I was entirely unprepared for what waited on the other side of the door.
Caked in dust, cobwebs, and strings of fluttering magic, the most majestic of all beasts stood solitarily in the middle of a tiny stone chamber.
The golden horn was wrapped tightly with magic, though pieces of it hung in strips and whole pieces of what looked like a magic-spun cloth were dripping from its white form like ripped pieces of a funeral shroud. Cobwebs stretched from the beard to the chest and what would have been shiny golden hooves were dull and brassy with age.
“Oh,” Cariss gasped.
The nostrils flared. My heart slammed into my throat. Fenn’s tail pressed against my leg.
Ever so slowly, with a noise like cracking plaster, the eye lids fluttered, breaking free of their ancient crusts.
Then, with no warning, the creature shrieked and shook the dust from its coat.
The noise echoed in my chest and sent me cowering on the ground, my hands clapped over my ears, eyes and ears both smarting from the bits of magic flung from the unicorn. All of us were huddled, in awe and fear, staring at the creature of legend before us.
“What has happened to the magic?” The unicorn’s voice, rich like dark chocolate, smooth like velvet, and hard like diamonds, thundered in the tiny space.
We were too shocked to answer.
“What has happened to the magic?” the unicorn bellowed.
“A…a girl, a werewolf, fell onto Yggdrasil’s roots.” Cariss was the first to find her voice.
The unicorn snorted.
“We’ve no time to lose. Come.”
The unicorn stamped his front hooves, the sound reverberating around us. In awe, we watched as the dirty hair and strings of magic fell away. The coat grew thick and shiny, the hooves and horn glowed with the inner magic the unicorn possessed.
“Wolf, you may change back. No harm shall befall you whilst in my company.”
Fenn bobbed his head at the unicorn’s words.
I gathered his clothes into a neater pile on the ground where I’d dropped them then nudged them towards him and turned. He quickly shifted back, and I let myself sag a little in relief as he took my hand once he was back in skin.
The trip back through the twisty, winding underground took a fraction of the time with the unicorn confidently leading the way.
I was fairly bursting with questions, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate to barrage a creature so rare that it had nearly faded into legend. It seemed too irreverent.
Instead, I clung to Fenn’s hand, trying not to think how much I was going to miss it and him once our world was righted. Assuming it could be fixed.
The hall was pitch black and deathly quiet as we crept from the belly of the earth.
“You may extinguish the torch.”
Tatianna did as the unicorn told her. With a toss of its mane, light seemed to emanate from the unicorn.
“Have you any mode of transport that will take you quicker to Yggdrasil? In my day we’d have had to round up some wild gryphons and tame them or make the journey on foot.”
“We’ve got a Jeep,” Fenn offered.
“A Jeep. What manner of beast is this? Some new hybrid, perhaps?”
“It’s…a mechanical beast.” Fenn rubbed the back of his neck.
The unicorn snorted. “All this magic and they still tinker with mechanics.” The front doors of the school loomed ahead in the shadows.
“Please, Sir, do you have a name?” Tatianna asked tentatively.
“I am called Lazaren.”
Tatianna introduced each of us. Lazaren nodded gracefully but said nothing.
Wind and hail lashed around us as leaves and magic bits zinged and flew across the parking lot. Yet nothing touched us in the circle of Lazaren’s glow.
“That thing is a Jeep?” Lazaren whickered in disdain as we reached the vehicle. “I shall meet you at Yggdrasil. See that you are not detained.” With that, he broke into a gallop and took his inner light with him. We were left again in darkness, and the sudden downpour of hail and flickering magic his absence brought.
Yggdrasil was tempestuous, leaves stripped from its branches, magic gone but for a few bare tendrils stubbornly clinging to some odd twigs. It was terrifying.
Lazaren stood beside the guardrail next to the glowing amber encasement where Lexie must have gone over. I hoped she was okay! I suddenly realized I didn’t know what exactly had happened to make her topple over in the first place.
Lazaren asked my question in his next breath.
“What transpired here?”
Fenn rubbed the back of his neck again. “She tried to kiss me,” he started, and I felt my own hackles raise, even in my human skin. I had no claim on Fenn, but Lexie certainly didn’t. She wasn’t even a member of our pack.
“It wasn’t Fennrick’s fault,” Cariss interjected. “I tried to stop her. I grabbed her arm.”
Had Fenn not tried to stop Lexie?
“She jerked back and tripped.”
“And I wasn’t fast enough to stop her,” Fenn interjected.
“And once she hit the roots, the world fell apart.” Cariss shrugged, her misery clear on her face. I squeezed her arm, and she gave me a grateful ghost of a smile.
Lazaren looked hard at each of us in the group. My skin tingled. Not in a bad way, but in an anticipatory sort of way.
Gingerly stepping over the guard rail, magic flared to life beneath his golden hooves as they touched Yggdrasil. It didn’t spread, but illuminated Lazaren, and cast light back onto the pulsating amber glow over Lexie.
“You tried to take something that does not belong to you,” the unicorn said over the quivering amber. I was close enough I could see Lexie’s eyes widened, though the rest of her body stayed still. “I will let you out, but until the wrong has been righted, the magic will not be reversed.” He glanced back at us. “No one touch the magic or the tree.”
Raising up on his back legs, Lazaren shrieked into the air and brought his flashing hooves down, and Yggdrasil’s roots quivered on impact.
My skin shivered as beads of frantic magic skittered over my skin. With one long pointed look at me that dropped my stomach to my toes, Lazaren wrenched his horn through the crust of swirling amber and a noise like thunder crashing over the ocean echoed around us.
Without meaning to, I gripped Fennrick’s hand. His fingers squeezed tight around mine.
Gasping and spluttering, Lexie sat up.
“Lexie!” Cariss said in relief.
“Phoenix, seal the gap once she’s up,” Lazaren instructed.
Tatianna nodded and Owen reluctantly let her step closer towards the barrier.
The unicorn prodded his horn at Lexie, and in a show of great humility on his part, let her maneuver herself up using his mighty horn as leverage.
As soon as Lexie had cleared her magic cocoon, Tatianna called her inner blaze. I got chills as the flames licked up her eyes before they shot out in a stream of white-hot fire over the gap in the amber crust. It sealed together like it was welded with lava.
Storm clouds still thrashed overhead, and magic and lightning lit the sky as they clashed together. Sparks flew and shattered on the ground. Fenn tugged me closer so that my arm brushed against his side.
“I…I’m so sorry,” Lexie whispered brokenly against the gale that whipped the leaves into little funnels around us.
Lazaren stared at Fenn solemnly. “T’was you who was wronged, Wolf. You must right it.
Fenn’s face paled, and his throat bobbled as he swallowed. Slowly he turned to me. Lightening flashed and showed me his hazel eyes, full of questions and hope.
“Etta,” he rasped. My heart sped up. “Lexie tried to take what’s rightfully yours. I mean, mine to give, but only for you to take.”
Understanding dawned and my lips parted in surprise. Alpha pheromones flooded the air around us.
“You want me?” I whispered.
“Yeah. I really, really do.” He smiled, though uncertainty crept into his eyes.
Tingling rushed through me and rightness settled over me. His hand dropped mine and tentatively rested on my waist.
A hot rushing wind funneled through me and my answering smile lit up his face.
“Yes.” I breathed the word.
Fenn’s eyebrows crinkled as his eyes turned serious. Wind whipped hair into my face, but before I could move it, he nudged it aside as his hand cupped my jaw. Tilting my face, his hand feathered into my hair as his lips closed softly over mine.
Literal sparks exploded around us. We jerked apart, startled, and watched as magic whirled in the sky and came streaming, rushing, swirling back to Yggdrasil. Leaves whirled from the ground back into the leafy boughs. Sunlight broke through the black clouds and bathed the ground in iridescent sparkles that came up and flitted around us.
Tatianna laughed as some of the sparkles landed in her hair and lit it up like a halo. She let the flames rise in her eyes and let loose a stream of fire towards the rising sun, lighting a path from us straight over the top of Yggdrasil.
Fenn kissed the side of my head while we watched, but I turned and tugged his head back down for another, longer one.
He pulled me flush against him, his scent closing in around us. His smell slowly began to change, and I realized his hunt for the other half of his pair—for me—was over.
“Well done, children,” Lazaren said. “You have saved your world, but if we do not return quickly to the school, without my stabilizing presence, so many different kinds of magic in one place will cause another explosion. I will not be able to save you should that happen.”
We raced back to the Academy, magic swirling happily once more, though anxiety sat heavily with us. Lexie remained silent in the back seat. Lazaren again awaited us as we pulled into the parking lot and hopped out.
Relief was potent as I saw Professor Capra waiting at the double doors. He bowed low as Lazaren approached and we followed behind.
“Lazaren. Old friend. Thank you once again for your sacrifice.” The old faun’s horns were perpendicular to the ground as he used his cane to help him show his reverence.
“Capra.” Lazaren inclined his head towards the professor.
“Children, follow me once more into the labyrinth.”
We didn’t dare question him, so we once more made the long trek into the darkness of the underside of the school. Lexie trailed uncomfortably behind. It wasn’t as scary this time with Lazaren’s glow and with Fenn’s fingers laced with mine. I sighed in contentment.
We reached the tiny stone chamber once more, the door still standing open.
Lazaren stopped just outside the door.
“You will be the next generation of leaders of this place. Capra will not live forever. Remember my existence.”
And with that, he went in and stood in exactly the same spot and the same position as when we found him.
With a twist of his head, my mouth fell open as strands of magic begin winding around his horn, funneling over his sleek body, coiling and weaving together in a magnificent tapestry of swirling, sparkling magic.
Once the magic had encased his full body, he turned his face to us. He gave us a sleepy wink with one drooping eyelid, then he went still.
Our world was safe once more.