Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
The Temple of Tranquility
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Ilene exclaimed, waltzing through one flowering meadow after another. Enchanted with the continent before, she became smitten with it now. The long heavy rain, followed by sunshine, brought new germination and bloom to the land, providing tender leafy vegetables and edible flowers to augment their limited diet. Rahlys had to admit the land had its beauty, but in her own heart the beauty was marred by thoughts of Rojaire’s outburst under the zaota tree during the rainstorm.
“Do you ever think about Rojaire’s accusation that the High Council and the Academy deny its people free will?” Rahlys asked Ilene casually.
Ilene hesitated just a bit before responding. “I have to admit it has bothered me some. I think Rojaire’s gotten a bad reputation just for wanting to make his own decisions in life. And he’s right, Father should understand, but instead he seems to suspect him of some sort of foul play…which he won’t even talk about.”
Rahlys thought she detected a bit of a pout. “Perhaps it would not be wise to get too involved with Rojaire,” she advised. “He doesn’t seem to be the type who makes a lot of commitments.”
“Now you sound just like Father. We’re just friends.”
Rahlys let the subject drop, but that night as they traveled by Seaa’s light, she broached the topic gently with Zayla, who seemed constantly vexed by Rojaire’s presence.
“Does the High Council determine everyone’s missions in life?”
“Of course,” Zayla said without hesitation. “With the council’s help, we can all reach our full potential.”
“What about the pursuit of happiness?
“At whose expense?” Zayla came to a halt. “Life comes with responsibilities.” She was a stern woman when defending her principles. “I am quite knowledgeable of the political and sociological conditions on Earth. Is this chaos what you are offering?”
“That’s not exactly what I meant.”
“What, exactly, did you mean then?”
“Well, it seems like people here lack the freedom to make choices on how they want to live their lives.”
“You’ve been listening to Rojaire,” Zayla concluded instantly, a definite bite in her tone. “Regardless of what Rojaire has been telling you, we all have a choice in how we conduct ourselves, and any mission assigned by the High Council can be declined.” She resumed walking.
Rahlys sighed in dismay, staring at Zayla’s back, and then hurried her pace to catch up again. She decided to try another tactic. “How is it that Rojaire is so well versed in English?”
“Language training is a simple matter.”
“But I had the impression Rojaire was a late addition to the expedition.”
“You are very observant,” she conceded. “Rojaire was once trained for a mission to Earth, but his appointment was rejected.”
“It is not my place to tell you.” After walking in silence for some time, Zayla surprised Rahlys with a final note.
“The only time I ever questioned the wisdom of the Runes of the Crystal Table was when Quaylyn was sent to help you destroy his own father.” Zayla turned to face Rahlys. “I never should have doubted. The mission was a success.”
“What about the impact on Quaylyn?”
“Would you rather have Droclum killing and destroying so Quaylyn could pursue happiness?”
With that, Zayla glided off ahead with all her usual grace, making it clear the conversation had come to an end.
Days and nights began to blur with one another as the expedition traversed trackless hills and valleys searching for a route around the Crescent Mountains. Near the point of the crescent, where the mountains ended, they would find the ruins of the Temple of Tranquility, the site of Quaylyn’s birth. Rotation after rotation they continued their journey southeastward, and each night Seaa set a little earlier than the night before. Rahlys knew that eventually, during the long hot summer, Seaa would disappear from the night sky altogether, until the moment of reckoning when once again the sun and Seaa would face off from opposite horizons…delineating winter! Will I still be here then, so far from home, Rahlys asked herself. I sure hope not.
In her journal, Rahlys tried to keep track of the progression of time in Alaska’s Susitna Valley. By her calculations, over two months had passed. That meant it was November, the beginning of the long, cold, period of mostly darkness. She could picture Melinda engrossed in her art and schoolwork, Leaf busy with growing and playing, and immersed in it all, Maggie and Vince…with a new baby! Rahlys felt a pang of regret. She was missing so much.
“Do you miss home?” she asked Theon, hiking beside her, still carrying the chest containing the Rod of Destruction concealed in his pack.
“Of course I do, but when I was there, I missed here.”
“Maggie and Vince have a new baby by now!”
“Two new babies.”
“Maggie was carrying twins. A boy and a girl, I think.”
“How would you know that?”
“I could detect their signatures even before they were born.”
Thinking of Maggie and Vince and the children reminded her again of the stone. She had logically ruled out the possibility of it being the stone indefatigable Captain Setas of the ferryboat had referred to. After all, Melinda found it in a creek bed back on Earth…a long way from the Devastated Continent. Nevertheless, Rahlys reached into her pouch.
“Before we left home, Melinda gave me this,” she said, holding up the smooth, golden stone, reflecting Seaa’s light, and “…so it can’t be the stone you are looking for,” she said, dropping it into his hand, “but I thought I would show it to you anyway.” Theon halted and rolled the smooth round marble between his fingers, its reflective glow lighting his studious face.
“And where did Melinda get this?” he asked.
“She found it in the creek by my cabin. I know it can’t be the stone you seek, but look at it, it’s as round and golden as Seaa herself, a mirror image,” she said, pointing to the golden star hanging in the southern sky.
“It certainly is,” Theon agreed, turning the stone in his fingers as he gazed upon it with obvious interest. “So what does it do?”
“What? It doesn’t do anything. Melinda gave it me so I would have something to remind me of home.”
“May I hold on to this for a while?” he asked. “I promise I will give it back to you.”
“Of course,” Rahlys agreed.
Seaa set early, long before the sun was due to rise, leaving a true night sky crowded with stars. Tired and hungry, everyone gathered around the cheerful campfire where a simple meal was cooked and shared. As the embers died down, one by one, they rolled themselves up in their cloaks to sleep the rest of the night away…until only Rahlys and Quaylyn remained.
“Do you have names for constellations of stars?” she asked Quaylyn quietly, gazing up at the unfamiliar celestial dome. She could see his grin in the starlight.
“Actually we do, from antiquity unimaginable. Some even have stories attached to them. You see that large ring of brighter stars containing lots of dimmer ones?” There were so many distinct stars filling the night sky, far more than back home, she had a hard time picking out the formation he indicated. Quaylyn moved closer to her and pointed halfway up the northwest quadrant. Rahlys leaned gently against him sighting along his finger.
“I see it!”
“That’s the Great Bowl and all the fainter stars inside are grain, a promise by the goddess Aaia to provide food for her people. And then above the Great Bowl and a little to the right you see that long curved line of stars?”
“Yes.” Rahlys continued to lean against him; it felt nice in a surprising way.
“Follow it all the way up to the cluster at the end.”
“That’s the needle the gods used to sew together the fabric of the world.”
“Are you making all this up?” She gave him a playful punch.
Quaylyn pretended to be hurt by her comment. “Are you insinuating my ancestors had less imagination than your own?”
“No, of course not. I didn’t mean to imply that.”
“Well then, no offense taken,” he said with a dimpled smile. Together, they watched the star-studded heavens in silence for a while, pleasantly conscious of each other’s closeness. “And, Rahlys,” Quaylyn spoke ever so softly, “I’m sorry for how I behaved before.”
“All is forgiven,” she whispered back just as softly. They watched the night sky, contentedly nestled together. The campfire had long ago gone cold, when Rahlys sat up. “I’m going to get some rest,” she whispered. “Good night.”
Rahlys moved off away from the fire pit and was comfortably rolled up in her cloak, nearly asleep, when she received Theon’s telepathic message.
Your stone is the stone we were looking for! Rahlys picked up on Theon’s excitement. I can draw on the elemental forces! Then there was a pause. But that might mean…now you can’t. Rahlys summoned the crystal from her pouch to her hand hidden under her cloak. Immediately she felt its smooth, hard, faceted surface wrapped in her fingers.
Not necessarily. I just summoned the crystal to my hand.
Try something else.
We are communicating telepathically.
Can you still teleport?
I think so.
See the zaota tree silhouetted a few hundred feet south of here?
Rahlys sat up and located the silhouette of a zaota tree against the starlit sky. I see it.
Meet me there.
Yes, of course now…if you don’t mind, he added politely.
All right, I’ll meet you there. She preferred sleep, but reluctantly teleported to the tree to find Theon already waiting for her.
“Did you teleport here?” she asked.
“Yes, and so did you. This means you have your abilities even without the stone.”
“But how does it work?”
“I’m not sure. Somehow the stone repels the blocking force…at least to an extent. We need to keep searching; there may be more of these…star stones. And let’s keep this to ourselves for a while. It could work to our advantage.”
“What do you have in mind?” Rahlys asked, knowing he was scheming something.
“Tomorrow, I’m going to suggest to Brakalar that you, Raven, and I scout ahead of the rest of the expedition to the Temple of Tranquility. There’s something I want to try at the site before the rest of the expedition arrives.”
“You think Brakalar will go for that?”
“With the star stone in my possession, I may be able to persuade him. He will not suspect me of having any power.”
Morning broke clear and warm, and with Brakalar’s mentally coerced consent, Theon, Raven, and Rahlys, feeling somewhat rested, headed out while the others were just stirring. As soon as they were out of sight of the camp, Rahlys directed Raven to follow the lavender ridge, covered with red-orange, rose, and blue-green foliage, southeast to the end of the Crescent Mountains. Following the same ridge, Theon located a relatively level area on its eastern slope in his spy glass and pointed it out to Rahlys. Fairly certain the location was safe, they teleported themselves there. In this fashion, they quickly covered great distances, with Raven struggling to keep up with them. Nothing moved. There was no sound except for a gentle wind caressing the thinning zaota trees, grains, and bushes. The dark bluish black peaks of the southernmost reach of the Crescent Mountains gradually diminished in height and ferocity as the ridge they had been following dropped into a broad yellow and purple valley that extended unbroken to the distant end of the mountainous crescent.
“Where are the ruins of the Temple of Tranquility?” Rahlys asked, looking through the spy glass.
“The ruins are on the other side of the peaks. According to Rojaire, a split in the mountain opens up into a passage that leads into the temple ruins. A couple more hops and we should be there.” Theon leaned on the zaota tree walking staff he still carried breathing heavily, rivulets of beaded sweat running down his face. Each jump they made seemed to take quite a toll on him, Rahlys noticed. She knew he needed to rest, but he would probably balk at the suggestion.
“Rojaire says he found identifiable ruins, but I doubt there will be much to see,” Theon added. “From what I have seen so far, the destruction of the land was too catastrophic to leave many relics. He also said the center of the continent is crystallized. That’s another concept I find hard to believe.” Theon wobbled a little in his exuberance despite his walking stick.
“Are you all right?” Rahlys asked with some concern.
“As sound as gold,” he said, pounding on his chest as proof, knowing she picked up on the lie. He pointed down into the valley. “I’m ready to move on. See where it looks like there’s an indention in the side of the mountain? Let’s go there. Hopefully, that’s the shortcut Rojaire mentioned.”
“All right, I’ll take us both there,” Rahlys said emphatically. Theon wanted to protest, but he knew when to keep silent. She teleported them down into the purple and yellow valley, where an abundance of yellow-orange zan fruit bushes thriving in sandy purple soil gave the valley its vivid colors. The Crescent Mountains, still towering above them in jagged bluish black peaks, dwindled to a point in the distance.
“We can walk from here,” Rahlys suggested.
“A little stroll would do me good,” Theon agreed.
The warm morning turned into a hot day under a clear golden sky, but a refreshing breeze made it quite tolerable. As they strolled toward the break in the low jagged peaks, Raven’s raucous cry hailed them from a distance.
“Aaaaaark! Aaaaaark!” he cried, finally catching up to them.
About time you made it here, Rahlys teased him playfully.
Raven landed on a pinnacle of rock above them, watching as they gingerly made their way through the pass. Most of the pass was obstacle free, but in a few places they had to climb over or squeeze through jumbles of small boulders. Finally, they broke out of the Crescent Mountains to the other side.
“Oh…” Rahlys gasped, even while catching her breath, as her eyes discovered the Temple of Tranquility…magnificent even in ruins. She gazed in awe at the immense expanse of crumbling walls, arches, and towers running down into the valley below…partially buried in rubble…and becoming once again a part of the mountain.
“Never in my wildest dreams did I expect to return here,” Theon panted softly.
Although he had barely spoken above a whisper, Rahlys heard all the emotion his statement carried. She turned toward him, and gazed into ancient eyes glazed over with sadness…and hard earned wisdom. Suddenly, he looked older than he ever had before, his aged frame slightly bent. Taking his arm, she guided him to a large block of dark blue stone. She urged him to sit, and then sat down beside him. Raven took off into a circuitous flight high above the perimeter of the ruins.
It didn’t take long for Rahlys and Theon to realize there was something eerily strange about the place. It had been a bright sunny day before entering the temple, but here, the sunlight didn’t seem as bright as it should be, like a haze hung over the ruins, washing out the shadows. The air was unnaturally still, not even a subtle breeze stirred, and the grounds were unnaturally barren, with not a single invasive blade of grass or leafy bush offering to soften the austerity. Even the surrounding rolling purple and yellow orange expanse of sparse grass and zan fruit bushes stretching into the distance kept a wide berth from the disquieting ruins.
Raven’s behavior also raised questions. All the while they sat and rested, drank water, and nibbled at zan fruit, Raven never attempted to fly through the ruins or even over the airspace above them to investigate. Usually, he was far more inquisitive than that. Instead, he chortled disconcertingly, urging them to leave. Rahlys tried to communicate with him to find out why he was disturbed, but all she could pick up was a rush of wariness for her efforts. But increasingly, Rahlys could sense the source of Raven’s discomfort.
“Aaaarrrk! Aaaarrk!” Raven cried, as thin wisps of fragmented energy, strange invisible tattered forces, drifted all around them. As Rahlys’ uneasiness grew, so did Raven’s agitation.
“Do you feel them?” Rahlys asked Theon. “There are bands of energy flowing all around us.” She stood and walked around, trying to orient on them.
“Yes,” Theon agreed, and he also stood to investigate. As they carefully wove their way around piles of rubble, they could feel the changes in the flows of energy.
“What do you think it is?” Rahlys asked.
“The temple was highly fortified with wards forged from elemental forces drawn and worked long ago,” Theon began to speculate. “Perhaps we are perceiving remnants of energy from some of the protections that were in place at the time of the Dark Devastation. The spells that guarded the temple had to have been powerful for there to be ruins still left here for us to see.”
Brakalar felt once more the tug of the key he carried toward something unknown. There had been nothing since the Sooty Caves. Why all of a sudden now? The pull came from the direction they were headed. Was the lock the key would fit in the temple ruins? If so, why had he gotten a false reading at the caves? His hand reached automatically for the pouch, and then catching himself, he unobtrusively lowered his hand again. Excitement put new spring into his step. There was a treasure to be found, hopefully an artifact wielding great power. He glanced around, locating the rest of the members of the expedition. Zayla was matching him step for step, and Quaylyn and Anthya were following closely, but Ilene and Rojaire trailed far behind, more focused upon animated conversation than hiking.
“What’s wrong?” Zayla asked, noticing his agitation.
“Nothing,” Brakalar glanced around nervously, “but I would like to pick up the pace.” He couldn’t completely hide the impatience in his voice. Zayla gave him a suspicious glance, which she quickly veiled over.
“Why don’t you just go on ahead,” she suggested. “We will meet you at the ruins. Rojaire knows the way.” She had long been certain Brakalar was withholding something from her. Despite the day’s mounting warmth, she felt a chilling foreboding cold sweat beading down her spine. Giving him some space would be the best way to catch him off guard. It was an offer Brakalar couldn’t resist.
“I’ll see you at the ruins,” he said gravely, relieved she hadn’t questioned him further. Soon, his lone figure advanced far ahead of them.
“What was that all about?” Anthya asked as she and Quaylyn approached.
“Brakalar started acting strangely again, like he did at the caves. He became agitated and wanted to hurry. He also reached for his pouch again. I have a bad feeling about this. I fear he could do something that would put Rahlys and Theon in danger. I’m going to push ahead and follow him…just in case.”
Quaylyn and Anthya watched her go, taking off at nearly a sprint. Quaylyn realized he needed to keep an eye on both Brakalar and Zayla. If the concealment barrier Rahlys had formed around the chest containing the Rod of Destruction had failed, Theon and Rahlys could indeed be in great danger. But what should he do about Anthya? Whose side was she on? Were there even sides to take? Quaylyn nearly sighed in exasperation, but caught himself. He didn’t really want to reveal any information to Anthya, but on the other hand, she was a skilled warrior who could help cover his back.
“Let’s keep up with them,” he said to her. “And stay out of sight.”
“What about them?” Anthya asked, indicating Ilene and Rojaire.
“Let’s keep them out of it…if they aren’t already involved.”
“Involved in what?” Anthya asked.
But Quaylyn didn’t answer; it was time to get moving. He loped in leaps and bounds higher up the ridge heading southeast. Anthya followed him without hesitation.
Brakalar galloped through the flowering brush growing on the gentle slope. He followed a natural bench of relatively flat land with a single-mindedness that long sustained his forward momentum. Heavy exertion soon had Brakalar gasping for breath and perspiring profusely, but he barely paused in his effort. I should never have let Rahlys and Theon go on ahead. I can’t understand what possessed me to allow it. The energy from the key grew stronger as he ran, often stumbling, and even tumbling a couple of times, as he hurried along the hillside toward the ruins of the Temple of Tranquility and the distant point of the Crescent Mountains. The longer he pushed forward, the more convinced he became that Rahlys and Theon had what the key was seeking at the temple ruins. But the distance was great. The hot golden sun had already reached halfway to its zenith, and still the mountainous crescent point seemed far away. Exhausted, panting breathlessly, he dropped onto the gritty ground.
As he lay there panting, he pictured in his mind the temple ruins as Rojaire had described them…and Rahlys and Theon…with his treasure in their possession. The treasure belongs to me…since I have the key, he panted. Those two made a fool of me once, I won’t let them do so again. Finding hidden reserves of strength, he struggled to his feet and pushed on.
“What was it you wanted to try at the site before the others arrive?” Rahlys asked as Theon removed the worn leather shoulder sling pack he always wore.
“Let’s see how the runes on the chest containing the Rod of Destruction react to this place,” Theon said, digging deeply in the pack and pulling out the rune-covered chest. Some of the runes were glowing softly.
“You’re not going to try and open it…” Rahlys gasped in a surge of panic.
“No, of course not. Besides, Brakalar has the key.”
Rahlys stared hard, her heart pounding, as he held the chest out in front of him and began strolling through the ruins. The lights on the chest changed in color and intensity as the runes reacted to the phantom wisps of energy. To Raven’s continuous protest from the sideline, Theon and Rahlys worked their way down to an area of the ruins where larger portions of walls still stood, complete with arches, corners, broken corridors, hints of domed ceilings, and crumbling stairways leading to nowhere.
“Come on. It’s all right,” he reassured her, when she glanced back toward Raven. Rahlys tried to reassure Raven as well, but he wouldn’t give up his protest.
“The runes are just sensing the forces around us,” Theon said, moving slowly through a maze of jagged walls, crumbling towers, and rubble strewn courtyards with Rahlys following close behind. As they wove their way through what had once been a magnificent temple, the runes covering the surface of the seamless chest continued to pulsate in glowing colors, and even hummed softly in varying pitches as they covered the grounds. Strung out together, it formed an odd “song” of pulsing light and vibrating notes that haunted the ruins like spectral ghosts.
“What does it all mean?” Rahlys asked.
“I don’t know, but the forces are gathering. Maybe we should think of getting out of here.”
The change in lighting had been imperceptible at first…deepening grayness on an already cloudy day. Enough time had now passed to discern that the haze was definitely getting darker.
The sudden message on top of everything else made Rahlys’ skin prickle. She jerked around to glance quickly at the gap entrance, some distance above them, expecting to see Brakalar already there.
“What is it?”
“The oracle just warned that Brakalar is approaching.”
“Already? Gee, the old goat made good time.” Rahlys felt Theon was making light of the warning by going into his backwoods vernacular.
“The oracle wouldn’t warn us of his approach if it didn’t mean danger,” she reminded him.
“Come, we will meet him at the pass,” Theon said. They hadn’t gone very far when Brakalar appeared.
“There you are!” a hoarse voice shouted from above. The bedraggled figure, covered in dust and sweat mixed with his own blood from various cuts and scrapes, was almost unrecognizable from the meticulously groomed man they knew. “Just like I expected, you have what is mine!” Brakalar growled, his eyes fixed on the glowing and humming chest Theon held. Reaching into a pocket, Brakalar pulled out a flat glowing metallic rune…the key to the chest…and held it up as he made his way toward them. “Only I can open the chest.”
Both Rahlys and Theon tried drawing on the elemental forces to wrench the key out of his hand, but all their efforts failed. The key, or the chest, or the mysterious forces around them were in control. As Brakalar came closer, all the runes on the sealed chest glowed brightly. But one rune, shaped like the key, sent out a smoky gray beam that guided the key to its lock. Theon tried to pull the chest away, but the beam’s pull was too strong. When he was little more than an arm’s length away, Brakalar could hold the key no longer, and the key slipped from his grip, melding with the matching rune on the chest. Instantly, the lid sprang open.
What happened next was a blur that resulted in the two men struggling, both with their hands gripping the dark rod, and the chest clattering across the stone paving. Rahlys tried drawing on the flows of energy around her to wedge the rod from Brakalar’s hand…without success. Then she picked up a stone to use as a weapon when a voice boomed out from above.
Zayla rushed down to where the men fought. “Stop this, immediately!” she demanded upon reaching them, but Brakalar and Theon continued to wrestle for control of the rod. Then Brakalar managed to wrench the rod from Theon’s grip, hitting him over the head with it. Theon slumped to the ground.
“Brakalar, what have you done?” Zayla demanded. A low moan from Theon assured them he was still alive. Rahlys made a move to go to his aid, but Brakalar’s actions stopped her.
“Stay back!” he shouted, brandishing the rod wildly.
“Have you lost your ability to reason?” Zayla continued. “If there is a problem, we can discuss it.”
“There’s nothing to discuss. It’s because of the likes of him our world was destroyed.” Brakalar emphasized the word “him” by kicking Theon…who was trying to rise…in the back, sending him down again. Zayla and Rahlys each took a step forward in an attempt to come to his rescue, but Brakalar held them back.
“I said stay back!” he repeated, now shaking the rod intensely between them. “I intend making things right again, and with this, I will have the power to do so.”
“You don’t want to do this,” Zayla stressed.
“I’m not listening to you!” Brakalar shouted, his grip on the rod intensifying as he aimed it at her.
Suddenly, a wide beam of smoky darkness shot out of the end of the rod, straight for Zayla…enveloping her in a dark cocoon, muting her brief blood curdling scream. Rahlys watched in horror, not wanting to believe what she was seeing, as the darkness dispersed, leaving only a pile of ash remaining where Zayla had previously stood.
Materializing out of the increasing gloom, Anthya and Quaylyn disarmed and restrained Brakalar in an instant. With Brakalar no longer a threat, Rahlys ran to Theon’s side.
“What happened?” he asked, regaining his feet with her help.
“It’s Zayla! She’s gone,” Rahlys cried.
“Gone?” Theon could barely control his sorrow. To Rahlys, that moment he aged even further. Anthya tied Brakalar’s hands behind his back with a cord she retrieved from her pack, and then leaving him with Quaylyn, she approached what was left of Zayla and knelt in silent grief.
“I didn’t mean to kill her,” Brakalar sobbed.
Quaylyn picked up the chest and dropped the rod into it, slamming the lid shut. The key fell out of its side, clattering onto the paving stones, the chest seamless again. Compulsively, Rahlys stooped to pick it up.
“Don’t touch it!” Quaylyn cried out, stopping her.
“We can’t just leave it here to be found again,” Rahlys argued. Then to their astonishment, the key melted into the stone and disappeared.
“Well, that takes care of that. We need to get out of here, quick,” Quaylyn reminded them, giving Brakalar a shove toward the exit.
“I didn’t mean to kill her,” Brakalar moaned again.
Anthya rose from the site of Zayla’s demise, her face composed. “Quaylyn is right. Quickly, we must leave the ruins immediately. We will take the chest with us to see that it is destroyed.” Her voice didn’t quiver; it was the voice of calm but firm authority, velvet on steel.
Quaylyn, the sealed chest cradled in his arms, rushed everyone toward the exit. With Rahlys aiding Theon and Anthya leading Brakalar, they hurried through the descending darkness over stones and rubble toward the gap in the mountain. A cacophony of disturbing notes emitting from the runes on the sealed chest accompanied them as they made their way through the jumbled maze. With great effort, they finally reached the opening, the discordant notes continuing to wail as far reaching tendrils of darkness seeped into the pass, following them. They pressed on, not pausing for breath.
Then, suddenly, they broke out into brilliant sunshine. The rune-covered chest containing the Rod of Destruction fell silent…and at last, Anthya felt free to weep.