December 2019

Deeper, and deeper still. This part of the house is old and dark and ancient. No one lives here, not in this part, and the staff cleans it perfunctorily, by rote, and only once in a great while. They work in pairs on the brightest days, for the shadows are long and limber here, and there is only strong light to keep that dark shape flitting across the periphery of your vision from emerging.

They won’t talk about it, the staff, not because of any threats or recrimination but because they feel that giving the shadows names, giving them currency, gives them power as well. But none of them have escaped the feeling of being watched, none of them have seen only static shadows, and none of them has been spared the sense of helpless fear as beings, formless but for eyes of burning coal, creep out of the darkness.

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Polychrome Cardinal
Cardinalis chromaticus

Cardinals are known for being brightly colored, and the polychrome cardinal takes this to an extreme by appearing to be a different color to each person who sees it. One observer may see a brilliantly blue bird, another may experience it as lime green, and still another might see candy-cane stripes or leopard spots.

While a number of obvious morphological cues can help an experienced birdwatcher establish that they are looking at a polychrome cardinal, the mechanism by which the birds evoke different colors–and, rarely, patterns– in observers is totally unknown. The only constant seems to be that all polychrome cardinals are perceived as being the same color.

Except for females and juveniles, of course, which are mostly brown.

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“The liquor is in the back, in boxes,” drawled Harrison. “Boxes’re labeled. Shelves’re labeled. Just keep everything topped off and that’ll be that.”

Colin looked at the gas station’s dizzying array of intoxicants, which ranged from cheap to cheap but pretentious. “You need a whole temp just for that?” he said.

Harrison squirted his cheekful of dip from one side of his mouth to the other with a sound, and a vision to go with it, that made Colin thoroughly queasy. “You got a family?” he said.

“Of a sort,” Colin said.

“You seeing them this month?”

“Most likely,” Colin said. “Free meal, after all, when you’re living on a temp’s paycheck.”

“Well, it may surprise you, Mr. Evans Jr., but I also got me a family. A big ‘un. And there is nothing on God’s green earth worse than them. Probably even worse for you, seeing as your people have to cook for folks who think gratitude is a kinda flower,” Harrison said. “You know who gets me through it?”

“Your wife?” Colin ventured.

Harrison turned to the shelves, peeling three bottles off and shoving them into Colin’s arms. “Mister Jack Daniels, the Reverend Jim Beam, and His Goddamn Majesty the Crown Royal.”

Colin shifted the bottles uneasily in his arms. “Ah,” he said. “I think I get it.”

“You learn the shapes of those bottles by feel, Mr. Evans Jr., because you’re gonna need it.” Harrison turned away. “Get ready. I’m opening now.”

At the click of the latch, Colin had barely gotten the bottles back on the shelf when the liquor aisle was flooded with people. None of them acknowledged him, not the three mothers, two grandmothers, or the uncle with a shopping basket over each arm. They just shambled over, filled their hands and all other receptacles with wine and whiskey, and shuffled off. Within five minutes, the box wine was already out, to say nothing of the Jack and Jim.

Colin took ten minutes wrestling fresh bottles and boxes out of the back room, and had just begun opening the when a fresh wave hit. The people didn’t even wait for the boxes to open, simply scooping them up and taking them to the register. And there were more behind them.

“I quit,” he whispered, miserably.

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The statue was monumental, seated. A king, on his throne. And, indisputably, a human being. There was no sign of the traits the legends had spoken of–no pointed ears, no spindly limbs, no inhuman eyes. The symbol that the Empire had turned up again and again in its excavations of old elven sites was carved into the stone as well, a broach about the cloak of the king, so there was no mistaking that this monumental effigy was one of them.

“It’s a man,” Scimoc whispered. “Just a man.”

Agneja laughed, ruefully. “It’s easier to kill someone when they’re not like you,” she said, as her laughter dissolved into a racking cough.

“Yes, I suppose it is,” Scimoc replied, weakly. “I suppose every empire must fall, every life must end. There’s no escaping from it.”

“What will you do now?” said Agneja, hoarse. “Go tell your emperor that the thing you pinned all your hopes on was just a phantom?”

“I may at that,” Scimoc said. He sat down heavily, leaned against the cold stone of the wall, and exhaled deeply. His breath spun away into vapor. “I just need a rest first, for a little while. You won’t begrudge me that, will you? An old man who has come a long way only to find bitter disappointment?”

Agneja nodded. “Take as long as you like,” she said, settling against the frigid blocks herself. “I’m not going anywhere without you.”

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“We’ve all heard fairy stories,” Agneja said. “But you don’t seem like the sort to believe in that. Why, then? Why look for elves in the godforsaken wilderness?”

Scimoc smacked his hand on one of the stones. “Is this a fairy tale to you?” he said.

“No, but what do we gain from a dead city, soon to have still more dead within it?” Agneja pressed.

“We have it from legends and old histories that the elves were long-lived, that they were not troubled by the petty squabbles that have held our kind back and turned many of our lands to ash,” Scimoc replied. “The population of the Empire is barely half of what it was before the plagues and the Brothers’ War, and there are some in the court that say we’re eventually doomed to exhaust our farmlands, to grow beyond our ability to support ourselves, and dig our own short-sighted graves.”

“The elves can’t help us with any of that,” Agneja said. “They’re gone. Long gone.”

“I’m not looking for their help.” He slapped at the stones again, more weakly this time. “I’m just looking for some evidence that somebody like us could thrive. If they built this place, lived immortal lives, and only disappeared because we killed them all, well…then maybe there’s hope for us. Somebody managed it. Maybe we can too.”

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Even though the structures were still intact enough in places to offer some respite from the howling wind and driving snow, there was little that the remaining travelers could do to keep themselves warm as the temperatures continued to plummet. They’d cut some trees surrounding the city and tried to fashion rude walls with them, stopping the gaps between rough-hewn bits of wood with mud, but even then the cold was an ever-present misery. Food and fuel were in short supply as well, and each further trip out to replenish them exhausted the group still further.

And yet, despite all the hardships, Scimoc continued to carefully map the ruins, day by day, systematically eliminating candidates and expanding his map, hoping to find the statue–the elven figure.

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The party, now numbering fourteen, left Rewitt’s grave in a clearing under a cairn. As torturous as things had been with the old trapper, they were worse without him. Agneja knew her way around the wilderness, surely, but it was not a wilderness she was familiar with. Even with the sun to guide them eastward and the river to mark the path, they constantly stumbled upon cliffs, morasses, and other impassible obstacles which required costly backtracking. Animals were scarce, and edible plants scarcer, while the river never seemed to widen or deepen enough for the party to build rafts to ease their way.

It was seventy days, give or take, after Rewitt died that the first paving-stone appeared, indicating a long and forgotten road that had been overtaken by the ages.

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