Maverick leaned back against the rough bark of a spreading oak tree, an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth, his eyes narrowly fixed on a spot in the center of a clearing not far away. The wood was peaceful, with a cool breeze tossing the tops of the ancient trees and a chorus of birds singing away, but Maverick was not relaxed. His body held all the tension of a tightly coiled spring, his gaze, the intent alertness of the hunter. But there was no game in sight. Not yet.

Then something happened in the clearing. The air seemed to shimmer and bulge and something took shape there, a dark form, ghostly, but growing more solid with each passing second. Maverick grunted to himself and watched as the thing took the shape of a black stallion. But this was no ordinary horse. Its eyes glowed red like coals, and out of his forehead grew a single horn, twisted and gnarled like an arthritic finger.

Maverick left his spot by the tree and walked toward the unicorn. ”You’re late,” he said.

The dark steed’s eyes narrowed as it regarded Maverick. ”Who are you?” it snarled in a voice that sounded like distant thunder.

“I’m the man who’s going to see you killed shortly,” Maverick said.

The unicorn threw his head back and laughed. ”You, defeat me? My strength is without equal. My power beyond measure.”

“I’d say we have about five minutes, give or take. Which means there’s not much time.”

“You amuse me mortal.”

“Tell me,” said Maverick, striking a match and lighting the cigar in his mouth, ”How goes the Further War?”

The unicorn’s eyes narrowed. ”What does a man like you know of such things?”

“Not much,” said Maverick. “Not much at all lately. Last report I got was from your brother.”

“My brother? But that’s impossible. That would make you-”

“He said things were going badly for the Dark Queen.”

“The Dark Queen still reigns,” said the unicorn. ”But her throne has been badly shaken by the usurper.”

“And you’re here to prepare her way in a new land.”

“Enough of your talk. What became of my brother?”

“I killed him.”

“You lie.”

Maverick smiled.

“He was the greatest of our fighters,” the unicorn said. ”His power ran deep. No matter who or what you are…you could not have defeated him.”

“Oh I admit it took some doing,” Maverick said. ”Three years worth as a matter of fact. By the time we were, done this forest was reduced to splinters.”

“And yet you believe you can kill me in the space of five minutes.”

“That’s not what I said,” Maverick replied, kneeling down and running his hands through the leaves on the ground. Then he looked up at the unicorn and said, ”But at least your brother wouldn’t have been fool enough to wait around and see what I was talking about. You never knew when to shut your mouth did you, Alendier?”

The unicorn howled in rage, and lowered its horn, charging straight toward Maverick. But then in a flash of movement Maverick spun out of the way, and there was something in his hands. Something long and thin and sliver. With a flick of his wrist Maverick tossed the silver thread over the unicorn’s head as it passed.

The unicorn howled in anger at the man’s treachery, but the silver thread yanked him back from reaching Maverick. Maverick stepped back a little further and watched as the unicorn pulled and strained at the thread, which had been tied around the trunk of a mighty oak.

“You think this can hold me human?” it screeched. ”I can pull this oak out of the ground by it’s ROOTS!”

“Yes,” said Maverick. ”But can you do it in the next thirty seconds?”

“You will DIE!” screamed the unicorn. “The Queen is coming. And she will wreak her vengeance on you and on this pitiful world. You think you can stand against HER?”

“That’s the question of the hour now isn’t it?”

“Her darkness will cover this universe. So clean, so bright. It will all be wiped away in a moment when she appears! Give this mad game up now and I might be inclined to show some mercy.”

“Sorry. In for a penny in for a pound.” He was backing away now, looking up at the trees above him as if waiting for rain.

“You think yourself powerful enough to face her? Even you who dares to challenge a unicorn?”

“I’m not challenging you,” said Maverick. ”I’m using you as bait.”

And then there was a sound of wings like leather and a rotting stench of sulfur and Maverick ran and didn’t look back. And when he heard the sound of iron teeth ripping at flesh and the unicorn’s screams echoing through the forest he reached for the detonator in his pocket and hit the button. The blast wave ripped the tops off trees and sent a storm of leaves raining down on Maverick. He stood from the place the blast had thrown him and walked on a ways.

A little further down the path, the chief was waiting for him with a big smile on his face. ”Top notch work, Maverick,” he said. ”As usual.”

Maverick grunted. The chief was happy enough, but Maverick was troubled. Because if the unicorn had spoken the truth, if the Dark Queen really was coming to earth…

“I have to go, Chief,” Maverick said.

“Sure you don’t want to celebrate?”

Maverick shook his head. ”I just found out I’ve got family coming to town. And I think I’d better start getting ready.”

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