This story exists because of and – thus – is dedicated to … in no particular order – Brian Keene, Justine Musk, Rain Graves, Mari Adkins, Bailey Hunter and the rest of the Twitter Crowd who believe in rainbows and unicorns…and Zombies. Enough said.
VANACE AND THE CURLY STICK
by David Niall Wilson
The sun was high in the sky, filtering down through the leaves to send light dancing over the leaves and dirt of the forest floor. Vanace paid little attention to this, as he was busy keeping himself upright, having just awakened from far too little sleep and far too much wine the night before. He had at least another mile to go before he’d reach his bed, and even the large, spiral-shafted walking stick he’d found along the way was failing to right his balance for more than a couple of steps.
It was an odd piece, and on any other day, he’d have stopped to examine it at length. The tip was very sharp – so sharp, in fact, that it seemed as if it should break each time it struck the ground. It did not. It buried itself a few inches, even when he accidently stuck it into the root of a tree, and it pulled free effortlessly. In a forest prone to magic, this should have set off warning bells, but on this particular morning all warning bells would have done was make Vanace’s head hurt, so it was as well there was relative silence.
There had been other signs. The clearing where he’d found the thing had been darker even than the lightless forest. No moonlight had penetrated there. He thought he remembered that there was a stone buried in the center of that clearing – a headstone? Who could remember such things? He’d nearly impaled himself on the walking stick in the dim half-light of morning. Only dumb luck had brought his boot against the thing’s base and broken it free of the earth before he staggered onto it.
There was a rustle in the trees behind him, but at first Vanace was unaware of it. There were others in the woods, there were always others in the woods. Most of them were harmless, and almost all of them knew better than to get within spewing range of a drunk.
The sound behind him grew louder, and he was very suddenly engulfed in a cloud of horrifying stench.
“By the Gods,” he muttered. “What in the five blazing blue levels of hell is THAT?”
Vanace plunged the tip of the walking stick into the loamy earth and used it to pivot back the way he’d come, leaning heavily on it for balance. He peered into the shadows and squinted. He was not sure whether he should hold his nose or keep both hands on the walking stick, and he was nearly certain that if the smell of whatever was following him continued, he’d be leaving a large quantity of used wine in the forest.
“Who’s there?” he said.
There was no answer, but a pair of flickering blue eyes watched him balefully from deep within a small copse of trees. He leaned closer, but this served only to cost him in his balance. Only an incredibly lucky half-spin around the walking stick, and dropping to one knee, saved him from falling face first.
The thing in the shadows stomped the earth. Hard. Leaves and dust flew, and at the back of his addled mind, Vanace felt the first stirrings of sobriety…and fear.
“I said, who is it?” he repeated, filling his voice with bluster he didn’t feel. “I haven’t got time for games, and – by the blue fairy herself – you need a dunk in the river. You’ll attract buzzards smelling like that.”
He regretted these last words as soon as he spoke them. Whoever, or whatever, was there was not particularly friendly, and he was in an uncharacteristically bad condition for fighting, or running. Possibly better to make nice and hope it would go on its way.
Branches parted, and something large pressed out into the open clearing. At first he thought it was a large, black horse. Then, as the shoulders came into view, and he caught the drooping, rotting flesh dangling from the left side of its jaw, Vanace found his feet and staggered back.
The dead thing still reminded him of a large black horse, though something was – wrong. Ribs stuck out through ruined flesh on the sides of its chest. Though the blue light flickered in its eyes, the sockets around that light were empty pits. What might once have been a glorious mane hung in ugly patches. The thing stood on legs more bone than flesh, decayed sinew and muscle hanging in strips. Insects buzzed around it.
“Stay back,” Vanace said. He pulled the stick free of the ground and pointed the sharp end at the creature now stalking him, stepping back and trying to plant himself solidly. He cursed inwardly as his legs refused to accept his order to balance properly.
And then he saw it. Dead center in the thing’s forehead was a notch of bone. It protruded from the skull like a gnarled root, or a chipped fence post. Something was missing. In his hand, the long, spiraled stick suddenly felt oily – and wrong. It grew hot to the touch, and he noticed for the first time how old it was, and how odd. The thing stopped as he pointed the stick at it. It pawed the earth and pulled it’s ruined lips back to reveal startlingly intact teeth.
The horn was magnificent, but Vanace had no chance to admire it. As the thing grew closer, he found it increasingly difficult to keep his grip. Without really knowing how he knew, he was certain that if he let go, it would be the last thing he ever did. He gripped the horn with both hands and held it before him, keeping it aimed at the thing’s head.
“I didn’t know!” he cried. “How in blazes could I know? It was just sticking out of the ground…”
If the unicorn heard, or understood him, it gave no indication. It snorted, and foul air rushed from its nostrils, shooting the shells of long-dead bugs into a cloud of debris. It stomped its foot again, and Vanace felt sweat drip down the back of his tunic and trickle down his spine.
He took a step back, and the beast followed. As it moved, shivering its flanks, debris and insects poured out holes in its hide. The closer it drew to the horn, and to Vanace himself, the brighter the blue flames in its eyes blazed.
Vanace knew he should try to run. It might catch him, but then, it might not. It’s body was falling apart. Something in the blue light drew him. Instead of breaking for home, or trying to lead it into the sunlight, he took a step closer, and then another. The horn had grown heavy, like a broadsword, and it was getting more and more difficult to keep his grip. Struggling with every ounce of his strength, he fought the compulsion urging him forward.
It was futile. The closer he came to the thing, the heavier and hotter the horn grew. The tip dipped, lowered, and as he came within a foot of the putrid, decayed thing’s face, it dropped the last foot and drove into the earth. Vanace pressed the base of it forward, angling it toward the unicorn’s corpse. It bowed its head, and, just as it seemed the horn would topple over and drop to the earth, the thing rammed its head into the horn. The base fused with the broken knot on its head. The two did not come together cleanly. It was skewed, pointing off at a broken angle, though solidly planted.
And in that instant, Vanace’s muscles were his own. He turned, waved his arms wildly to keep from falling, and staggered toward the edge of the clearing. The unicorn blew another cloud of insect parts and dust and let loose a rattling, hissing sound that might have been the ghost of a scream. Vanace reached the trees, just as the point of the horn pierced the flesh of his back and drove forward through his heart. Still he tried to run, but though his feet found purchase, and his legs churned, the unicorn paced him, driving it’s horn deeper, and deeper, until at last, spent and broken, he felt the bit of those dead, bony teeth rip into his skin. He tried to scream, but only a gurgle of blood and day-old wine rolled from his lips.
~ * ~
Katrina ran through the forest, searching for Vanace and muttering under her breath. He’d been out late again, and she’d known he would not make it home, but now most of the day had passed, and she was worried. He’d never stayed gone so long. She followed the track of the stream, a shortcut to the tavern he frequented. About halfway to her goal, she stopped still as stone.
In a clearing, across the stream, a unicorn stood, tall and handsome, black coat gleaming in the sun. Its horn was long and spiraled, and oddly it shot out at an angle from the creature’s brow, rather than sitting straight. It turned and started at her, and though the beauty of its visage drover her half mad with unfettered desire, she was unable to choke back a rising scream.
Dangling from that horn was a bit of cloth she knew very well. It was the tunic she’d sewn patches onto only three days before. It belonged to Vanace, and now, as the unicorn crossed the stream slowly, holding her with its gaze, she saw that it held something eles.
The thing watched her with her husband’s eyes…and it was hungry…