by Mary E. Lowd
Originally published in Fantasia Divinity Magazine, Issue 20, March 2018
The harsh blue light of Astralis II shone over the horizon, casting long shadows at an acute angle to the shorter shadows cast by the tawny, warm light of Astralis I, nearly overhead at this hour of noon-night. The longest, sharpest shadow pointed towards the volcanic cone of Mount Kiyaro; it was cast by the pearlescent, spiraling horn that rose from Elliae’s snowy-furred equine brow. She faced the mountain; she faced her destiny.
“Giddyap!” the demon-imp on the unicorn’s back shouted, digging his heels into her side.
Elliae reared and whinnied, but Karoon clung to her, fists wrapped in the unicorn’s flowing mane, tight as a tick. He’d ridden her across solar systems, through the vacuum of space and the glittering darkness of nebulae. She’d spent eons lost in the void with only his telepathic whispers in her ear to remind her of who she was, where she was going. But now they were here, and the mountain loomed before them.
“The spirits will catch up to us!” Karoon dug his sharp heels deeper into the unicorn’s heaving sides.
Elliae knew they had at least a lunar month’s lead on the spirits chasing them. She had sliced through the folds of space with her horn, cutting across the empty blackness faster than any spirit could. Her horn had been designed by the All-Deity to carve through spatial dimensions, and her hooves had been designed to spring off the surface tension of reality. No mere ghost could fly as fast as a unicorn. The spirits’ ectoplasmic structure was written onto the surface of reality and must fold with it. Only a unicorn could transcend the layers.
Yet Karoon dug his pointy demon heels into her side, and Elliae broke into a tired trot with a sigh. She had been made for better than this. She had been designed for spreading beauty and love across the universe — from brightening a single moment with the sudden appearance of a colorful butterfly (transported through a deftly cut portal in space-time) to adjusting the orbit of entire planets into the habitable zones around their stars (again by slicing space-time into a cooperative shape with her powerful horn). But ever since Karoon’s master — Zilther the Corruption of Universes — had captured her, saddled her with his minor demon as a slaver, and held her beloved home of Lunaie hostage, Elliae had been little more than a carthorse, dragging Karoon from one planet to the next, ensuring none of them would grow into beautiful inhabited homes.
One wasteland after another.
Dead red planets.
Dusty gray orbs.
Not a world for unicorns.
Not a single one.
The peak of Mount Kiyaro grew closer as Elliae plodded across the desolate plains of this young world. Bits of green moss squished under her hooves, and tiny insects buzzed in the air, but once she delivered Karoon to the volcanic mountaintop, it would all end. This world would never develop to its full potential, never know the beauty of teeming with kingdoms and phyla of life.
The last few steps were always the hardest. While flying across the universe, Elliae could forget the corruption she was helping to spread. But when she set her hooves upon the ground that Karoon would soon cover with lava and riddle with extremophile bacteria, rendering the planet toxic to any other life form, Elliae could not avoid seeing the shades of the lifeforms to come, the creatures who would exist if it were not for her complicity. Voices spoke in her pointed ears, and shapes danced before her eyes as she trotted across the plains and up the mountainside.
These were the ghosts who would follow them to the next world, joining the fleet of spirits chasing them down from all the worlds they’d already visited. Some day, those spirits would indeed catch up to them, but half the universe would already be destroyed by then.
“The day could be today,” a voice whispered in her ear. Not Karoon’s voice. Not scratchy and demonic. But soft and fluting, like a strain of music carried on the wind from the past. Or the future.
A ghost of this world’s future was speaking to her.
“Not this world,” the voice said. “Your future.”
Elliae whipped her head to the side, flicked her ears, and felt Karoon yank on her mane in response, urging her to keep trotting. Still, she caught sight of an equine figure like herself painted on the air like a fading water-color — a ghostly vision of another unicorn.
“Lunaie is already lost. Do you trust the Corruption to release your home? Ever? Fight back now. Save every world you can, and that means starting with this one.” The ghostly unicorn washed away in the hot, dry wind.
Leaving Elliae alone with her demon and her thoughts.
“Too slow, you stupid pointy horse!” Karoon screeched, kicking her repeatedly.
And suddenly, it was one kick too many. Elliae swung her head, swishing her mane, and slicing her horn through the air, cut a portal through the folds of space on the mountainside. Then she reared, stomped down her front feet, and galloped away from the new portal, toward the volcanic mountaintop.
Behind the unicorn and her demon-rider, the portal poured forth spirits and ghosts who’d been chasing them for eons across the vastness of space. All of them displaced. All of them homeless.
At the lip of Mount Kiyaro’s volcanic cone, Karoon leapt off the unicorn’s back and screamed at her. “They’ll catch us now! We’ll never escape this world!” He took the obsidian amulet from his neck, but before he could uncork the black-glass vial to release Corruption’s extremophile bacterial presence on this virgin world, Elliae sliced through the air with her horn again. She didn’t cut through the dimensions. She only cut through soft demon-skin; she pierced Karoon through, as if he was nothing more than melting butter.
She should have done it long ago.
She unsheathed her horn from his limp body and flicked the still-unopened amulet into the sky, flying so fast, so high it escaped the planet’s gravity. The dark amulet flew true, on course for the closer of the world’s two suns: Astralis II’s blue light would fry the dangerous bacteria inside. Even lava-loving extremophiles couldn’t survive a blue star’s super-heated plasma.
Elliae’s attention returned to the world around her.
The spirits rushed toward her, spiraling around the mountain and stretching across the sky like smears of paint on an empty canvas. Elliae was ready for the ghosts of those she’d betrayed into never-existing to devour her, but then the ghostly unicorn reappeared in front of her like a mirror of herself in the shimmering volcanic air.
“Make this world into their home. Give it to the ghosts.” As the ghostly unicorn said the words to Elliae, she also said them herself. The ghost was her. It was her future to become the ghost.
With a final triumphant whinny, Elliae leapt from the lip of the mountain cone towards the roiling lava inside. As she fell, she speared her way through the air, pearlescent horn slicing a complicated portal into the mountain’s volcanic mouth, connecting this planet with as many planets rich with life as she could find. Life would bleed through the folds of the portal, flowing into this world for centuries. In her final act, Elliae made Mount Kiyaro a cornucopia of life and left it to the ghosts, so they could finally realize themselves and create a future.