Welcome to the 13th installment of The Forest Lord.
The attack never came.
Instead, the shadow unicorn played with them. It taunted the group using rushing hoof-beats and a sense of impending doom. Even the smaller forest animals seemed to be in league with the dark beast, disappearing entirely when those ghostly galloping sounds echoed off the trees. Several of the weaker human guards – already half-mad from the first attack – became completely unhinged from the atmosphere of foreboding in the Adintana as those eerie noises bore down upon them only to vanish without a trace.
The more time passed, the more likely it became that their true identities would be exposed unless they abandoned the crippled human caravan. T’Riss steadied himself and reached out for Zak with a small bit of messaging magic.
“My mate. Do not return. Meet me at The Professor’s.”
T’Riss didn’t wait for a reply. He motioned for the group to gather around him. Iym had just finished wrapping Kala’s body in a thick blanket and had tied it to the back of her mechanical mount. She led the machine over with Jhulryna at her other side. Smoke had just changed his leathers, and jogged over with his trousers and his boots unlaced, one set of guns slung over his shoulder.
“I was talking to Clem, that big-”
“We’re leaving,” T’Riss said, interrupting Smoke.
No sooner did T’Riss make the announcement than the dreaded sound of the shadow unicorn’s hooves pounding the road return. Terror once again seized the humans as they prepared for attack, but T’Riss motioned his group closer.
“It’s toying with us. Playing with us the way a cat makes sport with a mouse before devouring it.” T’Riss straightened up and tugged his bandoliers down. “We will not make so easy a meal.”
“What about the rest of the guards and the women?” Smoke’s chin came up a fraction of an inch. He slipped his arms through his custom fit leather harness holster and buckled it onto his trousers, eyes glued to T’Riss as his hands moved by memory.
“You must make a choice, gunslinger.” T’Riss kept his voice low enough so that no one else could hear him. “Either you stay and be the hero who saved the caravan from the black unicorn, or you travel with us.”
“How can he stay with us?” Iym gazed at T’Riss, her brows furrowed over her ruby-colored eyes. “We must return Kala’s body to Chasz’Chalolvir.”
“We travel to a scholar.” T’Riss never took his eyes from the human gunslinger. “Are you with us?”
Smoke jerked his chin down once. His eyes shifted from T’Riss to Jhulryna. She looked everywhere but at him. With a soft chuckle Smoke turned and dashed for his great black mechan stallion.
“Who is this Professor?”
Smoke’s lips brushed against Jhulryna’s ear as he whispered his question. Iym and her mount separated them from T’Riss and Zak. The two male drow led the group up a treacherous and winding mountain passage towards a cave at the peak. They’d almost reached it.
Jhulryna shrugged. Settling her staff comfortably in the saddle sling, she leaned back against Smoke and turned her head so he could more easily hear her.
“From what I understand, he is some banished member of your race.” She frowned as she met Smoke’s eyes. “Do humans have Unmentionables?”
“Lots of things we don’t mention.”
Jhulryna’s frown persisted. Smoke reached up and rubbed at the furrowed flesh between her eyes. “Female, cease these faces. You’ll get wrinkles.”
The small group moved from the passage onto the plateau and head for the cave mouth. Smoke drew one of his oddly-shaped guns. He guided his big mechan with the reins held loosely in one hand and his knees pressed firmly to the machine’s sides. Jhul gazed around the plateau, hyper-vigilant and on her guard for any sort of attack. When none came she leaned back against Smoke.
“I shall wear the marks of age with pride.”
Smoke snickered. Jhul sat up straight, making sure to elbow him as she moved.
“What do you find humorous?”
“Marks of age. You’ll live for centuries. I’ll be dust before you show any marks of age.”
“You’re the one who said something about me getting wrinkles.”
“Wrinkles have nothing to do with age. My shirt gets wrinkled. S’not because it’s old.”
“Why haven’t you just killed them both? Solve all your problems.”
The voice was surprisingly deep and melodic. Smoke and Jhul both jerked in the saddled at the sound. Their heads snapped up to see a tremendously tall, broad figure in a plain brown monk’s robe appear between T’Riss and Zak. The cavernous hood of the robe was up, obscuring the figure’s face. Amazingly, Ilztafay neither bolted nor made any noises.
“Professor,” T’Riss said, bowing his head. “Greetings.”
“T’Rissinns Riz-LiNeer. Why have you brought a raiding party to my mountain?”
“We seek knowledge.”
“You do not deny you once again walk as arisa for Alybreena Yas’kah Mel-virr.”
“I have not denied truth to you in over a century.”
The robed and hooded figure of the Professor stood still in silence for a very long while as if contemplating T’Riss’s answer. Then it seemed to reanimate. Spreading its arms wide in welcome, it turned toward the large cave-mouth.
“Enter and be welcome, mate of T’Rissinns Riz-LiNeer and team of the arisa.” Arms held open and aloft in welcome, the tall, broad figure led the group in through the cave mouth. He guided them back into a maze of twists and turns until they emerged into a magical oasis inside the mountain.
Beauty bombarded them from every side. A magical sun of some sort shone from some undefined location, bathing the entire interior in warm golden light. Trees heavy with fruit and flowers burst into bloom and bud all around the valley floor as more ripe fruit fell from vines and bushes and more flowers blossomed across the floor. Thick scrumptiously soft grass grew over every surface except the rock, which had one of two surfaces: smooth, lustrous marble or rough, glittering granite.
With a showy flick, the Professor tossed his hood back and let the robe fall to the floor. Jhulryna managed not to scream, but only because she’d been clinging to Smoke’s arm when the hood fell back in the first place. Her fingers clenched reflexively and cut off the gunslinger’s circulation as she bit back her scream.
The Professor was not only seven feet tall, he was covered in gleaming scarlet scales. In place of a mouth and nose, he had a snout. His jaw was filled with several layers of razor-sharp teeth. A heavy brow held a series of spinous processes – spikes – that ran from the top of his head all the way down his spine where they ended in a tail that whipped back and forth in restless motion.
“What are you?” Smoke asked, his voice filled with both disgust and awe.
“The Professor is the smartest creature on the plane.” T’Riss’s voice was cold. “If anyone knows something about a black unicorn, he will.”
“Black unicorn?” The Professor looked interested.
“You’ve no doubt heard about the Adintana attacks. They’re being caused by a black unicorn.”
The professor strode across his tropical paradise. An entire section of illusion melted away to become a bookshelf. The Professor removed a text and flipped through it until he came to a particular page. Approaching T’Riss and Zak excitedly, he thrust the open book under their noses. “By black, did you mean shadow? Like this one?”
Zakn’yl stared in horror at the photograph. “That’s it!
“Indeed,” T’Riss whispered. “This is our foe. Tell us how we might defeat it.”
The leather-bound book was so old it make a crackling sound as Iym leaned down and turned the page. The Professor slammed the ancient tome closed with a thud before Iym could read anything. He gazed at T’Riss, a look of bestial hunger covering his face.
“You know the coin in which I deal.” The Professor’s voice was almost a sibilant whisper.
T’Riss offered the reptilian creature his forearm. The Professor produced a small, very sharp dagger. After a short prayer, he made a series of four shallow slices up the inside of T’Riss’s arm. T’Riss bled into a series of vials which the Professor capped. The Professor held the drow’s blood as if it was more precious than gems. He took it to a bookshelf and made it disappear. T’Riss’s wounds vanished without a trace.
“How can we defeat a black unicorn?” T’Riss asked.
“It is a shadow unicorn.” The Professor strode to another shelf. His tail snaked up and selected a thick, squat book. Flipping it open, he scanned the page.
“Only enchanted weapons will damage the creature.” The Professor gestured to T’Riss’s katana. He motioned to Jhulryna and Iym. “Death magic will backfire; do not use it. This beast is a thing of darkness.”
“Light?” At the blank looks from T’Riss and the others, Zak asked his question directly to the Professor. “Would magical light damage it?”
“A romantic notion, Zakn’yl, but no.”
“What else can you tell us?” Iym asked.
“Who else is willing to render me payment?” The Professor smiled, his sharp teeth gleaming in the artificial magical sunlight.
“What are you?” Iym whispered.
“The only one with the knowledge to save you,” the Professor said. His red scales sparkled. “Are you willing to pay the price?”
The group spent the night in the Professor’s cave. In the morning they used magic to send Kala’s body back to the Azure Palace, and then returned to the Adintana Forest, all of them minus a few vials of blood.
It was time to hunt a shadow unicorn.
Thanks so much for reading! Comments are, as always, craved and appreciated.
Follow all your favorites and read the first 100 words on the group’s website:
Be Sure To Check Out The Other Stories:
Follow all your favorites and read the first 100 words on the group’s website:
Be Well ~ Tux