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vol vi, issue 1 < ToC
The Oracle
by
James Rumpel
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Swiss ArmyThe Toad
Mars LanderStone
The Oracle
by
James Rumpel
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Swiss Army
Mars Lander




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The Toad
Stone
The Oracle
by
James Rumpel
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Swiss Army The Toad
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The Toad
Stone
The Oracle
 by James Rumpel
The Oracle
 by James Rumpel
Over one hundred villagers lined the path to the city gate, cheering for Logard as he began the arduous ascent to the Oracle. Some in the crowd held crude, hand-painted signs wishing him luck. Others waved banners from the second-floor windows of modest wooden houses. A group of children ran ahead of Logard, spreading acorns along the dirt road, a reference to the well-known Oracle quotation: “Wisdom is the nut that the squirrel puts in its cheeks.”

Logard walked gingerly toward the gate. He knew the children meant well. He tried not to show how painful it felt when the acorns slipped between his toes or found the space between his heel and sandal. He did his best not to limp.

It would have been so much simpler had the Mayor let him leave in secret. He had no qualms about taking on this important mission, but being the center of attention for this spectacle was nearly unbearable.

The Mayor waited for him at the gate. Surely, he was planning to make some sort of speech. Somehow, Logard found the strength to smile. He waved to a little girl standing nearby. She grinned as she heaved an unshelled walnut which bounced, unceremoniously, off Logard’s head.

The Mayor motioned for Logard to stand beside him. The city leader’s bright yellow robe was the only splash of color in the entire crowd; everyone else was dressed in simple brown tunics.

“Citizens of Rolin,” shouted the mayor, “thank you for coming to help send our brave emissary on his way. Logard Cormin has a very important and dangerous mission ahead of him. In my youth, I made the same trek. As the only living person to have ever been to the Oracle, I can tell you the path is not easy. Because of my journey, our village has thrived for decades. No one has taken on this quest in over thirty years, but these are desperate times. As the Oracle told me personally, when I made the climb, ‘Nothing is free, except that which costs nothing.’ Logard is our nothing.” The crowd erupted in a roar of support. A few people chanted Logard’s name, only to let the chant slowly fade when no one joined in.

“The attacks from the south have been more common of late. We’ve tried everything we can think of to put an end to them. There is no negotiating with Bromil. We may be on the verge of war. The Oracle will have a solution. The cost is high, but it will be worth it.”

Logard checked his side to make sure the pack strapped there was secure. The three largest jewels from the city treasury were inside. He hoped the Mayor would not tell anyone what he was carrying. The fewer people aware of the tribute the better.

The Mayor continued, “I have total faith that Logard will complete his task and return with crucial advice from the Oracle. I wish that I could, once again, be the hero but my age and injuries prevent me from, once again, saving the village. Yes, Logard will be a nearly adequate substitute. As the Book of Oracle Wisdom says, ‘If your bucket has a leak, pour faster.’”

This time, the mayor’s pause was met with confused silence.

Undaunted, he continued, “So, as Logard departs on his hazardous trip, let’s send him off with our cheers and well-wishes. He may not survive. It takes a very special person to live through the trials as I did. I have one final piece of advice. It’s another of the messages the Oracle told me when I made the journey. ‘Always enjoy stubbing your toe.’”

This time, the silence only lasted a moment before transforming into shouts of encouragement.

Logard smiled, waved, and ducked a barrage of nuts. Two of the village constables opened the large wooden gate, revealing the sun-drenched countryside.

Limping, ever so slightly, Logard began his journey.

*     *     *
The first hour was an easy stroll. The area immediately outside of the village walls was well kept and heavily traveled. The smooth path snaked southward. Smaller paths branched off in every direction, heading to the fields and mines that were so vital to Rolin’s survival.

At the edge of the valley, however, when the trail started to ascend into the surrounding mountains, things changed. No one from Rolin traveled this section. The people of the village had no desire or need to leave the valley. They were aware of other villages in other valleys but were content to leave them be and hoped they would do the same to them. The trail into the mountain was overgrown and difficult to find. Logard found himself frequently referring to the ancient map the Mayor had provided.

At noon, he surmised that he was near the entrance to the tunnel, the next leg of his journey. After an hour searching for the entrance, Logard decided he needed a break. Sitting on a nearby boulder, Logard opened his pack and took out a small pouch containing dried fruits and nuts.

As he ate, he contemplated his difficulty finding the entrance. He wasn’t an expert on the wisdom of the Oracle, though he knew the sayings well enough to have been elected to the city council before his twentieth birthday. Somewhere in the Oracle’s teaching was a tidbit of knowledge that would help him.

The first quote to jump to his mind was “The smallest egg in the nest takes up the least room.” That could be a clue. With renewed vigor, he resumed his search. He carefully perused a section of rock wall that seemed to match the markings on his map. After careful consideration, he located what he believed to be the smallest rock, a pebble no bigger than a robin egg, and plucked it from its resting place.

Nothing happened. Assuming he had not chosen the smallest rock, he tried again. After a dozen failures, he snatched up his new smallest rock, a stone the size of an infant’s head. Again, the tunnel did not reveal itself. As he looked for another smallest rock, his heard noises from above. He glanced upward to see six men coming down the mountain. Their progress was slow. This far up the mountain, the path was almost undetectable. The men were forced to concentrate on each precarious step.

Logard dove behind a large boulder. He watched as the men steadily drew nearer. They were soldiers from the village of Bromil. Each wore a green uniform that would meld into the background of the heavily vegetated areas near the village.

This was a raiding party. Bromil had been sending forces to Rolin with increasing frequency. Until now, they had been satisfied with stealing crops or damaging wells. The Mayor firmly believed that a larger attack was coming: one that would attempt to steal the city’s collection of jewels and diamonds.

The young adventurer considered his options. Confronting the soldiers would be suicidal. Should he try to outrun them to the village? This was not a large raiding party. The town was not in immediate danger. He decided to remain hidden and let them pass. Once they were gone, he would continue his mission. After all, the Oracle had a saying, “A screaming man is heard, but a silent man is sometimes sleeping.”

It seemed to take forever for the soldiers to pass. Once the enemy was long gone, Logard stood and sighed heavily. Noticing that he was still holding the last of his smallest stones, he tossed it aside. The sound made when the rock bounced off the side of the mountain seemed odd. It was more than a dull thud, there was a hollow echo.

Rushing to where the rock hit, Logard began feeling around. He soon discovered that a thin piece of shale had been leaned against the cliff. Rocks were stacked around it and pebbles filled in gaps. Something was being hidden. It only took a moment to remove the rocks and slide the shale doorway aside. Logard had found the entrance.

He took the small torch the Mayor had suggested he bring and lit it. The Mayor had said that the rules of the Oracle prevented him from giving too many details about the journey, but that did not keep him from giving a few hints.

Logard thanked the Oracle for providing him the wisdom to find the doorway as he began the next phase of his journey.

*     *     *
The trip through the tunnel was not nearly as dangerous as the Mayor had implied. A smooth path wound upward. There were no deep crevices to be jumped or sharp stalactites dropping from above. Instead of huge, vicious monsters, there were only a few small rats that scurried away from the torch’s glow.

The Mayor may have exaggerated the difficulty of the quest, but the importance was undeniable. If the Oracle did not tell him how to defeat the Bromil, his village was doomed.

During a short break, Logard checked the jewels in his pack. They were the price of a meeting with the Oracle. He did not completely understand the value of gems. Sure, they were nice to look at, but they had no real useful application. You couldn’t eat them. You couldn’t build much with them. Maybe you could stick the largest ones together with mud and make a wall, but regular stones worked better and were easier to come by.

Logard sighed. Who was he to question the ways of the Oracle? He double-checked to make sure his pack was secure and continued on his way.

*     *     *
The black door that blocked Logard’s way was like none he’d ever seen before. It was perfectly smooth and cool to the touch. The Mayor had told him the secret to opening the door involved the set of glowing numbers on the wall next to it. As odd as it sounded, he needed to touch the numbers in a specific order.

The Oracle had once said, “A doorway is a wall with a hole.”

Certain that the saying was a clue, Logard pressed the shiny numbers based on the number of letters in each word of the saying. The door did not open.

Maybe if he tried numbers one greater than the letters in each word. After that attempt failed, he tried another pattern without success. Finally, he just pounded his fist against the display and was rewarded with a soft rumbling sound as the door slid open, revealing a sun-soaked platform.

Logard hesitated. Everything he had encountered until the door had been within his realm of experience. This was different. How had anyone managed to build the expansive flat surface that lay before him? It didn’t matter. The Oracle was powerful and capable of many things he would never understand. With a deep breath, he stepped into the sunshine.

He was immediately struck by how cold and windy it was. The Mayor should have told him to bring a coat.

The Oracle was nowhere to be seen. The platform, twice the size of the largest garden in Rolin, was empty with one exception. On the far side was a large altar.

While walking toward the altar, Logard noticed that there was a giant, red cross painted in the center of the platform. He looked for other symbols or messages but found none.

The altar appeared to be made of the same smooth material as the door. This time, however, there were no glowing numbers. It was nearly as tall as Logard, coming up to his shoulders. The Mayor had told him that he would not have to ask a question or say what problem the village faced. All he needed to do was present the jewels.

He pulled a large ruby, the size of a potato, from his pack. “Here it is, Oracle,” he shouted, holding the gem high above his head.

Nothing.

“Oracle! Where are you?”

Logard walked to the edge of the platform. One look was enough to verify that he was on one of the highest peaks of the mountain. He walked the circumference of the platform, looking for any sign of the Oracle.

Eventually, he returned to the altar. It took a great deal of willpower to resist the temptation to heave the ruby over the edge. It would probably be a good idea to set it down before he acted upon that urge. He placed the red gem on top of the altar.

Instantly, there was a sound similar to the one the door had made. An opening formed on the top of the altar. It expanded in size until the ruby dropped within. As quickly as it had appeared, the opening disappeared.

A deep voice came from the box.

“It is better to put your hand in a sack of dung than to dump the sack on your head.”

Logard pulled some parchment and a quill from his pack. He quickly wrote down the Oracle’s wisdom. It didn’t make sense to him, but he knew the Mayor would understand.

He pulled an emerald from his pack and placed it on the box. It, too, was consumed.

The same voice called, “It is only fair to let your enemy use your bathroom.”

The diamond yielded a third message.

“A broken bridge is still a bridge, just useless.”

“Thank you, Oracle,” said Logard as he recorded the messages. The Oracle had spoken. Now it was up to the people to use the wisdom.

*     *     *
The Mayor stood to address the four council members sitting around the table.

“Logard has successfully completed his hazardous mission,” he began.

“It wasn’t that diffi . . .”

“Don’t be modest, Logard. I, and only I, know how trying that journey is. There is no need for you to go into detail. Besides, we have much more important things to discuss.”

The Mayor handed each council member a parchment with the Oracle’s messages.

“We managed to survive the last Bromil raid. They are getting more daring. This time, they stole much of our winter supply of carrots. I assure you, they are attempting to weaken us before launching a more furious attack.”

Everyone on the council nodded in agreement.

“We have very little time to interpret the Oracle’s advice and prepare our defenses. Does anyone have any idea what the messages mean?”

Ambed Quitlow raised her hand. “The one about the bridge has to mean that if a bridge is broken you can’t use it.”

“Obviously,” shouted Bor Grat, “but how does that help us?”

“Maybe we need to destroy a bridge between here and Bromil,” suggested Ambed.

“There are no bridges between here and Bromil,” said the Mayor.

“But there is a path down the mountain,” added Logard. “It’s not much of a path, but I saw Bromil soldiers walking down it.”

“Perhaps we need to break that path,” said another council member, Larsh Hamlin.

“How do you break a path?” yelled Bor Grat.

“We could place traps. You know, nooses or tripwires,” suggested Logard.

The Mayor held up a hand to silence the debate. “That would not completely stop an attack, but it might slow them down or weaken them. Very good. What about the other messages?”

“Well, I was thinking about the bathroom one,” said Logard. “Why would your enemy want to use your bathroom?”

“Because they have to . . . you know . . .” answered Ambed.

“But to use an enemy’s, it would have to be an emergency, not just normal bathroom usage.”

“What are you getting at?” asked the Mayor.

“I think you would have to be very ill to use your enemy’s bathroom,” explained Logard. “Maybe the message means we should poison the Bromil. Get them so sick that they can’t fight.”

“But how do we do that?” screamed Bor Grat.

The Mayor’s eyes brightened. “When the last raid took our crops, witnesses saw them eating some of the carrots while they loaded them into sacks. What if we poisoned our carrots?”

“But that’s hurting ourselves. We wouldn’t have any carrots this winter.”

“That’s true, Larsh,” said the Mayor, “but sometimes you have to make sacrifices to avoid worse consequences.”

Logard burst into laughter.

“What’s so funny?” roared Bor Grat.

“What the Mayor just said. Isn’t that the same as saying, ‘It is better to put your hand in a sack of dung than to dump the sack on your head’?”

*     *     *
While not a complete rout, the defeat of the Bromil was undeniable. When the invading force raced back toward the mountain, it was clear that the confrontation had left a bad taste in their mouths, both literally and figuratively.

The Mayor and Logard watched the enemy retreat. Many were still doubled over in pain, vomiting as they ran.

“Will they come back?” asked Logard.

“They might,” answered the Mayor. “Next time we will be even more ready for them. We will set more traps.”

“I still think it would be a good idea to make the path down the mountain impassible. We could start an avalanche or build a wall.”

“That’s a good idea. After all, the Oracle said we should break the bridge. You know, Logard, it would be nice if we had a better idea of what we should do. I think you need to take another dangerous trip to the Oracle.”

“You know the journey isn’t dangerous.”

The Mayor smiled, “And we’re going to keep that between us.”

*     *     *
The shuttlecraft sat in the middle of the platform, dead center on the “X” that marked the landing spot.

Officer John Howell collected a handful of magnificent jewels from the receptacle. “It doesn’t look like this tribe has used their computer as much as the others. There are only a dozen in here.”

“I’m not surprised,” said his partner, Officer Maggie Rungren, as she inspected the computer. “This thing is all out of whack. I don’t think it’s spouted anything but gibberish for the last century or so. No wonder the people of this valley have developed so slowly.”

“Maybe the Administrator wants it that way. Every experiment is supposed to have a control group,” suggested John.

“Yeah, I suppose that could be. I’m still going to bring it to the attention of the Administrator. I don’t think it’s right to experiment on aliens, especially ones that are so similar to us. It’s unethical to purposely hinder the development of this group.”

“You do what you want,” answered John. “I’m just going to do my job. After all, you know what they say, ‘You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs.’”