“Most shows,” said Rukh after a time, “would end here, for what could they possibly present after a genuine unicorn? But Mommy Fortuna’s Midnight Carnival holds one more mystery yet – a demon more destructive than the dragon, more monstrous than the manticore, more hideous than the harpy, and certainly more universal than the unicorn.” He waved his hand toward the last wagon and the black hangings began to wriggle open, though there was no one pulling them. “Behold her!” Rukh cried. “Behold the last, the Very End! Behold Elli!”
Inside the cage, it was darker than the evening, and cold stirred behind the bars like a live thing. Something moved in the cold, and the unicorn saw Elli – an old, bony, ragged woman who crouched in the cage rocking and warming herself before a fire that was not there. She looked so frail that the weight of the darkness should have crushed her, and so helpless and alone that the watchers should have rushed forward in pity to free her. Instead, they began to back silently away, for all the world as though Elli were stalking them. But she was not even looking at them. She sat in the dark and creaked a song to herself in a voice that sounded like a saw going through a tree, and like a tree getting ready to fall.
“What is plucked will grow again,
What is slain lives on,
What is stolen will remain –
What is gone is gone.”
“She doesn’t look like much, does she?” Rukh asked. “But no hero can stand before her, no god can wrestle her down, no magic can keep her out – or in, for she’s no prisoner of ours. Even while we exhibit her here, she is walking among you, touching and taking. For Elli is Old Age.”
The cold of the cage reached out to the unicorn, and wherever it touched her she grew lame and feeble. She felt herself withering, loosening, felt her beauty leaving her with her breath. Ugliness swung from her mane, dragged down her head, stripped her tail, gaunted her body, ate up her coat, and ravaged her mind with remembrance of what she had once been. Somewhere nearby, the harpy made her low, eager sound, but the unicorn would gladly have huddled in the shadow of her bronze wings to hide from this last demon. Elli’s song sawed away at her heart.
“What is sea-born dies on land,
Soft is trod upon.
What is given burns the hand –
What is gone is gone.”
The horrors of entropy, death, and decay: desiccated black mosses, vetiver, olibanum, patchouli, and ashes.
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