by Sideshow Lew
©2001 Sideshow Lew -- all rights reserved
The creatures in the clearing looked like the products of some deranged attempt at topiary. The monstrosities numbered seven in all, ranging in size from a runty eight-footer to a beast almost three times that length. Their crocodilian bodies were formed from braided roots and studded with short, hooked thorns. Their feet ended in forked, hairy roots instead of clawed toes. A mane of leaves on their necks concealed long, straight thorns dripping with fragrant sap. The heads were their most outrageous feature. The slayers had been expecting a toothy maw, but instead the creatures sported huge, colorful blooms that belied their dainty origins.
"Look at that," Quaye breathed. "They are rose bushes, after all. I wasn't quite sure I believed Morgan until just now."
The lithe, diminutive man bounced a little on the balls of his feet, unable to contain himself. Despite his size and delicate coloring, he looked very human. He was careful always to keep his wheatstraw hair long enough to hide the telltale tips of his ears.
"Idiot, empty-headed Lordlings." Jeyer's fingertips brushed the hilt of his sword. The big man was Quaye's older brother, though his powerfully sculpted jaw, broad, flat nose and close, high-set eyes had nothing in common with the younger man's sharp, almost vulpine features. He stood tall, taller than an elf, taller than most humans, with proportionally broad shoulders and long limbs. The proof of his ancestry was his ears. Not rounded like a man's, or backswept like an elf's, the upright tips poked through the thick mane of coarse, sheet-white hair he kept swept back in a simple braid.
He reconsidered. "Damn meddling god-worshipping Bachequa."
No one knew how the blasphemous wanderers reached these shores. They had no boats of their own and they certainly didn't cross the sea in a Pentacalist's ship. But here they were all the same, spreading their subversion. The Lordling Morgan was a rose fancier and competed fiercely with the other Lordlings to develop new and spectacular varieties. A harmless, charming pastime, until a Bachequa merchant sold him a vial of fluid guaranteed to create unexpected and spectacular new varieties of roses. Morgan paid an exorbitant price for the stuff, although he certainly should have known better.
It worked as promised. Every bush he'd sprinkled with it uprooted itself and began strolling around. Even then, the fanatical Morgan insisted on bringing his new pet monsters to the annual rose show in Guillarme. But the walking roses proved too vigorous to be sustained on water and minerals in the soil and demanded richer food -- human blood. By this time, of course, the Bachequa caravan was long gone and the city called on the Foxflight brothers for help.
"That potion Morgan used must have contained dragonsblood," Quaye decided. "Damn. I wish I could figure out what those things use for senses. I don't see anything that could serve as eyes or ears, do you?"
"I'm more concerned about how they can be killed."
"Yes. Are they more like beasts, or more like bushes? Do they have hearts and blood? Are there brains in those blooms? If we chop them to bits, will the pieces take root and grow into more walking roses?"
"Pierce will drain the life from anything I stick it in," Jeyer said confidently. "You just slice them up and we'll char the remains on a bonfire afterwards. That should take care of them, whatever they are."
As they conferred, the two elfkin crept closer to the basking rose-monsters. Suddenly, the seven flowers swung towards them.
"I believe we've been spotted, brother dear," Jeyer said, drawing Pierce from its sheath.
Quaye drew his nameless sword. It was small but serviceable, the blade forged from elf-crystal embedded with threads of silver. The biggest walking rose heaved itself upright and lumbered towards them, its dark red flower thrust forward and trembling ravenously.
Jeyer set his sights on the big one, but one of the mid-sized ones waddled into his path. The thing lashed its tail, coiling the flexible tip around his waist and pulled him towards the bristling mane of thorns. Up close, a cloying syrupy smell wafted from the sticky depths of its blossoming head. The yellow flower's scent clogged his throat and dulled his senses. Jeyer clamped shut his nostrils and let the thing draw him close. With a powerful thrust, he drove Pierce deep into the center of the thing's twisted torso.
A fierce red flush suffused Pierce. The walking rose spasmed as its petals wilted into thin parchment and the wood of its body turned black and slimy. The sword's glow faded and, with a satisfied grin, Jeyer pulled it from what looked like nothing more than a rotted log.
The other smaller walking roses, somehow sensing their compatriot's demise, turned from Jeyer's path and swarmed towards Quaye. Jeyer started after them, looking concerned, but Quaye waved him away. The littlest walking rose already lay in feebly twitching pieces at his feet. The younger man waited impatiently for the monsters, slashing the air with his elf-sword. He always regretted killing the monsters they faced. After all, even the most ferocious animal valued its life as fully as a man did and some people, such as their own matrilineal grandparents, considered the brothers just as frightening and repulsive as any monster. Such thinking was the taint of their elfin heritage. A full human, knowing he was created by the Gods and then triumphed over his creators, would have no such qualms about cutting short the life of a dangerous beast. However, the walking roses reminded Quaye irresistibly of his childhood, when he and Jeyer "slew" the orphanage's hedges with long pointed sticks. Even then, the sword Pierce belonged to his older brother -- it had been left along with them at the orphanage's step -- but, of course, the headmistress hadn't allowed Jeyer to handle it until he was well grown.
The night they snuck out of the orphanage for the last time, Jeyer held the sword in his hands and felt as though something long missing was restored to him. From then on, it never left his side.
The big walking rose wrapped its thick, thorny tail around Jeyer's wrist and arm and forced the deadly tip away from its vulnerable trunk.
Jeyer named the sword well. Pierce was a twisted, curved length of some unknown metal with a pearl-like sheen. The tip thinned and sharpened until it became clear as glass and the last few inches were all but invisible to the unaided human eye. It was a piercing weapon, not a blade to free his only weapon.
Quaye noticed his brother struggling. With a cry, he darted close to the remaining walking rose and sliced off its pink head. The thing thrashed, spewing thick, golden sap from its neck stump. Quaye leaped over the monster's twitching body and flung himself at the big walking rose.
He didn't dare move -- the thorns dug deeply into his flesh.
Quaye chopped at the walking rose's tail, darting out of the way of its clumsy swipes, but the big monster's hide was too tough for even his elf-wrought blade to cut. Desperate, he fought to gather his energies for a spell -- but which one?
It was his secret spellcasting that drove the young elfkin out of the orphanage and into the world. Mages are respected members of the community, but to become one meant years of study and training. Spellcasting required preparation, equipment and materials, the bone, blood, root and mineral of the things of their world. No human mage could cast spells just from the strength of his own will. That required a chaos within the self, a quie and Man had long ago purged himself of quie. To have even the trace of it Quaye commanded was enough to make him an outcast. He had no mentor and the few spells he knew, he taught himself after endless experimentation.
He could light a candle, heat or chill a gallon of water, cause a spark to flit from his fingertips, or cause a shadow to wrap around him, but the walking rose was dripping with sap, not dry as kindling -- and apparently it could sense a man's location without eyes. How? How?
Flowers turn to face the sun. The sun gives light and heat. Without eyes, they cannot detect light -- but could they detect heat? Quaye cast his spell.
Jeyer gasped. His chain mail suddenly creaked, stiff with frost. The walking rose's tendril sagged and he jerked Pierce free. The walking rose staggered, then shook its bloom and orientated on Quaye, who stood defenseless, his sword dragging in the dirt. The strength required to chill Jeyer's chain mail had nearly drained him.
The big man skewered it on his twisted sword. Screeching, the walking rose rotted away. Jeyer grinned at his little brother, but then followed the young man's horrified gaze to his own sword arm.
Blood and pus gushed from the thorn-punctures. The unmarked flesh around the wounds reddened and swelled in some kind of reaction to the poison.
Quaye stumbled over to him, passing his hands over the injuries and muttering to himself. "It's no good, no good. The poison spreads with every heartbeat and I wasted all my strength on that stupid spell. Oh, Jeyer, please forgive me."
Jeyer tried to answer, but his tongue was swollen and numb. He reached out and affectionately ruffled his brother's hair, something that had always annoyed Quaye when they were children -- and began to fall.
He felt as if he fell a long time before he hit the ground. When he was aware of his surroundings, he noticed something warm stretched out beside him. Quaye had fainted too, after the effort of his spellcasting.
"Together," Jeyer thought as the blackness swallowed him again.
An unfamiliar voice, cracked and gravelly with age. Bizarre smells of spicy smoke and tallow. The sense of being closed in by four sturdy walls.
Jeyer's ear twitched. Even unconscious, he retained some awareness of his surroundings.
"Welcome to my humble shop. I am Banascelus. Please, be calm and remain in bed, child. It is taking all of my efforts to keep you alive and you must not exert yourself."
"How did you find us?"
Quaye's voice, thin and tight with anxiety. Hearing him, Jeyer struggled to wakefulness, tearing through the black membranes of sleep.
The answering voice chuckled. "You will insist on exciting yourself, won't you? If you must know, the Lordling also sent me to kill those rose bush monsters. He didn't have much faith in you, I'm afraid. I left this past dawn, but, of course, you strong young men beat me to the monsters' lair. By the time I arrived, you two were near death from that poisonous sap."
"The walking roses, then? Dead?"
"I burnt them to ash. There is no dragonsblood left to revive them."
Jeyer sensed Quaye relax. "It was dragonsblood in that Bachequa potion. I was sure of it."
"Yes. You have some small magical talent yourself, don't you, child?"
"Very small," Quaye said.
"Enough to keep us alive," Jeyer said. He forced his eyes open.
The first thing he beheld was a pentacle carved into the wood of the wall. He hand lifted automatically to trace its twin on his chest, then stilled. This pentacle was not enclosed in a circle and in the center glared a stylized human eye. Not the Sign of Man he'd been taught to respect. This was the mage's symbol. Jeyer rolled over and took in his surroundings. They were in a small room, evidently a storage area. The shelves groaned under the weight of all the sort of junk mages loved accumulating -- moldering scrolls, oddly-colored lumps of minerals, monster bones, glass bottles in all shapes and sizes, all of it coated in a thick layer of dust. Quaye lay on a narrow cot and he, himself, was stretched out on a pile of empty sacks.
"I apologize for the humble surroundings," the mage murmured. "I am not set up as an infirmary and you were taller than any of my benches are long."
Banascelus was a an elderly human, so withered and lanky he seemed to be merely a bundle of sticks wrapped in his tattered robe. Jeyer eyed him. He could snap the old man in half if he wished. A bit more at ease, he sat up.
"Who are you, old man? What are we doing here? Where is Pierce?"
Banascelus chuckled. "If by that you mean your sword, why, it's over there on the shelf. I had my serving goblins polish it for you. The sap from those creatures is terribly corrosive."
Jeyer half-crawled over to the shelf and snatched Pierce from its sheath. Only after he satisfied himself the sword was unharmed did he turn to the mage again.
"As I was telling your charming brother -- Quaye, was it? -- I was hired to get rid of those monsters if you should fail -- and you very nearly did. In fact, you may still fail."
"The sap was poisonous," Quaye said wearily. "It got me too. Banascelus says it's doing something to our quie. Warping us, the way the dragonsblood warped them. He's keeping the changes at bay for now, but he can't protect us for much longer."
"There is a cure," Banascelus offered. "But it comes at no small risk. I would need to be compensated."
"What do you want, old man?" Jeyer growled. "Name your price."
"It's nothing special. I admired the way you handled those rose bushes, thinking on your feet and using your special talents. Yes, very inspiring."
"Get to the point."
"What I'm proposing is, ah, shall we say, another little job. What I'm after is a bit more unusual than what you normally confront. Am I correct in assuming the monsters you are accustomed to handling are often in some way tainted by dragonsblood?"
"That's what I think, from what little I know about the stuff," Quaye said. "It is supposed to be some form of distilled chaos, if that makes any sense."
Banascelus nodded. "The world began in chaos and the Gods pruned the chaos until it became our world. But there are things other than Gods, stranger and more powerful. The ignorant call them dragons, after the mythological creatures said to be composed of the forces of nature."
"Rock shall be their scales, that no weapon of man can pierce them. Wind shall lift them as high and fast as clouds. Fire shall be their breath and their form shall change as water," Quaye recited. "Dragons. The storm-born. Tonbanu told of encountering one, in the mountains by Vorraybanryn Castle."
"Children's tales," Jeyer snorted. "Something the Bachequa invented to give their potions an aura of glamour. Or if they do exist, just some sort of ordinary beast whose qualities were magnified and distorted by tale-telling."
"Dragons are quite real, I assure you, though it has been centuries since one roamed free on this world. Do you know your Pentacles?" Banascelus asked.
"Ya, issa tah ma du bana, du banae du vah ney oh," Quaye replied. "In the beginning there was nothing, then there was everything."
"And part of everything were the Gods," continued Jeyer, drawing the pentacle, the Sign of Man, on his palm, then laughed at himself. "They burnt their teachings into us at the orphanage. The Gods began as destroyers, devouring possibilities and options until there was sense and order and they became aware and created the First Men to satisfy their need for worship."
"And how did they create the First Men?"
"Gave them a quie, whatever that is."
"You don't know?" Banascelus' eyes glittered.
Jeyer shrugged. "It's something animals have and men don't. Something limiting, I suppose. I asked, once. The headmistress whipped me."
"The quie is nothing less than a spark of primordial creation, a part of the Gods themselves." The old mage spoke slowly, in a voice that drifted and curled, hiding things, like fog. "The Gods created men as little images of themselves, but the First Men also inherited the gods' desire to be acknowledged. The First Men created the Second Men to worship themselves and the Gods destroyed the First Men for their presumption. But their grief drove them to denial and insanity and they blamed the destruction on 'evil Gods'."
"And when the Second Men found out the evil Gods who'd been tormenting them for generation were just another side of the so-called good Gods," Quaye continued eagerly, "they divested themselves of their quie, giving the Gods no control over them anymore and becoming the Third Men, ourselves."
He glanced at Jeyer. "Well, that is what we were always taught. Jeyer and I are only half-human, of course. We have no claim to the success of the Third Men. I don't know about the elves."
Banascelus leaned forward. "The elves never lost their quie. They can still cast spells by will alone, with no need for the wands and potions human mages depend on!"
"And what about half-elves, like us?" Jeyer was growing bored with this discussion. "What, do we have half a quie? And what has all this to do with the poison you claim is threatening us? Those walking roses attacked plenty of people and Morgan never mentioned anyone suffering from poison."
Banascelus pointedly ignored him, focusing his jade green eyes on Quaye. "You have the potential for great power, child. You have an elf's quie, but it is being filtered through a body polluted by human blood. You need to cast off the human to come into your full power."
"But won't I be subject to a mad God, then? No, thank you. Jeyer and I have lived our own lives too long to accept any kind of master, mortal or God."
"And I have no magic at all," Jeyer said.
Banascelus cocked his head, regarding the big man. "Not a elf's quie, no. But something dwells within you. Something... else."
Jeyer rolled his eyes. "Yes, mage, all very mysterious. But you still haven't told us what you want us to do."
"Isn't it obvious, my boy?"
Quaye put a restraining hand on his arm and Jeyer managed to bite back his retort. "He wants us to catch a dragon, brother."
"Brilliant child," Banascelus laughed, clapping his hands. "Dragonsblood flows from the heart of chaos. It is pure and simple possibility. When it enhances an animal's quie, what you get is a monster, the outward form of the creature's base drives. Infuse a wolf with dragonsblood and you get a ferocious hunting machine. Add it to something simple, like a rose, which requires only heat, liquid and nutrients, and you get rose bush that can walk about and gather those for itself. Ah, but with a human mind directing it, a dragon's quie can be made to do anything! All the dragonsblood that exists today comes from the battle of Vorraybanryn Castle, when the humans destroyed the invading ogre clans. Their arch mage, a man named Silverblade, summoned up a dragon to smite them. In the wake of the battle, a few managed to gather to blood the dragon had spilled. Of course, that makes it the rarest and most valuable substance in existence, but I know a secret -- oh yes, a wonderful secret. Dragons are creatures of chaos and chaos can never be banished, only directed. Silverblade managed to seal the dragon away somehow, but it is still stashed somewhere in Vorraybanryn and I mean to find it. Now, I understand this is a big decision for you two. Why don't you step into the hall and discuss it amongst yourselves?"
Still gripping Pierce, Jeyer ushered Quaye out. The young man was still shaky from his spellcasting.
"It seems straightforward to me," Jeyer said. "He heals us, we perform a job for him. It's just another slaying job. As I said, this dragon is surely some sort of beast rarely encountered. You know how a frightened man will describe even a common bat as some sort of demonic fanged fiend."
"Tonbanu teaches that even the clearest glass distorts."
"It's sounding to me like you're worshipping Tonbanu."
"Of course not," Quaye cried, offended. "I spit on the Gods and their worshippers as all men should. Tonbanu was a teacher, not a spiritual leader. His students don't follow rituals or pray to him."
"I thought he was a crazy centaur banished from the plains because the other centaurs couldn't stand to hear his ravings."
Quaye huffed in silent indignation.
"All right, all right," Jeyer relented, tousling his brother's hair. "I don't need to hear another lecture on Tonbanu. It's just that if what the mage claims is true, we seem to have little choice. Do you want to gamble our lives on this?"
"No. We don't have a choice at all --and that's what I hate about the whole thing -- but, as Tonbanu teaches, a thorn does not prick you without purpose. Although I doubt he meant it quite so literally."
As they reentered the room, Banascelus leapt to his feet with more agility than they would expect. "Well, well, well, my fine young lads. What have we decided?" His knowing smile displayed long, crooked teeth, yellowed as the fangs of an elderly wolf.
Jeyer nodded. "Cure us and we'll catch you a dragon."
Banascelus took a little red marble from a jar and held it out towards Quaye. It caught the light, trapping it as a bright star in its center. The star grew brighter and brighter, until the marble burst into a globe of red flame in his hand. The flame grew and grew; branching into yellow tongues that shot off blue-green sparks. The tongues collapsed back into the red center, changing its color to bright green as the globe swelled and flattened into a spinning disc. Flame-like orange spears lanced out and fell back and smoky blue tendrils uncoiled to enfold Quaye's motionless form. Specks of red danced and flickered in the green center, grew and blended. The colors began to run together. Spinning, it filled the room, a maelstrom of silver flame and light.
Banascelus barked out a word of power and clapped his hands together.
The swirling colors disappeared abruptly and Banascelus snatched something small and dark from the air, but Jeyer was too light struck and concerned with Quaye to pay attention. His brother was crumpled on the floor, awake now and softly weeping.
Jeyer hastened to him and took the younger man in his arms. Quaye's slender frame quivered with sobs. Something was wrong. His body felt too light, as if the magic flame had burnt him to ash. Jeyer blinked his watering eyes, but black discs still obscured his vision and he turned angrily to the mage.
Another red ball of fire throbbed in Banascelus' hand. Jeyer felt Quaye slip from his numb grasp. It was too late to cry out. The transfiguring light engulfed him, burned him to ash, scattered the dust of him into a raging windstorm.
"Quaye," hissed a quiet memory.
The warning raced through his scattered essence. Jeyer's will flared like a candle flame in the darkness of his flesh and he fought to gather himself together again into a solid form.
But not a human form.
One eye was shut, pressed against the thick carpet; the other gazed at the ceiling. He tried to sit up, but the joints of his limbs only moved to and fro and his fingers were stiff and numb. He flailed and managed to lift his head. It was too heavy and too far from his shoulders -- he could turn his neck and look down at the rest of his body. Huge, shining white, an animal's form. The sudden change in perspective made him dizzy and his head dipped down. Something struck the floor and he felt the tip grate along the tiles, sending a shivery, grinding sensation into his forehead that resonated in his skull bones. He rolled his eyes up as far as he could and was barely able to glimpse what had sprouted from his brow, a twisted gray shaft that thinned and cleared to crystal sharpness at the tip.
Pierce? He wondered stupidly. No, the sword, looking faded and lifeless, still lay on the table. This was Pierce's living twin, alive and in its rightful place.
The horn of a unicorn. Jeyer's eyes fluttered closed as his mind drifted in shock.
I never knew.
The last thing he heard before blackness gripped him was Banascelus' delighted laugh.
He woke to the stables and bitter rage.
With growing bitterness and despair, Jeyer surveyed his new body. From what he could tell, he looked much like a huge, milk-white stallion, as big and powerful as a drafter but with the lean, elegant proportions of a racehorse. His mane and tail flowed like white flame and his horn was a twisted crescent almost three feet in length. Except for the slight resistance of the air when he swung it, the unicorn felt nearly weightless.
He could not swing his head very far. To his shock, someone had slipped a halter on him and tied him to the stall. He fought against it, ignoring the straps cutting into the flesh of his face. The rope and halter must have been enhanced with magic.
Jeyer glared at the stable-goblins lurking in the shadows. His thick bedding smelled fresh and buckets brimmed with grain and water. Jeyer kicked them over and lay down in the soiled straw. He closed his eyes and tried to will the last day away.
The goblins crept towards him timidly; clutching rakes and mops. Jeyer jabbed his horn at them and they fled, squealing.
Quaye. He wondered what Banascelus had done to his brother, where he was now. Leaden despair filled Jeyer's heart.
The next few weeks passed in utter torment. Jeyer refused food and water, only to wake and find himself chewing on the wood of the stalls. His body devoured itself, his great muscles wasting away to tough sinew stretched over bone. His coat grew dull and fell out in patches around the sores rubbed raw by his constant prone position. He retained just enough vigor to frighten the goblins away, so his sores festered untended.
One day, the mage entered as usual, preceded by his scent. He had come many times as Jeyer lay insensate, waiting to die and his stink, like a sour twist of gray meat, made Jeyer ill despite its familiarity. The visits only served to strengthen Jeyer's resolve, but this time Banascelus had not come to gaze silently. He was speaking to someone else.
"In time, his memories of being a unicorn will, return, my dear child and he will be grateful that I freed him from that unnatural elfkin shape."
"He was very young when he was changed, though," Quaye said uncertainly, entering behind him. "He has spent most of his life thinking of himself as an elfkin and my brother."
Quaye, but not Quaye. Jeyer's nostrils flared, filtering his brother's center from the omnipresent stenches of the stable, the fresh hay and oiled leather, the dusty grain bin, the manure of horses and the salty sweat of the goblin stable boys.
He knew Quaye's scent. Even as a human, he had a sharp sense of smell. He could detect a storm on the coming wind, or an animal's distinctive musk in an anonymous twist of fur left on a thorny branch. Blindfolded, he could pick his brother from a crowd by scent alone. It was as familiar as his own. The unicorn's nose did not distort smells so much as it clarified them. It was like the difference between seeing a rock at night as a simple round shape and seeing the same rock in daylight and seeing the shades of color, the textures and cracks, the clinging dirt and lichen. A thread of otherness ran through Quaye's scent now, milk-pure, honey-sweet, fresh as Spring, a lucidity that wasn't there before.
"I'll leave you two to get reacquainted," the mage said. He shooed the gaping goblins out ahead of him and shut the stable door.
"Look at this. How could they let you do this to yourself?" Shamed, Jeyer tried to hide his skeletal frame in the shadows, but Quaye tugged on the halter, drawing him back into a shaft of dazzling sunlight. His bones stood out in sharp relief, his skin showing through the sparse, brittle hair. Quaye undid the halter and threw it away.
Resisting the impulse to gag, Jeyer breathed deeply and rhythmically and, with each inhalation and exhalation, his confusion deepened. Quaye walked toward him and he read wrongness in every movement. His blurred and apprehensive eyes struggled across his brother's face and body as he entered the stall and knelt gracefully beside him.
"I know this is hard for you," Quaye said.
Jeyer started and rolled over. Bringing his legs under him, he sat up. Careful to keep his horn pointed upright, he thrust his massive, elongate head as close as he could to Quaye.
An alteration yes, but a familiar one.
He had seen full elves before, of course. His mother was one, though his memories of her were dim. The fullbloods would have nothing to do with them. When she died after birthing Quaye, her family abandoned the boys to a human orphanage. The other children were quicker to notice their differences than the adults and sharper in their cruelty, but it was always easier for Quaye, who favored his unknown human father.
Not anymore. Quaye's features were the same, but sharper and finer, his skin so white it was almost blue. The sharp tips of his backswept ears poked out from hair like masses of polished gold. His frame was even smaller and more delicate than before, that was apparent even under the thick mage's robes he wore.
Quaye placed a hand on his neck. The hand was smaller now, with softly tapering fingers.
"Be still, brother," he whispered. "Oh, it hurts to see you like this. You don't know how much! I know you've been suffering, but until now, I was too weak and confused. I feared my presence would only alarm you. But I'm adjusting, now. I think I can help you. My magic, you wouldn't believe how its grown with the human taint removed. Banascelus taught me how the elfin can bind their quie with unicorns. You'll be able to speak to me again."
The touch of Quaye's hand burned like fire, a heat streaking across his nerves. They became a great light shining together.
"Quaye!" Jeyer cried. The terror, self-loathing and rage all washed from him. He was with his brother again.
He could not hear Quaye's words of comfort as his were heard, but instead felt a warm pulse of emotion. He could not read Quaye's mind, but the sensations of the past few weeks tumbled around him and his mind struggled to sort them out.
There was fear, of course, overwhelming fear that faded to be replaced by resignation, calm, acceptance. The change from half-elf to full elf was part of that, but it didn't feel like the brutal betrayal Jeyer's change had been. Instead, Quaye was refined by his ordeal, his intellect sharpened, his emotions stronger and the magic of air and darkness that had been bottled up so long by his human blood now flowed from him in a rich, joyous flood.
No, the change was more than that. Quaye sensed Jeyer's confusion and gently opened the last few barriers between them; let Jeyer see the newness dawning in the center of his mind.
The realization of what Banascelus transformed in his brother struck Jeyer like a pickaxe to the skull. Never in his life had he felt the need to cry out to a god. Despite their half-human blood, the headmistress at the orphanage drilled him and Quaye in the Pentacalist teachings, which glorified Man and how he freed himself from the rule of mad powers, but no man could undo what had been wrought except for Banascelus and he entertained no delusions of changing the mage's mind.
Quaye was not merely a full-blooded elf. He -- she -- had become an elfmaid.
Jeyer rose to his feet for the first time in a week, shrieking his rage and teetering on the edge of insanity. Being turned into an animal was grotesque enough, but he his mind and nature remained his own. What Banascelus had done to Quaye, though -- he was ruined. Spoiled. His brother, the person so utterly important in his life, had been stolen and then given back, soiled, shameful and disgusting, like reattaching a limb already gone green and maggoty.
Jeyer crashed through the flimsy stall door and attacked the heavier stable doors. He slammed his full weight against it, then reared and struck out, his sharp hooves gouging the wood. A red mist filled his mind.
"No!" Quaye's thought struck him keen and clear.
He dropped down to all fours and turned on him. Her. Jeyer's pelt twitched as if to dislodge a fly.
"It isn't so bad, Jey. Sah. Sah. Calm down, now," she made soothing noises, as if pacifying an unruly horse -- and oddly enough, it worked. "I was frightened at first, too. We were tricked. He took something from us, but it wasn't poison. He stole our humanity. I don't know how to get it back, not yet."
"You aren't -- upset?"
Quaye smiled, a shadow of his old grin. "All I could do for the first day was cry and scream. Banascelus was forced to strap me to a bed to keep me from clawing my eyes out."
A growl rumbled in Jeyer's huge chest.
"It was well he did. I might have killed myself. I didn't remember what he'd done to you and that was the only thing that stayed my hand. I could never kill myself and leave you to an uncertain fate."
Quaye's hand, too small and soft, stroked his sweat-damp mane. "Tonbanu teaches us that the center does not rotate. I still had my mind. Finally, I calmed down and started to think, then Banascelus came to me."
Thinking of Quaye, naked, bound and vulnerable, Jeyer trembled. His horn ached to drink the mage's blood.
"It was not as bad as you might think. Banascelus offered to teach me. He admitted what he'd done. For years he had been searching for an elfmaid named Talovea Foxflight who was bound to the unicorn Jadealone. Instead, his magic pointed him to us. Do you see? Talovea was my mother and you were the child of her unicorn."
"I don't understand!"
"Banascelus told me the tale. It is really quite sad. Only one elf in a generation can bind to a unicorn and Talovea defied tradition when she bound herself to a mare. The knowledge of why this was forbidden had been lost to the ages, but she rediscovered it. The two were bound so closely, they both conceived at the same time. When the unicorn went into labor, the binding forced Talovea into labor, too, but she was not far enough along. She spent so much of her life force keeping the children alive, she had none left to spare for herself or Jadealone. When she realized they were dying, mother changed you. She knew the elves would never accept me and she didn't trust the humans to care for me. You were only a child at the time, too. She turned you from a unicorn colt to an elfkin boy, so you could be my big brother and protect me. That's why this happened when Banascelus stole your humanity. He thought he would have two elves to serve him, but instead he was rewarded beyond what he could have imagined. He got an elf maid and a unicorn."
"But why would be need us?"
"He plans to fight a dragon, Jeyer. Only a unicorn can fight a dragon and only an elf can control a unicorn."
Jeyer sighed and nuzzled Quaye's shoulder. He wished desperately for his simple, old life and his brother in a comfortably familiar form.
"Maybe... maybe it would be easier if you don't think of me as your brother. Think of Quaye as sleeping, safely awaiting your return. Think of me as another child of my mother. Quaye's sister."
"Perhaps it would help if you called me by another name. Banascelus has many books on the elfin kind. I've been reading them all. Did you know an elf is born with her name? It's not just a collection of sounds, like a human name. The parents call the child by a simple name until she is old enough to speak her own name. I have found mine. It is Alistrafel."
"I cannot." Jeyer turned from him, letting his elegant head droop until the near-invisible tip of his hateful horn scraped the filthy straw. "I look at you and see only my brother horribly disfigured. I cannot accept you as an elfmaid and I can never accept this as my true form. Go back to Banascelus. Tell him the deal is off. I want us to be changed back so we may die together in our proper forms."
"I'm not willing to die for your stubbornness, Jeyer," Quaye slapped him on the neck, surprisingly hard and Jeyer flattened his ears. "I'm ashamed of you. This is only temporary, until we get Banascelus his damn fool dragon. Can't you bear a little discomfort until then?"
"All right, all right. I'll stay like this, but I'm not calling you Alistrafel. You're still my little brother, no matter what happened in the past or what he's done to you."
"I knew you'd see reason -- and I didn't even have to bring Tonbanu into the discussion," Quaye teased. She scooped up a handful of grain and held it out to him. "As soon as you get your strength back, we can start our journey to Vorraybanryn and get all this over with."
Within a month, Jeyer was back into fighting shape. He ate like a starved hyena and tolerated the surprisingly kind and skillful ministrations of the goblins. His sores healed over without a trace and thick, glossy new fur grew back in. Every day, after her studies with Banascelus were through, Quaye took him through the back alleys to a small gate in the city walls. Beyond lay the thick forest and Jeyer toughened his muscles galloping up and down the narrow twisted paths, leaping fallen branches and boulders. He even fenced with Quaye, he using his horn and she with her elf blade, which had reshaped itself longer and slimmer, attuned to its owner's new form. Pierce was never spoken of and Jeyer assumed Quaye must have hidden it somewhere for safe keeping, pending his return to elfkin form.
Finally, Banascelus declared them fit to travel. Jeyer refused to carry any supplies, so he bought a trio of mules, one each for him and Quaye to ride and a third to carry their packs.
The old mage planned their route well in advance. The route was longer and slower, but his old bones didn't rest well on the hard ground, so they were never more than a day's ride from a town with an inn. Since he could never lodge unobtrusively in the company of an elfmaid and a unicorn, he left Quaye and Jeyer in the nearby woods. They preferred the outdoors anyway and Jeyer in particular vowed he would never sleep in a stable again, but they noticed something else. In Guillarme, Dorne and other large towns, Banascelus performed some magic on his mule, making it look like a splendid thoroughbred horse. However, in the small rural towns where they stayed most nights, he transformed it into a scruffy donkey and rode it into town bareback with only a rope halter. Quaye, who studied with the mage every noon when they stopped to rest and eat, confronted him about it one day.
"It is a simple trick, child, but a handy one," the mage preened.
Quaye, who had long since discovered how to play on the old man's vanity, leaned forward with an expression of rapt awe on her face.
"In the little rustic towns, a man riding a horse is cause for comment. Horses are much more expensive to feed and keep up than a donkey or ox. A horseback rider is not only a spectacle, but also a target for thieves -- so I ride an ordinary donkey. However, in the city a man on donkey-back would look like a yokel and be turned away from the best inns."
Quaye didn't let her irritation at his condescending tone show in her face. "But how do you do it," she pressed. "You told me illusions deceive the eye alone. Surely the first stable boy to touch the animal would realize something was amiss."
"Illusions," the old man said stiffly, "are for incompetents and entertainers."
"So I watched him the next time," Quaye told Jeyer that night as he grazed. To his vast irritation, his huge body housed an equally huge belly that needed filling with only the finest tender shoots, flowers and fruit. Dinner was an undertaking that could stretch on all night.
"What did you see?"
"When he changed the mule into a donkey, he used the same sort of red flame he used on us. When it finished, something fell from the animal's mouth. Banascelus picked the thing up and put it in his belt pouch. Well, if you were wondering, I haven't lost the skills that kept us fed before the monster hunting coin started pouring in. Pickpocketing is even easier with these little hands and long fingers."
Jeyer's ears slicked back and he grunted. The less he thought about those days, the better. If they hadn't managed to steal back their swords before the orphanage turned them out, they would have starved to death that winter.
"Well, anyways, I looked at the thing. It's a flat disc of dark red crystal, like garnet, with a shadowy little smudge in the shape of a horse within. I put it back and when next we left the inn, I watched Banascelus put the disc in the donkey's mouth and it became a mule again. Do you understand?"
"I believe I am beginning to."
"I snitched the red coin again, after he changed the mule into a horse and do you know what? The image changed! Now it showed a donkey. Do you see now? A mule is half-donkey and half-horse. He steals the, the 'essence' of horse you could call it, steals it from the mule and leaves it a donkey. When he takes the essence of donkey from the mule, it becomes a horse! Look here."
Quaye opened her fist. In her small palm were two coins of some glassy scarlet material. Jeyer turned his head and eyed them closely. He could just make out a darker swirl within that resembled a man.
"They're what the mage stole from us," Quaye whispered. "These coins are our humanity, our manhood."
Jeyer threw back his head and let out a ringing neigh. "At last! Quickly, let's change back and get ourselves away from that mad mage!"
Quaye shushed him. "Jeyer, wait! He said he was tracking us for years while searching for Talovea. Now that he knows what he's looking for, he could find us anywhere."
"Let him find us! I'll run him through and let Pierce drink his life." Jeyer's eyes fluttered closed in delight as he imagined the old man writhing and withering like one of the walking roses.
"Pierce is back at the mage's shop, remember? And my magic would be bottled up again. The trickle of air and darkness I commanded before would be no match for a real mage."
"So what would you have us do, brother?" Jeyer's thoughts cried in anguish, as a low groan escaped his physical body. He could feel the unicorn flesh like chains around him. "Be the mage's obedient little pets?"
Quaye regarded him calmly. "In a manner of speaking. I think we should slay the dragon. If even half of what Banascelus says about it is true, I don't want to just leave it there as a temptation for some other mage. We kill it..."
"And then we kill Banascelus," Jeyer brightened. "I can feel the heat of his blood on my horn already."
The next day, they reached Vorraybanryn Castle.
The morning dawned perversely beautiful. As they approached Vorraybanryn, the rolling hills of Guillarme gave way to sharp peaks still cloaked in patches of snow despite the lateness of the season. The vegetation grew sparse and animal life almost nonexistent. The foreboding structure of dark stone, built in the practical but unaesthetic style of the original settlers of the region stood out like a patch of slimy moss on a marble statue. The fields where the two invading peoples, human and ogre, had once fought a decisive battle, were now healed with the passage of centuries. Besides the abandoned castle, only a rusted belt-buckle or fragments of a corroded sword blade hinted at what had taken place. Even the bones were long since crumbled into dust.
The humans had settled here only a brief time before clashing with the ogres, who'd reached this land from its other shore. The humans had won, of course. An individual ogre was stronger, faster and tougher than a man, but to the humans, who won their freedom by overthrowing their own creators, they were not much of a challenge; or, Jeyer thought, so the stories told.
In truth, as many humans as ogres died on the day of that last battle and to use the weapon they had to crush their enemy, those long-dead humans must have been desperate men. Everything the Pentacalists taught warned against Chaos. After all, didn't the foul Bachequa worship Chaos as a god? Man divested himself of his quie, the spark of primordial chaos that allowed the Gods to control him and freed the race forever from the divine control of the mad Gods. It was Man's instinct towards order that separated him from the animals and the lesser folk like elves who still retained a quie.
Jeyer shook his head irritably. His thoughts were tangled up like vines.
Quaye, sensing his unease if not his exact thoughts, placed a comforting hand on his neck. She was dressed at Banascelus' insistence in a flowing garment of elfin shadowsilk, a nearly transparent cloth woven from cobwebs that was absolutely neutral to magic. She discovered elf hair grows almost continuously and her golden hair now fell in masses of ringlets almost to her knees, cloaking her far better than the gauzy dress.
Barefoot, she could not walk on the rough ground, so with misgivings Jeyer let her ride him. She was light as a feather, the flesh of her unclad thighs distractingly cool and smooth as it rubbed on his sweating hide.
We are going into battle, as we always have, the unicorn told himself. I have my sword and Quaye has magic even greater than before. This will all be over soon. I will have my body back, my sword properly in my hand, my brother beside me and let Banascelus do what he will with the world. That is all that matters to me.
It did not take Banascelus and Quaye long to find the dragon's prison. Jeyer expected the vessel containing the incarnation of Chaos to be something massive and elaborate, but it proved to be a simple wooden chest, unadorned and unlocked, seemingly cast aside into a ditch. The slayers readied themselves as Banascelus flung the lid open.
The chest was empty. The insides were lined with a dull-colored metal so soft it was almost putty in consistency. Banascelus tapped it. "Made from ground-up unicorn horn, I'd wager. I did wonder how Silverblade managed to hold the beast. But where is it? I was so sure..."
"Look," Quaye said in an odd voice. The sky, once a hard crystalline blue, was streaked with roiling black clouds. Although the sun still rode high in the sky, a blood-red moon squatted low on a dark horizon. Snow fell gently from the clear sky. The clouds were drawing themselves to a center, a whirling vortex of power. The dragon birthed itself from the storm in a roar of thunder.
"Now, while it's still forming!" Quaye dug her heels into his side and urged him forward. What Jeyer's mind forgot, his unicorn muscles remembered. His leapt forward, his horn stabbing quick as a striking snake as he danced around the dragon. He sliced away not flesh but possibilities, whittling the monster down in form and power. The darkness seemed to coil into itself and become coherent.
"Air and Darkness, I command you!" Quaye raised her arms to the heavens and called the lightning. It struck the dragon, exploding in a shower of brilliant sparks. The beast shuddered along its length, crouching low to the ground.
Jeyer drove his horn into the dragon's heart. Impaled, the dragon coiled helplessly. The frothing of its vigorous dragonsblood made Jeyer's horn throb with frighteningly intense sensation and nameless wild passions. He fixed an image of his brother in his mind.
Banascelus strode toward the monster, shouting, "Come to me, beast. Come see the one who commands your kind."
The dragon took form, coalescing into something more closely resembling the serpentine monster of fable. Oily black scales, lashing tendrils surrounding a fanged maw, golden cat eyes and arched batwings.
"Wait," Quaye screamed. "What are you doing?"
"I want to kill it!" Jeyer let out a bugling whinny and half-reared. The dragon's gaze flicked over him and he shivered. The chaos-beast's gaze seared into his soul and yet at the same time seemed to focus on something unimaginably distant.
"Steady that beast, stupid girl," Banascelus snarled.
"Get out of the way and let us kill it," Quaye said.
"Kill it? Who said anything about killing it?" Banascelus laughed. "I just need you to trap the thing while I draw its quie."
"We'll spill plenty of blood to keep every mage in the world supplied for centuries. Now, I repeat, you old scarecrow, get out of our way."
"Did you really think I would settle for poor weak dragonsblood when I can have its living quie? Have you heard it said that young dogs bark as old dogs barked before them? It is true. Nothing new has come into the world since the Creation. The Gods destroyed many possibilities. We cannot even conceive of them, much less create them -- but the dragons are something else. Their blood causes change, unexpected new potential. A mage with a dragon's quie would be the most powerful being the world has ever seen! The power to do anything and the mind to control it!"
"So this is all about power," Quaye sneered.
Jeyer steadied himself. She was keeping the old mage talking.
"Of course not. Not personal power, though that is what I require. I need to undo what the Gods have done. I need to bring newness back into the world, to stop its slide into senility and ultimate destruction. The world, deprived of possibility, is slowly grinding to a halt. All will be rot and darkness. The sun burns low like a candle, the moon moves more slowly in its orbit."
He's mad, Jeyer thought. He wants to save the world. He withdrew his horn and leaped away from the dragon.
The chaos-beast's clawed forearm darted out and grasped Banascelus. Jeyer whirled around and prepared to run for their lives, but Quaye's small, cold hand stayed him. He turned, grimly enjoying the spectacle.
The dragon funneled into the frail body of the mage. Screaming in agony, Banascelus' form shimmered with an onslaught of flux. First he was a huge bear, then a tiny girl, then an uprooted tree, then a man sculpted from metal. The dragon's grip tightened and the changes became too fast for Jeyer to comprehend. Banascelus blurred out of existence.
"Perhaps if he had a quie of his own, he would have had a self to cling to," Quaye whispered, as the dragon carelessly dropped the cinders that were all that remained of Banascelus' mortal remains. It shook its forepaw like a fastidious cat. Then, the great black head swiveled, the golden eyes fixating on the elfmaid and the unicorn.
Jeyer stood still, trusting Quaye.
The elfmaid stood up on his broad back and waited for the dragon to come.
The dragon swarmed toward them, its jaws gaping. Jeyer noticed in a detached way how the flesh inside its mouth glowed, how no two teeth were the exact same length, how a rope of silvery saliva stretched from palate to tongue.
Quaye tossed a small, glassy red coin into the onrushing jaws. The dragon swallowed reflexively.
On the scorched earth where the dragon had once tread huddled a very young, very confused little boy. His skin was dusky, his tangled hair the gleaming black of a raven's wing.
Jeyer lowered his head, sighting down his horn. He paced slowly towards the former dragon. The naked child looked back at him, his onyx eyes wide and innocently unafraid.
"Banascelus said it himself," Quaye cried. "The world will be saved by someone with the quie of a dragon and the mind to control it. He thought he could fill himself up with a pure quie and control it like a rider controls his horse. That's what destroyed him. He never knew what it was like to have a quie in the first place."
"A human mind, a dragon's quie," Jeyer said. "The power to remake the world." He lowered his horn, pointing its translucent tip directly at the child's heart.
"Tonbanu teaches that some strike with a stick that which they cannot lift," Quaye said softly, into his mind. Her eyes were not on Jeyer, or the child, but faraway, full of smoke and dreams and rememberings. "The dragon was not evil. It did not seek destruction, only change."
The child reached up and gripped the base of the horn with one chubby hand.
Jeyer sank to his knees, struck down by the flood of images overwhelming his mind. Quaye dismounted and took the little boy into her arms, cooing at him.
"I'm sure this was a change even the dragon of Chaos couldn't have anticipated," Jeyer said. "But you realize you've stranded one of us in an alien form. I suppose I can get used to being a unicorn..."
"What are you talking about," Quaye said sharply. The little boy looked from elfmaid to unicorn.
"You don't think I'm going to use the remaining coin and strand you in that idiotic body, do you?" Jeyer pawed the ground and rolled his eye. "At least I still have my strength and a sword of sorts. Whatever you decide to do, I still consider you my brother. I will always be there for you."
"I know how much being human again means to you, Jey. The coin is yours."
"You can't make me change back!"
"Well, I'm not changing back either." Quaye clutched the little boy so close he grunted in surprise. She locked eyes with Jeyer. "I've grown used to this body. In fact, I think I even prefer it. I don't want to go back to straining for the power to light a candle. The boy will need someone to guide him as he grows. You know, I'm beginning to believe Talovea knew full well what she was doing when she changed you. She wasn't merely protecting me; she was protecting you from Banascelus. They must have known each other somehow and she knew what he planned."
"We're not going to decide this tonight," Jeyer said wearily. "Let's sleep on it, at least."
"I'm not changing my mind," Quaye warned.
"Fine." Jeyer flung himself into a headlong gallop.
Behind him, Quaye shouted and ran after him, but he was a storm wind. His equine muscles bunched and stretched, carrying him effortlessly over the terrain. His nostrils gaped, sucking in great draughts of crisp mountain air. Quaye's cries faded behind him.
Jeyer galloped hard, but not hard enough to be feeling what he felt. His breath strangled in his throat and he crashed to his side, too dizzy and weak to stand. Distantly, he felt the insistent tug of Quaye's mind. Jeyer tried to reassure her, hoping she would listen to reason and wait until dawn to come after him. It took the elfmaid, with the sleepy little boy in her arms, hours to find him.
"The bond, you donkey," Quaye said, kneeling beside him. Suddenly he could breathe easier and strength flowed back into his limbs. He lurched upright. "You almost killed yourself trying to get away from me. We're bonded. Remember? I guess Banascelus never explained it to you like he did to me. We draw life from each other's quie. I can no more survive without you than a head can survive without a heart."
Suddenly, Quaye sobbed, wrapping her arms around his neck. Shocked, he stood still as her tears trickled into his fur. "You idiot," she whispered harshly. "We're going to decide this now."
"I was born a unicorn, even if I don't remember it. You were born a man. There is no decision to make, only circumstances to set right."
"Have you learned nothing from all this?" Quaye asked. "Banascelus may have been mad, but he was right about the dying of the world. Following the same path, returning to the same pattern, we sacrifice in the name of the Gods as surely as if we worshiped them. Chaos was the source of our world and will be its salvation. You aren't happy as a beast. Nothing matters more to me than making you happy and there's no reason for you to remain unhappy."
"I don't want you to suffer!" Jeyer carefully turned his head and nuzzled her damp cheek.
"I'm not suffering. I have lost some things, gained others. Look," she said and pointed at the child. He had fished the human coin from Quaye's backpack and was playing with it, holding it up with his arm outstretched so the moonlight pouring through it painted the ground red.
"It looks like spilled blood," Jeyer snorted.
"No birthing is accomplished without a bit of blood being spilled," Quaye said. "Come, child. Bring the pretty to mother."
The dark little boy complied, trotting over and offering the coin on his upturned palm. Quaye reached for it, but he snatched it away. Before Jeyer could move, the child darted towards him and thrust the coin between his lips.
The horn rang out as it struck the flinty earth. Jeyer bellowed in agony, reaching his soft, shifting hoof up to his forehead to paw at the pain. Quaye gritted her teeth and held onto him, holding him upright as the change overtook him.
When it had ended, he realized he was slumped in Quaye's arms, sweating, quaking and completely unclothed. She wore only the gossamer dress of shadowsilk and the moonlight rendered it all but invisible. The warmth radiating from her suffused his skin where they touched. A musky-sweet scent of crushed plants and rain-wet fur still clung to him. His breath was thick with the recent taste of blood.
Quaye kissed him.
"No," he murmured, still unused to human speech. "Wrong... you... a man..."
"I am not a man and I never will be. Does this feel like something a man could do?" She kissed him again. He tried weakly to pull away and nearly fell.
Tears simmered in Quaye's eyes. "You were never my brother. My mother made us both, but we never shared blood."
"We..." Jeyer licked his lips, struggling through the fog of change to organize his thoughts and feelings. "I protected you. I cherished you. I took pride in you. I stood back to back with you, my sword drawn. I would give my life for you. I loved you."
"Are rage and shame sunk too deep, their black roots feeding on the very marrow of your bones?" Quaye asked sadly. "If I'm not your brother, can you still love me?"
"I still love you." And it was true, he realized. His reactions to Quaye as a brother were rooted in habit only. It was only his stubbornness and his fear of losing everything he held dear in his life that made him persist in the delusion.
This time, Jeyer's lips found hers.
Together, they explored their bodies and the sweet new shapes of their love. The moon peered down at them from a star-crazed sky, fat and swollen with secrets.
The child, busy stacking pebbles, never noticed them.
Several weeks later, Banascelus' elfin apprentice reappeared in town with the news that the old mage died while trying to destroy a beast of Chaos. After a suitable period of mourning, she reopened his magic shop and moved in with her family. The husband was a tall, pale, silent man with terrible scars, the most obvious being the one on his forehead, which drew his brows into a permanent scowl. Their son resembled neither, being a handsome, dark-haired little boy who quickly won over the townsfolk with his outgoing, friendly nature. The young woman proved herself quite a competent mage and much more sociable than the aged recluse had been. The family soon fit right into the community as if they'd always belonged there.
Visitors to the house often commented on the odd decoration hanging over the fireplace, a twisted spear of some dully-opalescent material, broken off at the end. A souvenir of the wars, Alistrafel would say, but never anything more.
Every so often, when the winds take forests in their paws and his eyes refuse to close in sleep, Jeyer Foxflight will go downstairs and take the unicorn horn from its brackets. He holds it to his forehead, the broken end pressing gently into the flesh.
And he remembers.