A Brief History of Unicorns

::Did anyone in Abydos tell you their history?:: At Linna's nod, Cedony continued. :: Then I shall give you the final pieces of the puzzle. But, to do so, I'll have to take you back rather farther than they did.
::Thousands of years ago, when the races of men were still new, there was only one sort of magic practiced throughout the world. Those who had the gift used the powers given off by all life to fuel their magics. These powers tended to collect, like water, into pools, streams, and rivers. The greater their gift of magic, the more of that power they could find and use. But none of them were really *attuned* to how the powers flowed--every time a magician traveled to a new place, he'd have to search out the locals flows and spend time accustoming himself to them. Many were frustrated by this situation, but no one could find a solution to it.
::One day, one of the most powerful magicians of that time, a man named Sinuhe, was traveling through a country that used to lie far south of here, searching for something that was disturbing the natural flow of power there. Suddenly, he heard a crackling, hissing noise above him, and he looked up just in time to see a flaming stone falling through the sky. It landed just within a few leagues of where he was, shaking the ground. His curiosity piqued, he rode to the area where it had fallen, searching around until he finally found the still-smoking stone lying in its newly- made crater.
::To his physical sight, it was dark and glassy, looking very much like obsidian. When he looked at it with mage-sight, though, he was startled to see that it had a natural attunement to the flow of powers, and that attunement seemed to extend far beyond the local area. Sinuhe wondered if, perhaps, someone who was magically linked to that stone would gain that attunement as well. He was reluctant to test it on himself, though, so he made his test with the only other living thing in the area--his horse.
::We, at least, still consider what Sinuhe did to be one of the greatest magical feats ever accomplished on Ifreann, the binding of a living creature with an inanimate object that wasn't of this world. It took several hours and all of his concentration to accomplish it, as he carefully manipulated the magics of and surrounding the stone and linked them to the mare. When he finally finished, and opened his eyes, he received a definite surprise.
::His horse was a horse no longer. Where once had been a gray hide was now pure white; solid hooves had changed to cloven. From her head now extended a long, spiraled horn, shimmering with what seemed like every color at once. And, most importantly, she had become a sentient, intelligent creature, startling him by speaking directly to his mind. She had become a unicorn.
::Sinuhe's main goal was achieved, though. Through her new powers, she was able to lead him to the source of the disturbance in the natural powers--it turned out to be a magician who was using the powers to create magical creatures that a neighboring king wished to use against Sinuhe's home country. With the help of the unicorn, who was able to block the magician's access to the local streams of power, Sinuhe defeated him.
::As he rode the unicorn back to the stone, Sinuhe was ready to bind himself to it. But something she said gave him pause. When he thanked her for helping him defeat the magician, she replied, ::I did not help you because of what he planned to do. I helped you because there are magical creatures living in that area that depend on the power streams for their existence. His activities were endangering them.::
::Sinuhe realized that, with such an objective view, the unicorn would actually be perfectly suited to become a guardian of the natural powers…though he fought that realization for a few days, as he gathered some local help and transported the stone back to his stronghold. Finally, though, he gave up his dream of being able to access any power streams quickly and easily. Instead, he bought as many horses as he could, binding each one to the stone, until he had created a herd of nearly 50 unicorns.
::At first, they stayed close to home, monitoring the magic and helping Sinuhe understand his accomplishment more. As their numbers grew, however, they began to spread to other countries. They worked--and played--hard to increase the herds, until they finally discovered that their binding to the stone had given them a greatly-increased lifetime. After that, they slowed things down somewhat.:: Cedony's mental voice was rich with humor.
::It took only a few generations of men, though, for one to be able to find unicorns throughout Ifreann. One would have to look *hard,* though--they tended to stay hidden, only intervening in affairs when they felt it was needed. They'd live in small herds, always monitoring the flow and condition of the magic in the area.
::As time went on, men, and other races of beings, found new ways and practices of magic, and the duties of the unicorns diminished. They were--and are--so attuned to this one way of magic that they could not learn any others. And then, the blow came.
::About 700 years ago, there was an immense flood in Ifreann. What many people do not remember is that it wasn't just a physical flood, it was an immense upheaval in the natural magic on which we depend. We never have figured out what caused it,:: Cedony mused, ::but we know its effects. I wasn't alive then myself, but most of the herd here was, and they were cruelly affected by it. The physical and mental disorientation were overwhelming. Many unicorns died of it--all of them would have, had it not been for a certain elven lass who ably assisted the herds living in and near Elven lands.:: Cedony nodded her head respectfully to Elwynn.
::When the flood finally receded, and the surviving unicorns able to reorient themselves again, they found the magical landscape irrevocably changed. The natural magic was now seeping deep into the earth, creating, in effect, a vast underground ocean, far out of reach of most living beings. However, they could sense that there were three areas where the magic seeped back up, like artesian wells, into huge pools of magic. And when they reached the place where the Unicorn Stone had been placed for safe- keeping, they found it had split into three pieces.
::After some discussion, they decided to split the herd into three parts. Each one would take a piece of the Stone and use it to track down exactly where each large pool was, and take up residence there. One of those groups, of course, came here. And for hundreds of years, we lived here with no cares, and no contact with the outside world.
::But then humans came to settle in the valley nearby. The unicorns here debated for days, wondering if they should hide their presence, or perhaps even drive the humans away. But Merinen, the Oldest, insisted that the group had been too long out of touch with the world, and it was time to meet it again. And so came the bargain of which Nicandra told you--a bargain that most came to appreciate and enjoy in time.
But, eighteen years ago, came the second disaster to hit us in the lifetimes of many in our group. We answered the call from the village, driving off an attack by bandits, pursuing the survivors all the more intently because of the deaths of Merinen and Shelida. But then we felt an intense upheaval of magic near our grove--it was a gate spell being activated. We hurried back, but it was too late. The Unicorn Stone--the Stone that binds us and sustains us-- had been stolen.::
"So the attack was nothing more than a diversionary tactic," Garber said disgustedly.
Cedony nodded. ::Hathor also managed to shield it heavily from us, a frankly brilliant tactical move. Because the Stone is shielded, we cannot move too far from our source of magic, or we'd lose our connection to it. The shield also prevents us from determining where the Stone is. Plus, we knew we'd need to stay and shield the pool from him. We are tied down here, while Hathor is free to do as he pleases.
::We didn't know at first just *what* it was he had in mind. But unicorns can accomplish one last task, even after they're dead. Their spirits can be called back to answer one question. Shelida was asked what the unknown magician's plans were for the stone. She told us that he intended to link himself to it, just as Sinuhe had considered long ago. Thus, he would gain access to our pool of magic, and could access it from anywhere on Ifreann. And with that amount of power at his command, he'd be able to do anything he pleased, including conquering much of this world, and probably parts of others.
::It fell to me to call on Merinen and ask her a question. I almost asked her straight out what we should do, but she had always taught me to think for myself, and I thought that there was a more important question--how long we had before he was able to link himself fully to the stone. She told us that we had no less than seventeen-and-a-half years, and no more than eighteen.::
"Goodness! Why--" ::--so long?:: Ceridon asked.
::He's dealing with unfamiliar magic,:: Cedony replied. ::He had to study the stone for years to even know where to begin. And even when he finally began to link himself in, he realized that he'd have to go very slowly. You see, the Stone, we think, has some sort of awareness or sentience, and is fully capable of defending itself if it is meddled with in a way it does not like. That happened once before, a long time ago, and the results were...not pretty. Hathor somehow figured that out, and is making sure his careful insinuations don't arouse it.
::Once we knew how long we had, we were able to start making plans. We realized that our best chance to find the Stone was to create a unicorn whose connection to it was so strong that it would work even through Hathor's shield. Each unicorn, you see, is bound to the Stone before he or she is born; the binding is done by a unicorn who is not related, and who fulfills a role similar to a human godparent. Unfortunately, there were no unicorns pregnant at that time.
::There was a way around that, though. Unicorns had studied Sinuhe's work over the centuries, and developed new spells based on it. One of those spells would split a unicorn into two beings--one unicorn, one human. That compound being would be able to choose which guise to inhabit while young, and would, when mature, be able to inhabit both at once.
::There are certain advantages to this. While unicorns mature physically quite fast--within just a few years--our magical abilities mature much more slowly. Most unicorns don't reach their full magical powers until the age of 100. I'm something of a prodigy, in that I reached it by 75.:: Cedony wrinkled her muzzle the way a human would wrinkle her nose. ::But we discovered that, if a unicorn is living in the guise of a human, he or she matures, physically *and* magically, at the rate a human does. So if a unicorn lived as a human for fifteen to twenty years, she could then switch back to unicorn guise and be able to wield her full powers. That's advantage number one.
::Advantage number two is the splitting aspect, which occurs once the human half reaches puberty. We can get two magicians for the price of one, so to speak. The few times we've tried it, though, the unicorn half tends to be rather dominant. It's as if most of the being's consciousness is located in the unicorn half, and the human half doesn't act with much independence.
::Anyway, we all decided that we needed a being like this-- one whom we could *all* bind to the stone, creating a link so strong that not even Hathor's shield could entirely block it. But, with no unicorns pregnant, we had to try it with a human. And the only human who was at the right stage of pregnancy was your mother, Ceridon.
::That much I agreed to. What I *didn't* agree with was the decision that, once the child was born, it would be raised entirely with us. I guess I can understand their reasons why--they were scared. They didn't want to have the child out of their sight and protection. But I was sure that, if you were raised with us, you'd never really develop much as a human. And when the ability to split into two beings came, your unicorn half would be the dominant one, as had happened before. The others insisted that this wasn't a problem, but I felt sure that, in order to defeat Hathor, you'd need both your selves to be able to act and fight. The others, especially Vannan, didn't agree, and so they overruled me.
::I knew your mother well, though, Ceridon, and I knew she'd never stand for that. I was certain she and your father would take you away rather than hand you over to us. So I decided to change the spell in a way that it would ensure that you'd have to come back to us, by forcing you into the guise of a unicorn when you reached puberty. That way, your parents would bring you back to us, and we'd be able to give you the training you needed to face Hathor.
::And so, our herd went to Abydos, and to your mother. Everything depended on being able to punch through Hathor's shields long enough to place the spell on you. There were some that hoped his shields would stay down long enough for us to get a fix on where the Stone was. That didn't happen, of course. We barely had enough time to bind you to the Stone, and for me to set the spell. And then Vannan made his pronouncement, and Nicandra rebelled, and events began transpiring as I'd expected.
::What I didn't expect is that they would come back without you,:: Cedony continued ruefully. ::I hadn't realized their sense of duty to Abydos was so strong. I wanted to explain everything to Nicandra, and so learn from her where they'd left you, but Vannan forbade any contact with her or any other human. He is the Oldest, and I was bound to obey. I could only hope that, somehow, you'd find your way to us. And here you are now, though you left things rather late.::
"We would have--" ::--come sooner.:: "But Father Mingon insisted--" ::--we train first,--:: "--so we could--" ::--take care of ourselves.::
::A wise man,:: Cedony commented. ::And that means I may not have to teach you as much as I'd feared. It may be that all you really need is to get used to the splitting.::
"But what if I don't--" ::--*agree* to do this?" Ceri asked rebelliously. She could feel Linna's shock at her question, but she was determined to hear the answer. After all, she hadn't *asked* for any of this to happen. The unicorns seemed to take it for granted that she'd do this for them, even though it was a dangerous task not of her choosing.
::I would remove the spell and your binding,:: Cedony replied matter-of-factly. ::And you would be a normal human girl again.::
"And what would happen to the unicorns then?" Linna asked pointedly, glaring at Ceridon.
::In a few weeks, Hathor will succeed in binding himself completely to the Stone,:: Cedony said. ::And then the race would be well and truly on.
::You see, any being who is bound to the Stone can not only bind another to it, but can remove binds as well. We're absolutely sure that Hathor will attempt to do exactly that to us when he can.::
"Won't you just be able to remove him?" Garber asked.
::We'll try, certainly. But as we're shielded from the Stone, we'll be at a distinct disadvantage. Plus, we have been able to determine that he's binding himself to it in a different way than the way we're bound. We'd have to spend precious time studying it--time he'd use to remove *us* from the Stone. The odds are, he'd be able to remove *all* of us before we could remove him.
::When any of us loses our connection with the Stone... well, we'd lose all our magic, and become as ordinary horses. And as no horse could possibly live as long as we have, we would instantly die.::
There was a long moment of silence at that, as Ceridon seemed to be mulling over Cedony's words. Finally, with another glare, Linna elbowed the human Ceridon in the ribs.
"All right, all right," Ceri said. ::I'll do it.::
::Thank you,:: Cedony replied softly.

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