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Chapter 13: Plight to the Understories

The sun rose long before Andelko, but as the dew began to sweat off his scruffy chin, he awoke. Acacia lay at a deadlock between telling her troupe about the masquerade and keeping it silent until reach of the dunes. She wanted to make the masquerade in time but didn’t want to make the impression of searching for guises and masked parties, only to canter off course.

In contradiction, it would be risky not to explain the firebird. She did not trust the spell of fear which oppressed her. The firebird would still be a risk of mentioning for she trusted those instincts of fear far more than her own impulsive advice. Which moral and which instinct to trust played a constant game of War in her mind.

This thought continued its silent discourse, oppressing her even more. Andelko was still groggy, but Circinus, always attentive, could read her intent.

“Whatsoever is wound up in your mind this day?”

“Have you met the firebird?” Chiron pricked up his ears at the mention. She didn’t want to release Chiron’s temper but did not want her secret silence to oppress her.

He changed his guard. His voice spoke deeper and raspier and was filled with grog. “I haven’t heard that name since I’ve seen the rarity.” Chiron asked, “What brings up this legend?”

Acacia remained unsure about the firebird’s stance. The allusive creature might want to stay elusive but he or she might have wanted a bright opportunity to expose itself. Either way, it made a great story for the road.

“In the middle of the night, the firebird visited me. I don’t know what it wanted but it said I must head to Medora before the next turn of the moon. At the rising of half a fortnight’s last sun is when I predict it’ll be too late.”

Circinus whinnied, “Well that’s where we’re heading. The firebird came at an opportune time but what brings the urgency?”

“Only a secret messenger. I was told to meet him in the town square, but that’s all I mustered from Firebird. It flew swift out of sight.” The morning fog thickened and muffled the stories until everybody stood silent.

The last of the velvety saltambique frogs croaked to bed, plopping into the marshes. Acacia and Circinus occasionally glimpsed their short, neon fur. Soon again, the forest plummeted into monoliths and crags. It was a couple days and their journey was waning. They thought it would end and no one would be able to make it to Medora until the unicorns found another hot spring. One hot spring led to another and soon the woods teemed with misty baths.

The group relaxed as Circinus and Andelko talked plans. Some of their gestures seemed uncertain but they appeared confident in their guidance. Then Chiron came up to Acacia and told of the legend of firebirds.

“They hail secret messages. I will not press further if makes it you uncomfortable.”

Acacia’s voice hummed over the gurgling flow of the springs. She told Chiron of her concern about followers, and of whether the party would be important.

After their conversation, Chiron concluded, “I will not know what the villagers think of us, but we shall be your decadent escorts.”

The forest soon thinned out. Andelko was rather sure it led to the desert, but Circinus was concerned about the increasing drought. The hot springs thinned out too.

“On the other side of the cliff lie the ices caves,” Circinus warned. But then he optimized his view, “the water will be cool, but these mountain homes, a time back, were volcanoes.”

“Some say it’s the frontier of the unicorns.” Circinus alleged. “I shall know my own homeland, but I fear more for those who live beyond it than those who fear me.”

“I fear myself.” Chiron zoned toward the horizon. The towers of lavender plumes bordered the rippled earth.

Before arriving at the dunes, cone-like protrusions poked out in the distance. It was the last stopping point before Medora. The sky bled in deep indigo and the stars lit up the night.

“I need a rest stop,” Andelko gave away, urgently. Circinus and Chiron reassured him there will be many.

Twilight set forth with the still half-moon. A streamline cloud moved under it as if it was slicing the heavenly body in two. Stars were piercing, and the cloudy veins of the universe lay before their long journey. Behind them lay an opaque sky and a rainy turmoil rimmed the peripheries of the dunes. It was inconceivable how they should climb to the top of the dunes. The forest almost ended but the storm chased them the entire trip. The desert tried desperately to push the storm back if only it didn’t dare push them back. A black cloud clawed at the border of the dry-land. The party began to holster themselves up the dunes and as each hoof set in, sprays and eddies of sand marked the unicorns’ immediate steps. Wind rushed into the conches of their ears. Sand splintered their eyes.

All through the night, a rare scene rattled from the sky. Flying meteors celebrated their travels. Occasionally, a rock would land beside them in the dunes. The meteors weren’t small, and the stones became many. Earth shook, and no one knew where the quakes came from. The sand under their feet rattled and the dunes became damp. Acacia tried desperately to hold onto Circinus as he tried to scramble out of the swirling sands. The sky around the sinking dunes continued to mar craters in the sand. Soon the craters were seen for miles and sheets of rock fled from the sky. The air became overwhelmed with tails and streams of fire. It burned their eyes with tears and dirt.

Andelko conjured up a plan through the shouts and cries and noise of wind: “Pull an arrow out of your quiver and attach it to my rope. Then, aim at a rock.” The wind progressed as a whopping noise blew in their ears. Circinus had the most trouble slowing down.

“The earth is swallowing the entirety of me! It won’t stand a chance.” Acacia had a dense feeling that something or someone was after her. She didn’t know whom, but it meddled with her conscience.

“Do as I say.” He shouted firmly in fright.

As Chiron scrambled out of a growing chasm, Acacia obeyed.

If this isn’t the first time I need to defend myself with my weaponry gifts, it sure wasn’t to harm Andelko.

The arrow’s force lifted the party out of the crater- chasm with one rope and did catch something, but another threw them back. A meteor the size of a temple pummeled them back into the sinking hole, burying the four with an avalanche of sand, and gladly halting near the edge. Never again did they see the crumbling sky.

The sand shifted like an hourglass. Acacia was on the verge of suffocation, but she was not sure of her companions, hearing the muffled rumbles of Chiron or the fading whinnies of Circinus. Apart from faith, she could not be sure of anything except the formidable knocks and thuds of the outer earth.

Their legs were able to move, dangling for a moment, and they fell helplessly to the hard floor of a tall cavern. The hooves hit the stone tiles with an aching knock. It was not like any cavern Acacia witnessed before. After the company coughed, wheezing out much dust and sand and shaking their robes, she noticed the cavern was well lit after adjusting her eyes. The vaulted ceiling inched toward a humongous glass dome, either an elaborate window or observatory. The structure opened to a panoramic view of the diminishing, falling stars. The piercing stars—eyes of the night—diminished too, then clouded away.

The remainder of the large space was empty with little sign of occupants. Their voices echoed in the cathedral-like vacancy carved into a stadium-sized pocket shelter. They stood in piles of sand looking in amazement. The stone structure was designed from unknown material of lavender alabaster and resembled a greenhouse church.

“I didn’t mean to steer us back into a passageway,” Acacia apologized well struck. It then struck her that neither traveler has seen the passageway.

Andelko was too awestruck to grasp a word and clung to the hilt of his sword, “Only I can tell you that I’ve heard this story. Not only I, perhaps. Please, I will allow you to discourse but you allowed me. What was I saying before the rock avalanche?”

“Another story about the unicorn war—at least, that’s what I gathered before I had to nurse you in your coma.” Acacia laughed. The terrarium locked in their secrets, and most of all, their time which slithered away in the dunes. “Maybe, in this passage we finally can get some peace and quiet.”

“Ah, the war—a subject I’d like to avoid.” Circinus and Chiron barked a shrill whinny at the mention of the war. “But aye, your rumors are true. Maybe we shall be safe under the desert and maybe we shall not. But oh, don’t let that ruin you; all shall be ruins anyway before I gather weaponry. I see doors, no persons, but these doors, should they be locked, yet lead to fortresses.”

Chiron’s eyes grew weary and Circinus’s enlarged with fear. Acacia and the unicorns knew something far greater lurked in Andelko’s conscience than presumed.

“There’s something I’d like to avoid no longer. Perhaps what you say is true because for whatever reason I received a visit from the firebird last night.” She thought, perhaps, Firebird was trying to prepare or warn her.

Acacia showed them the letter:

The elders of Medora cordially invite you to the seasoned masquerade. Arrive in one moon no later than sunrise. Find me in town square. R.S.V.P optional.

Andelko groaned, “Must be some town drunk.”

“No, not a drunkard, Andelko,” she replied reveling the artifact. “An invite from a high official maybe.”

Andelko groaned again, “I’m sorry, truly, I don’t know who you are trying to meet, but I can’t stay with you. My people need me more than some gallivanting masquerade depleting all our resources.” His voice boomed in the cavern and they were afraid it might lead to another sand avalanche.

She sighed, “Maybe then, the invitation is false, but this is gallantry. Don’t turn back. These are your people. Even if we have followers, the rumors are false about unicorns and I think this concerns them.”

Andelko was silent as he forwardly searched for an unlocked door to the fortresses—catacombs of the lost passageways. Chiron and Circinus knew the true stories of the firebird but there were better times to inform Andelko.

“You know so much of the goings-on in this country,” Acacia questioned. “How so have you learned of them?”

She was sure she had failed at breaking the silence.

“Never before have I heard so much before Jason.” Andelko sighed.

Acacia’s epiphany came with the realization that questions must stop momentarily. The forest could speak to them no more this out-of-range, but she was ever more cautious. Jason was everywhere.

Who can keep the most secrets? The most rumors? I wonder...Andelko?

Andelko found that one door had been opened but had been rusted shut. After picking the heavy lock with his knife, the grand door swung open. A cavernous passage continued for miles in darkness.

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