"No you don't!" shouted Tarn. He nocked an arrow and fired it. "You're paying attention to me!"
The orclops glanced back toward the archer, raising its hand. The arrow bounced off the hard skin and clinked on the cavern floor.
"Keep going, Lenna!" cried Glomm. The dwarf ran toward the orclops while it was distracted, his axe raised. With a mighty swing, the great battle-axe swirled through the air and landed hard on the orclop's smallest toe, and at last one of their attacks had an effect as the axe sliced through the rock-hard skin and into the flesh beyond. The toe, a gray lump the size of a child's leg, rolled aside. The orclops screeched in pain as black blood spewed out of its foot.
The centaur girl slowed for a moment; then she redoubled her efforts, her hooves thundering like drumbeats, her brown hair flying behind her as she circled the awful beast. Only a little farther. Only a little farther!
Two more arrows bounced off the orclop's face. The monster screeched, but suddenly it found itself quite unable to brush them off: Its hands were pinned at its sides by Lenna's elven rope.
It roared again, struggling against the rope, but the centaur wasn't giving him any ground. She braced all four legs hard against the floor, holding the rope as tightly as she could.
"Now, Tarn! I can't hold him forever!" she cried.
He nodded, drawing the only spelled arrow from his quiver. This had to work. "Aim be true," he whispered, nocking it, and then let it fly.
The last thing the orclops saw was the shining golden arrow as it struck the exact center of the monster's hideous yellow eye.
The orclops howled as black goo spewed from the eye upwards, showering the cavern in a hissing evil rain. It stumbled, trying to tear itself free from the rope, but now utterly blind to the party's attacks. Unbalanced, it stumbled. Lenna pulled hard on the rope, crying out, and the monster fell into a puddle of the black ooze that spewed from its eye. She released the rope, and scampered over to the higher ground where Tarn and Glomm were already standing. The orclops's shaking body, once round and ugly and fat, grew thin as the black humours poured from its eye, and thinner still, until nothing was left but its bones and a pool of pure, black evil underneath it. The cavern stank of tar and death.
The party stood still, watching, and breathing hard.
"What a monster," said Lenna.
"Ah, I've fought worse," chuckled the dwarf. "You should see the Grens of Rorthon. Awful things. Takes a full troupe of dwarves to fell a single one. This beastie went down with just the three of us."
"Is everyone all right?" said Tarn.
"Nothing a pint couldn't fix!" laughed Glomm.
"Yes, I'm fine," said Lenna. "A little sore, but not hurt."
Tarn nodded, putting his bow up over his back. "I'm sorry to say I think your rope may be ruined," he said, pointing at it. The once-golden strands had been eaten away by the black ooze, and in some places it had shredded.
"That's a shame," said Lenna. "But — our prize." She pointed to the cave beyond the orclops's ruined husk. "The elves will sell me another rope, but there's only one Dreamstone."
Her companions nodded, seeing the stone gently glowing in the distance.
"Well, to it then!" said Glomm. "Do you think it will work, lassie?"
She shrugged. "Only one way to find out."
They circled around the orclops and its pool of black blood, giving wide berth to the hissing ooze. Anything that could eat through elven rope was not to be trifled with. In time, that black pool would reform itself as another, smaller monster, possibly something toothed and green; there was far too much of it to hope that it would simply dissipate. But by the time it grew into a new cave guardian, they would be long gone, and the guardian would have nothing to guard.
On the far side of the cavern, an arch gave way to a small cave beyond. The orclops likely had to crawl to enter it, but the orclops surely had been here a long time: Glomm's eyes widened at the mountains of gold haphazardly piled in the cave.
"It's a shame we canna take all of it," he said with a whistle.
"If the Dreamstone works, we'll be able to take even less," said Tarn.
Lenna stepped forward, nervously approaching the gem. It was a round green stone, the size of a man's fist, set atop a pile of gold on a dirty red cloth, and it glowed faintly, illuminating her face green. She reached out — and then pulled her hand back.
"Go on," said Tarn. "It's what we came here for."
She glanced back at him and nodded. She closed her eyes, wrapped her slender fingers around the stone, and lifted it gently into the air, waiting for its magic to take effect.
The men in her party watched, and waited.
"Nothing's happening," muttered Glomm.
Lenna peeked out through her closed lids. The stone was still faintly glowing in her hands, and twinkled off her brown eyes. She hadn't let go of it. But he was right: Nothing was happening.
"Maybe you need to say something," suggested Tarn.
Lenna nodded, and held it up. "Fabled Dreamstone, please use your magic on my behalf! Please grant me my fondest desire, my greatest wish, to be human again!" she cried, stomping a forehoof.
"I canna say I like magic," said Glomm darkly. "Give me a sword or an axe any day. Chop a tree, and the tree is chopped. No fancy words, no guesses."
Lenna opened her eyes and lowered the stone. It was still faintly glowing. She could see her reflection in it.
"Maybe — it's a fake?" said Tarn.
She shook her head. "No. It's real. I can feel the magic inside it. I just don't understand why it isn't working."
"What did the scrolls say?" he said.
She turned around, pacing back over to them. "Not much," she said. "Claim the stone, and show it your dream, and the Dreamstone will make your dream real."
"Show it your dream?" said Tarn. "What does that mean?"
"I thought it just meant to think of your dream, and then say it," she said. "What else could it mean?"
Tarn shrugged. "I don't know magic. That's your specialty."
She glared over her shoulder. "This damned spell. We came all this way, and after all this, I'm still not rid of the horse."
"Aye, lass, aye," said Gromm. "But it might be useful right now. Let's load you up with as much gold as we can, and then let's get out of here. You can figure out the stone when we're back in daylight. Even if it's not the Dreamstone, or even if it doesn't work, we'll still have won plenty of gold from this adventure."
Lenna stared at it, frowning. "Yeah," she muttered. It wasn't the conclusion she wanted, but it was a conclusion.
* * *
The path up and out of the cavern was somber and quiet. Tarn led, with Lenna in the back, staring into the Dreamstone in hopes that it would do something. He felt bad for her: She wanted her humanity back — she deserved her humanity back — and this had seemed like such a promising answer. Lenna had been stuck as a centaur for three years, and while she wore it well, he remembered how much more sprightly and happy she'd been when she was human.
He glanced back at her. She was still looking down at the stone in her hands, barely paying any heed to where they were going, simply following behind Gromm. He remembered when they were little, how they played together in the square — and then on her tenth birthday, the girl went off to the Academy. Four years later, she'd come back to the village a young woman, dressed in purple cleric's robes, and watched as she dazzled the village with her newfound magic powers. She'd always had some magic that she'd mostly used to infuriate him: But now she could summon fire and lightning from her hands, and she could heal wounds and draw water from a stone. Every boy in the village wanted to be with the pretty, talented woman — and Tarn knew he didn't stand a chance.
Her break ended as suddenly as it began, and off she went again, this time to the city, to a ten-year apprenticeship under Master Mage Geloran.
And, on the day she left, Tarn vowed to become worthy of her. That very day, he set out for the city himself, enrolled in the King's Army, and began training to become something that she'd respect.
He'd never expected that four years later, as his first Army term came to its end, that lying on the ground beside the fountain in the city square, he'd see a crying centaur girl — or that the crying centaur girl would be Lenna. She was still Lenna, still beautiful, still clever — but now with the large body of a beige-colored horse where her maidenly legs should have been.
A fight with another apprentice had left the other girl with white hair — and Lenna with considerably more changes. They'd both been expelled by Geloran, and Lenna had nowhere to go. She didn't dare go home and reveal her shame. Centaurs were frowned on by humans as barely more than beasts, and she couldn't even find a place to stay.
And so Tarn offered to help.
But three years later, they weren't much closer to a cure. The spell that Frayelle had cast on Lenna was a mishmash, a conglomeration of bits and pieces she'd pulled from a dozen books and misremembered, and worse, it was miscast: Frayelle had intended to turn Lenna into a horse, not a centaur. Not even the Master Mages at King's Seat seemed to know how to loose the tangle of spells.
But the Dreamstone —! A stone that could make dreams come true? Lenna could get her humanity, and Tarn could get the girl, and Gromm could get rich, and everyone would be happy. Even if it was guarded by monsters, it was worth the attempt.
And yet after all they'd been through, they'd claimed it, and it didn't work. It didn't seem to do anything. Lenna was certain that it really was the Dreamstone. But despite having found it, they seemed no closer to a cure.
* * *
They made camp a few miles from the cavern, in a forest clearing ringed by mushrooms. Gromm checked the area for monsters, while Tarn gathered wood and made the fire. Lenna, for her part, simply sat in the grass, studying the stone, her long dark hair burying her face. It had to work. It had to. She just didn't know how.
Lying next to the fire, she didn't feel hungry at all. There was a hole in her stomach, and it felt like she'd swallowed a frog. She held the Dreamstone, a stone fabled to change reality itself, a stone that the books said could raze kingdoms and make paupers into kings — and yet she was still stuck as a horse. It wasn't fair.
"Are you sure you're not hungry?" That was Tarn.
Lenna glared over at him irritably as he munched on salted meat and biscuits. "No."
She bit her tongue. He wasn't a bad person; he'd tried hard to help, ever since that day in the square. He was strong, and nice, and came from a good family. If she'd been human, she probably would have already — but — that was out of the question. She didn't even want to imagine getting close to anyone in this body.
She wrapped the stone up inside the red cloth she'd found it on, and then lay it next to her. There was only one answer: She'd take it to the Grand Mages, and they'd have to figure out its powers together. The Mages would surely charge a lot of gold to find the answer, but the party likely had enough from this adventure.
Lenna lay her human half down on her pack irritably. She took a deep breath, brushing a straight brown lock from her face, and closed her eyes. This wasn't the end, she thought. It was a beginning of an answer, she was sure of it. She just didn't know the rest of the answer yet.
Irritably, she drifted off to a fitful sleep, snoring and snuffling.
Gromm slid over and sat down beside Tarn. "I feel bad for the lass," he said. "She had her hopes up on this one. Makes me feel bad to see 'em dashed."
"I was sure this would do it," said Tarn.
The dwarf nodded. "Aye, lad, aye. So was I, after all she told us of that stone."
"I wish I knew what to do," said Tarn, twisting the tip of his bow in the dirt. "I promised her I'd help her get her humanity back, no matter what it took. But three years later — "
"— you still can't have her," said the dwarf.
Tarn choked a little. "That's not what I meant."
"Ah, but it is, isn't it?" said Gromm. "Come, lad, I see how you look at her."
"I want to help her," said Tarn. "I really do. I feel bad for her. It's not her fault. And nobody else will help her."
"But there's more, innit?" said the dwarf sagely.
Tarn breathed. "Yes."
"Hah, lad, don't you be so shy about it! Take it from an old dwarf who's had three wives now! You find the girl, you tell her you want her, you show her you're worthy, and she'll come around."
"Maybe," said Tarn.
The dwarf slapped him on the back. "Listen, lad, the moment she's human, you tell her what you feel. I daresay she looks at you the same way. It'll work out. Trust me." He gnawed off a chunk of meat, and spat a piece of gristle into the fire.
"I suppose it might," said Tarn.
The dwarf elbowed him. "You only live once, laddie. When the time is right, you'll tell her you want to be her man — or I'll chop you in half, and some other man who's more a man can be it." He tapped his axe with his foot.
The dwarf bellowed and chortled, and slapped Tarn on the back again. "Hah, the look on your face!" he laughed. "Laddie, I wouldna ever hurt the either of you. But you listen to old Gromm, and when the time is right, you tell her how you feel — or I really will box your ears."
Tarn smiled, nodded, and lay down to sleep.
* * *
The sky was pink.
That didn't seem especially unusual, given how the neon-blue grass curved up to meet it. And the black trees didn't seem to mind that some of them had to grow upside-down.
Tarn looked around. He wasn't certain where this was, but it was warm and pleasant. An orange breeze blew by, with baby chicks floating happily on it. He could smell the green ocean in the distance, off left-upward somewhere.
There was a dark figure under one of the dark trees up ahead. He walked up toward it.
It resolved into Lenna, resting in the grass. She looked up at him. The daisy she'd been plucking petals off seemed to have only one left.
"Hello, Tarn," she said.
"Lenna," he replied simply.
He glanced at what she was doing. "Why the daisy?"
"I was trying to figure out if you love me," she said. "But I can't seem to figure out whether there's one petal or two left, so I'm waiting for another daisy."
"Oh," he said.
"They grow in my hand sometimes," she said.
"But I always get down to the end, and then I can't figure out the last petal," she said.
He watched a couple of purple deer prance up along a spiral of grass and into the distance.
"You wouldn't happen to have the answer, would you?" she said.
"About whether you love me."
"Gromm said I should tell you that I do," he said. "He said he'd cut me in half if I didn't tell you how I feel."
She looked up at him quizzically. "That's not how this goes," she said.
She winced, a little confused. "That's not the right line," she said. "You always say, 'How should I know?' there. I say, 'whether you love me,' and then you say — "
"I do," he replied.
She blinked. She looked up at the grass curving overhead. "This is — a dream," she said slowly. "I've had this dream before."
He stared at her, and then looked around. "I think you're right. I think this is a dream," he said.
"But it's not the same," she said. "You're saying things you don't say. And you were never a centaur in the other dreams."
He looked down, and sure enough, below his bare chest, the dark furred body of a horse trailed out behind him, supported by four sturdy, strong legs ending in black hooves.
"Huh, that's new," he said, running a hand over his barrel.
"It's all wrong," she said. "You're supposed to be you. I don't want you to be a centaur too. I want you to be you, and I want me to be me, and then I want us to be us."
He shrugged. "It's not so bad. You always make it seem bad."
"I hate it," she said. "I mean — I hate how everybody looks at me. I hate that the world doesn't see me as a person. I used to be human. I used to be pretty."
"I think you're pretty," he said.
She shook her head. "You're just a dream," she said irritably. "I don't like this dream."
She stood up, and scrunched up her face. "I want to wake up now," she said.
He glanced left and right, but the sky was still pink. A golden unicorn in the distance looked up, confused, then went back to drinking from a nearby rainbow. He put a hand on her shoulder, and she batted it away.
"No, this isn't right," she said. "I don't want this. This isn't a dream. This is a nightmare." She pinched her arm with her fingers. "Why isn't it working?" she said.
"Maybe because it's my dream," he said, shrugging.
She glared at him. "No, it's my dream," she replied. "I've had this one before, lots of times."
He shook his head. "You're the dream, but as weird as this is, I have to say I like it," he said. "I wish I could to be with you like this, even if I am a centaur. I could just say I love you, and then it would work."
She blanched. "You — what did you say?"
"I said I love you," he said simply, shrugging. "Huh. It's a lot easier to say it in a dream. I love you. I love you. I'll have to tell Gromm I said it."
"But this is my dream," she said softly.
"Whatever you want," he said. "I'm just happy that I get to be with you."
Lenna took a step closer, and then another, dropping the daisy. She reached out to his shoulder and touched it. Warm, sturdy skin. She glanced up at him. She'd seen him without a shirt once or twice when bathing in the river, but it was never like this. Never so close, so visceral. He seemed more real than the real man she'd traveled with for years.
"I wish you weren't a dream," she said, looking up at him. "I could live with being a centaur if you were too."
He smiled. "I wouldn't mind being a centaur if it meant I was with you."
She wrapped her arms around him and leaned into his torso, resting her head on his chest. "I wanted to do this for so long." She ran her fingers down his shoulder. "If you were human, I'd have bedded you such a long time ago."
Tarn wrapped his arms gently around her. "If I were a centaur, I'd have come after you a long time ago too," he said.
Lenna looked up at him. "Well, you — you are a centaur, here. Just — like me."
She swallowed. "I — I don't care if this is a dream. It's wrong. But I don't care if it's wrong. You'll be gone when I wake up — I know you don't really exist — but just this once, I want to see how far it goes. You're a dream. But you're the best dream I've had in years. So — so — so take me. We're the same species, just this once, for some strange reason, so take me here, and I can at least believe in the memory of it, in the thought that you love me. Take me, mount me, have your way with me, and let me believe just this once that you want me as much as I've wanted you."
He looked down at her. "You're the best dream I've ever had," he said. "I wish this were real."
"It's real enough for me," she replied. She pushed away from him, stretching, and tore off the flower bra she wore, letting her soft breasts hang down in front of him. She grinned darkly, and then turned around, lifting her long, dark brown tail, revealing her dark nethers to him. "Go on. I want to feel what it would be like."