Chapter 21: Glimmers and Glimpses
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Rella, former orphaned streetrat, later temple-girl and currently the [Oracle], huddled under the blankets in a farmer's cart as it wound its way through the hills approaching the small town of Brackholt. She had carefully avoided any temples or larger settlements as she travelled. Some stops in small villages to send messages had been necessary, but for the most powerful precognitive on the continent, it was a trivial matter to avoid Deskren patrols and slip in and out of such places. She had sent several parcels to various destinations; leaving instructions and personal foretelling advice for those willing to help the new [Oracle] as payment for sending her missives.


Her new Class -- both Mantle and a Title as one, and singularly unique in all the world -- had not been kind to her since the Purple Night. It was only under the aegis of her predecessors, souls contained within the Mantle of Prophecy, that she was still sane at all. Least of her concerns was that she could no longer sleep; the shared consciousness of the previous [Oracles] bore the burden for a few hours each night to allow her some semblance of rest, but their ability to do so was fading faster than Rella was learning to control the visions that constantly bombarded her mind.


We may have to attempt more dangerous methods of training, girl, said a familiar and comforting voice in her mind. The previous [Oracle] still retained the strongest form of personality of all the others. The further back in time a given [Oracle] had lived, the fainter their individual presence, and the more they faded into the gestalt. The more ancient ones were beyond the ability to speak, merely sending images or memories of emotions. They stayed in a dreamlike state, the worlds they had lived and died in so lost to time that little could stir them to break their own slumber.


Images cascaded through her thoughts in a never-ending stream, and she still could not manage to partition them away from her conscious mind. Glimpses of the Wildwall -- the mountains that separated the Western Nations from the Wildlands -- overlapped with scenes from the western shore of the continent. Situations occurring up in the frozen north vied with the growing number of disturbances in the Southern Elemental Desert -- the sandy barrier separating the Kingdoms from the Deskren Empire. She was a prisoner of her own visions, seeing almost everything and able to see nothing. With a bit of conscious effort, she could follow one chain of action and choice or another into the past. The future remained a blur, however.


The gestalt of the thousands of women held within the mantle was the only thing buffering her mind against the full impact of trying to funnel so much information through one person. I’m not learning fast enough, Rella told the others inside the mindscape.


The world can’t afford an insane [Oracle] right now, replied one of the women.


You must appoint a Champion, a protector to stand guard over your body while we take you deeper into the mindscape, said another woman, her form seeming more childlike. That one must have acquired the mantle extremely young and died young as well, Rella realized with a bit of sadness.


Don’t cry for me, kid, said the girl. It’s not like it’s lonely or boring here; if I’m not upset about it, you have no right to be either.


And older woman stepped forward from the quiet crowd of souls. Once you have your protector, we can take you back to the Elders. Time flows differently for them that sleep so deep within the Mantle, and you must secure protection for your body while you are under.


And not for just a few hours or days, either, said the girl-child. You could be under for more than a week. Much longer than Class Selection.


The Mantle has passed between women without a Class, and women of so many different Classes over the ages, the older one told Rella. You must learn to hold back the sight to protect yourself, before you can partake of our other gifts.


One of the older [Oracles] spoke up then: Eventually, you'll be able to use any Skill any of us ever learned, but only one at a time.


Well, that would be handy to have known a bit earlier, thought Rella at the other women.


The girl gave her the thought equivalent of a mocking snort. You can't even control the Sight yet, don't get ahead of yourself.


I should be arriving in Brackholt in- Rella withdrew from the mind-space and allowed her senses to be swamped with all the local possibilities and current circumstances happening for several miles around her; nauseating confusion nearly overwhelmed her for a moment before she regained her bearings and returned to the half-dream- about two hours.


You’ll have to endure the chaos until then if you want us rested enough to act as a buffer while you are in the town, explained her predecessor.


I do, replied Rella. I could probably get my Champion to agree out of pity if I collapse in front of him, but everything I’ve seen says that is a bad idea for the long run. I want his respect, not his sympathy.


Don’t be silly here, said the child-[Oracle]. We dream your dreams too. You’re hoping he’ll be your lover one day, and if he pities you that will never happen, and we all know it.


As Rella blushed and cringed inwardly, the previous [Oracle] scolded the younger girl with the mental image of twisting her ear. That was unkind. All of us suffer enough during our tenure. Leave her some chance at whimsy and romance without teasing!


It’s okay, the current [Oracle] sent back at the others. All of you, rest, please. I can deal with a headache for a couple of hours so you can help me again when I reach Brackholt.


The girl radiated feelings of chagrin and apology as Rella left the mindscape and brought herself back to the waking world. The wagon trundled along pulled by the farmer’s mule, and her abilities gave her the distinct pleasure of experiencing every bump and jostling impact a few seconds early, before feeling them again in real-time.


Rella sat up, digging some jerky and a waterskin out of her pack. By the time she had resettled herself in the back of the cart, the protective mental shield provided by the past [Oracles] had faded from her mind.


The farmer noticed her movements, and called back to her. “Just a few more miles, Miss. You just rest up and we be there by noon.”


“Thank you,” she replied around a mouthful of too-spicy jerky before washing it down with a few gulps of water.


“No thanks needed. The [Oracle]’s word on what to plant on what day for a bumper crop come harvest is worth more than a trip to Brackholt. You just sit comfy, an’ ol’ Hett’ll gitchee there.”


Grateful for the farmer’s help, Rella settled back into the wagon to make herself as comfortable as she could manage with the impending headache already worming its way between her eyes. As she lay her head back on her pack and secured a strip of cloth over her eyes to block out the daylight, the [Oracle] began to See. Slowly, at first, and then with increasing speed her awareness spread. Starting within the few hundred yards around the wagon, her perception expanded as the power of the previous mantle-bearers faded away.


At first, things were bearable. What triggered the gifts of the Mantle were choices and actions, and the greater the effect of the choice the more sharply her attention was pulled towards the possible outcomes. The region through which she traveled was thankfully less densely-populated than most, which meant she had less information flooding into her mind at first. But even then, it was not exactly pleasant. The primary function of an [Oracle] was to bear witness, and thus she witnessed.


She saw people going about their lives, making choices both mundane and of great import. She saw good works and evil ones. She saw a man shove a child out of the way of a startled horse, a bitter wife drop poison into her husband’s food, and a pair of builders decide to lay the foundation for a new mill on a different plot of land than they had originally planned. The new location was a mistake; within four months of the building's completion the nearby bank would erode into the river and topple the structure as its foundation washed away.


Rella was also not spared the sheer, disgusting obscenity of everything unmentionable. As the area she could See spread further, she witnessed murders, rapes, depravities and deaths. To all of the horrors that people inflicted upon themselves and each other, the [Oracle] bore witness. Her heart broke with every anguished sob.


But it also soared, for not all was horrible and dark. A maiden wrapped her legs around her lover and gave in to passion’s first kiss. A man and wife held their newborn child and wept for joy. A woodcarver finished the last touches on a masterpiece and stood back to admire it. A group of adventurers defeated their first higher-leveled monster, wounded but victorious and proud. Fortunes were made, fates were sealed; people tasted the sweetness of victories both great and small, and the bitter flavors of defeat in all its forms.


Most things she saw, Rella knew she would never be able to allow the knowledge to pass her lips, nor write it down, or share it in any fashion. The [Oracle] stood as Witness to the world, not as its judge or jury. The Sight began to blur as her range surpassed a thousand leagues, every action and choice spiralling out with possible futures and outcomes that shifted in time with the different choices people made.


Some places were beyond even her ability to see; the Elemental Desert and the bulk of the Deskren Empire were shrouded in phantasmal, turbulent mists. Unfortunately, she could clearly see their legions marching north, out of the sandy dunes, and had borne mute witness to the fall of South Hollows and the subjugation of hundreds of surrounding farms and smaller settlements.


The Deskren were still hundreds of miles south of Brackholt, although the northern cities were already arming themselves for full-scale war. Rella’s current destination sat halfway between Meadowspire and West Harbor, in the southern hills of the Golden Meadows. Thinking about the place shifted her Sight, revealing a busy little town with hastily-erected palisades and rough stone fortifications, mortar not yet dry. To one side of the town, an older and more properly-built stone structure with a watchtower and barracks sat bracketing a training yard. Rella could see the focus of her current plans training in heavy armor with a large shield and a mace. His face was obscured, but she had observed him often during the weeks since she took up the Mantle of Prophecy. He faced off against four opponents and, despite being outnumbered, acquitted himself well. Two girls with identical faces and matching pale golden hair sat on the fence around the training yard, watching their brother and tossing colored balls of light back and forth as if playing a game.


A breaking wave in the sea of probabilities pulled her vision far to the west, past the coastline and to Stormbreak Isle. There, she watched Constable Zizzy as she stalked between two villages trying to catch her quarry before he claimed a new victim. Rella knew she would fail to catch him today, and that the experience would change the succubus forever. The [Oracle] hoped the succubus would not give up, however. She had lent the demon Constable all the help she could for now, though she desperately wished she could do more.


Crafting the Seal had left her hand paralyzed for days and her very Soul raw and ravaged for even longer before it healed. The price of changing fate was a heavy one indeed. Doing so had cost her predecessor her physical sight for longer and longer periods of time with each Seal she created, until one day, she saw no more. It seemed that Rella’s price would be paralysis, and she was not looking forward to having to make such a sacrifice. But the inevitability of needing to use her powers made her current quest for a Champion all the more important. Using her primary skills as the [Oracle] would leave her helpless for longer and longer periods of time; having a stalwart defender to guard her during those times would be critical.  Not all [Oracles] appointed a Champion, but the ones that did had tended to live longer and accomplish more.


Pulled by forces she could not yet comprehend, Rella’s Sight swung to the far northern reaches, where another Worldwalker ran fleet-footed across the tundra, side-by-side with several Wolven Beastmen. She recognized the sigils of his escorts; they belonged to a particularly insular clan of Beastmen, not known for charity or compassion. Clearly, the Hammer had had a rough start, but just as clearly had thrived.


Vainly she sought the Dreamer next; unfortunately, he was lost to her Sight. What little was revealed to her on the Purple Night suggested he had arrived in Deskren-controlled territory, and their rapid mobilization north of the Elemental Desert admitted to the possibility that he had been collared; the Deskren would not be so rash without a perceived advantage. Partly, this was due to the logistical effort involved; more importantly, the greater the threat the Deskren posed, the more directly an [Oracle] would be permitted to move against them.


The Shadow currently prowled the rooftops and shadowed streets of Meadowspire, and while Rella saw seeds of greatness in her future, they were just that at the moment: seeds, waiting to germinate. Similar to the Shadow was The Preacher, tending to wounded and helping feed children in the wake of the Deskren raid on possibility. The Christian faith was not foreign to the collective memory of the [Oracle]; previous Worldwalkers had been adherents, but the religion had never found a firm foothold. In the Preacher, though, Rella could sense the possibility of change.


This stood in stark contrast to the works of the Harlot, which -- even through the lens of Prophecy -- left Rella breathless. The otherworldly prostitute had hit the less reputable underbelly of the city with the grace of a charging bull while spending most of her time flat on her back or twisted like a pretzel, ruthlessly trading her body and skills with pleasure to gain allies and coin, which she used to further her own ends. Less than a fortnight after arriving on Anfealt, the woman had taken over three entire pleasure guilds, toppled a smuggling and extortion organization, and preemptively secured the services of every assassin and hired killer in the city to quietly silence the rest of her competition. With most of the city guard getting free or reduced cost services from The Harlot’s employed girls, anyone who harmed a pleasure worker in East Harbor quickly found themselves in said harbor.


The Broken continued to astound Rella at every turn, both with her current activities and her possible futures. She could see myriad designs pouring out from the woman’s workshop in the future, and the [Oracle] knew that once she achieved mastery of her Class, she would revolutionize the fields of Golemancy and Engineering. Despite Rella’s only budding gifts, she foresaw one certainty as though it were etched in stone: barring those timelines where she met an untimely end, the Broken would bring flying ships to Anfealt. Beyond that titanic event, possibilities branched and re-branched, bringing events both terrible and wonderful.


The closer to the Wildlands she tried to see, the more painful and difficult it was to discern things with her Sight. While the Elemental Desert simply seemed empty, gazing into the Wildlands was like looking into a boiling storm of mists and flame. The background intensity of everything that lived in that massive region simply drowned out any chance of making out detail, but she still could discern flashes here and there. Moments where one color or flavor of Soul or Mana energy flared strong enough to drown out the rest of the sea of chaos. And more and more, those flashes were a bright and violent purple. Thus, she knew the Burning Woman was still alive, and moving through the Wildlands, even if she had received no prophetic revelations or another True Vision since that fateful night.


The wagon rolled along, gently rocking back and forth in the rolling ruts of the old road. Rella soon found her Sight pulled, as though a magnet were drawing her, to a familiar convoy of wagons and horses and travellers on foot. She had seen the convoy several times, each instance noting how much the caravan had grown over the course of a few short weeks. The convoy had circled up and dug in, the extent of their fortifications indicating they had remained in place for some time.


At first, it seemed that the roving band of refugees had finally run out of luck; a large group of Deskren slave-soldiers had caught up with them, and battle had been joined. No ragtag mob, the slaves fought as a coordinated entity, higher-ranked slaves providing tactical direction to their underlings. Unlike the the control collars that Rella had seen on the Purple Night, these were the more common conditioning collars used by the Deskren on their born slaves. Instead of the sickeningly yellow greasy aura of the control collars, these collars were much simpler, relying on sensory stimulus, reward and punishment to control their wearers. But, when you raised a person from birth with such a device around their necks, the results were as certain as they were with the more rare Soul Collars. Such distinctions mattered little to the victims under attack, and if Rella had not borne the gifts of her Mantle she would have written the caravan off as lost without a second thought. As it was, however, she Watched and waited.


WIth her Sight, she saw the refugees slaughtering the attacking force. The General was not on the field of battle, but she watched his wife, the [Hand of Solace], walk with purpose behind the lines. In her wake, wounds healed; broken bones reset themselves; exhausted fighters regained stamina, and drained mages recovered their Mana so rapidly it was visible to the naked eye as sparks and glowing auras.


While they fought, Rella watched and waited as mystical energies, invisible to all but a select few, swirled and eddied over one particular wagon, then lanced downward to disappear beneath its roof.


So, he’s finally Chosen, she thought.


The aura of the wagon changed. Gone were the energies of the System, replaced now with shadow and dread, a near-tangible presence that caused refugee and slave-soldier alike to shy away. Nearby, a horse screamed, breaking free of its tether and charging towards the wagon. Eyes wild and mouth frothing, it raced for its master, heedless of those throwing themselves out of its path.


The man himself emerged from the wagon, barking orders to those around him as his mount drew to his side, seeming to swell in all dimensions until it seemed a fitting companion for what the man had become.


When he swung himself into his saddle Rella felt the world relax, as though something terribly wrong had, at long last, been set right.


Man and mount turned then, and without prompting, streaked away. He reached out and snagged a lance from a weapons rack as he passed, the haft darkening at his touch. Blackness like liquid shadow spread to either end, and it seemed to grow longer and deadlier of its own accord. He had not donned his armor before mounting his steed, and yet the shadows wrapped around his and his horse’s bodies, solidifying into a dark projection that was just as solid as actual steel.


Behind him, as if drawn by naught but his will, riders fell in beside him. In the span of mere moments, the disparate individuals transformed into a single entity, a combined charge roaring with a single voice.


And when the mounted charge barreled into the Deskren offensive, led by the dread man, wielding his dread lance, Rella knew the battle was done, her vision pulling itself at last from the field of battle as the cart jerked to a rough stop. She had been under for several hours while the farmer made his way to the city, although it seemed like only a moment and like an eternity at the same time.


“We’s almost to the city, lass,” said Hett. “They be searchin’ every wagon goes into the city on ‘count of the Deskren and bandits, so this’ll be as far as I can take ya. Any further, we may’s well just ‘nounce you all ‘fficial-like.”


We are here, as well, came the thought from the [Oracles] past, as the pressure of the Sight faded from her mind. Rella sat with her head in her hands in the back of the wagon for several moments, waiting for the pain to fade away as well. We can give you a few hours unburdened, but remember the costs.


“Thank you, mister Hett. Be sure to take the eastern fork of the old road on your way back; the shorter path to the south has some brigands camping near it.”


The old farmer thanked her for the warning and maneuvered his wagon around, heading back the way he had brought her. She knew he would not heed her advice this time, and that there would be one less group of thieves wandering the hills come the next day. Many a band of ruffians met their ends at the hands of old and grumpy Classers, and Rella had definitely noticed the well-oiled and meticulously sharpened axe under Hett’s wagon seat. Skills to cleave a stump in twain to clear a farmer’s field also worked impressively well on people, after all.


Shouldering her small travel pack and hooking her waterskin to her belt, Rella made her way through the low scrub near the city’s edge, her precognitive abilities helping her to make better time. When you could know for a fact that nobody was looking at a given spot, you could stroll right through a guarded perimeter. The patrols she had to dodge in order to get into the town itself were only a little bit trickier than the earlier approach.


Meaty impacts, the rattle of steel against steel, and cries of exertion led her as surely as her Sight did as she approached the training barracks and its fenced-in arena. Her potential future Champion was done with his own round of mock combat and stood by a water trough. His shield was propped up against a fence post and two younger men were helping him out of his armor. The young man’s sisters, The Twins, sat by, tossing orbs of light between themselves while surreptitiously eyeing the various shirtless boys and men beating each other with dulled training weapons in the corral. Rella kept to the shadows under the roof that covered the area encircling the training grounds, listening and watching while she waited for the right time to introduce herself.


“I’m telling you, Jargo: the boy will break, Worldwalker or not,” said a dark-haired man in dirty leathers to a shorter man with distinguished grey in his beard. “He refuses to commit himself; all he does is defend.”


“Defend is all he has to do, really. Once the boy plants his feet, that shield is like a stone wall.” The shorter man was rubbing one hand with the other, and stopped to shake his arm to work the circulation back into it. “I know that personally, Bill. I beat that boy’s shield for over an hour til my arm gave out, and he wasn’t even tired. He won’t break when he stands in a shieldwall.”


“I’m sayin’ if he won’t hit back he’s a coward, and cowards break and run.”


An elder man with wispy grey hair had been listening to their banter in silence. This new observer watched as the subject of their conversation had stripped the last of his armor off, as well as his shirt, to wash himself in the water trough. Scars criss-crossed the young man’s chest and arms. His face was the charming kind of ugly granted by a nose broken more than once and a crooked brow that left one eye in a half-squint. Every time his gaze passed over the place where his sisters sat perched on the fence his expression of intense focus softened to a tender protectiveness.


He knows what it means to get hit, and get hurt, thought Rella to herself, and then a girlish flutter flipped her belly upside-down. But there is still kindness in him too…


The first two men, Jargo and Bill, continued to banter and grumble at each other with good-natured rivalry. “I’m tellin’ you, Jargo, I’ll put a month’s wages down that he breaks on the first charge when he’s in the line.”


“Two months’ says he holds, old coot,” replied the shorter man, placing a gold coin on the fencepost between them.


The much taller and much older veteran broke in at that moment, his quiet raspy voice cutting through the noises on the training ground. “The boy won’t break, ever,” said the ancient Classer before spitting a wad of tobacco on the ground.


“What makes you say that, Cid?” asked Bill, still not convinced the boy was not a coward at heart.


“I don’t see no scars on his back. The boy ain’t never run, an’ he never will.”


Rella could not help but giggle, catching the attention of the three men. She stepped forward, letting her hood fall back to reveal the silvery glowing eyes of the [Oracle]. “Cid is right,” she spoke quietly to the three men. “The [Anvil-Heart Guardian] does not run, nor does he know how to yield.”


Recognition of who and what she was struck all three men like a bolt of lightning. Jargo and Bill stood up straight and placed a hand over their hearts before giving a quick and respectful bow. The older Cid took a half-step back to cover the previously-spat tobacco with his foot, giving a reverent nod of his head. The Twins game of juggled lights came to a halt as they turned to look at Rella as one, the half-dozen colored balls of energy fizzing out as they hit the ground. Their brother, The Fortress as he had been named by the previous [Oracle], followed their gaze and Rella felt her heart skip a beat when he finally noticed her.


She stepped forward and rested one hand on the fence, about to speak to introduce herself, when she felt a pull far to the east, ripping her attention away from her current location despite the efforts of the past [Oracles]’s gestalt to keep her buffered from such visions. A True Vision could not be prevented. Rella’s mind was pulled away, and she Saw.


She saw the burning woman again, standing in the center of an inferno of lightning and molten stone. Beasts of all kinds fled the storm, but few escaped. The woman raised her arms, magma flowing up around her in a maelstrom over a thousand feet tall before Rella’s vision was kicked back, away from the storm. At the same time that she saw, the [Oracle] also spoke.


“She burns! Sparks in the marrow to ignite the Burning Light! Her Life is the Fire and Fire is her Life! She burns!”


And then the vision ended, the [Oracle]’s words trailing into a heavy silence. Rella felt the presence of the dead [Oracles] fade away within the Mantle, even more exhausted than she herself was. She collapsed against the fence, barely able to hold herself up. Dizziness spun her vision in circles for a moment and just before her knees gave way completely, she looked the Fortress in the eyes.


“Hi. I’m Rella.”


And then she fell unconscious, the blackness rising up to greet her mind with welcoming arms.