Oracle of Light
By Cil Gregoire
Alaska Sci-Fi Queen
Taku cautiously felt around and above her, stretching her arms out in the dark. Her hands touched nothing. But the cold, damp, textured surface under her bare feet felt strangely familiar. Gingerly she stooped down in the blackness and felt for continuation of the surface she was standing on; it extended all around her. Reassured that she would not step into an abyss, she straightened back up and carefully took a step forward with her hands out in front of her, searching for contact with something. With the completion of one step, her groping hands brushed a smooth surface which turned out to be a porthole window in a sturdy door like one would find on a fishing boat. Reaching naturally to the door handle, she opened the door as she had hundreds of times before, and made her way gingerly down the familiar steps into the galley and wheelhouse.
Locating the stove, table, and captain’s chair by feel as she made her way, she stepped down into the bow section of the boat where bunks and storage bins lined the walls, and blindly reached over the starboard bunk into a cargo net hanging along the wall. Her heart pounded as her hand searched and found the flashlight she knew would be there. Turning it on, a beam of light confirmed what she already knew, she was home…on the Taku!
Images of her life snapped back into her memory, one by one. She saw her long-dead mother lighting four candles on her birthday cake, and there were images from years of living with her father on the fishing boat. She remembered the beach where she and her father walked together for the last time, and her father’s anguished rage over the disappearance of his boats. Then his sudden death and disappearance… and Droclum. Tears of unshed grief streamed down her face as she flashed the beam of light around, taking in the familiar surroundings.
And my name is Melinda! My name is Melinda, she cried out silently between sobs. Her body shuddered from the release of grief and the pain of memory. Then the shudders turned to shivering as the cold dampness seeped persistently through the thin red dress she still wore.
Melinda dug in the storage bins under her bunk and found warm clothes; a jacket, socks, jeans, even some old tennis shoes. Tears subsided as she changed quickly, tossing aside the red dress and the diamond necklace that hung like an albatross around her neck.
Warmly dressed and carrying the flashlight, she went back out on deck. Inky blackness surrounded her and the boat. Melinda directed the flashlight all around, but there was nothing for the beam of light to reflect off of, except the eerily calm, darkly serene water below. The sound of the waterfall was becoming increasingly distant. Was the boat moving? She reached for the deck bucket, a rope tied to the handle, and dropped the bucket over the side, holding onto the rope. By the time the bucket started to sink, the boat had moved the length of the rope forward. Still managing to hold the flashlight, she hauled up the bucket with some water in it, and set it on the deck. She was on a slow cruise to she did not know where.
Making her way up front on the bow, she checked the anchor. It was out, apparently dangling uselessly; how deep could it possibly be here? She made her way to the stern of the boat, still shining the light onto the water. There was no churning action in the water; the prop was not turning, but she could detect the slight lines of a wake forming a wide V behind the boat. The Taku was not just drifting with a current. Even with the anchor out and no engine running, the Taku was moving forward, as though with a destination in mind. Was Droclum in control? If so, where was she headed to, and why?
Going back into the cabin, Melinda turned on the fathometer. To her astonishment she read off a depth of over two thousand feet. If she started the motor, she would be able to turn on the running lights up on the mast, and maybe see her surroundings. She knew how to start the engine; papa had taught her how long ago. Many times she had started and stopped the engine at her father’s command as he worked down in the bilge. Bracing herself for the harsh noise, Melinda pressed the ignition button. The motor clattered loudly, springing to life. Anxiously she flipped switches flooding the space around her with light.
The sound of the boat engine reverberated through an immense cavern, the mast lights overhead reflecting across an uncharted underground sea. Melinda stepped back out onto the deck and looked around in amazement. The high stone ceiling was barely discernible far above a shoreless watery plain that stretched into darkness, unruffled by wind and waves, undisturbed by fish or mammal.
She was lost, alone on a vast subterranean sea hidden in darkness. Even if someone was looking for the Taku, they would not find it. No one would ever find her here. Melinda shed a silent tear, awed by the loneliness of it all. What happened to Rahlys, the sorceress who had sent her an apple? Was she still trying to find her? She tried calling Rahlys repeatedly in her mind, but there was no response. Was Droclum somehow preventing them from communicating?
Melinda went back inside the cabin and switched on the hydraulics. Then making her way up on the bow, she pulled anchor using the hydraulic winch. To her relief, the anchor came up easily. After securing the anchor in its cradle, as she had been drilled, she returned to the wheelhouse to take control of the Taku. Pushing the throttle lever forward, she grabbed the steering wheel, turning the boat in the direction of the sound of the waterfall, but the boat didn’t respond. Melinda pushed the throttle further and turned the wheel harder, but still there was no response. The motor revved up and the steering wheel turned, but the Taku continued slowly straight ahead, unmindful of Melinda’s actions. She could not take control. Then spotting the radio, she turned it on and picked up the mike, forgetting momentarily that she had lost the power of speech, but it didn’t matter…there was no signal.
If she couldn’t steer, she would only need to run the engine enough to keep the batteries up for the cabin lights and fathometer. She knew that she should conserve fuel as much as possible, but she dreaded the utter darkness that lurked so close. Fear clutched at her throat. Without the engine, she could not use the running lights, and therefore, would not see what was ahead.
Her stomach growled angrily; she had to find something to eat. Melinda knew the Taku was well provisioned. She turned on the cabin lights. The small table and benches in the galley were built a step up from the main floor, providing space for storage drawers underneath. There was also storage space under the bench seats and in cubbyholes along the wall above the table. She inventoried her food supply and found lots of peanut butter, which she ate by fingerfuls on the spot, and pilot bread, canned Spam, spaghetti sauce, soup, dried fruit, rice, pasta, boxed milk that didn’t require refrigerating till opened, sprouting onions and potatoes, even candy, cookies, and soda pop. And apples. Melinda grabbed an apple, biting into it hungrily. She had enough food to survive for a while. Now she had to work on finding a way out of here.
Eventually weariness overcame Melinda’s growing fear of the dark, and she shut down the engine. So as not to run down the boat’s batteries, which would be needed to restart the motor, she turned off the cabin lights allowing the darkness to close in on her. With the flashlight clutched in her hand, Melinda crawled into her bunk, burying herself in blankets and sleeping bags. The flashlight she laid next to her like a sword kept close at hand, ready to combat the sudden appearance of the enemy. Twice she practiced drawing the flashlight quickly and turning it on, in case of a sudden emergency. Rahlys where are you? Papa help me, she cried in the darkness. Soon she was fast asleep.
Melinda didn’t know how long she slept. Waking up to pitch darkness, she rolled over and went back to sleep. After doing this a couple of times, her brain kicked in, reminding her that she was underground where it is always dark. Groggy from oversleeping, Melinda forced herself to consciousness. She reached up and turned on the light above her bed, squinting her eyes against the brightness.
Then she jumped up in alarm. Where had the Taku traveled to while she slept? Quickly she turned on the galley lights and the fathometer, then looked at her father’s wristwatch hanging from a hook by the controls. Nine fifteen, but she had no way of knowing if it was morning or night. The fathometer read five hundred feet. Melinda started up the engine, dispelling the silence. When the motor finished revving up, she switch on the running lights, cringing in fear of what she may see.
Melinda gasped in silent wonder at the scene illuminated before her. The Taku sailed under massive rock arches that curved gracefully down from the high stone ceiling to the rocky depths below. Many of the arched formations had broken off, leaving thin pinnacles of rock that rose above the surface of the water resembling eerie, gaunt, stone figurines walking on water.
Three hundred feet the fathometer read. Was she finally getting somewhere? But if so, where? She stepped out on deck, gazing around her as the Taku sailed gracefully under a lacey stone arch. The sea and the arches stretched out in all directions. It was like passing through the holes of giant, partially submerged slices of Swiss cheese, that were more holes than cheese, Melinda thought.
Suddenly there was a scraping noise, and the boat lurched violently, throwing Melinda off her feet and smacking her sprawled facedown, flat on the deck. After the jolt, the Taku sailed on serenely as though nothing had happened. The boat must have passed over a submerged rock pinnacle, she thought. It probably ripped off part, if not all, of the nonfunctioning prop. She waited for another collision before moving, but the Taku floated on smoothly.
Peeling her bruised body off the deck, rubbing her smarting hands and knees, Melinda cautiously peered over the side. There was nothing to see but inky black water. Returning to the cabin, she checked the depth again on the fathometer. Two hundred and eighty feet.
As she continued to watch the fathometer for a while, the readings fluctuated up and down dramatically. From two hundred and eighty feet, the water depth plummeted down to five hundred feet. Then just as quickly the bottom zoomed back up to eighty feet, only to plunge back down to seven hundred.
When the depth climbed from seven hundred feet to a mere fifty in seconds, Melinda braced herself for impact…then breathed a sigh of relief as the Taku continued doggedly on its way in seven feet of water that immediately dived back down to a depth of nine hundred feet. As the hours drifted by, Melinda looked about her in despair. What if there is no way out of this underground world? Will I ever again see the light of day?
In the newspaper that Vince and Quaylyn brought back from town, Maggie found an article that captured her attention. She read it aloud to them. “A fishing vessel, named the Taku, reported missing a month ago, has disappeared without a trace, along with the two people believed to be on board. Pete Poponof, the captain and owner of the boat, and his twelve year old daughter Melinda, were last seen in a region of southeast Alaska that has been sometimes referred to as Alaska’s equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle.”
“Her name is Melinda,” Rahlys sighed. “I wonder if she’s still alive.” Armed now with an identity, Rahlys tried repeatedly to contact Droclum’s prisoner, but Melinda was not to be found. The dilemma over what to do, assuming she was still alive, remained unresolved.
Meanwhile, the foundation for the guest cabin was complete with the sill logs in place, and the walls coming up. Several more logs, cut to length, were ready and waiting to be notched and fitted into place. With Rahlys and Quaylyn’s help, progress on the guest cabin was rapid. Cabin building offered an opportunity for Rahlys to work on building her magical strength. “You must pull on the power within you to draw on the elemental forces that abound,” Quaylyn instructed Rahlys at the construction site. Vince listened as he chiseled out a notch on the next log to be put into place, while Maggie watched with fascination. “Build up your power, layer upon layer, like a gathering storm. Let’s see if you can put the air in motion and make the trees sway.”
If it’s a storm Quaylyn wants, it’s a storm he will get, Rahlys decided irritably. She focused intently, stirring dust and sawdust into the air. Then quickly adding force, she sent the air currents spiraling out and upward. Soon the trees around them were swaying gracefully as spiraling air currents rustled the leaves.
“Surely you can do better than that,” Quaylyn taunted her.
Rahlys drew deeper on her power, pulling more sun-warmed air from near the ground higher up, mixing it with the colder air above, and thus creating a powerful convection current. The breeze around them became noticeably cooler as Rahlys drew hard on the elemental forces around her, gathering energy that she continued to direct upward. The sky darkened as dust particles gathered moisture, becoming increasingly darker and denser until clouds blocked out the sun over the rustling forest. Vince stopped his work to watch the sky as lightning flashed and thunder rumbled, and the turbulent dark clouds columned, sucking up still more warm air into the system. Then suddenly, torrential rain poured down upon them, and hailstones the size of marbles pounded the ground.
Vince, Maggie, and Quaylyn rushed to the edge of the clearing, seeking cover under the trees. But Rahlys stood firmly in place, her arms stretched out. “Melinda, where are you?” she shouted into the storm, releasing her pent up frustration, but she received no answer.
“Very good,” Vince shouted back. “Now can you make it stop?”
Feeling better from the release, Rahlys complied, and almost instantly the storm was gone, leaving the forest drenched and hailstones covering the ground, glittering in the brilliant sunlight. As the group returned to the clearing to avoid the dripping trees, Rahlys cast a spell drying everyone off. Then she noticed that Quaylyn looked troubled.
“What’s the matter?”
“Our spies have returned. They’re not far from here, camping on the point overlooking the big swamp,” he informed them when things quieted down again.
“Aaarrk! Aaarrk!” Raven flew in, loudly protesting the storm.
“Sorry,” Rahlys apologized.
“I detect a third signature at the campsite, a woman,” Quaylyn added. “Do you know who it might be?”
“Maybe it’s Ilene, from the gallery,” Rahlys surmised. “In fact, Aaron showed up at the gallery while I was there. Apparently he and Ilene are a couple now.”
“Aaaaark!” Raven flew off to investigate. The hailstones were already melting in the sun.
“Why do you think Aaron and Half Ear have come back? If they’re really spying for Droclum, their presence could be a sign that something is about to happen,” Maggie said.
“We know Aaron and Theon are up to no good. What are we going to do about them?” Vince asked.
“Theon’s mind is a closed book, but I can’t detect any knowledge of Droclum’s existence in the unguarded minds of the other two. They know about the crystal though.”
Raven flew over the ridge and the big swamp telepathing images of the campsite on the point back to Rahlys and the rest of the group. “The woman is Ilene,” Rahlys said, recognizing the daughter of the gallery owner.
After much discussion and still no plan for action, the group went back to work on the guest cabin. Rahlys was really looking forward to the guest cabin’s completion. Then Quaylyn would be out the house, for the most part, and she could have time alone again. But the more pressing issue on her mind was Melinda, Droclum’s frightened, young victim. How could she find her, even if it meant facing Droclum in battle? Was she strong enough to defeat Droclum?
That evening, Rahlys decided it was time to do some spying of her own. She cast a spell of invisibility about her, hoping it would be enough to conceal her presence, and teleported herself to the edge of Theon’s camp.
The underbrush in the forest grew an inch a day in the nearly continuous daylight. Devil’s club unfurled their giant leaves, and the high bush cranberry bushes speckled the woods with white flowers. By the end of the week, the underbrush was knee high. Wild roses, geraniums, mountain ash, spiraea, elder berry, and devil’s club bloomed in overlapping rapid succession.
Ilene was enraptured by the campsite; it was so scenic, overlooking the big swamp to the south and east, offering an eye stretch to the forested ridge on the other side. Three tents formed a broad half circle around a communal campfire ring. Their sleeping bags lay on deep, cushiony mounds of spruce boughs, and tarps were strung out over the tents in case of rain. But comfort didn’t stop there. Ilene collected stones to place cooking pots on when she fetched water from the creek, hauling them up from the bottom of the ridge, and she collected wood for the evening fire, while Half Ear and Aaron sawed and chopped at a fallen tree until they had two suitable size logs, which they hauled in by rope to serve as benches to sit on. They even flattened out some of the curve of the logs with their axes to make the seats wider and more comfortable. In the evening they built a campfire to cook by, and to gaze at, for with the sun reluctant to set, there were no stars visible in the late spring night sky.
The next day, Half Ear and Aaron took off exploring, or so they said, but Ilene knew they went to spy on Rahlys. She didn’t mind being alone at the camp. She liked the quiet solitude of the forest; she liked being alone, but why Aaron and Half Ear wanted to watch Rahlys, she couldn’t quite figure out. She was certain it had something to do with the painting she had so carefully carried into the woods with them. The mysterious painting was still protectively wrapped, stashed in the back of her tent. Sometimes she felt as though the crystal in the painting was trying to tell her something.
With little else to do, Ilene lounged complacently in the sun on one of the log benches with a romance novel. She just loved reading romance novels; they made her feel happy. Only an occasional insect interrupted her reading from time to time.
Then suddenly, a strong wind tousled around the trees that had stood so serenely still only moments before, and the sky darkened rapidly overhead. Ilene eyed the dark, rumbling clouds with dismay. She had never seen a storm build up so fast. Lightning crisscrossed the sky, followed by grumbling thunder.
Ilene dashed to her tent for shelter just as the first hailstones rained down. Peeking out of the door of her tent she watched the storm, fascinated by its sudden, violent outburst. The black clouds boiled in anger, the wind whipped the trees, and hail pummeled through the leaves to the ground, bouncing upon landing. Then, like someone had turned off a faucet, the storm was gone, and once again, the day was sunny and bright and still.
Ilene had never seen a storm act quite that way before. The hail covering the ground started to melt in the warm sunshine. Before long, Aaron and Half Ear returned to camp soaking wet.
“Wow, wasn’t that a crazy storm. It came up so fast. Ended fast too.” Ilene nearly danced around the soaked men.
“Yeah, crazy,” Aaron said, disgruntled.
“I’ll build a fire to dry things out,” Ilene volunteered. She dashed off to her shelter and gathered the dry kindling she had stashed by her tent under the tarp. Despite the warm summer day, a crackling campfire felt good, especially after the brief, but hellacious, storm.
In the cool dusk of evening, now that everything was dry again, Ilene was cheerfully attempting to roast some badly squashed marshmallows over the fire. “It is time to unpack the painting,” Half Ear announced unexpectedly. Slipping a roasted glob of marshmallow into her mouth, Ilene quickly leaned her roasting stick against the log bench and rushed off to her tent to retrieve the painting.
Half Ear unpacked the painting with great care, as Aaron and Ilene watched, still wondering why he would bring a painting on a camping trip. When it was finally freed of its wrappings, Half Ear propped it up against a chunk of firewood for all to see. The image of the crystal seemed to glow with a light of its own in the dusky night.
Then Half Ear conjured the image to his hand.
Aaron’s jaws dropped open loosely in stunned disbelief over what he was seeing. He glanced dumbfounded from the empty painting to the spectral crystal glowing so softly in ever changing colors as it hovered enticingly over Half Ear’s outstretched hand.
Ilene, somewhat less surprised, felt gratification. Her suspicions that something exceedingly unusual was going on were being validated.
The somewhat shy and innocent Half Ear that they knew, seemed to transform before their very eyes from a backwoods oddity into someone burdened with the knowledge and the sins of the ages as he began to speak. “My name is Theon, and I am not from Earth…I’m from a world I will never see again,” he said, his voice weighted with much sadness and regret.
“What kind of hokey crap is that?” Aaron burst out with disdain. “You’re from another world?” Ilene’s eyes were wide with wonder. “Let me tell you a true story…” Aaron cut Half Ear off, “Look, I don’t know what kind of hocus pocus is going on here,” he pointed to the hologram, or whatever it was still hovering above Theon’s outstretched hand, “but you are not from another planet.”
Theon paid no heed to Aaron’s outburst. “The crystal you seek is also from my world,” he said with heavy patience.
Aaron stood in a huff, putting his back to the fire. “So you’ve known about the crystal all along! It probably wasn’t even coincidental that you gave me a ride that day; you were already spying on Rahlys.”
Theon said nothing.
“How did Rahlys get the crystal? She’s not from your world….Is she?” Aaron asked when Half Ear didn’t respond right away.
“A raven found the crystal and brought it to her. Actually, Trapper Bean tamed the bird years ago, but the real crystal enhanced the raven’s cognitive abilities and bonded the raven to Rahlys as a familiar. The crystal then chose Rahlys as the Guardian of Light, transferring to her the powers of Anthya’s Oracle.”
“The crystal has magic?” Ilene gasped.
Aaron glanced fleetingly at Ilene, then back toward the image of the crystal, “Well, Theon, if that’s who you really are, you wanted to tell us a true story. Let’s hear it.” Aaron took his seat again beside Ilene, not at all pleased over being played the fool.
Theon stood, waving off the ghostly crystal. It flew across the intervening space to Ilene, and settled above her knee. “Oh how pretty,” she breathed as she reached up to touch it, but her fingers passed right through.
“I have lived on this planet for twelve thousands of your Earth years…it has been my penance,” Theon began, poking the fire restlessly, sending up sparks. “I witnessed the New Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the building of Stonehenge.” Ilene and Aaron gazed at him, Ilene with astonishment, Aaron in disbelief. “I’ve seen holy wars, world wars, famine and plague, and through it all, I have seen how brutally cruel humans can be to one another, all for the acquisition of wealth and power.”
“You have room to talk,” Aaron broke in, “You want the crystal too, or you wouldn’t be here.”
“You are wrong, I am here out of curiosity. However, there was a time when I sought the crystal to destroy it…but no longer.”
“Why did you want to destroy it?” Ilene asked, the holographic image still twirling above her knee.
“I was a fool, and chose evil over good. Lured by power and greed and desire for recognition, I became Droclum’s most loyal follower and closest confidant. What I did not know at the time, and have learned over the ages since, is that the only real use for power is for good.”
“Who is Droclum?” Aaron asked a bit confused.
“Droclum is a powerfully wicked sorcerer from my world who has defied death. When he was finally defeated by the great sorceress Anthya in battle, Droclum cast a dark spell of abominable evil, and his living essence was drawn from his dying body and sucked deep into the bowels of Mt. Vatre. In the volcano’s molten furnace, Droclum’s evil powers and signature were encapsulated in a smoky orb. Then like a pill too bitter to swallow, the mountain spewed out the Dark Orb delivering it to Earth by the power unleashed in the cataclysmic eruption and destruction of Mt. Vatre, which left our planet in ruins. Now Droclum has taken on new life here on Earth by taking possession of another’s body and consciousness. He is also looking for the crystal, or rather the Guardian of the Oracle’s powers.”
“Well, that’s just great!” Aaron burst out, not knowing what to believe.
“Tell us more about Sorceress Anthya,” Ilene said, as though Theon were relating a fairy tale.
“Anthya was the greatest sorceress and warrior that ever lived, but Droclum proved to be her nemesis. Her last great feat of magic was the creation of the Oracle of Light. Having failed, after all, to rid the universe of the scourge that was Droclum, she made the ultimate sacrifice. She created the Oracle of Light by siphoning her own magic into a special crystal, draining her body of her life forces. After her death, the Oracle was brought to Earth by another, younger Anthya, her namesake, in the hope that someone, with the help of the Oracle’s powers, would someday destroy Droclum, before Droclum destroys Earth. The young Anthya’s First Mission was to deliver the crystal to Earth, hiding it for safekeeping, until it was needed. It was while trying to prevent her from succeeding at that mission, I lost half of my right ear. In the end, thankfully, she eluded me.”
“And you expect us to believe this cock-a-mania story?”
Theon ignored Aaron’s rage. “For centuries afterwards, I roamed the continents in search of both the orb and the crystal, but found neither. Eventually I gave up the search, and sought to live out the rest of my longevity in peace. Then less than a year ago, I detected the use of magic.”
“So that is why you two have been spying on Rahlys!”
“I must have that crystal,” Aaron said emphatically.
“And what would you do with it?” Theon asked philosophically.
“Why, with the crystal’s magic I could have anything I wanted.”
Theon shook his head, “The crystal is of no use to you. Rahlys is already in possession of its power. Also it is likely protected with enchantments designed to keep it from the not so pure of heart, such as yourself. Heed my warning, my friend, and stay away from it.”
“So what are you doing here?” Aaron asked Theon.
“Rahlys’ position is not an enviable one. Sooner or later Droclum will seek her out, and try to destroy her. I am now on her side. When the time comes, if there is anything I can do to help her…I will.”
“What about this crystal?” Ilene asked, pointing to the phantom still hovering near her.
“Probably unwittingly, Rahlys has imbued the painting with a little magic. How much, remains to be determined.” Then a startled look crossed Theon’s face. Quickly he snapped his fingers and the image of the crystal returned to the painting.
“What did you do that for?” Ilene asked.
“She was here,” Theon said, nodding toward the edge of the woods.
“Who was here?” Aaron asked.
“Rahlys. Rahlys was here,” Theon chuckled. “Now she’s spying on us.”
“Are you sure?” Aaron questioned looking around. “I didn’t see anything.”
“Of course you didn’t, she was hidden in an aura of invisibility. Anyway, she’s gone now.”
“Then she knows we are here, and where you are from, and she saw the crystal leave the painting,” Aaron moaned.
“Yes,” Theon said, not sounding at all upset about it.
“So what are we going to do?”
“Nothing. We will wait and see what happens.”
When they finally turned in, Ilene took the painting with her to her tent, propping it up on her pack where she could watch it from her sleeping bag. She laid on her back in the semidarkness, staring at the glowing image of the crystal nestled snuggly in its spruce branch.
“Come,” Ilene whispered softly with vivid imagination, and to her delight, the holographic crystal left the painted spruce bough and floated to her, hovering over her chest. Again she tried to touch it, but there was nothing tangible for her to grasp.
What else can you do? Ilene thought to herself.
As though in response, the crystal started somersaulting around the tent, drawing designs in the air by leaving a light trail behind it that slowly dissipated like the smoke of a jet stream.
Why, that’s amazing! Ilene patted her chest, and the crystal returned to her. For the longest, she stared at the glowing image as her eyes grew increasingly heavy. It was not until Ilene fell asleep that it returned to the painting.