Euphemia the oracle lounged on her temple steps, a goblet of wine dangling in one hand. She frowned, gazing out across the battlefield. The old man was still there, motionless, his big hollow eyes never straying from her.
He wouldn't live much longer. That had been clear when she had strolled out to inspect what remained of her fallen guardian. Euphemia couldn't remember how long the guardian had stood watch over her temple. She couldn't remember the old man at all. Had she cursed this poor old soul to remain here, or had his curse been the work of someone else? After millennia gazing into the future, the past was reduced to a dry wasteland with few landmarks.
The old man's eyes trembled. His body rocked, nearly collapsing each time he tipped forward. His curse had been tied to the life of the guardian. Now that the monster had fallen, this man would soon follow.
"Why don't you go," Euphemia called out to him. "You are free of your curse now."
Her words startled him. He rocked more emphatically.
"Go die somewhere more scenic," she said. She took a sip of wine. "Beyond this fog, there are mountains and daylight. Go out and remember your life before it ends."
His reply was only a whisper, but she knew what he said. I am the witness.
Euphemia shrugged. "Suit yourself."
She finished her wine. She waited.
Someone was coming.
She'd sensed it on the air for more than a day now. Someone approached. Not another self-righteous truth knight like that ridiculous warrior of weeks ago. This was someone familiar, someone ancient.
Someone like her.
A darkling at the gray fringes of the fog caught her eye. He was here. He stood in the mists like a shadow, watching her as she watched him.
Dark phantoms of the past gathered in her recollection. She'd felt him before. He was no stranger. He was family.
" Nebu-Al-Palar," she whispered.
He couldn't have heard her with mortal ears, yet the word summoned him from the shadows. He approached, chuckling softly. "I haven't heard that name in eons."
"That is your given name," she said.
"It's a mouthful."
Euphemia stood up on the steps and waited. "What would you prefer I call you?"
The lights of the temple caught him now. He wore contemporary clothing, jeans and a T-shirt, a ratty old blindfold hiding his eyes. He stopped before the temple steps. "For the last decade, I've gone by the name 'Wink'."
She scoffed. "Wink? That's pathetic. A name for a wood sprite or a nymph. Why do you wear that ridiculous blindfold?"
Wink turned and nodded at the old man. "Your friend. A glimpse at my eyes might kill him."
"You'd be putting him out of his misery."
He shrugged. "This is a nice temple," he said.
"It's a shambles."
"I mean it was nice once. Have you been here long?"
They regarded each other in silence.
"Why are you here?" Euphemia asked.
"Aren't you happy to see me, cousin?"
She waved a hand. "Look at you. You've disgraced yourself, fraternizing with mortals, your powers corrupted, your sacred eyes turned to a curse."
He shrugged. "I was bored."
"Why are you here?" she repeated.
He reached up and pulled the blindfold free. He hung his head, his glowing green eyes downcast. "I've seen a horror greater than any of the ancient evils."
Euphemia frowned and waited. When her cousin didn't elaborate, she sat back on the steps. She willed her goblet to refill and drank down a gulp of wine.
"It was—" he started. He pressed his lips together, still not looking up. "It was him."
"The one who shattered the future—who shattered reality itself."
Her breath caught in her throat. Her skin grew cold. "That... must have been a sight."
He looked up, his green eyes troubled, a hint of tears hanging in the corners. "It was devastating. Worse than the fall of reality. That was bad enough—when all the threads tying our world together were severed. In an instant, they all snapped and disappeared like... like..."
"Like golden gossamer," Euphemia said wistfully. "Drifting away on a breeze."
"Yes, like that," Wink agreed. "To see all of that shatter, leaving the static of chaos behind. And then to face him."
She leaned forward. "What was he like?"
"When I was blindfolded, he was unextraordinary. Just a kid. Short, scared. Stupid. Very stupid. He tried to kill a troll with vinegar."
"And then I removed the blindfold, and all I could see was... everything. All the threads, all the connections. That stupid kid was the nexus, the one point where all of those lost threads of golden gossamer met. Seeing him was like burning on the surface of the sun. It was all the lost fates concentrated in that one point in space. He stole every possible future. He is a monster."
Euphemia said nothing. She swirled her goblet, the deep red wine sloshed in a vortex.
Wink sat behind her. Together, they stared out at the old man. The ancient mortal stared back, mouth agape, his eyes both wide white orbits around pinprick pupils.
"You have any wine for me?" Wink asked.
A goblet appeared beside him, full of the red nectar. He took a sip.
"This world will not last," Wink said.
"Do you refer to the Rat Messiah's repeat performance?"
He turned to her, frowning. "No. What are you talking about?"
"It's something I've heard, not something I've sensed. A warrior woman came and said the Rat Messiah would make another sacrifice and end the world for good."
"That's news to me."
"It is a rumor." She sipped her wine. "And what is the basis for your prediction that the world will end?"
"It may continue for you and me," Wink said. "But the mortals are doomed. Have you not sensed the plague to the west?"
"You mean the joy zombies?"
"You have sensed them then? Will they destroy the mortals?"
Euphemia frowned. She pointed at the shuddering old man across the field. "What do you see in his aura?"
"Only the shadow of his death. His lifeforce will burn out before I finish this wine."
"I see a new thread, a new connection. Yes, it is fading, but it is there. This world may be fragmented, but it is settling. New connections are forming. Soon, there will be a new web of connected fates. It's started already. I cannot see the future, but I'm beginning to see the present. I see the joy zombies—the... simps."
"You have no predictions?"
The witness fell sideways on his stone perch. He twitched twice, rolled onto the ground and lay still.
Euphemia sighed. "More carrion. One of these days, I'll clean up this place."
"What else do you see out there," Wink asked.
She laughed. "Oh, nothing but madness, of course. You can't throw together so many disparate elements into one world without causing madness. There's your plague in the west. To the southeast there is a war brewing between man's technology and an ancient underground evil. I see snakes and soldiers on a vast battlefield. There are countless such battles brewing on all the continents of this world. To the northeast is a city flanked by three great spires where the tension is about to boil over. The fate of so many rests there, I think. And to the north..."
Euphemia frowned. She stared down into her wine.
"What's north?" Wink asked.
"I can't see to the north," she said. "Even now, as the threads of fate re-weave themselves across the world, I cannot sense what lies in the shadows that way. Something sleeps there. Something..."
Wink frowned. "Then the world is doomed."
"No," she said. "Don't count the mortals out yet. If history teaches us anything, it's that they always somehow survive. Burn them with fire, their scars toughen them. Kill the parents, and the children rise stronger. Trouble only ever seems to make them stronger.
"But so many troubles." Wink shook his head.
"They'll find a way."
"And what if the Rat Messiah decides to end it all?"
She shrugged. "Well, of course that's another matter. If the Rat Messiah chooses to end the world, then that's it for all of us."