Short Fiction: Detective Manse and the Infallible Oracle
A genre-bending short story across space and time
This is the follow-up to Detective Manse and the Horror from Beyond Time. I’d recommend reading that story first, but it is not strictly required.
The bloke barged into my office like the sequel no one had asked for: puffed up with unearned self-importance while rapidly burning goodwill, and only tolerated in the name of making a quick buck.
“Manse." The mustached man jerked his thumb in the direction of the door, with all the bedside manner of a drill sergeant about to send another poor sucker off to war. “There’s a case we need you on. Arson, McLeary manor. Real strange nut lived there. One of your kind of people.”
I sighed, leaning back in my chair while a pause pregnant enough to pop out triplets ticked past. The furry-faced man was staring at me with an expectant look as I desperately tried to place how I knew him.
To fully explain the social awkwardness I felt in that moment, I need to go back to the creation of the universe.
Now, I wasn’t here for all of this, but as I understand it, in the beginning, things were real simple. There was one thing. Semantically, some would say zero things, or nothing. But the point was: things were static, things were always the same, and things were simple. There were no varying points of view on whatever there was: just a big old clump of energy, sticking around forever.
And then… Pop! Like a kernel of popcorn exploding into something edible, the energy blew up, expanding in all directions. After this Prodigious Pop (still workshopping this one), you had space, and more importantly you had time: lots of it, and endless variations of every conceivable event. Entire universes being spawned with each one as real as every other, while also being unreachable from any other branch, or so the eggheads would tell you.
My life has no coherent chronology. If you are the sort of obsessive madman who likes to experience their stories in neat chronological order, then tough luck Chuck, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Thanks to a series of encounters with extra-dimensional creatures twisting and then repairing the timeline of my life and sending me across baffling variant dimensions, I have ended up with a ransom-note assembly of memories, with pieces pasted together from forgotten timelines. I have a wife I love, but for whom I can’t remember our anniversary, or even our wedding. I have a baby girl who knows my smile better than I know hers, and a swiss-cheesed inventory of friends and acquaintances, where some of them appear to no longer exist in my current world. And then there are those, who, like the hair-lipped grouch in my office, appear to consider me a close confederate when I don’t know him from Adam.
I rocked back in my chair again, scrunching my eyes together, feigning that I was mustering the energy to get up, as I tried to pick for some fragment of a memory to help me.
I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe. I know this because I told them to my wife Cassie, she said “I don’t believe it”, and she trusts me more than anyone. I also know this because I don’t believe it, and I saw it all myself, while the part of my brain that tries to keep me grounded tells me it all has to be dime-novel nonsense, and there is no way to fit it into any sane conception of reality anyway.
I have seen monsters capable of rending our planet apart and ending the lives of trillions of souls in boiling agony, bearing a consciousness more vast and powerful than the entirety of our species, and with a cruelty that would twist all life in servitude to itself, absorbing us all into the unthinking collective of its will. I have seen magnificent alien worlds, beautiful and terrifying graveyards for highly evolved forms of life that delved too deep, saw too far from the heights of their civilizations, and were not prepared for what they confronted at the boundaries of possibility.
I have seen worlds not unlike our own, Earths where humanity subjugated itself in an endless cycle of self-loathing, every man a prisoner and a warden, every thought and action an offense, every mind at the mercy of a sadistic egregore living off its hosts like a parasite and compelling intolerance in the name of virtue. I have memories of worlds where the rivers run with blood, where humans soar across the skies as easily as birds, and a world where—and I swear I am not making this up—women have the equal right to own property, take out loans in their own name, and hold every job a man does, up to and including leading a country.
As a result of these mind-shattering glimpses into varieties of experience beyond human imagination, I have come to believe that the choices and structures that make up our world are far from inevitable. In many respects, we rest on a delicate balance between cosmic forces, an island of safety and sanity in a dark endless ocean populated by terrors from the deep of which we could not survive their awareness. For all of its faults, our world in so many ways could be worse. And in a few, I think, better.
Incredibly, none of these cosmic musings were helping me place the identity of Mr. Moustache, and as he gazed impatiently down at me, I was beginning to worry that if I waited too much longer or did him the offense of asking his name, I might lose my chance at whatever job he had for me.
“All right.” I forced myself out of the chair, trying to take the measure of the man. He didn’t look rich, but it never hurt to check how much I’d taken him for before. “The usual fee, then?” I asked, trying not to sound too hopeful.
The mustached man snorted. “Sure, I’ll deduct it from your unpaid parking tickets.”
“Hey, I’ve been square for a while.” At least, that had better be true. The law typically ranked highest on a list of creditors in my line of work, and I didn’t think things had gotten that bad.
“You can bill yourself to Sarah at the front desk as a consultant if you’re that hard up, tell her I sent you. Now come on, I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t serious.” Moustache gestured impatiently again, and I sighed and followed him out the door towards whatever fresh hell awaited me.
Our dull grey police car seemed to gently spook the vehicles around us into muted compliance, herding them like wayward sheep as we carved a path through the streets. Whatever I had been up to in this world, it seems I finally had a contact in the force. For me, taking a ride like this under uncomplicated circumstances was a bit of a treat, even as Moustache impatiently demanded my attention while jamming a sandwich into his mouth. “I’d thought about calling you in earlier. We’d been getting complaints of noises, strange lights, neighbors having trouble sleeping.”
I nodded, like that was the kind of thing that made sense to me. Sometimes I feel like a bit of an imposter in my own life, a con artist bluffing his way through a role, or an amateur thrust into a position of importance while being hopelessly out of his depth. Which may describe all of us, if my conception of the universe has any truth to it.
Moustache pointed off in the distance as we traded city streets for the elitist seclusion of a back road winding up a hill to a private residence. “There’s the manor, or what’s left of it. Neighbors claimed it was burning from the inside with a green flame.”
I shook my head as I stared at the charred building coming into closer view. “And you want me to tell you how—”
“I’m not sure I want to know how.” Moustache gave me a look. “That’s your business. But I’m going to be asked who was responsible. If Arthur McLeary did this to himself, by whatever means, that’s enough for the higher-ups to hear. But if there’s reason to believe someone else is responsible—” Moustache sighed. “We will need to figure out how to keep it from happening again.”
Our brakes screeched as the car came to a sudden stop before the husk of what must have once been an impressive building. Moustache took a look at the sky and handed me a pocket lantern, then grabbed one himself as he exited the car. I followed, taking a deep breath as I stepped over a broken doorframe into the desiccated structure.
The truth was, despite my unusual experiences, I knew precious little about the unseen world, and the more I learned, the more I appreciated about how limited my understanding was. All I had going for me was a comparative lack of fear of the madness that lay beyond our understanding, having already faced and survived some of the worst of it. Hopefully that would be enough to earn another paycheck.
What remained of the interior walls was covered in art pushing the boundaries of surrealism. There were warped human figures whose eyes seemed to follow the viewer with unsettling gazes, and alien landscapes that made me shiver in recollection, like the recurrence of a nightmare I had done my best to forget. Some of the frames seemed to contain parodies of more famous paintings, composed with all the subtlety of a hack writer deciding to take a dip in an unfamiliar genre and completely butchering its ethos while maintaining the trappings of its form.
I followed the pattern of destruction deeper into its center, as the paintings I passed by grew too singed to make out, with Moustache following behind me warily. As I reached what appeared to be the epicenter, I found a circle traced in salt with a pentagram inset, and a black book resting at the dead center, completely unharmed. I knelt down to look at the spine. The title was in a language I didn’t recognize, but below it were two short words. “A. Manse.”
“This is where we found what was left of Arthur.” Moustache’s voice was curt. “And this book. Written by a relative of yours?”
I shook my head as I looked at the name of the author. “No one I know of with that initial, other than me. And I've never seen it before.” I reached out to pick up the book, briefly riffling its pages. It felt normal. More importantly, it felt flammable. Some pages only had incomprehensible scribbles, but parts of it looked like it was written in English. “Do you know what kind of book this is? If it has any clues to what could have happened here?”
Moustache shook his head, taking a step back. “I’m not touching that thing. This is your area.”
Realizing he might be smarter than I was, I took a deep breath and began to trace my finger along one of the passages that appeared to be in English. And then, upon finding something from the strange book that he could decipher, Detective Manse found himself compelled to continue reading.
I blinked my eyes, hardly believing the words I saw before me, as I found myself parsing the next lines to find out what it said next. The words poured into his mind effortlessly, a perfect fit for his perception as it began to explain secrets he had always suspected, but never allowed himself to believe. That his entire reality was a façade, a construct his mind had created to keep himself from acknowledging a truth he was unable to hold onto, unable to perceive without shying away from it until now.
“Manse…” A low voice was murmuring at the edge of my consciousness as I found my eyes darting back and forth as I read, as even the unintelligible scrawls began to reveal their content with blinding clarity to my mind.
The truth burned inside him, melting away every convenient lie, every metaphor he used to dress over the brutal reality of how things were. For Detective Manse knew as surely as he knew the fact of his own existence that this world belonged to the Old Ones, with his species of no more significance than a culture of bacteria would be before an intelligence and power capable of using it for whatever purpose it wished…
“Manse!” The voice was growing more insistent while everything else faded away, as I found myself turning the pages more rapidly, the knowledge of it flowing into my mind more quickly than I had read anything before, working at the speed of thought.
He knew what the future held, and his role in bringing it about. He had been shaped, forged for this singular purpose—
“ADAM, SNAP OUT OF IT!” Detective Manse blinked his eyes—no, I blinked my eyes as Moustache shook me, feeling my fingers burn as he slapped the book out of my hands, leaving me breathless and heaving, like I had just finished a lap across the Mississippi. The immanence of what I had felt left me shaking, a perception of cosmic forces bearing upon me I had felt only once before in my encounters with the Horror, with no ability to look away, to think anything but the thoughts that had been intruding upon me. Like a driver desperately clutching a severed steering wheel as I felt myself racing towards a cliff, my own autonomy and control ripped away as I plunged into the unknown—
“Adam.” Moustache was looking at me, watching the expression on my face slowly return to something normal. “Are you all right?”
“Probably.” I croaked out. I looked at the book on the ground and shivered, kicking it away from me.
Moustache looked down at the book and shook his head. “We should have burned the thing.”
“I don’t think it burns.”
“Do you have any idea—”
Moustache gripped my arm and I froze in place as I tried to follow his gaze. Fumbling for my pocket lantern, I shined its light down the hall to find a pale white figure wearing a black cloak, with burning red eyes that betrayed its inhuman nature. The creature’s gaze was fixed on the cursed book we had left on the floor, drawn to it with a fervor I recognized.
“What the hell is that thing?” I whispered.
Moustache looked at me in surprise as he whispered back. “You’re not serious, are you? It’s a vampire. Do some vampire stuff against it.”
The face of the creature before us broke into a wide smile, exposing its large fangs as it began to approach. I whispered back quickly, as I tried to think through all the lore I knew, from whatever lifetime I knew it from. “You’re an agent of the state aren’t you? If the owner is dead and the property is in your hands, can’t you uninvite it from this house?”
“The courts would need to declare it, the paperwork could take weeks.” Moustache’s whispers grew more insistent. “This is no time for games, you’re supposed to be the Master of the Metaphoric Arts, the Semantic Sorcerer.”
“Huh. Did you come up with—”
“No, you did.” Moustache hissed as the creature drew closer. “Come on, you’re always making religious references, don’t you have a cross or anything sacred you carry with you?”
I swallowed. “This may not be the best time for this, but I’ve always seen religion as more of a metaphor—”
In a flash, the vampire was on me, slamming me to the floor with bloodlust in its eyes. Moustache grunted as he came to my defense, only to find himself knocked into the debris as the vampire shoved him to one side with inhuman strength. The vampire sneered as it pressed closer to me, its fangs dripping blood onto my hands as I desperately tried to hold him back, tried to think of what Moustache could possibly have expected me to do in this situation, unarmed and ill-equipped for violence. With nothing but my wits. Which had been enough once before.
I swallowed, pressing my left hand forward as I began to stammer out the words. “I attend no church, follow no creed, partake in no rituals or sacraments.” The vampire’s face contorted in amusement as it toyed with me, slowly pressing my hand back as he brought his fangs closer to my neck. “I hold certainty about what lies beyond, no confidence in anything, except for one thing.” I felt my fingers begin to give way, his teeth brushing up against me as I completed the words. “I bear in my hand the symbol of what sustains me, the one good thing in my life, that held me together so far. And this, this one artifact—” I squeezed my fingers against his, pressing my wedding band into his flesh. “This, is sacred to me.”
The creature’s face contorted into a look of agony as the ring seemed to sear against his flesh, the infused meaning of it knocking him back as surely as any crucifix. The creature scowled at me, before turning his attention to Moustache, lying sprawled on the floor. I began to pick myself up, trying to bring my body closer to his. That had helped, but it wasn’t nearly enough. I needed something more. Something I could sell—
I fixed my eyes on the creature, daring him to approach me or Moustache. “I have spent most of my life in this city. I’ve seen all of its faces, slept on its benches, lived in its filth and its glory.” The vampire’s head cocked to one’s side as it stared at me, like a curious predator judging the moment to strike. “There was a time I stretched my will across it, uniting it with every nation and people of this world in a brief shared purpose. I consider this city my home.” I took a deep breath as I stared at the creature. “I consider this world, as my home. And by the laws which bind your kind, I uninvite you from my home.”
The vampire’s eyes bulged as it stared at me. Its figure began to tremble, feeling the inherent wrongness of its presence as surely as I did, as though the ground beneath it, the air around it, was rejecting it. Its eyes darted from left to right as it scurried to one side on instinct, trying to escape the crushing feeling closing in on it. Its trembling increased as it found no relief, glaring back at me in impotent rage, its eyes seeming to blame me for the incredible unfairness of the constraint I had put upon it.
The vampire spat at me as its shaking reached a violent crescendo, and it dissolved into dust.
Breathing heavily, I looked over at Moustache who seemed to be picking himself up. I started to head over to him, then stopped myself as my eye caught the black book again. The vampire must have been drawn to it, whatever power it carried, whatever pull it had on the creatures of this world. I gingerly picked it up off the ground, keeping it tightly clenched shut as I did so, resisting the urge to open it again, to see if my mind could handle the secrets and mysteries it held—
“Detective Manse, please let go of the Necronomicon.”
A figure wearing a long dress that wafted in the still air was staring me down with her palm pointed in my direction, a stern expression on her veiled face. I froze in place and smiled weakly. “Yidhra.”
Now, you might be saying to yourself, “Who is Yidhra?” Or perhaps, “Oh crap, did I forget to review the previous story, despite ample indications that I should have done so in the narrative itself? Was the character of the detective’s friend Moustache a metaphor for the experience I am about to have in being dragged along for an adventure with a character whose identity I know nothing about, but really should have studied up on?”
Well, just in case this is you, or you just don’t have a good memory for dames, you should know that Yidhra seems to share a similar responsibility as my alleged friend Moustache, but operating in a much larger jurisdiction. Her beat appears to be that entire universe I was telling you about earlier, and more besides. She’s got a dangerous body poured into that dress of hers, which I mean quite non-metaphorically, as to gaze upon her true form would shatter your mind into a sanity more horrifying than madness, as you were forced to come to terms with the imminent unthinkable chaos of the world laid bare by her passing. Real solid dame. But also the kind you should hope you never have occasion to run into.
I tried to give her a smile, search for some recognition in her eyes as her focus didn’t waver. “Yidhra, it’s good to see you—”
“Drop the book. Now.” There was nothing but cold resolve in her eyes as she fixed her gaze on my hand holding the book. “Do not test me on this. I am prepared to destroy both you and this world if you do not immediately comply. This is as much of a chance as I can give you.”
I dropped the tome from my fingers, the fear in my heart overcoming the desperate instinct I felt to hold onto the book. Yidhra’s dress wisped forward and scooped it up into its folds, turning it in place as Yidhra examined the name on the spine. Her face darkened with a look I had seen before, but never directed at me. She spun the book in place one final time and it vanished back into the folds of her dress. “Would you like to tell me why you felt the need to produce a translation of a book containing the mind of a mad god?”
My eyes widened, as I felt myself raising my hands on instinct. “I promise, I’ve never seen it or heard of that book before today. I think someone must have used it to burn down—”
“This building, yes.” Yidhra looked at the debris around us, and the pile of vampire dust on the ground. “A failed experiment from a mind less adaptable than yours. And one which has already attracted some attention. You’re quite certain you have had nothing to do with this book until now? How sane do you currently feel, on a scale from 1 to 10?”
I swallowed, as I made an honest attempt to answer the question while gazing at her form-shifting veil, and still feeling the after-effects of the maddening book on my consciousness. “Like, a five? But it’s a soft five. I’d say—”
“Close enough.” Yidhra extended her hand, in what I recognized as an invitation. “If your timeline is already entangled with the Necronomicon, we will need to move quickly. You and I have an appointment to consult with an expert on these matters.”
“How do we already—”
Without saying another word, Yidhra grasped my hand, and I felt myself twisted across space and time.
I clutched my chest as I felt my feet touch ground again, heaving from the exertion as I looked out onto a strange alien landscape. At least, I assumed it was alien. In my line of work these days, I couldn’t rule out Earth’s surface suddenly gaining a few new varieties of freaky-looking plants and a enormous blue orb which looked like it must be the size of our moon. The orb dominated the landscape as it stretched up in the sky, like an obnoxious metaphor asserting itself as aggressively as possible to make absolutely certain the reader walks away from their trip to Oz knowing the dollar should be backed by silver.
“How do we…” I took a look around, as I tried to prioritize the growing number of questions I had. “How do we already have an appointment to figure out whatever is going on with that book?”
Yidhra gave me a quick look as if to confirm I hadn’t completely lost it, and began to float in the direction of the orb. “Shortly after the death of the Horror, I received a message that my request to meet with the Infallible Oracle had been accepted. My own invitation asked me to arrive after a span of time you would only be flattering yourself to pretend you comprehended. I was also informed that I would be bringing one guest, yourself, from this exact moment in time on your world. I came to pick you up, and found you in possession of the Necronomicon. I believe I now know what I am here to discuss with the Oracle.”
I paused for a second, trying to parse the funhouse logic of what she was saying. “So you’re saying…”
“I didn’t make the appointment. The Oracle invited me here in advance, knowing I was about to request his help at this time. This is how he operates.” Yidhra gestured to the crystal ball-like structure evocatively. “His advice is much sought after, and much feared. We have not made direct contact in some eons, and that he would want to intervene in this matter suggests it is as important as I had imagined.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Wait, he’s been alive for eons? He’s one of your kind of— creature?”
Yidhra sighed as she looked back at me. “We are each of us a kind unto ourselves. But yes, you could say that he is closer to what I am, than what you are. A god, by your standards.”
“One like you, or one like the Horror?”
“Neither.” Yidhra paused for a moment. “The Horror was at his nature, a chaotic, hedonistic variety of evil. He broke timelines and universes for no greater purpose than his own desires, and the pleasure or pain of those who crossed his path meant nothing to him, burning through their worlds like kindling. The Oracle is a creature of order, one invested in the way things are, and one who can be reasoned with.”
“Well, that’s a start—”
“But no less dangerous in his intentions. He delights in cruelty for its own sake, savoring it like a fine wine, rather than losing himself in ravenous gluttony. And he is particularly skilled at its application.”
I shivered as I followed Yidhra in the direction of the orb, realizing I had no choice but to stay close to her in this unfamiliar and potentially deadly alien landscape. “And why do we need to be here again?”
“If he has invited us, it is because he knows we will be forced to seek his help.” Yidhra’s voice had only the smallest hint of resentment. “It will either be now, or under circumstances less favorable. And whatever his intentions, it is undeniably true that he is the one in the best position to understand what your future holds in relation to that book, there is no one who grasps the flows of time more deeply than him. If he had already made plans to meet with us since the death of the Horror, it is because he knows precisely how our encounter will end, why we will be forced to do what he wants, and how it will favor him.”
Yidhra came to a halt as the orb began to pulse before us, not even flinching as a wriggling mass of tentacles rippled out of it in our direction. My jaw went slacker than a dropped jump-rope as the tentacles shot forward, pooling themselves onto the ground in a fleshy mass, then reshaping themselves in color and appearance as they manifested the form of a well-dressed man in a suit. The newly formed face nodded to me, before turning to the Dream Witch.
“Yidhra. It has been too long.” The man smiled expansively.
“Thal'zunoth.” Yidhra’s mouth was the only part of her face to move as she smiled. “I am honored to have an invitation after these long eons.”
“A bearer of a Necronomicon is always welcome here.” The Oracle turned to me, his smile conveying a level of self-assurance that seemed beyond mortal possibility. “And to have found one shaped by a mind like this, a consciousness flexible enough to destroy the Horror in the midst of his revels. I hope you know you could have anything you could ask for, in exchange for the treasure you have tucked away.”
“What I want is very specific.” Yidhra spoke the words deliberately. “I would like this book’s influence contained. And to understand what set of circumstances will compel this man to write it.”
The Oracle chuckled to himself, then turned to me. “This is why I invited the both of you. This is normally where she asks if she can still kill you to prevent the book’s appearance.”
“Why, would it work?” Yidhra responded quickly, like she was trying to goad the Oracle into admitting something.
The Oracle chuckled. “His timeline is tied to that of a god’s now, if you so much as nudge the thread of his life to try to undo his creation of that book, you will have the Beyond One’s attention as surely as if you had evoked the book yourself. Until he has completed the loop of his fate, he carries the destiny of a god within him. It seems I would be doing you a favor, by taking him and the book off of your hands.”
“How does the loop of his fate resolve?”
“There are multiple consistent timelines that result in everything we have seen so far.” The Oracle smiled at Yidhra. “I have my favorite one, of course.”
“And how does that one end?” The smile was no longer on Yidhra’s face.
“The book resolves to be in my possession. Adam Manse here completes his authorship of the title, freeing him from his connection with that book and leaving his future unresolved. To that end, he accompanies me to see that his authorship of the book’s contents take form in precisely the way I desire. The Beyond One continues to slumber, and no realities are shattered in the process.”
Yidhra stared at the Oracle for a few seconds, as even I could feel the force of her mind working quickly. “I accept your terms. The book will be yours after they are met. Try to put him back when you’re done with him.”
I cleared my throat, feeling a sudden need to re-assert myself. “Do I get a say in this?”
The Oracle chuckled to himself. “My, you really haven’t trained him at all, have you?”
“What the Oracle means to say.” Yidhra turned her eyes to look at me carefully, as I felt a thought spring into my head. Do not trust him. “Is that the opinions of a mind such as yours in these affairs are as irrelevant as the musings of ant on the workings of a submarine.” He knows how this ends. He is never wrong. But that does not mean you have no leverage.
I resisted the urge to stare back at her, deciding to ad lib while I tried to figure out what we were doing here. “I’m just saying, I feel like I’ve done my time. I’ve got a wife and daughter now…”
“Perhaps you should have thought of that before doing whatever you are about to do in creating that book.” Yidhra’s eyes bore into mine. I meant that part. But you should understand that his fate is constrained in the same way yours is. Your timeline must resolve in creating that book, and sending it back to where you found it. Until it is finished, he can no more safely kill you than I can. Keep that in mind. And promise me one thing.
I took a deep breath, stalling for time. “Can I at least get paid…”
“I believe I can take care of that part.” The Oracle responded smoothly.
“Good.” Yidhra gave me one last look. Do not attempt to oppose him. Any trick you might craft, any circumstances under which you would betray him, he has already foreseen. You may bargain with him, even refuse him for a time. But if you were to ever try to harm him, futile as it would be, he would re-arrange the entire flow of fate to destroy your future. Even if you had never taken such an action yourself, and he simply knew, that with the right opportunity, you would turn against him. He has done it before, and he is more cruel than you can imagine. Just try to get through it.
With that, Yidhra the Dream Witch nodded to the Oracle and fluttered out of sight.
The Oracle looked at her disappearing form, and chuckled to himself. “Don’t let her get to you. She might want you to hate me, but she’s no less of a monster herself. The stories I could tell you—there is no crime your species has a name for that she has not committed. She has simply reformed her vice into that of pride. She could kill your family in front of you if she gave herself the right reason, and annihilate your world without feeling a touch of remorse, as it would all be in service of her deeply satisfied, and truly insatiable pride in herself.”
I raised my eyebrows at the Oracle, deciding to act as though my mental conversation with Yidhra had never happened, and also as though none of his claims about her had disturbed me. “I believe you mentioned something about payment?”
“Ah yes, the measure of your world. I believe that’s what you called it?” The Oracle waved his hand and a table manifested itself with two boxes resting on top. The first, an opaque crystal box. The second, a clear one containing a stack of bills. It had to be at least a thousand. “Relevant to your interests, this may serve as a metaphor for the entire experience you are about to have. When our business is concluded, I will allow you a choice of reward from among these two boxes I have prepared. You may, if you wish, take the contents of both of them.” The Oracle gestured to the opaque box. “Or you may take the opaque one, and nothing else.”
Even without half a lifetime spent haggling with undesirable sorts, this would have been a no-brainer. “Sounds like a simple choice. No matter what’s in the opaque box, having both boxes is better.”
"One would suppose. But I would strongly counsel you to take the opaque box alone. Let us put the flexibility of your mind to another test in explaining why.” The Oracle pointed at the opaque box. “As Yidhra must have told you by now, my knowledge of the future is infallible, a fact which you will have ample opportunity to observe today. I already know whether you will end up choosing to take both of the boxes or only one. And if I think you are taking both boxes, I will have left the opaque box empty. But if I think you are taking the opaque box alone…” The Oracle paused. “It will contain ten thousand, making you far richer than if I thought you were taking both boxes.”
I paused for a moment. “But the boxes already have their contents now. And no matter what you thought I was going to pick, I’ll make more money by taking both boxes. If I could somehow see inside the opaque box, I would still always choose to take both.”
“So one would think. A non-binding demonstration, then.” The Oracle waved his hand and a smaller pair of boxes appeared in front of me. “I will not allow you to keep their contents this time, but you can test for yourself whether or not I can predict your choices. Two boxes, or one, then?”
I looked back and forth between the opaque and clear box, trying not to overthink things. “There’s got to be more in both.” I reached forward to take both boxes, digging out the bills from the clear box, and checking inside the opaque box to find it empty.
“My prediction of your choice was correct, and so by taking both boxes, you would have made a thousand. Again.” The Oracle waved his hands and the money disappeared, as a new pair of boxes appeared in front of me. “Try to change your mind at the last minute if you like. See if you can surprise me, go in as uncertain as if you don’t know what you’re going to pick yourself.”
I sighed, holding my hands over both the boxes, as I tried to choose on the smallest whim, changing my mind multiple times before reaching down for both of the boxes again. Bills in the clear box. Opaque box empty.
“Another profit of a thousand, after taking both the boxes on the table as I expected. Again.” The Oracle waved his hands for a fresh pair of boxes. Feeling a little ridiculous as I did so, I reached down for the opaque box alone, shoving the other one back as it disappeared. I opened the opaque box, finding an enormous pile of bills inside.
“So you would have made ten thousand by following my advice, and leaving the clear box alone.” The Oracle began to smile as he saw something dawn on my face. “See, even a rodent in your world can be conditioned by a stimulus and response, even without understanding the logic that underlies it. We could repeat this a thousand times and observe the same results. The lesson is this. No matter what your own reason tells you, no matter how badly you would like to resolve this paradox for yourself, you are embedded in a reality that defies your animalistic intuition. And one in which you will never be able to do better than following my counsel.”
I took a deep breath, as I tried to throw a term on the strange ideas going through my head. “Retroactive causation. The present changing the past.”
The Oracle’s smile widened. “An imprecise metaphor, but one that will suffice for our purposes. Relative to your perspective, the contents of these boxes as determined in the past is unknown, but the medium of foresight connects their contents to your choice in the present, a causal loop in time. Much like how the remaining contents of the Necronomicon you created are as of yet unobserved and unknown, but may be shaped by our actions here today.” The Oracle nodded as he turned to one side and began to gesture in the air. “Give it some thought. You may make your final choice when our business is concluded. And with that, you and I have a heist to perform.”
The Oracle spun his hand in a circle and snapped his fingers, as a swirling black portal appeared before us.
“And what exactly are we stealing?” I braced myself, as the Oracle gestured for me to step forwards into the unknown.
“Nothing physical, and nothing that can be taken back.” The Oracle put a hand on my shoulder and pressed me forward, as he began to follow me into the portal. “We are here to steal information. The progenitor text from which your Necronomicon was derived. The book you are about to translate for us, bringing the mind of a mad god to life and sealing it in linear text, using what you do best. Metaphor.”
I found myself paralyzed as I drifted in space, frozen and unable to move. I was as static as a protagonist who already used up all their character development while doing a speed-run of the hero’s journey in their debut, and now just got to float along aimlessly.
I struggled to move, terror gripping me as I gazed down into a snarling black void lit by rings of light. The moment stretched on into infinity, my heart crying out in frozen shock against the inherent wrongness of the world I felt all around me me, telling myself that I was a fool for allowing myself to be drawn back into this world of mad gods who could take more than my life from me. I felt a tap on my shoulder and my chest heaved, gasping as I stared out at the still-frozen sight before me.
“I have restored your flow of time.” The Oracle’s voice echoed behind me as my lungs caught up with my chest. “The book we are seeking can not be destroyed, so the decision was made to trap it in a moment of time, a four-dimensional prison. It exists within the event horizon of that black hole.”
I turned to look at the Oracle, who was intently studying the abyss as though it were gazing back into him. “Can anything even make it out of a place like that?”
“I did it myself, once.” The Oracle looked away from the deep void below him and stretched his palm over the space before us, manifesting a bridge of light. “Yidhra told you that my advice is both desired and feared. The Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep once required my assistance, but knowing the extent of my knowledge of the pathways of fate, feared the advantage I could gain from a direct contact to nudge his destiny. So his condition was that after sharing my counsel, I was to remain sealed within a black hole for an eon, to mitigate the impact of my foreknowledge. I accepted his offer.” The Oracle raised a hand as he stepped forward, beckoning me to follow. “And despite the loss of time, I returned to find my position considerably strengthened as a result.”
I felt some deep instinct working within me, my inner gumshoe trying to wrestle all of this strangeness into a form I could gain insight from. “But the restriction still meant something for him to have asked for it. Which means your foreknowledge must have limits of some kind. In how far you can project the future.”
“Limits that are relevant to beings such as myself, across spans of time in which civilizations such as yours as measured.” The Oracle slowed his pace as we reached the glowing blue flame. “But ones that are more than sufficient to contain a mortal lifespan like yours. Would you like to know how you will die?”
I shivered, as I dwelled on the question for no longer than I had to. “I would not.”
“A smart choice. The internally consistent timelines where you have knowledge of an inevitable fate tend to not play out well for you. Ignorance, in so many things, is to be preferred. Such as how, at the moment—” The Oracle gestured to the blue flame encircling the path before us like the rings of Saturn. “You will need to find us a way pass this barrier.”
I blinked at the unholy swirl of blue flame before us, and turned back to him. “Can’t you just tell me what I need to do?”
“It works better if you figure it out for yourself.” The Oracle responded patiently. “Your ignorance is a necessary ingredient for you to truly grasp what you are about to say, so the necessary ideas can spring to life from deep within your own mind. It is meaning that shapes the world, not the sounds you use to make it.”
I stared back at him, the focus in my mind sharpening as I tried to comprehend the nigh-omniscient entity I was forced to contend with. “So you know what happens, but you can’t tell me. You are constrained yourself in what you say and do. If you were to share your knowledge of the future on this—”
“I would find our situation unresolvable, which would have the most serious repercussions for you.” The Oracle’s eyes darkened briefly before resuming their previous good humor. “And so I find myself as both actor and playwright, playing a role already scripted out to its finale as I bring life to the drama you see unfolding. But fortunately for us both, this is a task for which you are uniquely capable. And I can share some context for you.”
The Oracle waved his hand, and a view of our current circumstance appeared in miniature before my eyes, the two of us standing before the blue swirling flame, and two other barriers revealed within it, orange and green. “There are three barriers you must clear to access the book. The one before us is a Test of Intention, to ensure that you are worthy to approach the tome, and that your purpose is not at cross-purposes to the will that sealed it here. Beyond it, a Test of Will, to ensure that you could survive the encounter with the text without being subsumed into its madness. And then there is the third Test.”
I stared at the innermost green circle of green flame. “Yes, what’s the final one?”
The Oracle shrugged. “In terms of raw cause and effect, it’s not actually clear to me. But you always pass it, so it must not have been important. Shall we?” The Oracle gestured to the blue flame before us. “Do your thing. See past the letter of the law to grasp its spirit, and metaphor your way through this.”
I sighed, grumbling to myself a little as I realized it wasn’t going to be any fun to ham it up on a metaphor while being forced to do it. Took all the spontaneity out of it. “Can’t you do this sort of thing yourself?”
“I can not.” The Oracle’s voice was crisp. “I am incapable of speaking the words you are about to say and imbuing any meaning within them. Which you will soon realize is the true source of your usefulness to me, rather than your facility at shaping reality which pales in comparison to my own. You need simply remain sane in the face of these challenges. You might even consider it a relief, after your last travails with a god required you to kill a raving lunatic.”
I coughed. “I don’t know if you’re as good with the past as you are with the future, but I also got a vampire recently…”
“Ah, yes.” The Oracle snickered. “A one-time god-killer such as yourself could barely handle a Nosferatu, a pitiful creature abandoned by its creator from beyond the stars, and so chained by restrictions on its nature that it might as well already be dead. You needn’t concern yourself with handling any threats while you are in my presence. Just doing as you are told.”
“All right.” I took a deep breath as I looked towards the flaming blue barrier. “I guess we know this has to work, right?”
Backed by the assurances of an infallible god, I took a tentative step forward towards the flame. Probably best to not overthink it. “I come here with the Intention to take what I need from this book and be done, resolving the thread of my fate, and causing no collateral damage in the process. I am a messenger carrying a destiny already laid out for me. And by the laws of conduct I believe in, I would ask that you do not murder the messenger.” I crossed my fingers and took a step forward.
I tensed as the flame flared up against me, holding on tight to my purpose as I prepared for it to test the force of my conviction. I felt nervousness, a bit of anticipation, but no true fear. The thing was, this had to work.
And no, I didn’t just think that because the bloviating creep in the suit claimed he had already foreseen every detail of our encounter, although I supposed that helped. I believed it because I was possessed by a conviction that no matter what the world threw at me, I had to win. The metaphor I had wrapped around myself, the identity I clung to at my core made it impossible for anything else to happen. In my heart I believed that I was the hero of own story, my name headlining the adventure I would one day relate to a not entirely reluctant audience, the narrator-protagonist destined to come out on top.
The conviction lasted as long as it took for the fire to burn through my flesh, incinerating layers of skin, muscle and bone as I froze in disbelieving shock. I felt the thread of my life snap, my destiny unraveled as the Beyond One awoke in incandescent rage from the paradox that denied him the manifestation of the tome carrying his soul, the terrible awareness spilling out of me and cutting through the space-time around us, crucifying my past present and future as my consciousness flickered into an annihilation more total than death.
The Oracle chuckled to himself as he watched the chaos unfold from my flaming corpse, reality bursting from within as it struggled to contain the fullness of the presence pouring into it. He turned to me with a malignant smile. “And that, is why I suggest you do not take that particular approach.”
I gazed in a cold sweat at the scene I saw in miniature before me, barely able to process the impressions bleeding out of the imploding world the Oracle had manifested before my sight. There were sights, sounds, and raw emotions passing through the medium of space as surely as any electromagnetic wave. I could sense the terror I had felt as my absolute conviction in myself shattered, the confidence I had once discovered that had given me the courage to come this far annihilated in the face of a force against which I was completely helpless.
I shivered as I turned away from the Oracle’s projection, who snapped his fingers with a smile as it disappeared. I shot him a look I hoped was mildly intimidating. “It feels like you could have just told me about that one.”
“I would have thought so too, to be honest.” I was beginning to recognize in the Oracle’s tone something like the condescension of a slick jeweler addressing a client he took for an absolute rube. “But it appears there are some lessons you fail to internalize unless you can personally experience the failure you would undergo for yourself. And so I offer you a rare treat, a window into my world. A chance to taste your future.” The Oracle gave me a dark smile as he gestured towards the blue flame. “So, here you are again. Try to do better this time.”
I flinched at the heat I could feel from the barrier, now more keenly aware of the price it could exact from me. “Am I about to find myself watching this play out again like before? Can you tell me that much?”
The Oracle rolled his eyes. “What would you do if I said yes? Quit wasting time, just make your way through, or I’ll push you in myself.”
I flinched again, as the look in his eyes told me he was serious. If I got through this—well, I suppose when I got through this, I might have to have a word with Yidhra about always abandoning me to absolute psychopaths. I pressed forward into the flame, saying the first thing that came to my head.
“I approach with the Intention to contain the force found within that book, having seen the destruction it can cause for myself. I swear to contain the destiny of it I bear within me…” I took a deep breath as the flames began to burn against me. “And if you think about it, if I die here, the force in that book escapes anyway, so it’s in everyone’s best interests…”
The fire that raged against me seemed not to care as the flames incinerated my consciousness a second time, melting the universe itself as the fury of the Beyond One Yog-Sothoth bled through me, within me, and all around me, annihilating the barriersthatwerenothingbeforehisimmanence…
“Not your second guess either, then.” The Oracle waved his hand and I saw myself arguing with the Oracle in place, feeling the heat of my emotions as I yelled at him for his stubborn refusal to help me until he shoved me into the fire himself, unleashing another cataclysm around me. “Or the third.” The Oracle waved his hand impatiently as I watched myself race into the flame, trying to clear it on sheer force of will only for my flaming corpse to burst with divine madness a little further down the bridge of light. “Or the fourth, fifth, sixth…” The images and impressions raced at me at the speed of thought, as I watched myself desperately tried to bargain with both the Oracle and the flame before me, trying to convince the flame it was a metaphorical fire of conviction that burned within my breast, arguing with the Oracle that there had to be some other way, or to at least hint at what I needed to do to spare me the agony.
The impressions began to arrive faster and faster. “Not your five million three hundred thousand and twenty-sixth guess, or the five million three hundred thousand and twenty-seventh…” I witnessed myself running through my mental dictionary, trying what seemed like every possible word I knew, searching for every possible conceptual or metaphorical match for the concept of Intention as I exhausted each combination of options like a desperate safecracker spinning through sets of numbers one at a time. The impressions bled through me faster than I could think as the pace of the scenes before me accelerated into a blur, hijacking my consciousness with its hellish eternal recurrence.
I was trapped in the eternal echoes of my past, forced to relive endless variations of the same moments like a franchised character constantly being rebooted and forced to watch the death of their relatives over and over again so a fresh audience can truly understand their motivations—unable to die, unable to change, unable to truly live while repeating the same endless journey with no end in sight. Trapped in the grip of a force that refused to release me until it took everything it could from me.
The Oracle’s voice droned on. “Not the sixteen trillion two billion five hundred twenty-seven million four hundred thirty thousand and sixth idea, or the sixteen trillion two billion five hundred twenty-seven million four hundred thirty thousand and seventh…” The Oracle paused, looking at me expectantly as he wiped the scene in miniature from before my eyes. “That’s all for now. You’re up.”
I took a deep breath as I stared back at him, hardly able to believe the nightmare had suddenly stopped. “This is happening, right here, right now? This has to be the time it works, right?”
“I realize you are having trouble retaining this much data, but you should know that you always say that. And you must understand by now that you have no options but to keep trying.” The Oracle straightened his cufflinks lazily. “As I wove this timeline to its conclusion, my main challenge was how to sufficiently motivate you in the time allotted to us. Unlike most of the beings I contend with, your lifespan is not long enough for you to truly taste the limits of suffering for not fulfilling my will. And Yidhra refuses to honor our bargain if I return you to your world too mangled or insane to function. But this method I have devised manages to solve for both informing you as to the temporal dead-ends you should avoid and instilling you with motivation.”
I glared back at him as something within me seethed, hotter than the fear Yidhra had put into my heart for the cost The Oracle could make me pay for opposing him. I tried to keep from spiraling into dread at the prospect of what could be worse than this, as I did my best to focus, to find a way out of this Sisyphean trap.
I needed to find a way to satisfy the will that had sealed the Necronomicon here, counteract whatever it disliked about the purpose it saw within me. The Oracle had said the outcome that got me through this was something he was incapable of saying, that he was incapable of truly meaning. Something I needed to be motivated to say with conviction…
“I Intend...” I spoke the words as I began to move towards the blue flame again, feeling a strange resolution come over me. “To ruin the plans of the Infallible Oracle who brought me here. To deny him the chance to ever wield the power of this book. God or not, omniscient or not, I will outsmart the bastard, deny him his prize, and end his life. Ensuring that what he did to me, he can never do to another again. Because…” I flinched involuntarily as I stepped all the way into the flame, bracing myself for an internal inferno of agony about to rend me apart. “That asshole has it coming.”
The blue flame parted before me and the Oracle clapped his hands, cackling in delight. “Ah yes, there it is. You are finally the man I need you to be, the deluded hero promising in absolute sincerity to negate my presence here, cancelling me out with his Intent. And so onward we go.” The Oracle put his hand on my back and pressed me forward, as I felt the world around me dissolve.
I opened my eyes to find myself in a familiar looking building, ghoulish art covering the walls, lit by flickering candles. I blinked as I looked around, hardly believing what I saw. “The McLeary manor. This must be before the fire. What are we doing…” I suddenly became conscious of a terrible weight in my hands, a force deeper than gravity threatening to drag me into the pits of the earth. The Necronomicon that bore my name on its spine was resting in my hands, the potential of it tingling against my fingers.
The Oracle was at my side, peering around. “We have moved closer to the text we seek, in space and time. Perhaps due to your recent stresses, your mind is attempting to re-map the unfamiliar concepts you are currently experiencing to what you have felt before, which has created enough resonance to land us here.” The Oracle waved his hands expansively across the bookcases. “In a heart of chaos, ready to ignite. Oh, would you like my help with that book?”
I felt myself gripping the book even more tightly than before, my knuckles turning white from the strain. “Absolutely not.”
The Oracle chuckled to himself. “No, it appears Yidhra is the only one you are willing to trust with that tome. A questionable choice, as I had mentioned before. But one which will meet its resolution once she offers it to me. The bookcase we are seeking and the next test is over here.”
The Oracle ambled down the hall in no particular hurry, as I felt a dangerous anger burning inside me. “I have some questions I’d like answered.”
The Oracle chuckled. “My answers are that you’re wrong, you don’t have a choice, and I don’t care.”
I blinked at him. “Well, I was going to say…”
“That you think that I lied to you about the previous test.” The Oracle continued patiently. “What you needed was the Intention to kill me, whereas I had suggested you would pass the test with a metaphor. You are not the only one to torture that term into every twisted shape you can press it into, as you appear to live your entire life with no greater purpose than uttering the word ‘metaphor’ as often as humanly possible—thirty times in your eventual retelling of this story. From my perspective, all human expression of emotion is ultimately a metaphor relating the inner workings of your primate brain, weakly carrying the silhouette of the raw pattern of your thought. As to your next question…”
I rubbed my head, as I tried to rush the words out. “You’re going to tell me that I should leave the book here, so Arthur McLeary uses it to burn the place down, leading to Moustache bringing me back here. I’m not ok with killing a man.”
“And as I said, you do not have a choice. I sometimes wonder at how billions of cycles of evolution could have failed so completely in your case at aligning your incentive to survive, that you would consider something as imbecilic as sacrificing yourself for a stranger. Arthur McLeary invited the gaze of the Beyond One, shattering a window in time to create this paradox, the uncaused cause of that book we are presently working to patch over. Should you refuse, you will find yourself trapped in this moment for eternity, experiencing the terrible price of your stubbornness until you accept your role in this. Arthur McLeary’s death predates your choice, you may as well feel responsible for the entire history of your world. And to your final question—”
The Oracle gazed into my eyes as thoughts ran through my head of the tortures he had visited upon me to make me give him what he wanted. I wanted to shout at him, tell him I knew that there had to be a better way to accomplish this, with less misdirection, less cruelty, less intensity. Maybe a painkiller or two, or a break for lunch. “I do not care about your dissatisfaction with my methods. You should feel gratified that I have allowed you to bask in my presence, drinking in knowledge many on your world would kill to have. Finish your tasks, take your choice of reward, and we shall be done.”
The Oracle stopped his pacing to gesture to a bookcase on the wall with a conspicuous empty space in it. “Your Necronomicon shall be placed here. You must will it to belong to Arthur McLeary, which will revert its ownership to you in the event of his death. Your actions will be following a rut worn in time, it should feel as natural as a boat letting the wind carry its sails. Just don’t go mad in the process.”
Sighing as I did so, feeling my newfound incentive to limit the pointless deaths I was forced to relive, I carefully slid the book into the wall. It fluttered open before me as if resisting the placement, as a familiar stream of words, written into me like a core memory resurfacing from my past flittering before my eyes:
And then, Detective Manse beheld the soul of the Beyond One in its full glory again, and saw how he could have his revenge on the Oracle. The power of a god poured through him, annihilating his captor, freeing his mind, freeing everyone and everything from their prisons of flesh, uniting them in the chaotic cacophony of his—
I screamed as the burning orange flame overtook me, divine madness filling my soul as my thread of time snapped, lurching our reality into the jaws of Yog-Sothoth.
“Just to waste less of my own time this go round…” The Oracle gazed at the scene in miniature projected before us, as I felt myself sweat from the entrails of the madness leaking out of me, trying to burn its way into my mind. “It’s not so much what you did that killed you, as how you handled it. The book will always attempt to resist its placement here, there’s no power you possess that can keep it from putting up a fight. Your intention is no longer the issue. You just have to keep from going mad while enacting it, since you seem unwilling to save us a few steps and will the book to me directly.”
I stared at the Oracle as I tried to think through the implications of what he was saying. Was there there really was something he found that I was unwilling to do, even in the face of his power to force me to repeat the same moments for eternity until I did what he wanted? Perhaps that was the source of the leverage Yidhra had mentioned, refusing to give him what he wanted until we aligned on a future I found acceptable.
An idea began to dawn on me. “So you already know that I’m here to oppose you. And you seem to be fine with it.”
“Because it was necessary.” The Oracle gave me a careful stare. “Your drive to that end has made this whole experience more expedient, so I can not say I am entirely opposed to it. Even if it does sometimes result in imbecilic demonstrations like this.”
I froze in place, suddenly remembering the moment with the two boxes, where the Oracle had anticipated my choice before I knew I would be making it myself. “What demonstration are you referring to?”
“Please.” The Oracle’s hands began to glow with ethereal energy. “Out of the deaths you have seen so far, you have tried to kill me in seventy million scenarios already, and always with the same parlor trick of a Rite. And that is only out of the timelines I have shown you, to say nothing of the ones I explored before finding this final route to my goal.”
My heart beat faster, realizing the Oracle was already committed to the course of action he was about to undertake, before my plan had even crystalized. “But we’re not trapped in the void of space anymore. The Rite of Annihilation relies on authority, those who might have reason to judge you. This is my world. Among my people. The ones you would rather destroy than let me win.”
The Oracle chuckled to himself as the dark pool of energy in his hands grew, pulsing in place. “Do not mistake me for a whelp like the Horror. I have pets older and more powerful than he was. And it amazes me that even by now you do not understand the full potential of my art. Do you really think that if I thought that you posed the slightest risk to me, I would ever allow you the attempt?”
Feeling like I had nothing to lose, I stretched out my mind, calling on anyone and everything in my vicinity that might have reason to judge this monster, strike him down for his crimes, as I sought the help of any kindred spirits to my own in that fight.
The Oracle’s laugh grew more sinister as he sent the energy in his hands spiraling towards me, my mind screaming under the strain of the forces I was trying to channel as I realized the incredible gap in power between us, a grain of sand trying to stand against a tidal wave.
The Oracle’s energies tore into me as I howled in rage, the perverse unfairness of the situation eating into me alongside the Oracle’s ravenous energies, as I realized that this was it. This was where I died, and some other sap got to take the next attempt and see if it worked out better. But for me, there was no heartwarming epilogue, no clever trick to change the outcome.
This wasn’t the one where I win.
“I don’t want you to get the wrong idea...” The Oracle chuckled to himself as he watched our encounter in miniature, seeming to relish the sight of his energies stripping away layers of my flesh like a deranged clown performing an autopsy. “It is only your complete impotence that gives me reason to tolerate this behavior. You can think of yourself as a favored pet, if you like. And it is all made more enjoyable by the agony you carry within you. Somehow, every time you think you might actually have a chance, the pain cuts as deep as though you had never tasted death before. Trembling before the terrors you are about to experience, as though you were a virgin to death rather than having already felt its sting more often than any of your kind. Of all the feats your mind has performed, this is your masterpiece, a suffering as deep and exquisite as any I have tasted.”
I felt myself wheezing from the exertion as I stared back at the Oracle, the impressions I had felt still burning within me, the complete certainty that I was going to die and the despair of knowing it was all but destined for me. It was excruciating. But it had left my position in all of this that much clearer.
I took a deep breath. “Just how powerful are you?”
“To spare you some time, even if you had you been capable of pulling off another alliance with your fellow worms…” The Oracle cracked his knuckles. “The entire will of your planet in all its potential is a force I could easily handle. There is a reason my cults surpassed the Horror’s on every sentient world. Even considering my advantages in avoiding any confrontation I am not destined to win, there is nothing you would be capable of doing to harm me, unless I made it happen myself. Perhaps that will help focus your mind in this matter, as your place in these affairs becomes clearer.”
I nodded, giving a sidelong glance to the Oracle as I turned back to the bookshelf. A strange resignation had come over me, realizing that so much of what I had done, trillions upon trillions of lives, and more besides if the Oracle spoke the truth, had been wasted. Futures explored and then erased as any decision that did not favor the Oracle was snuffed out in favor of his machinations. All of time, bending to his will, until everyone did what he wanted, became what he wanted.
I reached my hand up to shove the book back into the bookshelf. “Let’s get this over with. The Test of Will. Here we go.”
I slid the Necronomicon back into the bookshelf and flinched as the book opened again.
Detective Manse thought he could protect himself, but in his heart he had no choice but the serve the book…
Serve the book, sure, I thought to myself. The story of my life, the one I’ll be telling someday. Everything I do is in service of that book, driving that story I carry with me to a conclusion I can live with. One that doesn’t end here.
The book’s pages ruffled in place, quickly manifesting a different page. Detective Manse could try to twist the words all he wanted, but the only conclusion it led him to was that his role was to awaken the Beyond One…
Oh, the One Beyond, like my daughter? I thought, my mind racing ahead to spin the compulsions coming over me faster than they could arrive. Back at my home? You know, I think it is my turn to take her to the park tomorrow, better make sure I survive this so I don’t miss my chance to awaken the one beyond here.
The book seemed to thresh itself in my grasp, as my mind worked as quickly as it could to metaphorize every unholy compulsion projected into me, spinning the book’s words like a partisan judge reconstituting every word of the law in service of their interests. Like a cunning theologian liberally re-interpreting their scriptures into whatever the congregation needed to hear that week, as I wrestled every screeched mental command into the guise of metaphor. Not fighting back against the onslaught so much as redirecting it, allowing it to pass through me as I adapted my map of the world around it, twisting every concept in my head to nullify its intent, the Master of the Metaphoric Arts finally showing his craft.
The book seemed to shudder in rage as I applied my full strength—mental and physical—and slammed it inside the bookcase.
The Oracle gave me a cunning smile. “While I could watch you try to kill me all day, that was the other reason I was more inclined to let the sacrilege of opposing me pass unpunished. The lesson you learned, imparted so clearly by the recent demonstration, seems to have focused your mind. On to the final test then.”
The Oracle snapped his fingers, and I let out an entirely unmanly scream.
The Oracle snapped his fingers, and Detective Manse let out an entirely unmanly scream. He looked from side to side, gazing at the bookcases which appeared unchanged around him, as nothing seemed to have altered after the Oracle’s snap.
“What the hell is this?” Detective Manse asked, glaring back at the Oracle.
“I have switched our narrative mode.” The Oracle cackled in ghoulish glee. “That’s quite enough of your melodramatic first-person narration. Now you will have to pass the final test… IN THE WORLD OF MUSICAL THEATER!”
Detective Manse screamed to the skies, his wails settling on the key of F sharp, as the orchestra began playing to back him up.
“How can I resolve these paradoxes?
Should I take one, or both his boxes?
Why, I’ll beat all his tricks, and I’ll show him what for.
I’ll trip up this god, with a fresh… metaphor!”
The bookcases began to stand up and dance in a conga line as they belted out the chorus.
“A metaphor, a metaphor, what’s a metaphor for?
Is it just a turn of phrase, or a magic force you can’t ignore?"
I gazed numbly at the actors on the stage in front of me as they performed this bizarre pantomime of my life. Time itself seemed frozen as the actor playing the Oracle on stage stood motionless, while the actor playing Detective Manse crooned his heart out, bleeding his emotions and thoughts into the air as his experience passed from his world to ours.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. The real Oracle was beside me, gesturing forward impatiently. “Come on, we’re wasting time here. This isn’t even the best version of our story, the epic poem was far superior. I’ll send you a copy later.”
“How did we end up…” I began to follow the Oracle as I walked down the aisle while the audience began to applaud the figures on the stage. “How did we end up back here? I feel like I visited this place when chasing the Horror.”
“Yes, and it evidently left an impression on you. The force binding the Necronomicon has chosen this domain as the final test in accessing it. And even you should be able to figure out where we will find it.”
I looked around quickly. The stage, they must have some prop for the book they were about to reveal for the scene involving the third test. A reflection of the thing itself, close enough for the meaning to overlap.
“Mr. Manse, sir! Please, a moment of your time, we’d love to share our theories on the final act.”
A trio of glasses-wearing nerds had intercepted our paths. I groaned, realizing where this was going. “Hey, guys. Would it deter you to know that none of your theories…”
“Art is so rarely understood, especially by those who make it.” A man smiled at me, bearing an arrangement of facial hair I could not understand why any human would inflict on themselves. “I promise you that in twenty years, every critic will discuss the story of the Oracle solely as a metaphor for a child’s experience of divorce.”
I blinked my eyes as I looked back at him. The Oracle had stopped in place, seemingly amused by the interaction. “What the hell? Why is it about divorce? My parents weren’t even—”
The furry man chuckled. “Honestly, it’s almost a little too on the nose. Our hero is off playing with a friend when a maternal figure arrives to drop him off into the care of an all-controlling patriarch. Both parents criticize and undermine each other, dividing the little one between what he sees as all-powerful forces. For the finale, the clear ending has to be our hero achieving reconciliation with the patriarch he could never satisfy, a theme running through half the literary canon.”
“An intriguing idea.” The Oracle grinned at me in a way that made my skin crawl. “Just think of the incredible character arc Detective Manse would have, getting him out of this boring familial rut. To begin his journey by loathing this creature, cloaking himself in righteous indignation at being made to endure his coercion, and then accepting that all the harm done to him was all to help him, to make him better. To stand next to his master in the end, and thank him for every scar.”
“I have another idea, however.” A second young man coughed as he asserted himself. “While I don’t dispute that the familial psychodrama plays a role, the Oracle is much more explicitly a metaphor for capitalism. An alien force so insidious that it subsumes all resistance into itself, selling back to the masses the very symbols and ideas they would use to oppose that system, bending everything it touches to its will. In a return to classic cosmic horror, Detective Manse will at the end find himself as the eternal thrall of the monster he sought to rid the world of.”
“Also an excellent suggestion.” The Oracle snickered at me, as he seemed to salivate over the prospect of the resolution being described. “Imagine our hero finding himself so broken, so completely resigned to the fate crafted for him he loses all agency, becomes nothing but a vessel holding the will of a higher being. Knowing a recurring hell is all that awaits him for defiance.” The Oracle chuckled to himself. “Just what until you see what the two of them get up to in their next adventure together. Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn.”
“Cthulhu!” The man gasped. “Do you mean we’ll get to see—”
“None of that’s canon.” I interrupted, suddenly wishing we could return to our mission. “None of that—”
“It will be.” The Oracle grinned at me. “Your next appointment with me has already been scheduled. Three months from the date you left. I have already filled both the boxes I will offer you as a reward for that journey as well. Would you like to know if your choice will be the same as this time?”
“And furthermore—” It might have been the fan club sending my ego to dangerous places, but I felt myself beyond caring about the Oracle’s threats in that moment. “Families aren’t ruts, you’ve got the metaphor entirely backwards. My little girl is changing every day more than you can imagine, nothing is ever the same.”
I heard the third member of my involuntarily assembled fan club clearing her throat, as she looked back and forth between me and the Oracle with a strange look on her face. “You know, I had my theories. But I’m starting to wonder if we’re just overthinking it. Manse is the hero, and the Oracle is the villain. The resolution has to be that Detective Manse wins, and the Infallible Oracle loses. It’s as simple as that.”
The Oracle burst out laughing as he looked at me. “And there it is. I never get tired of hearing that one. Our hapless detective, despite failing an all but uncountable number of times, manages to defeat an omniscient god. Overcoming an entity that can foresee his every action, counter the force of his entire world, and who orchestrated every detail about their encounter to drive it to the conclusion he wanted. This is yet another thing you humans can do that I am incapable of, placing your faith in a idea as impossibly deluded as two plus two equaling five.”
The Oracle gestured to the stage, where a giant black book was being dragged out by a stage hand. “There it is. As I said, you always pass this test. Let us be done with it.”
I raced forward, as the young woman called after me. “But if you really want to know, I think the Oracle trapping Manse in the eternal recurrence is a metaphor for animal testing—”
I raced up the stage, reaching out to grab the book as I felt reality bleed around me once more.
I felt the Necronomicon in my hands, the potential of it consuming my mind, feeling more real than anything the Oracle had been able to throw at me. For all I knew, I could still be standing on that stage, at the center of the black hole in the abyss, or back on the Oracle’s world. Nothing else mattered, I realized, except this book, and what was about to happen with it. A dark part of me wondered if the Oracle himself could stop me if I decided I wanted to be done with him, take my chances with the Beyond One, and draw it into myself. Committing to the course of action so completely, playing chicken with my life until my devotion to the book overcame his limits in forecasting the future, as I solidly refused any fate other than this one.
He would lose. And I would boil the universe around me in the process under the pressure of a mad god. Sending us all to our deaths rather than living as the Oracle’s slaves.
Better the devil you know… I thought to myself, as I gritted my teeth before opening the Necronomicon in my hands, letting its chaos pass through me as I re-directed its compulsions, semantically spinning them as I worked to gain an understanding of the mind generating them, the god whose fate I was already linked to in my encounters with this book.
I grasped the thread of its mind as I raced through the pages, tracing the thread of its will back like I was carefully examining the hair of a creature larger than our world, and who risked killing us all if I got this wrong. The Beyond One was a puppeteer pulling my strings as I pulled his, dancing together towards a resolution where our intentions harmonized enough to both get a piece of what we wanted.
A new vessel, for the slumbering god. One crafted by me, answering to none other than myself, unless I chose to give it away. And for me, all I wanted was to close the loose ends of its fate to resolve my role in its destiny. Leaving me free to live or die, without rippling against its causation.
No sooner had the thought solidified in my mind, than a new book appeared in my hands, my name burned onto the spine, my handwriting a perfect match for the letters and scrawls within it. The terms of a truce between the two of us. And a weapon capable of destroying realities by invoking a presence to overtake it completely.
The book disappeared from my hand and my eyes widened, as I turned from side to side. “Where the hell—”
“It is in your hands.” The Oracle smirked, as I realized I was standing next to him on his world, the giant orb leering over the twisted landscape around us. “You are holding onto it ten minutes ago, relative to your frame of reference. You created the book, and then you placed it on the bookshelf of the McLeary mansion, reverting it to the ownership of Arthur McLeary. Arthur McLeary will die in his attempt to access its power, upon which you will regain ownership of the book, and pass it to Yidhra. Who very soon, after I send you home, will pass it on to me.”
I blinked my eyes, hardly believing the words, half-expecting another trick. “That’s really it, then? Even after everything, you’ll still let me go home?”
“Until we meet again.” The Oracle gave me a sinister smile. “There is much I plan to do with this book before I require your services. And there is a sense in which we will never truly be apart. You will live every moment knowing the judgement of my gaze was on your every choice before you made it, that any attempt you could make to escape my will would only result in suffering. I need only guide the wing of a butterfly to destroy everything you hold dear—your home, the friends you have forgotten, your family—in ways that could never be traced back to me. But before you leave, you do have one final choice to make.”
The Oracle gestured at the table that had once again manifested before him, revealing the pair of boxes he had shown me before. One transparent, with a grand in it. One opaque, with ten times that amount in it, if the Oracle thought I would be taking only that one box.
The Oracle cleared as his throat as he gazed down at the boxes. “I assume you remember—”
“I do.” I nodded. The picture in my head of what I should expect was as clear to me as if someone had put together some slightly amateurish but helpful illustrations of the scenario.
“Ah yes.” The Oracle’s smile was insufferably smug. “Did you know, that this was the part I saved for myself to find out the last? After charting the path of our journey to this point, I asked myself whether you would make it to the end and find yourself finally submitting to my guidance. Accepting your place in a future you cannot control, and taking the one box, even if it meant you would be acting like a fool in the eyes of the world for leaving your extra profit behind.”
“Or…” The Oracle looked over at the clear box. “If you would choose to persist in your defiance, leaving money on the table rather than admit the gulf between us. Choosing to leave your family poorer, rather than let go of your self-delusion as the captain of your own fate.”
“And of course…” The Oracle stretched out his hands. “I already know which of those outcomes we will reach. And in a few seconds, you will as well.”
I took a deep breath, staring at at the opaque box in front of me. It would hold ten thousand if the Oracle thought I was about to take the opaque box alone. Empty, if he thought I was about to take both boxes. His choice was already made. But made with a perfect picture of the scene before me, like one of his mad projections, as he must have charted out our journey before I took the first step on it.
I reached forward, getting a sense for the air around my fingers before making my choice. Slowly and deliberately, I slid the opaque box towards myself, as the Oracle smiled. And then, with my other hand, I grabbed the clear box and pulled it towards myself as well.
I opened the clear box first, placing the handful of bills into my pocket. “So that’s one thousand from the clear box. And…”
I opened the second box, as the Oracle’s prediction of my choice became apparent. “Ten thousand from the opaque box. So, you thought I would be one-boxing it. I think that makes a profit of $11,000 then.”
All emotion was gone from the Oracle’s face, as he stared at me as though he had forgotten how to be a human being, rage bleeding through his eyes as I heard a low and guttural voice shake through me.
“This is mine to keep, right?” I looked at the pile of ten thousand, wondering how you actually took this much cash to a bank without getting the wrong kind of attention. “Do you mind if I borrow the box to bring it all home?”
There was a snarling wailing sound, as the human form before me dissolved, and a sea of flesh and teeth began to manifest around me, eyes staring into me from every direction as the entire world beneath me shook from the will of the creature that had surrounded me.
“You will tell me exactly how you came to make this choice.” The walls trembled around me. “How you defied my capacity for prediction. And then I will decide what the consequences for you will be. You have no idea how patient, how merciful I have decided to be with you until now. If I chose, I could make you feel fortunate that you only had to spend your eternities dying to the Beyond One’s flame. I hold the entirety of your fate in my hands.”
“Allow me to answer with… a metaphor.” I cleared my throat as the creature gnashed in anger. “I am rubber, and you are glue.”
A hiss filled the cavernous mouth around me, a wind like a typhoon blowing through the chattering teeth as they gnashed at me.
“You see, what you said actually applies—all right, tough crowd. What I’m trying to say—I felt the incredible gap between our strength earlier, like a grain of sand daring to confront a tidal wave.”
“And still you persist in this—”
“And what I realized in that moment, dying to you in the manor, is that you are the grain of sand.” I took a deep breath, tensing my fingers as I did so, letting the energies flow out of me and surround us both. “And I am the tidal wave.”
The cavernous mouth around me suddenly disappeared as the Oracle manifested before me in human form, a look of fear on his face as he bent down on his knees, clearly sensing the intensity of the energies I carried within me. “No—this is impossible, there’s no way you can have this much power here, it’s not what—”
“Not what you saw.” I nodded. “Right. And what I have apparently realized, seventy million times by now, is that your flawless method of projecting the future leaks more than light, sound, and emotion. Every time you showed me the gruesome failures from my possible futures, you weren’t just motivating me to find a shrink.” I gestured into the air. “You gave me a connection to my own deceased selves. Kindred spirits, wanting nothing more than to judge you for what you did. By tapping into the Rite of Annihilation, I was able to pull in the vengeance from every life I had lost to your machinations, drawing on the accumulated power of the trillions of versions of myself you had slaughtered before my eyes. To say nothing of all the energy that had pooled from the other timelines you obsessively tested, the ones you never bothered showing to me.”
“Impossible.” The Oracle hissed, his teeth gnashing at me. “If such a weakness in my methods had existed, you would not have been the first to discover it. I have controlled the fate of beings far more stubborn and powerful than yourself. If you had really been able to draw on that much power when you did the Rite, you would have been able to…” The Oracle’s voice faltered as he looked at me. “You would have been able to…”
“I would have been able to stop you from killing me during any of those past confrontations when I attempted the Rite.” I returned his gaze. “Which would have allowed you to learn about the edge I had on you, tipping off your own past self. So each time I found myself in the position where I could end your life, I took one for the team, in the hope of one day breaking the power you held over me. If I had to guess, the anguish that you found so exquisite was the agony of a man knowing that he was giving up everything by choice, dying so another version of me could live freely. And if the gods you tried to control with this method are anything like you, I doubt they would be capable of doing what you considered to be imbecilic. Sacrificing themselves, heading to their deaths so someone else could come out on top.”
The energies fizzled brighter in my hands as the Oracle slipped down to the ground. “But my foresight should still have been able to see—you saw past my prediction on the boxes…”
“Yes, the boxes were an enormous help.” I paused. “At the manor, after I realized I had this much energy on tap whenever I wanted, I needed a way to get past your foresight if I was ever going to move against you. Swimming in the impressions of experiencing your projected worlds trillions of times, and with this much power on tap, I began probing for a way to tell apart reality, from your worlds projecting the future."
I gestured at the orb behind me. “And that’s what they are, after all. Worlds you created and destroyed yourself to test fate. Breeding and harvesting projections of the future through your dark arts. Your worlds were all but perfect, but probing the impressions you left behind as subtly as I could, a few aspects seemed suggestive of something being wrong. The speed of light being set to an arbitrary velocity to limit the transmission of information and how much you needed to simulate. Particles that had no state until being observed, a clear shortcut. Space and time being discretely divisible. I had a number of theories of what I might find to be different in performing similar tests against the real world. But I needed to be certain beyond all doubt, to ensure I wasn’t throwing away my only chance to stop you, or falling into another trap.”
I pointed to both the boxes in front of me. “And that’s where your boxes came in. The truth was, you didn’t actually care which of the boxes I took, neither choice would make you suspicious. So I made a plan to test my ability to distinguish the limits of the world you put me in, picking one box if I thought I was in one of your projections, and taking both if I believed I had made it to reality. Rather than trying to strike you down and tipping my hand if I wasn’t in the real world, all I had to do was make a simple choice, and the outcome would tell me if I could distinguish being in the real world, or if I needed to bide my time until we met again.”
“This is incredible.” The Oracle’s eyes were wide, staring at me with something beyond respect. “Our talents were made for each other. My abilities—all those accumulated souls I manifested now acting as fuel for your power—together we could summon a force great enough to slay any god we wished.”
“Seventy million of me took a dive for me to stand here before you.” I tensed my fingertips. “I know exactly which god needs to die.”
“No.” The Oracle shook his head firmly. “You do not want to do this. I have seen your entire life, your future. I know exactly who you are—”
“No.” I let the anger rise in my voice, realizing it would never have a better target than this. “It’s clear by now that you can only perceive cause and effect, the outer shell of my life as you probe against it. You understand nothing of who I am. If you had, you wouldn’t have driven me to find a way to kill you. And you would never have threatened my family.”
“Don’t be a fool!” The Oracle hissed. “You will never hold power like this again if you cut off the source of your strength. Kill me, and you will find yourself a weakling again, at the mercy of any being that would take an interest in a god-killer. I am the only reason your life was not disturbed prior to now. And you would slay me, the only one who can protect you?”
The Oracle’s eyes darted desperately from side to side as I drew closer. “Tell me, who sided with Yidhra to ensure your world was not annihilated after the Horror’s rampages through it? Who chose the timeline where you defeated the Horror, rather than one of the outcomes where you abased yourself by accepting his offer? Who put you on this path, who made you what you are? I am the architect of your past. I am the key to your future. We can—” The Oracle gazed up at me. “We can do all of this together. With my foresight, and your energies drawn from it, we could tear through the pantheon of the gods. They would never see us coming. And if you refuse…” The Oracle began to cackle as he stared helplessly at me. “You think anyone can protect you? You think Yidhra could save you? She is as much of a pawn as you are.” The Oracle spat on the ground. “I made her what she is, I am the one who took a mirror to her cruelty and set her on the path she now walks. She will slay you the moment you are a threat to what she values. With me, you stand to gain limitless power. Without me, you will lose everything.”
I rubbed my hands together. “You make a compelling case.”
“Thank you.” The Oracle nodded, an eager look in his eyes. “Together, we can—”
“But—if you were really that skilled at predicting the future.” I shivered, remembering the unspoken trillions of deaths I had felt at his hand, each life as real as my own. “You would have known you could have saved your breath. This is not the one where you win.”
“No.” The Oracle shook his head. “No, no. This isn’t how this ends…”
“My name.” I spoke the words carefully. “Is Adam Ignatius Manse.”
The Oracle began to crawl backwards. “No, I—I’ve seen this before, but not for me. Never for me…”
“I stand here bearing a multitude. Carrying with me my generations, a civilization unto myself that you harvested for power, chasing your insatiable appetite for control.”
“No, this…” The Oracle gazed up into the stars above him, his eyes squinting in the pale light of the orb. “This can’t be real. This isn’t real. It’s another false reality. One of the other gods must be copying my art, I just need to—”
“Thal'zunoth, the Fallible Oracle.” I gazed at him unflinching as I felt the unfinished business of all the souls I bore, somehow putting up with me as the lucky bastard who got to be the one to make it out. “For everything you have taken from us, the torments visited and lives claimed for no purpose beyond your own cruelty, we sentence you to Annihilation.”
The energies tore out of me, ripping into the Oracle from all directions as the cavernous mouth re-manifested itself, pulsing in and out of existence as the Oracle howled in agony, unable to look me in the eye, unable to exist in the present moment and confront the truth of his complete and utter powerlessness against the karmic justice I bore within me, an accumulated will that was finally greater than his.
And then he was gone. The crystal ball shattered before me, like the hopes of an actor who had convinced himself he was signing up for an amazing recurring villain role, only to learn that his character gets completely wrecked by the protagonist the first time they meet, and he’ll have to be auditioning again within a week.
I slumped onto the ground, feeling all the energies drained out of me, my perception shrunk down to my mortal limits once again, the forces I had gathered having finally fulfilled their purpose.
“Could you please explain...” I picked myself up and turned around, spotting a wisping figure descending from the sky above me. Yidhra’s voice was strained as she touched onto the ground. “What the hell happened here?”
I tried to give her a smile, while the look on her face suggested she wasn’t exactly pleased to be seeing me like this. “I know how this looks. But the guy killed me like a septillion times. And I took that personally.” I began gesturing helpfully in the air. “So, I routed the energy forward after each death, took a dive until I had enough juice to counteract his ability to predict me, then took him down.” I paused. “I feel like I should be getting a bigger thank you here. He was—”
“He was a creature of order.” Yidhra scowled at me. “His presence, his foreknowledge was a stabilizing force. It allowed for the creation of pacts where his word served as proof that alliances could be forged with the assurance that they would not be broken within the range of his foresight. With his death, anything is now possible.”
“You left me alone with him!” I felt a touch of petulance come into my voice. This wasn’t going to help my case in knocking down the fan club’s theories. “You could have at least warned me.”
“I told you not to oppose him!”
“For my own safety!”
“Do you really think all of this will make you any safer?” Yidhra took another look at the destruction around her and shook her head. “It is true I would not have wanted to see him in possession of that book. That outcome risked setting off a war for domination. But now it is all but a certainty. Even if this fate is no less than he deserved.”
“Are you sure this isn’t…” I paused, not wanting to overstep. “Is this a personal thing for you? The Oracle said—”
Yidhra let out a dismissive guttural sound that no human body should have been capable of producing. “That creature understood me as poorly as he evidently understood you. His death leaves me only with concern for the future, which should be your focus as well.” Yidhra rubbed her forehead, fixing me with a look. “Our story shall be that you acted in self-defense. The Oracle sought to bring you into his service, and in his hubris, he failed to calibrate his talent to the unique qualities of mortals, a mistake which would prove fatal.”
“Well, I think he did spend all that time killing me because I was a mortal he couldn’t directly torture for longer. And he did fail to consider the possibility of someone sacrificing themselves and self-annihilating their way to victory, so there’s a sense in which you could say that’s true…”
“It is true in every sense.” Yidhra’s eyes flared at me. “If you had told me before now that a human had slain two gods, I would have made plans assuming that the human was a weapon being wielded by the Oracle, guiding the individual’s fate by proxy against his enemies.”
“The Oracle did say he was responsible for how things ended with the Horror.”
“Of course he was responsible.” Yidhra snapped. “A man whose entire inner world is filtered through metaphors finds himself in a reality that can be shaped by them? The Oracle must have grown you, tweaking the whims of fate to cultivate the potential that made you what you are. But somehow, he makes one attempt to enlist you into his service, and dies at your hand. And the weapon he crafted now lies unclaimed. Unwielded.” Yidhra gave me a look that sent a chill of fear through me.
I swallowed, as I looked back at Yidhra. She had told me what kind of eldritch beings the Horror and the Oracle were. Shades of order, chaos, and evil. It occurred to me in that moment, that I still had nothing in writing that could tell me what kind of creature she would prove to be in the end.
Yidhra extended a gloved palm. “I am taking you home. If you value the world I left for you, stay out of trouble, and pray we never have cause to meet again.” Yidhra grasped onto my hand, and I felt myself whisked across space and time.
Now, I realize that eleven grand is a good chunk of change.
But Moustache had promised to pay me. And in my business, you don’t let a client off the hook, even when you don’t really need the money that badly. Sets the wrong precedent, people will think you’ve gone soft.
And so I found myself at the police station, making nice to the dame behind the reception desk as I tried to explain why I was worth the taxpayer’s money.
“So, I helped out on a case today, heard I should talk to you.”
The dame—Sarah, from the name tag she was wearing—stared back at me with cool eyes. “And what was the name of the officer you were working with?”
My throat felt dry. “Is there anybody who goes by the nickname Moustache?”
The dame scrunched her eyebrows. “Why on Earth would anyone call themselves that? Or call anyone else that. Honestly—”
“Adam!” A burly voice called out to me, causing me to breathe a sigh of relief as Moustache ran up to me. “What the hell happened back there? One minute, we were, you know—” Moustache glanced over at Sarah, cutting off his words as he said them. “Then you’re gone.”
“I had to take a little detour, helped me sort everything out.” I coughed, deciding not to disclose my role in the day’s tangle of temporal causation. “The arson was self-inflicted. Arthur McLeary burned down the manor himself, with the help of a dangerous book. The book has been taken into safekeeping and won’t be a problem again. And I was hoping to get paid—”
“By a Mr. Moustache.” Sarah added helpfully.
“What the—” Moustache looked over at me. “Adam, are you…” I froze in place, realizing my secret was about to come out. “Are you making fun of my moustache behind my back?”
“No, I…” I took a deep breath, trying to decide how to respond to the look of indignation in Moustache’s eyes.
To fully explain the social awkwardness I felt in that moment, I need to jump ahead to the end of the universe.
Imagine if you could stand at the end of all things, looking back on our universe as a four-dimensional block of space-time. All of time laid out before you in a higher dimension, the past and the future fixed in your gaze, static and complete.
Once you’ve got that down, imagine being able to bring that knowledge back to the present to see the outcome of every choice, the absolute power you could hold to free yourself from risk. From fear. From suffering. Holding the future under your control like the Oracle, grasping possibilities in your hand as they fray into lifeless threads, all surprise, joy, and anticipation removed, your life held at a distance so that you can never be hurt, never be taken advantage of, never have to risk anything. Living without weakness in a dead world with no uncertainty, invincible and alone, navigating your frozen block of time.
As Moustache glared at me with judgement in his eyes, my heart accelerating its tempo while I tried to think of some excuse to get myself off the hook, I wished for a moment that that could be me. My mind weakly searched for possible futures, possible answers I could give that wouldn’t end in a social humiliation I dreaded more than confronting a mad god.
But I would rather be Detective Manse living in this world and being seen for the fool I often am, than the Oracle with all of space-time under his command but understanding and being understood by no one. Choosing to live with the ugliness and embarrassment I feel, rather than concealing all weakness behind a calculated performance that would make everything safe and nothing real, severed from the present moment.
I took a deep breath as I smiled feebly at Moustache, my gaze dropping to the floor. “I’ve forgotten who you are. There’s been a lot of weirdness in my life lately, and I was hoping I would have remembered by now. I’m sorry, I’m a terrible friend.”
Moustache gazed at me, an understanding finally dawning on him as his eyes softened. “Christ, Manse. It’s Hank. Don’t tell me this happened again. I was in your wedding.”
“Right. Don’t remember that either.” I winced. Sarah was giving me an incredibly strange look. “My memories are a bit of a cheesecloth at the moment, and you might be one of the few to understand why.”
Hank shook his head at me. “You need to tell me what’s going on.”
“Yeah, sure.” I gestured out the door. “I’ll tell you all about it at home, if you want to come over.” I turned back to Sarah. “So, that would be an Officer Hank. If I can still get paid.”
Cassie came out to hug Hank as I walked up with him, the warm reception seeming to melt the outer layers of his indignation. “Hank! I was just telling Adam we should have you and Clarissa over again for dinner soon.”
“You don’t say.” Hank looked over at me. “Adam here says he has something to important to share.”
“Oh!” Cassie’s eyes lit up. “You’re here for story-time! Let me grab the little one.” A second later, the most darling creature in the entire world, the polar opposite of an eldritch monstrosity giggled in my lap, mouthing out the word “dada” as I held her close. I smiled back at her without even thinking about it, gazing into her soft brown eyes like it had been eons rather than hours since I had last seen her. If I had to re-live a moment for a subjective eternity again, I could do a lot worse than this.
Hank was staring expectantly at me, while Cassie had an encouraging smile on her face. I cleared my throat, bouncing my little girl in my lap as I did so. “So, we should really start with the Horror from Beyond Time.”
Hank shook his head. “I can get your whole life story later, right now I want to know what the hell happened with that book you were going on about today.”
“But it’s important context—” I sighed. “All right, fine, I can try to get you up to speed.” I thought for a second, trying to find the right words, how to translate the inherent strangeness of my inner world into a form that could connect with anyone else’s. “The bloke barged into my office like the sequel—and this is nothing personal Hank, it’s just the right way set the tone—the sequel that no one had asked for.”
Update: The next story in this series can be found here:
Thanks for reading Mark My Words! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.