The story below is based on another of Wendig’s weekly prompts. This week: write something about unicorns! Limit is 1,000 words again.
Everything But Rachel
“There is only one road…” he murmurs, but the words burn his cracked lips and he can’t say it all. He finishes in his mind:
There is only one road as there is only one pilgrim. You must give up everything but Rachel.
Here the road is no more than a trail, winding across the rocky wasteland. Broken gray stone extends forever all around, a petrified ocean. A black sky flickers with flame. Vast, impossible, swirling pillars of darkness migrate across the waste. He is far, far from home, from Rachel. He has followed this road a long, long way: longer than all the roads on all the continents in all his old, half-remembered world. He follows still. This is the Master-Road, the template by which other roads are made, and what is there to do, but follow?
But someday he will reach the end of this road, and then he will kill the Polymancer. And perhaps – he plays this game hourly, savoring the delusion – perhaps it will be today.
You must give up everything but her.
“But I have,” he murmurs painfully, a sound that is barely a sound. I have sacrificed…
For comfort, he runs again through the litany of what he has lost.
His body, of course. That’s an easy one. That cruel-eyed mass of talons and scales bit him three weeks ago, and now slowly, slowly, the poison is spreading through him. It started at his left ankle, and it’s blackened that whole leg. The skin is all tender scales, pink underneath. Now his other leg blackens, and a patch has formed on his left hand. Slowly, but all too quickly, it spreads. In a month he will die. He smiles weakly at the thought. The end of the road.
His weapons, too. He lost the scimitar…when? Before the poison bite, certainly. And the knives, someone has stolen those, in some village where he spent the night. The road wound through villages, too, ages and ages ago.
His own name, sacrificed, gone from memory. He fancies it began with a “C,” but that’s something he’s invented – just another game. He does not know his face. He raises his fingers and feels the rough beard at his chin, but this awakes no memories. That’s all right. Identity is a burden, and that sacrifice was easy. Rachel knows his face, Rachel knows his name. That is enough.
Follow the road, pilgrim. Kill the Polymancer.
He wonders how he will kill the Polymancer like this, when he can barely walk. The pillars of dark slide lazily on the horizon, fifty leagues distant in the dry air.
You must give up everything but her.
Still he walks. He reaches into his pants pocket, pulls out the brass pocketwatch. It has long stopped ticking, stopped answering when he winds it. The dust and the grime. But the back is engraved with a name: Rachel.
Rachel. The warmth of brown fingers on his arm. The dark and curling hair. Laughing in the kitchen, crying in the rain, running across the yard to greet him. Rachel, the reason for the road.
He crests a hill, as he has crested countless others, and he stops once more to survey the land ahead. Always he hopes, at last, to see the Dark Castle of the Polymancer up ahead, the sable towers, the savage keep. But this view is like all the rest: only more rock, and more dust, and the fire in the sky and the pillars of darkness that whisper mockingly. He catches his breath. For the thousandth time his legs threaten to halt. For the thousandth time he forces them on again. There is only one road –
He stumbles, crashes on the rough black stone below. Pain flares in his chest. A rib broken, surely. His mouth moves, forming the scream but not setting it free.
Slowly – slowly – he stands.
“What else do you want?” he cries, not for the first time, a voice raw with thirst but steady as the miles behind. “What else is left – to sacrifice – ”
The unicorn appears.
No motion, no sound: only now there is a unicorn, where none stood before. If he is dreaming again, it is at least a new dream.
The unicorn is white and stark and stern, and he sees no weakness in it, and he knows it has come for him. He staggers, remains standing. Now the words are silent, a bare motion of lips: “What else is left – ”
The unicorn stares at him. He catches in its eye another dream, a dream’s dream, a vision of the future:
The Polymancer, red robes billowing, angry as the pillars of darkness and deadly as the sun. Himself – a rough face he hardly recognizes – climbing rocky steps inside the dark castle, struggling, failing. A cruel light from the Polymancer’s hand. As he watches himself falling, he already knows he is dead.
Thus the road will end. He will fail. He will die.
In his heart, the last embers of hope go cold. Nothing, nothing remains.
Nothing but her.
He laughs. His broken rib blazes with the motion, breath sears his throat, but he laughs and laughs. His legs shake as he mounts the beast, adjusts himself wearily on its bare, rough back.
Now he looks up around him, sees once more the final plain: the shuddering pillars, the flickering sky, the endless ocean of rock, and all ahead and behind the eternal, impassive road. He looks down at the unicorn and its solitary spike, the lone weapon glistening in that strange lightning, beautiful and deadly where it shines peerless as fire on the waste.
“On,” he whispers, and the unicorn leaps forward, carrying him down the road with tireless legs, lowering its terrible horn, never blinking those twin obsidian slivers, never hiding their benevolent lies.
Onward to Rachel.