Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
Under a Zaota Tree
“Rahlys! By Seaa’s light, no…Rahlys!” Quaylyn could face anything…but losing Rahlys. Upon reaching the tunnel opening, a cloud of dust choked him back, and then the glow globe went out, leaving him in darkness. Finally, the shaking subsided. Quaylyn groped his way blindly into the tunnel, frantically tossing stones that barred his way.
“Rahlys, can you hear me?” He paused briefly, listening over his wildly beating heart for a response. There was none. Then, suddenly, the crystal appeared, lighting up the chamber and tunnel behind him, giving him renewed hope. She was alive. The crystal’s presence was assurance of that.
“Rahlys!” he cried again, tossing more rocks. His hand found a leg. “Rahlys,” he whispered softly as he cleared rocks from around her. He knelt beside her, a tight fit in the narrow tunnel.
“Rahlys, wake up,” he cried. “I’ll get you out of here. Please, just stay with me.” To Quaylyn’s relief, she moaned softly. “Rahlys, can you hear me?” He was afraid to move her, not knowing the extent of her injuries.
“Quaylyn?” Rahlys opened her eyes. There was someone next to her, but he was hardly recognizable with all the dirt and grime on his face. Was that blood on his cheek? “What happened?” She made a move to sit up, but rejected the idea for a moment.
“The tunnel is blocked. I need to get you out of here. Where do you hurt?”
“A bit all over. Just give me a minute and I’ll be all right. Where is all the light coming from? Is that the crystal?”
“It just appeared on its own,” Quaylyn said.
Rahlys dimmed the light and conjured the crystal to her hand. In its glow, she gazed thankfully into Quaylyn’s face. There was so much she wished she could tell him, so much she wanted to confide in him. She remembered fondly a time when she had trusted Quaylyn…a time when they had been allies. How she wished it could be that way now.
“Thanks for coming to my rescue,” she said, smiling up at him sweetly. Carefully, she rolled onto her side to see for herself that the tunnel ahead was indeed blocked. Then she sat up cautiously. “The crystal can take us out of here,” she reminded Quaylyn. The chest containing the Rod of Destruction would have to wait. She knew where it was…and so did Brakalar… but he would have to clear the tunnel to get to it.
Take us out to the clearing in front of the caves, Rahlys commanded the crystal…and sunshine licked their faces in the open arena. Raven cawed raucously in joyful celebration at their appearance, and the rest of the team quickly surrounded them as Quaylyn helped Rahlys up on her feet.
“We were just about to start digging you out,” Zayla said, with obvious relief that they were safe and alive. “Are you all right?”
“We’re fine,” Rahlys assured her. There was excited chatter about the quake for a while, and then the group dispersed to explore, or nap, or pass their free time as they pleased. Rahlys wanted to clean up, but there was little water to spare. She needed to talk to Theon…alone. Finding a way to do so privately would be difficult in such a confined area.
“Come sit down with me here in the shade for a while and have a cup of tea,” Zayla coaxed, pressing a small vessel of hot liquid into her hands and leading her to a sliver of shade along the western edge of the arena. Rahlys sat…gratefully she realized after she sat down…and cradled her tea, sipping it thoughtfully.
“The Devastated Continent has changed greatly in the short span of time since the first expedition,” Zayla said, contemplating what she’d observed. “There are more plants in both variety and density covering the continent now, but the shape of the land keeps changing. Looking out upon the landscape, it looks stable, but it is in constant flux, changing rapidly.”
“What was it like on the first expedition when you found Quaylyn?” Rahlys asked, gazing groggily at Zayla. She needed to get some rest too, Rahlys realized.
“Bleak and barren,” Zayla said. “Very little grew on the land back then, and what did grow grew mostly near the coast. It is heartening to see the transition….” Rahlys heard no more.
When Rahlys opened her eyes again, the sliver of shadow had swallowed up the arena and was climbing up the unassailable peaks to the east above the caves.
The Rod of Destruction! Rahlys jumped up, despite still feeling groggy. She had to find Theon. Reaching out mentally, she located him in the second chamber of the Sooty Caves. To her dismay, Brakalar and Rojaire were there, too. The rest of the group was slumbering in the open arena. She telepathed Theon a message on a tight beam.
We need to talk. It’s urgent! Meet me in the first chamber. Rahlys had no way of knowing if he received the message since Theon was unable to telepath back, but by the time she reached the first chamber, Theon was there.
“What’s so urgent?” he asked immediately.
“What are Brakalar and Rojaire doing?” Rahlys asked, her expression weighted down with concern.
“They’re trying to clear the collapsed tunnel so they can further explore the third chamber. Why?”
“The Rod of Destruction is in the third chamber. It’s in the stone block in the center of the room.”
“That would explain this madness.”
“We need to go to the third chamber and find the Rod of Destruction before Brakalar and Rojaire clear the tunnel.”
“How do you know it’s there?”
“When we were in the chamber together, I detected the key Brakalar is carrying pointing to it. Brakalar knows it’s there, too; that’s why he’s clearing the tunnel.”
“Why did you wait so long to tell me this?”
“Zayla gave me some tea to drink; it put me to sleep. I thought she was just trying to be helpful. Do you think she drugged me to keep me from finding the Rod of Destruction before Brakalar can reach the third chamber?”
“I don’t know,” Theon scratched his head. “Take us to the third chamber. We’ll have a look around.”
“Take me with you,” said a voice in the dark. Both Theon and Rahlys jumped as Quaylyn revealed his presence. “Please, I’m on your side. I know you two are up to something. I just want to help.” Rahlys and Theon exchanged glances in the miniscule amount of light reaching them from the cave entrance. It’s safer to take him with us, before he talks to others, Theon’s nod seemed to say, so Rahlys teleported the three of them into the sealed off third chamber.
The room felt stuffy, closed. Rahlys released the crystal; fine unsettled dust drifted in the light. Was it just her unease playing tricks with her mind, or had the room become smaller? She hoped it was still stable after the last groundshake.
Rahlys and Theon fell to searching for a way into the stone block that had once cradled Quaylyn. This chamber had been Droclum’s idea of a nursery…the stone block Quaylyn’s crib. Rahlys shuddered at the realizations.
“What are we looking for?” Quaylyn asked, studying the stone block along with them. Theon motioned for Quaylyn to speak softly. They could faintly hear the cave-in removal team working on the other side of the rock barrier.
“We’re looking for a way into this block of stone,” Theon said quietly.
“Is the block of stone the chest?” Rahlys asked softly.
“No, the chest is only about this big.” Theon defined a space with his hands about the size of a loaf of homemade bread. “It must be inside the stone.”
“What chest?” Quaylyn asked in a whisper.
“Open the stone and you will find out,” Theon offered.
“All right, stand back.” Theon and Rahlys obediently moved away as Quaylyn lifted the largest section of broken floor he could lift and heaved it with a vengeance against the stone block…but the stone block remained intact.
“They must have heard that,” Rahlys said, indicating the miners.
“Rock against rock isn’t suspicious. It’s your turn,” Theon told Rahlys. “Why don’t you try using the elemental forces?”
Rahlys sighed deeply. Could she find a way into the block of stone and remove the chest? The sound of scraping rock was getting closer; there was no time to waste. Rahlys dimmed the light, calling the crystal to her hand.
Help me find a way to the chest, she commanded gently, holding the crystal in her hand as she drew energy from air and stone…energy from her very being…uniting it with the power of the oracle. The crystal glowed iridescently, the light seeping out between her fingers as the building force began to flow from Rahlys…through the crystal…and into the stone.
While her solid form remained behind, Rahlys journeyed into the block of stone, its interior lit by the glow of energy. There sat the chest, dark and foreboding. As she neared the chest, the many runes etched on its seamless surface became charged by the power flow, and sparked into brightness. She reached for it and the glow of the runes intensified. Squinting her eyes against the blinding brightness, Rahlys picked up the chest. She cradled it securely in her arms and worked her way back out of the stone. Somehow, the distance seemed great. Outside the stone, Quaylyn and Theon waited anxiously as they watched over Rahlys standing emptily beside them, the sound of the miners beyond the collapsed tunnel getting ever closer.
Then, suddenly Rahlys moved, a chest covered with glowing runes clutched tightly in her arms. Rahlys released the energy she held and opened her hand, releasing the crystal. Immediately, the runes on the chest went dark.
“Are you all right?” Quaylyn asked, his face distorted with concern.
“Yes, we need to get out of here.” They could hear Brakalar and Rojaire getting closer. Summoning the crystal back to its pouch, Rahlys teleported the three of them to the mountain passage they had hiked in on, placing them a safe distance from the camp.
“Good job, Rahlys!” Theon squealed, nearly dancing a jig when he saw where they were. “Now, all we need is the key.”
“What for? You are never to open this chest, do you hear me?’ Rahlys lashed out. “We need to destroy this…and the key, too!” she added for emphasis.
I was just going to look at it,” Theon said, his feelings hurt.
“Look at what?” Quaylyn asked impatiently. “What’s in the chest?”
“A weapon of mass destruction, my boy. Probably was meant to be your scepter,” Theon said. Quaylyn paled visibly.
“So that’s what Brakalar and Rojaire are looking for, and they have the key,” Quaylyn said. “Rahlys, quick, you must cast a spell to block the key from detecting the lock again.”
“Good idea,” Theon agreed. With input from both Theon and Quaylyn, Rahlys wove an invisible screen around the chest, protecting it from detection. She examined the darkly tarnished ancient relic covered with etched runes, noticing, as she turned in her hands, that there were no visible seams indicating a lid.
“This stays between the three of us,” Theon said, staring intently at Quaylyn.
“You can trust me,” Quaylyn said solemnly, and Rahlys felt in her heart that she could. She hoped she was right.
“I’ll carry the chest until we can dispose of it,” Theon offered. “That is, if you don’t think I harbor plans to establish an evil regime.”
Rahlys really didn’t want to guard the chest herself; she handed it to Theon. After stashing the chest away in his cloak until he could transfer it to his pack, they casually strolled back toward the campsite.
Ambling into the arena nonchalantly, they found nothing had changed during their absence except for the mountain’s shadow climbing higher up the eastern peaks. Ilene, Anthya, and Zayla were sleeping; Rojaire and Brakalar were still in the tunnel. Raven alone watched their arrival from his perch on a rock ledge. The three of them settled comfortably around Theon’s pack, watching as he secured the chest away…then they sealed their alliance in a shared meal, Raven dropping in for tidbits.
When Brakalar emerged from the caves with Rojaire, his demeanor was dark and foreboding. Rojaire appeared as indifferent as always. The newly formed alliance of three knew Brakalar hadn’t found what he was looking for. They struggled to look like they didn’t know anything. Rahlys was sure Brakalar’s face and arms were twice as dirty as her own.
As darkness descended, the rest turned in after an exhausting day until only Quaylyn and Rahlys were still up. Having slept most of the day, Rahlys was wide awake.
“Want to do some spelunking?” Rahlys asked Quaylyn seductively.
“Sure. What did you have in mind?” Quaylyn asked, smiling back at her. And not just any old smile either, but a real, endearing, Quaylyn smile, complete with dimples.
“Follow me,” Rahlys said, and she led Quaylyn into the caves. Once they were out of sight of the sleeping expedition, she conjured the crystal from her pouch.
Find us a hidden chamber with a clean pool of water, Rahlys requested, caressing the crystal with her thoughts. In moments, she and Quaylyn stood in a broad cavern of lavender stone with an invitingly clear pool of water, suitable for bathing, with a skylight above, opening to a star spangled sky.
Seaa rose and set while the expedition continued to camp in front of the Sooty Caves. Brakalar spent most of that time stewing over the disappearance of the object the key sought. He had found it once. The key had clearly indicated the object of its search was in the stone block the capsule had rested on. Then just as he and Rojaire were about to reach the chamber, the key pulled in the opposite direction…before going off alert altogether! Now it had returned to search mode.
From Seaa rise to Seaa set, Brakalar combed the block and the chamber for a lock the key would fit, but found nothing. Having exhausted all his options, Brakalar finally announced, with obvious reluctance, that the expedition would move on at sunrise.
“Let’s go hunt for something to eat besides zan fruit,” Tassyn suggested, “maybe over by that next ridge; it’s on our way.” Without further discussion, the group headed northeast, the sun to their backs already starting to set. The Band of Rogues had made it back to the location where they had abducted Traevus and were now tracking the last four members of the expedition in an effort to catch up with them.
Traevus had been cooperative on the return trip, hoping to escape in time to warn the others when they got closer. Sarus, Caleeza, Selyzar, and Caponya have probably made it to the slopes of Mt. Vatre by now, if they didn’t waste too much time looking for me. He thought of Cremyn, mentally an empty shell after disappearing for a time in the temple ruins, and Ollen’s good-heartedness in volunteering to take her to the beach to intercept Captain Setas.
It was getting dark when the band reached a nearly dry river bed with loaded pinkberry bushes growing in wild profusion along its moist banks. As the men loaded their mouths with the succulent sweet teardrop fruit, Traevus, without raising his head or ceasing to eat, eased away from the group in the growing darkness.
Out of the corner of his eye, Traevus spied a rock outcrop to his left that might afford him some cover to slip away. He slowly made his way toward it while continuing to harvest. When he was only a pace away from the rocks, he made a dash for them, breaking into a run as soon as he was out of sight. Pushing and breathing hard, Traevus thought he had escaped, when abruptly without warning, he found himself running along the stream bed, back toward Stram and his men! Realizing he had been caught and turned around, Traevus tried in vain to change direction in mid-stride, when a zap of energy directed from Stram’s uplifted hand hit him full force, sending him spiraling to the ground in shuddering pain.
The grasslands were a welcome sight as the expedition emerged from the mountain passage the next morning. Feathery clouds, the first seen since they arrived on the continent, crept in from the west as they turned toward the south, following the contour of the Crescent Mountains. Everyone’s spirits, except maybe Brakalar’s, were uplifted by the long rest and promise of new adventures. Brakalar and Rojaire walked abreast far ahead of the rest of the group. Rahlys and Ilene were content taking up the rear, and Raven flew wide circles over the landscape, happy to be on the move again.
Rahlys listened to Ilene’s chatter about Rojaire’s amiable qualities…and the wonders the Devastated Continent had to offer…also mostly from Rojaire. Rahlys wasn’t sure Theon would agree with his daughter’s assessment of the lone adventurer, but she didn’t say anything; the passage of time would bring out Rojaire’s true colors…whatever they were.
When Ilene was quiet, Rahlys walked along lost in thoughts of her own. How could the Rod of Destruction be destroyed? What had been Brakalar’s plans for the rod? Could they keep it safely out of his reach? What was Rojaire’s involvement? Were Zayla and Anthya involved too? Did she and Theon do the right thing trusting Quaylyn? Within her heart, she certainly hoped so.
As the miles passed under their feet, the prairie gradually narrowed and the brush-covered hills closed in again. By mid-morning, a westerly wind ushered in heavy clouds, blocking the sun. Rahlys felt the first big raindrops, one on her arm…then one on her head. Rahlys and Ilene had lagged some behind the others when Raven flew toward them, squawking alarmingly. He could no longer telepath images, but he could certainly express alarm.
“What is it?” Ilene asked. “Has he seen something?”
“I think so. Let’s check it out.”
“Without telling the others?”
“We’ll get back to them.”
Show us the way, Rahlys directed Raven, and he flew off in the direction he wanted them to follow, a south-westerly course into the hills that veered away from the rest of the expedition. Rahlys teleported ahead from one visible point to another, trying to keep up with Raven, until they saw what he wanted them to see. There on the hillside an expedition flag fluttered in the storm driven breeze.
“Looks like we’ve found the lost expedition’s trail again.”
By the time Rahlys and Ilene led the rest of the group to the marker, the storm was raging around them in earnest, rain pounding the thirsty ground.
“It’s a grave marker,” Zayla said solemnly, stating a fact they all knew. “Cremyn,” she read off the flag. Cremyn had been one of her favorite students, a bright young woman with a promising future. “That still leaves six unaccounted for.”
“What do you suppose ended her longevity?” Anthya asked. They looked around, but if clues had been left, there were none to be found.
“What do we do now?” Ilene asked.
“We move on,” Brakalar said disinterestedly. “I see nothing to gain by stopping here.”
“It’s time we look for a place to camp and get out of the storm,” Zayla said, gently taking charge. “There’s a group of trees below where we can take shelter. I suggest we head for them.” Brakalar didn’t protest, and Zayla led her soggy troops to the nearby grove.
Zaota trees turned out to be surprisingly good shelters, living grass huts offering dry circles of ground around their trunks. The space under a mature zaota tree is large enough to shelter a half dozen people…two or three comfortably! And there was more head room under the sky reaching branches than Rahlys had expected after passing through its thick grass skirt canopy.
Ilene and Rahlys, having decided to keep each other company during the storm, set to work making the tree they shared more comfortable. Releasing the crystal to light the dimness, they pulled the long dry withered undergrowth of leaves from overhead to make soft fluffy beds. Rahlys speeded up the drying of their hair and clothing, already designed to dry quickly, by drawing energy to heat the air around them. Once dry, they spread their cloaks over the beds of leaves to make a soft bed to lounge on. The rain continued to come down, the sound muffled by the thick cocoon of foliage around them, adding to the feel of cozy security.
“Comfortable in here,” Rojaire said, slipping in uninvited. Ilene was glad to see him, and she moved over offering him a place to sit. Almost immediately, a second body popped in, filling the shelter. It was a soggy Quaylyn carrying a harvest bag full of fresh food.
“I just wanted to check and make sure you…everyone…is all right,” he said to Rahlys, correcting himself to include Ilene…if not Rojaire.
“We’re fine, thank you,” Rahlys said as Theon’s head popped in, sending everyone shuffling over in one direction or the other to make enough room for him to bring his back in out of the rain. There were enough trees for everyone to have one, including Raven, therefore no need to crowd in with her and Ilene…unless they wanted to socialize.
“It’s a party!” Ilene said.
“Shall we invite Anthya, Zayla, and Brakalar over too?” Rahlys asked sarcastically.
“Let’s not,” Rojaire said, without hesitation, pulling a dark canister out of his cloak. “I brought some of my brew to share, something I ferment out of zan fruit. There’s only enough for five.”
“Did you come here to get my daughter drunk?” Theon asked.
“Not at all; I merely intended to lift sodden spirits.”
“Then I don’t mind if I do,” Theon said, jovially. “I have some moose jerky,” he said, digging in the pack he was reluctant to leave unattended. “Best moose jerky you’ve ever eaten. Well, in your case, Rojaire, the best thing you’ve ever eaten.”
“Is that so?” Rojaire said, taking a piece of jerky. “Plant or animal?” he asked, scrutinizing it, and tore off a piece with his teeth.
“Animal. Big, ungainly brute, but very tasty.”
Uncapping the canister, Rojaire passed it to Ilene, who took a cautious sniff, followed by an even more cautious sip. Screwing up her face, she handed it back to him. Then Rojaire took a large gulp before handing it to Theon, who did likewise.
“Not bad,” Theon said critically, offering it to Rahlys. “Almost as good as mine used to be.” Rahlys declined, so he handed the canister to Quaylyn, who tasted its contents before handing it back to Rojaire.
“Does anyone know what it is Brakalar is looking for?” Rojaire asked casually. Startled by Rojaire’s question, Rahlys quickly scanned for eavesdroppers, but found none. Raven nestled in the branches of the nearest tree. Zayla and Anthya were camped together two trees down, and Brakalar had isolated himself under another tree some distance away.
“Brakalar is looking for something?” Ilene asked in all her innocence.
“Don’t you know what he’s looking for?” Quaylyn asked, his accusing stare making Rojaire feel uneasy. “You were helping him dig.” Tension charged the air.
“Brakalar said the chamber hid something of tremendous importance,” Rojaire said.
“Did he find it…the thing of tremendous importance?” Ilene asked in the silence that followed.
There was no response. Theon had been adamant about keeping Ilene in the dark…and Rahlys was starting to understand why.
“Does he look like he found anything?” Rojaire boomed in a low roar. “The man can be fanatical sometimes. His mood is as dark and steamy as a summer night!”
With comments like that, Rahlys wasn’t sure she was looking forward to summer. Slowly, the tension subsided as the canister made the rounds again.
“Have you ever run into any members of the lost expedition?” Rahlys asked Rojaire, broaching a different topic.
“No, I haven’t, but it’s a big continent and I returned to the Academy for a time to present my findings. It is my hope that joining this expedition will help legitimize my work.” Rojaire took another swig from the canister and offered it around. Only Theon took him up on his offer.
“Weren’t you once a member of the Band of Rogues?” Theon asked, looking for facts.
“I was with them for only a short time; they weren’t the Band of Rogues then! I am not a criminal!” Rojaire was getting tired of constantly having to defend his virtue. He took the canister Theon handed back and drained the contents down his throat.
“What about you, Theon? We all know your background. Reformed or not, you can’t take back the past. From what Ilene tells me about your life in Alaska, you’re something of a free spirit yourself,” Rojaire continued, still in his own defense. “Well, I, too, am a free man. I don’t believe the Runes of the Crystal Table and the High Council have the right to dictate how I live out my longevity, what services I will perform for others, or where I will go.”
“But surely, it’s not like that!” Ilene gasped.
“Isn’t it?” Rojaire retorted.
From there, no one really knew what to say, and eventually the group dispersed to shelters of their own. After Ilene settled in, Rahlys dug into a pouch of her pack for her journal and pen, when her hand inadvertently cupped the golden marble Melinda had given to her for a good luck charm. Pulling it out, she moved it about in her hand, caressing it with her fingers, smiling as she thought of Melinda and the others back home. Sentimentally, she continued to hold the stone as she wrote in her journal. Even after she put the journal away and conjured the crystal back to the beaded pouch, Rahlys still clung to the unusual orb. She lay on her bed of leaves gazing into it; it seemed to almost glow in the subdued lighting. The golden stone…so perfectly round…so perfectly smooth…reflected back what little light there was available, sheltered from a storm under a zaota tree. Golden…and so perfectly round…so perfectly smooth…as round and smooth and golden as Seaa herself!