The Shade of An Unquenchable Thirst

Quentin Stipp - A Long Road.jpg

The black markets are flooded with maps purporting to show the way to the ruins of the Illuthian Empire. None of them lead anywhere but empty drifts of sand. Countless expeditions have departed in search of Illuthia and failed to return.

Those that have walked among the ruins came upon them by accident. Sometimes as part of caravans, following well-trodden routes. Perhaps the heat and the indistinguishable and endless dunes confused the navigators. Perhaps (and this theory is borne out by the uselessness of all maps to Illuthia) the ruins move on their own.

One first sees the city shimmering on the horizon, and thinks it is a mirage, for there is no city here.

The white marble columns rise from the sands, cracked and cakes with dust, but as one approaches one sees the knotted green vines twining up the columns, laden with white flowers and purple fruits. The fruits are delicious and wet.

The city is perfectly silent. The structures lie heaped in the sand – spires, hollow courtyards, fragments of walls, hinting at an impossible and forgotten grandeur. The heavy-laden vines rise from the sands. In dusty plazas are found pools of clear water; in dusty cellars are casks of wine, left unopened for untold years.

The city is silent. There are no signs of its former inhabitants, living or dead: no bones, graves, or ghosts.

You drink of the water, devour the fruits, gather treasures from among the fallen towers and empty palaces: gold coins stamped with an unfamiliar visage, beer and wine in dust-caked bottles, finely-carved statues of winged and eyeless divine creatures.

Why would you ever leave Illuthia? The springs of water are endless; the purple fruits bountiful; there are no sand-spiders or other creatures of the desert to trouble you.

Those who have returned from Illuthia all make the same curious claim. Some time around the third night of their visit, they began to feel that they were being watched. Some claim to have seen a figure moving among the forests of columns or watching from the high windows of distant buildings.

Nobody offers a proper description of the shade, but (they claim) the sight or even the sense of it changes one’s impression of Illuthia. The protruding white columns begin to look like the ribs of an immense dead thing, half-buried in the sand, and the impression is soon inescapable; those fragments of wall are teeth; the tangling vines are its veins. They begin to wonder why no history books make reference to Illuthia, why it is never found in the same place, and the fruits begin to lose their flavour, the strange visage stamped onto the ancient coins seems to leer at them with secret knowledge.

Few who have visited Illuthia show any desire to return, but there is a persistent rumour that the city is inescapable once visited, and that all those who have walked its silent streets will one day behold it on the horizon again, shimmering faintly beneath the sun, and that they will never return from their second visit.

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