The Forest Lord #11; by Tucker McCallahan:
“It’s a small caravan. Four wagons of goods, one coach full of passengers, and I counted two dozen armed guards.” Kala crouched beside T’Riss and Zakn’yl in the dark foliage. They gazed out at the Great Eastern Road where a human caravan plodded slowly along. “I didn’t get close enough to overhear specific conversation but they travel to the elven kingdom for commerce.”
T’Riss turned to Zak, his voice low. “Are you able to provide Jhulryna with a disguise while maintaining your own illusion?”
“Not a problem. Just don’t be surprised when she attempts to make my modifications to her personage permanent.” His green eyes twinkled. “I’m the best, after all.”
Kala, who heard him, snorted back a soft laugh. T’Riss covered his small smile with a gloved hand. He met his mate’s eyes in the gloaming light of the forest. “Cast your spells.”
Zak crept away. Kala’s eyes danced with excitement. She fingered her over-sized blade. “This is the plan, then? We join the human caravan east?”
“Can you not sense it?”
“Sense what, arisa?”
“Our enemy.” T’Riss rose fluidly and headed for the rest of their group. Kala followed at his heels, a perplexed look on her face.
“I don’t understand this ridiculous ruse.” Jhulryna scowled; she despised wearing pastels.
“Women of breeding and culture in the human world do not travel without their families.” Iym, who sat behind Jhul on their mount, tossed her hair over one shoulder and smiled prettily at one of the huge, armored guards riding at the head of the column.
T’Riss’s order, growled in a low voice, was obeyed for once without question. The six of them had approached the caravan out in the open when it passed by the open copse of trees where their group had supposedly been camping the night before. Disguised as a family, the caravan leader was more than happy to take their gold and welcome them among the other passengers.
After all, he reminded them, there was safety in numbers.
They rode for more than a league with no trouble, the wagons rolling along the deep ruts in the Great Eastern Road. Then a mist boiled up from the forest floor, thick tendrils of white fog that obscured vision for more than a few feet in any direction. The entire caravan came to a halt while the men had a brief discussion about whether or not to continue, but a woman in the carriage stuck her head out the door and quickly set them straight.
“If you think any of we ladies are going to sit here and breathe this foul dampness you are sadly mistaken. It is at best a miasma floating about full of wretched disease, and at worst it is the minion of some diabolical demon bent on possessing our bodies.” She drew a shallow breath and looked down her exquisite nose at all of them. “Drive on!”
As the guards reassembled, Smoke and T’Riss maneuvered their group to the head of the column. The guards got the caravan moving again, though at a much slower pace. One of the guards rode up beside Smoke, who was riding with one gun drawn.
“Aren’t you worried you’ll shoot one of your ladies in this fog?”
“I could shoot around each of ‘em in the dead of night.”
The guard’s laugh cut off as a shrieking wail pierced the fog. Smoke’s other gun cleared his holster as screams from the human women and shouts from the men joined the awful sound. Beside him, T’Riss held his katana ready, trying to place the eerie sound. Something far back in his memory itched, though he couldn’t grasp just what creature might make such a horrid wail. The thickening mist swirled around the wagons.
“Stay together!” T’Riss shouted.
The drow females tightened their formation. As the caravan ground to a halt behind them, the eerie, high-pitched cry broke the silence again, this time accompanied by a sound they all recognized: the fast-approaching pounding of hooves.
“What is it?” Kala asked, the panic and fear clear in her voice.
“Where is it?” Jhul screamed. She barked a sharp command and the end of her staff burst into brilliant light. Holding it high she gazed down the Great Eastern Road.
“Put that out!” Zak shouted, shielding his eyes. The magical light would ruin his dark vision, and all it was doing was reflecting off the fog anyway. “Put it out!”
The staff winked out, plunging them all back into misty twilight. The noise of the hooves got louder and louder until it sounded like whatever was making it was bearing down on the group. Yet despite all of them searching, no one could see a thing. The women continued to scream and the guards shouted for calm, calling to each other in panic and confusion.
And suddenly it was among them.
T’Riss stared in open-mouthed shock as the creature flickered into existence in the center of the mechans, its front hooves pawing the air as its whinny rent the air again. Bigger than Ilztafay or any of the mechanical mounts, the horse stood a full six feet high at the shoulder and was the deepest coal color. An utterly black mane and tail whipped in the wind and its cloven hooves the color of scorched earth slashed the air like knives. What drew everyone’s attention wasn’t the beast’s size, though. It was the three-foot long black horn protruding from the animal’s forehead, surrounded by a corona of crimson flames.
Battle erupted as the shadow unicorn charged the column of human guards, mowing them down like paper dolls. Screams and pain-filled shrieks filled the air as gouts of flame exploded from the beast’s horn, burning flesh and singing hair. As T’Riss watched the unicorn blinked out of existence and reappeared at the opposite end of the caravan, where it let loose with another ear-splitting whinny before charging the guards and goring the other column.
In less than a quarter hour it was done. The beast vanished and the mist cleared. T’Riss, covered in fear sweat and shaking, dismounted from Nath and immediately went looking for Zak and Ilztafay. They were nowhere to be found in the churned up mess of the roadway and bloody, mangled guards. Jhulryna hunched over Smoke, casting a healing spell. The gunslinger’s leg looked like it had nearly been torn off from a goring.
“Have you seen Zak?”
Jhul shook her head. “Iym needs help.”
T’Riss cast about and saw their other priestess slowly rise from where she’d been kneeling. He ran over, terrified he would find Zak crumpled at her feet. Iym turned to him, her robes and hands covered with blood and her face stained with tears.
Iym shook her head and looked down. T’Riss’s eyes followed hers.
“There’s nothing I can do. She’s gone.”
Kala lay dead in the road, and Zakn’yl was once again missing.