Chapter 15: Refugees of Storm
Sandstorms proceeded into nighttime and blocked the direction of the stars. The desert ended and only the ridges kept their distance. Dark massifs pressed them forth only with the aided instincts of Circinus. Acacia’s reasoning told them to camp until the storm passed although her split conscience worried about the missed meeting. She prayed for a firebird after wishing for the storm to pass.
However, her prayers did not provide reprieve. It was impossible to set up shelter in the torrent. Her prayer came with the ceasing of the storm. She unveiled her robe from her mouth, stiff and exhausted from lack of camp. A sign written in cryptic filigree, partially smeared, pointed to an obscure hole in the earth appearing from a ledge and ambiguous under the leafy pines. The hole resembled a bear’s hermitage but the only sign of light peering out was the dark lid of an endless entrance.
Acacia was eager to run to the other side of the dark entrance without being conspicuous, but they needed to gather supplies while still under Earth’s greenery. Knowledge of the entrance’s length lurked unknown and where it ended was yet uncertain. The country was falling into a dearth and starving. Supplies were limited. Even from the safety of the City of Unicorns, no one could abscond from the punishing desert.
Andelko radicalized, “We can eat the fruit now that we sort of know where it is. Too bad it’s poisonous like everything here.” Chiron and Circinus liked this idea.
“You know the fruit?” Acacia asked dotingly.
“A fruit they call the fruit of Transfiguration,” he yawned. “The edible ancestor of the first living things in this world, and yes, I’ve heard bards, even sailors, tell o’ it.”
Chiron and Circinus looked just as surprised as her.
“What’s wrong?” His mustache ruffled. “I sense some friction.”
“Are you sure you can’t tell us where you have obtained its location?” Acacia felt the aching duty of bounty hunter without its glamorous, mythic claims.
“Are you sure it wasn’t any of us or any of the city unicorns?” Chiron pressed.
“I heard it from my best mates. If it’s Jason who tells you these things, I know what you’re after. I’m no stranger to this world, y’know.”
Andelko either walks by a naïve conscience or without one.
“But,” he continued, “after Medora I wander alone. I both stay and then leave to defend my town.” Chiron reveled at his new guide.
Acacia noted the scree and rocks near the cave’s precipice wondering if they could clamber up. The mood darkened their dirge. Though hope was rising, hope did not eradicate their problems. Wars and rumors of it sped, but the days had just begun. The deserts capsized the citizens’ errant ways and sometimes their hearts. The landscape quickly changed but the cause had yet to be known. The desert looked the way it had always been to Acacia, so she knew how to adapt.
She parted her lips. “This case is not over, I promise.”
Acacia hoped a troglodyte or a hermit didn’t lurk in the tunnels concealed by the cave. She resisted the urge to fight at the point where she no longer felt the need. The feeling of self-suppression was shocking.
My instincts surely didn’t wear off? Did they? Blood and gore had already shown up, open and bare, so she did not need to pay a visit to the distant memories of secondary Dominium school, getting into fights where no one claimed victor. The memories sparked her bloodlust, but even if her reasoning had been square, it did not diffuse her unquenchable malice. She was mocked for her stories, believing in hope—hope that the unicorns weren’t extinct and she would someday become mayor of Domain. When Jan heard of this, he left bruises of betrayal. He had been left behind.
Yet, the blood inside her boiled, waiting for freedom. She wiped the memories from her mind’s palette, lastly remembering the tears of red she erased from her face following her last brawl. The memory faded with a succulent goodbye. Folding itself back into her personal archives, Acacia was afraid of it resurfacing, but she told herself: wait for the right moment.
Maybe I needed to go through this toil and tread, but I feel too different now. She contemplated her softer extreme and decidedly forged through the tunnel. The climb was a lot higher than expected, but the supplies from the underground city would provide energy until Medora. The cavern was deeper and wider than expected. Unusual carvings bulged from the walls depicting tales of an old order. A god and a goddess held above their palms every creature imaginable: Kirin, the unicorn, sea monsters, deer, antelope, goat, and even what looked like the firebird. The depiction was bordered by flora that looked like it was molded from the churches of Acropolis. Beneath the god-like beings were the kings and queens and below them were high priests, then sailors, and below them, merchants handing alms and offerings to the ones above and the townspeople and wanderers beneath them. The mural was beautiful, but it caught Acacia off guard.
If only things were meant to be like that, being in any such order, really. The light from the desert displayed the mural but following the inner dampness, vision returned to pitch black. Andelko estimated it’d be three furlongs before they see the finish. Acacia, Chiron, and even Circinus stopped doubting Andelko.
To pass the journey, Chiron told the story of the mural—the story thought to be myth even by the traditional wild unicorns.
“The world came from one seed. In the beginning, there were beings that would go into their elemental form. They created the air, the seas and rivulets, and the very ground. Every being from villager to Kirin to king and queen possessed such a power. In the beginning, our kings and queens were god beings who were chosen as protectors of two realms. The rulers after were bright and generous, well taught by tradition, but something banished them from our world. Since then, only the high priests could baptize the townspeople after we lost our rulers. There were a few kings and queens left but they couldn’t replace our kingdoms. It’s said that the first kings and queens who were banished by the high priests, themselves, waged war against the unicorns for the breaching of their city-states and denying their rulers. Some unicorns, wild and extremely feral, would murder each other because they were split between the kingdom and perpetual anarchy. In the end, the unicorns, along with the kingdom, chased anarchy, but still today, the wild ones fight for a new ruler. This is the war. Before the war, there was balance and order. Although the kings and queens thereafter were never true gods and goddesses like the Ones, they proclaimed it to the townspeople, and when the unicorns, the wild ones, denied this, we were hunted for our horns then sold to unknowing apothecaries. Today the city unicorns’ side with their own race but we all wish to inherit a true ruler. Perhaps there is not another war. Perhaps then the new order will stay.”
“Chiron, things can turn back the way they were, but for the better.” Acacia hoped.
“So, you say, young mare, but you never can guess who is on our side.” His words bellowed to the ends of the tunnels.
“I feel remorse for those who aren’t.” As her words echoed they sank in, revealing her confession. Rebels hid everywhere strengthening the anarchy yet slowly inching toward the future. Maybe rebels hid in the tunnels. Maybe alliances existed in Domain. Power belonged to the people and their bellies ached for life.
Andelko surprised everyone with a question. “Do your people—I mean race—still fight and kill?” He thought Chiron, even Circinus, might be offended by the question but Chiron was delighted.
He chuckled deeply, “Now you ask. Yes, it is sad but true. Otherwise, I would stop my migrations and force my band to settle in an orchard.” The idea was remarkable to him. In Chiron’s last days, it was remarkable to Circinus that he was able to dream, wish, and wander.
Something caught Acacia’s eye at first like a vision. When she saw the eyes of her companions flitting, unnerved, she realized it was no mirage, but an invitation. A light flew down the tunnel. The unicorns charged after the speeding glow, battle-ready and more than curious. Normally, Circinus would dance with the display of light, but his body shot out like a dart.
A gust pricked his fur and chilled Acacia’s bones. Her imagination raced with the taunting of the wind. Acacia hoped the light wouldn’t blow out, again blackening their vision. The figure danced around the corners flickering light and shadow across their darkening path. The flames were that of a frantic fugitive holding many torches. Everyone showed fear but instead of turning around, they pursued. Someone had been watching them.
The light flooded the tunnel, but the source disappeared. No voices. No torches. Only dripping water and signs of stagnation. Crystal and stalagmite shimmered in the light like the unicorn caverns dotting the ridges. Here, Acacia fulfilled her promise. Under the hopeful but threatening light, she realized there were far more dangerous companions than unicorns. She affirmed Chiron or Circinus would not take her blood. She held her word to Andelko. Acacia was certain he would not take her blood either along with that of her steeds.
Circinus stopped and Chiron came to a grating stop behind him. Circinus cautiously approached the source of the light. The torch again came out of view and the figure was silent and invisible. No breathing. No footsteps. The light seemed to float to the ceiling. Maybe it was one of the Malevich’s escorts—maybe, it was a Drought. Nothing was more dangerous than anyone from a small town.
Perhaps the dead invited me to the masquerade. Acacia then hoped for Jan. I hope I don’t have to kill you. Her innocence mocked her, or so she thought. Don’t kill me. Circinus inched closer but what he saw made him jump back. No person carried the flame. Its sparks and rays danced and whirled in feathery jets. Silver, crimson, gold, and apricot warmed their faces and colored the bland dirt and wainscoting.
The creature Acacia saw at camp!
“Have you returned to show me the way?” She subconsciously lifted her hand. Her palm froze in surprise. A dagger came from the flame and flung itself in her hand. In an instant jilt she caught the hilt. As far as anyone could see into the tunnel, flames engulfed the sides and ceiling of the already suffocating space as the creature lived to devour the earth with fire while giving them chills.
No words would come. Still frozen, she held the dagger, or spear, unharmed but not in the way she intended. The shaft barely touched her palm as she gripped the sharp object. The spear wasn’t what Acacia thought it would be. The shaft reminded her of the cone buildings in the Lost City. It was swirly and the color of the rare lavender stone at the lost city’s entryway. Light came closer and it was known that the blade came from the horn of a young unicorn.
The firebird carried a message, “Another gift for when you are not safe.”
Andelko’s eyes watered. His lips dried and his brow burned in fury that he was ready to release. “We don’t want any!”
“I cannot tolerate another killing. Whoever gave me the gift, Firebird, take it back.” Her fear and objection rose with pitch.
Firebird’s wings grew twice their size. “That is not for you to decide.”
Circinus directing his horn at Andelko said, “If it was for you to decide, you would know more about our race. That is a blade from a youngling who shed his horn. They are littered all over the deserts and dunes. It would cause less harm for us to accept it.”
Andelko’s fury turned to steam. “I may be a High Sailor, but as you say, much knowledge has been hidden. The biology and astrology hides with the High Priests. Knowing ’bout your race is not likely, no?”
The direction of Acacia’s thoughts then sped to the High Priests of the previous towns. Perhaps the priests of this town invited me. But if someone made the dagger out of shedding and not killings, I’m okay with that.
The firebird read Acacia’s expression. “I am only the messenger,” the female voice spoke clear and ringing. With a burst, and then a flicker, she was gone. A pit of fire was left. Without the stars, and without the firebird, Circinus decided it was time to repose. His instincts told him they had been wandering the entire day.
Andelko unloaded the resupplies of the lost city. Only one jar of preserves from the nimbus fruits was left from Medora, but they had much more bizarre delicacies. Andelko gnawed on sea beast jerky but he was not famished enough to discount the current event. Andelko with Chiron discussed the meanings and origins of the firebird and the scholarly verbalizations of Professor Mallard provided by Acacia. The stories began of the unicorn hunts.
“Whence they went”, introduced Andelko, “the merchants, and less noble sailors would go in pursuit of the horn. Of course, they were manufactured into weapons, but medicinal properties weren’t unheard of from the healing horns of purity.”
Acacia finished, “The problem occurred when instead of taking the horns of young unicorns, poaches were sold in squares. Rare as the steeds were and rare as they were becoming...”
“It’s unapproachable the amount of bloodshed those ne’er do-goods accomplished.” He paused to take a swig.
“But it was accomplished. And the war escalated. New worlds were discovered after that—old worlds, in-between worlds, but, ” her accent slipped. “Ne’er-the-less worlds newer than ours.”
Acacia recalled the outsiders met at Domain Private College. Most of them had been involved in smaller wars. Nervous as her inexperience made her, she was eager to make up for it.