Home > Zombies Vs. Unicorns(7)

Zombies Vs. Unicorns(7)
Author: Holly Black

Alison crossed the antechamber and opened the door at the other end. She had a second to realize she was staring at a blank rock wall—the door didn’t go anywhere. Then the floor dropped out from under her feet, and she heard Belcazar whinny in startled fright before she was going down with him in a flailing heap and a flying hoof caught her on the head.

Alison woke up with her head ice-cold-clear and a horrible taste in her mouth. A smiling white-bearded man was standing beside her, with a small brown glass bottle in his hand. “There. All better,” he said, and she eyed him sidelong. He didn’t really look like the evil wizard type, but then she noticed her wrists were chained to the wall, which, okay, was more supporting evidence than she really needed, thanks.

Belcazar was chained next to her, and the light had gone out of his horn. He bent his head and nosed at her anxiously as the wizard went to put the bottle back on one of the crammed-full shelves, and then to putter over a smoking cauldron in the middle of the room. “Are you all right?” Belcazar whispered.

“Totally not,” Alison said. Whatever Otto the Wizard had given her, it wasn’t anywhere near as nice as getting sobered up by a unicorn. Her head wasn’t hurting exactly, but it didn’t feel like everything on the inside was lined up right either. She dragged herself to sit upright against the wall, chains rattling. They had a lot of slack, but they didn’t seem to have anything at all in the way of openings in the shackles.

Otto straightened up from the cauldron and waved a wand at the back wall of the room, muttering. The wall slid aside. “Belcazar, Belcazar,” a few small voices said, calling. The baby unicorns were penned up in a iron cage, five of them crowded in together, looking sad and matted and scared.

“Okay, okay, stop bleating, that’s not going to help anyone,” Belcazar said, pawing the ground with a hoof, sending up sparks. “All right, wizard, stop being an ass. You can’t make yourself immortal by sacrificing baby unicorns.”

Otto laughed without looking up from the new stuff he was throwing into the cauldron. “I know the baby unicorns aren’t enough,” he said. “Fortunately, I now have a grown unicorn—and its chosen virgin.”

“Oh my God!” Alison said. “I’m not a—ow!” Belcazar had just kicked her in the thigh.

“Would you believe it’s harder to find a virgin than a unicorn in New York?” Otto added, throwing some more bunches of herby stuff into the cauldron. “People get very suspicious if you start hanging around teenage girls. I even tried Craigslist, but I’m reasonably sure all of the responders were lying.”

“Well, I’m shocked,” Alison said, and then she started scrambling up, braced against the wall, because Otto was coming over with a bowl and a very sharp knife.

“Don’t worry,” Otto said cheerily. “I only need a little bit at this stage. The actual sacrifice will be painful, of course,” he added apologetically. “But that won’t be for a few hours yet.”

The chains were pulling tight, dragging her wrists up over her head. “That had better be a clean knife,” Alison managed, her throat dry, as Otto reached up to cut a thin shallow slice across her upper arm and held the bowl underneath.

“Oh, completely sterile,” Otto assured her, seriously, and carried the bowl of blood over to the cauldron. The chains relaxed and came loose again.

“You really aren’t?” Belcazar whispered to her anxiously. “Because this would be a bad time to find out you—”

“I’m really not!” Alison spat back.

“Good, then you should probably—,” Belcazar began, and then Otto tipped the blood into the cauldron and the whole thing went up into a giant mushrooming cloud of black smoke that billowed out and filled the entire room.

Otto yowled as whatever had been boiling in the cauldron went pouring over his alligator-skin shoes and steaming over the floor. He whirled and came at them with the wand. “What did you do? How did you do that? I’m going to flay the skin off your bones—” Then he got close enough that Alison could pull the Princess Leia maneuver and throw the chains around his neck.

She jerked them tight and dragged him in close as his face went purple and red, and she snatched the wand out of his hand.

“What do I do with this?” she yelled at Belcazar.

“Touch my chains!” Belcazar yelled back, while Otto made choked strangling noises. The wand popped open Belcazar’s shackles, white light blooming through the whole room as he began to glow again.

In the light the wand seemed to writhe and squirm like a snake, shining greasily.

Alison ughed and flipped it out of her hand onto the floor, and Belcazar pounced on it, touching the twisting, gnarled stick with his horn. It glowed red and smelled like rotten eggs for a moment, and then it went up in a whole bunch of colorful flames.

“No-o-o,” Otto said, the O dragging out of him like the whine of a deflating balloon. It wasn’t just the sound, either; he was sinking in on himself, skin going greenish-white, and bones toppling slowly inward as a horrible rotting smell exploded outward. Alison covered her mouth with one hand and then the other as she did a little frantic dance trying to shake the chains loose of disgusting bits of Otto as he started falling apart.

“Hold still, do you want me to poke an eye out?” Belcazar demanded irritably, and then he tapped the shackles on her wrists with his horn. They popped open and clattered to the floor, along with the gaping remains of Otto’s skull, his teeth scattering away loose over the ground.

“That was so unbelievably gross,” Alison said, trying not to heave, or for that matter to look too close, “and I am saying that after I slept in a bus shelter yesterday.”

“You can throw up after we get out of here,” Belcazar said, whacking the lock off the baby unicorns’ cage. “Yes, yes, you’re all very grateful and happy to be rescued, I know,” he added to them.

“I’m hungry,” one of the baby unicorns said, popping out of the cage and shaking itself head to toe. The mats all fluffed out, leaving it looking a bit tufty, and then smoothed back down into place, neat and glowing.

“I want to roll in the grass,” another one said.

“I want some chocolate milk,” another one said.

“Chocolate milk, chocolate milk!” all the baby unicorns said, clamoring.

“Do not even look at me, I am cleaned out,” Alison said when Belcazar looked over at her in desperation.

“Okay, nobody back at the herd hears about this, you understand?” Belcazar said to the baby unicorns as they nudged and shoved against each other to get to the bowls Alison had set out, their hooves sliding and leaving streaks on the hardwood floor. “They really shouldn’t be drinking that,” he added fussily.

“Mm,” Alison said, tipping back a glass herself.

Belcazar eyed her darkly, and then he nudged her shoulder. “Give me a bowl too.”

Otto had kept a giant bag full of cash and diamonds upstairs in a wall safe that fortunately had been made out of steel, to keep out burglars instead of unicorns.

“I bet if I keep this, I’m going to get in trouble or something,” Alison said, looking at the money while the unicorns finished drinking. She hadn’t counted it yet, but the bag was crazy huge, and it was almost all in thousand-dollar bills. “Also, oh my God, we just killed that guy.”

“He was fairly close to dead to begin with,” Belcazar said, lifting his head and shaking chocolate milk off his nose, “so I don’t think anyone is going to miss him.

Give that here.” He tapped the bag with his horn, and the money all riffled quietly like a deck of cards before settling back down, looking somehow cleaner and more crisp. The diamonds glowed briefly. “I hope you don’t plan on spending any of it soon.”

“What?” Alison said.

“I’m certainly not herding five baby unicorns home alone,” Belcazar said. “They’ll end up in New Jersey.”

“So, where is home, then, the Bronx?” she asked.

Belcazar straightened his neck and tossed his head back a little, somehow managing to avoid putting a giant dent in the ceiling with his horn while he shook his mane out. “The entrance is in Fort Tryon Park,” he said.

“To what?” Alison said suspiciously.

“Er,” Belcazar said. “Home.”

“Fairyland!” one of the baby unicorns said, lifting its head up. “I want to go home!”

“Fairyland, Fairyland!” the others chimed in.

Alison looked at Belcazar.

“The correct name is actually the Land of Faerie,” Belcazar said stiffly, somehow managing to squash in a whole bunch of extra vowels. “Only infants and idiots call it —okay, you know what, just shut up and give me some more chocolate milk.”

“Bougainvillea”

Justine: Carrie Ryan’s zombies are solidly in the Romero mold: the death that haunts us all. Her undead are also a reminder that this debate is not about which creature is cooler or nicer, but about which creature makes for better fiction.

Zombies are clearly far more versatile than unicorns. In Alaya’s story, zombies were more or less the heroes; in Carrie’s world, they are neither villain nor hero, but a force of nature the protagonist must rise above. If she can.

(And in doing so, our he**ine reveals yet another of the important advantages of zombies—they’re way more fun to kill.) Holly: If you think that zombies are more fun to kill, you obviously don’t know the truly messed-up folks that I do. Actually, “Bougainvillea” is a great example of one of the things about zombies that unnerves me the most—they never stop, never slow, and inevitably they will win. I hate that!

Justine: Death takes us all, Holly. Denial ain’t going to stop the ole Grim Reaper.

Bougainvillea

By Carrie Ryan

1. BEFORE

Last year, Iza turned fifteen and her father threw a massive quinceañera. It was the largest party anyone on the island had seen since the Return, lasting an entire week. Every captain who wanted to curry favor with Iza’s father and gain access to Curaçao and its port or dry dock paid a visit at some point. They pushed beribboned boxes into Iza’s hands, their eyes always on her father to see if he approved of their offerings.

They brought Iza jewelry that she shuddered to look at, wondering which bracelets had once adorned reanimated arms. They brought scraps of useless money from various countries for her to collect. Many brought books that Iza couldn’t wait to devour, all covered with raven-haired men and redheaded he**ines.

But one of the men, a dark old Venezuelan with impossibly green eyes, brought Iza a game that belonged to his son. She knew it was the son’s because the old man made him be the one to hand it to her. The boy did so with a rage in his eyes that seemed too violent an emotion to be contained in his skinny teenage boy body.

The game came in a box with edges worn white, the cardboard slightly warped, and the name “Risk” in faded red. There were no instructions, and the old man spent a sweltering afternoon teaching Iza how to play before he had to get back to his leaky boat. His son refused to join them, and instead spent the afternoon standing at the edge of the cliffs, staring out at the ocean.

Iza spent weeks begging anyone to play with her. Some of the men and women who worked the landhuizen tried to play the game, torn between the fear of angering her father by not doing their jobs and the fear of his anger if they ignored his daughter. But they always let her win, and finally Iza would send them on their way.

Still, every afternoon Iza set the board up on the table in the shade of a divi-divi tree, the little red, yellow, blue, green, black, and gray men arranged in tight rows according to rank. She once asked her father if he could make the old Venezuelan come back and play with her, but he told her it was impossible.

“Why?” she asked, brushing away the yellow-breasted bird picking at the crumbs of her lunch.

“I had his ship banished from Curaçao,” her father said.

Iza’s eyebrows tilted into a frown. “Why?” she asked. The bird swooped in, nabbing a crust of bread, but she didn’t care.

“Because you told me the son refused to play with you,” her father said. He didn’t even look at her as he rose from the table and walked away before Iza could respond. She felt slightly unsettled, her stomach twisted and queasy.

Hadn’t she known that her father would take action if she told him about the boy refusing to play with her? Isn’t that why she’d done it? The bird hopped over to the abandoned plate to scoop up the remains left by her father, and she didn’t bother waving it away.

Alone, Iza was left to trace her fingers from continent to continent on the game board, memorizing the shape of countries that no longer existed. Before he’d left, the Venezuelan had taken out an old marker and drawn an X in the blue expanse of the Caribbean sea where Curaçao was supposed to be. Iza would press her thumb over it, wondering if it really was that easy to wipe out an entire world.

2. NOW

“You should be more careful when you leave the landhuizen, Iza,” Beihito says to her one afternoon. Even after so many years on the island, she’s not used to the way he says her name, like the word “pizza” without the p. Sometimes it reminds her of when she was a little girl before the Return, when she’d pull hot thin slices of greasy cheese out of a cardboard box. She closes her eyes, unable to remember the taste and burn of it.

She’s lying on her stomach on the large dock at the base of the cliff and staring into the water. She used to have a snorkel and mask and loved to swim around and explore the reef, but her father took them away when he felt she’d grown too comfortable.

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