggle escaped Isilya’s mouth. The maid just shook her head, and together we watched as the rest of the soup, and the water, vanished. Using the cloth, the maid wiped Isilya’s mouth. “There, now go to sleep and I’ll see you in the morning. Good night.”

I watched the maid leave. She rapped on the door, and it opened a little, then all the way, and the maid walked through. Closing the door behind her, the guards locked it.

“Ashima?” Isilya whispered. She yawned.

I walked over to the bed.

“You stay with me all night?”

“Forever.”

“Want to sleep on the bed with me?”

Laughing, a sweet melodious sound, I answered: “No, I’ll just stand here and rest. When you wake up I’ll be here.”

Wiggling under the covers, Isilya patted the side of her pillow and I flicked my ears and sighed. Bending my forelegs a bit, I rested my muzzle on the pillow where indicated. She wrapped her arm around my neck and soon fell asleep.

Even though my neck grew sore from the awkward position, I refused to move it. I just stood there, until I nodded off.


Jerking awake, I stared frantically around; licking my nostrils I tasted the air, searching, seeking. I wasn’t even awake enough to know what for before I knew what was not there.

Isilya.

Isilya was gone.

Focusing my eyes on the bed, on what vision I had forward, I could sense, not see, not smell, but feel the faint rippling tickle of magic fading to nothing.

By the Gods, Matturgur hadn’t even sent someone for her. He’d just magically stolen her.

I felt my ears fall against the sides of my head.

The sacrifice. It was tonight.

Whipping around, I stared at the door. It was still locked, though I couldn’t say how I knew. Just as I couldn’t say how I knew the guards were still outside. They could cause a problem, even by accident. Not to mention other doors, magical barriers, and Gods knew what else. It would have to be the passage. Rearing, I spun around and galloped towards the entrance, alicorn lowered. The wall was stone, but I didn’t care. I felt its point touch the stone, and a shock poured down its length, down my neck and shoulders, but my speed didn’t slow the slightest. With a crash that would wake the dead, with a cloud of dust, with a rumble and growl of stone on stone, the wall shattered.

Coughing in the dust, I didn’t slow. Leaping over the falling rubble, I staggered onto the rough hewn stone and galloped down what had been a secret passage. Behind me I heard the door slam open, but the guards were too late.

I had to find Isilya. I had to! Where was she? Where? Then I knew. I knew that she was at the edge of the Paranay forest. Leaping down the length of the staircase, head low in the passage, I clattered past Luani’s statue, lowering my head a bit more as I passed. Down the other passage, I leapt down the second staircase. This one was longer and the force of the impact jarred up my forelegs, but I refused to stop.

I had to reach Isilya. I had to.

Galloping down the last of the passage, I burst through the hidden exit. I shoved my way through the brush, scattering it to either side.

I had to reach Isilya. I had to.

Galloping through the fields, I barely felt the earth beneath my hooves. Scents of grain and green grass and heavy pine trees poured into my gasping nostrils, but I thrust the sensations aside. I was focused only on one thing.

The scents were swept away, almost as though they were fleeing, and I felt a heavy dark sweetness sweep over and dominate. It was dark, cold, evil. The air thickened, fought me, but I forced my way through. My alicorn tingled, through it I could sense the scratching wrongness of foulness gathering. I could feel the swirling magic of the gate to Faerie shoving its way between the worlds, linking The World and the other side where the Gods had imprisoned the fey so long ago. A mind from the other side was forcing its way through, forcing its way past the prison walls the Gods had erected. The will of Forylmagalon was forcing its way through, responding to the call of its servants. Responding to the offer of blood and soul.

Breath poured through my nostrils, I could feel sweat pouring down my sides. My once graceful leaps slowed, become an unsteady stagger as my legs grew heavier and heavier. The air was thick, a syrup, pushing against me, trying to stop me. I refused to let it. Lowering my head I forced my will into my alicorn, forced my will to pierce the tar pulling at me, to breaking it as I shoved my way deeper and deeper.

Warmth burst through me as Luani’s silver light pierced the trees as she rode through the heavens. Touching me, its heat poured into me. My alicorn glowed, felt as though it shivered in place, and new strength flowed into my muscles, fresh air into my lungs.

I had no time for thanks and only galloped the faster.

Isilya. I had to arrive before it was too late. I had to save her.

Reaching the edge of the woods, I burst through the brush and into the soft needles and fallen branches underneath the dense green overhead. I dodged trunks, ducked under cone-laden branches, leapt over fallen logs covered in moss and wildflowers. Bursting past a deer, it flagged its tail and fled.

I burst from the trees and leapt over a wall of fallen moss-eaten trunks into a clearing. The ground was wet and swampy, and my hooves sunk up to my hocks with each step. Each breath was an effort, the air was thick and greasy, cloying and draining. Dark clouds cloaked the sky, swirling and spinning above, hiding the events from the sight of the Gods.

Isilya was tied to a twisted black trunk, lightning shattered years ago, naked gray wood where it wasn’t drowned in fungus and mushrooms. Vines twisted around it, and their dark leaves hung heavy. I could see she was screaming, struggling, but the cords that held her with thick and tied heavy and tight. And all I heard was silence.

Mattugur and the old woman stood before her, Matturgur watching, the woman’s lips moving as she held a greenly tarnished copper dagger high. Mist swirled around, blown out by the force of my passage. I made out a bubble of magic that held in the sounds, that kept the events hidden and cloaked from those that might pass obliviously nearby. Above my daughter was a swirling disk of black and purple, spinning faster and faster, magic arcing around it. A dark and grinning face formed out of the energy, pushing itself into places it had long been banned from.

Leaping out of the sucking miasma of the ground, I touched the tip of my alicorn to the wall of magic and it cracked, shattering like ill-blown glass. The silence rose to piercing noise. Isilya screaming. The old woman calling her master. Matturgur waving his arms and chanting rhythms to help him force his will upon The World, searching out what had shattered the wall he’d created. Splashing and oozing to a stop, I stared upward and saw that the dark fey, that Forylmagalon, was half way through the portal, the energy falling into a body of black flesh. The whirlpool was high, almost out of reach, but maybe I could--

A shock of lightning burst upon me, and I twisted around, my hooves splashing in the shallow water, and faced Matturgur. He’d found me, or had found a way to see me, and was chanting and focussing. A wave of blackness rippled from him, through the reality of The World, and shattered upon my alicorn.

He wasn’t the threat, the old woman, the priestess of Forylmagalon, was.

Pulling my hooves out of the thick oozing mud, I spun back around, ignoring spell after spell that Matturgur threw at me. My alicorn grew hot from his magic, but I let the warmth fuel me. It was the priestess I had to stop.

I starred at her chanting, at her calling. There was no ripple, no magic bubble for me to break, no magery for my alicorn to destroy. Just her calling a name over and over, praising it, telling it what she offered.

Above the fey began to laugh. It was a dark sound, a sound that tore into my ears and scratched claws against my eardrums.

A sound that reached out and began to rip Isilya’s screaming soul from her suddenly silent body.

What could I do? I remembered Luani and her bargain. I couldn’t do evil. Was stopping the priestess evil? Was saving my daughter? Of course not! But, the only way I could stop her was to kill her. Kill the woman calling, offering. There was no other way. No magic, no delusion

She was selling my daughter. Feeding her to her master. The priestess had to die!

Lowering my head, I leapt over the last log, my hooves slurping out of the mud, dirty water falling from them. My alicorn was lowered, leading the way, shoving through the thick air.

Sliding into the heart of the priestess.

Her death scream scrabbled against my ears as her hands scratched and clawed at my alicorn, grasping at my mane as my head shoved against her chest, thick blood oozing out and drenching my muzzle. The chanting fell into a bubbling gurgle, and the laughter of the fey above screeched into silence. My hooves splashed in the mud and water, sinking into the slime as I slid and slammed into the trunk holding my daughter, shoving the dying priestess into the dead wood below where Isilya was tied. I pulled myself backwards, one sucking step at a time, and lowered my head to let the priestess’ body slide off and splut into the torn mud.

The woman’s blood was sticky and black, it smelled of salt and hate and its blackness swirled up my alicorn like water flowing up a slanted hill. I could feel the glistening bone of my horn melting into sparkles of magic. I had only a little time.

Fatigue filled my body, coldness sapping the strength from my muscles, but I forced myself around to face Matturgur. He just stood there, arms half raised, mouth open, staring with horror. He could see me now.

I had time only for one thing -- to kill him. I had to. It was the only way I could ensure my daughter was safe. Galloping towards him I lowered my alicorn even as the blackness ate at it. I hated him, hated Matturgur with all my heart, hated what he’d done, what he’d tried to do.

And I was going to kill him for it.

My speed slowed, my grace departed. I had to have time. I had to. My mind and memories were fading, but I didn’t care. I only thought of one thing. Killing Matturgur Murdering the murderer. I had to have time. I had to have enough time to kill him.

Sliding through the mud, my head thudded into him, piercing his chest with what remained of my decaying horn. The murdering bastard fell backward and splashed into the shallow water as I collapsed on top of him. He began to chant, a low sonorous sound.

My alicorn was gone. I tried to get up, but couldn’t. I felt my legs melting. My tail fell off and vanished; my neck thinned and lengthened. Struggling, I managed to turn myself around to look at Isilya. Beneath me, Matturgur vanished and I splashed into the water and ooze.

Why was I here? I had a purpose, but I couldn’t remember it. My daughter, that was it, my daughter--

My legs and tail were gone and I could feel my head changing. My body stretched and hundreds of legs popped out of my sides.

Looking up at Isilya, I tried to call her, but could no longer make any sound. Trees rustled, and I saw some elves creep into the clearing. I tried to call to them but I couldn’t speak. I knew that they would care for Isilya.

I was out in the open. I was in danger. Twisting my long snakish body around, I used my hundreds of legs to scurry into the trees. There were vibrations behind me, but I didn’t know what they meant.

I reached the shelter of a tree. Safety.

Hunger. I crawled my long body up the trunk and began eating needles.

Hunger. I had to eat.

There was something else--

It didn’t matter though. I had what I needed.

Food. Safety. Food. Safety.