Tracing her path back from the Oracle’s private chamber to the entrance of the grotto, Alma moves silently through the many naturally excavated niches and rooms – some artificially enhanced, she notes – taking in the architecture of the underground temple. Her steps guide her through room after room of greenish-grey limestone walls and tapering columns as the ever-present, irregular sound of water drops hitting water and stone punctuates the silence in the cool labyrinthic haven. Empty spaces slowly chewed away and stolen from the rock by the constant, millennia-long flow of underground streams, decorated and filled with the by-products of the mineral-rich drops of water that trickle constantly from the ceiling and walls, stealing stone here to lay it there, dripping like candle wax over the ancient walls. Flowstone hangs from recesses and natural arches, like curtains frozen in time that seem to wave in an unseen breeze as light reflected from the innumerable puddles and pools that punctuate the floor here and there hits the mineral drapery with a soft, restless glimmer. Rimstone dams limit small basins, ornate bowls of still, cool water stacked on top of each other, like beautiful ladders of watery steps.
Water takes and water gives, Alma muses as she walks and marvels at the natural cathedral. Stone to pebble to liquid to stone. A work of ages...
In every room, pools of different sizes, sometimes shallow, sometimes of unfathomable depth, peek through the floor. Probably connected by channels the larger ones most likely allow Nevieve underwater access to almost every room in the temple. Beneath the peaceful surface of the crystal-clear waters, cave coral and shelfstone line the walls. A soft scent of still pools and ancient stone hangs in the air as every fallen drop bursts into a minute cloud of fine mist.
There is no one else here, Alma notes. Not a single living soul must inhabit this place but Doria and the Oracle.
As the goddess progresses toward the grotto’s main room, the dim, liquid light that seems to exude from every watery recess wraps around her, moving with her until she reaches the magnificent central pool where the Oracle appears before the worthy to answer their query, a single answer to a single question each time. Wide and deep, the waters are dark here, they’re secrets kept in hiding.
Alma walks around the edge of the pool in search of the pedestal where the Pearl used to stand before the theft. Here and there, the delicate mineral formations bear witness to the crime committed. Broken stalagmites and shattered blades of stone speak of violence and bloodshed, silently unveiling the story of the attack. Three of them, Doria said. A demigoddess covered in flames of frost and ice, a thin man with all the marks of an experienced fighter, and the wizard who summoned the demon eels. Without wind or water to disturb it, the soft sand that covers the most of the floor quickly yields the tale of its woes to Alma’s experienced eyes. Yes, Doria did not lie in her description of the attack. Four different sets of footprints cover the floor and speak of a dance of bodies moving swiftly and in synchrony. This is a well-built, experienced team of attackers. Elite, almost. Those nasty eels were not the doings of an amateur, either. The Dukaines are recruiting the best of the best, it seems. But why attack the Oracle?
These thoughts and others cross the goddess’ mind while she follows two sets of footprints further along the edge of the pool, leaving the imprint of a fallen body behind. The sand here is disturbed and stained with blood.
Doria’s blood, no doubt, she reasons. This must be where they finally overpowered her.
Not very far away, the floor seems to stretch a thin, stony arm toward the center of the pool, as if a larger bridge had once stood here, connecting both margins, but had collapsed for some reason, leaving but a thin strip of stone intact, like a narrow peninsula extending up to the middle of the pool. Very narrow. Alma has to stand on tiptoes so she won’t tread water as she walks the full length of the platform. Here, where the stone gives in to water again, a broken mineral column stands in silent pride against the will of time and rises up to the height of Alma’s chest. The carvings around its base clearly identify the column as the altar where the Pearl used to be kept.
Brilliant shards resonating with magic cover its surface, the remnants of the magical shield that the Oracle set to keep her precious Pearl safe from idle hands.
An Archon’s magical shield smashed to a million pieces… How did they accomplish that?
As Alma looks around in search of answers, a metallic glint catches her eye, making her look down, into the pool. It seems to be shallower here and the bottom is almost perfectly visible beneath the clear waters. And not very far away from where she stands, something seems to be reflecting the light in a very inviting, alluring way. Fearing that it may be some important clue to what has happened, the goddess decides to investigate closer.
She removes her shoes and sword, and places them on the altar. Then, breathing deep, she dives into the pool. Her body enters the cool, peaceful, transparent water without a single splash, accepting its gentle touch on her skin.
Almost immediately, she feels something else mixed in with the cool kiss of the water. Something tugs away at her, searching for her life-force, stealing it from her body. Spell? Potion? Something subtle, almost diluted, works on her limbs, taking strength from her arms, push from her legs. Focused on the task at hand, holding on to the breath in her lungs, Alma tries to ignore it for a moment and proceeds toward the bottom of the shallow end of the pool. There, sparkling under the grotto’s phantom light, a metallic item, no bigger than her open hand, lies in waiting. Fearing that whatever is pulling away at her vital energy might make her too weak to reach the surface before runs out of air, the goddess merely picks it up and, without a pause to analyse it further, begins to swim back to shore. It feels light in her hand as she does so, tingling with the familiar, seemingly electric rush of powerful magic.
When Alma finally emerges, feeling drained in her body – but, strangely, not in her mana – she finds herself breathing with difficulty and struggling to get her legs to sustain her. Holding on to the broken altar for support, it takes time to get her breathing back to a regular rhythm. Eventually, her arms and legs begin to respond again and Alma picks up her sword and shoes and decides to forego putting them on for the moment. Using the feel of the bare stone and fine sand to keep herself awake and alert as she battles the terrible feeling of exhaustion that still fights to wash over her, the goddess begins to walk the path back to the Oracle’s chambers. In her palm, a silvery object looking like nothing more than four simple hollow tubes bound together by what appears to be a thin strip of brass decorated in runes she cannot read glints with a dull, unnatural light.
Gwydion will want to see this, she reasons. And I must warn him about the water as well...