“It’s all about control. It’s all about freedom. Do you know the difference? What makes you different from the chair you’re sitting on?” she paused. “You can stand up. You can decide right now to lean forward, push off that chair, take the four steps necessary to reach me. You can decide that the distance between us is uncomfortable, that you need to be closer, you need to touch me. Your body can feel that seed deep inside, blooming and growing to fill you. Soon it will be more than a feeling, it will be a thought. How long till that thought becomes a desire? How long till it becomes a need? From need to action is a very small step.” A wicked smile touched her lips but left her eyes cold. Olwen shifted in the chair feeling a deep unease.
“Is that the freedom, then? To choose to stand?”
“No, child. That’s the control. It’s the deepest lie of all.”
“But if I want to stand–”
“Expressing your wants, bringing them to action, that’s not freedom. That’s no different than the chair at all. The chair wants to be a chair, and so it is. You want to stand, and so you do. You are an object, Olwen. You are animated, but just an object.”
“Then where is the freedom? Why did you bring me here?”
“I didn’t bring you. You brought yourself without even knowing it. You didn’t want it, but you chose it. You broke the cycle that captures us all.”
Olwen opened her mouth to ask another question, but couldn’t find the words. Nothing made sense. Why did the Oracle have to talk in riddles? Why wouldn’t she just say what she had to say and be done with it.
“You are the freedom, Olwen. You are the one that breaks the rules.”
“What rules, what are you talking about. What is this place?”
“The rules of existence. The energy that binds us all into our place. Each thing, each place, each person is trapped in the cycle to live their lives as a series of experience and decision, always repeating, endlessly driving us toward the single path. This place is the present, it is now, and we’re all caught in the middle of it. There is no escape for us, but for you…”
Olwen stood, she took a step, then another, and stopped. Halfway to Veduna, the Oracle of the Monastiraki. Halfway to living out the words she spoke. Halfway to touching her and fulfilling a need that she didn’t even notice growing. “You used the Expression on me?”
“We all use it, child. Every action has repercussions on everything else. If I ask you if you’d like a cup of wine, I’ve manipulated you. A second earlier there was no decision to make, and now there is. My will expressed on you, don’t you see? We’re all connected by it. It’s an infinite web of cause and effect, choice and counter.”
“But I could chose either way. I have the freedom!” she challenged.
“But Olwen,” a pause, “you will only chose one.” The idea spun around in her like a whirlwind. Once choice made, one path, always, no matter how complex the situation there would be only one outcome.
“The one path… it is time, then? We can only make one choice and no matter what we chose, we’re always in that same thread.”
Veduna only smiled that twist of lips again. Satisfaction covered her body and it made her slender form sway with serpentine grace. Her every motion enthralled and Olwen felt the sharp thorns of the desire for her once again. Two steps away, just two steps.
Olwen’s slipper slid over the stone floor, tracing a long line in the dust. She stopped again, but only with a great force of will.
“Child, whether you fight it or not it doesn’t matter. Your path is set, your destiny written. There is no escape from your own future. You may as well live it as it pleases you. Anything else is meaningless.”
There was more to her words, though. Olwen sensed it inside, buried amongst the syllables. What wasn’t she saying? Why all this talk about destiny. The Oracle could see the future; that’s what the Monastiraki said. She was a prophet like the Queens of old. She knew everything, didn’t she? She saw what would come. But if she knew the future, couldn’t she do something different? Ideas fell into place like the blocks Hefin would set up on the floor when they were children. Tilt the first and they’d all fall, one after another.
“What if you change the path? What if you see what’s coming and do something else?” Veduna’s smile faded. Her eyes went hard with a squint that could bore through iron. Or maybe just through my mind, she thought in a panic. Quickly, she flashed back to the exercises Michael had taught them, the primitive defenses that she’d barely been able to muster in complete silence. To protect a mind isn’t like defending a castle, it’s like dodging the wind; whatever that meant. Still, she had to try.
Olwen dropped her thoughts from her mind and focused on something familiar and unchanging. She saw the image of the stars from her picture book, the long boot of Ilia, the stone it kicks. She pictured the lines between the stars that drew the shapes and lost herself in the darkness of it all. The familiar calm took over and she felt the foreign presence of Veduna’s mind lose her in the depths. In just a moment, her mind was clear and empty.
The Oracle was definitely not smiling now. Olwen’s fears melted away, though. She was safe in her mind. She was alone again at last.
No, not alone, Olwen, a voice rasped in her mind. Never alone. A woman’s voice filled her mind as clear as her own, so familiar, so ancient, and so deeply lost. It churned her stomach like she was back on the Stargazer, tossing in the waves. With another quick cleansing of her mind, she pushed deeper into her calm center, like a living dream.
Only this time, the voice was even more clear. Veduna will kill you if she can’t control you. She’s afraid of your power. She’s afraid you can change the things to come. She can only see the results, never the causes. No matter how she tries, she can’t change what’s coming. But you, you can do anything. You hold all the threads, Olwen.
Who are you? Olwen thought back.
“If someone could change the future, Olwen, they’d challenge the greatest power to have ever existed. Whose plan do you think enslaves us all? Who is the master of your destiny?”
“You mean God plays us all like puppets?”
“I mean if you try to act out your free will, you are just confirming the path he has laid out all along. There’s no altering it. There is no change. You, Olwen, are no different from the chair after all.”
Olwen could sense the lie. She was holding something back, something very important. “But you can see it, see what’s coming. All you’d need is someone who could see the causes, read them and manipulate them. You need an Expressionist. You need a Mage!”
“No mage can see what I see, and it would take all of my power and theirs. But the creator planned on that. He saw that we might fight him at some point, and so he only gave us part of the tools, and no way to work together. Nobody is all things. Nobody can be an Oracle, an Expressionist, and the Hierophant all at once.”
“The Hierophant? Is that like a mage?”
“Oh, child. Hasn’t your poor Connor boy told you anything? Hasn’t he told you why you’re here with him, why they dragged you out of the city that night? Hasn’t the Order revealed anything?”
“They rescued me,” Olwen protested.
“They kidnapped you.”
“No! Michael saved my life, and the others as well. He’s just trying to keep me safe, to get us–”
“Back to the rest of the Order? And what then, child. Didn’t he tell you what you carry inside you? Didn’t he tell you just who lies in the darkness of your dreams?”
Kill her. She knows I’m here.
“What are you talking about? I thought this was about freedom.” Olwen stepped closer and immediately cursed herself. Her slight body pressed lightly against Veduna’s voluptuous figure. She could feel the heat off the older woman and it was intoxicating.
Kill her before she takes you. There are only moments, Olwen. She’s more dangerous than you realize. Olwen fought the voice inside, shaking her head clear.
“I… What is freedom?”
“It is to embrace the path, to make it fully your own, and to chose it instead of letting it chose you.”
Bullshit. She’s selling you on slavery. Don’t let her pull you in. Clear your mind. Force her out!
“Let me in and I’ll show you.”
Olwen was torn. Everything was swimming as she became more and more light-headed. There were too many things here, too many options. But what was it Veduna had said? There is only one choice we make. One choice to the future. The words were confusing and Olwen was having trouble keeping them straight in her head. Too many ideas, too many things to remember, and these strangers knocking on the doors to her mind. It was so distracting, so tiring. She just wanted to lay down, or into the Oracle’s arms.
Olwen. Don’t let go. Push her out, you must! The mysterious voice said.
“I can’t do it,” she responded to the voice aloud.
“Just let the sleep take you,” Veduna said. She thought the comment was for her.
“I can’t keep it straight. It’s too much. I just want to rest… to let her take over.”
“Yes, that’s it, sleep.” Yes, Olwen, just like before. Let me free.
“You will watch over me while I rest?” Olwen’t voice was tired, at the edge of exhaustion. Somewhere inside she knew it was a tool of the Expression. Veduna was trying to lower her defenses, to break down her walls. Somewhere inside the knowledge was as clear as day. After-all, it’s just the sort of thing Susan would have done.
“Susan?” Olwen asked.
Veduna’s eyes shot wide with panic. “What did you say?”
“Susan, take care of me,” and with that last thought, the darkness took over. A darkness named Susan Browne. Don’t worry, child. I’ll protect us both.
Nearby in the camp at the base of Mount Oros-Deinos, Korvaluvoroslano as it’s called by the natives, the fires were just being built up as twilight descended in the mountains. People were busy preparing meals, tending to camp tasks, caring for horses, cleaning, feeding, and all the other little crafts that make a people a society. Each person was about their own little duty except the Clerics. Members of the Order didn’t bother with camp work, but right about now Michael was seriously considering it. These mountains were cold, even in summer, and doing nothing but sit on a log was a quick way to freeze. He thought about helping to carry some of the supplies up from camp to their wagons for restocking when everything changed.
Thunder struck like a thousand cannons loosed at once all around him. The air slammed into his chest and a moment later he was on his back in a snow drift six feet away. The taste of sulfur filled his nostrils, but that was the only sense that seemed to be working. Everything was blinded and silenced from the blast. He rubbed his eyes with one hand and ran a finger to his ear with the other. Blood returned on both hands. Something had gone horribly wrong, and he had a feeling who was behind it.
In the ruined crater of what was once the tallest mountain, Susan Brown brushed off the soot from her dress and took a moment to admire the young body she now controlled. Lithe, but weak. Pretty in a plain way. It would do nicely.