*** The Oracle ***
I can’t see. It wasn't always like this, but every vision has a price. To the outside world, my shop is a refuge. In the far reaches of Everlandia, the power of my cards has forged legendary queens and the mightiest of warlords. But if anyone had told me I’d spend my days sitting with a blindfold, well—
It might have been harder to get me into this cage.
*** The Warrior ***
I sheathe a dagger into the leather baldric across my chest with the chime of the shop’s bell. Herb-filled containers line the surrounding shelves. Amidst the scent of burning incense and the silence hiding between jars of poultices, there is no sign of her.
Instead, a man sits at a wooden roundtable, motioning with his hand to a chair. He wears an ivory robe with a matching blindfold covering his eyes.
“The elves come here for two reasons: war or love,” he says.
“I care for neither.” My jaw stiffens. “I’m here to see the Oracle of Starsight.”
“Listen, the sooner I meet with—”
“You must look as stupid as you sound, Estinien Warwicke.”
Thoughts swirl around in my mind until the pieces come together. “You’re…”
The blindfolded human nods. “Osgar,” he says with his hand outstretched. “Sit.”
As dictated by tradition, I set the offering onto the table: a round, red pomegranate. Each vision comes with a cost, and only the foolish request divine aid empty-handed. Whispered rumors tell of the oracle’s ability to alter fate when angered, and though I am curious, my mission is more important.
Osgar frowns, then flips over a single card facing heavenward between us.
“The Arrow,” he says.
When the oracle’s lips part, I wrap my hands around my neck, crumpling into myself. Panic seizes me for a moment as I fall to my knees, realizing what is happening.
I am seeing.
But what he shows me are fragments, tumbling in and out of sight. They paralyze my senses as Osgar sifts through bits of the future and the past—moments of my life turned inside out and upside down. The image of an archer underneath a pomegranate tree flashes before me, protecting his family from harm. Silhouettes of the undead savor the forbidden fruit as the juice trickles down their spindly fingers, pooling into a puddle of blood where my enemy stands.
My question answered, I pick myself off the ground. My head spins in a daze as I leave the shop, focused on my prey. But something tugs the back of my mind, and I shudder at the feeling—not quite pain, but just as maddening.
It is all-consuming, and I want more.
*** The Oracle ***
The most powerful spells, such as the one protecting humans from wild Elven magic, require two ingredients: blood and a bargain.
War will befall us if the Oracle of Starsight isn't found every century. She fulfills the treaty between the races, securing humanity’s safety by sacrificing her life in servitude for the elves. An honorable exchange.
But if you are her, you might as well be dead.
So imagine my surprise when I became the first man with starsight. Magic reserved only for the most powerful of witches, it’s much worse than I imagined.
“He’s the right age, and he has the eyes of The Goddess,” the villagers said.
I’m sure my parents wanted to protest, but what could they do? The choice is simple when the fate of an entire civilization rests in one life. Ever since then, I have measured every grain of sand, every drop of rain, and cataloged every intonation of the spoken word.
But this morning, Estinien returns for another vision. His scent is the same, even though I can’t see him. Sharp and powerful.
Like the others who visit, he cares not for the humans nor their beloved oracle. So long as I provide the information he needs to defeat his enemies, he’ll return to the frosty mountains of Elfsong to survive another day.
“Have you memory of me, Osgar?”
“I bid you grant me a vision of the future, and in return, I offer this.”
A bird sings a crisp, trilling song, trapped inside a cage. He’s brought a kindred prisoner, reminding me of what I am to the rest of the world.
Why would he give me that?
My lips press into a thin line. I imagine them parallel to the blindfold over my eyes.
“Are you angry?” Estinien asks.
I ignore him. This moment is not about us, but the little life I have the power to spare. If only someone could have saved me. I lift the latch of the cage, and with the flick of my wrist, the shop’s door opens.
A gust of wintry wind greets us, and the bird chirps as he flies into the cold whites and grays of the outside world—free. Joy pricks my blindfolded eyes. If I can’t save myself, at least I could give him freedom instead.
I take a moment to remember the Elven warrior. Furious as I am, I motion to the chair across from me. “Sit.”
When I reveal the card, shards of ice trickle up my veins as etheric energy flows through me. “The Spear.”
It starts as expected. Polar energies of love and war oppose one another as the spear strikes a bronze shield underneath the six-pointed star in the sky. I dance through his memories, both visible and hidden, to show him the most effective routes to ambush the invading army before they can penetrate Elfsong. Images of the Elven Queen undulate around us as she basks in Estinien’s victory, sparing him another lashing.
Then my pulse races. I grip the sides of my chair as my consciousness flutters through explosions of bright colors, brushes of music, and the clasp of old pain. My throat tightens when I land in a pool brimming with compassion buried by layers of sharpness, violence, and bitter cunning—all of it swirling underneath a constellation of crying stars that almost melts me.
I grasp his heart in my hands, whisking us off somewhere safe. It’s his wish I am seeking—just as I have done for every person before him. But we stop when he sees something different. Not quite a memory, definitely not a wish, but… Estinien’s desire. In this image, I reach up and caress his ear, and heat flushes through my neck. It fills my chest like an ocean of sempiternal starlight, impossible to breathe.
And though I can not see faces or bodies, he’s beautiful.
But this vision is wrong. My purpose is to help people find a path. It is not for me to be part of the dream he sees.
*** The Warrior ***
There is nothing the queen can do to me that hasn’t already been done. I’m no stranger to pain—if elves could break, I’d be snapped like a twig by now. But I’ve learned the lesson of suffering, and with it, built a cage around my heart. After all, you can’t hurt someone who doesn’t care.
The bell bongs above the door when I walk inside. But something’s different. Perhaps I imagine it, but a slight smile tugs at Osgar’s lips. Is he… happy to see me?
No, he’s blind, you idiot.
“I seek your guidance, Osgar.” I whisper as he tilts his head. “Your help in a troubling situation.”
His countenance shifts, now frowning at me. I imagine his shrouded eyes narrowed, but this time, my aim is to gain his trust. He’s my advantage. Another sharp weapon in my arsenal.
I know better this time—nothing living, especially not in a cage. How I hadn’t made the connection before, who knows? Perhaps I am as stupid as he says, but I’ll not make the same mistake twice.
I clear my throat. “May I?”
His cautious nod provides me with consent, and I stalk around the table into uncharted territory, standing beside him. If heart beats could shape the weather, Osgar’s shop would tremble in an earthquake.
“What are you—”
“Trust me.” I rest a hand on his shoulder to orient him. This close, with any other quarry, I could end it quickly—a slash to the jugular or the twist of his neck. But I need the oracle, so I dare to steal his blindfold instead.
He grips my wrist, and my breath hitches when fiery green eyes latch onto mine. They speak of starsight… how one look can disarm even the mightiest of warriors. His eyes are windows emptying into a midnight sky, twinkling refulgent orbs in the infinite cosmos.
If I wasn’t seeing him before, I see him now.
“Here,” I say, pulling out the prize and resting it atop his head. “A crown from the warlord you showed me how to defeat. Studded with moon crystals. Fit for a queen.”
I’m uncertain at first if Osgar accepts my offering, but he looks up, blazing eyes replaced by a gentle gaze. Soft—they strike me harder than any weapon before.
“Sit,” he says.
“Right.” I move to the same position, ready to accept the vision. “Show me.”
Osgar flips the card and speaks the words. “The Balance.”
But all I can remember are his bare eyes burning into my soul.
*** The Oracle ***
I have nothing but nightmares when I sleep in this shop.
I don’t dare to dream.
Such is the duty of the oracle. No family, kin, or future. Power is a blessing and a curse. It is a burden too much for mortal shoulders to bear.
The dancing flames of The Balance demand equilibrium. A warrior with horns upon her head, enveloped in the dark wings of a fallen angel holding two scales. You can bolster what you already have by cutting away the excess with a sword.
It’s the answer Estinien needs, but what was the question?
His last vision haunts me—agitates me. I can still smell his breath, steeped in lime with floral and herbal undertones. My pulse stammers when he wraps his arms around my body, biceps like a portcullis to protect me from the rest of the world, leeching the ether out of my soul with every request.
No, in this vision, he keeps me for himself.
Before the bell chimes, I still my quivering heart. I know exactly when he will arrive, pointed ears, an immovable face, and broad shoulders eclipsed by a baldric of deadly weapons.
He is coming to see a vision, not embrace me.
But this time is different. Estinien is hardened. Absolute.
“I’m sorry.” The sound of him scratching his rugged chin is like sandpaper to wood. “I haven’t much time. I’ve come without offering.”
I remember my duty, gesturing to the seat in front of us.
The Goddess whispers to me. “This will be the last time Estinien sits here.”
I close my eyes to hide the sorrow, lest my sadness betray me.
When the card is revealed, sparks of electricity surge through my body. “The Spire.”
The vision comes without resistance. I guide him up the endless tower, uncovering memories he keeps buried underneath the surface. One last mission from his queen. But there’s a secret he doesn’t know. A hidden truth he needs in order to survive. Usually the one with the advantage, he is the fool this time.
But once he has the answer he needs, I tug him down a different path. Lightning strikes the spire from a six-pointed star in the evening sky, imbuing it with energy. It is a destructive force that transforms into something regenerative. Reinvigorating. Cleansing.
He has almost freed me. Does he even know?
“A gift from the dead,
freedom to fly,
a crown upon the head…”
I must decide what I will show him. Because I could show him what he wants. Or I could show him what he needs.
Or perhaps I could show him what I need.
I can’t help it. My mouth drops open as I hold my breath. The vision unfurls before us, and though it can not be, here it is. What is love if we do not fill it with truth? Though I can not see, I have seen his depth. His dreams. His aching heart, even if he does not know it for himself.
Yet at the risk of losing him forever, I break the rules of The Goddess. Instead of a vision, I give him a choice. Because if he steals me away from my fate, it will end in his death.
*** The Warrior ***
I leave the shop with a troubled mind. Osgar showed me exactly what I needed to finish the mission, including the queen’s treachery. Had he left it there, my next move would have been so easy, and I’d return to Elfsong until the next deadly quest. And the next, until she eventually outsmarts me and wins.
But Osgar broke the rules. He left me with two visions.
Down one path, I can intercept the false enemy’s attack. With the queen’s threat diverted, my kin would be happy for another day. I’d still need to uncover her deception, but it’s the answer I came for. It should have been enough.
Yet a sinking feeling settles in my stomach—the second path intrigues me. And it is a trap, ending with my certain death. I know as much. It should have been enough reason not to try it.
Either I take the familiar path to ensure a victory today, or I risk everything on a desperate gamble.
*** The Oracle ***
Every vision comes with a cost, although different for each oracle: hearing, speaking, or even beauty. For me, it is sight, leaving me blind to the beautiful world around me. The only constant between one oracle to the next is the century. One hundred years between us once we are kidnapped to fulfill a forced destiny.
But something the legends don’t speak of is the counterspell, known only to the seers of future and past. Even the strongest magic can be broken, and when certain conditions are met, all it takes is blood and a bargain.
*** The Warrior ***
I barely feel the bite of the sword as it sinks into my chest. And as I press Osgar’s blindfold against the bleeding wound in my heart, the fallen angels whisper the last verse of a song to carry me home.
*** The Oracle ***
A pang of sadness stabs me in the chest as the angels lay him before me, and I know exactly what to do. No time to waste. My hands flourish in the air with practiced skill, the power of the pale moon and bright etched across my skin like shards of diamond. As the six-pointed star guides my way, I reach into Estinien’s visions, but instead of showing him memories, this time I give him an offer. I lay upon him this final spell: the promise of an uncertain future.
A bargain with The Goddess.
I draw two last cards from the deck, twin stars tethered in synastry, waiting for Estinien to answer. Time moves at light speed as our collective unconsciousness explodes in celestial opposition to the heavens above.
Bite into the pomegranate,
sing the song of a bird,
touch the moon crystals…
When he delivers the last ingredient, my soul unleashes a stellar detonation of starlight as the final cards are revealed: The Lord of Hearts and The Lady of Crowns.
*** The Warrior ***
“Osgar,” I say, making my tone velvet soft. “It has been too long.”
No longer glowing in fiery green, his eyes sparkle with the moonlight through shattered walls. He dips down, kissing me hard and fierce as his free hand presses against the blood-soaked blindfold over my heart.
I pull away, taking in his soft gaze, seeing him just like the first vision we shared.
“What happened?” I ask.
Osgar nods, his eyes shutter closed, and his breath stops in his chest. A flush creeps over his cheeks, as if he is waiting for confirmation from the stars above—an answer to his cosmic prayer.
“You cast the counterspell with your final offering,” he whispers, his hot breath between my lips. He leans his forehead into mine. “Sealed with a bargain. Take half of the oracle’s life, and in return, pledge your future to mine, under stars and shadows, by pale moon and bright.”
“Because fifty years with you is more than a century alone.”
I cradle his chin in my hands, pulling him in for another kiss. Osgar is as soft and warm as I imagined, as open and generous as our dreams together. In all my years as a fierce warrior, I’ve never known fear as I do now. Worse than a battle, he is something I could lose in a way I’ve never lost before.
“And what of the treaty?” I ask.
His eyes crinkle like glints of starlight amidst the room of surrounding glass jars. “The elves come here for two reasons: war or love.”
I wrap my arm around Osgar, drawing him close. His laugh warms my chest and stills my racing heart. “Seems I came for both.”