Something was moving in the forest. Beck didn’t know what it was but it scared him.
He bit his lip, keeping himself from crying out with some effort. Of course there was something moving. Plenty of magical creatures lived in the forest, silence would be impossible, day or night.
There were monsters in the woods, though. Everybody knew that. Terrible monsters that would eat you as soon as look at you, and that had enormous spines, and teeth and claws. They were the reason that nobody was allowed in the Forest, why the electric fence kept curious adventurers out and only let in those with a signed and sealed government pass. Like Beck did.
A loud rustle came from the bushes on his right and a small animal skittered across his path. Beck grimaced and shook his head. He’d been in Forests before, he told himself. Plenty of times. But never at night, a tiny voice in his head said. And never alone.
He wanted to whisper the light spell so badly, to break the darkness, but he knew that was the most dangerous thing to do. A light would bring who knows what dangerous creatures his way, as well as waking whatever was asleep. There would be so much attention on him the repellant charm on his Forest pass would be almost useless.
He thought back to everything he knew about the Moon-glow flower, trying to calm his nerves. It was a healing plant, not rare, just hard to get. It could only be seen by the light of the full moon and it needed a major nutrient that could only be found in rinoc droppings. Rinocs were classified as non-domestic, and so were kept in forest preserves, which meant the flower could only be found in a preserve. The Rocky Mountain Forest had a large colony of rinocs, so the Moon-glow shouldn’t be that hard to find. If the moon would only come out. But clouds had obscured it the entire time, meaning that the telltale golden glow of the flower was completely invisible. He had already spent twenty minutes in the deep darkness and he hadn’t seen it.
Beck rubbed his arms, trying to calm the goose bumps that had sprouted up all along them. He looked up at the sky, searching for some sign that the clouds would lift. None. He sighed, expelling a misty puff into the air. He would never find the Moon-glow without the light of the moon, so there was no reason to continue his search until after it appeared.
The small noises continued all around him, but they had ceased to surprise or scare him, for the most part. He cast his eyes across the ground, this time looking for a relatively safe place to spend the time. A pile of rocks rose up about four feet above the ground. Of course there were flying and climbing predators, but still, the extra height could prove useful. The real thing was the line of sight the pile would provide. There were no vines hanging over it, and any vegetation was low enough so as not to conceal any major threats.
Beck clambered up the rocks, moving with the agility of youth. The whole thing was covered with soft moss. It didn’t seem dangerous, so Beck curled up on top of it, running his hand through its soft fronds. He whispered a spell and a blue spark jumped from his fingers to the moss where it was immediately absorbed. A few seconds later the moss began to emanate a steady heat. Beck relaxed slightly. He should be safe until the moon came out. His vantage point, combined with his night-vision spell and the entrance card the caretakers had given him would thoroughly protect him. Hopefully. He settled down to wait.
It wasn’t the noise that woke him; there was no noise to hear. Rather, it was the darkness that accompanied it. Beck’s eyes flew open and he rolled over in the same motion. Right above him hovered a badige. The creature had a body that resembled a bat and a head that resembled that of a gargoyle. Its four sharp teeth were bared and on the top two poison drops were collecting. Beck knew he should cry out, to scare the beast away, but he was absolutely frozen. A heavy weight seemed to sit on his chest, over his heart. He couldn’t breath, and soon his mind began to blur. All he could do was watch in terror as the creature’s fangs came closer and closer.
Suddenly it gave a noiseless shudder that racked its entire body, its equivalent of a frantic scream, and took off, flying back to its nest. Beck sat up suddenly, taking in great gasping breaths. He sensed, more than saw a gentle light begin to glow around and below him. He crawled to the edge of the rock he was sitting on and peered down. A small, lily-like plant sat at the base of the triangle of rocks, swiftly unfurling its leaves and buds. A golden glow came from its flower.
“Moon-glow.” Beck said, barely breathing the words, “Finally.”
He climbed down the pile of rocks and grabbed the plant, pulling it out just the way his mother had taught him, from the roots, careful not to crush the leaves. He wrapped it in a silk scarf and put it in his satchel. Then he realized the moon still hadn’t come out.
In the terror of the badige and the triumph of finding the flower, Beck had completely missed the fact that the clouds still covered the sky. But the flower, wrapped safely in his satchel, was still producing a faint light. Beck turned around, searching for the source of silver light. He gasped.
Standing, half concealed by foliage, was a unicorn. It was pure white. The mane was barely distinguishable from its fur, which blended seamlessly with its hooves. The single horn on its head glowed silver, illuminating the forest in the same way the moon normally did.
Beck forgot everything, the badige, the flower, Carly, waiting for him to return. He was seeing a Unicorn. No one had seen a Unicorn for centuries. Everybody thought they had died out. But they hadn’t and one was here, right in front of him. Beck took a step forward, not thinking.
The unicorn’s eye fell on him. The great horse reared up on its legs, then dropped back to the ground. As soon as its front hooves hit the ground, it was gone. Beck blinked, and rubbed his eyes. A faint mist curled up from the spot the Unicorn had stood. It disappeared as the first light of day rose over the horizon. Beck shook his head and turned back the way he came, back to the entrance of the Forest.
The sun was just rising as Beck stepped through the door. Technically he wasn’t late. A loud buzz rang through the low building beside the gate. Almost immediately Carly appeared at the door.
“What took so long?” he asked, accusingly. George Carly was a large man, who might have been a professional football player had his life gone differently. Some people wondered how he could possibly make it his life to guide young wizards through their training. However his larger than normal features and naturally loud voice belied the fact that he was one of the best mentors of them all, having trained many successful wizards in his time.
“The moon wasn’t out.” Beck said, handing his satchel to the big man.
“Well done.” he said, peeking inside at the now closed flower. “You even got the roots out.”
Carly closed the satchel and slung it over his shoulder. From somewhere else he produced a clipboard and consulted it, flipping over a page or two and mumbling under his breath. He pulled a pen out and made a few markings on the page. Beck rubbed one leg against the other and yawned. Finally Carly put the clipboard down.
“Good job.” he said. Everything he said came out as a half shout, a little too loud for the early morning. “Technically, you pass. Although you really pushed it.”
“I told you,” Beck said, “the moon wasn’t out. Its impossible to find it without the moon.”
“Relax, kid.” Carly said. “I told you, you passed.”
Beck nodded, yawning again, and rubbing his eyes.
Carly raised an eyebrow. “You are going to sleep the entire plane ride.”
Beck shrugged. He probably would.
Carly looked sideways at him. “How did you find it, by the way?” he said. “As far as I could see, the moon never came out.”
Beck hesitated. Carly wouldn’t tell anyone about the unicorn if he asked him not to. But the walls had ears, and some things were better unsaid.
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.” he said.