SAMPLE CHAPTERS & ARTWORK UPDATES

From Book IV No’va

Jenario watched Providence hold out a hand to test the rain’s intensity. The sky looked a little less foreboding and was beginning to lighten when the Healer’s ears suddenly perked forward. His chin raised every so slightly, and the young man watched the Healer’s nostrils flare out to take in new smells. Something had caught his attention.

Just as quick, those ears lay back. A deep rumble in his throat served as a warning, to which Jenario slowly backed away. He noticed the others watching.

“Stay inside,” Providence warned. “We have company.”

“Jen!” Thomas Gracie whispered harshly from the back when they heard the thud of something drop outside. A few bits of loose stone and dirt crumbled down just above the opening. Whatever caused it was of good size, hinting at the possibility that they already knew what.

Jenario felt a hand tug at his clothing before he was pulled back behind Thomas Gracie and Shafari. It was hard to see behind the tall magic-user, but he thought he saw Providence dart outside. Sounds of loose stone continued to crumble, followed by a series of distant growls. A shuffle of feet and claws tapped across a rocky surface while a silhouetted feather lazily drifted down.

In front of him, Shafari’s fingers clenched nervously by his side. He could toss out a spell at any moment, though Jenario guessed with the bunch being so close together that they would all end up ignited in the moment’s fury. Likewise, Nathan kept a hand where his daggers rested on his belt, waiting for that perfect opportunity to finally use them. A crossbow hung where his other hand itched to unclasp a bolt from his leg pouch. Speed was key to a Trapper’s success, and the click of it notched into place confirmed only the matter of point-and-release.

So long as it doesn’t backfire. Jenario wiped a bead of sweat beginning to form across his brow. How much longer?

A rustle of feathers, followed by a beat of wings, seemed to carry away the fear of what could have been. Silence soon replaced the empty space above the entrance. Not even a cricket stirred as Thomas Gracie glanced over at Shafari, who gave a nod. Together, the two inched forward. A fireball ignited along Shafari’s palm when Thomas Gracie paused their advance. Both looked up when a few grains of dirt tumbled down, suggesting that something was still there.

Shafari readied his fireball just as a a silhouetted figure dropped into view.

“It’s Providence!” Jenario’s warning distracted the magic-user’s quick toss so that it was off target.

In the midst of shape-shifting, the Healer had resembled a feathered Black Wing before returning to his true form. The sizzling ball speeding past, however, caught him off guard. Stunned, he stared after, watching it smolder beneath the nearest bush.

“I’m so sorry!” Thomas Gracie was the first to approach. “We thought you were one of the them.”

The Healer let out a sigh. “I should have known better. But…no harm done.” Providence kept an eye on Shafari while lifting a hand toward the smoldering location. Without warning, the ground opened, swallowing that hint of orange glow. When it closed, not even a trace of smoke remained. “Not that it could do much with the heavy rain we just had. But for the future, let’s try to keep that ability in check.”

Shafari slightly bowed his head in apology while Nathan and Jenario joined them from the back. Together, they stepped out under the remains of gray wispy clouds. A few rays of sunlight began to filter down.

“So it was a Black Wing.” Jenario stooped to pick up the fallen feather.

“Only a fledgling,” Providence said. “It was trying to flee the storm.”

“Please tell me you didn’t let it go,” Shafari said.

“I…displaced it,” Providence carefully answered. “Killing other than to kill goes against our nature, and the ‘Keyarx know and respect that – because they know we can.” His direct eye contact quickly shut the magic-user’s mouth from commenting any further. “Though it should be a while before we see another.”

“So we can hunt now, right?” Nathan pushed past the others with disgruntled expression. He flipped up a dagger between his fingers after returning the bolt back to his leg strap. “I need something to sink this into!”

Jenario heard Thomas Gracie’s sharp intake of breath. His gaze fell to Providence, who merely shrugged.

“I can keep a lookout. But mind you – I won’t be in this form.”

Nathan just scowled. “Huh. What I seen, you’re too scrawny to shoot noways.”

Jenario caught that warning look in Thomas Gracie’s furrowed brow. He glanced at Shafari, who stood with arms crossed and cheeky smirk. While the Trapper continued to press the issue of hunting, Jenario’s hand slipped inside his pouch where the precious herb lay hidden.

“Can we look around?” Jenario’s question seemed to take everyone by surprise. “I’m sure Nick wouldn’t mind some wild herbs, if I can find some.” When no one said anything, he added, “Besides, it’d be nice to get something other than berries and honey.”

Shafari suddenly laughed. “I second that! Come on, Thomas! The rain’s passed. We should all take this opportunity to get familiarized with the land.” He pointed to Providence. “Plus, we have a lookout.”

“All right,” Thomas Gracie finally nodded, but motioned for Jenario to step away from the magic-user. “But I think the two of you should be separated this time.”

“Yes, mother…” Shafari rolled his eyes, but Jenario had a mind to know the reason.

He wants to keep tabs on his magic. He tried to hold back a smile, but Shafari was quick to pretend a backhand slap.

Jenario dodged the playful gesture. “I didn’t say anything! I swear!”

Providence chuckled. An ear twitched toward the forest, and he cocked his head to one side as though listening to its whispered secrets.

“My assistant is nearby,” he said. “I need to address his summons. Then I’ll return to check on you. If you need anything,” he gestured to those wolf-like ears, “I can hear fairly well from great distances.”

He neither waited for their acknowledgement nor looked back. In a blink he had shifted, receiving a grunt of disbelief from the Trapper. As the large stag bounded into the forest, Nathan threw up his hands in swift anger.

“No complaints when I bring down something! You saw that, right? No complaints!”

“I would think,” Shafari said, “that they’d know what we’re after. Doubt you’ll see much in these parts.” He swept a hand around him to indicate their surroundings. “I’ve yet to see even a bird come through this area.”

“You think they’re all connected somehow?” Jenario studied the dense treetops, but only the sway of leaves moved within sight.

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Thomas Gracie said. “We are in someone else’s land. Things will seem foreign to us. But we’ll make due. We’ll have to.” He turned to Jenario and Nathan. “Now as far as surveying the land, I think the two of you should stay together. See what you can find. Shafari and I will search over this way.” A directional point confirmed their trek back toward the cave. “Meet back here in a bit.”

*****

Jenario’s boots crunched through several fallen leaves. He felt like a thundering giant compared to the nimble Trapper. Though not slim around the waist, Nathan knew how to keep his steps soft from years of hunting. Now and then he pulled out a flask from a side pouch. A quick sip drew a mischievous grin across the lips when he caught his companion looking.

“You best not be drinking when the baby’s due.”

“Ha!” Nathan downed the rest and slipped the empty container by his side. “That’d be a trick.”

“Aren’t you at least excited?”

“I was more into the ‘excitement’ before I realized what the consequences were.” He sighed heavily. “Just hope it’s a boy. At least with that I could teach him my trade.”

Jenario reframed from asking about the opposite gender. He cast a sideways glance at the slight beer-bellied man. Although no looker, Ahnalee seemed happy enough when they were together, a reminder of his own family waiting back at the Healers’ site.

Is Tia happy with me? The question slowly plagued his thoughts. Nathan, at least, has a useful skill that didn’t need council interference. What can my skills do? I barely know how to tell two flowers apart. If I want a marriage to happen, I’ll need something that truly impresses her.

He stopped abruptly when Nathan held out a hand. Still in his own thoughts, it took a moment before Jenario’s vision cleared to see the Trapper’s finger to his lips. He then knelt to examine the ground. To the untrained eye, there was nothing. Yet Nathan was an expert at spotting the slight rip in a leaf or how the grass was once mashed into the earth. Whatever it was had tipped the Trapper into believing something was close by.

“Stay here,” Nathan whispered, to which Jenario nodded.

We need a successful hunt. He watched the Trapper keep low as he moved slowly through trees. The click of bolt confirmed his crossbow was ready to fire. Is that little thing going to be enough to take down something large? Jenario never doubted the Trapper’s skills, but the thought of taking on a Black Wing seemed a bit out of place.

Soon he could see nothing, as Nathan had moved ahead through the underbrush. Not even a crumpling leaf could be heard. He’s good! Jenario took a moment to survey the area. Maybe there’s some wild herbs around here. He turned left. It seemed less dense in that direction. Best not wander too far.

Uncertain how long the Trapper would be, Jenario took a moment to examine the various plants growing along the forest floor. His thoughts reeled back and forth between different species of greens brought to him by council members. By the time the plants reached his desk, they had already been finely chopped and ready for mixing. Occasionally, a leaf was missed and he would do the honors, or else Shafari might slip him something to use in his black marble mortar.

The trickle of water suggested a nearby stream, so he turned toward it and followed until the trees ended. A gentle slope allowed easy access down the bank. He could see pebbles scattered below the surface as he knelt and dipped both hands in for a drink. Droplets rolled down his chin when he lifted the cool liquid to his lips. The taste was so satisfying – of untrodden earth and mountain rainwater. He recalled travelers of his youth passing around samples collected along the way. That soon ended when Mayla shut its gates. No one left the city except to trap. No one ever came to visit except when council related.

Never thought I’d be the one traveling. A smile crept across his face, as he did not miss the city and its cold gray walls surrounding homes and markets, like some secret fortress hiding from the world – or else it was hiding the world from its people. He looked around at the lush green forest and reflective waters. This was something Mayla never had. If it did, no one mentioned it.

He got up and dusted off a pant leg when a sliver of white drew his attention to the ribbon-like leaves of the tall cattails. Their linear forms wavered gently back and forth, but not from a passing breeze. When a white animal stepped cautiously to the water’s edge, Jenario stared in awe. It was small, the size of a fawn, with ears and long legs to match that he almost thought it so.

He looked again. Something perched upon the forehead, glistening a pearly white in the sun’s filtered beams that played over its soft coat. A cloven hoof tapped against stone. It stood steady, not the wobbly fawn Jenario had previously thought. In wide-eyed realization, he dared not move a muscle even when it had finished drinking and turned his way. Sky-blue eyes held his nervous reflection as he fought to held still.

A unicorn… The words of Providence sprang to mind. No mere chance… Did he know?

The familiar snap of crossbow instantly broke Jenario’s mesmerized trance. He turned, catching the aim of Nathan’s arm while the unicorn had yet to move.

“No!” He moved swiftly to block the arrow with the sudden though of: Oh, how stupid!

Nathan jerked his arm to the side just as the bolt released. It sped toward the bank and cracked against stone and water. For a moment, the two just stood as uncanny silence surrounded them. Hesitantly, Jenario glanced at the cattails to find no trace of the young unicorn.

“You mad?” Nathan started, to which Jenario just closed his eyes to settle his still-pounding heart. “What’re ya thinking? I could’ve killed you!”

“Thankfully, you didn’t.” Jenario averted any eye contact, although he knew Nathan’s stabbing glare was about to bore a hole through his skull any moment.

“And we lost a meal, no thanks to you! I was looking forward to some nice venison for once.”

“Venison?” Jenario’s eyebrows furrowed at the thought. DID HE REALLY NOT SEE? OR PERHAPS HE WAS TOO FOCUSED. He stole at glance at the empty spot. The reeds had hardly moved since the animal left, as though it had not been there at all. AM I SO SURE I SAW WHAT I DID?

He slightly jumped when Nathan stormed past to retrieve his arrow. They could see the tail-end of it sticking out from between the rocks. All the while, Nathan kept muttering under his breath.

Jenario was at a loss for words. Nathan had not seen a unicorn. He had only seen food, and would surely pass the story on to the rest of his foolish act. Jenario quickly concocted a different conclusion.

“You think I’m mad?” He turned to follow the Trapper sloshing through the water. “Since when was the last time you saw an all-white animal? It could’ve been one of them! Didn’t you check the eyes?”

“Why the hell would I be checking eyes for?” Nathan balanced himself between two stones while reaching down to collect his arrow. He studied the tip, chipped, but otherwise still expendable.

“Albinos have red eyes. These were blue. Who’s to say we weren’t about to kill one of those shape-shifters! Besides, had you even made that kill, I doubt the meat on it would equal the size of a rooftop pigeon!”

The clink of arrow tapping the others confirmed it safely in its holder. The crossbow, too, now rested by his side when Nathan turned and sloshed back to dry land.

“Yeah,” he finally gruffed. “Maybe you’re right. Still a stupid act, though.”

“It was, I’ll admit.” Jenario grinned nervously while rubbing the back of his neck. “But to be on the safe side, we can’t go killing things out of the ordinary just because.” He breathed a sigh of relief when Nathan bought his argument, and together they trekked back to where the other two were waiting.

“Was wondering if I should’ve dropped a tracking stone on you earlier,” Shafari teased and nudged Jenario with his elbow. “Didn’t get lost, I see. And back in one piece.”

“No kills?” Thomas Gracie noticed the Trapper’s sour expression. He checked Jenario. “Or don’t tell me you shot something you shouldn’t have.”

“No kills,” Nathan grumbled. “Not when someone’s stumbling in front of my shots.”

Jenario gave him a dirty look when he heard Shafari crack up in laughter. “We’ve already been over this,” he whispered through clenched teeth.

Thomas Gracie shook his head. “Next time, you stay with me.”

“Fine…” Jenario sighed and looked around. “Providence still not back?”

“Actually, he went looking for the two of you.” Shafari wiped his face, but was still unable to keep from smiling, receiving rolled eyes from the alchemist.

“How long ago?”

“Not too long.” Thomas Gracie searched the treetops and cocked his head when the familiar call of the mocking bird met their ears. “There he is now.”

It was the striking flash of white against brown and tan wings that gave away his appearance as Providence flew over their heads to alight on a nearby branch. His head bobbed from side to side so his round black eyes could count everyone present. Satisfied, he hopped down and shifted into his true form. When the green glow had faded from his body, he motioned for them to continue on their way.

“I take it nothing went amiss while I was gone?” he said, allowing Thomas Gracie and Shafari to take lead.

Muttering to himself, Nathan gave the Healer a scrutinized look before starting after the others. Last came Jenario, who stepped in time with the Healer’s gate.

For a while, there was only the thud of earth and fallen leaves beneath their soles as they made progress back to clan of Healers. Lost in thought, Jenario paid little heed to his lagging feet while he surveyed the remainder of daylight through the tall trees. He was sure their people would be disappointed. There was no successful hunt, no stories to share. There was just the vast layout of forest that stretched all around, and the constant fear that a Black Wing might swoop in at any given moment.

“You shouldn’t let the failures of others worry you,” Providence interrupted his thoughts.

Jenario glanced ahead to find the two of them somewhat alone, as the trees seemed to engulf the rest of his companions.

Providence continued. “Luck may be with you yet, especially with what you’ve seen this day.”

“You did know!” Jenario instantly lowered his voice, though excitement pounded his temple in the form of rising questions.

Sensing this coming, Providence just raised a hand for patience. “I said seeing one was no chance encounter. Most likely, it was arranged so that your paths could cross.”

“But….what does this mean? What does a unicorn need with us?”

“More importantly, why would she want to meet with you? What artifact or knowledge do you possess that would interest such a legendary creature, even Nature herself?”

Jenario felt a shiver run down his spine upon feeling the Healer’s hand on his shoulder. “I…don’t know.” He slightly hung his head and shrugged a shoulder. “I’m just a practicing alchemist. I have little else, other than my family and whatever we came with in our packs.”

“I see. And when you knew what you were looking at was a unicorn, what did you do?”

“I um…” Jenario swallowed nervously, then shook his head. “Nothing. Just…looked at it.”

“Oh? So she looked at you and then left?”

“Well, not really. I did save it from being hunted.” The young man grumbled and crossed his arms. “A thing of beauty – spoiled!” His gaze followed after the Trapper. “He didn’t even see the horn.”

Providence nodded slowly. “Setups like these aren’t uncommon. It means she will return the favor, one day when you most need it.” The two stopped walking, allowing the others to continue without them. “Perhaps this will be a way to help your people find your place in this land.” He nodded toward the group, who had stopped to wait when they realized the two weren’t following. “Use this opportunity wisely, Jenario.”

The young man watched him turn away. He was faintly aware of his companions staring in question while his mind filled with concerns and desires. A part of him wanted to share the encounter, to get feedback and opinions. The other half wanted it kept secret, and for good reason. Tia won’t like this. If it’s magic and I’m connected…no sir! Not a word until I know for sure what’s going to happen.

“What was that about?” Thomas Gracie inquired, receiving a shrug when the young man caught up to them.

“Nothing much,” Jenario said. “Just a question or two. Providence seems to think we’ve luck on our side.”

Thomas Gracie managed a smile and chuckled. “With you, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

* * * * *

“He is the one.” The thought from one to another was like a whisper on the wind. Yet Osha understood. A unicorn always did.

She stood as still as scattered stones beneath clear waters, the very same that trickled along to the location where her sister gracefully stepped. Though covered in baby fuzz flyaways and a tiny, twisted horn that perched upon their foreheads, the wisdom of past unicorns flowed through their veins.

Nostrils flared to take in the scent of humans recently gone. She had seen the entire thing, but could prevent nothing. Merla’s fate relied on visions while Osha had her own. Now, she turned her attention toward the leader of the group. The path was set. She had only to counter the coming events.

* * * * *

Sleep would not come that night. The day’s encounter had put Jenario’s mind on alert. While Tia and his son nestled close by, Jenario could only toss and turn until finally he pushed the covers away from his makeshift bed and forced himself up.

Maybe I need to walk it off. I’ll be tired in a bit. He nearly laughed at his own unconvincing logic as he snuck around sleeping forms. The border was not far. Then he could move around and think without disturbing anyone. That was was by far easier said than done. His boots felt clunky, and he wondered how Nathan managed to sneak up on game in his. Each step felt a thousand times heavier than the last. Several times he flailed his arms to keep balance and not end up on top of someone else.

Jenario was not the only one awake, as he quickly discovered. Shadowed forms of animals brushed along the clearing’s perimeter. They’re probably laughing at my pitiful performance, he thought glumly as he checked the layout of the moon. It was only halfway full, with clouds drifting across its surface – not enough to see his way across the clearing unless he lit an extra torch. As their hosts were not very fond toward the heated element other than the necessary lighting around their home, Jenario sought a different source through one of Shafari’s packs. When he came across a glowing rock, he pulled it out to see if its light would be enough.

Eyes flashed in the night as they turned to check what he had pulled, but soon lost interest.

Confident that only Healers were aware of his movements, he danced around the remainder of sleeping individuals and made his way toward the trees. He cast a final glance to the moon’s silvery surface fading behind a dark cloud. It made him think back to the day he entered and saw the lower half coated red. He had not mentioned it to anyone.

I doubt anyone’d believe me. A distant shriek startled him to a stop. Having just reached the trees, he was already worried. Was that a Black Wing? Are they more active at night? Questions poured through his mind, questions that could not be answered by the mere whisper of wind or the rustle of leafy boughs wavering from an overhead breeze. Why had the moon been red? Why did the unicorn pick him?

He held the glowing rock out in front of him to light a path. It was not very bright, just enough to see where to place his next step. It did little to help penetrate the blackness between trees and all around. A glance back to where his family and friends slept confirmed a more inviting location within the dimly lit clearing. And yet Jenario’s thoughts were as restless as white rapids. It seemed pointless to sleep when all his attention seemed focused on one encounter.

Of all people it could have picked, and it chose me? His first step caught against something, sending the young man tumbling face-down. He heard the landing thud of Shafari’s stone when it flew from his fingers. There had been no choice. He needed to brace himself for the fall, and in doing so let it fly. The sting of pine tags and bits of bark cut into his palms, but he managed to draw himself to a kneeling position to look for the stone. Surely, he would see its glow. I know it didn’t land that far away. He could almost hear Shafari’s scolding voice – from stealing a rock! Serves me right. I should just turn around and go back.

He had to be bleeding. The stickiness of something wet against his palm confirmed it. Frustrated, Jenario slowly got to his feet. If luck was on his side, it was not working now. About to turn back, his eye caught a faint, white glow.

The stone? He tentatively stepped toward it, checking his footing to be sure the path was clear. It seemed brighter than he remembered. The color was off as well. He recalled Shafari mentioning trapped algae that stored direct sunlight in order to create its pale, green glow. Yet the closer he came, the less he suspected he was seeking a stone.

When the light suddenly winked out, Jenario was left stranded in the dark. Even when he turned back, the trees engulfed what little light came from the clearing. He could see nothing.

Panic edged its way into his throat, keeping his voice still for fear of alerting other creatures to his whereabouts. If only he had a tracking stone, Shafari might find him – or else pieces of him should something else find him first. With trembling body, he felt along the base of a tree trunk and sat beside it. There was no choice. He would wait for daylight.

Drawing up his knees, he rested his chin overtop his arms and closed his eyes. With fear came exhaustion. Now, he could care less about an encounter.

“Why so still?” A feminine whisper carried over to Jenario’s side.

Startled, he lifted his head to the soft glow of horn penetrating the night. To his relief, it drove the darkness into submission, and with it went all fear and doubt. Sky blue eyes held his admiring gaze. Though nothing more than a frail filly, the unicorn was a creature of pure grace and wisdom. Jenario could feel it emanating from her presence when she stepped close.

“You…came back.” He could hardly believe his own words. I’m speaking to a unicorn!

“We listen for the heart’s summom, search for the right one.” Her gentle words came in answer to his thoughts. “The forest is no place for a lonely wanderer.”

Jenario cast his gaze down in shame. “I guess coming out here by myself wasn’t the best idea. I just couldn’t stop thinking… about earlier. But…would you still have come?”

A fuzzy ear twitched in response to a distant cry. It hardly seemed worthwhile to guess its source. For a time both remained still, listening. Eventually, the unicorn flicked her tuft of a tail and snorted.

“We come as deemed necessary; your task is already at hand.”

“Task?” Jenario blinked. He started to shift position, but stopped. The stiffness in his back from sitting so rigid upon the tree slightly worsened. If he moved, would the creature startle? Doubting she would, but refusing to give in to his discomfort, he remained as he was. “What task?”

“The entirety of Nature depends on a balance of elements. And yet those elements have become restless. They forget their place. So we seek a chosen, one who will remind them their given duties. We’ve watched you, Jenario.”

“We?” The young man glanced on either side of him, searching for snippets of white that coincided with her words. Although the light from the horn lit a large portion around them, he saw nothing else but surrounding trees. “You mean there’s more of you?”

“We are all connected to Nature, her chosen, to protect that balance between the elements and magic itself. Those called upon to serve are not selected at random. Our paths were destined to cross long ago. We’ve waited for you, Jenario, and here you have come. You have already done one favor. You have spared me the hunter’s arrow. For that, you will not go unrewarded.”

She turned as if to leave, but spared a glance over one bony shoulder as Jenario reached to signal her back. The pain of his discomfort too great, he at last stumbled to his feet.

“But I’m no magic-user!” he stated in confusion, still not understanding his selected role. “You’ve made a mistake if that’s what you’re looking for. Why not Shafari? He’s more into magic than I am.” He lowered his voice. “If only fire…but still! He has the gift, at least. I can’t even craft my own elixirs.”

“Yet.” It was the first direct answer to any of his questions. The single word was thought to him in a firm manner, flooding his mind with energy expended along with it. He briefly felt the filly’s power and gasped when the tip of horn brightened. “But you will.”

When Jenario came to, he was on his hands and knees staring down at the green glow of Shafari’s stone. The effects of the unicorn’s power still lingered, but he managed to look around at his dark surroundings. Once again, he was alone. Yet the appearance of the stone and promise of something greater to come gave him the courage to walk with confidence back to the clearing.

For once, Jenario felt less of a burden to himself or others. Maybe luck is on my side.

*****

Thomas Gracie had not realized they were missing anyone until, having relieved himself, was re-entering the clearing when movement caught his eye. Pausing just at the border, he waited to see who came toward the group.

Jenario? It was the bounce of faint light held in the cup of his hands that had drawn Thomas Gracie’s eye. When the young man was closer to the torchlight, that spike of short hair made him easily recognizable. What’s he been up to?

As the young man walked, there was new purpose to his gate, seeming to sidestep in a dance when reaching sleeping individuals. He had no trouble maneuvering between members until he knelt by one of Shafari’s packs. The glowing object winked out as it was stuffed inside before quickly navigating his way back to Tia. A smile played across his face when he slipped under the covers, but not before planting a kiss over his son’s forehead.

Wish I’d thought to have gotten light when I went out there. Thomas Gracie glanced down to a rip alongside his pants, having caught it on some briars. He considered himself lucky that it was all that grabbed him and not something else. Screeches throughout the night made it uneasy to sleep, even with the Healer’s promise that no Black Wing ever came close to their home. After adjusting his belt, he stepped into the clearing.

The ground beneath his boots felt different. There was a slight crunch to it now as he took another step. He peered down to find it a sickly shade of brown. Did something kill the grass? Except there was no grass, only leaves. These weren’t here before. When he looked back up, all the torches wavered in a dizzying haze that faded into the surrounding trees.

Thomas Gracie took a quick breath and blinked several times. The clearing and everyone in it was gone. Whipping around, he checked his surroundings. Nothing but trees towered over him in the dark. If not for a green tint enabling him to see, he would have been thrown in complete darkness.

“Shafari! Stop messing!” but only the rustle of overhead leaves answered. His gaze darted around as he continued to turn, checking for any signs of movement. “What magic is this!” he said through clenched teeth and prepared for the worst. “Providence!”

“You are safe,” came a gentle voice, feminine in nature. It was a mere whisper at first, but soon strengthened to that of a young woman. “This is but an illusion so we may speak.

A faint crinkle of leaves from behind suggested someone was there. The green tint brightened, and he turned to look down at the tiny fawn-like creature that gingerly stepped toward him. She was a bit stockier, especially one that looked a day or two old. The coat was of the purest white, and for a moment he thought it albino if not for the eyes…and horn – the source of light.

Thomas Gracie’s expression must have contorted to a look of shock, for he heard a chortle.

“We do indeed exist, even within societies where magic is not present. We can be anywhere and be anything. But our forms are always the same.”

He thought back to the city of Mayla. THE COUNCIL WOULD HAVE A HARD TIME UNDERSTANDING THIS.

The unicorn snorted. “Nature knows. Your council have played their role, and as expected you have come. Now your true task begins.”

Again, Thomas Gracie stood speechless when the unicorn read his thoughts. DID HEALERS KNOW WE WERE COMING?

“Healers know of us, but few have experienced. Yet our paths are always pre-selected. Even now, your friend returns from seeing his own.”

“Jenario?” Thomas Gracie recalled the young man entering the clearing. “So that’s why. He saw a legend.”

“Legends are not always for the faint of heart,” she continued. “He has been given a gift that will both help and hinder all races. These gifts will continue, but where vision lacks in one, another takes its place. I come to you in warning. In order for certain events to transpire, you must follow the tasks provided in order to keep your people safe.”

“Safe from what? Jenario?”

In response, the setting changed once again. This time, however, the forest did not fade into the next location. Although Thomas Gracie stood still, the forest itself seemed to move around him. In fascination, he noted the path being shown to him and where it was leading. All the while, the unicorn continued to speak.

“You have viewed the land from above. You have taken note of which parts offer the best settlements. Now you must follow this path the next time you travel north. Go alone, for what you are about to see, no one must know.”

Thomas Gracie braced himself when his illusionary walk came to an abrupt halt. When he opened his eyes, an aged tree stood directly in front of him. Gnarled branches twisted over themselves, thick and heavy so that they draped over the ground. A large, suspicious hole looked to have been chewed down into the root system. With a glance to the unicorn, Thomas Gracie stepped toward it, unsure whether he was to peer inside himself or if the view would do it for him.

A soft mew greeted from below. When he peered down, a whiskered face popped out.

“You’re kidding me, right?” Thomas Gracie watched the gray and brown-striped feline climb from the hollowed-out burrow. “It’s just a cat.” Puzzled, he relaxed and let it weave around his legs. More soon followed, coming in all different sizes, colors, and coat lengths. “Why so secret about these?”

The striped tabby, who had been curling around his feet, stopped to peer up at this tall figure. As Thomas Gracie watched, he saw the cat hunch down with a wiggle. It’s going to jump, and held out his hands to catch it.

What happened next was beyond imagining as a pair of multicolored wings stretched out from its back and gave a good flap. In total surprise, Thomas Gracie froze, allowing the winged feline to bypass his outstretched hands and head straight for the shoulder. Without even touching him, the cat smoothly reached its destination and perched next to his face, content to lick his cheek.

“I…see what you mean.” Slowly, he turned to face the unicorn so that the cat could remain balanced on his shoulder. “But still…why are they important?”

“These are the remainder of a race known as Foreseers. They alone can help you track the past, present, and future movements of your friend…and much more.”

The image before him slowly began to fade, including the unicorn. Thomas Gracie reached up to touch the cat, who’s purring had ceased. His hand touched bare shoulder.

“Is that it?” His voice echoed into the night, and he had to readjust his stance when the blurred scenery made him nauseous. “When should I start?”

“It must be soon…” came a whisper on a breeze.

The clearing of Healers brightened before him. With a hand to his forehead, Thomas Gracie waited for his dizzy spell to pass. When he finally stepped onto familiar ground, he gave a tired sigh as the last of the unicorn’s words echoed around him.

“More will be revealed once you reach the Foreseers.”

 

 

 

 

 

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