Rand walked the streets wrapped in a cloak of darkness. Beneath his hood, shadows pooled in the hard creases at the corners of his mouth. He wore no metal, nothing that could so much as glimmer and give him away. His footsteps fell so silently, he might have been a wraith made of darkness itself. Yet the ever-present pain that gnawed at his leg reminded him that he was very much flesh and bone.
The streets he patrolled tonight were as black as they were quiet. Above him, the sky was shrouded in thick darkness. Only the oldest people in the city could still remember the days when the night sky was full of stars, the sun lit up the day with unveiled splendour, and there was nothing to be afraid of. As a child, Rand used to be enraptured by those stories. Once he grew up, however, he realized it was pointless to wish for something that would never be again.
Rand carefully scanned the houses, watching for any flicker of light from behind the thick curtains that covered the windows. He glanced warily up at the sky, eyeing the circling shadows that wheeled on lazy wings, and tightened his grip on his crossbow.
From a narrow alley he had just passed, his keen ears picked up a quiet but unmistakable sound: the sharp scritch of a match being struck. Rand turned on a dime and plunged into the alley. There, at the end, a small child crouched, holding a lit match. Her free hand was cupped over the flame, hiding it from above, and her gaunt face glowed in the flickering light.
In an instant, Rand closed the distance between them and knocked the match out of the girl's hand. Startled, she let out a scream, and Rand clamped his hand over her mouth. He crushed the match with his boot.
“Idiot girl,” he whispered. “What were you thinking?”
Indignantly, the girl pried his fingers off her mouth. “I hurt my foot and I wanted to see how bad it was.”
Rand glanced down at her bare feet. Whatever her injury was, it wasn’t serious enough to be visible in the darkness. “I can guarantee it’s not as bad as what the vultures will do if they find you. Light means death, understand?”
The girl opened her mouth to say something, but at that moment a long, unearthly shriek sounded from somewhere above them, dangerously close. Rand stood up and pointed his crossbow at the sky. “Stay behind me,” he warned.
A vast expanse of wings momentarily blotted out the sky between the walls of the alley, and a vulture settled on the edge of the building, peering down into the alley. The creature was huge and hideous, with a sharp, cruel beak made for tearing flesh and talons that could wrap around a child's waist or rip through the roof of a house. The monster's beady eyes fixed on Rand and the girl with a look of insatiable hunger. It gave a squawk and began to spread its wings to swoop down on them. Then it pitched forward and plummeted to the ground with Rand's crossbow bolt buried in its chest, crashing to ruin with its ragged wings outstretched. The vulture let out a dying croak, gave one violent twitch, and then lay still.
After listening for a moment to make sure there no others nearby, Rand turned back to the girl, who was staring wide-eyed at the monstrous corpse. “You must never light matches outside at night,” he told her sternly. “Only at home, behind thick curtains. Understand?”
“But I don’t have a home,” she whined.
“That’s not my concern, is it? If senseless people like you keep bringing the vultures down on us, none of us will have homes.”
The girl stuck out her chin. “When the Lightmaker comes, he’ll scare all the vultures away,” she said confidently.
Rand turned to leave the alley, shaking his head. If believing in folk tales made her feel better, he wouldn’t argue with her. “Just don’t let me catch you lighting matches again,” he said.
Back on the street, he yawned and shook the weariness from his limbs. Just a few more hours, and then the murky grey sunrise would send the vultures back to their nests, and he would go home and sleep until evening.
He felt a tugging on his cloak, and turned in exasperation to see that the street child had followed him. She was looking up at him with big eyes and a practiced pout on her hungry features.
“Please, sir, could you spare something to eat?”
Rand sighed and reached into the pouch at his waist. Wordlessly he handed her a handful of almonds.
“Thank you, kind Night Patrol man,” she said, flashing him a look of radiant gratitude as she shoved the almonds into her mouth.
Rand was about to turn away when a flash of light reflected in her eyes caught his attention. From the sky behind him came a strange and terrible sound of searing and burning unlike anything he’d heard before, drowning out the vultures’ distant cries. He whirled around. The light he’d glimpsed in the girl’s eyes was a brilliant blaze of white-hot fire, brighter than the sun. It streaked across the sky over the city with a sound that was almost deafening, and for a few seconds the streets were illuminated with white light, bright as lightning. Then it disappeared somewhere beyond the city, leaving the world in darkness again.
Rand blinked hard, trying to banish the white streak that was seared across his vision. As the night reclaimed its silence, the sound of the vultures above him began to seep through the darkness. It sounded like all of them were shrieking at once, a clamoring chorus of rage and hunger.
Panic edged through him like a knife, making his heart race and his leg throb painfully. The falling light, whatever it was, had done the equivalent of throwing a rock into a beehive. Worse, it had fully exposed the city he worked so hard to keep concealed. For a few long seconds, terror swept over him with such ferocity that he was completely paralyzed.
Then his senses returned. He looked down at the girl beside him, who was still staring up at the sky in slack-jawed wonder. “Move,” he commanded, planting his hand on her shoulder and giving her a shove toward the narrow alley. “Find a place to hide. They're coming.”
Without looking back, Rand turned and ran into the city, toward the Night Patrol’s mustering point. They would be coming together, he knew, from all over the city to defend the city as best as they could from the oncoming assault. Above him, the shrieks of the vultures were growing closer at an alarming rate.
“Wait,” the girl called after him. “Don’t you want to find out what it was?”
Rand muttered a curse under his breath and wheeled to face her. Instead of obeying his instructions like any sensible person would do, she was still following him.
“It doesn’t matter what it was,” he said fiercely. “It lit up the whole city. Do you know what that means?”
Around him, he saw the furtive flickering of curtains as people peered outside, anxious to know what had caused the bright light and sound. These were the people who trusted him to protect them, night after night. Now, the air was thick with fear. He could almost smell it.
The girl, apparently, could not. “It means something’s come to save us,” she said. Then, to Rand’s horror, she took off running in the direction the light had gone.
“Hey! Stop! Come back!” he called, but she gave no heed.
Rand cursed again. His protective instincts told him to go after her. But every moment he wasted trying to save this dim-witted street child, his chances of defending the city dwindled. The other members of the Night Patrol needed him. They would need all their strength tonight.
Then again, they were probably all doomed no matter what he did.
“Come back here!” he shouted again, and ran after the girl as fast as he could.
He should have been able to catch up with her easily, but the old wound in his leg was acting up – now, of all nights? – and she remained ahead of him as he limped through the streets. He glanced up, saw a churning mass of black wings descending on the city, and decided not to risk calling out to her again.
He chased the girl to the edge of the city and out into the hills, knowing that she was probably a lost cause and he should leave her to her fate. Out here in the open, there was no place to hide.
A white glow came from behind a hill. All of Rand’s instincts screamed at him to run away, as far from the light as possible. Instead, he followed the girl as she raced up the hill and stopped short.
Rand reached the top of the hill and stopped beside her, breathing heavily. He looked down to see where the light was coming from. For a moment, he forgot all about the vultures.
The light was coming from a dazzling creature unlike any he'd ever seen. It looked like a huge, radiant horse, except for a long, spiraling horn that rose from its forehead, shining like a luminous pearl.
The girl began to walk toward the Unicorn. The creature gazed at her steadily as she approached, until she stood directly in front of it, her face illuminated by the white glow.
“Lightmaker,” she said in an awed whisper.
The Unicorn bent its head to look her in the eye.
“What is your name?”
Rand was startled to hear the Unicorn speak. Its voice was deep and rich, smooth as amber.
“Nell,” said the girl.
The Unicorn bent its head still lower. “You’re hurt,” it said, and in its light Rand could see the cut on the girl’s foot.
“I stepped on some glass,” she said. “I don’t have any shoes.”
“May I heal it?” asked the Unicorn.
“You can do that?” said Nell.
Slowly, the Unicorn lowered its head and gently touched its horn to Nell’s foot. The horn flashed with sudden light like the striking of a match, and the light leapt into her foot. Nell gasped. When the flare subsided, the cut was gone and Nell was glowing softly.
Rand blinked and stared, wondering if his eyes were playing tricks on him. To his dismay, they were not. A soft white light was emanating from every part of the girl’s body.
Amazed, Nell looked up and said in a hushed voice, “Thank you.”
The Unicorn lifted its gaze and looked directly at Rand, who had watched the scene unfold with growing horror. The creature seemed to think it had done Nell a favour by turning her into a walking lantern.
“Rand,” said the Unicorn. “You too are wounded. Let me heal you.”
As if in response, his leg throbbed sharply.
“You were wounded,” continued the Unicorn, “bravely defending your city. But the time for hiding in shadows has past.”
Rand looked directly into the Unicorn’s luminous eyes, and for one delirious, half-crazed second, he allowed himself to fall under the beast’s spell. A ridiculous sense of bravery and hope filled him like a warm light. If the Unicorn truly was the Lightmaker from the stories, anything was possible. The darkness could dissipate. The vultures could be driven off. The city could be free from the shadow of fear, like it was all those years ago.
Then a flash of dark wings caught his attention, and a ghastly screech split the night. Rand returned to his senses, and all the instincts he’d honed over the years protecting his city came rushing back. Light was dangerous. Light made them a target. And the vultures were swarming around them now – clearly afraid of the unicorn’s light, but full of malice and hunger that would soon overcome their fear.
Rand rushed forward, snatched up Nell, and wrapped his cloak around her. Then he ran up the hill with her in his arms, ignoring her muted cries of protest, trying to put as much distance as he could between them and the dangerously glowing Unicorn.
He reached the top of the hill and stopped to catch his breath, leaning on his good leg. A vulture’s shriek behind him made him turn around.
Amid the descending swarm of monsters, the Unicorn stood watching him, motionless as if it was made of glass. The expression on its face was serene and beautiful and deeply sad, and Rand was stricken to the bone. He found himself unable to look away. The Unicorn never broke his gaze, not even when a vulture dove, sank its talons into his back, and began to tear at its flesh with its beak. The others began to close in with a chorus of hungry shrieks. Still the Unicorn didn’t move.
Nell was wriggling, trying to poke her head out of the cloak.
“No,” said Rand hoarsely, holding her tightly under the cloak. “You don’t want to watch this.”
Now, it seemed, every vulture in the sky was descending in force on the noble creature. Soon its light was lost beneath the ravaging horde. Rand’s leg gave another painful twinge. He vividly remembered the sensation of the vulture’s talons closing on his leg, tearing through the flesh and into the bone as it lifted him into the air. He would have suffered the same fate as the Unicorn that night if another member of the Night Patrol hadn’t come to his rescue. Nausea twisted his gut. This was why they had to stay in the dark.
With an immense effort, he turned around and began to slowly walk back toward the city. The sky above the city was clear; it seemed all the vultures had been drawn to the Unicorn’s light. At the very least, it would buy them time. Maybe they still had a chance to survive the night.
Then Nell began to scream and struggle. “Go back!” she yelled. “We have to save the Unicorn!”
“We can’t,” said Rand bleakly. “We’ll be lucky if we get through this with our own lives.”
The girl kept thrashing and shouting, until at last she slipped from his grasp and fell to the ground. He saw that the light coming from beneath her skin had not subsided. She scrambled to her feet, but before she could start running, he tackled her to the ground and flung his cloak over her again.
“Let me go!” she screamed, fighting him with all her might.
“I’m trying to save your life!” said Rand through gritted teeth. “The Unicorn is dead! The vultures ripped it apart and they’ll do the same to you!”
Abruptly, Nell stopped fighting and went limp, burying her face in her hands. She began to sob.
Rand swallowed down a pang of guilt. The world was a brutal place, and if Nell was going to survive, she had to face the truth.
It was dark now, and quiet again except for the distant sounds of the vultures behind the hill. For a moment, Rand himself was overwhelmed with grief for the beautiful creature. He closed his eyes and allowed himself ten seconds of weakness. Ten seconds. Then he would get up and go back and keep fighting the endless battle to protect his city.
One. Two. Three.
A blinding flash of light seared the insides of his eyelids. He threw his hands over his face.
When he dared to crack open his eyes, the world had utterly transformed.
The air was filled with blazing light and the anguished screams of vultures. The light was coming from behind the hill, like the brightest sunrise he’d ever seen. All around, the vultures were scattering, like dry leaves driven before a strong wind.
Then to Rand’s utter astonishment, over the crest of the hill came the Unicorn, alive and whole, charging forward at a full gallop. A blinding beam of light shone from its horn, splitting the darkness like a sword.
Rand couldn’t believe what he was seeing. The Unicorn was actually scaring the vultures away. Even more incredible, the thick veil of darkness that covered the sky was disintegrating. Pinpricks of silver light appeared in the blackness.
The Unicorn stopped twenty paces from them and gave a mighty shake of its mane. Flecks of light scattered into the air like rippling shards of the sun.
With a cry of delight, Nell jumped to her feet, rushed forward, and flung her arms around the Unicorn’s neck. The beast nuzzled her affectionately.
Then the Unicorn lifted its head and turned its gaze to Rand. This time, he couldn’t resist the spell. He walked forward. The Unicorn’s eyes danced with joy. Slowly, it bent its head and touched Rand’s leg with its horn.
He gasped and closed his eyes against the sudden surge of heat and light. The flash faded slowly, leaving him buzzing with strength and warmth. The pain in his leg had vanished. He felt as though he could run forever.
Then the Unicorn spoke, and its voice rumbled with concealed strength like the first thunder peal of a mighty storm.
“The light lives in you now. Are you ready to fight?”
“Yes,” said Nell firmly.
“Then follow me,” said the Unicorn, and it began to run. Rand dropped his crossbow and his cloak and followed, with Nell running beside him. Brightness was flooding out of his skin.
“Darkness was your shield,” said the Unicorn as it galloped, in a voice that grew like thunder as the storm broke. “Now light is your weapon.”
The man, the girl, and the Unicorn ran over the hills toward the city like living stars, and the shadows fled before them.