Excerpt Two: The Enemy Escapes
Something had changed. He couldn’t hear them, couldn’t see them, but Simon Beene knew they were out there. The Guardians were always out there. Since he had been imprisoned so long ago, the presence of the Guardians had been as constant and unyielding as everything else in this strange place. But things were different now. For some inexplicable reason, he knew it to be true.
Straining against the bonds that held him staked out like some heathen sacrifice upon the earth, Beene tried to get a better look at the world around him. A man of average height and slight build there was little hope that he might break free, but he flexed his muscles and pushed with all his might. The ropes stretched taut and the iron band cut painfully into his throat. Ignoring the discomfort, he tried harder, hoping he might get the bonds to loosen just a fraction of an inch. The next moment, exhausted by the effort, he gave up. It was useless. He could see nothing. Stuck like a fly in a spider’s web, he was going nowhere.
Maybe he was wrong after all. Nothing ever changed in this dull world, not that he had seen anyway. Expecting anything less was a sign of madness. With a sigh, Beene relaxed, lay back, and stared into the sky. No day or night, no sunshine or rain; nothing ever changed.
The sky above was always flat and shapeless. A heavy fog forever shrouded the forest around him. The trees reached out for an absent sun. Their trunks were charcoal gray and thick as a man. They seemed healthy and alive, but their empty fingers clasped no leaf or needle; simple bones vacant of flesh. Even the grass was gray. Never was there a single blade taller than another. Never was there so much as a weed to blemish the perfect carpet upon the ground.
“Come here, Oracle. Come, come now,” Simon Beene called out. The voice he heard, his voice, sounded like it belonged to a madman. “I want you.”
At his command, a dark shape emerged from the fog. With it came the pulsing sound of windswept sand as it moved. The one he had named Oracle answered his call. It was frightening to behold. Only within the endless corners of the World Beyond, the Lands of Faerie, could such a thing exist. It was tall as a house, shaped like a pyramid, but made entirely of glass. Great wings extended from its body; poised outward like an eagle attacking its prey. Instead of feathers, shards of glass stuck out at every angle. As it came to a stop in front of him, the Oracle towered menacingly over Beene.
“Is it her? Has she come back?” Remembering the accepted form, Beene commanded, “Show her. Yes, why don’t you show my darling girl to me?”
Silent but attentive, the Oracle acknowledged the command without making a move or uttering a sound but it revealed nothing.
“It must be forbidden even when she is here,” Simon muttered to himself.
To the Oracle, he said, “Show me the other Guardians.”
The question was met with the same reply as before, nothing. He knew this too was information the Guardian was forbidden to show him.
Then an idea struck Beene and he asked, “Show me what the Guardians are after.”
This time an image flickered in the mist above the Oracle. It was a man. Beene didn’t recognize him. Nothing about the man was extraordinary in any way. He didn’t seem a likely savior. He was probably just another poor soul who had lost his way. The Guardians would exact a harsh price for that bad luck.
Once before, someone had come. It had been one of Lord Stokelas’ squires, given the task of rescuing Simon Beene in exchanged for his silver spurs. The Guardians had ripped the poor bugger to shreds and tossed his lifeless body into the trees.
“You might as well let him go,” Beene suggested. “I don’t know the chap, never seen him before in my life. Be a good little monster and chase him away for me. That’s the best course of action. Ain’t no use spillin’ any more blood over little old me.”
The Oracle ignored the comment. For the hundredth time, Beene wondered if it was because the creature was instructed not to answer that sort of question or if it went deeper than that. Perhaps the Oracle could not hear or speak. Perhaps its kind communicated mentally or with a picture language shining in the mist.
“Run!” Beene shouted as loudly as he could. “Run away, run away. They’re coming. They’ll find you. Run, run, run away, come back in never and a day!”
He paused, listening, but heard nothing.
Half to himself, he muttered, “Oh, bother, good luck, old chap.”
“Oracle, show me Rome again, would you? The Vatican, Saint Peters, don’t you know. I have need of prayers to sooth my aching heart. Poor old sod came here in a dream most likely. Now he finds himself dead. It’s not fair, you know. You should be ashamed of yourselves.”
A horn blew; a long, deep bellow. The fog muffled sound so it was like listening through a wad of cotton stuck in the ears. Hearing the sound was terrible just the same. It was the call of the Guardians, a savage cry of attack. The strange man would be dead in moments.
Not wanting to hear it and be forced to contemplate his responsibility in the matter, Beene would have covered his ears if only he could move his hands. Pinned to the ground like an insect on an examination tray, he could do nothing.
The Oracle seemed upset by the call too. That hadn’t happened before.
A clap of thunder broke the silence. The horn cry abruptly cut short.
Beene wondered if that last call could have been a cry for help. He smiled at the prospect. Maybe it wasn’t his captor sending some new inquisitor to ask questions until his head ached, or some misguided fool lost in dreams. Maybe he really was being rescued.
The Oracle turned and left, disappearing into the forest. Straining his neck, Beene could barely see the way it had gone. Whoever it was out there was creating quite a stir. The Guardians were off in all directions; crazy and desperate as he was.
Beene allowed himself hope. It had been a lifetime without hope. He wept with joy and relief, crying, “Here, come here, over here. I’m over here, old chap. Come and get me!”
A circle of stones made up the outer wall of his prison. The stones were about four feet high, thick as the bowls of the ancient trees, and spaced to give the feeling of being trapped within the maw of some terrible beast. Each of the stones was vested with enchantments that throbbed with power. Never in all his years within their confines had Simon Beene sensed them weaken even a fraction.
Upon the smooth surfaces of the stones were carved sigils. They were unlike anything Beene had ever seen. Even with careful study and contemplation he hadn’t been able to figure out exactly what they did or how they did it. In the end, he couldn’t tell for sure whether the stones were to keep him inside or to keep the Guardians outside.
Beyond the circle of stones, Beene saw the stranger approach. This was no mere squire of the court. Whoever this man was had an exceptional amount of power at his command. He was not one of the Elder Race, the Faerie people, his brethren. The man looked human. Though capable of developing great abilities, most humans lacked the discipline and training to make them truly formidable. This one, however, might be an exception. The stranger had European features, vaguely Saxon, if he were any judge. With what he had seen of his clothing, Beene concluded this man must be from the USA that had been such an important player on the world stage in the last century.
In spite of his abilities, the stranger approached carefully. He was hiding behind a tree, as if he thought the circle of stones held the most perilous of hazards. Such power would normally lead to arrogance, but not in this case. Beene told himself he would have to be guileless in his approach.
“Halloo,” Beene called out merrily, choosing English. “Come back for a visit, how very kind of you. I’m doing well, thank you. I’m positively peachy.”
As expected, the man peaked out from behind the tree. He looked nonplussed.
“Come on, don’t be shy. I’d love to have another of our friendly chats.”
Now striding boldly toward him, showing some signs of the impetuousness that was to be expected, the man approached the circle. “Hello, that’s right. Heads up. Look sharp.” His words were firm, commanding, but his manner betrayed a lack of confidence. The man was young, far younger than Beene first guessed.
“Well, look here, someone new. How wonderful that is.”
“I’d like to talk with you,” the stranger said brusquely. “I have questions so let’s start with your name.”
“Well,” Beene sniffed, “manners.”
When he came to the stone circle, the man stopped short. Beene could feel him probe the enchantments. The stranger would learn nothing. Their making had been flawlessly executed. Secrets of the Faerie Court were not easily penetrated and the lineage of Lord Amasa was the most enigmatic of all.
“Not a place for manners,” the stranger replied.
The stranger was looking uncomfortably around him. It was as if he expected the stars to fall from the heavens, the earth to open and swallow him up, or every devil ever spawned in the underworld to come after him with pitchfork in hand.
“Right enough, I expect. My name is Simon Beene. And how may I name you?”
“Hume,” the man said, folding his arms over his chest.
“Hume? Just Hume?” said Beene, chuckling.
“Yes,” Hume replied stubbornly, jutting out his chin like a spoiled boy being punished for stealing sweets.
“Charming. Well, Hume, say to your mistress that I have nothing new to tell. I’ve said all I’m going to and I’m more afraid of my master than I am of her.”
“Tell it again, what you’ve said to her. I want to hear it directly from you.”
Beene knew he had taken the right approach. The trap was set. All he had to do was wait for the right time to spring it.
“But of course, that is what we prisoners are expected to do, isn’t it? How droll.”
“We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
“I’d say after the first hundred years, this punishment is beyond what anyone might call easy.”
Hume looked Beene over, appraisingly. He decided something and said, “Start talking. I’m not going to waste time with you.”
“You are here for a reason. You want something and you might be willing to provide a few, well, comforts, in exchange.”
“Perhaps,” Hume allowed. “The Blade of Caro.”
Hiding his surprise at the request, Beene said, “Yes, the Blade of Caro, the Blade of Caro. My master and I made it up right enough, but I’ll tell you none of its secrets. The Lady Elizabeth tried to get it from me and she failed. No hunger, no thirst, no pain, or spending eternity in this hole is as bad as the alternatives. Mind you the screaming gets a bit dull but it seems to upset those creatures out there so a fellow has to do something to pass the time.”
“Lady Elizabeth? She did this to you?”
“You don’t work for her?” asked Beene, already knowing the answer.
“No, I’m looking for the Blade of Caro. She has it, somewhere. I want it back.”
“And what do you want it for?”
“That is my business.”
“It’s not down here, but maybe I could put you on the right track. You know, if you help me escape.”
“I’m not opposed to that.”
“Really? What about the Guardians? The circle keeps them away from me but once they find I’m out they’ll have us for luncheon.”
“One down,” said Hume rubbing his fingertips.
The absurdity made Beene laugh, a wild tortured, unnerving laugh. “Good job, man.”
“Let’s see about making your escape. The circle won’t affect me?”
The immediate trust was unexpected. Beene was taken aback. He almost felt guilty for what he must do. “Not in the least. It’s protection, like a jail. No, that’s not it. It’s like a really big mote with sharks and crocodiles and angry chipmunks.”
“Like Alcatraz, uh?”
“Don’t know that one, friend, but I expect it’s not a hair off target.”
The fool blindly walked in. The stones let him in.
Satisfied with what had been accomplished, Hume unfolded a knife and got down to business, “Start talking.”
“That’s a bit vague, isn’t it?”
With a dramatic sigh, Hume folded the knife and stood. He turned on his heel and started walking away.
No stranger to the subtle ploys of negotiation, Beene said, “Wait, no wait. I’m sorry. I just didn’t know where to start.”
Hume stopped walking, but he deigned not to turn around. Beene was infuriated. His eyes might have burned holes in the back of the man’s head, but he was powerless. The iron collar stripped him of any magic he might manage to conjure. He couldn’t even free himself from the bonds. He was totally at the bastard’s mercy.
“It’s a long, pointy thing,” Beene laughed, unable to help himself.
“I gather,” Hume replied coolly.
“Yes, but it’s made of wood, not steel or bronze or stone or anything what might make a bit of sense for a weapon.”
Interested, Hume turned around. “Go on.”
“It’s shaped like a sword but it’s more of a magic wand. If you know how to work it, all sorts of things might come out. Even I don’t know all and I helped make it.”
“You?” Hume scoffed.
“Well, right, so I mostly carried firewood and brought the Master Stokelas his wine, but I was there the entire time and I’m the best you got.”
“How might the Blade of Caro be concealed?”
“Oh, that’s an easy one, just about any way you can imagine. But it can’t hide from magic, just like any other magic object. It exists in the world as a magic thing and must remain there and be in existence.”
“Oh, I don’t understand it either. The Master kept blabbing, but it all sounded like a load of rubbish to me. I think he was just trying to sound important again.”
“Can one scry for it?”
“Yes, but the Lady Elizabeth will feel that and be able to trace it back to you double quick. So don’t even try. She would disappear; or worse, do to you what she did to me.”
“How might it be unmade?”
“That’s not easy. The Master’s blood has something to do with it. That’s powerful magic, the blood sacrifice, especially when a wizard makes it his own. That’s magic what goes way back to the beginning.”
Hume leaned over and cut the rope, releasing Beene’s foot.
“Oh, thank you, Hume. You are a true gentleman, honest to his word.”
“Deal’s a deal.”
Beene watched in anticipation as Hume methodically cut the remaining ropes. He knew this would be the time some action would be expected, so he remained calm. Only when Hume nodded his head did Beene sit up and begin rubbing the circulation back into his wrists. The spell had done its work, however. He hadn’t aged a minute since being imprisoned. His back didn’t even hurt and that had always given him trouble.
“So, have you really been stuck in here hundreds of years?”
Standing, Beene made a show of testing his legs, play acting a fold fresh from the womb. He tried not to overdo it. There was yet the iron collar and the Guardians were somewhere in the fog. A few tentative steps were enough to convince Hume he was not being suckered.
“Yes, but I lost count. That Lady Elizabeth is too soft hearted. She didn’t want to be responsible for killing me or wasting my life so she brought me here. I haven’t aged a minute since I was put into the circle. My mind had gone on the same as ever, if you could call it that, but nothing else.
“You’re free now.”
“Again, I can’t thank you enough.”
“Don’t thank me yet. We still have to get out of here. Those creatures will be looking for us. Come on, I’ll show you the way.”
Hume turned to go. His back was to Beene. The opportunity had come.
Beene was ready. He threw himself into Hume, knocking his knees out from under him. They both went sprawling to the ground, but Beene was quick to regain his feet.
A bolt of lightning seared the air inches from his head. Throwing himself sideways, Beene turned a cartwheel to get out of the way. After all the time alone, day after endless day and bored half crazy, this was what it felt to be alive.
“One may enter, one may leave!”
Beene laughed wildly, stupidly. They joy of luck and his certain escape gave strength to his limbs. Another lightning bolt sparked toward him, but he was on his feet and past the first stone. He had escaped!
Behind the tree Hume had used as a refuge when approaching the circle, Simon caught sign of tracks. Hume must have been nervous about getting back to wherever he had come from. He had dragged his feet on the ground, leaving an easy trail to follow.
Not knowing what direction in which his best chance of escape lay, Simon followed the footprints. He ran as fast as he could make his legs move, but he was not used to that sort of exertion. Even with the magic spell to keep him young, Beene was no athlete. His muscles started burning. The ruff was infuriating, bobbing up and down on his neck. Once so fashionable, it was now an encumbrance. If not for the off chance he might need it for some purpose, he would have gotten rid of the annoying thing.
The wreck of a Guardian stood smoldering ahead. He wondered briefly where the rest of them were and whether or not they were intelligent enough to choose between their victims. Getting an idea, he stooped to look over the wreckage.
As he thought, pieces of the thing were everywhere. One shard, the size of a dagger, he slid into his belt. Another was just a fragment, a sliver. It was unlike the glass of the human world. This glass felt solid in his hand and yet was as strong as steel.
The small shard was rigid and flexible enough for his purpose. His fingers found the iron band around his neck and the mechanism that held it in place. Trying to calm his mind as he worked, Beene slid the shard into the lock. Unlike physical exertion, this sort of thing was more his specialty. With an economy of motion he sprung the lock, the clasp opened, and he was free.
Power surged through his limbs. He felt again the ability to touch the magic that had so long been denied to him. Leaving the collar on the grass, he ran down the trail, ready to find whatever it was that lay at the end. He was too late. Hume was already ahead of him.
“Hume! Wait!” Beene shouted, gasping for breath. Fearing he could not be heard in the fog, he magically amplified his voice. “Wait! Wait up, there’s no reason for this now.”
“You had your chance.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I could not have escaped.”
A horn blast roared in front of them. A Guardian appeared. It seemed to know the direction Hume was headed and was angling to cut him off. The sound of windswept sand was terrible as the creature sped across the grass. Hume shot forward, managing to get ahead of it.
Another born blew, much louder than the first. This Guardian was in front of Hume. It was huge, twice as large as the first. There seemed no chance of escape.
White light, striking out with an ear splitting clasp of thunder, leapt from Hume’s hand. The lightning streaked across the forest, blasting apart trees, ripping grass and soil from the earth. The power was incredible. He watched in amazement as the lightning hit the Guardian full in the chest and the creature was blown into bits.
“Time for a nifty trick, old chap,” Beene told himself. “There’s nothing left to do.”
He slowed his pace, trying to get his wind back, concentrating on the forest in front of Hume in order to transport himself there. With a flash and a crack, he was gone. Beene found himself at the entrance of a staircase. Though he had been enchanted, his head covered, an iron band around his neck, he vaguely remembered something about going down stairs when Lady Elizabeth had brought him here. Turning with a smile, Beene climbed the stairs.
He hadn’t gone half a dozen steps before he was tackled from behind. The breath was knocked out of him. After so long without using magic, the effort needed for teleportation had left him drained. He was having trouble making sense of what was happening. Hume pushed his face into the stone steps, clawing over him on his way up the staircase. The pain was horrific.
Remembering the shard of glass in his belt, Beene drew it out and stuck it into Hume’s leg. Hume screamed in agony. Beene stabbed him again.
Someone else was there, just a shadow against the opening above. Something stabbed into his hand. The shard was knocked free. Beene heard it bouncing down the stairs. He stared dumb at the wound, shocked and horrified.
“Baron, come on,” Hume said, limping up the stairs.
There was an opening up there. It was a rectangle of light. In moments, Hume and the other were gone. Throwing himself headlong toward the opening, Beene was too far away when the lid slammed shut.
He was trapped inside. The opening was gone.
As soon as the doorway shut, the sound as final as the toll of an executioner’s axe, something started to happen. The wood changed to stone. Like the staircase, it was flawlessly set, perfect in a way no human hands could make. Before long, the stone began to corrupt. Like diseased flesh it rotted away, bit by bit, the pieces dissolving into nothing. From the place where the door had been, darkness began to grow. More and more of the stone making up the walls and steps began to disappear.
Beyond, Beene could see nothing. There was no stone, no light. Neither forest nor gray sky lay behind the disappearing stairway. There was only the blinding emptiness of the void, a place between life and death. If he were lost in that place, it would be a fate like the one he had known but with no Oracle to keep him company and with no possible end, stuck for all eternity.
Desperation drove his mind. Beene knew only that he must get out. His thoughts a blur, his body reacted. Half falling, half crawling, he raced down the steps. The nothingness of the void was coming fast; deadly and silent. If he hesitated even a moment, it would seem to go all the faster to clutch his foot, his hand, to steal the air from his lungs. It was upon him as he gave one last great push with his legs.
Beene rolled out onto the grass. The opening was gone. He was in the forest. He had escaped. The air was cool and moist on his skin. Digging out clumps of grass, he brought it to his face, breathing in a faint, musty order that was nothing like grass or dirt, but smelling wonderful. He yelled in relief and delight, celebrating his escape.
A fog horn blew.
Beene closed his eyes tight. “No, this isn’t happening. It can’t be happening to me.”
The fog horn blew again. It was closer. The sound shook the ground.
His ears ached, but he did not move to cover them. He dared not make any move at all.
The fog horn blew a third time. It was right on top of him now. The call seemed to hold a demand.
Following his instincts, Beene opened his eyes. The Oracle stood over him. Anger burned within it, radiating hatred. Startled, Beene jumped away. He rolled onto his back, looking up at the great, glass beast.
His mind was a blank. He couldn’t think of what to do.
“Not my fault,” he whimpered. “I didn’t do it. You let him in. It’s not my fault.”
The Oracle loomed closer, head bending toward him.
“He…he did it,” Beene stammered, cowering. He closed his eyes, arms raised protectively over his head, expecting pointed death at any moment. “That Hume fellow did it. You can’t blame me, I didn’t harm anyone. I just ran. All I did was try to get away. You can’t blame a fellow for that. I’m as much a victim as you are.”
Strangely, the death blow did not come. Hearing nothing, Beene opened his eyes.
The Oracle stood motionless above him. It seemed to be pondering what he had said, perhaps making final judgment of what punitive action was deserved.
Still looking for an opportunity to evade capture, Beene began crab walking away. His mind was working again. He had escaped the stone circle and the staircase. Perhaps he could escape this as well. His elbow struck something in the grass. It was hard as steel. The point stuck painfully into his skin. He looked down to find the shard he collected from the dead Guardian, the shard he stuck into Hume’s leg.
“I may not have the skill of the storm,” he whispered to himself, “but let’s see what my talents can do.”
Taking the shard into his hands, he began to concentrate upon the glass. He felt how it had come into being, how it had been a part of a living entity. The Oracle was an entity just like the one the shard had come from.
“From one body to another, from one mind to the next,” Beene said, using the chant to draw purpose, to gain influence.
“Your mind is mine,” he told the Oracle, completing the spell to make it true. “Take me out of here, show me the closest way out of the World Beyond.”
With no will of its own, the Oracle obeyed. It turned and began to glide across the colorless grass. It had no legs or other signs of locomotion, but moved effortlessly with only the sound of blowing sand to mark its passing. If not for the sound, Beene might have thought it was the world moving instead of the creature.
“Well, well, that worked rather well,” Beene congratulated himself. “Not so terrible a beastie after all.”
Not wanting to be left behind, Beene stood and brushed himself off. It was no good trying to orientate himself. The stairway was gone and the stone circle held only misery. If he were going to return to the World of Men, following the Oracle was the best place to begin.
Though the spell had worked, he was not so naïve as to believe there would be no trouble. The creature might prove strong enough to overcome his powers as time went by. Using the shard, he could feel the link between the Oracle’s mind and his own. It would take constant vigilance, but he would be able to sense if any changes in that bond occurred. No matter how subtle, he would be ready.
As they walked, the trees in their perfect rows filed passed one by one, each like the next, each like the one before. They came upon the ruin of the first dead Guardian. Beene thought some emotion might spark resistance, but not so much as a flicker of anger flashed through the shard to his consciousness. The Oracle seemed incapable of thought, let alone any sign of emotion. His influence over the creature was total. His thoughts were its thoughts.
The others were not equally satisfied to leave things as they were, however. The pulsing sounds of wind swept sand began to gather. The trees seemed to conspire with the Guardians, making a labyrinth of the forest to give them shelter. Frantically Beene searched, knowing they followed, fearing they massed for an attack. First he saw movement ahead, but then not. A glint of light flashed to the right, but was gone when he took a second look. Shadows collected in the places gone by, assassins crewed in articulate death. He looked again and again, trying to catch them as they shifted from one hiding place to the next. Still he saw nothing more than his imagination could construct from his all too vivid fears.
More disturbing, the Guardians had learned to hide their minds from him. While imprisoned in the stone circle, he had been able to stretch his intellectual senses, touching each of the Guardians as they endlessly circled in the fog. At times he had given names to a few, merely jokes to amuse himself, but also a comfort to his loneliness. Now even as he reached to his limits, he could not find a hint that they were there.
“Go now, go faster,” Beene urged the Oracle. He increased his pace to a jog, nearly catching it. “Get me out of here now.”
The call was up. Doom had come. Thunderous blasts of sound came from every direction. Guardians appeared from the fog, four of them. Two of them were twice the size of the Oracle. Their battle cry was so loud that Beene fell to his knees and covered his ears.
“Save me, oh save me Oracle,” he wailed, rolling on the ground.
The giant Guardians slid toward him. The closest one raised its arms, spreading like the hood of a cobra ready to strike. Shards of glass like porcupine quills fixed against him.
Another horn blast came from close by. It was the Oracle, protesting Beene’s maltreatment, moving between the big Guardian and Beene. Unaffected by the Oracle’s pleas, the Guardian flipped its arms forward, releasing the shards of glass. Thousands of the razor sharp quills flew toward him. Beene threw his arms over his head and curled up on the ground.
To his surprise, he heard a terrible shattering noise all around him. Any moment he expected the sharp pain that would end his life, but there was silence again. He was unharmed. The Oracle had put itself in his stead, protecting him. Through the bond, Beene could tell the attack had done little damage to the Oracle.
“Kill it,” he ordered. “Kill the beast.”
The Oracle belched great gouts of flame. White hot, the fire seared the air. The other Guardian caught fire. It turned away in agony, crying with its terrible voice. The Oracle sent more flame, devouring the poor creature as it tried to escape. With one last cry, the betrayed Guardian fell over and melted into a heap of glass upon the ground. It was dead.
A death cry was raised from its companions. All of the creatures were blasting fog horn prayers to the gray and shapeless heavens.
A second Guardian made its play. It slid toward Beene with a speed he had not expected.
“Kill them, kill them all!” Beene shouted. He held the shard in his hand so tightly it cut into his palm. Blood ran down his wrist and onto the ground. It was glowing from the mental energies he poured into it. “Kill them. I order you. Kill those nasty beasts.”
The second Guardian moved toward Beene, trying to get around the Oracle. It was not fast enough. Extending an arm, the Oracle swept its body in a circle and sliced off the Guardian’s head with one smooth motion.
“Yes, yes, that’s it,” Beene laughed. “Another, kill another.”
Horns blared in protest. Silent and deadly, the Oracle selected its next victim. The smallest of them all, the next Guardian was no match. It seemed to understand that it was being hunted and that its adversary was the stronger because it turned and fled. That did not stop the Oracle. Swift like nothing Beene had ever witnessed, it caught up to the smaller Guardian and knocked it down, grinding its lifeless body into the ground under it.
“Down to the very last,” Beene said. “Show no mercy for they have shown me none. For all these hundreds of years you kept me prisoner. Now this is my revenge, to the very last. Now go, Oracle. Kill it now.”
Desperate screams, strange though they were, met Beene’s delight. The last Guardian fled before the Oracle. It turned this way and that, trying to save itself. The Oracle was as relentless in carrying out its new orders as it had been in its last. There was a crash as if a thousand mirrors were broken at once. Somewhere in the distance, too far away for Beene to see, the last Guardian was destroyed.
The effort left Beene mentally exhausted, but not so much that he lost control over the Oracle. He relaxed his grip on the shard, dried blood making his hand sticky. The excitement over, he reasserted himself as master and the Oracle returned to his unspoken order.
“Now, let us continue. Show me the way out of here.”
In silent resignation, the Oracle returned to its previous path through the forest. The fog was empty, devoid of anything but Simon Beene and the Oracle. If any more Guardians existed, they were wise enough to stay far away.
On and on they traveled. They stopped only for short periods of rest. The enchantment that had kept Beene from aging, pain, hunger, and thirst was gone. He was famished, parched, and dead on his feet, but he dared not allow himself the luxury of sleep. In sleep, his control might slip. In sleep, the Oracle would tear him to shreds.
Finally they emerged from the fog. The change was immediate and striking. No longer were they in a dead forest with nothing but gray skies above. Grasslands stretched out before them as far as the eye could see. The sun was shining. Puffy, white clouds hung in the air; an infinite variety of creatures could be imagined in their shapes. Taking a deep breath, Beene smelled wild flowers. It felt like a dream.
The Oracle wasted no time looking about. Leaving the wall of fog behind, it continued moving in a straight line toward a river valley. The prairie grass and flowers seemed to slow its progress considerably. When coming to a shrub or small tree, the creature moved slowly over it, leaving a trail of perfectly shorn vegetation behind.
“I suppose that answers some questions,” Beene mused. “Not that I care. I’ll never go back to that place again.”
Wary now for enemies of some new kind, Beene followed the Oracle. Though the Lady Elizabeth had counted upon the ability of the Guardians to keep him locked up, there were far worse things in the World Beyond. He needed to be careful and could not allow himself to get too excited. He was not free yet.
Near the river, two ancient cottonwoods grew together. Their bows entwined in the rough shape of an archway. Looking the trees over, Beene smiled. He spoke the words that triggered the magic. Symbols had been carved into the wood and glowed with a golden light as they revealed themselves. Just as he thought, it was a gateway.
Reading the words carved in the trees, Beene charged the gateway with purpose. It came to life, a shimmer of air, a heat mirage. Like all the other gateways it existed to link two places, always going from a certain place in the World Beyond to a certain place in the World of Men.
“Anyplace is better than here,” Beene said, stepping into the gateway.
Going from one reality to the next was surprisingly insignificant. Beene felt the familiar gooseflesh tingle on his skin. He had once been told the sensation was someone walking on his grave. He wasn’t ready for the grave. To the contrary, he was ready to start living again. In a flash, he found himself on the other side. He was in a church. The architecture of the stone walls and pillars were unmistakable. A nearby window held stained glass. As he began to look around, he recognized the place. It was Notre Dame, Paris. People were singing. Beene thought he heard a communion hymn, but the tranquility of the mass was unexpectedly interrupted.
The tip of the Oracle’s arm pushed through the gateway. It was too large a beast to travel completely through. Reflexes trained to quickness in the service of his Master, Beene tumbled out of the way. The glass arm poked through the opening again, knocking over a statue but missing him entirely. There was no way the Oracle could get him now.
“So, one final attempt at vengeance? How tiresome.”
The singing stopped, but out of respect, no one called out. The sound of footsteps echoed through the cavernous space. People were coming.
Beene commanded the gateway to shut. The slight shimmer in the air winked out of existence. The Oracle’s arm fell to the floor, shattering to bits. The sound of footsteps raced toward him. Beene made himself invisible to them, passing by the first on his way outside. He stopped to bless himself at the door.
“Now I’m free. I’m really free.”