Remember my Reinventing Fantasy Races series? I haven’t done this in a while, haven’t I? So, lets do it, and lets do it hard. I’ve been focusing on anthropomorphic races in the past, so lets try something different. I’m going to take the lamest, most underused fantasy creature and attempt to make it kinda cool again. What’s the worst fantasy creature out there, you ask? Well, it is the unicorn of course.
Unicorns are rather boring as a fantasy race. They are basically a type of horses, but the lore of most settings elevates them to a special, awesome snowflake of a creature status. They are rare, pure and magical creatures that we are told are important for some reason, but we rarely ever see. It is actually quite amusing that in most fantasy settings a typical adventurer has probably seen a dragons, hydras, manticores, baslisks and all manner of other monstrosities, but never a unicorn. It almost seems that the primary reason why they are so incredibly rare is that they are just so boring. What do you do with a unicorn in a fantasy story? A dragon for example can be a focal point of the story – it is big, threatening creature that is both cool and terrifying. But a horned horse? What the fuck do you do with that? At best, it becomes a MacGuffin plot objective (you need to either protect/rescue it Legend style, or alternatively obtain it’s horn as a magic ingredient), at worst it becomes a mount upgrade for a prominent hero. That’s pretty much the extent of usage we see out there.
So let’s try to come up with a scenario in which unicorns would be the focal point. For example, why are they so rare? The cannon answer in most settings is that they were hunted down almost to the extinction because humans wizards found their horns to be a really useful alchemical ingredient. But what if that was not the reason at all? What if unicorns were purposefully hunted down to extinction because they were phenomenal assholes?
Lets imagine a place where unicorns were allowed to roam free and breed undisturbed for centuries.
Ladies and mentlegen, welcome to King John’s Island: land when no man rides, except to Hunt or to Joust. This remote, mysterious island is probably most famous for it’s indigenous inhabitants, the unicorns. The island is large, and mostly covered in flat grasslands or sparse forests, and small streams and lakes providing ideal environment for these beasts. There are literally thousands of them in the island. While they typically do not enter human settlements, they can usually be seen just outside the city walls, or villages. No matter where you go on the island, there will be at least a dozen of these majestic animals in your line of sight. Only they are not really animals.
Visitors and newcomers often learn this lesson very quickly, when they wander off the main roads, or decide to take a stroll through one of the many beautiful, flowery meadows. The grasslands and forests of the island are off limits to men. Unicorns do not take kindly to those who trespass on what they consider their territory. Anyone who strays too far from the designated human zones will quickly find himself surrounded by at least a dozen menacing beasts. Outsiders and newcomers typically get off easily – they will be shoved back toward the closest human settlement and left alone. Locals on the other hand are expected to know better. If the unicorns find any of the villagers or noblemen wandering in the wild, they will skewer and trample them on the spot.
Unicorns may look much like horses, but they are devious and intelligent beast. Their minds are about as complex and capable as those of men if not more. They consider themselves to be the undisputed ruler of the island, and will take steps to keep this position. Before the men came to the island, they were the the only only intelligent inhabitants, and they quickly rose to the top of the food chain. You have to keep in mind that Unicorns are grazers, and they do not eat meat. Being on the top of the food-chain therefore required elimination of any and all predators that hunted them, as well as any competitors in the same environmental niche.
As a result, there are no other large predators or grazing animals on King John’s Island. No wolves, no large cats, no horses or deer, or any other kind of animals with hooves. Unicorns wiped them all out long time ago. What is worse, they will not tolerate any four legged grazing animal imports. Whenever men tried to bring horses to the island, the unicorns simply slaughtered them on the first night, along with any shepherds or stable men that got in the way. No man rides on the island of King John. The villagers walk, and the noblemen and their guests are carried around in palaquins.
Why don’t men rise up, and defend their livestock? For one, Unicorns are actually rather scary. They are large – larger than regular horses, muscular and very fast. They can easily outrun and overpower a man. Being kicked by one of them usually results in shattered ribs, broken limbs or skull fractures. Their favorite tactic however is skewering men with their horn, and they are very, very good at it. They almost always aim for the heart, unless of course they want their victim to suffer. When they decide to humiliate a man, they will shove him to the ground gracefully prance around trampling him into the ground until he stops moving, and then defecate on the corpse.
If that was not enough, they also posses some low level magical powers. They are probably most famous for their ability to “blink” or temporarily phase shift to another plane of existence. This is not actually a teleportation spell, but for all intents and purposes it could be used as one. This ability allows them to become ethereal for the briefest of moments, allowing them to pass through solid objects if they wish to do so. Most unicorns learned to use this power both defensively (to avoid a predator attack, or for example a spear strike) and offensively (to bypass a steel plate armor when skewering a knight). While this power makes them very formidable foes, it does not offer complete invulnerability. Constant phase shifting seems very taxing and they seem to be able to shift only every few heart-beats so a persistent attacker with good timing can defeat them. While in their ethereal form they can still be wounded by magical weapons, just like wraiths, specters and other ghostly apparitions.
In addition to their blink power, they also seem to possess a low level form of telepathy. This ability likely evolved as their primary means of communication with each other, but they can use it to read minds of other sentient beings as well. Not only that: more skilled unicorns know how to use this ability to persuade or intimidate humans. The locals seem to be especially susceptible to this sort of influence. Some say this is because for decades the unicorns have been culling the human population, killing off anyone born with telepathic resistance to their powers.
Finally, men are outnumbered. The island is very sparsely populated and there is roughly twenty odd unicorn to a man. The island has only one prominent city: the Port Town also sometimes refereed to as King’s Landing (appologies to G. R. R. Martin but that’s just a cool name). Surrounded by tall walls it houses the King’s Castle, the island’s only port and a huge bazaar where both foreigners and locals can trade their wares. It also provides lodgings and entertainment for the visitors, sailors and dock workers.
The legend says that the city was built in the exact spot where the first human ships landed six hundred years ago. The Jousting Grounds was where they have first encountered unicorns. It is said that on that day, seven unicorns broke off their horns and gifted them to young man named John to fashion a crown that is still worn by the rulers of the island today. John was not a noble man, and was not even a leader of the expedition. And yet, he was chosen by the unicorn to lead his people. The young man shed his former surname and former life and became the First King of the Island, which was then named after him. His stewardship over the colony was one of the many conditions under which men were allowed to stay on the island.
Just outside the Port Town are the expansive Jousting Grounds and a expanses of fields and small villages almost to the horizon. Beyond the fields however, are grasslands that are the domain of the unicorns. They never enter the city itself, and they rarely visit the fields or villages, but there are are always few of them paroling the perimeter just outsize the human settlements.
Beyond the Port Town there is about a dozen small estates scattered throughout the island. Each of them belongs to one of the great noble houses, all of which were established in the first years of the colony. Unlike most feudal monarchies, The Island does not belong to the king, but rather to the unicorn. He has no right to grant anyone land, and there have been no new great houses in hundreds of years. It is however said that all the current great houses have been granted their estates by the unicorn themselves, through the king’s authority. All of the founders of the noble houses were said to be especially beloved by the unicorn.
The king and his court usually only reside in the King’s Castle in the early spring during the jousting season and during official holidays. For the rest of the year they retreat to King’s Estate located in the heart of the island. It is said to be one of the largest and most lavish estates on the island but it has never been seen by a foreigner. The kings value their privacy, and they admit guests and hold audiences in the Port City castle. Only the family, inner circle of attendants, servants and advisers are ever invited to the estate. The only men allowed to visit it are members of the great houses.
Most estates are composed of a castle, inhabited by the nobles and their extended family, and an adjacent village that feeds them, clothes them and supplies them with servants and attendants. The remote estates are connected with each other and the Port City with narrow cobblestone roads. These roads are considered part of the Domain of Men and can be traveled without fear. In fact, travel on King John’s island is probably safer than anywhere else in the world. There are no large predators, no highway bandits or marauding Orcs. The only danger is the unicorns themselves, but they never attack anyone who doesn’t wander off (unless they somehow deserved it). The roads are meticulously maintained, repaired and cleared off fallen branches, leaves or snow. While estates are for the most part self-sufficient, none of the nobles ever want to be cut-off from the rest of the island.
Every spring there is a grand jousting tournament held outside of the Port City. It is probably one of the most important events on the island, and many of the smaller businesses in Port city work the whole year to produce supplies, tents, ornaments and other materials for it. It is celebrated with great pomp and fanfare so most visitors think it to be a happy, joyous holiday at first.
Spring is the mating season among the unicorn. The ancestors of the unicorn used to fight to establish dominance during the rut, much like deer or elks do. Modern day unicorns are sentient, and they mostly lost their primal breeding instincts. However, they seem to still enjoy competing and fighting. Some even say they all have a vindictive, sadistic, malicious personalities in that they seem to enjoy dominating and humiliating their foes. Before the men came to the island their fights used to be protracted, bloody and ugly fights to the death. Each spring the island would be strewn with mutilated corpses. When the human explorers arrived, the unicorn saw the memories of knightly jousts in their minds and became obsessed with them. And so they devised their own version.
The unicorn joust is not as much about the riders as it is about the mounts. The mounts pick their riders instead of the other way around. The riders are picked from the great houses, and have little to say about it. They either ride, or are chased down and trampled to death in the most public and humiliating manner possible. Most choose to ride when they are called upon, both to save face and protect their immediate family from possible backlash.
Riders are permitted no armor. They ride bare chested, and they paint their bodies with the colors of their house. The lances they use are not the soft, dull ended jousting weapons you could expect at such event. They are hardwood, steel tipped barbed combat spears. They are designed to kill, maim and tear flesh causing mortal wounds. Jousts are typically to the death, but severely wounded riders who are no longer able to fight can be carried off and given medical care, but only if they fought valiantly, and have shown no fear or mercy towards the enemy. Cowards or inept riders who drop their spear or don’t at least make an effort to kill the enemy rider are typically thrown off and trampled.
The unicorn love the spring joust. It allows them to satisfy their blood thirst, without a loss of life (they don’t really care about human lives much) and it lets them to exert and proudly display their dominance over their “subjects”. It also gives the participants a little bit of a thrill. Since they must carry their riders, the unicorn can’t use their blink power to avoid damage. This means there is always some risk of getting injured or even killed during joust. It is said that in the past the mounts would try to rake each other with their horns at the same time as they passed by. However this custom seems to have went out of fashion and most of the time the mounts take great care not to injure each other. In fact, it seems that ever since they started jousting few hundred years ago, the unicorn grown to value their lives much more than they did in the past. For example, they react very violently whenever one of them becomes wounded by a rider. The offender is of course killed on the spot, and the joust ends abruptly. What happens next is rarely spoken off, and never actually recorded in the island’s histories. However if you ask the right people in the Port City they will tell you that there exist two or three old, unmaintained, overgrown roads out there. If you follow these roads you will find old abandoned estates in various stages of ruin. If you explore these, you will find all the doors in all the houses have been kicked off their hinges. If you look more closely you will find piles of human bones everywhere – broken, crushed, strewn across the entire estate. It is said that these estates once belonged to noble families, whose member has wounded a mount during the joust, either purposefully or by accident.
The only other big events that happen on the island are Hunts but these are rather rare. Thee unicorn have wiped or subjugated out all natural predators and large animals on the island, except one. They have only one remaining natural enemy is a dragon. It is also the one enemy they are unable to fight very efficiently. Dragons can fly, which makes them extremely difficult to capture and skewer. They also can breathe fire for a sustained period of time, which is actually longer than most unicorn can hold their ethereal form. A dragon can swoop from the sky, torch a unicorn, grab the charred body and fly off almost without risk. The unicorn hate dragons with a passion, and for years have been trying to exterminate them from the island. Unfortunately there is one place they cannot go.
The island is mostly flat and grassy, save for one mountain range, known as the Northen Crags. When you first arrive at the Port City the snow capped peeks provide a rather picturesque and lovely back droop. Few human inhabitants know (though some suspect) that this is where the few remaining dragons perch and lay their eggs. The elder dragons are very, careful and rarely leave the safety of their mountain homes. They feed on mountain goats or fly out onto the ocean to hunt big fish that swim near the surface. The young dragons however often choose to feed on the unicorn.
When young, dragons are not very bright and mostly driven by instinct. They only grow in wisdom as they get older. The immature, young specimens typically do not realize the danger the unicorn can pose. They mostly view them as tasty morsels, much more delectable than the sinewy goats. Most of them do not realize, or acknowledged the fact that the unicorn have subjugated and domesticated themselves a race of natural born dragon slayers.
As it turns out humans are very good at fighting dragons, especially in large groups. Over the years men have developed all kinds of mechanical devices that help them incapacitate a dragon. When they are called upon to a hunt, the noblemen typically bring large, crank-loaded crossbows that can shoot barbed steel harpoons with ropes or chains that can be anchored to the ground. While a single harpoon can’t stop a dragon from flying off, a dozen of them definitely will. Those who don’t carry harpoon usually bring large mirror shields that can be used to reflect light into dragon’s eyes to prevent it from aiming its fire breath at any of the unicorn. There are also sometimes wizards among the men, and they are especially valued by the unicorn. Even a single wizard can often be enough to confuse, main or root a dragon to the spot where it can be easily killed.
Wizards are rare on the island, but the few that choose to live there have a very special status. If they happen to be of noble blood, they will never be asked to joust as their lives are just to valuable. They enjoy an unprecedented amount of freedom with respect to traveling. Unicorn will usually try to avoid killing them so a wizard can often walk the grasslands, or wander off the roads. Wizards were the ones who visited and recovered priceless heirlooms from the “abandoned” estates. Unfortunately, most wizards end up overestimating their immunity, and they get themselves killed when the unicorn get annoyed with them constantly overstepping their boundaries.
Why don’t the unicorns just organize an expedition into the Northen Crags to destroy the dragon perches, smash all the eggs and kill the surviving elders? Some say it is because they enjoy the hunt. That’s probably not true. The unicorn can’t climb, and the high mountain ranges where the dragons perch are forever off-limits to them. Humans would have to go alone, without supervision, and for some reason this is not an acceptable solution.
Perhaps it is because the elder dragons are ancient, wise and well traveled. Some of them are likely to know the human tongue, and it is said their nests are made out of gold, precious stones. It is very possible they would try to bribe the slayers sent to kill them with unfathomable treasures, forbidden knowledge, secrets of dragon magic and who knows what else. In fact, a rumor says that there is a secret way into the crags, that the unicorns do not know of. That men can use this forbidden passage to go up into the peaks and talk with the dragons, and learn how to seal their minds against the unicorn, and how to forge magical weapons that can wound them. One day these men will rise up, and lead the army that will rid the island of the horned menace. But that day is still long to come, and more preparations must be made.
How is that for new and improved unicorns? They are phenomenal, abusive, dominating assholes who live to push people around. They rule the island with an iron fist, and the nobles are to frightened and to hypnotized by them to say anything about it. That and you get unicorn jousts and dragon slaying hunts for free!
Also, I can’t believe I just wrote 3 thousand words on unicorns.