Snow and tears combined to keep Satoshi almost blinded as he blundered through the forest. *No... Shigeru...* He would be all right. Shigeru would pull through. Satoshi had complete faith in that fact. *He has to... If he dies, I die.*
A tree limb broke off its perch, torn by the storm, to land nearly on top of Satoshi. He lost his balance and fell back, then picked himself up, continuing around it. His body was moving without instructions from his mind. Good thing it was; Satoshi was incapable of thinking. He was numb with fear, exhaustion, and worry. *Shigeru has to be all right... He'll come after me soon; he will...*
Joi's cabin came into view then, and Satoshi knew where his feet had been taking him. He stumbled up the snow-coated hill, flung open the door, and then slammed it shut on the storm, sobbing. He leaned back against it for a while, then found the strength to move forward again.
"Joi?" The woman's form stood near the cradle, but she didn't respond to Satoshi's voice. He moved forward and put a hand on her shoulder. She was so cold... "Joi?" He looked around her, and his eyes grew wide with horror. *Frozen!* Her eyes stared sightlessly ahead; her skin was white. Satoshi backed away, eyes filling with tears once more.
The sound of wicked laughter pierced the air. Satoshi ran to the window, and gasped. Black, evil-looking creatures rode up toward the cabin, their obvious intent being to come inside.
Panicking, Satoshi ran to the ladder that led up to Joi's attic and hid himself, away from their eyes. *Please don't find me!* The door burst open, and he couldn't help peering back down to see what was happening.
Grandly, the first of the creatures swept into the room, gazing about with malicious glee. "A clock!" she noticed, to her companions. "Hmm... Mortal world, turned to ice... Here be goblin paradise!" Her wicked laughter filled the room. Satoshi cringed back, frightened.
The goblin moved toward the clock, and pointed at it with a strange-looking spiral. *The unicorn's horn!* Satoshi realized, horrified. It wasn't sparkling now, certainly. It looked dull and lifeless. But the clock suddenly spun to life, its hands moving too quicky and the little wooden figures rushing out of their homes. Demented chimes accompanied the scene. Satoshi wanted to cry.
The other two greedily lapped and tore at the food that sat on the table, but the first seemed uninterested. "Hwah!" she cried, pointing the horn at Joi's fireplace. Fire immediately burst into being, startling her companions. She laughed again.
"How did you do that, Blix?" the bucket-headed one asked.
"Yeah, tell us how you do those tricks!" the pig-faced one wheezed.
Blix swaggered arrogantly. "Quite easy, *actually!*" she sneered.
"Lucky day!" the bucket-head exulted. "Killed ugly, one-horn mule!"
"You act like *you* do all!" Blix accused angrily. "It was *me* who shot the poisoned stinger!" She started to belt her companion with a frying pan to emphasize each word. "Me...! Me...! ME...!"
"You only got the shot in because the little beauty led the beast astray!" the pig-face taunted her.
*Oh gods...* Satoshi closed his eyes tightly, but tears escaped past them all the same. He couldn't block his hearing out, either... "He was so sweet!" Bucket-head sneered. "I could eat his brains up like jam!" Satoshi recoiled in horror.
"I could snap his bones like -- "
"ENOUGH!" Blix roared, cutting off Pig-face before he could finish. "Better hurry," she told them. "The Dark Lord... he doesn't like to wait."
The others seemed to agree, hurrying out the door. Blix waved the horn once more, and biscuits flew from their bowl to scatter on the floor. She laughed coarsely, and followed her companions.
Satoshi watched them ride off through the attic window, tears streaming down his cheeks. "What have I done?" he whispered brokenly, then his face set into a determined look. "I'll make it right," he promised fiercely, and hurried down the stairs -- to follow the goblins.
* * *
Shigeru stumbled forward, arms wrapped tightly around himself. "Satoshi!" he cried desperately, but no answer came to him. "Satoshi!" He moved forward against the wind, determined to search until he had no strength left. The cold knawed at him fiercely, but he couldn't stop yet... not while Satoshi was still out there somewhere...
He wasn't aware of when he'd collapsed, but he woke with a start to a tiny little voice calling his name. "Shigeru!" it teased him, giggling. "Shigeru..." There was warmth near him -- a fire. But he hadn't lit one...
"Sato...?" Shigeru sat up.
"Shigeru!" Something jumped into the clearing with him. Shigeru whirled around and was on his feet, in time to have a handful of sparkly substance thrown into his eyes. He spun as the person moved swiftly, circling him, but whoever it was, they were too fast for him. More tiny, giggling voices surrounded the clearing, seeming to spur them on. Finally, the mystery assailant jumped into a crouch directly in front of him.
He looked young, but he probably wasn't. Sunlight-blond hair fell in light bangs over a face with big blue eyes and an impish grin. He wore only breeches, and a bow and arrows were slung over one bare shoulder. He looked as if he'd come to about Shigeru's chin if standing, and his ears were sharply pointed. Not human. He raised an eyebrow in greeting, as if to remind Shigeru that he was staring. "Hullo!"
"Who are you?" Shigeru asked, in astonishment.
The boy grinned. "And you thought you knew these woods!" he teased. "But you've never even heard of *me*? Honestly, Shigeru!"
"You still haven't told me who you are."
"How careless of me." The boy gave an exaggerated bow, the grin never leaving his face. "Mikagami Hiroshi, at your service, *sir*."
"Hiroshi, hmm?" Shigeru studied him.
"Precisely," Hiroshi answered smoothly. "Now *you* are going to answer *my* question, Shigeru. You were in these woods when the snow started falling. I know you saw what was going on, and I know that the balance isn't right. Something happened today. *What* was it?"
Shigeru closed his eyes. "I took Satoshi to see the unicorns."
"You WHAT!?" All humor left Hiroshi's eyes at those words. He looked outraged. More giggles erupted from around them at his outburst, but he silenced them with a look, then turned back, an ominously serious expression on his face.
"There's more," Shigeru continued steady. "He touched one..."
"*Touched* it!?" Hiroshi's eyes widened with shock and he glared at Shigeru as if he'd caused every sorrow in the world. "How could you let that happen? You know what that means, Shigeru! Did you think you could escape unpunished!?" His expression was horribly accusing.
"He didn't mean any harm!" Shigeru protested. "And I did it for Satoshi! I wanted him to see them. I love him, you see, and..." He trailed off, sinking to his knees. "This has all turned out so wrong... It was because I love Satoshi..." He trailed off again. *I said it!* he thought, in amazement. *I said I love him.* A wave of sorrow caught him. *And he wasn't here to hear it.*
"Love..." Hiroshi stared at him curiously, anger gone. "That's something else entirely, Shigeru." He grinned. "I'll tell you what. If you can answer one of my riddles, then I'll do everything I can to help you set things right. Because you *will* have to set things right," he said firmly.
"All right," Shigeru agreed, somewhat bemused but unwilling to show it. "I agree."
"OK, then." Hiroshi smiled sweetly. "What kind of bells do you know of that never ring?" He grinned impishly at Shigeru. "Take all the time you want to figure it out."
"Couldn't you think of a better one?" That tiny voice that Shigeru had heard before now giggled, accompanying a small, glowing figure that fluttered around his head. "*I* know the answer to that one..."
"Stop that!" Hiroshi snapped his fingers, and the light zipped over to him. "A fairy," he explained to Shigeru. "She's supposed to be *serving* me," he added, with a meaningful look at the sparkling little creature. "Her name is Kasumi."
"Oh," Shigeru managed weakly. His head was spinning. *Bells... bells...* All he could think of was Satoshi. An image pushed its way into his thoughts, of his beautiful Sato-chan, sitting in a sea of flowers with a warm smile on his face... *Flowers!* Shigeru straightened in triumph. "They're flowers! Bluebells!"
"That's right!" Kasumi sang out happily. Hiroshi made a strangled noise and slumped down onto the ground. Then he sat up, and grinned. "Kidding... You bested me, Shigeru. I guess I'll have to help you now! Hey, Brown-Tom!" He waved, and a stumpy little dwarf with brown hair hurried forward. Hiroshi snatched the hat off his head to reveal a smallish bottle.
"I knew you were hiding it somewhere," he grinned, grabbing the bottle. "We're drinking a toast -- to love! Thank you for offering to provide the wine, Brown-Tom. That was nice of you."
"That's my last bottle of wine!" the dwarf complained.
Hiroshi ignored him, producing a handful of thimbles to serve as cups. "This stuff is eldeberry wine, Shigeru," he explained. "Probably the best drink short of heaven's fare. Trust me, this much is enough." He poured the thimbles and passed them out.
"Well, here's to you, Shigeru!" he announced, standing. "The only idiot I know who'd shatter the balance of the world to show his lover a couple of pretty animals!" He drank.
"To Satoshi, too," Shigeru added, before gulping his. Hiroshi was right; a thimble-ful *was* enough. Kasumi settled on his shoulder, still giggling. "Are you always so mooney-eyed over Satoshi?"
"Nothing wrong with that!" Hiroshi grinned. "But let's work on the business at hand, shall we? The first thing to do is find the unicorns. Screwball!" he called, and a little white-haired dwarf came running with fur for Shigeru.
"This'll help," he said gruffly, setting it around Shigeru's shoulders.
"I need to find Satoshi," Shigeru insisted.
"I know," Hiroshi answered. There was sympathy in his eyes.
"I fear the worst," Screwball said slowly, and silence settled over them.
* * *
"Satoshi!" Shigeru blundered through the snow, ahead of the others. The forest seemed endless, but he couldn't -- just couldn't -- give up. His Sato-chan was out there somewhere, possibly alone and freezing, and he *would* find him -- no matter what. "SATOSHI!"
"Shigeru." Hiroshi tugged on his sleeve. "Wait."
"What?" The boy snapped, almost rudely. He couldn't wait, not while Satoshi was still out there.
Hiroshi didn't seem offended. "Over there," he said, pointing to a small hill. "Can't you feel it, Shigeru? We have a duty to fulfill here -- whether you want to or not."
Shigeru stopped, and looked at Hiroshi. "I guess so," he gave in, finding himself unable to argue.
The unicorn lay in a patch of a clearing, snow blanketing him in his sleep. By the time Shigeru, Hiroshi, and the others had made their way to him, the female had already arrived, and was nuzzling her mate in despair. Sorrow hung over the area like a low fog.
There was no denying this, not any more. "I need to talk to her," Shigeru whispered, already climbing over the hill they crouched behind. The mare watched his approach, eyes deep and sad.
Unintentionally, Shigeru felt tears creeping down his face. *He* had caused this, no matter how he tried to justify it. His intentions had been good, but he couldn't escape blame with only that. Satoshi hadn't known... how could he have known? But Shigeru had. And now a unicorn had been killed... Its horn was cut off. Shigeru gazed into the eyes of the female unicorn. *I'm sorry,* he wanted to say. *I didn't mean it.* He felt frozen, paralyzed with his inability to speak.
Then a wash of acceptance rushed over him, and Shigeru was released. He fell to his knees. "Forgive me," he whispered, through the tears. "I meant no wrong." His head bowed, and he held still, waiting for judgement.
Another moment's pause. Shigeru breathed deeply, and tried to make himself open to further communication. Instructions flooded his mind, and he looked back up into the unicorn's eyes. *This is what you must do,* they seemed to tell him. *Now go.*
Numbly, Shigeru got to his feet and stumbled back to the others. "Well?" Hiroshi demanded, when he remained silent. "What did it say?"
"We have to get the other horn back," Shigeru told him slowly. "Or we'll be stuck like this." The unicorn whinnied, as if to urge him on. "We've got to pick out a champion to fight back the Dark Lord."
"Well, that'll be you of course!" Hiroshi said cheerfully, then moved right along, leaving no chance for arguments. "Come on, Shigeru, and we'll get you some weapons. Brown-Tom, you stay here!" He gave the dwarf a stern look. "And make sure you guard that unicorn well!"
"Like my own life!" Brown-Tom pledged.
"Better!" Hiroshi corrected. "She's all we've got left!"
* * *
"Here we are!" Hiroshi opened the door to the cave. "You'll find armor and weapons in here, but..." He grimaced. "I can't go in with you. Kasumi will have to show you the way."
"This way, Shigeru!" Kasumi called, and Shigeru scrambled to keep up. The cave was so small that he was forced to crawl through it. "Over here! Come on!" She flew forward into a brightly lit room littered with good coins. In the center stood a stand holding a chain-mail shirt and a huge sword and shield. There was an almost reverent feel to the objects, and even to the room itself. It was bemusing, to say the least. Shigeru wasn't quite sure what to make of all this.
A sudden whizzing sound made him jerk around in surprise, and there stood a girl in filmy light clothing, her orange hair wild and a pair of translucent wings emerging from her shoulders. A shower of sparkles surrounded her, and she smiled at Shigeru, blue eyes alight with mischief.
"Kasumi?" he whispered, in shock.
"Nobody knows, except for you," she told him softly. "Don't tell Hiroshi, OK?" He stared. "Promise!" she hissed fiercely, and he jerked a nod, still shaken. Kasumi smiled. "I can be anything you want me to be," she whispered. "Even what your heart desires most." She looked toward the sword and mail shirt. "You have to take it, Shigeru!"
He blinked at her, then reached forward, hand shaking. His face set with determination, as his fingers closed around the sword's hilt.
* * *
Satoshi's eyes were wild with desperation as he climbed the hill. The forest branches had made short work of his clothing, and it hung in rags. He felt cold to the very core, but it didn't matter. Through the bushes that blocked out the cave at the top of the hill came the harsh sound of goblin laughter, set off by the soft crackling of a fire. Satoshi peered in through the heavy thorns.
Blix was laughing. "The magic horn is mine, mine, *mine*!" she exulted. "Now all creatures will love the night, and worship goblins as divine!"
"You shouldn't be talking like that, Blix!" Bucket-head warned.
"Why not?" Blix sneered. "I've got the power now!"
"Plenty big power!" Bucket-head scoffed.
"Hah!" Blix turned from him, and began to chant, "Higher, higher, burning fire! Making music like a choir!" She shrieked a laugh as the fire increased to three times its original size.
"It seems a shame to waste such power!" Pig-face remarked.
"Waste?" Blix faced him. "Better watch out, old pal Pox! Or I'll turn you into little pork chops!"
"Why not turn everything into garbage!" Pox suggested. "A great towering mountain of slop... wouldn't that be magic?"
"Ooh!" Blix turned from him. "Higher, higher, burning fire! Making music like a choir!" Again, her shrieking laughter filled the air.
"ENOUGH!" A darkness seemed to rise up out of the earth. Satoshi stifled a gasp and cringed back behind the hill, trembling violently. There was a presense about this new figure that was overwhelming. Satoshi had an ominous feeling in the pit of his stomach. This thing was so evil... Wrongness hung over it heavily. It made Satoshi feel weak and afraid.
The horn flew from Blix's hand to the waiting grip of the Dark Lord. "The unicorns are dead," it mused. "Is this not true?"
"True, Lord!" Blix assured him. "Very plenty true!"
"Undeniably true!" Pox added.
"You lie!" the Dark Lord snapped. He pointed to the east. "Here is dawn!"
Satoshi looked, and saw the sun rising. Hope rushed through him. *Not everything is lost, not yet...*
"Stallion is dead," Blix assured him. "Dead as dreams."
"Out with it!" the Dark Lord demanded.
"The mare lives still!" Pox admitted guiltily.
"If even one unicorn walks the earth," the Lord of Darkness told them, "my power is not complete!"
"It's just the mare, Lord!" Blix protested. "She has no power!"
"Only the power of creation!" he thundered. "Get the mare! I command you." The goblins bowed low before their Lord.
Satoshi turned and ran.