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  A Fawcett Columbine Book

  Published by Ballantine Books

  Copyright 1989 by Parachute Press, Inc

  All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Ballantine Books, a division Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.

  ISBN: 0-449-903605

  Cover design by Dale Fiorillo

  Illustration by Rowena Morrill

  Manufactured in the United States of America

  First Edition: April 1989

  10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1





  New York


  In The Tower Room

  As slowly as she possibly could, Sheila McCarthy climbed the stairway that led to the tower room of Prince Laric's palace. Fortunately for Sheila, it was a tall tower with a great many stairs; at the rate she was going, she could truthfully say it had taken her half the morning just to reach the tower Door

  She stopped on the fourth landing and leaned out one of the high arched windows, surveying the courtyard below. Morning sunlight streamed down onto the square as a band of warriors in dust-stained tunics rode in through the gate. What I wouldn't give to be down there instead of here, Sheila thought, hearing the prince's men calling to each other and laughing as they dismounted. They had just returned from some sort of mission, she guessed, and now had only to see to their horses and enjoy tonight's feast in thanks for a job well done. The sun vanished behind thick white clouds, and Sheila resumed her climb.

  It's just a lesson, she reminded herself. I'll pretend it's algebra or something. Algebra had been Sheila's worst subject, a class she had dreaded every day of her freshman year. It had been complicated, tedious, and sometimes completely mystifying, yet she had made it through the school year—that is, backwhen she used to do normal things like go to school. She shook her head with a start. It did no good to think about the life she used to live or the world she had left behind.

  Once, and she couldn't even keep track of how long ago that was, Sheila had been an average fourteen-year-old student at Hillside High. She had gone to school, played softball, watched music videos, hung out with her friend Cookie at the local pizza place, and read a lot of fantasy and science fiction books. There hadn't been anything unusual about her, except perhaps for her friendship with an elderly, rather eccentric scientist named Dr. Reit. Dr. Reit was famous for inventing imaginative, remarkable, and extremely strange contraptions. Most people didn't believe that Dr. Reit's inventions actually worked. And even Sheila had been doubtful when he first showed her his Molecular Acceleration Transport Device, a machine that was supposedly capable of transporting people into other times. And yet she had actually fallen into it and wound up in this strange parallel world where unicorns, sword fights, and magic seemed as natural as softball in her own world. Sometimes she still couldn't believe she had become one of the unicorn riders—a small group of warriors led by Illyria, the Unicorn Queen, whose special calling it was to protect the magical herd of unicorns.

  Magic. Sheila frowned as she reached the seventh and final landing. Directly ahead of her was the heavy oak door that led to the tower room. She hesitated one last moment, looking back down the stairs and wondering if she had the nerve to play sick now and make up an excuse later.

  "Sheila." A voice that was at once sharp and gentle cut into her thoughts. "How much longer would you like to put off today's lesson? Till tomorrow perhaps?"

  Sheila flushed as she turned to Micula, sister of Prince Laric, who ruled Campora. Like her brother, Micula had straight black hair, strong, high cheekbones, and the proud, self-contained presence of those born into royalty. She was only an inch or so taller than Sheila, and yet there was something unnerving about her.

  Sheila realized she had not heard the rower door open. In fact, it wasn't open. Had Micula opened and closed it so silently—or had she simply passed through it as water passes through a sieve? Either was possible, Sheila knew. For Micula was a powerful sorceress, and she was here to teach Sheila magic.

  "Come inside," Micula said, dismissing the question of Sheila's lateness and waving her reluctant pupil into the tower room.

  This was the one room in the palace that held no finely carved furniture, no rugs woven to look like flowers scattered on the forest floor or stars flung against the night sky, no lamps carved of jade and lapis lazuli. Campora's palace was known far and wide for its exotic treasures. And yet this tower was completely empty. There were only five stone walls with a single high window cut into each, a white marble floor, and a vast ceiling of polished alabaster that seemed to gather the sunlight from above and transform it into a soft white glow. What Sheila really liked to do here was simply lie on her back and watch the play of light on the ceiling, changing it from an opaque sheet of white to what reminded her of fine china, so translucent she could almost see through it.

  "Why not?" Micula said in response to Sheila's thoughts. "You may lie on your back if you like."

  Maybe that's why she spooks me, Sheila thought. She can always read me—but I can never read her. It was impossible to tell whether the sorceress was mocking her or genuinely thought that lying down was a good idea.

  "Let's begin, then." Micula's voice was rich and throaty, as if she had spent a lot of time laughing, a concept Sheila found very difficult to imagine. "Have you been practicing?"

  Sheila hesitated a moment before answering, "Not exactly."

  "You mean you haven't,' Micula translated.

  This was definitely worse than algebra. At least her algebra teacher never gave her the third degree. And, Sheila added silently, my algebra teacher never made me feel as if I'd have to become a completely different type of human just to work an equation. The more Sheila saw of Micula, the more it seemed to her that Micula had given up everything—the privileges of her royal birth, normal friendships, even her beautiful waist-length hair—in order to work magic. Sheila knew she could never make those kinds of sacrifices.

  What she really wanted to do, Sheila realized, was tell Micula that she would rather not study magic anymore. When they first started working together, she had expected to learn all sorts of… well, tricks. She had imagined herself creating illusions, making herself invisible, using magic talismans, being able to understand the language of the unicorns—all things Micula seemed to do as easily as other people walked. But Sheila had been studying with the sorceress for two months now and still couldn't perform anything resembling a trick. In fact, she hadn't done a single thing that felt at all magical. Clearly the lessons weren't working.

  "Micula," Sheila said hesitantly, "the reason I was late is… I don't think I'm very good at this magic stuff."

  "No," the sorceress agreed. "But then you haven't been at it very long. You need to strengthen your concentration and let go of your fear."

  "I know," Sheila said. This was about the fifth time Micula had told her that, It occurred to Sheila that quitting might be as difficult as casting a spell. She tried a new tack: "You know that spell of protection we keep working on?"

  Micula said nothing, but her dark eyes seemed to look right through her student.

  "Well," Sheila went on, "maybe it's that particular spell I'm not so good at. What if we try something different?"

  Micula looked doubtful.

  "It is not everyone who has made a personal enemy Of a wizard as powerful as Mardock," the sorceress reminded her.

  "I know," Sheila said again.

  Micula’s voice held no reproach as she asked, "Have you thought about the consequences if you do not learn some form of protection?"

When Sheila really thought about it, the fact that Mardock, a sorcerer who practiced the blackest kind of magic, had sworn vengeance on her, made her sick with fear. More than once he had almost taken her life. Whether through skill or luck, Sheila had always managed to hold him off. But holding him off was very different from defeating him. After all, it was months since they had last met, yet Mardock's magic still followed her. He sent her dreams—nightmares so terrifying she woke up screaming. Before Micula arrived at the palace, the nightmares had come every night; now, with Micula's help, Mardock couldn't seem to get through more than once or twice a week. But to keep him out completely, Micula said, Sheila would need to draw on powers of her own.

  "You don't have to remind me what it was like before you came,'' Sheila said, suppressing a shiver.

  "What it was like?" Micula echoed her words in disbelief. "Sheila, sending you nightmares is the least of what Mardock can do. You ought to know that by now." Her voice softened as she continued: "Teaching is not something I often do—magic is nothing to be given away. But Illyria convinced me that I couldn't leave you unprotected against evil as powerful as Mardock's. Therefore," she finished, "we must start with a spell of protection.''

  Sheila briefly considered arguing that she had a certain amount of protection in the backpack she had brought from her own world. Filled with the "magic" of the twentieth century objects like her tape player and Polaroid camera the backpack had gotten her out of more than one tight situation. Once or twice it had even worked against Mardock.

  The sorceress smiled, suddenly looking very young. "Tell me: how effective was your precious backpack against Mardock's dreams?" And more out of frustration at having her thoughts read than the desire to work magic, Sheila began the preparation for casting the spell of protection.

  One of the first things Sheila had learned about magic was that it wasn't an ordinary type of power. Working magic meant entering a different realm, and to do that safely and be able to return to this world, the first step was grounding. That is, Sheila had to somehow connect herself to the world around her: the earth beneath her, the air that surrounded her, the sky she saw through the windows, and the sun that lit the alabaster stone above her.

  After slipping off her sandals, Sheila sat down cross-legged on the cool marble floor and began to concentrate on her breathing. She forgot about arguing with Micula and tried to feel the breath moving through her body. She pictured it as a cool blue mountain stream and sent the image of the stream through her feet and legs, through her stomach and chest, through her arms-and as she sent it through her arms, the picture in her mind changed.

  For an instant she saw a solid wall of sapphire blue, and then the wall vanished, revealing an image of sword practice just beyond the palace stables. Sparring against Cam, one of Laric's lieutenants, was Darian, Illyria's sixteen-year-old brother. Despite the fact that Cam was about seven years older, a good deal stronger, and like all of Laric's warriors, an expert fighter, Darian moved in without fear, pacing himself, waiting for an opening ...


  Sheila looked up apologetically. "I'm sorry. I lost my concentration."

  "Did you really?" the sorceress asked dryly.

  "I didn't even begin to cast the spell," Sheila admitted. "I got lost in the preparation."

  "I noticed." Micula regarded her with what might have been amusement. "Why don't you try what I suggested earlier? Lie on the floor on your back, and try grounding yourself that way. I'll guide you this time."

  This is turning into a complete disaster, Sheila thought unhappily. First I'm late, then I argue with Micula, and now all I can think about is Darian! Determined to do better, she lay down and began the breathing practice, feeling slightly silly in a position that seemed better suited to sunbathing than spell-casting.

  "Now," Micula continued, “let the energy of the sky above you and the earth below you run along the length of your body. See it."

  Sheila tried to picture the movement of clouds across the sky moving through her body, and at the same time she tried to feel the kind of impulse that would send a new blade of grass up through the surface of the earth. The attempt to do both at once made her dizzy.

  "Good," Micula said. "Now call on those powers to help you. Draw them into you, and feel their strength become one with your own." Micula's voice was a soft, almost hypnotic chant, and Sheila felt the floor fall away beneath her. It was as if she had been in the ocean, riding waves all day, and now the rhythm of the waves was still moving through her body, carrying her in a gentle, swaying rhythm. "When you take in earth and sky, they will change you," the sorceress continued. "Don't be afraid. Magic is change. When you are filled with the energy of earth and sky, you will call forth a circle of protection that cannot be broken by anyone."

  Sheila felt herself drifting, comfortably floating farther and farther from Micula's voice. She was moving toward a cliff that overlooked the sea. It was night, and the dark sky was lit only by the sliver of a crescent moon. She watched the surf crashing onto the shore, and somehow was not surprised to hear above the roar of the waves the sound of impossibly light hoofbeats, The hoofbeats grew nearer until she saw Illyria on Quiet Storm, the great silver unicorn, racing along the shore of the dark coast.

  "Sheila," As if the sorceress had pulled her in on an invisible rope. Sheila suddenly found herself back in the tower room. She was lying flat on her back, staring at the translucent ceiling, feeling the hard floor beneath her.

  "Sit up slowly," Micula said, rising with catlike grace. "We're about to have a visitor."

  No sooner had she spoken than there was a sharp knock on the wood door. Remaining beside Sheila, Micula brought her left hand out from beneath her long robe, passed it once across her body, and the heavy door swung open. Illyria, the Unicorn Queen, strode in,

  Illyria nodded apologetically to Micula, "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I must speak with you at once.

  Sheila felt a surge of pure relief at the sight of Illyria. The unicorn riders were a close-knit group, but Illyria had kept herself apart over the last few days, conferring only with Myno, her second-in-command. She looks all right, Sheila thought.

  The Unicorn Queen was dressed in a simple red tunic, and her long silver-blond hair was caught up in a mass of intricate braids that were, as usual, half undone. Yet as Sheila studied her more carefully, she saw that Illyria's face was drawn, and her hair more disheveled than usual. Sheila wondered how long it had been since she last slept.

  "Will you excuse us, Sheila?" Micula's polite request left no room for argument.

  "Myno and Zanara-Ki are holding practice in the courtyard now," Illyria said more gently. "Why don't you join them?"

  Sheila nodded and left the tower room, glad that the magic lesson was over but irritated at having been dismissed like a child. She started down the long flight of stairs, trying to figure out what was troubling Illyria. She was almost at the bottom when she found a slim, dark-haired teenage boy barring her way.

  Darian stretched a muscular arm across the stairway, daring her to pass him. Sheila was never quite sure whether she was madly in love with Darian or wished he were in another world altogether—usually it was a little of both—but the mere sight of him always made her heart beat faster. With his straight brown hair nearly to his shoulders, dark wide-set eyes, and a smile that seemed to make everything light up, she always found him disturbingly good-looking. Now Sheila stopped staring into his eyes long enough to notice that a bloodied bandage was wrapped around his other arm. He paid it no mind as he leaned toward her and said menacingly, "No one passes without paying the toll."

  "How much is it?" she asked, unimpressed.

  “Haven't decided yet," he said with a grin.

  Sheila gave a mock groan, made a move to sit down on the stair, and then slipped quickly beneath his arms. "Not much of a tollkeeper, are you?" she taunted.

  He caught her arm, laughing. "Aren't you supposed to be studying with Micula?"

  "I was
just expelled," she said, and as Darian's eyes widened she quickly explained, "Illyria came in, said she had to talk to Micula about something important, and then they asked me to leave."

  "When did she come back?" Darian asked, his voice suddenly sharp.

  Once again Sheila felt excluded from whatever it was that was going on. "I didn't know she was missing," she said stiffly.

  Darian sighed and sank down on the stairs. "Last night, just after midnight, my sister rode out of the palace. She headed north up the coast; Laric and I both tried to go with her, but she wouldn't let us nor would she take any of the other riders. And she wouldn't give any explanation. No one could find her this morning, either. She must have just come back,"

  Sheila barely took in the last few sentences. “Did you say Illyria rode up the coast last night?" she asked. "When I was working with Micula just now I saw something. It was like a picture of what you just described—Illyria riding up the coast in the darkness. On Quiet Storm."

  "And you think it was a vision of what happened last night?" Darian's voice was thoughtful.

  "I don't know," Sheila admitted, sitting down beside him. "Maybe it was just my imagination." And then she realized there was a way to find out. "Darian," she said carefully, "what were you doing just before you came up here?"

  "Sparring," he answered impatiently. "What's that got to do with anything?"


  "No, with swords. By the stables. And I wasn't exactly brilliant." He winced and held up his bandaged arm. "But then, no one is against Cam."

  Sheila felt a chill run through her. She hadn't even come close to casting a spell of protection. But she had seen Illyria riding up the coast, and she had seen Darian sparring with Cam.

  The magic had begun.


  The Unicorn's Call

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