Acropolis

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Chapter 31: Cooling of Battle


For weeks, priests and priestesses were martyred unwillingly on Janus’s front in place of unicorn sacrifices. Not only had priests and priestesses been previously accused with the Council of Elders of stealing from the treasuries and sacrificing to Mother, but Jason needed to remind the elders and citizens of past suspicions. Sacrifices of caught wild unicorn were increasing as soon as Janus’s influence spread. Likewise, priests and priestesses, including Ara, were set to be burned at the stake for suspicion of killing unicorns. Martyrdom not only spread on the battleground but from village to village.

With the fire raging, burn sentencing was much easier. Acacia tried to release Ara first so she could help rescue the other priestesses and priests. The unicorn hair armor made it easier to go into the flames but everyone had to be quick (thus Kazimir escaped and Janus was left until the flaming circle died). Marko, Daphne, Kazimir, and Andelko were busying themselves rescuing the other priests and priestesses and putting them into hiding.

Marsian red fire and smoke engulfed the battlefield exactly as in Acacia’s first vision on the seven-day journey but she believed so much in the mirage that it wasn’t even a nightmare. She was wise enough to keep the caution.

With the help of Daphne, the ropes finally fell off Ara as she collapsed onto Acacia’s shoulders but something about her appearance could never be regained—her skin was blistered and parts were burnt and blackened. She might have already been dead. Acacia suddenly resented the firebird’s help with every fire and fiber in her being. Yet she remembered Jan also had help in spreading the flames with his tear-gas bombshells and sulfur shells which left the ancient people unprepared.

The best resistance and medicine would have been Ara’s but she was unconscious or dead. Marko’s party and the rest of the army were still rescuing martyrs. This didn’t keep lives away from the stake but it left the battle arrangements dismantled and Jan had trouble locating his attackers if there were any left.

This is what ended the battle after Acacia sharpened her knitting needles to various points, stabbing those who tried to kidnap her and tear into her sweater armor and flesh.

The flames made her skin itch and sweat worse than the sweaters and when the land had lost its patience, a great wave rose out of the sea like the wave in Borjio’s tale. Eyes that further made Acacia’s skin itch and crawl could be seen staring out of the suspended waves. The waves had eyes and they were large, piercing, and dull green. Acacia was about to dip Ara in the tide but she ran them the other direction, past the screams and spits of flames and blackened stakes and toward the greater wild of the Kirin—but the wave grew larger. The eyes could no longer be seen but Acacia, with the weight of Ara slowing her down, ran harder through the forest, not caring what would find her there. She came to a dip or small valley. She still heard the wave growing distantly and relief came when the watery noise stopped. She had been panting in the same spot for a while.

She looked to Ara who could have used a stream or gulley to soak the blisters in...

But beware the waters either cursed or enchanted...you will know when it refracts and disappears...Acacia could hear strong clips and paraphrases of Circinus echoing through her.

I have to find a priest or priestess, one that is still alive! I need to go back! I need to find Kazimir! Everyone!

Crash! Was it an explosive or something never heard outside battle?

Whatever it meant, it was time to get out of the gulley and she did just in time to see through the trees and over slopes the carnage of the angry sea. The smokes of flames had been wiped out. It looked like the wreckage of Marko’s ship in Siljeca—army, cutlery, and metals were taken in as the sea galloped, retreated, and washed it away.

Out of the flood, rose fins and flippers, strange tentacles, things she didn’t want to know or know about, but out of these, she saw horns, perhaps unicorns or perhaps the horn that belonged to the large-eyed creature that glimpsed her on Marko’s ship.

Uncertain if she wanted to chance the opportunity to save the unicorns from the wreckage, she waited until the ocean receded some, for she didn’t want to get caught in a riptide. With the receding wave, she saw the creatures more clearly—a giant squid that caught every light like a prism, narwhals, and porpoises, but after the wave peeled back another layer, something more bizarre was left behind. Invertebrates, bright and prism-like and shaped like seashells, corkscrewed and floating anemones, and jellyfish lit up the forgotten battlefield with a bright aura—the battlefield that once trapped her in a circle of flames. The aurora borealis came to mind. There was something beautiful and frightening about the gigantic and small delicate creatures. She awkwardly climbed down the slope while carrying Ara into the temporary inlet of watery light. Acacia sank Ara feet first but held onto her arms. If the iciness did not wake her permanently then it at least made her burns disappear.

Acacia finally had the courage to enter the water and float Ara to the other side of the inlet without touching the gelatinous creatures. She wasn’t sure if they were jellyfish or anemone but she didn’t want any more burns or stings on Ara—Acacia had a few on her shoulders and face from where the unicorn fur armor failed.

The battle remnants receded more into the sea when Acacia realized—the sea has our back. The stingrays flapped their gigantic wings and created breaks in the tide as if waving goodbye.

Never turn your back to the sea, Acacia remembered the old sailor mantra.

She didn’t try to guess how much of Jason’s army remained compared to hers but she remembered Kazimir’s conversation with Daphne: “...but how can we arm ourselves without killing ourselves? Without killing one another...”

“We will save more lives with defense. I know this sounds like thievery, Kaz, but better a duel than a battle.” Kazimir’s face registered confusion, fear, and trembling.

It didn’t relax Acacia to see, then remember Kazimir, finally, this torn and vulnerable, but it reminded Acacia the outcome wasn’t ultimately left up to either of them. The waves had dislodged every weapon anyway, waving the battle goodbye.

“The unicorns were always free,” Acacia whispered to Ara. She did not stir.

The waves jilted the war but it meant Acacia had time to retreat. After the watery carnage, a lioness with a dragon’s beard rose out of the forest, like a cat ready to stalk. Acacia started with a jolt, even though it wasn’t the best reaction for remaining unseen. The reason Marko and his party made it to Phillipi wasn’t just to reach battleground but to find larger beasts, the Kirin, who could fend for the unicorns. What rode atop the Kirin was a boy. It appeared the same boy or apparition that hid in the forest by the glittering cave.

The Kirin splashed in the water, at first uncertain about the depth. Then from the shallowest depths, the light from the jelly anemones increased and created rays of luminescence. A sensation of choruses, gleaming and siren-like spirits rose from her mind. Every whistle, chant, tremolo, and dirge quaked within the pool and within her being. She couldn’t believe the infinite depths shown in the shallow inlet. Hundreds of anemones swam to the top and sank to the bottom creating gyrating tessellations of movement and light.

Her reveries were interrupted when the Kirin splashed more and moved closer. The lion sniffed the air and lapped up some salt water only to make a grunt. The crepuscule lingering in the horizon dimmed even more. From the waning light, the Kirin’s fur shimmered and shone like fire with gold, ginger, and rouge over patches of scales. It slithered its tongue like a snake, its claws like a dragon and tail like a dog.

Hopefully, the night would conceal me.

The Kirin moved closer, this time swimming through the water. The inlet was deeper than imagined, and Acacia was thankful, for if she imagined the depths, she wouldn’t have chosen to reach the other side by swimming. Acacia kept herself and Ara behind a tree, next to a bush that narrowly escaped fire. The Kirin was already clawing onto the muddy shore. Acacia wanted to move farther out of sight and return to Siljeca. Her mind nagged, hurried, and pleaded but her footsteps were frozen.

The Kirin sniffed the air with its ribbed nostrils. Acacia tried not to make a noise but Ara fluttered her eyelids and tossed and turned as if in an agonizing dream. Joy could not possibly be contained if it weren’t for the fear. The Kirin gave one last sniff to the sky, turned, and abruptly stopped. Its horned head and snout moved inch by inch closer to their tree.

With something between a snort and a sneeze, the Kirin showed signs of disturbance.

“I know you are there! I saw you. Come out, come out, wherever you—

Acacia whipped out from protection gripping the firebird’s dagger which glimmered oddly from the glowing pool of creatures. Milko was closer to the edge than she was and had the upper advantage on top the Kirin.

“Please, haven’t I helped you? Where do I take Ara?”

Milko looked stunned. When he didn’t mouth a slight hesitation, this put Acacia all the more on guard. “Take me, Milko, take me, take me and Ara too!” she rose to a shriek.

“Please don’t kill me!” he immediately shouted in humble fear. “I know where you must go! Mount Kaoli’s back!”

“Where are you taking me?”

Milko answered in surprising maturity, “Before, you feared I’d take you somewhere; now you want me to take you somewhere?” he paused for recollection. “Before you feared me, but then you helped me? Now I want to help you but I fear you.”

Acacia put away her dagger like nothing ever happened and quickly, so Milko wouldn’t think her deviant and dashed behind the tree to drag Ara like carry-on luggage. The light from the luminescent depths cast strange waves upon Ara’s scorches and burns but Milko didn’t have to make out the dim reminders to discern the High Priestess’s need and destination. Acacia stopped in front of the Kirin. The lion was a baby but still as large as an elephant.

She didn’t know much about Kirin except from class, so she merely stared at its grotesque snout and fierce eyes that reflected emerald green from the inlet. “How did you get that thing?” She shaked, “And how am I to mount?”

As Milko transformed into a man before she could blink, he mustered enough strength to pull her and Ara onto the Kirin’s flame-like fur. Before explaining destination, the Kirin was off.

They traversed the same forest the party of Marko’s had before reaching battle so Acacia suspected they were off again to Siljeca. Before Milko could announce their destination, he had more pressing thoughts, “I haven’t been honest with you, Acacia.”

“No, really?”

“No...really. I have been a spy. But I didn’t want to make myself known to you because then Daphne would have known I have been working for Jason, but hear me out,” he cut her off before she could protest. “You helped me and I thought I could reach you before the flames—the tidal wave—the martyrs. I even offered myself to save your friend.”

“You what—no, no, no. You didn’t have to! Milko, that is what we call in Domain, overpay, although your loyalty matters...it seems...you are a double-agent.”

His form changed back to a boy.

“Listen!” She didn’t expect the wise tone from his small body. “I don’t know how to be myself, loyalty is the only thing I know.”

“Are we reaching Siljeca? I’m afraid I might slow us down Milko. We can’t save everybody but there are more Aras on the way and if we catch up with the army, I must quickly leave Ara, in the proper care, of course, to rejoin the battle.”

“I have spies for me as well; I’m not a complete loner. I doubt they can even reach us in time if they had the exact location. Oh! The cardinal spiders! How can I forget about them? Do you know how to interpret dreams?”

“Could this potentially have something to do with Ara?”

“No, silly! The battle! As a spy, I’ve been lurking. I’ve been lurking around the dreamcatchers and they caught me dreams, plans, and strategies.”

“Of course—”

“And the cardinal spiders lead me to much more than burning acres and the cries of martyrs. My, they have led me to actual dreams! They have not only led me to understand my dual self but led me to understand others. See, Jason has slept amongst many dreamcatchers and cardinal spider locations in the forest. Either the creatures were hiding because he would have been afraid of them or they were more afraid of your friend. The plants opened up to me and inside there were webs and webs of jumbled thoughts! I can’t understand your friend either, so don’t worry but I did find something useful! Battle plans! The plants not only opened up to me his dreams but his thoughts! I wonder if in daylight some dreams carry over and if at nighttime some thoughts carry over but that’s how I found his location and that’s how I knew how many drowned from the sea and how I heard the high priests and priestess’s cries in the fire.”

“Wait—if what you say is true in that Jason, excuse me, Commander Janus—slept and ate and camped in locations where you have followed him in reach of cardinal spiders and dreamcatchers, and you have come bearing a Kirin in the opposite direction of where I came from Siljeca, he has been to distances off my map. He has been to the unknown wilds where the Kirin are still rumored to live. You wouldn’t have come back in time to follow me and reach me after the wave break if you were keeping a safe distance from Janus, so if what you say is true, Janus would have been close to my tail the entire time! I know Daphne and Kazimir changed their minds and decided to follow me,” Acacia then chuckled at the chase and compared it to the thought of getting separated in a grocery store only to find your escort has been chasing your tail the entire time.

“Daphne has been on to him! This was supposed to be the unicorn’s war, but if what Daphne said and did was true, in preparing me for High Warrior, the war was coming anyway. Would I have deserved my will all along although I am the executor? What if I have no heirs? Milko, I’m an only child! Am I fit for whatever next Daphne plans for me?”

Milko had no answers for the last part but answered best to his aptitude. “If what you say is true, I have been following Janus and that fella I might call Kazimir, earlier. Was his name Kazimir? And Daphne, everyone recognizes her!”

“It only could’ve been Kazimir, but do you think after Ara heals it might be useful finding the dreamcatchers again and finding the battle again? I don’t want to fail my duties as High Warrior whatever reason Daphne appointed me to this job.”

“That’s part of the reason I tried finding you again. Acacia, I want you to take a walk with me in Janus’s dreams.”

The Kirin traveled much faster than unicorns and by Day 7, they reached a little farther than where Acacia first met Andelko. Over 7 days, Acacia learned much about Milko and Ara’s parentage but what Milko revealed surprised everyone. He had been orphaned like Andelko, but he lived in the unicorn city, and Milko, surprisingly knew too much about Daphne making her out to be imperiously dark; but she could tell Milko was loyal to Daphne all the same. The trio stopped for the night in a star-brimmed clearing.

“The Unicorn City was always a free land but we went into hiding during your grandmother’s reign. I worked in the city all my life, but I lost my parents when Prince Razim tried to forge an old alliance between the Wild and Domesticated unicorns by forcing the wild ones to conform. Daphne was all for this, and soon to be engaged, since he was the only prince who wanted anything to do with a “sub-species” as the humans of this land liked to call them. The one difference that separated Razim and Daphne was that Daphne sided with the wild unicorns and that Razim sided with the domestication of all “subspecies.” The land then became too violent after the unicorns started siding with either Razim or Daphne. Sadly, at the time, and still today, most domesticated unicorns don’t want to join their ancestors. They are only hopeful that one day they will become beaten and abused in entertainment arenas, fending for themselves against other wild beasts such as Kirin. Kirin normally dominate bad reputations but only if they are forced to fight. Unicorns are small but mighty, so few are lucky to escape, and sadly, only at the expense of killing the Kirin, who are now becoming servants of the arena trade.”

“What is the domesticated unicorn’s preference for Razim over my grandmother?”

“Razim keeps order and tradition, but I won’t get into the political details, although I’m sure that will interest you later.” Acacia raised an eyebrow. “Anyway, Daphne refused Razim’s marriage based on this little difference. The domesticated unicorns could have had their way and the wild unicorns could have kept their way only if the emperor and empress would ignore their own differences. Now, Miss, we have secessionists.”

Acacia didn’t know whether Milko was misinformed or whether this was a slap at her grandmother but she tried to sound unbiased, “Unfortunately, my grandmother wouldn’t have been as wise then as she is now.” Her tone was morosely mixed with a deep-seated regret. “I wish it wasn’t up to me to pick up the pieces. I did tell you that my seal destroyed my new friend and dragged me away from college? It was supposed to provide me enough to pay for college and help that friend of mine but it dragged me away, along with Daphne.” She leaned back on her sleeping mat, looking up at the stars and listening to the crackling fire.

Acacia wanted to ask Ara if Milko spoke the truth but she was asleep and still weak. It would have to wait until dawn when they reached Ara’s quirky and belligerent town, Agora-atlantisia. In the second Unicorn War, it was the safest and most defended city other than Siljeca, but Siljeca was so fortified they weren’t able to pass entrance. Fortunately, Agora-atlantisia was the closest town to Acropolis that side of the world.

Although Ara was welcome in Agora-atlantisia, she went in with armor, salvaged by Milko. The Kirin are fearsome enough but the riot the creature would cause would be unwelcoming even for Ara.

Ara knew enough about healing to collect herbs and make concoctions over the fire to heal her wounds but most of her tonics and tinctures of plantain were left in her chapel palace. Agora-atlantisia first greeted her with fear and slamming of shutters but the riots became welcoming. No one forgot Acacia and they were welcoming even to Acacia, hopefully not because she was absent of Chiron and Circinus. The following night would be for exploring the dreamcatchers and besides navigating the mind of Jason, she hoped the plants would be useful for leading them to Chiron and Circinus. Acacia dreaded all their hard work building the knitting needle barriers. The barriers only punctured armor and caused blood-curdling wounds for only a few days. However, she was thankful the sea let the battle run its due course. The battle was in a sense worsened by being scattered throughout the land. If Jason no longer had a plan evidenced in the dreamcatchers, Daphne, her grandmother, and co-general wouldn’t have a plan even with Kazimir as her advisor.

The weary party reached the palace, relieved to get away from the noise and excited whistling and cheering. Agora-atlantisia welcomed them but would they be welcoming if they asked them to fight for their cause? Had Agora-atlantisia luckily decided to relinquish and choose a society of free unicorns? Once again, the palace welcomed them with high ceilings and glittering blue and gold mosaics. The space gave off a bright, warm, and airy quality. The tonics from the palace sped healing but Ara limped.

Acacia remembered Circinus alluding to the first unicorn war the first she entered Agora Temple and how Ara had healed him once upon a time. She had doubled the favor, healing Chiron, and this made Acacia wish deeply the unicorns were present, despite the dangers and memories of the untrusting town.

Ara and Acacia wanted to find Jason’s thoughts immediately but Milko suggested they wait until nightfall when the webs and connections became clearer with the blinking of the cardinal spiders’ arrows. The flowers of the dreamcatchers sometimes had openings as large as doors of which Acacia hadn’t seen before traveling with the unicorns. Entering the petals was like picking through a web but the connections were strong and not at all gossamer. They shone multi-colored like the petals themselves and once entrance was gained into the deeper parts of the flower, the space became almost visceral, non-existent, as if the only thing becoming deeper or more lucid were the swarming images and thoughts, once seen as a pulse of light traveling in tunnels through the webs and once stopping, revealing their true nature and lighting up the whole atmosphere with imagery. It was like walking into a movie theater shaped like a phonograph.

A blurred image of Acacia and Jason were seen and refocused as if it were on a screen. Ara and Milko could still be seen next to Acacia in the pulsing light but the image bore on their retinas as if it were part of their own thoughts and dreams. Then something distorted the image: something with six eyes, three heads, and six wings. Its image became clearer and soon Acacia realized it was a three-headed Pegasus. Acacia would have been mad at the interruption if the creature didn’t demand its presence in Jason’s mind. She actually welcomed the interruption of seeing fear and guilt at whatever appeared in Jason’s mind.

“I don’t say turn back now, but find the missing link,” the three heads echoed low and syncopated. The echoes rang high in Acacia’s ears. Soon as the chimera appeared, it disappeared and they returned to the image of Acacia and Jason. This had not been a battle strategy as they had hoped but a timeless memory.

They sat by the fence which edged the cornfield and the horse pasture. It wasn’t a close friend or relative’s farm, just one of the local neighbor’s, but Acacia and Jan took turns petting the brown-speckled Appaloosa of their neighbor’s and took turns naming it.

Acacia relived the memory enough in her own mind so she thought, “So, what? This doesn’t reveal anything new.”

Acacia had seemed so young and carefree then and she was aware how old this thought made her sound. Jason seemed different too—like he was lacking any ulterior motives but this could have been his ego’s distortion and not the flower’s.

“If your grandmother hadn’t found me wandering in the church garden, I wouldn’t have met you and glad I did because it’s hard meeting people around here if you’re family isn’t from here.” Jason paused as if he had other reasons for meeting her but was afraid to admit them.

“Well, I hope that isn’t the only reason.” Acacia winced at her own awkwardness. “No...I mean, why would you even ask? I totally agree with you. I lived here all my life but there is a special clique of those whose parents and grandparents and parents of grandparents have been on the PTA for generations upon generations but young Cookie Dough here doesn’t care. This place has its own beauty.” Acacia patted the Appaloosa.

“Sometimes your grandmother has her own agenda, but at least it’s aside from the town. She is quite something,” he pondered as they mounted their steeds.

“Yes, but enough about the town. What about out there?” Acacia pointed to the mountains encasing their village and she sped off, Jason racing after her through the cornfield bubbling and choking with laughter.

From that moment on, Acacia realized people were keeping things from her, and deliberately. The happy memory made her boil with fresh anger but she paused and reevaluated, what if that wasn’t the missing link? Had Jason been in the dark this long? Was it first sign of budding skepticism of my grandmother?

An image of Cookie Dough flashed before her mind and as the horse turned its head, a horn appeared on its muzzle, like Acacia’s mind forgot to empty itself of one last vision or Cookie Dough was waving goodbye.

The images and thoughts poured fast in front of them. They flooded through the tunnel of petals, swarming around them until they formed a collage of sound, screeches and whispers talks. Acacia searched for Ara and Milko’s hand but before she could cry out they already held her in the dark. The party twisted and fought their way out of the web, begging for the dreamcatcher to open its petals.

Milko yelled, “The more we fight it, the more it will close in on us!” Cardinal spiders, swarms of them, scurried out leading the way through the tightening web with their blinking back arrows. Acacia saw dim twilight entering the petals but images from Jan were burned to her retinas. Killings and slashing of unicorn throats, blood caked an unknown battlefield, and fogged loomed around the Marsian red earth. It looked exactly like the first dream Acacia had alone in the wilderness! Without the cardinal spiders, they would be trapped forever!

Each of them screamed but was shockingly relieved to find themselves out of the dreamcatcher.

Did the dreamcatcher choose to catch another’s dream or does the most powerful dream weave itself into the snare?

Ara panted. Her usually calm and spacey-self looked absolutely bewildered. “We must go back in! I don’t care how messed up Janus is! They’re just dreams! Webs of madness concealed with pretty petals! We must, Milko! Now that we know our way in just as well as you, or in case I’m wrong, we must re-enter with you as our guide.”

“We need to give the web its rest.”

A kerfuffle in the early morning hours signified a waking disturbance. Acacia didn’t recognize whose side the alarmed villagers were on but they were headed in a certain direction. Swiftly, Ara and Milko followed Acacia in a quiet direction. The pandemonium increased. The party escaped down a ravine and into the scrubs of a vast valley. Ara, Milko, and Acacia held hands while climbing down the rocky incline. This vast and inconspicuous valley wasn’t too long of a distance from Agora-atlantisia and camp.

More fires and torches burned in the distance. Across the valley, more trees concealed a forming crowd with torches blaring and blending with the impending sun’s glow. The crowd was akin to a cluster of stars or fireflies dotting the forest, except for their waspy temperaments. The Kirin leaped in one bound after the trio reached the bottom of the incline. Once again, the three mounted on the creature’s back and tore to the other side of the valley. The pounding of the Kirin’s thunderous paws was heard over the shouts and scurries of the gathering.

The forest was crowded with onlookers so much so the Kirin couldn’t force its way in except when it breathed on the necks and backs of onlookers. The pandemonium switched to a familiar, uncomfortable silence as it had upon Agora-atlantisia’s first meeting with Chiron and Circinus, except the expressions on the villager’s faces were different. She wondered if they were the same villagers or if their usual personalities were stolen for better use.

The Kirin pawed the floor and the villager’s expressions were made clearer by awe and obeisance. They parted the forest and directly ahead something could be smelled before being seen. The dirt was swathed in splatters of blood, some human—some unicorn. One body stood out from the red field and it had been that of a unicorn. Acacia jumped off the Kirin while Ara and Milko stayed close together.

Almost careful not to touch the marked field but eager to harness a closer look at the glassy orb of a milky and distant eye, upon careful inspection she realized it had been the unicorn Jason slayed in his mind. The crystal ball eye and the slit neck did not seem any different than when seen from the particle of Jason’s mind, the vision of death in the dreamcatcher, and Acacia’s dream of Marsian earth. The dreamcatcher had told her Jason’s plan so Jason’s future could have been past. Acacia dared move her eye around the rest of the field where spears stood out between abandoned armor and between human bodies clinging to their unicorn companions. The peaceful solitude of the forest was the antithesis of all that lay before her.

Acacia wanted to flee back to Milko and Ara. She had, however, more than a few words as High Warrior: “Jason has been here. Villagers: come with us. The only way is through the forest. Not one of his forces will touch where my shoes stand ever again. Everyone keep your eyes up and careful not to dishonor your step.”

She took a few steps as some Atlantisians, knowingly versed in war, timidly stepped into the clearing. Blood picked up at the hems of her robes and gray satin chiton the farther across the valley she led, and the more numerous dismembered corpses became. She was forced to hold a handkerchief over her mouth, not just because of the smell, but of any smell that might make her wretch at the sights ahead. Ara saw her gag and offered a vial of something minty and strong enough to reach her nose under the handkerchief. Acacia tried to remember the numerous haunted houses she visited every October in Domain to build up her immunity to gore.

It’s not like I haven’t seen worse things. Sure, it wasn’t real, but why had that time been enjoyable?

The forest thinned out with the blood. Another valley rolled down endlessly into a mist. The blue-gray hills and rocks and the purple heather were the only things occupying. The Atlantisians held up golden bows, swung brass incense burners that must’ve carried bombs, and were decked in colorful, geometric war paint.

The rolling plain whistled in desolation but out of the distant mist moved cold and gray armor. Acacia turned to tell the Atlantisians to move back through the blood and trees but arrows whizzed out of nowhere and surrounded them, pinning the entire crowd in a circle. One bow wielder was responsible for the quick trap as they moved closer. They stayed self-armed because nothing could be worse than an ambush behind your back. The Kirin could not pluck the villagers free from the circle because the creature distracted itself in the trees, sniffing at the battle carnage. Jan’s black and green uniforms charged toward them but in the mist and melee, Acacia cried out, for her gold and green uniforms, more, stood out!

The bow wielder had been Daphne and she rode upon Chiron with Circinus leading the way! The unicorns were bred from mist back to Acacia’s first meeting them at the spring. Springs were rumored to have healing properties if you were lucky to pluck one out from the cursed waters polluting the Land of Jewels. Unicorns had the horn to kill and perhaps to heal if they nested near the safe springs (if what Ara honored in collecting youngling horns was true in that the healing properties were from the unicorn diet).

But why hadn’t Chiron or Circinus been able to heal themselves? Have they more a tendency toward violence than healing? Was Acropolis, in domesticating them, safer? Was Acropolis, in killing them in the arenas, for the beast’s own sacrificial entertainment?

She had no time to ask if Jason’s control over the unicorn race was natural because Daphne dropped in front of her, bearing prisoners. One of them, Jason, had cloth tied between his teeth and rope around his ankles and legs. Circinus carried Jason like a sack of luggage and Daphne pulled Jason off him and hard onto the ground.

“Grandma! If you hurt him he’ll hurt us, or worse, my people!”

Jason laughed and seethed under his cloth and she thought he muttered something like, “Your people?” but his muffled mouth made her want to laugh more.

Daphne did not laugh, scream, or boss but smiled warm and mysteriously. It was the first time she heard Acacia say, “my people.” Acacia had been afraid to say the word before out of mistrust or disavow but it forced itself out.

From the knapsack tied to Chiron’s saddle, Daphne revealed what she concealed from everyone. She revealed her distrust to everyone by bringing out the velvet-lined and jewel-decked box containing the Fruit of Transfiguration—Acacia’s seal, the true inheritance she sought all along. Birds warbled in the distance like a new hot spring. However, something about the present reality of her destiny right in front of her seemed too easy. It seemed like a letdown coming from the drama and hard work attaining what she thought was her goal. Maybe it was too good to be true. How did she know Daphne wanted her to inherit it? How did she know how Daphne wanted her to deal with it? She was only a student and still burnt popcorn while secretly humming the alphabet song, not knowing what to major in.

Daphne took the fruit out of the box and placed it in Acacia’s palm. The warm, subtle flesh was too close for comfort and Acacia wished Daphne had given it to her in its box. She knew what she might do with the fruit she might regret, but Conrad was an enigma and wherever he disappeared to, the fruit might take her with him.

Acacia looked from villager to priest to sailor to gypsy and finally took a bite of what could be the most delicious bitterness in the world—the end of war—but she knew she wouldn’t live to see the finale. Everything her grandmother protected her from, everything she gave away including that protection, the salvation the unicorns offered her, all would be gone if the fruit was gone to her lips. She knew this but Jan was close and the only way to end the war was to do what Conrad had in secret. Grandma could overrule in her remaining life if she did not survive the bite, but the fruit had to go. She had to go.

The fruit left absolutely no hint of sensation. It certainly had a taste but not one of death. Her lips did not tingle or shrivel like eating an under-ripe persimmon. It’s like her seal tried to prevent her from something, maybe from her own sour choice. She prepared for death and for the brume to engulf her. She prepared to forfeit her rule to save the land.

I survived? I would not know if I was writing to you from the afterlife of another world or from my survival, but out of the forest, touching the mist, I saw an old friend. No one knew him; no one desired to know him but me.

After swallowing, the mild yet juicy and warm flavor, she was surprised to not see herself standing, but a forgotten and fallen soldier. The boy went limply down the rocky heather and was caked in what at first appeared to be blood, but no—dirt.

Out of the forest, Conrad stood alive and in flesh. She had not been mistaken. He had not been mistaken—it was Conrad.

“Conrad.” She breathed. “Conrad.” She affirmed. “Conrad!” Not caring about her letting down of guard, she ran over to the confused form of a college boy, far from home, but also far from school. She hugged him tightly and laughed, letting go months of heavy air. He laughed more in confusion but nevertheless increasing in spirits.

Acacia grabbed and pinched his cheeks; “I am doing this for Grandma!” She laughed with him and spun him around. Grandma ran over, first Ara, then Milko, then Jason following nimbly. They each met the black and green uniforms of which some Daphne held prisoner and some, Daphne convinced to join Acacia in liberation of unicorns; and so, the remaining Atlantisians and Drought fighters converged together in caution, uniting in curiosity over whatever took part near the mud-caked young man.

Acacia still wasn’t sure if he was the boy from class with the financial burdens, the dark hair, and young, meek face. The boy, or man, who dared search Domain with her and keep her secrets.

If he was so good at keeping secrets, could this possibly be him?

“I would like to fit a successor, Daphne,” the mud-caked boy spoke suddenly. No one was sure then which side Conrad stood on, whether it was on the other side of the earth or the other side of the army. The High Warrior and those surrounding pulled out blunts and arrows and Acacia raised a livid eyebrow, creating a tenebrific shadow across her face as if the battle fires breathed still inside. “But only if Acacia would explain to me where I am.”

The young man, who certainly resembled Conrad, had more important words, but Acacia was alright with an explanation. “Ask me anything.”

This time Acacia had to force the words and put down her weapon, “How did you get here?” so she could get the answers before any more politics ensued.

The man who resembled Conrad, perhaps his spirit manifest in the fog, took some time forming his next phrases, “I would like you to tell me.” He drew nearer in spite of the slightly raised unicorn horn blunt between Acacia’s hands. He stretched forth a hand as if to slight her but instead suspended an earth and mud-caked hand in surrender. The apparition of Conrad smelled of sod perhaps from being knocked down in battle or as if his flesh was still one with the earth.

“Tell me where I am,” Conrad repeated in humble sadness but not command, “and I will understand how I got here.”

Acacia shook and stuttered and felt the same ice upon her back and flowing through her veins as she did upon first entering Acropolis in the tunnel by the galle, “I—know—you must be...confused as am I—I must be the first person you recognized—

“Am I dead?”

“Wha-t?”

“Am I?”

“No—I mean, you must be terrified and I think the best place to explain everything would be away from here.” The crowd must have heard since they lowered their weapons.

“You mean I can get out of here? Without going back to the coffin? Nowhere else looks like this...hmm, do I want to go back?”

“What coffin?” Kazimir asked. “I heard the casket was bodiless.”

Conrad decided to let the mystery be.

“You tell me where you want to go,” she said reaching out and holding both his hands.

Not even the encyclopedia that bore Kazimir could explain this confusion (though Kazimir’s polymathy came in handy for upstaging Jan at bonfires). No one knew the answer to Conrad’s life questions but his confusion and infantile curiosity showed it was truly Conrad and the sodden smell...a sign he wasn’t an apparition. He smiled in return.

“You wouldn’t believe it!” Conrad shouted. “It wasn’t a dream that I rang a bell in a dark chamber. I could smell earth and stale. Then I knew where I was but I hadn’t time to tell them, whether or not it was a dream or how I wanted cremated! But I know this must be true because I’m standing here with you. The person who dug me out was the groundskeeper. That had been the church groundskeeper and he looked abashed but I just kept running! I ran to where I thought I might last find you or could have left you. The tunnels! And when I couldn’t find you in the passage I pushed my limits to the end and bright flashes of light—oh,” he groaned, “how did it bring me here?”

Daphne spoke in her quietest, gravest voice, “Conrad, it wasn’t the groundskeeper who dug you out. It was my granddaughter.” Acacia looked from Conrad to her grandma and Conrad looked at the two of them. “When you sacrificed your seal, the seal had been broken.”

“Had this been the deed?” Acacia asked in panting joy.

Daphne looked like she wouldn’t budge an answer. “All that matters is that you are executor. We have more to deal with in court once we pack up this war and worry about the court back home.” The Atlantisians and former fighters for Janus nodded in understanding the news. Acacia felt somewhat guilty at absence during part of the war, but Daphne made it clear her job had been to end it.

“I don’t deserve my seal! I’m glad it’s broken! I didn’t mean to forfeit Jason’s trust. I didn’t mean for my ignorance about unicorns either but if I had known, nonetheless, I would have stopped Jason from being involved with them. It’s a century’s old debate anyway. I want them to be free, but dare I say it, even Jason to be free.”

Jason’s eyes read something deeper than guilt but of wanting to be involved in the tight reunion bubbling ever closer between her and Conrad. Daphne cut the restraints on Jason’s mouth.

Before he could speak, Acacia said, “Where’s Ondrea? Where’s my cousin?” He was suspiciously absent from grandmother’s side, but again, he was always switching sides.

“His military background caught up with him. He went home.”

This was all the worry and all the assurance Acacia needed. This meant injury but at least Ondrea was safe.

Daphne still had Jason’s legs and feet tied but his lips were free to havoc. His choice tone was careful and non-offending, yet too careful. “I hadn’t much chance to speak. You will always have the seal although I must tell you one more thing, and it’s not to confuse you. As fact, that seal can no longer harm another once another bite is taken, but what did it mean in the first place? It had been handed down by the Creation Rulers. So, what? As executor, you can choose who you want to share it with. I know it’s hard to believe, but I’m letting you choose. You were a dear friend.”

“Save it for court,” Daphne chided him tiredly. “The seal is still capable.”

“She is family so how can I save anything for her now?” Jason relaxed. “You are still family to me...even if you did take my line like your grandmother who broke it off with my grandfather.” This signaled a rise in Acacia’s temper but once more, Daphne soothed her with a touch on the shoulder.

Acacia still held the fruit, shocked she didn’t feel woozy from the bite, but woozy from emotion. “And so, the seal is broken.”

I brought back my friend. I was willing to give up everything for him, so was it really Conrad’s line? Or was it my line to protect? My choice of whom to save? I would have died before I finished the whole thing off! What was I thinking?

Acacia tossed the seal from hand to hand, the fruit she now had to protect. “You are wrong,” Daphne dared correct Jason. “The fruit hasn’t been fully eaten. The more flesh it has, the more dangers it has to anybody who tries to get in the way of eating it. You are right in a sense the only meaning it possesses is where you put its poison, or the meaning you lend it. The fruit regenerates but our line will end once all the fruit is eaten and hopefully not too soon. Then the End of Days. You are missing one other piece...and you too, Acacia, Conrad—the fruit we now know can bring back the dead once a sacrifice has been given. Curious how it brought back your friend, Acacia. You hadn’t introduced him to me before. Not at dinners, not at bonfires. Young man, I’ve only seen you in court...or maybe I have.”

“Grandmother, I haven’t been honest with you but I think you knew I wanted to share with someone my inheritance.” She whispered with her at a safe distance. “I have no siblings. No romances. My only cousin is Ondrea and he’s always away and you see how he tries to get too involved. I don’t care if he’s second in line. Ondrea doesn’t speak to me like a friend anymore. He used to be a brother. All I care for is that you’re safe and Conrad’s safe and if he gets what he wants if I die, that’s fine.” Acacia made up her mind and thus began her line.

A tear clung to Daphne’s eyes as Acacia’s mind faded with her words. She could think of nothing else to say, so luckily Daphne broke in. “I’m sorry, things have happened too fast. I waited too long to keep the fruit from you but I waited too soon. If only I knew what you wanted! Your inheritance to share with anyone! Humph...grandmothers are supposed to know what their daughters want...I would have reached you sooner had I not needed to rescue your parents. Oh, thank goodness gracious you came with me! I shouldn’t have left you to wander with Jason! What could he’ave done? Yet if I reached you sooner, I would have opened you to spies. If you hear me out, we shall go home. My country has leagues of danger.... the messengers could have given the seal... to you but it would have opened them to spies just the same and I see that such effort was wasted... Jan, you have been a spy, and you wouldn’t’ve had we stuck together, and my voice has passed but someone hear me, except for spies, of course. Cyrano, Chiron: choose the new successor. This is my last order as it should have been when I emigrated from Acropolis.”

In case the domesticated unicorns did not approve of Acacia and Conrad looking after Acropolis, Daphne wanted to at least hear their preference. Cyrano had been in the forest as had other unicorns and the carnage made them forget old feuds, the breaking off of the creation rulers, and the differences of their lifestyles.

From the mist, a sound of a gurgling spring greeted Chiron. From the spring, rose a white body. The unicorn had banded armor and he was much thinner than Chiron. His locks were pure silver whereas Chiron’s locks were bluish. His voice was higher but he spoke fluidly and announced himself as Cyrano, General appointed by Jason, and chief of the domesticated unicorns. Cyrano wore a blue tuft upon his helmet like a centurion (Cyrano proved he could hunt centurions and chiefs before they sacrificed him and his people, wild or not, in rotundas and arenas, showing greater right to wear the centurion’s helmet). Far behind Cyrano, but not so far as to cause alarm, Andelko returned, Acacia’s parents following swiftly in his trek. Acacia ran over to her parents and Andelko, hugging each of them, staving off Cyrano’s sentence.

Cyrano, once having fought for Jason’s side, hesitated when he asked from the band’s counsel whether or not he or Chiron needed to be the successor to the newly united Land of Jewels under the banner of the wild unicorns.

“If the civilized law were correct, I don’t doubt that the Alexander parents are more the age and experience to rule than Acacia. However, as they have told me the details of their busy fishing lives—Andelko didn’t give the end to it either—it seems that you were wise Daphne, and Acacia has completed the High Warrior ropes. It’s as if her growth surpassed her experience.” Cyrano spoke to her like a grandpa. “It also comes to my attention that the unicorns, if united in rule, must need a non-human ruler. If this makeshift council is okay with my bossing young unicorns around, it’s up to Chiron to say whether or not I’m fit to rule.”

Chiron blushed at the “young” compliment. “I am free from these laws for a reason as you have seen, Cyrano. Why not you become the successor? You said yourself it’s not up to me, whether to choose a lifestyle, even if we do someday dream we can agree and become united, but as long as you don’t naively pursue a human ruler and keep to your masters and stables, I am fine if ever again, you do not fight against my people.” Chiron huffed and grunted in thought. “My masters need me but I need to be my own master. Therefore, either way, I can’t choose the successor. I would give up my power if it meant every creature could be free.”

Daphne stepped in between them, “And I would choose myself except I am growing old too, as are you Chiron,” she smiled at the old unicorn’s faint blush, “and I would have chosen Acacia, had she not been human, except that she must finish her studies, but Jason, you seem to have missed yours also...” she growled at the mention of Jason.

The humans were no longer to rule over the unicorns in that indecisive instant. They needed a ruler too much to themselves, apparently. With the first and last word, confused murmurs rose from the new army, and a swift breath came from one: Acacia choked and stood up shakily reaching Conrad, the incarnated person’s height.

Acacia remarked at his change in character and appearance, only marked by trauma, “You have returned. And I see someone not only turned up with your body but your complete self.”

“Oh, that was my doing,” Conrad answered a little too casually, but always everything else seemed quiet and soothingly petty after battle. Daphne picked up the fruit again, the hidden seal, the toxic potion and forever lasting food, from the velvet-lined wooden box. She placed a hand on Conrad and Acacia but the seal, again, was placed in Acacia’s hands.

“Our line is not over but safeguard it.” A procession took Acacia all the way to Acropolis after a funeral was given over the entire battlefield. Every warrior’s name was etched in monoliths throughout their return home... the Land of Jewels had been made into a memorial.

Acacia was tired of high diplomacy and over-relieved about the schoolboy’s return from the grave. Conrad’s shock finally caught up with him so he agreed it was time to get everyone home as swiftly as possible. She wondered how he would have escaped in bodily form from the grave on the lonely hill in the churchyard and would have known where to find the battle and seek her out. Had he simply materialized in their exact location?

She thought of Kazimir and how much explaining and planning they had to do before returning to Domain trial. She wondered if she should include Conrad in her plans but the thought of being carried on a gurney throne all the way to Acropolis consumed her first: there weren’t many ships left after the battle and the ones that were, drifted on in ravaged condition. It would take days before more ships arrived. There were enough surviving warriors to make travel back easier, but she didn’t want to hurry back on foot, no warrior did, with the forest awakened and the creatures maddened.

The dreamcatchers and chimera horses could go awry and lift up evil dreams; for they too were living and had to soak up every other living thing’s lividness and sadness. Dreamcatchers had an advantage with their lower or perhaps neutral conscience but thoughts (wakened or unawakened) affected everything. Once let loose into the world...

Yet Acacia had last-second business to take care of before travel back to Acropolis and before worrying about dreamcatchers. She whispered to Kazimir, Conrad, and Andelko about the Domain deed to crown off Acacia’s will. Daphne believed the Domain deed was in Jason’s attic unprotected all along.

Acacia had much more to prepare for Andelko, more so than with Conrad, who didn’t know there existed other worlds such as her own until meeting her (just as much as he had explained to her at first meet). Jason’s house was set up with numerous traps prepared every time he went on a long vacation and only Jason knew how to go past them, but many of the rumors describing the traps sounded more like tall tales than telltales. “Eyes that followed but lit your path.” “Magnets that would steal your weapons.” “Silver wire from unicorn hair to trip you up.”

However, Acacia believed that every trap could be used to an advantage. It was decided to leave the strategy up to chance and observation until Andelko agreed to leave his homeland and ride with Chiron and Circinus under Acacia’s new direction. It was hard enough convincing both the old unicorn and the youngling to leave The Land of Jewels and leave the navigating to Acacia, but Andelko convinced them with his lust for risk.

Once the rejoicing and word of Conrad’s sacrifice and rebirth reached Siljeca, Medora, Agora, and Acropolis, Daphne led the procession for Acacia and Conrad’s coronation. Daphne once had thought she wanted Kazimir as her co-executor and co-ruler. Acacia would never be sure whether her wishes were belied. However, the choice was up to her all along. Conrad was now a subrogate and Acacia—his sacrifice. Together they were equal. Acacia chose Conrad to be co-ruler and so he was crowned with her in Acropolis.

Traversing home was trickier than Acacia’s first run-in at the Acropolian temple and the blinding Mediterranean sun broke brighter during the coronation. Andelko had difficulty understanding a tunnel led to an empire and the world was neither above ground nor below but a section in between—a synapse of time and dimension. The intersection of dimensions was physical but passing through the tunnel felt more transcendent like waking from a lucid dream. The vast whiteness that blanketed their eyes erased all pain of thought, all pain of feeling, and all pain of memory to focus on the task ahead. The deed had to be somewhere in Jason’s estate.

Previously, Acacia thought her grandmother would reveal the deed once she found Jason. She knew he had been exaggerating his place in the will all along. Thus, the place most likely to be hiding something would be Jan’s estate.

Before setting off for home, a firebird reappeared high in the sky and circled around, spiraling to the ground.

“No! Daphne, don’t let it— “, and to this, Daphne’s answer was, “the firebird will seal off the enemy by creating borders around your home. Jason and his true associates will be cut off from entering the Land of Jewels until he is no longer our enemy, that is until he sees reason or peace, but that’s also a sign to go home.” Daphne waved up at the firebird breaking the mist, its golden and orange tail, waving back. “Most of our enemies were just under Jason’s spell.”

Daphne caught Acacia’s surprise and thus she held up a huge wine-stained vial indicating the evidence. “I suppose most of Firebird’s prisoners will be released once his spells wear off.” She gazed back up at the somersaulting firebird. Like a fence fifty-feet high, fire caught in the distance never burning or spreading but acting as a shield and an eternal flame. Daphne and the warriors stayed behind. Andelko, Acacia, and the steads moved forward until they reached home. She had one duty last duty. Home invasion.

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