Chapter 1: The Trap

Kirin watched the young mage sitting in the forest grove for a long time before she approached. It was a trap, she knew it was a trap, but the boy shone with a sincerity difficult for even eighth circle mages to accomplish without some truth behind their spells. And her kind had never been known for their caution. He stopped singing at her approach, emerald eyes wide with shock and disbelief.

“I didn’t think creatures from the ninth circle existed,” he breathed.

She longed to feel his breath on her neck, his hands twisting her mane into braids while he sang the magic words so few humans knew. Kneeling, she rested her cheek against his thigh and he cautiously stroked her brow, her slender nose, the golden horn spiraling from her forehead. She could have approached in human form, of course, and spoken with him as some of her kind preferred, but she had found that the sight of a woman with a horn was far more frightening to most humans than a horse with a horn, and she longed for human companionship. Of all the creatures on the planet, only humans could achieve the eighth circle of magic and she needed contact with all nine circles in order to survive.

He began singing again, using Voice learned by human mages. He was using a keeping spell on her, as humans usually did, not knowing that she stayed because she wanted to, not because they made her. Their encounters with the ninth circle tended to be brief and violent, and when they found one of her kind they almost always tried to extend the experience through magic. She let him use the spell. His hands and voice were soothing.

The mage stroked her horn and she shuddered. His hands tightened, even after they left her body. She shook her head and felt a weight around her horn. The boy looked behind her at the woods, mouth open in surprise as an arrow pierced his heart.

Kirin leapt to her feet, still shuddering to rid herself of the pressure on her horn. The mage was dead and another mage, a young woman exuding cruelty and now pleasure, emerged from the bushes. Fifteen soldiers in imperial garb accompanied her, armed with bows. Sweat trickled down Kirin’s forelock as she searched for an escape. Of course it was a trap. The weight on her horn was no doubt a gold ring that would bind her to this location until a human mage removed it, and with the boy dead, the only mage left was the woman who doubtless planned the trap.

“Show yourself as a human so we can talk,” the mage said.

Kirin changed. Her form gave her no advantage, and if the woman wanted to talk, perhaps she would survive this encounter.

The woman’s eyes widened, and the soldiers lowered their bows and gasped. Kirin had been told by many that her form was beyond beautiful. Perhaps she could use it to her advantage now. But by the leer on the mage’s face, she knew that she was in even more danger now than before. The mage was deliberately leaving her mind open so that Kirin could pick up images from it, and the images were quite shocking: Kirin lying on the ground with the mage over her, Kirin’s eyes closed in ecstasy while the mage stroked her prone body. She had never heard of a human laying hands on a unicorn out of lust, but this mage was studying her with undisguised attraction even while the men with her were staring at her with reverence.

“You wish to speak?” Kirin said, and at her voice several of the men dropped to their knees.

But the mage’s lust seemed only to grow, and she stroked the wooden staff she held as if wishing it were Kirin’s body. Kirin shivered. She had never felt so unnerved by a human before, and she had certainly never longed for clothes.

“You have entered the Emperor’s forest.”

“We of the ninth circle do not recognize such distinctions.”

Inwardly she was puzzled. Most people were delighted when a unicorn chose to live in their forest, as unicorns brought great benefits to the surrounding forests. Animals lived longer, healthier lives and grew to larger sizes, which pleased the humans who hunted them, and plants grew year-round, providing an oasis in the bitter winters of this area of the world. In truth, unicorns rarely stayed in the same place long enough for the benefits to be fully felt, but local residents always respected any unicorns who stopped by for a season or two. Only the soldiers ever tried to kill the unicorns, using their horns for one-time cures instead of benefitting from the infinite wonders of a living unicorn.

“The Emperor wishes you to remain here,” the mage said.

Kirin nodded. So that was it. The Emperor wanted a pet unicorn to control. Well, he had found the wrong one. Even among unicorns, who were known for their inability to remain in one place for long, Kirin was renown for her fickle nature. She had planned on resting in these woods a week or two, no more, before moving on. She was driven by something, she didn’t know what, but she knew that somewhere there was a forest that needed her and she was determined to find it. There was no way she would consider staying here. However, there were other unicorns who would consider staying in the same forest for the life of the Emperor.

“If you wish a unicorn to remain in these woods,” she began, but was cut off by the mage slashing her hand in the air.

“You will remain.”

Kirin’s nostrils flared. She could smell the lust seeping off this woman and wondered if that was why she was insisting. But she wouldn’t accept this decision, even if she couldn’t lie to get out of her situation. Along with their need for constant travel, unicorns were also known for their rash decisions and Kirin could feel one coming on, but she was too angry to rethink her words as she took a step forward to threaten the mage.

“I will do no such thing, mage. You will release me and if I choose, I will send another unicorn to live here. But only if you release me without any more threats.”

The soldiers backed away from her and stared at the mage, who looked unperturbed by her words. In fact, she looked amused.

“You want me to release you? Then swear a Blood Oath to the Emperor.”

Kirin flinched as if the words had physically struck her. A Blood Oath? The mage couldn’t be serious. But she could read from the mage’s still-open mind that she was deathly serious. The only way Kirin would be released was to swear loyalty and fealty to the Emperor, a human. The consequences of that oath would be far-reaching, she knew, and might even kill her. Was that what the mage wanted? Was the mage here to kill her, but wanted to try a new method of killing?

Kirin charged at the mage, but the magic from the golden ring stopped her before she went two steps. She circled the small space allotted to her and considered her options. If she stayed here, she could hope that another mage came along and released her, unlikely as that seemed. But this mage would probably station guards to kill any other mages. However, she could probably talk the guards into leaving her unattended since they at least reacted to her presence with the usual respect and fear.

But it was also likely the mage would remain until she swore the Blood Oath, and in that case there was no chance of another mage rescuing her. Kirin changed back into a horse and circled, testing to see if the spell holding her in place was any weaker. It wasn’t. She tilted her head back and Sang to the creatures of the forest. They would carry the message to her father and mother. They might not be able to help her, but at least they would know her predicament. She wondered what her mother would do. She was Queen of all the unicorns, and always seemed to know what to do in every situation. She had always stressed to Kirin that survival was the most important goal, and that everything else would work out in time. But would she say the same in this scenario? Was it worth becoming a slave to the Emperor in order to survive?

She knelt in the grass and prepared to wait for word from her mother to arrive. The men lowered their bows and relaxed as well, and the mage smirked and leaned against the nearest tree as if she knew what Kirin’s inevitable decision would be. Kirin tossed her mane and rested her head on the sweet airy grass that always sprang up where she stood. It cushioned her against the knowledge that her decision was inevitable if she ever wanted to leave. But she would wait and see what her mother thought.

The moon was full that night and Kirin stayed awake and alert, although she didn’t think the soldiers would try to kill her under cover of the soft darkness. If they wanted her dead, she would already be dead. The mage remained awake as well, even though Kirin knew she couldn’t stay awake forever. Humans needed sleep, unlike creatures of the ninth circle. If she agreed to the Blood Oath, would she need sleep as well? She stood and paced, stopping every now and then to listen for a response to her message. She didn’t know who would be carrying it, and some creatures had quiet voices.

The moon had already begun to set when a moth appeared in the night and fluttered up to her, landing on the tip of her horn. She had to stretch her ears to catch its whispers.

“Survive,” the moth said.

Kirin snorted and the moth scurried away into the night. Kirin called a soft apology after it. She hadn’t meant to startle the delicate creature, but she had been disappointed by the answer. Somehow she had hoped her mother would find a way out of this situation. She bared her teeth and looked up at the moon. She sent out another Song, this time to the other creatures of the ninth circle. She ordered them to abandon the land claimed by the Emperor until Kirin was freed as a punishment for the Emperor’s arrogance.

Without creatures from the ninth circle, the land would slowly become barren, the crops would wither, and the people would turn on each other like rabid wolves, not understanding why, not knowing that only the care of the ninth circle kept the world in balance. Without the ninth circle, the Empire would fall quickly and Kirin would soon be freed and, most importantly, no other creatures would be caught in a similar trap. Kirin shuddered to think what would happen if the Emperor got his hands on a dragon, or a phoenix.

So she sent out her Song, a defiant Song, a fighting Song, and she heard the echoes of her Song reach back to her as the sun began to rise. They had heard her, and they were leaving. There was an air of mourning in the echoes and she realized they didn’t expect her to survive.

Now that she was resigned to her decision, she tried to think through the implications of the Blood Oath. She would be bound by blood to the Emperor, a human of the eighth circle. That would mean that she would probably lose all of her ninth circle abilities. She would no longer be able to change between a horse and a woman at will. She might even lose her horn. She would become a human, a lesser creature. Did the mage know that? Did she know that by demanding the Blood Oath, she was losing the unicorn? Something about the sly smile on the mage’s lips told Kirin that she did know, and that she was looking forward to having Kirin be simply a woman. Kirin tossed her mane and circled, pressing against the confines of the magic.

She would still have some abilities, she thought. She would still be a powerful mage, and perhaps all of her ninth circle powers wouldn’t be gone. And once the Emperor was dead, her powers would be returned to her, she thought, brightening a little. Humans had such short lives, after all. What were a few decades in her eternal life? Kirin was young, less than a hundred years old, so a few decades sounded impossibly long to her, but she knew that in the grand scheme of her life it would be no time at all. She nosed the ground, inhaling the fresh green scent and knowing that it would be a long time before she was able to be in her true body again. Then she turned back into a human.

“Have you made up your mind?” the mage asked, her perceptive eyes no doubt spotting the defeat in Kirin’s stance.

“I will swear your Blood Oath to the Emperor if you release me and do not force any other creatures to swear the same.”

At least she could protect her brethren against the same indignity if they were caught before they had a chance to leave the Empire, she thought. Soon, though, this land would be bereft of the ninth circle.

The mage nodded and looked pleased. She stepped forward until she was within striking distance and for a moment, Kirin was tempted to rip her heart out and eat it, as unicorns sometimes did with their enemies. But she choked down her rage and allowed the woman to take her hand.

“So smooth,” the mage said so quietly that only Kirin could hear. A vision flashed across her mind of Kirin pinned to the ground with the mage on top of her. At least once the Blood Oath was finished she wouldn’t have such unfettered access to the mage’s mind, Kirin thought as she blushed. The mage grinned and pulled out a dagger with the imperial seal on it. Kirin’s heart stuttered. This was really happening. She was really entering into a Blood Oath with a human.

The mage slashed across Kirin’s palm and she winced. Blood began to flow and it took all of her effort not to heal the wound. To her surprise, the mage slashed her own palm as well and pressed their palms together so that the blood could mix.

“Repeat after me,” the mage instructed. “I, state your name, hereby swear loyalty to Cinthe Tarin and the Imperial Crown.”

Kirin’s brow crinkled. She hadn’t known the Emperor’s name before, but it didn’t sound right. Still, she wasn’t in a position to question the mage. The mage’s eyes were glowing but there was fear in them as well, and her mind was completely shuttered.

“I, Kirin,” she paused to take a deep breath. This was it. “Hereby swear loyalty to Cinthe Tarin and the Imperial Crown.”

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