"...Now you be careful, ma'am, because there's a unicorn in there."
I stared down at the water purifier, then back up at the mechanic. He was tall and skinny with long dirty-blond hair, a real grease monkey. I'd even been thinking he was cute -- well, until he started blabbering about mythological creatures.
"A unicorn?" I forced a chuckle, sure he was making a crappy joke.
"Yes, ma'am. A real, honest-to-goodness unicorn," he said, his expression deadpan. "How else do you think the water gets clean?"
"Come on, you don't really expect me to believe that? It's the 20th century, and girls aren't so easy to fool anymore. I mean... it needs batteries, right?" I thumped the battery compartment. "Why would a unicorn need batteries?"
"For food, ma'am. Why else?"
I stared at him, trying to keep my mouth from hanging open. His face was a perfect study in sincerity. I figured he was probably about to pee himself from the effort of not laughing.
"All right. 'Unicorn' is just some engineering term for some newfangled purifying device, am I right? You go around telling people there are unicorns in their water purifiers, that they need batteries for 'food'. Then you have a good laugh when they believe you. And hey, the good bit is, it's all true. You almost got me. Very funny." I folded my arms and raised an eyebrow.
"No, ma'am. I mean, there's a unicorn in there." He grabbed his toolbox, flipped his ratty old baseball cap onto his head, and headed for the door. Before I could open my mouth he was out into the corridor, the door swinging shut behind him with a click. In the sudden quiet of my new apartment the noise seemed impossibly loud.
And then it was just me, facing off with my new water purifier.
Well, that's kind of melodramatic. It was a water purifier, for godssakes -- it couldn't face off against anything. But it sure as hell felt like it was watching me. I circled the purifier, staring intently at it, then felt like a fool. Obviously, the simplest thing would be for me to actually look inside.
I flipped open the hatch on the top and only hesitated for an instant before peering in. The sight I found wasn't surprising at all: some sort of filter, snapped into the purifier's plastic insides. Perfectly normal.
Well, what had I expected? That a tiny white unicorn would be prancing around inside? I snorted, shrugged off a slight sinking feeling, and grabbed the filter to get a closer look --
"-- the HELL!" I leapt backward before I could stop myself, squashing myself against the other wall of my tiny apartment kitchen.
The problem -- well, where do I start? The voice was very cheerful and distinctly male. But I lived alone, and I was pretty damn sure there was no way a man was lurking in my apartment without my knowledge. Plus the voice hadn't been so much a real voice as... as words that turned up in my head. It'd felt like a voice, but I didn't remember actually hearing anything.
I clutched the wall until I was sure my heart wasn't going to give out, then slowly straightened up. That, obviously, hadn't happened. No disembodied voices had just spoken in my head because, let's be clear, that sort of thing doesn't happen.
Well, okay: something had spoken to me. But this was a joke, right? It had to be a joke. Or maybe it was just some sort of manufacturer's recording that talked when you touched the filter -- probably to tell you that even breathing on it would void your damn warranty. Something like that.
I straightened my shirt, brushed my hair back out of my face, and advanced on the purifier again. If I'd known it was going to be this much trouble I'd have just taken my chances with lead poisoning.
I reached in for the second time, grabbed the filter --
I managed not to jump back this time, but it was a close thing. "Where the hell are you?" So it wasn't the wittiest of retorts, but give a girl a break.
"In the purifier, of course. Oh! I forgot to say. I'm Ystarathoniel. And I'm your unicorn." The chirpy mental voice bordered on the smug.
"You're what? Ys... rath... what? My unicorn?" This was clearly not going to be a good day.
"Ystarathoniel," he said, sounding rather hurt. "And of course I'm a unicorn. Your unicorn. Every mage has to have a unicorn, after all."
"Mage?" I sputtered. "What -- are you saying I'm a mage?" I crossed my arms. "What kind of freaking drugs have you been purifying out of the water? Screw that, what kind of drugs have I been doing? There's no way I'm going to believe that a water purifier has just said, in my mind, that I'm a mage. This is not happening. And I'm not talking to you. It. Whatever."
"Hey! I'm a unicorn!"
"No, you're a water purifier."
Well, the not-speaking resolution had been promptly blown to hell. I pulled the filter out of the machine and gave it a good shake. "I'm not going to believe you're a unicorn until you show me."
It was his turn to sputter now, radiating injured pride. "Fine!" he said at last. "Put me down on the floor."
I gingerly placed the filter in the middle of my kitchen floor and backed off, just in case anything really spectacular was about to happen. The filter blurred, as if it were vibrating, then suddenly swelled. For the briefest of moments, mind-bending shapes flickered in the fast-expanding blob --
And in the next instant I was getting my first look at a unicorn.
I burst out laughing.
"You... you look like... something dreamed up by a six-year-old on a sugar high," I managed to gasp at last.
"Hey!" Ystarathoniel stamped a hoof, narrowing his eyes at me. Unfortunately -- since the hoof was a particularly dainty golden one, and his eyes were impossibly huge, dark, and fringed by enormous eyelashes -- this didn't have the right effect. The unicorn was barely pony-sized, with slender limbs and dainty muzzle, all topped off by a cascading mane which nearly swept the ground and an even lusher tail that actually did. His horn, at least, might have had some practical function: it was almost two feet long and as slim as the rest of his build, but it also looked deadly-sharp. And, of course, it sparkled, like the rest of --
"Oh, no. You sparkle?" The effect was rather more blinding than subtle. The patch of sunlight that made it through my window fell neatly on his coat, feeding the already radiant whiteness of his fur until it glowed and threw off glittering sparks. It was like having a superpowered disco ball in the middle of my kitchen.
"It's not my fault!" the unicorn protested, caught between a whine and a grumble. "This is the prevailing belief about unicorns right now, so this is what I'm stuck with. It's not my problem if the only believers are six-year-old-girls, is it?"
"You didn't have any problems becoming a more inconspicuous water purifier," I pointed out. "At least you weren't lighting up the room from the inside."
He looked distinctly put out. "Yes, but nobody believes in water purifiers, you see. It takes a great deal more energy and skill to alter a form if it's already defined by belief."
"...Right," I said, distracted by a more pressing matter. "And... what the hell's that thing on your butt?"
He craned his neck to peer at the marking: a flower picked out in neon-bright rainbow hues. "Damnit, not again! They keep getting us mixed up with those stupid My Little Ponies now. Last time this happened, my mane was rainbow-colored for a week." He eyed the flower with resignation as his mane began to shade toward light pink. "It all depends on the flow of belief at the time. Just my luck that I wasn't born in a time with reasonable beliefs, like... oh, the Middle Ages. That would have been fun."
"Just how old are you, then?"
The unicorn hesitated, dropping his head and looking at me sidelong. "I'm... old enough. Old enough to be partnered to a mage."
He must be even younger than I'd thought. Just my luck to be saddled with an impossibly girly, ridiculously hyper, young creature whose name I couldn't even pronounce. And, of course, which shouldn't exist.
He shook himself down, lithe and catlike, and gave the vivid flower tattoo one last glare. "Hopefully it'll go away soon," he said, his cheerfulness returning."At least I can fly right now."
I groaned, leaning on the counter and dropping my forehead into my hands. "Is that going to make any sense at all? It isn't, is it. I mean, nothing else has made sense today, so why should I expect rationality?"
"I don't know how it works," he admitted.
"It's not even like you have wings."
"I know, I know. But I just kind of think about flying," he took a neat little step, "and I end up in midair."
A glance at his ridiculous golden hooves confirmed that they were, indeed, floating several inches above the tiles. "Great. And no doubt you move around by galloping on thin air? I'm sure that ought to work. What kind of physics are they teaching six-year-olds these days?"
"Physics? What physics?" The unicorn sounded genuinely confused. I was quite sure that wasn't an unusual state of mind for him.
I snorted. "Never mind. I don't even want to know what happens if the prevailing form of belief changes when you're trotting around a hundred feet in the air. Do you just... splat?"
He winced, eyes widening. "I... I dunno. Never thought about it."
"Of course you haven't."
"Hey!" His ears laced back, and he gave me an affronted stare that would have done a crazy old cat lady credit. After a moment, he snorted, shaking his head until his ears flapped. "But that's not the point, you know."
"Really. And what is the point, then, oh wise one?"
"The point is that you have to train as a mage, duh!" I allowed myself the juvenile satisfaction of imagining a whoosh as my sarcasm slid right over his sparkly head.
He stared. "Why? Why? You need to... you need to train your talent so you can become a better mage, that's why."
"Yeah, I got that." I folded my arms and met him stare for stare. He had the unfair advantage of being impossibly cute, but I'd had plenty of practice against my brother's angel face. "Why do I need to be a better mage? Or even a mage at all?"
"Because -- because... Uh." His ears laced back again and he stomped a tiny hoof. "How come nobody else ever has problems with their mages? Just my luck to end up with you." He gave me a petulant glare, every line of his body radiating indignation.
"Are you about to throw a temper tantrum? I'd love to see a horse try that. What do you do, roll on the floor? Scream? Stamp your feet? All of the above?" I tapped a finger on my chin, theatrically. "Not so different from a spoiled little boy, really." Hey, this might even be kind of fun. I'd never been allowed to taunt my little pest of a brother too far, but nobody had given me any rules about childish, whiny unicorns.
"For your information," Ystarathoniel snapped, "I am neither a boy nor spoiled. I'm well over --". To his credit, he caught himself suddenly. The unicorn took a deep breath and held it for a moment, tail flicking behind him. "Look. You're curious, right? Admit it!"
"Nuh-uh. I don't see why I ought to be curious. I can just push you out the window and you can gallop off on thin air to find someone else who has mage powers waiting to be activated. And then I can just wait until whatever crappy drug I'm on wears off, and figure out what really happened. You might have forgotten this for a moment, but unicorns aren't real. And neither are mages."
"Oh, really?" He calmed down suddenly, switching back to smug.
I eyed him with new distrust. He wasn't... oh, come on. Surely unicorns couldn't smirk. Their faces weren't the right shape!
"And what would you say about the time when you were..."
...seven, and your parents let you have a pony ride for your birthday party. After an eternity of waiting, you climbed up onto the pink stepstool and the man lifted you onto the warm, creaking saddle. But you wouldn't let them start the ride until you'd carefully taped a cardboard horn onto the pony's bridle, fumbling seven-year-old fingers folding the scotch tape around the double-stitched leather as the patient pony stood there under you, covering you in the perfume of horse breath. And then you clung to his neck and closed your eyes, and the whole ride you dreamed of flying.
... eight, and your mother wouldn't buy you the unicorn-print bedsheets at the back-to-school sale because they were more expensive. But you wanted them so much, wanted them like nothing else you'd ever seen in your life (except a real, live unicorn, of course). You ran off, blinded by the hot saltiness of tears, and that was when you bumped into the display stand and a single plush toy fell into your field of view; and you watched in sudden breathless slow motion as the unicorn fell onto the floor, bouncing once before settling down. You scooped it up gently, stroked the rainbow-colored mane, and knew you'd never be lonely again. Because he'd chosen you.
... ten, just in October, after moving into the big city. You had the first birthday of anyone in your class for that school year. You were handing out the unicorn-shaped invites, the ones you'd cut out and colored yourself based off Lightfoot the unicorn (who you'd named "Lightfoot" after that story and now came with you on all your adventures). Then Jessica said, unicorns are for babies now. And Tiffany said, yeah. Everyone knows they're fake, right? And everyone did know. Everyone except you. They were laughing, all laughing, and you ran all the way home, ran to Lightfoot; but he seemed smaller somehow, missing that vital sparkle. You saw for the first time he was nothing more than stuffing and fabric sewn into a lifeless shape. And it's true what they say: nothing hurts more than first heartbreak, even if you weren't in love with something "real". Especially if you were in love with magic.
... seventeen, and you wanted a tattoo before you started college, screw what your parents had said. You were at the tattoo parlor with your friends, looking at designs, joking about getting the largest or most suggestive or goriest ones. Then you saw the unicorn, a prancing, wild, untamed silhouette, and you said, wouldn't it be funny if I got that one? Your friend laughed. That's way too girly for someone who already has five piercings. I mean, c'mon. And you said quickly -- too quickly? -- yeah, I just thought it would be ironic. To... to make fun of everyone who still believed in unicorns, ya know? You turned away so fast, and you weren't really interested in any of the rest of the designs, and after you left that day you never did get a tattoo after all, even though you'd really meant to when you walked in the door.
... twenty-three, and --
"STOP!" I jerked myself out of the whirl of memories, breathing hard. They were scarcely more than highlights of impossibly vivid details, color and smell and emotion blurring together in the way of memories; and they'd flashed by so quickly. But they were memories I'd thought I'd forgotten, safely lost in the dust at the back of my mind. As they faded again, slipping back out of my grasp, the chaos in my mind condensed into one thing: cold, hard anger.
"You... you!" I growled, advancing on the unicorn. He looked as startled as I felt, and I realized again just how small he was. "What... what did you do? What right did you have to invade my privacy, you animal? What do you presume to know about me?" I lunged, wanting to shake him, to snap his goddamn neck, to... to --
"I'm sorry." The unicorn was backing away, step by step, every muscle tense; knotted veins stood out on his neck as he kept his head high, pulled back so sharply it looked unnatural. I suddenly realized he was fighting instinct, the instinct that told him to just lower his head and run me through. His horn still glinted, slim and golden and deadly-sharp, and I would have been no match for it. But he was backing away, his eyes flickering with some other emotion I couldn't identify.
The coldness inside me swelled, fueled by a surge of sheer fury. It rushed to fill my mind, expanding until it pushed up against a barrier; but only for a moment. I had the oddest feeling, as if something in my mind had snapped.
The unicorn swallowed. "I'm sorry," he repeated. "Please... please stop?" He pranced backward, brushing up against the wall, and he was trembling. He abruptly dropped to his knees, eyes filled with something I finally recognized as fear and... pain? He was staring at my hands.
Startled, I glanced down at my clenched fists and discovered they were glowing faintly. I tried to relax my hands but met with a moment of odd resistance before my fingers unfolded. The glow winked out; and I looked up in time to see the unicorn relax, every inch of his body sagging.
My anger evaporated in an instant. I slumped onto my knees, vaguely realizing that I was shaking uncontrollably; had I been shaking since he'd pulled up those memories? It was hard to be sure.
Across the kitchen, I heard the unicorn haul himself back up and cross haltingly to meet me. I didn't look up. Whatever creepy eldritch shit was happening to my life, I didn't want any more of it. Maybe if I ignored him, things would just go away and I could pass this all off as some damn hallucination.
"Kate. Kate? I'm sorry," he said, for the third time. "I didn't mean to do that, you know." The overtones that came with his mental voice were guilt-laden. "They warned me not to mess around with minds. I shouldn't have read your mind, and I certainly shouldn't have meddled with it. But you'd brought up the unicorn memories yourself. They were already in your subconsciousness, so close to the front of your mind; and I thought it wouldn't hurt if I pulled the first one out just a little further... I didn't mean to get all of them. And I'd never have expected they'd be so strong, and..."
There was a long pause, but I made no move to fill it.
"I... I just wanted to remind you that once, you believed."
At that, I did look up, slowly. He looked pathetic: head hanging, tail drooping, so different from the flamboyant creature who'd burst into my life just a few minutes ago. This time I did feel a hint of sympathy for him. Hell, the little bugger was kind of cute, and he knew how to use it to good effect. Not fair at all.
I sat up and hugged my legs to my chest. Thankfully, the trembling was beginning to slow. "What happened back there? I mean, with the glowing? I'm pretty sure we normal humans aren't supposed to do that." I raised an eyebrow at the unicorn.
His ears perked up. "Oh, that? Your anger activated your magic, even though you weren't trained." His voice brightened with every word, probably because I wasn't chewing him out. "You cast a pain spell. Quite a powerful one, actually." He somehow managed to convey the distinct impression of a wince. "There were no physical effects, you just forced pain directly into my mind."
"Oh." What the hell could I say to that? This morning, when everything had still been normal, I'd decided to make toast for breakfast. Now a glowing horned pony was telling me I'd cast a powerful pain spell.
"How do I control that? I mean, I'd rather not do that every time I get angry. Psychics might come after me if I start eclipsing their little gimmicks; think of all the glittery shawls and incense I'd have to fend off. Not to mention the trite predictions of dooooooooom."
The smug expression was back. I really needed to tell the unicorn it didn't suit him. "Well, the only foolproof way to get control would be to be trained as a mage."
I should've seen that one coming.
Oh, fuck off.
But what my traitorous mouth said was, "Fine, you win. I'll take my stupid mage training." I glared at him, but the irrepressible brat just looked even more cheerful.
"See? I knew it'd all work out in the end!" He nudged me with his muzzle, giving me a winsome look.
"And don't think I'm going to pet you, either." I stood shakily and walked over to the counter, pretending to straighten things out even though there wasn't anything to organize. The one exception, of course, was the now-useless plastic shell that had once been intended for my water purifier. It'd been damn expensive, too.
"What am I going to do with this now that you've managed to ruin all my plans? And how am I supposed to purify my water now?" I ran some tap water into a glass and thumped it down on the countertop.
"Oh, that's easy. I can do it for you." He trotted over to my side, arching his neck to touch the water with his horn. A shimmer of magic rippled across the surface, and he smirked. "I'm loads better than any simple machine, obviously. I can engage in witty banter, transport you around..."
"Be impossibly annoying," I muttered under my breath. I sniffed the glass carefully before tossing back the contents. It was good water, I'll give him that. Probably the purest I've ever had.
"That too. Wait, what?"
I turned to face him. "Also, you're going to have to give me a name I can pronounce. Or I'll call you... Twinkletoes."
He bestowed another affronted look on me. "Some people," he announced with as much dignity as he could muster, "know me as Rathion."
"Huh. All right, I can deal with that. It's better than Ys-whatever."
"Yeah, that." I plopped onto my couch and Rathion ambled over to stand by me. He began nudging my hand again until I gave in and scratched around his ears. "So, when do I get this fabled teacher of magic?"
"Hmmm?" He sighed in bliss, leaning into my fingers. "The teacher? Oh. It's me, of course."