How Not to Poach a Unicorn


The boy was very happy. Every day he learned something new.

The nice wagon people taught him new words and new songs all the time. He liked singing; it was his favourite. They also ate different things almost every night. He liked trying new foods; it was his favourite. He also liked to travel, too. The world kept changing as they moved. He liked to see new things; it was his favourite. Another fun thing was when Kish and Kazé taught him to hunt. He liked hunting with them; it was his favourite.

Tonight, though, Kish and Kazé stayed with the wagons to talk to Cari. He was happy that she wasn’t dead anymore, but it wasn’t as fun to hunt alone. He forgot his loneliness when he found a new kind of track to follow. It looked a lot like a bird track, but it was bigger and deeper than the bird tracks he had seen. He was excited to find a new kind of bird and eat it. He knew that not all birds were good to eat, like pigeons, but most were very tasty.

He stalked it through the darkening jungle, just like Kish had shown him. He listened to the noises of the bugs and the birds to tell him where the big animals were, just like Kazé did. The noises were strange, they were quieter than normal. Usually things got noisy when they were scared, warning everyone of the danger. He made the face that Prag did when he noticed something unusual, but he didn’t know what to do with it so he kept stalking.

The tracks were so easy to follow that he hardly needed to track by scent, which was good, because the scent was faint and strangely more like a sword than any bird that he knew. Slowly he crept through the vines and ferns, growing excited as he neared his prey.

He caught sight of it through the tangle of leaves and froze. It hadn’t noticed him yet, or it wasn’t afraid of him. It was a strange bird, or maybe it wasn’t a bird at all. It was grey and shiny and smooth and as tall as a man. It was awkward, though, like a bug he had eaten once. It had two knees on each of its legs and four arms, each with one long, curved claw as big as Kish’s swords for hands. Its head didn’t have ears or a nose or a mouth, just two large domed eyes on the sides of it.

He was pretty sure that it wouldn’t taste good. Well, not any better than any other metal that he’d eaten. But there might be something tasty on the inside, so he went in for the kill. He lowered his body, shifted his feet, and pounced.

The metal bug-bird was fast. It managed to get all four of its saber hands between the boy and its head before his sword landed. The boy’s blade sliced straight through the metal, though, and the head slid from the thing’s shoulders.

Turning to glory in his latest kill, he found that the bug-bird hadn’t fallen down like it was supposed to. It had turned and it started beating the boy frantically with its blunted hands. He had seen this happen before so he stepped back and waited for it to finish thrashing. It didn’t slow down at all, though. It kept on trying to hit him and walking after him in its strange and jerky way. He grew frustrated with the thing and beat it until its torso was little more than a crumpled pile of scrap. Only then did it relent and go silent.

He decided that it was the sort of thing that the others might want to see even if it wasn’t good to eat, which he had verified that it wasn’t. So he carried the bits back to the wagons. He was sad at the reaction. Usually everyone was very happy when he brought a thing back or sad when it wasn’t good to eat. This time they were scared and worried, but not like the time he had brought them an alligator that wasn’t all dead, more like something very bad was going to happen.

The boy stood holding the twisted remains of his trophy for all to see. Each observer in turn sorted out the mangled bits in their mind and reassembled the pieces into their original form. As they finished the mental jigsaw, an unpleasant wave of recognition washed over the onlookers.

Kazé knew the scent of the thing in an instant; Cariolta quickly recognized the sort of wounds the scything blades would make; Kish knew it from the tracks the strange bird-like feet would leave; Esmei and the other caravan folk knew of it from tales from the countryside; Warlis had seen one being assembled by an employer of his; and Prag was the only one to have seen one fully in person and he turned the most pale.

Prag was, as usual, the first to speak and his carefully considered words served well to express the sentiment of the group as a whole. “Shit,” he said.

There were a few moments more as the others pondered Prag’s comments before anyone else spoke.

“That’s… those are what attacked my palace, aren’t they?” Cariolta stammered weakly. “What is it doing here?”

“The Sorcerer King’s reach is far indeed if he can reach us here,” Kish murmured, failing to comfort her distraught companion.

Warlis snickered inappropriately. “You’ve been running from King Ashunar ’cause o’ these things? That’s the wrong direction, loves. This here is one of the new royal guard of Caneria. Right bastards they are too. Quick as lightning, won’t take a bribe, and the only reliable way to kill one is to drop a boulder on it.”

“What? What are you talking about? These are Canerian?” Cariolta was not processing new ideas well. Her mind was full of the slashed and scorched bodies of her family and friends smouldering in front of her ruined home.

“But why would they attack us? King Bertren and Prince Vestin are like family. It doesn’t make any sense. Why would they want to start a war? They’ve been at peace for centuries.” Cariolta was lost and confused.

Prag put a hand on her shoulder. “I told you before; Caneria’s changed. King’s gone senile and the Prince isn’t the boy you seem to remember.”

“It’s true,” interjected Esmei. Looking up from their private conversation, they saw that the caravan was already loaded and in the process of turning around. “And if they’re after you, then we can’t be keeping you with us, contract or no. Being hunted by those things is death to anyone you talk to. We’ll be heading back north and hope that we’ve not been connected to you yet. Sorry, lass, but this is where we take our leave of you. May the Good Lord protect you.”

“I don’t know which god you pray to, Esmei, but we could do well with their blessing. All of mine seem to have forsaken us.” With the last of her meagre strength sapped from despair, Cariolta slumped to the ground.

Esmei laughed out loud in a way that seemed entirely inappropriate to Cariolta. She felt sorry for the poor, misguided girl, but she couldn’t restrain herself. “Gods girl? They don’t meddle with our mortal affairs. I meant The Good Lord of Antiq, Pragmethion III. Not quite a god lass, though I’ll admit I’ve heard a girl or two say otherwise over a late breakfast.” Still shaking with the giggles, she stretched out her arm and gave a deep and imperious bow to their ragged travelling companion.

“Prag?” said Kish flatly. “You? You are the Vagabond Lord? You are the living law of the lawless, the vengeance of the damned?” She looked him up and down, judging him in this new light. “I thought you’d be taller.”

“Standing up straight is tiring,” he replied. Prag seemed less impressed with his supposed titles than Kish. Cariolta, on the other hand, had begun to weep. The past few minutes had shattered everything she had believed and understood to be true in this world. Now she was left with being a fugitive in any land with no hope of safety anywhere. She whimpered pathetically, mascara streaming down her porcelain cheeks.

Seeing that Cariolta was going to be of little help, Kish quickly took control. “We seem out of allies. Where can we hide? Prag? Kazé?”

Prag shook his head slowly. “I’m done here. I’m going home. No profit left in you. Like you said, you’re out of allies. I won’t tell anyone about you, I can give you that as a freebie. But this is where we part ways.” Prag’s tone was entirely businesslike. He made it clear that whatever bonds might have been formed were only out of convenience. The venture was going under and Prag was cutting his losses. He grabbed his bags quickly and left without another word, taking the road southward into the deepening twilight.

Kish held quiet council with Kazé, leaving the shattered Cariolta to sit in shock. “We can’t stay on this road, we’re too visible,” whispered Kish.

“Try our chances in the jungle, then? We’ll be harder to spot, but much slower. Also, that machine was already in the jungle. There could be more,” Kazé thought out loud in a barely audible snarl.

“Cari won’t be moving very fast yet. She’s still too weak. We need to hide, at least for the time being.” Kish gathered their meagre possessions as she made her decision. “Come on then, love,” she said gently to her weeping companion “We can’t rest just yet. Up on your feet.”

She helped Cariolta to her feet and then, nearly carrying her, plunged into the blackness of the evening jungle with Kazé close behind.

The boy stood alone and forgotten, a lonely shadow in the dusk. He listened as the carts rolled north, devoid of songs or laughter. He heard Prag’s determined footsteps plodding southward. He listened to the unhappy shuffling of Cariolta drowning out the near silent movements of Kazé and Kish. He was sad. He was alone. He had been alone before, but that was before he knew what it meant to not be alone. He threw down the pieces of the thing that had made everyone leave him and he began to cry. He punched the horrible thing into the ground until it was an unrecognizable tangle of dirt and metal. But he felt no better.

He laid back on the grass and watched the stars come out through his blurry, tear filled-vision. He didn’t know what to do at all. He had scared everyone away and nobody was coming back. He listened again, with the vain hope of somebody, anybody, returning to him. Instead he heard something much worse.

The forest began to move. Where it had been still before, it was now full of movement. All around him a half dozen pairs of feet began to advance on him. Their movements were abrupt and unsteady. He jumped to his feet and whipped out his sword. Six of the metal creatures stepped out into the clearing where he stood and then stopped abruptly.

He remembered how fast the last one he fought was and he wasn’t sure how to fight six at a time. It took a lot of effort last time to make a single one stop fighting.

They waited.

He waited.

In the renewed silence around him, he could hear movement elsewhere. There were more of the things approaching the caravan. There were voices and hooves and even more things in the jungle near Cari and Kish. To the south, he could hear Prag’s footsteps break into a run followed by at least a dozen others. Everyone was about to be attacked.

He began to move and in perfect synchronization, his opponents reacted. They charged forward at incredible speed. They were faster than anything he had seen before. Each raised their four scythe-like hands, ready to cut him to ribbons no matter what move he should make.

The boy’s legs reacted before his mind and sent him flying well into the air. Seeing an opportunity in their disrupted charge, he whipped his sword into one of them. Much to his surprise, he also had a brief insight into some of the deeper truths of the physical sciences when he found himself thrown in the opposite direction, high into the air and well into the jungle. The five remaining machines that did not have an impossibly dense sword lodged in their chest cavity gave chase.

The boy caught himself by a branch high in the canopy. His opponents approached relentlessly and, upon reaching the tree in which he was now perched, began to climb. Their claws dug deep into the trunk of the tree and their bird-like feet gripped the bark firmly. They made easy progress up to his level of branches.

Upon reaching his branch, the nearest began to chop through it. For reasons not understood by the boy himself, he found the idea of falling far worse than the idea of jumping, so he hopped down the sixty or so feet to the jungle floor.

The machines had a moment of what one might mistake for confusion as they recalculated their opponent, who had just casually taken what should have been a fatal fall. That moment gave the boy the time to hop over and give the tree a good solid kick.

As the splintered shards of the trunk exploded through the underbrush, the massive tree began to fall. Two of the insectoid machines leaped to nearby trees and started a rapid descent while a third ran down the tipping trunk. The other two became too entangled in the vines and branches as it fell and found themselves pinned beneath as it landed.

The boy found himself again surrounded by three well-coordinated machines charging towards him with twelve very deadly-looking weapons. Lacking a weapon of his own or the forethought to create a plan, he instinctively leaped again into the air and grabbed hold of a branch. To his surprise and delight, the machines gave chase in exactly the same way as before. They scampered up the tree and began to chop the branch from which he hung. He dropped casually to the ground and kicked the tree over.

Again, two leaped from the tree and one ran down the toppling trunk. He was displeased that none of them were caught, but he managed to throw their timing off by knocking over the tree that one of them had landed in. Again it leaped and again he kicked over a tree. The other two maneuvered to surround the boy, but held off their attack until their unbalanced comrade could take position.

The boy was quite pleased with the way the other two were waiting patiently for their friend to be finished falling out of trees. They seemed to have gotten stuck in their actions and weren’t showing any signs of changing their plans.

By the fifth tree, the boy was starting to consider alternatives. He thought that he should probably do something clever before they did, but clever wasn’t really something he knew much about. Prag was the clever one and he had left.

Prag! Prag was being chased. He remembered that everyone else was in trouble. With a new sense of urgency, he kicked the falling tree again separating a sizable chunk of trunk which he threw with all his might at one of his assailants.

He didn’t remember ever having done something with all of his might before. He was rather surprised with the results. The piece of wood, which was considerably larger and faster than its target, carried the mechanical bug out of sight into the jungle and shattered it and itself on another tree somewhere in the distance.

With their partner gone, the other two changed tactics. The one that had been positioning itself to charge did so immediately, while the other moved to intercept the inevitable retreat from above. The boy, on the other hand, paid no attention to the conventions of tactical retreat and instead jumped at the would-be interceptor as it scrambled up the tree.

With its back exposed and its talons being used for climbing, it was unable to defend itself against the boy’s terrible momentum and quickly found itself smashed against the tree, its torso crumpled.

The last one had not lessened its charge, however. It too leaped, and though it could not leap as high as its prey, two talons lodged themselves in the boy’s ankles, the others into the tree.

The boy cried out and kicked wildly in his pain. This quite effectively removed the mechanical terror from the tree and all of its arms, but also severed one of the boy’s feet completely. He fell to the ground and crumpled in agony.

He grabbed and beat the armless machine until his knuckles bled, trying to distract himself from the pain in his ankles. Shock overtook him and he curled up into a ball.

The crashing of trees and the snapping of branches eased and the jungle grew quiet again. In the distance he could hear terrible screams. Voices he knew. It was the caravan, and they were being slaughtered. He laid there crying hopelessly as he heard each of his friends being chased down and cut open. He could hear Esmei’s voice raised in curses and blasphemes he couldn’t begin to comprehend as she, too, was caught and torn apart. He listened, helpless, as the last choking breath died away into the night.

The boy lay helpless and alone, his foot throbbing unbearably as the bone, muscle and sinew slowly wove itself back together. He whimpered and sobbed, pitifully alone. In a moment between breaths, he heard a noise, a faraway noise—maybe a mile into the woods. There were raised voices. There was a familiar voice. Kish was shouting at someone. She was alive—alive and very angry.

The boy’s senses snapped back. He needed to help Cari and Kish and Kazé. He needed to track them down and save them. He looked at his painfully ravaged appendage as it slowly knit itself into a new foot. He guessed that it would take till morning at least before it was finished, and it was going to hurt until it was. His love for his adopted family stamped out the crippling pain. He could still feel it, and feel it clearly, but he would not let it stop him. He found his sword and began to drag himself through the tangled jungle floor, tracking his prey by scent and sound as he crawled through the night.

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