On a warm spring evening, I trot along the invisible barrier between reality and dreams. A darkling fox with green glowing eyes sniffs the air, then whips right, away from me and deeper into the nightmare realm. Though I’ve cloaked myself in shadow, the creatures still sense my presence.
As I near a creek, the chorus of frogs grows silent. I dip my head for a drink and watch them balance upon the dancing reeds. Their tiny black eyes look but do not see.
With my belly sated with fluids, I whinny loudly, delighting in the splashes that follow.
Mine is a solitary existence. It has been this way for centuries and must remain so, so I make time to find joy in the little things.
The frogs resume their chorus long after I’m gone.
I don’t know why I come here every night to pace the border. If I were somehow to be seen by human eyes, my life would be forfeit. Not only would the humans try to dissect me, but my own kind would hunt me down and trample me to death me for exposing us.
But I am restless.
Tending the dreams of the living makes me feel dead inside. We were meant for more than this—though no one will tell me what it is we used to do. It must have been important for us to have so much magic. Though apparently, it was not so important we’d risk our extinction. But centuries of repressed instinct have done nothing to curb my need to find something… more.I close my eyes and embrace the cacophony of sounds and smells, confident I will not misstep in my blindness. I love the sensations of the earth. The real earth. My left ear flicks toward the sound of a busy street, far beyond the wood; and nearer, the wind whispers songs through the leaves of the highest trees. The dream world is too chaotic to focus on one sound—trumpets, screams, laughter, fingernails on a chalkboard, and many, many more. Even the smells that waft over from the dream realm are fantastic and exaggerated. Right now, someone is dreaming of a poolside barbeque, and the scent of burning meat is so strong, I feel the grease upon my tongue. It’s as if a hotdog flavored bit has been forced into my mouth.
A funny thing about dreams is that to walk through them is to experience them as the dreamer does; so though I am an herbivore, I suddenly crave a big, greasy hotdog, slathered in ketchup and relish. The thought horrifies me.
Though it has been forbidden for centuries, I step wholly into the living realm to clear my head. I open my eyes and blink back the night. I am alone but for the trees and the distant song of a mockingbird. The desire for hotdogs dissipates immediately; as does the smell, replaced by the purer scent of night blooming jasmine and spongy moss.
Oh, how I love it here. The peace. The purity. The reality. If I could, I would stay here forever.
A take another breath, and a chill shudders along my ribs and down my flank. There’s something else in the air; some unplaceable smell among the rest. My nostrils flare wide in an investigation. My ears flit left and right. But the winds have shifted away from me, and the woods are quiet save for the mockingbird.
I continue along the border, remaining on this side of it. I’m not yet satisfied with my investigation, and there’s truly little risk so long as I keep my wits about me. My hooves make no sound in the soft moss; and in the tiny amount of moonlight that filters through these trees, I would appear as nothing but an extension of the shadows.
But then, I smell it again and lose all sense of control—it is a salty-sweet smell; delicate. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever smelled before. There is magic in it… and innocence… and suffering.
My heart races and a tremor takes over my body. Unable to control myself, I charge through the underbrush in the direction of the smell. Branches tear at my chest and scrape along my sides, drawing blood, but I do not slow. I must find the source of this smell.
Suddenly, the trees begin to thin, and I burst into a large clearing. I believe it is the yard of a human dwelling, though I’ve only seen them in dreams. This is far more tangible than the dream version. Before me, logs blaze in a metal bowl, surrounded by cushioned seats; in one of which, sits a small woman. She stares at me with two tearful eyes, each as large as the moon.
I skid to a stop, but the damage is done. I have to get out of here. I have to run. Now. Right this second.
So why can’t I move?
Her mouth parts in a gasp; and two skinny legs slide down from her seat to the ground. She stands on them, as wobbly as a newborn foal (which makes sense, because, like all humans, her knees bend the wrong way).
“O-oh my god.” She wipes streaks of tears from her round, freckled face. Her mane is a vibrant red, tied into a knot on the top of her head. “Am I dead? Are… are you real?”
She takes a step toward me—a deadly, mystical creature of the night—which both intrigues and terrifies me at once. Between my raw strength and her ability to cry out for other humans, we each are trusting our lives with the other. She is taking as big a risk as I.
I step out of the shadows, fully revealing myself in the moonlight. “I am real.”
She covers her mouth with her long-fingered paws. She drops them to say, “You speak?”
“You are not dead nor dreaming. I do speak, but not in the way you’re familiar with.”
“Your mouth… it isn’t moving.” She covers hers again, then reaches out as if to touch me before catching herself and pulling back. “Your voice is in my mind.”
“To clarify, you are not going crazy either.” I don’t know why I’m telling her this. It would be safer to let her believe she has gone mad, and that I am simply a figment of her imagination. Maybe I am the one who has gone insane.
“But you’re a unicorn,” she says, voice still raw from crying. She looks up, right into my eyes. “You don’t exist.”
Is that truly the legacy of our great race? They believe we never existed; that we were merely a fairytale? Some fanciful creature of a child’s dream, made of glitter and rainbows?
I step back, and my flank brushes the wall of shrubs I tore through to get here.
“If you wish me to not exist, then I will go.”
“No. Wait.” She follows me, and I still. “I don’t care if you are a dream, I don’t want to be alone right now.”
For reasons I can’t explain, most likely magical, I don’t mind her company either. In fact, now that she’s requested I stay, it’s as if I’m rooted to the spot.
She wipes her eyes again, and I breathe deeply; I know now that it was her tears that brought me here, and now I must know why she is crying. I ask.
She glances once at the well-lit dwelling, then stares at the ground. Her voice is smaller when she speaks. “A boy… a man tried to hurt me.”
I look at her tiny frame and imagine how easy it would be for a large human male to harm her. To my surprise, the thought makes me quiver with rage.
“What did he do to you?” I say, glaring up at the human dwelling.
“He cornered me in a back room and held me down. When I tried to scream, he…” she pauses, choking on the words, “he slapped me so hard my eyes went black, th-then he covered my mouth and tried to… he tried to…” She can’t say it. I don’t think I want her to anyway. She shakes her head as if she can physically shake the thought from her mind. She balls her fists and her voice morphs from weak to angry. “But then his girlfriend walked in. That’s the only reason he stopped, to tell her I came on to him! And I didn’t even say a word to defend myself because, before that horrible lie, I was… helpless.”
I stamp the ground and air hisses from my nostrils. “Take me to the one who did this. Now.”
“No!” She looks up in terror. “I mean… if you are real, you can’t just storm in there. They’d hurt you.”
“Let them try.”
“No.” Her voice is firm. “He deserves it, but you don’t.”
“You don’t know what I deserve.”
“Maybe not,” she says, “but whether you’re real or a figment of my imagination, you’re the only friend I’ve got right now. I don’t want you to disappear.”
She smiles. “Only a friend would risk their life to defend my honor.”
If I could smile, I would. I’ve never had a friend before. My kind have become hermits—most driven mad by our permanent half-lives in the dream world.
“Does my friend have a name?” she asks, still smiling despite what she’s been through.
She is strong, this one. I like that. A lot.
I dip my head and bend my knee in a bow. “Allucinyx, at your service.”
She curtsies, and though she wears jeans and a t-shirt, she reminds me of a princess on a tapestry in my sire’s home. The princess wears a white gown that matches the horned stallion before her. They’re fixed in a permanent bow to each other, the significance of the gesture lost to the ages. But as a deep warmth blooms within my chest, I feel there may be something to that gesture after all.
She steps closer, reaching a hand out tentatively, and I allow her to touch my nose. Her hand is soft and warm.
“Your nose feels like velvet,” she says, her eyes sparkling with the silver glow of the moon. “I’m Sarah, by the way.”
Sarah. Her name is like a whisper on this warm night wind.
I suddenly wonder if I am the only one who realizes there is something of vast importance happening right now, or if it is mutual.
I close my eyes as her hand slides up and along my skin, down my jaw and neck. When she divides my mane between her fingers, my nerves prickle. I shudder, and she steps away.
Not wishing for her to stop, I take a step forward. She draws her hands up as if to protect her face.
“I would never harm you, Sarah.”
Slowly, she lowers her hands. “You’re not… what I expected.”
“What you expected?” I raise my chin in mock offense. “You had expectations of the mythical unicorn that approached you in the night?” I prance before her and whip my mane. “Wait! I know what the problem is! I’m not pretty enough for you. I don’t have enough sparkles.”
She laughs—a musical sound.
She shakes her head. “Well for one, I didn’t expect unicorns to have a sense of humor. And as for the not being pretty enough, you’re so silky black, you’re practically one with the shadows; and your eyes…” She reaches, and I dip my head so that she can run her hand along my brow. Her wide blue eyes lock onto mine. “…it’s like you’ve trapped a galaxy inside them. You’re the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen… but you’re also terrifying.”
My insides gallop with a twisted pleasure. I’m glad she finds me beautiful, but I’m equally glad that she fears me. It means that other humans would fear me as well, specifically anyone who might harm her. I can protect her.
I glare beyond her at the lights of the house, thumping with music and male laughter. I will protect her.
“Come with me,” I say.
“What, now? Where?”
“To the realm of dreams.”
She puts her hands on her hips. “For a little while? Or like, forever?”
“I don’t know yet, but I don’t want to leave you here, and I’ve already stayed too long.” My ears twitch at the far-off sound of hooves. They’ve not yet crossed the border, but someone has sensed that one of our kind has crossed over, and eventually will gather others to help them investigate. I must get back before anyone sees me on this side.
“Sounds like I don’t have a choice,” she says, stiffening.
I shake my head. “I would never force you to do anything you did not wish to do. In fact, I am at your command. If you ask me to stay, I will stay. But know that it will cost me greatly. I would also leave, if you demanded it, though I fear that would cost me as well.”
My heart pounds as I await her answer. I do not wish to die, but I cannot bear to leave her. For the first time in my life, I don’t know what to do.
Finally, she says, “I wouldn’t force you either. I’ll go with you.”
A great breath of relief leaves my lungs. Despite my building fears, it is with much effort that I do not prance.
I follow Allucinyx through the mangled shrubs and am instantly surrounded by darkness. The woods behind James’s house are thicker than I realized, and I can’t see the moon through the leaves. Of course, I immediately trip on a root and slam into the gigantic unicorn’s side. It’s the only thing that keeps me from landing face-first in the dirt.
“Forgive me, milady,” he says, and I feel his whole body drop to the ground. “I did not consider that you might have trouble seeing in the dark. If you are comfortable enough, you may climb on my back. Have you ever ridden a horse before?”
I shake my head, knowing he can see me.
“It is easy, especially with a willing steed. I will walk you through it.”
“Are you sure?” I make a face. I mean, he’s a freakin’ unicorn. It’s got to be an insult to have to carry a human around.
“It would be my honor.”
I shake my head and chuckle to myself. I truly must be insane. I throw my leg over his back, per his instruction, then fist his mane in my hands, and clench my thighs as he rises.
After the first slow steps, he picks up the pace. He eases into a trot. “See. You’re a natural.”
What he doesn’t know, is that I’m clenching so hard my jaw hurts.
Soon, my eyes adjust to the low light of the forest, and I can appreciate the grace with which he trots between the trees. He assures me that I am never at risk of being knocked off by a low branch, and I do eventually relax.
After what feels like mere seconds, he says, “We are at the wall. I would have let you sleep longer, but I thought you might wish to see this.” I feel the imprint of his mane on my right cheek as I rub it back awake. How the hell did I fall asleep at all, much less so fast? But I don’t have time to question it.
He dips his head, and from the tip of his horn, an iridescent ripple scatters across a bubble-like surface I couldn’t see before. My jaw drops as I watch the ripples multiply and ascend beyond the treetops. The barrier is massive, like a great, otherworldly dome.
With his horn, Allucinyx draws three circles and a star on the surface, and a large segment of the bubble disintegrates, creating a black archway through.
“It’s beautiful,” I say, watching the last of the ripples fade and disappear.
“It is.” He nods. “But do not underestimate anything you see within.”
“I won’t,” I say, and he steps through the dark archway.
Immediately, my senses are bombarded with a million different sights, sounds, and smells. Even the temperatures seem to be at war with one another.
To my left, dragons, fairies, mages, and knights battle in a frozen field; ahead, superheroes and villains shoot lasers at each other across city skyscrapers; in the same city, Godzilla tears through a busy street and eats a fistful of screaming Japanese people. My eyes bulge as a pterodactyl that seems to be made of blue crayon wax swoops overhead before circling back to a paper maché volcano. The volcano bursts with vinegar and baking soda lava—though my companion’s warning leads me to believe it could eat through my skin as easily as real lava would.
“This dreamer is obsessed with dinosaurs,” he says, heading for the volcano. His voice is perfectly clear in my head, despite the noise. “Every night, he features different dinosaurs in different colors and mediums, but always the volcano.”
I cover my ears, knowing that if Allucinyx needs to tell me something, I’ll hear it clearer than all the rest. I have to shout my response over the noise of clanging swords and armor. “That’s normal for kids, though, right?”
“He’s a thirty-two-year-old accountant.”
We continue in silence for a while, past the bubbling volcano, and just under the swooping hand of Godzilla as we sneak through the city. Further out, there are other unicorns—giggling pink creatures that hardly resemble Allucinyx; and I detect the hint of disdain in his voice when I ask if they are real. His response is a clipped, “No.”
There are high schools, shopping malls, and offices filled with dreamers—some, not wearing any clothes. (Allucinyx laughs when I admit I’ve had that nightmare before.) There are people flying elatedly through the sky, and there are others dropping from it in terror. I see aliens, barbarians, porn stars, pop stars, gangsters, and angels. All walks of life are dreaming, and I realize it’s one of those rare things that connects us all as human beings.
“Do you dream?” I ask Allucinyx.
“Not like this,” he says, and I suspect from his tone that he won’t elaborate. But now I’m really curious. How do unicorns dream differently from us?
Allucinyx surprises me by saying, “We don’t sleep in one big segment like you do. We sleep sporadically, throughout the day and night, so we can flee at a moments’ notice. We dream in short bursts. It’s usually just a fleeting thought, or a single image before we wake.”
“So there could be other unicorns dreaming here, right now?”
“That kind of dream doesn’t warrant a trip to this side; they’re mostly made of memories. These are the deeper dreams of human’s sleep fantasy, their darkest desires; the dreams so involved, they’re difficult to remember the next day—or so I’ve been told.” He shakes his head and whinnies. It’s almost like a laugh. “Besides, those who sleep on this side of the barrier cannot dream; or if they did, it would be hard to distinguish the dreaming from the waking.”
We trot on.
After a while, I begin to wonder how long this trip will take, or if he just plans to walk until we both drop.
“What’s the plan, Al?”
He whinnies again, and this time I know he’s laughing at the nickname. “I have a dwelling a few miles from here. Someplace to cut out the noise of the dream world.”
“That would be nice,” I shout. My arms are going numb from holding my hands against my ears for so long.
His house turns out to be a large wooden door against a short, rocky cliffside. I slide off his back and stand to the side as he nudges the ancient padlock with his horn, and it pops open. He grabs a rope where a handle should be and pulls the door open to reveal a cave inside. With a flick of his horn, a gas lamp blazes to life, illuminating a space that’s just big enough for the two of us to stand comfortably. There’s no bed or table, only a soft pallet of old hay in one corner, and a trough full of water against one wall. A pipe leads away from the trough, and an old copper faucet drips down into it. The faucet also has a rope attached to its knob. As soon as the door closes behind us, the outside noise drops to a low murmur.
I drop my hands from my ears. “You live like a person.”
He whinnies in amusement. “It’s not as if we haven’t advanced over the centuries. We see what you make in your dreams. Sometimes we even inspire what you make in your reality.”
A curtain is draped across the far wall. Before I can ask what’s behind it, he notices me staring and pulls the curtain back, revealing row after row of shelves, covered in large jars.
“They are dreams,” he says, “those I’ve particularly enjoyed for one reason or another. I capture them with my horn and draw them into the jars to watch again.” He lowers his voice and noses my shoulder conspiratorially. “It isn’t legal though, so keep it between us.”
I chuckle as I stand on my tiptoes to inspect the closest jar. Inside the blue cloud floating within, a little girl jumps into her father’s arms to be spun around in the air.
“Are the people trapped in there?” I say, tapping the glass.
His mane catches the air as he shakes his head. “Certainly not. That would be barbaric. Dream keeping harms no one, but it’s a cultural taboo among my kind. We’re not supposed to become so invested in human affairs.”
“So what exactly do you do in this world, completely surrounded by human dreams?”
“We hide. We make sure no dreamers become aware of our tangibility among the intangible. We plant ideas to throw you off our scent. That sort of thing.”
“Like the pink, sparkly unicorns?”
I tuck a wild curl behind my ear. “What’s this?” I say, pointing to a strange object, similar to a Fabergé egg, tucked among the jars.
“Ahh, I forget that old thing is up there.” He touches his horn to the top of the gold and china object, and it slowly levitates down to my hand.
“Whoa,” I say. “If you can do that, why all the ropes?”
“We try not to waste our magic. We’re born with a set amount, and once it’s gone, we deteriorate and die.”
My jaw drops. “And you wasted it on handing me this… fancy china carrot?”
He chortles. “My kind can live into the thousands even if they use their magic every day. I’m just a bit conservative, that’s all.”
I take my time inspecting the item. It fills my hands but is much lighter than it looks. It is, in fact, a large, rounded china carrot with a gold stem. Tiny age cracks cover the porcelain, which is inlaid with gold designs of baby unicorns in various forms of joy. One stands on his forelegs, kicking the air behind him; another stands on his hind legs and whinnies; and yet another sits, gnawing on a long carrot.
“My sire gave that to my dam on the eve of my birth.”
“A baby gift.”
“Yes.” I feel his eyes on me as I inspect the delicate trinket. “It’s all I have left of her now.”
“What happened to her?”
“She died long ago—was executed for visiting the human world.”
“I’m so sorry,” I say, wanting to place a hand on his nose in comfort, but not wanting to risk dropping the egg. “You risked that when you came to see me?”
“What about your father… I mean, your sire? Is he still around?”
“He still lives in the northern provinces, in the dwelling I grew up in.”
“I take it you’re not close?”
“Once we come of age, it is not our way to stay among our kind. We’re safer apart.” There is a deep pain in his voice when he says this. His head rises suddenly, and out of nowhere, he says, “How old are you, Sarah?”
“I know you were nearly accosted by that monster tonight, but have you ever… been with a man?”
I look up from the trinket to shoot him a glare. “Not that it’s any of your business, but no.”
He shakes his head and seems to be speaking to himself when he says, “Maiden’s tears. I thought it was a legend.”
“That is what drew me to you tonight. They say it is like nectar to a hummingbird.”
“You’re drawn to our sadness. That’s not creepy or anything.”
“It’s not as if we like it! Well, I liked it a bit, but not the sadness of it. I can’t explain it but, when I smelled your tears, I felt… as if I suddenly had a purpose.”
A chill rakes my spine. That’s exactly how I’ve felt since he stepped out of the shadows in James’s backyard.
“So…” I say, wanting to change the subject. “…are you a virgin?”
If he could blush, he would be. His voice is sheepish when he speaks. “That is not what we call it, but yes.”
My turn to blush. I change the subject again to save us both. “And how old are you?”
“Comparably, I’m near your age.”
“So, not comparably…”
“I’m two-hundred and seventy-five years old.”
The carrot falls from my hand and shatters on the hard rock floor. I drop to the floor, frantically trying to collect the pieces. “Oh my god!”
“It’s alright, it’s alright,” he says. “It was just a bauble.”
“It was a two-hundred and seventy-five-year-old bauble that belonged to your mother! I’m so sorry, Al.”
I attempt to scoop the shards up with my hands, but it’s hopeless. I’m about to ask him if there’s any chance he can fix it with his magic when a banging on the door distracts me, and a shard of the trinket embeds itself in my palm. Blood gushes from the wound as Allucinyx frantically looks from me to the door and back again. The banging persists.
“Quick, crawl inside the cabinet!” he whispers in my mind. Without question, I run across the room, to the only cabinet I see and climb in. I have to kick the oversized bowls and pots out of my way; though, what a unicorn needs pots for, I’ll have to ask later. I settle in and go as stiff as I can, gripping hold of a bowl that’s teetering against my foot, to still it.
I hold my breath as Allucinyx opens the door and greets his unexpected guest with a series of neighs, then silence. I have to assume they’re having a conversation in their minds.
Large hooves clop across the floor. I can’t imagine how the two of them fit in here without breaking anything, but I have to focus all my attention on holding the bowl completely still.
One of them sniffs the air, followed by the crunch of glass under hoof. An angry nicker. Stamping hooves and sharp exchanges. The other unicorn thunders out of the house, and Allucinyx yanks the cabinet door open. His chest heaves when he speaks in my mind.
“We must go. Now!”
“Why? What happened?”
“That was a Knight Mare,” he says, backing up so I can crawl out. “They are the enforcers of the dream world. When I triggered the alarms at the wall, she came to make sure I wasn’t following in my mother’s footsteps.”
“She knows you crossed over?”
He huffs air through his nose. “I usually pass their ridiculous inspections with ease, but she saw my dream jars and the broken carrot. She smelled your blood on the china. She might have even suspected you were in the cabinet. We have to run. She’ll send the others.”
“What will happen if they catch you?”
“The punishment for human exposure is execution, by mass trampling.”
“Oh my god.” I gasp, horrified. I look to him, hoping he has a plan. “So… where will we go?”
“I will return you to the barrier and set you free.”
I shake my head. “I am free. I chose to be here, remember?”
“Yes, but it was selfish of me to put you in so much danger.”
“So, what?” I throw my hands in the air. “You’re just going to abandon me now? What if I don’t want to go back? My life is a big freaking mess. My grades are tanking, I can’t afford my rent, and don’t get me started on my social life. But here, there’s no rent, no assholes, and the first real friend I’ve had in years. And you don’t want to be alone either. Look at this place,” I say, circling around the room. “You’re trapped, living through other people’s dreams.”
He prances backward in irritation. “I don’t want you to go, but I don’t want you to get trampled with me either!”
“Well, I don’t want you to get trampled at all, so let’s try to find another way.”
“Fine!” He snorts. “We will discuss it on the road, but right now, we must go!”
He gestures for me to climb on his back, and I use the cabinet to do so. He takes off at a gallop, leaving the door swinging in our wake.
It isn’t long before he veers off the beaten dirt path and into the woods—the Nightmare Woods, he warns me—and I soon realize they are even more terrifying than the Godzilla city we passed through on the way in. At least it’s quieter here, save for the ear-splitting howls that nearly startle me off Allucinyx’s back every few minutes. Along the path, glow-eyed things watch us from the shadows. The whole experience is unsettling, but what worries me most is that he seems just as on-edge as I am.
Finally, we step out of the shadows, only for eyes to be accosted by a meadow made of neon yarn. Crocheted flowers as tall as Allucinyx sway in the breeze, as cotton ball clouds creep across the wooly sky.
“This one’s new,” he says. For a moment, he gazes across the field as if lost, then he trots on.
“If the landscape changes as often as dreams do, how do you ever know where you’re going?” I ask.
“The land beneath the dreams never changes. There are safe zones as well, like our dwellings, where the dreams cannot pass. So, though we pass through the dreams, I have traveled this road enough times to follow it with my eyes closed, knowing that my sire’s home will be at the other end.”
“So that’s where we’re going? Your dad’s house?”
“Yes. There is a tapestry in his home that may provide a clue as to what brought us together. If there’s a chance we might wield the power that binds us somehow, or be free of our connection altogether, I’m willing to suffer his presence. For a short while, anyway.”
Though his spirit seems light, mine plummets. Maybe it is for the best we sever this bond, but it feels so wrong.
I keep my thoughts to myself as we plod through the vibrant flowers. “Sunlight” from an unseen source fills his black horn with light, and for a moment, it’s as if it shimmers. I smile to myself, then tell him he’s a sparkly pony after all. He gets a good whinny at that.
We travel through cotton candy mountain ranges and sugar deserts; through a topiary maze, an elfin forest, and the Las Vegas strip. Sometimes, one dreamscape morphs into another so quickly, I don’t notice the change right away. Others are so different, the change comes on like a smack in the face. Some even morph while we’re inside them, like the five-star buffet that suddenly becomes Christian Grey’s red room of pain. I cover my eyes when the clothes begin to drop, and Allucinyx’s trot quickly becomes a gallop. His eyes must be closed too because we’re long out of the dream before he slows again.
Finally, we come to a waterfall, and Allucinyx instructs me to hop off. With a wave of his horn, the water parts, and I follow him into the dark, damp cave that’s hidden behind it.
“Phobos!” calls Allucinyx, to no reply. I use my shirt to wipe the mist from my face as I step into the surprising warmth of the cave. The “dwelling” is similar to Allucinyx’s in its basic furnishings, or lack thereof. There are no dream jars, but on the right wall hangs a massive tapestry depicting a princess and a waif of a unicorn. I don’t tell Allucinyx, but this is the creature I would have expected to meet. Allucinyx’s legs are massive by comparison; and while the maiden stands eye to eye with the tapestry unicorn, my head might reach Al’s shoulders.
“Is this what you were talking about?” I ask.
“Yes,” he murmurs, so close behind me that his body heat radiates against my back. Without thinking twice about it, I reach up and curl my arm around the side of his neck. He leans into my touch. I’ve only been off his back for a few minutes, but I already miss the nearness. There’s nothing sexual about the way I want to touch him—he’s a horse, so, gross—but my heart feels lighter the closer we are.
At a gruff nicker, Al steps away from me. We both turn to find a graying black stallion glaring at us with one scarred, silver eye.
“You always took after your dam,” he says, including me in the mental conversation.
Allucinyx dips his head. “Hello, Phobos. It has been a long time.”
“Indeed it has, little colt. It seems much has changed.” He eyes me pointedly.
“Yes. I’m not so little anymore.”
Phobos gives a short whinny. “No. You are not.”
They stare at each other for so long, I wonder if the conversation is carrying on without me, but then Phobos says, “So why are you here? You obviously broke the rules, just like your mother. Has anyone seen her yet?”
“A Knight Mare suspects.”
Phobos hisses a word I’ve never heard before, but I can guess it’s the unicorn equivalent of “shit”.
With a shake of his head, he says, “Then you are beyond anyone’s help.”
Allucinyx’s eyes narrow. “I didn’t come here for your help. I knew you wouldn’t give it. I was there with Dam, remember?”
“I had no choice! They would have killed me too.”
“She was your mate!”
“And where would that have left you? Someone had to be here to take care of you! She surely wasn’t.”
Allucinyx rears back and slams his front hooves onto the rock. “After all this time you still have no respect!”
“I loved that filly, but I was more your dam than she ever was!” Phobos’s heavy footfalls loose dust from the ceiling.
Allucinyx pounds the ground with his massive legs, and a pebble knocks me in the head. This has to stop before they bring the cave down on us.
I jump between them, and both stallions rear back to keep from landing on me. I shield my head, just in case they still do.
“Sarah, you can’t do that! Are you insane?” cries Allucinyx. “I can’t control gravity, you know.”
“Better your hooves than the whole roof!”
He looks up as if just now realizing his own strength.
“She is right, son. We should not fight about things we cannot change. I am happy you are here.”
Allucinyx’s temper is not so malleable. “I will put my issues aside for now. We came only to look at the tapestry anyway.”
With a gruff turn of his head, he clip-clops over to the tapestry.
I don’t like that Allucinyx is so upset with his father, but I won’t call him out in front of the old stallion. It’s a conversation for later.
Allucinyx stares at the tapestry for a long while, before he sighs deeply and looks down at me. “I hoped there would be information hidden in the weave of the fabric, a secret message or something, but I scanned it with my magic, and there is nothing.”
“Well, have you looked on the back?”
“Have I looked on the back?” He whinnies, then thinks about it for a second, and grabs the corner of the fabric with his teeth. “Well?”
Realizing he wants me to get in there and have a look, I duck under his neck and peer behind the fabric. The only immediate difference I notice is that the pattern is inverted; but then, in the bottom right corner, I notice a small grouping of words. I quickly scooch over to the other side and hold it out so I can read. Well, try to read. The letters are nothing like I’ve seen before.
Allucinyx drops the other corner and says, “Did you find something?”
“Yeah, but I can’t read it.”
I curl the corner so he can see it, and a second later he says, “It’s Ancient Fae. I can’t read it either.”
Phobos chuckles behind him. “Let me have a look at that.” He scans the writing with his one good eye. “You know, I never paid much attention to this old script, but maybe you kids can make some sense of it. My Ancient Fae is a little rusty, but it’s something like… ‘Honor highest to be chosen for the bond,’ some words I don’t know, then ‘destroy false bonds, hallowed stone you must find’ more I can’t translate, and then ‘the purest love risks all’ and ‘hilltop ritual.’” He steps back and says, “Best I can do.”
“Does it mean something to you, Al?”
He nods, and his eyes are distant. “It may.”
His father’s gruff voice chimes in. “What are you thinking, Allucinyx?”
“Don’t worry about it, Sire. The less you know, the better. We would not want you ending up like Dam.”
I place my palm on the graying unicorn’s shoulder before I follow Allucinyx back out of the cave. His tail flicks as if he’s swatting invisible flies.
Back in the dreamy daylight, I jog alongside him. “Where are we going now?”
“To find a magical rock.”
I have to run to keep up. “Do you really want to ‘destroy’ this connection? Do you think it’s worth it?”
“I will do what must be done to protect you.”
“I understand, but will it protect you as well?”
“I do not know.”
We walk in silence for a while, before other thoughts trot their way into my mind. I try to bite back the words, but after five more minutes of silence, I give up and say, “You know, you could have cut your dad some slack.”
“When the Knight Mares came for my dam, he did nothing to protect her.”
“You think maybe that’s because he was trying to protect you?”
“I don’t care what the reason was. He was not the only one who had to watch. I would have rather died than live through that. He should have felt that way too.”
“Maybe he didn’t want to make that decision for you. I don’t know much about your, um, people, but humans do all kinds of crazy things to protect their kids. They don’t just protect them out of love, but also instinct. They can’t help it. Survival of the species and all that.”
He shakes his head. “You are probably right, but how can I ever forgive him? It just… it hurts too much.”
Without looking at me, he stops and lays on the ground; and I climb on his back.
It feels like we’ve been traveling for days. Maybe we have. The light only changes with the dreams, so I have no idea how long I’ve been here. I bet my mom’s tried my cell about a hundred times by now, and it’s probably long-dead, still sitting in my purse back at James’s house.
We finally begin to slow at the edge of a grassy clearing. A large boulder sits atop a hill. By the quiet alone, I can tell this is one of those special zones that the dreams can’t mess with.
I dismount, and he approaches the rock, horn first. He closes his eyes in concentration, and touches the tip of his horn to the rock, then takes a step back. I half expect music to start playing or something, but after a few minutes of nothing happening, I lay down and look up at the sky. It was all for nothing.
Defeated, Allucinyx folds down on the grass beside me. I sit up and lean back against him.
“Could the tapestry have meant a different rock?” I ask.
He shakes his head. “It’s been centuries since that tapestry was woven. The magic may have left this place altogether.”
I sit up to look at him. “I’m sorry, Al. I know it’s not what either of us wants, but maybe it’s time we tried looking on the other side of the wall.”
“Yes. We will do that next.”
“You think all that stuff about true love meant something? I mean, it’s true I’ve never felt a connection like this before, but we’re different species, and I half blame the magic, you know?”
He chuckles. “The magic may be to blame, but I can’t argue with the strength of it. It is as if we share a piece of our souls.”
I take a deep breath and lean back against him. We sit like that for a long while, just watching the clouds roll by—real clouds, not cotton ones. I like the sound of his heartbeat. I love his companionship—I don’t think I’ve ever been this comfortable with anyone before—but do I love him?
A cracking sound on the hill behind us raises our attention. At first, we see nothing, but then an old white unicorn crests the hill. Her knees pop with each painfully slow step.
Allucinyx and I rush to help her, but she waves us off with a shake of her mane. “Have patience! It takes a lot longer than it used to, but these old bones still get me around.”
After much popping, creaking, and groaning, she finally settles in front of the boulder. I’ve never seen a horse sit down like a person before, but that’s exactly what she does.
“I’ve waited a long time for a pair like you to show up,” she says. Her breath is ragged, but her words are clear in my mind. Her young voice doesn’t match her leathery nose and withered stature. Even her horn is tarnished and broken at the tip.
“What do you mean, a pair like us?”
“A pair with innocent love in your hearts; with no desire in coming here beyond the happiness of the other. You both fear that coming here will cost you to become separated, but you’re willing to risk it to spare the other’s life. That is very brave indeed, and most-assuredly love.”
Allucinyx and I share a glance.
“The good news is that you don’t have to be separated unless you want to. That was simply a test to get you here. Most are too selfish to risk losing the feeling of love that the bond gives them, but you two proved it was the real thing by showing up.” She pauses. “Did I say that already?”
“Not in so many words,” says Allucinyx.
She looks at me. “Lucky you. He’s a polite one. Not nearly as arrogant as most young unicorns—I know I was a pompous ass in my day.”
“I doubt that,” I say.
She whinnies. “The both of you; just precious.” She pauses to catch her breath after the laugh, then says, “But I can’t protect you just because I like you. You can leave here with both your freedom and your companionship, but it requires a great sacrifice.”
“What kind of sacrifice?” I ask.
“You would make none, maiden; but your stallion must make a choice, for he is the one with magic in his veins.” She looks to Allucinyx. “How much do you love this girl?”
“Whatever it is, I’ll do it.”
“Good answer.” She turns to me. “And how much do you love your young stallion?”
“Enough that I don’t want him to sacrifice anything he cares about just to save me.”
She shakes her head. “You two… I miss feeling like this.” She hobbles back up onto all four legs. “Alright then, let’s get to it.”
“But you haven’t told us what the sacrifice is,” I say.
She turns for the rock, and without looking at me, she answers, “That’s the hardest part of the test, my dear; your faith that having each other will be enough.”
I look to Allucinyx for any sign of hesitation, but his eyes are fiery with determination.
“You don’t have to do this, Al,” I plead. “I’d sacrifice my happiness to keep you alive.”
“I would do the same for you, Sarah.”
While I stare into the endless depths of his eyes, the old mare works furiously on the hill. She draws light designs on the rock that disappear as soon as they’re written. Her movements grow faster and faster until she’s moving so fast, she isn’t moving like an old mare anymore. The rock begins to glow, and she calls over a growing roar for Allucinyx to take a place on the opposite side of the rock.
I reach to stop him, but he is too strong. “Have faith,” he says. “We’ll be enough.”
“But that’s just it, I’m afraid I’ll lose you!”
“To the crazy old mare and the glowing rock? We’ve conquered worse.”
I want to tell him it’s no time to joke, but the rock begins to glow so brightly that I have to look away.
The mare shrieks over the roar, “Now, touch your horn to the stone!”
In a flash of light, I am blown backward by the blast. Ash floats in the air, and I scramble to stand. Allucinyx and the old mare have vanished.
“Al!” I scream, but I can’t hear my own voice over the ringing in my ears. I rush up the hill as fast as I can, climbing over chunks of rock that weren’t here before. When I get to the top, I realize… the boulder’s gone.
When I realize that nothing could have survived being this close to the blast, I shudder. The only true friend I’ve ever had… is gone. I drop to my knees and let the tears fall straight to the earth. I don’t even hear the rustling of rubble, or the soft groan the mare as she stands. I especially don’t recognize her when she approaches.
I leap to my feet, fearing she’s one of the Knight Mares, come to tie up the last loose end.
Her voice, I recognize.
“Rise quickly, Maiden. Your stallion needs you.”
“You’re her… but how?”
The mare has beautiful and snowy white, a narrow, but muscled frame, and a golden horn that shines like a polished blade. Her eyes are clear and blue as the sky; and most-tellingly of all, they’re level with mine.
“You’re the unicorn in the tapestry.”
“And the princess in the tapestry was my maiden. But she passed centuries ago. I had no one to do for me what I’ve done for you.”
“What did you do?” I demand.
But she ignores me, lost in the memory. “We were the only true love bond of our kind… until you. Before us, no one understood the purpose of these bonds, and after us, the risk was not worth it. Too many of our kind were killed by the jealous humans that maidens left behind. That is why it is forbidden, and why the Knight Mares hunt you both. They fear the return of the old ways. But this is no life for a unicorn. Your stallion knew that, and it is why he came to you.”
Knew? She said, knew, as in, past tense.
I grit my teeth and my fists.
“WHAT HAPPENED TO ALLUCINYX?”
She nudges her nose towards the sound of a groan—one that isn’t in my head, but in my ears. Throwing a hateful glare in her direction, I run to the opposite side of the hill, towards a pile of rubble that’s moving in time with the groans. When I circle it to investigate, I nearly fall to the ground in shock again.
He is still black as night, his hair long and silky, but the rest of him is fully transformed. It’s only his eyes that assure me I’m looking at the same Allucinyx.
In a playful tone, he says, “Are you going to stare, or are you going to help me get out of this?”
Without a word, I pull rock after rock off of his body. The mare joins me, and we work until his legs are finally unpinned. He stands up, on his two human legs, and flashes me an awkward smile. It’s made only slightly more awkward by the fact that he’s buck naked.
With a grin, he says, “I promise, Milady, it is not as strange for you as it is for me.”
At those words—that his sense of humor remains after losing his physical self for me—my jaw wobbles, I wrap my arms around him, and I cry for joy that he’s still himself, and we’re both still alive.
The trade for our cure was my magic, and thus the mare’s youth was restored.
She uses some of her restored magic to clothe me in attire suitable for the human world. I cannot understand the ridiculous tightness of these jeans. It hinders any ability to kick, or run, which is especially impractical in our situation. Even Sarah keeps staring at my hindquarters; so much that I ask the mare to clothe me in something more appropriate.
But as the mare dips her head to try again, Sarah thrusts her hand out to stop her.
“Don’t change anything,” she says.
My heart swells at her attempt to make me feel better about the silly attire, so I drop it. Besides, the least of my worries right now is clothing. I have twenty tiny appendages to master, where only four hooves used to be.
“You two had better hurry,” says the mare. “Just because I’ve given you a chance at happiness, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed the time to appreciate it. The Knight Mares are still coming. I can sense them approaching from the south.”
“Thank you,” Sarah says to the mare.
The mare nudges her shoulder and eyes me when she says, “Protect him until he grows accustomed to this new body. He’s not used to being so fragile.”
“You do know I can hear you,” I say, attempting to cross my arms like a human. I can’t quite figure out how to overlap them, so I give up and let the long, awkward things drop to my sides.
Sarah snickers, and says to the mare, “I will.”
“Now, run,” says the mare. “There’s little that will slow them, but I will do what I can.”
“Thank you,” I say, and she nods in return.
We head west, in what humans call “a jog”, and I soon realize that I am far slower on foot than on hoof. Sarah is even slower than I am, due to her shorter legs; but true to her nature, she pushes to the edge of her abilities. We are both winded and drenched in moisture by the time we take our first break.
“How much farther…” Breath. Breath. “…to the border?” she asks.
“It is difficult to gage in this form,” I admit. “But I would estimate just over ten kilometers.”
“That’s what…” Breath. Breath. “…about six miles?”
“Okay,” she says, standing on shaky legs. “Let’s get back to it.”
She wobbles; and I reach with my neck to brace her, remembering at the last second to use my arm. I catch her just before her knees hit the ground.
“Whoa,” I say, guiding her to the shade of a nearby oak. “We can rest a bit longer if it means you survive the trip.”
She laughs at this, I cannot. My life will be much shorter now, and I do not wish to spend a minute of it without her by my side; not that I wished that in my old body either. I do not know how the ancient mare has survived as long as she has without her maiden.
Sarah and I have been lucky so far, with the dreamscapes leaning towards the natural side, but I know our luck will run out soon. I just hope I have enough experience in this world to make up for the weakness of my new body. I also hope the ancient mare is able to hold the Knight Mares off for a very long time. We are far too slow.
But of course, the mere thought of them summons the thunder of hooves behind us. Sarah glances half a second at me before she leaps into a weak run. I keep pace with her, refusing to leave her no matter what. Her energy wanes quickly, and admittedly, so does mine. As our legs slow, she reaches out and grabs my hand. She squeezes hard, and I squeeze back. If this is the end, I take comfort in the fact that we will go together.
“Don’t slow down, you idiots! They’re hot on my tail!”
Phobos’s voice brings new vigor to our step. I do not believe I have ever been so happy to hear the old stallion in my head. It is impossible to match his pace, so he slows to ours. I help Sarah upon his back, then she helps me, and we take off at a thunderous gallop. I am amazed by how much power he still has in his stride.
“When we reach the border, you will continue on foot and get as far away from the wall as you can. Reach other humans if possible. That’s the only way you’ll be safe. Do you understand?”
I hear in my sire’s voice what he is truly asking: do I understand that I can never come back and that I will never see him again?
“Thank you, Sire,” I say.
His step stutters, but he keeps up the deadly pace. Only his voice fully betrays his surprise. “You are welcome.”
My chest heats as Sarah reaches back and squeezes my hand. I am learning to appreciate the unwieldy things.
We reach the border in a quarter of the time it would have taken us alone, but I hear the hooves behind us even as Phobos opens the archway. He carries us through the border, and as soon as we fully cross, we dismount. Phobos says nothing but gives one final nod before he fades into the blackness of the wall. The archway closes, and Sarah and I are alone. Somewhat rested from the ride, we sprint through the trees.
We finally break when we reach a creek that is too wide to cross. The frogs grow quiet.
Sarah splashes the water on her face but does not drink. I have no such reservations. With a chuckle, she says, “What the hell?” and cups her hands to bring the water to her mouth. I attempt this with little luck and resume lapping the water with my tongue. It is a slow process.
While we rest, safe enough for the moment, I think about my sire. Sarah was right—I should have forgiven him years ago. Now, I’ll never know his fate, but I won’t forget the risk he took for us today.
I hope he outlives me by a thousand years.
Sarah seems as lost in her own thoughts as I. Her eyes gaze upward at the moon through the break that the creek has cut through the trees. The moon reflects on her eyes in two perfect slivers, until she blinks and looks over to catch me staring.
“What is it, Al?”
I love that she’s given me a nickname. I’ve never had one before.
“I was just admiring the way the moon reflects in your eyes. I was mesmerized.”
Her cheeks pinken and she tucks her chin.
“Why do you do that?”
She shrugs—a human gesture I’ve yet to master—and says, “I guess I’m just not used to anyone being so earnest.”
“Is it something I should change to fit in with your kind?”
“No,” she says, reaching out to take my hand. “Please don’t change. Not even a little bit.”
My cheeks widen of their own accord—something I’m learning is a smile. Wanting to see it for myself, I create a puddle in the wet sand and stare and my reflection. I have a lean face, with a long nose for a human, but otherwise, I don’t recognize myself. I am glad that Sarah sees through this strange façade though. I look at her round, pale face—still so different from mine—and say, “I admit, this is a difficult adjustment.”
Usually, I appreciate the many expressions humans convey with their eyes; but I don’t like this expression. She is hurt. “So you regret your decision?”
“Absolutely not.” I shake my head and reach for her—not realizing how human the gesture is until she is already in my arms. Her ear pressed against my chest, I rub my cheek against her soft red mane. Even her scent is appealing to me.
“Do you know the real reason I collected dreams?”
She shakes her head.
“So that I could feel what it was like on the outside. Every dream I cherished was based in the waking world. I didn’t care about the wild or the magical. I craved the comforts of the mundane. And how better to experience that than with the person I care about most, as someone who can hold her in his arms when she is sad?” I sigh and pull her closer. “I regret only two of the choices I’ve made since I met you.”
“What are those?” she says, her voice soft.
“Not staying here with you in the first place, and not maiming that stupid boy.”
“James?” She shakes her head. “After all that’s happened, I almost forgot about that piece of garbage. You should try to forget about him too.”
But I won’t. Not until I pound him with these awkward human hands.
Across the creek, fireflies begin to flicker near the swaying cattails. The wind is cool and soft, and the only sounds are the creek and the wildlife too far outside of our radius to fear our presence. I would have given my magic just to experience this peaceful place. But now that I have her to share it with, I feel as if I’ve truly made the deal of a lifetime.
At this moment, I am so fulfilled, I try something I have only seen in dreams: I kiss the top of her head.
She looks up at me in surprise.
“What? Did I do it wrong?”
“Not at all,” she says.
Seeing an opportunity, and hoping I’m not making a fool of myself, I say, “You know, the mare did tell you to look out for me. And how better to do that than to train me in the ways of your kind?”
A playful grin stretches across her face. “I really do love your sense of humor.”
My heart pounds against my ribcage as I ask, “What else do you love about me?”
“All of it,” she says; and before I realize what’s happening, she presses her lips to mine. My eyes fly open in surprise, but my resistance is only momentary.
She is kissing me. This is a human kiss. I was always curious as to why they did this, and I am probably as terrible at it as I am everything else, but I kiss her back, and that is when I realize that I enjoy it. I not only enjoy the feeling of the lips on lips, but I like the way she feels against me. I like the strange sensations in my brain and chest and… other areas that kissing her causes. No, I don’t just like it. I love it. And I love this girl. No dream could ever compare to the reality of kissing Sarah.
As we lower each other’s bodies gently to the ground, we find new ways to show our love for one another.
And no longer having anything to fear, the frogs resume their song.