Invisible, yet existing, strong, it moved again. The clue. The cue. Ahead. A gauche. Beyond the faded word SALOON on weathered board above. Through the swinging doors. (One of them pinned alop.)
Pause and assess.
Bar to the right, dusty. Cracked mirror behind it. Empty bottles. Broken bottles. Brass rail, black, encrusted. Tables to the left and rear. In various states of repair.
Man seated at the best of the lot. His back to the door. Levi’s. Hiking boots. Faded blue shirt. Green backpack leaning against the wall to his left.
Before him, on the tabletop, is the faint, painted outline of a chessboard, stained, scratched, almost obliterated.
The drawer in which he had found the chessmen is still partly open.
He could no more have passed up a chess set without working out a problem or replaying one of his better games than he could have gone without breathing, circulating his blood or maintaining a relatively stable body temperature.
It moved nearer, and perhaps there were fresh prints in the dust behind it, but none noted them.
It, too, played chess.
It watched as the man replayed what had perhaps been his finest game, from the world preliminaries of seven years past. He had blown up after that—surprised to have gotten even as far as he had—for he never could perform well under pressure. But he had always been proud of that one game, and he relived it as all sensitive beings do certain turning points in their lives. For perhaps twenty minutes, no one could have touched him. He had been shining and pure and hard and clear. He had felt like the best.
It took up a position across the board from him and stared. The man completed the game, smiling. Then he set up the board again, rose and fetched a can of beer from his pack. He popped the top.
When he returned, he discovered that White’s King’s Pawn had been advanced to K4. His brow furrowed. He turned his head, searching the bar, meeting his own puzzled gaze in the grimy mirror. He looked under the table. He took a drink of beer and seated himself.
He reached out and moved his Pawn to K4. A moment later, he saw White’s King’s Knight rise slowly into the air and drift forward to settle upon KB3. He stared for a long while into the emptiness across the table before he advanced his own Knight to his KB3.
White’s Knight moved to take his Pawn. He dismissed the novelty of the situation and moved his Pawn to Q3. He all but forgot the absence of a tangible opponent as the White Knight dropped back to its KB3. He paused to take a sip of beer, but no sooner had he placed the can upon the tabletop than it rose again, passed across the board and was upended. A gurgling noise followed. Then the can fell to the floor, bouncing, ringing with an empty sound.
“I’m sorry,” he said, rising and returning to his pack. “I’d have offered you one if I’d thought you were something that might like it.”
He opened two more cans, returned with them, placed one near the far edge of the table, one at his own right hand.
“Thank you,” came a soft, precise voice from a point beyond it.
The can was raised, tilted slightly, returned to the tabletop.
“My name is Martin,” the man said.
“Call me Tlingel,” said the other. “I had thought that perhaps your kind was extinct. I am pleased that you at least have survived to afford me this game.”
“Huh?” Martin said. “We were all still around the last time that I looked—a couple of days ago.”
“No matter. I can take care of that later,” Tlingel replied. “I was misled by the appearance of this place.”
“Oh. It’s a ghost town. I backpack a lot.”
“Not important. I am near the proper point in your career as a species. I can feel that much.”
“I am afraid that I do not follow you.”
“I am not at all certain that you would wish to. I assume that you intend to capture that pawn?”
“Perhaps. Yes, I do wish to. What are you talking about?”
The beer can rose. The invisible entity took another drink.
“Well,” said Tlingel, “to put it simply, your—successors—grow anxious. Your place in the scheme of things being such an important one, I had sufficient power to come and check things out.”
” ‘Successors’? I do not understand.”
“Have you seen any griffins recently?”
“I’ve heard the stories,” he said, “seen the photos of the one supposedly shot in the Rockies. A hoax, of course.”
“Of course it must seem so. That is the way with mythical beasts.”
“You’re trying to say that it was real?”
“Certainly. Your world is in bad shape. When the last grizzly bear died recently, the way was opened for the griffins—just as the death of the last aepyornis brought in the yeti, the dodo the Loch Ness creature, the passenger pigeon the sasquatch, the blue whale the kraken, the American eagle the cockatrice—”
“You can’t prove it by me.”
“Have another drink.”
Martin began to reach for the can, halted his hand and stared.
A creature approximately two inches in length, with a human face, a lion-like body and feathered wings was crouched next to the beer can.
“A mini-sphinx,” the voice continued. “They came when you killed off the last smallpox virus.”
“Are you trying to say that whenever a natural species dies out a mythical one takes its place?” he asked.
“In a word—yes. Now. It was not always so, but you have destroyed the mechanisms of evolution. The balance is now redressed by those others of us, from the morning land—we, who have never truly been endangered. We return, in our time.”
“And you—whatever you are, Tlingel—you say that humanity is now endangered?”
“Very much so. But there is nothing that you can do about it, is there? Let us get on with the game.”
The sphinx flew off. Martin took a sip of beer and captured the Pawn.
“Who,” he asked then, “are to be our successors?”
“Modesty almost forbids,” Tlingel replied. “In the case of a species as prominent as your own, it naturally has to be the loveliest, most intelligent, most important of us all.”
“And what are you? Is there any way that I can have a look?”
“Well—yes. If I exert myself a trifle.”
The beer can rose, was drained, fell to the floor. There followed a series of rapid rattling sounds retreating from the table. The air began to flicker over a large area opposite Martin, darkening within the glowing flame work. The outline continued to brighten, its interior growing jet black. The form moved, prancing about the saloon, multitudes of tiny, cloven hoofprints scoring and cracking the floorboards. With a final, near-blinding flash it came into full view and Martin gasped to behold it.
A black unicorn with mocking, yellow eyes sported before him, rising for a moment onto its hind legs to strike a heraldic pose. The fires flared about it a second longer, then vanished.
Martin had drawn back, raising one hand defensively.
“Regard me!” Tlingel announced. “Ancient symbol of wisdom, valor and beauty, I stand before you!”
“I thought your typical unicorn was white,” Martin finally said.
“I am archetypical,” Tlingel responded, dropping to all fours, “and possessed of virtues beyond the ordinary.”
“Let us continue our game.”
“What about the fate of the human race? You said—”
“…And save the small talk for later.”
“I hardly consider the destruction of humanity to be small talk.”
“And if you’ve any more beer…”
“All right,” Martin said, retreating to his pack as the creature advanced, its eyes like a pair of pale suns. “There’s some lager.”
Something had gone out of the game. As Martin sat before the ebon horn on Tlingel’s bowed head, like an insect about to be pinned, he realized that his playing was off. He had felt the pressure the moment he had seen the beast—and there was all that talk about an imminent doomsday. Any run-of-the-mill pessimist could say it without troubling him, but coming from a source as peculiar as this…
His earlier elation had fled. He was no longer in top form. And Tlingel was good. Very good. Martin found himself wondering whether he could manage a stalemate.
After a time, he saw that he could not and resigned.
The unicorn looked at him and smiled.
“You don’t really play badly—for a human,” it said.
“I’ve done a lot better.”
“It is no shame to lose to me, mortal. Even among mythical creatures there are very few who can give a unicorn a good game.”
“I am pleased that you were not wholly bored,” Martin said. “Now will you tell me what you were talking about concerning the destruction of my species?”
“Oh, that,” Tlingel replied. “In the morning land where those such as I dwell, I felt the possibility of your passing come like a gentle wind to my nostrils, with the promise of clearing the way for us—”