Deep in the shady forests of The Woodland resides the Order of the Horn. A reclusive, mystic clan, they consist entirely of pure white beasts that are at once like horses, deer and goats; with cloven hooves, lions’ tails and a single, spiraling horn stretching from their foreheads. Unicorns. They are an ancient race, stoic and disciplined, their culture mired in ritual and tradition, and they spend their days studying the sacred power their lives revolve around: the divine Magic of Light. Through the generations, they have used light magic to shape the trees into structures, spiraling to the sky in graceful, wooden columns, with branches twisted into delicate woven patterns. The most beautiful of these structures is their primary temple, The Sacred Grove. There, they keep to themselves, hidden under the canopy of their home, with no interest outside their rituals and study – including the other beasts of Fœnum, and the fate of Fœnum itself.
13 Turns of Seasons before the Incursion of the Predators
Slivers of morning light stream through the cracks between the entwined vines and branches that make her bed chamber walls. She breathes lightly beneath her soft, loosely woven blanket, the only part of her left uncovered is the long, curved horn that gives her kind their name: Unicorn.
She stirs as more light illuminates the thicket-like space revealing the whiteness of the birch bark. A cloven hoof and slender leg, thick with fur at the fetlock, slips out from under the covers and rests on the floor. The young one makes her way across the room, her lion’s tail swaying groggily, to a table that seems to have grown from the ground. Atop it is a large white bowl. She bows her head to sip the cool water, catching her reflection.
The morning ritual has already begun. Every unicorn in The Woodland has made their way to their most hallowed temple, The Sacred Grove. A great circle of ancient trees, pale and smooth as ivory, reach to the sky then bend towards each other, twisting and weaving their branches into one another to create the walls and ceiling. They drip with vines sprouting opalescent flowers, softly showering the congregation with floating petals that glisten as they drift through columns of morning light. Several dozen pure white unicorns stand in rows before an alabaster plinth where a line of robed elders stand stoically, staring out to the herd, their long, silky beards almost touching the floor. And at the alter stands the High Priestess of the Order of the Horn, draped in gossamer, orchids woven through her mane and tail, her horn spiraling higher than any others.
She preaches, her voice solemn and deep, “A thousand years now the divine Magic of Light has kept us safe and hidden, leaving us free to study Its mysteries, decipher Its plans. Our gratitude we must show for what Light chooses to protect and preserve, and dutiful acceptance we must offer for what Light decides to let wither and fade…”
As she goes on, the young one timidly slips through the back entrance, hoping and praying the others keep their backs turned away from her. In stark contrast to everyone there, her fur, her mane, her tail, her horn – are all DARK.
The Priestess continues, “…for it is not our place to question – GASP!” It is too late. The priestess has seen her. The young one winces as every head in the temple turns to her.
“GASP!” the herd utters in unison.
“Oleander!” The priestess called out, “Your appearance is an affront to the Magic of Light! You dare appear in this holy place in such a state? Explain yourself!”
“I-I don’t know what happened! I…” the young one stammers, “…just woke up like this.”
“Well, I know,” the priestess accuses, “for one thing only can mar the purity of Light.”
“It’s not what you think…”
“DARK MAGIC!” The priestess’ voice booms across the grove.
“GASP!” goes the crowd.
“Alright. It’s a little what you think…”
“GASP!” the crowd goes again.
“Oleander, against the laws of the Order you have spoken out many times.”
Oleander’s courage suddenly appears, “Well I wouldn’t have to if the laws of the Order weren’t all ancient and short sighted! We believe only Light is good because that’s all we’ve ever been told. But I believe there is more good in the world than just Light. We should not be afraid of The Dark!”
“GAAASP!!!!!!!” goes the crowd, the biggest one yet.
“We,” the priestess interrupts, “have shown you patience because of your lineage and…” she pauses to swallow disappointment, “because of the potential we saw in you. You have shamed us.”
Oleander protests, “But –“
“GASP!” the crowd goes again.
“Oleander!” the priestess bellows, “Great granddaughter of the Divine Oracle Amaryllis! You have channeled that which is forbidden and broken the laws of the Order of the Horn! You stand in judgment!”
Oleander struggles to keep her legs from going out from under her as she awaits her sentence.
“Now,” the priestess finishes, her speech grave and low, her eyes piercing her with implication, “go to your room and think about what you’ve done.” And with that, she slams her hoof upon the stone plinth, passing her final verdict.
The bearded ones terminate their sanctimonious stares and, to Oleander’s horror, turn their backs on her. The entire herd follows suit, row by row, tail by tail.
Shocked, disgraced, Oleander lowers her head and leaves the temple in shame.
Sad and slow, Oleander returns to her chamber. From under her bed she pulls a book – a large, glowing, red book with the twisted skull of a horned creature straddling the binding. Despite its unsettling appearance, she considers it with sadness and regret, as if she were looking into the eyes of a dying pet.
Carrying the book in her mouth, she approaches the fireplace, igniting the fire with a glowing pulse of magic from her horn.
But before she can toss the book into the flames, it burns hottest red! She drops it with a sharp yelp. The book lands with a hollow thud, its pages thrown open.
Then, a voice from inside the pages booms, “Art thou so eager to be rid of me, Oleander of The Woodlands?!”
Oleander stumbles back, her lips burning. “You! You turned me dark! You exposed me! Now I’ll be shunned.”
“’Twas thou who soughteth the likes of me. Does thou claimeth not to have known the risks of doing such?”
“Oh, cut it out, Fred.” Oleander tosses the book up onto the table, taking care not to shut the pages. “That voice stopped being funny months ago.”
He roars, “Of what voice does thou speaketh? This art totally my normal voice!” He adds, “And stopeth calling me Fred, my name is FHTNG!”
Oleander shoots him a look, “Whatever. Fred.”
“Alright, alright. I’ll stop.” his voice lowers to a comfortable, if slightly nebbish, alto. “Look, I’m super sorry about the whole turning-your-fur-dark thing. I forgot to tell you that once you read a certain number of passages in the Book of Undying Misery it leaves some sort of mark. My bad. Totally my bad.”
“Give me one reason why I should keep you around?”
“Because we’re friends?” The book squirms, and in its weird way, smiles sheepishly.
Oleander gives him the side eye. Not so forgiving.
“And because…” he changes his strategy, “you’re going to save the world.”
Oleander’s eyes almost pop out of her head. That got her attention.
He elaborates. “Alright, so you know how the High Priestess told you all those stories when you were a filly, all those stories about the Predators?”
“You mean the fairy tales? About the beasts who,” she swallowed hard, “ate everyone?”
“Yeah, yeah that’s the one. Here’s the thing. They’re comin’ back. In 13 turns of the seasons. You’ll be all grown up then.”
Oleander’s eyes darted back and forth, her mind reeling, “But the Order will never let me. They will say The Magic of Light will decide the fate of Fœnum. They won’t interfere.”
“They won’t. WE will,” the voice from the book says, suddenly serious. “All you gotta do is honor your pact. Stick with me. Study the spells of the Unicornomicon. That’s what it will take.”
Oleander’s takes in what she knows must be the truth. She has been right, and The Order has been wrong. And now the fate of everyone in Fœnum, not just the Unicorns of The Woodlands, is in her hooves. She cannot fail!
She looks to the book, eyes steely with resolve. He flips the pages to a specific passage and, without a moment’s hesitation, she stamps her hoof on the corner.
Black smoke rises from the pages, crawling up her leg like misty, slithering snakes. Her eyes glow red. Her hair comes alive, whipping upwards in a burst of black sorcery.
Then, all is calm. The pact is final.
“Well, alrighty then!” The book exclaims jubilantly. “Done and done.”
Oleander stumbles to her bed, exhausted.
“You rest up now, pal. We got 13 years of work ahead of us. You and me, me and you.”
The pages pinch in a strange sort of crinkled smile, “This is going to be fun.”