Editor's Note






Archived Issues

Chuck Tryon has been writing both software and stories in upstate New York since high school (a few millennia ago). More recently, he has been weaving tales through the Internet, both in written fiction and through play-by-email roleplaying games, one of which has been going on for over five years. When forced to deal with what some would call the Real World, Chuck likes to spend his time bicycling, SCUBA diving, camping ... or just sitting and listening to the voice of the wind in the trees.

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-1998 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

First Blood

by Charles Tryon

     Tash stood at the crest of the hill overlooking the grove nestled along the banks of the river and angrily stomped his hoof in the rocky soil. If only the pain of the sharp stones could make the memories go away, but they remained there, laughing at his torment. The sound of the others as they had turned their backs on him and thundered away still rang in his ears, for he was poora, The Coward.
     He wheeled around and exploded into a gallop down the far side of the ridge, into the deep woods which surrounded the small community where he had grown up. The path here was normally thick with traffic this time of day, but today Tash knew he would encounter no-one. They were all gone, save for a few of the older sentinels left to guard the silent lean-tos of the grove, for today was the day of Rising. 
     He should have slowed when he reached the familiar bend in the path, but Tash was no longer thinking. All he knew now was anger and hurt and shame. He spotted the twisted oak tree that marked the beginning of the secret path and lunged sideways without missing a beat. The thick brambles that lined the road tore at his flanks as he crashed through them, leaving long streamers of blood, but he felt nothing.
     The narrow track began to climb steeply, and soon Tash was out of breath, but he would not let himself slow down. Branches grabbed at him, and thorns caught in his mane and tail, ripping away the colored ribbons that marked his family and status. His midnight black coat glistened with sweat, but he would not stop.
     The path came to an abrupt dead-end at the face of a steep rock outcrop. The gray wall extended in both directions through the dense wood as far as one could see, but Tash hesitated only a moment before plunging into a narrow crevasse, hidden in the thick shadows cast by the setting sun.
     Tash felt his heart race as the rock walls pressed against his sides. How many times had he been through this narrow place and still he had to fight off the feelings of panic? In a few strides, the walls closed in above him, and sliver of sunlight above his head faded and was gone. It was no great distance by numbers of steps, but it felt like an eternity before he reached the opening on the far side. Perhaps the others were right. Perhaps he was poora, a slave to fear, never to rise above the tempest of emotions to the reign of rach, the Gold.
     When the rocks above him almost touched his shoulders, Tash knew he was near the end of the crevasse. He hesitated a moment to listen before taking the last few steps. The cold stone echoed with every sound, from the rasp of his heaving breath to the continual drip of water seeping from the cracks above him.
     Tash stepped out from between the rocks into a small ravine. High above and to his left, the stream burst from a narrow fissure and fell in a long arch to the pool at the center of the ravine, throwing up a fine mist that shrouded the gray stone around him in illusion. The center of the pool churned and boiled under the force of the cataract, but here and there along the edge, sheltered pools of still water reflected the red and yellow glow of the setting sun.
     The fine crushed shale crunched under his hooves as Tash trotted over to one of the pools. When he reached the edge, he hesitated for a moment, and then stepped forward.
     The horn that reached straight and true from the forehead of the unicorn that stared back at him glowed dull green -- the color of new leaves in the Spring. Tash shuddered. It was a beautiful horn. He had been told so countless times on the past thirty summers of his youth. How was it now that this same horn had become a symbol of his cowardice?
     Tash brought down his hoof into the water at the edge of the pool with a loud splash, throwing the reflected image in a thousand directions. The reason was simple. The green color of his horn shouted that it had never been blooded. It had never taken the life of a warrag in battle.
     It wasn't as if he didn't know how, or that he had never had the opportunity. He had trained for years, just like all the others in the grove. In fact, with his strength and speed, he had been the envy of all the other youth, and even some of the older, more seasoned fighters. On the open plane, in the thick woods, in the dead of night, he could find his target. He would go far, the older ones said. The Eyes of Shala were on him.
     It was not long before old Katka took him aside. Katka was not often seen on the practice grounds, or even in the valley. His name was a legend, and no-one dared guess his age. He wore no official ribbon or braid of office or rank -- he had no need of one. Though the hair of his coat had long ago lost its luster, and his mane was as white as new fallen snow, the horn which rose from the center of his forehead was a shimmering spiral of ivory and gold, and the heat of his gaze was enough to melt any heart.
     "I have been watching you, young Tash," the master told him. Distant thunder rumbled in his quiet voice. "Strength impresses me little, but I see in you a keen sense that I have not seen in a long time, perhaps ever. You know where the warrag will turn, and how to strike to elude the raking claws. I have learned this sense myself, but only after years of battle. You have not yet faced more than a bale of hay or a sack of dirt suspended on a pole or dropped by a pug hidden in the branches of a tree, but I know the sense is there, as if it springs from something born within you."
     Tash was dumbfounded. A simple nod from Katka was considered to be the highest of complements, but here he was telling Tash that he had a skill that not even he, the master, possessed. Tash simply stared back at the master without a word. Finally, he had the presence of mind to bow and touch the tip of his torn to the ground at Katka's feet.
     Katka brought the tip of his horn to Tash's neck. A simple flick could have severed the spinal column and killed him instantly, but the touch merely brushed the silky mane. Tash looked up slowly.
     "You will come to me with the rising sun tomorrow, at the Great Oak," Katka informed him. "There I will teach you the hunt. You will learn to see as the warrag sees, to know his every move before he himself knows it. Then your horn will know the blood of many foes, and will shine as polished gold."
     With that, Katka turned and walked away. All that Tash could think of was the silent strength that flowed with every step as the ancient stallion disappeared into the forest. He stood in silence, watching the place where Katka had stepped from sight.
     "Did I just see you talking with the Katka?" The voice was that of Kimmel, Tash's little sister. A full three years younger than he, she was still a force to contend with. What she lacked in size, she more than made up for in lightning reflexes. Tash often teased her that he needed no lantern at night when she was with him the fire in her eyes was enough to light the way in even the deepest forest. The two often practiced together, and Tash more than once credited his own skill to his feisty sparring partner.
     "So... what did he say? Are you going to let your little sister in on this, or are you just going to stare off into the woods like a dead warrag?"
     Tash shook his head to try to clear his thoughts. "He wants to teach me... I think. He told me to come to him tomorrow at the Great Oak."
     Kimmel's eyes went wide. "There? No-one's dared to go there since... well, as long as I've known. I remember when the old mares used to tell us our hooves would rot off if we so much as stepped on the slopes of that hill. By Shala, I still get the chills every time I have to walk past it. I can feel the eyes of that oak on me, waiting for me to do something wrong or cowardly." Kimmel stopped as a shiver rolled from her ears to the tip of her tail. "Are you going?"
     Tash jerked his head around to stare at her. "Do you have any idea what this means? This is the greatest opportunity of my life! I will be waiting at the foot of that hill as the last morning star winks out."
     Kimmel was silent for a while. Finally, she shook her head and whispered, "Something tells me that your life will never be the same."
     If only he had known how true her words would be. Tash had long suspected that his sister had the ears of a prophet, but at the time he had been thinking of other things.
     It was the time of the new moon, and Tash spent the night standing at the edge of his lean-to, watching the stars burn their silent path across the night sky. He had told no-one of his interview with the master. He couldn't remember the last time Katka had chosen a student, but only cowards wasted time singing their own praises. He would stand before Katka on his own merit, without the history and reputation of his family. The pug hissed bitterly as Tash woke it, long before sunrise, and instructed it to comb out his mane and tail without ornamentation or the usual ribbons of his family.
     "You defend the valley?" the pug asked in its thin, raspy voice.
     "Yes," Tash replied.
     "You kill the warrag now?"
     "Yes, soon."
     The small creature did not reply immediately as it continued to work the finely carved wooden comb through Tash's tail. The pug were known to be slow of mind, but their long fingers were quick and skilled. Though they were timid by nature, they had a strange ability to sense the warrag. Some said the creatures could sense the future.
     Suddenly the pug trembled. "This is good, to destroy the beast."
     Tash nodded. He would destroy many beasts.
     In spite of his silence though, rumors spread like wildfire in the late summer grasslands, and as he stood at the base of the hill, waiting for the first warming rays of the rising sun, he could feel countless pairs of eyes on him, watching from the shadows, wondering if in fact, his hooves would rot away as soon as he started to climb. As the light touched the peaks of the Western mountains, he stepped to the hill. The grass was soft and damp under his hooves, and made no sound as he climbed slowly towards the spreading branches of the ancient oak that grew at the top.
     Katka was there waiting. When Tash reached him, the young stallion bowed again.
     "You have come," Katka said without moving. "No doubt you have a great many expectations."
     Tash looked up. "You are the greatest teacher ever known to our people. I know only that I am nothing, and that I bring nothing. I am your servant from this day."
     Katka considered him for a time. "Well spoken young one. I see I will not be forced to waste a great deal of time breaking a foolish sense of pride. Nonetheless, your mind is still cluttered with hopes and dreams and visions that must first be cleared away before you can truly learn. However, if you are ready to learn the meaning of fear, then there is hope." He shook his mane. "Come. Breakfast waits."
     In the following days, Tash learned much. He would have liked to think he was learning quickly, but at times it seemed that he went for weeks without showing any progress. He learned to think with his feet and run with his eyes. At times Katka would make him lay still with his eyes closed from sunup to sundown while he described the warrag, forcing him to see the monster within his mind's eye, to know his speed and the reach of his claws, to hear the sound of his feet in the fallen leaves. Tash learned to recognize the size and age of the warrag by its scent. The old master was right though. It was as if he had known all this from the beginning, and was only now bringing it to the surface.
     Tash had been with the master for nearly two years when he first noticed the change. Some of the others who were his age had already met their first warrag and had Risen, horns shining bright gold, the tender green of youth burned away by the blood of the monster. At first it bothered him that he was lagging behind, but he knew that his time would come, and when it did...
     What would it be like? What would his first kill smell like? Would he taste the first blood? Would he see into the eyes of the monster as its life cleansed his horn? He shuddered at the thought. The warrag had been their mortal enemy for as long as time existed. They had no thoughts other than to kill and destroy. Their fangs and claws and horns served no other purpose than to tear and maim. The warrag lived to hunt down their families and to destroy them. Tash himself knew many who had been killed, some them mere foals, barely weaned before they had been cut down in the middle of the blackest night of the new moon when Shala hid her eyes from them. His stomach turned at the memory of the blood slick limbs of the defenseless pug, laying twisted and torn in the dust. His oldest brother was still alive, but he had been severely injured and his horn split before he had turned on his attacker and killed it. Now, he could run no faster than a slow trot, and fighting was out of the question.
     Still, he could not remove the thought of looking into the eyes of the monster. Tash had never actually seen a warrag up close, but when he closed his eyes, he could feel the gaze of the beast burning into him. At first, he kept his thoughts to himself, but after a while, he spoke with Katka about it.
     The master waved it off. "It is normal to feel the burning eyes, especially as you come to know the way of the warrag. Courage is looking back into those eyes without flinching. The claws of the warrag will tear your flesh, but it is the eyes that they use to tear out the soul. Stand and face those eyes, and know that your soul is the stronger. This is the secret of Rising. It has nothing to do with a sparkling golden horn. It is courage, and the strength of a soul that has faced the enemy and overcome."
     It all made sense, but still, Tash had gone away unsatisfied. The look of the beast held more than just loathing and hate. There was something deeper, but pinning it down so he could identify it was as difficult as cornering a frightened rabbit in the thick brush. As soon as he thought he understood, it twisted away and was lost.
     Tash tried to face those eyes in his thoughts, but every time he did, he became more afraid. At first he thought he was simply afraid of the eyes themselves, but gradually he became aware that it was himself that he was afraid of -- wondering if something was terribly wrong. He still could not tell what it was, but the feeling grew stronger every day. In an effort to push it away, he threw himself into his practice with renewed ferocity.
     "You are trying too hard," Katka told him one evening. It had been a particularly bad day. He had made mistakes that one would have expected of a foal. Now, they rested under the branches of the Great Oak, watching the fading gold and red of the setting sun.
     "I must learn quicker," Tash muttered back. "The others will rise soon, and I will be the only one left with a green horn." He looked up. "Even my little sister is ready to join the hunt and taste her first blood."
     Katka grunted. "Do you believe that you are ready?"
     "I have been ready for a long time. What more is there to learn? I know the monster better than it knows itself. I can outrun it, out-slash it, and pin it to the earth. I can slay the beast before it even knows I am there. I am ready."
     Katka put his head down and closed his eyes. "Have you so quickly forgotten all that I have taught you? I fear that we will have to start once again from the beginning. Pride is not courage. Courage is not pride. When you know your fear, when you face it, when you choose to put it behind you and fight on in spite of it, then you will know what it is to have courage."

     There was no practice the next day. Tash spent the day wandering in the woods. He had known of the ravine and the stream for many years, since he and Kimmel had stumbled upon the fissure in the rock face when they were little more than foals, playing in the woods. They suffered their parents wrath for days after that for wandering off by themselves in the deep woods, but they had guarded their secret well, and had often returned there. On that day, he went back there to be by himself.
     When he stepped out of the crevasse, he was shocked to find Kimmel standing there, gazing down into a still pool. The skin hung loose from three bloody gashes that traced from her back to her shoulder. As he stepped out onto the loose shale, she turned to face him. Blood covered her horn and ran down across her forehead, but beneath it, he could clearly see glimmering gold.
     "Kimmel, what happened to you?"
     She smiled slowly. "Brother, do you really need to ask?"
     "Well... no, but what in the name of the sun and stars are you doing here? Your shoulder is half torn off, and you are losing blood at a horrendous rate. If you don't make it to the healers soon, you'll be dead for sure. As it is, I don't know if you'll ever run again."
     "I just wanted to see what it looked like," she answered softly, gazing at her reflection in the pool. Tash wondered if she was about to faint from loss of blood, but his feet refused to move. Something about the blood covering his sister's face and horn froze him in place.
     "I found the warrag near the edge of a small clearing north of the river. It looked like it was digging around the tree roots for grubs. I wanted to know what the blood looked like, what the monster saw as it died." She hesitated and looked up at Tash. "I looked into its eyes brother, and I have never known anything so terrible."
     "What, the look of the beast?"
     "No," she answered after a pause, "the look in its eyes. I swore it knew me as it died."
     "Nonsense," Tash threw back. "The warrag is the beast. It knows nothing. It lives to kill and destroy."
     Kimmel looked back at him. "So I have heard, many times since the day of my birth, but one day brother, you will look into the eyes of the monster and if your heart has not grown cold and hard, you will know him, just as I have."
     Just then, Kimmel's front legs gave way beneath her and she crashed into the shallow pool. A crimson stain began to spread around her in the icy water. Tash lunged forward and struggled to push her back up. He splashed the cold water on her wounds, and revived her just enough that she was able to struggle to her feet. Their journey back was a long and painful one, and the reached the grove long after sunset. Kimmel struggled on, but she said nothing more.
     Twenty days now had passed since Kimmel's first blood, and though she had recovered, Tash knew that he would never be the same. Twenty long nights he had spent standing on the crest of the hill overlooking the cluster of trees and lean-tos that made up the grove, thinking about Kimmel's words, of the look in her eyes just before she collapsed into the pool. Just as he had broken free from the invisible forces that held him when Kimmel stumbled, he had now broken free from the confusion of the past months. The phantom he had chased for so long now stood before him as clear as day.
     He would not hunt the warrag.
     Tash knew it was more than simple fear that brought him to this point. In a way, he had known it all along, but only now had the knowledge come to the surface where it could be confronted, and Tash knew it would be confronted! Who had ever questioned the hunt? Life and blood, day and night, green and gold, it flowed from their being and defined their days. How was a child known from an adult but by the blood he had spilled on the hunt? He could just as well refuse to breathe as turn his back on the hunt.
     Tash did not returned to the oak tree. At first he expected Katka to come looking for him, but he soon realized how foolish that was. The master had come for him once. That was enough. Now it was up to him to decide if he had the strength of will to follow through. He wanted desperately to please the old stallion, to become a Hero, to show that his initial judge of character and ability had been accurate, but he could not overcome the feeling that had taken hold of him the moment he had seen Kimmel fall into the icy water of the pool.
     He could not avoid the looks of the others though. Word spread quickly. He had enjoyed quite a reputation before, and had reveled in the stolen glances as he walked down the worn paths of the grove and through the fields which surrounded it. There were looks now, but they were looks first of confusion that he would leave Katka's tutoring, and then of disgust that he would turn his back on the greatest opportunity of any unicorn's existence. The whispers followed. Had he lost his heart? Was it possible that something had frightened him? Had Katka, for some reason, turned him away? Would he return? The people looked up to the great warriors of the valley, putting their trust in them as the defenders of the groves and pastures that lay along the banks of the river. To turn one's back on this trust was to turn on all that was sacred.
     Of all nights, tonight was most sacred. It was the night of the Rising. On the last full moon of the Summer, those who had tasted the blood of the warrag for the first time, whose horns had been polished as the brightest gold, were brought before the people and blessed as the defenders of all that was right and beautiful. Mares and stallions alike shared in this honor. It was a night of great solemnity and majesty, followed by a morning of feasting and celebration. Though it was known that not all would choose, or for that matter, be gifted enough to continue along the path of a true warrior, still, all shared in the weight of this responsibility, and all knew the joy of Rising.
     Tash looked up through the mists of the ravine at the fragile wisps of clouds visible high above him. They were streaked red and gold in the last fading light of the setting sun. The late Summer air was still warm though -- a perfect night to see the full moon of the Rising. They would see her without Tash though.
     The elders had come to him earlier that afternoon to ask why he no longer went to the Great Oak. Tash was grazing in a small stand of aspen near the riverbank. Remma, an ancient mare, had been the only one with enough heart to actually speak to him. The others had stood a few paces back and tried to act dignified while they avoided looking Tash in the eye.
     "Tash, of the family of Eare, of the grove of Gath," she began, "why have you left the Great Oak and your service to the master Katka? It is no shame to admit failure there, for many have known the harsh looks of the master, and known the sting of being turned away. I myself once tried to follow Katka on the steep path, and was forced to turn back when I finally succumbed to exhaustion. Do not imagine that we think less of you because of it. You are still a great warrior, worthy of respect. Who here can match your speed and strength?"
     Fine words, Tash thought, and worthy of a great leader, but they carefully hid a subtle undercurrent of mistrust and suspicion. He was still stronger than the rest of them, but they were now wondering if a heart still beat in his chest.
     Tash stepped forward in reply. "Mother Remma, of the family of Whin, esteemed elder of Gath, I know of your great heart, and of your reverence for the master Katka. I share your reverence, but I find that I can no longer stand under his tree. I do not wish to cover my failure or shame, but it is not that I have been turned away by the master. Rather, I have chosen to leave."
     This answer took Remma back, and she pawed the ground for an instant, thinking.
     "Tash, is it because the path was too steep that you chose to turn back?"
     Tash shook his mane. "No. I do not wish to boast, but there was nothing that Katka asked of me that I found impossible. Rather, it was a matter of honor."
     "But what could bring more honor than to become a warrior under the greatest of all Warriors?" Remma's voice was controlled and even, but the flick of her tail betrayed her growing agitation.
     "It would indeed be a great honor," Tash replied, frantically looking for a way out of the conversation. He wanted to walk away, but he knew that sooner or later he would have to face the questioning again, until he told them the truth. "An honor tarnished only by the fact that I could never live up to it, for I have decided that I can never hunt the warrag."
     At this, the entire line of elders looked up at him. The loose ring of onlookers that had formed around the interview suddenly fell back, and there was a great deal of bumping and confusion and noise. Tash winced. He wished he could have thought of a more graceful way to say what he wanted, but now it was done. Now his words were running around like imps, tearing and shredding anything they could get their hands on.
     Remma brought her rear hoof down on the ground with a heavy thud, and a nervous hush fell over the grove.
     "Tash, of the family of Eare, what is this that you have said?"
     Tash took a deep breath. "I will not hunt the warrag."
     "You... will not hunt the warrag."
     Tash nodded again.
     "You would rather see us killed by the beast of the night?"
     "But you would not have us defend ourselves?"
     "I do not pretend it speak for you. I only know that I myself will not join the hunt."
     "Are you afraid? Fear does not make a coward. Only a fool knows no fear. In time, the brave learn to master their fear." She was trying to give him a way out, a way to recover some shred of honor, to bow once again to the rule of the community, but Tash knew, to follow the path Remma set before him would be the way of the true coward. He had taken his stand, and now he could not bend. He bowed his head in respect, and then looked up, straight into the eyes of the elderly mare.
     "It is not fear mother Remma. It is not lack of respect for the laws of the valley, or ignorance of the danger, or lack of appreciation for the responsibility we share. I simply cannot spill the blood of another creature that thinks and feels no less than I do. How do you know the heart of the beast? Does it love its children? Does it look forward to a Spring rain, or fear the night thunder? Have you ever asked it?"
     The elder's anger could no longer be hidden behind the mask of respectability, and the breath came heavy through her flared nostrils. "No," she spat back, "I have not asked the beast, or I would not be alive to stand here today. If someone had told me this morning that I would live to see the day when one of our kind turned his back on the Hunt, I would have laughed in his face and thrown him from the shade of the council tree. But here you are." She looked sharply back and forth at the other elders gathered there before she tore a deep rut in the earth with her hoof. "I give you one more chance Tash. I have known you since the day of your foaling, and I do not wish to lightly throw away all that has been invested in you since then. Join us tonight in the celebration of the Rising, and honor those who, with your own sister, have shown their courage in the hunt, and I will forget all that was spoken here under these trees. If you do not, then know that you will never again step foot within this valley."
     Tash lowered his head. He thought back to days spent running in the open fields with his sister and the others, of swimming in the river together, of nights sleeping close by the warmth of his mother. If he left now, he would have nothing more than memories to give him strength.
     However, the sense of surety which washed over him now defied explanation. The path before him had been set the day of his birth. There was no decision to be made here. He had only to move forward. Where that path would take him, Tash had no idea, but take him it would. He looked up again and carefully swept his gaze across the elders standing before him, ending once more on the iron features of the high elder Remma.
     "Mother Remma," he answered in his strongest voice, "your words are true and your judgment fair. I cannot argue with your wisdom, but there comes a time when one knows a thing that goes deeper than our limited understanding of the mountains and valleys around us. I do not have the words to explain the course I take, but I know that I must take it, in spite of the pain I know it will cause to myself and those I hold dear. No, I cannot join you in the night of the Rising."
     Remma did not answer right away, but stood there, still as stone. Even the trees ceased their nervious rustling.
     When she did finally answer, it was in a thin whisper, a whisper that nonetheless fell across the silence as clearly as if it has been a great crash of thunder.
     "Then, you are poora. You are not welcome here, today and forever. May ice and snow fall deep on your path in Winter, and may the grass under your feet be dry and yellow in the heat of the Summer sun. May the Spring rain fill your coat with mud, and the dying leaves of Fall confuse your path."
     With that, the mare turned her back on Tash and broke into a gallop. Her sudden move threw the others into a state of confusion, and the air filled with dust and noise. The remaining elders were the first to follow Remma, and then the rest of the crowd, after giving Tash their looks of anger and hatred, thundered after them. In seconds, Tash was alone, covered with dust and shame. There was no turning back now.
     He desperately wanted to just lie down by the side of the river, but he knew that the sentinels would soon be along to chase him off. He had never witnessed the curse of the poora, but he had heard whispered stories, and none of them were pleasant. The sooner he was gone from the valley, the better.

     So it was that he had returned to the secret ravine. By this time, the sun had dipped below the horizon, and the first stars of the night winked high above him. The moon was not yet high enough to cast is silver light into the depths of the ravine, and Tash found himself in almost complete darkness. He walked a few paces up the loose shale and lay down in the deep shadows. The way before him was as dark and barren as the broken stones under his hoofs.
     Tash awoke with a start some time later. The ravine was flooded with chill moonlight now, and the mist thrown up by the cataract swirled around him like angry wraiths. He scrambled to get his legs under him, cursing that he had been so careless. Though the sound of falling water echoed from the stone walls of the ravine, Tash knew he had heard something else to bring him awake so suddenly, and his ears twitched back and forth in an effort to locate the sound.
     The slow, scraping came from the narrow break in the rocks where he had entered the ravine. Tash knew of no other way in or out of the ravine, short of swimming, and the rocks under the water were treacherous and sharp. It was still an option, but it was hardly a good one. Better to find what was coming through the break and face it.
     Tash backed away from where he knew the opening was. The moon was not quite directly overhead, and that portion of the ravine was still in deep shadow. The intruder was taking great pains to silence its approach, but there were too many loose stones and protruding rocks to avoid making any noise in the complete darkness that filled the crevasse. Every so often, it would stop, and Tash could hear it sniffing the air. He pressed his side against the rock under a narrow ledge where the shadows were deepest. He suspected that the creature already knew he was there, betrayed by the scent of his passing only a few hours ago, but at least it wouldn't catch him completely unprepared, standing out in the open.
     A form moved by the opening to the crevasse -- no more than a shadow against other shadows, but it was enough for Tash to judge the size of the creature. It was immense, standing at least twice as tall as he was. Its bulky form stood erect as it probed the dark corners of the ravine. Tash could smell it now, and the heavy stench filled his nostrils. A growl rolled from deep within its chest as the warrag stepped from the shadows into the harsh light of the full moon.
     In spite of Katka's training, Tash had actually seen only a few real warrags, and then only from a distance. Now, face to face and only a few paces from one, he could feel the hair along his back rise. The warrag traveled either on two legs or on four, but they fought erect, taking full advantage of their great height. They were not fast, but their long matted fur and thick hide made a strong defense. Tash watched as the beast took another step in his direction. The powerful forearms hung down almost to its knees, and Tash could see the set of three raking claws on each hand reflecting the light. Its mouth hung open, revealing long white fangs that lined the short snout. A pair of sturdy horns curved forward from just behind its ears, silver-white tipped with black. As a rule, the warrag ranged in color from muddy brown to dull gray, but in the moonlight, all Tash could see was black.
     There was no use pretending to hide. Either the warrag's sight was better attuned to the darkness than his, or it could sense Tash's position by his scent, but it was coming directly for him. Tash stepped from under the ledge and stood in challenge.
     The warrag's reaction was immediate, giving Tash little time to think. The unicorn had trained on the open fields and forests of his home, and was used to having a great deal more room to work with. Here, in the confines of the ravine, distances were far shorter, and in seconds the warrag was within striking distance. Tash lowered his horn and lunged straight at the beast, knowing that it would expect a direct attack, but then at the last instant, swerved to his right, past the creature's weaker left side. The ploy worked, and the warrag's right-handed swipe hissed cleanly past Tash's shoulder.
     Now, he was behind the beast, and already turning to lunge at it again, before it had time to bring its greater mass around to face him. A strike in the back rarely killed the warrag, but he could weaken it enough to slow it down, making it possible to sink a true killing blow to the chest. He had studied this move countless times with Katka, and could trace the steps without thinking.
     Tash was already in motion when he realized that the beast was not turning to its left to face him, but instead was moving up the side of the short slope of loose shale to the stone wall of the ravine. The unicorn could still charge, but with solid stone at the warrag's back, he could no longer feign to the side without ramming straight into the wall. It was as if the warrag had read his mind and known what he was intending to do.
     He needed to lure the creature out in the open. The loose shale under his hooves was already proving to be a problem, making quick turns almost impossible, but it did not appear that the warrag had the same disadvantage. Its broad feet and gripping claws dug into the stone with little difficulty. Tash lunged, but pulled up just short of the creature's reach. It swung back at him, but did not budge from its place at the wall. Tash reared on his hind legs and beat at the air with his hooves, but the stones crumbled and slid under him and he was forced to come back down on all fours again.
     He would have to stand and wait. Sooner or later the warrag would charge. He knew its patience was short and its thirst for blood too strong for it to stand for long, even with its stronger position next to the wall.
     He didn't have to wait long. The warrag came at him with a hideous scream, charging down the short slope, arms wide, claws extended, teeth bared. Tash planted himself to strike, but suddenly realized that the monster was coming too fast, that its momentum was too great. He tried to spring to his right, but the stones under his feet were too soft, and his legs suddenly gave way out from under him. He lurched to his side hit the ground with a sickening thud, hooves in the air, his underside wide open to the beast's attack. A chilling fear clutched at his heart as he braced himself for the blow.
     But the blow never came. At the last instant, the beast turned, raking the air above him with a strike that was obviously intended to miss. It tried to jump over Tash's prone form, but it was too heavy and moving too fast, and couldn't quite clear the unicorn's thrashing legs. With its balance gone, it spun around and hit the ground backwards. A sharp crack echoed through the ravine as its head came down on a stray bolder near the water's edge.
     The impact had not killed the creature, but it was clearly stunned. Tash scrambled back up on his legs and turned to finish it off. He reared up on his hind legs and pointed his horn at the heaving chest of the monster. Its eyes stared back up at him, but the monster made no attempt to move.
     Then it hit Tash with a blinding flash just what he was about to do. On this night of all nights, he had pronounced that he would not hunt the warrag. Here, in the harsh light of the moon, cornered and alone, he had thought to defend himself, but at what price? Once he had killed the beast, would he simply return to the grove, declare the error of his ways, and bask in the glory of his golden horn? With some luck, he would not have to kill again. He could spend the rest of his days hiding behind his golden horn.
     Why had the warrag not killed him when it had the opportunity? For that one instant, Tash had been defenseless. A single blow to his belly from those razor claws would have torn him open from one end to the other, but the beast had intentionally missed him. His forelegs crashed back down and he faced the beast, panting.
     "Why did you not kill me, beast?" Tash shouted.
     Why do you not kill me now, beast?
     Tash took a step back. The words had not been spoken out loud, but he had heard them clear as the song of the robin on a Spring morning. He gave the warrag a queer look.
     "Why do you call me 'beast' when I am a unicorn?"
     Why do you call me "beast" when I am baddach?
     The beast's reply took Tash back another step. No sounds touched his ears other than the familiar crash of the cataract echoing off the walls of the ravine. Rather, the words of the warrag formed clearly in his mind. He had heard stories of this kind of speech, but always associated with delicate creatures of faerie, of pixies and sprites and things that spoke in dreams. Somehow the warrag laying sprawled, foul and wet on the stones before him, didn't fit that picture.
     Then Tash looked into its eyes. He had not noticed them before, but on its back, the eyes of the creature reflected the light of the moon. They gazed back into his own, two pools of shimmering darkness. Tash found himself drawn into them.
     "I cannot kill you," he replied finally. The eyes blinked. "I cannot kill you any more than I can kill myself."
     Nor can I kill you, the words came back. I thought I could, but when the time came, I saw in your eyes that you were more than just an ugly beast. You had a heart that knew joy and pain no less than mine.
     Tash took another step back and laughed. "You call me ugly?" The warrag, or as he knew now, the baddach barred his teeth, but Tash knew it was a grin rather than a snarl.
     Any you, of course, thought I was the most hideous creature that ever walked the grasslands of this valley.
     The baddach pushed himself up on his elbows and shook his head. Tash could feel the pain and dizziness roll over him as the creature forced itself to a sitting position. For some reason, he looked almost comical now, where as a moment before, he had been the monster.
     "Two is such a small number."
     The thin voice startled both of them, and Tash wheeled around just in time to see the old man step from the shadows of a lone boulder.
     "Who are you?" Tash demanded.
     The man stopped and cocked his head to look at the pair. He wore a thin gray robe that shimmered faintly in the moonlight, barely covering the stick-like figure.
     "No-one of concern. A whisper in the night." He lifted his empty hands in the air, palms towards them. "See, I have no weapons to harm you."
     You have been here all along? The man nodded. Apparently, he could hear the thoughts of the baddach as clearly as Tash could.
     "I have been here longer than you might imagine, for what you would call many generations. I had almost lost hope, but I thought... just one more time. Now, perhaps my patience has been rewarded. Perhaps at last, the time has truly come."
     "For what?"
     However, Tash had no time for a reply. The old man raised his hands above his head, and the air around them flamed into life. Tash's instinct was to bolt, but he found himself rooted again to the stones under his feet. The air crackled and smelled of burned hair. The light grew rapidly, and soon engulfed the three figures, so that Tash could see nothing outside of its pulsing brilliance. Searing pain washed over him in waves, until he knew nothing outside if its crushing power. Tash tried to scream but the light snatched the sounds from his throat and tossed them away. It burned through his chest and down his legs. It felt like his horn was being ripped from his forehead. Another moment, and he was sure the heart beating within his chest would falter and stop forever.
     Then, as suddenly as it had come, the pain slipped away. The air around them lost its fire. All that was left was his beating heart and a dull throbbing in his head.
     Tash looked up at the old man and the unicorn from where he sat on the wet stones. The brilliant light of the moon brought out every damp fold and tear in the man's worn robe. He reached up and rubbed the back of his head. It would be some time before that lump went away.
     The unicorn in front of him danced back a step, and then craned its head around to look at its hindquarters.
     Is something wrong? Tash asked.
     "I must have taken more of a bump to my head than I thought." The words came back harsh on Tash's ears.
     Tash knew something was out of place, but the pain in his head made it hard to concentrate. He looked at the old man. What was the meaning of all that light? I thought I was going to die!
     The old man folded his arms across his chest and chuckled. "Well, in a sense, you did."
     Tash couldn't guess what the joke was, but he was beginning to be irritated with the old man. He tried to stand to his feet.
     Then it struck him. What in the name of fire and ice...
     The unicorn laughed. "So you've caught on too now. Quite a joke, I'd say."
     The old man looked back and forth between the two and smiled. "A joke, perhaps, but a serious one. You have only begun to understand the meaning of what has happened here."
     You turned me into a baddach! Tash snarled as he got to his feet.
     "More properly," the man replied slowly, "I turned you back into a baddach."
     Tash's foot splashed as he took a step back into the water. What do you mean?
     "I mean you were born a baddach. When I said I would try one more time, I meant that I would take one more pair, a baddach and a unicorn, and swap the two at birth. A baddach for a unicorn. A unicorn for a baddach. You were each to grow up in the home of the other, learn to think like the other, know the other's traditions and beliefs and fears, and in time, confront the other. Deep within, I left the seed of the original being, to draw you to each other. Then, I waited to see what would happen."
     "But why?" the unicorn asked.
     "Ask yourself that question Eech."
     The two looked at each other. Tash looked at the form of the unicorn before him. Then he lifted his hands and looked at the long claws, the claws that just moments before had created such fear and loathing in his breast. Now those claws were his. The matted fur and the curved horns and the sharp teeth were his. He was the monster.
     But why? What made him a monster? His heart, the heart that had truly been the heart of the beast all along, was no different than it had been only moments earlier. Could it be that the warrag was not a beast at all?
     "You have opened the first door to understanding..." the old man whispered, "but you still have much to learn. Much more important though, you have much to teach."
     "To teach?" Eech asked.
     To whom? Tash added.
     "To your people."
     But the unicorns will never listen to me! I'll be killed the moment I step from the edge of the forest.
     "True, but are they your people?"
     Tash and Eech looked at each other. A sparkle of recognition began to form in the unicorn's eyes.
     "I doubt that the baddach will listen to him either, nor, if I guess right, the unicorns to me. We are not welcome in either home."
     The man sighed. "It will not be easy. Truth is never easy. Two is such a small number to start with, but yet, it is a start."
     Tash nodded. It would not be easy, but as the dim images of the high cliffs and the caves that were his real home began to form in the hidden corners of his memory, he began to understand what lay before him. In a sense, he had always known this would be his path.
     "Go." The old man raised his hands in blessing. "I cannot guarantee your success, but hope goes before you to break the curse that has stood between your peoples for many generations. Do not forget this place, both of you. It will be a refuge to you when you grow weary, and weary you will be. Be strong in the knowledge that you have stood in the place of each other, and seen through their eyes. Stand together as two who have seen beyond themselves. You made a choice not to shed each other's blood. Teach others to make this same choice."
     But I have so many things to ask you first, Tash blurted out.
     "Just as you have been asking me all along," the old man answered. "Though you may not have known me, I have watched you grow."
     Eech looked up at the full moon. "As Shala looks down on her children..." he quoted softly.
     "Indeed, as she does." The old man nodded. He let his arms drop to his sides. He looked tired now, more tired than words could describe, but a faint smile cracked his wrinkled face. "My work here is done," he whispered, "but know that you are not alone. Shala has many eyes to watch over her children." He winked at them, and then with a brief flash of light, vanished from sight.
     Tash looked at Eech and rubbed the back of his head. Sorry I tripped you there.
     The unicorn laughed. "You're the one with the thick skull now. Try to use it well." Tash took a half-hearted swipe at him, claws safely retracted between the fingers of his hand.
     The dull pain in Tash's head still throbbed, as much from the mad jumble of questions that whirled in his brain as from the physical injury, but a spot of clarity shone at the center of his thoughts, forming a pivot point around which memories from his past began to form an ordered pattern. Looking into Ecch's eyes, Tash knew that he too saw that point of light. The two of them had a long uphill battle before them, but both of them knew they did not face that battle alone.