Hoof beats pounded against the forest floor. Alexor concentrated on keeping himself upright on Jeleth’s back as they galloped through the woods. With each stride, the herald grimaced. The damp soil did little to mute Jeleth’s steps. Anyone a mile away could hear the clamor, but they needed to forego stealth for speed. Though a soft mist had settled around them, Alexor could see darkened shadows darting through the trees above. The odor of rotten garbage and burning sulfur—the familiar stench associated with their enemies, the mornachts—began to spread throughout the forest.
“They’ve found us,” Alexor muttered. He chastised himself for choosing a path through the woods. He knew better. The southern front was infested with mornachts waiting to ambush a single cherubian like him. He should have sacrificed time and ridden around the forest instead of through it.
An arrow whistled near the herald’s head and imbedded itself deep inside a tree. The prickle of adrenaline coursed through Alexor’s body, numbing him to the autumn chill that only a few minutes ago seemed to seep through his black breastplate and tunic.
Jeleth neighed and veered left around a massive trunk that blocked their path. The herald leaned into the turn. His sweaty palms gripped the silver-white, almost iridescent strands of hair that flowed from Jeleth’s mane.
Three more arrows screamed past. One nearly hit Jeleth’s long neck.
Jeleth took another sharp turn—this time to the right—to avoid another tree. Alexor struggled to stay on his back. His thighs stung with exhaustion from gripping Jeleth’s sides. Riding bareback on a unicorn who made his own decisions was no easy task. Normally, the herald could have used his wings for a balance. Unfortunately, his caramel-hued wings extended to twice his body length and made excellent targets.
Alexor’s hand involuntarily patted the brass cylinder that jostled around in the pocket of his maroon kilt. The buttons would keep it secure, but he still worried. Did their enemies know about the scroll locked inside the cylinder? Did they see Ahimus, the head of the scribes, hand it to him? If he died, would the mornachts search his body and find it?
They must not get this scroll.
If the mornachts found the scroll before he could deliver it to Seraph Zephor, it would destroy everything his people had fought for during the past 3000 years and endanger those under Elysia’s protection. Dying in this ambush was unacceptable.
For a tempting instant, Alexor considered leaping off Jeleth’s back, hiding in the trees, and then soaring into the sky. Though many frowned upon it, Elysia did not penalize soldiers who abandoned a unicorn who had agreed to bear them. Protecting the scroll was paramount, he tried to reason.
Alexor clenched Jeleth’s mane harder, resisting the temptation to bolt. He would rather die with honor than live as a coward.
The few moments it took for the herald to make up his mind were the only moments he had to flee. The mornachts’ sulfuric smell increased. Several of them scurried through the limbs above them. He could not escape through flight now; they would surely shoot him down once he left the shelter of the trees.
A shower of arrows flew past them. One embedded itself in Alexor’s leg. He let out a sickening grunt and twisted Jeleth’s mane in his fingers as acidic poison from the arrow’s shaft leaked into his flesh. He reached for the poisonwood arrow with his right hand. If he could remove it, he might survive.
He pulled his hand back. The wound was too deep. The poison had already burned into his skin, and its sting coursed through his bloodstream. The arrow’s effects would be irreversible at this point. Removing it would only damage his leg more, and he would lose his hand if he touched the shaft.
Conserve energy. Live as long as possible.
Reaching Seraph Zephor before he died was his only option. Alexor might have fifteen minutes, thirty if he was lucky.
“How much longer?” he yelled, hoping Jeleth would hear him over the wind rushing past their ears and the thundering hooves.
“Twenty minutes,” neighed Jeleth.
With one hand holding Jeleth’s mane, the herald reached into his pack and yanked out his long cloak. He risked half-way extending his wings for balance. What damage could an arrow in the wing do now? He ignored the throbbing in his leg while he wrapped the cloak around Jeleth’s long neck, tying himself to his steed.
“Take my body… to Seraph Zephor,” said Alexor. Both the race through the woods and his wounds had drained him. “Tell him that… the message from the scribes is in my left pocket.” He braced himself as Jeleth bounded over a fallen tree. “Tell no one but the seraph.”
“Or the officers?” asked Jeleth, displaying a unicorn’s typical lack of emotion.
“No officers!” panted Alexor. “Zephor only. Alone.” The scribes had warned him about a traitor within the Elysian military and instructed him to tell no one but Zephor about it—not even the unicorns. Their desire for such secrecy confused Alexor. He would rather have announced the traitor’s name to all of Heaven’s Realm and brought him to justice, but he trusted the scribes.
“My mission was secret,” Alexor explained, “but the mornachts were waiting for us…” He took a few breaths. “…after we left the scribes’ library.” He groaned. The arrow’s poison was traveling up his leg. “Someone put them on our trail. Someone… with access.”
An arrow buried itself in Jeleth’s right hindquarter. The stallion whinnied but continued to run.
“Can you make it?” asked Alexor. Pain and fatigue muted his voice. Jeleth’s survival was now Elysia’s only hope.
Jeleth grunted. “I can make it as long as my horn stays attached.” Unicorns’ horns possessed healing powers so great that an enemy could only kill one through crushing, drowning, or burning.
“They won’t take your horn,” said Alexor. “Not while I’m alive.” He took a deep breath, straightened his shoulders, and pulled his sword out of its sheath. The sword felt heavier than usual, and the herald knew he could not fight in his weakened state. He thrust the sword in the air, hoping a show of valor would encourage the mornachts to stay hidden in the trees. He adopted his fiercest glare, staring up the tree trunks that disappeared into the fog above.
The fog has thickened, he realized. The mist might hide them long enough to escape the forest without attracting more arrows.
Jeleth continued galloping, but Alexor could feel him favoring his back leg. The herald’s head fell to his chest. Exhaustion overcame him as the poison spread throughout his body. He worried for his guardian, Arch-Seraph Zephor—the only father he had known. Zephor had taken him into his service after his parents were killed in a mornacht raid when Alexor was just a boy. He wished the scribes had written down the warning for Zephor instead of just telling him.
“I feel you fading,” said Jeleth. “I can run faster once we leave this wood. Lean up against me.”
Alexor had heard that unicorns’ sweat contained some of their healing power. Maybe Jeleth’s would help keep him alive long enough to find Zephor. He leaned his head and body against Jeleth and wrapped his arms around his warm neck. In a few moments, the pain lessened and his muscles relaxed.
Soon, the swirling mist around them turned from dark grey to light grey. They had escaped the forest. Every part of Alexor’s uniform felt damp, and beads of dew dripped off his helmet onto his nose. The sword fell out of his hand. Jeleth’s speed would be more effective than a weapon at this stage. He shivered and tightened the cloak that held him to Jeleth.
“Hold on,” said Jeleth. His iridescent horn glowed bright red as he accessed his stored energy. He took off in a gallop most cherubians had never experienced. The herald felt as though he was soaring down the mountainside, something he never expected to feel on the back of a unicorn.
Alexor tried to control his breathing as they ran. He needed to keep his heart rate low to slow the poison.
A few miles later, the red glow in Jeleth’s spiraled horn began to fade, and his breathing sounded labored. Jeleth was losing his stored energy, especially now that he needed it to heal himself. Alexor hoped they would make it.
“We’re approaching the tower,” said Jeleth.
Even without Jeleth’s words, Alexor knew they were close. The fog may have hidden the southern front’s charred, leafless trees, but it could not block out the territory’s smoky stench or the scorched grass under Jeleth’s hooves.
Through the haze, they finally beheld the Southern Command Tower, an obelisk encircled by a gated wall. They were close enough for Alexor to see a lone figure pacing along the parapet. For the past few months, Zephor had been pacing more than usual, and Alexor knew his tidings would only burden the seraph more.
Alexor leaned against Jeleth’s neck, unable to move. Bodies of fallen cherubians, his people, lay strewn across the ground. Healers and other soldiers knelt beside the wounded. He and Jeleth must have missed the battle by half a day.
Jeleth’s gait slowed, and Alexor could feel the unicorn’s body quiver as he hobbled to the tower.
Just a few more minutes and we’ll be there, he thought. He felt too weak to speak. Hold on for a few more minutes.
Jeleth, sensing the herald’s urgency, let out a neigh and fought on until they reached the tower gate where he collapsed. Alexor, still tied to Jeleth, fell with him. He lay on the ground with his leg trapped under Jeleth’s body. He kept his hand close to the scroll in his left pocket.
Alexor, lacking the strength to twist his neck up, saw only a sea of soldiers’ black boots and maroon and black kilts surrounding them in frenzied commotion. Suddenly, the soldiers hushed. Their boots parted, creating a path. The soldiers’ fists hit their breastplates in salute to the officer who walked toward them. The black leather trim on the officer’s silver seraph’s kilt swished about his knees faster than usual. Seraph Zephor, Alexor realized with relief, was only a few paces away.
Zephor knelt next to Alexor. His face was as stoic as usual, but the creases around his brown eyes had deepened with worry. “Get me a healer!” Zephor yelled.
The soldiers stayed put, staring at the wounded herald with pity. They knew healers would be of no help.
Zephor’s nose flared, and he flashed the soldiers a snarl only an unlucky few had ever seen. “Quickly!” he roared.
Zephor yanked a knife out of his boot and slit the cloak that tied Alexor to the unicorn. He pulled the herald out from under Jeleth and laid him on the ground. Only then did Alexor notice the damage Jeleth had sustained. Not one, but three arrows stuck into the unicorn’s side, and blood striped his white coat. Jeleth’s eyes were shut. He barely breathed.
Alexor turned his gaze back to Zephor. Rarely did unicorns die, and he did not want Jeleth’s death to be his last sight. He struggled to lift his right hand and crossed his fist over his chest.
“Seraph,” he gasped. He reached into his pocket and pulled out the scroll. “From the scribes…. Davian…was right.” His vision blurred. Only Zephor’s face remained in focus. He felt Zephor’s strong hands grasp the scroll.
“Tell the High Seraph…” He tried to finish the scribe’s warning, but his lips fell silent. Alexor, herald to Elysia’s second most powerful military leader, died with honor in his guardian’s arms. The name of the traitor died with him…
To read more, click the links below:
- The Elysian Chronicles: A Prophecy Forgotten – Amazon Kindle
- The Elysian Chronicles: A Prophecy Forgotten – Amazon (hardcover & trade paperback)
- The Elysian Chronicles: A Prophecy Forgotten – Barnes & Noble: Trade Paperback & Hardcover
Fantasy novelist M. B. Weston is the author of The Elysian Chronicles, a fantasy series about guardian angel warfare and treason. Weston hosts The Final Cut in Movies, an radio talk show about science fiction and fantasy movies that airs on 740 am WSBR. The Final Cut in movies can also be heard on iTunes. Weston speaks to children, teens, and adults about writing and the process of getting published. For more information on M. B. Weston, visit www.mbweston.com. Find out more about The Elysian Chronicles at www.elysianchronicles.com.