The packet of Magic Company "extra-strong magic healing" sat open upon a table. Rancliffe was slowly dying of a curse that was turning his body into granite.
It had already claimed a large part of his leg so that the old ex-wizard had to hobble everywhere he went, and two of the fingers upon his right hand were grey and inflexible which made spell-casting almost impossible. The magic healing was keeping the curse from eating away the rest of him but, as everyone knew, these days magic healing had a cost.
“I’m looking for a unicorn”, said the young woman, entering Rancliffe’s pet shop full of squawking griffins and snarling baby manticores, “For my niece. It’s her birthday”.
“Any particular colour madam? Grey? Dappled? Ultra marine?”, said the old man turning towards his nesting box full of golden and silver unicorn eggs, “The Indigo is a very mild tempered and most obedient breed”.
“I’m looking for a white unicorn. Pure white”, said the woman.
The old man’s eyes lit up, “Ah? A white unicorn. They are very rare these days, as you probably know. We keep all of our whites at the back of the shop”.
The old man lifted up the flap in the counter and invited the young woman through into the back where he lived.
“You can’t be too careful”, he said to the woman, putting on the magic powered kettle in his tiny kitchen, “They’ve got eyes and ears and noses everywhere. I bought some lovely yellow wallpaper the other day, at a bargain, it had tweeting birds and fragrant yellow fresias upon it and winding vines and leaves in a baroque pattern but I had to burn it because the eyes of those birds seemed to follow me about too much and those pretty flowers looked a little too much like listening ears”.
“I haven’t brought my bow with me”, said the woman, apologetically, “I left it back at my flat”.
“That’s alright”, said Rancliffe as the woman took off her headscarf and the old man saw the pointed tips of her ears, “You’re an elf, there’s no doubting that and all elves are born to pull a bowstring”.
“We’re also pretty good at playing the violin. That’s what I do for a living now. I play in an orchestra. Well, there’s not much call for archery these days except as a sport or a hobby”, she chuckled, “Not in the age of long range, inter-ballistic magical warheads”.
“We’ve all had to adjust”, said Rancliffe, pointing to a framed diploma upon his living room wall, “I was a wizard of the Emerald Guild, before Davorian and his lot came along and ruined the world for everyone. Back then there was magic in the air; in every rock and blade of grass, every ray of sun or drop of rain but then, as you know, the party of darkness came to power and sold off all the magic so that now we have to buy our wishes in packets and can only wish for what Davorian and the Magic Company will allow us”.
“But are you certain that the child which we spoke of telepathically is truly the key”, asked the woman, looking round about at a room cluttered with dust covered magical items from a bygone age and sepia photographs of a young Rancliffe clad in starry robes.
“That child is the living essence of all magic”, replied the old man, sombrely, “I’ve seen her in my dreams and heard her call out to me in her lonely terror and sadness. I’ve even placed my finger upon her cheek and felt the wetness of her tears. She is the real McCoy alright and Davorian has her imprisoned in a dark tower, locked up in some abysmal iron cage that is sealed by a dark spell, otherwise he could have no ownership of the world’s magic”.
The little magical kettle in the wizard’s kitchen whistled like a songbird and Rancliffe summoned two floating china tea cups filled with steaming brown tea that pirouetted momentarily in the air, showing off their blue willow patterns before spiralling gently downwards like sycamore seeds onto matching saucers.
“Ofcourse, this quest will be of the old school variety, you understand? It won’t be any package holiday to the sunny isles of Abydos, I can tell you”, said Rancliffe, “There will be monsters, no doubt and dark, deadly magic around every turning but it will be worth it to see this world of ours set free again from capitalist tyranny”.
The woman shook hands with the old man then and said her name was Hallah and she told him of her own life, growing up in one of the grim, grey, multi-story towers of the inner cities of Kardure with no father; a poor mother and three brothers, “I know what it’s like being trapped in a tower or to be a child locked in a cage, for there are many children in Kardure who are locked in cages of poverty and I’ve met my share of monsters there too”.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door and two of Rancliffe’s friends entered his sitting room. One,a stocky, red-bearded dwarf with a tin mining helmet and the other, a sullen looking Halfling teenager in a tracksuit and trainers.
“Aha! Gentlemen”, said Rancliffe, rising from his settee and gesturing towards Hallah, “You are just in time to meet the newest member to join our quest. An elf from Kardure and, like all her kind, she’s handy with a long-bow which is just what we need”.
“Bugger bows and arrows”, said the Halfling, “What we want are some proper weapons. Machine guns, flame-throwers, hand grenades and rocket-launchers”.
“You’ll carry a broadsword forged in the fires of Athlon from purest Mantril steel and you’ll like it, young Halfling”, bellowed Rancliffe irritably, “No one but a fool would go up against a full-grown dragon or a sabre-toothed sphinx with a rocket-launcher, they’d find themselves dead in a flicker.
No, what you need is the kind of weapon that has been tried and tested against the powers of darkness since ages past and, no doubt, with the Halfling- blood in you, you were born to swing a broadsword”.
The adolescent Halfling just started to sulk in a corner of the room, muttering something obscene beneath his breath.
“That unfortunate, pimply creature”, said Rancliffe to Hallah, “Is our Halfling, Gavrin. He’s a tad undisciplined at times but I’ve seen him handle a blade and he has all the natural courage and survival instincts of his species. The other man, as you can plainly see, is a dwarf and a good old mate of mine called Trev”.
“We dwarves used to have a good life round here, working in the mining industry, but the pits have all closed down now. The party of darkness has seen to that”, said the dwarf, bitterly, hacking at the air with his battle-axe like a miner with his pick, “So, as I’ve got nowt else to do, I thought I’d join old Rancliffe’s quest. It might prove to be foolishness but it’s better than sitting around on my arse all day doing nothing”.
“So then”, said the old wizard, smiling cheerily, “The party for our quest has been assembled and tomorrow, to the dark valley of Gwyndoor we shall go to rescue the magical child”.