Once again I apologise for the lateness of this chapter. The days have just seemed to fly by without my writing it, what with exams and other silly things like that.
Concerning the Oracle of Candracar… Hmm. How to put this. I seem to have personified him as a little bit of a pretentious dick. This is a liberty on my part, as you only really see the Oracle with people he likes, to whom he is generally friendly, and something tells me he probably doesn't like Phobos much. Hence the pretentious dick-ness.
Moral values seem to crop up a little in this chapter. :/ Hmm. Well, if it makes you think, then it was worth the effort it took to write it.
Chapter 9 - Isolation
Including the Cedric side story: The Love of My Life
"I told you that Candracar would not stand for it, my Prince." Cedric rasped as his platinum-haired master tore along the corridor, seething.
"We are out of their jurisdiction!" Phobos snarled, malevolence emanating from his person like tendrils of evil. "He has no right to get himself involved with us, and he has even less right being in my dimension!"
All had been going well for the sovereign of Metamoor; his subjects toiled on with their lives, not questioning the large roots that had appeared suddenly, plunging into areas of wasteland and culminating at the palace. They did not seem to realise that the mana, the very life force of the land, was being slowly drained, and, thanks to the cosmic links between the dimensions, the supply never depleted noticeably. Instead, it was shared between the worlds. What Phobos took for himself did not deprive others.
Yet, barely a week after his installation of the root-tapping system, Phobos had had a messenger from the Candracar Council of Elders - useless old fools that they were - demanding an audience between him and the Oracle. As unexpected and as impulsive as ever, Candracar had given Phobos barely enough time to work himself up into a fury, calling the meeting in the afternoon on the same day of their first correspondence. This, too, irritated the prince, who thought that the interfering morons should at least have the decency of giving him a week's notice.
This abruptness from the Candracar Council, combined with the strenuous effects that the overload of magical potential was having on his untrained body was testing his limits, and the stress had propelled him into a veritable frenzy of wrath.
"When we get to the conference room, Cedric, I don't care what you do, but if you stand too near me then on your own head be it." The thaumaturge growled through grit, bared teeth. He was quite a sight to behold; his face was white with rage, shoulders tensed and fists clenched so hard that it was almost painful. His arms were shaking.
And there, in the conference room, hovering three feet above the ground, wearing the expression of one who has been enlightened to the secrets of the multiverse, sat the source of Phobos' woes: Candracar's own Oracle.
"Get out! Get out!" Phobos shrieked, before the Oracle could give a single greeting. "You are not welcome here! You have no right to be here! Get out of my country!"
"Your country, Phobos?" The Oracle spoke quite calmly, yet he seemed almost detached from the situation, and his voice carried a cold, distant tone. "I was under the impression that you had usurped the throne from Metamoor's rightful ruler, making this country no more yours than mine."
He held up his hand before Phobos could speak the angry retort playing about his lips.
"However, I have let you take this kingdom. I have let you get away with very many things recently, Phobos, but I will no longer stand by and let you alter history. When you started to tap the land's life source for your own, that was when you became too selfish for me to ignore you any longer."
By now, Phobos was apoplectic, barely able to control his lips enough to form the words he spat, voice dripping with hatred:
"I thought it was against your laws for you to ever interfere with the worlds?"
"That is true, except in circumstances which endanger the future of the worlds. Then it is at my discretion whether Candracar intervenes or lets time run its course." The red eyes of the Oracle roved over Cedric, who was unobtrusively loitering in the corner of the room, leaning against the wall. "For example… your pet there. Picked up from the Meridian streets, yes? That was an uncharacteristic act of mercy that not even we foresaw, Phobos."
The prince, confused enough by the apparent change of subject to calm himself a little, let his gaze fall on Cedric, whose purple eyes bored fearlessly into the Oracle's.
"What of it?"
"Of course you wouldn't be aware… but in the future that we had foreseen, this child was brutally stoned to death only days after you had spoken to him, and his corpse was enough to keep a small family alive for half a month. That family, of course, has now vanished, and the child leads a prosperous life. One would have expected someone like you to put the lives of the Meridianites over a shapeshifter -"
Cedric interrupted whatever the Oracle would next have said by storming out of the room, not meeting the stares of the prince or his guest. The door slammed behind him with such force that the plaster on the frame chipped. The Oracle shook his head in what seemed to be amusement.
"Ah, and with a temper like his master's…"
"What do you expect!?" Phobos roared, wheeling around on the Oracle. "You just told him that he should have been dead months ago, that he would have been eaten, and you make snide remarks because he didn't thank you for that knowledge?"
"I would have thought he would accept the idea," the Oracle said coldly, "after his kind have eaten so many of the Meridianites. You didn't think they hated shapeshifters for nothing, did you?"
"Wh - that's not - I -" The thaumaturge spluttered, his ire rendering him incoherent. The Oracle's raised hand stopped him from speaking further.
"My point is that, while we could have fixed that mistake of yours instantly, we did not. Nor did we take action when you passed your sister off as illegitimate. Now that you take the land's power as your own, in the face of your people being so poor that they would make corpses from the street their food… that Candracar will not allow."
"There is enough mana in the infinite dimensions. What I take will make no difference. Now I must insist that you get out of my country." Phobos spoke in icy politeness, causing the Oracle to sigh.
"You refuse to see sense. I feared as much. I foresaw as much. Very well, Candracar shall withdraw from Metamoor for now, but in order to put an end to your ridiculous scheme, we shall raise a barrier between this dimension and the others."
"What will that accomplish?"
"We shall isolate Metamoor's mana flow, and that will limit it. When the mana runs out, the land will die. Perhaps the predicament your people will be in shall appeal to your sympathies and persuade you to abandon this selfish path you chose. Fare you well, then, 'til we meet next."
"What!? You - !" Phobos bared his teeth, a lance of magical energy emanating from his person as the Oracle vanished, striking the spot where the other man had been moments before. The prince howled at the empty room: "That does it! Do you hear me, Candracar!? You're no longer allied to Metamoor! Consider yourselves at war!"
While Phobos hurled his curses at an empty room, his young servant was striding out of the castle, lost in troubled thoughts. The most of his soul, corrupted by war and the hatred which he had received at the hands of the city dwellers, was indifferent about the supposed fate he would have met, but that small part of him that remained altruistic wondered, perhaps, if it would have been better for his death. After all, he reasoned with himself, his death would have meant that a family would have been bought time, perhaps enough time to find a way to survive.
The fact that his body would have been eaten bothered him more than it should have done. By nature, he was nothing like a vegetarian; he took his meat near raw, and as bloody as the cooks at the castle could be persuaded to leave it. Before he had ventured to Meridian, when he had lived in the swamp, he had survived by feeding off an assortment of small rodents and swamp reptiles. When larger beings had stumbled into his domain, it was a rare treat.
Faces of long-forgotten meals flew through his mind. Were there any city dwellers in the mass of lurden children and wading birds? It was impossible to be sure. The idea that his food could be talking to him while he ingested it had always bothered him a little, so he had tended to shut his mind to the voices and the faces of his victims. What a time to be reminded of those days now, dressed as he was in the finery of a lieutenant, and being the favourite of the prince.
When the shapeshifter again began to pay attention to his surroundings, he realised that his wandering had taken him in to Meridian city. Nearby, people were shouting something. The sound was so piercing that Cedric found himself wondering at the fact he hadn't heard it before. He made a movement that looked merely like he was wetting his lips with his tongue; he was, in fact, tasting the air. There was… panic. Fear.
Turning a corner into the main street, Cedric saw the source of the commotion. A large black beast was climbing expertly around the roofs of two terraced houses, swiping with vicious-looking claws at the terrified townspeople below.
"Lord Cedric!" One of the men had spotted him and hurried over. Cedric supposed that his reputation had preceded his arrival, as no one in the town had known his name previously. "My Lord Cedric, the monster is attacking us! Please defend Meridian!"
Cedric shrugged and tasted the air again. The panic of the people was mixed with the anger of the beast, that was expected, but there was something familiar about the taste of the monster's scent… Ah.
A hatred welled up inside the shapeshifter, bringing with it a desire to hurt these begging fools surrounding him. All altruistic feelings disappeared. They surely knew what he was, otherwise they would not ask him to single-handedly defend their city, and yet they asked him to attack one of his own after their treatment of him?
"Go home. All of you. Get away." He snapped loudly in his snake-like voice. Some of the Meridianites thankfully dropped their weapons and fled, some stopped what they were doing uncertainly, but most ignored him. Irritated, the blonde youth allowed part of the snake to show through his expression, and at his threatening roar, seeing the narrowed reptilian eyes, even the bravest of the Meridianites would have fled.
This left the young servant alone in the street with the rampaging beast. By now, it was aiming sticky webs at the fleeing townspeople, without much accuracy, and Cedric could see its tarantula-like similarities.
"Hey, why don't you come down?" He called out, as kindly as he could. "Show me a less scary form?"
The beast stopped still and Cedric smiled with grim satisfaction. No doubt the townspeople thought it was just a monster, they were too stupid to be able to spot a shapeshifter unless it changed in front of them.
"Come on." He tried again. "I won't hurt you. I'm one too, you see -"
"LIAR!" The furry mass before him screamed, throwing itself from the building to land straight in front of the unflinching Cedric. "They called you 'Lord'! You have rich clothes! They wouldn't let one be a Lord!"
"I promise you, I am." Cedric spoke calmly, trying to ignore the smell of rotting meat on the other shapeshifter's breath. It seemed that this one was a very recent refugee from the swamp. "A snake."
"Snake? Pah!" The spider-like creature in front of him spat on the ground. "Snakes!"
"And I see that you are a spider." The young lieutenant continued casually. "That form is good for the boondocks, but when you're living here in the city, you should take on a less conspicuous appearance, otherwise they will only hate you more."
"Hah! What do I care if they hate me? More of them running away just makes for an easy kill and easier prey…"
Cedric realised that this new shapeshifter was coping with the estrangement from the community in exactly the opposite way he had done. While he had adopted a humanoid form straight away, and struggled to keep a low profile, this newcomer revelled in the panic that its monstrous spider form instilled in the townspeople.
"Even so, when the prince learns his people are being terrorised, he will send someone to destroy you. Better to live in peace, don't you think?"
"Phobos is a -"
The spider was interrupted as Cedric's hand grabbed its arm with lightning speed, holding painfully tight.
"Insult Phobos and I promise you that it will be the last thing you ever do." He warned. The other shapeshifter pulled its arm away almost sulkily, speaking in a mocking voice.
"What's a rich snob like Phobos done to get such loyalty from a shapeshifter? Gave you those pretty clothes?"
"No." Cedric responded firmly. "He adopted me from the very predicament that you're in now and he gave me hope."
It was that statement that seemed to be the key. The spider in front of Cedric began to transform, reverting into what seemed to be its humanoid form. Cedric stared as the change took place.
The first thing he noticed was that it was a she.
She was not pretty, as standards went, with shaggy, unkempt black hair and piercing blue eyes. However, she had a light dabbling of freckles over her nose which was almost… cute, and Cedric caught himself swallowing. It's because she's the only other shapeshifter you've met, he told himself, that's why you're awkward.
"So show me this amazing love for shapeshifters you claim he has." She spoke, and her voice was much softer now she was a humanoid form. "Give me a home too!"