Oracle Stones by Dark Side Luke

This story, in its entirety, belongs to the author Dark Side Luke. If you wish to use this story on a website of your own making, please contact the author at . Thank you.

This story is set in the same galaxy as a previous story of mine, Evolution, so please refer to that work for explanations as to why everyone's running around with swords or who the Watch are and whatnot. Thanks. Evolution needs a serious re-write, so please forgive it for the lack of character development and plot…and typos.

I've been away from Fictionpress for a long time, but I haven't quit writing! I think people who have read my works before will see a definite improvement over my previous stories. If you think I could use more help, please drop me a line in a kindly-worded review. I'll accept flames, but I won't think much of them.

Thank you for reading.

The merchant Halas couldn't help but stare at the large display case in the waiting room of the Frost Castle on Severath, a planet that was dominated by snow and chill, biting winds. The thick glass of the display case looked like it had been forged of clear sheets of pure ice, with not a single defect to be seen by the naked eye. But Halas was not impressed by the glass, so much as what it was displaying underneath.

Sitting on plush velvet cushions were six jewels of varying size and color, all polished into perfect spheres by expert craftsman thousands of years ago. Each jewel had a thin black mark in its center, resembling a slit pupil and from whence the jewels got their name -- the Cat's Eye jewels. Halas was but a simple merchant, dealing in somewhat rare spices and a mere novice when it came to appraising such stones but he knew -- without a shadow of a doubt -- that these stones were of incalculable worth since they had no equals in the entire galaxy.

Halas noticed that the guard beside the display case had tightened the grip on his spear and placed a warning hand on the stun blaster at his belt. Only then did Halas realize he had been leaning toward the display case from the small couch he had been sitting on, stretching closer and closer to the jewels to get a better look. Red faced, he sat back on the couch and tried to inspect the waiting room instead, anything to keep his eyes busy and away from the enticing stones.

The waiting room was grand, just like the rest of Frost Castle and the walled town that surrounded it. Somehow, despite vicious snowstorms, yeti attacks and barbarian hordes, a civilization had sprung out of the permafrost and managed to prosper. Frost Castle's main trade was a rare metal found deep under the snow that could be fashioned into strong weapons and impenetrable armor. Warriors with the money paid dearly for a small pair of gauntlets made of this metal.

And it showed. With the money they received by shipping the processed metal off-planet, Frost Castle bought the finest luxuries for the town and the palace. The waiting room had extremely comfortable furniture, rare art from some of the galaxy's finest painters decorating the walls and even refreshments for waiting guests sitting on a nearby lacquered table. Halas was far too nervous to even think of eating at this time.

He fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat, drawing the attention of the single guard once again but he tried his best to ignore him. Halas was scheduled to meet with Frost Castle's king, to try and convince him to buy spices for his food. He had managed to get his hands on some golo spice -- a spice that was popular with the ruling nobles of Coryr. Halas hoped and prayed that the spice would be just as welcomed here.

He rehearsed everything he would say, but found that as soon as the words formed in his mind, he immediately forgot them and could not force any sounds out of his mouth. He had dealt with nobles before -- even a queen once -- but he had never been much of a public speaker. His wares did the talking for him. In a profession that dealt exclusively with people, he had to admit that he hated talking to them.

As he tried to think up an improvised speech, his eyes wandered back to the Cat's Eye jewels and they started to fill his thoughts. He had heard many rumors about the jewels since landing on the planet, mostly about their value -- which ranged from millions of credits to billions -- but also that they had special, almost magical, properties. In his many journeys, Halas had seen many strange things, so magical jewels did not surprise him. What did surprise him was what type of magic they were thought to possess: the ability to see the future.

If I had one of those now, he thought with a pout, then I would know how this meeting would go. If I saw a dismal failure, I could leave here now. Maybe the duke of Tinalia would like to spice up his food...

The double doors leading to the castle's throne room burst open and one of the doors thumped into Halas' knee, sending an electrical surge of pain up his leg. He gasped in pain and grasped the bruised appendage with both of his hands, leaning forward as if to protect himself from further assault. He glared indignantly at the man who had just exited the throne room, striding briskly across the waiting room to the exit. His face was mottled with barely concealed frustration and he breathed in shallow gasps, trying to calm himself. His hands were balled into fists at his sides, so tight that his knuckles cracked at the strain. Before he left the waiting room, he turned and stared at the closing throne room doors with a narrowed gaze, clenching his jaw to keep from shouting obscenities.

When the doors closed and cut off his view to the grand room beyond, the man -- a thin, dark-skinned man with deep-set, staring eyes -- turned his narrowed gaze to Halas, who quickly looked away and pretended his knee was no longer bothering him.

"Those fools won't buy anything today," the man muttered. "You'd be better off trying to sell your wares to a yeti!"

"What...?" Halas said, dumbstruck. Mere moments ago, he had been sitting, sick with worry, and now he was practically being threatened by this odd man. "What's wrong?"

"If they won't buy these -- " the man reached into his pockets and produced a fist full of glittering gems" -- they won't buy anything!"

Halas inspected the jewels from a distance and noted the many flaws. Black spots dotted the otherwise clear crystal. Compared to the Cat's Eye jewels, they were mere pieces of broken glass. The man clenched his fist again and pocketed the jewels. Without another word, he pivoted on his heel and threw open the door with a crash, striding quickly down the marble hallway and turning a corner until he was out of sight.

The single guard by the jewel case turned to Halas with a contemptuous smile playing on his lips. "His Highness, King Chys, will see you now," he said scornfully.

The doors to the throne room opened at some unseen signal and Halas quickly stood up to avoid being hit again, sending a twinge of pain up his leg and causing him to suck in his breath between his teeth. The doors opened much slower this time, giving him a chance to quickly groom himself by running a beefy hand over his thinning brown hair and down the front of his wrinkled button-down shirt. No matter how much time he was given, he doubted he would ever have looked presentable and certainly not impressive. He was short, overweight and carried the miles of his travels heavily on his stooped shoulders. Satisfied that he would look as good as was possible for him, he stepped over the threshold and entered the throne room.

The first thing he noticed was the ceiling, jutting high into the air so that it was lost in the darkness. He reminded himself of where he was and quickly stopped gawking up into the air like some peasant at market. He strode forward confidently, his footfalls echoing loudly and his eyes scanning the walls, taking in the pieces of artwork and the torches set at regular intervals. The flames in the sconces burned blue, warming the large room but giving it a chilled light, appropriate for the meeting place of the rulers of Frost Castle. Pillars were lined at regular intervals beside the walls as well, but they, too, were lost in the darkness high up above him.

Directly across from the throne room entrance were the thrones themselves -- three huge and uncomfortable-looking chairs made of transparent crystal. Two of the thrones were occupied. One held a small woman struggling through her teen years, a bored expression on her porcelain-smooth face. She toyed idly with a lock of her long black hair, staring into space with her auburn eyes, a slight pout to her rosebud lips.

Halas turned his attention from the girl to the man sitting on the largest of the three thrones. Sitting regally and stiff-backed was a man clad in heavy red robes, his deep-set, half-lidded eyes inspecting Halas. His face was deeply lined and waxen, his jaw set determinedly. The jewel-encrusted gold crown on his thin grey hair looked a bit too heavy for the older man, but he showed no discomfort at wearing it. Neither the man nor the girl said anything at his approach, giving Halas a moment to sort through his thoughts and inspect the final throne.

The throne had a black bolt of silk over its seat and a crown similar to the old man's sitting on top of that, only on a smaller and less grand scale. Upon landing on Severath, Halas had noticed several of the people milling around the marketplace wearing black bands of mourning around their arms. According to the townspeople, the queen of Frost Castle had recently passed away.

Remembering himself, Halas bowed deeply to both the man and the girl. The girl stirred slightly at the merchant's movements, glancing down at him momentarily but dismissed him just as easily to return to her own little world. The old man remained immobile, like an ice sculpture.

"King Chys," Halas greeted. "Princess Cassara." He bowed again. "I am the merchant Halas." And that was it. That was all he could think to say. For a panic-stricken moment, he forgot why he was there, why he had even come to the planet. If he hadn't managed to say his own name, he probably would have forgotten that as well. He felt perspiration beading on his forehead and dampen his hair. A single rivulet ran down his cheek and was absorbed by his shirt's collar. He swallowed but found an obstructing lump in his throat.

"Welcome to my home," King Chys intoned deeply, more out of habit than by any actual welcome. He didn't look like he wanted guests at that moment. Probably still grieving over the loss of his wife, Halas thought. Could I use that to my advantage? I could if I could speak!

"I bring spices from far-off lands," Halas blurted suddenly, once again stirring the princess out of her reverie. With a sigh, she leaned back in her throne and watched Halas, inspecting him like one would a foreign species of insects: interesting, but inferior to her.

Halas blotted at the sweat beading on his forehead with the back of his sleeve, raising his arm and revealing the perspiration gathering under his arms. King Chys quirked an eyebrow, intrigued by the merchant's discomfort, but said nothing.

"Perhaps you've heard of golo spice?" Halas asked. Suddenly shouting like that had removed the lump in his throat and allowed him to speak more clearly, even if his voice did crack with every other word. He would have to remember that trick in future business deals.

"No," the king said, the single word hanging dead in the air between them.

Halas felt the lump returning to his throat but quickly swallowed his back. His tongue felt like sandpaper and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He tried to smile disarmingly, but his face was pale and sweaty and gave him a crazed, almost feral look. Things were not going so well.

He hadn't wanted to admit it before, but if he did not manage to seal this deal and bring in some cash, he would probably have to give up his business as a merchant, maybe even sell his ship -- as dilapidated as it was -- in order to fill his belly and keep his head dry (or at least warm if he was stuck on this ice cube). He might have to work as a laborer, a life he had been trying to escape for years. Hard work scared him. With the threat of physical labor hanging over his head, he renewed his efforts to sell his spices.

"Golo spice," Halas explained, "can take any ordinary food and make it one thousand times better. It draws out...flavors...and..." He faltered again, frantically searching his mind for reasons to sell this expensive spice.

"How does it work?" the king asked in monotone.

"Work?" Halas asked, dumbfounded. He caught himself before the king could repeat his question. "It works very well."

"How?" King Chys' voice took on a note of exasperation, the first emotion Halas had heard from the man.

"Uh...Chemical imbalances...draw out...um...flavors...It makes any ordinary food a thousand times better." He smiled again and shrugged. He could kiss his ship goodbye, as well as his days as a traveling salesman -- he could put as many fancy titles on his name as he wanted, but he knew he was nothing more than the galaxy's poorest salesman.

The king sat straighter in his throne and glared down at Halas with icy eyes. "I have employed some of the galaxy's finest chefs, from planets like Aoerwin and Ranobrennen. Each one makes meals that are worthy for emperors. They use the finest ingredients and the most sophisticated cooking techniques." He leaned forward and Halas took an involuntary step back. "I do not eat ordinary meals." He leaned back again, his fingers drumming on the armrest of his throne, his fingernails clattering against the crystal.

In that moment, Halas saw the king for what he really was: a sad, lonely man, trying to fill the void his wife had left with meaningless trinkets and baubles. No doubt, before she had died, the king would have bought anything for his queen, having goods and services shipped in from across the galaxy. No price would be too high to pay to keep his wife happy. And now that she was no longer there, King Chys bought whatever he wanted to remind him of better days with his wife.

His daughter saw this too and leaned over, laying a long-fingered hand lightly on the king's arm, patting the robe softly, gently. King Chys reached over and clasped Cassara's hand comfortingly.

"What else do you have?" Chys asked suddenly, shattering the silence.

Halas started, jerking out of his study of father and daughter. "I have..." He hung his head in despair. "Nothing."

"Then have a nice day." King Chys turned to Cassara, still holding her hand, and helped her from the throne. In reality, she was helping him more than he was helping her. When he sat, he looked proud and regal, strong and sturdy. On his feet, however, he stood hunched, his eyes and face tired. "Come, Cassara," he said, his voice betraying none of his years. "Your fiancée wishes to dine with us tonight and you must look your best."

Halas lifted his head slightly and saw that Cassara would rather look anything but her best for her fiancée. She kept her chin high, however, and stepped down from the throne, following her father towards the door to their private quarters.

"But..." Halas said softly, the word echoing in the grand room. It reached the ears of the king and princess, both of whom looked back at the merchant.

"Yes?" the king asked. "Do you have more to say? Or were you just hoping to waste more of my time?"

Halas saw why the last merchant had been so angry when he left. He promised not to let his anger get the best of him, but it was either that or his nervousness and anxiety. He saw he had nothing to be nervous about now, as he had just been committed to a prison sentence on this planet.

"I'm doomed," he said, his voice filled with sorrow. "I'll have to sell my ship. I'll be stuck on this planet for the rest of my life. I'll never be able to travel, to go anywhere...I'll never be able to sell my spices again!"

The king stared at him for a long moment, while the princess kept her gaze steady on the floor. "Welcome to my kingdom," he said at last. Without another word, the two of them swept through the door to their quarters with imperial grace, letting it shut softly behind them. Halas stared at the door for a long, long moment, his anger boiling his blood and setting a fire behind his eyes that would have melted the permafrost surrounding the castle.

"So be it," he muttered. He pivoted on his heel and strode toward the double doors to the waiting room. He tried to sort his thoughts as he walked -- or rather, limped -- away. First, he would have to sell his ship, which had been his home for the past five years. Then, he'd have to find a place to stay -- maybe rent an apartment or a hotel room. Then a job...

No! He would have none of it! If the king couldn't respect his people, then Halas didn't want to be one of his people. He was determined to get off this planet and continue to scratch a living out of the galaxy in the worst way possible. Being a merchant wasn't cutting it, anymore. He'd get out of here; get a new job...maybe on a pirate vessel, if it came down to that. Space pirates were all too common around these parts.

He entered the waiting room without remembering when he had pushed the doors open. He looked behind him, where they were just now shutting and locking with an almost inaudible click. He was about to look forward again and keep walking, right through the marble hallway, straight to the snow fields where he had parked his ship, when the glass case holding the Cat's Eye jewels caught his eyes. He took a step towards them before the spear of the guard came down in front of him.

"Not another step," the guard warned, his features stern and seemingly carved from stone.

"I was..." An idea came to Halas just then. His lip quirked in a smile but he quickly smothered it. "I was looking at the case. What's that made of?"

"Plastene," the guard explained. "It's our main export. Hard as granite and twice as resistant to breaking. Makes for great armor and weapons. People kill for weapons made of plastene."

Halas looked from the plastene case to the guard, who was now looking quite proud to be talking about the most durable alloy in the galaxy -- an alloy that was made in his home. Halas noted the helmet the guard wore.

"Say, is that helmet's visor made of plastene too?" he asked.

"Yeah." The man seemed quite friendly, now that he was talking to a person interested in his equipment and its manufacturing. He propped his spear against the wall and used both hands to remove the helmet, handing it to Halas. Halas took it and hefted it in his hand, feeling the weight and inspecting the clear visor. "Not an imperfection on it," the guard noted. "King Chys gives his soldiers only the best."

Without a moment of warning, Halas heaved the helmet over his shoulder and brought it forward with devastating force. The guard managed to twist to one side but the helmet's visor crashed into his temple. His body crumpled under his own weight as he lost consciousness, clattering to the stone floor. His foot jostled his spear and it fell forward, hitting him lightly on the back. Halas inspected the helmet, noting that not a scratch marred its surface, before he tossed it on the nearby couch.

"Too bad King Chys doesn't train his soldiers to be the best," Halas muttered sarcastically.

He reached toward the plastene case but suddenly stopped. What had he just done? He had assaulted a royal soldier! He had been on enough planets to know what the punishment for that was...and none of them included jail time. Death was one of the kinder punishments. He retracted his hands and wrung them together in apprehension, before he heard someone repeating "Oh, my," over and over again. For a brief, heart-stopping moment, he thought he had been caught until he realized that the voice was his own.

He shook his hands out and closed his eyes, taking several deep breaths. He was committed now. He had to keep on this course or he would regret it for the rest of his life -- however long that may be.

"Okay," he muttered. "Okay, okay, okay, okay." He opened his eyes and saw the Cat's Eye jewels staring at him accusingly. He hesitated a moment more before he reached over and pushed on the plastene case.

What if it's trapped? he wondered, too late. The case moved back a few inches with no visible aftereffects. A silent alarm? He would have to act fast, then. Unless that stuck-up king didn't think anyone would have the guts to steal his precious jewels. In that case, he deserved this!

Without a second thought, he heaved back on the case and it spilled to the floor with a horrendous crash that rivaled the greatest commotion an earthquake could produce. With a startled squeal, he grabbed at the jewels, quickly thrusting them into his pockets.

He was about to reach for the last jewel, when he heard the voices from the throne room. He froze, turning towards the locked door, his eyes wide in terror, and his face devoid of color.

"Sounds like it came from the waiting room," a youthful male voice was saying.

"Bah," an older man snorted. "Probably Rustik fell asleep on the job."

Both men laughed.

Forgetting the last jewel, Halas ran in a limping lope for the door that led to the marble hall, bumping into a serving maid and sending her crashing to the floor. Halas didn't stop for a moment, not even to look back, as he heard the throne room door open and someone shout, "Rustik!"

And then he was bursting through the main door, the chill late-afternoon wind throwing snowflakes against his sweat-streaked face and chilling him to the marrow.

He ran to his ship, his full jacket pockets bouncing with every stumbling step.