Sounds of clanking chain echoed within the dungeon. Cloven hooves scraped desperately at the floor, unable to break metal shackles holding it down. White hair bristled along the neck in silent anticipation. An ear turned toward the sound of crackling fire, casting an orange glow along the mane and tail. Several strands tangled around a single ivory horn perched upon the forehead. She waited. A unicorn must always be patient.
Her nostrils flared at the smell of wood burning beneath a nearby cauldron. Besides that, only a few bare tables dotted the dark room. In one corner a shelf displayed a number of multicolored bottles and vials filled with liquids. One such vial had overturned, and a constant drip of purple liquid hit the floor.
The scent of human mingled with burning logs, and she turned her head to a set of winding stairs. It was difficult to see in the darkness, and when the figure finally came into view, his face still hid under a black hood.
“You know me,” the man said. “I saved you from a hunter once, and in return you offered me a favor. Now I come before you to obtain that which was promised.”
He reached up and slid the hood back around his shoulders. Long sideburns grew down his face to a small beard, lightly tinted with grays woven in between brown. It matched the color of his hair, which stuck up in static waves.
The unicorn huffed and shook her mane. She remembered. The dark-eyed alchemist had appeared as if expecting a hunter that day. That was when she had been a mere foal — she and her sister.
Blue eyes watched his every move, even when he had finished ladling the bubbling liquid from the cauldron and placed it before her in a bowl. Her thoughts reached out to him, gentle and sweet, her kind words filled with wisdom. Echoing in and out of his subconscious, the alchemist remained still and allowed his mind to link with hers.
It is not wise for a non magic-user to take power and expect to master it in one evening. You are an alchemist and well-known illusionist. Do you not wish to further your studies? If knowledge is what you desire, then mine is more than enough.
“It’s true. A single one of your kind could answer anything I want to know,” he whispered. “And yet you still have the ability to withhold any amount of knowledge you wish. With the aid of magic I could learn at a much faster rate, be more accurate with my potion making, and more! Now answer this, can illusion do that?”
He pointed to the bowl. “This is the one favor I ask. Likely, it’ll be the only one I’ll ever see. Grant me this, and I swear to you I will use it in good faith.”
Good faith… The unicorn dipped her head. Greed has little to do with faith.
Slightly red-faced, the alchemist swallowed his impatience and waited while the unicorn began to drink. His heart beat faster. So many years, so many nights mixing and pouring, and now the moment he had been waiting for was finally here, the ability to coax magic from another body into his own. No longer would he be a mere illusionist, but a full-fledged magic-user.
He waited. When the last drop disappeared, he reached for the horn, its knowledge and power so greatly desired.
Suddenly, the unicorn’s body flared a bright white, then dimmed as though consumed in darkness. Panic-stricken, the animal reared so quickly that a shackle broke. Her hooves pawed the air, filling it with shrieks and high-pitched squeals. The to-be mage jumped back as the animal tumbled down. It landed hard while the potion spread, coursing through blood vessels, seeping into muscles, poisoning everything it touched until finally reaching the horn. Blue eyes polluted to a lackluster gray, then black. The pupil disappeared, only to be replaced by a flame of crimson that flooded both eyes at once. Its soft coat spoiled and rotted, charring all the way to its cloven hooves. The horn, caught in a whirl of darkness, lost all shimmer as it absorbed the poison in attempt to purify itself. Teeth elongated to fangs. Its whinnies stopped. Foul screeching and growls began. The transformation nearly complete, it began to rise, scraping great welts into the stone floor.
Frightened beyond reason, the alchemist sought the handle of an axe that lay unused in a dusty corner. He raced against time, hoping to strike before it could fully stand. Still dazed, the creature made no attempt to dodge the blow that came hurtling toward its horn.
The blade had been dull for years, but in his haste he had not noticed. When the axe hit, the horn split from forehead to tip. The unicorn thrashed its head up, catching its horn on the man’s clothing and flinging him across the room. He landed on top of a table, which instantly collapsed. Desperately, he fought to regain his footing and relocate the axe.
The snapping of chain warned the alchemist that another shackle had broken. He looked up. The creature’s horn crackled as though electrified. Fangs flashed in the firelight, tainted crimson from piercing its own lips. Eyes radiated an unnatural light as it slowly turned its head toward the human.
The alchemist made a quick scan of the area and discovered the axe on the opposite side of the room. He glanced between object and creature, and kept a table between himself and the beast at all times.
A bolt of lightning flew from the horn. The alchemist dived under a table to avoid a second. The sound of hoofs scraped over the floor before a horn pierced through the wood, narrowly missing its target. With a toss of its head, the furniture was thrown onto some far shelves. Flasks and bottles crashed to the floor. Potions mixed together and exploded into a whoosh of wind that threw back the man’s robes and caught the mane and tail of the unicorn. Fire started along the back wall, spreading quickly.
As the liquids flooded over the floor, flames followed in its path. Smoke poured into the air, smothering the human as he staggered to where the axe lay. He had just enough time to pick it up when a hoof slammed into his backside. The alchemist found himself skidding on his stomach toward the flames, saved only by an untouched furnishing. Both dizzy and exhausted, he rolled away and swung at the looming shadow hovering above.
Teeth sought the taste of his flesh. He raised the ax again, but the lowered horn caught and held it. The smell of decay huffed with each breath. Fangs flashed in the flickering firelight. A wild kick to the neck sent it rearing. When the horn lowered again, he slammed the blade across it with a thunderous crack! A piece snapped from the tip and clattered to the floor.
It screamed, writhing in agony until its body collapsed in a heap of rotting flesh. A thrashing foot upset the bubbling cauldron, and its contents spilled over the fire, though it was too late to save itself from the quick spreading flames that leapt upon its corpse. In moments it was over, with the cauldron smothering the remaining ashes.
Still shaking, the alchemist sat up and wiped his face. By his side lay the fragment of horn.
“So much for the favor.” He sighed and lifted it. A sharp edge bit into his palm. Blood mingled with still-active magic, and a bolt flared around his hand, extending to his entire body. Unable to let go, he held it aloft, fighting to contain the power, to understand its sheer essence. Crimson flooded his eyes, then slowly receded, a mere glimmer now and then in the darkness.
“At last!” he rasped, his voice not his own. “The power of knowledge…is mine! Out of this triumph I shall create a new type of magic!” He held the treasure in front of himself. “I give this newfound magic a title—one that all shall come to recognize in time—so shall it be called after its founder of Darkness…Jen’Oyx!”
A voice came to his mind. It was not the first time, though he knew who it was.
A ladybug captured the boy’s attention, its polished red and black shell reflecting the afternoon sun. After a few moments, the bug spread its wings and lazily drifted into the afternoon sunlight. Keith shielded his eyes, letting his mind imagine the bug’s journey. He thought of distant lands and people, what they might say and do, and where they might lead him. The vision seemed so real. He could almost hear them calling his name.
His mother’s voice interrupted the daydream, soothing like the nearby stream running through the woods. It was not unusual for her mind to link with his, and he never questioned how it was done.
Without a second thought, he turned for home, white curls bobbing as he ran. It was not far, just through the thicket and down the path he had traveled so many times the grass no longer grew. Even before he had cleared the trees he could see his mother waiting on the threshold of their two-story cottage. She was every bit the opposite compared to her son, he being fare-skinned with deep blue eyes while she retained long dark hair that cascaded over one shoulder. Her smile was as warm as the color of her eyes when she saw him coming, and Keith could smell fresh cut herbs on her clothing when he jumped into her arms.
“Guess who’s waiting for you?” she asked.
“He’s come back?” Keith beamed, garden scents forgotten as he rushed inside. He entered the living area as his father was hanging his cloak. When the large man heard his son, he turned to scoop him into his burly arms. Keith hugged tight, his cheek pressed against his father’s clean-shaven face.
“My, my!” his father mused. He gently set his son down. “I believe you’ve grown a bit, haven’t you?”
A servant entered the room with a tray and set it on the table by the fireplace.
“Thank you, Ullyaemus,” Keith’s father greeted.
“It’s good to have you back safe and sound,” the servant replied.
Keith watched the servant pour the afternoon tea. His mother soon joined them and savored a kiss from her husband.
“Look what I’ve brought you, Greverlend.” Her husband picked up a cup and handed it to her.
“Peppermint?” she asked. “Oh, it’s been so long!”
The servant chuckled. “We don’t often get many luxuries, but it’s a treat when we do.”
“Speaking of which.” The large man patted his son’s head, then pulled out a small object from an inner pocket. “I believe someone’s turning ten?”
Keith’s eyes grew wide in excitement.
“What is it?” He turned the object over. Several round reeds of bamboo joined together with opened holes on each end. Down the sides were four more. Bits of colored thread wove delicately around the edges, crossing at an angle to the opposite side.
“It’s a pan flute,” his father said. “You blow on this end.” He pointed to tip of the instrument. “Hold your fingers over these to create different tunes. Go on. Let’s see what it sounds like!”
Keith placed his lips lightly upon the opening and blew. A faint whistle coursed through the reeds, and he stopped to look where he had placed his fingers. Lifting one at a time, he piped his mother’s lullaby.
“First time he’s ever seen one and he gets it on the first try!” Ullyaemus mused.
“I love it!” Keith admired the small gift. He cradled it against his breast as though it were made of gold. To him, it was priceless.
“It does make a good sound,” his mother said. “Where did you find it, Jonathan?”
“From a merchant in Lexington,” replied her husband as he poured himself some tea. “First week of the month brings new business. Yesterday, they were selling all kinds.”
“I want to try some more.” Keith slid off his seat and bounded from the table.
“Wait ‘til tomorrow.” Greverlend winked at Jonathan as she watched her son scamper around the corner. They could still hear his pipings as he went. “Do you really think he’s old enough to have one?”
Jonathan chuckled while stirring his drink.
“If he’s old enough to go into the forest by himself, then he’s old enough to have a sword. Besides, with all the work I’ve been trying to find, I haven’t had the time to be with you or him.” His hazel eyes watered at the thought of leaving again. “I want to watch him grow, and this would be the perfect opportunity to teach him.” He lowered his voice. “He won’t stay a child forever, you know. Soon enough, you’ll have to teach him what he is. You know that, don’t you? You’ll have to show him one of these days.”
He took a sip. “That reminds me. I have to pay a visit to my brother tomorrow. There’s just not enough work being offered, even if the pay is good. It never lasts, and then I’m out of work again.”
Greverlend’s smile waned. She glanced out the window, her gaze sharper than her husband’s. There, just faintly through the vast stretch of forest, a castle loomed. Her attention wandered to her son upstairs piping away on his flute.
“Jonathan,” she placed a hand on his arm, “I thought you said you wouldn’t go there anymore. We can make do with what we already have.”
Her husband reassured her with a smile.
“I know he’s completely useless, but we could really use the extra money. Keith will need it one day. He’ll want to travel and see things, better his education. And I want to make sure he’s well prepared when he does.”
Greverlend was skeptical, but said nothing and tasted her tea. She relished the peppermint flavor on her tongue before swallowing, the best it had ever been.
How odd, she thought when the liquid seemed to catch fire down her throat, and it took all her strength just to keep it from spewing back up. She stared at her drink, feeling the blood drain from her face. Perhaps Ullyaemus had mixed the spices and chosen the wrong one, but if so, then why did she get the feeling that something was terribly wrong?
“Are you all right?” Jonathan asked, concerned for her sudden paleness. “I’m sorry if I seemed hasty. I just want to—”
“—No, I’m fine,” she choked, averting her watered gaze toward the stairs She rose quickly, and a wave of nausea washed over her.
“Would you like me to help you up?” Ullyaemus asked. “You’re awfully pale.”
Greverlend shook her head as she started slowly up the steps. She tried to remain calm, to tell herself that the liquid had just gone down too fast. Yet while the burning had thankfully stopped in her throat, now it was in her stomach. Her mind tried to link to her family, but it became all too clear she was beyond concentration. All she could think about was her young son.
He doesn’t know! Tears streamed down her cheeks. How could I have waited so long without telling him? She could hear his music from the top of the stairs. He was so close, and yet she felt so far away.
Keith stood out on the upstairs balcony admiring his pan flute. He tested a couple of notes, stopping to listen as they faded into the surrounding forest. A small bird alighted on the balcony wall. Curious, Keith piped a single note. The bird mimicked. He played two more. The bird copied those too. Amazed, Keith began playing his mother’s lullaby when the bird suddenly flew away. It was not until he heard footsteps that he turned to find his mother leaning against the doorframe, her face ashen.
“You play beautifully,” she whispered.
He immediately came to her side and wrapped his arms around her. Keith had never seen her look like this.
Kneeling by his side, Greverlend whispered, “I had wanted to tell you…you’re not like the rest of us…” A cough wracked through her body.
“What do you mean?” White eyebrows lowered in confusion.
His mother tried to catch her breath, but every other word seemed to get fainter and fainter.
“I had wanted to tell you…” At this point, Keith was straining to comprehend her rasping whispers. “One day you will find out what you are, and where you came from...”
She removed her necklace and slipped it around neck, then slowly rose, unable to speak anymore. As she left her son’s room and entered the hallway, her body teetered to one side. Her son followed, and she glanced back to form the words, “I love you,” from silent lips.
The small boy watched his mother stumble into her bedroom. It was not long before no sound was heard at all, not even the rustle of her sewing basket that was kept close to the bed.
His father found him sitting on the edge of bed in his room staring at the floor. He never uttered a word, the haunting message of his mother repeating in his mind. Something was wrong. He could sense it, and when he looked into his father’s tear-filled eyes he knew what the answer was.
“One day you’ll find out what you are, and where you came from…”
His mother was dead.
“Are you sure the poison will make it look natural?” the voice rasped. The room was engulfed in darkness, save for a few rays from cracks in the wall.
There was a scrape against the floor. A door opened, and a male figure appeared from the shadows. When he spoke, his voice was crisp with assuredness.
“Of course it will! Their slave used peppermint. Peppermint hides anything.”
“My brother will suspect. After all, the peppermint did come from me.”
“And when he comes, I’ll take care of it.” He pulled out a dagger and admired its reflective surface. A streak of gold ran down the center. “One down, two to go.”