How Not to Poach a Unicorn


The boy was very sad. The pretty colours had only stayed for a very short time and he wanted to see more of it. The black fuzzy thing in the room with him was nice to look at too, but now it was dark again. There had been so much excitement, and all of the things that visited had made noises which were interesting to hear. He decided to follow the colourful brightness. He wanted to touch it and this dark and cold place was no longer interesting to him now that he knew there was something better outside of it.

He was, however, interested in the other noises that were still nearby. The high pitched one started to chatter excitedly.

“Prag! You’re a mercenary right? Well I’m a princess, like you just heard and I’d like to hire you.” Cariolta started shouting as soon as the prison door slammed shut.

“Well, I guess by being here I’ve already defaulted on my previous contract, so I’m willing to negotiate. However, you may have noticed that I’m a little short on resources at the moment.”

“Well, do you think you can break out of here? I’d pay really well for a jailbreak right about now.”

“That’s sweet. You want to rescue your handmaiden.” Prag seemed less than moved by Cariolta’s concern and he kicked at his door in frustration. “I’ll rescue her for half-price if you can figure a way out of these damned cells.”


“You have my word, milady.” Cariolta could almost hear him bow in mock chivalry.

They both fell silent as a strange creaking noise echoed through the halls. “What was that?” Cariolta asked nervously, worried that they’d been overheard.

“It’s the kid in my cell,” Said Kazé “It sounds like he’s trying to break out of his manacles. He’s going to hurt himself.”

The Princess ignored the antics of the boy and returned to Prag. “Well, I’m a proper princess, right, and that means I’ve got some wizard in my blood” Cariolta seemed as much like she was trying to convince herself as to inform her new hire of the detail.

“Not a lot of good down here. I don’t see any magical springs…or did they let you keep your familiar?” Prag’s voice dripped with condescension but the Princess down the hall met him with distracted pragmatism.

“They don’t let royals have familiars. It’s too risky, too unpredictable. I don’t have enough skill manipulating magic to bother having one anyway, but I know a couple of simple spells.” Cariolta was trying so hard to focus on her task that she’d forgotten to stop talking. “Cailo’s cloak was radiating so much magic that I could gather enough for one go. I’m trying to unlatch my cell door. Then I’ll let the rest of you out. But, I don’t know what to do after that. I won’t be able to open the door upstairs.”

“Well milady,” Prag was suddenly serious, “if you get me out of here I have a few ideas as to how to breach that particular barrier.”

“This will take a couple of minutes. Please don’t speak, I need to concentrate.”

There was a lengthy pause during which only the wails of the ghosts in the levels below and the creaking of the boy’s chains could be heard. Suddenly, there was an incredible shattering clang and Cariolta lost all grip on her borrowed magic.

“What was that?” shouted Prag “Did you do it?” “No! That broke my spell! What was that?”

Kazé replied, stumbling to find the human words in his surprise “It was the kid… I think he broke his chains. And now he’s starting on the door.”

Thunderous clanging rang out as the boy pounded against the door to his cell with whatever body part he could fling at it.

“He’s ruined my spell and he’s going to bring the guards down on us!” shouted Cariolta over the deafening racket.

There was a sound like a thousand wine bottles shattering at once as the obsidian wall holding the cell door gave way. Kazé stared, stunned at the dim silhouette of the impossibly strong youth lurching through the newly widened doorway. Quickly, he regained his composure and dashed out to open the other cell doors. As Kazé fumbled awkwardly with the latch to the Princess’s cell with his jaws, the boy fumbled with locomotion.

The boy had never really had the opportunity to move about freely before. This was quite an adventure for him. He had managed a system where the limb farthest from where he wanted to be would push until it was closer to where he was going. Then the next limb would do the same. This worked well until he had reached the stairs. This was a new challenge and the old system wasn’t working at all anymore. He stopped to watch the black fuzzy thing as it moved about—amazed at how it seemed to get around so easily.

Kazé had managed to open Cariolta’s latch and was pulling the door open.

“You’re a miracle worker Kaz!” cried the Princess as she ran into the hallway “Now where’s our Mercenary?”

“You’re letting him out? Are you sure we want him?” growled Kazé coldly.

“We’re better off with him free even if all he does is fight his own way out.” She didn’t even stop to argue as she flung open the door to Prag’s cell.

“I gave you my word milady.” Prag stepped out shakily into the corridor. “I am in your debt and I intend to repay that in full.” With that he wandered off casually in the wrong direction into the lower levels of the dungeon.

Cariolta shouted at him that he was going the wrong way, but her voice was drowned out by the sudden clatter of a dozen armed guards tromping down the stairs with well practiced shouts of, “Stand down or be killed!” and “Disobedience will be severely punished!” The troops met the scrawny boy at the halfway point on the stairs and the levelled their spears at him.

The boy had worked out how to sort of scamper on all fours and was very pleased with his somewhat inconsistent progress up the stairs to this point. But noisy things with pointy sticks and metal skin were barring further movement. He needed all of his limbs on the ground to keep balanced on these tricky steps, so he tried something new.

The boy bit down, hard, on the head of the spear that was pointed at his face. The guard shouted out and tried to shake him off, but he had attached himself firmly. The boy fought back, tossing his head back and forth violently, knocking the guard over and relieving him of his spear.

Kazé, hidden by his black fur in the poor lighting, had crept up behind the naked young man. The sudden confusion brought on by the unexpected attack was exactly the opportunity he was looking for and he dashed forward. He slipped nimbly through the gap in the spear wall and began to nip at the ankles of the guards.

The passage was only wide enough for two guards to stand abreast and their heavy armour did not lend itself to good balance on a steep staircase. Kazé, on the other hand was stable, agile and nearly invisible in the flickering torchlight. He danced between the guards, who were unable to maneuver their long spears in the confined area. He pulled their feet out from under them and sent them tumbling down the stairs. Unfortunately, his teeth couldn’t penetrate their greaves so the guards would soon be back up, uninjured and with swords drawn. Kazé had secured his own exit, but now a dozen guards stood between him and the Princess. Men with swords and thick armour were something that he couldn’t hope to deal with on his own.

The boy, on the other hand was delighted with the development. The mass of metal covered men falling all around him was delightfully noisy and he could now see clearly to the top of the stairs and he scampered onwards.

As the guards recovered at the bottom of the stairs and found their footing, Kazé considered his options. He could try to get into the middle of them again, but they were on flat ground and they had short swords now. He’d be a pin cushion before he felled a single one. They probably wouldn’t hurt the Princess, so maybe he could escape and come back with help. No, there was no help, not for a thousand miles. He was it. He steadied himself. He would charge, distract them long enough for her to slip past and then follow behind… if he could.

Just as he was about to spring forward, a cheerful voice from the opposite end of the hallway spoke up, “If her majesty would be so kind as to step back into her cell for a moment, her humble servant would be much obliged.”

Prag stood proudly, having hauled some large and bizarre contraption up from the level below. It was hardly what one would call sleek or portable. It was a collection of knobs, levers, crystals and glass bulbs stitched awkwardly together with wood and copper. Prag set the body of the machine down gently and as he pointed a long crystal tipped rod at the guards. He pulled a lever and bits began to whirl; steam poured out of the back and the bit at the front began to glow.

Cariolta quickly assessed the situation and dove gracelessly for the cover of Prag’s now vacant cell. The guards also started to grasp what was happening. The realization washed over them like a slow wave and they, too, began to scramble for the nearest cell. Too little and too late. Their ungainly metal suits slowed their movement, to their apparent doom.

The device in Prag’s hands let out an ear-splitting whine and then fell silent as a huge gout of steam shot out the back. Everyone froze for a moment. The guards, then, let out a laugh and turned to charge the Prag and the failed contraption.

One clever guard at the back took the opportunity to hide, as he’d used the machine before. The steam at the back was suddenly sucked back into the thing and a massive crack of lightning arced down the hallway, directly into the charging line of guards. They jerked and reeled as the machine continued to discharge.

After a full ten seconds the thing sputtered to a stop leaving the troop of guards nothing more than smoking husks in their armour.

“I think I broke it,” giggled Prag after a few moments. “What was that?” stuttered Cariolta.

“I don’t know. They were using it to torture me, but they didn’t have it turned up that high. I’ve been wanting to try it out since I saw it.”

“So that was your escape plan?”

Prag grinned deviously as the wails of the spirits below started to grow stronger “No, that was only half of it.”

The boy was annoyed again. He had made it outside, and it was beautiful. It was bright and there were all sorts of interesting things to see and touch and smell, but the men kept getting in his way. He had grabbed one of them by the ankle and was knocking the others away with the man’s now limp body. It was hard to balance with only three points touching the ground, but he was getting used to it. He just wanted them to go away and let him explore.

The guards were in shambles. Most of them hadn’t been on duty and everyone who had been properly armed had already either gone into the dungeon to a mysteriously smoky fate, or been bashed about by this feral creature. They were starting to get together, however. Enough of them had grabbed spears to form a barrier. They moved into a semicircle around the wild man and stood fast, like they’d been trained to do.

“Move aside!” a cavernous voice bellowed from far behind the line. The one armed golem stood, ready to charge, “I’ll deal with this one.”

“Yes sir, Captain Georg!” shouted the troops in unison. The veteran captain had restored morale in an instant. The men blocking the path between the stone giant and the mad prisoner fell back while the others closed in enough to make sure the boy had nowhere to run except into spear tips. Captain Georg, the walking mountain, began to run. He gained momentum with every step and he raised his massive granite fist to crush the pathetic youth into the ground.

The boy recognized that form. It was one of the first things he had ever seen. He didn’t like it. It had hurt him and put him in the dark place. Now it was going to try to do it again. He dropped his unfortunate mace and planted himself. He made a fist with his now empty hand and waited for the charging rock wall to meet him.

“What did you do?” Cariolta’s words came out only as a whisper as her terror grew. The wails that had filled the dungeon were growing steadily louder.

“I smashed the wards that were keeping the spirits bound below,” replied Prag casually as he chose a sword from the pile of smoking corpses. “Don’t worry. They know who bound them down there. The damned always know who their enemies are.”

Prag kicked the door closed on the cell that the clever guard had retreated into. “I don’t envy you. I hear having your soul devoured by an angry ghost is quite unpleasant.” As he started to climb the stairs and the wails of the dead grew to a deafening volume, he added, “I will miss our little chats in the torture chamber.”

Cariolta suddenly regained clarity of purpose. She quickly stripped two smoking suits of armour of their scabbards and threw them on over her shoulders. She sheathed two blades in them and then grabbed a spear. Racing up the stairs after Prag, she shouted, back “Don’t get left behind, Kaz!”

Georg roared as his enormous fist fell like a meteor down onto the boy. The silent boy’s tiny hand shot out to meet it, fingers clenched tightly. There was a sound like a catapult shot hitting a castle wall and Georg’s fist exploded.

The guards fell silent as their captain bellowed with rage. Now armless he ordered his men to run the runt through.

They never got the chance.

A legion of tortured souls passed the three fleeing prisoners just before they reached the top of the stairs. As they burst into the light they were showered by rocks and gravel. Their eyes adjusted quickly to the bright sunlight and found that they had nothing left to fight. The ghosts were tearing at the soldiers, rending their very souls from their bodies. Those not already engaged were running in terror but the prison grounds left very little room for escape.

Directly in front of them the escapees saw their savior. He was a young man. Malnourished, filthy, and unbalanced, he stood hunched down on all fours. He was naked except for the cuffs and collar still bound around his wrists, ankles and neck. His light brown hair was tangled and matted with dirt. He turned and looked at the three fugitives with his bright, brown, empty eyes, apparently forgetting about the raging juggernaut behind him that he had now crippled for a second time.

They stared at each other for a moment, lost in each other’s gazes. Three stared in disbelief; one stared back vacantly. All forgetting about the horrors going on all around them.

Cariolta came back to reality first. “Kish! She’s probably in there.” She took off towards the garish white manor house at an incredible pace given her rather impractical formal footwear.

Kazé was at her side in an instant. Prag lagged behind, still weak from the days of torture. The boy watched for a moment and then scuttled after them.

“I think the naked kid’s following us!” Shouted Prag over the wails of soldiers having their souls torn apart.

“That’s been a blessing so far hasn’t it?” Replied Cariolta between breaths. “Let’s just hope he knows that he’s on our side.”

Kazé looked back for a moment at the tumbling youth “I’m not convinced that he knows what a side is!”

Cariolta slid to a stop just before the manor steps and planted her borrowed spear firmly on the ground. “Hurry up Prag! I need your help cutting this.”

“Cutting it? Why would we want to break it? Why are you even carrying it?”

“Just trust me and cut off here.” She pointed to a point on the wooden shaft “I need the haft to be as tall as I am.”

Baffled into obedience, Prag obliged. A couple of swings later he had taken three feet off its length and, in his opinion, ruined a perfectly good pike.

Cariolta nodded in approval, steadied the shortened spear in her hands and approached the manor. She was flanked by Kazé and Prag and followed closely and clumsily by the boy. As she reached for the handle of the door it swung open on its own. The friendly lieutenant stood inside, unarmed, looking shamed. “She’s in the last room on the left. I think you should hurry.”

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