There once lived a lion and a unicorn, or so it is said though there was no man alive in that time to remember the tale. But, supposedly, there lived a unicorn and a lion in a forest quite unlike any other. One may suspect, as legends go, that this forest was enchanted.The creatures who lived there would have called it cursed.It was a beautiful enough place, emerald canopy held high by gnarled, ancient beams and twisted trunks. Leaves ever silent and watchful, the woods breathed with an ancient sort of slumber. It was, of course, the perfect scene for a tale to unfold, deep and silent and dark. The dark earth under those trees wrote a storybook in and of itself. Pockmarked with the tales of hunters and the hunted, the footprints of predator and prey that looked so lively in the sun-spotted edges, the ground grew thick with ashes and bone near to the forest’s heart. Darkness was the beautiful forest’s secret, and it only grew darker as one went deeper, where the trunks drew close to one another in fright or camaraderie, where no sun could penetrate and the air was chilled with shadows. In that forest’s heart, it was always night. And the worst sorts of monsters like to live in the dark.Dragons kindled the forest’s hearth, scorched the ancient trees and made bonfires of hollow trunks. Manticores stalked the darkest paths where the branches were nearly white from sun-thirst. When the sun set on that magical forest, harpies prowled the skies, shadowy silhouettes against the stars.But apart from the hideous, the forest housed also the magnificent. Phoenixes perched in the lacy leaves of the highest trees, living their circles near to the sky. The hooves of griffins tilled the soil, feathers scraping the green backs of saplings in the summer-dappled light at the forest’s edge. And sometimes, rarely, unicorns (for it would not be a true forest without a unicorn) darted through the darkness, glittered in the dusk, or reared high to greet the dawn.And yet these wondrous (or darkly splendorous) things were not the most magical of all beneath that canopy of ever watchful leaves. Those creatures with their razor horns and tufted manes transformed each night in the moonlight. They changed into the strangest, most impossible creatures of all: humans.The unlucky manticore, having strayed too far from the shadows, beneath the lunar eye became a balding man with a sly grin. The parrot transformed in weak silver rays to a coffee-skinned woman with jewel-toned eyes. The phoenixes became twin children with scarlet curls and golden skin, perched in branches just thick enough to hold them. The lion became a strong young man with wild hair. And from the unicorn was born a maiden with silver locks and impossibly violet eyes.***Of all the ordinary creatures, the lion, royalty in those woods, dared to go nearest to the forest’s black heart. Sometimes peasant creatures (mice or birds or other tiny, weak things) would wander too near to jaws, claws, and teeth, but mostly it was only the lion who ventured the journey.And now he lay curled on the mossy forest floor, conveniently far from the heavy darkness and death that marked the homes of the forest’s worst beasts. But he was not a lion any longer. The ground was cold with night against his skin, icy with moonlight. It flooded him, that light, a thing which he avoided with fervent dedication. The lion--man--was no fan of this human body, this cage. He supposed the form was fine enough--lean muscle and fair face--but it could not compare to his cat body with its claws and teeth. Blinking sleepy eyes, he glared through the silver leaves at the horrible, haughty moon. This was the first moon in years that had caught him in its spell. She was as much a predator as he, seeking her prey with accuracy and little mercy. Often, they had been companions as he hunted the weak human prey she provided. Slipping through the night, there was nothing to give him away to their poor senses but a pair of glowing, golden eyes in the dark. Even humans who were, on every other night, fearsome basilisks or fire-eyed trolls, were too easily taken down beneath his bloodlust. He lay on his back and stared at an outstretched hand against the dark sky. It was so bare and pale and vulnerable, nothing compared to his mighty paws. He shook his shaggy head in disgust. In one move, he rose. Motionless, silent, he was nothing but a shadowy silhouette in the moon’s piercing eye. But then he began to prowl. Though he moved with lithe grace, two legs were an inconvenience that he could not have borne more than once a month under the full-bellied moon. His arms felt awkward and unnecessary at his sides. Damned inconvenient for hiding and sneaking. The lion-man passed a dryad-woman who sat mourning her tree-bark skin and hair of leaves and flowers. With a mental flick of the tail which he no longer possessed, the lion-man understood her sentiment.The trunks of the forest’s magnificent trees edged velvet paths that cushioned his soft, human footsteps. Will-o’-the wisps ignited the path before him. They giggled in a haunting echo, soft flames cradled in the spindly hands of the trees.As he paced through the inky night, hunting an end to his misery that would not come until dawn, an amethyst glimmer shown in the corner of his sight. His head snapped toward the gleaming light, his body already moving to approach the strange sight. A clearing lay before him, soft grass shining silver in the moon’s light. Forbidding trees lined the circle, bending down with the weight of shadowed leaves to shield the forest’s secrets. From the edge of the moonlit pool a magnificent creature stepped forth. The lion had seen unicorns before of course, but this man’s body seemed more susceptible to the creature’s glamor. His heart began to beat rapidly, and he felt himself sway toward the creature. Though his mind was disgusted by this enthrallment, there was no containing the awe in his heart.There has never been a unicorn born, for they are all as old as time and the forests in which they reside. It is impossible to separate the ancient magic of the woods from that of the unicorn. The forest murmurs to the unicorn, and she to it. They are companions in the strange life that is immortality in the memories of men.This unicorn’s silvery legs stepped into the light hesitantly--the lion had never known a unicorn to hesitate--and began to shimmer with the change. Wondering why she would willingly allow the transformation to occur, the lion-man spotted curiosity in that fathomless, violet gaze. Somehow he knew that this was the first unicorn to feel curiosity, and his heart leapt at the sight like a man watching a star begin to fall.The unicorn before him seemed to relish the change as the lion never had, stretching into the shifting muscles and skin sensuously. The lion-man licked his lips as a woman emerged from the unicorn’s skin. She was beautiful, but he had expected nothing less. Her skin was a purple so pale as to be almost white, the same color as dusk on the horizon. The silver mane remained the same, impossibly long gleaming tresses that hid her naked form and ran like mercury down her torso. Wobbling on her two legs, nearly as long and thin as her unicorn’s had been, here eyes were full of surprise at experiencing something new in her endless life.Then, suddenly, the woman’s head snapped up. Canny violet eyes that held the entire forest in their depths caught him in their gaze. The man’s heart seemed ready to explode with its rapid speed, lungs aching for a breath that had been held too long.“Hello, lion,” she said. The lion-man could hear the ancient voice of the forest behind her words, see a thousand years in every movement of her hands.“Hello,” he answered, finally stepping into the light. Unabashedly, she observed his naked human form. It seemed strange to him that prey such as she should not fear a lion-man.“Oh, but I do fear you,” she whispered, still watching his every restless move. If he had not been a lion-man, he might have realized what a rare thing this unicorn-woman’s fear was. Now he saw how her ankles shook in the dewy grass. But in a swish of silver, she bolted, her curtain of hair a mirror shield to her retreat.Because he was an animal in the form of a man, or perhaps simply because he was a man, the lion-man followed. His strides were too long for the woman--the first unicorn to be unable to outrun a lion--and she darted up a tree into the sheltering arms of the forest to which she so belonged.“I will not harm you,” the man murmured, circling the tree’s base. Each footstep was silent on the carpet of fallen leaves and moss. The unicorn-woman could see nothing but a pair of glowing, golden eyes in the shadows below her.“You will not mean to,” she answered, staring blindly into the dark. Her words had a hint of foresight that sent chills down the man’s spine.“That is the way of women and men, is it not?”“We are neither.”“We are at the moment,” the lion-man smirked, finding that perhaps this curse had some rewards. He tilted back his scruffy head to observe the slim white figure perched in the darkness like a strange and magnificent bird. Three small children with periwinkle skin--bluebirds on every other day--darted by in the branches above, twittering with laughter at the curious scene. “You want me because I ran, lion,” the unicorn accused.“I want you because you are beautiful,” he answered, finding to his surprise that it was true. Violet eyes softened slightly. Long pale legs shifted to hang from the branch, swinging in the cool breeze that had danced its way through the trunks of the trees.***He did not catch her that moon, but the lion-man was a persistent hunter. Each moon he found her, without fail, and each moon she let him, despite the way that the shadows dragged at her. The forest’s darkness did not wish to allow something beautiful to be born. The lion-man learned to joke and tease. He learned gentleness. For three moons, he made her smile, forget the fear ingrained within her. The darkness slithering between the forest’s trees whispered that the lion-man was poisoning the unicorn’s magic, but she knew that humanity was the culprit if such a thing were true. It was humanity that had destroyed the mind of the old wyvern, her friend, who lived in a cavern at the forest’s edge. Humanity was a fearful addiction to creatures of ancient magic, a dissolution of apathy that could drive an ancient being to madness. But for three moons, the stubborn unicorn-woman brought out the man in the lion-man, and he found that he did not mind. Though he still wore arrogance like a cloak against the chill of the night, there was a laughter in him. If humanity had stolen the unicorn’s otherness, there was no telling what it was doing to a poor beast like he.On the fourth moon, the lion-man brought her a dress of silver silk so that she should feel less afraid. It was a gesture that surprised them both. Slipping into the mercurial fabric, the dewy grass dusted her exposed ankles with droplets. Turning her face up to feel the light of night on her face, the unicorn-woman smiled because she knew that this man who was tender and thoughtful and enthralled by her beauty had begun to care about her. And that was a strange thing indeed for a lion-man.Two moons later, the woman brought the man a pair of britches so that they might be equals. Her fingers were dotted with silvery unicorn blood, pinpricks from the magic she had worked to weave them for him. He accepted them with a smile that flashed brighter than the moon. She reached out gentle fingers to touch that strange smile, one of pure happiness, without mischief or motive. It was for that smile that she had granted him the gift. At his perplexed and joyful reaction the unicorn-woman laughed because she realized that she cared about him back.***Each moon, the unicorn-woman grew to love the lion-man’s eyes, his voice, his laugh, his stride. Each moon he grew to love her heart beat, her delicate hands, her wisdom, her sarcasm, her smile. It was an impossible thing, quick and slow: the sun rise, a candle lit in the dark.They sat in the dewy grass, the next time, beneath the moon’s watchful face, knee to knee, fingertip to fingertip. The lion-man could not believe that something so small as a man’s fingertip could feel so much. Each brush of soft, lilac flesh, each whisper of silver hair on his own skin sent a storm coursing through his blood. “We are so different,” the unicorn-woman breathed, tracing delicate fingers through the lion-man’s tawny mane.“Not so different,” he whispered, no longer able to see the vulnerable prey behind the woman’s face. The furrow of her brow, the quirk of her lips had become more familiar to him than even the velvet touch of night or the rush of the hunt. He pressed one large hand against the unicorn-woman’s smaller one, squashing whatever shadows had lingered between them. Their ten fingers aligned like the arms of stars.Laughing, the unicorn-woman threaded her fingers through the lion-man’s. It had taken her a while to get used to the strange digits, but she liked the warmth of his fingers entwined with her own. She liked the way they fit together so different yet, somehow, the same. It felt daring. It felt defiant. The shadows of the forest forbid it, yet it was their own predatory moon that had made such defiance possible.“We are so different,” she sighed again, “But it seems I love you just the same.”“I know the feeling,” the lion-man laughed, deep and rumbling like the roar caged within him. He could not say the words because he was a lion and because he was a man.“Then love me,” she laughed, falling back on the star-dusted grass. Though the unicorn scoffed at the woman’s lust, turned up her nose at the dark path which she now descended upon, the woman kissed the man. Their lips connected as no lion’s jaw, no unicorn’s snout ever could. The man traced his hands down the woman’s silk-clad curves. Dew clung to her gown like tears, but she smiled at the feeling of feeling anything at all.How she had scoffed at the animals who favored the human form. How long she had followed her path, avoided things so base as humanity. So terrifying as stepping out of the shadows. To fight the night seemed a constant task, and basking in the light a luxury she could not afford. Now she understood. Now she knew. So many sensations. So many emotions. So blind toward the future, dark and foreboding as it was, that had ever plagued her magical sight. “I will find you again,” the lion-man said as the dawn broke the forest’s shadows, pulling the woman close again against his chest. It was what he said each moon after that, each moon when they bathed in milky moonlight, free from shadows that clung web-like to their lashes and skin and lips. And each moon it began to sound more like a desperate promise. They both knew that two as different as they could not be allowed to find happiness together. “I will find you again,” the lion-man said many moons later, face framed by the gray fingers of the trees and the hungry smile of the moon.“I know,” the unicorn-woman said sadly.***There was a storm the next moon, and the forest grew black with the weight of clouds above. Desperately, the lion hunted elusive scraps of moonlight. Monkeys perched above him, banging together plentiful bones from the deep woods, the sound of their mockery echoing through the forest in a foreboding chorus. Paws stamping out the lacy patterns of light on the blank scenery, the lion roared with frustration as the change refused to come upon him. No patch of moon was large enough to transform him, and he thought agonizingly of the woman waiting for him in some clearing alone. He thought of her dark lashes, heavy with stardust tears that she would be too proud to spill, of her slender arms crossed tight to hold back any pain that might try to leak from her heart.He began to roar again, but in the corner of his sight, there was a flash of silver. The man would have dismissed it as lightning, but the lion knew the dash of prey when he saw it. Because he was a cat-beast he chased it. Forgetting whatever important thing he had been doing, he followed the glimmer into the deepest part of the forest. He scattered several rodents as he ran, passed a chupacabra slinking through the night, and a wise salamander wrapped in tongues of fire. That sort of prey was nothing to him now. He had claimed the light and now returned to the dark, instincts clamoring at every whisper of the woods, every scent of blood on the breeze--the forest’s heart always smelled like blood.The roar of rain became a heart beat the pounded out the rhythm of the lion's footsteps. Only a few heavy drops managed to dash through the thick leaves, but they slashes at his face as he ran like sleek daggers.Now the trees grew closer together. The impossible noise of the storm ceased, shushed be heavy silence. There was no light here. Darkness drowned him, but it could not disguise the radiance of his prey. Because he was a lion, he caught her, his love, his prey. But because he had been a man, because he had liked to be a man, he could not kill her. Hot breath assuaged the unicorn’s vulnerable throat. Three dots of silver blood poured from the teeth marks he had made there. The forest held its breath and waited. Perhaps she of ancient magic, she of time-tossed wisdom, could have fought him back, could have slashed with her great horn and stamped with her iron hooves. Perhaps she could have killed, but she did not, simply lay quivering in the dead plants and bones that made up the ground. It was fortunate he did not ravage, did not slay that ancient beast. A unicorn’s blood is as poisonous as the crime it takes to spill it, cursed with the retribution of innocence destroyed. Luckily for the lion, he did not kill as the instincts clamoring in the dark of his mind were telling him to do. In horror and confusion--man fighting lion--he backed away.A growl worked in the lion’s throat, the only sensation in the darkness of the forest’s stormy night. Though lightning lit the leaves and sparked fires in the magic woods, there was no sound to follow, only heavy silence. Working convulsively, the unicorn’s throat pulsed with rapid breaths. Her eyes were white with fear, violet with love. The lion-man ran in horror from the deep woods, from the larger hunters that would take advantage of his confusion. A sphinx tried to block his path, but he slashed her riddle aside with one massive paw. The tight trees were no longer familiar, and he ran blindly through the dark maze clouded by a nightmare that the lion in him could never hope to understand.Stumbling, the unicorn trotted back to her den, a silver pool beneath the oldest of trees in the forest’s center, a spot of purity in the blackest place. Though it was ringed by burnt trees, bent like corpses in the dark, though hellhounds and wraiths stalked her through that worst part of the woods, she had made her home in the forest’s heart, a private sort of defiance. ***They saw each other only once more as man and woman, a goodbye too sorrowful to be recorded in human words. In the silver clearing that was fair flooded with light, tiny flowers sprouting among the grass, he held her while he still had the arms for it. Her soft caresses whispered over his back. Their hearts beat roughly, one against the other.“I will find you again,” the lion-man promised.“I know,” the unicorn-woman answered sadly, for the next time they would meet was as they had begun--creatures of the forest, of the dark pieces of night. In that moment, she became the first unicorn to ever know regret.The sky above them was growing thin with dawn approaching, but neither creature tried to leave as they had every other dawning. It seemed a surrender to let the darkness slay them, so they chose to greet the dawn together.The man became a lion again, the woman a unicorn. Across the clearing, predator smelled prey. Watching with sad eyes, the unicorn knew that she could not outrun him, did not want to go on with the pain of human longing. Still, she ran as was her nature. Hooves and heart pounding, the unicorn dodged through the trees that had once seemed so sheltering.From behind a fallen bow, a wolf leapt, snarling at prey far too strong for it. The unicorn speared him even as he began to change into a man, with one swipe of her horn. Now it glowed crimson with blood. She began to circle back toward their clearing, hoping to shake the pair of golden eyes that stalked her in the dark. No creature had ever outrun a unicorn, for they are swift and possess magical foresight. But no unicorn had ever known the things the lion’s unicorn had known. As she turned, lion teeth pierced her lilac flank, spilled her mercury blood on the ground of their clearing, on the silver dress and ripped britches. “I love you,” the man thought in anguish as the lion killed his love. The woman gasped as the unicorn’s cursed blood, reflecting the matutine light, poisoned the lion and the grass on which it fell. Entwined in gruesome murder, the two bodies stained the floor of the enchanted forest that, for all its monsters, had never known such horror. ***A forest is no place without its unicorn or its king. Hunters ravaged the woods, fighting for dominance, rapturous in the new lawless land. The beautiful creatures emerged from their hidden places to defend against the dark. None among them had ever been called upon to guard the unicorn’s forest and their blood was never meant to be spilt. For the first time, those woods knew war. And somewhere in that same forest, in a gentle place with a mirror pool, a baby cried. The unicorn-woman had birthed a child during the fragile moons granted the lion and his love. No unicorn has ever been born, but this child would never shift into a unicorn or a lion. Magic had gifted the ill-fated lovers that which they had most coveted: true humanity, the first sole human.Somewhere in another deep forest, in another place of hideous, beautiful magic, a mate for the child was born. But it was first from the love of the lion and the unicorn that humanity itself was made. And it was humanity which would eventually forget that either had existed, that the forest existed along with its magical creatures. But the forest would stand, would settle from its chaos, consuming the bodies of the star-crossed creatures, raising the child with violet eyes and a tawny mane, and watching in silence as the world, inevitably, forgot.
Each week authors will be given a new question to answer which will lend additional insight into their story and writing process. Do you have a question you'd like to see the authors answer? Tweet it to @aNextAuthor!