Chapter One: The Thief
CHAPTER ONE The Thief
SKANDAR SMITH STARED AT THE unicorn poster opposite his bed. It was light enough outside now to see the unicorn’s wings outstretched mid-flight: shining silver armor covering most of his body, exposing only his wild red eyes, an enormous jaw, and a sharp gray horn. New-Age Frost had been Skandar’s favorite unicorn ever since his rider, Aspen McGrath, had qualified for the Chaos Cup three years ago. And Skandar thought that today—in this year’s race—they just might have a chance of winning.
Skandar had received the poster for his thirteenth birthday three months before. He’d gazed at it through the bookshop window, imagining that he was New-Age Frost’s rider, standing just outside the poster frame ready to race. Skandar had felt really bad asking his dad for it. For as long as he could remember, they’d never had much money—he didn’t usually ask for anything. But Skandar had wanted the poster so badly and—
A crash came from the kitchen. On any other day Skandar would have jumped out of bed, terrified there was a stranger in the flat. Usually he, or his sister, Kenna, asleep in the bed opposite, was in charge of making breakfast. Skandar’s dad wasn’t lazy—it wasn’t that—he just found it hard to get up most days, especially when he didn’t have a job to go to. And he hadn’t had one of those in a while. But today was no ordinary day. Today was race day. And for Dad, the Chaos Cup was better than birthdays, better even than Christmas.
“Are you ever going to stop staring at that stupid poster?” Kenna groaned.
“Dad’s making breakfast,” Skandar said, hoping this would cheer his sister up.
“I’m not hungry.” She turned and faced the wall, her brown hair poking out from underneath the duvet. “There’s no way Aspen and New-Age Frost will win today, by the way.”
“I thought you weren’t interested.”
“I’m not, but…” Kenna rolled back again, squinting at Skandar through the morning light. “You’ve got to look at the stats, Skar. Frost’s wingbeats per minute are only about average for the twenty-five competing. Then there’s the problem of their allied element being water.”
“What problem?” Skandar’s heart was singing, even though Kenna was insisting Aspen and Frost wouldn’t win. She hadn’t talked about unicorns for so long he’d almost forgotten what it was like. When they were younger, they’d argued constantly about what their elements would be if they became unicorn riders. Kenna always said she’d be a fire wielder, but Skandar could never decide.
“Have you forgotten your Hatchery classes? Aspen and New-Age Frost are water-allied, right? And there are two air wielders among the favorites: Ema Templeton and Tom Nazari. We both know air has advantages over water!”
Skandar’s sister was leaning on one elbow now, her thin pale face alight with excitement, her hazel hair and eyes wild. Kenna was a year older than Skandar, but they looked so similar that they’d often been mistaken for twins.
“You’ll see,” Skandar said, grinning. “Aspen’s learned from her other Chaos Cups. She won’t just use water; she’s smarter than that. Last year she combined the elements. If I was riding New-Age Frost, I’d go for lightning bolts and whirlpool attacks.…”
Kenna’s face changed at once. Her eyes dulled; the smile dropped from the corners of her mouth. Her elbow collapsed, and she turned to the wall again, gathering her coral duvet round her shoulders.
“Kenn, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”
The smell of bacon and burnt toast wafted under the door. Skandar’s stomach rumbled into the silence.
“Leave me alone, Skar.”
“Aren’t you going to watch the Cup with me and Dad?”
No answer again. Skandar dressed in the half-light of the morning, disappointment and guilt tightening his throat. He shouldn’t have said it: If I was riding. They’d been talking like they used to, before Kenna took the Hatchery exam, before all her dreams came crashing down.
Skandar entered the kitchen to the sound of sizzling eggs and blaring early Cup coverage. Dad was humming, leaning over the pan. When he saw Skandar, he gave him an enormous grin. Skandar couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen him smile.
Dad’s face fell a little. “No Kenna yet?”
“Still sleeping,” Skandar lied, not wanting to spoil his good mood.
“She’ll find this year hard, I expect. The first race since…”
Skandar didn’t need him to finish the sentence. This was the first Chaos Cup since Kenna had failed the Hatchery exam last year and lost all chance of becoming a unicorn rider.
The trouble was, Dad had never acted like it was rare to pass the Hatchery exam. He loved unicorns so much, he was desperate for one of his children to become a rider. He said it would fix everything—their money problems, their future, their happiness, even the days he couldn’t get out of bed. Unicorns were magic, after all.
So for Kenna’s whole life he’d insisted that she’d pass the exam and go on to open the Hatchery door on the Island. That she was destined for a unicorn egg locked inside. That she’d make their mum proud. And it hadn’t helped that Kenna had always been top of her Hatchery class at Christchurch Secondary. If anyone was going to get to the Island, her teachers said, it was Kenna Smith. Then she’d failed.
And for months now Skandar’s dad had been telling him the same. That it was possible, probable, even inevitable, that he’d become a rider. And despite knowing how unusual it was—despite seeing Kenna so disappointed last year—Skandar wanted more than anything for it to be true.
“Your turn this year, though, eh?” Dad ruffled Skandar’s hair with a greasy hand. “Now, the best way to make fried bread…” As Dad gave him instructions, Skandar nodded in all the right places, pretending he didn’t already know how. Other children might have found this annoying, but Skandar was just pleased when Dad gave him a high five for getting the bread the perfect amount of crispy.
Kenna didn’t come out for breakfast, though Dad didn’t seem to mind too much as he and Skandar munched on sausages, bacon, eggs, beans, and fried bread. Skandar stopped himself from asking where the money for this extra food had come from. It was race day. Dad clearly wanted to forget about all that, and Skandar did too. Just for today. So he grabbed the brand-new bottle of mayonnaise and squeezed it over everything, grinning as it made a satisfying squelch.
“Aspen McGrath and New-Age Frost still favorites for you, then?” Dad asked through a mouthful. “I forgot to say, if you want to invite any friends over for the race that’s fine with me. Lots of kids do that, don’t they? Don’t want you to miss out.”
Skandar stared down at his plate. How could he even begin to explain that he didn’t have any friends to invite? And, worse, that it was sort of Dad’s fault?
The trouble was that looking after Dad when he wasn’t well—not so happy—meant that Skandar missed out on a lot of the “normal” stuff you were supposed to do to make friends. He could never stay after school to mess about in the park; he didn’t have pocket money to go to the amusement arcade or sneak off for fish and chips on Margate beach. Skandar hadn’t realized to begin with, but those were the times people actually made friends, not in English class or over a stale custard cream at morning break. And looking after Dad meant that Skandar sometimes didn’t have clean clothes or hadn’t had time to brush his teeth. And people noticed. They always noticed—and remembered.
Somehow for Kenna it hadn’t been as bad. Skandar thought it helped that she was more confident than him. Whenever Skandar tried to think of something clever or funny to say, his brain jammed. It’d come to him a few minutes later, but face-to-face with a classmate, there’d just be a weird buzzing in his head, a blankness. Kenna didn’t have that problem; he’d once heard her confront a group of girls whispering about how weird Dad was. “My dad, my business,” she’d said very calmly. “Stay out of it or you’ll be sorry.”
“They’re busy with their own families, Dad,” Skandar mumbled eventually, feeling himself blush, which always happened when he didn’t tell the whole truth. Dad didn’t notice, though—he’d started stacking the plates, which was such a rare sight that Skandar blinked twice to make sure it was real.
“What about Owen? He’s a good mate of yours, isn’t he?”
Owen was the worst. Dad thought he was a friend because he’d once seen hundreds of notifications from him on Skandar’s phone. Skandar hadn’t mentioned that the messages were far from friendly.
“Oh yeah, he loves the Chaos Cup.” Skandar got up to help. “He’s watching it with his grandparents, though, and they live miles away.” Skandar wasn’t even making this up; he’d overheard Owen complaining to his crew about it. Right before he’d torn three pages out of Skandar’s Math textbook, screwed them up, and thrown them in his face.
“KENNA!” Dad shouted suddenly. “It’s starting any minute!” When there was no answer, he disappeared into their bedroom and Skandar sat down on the sofa, the TV coverage in full swing.
A reporter was interviewing a past Chaos Cup rider in the main arena, just in front of the starting bar. Skandar turned up the volume.
“—and do you think we’ll see some fierce elemental battles today?” The reporter’s face was flushed with excitement.
“For sure,” the rider replied, nodding confidently. “There’s a real mix of abilities among the competitors, Tim. People are fixating on the fire strength of Federico Jones and Sunset’s Blood, but what about Ema Templeton and Mountain’s Fear? They might be air-allied, but they’re multitalented. People forget that the best Chaos Cup riders excel in all four elements—not just the one they’re allied to.”
The four elements. They were the core of the Hatchery exam. Skandar had spent hours learning which famous unicorns and riders were allied to fire, water, earth, or air; which attacks and defenses they would favor in sky battles. Nerves swooped into Skandar’s stomach; he couldn’t believe the exam was the day after tomorrow.
Dad returned, a troubled look on his face. “She’ll be out in a bit,” he said, sitting next to Skandar on the battered old sofa.
“It’s hard for you kids to understand, really.” He sighed, staring at the screen. “Thirteen years ago, when my generation first watched the Chaos Cup, it was enough just knowing the Island existed. I was far too old to be a rider. But the race, the unicorns, the elements… it was magic for us—for me, for your mum.”
Skandar stayed very still, not daring to turn his head away from the screen as the unicorns entered the arena. Dad only talked about Skandar and Kenna’s mum on Chaos Cup day. By his seventh birthday, Skandar had given up asking about her at any other time—learning it made Dad angry and upset, learning it made him disappear into his room for days.
“Never seen your mum so full of emotion as she was on the day of the first Chaos Cup,” Dad continued. “She sat right where you are now, smiling and crying, and holding you in her arms. Only a couple of months old, you were.”
Skandar had heard this before, but he didn’t mind one bit. He and Kenna were always desperate to hear about their mum. Grandma—Dad’s mum—used to tell them about her, but they liked it best when the stories came from Dad, who’d loved her most. And sometimes, when he repeated them, there were new details, like how Rosemary Smith always called him Bertie, never Robert. Or the way she had liked to sing in the bath, or her favorite type of flower—pansies—or the element she’d liked watching best—water—in the first and last Chaos Cup she’d ever seen.
“I’ll always remember,” Dad continued, looking straight at Skandar, “when that first Chaos Cup finished, your mum took your tiny hand, traced a pattern on your palm, and whispered, quiet as a prayer, ‘I promise you a unicorn, little one.’?”
Skandar swallowed hard. Dad had never told him that story before. Maybe he’d saved it until the year of his Hatchery exam. Maybe it wasn’t even true. Skandar would never know whether Rosemary Smith had really promised him a unicorn, because—without warning, three days after the Mainland had watched unicorns race for the first time—Skandar’s mum had died.
Skandar would never have said it to Dad, or even Kenna, but part of the reason he liked the Chaos Cup so much was because it made him feel close to his mum. He imagined her watching the unicorns, the excitement building in her chest—just like it was in his—and it was as though she was there with him.
Kenna stomped into the room with a bowl of cereal balanced on her palm.
“Really, Skar? Mayonnaise at breakfast?” She pointed at Skandar’s smeared plate on top of the stack. “I keep telling you: it’s not an acceptable favorite food, little bro.”
Skandar shrugged, and Kenna laughed as she squeezed onto the sofa next to him.
“Look at you both taking up so much room. I’ll be on the floor next year!” Dad said, laughing.
Skandar’s heart clenched. If his exam went well, he wouldn’t be here next year. He’d be watching the Chaos Cup in person, on the Island, and he’d have his very own unicorn.
“Kenna, cards on the table! Favorite?” Dad asked her, leaning round Skandar.
She stared at the television, munching moodily.
“Earlier she said Aspen and New-Age Frost won’t win,” Skandar piped up, looking for a reaction.
It worked. “Maybe another year Aspen will do it, but this isn’t a good race for a water wielder.” Kenna tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear, a gesture so familiar to Skandar that it made him feel safe. Like Kenna was going to be okay, even if Skandar did leave her alone with Dad on the sofa next year.
Skandar shook his head. “I told you, Aspen isn’t just going to rely on the water element. She’s cleverer than that—she’ll use air, fire, and earth attacks too, for sure.”
“A rider is always best at their allied element, though, Skar. That’s why it’s called allied—duh! Say Aspen did use a fire attack; it’s not going to compare with anything an actual fire wielder can do, is it?”
“All right then, who do you think’s going to win?” Skandar sat up as Dad turned the volume higher, the commentary reaching fever pitch as the armored competitors jostled for positions behind the starting bar.
“Ema Templeton and Mountain’s Fear,” Kenna said very quietly. “Tenth last year, air wielder, high stamina, brave, intelligent. She’s the kind of rider I would’ve been.”
It was the first time Skandar had heard Kenna acknowledge that she wouldn’t ever be a rider. He wanted to say something, but he didn’t know what, and then it was too late. So he listened to the commentator trying to fill the seconds before the race began.
“For any first-timers just joining us, we’re live from Fourpoint, the Island’s capital. And in a few moments these unicorns will fly out of this famous arena and begin the aerial racecourse—a grueling sixteen-kilometer test of stamina and sky-battle ability. Riders must stay outside the floating markers on their way round or risk being eliminated—not easy when twenty-four other competitors are trying to hit you with elemental magic and slow you down at every turn— Oh, that’s the countdown. Five, four, three, two…
“And they’re off!”
Skandar watched twenty-five unicorns, each twice the size of a horse, explode forward as the starting bar rose above their horns. The riders’ armored legs banged against the competitors on either side as they urged their unicorns on to get an early lead, crouching low in their saddles, gathering speed. And then it was Skandar’s favorite part. The unicorns began to stretch out their great feathered wings and take off, leaving the sand of the arena far below. The microphones picked up the riders as they whooped through their helmets. And it also picked up something else—a sound that still sent shivers down Skandar’s spine, though he’d heard it on race day every year of his life. Guttural bellows from deep within the unicorns’ chests—more terrifying than a lion’s roar, more ancient and primal than anything he’d heard on the Mainland. The sort of sound that made you want to run.
The unicorns barged each other in midair to get the best positions, metal armor clanking and scraping. The tips of their horns glinted in the sunlight as they tried to gore their rivals. Foam built up around their gnashing teeth, and their nostrils flared red. Now that they were airborne, the elemental magic lit up the sky: fireballs, dust storms, flashes of lightning, walls of water. The sky battles raged against a backdrop of fluffy white clouds. Riders’ right palms glowed with elemental power as they desperately tried to fight their way along the racecourse.
And it wasn’t pretty. The unicorns kicked out at each other, tore flesh from each other’s flanks with their teeth, and blasted their competitors at close range. Three minutes in, the camera caught a unicorn and rider—hair on fire, one arm hanging uselessly—spiraling toward the ground and crash-landing, smoke billowing from the unicorn’s wing and the rider’s blond head.
The commentator groaned. “That’s Hilary Winters and Sharp-Edged Lily out of the Chaos Cup this year. Looks like a broken arm, some nasty burns, and an injury to Lily’s wing.”
The camera moved back to the leading group. Federico Jones and Sunset’s Blood were locked in a sky battle with Aspen McGrath and New-Age Frost. Aspen had summoned a bow of ice and was firing arrow after arrow at Federico’s armored back, trying to slow him. Federico had a flaming shield to melt the arrows, but Aspen’s aim was good and New-Age Frost was catching up. Federico wasn’t done, though. As Aspen flew Frost closer, flames exploded into the sky above Aspen’s head.
“That’s a wildfire attack from Federico.” The commentator sounded impressed. “Tricky at that height and speed. But— Oh! Would you look at that!”
Ice crystals were knitting in a web round New-Age Frost, round Aspen, until they were sealed in a frozen cocoon so thick the wildfire couldn’t touch them. Skandar saw Federico shouting in disappointment as he and Sunset’s Blood fell back with the effort of their fire attack, and Aspen burst through her ice shell to overtake.
“It’s Tom Nazari on Devil’s Own Tears in the lead, followed by Ema Templeton on Mountain’s Fear. Third is Alodie Birch on River-Reed Prince, and after that incredible air-and-water combo, New-Age Frost and Aspen McGrath are now in fourth with— But it looks like Aspen is making another move.” The commentator interrupted himself, his voice rising. “She’s picking up speed.”
Aspen’s red hair flew out behind her, New-Age Frost putting on an unbelievable burst of speed, wings blurring, barging past River-Reed Prince, swerving as a lightning bolt missed Aspen by inches. Then Frost’s great gray wings soared past Kenna’s favorite, Mountain’s Fear, then Tom Nazari’s black unicorn, Devil’s Own Tears. And Aspen took the lead.
“Yeah!” Skandar punched the air. It was a very un-Skandar thing to do, but this was incredible—unbelievable.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” the commentator shouted. “Look how far ahead she is!”
Kenna gasped, her eyes fixed on the unicorns as they approached the finish. “I don’t believe it!”
“She’s going to win by a hundred meters,” another commentator squealed.
Skandar watched, mouth open, as New-Age Frost’s hooves touched down in the arena’s sand. Aspen pushed him forward, fierce determination in her eyes as she passed under the finishing arch.
Skandar jumped up, shouting with excitement. “They won! They won! See, Kenna, I told you! I called it, I called it!”
Kenna was laughing, eyes shining, and that made the victory even better. “All right, Skar. They were really something, I’ll give you that. Those ice crystals, what a move! I’ve never seen—”
“Wait.” Dad was standing close to the screen. “Something’s wrong.”
Skandar approached him on one side, Kenna on the other. Skandar could hear the crowd screaming, but it wasn’t excitement anymore; it was fear. Unicorns were no longer coming through the arch to finish the race. The commentators were silent, the footage still—there was just a single shot of the arena, as though the camera operators had abandoned their posts.
A unicorn landed in the center of the arena. It didn’t look like any of the others—not Sunset’s Blood or New-Age Frost or Mountain’s Fear—whose victory parade it had interrupted. This unicorn’s wings were almost featherless—bat-like—and it was skeletal, half-starved. Its eyes were red haunted slits. Blood was caked around its jaws, its teeth bared at the racers, as though daring them to attack.
It wasn’t until Skandar noticed the unicorn’s transparent horn that he realized.
“That’s a wild unicorn,” he breathed. “Like the ones in that old video the Island showed the Mainland. The one that convinced the Mainland that unicorns were real all those years ago. The one where they attacked the village—”
“Something’s wrong,” Dad said again.
“It can’t be a wild unicorn,” Kenna whispered. “It has a rider.”
Skandar hadn’t noticed the person—at least he thought it was a person—on its back. The rider wore a billowing black shroud that flapped in the breeze, the bottom tattered and torn. A wide white-painted stripe obscured the rider’s face from the base of the throat to the very top of the head, leading into short dark hair.
The unicorn reared up—pawing the air with its hooves—belching thick black smoke. Its phantom rider let out a triumphant howl, the unicorn screeched, and smoke filled the arena. Skandar watched the unicorn advance toward the Chaos Cup competitors, sparks dancing around its hooves, a jet of white from the rider’s palm lighting up the screen. In the moment before the picture disappeared completely in black smoke, the rider turned and—slowly and deliberately—raised one long bony finger to point directly into the camera.
Then there was only sound. Explosions of elemental magic; unicorns screeching. More screaming from the crowd, and the unmistakable thundering of feet as Islanders attempted to escape from their seats. As they crashed past the camera, their panicked voices jumbling together, Skandar noticed two words repeated over and over.
Skandar had never heard of the Weaver, but the more the name was whispered, shouted, screamed by the crowd, the more it began to scare him.
He turned to Dad, who was still staring in disbelief at the swirling black smoke on the TV screen. Kenna beat Skandar to the question. “Dad,” she said quietly, “who’s the Weaver?”
“Shhh.” He waved a hand. “Something’s happening.”
The view became clearer, the smoke lifting. Half sobbing, half shouting was coming from a figure on her knees in the sand. She was still in her armor, McGrath painted in blue across her back, surrounded by the other riders.
“Please,” Aspen wailed across the arena, “please, bring him back!”
Federico Jones—the fierceness of the race forgotten—managed to get Aspen to her feet, but she was still howling. “The Weaver took him. He’s gone. We won and the Weaver—” Aspen choked on the last word, tears running down her dirt-streaked face.
A stern voice cracked like a whip. “Get these cameras off! Now! The Mainland can’t see this. Get them off, now!”
The unicorns began to screech and bellow, the sound deafening. Their riders jumped into their saddles, trying to calm them as they reared and frothed at the mouth, looking more monstrous than Skandar had ever seen them.
Only one of the twenty-five riders was left standing on the sand—the winning water wielder, Aspen McGrath. But her unicorn, New-Age Frost, was nowhere to be seen.
“Who’s the Weaver?” Kenna asked again, her voice insistent.
But nobody answered her.