From the author: At some point in their quest, every hero visits the Cave of the All-Seeing Oracle to hear a prophecy, learn their heroic destiny, and continue on their pre-ordained journey. Nullia, the Oracle’s apprentice, is tired of watching everyone else’s story go by and never getting a chance to live her own. But then the hero Hishmed arrives.
He came up the mountain like a drunken spider—another farm boy on a quest, some enchanted blade swinging from his hip and banging against the rocks as he climbed. I watched him from Far Sight Rock and sighed. The farm boys were all the same: evil king, murdered father figure, sacred errand, mentor who dies. Hearts of gold and flawless moral compasses. Clumsy charm and hopeless optimism, with eyes I could always get lost in.
And taste in women that never included me.
I went inside the cave and told Ildara. "Farm boy."
She nodded and rose from the table, a bit of charcoal in a gnarled fist. We approached the schedule, written messily on the cave's left wall. "Well, we're expecting two," Ildara said. "One with a dragon, and one with the Sword of Heaven."
"He's got a sword."
Ildara grunted and checked off 'farm boy: sword'.
Rocks clattered outside. The farm boy stumbled in. Like all of them, he was perfect; like every time, my heart twisted. Brown curls. Sparkling blue eyes. "Uh," he said, and I expected him to add, "Is this the Cave of the All-Seeing Oracle?"
Instead, he just stared.
Our eyes met. His mouth hung open, just a shade, and I looked away before he could laugh at me for my inelegance.
He finally said, "What's your name?"
"Ildara," said Ildara. "And I'm the Oracle of the—"
Ildara glared at him. He didn't notice. Those sparkling eyes were fixed on me, as if I were a rare treasure that might disappear.
I blushed down to my toes. "Me?"
"Nullia." He made my name into music. "I'm Hishmed."
"Well, Hishmed," interrupted Ildara, "I assume you're here to see the Oracle. And that'd be me. Not her."
"Uh," Hishmed said. "Er, sorry. Ma'am."
Ildara grunted. "Good. Now why don't we get you settled in the back on a nice pile of straw?"
After Hishmed took a rest and washed up, Ildara told me to give him the tour. I've done it a hundred times—crystal ball, scrying pool, unholy altar, talking animals, Abyss of the Damned—but with Hishmed, I kept stammering and tripping over my words. I was afraid he'd laugh at me for it, but he said nothing. He just stared at me with those blue, blue eyes.
When we doubled back outside past the scrying pool, he laid a hand on my arm and said, "Wait."
He looked at me in silence, and I looked back, breathless. Was I falling into his eyes, or was he falling into mine?
Hishmed stepped closer. "Tell me..."
"Why are you here?"
Hishmed didn't remove his hand. "Why are you here? Why are you working up on a mountain peak?"
"Well..." I swallowed. His touch warmed me all over, and I couldn't concentrate for the heat. "Somebody's got to grow up to be the Oracle. Right?"
Hishmed finally slid his hand away, and I felt tiny comets flare down my skin in the wake of his fingers. "Yeah," he said. "But Oracles aren't supposed to be pretty."
My jaw dropped.
He closed it with a kiss.
When I came back inside, I was light-headed and wobbly-legged. At the table, Ildara looked up from her knitting. "Where's the farm boy?"
"Out by the pool," I said. "He... wanted to be alone for a minute."
Ildara finished a row and tsk-tsked. "You know, I think he might be the one."
Ildara nodded at the schedule. Sometime before I'd been apprenticed, she'd written a few words at the very top that had never been rubbed off: "the greatest prophecy of all".
My daze was suddenly cut with fear. "What?"
Ildara shrugged. "It's a bit iffy. Not even Oracles can predict everything."
She misread my panic. "Nullia, for the last time. I am not telling you what that prophecy is."
"But he—" My mind reeled. I thought of all the mighty prophecies Ildara had pulled down from the sky, every true foretelling of heroes and dooms and daemons—the destruction of worlds, the births of gods, the transformation of races and the destinies of stars.
I might've stood a chance against some magic sword. But a prophecy to end all prophecies?
"He what?" asked Ildara.
He likes me, I thought. Somebody actually likes me. Instead, I looked away so Ildara couldn't see my tears. "He's just a farm boy."
"They're all just farm boys. Till they find the unicorn's horn or cursed ring or whatever. Be a dear and start dinner, would you?"
I couldn't sleep that night. I went out by the scrying pool instead, staring at its mirror-calm surface under all those brilliant stars. My reflection stared back at me: big nose, funny teeth, skinny forehead.
Hishmed said I was pretty.
I looked away from the pool. During dinner, Hishmed also said I was smart. And it was the way he said it. As if being intelligent were something to admire, or even envy, and that being stuck on a mountaintop as an Oracle's apprentice was an honor, not a shame.
My heart started pounding. Hishmed came to me across the mountain's barren crown, bare-footed and half-dressed, his enchanted sword hanging awkwardly from one hip. Up here, the air is cold and cuts like diamonds, but he didn't seem to mind.
He sat next to me, blinking sleep from his eyes. "What are you doing out here?"
"I couldn't sleep."
He stared at me, drinking me in, but I looked away. "Why do you do that?" he asked. "Why do you look away?"
"Tell me about your quest."
"What does my quest have to do with it?"
I looked down into the scrying pool at our reflections. We were so close, I could feel Hishmed's body heat, calling to me from across a distance I could never traverse. "Everything. You've got to fulfill the greatest prophecy of all. Don't you? Didn't you sit down with Ildara after dinner, and peer into the mists of her crystal ball?"
Hishmed fell silent.
"You have to leave," I said. "What do you care if I look away or not?"
He shifted uncomfortably. I felt a wave of heat from his skin, and on it rode the scent of him—leather and sweet hay, smells of comfort in the clear, sharp air. "I... I like you."
"But it doesn't matter, Hishmed."
He looked into the pool too, trying to meet my eyes there. I looked away again, at the reflection of the unreachable stars. "You could come with me," he said.
"Because I have a responsibility," I said bitterly. "Everyone wants to be the one in the story who goes off and saves the kingdom and avenges his father and gets magic powers. Nobody wants to be the one who pulls the story down from the sky, and has to watch somebody else live it. But there needs to be an Oracle, Hishmed, or the stories can't happen at all.
"If I break my promise to Ildara, she'll be all alone, and worse, she'll have to find another apprentice. What if she dies while training my replacement? Who'd make the prophecies?"
"Nobody," said Hishmed. "We'd get to make our own prophecies."
I shook my head.
Hishmed looked up, as if trying to see those unknown prophecies behind the constellations. "You think we're all chained to fate?"
"I know we are."
Hishmed stood and drew his sword.
"Hishmed—what are you doing?"
He walked to the edge of the mountaintop, above the Abyss of the Damned, and threw the Sword of Heaven in.
I jumped to my feet. "Hishmed!"
He spat after it, the gob disappearing into the bottomless void. "That's what I think of fate," he declared, and walked inside the cave.
I stood by the pond and trembled, wrapping my arms around me, that clear air cutting me to the quick.
The next morning, Hishmed's yell startled me awake.
I jumped from my bed of rags and ran to the front of the cave, where Hishmed stood by the table, arms held out as if ready to attack. In front of him, Ildara blithely set the table for breakfast, humming an off-key ballad.
Along the center of the table, as if it were on display, lay the Sword of Heaven.
"You dropped this the other night, dear," said Ildara to Hishmed. "One of the daemons brought it in this morning."
"You ought to be more careful with where you leave your things." Ildara set down a jar of marmalade. "Nullia, grab some bread from the Portal of Plenty, would you?"
"But I don't want the sword," said Hishmed.
I gave Ildara the bread. I meekly took my seat without looking at Hishmed, afraid of what he would say, or of what foolish thing I might say in response.
"That's too bad," said Ildara. "Because here it is. Have a seat, boy, the eggs are getting cold."
"No." Hishmed curled his hands into fists. "I don't want it. I don't want to have to save the kingdom. My older brother wants it more than I do; we talked before I left. Can't you send the Sword of Heaven to him instead? Can't you get one of your giant eagles or whatever to fly it back down to Phanelia?"
Ildara eyed him disapprovingly. "Young man, what did we see in my crystal ball last night? You are going to the Swamps of Scython next, rescuing the Snake Lord, and using his favor to build your army against the evil King Hyleon. And that's that."
"No," insisted Hishmed. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm staying here with Nullia."
I shrunk down into my chair.
"Are you telling me," Ildara said carefully, "that you are in love with the Oracle's apprentice?"
"Maybe," he said evenly. He held his chin high.
Ildara turned to me. "And you, Nullia? Are you in love with one of these silly farm boys?"
I squirmed and looked away, at the earthen jar of marmalade. "Maybe."
Ildara rolled her eyes and threw up her hands.
I winced, expecting her to dispense some powerful curse, but instead she dragged a chair over to the schedule. Grumbling, she climbed on top of it, and wrapped part of her apron around her hand. She began to rub out "the greatest prophecy of all".
I cleared my throat, nervously. "Ildara? What are you doing?"
"Sit down, boy," she growled. "Eat your breakfast. I'll get one of the White Hippogryphs to take the Sword of Heaven to your brother. Yes, you can stay awhile. But we're going to put you to work. Nobody gets a free ride up here, you know."
Once finished, Ildara climbed down from the chair, her apron smudged black, the top space on the wall blank and ready for another piece of someone's story.
"Okay," said Hishmed, uncertainly, sliding onto a chair.
"Ildara?" I asked.
"You still haven't guessed it, you fool?" Ildara snorted and dragged the chair back to the table. "It's the oldest prophecy there is: Love Conquers All.
"Now cut me a slice of that bread, would you dear?"
This story originally appeared in IN PIECES.
From a mechanical forest that constructs itself to the streets of Kyoto 8,000 years hence, the sometimes whimsical, sometimes cutting short fiction of KJ Kabza has been dubbed “Delightful” (Locus Online) and “Very clever, indeed” (SFRevu). Collecting all of his work published before May 2011 (plus 5 new stories, notes on the stories, and an interview by Julia Rios), IN PIECES offers glimpses into other worlds—some not unlike your own.
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