Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
The Band of Rogues
“Perhaps we could strike a deal with the High Council, a trade-off of some sort…like their lost expedition member for some decent food,” Tassyn said in disgust, tossing his half eaten zan fruit into a cluster of zan fruit bushes. The knee-high spiky bushes with round golden leaves dotted the lavender and blue dry dust of the otherwise barren landscape as he and Stram made their way to their guarded captive. Zan fruit, a tasteless yellow sponge in an orange shell, was about the only thing that grew in abundance in this region of the devastated lands. It’s highly nutritional crunchy outer skin and water-rich inner pulp were essential to survival, but failed miserably as a palate pleaser.
Of course Tassyn didn’t expect his suggestion to be taken seriously. He wrinkled dark bushy eyebrows under straggly dirty orange-brown hair, contorting his face in distaste as he wiped zan fruit drippings from his fingers onto his already soiled gray, or perhaps they had once been white, breeches and tunic.
“That might not be a bad idea eventually…but for now, the prisoner can serve our purpose,” Stram said. Stram’s features were blunt; squished in nose, flat face, short muscular arms, and barrel chest. A ragged turban of sorts, matching his worn beige breeches and tunic, protected his bald pate from the sun.
“What if he doesn’t want to serve us?” Tassyn asked under his breath, not quite sure what purpose Stram was referring to. Stram didn’t confer with him like he used to. When they first formed the Band of Rogues…a name they gave themselves, that probably hasn’t made anyone quiver in their sandals in the inhabited world yet…he and Stram had been equal partners. But more and more lately, Stram told Tassyn what they were going to do without including him in the decision making process.
Tassyn longed for the good old days when he, Stram, Edty, and Rojaire arrived together on a mission of their own making, to explore the unknown continent. Of course Rojaire had been the driving force behind the adventure, but he and Stram had gladly joined him, and Edty went wherever Tassyn went. They had fun back then, watching each other’s backs, exploring the continent in jolly camaraderie, but Rojaire took his work far too seriously, and the rest of them were just out for a good time. Eventually, Rojaire left the group to work on his own. He said he could better devote his time to his research with fewer distractions working alone. Tassyn blamed Stram’s erratic behavior for Rojaire separating from the group. Things have gotten a lot worse since.
Not long ago, Tassyn and Edty learned that Stram could actually draw energy from the elemental forces…how was that possible? What bothered Tassyn the most was how the power seemed to be going to his head! And now, they’ve taken a prisoner, a member of an exploratory expedition sent by the Community of the High Council. Tassyn didn’t have any reverence for the High Council, but kidnapping was taking a grudge too far.
They arrived at the prison cell, a protected enclosure of randomly tumbled massive stone slabs several layers deep, in shades of green and blue. Open spaces in the jumble of monolithic stones formed a maze of pathways toward the outside, but all paths taken ended at openings too small for a man to pass through. Stram had drawn on the elemental forces that no one else seemed able to do in the devastated lands to teleport the prisoner inside his prison cell.
Edty, the guard, not that he was actually expected to guard anything, spotted them coming. He jumped up from where he had been resting in the shade, trying to look alert as they approached.
His short gaunt frame supported a weathered stubble-covered face under shortly cropped gray hair. His beady dark eyes stared fixedly on Tassyn.
“So have you decided what we’re going to do with him?” he asked, eagerly. Whatever they had decided would be all right with him. He didn’t have any use for a captive, and didn’t understand why they had taken one in the first place.
Edty didn’t like making decisions. With decision making came responsibility, and he hated responsibility, so he left all the important decision making stuff to Tassyn and Stram. True, he did much of the mindless dirty work, but he didn’t care as long as they treated him like a full member of the band. Well, he really didn’t like the way Stram had been treating him lately, but Tassyn assured him things would get better.
Traevus heard movement outside his prison and crawled gingerly through tight spaces, holding bruised ribs, to a portal that gave him a clear view of the three men. The one they called Stram seemed to be in charge. And he can draw on the elemental forces! Traevus reminded himself as he listened.
“He’s going to be our servant,” Tassyn blurted out.
“I don’t think a member of the Academic Community is going to be willing to work for us.” Edty was as wise as he was short.
I have fools for partners, Stram moaned to himself. “We won’t give him a choice,” Stram said out loud, and he teleported the prisoner before them.
Suddenly, Traevus lay prone on the ground, out in the open at the feet of the three men. Spirals of disheveled gold-highlighted dark brown hair framed the delicate features in his uplifted face. Thin and lithe, he quickly jumped to his feet, bringing himself on a level with them. Maybe he would finally get some answers as to why they had waylaid him and taken him captive. He wasted no time.
“Who are you?” Traevus asked, “Ump…!” He doubled over; something had punched him in the gut.
“You do not get to ask questions,” Stram said, obviously the source of the punch, although Traevus hadn’t been physically touched.
“How is it that you can draw energy from the elemental forces?” Traevus asked boldly, not heeding Stram’s warning.
What felt like a battering ram slammed into the side of his head, sending him sprawling to the ground. This time, Traevus wasn’t in a hurry to rise. He had received beatings for asking the same questions rotations ago, and he still suffered from a couple of bruised ribs.
Edty watched the brutality with increasing unease. He had wanted to ask the same question the prisoner had for some time now, but didn’t dare. He gave Tassyn a questioning glance, but understandably, Tassyn made no attempt to restrain Stram.
“You are to obey orders only,” Stram reiterated. “Now, get up and find us something to eat,” he ordered, tossing a gathering bag toward him.
Glad to be free of the cave and hungry besides, Traevus decided to bide his time and play along for now; there wasn’t much else he could do at the moment. Painfully, he pushed himself back upright. Perhaps he could drift far enough away from the group while foraging to make a run for it. Then he could warn the others about Stram and his followers. But he should have grabbed the food sack with one hand on his way up; now he had to bend over again…a painful proposition. Retrieving the bag without a grimace, Traevus headed north away from the camp in search of food.
“Keep an eye on him,” Stram ordered the other two.
Who was he kidding, Traevus thought? There was no way he would be able to run; just walking was painful enough. By Seaa’s light, how had he allowed himself to be taken in the first place? He was a trained warrior; had he let his guard down that much? They had thought the continent was uninhabited, but that was no excuse. Traevus had simply been teleported away, out of sight of the other members of the expedition, bound and gagged immediately, and then teleported, in several short hops, far from his colleagues, leaving no trail for them to follow.
How long had it taken the rest of the group to notice his disappearance, he wondered? What effort did they make to try and find him? Traevus paused at the edge of a shallow moist ravine, followed closely by his two guards. Hopefully, the abundance of growth in the moist depression would offer something more appetizing to eat than zan fruit.
“Edty, is that what they call you?” Traevus asked the featherweight standing beside him, bracing himself for what promised to be an excruciating climb down to the floor of the long narrow hollow.
“Don’t tell him anything,” Tassyn warned.
“Sorry, Tassyn.” Then Edty realized his mistake in using Tassyn’s name. “Sorry.”
“I’m Traevus,” he said, finishing the introductions. “So what are you fellows doing out here?” he asked nonchalantly.
“Never you mind what we are doing,” Tassyn spoke up. “You heard the boss; gather us some food.”
Traevus made his way down, holding his breath against the pain with each step, while Tassyn and Edty settled themselves comfortably to watch. Obviously, they had no intention of helping. Reaching the bottom of the ravine, he paused in relief, and then surveyed the offerings.
Large patches of the blue-green leafy plant, tisse, a good cooking vegetable, grew along the center of the moist depression. He carefully lowered himself down next to a large patch and proceeded to pluck large handfuls of it, stuffing the gathering bag. Then he spotted something else: shade-loving, low-growing, yuyta, hidden under the foliage of pinkberry bushes growing along the edge of the bottom of the rise. He would have missed them if he weren’t sitting down. Crawling over to them…easier than getting back up…he picked handfuls of the spicy little above-ground nodules, which would add excellent flavor to the tisse.
With hands occupied, his mind wandered to thoughts of the expedition. Rotations had passed since his capture. Where is the expedition now? he wondered. Hopefully, they didn’t waste too much time looking for me. Better they move on than risk falling to this group of renegades.
The expedition had been plagued by misfortunes, with accidents, illnesses, and mysterious disappearances all along the way. They should have been headed back to the coast by now, but they had yet to reach Mt. Vatre.
“How are things going down there?” Tassyn shouted, mostly as a reminder that he was being watched.
“Fine,” Traevus said, standing back up. Now, for some pinkberries. He ambled around the waist-high pink and orange spiky-leafed bushes, plucking the juicy thumb-size pink teardrop fruit. At first, they all went into his mouth, but after having his fill, he topped off the harvesting bag, adding sweetness to the mix.
Closing off the bag, he glanced over at the steep rise, dreading the climb back up. Standing in the shadow of the cliff, Traevus gazed at the relaxed figures of Tassyn and Edty above, silhouetted by the dropping sun at their backs, when a third silhouette joined the group.
“What’s taking you so long?” Stram demanded.
“I’m done,” Traevus said, pointing to the full bag.
“Good, because you have other work to do. We need water, and you will prepare the meal.”
The next thing Traevus knew, he was standing at the top of the rise with the others. Looking around, he suppressed a tremendous sigh of relief over not having to climb back up out of the ravine after all. Unintentionally, Stram had done him a tremendous favor.
Rahlys woke to the sound of splattering rain, so pleasant a sound she was sure she was back in her bed in the northern Susitna Valley. Then she opened her eyes, bewildered by the unfamiliar surroundings, until the sequence of events that had brought her here rushed through her psyche. Relieved to reach recognition, she sat up, inhaling deeply the coolly refreshing moist air, and stretched theatrically, feeling well rested and eager to carry on. Swinging her feet to the polished stone floor, she slipped on her shirt and jeans, and made her way to the balcony to look out into the sheeting rain. Rain splattered almost to the top of the railing as it bounced on the exposed edge of the rock ledge. She searched for Raven, but he was nowhere in sight; she had to assume he had found shelter elsewhere.
Her stomach growled. How long did I sleep? It was still light out, although that light was greatly subdued. Whether it was dusk, dawn, or just heavy cloud cover, she couldn’t be sure.
Leaving the balcony, she turned her attention to a polished greenish-blue stone table that curved gracefully from the cavern wall. Upon it, an unusual platter, carved from wood into a multi-level array of nooks and depressions and offering a variety of fruit and roasted grains, beckoned invitingly. Rahlys reached for a cluster of the red teardrop fruit she had seen growing in the garden when she first arrived. Bunched like grapes in one area of the oddly contoured tray, she picked one off the stem and popped it into her mouth. An explosion of sweet nectar flooded her mouth and throat, making it necessary to swallow quickly to prevent the overflow from oozing out of her nostrils.
“Rahlys?” It was Ilene, calling her from the chamber outside her entrance.
“Come on in, Ilene,” she called out to her while munching a handful of silvery nuts.
“Good morning,” Ilene greeted jubilantly, waltzing in through the privacy corridor. “Father says it will be dark soon so I guess it’s not really morning. Regardless, it’s about time you woke up.”
“Really, I slept that long?” Rahlys threw water upon her face from a stone basin carved out of the cavern wall through which water flowed. Then, reaching into her pack, she pulled out a small brush which she passed quickly through her long darkly blond hair before braiding it.
“I just got back from my first training session on healing at the Academy,” Ilene told her, controlling her excitement with only a modicum of dignity, “and Anthya is going to continue my training while we are on the expedition.”
I should have been up hours ago, Rahlys reprimanded herself. “So what’s next on our schedule? Do you know?”
“We are to meet at the Academy after everyone has awakened and eaten. I think Anthya meant after you have awakened and eaten, because everyone else is up. We’re going to discuss the expedition while waiting for Seaa to rise…no Crystal Table involved this time.”
“Good, perhaps then, we can ask questions.” Rahlys reached for another red teardrop, when Ilene intercepted.
“Try this one!” she exclaimed, choosing a fist-sized dark purple acorn-shaped fruit from the bottom tier of the serving dish.
“Why, what is it like?” Rahlys asked, taking the fruit from her.
“Just try it,” Ilene giggled.
Rahlys took a cautious bite, and her eyes shot wide open! A barrage of fruity, fizzling, purple crystals tickled her tongue and palate before dissolving away in her mouth. Ilene laughed delightedly at Rahlys’ sequence of facial expressions.
“Wow! That was different!” Rahlys said after swallowing, and took another bite of the teasingly delicious fruit. Then they heard Theon outside her door.
“Hello, girls, mind if I come in?”
“Come on in,” Rahlys invited. Theon strutted in, looking spryer than she’d seen him in a long time. To her surprise, he wore cool loose-fitting native clothing, adding to his air of comfort.
“If you ladies are ready, Brakalar has requested that I escort you to the meeting, already in progress.”
“I’m ready,” Rahlys announced, donning the beaded pouch without delay. “Let’s go.”
Instantly, they arrived under the sheltering crystal dome of the Way, standing in front of the outside entrance to the Academy, a massive lavender stone structure slowly being swallowed by crimson and orange creeping vines. The first monument built devoted to the survival of humanity after the Dark Devastation, the Academy embodied the hopes and dreams of the new order.
They entered through a stone archway that led them into an enormous cut stone chamber lit by floating glow globes. Rahlys paused, gazing in wonder at the display of relics from an era that had been destroyed, remnants of objects she couldn’t identity. Theon led them across the octagon stone floor to the eastern corridor, up curving stone stairs lit by more glow globes, and down a long hall hung with colorful tapestries to a large airy dimly lit room. Three arches in the eastern wall led to a balcony looking out toward the Golden Sea, now nearly obscured by darkness. In the center of the room, silvery cushions on raised stone daises, many already occupied by Quaylyn, Anthya, Zayla, Brakalar, and Rojaire, were arranged around a low polished white stone table. A three-dimensional topographical map of the Devastated Continent glowed upon the table.
“Have a seat anywhere,” Brakalar invited them. Theon returned to his seat between Brakalar and Rojaire, so Ilene chose a place beside Anthya. Rahlys was about to take the seat next to her when she sensed Raven’s approach.
Raven’s loud squawk drew Rahlys toward the balcony. The rain had stopped and several bright stars were already visible in the darkening sky. Are any of them the star Seaa? she wondered. Then she spotted Raven as he came in for a landing, perching on the outer railing.
There you are, she greeted him telepathically. Still gluttonously feasting in the orchards?
I can take that as a…yes?
“Raven is welcomed to join us, or he can just watch and listen from the balcony if he wants,” Brakalar said.
Rahlys made sure Raven understood Brakalar’s offer, but Raven remained on the balcony. Leaving him there, she made her way to a vacant seat next to Rojaire, who gave her a welcoming nod.
“What you see here,” Brakalar explained to the new arrivals, “is a map of the Devastated Continent, most of the details of which have been provided by Rojaire.”
Brakalar picked up a small, thin wand and pointed an even thinner blue beam of light to a location on the map, “When Seaa rises, we will teleport to Limitation Island, where Captain Setas will take us by boat to this beach, where we will disembark,” he said, moving his pointer accordingly. Rahlys noted that Limitation Island lay some distance off shore to the southwest, facing what appeared to be the most assessable approach onto the continent. “These are the Crescent Mountains and here is Mt. Vatre,” Brakalar continued, naming off and pointing out major landmarks.
Rahlys stared at the glowing three-dimensional topographical rendition of their proposed destination. The Devastated Land was an ameba-shaped island continent with mountains, hills, lowlands, and rivers. In the center of the continent rose the dark blown out caldera of Mt. Vatre, encircled by a broad band of glowing…were those crystals? A crescent of tall, pointed, sword-blade mountain peaks embraced the interior of the continent, opening to the southeast. Another broken crescent of mountains barred most of the coastline from entry, the foothills of both mountain ranges crushed in between. She studied the map intently, doing her best to commit it to memory.
“On the first expedition, you may recall, we only made it in as far as the Sooty Caves, and then we came back out again after finding the capsule containing Quaylyn.” Brakalar highlighted an elliptical loop from the landing beach to the Sooty Caves, located on the western edge of the Crescent Mountains, and back to the beach.
“The lost expedition planned on following the route we took out, and then veering to the southeast in search of a way around the mountain range. We now know, thanks to Rojaire, that the crescent of mountains does eventually end in a point to the southeast. Of course, we can’t be certain the missing expedition stuck to their plan, but we must assume that they did until we can find evidence otherwise. Therefore, they should have found their way into the interior of the continent. Once in the interior, the land flattens out but it’s sliced by ravines. The biggest obstacle to reaching Mt. Vatre, though, is the Crystalline Landscape,” he said, pointing to the glowing wreath of crystals Rahlys had noticed earlier. “According to Rojaire, a broad area of the land around the still smoldering relics of the mountain has actually crystallized, forming huge crystals that produce dangerous energy fields.” Brakalar swept a glance over his listeners, welcoming comment, but no one spoke so he continued.
“As an independent explorer who has traversed most of the continent, Rojaire proposes we follow a different route if we want to reach the interior of the continent.” The thin blue beam of light guided by Brakalar’s hand headed northeast instead of southeast from the shore and eventually wove its way right through the seemingly impassable mountain range.
“Across the mountains?” Anthya asked in surprise.
“No, through them. I know the way,” Rojaire assured her.
“This doesn’t look anything like the land I remember,” Theon said, “but aren’t we looking for the missing expedition? We aren’t likely to find them if we go in the opposite direction.” It seemed like an obvious point to Rahlys, and she was glad he brought it up.
“For the most part, we will attempt to follow the route of the lost expedition…with a couple of detours,” Brakalar explained, “but it doesn’t hurt to know of an alternate escape route if things do not work out as planned.” He paused, but no one else spoke, then he stood and began to pace.
“Our goals are many. We are to explore and map out the territory. As Theon said, it has changed. Only a few, like Rojaire, have explored it extensively. We seek to learn what it is in the devastated land that prevents the drawing of energy from the elemental forces. If we discover the problem, we may be able to come up with a solution. And we are looking for any clues we can find that may lead us to the whereabouts of the lost expedition. We also want to further explore the Sooty Caves and what remains of the Temple of Tranquility.
Therefore, the route I propose is this. From the beach, we head in northeast to the Sooty Caves where the capsule containing Quaylyn was found. Then, from there, we can follow the contour of the Crescent Mountains southeast, hopefully intercepting the trail of the lost expedition on the way to the Temple of Tranquility, located near the southeast tip of the crescent of mountains, and finally head north to Mt. Vatre. If, for some reason, our retreat is cut off, or we are looking for a shortcut on the return trip, we can follow Rojaire’s suggested route back.”
“What kind of equipment and supplies will we carry with us?” Rahlys asked. “Won’t we need protection from wild animals and insects?” For some reason, her second question awarded her unwarranted stares.
A reverent silence followed as Zayla, Anthya, and Brakalar bowed their heads solemnly. She and Ilene exchanged puzzled looks, while Theon fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat. Did I say something wrong? Rahlys wondered. Then Rahlys’ gaze met Quaylyn’s, his painfully contorted face and cold glacial blue eyes twisting a dagger in her heart. Only Rojaire’s haughty smirk remained unchanged. Finally, Anthya broke the silence.
“There are no insects or wild animals,” Anthya explained quietly. “Most life forms, especially land animals, were snuffed out of existence during the Dark Devastation. Only a few fishes in the sea remain.”
Rahlys could only gape in response. It had been hard enough accepting the extinction of birds…but all animals…even insects! How had people survived? As though reading her mind, Zayla began to speak.
“Less than a thousand people survived the destruction of our world, and even today, we number less than ten thousand. When the land and sea settled down again and the ash finally cleared enough for the sun to burn through, the few scattered pockets of survivors sought each other out and began to form communities. The largest group settled here, and the Community of the High Council was founded.”
“But why haven’t you repopulated?” Ilene asked. “It is my understanding that the Dark Devastation occurred thousands of Earth-years ago.”
“For what purpose?” Zayla asked. “The world does not need to be filled to capacity. People are more destructive to a planet than helpful. The wisest, most powerful among us forged the Crystal Table, imbuing it with the powers of the elemental forces, to help guide us. The Dark Devastation took place only a couple of generations ago. We have not forgotten.”
“To answer your first question,” Brakalar said, sitting back down. “You will be provided with suitable clothing and footwear to protect you from the elements and the rugged terrain, a cloak to shield you from the sun or keep you warm when it is cooler, a light pack, pouches of dried foods, a printed copy of this map, basic survival tools, gathering bags, water containers, and for extreme circumstances, food tablets to sustain you when nutrition is otherwise unavailable. Also, everyone is expected to keep a written journal of their experiences and observations. These will also be provided.”
“Aaaaaark!” Raven’s cry pierced the night. Ilene lifted her head at Raven’s cry.
“What is that?” she exclaimed pointing toward the balcony. All heads lifted or turned to look in the direction she pointed.
“Seaa has risen,” Brakalar said quietly. “With her help, we will be able to reach Limitation Island.”
Theon rose casually from his seat and walked out to the balcony. Ilene jumped up to follow him, triggering a general movement by all assembled to do the same. “Twinkle, twinkle little star,” certainly would not apply here, Rahlys mused, for Seaa looked more like her true nature, a distant sun, smoothly round and golden, rather than a twinkling star. The night sky, which had been so richly spangled with stars a short while ago, was now washed out by Seaa’s light, and the Golden Sea shimmered distantly in the ghostly illumination.