AT ONE POINT, the material had obviously been creamy white, but by now it was smudged and stained by countless days of use. The once proud horn at the center of his forehead now bent awkwardly to one side. Tiny bits of stuffing poked out here and there where a seam had begun to open up. The name “Mystic” was hardly original, but that’s what had been printed on the little tag stapled to his ear at the factory, and it had stuck long after the paper tag had crumpled and torn away. The tiny unicorn liked to think of it as the signs of countless days of loving, of a life well lived.
Brian slept now – the sheets and covers bunched around his feet where they had been pushed as the restless thoughts and dreams and imaginations of a little boy slowly slipped away into the forgetfulness of night. His breathing was slow and steady. Later, he would dream, and perhaps call out a sudden word or a snatch of a sentence, but for now, all was quiet.
From his vantage point on top of the tall dresser, Mystic watched the boy. It had been a full day, and he was tired. Castles and wars, great contests of skill and bravery against foes too evil to imagine. Armies to command and planets to conquer. Mountains to climb and rivers to leap. How many adventures could one small child imagine? At the factory, where his coat had fairly gleamed, he had been nothing more than a piece of merchandise. Now, he was a toy.
The soft red glow of the clock on the bedstand blinked to 11:59. Sleep would have been a welcome relief, but Mystic steadied his thoughts and focused them to a bright point deep within his being. Of all times, he knew, this was the darkest.
The point grew in strength as silent filaments of thought grew from it, slowly stretching out from the top of the dresser, down its sides, along the walls, reaching, testing, listening to the deepest of the shadows. All was quiet, but if experience was any teacher, Mystic knew it would not last long, for this was the deepest of all nights – the Solstice – when darkness finally felt its grip on the earth slip and light began its slow march towards Spring. It was a night fiercely contended, and the darkness never gave up its throne without a fight.
One of the filaments touched something deep in a corner of the room. Mystic froze. He pushed away all other thought and let the tendril drift for a moment. No, he must have been mistaken – nothing there but darkness. He moved on. He was getting jumpy, he told himself, letting his memories get in the way. This night should be no different from any other night. Watch, wait, ward. How many nights had he spent doing this same dance with the shadows? More than he could count, and he could count a lot higher than Brian could.
Mystic always left the shadows under the bed for last. Why? He didn’t know, or refused to admit that he did. Nonetheless, he saved them for last. The blackness there pulsed with a life of its own, fed by twisted bits of apple cores and bread crusts, forgotten toys and missing socks covered with a thick film of dust. Things hid there where even the brilliant light of day was afraid to go. Brian believed that monsters lurked there. Perhaps he knew more than the grownups realized.
All of Mystic’s thoughts were focused on the darkness there when a sudden jolt of pain almost threw him off the dresser. His mind reeled and he yanked back, hissing. There was no doubt this time, no waiting just to be sure. He gathered himself for the confrontation he knew would come.
It did not come out right away. Mystic wondered what kind of game it might be playing with him. They usually didn’t wait this long to attack. He shuddered. In general, the quicker the attack, the easier it was to dispense. Now, he waited, wondering what he would soon have to face.
The shadow at the edge of the bed began to slowly thicken. He held his breath and waited. The last thing he wanted to do was move too quickly and lose the edge of surprise. Something told him he would need every advantage he could muster this time. The shadow continued to grow, moving across the carpet, slowly obscuring rocket ships and weightless astronauts as it went.
Mystic began to wonder if it would ever take shape. It shifted and turned, but refused to define itself. Mystic found it difficult to tell just how far it extended across the floor. The tendrils of thought he had used before were now carefully hidden deep inside the point of thought within, and even that point was shielded, hiding until the last moment when all would be revealed. The shadow knew he was out there somewhere – it had felt the stab of pain just as surely as Mystic had – but with any luck, it had no idea where.
“I know you are there,” the hissing voice floated in the darkness, “and sooner or later I will find you. What then of the boy?”
Mystic held his breath. He knew the tricks. He knew the lies. He had been through all this before. Now the game was one of waiting, waiting to see who would make the first mistake.
Something felt familiar about that voice, though.
“Have you grown afraid of me yet, or do you still think you are brave?”
Mystic said nothing.
“You have memorized the rules of the game well, for one of such small stature. I am impressed.”
A slow ripple spread through the gathering darkness, beginning at the far edges of the room and slowly converging towards the center of the carpet, like the rings on the surface of a still pond when a pebble is thrown there, only traveling backwards, towards the center. Like those rings, they grew in strength until they collapsed into a splash of darkness that rose out of the exact center until it stood there looking Mystic straight in the eye.
Now he knew what had been so familiar about the voice.
“You have come again.”
The worm nodded its head and smiled. Its entire length was covered with interlocking scales that glistened in the dim light. Transparent wings fluttered in a breath of air too delicate for even the unicorn to feel. Most of its body lay neatly coiled on the carpet, but its slender head was held high, level with the top of the dresser where Mystic lay. In this light, it almost looked like a serpent with wings, but Mystic knew that it was far more poisonous than any mortal creature that had ever eaten the dust of this world. A double row of spikes ringed its neck and tapered off down its back, blood red, in sharp contrast with the inky blackness of the rest of its body. It blinked its glowing green eyes at Mystic.
“You knew I would return.” The voice was soft and sweet.
“It’s been a long time. I thought perhaps…”
“You thought perhaps you’d finally done me in for good?” it laughed. “Silly little thing. You never seem to learn, do you?” Mystic shivered at the sound of the voice, just as he had shivered every time before. He struggled to force the fear behind him.
“I have learned much since last we met.” Mystic slowly rose on his stubby legs. Half of the yarn in his tail had been torn out, but what was left he slowly swished from side to side.
“Very impressive, my little unicorn” the worm cooed. It had no arms or legs, but Mystic knew better than to think the worm was slow to strike. The neat coils of its body hid its true length of more than four full arm spans of a grown man. “But, aren’t we getting a little ratty around the edges? I’ve seen you in much better form than this before.”
“And you are telling me this? Do you forget to whom you speak?”
“No. I know who you are.”
“Then say my name.”
The worm chuckled. “Well at least you have not forgotten that lesson.”
Mystic pawed at the worn wooden surface of the dresser top. Careful… Slowly… He did not wish this battle to be lost because he was over-anxious.
The worm turned its head slowly to the boy and Mystic tensed.
“Another one?” it sighed. “No my friend, you do not learn. I’m afraid you have learned nothing at all.” It did not move towards Brian, but Mystic could feel every fiber in his being focus on the short space between the worm and the boy. “How long have you been here?”
“I… don’t remember,” Mystic hesitated. “Does it matter?”
“One year, one month, one week and one day. And yes, it does matter.”
“It is one day longer than last time.”
At first, Mystic didn’t understand, but then it hit him.
“Yes,” the worm sensed the flash within Mystic’s memory. “The other boy. What was his name?”
“Cedric, and even I can’t protect them from everything!”
“He was such a nice boy.” The worm sank towards the floor, just enough to be dramatic. “Such a nice boy. What finally happened to him anyway?”
“I’d rather not dwell on it.”
“Ah,” the creature’s head shot back towards him, “but you do dwell on it! You think about it every day.”
“People make choices. His choice was to follow the darkness.”
“His choice was to follow me!” the worm spat at him.
“His choice…” Mystic faltered. He had no idea how to answer. How many times had he gone over his own actions, his failure? He had been there to protect, to fight off the darkness, to bring light and truth, to spread peace and safety, and still the boy had refused. The walls of the closet where he had been carelessly tossed were not nearly as thick or impenetrable as the walls of lies and hatred that had grown up around Cedric. He had watched the boy grow for years after that, waiting for some chance to escape the confines of his prison, seeing the walls grow thicker and thicker every painful day. He had sworn to never let it happen again.
“This time will be different, you say?” An ugly grin formed on the worm’s lips. “This time you will not make the same mistakes?”
“It was not my mistake.”
The worm shook its head, sending a soft ripple through the wings that floated at his sides. “Then whose mistake was it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Then what have you learned?” The worm bent towards Brian’s sleeping form. “How will this time be different from any other time?”
Mystic reared on his hind legs and pawed at the air with his tiny hooves as bright swirls of color spun around his form. Sparks flew in all directions, hissing on the floor where they touched the edges of the shadow. Dingy cloth rippled and grew. Tattered yarn flowed into tail and mane. Embroidered eyes glistened with fire and life. His horn flashed bright gold in the night. At the same time, the walls of the room shuddered and then were gone. The spaceman carpet was replaced by a sea of stars, and spinning points of light swam around them. All that was left of the room was the bed, the crumpled covers, and the sleeping boy. In seconds, the stuffed toy had been transformed into a full grown unicorn, twenty hands tall.
Mystic leapt into the space between the bed and the worm.
“This is where the difference begins.” Instead of the airy whisper of the small stuffed toy, the voice of the unicorn rolled like distant thunder. “Prepare yourself!” He lowered his horn towards the worm.
“For what?” The beast made no attempt to move. “Have I ever not been prepared? You’ll have to do better than that to frighten me, little one.”
“I have not waited here all these nights to frighten you but to destroy you.”
The worm laughed again. “Even you know that I cannot be destroyed. Your foolish words mean nothing to me.”
“Then be damned!”
Mystic lunged, but the worm spun away like a breath of mist. The unicorn swung his horn around and caught the edge of one of the worm’s wings, but it twisted away before the horn could do any real damage.
“See, you have grown slow and fat over the years,” the worm mocked, beating its wings. “A sorry excuse for a protector. Any plans for retirement soon?”
“When you and your brood are crushed fine as dust, and there is no memory of your existence, even then I will not retire,” Mystic forced through clenched teeth, “for I will spend the rest of eternity rejoicing over your death.”
“Tisk, tisk. Such vile thoughts of revenge. Who would have thought you capable of them?”
The unicorn lunged again, this time feigning to the left, and then twisting right just as the worm turned the same way. He went wide of the scrawny body, but horn met with translucent wing, and the worm hissed as a gaping hole opened up.
This time, the worm struck back. Mystic had been paying careful attention to the head, remembering the lethal fangs hidden behind the smiling lips, but he forgot to watch the long tail that still lay coiled under the bed. It lashed out at his back, and he screamed in pain as the row of spines left a poisoned gash deep in his hindquarters.
“You have forgotten my sting?” the worm laughed in glee. “Then I will remind you. Do you wish to beg mercy yet?”
“You too have forgotten much. I will die before I kneel.”
The tail lashed at Mystic again, but he danced away. “You will die a fool then!” the worm spat. “I have grown stronger – stronger than you will ever imagine.”
“You have feasted on the blood of countless victims,” Mystic hurled back, “but with every drop of blood you have simply wasted away. There is almost nothing left of you now. You are consuming yourself. I may die this night, but I will not die in vain, for I will know that I have brought your end that much closer.”
“Small comfort for someone who is dead.”
“It is enough.”
At this, the worm flung itself at the unicorn, fangs bare, wings spread, eyes burning with hate, but Mystic was ready this time. He had learned. He reared, and the serpent’s strike grazed his ankle, but failed to sink home. Instead, even as the searing pain raced up his leg, Mystic brought the razor edges of his hooves crashing down on the worm’s back. With a thrust born of a thousand years of practice, he neatly severed the worm’s head. The rest of the body convulsed once, and then went still. As Mystic watched, it slowly shriveled and turned to dust. Only the head remained, its green eyes glaring back at him. Then, with a final hiss, it too turned to dust and vanished.
Mystic had only a moment to catch his breath as the stars swirled around him again, tracing the dim outline of a bedroom. The morning light was already poking at the edges of the window as the room came into focus. There was a brief flash of light, and once again the tattered and stained form of a stuffed toy slumped atop the dresser.
A woman’s voice floated up the stairs. “Brian… It’s time to get up, honey.”
A groan emerged from the heap on the bed.
“Your breakfast is ready.”
Another groan, this time only slightly more audible than before.
“…and there’s a fresh layer of snow outside.”
Movement. An open eye. Head up, nose pressed against the window, breath condensing on cold glass.
In a moment, the boy was out of bed. It was obvious from the stumbling around that he was not fully awake, but it wouldn’t take long. A small hand shot over the edge of the dresser and Mystic suddenly found himself eye to eye with a smiling boy.
“Come on Mystic! Its time to fly!”