It was early afternoon, and the sun was high in the sky. The sunlight blowing through the leaves bathed the two riders in a quiet green glow.
The man and his daughter did not speak to one another, but their urgency was felt even by the horses, who kept their brisk pace although the forest path was overgrown with weeds and roots. They were rangers of the Wilds, and they knew the dangers that this place held better than anyone. Still, they had been in the Wilds for only a short time, and had respected the woods. Knowing that the bridge to Paladros was only a half-hour away only heightened their tension, rather than abate it.
Their whole journey, deer gave their plaintive cries and birds screeched nonsense, but neither had seen a single animal the entire time.
A cloud passed in front of the sun, making the forest dimmer. The man frowned and looked up. The sky was as clear as glass; not a cloud marred it. The sun itself had grown dimmer, redder.
“Hup hup,” the man said, urging his horse to a faster pace. “Seya, let’s hurry it up. I want to have time to fish before dark.” He did not turn around to tell his daughter this—his face might betray his fear. But his daughter slipped in behind him wordlessly.
The sun had not stopped dimming. He spared a glace upwards. The sun seemed swollen, gravid. It was larger, but also weaker. The light filtering down seemed thin and watery. He prayed quietly that his daughter did not notice it. He urged his horse to a faster pace, and noted with mild relief that his Seya’s mount kept pace close behind.
This continued for some minutes. The birdsong had ceased. From the dark trees came stranger noises, that he tried to identify. A deep-throated beaver chuck-chucking with something liquid in its mouth. A pair of foxes screaming a crescendo that suddenly stopped, only to begin again a few seconds later.
“Dad. . .” came his daughter’s voice behind him. She knew silence was important in this place. He shushed her and looked up.
The sun was bloated and mottled with irregular black shapes. The light was oily. As the ranger watched, the sun mouldered and calved apart. Steaming chunks of sun-flesh fell into the forest around him like so much dripping meat, and drops of blood speckled the leaves above him. And then the forest was dark.
“Run, Seya!” he shouted. He dug his heels into his horse’s sides, but it was unnecessary—the animal was already bolting along the dark path at a gallop. It was an unsafe speed. If his horse tripped now it would break its neck, and probably his as well.
Charge over the rise, duck beneath the wet leaves of a bough, around a copse of elms, and there was a bear. It was a large grizzly, crouched low in the path, its mouth pulled back into a feral rictus that left no ambiguity of its intent. And it was absolutely still. The beast did not make a movement nor a sound.
The ranger unhesitatingly pulled his horse to the right, into the dark trees. There was a crashing behind him. He cut a path as best he could, but the wet leaves slapped against his eyes and something—moths?—flapped weakly against his ears. On his right, only a few feet away, was another set of hoofbeats. Was it his daughter? When was the last time he had been sure that she was behind him?
But then the sound of hoofs moved closer, and the ranger got a glimpse of skinless lips and wet eyes. Jutting from its forehead was a spiral horn, cracked in two asymmetrical halves. A piece of hide had peeled back from its shoulder and was flailing in the wind, slapping the creature's flank. Clear fluid leaked from its visible muscles, and its breath was like soil and beetles and drowned wood.
His horse bolted to the left, stumbled into a tree, and nearly fell over. The ranger simply held on. And then the ground opened up and he was on the path again. The bridge was dimly visible up ahead. His horse was so tired as to be frothing, but it managed to find a second wind, charging up the bridge with the speed of a colt half its age.
And then he was in a well-lit forest. Golden light washed over him. Above him, he could see a fat chickadee chirping at him. The air was warm and fresh. The ranger turned around. On the other side of the bridge, the forest looked just as it did here: bright and alive. But there was no sign of his daughter.
The ranger waited for eight days before the lack of supplies forced him to return home, alone.
Only the mages call them Mordanfey. The bards call them the Scorned Beasts, while the locals quietly refer to them as Husks.
Those that say they are not the murdered unicorns are in error: when the charnel pits of Iagatro were disinterred, the corpses were not there. It is also a mistake to refer to them as undead. Clerics have no power over them and they do no use necromantic magics. They have become something else entirely.
Most believe that during their deaths, they judged us and found us lacking. They have returned to the Dembraava Wilds to ensure that we never again dirty it with our presence. Whatever they were before, it is clear that they have become creatures without compassion, moderation, or forgiveness. It is clear that our lives are forfeit if we enter their woods, and what’s worse—we deserve it.
300 years ago, when King Oberfel was poisoned by the slow waters of the beastmen’s sages, he was sure that his healers and wizards would find a cure. When none did, his desperation increased even as the war escalated. Eventually, he ordered that the unicorns in the Dembraava Wilds should be hunted, since their horns held such miraculous cures. The rangers of Braava, the best woodsmen in the world, were all assigned to the task. Although they held themselves to be stewards of their woods and all that lived in it, nearly all of them obeyed this order from their king. They were very good hunters.
Truthfully, the elixirs that his alchemists made from the horn seemed to slow the disease, or cure it entirely. But always, the poison returned to wither the king’s limbs and fill his lungs with ashes. The unicorns became rarer and rarer, until no more could be found, and the king died a painful death. Most assumed that the unicorns had gone into hiding, and would return once the hunting ceased.
But they never did. The Mordanfey returned instead.
A Mordanfey’s powers are illusion, fear, and control. It is believed that every animal in the Dembraava Wilds is under their sway, and would obey the Mordanfey if so urged. Many have compared this to the way that a demon possesses a mortal. The Dembraava holds many strange and dangerous beasts, so this is not a trifling ability.
It is believed that humans who fall under the influence of the Mordanfey become Deathwalkers, the savage men who live as animals wield strange powers to murder outsiders and lead hordes of deformed animals. Others say that there is a common force that drives all things, and the Mordanfey are puppets with more will than the Dendrognaths the Deathwalkers create.
The Mordanfey do not simply use their powers of illusion to darken the forest to evoke fear. There appears to be a strange relation between observation and ability, something that is reflected in the animals they dominate. I’ll summarize:
While unobserved, Mordanfey are stronger and have more powerful abilities. They might even be capable of teleportation as long as they are unseen.
However, while observed, these creatures move slower, at mundane (non-magical) speeds. Dominated animals are actually unable to move while they are being watched.
This caveat seems to be especially enforced in the case of the mordanfey, who seem to be unable to harm anyone who is watching them.
If you should find yourself looking a Mordanfey in the eyes, don’t look away. Run, but don’t look away.
Lastly, they apparently limit their stewardship to the southern 75% of the Dembraava Wilds, since they are so reluctant to cross the Shunatula River that bisects it. There are only two recorded cases where one of the Scorned Beasts crossed the river to kill a man. One of the men was an aspiring arsonist, and the other was the refugee of a group of knights and mages who killed every animal they could find in hopes of drawing out and capturing a Deathwalker.
Many believe that there is something in the Wilds that is important to the Mordanfey that they are protecting. Or something that brought them back to protect it. Or something that triggered when the last unicorn was killed. Regardless, efforts to ascertain the truth have only resulted in more widows.
Author's Babble: Good monsters are hard to use. Also hard to use: monsters for whom a My Little Pony would make a great miniature. This is an attempt to make unicorns awesome again (and terrifying). If the concept needs clarifying, the mordanfey is sort of an anti-unicorn. An equine fey that is a manifestation of natural death and injury, rather than natural life and healing. After all, every bit of birth and growth in nature is accompanied by an equal amount of of death and decay. Mordanfey are alive in the same way that a blacklight emits light. The truth of their origins and nature is intentionally left ambiguous, the way all scary things should be.