Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
Around the Bonfire
Raven soared above the mighty Susitna River and forest-covered ridges that stretched into rolling hills backed by mountains; he was surveying his domain. The land lay respectfully quiet as Sun dropped low over the western edge, blazing the sky with iridescent pink, orange, and violet behind him. Gradually, the radiant colors faded and the late summer underbrush under towering birch and spruce forest darkened in the diminishing light. The return of night after the long daylight of summer was heralded in by the appearance of First Star.
Raven flew toward the east, following the creek to the bears’ favorite fishing spot. Here, the creek bed widened and the shallow waters rippled over the rocky stream bed. His favorite perch, an old birch with a broken top, conveniently overlooked the bounty of tasty tidbits of spawned-out salmon left by the gluttonous bears. Soon, the salmon run would be over and the bears would move into the hills to hibernate, but Raven did not stop to feast. He knew where even more tantalizing tidbits could be found.
Rahlys stepped back from the painting she had been working on, pushing long strands of darkening honey brown hair that used to be blond, now starting to gray, behind her shoulder. With stoic seriousness, she studied her work critically and smiled with satisfaction at the surprised expressions on the black bear and young girl’s faces as the two painted figures spot one another across a bountiful crop of berries.
Around the room, rich-with-life paintings depicting scenes of rustic living covered the walls of her log home. Sturdy, stout, home-made counters, cabinets, tables, chairs, and a day bed made from local birch comfortably furnished the large single room downstairs. A stairway, nearly blocked by an overflow of boxes filled with canned goods and painting supplies, led to the bedroom upstairs.
Images of the sunset flittered through Rahlys’ mind as Raven attempted to remind her of the gathering. Maggie and Vince had invited everyone over for a celebration, because today marked the third anniversary of Droclum’s defeat and the formation of the Order of the Oracle.
Donning a jacket against the chill of approaching night, Rahlys grabbed some vegetable scraps, leftovers from the salad she made from her own garden to take to the party, and rushed out to greet her familiar. Raven paced about impatiently.
“Yes, I remember about the party,” she said, tossing him part of a lettuce stalk. “Ilene is bringing her flute, so there will be music, too. She has been teaching Melinda to play the flute, and tonight they’re going to perform a duet they’ve been practicing.” Raven pecked at the lettuce with lackadaisical interest; there would be better pickings at the gathering. I need to wash out my paintbrushes and change my clothes, Rahlys thought to herself. I’ll be there shortly, she reassured Raven as he flew off toward Vince and Maggie’s place.
When Rahlys bought Trapper Bean’s cabin deep in the woods of the northern Susitna valley, Raven sort of came with it. The lonely trapper had often fed the large black-feathered scavenger meat scraps and the two old-timers had formed a friendly bond. Long after Trapper Bean left the cabin and the woods for the last time, the raven continued to return regularly looking for his lost friend. The raven had visited when Rahlys and Maggie came up on the flag stop train and hiked through the woods to look at the cabin on the market for the first time. Of course, they couldn’t resist feeding the curious bird.
Several weeks later, when Rahlys returned as the cabin’s new owner, it was Raven who had been there to greet her. And on that same highly eventful day…she also had to chase a bear out of the cabin…the raven snatched up a strange crystal off the river bank, changing their lives forever.
By the time Rahlys teleported over to Vince and Maggie’s backyard, the others were already gathered around the bonfire, including Raven, perched in a nearby tree waiting for any tidbits that were forthcoming. The distinct scents of burning wood from a large fire pit and roasting chicken coming from the grill added richness to the fruity smell of the forest.
“I’ve got you!” Maggie jumped up from the bench and grabbed Leaf, already nearly three, into her arms. Leaf laughed heartily. Sharing the same reddish orange hair and green eyes, there could be no mistaking mother and son. She hugged the little toddler, kissing him on the top of his head, but couldn’t confine him for long. Soon, he wanted down so he could join the others gathered around the bonfire. Then Maggie noticed Rahlys.
“Oh, good, you’re here! Let me take that,” she said, relieving Rahlys of the salad she carried, placing it on the food table.
Friends since college, Maggie came to Alaska when Rahlys returned here after living for many years in Seattle. Rahlys had been raised on her parents’ homestead in the Matanuska River Valley. She later left Alaska at the tender age of seventeen to go to art school in Seattle.
Maggie, born and raised in Seattle, had taken the urban greenhorn under her wing. Maggie soon dropped out of school, but Rahlys remained dedicated to her studies, and a hard-earned career as a commercial artist followed. Then after many years of urban living, Rahlys chose to return to a rustic lifestyle in Alaska, working as a freelance artist. At first, Maggie, though adventurous in her own way, didn’t take to the idea of living a remote lifestyle without stores and plumbing. But then she met Vince, Rahlys’ closest neighbor to the north.
“Here is a seat,” Vince said, setting out a lawn chair for her by the warmth of the fire. “The chicken is still a half hour away,” he informed her, his solemn brown eyes and graying brown hair giving him a serious demeanor. A rugged outdoorsman, his robust strength hid a gentle nature.
Vince had been certain his life was set when he retired from the Marines and moved to the bush to be alone. After many years of retirement in the woods; hunting, fishing, and writing action/adventure novels based on his experiences in the Marines, Vince had become resigned to a lone existence. Then Rahlys bought Trapper Bean’s place and moved in and her friend Maggie came to visit. Now Vince and Maggie were married with a family neither thought they would ever have, and there was another baby on the way.
“Where’s Melinda?” Rahlys asked, looking around, knowing she had to be here, just out of sight.
“She is in the house practicing her flute piece. She is so nervous about performing tonight,” Maggie said.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Theon asked, strolling over, clutching a cup in his gnarled hands. “Would you like to try my own brew?”
“Is that what you are drinking?”
“My best batch yet!”
“Can I taste a sip of yours?”
“Why, of course—here,” he said offering the cup to her.
Rahlys sniffed the clear liquid closely and drew her nose back. “Whew, smells strong!” Then tilting the cup against her lips, she took the most miniscule sip she could manage. Her resulting shudders and facial expressions sent Theon into rolling laughter. “Didn’t I tell you it was good?”
“I pass,” Rahlys said when she was able to speak, and handed the cup back to him.
Theon came from a world across the galaxy. He has been living on Earth since the New Stone Age. By his calculations, he is over twelve thousand Earth-years old, an extended longevity even for his world. Theon cultivated many personas over the centuries and today many in the region know him as Half Ear, a low-wit, backwoods wilderness man, missing the top half of his right ear.
“Here, Rahlys, I brought you a glass of wine. I wouldn’t drink that stuff either,” Ilene said, handing her the glass.
“Thank you. I’m looking forward to the performance.”
“It will take place shortly. We were waiting for you to arrive. I feel we should get it over with so Melinda can relax.”
Ilene is Theon’s daughter, a fact she learned shortly before Droclum’s demise. Although Ilene had known Half Ear all her life, her contact with him had been minimal. Her mother had always refused to give her even a clue to her father’s identity. Shy and quiet growing up, Ilene lived a wallflower existence, excelling in school, but failing socially. She wasn’t ugly, just sort of colorless with frizzy mossy brown hair and quiet dark gray eyes. That all started to change when she discovered Theon, her real father. Over time, Theon taught her to be far more confident, breathing new life into her. Now, Ilene was fun, animated, her dark gray eyes sparkling with interest in everything around her.
“Here she comes now,” Ilene said.
“Well, let me give you an introduction.” Maggie grabbed two spoons off the food table and began tapping them. “Everyone listen up! We are in for a real treat. For our listening pleasure, Ilene and Melinda will now perform Johann Pachelbel’s ‘Canon in D’ on flute. Let’s give them some warm encouragement.” Everyone applauded enthusiastically while Melinda and Ilene positioned themselves together a little away from the bonfire.
Melinda played the first run through of the melody, solo, with unfaltering perfection, and then Ilene joined in playing note for note with her. On the third round, Ilene demonstrated her exquisite skills on the flute, accompanying Ilene’s melodic melody with broken chords and sweet trills.
Rahlys watched intently as Melinda played. Her warm brown skin, long straight black hair, and almond-shaped dark eyes glowed in the firelight. Melinda was born in Southeast Alaska, growing up in a small native fishing village. When Melinda was still quite young, her mother died, and she and her father lived on their fishing boat, The Taku. They were taking shelter from a storm, as they had many times before, in a tiny secluded bay along the coast north of Ketchikan when they encountered Droclum. The encounter had been tragic. Droclum whisked away their boat before squeezing the life out of Melinda’s father as Melinda watched helplessly. The horror of the scene left her mute, but her nightmare wasn’t over. Droclum took her to his cave, subjecting her to even more horrors. It was Rahlys who finally rescued her from Droclum’s evil clutches.
Melinda remains mute even today, but during her captivity, she had somehow acquired telepathic abilities. In the three intervening years, she has grown from an awkward teenager into a graceful young woman, Rahlys realized as the musical piece came to an end.
“Bravo! Bravo!” Theon roared over the applause.
“Tooo…tooo…tooo…tooo,” Leaf sang in imitation of the flutes when the performance was over. Theon placed more logs on the fire and Vince turned the chicken on the grill as Rahlys rushed over to praise the musicians.
The Oracle’s message took Rahlys by surprise. Reflexively, she touched the colorful beaded pouch hanging from her belt containing the crystal, the Oracle of Light, which had given Rahlys her extraordinary powers. Maggie had beaded the pouch with loving care and much secrecy to replace the leather one that had been destroyed along with Droclum.
“Anthya is coming!” she blurted out to the group. Her announcement brought a quiet lull to the merry chatter.
Anthya! Now, what? The councilor’s visits were never inconsequential. Named after the great sorceress and present when the oracle was formed, Anthya was forever linked to Rahlys and the crystal.
“We haven’t heard from the councilor since she assured us Quaylyn was recovering. She must want something,” Theon said. Though a bit grizzled, he seemed quite robust in the early evening firelight. His mind was always sharply alert and agile, ready to spring into action.
Suddenly, Anthya appeared in the glow of the bonfire.
“Pretty ’ady,” Leaf gasped, pointing at the presence with smooth ivory white skin, light gray-blue eyes, and long white-gold hair that had formed out of thin air. Anthya stood before them with a soft smile and a peacefully intelligent gleam in her eyes, her tall slender frame draped in a shimmering lilac gown.
“Greetings, Sorcerer Rahlys, Guardian of the Light,” she said, bowing her head slightly, “members of the Order of the Oracle…and Master Leaf,” she added, turning toward him.
Anthya rolled her hands in the air and a ball of light appeared before her. She gently blew it toward Leaf, and then turned her attention back to Rahlys. “I bring you greetings from the High Council.”
“Greetings, Councilor Anthya,” Rahlys said. “It’s good to see you again. And what does the High Council want from me now? Is there another evil sorcerer from your world threatening Earth for me to subdue?” She hoped she was being facetious and the High Council of the Crystal Table on Anthya’s world had no intention of putting her and her friends in such danger again.
Anthya smiled warmly at Rahlys’ candidness and Leaf’s delight as he caught the ball of light that drifted into his hands.
“The High Council of the Crystal Table invites you on a mission to the Devastated Continent.”
“What? Invites? You mean I have a choice?”
“Of course, but we hope you will accept our invitation.” Leaf laughed with glee as he repeatedly threw the ball and watched as it floated back to him.
“How? When? What kind of mission? Humans from Earth do not, as a norm, visit other worlds.” Rahlys wanted to get as much information as she could as fast as possible. When appearing in non-permanent physical time, as Anthya did, communications tended to be brief. But Anthya’s speech was unhurried.
“Not long after Quaylyn came to Earth to help you defeat Droclum, an expedition was sent into the broken lands from the time of the Dark Devastation on our world. That expedition has not been heard from since. With Droclum’s destruction, the taint left behind on the land should have dissolved, but we are still unable to communicate or teleport even to the outer limits of that realm. The closest point to the devastated region where the elemental forces are still operative is on an island in the Golden Sea still some distance from the mainland. From there, another expedition is being outfitted to go in search of the seven members of the missing team. You have been invited to join that mission. It is believed that the Oracle of Light, which you possess, may be the key to unlocking the mystery that still grips the continent.”
Rahlys struggled to grasp the scope of what Anthya was proposing. “But how…? Travel across the galaxy…?” Her concerns were so monumental she couldn’t even put them into words.
“You may choose three of your warriors to accompany you,” Anthya offered in lieu of explanations. Rahlys realized that by doing so, she would once again be putting her friends’ safety at risk.
“What about Quaylyn? How is he doing?” Rahlys asked. Quaylyn, the son of Droclum and Sorceress Anthya, had been unconscious when Councilor Anthya took him home after Droclum’s defeat. Since then, all she had informed the Order was that Quaylyn lived and was recovering slowly.
“He will also be going on the journey to the wastelands. You and the warriors you choose to accompany you must be ready to leave in three Earth-days.”
And with that, Anthya and Leaf’s glowing ball were gone.
“Wait! What if I choose not to go?” Rahlys cried out.
“Gone.” Leaf showed Rahlys his empty hands.
“Yes, Anthya left and took her ball with her.”
Rahlys’ head was spinning. A journey to another world…how was that possible? She would see Quaylyn again, and he was recovered enough to go on an expedition. Choose three warriors to go with her. Who should she pick to accompany her, assuming she actually went on such a mission?
“Wow! That’s incredible. Are you really going to go?” Ilene asked, breaking into her rampaging thoughts.
“Are you?” Vince asked.
“Who are you going to take with you if you do?” Maggie asked.
“Aaaarrrk!” Raven cried in concern.
“You need not worry about the mode of travel,” Theon assured them. “It’s as safe as driving a car.”
“You are going, aren’t you?” Ilene asked.
“Yes, well, Anthya didn’t leave me much opportunity to say ‘No.’”
I’ll go with you, Melinda volunteered. Melinda had been listening quietly and Rahlys could sense her desire to go, but she was a child yet.
“So, who are you going to take with you?” Maggie asked again.
Rahlys paused before answering. Who should she choose to go with her? It didn’t take a lot of reasoning. By process of elimination, she ended up with the only possible answer. Maggie was out of the question, she was a busy mother expecting another baby; and she certainly couldn’t take Vince away, even though she was certain he would go to protect her if she asked him to. Leaf, of course, is too young to even be considered. Melinda is willing to go, but she’s only sixteen, still too young to expose to that kind of danger. That left only Raven, Theon, and Ilene.
Raven was an easy choice to make. He was only a bird, if one could refer to Raven as only a bird, but he could also prove to be quite useful as her familiar. Theon was also a logical choice. He would be going home. His knowledge of the devastated continent would certainly be invaluable, and his often-expressed wish to see his world again before the end of his longevity, which had to be near, would be fulfilled. But Theon would not go without his daughter, Ilene, which would necessarily make her the third companion choice. Ilene was of both worlds, and her developing skills as a healer would also be an asset. But how would she explain her departure to her mother? Elaine was either unaware of Theon’s true background, or she simply refused to acknowledge it.
“Well, I strongly feel that Vince and Maggie’s responsibility is to their young family, and Maggie will need Melinda’s help, especially when the new baby comes.” Melinda used to live with Rahlys, but after Leaf was born, she spent so much time at Maggie and Vince’s she eventually ended up just staying with them. In anticipation of the expected new arrival, Vince and Maggie had added a large new addition onto the side of the cabin that they now called the children’s room, which Melinda and Leaf now shared. “That leaves Theon, Ilene, and Raven.”
“Aaaark!” Raven cried in reply.
There was an audible gasp from the assembled group. Of course, Theon would be going home and Ilene was his daughter, but Ilene was from Earth with a human mother. And how would the High Council react to Raven being chosen? He was just a bird, albeit a magically enhanced one, not a person.
“Theon’s background knowledge of the area and events leading up to the destruction make him a valuable asset,” Rahlys explained. “Plus Ilene should get to know the other world she is descended from. And as Vince has often said, Raven is a hell of a reconnaissance unit.” She hoped her reasoning met their approval.
Vince was first to respond. “Of course, Melinda is already a member of the family, and with the new addition, there will be plenty of room for all of us, but are you sure you want to travel across the galaxy by means we can’t even fathom?” Rahlys seemed to detect a slight sigh of relief that he would not be pulled away from Maggie and his growing family.
“Rahlys and Ilene can make the journey without undue apprehension, I can assure you. As for me, I will gladly return to my native world if Ilene will accompany me. We just need to figure out what to tell her mother. What do you say, Ilene?” Theon asked his daughter.
Ilene sat speechlessly, her curly, unruly grayish-brown hair tied tightly back in a ponytail. Despite her growing self-confidence, she was hesitant to respond. Travel to another world? She wasn’t sure she was hearing right. Of course, she could never let her father go without her. Deprived of a father/daughter relationship most of her life, she was not willing to be separated from him now. If only her mother could accept Theon for who he really is instead of clinging to the false image of the uncultured oaf she envisioned him to be.
“I don’t know,” Ilene said quietly to stares all around, “I guess so.”