Crimson blood stained the noble beast's silver fur. It spread out from his neck, making a pool on the black marble floor. The Shadow Warrior's lance had left Thomas untouched, but had gored his faithful steed.
From the throne, Jezrac surveyed the scene. His skull-face was impassive, but his disembodied laugh echoed around the Castle of Darkness.
Thomas pulled himself to his feet and looked at the Shadow Warrior. The hero's tearstained visage terrified the dark creature's craven heart. It panicked; dropped its lance and struck out wildly with its sword. Thomas pressed his advantage and thrust with the Sunspear. When its point touched it, the dark-forged blade shattered. Thomas longed to slay the evil creature, but true to his vow, he could not slay an unarmed foe. Instead, he struck the warrior on the chest with the shaft of his spear, hard enough to knock him from his horse. He fell almost willingly.
The remaining six warriors fell in as many blows, and Thomas stood before the Throne Of Darkness.
For the first time looked directly upon his nemesis and upon the thing that he had sought for seventeen years.
The orb rested on a stand in front of Jezrac's dark throne. Thomas had never realised that it would be so bright. His Sunspear's point was forged from a stolen fragment of the orb and that light had lightened his long journey through the Lands Of Darkness. And now he looked upon the source of that fragment; upon the source of all light.
It was more beautiful than anything he had seen in his long journey; and more terrible too. In that moment he forgot Jezrac and his Quest and the mortal peril that he stood in. He could think of nothing but the Orb and he could not look away from it.
Jezrac seized his moment. Though his Shadow Warriors had failed him he still wielded the Nightsword with which he had slain the Solar Guardian. He rose from the Dark Throne and savoured the moment, hesitating a mere second before bringing the weapon down upon the head of Thomas Daystar.
On the marble floor the Unicorn opened its green eyes. Perhaps in that moment it saw the terrible weapon poised above the head of its master. Perhaps it merely acted out of instinct. The wounded beast pulled itself up onto its fragile legs and leaned back its mighty, horned head . . .
And there in that moment of death in the Castle at the Edge of the World Thomas Daystar and Jezrac Light-thief became the first mortals ever to hear a Unicorn's death song.
The sound dragged Thomas away from the orb. Though it contained the stolen light of three suns, it seemed pale and dim. It was if the light that he had sought for so long dwelt, not in the orb, but in the dying beast's music. Having heard that sound, he knew that he could never again be a warrior: that he would sell his armour to buy a harp and spend the rest of his life trying to tease some tiny echo of that noise from its strings.
Jezrac recoiled from the sound. He dropped his sword, and screamed as one in agony, he trying to cover his grinning, staring face with his hands.
The song ended. Thomas faced Jezrac, pointing the Sunspear at his heartless breast.
Jezrac had recovered himself. He picked the orb up from its resting place. His black gauntlets hissed and smouldered with the heat. His flesh and skin had long since burned away; the bones beneath were blackened to charcoal. Only his desire for the Orb kept him alive.
'Mine' he whispered, as he held it to his breast. 'Mine only, mine always, mine alone.'
Only now did Thomas understand what he had to do.
'Neither yours, nor mine. Not even the Solar Guardian's. There was a time, Jezrac, when the light was everywhere; when it rose with the suns each morning and was shared between all the moons each night. When men didn't huddle around fires in the cold of everlasting night. When plants grew and animals grazed. Those days should never have ended. Here and now, Jezrac, I call them back.'
He smashed the Sunspear into the Orb. It shattered.
The light poured out.
It flowed from the windows of the Castle at the Edge of the World streaming in great rays between the bars of the adamantine portcullis.
In that holy, pure, stolen light, Jezrac could not stand. His blackened skeleton crumbled before it and his armour fell to the ground in pieces.
Thomas turned to look at the body of his friend, but the Unicorn's corpse was gone. There was nothing left of him but a silver hoof print. Perhaps the legend of the Unicorn's graveyard was true, after all. It hardly mattered. In time, he would grieve for his friend; but this was not an hour for mourning.
He left the Sunspear with Jezrac's armour and the empty, broken orb. He opened the great doors. And then he stepped out of the Castle of Darkness.
Into the light.
It was well after midnight and the brandy wasn't helping him sleep. But when the doorbell rang and he opened the door and he found himself looking at the man with the silver face, for some reason, he hadn't been particularly surprised.
'I'd like to do business with you,' said the man, in a quiet, reasonable voice.
Geoff panicked. 'I was a child. You dropped it; I picked it up, I gave it back to you. I only looked at it for a second. That was the end of it. I don't owe you anything.'
'Perhaps you do, and perhaps you don't. Either way, please believe me when I say that I have no intention of claiming it.' He half smiled. 'Little Geoff. Do you really think that I am some papier mache Mephistopheles?'
'What else are you here for?'
'Because I have something you want. Something you have been looking for some years.'
Geoffrey's first inclination was to tell the Silver Man that he should do business through his agent, that he himself had no head for dealing with these things. He thought it would be amusing to explain to his hard-nosed agent that he wanted to strike a deal with an old day-dream. Instead, he invited the Silver-Faced Man in to his studio. The man seemed amused at the computer, the expensive furniture, and the toys. Geoffrey ground fresh mocha, and poured the man a cup. The man thanked him, but did not drink any of it.
'You still have it, then?' asked Geoffrey.
The man opened the battered leather brief case and took out a box; varnished wood, with a brass knob on each side. He blew the dust off, polished the lid with the sleeve of his raincoat, undid a catch and opened it. It was lined with red silk, like an expensive jewellery box. In it was a clear gemstone, about the size of an orange.
He clicked the box shut almost immediately.
'Is it the same one?'
'Its smaller than I remember it being.'
'A lot of time has passed.'
Geoff was already reaching for his cheque book. 'How much?'
The Silver Man brushed it aside and looked thoughtful. 'There are people in the world', he said 'who could tell you the winning number of tomorrow's Lottery. But they won't.'
'They care about higher things than money?'
'There would be no point. The cost of the spell would be its value. They could use magic to make a particular horse win a particular race, or to look into the future and find out which horse was fated to win. They could earn perhaps ten thousand pounds by placing a wager. But the spell would cost ten thousand pounds to cast, so what would it profit them. As a matter of fact, I don't believe in magic. But I work on the same basis. You can have the gem. But you must pay me what it is worth.'
'What is it worth?'
The Silver Man gestured around the room. 'How much did your books earn you last year?'
'About £4.5 million. We expect more this year, from the film.' Geoffrey felt sick for a moment. Even now he was a very rich man, he found spending money intensely difficult. Not out of greed. More out of misplaced guilt.
'A lot of money,' said the Silver Man. 'But then, it is a very pretty stone.'
'It's a terrible thing to have happened.' Geoffrey picked one of the plastic unicorns off his desk and turned it over in his hand. It usually gave him pleasure to look at them, but not today. You can't grieve for someone you have never met but he'd spent the day feeling sick and empty, starting trivial tasks and being unable to finish them. 'My heart just goes out to that kid's parents. How could anyone have known that a film was going to have that sort of effect?'
'Do you feel guilty about what happened?' asked the reporter.
'I feel bad about it. But I don't feel it was my fault. I've had letters from hippies who've turned the Darklands into some sort of a religion. I feel bad about that, but I don't feel that I'm to blame. That's not why I wrote the books. Some people take things awfully seriously. Maybe if it hadn't been Unicorn Paladins that had sent him over the edge, it would have been something else.'
'But it wasn't something else.'
'No, it wasn't.'
He showed her out, wondering what fictions she would invent about him for the next morning's paper.
There were dozens of teenaged suicides every year. When he'd been at school, a kid had jumped in front of the fast train from London to York on the night before his 'A' level results. He'd thought he was going to fail maths, apparently. He'd got a 'B'. Nobody tried to blame Pythagoras. He'd been sixteen. The dead American kid was only eleven. His father had found him with his brains blown out. Thank God people didn't have guns in this country.
When things like this happen, everyone says 'Why?' Geoffrey kept telling himself that the real answer was 'For no reason'. The world was a fundamentally shitty place.
That was why books like his sold so well.
Please don't be sad, or blame me. I love you and Dad very much, but I love the Darklands more
The toy that he was holding started to make an unpleasant electronic sound. He fumbled to find the off switch. It was the one that had the electronics inside it, so that if a kid held it for long enough some sort of heat sensitive battery would come on, and its eyes would light up, and it would 'sing'. There were dozens of unicorn toys scattered more or less at random around his study, some still in the boxes. The biggest was three feet tall, a sort of hobby horse. It came complete with a Sun Gun (following the cartoon which was somewhat less faithful to the book than the movie had been) and a suit of plastic armour which fitted all ages up to thirteen. It would cost a working man half a weeks wages. Geoffrey thought these things were wasted on children.
Sometimes, he thought the toys pleased him more than the film, the fame or the money. Money is abstract. The sums of money that his agent quoted at him were unreal: he already had a house and a computer and stereo and cars wildly beyond his own needs. Perhaps if he had a wife and kids it would feel different. You can't hold fame in your hands. He'd been excited, of course, sitting in that plush preview cinema, watching as his characters — or at any rate, things noticeably resembling them — coming to life in Dolby Stereo. But he somehow wanted them to be more real than that; wanted to be able to reach out through the screen, and grab one of them, and take it home. When a new 'merchandising line' arrived for him to approve, he felt as if he was doing just that. Every kid who went to the movies felt the same way, of course. That was why they manufactured 'action figures'.
This unicorn didn't look too much like the one in the film, of course, but then ILM had spent quite a lot more than half a weeks wages on that one. For the sequel, they were redesigning the unicorn to look more like the toy.
It had been the last Sunday of the last week of the summer holidays, in between finishing primary school and starting at what he was desperately careful not to call Big School. It wasn't Autumn but the Summer was over. He's been wandering aimlessly in the park, his mind full of unspecified fears and strange excitements. His old school overlooked the park; it already seemed completely unreal to him: as if it had been someone else who had gone there, or as if he had dreamt about it.
He'd gone to what they called the woods, a handful of trees, barely enough to block out the sunlight. He'd sat down by what they called the river, a muddy brook that only the most optimistic of his friends even bothered to fish in. He was intending to maybe read another chapter of his book while he threw stones at the water. He was pretty sure that the book - full of words like 'tuck shop' and 'rugger' - was pure fantasy, but he couldn't shake the sense that the world it depicted was real, and that his own school was a single exception to a general rule. He didn't know why he read such things.
The first stone hadn't made much of a plop, so he threw another. He looked about for a bigger one. Then he saw something strange.
A large, shiny stone; as big as an orange, although not smooth or perfectly round. It was far too pretty to throw. Perhaps he had discovered a diamond? Or perhaps there was a whole mine, here, in the park, that no-one knew about? He was pretty sure he was supposed to stake a claim, but he didn't know how. He wondered if his Dad would know or if he would have to go to the library and look it up in an encyclopaedia.
He looked at the stone. For a second, he thought that there was something moving inside it.
'Mine, I think.'
There was a man standing behind him. The mere presence of a grown-up made Geoff feel that he was doing something wrong. The man held his hand out and Geoff handed the gem to him, as instinctively as if he had been handing a valued toy to an angry teacher.
'I didn't mean any harm.'
'I'm sure you didn't.'
'I found it by the river. Is it yours?'
'Can I look at it again?'
'If you really want to.'
Geoff did; more than anything else he could think of. The man held out the gem in his cupped hands, and Geoff looked at it. There really was something moving inside it. It was like a tiny television, or a witch's crystal ball. He could only bring the image into focus for a second. There was a man - a knight - riding a unicorn. They were riding through woods; and they seemed to be chasing something: a bright light, in the far distance.
'Can I hold it?'
'If you must.'
Geoff held it, very carefully. It felt strange; it made him feel strange: like crying, but not in a sad way. He looked into the gem, but the man and the horse had gone.
'Can I . . .have it?'
'No,' said the man. 'Never.'
After the man had gone, and taken the gem with him, Geoff started to wonder why his face had seemed so shiny: as if it was made of metal; as if he had been wearing a mask. He wandered about the park until it got dark, thinking about. . .things. Then he went home.
Had you asked him, he would have said that he had never given it another moment's thought.
The Silver Man sat in the hotel armchair; Geoff stood. The man took the box out of his briefcase and put it on the coffee table between them.
Geoff handed over huge piles of paper work; signing over the rights to all revenues from the Darklands trilogy and the Unicorn Paladins TV show; deeds to various properties; and a cheque for several millions of pounds. He'd handled the finances himself, so that his accountant wouldn't be able to tell his analyst that something had finally pushed him over the edge and was staying in a fairly comfortable hotel under an assumed name.
'I assume that you're swindling me', said Geoff.
'I am selling you something that you have sold many times over. Something which you have been trying to buy for twenty years. You will certainly never be happy without it. These papers appear to be in order.'
The Silver Man clicked open the box, to show that the gem was intact and then closed it again. He put the papers into his brief case, stood up, and opened the door.
'Thank you, Geoff. It wouldn't surprise me if we bump into each other again.'
When the Silver Man was gone, Geoff opened the box, and picked up the gem. Under the artificial light it did not seem as beautiful as it had in the sunlight. Nevertheless it was finally his.
And there really were things moving in it.
Seventeen years ago, he had looked into it, for a few seconds. That momentary glimpse had been the basis for the stories that had made him a rich man. And now he was looking at it directly; the source of all his stories, of all his wealth. It was more beautiful than anything he had ever imagined; and more terrible, too.
He found he couldn't look away.
The Silver Man returned to the hotel room the next day. He picked up the gem from where Geoff had dropped it. He left the file containing Geoff's papers, which seemed only fair.
Very carefully, he put the gem back into its box, stealing only the briefest of glances at it.
Long practice meant that he could see the images very clearly. It was late summer. A man of about a thirty, and a boy of eleven were in a wood, by brook. They were sorting through piles of pebbles, and digging in the mud, as if they were searching for something. There was a bloodstain on the boys shirt.
The Silver Man shut the box. Half smiling, he picked up one of the toys, and put it, with the box, into his brief case. As he left, he switched out the light.