Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Maiden, Hunter, Beast

She had never intended to be a nineteen-year-old virgin. She wasn’t opposed to the idea of sex, didn’t think the simple act of having sex with someone had to be a big deal, and sure, she went to Mass and knew what the priests taught, but she figured God was actually a lot less concerned about that sort of thing than they were. She just hadn’t ever wanted to badly enough.

Which, since there was an actual fucking unicorn walking down the alley outside of her apartment, seemed in retrospect like a really good decision.

Not that she really thought unicorns cared about virginity, either. It was pretty clear from the art and the mythology surrounding them—the hunt for the unicorn ending with its horn in a lady-maiden’s lap—that the whole “unicorns only like virgins” thing was just another way the patriarchy policed women’s sexuality. If unicorns cared so much about virginity, where were the pictures of unicorns with their heads in the laps of dude-maidens, that was what she wanted to know.

That wasn’t exactly the point right now, though. What with the unicorn being here. Which was amazing. And maybe it would still be there even if she’d screwed her entire high school football team and then had an orgy with the cheerleading squad as a palate cleanser. But whatever the reason or the rules, a unicorn was here, and she could see it.

She climbed through her window and clattered down the fire escape. Then stopped at the bottom, pinned by its gaze.

• • • •

The unicorn raised its head and saw the maiden. It held her gaze as it swayed on its feet. Tired, so tired. It had been running forever, it seemed. Running to find itself here. This great forest of steel surrounding it, its feet aching from asphalt and concrete. Endless.

It stepped toward her. This was almost finished. It could rest. An end was all it wanted, and she was an end made flesh.

Then.

A crash. A clatter. Shouting. The maiden ran up the side of her building, and disappeared.

The unicorn ran, too.

• • • •

The hunter stood in the mouth of the alley. The unicorn had been here—she knew the signs. The shimmer that clung to the ground, visible under ultraviolet light. The tiny white feathers that looked like down from a pillow but that chimed like glass when they hit the ground. The scent of summer and roses and frankincense that lingered to mingle with the other, less pleasant, scents of a city alley.

She picked up three of the feathers, and put them in the ancient leather bag that she wore slung across her chest.

It bothered her, though. The location. It was an itch between her shoulder blades. She could believe that a unicorn would make its way here, to this city. It was a place made of myth as well as of concrete and steel, and myth called to myth, even when both were tangible. But this alley was a piece of nothing. Unremarkable. Why come here?

• • • •

The unicorn was gone. It had run when her roommate had yelled that the takeout was here, goddammit, and she had better come pay for it now, which was bad enough, she thought, but the fact that it had been replaced in the alley by a platinum-haired older woman with a spear slung across her back—an honest to God spear, not some cosplay fake—was worse. She knew what the woman was. A hunter.

Which was some kind of fucked up shit. What kind of person saw a unicorn and thought, yeah, you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to hunt it down and kill it. People were assholes.

Maybe she could find the unicorn first. It had looked right at her. Like it saw something in her. She had felt the look all the way into her bones. That had to mean something.

She grabbed her jacket, and some apples off of the counter, because Jesus, who knew what unicorns actually ate, but apples seemed like a possibility, and left.

She stopped. Went back into her apartment, and took the leathery pomegranate out of the basket, too. She had seen a unicorn tapestry with pomegranates in it once. It might help.

• • • •

Legs trembling with weariness, the unicorn stepped onto the patch of grass. It reeked of animal urine, of the tracks of thousands of feet, of stale earth, and of worse things besides. The unicorn thought of forests that smelled of cool water, of pine resin, of the dark comfort of leaf mould.

It could not say how long it was since it had been in such a forest. A lifetime. Two. Or three.

The unicorn could go no further than where it was. Not right now. It barely had the strength to stand.

It could feel the heart of the maiden. It could hear the pursuit of the hunter. This, this too-long life, it would end one way, or it would end the other. But it would end, and soon.

For now, the unicorn would stand on this grass, this filthy, disgusting grass, and it would dream of remembered forests, and it would rest.

• • • •

Tracking a unicorn wasn’t a difficult thing, not if you were a hunter. The signs—roses growing up from cracks in the sidewalks, store windows turning to stained glass, streetside trees coming into fruit all out of season—were obvious, once you knew them.

Finding the unicorn was never the hard part. Certainly some hunters used maidens as lures, but that could cause complications, and the hunter wanted none of those. She preferred to rely on her self.

Even without the signs, without any of them, she could have tracked the unicorn. She often had, in the past. When it was younger. When it was more cunning. She had learned to rely on her intuition, on her sense of the unicorn, on the weight of the hunt that hung, like her spear, across her back. And while she had not yet caught it, she had always found it.

There were only so many places it could go.

• • • •

She had no idea where the unicorn could have gone. It wasn’t like she could listen for the clip-clop of hooves over the noise of the city. And you would think that you would hear shouts, you would hear people yelling about a unicorn walking down the street—that shit should have been blowing up Twitter, Instagrammed everywhere—but no. Nothing.

Maybe it really was true that only a virgin could see a unicorn.

Not that that helped right now, because clearly the hunter could see the unicorn, too, and that was the bigger problem. Because not only could the hunter see the unicorn, the hunter was also better at finding it than she was.

Her feet ached from running all over the city, and her jeans chafed, and she hadn’t seen it again, and it would be easier to go home, and not care.

But the unicorn had come to her alley. Had looked straight into her eyes. She had seen something in that look—age and time and the world’s one remaining miracle, maybe. Or maybe just something alone and hunted and tired, in need of one kind thing, and with no one to give it. Either way, she had to care.

Think. Where in the city would a unicorn go? She knew what she would want if she were lost and wandering. Food. Water. Shelter. Unicorns probably wanted those things, too. Where would it find those things in the city?

The park. She turned and ran towards it.

• • • •

The unicorn wanted nothing more than to sleep. To stop. To curl its aching limbs into a cool shadow, to lay itself down on a hill of sweet grass. But it could not rest, not while it was hunted. That was the way this worked—once the hunt began, it ended only in death. The unicorn left the corroded grass, the oil-tainted water, and continued on.

It could smell the hunter’s sweat, could feel her footsteps, even though she walked smoothly, even though her movements were deliberate.

That was the way of things, that the hunted beast would know of its pursuit. It had been a game before. The unicorn had exalted in its own cleverness, had laid false paths, had given counterfeit signs of its presence. Had stood in the hidden places, and watched, and delighted in the hunter’s confusion.

Had remembered when it was a hunter, before it had been changed, and had used all of that past knowledge to lengthen this chase.

In those early days, when this body was still new, the unicorn felt like it could run forever.

But now it was tired, and it wished to stop. It wished for an end on things, and it very nearly didn’t care how that end came about.

Very nearly. There was a hunter, yes. But there was a maiden, too, and above the strange steel forest, a bell rang, a familiar calling, and so there was something else as well.

• • • •

The hunter felt the change when it happened. The air shifted. There was an undercurrent to it that hadn’t been there before. It licked along the hunter’s skin like electricity, and she did not like it.

Hunts were not about unpredictability. There was a quarry, and there were signs, and the quarry was tracked, and then there was the kill.

She knew what would happen, had been there before, had been the maiden that had lured the beast. When that hunt had ended, she had pulled the spear from the corpse and claimed her new role. That was the way of things. Simple. Straightforward.

This was not.

• • • •

Fuck her aching feet. She ran. She could feel time getting small, slipping away from beneath her boots as they pounded on the sidewalk. She had passed two parks already and hadn’t seen the unicorn anywhere. She had called out to the people she passed, asking for help. It had gone about as well as she expected. Some asshole had grabbed his crotch and told her “I got something better than a unicorn for you, sexy.” Most people just stared.

She stopped. There had to be a better way to do this. She closed her eyes, trying to think, to feel. To remember the weight of the unicorn’s eyes, looking at her as if it had known her.

If she were hunted, if she were pursued, where would she go? Where in this city was there a place of safety, of sanctuary?

Sanctuary.

• • • •

The unicorn walked, as it had walked forever. But not away. Toward. Back through a path that had already been walked, back closer to a fate, instead of away from it.

The bell rang again.

The bell was the sound of sanctuary. A holy ringing, calling the faithful to a place of safety. This was something the unicorn knew, something it understood. There would be water there, holy and cool, and hands that might take the knots from its mane and the burrs from its flanks.

It could stop there. It could even sleep, and not violate the rules of the hunt. There was no time on hallowed ground.

Sanctuary.

• • • •

The cathedral bells rang through the hunter. She felt them in her bones. They were a warning. There is no hunt without a quarry, and there is no hunter without a hunt. She needed to find the unicorn now, before it could cross onto hallowed ground.

She looked to the sky, to the spires and towers clawing at the horizon. She tossed the three glass feathers the unicorn had shed into the air to check the wind.

They shattered before hitting the ground, each chiming the same note as the cathedral bells.

Sanctuary. The hunter spat the word, and she ran.

• • • •

She saw the unicorn fall on the cathedral steps, and she ran, her blistered feet in her too-small boots nothing to her now. Up close, she could see that it was old. Ancient maybe. Rheumy eyes and thinning hair. Hooves that were cracked. Still a miracle, born into flesh and bone. She didn’t see the hunter, but she wasn’t sure that mattered, now.

She stroked her hand down its trembling flank, over ribs too close to the skin. Her skin gleamed like stardust where she touched it. “You poor thing,” she said. “Rest now. I’ll stay with you.”

Its nostrils were rimmed with red, and she moved so that the fallen unicorn could rest with its head in her lap. She offered the apple, now bruised, from her pocket, and then tore the pomegranate seeds from their leathery skin. It ate one, two, three. Not even a winter’s worth. It was, she thought, eating them for her, not for itself.

She did not notice she was weeping, even as her tears fell like shadows onto the unicorn’s moonlight colored skin.

• • • •

The unicorn closed its eyes.

• • • •

The hunter stopped at the bottom of the cathedral stairs, just outside the bounds of what had been sanctified. She unslung her spear from her back.

“You. Will. Not.” The maiden’s voice was sharp as fate.

“I am a hunter. This is what I do.” But the spear felt heavy in her hand, strange in a way it never had before. She was unsure of her words, of her very name.

“No. This hunt is finished.”

The cathedral bell rang.

• • • •

She kept her hands on the unicorn as the hunter walked toward them. She didn’t know what else to do, so she hunched over its fallen body, shielding it with her own, bracing for the hunter’s spear.

She felt the unicorn stop breathing.

In that moment, she felt as if the spear had pierced her heart, felt a world end.

She did not want to be the maiden, if this pain was what that meant. She would be something else.

Beneath her, the unicorn disappeared, the sound of its leaving a thousand shatterings of glass.

• • • •

The hunter’s spear fell apart in her hand, scattering to nothing, to uselessness. She stumbled to her knees, unbelieving. Lost.

The hunter was nothing without her quarry. There was no hunt without a beast.

• • • •

She got up from where the unicorn had fallen and walked to where the older woman crouched among the pieces of her shattered spear. She spoke one word.

Run.

The woman who had once been the hunter stood awkwardly. She waited for the thing that must happen—for her feet to form into hooves and her skin to harden into hide. For her body to turn strange and monstrous, moonlight-colored and spiral-horned, for the change to give her the advantage of the hunt.

Nothing. Her own heart thudded, frantic in her chest. Her aching legs—two, only two!—shook beneath her.

Again, that terrible, merciless voice: Run.

She did.

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Kat Howard

Kat Howard by Shane Leonard

Kat Howard is the author of Roses and Rot, named one of the best SFF books of Summer ’16 by Publishers Weekly. Saga Press will also be publishing her next novel in late summer ’17, and a short fiction collection, A Cathedral of Myth and Bone, in early 2018. Her novella, The End of the Sentence, co-written with Maria Dahvana Headley, is available from Subterranean Press. Her short fiction has been published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and performed on NPR.