By the light of the blood moon the unicorn stepped into the boggy meadow. The fetid light washed pink on the unicorn's calico coat. Its head raised slightly, horn pointing out and up as it trotted through the crabgrass and half-frozen mud, sucking at its hooves. A chill wind rolled in the nearby trees, the leafless branches rattling like fingerbones in a pouch. The far side of the meadow grew neaer as the unicorn kept its constant pace, quick enough to show purpose, slow enough to keep her fear reigned in.
Shadows flickered across the bog, but when the unicorn looked up she only saw dark clouds careening across the sky. At the end of the meadow was a stone tower covered in moss and half toppled. Beyond a shallow pond bubbled softly, emitting a rotting stench and swirling smoke. Frogs croaked loudly over the noises of the nocturnal insects that defied them by dancing across the pond's surface. The unicorn continued, mud streaking its white and tan legs. It hid from the sickly moonlight, walking in the shelter of a row of decaying leper trees, their fallen branches crumbling without protest under her strong hooves. She passed an ancient temple, once brilliant, but now covered in moss and creepers, and came to the base of a craggy hill and began to climb. A blood-curdling cry rang overhead, the unicorn shivered, but continued without looking up.
The moon peaked, then began to recede behind clouds when the unicorn crested the steep path. She came to the mouth of a massive cave just below the peak of the craggy hill. A breeze whistled softly from the entrance, beckoning the magical creature to enter. The unicorn glanced at the sky, her breathing rapid and shallow, then her nostrils flared, her hooves stomped, and she lowered her head so that her horn pointed directly in front of her, and strode forward into the maw of the mountain.
Inside the cave the unicorn could hear no sound but her breath, her pounding heart and the clicking of her hooves on wet rock. The path in the cave grew darker as it twisted, gently rising and falling without pattern. An irridescent light shone ahead, and the unicorn was able to quicken her pace. Soon the path opened into a small domed room. A perfectly round pool dominated the alcove, and soft green light emanated from below the surface. The unicorn looked down into the pool, gazing into the endless abyss of the light. It was impossible to tell how deep the water was. For a time nothing happened, the unicorn's eyes flickered from the pool around the room, the dome was not natural, but hewn by crude tools, the walls polished by hand or by time she didn't know, but the runes were unmistakably man-made. She stared at them, as if to discern their meaning, then looked at the pool once more, and snorted. The Unicorn bared her teeth. Sticking out her tongue she bit deeply, allowing blood to run from her white mouth into the pool. She tossed her head back and neighed fully, before looking again into the pool. The irridescence rippled where the blood ran into the pool, and slowly the murk cleared, and the water sparkled crystal clear until the whole room dazzled, the walls reflecting a deep blue light from the pool, and the runes filled with shimmering motes of mist. The unicorn could see her reflection. First the magnificent white horn, followed by her majestic head, showing white except for the deep brown that ran from her muzzle over her left eye and back beyond the ear. her mane showed hanging to the left side of her neck, and finally her neck with it's gentle curve upward to her withers. The color in the pool briefly intensified, as her reflection changed, the brown stain across her face disappearing so that her coat shone a perfect white. She was more beautiful than ever before, perhaps as beautiful as her mother had been in her youth, and that alone made the perils of the journey seem trivial. She stared at her reflection in the pool as it changed yet again, her horn disappearing and her face changing into that of a human. She'd never seen a human face before, but she was sure of what she was seeing, the enchanted room was telling her it was so. Her mane had grown into long blonde human hair, her nose tall and proud, her lips graceful, and cheeks flush. Her eyes alone hadn't changed, remaining black spheres inside her otherwise human head. Elegant human hands raised in the reflection touching her face, pinching at her cheeks softly and running through her hair. The reflection began to reach, as though responding to the unicorns desire to touch it, as though her heart were reaching down with human hands to touch the human face in the radiant pool. The unicorn’s head lowered, her nose gently brushing just above the water, where the human hand reached for her.
The reflection was gone as a large grime-covered stone sunk deeply into the water. The magic broken, the light began to fade, and the unicorn hastily turned behind, catching the sight of squat creature standing on trunk-like legs, wearing a rag around its waist and an emerald amulet around its neck. It held a cruel looking staff with a bulbous rock attached to one end. The slavering mouth showed uneven rows of teeth, some flat some curved some missing. It smiled at the unicorn and growled softly when the light from the pool extinguished leaving the pair in perfect dark.
* * * * * * * * * * *
The enclave door blew off it's hinges. Doors do not simply open for Shannon and his warriors. Their iron shoes hammered the iron floor like the hammers of hell, and like hell hounds the unicorn brigade stormed into the enclave. The others, that is to say, the civillians, looked on curiously before catching a glimpse of the fury in Shannon's eye, then they pensively shied away. Nine unicorns gallopped down the corridors of the unicorn hive. As they descended the ramp that wound around the outer walls the colors began to change from torchlight to irridescent crystals, blue, green, pink, and red, all accented by the sparks from ironshod hooves. The unicorns ran side by side, four pairs deep, with a single unicorn at their head. His coat was deep brown, only the whites of his eyes, teeth and horn breaking the field. He was two hands taller than any of the others, themselves warriors as well, and his muscled shoulders and flanks betrayed the power in his unequalled stride.
At the bottom of the ramp was the entrance to a great hall, the door having long been removed in favor of an obscuring spell, even if one knew where the mouth of the great hall was, one wouldn't necessarily be able to enter, only if the Archmagus desired it to be so.
"Derryn!" The Warchief roared. There was no response, but a lilting titter bubbled from inside the marble wall.
"Derryn! Admit me at once you ass's foal!" The warchief reared on his back legs, a burlap sack flopped across his back like a sack of onions.
A portion of the rocky wall vanished in smoke, but it was still impossible to see anything other than shapes. The shapes were meaningless. Shannon watched as they moved against each other, growing and shrinking, warming and cooling in the colors of the crystals. It was such foolishness and Shannon was in such a hurry. The shapes kept moving. Shannon couldn't see their edges or corners, they moved aimlessly around the hole in the rock, then beyond the hole. They poured out like ants, showering the unicorn warriors in warm light. It was all so meaningless. Fuzzy, warm shapes everywhere.
"Welcome warchief." Derryn said from beyond the shapes.
Shannon was back in the hive, and where the wall was and the shapes came from stood Derryn, the Archmagus.
"You've brought your warriors I see. Brave stallions and mares all, eh. Full of fire! Clear of second thoughts! ah, to be young again." Derryn chuckled before trotting back into the cave.
"Derryn! How dare you turn your back on me!" Shannon said, still blinking. "Derryn?"
The diminutive magician was out of sight unnaturally fast, leaving Shannon looking around at fetid pools bubbling with rot. A little green creature stood bipedally knee deep in one of the pools stirring, his beak curved in a permanent grin. The warchief glared at the magician's little demon, who deferred his gaze after gurgling a laughter that sent spittle through his beak into the orange pool he was stirring.
"So Sorry, Warchief." Derryn's voice came from inside the crystalled room. "So busy with the experiments. Dark times, these. I suppose you understand that. Can I offer you and your warriors some…hay?"
"Hay is for horses." One of Shannon's warriors said before Shannon could silence him. Four of them were practically rolling with their whinnying laughter before Shannon's command for silence scraped the inside of their skulls.
"'Damn you Derryn, I didn't come here for the pleasure of your company. Derryn? Where the devil are you?" Shannon walked nervously around more smoking pools and floating blobs. Fetid smells overwhelmed him, while waves of sweetened essences filled his muzzle. Shannon looked to his left at a great bubbling pool filled with offal and waste, largely hidden by the outpouring steam.
"No of course not. You've been raiding, haven't you? How was the catch, Nimrod?!" Derryn's left eye rolled around the socket as he grinned showing his large teeth.
Shannon dropped the bag to the floor. He'd rehearsed in his mind over and over what he'd say upon revealing the prize. But instead he said nothing. Derryn frowned.
"You brought me a lumpy sack?"
"By the Great Ones, Derryn! I didn't bring you anything! My warriors and I brought this reagent to begin the restoration!"
Derryn loosened a chord at the mouth of the sack, bells on his mantle jingling softly. Once loosed, he revealed the bloodied and broken form inside.
"A bearer!" Shannon said, nearly whinnying with excitement. "The corruption hasn't taken root, the magic remains! Do you understand what this means, Derryn?!"
Derryn glanced at Shannon, his lip curled up at the corner. "Mature hellspawn getting too difficult for your warriors? Where are your warriors anyhow?"
Shannon looked over his shoulder, but saw no sign of the warriors anywhere. He trotted around a corner to see his warriors engaged in a bowing contest with the little green urchin, whose bowing deepened to meet those of the warriors, but each time he maintained balance enough to balance the puddle of water caught on the mantled carapace atop his forehead.
"Bowie! Beiber! Timber! To me at once!" a few uncertain whinnies were followed by the soft clop of hooves as the warriors heeled.
"Well fought my beauties!" Derryn exclaimed. "Don't worry, Tomo rarely loses a battle of politeness. But that isn't the only battle you've fought by the looks of what Shannon has for me."
"I didn't bring it for you Derryn!" Shannon began before Derryn waved him off with his mane as if the warcheif were an overexcited foal.
"A stern battle, no doubt, considering the fallen champion you've brought home as a trophy!" Derryn giggled again, turning to a bubbling pool and muttering some old words. The pool simmered at his voice.
A doppled Stallion grinned, nudging the warrior next to him, who nodded stonily. Shannon always suspected they were daft. But they fought like angels of vengeance, which was more important to the job than not being stupid. Letting the infraction slide he turnned back to the magus.
"The hellspawn devolve as adulthood approaces, their young maintain the essential magic that can be used to cleanse and restore..."
"Enough!" Derryn roared. He grabbed the bottom of the sack in his teeth and flung it's conents into a pool. A naked child with a sloping head and patchy hair on it's body could be seen before sinking beneath the bubbling morass. Shannon's muzzle hung open in shock, but quickly shut at the sight of the angered magus, who seemed to have grown with his fury, his horn enamating waves of malice that chilled the heart.
"You know nothing of bearers, essences or restorations!" The magus roared inside Shannon's head, "You are as daft as you think your warriors. Be gone from my presence and return not unbidden."
A door slammed in Shannon's head, reverberating like a stone prison. When the warchief's eyes opened he was outside the hidden door alongside his warriors. He was glad to have delivered the regaent for the restoration of Tartarus, but couldn't remember well what the distracted magus was going on about. Daft that one, talented, but certainly daft.
Inside the Magus' lair the beaked demon dashed to the pool recently disturbed by the warchief's offering, and began stirring. Derryn leaned over the pool and whispered more of the old words. As he did the broken body rose to the bubbling surface and began writhing as the image of white unicorn struggling against a number of hellspawn came into focus. A faerie appeared above the unicorn and spoke in her mind with Derryn's words, "Get up. Get up and run." Used up, the wasted body sunk, and as a clawed hand sunk forever into the bubbling pool Derryn wrung out a final plea. "Run while you can, my beauty!"