Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
The Devastated Continent
The sky was getting lighter, so Rahlys conjured the crystal back to its pouch, letting their eyes adjust to the strengthening daylight. The expedition stood on a lavender sandy beach that funneled inland, squeezed between sparsely forested, brush-covered hills pushed up against razor sharp dark blue coastal mountains.
“We might as well start hiking,” Brakalar said when Captain Setas disappeared in the morning mist. “If you feel as I do, it will be a relief to stretch stiff muscles after the long boat ride. Has anyone tested the water in the stream?” A small stream, narrow enough to jump across, gurgled invitingly over lavender and rose colored rocks a few steps away.
“It’s good; we can fill our water containers,” Anthya informed them.
“We will hike in pairs,” Brakalar said, reigning in their attention. “Rojaire and I will go first so we can scout ahead some. Theon and Zayla will lead the rest of the group, when everyone is ready. Let’s have Rahlys and Ilene in the middle watching the flanks, and Anthya and Quaylyn watching our rear. Of course, Raven will be flying reconnaissance overhead.”
“What are we looking for?” Ilene didn’t hesitate to ask.
“The unexpected,” Brakalar answered, in all seriousness. “Don’t hesitate to sound the alarm if you see anything questionable. And that goes for everyone.” There was a nod of consent from the entire team, then Brakalar and Rojaire, their conical packs slung over their shoulders and across their backs, headed up the sloped beach of lavender sand and disappeared into the tall brush. Raven flew off into a golden dawn, circling wide overhead, surveying the strangely quiet landscape surrounding them.
As the rest of the expedition finished rinsing out bowls, filling water containers, and adjusting packs, the sun rose, painting the sky golden and transforming the land that had looked so menacing, when veiled in dim light, into a colorfully serene storybook landscape. Soon, everyone was ready to go, and with Theon and Zayla leading the way, the rest of the expedition quickly fell into step.
It was easy going at first; the land rose so gently, the rise was hardly noticeable. The swath of land they followed was flatter than the terrain to either side, as though they were following an old washout, or perhaps an ancient lava flow. Except for some tall bushes and the scattered clumps of willowy trees that dotted the landscape, their long streaming leaves of blue-green and gold touching the ground, most of the dew-laden foliage was low enough to see over and sparse enough to weave through without any difficulty.
Theon and Zayla caught occasional glimpses of Brakalar and Rojaire up ahead as they hiked in silence. The torrent of thought that crushed Theon’s heart left no room for conversation. He didn’t blame Brakalar for not forgiving him. He had helped destroy his world. Not directly…but he had enabled Droclum by going along with his madness.
“Rahlys, look at this place. Isn’t it beautiful?” Ilene gasped after some time. “I can hardly believe I’m really here,”
“Certainly colorful,” Rahlys added. Back home, the most colorful mushroom was the deadliest.
The sun was already hot, and Anthya paused to remove her lightweight, light gray cloak from one of the many storage compartments of her pack, and donned it for protection against the sun. Following her example, Quaylyn stopped and did the same. To Anthya, Quaylyn seemed more focused today than she had seen him in a long time, fueling her hope that he would regain his sense of positive achievement during the course of the expedition.
“After you, my Lady,” Quaylyn bowed his head graciously, when they were ready to move again.
Anthya smiled at his touching sentiment, and to her warm surprise, Quaylyn smiled hesitantly in return. Subtly, she returned his bow and stepped out ahead with Quaylyn following.
The playful exchange reminded Anthya of another time long ago, when she had challenged Quaylyn to a game of traw, an athletically strenuous game played on a triangular playing field. On that day she had informed a more innocent Quaylyn that he had been assigned his First Mission to the distant planet called Earth.
Slowly, the landscape changed. The wide swath of relatively flat land eventually bottle-necked into overlapping hills, and the trickle of a stream they followed meandered through increasingly inaccessible narrow dark blue rock chasms. By now, the overlarge sun dazzled high above the peaks of the distant Crescent Mountains to the east.
“We’ll take a break here,” Brakalar announced as the rest of the group caught up. “From here, we will be forced to traverse the long rolling hills, up one side and down the other, in the way of forward progress.”
Rahlys and Ilene welcomed the pause. They splashed cool refreshing water over their faces and refilled their water containers. Grateful for the chance to relax for a while, they leaned back against dark blue boulders covered with plush iridescent orange and pink mosses…but they weren’t given a chance to rest for long. At Brakalar’s signal, somewhat reluctantly, Ilene and Rahlys rose from their resting places to resume the hike.
“We’ll shuffle partners,” Brakalar announced. “This time, let’s have Quaylyn scout ahead with me, Anthya and Zayla leading the rest of the group, with Ilene and Rojaire watching our flanks and Theon and Rahlys guarding our backs.” Rahlys noticed that the pairing with Rojaire seemed to add new pep into Ilene’s step as she headed toward him.
The expedition continued east northeast toward the Crescent Mountains and the Sooty Caves, their progress now dampened by the arduous task of traversing hills. As time progressed, ever wider gaps separated the pairs. Rojaire, with Ilene in tow, could not maintain the pace of the leaders, and Rahlys didn’t mind lagging behind with Theon at the back of the pack. Ahead of them, they could see Rojaire and Ilene carrying on a brisk conversation.
“Why did you start exploring the Devastated Continent?” Ilene asked Rojaire as they marched steadily forward. Remembering that she was watching their southern flank, she returned her eyes to the terrain, letting her ears await his answer. Rojaire was so ruggedly handsome; it made her uncomfortable being with him. Aaron had also been ruggedly handsome and a bit of a rogue. It had been a long time since she had thought of Aaron, she realized, with a twinge in her heart.
“I had an issue with the academic community,” Rojaire said matter-of-factly.
“You mean you broke the law? You’re a criminal?” Ilene couldn’t help turning to look his way.
“I didn’t say that. I said I had an issue with the academic community.”
“But is it so?” Their eyes met, and they came to a stop.
“Only if being an individual thinker is a criminal act,” Rojaire said defiantly, and walked on.
“So you ran away to the Devastated Continent!” Ilene surmised as she struggled to keep pace with his long strides. “How did you get here?”
“You ask a lot of questions. What about you? What are you running away from? Aren’t you a long way from home?”
“I’m not running from anything; I came here with my father. I’m part of this land, too.” Theon and Rahlys caught snatches in the breeze of Rojaire and Ilene’s discussion as they followed, guarding the rear.
Theon touched Rahlys’ arm, indicating he wanted them to drop back. “I think Brakalar is hiding something,” Theon said as the distance between them and the other two widened.
“What makes you think that?” Rahlys asked.
“I don’t like his style,” he said, filling his mouth with purple berries he plucked from a short woody bush nearby.
That’s not a valid reason to suspect him of anything.”
“Still, I would like for you to help me keep an eye on him.”
“Sure.” She tried one of the berries, expecting it to be sweet, but it had a peppery taste instead. “I don’t really like Brakalar’s style either.”
When they finally came to another stop for recharging, Rojaire shared his knowledge of the native foods. “The plant life that abounds is not of wondrous variety, but most of it is edible.”
There were pinkberries, zan fruit, pepper berries that looked like purple grapes growing on stubby pinkish green bushes, and large green and orange striped cantaloupe sized melons growing on short stubby plants with thick pointed red and green leaves. Tall gold and orange stalks with cascades of edible lavender blossoms grew in abundance, the stalks’ crunchy inner cores a good source of energy. The long willowy leaves of the zaota tree could be woven into mats, and the bark, when boiled, made an invigorating tea. Tufts of greenish-blue grass grew in clomps, producing a seed head that could be ground into flour or cooked as a hot cereal. Rojaire pulled up a small unassuming plant with dull gray and silver leaves and shook lavender soil off lavender roots, revealing a bountiful crop of crunchy orange nuts in soft blue shells.
“Of course not all the plants are friendly,” Rojaire warned. “That pink and blue ground cover with white flowers irritates the skin. The bluish-black berries growing on this sprawling bush are poisonous. And there is a tall spiky plant that I don’t see here,” Rojaire said, looking around, “that will nick you if you get anywhere close to it…but its tubular roots are great roasted,” he added with a roguish smile.
Brakalar rose from the protruding blue stone on which he sat. “One more push, and we will make camp to get some rest during the hottest part of the day,” Brakalar said, by way of encouragement. “Let’s have Rahlys and Theon scout ahead, followed by Zayla and myself, with the rest of you holding the rear. Be on the lookout for a good stopping place.”
Stretching to warm muscles gone cold over the lengthy break, the expedition eased back into forward motion. Raven took off first, and Theon and Rahlys started hiking uphill through the tall brush, keeping to an easterly direction. As soon as they were out of sight of the others, Rahlys teleported herself and Theon, in two short hops, to the crest of the next hill, and after a quick glance about, pulled him down the slope on the other side.
“What are you doing?” Theon asked, breaking loose from her, puzzled by her inexplicable jumpy behavior. “Why did you drag me down the hill like we were under attack?”
“I want to be sure we are far enough away from the others, we can’t be overheard. You were right. Brakalar is hiding something,” Rahlys whispered conspiratorially.
She had his interest.
“How do you know?” Theon asked. “Let’s keep moving so we stay ahead.” Now, he was pulling her down the hill. To assure their lead, Rahlys made a couple more jumps, taking them to the bottom of the long hill and into the thicker foliage of the moist valley.
“Enough of that!” Theon said, surveying their surroundings. “How do you know that Brakalar is hiding something?” he asked her again.
“Because I can feel it…it’s in his pouch…I can feel it when I’m near him.”
“Feel what? What do you feel?”
“I’m not sure what it is, but something he carries in his pouch emits prevailing tendrils of seeking energy?”
“I don’t know,” Rahlys said, but Theon didn’t seem to expect her to.
“That’s all right,” he reassured her. “You’ve done well. Let me know if you learn anything else.” Theon turned away deep in his own thoughts, as he considered the possibilities in his head. The conclusions he came to were frightening. I better find whatever that thing is seeking before Brakalar does.
“Can you teleport the two of us to the top of that distant peak so we can take a look around?” Theon asked Rahlys.
In an effort to comply, Rahlys focused on the taller ridge far to the east. Drawing on the molecular energy around her, she reached for it…but an obstruction blocked her way.
“I…I…can’t,” Rahlys shuddered, a bit shaken. “There is some kind of obstacle preventing it.
“It must be a question of distance; you moved the two of us up and down that hill. Theon searched for a middle range destination. How about to that tree over there, can you make it that far?” The tree Theon indicated, a good five hundred feet away, was a zaota tree, Rahlys had learned, the only tree species on the continent.
“I’ll try,” Rahlys said, no longer quite sure. She forced herself to relax, then concentrating like it was her first time, she drew deeply from within, mentally placing herself by the tree. And she was there! Rahlys was pleased to find herself standing next to the towering zaota tree, its thick branches hidden under a dense umbrella-shaped canopy of long thin blue-green and gold leaves waving like a giant hula dancer’s grass skirt, chiming softly in the breeze. Raven came in for a landing on the mass of budding tips at the top of the tree’s canopy.
“So, it seems to be a matter of range,” Theon said, upon reaching her. “That’s still better than nothing.” Rahlys couldn’t help but agree.
To further test that range, Rahlys teleported herself short distances up nearby rises to survey the surroundings. Each hilltop revealed a wide vista of more hills and empty valleys. There was no life except for the foliage that evenly blanketed the landscape. Not a single insect buzzed by her ear or got in her face. Not a single bug crawled over the coarse lavender soil or smooth colorful plants. There were no tracks, large or small, in the moist loam of the valleys. And not a single bird, except Raven, flittered through the trees or soared across the sky. The Alaska wilderness was quiet, but even in winter there were the occasional bird calls or squirrel chirps to accent the quiet. In summer, insects and the arrival of more birds created a continuous soft underlay of sound that was noticeably missing here.
Rahlys returned to Theon’s side and they hiked on, with Rahlys scanning the terrain around them and Theon quietly formulating a plan, until Rahlys jarred him from his thoughts.
“What’s that?” she asked, pointing at something that moved in the near distance.
Theon pulled a spyglass out of his pouch and focused on a red, black, and white flag mounted on a branch supported by stacked rocks.
“It looks like an expedition marker,” Theon said, after studying it for a while. “Probably left by the lost expedition.” The Academy had provided them with an assortment of coded flags to mark locations, as needed, along the way. Rahlys took the spyglass Theon offered and focused on the small tricolor flag on a stick moving in the breeze supported by a constructed rock pyramid. Handing the spyglass back to Theon, she pulled out her journal and looked up the meaning of this particular flag.
“It says it’s a warning of danger, advising others to stay away,” Rahlys said. “We better inform the others.” Rahlys looked around and as a precaution, reached out mentally in search of unfamiliar signatures, at least within her limited range, but found no one…even the rest of the group were still too far off to detect…which made her feel uneasy.
“Wait, we should check it out first. It could be just a hoax to keep us away, or a decoy to divert our direction toward a trap,” Theon said.
“We aren’t supposed to investigate things on our own. Besides, there isn’t anyone here to play a hoax,” Rahlys pointed out, still preferring to report back to the others.
“Rojaire’s buddies are here somewhere.”
“I happen to know, from a reliable source, that Rojaire didn’t explore this continent completely alone, and his three buddies are still roaming around here…somewhere.”
“A reliable source! What, you have twelve thousand-year-old contacts?” Then Rahlys made the connection. “Captain Setas!” Theon and the captain had to be the oldest entities on the planet! Theon didn’t confirm or deny. “All right, I’ll take us to the site.”
She teleported them to the site of the marker, searching again for unfamiliar signatures, but there was no one around. Together, they explored the general area, but found nothing threatening, or even significantly different from the rest of the terrain they had crossed. Raven circled overhead, but raised no alarm.
“There’s nothing here.” Rahlys fanned herself with her notebook, wishing for shelter from the hot sun. “Are you ready to head back?” she asked.
“Our footprints will make it obvious someone has been here,” Theon pointed out.
“No, they won’t,” she assured him. After transporting them back to the rise where they had first spotted the flag signal, Rahlys wove a spell that smoothed over their tracks like a wave sweeping clean the sands on a beach…then she focused on locating the rest of the group.
“The others are about to catch up,” she informed Theon. “We can wait for them here. It will look like we did what we were supposed to do…wait for the rest of the team instead of investigating something suspicious on our own.”
Soon, Brakalar and Zayla broke over the crest of the hill a hundred feet away; Rahlys and Theon called them over. The rest of the group followed. Without saying anything, Rahlys pointed in the direction of the marker, and Theon handed Brakalar the spyglass.
“What is it?” Zayla asked, spotting something in the distance.
“It’s an expedition flag warning of some danger,” Rahlys said. Brakalar studied the marker through the spy glass, and then scanned the area for anything that might be connected to the warning.
“Shall we investigate…or heed the warning?” Zayla asked, as Brakalar handed her the spyglass.
“We investigate,” Brakalar answered firmly. The rest of the group arrived and a discussion ensued. All agreed it was part of their mission to investigate.
Rahlys felt the searching reach of the filaments of energy exuding from Brakalar as he approached her. “Can you sense anything, any anomaly?” he asked her.
Rahlys wanted to say, “Yes, coming from you,” but instead she just said, “No.”
“Any signatures indicating others are present?” Zayla asked.
Brakalar addressed the whole group. “We advance slowly. Everyone will stay together and watch each other’s back. It you see so much as an eyelash twitch, holler.”
Once again, Brakalar and Zayla took the lead, proceeding with extreme caution. Not a word was spoken as they made their way diagonally across the sloping hillside to the marker at the edge of the valley below. Before long, the expedition reached the site without incidence.
“Well…?” Zayla asked no one in particular after the team had scoured the area finding nothing disconcerting, except for the flag itself.
“The lost expedition wouldn’t have placed a marker for no reason,” Anthya offered.
“Maybe someone else found or took the flag from a member of the lost expedition and placed it here for reasons of their own,” Quaylyn speculated, surprising everyone by saying anything at all.
“That is a possibility we need to consider,” Zayla agreed.
“Who else is on the continent, Rojaire?” Theon asked. “Have you run into others in your travels?” Rojaire could read from the tone of Theon’s voice he knew something.
“There is one group that I know of, but I don’t think they’re a threat to us. They aren’t very smart, or very well organized…and we outnumber them three to one.”
“So what are they doing here?” Anthya asked.
“Escaping the shackles of society,” Rojaire stated boldly. That incited such scathing stares from Brakalar, Zayla, and Anthya; he trimmed his rebellious tone before continuing. “They are harmless do-nothings, calling themselves the Band of Rogues, and would rather laze their days here than contribute to society. I really doubt they had anything to do with this. They’re not that energetic…or that creative.” Theon didn’t respond. To reveal Rojaire’s association with the Band of Rogues would mean betraying Setas.
“We move on!” Brakalar said quietly. “Anthya and I will lead, followed by Ilene and Theon, then Rojaire and Zayla. Rahlys and Quaylyn will bring up the rear. We’ll stop at the first shade we find.”
“Who do you really believe put that marker there?” Ilene asked her father as they hiked side by side.
“I don’t know; I’m not quite ready to make accusations.”
“I believe it was left by the lost expedition,” Ilene decided. “It may just be that the danger that was present then is no longer present now.”
“Maybe,” Theon agreed…anything was possible.
“Oh, look at those beautiful flowers!” Ilene exclaimed, taking three strides in their direction before disappearing completely…right through the foliage covering the ground.
“I think we should take the hidden pass back to the western side of the mountain range where there is more to eat,” Tassyn said, looking cleaner since Traevus washed their clothing.
“Yes,” Edty agreed, “it’s a lot nicer out west.” Confronting Stram was risky business, but he seemed to take it in stride for once.
“I’m thinking we could use a little larger labor force to build our community out west,” Traevus overhead Stram say as he approached the camp carrying fresh water. He quietly set the water containers down and listened.
The Band of Rogues had been camped for rotations, hidden in a deep clef in the rocky eastern foothills of the Crescent Mountains. Their water source, a cool spring conveniently located in the cave behind them, offered no opportunity for escape, which meant Traevus could fetch water without a guard.
“What are you suggesting?” Tassyn asked.
“I propose we return to where we intercepted the expedition, follow their tracks, and convince them to join us.
“What? Have you lost your mind?” Tassyn was surprised by his outburst, but couldn’t take it back. Fortunately, Stram decided to use the art of persuasion instead of force.
“Do you want to live in a hovel…or a palace? How hard do you want to work? How well do you want to live? Every visionary who has ever lived has been called crazy at some time.”
“I don’t know, Stram, enslaving people…?” Tassyn wasn’t sure how to continue, but Stram jumped up from his seat on a large boulder that served as a crude throne and paced before them.
“Consider this: We would have women. And any woman who bears our offspring will no longer be a slave. Our community will have a chance to thrive and grow, free from the stranglehold of the Academy and the High Council. Think about it,” Stram added after a dramatic pause. The camp grew quiet as Tassyn and Edty tried to wrap their minds around Stram’s vision. When enough time had passed, Traevus returned with the water.
“You will lead us to the other members of your expedition,” Stram told him without preamble. “I’m assuming they are headed for the slopes of Mt. Vatre. Do you want to tell us why?”
“I’m not leading you anywhere,” Traevus answered defiantly after setting the water containers down on a rock ledge. Stram swung out a powerful arm and fist that made contact with Traevus’ jaw, knocking him painfully to the ground.
Traevus forced his way back up. Had the Band of Rogues been responsible for any of the expedition’s other misfortunes? he wondered. It didn’t seem likely since the incidences had been widely spread out over time and distance.
“What do you want with the expedition?” Traevus asked when his head cleared of stars and the pain in his jaw eased enough to speak.
“What did I tell you about asking questions?”
“Oooo….” A hard blow to his left side, this time without physical contact, bent Traevus over; a second blow sent him curling back down to the rocky ground.
“We will leave when Seaa rises,” Stram announced as the band gathered around Traevus, curled in a fetus position, moaning pitifully. “Meanwhile, get some rest,” he directed to Tassyn and Edty. “I’ll guard the prisoner.” There was little guarding needed. Traevus didn’t move…and didn’t intend to for some time.
“Your little band will be my first slave laborers,” Stram said quietly, as much to himself as to Traevus, after the other two had gone to sleep. “I will build a great empire in which men will be truly free, and the Devastated Continent will be under my control to rule as I wish.” Somehow, Stram was able to rationalize the two conflicting concepts in his own mind.