Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
“Are you crazy? You heard Rojaire’s warning!” Tassyn said, close to shouting. “The Crystalline Landscape is dangerous.”
“If the expedition can go there, so can we,” Stram growled back. “Besides, Rojaire’s brain is as pulpy as zan fruit.”
“Well, you can go without me. I don’t like the looks of this place, and I’m not going,” Tassyn said emphatically. Stram had become a mean dictator and it was time someone stood up to him.
“Coward!” Stram’s hard cold stare forced Tassyn to take a step back.
“Tassyn is right, we should give this some thought,” Edty said tremulously, glancing down at his feet and fidgeting uneasily. “Like, what are we going to do about food? It doesn’t look like there is anything to eat among all those crystals.” He wanted to sound strongly defiant like Tassyn, but it came out almost apologetic. But Edty spoke up so seldom, Stram actually took pause.
“We’ll gather some food to take with us,” he grumbled, reluctantly relenting to reason after a moment’s thought.
“You know, Stram, the expedition will have to come back out again. Why don’t we just wait for them?” Tassyn suggested.
“We’re waiting for no one. Fill your gathering bags…and be quick about it,” he hissed when no one made an effort to move.
Stram stormed away, fuming. Things just weren’t going as he had planned. For several rotations, they had tracked the rest of the expedition without catching up with them, despite his brutal push to do so, and now his men were balking over hiking through a bunch of crystals.
Traevus stood defiantly silent, wrists bound behind his back, gazing across the luminous Crystalline Landscape stretched out before him. The enormous translucent crystals reflected colorfully fractured sunlight and chimed, ever so softly, in deeply mysterious whispery tones. How beautiful! He could easily imagine the place being dangerous. Anything that beautiful had to be deadly! And who was this Rojaire that Tassyn mentioned? he wondered. Dare he ask? What did Rojaire know about the threateningly beautiful crystals?
“I know why Stram can draw energy and the rest of us can’t,” Traevus said nonchalantly as soon as Stram was a safe distance away.
Both Tassyn and Edty glanced cautiously at Traevus and then in Stram’s direction. They could see him a long ways off, back toward the hills where sparse vegetation still offered some sustenance. Stram was well out of hearing range.
“What did you say?” Tassyn asked, inching closer to Traevus. He wanted to hear Traevus say it a second time…just to be sure he heard it right.
“I said I know why Stram can draw energy…some anyway.”
“Well then, by Seaa’s light, tell us how he does it,” Edty whispered with urgency, also moving in closer.
“Untie my wrists,” Traevus demanded, turning his back to them in assistance. There was a cautious pause as he waited for them to make a decision.
“I’m going to untie him,” Tassyn told Edty.
“Huh? Are you sure we should do that?” Edty frowned with uncertainty. “Maybe we should ask Stram first?”
“He needs to gather food, too. He can’t do so with his hands tied behind his back.”
“Thank you,” Traevus moaned in painful relief as the cut bindings dropped from his wrist. Freed from his bonds, he rubbed sore wrists and stretched cramped arms.
“All right, you’re untied,” Tassyn said, reminding him of his obligation. A quick glance to the west confirmed Stram still kept his distance.
Traevus had a plan and now was as good a time as any to start putting it into place. “Stram carries a stone on him…a stone as round and golden as Seaa. I’ve seen it in his hands. He likes to take it out and hold it…caress it…even gaze into it.”
Edty twitched with unease at the seductiveness of Traevus’ voice.
“The stone somehow blocks or repels whatever prevents us from drawing on the elemental forces; I’m sure of it. Take the stone away from Stram and you will render him powerless,” Traevus concluded.
“And how do you expect us to do that?” Tassyn asked.
“Well, I’m sure if the three of us collaborated, we could come up with a plan,” Traevus suggested. Stram, still harvesting some distance away, glanced in their direction.
“Better get moving before it looks like a conspiracy,” Traevus said. Having planted the seed, he walked away from the group toward the nearest zan fruit bush and started picking. Without agreeing or disagreeing to anything, the others followed his example.
After a cooling off period, Stram approached the rest of the men. “We will set up camp at the last rise near the little stream undercutting the base of the hill. From there, we will work together to formulate a plan of attack.” Tassyn, Edty, even Traevus, stared at Stram in stunned puzzlement. Stram did not wait for comments.
I think that sounded magnanimous enough, Stram told himself as he strolled back to the hill. I’m a good leader; I just need good followers.
Spotting Rojaire and Ilene in the distance, Rahlys walked out to meet them, with Raven flying overhead, unwilling to let Rahlys out of his sight. Not that it did any good, he fretted, if she didn’t heed his warnings.
“What’s wrong?” Ilene asked, reading the stress on Rahlys’ face.
“Zayla is dead,” she announced, calmly.
“What?” Ilene gasped, trying to internalize the news. “But how?”
“What happened?” Rojaire asked.
“She was killed by a dark force at the ruins of the Temple of Tranquility,” Rahlys said, circumventing any mention of the Rod of Destruction, especially in front of Rojaire.
“I’m sorry,” Rojaire said, sounding genuine. “I know Zayla and I have had our differences, but I’ve always admired her loyalty to her principles.”
“Zayla’s gone!” Ilene cried, tears starting to flow.
“I know the temple ruins are definitely darkly disturbed. I didn’t spend much time there when I first discovered them because the energy was just too negative. I didn’t know it was deadly.”
“I thought the temple was supposed to be a place of goodness,” Ilene said, struggling for control.
“How did she die?” Rojaire asked.
Now he was asking for details; Rahlys didn’t know what to say. How much did Rojaire know about the key and what it could unlock? “You will have to ask Anthya for details as to what happened,” she said, letting him assume she hadn’t seen Zayla die so horribly. With Ilene still shedding tears, they rejoined the rest of the group.
Anthya stood…once again a composed leader. Gathered together, the group watched solemnly as she removed two flags, a warning signal and a grave marker, from her pack, and planted them in the entrance to the ruins. Then with hard-won emotional control, she inscribed Zayla’s name on the grave marker. When all was done, Anthya marched sternly up to Brakalar and cut the cords binding his wrists.
“You have been relieved of your duties,” Anthya said without ceremony, “and will take orders from me.” By a previously designated order of succession, Anthya was now in charge, with Quaylyn as her second. “As long as you do as you are told, you will remain free until you can be handed over to the High Council.” Brakalar raised no objection. Sad, haunted eyes stared distantly from his dusty tear-streaked face.
“We need to move on and find a suitable resting place that will shelter us from the sun,” Anthya said, gathering them together.
“Councilor, if I may make a suggestion,” Rojaire spoke up, “there is a small hidden meadow with a spring near the point of the mountain’s crescent. It would provide both shade and water.”
“We will check it out. Theon, how’s your head? Can you make it a little further?”
“Absolutely, my lady!” he said, mustering strength…from somewhere. “Just a bump on me ol’ noggin.” Rahlys doubted Anthya picked up on his Old Earth vernacular, but she took it as a yes, and the expedition started moving again.
The day unfurled hot and dry, with no cloud relief in sight. A cool rain shower sure would feel good about now, Rahlys mused, feeling stifled by the heat; at least it would help rinse off the traveling dust. Wordlessly, the bedraggled-looking crew followed the contour of the mountains for what Rahlys was sure was over a mile, before Rojaire paused at an almost imperceptible crack in the dark bluish purple rock face.
“Through here,” Rojaire said, sliding into the crevice sideways and quickly disappearing around a curve. Raven flew over the low mountain peak to investigate and quickly circled back.
“Aaaaaark! Aaaaaark!” he cried shrilly in the shimmering heat. It was a cry of joy.
“Raven says, yes,” Rahlys assured them.
Anthya followed Rojaire, and after a reasonable pause, Quaylyn directed Brakalar to go ahead, slipping through closely behind him. Rahlys motioned for Ilene and Theon to go ahead of her. Bringing up the rear, Rahlys slid into the crevice, the rock warm against her back as she maneuvered around the tight curve that opened into an invitingly cool spacious hollow with shade cast by the mountain. A spring gushed out of a fracture in the rocks, forming a little runoff stream that disappeared again through a rocky hole at the base of the mountain. An uninterrupted carpet of pinkish, sweet-smelling herbs, resembling seaweed, washed up on a beach covered rocks and ground alike.
“Sweetleaf,” Theon explained to Ilene and Rahlys as they watched him pluck a handful of the succulent sprawling vegetation and stuffed it into his mouth. Rahlys picked a puffy pinkish-green fork-shaped leaf and took an experimental bite. The tender crunchy leaf gave way easily between her teeth, squirting her tongue with sweet spicy nectar.
“Wow, that’s good!” she admitted, “but what I really want, though, is to wash my hands and face.” Rahlys followed a path of already trodden sweetleaf to the spring. There was no avoiding stepping on the stuff; it covered every inch of rocky ground sheltered by the surrounding walls of stone. Reaching the trampled edge of the stream, she dropped to her knees, cupped cool refreshing water in her hands, and drank. Then leaning far forward, she splashed handfuls of water onto her hot dusty face.
Feeling greatly refreshed, Rahlys looked around with interest. The hidden retreat opened only to the sky; the crevice they had passed through the only way in and out, unless one scaled the sheer rock walls. How meticulously Rojaire must have explored to have found this place!
When everyone had drunk their fill of fresh water and cleared rocks of creeping sweetleaf for a place to sit, Raven landed by the stream for a drink. They would wait out the hottest part of the day in this sheltered haven. Anthya stood, taking the opportunity to address the assembled expedition. “I wish to hold at this time a discussion of events leading to Zayla’s death.” Brakalar’s eyes lowered, but he didn’t make a sound.
“We have suffered a great lost,” she began, “…a tremendous lost…,” Anthya paused, then with difficulty continued. “Still, we have a mission to finish, a mission Zayla would want us to complete.”
“How did she die?” Rojaire asked, boldly springing the question.
“You will soon find out. Everything will be revealed,” Anthya said, moving her gaze to include everyone as she paced before them. “There will be no more secrets. Our lives depend on us working as a unified team. Secrets sever the bond of trust and threaten the success of our mission.” There was a general nod of agreement.
“Brakalar, we will begin with you,” Anthya said. “How did you gain possession of the key to the chest containing the Rod of Destruction?” Brakalar jerked, as though startled out of his own painful recollections.
“Rojaire gave it to me,” he said. To Brakalar’s obvious relief, Anthya’s piecing gaze riveted instantly toward Rojaire.
“So, Rojaire, same question.”
“I found it…at the site of what was once Droclum’s stronghold.” Rahlys remembered seeing “Droclum’s Stronghold,” located in the northwest quadrant of the continent, labeled on the map at the Academy. “I didn’t know what it was at first, but after I held it in my hand for a while, I began to feel a slight tug of energy. Of course, I followed the key’s directional pull, and after many rotations of searching, it led me to the Sooty Caves. The key drew me to the stone block in the center of the innermost cave, but whatever the stone once cradled was gone. I explored the caves high and low…but I didn’t find anything there. Later, when I showed the key to Brakalar, he sparked a lot of interest in it, so I offered it to him…as a bargaining chip.”
“Brakalar secured a meeting for you with the High Council to petition for recognition for your work on the Devastated Continent,” Anthya said, filling in what she already knew.
“So tell me, Rojaire, do you have any more of these artifacts in your possession?”
“No, Councilor, I do not,” Rojaire said, indignantly. “Why don’t you ask them if they have any more artifacts in their possession?” he said, indicating Rahlys and Theon.
“In due time. Theon,” Anthya said, turning her attention to him. “How did you obtain the chest?”
“Well, now, Councilor,” Theon said, clearing his throat, “that is a bit of a story.”
“Let’s hear it.”
Theon searched in his mind for a place to begin. “Well, right after we arrived on the continent, Rahlys told me she could detect some kind of seeking energy coming from something Brakalar carried with him. Then, by sheer luck, I later caught a glimpse of the key when Brakalar was rummaging through his pouch. I recognized it immediately and was horrified…because I knew what it was and what it could open.”
“But you didn’t report it to anyone,” Anthya accused. Rahlys and Theon exchanged guilty glances.
“We didn’t know who to trust. So Rahlys and I decided we would keep a close eye on Brakalar ourselves. When he gave us a tour of the Sooty Caves, Rahlys detected the key detecting the chest in the solid block of stone that had cradled baby Quaylyn.”
“So it was in the cave,” Brakalar said, unexpectedly. Everyone waited for him to say more. When he didn’t, Theon continued.
“Then the groundshake closed the tunnel. While Brakalar and Rojaire were trying to clear it, Rahlys teleported us back to the inner cave.” He didn’t mention Zayla giving Rahlys drugged tea to put her to sleep after Quaylyn rescued her from the tunnel. They still didn’t know if that was part of a malicious plot, or simply an untimely act of kindness. Zayla was dead now and there was no reason to tarnish her memory. Brakalar’s greed for power was his own.
“By ‘us’ you mean you and Rahlys.”
“Quaylyn?” Anthya’s eyebrows lifted with interest.
“Yes, well, apparently, he had been keeping an eye on us keeping an eye on Brakalar, and forced our hand in letting him in on it.”
“Quaylyn?” Anthya asked, turning the questioning to him. “How did you know about the Rod of Destruction?
“I didn’t. I was clueless as to what was going on, but I could tell Theon and Rahlys were being secretive about something,” Quaylyn added. “Anyway, with the help of the crystal, Rahlys was able to enter the stone and retrieve the chest.” There was an audible gasp from the listeners. “Then she placed a ward on the chest, preventing the key from detecting it again, and Theon started carrying it around in his pack.”
Theon patted the pack beside him. It was still there. “We were planning on finding a way to destroy it, of course.”
“Wow! So that’s what’s been going on!” Ilene exclaimed. Anthya had left Ilene out of the interrogation…and rightly so.
“So, Brakalar, how did you find out Theon had the chest?” Anthya asked, keeping the testimonies flowing. Brakalar hesitated, and then spoke softly.
“The key started working again, only this time it pulled toward the temple ruins.”
“The flows of energy at the ruins must have negated the spell,” Rahlys said, speaking up for the first time. She wanted to kick herself. I shouldn’t have said anything, Rahlys chided herself. Of course, Anthya’s attention now turned to her.
“Your name has been coming up all through this,” she said pointedly to Rahlys, pacing a step closer. “Perhaps you should take up the narrative from here.” It was just what Rahlys had been hoping to avoid.
“Well, Theon and I were exploring the ruins and we could feel the confusing tattered flows of drifting energy. In fact, Raven refused to enter, or even fly over the place. We probably should have heeded his warnings, but we didn’t. Theon took the chest out of his pack to see how the runes covering its surface reacted to the strange forces moving around us. The result was an eerie light and sound show, as some of you saw. Perhaps the chest actually drew the energy toward us, because the day began to get hazier.”
Everyone listened with intense interest as Rahlys told the group how Brakalar arrived on the scene, angrily brandishing the key at them, claiming they had his treasure. She gave details of how when Brakalar drew close, the key sprang from his hand to the chest, and the chest opened. She described the struggle that ensued, Zayla’s sudden appearance on the scene, and how Brakalar had threatened them after gaining possession of the rod by knocking Theon over the head.
“Zayla tried to talk to Brakalar, to reason with him, to help him understand what he was doing,” Rahlys explained, “but he just kept threatening, waving the rod around, and then a dark beam shot out of the rod, striking Zayla dead on, incinerating her almost instantly.” She shuddered, remembering Zayla’s one brief cry.
“How horrible!” Ilene cried.
“That’s when you and Quaylyn arrived and took the rod away from him,” Rahlys finished.
“Theon, do you agree events unfolded as Rahlys described them?”
“I was down on the ground for some of it,” Theon said rubbing the tender spot on his head, “but that is what happened.”
“Brakalar,” Anthya said, placing herself directly in front of him. How could such a delicate looking woman be so formidable? Rahlys wondered. “Do you agree with Sorceress Rahlys’ testimony?” she asked, her light gray eyes piercing arrows into Brakalar’s mind. With difficulty, Brakalar raised his head, facing her directly. “Yes,” he whispered in agreement, and then hung his head. “I didn’t mean to hurt her,” he cried.
“So Theon carries the chest containing the Rod of Destruction, and we are to trust him with it? Where is the key?” Rojaire asked.
“Who should we trust to carry it, Rojaire?” Anthya asked in earnest. Rojaire shook his head, declining to comment. “The key has been lost to the ruins of the Temple of Tranquility,” Anthya said, starting to pace. “The chest can’t be opened without it. The rod and chest must be destroyed.”
“How?” Rahlys asked.
“We will find a way,” Anthya assured her. “Let’s go back to the question about artifacts,” she said in all seriousness. “Does anyone here have any more artifacts in their possession that we should know about?” Anthya surveyed each of them in turn, looking for a reaction.
Rahlys didn’t know what to do. Should she and Theon declare the star stone? The stone was found on Earth, not here. She felt relief when Theon solved the dilemma for her.
“Well, Councilor,” Theon said after a long quiet pause, “I have something in my possession…actually it belongs to Rahlys…that may be of interest.” We better come clean, he telepathed to Rahlys.
“What is it?”
“It’s a stone. A stone that repels whatever it is that is blocking us from drawing on the elemental forces,” he said, fishing the smooth round golden rock from his pocket and handing it over to her. “Rahlys has been letting me use it.”
“Stram had a stone that looked just like that,” Rojaire said, suddenly excited. “If what you say is true, that would explain a few strange incidences that occurred just before I left the band.”
“And you’ve tested it?” Anthya asked Theon, gazing at the stone’s golden swirls reflecting light as she twirled it in her hand.
“With the stone, I can teleport short distances and communicate telepathically with Rahlys.”
“Where did you find this?” she asked Rahlys, rolling the satiny smooth stone between her fingers.
“I didn’t; it was given to me as a keepsake, a sort of good luck charm for my journey.”
“And who gave you this…keepsake?” she asked, studying the orb with interest.
“Melinda, a girl from Earth. She found it near my home.”
“Can you confirm this?” Anthya asked, turning to Ilene.
“Yes,” Ilene gasped under Anthya’s hard scrutiny, “Melinda gave it to her before we left.”
“Tell us more about this girl from Earth named Melinda,” Anthya directed her. “Who is she?” Ilene couldn’t believe she was being interrogated. Shaken, she struggled to gather her thoughts.
“Melinda is from Southeast Alaska. She used to live with her father on a fishing boat.” Suddenly, Ilene realized…to reveal more would associate Melinda with Droclum.
“Go on,” Anthya encouraged. Ilene didn’t have the courage, under Anthya’s intense scrutiny, to circumvent.
“Melinda’s father was killed by Droclum and Melinda was taken captive. Rahlys rescued her shortly before Droclum was destroyed.” All was quiet for a while.
Anthya continued to examine the stone with interest. “If these rogues have a stone like this, they could be more dangerous than we thought,” Anthya said, breaking the silence. “Armed with this knowledge, we need to be cautious.” She tossed the stone back to Theon. “Anything else?” No one responded.
“Our mission here is not over. We still have our agenda. Turning around and going home would accomplish nothing. We are looking for the members of the lost expedition and exploring a vastly changed continent. And now we have a new obligation: We must find a way to destroy the Rod of Destruction.”
The team ate and rested, made sweetleaf tea, and filled their water containers; some even took a nap, until Anthya lead them out of the hidden retreat through the crevice in the mountain. Warm dusty wind, blowing from the west, buffeted them as they emerged from the shelter of the low peaks. Turning their backs to the wind, they followed the easterly contour of the diminishing mountains. Before long, the group rounded the low, rocky point of the crescent and veered north toward the center of the continent, the Crescent Mountains cutting off the buffeting west wind.
Now that they had gotten around the mountains, flatter terrain stretched out before them; rolling plains of purples, blues, yellows, and reds, reaching as far as the eye could see. Abundant vegetation covered the primitive blue-violet soil, but there wasn’t a zaota tree in sight. Raven flew high above them in ever widening circles, soaring on the warm air currents. To the west, the lowering sun just managed to peek at them over sharp knife-blade mountain peaks. Seaa, a bright spot in the sunlit sky, had already risen in the east.
As they made their way, it quickly became evident that the terrain was not as smooth and level close-up as it appeared to be from a distance. The large-grain sandy ground often placed unexpected rocks, hidden by foliage, underfoot to trip you. Shallow gullies, unseen until you were teetering on the edge, sliced through the gently undulating landscape. Formed by water runoff, some of these gullies were almost deep enough and wide enough to be called little valleys. Nearly all the rocky water courses that ran through these shallow valleys were dry. A light, but constant breeze of dry air evaporated the sweat from Rahlys’ forehead.
The sun had already set behind the mountains when they came across a gully deep enough to shelter them from the wind and wide enough to provide dry ground near a trickle of a stream. Rojaire pointed out an outcrop of porous, pinkish-blue rocks. “We can have a fire. These rocks will burn,” he said, tossing a few in a pile. As the sky darkened, Seaa glimmered brighter, providing her distant feeble light. Another campfire shared…although burning rocks for fuel was certainly different…Rahlys thought. Another night under the stars; by now she had an inkling of what it must have been like for the pioneers moving across the plains of the American west.
The next few rotations passed without any further incidents as the expedition wove its way deeper and deeper into the continent’s interior. With fewer secrets and hidden subterfuges, the team became more united. Only Brakalar remained quietly reticent and aloof on the sidelines. No one tried to engage him, nor did anyone taunt or revile him. Brakalar did what he was told and offered no verbal input. Rahlys felt certain he suffered deeply over what he had done, but Zayla could not be brought back.
As they steadily advanced, the vegetation covering the landscape dwindled in both density and variety. The days grew hotter and drier, the sun’s blazing heat forcing them to seek midday shelter, while the nights grew darker with Seaa’s increasing absence from the night sky as the planet’s orbit around the sun put the sun between them. The nights also grew steadily colder as the increasingly bare terrain allowed more of the day’s heat to escape back into the atmosphere. Gradually, a dark smudge to the north became noticeable on the distant horizon.
“What’s that?” Rahlys asked, pointing to it, when they crested another low rise.
“That,” Anthya said calmly, “is Mt. Vatre.”