Title Pending - World Anvil / Kyanite Challenge
The sky was red in memory. The unicorn dreamed again of that red sky, cold so deep it burned like fire and choking on air that went to her head like the strongest wines. She shuddered awake, gasping, fur soaked with sweat and dew. The air was clean, clear and scented of living, growing things. There was soft grass beneath her, not the bitter chill of unwrought iron rusted into sand. The cold in her body was of pre-dawn in summer, not the deadly fire-cold. She was safe, and that knowledge eased her racing heart. That memory was the closest she had ever come to knowing death, and it terrified her as nothing else could. Dawn came, orange and gold through the trees as she stood, stepping from her thicket. As the sun rose above the crater walls, sharp black shadows shrouded the forest in a darkness deeper than night for a few brief minutes. Life stirred around her as others rose with the small white sun to begin their day. It felt good to sense them after a troubled sleep. She looked up through the trees, reassured that the sky overhead was turning blue as dawn gave way to day. It would never be the same rich hues of blue as Earth’s skies, but the dusky blues of the sun’s rise and set. Still, she considered it a good omen so long as that color remained. Willow Whisper shook her mane, driving the last cobwebs of nightmare from her mind, and continued her walk through the forest-city. She nibbled the grass as she moved, admiring the progress made so far to their new home. Heartholt was growing well under their care. The vast redwoods and giant chestnuts had yet to reach their full growth but thrived. Already they were home to many, along with the smaller trees. Ageless and all but immortal, Willow had no concept of time in the sense that mortal races did. Only a few came close to matching unicorns in longevity. Elves and dragons of course, but she thought that phoenix, kirin, and feathered serpents did as well, though she hadn’t met enough to be certain. Yet even such ageless beings could recognize the changes of Heartholt, and that this place was improving, slowly but surely. “Aunt Willow!” A large shape hurdled towards her from above, and she quickly ducked to avoid spearing the dragonet as he tackled her in a hug, knocking them both to the ground in a tangle of limbs. She laughed as he gave her another squeeze before wriggling away and helping her back to her hooves. “Did you see aunt Willow? I flew!” The young dragon sat up, flaring his wings proudly. Willow shook out her coat, dislodging grass and leaves, before answering, "No I didn’t, sorry, Sea Flame--” the dragon looked crestfallen, "--you would flying too fast for me to get a good look at you." He perked up again, taking that as praise while Willow smiled. “But look at how big you’re getting!” She made a show of looking him up and down, pacing out his length as he proudly stretched along the ground and spread his wings to their fullest. Sea Flame was unusual for a dragon, not only in appearance, though that was the most noticeable thing. His mother had been a dragon of sea and sky from the East, while his father had been of earth and fire from the West. Sea Flame had the long, graceful body and fur of his mother, but the sturdy bat-like wings and horns of his father. It was unknown as of yet which element or pair he would favor magically, although dragons could instinctually wield all four of the primal forces and their subsets. Willow nuzzled Sea affectionately as she circled around back to his head. "I’m sorry, but I can't play with you right now. I'm needed for work at the Healer's Grove." Sea Flame cocked his head to one side, a worried look crossing his face. “More sick people?” He looked around fearfully, before whispering, “It’s not the Black Death is it?” “No, it isn’t,” she said firmly, standing taller, trying to convey strength. “But it is hurting people. That’s why they still need my help.” The dragonet nodded gravely, then gave her a confident smile. “You can fix them, Aunt Willow! You’re the best healer there is!” Willow’s eyes flicked away from his, her ears flattening. Luckily the sound of approaching hooves had distracted him at that moment so that Sea missed her unease. She fought back a shudder, remembering all too well the magical strain which had resisted all cures, killing hundreds. The plague which had forced them to flee to this new place. A unicorn stallion stepping from the underbrush with a phoenix hen perched on his back. Sea Flame rushed to them, but was more careful in his hug, so as not to dislodge the phoenix, “Uncle Ash! Aunt Myrrh! Did you see me? I flew!” "We did," the stallion said approvingly, smiling at the dragonet, "You're getting better every day, just as we said you would." The phoenix sang a happy note, able to understand, but not speak the common language, though she still had one which her own kind used. Sea Flame sang back to her, never missing an opportunity to practice. “Ash Song, Myrrh, how are you?” Willow asked, dipping her head to them in greeting. “As well as can be expected,” Ash Song said, shaking out his mane, “and you, little sister?” “The same,” Willow said distractedly, her eyes lingering on her brother’s cracked, blackened horn, and the permanent scar slashed over his heart. Her gaze drifted to Myrrh, who chirped a greeting, fluffing up her feathers against the morning chill. She was frail and sickly for a phoenix, her wings and tail stunted and flightless, and Willow’s mind wandered back to the reason behind both of their conditions. The two still refused to speak of the details from that night, of the spell which had crippled them both and cost Sea Flame’s parents their lives--and all because of her arrogance... Willow’s mind flashed back to the memory from her dream. Going alone through the portal into an inhospitable wasteland, struggling to keep going even after being warned to turn back. Waking up to her brother’s terrified face, and that of the healer who had miraculously revived her. Back when her brother had still been whole... Her memory flashed again, forward through time. The grass of the portal clearing had been burned away with a ritual circle, its runes splattered with blood and smeared into illegibility. Willow had not been first on the scene, but she still remembered it vividly. Ash Song lay bloodied in the grass, a slash to his heart seared shut in a burn, his horn black and cracked with the threat of spell burnout. The healers said that if he had pushed himself any harder at whatever magic had been cast, it would have shattered or else killed him. Myrrh had laid beside him, newly reborn, but frail and sick which a phoenix should never have been. There had been no sign of her death-ash, which she would have needed to eat but clearly had not. According to the healers, she would never fly again, even after her next rebirth. Something in the spell had weakened her forever. Between them had laid Sea Flame, newly hatched, still blind and deaf with sticky egg fluid. Through the portal, clearly visible, where the skeletal remains of his parents. The signs of magical burnout all too clear. Held protectively in their coils was Sea Flame’s egg, its shell made whole and perfect again, large enough that it was a miracle his mother had survived the laying. The egg had glowed with a soft light, all the colors of the rainbow rippling across its pearly surface. It had been warm to the touch, with a strong heartbeat sounding from within. It bled life and magic into an alien world that stole both. But it would never hatch. It merely served as the container for this great spellwork which kept their new home alive. “It wasn’t your fault,” said a voice, bringing her back to the present. Willow found herself on the ground, her brother’s neck against hers in a hug, with Sea Flame clinging to her barrel with his own fierce hug. Myrrh sang a soft, soothing note, sitting on the ground in front of Willow’s muzzle. She didn’t know which of them had spoken. “Mom and dad knew what they were doing,” said Sea Flame, stretching his wings to wrap them around her too, “Without them, Uncle Ash and Aunt Myrrh, we wouldn’t have this great new safe place to live.” -----------a short time later after Willow gets to work at the makeshift hospital & the boss calls her into his office-------- The feathered serpent offered her a bowl, coiled in his tail. "Chocolate," he explained, "a popular drink from my homeland. I prefer mine traditionally spiced, but others have been experimenting and I'm told it's good sweetened as well. I’m considering breeding a separate strain of the plant that won’t be toxic to our food herds. That way they can enjoy this treat as well." At Willow’s skeptical look, he flapped a wing dismissively. “What? Elder creatures like myself need hobbies. Speaking of, how goes your tree garden?” Willow felt her ears heat in a blush, but stammered out, “It--it’s fine. Coming along great...” The serpent sighed, looking her in the eyes. “Let’s not beat around the bush. You need a leave of absence. Some time off to take care of yourself. It’s painfully obvious you’re not getting enough sleep and this new illness is making you skittish. You nearly accidentally poisoned a patient three times in as many weeks.” “I’m fine!” The protest was out of Willow’s mouth before she could stop it, and she blushed again, looking at the ground. “No, you’re not. You haven’t been since the portal mishap--before that even, not since the Plague. But your near-death experience only made it worse. I should know. I was the one who brought you back to life, remember?” He hissed a sigh, adding gently, “I know you won’t stop working. I’m not asking you to. I’m only asking that you slow down and take your own time to heal. That’s why until further notice, I’m transferring you to the herding pens. You can heal the animals there and help the shepherds with their duties.”
Author's Note: Wasn't able to finish this on time for the contest. Comments would still be welcome to improve my writing. Please and thank you.