(Content Note: Here be unicorns. If this is simply too silly for you, go check out Chilling Tales for Dark Nights for now.)
It had seemed an ordinary day in Unicorn Harbor when Calliope of Spotted Hoof first experienced her vision. The clouds had been spooled white over a lapis blue sky, the air had been calm and the temperature entirely agreeable for the late summer season. The unicorns were certainly not anticipating anything unusual. Neither was Calliope, who had spent this quiet day of her third year grazing and then strolling about with other Unis her age, unconcerned with anything more than the breeze over her hid and the scarlet sunset to arrive at day’s end.
The most unusual thought in her mind had been how strange it was that her fellow Units referred to their dwelling place as Unicorn Harbor. It was not, Calliope knew, a Harbor at all, but a strip of rolling green hills coalescing around a clear, gently rippling lake. Harbor were supposed to lead out to the sea, weren’t they? Unicorn Harbor was at least twenty miles from the nearest ocean.
After mulling over this conundrum for most of an afternoon, in between mouthfuls of grass, drying dandelion stalks and sips of fresh lake water, Calliope put this question to her mother, Circe. Though Circe had been young at the time of Calliope’s birth, almost a year younger than Calliope herself was now, she was widely regarded to be among the wisest of all Unicorns in the known world. Calliope could always count on her to provide insight into difficult problems.
“Why do we call it a harbor, mama? It’s not near an ocean and it’s miles and miles from one.”
“‘Harbor’ is also a word that means safe haven,” Circe explained. “All the Unicorns have always been safe here.”
It was true, Calliope realized. Any Unicorn could feel safe in this environment. When they did not have the welcoming green of the hills in Spring and Summer, the Unis took shelter in a series of large, above ground caves, which provided warmth and protection from the Fall and Winter. Quiet streams flowed through these passages, even in the months when the lake froze over. Unicorn fur, which grew coarse when the cold air came on, provided them an armor from the harsher elements of cave dwelling. Their thick hooves, far more durable than those of their cousins known as horses, could tolerate the rocky terrain of the cave floors. So the Unicorns enjoyed comfortable lodgings in both halves of their climate of their region.
Calliope had just been settling into the satisfaction of her mother’s response, of knowing she, as a Unicorn, could forever consider their lakeside dominion a home, when the vision struck her. A series of mental pictures tumbled behind her eyes, like slices of memories from far off days. But Calliope knew these were not memories from any time period she had experienced in her life. The images were of she and many Unis, not just her relatives from the Spotted Hoof Clan, but those of Willow Tail, Curling Ear, Long Mane and Silken Hide, all of the twelve tribes of the Unicorn Nation, running like mad across the hills. Sheets of dark grey dust, like black rain, poured down around them. A cascade of fire followed. She could see its sparks leaping up around a great, gaping hole, where more fire pooled, and the sickening heat of death spun out from its chasm.
At first, Calliope was so shaken by these impressions that she had to toss her head several times to make sure she was awake. She worried, for a second, she might have taken ill, as the pictures had the unreal shimmer of those she had seen in her mind after she had developed a high fever as a colt. Looking about, she saw others staring at her. She was among friends and kin, where they had gathered for the day’s repose. She felt fine, aside from the emotional jolt. She was not sick. It had been no dream, no feverish hallucination.
“Calliope? Are you all right?” The entreaty came from Artemis, her mother’s closest sibling.
Calliope, still entirely unnerved by the thundering destruction she had witnessed, could not give her a reply.
Later, as the last of the sunset disappeared and night was settling on Unicorn Harbor, Calliope went to tell her mother what had happened. With frightened eyes and a fast heartbeat, she spoke to Circe of the pictures like a dream, of her enormous anxiety for every Unicorn they shared the land with.
Though they had tried to keep the conversation to themselves, relatives from Spotted Hoof had slowly gathered around mother and daughter to listen to Calliope’s tale.
“It sounds like a vision,” Artemis decreed at last. “Though no one in Spotted Hoof is known for that particular gift.”
“Does it matter how it came into her head?” asked Circe. “Calliope has given us the means to forestall disaster. Tell me, child, do you know what you saw in your mind, other than us running?”
“No,” Calliope admitted. “It was as if it rained, but the rain was thick as soil, and black like the obsidian we find in the cave hollows.”
Circe gestured with her chin, pointing Calliope’s gaze toward the great, half triangle of rock to the northeast of their home.
“That is Barbary Mountain,” she said to her daughter. “I believe you have seen its eruption. It is said not to have erupted for many thousands of years, but if it were to do so, it would endanger all our lives and make this terrain unlivable.”
“But what can we do, mama?” Calliope asked, still terrified. “Surely their is no magic, not even a vision, that can stop a mountain from exploding.”
“No, of course not. But we may have time to relocate. It would take enormous effort, as Unicorns are spread out over this area in vast numbers, yet if enough people found out before the lava begins to flow, we might escape the worst.”
“You must tell Perseus,” said Artemis in a grave tone. “At once, before another day passes.”
Perseus? King Perseus, ruler of all the Unicorns? Calliope was shocked to hear his name mentioned. He ruled with the other member of the Bright Horn clan, within the emerald slopes of Unicorn Harbors highest hills. He was a wise and generous leader, everyone said, but busy enough with keeping all the Unis safe that he was rarely able to interact with anyone outside his own family.
“What if he will not see us, mama?” Calliope had heard that many sought an audience with the king and were turned away due to his engagements with one matter or another.
“He will see us,” Circe said, with certainty. She gave her daughter a look that told Calliope, as her mother sometimes did, that Calliope had stumbled upon a matter far beyond her years to comprehend.
And so, though it was dark and increasingly chill, Calliope, Circe and others of Spotted Hoof spirited into the night en route to the imposing hills where the Bright Horns spent their days. Calliope tried not to think of what their king would say once he heard of her ordeal. What if he did not believe her? Not every Unicorn talked of psychic visions, the gift of sight, or anything outside the realm of eating, sleeping, and raising offspring. King Perseus was often said to be reasonable and, above all, fair, but what if this fairness simply did not include consideration of the prophetic daydreams of young unicorns unknown to him? Calliope was afraid of what could happen then. How would they tell the other Unis of the danger everyone faced?
As the first lightening of the sky brightened over their heads and the Spotted Hoof members were only a few miles from Bright Horn territory, Calliope asked what they would do if Perseus refused to hear them out.
“Why then, I would have no choice but to try to warn the rest of the Nation myself,” Circe told her.
But he did agree to hear them out. Although they were incredulous at first, the elder Bright Horns, who had been summoned after the younger members of the clan heard Circe’s description of what Calliope had undergone, were quick to locate the king, who was already awake despite the early hour of the morning. Perseus, while staring intently at Calliope, agreed with Circe that the Uni’s experience bore the hallmarks of visionary insight.
“We have had concerns about our safety in the Harbor for some time,” he admitted to his audience. “Mount Barbary has long shown signs of another eruption, on top of our additional worries for the well being of all Unicorns. We shall take heed of this new warning, and proceed with plans for relocation.”
Before midday, the call had gone out. Messengers from Bright Horn were dispatched to every known location of Unicorns throughout the Harbor, and within one day, a migration of thousands was underway. It had been decided they would move Southward, where talk of a long river, a sustainable water source, could help the Unis rebuild their population in an area the mountain’s eruption could not reach them.
Calliope had been impressed and relieved with the seriousness of Perseus’s reaction, but could not stop thinking about his suggestion that Unis had other threats to fear besides a mountain’s flame and lava. After two days on the migration trail, she asked Artemis about it.
“He was probably alluding to the problem of Man,” said Artemis, a contemptuous scowl on her normally unruffled features. “They are the ones you have heard of in our bedtime stories, those who walk on two legs, have no fur and no manes. They have been encroaching on our territory in increasing numbers and none can seem to find a way to stop their advance.”
Calliope had heard of Man before. Circe once admitted the Unis feared Man more than any other obstacle, including disease and starvation. It made sense that Perseus himself would be thinking about them.
“How does heading to the South get us away from Mankind?” Calliope asked. “Does that really take us farther from them?”
“It doesn’t,” said Artemis, sharply. “It just takes us farther from Mount Barbary.”
The Unicorn resettlement took several months. Their new home was very different from what Unicorn Harbor had been. The grass was sparser, heavier, and tended more toward yellow than the soft, green expanse they had known before. There were no caves, but the land was shaped by high cliffs of orange stone and sandy dirt. They had, indeed, found a river, though it was neither as sweet, nor as inviting as the lake they had known all their lives. Still, when the smoke from the now distant Mount Barbary was seen to drift over the horizon in harsh, imposing shapes, Circe and countless others thought of Calliope with great relief.
Eventually, Perseus and the Bright Horn clan told the Unicorn Nation of Calliope’s vision and its role in saving the Unis from destruction. The young Uni was showered with the thanks of her kindred and of strangers from other clans she had never dreamed she would meet. All seemed so grateful, and most, in awe of her.
Calliope was, for the most part, uncomfortable with the recognition. What had she done, really, besides see a series of pictures in her head? What was so special about precognition anyway?
“Precognitive abilities are not common,” Circe said, “even among our kind. It sets you apart. You are special.”
“That’s what bothers me, mama,” said Calliope. “I’m already a unicorn. Aren’t I special enough?” Calliope remembered well the day her mother had taken her on a lengthy journey into hills far away from their usual spot in Unicorn Harbor, as an attempt to teach Calliope about their history. Circe had brought her to a spot where the grass wore down to dust, and in the surface were carved the outlines of unicorn skeletons, horns and all.
“These remains are ancient,” Circe told her daughter. “They are proof that we were here so long ago and in so great a number these skeletons still exist to show for it. Now, we number in only the few thousands. We must take care of ourselves, Calliope, for the unicorn is in danger of dying out completely.”
In the wake of her vision and its consequences, Calliope did not want to feel set apart from the other beasts of the world in any other way.
After one full year, the unicorns had managed to eke out a stable existence in the new lands. Despite the oddities of an alien environment, there was enough water, enough food and a warmer climate to keep them alive and reasonably happy. As for Calliope, she had tried hard to accept their new circumstances, and to put the discomfort of her psychic episode in the back of her mind. She had vowed to try hard to the state she had known before, and not to upset the life of the Unis any further.
One afternoon, however, as she roamed about the sand swept depths of a ravine, she was struck again with terrible images from the depths of a nightmare. A loud shaking of the earth wracked her mind, and she heard the sickening sound of boulders thudding to the ground around her. The shrieks and wails of unicorns filled her ears, and she saw a few of their bloodied bodies crushed by falling stone.
In agony, Calliope again ran to her mother, to spill forth a story of damage and death for their kind. Circe, though obviously uncertain, again insisted they tell Calliope’s story to the king.
Perseus, while distressed and clearly frustrated to hear of another catastrophe set to befall his Nation, greeted Calliope’s news with stoic acceptance.
“It sounds as if your vision showed you an earthquake,” he said. It was a kind of phenomenon they had not known in Unicorn Harbor, that no unicorn had been through in living memory. As protecting the unicorns was still his chief responsibility, Perseus again ordered a mass migration, this time to the East, in an attempt to save them all from the ravages Calliope had seen.
The trek to the East was lengthy and arduous. The Unis were forced to cross an airy, desert landscape, and more than a few perished from the heat and from dehydration. One of those lost was Artemis. Once they reached a destination that appeared adequate for settlement, Calliope cried for hours over the loss of a beloved Spotted Hoof and their friend. While her mother and her kin tried to comfort her, Calliope was inconsolable.
“What good is a gift of visions if it cannot be used to protect unicorn lives?” she had sobbed. “I don’t want another vision as long as I live!”
Though her own clan was known for its compassion and overall gentleness with its members, there were many in Spotted Hoof who seemed to resent the visions as much as Calliope had. Eventually, some even told her of those in the Nation who blamed her for their feelings of upset and displacement in the wake of the migrations, and grumbled that her visions were useless, possibly fictitious. Occasionally, a Spotted Hoof told Calliope she should keep her visions private from now on, or pretend they didn’t exist.
Pretending the visions did not exist proved impossible for Calliope. Their frequency increased, as did their intensity. Sometimes, they showed her scenes of flash floods, of roving packs of hungry wolves, of freezing sheets of ice, snow, hail. Each time she was caught up in their unceasing currents, she felt compelled to tell King Perseus, who, more often than not, compelled the unicorn population to uproot itself and move toward safer ground.
Each resettlement inevitably led to loss of life, and each one took Unicorn Nation into territory wilder and more unpredictable than what it had known before. There were those who said Calliope should never had revealed even one of her visions. And those who said she should never have been born.
A morning came when the unicorns had been undisturbed in another new land for a period of time long enough to have lulled them into a sense of security about the future. No one had talked of the difficulties of their most recent migration in some months. No one could remember the last time they had lost a kinsman or a friend in the disruption of moving from place to place. And Calliope appeared to have stopped having her visions altogether. A certain hopefulness emerged tentatively from their misery.
Then one day, on the other side of a river the unicorns had gathered to drink at, an odd creature strode into view. He walked on two legs, and though his head was covered in hair heavy and flowing as an unicorn mane, he was not of their kind, or any kind they had seen before.
Calliope knew instantly he was a Man. They had finally traveled far enough away from Unicorn Harbor to have stumbled into the realm of Man.
He was loud, and shockingly afraid of them. In the space of an instant, he began to hurl pointed sticks in their direction, forcing the Unis to scatter and gallop for their lives.
Calliope ran immediately to King Perseus.
“We saw a Man!” she exclaimed, hoarse with sweat and fear. “He is by the riverbank.”
“Yes,” said Perseus. “It was inevitable.”
“I can’t believe it,” said Calliope. “I have not had so much as one vision of their fearsome species, nothing to tell us how we are to escape them.”
“That is because we are not meant to escape them,” her king said sadly. He was older now, and the stress of their numerous journeys had worn him down. Yet he was still wise. This Calliope was sure of. He had always known how to use her prophecies to help them avert impending pandemonium.
“What do you mean? There is no way?”
“No,” said Perseus. “You see, Calliope, I, too, have the gift of visions. All I have seen of Man is our inevitable fall beneath His onslaught. They will take all of the remaining land, fill it with their sort, who are called Human. They will take the rivers and hills for their own, leaving no space for unicorn to thrive. They will hunt us down.
In the end, most will forget the Unicorns entirely. We will become like myth to them, left so far in their history it will be as if we never were. There is no vision that can prevent this monstrosity.”
Perseus turned and walked away, leaving Calliope alone within a deep silence.