Juvenalia, Too

Summary: Alexander Stone is adventurous and affluent, and disillusioned with the life his parents planned for him after college. After a chance encounter with fascinating strangers, he finds himself drawn into a strange world of transformative sexuality, supernatural entities, and esoteric puberty.

The Magical Safari

The Troubled Scion

Alexander Stone astride the world like a young Atlas, shouldering the burdens foisted upon him with gritted teeth. He stepped off the private jet, and he walked down the stairs onto the soil of a remote airfield in southern Africa. As a recent graduate from Miskatonic University, his classmates invited him on a unique hunting trip. While uncomfortable with hunting rare animals on an African safari, his parents nevertheless insisted upon it.

A quick breeze ruffled Alexander's khaki outfit as he grasped his hat to keep it from blowing away. For a moment, he envisioned himself as an Adonis-like figure in a savage wilderness, a classical demigod bestriding an uncouth world. Running his hand through his short brown hair, he quickly dispelled such vainglorious notions from his head. While he was in peak athletic condition for his age, he was not one to seek unearned luxuries. He attended Miskatonic University's notorious mathematics program, instead of the easier business programs his parents shuttled him towards. While they wanted an easy life for their son, he expected nothing less, for a scion worthy of the Stone family annuls.

Alex received his bachelor's degree no less than a week before his flight, and he'd had little time to himself. His family congratulated him with a party that he scarcely remembered, for the sheer amount of alcohol imbibed. His sole recollections were of his father bouncing on a giant trampoline, while assenting to a trip his mother asked him to take. The son of a family friend was organizing an African safari, during which some business deal would be cemented. As such, his presence would help ensure his family's interest. He spent most of the flight asleep, subconsciously regretting his impaired decision making.

Alex heard the calls of distant birds above the rustle of the tall grass of the savannah beyond the runway. A few sparse trees and rocks rose out of the ground, distant eidolons silhouetted against the dying African day. A quick look at the airstrip indicated it was more than capable of handling small, private jets, like his host flew him out on. Beside the concrete strip was a far smaller airfield, likely reserved for bush pilots. He saw a small propeller plane landing on the other airstrip, but he turned away as someone approached.

"Hope you guys aren't too jetlagged," said a voice behind him. "We've got a busy day tomorrow."

Alex turned to see his host for the trip, a bearded young man in a plaid, flannel shirt. His black sunglasses were lowered slightly below his eyes, and his neck was wet with beaded sweat. A smarmy grin stretched ear to ear, and Alex remembered exactly whom he was dealing with. Chet Pullman fancied himself a follower of fashion trends, but resembled a geographically misplaced lumberjack. The last time they'd met was a summer ago, where he was drunkenly groping at a waitress. For that and other reasons, Alex preferred to keep his distance.

"Can't wait to try the new gun," said another speaker, a forced accent akin to the American South. "It could put a hole in a charging elephant."

Alex recognized another passenger on the flight, Bob Anderson. While born and raised on the East Coast, he put on the Southern good-old-boy accent for the sake of his State Senator father and his own lobbyist career. The chunky young man had a gorilla's face and simian demeanor, which matched the unsubtle lobbying techniques he used to foist overpriced, defective military hardware on unsuspecting governments. He'd met with Alex before, but such meetings were mercifully short.

"What kind of hardware you packin', Alex?" Bob asked. "Still going with that old junk? Lever-guns went out a century ago."

"The Winchester worked for Teddy Roosevelt, and it works for me," Alex answered. "The other stuff is just as good."

"I heard you packed a race gun and sword. Honestly, who brings those hunting?"

"Helps to be prepared when you have no idea what you're hunting," he answered, shrugging. "I stick to the tools I know best."

"Heh. Your loss," Bob said, his accent momentarily slipping. "I'd offer you an Anderson K-30, since I brought spares."

"No thanks," he said. "I prefer rifles that jam less than rock stars."

Before Bob could reply, Chet intervened. "Hey, save it for the hunt," he said, looking happy with himself. "You guys are gonna love it."

Alex turned to notice the car waiting for them, an obsidian black limousine with opaque windows and a chassis armored enough to drive through the Somme unscathed. A black man in a suit stood by the rear door, gesturing them within. Chet started moving towards the car, and Bob followed. Alex lagged behind them, as he found himself watching the two people that stepped out of the small propeller plane that landed on the dirt runway.

Alex saw three people step out. A ragged looking bush pilot walked towards the rear of the plane, and where he retrieved a large backpack and a duffel bag. Two young adults stepped out of the rear, each a drastic physical contrast with each other. Like a pair of contrasting gods, they strode towards the ramshackle terminal building with long steps and purpose-filled eyes. One was tall and stocky, and the other was lithe and lissome. The tall one was a black man, with thick-framed glasses and a sweat-soaked tee-shirt bearing an anime commando on it. The short white girl was dressed in a black lace gown more akin to a Halloween masquerade than the African bush.

Alex could not help but stare as they walked into the terminal. The black man drew out a laptop from the backpack and began typing feverishly on it. He vanished into his virtual world, totally ensconced in his digital realm. However, the auburn-haired woman did not enter the room immediately. Instead, she lingered outside, and she made eye contact with him. The entire sensation was disconcerting, like matching eyes with infinite gulfs beyond the universe.

"We shall meet again soon," she said in a dialect he immediately identified as Vulgate Latin. "Enjoy your trip, Alexander Stone."

Before he could reply, Alex saw her vanish into the building. For a moment, he stood there, uncertain of what he encountered was reality or some fantastic conjuration. Bob pulled him into the limousine, and the chauffeur started the engine. He felt the immediate chill of the air conditioner, which awoke him into a hyper-reality like a swim through frigid waters. He made small talk with Bob and Chet, but let their own bombastic personalities lead the conversation in directions he cared little for. Chet pushed a button, and revealing a stout wine bottle and tumblers in a wall compartment. As the libations flowed freely for his companions, he could not help but feel something was amiss.

The August Company of Wealthy Gentlemen

Alex beheld many drunks in his travels, but he typically had the luxury of leaving when intoxicated unpleasantness started. Being stuck between a belligerent defense industry lobbyist and an epinine creature with a shrill voice caused regret to well up within him like a floodtide. Given the intoxication both were exhibiting relative to the amount of alcohol consumed, he doubted it was any half-reputable vintage. As the alcohol flowed into his companions' mouths, ribald accusations flowed out.

"I saw you checking out that toothpick of a cunt," Bob said, his words slurring into each other. "But she was with that nigger."

"Bet she's just some emo cum dumpster," Chet shouted to himself. "Like that dumb bitch I slipped a micky to last week. Damn slut wouldn't put out."

Alex blinked. While he'd heard all manner of tactless comments, misogyny, racism, and worse, he was becoming less comfortable. Every sentence uttered after that further caused him to sink further into profound uneasiness. The car ride stretched into a tense eternity, as the sun climbed higher in the sky. The hands of his expensive watch seemed transfixed in place, as the monotonous drive dragged on. He closed his eyes and pretended he was back on the plane, dreaming peacefully. He withdrew once more into his most triumphant moments, over a year ago.

Unlike others of his affluence, Alex directly experienced the opposite extreme during his university education. He spent a summer in Europe, but foolishly exhausted his pecuniary resources by the end of his first month. He spent the remaining two months eking out a barebones existence, migrating between hostels and friends' apartments, working as a security guard, and even digging through trash for food. His pride prevented him from asking for help from his parents, but he had no doubt his parents would grant it. Much to his own pride, he was able to maintain regular communications with his parents, and even keep two women he was dating in the dark as to the truly abject nature of his poverty.

Alex forced himself to remember his defining moments during that ordeal. He remembered himself as a security guard, chasing down and tackling a would-be jewel thief in Paris. He remembered interposing himself between two drunken British tourists apart as they came to blows. He remembered helping a Chinese student find her lost luggage at the airport. He remembered dropping a knife-wielding brute during his brief tenure as a bouncer. He remembered holding back obsessive fans from backstage during a metal concert in Wachen. He remembered a quiet walk with a kind Dutch girl through an Amsterdam park. All of these and more flashed before his eyes, yet none granted the solace he felt.

It was not until Alex truly hit rock bottom, exhausting all savings, that he asked for help in the week before he left. He returned to the US leaner and more mature, with a thoroughly suggilated ego. Even his parents noted his father and mother noted his apparent change in demeanor. After enduring for weeks what the poorest people in the world did for life, he took his studies far more seriously. He resolved to do what he could with the hand his fate gave him, having seen the top and bottom of what society had to offer. He wondered how desperate his parents had to be to be seen appeasing such characters.

Even such remembrance was not enough to reassure Alex in the face of his current ordeal. Those remembered faces in his memories were time-lost eidolons, only able to support him from the distant past. In the present was an alcoholic haze of puerile and perverse comments, from dangerously wealthy dullards. As the pedantry wore on, he found himself tempted to empty the bottle. While his instincts told him to stay sober, he could not help but feel apprehension for their arrival, as his companions would soon be handling weapons. He thought he heard buzzing over the car's engine, and thought he saw something flit out of the corner of his vision. Seeing nothing, he consigned himself to that purgatorial trip.

The Observers

Pierce Graves caught the quadrotor drone in his hand, and it folded back into a grenade-sized form before he inserted it back under his coat. Despite the white hooded garment resembling a heavy lab coat, it nevertheless was well-insulated, performing admirably even in the African veldt. He'd designed it himself, based on a prototype by his old friend and mentor, Dr. David Risona of Risona Research. Unlike the limited original, it had internal climate control, hazmat resistance, liquid body armor, and active camouflage integrated into a single, comfortable outfit.

Pierce scanned the feed through his augmented reality glasses, noting the discomfort of the passenger in the middle seat. The facial recognition algorithms running on his drone camera, the voice recognition from the laser microphone, and meta-data from his smartphone and credit cards, together enabled him to identify the subject by collating details from voluminous public and private databases. The entire process took less than a few seconds, owing to the efficacy of his custom hardware.

"Our friend is Alexander Stone, recent graduate of Miskatonic University. He's got a Bachelor's degree in mathematics, and he comes from an old money family from around New England. Lived poor and homeless for a summer in Europe, but has a charitable streak. I can see why you like him."

"Nonsense. I was merely stating he's someone I remembered," his companion said. "From a number of parallel timelines."

"You know, it would really be helpful if you could remember what era you're in."

"It is more of an onerous burden than you may expect. I find it hard to control."

"Yeah, which is why you have those episodes," Pierce said. "Anyway, do you know anything about what we're in for? Or what we're up against?"

"Only that Alex will be in the center of it, and we'd best be prepared for unpleasantries at the estate."

Pierce Graves reached into his bag, and he pulled out a variety of components. He assembled them into a firearm with a rotating drum magazine. He loaded his hand-loaded shells into his custom Liberator 12K revolving shotgun. He loaded the four 3-D printed Songbird pistols he slipped into his belt and pockets. He slipped a length of duct-tape covered sharpened length of rebar up into his hand-woven sheath. "Yeah, let's do it."

His companion twirled a ceremonial dagger, an athame in the air. "Why not simplify?"

"Simplicity is relative."

"Very true," she said. "You only have to worry about a boringly linear flow of time."

"The tension can be a real killer. I hate wasting time."

"Speaking of, I believe we can get to a more comfortable environment. Let's see if those reservations at the Pretorius Estate were worth it."

In Company of Thine Enemies

The nightmarish ride reached its terminus before an estate that easily exceeded the size of the airport terminal. Alex noted the helipad beside the entrance, as well as the paved, cobblestone road that circled the outer perimeter of the property. The property itself was painted the alabaster white of classical monuments, stylized by ornate carvings along the walls and ceiling. At regular intervals along the roof were stone gargoyles, carved with enlarged horns and swollen members in silent stone obscenity. The second floor bore a number of parapets and rotundas in a distinctly Victorian style, providing clear vantage points for mounted security cameras over the surrounding plains. Behind the manner, he caught glimpses of tall, electrified fences. Whomever their hosts were, they certainly did not want for cash.

Alex was relieved as the car stopped, and he clambered over the drunk Bob to reach the door. A second after he leapt from the car, Bob puked all over the floor. He sighed in relief, welcoming the hot air of the open savannah into his lungs. The chauffeur bowed before him, and gestured him towards the front door. Behind him, Chet helped lug Bob towards the front door. They remained mercifully silent, as a suited white man wandered out to greet them.

"Greetings. You must be Mr. Alexander Stone," the man said, greeting him with an Afrikaans accent. "The estate's owner and my employer, Pieter Pretorius, is in Cape Town for business, and I will be your host for the following week."

"Pleased to meet you, sir," Alex said, bowing in a show of mutual respect.

"Just call me Willem," the suited man said. "I shall have your friends escorted to their rooms, but feel free to explore. Your bags will be in your room, third one in the western hall."

"Thanks."

Willem whistled, and two large men dressed in white khakis wandered down to the limousine. Alex hoped they'd be especially rough on the two drunks. From the sly grin on Willem's face, he sensed a shared sensation in the majordomo. As he stepped inside, he hoped the remainder of the day would be more pleasant. The absence of his companions was already sufficient for that purpose.

Alex stepped into the reception area of the Pretorius Estate, and he was not disappointed. There was a balcony above an ornate longue, and all manner of peculiarities lined the wall. He saw life-sized murals of elephants, lions, Cape buffalo, and other African big game. He saw bookshelves tall enough to warrant their own ladders, full of everything from adventure novels to naturalistic treatises. He saw mounted heads and stuffed hides of various animals, posed in lifelike positions with the taxidermist's art. Last, but certainly not least, was a flat-screen television with a nature documentary on.

Two others sat in the longue, whom Alex recognized from earlier. The black man from earlier sat typing on laptop, a large backpack placed beside him. He wondered how he'd lugged his gear from the airport to here, but he presumed he must've traveled by chopper or some faster method than his fateful car trip. He was almost jealous for a moment, as he didn't have Chet and Bob for company. Glancing again at the large bag, he could not help but think of the man lugging a giant snail shell. Despite his curiosity, Alex decided against interrupting the computer game that occupied this attention, which was redirected only by his companion's playful nudging.

Alex saw the girl from earlier, who was now dressed in a trench-coat and fedora hat more suitable for a classic noir detective than the African backcountry. She utterly ignored his presence, despite occasionally raising her head to whisper something to the man on the laptop. She buried her face in a thick leather tome. Whenever he looked at the bindings, it subtly seemed to change. At first it was a conventionally bound book with an unmistakable air of antiquity. The second glance he made, the cover was a hideous tapestry of leathered human faces, crudely stitched together. He recoiled in involuntarily horror, before he garnered the courage to gaze once more. The third time, it was once more a conventional book, only with a title reading "al-Azif."He blinked, and she winked back.

"Hi there," Alex said, adjusting his hat. "I'm Alex. What brings you here?"

"Call me Helen Hoffern," she said. "And this is my associate Pierce Graves. We're here on business."

"With Mr. Pretorius?" Alex asked.

"Only tangentially," she said, grinning slyly. "Say, are those your friends?"

Alexturned to see the two white-suited men dragging his drunken companions in. Each of them was being carried over the shoulder of a burly security officer, lugged around like a bag of rotting garbage. The two guards moved up the stairs with a certain professional celerity, so their footsteps on the wooden stairs echoed like a battalion of soldiers marching across a bridge. They vanished down the hallway, and he breathed a sigh of relief. As they turned, he saw an insignia on their shoulders, a red silhouetted cat within a circle.

"Companions, yes. Friends, no."

"Good to hear," she said, twirling a dagger in her hand. "Had a feeling you're a cut apart. Hopefully, you won't need some Rooikat guards to drag you away."

"Hope you are," Pierce said. "Because we'll need your help tomorrow."

"To do what?" Alex asked. "Just who are you?"

"Two strangers passing in the night," Helen said as Peter walked out. "We'll explain more tomorrow. Pierce, shall we head back to our room?"

"I'd get a good night sleep," Pierce said. "Been a pleasure talking, but we'll see what you're made of tomorrow. Hope you can keep up."

"I hope you can, with a girl like that."

"I doubt you can even keep up with a guy like me." Pierce grinned briefly, and briefly caressed Alex's right shoulder. Alex subtly observed his stance and movements. He strummed his fingers like a master musician across his shoulders, with the same deftness he handled the keyboard. Helen brushed against him from the left side, caressing his muscular torso as she passed. He felt himself relax, and by the time he realized they'd already left the room.

Instead of heading upstairs, Alex followed a sign that pointed to the armory. The sense of relaxation and arousal vanished as quickly as it came, and he found himself curious as to what sort of weapons would be available to him. Assuming they'd already brought his bags here, he'd have is own gear downstairs. While he inexplicably found himself tired, he nevertheless wished to explore the Estate more. He headed down the next hall, and he strolled into the armory.

Alex thought the armory would be more tastefully decorated than he found it. The hallway leading into the room was decorated with armor and armaments from across history, as though he entered some cosmopolitan Valhalla. He saw a Greek hoplite's armor and shield across from a Roman legionnaire's lorica segmentata. Beyond it was a suit of samurai armor faced opposite a medieval knight's plate-mail. Beyond that was a mannequin in a classic British Redcoat, facing opposite a khaki Boer uniform. Beyond it was a Red Army uniform from World War II facing a modern soldier's body armor. He opened the door beyond, expecting to see a room full of classical military and hunting arms.

Instead, Alex found a utilitarian room that reeked of gasoline and gun oil. There was a locked and deserted counter, which contained an arsenal of weapons. He recognized only a handful of them, much to his internal embarrassment. He turned back towards the display cases at the counter, and tried to identify the weapons there. He identified a rubber Belgian police baton, which he first mistook for a dildo. He saw a Malaysian keris, its wavy edge partially clearing in the sheath as though disrobing for a tryst. He saw sleek Vektor CR-21 bullpup assault rifle, with a voluptuously curved body. He saw an angular SP-1 service pistol, which looked as angry as a jilted lover. He saw a French naval cutlass, which hung above him like a lover's hungry eyes. There was an ornately engraved Holland and Holland paradox gun, a weapon came like a determined partner. He saw a KT5 anti-tank weapon, pressed against the walls like a pinup poster. From there, his eyes drifted to other walls.

Alex recognized his own name on a locker on the opposite wall, alongside those bearing the names of his companions and the other guests he met. He tried to open his own, but it rattled shut against an unseen lock. He tugged it once more, as though impatient to see his own arms. He felt naked and vulnerable, especially in the strange environs in which he now found himself. While he had suspicions and misgivings about the Estate, the distant beating of helicopter rotors caused him some surprise. He opened the door to the hallway and saw Willem standing before him.

"Ah, I apologize about the lack of service at the armory," he said in an apologetic tone. "Our security staff are out preparing for tomorrow's hunt. We still have a thorough protocol we must follow, as the safety of our guests is paramount."

"A lot of heavy hardware in that room," Alex said. "Is it the Estate's collection?"

"Much of it, but we also warehouse equipment for Rooikat Security, a private military contractor in which Mr. Pretorius maintains a controlling share in. We commissioned with Risona Research to design a number of custom weapons for our guests, in fact."

"Ah, that explains the big guns," Alex said. "But pardon my ignorance, but just what, exactly, are we going to be hunting tomorrow?"

"Your companions haven't told you?" Willem asked with slight surprise. "Well, I will not be one to spoil the surprise. Suffice to say, follow our guide's instructions, and you will be safe and return without incident."

"Just what are we hunting?"

Willem grinned. "Something few living people have," he said with a prideful grin. "There are reasons affluent and ambitious hunters come here, far beyond mere trophy hunting."

"I honestly have no interest in hunting rare and endangered animals."

"You will not be," Willem said. "The beasts you will see tomorrow must have their numbers regularly culled by hunters like yourself, lest they multiply out of control. They are something of an invasive species."

Alex nodded, realizing he'd get little else from Willem that night. He headed upstairs to his room, eager to surrender to his travel fatigue. While he was not jetlagged, the drive had drained him of his spirit. He headed towards his room, and he locked the door behind him. He stripped out of his clothing and laid against the bed, which was pressed directly against the wall. He turned off the lights, and he vainly struggled to fall asleep.

Alex closed his eyes and recounted his meditation drills, but his mind was as aroused as his survival instinct. Through the walls, he focused on the voices in the room next door. He cared less about illicitly surveilling his neighbors, and more about finding something to break the tedium he found himself in.

"You were quite forward earlier, Pierce," came a familiar woman's voice.

"Is that how it's supposed to go?" asked another voice, shakier than before. "I just followed what felt natural."

"Don't worry, Pierce," Helen said. "Your brother would be proud of you."

"Proud of me being a man-whore?"

"No, he'd be glad you're more confident in yourself. You're much better than when I first met you."

"Y-you really think so?"

"Yes," Helen said, before her voice changed to classical Greek. "Get to sleep, both of you."

At that, Alex dozed off without further delay.

Enemies Without

The following morning, Alex went to the armory to collect his weapons. Breakfast was a blur, which ended in him still feeling hungry for a different sort of action. A Rooikat guard met him at the armory, and handled him his bag of weapons without further fuss or incident. The ammunition was to be issued once they all met around back, but he was glad to have his familiar armaments on hand. He was issued an armored vest with padded sleeves and ceramic plates on the front and back. As the guards were wearing similar gear, so he presumed they were another precaution for guest security. The heft was reassuring to him, like the relaxing burden of the weight vest he routinely trained in.

Alex saw his weapons had been cleaned and readied for action. He called his long-ranged Winchester M1895 the "Medicine Stick," after Teddy Roosevelt's own nickname for the weapon. His sidearm of choice, an expertly modified Tanfolio T-95 Witness Gold Custom, had been newly cleaned. The highly-customized semi-automatic pistol had all manner of accessories mounted on it, from an extended magazine to a compensator and barrel weight to a red-dot sight. For closer encounters, he brought a reproduction M1840 Heavy Cavalry sword, a saber nicknamed "Old Wristbreaker." As an international-level saber fencer, he preferred a weapon that could cut down a charging horse, or more commonly, humanely finish a wounded animal. Finally, he had a Bowie knife for the unlucky event that the entirety of his arsenal failed him. He'd never needed to use it, and he hoped never to.

Alex saw his companions gather their own weapons as well. Chet brought an ornate Mauser bolt-action rifle, chambered for a far heavier cartridge than its military cousin. He assumed such a weapon was an inheritance or rented from the Estate, given Chet's prior disinterest in hunting. Bob brought two samples of his family company's engineering, the Double Hawk pistol and K-30 assault rifle. He recalled the Double Hawk pistol was simultaneously a knockoff of the double-barreled 2011 and the weighty Desert Eagle, an overpriced weapon resembling a welding accident more than reliable firearm. The Anderson K-30 was the bastard cousin of the Stoner family, with an unreliable direct-gas impingement system. He reflected how he preferred his own weapons.

Alex saw Pierce and Helen back in the lobby, but they were engrossed in a documentary when he passed through on his way out. He wished he could chat further with them, but the Rooikat guards continued at a brisk cadence towards the back door. They wore similar armor to his own, and they held FAL rifles and machetes by their sides. While he did not know why such guards would be required, he nevertheless adapted to his circumstances, like a fish following the current.

Alex beheld the African sun rising over the scorched plains. Distant shapes moved across the horizon like an armada of distant ships. A heat worthy of a desert simoom swept over them, although he knew the most intense was to come. Like the sizzling midday, a palpable intensity was building over the plains. He felt it would crescendo soon.

Looking behind him, Alex saw his companions similarly lacked such initiation. Chet was smoking an electronic cigarette, and Bob's armor did not cover the entirety of his girth. He momentarily wished he'd been back in the den, watching that nature documentary, but he knew his questions would be answered shortly. There were two white jeeps, each of which bore a pair of guards aboard it. A black man with a stentorian voice directed the soldiers, who he presumed was the guide. He sat in the front vehicle with the guide, while the other two piled in the back.

"Call me Dirk," the guide said, his accent being unexpectedly British. "I'm former SAS, and my job is to ensure you make it back in one piece. If I give an order, you obey. Understand?"

Alex nodded, but his two companions grumbled from the rear vehicle. Dirk glared at them, but they continued talking over him. Dirk gave the driver a command, and the vehicles began to move. Instead of heading to the paddocks and plains near the rear of the estate, the two vehicles circled around the breadth of the manor. The spinning of a great motor could be heard, like some subterranean machine emerging from the ground. The two jeeps circled the front of the house and saw it.

Alex presumed it arrived the prior night, as he'd heard sounds of the helicopter landing. It was no mere taxi for wealthy tourists. Instead, it was an angular, aggressive gunship bristling with missile pods and automatic cannons. The two pilot seats reminded him of an Apache, but he heard one of the guards call it a Rooivalk attack chopper. The rotors were starting to spin, as the two pilots clambered into the cockpit. Dirk whistled and pointed at the gunship, as if to emphasize an unspoken point. He saw Chet and Bob turn towards the weapons platform, their curiosity aroused.

"The beasts you will be hunting today require extraordinary care, especially in this season," Dirk said. "I will not hesitate to call for air support if necessary, but if you obey my instructions, it should not be necessary. Do I have your attention?"

After two brief nods from Chet and Bob, Dirk whistled. Alex grinned to himself as he saw the two slink into the backseat of the other vehicle. The convoy spun headed back around the house and resumed its drive towards a distant paddock. As the distance decreased, Alex saw the height of the fences was far higher than he thought they were at range. Metal pylons stood across the savannah like a row of druidic menhirs. The wire between them reflecting the sunlight like an assassin's garrote. A gate as high as a medieval drawbridge provided a scale for him to compare his own statue against. They slowed as they approached.

Alex saw the single break in the fence contained not one, but two gates. Given the security they dealt with, he presumed only one would open at a time. Near the gate were the sun-bleached bones of some unfortunate bovine, cracked by some fearsome beast and scattered by scavengers. Slowly, the first gate opened upwards. His vehicle drove through slowly, with great deliberation on the part of the driver. He heard Dirk giving step-by-step updates on the radio, as the first door closed and the second began to open. As if driving on ice, the vehicle proceeded out of the second gate slowly.

Alex saw heard the radio chatter and tried to make sense of it, but it was all in Afrikaans. While he picked up a handful of terms, he realized his utter nescience of the Estate's hunting protocols. With his Winchester ready, he scanned the horizon for any signs of movement. Behind him, he saw the second gate close with the solemn finality of a guillotine's blade. Dirk's eyes scanned the horizon more intensely, and he scanned the horizons for an unseen adversary. He gestured to the driver, who swung northwards.

"Okay, we have a herd of the beasts just northeast of here. The moment you see one of these creatures, open fire. This is their mating season, so they'll be more aggressive."

Alex gulped, and he found his aim waver. He saw a dust cloud rising over the horizon, as though a dust devil had recently ripped over the plains. The driver slowed the vehicle, and he saw the dust settle. Dirk and the other security guard lifted their rifles, tracing phantasmagoric shapes through the musty cloud. He could not clearly see how many of them there were, as the darkened forms blended into each other in the distance. Between them all, he saw the archetype of a vaguely equomorphic, with four legs and an angled, downward head. As he indecisively shifted his aim between phantasms, one trotted out brazen.

Alex involuntarily blinked. Dirk and the Rooikat guards held their fire, waiting for the tourists to take the first shot. A horse, brown in color with white stripes, trotted out of the cloud. It stood before them and whinnied. He kept his weapon trained on the steed, as his instincts screamed many things were amiss. Another one walked from the cloud, this one as white as winter snow. Another walked out, as sable as the dark between the stars. He heard Chet grumbling from the rear car. "Are you trying to rip me off?! I didn't pay to shoot horses!"

"Those aren't horses. Open fire!" Dirk said. "Or I will."

Alex obeyed his instincts and pulled the trigger. The first horse he saw, which he presumed was a wild mustang, fell dead to the ground. His shot entered the steed's beady left eye, and burrowed straight into its brain like a charnel-starved maggot. As it laid on the ground with an opened mouth, he took some pride that his well-honed hunting instincts were vindicated.

Through his rifle scope, Alex examined the creature's mangled head closer. The head was superficially like the thoroughbred steed he'd practiced Olympic pentathlon on, but the guise crumbled upon closer examination. Its blackened teeth were angled, sharpened knives more akin to a prehistoric carnivore, than to the docile herbivores he grew up with. As he watched, the teeth began to steam and sizzle, as though being broiled under the African sun. The carnivore's implements vanished into the air, blackening like kindling in an invisible fire. Beneath them were the domed teeth of a grazing creature. He flinched, uncertain of what was occurring.

In the instant that Alex hesitated, the Rooikat guards opened fire. A fusillade of rifles barked as bullets tore into the distant horde. Over the barrage, Alex heard the loud discharge of Chet's gun, coupled with his awkward fumbling of the bolt, and the staccato of Bob's assault rifle, together with the litany of curses when it jammed. The drivers wheeled their vehicles around, but Alex felt something was amiss. From within the dust cloud, he thought he saw incandescent flashes.

Alex frantically worked the bolt on his rifle, ejecting each shell with the jingle of spent brass. He fired into the mass of charging horse-flesh, only to be distracted by a sudden pulse of white light. He was shoveling rounds into the magazine, so he averted the brunt of the blinding pulse. Dirk and the guards covered their eyes, but they still reeled from the intensity of it. He was the only one of the party to see the creature when it emerged.

Alex identified it as a leader of its kind. The beast stood a head above its fellows. Its body rippled with the musculature of a racing mare. It was as an alabaster of classical statues, left unblemished by the passage of eons. Its black eyes shone with the cruel intelligence of diabolical malignity. The other animals parted before it, as though it was an equine emperor. The most distinctive badge of its rank was the crest upon its forehead, a horned spire with a texture like some benthic bottom feeder. It radiated with a latent intensity, as though with a mesmeric maleficence. Seeing other flashes in the pandemonium, it responded in a short sequence of lights.

Alex felt the vehicle turn towards the herd, and the distance was closed with a horrifying alacrity. The blinded driver struggled to retain control of the wheel, but the jeep veered directly into the onslaught. Realizing what was about to happen, he braced for impact. The crash came faster than he thought it would, sending Dirk and the other guard flying through the air. He lost sight of the other vehicle. The vehicle overturned, but his seatbelt held him in place. The driver struggled free of his seatbelt and drew his sidearm. He crawled out of the wrecked vehicle, but Alex did not see what happened to him. He only heard a few stray gunshots, screams, the beating of infernal hooves, and the crunching of massive jaws. Realizing he was surrounded, he drew his pistol and decided how he wanted to die.

Horseplay

Back near the fence, a humanoid form the color of translucent water pulled himself to the top. Pierce set the grappling hook on a metal bracket, and he repelled downwards in a slow, deliberate movement. While he'd trained for such eventualities, he never thought it would exhaust him so much. Once he reached the ground, he panted heavily for several seconds before continuing. He looked up to see a relaxed hell standing before him, her dress still immaculate. Her only acknowledgment of the blasting heat around her was the paper fan in her hand.

"Hard to believe these gross things inspired My Little Unicorn. Anyway, would it really kill you to let me use one of those portals?" Pierce said, raising the shotgun in his hands. "I really should've added that motorized ascender."

"And cease watching you flail like a beached whale?" Helen asked. "Why, I never tire of that spectacle."

"Really?"

"No, but I am not allowed to so casually break the laws of reality. A heavy price is required, which I hope you never have to pay."

"Really?"

"No, but I do not fully recall how to use these powers. My experiments with carrying other organisms had messy results, like the cat."

"Oh, yeah. The one in Risona's lab? Then I'll stick with the tools I know for now."

"If you're done complaining, our new friend requires help."

Pierce checked his watch. "Yeah, we got five more minutes until the chopper gets there, and then another fifteen until the airstrikes."

Pierce shouldered his homemade shotgun and charged towards the dust-cloud on the horizon. His sprint tailed off into a jog, as his heart raced like a drum. Even with the air conditioning at full blast and internal cooling, the interior of the suit was soaked in perspiration. He slowed his jog to a marching pace, and then to a brisk pace as he trudged towards the chaos. Nevertheless, the fracas always loomed an indeterminate distance ahead of him. He looked at his stopwatch and sighed. "Three minutes left."

Looking to his side, he saw Helen fanning herself without an apparent care. "Then are you ready to entrust yourself to my powers?"

"Normally, no, but for now, screw it."

"I always do."

"Like father, like daughter," Pierce said, as she slipped her slender hands wrapped around his larger torso.

Pierce blinked, and it all went dark.

Horse of a Different Color

Alex retreated into the corners of the overturned jeep, extending weapons like an armed hermit crab. In one hand, he extended his cavalry saber, and in the other, he held his pistol. He'd been unable to reach the ammunition that was spilled when the vehicle overturned, but he kept his rifle slung across his back. The carnivorous horses, or carni-horses, as he mentally dubbed them, were unable to fully reach him due to the length of their snouts. He saw the numbers outside were thinner than the horde that destroyed the hunting party, but a dozen of the beasts still circled the wrecked vehicle like a flock of quadruped vultures. He assumed the others were busy devouring what was left of the expedition. While he was still alive, he received the unenviable impression he was someone else's leftovers.

Alex saw the wounded snout of a horse he'd slashed earlier coming back for another pass. He saw its nostrils flare like a sniffing bloodhound, and then its beady eggs searching for him. He tried to line up a shot with his pistol, but the horse withdrew as he pulled the trigger. The gun jammed. As he cursed to himself, he thought he felt the vehicle move. He felt a metallic impact, and the jeep jerked above him. He felt another, harder impact, and the vehicle rolled higher. With tremendous terror, he realized they'd figured out how to flip the car around. To them, he was the last morsel in a hard to open container. With sword and pistol in hand, he vainly searched for an escape route. He bore no illusions that a quick dash across the savannah would only result in him dying tired.

Alex saw the sun a moment later, and he saw the bloodied grins of the carni-horse pack. They leered at him with bloodied teeth, with threads of the guards' uniforms still stuck between their obsidian-colored teeth. He drew his sword and traced a circle in the air, as if daring them to come closer. The first of them was a roan-furred one with the sturdy build of a palfrey, which met the edge of the weapon. The beast's snot was cleaved partially in half, resulting in a torrent of black arterial blood spurting from the wound like a damaged hydrant. A portion of its lower jaw fell to the ground, the fangs dissipating in the tyrannical sun. At the sight of blood, the two closest ones snapped at the neck of the wounded one, bringing it low. The wounded beast fought as its strength waned, and he thought he saw a break in the circle. With the other nightmarish carnivores distracted, he sprinted for the exit.

Alex noted the absence of the unicorn, and the seemingly cyclopean glare of its horn. He wondered if they'd turn on their own at the first sight of blood, and the shrill, bestial shrieks from behind confirmed his suspicions. He knew he would not get far once the pack brought low their latest quarry, but instinct drove him on. He always believed in making Death work to claim him. Like the shuttle runs in his exercise drills, he sprinted like a maniac to leave the four-legged freaks in the dust. His boots kicked up sun-baked clods of hardened dirt in their wake. Deep inside, he knew he'd return to dust someday, but ran regardless. That day would not be today.

Alex heard the beat of galloping hooves behind him. He ran until he could sprint no longer, and he looked towards the fence. He noted the gate was behind a cloud of dirt similar to the one he'd seen on the horizon. From within, he saw flashes of light like the discharges of a distant thunderhead. A dumbstruck expression of terror appeared on his face, as he realized the entire expedition had been baited into a trap. Whatever was going on in that crowd, he had no doubt, was some manner of carni-horse escape ploy.

Alex heard the rumbling hooves behind him, reminding him of the more immediate threat to his existence. Looking behind him, he saw the blood-covered pack descending upon him, like the charge of Apocalyptic steeds. He drew his pistol and pulled the slide back, ejecting the stuck casing. He fired a futile salvo of rounds into the charging herd, but such projectiles were as ineffectual as pebbles in the path of an oncoming torrent. As the slide locked back, he once more fatalistically drew his sword and selected a target.

Alex saw a brown horse with white stripes charging directly at him. He held his sword as though preparing to chop the legs off, mimicking a stance he saw in medieval manuscripts. The horse strangely dropped to the ground, its momentum carrying it to a stop like a baseball player stealing home. Its eyes were open, as if in shock, and the teeth began do dissipate. He was only paying partial attention, as the other horses charged on.

Alex raised his sword and searched for a new target, only for a gunshot to erupt from somewhere to his side. Another carni-horse fell as both he and the pack searched for the unseen combatant. He saw muzzle flash illuminate a figure that looked like a sculpture of liquid water, which bounded across the savannah without evaporation. Another gunshot rang out, a loud and throaty shotgun. Another horse fell, and most of its brain matter was scattered over the plains. Another horse dropped dead from an unseen assassin. Between a steady drumming of gunfire and invisible doom, the entire pack dropped dead within a few seconds from the first one's demise.

Alex kept his sword trained on the strange combatant, who clearly could shoot him if he willed it. Much to his relief, the new arrival's humanoid physiology was subconsciously reassuring comfort, even before recognizing a vaguely familiar figure. He heard footsteps behind him, but their soft, humanoid cadence seemed alluring. Each footfall was slow and empathized as though to show all sides of an ample figure. When he turned his head, he saw nothing. When he turned back to the translucent figure, he saw his benefactor.

Alex saw the young black man from before, clad in a garment like a hooded trench-coat. He hung a shotgun over his shoulder, a homemade weapon made of plastic and piping. He grinned widely as he lowered the weapons.

"The name's Graves. Pierce Graves," Pierce said, bowing. "Sorry, always wanted to do that."

"My, you certainly held your own," came a feminine voice from behind him. "I had a feeling we'd meet again, Alex."

"Helen, right?" he asked. "Just what is going on here?"

"We'll explain later. For now, we have to stop that," Helen said, her slim finger pointing to the dust cloud near the gate.

"What exactly are they?"

"Exactly what they look like," Pierce said. "Now, come on. We've got unicorns to kill."

Alex tried to reply, but the distant sound of explosions, gunfire, and helicopter rotors drowned out his words.

Unicorn Kingdom

Of all forms of terrestrial life, the equomorphic scourge was most closely related to the fungal kingdom. It was a symbiotic parasite, made with eldritch powers in the primordial eons of the earth. It only infected a small subset of the equine population, based upon certain uncommon genes. In that terrible minority of successful infections, a combined organism arose that was the source of legends awful and majestic.

In the early states, the infected horse resembled a typical member of its species, save perhaps for a marked increase in aggression. The fungus infected the brain, digestive system, vagus nerve, teeth, and skull, with although the last took longest to manifest. The fungal hyphae in the stomach acted as a parallel digestive track, with an insatiable hunger for calorie-dense red meat above all forms of sustenance. The nervous system and brain, meanwhile, would be modified with hijacked predatory instincts. Even the most docile herbivores would be irreversibly rendered into predatory carnivores, which inspired the ancient myths of carnivorous horses, such as those subdued by Hercules.

Once the brain was converted, the other physical changes manifested. The infected began emitted pheromones identifying themselves as such to other infected. Their natural teeth with covered by a black, chitinous film that formed itself into flesh-rending fangs. Deep within their skull, a fusion of skin, bone, and fungus would rise to the top of their head. Once it reached sufficient volume, it thrust forth, signifying the adult phase of the life-cycle: the unicorn. As few infected survived that long, the most cunning and savage reached full maturity.

The unicorns were pack leaders, commanding other infected on hunting expeditions. Their horns also acted as conduits for light transmissions, blinding prey, and even storage of vast amounts of energy by means unknown to mundane science. With such powers, unicorns could mesmerize and distract prey while orchestrating ornate hunting strategies. At regular intervals, the horn would also ejaculate spores into the air, which would survive almost indefinitely and set the stage for future outbreaks. When faced with other packs, most found themselves indecisively matched when warring for resources. Unlike the situation on the Estate, most of such packs were easily destroyed by well-equipped human hunters even in prehistory. The symbiote that granted them power vanished when exposed to sun, tissue removal, or the death of the organism, so little evidence remained for subsequent analysis.

The Estate housed a pack of horses originally infected before the Boer Wars, but were subsequently contained for the amusement of wealthy hunters. Other horses were introduced to the paddock, for both infection and nourishment for the others. Prior owners used human prisoners, such as labor organizers and anti-apartheid critics, as food for the unicorn packs. As livestock was scarcely introduced into the pen, they spent most of their time fighting each other, while hunters regularly thinned the ranks of the largest packs.

Such a precarious stalemate ended when a single alpha unicorn noted the patterns. It observed the ways the hunters moved, how their weapons killed, and how they entered and exited. It observed what happened when their own were surrounded, and how they denied its pack freedom. So, it coerced or convince the other alphas to work for it, and together, they implemented a plan to escape when two vehicles entered.

The equomorphs used a stampede to conceal their true numbers, even as they descended on the hunters. They feasted cruelly and capriciously on their victims. After slaying the guards, they devoured a cowering fat man that cried like a human baby as they tore chunks of flesh from his torso. Four unicorns each grabbed the limbs of another cowardly human, each pulling a limb as a child might quarter an insect. Instead of leaving him to die of exsanguination, he was trampled to death before being eaten.

After the hunting party was slain, the alpha unicorn led his allied packs towards the primary gate. The weakest pack members were pushed into the front, so that they'd absorb the brunt of any human traps or weapons. Upon a mound of their writhing corpses, they were used to create a ramp to freedom beyond the gate. When the attack helicopter arrived, the alpha unicorn readily improvised a solution.

All the King's Horses

In his heart, Alex hoped the helicopter gunship would be sufficient to eradicate the aberrations. From the distance, it was a thing of parlous beauty. The wing-mounted rocket pods erupted like terrible flames from dragons' mouths, each missile leaving a wispy contrail behind it. Explosions blossomed in their wake, reducing the massed carni-horses to quivering chunks of red meat. A torrent of automatic cannon fire tore through a fleeing pack of carni-horses, its report like a demonic sewing machine.

For a moment of premature optimism, Alex hoped the attack chopper would completely eradicate the increasingly dispersed mass of carni-horses. He noted the total absence of flashes amongst the unicorns, which caused him to hope they'd all been killed. His hunting instincts told him something was amiss long before he witnessed flashing from within the mob. This time, the lights were faster and more frantic, like a panicked spasm. He saw beads of light form across the plain, like the lights of a distant shore. A moment later, the helicopter exploded.

"That is not fair!" Pierce complained. "I did not just see that!"

"It probably took a lot out of them, but never underestimate a clever foe," Helen said. "Especially if they operate outside the laws of nature."

"If they're drained, they'll just be rushing to get outside the fence faster," Alex said. "They should be vulnerable for now. I say we attack."

"Since when did we put him in charge?" Pierce asked.

"Since I concur," Helen said. "They're between us and escape. We just need to keep them from getting out, since the air strike will annihilate anything left."

"Wait, what airstrike?" Alex asked.

"One of the Estate's contingency plans in case of a hunt gone awry. Since they lost contact with the hunting party and now the gunship, the clock's ticking," Helen explained. "Eight minutes."

"Shit. Then everyone, if you've got any more tricks, now's the time to use them," Alex said. "If you can, kill the ones with horns. Without them, the others seem less coordinated."

"Aye-aye, sir," Pierce said with a mock salute. "Say hello to my little friend."

With that, Pierce reached into his coat and threw a plastic and metal sphere into the air. A quad-rotor drone unfurled, with a camera and small gun turret protruding from the bottom. Alex loaded his magazines the best he could, with Helen handing him additional rifle cartridges. He did not care to ask where or how she acquired such ammunition, especially given the relative paucity of his specialized hunting cartridge. Nevertheless, he chambered a round and prepared for attack.

Alex searched through the throng for any targets of opportunity. The dispersed rabble was concentrating itself once more, driving the weak and wounded into the gate and electric fences. He saw a jet-black unicorn in the mass, and he pulled the trigger. As the unicorn's head snapped back, its momentum caused it to ragdoll across the ground. He clinched his fist in excitement, before working the lever to chamber another round. He felt the reassuring chime of spent brass being exiled from the chamber, and he searched for another target.

Alex saw the flashing across the savannah erupt like a throng of paparazzi. He identified at least three other lights, each moving at the pace of a full gallop. He noted they were coming together, and each drove a herd of carni-horses before then. The dust rose once more across the plains, and he aimed at the carni-horse leading the charge. The rabid stallion flashed its rancid mouth, still wet with blood, and fell dead. Its body was trampled underneath the tsunami of horse-flesh. With the first wave less than two hundred meters away, he picked another target and fired. If he was to be overrun, he wanted to go out with an empty magazine.

Out of the corner of his eye, Alex saw his compatriots similarly engaging the horde. Fading in and out of visibility, Pierce shot and relocated as his buckshot tore into the oncoming flood. With an occasional gesture with his left hand, his attack drone unleashed a burst of gunfire at a designated target. Helen stood in a single place, jabbing a small dagger at invisible targets. Even though she stood in one place, Alex saw the blade vanish at the full extension of each thrust, only to reappear covered in blood, brains, and bile. With each of such movements, another horse fell dead. While questions filled his mind, he knew such work would be useless unless they could destroy the leaders.

"Any more tricks left?" Alex asked. "We need to get behind them!"

"Just one, love," Helen said, a slight tone of worry in her now cockney-accented voice. "But I've never tried it with two people."

Alex blinked, and Helen was right beside him. Pierce stood shoulder to shoulder with him, and Helen wrapped her hands around each of their waists. The tips of her fingers slipped slightly beneath their belts. Before he realized what was going on, he felt all three of them press together tighter than humanly possible. In a moment that stretched onto eternity, he saw the bulk of the horde shrink and pass beneath them as though they were naught but infinitesimal insects. He wished he could end them all with a single squash of his bootheel, as they seemed so far beneath him now. He blinked once more, and he found himself exactly where he wished to be.

Alex founding himself riding bareback on the white unicorn he'd seen before the ambush started. By the time he'd aimed his rifle at the beast's head, it realized it bore an unwanted rider on its back. The beast began to buck, and Alex held on for dear life. The unicorn's mouth snapped at him as he descended, ripping the rifle from his hands. He pressed himself into the back of the creature's back, wrapping his arms and legs around its muscular body as best he could. Its neck moved in an almost serpentine manner as it turned to snap at him, necessitating he weave away. Like particularly energetic partners he had, he forced himself to hold on for dear life.

Alex felt his body ripple against swollen, throbbing muscle. He practically felt the hatred seething from the animal's body. He felt the beast trying to rear up and kick him, causing him to nearly lose his grip. Fatigue burned his muscles as lactic acid built up. As he wove around the body like a punch-drunk boxer, he saw the others were similar scattered. Another unicorn, a brown spotted one, lied dead beneath Helen's feet. Another one, with a dark auburn coat the color of dried arterial blood, leapt at Pierce's drone. It snatched it from the air like a dog grabbing a discus, only for the drone to explode and take the animal's head with it. Unwilling to let the others take all the glory, he acted.

Alex knew the perfect weapon for grappling this close. He drew his Bowie knife, and he plunged it deep into the beast's pumping heart. At once, he heard the beast shriek, and he knew it was not yet over. He withdrew the weapon and threw his entire body-weight onto the handle, freeing it from the place it had slipped between the stunned animal's ribs. He tumbled to the ground and gazed skywards for a second, wondering if he'd broken any bones. He heard the alpha unicorn galloping away, but he knew it was mortally wounded.

Alex leapt to his feet with his pistol drawn, and he saw the tides had turned. Without the unicorns biting at their rears and whatever other factors they used to control the others, the carni-horse herd collapsed into an anarchic mess. With the fresh and bloody meat spilled across the ground, the animals' blood lust took over. As the alpha unicorn vainly sought to escape, he saw a pack of blood-maddened steeds closing in on it. He hoped he was overlooked in the chaos.

Alex grabbed his rifle and sprinted towards the gate. He saw a grappling hook and rope descending from the top, how he presumed the others entered the enclosure. Pierce was already ahead of him, cloaking from sight while taking off in a dead sprint. Helen stood nonchalantly at the top of the gate, waiting for the others to join her. Between him and his goal was a writhing mess of carni-horses, now battling each other over the charnel-strewn battlefield. He saw a horse in front of him turn its head towards him, and he fired his rifle from the hip, putting it down for good. He heard something charging behind him, so he hurled himself forwards into a dive roll. He came up with his pistol drawn, and he put a magazine of bullets into its head. Instead of changing the magazine, he continued running.

Alex felt his legs become like heavy ballast, a burden upon him as he moved to that final position. His adrenaline reached its limit against his fatigue, and the best he could manage was a belabored jog towards salvation. He heard a carni-horse behind him, only for Pierce's shotgun to ring out. A quick glance confirmed Pierce was out and covering him. He saw Helen's knife moving, and the carni-horses around him falling dead. With the way out cleared, he clambered up to the rope. He forced himself to climb it, but his muscles failed him.

"Grab on," Pierce said, grabbing the rope in his hands. "I'll haul you up."

Alex forced himself to his feet, and he grasped the rope and wrapped it around himself like he coils of a woven python. He held on for dear life as Pierce struggled to lift him. Below him, he saw one of the carni-horses take note of him. He was midway up the gate when it leapt at him. Its mouth and neck extended in an ophidian imitation, and he could smell the warm, rank air that escaped from its throat. He swung backwards as it leapt at him, causing him to miss it by millimeters. Nevertheless, he drive his foot into the back of its head on the return swing, sending it crashing into a fence pylon. He saw the top approaching, and reached for it as Pierce pulled him upwards.

Off to the Races

Now safe, Alex forced himself to let go.

"That was awesome, man!" Pierce said, slapping him on the back.

"Just call me Alex," he replied. "Now, you guys have a plan to get out of here?"

"Pierce and I had prior arrangements, but it should be easy enough to fit you in there," Helen said. "Don't worry about your things back at the manor. We'll retrieve them."

"Just what is the deal with all this? The Estate? The unicorns?" Alex asked as he descended down the outside of the gate.

"As you can see, monsters exist, and they also indirectly inspired a generation of children's shows," Pierce explained. "These creatures, for instance, inspired My Little Unicorn."

"Really?"

"Yes, and we hunt them, because corrupt people exploit these creatures for their own benefit," Pierce said. "We're the Juvenalia Task Force, and we'd like you to join."

"A little small for a task force, aren't you?" Alex asked.

"Yes, but we are recruiting," Helen said. "And consider that a successful job interview."

"Okay, everyone, let's get to a safe distance," Pierce said, gathering the rope behind him. "Just a few minutes until the fireworks start."

Even under the noonday African sun, Alex felt cool as he leisurely sauntered away from the electric fence, as he was so thoroughly soaked in sweat. Even though he was thoroughly drained and bloodied, he still managed to comfortably keep pace ahead of Pierce and Helen. While Pierce doggedly walked onwards with a shuffling gait, Helen strode like a goddess across the sun-caked sands. They continued walking until they reached a rocky outcropping that oversaw the paddock.

Alex heard the roar of a jet engine somewhere above him, but he did not look up. Instead, he sat down and exhaled, relaxing his tensed body. Something whistled through the air, and he felt two bodies pressing closely on either side. He put his arms on their shoulders as he saw the projectile dropping from above the pen like a divine plague. While he did not know what kind of bomb it was, he was relieved he was not in its way. He covered his ears, and the others did the same. A roar followed as the aerosolized fuel mixture ignited, bathing the pen in a tidal wave of fire. He saw burnt husks that were the last trace of the unicorn uprising, and he could not help but share a smile with the other two.

"You know what?" Pierce asked, noting the flames died down. "Friendship is magic."

"Honestly, Pierce," Alex said. "I'd hope you'd stop beating a dead horse."

"You two are terrible," Helen said.

The trio sat silhouetted against the smoldering inferno and the sun above them. They sat together for a long time.