Sorry if the title's kinda odd ;
Is it just me, or is it real? I feel like the story's losing its steam. -.- What do you think? If anyone still thinks it's going well, I'll continue.


9-Of Separation and Schizophrenia

Ort trotted back towards the stream, two plump hens dangling from his mouth. He crested the last hill and dropped the chickens out of shock. There was the stream… but where was everyone?

Frowning, he began to sniff around the area. They had left… was this some kind of prank?

Then he noticed that there was another scent nearby—a strong one. A fresh one. One he had never encountered before…

He analyzed the earth covered in the strange scent and found lots of trampled grass and some strange prints. They looked a bit like lungs. He frowned. Goats? Had goats kidnapped his friends? No, these hoofprints were too large.

Giant goats?

Ort shook off the idea and lied down. He could puzzle it out while eating. Eagerly, he tore into one of the chickens. The meat was still warm. He sighed and licked his lips. The fresh meat was delicious, especially when compared to the dried stuff Winifred and Humphrey carried.

The wolf finished his meal and began sniffing around. There was Winifred's scent, and Humphrey's, Ampersand's and Theriss'. There was another smell as well, but it took him a while to register it as Phylliasador's. He followed the scents of the humans and the elves, but when he got to the horses' scents they disappeared. He figured the companions had mounted them. The horses' scent trail then led him to the hoofprints, where he discovered a strange smell closer to the horses' than to goats'. He almost fainted then when a salient thought struck him like a stone—the unicorns. The unicorns had come.

The horses' scents were covered with unicorn scent as well. After a ways he found the companions' scents again—they had dismounted. He frowned. The smells were relatively old—perhaps by about half an hour. Looking up, Ort saw the rolling plains stretching out for miles and more beyond his vision. It seemed he would have quite a bit of travelling to do.

Eventually the unicorns came to a halt.

"What's wrong?" asked Winifred.

Caligan chuckled. "Nothing. "I just wanted to stop so you could see our home better." He gestured with his horn to a hill about half a mile away that they had not been able to see before.

The hill, like all the others, was covered in soft green grass. However, this hill was surrounded by tall, light brown boulders that must have risen at least forty feet into the air. There were perhaps five to seven feet between each stone.

Caligan looked around to see Winifred's and Humphrey's mouths gaping. Fuzzle and Tizzit had risen and were slowly drifting toward the hill. "That is our home," he explained. "The stones were there long before we were. No one knows how they became. Some say there was once a large cave there—a dragon's den or gryphon's aerie, perhaps—but it caved in on itself. The stones are all that remain."

"Have you excavated the area in search of answers?"

The paint unicorn shook his head. "No. We do not bother with the past. But do you feel a sort of power emanating from the hill?"

"I do," said Winifred. "It feels sort of… tingly."

"I feel it very strongly," Phylliasador said, "but it is not a foreboding sort of power. Nor is it particularly attractive, but it is powerful and mysterious. Ancient."

Caligan nodded. "We believe it was a sacred place. It is no protection spell, but it repels evil. It was not meant to do so, but the power this place held and still holds it strong enough to scare it off." He sighed. "Most of it, anyways."

Humphrey frowned. "Most of it?"

"The Talicorn has enough resilience and hidden goodness to resist the power. Several times she's invaded, and each time the power of the hill weakens slightly. It is our job to protect it so that it may protect us."

"How much has it weakened?" asked Winifred.

Everyone started walking again. "Not very much, but the Talicorn's mind grows even more resilient each time she manages to breach it. I don't know if she knows this, but if not, it will only be a matter of time before she does. And then she will keep invading, and our protection will get weaker." Caligan sighed. "If she learns to use this as an advantage, then our protection may very well spell our doom."

Now Ampersand spoke up. "When was the last time Talia attacked?"

"She attacks almost every winter. If she doesn't during one, we can look forward to next winter being two times worse. Her next attack will be her seventh, and should happen anywhere between four to six moons from now."

"So she has a year to ready her forces, and you have a year to ready yours and your defenses." The elf frowned. "Sounds like she has the advantage."

"The attackers usually do. Now we are coming close; let us talk another time. My people do not like being reminded of the Talicorn."

The unicorns led the companions up the hill. Winifred felt herself and the area around her buzzing from the hill's power. It grew stronger as she approached the hill.

"Don't worry," Caligan whispered to her, "you will get used to it, and it will get used to you."

"It will…" Winifred was cut off as she took a deep breath—a gasp borne of awe of what she was seeing: a bowl in the hill, the grass almost entirely grazed away, filled with unicorns of almost every color imaginable. The only ones she didn't see were the unnatural and fluorescent ones such as green, blue, and pink. She felt as if she would have fainted from the beauty and awe if it had not been for the potential danger of them suddenly wishing to murder her.

Caligan led the companions down the bowl. His band disbanded, but some went to lead the horses to a grazing spot. When she looked at them, Winifred could tell they were chatting amiably.

The companions soon found themselves in a small cave. The ground was sloped upward gently from the entrance so rainwater would not get in and runoff would go out. There were two branches leading away from the entrance—"No more than extra rooms," Caligan explained. "There's one side for females and another for males." He gestured towards the right passage. "If the dragon is sleeping in here, he might want to either sleep in that room or here in the entrance. They're larger."

"I'll explore and see where I am most comfortable," said Phyll. "Large spaces are not always welcoming to us dragons. They might be to the larger dragons, but they probably wouldn't even fit in here." He laughed, but cut it short when he heard no one else joining him.

Ampersand looked at the ground and frowned. His gaze was distant. "I wonder where Ort is. I hope he'll find us again."

Winifred smiled. "He's a wolf, and even more, he's Ort. I'm sure he'll find us. Hopefully the barrier won't repel him." She bit her lip when she saw Ampersand's expression growing even more somber.

There was definitely more to Ort—Amarok—than she thought.

Ort was panting; the sun's glare was boring into him, and its heat was causing him to pant. He needed water, but he also needed to find his packmates. He began to salivate as he thought of the hens. Why hadn't he taken the second one?

At least he was catching up with them. The smell was only a few minutes old now. He just hoped they hadn't gone schizo and killed everyone. Or, for that matter, killed anyone. One friend dead wasn't as bad as all of them dead. Right?

Okay, stop it, Ort, he thought, trying to calm himself down. You're getting paranoid. Paranoia is not a good thing… now stop being paranoid about the paranoia! Don't you go crazy any more than you have to!

He took a deep breath and tried to focus on his task. He felt very close to his destination. It can't be long now. Humans are so slow they can hardly go anywhere in the time it takes a wolf to go a mile. Of course, elves can go faster, but not by much. Ort remembered someone telling those words to him, but not who. A former packmate, perhaps?

His train of thought paused long enough for him to look ahead of him and find a rather large hill. He also noticed that the grass was getting gradually shorter as he went. A few hundred yards ago, the grass was nice and tall, but now it was not much higher than his wrists. He went around the hill and became too busy looking at the paw-high grasses before him to notice the hill surrounded by a spectacular circle of stones.

Slowly his gaze traveled further over the plains, and slowly it fell upon the hill. It took a while for the strangeness of the sight to settle in, and when it did he was dumbstruck. Not only were there mysterious towers of chipped and weathered stone that seemed to radiate power, but also his friends' scents were heading straight for the place.

What was so strange about it? The power? The stones? The feeling that this place seemed to have existed since time began? Or maybe the sacred feeling this place had. Perhaps it had been a temple, a temple to some god or gods the unicorns worshipped… and possibly sacrificed to.

Nervously, he gulped and began walking.

Winifred, Humphrey, Ampersand, Theriss, and Phylliasador all followed Caligan into the right cavern. Fuzzle and Tizzit were playing outside, most likely annoying the other unicorns with the droning buzz of their wings. When they were tired, they would perch on one of the stones and soon find themselves energetic once more. With their newfound energy they played all sorts of games, their favorite being dive-bomb—they would take turns flying as high into the sky as they dared, and then dropping down towards the ground and pulling themselves up and away at the last second possible. Winifred could feel their euphoria and hyperness, and hoped they wouldn't become addicted to the power of the energy-giving stones.

Her mind became grounded as Caligan began to speak and she listened. "When it rains, water runs into the ground," he explained, "so we have built chambers to catch this water and retain it for when we need it. If you pull this plug out—" he bit a small, dark object with his teeth and dislodged it from the back wall—"water will come out. Plug it back up to stop the flow. And do not worry about rainwater getting into these caves. We have waterproofed them. Under the water plug here we have dug a bowl to catch it. If you do not trust the ground, feel free to make your own bowl, but we do not have any materials besides mud, stone, and grass.

"If you don't all have beds, you can take grass and make your own. But if you want light, you'll have to use fire or magic. We can create light, but I doubt you'll find many unicorns willing to help with such menial tasks. Our magic is limited, and we like to save it for more important events."

"I understand," almost everyone said.

Caligan snorted—not a dismissive, negative snort, but rather a more playful, laughter-type snort. Then he led everyone to the other cave.

"Almost everything is the same in here as in the other room. The main difference is shape and size—one can only do so much to build a cave when one is armed with little more than hooves, and cloven ones at that." He shook his head slightly. "The water plug is over here." The paint stallion poked the plug with his horn. "I hope this place is alright. I know that humans like cleanness.

Now Humphrey snorted. "Until you see a tavern." Winifred and the elves laughed.

Caligan cocked his head and swiveled his ears. "Tavern? What is a tavern?"

"A dirty, smelly place for dirty, smelly people to congregate and get drunk," Winifred explained.

"Drunk?"

"Inebriated, tipsy… when anything drinks too much beer or wine or anything, their brain gets messed up and that's called being drunk."

"I see. Well, I will make a note of never going to a tavern."

"Or an inn. They often mean the same thing, although inns are usually at least a bit nicer, and they have places to sleep. There are some incredibly clean and well-kept inns, and with good food and beds, though those cost much more than most are willing to spend."

"I see." One of the unicorn's ears twitched. "Something is coming, approaching our home. I apologize that I must leave so suddenly."

"Can we come with you?" asked Humphrey. Winifred rolled her eyes.

"No, stay here. It could be a surprise attack by Talia."

Winifred jumped. "But that would be perfect!"

Caligan just stared at her. "Perfect? And attack by Talia is not perfect!" He swept a hoof along the ground and lowered his horn at her some.

"It would be for me—the opportunity to battle her, I mean. We're looking for a plot, remember, and…"

The stallion chuckled. "A plot, yes, I remember. And so you think a battle with the Talicorn would make a good climax." Winifred nodded. "Well. Come along if you wish, but no one may blame me if you die." He pivoted and ran out of the cave. Winifred followed him, and then everyone else followed Winifred.

The six of them ran out to the rim of the hill. A bay called to Caligan, "Over here!" and everyone ran to see who—or what—was coming.

Most were hiding within the bowl in the hill or behind the stones. Caligan stood between two, pinpointing the intruder with his eyes. Winifred peeked out from behind a stone tower and saw a gray wolf, padding tentatively towards them. She furrowed her brow. "Ort?" she called. Caligan glared at her and asked her to be quiet, but something dawned on him as he looked back at the wolf.

"Winifred?" it replied.

A great smile broke out across her face. "It's you! My…" what she said after that it was hard to tell, as her voice bumped and cracked as she sprinted towards the wolf. She collapsed onto him; his tail wagged. "Skrit, where were you?"

"Watch your language," Ort replied gently. "And I think the better question would have been, 'where were you?'"

"Sorry we had to leave. The unicorns made us. Kind of."

"Kind of?"

"We heard them coming, and as we saw them they surrounded us, and asked us what we were doing."

"You explained?"

"Again," she said with a grimace. "Then they told us about the threat the Talicorn held to the plains, and offered us their hospitality. We accepted. And the way they were holding their horns at us, it was kind of hard not to."

"What about the schizophrenia?"
"Haven't witnessed any yet, but they're bound to at any moment, now…" Winifred looked about herself warily.

"Oh well. I'm here now. I'm sure a wolf, and a dragon as well, for that matter, can keep them under check." Ort held his head and tail up proudly.

"I'd hope so. You're the ones best armed for battle, too. And speaking of which…"

As she got up and led them back to the hill, she told him—quietly—of the Talicorn and her raids. She only told him the basics so she could be finished by the time they were within earshot the unicorns. Soon they were standing in front of Caligan."

"Who is this wolf you know so well?" he demanded.

"This is Ort, named for his love of food and what we so often feed him. Ort, this is Caligan, lead stallion of the unicorns.

Ort studied the unicorn. "Fitting name," he finally said. For his name is 'mist', and his coat is like mist, and, like mist, you can't see anything within it until it is out. I just hope his schizophrenia isn't as severe as his name might suggest.

Caligan smiled. "Welcome, Ort," he said uneasily. "I assume you will be staying here with your friends?"

"If you don't mind. Where are they staying?"

The stallion gestured towards a cave. "It has plenty of space for everyone."

Ort's tail elevated and his ears pricked up. "A den to share with the pack," he said excitedly. "Wonderful."

"Yes, I suppose you will feel right at home in there, won't you?" Caligan replied with a soft laugh. Then he leaned in close to the wolf. "I'm sure you've heard stories of schizophrenic unicorns of the plains?" Ort nodded, so he continued. "Well, don't worry. We are not affected often, at least not usually, and least of all to me. But I will warn you, we are usually most out of it when the night and the moon are darkest. We try to remedy that by retreating to our… dens earlier to go to sleep earlier. If we are affected too soon, though, we are often up late… and many will be loud enough to wake you, and so warn you to take caution."

Ort sighed in relative relief. "That is good, and very wise. Thank you for telling me." Then Caligan gave him a dismissive nod, and the wolf left to join his friends.

"Ort? Is something wrong?" Winifred asked quietly.

He replied, "Wrong? Why would something be wrong?" not in a sarcastic voice, but rather an honestly innocent and surprised one.

"You're talking weird."

"How so?"

"You're just being more… serious… than usual. Usually you're all sarcastic and quirky and funny. Crazy, even."

"Crazy, eh? Well, I'll give you crazy…" A determined look spread across the wolf's face, and suddenly he set off at a wild sprint around the rim of the hill. He weaved through the stones, ran up and down the sides of the bowl, and at one point, he ran down the bowl and straight across and charged through a waterfall Winifred had never noticed before. She blinked.

Ort trotted back across the bowl. His mouth was hanging open and his tongue was hanging out. Water dripped from his fur and made several clumps on his back and sides stick together so he looked like some spined wet scaly thing. Winifred tried to hold back a laugh and almost succeeded.

"Ai, that felt great!" he announced. "I haven't had a run like that for a while. Now please don't go saying I smell bad, least of all that I smell like wet dog. Wet dogs smell very much like wet wolves, and wet wolves came first."

"I'll try," Winifred promised. "Was there anything behind the waterfall?"

"A wall."

Winifred raised an eyebrow. "Just a wall?"

"Well, no, but there was a wall behind it. You didn't ask for specifics, so…"

"Yeah, yeah. Go figure. What else was behind there?"

"A small den."

Winifred paused to think. "One of the unicorns' dens? Caligan's, perhaps?"

"Or maybe it's a top-secret meeting room!" Ort suggested playfully.

"Maybe."

Ort frowned. "You weren't supposed to take that seriously, you know."

"It is a possibility." Plotting, she looked at the waterfall.

"Whoever does stuff there, they probably chose it because it's hidden and the waterfall drowns out noise and prevents it from being heard by outsiders. For all we know, it could be their dirt room!"

Winifred sniffed. "Well, wouldn't you have fun in there."

The wolf glared at her. If you're going to go spying, just be wary of when you do it, and don't get into any trouble."

"How does the time matter?"

"Caligan told me that the unicorns are most likely to show the effects of their schizophrenia around the time of the new moon, or when it is overcast and no light shines through. So do it during the daytime, I guess."

"Aye. Thanks for the help."

If he could, Ort would have hit himself on the head. Since he couldn't, he instead went over to one of the stones and leaned his forehead against it. Something must be happening to me, he thought. I'm not usually so calm… where's my mischievous side? Where's my energy? He paused. Could it be… the prophecy?