Heads Will Roll by Lish McBride
Let’s begin our summary with the story’s blurb. It’s a good place to start. Lena’s not your typical animal trainer. And when she and her unicorn partner, Steve, decide to enter a fight, it’s definitely not your typical fight…. Lena and Steve arrive at a warehouse, warm after the chilly air outside. Lena approaches a man at the door, gives her name and Steve’s stage name, Phantom, and they enter, prepared to fight, or at least they pretend to be. They’ve got other plans up their leg warmers.
They pass guards standing by, Steve telepathically shares his thoughts with Lena that the guards have minds like open cesspools. The first time he spoke inside her mind, she thought she had a brain tumor, but she’s used to it now and can converse with him using her mind, too, and he shows his appreciation by filling her head with sunshine. They also pass by a yowie who probably smells like a cesspool.
They make it to the stalls, steel and concrete with heavy doors and locks. That seems… ominous… but remember, they have plans up their leg warmers, and they’re sticking with them. To free all the creatures filling these stalls, but not just by simply opening their doors. Lena gets Steve ready, takes off his leg warmers because yes, he’s really wearing leg warmers, and removes the blanket covering him.
Steve is 18 hands of pure white unicorn. Literally pure. That’s rare. He’s such a good guy. Most fighting unicorns are not so good. To have a fighter, you have to start torturing it young so fighting and anger is all it knows. Unless you have one that can think, like Steve. A gangly teenager outside the stall is shocked by Steve. His name is Jonah. Steve thinks Jonah is a good kid, so Lena gives him all the money she has on her and tells him to leave the warehouse for the night. Then she finishes getting Steve ready for the fights. A judge comes by and tells Lena that Steve will fight in the third round.
Lena goes to watch the first rounds. The fights take place in a big room of the warehouse inside a giant, magically warded cage surrounded by bleachers full of onlookers. The first fight was between a harpy and a manticore. The harpy won, but didn’t kill the manticore, just gored him with her talons. The second fight was between a minotaur and a wepwawet. Wepwawets weren’t supposed to be fighters though, they’re guides to the underworld. He won the fight, but didn’t kill the minotaur either. As he leaves the arena, he stares into Lena, probably judging her soul’s heart, even though that’s more Osiris’s job, but that’s another story for another day.
Time for the third round. Phantom Steve’s round. He’s up against a waheela, an arctic wolf bear with ice powers. He freezes the floor but Steve won’t have that. He melts the ice with his horn. Then the waheela slams into Steve. The waheela is disoriented after that, seems woozy, tilts his head at Steve, but then he falls over. The fight is over already? What an outrage! The waheela’s handler comes in, kicks him, then gets his leg ripped off and then he’s eaten. Phantom Steve asked him to throw the fight and he’d set him free. So that’s what was in their leg warmers this whole time.
The crowd doesn’t know that though and everyone’s in a frenzy. Yay! Someone finally died! Who cares if it was a handler and not a creature? Lena jumps on Steve’s back as they gallop out of the arena. She pulls a bronze rod from her jacket that shinks out into a spear and screams a battle cry. Her jacket becomes a cape of swan feathers and a bronze circlet appears on her head. Yes, that’s right everyone, she’s a Valkyrie and is awesome. They dash back to the kennels and set all the creatures free. A hydra, two centaurs, a chimera, three hellhounds, the minotaur and maybe a chupacabra, the wepwawet and lots of others.
The wepwawet communicates telepathically with Lena. They talk about her being Valkyrie, or half Valkyrie as her father is a mechanic. She asks what he’ll do now that he’s free, but he’s not quite free yet. He borrows her spear to remove cuffs that were on his wrists. They were restricting his powers and with their removal, can reach into the otherworld and pull out his scimitars. He’s got several people to lead to the underworld after this evening and leaves, telling Lena that if she ever needs a favor she just needs to call for Ed.
Lena and Steve walk out of the warehouse leaving the carnage behind them. They know the fights will die down for a little while, but they’ll start up again eventually and they’ll be back when they do. Following behind them is the waheela. And then Jonah shows up, too. Lena decides to bring them both along with her and Steve. It’s her day to pick up strays. But Steve reminds her that she was a gangly teenager once, too, and that she grew into her potential. Now she’s a role model for Jonah. They all straighten their spines, the waheela included, Steve whips his mane like a woman in a hair commercial, and they stride off into the sunset. Well, not really, that’s not for another couple of hours, but you get the idea.