Ulysses – Chapter 3

Chapter #3 ~ The Skyfields

Light filtered softly through the trees and Rhaine stirred, drawing heat from Phae’s warm body as consciousness spread. Her eyes fluttered. She was nestled in the crook of the mare’s legs, snug against her belly like a korè. She yawned, pulling herself into a seated position and shivering as the blanket fell from her shoulders. Morning was crisp, but as the birds began to sing wholeheartedly she knew the coming day would be warm.

Her first order of business had never been far from mind; she rubbed her eyes to chase the last bit of sleep and turned in full to the sleeping form on the soft ground beside them. His breathing was normal, and colour had returned to his face. Even the gash and bruises of the night before were fading. Quickly she slipped down to check the wraps, and while the skin underneath now resembled hot welts, they were bounds ahead of yesterday’s gaping wounds. Her face lit as she tucked the blankets around him again, unable to contain her glee. “Tyden!” she hooted.

Tyden had been fast asleep, though knowledge of that only dawned when the affliction left him as he was propelled from sleeping to starkly awake in a fraction of a second. The first thing that registered was the summons, which combined with the bleary memory of the night before, the still ominous odor of cave bear thick in the air, and the notion that there was a wolf curled up beside him. He sprang to his feet with sword drawn, struggling with the blanket and tripping over his boots with exclamation; a second later he was free of both and braced, looking around the clearing to source the opposing threat. By this point most everyone in the camp was also awake and looking at him. His eyes found Rhaine, who, to her credit, looked marginally apologetic. He lowered the sword and relocated the other hand to his beltless trousers, the ground cold beneath stocking feet. “Good morning,” he addressed the group curtly. Then he retrieved his scabbard and hastily sheathed the sword, snatching his belt and boots as he headed over.

Rhaine dismissed the entrance mercifully, or perhaps she’d already forgotten about it in her excitement. “Look,” she prompted. “He’s healing.”

Tyden did his best to ignore that his heart was still pounding as he spoke. “Of course he is; I have certainly never doubted your abilities. Timing, occasionally yes, but as far as preserving health one’s goes… at least, besides my own…”

“He’s really going to be okay,” she cooed happily, not hearing a word the other had said. She busied herself with arranging blankets and turned to collecting the soiled bandages as the solider continued to sleep. And then she frowned. “Do you think… he’ll wake?”

Tyden sighed. “He will,” he said earnest, noting the faint dark smudges beneath her eyes. “You should go and wash up, while he’s still sleeping; I’ll watch him until you return. And mind you stay to this side of the creek.”

She considered, and finally nodded at his good logic, and after a final scrutinizing look, up and bounded away. Tyden knotted boots in silence, and when he was done rose to survey the scene. Relief at Liam’s recovery washed away some of his reservation, but even that didn’t ease the ball of worry that had grown since the night before. None of this should have happened. I should not have let any of this happen. The weight of it settled in his chest and pinned itself there, immovable.

Motion behind him made him turn, and there was Odin. “Go get the rest of yourself together; I am here.” The stallion said nothing else but bent his head down to breathe over the fallen man, then turned to nose Phae gently. Tyden, dismissed, shrugged his shoulders and headed back towards his scattered heap of belongings.

Luminista woke slowly. The warmth of her new companion soaked into her being reinforcing the contentment that had kept her warm through the night. Carefully raising her head, hoping not to disturb the girl sleeping against her, she looked around at the mostly still sleeping camp.

When the cry came out from across the camp, Tiponi jerked upright and reached for a blade. Her quick overview of the camp showed only other startled campers and the comedic efforts of The Man, er, Tyden to come upright.

She couldn’t quite stop the smirk that quirked her lips at the sight of his efforts. As her eyes moved on and found the mite-y warrior’s unsurprisingly on her, a cocked eyebrow was added to the expression. Shaking her head, partially in amusement at the ever-watchful one, she turned her attention to Rhaine and what the healer had to say.

Deciding that a little washing was indeed in order, she gave Luminista a glance as she stood up to follow Rhaine. “Are you coming?” she asked the red mare, assuming her thoughts had been followed.

With a chuckle Luminista replied, “You have to put a little more effort into sending me your thoughts than that. Your low-level thinking only comes to me as impressions. More like your moods and general feelings.

“So where are you off to?” Luminista concluded.

A slight expression of surprise crossed Tiponi’s face followed quickly by a grin of self-deprication. Sheepishly she informed the mare, “I thought I’d go wash up, too.”

Luminista declined, but said she might follow. Turning, Tiponi headed across the campsite to the Viking girl. Extending her right hand in a gesture of helping the girl up, Tiponi said, “I assume you will be coming, too.”

Brynja’s sleep had been short, if one could call it that, and broken up into moments where she simply closed her eyes. It was enough rest for her, though, and she still felt surprisingly alert. Her body propped against Thora, using the unicorn like a pillow, and one of her own furs thrown over to add to her comfort. Through cracked open and mismatched eyes she watched the rest of the camp come back to life once more, and while she kept her attention on everyone, her gaze did fall back to the girl.

It was on one of her surveys of the camp that she noticed that figure move. No, not just move. She set her path toward the Viking herself. Brynja’s attention seemingly lagged somewhere off to the right, but it was definitely safe, and possibly in her best interest, that Bryn had not been distracted in the least, even as Brynja trained her stare onto the girl once more.

Her fingers, still beneath the fur, curled around her sword’s hilt; readied for striking. Her body, still relaxed, tensed as the girl came to a halt before her, and slowly, as only a hand was thrust at her, Brynja’s brow rose curiously. Her lips parted to say something, but no words came. The Viking would have rather had a sword shoved down at her instead of an act of friendliness. Setting her lips in a thin line, she shook her head. And on her second attempt at speaking, the words came. “I will. I appreciate your…” She searched for the word, briefly looking over the offered hand, before she found it. “… Offer, but I can manage for myself.” To that, from behind her, she heard as well as felt, a snort of amusement from Thora. So she tacked on a “Thank you.” to the end of it, to be polite.

Pulling back the fur, she slipped to her feet quickly, sword still in hand, mindful of the other all the while and never once letting her have much of an advantage on her, if any, through the process… were she to try. Though Brynja did have to question if it was possible the girl had now found her head again. With that churning through her mind, she nodded once more to the other and took a couple half steps toward the river, indicating that she could either walk beside her or in front of her, but Brynja would not let her have her back. That, and… she was taking her sword with her.

* * *

Xanthe woke, wedged between Lilaini and Gypsy. How that had happened, no one was quite sure, except that the half-grown must have done it in her sleep. She had bumbled her way in and taken over Lilaini’s bed roll entirely, the woman left clinging to her thick cloak. It was an impressive feat, any way you looked at it, considering there was nothing small about the kore now, or how soundly Lilaini apparently slept. “At least it wasn’t an urdvoggen,” Gypsy quipped mirthfully.

Once awake and untangled from the blankets, Xanthe bounded into question mode, resuming her acquisition of Rhaine’s whereabouts and expected time of return; to this Lilaini murmured something groggily that the kore couldn’t make out, but the tone enough made her reconsider that course of action. At least until Lilaini was more fully awake. And dressed. And possibly had eaten breakfast…

So instead she wandered off to graze, on principal disliking most of the greenery that grew in this part of the scrub. She swallowed down a few bitter mouthfuls and looked for something more useful to do. Her pack of scrolls sat tauntingly, and she narrowed her eyes at them. Well! No way she was going to let them get the best of her. She approached the pack at a trot, determined to set the score then and there. That intent got her as far as the pack itself. Which was tied. Again.

Horseradish! glared Xanthe. She perked her head up beguilingly. “A little help here?”

Tien Mu woke slowly. She was comfortable, not too warm, not too cool. Her ears twitched taking in the surrounding noises of the day creatures stirring in the forest and the subdued sounds of the camp beginning to stir. Cracking open her eyes she added sight to the mix. And then her mind engaged reminding her of the evening before.

Her head popped up quickly to give the site a thorough look over hoping to see Luminista and Foehn Miri had returned. With a deep sigh she noted they had not. Hardly anyone was moving about. Xanthe was again hovering over the bag of scrolls inducing a shiver to coarse over Tien Mu at the memory of last night’s amphibious invaders.

Coming to her feet, the black mare gave herself a good shake that started in the middle and worked its way to both ends. Next to settle her thirst, so off she went to the stream. Raising her head from the water she noticed a nice patch of grass and commenced to graze.

When the camp had gone to sleep, Trinity had curled up near Aurellie. As morning came, Aurellie woke before Trinity, who seemed content to sleep still. The mare shook her head, moving off to a patch of grass to graze for her breakfast. Of course she had noticed a couple others grazing and nodded her head to them, leaving her companion to sleep or wake.

Trinity slept on, though soon enough she woke and noticed that Aurellie was not there. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she walked from the tent and looked around, noticing a few others were up. Her red hair was in disarray, common for bed head of course, sticking out in odd places. She walked to where the stream was, still rubbing her eyes from the sleep. She did not come across the others, seemed she had come to a different part of the stream, downstream from the others already awake, but still near camp. She kneeled at the water’s edge and looked at her reflection, jumping slightly.

“Look li’e a banshee on a bad hair day,” she chuckled to herself as she reached for the water, cupping her hands and splashing some on her face. The water was nice and cool, waking her up a bit more.

*

Sapata awoke at dawn to feel a cold, clammy lump resting on her chest near her collarbone. She tucked her chin to see what it could be, and found herself staring into a pair of huge bulgy eyes. She gave a little yelp, and batted the thing off… it rolled into the dust with a, “Plop!”.

She jerked away, and scrambled to a safe distance before turning to examine the thing. It was a rather small example of the amphibious creatures that had plagued the campsite of the others… rather toad like, but with a stumpy tail that waggled. It lay there on it’s back, limbs wriggling as it struggled to upright itself. Sapata reached out with a finger, and gingerly flipped it over. The plump creature shuffled in a circle, winked one eye, then the other, and looking at Sapata towering above it, gave a sharp cry of “Voe-Voggen!”

Sapata jumped a little… how could something so small make such a big noise?
“Oh, go on with you! You’ve used me as a bedroll, then woken me up… now move along, before you end up like your brothers!”

Her stomach growled at the memory of last nights feast. Once the band of women and Spirits had disappeared down the trail, Sapata had emerged from her hiding place to scout the area, and see if she might procure some dinner. Her first venture had been to check out the stream, and while she had thought she might spearfish, when she’d come upon a shallow rocky pool she changed her plans.

The small body of water had been brimming with enormous tadpoles.
And while those that had began to bud appendages had a few more than she was used to, they had been too easy a meal to pass up.

In short order she’d had a small fire burning streamside, and added a handfull of smooth stones to its center.

There was an abundance of rush-like grasses along the banks, and Sapata had no trouble gathering enough to weave with. One bunch quickly became a loosely woven oval bowl that she used to scoop the fat froglings from their home. The rest of the grass she wove into a watertight coneshape, and when she had enough prey to fill it halfway she’d added water, the fire-warmed stones, and a handful of her precious pemmican.*
By using a pair of sticks to continually remove cold stones, and replacing them with hot ones, Sapata had boiled the mixture, and enjoyed a hot meal for the first time since arriving in this land. The broth was sweet and rich with the pemmican, and the chunks of tadpole were thick, meaty, and delicious. She’d devoured every scrap.

Belly full, she had sat beside her fire thinking about the strangers she had observed, and what exactly she wanted to do about them.

Throughout her entire life, Sapata had never been alone like she was now. Her tribe was close knit, and protective of its’ members. Families lived in tiny domed huts, married children and their offspring living with the parents. No one left the village without someone else… it was a type of insurance against the accidents that could happen to a lone person. So the only time she’d ever been by herself was to visit the communal latrine, and that was within sight of the community. It’d been on one such outing in the middle of the night that she had seen the door to this world… and now here she was. The thing was, she had been raised with a sort of herd animal mentality; consequentially being on her own was a huge stress. The group meant safety, and when one was without the group there could be no relaxation.

It was this need to be with people that made her consider seeking out the others. On the other end of the spectrum, Sapata was afraid of the unknown. And though the lady who had sent her the invitation to join them had seemed kind, there was the rest of the group…

If she intended to return to the camp, she needed to get a move on. It wasn’t far, but she didn’t intend to meet the clan, should she choose to do so, in this state. First she wanted to bathe in the stream, and perhaps find some sort of meal.

She moved off in the direction of the water, eyes seeing everything about her and weighing either its’ danger or its’ value as a food source. But wait! There just at the edge of the path was a fallen tree. It had been a giant, and from the look of it, had been down a good long while. Perfect for her needs… she hoped.

Swiftly she bent to the task of prying bits of soft wood away from the rotting trunk. Ah! There, a flash of milky white… Sapata worked her fingers into the hole she’d made and pulled out her prize. It was a large grub. She examined it carefully, grinned, and popped the larva whole into her mouth. It was slightly salty, with the chewy texture that it should have. Excellent… one more edible find!

She stuffed herself on as many of the grub worms as she could manage to work out of their dens and then, sated once more, continued to her bathing spot.

There was no use in removing her clothes. They were as filthy as the rest of her, and the day was warming anyway. She entered the water quickly, gasping, and dunked her head under in one fast motion. Reaching to the bottom of the stream she brought up a handful of fine sand, and scrubbed her hands and feet with it.

She dipped her head once more, and was still dashing the water from her eyes, when she saw figures on the edge of the stream…

Mountain fed, the water was cold and Rhaine balked when she first put her hands in to wash. But after the initial shiver she braced herself with a gentle reprimand and began to scoop the water to face, any trace of sleep quickly doused. She sighed, shivering from the contact, but at the same time welcomed the jolt it gave her system. Her whole body felt numb, a thing once removed, an after thought, and in the moment was nice to know she still had one. She breathed slowly, balancing herself, and opened her eyes. It was then she noticed the dried blood that stained her sleeves and across her front, pooling crazy patterns across the embroidery of the shirt; she stared expressionless, there was so much of it, it was so dark, and with another unrelated shiver pulled the shirt over her head. The morning was brisk for the thin chemise underneath but she barely felt it; rolling pantlegs she waded into the shallows where the water ran fast, and began to rub the shirt against the stones.

She heard a splash nearby and looked up to see a young woman ducking her head above the water, staring at her in wonderment or maybe alarm. So Rhaine didn’t move, just offered a quiet smile as she returned to her shirt. “Good morning; you’re far braver then I to have ventured out for a swim.” She gave the garment another flush under the water and looked at it again, but the blood had set; the shirt was stained. “I suppose it’s a loss cause,” she sighed to no one in particular and bent over to wash her hands again in the stream.

However they managed it, upon reaching the river, Bryn found Rhaine was already there and washing the blood from her clothing, and another unknown woman bathing. At the sight of the guardian, the Viking smiled, figuring if she was ok with the other’s presence, Brynja should not question. “How is he this morn?” Though she asked, some part of her knew that Rhaine didn’t seem the type to have left him if he wasn’t well enough, but still she asked to hear it and know it for truth, and to soothe her own worry over him.

Rhaine straighten, greeting Bryn’s question with warmth. “He’s doing so much better. I was… rather worried there for a while.” She was about to inquire how the woman had spent her own night, when a sudden splashing drew all eyes up the creek…

*

They had been traveling throughout the majority of the night. The only proof of their passing the sound of a light step followed by a heavier stride and the occasional branch or bush swaying as they passed. They had stopped twice. The first stop had been to gather fruit of some kind, which Isandro had eaten on Aljan’s word that they weren’t poisonous. Aljan himself had eaten a couple too – but had preferred to graze for his breakfast. The second stop had been longer, sleeping for a couple of hours beside a stream, after they had quenched their thirst. It was this stream they followed now, as the sun began to rise, still heading in the direction of the noise that had woken them before.

“I believe we are close.”

A silent nod was the only reply Aljan received, as his companion was focusing on his footing as they loped further upstream.

Sure enough, within minutes, they began to hear the noises from the usual morning rituals of humans and unicorns and Isandro began to slow his pace, coming to a halt as Aljan slowed beside him.

*Must be the Guardians, though I wonder what they are doing out here?*

“Guardians?” Isandro didn’t like the sound of that, it sounded much to similar to the guards and other law enforcers he’d had the privilege of meeting, and wariness and distrust weighed the question heavily.

*No, nothing like that!* Aljan sent with amusement. *Just other humans here in Kalidore. Sounds to be more than I last knew, however. We should go introduce ourselves.*

Aljan was moving before he had even finished speaking* and barged directly into Isandro, who wasn’t paying attention to his companions movement, and with a startled expletive, got thrown backwards with little care to where he landed.

SPLASH!

“Oops. Sorry about that.”

With a few more muttered oaths, Isandro managed to get the water out of his eyes, and when he could see again he found himself in a precarious position. Surrounded by three women in various stages of undress.

A moments silence and a quiet cough from Isandro.

“Good… morning… Senorita’s. I hope the water isn’t too cold for you this morning?”

It took only a matter of seconds for Brynja to dash into the water, to put herself between the guardian and the possible threat and for her sword to be pointed in the right direction. Though she acted no more than that, she did not need to until she knew for certain he meant harm.

She watched him rise, and to be honest, with the relaxed way he did… she relaxed a little as well, though kept mindful of where Tiponi was, and how she was reacting, if at all. But when the man spoke, even the Viking cracked a grin at the comedy of the situation, and her sword tipped downward and slightly away, finding herself silent in her small laughter for the moment.

The shirt all but forgotten Rhaine had scrambled after the small viking, if need be to diffuse the situation before any more blood fell. Luckily that was not to be the case because by the time she got there the woman was already grinning, and she turned her attention to the newcomer in full.

He stood dripping from head toe and looking a little disheveled, but most noticeably was the hint of confused amusement in his eyes as he beheld them all. Rhaine frowned with her own confusion as Bryn reached over and draped her thick blue cloak discretely around the half dressed woman, that small detail already having been entirely forgotten. She extended her hand formally. “Greetings to you, companion of Aljan. I am Rhaine, one of the Guardians of this Isle. It is my great pleasure to welcome you formally to Kalidore, and I hope you have found your stay here most agreeable.”

Isandro accepted the offered hand with as much grace as he could manage, sopping wet and still dripping as he was, keeping as much as possible of their surroundings in both his direct and peripheral vision.

“Greetings Rhaine,” he replied, keeping in theme with the guardian’s speech. “I am Isandro Espinosa and as you seem to be aware, this is Aljan.”

“Good morning Rhaine, and good morning to your friends,” Aljan waded into the water, coming to stand besides his companion. “I must apologize if we surprised you, it seems I caught my companion off guard.” Mirth showed clearly in koros eyes, his voice bordering on laughter.

“Of course, our deepest apologies, senoritas.” Isandro echoed, Aljan’s comments reminding him of their current situation. “No complaints as to my stay here in Kalidore, except for the fact that it seems to have done away with my balance.” With mock chagrin, his face turned downcast and a woeful sigh escaped his lungs, only to smile again. “But to find myself in the company of beautiful women is a definite improvement.”

“Not implying that there is anything wrong with my company, of course.” Aljan gave Isandro’s shoulder a playful nudge, knowing his companion had found his footing and wasn’t about to slip and fall back into the water.

“Of course not,” Isandro continued. Turning slightly, he gestured towards the river bank. “Now, if only we weren’t in knee-deep water. Would either of you mind if we continued this on dry land?”

Tiponi had walked quietly to the streame, considering this situation she now found herself in. She had a tie with a mythical creature she neither could nor wanted to deny. That tie apparently meant dealing closely with other people, something she was unaccustomed to doing, but this included men which she had learned the hard way to avoid at all cost.

When the pair reached the water it was to find Rhaine in the company of yet another stranger. Tiponi wasn’t sure of how she should react. Should she be suspicious of this new person or accept her as another part of the crowd? Taking in the relaxed atmosphere and acceptance of the other women, she decided to follow their lead. Maybe this would be the best approach in general, she decided.

Quickly she was glad to have reached that decision for the quiet of the morning was interrupted by the arrival of, oh can it be? …another Man. Her reaction was as swift as the small warrior. Her back-knife was in her hand and she stood, boots and all, in the water just off the warrior’s shoulder. It amazed her how quickly the girl began to relax, her sword tip lowering.

Confusion had her backing out of the water, knife still in hand, as Rhaine spoke. Apparently this man was a newcomer as well and yet he was welcomed without question. Wasn’t this woman aware of what men were capable of? Her lack of trust obvious on her face as she eyed the dripping invader, Tiponi almost shook with the tension coursing through her as she worked to keep herself in place instead of plunging forward to protect even the fierce one.

*Luminista, what do I do?* she cried out in dismay…

A spotted mare cantered along the path, keeping an eye out for the others. Her father had informed her yesterday afternoon that the Guardians and other companions had set out earlier that day to find a lost brother. Having been half a day behin, she had elected to spend last night in a small clearing along the trail, dozing and keeping a watchful ear out for anything unusual. Having woken up and broken her fast on some sweet clover in the clearing, she had started out after the rest of the group.

Selah Amithra wasn’t too sure how an uncle of hers could be lost, as she knew where Odin’s and Arieon’s domains were, and her father had said that they had gone with the Guardians. Giving an equine shrug and a shake of her head, Selah continued on down the path.

At first glance, the mare moving along the trail could instantly be identified as one of Falling Star’s daughters. A second look, however, revealed dun markings, a sure sign of Odin’s influence. Selah didn’t know who her true father was, but had been learning with Falling Star since she was old enough. Fleetingly, she wondered what her mother was up to now, it had been such a long time since she had last visited her. Having been with Falling Star since she was young, she often went out and traveled, searching out knowledge for her father’s, and Kalidore’s, benefit. This journey could prove to be an interesting source of new knowledge.

As Selah continued her journey on the trail, the scent of water caught her nose, and lured her off the track and into the brush. Having quenched her thirst, she was preparing to return to the trail and press onward when another scent caught her. Following it, she came upon the scene of what appeared to be washing day, although how one would wash armor, she had no clue.
Hanging back a bit in the trees and bushes, she watched interestedly, when without explanation, a red mare came hurrying to the stream and nearly colliding with the spotted mare in the brush.

Startled, Selah skittered sideways, ending up halfway in the stream, and nearly bumping into the man that had just risen from the water. Standing with half of her in the water, and half out, Selah looked remarkably amusing, and felt remarkably awkward.

I feel like a new-born kore,
she thought. Seeing the result of her bumping into the other, she winced, and feel extremely clumsy as well.

But the red mare seemed hardly to notice, already making her way to stand beside her started companion. Tiponi watched with suspicion as the stange man began to ooze charm. What did this man want from them, she wondered. Placing her hand absently on the red mare’s neck she watched the exchange and hung back, her mind tumbling with other questions.

Rhaine shook Isandro’s hand warmly, delighted that the situation had resolved itself amicably. “Then I certainly hope Kalidore keeps improving for you!” she benignly replied, and at his request for dry land she remembered that they were indeed in the middle of the creek, and brushed it off as eloquently as she could, gesturing up the hill towards the woods. “Our camp is just over there, and we do have food if you would like to join us for breakfast. The others shall be along soon, and they’ll be quite happy to make your acquaintances, I’m sure.”

She beckoned them both with a grin, and turning to Selah who had just stumbled into their midst, “Am I to presume you’ve come to join us, or just out for a leisurely morning’s stroll? Come along,” she called brightly, and grasping Bryn’s cloak securely around her, led the way up the embankment.

* * *

Pasiphae had came awake at Odin’s touch – or at least awakened enough to pry her eyes open and blearily acknowledge the silver stallion’s existence. After a weary smile, she had turned her attention to the solider, leaning forward to nose him softly against a cheek.
Liam’s consciousness expanded in slow, sluggish circles; his mind left to fend for itself while the rest of his body furiously knit itself back together under Rhaine’s persistent and determined encouragement. He drifted through the night in a fog – a sullen, pain-slashed shroud that gave rise to strange dreams and stranger fears. As the sun rose however, the dark dreaming tendrils thinned and stretched; one by one loosening their hold on the man as they broke and snapped free.

He first became aware of the steady rhythm of his breathing, and the murmur of the blood that flowed in clean easy pulses through his veins. Then the dawning realization of warmth, an almost sensual relief, as he located the heat that beat within his chest and the warmth that tingled into through his limbs. Liam reveled in the mindless bright feeling of it for a while, until another sensation catapulted him into a higher consciousness – another’s touch against his cheek.

It was if everything suddenly came into sharp focus – auditory stimuli poured in, and he could feel the rocks under his back, the tense ache along one side, and remember how to MOVE. With a supreme effort, he willed himself to drag his eyes open – and while blinded by the light at first, after a few moments and several slow, ragged blinks, he was able to make out the dark staring eyes of a bay mare and a clouded silver form standing behind her. He rasped out a chuckle at the sight.

“…. well then. Looks like I’ve acquired a strange new habit, waking up this way…” Liam said, amused at the current situation’s similarity between his entrance to Kalidore.

* * *

It took Lilaini several minutes upon waking to actually fully wake up. She stretched, trying to work out the kink that seemed to have appeared in her back overnight. She suspected it might have something to do with a certain Kore taking over her bed roll, but she didn’t say anything on the matter. Looking around the camp groggily, the events from the previous evening slowly returned to her. She had stayed up with Ali long after many of the others had went to bed, explaining to the young woman about the magic of Kalidore and how it affected companions in particular; Lilaini hadn’t been sure, but she thought Ali seemed relieved by the information and hoped the young woman wouldn’t continue to feel self conscious about her new found talents.

The Guardian was pulled out of her thoughts when she felt whiskers rubbing against the back of her neck. She smiled and turned to find Gypsy’s green eyes staring into her own. *We should get the others up and moving. Liam is probably doing much better, but I think it would still be best for us to go to them rather than wait for them to come to us* the bronze mare’s words of wisdom rolled gently over the Guardian’s mind and as usual made perfect sense.

“Yes of course, I was just getting to that,” the young woman replied with a smile that suggested she hadn’t even come close to thinking that far ahead yet. Looking around, she saw that most of the others were waking as well. A thought came to her and she up and began gingerly searching through all the bags she had nearby. She did not find the red griffon she was searching for but she assumed he must be off hunting anyways and was not overly distressed. As she moved, she quickly began feeling more awake and she took a deep breath, filling her lungs with the crisp morning air.

*Lets go and tell the others to ready themselves, we should depart soon*
The bronze mare dipped her head in agreement and moved off in the opposite direction from her companion.

Her requests for help ignored, Xanthe took matters into her own hands. Er, hooves… hooves! THAT seemed to be the whole of the issue, she decided, as she began to chew at the laces again in vexation. She managed to get the pack mostly open, at least enough for her grab the other end and shake rigorously until things came out. She shuffled through the mess again with her nose. The spell she was looking for was one her mother used at length, as she went about her chores among the temple; it had never seemed that important to Xanthe, merely another hearth spell, until this very moment. Now it seem so perfectly honed she couldn’t believe she’d forgotten it in the first place. Plus, it had to be an easy one too…

At last she found what she was looking for with a triumphant hoot, and carried the scroll off to quietly study….

Tien Mu grazed her way slowly in the general direction of the camp. She was almost there when she came upon a certain dun filly hunched in equine fashion over an open scroll.

“Finding anything interesting?” she asked.

*

Trinity woke more as she splashed the cold water on her face, she was normally not a morning person, that was easy to see sometimes. She knew she was a little further downstream from the others that were awake already. Looking around to make sure she was alone in that spot, she figured a quick dip couldn’t hurt anything. Removing her shoes so they wouldn’t get wet, she began to slip the dress off, though little did she know of what was to come.

Aurellie had noticed her companion walk off from where they had spent the night, though knew she was headed for the stream. she followed silently as she could and watched the girl, keeping low so not even her horn was seen. With Trinity’s back still turned, the mare had a perfect little idea. Normally not the one to do such, she couldn’t resist. Sneaking up behind the girl, she placed her muzzle close to where the girl’s ear was supposedly and let out a whinny, then stood back quickly.

With a shriek and a turn, Trinity went splashing into the water.

“Faith an’ the Heavens THA’S COLD!!!” She yelped as she scrambled from the water, dripping wet. Emerald gaze went directly to the mare who was trying to hold back the laugh in her throat. “You….”

“Me? Me what?” Aurellie asked while trying to keep a straight face. “I didn’t do anything, except see you fall into the water. Must have been a ghost.”

“Ghost my wet feet,” muttered the girl as she shook her head. “Mornin’ te you too.”

“Morning, now that you’re awake,” Aurellie chuckled.

Now with having been wet, she figured there was no need for that dip, instead she started back to camp and let her clothing begin to dry, she was awake now. Her companion still snickering behind her.

Ali came to a groggy awakening. Camping was never her thing. She stretched, rubbing her eyes free from sleepiness. A first glance of camp, everyone was sleeping, but gradually they began to wake up too. Must be moving again, she thought. Last night wasn’t to bad of a sleep, at least her questions were cleared and answered. A new interest peaked in her mind, learning magic? She’s always dreamed about magic and it’s qualities, but never really thinking that the abilities were possible to her.

Fiera was standing nearby, rubbing her withers against a tree, relieving the itch that irritated her since she awoke to the sun barely rising. Of Odette there was no sign; she mused most likely the delicate mare couldn’t handle an adventure like this. Perhaps she traveled home, or went on her own adventure. Either way, Fiera knew the younger one would be safe.

“Awake yet?” Fiera glided over, smiling and tugging at Allison’s hair with her teeth. “Come, we are departing soon to meet the others.”

“Yes, I am…. alright—” the girl yawned “—let’s go.”

The morning was gorgeous and cool. Beautiful and peaceful, but Ali knew better to believe that Kalidore wasn’t without its dangers. She got up to roll up her sleeping bag and collect the few things around camp.

Alcyone watched Cheri scribble away in her notebook. When Cheri wrote, she had a strange way of closing off all her thoughts and emotions that made Alcyone somewhat nervous. Every once in a while she would catch a flash of pleasure or annoyance from her companion, but anyone else watching could have easily defined those flashes from the grin or scowl she aimed at the page. Sometimes Cheri would look up, gazing into space with her pen in her mouth, and these were the most disquieting times of all. It was like the girl wasn’t even there. Finally, she approached and nudged Cheri’s cheek with her nose.

Cheri looked up at her, blinking. “Huh?” Slowly the glaze that clouded her eyes dissipated until she could see the mare above her. “What?”

*Why sit here alone? Others gather at the stream. Wash up, and fellowship.*

Cheri bit her lip and glanced sidelong towards the stream. The sounds of splashes and exclamations reached their ears, and while she seemed curious she finally shook her head. “They sound busy. They don’t need me butting my nose in,” she ended with a pointed look.

*I merely thought some friends–*

“Look, if you’re so damned lonesome why don’t you go play with them?” Cheri interrupted. “Stars, you can be such a mother hen.”

Alcyone pulled herself up to her full height, tossed her head to fluff her mane, and gave Cheri a LOOK. A look that stated, so clearly one could almost hear the capitals, “I am a Daughter of Aerion, who is Son of Kaedon. I am Granddaughter to Kal, who formed This World with a flick of her graceful Hoof. You will treat me with the Respect and Deference one such deserves.” Cheri quailed under her stare, then looked at her lap, ashamed.

*I’m sorry, Dearest. I’m irritable and homesick, and i shouldn’t have taken it out on you. You’ve been so wonderful to me, and you don’t deserve to be spoken to like that. Forgive me?*

Alcyone huffed, then snuzzled Cheri so hard she knocked her on her back, giggling. *Always, Cherry Blossom. Now go. Tis difficult to be homesick when surrounded by friends.* Cheri looked again toward the stream and sighed.

“Here goes nothin’,” she said, and rose. “You coming?”

But Alcyone had been distracted. *I’ll join you shortly. Off with you, now.* When Cheri had left, Alcyone turned and strode toward a secluded area where she’d seen two figures disappear. She put a smile into her mind’s voice when she approached Xanthe and Tien Mu. *Greetings. What are you fine ladies up to this morning?*

Xanthe was making odd mumbling noises when the two unicorns approached so that she didn’t hear them right away. “Mmmeraffff-a-callaaah….” her mouth worked it’s way around the syllables. “Oh. Hi there. I’m just… practicing….”

When neither Tien Mu or Alcyone appeared to be moving on she straightened, figuring at explanation might be in order. Or at least to assure them there’d be more no more amphibians… “It’s a really basic spell that’s supposed to work on ties and fastenings, so I can get in and out of my packs without having to borrow a pair of hands. Meraffcalla!” she injected with feeling, but, nothing seemed to happen. She shrugged. “I still need a lot of work.”

At that moment Lilaini’s summons reverberated through the trees and the kore bounded to her feet alertly. “Oh! We get to go see Rhaine and Tyden! And the new companion. Lilaini said she’s having trouble adjusting. I bet I could find a spell for that too…. Mercaffalla!” she pronounced again, and bounded towards the others, glancing once over her shoulder to see if the others were coming.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

The halls were bustling and noisy as the students filed out of their classrooms. Tatiana was standing on her tiptoes, trying to catch a glimpse of her best friend Erica leaving her eleventh grade chemistry class. Her attempts were in vain though, at only 4’11”, standing on your tiptoes didn’t help much as you tried to see over the heads of people a foot taller than you. Luckily, Erica knew where to look for her, and found her where she stood in front of the fire extinguisher.

“How’d the test go?” Tatiana asked as she shouldered her bag and followed her friend as they merged into the mass of bodies heading for the front door. Erica groaned in response to her friends query, and ran her hand through her blonde hair.

“Oh Tia, I defiantly failed. I had NO idea what half of the questions were even talking about. I can’t wait for this semester to be over.” Tatiana smiled knowingly, she had thought the same thing about the test she had written in chemistry earlier that morning. “How did your art presentation go? You aced it didn’t you? That painting was amazing.” Erica asked as they emerged from the darkness of the school and stepped into the sun of the late afternoon.

“Well, I’m not sure, but I think it went really well,” she smiled happily. The teacher had really seemed to like the it, she hoped she was right in that assertion. Glancing around, she caught sight of a group of their friends standing on the edge of the parking lot near the edge of the woods. They saw her and Erica as well and waved them over. “Look, there’s Mark, Bree and the others,” she said to Erica as she pointed them out. “Lets go talk to them for a minute so we can figure out what we are doing tonight.” The blond girl nodded and both of them trotted across the parking lot to where the others stood waiting.

“Hey guys!” Tatiana sang out as they reached the group. They stood around making small talk for awhile, discussing where they were going this evening and what they would be doing. She listened and interjected her opinion where she could when she became aware of something vibrating in her pocket. Fumbling around, she searched for the small pink phone which was still angrily jarring around. Glancing at the call screen, she hurried answered the phone and turned her back on the group so she could hear better.

“Hello?” she said, plugging her other ear with her finger trying to hear, but her friends were shouting and laughing too loud and she still couldn’t hear what the person was saying. “Hang on!” she said and jogged into the forest trying to get away from all the noise and commotion of her friends, and the sound of the mass amount of cars exiting the parking lot. “Hello?” she tried again as she continued to walk further into the forest, attempting to distance herself from the boisterousness behind her. She stopped and pulled the phone away from her ear, she didn’t hear anything now. Peering at the screen she was annoyed to see that her phone was in Roaming mode and had apparently dropped the call. “Great,” she muttered to herself and stuffed the phone back into the pocket it had came from. She turned around and began heading back towards the parking lot which had still be in sight and then stopped. The parking lot was no where in sight. That was odd, she had only strayed a few feet into the woods. She turned around again, but still no parking lot. At this point, she realized she couldn’t hear the sounds emanating from the parking lot either. Standing motionless, the normal happy, carefree face crunched down into confusion. She wandered around for a few minutes and then became annoyed and sat down on a nearby log. If she really was lost, wandering around in circles wasn’t helping. She pulled out her phone again without much hope and quickly returned it to her pocket when it informed her with was still roaming and searching for a signal. What good were phones when they didn’t get a signal when you needed them most? Reaching into her other pocket she pulled out her Nano and put in one of her ear plugs, and began scanning through the songs.

At this very point a small, red pocket griffon happened to be in a nearby tree, happily munching the contents he had pilfered from someone’s bag around dawn. He was dropping crumbs, and smacking his beak together happily when a glinting object appeared below him. He stopped mid bite, beak still hanging open and his eyes bounced up and down, moving with the object. Dropping his precious cargo, he scuttled to the end of the tree branch to get a better look at what this fascinating object could be. It was like nothing he had ever seen, it just sat there and sparkled pink and silver in the sun. The human who was holding it, seemed unaware of his presence and he used this to his advantage. Leaping off the branch, he dive bombed towards her, compelled by the knowledge he HAD to possess this wonderful object.

Tatiana was so startled she fell right off the log she had been sitting on and landed on her back in a bed of leaves. A bizarre red bird like creature swooped down right in front of her and in her surprise she tossed the Nano that was in her hand as she went flying head over heels. Adar changed course in an instant, and couldn’t believe his luck when the object was suddenly airborn and coming right towards him! He grabbed it in midair with his claws and having retrieved his prize turned quickly and flew back towards camp. It took a split second for Tia to realize what had just happened, but as she saw the creature making off with the Nano her parents had just given her a few weeks prior for her birthday she launched herself back up onto her feet and ran after it in pursuit.

The branches tore at her skirt and if she had had time to think about it, she would have been very glad she had her knee high boots on, it was the only things saving her legs from being torn up by the thorns and branches as well, but it was at this precise moment that the creature was lost from her sight and she stumbled out of the underbrush and into the middle of a clearing filled with people and horses. She came to a sudden stop and looked around in bewilderment. It was the oddest assortment of people she had ever seen, some were dressed in clothes that were styled for several hundred years ago and others from periods she wasn’t even sure she could place. It was during this inspection she also realized it wasn’t horses that were with them. They were unicorns. This must be some type of medieval re-enactment fair in the middle of the woods, she thought to herself, although she couldn’t remember seeing any posters for something like that occurring so close to the school. You think she would have, it was a small town she lived in, not much happened. She stood there, still trying to figuring out what exactly was going on, when she saw the red creature flit into the middle of the crowd still carrying her Nano.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

The Guardian and her companion slowly led the way through the undergrowth in the early morning sun. She turned, placing a supporting hand on the bronze mare’s rump, and sought out a certain dun kore in the group that was trailing behind them. The filly had been looking at scrolls again before they had set off and Lilaini wanted to keep an eye out to ensure she wasn’t about to accidentally create anymore mischief.

It hadn’t taken long for the others to round themselves up once the summons had been sent. Everyone seemed eager to be reunited with their absent comrades and they reached the clearing where the battle with the cavebear had taken place, almost as swiftly as the pair had reached it the night before. Gypsy’s ears pricked as they took in the commotion at the stream a short distance off but she continued into the clearing where only Tyden, Odin, Liam, and Phae were still visible. Tyden was off to one side by himself and was packing up the items that Arieon had retrieve for him the preceding night. His silver companion was over with the other two and appeared to be keeping an eye on them.

Lilaini slipped off Gypsy’s back before the mare had even come to a complete stop. The group behind them continued to file into the clearing as the young woman took a step through the dew laden grass towards Tyden.
I want to know where Rhaine is, she said to her companion as she continued her course towards him. Let me know how the other two are doing. Gypsy whickered in agreemend and moved in the direction of her brother and his charges.

“Where is Rhaine? And the others?” she inquired once she had reached her destination. She stood there studying her friend as he shoved his belongings into one of the saddlebags he had brought.

Tyden slowed his packing as Lilaini approached, but didn’t turn to face her immediately. He straightened, drawing the strings together on the sack and securing it. “They’re at the creek, should be back shortly,” he answered, looking down the path in the direction the girls had gone. Sounds of splashing and talk drifted towards them, and he shook off the latent worry that had stayed with him from the night before. It would do him no good to be this on edge the entire journey, and he looked away again and rubbed the encumbering drowsiness from his eyes. He really just needed a good night’s sleep, that’s all, he told himself. Truth was he’d maybe had a brief hour or two, just before dawn, despite all his urging for Bryn to grabbed some of her own. He hoped Lilaini wouldn’t comment, because the last thing he needed now was her reprove. Packs tied he looked across the camp to Odin, without meeting her gaze.

“I’ll be heading home shortly for more supplies; we’ll need them after last night. If Odin and I leave now, we should be able to reach you again by late noon, if not sooner. I trust all will be well until then, and I will certainly be with you again before night fall.” It was a necessity, though he didn’t like it, and was sure Lilaini would have to agree, if somewhat begrudgingly. The worry still tugged him, and he buried it with more talk.

“Besides, the first pass into the Skyfields is easy-going, I don’t think even our newest companions will find issue with the terrain, and being part of Odin’s natural domain, should be quite harmless. Once you cross the valley you’ll be into harder lands, but I expect to be back then. I’ll only be an hour behind you, at the most.” Motion through the trees distracted as the sound of the bathers returning trickled into the clearing, he glanced briefly at them and continued, “Odin and I will make quick work of it, I expect, we’ll back before you miss us. And I think—” he head swung back again as he noticed that the returning group was at least twice as big as the one that had gone, including two more unicorns, another woman and a lanky young man. Rhaine was heralding them all wearing mostly what looked to be Bryn’s cloak.

Tyden blinked. “On second thought, maybe I should stay….”

“Morning, Lily!” Rhaine called upon spotting her friend. “Look – we have more company!” The grin on her face only widened, as she looked the two surprised faces that met her. “I hope you know where you packed breakfast, because I for one could eat — oh, Liam! You’re awake!”

Odin stepped silently aside as the girl bounded forth, flouncing down beside the reclining pair of Phae and her soldier. Her eyes danced, and she didn’t seem to notice the faint look of mortification on his face as she began to fuss with bandages and fixing, babbling a merry stream. “I’m so revealed to see you awake, you gave us a bit of scare there for a moment – no wait, don’t get up yet – let me fix that pillow for you…. there, how’s that? Are you experiencing any sharp pains? The wounds are going to be tender for a few days but they really did heal up marvelously, just look at them! No, no – stay down, you’ll see them later. How are you feeling?” she hovered, peering down in the most doting of manners, and quite apparent she wasn’t going away. “Are you hungry? Thirsty? Do let me know what I can do to make you more comfortable. I am so very glad you are alright.”

Traveling amongst the others following Gypsy and Lillaini Tien Mu did what she could to rein in her impatience to be with the others. Really there wasn’t much she could do. Constantly she was slowing herself as she found she was crowding the unicorn in front of her. Disgusted with herself she looked around for a distraction. Spying Alcyone she worked her way over to the blue unicorn.

“So what do you make of Xanthe’s work over the scrolls this morning?” she asked with a bit of a chuckle.

Alcyone shuffled along with the rest of the crowd that followed Lilaini’s call. She nodded to Tien Mu as she approached and was about to answer when they came into the clearing. Seeing the subject of their discourse bounce off Luminista and a girl (who was probably the new companion the others had been murmuring about in their heads), Alcyone couldn’t help but chuckle, too.

*Very enthusiastic, she. And with the best of intentions. The spell was an inspired idea. She merely needs some practice.*
She looked over and saw the other mare fidgeting. *But you seem vexed. Is something amiss?* She cast her dark amber eyes about the clearing, searching for her Cheri in case danger was afoot.

Oh yes, there she was. Trailing behind the other group that came from the stream, biting her lip and dithering. She could see that Cheri wanted to join in the laughter and concern that moved around the group, but was afraid. Alcyone wanted to simultaneously roll her eyes and comfort the girl, but did neither. If there was no immediate threat, she would stand by and let Cheri handle this herself.

Tien Mu’s ears swiveled as she took in the words of the blue mare as well as all the other happenings of the clearing. “Hm? Amiss?” she said rather distractedly. Giving herself a mental shake she allowed herself to relax as the presence of her two friends sank into her consciousness. Returning her focus to Alcyone, she laughed at herself. “I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I am afraid I was fretting over Foehn Miri and Luminista. It had me a bit distracted.”

“Shall we go over and meet Luminista’s new companion?” Tien Mu asked. She was eager to meet the newcomer, but didn’t want to be rude by deserting Alcyone.

Alcyone glanced to Cheri, who was glaring at her accusingly. *Thought you were supposed to be right behind me,* she heard in her mind.

*And here i am,*
she sent back, throwing all the innocence she could muster into her expression. She then turned back to Tien Mu and nodded. *Yes, let’s introduce ourselves. I’m curious as well.* She winked at the black mare and walked with her towards the new companions.

Upon their return Tiponi viewed with noticeable amazement the increased numbers. Her eyes tracked the healer as she moved over to the injured soldier and her wonderment increased at the fussing poured on the injured man.

She began to shift uncomfortably when Luminista broke into her thoughts and said, “Come. I want you to meet another of my friends.” With that Luminista nudged her along into the direction of a large black unicorn.

Xanthe had gambled into the clearing with an extra bouncy flourish, just to make the bells on her newly tied pack tinkle. Thusly arrived, she looked around the grounds in search of familiar faces and easily spotted Lilaini had found Tyden and the two were talking. Movement from beyond the trees had her look up, finding Rhaine and some others returning, and was about to go bounding forward when the woman’s sudden exclamation made her skid to halt when she realized where she was headed.

Him. Again!…

The half-grown kore’s eyes pierced the small group, hawk-like and fierce, watching the scene with growing trepidation. Why? First Phae, then Rhaine, and even her father (whom she thought impervious to everything, the least of which being some disheveled warlock’s spell) It didn’t make sense…

…Then again, he had used his mastery to outwit her, and Kal knows what a feat THAT must have been. The kore sighed, determination only more keenly honed. I’m watching you, soldier, oh yes I am, she eyeballed him some more, and, starting across the grounds that way with head cocked sideways she collided directly into Luminista and a tall young woman with a resounding “OOOF!”

Xanthe nearly sat back on her haunches, the bells merging together into an disharmonious cascade. “Er, good morning?” she beguiled.

Scrambling to keep her feet, Tiponi brought her empty hand away from her neck as the reality of the “threat” sank in. A young unicorn. The wonder of talking animals flitted through her mind at the words of the young one, but with so many new things it was mentally pushed aside – again. She accepted it as her new reality. Maybe someday she would dwell upon it and marvel, but right now she just had too much on her plate. How do you change a lifetime of hard lessons (the treachery of men) to become at ease with what had always been a threat?

Luminista chuckled at the kore’s exuberance. “Xanthe, meet my companion, Tiponi. Tiponi, this exuberant and distracted one is Xanthe,” Luminista introduced. “What has you so distracted, young one?” she asked.

*

At the other edge of the clearing Tia stood staring blankly when motion in the brush nearby made her turn. A rather large wolf emerged from the bushes, a strange rabbit-like creature dangling from his mouth. At the site of her he dropped the animal, fixing her with pale golden eyes. “Good morrow to you, companion of Kal. I don’t suppose you folks would like share of my breakfast?

*

Lilaini was about to answer when she heard her friend’s voice call out to her. Turning around happily, she caught sight of her fellow Guardian, returning with an ever growing amount of humans and unicorns. She looked over the newcomers before responding.

“It seems we have all grown again over night,” she replied, waving an arm in the direction of the group she had brought with her from the original camp. “And, yes I did pack….” she was cut off as Rhaine’s attention was suddenly diverted from breakfast to Liam’s reawakening. Chuckling at her friend, she turned back to Tyden.

“Of course you don’t need to stay. We are perfectly able to hand things in your absence for a few hours. You better get moving then if you’re going to go, that way we will all be reunited by nightfall.” And with that, she turned and glided gracefully over towards the others to check on the fallen soldier.

Tyden began to speak, but Lilaini was already half way across the clearing. He stood there sputtering while coming to terms with the futility of it all, reached down for his pack and followed silently after.

Rhaine looked up at Lilaini’s arrival and matched her grin, mostly because she hadn’t stopped grinning herself yet. “Look who’s up!” she announced, as if she really was genuinely astounded by the revelation and unable to restrain her glee. “Can you believe how well he looks after the night before?” Liam, who hadn’t managed to get himself upright yet, thanks to Rhaine’s indulgent doting, turned his somewhat pained expression upon the second Guardian, feeling all the more self-conscious by the minute. However Rhaine was momentarily distracted by Tyden’s arrival, thumping his sack down to rummage briefly and silently handed her a swash of lightly blue cloth.

Rhaine took the material as it unfurled and saw it was a shirt. “Oh!” her face coloured slightly as realization dawned. Her brows creased and she turned back to Liam, offering the garment propitiously. “I am so terribly sorry – your armor, I fear I’ve made a mess of it… Perhaps Tyden can see what he has to mend it again, and you can wear this in the meantime…”

Tyden’s face remained expressionless as he reached down again and retrieved another shirt, passing it to the woman again deliberately. Rhaine regarded this second garment with brow raised, and when she didn’t take it immediately he proffered it again. Her questioning eyes met his deadpan. Then she blinked. “Oh…”

He averted his gaze as she pulled the white garment over her camisole, turning to Odin. The stallion was already nodding, “we’ll leave at once.” Tyden responded by taking up a handful of dark mane as he climbed astride. “We’ll be back before nightfall, and meet you at the pass. Summon me if I am needed sooner and we’ll do our best…”

“Go,” Lilaini rolled her eyes at him. “We’re fine.”

Tyden openly ignored her as he craned his neck, Odin circling neatly, and gazed down at the solider. “Truly, my apologies for again leaving you to face such peril alone,” he shot sidelong at the two Guardians. The stallion turned gracefully, and the pair slipped quietly away through the evergreens and were gone.

Tia’s frown had only increased as she watched the proceedings that were happening in the clearing. No one yet seemed aware of her presence and she observed a man hop onto one of the unicorns and exit the clearing. She was too far away to hear what was going on, but she was beginning to become very suspicious of the contents of the cookies Mark had given her during lunch hour. Damn him, she thought half heartedly, realizing she had too good of a grip on everything that was happening at the moment for it to not be real. A voice rang out behind her, startling her out of her inner quandary, and she ever so slowly craned her neck around towards the owner of the voice.

A large wolf stood very close by, and had something that resembled a rabbit strewn out in front of it. It was in mid sentence when she locked eyes with it, and her mouth parted slightly in shock. It was speaking to her, although little of what it initially said made any sense to her. Companion of Kal? What’s a Kal? she wondered, her brain doing a quick inventory check trying to find a place where this word had some type of association to her. It found none, and she quickly concentrated on the remaining part of the animal’s sentence. Breakfast? Her eyes trailed down the wolf’s legs and again rested on the unfortunate creature at it’s feet. Raw rabbit’s for breakfast?, the thought made her stomach turn and she forced her eyes back onto the wolf.

“I don’t think I’m in Kansas anymore,” she muttered the line from her favourite childhood movie, which now seemed ironically appropriate. Hesitantly, she took a small step forwards, keeping her eyes locked onto the wolf’s with the except of a few fleeting glances to the group that now stood almost entirely behind her. “Um..I don’t know what you mean by Daughter of Kal, but I’m Tatiana…”, she allowed her voice to trail off, as she felt rather foolish standing in the middle of a clearing talking to a wolf. She wondered if some type of internal instinct should be kicking in telling her to flee from the creature that stood before her, but none registered so she stood there somewhat awkwardly and waited to see if the creature, or anyone else, planned on filling her in on what exactly was going on.

“Kansas?” the wolf cocked his head askew, a rather comical dog-like gesture, even on something as rugged as dark-faced wolf. “I have not heard of it, but I do not know all places that lie beyond the forest’s boundaries. You are within the Kaledon; I am called Tali,” he added, in response to her introduction.

Foehn Miri surveyed the now crowded clearing seeing Tien Mu in conversation with Alcyone and Luminista with Tiponi and Xanthe. Hearing a nearby rustle of underbrush she initially didn’t pay much attention, instead she continued to take in the camp’s activity. When a voice in the direction of the rustling mentioned sharing breakfast Foehn Miri finally looked over to see the forest sentry with a furry mass at his feet addressing yet another newcomer.

Stepping over to the two, Foehn Miri delicately sniffed at the unappealing furry lump. How to say this without offending the sentry, she wondered. Casting a glance at the young newcomer who had just introduced herself as Tatiana, Foehn Miri put in, “There is also some sweet clover down by the stream and some watercress as well should you wish to add to the sentry’s, um, tempting? offer.”

Nodding her head with satisfaction at her own quick thinking, Foehn Miri added, “I, for one, am pleased to meet you, Tatiana. My name is Foehn Miri.”

As the dark chestnut mare drew up along them Tali regarded the anagale again thoughtfully, noting the somewhat squeamish look on the young girl’s face. “Well, perhaps…. I have heard about a practice among companions to employ… seasonings? And cooking. Though I never did understand either practice myself.” He shrugged, and scooped the bundle into his jaws, nodded politely at the pair as he continued forward to find the guardians.
In spite of her situation, Tatiana couldn’t help but allowing a characteristic grin to return to her face. The wolf, who introduced himself as Tali, had assumed a head position that was amusing and somewhat reminded her of the way her husky back home looked at her when she prattled on to him as though he understood her. The difference here being of course that Tali did understand her, and she had the feeling he would also be offended at her thoughts of him acting similar to a dog, so she said nothing but began to feel more at ease with the creature.

The young girl was about to ask where exactly Kaledon was when a dark chestnut unicorn drew up alongside her and also began speaking. Does everything speak around here? she wondered to herself, her eyes transfixed on the mares horn, trying to discern whether or not it was really attached to her forehead or not. Obviously, logic told her that it couldn’t be, but then again, this creature was also speaking to her. Perhaps when she went running into the forest she had tripped and cracked her head on something. This might just all be some weird hallucination, which certainly made more sense than it being reality. Tia decided she would try pinching herself, didn’t they always do that in books? Ok maybe not, but she was going to try anyways. “Ow!” she muttered under her breath as her fingers squeezed the skin on her thigh. So much for that theory, she thought to herself and shrugging her shoulders slightly, she gave up trying to discern whether she was awake, hallucinating, or genuinely having a conversation with two talking animals.

“Nice to meet you both,” she said smiling again. “I’ll pass on breakfast entirely thank you though,” she replied to the mares offer of clover and watercress, as well as the wolf’s offer of possibly cooking the creature dangling from his mouth. Neither were overly appealing to her, but she hoped she hadn’t offended them. Another question nearly touched her lips but just before it managed to break forth, Tali loped off towards to group to their right. “Ermm….should we follow him?” she asked the chestnut mare. The girl didn’t really know what else she could do at this point, wandering back off into the woods didn’t seem like a very good option but the group of strangers might not be welcoming. She looked back at the unicorn to see what her suggestion would be.

*

Xanthe peered briefly at the tall woman before Lumanista’s query inadvertently drew her gaze back towards the source of her discontent, simmering about him a moment longer before she remembered the importance of a covert operation. “Distracted? what, me?” she threw her attention forward again emphatically, seizing upon Tiponi again. “Pleased to meet you, I’m Xanthe. I was just… memorizing spells. Because, I’ve been practicing,” she nodded again, obviously pleased that she could say such a thing truthfully and out loud. “I think I’m getting better, too. My newest one, I think it’s even starting to sound… authentic? Mercaffalla!” she reiterated again, with feeling.

At the young kore’s words Tiponi felt movement within her clothing. She hardly knew where to reach first resulting in a comical display of flailing limbs. Ultimately she reached for her back, one hand from the top trying to catch the knife before it slid (too late) and the other from below catching the blade before it dropped to the ground. The slithering in her boots as those knives slid down caused a shiver to race up her spine, but those she could tend to latter.

Xanthe took a half-step backwards as the woman began flailing wildly, wondering if this strange dance was some kind of greeting ceremony from whatever culture she so recently heralded (Liliani had said she was having trouble adjusting; this had rendered an untold number of accounts within the kore’s rapidly impressionable young mind). As a small rain of knives escaped from her person Xanthe suddenly wondered if she had bungled her spells again – created an arming charm, or maybe more pointedly a disarming charm. She took another step back to clear the way she heard a similar un-chinking of buckles and was suddenly aware that the weight on her back was shift, fast. Alarm lit her eyes and she tried to counter it, skedaddling sideways as she tried to get her feet beneath it. The effort was well-choreographed but equally ineffective; another step and the packs Lilaini had finished securing only moments before came to the ground with thump.

Xanthe blinked. She stood stock stills so that even the bells in her mane were silent, after the cacophony of falling saddlepacks had died away. The pack of apples had also come undone and the liberated fruit went bouncing clear across the clearing, one coming to land finally against the fair guardian’s boot.

There was… probably something she ought to say right now, the dun kore realized dully. “Gesundheit?”

Lilaini was just standing up to go and look for some breakfast, when a piece of breakfast connected with her foot. Reaching down, she picked up the apple that had just happily bounced across the clearing, and slowly looked towards the kore who had only moments before been carrying this particular piece of fruit. The scene that met her eyes caused her some confusion, as she noticed all the bags she had only moments before loaded onto Xanthe, were now strewn about around the filly. Not only that but she managed to catch the tail end of Tiponi’s contortions. The dun filly wore the ever familiar look of guilt upon her face and the Guardian just shook her head and laughed.

“Rhaine, it appears that breakfast decided to find us first,” she said while offering her friend the apple she held in her hand. “Come now, up with you. Lets find something for Liam to eat other than apples.”

*

Tia had been waiting for the chestnut mare to give her some insight into the next course of action, when a rather dusty red apple rolled past her feet. Following it with her eyes, the traveling piece of fruit came to an abrupt halt underneath a nearby bush. Turning, Tia looked in the direction the fruit had just come from, and saw what looked like a nearly grown unicorn surrounded by apples which appeared to have fallen from the packs tethered onto her back.

“Perhaps we should help retrieve these?” she said to Foehn Miri as she rummaged around beneath the bush in an attempt to retrieve the awol apple. After scrapping herself several times and breaking off a few branches, Tia was able to get a hold of the apple and righted herself. She began slowly walking towards the dun filly, picking up arrant apples as she went. When she had reached the filly, her arms were full of the shiny red orbs and she smiled warmly.

“I think these are yours,” she said gesturing the apples towards the young unicorn.

Xanthe looked up at the young girl and regarded her offering ruefully. “Er, thanks. I think… I had an incident. Happens sometimes, you know,” she continued as the girl began stuffing the fruit back into the sack. “Magic can be kinda unpredictable. But I’m getting better. Really. Just… not right now.”

The kore stood quietly as Tia tied the strings and secured the pack, some of the embarrassment fading as she watched. “You’re new, aren’t you?” she said at last. “I’m Xanthe. Are you coming to the skylands with us? And who’s your companion?”

Tia liked the dun filly immediately. She continued tying the strings to reattach the pack onto her new acquaintances back, throughout a torrent of comments and questions, none of which made much sense to her.

“Magic?” she breathed questioningly more to herself than to the filly. “Ummm, yes I suppose I’m new, although I’m not really sure where I’m knew to exactly,” she paused and gave a cursory glance around her before continuing. “I’m not really sure what the skylands are and I’m not sure what you mean by companion. I’m not even sure how I’ve gotten to….wherever it is that I am right now. I just left school with my best friend and we went out into the parking lot to talk with some of our friends. My phone rang, but I couldn’t hear so I went into the woods a bit to try and get some quiet. But my stupid phone lost the signal, and then I turned around and everything had disappeared. No parking lot, no friends, no school. So I sat down and grabbed my ipod to listen to some music. My parents always told me when I was little not to wander around in the woods if I was lost, that I should sit still and wait for someone to find me. So that’s what I did, and then all of a sudden this weird red birdlike thing came and stole my ipod from me! So I went chasing after it and that’s when I stumbled into this clearing.” She ended her speech and looked questioningly at filly, wondering if she would have some explanation that would make even the slightest bit of sense. Her eyes couldn’t help but wander to the kore’s forehead and study the horn that sprouted there. It really did look attached she mused to herself as she awaited a reply.

Foehn Miri followed Tia, but it took her a bit longer to reach Xanthe. Upon reaching her first errant apple she picked it up with her teeth and continued on to the next apple. Standing over the second apple she considered the one in her mouth then the one on the ground. With a mental shrug she bit the apple in two, chewed, swallowed, then ate the other half. Picking up the apple at her feet Foehn Miri repeated the process. In this way she followed the newcomer, arriving in time to hear Xanthe’s question. Interested in hearing the answer herself, Foehn Miri stood behind the girl and waited for the answer while munching on yet another apple.

Phone? What is a phone? Or an eye pod?
she wondered.

Xanthe discreetly nibbled at a missed apple while the girl began to work on the packs, picking each from the ground and securing them into place. It seemed she hadn’t done it before, because she kept fiddling with the straps and pushing the bags around until they settled. While she worked she talked, and the kore’s ears curved to catch her words; the last tie secured, Tia stood back to admire her handiwork and concluded with her unusual arrival in the clearing.

Xanthe swallowed the remnants of apple, wondering briefly what and i-pod was. “Well, I can tell you how you arrived – it was a Gate, obviously.” When this didn’t alight a spark of recognition in the girl she peered curiously. “Have you no Gates where you come from? I know they’re uncommon on earth. You’re now on Kalidore, and you must be here because you’re someone’s companion. Unless you’re a witch” (she stole a glace upwards briefly) “but I don’t think you’re witch. My mother’s companion, Rhaine, can explain it all much better then me… but she’s busy. So… I suppose I can help show you around. I’ve even been to earth you know, so I can relate!” she grinned all the more eagerly, moving forward to bump the girl with her nose.

She bounded a few steps before sliding abruptly to a stop. “Wait, what did you say your name was again? I must have forgot. Sometimes I get ahead of myself. I’m Xanthe,” she repeated again, for good measure. “You’ll love it in Kalidore, I promise. And I’ll tell you all about it on the way to the skylands…”

Tatiana had had some difficulty attaching the straps onto the kore, but she had plunged ahead in her task and was pleased with the end result, as the packs appeared to be secured. At the end of her soliloquy she heard a loud crunching behind her and saw that Foehn Miri had indeed decided to help her gather the apples, but not exactly in the same manner. She realized it had been a silly request anyways, she had no hands, what had she expected the mare to gather apples with? She grinned sheepishly at the mare, as if this explained everything.

When Xanthe came to the conclusion of what she could tell was an obvious explanation (one though unfortunately, that made little sense to the teenager before her), Tia chewed on her lip ring absentmindedly for a moment, trying to digest everything she had just heard. Almost unconsciously, she reached into her pocket for the tiny pink phone that was still hidden there. Pulling it out, she turned her head sideways and glanced on it. It was still simply telling her there was absolutely no service. She sighed quietly, and put it back into her pocket. She hadn’t really expected to get a signal anyways.

“Obviously we aren’t near any cell phone towers? Well I would guess not if we are near something called “Skylands” that sounds like mountains, so it would block out most signals,” she paused and mentally dissected what the filly had said to her before continuing.

“My name is Tatiana, but you can call me Tia, all my friends do. We do have Gates where I’m from but they are generally attached to fences and I can’t say anything exciting happens when you go through them, other than you happen to be standing on the opposite side of it. And nothing disappears when you do that.” She paused again and looked at the chestnut mare to see if there was any sign of recognition for what she was talking about. The mare seemed to be mulling over something else at the moment though so she continued. “I am certainly not a witch, where I’m from those don’t exist and I still have no idea what a companion is. So I’m…..I’m not on earth anymore?” This part of Xanthe’s explanation had only just sunk in with her. She wasn’t on earth anymore? How could that be? Was she in some other dimension? Because she couldn’t had just left the planet entirely. Science had never been her favorite subject, but she was certain that there were no lush forests on Jupiter.

She looked absentmindedly towards the group that was still bustling along nearby them, preparing apparently for a departure towards these Skylands. Was she going there? She peered around her again and wasn’t sure where exactly she planned on going. She wondered what time it was, and cursed herself for never wearing a watch and always relying on her cell phone. She was certain her absence at home had not yet been missed. After all, it was a Friday, her parents would assume she was with her friends. But what were her friends thinking when she hadn’t appeared from the forest? Certainly someone by now would be looking for her?

She turned back to the kore and met her eyes uncertainly. “Well, I’m not sure if I should be going anywhere with you guys…..like I said I just stumbled off into the forest….don’t you think someone will come here looking for me? How am I going to get home to my parents ? They will get worried when I don’t come home….” She broke off, uncertainty gnawing at her uncomfortably. The odd thing she realized though, was she had no real desire to be at home right now. This place was beautiful and she must admit she was very intrigued by all these talking creatures, but she didn’t want to cause any undue stress to her friends or family. They were always so good to her. Oh if only her stupid cell phone would work! She clutched her pocket, a look of momentary frustration crossed her normally happy face before she quickly made it return to normal. Uncertainly, she took a few steps in the direction the kore had went, and then began walking after her faster deciding she would indeed follow. “So…are you really a unicorn?” she hoped neither the dun filly or the chestnut mare would find this question offensive but unicorns didn’t exist, and neither did talking wolves for that matter, and she just felt she needed some type of confirmation that she wasn’t simply hallucinating. Hallucinations didn’t answer your questions did they?

Fascination coloured her face as Xanthe’s eyes fell on the shiny pink object in Tia’s hands, and her nose came towards it, pulling in the unfamiliar scent. She would have tongued it too, but decided that might be a bit forward. The girl was talking about towers anyways, and she shrugged. “There’s only the one tower on Kalidore, at the temple. That’s where I live. Those are the Skyfields,” she nudged the girl at the mountains, peeking through the thin trees. “Not sure what a fence is though,” her tail flicked contemplatively. “And nope. Not Earth. Kalidore. That’s what happens when you go through a gate! Though actually, I think you can go other places as well, because Tyden uses them to travel all the time… now wouldn’t that be worlds of fun? No pun intended… And of course I’m a unicorn,” the kore bobbed her head emphatically. “Just what is it with you humans?”

The girl had begun to follow her, and the worry about her missing home touched Xanthe’s ears. She waited for Tia to catch up, eyes scanning the clearing for a better source of help; that’s when she noticed Tyden had rode off alone, and a pang of disappointment crossed her at the prospect of being left behind. And Rhaine was still in too close quarters with the solider for her to risk putting Tia in danger too, so she turned towards Lilaini, who was started towards her anyway with another apple in hand.

“Look! This is Tia – she just got here, and she’s not a witch. But her friends will be looking for her. And she lost her eye-pawd. She can still come with us though, right?”

*

Cheri huffed, giving a fairly accurate rendition of Alycone’s customary snort. When Alcyone turned away, effectively dismissing her, she sighed. Kicked out of the nest again, eh? Suppose i better try to fly. She looked around for the easiest people to talk to, but didn’t see Tyden or Liam. Drat. She spied Lilaini, but Cheri had to admit to herself that she was still more than a little intimidated by the Guardians. What, me? Frightened of strong, self-confident beautiful women? Never.

Cheri was distracted from her sarcasm as she stepped around the clearing and came upon a girl talking to a wolf and a blond-maned unicorn. She regarded the girl and her piercings and multi-colored hair and smiled. Ah, she thought fondly. My people. She followed the girl and the mare into the clearing, working up the nerve to say hello and listening to her conversation with Xanthe. When Xanthe turned away to talk to Lilaini she stepped forward.

“Hi. My name’s Cheri. I’m pretty new here, too. Sorry, i was kinda eavesdropping. I don’t mean to be rude, i’m just… kinda shy. As far as i can tell the Gates are kinda like wormholes, or maybe like Stargate or something. I still haven’t figured out if we’re on a different planet or another plane of existence or what. I do know you might as well save your cell’s battery for when you get home, if that’s where you’re wanting to go. Cell towers are as non-existent in this world as, well, talking unicorns and pocket griffins are in ours…”

Tia mulled over what Xanthe had said, but still came to the conclusion that most of it didn’t make any sense. She shrugged, resigned that she would simply have to accept she wasn’t going to understand what was going on here. Just go with the flow, she told herself. She had caught up at this point, looking from the Kore back to the woman, she got the distinct impression this was someone with some authority or was at least leading the group around. She eyed the woman furtively, but as she scanned her face she saw it looked kind, and so she hoped her sudden appearance wouldn’t be shunned. As the two spoke, she heard a voice beside her and nearly jumped. It was girl, but someone who looked much more like she did than the rest of the humans she had seen thus far. The girl introduced herself as Cheri, and she proceeded to speak English which made sense to her. She was delighted. Taking in everything the other girl said, things at least made sense. They didn’t seem possible, but at least in theory, she had some concept of what was going on.

“Really? So I must have went through one of these portals in the forest? That’s so weird, I mean it was right off the parking lot I wonder why no one else has ever just disappeared like that then?” She glanced down at the cell phone she was still clutching in her hand as Cheri told her that there were no cell phones in this world, or dimension, or whatever it was. She sighed and flipped it open, pressing down on the red button which turned the cell phone off. Stuffing it in her pocket, she looked back up. “So…I can go home if I wanted to? Because I walked all over when I first got here and I didn’t accidentally walk back through whichever gate got me here. I was beginning to think perhaps they were one way tickets…” She paused and wondered if she wanted to go back? She liked living in the moment and this seemed like something you shouldn’t pass up, but she didn’t want anyone to worry either. And if she didn’t show up at home tonight, people would defiantly begin to worry.

Lilaini was beginning to wonder just how many new humans they were going to be finding wandering around the Isle on this journey. This was unprecedented and she realized how strange it felt to be in the company of so many humans, when it had been just the three of them for so long. It was a good strange though, reminded her of times past. Pulling herself from her thoughts, she smiled as Xanthe introduced the newest addition and was intrigued by the variety of decorations the girl adorned on her body. She would have to ask her about that sometime.

“Welcome to Kalidore Tia,” she said with a smile as she reached out and rubbed Xanthe’s forehead. “And yes of course, you are more than welcome to come on our journey with us, we are heading to the Skylands.” She studied the girl for a moment and then added, “but you are not obligated to stay here. If you would like to return home we will help you do that as soon as possible. But time does not pass the same here as it does on Earth, so while you may stay here for awhile, you could return to earth without your absence being greatly noticed.” She said this and flashed another reassuring smile as she read the girl’s hesitation on her face. “Please feel welcomed, and let us know if there if is anything of us you require.”

Something clicked in Cheri’s mind. “Hey, you said a red bird thing stole your pod?” She turned to Lilaini, who had approached. “I bet it was your pocket griffin i tried to catch, the one that attacked Tyden’s head. You know, i had a cat once that did that. Attacked my boyfriend, i mean. It’s funny how pets can get all possesive and jealous of their owners’ significant others, huh?” She gave Lilaini a tentative smile.

At the mention of the ipod, and the Guardian listened as Adar was accused of thievery. It certainly sounded like something he would do, she mused. She balked slightly as she began to walk towards where the creature was hiding, at the mention of significant others. Her eyes widened slightly, assessing the insinuation that Tyden was her significant other. Her mouth opened, and then closed again as the girl smiled sweetly at her. “I…will go and find Adar…” she said after a moment’s pause and quickly strode off in search of the culprit.

She found him rummaging around in one of the food bag’s and snatched him up. He was still clutching the object that clearly must be the missing eye-pod, but was still attempting to shove food into his beak as well. As a result, the object was slightly smeared with some food that was no longer identifiable. Scolding him, she extracted the object from him and placing him on her shoulder she carried it back to it’s rightful owner. She attempted to rub the food off with her the bottom of her skirt with only minor success, and handed it back to Tia with an apologetic look.

Tia eyed the creature on the woman’s shoulder warily, but accepted her ipod back, quickly realizing the reason for the woman’s apologetic look. She continued to rub the food off of it and then stuffed it into her pocket as the woman turned and wandered back towards the group. “What is that creature?” she asked to the small group that was now around her. “A pocket griffon?” There was so much to learn and see here, that thoughts of home were almost entirely pushed from her mind as took in the new world around her.

Tali, anagale in mouth, wove his way efficiently through the tangle of legs and bodies as he sought out the Guardians. The Lady Rhaine seemed occupied tending to the fallen companion, so he decided not to bother her further, turning his attention then upon the Lady Lilaini instead. She was talking with the others, having just retrieved the troublesome small red griffon from his current mess-making; Tali wondered if she might want him dealing with the problem in a more permanent fashion. He decided he’d ask her that later, after the present order was dealt with, and that returned his attention to the anagale.

He loped forward in a short burst, brushing past the confused companion still working to re-tie all her knives and taking care not to further disturb the small one he had approached earlier. He sidled alongside Cheri and Lilaini. “Brrrrrfff,” he began, which in retrospect sounded awfully snarly and impolite with mouth full; he put the rodent down. “Breakfast?” he addressed them hopefully.

The look on the faces of all around were enough to give him pause. He reconsidered what the flaxen mare had said and regarded the anagale once more. “Well, I suppose it is a little… small. Not much meat to go around. And gamey. I probably should have… considered that…. which kinds of game you are most partial for. I know so very little about companions,” he bowed his head. “My pardon, I will take leave of you for your meal, and myself tidy up.”

With that he snatched the ruffled pelt and disappeared into the bush to allow the humans to observe their breakfast rituals in peace.

*

Alycone watched the sceane unfold, her eyes lit with mirth. She noticed a small sheath had been kicked aside and picked up its strap in her teeth, holding it out to its owner. Tiponi took the knife handed to her and restored it to its proper place as she listened to the nearby conversation. Munching yet another wayward apple Foehn Miri jerked a little in surprise as some of the juice got away from her and dripped from the corner of her mouth. With a quick look around she wasn’t sure if she was glad or disappointed that Arieon was not near to notice. He would have been totally grossed out and appalled. While her delicate femininity would have taken a hit with him, watching his reaction, and him trying to control it, would have been hilarious.

Arieon meanwhile, had decided to go to the stream as well, but ensured he went a great distance from the place the human women were going so that he was not intruding upon their privacy which he has perceived they might want. Once he had found himself an unoccupied section of the stream, he began his morning preening process which seemed to take so much longer with all this fighting, and running about in the forest, and sleeping in unsettled terrain. He glanced at the wound he still bore and shuddered slightly at the marring to his beautiful coat. Turning his head, he looked away and focused on picking out debris from his tail and forelocks. Dust covered his normally gleaming coat and after several frustrating minutes he gave up and waded into the water. He submerged himself with great difficulty but felt so much better once his bath was complete.

Clambering out of water, he stood dripping on the bank allowing the sun to warm him. Giving himself a great shake, he sent water spraying in all directions and returned to the water’s edge to admire himself once more. Much better, he thought. Slightly damp still, but no debris and no dust. Nodding with satisfaction, he turned and headed back to the group.

Everyone was milling around when he reentered the clearing, so his eyes searched for something to do. Lilaini seemed engaged, and Rhaine was no where in sight. His eyes focused in on a flaxen chestnut mare who was standing near Xanthe. He trotted over to the small group and bowed slightly. “Foehn Miri isn’t it? How are you this fine morning?”

At the pale stallion’s words Foehn Miri gave a semi-guilty start and, as discreetly as possible, tidied her mouth as she swallowed the last of the apple.

“Er, um, yes, I am Foehn Miri,” she finally managed to say. “It is a fine day isn’t it? Have you had any breakfast yet? There are some apples lying about…” Foehn Miri looked about trying to find an apple to offer Arieon in the hopes of distracting him from what she just knew to be her still-messy mouth. It was one thing to imagine his majestic reaction and, she was discovering, quite another thing to be standing there with him. She was finding herself to be quite embarrassed. If only the stallion were not so bloomin’ handsome!

“Ah, yes,” she continued brightly, “there is one right over there by that pack. They are really quite tasty and sweet.” Taking the single step necessary she reached down and picked up the apple then stretched out her neck to offer it to the stallion.

* * *

With the breakfast complete and the packs secured, Rhaine busied herself with seeing Liam back atop the anxious bay unicorn, Phae warning sternly that if he fell off and brained himself again she’d kill him herself. Liam had given up protesting for the time being, mostly because it only seemed to warrant more attention from the two of them. Soon the second camp was cleared and the expanded group made to depart, passing by the funeral pyre in solemn form, bidding farewell to both the Kaledon and their fallen foe.

Gypsy took up the lead, Lilaini sitting high to survey the path ahead. The mountains before them rose from the earth, pushing towards the sky in gentle waves and gaining momentum with each rise; each spreading ravine marked further and further away from the Kalidore they knew. How deep into this unfamiliar land would they press? Lily gazed across the rolling slopes; already the terrain grew rougher, by now trees were relegated to small clusters, the ground rocky and unyielding. A goat path wound up the slope, and this was the route they took; un-mounted travelers made for slower progress, but so did unseasoned riders up the rambling and uneven mountain trails. She sighed, but was careful to keep her eyes forward, worries kept carefully to herself.

They climbed well into the morning. As the sun peeked overhead, Rhaine untied the scarf from her waist and drew it over her hair and beneath her chin, offering some protection from the heat. Ahead, Lily had already donned her sunbonnet. They had stopped to rest a short while ago, but already she sensed fatigue – not so much from the seasoned unicorns, but from the youth among them and the companions; even a particularly lively golden dun had sagged into tired silence, the only sound the rhythmic jingling of bells as she followed determinedly behind the lead. The crest of the hill rose up, unending, the sky above so piercing blue; the sun would begin its decent before them.

Tali plodded on with tongue lolling out, pausing every now and then to inspect a pad or half-heartedly lick at the dust on that paled his grey paws. He did not stick to the path, darting to and fro to investigate unusual crevices and strange smells. Mid-morning he’d discovered a family of helmeted muskmice, and found them to be most accommodating, delectable even. He had stopped offering to the rest of the party after the morning’s hassle and made quick work of them on his own. But as the day wore on even he began to venture off less and less; finally he settled into stride beside the cremello stallion, eyes forward.

Rhaine watched him for some time before speaking. “I never got a chance to thank you for what you did,” she finally addressed him.

Tali shrugged, and answered simply, “you are guests within our forest; it is our duty to see you safely through.”

“I thought we had already passed that threshold,” she wryly pressed, “and your friends had long departed; why did you choose to stay?”

The wolf’s ears followed her and his head tilted. “Mayhaps,” he began slowly, matching the probing edge of her voice with like, “the honourable actions which you perceived were more chance then circumstance. I was merely out for a stroll; the rest just happened.”

“Well then I am very glad it did!” Rhaine chuckled, but she was earnest. “I hope you plan on staying sometime longer too. And not simply to seize us away from trouble; hopefully we’ve seen the last of that.”

Tali’s eyes lit up, and Rhaine saw that wolves did indeed smile. “Aye,” he admitted at last, “then I shall; in truth, I have long felt a restless to see what lies beyond Kaledon’s veil, and I savour the opportunity to be of aid to the isle as a whole!” He gathered him feet and leapt forward, letting loose a short burst of bright yodeling as if he hadn’t been a bit tired from the morning’s trek at all. He raced passed the others and darted between Gypsy’s legs as he took the lead, mounting the crest in a last burst of speed. When he reached the rise he stood their, panting happily, ears pricked forward as he surveyed the valley beyond. “Look!” he called over his shoulder. “Woolly Hora!” And he started down the slope towards them.

Xanthe was horribly tired of the dust up her nose, rogue pebbles that inevitably seemed to spike up and bite her in the heel, the weight of the packs on her back beneath the unflinching sun…. but she would never in a million years admit it. At least, not in this moment. She was FEARLESS ADVENTURER, and what a show that would have been to see her complaining the second day out! Besides… there was still the afternoon, evening, and the remainder of the night, so if she chose to move onto lamentations, their was plenty of time for that yet…

She had been trudging along beside Tia, and the two had been talking, until fatigue and determination had rendered both silent. At first Xanthe’s eyes had followed every fleeting bird and usually shaped tree, flirting the horizon in hopes to first spot the silhouette of Kaëdon’s son (be it the mysterious Ulysses, or even just Odin, returned; either would be a welcomed break to the mounting monotony). Now the half-grown’s eyes had sunk from the winding sky-ward trail to the length of packed ground in front of her. One hoof, and then another. Repeat. She snorted the dust from her nose.

A cascade of yips broke the trance and her head came up, seeing Tali mount the rise and pause briefly on the summit. With another exclamation he disappeared over the crest. It was only then did Xanthe realize how far they’d come and she through a look over her back, seeing for the first time how the forest of Kaledon had shrunk away with the morning. The soft amber of trees spread as far as her eye’s reach, the gentle slope of the land spreading out across the rest of Kalidore. The sight excited her. Moreso, what awaited them on the other side. Before she realized it she’d broken away from Tia – who’d been using the kore’s trailing pack binding for a bit of support – and dashed up the slope after the wolf.

Gypsy planted a quick nose against her as she flew by . “Mind your footing, young whirlaway – nothing like a loose stone to bring down the mountain faster then whence you came.”

Xanthe hardly heard. She was allready at the top and peering down into the gentle basin of the lush valley before them. Here the air was crisp, and the grass green, green, green – too far north to feel the drying heat of summer, and the perfect grazing land for many of the Skyfield’s other animals. There were horas, larger then slender woodland variety, scattered deer of all kinds, wild goat and other antelope, but what had caught Tali’s eye were the yaks – great beasts, spun thick of multi-coloured wool, as varied as were the unicorns. Xanthe had never seen them in migration, and the numbers below were astounding. “Golly…” the expression of awe escaped her lips.

Tali was already bounding down the slope, all the previous exhaustion extinguished, and the korè felt her own heart racing to catch up. “What are you all waiting for?” she called blithely, and started after.

“And… she’s off,” Gypsy sighed, tilting her head back to regard her rider. “I believe that might be our cue…”

Lilaini watched the dun filly precariously descending towards the valley basin, and only once she had reached the bottom did the guardian realize she had been holding her breath, and forced herself to exhale. “She’s gives me such anxiety that one,” she murmured to her companion as Gypsy began to pick her way down towards the valley as well. She cast a look over her shoulder to ensure the others were following, and then turned her attention back ahead and took in all the sights Kalidore had to offer from this vantage point. Even after all these years, Kalidore still had the ability to be breathtaking, whether it was something new or something one had seen many times before; the Guardian never got tired of looking at it.

*I too* came the thought in her head from the bronze mare, *and I have looked upon it for a great many more years than you have, but neither do I tire in seeing it* They continued the rest of the descent in silence, enjoying the contact and the vies offered to them.

The path into the valley was well-worn and packed hard, but the ground was different now, more earthy and forgiving to the hoof. It was gentler, and the slope that flowed steadily from the summit was gentler too. After the day’s hard climb Xanthe relished the change, and did her best to keep pace against the silver form of Tali as he seemed to glide down the trial in sweeping bounds.

Of course, a wolf is built somewhat differently then unicorn, with paws to grasp at footing and supple limps that bend and spring over uneven ground; hooves by comparison had the tendency to slide when they hit stones and scraped against hard, sun-baked earth. Once or twice Xanthe had to collect herself, hastily scrambling for balance, Gypsy’s warning becoming all the clearer. She also suddenly understood the meaning behind an expression she’d heard Lana use – something about going arse over teakettle, which, in the moment had made no sense to her at all; now, with the certainty there was teakettle secured somewhere in her packs and a failed step all that was needed to put things in motion, the phrase suddenly made perfect sense. At the same time she wondered how it was that teakettles, when carried, had the ability to make humans so clumsy it warranted a saying.

In the valley, the herds of migrating animals moved drowsily, completely uninterested in what came careening down the hill towards them. Unicorns they knew and generally ignored; being less discriminate in their grazing preference they rarely found themselves to be in competition, or contact, for that matter. A wolf was a little more bothersome, but with calves half-grown and the herd strong from a summer’s grazing, it was only that, a nuisance. If they noticed that some of the unicorns had riders they gave no mark; the yaks of the skyfields were a study in complacency.

Tali reached the floor first, glancing back up the ravine to see that the unicorns were following – one, in fact making quite an impressive time. He wondered briefly if this was intentional, or just forward momentum; he turned his sites on the valley as a whole. The basin itself was a shallow reservoir, a resting place before the rocks of the skyfields began pushing skywards again. On either side the walls of the canyon rose up protectively, offering the herds who transversed the valley shelter from the elements while they fed. The goat trail had brought them into the heart of the spreading greenery, and the unicorns, weary but restless from the day’s trek, would certainly appreciate a little grazing…

*

The continuation of their trek to their next destination had left Allison in silent wonder. There were moments when she would be astride her unicorn companion, and other times when she’d walk beside Fiera. Her hand set gently yet firmly on the mare’s shoulders if she was walking. The need for the close, physical contact seemed to be a necessity.

When Ali did remove her hand, it was to polish the apple that had fallen near her feet earlier that day. She had smirked, picked the ripe red fruit up and kept it in her hands. Particularly, kept it away from Fiera, with the playfully mild fear that her companion might eat it. Sneaking a glance to her right, Fiera seemed to be staring into deep space. It was something not to be concerned about, Ali thought, and feeling safe, took a look at the apple.

“And thank you,” Fiera said, gingerly plucking the apple from her human’s little hand with her teeth. She munched half of it happily before giving the other half back. Ali watched dumbstruck, everything just happened so fast! Against her will, the girl let out a chuckle but reply with mock anger, “Hey! That was mine! I don’t think I can eat it now, thanks to you.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Fiera challenged as Ali lightly chucked the half bitten apple at Fiera. It hit the mare with a light thump. Fiera snorted and lightly shoved her companion from behind. She stumbled forward, but knew the mare’s tendency for playful affection. “I was thinking, you should go greet that Tia girl. She seems to be at your age, maybe older. But you’re possibly the runt of this whole group.”

“I did,” Allison replied, remembering back that it was just a shy and quick nod of acknowledgement.

The time passed by, as did the world around them. Soon, Ali found herself standing in lush grass. Not far off there were… giant yak-like things. This was a cause for some questions, but she didn’t mind. For the first time, she realized that Tali had followed them all the way here; more like tagged along.

“Oh! It’s so nice here. Very airy, I like it,” smiled Ali, taking the sights in before sliding down to sit. After all, she had walked half of the way here. “Alright, so now what shall we do here?” she inquired, a little absent mindedly to everyone near.

*

Tia had spent the most of the journey walking alongside Xanthe and the others in silence. She hated to admit it but she really wasn’t in the greatest of shape and her body was not accustomed to walking for such distances. Not to mention that she wasn’t really in hiking clothes, not that she owned any in the first place. When the dun filly made an exclamation and was suddenly hurrying off down steep slope, the young girl found herself to be alone. She looked around nervously for a moment but no one seemed to pay her any mind so she continued after the others and made her way down the valley walls as best she could in her heeled boots. What silly, impractical things to wear she thought to herself, but being 4’11” she used what she could to get her up to the height of the majority of others. It gave her a pains to always have to crane her neck to look up at everyone.

After very stumbles and near twisted ankles, she managed to reach the bottom relatively unscathed and then looked about herself. She didn’t see where her previous traveling companions had went but she didn’t want to stand around alone either. Looking around, she saw a young girl who looked about her age standing next to a chestnut unicorn mare. She had seen the pair earlier and wondered if they would mind her company. Wandering over shyly at first, she stopped near to introduce herself.
“Hi, I’m Tia,” she said looking from the human than to the unicorn. She had noted on the previous journey that there were humans amongst the group who seemed to stay very close to certain unicorns. She wondered at the reason for this, but thought she could ask later. “This is a beautiful valley, was this where we were headed? Or is there more traveling to be done?”

As the sun was about to fall, Fiera felt an itching in the back of her mind. Thoughts and feelings she’d never known, she couldn’t place them into words. She rarely knew jealousy or sadness, so she wondered if that may be it. However, watching “sadness” in others, it didn’t seem that way, she thought.

Her mind ran off, leaving her body behind as if it where an empty shell. She’d been on plenty of adventures before, however her thoughts were always anchored in the ‘now’: to live every moment at it’s fullest (or wildest!) Fiera flicked her tail then shook her head. ‘If my mind continues to wander off,’ she thought, ‘then I shall wander with it.’

It seemed like a sensible idea. The Valley was forever spacey and vast, quiet and peaceful too. And the night was soon to be upon them; she would have to make her ‘walk’ a quick one before anyone would notice her absence.

‘But I cannot leave her behind,’ thought Fiera as her mind raced back to her and eyes fell on Ali. She wondered if she were to leave, how would Ali feel? Or vice versa… The unicorn mare studied her companion, looking for the correct or somewhat sensible way to say what she had to say, when she herself couldn’t place her own thoughts. Neither though, did she want company; it seemed like the better way to go…

Ali chew on her bottom lip, wondering what strange but giant Yaks could be living on a world like Kalidore.. But then again, if there were talking animals, or erm, creatures, the endless charade of encounters and surprises… shouldn’t be that surprising. “I wonder if they ever stop eating. Shouldn’t life be a little bit more, oh I dont know- more than just eating?” she asked aloud, referring to the wooley mammals. Strange as they were, they were furry and had a certain cuteness to them. The sensation tickled the back of her heart, making her fawn over them. However there was no possible way she was going to get close to any; the sentries and unicorns were already big enough, she thought.

“Little one, you need friends,” Fiera suddenly said bluntly, but her voice was soft and sweet if not a bit far off. “I spot a new human in our group, why not say hello? She seems rather sensible. And look! She comes to greet you.” without waiting for a word, Fiera gave Allison a few firm nudges towards Tia. “And in the meantime, I shall be taking a little walk. Do not come for me; it causes troubles,” said Fiera swiftly.

“But, but— oh um, hello,” the girl stuttered as the unicorn just as swiftly trotted off and she found herself alone with the other teenager. “Nice to meet you Tia. I’m Allison but um, you can call me Ali. And this—” but when the girl turned around, Fiera had disappeared all together. A sudden sense of worry and loneliness filled her chest, making her frown at her uneasiness. However, somehow, Ali knew that Fiera was still close by. She could feel it, or at least she tried to. “Hmmm, I think there’s more traveling to be done. It seems like a long way, I don’t know.” she shrugged, lifting her hand to her shoulder, rubbing it with a grimace to the slightly older Tia.

Tia’s gaze followed the direction Ali indicated but didn’t see anyone. She assumed she must have been talking about the unicorn that had been there when she wandered over. Her eyes scanned the other girls face as she turned around and noticed lines of worry there.

“Surely, she’s fine?” Tia began, trying to sound comforting. “Is that unicorn a good friend of yours?” She was beginning to get the idea that there was some type of close relationship between certain unicorns and certain humans but she hadn’t had much of a chance to work that out yet. Mulling over what the other girl had said, she wondered how long exactly this trekking would be. Looking around her, the landscape was so breathtaking. Definitely, not the type of thing you saw at home. “I feel a bit ill prepared for this trip,” she said with a slight smirk as she rummaged around in her pockets, “but if the rest of this place is as beautiful as here, I don’t think I’ll regret going. What is it we are going to do actually? Ah ha!” she concluded when she had successfully located the gum that was in one of her side pockets. She held out a piece to her new acquaintance, “Gum?”

Without thinking about it or even realizing it Foehn Miri had spent the day tagging along with the new girl, Tia, so she was there to overhear the offer of “gum.” Lifting her head from her grazing she wondered, Isn’t that the pink stuff in your mouth that holds you teeth? Chewing, she puzzled over someone offering the stuff to another. With a huff she shook her head then returned to her grazing.

*

From the onset, Tiponi was glad to be on the move again. She really didn’t know what to do with herself when among other people. At least while they were moving she didn’t necessarily feel like she should be socializing, something she had absolutely no idea how to do.

Without giving it any thought Tiponi started the day afoot walking beside Luminista with her friends Foehn Miri and Tien Mu. It was strange carrying on intelligent conversation with four legged creatures, but Tiponi was finding it incredibly easy to do so. Why couldn’t she speak with her own kind this way?

As the day progressed Luminista and the others convinced her to give riding a try. She was a bit embarrassed at how awkward it had been for her to mount the red mare, but once she was on she found it quite enjoyable. Not having to watch where she put her feet in this uneven terrain gave her time to enjoy the vistas as they opened up before them.

It was with the wonder of seeing new things that Tiponi looked over the Valley of the Yaks. All the beasts grazing in the open. Some of them looked so strange to her eyes while others were not so much unusual as just different.

Luminista stood on the crest overlooking the valley and thought of Acheflow. The little scamp would have loved this what with all the different animals around to meet.

Tiponi shifting on her back brought Luminista’s attention back to her completer and she began telling her about the young koré and her antics as she picked her way down the slope and into the valley…

*

Throughout the morning’s ride Brynja’s mind flew back along the day’s transpiration, lighting on each and every moment in quiet study and reflection. Of Tiponi, the woman still bemused her; she had found mirth for the situation in the creek that morning, well aware of the woman that had sidled up beside her as the scene played through her mind, yet again. Though she was surprised by the woman and the showing of willingness to follow her lead, she kept the fact hidden from her face still. Instead, she embraced it as a small step in the right direction. Albeit a slightly disconcerting one for the Viking, as she found herself not in the proper knowledge of leadership, she was still young after all and sometimes still made decisions that reflected that fact. However, she still had some positive attributes that she could show the girl, if she was willing to continue to follow Brynja‘s lead as she had at the river.

Of course that was with that being at the forefront of her mind, there were other thoughts floating around. Reflections, really, of what had happened. The comical sight of Tiponi being swiftly disarmed by the (un)helpful uttering of the dun kore. Brynja had to admit that she was more than content that it was not her own misfortune to be magically disarmed in such a matter, though that the unicorn could manage such a spell had Brynja wonder if she could do it in a massive scale… should they need it, of course. Would be quite magnificent, should she manage it. Perhaps she ought to speak with the filly about that.

And lastly there were thoughts for the latest strangely adorned and colorful newcomer, Tatiana, and her eye-pawd… she imagined it was some sort of vegetable of Kalidore and whether or not the girl had found it and if it was good raw, and perhaps if she might be willing to share it. (Brynja had obviously not paid attention to those events at the time; likely due to her stalker-like tendencies with Tiponi).

All of this was mulled over, that was at least until she found the yaks. She studied them, from the shape of their hooves, to the build of their body, to the thickness and quality of their fur. “Tasteful.” She murmured unwittingly.

Thora’s ears swiveled back to her companion and current rider as the Viking’s words left her mouth. Giving a rough snort and a roll of her eyes; knowing well that her companion was speaking of how the yak’s meat might taste and not the way thier fur looked while worn. “You’re not drooling on me, are you?” Thora’s head swung around to mock-check her rider for salivation, before returning to watching her footing and their progress.

“Ah. No. Not quite yet. But they are beasts of plenty, aren’t they… I can’t help but wonder.” Brynja, of course, was thinking mostly of her stomach at that moment and not the practicalities of what else the beast might yield should they take one. Though, given the chance, she would likely put every piece to use and her thought flow soon followed what other uses the yaks might have. Her own curious way of passing the time and watching for any sort of danger.

“Of course you can’t, you are a bottomless pit when it comes to food.” Thora’s light chuckle that followed her statement barely reached Brynja’s ears as they made their way down the small path.

Bryn’s lips perked in a full-fledge grin. “I only eat when I’m hungry.”

“That’s where the problem lies, dear one– you’re always hungry,” the mare teased her companion with the truth.

“It certainly feels that way,” Brynja coincided with Thora as her palm rubbed across her stomach as it grumbled in agreement. Though she’d never voice a complaint on being hungry or even beg to stop for the chance to eat, she was still quite the capable eater and it was never far from her thoughts.

Tali’s ears pricked to the voices. He cocked his head towards Thora and Bryn, watching the woman’s eye follow the herd. “It would take a full hunting legion to bring just one of those wolley hora down,” he remarked, matching the little viking’s gaze with his own, “but oh, it would be good eating…! Not,” he corrected himself, recalling again the morning’s incident with the anagale, “that I expect you companions to relish the experience.”

He shrugged, scratching at a fleabite behind his ear. “On the other hand, I could deal with another dozen or so of those sausage buns and be quite happy, too….”

Brynja had failed to hear anything in the way of his approach, if he had made one, and for the sake of her pride she decided to believe he had been sitting there. Mis-matched eyes were quick in seeking out the wolf. Her smile spread warmly across her face with the thought of having another hunter beside her and willing to talk. An experienced one at that. She kept her gaze trained on him, through the small while he spoke to her, nodding appreciatively at his experience. And while the others would possibly be opposed to it, Brynja would have been read to lead such a movement… to gather one of those beasts.

She had to spare a glance once more to the beasts in question, with a press of her lips and a narrowing of her eyes, she nodded once again. “True. But I bet a roast leg would taste delicious fresh off the fire.” She grinned a moment while she leaned back just enough to allow herself room to find that small pouch that Adar had raided the previous night, and that had been refilled come the morning. With deft fingers she plucked the strings loose from her belt and swung herself off Thora’s back and onto the ground below with a thud of contact.

Shaking out a handful (all that happened to be left within, actually), she lowered herself to plant one knee into the ground and offer the requested food. She offered with a smile, and her hand was a platter. Of course, she had to wonder if he would be offended that she chose to held it. Although, in her mind, compared to the alternative of being tossed to the ground to get dirty, this was the choice way to go. But what exactly was protocol when feeding a wolf that happened to speak and was more than just a simple animal? It was well beyond her, but she was never one to do things with grace and manner anyway; so long as she was friendly and had good intentions, she figured everything else was details. “Not a dozen, but something to put into your belly is surely better than nothing, for now.”

Frankly, Tali wouldn’t have cared if Bryn had made use of her throwing arm and lobbed each delicious roll across the valley accompanying the herald “go fetch!” (They really were that good, and he had no concept of “dog” anyways). And since human-wolf feeding etiquette was not something either of them had any experience in, both were willing and agreeable to the exchange. Plus, Tali and marked these odd “pigs-in-a-blanket” as truly the food of gods, and what great gods these companions had to bestow such a gift upon them!

The act itself was rather endearing, rather like a mother wolf to proffer food to her pup, and it was the familiarity he felt with the fellow hunter that made him make quick work of the buns (indeed, to take food from hand of someone he did not have a familiarity with was something he probably would not do). As he munched them down – trying not to gulp, as he reckoned this might be viewed a impolite, and out of goodwill for her fingers – he considered where the journey had led him thus far, a day’s travel from his pack but already it seemed like fortnights since he had seen them all. And while there was some distinct sense of loss at his being gone from them, it was kept most fruitfully in check by his curiosity and wonderment towards what still lay ahead.

The last crumb swallowed he licked his lips, flicking pink tongue over the protruded hand to clean away any last morsel as grooming was, he hoped, a universal display of gratitude. “A’ganae himself would loll like a pup for such delicacies,” his sighed, tail a happy, half-wag. “Songs should be sung of these… do you companions sing of your feasts, too?”   It was about all he could do from tossing his head back with a ballad for the sausage buns right there, a natural culmination to what was already making for a most glad and glorious day…

*

Fiera walked alone, her ears carefully swiveling back to catch any of her companion’s conversation. It was barely audible, but as far as she could tell, nothing to give her worry. With that certain comforting thought, the chestnut mare pushed aside her own feeling of loss, however in some sense it was a less hollow feeling compared to that of Allison’s. The slight breeze picked up, tussling her silky tail to the side, whisking her forelock from her eyes. The quietness was something of a remedy to her distractions… something to get Fiera’s mind off of this journey’s purpose. What was it again? Oh yes, him…

That unicorn.

Because it was he who left an unread chapter of her life unattainable, when she, a doting little sister had wanted nothing else but to be as fierce and brave as he, and yet… he paid her no heed, or worse, was amused by her antics and told her as much…

Fiera snorted. So much for distractions. She had to press on further, farther away from everything else.

~ * ~

He pulled the straps taught and looped them through, fixing the metal clasp into place as he buckled them down. His fingers did the work instinctively, they were familiar motions, done a hundred times over, and so as he worked his mind was free to wander. His gaze drifted across the hills to far-borne peeks, cloud-strewn with old storms. His mind followed, drawn, distant, and tumbling.

Odin careened his neck back to lip at the straps where they pinched, rubbing the itch away with teeth. “For the record I was not holding my breath,” he rumbled, regarding his companion sidelong. The retort was mostly in jest, and had the desired affect, for after a moment the man turned, returning from that far off place to acknowledge the stallion with a shrug.

“Brig used to say the same,” he quipped, getting to work again with attention rapt. “Not… in so many words, mind you… But he meant it. He was a silent mocker, really… watching patiently as you screwed up royally… always there to greet you just as complacently on the other side once calamity had played through…. Actually, I consider it fortunate on my part he did not talk. Kal have mercy, what that would have been…”

“So this is why you do not take me on your exploits; I talk. Makes one wonder what exactly you get up to—”

“Hold still,” Tyden snapped the last binding into place. He gave the packs another tug, bulging now with new supplies, and quite satisfied mounted the stallion efficiently. “We’ve got hard riding ahead if we’re to catch up with them by dark.” The fact he had been a way this long made him restless, and as the sun climbed to its highest point and began falling, he felt the urgency spread like growing shadows across the ground. He focused his mind, pulling what little sense of magic he had to send his thoughts afar – *We’re on our way*

It wasn’t that he didn’t trust the girls to take care of themselves; in fact, it had been proved quite effectively how very capable they were just the evening past. It was more… his sense of responsibility to the cause, perhaps, that he should be there, to help, to facilitate, to try and prevent such things from happening in the first place if he could, even. To just be… useful, maybe. To know that being here, now, on Kalidore, was what he needed to do; that he had made the right choice.

Odin’s hooves flew over the ground with striking silver, his mane streaming light and ebony as they ate away the distance across the rising swells of earth and sky…

~ * ~


Amber eyes glinted gold and followed the sun across the sky. The air was crisp, there was an edge to it.
Keep moving, it seemed to say. There is no place for comfort here.

Always moving. Rocks danced away underfoot and scuttled down below, lost in the maw of the canyon. They made no sound as they fell, it was too far. No one to hear you. No one to hear the screams… dark thoughts flickered across the mind’s eye as thick and stuck like new snow. Pause for breath, for balance, to hold the mind at bay, gazing across the emptiness into–

What’s that? Movement below, and it is not the animals of the valley. No shaggy hides, low-slung and ambling, these are unmistakable. Unicorns. And…. their riders….

Back into the darkness reeling, time roars with dying stars; here spills the seeping of old wars, muffled cries unanswered and unyielding. Far above and far below, the only thing between them is space, but even that cannot keep them asunder, even the mightiest thunderhead cannot stay lightning’s strike… the two come together again with the ferocity to wake the gods.

Again.

Always again, always….

Beyond the sky lies night and not even Kal can keep it from falling….

~ * ~

Rhaine had watched the decent from the back of the flock, where she and Arieon had held until they were sure every member had found their way to the valley floor in safety. Then she urged the stallion forward playful, and Arieon danced down the slope like an antelope, his feet nimble and on the rocks and ivory coat gleaming like a beacon. They arrived at the bottom with a flourish, and the young woman laughed, relishing the joviality in her mount’s rollicking gait. “Well done,” she crooned, just in case he wasn’t convinced of this himself (and with Arieon, a little compliment went quite a long way!) “Why don’t you graze for a bit now? I would like to stretch my legs.”

The stallion agreed amicably, and stood statuesque as she climbed down.

Once on the ground Rhaine sighed deeply, breathing in the lushness of the valley, crisp with the sweet smell of green grass. Once down she realized how much cooler it was too, and instinctive brought her arms around herself, braced against the bite in the wind. Rhaine had never been one for cold; it was something her two friends often teased about at length. It seemed that while she had been on Kalidore so long, the warmth of the desert had never left her bones, or moreso, that she acutely missed it’s presence when the weather turned cold. The thought of winter brought on a wistful sigh, and she quickly reeled her thoughts back and to the present. She did, however, unfurl the sleeves of the shirt one full roll; while she certainly appreciated Tyden’s lent of the garment, it was almost comically large on her and would have made a very good smock.

As she untied the silk sash from her hair to shake the dust from it, Xanthe came bounding over her face a question. “How far are we form there yet?” she wanted to know. Rhaine took the time to re-tie the scarf around her waist before she answered. “We are barely into the mountains, Sweetling,” she smiled gently. “There will be another full day’s traveling before we may begin to find the ruins.”

At the filly’s long face she reached into her sachel, unfastening the draw string around her the roll of scrolls. She retrieved the map, unrolling it between hands so that the other might see. “We are here,” she indicated with a nod of her chin. “The ruins we seek lie somewhere to the north-west; where that grey area is on the map, we expect. So surely another day’s travel, and then we have to find them. It will be a kind of… treasure hunt,” she finished, looking up to meet the Kore’s eyes.

The words had just the effect she’d hoped for. Xanthe’s eyes went even wider as she flirted with the idea of the quest. “Treasure…” she whispered faintly, as if it wasn’t quite real until she had spoken it. “Do you suppose… that there might be treasure? in the old ruins? left behind by the elves?”

Rhaine grinned. “I don’t suppose why not. But—” and she reached out to grab a leather binding as the kore made to bound off again “—I suggest now would be a good time to rest and grab a bite. Because we still have long way to go before we camp tonight.”

Xanthe remained unconvinced. “I could make it all the way to the ruins – right now!” she exclaimed blithely, darting free and back among the grazing unicorns. Rhaine shook her head as she bounded away.

It was then a voice brushed against her mind, and she warmed with the familiarity. Tyden’s coming. It was surprising how much peace of mind that notion brought with it. She looked up to find Lilaini, to see if she had heard him too, and saw her talking with Gypsy; it was probably a good time to plot their next course, once the flock was done grazing. She tucked the map firmly under arm and headed over.

*

Adar had flown off somewhat angrily since his Lily had taken away his wonderful, beautiful, most fantastic shiny prize ever and handed it back to that awful tiny human. He flew around chattering angrily at any other animals he encountered, and chased several birds about just out of annoyance. He had still followed the group somewhat, but ensured to stay well out of their range of sight. Seeing several unsuspecting grasshoppers, he dove and catching them expertly crunched them nosily. Smacking his beak as he dropped a leg and a wing of the tiny insect, his eyes roved around the valley and came to rest on the yaks. They were much too large for eating and the pocket griffon normally paid them no mind, but a large, rather tantalizing beetle was crawling on the back of the yak nearest to him. His eyes narrowed and he watched the creature scuttling towards the herbivores mane, which twitched in annoyance at the unwelcomed guest. Unable to resist, the griffon hunched low, and remained motionless watching his target wander about without suspicion. His hind end gave a sudden wiggle, and he dashed, pouncing through the grass and launching himself into the air. His claws came out and he landed on top of yak, digging his claws in to get a good grip and began snapping his beak together in an attempt to catch the delicious looking beetle….

*

A voice brushed up against her mind and Lilaini knew that Tyden and Odin were on their way back. She relayed this information to Gypsy just as she noticed her fellow guardian approaching, map in tow. “Ah good, you have the map. We should really determine where we are going from here.” Smiling, he stepped away from the bronze mare and moved towards Rhaine who was already on her hands and knees unrolling the map. Gathering up her skirts she knelt down beside her friend and began to examine the map depicting the elven ruins.

“So should we intend to go this way?” she questioned, drawing the line from their current location to the elven ruins destination.

Rhaine grinned as Lilaini indicated the vague area on the map, complete with prettily scrawled decorative swirls, as if the mapmakers themselves were at loss what to put in there; apparently the solution was to fill it with sprawling clouds. Or maybe there was a vast and encompassing fog in that area too – the thought had crossed her mind, but optimistically she brushed the notion aside and made space for Lily to plunk down on the grass beside her.

“I think the terrain will be the easiest for everyone if we stay following the valley,” she replied. “It would certainly be quicker to pass over the step-lands, but do you think they can make it?” Her gaze drifted upwards to the grazing flock, their companions now dismounted as they stretched and wandered about, taking in the valley around them; she noted the young and the injured, and those who had no unicorn companions to ride.

Lilaini nodded as her eyes again drifted over the decorative swirls on the map. Maybe Tyden was right; what had been the point of bringing a map that was so poorly marked? Her forehead creased slightly as she realized the words Tyden and right had somehow floated through her mind in the same sentence.

“Yes the going will be easier if we stick to the valley but we will lose a great deal of time on that path,” she replied thoughtfully as she scanned the ever growing number of humans in their company. “But the course we would have to take over the step-lands is difficult and could prove to be more of a challenge then some of our company can handle in their present situation.” The sun was sinking behind the mountains and a fatigue seeped into the guardian’s mind. Sighing, she flopped down so she was laying on her back.

A cool wind blew through the material of her shirt and Rhaine shivered. “I will be ever so glad when Tyden returns,” she said softly. “Not… that I am worried, truly… well, not much… But an extra set of eyes in these hills are a boon. And there are so many of us here to look out for… ” A new thought flittered through her consciousness, one that she had hardly had time to reflect on with all that had happened in the past short week since their return to Kalidore. Her eyes drifted across the group again and lingered there. “Imagine what it will be like having so many people living here on Kalidore… And suppose some of them should decide to stay? I cannot remember the last time I had so much company! I like it; it is good to have people to talk to.”

Lilaini smiled as her friend mused about the sudden increase of company they could potentially have. “Have I begun to bore you finally after all these years?” she teased, and hint of amusement lighted in her emerald eyes, “that you crave so much additional company?” The wind picked up and it rustled through the valley grasses, causing Rhaine to shiver again. Lily frowned slightly as she gave her friend a once over, and when her eyes returned to Rhaine’s she could barely suppress the smile that was threatening to spread across her face. The corners of her lips turned up slightly as she tried to speak in an even voice.

“And is your longing to see Tyden the reason you insist upon continuing to wear his oversized shirt instead of your own clothing?” she asked playfully, tugging on the fabric near Rhaine’s waist. “Because you know, I would never allow you to leave on a journey without a sufficient amount of clothing.” The Guardian strained to keep her face composed, but she had a feeling she was not being entirely successful.

*

Liam was tired. This wasn’t exactly surprising considering the state in which he had awoken that morning – just this side of cavalry soldier pate – but added to the day’s long ride, and an rather prickly riding partner… well, suffice to say his head was throbbing in a rather uncomfortable rhythm with his newly scarred side.

Frustratingly enough – the ride hadn’t gone quite as well as he had anticipated. He had hoped that the time away from the fluttering (and increasingly embarrassing) ministrations of the well-meaning Guardian would have cleared the air a bit. Unfortunately after about a half hour into the ride, Pasiphae fell into a sort of wretched brooding – vacillating between a silent, sullen sort of internal preoccupation and an almost obnoxious, cloying attention to his every wince – and been in that state ever since. He had tried to break her out of her mood with some attempts at humor, light conversation, or even remarks on the weather (truly, small talk was not his forte) – but after a couple of short, clipped replies, she’d generally fall silent again. The only thing that seemed to get more than a handful of words from her was when she could feel him tense on her back as they’d cross a particular rough patch of terrain – or the one time she stumbled a bit, and he’d been unable to suppress an audible wince.

After each occurrence she would break into a dizzying array of questions – was he okay, did he want to stop, was he sure he could continue on, did it hurt much, should she go and get Rhaine, was he SURE he was okay – that he could barely sneak a word in edgewise. Doubly frustrating was the fact that no amount, or combination of words explaining that he was really quite okay – that considering all that had happened he was really just pleased not to be a corpse, and that a little bit of tenderness was MORE than fair a trade for an almost whole body – was able to convince Pasiphae that he really WAS okay. Frankly, it was almost enough to make his eyes cross, or contemplate just jumping off and WALKING the rest of the way to wherever they were going.

Liam began to sigh, but checked himself at the last second – not wanting to solicit more attention from Pasiphae. However, having seemingly lapsed back into obliviousness, the bay mare didn’t seem to notice. As he cast about for SOMETHING to do to break the monotony – someone to talk to, or another attempt at a joke, or even breaking out into one of his favorite bawdy ballads* – when Tali’s yips caught his attention. Shortly after, they crested the rise, and Liam’s eyebrows rose at the picturesque scene stretching before them.

“Och, lass – now that’s a grand sight.” He murmured, leaning forward to catch Phae’s ear. “Reminds me o’ some o’ the great ‘auld valleys back home. Although …. ” His brows knitted together in puzzlement, and he sat up straight again. “I dinnae recall aught like THAT in Ireland. Blimey – now I’ve seen everything. Is that truly a purple cow?”

Phae, lost as she was in her inner monologues, didn’t register Liam’s most recent attempt conversation at first – it wasn’t until he shifted his weight on her back to lean forward that she noticed he was talking at all, or even where they were and what was in front of them.** She almost stumbled again, trying to process the many sources of information all at once, but managed to catch herself. “Ehhrrr…” She hemmed, trying to locate the source of that had peaked his curiosity. “… Yes? If by cow you mean yak.” Phae replied, her near-stumble and Liam’s question having momentarily knocked her out of the ‘how-could-you’ internal mantra.***

Liam, sensing the break in her mood, pressed the advantage. “Yak? Ahrm. Well – whate’er the name, that’s a right strange colored beastie. Do those’uns … talk …. too?” He asked, trying to re-route his brain from temptations of fresh beefsteak if these were indeed some of the more sentient Kalidorian folk.

Pasiphae snorted. “Not that I’ve ever heard. Unless chewing cud counts.” She grimaced. “Grass is well enough and all – but spitting it up to eat it again? Blergh.”

The soldier chuckled. “Makes ye a bit green, does it?” He joked, hoping that the bad pun would continue to keep the mare off guard, but Pasiphae simply snorted again and rolled her eyes as she continued to pick her way down the valley path. Liam, loathe to lose the best chance at a good mood for the mare he’d had all day, continued on with a chuckle. “Sorry lass, couldn’t help m’self. Aye now – yak y’say? But purple? I mean, ye’ve a few strange colors o’ yer own – like that blue lass yonder. An’ I suppose I can respect tha’, although I’ll admit I’m rather more taken with a proper coloring like yer own and the like….” the soldier trailed off for a minute, realizing that he’d come dangerously close to likening her to a ‘properly’ coloured horse, and almost winced. In the mood she was now, dealing with the aftermath of such a faux pas would have had him wishing to return to the night of the bear. Doggedly however, he offered up a small prayer and rambled on, ” … Anyways, ’tis more than a teensy bit odd, d’ye think? After all, t’would be one thing to be bright n’ blue if ye had a brain the size of your’n – and be surrounded by wolves n’ bears an’ the like. But ai’ve met my fair share o’ cattle, yaks or no, an’ I’ll be cursed bluer then they be if’n there is aught between their ears bigger n’ a potato. An’ a small’un at that.”

The bay mare caught herself in a snorted chuckle at Liam’s conclusion about the yaks. “I suppose. You’d have to ask the Guardian’s what makes them that color, could be the stones, or the water – or even just Kala’s will, I suppose. Who knows.” She gave a small equine-like shrug, before continuing. “Whatever the reason, regardless of the ‘brains’ involved in the matter, it hardly seems to have hurt their population any.”

“Ahrm. Too true – well o’er a couple hundred here at the very least.” The soldier replied, thoughtfully, now beginning to eye the herd a bit more closely with the revelation that the members were unlikely to talk back. “Surely a herd in need, or at least might no’ miss, a little thinning …”

Pasiphae tensed as she sensed the motive in his musings. “I’d have thought you would’ve had ENOUGH violence last NIGHT.” She snapped at the man. “And whatever you’ve been saying, I’m SURE Rhaine would agree that you’re in NO shape to go haring off after some wool-faced calf…”

“Och lass!” Liam broke in, trying to cut her off before she worked herself up much further. “I’ve nae’ plans to do ‘aught reckless! An’ I swear I’m as in fair o’ piece as I’ve been in after any a scuffle, an’ a more than a bit better besides!” He paused here, hoping for a slightly more pleasant reply from the mare, but at the chilly silence, kicked himself mentally. He attempted a few more times to get her respond, but soon lapsed into silence himself at her refusal to speak.

In inwardly seething silence, Pasiphae carried them down the path to the valley floor, finally coming to a stilted stop several feet apart from the rest of the group. Liam, finally tired of dealing with the mare that seemed more hedgehog than equine (what with being so prickly), thanked her for the ride and excused himself to go and stretch his legs a bit. And with a quick dismount made a hasty retreat.

((* He was to the point that while he was fairly certain that any of his surrounding company wouldn’t particularly appreciate the song, he was bored and frustrated enough to consider doing it anyways. Although the thought that the Ladies probably wouldn’t allow two such displays, and the fact that he really wanted to see if Tyden knew some of the … choicer renditions, put a stay on his tongue.

** Pasiphae, when lost in these sort of moods, had the tendency to go into a semi catatonic state – either following behind who was leading (i.e. Spirit or in this case, just the party at large), or just listlessly moving forward. The latter occasionally got her into trouble, and she’d end up “coming to” hours later in an unfamiliar location, or having paced continuously in a furious circle and worn a path in the grasses (or in one case, the temple gardens…) Spirit often chided her about this and threatened to attach a cowbell to her neck, just so she’d have an easier time of keeping track of her.

*** Pasiphae, being well … Phae, had managed to work herself into more than a bit of a tizzy. She was still furious at herself for letting Liam be wounded so grievously, and then became depressed about – and then slightly resentful at herself for being so mad. This then spilled over into resentment at Liam, until she REGISTERED the resentment at the man, and then felt even MORE awful about being mad at the man she had let be HURT… etc. etc. etc. Really, it was an impressively tangled emotional drama web that she was having little luck in untangling herself.))

Arieon, meanwhile, was feeling rather proud of himself as he watched the guardian wander off to stretch her legs. He had been taking special care to be a good riding partner which was something, until this trip, he had never done before. And the cremello stallion wasn’t fond of nothing doing all things well, so he was pleased to hear that all his extra attentions to his rider were working out as he hoped. He dipped his head, causing his gleaming mane to tumble forward, as he chose to graze where he stood. After a few mouthfuls, he looked up and decided he should take a jog around the perimeter of the grouping. After all, he was the only stallion with the group currently with his brother still being absent, so he felt responsible for everyone’s wellbeing. Giving himself a thorough shake, he turned and trotted to the outskirt of the group. Once he had reached his destination, he lengthened his stride and his hooves gracefully floated over the ground. Holding his head high in the air, he began looking from side to side, and taking in deep breaths trying to find anything out of place that was previously undetected. A mare glanced over in his direction as he was coming nearly full circle, he realized he must look most agreeable at this pace and in this lighting which resulted in an extra bounce to his trot and arch to his neck.

When he had made a complete circuit with nothing much of consequence to notice, he slowed his pace and came to a slow walk. Feeling good that he had ensured the safety of the group momentarily, the pale stallion’s attention was caught by a human man wandering on his own. He was fairly certain this was the same man that had rode the pretty bay mare sometimes. Changing his course, he wove his wave towards him trying to read the strange expression on his face, but as Arieon did not have as much dealings with humans, he was unable to do so. Pulling up alongside the man who’s name he couldn’t remember.

“You walk as one who is trying to get away from something? Is there danger afoot I have not seen?”

Tiponi was seeking some time alone. After years of just herself for company-or one or two others at most- the day spent with so many was wearing on her. She roamed about a small marshy area looking for edibles to add to the night’s meal. Her pouch already contained a nice collection of the same tubers she had enjoyed a few days ago while travel in this new land. If she wasn’t mistaken there was something just over there that looked like another herb she was familiar with. She had only gone a few steps when she heard nearby something about “danger afoot.” Glancing over she stiffened. It was that other Man (Liam), the one that had been hurt. She battled with her tension. This one had been seriously hurt defending her against the bear, but he was still a man. What to do? Giving herself a mental shake, Tiponi moved closer in order to hear the response. If there was danger she wanted to know about it too.

*

At her first jest, Rhaine grinned. “Oh, Lily… how ever could I bore of you!” she scooped her arms around her knees and hugged them happily as she laughed. “I should think you would be all the more glad; I know how much you miss the gatherings and social calls… you talk about them with such fondness,” she inclined benignly. This was certainly no secret; the festivities had been a cherished part of the young woman’s youth. Were there ever the opportunity to venture off-isle Lilaini would spring upon it; if the reason happened to involve a large social assembly on the end the young woman would positively glow for days. As of late, with the Daiga’s years taking their toll, these events had become less and less. And while Lily would never peep complaint, Rhaine hardly needed empathic sensitivities to know what longing filled her.

However, as her friend’s next comment also touched on longing the burst of laughter from Rhaine was sweet and short. “Longing! I would hardly call it that – glad to have him, certainly, but about the only thing I long for at this moment is Gate to port us from here to wherever the elven ruins might be! Besides… he smirked at my map this morning,” she added sourly, the memory rising to the surface. She smoothed out the ancient manuscript tenderly again, and noting with dismay that Lilaini seem unwilling to let up on her own soundless giggling, began having inclinations that it had as much to do with that muddled geographical etching as her currently borrowed attire.

“Fine then,” Rhaine got to her feet, making a big show of rolling her eyes and pausing only long enough to furl the map and shove it back in the direction of her slung satchel. “If my state of attire causes you such feverish distress, then I shall change. It just seemed a superfluous waste of clean linen…” she muttered, headed in the direction of the clothing in her packs, which were still secured to Xanthe, and, after a moment scanning, the woman couldn’t put finger on exactly where the both of them were.

Horseradish, she thought glumly, hoping that the kore hadn’t managed to find trouble in the short time she’d been talking with Lilaini. The valley was quiet, the yaks content, but deep in the back of her mind something had begun… twinging… She shook her head briskly and turned her attention back to the others, mind touching on each in turn as she accounted for them bodily. Her gaze lighted upon Phae, standing to the edge of the gathering where she lipped the grass around her feet with unswallowed distraction; Rhaine watched thoughtfully for a moment, then started forward.

“Afternoon, Phae,” she began brightly. “You haven’t by chance seen a certain collection of saddle bags wander by? They were strapped to the back of a somewhat wayward dun kore I believe you are familiar with. Or perhaps you’ve seen the kore herself, as the two are somewhat… attached. In particular I am looking for my clothing pack so that I might obligingly change out of this shirt, for apparently dressed as I am has caused Lilaini no end of drole humour…”

Not far away, in the midst of a rainbow of yaks, Adar had the bright and irresistibly shiny beetle pinned between his forepaws. In the sunlight, the beetle glinted with every hue of green and azure and the little griffon was complete mesmerized with his prize, which was almost as nice as the beautiful sparkly Lilaini had taken from him earlier. The beetle was entirely unimpressed, clicking its mandibles and making irritable hissing noises. Now, Adar had always been of the opinion that something that looked fantastic had to tastes that way too, or at the very least must be sampled, and poised himself over for a bite; it was then that beetle, a species unique to that part of the sky fields, let off the highest pitched trill imagined from such a small bug. It startled the griffon, who sat back abruptly on his haunches and in the motion released his grip on beetle just slightly. This was all the bug needed; in a flash of glinted green, it dove under a tuff of hair and was gone.

Well. That simply would not do! With a high-pitched squeal of his own, Adar dove into the yak, beak first.

The yak was a middle-aged cow, lightly lavender in colour, her calf long weaned and looking forward to a quiet winter on the plateaus; she had lived in these mountains all her life and had seen it all, stood off against contemplative cave bears and held stubborn ground to the traversing migratory mammoths. She had not, however, in all her years, come across an irate pocket griffon, particularly one that was clinging to her neck and champing into the soft skin beneath. The cow did what any self-respecting yak would do – assume it was GIANT, YAK-EATING HORSEFLY and tried to rid herself of it, immediately, in the most affective way possible. Which meant shooting straight up into the air and emitting a most impressive bellow befitting of her stature. And before she even hit the ground was sparking off again, pitching and plunging and reeling at full gallop, or whatever it is that cows do at top speed, an ungraceful and quaking gait that shook everything asunder – except one undeniably stubborn small griffon.

All around her the other yaks, who always assumed the worse, reacted in like – they careened out of her way, breaking into a jarring dance of bucking and rearing as they scattered in all directions. The effect spread like rings across a pond. A ripple grew, at first an almost indiscernible whisper of motion from somewhere in the midst, moving like wildfire through the herd and gaining momentum…

His escape from a certain moody mare complete, Liam was able to grab a few lungfuls of mountain air in peace before he found himself confronted with the ivory stallion. The reactive concern that broke over the stallion’s face immediately brought into perspective how trivial the man’s own issues were by comparison. He coloured, glancing back towards Phae inadvertently, who at that moment was being greeted by Rhaine; his sense of confused bemusement became all the more acute and he returned his attention to Arieon hastily. “Er, no sir. No danger at all. Sorry to have alarmed you. I was just… walking…”

Arieon had followed his gaze and the strange look on the soldier’s face began to make more sense in context; at least as much as he surmised. Phae seemed to be positively seething and he did recall her sharp temper at the festival the evening before; Rhaine seemed to be a little prickled too. This he was more confused about because he was sure he had left her in good spirits when they parted earlier. He glanced back at the solider again. When the man muttered his abashéd reply, the stallions pricked his ears forward more kindly; after all, this sort of problem was completely within his ken!

“Now now,” he began heartily, “there is no need to look so downcast about the manner of mares… They are notably capricious creatures, and it is not our place to try and discern the intimate workings of their minds. Better to leave well enough alone, I say.” Arieon nodded his head assuredly, catching the glint of sunlight on his mane and enjoying the way it seared with white fire. “They come around in due time. Or they don’t. Either way we have little influence on the affair so there’s no need to invest in such troubled. ‘Tis quite the truth of the matter… er, your name was, good sir…?”

“Liam,” Liam stammered.

“Liam! I did know that,” he murmured absentmindedly, tossing his mane the other way to watch fall. “Of course, you could always try flowers…”

Liam stared at him somewhat slack-jawed. Truly, he had no idea what to say to that, none at all. In the moment it seemed he had a short reprise, because the stallion seemed to be distracted and was playing with his mane; he scratched the back of his neck in disquietude, looking for a polite way to change the topic. Up on the rising slope movement caught his eye, a strange ripple of motion working its way through the herd. The soft cover of yaks, which gave the whole valley a kind of cotton-coated appearance, was slowly become a lively and restless sea. It was quite pretty, actually, like bobbing, multi-coloured spools of yarn, a moving tapestry. As he watched, a strange, nagging sensation began falling to the bottom of his stomach. “Och, is that… normal?” he turned to Arieon tentatively.

Arieon’s attention was pulled from his glorious mane by the tone in his voice alone. The hair fell silently to his sides as he looked in the direction, his pale blue eyes mirroring the falling dread in the soldier’s own. The ivory stallion drew in his breath. His ears swiveled, marking the location of each in his flock as he stood motionlessly. The hills had become something living, writhing and spilling down the slopes towards them.

“On my back,” said Arieon suddenly. Liam didn’t hesitate to think. He looped his hand through the sleek mane and pulled himself up, groaning slightly as the stitch in his side strained with the effort. He was barely settled when stallion burst forward, cutting towards the others with measured efficiency.

*Look to the hills* Arieon sent to Gypsy wordlessly as he paced. I must get them moving, must get them to safety, the resolve built within as he surveyed the green canyon with quick, thirsty glances. The way they had come down was too steep for a brisk retreat, and there was time yet, providing he didn’t waste it in indecision. He was the youngest stallion, inexperienced in comparison to his brothers, and life on the shores of the Tyressline was generally idyllic. For a brief moment he wished Odin were still with them, but banished the thought quickly in disgrace. What kind of stallion would he be if he always looked to his brother? And Arieon was more then capable. This he knew.

A pealing trumpet lifted from his lips, a musical sound as he herald to the band. “We must move now, and quickly,” he addressed them calmly. As one their heads turned, lifting from the grass to regard him with confusion and concern. Nostrils flared and ears acute he was a formidable sight framed against the falling sun. “Towards the far hills,” he told them. “About, collect your companions and go!”

To emphasize his point he reached out and nipped lightly at the round dappled rump of Thora standing nearby. “Now!”

There was little need for further urging, and Areion was already moving again. He had spotted on his earlier circle of the flock that a unicorn was missing. A fiery red mare had slipped quietly from the herd and her young companion was on foot. So was her small friend, the new arrival. His hooves tore the earth as barreled towards them, “you will need to help them,” he told Liam as they drew near. The solider nodded, seeing exactly where the stallion’s concern lay as they pulled along side Tia and Ali.

“Give me your hand,” Liam met their startled faces with as much confidence as he could muster. The earth had begun to tremble, and beyond the valley filled with a sound booming like thunder…

*

Gypsy was grazing quietly near where the two Guardians had been sitting. She had watched with some interest but was enjoying the quiet, serene nature of the valley. She was bemused slightly as she watched Rhaine stalk off and caught her companions eye. You tease her so, one of these days you’re truly going to offend her. Lilaini laughed and laid back down on the grass, knowing there was no seriousness in what the mare said. She closed her eyes and let the sun warm her face.

Gypsy moved away slightly to find a tastier patch of grass when something began to tug at her consciousness, an odd feeling that she was being observed. She stopped and looked up, casting her gaze to the sides of the valley. Her eyes did not find what she was seeking, but the feeling did not lessen any, and she turned to examine the hills on the other side. Her eyes caught the sea of movement just as Arieon’s voice broke into her mind. Lilaini’s eyes widen as she received the message as clearly as her companion and she was on her feet before the mare could speak. The Guardian threw herself onto the mares back, and Gypsy was instantly in motion. She echoed the stallion’s call with one of her own and dashed towards the front of the group, heading for the nearest exit to the valley. It was not far away from where the group had been converging, but it appeared quite narrow. The mouth was lined by tall trees, and was overhung by the wall itself, which leered over the tree tops in an almost menacing fashion. Rocks lined the hilltop, causing almost no vegetation to grow upon the valley wall. Gypsy analyzed it closer and shuddered when she realized perhaps only 3 unicorns abreast could fit through at one time…

*

Ali answered Tia’s question, wondering at the same time. Companions. “Yeah, Fiera’s more than a friend. Maybe more like the other half of me, basically. It’s hard to really put in words…” However her voice died when a sudden thundering vibration rumbled through the ground.

Tia had her arm outstretched offering the pack of gum when a strange man on a beautiful pale stallion came skidding to a stop next to them. Her jaw dropped slightly as the man insisted upon taking her hand and hauling her up behind him on the unicorn. She hesitated for a split second, until she felt the earth beneath her feet begin to tremble and a sound like a train reached her ears. She dropped the gum pack and grabbed the man’s hand, not having the slightest idea what she was expected to do to get onto the unicorns back which was well over her head. Luckily, she didn’t weigh much and the man seemed to sense she had no idea how to proceed, and he pulled her up height enough she managed to swing her leg over the stallions back and shimmy herself up behind him. Without thinking, she mimicked the gesture and grabbed Ali’s hand.

The sudden chaos around them filled Ali’s attention. She watched yet her mind was slower to process the happenings all around. She suddenly found herself taking Tia’s hand, swinging herself onto Aerion’s back with skill born of past practice.

“I’ll tell you later!” Ali tried to project towards Tia from behind before the stallion was springing forward again. However, everything she was going to – or well planning to tell the older aquintance vanished when one name seeped into her mind. Fiera. Where was she? Ali felt alone and lost, but she comforted herself the very least to know that her companion did have a better head on her shoulders. She’ll be fine, I hope, thought Allison, suddenly remembering that falling off was not on her list of things to do.

She clung to Tia, wrapping her arms tightly around the older girl’s waist and looked ahead. She hopped that wherever Fiera was, she was alright and that she was come back soon. Like, really soon.

With all three humans now astride his back, Arieon was moving again. Tia did not have much time to feel uncomfortable when she realized she was the meat of this stranger sandwich, she had just enough self preservation to disregard any embarrassment she might have otherwise felt, and wrapped her arms securely around the waist of the man in front of her and hung on for dear life. She had not been on a horse since she was 7 years old at her best friends birthday party, and at this moment, she didn’t really think that riding experience was of any assistance to her now. Her only hope was that the people surrounding her were good enough riders that they would not let her fall off. She closed her eyes as she tried to control her breathing and realized, that with her eyes closed the movement didn’t feel quite so violent as the stallion’s hooves flew across the earth.

*

Tien Mu lunged to her feet after a very satisfying roll. After a good shake looked around the meadow. Mischief was riding her hard. If it wasn’t for the effort it would take to run she would spend some time harassing the yaks. Where was that dun yearling? She should be good for some fun. Spying a girl with vibrant red hair (Trinity), Tien Mu began to innocently graze her way in that direction while assessing how best to tease.

Trinity had been quietly conversing with Aurellie as the journey continued, the mare answering as many of the questions that her companion asked. The young woman had taken a seat and watched the others while her companion moved off to graze; she didn’t see the black mare making her way over to her until a piercing summons called for everyone to move. She blinked, then saw the reason why. Trinity didn’t have much of a choice and quickly moved towards Tien, swinging on to her back.

“I hope ye do’na mind!” she said apologetically. “We need to make haste!” She knew Aurellie would catch up with them; she was a smart mare.

At the call to move, Tien Mu swiveled her head around trying to place the source of the call as well as the cause. Her eyes had only just found the pale stallion when she suddenly found herself mounted. Huh? Everything clicked at once for Tien Mu. “Not at all,” she responded to the flame-haired girl with the obviously firmly held seat. Without further hesitation she moved off quickly with the others, Foehn Miri catching up to her and the girl only to fall back a bit. Where was Luminista, she briefly wondered.

A short distance away, Luminista’s companion was about to wonder the same thing, though momentarily, her thoughts were elsewhere. Well. Judging from the vain stallion’s speech, Tiponi had concluded her presence wasn’t noted. While a part of her acknowledged a need to make her presence known, she was too distracted by Arieon’s words on mare’s and wondering if the same applied to humans here. She stood there trying to process the whole complicated and confusing matter of males and females and dynamics in relationships between the two here…face it Tip, your brain is going into overload here, she thought to herself. Suddenly, the man, (Liam) was on the stallion (Arieon) and the pair were racing away. She had totally missed what had brought about their hasty exit in her distraction, but watching them leave she noticed the rippling movement of the colorful yaks of the valley. Having never encountered a stampede, Tiponi watched the commotion with a detachment born of ignorance.

Upon Arieon’s clarion call, Luminista’s head came up. She had been taking advantage of the quiet time to fill her belly, finally content now that her restlessness had been explained and settled with the discovery of her new companion. Almost without thought she had been keeping tabs on the girl, but only enough to know that she was close. Now, with the alarm raised, she struggled with panic because she could not see Tiponi. *Tiponi, where are you?* she sent out. She could not bear to loose this girl when she had only just discovered her. *Tip! Tip!*

Luminista’s panic vanished as quickly as it had struck. Tip was just the other side of those trees. Plunging through the foliage she pulled up alongside the girl. The reality of the situation had sunk in for the girl just has Luminista’s call had reached her, so she was quite glad to pull herself onto the mare’s back where she clung for dear life.

*

Pasiphae, after leveling a rather nasty and heated glare at the backside of her hastily retreating rider. Unwilling to follow Liam and demand an apology (as really – she wasn’t ENTIRELY sure what he should be apologizing for in particular. Well, other than upsetting her. And in general being a pigheaded MAN) and not really trusting herself to not fly off the handle at anyone else. Actually, in practice, this was a rather uncharacteristic display of forethought and social conscience from the young Ms. Phae, and had Spirit been around (and not already chiding her for her snarky antics already past), she might have actually gotten an ear nibble and a sweet biscuit from Lana.

So she decided to take out some of her bad mood on the grass at her feet. She stomped on a flower or two, and ripped up a couple of clumps of grass by the roots – but felt no better for her little tantrum, and the dirt from the roots hardly improved the taste of the grass. Pasiphae grumped, and lipped the rest of the surrounding foliage huffily while she mused on other ways to vent her seething anger.

Her internal monologue was broken unexpectedly by Rhaine’s voice. The Guardian’s words, however, made little sense to her at first – although the confusion had the happy side effect of breaking up at least a small measure of her surliness. When Rhaine mentioned the saddlebags attachment to Xanthe, Pasiphae’s lack of understanding dissipated. She cast about briefly, but seeing hide nor hair of the youngling, began to mentally rewind the last leg of the journey to see if she could recall anything in particular about her whereabouts. Unfortunately for both, she vaguely remembered seeing her crest the hill at some point – but really only recalled her prickly altercation with Liam shortly thereafter.

The mare shook her head. “Not lately, sorry Lad… ehr Guardian. Rhaine.” She verbally stumbled, flushing with embarrassment as she caught herself using Liam’s own epithet for the brunette Guardian. Another reason to lay into the man – poisoning her head with his nonsense. Stuck between burning embarrassment at the slip, and re-growing anger at Liam, Pasiphae wasn’t sure whether to change the subject or just stalk off to find and give the soldier a good nip. Luckily enough, the need for a decision shortly became moot as Arieon’s voice rang out – and the summons to MOVE became quickly apparent.

Her eyes widened at the increasingly thunderous noise of the yaks that covered the slopes, and after eyeing the colored masses that began to broil to wards them, quickly decided she agreed with Arieon’s assessment of the situation – and a hasty retreat was crucial. Her first impulse was to seek out Liam, and she had already taken a couple of quick steps in his direction – preparing to bolt to wards the last location she had seen the man – when her brain caught up with her and she belatedly realizing the nearby Guardian’s own perilous situation. Her heart already pounding and her rising adrenaline didn’t allow her much time for embarrassment or guilt (although it was sure to hit her in full force later), she simply quick-stepped right back to the woman and nosed her shoulder roughly, urging her to mount. “Hurry, and we should still be able to catch Xanthe and that blasted buffoon before either gets trod into pancakes..!” she said, as she cast back and forth between eyeing the approaching stampede, and the surge of unikore around them that fled their coming.

Liam, meanwhile, did not have much time to think – he simply kept his seat as solidly as he could, leaned forward and one hand buried in the corn silk mane of the stallion, the other traveling back and forth between keeping hold of the mane and checking the hold of the other passengers clasped about his middle. Both girls had mounted easily enough – and he hoped that they had enough experience to keep their seats – one extra passenger could be manageable, but ensuring the solid seat of three was not something that Liam was well practiced with…

“Och, well – we certainly don’t seem to do ‘aught by halves around here…” he murmured to himself as the cremello stallion flashed on wards. The soldier tried to sneak a look over his shoulder, both to try and catch a glimpse of the proximity of the oncoming stampede, but also to see if he could see if Pasiphae and Rhaine had begun their flight as well. So fast was their speed, however, and worried was he of upsetting the balance of the girls behind him – he was unable to see little else than those immediately to either side. None seemed to be the blood bay mare or the brown-eyed Guardian, and his stomach clenched a bit in worry, and tried to trust that even Pasiphae had enough sense to get out of the way of several hundred tonnes of stampeding woolly yak…

“Follow me everyone! Quickly!” Gypsy’s voice rang out above the din. The mare’s hooves dug into the ground as she led the way towards the gaping exit. Arieon, she knew, would be driving everyone forward, ensuring they kept following. He was the youngest stallion, and had certainly lived a peaceful life so far, but he was doing his duty expertly now and if she had not been so consumed with concern for the others she would have been proud of him. As it was, her focused was markedly elsewhere.

Lilaini clung expertly to the bronze mare’s back and she immediately reached out to Rhaine’s mind. *Is everyone back there alright? Stay to the middle, we make for the exit* She was about to say more when a feeling of unease that was unrelated to what was behind them flickered through her companions mind. *What is it?* she asked to the mare beneath her.

Gypsy could not place where this feeling was coming from but she was getting a disquieting feeling the closer they neared the canyon’s maw. She looked about her but saw nothing to cause this, nor did she see an alternative route. *I am not sure* she said simply in response, and did not slacken her pace.

*

The summons from Arieon and the subsequent call from Liliani flooded Rhaine with urgency, and she stood for a moment, stomach falling into her shoes, eyes lighting on the travelers as if she would save them by marking them each in turn. Phae’s butting against her shoulder made her turn, realizing her own immediate danger in the situation, and wordlessly pulled herself astride. *Xanthe* she sent forward with her mind to seize the kore, *follow Gypsy – now!*

“Come, we must see to the others,” she turned to Phae seamlessly, indicating her direction with a gentle nudge of her knee. Already Gypsy had taken the lead, following the length of the valley to lead the flock towards the pass, headed for the small mouth where even the most unskilled of riders would be able to follow. Please don’t let anyone fall off, Rhaine squeezed her eyes closed against the stinging dust, Phae’s hooves barely touching the ground as she flew. Down towards them the hills fell in soft swells of writhing colour…

Xanthe was eating late blackberries when the summons came, shrill and unyielding, and didn’t wait to contemplate it as Rhaine’s second call collided into her with the first. By this point she was allready running. Glancing over her shoulder she had seen the hills come to life, and every instinct in her young body saw how this was indeed a very, very bad thing. Finding Gpysy seemed like a really good idea in reflection, not that she really stopped to think about it.

The roar of the cascading yaks all but drowned out the frantic jingling of her bells as she spied the bronze mare and her rider at the head of the band. They were skimming along the side of the valley, keeping ahead of the stampede, and biding their exit towards one of the deep fissures that cut the great rock faces asunder. Xanthe doubled her efforts and cut across the rocky grassland to catch them at the cross, pulling up behind them. She wanted to know what was happening, where they were going, what they were going to do if the yaks didn’t stop ever, but the grim look on the mare’s face made her hold her tongue. Ahead, she saw the pass narrow severely and she swallowed, hard, forgetting her previous resolve.

“Great Kal’s horn – are we all gonna fit through THAT?”

*

Arieon flagged behind the flock, allowing each of the mares to pass him to safely, taking up his rightful place as a stallion at the rear. There he could see who needed help, who needed encouragement, and who needed a well-aimed nip on the butt to keep moving. The three riders on his back he was also terribly concerned about, and his care of them prevented the stallion from pushing harder then he already was, one ear turned to mark the progress of the yaks behind them.

Ahead, he saw Gypsy plunge in to the narrow maw of the pass and disappear, the unicorns at her heels drawing in behind her. Almost there. With any luck, the stampede would follow the wider mouth of the valley, and none would push their way through rocks randomly after them. But a stampede was something without a head, a lead, a cause, and above all else, dangerously unpredictable. All they could do was keep ahead of them, bide their wit against the dark, and hope to Kal there was light on the other side…


Above shadows moved, cutting between the rocks like stolen night, pressing, peering, drawing towards them like a moth to a flame. No one saw, no one heard, for all around them the roar of the falling hills rang with the dissonance of the first dying dawn…

The pair reached their destined exit, and Gypsy plunged through the narrow opening just as Xanthe darted behind them. Gypsy ignored the kore’s question, knowing that they would indeed fit through this passage way, but no more than 3 abreast. Lilaini again looked over her shoulder to see ensure everyone was behind them. Tiponi and Luminista were the next ones to hurtle through the opening, closely followed by Trinity astride Tien Mu. This pairing concerned her, and the guardian searched the sea of unicorns until she picked out Aurellie towards the middle of the group. Good, she was safe as well.

The guardian turned her attention back to the task at hand while trying to ensure she retained her balance upon the bronze mare despite behind turned half way around. Cheri was astride Alcyone, with the newcomer’s Isandro and Aljan at their flank. Closely behind was Rhaine and Phae with Foehn Miri at their side. Pulling up the rear was Bryn and Thora with Arieon driving from the back. It was at this point Lilaini saw that he was carrying three riders. Liam, Tia, and Ali were all astride the stallion as they too entered the pass. Tali was also towards the back, running alongside the herd of unicorns ensuring to stay out of the way of hooves, his face set and determined.

Gypsy felt her riders mental relief at finding that everyone had entered the pass, and redoubled her pace with her dun shadow mirroring her every move. They flew along the pass which cut sharply to the left a few feet ahead. A strange presence touched on the outer edge of the mare’s consciousness and a feeling of panic flooded her. Her step faltered as she made the turn, and the source of her panic was shown. The path ended here. The sides of the passage wall at some recent point had given way, and rocks blocked their exit. She skidded to a stop, her nostril’s flaring. No, she thought as she stared at the pile of rock.

Lilaini had turned her attention back to the front and her eyes widen as her brain registered what had happened. *I can’t move them all* she said to her companion in despair. *There are too many, and I wouldn’t be able to do it in time* Gypsy knew this without the guardian saying it, but it seemed worse to hear it said. Where were they to go now?

Tia had managed to get herself to a point where she didn’t feel like she was going to bounce off the stallion’s back, but this was probably due to the vice grip she had on the man’s waist, rather than any increase in riding ability. She chanced a look behind her because they appeared to be pulling up the rear of this unicorn group, and saw that the stampeding yaks were not far behind. Ali had wrapped her arms around Tia’s waist, and the young girl could feel her acquaintances tension vibrating through her body. The look on Ali’s face was one of deep concern and at first Tia thought it was because of the situation they had found themselves in. But then, she realized that Ali’s special unicorn companion was not with them and that this must be the cause .

“I’m sure she’s safe!” she hollered over her shoulder unsure what you are supposed to say to someone under these circumstances. She tried to look reassuring as she said this. “She’s probably up ahead of us somewhere!”

Running for all she was worth Luminista soon found herself amongst the others and pulling into the front, passing her two friends in her rush to get her human companion to safety. Pressing hot on the heels of Gypsy and Lilaini, she looked ahead and saw the sharp turn coming, so Luminista eased her pace. Her rider didn’t have the experience to maintain her seat through sudden moves. It was a good thing she had slowed or she would have run right into the leading pair or the pack laden kore. As it was her stop was abrupt enough to put Tiponi onto her neck. As the girl got herself resettled Luminista surveyed the rock pile ahead.

Trinity held on to Tien’s short mane as best she could, keeping herself down a bit on the mare’s back, yet her eyes searched in the rush for Aurellie. Soon her eyes spotted her unicorn, and relief flooded her. *Aurellie! Up here! I am here!* Trinity called to her through mind. It was not long till the other pulled up alongside.

“Gracious child! You gave me a fright when I couldn’t find you! I was afraid to move from the spot!” Aurellie said as she galloped beside Tien. She gave a quick nod to the other. “Thank you my dear. I’m afraid I wandered a bit far from my companion here.”

As they pulled up, looking at what was ahead, she looked over her shoulder to see what was happening, but she quickly turned back and gave a quick pat to Tien’s neck. “Aye, thank ye. When we get out o’ this sticky spot an’ make camp for the night, I owe ye a rub down an’ I will’na ta’e ‘no’ for an answer,” she grinned and then looked ahead to see if there was any other way out of the pass that was safe for them all, but she saw nothing yet.

Isandro had thrown himself astride Aljan with as much grace as he could manage with his limited riding skills when the cries had first rung out over the valley. As soon as his companion was seated, Aljan took off after the rest of the group as they galloped towards the pass, away from the stampeding animals, and cringed internally as he realised how narrow it was. Slowing his pace as they neared, they entered the pass, only to come to an abrupt halt as they found themselves as stuck as those around them.

Allowing himself a brief moment of satisfaction at staying astride, Isandro turned back to watch as the rest of their group fell alongside them in the narrow pass.

*This is going to be interesting* he silently sent to Aljan. The koros was finding himself jostled by those surrounding him, and like them, was trying not to continue it with little success.

*I would be content with boring. Ooof!*

*I doubt you’re alone there* Turning his glance skyward, Isandro took in the narrow strip of blue, all of the sky you could see due to the rocky walls surrounding them.

The air was thick with dust and choked her lungs as Xanthe gasped, the packs’ unusual weight, the brisk run, the approaching yaks, all this shooting adrenaline through her body and making her quiver in place. But she couldn’t go forward, for Gypsy had stopped, and as Luminista slid to a halt at her rear, the kore suddenly felt very boxed it. It didn’t help that all around them rock rose in sheer walls, jutting endlessly skyward, and before them the path was blocked by the perilous swell of fallen rocks. Panic bit her, and she fought the urge to reel, only because her sensible brain explained there wasn’t anywhere to go. That insight really didn’t make her feel any better, and she squeezed her eyes shut, pressing her face against the unicorn in front of her. “Wanna go, Gyspy – please let’s go!”

Gypsy hardly registered the kore at her side, her mind reaching up and across the tumble of rocks, searching with mind’s eye for any possible alternative. Gypsy was Kalidore’s traveler, and her gift was seek the trail, but even she would need a moment or two to get her bearings in these unfamiliar parts. And time wasn’t with them – spilling away and down the slope towards them in the form of a mindless stamped. The narrow pass had bought them a few minutes, but these were quickly being eaten as behind her she saw the others arriving and pressing thick into each other, and with that all option of turning quickly and retreating were gone.

She felt Xanthe prod her again, and she turned to lip the kore in distraction. “We will, sweetling, just a minute…” she whispered, catching her companion’s eyes as she did. The woman’s face was tight and ashen, and Gypsy resisted their mind touch only because she wasn’t sure what comfort she could offer now. The sun sunk behind the edge of the cliff, and they were plunged into shadows…

No, wait… The sun surely couldn’t sink that fast, but the shadows lingered, and it seemed for Gypsy that in the moment time had suddenly become very slow. She turned to the others but without seeing them, her mind open and trialing across all of Kalidore and as it passed the images flew before her eyes in motion pictures. Time became tangled; suddenly she was seeing the mountains as they stood centuries ago, the stars shifting and turning in and out of place….


The night was cold and lit with unearthly fire that spun across the dragon’s brow. It ends here, he spoke and his voice cut deep, challenging the night to disagree. Never! it answered, and suddenly she realized the night had shape and form, glinting eyes and spiraled horn. The dragon seemed to consider, furious and seething, and the silence was terrible. Very well, he spoke again. Then it will not end… and above them the heavens, torn and broken began to cry…

Gypsy blinked. She was back in herself and with the others, the thunder of valley pounding in her ears, but the shadow was still filling whole of her view. And then she realized it wasn’t a shadow at all, it had glinting eyes and spiralled horn…

“This way,” he spoke.

She nodded. He was standing on crop of rocks and turned, marking a path through the angled debris. She lunged forward after him, the movement so sudden and precise it almost upset her rider, who grasped thickly into trailing bronze-coloured mane. Hooves found placehold, one after the other, and up they went. “Follow carefully! Move quickly!” her voice rang out over the herd. Behind her she saw Xanthe was already following and the others were falling into queue. As she turned her gaze forward, the black shadow was already disappearing over the crest. “Ulysses – wait – they can’t–”

“No time!” he cried.

The yaks had flooded the valley.

Ali could feel her back go rigid with each of Aerion’s strides. She risked a glance back, seeing a few unicorns racing up ahead to the rest in the front. Then there were the colorful yaks. Tons of them, huge furry creatures she thought were serene animals… well, that is, that was sometime before they were stampeding after them all.

The girl shook her head, this couldn’t be right. Where on Kalidore was Fiera? Tia’s reassurance was barely audible through the wind whistling passed their ears. Ali didn’t know what to make of it. All she could do was nod vigorously and project back, “I’m hoping so!”

But what if she’s not? Ali worried, loosening her grip on Tia slightly. Her eyes blanched off towards the guardians, then her eyes fell on Gypsy who seemed to be a bit farther ahead. Something like a dark shadow glided passed. Ali couldn’t make out what is was, or if it was another unicorn. Then again, she rarely ever saw shadowy unicorns, but there was always time for firsts…

Gypsy had made it to the top of the crest as Ulysses disappeared over the other side. She stopped at the top once she was able to find a foothold and turned to see that the others were following safely. Xanthe had reached the top and was standing next to her but there was no room for anyone else unless they continued on the path. *We must go* Lilaini urged, and with a bob of her head, the bronze mare accented and quickly turned to scramble after the dark stallion who was already nearly to the bottom on the other side.

Expertly, she picked her way down the rock pile finding the path Ulysses had taken. Her rider did not speak further, but leaned back and waited until her companion found her way to the bottom. They paused only briefly to ensure Xanthe’s hooves found the bottom as well, and to see that the others were filing down behind before Gypsy went rocketing after the stallion. Her hooves flew across the earth but she was not able to make up much of the distance that now stood between the two of them. Flattening out, she pushed herself harder, a desire to catch up with him was momentarily overwhelming, but a concerned thought from her rider touched her mind and her pace slacked slightly. *The other can not keep up, we are getting too far from them.*

Instead, Gypsy reached out to the stallion with her mind. *Ulysses! you must slow down, the others cannot match this pace.*

Luminista had her attention split between her footing and her rider. She was worried Tiponi would have trouble keeping her seat over this rough terrain and worried that her worrying would distract her too much from the terrain causing her to stumble. It was a vicious cycle and was costing her speed which was also desperately needed. In the back of her mind she noted the growing space between herself and Xanthe as well as the ones behind her pushing forward.

“I’m fine.” So absorbed in her worries, Luminista started at the words. “Just go. I promise to let you know if I have problems,” Tiponi assured her. The girl was nervous about the uncertain terrain and the pace, but she also recognized the need for speed. Her hands tangled in the red mane she clung to the mare with her strong legs, using muscles in a way they were unaccustomed to being used, but so far they were holding up nicely. Reassured by both the spoken words and the sense of confidence she detected, Luminista lengthened her stride.

Tien Mu’s worries leaned more to the jostling bodies about her. She was nervous about those crowding behind and about causing nervousness in those she was compelled to crowd. Her rider seemed to be clinging with quiet confidence.

Casting a quick look behind at the over-burdened stallion Foehn Miri wondered if there was any way she could possibly help. The different skill levels of the three riders was noticeable, but there was no time to stop and shuffle riders around. The extra weight combined with the terrain had to be wearing on Arieon. Her estimation of the stallion had gone way up watching him handle this crisis. He was jumping into the necessary role with all four hoofs and doing a very impressive job. *I will be happy to take some of your burden if and/or when the opportunity arises,* she sent to the stallion.

The herd had stuttered momentarily until the arrival of Ulysses had gotten everyone moving again, but from the back the black stallion’s arrival went unnoticed. Arieon cast concerned glances both in front and behind him, watching as each unicorn scrambled over the rubble, and determining the distance between his hind end and the nearest yak. Prancing back and forth, encouraging and motivating those in front of him, the cremello stallion managed to get nearly everyone in front of him over the pile of rubble. He followed Foehn Miri who was at this point just making her assent of the rockpile when she spoke to him. Despite the situation, he managed a small smirk in her direction and nipped her on the rump to get her moving. *The two on the back are hardly even noticeable,* he answered truthfully, but he did think perhaps three riders was more than necessary except in such extreme circumstances. Not that he would say that to any mare of course. As the mare scrambled ahead of him, Arieon cautioned his riders, *hang on tight, it’s going to be hard to get footing,* before beginning to pick his way up the pile of rocks.

Tia heard Ali shouting something back to her, but the words were lost on the wind. The pace thankfully slowed as they waited their turn to clamour over the rocks, but the longer this took, the closer the yaks managed to get. So in spite of her earlier reservations of riding, she was thinking it was preferable to being trampled by the colourful beasts behind them, and wished the pace would pick up again. In the next instance she wished she could swallow that thought as Arieon warned them to hang on even tighter.

“Ali! You need to hang on tighter, not looser!” she nearly shrieked when she felt the girls arms loosen around her. Tightening her own grip, she wondered if she was hurting the man in front of her, she felt sure that once (or if) they got out of this mess, they were going to have to pry her arms off of him. Her arms were sore from the effort, but terror seemed to have them locked into place and she wasn’t sure how she was going to get them out of that position. Well perhaps, i’ll worry about that if and when we get outta here, she thought to herself before all her concentration was torn away to ensure she did not slide off the side of the pale stallion.

As soon as the unicorns in front of him had cleared the path, Aljan practically threw himself up behind them in an effort to keep the line moving at a more than steady pace. As his legs carried them higher, the dark koros couldn’t resist teasing his companion who had grabbed hold with an almost audible yelp when he had started this climb.

“Welcome to Aljan Moonbrow’s Crash Courses. Today’s lesson: How to ride while climbing rocky paths 101. Please remember to keep your knee’s and elbow’s in and hang on for dear life on the way up. For the way down…” he said as he reached the crest and started to follow after the others already on the way down. “Pretty much same as the way up, just might want to try leaning back this time so I don’t wind up hitting your head, ’cause that could be bad at this point.”

“I hardly see how this… could even possibly… be the time… for you to try to be… funny,” Isandro retorted, his answer a little broken due to his focus being divided between responding and hanging on.

“You’ve never thought it’s the time to do something… simply because it isn’t the time to do it?”

Ignoring his companions last remark, Isandro looked ahead as the reached more level ground and realized the front of the group was now a fair way off, and the others within their group were stretching out according to their own paces. *You do realise we’re falling behind, yes?*

With little more then a snort, Aljan extended his stride in an attempt to catch up with those just ahead of them…

Her lungs burned, and try as she might, the will to move her legs was becoming less and less, even as her brain still registered the crushing thunder of the stampede somewhere behind her. Xanthe’s shorter legs and the heavy packs on her back had begun to take their toll; one by one the unicorns were slipping by, and despite her best effort, it seemed like she was now running backwards.

A red shadow pulled up along side but she didn’t notice Phae until the mare reached across and nosed her, then Rhaine’s voice brushed aside the swirling jumble of thoughts and said, *Well done, sweetling – you’re clear. Head towards the trees, we can rest safely there*

The kore threw her head up to see the trees Rhaine had spoke of, and noticed for the first time the new terrain on this side of the canyon. Gone were the lush meadows and the green; even in the falling light the spareness of the land was a apparent, its element mostly rock, the vegetation when it did occur was thin and strangled. The trees were a bit of an oasis, a clump of about fifty or so, growing where the rocks cleaved before jutting upwards again. She smelt the water there and suddenly realized how thirsty she was. Too tired to reply she simply nodded, thankfully heading towards the trees.

As the kore pulled away Rhaine straightened, turning in place to look back over the rest of the flock. They were all clear the rocks, stumbling again onto solid ground one by one. As Arieon appeared last, she breathed with relief, noting his riders were all still in place. Behind him the wall of rock stood as a shield against the flood of yaks, the only thing that could reach them now was the sound. She shut her ears against the crush and bellow of bodies as they plunged into the narrows where they could not follow.

*Head to the trees – we can rest there*
she sent outwards, reaching each of the unicorns in turn. One by one she saw the unicorns receive the message with a shudder of relief, the strain and worry of their hearty charge lifting a little at her words. Her gaze turned forward again towards Lilaini, and noted for the first time the two figures as they raced away; one was the deep bronze silhouette of Gypsy, the other seemed cut from the night. Ulysses, her mind told her, though she had never seen the stallion before. “Phae, we need to catch up,” she spoke out loud.

* * *

Wind pearled against his face, filled his nostrils, expanded his lungs, with each breath his stride lengthening; run, the wind urged him, run forever… and heedlessly he obeyed. He was alone with the wind, racing it, chasing it, following where it lead, when a new voice brushed against his consciousness.

*Slow down!*

It seemed familiar, and for a moment his mind was lost to try and place it. And then it came again, pulling him back to this time and place, the canyon floor under his feet and above the stars of Kalidore growing as the sun fell. He turned his head, catching sight of Gypsy and her rider. Behind, falling further into the distant the other unicorns ran. Keep running, the voice bit at him, and he snarled at it, physically throwing out his hooves as if to trample it in his wake.

Yet at the same time it was hard, hard! With reluctance he caught his stride, and the roaring of the wind began to subsided, and the copper mare was pulling up behind him.

Rhaine’s soothing voice permeated both Lilaini’s and Gypsy’s mind as she instructed the others that the coast was clear and that they were able to rest. The Guardian risked a look over her shoulder to see Arieon just emerging upon the crest of the rock pile. All were indeed safe then. Gypsy’s pace did not slacken as her companion made this assessment as she was focused on the black stallion before her.

She couldn’t remember the last time any unicorn had outrun her, but she was not able to make up any ground on the stallion before her so finally, to her relief her mental urges reached him, and he began to slow. Ulysses finally came to a complete halt but he did not turn as the copper mare approached him. Gypsy slowed her pace as well until she pulled up alongside him. Coming to a stop, she took in deep breaths, as her rider dismounted. Moving forward she reached out with her muzzle and lipped at the stallion’s mane. ”Ulysses it has been a long time…I…we are so glad you have returned home.”

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