As it turned out, and much to Petka’s surprise, unicorns were (as promised) real and plentiful, resembling majestic white horses with a shimmering mane and silvery tail, and indeed (as the legends had said), had a twisting horn protruding from their skull– golden in color and undoubtedly magical.
“You like them, Fawcett? Take it aaaaallllll in. Mystical, magical creature, simply radiating majesty and an innate pride- a true sight, isn’t it friend? Oh, and how the ever-dusk really brings out the shine in their eyes, and oh how the horn does shine an’ sparkle so!”
“I suppose it is rather impressive,” replied Petka, “I never thought I would see one mystical beast of the forest, let alone a whole heard of them… It’s… well, peaceful, I suppose.”
“Good. Glad ya think so. Now are ya ready to hear why nearly everything here is made out o’ unicorn?”
“Yes, Finnen, I suppose I am.”
“Great!” snapped Finnen, “Get comfortable, this will take a while.”
Chaim and Petka took a seat on the ground, looking at the placidly grazing beasts, ruminating on tufts of grass and scrub, utterly nonplussed by the humans who sat a few feet away from them. Finnen cleared his throat (this sharp noise did anything to startle the great, shimmering horses).
“Gentleman, you gaze upon beasts of legend. I am here to pick that legend apart, piece by piece. I do this partially because, as I have hinted before, most of what you will be consuming will be made from unicorn and I don’t want the vision of some pie-eyed sparkle-horse to rob you of yer appetites. Now…ah, and here we go. Chaim likely already has an idea of what’s goin’ on, so this is for you, Petka Fawcett.”
Finnen ran a hand over his bald head again, spit into the grass, and began with great pomp.
“Myth: Unicorns are rare.” Finnen let out a curt little laugh.
“Fact: In Creighton’s Rest, Unicorns are so numerous they are actually considered a pest animal. They reproduce at an alarming rate, three or four to a litter, three times per ‘month’, and reach maturity in the blink of an eye! And like every other pest animal, these sneaky bastards eat nearly anything you put in front of them, ‘cept of course humans- Living God, they ate the thatch off o’ the early cottages– that’s why we ate them– self defense!”
“But-” Petka started, but was immediately cut-off by Finnen.
“Myth: Unicorns are horses with horns.”
“How is that a myth?” asked Petka with a rare edge in his voice, “They are clearly equine in appearance!”
Finnen sighed wearily.
“In appearance, yes, but in reality? They are just a species of giant, horned, horse-sized rats, hidin’ in plain sight.”
Petka moved his lips to contradict the now snickering Irishman, but his voice froze in his throat when he saw the elegant, delicate, equine legs of the unicorn ended not it hooves, but in an over-sized, hairless and, scaly paw, clearly rodent in appearance.
“Dear God!” said Petka, retching a little, “But they seem awful calm for rats! Shouldn’t they be scurrying around somewhere? I mean, they’re too big to get into a house but…I would have thought… I don’t know, that they would be skittish. And a little smarter.”
“All good observations Fawcett– and it may surprise you to learn that we have received more complaints of invasive ‘house unicorns’ than you would think- they get in the rafters and behind the walls somehow and chew up the insulation– which brings us to myth three-”
“Oh, no…” uttered Chaim.
“Myth: Unicorns are intelligent.”
Petka remained silent, but gave him a cockeyed look, waiting for the revolutionary “fact” that was soon to follow.
“Fact!” barked Finnen, with an air of seriousness, “Unicorns are dumb. Dumb as hell! Look at that one over there!” said Finnen with disgust, gesturing to a unicorn that kept walking into a tree, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he could simply walk around it. Other unicorns were bumping into each other, and a third was chewing determinedly on its own tail.
“But…” said a demoralized Petka, “What about the horn? It’s magic or something, right?”
“Ah, the horn,” said Finnen with a hearty belly-laugh. “Magic? Maybe. But We had taken to callin’ them ‘idiot bones’. One would think that the horn starts on the top of the skull and grows from there but not so! It actually originates from the base of the skull and grows straight through the brain, making for a cosmetically majestic, if not densely stupid animal. Not wanting to miss a good opportunity, and having hungry bellies to feed, we took to hunting them- well, if you could call it hunting. In reality, we would just approach one of the things that was invariably bumping up against something without the sense to either change direction or back up, and then ring the dinner bell.”
Here, Finnen drew a two handed claymore sword from the stump where it had lain across and banged the edge on a rock a few times, causing the blade to radiate heat and glow orange.
“You see- well, you’re a huntsman, you know! There is nothin’ wrong with eating an animal, so as long as it is treated and hunted respectfully. We were certainly never cruel to them–nobody’s happier than these equine-rat beasts! They’re just a pair o’ lips short of whistlin’ a happy tune! Anyway, when we need food, we ‘ring’ the dinner bell, the uni-horns all gather ’round like we’re givin’ away candy, then we swiftly decapitate one! It dies instantaneously, heat cauterizes the wound- oh, an’ we use every part of the unicorn too! Then bellies are filled, people are clothed, and everybody’s happy.”
“I guess that makes sense,” said Petka cautiously, “I mean as a huntsman that all sounds humane and kosher.”
“Glad ya think so!” said Finnen, grinning from ear to ear, “You’re a good man Fawcett, and I would have hated to offend ya.”
Finnen turned to a unicorn who had been standing, mouth agape, staring directly (and likely with some discomfort) into the setting sun, with one wandering eye. Finnen patted it on the haunches (which caused the beast to sneeze lightly), and with a might karate-call of “Ki-Yaaaaa!”, Finnen brought the glowing claymore down on the unicorn’s neck; its head fell expressionless to the ground with the same thousand yard stare it had sported in life. In a sense, it seemed entirely nonplussed by the whole “separated from his head” situation and as the body fell to its side, Finnen rang a little bell that hung from the pommel of the sword.
“Wha- why did you do that?!” asked Fawcett, surprised at the turn of events.
“Oh, the stew was just an appetizer. It’s not every night I have guests, and I’m in the mood for steak. Not going to lose your stomach now, are ya Fawcett?”
For a moment, Fawcett did feel a little green, but the his returning hunger overtook him. A steak- even from a horned, childhood fantasy-obliterating rat-horse was too appealing to him to turn away.
“No, no, I’ll be fine,” sighed the great-bearded huntsman, stooping down to help Finnen with the body, “I’m hungry enough to ignore how absurdly impossible this situation is. Let’s eat.”
“Kanpai!” shouted Chaim, slapping his knee with an open paw, “I can eat it too since unicorns are on the same plane of existence! I lost track of the progression of time quite a while ago, but if I had a perfect Sunday, this would be it!”
The three started to pull the carcass towards Finnen’s cottage when a frenzy of growls and barks pierced through the air, from the direction of the distinctly unpleasant gnome cave.
Finnen’s head snapped up, and he said, “Haven’t heard a wolf here in ages- friend of yours Chaim?”
“I don’t know every wolf, you clover eating bigot.” snapped Chaim.
“Oh, hypocrisy doesn’t suit ya Canid– doesn’t flatter you at all. Sure, I enjoy the occasional handful of clover every now and then, but to apply that to all Irishman is just a lazy stereotype.”
Chaim was shocked to see a look of slight injury on Finnen’s face. That shock was soon shattered when Finnen began to laugh in an unhinged, maniacal fashion.
“Jus’ kiddin’ me friend! But seriously, we had better check that out. Not sure how a wolf got this far, ‘specially past the gnomes.” Then, amongst the din of growls and woofs, Petka dropped his part of the unicorn, cocked his head and whispered one word before taking off in a dead run towards the mouth of the cave:
Petka was still exhausted to the point of collapse, but his concern for his lupine companion enabled him to force his heavy, aching legs to propel him quickly out of the “idiot buffet” (the local term for herd of unicorns), through the lonely, cobwebbed settlements, past Finnen’s Pub, and to the mouth of the cave. Petka never had many friends (save for the recent addition of a brain-scrambled Irishman and a jovial, but occasionally morose man-ghost-wolf), but Raksha had always responded to his whistle and helped him countless times, either to scare off a predator, or help him track down pray- he had known the wolf since she was a pup. And though Petka wasn’t sure just how Raksha had managed to follow him through the series of absurd, and frankly ridiculous steps it had taken him to get to the Rest, he simply couldn’t stomach the thought of his little lupine sister being devoured by cheeky, cave-dwelling, squdgy-nosed lamprey-folk.
Wanting for a better idea, Petka Fawcett drew his hunting knife (knowing deep down, of course, that it would be entirely useless), and crested the hill, not entirely sure what he would be in for. It was then he saw Raksha, mercifully no worse for the wear it seemed, as she was not covered with the weird, naked little bloodsuckers. She was limping slightly, and covered in blood– but that blood was green.
Fawcett dropped to one knee and checked Raksha’s front paw- fortunately, there was but a small, circular bite. He disinfected it by rubbing in some herbs and alcohol, and wrapped the wound, the great wolf giving a little whimper, and began to clean the viscous green gnome-goop from his more traditional canid companion.
It was actually quite remarkable- Raksha had passed through that most unpleasant of caves nearly unscathed, whereas Fawcett had a handwritten guide full rituals and careful instructions and he barely made it out of that grotto of horrors with his life- he was battered, bruised, and bloody, but Raksha– well, let’s just say there was something to be said for the dual forces of ancestral memory, and raw instinct.
Finnen and Chaim now crested the hill, both breathing heavy, the former doubled over with a slight wheeze.
“W-wait Chaim- you’re a spirit, aren’t you? Do you even need to breathe?” Finnen’s voice was tinged with a note of suspicion.
Chaim stood up, sighed, and shook his head.
“No, Finnen, I am a spirit. Not being able to breathe and further, having no need to do so, I was not, and indeed cannot become out of breath.”
“Then what the ‘ell was all that about? Hacking an’ coughing, fit to be tied?”
“Well, Finnen,” replied Chaim in a slightly hurt voice, “Forgive me for introducing a little pageantry into the group dynamic. I don’t have to walk either- should I just float around motionless and dead silent just over the ground?”
“Well, no,” replied Finnen, now just slightly out of puff, “I mean that would be-”
“Awkward and alienating?” interrupted Chaim.
“Y-yeah,” replied Finnen, regaining his wind.
There was another moment of awkward silence, which was only interrupted by Petka asking for a towel, soap, and water. He was brought a bucket of fresh, crystal-clear water, a fragrant bar of soap, and (predictably) a towel made from unicorn hide.
“I told ya we use ’em for everything,” said Finnen proudly, “And it’s super absorbent too! Oh, don’t give me that look, just use the bloody thing, Fawcett. Jay-sus.”
Much to Raksha’s consternation, she was thoroughly washed of the sloppy gnome-goop, and promptly shook herself off after the unwanted bath, soaking Petka, Finnen, and Chaim with a mixture of water-diluted gnome sludge.
“Thanks, Fawcett,” said Chaim with a huff, wiping the mixture from off of his face and cloak with a unicorn-skin rag.
“I guess we’re not ‘sposed ta have nice things,” Finnen chimed in, wiping his own face off with his own unicorn-hide handkerchief which was, as promised, quite remarkably absorbent.
Ignoring the banter between Finnen and Chaim, Petka took Raksha’s long snout in his hands, and peered into her deep brown eyes.
“Raksha,” Petka said with a mix of concern and bafflement, “How on earth did you end up here?”
At this (and almost as if on cue), Raksha gulped air three or four times, then threw up a little pile of pointed caps and boots, covered in bile.
“Ugh,” said Finnen, screwing up his face, “I think it’s entirely possible she ate her way through each and every obstacle! Maybe she’ll toss up a piece of the elephant next- boy, wouldn’t that be something!”
“Well,” started Petka, pulling on his beard, “Let’s think about this. The wood apes likely didn’t cause her too much trouble, what, with her having nothing to steal. I figured she mauled one or two, and the others just kept a wide berth- animals can see through their ruse anyway, so there goes their element of surprise. The trees don’t really think about wolves or other woodland critters, they really just hate people, and Raksha’s too quick and smart to get stung by some lumpy basilisk, which which just leaves the elephant…”
“ Well Finnen, that is a puzzlement, given that Raksha not only lacks testicles herself, but also the ability to kick somebody in their testicles,” Fawcett shook his head at the absolute level of absurdity the conversation had taken.
“I’m curious to know too,” muttered Chaim angrily, “Because I took an elephant boot to the spectral grapes just to get by- I can still hear the rocky bastard’s mocking laughter.”
Finnen, deep in thought, placed a hand on his cleanly shaved, prominent chin, and thought on this for a second, occasionally furrowing his brow, then slapping himself on the forehead twice.
“Sorry, me brain’s a bit scrambled; I had to rewire the circuitry. I reckon Raksha just pulled on his tail.”
“She…what!?” asked Fawcett, outraged, glaring at Chaim, the huntsman’s eyes glowing a darkening shade of red.
“H-hey- Petka! Count your blessings! I had to take a demoralizing wrecking boot to the fellas to get by! At least you got by with a riddle!”
“Fine,” said Fawcett, “You’re right. You just found the book, yes? Perhaps it neglected a detail or two?”
“Yes, as a matter of fact you’re right- it did skimp on some details. Maybe things have changed in the previous millennia, or just maybe the author didn’t want a parade of total strangers to traipse unbidden through his jackass trials, and dirty up his invisible kingdom- I don’t know. I mean, for the love of the gods, he left out the most important step of all, which is to how to actually get to the bloody kingdom, whether to rule or just to visit- I think it’s safe to say they don’t rely on gods-damned tourist dollars!”
“Chaim-” shouted Fawcett, “Relax!” He attempted to put a hand on the spirit’s shoulder and nearly fell on his face, “We’re good- the whole thing just…just caught me off guard, that’s all.”
“Are you sure?” asked the spirit of the lonely hollows with more than a hint of hurt in his voice.
“Yes, yes, I’m sure Chaim. I think you’re a good… ghost-spirit. I don’t care what they say about you.”
“What!?” barked a startled Chaim, “Who’s ‘they’?’ Your wolf and the Irishman? Plotting against me, are they? ”
“I the interest o’ full disclosure,” said Finnen, kicking the dust at his feet, “I was going to find a way to pants you. More in the interest of curiosity than cruelty. An’ it was just me- the wolf had nothin’ to do with it.”
“Oh no,” replied the Spirit of the Lonely Hollows, “You’re in cahoots- I can see into the souls of people and animals, and there is a boundless, freezing darkness in that wolf- a coldness incarnate! Isn’t that right demon?”
Raksha, at that moment, was rolling on her back in the grass, entirely heedless to Chaim’s screed- and if there was a pulsing, cold darkness hidden within her fur, it was effectively hidden by the satisfied grunts that filled the air as she scratched her back.
“Chaim,” said an exasperated Fawcett, “Give me your eyes- there we go. While we technically do have time for this, as time is largely not a factor here, our conversation is aging me rapidly. So, my friend, no soul- peering, and Finnen, may God help you if you pants-this poor schmuck- no, I don’t care how interesting it would be, and I do agree, it would be interesting. Oh, and Raksha, try to keep a handle on that heart of darkness of yours.”
Raksha barked in a genial manner, than resumed her roll in the grass, grunting with satisfaction.
“Now Finnen,” said Fawcett with a long sigh, calming down a bit, “Tell me about the elephant’s tail.”
“Well, the pachyderm used to keep ‘is tail on the inside of the cave. Whoever wished to leave again- usually Creighton- would tug on the tail, an’ the great stony prick would roll out of the way, clearly annoyed, then roll back when the traveler left, coverin’ the mouth back up.”
“Did he have to amuse the elephant with some groin-injurious ‘jest ‘ to get back in?”
Chaim was clearly annoyed, and secretly wondered if he’d ever be able to ride a bike again. He had never ridden one before, and really didn’t want to now, but resented not being able to do so.
“As a matter o’ fact, no. The whole boot to the groin jest is, well relatively ‘new’. Back then, it was just a, well, true jest a joke, or a riddle or somethin’. An’ before you ask, neither Creighton, nor the Missus had to do anythin’ more than ask to get back in. The ol’ stone-ephant tried that nonsense only once, and the Missus threatened to find his, quote, ‘stony little gravel-purse’ and crush it into a powder. Apparently, this scared the beast enough to allow Creighton an’ Johannah to come an’ go as they please with a minimum of gnome bites.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” said a frustrated Petka, shaking his head, “When you came here, the tail was on the inside, so people could more or less leave as they pleased…but now, his tail is on the outside where nobody would even think to either look for it, let alone pull it to make him move out of the way. When did that change exactly?”
This question clearly his a nerve with the Irishman who could clearly take a punch and called almost no man Mister, and a look of sadness swept over his scarred features, replacing his normally manically-happy face. He dropped his bald, scarred head, and slumped his broad shoulders. Fawcett couldn’t help but recall the cluster of burnt-out buildings where the prairie stopped. Finnen coughed and spit, slapped his head, and straightened his posture, and resumed his sense of calm, though his usual grin was notably absent.
“Dinner first,” he whispered in his thick Irish brogue, “I’m hungry, and not nearly drunk enough to tell that story. Plus, I have to feed my bird, Charon.”
“What kind of bird is it? Like a parrot or something?” asked Chaim, trying to lighten the mood, “Before the swine-coup, the city, when ruled by the koalas and the insufferable Cube-Lord, had a lot of parrots.”
“You know Chaim, you’re not far off- she’s a lot like a parrot,” replied Finnen with a forced little grin, “Come on- to the tavern; let’s get this over with. Every rest has to end sometime.”
Finnen sighed, and led the group back to the Tavern for steaks, and a story he was clearly dreading to tell.