Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
The landscapes of the maas passed by with increasing frequency as we made our way south to Aenea. Deserts, savannas, forests, salt-encrusted ocean beaches—everything blurred together after our fourth transfer, and I couldn’t be bothered to try recalling all their names. We spend the mad dash hashing out all the potential scenarios we could encounter in Aenea. Most involved some variation of an all-out brawl between Carthia and Paedaea, courtesy of Malia’s bloodthirsty tunnel vision.
What was more concerning than her bellicose desire for bloodshed was the telepathic silence from the region. With both Thane and Azoria presumably in Aenea, we should have been able to make contact and get at least their bare bones assessment of what was happening, but none of us could penetrate the murky psychic fog covering the continent.
And this haze was different from that which covered most lands outside our control. Unlike the passive mist that hid distant, undiscovered lands from our vision unless we pried, this fog actively resisted our efforts and exuded an aura of antagonism and malice whenever we pushed too much. Even Malia, who was usually so good at circumventing privacy wards, couldn’t make a dent in its obfuscation.
The worst part was we had to skip the exits in several maas to come out behind Karnak, the chief upriver Carthian city. Though the city was situated far inland, the Barca River flowed opposite every other river, south to north instead of vice versa. Effectively, it spilled upside down into the Great Sea and made navigational terms confusing for those unacquainted with its normally charming oddity. As it was, I couldn’t help but be annoyed at the entire circumstance. Karnak had been built at the furthest traversable point of the river, seated in the shadow of thunderous falls that defied all attempts at scaling and sailing.
However, the source of our troubles lay in the river delta, and since we couldn’t teleport via the maas we’d have to either sail down the river or travel on foot, grappling with the lush vegetation on the banks. Malia could theoretically fly ahead, but with two other gods vanished and unresponsive in the masking mist, we voted against splitting the party. The muggy air of the current maas blended seamlessly with the humid heat baking Karnak, and I almost didn’t notice our transition back into the mortal plane.
Karnak sparkled like a jewel carelessly discarded by the cascading cataracts. Sandy-bricked buildings ringed the city’s central temple, a massive marble affair with pillars coated in hieroglyphs depicting Aenean deities. Rows of sphinxes flanked the brick piers, stretching away from the limestone pylon that towered over the road that led from the docks to the city proper. Monsters of all kinds had been etched into the gate’s square sides, ranging from the more modern pegasi and hydras to the formless, primal creatures that once terrorized the Aeneans. The architecture of Karnak mimicked the integrated mythos of the pylon, blending Aenean and Carthian designs in a way that contrasted the softer desert curves with the harsher forest lines without putting the two at odds.
But the countenances of the dust-streaked people bore only hard edges as they milled about the markets. If any god had thought to claim frowns as their domain, they would have found worshippers aplenty on the streets of Karnak. The mishmash of dress styles displayed no signs of foreign influence, no striking colors or clothes amiss to betray any outsiders, Paedens or otherwise. Passerby traveled with heavy shoulders and bent necks, barely grumbling greetings to each other as they made their way about their errands. While I would never have described the city as jovial, it had succumbed to a somber atmosphere that seemed baked into the earth by the oppressive heat.
Seppo, Malia, and I descended just outside the pylon, enshrouding ourselves beneath our Veils as we passed beneath the stone archway. Unseen, we passed through the crowd—sometimes quite literally—as we made our way towards the temple. It had been dedicated to Resef for the fertile floods the Barca provided every spring, and hopefully his Oracle would have some answers for why she’d been silent and the people were so downcast. But an aura of foreboding settled over us as we approached and found the temple fires unlit, the altars empty of sacrifice and the air free of incense.
No priests greeted us as we ascended the steps of the temple. Although we were Veiled, they would have sensed us, if they’d been around to feel our presence. But as we passed into the shadow of the roof, we found the temple bare of acolytes and clergy alike. Our footsteps rebounded with hollow echoes as we walked through the empty temple. I could feel a chill grip the small of my back as we went further in, a premonition that thoroughly unnerved me.
The temple had an air of recent abandonment to it. While no god would ignore such a catastrophe, Resef was busy with Vrixia and would be for some time. Together they would ensure the Carthian lands received proper rainfall to sustain their crops, and though Aenea was an important Carthian holding, it wasn’t the only one. Plus, the couple had lost ground to make up in, uh, more personal domains with their recent reunion. With Seppo already here investigating, it made sense Resef hadn’t joined us, but it was still confusing that he hadn’t mentioned anything before.
I shrugged to myself. Maybe I’d missed the part where he’d brought it up, since Malia and the others already seemed to know about the problem with the Oracles. And Azoria had been doing her own investigation as well, not to mention any other divine efforts I was ignorant of due to my retirement. I sighed. Playing catch-up got old fast, and only made me feel all the older. My thoughts were interrupted by Malia’s gasp as we reached the inner temple chamber.
Passed out on the floor by the central altar was a short, emaciated servant girl. Her thin brown robes clung to her as if she’d spent days running in the rain, although the floor around her was dry. Crimson stains soiled the wrinkles of her hood from twin punctures in her neck, and more blood streaked the altar, not from sacrifices, but from ragged wounds on her left wrist, which lay closest to the altar. She was deathly pale, if not from the injuries then the blood loss.
We all went alert simultaneously, and the sudden bursts of power as we quested for hidden assailants were like thunderclaps on my ribs. Malia surged towards the girl as Seppo went left and I went right. Every nerve taut, I scanned each pillar, looking for some telltale sign of who had done this. With the sun reaching its zenith, few shadows remained to hide enemies, but nothing looked amiss around any of the carved columns. No scratch marks, no bites, no out of place chips or cracks. Whatever paranoia had been festering in the back of my mind exploded a hundred fold as my thoughts raced to find some trace of god or monster with such attack patterns.
The girl had been ambushed. Bite marks on the neck, most likely fangs, some kind of bloodsucker. Ghouls rarely attacked the living in such a way. If it had been a naga, there wouldn’t be a body at all. Some kind of vampiric spirit, then, but what creature left its victim so drenched? Unless that was Resef’s doing, but then how would his protective wardings allow such an attack in the first place? And that still didn’t explain the gashes on her wrist…
My mind stumbled over that last part as I rounded on the altar. Flecks of blood tainted a ceremonial dagger that lay on the backside of the dias, more streaks of the girl’s blood smeared across the altar, only much more intentional than the slash on the front.
If the Oracles had been silent for months, then it was possible that Resef’s passive wards had run low, or completely out, without a priestess to maintain them. That would allow a malevolent power to invade his sacred place unobstructed. And this foolhardy girl, likely too lowborn to have much training, thought to fulfill the duties of an anointed Oracle herself and found them too much. Or maybe she succeeded, miming rituals she’d seen day in and day out, but had been interrupted by the fell intruder. That would explain the water, and why the girl wasn’t completely gone.
And she wasn’t. As Malia hovered over her, massaging her shoulders and thumping her back, the girl began to cough and wheeze. Her whole body jerked in Malia’s arms, shivers wracking her body and threatening to pitch her onto the ground. Malia gritted her teeth and held on, careful to keep the girl’s head from smacking into her. Gods knew the last thing the poor girl needed was a severed tongue.
When the girl’s eyes fluttered open, she gave a pitiful shriek that lacked strength. She flinched away and tried to push away from Malia but crumpled as soon as she put any weight on her injured arms. She whimpered something about a “derketo” before collapsing into unconsciousness. Malia gave me a bewildered look and Seppo shrugged.
Well, if they didn’t know I certainly wouldn’t. Derketo wasn’t something that drew up any spectral memories, but whatever it was, it didn’t sound pleasant. Malia gathered the withered girl in her arms, and we followed her down to the bedchambers beneath the temple. It’d take a bit of forced healing to get the girl recovered enough to provide us with the information we needed, but we had to be careful not to overdo it, lest we tax the girl’s system into total failure.
I frowned as Malia gently laid her on a wrinkled bed. Who knew how much blood the girl had lost? She seemed delirious for the brief moment she’d come awake, which didn’t bode well. And the terror that had gripped her when she saw Malia...it was as if she were still under assault. Hopefully her mind wasn’t damaged as well. Messing with the office of an Oracle, untrained, could take a serious toll. And that was assuming the derketo, if that’s what had attacked her, hadn’t dealt any psionic damage either.
I sighed. So many unknowns. It would be nice to have the Oracle here, to help explain things, but then if she’d been here, we wouldn’t be having these problems.