BOOK ONE OF BLUE MOON RISING TRILOGY
Copyright © 2010 Bonnie Watson
The clank of chain echoed within the confines of her dungeon prison. She worked the shackles, with no luck at loosening them beyond the downy feathering covering her cloven hoofs. White hair bristled along her neck in anticipation of someone approaching. A toss of the head loosened several strands of long mane around a single ivory horn perched upon the forehead. She waited. A unicorn must always be patient.
She flared her nostrils at the smell of wood burning beneath a nearby cauldron. The warm glow from the fire illuminated a few bare tables. She could even make out a corner shelf displaying a number of multicolored bottles and vials. One such had overturned. A constant drip suggested a liquid had been inside.
It was not long before the scent of human mingled with burnt logs, and she craned her neck to peer over her shoulder at a winding staircase. It was difficult to see beyond the firelight. Even when the figure finally came into view, his face remained hidden under a black hood. He dipped his head in greeting.
"My humble apologies. One such as you deserves far better, but under the circumstances I hope you will understand the reasoning for your..." he paused as though searching for the right word "...predicament." A moment passed before he continued, "A pity the huntsman never knew your true worth, but in return for sparing your life you offered me a favor. I now come before you to obtain that which was promised."
He reached up and slid the hood back around his shoulders. Long sideburns grew down to a small beard, lightly tinted with grays woven in between brown. It was a replica of his hair, which stuck up in static waves.
The unicorn huffed and shook her mane. She remembered that fateful day. The dark-eyed alchemist had appeared as if expecting a hunter. 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 a bubbling liquid from the cauldron and placed it before her in a bowl. Thoughts reached out to him, 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."
"But what good is knowledge without the power to use it. Think how much more I could accomplish if I took the title of Mage. Illusion isn't real. It lasts only for a short period, whereas magic stays. Magic is real, and far more effective." He gestured 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."
The unicorn dipped her head.
"You underestimate your own abilities. Without proper understanding, your desire will only lead to destruction."
The alchemist waited while she paused to sniff the contents of the bowl.
"I will grant this one favor as promised, but be warned. Power bares a great consequence. Do not expect it the way you think it should be."
Slightly red-faced, the alchemist swallowed back his impatience 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 had come: 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. When the last drop had disappeared, he reached for the horn, its knowledge and power so greatly desired.
The horn flared in a brilliance that caused him to jerk his hand back. Just in time, the horn snapped up as panic sent the animal rearing so quickly that a shackle broke. Her hoofs pawed the air, filling it with shrieks and high-pitched squeals. The to-be mage jumped back as the animal tumbled down, landing hard on one side. Blue eyes polluted to a crimson that drowned out the pupil. Its soft coat spoiled and rotted, charring all the way to its cloven hooves. Darkness fowled the horn's color until all shimmer died completely. Teeth elongated to fangs. Whinnies changed to growls, and it began to find its footing by scraping great welts in the stone floor.
Frightened beyond reason, the alchemist sought the handle of an axe that lay unused in a dusty corner, hoping to strike before it could fully stand. For years the blade had dulled to a rust-covered brown, but in his haste he failed to notice. When the axe hit, inside of severing the horn, it merely cracked from forehead to tip.
A scream penetrated the air. The unicorn's head thrashed back and forth, catching its horn on the man's clothing and flinging him across the room. The force of the throw against a table snapped its legs, and he collapsed on top of it. Painfully, he fought to relocate the axe.
The snap 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 with an unnatural light as it slowly turned its head to focus on 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 an unbroken table between himself and the animal at all times.
A lightning bolt struck the floor, and he dived under the table to avoid a second coming from the horn. Hoofs clapped across the floor before something pierced the wooden tabletop, narrowly missing its intended 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 robe and caught the mane and tail of the unicorn. Fire started along the back wall, and it was spreading quickly.
As liquid 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 grasped it firmly in both hands 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 in pain and exhausted, he rolled away and swung at the looming shadow from the dark unicorn. A glimpse of underbelly sent shivers down his spine.
Impossible! There's no such thing as a male unicorn!
Teeth sought the taste of his flesh. He raised the axe again, but the lowered horn caught and held it. The smell of decay huffed with each breath. Fangs flashed in the flickering firelight.
The alchemist sent a wild kick to the neck. For a moment it seemed to retreat a step, but then lowered the horn again for the final blow. The man did not hesitate. His next swing landed with a thunderous crack! A piece of horn clattered to the floor.
The unicorn screamed. Its body writhed and twisted upon itself. Stumbling, it finally collapsed. A thrashing foot upset the bubbling cauldron, and its contents spilled over the approaching fire, though not soon enough to keep from catching fire itself. In moments it was over, with the remaining liquid smothering the ashes.
With shaking hands, the alchemist sat up and wiped his face. By his side lay the fragment of horn.
"So much for a favor." He coughed from all the smoke still lingering in the air, then lifted the horn. A sharp edge bit into his palm. Blood mingled with still-active magic, and a bolt flared around his hand. 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. "Both power and knowledge...is mine! Illusionist I shall be no more. From this day hence, I claim the title of Mage!"
Laughter resonated within the chamber, each echo hinting the unicorn's warning of his actions...and an awakening of something yearning to be free.