|The climb up the mountain was harder now. The Hyper-Cats had fled,
but so had the horses. Conan walked silently, alert to the forest noises.
Colin walked slowly, leaning on his staff; his breath was ragged. And so
they continued until the last gleam of twilight found them at the entrance
to the cave of the OCLC, the most powerful of bibliographic oracles.
The great stone doors were closed. No acolyte collected offerings by
the entrance. Colin balanced himself with the staff and sank onto the acolyte's
"What now?" he said, wearily, "wait 'til dawn?"
"No," Conan tried the doors with no result.
"I don't think they'll have left the key under a stone," Colin leaned
his staff against the wall behind him.
The doors swung inward on silent hinges. Colin started and grabbed the
staff. The doors closed again. Among the vines on the wall behind Colin's
seat they found a small insignia. Conan pressed it. The doors swung fully
open and he smiled.
"There must be guards," Colin gripped the staff, "who knows what magic
protects an oracle?"
"I fear neither magic nor monster," Conan said and walked through the
"No," Colin sighed, "I don't suppose you do."
They chose a taper from the box by the door and lit it. The stark entrance
corridor led to a large, circular room. Its mirrored walls multiplied their
tiny light into a yellow glow.
"This must be the main audience chamber," Colin whispered, "I've read
"Hallo!" Conan shouted, "Conan the Librarian seeks an audience with
"It is downtime," a booming voice replied, "return in the morning."
"Probably a ScreenSaver." Colin said, "we should do as it says."
Conan did not move. "Our business is urgent. We have come a long and
hazardous way. And it is said the Oracle is never offline."
"Only the High Priestess may interface with the OCLC. Leave now or face
the wrath of the Guardian."
The room was suddenly filled with a blue-white light. The mirrored walls
encircling them were bright with an ever-changing pattern of swirling swords,
behind which a dark figure moved.
"Blimey!" said Colin.
Conan stood his ground and drew his knife.
The Guardian seemed to melt in and out of the mirrors. The constantly
changing pattern behind him camouflaged the movement of his sword as he
attacked. In one stroke, Colin's staff was dashed to the ground and he
fled. For all Conan's skill, his knife was no match for the Guardian's
sword. He, too, looked for the door, but it was gone. The Guardian's thunderous
laughter filled the room.
Retreating, Conan nearly fell over Colin's staff. He picked it up and
parried the next trust. As he stepped aside, the end of the staff struck
one of the panels. At the sound of breaking glass the Guardian cried out
sharply, then raised his sword overhead for a downward stroke. Conan sidestepped
and swung his staff at the next panel, smashing the mirror. The Guardian
screamed and staggered.
Conan moved quickly now, leaving the Guardian no time to recover. As
the last mirror broke, the Guardian vanished. Conan reached down and picked
up the fallen sword.
"Well done," said a familiar voice, "I see you still have all the bull-headed
persistence, and dumb luck of the practitioners of the Public Arts."
He looked up at the figure standing beyond the circle of broken glass
© 1994, by Hadley V. Baxendale