The premise is that there is this cult known as The Order of the Word, who are looking to use the Oracle to bring about the apocolyspe so that they may use the catastrophe as a way to become the new world power.
It's a YA fantasy trilogy and I hope that you all enjoy this special sneak preview! :)
Please feel free to comment! In fact, I encourage it! Just remember, it's still a WIP!
Prologue: November Beetle
The hot sun beat down on the surface of the Pacific Ocean without caring about the islanders who paddled a boat through the water. They had departed from their homes to visit a neighboring island. They islanders heaved their oars up and down, up and down. White bits of skin formed on their backs where the sun burned them. At times they scooped up handfuls of water out of the sea with which to splash themselves. They wouldn't see the clouds that formed to the east of them, nor would they feel the rain that feel a continent away. Yet, the clouds did form and the rain did fall.
The islanders, if they looked long enough at the sea, could just make out water vapor rising into the air from where the sun evaporated it. Small, almost invisible, wisps of mists rose out of the sea. The islanders had called these wisps spirits before the missionaries arrived two generations ago. An islander sitting at the head of the boat he rowed saw a faint trail of something climbing upward. He thought he saw a ghost of some long-dead mariner buried at the bottom of the ocean. He averted his gaze, and, even when arriving at his destination, still felt troubled by what his eyes had witnessed.
The trails of air formed up high above the sea where the winds gradually pushed them all west. As they moved, more trails joined them, some so insubstantial that they proved invisible to the naked eye. In this way, the clouds grew. They had many miles of sea to cross before they reached land. Each new trail brought new strength to what weather forecasters called a storm. A young boy with no shoes, a tattered shirt and a worm danging from the end of a fishing pole thought the dark clouds looked ominous when he saw them pass over the lake he visited every Saturday afternoon. The clouds moved past in silent procession.
When they reached an acres-wide property with faded orange and black no trespassing signs dispersed all about, the clouds let out their first droplet of water. The drop slipped out of the clouds, hurting towards the ground where it fell on the jagged edge of a green weed. Another drop, then another drop. Five minutes later, the storm let loose in all its intensity. Thunder rumbled for miles in any direction. Heat lightning lit up a dark evening sky. A finger of lightning raced from one cloud to the next. The air exploded as it did so.
After moving east for days, the storm sat in place, letting loose all the water that had evaporated over the Pacific Ocean. A man opened a pair of metal storm doors from the inside. Rusty iron hinges groaned with the movement. The man blinked at what he saw. Underground, he'd heard the rumblings of thunder. He had heard such before, but never had he seen a storm that appeared to be so intent upon raining over the very spot where he stood.
Intent, that was the only word that fit, the man thought as he closed the storm doors. One glance at the clouds had been enough to convince him of their anger. Perhaps they, too, sensed a change coming in the world. The man grinned at himself. Clouds having feelings, indeed.
The man walked back down into the underground city where he lived. Fluorescent light bulbs flickered to one side. The man had enough light to see the stone-carved archways, the footprints that never vanished unless someone came along with a broom. The man saw many footprints on the floor. The corridors he walked through appeared the same to him with tan colors everywhere. A gullet ran down the middle of the pathway, once constructed for the flow of water. Water hadn't flowed through this particular path in many decades, a time so distant that man could not remember it.
Thunder rumbled above. Dust shook loose from the ceiling, spraying on the man's head. He thought that perhaps he deserved it, even though he had done all he could. All he could hadn't been enough, even with all the information he'd been given about what would happen in advance. As a result, he wandered alone in the city that had once held all his hopes, his aspirations. After the various tunnels, still lit, he entered the great hall. Everything had been removed a month ago, sold off to the highest bidder. Only the appliances remained. Once the food ran out, the man had promised himself and everyone else, he would finally turn the lights out. Then, he thought to himself, the unknown expanses of the world await.
Until then, he had as much time as he wanted to reflect on everything that had happened. With his amputated arm and shuffling limp, memories remained the only aspect of life enjoyable to him. He could do nothing else but remember.
It all started with a beetle. Or so the twenty-three year-old Gabriel Waters thought as he walked the long distance from his cell to the morning breakfast table. He hadn't seen insects of any kind since moving underground three years past. That had been in 1981, the year Ronald Reagan had been shot in the chest, the first cases of AIDS were discovered, and in which Pol Pot, the leader of Cambodia, continued to blame Vietnam for everything, including the massacres of his own people. A violent year that had been, 1981, but also a year when the scion of prophecy's arrival had been foretold.
Gabriel, shortly after his twentieth birthday, had been recruited to join the Order of the Word because he could do magic. Not the kind of magic he'd read about in fairy tales where wizards turned people into frogs and poisoned apples could make princes pay attention to women they otherwise ignored. Gabriel could do a special kind of magic, a magic that became apparent only to himself and other magic users. He could see objects that were out of place. Everything belonged where it was, for it had been put there by some act of man or act of nature. Objects- and creatures- out of place arrived at their destinations as a result of magical skill. Gabriel often saw such objects, including the beetle he spied crawling up the dark earthen wall next to him. In time, the pale green glow he saw around the beetle would fade away as it came to belong in its place. For now, though, it was new. This odd black insect with its body split into two segments crawled up the wall on six legs, its antennae bouncing along as it did so. The beetle didn't belong in the underground city in which Gabriel lived. Had he not seen the beetle, he might not have mentioned it. Had he not mentioned it, he might never have struck upon the idea of bringing about an apocalypse.
He walked by the beetle, leaving it where it was. Surely, he thought to himself, the insect couldn't be anything more than an adept's exercise at using whatever magical talent he or she had. Teleportation, perhaps. Transporting an insect across great distances required no great skill, nor any amount of energy. A failure in the incantation wouldn't result in anything too dreadful. Perhaps a puff of smoke for a moment, but that would be all. He tried to convince himself of this, even knowing the likelihood of such a spell being cast was as close to zero as any measurement of probability could get. He knew all of the twenty-six spell-casters in the city. He knew each of their talents. He knew that a man who could start fires if he talked at a pile of kindling for ten minutes and an old woman who could stir up a breeze if she mumbled to herself long enough. Never had he observed anything like teleportation. The presence of the beetle, then, meant that someone in the city had a talent of which no one else knew about. That thought troubled him.
Instead of going to the master's cell immediately as his instincts told him to do, Gabriel made his way down the long, dusty corridor to the great hall with its five long tables stretching out for great distances in either direction. As an adept- a person with a talent- the city provided him with three meals a day. Every morning, they served him the same scrambled eggs, pork, biscuit and orange juice. He'd grown so accustomed to the meals that he found himself thinking about the beetle even while he sat down at a table tearing off a piece of meat with his teeth as he held it in his hand. He should have grabbed it, put it in a one of the pockets of the loose brown robe he wore everywhere. The beetle would likely still be there, though, since it looked far too big to wedge itself in any of the pinprick-sized holes that mottled the corridor's walls. He could show the beetle to a wizard, one of the six to have earned the title in the city. Surely they would understand what it meant for an insect to roam the city in November.
As it was, while he scooped up his eggs with a wooden spoon, the master himself sat opposite Gabriel. The master was an old man with a beard that had once been voluminous but which had been shaved off so that now prickly white stubble grew unevenly on his cheeks. His thin white hair stuck up out of his head in short whiskery points. In his younger days, so Gabriel had been told, the master had been muscular with the results of his many physical exertions. Now, in his old age as the most capable magic user in the city, he took on the appearance of a stalk of celery, tall and thin. He wore a thick pair of glasses that pinched his nose so that red marks appeared where his glasses had rested. Blue veins pulsed on the tops of his hands, showing through his pale skin. He wore a robe of white, the only person in the city allowed to do so, though the bottom of his robe had collected many dirt stains over the years. As he situated himself across from Gabriel, a look came across his face that Gabriel couldn't interpret. So mysterious became the old man's expression that for the first time, Gabriel felt comfortable disregarding etiquette and speaking first.
“I have seen a beetle,” he said to the master.
The old man scratched his head, considering the statement. This was the way of it with him. He never spoke until he had thought about his words in six different languages so that he could fully appreciate the nuances of what he was about to say. Anyone who spoke with the master had to expect long pauses, for he never said anything extemporaneously. Instead, he continued on with that look of his, a look that made Gabriel think of the odd-looking statues on the outskirts of the city. The statues had been made to resemble a skulking creature with an apparent physical deformity. The deformity changed with each sculpture. Yet the eyes always remained the same with each one. Bright, speculative, inquisitive, insightful. Yet even those words failed to describe the wonder such a visage provoked in Gabriel. He had not the vocabulary to describe how he felt.
At last, the master said, “It glowed green.” He said this not as a question, but as a statement. Gabriel often thought that the master's unique ability lay in being able to replicate the powers of those around him, for he seemed to never lack in any skill whatsoever. Perhaps, thought Gabriel, the master had even seen glowing green smoke caused by a magically-created fire.
“Yes,” Gabriel said. “Someone put it there. I don't know why, only, it must have involved art of some kind.”
The master hummed a single note to himself, then scratched his temple with a single index finger. His mysterious, unreadable look changed back to the commanding countenance his usually held. As before, he took his time in replying. Yet he took so long that Gabriel wondered if the master knew more than six languages, for a considerable time elapsed until the master finally spoke again.
When at last he did speak, he said, “It is time you knew the news. Every adept shall know in time anyway, even if they are not told. Our powers are changing. They are in flux. We are gaining new abilities and losing old ones. This is a powerful portent. Such a thing has not happened in over a hundred years. The last time, of course, being when the heavens granted us an Oracle. The master in those days recorded that the power of the art remained in flux beginning with the day the Oracle claimed to have been born. Five months ago, we began to see fluctuations in the art. Those of us with the most power experienced the most change. Adepts such as yourself, Gabriel, should not experience any change until the following year. However, it will come as you grow in strength. Before, you could only have been a watcher of danger, a seeker of signs. Now, the position of master is not out of reach for you. Indeed, such turmoil is wrought by the Oracle's existence in the world that those of us who are powerful may be cast down while those of us with little power may rise into history. No one can say for certain. Only, know you this, and know it well. The Oracle has been born. Ask you of the other six what this may mean and you shall perhaps hear more than you wish to hear. Yet hear you must, as every adept must, for the future, once plotted out in a clear course, clouds over with the murkiness of a single person's life.”
The master stood up. Gabriel had more questions, questions upon questions that he felt would never stop even if he asked them until his throat grew sore from the asking. Yet, the master had made his intent plain. He had said all he would say. The truth, whatever the truth might be, was for Gabriel to discover.
Gabriel found enough patience within him to finish his breakfast and attend the morning class for adepts. He wanted to disregard his normal routine, which for him involved watching objects turn green, to seek out one of the six wizards in the city. He knew where to find each of them, including the one that supervised the class of all nineteen adepts to which he belonged. He had tried to convince himself the matter could wait. He would go about his normal daily routine. Somewhere he would find the time to ask an impertinent question, even if it meant dealing with someone of higher status than himself who did not have the master's patience.
Gabriel had planned to do all of that until Stewart Hansen, an adept close to becoming a wizard, spoke the words that allowed him craft a doll out of the dirt beneath his feet and ended up levitating himself. Alarmed, the wizard in charge too hold of Stewart's legs and pulled him back down to the ground. Once the wizard let go, Stewart rose into the air again. He spoke not another word, for he did not know what caused him to levitate, much less how he could get himself standing on firm ground again. Gabriel saw the air between Stewart's feet and the ground swirling with shades of green. Instead of shaping the dirt to form an object, Gabriel had shaped the air upon which he now stood. The very molecules in the air had been rearranged so that they kept Stewart bobbing up and down like a branch in a flowing river.
The wizard spoke a single word then, in a language Gabriel didn't understand. He knew it to be the language of power, the language forbidden to all adepts. This language had been imbued with the power of the magical arts in ages past so that, whenever spoken by one with the gift, great spells could be produced. In this particular instance, the air stopped glowing green. Stewart fell to the ground in a heap, surprised to be let go so quickly.
Then, for the safety of the class, the wizard had no choice to explain about how the Oracle's powers changed the nature of magic itself and what the adepts might expect in the coming years until they found the Oracle, wherever such a person might be in the world. That was when Gabriel asked his questions. That was when Gabriel got his answers.
The Oracle had always been known to be a person who could see into the future. She- for historically the Oracles had always been women- could prevent the very events occurring which they saw. So said the wizard who instructed Gabriel. He also said, to everyone else's surprise, that Gabriel would be the person to find the Oracle. Gabriel's ability, unique among the adepts, required no incantation to activate. Thus, he would not give himself away to any other practitioners of the art by talking to himself. The Oracle, by her very nature, disrupted the nature of the world. She would always glow green, for she herself did not belong in the world. She herself would be a product of a union between two practitioners, even if both parties had long since burned themselves out trying to increase their potential. Gabriel would be the only one who could confirm her existence.
Sitting in his quarters in the evening, he mulled over what he'd heard. The entire day had felt entirely unreal. Nothing such as this had ever happened to him before, nor had it ever happened since the Order of the Word had moved to the underground city once designed as a large-scale shelter against bomb attacks. He would be sent to find the Oracle, sooner or later, he knew. He thought perhaps sooner. The Order could dispatch him when it liked. Even now, the Council of Seven met to discuss that very matter. Stewart's levitation proved a serious enough breach of expectations that while matters in the city usually proceeded at a glacial pace over the course of years, today they had to proceed faster than many people might wish.
Gabriel lay back on his bed. The springs creaked under his weight. He looked up at the ceiling, bare white plaster in a room filled with the empty space speaking only of the lack of adornment he preferred. He had a desk, a chair, dresser and a bed in his room. On his bed lay a single pillow and two sheets, one to lay on and one to lay under. He had never chosen a bookshelf, as some adepts did. He had never quite seen the point. Every evening for the past three years, he had wandered the city, sometimes finding a path that led nowhere, sometimes discovering an unused area in which the first buds of stalagmites grew. Never once had he found the entrance to the outside world he'd entered through on his first day in the city. Even if he tried, he could not remember where to find it.
Tonight might have been an evening when he explored the city once more. Only, he could not quite bring himself to do so. He did not want to see the beetle again, not today. He did not want to see anything glow green until he slept. He felt that if he let sleep came him into tomorrow, he could approach the problem with a settled mind, as opposed to the jumbled mass of chaos which now occupied his thoughts. He had gotten his answers. Afterward, he once again remembered the master's usual admonition against asking too many questions. Truth one might hear, he always said, but happiness only comes out of truth some time after it is heard.
So Gabriel felt as well. As a result, he went to bed early and woke up early in the morning. He kept his eyes closed when he walked down the hallway to the breakfast table. The cooks had just begun their preparations. Gabriel would have to wait before any meal would be ready. While he waited, he thought about the last Oracle from the nineteenth century. Every adept learned the story as soon as they were admitted to the Order in case an Oracle should appear while they lived.
Her name had been Margaret Carpenter. An ordinary enough name for one born in the crawling filth of industrialized New York City. Amid the chaos of nationalities and languages, the Carpenter family, recent embarrassed well-to-do-farmers, squatted wherever they could find space. Margaret came into the world squalling and shivering. So went the story. That had been 1867, if the accounts of her life could be believed. By 1884, at seventeen years of age, Margaret had a vision of the world ending within her lifetime. She saw images she could not understand. It appeared to her that the entire world had been dynamited, though the billowing, angry clouds that formed after the explosions looked nothing like the spray of dirt and rocks dynamite usually kicked up. These clouds were as large as cities, perhaps larger. Weapons to destroy the world came into existence, and people used them. She saw no future afterward, only a burning, desiccated corpse of a planet barely keeping place in its normal elliptical orbit.
This being her first vision, she turned to the only person she trusted with any information of grave import: Father McClarty. Father Angus McClarty came from the old country, the stories said. All accounts agreed that he had been an average-sized man with a shock of blazing red hair that fell over his eyes at times. He never preached abstinence, for he himself enjoyed a pint or two of a Saturday. When Margaret came to him, he'd already had half a pint of whatever he'd found hidden inside the podium. Margaret didn't know then that Angus belonged to the Order. Indeed, even Angus forgot his vow at times. Yet the vision, when relayed to him, shook Angus to the core of his being. He knew the tales about the Oracles, all of whom predicted gloom, most of whom tried to stop what they saw from coming to pass. Most, of course, since he'd heard the story of Mad Katherine, an Oracle who predicted the slaughter of millions in Europe by means of a sickness no one understood. Mad Katherine, the Order proclaimed, cackled her vision to anyone who could hear, rejoicing in the coming of the end times. The world hadn't ended, but humanity had come close enough to extinction with the Black Death. Angus alone among his colleagues understood just how devastating the plague had been.
Father Angus didn't understand how clouds could destroy the world. Margaret's explanation of her vision made no sense to him. Yet, in that dusty church with a handful of pews and a dim ray of sunlight shining through a plate glass window, Angus knew that he was in the presence of the Oracle. Furthermore, he knew she had to die.
He saw the signs as clear as anyone else. The intricate relationship of alliances in Europe could be broken at the drop of a hat. Differences in language and geographical location drove people in the same continent to hate each other. They would go to war, sooner or later, Angus told the Order when he brought Margaret before them. The world would be destroyed- at least, the part of the world that mattered the most to the Order's interests. The Order thought that perhaps America would be left out of it, yet with new, mystifying sciences proceeding faster than anyone could keep track, perhaps the day might come when cloud-making bombs would prove the ruin of the world.
The Order confided in Angus- and this is where the story gets rather muzzy- that if a disaster scenario can be anticipated, anyone can come along in the aftermath and claim power for themselves. Not power of the sort that kings and presidents enjoyed, but rather power over money. The Order had long believed the purse strings to be the ultimate means of controlling anything. As a result, after they interviewed Margaret about her vision, they plotted to kill her. She alone would be able to stop her vision, for she alone understood it well enough for preventative measures to be taken.
They killed her on a Thursday. A group of faceless members of the Order drove knives into Margaret again and again, even as the shocked expression on her face betrayed her horror, not of her own death, but of their betrayal. They burned her body in a bonfire, then threw the ashes out into the sea. Even though Father Angus thought he did what the Order wanted, couldn't help seeing Margaret's final expression in his dreams. He took to the bottle more than ever before. Seven months after Margaret's death, on a cold Monday morning, Angus McClarty hung himself in the woods.
Afterwards, the Order watched and waited. Margaret had been right. Cloud-making bombs did come to pass. The stark horror of the nuclear bomb appeared on various movie screens across the nation in the form of newsreel broadcasts. America and Germany raced each other to see who would get it first. A combination of racism, fervent nationalism and stubborness on both sides led the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With these two acts, the Order claimed President Harry Truman consigned the world into a staring contest between two empires which, even almost forty years later, threatened to spill over into untold of destruction.
Only a word in the right ear during the year 1963 prevented the catastrophe that Margaret foresaw, the standoff that history records as the Cuban Missile Crisis. For while Margaret didn't know who she saw, she had seen a person matching John F. Kennedy's description pressing a large red button while a group of heavily-decorated military men stood around him in complete silence. Then, the clouds blossomed everywhere. The world would have been destroyed on that hot summer day. Even so, with the crisis avoided, nothing fundamental had really changed about the relationships between nations. War still prevailed as the primary means of communication.
The Order had been prepared for this. Knowing the world would place a greater importance on the development and manufacture of weapons, its plans for gaining wealth proved simplistic, even to Gabriel, who didn't understand the world of making money. Investments in certain companies, placed at the right times, proved lucrative. Over the course of the last half of the twentieth century, the Order gained lucrative amounts of wealth. They were close to implementing their plan, very close. Another Oracle-predicted catastrophe would be enough to put the Order over the top.
Gabriel could feel the plan coming together as he ate his eggs for breakfast. Another Oracle would be just what the organization needed. This time, Gabriel might even get to see the full moon ritual. He might even get to see an Oracle's spilled blood.
Thus it was with a sense of excitement that Gabriel observed the master sitting before him once again. Gabriel did not speak, as he had spoken first yesterday. He pushed a biscuit into his mouth instead of voicing the one question he had.
When the master at last did speak, he said, “Gabriel, you will find the Oracle. You will bring her here. You will keep her safe.”
Gabriel frowned. He didn't want to give any sign of his disapproval of the master's words, yet he couldn't help himself. He laid down his wooden spoon and said only, “Yes, master. I will do as you command.”
There was nothing else he could say. His power of recognizing magical influences would never stand up against the master's full command of spells. Gabriel could not cross the master in any way whatsoever. He looked down at his plate, resuming his meal.
The master seemed to have noticed this, for he said, “We will not behave as our ancestors have. We have gathered power, more power than I would have ever thought. Yet, I think now we shall use that power for the good. In time, perhaps you will understand.”
“Yes, master,” Gabriel said. Both of them knew that he did not.
Chapter One: The Burning
The master had lived to be 104 years old. A stubborn old man he had been, by all accounts. Cassandra Nelson knelt before an altar in the small, cramped backroom which served as the Order's only place of worship. A week after the old man died, Cassandra had already seen Gabriel Waters take over the title of Master of the Order of the Word. The two of them hadn't ever liked each other, she knew, yet Gabriel had always obeyed him. Cassandra never knew why this might be. She hoped that, even after the master's death, Gabriel might continue to obey his wishes. It was for this she prayed.
Cassandra's thatchy brown hair fell over her face as she mumbled words only she understood. Breath from her mouth pushed her hair outwards now and then. If she felt bothered by errant strands going into her mouth, she showed no sign. Her knees throbbed from kneeling on the cold, hard-packed dirt. One of her knees rested an oddly-shaped stone. Cassandra's stomach growled, not for the first time. The air inside the room of worship contained the stale smell of human body odors, a smell to which Cassandra had become accustomed since coming to the city at the age of five. The white robe she wore, despite having been washed before she put it on in the morning, itched ferociously. Everywhere she went in the city, she scratched herself, so often now that she wasn't aware of it. She also had a way of pushing her hair out of her face just behind her ear. She did neither of these things now, for she prayed.
In prayer, she entered a trance. If asked, she wouldn't describe it so. She would say that she focused so hard on praying that everything else in the world became considerably less important. This morning, she prayed for the master's soul, for he had always treated her kindly. She had always been the favorite of the Order since her arrival. The master had favored her with many kindnesses he hadn't shown to even his closest of advisers. He took her for walks throughout the city every Sunday afternoon where, in his deliberate way, confided in her all he was thinking. Piece by piece, Cassandra remembered his admonitions to always stay true to herself. He always had spoken to her in fragments. Such was his way. Over time, though, Cassandra understood his intent. He had wanted to use the Order as a force for positive change in the world. He had died before his dream could be realized.
Kneeling as she did, she saw events of the past as clearly as if they had happened minutes ago. She saw herself as a young girl, descending underground for the first time. She saw how, with a red ribbon in hair, she sat down before a man so old that Cassandra had at first thought he must be over a hundred years old. She wasn't far off. When she met the master for the first time, he'd been eighty-eight years old, a bald man with gnarled hands. His face had been ravaged by wrinkles then. The condition hadn't improved over time. Yet, his voice had been soft, even gentle. Cassandra felt the warmth of his words embracing her. Consequently, she hadn't doubted him when he said that she had been born under a star of great import, whether for good or ill, he did not know.
She saw herself as an eleven year old girl discovering magic for the first time, entirely by accident. A lumpy, short woman with graying black hair had been speaking to herself in front of a pile of gray, dull rocks. Hues of red and purple colored the woman's face as she exerted herself, apparently just by speaking. Cassandra watched in the shadows for many minutes as this woman wearing patched up brown robes uttered cases in between what sounded to Cassandra like incantations. She couldn't make out the words the woman spoke under her breath, yet they were the same words repeated over and over. Then, huffing and puffing, the woman muttered the words one final time. She waved a flabby hand at the rocks with the final word of the incantation. Without warning, one of the rocks split open. Cassandra had blinked, for the rock appeared to have cracked open like an egg all on its own.
The fat woman shrieked in surprise. Then, the master was there, having appeared, as it seemed to Cassandra, out of nowhere. Cassandra ran away then, not sure what she had seen. Kneeling before the altar, she thought the master must have known she was there, yet chose not to say anything. He had always known her location, even when she herself didn't know where she had wandered into. Instead of feeling insecure from his attentions, she felt safe. She never had understood the warm feeling under her rib cage that radiated through her body in the days when the master had been alive. Now that he had died, the feeling disappeared from Cassandra's body.
She stood up. Her joints ached. Her feet had fallen asleep. Supporting the full weight of her body, they turned to pins and needles. Cassandra winced. She lifted each foot up and down until she could feel her toes, then the rest of her feet. She stretched her arms above her, letting the knots in the small of her back untangle. She pushed the hair out of her face and stifled a yawn. She had a sense of some time having passed while she prayed. She rolled her shoulders and left the room of worship.
By the activity in the hallway, she guessed she had spent all morning praying. Various servants in robes of black swept dust off the stone floors. Cassandra observed a thin, sickly looking girl struggling with her broom. The girl's unwashed brown hair clung to her skull and the back of her neck. A strong smell of body odor emanated from her. Dirt decorated her face and forehead. The girl coughed once, a deep retching sound. The girl held a sleeve to her mouth. The sleeve came away bloody. Cassandra looked away.
She tried not to think about the girl who always seemed to be there whenever she prayed. Neither of them spoke to each other, yet Cassandra could not help feeling that the girl wanted something from her. What was it? Cassandra could not say. If Cassandra could do anything to help the girl, she would do it. Yet, the girl never spoke. Cassandra had no idea what it was the girl wanted. Was there anything to be done for a person who didn't bathe even when water proved plentiful, who was sick even when no one lacked for medicine, who always looked hungry when food was abundant? Cassandra decided to consider the question at a later time. For the present, she had to eat.
Ten minutes of walking through hallways that all looked the same brought her to the city's kitchens. Responsible for feeding a population of thousands, the kitchens felt to Cassandra more like a maze than the simple microwave and stove she dimly remembered her mother using in days gone by. The aroma of recently cooked food permeated the area when Cassandra entered. So large were the kitchens that she could have started walking from the center in any direction and would not reach a wall before she had spent long minutes treading well-worn footpaths used by cooks and servants. As she entered, she saw the sneeze dishes placed behind sneeze guards. Since today was a Friday, fresh vegetables had been laid out in rows where the pizza usually sat. Cassandra felt her stomach rumble. She decided to eat.
Cassandra decided on a slice of cucumber to start. She picked one out and popped it in her mouth. Then she found a paper plate to her right. She piled on lettuce, tomatoes, butter beans, white and brown mushroom slices, radishes, and green and yellow peppers. Finding a plastic fork rolled up in a napkin next to the pile of paper plates, Cassandra unwrapped the fork and stirred her salad around. She took a bite. She cast about to see if anyone had laid out tortilla shards, yet she couldn't find any. She continued eating, thinking that next Friday, she'd put refried beans on top of her salad.
As she stood in front of the vegetable station eating, she heard a scream from somewhere in the kitchen. Cassandra looked in the direction from where she'd heard someone cry out. She heard a distinct whoosh. Someone shouted, “Fire!”
Cassandra laid her half-full salad plate down in front of the dark lettuce. She ran towards the spot where people milled about, unsure what to do. Cassandra pushed her way past two people, not even sure what she could do to help, if anything. She entered the area in which seven electrically-powered ovens operated. A great slab of meat had caught fire on a metal grill. Looking into the orange flames, Cassandra's mind drifted. A spell of dizziness came over her.
It was then...she saw.
When Cassandra returned to her self, she found that she didn't want to talk about what she had seen. Fire and pain. Blood and destruction. A blast wave rending flesh off bones even while the skeleton continued screaming, for the brain remained inside the skull. She felt as though she had watched disaster unfold for hours upon hours, yet only moments had passed from when she had been standing upright, thinking of putting a fire out to when she fainted into the arms of several people. Several concerned faces stared down at her. She turned her head to see that the fire had been put out.
Cassandra ran a palm down over her forehead, eyes, nose, mouth and chin. She took a deep breath and tried to stand. Her legs supported her weight, for which she felt glad. She didn't want to be hopping from one foot to the other in front of the kitchen staff. A question formed in her mind. She asked, “How long was I...?”
An overweight chef with a single yellowish stain on his apron told her, “Not long. Long enough for Thayer over there to throw the ruined meat in a pot of stew. Not a bad idea, at first, saving that the stew got ashes in it. My special sausage gumbo, too. Ah well, can't have everything I suppose. By the way, are you all right? Bonny stones, you had me worried eh?”
“I think I'm all right,” Cassandra replied.
She looked into the man's face. Two hazel eyes shone over heavy bags beneath his eyelids. His eyebrows almost came together at the bridge of his nose. Stubble lined his cheeks. Rows of gleaming white teeth showed when he smiled. Cassandra managed a smile in return.
“There now, that's better,” the man said. “A woman should always smile, eh? Makes the word beautiful it does, 'specially with one as pretty as yerself, if you beg my pardon. If I may ask, was it a vision you had just now? One of them foretelling type of things? It would please the missus greatly if she knew I saved a real life Oracle.”
“A foretelling,” Cassandra said. She considered the word. “Yes, I suppose that's...one way of putting it. I hope it's a false one, though.”
“Oh, my blessed stars,” the man clapped his hands together. “A vision of disaster? Then you must go to the library at once. Ask them, well what's the name of that old sot, Michael something, ask him for The Oracle Compendium. That's the name of the book. A right odd one too. Written with pen and ink, enchanted with a magic spell so that only the Oracle herself can read it. Take a look, if a vision of doom came before you. It will explain everything. Or so they say. Haven't read it meself. Can't tell you if it has a good recipe for onions or a cure for headaches. Well, on with you now! We've a mess to clean up, and another stew to make before Lord Waters comes trouncing in here complaining about this, that, and the other thing he forgot to mention last time. Go on, shoo!”
The man bodily pushed Cassandra out of the kitchens, even past the salad station where the rest of her meal waited for her. She grabbed the plate on her way past, though the fork fell to the floor as the man kept pushing her. Cassandra couldn't help laughing he grabbed a small, finger-sized tomato from her plate.
The library, when she found it, proved to be a considerable way off the beaten path of the underground city. In fact, Cassandra thought that the deep-set, square-shaped holes had been intended as resting places for the dead when the city was first constructed. The lighting grew dimmer as she progressed. In the main hallways, every light burned at all hours of the day. In the unused hallways, such as this one, every other light remained on. Cassandra took a moment to let her eyes adjust before she could see more.
She might have missed the small sign hammered into the wooden door if she hadn't been looking carefully for it. The sign was no bigger than her fist. Odd-looking runes stared out at her. She found that she could read them. A symbol that looked like two flags kissing said “man.” A symbol that looked like a DNA helix said “god.” Then, a symbol that looked like a sharp rise in a bar graph said “fire.” Only those three words, “man,” “god,” and “fire.” Cassandra gripped the door's wide metal handle. She recoiled at the heat that almost had burned her fingers. She extended a single index finger to the handle. This time, it felt like a normal metal handle. Cassandra opened the door with one finger.
The interior of the library expanded out before her, bigger than she would have imagined. Books sat in rows in shelves dug out in the sides of the walls. The shelves started at ankle level, rising up to the ceiling. Books of all colors sat on the shelves, some paperback with flashy spines, others with unadorned, hardbound spines embossed with golden letters. Some books had worn so much over time that Cassandra wondered if they would collapse when she picked them up. Both the front and back covers, colored in dark reds and greens, seemed only barely attached. A tail of red string drooped out of one tome, though whether it served as a bookmark or as part of the binding, Cassandra couldn't tell. Some books were so thick that Cassandra thought she might need help carrying them. Others looked so thin enough that would have fit in the pockets of her sweat pants. White papers with the same runes she had found on the door labeled each section, though she couldn't read the words at a distance. She found books written in languages she didn't recognize, ones which appeared to be pictograph in nature. She picked up a book with scribbles and dots on the cover. Opening it, she found more scribbles and dots inside. She put the book back on the shelf. She worried for a moment whether the book she was looking for was actually written in English, the only language she could read. The chef might know about the book, but had he actually read it? Cassandra decided to search some more before making up her mind one way or the other.
Paintings hung in between sections, some so abstract that they looked like colorful squiggles while others portrayed their subjects so clearly that they looked like photographs. Standing in front of one such painting, Cassandra felt sure that the people frozen in place would suddenly stop smirking at everything and jump out of the painting. She recognized the artist's scrawl at the bottom of the painting, though the name, whatever it might have been, appeared nothing like a name she recognized. After what she thought was the foreign language section, she came upon a wooden bench. So out of place did it seem amidst all the stonework she saw everywhere in the city that she actually laughed out loud upon seeing it. Nowhere else in the city had ever seen wood used as anything recreational. Some rule or other forbade it. She sat down in the chair, feeling for the first time in a long time a surface give way to the weight of her body. Having sat in stone and slept on straw for the majority of her life, the feeling surprised her. The bench proved comfortable beyond her expectations. She sighed, enjoying the feeling. She decided then that she would have to visit the library more often, just to sit on this bench, however dusty it might be.
When she had her fill of sitting, she stood up again. Looking closely at the runic symbols in front of her, she read that she was in a section called “beast studies.” At least, that's what she thought the symbols meant. She saw titles in English and what she thought must have been Latin, though she couldn't be sure. So blurred and faded with time were the majority of the books that Cassandra wondered why anybody would bother keeping them around. She picked one up. The book, called Travels with Elephants, displayed a great gray beast on the front with gigantic white curved teeth growing out of its face in addition to an impossibly long snout. The beast had big, floppy ears, so big that it must have been able to hear everything for miles around. In comparison, the beast sported a small tail, which Cassandra thought ludicrous. Why was it long at one at and not the other? She put the book back, sure that whatever beast described therein must be long extinct. Surely the author had found a skeleton in the ground and written about what it must have been like to walk around with such creatures.
She came upon another section labeled with two words that didn't seem to fit together. She read “past” and “future.” The two words side by side produced what Cassandra thought must be “time,” yet that didn't seem quite right either. She saw only one book in this section, printed several times over in as many languages as Cassandra could count. The same book, big enough to be a dictionary, filled up six shelves by itself. Cassandra went through them all, trying to find one in English. On the fourth shelf, she saw it. She took a deep breath. The title read: The Oracle Compendium.
The book was almost as her two hands put side by side. Three raised bands stuck out on the book's spine. The book weighed a great deal. A musky odor filled the air when she opened the book. While the cover had been made out of a maroon material, the endpapers in the front were white. The loose endpaper, not pasted to the cover, had a note written on it in what appeared to English. The scrawl proved so illegible, however, that Cassandra couldn't make out the words. Since recognized that date- 1871. The book was over 240 years old.
An illustration, perfectly maintained, depicted a man and a woman on the front cover. The man, sporting a thatchy beard and wearing a crown of leaves, stood on the right, looking impatient. A woman with no sandals on sat on a slightly raised dais, peering into a bowl of water. She held a quill in her free hand. An infinity symbol stared down at them both from the top of the image. A sentence in Latin underscored the image: nosce te ipsum.
On the reverse of the front page, she saw a publication date in Roman numerals. The date read MDCCCLXX. No publishing house appeared anywhere, only the name of a city: Greenvale, New Jersey. The next page displayed an illustration of various constellations. All of them had been left unlabeled. Cassandra recognized the big dipper, though she didn't know what the other ones might be. In particular, a rather large star at the center of the page drew her eye. Small points, almost too small to see, extruded from the star so that Cassandra thought it might be the ball of a mace. Turning the page, she saw a chapter listing. Each chapter appeared on the page in sequential order with respect to time. The first chapter began at “~800 B.C.” Periods marched across the page from the chapter's name to the page number the chapters appeared on. The first chapter appeared on page three. Flipping through the listings, she saw the final chapter, covering the year 1850 A.D., appeared on page 1375.
“Fourteen hundred pages?” She asked the open air. She flipped through the book, the pages kicking up dust as she went. She saw an illustration of a screaming woman being burned at the stake. She focused on the image, her eyes drawn to the curved flames biting at the woman's legs. So focused was she on the picture that when a hand touched her shoulder, she started.
The hand felt cold, clammy. Cassandra turned to see a pair of cold, milky white eyes apprising her. The man owned a head of short, curly hair over a round face pockmarked with scars. He wore a shirt with a faded logo on it portraying a man in a blue denim jacket and plain white hat standing on top of a ladder, grinning with all his teeth. The man wearing the shirt reached up his hands, fumbling around about Cassandra's face. She resisted the urge to pull back, for she knew then that he could not see.
After a few moments of running his fingers across her face, he said, “Scion of prophecy, foundation of restoration, Oracle of the Word, welcome to the library at the end of the world.”
“The end of the...” Cassandra frowned. “What do you mean by all that stuff? Why are you in charge of looking after books if you're blind? Who are you anyway?”
“Ah, my manners. So many questions,” the man said. He titled his head at an angle, as though he heard something only he could hear. “I am Clark Henry. What do I mean? Hmm, well, you're the Oracle. If you're holding the Compendium, you may be able to learn more. You have picked it off the shelf, haven't you? I bet you have. I'm blind, as you can see. I'm the perfect person to run a library, if you must know. I'm never tempted to make off with the books. Can't read a lick of them. I'd have to be able to see to do that. So long as I memorize which book is where, I'm perfectly useful. As it happens, I have a very good memory. I can even remember things which haven't happened yet.”
“But aren't you Michael something?” She looked down at the book and back up at the blind man.
“I'm not Michael anything,” he said. “Who gave you that idea? That chicken-brain chef with his sticky peepers and melting cheese slop? I'll bet you he told you that, didn't he? Hmph. I've got no time for the likes of him, always pulling pranks on everyone. I wish he'd grow up. He's forty-seven already. Or is it forty-eight? Anyway, come with me and I'll tell you all about everything you want to know.”
The librarian walked away from Cassandra. Following him, Cassandra asked, “How do you know what I'm going to ask about? I haven't asked it yet?”
“Oh, it's predictable enough,” the blind man said, raising his voice so that he could be heard even while his back was to her. “You're the Oracle. Only the Oracle can enter this place, unless you're blind. It doesn't seem like you're blind, since you found your way to the section with the reprintings of the Compendium. Who else would want to read that? So you've come here looking for answers. Well and good. Answers I have, but I will only tell you the truth. The plain, unvarnished, hurtful truth, the truth that always makes everyone upset. It will upset you too, more than likely. Don't steam at me. Just keep listening and you'll hear what you need to hear. Okay?”
“Okay,” Cassandra said. She readied herself for the worst..
Before he told her anything about the Oracle or what she would be required to do with her visions, Clark Henry spoke about himself. He spoke as though he had forgotten she sat on the wooden bench next to him, listening to him ramble along. He had been born blind. Some birth defect or other, the doctors had said. Clark disagreed with them. Defects imply normality and normal just isn't a word to be used when referring to people, he said. Even with his impairment, he attended school just as everyone else. It turned out that he had a photograph memory for sound and the placement of objects in a room. He could recall in detail every word ever spoken to him. He could remember with perfect clarity where a chair sat in a room so that while he stumbled about at first, once he found somewhere to sit in class, he strolled in as though he could see, sitting down with no trouble at his desk with his clicking machine.
He spoke of his introduction to the Order. At first, he couldn't quite believe that they'd want someone like him to do anything for them. He couldn't believe it, that was, until they explained the situation to him. They had a library that no one could enter, they said. No one had entered it for over a hundred years. Their library could only be entered by a blind person, or someone called the Oracle.
“So that's you,” Clark said. “That's how I know you're the Oracle. They told me as much. And so, here you are, breathing away. I won't believe you're blind, like me. I won't believe it.”
“I'm not blind,” Cassandra said. “You said you know what I'm about to ask, didn't you? After that story, I can't say if I remember.”
“Oh yes! That's true, I was just getting round to that. You're going to ask me about destiny. The grand plan. What's it all mean? Where are we going? How do we know what's real and what isn't? How do we know that we know anything? Aren't we all just microscopic organisms aspiring to divinity in a vast universe?”
“Well, not exactly but-”
“It's okay. I have the answer. Or, at least, one answer. I've figured out, you see. I'm blind, but I can see just fine. It all comes down to happiness. That's what I think. You're alive, and you want to be happy. Only, another person is alive and they want to be happy too. If your happiness and another person's happiness clash with one another, that's when you get conflict. Now then, what happens is this-”
“That's not really-”
“One person has to give up something in order for another to be happy. At least, this is the way the world normally works. If you want to be a billionaire or whatever the term is these days, at some point, you will have to do so by taking away from another person what makes them happy. What makes them happy is freedom, do you see? Freedom is only acquired when you hold on to the money you have without spending it. Then, if you follow me so far-”
“I don't really-”
“Then you must conclude naturally, that if we define happiness in terms of freedom and freedom in terms of money, we will end up defining happiness in terms of money. What's it all mean? Where are you going? Since you're the Oracle, you're going to make someone unhappy, no matter what you do.”
“Can I just say-”
“Okay, I'm listening. Go ahead and talk.”
Cassandra huffed. “Yes, thank you. I don't want to make anyone unhappy. How am I going to do that? I haven't seen the sky in years. That doesn't make sense.”
“Your very existence will change the world. Even if you do nothing. Others will act a certain way because you exist. The Oracle is a person born only every so often. You're here now, you've been born. If there were hundreds of Oracles, why, no one would pay any mind. But you're the only one. Even with the population expanding the way it does, the appearance of one like you has become ever more rare. Why is that? Don't ask old Clark Bar. I don't rightly know. I do know that your life will be a trial to everyone. If you died, you'll make people unhappy. If you live, you'll make people. They'll stress and stress until all their hairs turn gray and they get ulcers. Do nothing, and they'll worry. Do something, and they'll worry. So what's the answer? What do you really want to know? I'll tell you straight up. Here's the secret. Are you listening? Eh?”
“I'm listening,” Cassandra said.
“The secret to being happy for yourself is easy. Do what you want. Don't look back. Don't regret. Do the best you can. Even if you think the world is about to be destroyed, just do what you can do.”
“Who said anything about being destroyed?”
“Well...perhaps that's a bit mellow and dramatic.”
“I think you mean melodramatic.”
“Oh, do I? I don't rightly know. Funny thing about that. I just say things sometimes. Don't pay me no mind. Now what is it you wanted to ask?”
“I thought you knew that already?”
“Maybe I do and maybe I don't. I'm not any kind of mind reader or anything. Don't believe in the ponce myself. Mind-reading. Pffft. Bunch of nonsense.”
“You mean like knowing what someone will ask before they ask it, that kind of nonsense?” Cassandra smiled.
“That's different. It's called extrapolation. You can tell the future if you're good enough at sensing patterns. Don't need any Oracle for that. Put enough information in the calculation machine and out will come your answer, like it or not. So, this is what it is, my dear. You're the calculation machine.”
“What does that mean?”
“You've got all the answers, right there in your head. Or, you will. You just need more information. You've already had a vision, haven't you? One of those thing-a-ma-jigs where you see something that hasn't happened yet?”
“Okey doke. So you'll have more. But the quality and content of your visions will depend on what you know. This is why the library here can only be accessed by an Oracle- by you. It's for you, you specifically. Everything in here is yours to pick and choose from. You have to read. That's the only way you'll get to have accurate visions. Also, um...”
“You have to observe people. Really observe them. I don't mean like spying their underoos or anything like that. Just try and figure people out. Look behind the surface of individual personalities. You'll learn things. You won't be able to help it. You won't remember, not actively, but your brain will store away the information you acquire. That's how the brain works. Start with that book you got there, the compendium.”
“This big thing?” Cassandra frowned at the book in her hands. “All of it?”
“As much as you can,” Clark said. “One more thing. It's the most important thing I can tell you. I want you to remember this.”
“Okay. I'll try to remember.”
“You've only got three months.”
“How do you know that?” Cassandra wondered if, at this point, he told the truth, or if he was putting her on.
“I know what I know,” Clark grinned with all his teeth. “But if you wanna find out about the time limit, I believe, in the English edition, it's on...ah, page 745. Or thereabouts. Somewhere in there. Look it up for yourself if you don't believe me.”
“I really don't believe you,” Cassandra said.
“Then you'd best start reading, shouldn't you?”