The Man Who Sold the World - Igor Ljubuncic

Updated: March 9, 2019

"What is your name?"

"Vasher of Dannath."

"And what is your trade?"

"I'm a unicorn hunter."

There, that look, Vasher thought. He always got that look when he told people what he did for a living. "Among other things," he continued as he spotted a breach in the clerk's defenses. "I am renown for hunting all things magical. Dragons, faeries, goblins, you name it. I've seen them all, and I've hunted them all."

The bespectacled man bit his lip. "Wait here." He shuffled away from the desk, vanishing behind a dark red curtain.

"You do not have to do this," Edith said.

Vasher looked at his companion. The girl was scowling, her brown eyes brimming with accusation. "Have to? No. But selling wolf pelts sure isn't going to make us reach," he whispered, feeling slightly awed by the marble and gold paint of the court hall.

She shook her head.

Vasher shrugged. "Besides, we have done this many times before. Why this sudden change of heart?"

Edith looked at him from beneath her brows. A head shorter than he was, she still managed to look down on him when she was feeling angry. "Because it is different this time."

Vasher scratched his ear. "How?"

"It is the last unicorn left in the world."

"The king will see you," the clerk spoke in a clear voice, coming back.

Vasher tried to hide his smile.

"Unicorn hunter?"

Vasher kept his face solemn. "Yes, Your Eminence."

King Laszlo was silent for a long time, and Vasher was busy counting his rapid heartbeats, waiting. The ruler of Ekom was known for his ill temper and fickle mood. He would sometimes greet envoys with a welcoming hand and great generosity, and others times, he'd deal out cruel punishments, often enacted in public. Greedy merchants would be made to race pigs on all fours, arrogant emissaries were displayed in a cage above the city gates, and sometimes, they would return to their land in a wooden box. Or several.

But he was also known to reward those who pleased him.

"I have never heard of you," the king said.

Vasher was ready. "I have spent most of my time across the sea, Your Eminence."

King Laszlo rubbed his forefinger and thumb, a loud, annoying sound. "Who can vouch for you?"

"The Eunuch of Babonissia, Your Eminence."

Vasher made sure he did not nod at the flicker of recognition in the king's pale blue eyes. Everyone knew of the eunuch. And few dared invoke his name in vain.

"What has he commissioned you for?"

"A Cassuvian snake."

Vasher snapped his fingers. Edith knelt down, untied her bag, and slowly started retrieving wrapped items from within. She laid them on the cold stone floor: a dragon's paw, the skull of a red beast, the fine hide of the chameleon tiger.

"Impressive trophies," the king said.

"Thank you, Your Eminence."

The king leaned forward in his chair. "And you wish to bring me a unicorn, is that it?"

Careful now, lad! Vasher bowed his head. "I believe it will be a fitting gift for the tenth anniversary of your rule, Your Eminence."

Laszlo smiled, a dry, formal expression learned through many years of hard diplomacy. "It will be a gift, then? You seek no compensation?"

"Only what you see fit to grant me, Your Eminence."

The king stopped smiling. "I don't like traders who don't respect themselves. If you think your work is free, then you are worthless."

Vasher swallowed. There it was, he had ruined it. "I apologize, Your Eminence."

The king snorted. "Name your price."

Vasher suppressed his relief. If he'd claimed any other reason to see the king, he knew he'd have already been thrown out of the throne room, lucky to be alive and in one piece. But unicorns had their magical appeal, even to someone as formidable as King Laszlo.

"One thousand Ulash sapphires." He could feel the heat of Edith's glare on his right.

"That's a sizable sum. I had men offer me a dozen dragon heads for half that just yesterday."

Vasher kept quiet. He knew the king wasn't asking him for his opinion.

"But everyone has a dragon head mounted on their wall. I have three on my coat of arms!" The king laughed suddenly, and the flock of secretaries did their share of mimicking the ruler. "Tell me, Vasher of Dannath, who else has a unicorn horn?"

I must not lie. "The eunuch, Your Eminence."

"Anyone else?"

Vasher cleared his throat. "Prince Lambert."

The king was holding a cup of wine, sipping, but he paused when he heard the name. "That worm? You presented that leech with the horn of a unicorn?"

Vasher kept his body in a rigid, humble pose. "It was a commission, Your Eminence." He did not dare mention the names of the dozens of priests, wizards and wealthy men from across the sea. They kept their souvenirs highly secret, and there was no way King Laszlo could ever learn about them. If he did somehow, by then, Vasher would be a thousand sapphires richer and long gone from the kingdom. In fact, he intended to retire from his trade, and live the rest of his life enjoying the best wines and women his money could buy.

For a brief moment, he wondered what Edith was going to do with her share.

The king downed his wine. "Well then, another reason to seek war with that fool." The pale eyes lit up suddenly. "Are you the only unicorn hunter in the world?"

The only successful one, Vasher wanted to correct him. "Yes, Your Eminence."

"Then I shall pay you double what you ask, if you swear not to hunt again after you present me with my horn."

Vasher steadied his breath. "That is most gracious of you, Your Eminence. But it would be trickery if I were to take that oath. There is only one unicorn left in the whole world."

King Laszlo inclined his head. "Is that so?"

"Your horn would be the very last one."

"The last one," the king whispered.

Vasher waited. Edith was still glaring, but she was a loyal companion, and she would never abandon him.

This was going to be the finest job of his life. No one else knew how to trap and kill unicorns, and that made him the most sought after hunter of unique and rare things. When King Laszlo announced he sought the most legendary of trophies to commemorate the decade of his grand rule, Vasher knew exactly what to propose.

He had waited for a week to be admitted to the court and utter his name and profession. Hundreds of mercenaries and adventurists before him had been turned down, because their offers were too mundane. Some others had come up with some clever ideas, but the king wasn't interested. Less than a handful had been allowed into the throne room.

"You have your commission, Vasher of Dannath," the king spoke.

Vasher bowed gracefully, already drowning in his future wealth. "I am grateful, Your Eminence. I shall not disappoint you."

"Vasher, please, I beg you." Edith had been pestering him for almost a week now, day and night. Worst of all, she never seemed to tire. It was beyond annoying.

"No!"

"This is the last of its kind. After you've killed it, there will be none left. None. No more unicorns."

He shrugged. "The world does not need unicorns. Or dragons. Or any other beast."

Edith pursed her lips. "Has it come to this?"

Vasher frowned. She was distracting him, and he couldn't focus on the hunt. "This?"

"You have lost all sense of what is beautiful and magical. You no longer care about anything but yourself."

He put his bow down. "That's not true. I care about you."

Edith pushed a fern frond out of her face. "You do? Then let us leave this forest."

Vasher shook his head. "We cannot do that. If we abandon this hunt, King Laszlo will send his killers after us."

Edith was relentless. "You never worried about human pursuit before."

"I worry about a thousand sapphires," he said.

"You have become greedy."

Vasher exhaled loudly, and sat back down on the wet, black earth. "We've been doing this for too long. I am tired, Edith. I want us to retire."

"We have enough gold," she pleaded.

For maybe a year of gambling, women and expensive food, and then what. "We need more. Think about this, Edith. You have followed me for nine years. Don't you want anything else in your life?"

She looked sad. "I do. But not like this."

"We talked about retiring. Many times before. Remember that night in Simgad?"

Edith closed her eyes. "I am still trying to forget it."

Vasher grimaced. "We've been doing this our entire lives. We... I can't pick up another trade." He paused, trying to guess her expression in the forest light. "One last commission."

She was silent.

An encouraging sign. He quirked a smile. "Besides, I can't hunt without my friend. I need your help."

"I have always supported you, Vasher, ever since that day you found me at the river bank. Over the years, I had many lucrative offers from hunters and mercenaries to join their side, but I always followed you. Because for you, it wasn't all about profit. You used to respect your prey. But this is wrong."

"Edith, sometimes you -" He lifted a finger. "Do you hear that?"

"I do," she whispered, shifting her weight. There was a trace of eagerness on her face now. She loved the hunt as much as he did, even if she refused to admit it.

It sounded like any hoofed beast. The gentle thud of its legs against the forest litter and soft earth. But the woods had gone quiet, and the air smelled of rain. Suddenly, it was cold and humid at the same time, as if someone had breathed winter into a sultry summer twilight.

Carefully, Vasher pulled the cowl of his shimmer coat over his head. The unicorn was an elusive animal. It had an uncanny sense of sight, and all it took was the blink of an eye to spook it away. Once it saw you, it'd run far far away, and you'd never be able to track it.

But the shimmer cloak confused it.

And Vasher had other tricks, too.

If anyone asked him, it would be a whole night spent sipping ale in a dark corner of a common room before he'd even reach the part of the story where he'd bought that cloak. But he would never tell anyone, not even Edith. It wasn't something he was proud of.

Moving his hand at a snail's pace, he reached into his pocket. An egg-shaped crystal rested there, wrapped in silk. Edith had sneaked in and stolen those from the House of Colors. Rumor had it the guild master still ran a fat contract on both their heads.

Timing his breath to the beat of the hoofs, he pulled the egg out and unwrapped it. The smooth surface reflected the world around him, ancient woods and green dusk.

Inside, the egg sizzled with silver sparks.

Please, Edith mouthed.

Vasher tossed the egg over the fallen tree to their right. He didn't hear the brittle crystal shatter. But the forest lit in brilliant, blinding purple and white. Silent lightning exploded from the shards, slashing into the sagging, bearded canopies. For a few moments, the sky was dark against the backdrop of the blazing light, all color bled away, leaving behind only a quivering dance of flashing shadows.

Edith was watching mesmerized, her eyes glinting beneath the rim of her own hood.

Vasher waited as the magical lightning subsided, becoming a sizzle of flares. The forest became dark yet lucid.

Standing on the far side of the small clearing was the last unicorn.

It glowed pale pink, and it was ogling the fire of sparks with mad curiosity. The horn on its head was pulsating with all the hues of the rainbow.

A fork of lightning spiked out of the broken crystal and connected with the horn. The rainbow exploded in intensity. The unicorn whinnied, just like any horse.

It stepped closer.

Vasher waited.

He was focused now, his breathing slow and steady. He let his mind clear, he let his emotions drain. It was almost like going to sleep, the moment when dream and reality blurred, and torrents of images flooded your conscience in an instant. But you had that one thread of thought that filled you, and for Vasher, it was the kill.

He was ready. Being a good hunter meant you could bring down your prey with a single blow of your weapon. Being a great hunter meant you knew your prey's weakness, the one thing that would make it stumble into your trap.

Few people knew the secret about unicorns.

They fed on lightning.

More lightning whipped from the crystal, striking the horn, making it flash and glow. The animal lowered its head to the ground, and the stream of light became a solid arc of brilliance. The unicorn looked intoxicated, dazed, unaware.

Being a great hunter meant knowing where your prey was going to be when you made your move.

With unicorns, it was in the middle of a storm. Made by nature – or magic.

Vasher closed his callused fist on his bow. He laid his fingers on the shaft. Made from pure gold – Edith's work again – it was heavy and soft, but it was lethal to the unicorn. Moving with slow, fluid grace, he rose from behind the moss-eaten tree and aimed, his aim steady and true. The unicorn couldn't see him through the blaze of sparks, and the shimmer coat made him almost invisible.

Then, to his consternation, he saw Edith standing up, her eyes teary. She was going to ruin the opportunity!

"Don't do this," she whispered.

The unicorn raised its head, startled, alert. Its skin flared bright red with anger.

Vasher let himself blink once and released the silk string.

Vasher grimaced. It was part pain, part pure satisfaction. The bag of sapphires was heavy on his back, and the rope cinches cut into his sore shoulders. But what really hurt was the gash in his thigh.

The square in front of the palace looked different. Not smaller or dirtier, but he was no longer impressed by the huge map of the kingdom made from rare color stones, the columns, or the royal guards with their tasseled coats, gold buttons and great swords. Probably because he knew he could buy the lot of them.

He made another step toward the carriage and grimaced again. His limp was getting worse.

"You don't look too happy," Edith jibed. Her own face was locked with cool, grim smugness. And there was disappointment there, too, in those beautiful eyes. The way she looked at him now was different, ever since the hunt. She was loyal to him, and she would follow him, he knew, but not like before. She no longer revered him. Or respected him. The hunt had changed all that.

It would take many years before he earned her trust back.

Vasher couldn't summon any anger or disappointment of his own. He understood why she'd almost ruined the kill for him. But he was never one to hold grudges, and besides, the weight of the gems pressing into his spine mellowed his temper.

They had been together for so many years, inseparable in danger, misfortune and luck. They had shared sleepless nights in musty, abandoned caves, sneaked into cities hidden inside bales of hay, gambled with pirates, brawled with drunkards, and forged documents in three languages. They had also hunted together for a decade, and had tracked magical beasts and animals across the four corners of the world. He loved Edith more than his own sisters. This little fight would fade away eventually.

Edith always forgave him, in the end.

And he certainly was not going to abandon their friendship over a dead unicorn.

"I must see a healer," he admitted, resting his wounded leg, holding a gentle hand to his burning thigh. The unicorn had been surprisingly fast. It had charged without hesitation, covering ground with alarming speed. The dying beast had crashed into him, goring him with its shiny horn. It wasn't a deep gash, but it wouldn't heal. It was bleeding, and the flesh was black and gray around the red, weeping injury.

"You want Duncan," Edith said.

Vasher frowned. "Who?"

"A famous wizard who can help you."

"How do you know that? We've been in this city for barely two days."

"I listen to people, Vasher," Edith reprimanded in a bland, almost bored tone.

He sighed. "Let's find Duncan then."

"You Duncan?" Vasher asked as the carriage pulled away, the ironshod hoofs of the big dray hammering noisily on the broken cobbles of the Narrow Road. If rumor and silver coin bought genuine directions, the small, creaky shop selling wind chimes and amulets was the wizard's home. It was surrounded by houses even less glamorous, with weed and mold growing on pitted stone, and wooden roof beams covered in bird nests and dead leaves. The rusty, unimaginative sign hanging from the front of the simple, patched tarp awning read Winds and Spirits.

There was a fat, bald man standing outside, painting a worn-eaten window frame, and he looked annoyed. "Who's asking?"

Vasher wasn't sure what to tell the man. Grudgingly, he offered his name.

The shop owner frowned. "Are you Holena's husband?"

"What?"

"What?"

Edith coughed. "No, he is not. We seek your assistance, if you are Duncan. Healing."

The fat man smiled, putting the brush away. "Oh yes. Indeed. Healing."

Vasher swallowed a nugget of pain. "Well?"

The man winked knowingly. "A young couple, I see. Marital problems?"

Edith blushed. "No," Vasher growled, maybe too sternly. The persistent hurting in his leg was making him edgy.

Edith pointed at the brown stain on Vasher's trouser leg. "Hunting problems."

"I see. Yes, I am Duncan. Please, do follow me inside." He raised a finger, topped by a long, chipped, neglected nail. "Only if you aren't Holena's husband."

The shop tinkled with sounds made by a hundred tubes of metal, glass, wood, and bark. It smelled of damp timber and strange spices, and every available space was taken by figurines, feathers, bone trinkets, and animal skulls.

"The name is Duncan, a wizard of the Third Calling, a master of fire and metal, a herbsman, a healer, and a great cook." He sniffed in the direction of Vasher's leg. "Show me your wound."

With Edith's help, Vasher sat down on a rickety stool, took his trousers off, and extended his leg. That injury sure didn't look pretty. He put the bag of sapphires by his feet, trying to act casually, but he was deeply reluctant letting go off his half of the prize, even for a few moments. However, the fat man did not seem even remotely interested in the plain sack or its contents.

Duncan spent a few intense moments staring at the injury, touching the inflamed skin. "That's a nasty cut. How did you get it?"

"I was gored by an animal," Vasher said. Soon enough, the wizard would heal him, and he would be able to put all his thoughts to buying lands and titles, hiring hundreds of servants and women, and spending his immense wealth.

"Gored? A huntsman. I see. Now what was it. A tusk? A horn?"

Vasher frowned. Why was this wizard asking these silly questions? Why didn't he just use magic?

Gently, Duncan touched his long nails to the wet flesh. "Strange. There's no infection, and yet it's raw, and it does not seem to be healing. Hmm, I could give you a salt, spruge and peppermint paste, and it will hurt a lot, but it ought to leech all the humors out, and the wound should close in a day or two."

"Why don't you use your magic?" Vasher lashed.

Duncan smacked his lips. "Can't do that." He touched the sore flesh, wet, red hairs slicked down like trampled grass. "Very strange. I don't recall seeing the likes of it before. What animal was it?"

"Unicorn," Edith supplied.

Vasher bit off a curse.

Duncan straightened. "A unicorn?"

"Not really," Vasher groaned.

"Yes," Edith insisted.

The wizard rubbed his chin, his face locked with concern. "In that case, my apologies, master, I cannot help you."

"That's why you use magic to heal the wound," Vasher pressed. Few people had ever seen unicorns, let alone knew that unicorn cuts inflicted on human flesh never healed using potions, powders or fire. But highly skilled wizards could use spells to mend the skin.

Vasher had read it in a rare, secret book, the same one that had taught him how to hunt the magical beasts.

"I could," Duncan emphasized, suddenly looking tired, defeated. "I could use magic. Until a month ago, I could. Now, I no longer can."

"If it's a matter of price -" Vasher pressed.

The wizard shook his head. "Have you not heard? The magic is gone."

Panic knotted in Vasher's stomach. "What do you mean, Wizard?"

Duncan spread his heads. "It no longer works. Not for me, not for any magic wielder. Many of my peers are besides themselves with fear. I hear the witches of Ostborn have sent their sisters to the four corners of the world, to seek the answer to this mystery. I am more pragmatic. I can heal people with herbs and salves."

Vasher realized his hands were shaking.

The expression of apologetic worry on Duncan's face faded.

In its place, one of cold consternation and bitter realization settled in.

"You were hunting the unicorn? What happened to it?"

Silence. Vasher couldn't speak.

Edith stepped forward. She looked protective, but Vasher didn't miss her tone. "Dead. Vasher killed it."

Duncan moved away toward a wall shelf sagging with jars and potions. "You have killed the last unicorn?"

Vasher closed his eyes as fresh pain spasmed down his leg. There was no point denying it now. "Yes." His sense of accomplishment from the meeting with King Laszlo was evaporating. Dread was bubbling up in his gullet, making breathing hard and erratic.

"And it managed to injure you before it died?" the wizard whispered against the wall.

"Listen -"

"I cannot help you," Duncan said, barely audible. "Please leave."

No magic, Vasher realized. It's gone. "I beg you," he heard himself say.

Duncan turned around. He was crying. He stepped closer, and Vasher found himself standing, tottering, dizzy, terrified, and in agony. But the wizard only laid a soft, clammy hand on his cheek.

"When you killed that last unicorn, you killed all the magic in this world. We didn't know what was happening, but now, it all makes sense. You have doomed us all."

Vasher staggered back, his pain irrelevant now.

"Was it worth it?"

Edith found her voice more easily than he did. "No, it was not."

Duncan wiped his eyes. "I wish I could kill you, but my hands were made to create things, not destroy them. I may not craft with magic ever again, but I can still help people, with my hands and my heart. It will be difficult – no, devastating – for us magic wielders, after all these generations, to not be able to enjoy the touch of magic. You have destroyed centuries of hard, beautiful work. You have ruined us."

Vasher was edging away, trying not to listen.

Duncan looked up. "But in my own sorrow, it pleases me to know there is no one in this world that can help you, killer."

Outside, the world was spinning. Vasher was clawing at his throat, trying to catch his breath. Standing in front of him, small and fierce, Edith was watching him with that cold, emotionless stare.

"Are you happy, Vasher?"

It took him a while to muster courage to speak again. "Edith, we can sort this out."

She snorted. "We? No, Vasher. I am leaving you."

Vasher realized his arms were trembling. "Why?"

"Because this was our last hunt, remember. It's over."

He fell down on his knees. His dreams were all gone now. He would not be able to enjoy his hard-earned sapphires. He would not be able to spend the rest of his life drinking and gambling in the company of expensive women. All of that, shattered.

And I've ruined the one friendship I really ever cared about.

"Edith..."

"Goodbye, Vasher." She turned away from him. "Enjoy your life, what's left of it."

"Edith, please don't go."

But after a few steps, she rounded a corner, and was gone forever, just like the last unicorn.

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