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         Copyright © Randy Bowers. All rights reserved.


The Oracle of Aken

"Wait!" the vermilion robed man bade, "If you insist on continuing, at least give pause and listen to me before you continue!"
    Greataxe in hand, Al-Rathis turned to face the man, then Ayoi said, "Fine, tell us why, but be quick. We have questions to ask."
    "You seek the Oracle do you not?" the man asked, but did not pause, "Yes, it is here, but it has been sealed away for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. It is broken! It's creators gifted it with the Fires of Knowledge, only to discover that such power was too dangerous. The creators, not wishing their labor to be in vain bound the Oracle so that it could but answer one question for each mortal, but it rebelled and sent out a calling so that mortals would come before it, worship it, and affirm its existence with endless questions. Mortals, being selfish creatures that we are, did come, and they sought ways to circumvent the limitations that the creators had placed upon the Oracle.
    "As punishment for its pride and wicked ways, the creators of the Oracle struck it twain and sealed its cave forever. Severed though it was, each half is said to have access to the knowledge of the Oracle, but since it is not a whole being, its knowledge is riddles and half-truths. To open its seal is to invite its call throughout this war stricken world, battles that make the armies beneath this mountain seem but a scouting party, but the knowledge it would share with the world would be broken and only bring more strife.
    "I beg you, do not open the seals upon this door!" The robed scholar fell silent.
    Al-Rathis and Tellzan waited to see what the more knowledgeable members of their party would say. They did not need to wait long.
    "No," said Sasha, "We will open it. We must. There is no other way. What we seek cannot be found anywhere else. I'd say I'm sorry, but I'm not." She turned her back on the man and with the help of Ayoi the seals were broken. The doors opened on their own and the heroes shared a glance with each other, then one by one they entered into the silent darkness.
    Al-Rathis pulled the great door swung shut behind them. As complete darkness surrounded the party a voice purred and resonated from deep in the cavern, "Who enters herein?"
    Tellzan barely hesitated before replying with a challenge, "It is said you already know that." But, the timbre of the voice in the darkness did not change as it smoothly replied, "Those who wish to travel the ways of the Ancients must first name themselves."
    One by one each of the party members gave their names; Al-Rathis of Clan Hezgorard, Ilmenya (said Ayoi), Tellzan Amberson, Elena, and Sasha. When they had each spoken, their names echoed in the large, dark cavern, and then it was silent.
    "Well now what?" grumbled Al-Rathis.
    The voice again purred, "Now we will wait." And wait they did as minutes turned to hours until finally the patience of Tellzan, Sasha, and Al-Rathis could wait no more. Together the two of them set off to explore the cavern with little ado while Ayoi and Sasha remained behind and continued to wait.
    They wandered about the cavern in the dark, never hearing a breath or sound of movement from the mysterious creature which had spoken. The floor was strangely smooth every where, as though it had been rubbed down by many years of people walking upon it. The cavern was expansive and at its furthest end was a deep, mist filled chasm. A single cave departed from the cavern to a second chamber whose floor had been polished with gold and other precious metals.
    Al-Rathis, Sasha and Tellzan returned to their friends to tell them what they had seen, finding Ayoi and Elena excited about an encounter with the denizen of the cave. They described how the upper torso of a giant, stone woman had descended out of the darkness from above them. It had four arms and what little of the creature which was visible was covered with glistening purple runes, even its face, eyes and lips. The creature spoke just once, cryptically saying, "You will fail," to the two arcanists, and then it withdrew into the darkness and out of sight.
    Together this time, the group explored the cavern. Briefly the party glimpsed the silent dweller of the cave, which eerily smiled at the adventurers before withdrawing into darkness, its torso followed by a rune covered, serpentine body whose girth was like that of a large barn. Proceeding to the rear of the cavern the adventurers arrived at the chasm. Over the rift there extended a stone finger on which rested a carving of a four-sided pyramid, roughly two feet tall and with a flat, table-like top. On its top were holes which Ayoi described as carved in the likeness of primal magical power, but whose purpose she did not know. Sasha looked over the area with her magical sight and declared that not only was the pyramid faintly magical, but a haze of magical energy filled the rift as well.
    Silently, the naga-like creature appeared again from out of the darkness. Ayoi, Sasha, and Elena engaged it with scholarly questions, but its answers were elusive. Several times it mentioned something called the Fires of Knowledge, but when pressed for details about what this thing was, it mysteriously replied that, "The Fires of Knowledge are not within there," while seeming to indicate that they were not within the strange pyramid sculpture. Sasha's sharp eyes noticed that the creature bore the same symbol in the center of its lower lip as was carved upon the top of the pyramid, but in a reverse, mirrored position. Ayoi quietly speculated that the one on the pyramid was the "left hand" and that the one on the creature was the "right hand" of the symbol's power, and indeed the symbol did vaguely resemble a hand.
    Perplexed, Sasha and Ayoi left to explore the cavern some more and discovered that on the back of the golden doors which sealed entrance into the caves that there were pictographs. From top to bottom, the pictures seemed to tell a story. The first picture showed a being of somewhat angelic design, surrounded by several circles as though to denote importance. It stood before a pyramid and a strange symbol floated between its two hands, over the pyramid. The symbol is very, very complex, and almost has a creature-like curves to its shape, as though it were also alive. Beneath was a picture showing the mountain of the oracle, surrounded by great crowds of people as far as the eye could see. Above this spectacle floats the same angelic being as in the first picture, but it wears a frown on its face. In the third picture the being stands before a pyramid, beneath which is a strange, living-like symbol. Around them are scenes of people on their knees in supplication towards the pyramid, or perhaps to the being itself, and there are men with swords. In the fourth picture there is shown the angelic being, standing along with the symbol which has been broken in two. It holds the pieces of the broken symbol over its head. The fifth pictograph showed the angelic being throwing one half of the broken symbol into a great pit and in a sixth picture it took the remaining half of the symbol and stretched it out, reshaping it and pulling it from either end into a long shape. The final picture showed a great serpentine creature with a humanoid upper torso and four arms, covered with small symbols. It stood in the air before the angelic creature, who was depicted with one hand touched to the serpent's human-like face and its other hand extended as though putting something like fire within the serpent.
    After several hours of searching about through the caverns the adventurers gathered once again at its strangest feature, the strange pyramid which perched over the magic and fog shrouded chasm. Briefly Al-Rathis entertained the idea of touching the guardian's lip sigil to that mirrored sigil on the pyramid; after a glance at the cat-and-coy lips of the guardian, framed by deadly, sigil covered fangs, there were no volunteers who wished to be so close as to touch both pyramid and the guardian lips at the same time.
    As though anticipating the request, the creature leaned down, quite close to Al-Rathis, as though daring him to come closer. Up close it was easy to see that the sigil, set like wet jade in its lip, was indeed a perfect mirror image of the one atop the small pyramid. The Guardian purred in its low voice, "Twill achieve you nothing. The touch of flesh cannot bridge these signs together and restore the fires to where they belong."
    "Where does this chasm go?" asked Sasha.
    "It holds only forgotten memories and lost possibilities," answered the mysterious guardian, it's rune covered eyes glittering in the dark and betraying no clue of its meaning. As though savoring its play of words, the guardian hesitated and then continued, "It leads nowhere," she rose back into the darkness and her voice was heard from above, "It ends deep within the earth. You cannot travel so far and what you seek... it cannot be had there."
    "Who commands you here?" asked Al-Rathis.
    "I am commanded by none. Those who would command me are no longer in this world. I speak as I wish." The guardian was inscrutable, none could say whether it spoke the truth or not.
    With each question, it was clear that Al-Rathis was only becoming more frustrated, his fists grip on his axe whitening with each of the guardian's replies.
    "So forgive me Half-Oracle, for I am a dwarf with little patience for riddles. When forced to choose a path, I like to choose the one with the fewest twists and turns. So lets get back to the basics then aye? Whats this rune all about then? Whats it mean? And whats this about some Fire of Knowledge? Is that what we should be looking for? Sasha says that according to the door its in you. Now if thats the case, how do we get it out and what would we do with it once we did? What's this rune all about? What does it mean?"
    Barely pausing a moment, its eyes flashing like gems by the torchlight, the creature spoke.
    "It is the parted sign. It is a mark upon each part of what once was whole, but now is broken. It is the sign of the splitting of a spirit, not the breaking of a body." For a moment it paused, in seeming reflection, then with a knowing smile it offered further answer, "However, the breaking of a body will restore the spirit."
    "What's this about some Fire of Knowledge? Is that what we should be looking for?"
    The creature withdrew again till only its face could be seen and spoke with unusual directness, "I am the guardian of the Fires of Knowledge. You need look no further for the Fires of Knowledge for they are within me. I carry them until the parted sign is upon us no more. When this has passed, the fires will return into our keeping."
    ""So how do we get it out and what do we do with it?" the exasperated dwarf insisted.
    "Ah, legend will never speak of your insight, mortal," the creature turned its rune covered eyes back to the pyramid, "I have already spoken of what you will do to release the flames. When the sign of parting is no more then the flames shall return to us. What you do then will be between you and us." Looking upon Al-Rathis and his friends once again it continued, "Do you not like my words, you who will face your enemy's right hand and tremble? If you seek fewer twists and turns, you may find the straightest path within my embrace."
    Al-Rathis sized the creature up, as though considering an answer to the guardian's implied challenge, but then turned his back on the creature and scowled at his companions.
    "There is a part of this that we have not seen yet, " spoke Ayoi.
    "We should explore the chasm," said Sasha, "If someone will lower me down by rope then I will go."
    It took only moments to secure a rope. Together Al-Rathis and Tellzan lowered Sasha over the edge and into the mists below until she faded from site. Surrounded by the mists the walls of the chasm faded from her view and in the distance could be seen strange half-flickers of distant and inconsistent light. Out from the magical pit that Al-Rathis laid upon the ground they retrieved length after length of rope and continued to lower Sasha down.
    Finally, her feet touched down on bleached, coarse white sand. Here and there about her, buried in the sand like shells on a tide flattened beach, were broken swords, ancient bits of armor, shields, a spear haft, and shards of bone. There was not time to take inventory of each of the ancient devices as a strange and changeable shape of floating light began to coalesce in the air but twenty paces from where Sasha stood. Its brightness caused her to squint, then to finally look away and shield her eyes, when it suddenly flickered and dimmed revealing a naked and child-like form.
    It was shaped like a humanoid, having pale arms and legs like a young boy, but its fair eyes beheld its own body with curiosity as though it were great novelty to have arms, legs and flesh. Its hair was fair, almost white and wispy long, it framed the beings strangely androgynous, yet child-like face. Its eyes were pools of changing hues of gold, human-like, but unearthly and strangely innocent. Bare of clothing, naked and clearly sexless, the thing admired its hands with outstretched arms before it as though they were of great novelty. Then, for the first time it noticed Sasha, standing beyond its reach. It looked upon her with an air of infantile ignorance and vulnerability. They stared at each other for a few moments.
    "Hello?" prompted Sasha, and then "Who are you?"
    "Who." It seemed to test the word with its lips before continuing, "are you?"
    "I am called Sasha."
    "I don't know."
    "You don't know?"
    "Who am I?"
    "Hmm," Sasha paused and thoughtfully looked at the being, "I believe I know what you are, but I cannot answer as to who you are. How long have you been here?"
    "I don't know." It looked about, "Always I have been... here. Where am I?"
    "The Oracle of Aken."
    "Oracle of Aken? I use to know something like that..." its words trailed off.
    Sasha nodded and said, "I thought you might. We should go to my companions."
    It offered no resistance as she approached, tying the rope again about her waist and embracing the human-like creature before giving a tug on the rope that ascended into the fog above.
    "Hold on tight."
    Tellzan and Al-Rathis hauled upon the rope, hand over hand, reeled in its great length and discarded it bit by bit into the magical, extradimensional hole that Al-Rathis had brought. After perhaps ten minutes of this labor Sasha finally emerged from the mists, clutching the child-like being.
    Ayoi and Elena looked on with great perplexity as Sasha and the thing climbed out of the chasm and stood up. Everyone could sense that the powerful guardian also watched from somewhere in the darkness. For a moment, everyone just stared at the child-thing.
    "Aye." Al-Rathis broke the silence, "Look here. It bears the sign." He gestured and it was true, the pale child had a black mark in the center of its lower lip, just as the guardian did.
    Sasha gestured the group to come closer to her and spoke privately so the child would not hear her, "The Parted Sign that the oracle spoke of. You're right Al. It confirms my suspicions. Remember the pictures on the door and what that old man said to us? The spirit of the oracle was broken. That thing is the other half of the oracle."
    "It ain't a thing. Tis a child!" said Al-Rathis.
    "Al, look, it is sexless. It's not human, dwarf, nor elf." spoke Tellzan, "Sasha is right, it's the other half of the oracle's spirit. What do we do with it."
    "'The breaking of a body will restore the spirit.'" quoted Elena, "That is what the guardian said. Could it have been speaking in prophecy all this time?"
    "You mean...." Al-Rathis looked horrified, "We must kill it? The child is defenseless!"
    "It's not a child Al-Rathis," the normally quiet Ayoi spoke up.
    "Ayoi is right, this is no child." said Tellzan.
    "Al, we must do this if we are to ever have an answer and return to our own time," Elena looked at Al-Rathis and pointedly continued, "And it will be you that must do it."
    Sasha looked at Elena then to Al, "Whatever. Someone must do it. You wish to return to our time and defeat Titalus. We have come so far and who knows if our time spent here has further delayed us in our own time. The oracle has already said what you will do Al-Rathis."
    "But...." the dwarf looked angry for a moment and then his face fell and he rested his chin against his armored chest. "I guess I just don't understand. Very well."
    He sighed, looked wearily at the child-thing, then off into the darkness. He walked over to the marked being and bid it to turn away and stand still. It barely nodded and turned to look into the darkness.
    "Close yer eyes." Said Al-Rathis, then to the darkness he called, "Guardian! Answer to me!"
    It's cruel, rune-glittering face descended out of the darkness and into the torchlight like a great moon suspended in the darkness. Its fanged mouth parted in a half-smile of anticipation.
    "You have made your choice." it said.
    "Aye." said Al-Rathis.
    "Clannadigan guide my axe." He spoke and then, with a clean and practiced motion, he swung his axe with all his might. In one swift swing the child was clove in two.
    It's head did not hit the ground though. Suddenly, for all to see there was a great shrieking that filled the air. Not blood, but ghostly flames snaked upwards from the corpse, illuminating the cavern and the awful greatness of the guardian. It reached down with one of its four arms and took up the eldrich burning child's body, the runes upon its body igniting with strange fire. It carried the body to the small pyramid, coiling around it like a great snake and hiding the child within. Then, raising two arms to supplicate the heavens and lowering two as though to pounce upon the earth, it looked down within its coiled mass to where the pyramid and child were hidden from sight, and breathed in once. The fires were pulled from the burning air, into the guardian, and it became still. All was suddenly dark and silent.
    A passage between the coils of the still guardian offered access to the place it coiled about.
    "Come," bade a ghostly voice. It was the child's and the guardian's voices, spoken in unison. Emotionless and commanding it echoed through the darkness with the authority of one who possessed knowledge of all things, "Enter and speak your question."