How Not to Poach a Unicorn


Delizah was very happy; all of her dreams were coming true. She was riding on the back of a dragon behind her hopelessly devoted Prince Vestin and soon she would be queen of half the world. Her father, Mercutian, was mending a wondrous cloak of starcloth and soon he would have harvested enough fur from the filthy dogs to have a whole wardrobe of it; she’d never have to struggle to keep up her disguise again. Even the timing was perfect. They had chosen this day for arrival specifically because her father had predicted a full solar eclipse. They would show up riding a dragon to save the day just as the sun reappeared from behind the moon. In the growing light, the Canerian army would appear in the distance and they would be welcomed as heroes of providence. Everything had gone just as she and her father had planned.

She wondered for a moment as to why her father hadn’t stopped by. She supposed that it was a long trek from his tower and he was having too much fun with his new toy to be bothered with their little war. She was disappointed that he’d miss the big event, but she wiped that from her mind. This was her day and she was going to enjoy it to its fullest.

She saw the eclipse starting and gave her prince a gentle nudge.

Prince Vestin needed little encouragement. His eyes were wide with the excitement of conquest and thirst for glory. In his mind, this day was his and the tiny bits of meat below him were his for the taking. He raised his stolen sword triumphantly and the dragon pulled away from the army, climbing high so it could swoop in for its glorious arrival.

Kish sat mounted on her great elk, filled with thirst for battle. Her entire life had been spent in preparation for this day. She could feel the faith of every man in her army pouring through her as she looked out over the plains to the great rocky bridges that spanned the chasm which separated the armies. Even over the rattling of antlers and the war songs of her men all around her, she could hear the roar of the great river far below. On those bridges, the battle would be fought and as many men would fall into the raging water as would fall to the sword. She would not fall. She could not fall. She would stand on a pile of dead and her men would rush in behind her until the enemy was only a memory.

She thought of her father who should be beside her and of the cowards who had poisoned him. They would pay for that with their blood. She thought of her brother Ulrat who should be king, exiled and shamed. They would pay for that with their heads. She thought of young Karle, innocent and naive. He had been used. For that, she would take their hands and cut out their tongues. Her mind strayed to her gentle prince Prinin. How he had been taken from her. How she had sworn to protect him. How he had loved her. For that, she would tear their beating hearts from their chest. She licked her teeth and started her charge through the tall grass to meet her enemy as the clear sky began to darken and fade to red. An eclipse was a great omen, she thought.

Today would be an auspicious day.

Kazé had barely slept for a week now, running day and night, living only on the strength the moon gave him. It was rising late in the night now and setting late in the day. He had run until his feet bled to reach his pack in the northern mountains. There, he knew, Ulrat had taken refuge with his kin, along with his loyal elk riders. He gathered them and mount a rescue for Kish and Prinin. He had spent the entire trip praying that they would be held as prisoners and that he wasn’t mounting a suicide mission to rescue the dead. Prince Ulrat took little convincing and the wolves, although not fond of the hot, arid lands of their Sun Jackal cousins, would follow their alpha through all the hells just for the asking.

They hadn’t taken two steps out of their mountains when the plans changed. A scout sent from the south to find Ulrat passed the news of Kish’s safe return, the loss of Prinin, and the treachery of the Canerians. Ulrat was filled with redoubled rage and the ride across the plains started with new purpose and vigour. Ulrat would lead his people as king and avenge his father’s murder.

He and the High Wolves charged across the plains and as they approached the Desidan army, the eclipse was nearly full. The wolves howled loudly, announcing their presence, their fur gleaming in the mid-day darkness as the moon passed in front of the sun. Blue, green and purple streaks wove like a spider web of lightning across the plains.

The Sun Jackals barked out a welcome to their northern cousins. The fur of the jackals, too, was blazing yellow, red and orange in the light of the eclipse. The dogs were going to war and they howled out their brutal intent. The voices of the wolves and jackals rose in dreadful harmony with the war chants of the rampaging Desidan army.

Ulrat and his men joined the chorus and blew hard the call of battle on their horns as they rode to join Kish and the other elk riders at the head of the charge. The call was returned a hundred times throughout the Desidan army as the hordes closed on the greatest of the sandstone bridges over the chasm.

Vestin was furious. His grand entrance was being sullied by mangy dogs. It did not matter, though. It was not the Desidan barbarians that he was going to impress and lead to glory. Their stupid prince would die just as easily to a blast of his fiery breath as any other puny human, and the dogs would burn and their arrogant howls would turn to squeals of torment. He would have his revenge in due time.

He took a position high in the sky and as for the sun to started to emerge, he began to descend slowly towards the Haelund ranks with the growing light at his back. He imagined that to the eyes of the insignificant specks below, he would appear most awe-inspiring. He was preparing to recite his carefully planned speech when a sudden flash of light from the ground below blinded him for a moment.

It had been an odd couple of days for Prinin. King Ashunar had opposed simply returning Prinin to his people and having him explain the situation. He made the excellent point that much of the Haelund nobility didn’t much like the idea of him as king to begin with. It would be of much greater effect to appear as if by miracle and take command of the army immediately.

Moreover, Ashunar predicted that there would be a full solar eclipse on the day hostilities were likely to break out. That would be an ideal time to reappear and take control. Ashunar had spies of all shapes and sizes tracking the progress of the war and the advancing Canerian army to ensure that they could pull off their deception without missing their opportunity.

The time waiting was not spent idly. Ashunar was emphatic about presenting the right image. First they robbed the royal vault of Haelund.

It made Prinin a little uncomfortable looting his own treasury. The vault was deep in the catacombs beneath the burnt husk of the palace and supposedly the King of Haelund was the only one who knew the secret to open it. Apparently, the man who built the vault also knew the trick and that happened to be reliable old Uncle Ash. So they raided the king’s private armoury. They stole the enchanted golden armour of the King of Haelund and his great warspear. They also took a silver suit of armour meant fora mounted general and his horse. Finally they stole a pair of windmares from a nearby lord’s stables.

As the two suits of armour were modified to fit a dainty king and his one-armed general, Taimon and Prinin practised their spear work. Prinin had never been an expert, but the practical experience in recent months had taught him much which he was now applying to horseback. Taimon, on the other hand, had been one of the best in the kingdom, but he was not yet used to controlling the replacement hand that King Ashunar had crafted for him.

With some practice and creativity, he was turning the void that should be an arm into an advantage that no whole man could use. Instead of using the arm to brace the spear, he had found that passing it through the space allowed rapid changes between stances that should be quite impossible.

The day of the battle came and Ashunar transported Prinin and Taimon to the head of the Haelund Column just as the eclipse passed. The flash of light looked to those on the ground to be related to the emergence of the sun. As the eyes of the soldiers adjusted, they found that their army was now headed by the King of Haelund in his gleaming golden armour, flanked by General Taimon of Orl, both believed to be quite dead.

The plan had been to rally the troops against the oncoming Canerian army and hope that a peace could be brokered with the Desidan horde. However, as Prinin’s eyes focused, he found that the horde was already approaching, headed by some familiar faces.

Prinin held the spear of kings high and his small voice boomed with authority as his enchanted armour amplified it across his lines. “For Haelund!” he cried, and charged forward on his mighty steed, followed closely by a very surprised Taimon.

The Haelund troops shouted a cry of surprised support as they couldn’t help but be swept up in the moment. Orders to march washed across the ranks and the confused nobles were tripping over themselves as their men moved on the command of a mystery king.

Prinin bolted forward, leaving his army far behind him as he and an increasingly uncomfortable Taimon approached the land bridge and the elk riders charging their way. Prinin didn’t slow. He picked his target, lowered his spear and moved straight for the head of the oncoming horde.

Two complete armies stopped dead in their tracks as their leaders met head-on. Their mounts reared to a stop as the two riders threw their arms around each other and they kissed as only blood-hungry warriors can.

They broke from their reunion out of necessity. Prinin turned from his beloved Battle Maiden to her brother. The warcries and drums from both sides faded uncertainly as Prinin and Ulrat locked wrists. “What say, you brother?” shouted Ulrat. “This seems a fine day for war.” He pointed in the distance at the now visible armies of Caneria.

“I would hate to waste it,” returned Prinin, grinning. He wheeled and joined the head of the Desidan horde on its rampage across the bridge. “Make way! Our fathers are calling for vengeance!” he bellowed as he crossed the bridge and wheeled south to face the oncoming Canerians.

The Haelund cavalry joined the elk, wolves and jackals quickly and the troops swarmed after.

The ordered columns of Haelund infantry struggled to keep up with the battle-crazed swarm of Desidor warriors. The noble generals of the Haelund army were left well behind in a befuddled stupor.

Prinin saw the metallic vanguard of the Canerian army. It would be a perfect enemy to unite their people — faceless, nameless killing machines. They had no remorse and deserved neither mercy nor restraint. He just had to hope that his last trick would work.

Vestin hated that golden prince with every fibre in his being. His entrance had been ruined so completely that he hadn’t even been noticed. He was mistaken for a bird and ignored. Him! He was a great dragon with two wizards under his control! He could lay waste to their armies but he would not be denied his moment of glory first. He would lead his own army. With him at the head of the column followed by his deadly machines of war, the enemy would tremble and surrender. They would all perish and he would feast on their remains.

Behind Vestin, Delizah was mortified. Everything was going wrong. They were supposed to be leading the army now and decimating the barbarians. Instead, those armies were being led by a dead man and a slave girl. She was watching the impossible. The messengers had confirmed everything before they marched; the Prince had been beheaded and the Battle Maiden was safe with her father. This was supposed to be her day. This was unfair. This had to be a lie.

Prag had one good night’s sleep in Crater Fortress before he and Warlis were dropped into the middle of the Canerian army.

It had been centuries since Caneria had actually been involved in a real war. Their standing force of soldiers was minimal at the best of times and in recent years it had been kept around mostly for display and catering purposes. A career soldier would spend more time serving drinks than he would in battle. Whenever some kind of internal uprising started, the king would assemble an army of mercenaries to quell it, and the actual Canerian Guard would be sent in afterwards as a peacekeeping and administrative force.

This war was no different. Despite the several hundred Reapers which were expected to do most of the damage, there was a sizable human army that was more than two-thirds mercenary hires. Moreover, if anyone wanted to hire a large number of mercenaries in Caneria, they had to do it in Antiq. Prag was in the middle of a pack of over two thousand of his blood brothers—sowing discord.

His first success had been intercepting and replacing a messenger with Warlis. Instead of the news of escape, Prince Vestin received graphic confirmation of a successful execution. After that, Prag infiltrated the mercenary command structure and explained that they were being brought along to die. The mad prince’s new world order didn’t have room for independent contractors like them. It wasn’t a hard sell. Prag was well known and some of the real soldiers confirmed under duress that they had orders to stand back and let the mercenaries die before the Reapers even really dug in.

By the time the day of the battle had arrived, most of the mercenary force was marching to Prag’s drum. The moment the prince had departed for his glorious appearance to Haelund, the mercenaries staged their coup. The few loyal commanders of the Canerian Army found themselves variously restrained or assassinated. The Canerian soldiers happily surrendered to the superior force and they all watched in amusement as the Reapers continued their mindless and awkward march forward before the men turned back for home.

Vestin flew back to guide his mighty army to victory only to find it already scattered. His precious Reapers were marching alone and would easily be overwhelmed by the combined forces of his enemies. The men were either running in the distance or hiding in the forest. He watched in horror as the first wave of cavalry below crashed into the Reapers and lightning arced out between their metal bodies.

Syd had no more interest in being a wizard and even less in being a warrior, but he did want to help out. He had the memories of all the terrible things he’d done but lacked the justification for them that he’d once felt. He was desperately trying to make amends.

He took the devices that he had made to make himself appear to be a sorcerer and modified them to fit onto Prinin and Taimon’s spears. Without a proper source of magic and considerable training in the arts for the wielders, he couldn’t get them to work as they once did. But with a bit of help from King Ashunar and Verena Orl, he had managed to get them to store and release a single and powerful blast of power. He was quite satisfied with his work, though he wouldn’t get to see them in action.

Prinin was quite satisfied as well. As his spear caught the first Reaper that leapt at him, he released the catch that held back the power, and lightning surged forth. It arced through the nearby machines, damaging some and disorienting others.

Taimon’s blast was equally successful and they were able to confuse the machines’ battle structure long enough for the elk and horses to trample them and the foot soldiers, jackals and wolves to pour in behind. The Reapers were a deadly enemy and they cut down many good men before the sheer mass of humanity overpowered them, but the battle was won and the sacrifice of those men had forged a bond between ancient rivals that Prinin hoped would last for generations.

High in the sky, Vestin looked on in disgust. His army was shattered. It was weak and pathetic. The day was lost and he hadn’t even been recognized. But they would recognize him someday. He would return with his queen and conquer all of the lands. He would come with an army of dragons at his command and bathe the lands in fire and death. He turned to fly off but encountered three men standing a few hundred feet above the gorge and blocking his way. One was a well-dressed gentleman, slender and silver-haired; another was wearing a full cloak of starcloth and had a curiously grinning mask; the last was hunched down like an animal and grinning like a mad man.

King Ashunar couldn’t be visibly involved in the war, he thought. The Haelund nobles couldn’t know that he was helping Prinin take back the throne. It had to look like it was all about the Prince. He could, however, stay hidden in the sky and keep an eye on things. He didn’t feel confident fighting a dragon with two mages on its back by himself, but he could probably slow it down or bait it away if the need arose.

That was his original plan anyway, until he met a pair of brothers in the sky with similar plans. The meeting, at first, was nearly disastrous. Unexpectedly finding someone wearing the stolen garments of one’s dead adopted child was difficult to ignore. But the other boy quickly disarmed the growing torrents of magic before they were released by recognizing the smell of Prinin and Pragmethion on Lord Ashunar, or ‘Prag and Cari’ as he called them.

He asked happily how they were and after a brief exchange of information a new plan was hatched. There were now three of them and three enemies. The sorcerers would fight the wizards and the monsters would fight each other. It would be challenging as their monster couldn’t actually fly, but the two sorcerers were confident that they could throw the boy at the dragon from a distance easily enough to keep it occupied. The boy himself was unsettlingly keen on that plan.

The plan had seemed sound enough until there was a real dragon bearing down on them. Dragons have a knack for appearing much larger when they’re angry and this dragon was extremely angry. The two sorcerers hesitated as they reconsidered their position.

The boy had no such reservations. He wasn’t worried at all. In fact, he was excited. This was a new experience and the great silver beast seemed like a challenging quarry. He grinned, licked his lips and attacked before anyone else had a chance to assess the situation.

He kicked off of the imaginary perch that his brother had conjured for him in the sky with enough force to give Juvai a nosebleed. He collided with the dragon hard enough to break one of its mighty ribs and spin it entirely over.

Prince Vestin grabbed his ribs in shared pain and lurched from his saddle into open space but caught his footing quickly on the air beneath him. There, an opponent was waiting with a sword drawn. It was of similar design and material to the one in his hand, although longer and thinner.

He squared himself and began to recite wards quickly under his breath as the nature of his opponent became clear. For a moment he thought that it was one of the five generals of Ashun, but he tasted the blinding cacophony of magic that swirled around the man.

It was the Dark Lord himself.

It was Ashunar.

The small part of his human mind that still survived screamed to surrender the sword and flee, but the dragon in him would not cede such a gleaming prize or show his back to an opponent, and he stood firm.

As the dragon whirled and caught the air in its wings again to face its opponent, it found that the boy was dangling from the saddle strap across its belly and starting to chew on its scales. The dragon reached up with its hind claws and cut the strap loose from either side and watched in wicked pleasure as the boy tumbled towards the chasm and river below along with the saddle and forgotten second rider.

Juvai gave chase. He reached out with his mind and grabbed his brother and tossed him back in the direction of the silver wyrm while he himself hurtled after Delizah. This time the boy caught the tip of the dragon’s spiny tail and held it in a steel grip as it tried to whip him free.

Delizah was falling fast and couldn’t stop. The mystery man wearing what was supposed to be her cloak was following her down and she was spending all of her energy on defending herself with nothing left to slow her descent. She fought off grasping magical hands as she felt them close around her time and again while every conjured arrow, every wisp of force and every psychic dart she sent seemed to splash off her pursuer’s cloak like water off a duck’s back. All the while, the gentle smile of his mask mocked her. They continued to fall together as they danced towards the ground.

The boy was having trouble holding in his excitement. He was laughing loudly as he was flung back and forth by his frustrated prey. This was far better than hunting snakes or metal bug-birds, he thought, as he dug his fingers under the thick scales and began to climb. He smiled as he thought how proud Kish would be when he brought this one to the campfire.

The boy’s fingers dug painfully into the dragon’s tail as it thrashed violently to free itself from the pest. It grabbed its tail in all four claws and drew it like a sword from a sheath, shucking the boy free and sending him tumbling downward again but not without opening a bloody rent in its tail. It turned and drew in a great breath to fry the man with a sword that was fighting its wizard. There was a quick gesture from the silver-haired man and just as it was about to engulf the fool in flame, it was hit in the throat by a fast-moving and eager young man.

It choked and coughed and sent a volley of blue flame and smoke in every direction except the intended. Far below, the terrestrial armies had begun to take notice of the aerial combat.

The momentary distraction by the dragon had been the opportunity Vestin was waiting for. He released the force that he had been building behind him and sprung forward with inhuman speed, plunging his blade straight through his opponent’s chest. Ashunar, though, burst into mist. He reformed and loosed a cascade of lightning from the air all around Vestin.

A quick ward protected the prince and he riposted by trying to tear the sorcerer in two with his mind, but found him to be like trying to wrestle a fish. For a moment, Ashunar caught Vestin’s gaze and tried to grab hold of his psyche but the will of the dragon was too strong to trap, and so they continued to dance around each other as they fenced with sword, magic and mind.

The contingent of Haelian war wizards below were starting to become physically ill from the excessive and unreserved release of magic above. Prinin himself was having trouble keeping his faculties and would likely have lost his kingly composure and his lunch if it wasn’t for his attentions being focused on a flailing speck attached to an angry dragon far above.

The boy he had thought dead was now fearlessly grappling with a dragon in flight. He wanted desperately to rescue his adopted charge, but the battle was happening too far away and with too powerful an opponent for him or his army to have any effect. Kish held him strongly as they watched helplessly from below.

Delizah and Juvai were still falling and nearing the chasm and the raging river at its base. Juvai had been trying to fight fair, up until this point. He didn’t want to kill Lizzy. He wanted to trap her, to strip her of her power and to expose her. He wanted her to suffer and pay for her crimes and a quick death was too easy a way out for her. However, they were fast running out of sky and he didn’t want to lose her corpse in the raging waters below. He gave up on the pretence of fair play and let loose a full torrent of pure magical energy as only a true sorcerer can. He halted his descent and threw his hands skyward as the swirling geyser of blazing sound erupted beneath her falling body.

Even the least sensitive men on the field could hear the flavour of that blast. It burned their eyes and turned their stomachs. In an instant she was stripped bare, scorched inside and out and mentally shattered. He snatched her broken body from the air and watched as her disguise melted away revealing the hopelessly common features beneath that she had hated so much. Satisfied, Juvai looked skyward just in time to see the end.

The dragon had grown wise to the plans of the pathetic mages. As it pried the boy loose for a third time, it threw the annoying parasite skyward. As the boy reached his peak the dragon released a great blast of blue fire and swallowed the burning body whole as it fell. It roared triumphantly as the onlookers dropped their eyes. Both it and its wizard squared off against the now outnumbered sorcerer.

Ashunar hesitated for a moment, deciding whether to retreat or hold out for reinforcements from the other brother. As all four remaining combatants started to make their moves, Vestin and the dragon suddenly lost their purchase. They clutched their chests as though something inside them was causing terrible pain. They roared in unison, convulsed and began to fall.

Ashunar grabbed the falling prince as he screamed in shared agony with his familiar. The sword of Cailo slipped from his fingers and crashed to the fields below.

The dragon tumbled through the air into the gaping chasm as it choked and began to spit frothing blood and flaming ichor. It plummeted into the chasm, crashed into the raging river and was swallowed up and swept away by the terrible currents.

The field grew silent. Most understood nothing of what had just happened, but they could feel the sorrow from their leaders. Both Kish and Prinin were wiping away tears as they stood at the canyon’s edge looking for any trace of their precious companion and oblivious saviour. As the full sun shone again across the fields of battle, they slowly pulled away to mourn.

Hidden in the distance, Lord Pragmethion III silently said a prayer for his little lost boy before disappearing into the shadows of the forest.

Ashunar and Juvai both choked on the hatred and despair they felt as they held their shattered prisoners. They pushed it back and fought to maintain appearances. They had three kingdoms to repair now and they couldn’t let a sacrifice like that be wasted. The Sorcerer King donned an illusory disguise of smoke and shadow taking, on the aspect of a demon. He floated down to meet Juvai and they shared some private words before Juvai recovered the precious sword from the crater it had made. Together they floated over to the now terrified crowd.

The sorcerous duo tossed the broken bodies of their prisoners at the feet of the new kings. The man with the glimmering cloak spoke through his grinning mask in a hissing voice. “This is what happens when you steal from King Ashunar. Do not forget this lesson, Your Highnesses.” He bowed slightly to Ulrat and Prinin without lowering his masked eyes.

“Come, Cailo!” came an unearthly voice from the shadowy demon behind. “These are not our lands or our battles.”

With that they hurtled skyward and back to the monster-infested lands of Ashun.

Kish and Prinin held each other’s hands tightly as they looked over their battlefield. Their people had, for the moment, forgotten their countless battles over the ages and were laughing like comrades as they claimed trophies from the remnants of the Reapers. The two smiled weakly as the various Haelund nobles presented themselves and made clear their loyalty and happiness at Prinin’s safety, leaving him to guess at who might have been a conspiring enemy just a few months before.

As the sun set, the new king and queen sat at a great feast table while the lords of Haelund and chiefs Desidan made tiresome speeches. As the boasting and pontificating dragged on, they secretly wished to be back around a warm fire with Kazé, Prag and their young friend again. And maybe, as the embers died, to lie alone with each other under the stars, without a dress of any kind in sight.

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