Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
We didn’t make it far before the visions started up again. Not only was I seeing ghastly specters instead of flowery witches, up ahead was a strange monstrosity that refused to solidify. It was something massive, fanged, and hostile, radiating an unfriendly aura that stank of elder sorcery. Add to that its singular, stocky, very-much-not-a-hydra head, and this Trial was a recipe for disaster.
Malia pulled me aside after my third dip in the realm of phantasie. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Would that I knew.” I kept one eye on the troupe with Hasda and tried to keep the growl out of my voice. I wasn’t cranky at Malia, but I certainly wasn’t happy.
“Hey.” She gripped my shoulder and gave me a look. “You go back to Nebesa and see Phemonoe. I’ll handle this.”
“Now?” Fighting the urge to chase after the enchantresses, I settled for folding my arms. “And leave you here? With an unknown barrier creating unspecified interference in our ability to communicate and exercise our powers.”
Her grin was smug. “I can handle the children.”
I huffed. “Fine. But I’m coming straight back.”
“Only if she says you can.” She kissed my chin and slipped out from behind the tree. “And no skimping on any healing she tells you.”
“How will you know?”
She smiled back at me under her wing.
I growled. “Yeah, yeah, you and your ways.”
“Mmhmm. Now get your wrinkly butt moving.”
“It’s not that wrinkly anymore,” I grumbled as I trudged back towards the shoreline.
Despite the effort it took to chase down Hasda and the witches earlier, it was almost no time at all before I’d reached the forest edge and stumbled onto the rocky beach. Although I didn’t smell any sorcery at work, there had to have been something affecting the terrain for me to depart so quickly. But I could feel the tug of my bond with Malia, even though I must have crossed the boundary on my way out. Scowling, I traced the outline of my portal. If Malia had noticed the edge of the ward, or whatever was obstructing the maas, she hadn’t said anything. I certainly hadn’t, but then again, I’d also been stumbling through these anomalous visions.
The orange oval wobbled before it stabilized, sparks splattering the air. A milky white film veiled the opening for a moment, then faded. I frowned at the portal, tested it with my toe, and when my digit came away intact stepped all the way through. Although I didn’t feel any strange sensations going through, the portal was clearly misbehaving because I came out on the marble stairs of the Oracle’s temple instead of the flagstones of my maas.
A half dozen steps led to tall columns that fronted the structure. Twin braziers guarded the door, heavy incense guttering from their bronze bowls. The sky of Maas Bierg shone a light blue, nearly cloudless. Behind me, my portal snapped shut with a portentous crack. I frowned. Never had it ever landed me anywhere but by my fountain, unless I willed it so. And I hadn’t even subconsciously told it to shortcut the route. I’d wanted to wash up in the fountain before meeting the Head Oracle, but here I was, dusted in forest dirt, burrs, and a few pine needles.
A sigh of air sagged down the stairs. Shivers ghosted down my spine as the breeze washed over me. Ah, yes, more foreboding omens right before I consult the Oracle. Smashing. I hurried up the steps and into the temple before I let that train of thought run its course. No sense in worrying about potential auguries when I had real ones right at hand to age me a few more centuries. My joints grated in agreement as I creaked my way over the threshold.
Inside felt like bathing in sunlight. The atmosphere was bright, the air warm, and the roiling fumes of incense ticklish but not quite sneeze-inducing. Maidens and attendants in breezy white robes glided about, towels draped across their arms. Swirling fog obscured their feet, adding to the illusion. Sparrows chattered in cages overhead or darted among the rafters, and potted plants with wide, ovaline leaves added splashes of greens and minty whites to the otherwise creamy interior of the temple.
Filling the whole center of the room was a porcelain bath, like the water dish of a giant’s guard dog. A woman stood at the edge of the pool, hands folded before me. Her back to me, she didn’t turn as she addressed me, but subtle movements jangled the thin golden chains that adorned her robes and set her apart from the rest of the temple servants.
“The waters are troubled, Charax,” Phemonoe said. “I can sense that something is wrong in Ibithia, but I cannot tell you what’s wrong.”
“Something significant, I’m afraid.” I trundled over and joined her by the pool. Rippling liquid, the color of water tainted with a splash of milk, sloshed around inside the bath. Normally, the fluid in the scrying pool was a chalkier gray, but since I had no experience in oracular duties, I didn’t know what had gone wrong. Perhaps the effects of the block affecting the maas were interfering with Phemonoe’s attempts to view the region. I waved away a priestess who offered me a steaming towel. “I’ve had a couple visions.”
Phemonoe jerked, her eyes snapping to mine. “What?”
“I was just as surprised as you are.” I gave her a brief summary of the dream and the visions that had assaulted me in the forest. As she listened, lines crept across her angular face, aging her in a way she usually hid. She shook her head as I finished.
“I wish I could be of more help,” she said, letting her gaze drop to the troubled waters. “But you’re the first god I’ve ever heard of receiving visions from a higher plane.”
“Assuming that’s what actually happened,” I said.
Phemonoe rested her fingers on the blue-lined lip of the pool. “From what you’ve told me, you’ve no reason to doubt that as anything but fact.” Eyes crinkling, she laughed softly. “Much as you immortals like to forget it, I’m still just a woman. My sight is a blessing, and I’m grateful for the gifts you all have given to me.” She shook her head. “But these past few years have been frustrating. I am blind here, Charax. The pool has never been more clouded.”
My eyebrows scrunched together. “The same as the Paedan interference in Aenea, or worse?”
“Much worse.” Her fingers clenched on the porcelain. “I have tried—oh, how I’ve tried to see. But I can’t.” She gritted her jaw. “With the Paedens, it was like swirling mud, and I had only my hands to scoop it out. But this?” Her chains rattled as she shrugged. “I might as well be trying to enter the world of a mirror.”
I had an idea. “Have any of the gods tried to help you?”
“How could they?” She gave me a sideways glance. “You know most of them treat me like a weathered wine glass. They fear to jostle me even slightly, lest I shatter and they lose their scryer.”
I grunted. “You don’t look that fragile to me.”
That earned a tight-lipped smile. “So, what did you have in mind?”
“Have you ever scried from the astral plane before?”
“Never.” Phemonoe slipped the tips of her fingers into the pool. “I’m not even sure how.”
“I could lift you up.” It was an untested theory, obviously, but it should work. We’d brought Phemonoe, and every other High Oracle before her, up to Nebesa to give them the elevation they’d need to scry heavenly things. Why couldn’t a higher temporal altitude help her see the future of greater beings?
As we talked through the particulars, her brow furrowed more and more as she considered it. Finally, she agreed it might work and called for her maidens to prepare the scrying pool. They spent several minutes pouring pitchers of mercury and powdered howlite into the pool, sprinkling pink minerals into the mix to dissolve the silvery metal. Phemonoe shrugged off her robes when they finished, her shoulders bare despite her peplos. Despite what I’d said earlier, she did look frail this way. As if sensing my thoughts, she gave me a sharp smile.
“Let’s get on with it.” She jabbed a finger at me. “And don’t you dare pull me down, unless I call for it.”
I nodded. “You’re the Oracle.”
Closing her eyes, she sighed and faced the pool. For a moment, she let her hands hover above the rippling waters, and then she wound them in circles as her fingers danced on an invisible harp. Subtle notes crept through the air, mixing with her soft incantation. When the waters finally sloshed in response, I placed my bony fingers on her shoulders and fed her a tiny bit of power.
At first, nothing happened. Phemonoe continued her chant, the pool splashed rebelliously against its sides, and the waters remained murky. But then they surged upwards, dowsing us, and the Oracle’s eyes began to glow white. She opened her mouth to say something and fainted.