Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
Captain Setas gazed up at Seaa, already high in the sky, from the large oval deck of her ship moored in the sheltered cove. They will be here soon, she muttered to herself, for tonight the expedition was scheduled to arrive. She didn’t exactly look forward to their arrival, but ferrying expeditions across to the mainland and doing surveillance toward their return was her service, making it possible for her to live the solitary life she clung to on Limitation Island. I am too far along in longevity to change course now.
Setas remembered life before the Dark Devastation; she had been one of the few survivors. For the longest, she had been the oldest living person on the planet…but the news that Theon had returned changed that. How could he still be alive? She had been a young woman seeking a shortcut to wealth when she first met Theon, already in middle longevity…so very long ago. As it turned out, the world hadn’t lasted long enough for her to become involved in Theon’s enterprises…and then wealth suddenly had no value at all.
The captain’s thin-to-gaunt silhouette moved with grace, a stick figure come to life in the mystical starlight as she readied her craft for the journey. The vessel, built by Setas herself, was the only one of its kind. Each polished board of deck and rail, the forward beam shaped into a long pointed prow, and the sleek steering pedestal built into it, all had been crafted by her own hands.
Setas had never imagined that one day she would become a boat captain. It wasn’t until after many spans of the seasons had passed and the new order had become firmly established that she learned the island of her birth, to some extent, had survived the maelstrom. Of course, it hadn’t been called Limitation Island when she lived there; no one could have conceived back then of a limit to their ability to draw on the elemental forces. When the Academy first considered an eventual expedition to the Devastated Continent, Setas had been given the opportunity to return to the island, a decision she has never regretted. She cherished her solitude and resented the interruption…at least that’s what she repeatedly told herself.
Opening a panel in the pedestal built into the long pointed prow of the vessel, Setas stored the last of the spare solar-charged crystals she used for power. When she turned from her completed task, the expedition stood before her, eight signatures in traveling cloaks carrying pouches and packs. She had been told there would be nine. She spotted Raven as he flew up, circled around the bay, and then landed on the protective wooden railings enclosing the deck.
“Aaaaaaark!” Raven cried, mesmerizing the ferry lady’s attention. Setas had thought she was long beyond surprises.
“Why, in all my days, I never thought I’d see another winged creature,” her voice rattled deep in her throat.
“Greetings, Captain Setas, Lady of the Ferry,” Brakalar bowed respectfully.
Yes, yes, let’s get on with it, she wanted to say, but instead, she bowed her head politely in return, “Greetings, Councilor Brakalar,” she croaked. “I’m very pleased to serve. Welcome aboard my ship.”
Ship? Rahlys looked around with dismay; she hoped they weren’t venturing too far out to sea. The floating deck with railings on which they stood was no ship; it hardly passed as a seaworthy vessel at all. And the skeletal old lady with thin grayish white hair and sunken face didn’t look capable of being the captain of a toy boat in a bathtub.
“You know Zayla and Anthya,” Brakalar continued.
“Yes, welcome councilors. I’m pleased to serve.”
“Thank you, Captain,” Zayla said, speaking for both. “If I may introduce the others; this is Quaylyn, Rojaire, and Theon. Theon and Setas did remarkably well at not showing any signs of recognition…as did Rojaire. She welcomed them aboard, one by one.
“And from Earth, we have Theon’s daughter Ilene, Sorceress Rahlys, and her familiar, Raven.” Captain Setas surveyed her off-world passengers with some interest.
“How is it you speak English?” Rahlys asked after the formal introductions were over.
How is it you are a sorceress? was at the tip of Setas’ tongue, when Councilor Zayla came to her rescue and explained.
“In a way, Captain Setas is also a member of the expedition, although she will stay with her ship. Therefore, she was also required to learn English.”
“If everyone is ready, we will shake into action,” Setas said, gliding to the control pedestal.
“We’re going in the dark?” Rahlys asked in surprise.
Afraid, Earth Girl? was Setas’ initial unspoken response. “We must take advantage of calm seas,” she explained to Rahlys gently.
Feeling put in her place, Rahlys looked away. Seaa illuminated a tropical looking island off the stern of the ferry. That must be Limitation Island, she surmised, but apparently they would not be going ashore.
Setas engaged a few buttons, and the craft shuddered, causing Raven to take to the air in protest. Watching him fly off, Rahlys wished she could do the same. Raven consoled her with images of the island and the outer sea as he flew a wide circle overhead.
Using levers to steer, Setas carefully jogged the boat around obstacles only she could see, reaching the open channel. Gradually, the ferry picked up speed, its bow quartering the gently rolling surf, aimed at a distant landmass looming darkly on the dim horizon. “You might as well make yourselves comfortable,” Setas shouted hoarsely over the low hum of the engine and the even louder gushing of water beneath the deck and out the back of the boat as the vessel propelled itself forward. “It’s a long time till landfall.”
The speed of the craft was steady, although not great. Most of the members of the expedition readily took her advice and rolling themselves up in their cloaks, stretched out in the center of the wooden deck. A few, still wide awake, leaned against the port and starboard railings and gazed out to sea wondering what they will find when they reached their destination.
Rahlys stood near the stern watching the water gushing out from under the boat. Amazing, Rahlys thought quietly as the craft glided smoothly forward. The breeze created by the boat’s momentum felt pleasingly refreshing in the sultrily warm night air. To her surprise, Quaylyn joined her, staring quietly out at Seaa’s dim light glimmering softly on the gentle surf of the Golden Sea.
“I read the letter,” he said after a while. Rahlys turned to look at his face, his glacial blue eyes no longer so cold. “I would love to visit with Vince and Maggie again someday. It must have been hard for you to leave them.” Rahlys smiled, relieved by his softening.
“Maggie has often said she enjoyed cooking for you more than anyone because you always relished every morsel. And Vince claims the political and sociological discussions he had with you were the most stimulating he has ever enjoyed.” It was Quaylyn’s turn to smile.
“Thank you for sharing that with me. Well, I guess we should get some rest,” he said soon after. “Brakalar will want us to start hiking as soon as we reach the shore.”
The ‘ship’ didn’t offer any amenities of any kind; no cabin, no below deck, not even a bench or a chair. When they became weary of standing, they sat or slept on the open deck. Eventually, even Raven returned to perch on a railing, finding nothing but water all around.
Seaa arched slowly across the night sky while Captain Setas stood unfailingly at the controls in the bow, her hawkish eyes scanning the sea. Long after the members of the expedition finally allowed the monotony of the journey to lull them to sleep, Theon quietly rose to his feet and joined Setas in her surveillance.
“Seek heart, not soul,” Theon said in quiet earnest, reverting to their native tongue.
Setas did not respond right away. When she did, she didn’t turn to look at him. “You could be disintegrated for treason for uttering those words, Earth Traveler,” she cautioned softly.
“Yes, I’m sure. I will heed your warning, Accepted One, and the heart is grateful, but I have little longevity left to risk.” The address of acceptance swelled Setas’ heart, but acceptance into an organization that no longer existed had little meaning.
“You take my warning lightly, Earth Traveler,” she said, turning her head and looking directly at him. “I wouldn’t, if I were you.”
“I’ll be careful.”
“It’s your longevity at risk, not mine,” she said, sotto voce, her eyes back on the velvety smooth rolling sea.
“Who else is on the mainland that you know of?” Theon asked conspiratorially. The long quiet that followed made Theon uneasy. Perhaps she would not join with him after all.
“I only ferry for the Academy and the High Council, if you are implying otherwise, Earth Traveler. And my island is warded against intruders.”
“I’m certain that is true,” Theon cleared his throat, “but my heart tells me you do not seek soul.” At first Theon thought she would offer nothing, the span of silence that followed stretched for so long. Without turning toward Theon to speak, Setas shared telepathically an image of three men.
“You will not be alone in the devastated lands,” she said for his ears only.
“There were four, one you already have with you.”
Rojaire! Theon shouted to himself. “Anything else?”
“Look for the stone as round and smooth and golden as Seaa herself.”
“A stone? What is its purpose?” Theon asked.
But Setas would give no more.
“Seek heart, not soul, Earth Traveler,” she said dismissively.
Theon turned away, deep in troubled thought. Were Rojaire’s thugs waiting in ambush? And if so, is Brakalar in on it? Or Zayla? Or even Anthya? And what is so important about a stone as round and smooth and golden as the star Seaa? Theon glanced at Ilene, sleeping peacefully, and then leaned against the port railing gazing out to sea. Would he find the answers to these questions before it was too late?
“I can’t wait to get off this boat,” Ilene moaned, huddled against Theon for added warmth. The air had become increasingly cooler as the long night progressed.
“We’re almost there,” he reassured her.
Will I be able to keep Father safe? Ilene wondered. She knew he wouldn’t be around forever. Then her thoughts drifted to her mother so far away back on Earth, a tweak of guilt for leaving her clawing at her stomach.
Everyone was up by now, gathered at the railings in anticipation of landfall. Raven had flown off toward the continent some time ago. Rahlys felt a sense of uneasiness as she studied the dark mysterious landscape. What will we find here? she wondered.
The ferryboat began to slow down; the reduced speed of the craft lowered the wind chill factor, making the air feel warmer. A few details of the shoreline, looming ever closer, emerged in the dim light of Seaa, now low on the western horizon. For the most part, the continent remained shrouded in darkness. Seaa would set soon and true darkness would descend until sunrise lightened things up again.
Theon studied the rugged coastline, looking for suspicious movement as the ferryboat approached the shore of the Devastated Continent. Setas cut the craft’s speed even further as she nosed her ship toward the beach, its long shadow leading the way across the glassy calm water of the bay.
“I’m going to pull in over there,” Captain Setas croaked, pointing to a spot on the beach, “Hold on to a railing!” Without looking back to see if anyone obeyed her command, Setas gunned the long pointed prow into the sandy beach and shut off the power. They had arrived.
The night darkened as Seaa inched her way below the horizon. They had arrived, but it was now too dark to see. Without thinking about where she was and how her abilities might be affected, Rahlys conjured the crystal from her pouch. Immediately, it appeared before her. Light! she commanded, and the softly glowing crystal brightened as it rose above the party…lighting a circle of astonished faces.
“The Earth girl is extremely powerful,” Setas announced profoundly. Rahlys wasn’t sure what they were making such a fuss over.
“How did you do that?” Brakalar asked.
“What do you mean? I just summoned…” then Rahlys remembered the warning that they would not be able to draw on the elemental forces in the devastated lands. “It must be the oracle’s power at work.” The stares of her companions intensified under the clear light of the crystal. Rahlys could see some of them straining to draw energy…but apparently to no avail…because nothing happened.
Ilene expected everyone to immediately disembark, but instead they watched as Captain Setas opened a compartment built into the bow next to the control pedestal. Using her cloak for hot pads, she pulled out a large covered pot. I hope that’s food, she thought to herself. Suddenly, she felt extremely hungry.
“You might as well wait till daylight to go ashore,” the captain said. “While waiting, we will eat.” The steaming hot aroma that wafted through the air when she removed the lid sent everyone scrambling to their packs to fetch bowls and eating utensils. Then, to everyone’s delight, Setas opened a second compartment on the opposite side of the control pedestal and pulled out another covered pot, this one containing steaming hot roasted fish and roots. The meal had been cooking, crock pot style, while the ferry crossed the channel.
“Oh…this is delicious!” Rahlys exclaimed after the first hurried bites to appease the hungry void in her belly. “What is it?”
“Ahsyki,” Setas said, “made with fruit, vegetables, nuts, and grains, all from Limitation Island.” There were seconds available for everyone, and soon, Rahlys was headed for a refill.
“Wait a moment, Rahlys,” Brakalar called out to her. “Let’s explore the extent of your abilities without using the crystal…since the rest of us have none.” Rahlys had noticed Brakalar’s frequent hard stares since she had provided them with light. Now, she noted some bitterness in his tone. “Why don’t you try replenishing your bowl from where you are…and let’s not spill any of this good food,” Brakalar challenged her.
Rahlys also wanted to test the full extent of her abilities, but in private, away from the others. She would then decide how much to reveal…assuming she had any abilities at all…but she didn’t like Brakalar’s condescending tone, or the way he stared at her bowl waiting for more ahsyki and fish to instantly appear.
Taking a deep breath, Rahlys relaxed her grip on her bowl and, focusing energy on it, gently moved it from her hand, sending it hovering across the open deck to the covered pots of food. Directing mental energy from where she stood, Rahlys carefully removed the lids and ladled more ahsyki and roasted fish with tubers to her hovering dish. Finally, replacing the lids on the pots, she drew her bowl back to her hands and resumed eating.
“This is really delicious,” she praised Setas again, and took another bite of the roasted fish, ignoring the appreciative stares from the other members of the group.
“You are a clue to the answer to the puzzle,” Zayla told Rahlys thoughtfully, “…and a valuable asset to the expedition.” While her comment had been sincere, Rahlys couldn’t help detecting a tiny spark of envy.
By the time all the food was gone, leaving filled bellies and empty pots in its place, a faint glow awakened in the eastern sky, its source still hidden by the distant Crescent Mountains. The expedition members gathered their belongings, packing them away. Some rinsed out their bowls and eating utensils with a dab of drinking water, others waited to wash them in the little stream that emptied into the bay.
“Aaaaaark! Aaaaaark!” Raven cried in the near distance, returning from his inland excursion. He flew over them, and then circled down, landing on the beach.
“It’s time for you to depart,” Captain Setas announced suddenly. “I must leave on the falling tide.” She opened a hinged section of rail near the bow, dropping it down to form steps to the beach.
Grabbing her pack, Rahlys disembarked via the steps to join Raven, who had nothing alarming to report. The crystal followed her, leaving the rest of the team in relative darkness. Rahlys sent it higher up to cast its light over a broader area, illuminating broad-leafed red, orange, and blue-green foliage blazing out of the lavender earth.
“Did Raven see anything?” Theon asked Rahlys in a whisper when he reached her on the beach. He had tried using telepathy, but couldn’t even detect her signature…and she was standing right in front of him!
No, and I’m not picking up any other signatures in the area besides our own, she informed him. Theon nodded, indicating that he had received the information. But why was it possible for Rahlys to send a message to him telepathically, when he couldn’t send one in return?”
“I will check the beach every three rotations,” Captain Setas promised, locking up the gate railing after they had all descended. Rahlys did the math; three rotations at approximately six Earth-days per rotation. That meant that Setas would check the beach about every eighteen days in case she was needed. Has she been doing this the entire time the lost expedition has been on the continent?
With mixed feelings, the group watched as Captain Setas jogged the ferry’s prow back out of the sand. “Good luck,” the captain added unexpectedly, then made a wide looping turn, heading out of the bay.