A realm of fantasy and adventure created by author Bruce Coville

Bruce Coville
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The Last Hunt

Chapter 1

The Breached Tree

Lightfoot stared in astonishment, scarcely able to believe what he was seeing.

Not twenty feet ahead of him was the Axis Mundi, a tree so vast that it filled the unicorn prince's field of vision. Between Lightfoot and the tree stood a cairn, its stones rising as high as his shoulder. On that cairn rested a ball of wire that the Dimblethum had placed there-the “anchor” that would let Beloved choose the spot where she entered Luster.

The explosion that had followed the placing of the sphere had knocked Lightfoot to the ground. When the prince managed to stagger back to his feet the Dimblethum had disappeared, and the wires were glowing. Immediately Lightfoot had flung himself toward the cairn, wanting to knock it down and trample the wire. But despite three attempts some magical barrier prevented him from reaching it.

And now, as he watched in horror, the wire was lifting off the cairn. When it was floating about a foot above the stones it began to spin, spitting off flecks of red and yellow light that fell, still glowing, to the forest floor.

Silently, the wire sphere drifted toward the great tree. Lightfoot strained with all his might against the magical barrier that held him back, but it did not give by so much as an inch.

The glowing sphere struck the trunk of the tree. The prince averted his eyes as a blast of power and energy blew past him. Its force knocked him back to the ground, which was rolling beneath him.

Twisting toward the tree, Lightfoot cried out in dismay. A gaping hole had appeared in the trunk, an enormous oval twice the prince's height, and wide enough for four men to walk abreast. This hole-this wound-went straight through the massive trunk. From overhead Lightfoot heard a keening, as if the branches themselves were calling out the tree's pain. In the center of the tunnel that now pierced the tree was a shimmer of mist. And though all around Lightfoot was the familiar forest of the queen, through the opening in the tree, just past that veil of mist, he could see another world, a world bounded by stone walls.

It took the prince a moment to realize that he was actually seeing the kind of castle he had heard sung of in the old stories that the unicorns had brought with them when they left Earth.

But it was not the castle that transfixed him with fear. It was what he saw coming through the tunnel: row after row after row of grim-faced, angry-eyed men.

The prince shuddered. No, not simply men. These were clearly Hunters.

Even worse, in front of the Hunters strode another human, one Lightfoot knew all too well: Beloved, the ancient and eternal enemy of the unicorns.

A quiver trembled along the prince's flanks as Beloved drew closer to that shimmer of mist, her red eyes blazing, her snow white hair moving freely about her, as if somehow lifted and attended by its own private breezes. Without hesitation she stepped through the mist. Moments later, she emerged from the tree-it was only a foot or so from the edge of the tunnel to the ground-and into Luster.

The Hunters streamed through after her.

Lightfoot watched in mounting horror. He had not guessed there would be so many of them! Man after man after man they came, armed with sword and spear, packs upon their backs, and with but one thought in mind: to capture and kill unicorns.

Slowly the prince backed away. He moved cautiously, not wanting to attract the attention of the men. In this, he was aided by their astonishment, for it was clear that, whatever they had been expecting, whatever they had been told, they were nonetheless amazed to find themselves actually crossing into another world. They did not shout, or cry out; their discipline was too great for that. But their faces clearly showed their shock and unease.

To his own shock, Lightfoot felt a sudden, deep urge to move toward the men, a call so strong and powerful it was almost impossible to resist. Then he spotted the reason for it: marching in the midst of the men was a group of young women dressed all in white. Lightfoot shuddered again. From the time of the slaying of Whiteling, unicorns had had a powerful urge to come to the aid of young women in the wood. With new horror, the prince realized why the Hunters were bringing these maidens: they were bait, lures to draw unsuspecting unicorns to their deaths.

Now anger overwhelmed Lightfoot's fear. He wanted to charge trumpeting among the Hunters, slashing with his hooves, stabbing with his horn, wounding and killing as many of them as he could until their swords and spears brought him down.

But, no-that was not wise. The Queen must know of this, and he was the only one who could tell her. He must not fall. He must not be captured. With that thought, any remaining fear for himself that the prince might have felt vanished, replaced by a greater, deeper fear for the fate of all his kind. For so many centuries Beloved had wanted to wipe out the unicorns. Was it possible that now, at last, she was going to succeed?

Lightfoot watched carefully, trying to determine how many Hunters were coming through the tree. But unicorns do not have much use for numbers, and he had never learned to think in terms of the many, many men he now saw going past. Were there more of them than there were unicorns in Luster? For that matter, how many unicorns were there? Why had he never paid attention to such things?

Stop! he told himself fiercely. Think about that later. For now the main problem is not to be seen, not to be captured. And that means… that means…

Lightfoot found himself losing his focus, and realized with shock that it was because he was again feeling a powerful attraction to the young maidens walking with the Hunters.

How strange. Even knowing why they are here my heart is drawn to them. I wonder if they understand the treachery expected of them-understand what will die if they are successful?

Forcing himself, with considerable effort, to ignore the maidens, he backed slowly away from the procession of Hunters.

Suddenly the men stopped. Lightfoot realized it was because Beloved herself had stopped. The men and the maidens gathered in a cluster around her, so many of them that they spilled out of the clearing and into the surrounding forest.

Beloved turned to face them. Raising her arms, she cried “My children!”

Her voice was clear and strong, and-even for Lightfoot, who hated and feared her-compelling.

She began to rant at them. The prince could make out some of what she said. His mother, Dancing Heart, had always claimed that his greatest gift was for language, which was why he could talk to such strange things as the delvers and the Dimblethum. And his connection with Cara had let him pick up many words and phrases. Some of what Beloved said now was lost to him. But he could tell, quite clearly, that she was urging the men to go out and kill as many unicorns as they could, as quickly as they could. He heard the words “blood” and “evil” fairly frequently, and began to feel wildly frustrated that he could not understand all she said. Yet even without being able to understand each of her words, Lightfoot found that the hate in Beloved's voice made him feel unclean. He wanted to go and wash himself free of the filth of her anger.

And then she said something that he did understand, and that filled him with new fear. “Above all, I want the girl Cara Dianna Hunter. Bring her to me!”

With that, she seemed to be finished. Dropping her arms, she murmured, “It is autumn here. A good time for death.”

Then she shivered, rubbed her arms, and said something about a cloak.

One of the Hunters stepped forward. He seemed to be offering to do something for her. Without waiting for an answer, he started for the tunnel in the tree.

“Don't be a fool!” snapped Beloved.

Lightfoot strained now to understand, puzzling at her words, trying to untangle their meaning. As near as he could make out, it was dangerous for the man to go back through the tree now-something about opposing magics that would fight each other. He needed to wait forty eight hours before he could return to earth.

Lightfoot knew, from his connection with Cara, that hours were a measure of time. But he didn't really have a clear sense of how long an hour actually was.

Beloved finished ranting, and the Hunter nodded and backed up two steps. At the same time, Beloved clutched her chest. “Go!” she shrieked. “Go!” Then some words he couldn't quite understand, followed by more words that were all too clear: “Go and kill the unicorns! Kill them!”

Without uttering a word themselves, the Hunters broke into groups of three and four. The maidens, who had been standing in a cluster, now split up, each going to join one of the Hunter groups. Lightfoot noted that there were not enough maidens to go around, so that some groups were maidenless.

“Go!” cried Beloved again.

Lightfoot stiffened, held himself as unmoving as possible, hoping that none of the Hunters would come near him. One group did pass close to his right side-too close for comfort, but, as it seemed, not close enough to spot him. Within moments, Hunters and maidens had faded into the forest, leaving Beloved alone.

At least, Lightfoot thought she was alone. So he was surprised when she turned to her right and said, as if answering a question, “Yes, it was indeed as you promised.”

Is she talking to someone else? wondered Lightfoot. He moved closer, then pointed his ears forward, straining to hear.

The hint of a whisper came to him, too faint to make out.

Smiling, Beloved said, “Yes, I will not-” Here there were some words Lightfoot could not understand. She ended with “my debt to you.”

So intent was Lightfoot on trying to hear the voice that responded to Beloved that he neglected to pay attention to closer sounds, such as the lightest of footfalls approaching from behind him. It was only when the spear grazed his side that he realized what danger he had been ignoring. He spun and bugled a challenge. Two men were sprinting toward him, swords drawn, faces twisted with bloodlust. The second man, who still held his spear, raised it and threw. It hurtled through the air and lodged itself in Lightfoot's shoulder. He bugled again, this time in pain.

The men were almost on him. And in that instant, Lightfoot knew what he must do. Turning from the Hunters, ignoring the searing pain in his shoulder, he galloped toward the woman who had led them here. If he could just move fast enough, fiercely enough, maybe he could trample her beneath his hooves.

Beloved saw him coming, and exulted. “First blood!” she cried, her voice filled with an unholy joy.

The spear embedded in Lightfoot's shoulder snagged on a tree. The impact ripped it free, tearing open a wound that send scarlet-silver blood flowing down his chest and a lightning bolt of pain shooting down his leg.

As the Prince staggered Beloved drew a dagger from beneath her robe. Its blade flashed red in the Blood Moon's light.

Lightfoot reared, intending to send a rain of silver hoofblows on to her head. But he had underestimated his enemy. She flung the blade. It penetrated his chest between his forelegs, causing him to stagger again.

Reaching into her robe, she drew forth another blade.

Raw terror seized him and he knew, with every fiber of his being, that he did not want to die here, die on a blade wielded by this madwoman. And then he saw the answer, shimmering beyond her: The gate to Earth!

Gathering what was left of his strength, he hurtled forward, racing past her.

“Stop him,” shrieked Beloved. “Stop him!!

He was almost at the gate now. Ignoring the lance of pain in his side, Lightfoot leaped into the wounded tree. He galloped along the wooden tunnel, then soared through the shimmer of light-and found himself in the very last place he, or any unicorn, would have ever thought to seek for safety: the courtyard of Beloved's castle.

Then a shout of rage from behind him made him realize he was not safe yet. One of the men had leapt through after him.

“Die, unicorn,” roared the Hunter, his words all too easy for the prince to understand. “Die in the name of Beloved!”

Sword drawn, the man raced forward, his blade pointed straight at Lightfoot's heart. Though Lightfoot was eager to do battle, he found that the last of his strength was gone. He didn't have the energy to fight, or even to run. He braced himself to die.

The man was raising he sword to strike at Lightfoot when his face began to twist in pain and terror. He cried out, an uncomprehending shout that echoed eerily from the castle walls. Then his sword clattered to the cobblestones as he dropped it and began to beat at his skin.

Lightfoot, watching in horror, saw the man's flesh start to bubble. The Hunter screamed and fell to the ground, writhing in agony.

A moment later, he was dead.

Staring at the twisted, blackened corpse, Lightfoot remembered Beloved's warning to the other Hunter about opposing magics.

Then his wounds overcame him, his knees buckled, and he collapsed onto the cobblestones himself.

At least it's only my wounds, he thought, not two kinds of magic warring within my flesh. Then he thought, Clearly, I cannot return to Luster until forty-eight hours have passed.

He was still trying to remember exactly what an hour was when everything went black. The unicorn prince lay unconscious in the courtyard of his greatest enemy.