Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
The Sooty Caves
“Ilene!” Theon cried out for all to hear. In desperate haste, he dropped down on hands and knees, tearing back foliage that spanned across a narrow chasm. “Ilene! Where are you?”
Theon’s shouts brought the rest of the group rushing over to help. Even Raven flew in to investigate.
“I’m down here,” Ilene cried back.
“Make sure you have solid ground underfoot before you take a step,” Brakalar cautioned.
“Are you all right?” Theon asked as his efforts revealed Ilene wedged in a crevice of blue violet stone ten feet below him.
“I think so, but I’m wedged in; I can’t move.”
As the others cleared more brush, it turned out the split in the ground extended for nearly twenty feet. The crevice gaped about three feet across at its widest, narrowing down to mere inches where Ilene’s feet were wedged in stone.
“Now we know why the marker was there,” Zayla said, assessing the situation.
“I can get you out,” Rahlys told Ilene calmly. “Be ready to catch her,” she instructed the others. Rahlys focused on drawing energy, pulling Ilene out of the crevice and teleporting her to the surface. When Ilene appeared beside them, Quaylyn and Rojaire stepped in quickly, catching her before she dropped…and gently lowered her to the ground.
“You have a bump on the back of your head and a scratch on one arm,” Anthya said, checking her for injuries. “Can you move your feet?” she asked with great concern. Ilene moved first her left foot, then her right…flinching a little.
“It’s my right ankle. It feels like I strained it,” Ilene said, “but I think I can walk.” Anthya removed Ilene’s protective expedition issued boot and examined her ankle carefully.
“I can’t feel any broken bones. Right now I’m more concerned about the bump on the back of your head,” she said. “Unfortunately, I don’t seem to be able to draw and transmit healing energy.”
“Let me try,” Rahlys volunteered. “I’m not a healer, but I might be able to help.” Rahlys knelt down behind Ilene and stared at the angry bump. “How does your head feel?”
“It still smarts some where I banged it, but the pain is diminishing.”
“You do have quite a bump there,” Rahlys said upon examination. The scratch on her arm was minor. She moved down to Ilene’s sprained ankle, holding it carefully as she drew on what renewable healing energy she could reach from deep within her, directing it caressingly to Ilene’s injuries. After some time, Ilene insisted she felt much better and was ready to stand up and try to walk. The bump on her head did look much better, so Rahlys and Anthya gave Ilene a hand getting to her feet. Once upright, Ilene took a couple of cautious steps, and then assured everyone she was fine.
To avoid any further accidents, the men had set to work cutting walking sticks from the straight sky-reaching branches of a zaota tree, towering above all the other foliage. Soon, there were enough poles, stripped of their leaves and cut to length, to provide everyone with a walking stick.
“These staffs are to be used as probes,” Brakalar said holding his up as they each chose one from the pile, checking its feel in their hands. “Use them before each step you take, even if you are following in someone else’s footsteps.”
Brakalar walked over to Ilene, who was engaged in choosing the smallest staff she could find. “How are you feeling? Do you think you can go on?” he asked Ilene.
“Yes, I’m okay.”
“We’ll see,” he said nodding to her, and then continued louder for all to hear. “This valley could be full of crevices, or maybe that’s the only one. This pink and silver ground cover seems to grow extensively in this region,” he said, waving his hand over the valley; they could see several large patches of it from where they stood. “There’s no telling what it may be covering.”
The group continued forward, tapping the ground before them like mountaineers traversing a glacier, probing for hidden crevasses under the snow. They crossed the riddled valley without further incidents, although four more narrow crevices were found. All were safely stepped across or circumvented. There was no evidence of cracks in the ground as they crossed the next valley over.
The team’s weariness was starting to show in earnest as they trudged up yet another hill, still searching for a suitable place to camp. Reaching the top of the rise, Rahlys thought she was seeing a mirage, when the landscape before them dropped gently into a secluded oasis. A sizable stream, murmuring invitingly, tumbled over dark blue, orange, and lavender rocks and sand, with an abundance of edible and fruit-laden plants growing along its banks and on the surrounding hillside. Tall, tilted slabs of dark blue stone covered with flowering vines rose majestically out of smooth lavender sand, offering shelter from sun or rain.
“We’ll camp here,” Brakalar announced.
Rahlys sighed with relief. It had been a long hot day, the sun already high in the sky. The oasis offered food, water, and shade; all highly welcomed. Everyone drank, filled their water containers, and then splashed refreshingly cool water on their hands and faces. Further downstream, they found a deep bathing pool, and ample firewood to brew tea and cook vegetables and grains.
“Isn’t this a beautiful spot,” Ilene sighed in near ecstasy, floating on her back in the pool. “We needn’t go any further.”
For now, Ilene and Rahlys had the pool to themselves.
“Don’t you want to complete our mission?” Rahlys asked.
“Of course. It’s just, it’s so nice here.”
“How’s your head…and your foot and your arm?”
“Great! The bump on my head is gone,” Ilene said, rubbing the remembered spot. “My foot is fine, and my arm is as good as new…see?” she said, showing Rahlys her blemish-free arm. “You did a great job!”
For that, Rahlys was grateful, but why she was still able to draw energy using the elemental forces when the rest of the group couldn’t remained a mystery. “I’m going to sleep like one of those stone slabs,” Rahlys said, pointing to a group of them on the stream bank. She sounded tired even to herself.
“How long in Earth-hours do you think we hiked?” Ilene asked.
“By my calculations, a day and a half.” Of course, there had been breaks, but still, it had been a long stretch.
When Rahlys and Ilene returned to the campsite, preparations for a feast were underway. The abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, cooking fires, and flowering vines created a festive atmosphere.
“If I didn’t know better, I would say it’s a Hawaiian luau. All we need is music and leis. I can provide the music,” Ilene said.
True to her word, after the feast had been consumed and everyone lay about contentedly full, Ilene pulled her flute from her pack and began to play; the hauntingly melodious notes so alien to this world drifted over the quiet landscape. Clean, fed, and exhausted, Rahlys lay wrapped in her cloak on smooth lavender sand shaded by two vine-covered stone monoliths. There she slept oblivious to the sun’s long slow arch across the cloudless golden sky.
“Aaaaaark! Aaaaaark!” Raven squawked close to Rahlys’ ear.
Rahlys jolted awake. The sun was starting to descend toward the west. She turned on her side to scan the whereabouts and activities of the others. Everyone was milling about preparing for departure. Everyone but her. Rahlys eased herself up, shook the sand out of her cloak, stuffed it into her pack, and joined the others as they gathered around Brakalar.
“Hopefully everyone is well rested and ready to move on,” Brakalar said, smiling and nodding at Rahlys.
Climbing out of the oasis, most of them still carrying their walking sticks, the landscape returned to what it had been before, rolling hills sparsely covered with low to shoulder-high brush, rock outcroppings, and zaota trees. Gradually, the hills became steeper, the valleys narrower and deeper, and vegetation became increasingly sparse with rock formations sprouting through the thinning soil.
What did grow looked like it could use some water, but not a cloud marred the brilliant yellow white sky. On and on they hiked, up and down hills and across valleys, their progress steady and uneventful…the land eerily quiet. There were no more expedition markers, no sign of the Band of Rogues or the members of the lost expedition; no sign of life…whatsoever…other than the vegetation. Cresting another hill, Rahlys could spot the others, here and there, weaving through brush as they descended the long slope into the next valley…another valley that looked exactly like the one before…and the one before that.
As darkness approached, they came to a sheltered cove with an underground spring that trickled out from the hillside. An abundance of woody shrubs and zaota trees provided firewood.
“We’ll camp here until Seaa rises,” Brakalar announced. “That will give everyone plenty of time to get some rest.”
Rahlys joined Rojaire, Ilene, and Quaylyn in gathering fruits, grains, nuts, and vegetables. There wasn’t as much variety here as at the oasis, but enough to satisfy everyone’s hunger. Since Ilene seemed to be enjoying Rojaire’s attention, Rahlys followed Quaylyn, who had wandered some distance from the camp to a small grassy meadow that yielded a bountiful crop of ground nuts. The two of them filled their gathering bags in silence. While harvesting, Rahlys worked on a suitable opening remark to draw Quaylyn into conversation. When she looked up, he was standing right beside her.
“I’m sorry,” Quaylyn said, gazing into her eyes with grave sincerity.
“What for?” Rahlys asked, stunned.
“I’m sorry I failed you. I should have fought beside you, protected you. Instead, I fell apart.”
“Quaylyn, stop it! You didn’t fail me! You taught me everything! Without you, I could never have faced Droclum! And as far as the battle goes, events transpired as they were meant to. We were both pawns in the greater scheme of things.”
Quaylyn said nothing, his face darkly distorted with pain and confusion. Rahlys gazed back at him with tender concern. She fought to keep her voice from quivering.
“When Anthya took you home, you were unconscious…close to death. Maggie and Vince, Theon…we all worried about you for the longest, before Anthya finally sent us word that you were recovering slowly. And still we were concerned.”
Quaylyn looked away. “I wanted to contact you, but I couldn’t bring myself to do so. I hurt too much inside.”
“You didn’t fail me, Quaylyn!” she reiterated. How could she make him see that? “When you handed me the necklace your mother had made to protect you, you provided me with what I needed to defeat Droclum.”
Quaylyn laughed bitterly. “That’s what the High Council of the Crystal Table said, ‘Your First Mission was a success. You successfully helped Rahlys to destroy Droclum.’”
“We both know that your mother, Sorceress Anthya, defeated Droclum. Does it really matter? He’s gone. It’s time to put it behind us and move on.”
“It’s what I hope to accomplish on this mission,” Quaylyn said, and without another word, he turned away from her and headed back to camp. Rahlys could only watch him go.
As rotations passed, Rahlys discerned a pattern emerging, as once again, they stopped to camp during the hottest part of the day. They ate, rested, and slept until the sun reached toward the western horizon; then they hiked until just before dark, camping until Seaa rose. In this fashion, the expedition covered considerable ground, closing in on the Crescent Mountains. “If we continue to make the progress we have so far, we could reach the Sooty Caves by next sunrise,” Brakalar announced as they prepared to head out again.
In about four Earth-days, Rahlys calculated silently. She glanced quickly at Quaylyn, looking for a reaction to Brakalar’s mention of the Sooty Caves as he shouldered his pack…but there was none. In fact, Quaylyn seemed far less sullen now than he did when she first arrived. The challenge of the journey invigorated him, despite his dark heritage and bleak state of mind…but still he remained non-communicative with her.
Seaa was shining brightly, washing out the night sky, when the expedition set out once again. In her ghostly light, the landscape opened onto a broad expanse of flat grassland that stretched to the very base of the mountains rising before them. From where they were, the mountains looked close, but Rahlys knew the distance across the grassland was great. Brakalar had paired Rahlys with Rojaire at the back of the pack for this leg of the journey. As they walked across the flat terrain, so easy to navigate, Rahlys gazed frequently up at Seaa, a small golden globe burning brightly high in the night sky.
“Two suns, one for day and one for night,” Rahlys mused. “And no moon, I guess you don’t need a moon with Seaa.”
“Actually, only one sun and we do have a moon,” Rojaire said, pointing out a tiny crescent low on the southern horizon. “Our planet doesn’t revolve around Seaa, at least not in a celestial sense. However…half a revolution from now…we will be on the opposite side of the sun from Seaa. Then night will be dark, lit only by the distant stars.”
“What season is this? Or do you even have seasons?”
“It’s late winter.”
“This is winter?” Rahlys asked incredulously. “This is nothing like winter where I live.”
Rojaire laughed heartily. “Ilene has told me about your Alaska. In the summer the land is green and in the winter the land is white. Here summer and winter are not determined by the tilt of our planet on its axis, but by its distance from the sun.”
“What do you mean?” Rahlys asked.
“When Seaa rises, her gravitational pull tugs on our planet, nudging it into a slightly elliptical orbit, away from the sun, but still within the habitable zone of space, giving us winter…which is what we are experiencing now. Then as our planet orbits away from Seaa, the gravitational pull of our sun draws us back, bringing us closer to the inner edge of the habitable zone, giving us summer, until Seaa rises, pulling us away again.” Rahlys tried to picture this in her mind as she scanned the terrain for anything out of the ordinary.
“Isn’t the ground a little dry?” she asked. “The landscape looks like it could use some rain.”
“Winter tends to be dry. The rains will come,” Rojaire said matter-of-factly. Then he paused, watching Raven circling languidly overhead.
“That’s quite a friend you have there,” he said, indicating Raven. Like the others, Rojaire looked upon Raven’s flying abilities with near reverence.
“Yes, he’s wonderful,” Rahlys agreed, also pausing momentarily to watch Raven’s graceful flight.
“Tell me more about the Band of Rogues,” she said when they started walking again. She hoped she sounded like an innocent schoolgirl full of curiosity. “Did you spend much time in their company?”
“I spent some time with them,” Rojaire said, no longer turning his head to glance at her. “We came to the Devastated Continent together. I didn’t know they were going to become such nuisances then. When I could no longer tolerate their lack of desire to do anything worthwhile, I ventured off on my own to do what I had set out to do. I guess I’m just a loner at heart.” Rojaire ventured an endearing smile her way.
“What did you set out to do?”
“I have spent much of my longevity exploring this continent, mapping it, studying the topography and vegetation, searching for anything left from the old world.”
“And have you found anything?” The question came out smoothly enough…but Rojaire would say no more, and a long silence ensued. She must have gotten on his bad side for being too nosy.
“Guardian of the Light, is that what they call you?” Rojaire said with a hint of sarcasm, not expecting her to answer. “That’s a pretty hefty title! But then you did stand up to Droclum, I’m told.” He eyed her up and down as though to ascertain if that were even plausible. “It must have taken a lot of courage; I have to give you credit,” he conceded.
“Yes, well, I did have some help,” Rahlys said, without elaborating.
They hiked most of the night over the open prairie without reaching the mountains, until finally Brakalar called a halt as Seaa started to set in the west. Making camp with the crystal providing them light, Rahlys heated water for their tea, focusing energy to speed up the molecules in the water in lieu of firewood. Then she sat next to Theon and informed him telepathically, on a tight beam, what little she had learned about Rojaire. Theon wanted to tell her that he had seen what Brakalar was hiding, but didn’t dare even whisper with the others so near.
The expedition started out again at daybreak in high spirits, their first targeted destination within reach. By sheer luck, Rahlys and Theon were paired together to bring up the rear on the last leg of the trek to the caves. Brakalar had placed himself and Rojaire in the lead. It was only after Theon was certain they had lagged far enough away from the others to avoid the risk of being overheard that he gave her the news.
“I know what Brakalar is hiding,” he revealed.
“You do? What?”
“He has the key to the chest containing the Rod of Destruction. I saw it in his hand as he was fumbling through the contents in his pouch. It was just an accidental glimpse…I don’t think Brakalar even knows I caught a glance…but I recognized it all right.”
“What is the Rod of Destruction?” Rahlys asked, knowing she wouldn’t like the answer.
“It’s a Dark Oracle, a rod of formidable destructive power…forged by Droclum. We must find it before anyone else does. In the wrong hands, it could be the end of what is left of this world.”
Rahlys gasped. “And you think it’s in the Sooty Caves?”
“I think the key was found there, unless Rojaire found it somewhere else and gave it to Brakalar.” It wasn’t wise to lag behind long out in the open like this. Someone might wonder what they were up to. “One other thing, something Setas said.” Theon glanced around as though looking for spies.
“Setas, the ferry lady?”
“She said to look for a stone as round and smooth and golden as Seaa herself.”
“What does that mean?”
“I’m not sure, but keep your eyes out for anything fitting that description.”
The Crescent Mountains loomed ever closer, long, narrow, jagged, dark blue-violet peaks…the chipped, cracked, discarded, broken sword blades of celestial giants, rising point up from the prairie floor. For the longest, the mountains had seemed to Rahlys unreachable and impassable. Now, as they made their final approach, they seemed only impassable, until they got even closer and she saw what looked like a pathway, a narrow, dark, sunless sand and rock passageway curving around the bases of two monolithic mountain peaks standing before them. The leading members of the expedition paused in the shade of the mountain by the passage opening, waiting for the others to gather.
“When we found this opening on the first expedition, we had hoped it would take us all the way through to the other side,” Brakalar recapped for the group. “Instead, it leads to the Sooty Caves.”
After a brief rest and feed, Brakalar led the group, single file, into the narrow mountain passage. The dry sandy trail, mixed with rocks, was bare of plant life, but their harvest bags and water canisters were full and would hold them over during their stay at the caves.
Walking through the passageway was not always easy. Often, their way was blocked by debris from crumbling mountain peaks, forcing them to climb over piles of sharp rock shards. Newly exposed rock, high up the steep slopes gleamed red violet in the morning light.
“Heads up for falling rocks,” Brakalar cautioned.
As the day progressed with the sun mounting ever higher in a cloudless golden white sky, the band of direct sunshine that at first only kissed the uppermost peaks descended the steep slopes, eventually nearly reaching them in the narrow passage as the sun gained altitude. Then, suddenly, without warning, they were in a wide sunny arena in front of the Sooty Caves.
Upon seeing the caves, it became immediately obvious how they had gotten their name. The rock walls within and around the mouth of the cave were burned sooty black, flamed by dragon fire, or balefire, or worse…or so it appeared. Rahlys walked up to the velvety black stone and rubbed her fingers across it, expecting to find black soot on her fingers when she turned them over…but they came away clean. It was the flat black sheen of the stone that gave it its sooty appearance.
“There is enough space for us to set up camp here,” Brakalar said. “And if the weather should change, we can take shelter in the cave. The cave system is not very extensive, but we were able to find openings to three large chambers the last time we were here. After you have rested a bit, Zayla and I will take you to the location where we found Quaylyn encapsulated in suspended animation so long ago. Remember the crystal powered lights you carry have only so much stored energy, so use them wisely.”
“We can also use the crystal for light,” Rahlys reminded them. She glanced at Quaylyn to see how he was holding up. He seemed to be taking things well. An eagerness to explore the caves soon had the expedition back on its feet, and Brakalar and Zayla led them into the first chamber, with the crystal lighting the way.
The low angular ceiling of velvety black rock and darkly faceted walls did little toward reflecting back light. There were no mineral and water deposited formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, but the floor of the cavern was oddly irregular. Rahlys wanted to throw more light at her feet, but the crystal was up ahead, lighting the way for the others.
Should I draw enough energy to form a glow globe? To do so would further reveal the extent of her abilities unnecessarily. She opted to use the little handheld solar-charged light she carried instead. Lighting the cave floor at her feet, Rahlys stooped down to investigate. To her astonishment, she discovered they were walking on an undulating carpet made of layer upon layer of tiny blossoming roses of smoky black crystal.
Catching up to the others, she extinguished her light as she entered a second chamber through a roughly triangular portal. This cavern was a little larger than the first, the ceiling high enough for the crystal to shine from above, casting light all around them. Here, the layers of tiny black crystal roses covering the floor formed an enchanted landscape of hills and valleys and bushy mounds, which they were forced to circumnavigate.
“The chamber where the capsule was found is this way,” Zayla said as they approached a slit of an opening in the chamber wall. “You will have to duck going through the passageway leading to it; the ceiling is awfully low.” Brakalar led the group through the low tunnel, while Zayla stood to the side of the opening, ushering the others through ahead of her.
“This stiff old body doesn’t stoop like it used to,” Theon complained as he bent to the task. Ilene and Rahlys followed him with Zayla bringing up the rear. The third chamber, except for its blackness, was nothing like the other two.
“It’s a shrine!” Ilene said softly as the group spread out around a block of stone dominating the center of the chamber. More like a mausoleum, Rahlys thought to herself.
“The chamber has deteriorated since our last visit,” Zayla observed, “probably due to seismic activity.”
At one time, the room must have been a perfect cube, the walls, floor, and ceiling smooth and unbroken. But great forces, perhaps the Dark Devastation itself, had tweaked and distorted the cube-shaped room, cracking the walls and opening a break in the floor. Only the massive block of stone in the center seemed unblemished…but something was obviously missing. A deep depression in the top of the stone that no doubt matched the shape of Quaylyn’s capsule lay empty and bare.
“So this is where you found me,” Quaylyn said quietly, trying to keep his voice flat and unemotional…but Rahlys could not help detecting a hint of pain.
“How you were kept alive in this state for so long is beyond our understanding…but you are the living proof of it,” Brakalar said, still shaking his head over the incredibility of it all.
“I would like to spend a little time here alone, if I may…to meditate,” Quaylyn said softly.
“Of course,” Zayla said; no one else spoke. The others turned to go. “We’ll see you back at camp.” She turned on her handheld light and exited the chamber. Rahlys sent the crystal after Zayla to light the way and slowly the others followed, leaving them in darkness.
When everyone was gone, Rahlys drew energy, forming a small glow globe for subdued lighting and walked over to Quaylyn’s side, gently placing a comforting arm around him. To her relief, he didn’t shake her off. Together, they stared into the depression in the stone, pondering its significance. From the lines in his face, she could see him visualizing himself as an infant lying there entombed for millennia…by an evil father…a heartbreaking loss for a loving mother.
The oracle’s warning startled Rahlys into action. “Come on, we have to get out of here!” she cried, tugging on Quaylyn so urgently, he unthinkingly followed…at first.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, starting to resist, but before she could explain, the chamber began to shake.
“Come on!” Rahlys crawled into the exit tunnel first, the shaking intensifying around her. She had gone only a couple of feet when sharp pain, followed by nothingness, swept over her.
Rahlys didn’t hear Quaylyn crying out her name as the tunnel collapsed into a jumble of dusty rock.