Interlude - Oracle

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The Watcher

The husks of fallen bodies lay strewn around the temple, the remnants of battles past. A curtain of fog hung over the field creating a pale dome of icy stillness. The stagnant air reeked of death and rot. Black brambles twisted over bones, corkscrewed through eye sockets, criss-crossing rib cages and flowering pink and violet where the heaps of bodies lay thickest.

A single witness sat motionless amidst the battlefield, his head bowed in eternal reverence towards the temple. His clothing tattered, his face pocked and gray like weathered granite, his hair reduced to matted clumps. From a distance, he could be mistaken for part of the carnage.

One other being stood nearby, the huge guardian at the temple steps. The beast never moved except to fight. The witness never spoke to the guardian. The guardian never acknowledge the witness.

A distant rumble marred the shroud of stillness, growing into a mechanical growl. The witness did not stir as the intruder approached. His purpose was to wait and watch and, if asked, to warn.

A minute of anticipation passed before the oncoming vehicle penetrated the fog. It was like nothing the witness had ever seen, a mechanical wonder on two wheels, all chrome and metal and as loud as a hurricane. A single figure sat astride the contraption, a woman with hard eyes and regal bearing. The witness waited, studying her every move. Once through the fog, she stopped and scanned the scene, her eyes first passing over the bones of the dead, then rose to the shimmering temple and its guardian.

The Temple

She silenced her vehicle and stepped off. She moved like a warrior, a sword at her hip, an unfamiliar weapon strapped to her back.

All who approached move like warriors , the witness thought. And all of them die like helpless lambs .

The woman surveyed the landscape for several minutes, taking in every nuance, perhaps reconstructing battles based on the remnants before her. She removed the weapon from her back, took off her jacket, and continued her scan. When her eyes fell on the witness, she stiffened. He did not move as she studied him. After several seconds of scrutiny, she drew her sword and approached.

The Watcher

"What is your purpose here," she asked, stopping before him, sword held ready.

His reply was a dusty groan. "I witness. And I warn."

"I've had warnings already. None who approach this temple ever leave alive. It is common knowledge."

"Nevertheless, you have one final chance to turn back. Approach the temple and the guardian will cut you in two."

"I would speak with the oracle of the temple."

"You cannot. You can only die trying."

She turned, keeping the witness in her peripheral vision as she studied the temple and its guardian. Good, the witness thought. She's more careful than most.

"What can you tell me about the guardian?" she asked.

"Twice as tall as a man, and thrice as broad, muscles of granite, the head of a bull, and an axe that cleaves armor like eggshells."

"A minotaur, then?"

"It is sometimes called this."

She nodded. "Can it be evaded? Has no one tried teaming up and approaching the temple from many directions at once. The creature can only be in one place."

"An army has tried this. The guardian is fast."

She nodded. "The guardian isn't moving."

"If you approach the temple, it will."

"Perhaps you are also a guardian," she said.

He smiled. "I am not. I am cursed only to watch and to warn."

She returned the smile. "And is your curse broken if the guardian falls?"

"I know not. In the seven hundred years I have watched, it has not happened."

She nodded, turned, and strode towards the temple.

Like all the rest, the watcher thought. Never heeding the warning. At least she does not boast before dying.

Approaching the Guardian

She stepped carefully over the bone-strewn landscape, her eyes ever moving, her sword held ready. The watcher waited. Any moment, the guardian would awaken.

The monster, once as still as a statue, now threw back its head and filled the still air with a ferocious bellow. It wasted no time with posturing. This intruder had crossed its threshold. She could not escape now. The monster raised its axe and thundered towards the woman.

She did not flee before the oncoming beast. She held her ground, her knees bent and ready, her sword held at her side.

As if she could parry a blow from this beast, the watcher thought.

The creature did not stop. It ran like a locomotive, taking a broad stroke with its axe as it closed on its prey. The woman dropped and rolled, the axe slicing the air just above her. The guardian dug in its heels and spun around, its axe swiping down just as the woman thrust up her own blade. Miraculously, the blow did not knock the sword from her hands.

She's good, the witness observed. But she did not expect her foe would be so formidable.

The guardian roared defiantly

Her movements were a blur, almost as fast as the guardian itself. She leapt with acrobatic grace, flipping in the air to evade a swipe from the axe-blade. The guardian roared defiantly. It thrust its free hand out, nearly catching the upstart by the throat. She dodged just in time. Her free hand caught the creature's wrist and propelled herself up, landing a kick in the guardian's face. The creature gave another roar of frustration.

The battle continued. In all his seven hundred years, the witness had seen none perform as well in battle as this woman did now. It didn't matter. She was outmatched. She was too busy evading attack to land a blow of her own. She could not wear down a creature capable of defeating whole armies alone. What did she expect to accomplish?

The guardian advanced, the woman giving ground as she evaded blow after blow. Then, disaster struck. The woman dodged another swipe of the axe, but as she rolled, the creature kicked her in the side. She tumbled backwards, losing her sword. The creature bellowed with triumph and ran to finish her.

The instant she regained her footing, she leapt into the air, kicking off the creature's breastbone and flipping backwards. When she landed, she held her other weapon in both hands. It was like a musket, but lighter and more refined. As the guardian bellowed and approached, she leapt once again, even higher this time. She flipped over the creature, and as she passed above, she fired downward into its face.

Shotgun

The monster bellowed with pain, its free hand slapped over its eyes. The woman rolled behind it, snatched up her sword in one hand and approached again. As the beast turned, she shot once again into its face. The back of the guardian's hand, which had been held up to ward off the attack, turned to bloody pulp.

The monster stepped back and took a wild swing with its axe. The woman stepped aside. She dropped her firearm and lunged in as the axe passed. With a swing of her sword, she cut a mean slice into the creature's throat. Its next roar came out with gurgling surrender. It hefted its axe once more, but she took another backhanded slice and doubled the already deep wound, nearly cleaving the creature's head off.

The monster stood motionless, the axe handle slipping from its fingers. It glared down in disbelief as the woman stood before it, still ready with her sword. The beast fell to its knees and toppled forward. It twitched once and then lay motionless.

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page published 10/6/2016