The Oracle’s Choice

The Oracle’s Choice

It seems every time I post an installment of this story, an addition pops into my head. I wrote this shortly after scheduling The Oracle’s Game to post. And I wrote that one shortly after re-reading The Oracle’s Disc – which was originally supposed to be a stand alone story.

I’m not sure where this story intends to go. (I am certainly not in the driver’s seat for this one.) But I am enjoying the journey!
. . .

“Hello again.”

“I thought you were leaving?” The Oracle answered the cheerful voice with a dry snap, as if her tongue had just broken a pair of fallen twigs. Fae creatures were annoying enough without the liquid sunshine they always managed to infuse into their voices.

“Ah yes. I suppose, from your perspective, no time has passed. How interesting.”

The Oracle squinted beneath the veil of hair that concealed her eyes. But physical movement had little effect on her vision. The magic swirling throughout her lair, between her luxurious couches and the walls which projected their chosen images, remained unchanged, save for the dark ripples left by the Faerie’s passage. Still, the Oracle honed in on her face, tracing the  contours of her bronze skin, looking for signs of aging, of wear or wrinkles. But aside from a few possible inches of extra hair growth – neatly concealed by the cascade of the Fae creature’s curls – she detected no discernible difference between the woman she had been speaking to a moment ago and the one that stood before her now.

“The usage of a disk doesn’t usually involve me directly,” she admitted, chagrined that her own magic had been so seamless she barely detected it. And here she had been hoping for an afternoon of rest to recover from her first encounter with the Faerie. This is what she got for offering her services to anyone willing to pay the fee. Perhaps she would have to consider stricter qualifications.

Though perhaps that was exactly what the Faerie wanted; to annoy her into changing her policy. The Oracle frowned, displeased that she might be playing directly into her foe’s hands.

“What do you want?” she demanded when her visitor offered no response.

The Faerie clicked her tongue. “Tut, tut. I would think someone with your power should be able to reach back through history and see exactly what passed before my return. But no matter. My purpose has not changed. I still want the same thing I did last time.”

The Oracle gritted her teeth. She didn’t need a Fae creature telling her how her own magic worked. The pulse was just beneath her fingertips, ready to answer her query. The whole of history unfolded around her, beneath her, before her. She could spend hours delving into its secrets and unwinding its tangles. But there seemed little point when the Faerie’s presence was likely to mean far more than her absence.

“There is the matter of cost to be discussed,” she replied primly.

“Pish posh,” the Faerie retorted, flicking her wrist. “I haven’t enacted any changes yet, so there couldn’t possibly be a price for returning to speak with you. Though if you want a couple locks of my hair, I’d be more than happy to provide them.” She grinned, her teeth gleaming white against the purple glow of the Oracle’s magic.

The Oracle choked on a sigh, not wanting to give the Faerie the satisfaction of seeing how badly annoyed she was. Did the Fae exert effort to be this irritating? Or did it just come naturally to their species? The Oracle tended to assume the latter, and this apparent series of interruptions only reinforced that opinion.

“I suppose the cost will ultimately depend on how you wish to leave this particular meeting.”

“That all depends on you. Technically, I’ve come back to the moment before I received my disk, so I could simply ask for another one.”

“You could. That doesn’t mean I would grant you one. You have already had your disk, after all, and made use of it. That means that I provided for you the service that you paid for.”

“Ah, it is true that I did receive a disk, in one version of history, at any rate. But that history has now been erased. In this version of history, I have no disk, but have already paid my fee. So if you were to turn me away in this world, you would be failing to uphold your end of the bargain. Could you afford a poor review from a Faerie, I wonder? What would the humans think if they knew?”

“Pray, tell me, what is the purpose of this meeting?” the Oracle demanded, sick of her guest’s games. “If your intention is to keep returning and demanding new disks so that I may never have a moment of rest, I will gladly endure whatever slander you intend to lob in my direction. A petty revenge it would be, but I would expect no less from one of your kind.”

The Faerie chuckled. The sound started out low and soft, but quickly grew to burbling laughter. The Oracle half expected the Faerie to toss her head back and laugh like a maniac, but she managed to reign herself in after only a few moments.

“In truth, I came to give you one last chance to change your mind before I took action.”

The Oracle snorted. “Very well. If it means that much to you, I will reverse the fate of the Artist. Then you may inspire her to greatness and we can all get what we want.”

The Faerie smirked. For a moment, the Oracle was certain she had finally reached the heart of the matter, but then the Faerie shook her head, setting fiery curls dancing across her shoulders. “It would be a fine start. But no longer enough, I’m afraid. While it’s true the modifications surrounding the Artist were bold, even for you, and reversing them would set many things to right, I simply cannot allow you to maintain this level of power. Not when you have proven you will only misuse it.”

“And who should determine the level of power each being is able to wield, Fae Creature? You and your brethren? Should we look at your history of abuses in order to determine your worthiness? You are merely displeased that my magic can undo the effects of yours.”

“Every force needs a balance,” the Faerie replied. The Oracle expected her to be at least a little perturbed by the insult she had lobbed at the Fae court, but her guest was strangely unruffled. In fact, she still seemed smug. “Nature works that way for a reason. So that any force which threatens to unbalance the rest can be reversed in time to maintain equilibrium. Did you think you could weave your tendrils throughout every possible branch of history and no one would take notice?”

The Faerie shifted. She seemed to pull something from behind her back, though both her hands had been visible until a moment before and her dress seemed to have no pockets. Certainly none deep enough to hold the object she produced.

The Oracle recognized it instantly. It was a disk, like the ones she produced for her clients. And in it, she found a frozen image of herself, reaching toward a newly formed void in the air in front of her.

But this was exactly the disk she had refused to make for the Faerie. And suddenly she was flinging her tendrils through every possible diversion that followed her original meeting, looking for the change to her mind, seeking the creation of this abominable disk. But she had not encountered the Faerie in any other version of history. And when the Faerie did reappear, their conversation was much as it was now. She saw herself granting the Faerie a series of pointless disks that always let her return to this very moment, but nothing else, nothing that could weave a stolen memory onto the fabric of the void.

“Did you think you were the only one with the power to create these?” the Faerie mocked, drawing the Oracle back to the present, anchoring her in a single world. This time, her laughter was cruel. “You are a foolish and arrogant creature, aren’t you? Everything you’d like to accuse my kind of embodying. But we, at least, understand the importance of limitations. And somewhere out there, in the vastness of the cosmos, is an Oracle who understands how dangerous you have become.”

“Wait!” the Oracle cried, lifting one hand, fingers extended toward the disk. But there was at least ten feet of space between them, and she couldn’t possibly hope to rise that quickly.

Besides, the Faerie did not wait. She let the disk slip from her fingers, watching impassively as it fell.

The Oracle shifted her hand so that her palm faced upward. Her magic responded to the desperation of the movement, rippling outward from her position, creating a series of seeking tendrils that grasped at the falling disk.

But this was not how her power worked. She had no ability to manipulate tangible objects. So the disk fell through the glowing appendages and shattered on the floor.

She expected pain. She expected it to tear through her as the magic contained within that tiny fleck of void began to unravel the web she had so painstakingly woven. It was a veritable tapestry by now, containing the whole of history, and everything that might have happened had she not tampered with its course. A veritable map of possibilities, each thread representing a life, each knot representing some major event that life might touch.

And as she watched, those threads loosened and unfurled, losing their cohesion, melting back into the cosmic well from which she had drawn them.

She tried to scream, but the sound froze in her throat. Gentle hands grasped her and drew her downwards, backwards, while all of time swirled around her, fading into an impossible distance.

And then she sat suddenly in front of the ragged knot of roots, reaching for the power that had once surrounded and sustained her. Her eyes were bound by a dirty cloth, and the rough bark of the ancient roots dug into her back. Her clothing was little more than rags, stained by the dirt and mud of the swamp she traversed to reach this place of power.

But though the power spun away from her fingers, leaving her diminished, she recalled the glory of her sanctum with crystal clarity. Memory, at least, had not abandoned her. She could still trace how she had built her empire, and where it’s various roots had dug into the fabric of adjacent histories, allowing her to adjust them to her desired pattern. She might not have the power to rebuild it in an instant, but she could retrace the path she had taken. Slowly, painstakingly. And she could make it better than it was before.

This was in her mind as she extended her hand toward the tiny, swirling vortex she had summoned to life. All she needed to do was reach into the heart of it and reclaim her power. The future was waiting for her. And this time, no uppity Fae creature would keep her from it.

Be careful, a voice whispered in the vaults of her mind. There is a cost for what you desire. A cost far greater than you might wish to pay.

There was always a cost. The Oracle had known that from the first. And though she had never completely divined the price she would have to pay to reach her destination, she had never been overly worried about fulfilling it. Especially when humans were so willing to shoulder much of the burden in exchange for a few paltry favors.

But this was different than the first time she had reached for her power. There had been no voice then, no warning, only a bright and glowing path that led to forever.

And with a jolt, the Oracle realized this voice did not belong to the Faerie who had come to her sanctum to mock and jeer.

It was her voice, though it sounded deeper, as though scraped through the vocal chords of one who has reached old age.

“But the future can be mine,” she protested, her voice sounding impossibly young to her ears. “Every possible permutation, every pitfall, every ideal. I do not have to sit by and watch. I can guide as well!”

Have you any idea what the universe will exact from one with such capabilities? The Knowing alone will drive you insane.

But that simply couldn’t be. All of history had been unfolding beneath her fingertips for thousands of years, and she had always been in perfect control of her mental facilities.

Yet, when she tried to sort through her memories of the future, she found they terminated at the moment the Faerie dropped her disk. Whatever happened beyond that moment, whatever plans she had been trying to enact, they were lost to her now.

And if this truly was her voice, spoken through the yawning void of time, how many years had she played with the magic before it finally ate away at her core? If she knew, could she stop just before it happened?

Heed my warning, foolish child. It is the only one you will receive. The forces you desire to manipulate cannot be fooled into devouring other souls as payment for your interference. Sooner or later, you must pay the price for the web you weave.

There was a distinct possibility that, in some future she could no longer connect to, she had come to this horrifying conclusion and, therefore, agreed to aid the Faerie in her conquest. If that were so, she had probably paid with what remained of her life to weave that particular disk. And abandoning her power would certainly be equal to the cost of a chance to live her life over.

But she had not been forced to yield her power. The vortex was still open in front of her, its scintillating stars shining from within the distant void. She could still grasp the power waiting for her, mold it, shape it.

So perhaps there had been no disk at all. Perhaps there had been no sanctum, no Faerie and no artist. Perhaps this had merely been one potential path, a Vision conjured during the course of the ritual to warn her away from the coming disaster.

She had to choose, and it seemed that choice was still within her power to make. Ambition? Or Reason? Surely there must be a balance between the two!

The Oracle drew a deep breath and pushed her hand forward, into the center of the swirling vortex, reaching for a power she knew would answer. Ice closed around her fingers and over her wrist, threatening to bite as deep as the bone. But there was warmth beneath those teeth, a series of searching tendrils that would soon be bound to her soul for eternity.

The Oracle closed her glowing eyes and made her choice.

*   *   *

“It was as you anticipated, Great Mother. The Oracle still believes that knowing the future will allow her to change it.”

This is often the result of power. One believes they can outsmart it, if only they understand it deeply enough.

The voice seemed to flow from nowhere and everywhere at once. A whisper on the wind, a breath on the Faerie’s face. She closed her eyes and let it wash over her.

“Then it will be as you said; she will be trapped in the loop, unable to move forward until she sees the truth.”

An imperfect solution, child. But a reprieve of sorts.

“At least it buys us time,” the Faerie agreed, casting her emerald gaze over her shoulder to the tower rising in the distance. The Oracle’s Sanctum stood like a silent sentinel, looming over the human city that had been built around it. None of them would be able to see the ripple of magic flowing backward through time, preventing the Oracle from working future manipulations upon their history. Though the time-loop did not undo the chaos the woman had already wrought.

“If we cannot fix the mess in a few thousand years, we shall surely grow bored,” she murmured, sighing to herself as she turned away.

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