Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
The Crystalline Landscape
“Keep an eye out for these rogues,” Anthya cautioned the group. “Remember, one of them may be able to draw energy from the elemental forces.” By the light of a new dawn, they moved on, pushing deeper into the interior of the continent.
“What do you think happened to the lost expedition?” Rahlys asked Quaylyn, marching beside her, after some quiet reflection of her own. “We’ve only found one grave marker. It’s not likely they were attacked by wild animals or eaten by cannibals.” She recalled stories of Earth explorers long ago venturing into wild unknown territories, and the fate they sometimes met along the way.
“I don’t know, but I sure would like to find out.” Quaylyn’s dedication to the mission had become calmly focused. “We have to keep looking.”
Rahlys didn’t mention her increasing desire to go home. “Do you ever think about returning to Earth? …for a visit,” she added as an afterthought.
“More and more every day.” Before Rahlys could ponder what Quaylyn meant by such a reply, Ilene called from behind.
“Rahlys, wait for me!” Zayla’s demise left an odd number of hikers. With Anthya keeping Brakalar under guard up front, Theon and Rojaire discussing the fermentation of zan fruit, and Rhalys and Quaylyn paired off, Ilene had ended up the odd one out for this leg of the hike. After stopping for a time to examine a small outcrop of rocks and crystals seemingly erupting from the level plain, Ilene found herself lagging far behind the others and was now struggling to catch up. Rahlys and Quaylyn paused to wait for her.
The sky brightened, the heat of the day intensified, and Rahlys fell to daydreaming as the three of them hiked together. She heard Quaylyn answering Ilene’s questions about the Academy as background noise, while she envisioned a hundred different scenarios of Quaylyn returning with her to her log home in the Susitna valley…and Vince and Maggie’s delight over seeing him again. She was still daydreaming of home when Anthya brought the group to a halt at the edge of a narrow rocky ravine with water edged by foliage. Looking down, Rahlys estimated a fifty-foot drop to the bottom. Raven swooped down to take a closer look, giving Rahlys a better perspective.
“Let’s see if we can find a way down there,” Anthya instructed.
“I can place us down there,” Rahlys offered.
With their consent, Rahlys teleported the members of the expedition to the rocky streambed below. A small crystal-clear stream flowed across the rocks just inches from their feet. There were abundant edible plants growing in the moist shady margin along the ravine walls to add to their diet of ground nuts and zan fruit that had been collected from above. Following the stream for a ways, they came to a dry cove of higher ground, shaded by the wall of the ravine, and set up camp.
“We should be reaching the Crystalline Landscape in another rotation or two,” Anthya informed them when they had all settled down.
“I wonder what it will look like,” Ilene said dreamily, tucking escaped curls behind her ears. There were always escapees from the bundle of curls she tried to keep tied back in tight control.
Rojaire was the only one among them to have actually seen the Crystalline Landscape. Throughout the journey, Rahlys and Quaylyn had asked Rojaire numerous questions which he did his best to answer…as best he could without pain. “There are inexplicable forces at work in the Crystalline Landscape,” he told them repeatedly, warning about vague dangers.
“The crystals generate boundless energy,” Rojaire warned yet again. “We should really reconsider our intention of entering the Crystalline Landscape.”
“But how do you know the crystals are dangerous?” Ilene asked.
Rojaire fidgeted uncomfortably. There was still one bit of information he was reluctant to share. Detecting Rojaire’s unease, Anthya took a stab at the problem.
“Now would be a good time to tell us what you have been holding back,” she told him.
Startled out of composure, Rojaire knew he would have no choice. How did she know he was holding something back, he wondered, or was she just taking a stab in the dark? Anthya was not only a warrior, but also a mentor trained by Zayla. Had she learned this technique of stealth attack from her? Visiting the memories he kept locked away was still painful, even after all this time, but he knew it was time to reveal all.
“I made a trip to the Devastated Continent before coming here with the band,” he began. “I wasn’t alone. Kaylya…” saying her name out loud hurt more than he had imagined it would, and he came to a choking stop. Quietly, Rojaire took a deep breath. “Kaylya, the woman of my heart, came with me. We explored much of the southwest and interior portions of the continent together, eventually reaching the Crystalline Landscape.” Rojaire paused, giving himself a little time to better compose himself. No one spoke while anxiously waiting for him to continue.
“We had never seen anything like it before; so beautiful, and huge! We also suspected the landscape may be dangerous, so we studied the area’s outer edge for many rotations, looking for danger and finding none. Then we made a fatal decision: We ventured in among the crystals. We weren’t aiming to reach Mt. Vatre; we just wanted to study the crystal field a little more in depth.” Rojaire took a deep breath.
“As I’ve told you before, moving through the landscape is slow and difficult, even across short distances. Kaylya was studying a crystal formation of particular interest to her and asked to use a tool I carried to dislodge a specimen. I was a short distance away from her, but there were obstacles between us, although she was in my line of sight. So to expedite matters, I tossed the tool to her…but she missed the catch…and the tool disappeared,” Rojaire was finding it harder and harder to speak, “…and she went after it,” Rojaire’s voice choked with grief, “…and then she was gone.” There was a respectful pause while Rojaire regained control.
“What do you mean she was gone?” Anthya asked gently.
“One moment she was there and the next she was gone. She simply vanished. I never found her.” His voice broke again with the last statement. Ilene gazed at him in silent astonishment.
Rojaire became lost in thoughts of the past as images flooded his mind of Kaylya, images of a happier time, with just the two of them conquering a continent. He saw Kaylya breezing around in a light blue shift, combing out her long golden-brown hair in the sparkling sunlight, washing off the sandy grim after a long trek. And he saw Kaylya standing in the Crystalline Landscape, the crystals glowing all around her.
“It’s so beautiful,” Kaylya said in her soft musical voice. The Crystalline Landscape was indeed an incredible sight to behold! They were the first living beings to ever see it, and the magnitude of their find was not lost to them.
“Rojaire.” Was she calling his name? “Rojaire,” Anthya called for the second time. Realizing the summons was from the present, Rojaire pulled himself from his reminiscing.
“What do you think happened to Kaylya?”
“I’m not sure, but she must have gone somewhere.”
Speculation over Kaylya’s disappearance from the Crystalline Landscape so long ago gave the expedition members new concerns to reflect on as Rahlys teleported them out of the small canyon for the next leg of the hike. The worst of the heat had passed with the blazing sun targeted on the western horizon. To everyone’s surprise, storm clouds were moving in from the south. The land could sure use the rain, Rahlys noted, but she didn’t want to get caught camping in a ravine during a rainstorm.
It was nightfall before the rainstorm hit. The increasingly desolate landscape offered nothing in the line of shelter to the weary travelers. Rahlys drew energy, forming a small protective domed shield around them against the wind and rain, just large enough for them to stretch out in and get some sleep.
The storm proved to be more huff than puff, the rainfall amounting to little more than a sprinkle. The storm passed quickly, unveiling the star-studded sky, and Rahlys released the shield.
“We’re almost there,” Quaylyn said, indicating a soft glow visible on the northern horizon. The glow in the sky looked like the reflection of urban lights; but Rahlys knew that instead of a metropolis, they were approaching the Crystalline Landscape.
“Aren’t you afraid what we might find there?”
“Fear isn’t helpful unless you are trying to flee.”
The trek across the interior of the continent had been long and relatively uneventful, and now they were in sight of their goal. They headed out again in the coolness of early dawn, hoping to cover as much ground as possible before the heat of the day. The sun had climbed its way up above the horizon, when Theon stopped to stare at the ground.
“Tracks,” he announced, pointing out a partial boot print to Ilene the unrealized storm had failed to erase.
“Do you think it’s from the lost expedition?” Ilene asked, with sparked interest. They hadn’t seen another living soul outside their group since their journey began. She had almost forgotten there were supposed to be other people on the continent.
“I don’t think so,” Theon said, finding a second boot print in another patch of damp sandy soil nearby. “These prints were probably made by Rojaire’s former buddies.” Rojaire and Anthya caught up with them, and Theon showed them the prints.
“How long ago?” Anthya asked.
“At least a rotation, maybe two.”
Quaylyn, Brakalar, and Rahlys reached the rest of the group, and Raven flew in to take a rest. “Do you know of a place where we will be able to take shelter during solar noon?” Quaylyn asked Rojaire, already anticipating the oncoming heat.
“Yes, over the last rise just before we reach the edge of the crystal field. It’s not much, but we will have some shade.”
“What about food and water?” Both were becoming increasing scarce.
“There are zan fruit bushes nearly to the edge of the crystals and a few edible plants closer to the hillside.”
Many grueling hours later, with only a few brief periods of rest, the team finally climbed the last rise, the vista before them bringing the group to a standstill. A short distance away, the Crystalline Landscape stretched to infinity, glowing brilliantly under a glowing hot sun, competing with its brightness.
“Travel through the terrain is best on a cloudy day, or at night, preferably by Seaa’s light,” Rojaire said. “It can be blinding in bright sunlight. Even starlight provides enough brightness to travel by, especially since the crystals themselves generate some light.”
An even more welcomed sight greeted them when they reached the bottom of the rise. A trickle of spring water flowed over a rocky streambed, undercutting the foot of the rise, providing a bit of cool shade under a slight overhang of stone. Everyone gratefully crawled out of the sun, on hands and knees, into whatever shady space they could find. Raven came in for a landing, finding a nook of his own. They quenched their thirst, ate, rested, and speculated about the Crystalline Landscape, visible in the near distance even from where they nestled. Gradually, the area of shade around them blossomed as the sun passed its zenith, giving them more room to move around.
It was obvious from the tracks the site had been recently occupied. “There are four of them. I can read four distinct sets of footprints,” Theon informed them after close inspection.
“That’s impossible. There are only three of them.”
“Then they picked up another one somewhere,” Theon insisted.
When the worse of the heat died down, the expedition made their way across the last stretch of land to the edge of the landscape of crystals. They were not here to enter at this time, only to look.
The crystals radiating in all directions along the leading edge of the outcrop reached knee to shoulder-height. Further in, the structures towered over them. Thick multi-faceted transparent crystals grew out of more of the same, all the way down as far as they could see. Like icebergs floating in frigid waters, the crystals were twice as large below the surface as they were above.
“I’ve never seen anything so beautiful before in my life,” Ilene whispered to Rahlys in awe. The crystalline maze gleamed colorfully in the bright sunlight.
“Neither have I,” Rahlys agreed just as softly.
Rojaire and Quaylyn watched as Ilene and Rahlys strolled away with Raven flying circles overhead. Then Anthya joined Theon, heading in the opposite direction. Brakalar stood a short distance away, his face void of expression or emotion.
“Amazing,” Quaylyn said, gazing out over the incredible scene before them. “Imagine the amount of energy such a large mass of crystals might be able to generate!”
“That, I believe, is its danger,” Rojaire agreed. After a moment of reflection, he turned to Quaylyn, “Do you think the Crystalline Landscape could generate enough energy to tweak time and space?”
“I don’t know; I guess it’s a possibility. How far in did you go before Kaylya disappeared?”
“It’s hard to say, traveling through this stuff,” Rojaire made a sweep with his hand indicating the gleaming terrain, “but see that taller pinnacle in the distance? I would estimate we made it in at least that far.”
“Any shelter to be found in there?” Quaylyn asked.
“Some. There are places where you can work your way down under layers of crystal, blocking off the direct rays of the sun.” Suddenly, Quaylyn voiced a new concern. “I was just thinking. The Crystalline Landscape generates a lot of energy. What do you suppose would happen if someone tried to draw energy in such an environment?” The more he thought about it, the more Quaylyn’s heart constricted with fear over Rahlys’ safety.
“You’re probably right,” Rojaire agreed. “It could be very dangerous for anyone capable of drawing energy from the elemental forces. The flow of energy could become overwhelming.”
Quaylyn’s concern turned to panic. “Quick, we must warn the others. I’ll go and tell Rahlys; you catch up with Theon. Tell him not to draw energy for any reason. Explain the possible danger.” They parted, hurrying off in opposite directions, leaving Brakalar standing alone staring across the landscape.
“We’re all going to die,” he murmured to himself, gazing blankly out into the distance. “If I have to go, I might as well take the chest and rod with me.”
“You can’t track anything through this,” Tassyn grumbled as the sun started to set. After several rotations and no expedition, Stram lost patience again, and ordered a move into the Crystalline Landscape. They were supposed to be following the rest of Traevus’ expedition, but crystal did not lend itself to tracking. The going was tough. They’d been fighting their way in for nearly a rotation, making frustratingly little progress. Only the dark smudge, what was left of Mt. Vatre in the center of the horizon, kept them from becoming totally disoriented.
During the peak of the sun’s cycle, they funneled through nooks and crannies, taking refuge under layers of crystals, and slept. The rest of the time, they climbed, crawled, slithered, and squeezed over, under, and through the crystalline maze.
“They’re in here somewhere,” Stram insisted. “We’ll find them.” He crawled through two crossing crystals, pressing on with determination. Tassyn paused, watching Stram pull away, and Traevus, his hands no longer bond, made his way over to him.
“What do you say, Tassyn?” Traevus whispered, conspiratorially. “We could have Edty distract Stram…he wouldn’t expect anything from Edty…while you and I take him by surprise, knock him out, and take the stone from him. Then we can leave this place…alive.” Life was a valuable commodity. Tassyn had to admit it was a tempting offer.
“Over here! Look what I found,” Edty called to the others. “Water!” he said, pointing downward. Water was another valuable commodity. The men made their way to where Edty stood and pointed. Beneath several layers of crystal, water flowed teasingly out of reach.
“I can take care of that!” Stram boasted. “Get back a ways! I’m going to blast a hole through this glass.”
“What, you want to kill us all?” Tassyn warned with images of flying fragmented crystal propelled over great distances crossing his mind. “There would be glass flying everywhere.”
“Tassyn’s right. We don’t want to be butchered by flying glass. Besides, that water is way down there.”
Stram had half a mind to ignore their warnings and blast anyway when a loud unidentifiable squawk distracted him, drawing his undivided attention.
“What in the name of Seaa’s light is that?” Tassyn swore his mouth agape.
Raven had taken it upon himself to explore the strange land of crystals ahead of the rest of the expedition. He wanted to know what Rahlys was getting into, not that she would heed any warnings. Spotting the men, he circled and landed on a crystal pinnacle to observe.
“It’s a bird!” Traevus said, with astonishment. “Imagine…a bird!”
“Will it try to eat us?” Edty asked, his voice trembling. “It certainly is big.”
“Not before I can blast it apart,” Stram assured him, trying to hide his own fear.
“Where did it come from?” Tassyn asked, looking for more.
“You saw it came from the sky!” Stram shouted with unease.
“Aaaaarrrrk! Aaaaarrrrk!” Raven cried out again, establishing his dominance. The Band of Rogues cowered under outcrops of crystal, seeking protection from the ferocious black predator with wings. Only Traevus remained out in the open, observing the flying creature with fascination.
Stram, Tassyn, Edty, and Traevus were not alone in their observation of Raven. Connected to the crystals, his access to their power unlimited, Sarus had become aware of the presence of the Band of Rouges as soon as they had entered the Crystalline Landscape and had been following their progress since.
There is the raven that Caleeza told me about; Anthya’s expedition must be very near, Sarus reasoned. But who are these other men and where had they found Traevus? They are not part of Anthya’s expedition.
Awareness over his domain had been an easy skill to master, compared to learning how to use the energy resources at hand to bring Caleeza home. That had proven very challenging, but Sarus was ready to try it, especially since a test subject had conveniently arrived. He needed to bring Caleeza home so she could warn the others of the danger; he just wanted some reassurance he could bring her back safely. Sarus decided to send the raven back to its own world first. If the bird arrived safely, he was ready to bring Caleeza home.
Traevus and the Band of Rogues kept their eyes targeted on the strange beast. Starting to feel like a coward for hiding while Traevus stood out in the open, Stram decided to take action.
“I’ll get rid of it,” he said, crawling out to join Traevus. At that moment, the raven spread its wide wings preparing to fly off, when it vanished before their eyes.
“Where did it go?” Edty cried. The men searched frantically around them, fearing a surprise attack from the strange creature. But the flying creature was nowhere to be found.
“I’m getting out of here,” Tassyn decided on the spot and headed for the outer edge of the Crystalline Landscape. The others, equally spooked, followed without a word.
Where’s Raven? Rahlys wondered, searching the empty sky. He had flown off to scout ahead, what felt like hours ago, and still hadn’t returned. She reached out mentally to find him, but couldn’t detect his signature anywhere.
“Raven is missing,” she announced to the group, busily packing up their personal belongings. Their water containers and harvest bags were full in preparation for departure. Today, they were venturing into the Crystalline Landscape.
“He will show up again,” Ilene tried to reassure her. Quaylyn was not so certain. Had Raven triggered one of the crystals’ energy fields? Soon, the expedition stood gathered at the edge of the softly glowing landscape.
“Before we enter, I want everyone to gather a pouch full of small stones,” Anthya told the group standing ready to venture forth. “We will use these stones as a safety precaution. Always cast a pebble ahead of you before advancing. If the pebble lands, we will assume at least that distance is safe, but if the pebble disappears without touching the ground, do not advance.”
Understanding how this may save their lives, the team set to work gathering pebbles. They were numerous and easy to find, and soon the expedition was once again ready to advance.
“We will make our way toward that taller pinnacle,” Anthya said, giving them a focal point to steer toward. It was the same pinnacle of crystal Rojaire had pointed out to Quaylyn when asked how far he and Kaylya had gone into the Crystalline Landscape. “Make it that far and we will decide what we should do from there.”
As they had been warned many times, the going was slow. The precaution of casting pebbles before them made the going even slower, but the resounding ‘pings’ made by tossed pebbles bouncing on solid crystal were reassuring. Rahlys was further impeded by her constant search for some sign of Raven, fervently watching for his appearance, while in her heart, dreading the worse.
As darkness descended, the crystals themselves lit the way. When they finally stopped to eat and rest, Raven still had not returned. Seeing how dejected Rahlys looked, Ilene momentarily placed a comforting arm around her shoulders, giving her a little hug, but said nothing.
By Seaa’s light and the light from the crystals, they moved on, the crystalline pinnacle they navigated by still beckoning from a distance. Rahlys reached out mentally, time and time again, searching for Raven, but to no avail. Somehow she had to learn to accept that he was gone.
Rahlys gasped, pulling herself back to a quick halt. Terror gripped her heart, paralyzing her with fear. Because of her distraction over Raven, she had forgotten to toss another pebble before moving forward. Her heartbeat raced. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, she threw a pebble…only to see it vanish before her! Spotting Quaylyn only a few paces off to her right, she cried out to him.
“Quaylyn! The pebble…it vanished!”
“Okay, don’t move.” He could detect her distress, or was that his own heart pumping hard in fear of losing her? “You’ll be all right,” he said to calm her…or himself…he wasn’t sure which.
He reached into his pouch for a pebble. “Here, catch!” he told her, tossing it her way. Rahlys made the catch. “Good,” he said, smiling encouragingly, “now, make your way toward me.”
Rahlys took a couple of tenuous steps over stubby crystals…and soon found herself in his comforting arms, Quaylyn having closed the distance quickly to reach her. “You’re safe,” he whispered, holding her close to him.
I am safe, Rahlys thought, but Raven is still gone. She allowed herself a moment of quiet release in his soothing embrace, before pulling away.
“Is everyone all right?” Anthya asked, making her way toward them.
Heads turned toward Theon who had just slipped, landing on the seat of his pants a short distance away. “Damn crystals!”
Brakalar, standing next to Theon, reached down to give him a hand getting back up…or so everyone thought, including Theon. Catching him…and everyone else…completely off guard, Brakalar took advantage of Theon’s compromised position wedged between crystals. In one fluid motion, Brakalar wrenched the pack Theon carried off his shoulder, and before anyone could respond, dove for the location where Rahlys’ pebble had disappeared.
“Brakalar, no!” Anthya cried out, when she saw what was happening. It was too late. Brakalar, with the rune-covered chest containing the Rod of Destruction in his possession, vanished into oblivion.
“He’s gone!” Ilene gasped.
“And he escaped with the rod,” Theon added, still resting on his hind side. Ilene tossed a pebble his way, hitting him on the back, and then made her way toward him to help him up.
“Did he really escape with the rod, or did he destroy it along with himself?” Anthya asked, once Theon was again standing. No one knew the answer.
“Look! Someone’s coming!” Ilene shouted, pointing in the direction the group had been headed. Rahlys counted four men making their way toward them.
“It must be the Band of Rogues,” Rojaire guessed. As the men drew closer, he pointed out Stram, Tassyn, and Edty to Anthya. “I don’t know the fourth person.”
“I do,” she said, watching the men approach. “It’s Traevus, a member of the lost expedition.”
“You mean we’ve actually found a member of the lost expedition?” Ilene asked, incredulously.
Upon seeing them, the Band of Rogues halted their frantic pace, coming to a stop. “Stay put,” Stram ordered, working his way a few paces ahead of the others to take charge. Clutching the golden stone in one hand, he addressed the expedition.
“I am Stram, ruler of the Devastated Continent. State your business here.”
“What did he say?” Rahlys whispered to Quaylyn, still standing beside her.
“Nothing good,” he said, turning to her. “Listen, whatever happens, do not attempt to draw energy. I have a really bad feeling about this.”
“All right I won’t, or at least not until you tell me to.”
Anthya took her time in replying, scrutinizing the group carefully. “By what authority do you claim to rule the Devastated Continent?”
“Councilor Anthya!” Traevus said, recognizing her voice, surprised to come across her…here…of all places!
“Quiet,” Stram roared, turning toward Traevus, “you do not have permission to speak.” With Traevus subdued, he turned back toward Anthya. “I am the highest authority and you, all of you, are my prisoners.” Then, to Stram’s surprise, his eyes rested on their old companion.
“Rojaire!” he exclaimed suddenly, spotting him among the group. “So you finally joined a real expedition.” Rojaire didn’t deign to answer.
“What makes you think you can take us as prisoners?” Anthya asked, drawing Stram’s attention back to the business at hand.
“I have this,” Stram said, extending his hand to show her the stone.
“You are going to need more than one stone,” she said calmly.
“I will show you what one stone can do,” Stram answered threateningly.
Thinking he would send Anthya flying, Stram began to draw energy from the elemental forces around him. He focused mentally, aiming physically at his target. Almost immediately, he realized his mistake as an immense flood of unstoppable, surging hot energy swept through his body. Stram’s eerie howls filled the air as swirls of searing energy twirled off the top of Stram’s head, his eyes seared wide with shock, his burnt-out body beginning to glow.
“Get down!” Quaylyn shouted in warning, shielding Rahlys with his own body, as everyone scrambled for safety.
Stram was consumed in a glittering, colorful explosion of light, the explosion reverberating through the crystals. The group watched enthralled as a shower of glittering fireworks momentarily arched through the sky.
When the air cleared, the group was pleased to discover that no one else had been hurt. With Stram’s destruction, Traevus had been freed from the Band of Rogues and quickly joined the members of the expedition, while Tassyn and Edty stood by helplessly, their future undecided.
“Where are the others?” Anthya asked Traevus when they had regrouped.
“Cremyn lost her mind in the ruins of the Temple of Tranquility. Ollen escorted her back to the beach to intercept with Captain Setas.”
“They never made it,” Anthya informed him. “We found Cremyn’s grave marker. There was no sign of Ollen. What about Sarus, Caleeza, Selyzar, and Caponya?” Anthya asked Traevus.
“In the Crystalline Landscape, I suppose. I was kidnapped by the Band of Rogues while we were crossing the central plains. Stram, the recently deceased leader of this pitiful band, got the notion in his head he would use his power to enslave the rest of the expedition, to build a monument to honor him…or something like that.” Tassyn and Edty hung their heads in guilt.
“We had no choice,” Tassyn explained. “Stram was in control.”
The three men who had joined them did not speak English, so the interaction between Anthya, Traevus, Tassyn, and Edty was unintelligible to Rahlys and Ilene. Quaylyn explained what had transpired.
“Ask them if they’ve seen Raven,” Rahlys requested. Quaylyn, knowing Rahlys was heartbroken over Raven’s disappearance, posed the question as she telepathed images of her familiar. Her heart soared over their response.
Yes, they had seen Raven!