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Book One of Blue Moon Rising Trilogy
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 fouled 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, instead 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.
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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 sunlight. He shielded his eyes, letting his mind imagine the bug’s journey. Stories of distant places his father often told when he was home from work came to mind; the people he met, the sights and sounds. Surely, an insect had no trouble accessing those places. He imagined how different his life would be as a bug and followed his father’s stories through his mind.
His mother’s voice interrupted the daydream, soothing like the nearby stream running through the woods as it linked to his mind. It was not unusual on lazy days when his father was pressed for work, leaving his wife and son to tend to the house and yard. Those days, the boy would be in his favorite location: the forest. Something about it called to him, and so his free time was spent exploring various areas of Nature.
Without a second thought to how his mother’s links were done, 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 came close.
“I have a surprise for you,” she said.
Keith took a guess. “He’s home?”
At a nod, the boy rushed inside, garden scents forgotten at the excitement of his father coming home early. He found him just hanging up his coat when entering the room. Upon hearing his son, the large man turned to scoop him into his burly arms. Keith hugged tight, his cheek pressed against his father’s freshly shaven face.
“My, my!” his father mused. He gently set his son down. “You’re growing too fast for me to keep up. I’ll have to stop work if I want to enjoy more time with you.”
A servant entered the room with a tray and set it on a table by the fireplace.
“Ah, Ullyaemus,” Keith’s father greeted. “How are things with you, my friend?”
“As always,” the servant replied. “Good to have you back, even for a short period.”
“Thankfully, I’ve got some time.”
Keith watched Ullyaemus pour a couple of drinks. His mother soon joined them and savored a kiss from her husband.
“Look what I’ve brought you, Greverlend. I had Ullyaemus fix this for you. Your favorite.” Her husband picked up a cup and handed it to her.
“Spiced peppermint?” she asked.
“Finest spice in all the land.”
“It’s been so long! I can barely remember the first time I had this. Thank you!”
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 to examine. Several round reeds 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 the tip of the instrument. “Hold your fingers over these to create different sounds. 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, with a few blundering notes here and there.
“Not bad,” Ullyaemus mused. “Bet he’ll have it mastered within the hour.”
“Thank you!” Keith admired the gift. He cradled it against his breast as though it were made of gold. To him, it was priceless, and the fact it came from one of his father’s travels made it all the more special.
“It does make a good sound,” his mother said. “Where did you find it, Jonathan?”
“From a merchant in Lexington,” her husband replied. “First week of the month brings new business. Yesterday, they were selling all kinds.” He turned to Keith. “I know you’d probably like to try your gift some more. There’s some business I need to discuss, so why don’t you go enjoy. I’ve plenty of stories to tell afterwards.”
Keith’s slight look of disappointment was soon replaced by a wide grin. Stories were always worth waiting for, and with a nod he slipped from his seat and headed down the hall. He had nearly reached the stairs when he paused. He was just out of sight from the family room where his parents sat talking, but something about the conversation caught his attention. Intrigued, he remained silent to listen.
“…Have to pay a visit to my brother tomorrow,” his father was saying. “There’s just not enough work going around. With this constant traveling, I’m losing time when I could be here.”
Keith cocked his head. He had never met his father’s brother, though he had seen his dwelling not far off through the woods. Keith had even ventured that way to get a closer look. His thoughts soon returned to a change in conversation.
“…Won’t stay a child forever,” his father continued.
“I know.” He heard his mother sigh. “He shows great interest in Nature. It’s enough to realize one day…”
Keith stepped back when the servant came through the hallway.
At the sight of the boy, Ullyaemus stopped in puzzlement.
“Unless you have something to add,” he said in a soft tone, “I suggest you leave them to their talk. Besides, weren’t you going to try your gift?” He pointed to the pan flute in Keith’s hand.
“I was just wondering,” Keith kept his voice low, “I’ve heard them discuss work before. Is money that hard to come by? I mean, we don’t live in town. There’s no tax where we are.”
Ullyaemus chuckled. “And how do you think your father gets around these days? It’s expensive to travel. You need lodging, food and clothing – not to mention transportation on business meetings. Of course, he’ll probably expect you to travel one day.”
“You think he’ll ask me to come?”
“I wouldn’t doubt it. Now, that being said, why don’t you run upstairs to your room. I want to be able to hear that from the kitchen.”
Keith did not hesitate. He bounded up the stairs, skipping every other step until he had reached the second level, then out onto the balcony to test another song. He recalled one his father sang after hearing it one day in town. It did not capture the spirit like his mother’s lullaby, but it was good enough to bring footsteps to the balcony door. He turned, hoping to find his father. Instead, his mother leaned against the door frame.
“You play beautifully,” she whispered, her face ashen.
“Are you all right?” He immediately rushed to her side. “Did something upset you?”
Kneeling beside him, Greverlend whispered, “No. I should have told you long ago…” A cough wracked her body.
“What do you mean?” White eyebrows lowered in confusion. She seemed paler by the minute. “You don’t look well at all. Maybe you should lie down.”
His mother tried to catch her breath, but every other word seemed to get fainter and fainter.
“I’m sorry, my son.” At this point, Keith was straining to comprehend her rasping whispers. “All I can say is this: one day you will find out what you are, and where you came from…”
She fumbled with the clasp on her necklace until it came loose, then slipped it around his neck. A gift from her husband, Keith wondered why she would give it to him. As she turned for 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 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 at his mother’s bedside, her limp hand dangling from the side almost unbearable to touch; she was so cold. Over and over, her message repeated in his mind, though he never uttered a word of what she had said. He kept recalling the many moments of joy and laughter they had spent together. So short a time. Keith felt he hardly knew himself in those years. What had she tried to tell him? Before her final breath, he had felt her mind tried to link, as she had always done. It was comforting at first, but with her weakness came instability. The abrupt disconnection left her young son at a loss of what to do…except cry. What had happened in a day’s time to change everything?
“One day you’ll find out what you are, and where you came from…”
His mother was gone.
“How do you know they won’t give the boy the same drink?” a voice rasped, and a wispy-haired man stepped to the window. From there, he could just make out the cottage through the woods.
Submerged in shadow where the flow of light could not touch, a second person answered.
“I’ve watched them.” His voice was crisp with assuredness. “They won’t give it to him.”
“Then there’s nothing more to do than wait. My brother will likely suspect. After all, the spice did come from me.”
“Don’t forget who gave it to you.”
“Many thanks.” He moved back from the window into surrounding shadow. “Such a shame she would be affected. Would’ve been better had my brother been one of them, and she normal.”
Less than two weeks after the incident, Keith learned that his father wanted to include him when he paid a visit to his brother. Having never met his uncle, the boy was elated. At the same time, he understood the reason behind the visit. Their money supply was running low, and his father did not want to sell the servant to make up for the loss. Though Keith was old enough to stay by himself, his father insisted having someone they knew and trusted in the family was best.
A quick stop by his mother’s gravesite not far from the house offered some comfort that she was in a better place, and provided the boy a moment to ponder her strange words. Many times he thought about asking his father what she might have meant. Yet he could not push past the feeling that she wanted him to discover the answer on his own, so he kept quiet.
As soon as Keith was ready, they hiked a short ways from the site to his uncle’s place. Yet what seemed like an exciting first meeting soon turned into disappointment. Once part of a larger structure, the Keep now only housed one individual. The rest had fallen to ruin. The person who greeted them at the door, however, was far too ugly to be called an uncle, let alone a brother. Keith actually mistook him for a servant.
“Well, what a surprise!” his uncle rasped, then coughed. “Do come in, brother.” He stepped aside to allow them in. “I received your letter. Can’t tell you how…sorry I was to hear about Greverlend. She was,” he inhaled deeply, “quite the beauty.”
Keith followed his father into a fairly comfortable sitting area. Three seats had been arranged next to a wide fireplace, which illuminated parts of the room in an orange glow. It did little to warm the mood.
“So you came to collect more money, is that it?” Keith’s uncle rolled his eyes. “I don’t know what Greverlend ever saw in you. She should have been with me. I could have offered much more.”
“Not all of us are…fortunate…like you, Shavary.”
Shavary: even the name rang with an uneasy tone. Keith felt those eyes burn through him and wished he had stayed at home.
“Well, what can I say? My appearance has never truly suited any woman’s tastes, animal or human—”
“Don’t you dare refer to her as an animal!” Keith’s father stood in a rush with hands clenched at his sides. “You know her real name. Use it! As I recall, she came to you first for help, but you refused. Now I have a son to raise and you’re going repay her by helping him.”
“I don’t know what you expect from me. I can’t teach a dog how to be a cat. Neither can you. As far as I’m concerned, she got what she deserved. And you? You’re next.”
“Wha—” Keith heard his father give a strangled gasp before he collapsed, a dagger protruding from his back. In those few moments, Keith had committed the gold-striped blade to memory.
“I always did favor the back throw.” A figure emerged from the shadows. “Less messy.”
Keith cringed in his seat, trying to disappear as the assassin strode over to remove the blade. Frozen in place, he stared in fright as the man flipped the dagger between his fingers.
“Careful,” Shavary cautioned with a smile. “He might bite.”
The assassin chuckled. “May have use for him.” He sheathed the dagger. “Got a sack?”
Shavary smirked. “A punching bag? I like that idea.”
“Wishful thinking,” was the reply. “I’ve a cart going to Sapphire. I’m sure my friend will be pleased with this.”
Keith swallowed with difficulty.
“You’re not going there yourself?” Shavary asked.
“Didn’t you want the servant dismissed as well?”
Keith could hardly believe his ears.
The uncle waved the comment aside. “Doesn’t matter. All I care about is—”
Keith never heard the rest, for at that moment the assassin lashed out and gripped him around the throat. His last conscious thought before darkness took him was of his mother. She was never sick as his father had suspected.
She was poisoned.