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After the dragon, the unicorn is probably the most popular and pervasive of all mythological beasts. Although we tend to think of the unicorn in a medieval European setting, it was known to the classical Greeks and Romans, and in actuality is an ancient symbol that can be found all over the world, in Jewish and Hindu mythology as well as Christian folklore. Like the dragon, the unicorn also has a Chinese counterpart, the k'i-lin, one of the four animals of good omen (the dragon, the phoenix, and the tortoise are the other three), and the foremost of all the creatures who live on the land. While the k'i-lin is depicted as having the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, the more familiar version of the unicorn is the Western Unicorn, usually described as being like a white horse with a goat's beard and a long twisted horn projecting out of its forehead.

Although originally a symbol of untamable ferocity—in Solinus's words, of all creatures "the cruelest is the Unicorne, a Monster that belloweth horrible.... He is never caught alive; kylled he may be, but taken he cannot bee"—by medieval times the unicorn had become a meek, gentle, and mild creature, a common symbol of Christ—a beast who would be drawn to seek out a virgin and trustingly lay his head in her lap ... whereupon the huntsmen would leap out of concealment and fall upon him with spears and knives. The unicorn's horn, gained through such cruel deceptions as these, was probably the most valued magic object in European mysticism. In Edward Topsell's words, powdered unicorn horn "doth wonderfully help against poyson," and in addition is proof "against the pestilent feaver ... against the bitings of ravenous Dogs, and the strokes or poysonsome stings of other creatures ... and ... against the belly or mawe worms." It also helped you to drink as much as you wished without becoming drunk, and even made "the teeth white or clear"—all this in addition to its well-known properties as an aphrodisiac. No wonder there are so few unicorns left!

Even in our busy modern world, the unicorn seems to have lost none of its power to fascinate, and is as potent an archetype today as it ever was in the Middle Ages ... as witness the story that follows, which places a Unicorn against the tawdry neon-lit setting of—of all places—Miami Beach.

Jack Dann is the author or editor of eighteen books, including the novels Starhiker and Junction, the collection Timetipping, and many critically-acclaimed anthologies. His most recent book is the novel The Man Who Melted, a Nebula Award finalist.

A theme anthology on Unicorns is Unicorns!, edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois.

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