It only took a few moments for Isilda to get her feet under her once more. Tyverus had attempted to help her to her feet, but she waved him away. She understood that how badly she now felt, having endured what she had previously, he must be suffering far worse. She felt like something had tried to peel away her body from her soul.
"Any ideas on what in Gehemol that was?" Tyverus' voice was a little shaky as he pushed his blood-matted hair away from his eyes. "Perhaps Bhergom might know, given how arrogant he's been lately." He turned his head to glare at the old oracle who had to push against a nearby rock to get to his feet.
Bhergom remained silent except for a extenuated groan. He avoided eye contact from Tyverus as well as Isilda. His confidence was shaken and he knew the two younger members of the party had seen his cowardice on full display.
"That was entirely beyond what I've experienced before." Isilda's voice cracked in her throat. "I can barely see with all this blood in my face. Are you faring any better, Tyverus." Isilda groped in front of her until she grabbed the young knight by his scabbard and then lifted her hands to his arm.
"Yes, I suppose I'm used to blood and gore in my eyes." Tyverus leaned forward to try and see beneath Isilda's matted bangs. "Also, I have far shorter hair. My skein is empty, though." She patted at his belt feeling a light water-skin against his armored thigh. "There is water below, I'll quickly fetch some for the lot of us. Do you have your footing?"
"Yes, I can manage." Isilda gave a sheepish grin and let go of Tyverus' arm. She leaned forward, making out hazy shapes of the ground before her and walked away. She did her best to avoid Bhergom as she moved as the thought of being near him after seeing his actions was too much for her.
She held one hand out in front of her as she walked forward in a half-crouch. Her free hand wiped away the coagulating blood on her forehead and around her eyes. The first stings were beginning to fade away, but the clumps of blood around her eyes made it hard to focus. She soon realized that the blood in her hair wasn't going away without some water.
A few yards ahead sat a small boulder that she could sit on as she regained her strength, and in front of that was a rectangular altar of some kind. She reached the boulder within a few footsteps and she lifted herself onto the flattest surface she could. The prickles in her arms were still going strong and the muscles in her body were still screaming from their earlier strain.
"If it was a trap, it wouldn't do to have all of us stuck in it." Bhergom didn't even bother to apologize for his behavior. "It was a dangerous gamble." The old oracle continued his lumbering walk towards where Isilda sat. She lifted herself on her hands to turn away from him. "It was something I had to think about. I had to weight the consequences."
Isilda sighed and allowed her shoulders to slump, but otherwise remained quiet. She slowly turned her head away with each step Bhergom took towards her. If the old man wanted her forgiveness, which she knew he did, she was going to make him work for it.
"What would you have me say?" Bhergom reached the stone altar and groaned as he pressed his backside against the edge for support. He lifted a hand toward Isilda in supplication.
"I would expect an apology." Isilda cut in harshly. She turned her head to look at her teacher but had to turn her head at an angle. A large clump of drying blood covered his face in her sight. She tried to pick it away. "Well, for starters, at least."
"I'm sorry." Bhergom's hand was still held forward in supplication. Isilda couldn't see his face beneath the blood and her matted hair so it was hard to know if he meant it or not. "You are my student and it is part of my duty to watch out for your well-being."
Isilda have a cruel laugh and shook her head. She managed to free a large clump from her left eye. She began to bunch up the robes of her hood around her chin to wipe at her cheeks.
"I seek forgiveness." Bhergom pulled his hand back to steady himself on the altar. "I'll do better with the rest of this expedition." The old oracle leaned back against the cool stone and stretched while looking up at the glowing silver-blue crystals above. "I don't know what it is about this place. I don't feel like my usual self. I'd say there is a presence here, but I can't feel anything."
"Perhaps the source is whatever tried to rip our energies from our bodies." Isilda took the bait at talking about another subject. She wanted to put the past behind them and keep focused on why the four party-members where here. "Tyverus and I were conversing about that particular thing while you were fighting with Vhoggli."
"What exactly would that be?" Bhergom tugged on his sleeves to pull a small bit of blood from his forehead. He had obviously fared far better than Isilda and Tyverus. "The source of our strange behaviors, the source of our energies being ripped away, or the source of this strange fog over my abilities."
"Our abilities, Bhergom." Despite Isilda's compromised sight, she could still see the old oracle be taken aback by her using his given name, it must have hurt his ego not to be given the respect he thought he deserved. "I know the crystals above are responsible for the pull of our energy. Perhaps they are an ancient artifact that is attuned to pull far greater reserves of energy than we currently have within us." She began to probe at the side of her right eye. "I don't believe the crystals would affect our behavior or cloud our abilities of Haeth."
"Perhaps Vhoggli is up to something." Bhergom scratched loudly at the stubble on his face. "I never trusted that little runt. Who knows what evil things he picked up from Toulam's old books."
"Vhoggli is an asset to us. We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for him." Isilda gave a cough and let her head droop for a moment. She didn't need to see to know that Bhergom had rolled his eyes at her statement.
"Then, perhaps it's the boy. Maybe he knows far more arts than simple light tricks. He might be a saboteur from Morrthault City. You know how those members of the Order of Lanterns hate our order." Bhergom lifted himself to his feet once more and cracked his neck to the side. "I doubt very much that the legends of the Mad Oracle are true. Perhaps it is he who would pretend to be her."
"You're stretching believability." Isilda raised her right arm on her knee and let her head drop to her upturned wrist. "How do we know you aren't a saboteur, hmm? A cowardly one at that."
"Well, speak a demon's name and he will appear." Bhergom openly ignored Isilda's last statement and took two steps forward.
"Vhoggli?" Isilda lifted herself from the boulder and turned towards where her teacher was facing.
"No, not that rapscallion. The other one." Bhergom grumbled and walked away from the altar and back towards the bridge.
"It's ice water, but it will get that blood out of your eyes and hair." Tyverus gave a chuckle as he approached. Isilda took a few steps forward, almost stumbling over a crack in the floor. He caught her with his hand and helped steady her. "The stream runs right under the bridge. Northward it goes on for sometime, well into a dark area. Southward it seems to break off into two sources."
Tyverus lifted his water-skin and began lightly pouring the chilled water on Isilda's face. She lifted her hands to keep some of it at her chin and rub away the remaining bits of blood from her eyes with her wet fingers. The water had a sharp cold to it, but was soothing against her skin.
"You've got a nasty clump in your eyelash." Tyverus lifted his free hand to lightly pull some dried blood from her eye. Isilda looked up at him and pursed her lips at being groomed by someone else. "Sorry, it just looked pretty big."
"Thank you." Isilda went back to splashing and rubbing away the blood. "I think I can handle my face, just fine." She began to comb the blood out of the fine strands of her blonde hair.
"From what I can see, you've almost got all of it." Tyverus gave another chuckle and continued to pour the last bits of the water. "Good thing, too. I know you're going to want to see what's behind you when you're done."
"What's that?" Isilda continued to greedily splash the water on her face while rubbing the last bits from her forehead.
"Was Vhoggli down there near the water?" Bhergom interrupted the two and began to walk back towards Isilda from the bridge. He had his arms folded behind him and his face was in a scowl.
"No, Master." Tyverus turned away for a moment to answer Bhergom and then went back to dripping the last bits of water on Isilda's head. "I lost track of him when you did. I didn't see him down near the water, or any wet tracks on any of the shores I could see."
Bhergom gave a grumble and began to walk past the young knight and the young oracle. He stopped for a moment to look down the incline that Tyverus had climbed a few moments before. He looked back skeptically at Tyverus and then wandered off.
"What's his problem?" Tyverus turned his eyes back to Isilda who was wiping the blood-stained ice-water from her face with her sleeve. The water-skin was empty and he idly tied it back onto his belt.
"He's trying to cover for his own cowardice with strictness. He won't get out of his mind that Vhoggli has betrayed us somehow." Isilda finished patting her face with the sleeve of her robes. All down her front was wet blood stains. "Now what is it you wanted me to see?" Isilda winked some left over moisture out of her eyes and looked up to Tyverus while smiling.
"It's a little hard to miss." Tyverus smiled and pushed by her. He walked forward and held his arms wide at his sides. "If you three came here to find artifacts, I think you just hit the mother-load."
"What?" Isilda turned on her heels to look back at Tyverus. She could see him with his back towards her, still with his arms held wide. She pushed beside him to see what was in front of him. She blinked the last bits of blood from her eyes.
Before them both was an immense wall that trailed from the edge of perception on one end to the other. Where Isilda had earlier been sitting was a set of small boulders around a stone alter in an alcove of the wall. Along the wall were innumerable indents about a yard in height and the same in width. In each of these smaller alcoves sat a skull. Flowing from the left to the right seemed to be the passage of time, as the leftmost alcoves held nothing but dust or bone fragments, while the rightmost seemed to have more intact skulls inside.
"What in Tolesh's Light..." Isilda let her voice trail off as she took a few steps toward the wall. "There are thousands of them."
"Tens of thousands, or even more. Entire scores of the dead." Tyverus gave laugh that was half-filled with fear. "Are these the people that died in the city above?"
Isilda continued to walk forward in a haze, her head lifted up slowly as her eyes trailed along the many skulls in the wall as they trailed upwards into the dark that the glowing crystals could not reach. "No, there's no way." She stopped at the edge of the wall and let her fingers reach out towards one of the alcoves. She pulled back sharply.
"Well, you said these were the catacombs beneath-" Tyverus stopped and lifted an eyebrow while thinking. "What was the name of the place?"
"The city of Neshran. The first city of the Oracles, long ago." Isilda let her hands glide over the stone as she began to walk parallel to the wall, making her way towards the alcove and altar in the center.
"Yeah, Neshran. If these are the catacombs, then wouldn't it make sense for all these skulls to be those who were buried here?" Tyverus began to walk after Isilda, keeping just an arm's length behind her.
"Neshran was destroyed thousands of years ago, Tyverus. None of these skulls should be preserved at all. Not even fragments or dust should remain. The world has been through so much since that time. The destruction of Oerstav Caelii, the Cataclysm-" Isilda's voice trailed off again.
"So these skulls are more recent?" Tyverus stopped and scraped his foot in a wide arch on the stone floor. "So, those are the older ones." Tyverus pointed far to his left. "And these are the more recent ones." Tyverus pointed to the far right. "Some of those down there look pretty new." He began to wander off in that direction.
Isilda stopped in the alcove and moved behind the altar. In this recess of the rock wall, only five skulls remained in one large alcove. All five of these skulls were coated and sealed in some silver-like metal. She let her fingers run across the stone that they rested upon and feeling the ancient remains of what might have been cloth.
"I believe these five were the first." Isilda stopped and began to look at the skulls before her. Each was pristine in their metal seal. Jagged runes were scratched into each skull's forehead with enough force enough to gouge the strong metal. "These are the most important."
"Well, I found the newest." Tyverus came back and stood beside Isilda. He offered up a skull in his hands while smiling. "Looks like it was taken quite savagely, too." He rolled the skull in his hands, showing bits of decaying sinew holding the jaw in place, and a rattling bit of spine held at the neck by mummified muscle.
Isilda turned her head toward Tyverus and shot him a glare. "These are the remains of the dead. They aren't toys." She grabbed the skull from Tyverus and began to run her fingers over it. "Given the curvature and shape of the jaw-” Isilda was lost in concentration for a moment and then regained her voice. “These are more feminine features. This-" She leaned forward to survey the skull in her hands. "Given the look of what's left of the tissue near the neck, I think this is only about two decades old, maybe a few years less."
"Well, that's far more recent than when Neshran fell, right?" Tyverus scratched at the back of his head and gave a sheepish smile. "So, who is storing a bunch of people's heads in an old catacomb?"
"Put this back." Isilda handed the skull back to Tyverus. "Carefully. These are the last remains of who knows how many people."
Tyverus gave a nod and exaggeratedly held the skull in front of him in both hands. He pivoted his head forward, and began to slowly walk back to where he had stolen the skull. Isilda turned away and back to the alcove.
"As I was saying-" Isilda increased her volume and went back to staring intendedly at the metal-clad skulls in the alcove before her. "These have to be the oldest and the most prized."
Isilda reached out her fingers towards one of the leftmost skulls on the shelf. She pulled her fingers back, afraid to touch them. She swallowed hard and reached out once more to let her fingers lightly glide over the forehead of the one she focused on.
"How's that?" Tyverus bellowed from yards further down the wall, in the dark.
"There are runes scratched into these skulls." Isilda slowly lifted the skull and took a single step back from the alcove. "These are-" She took another stride backward into the light to see better. "These are ancient Morthavi runes."
"What, like the ones on that runestone earlier on?" Tyverus continued to bellow but his voice was broken by the clanging of his armor as he walked back to Isilda.
"Yes." Isilda rubbed some of the dust and frost from the metal to see the runes better. "These runes are truly ancient and in one of the first languages of humanity." She blinked hard and began to chew at her bottom lip. "I can barely make them out and there's only four runes scratched into this one."
"Well, you know some Morthavi, right? Try sounding it out." Tyverus took one last step and slide in behind Isilda. He leaned forward over her shoulder to see the skull she held up in the light.
"This one is Ameath." Isilda pressed her thumb over the leftmost rune on the skull. She shifted her thumb right to the next. "This one is Dhottan." She pivoted her right thumb to the next. "This one isn't a central rune, it's more of a sounding rune."
"Sounding rune?" Tyverus blinked and gave a snort of confusion. "You mean there are more than just like Hoelatha? The 'ans,' 'bhers,' and 'caels.'"
"Morthavi has a lot more than just the few we use now. It was an elegant and complex language. Many scholars believe it to be the very language of magick itself." Isilda turned her head to stare intently at Tyverus. "The incantations you use for your elemental rotes are bastardizations of this language."
"Okay, okay." Tyverus rolled his eyes and then looked back to Isilda. "But what sound do these last two make?"
Isilda turned back to the skull. She pressed her thumb in tightly to the runes. "This is a slightly modified one. The tanztur at the top going from the left aspkan to the right drahm-" She stopped for a moment and let her tongue flick across her lips. "I'd say it would be something like 'maen' or 'may-en.'"
"Okay, and the last one?" Tyverus reached out his hand and pressed his thumb above the last rune. "I don't know what a drahm is, but what is this one?"
"This is more complex." Isilda bit her lip and furrowed her brow. "I'd say it as either 'thrayn' or 'thraya.'"
"Okay." Tyverus squeezed in behind Isilda and pressed her back against his body. He reached another hand over her and pointed at the first two runs with his index finger and thumb of his left hand. "So, you said these two were central runes. So they'd have common definitions, right?"
Isilda moved her shoulders and hips to get closer to Tyverus. "Yes. I'm guessing, if the last two runes are a name, then these would be-" Isilda fluttered her eyes for a moment and leaned her head back against Tyverus' chest. "Dearest daughter."
"So, it would be, 'My dearest daughter, Maen-thrayn?" Tyverus gave a sharp breath in and let Isilda push her head further into his chest.
"No. 'Thrayn' would be masculine. I think her name would be Maen-thraya, or Maen-thrai." Isilda opened her eyes to look up at Tyverus from beneath his chin. She gave a genuine smile after licking her lips for a brief moment.
"Well, there we go." Tyverus slowly took hold of the skull from Isilda's grip and pulled backwards. He swiveled from behind her and began walking towards the alcove to put the skull back on its shelf. "See, I can help. I may not be an oracle, or know anything about these runes, but I can still help."
Isilda took a step toward Tyverus and took a sharp breath in to say something but wasn't able to even start. A smile remained on her face and one of her hands outreached. Tyverus took a step to close the distance.
"Where in Gehemol is that little shit!" Bhergom roared and neared towards Isilda in a almost-run. "Did either of you see that beast scurry by here?!"
"No-" Tyverus immediately dropped his hands to his sides and stared over to Bhergom with confusion across his face. "No one other than yourself came near us. What happened?"
"He stole it!" Bhergom's face went red with rage. "I told you he couldn't be trusted. I told you!" Bhergom clenched his hands into fists at his side and began marching towards Isilda. "Were you in on this, too?"
Tyverus jumped between the old oracle and Isilda. He lifted one of his hands up as a barrier between himself and Bhergom's wrath. Bhergom leaned past the young knight to stare daggers at Isilda.
"I have no idea what you're talking about?" Isilda took a step back with genuine concern and fear spreading across her face. "What was stolen?"
"One of the most powerful artifacts in the world, you dumb twit!" Berghom raised one of his hands and pressed past Tyverus.
"Whoa, now." Tyverus grabbed Bhergom by the wrist and pushed himself in front of the old man again. The young knight's gloved fingers flowed over the old oracles hand while his other hand grabbed the man's elbow at the joint. Within a second, Tyverus had Bhergom in a painful arm lock and pulled him back.
"I don't know what you're talking about. I was here with Tyverus examining the skulls." Isilda looked from Tyverus to Bhergom. She took a step forward with her arms out, wanting to reassure her teacher. She looked to Tyverus who shook his head. She stepped back.
"You-" Bhergom began to start and then tried to pull his arm free from Tyverus' hold. As he did so, the knight clamped down harder into the lock, making the old man wince in pain. "Both of you are responsible for this!"
"Calm down, or I will make you calm down." Tyverus' voice was firm as he neared his face to that of Bhergom's. "How about you show us what happened, before you jump to any conclusions?"
Bhergom beamed rage up at Tyverus. The knight seemed entirely unphased and in his element. "Show us, now, or I'll break your arm."
"Fine!" Bhergom gave a hard shrug, but Tyverus didn't let go. "I'll reveal to you all of your guilt!" Bhergom looked over to Isilda and then back to Tyverus. "Let go of my damned arm!"
With a quick and easy motion, Tyverus let go of Bhergom's arm and raised both of his hands up in front of him with open palms. "Okay, then. Go."
Isilda stormed after Bhergom and then stepped in front of him. "Show us what happened, before you try to hurt one of us, and yourself, in your impotent rage."
Bhergom stormed after Isilda, still as red-faced as he had been before. He swallowed hard while shaking his head in defiance of Isilda and Tyverus' innocence. Rage was still boiling in his veins.
Tyverus took a moment to gather his thoughts and his breath. He had come very close to breaking the old man's arm to protect Isilda. He honestly didn't know what was going on, what this powerful artifact might have been, or why these damned catacombs were so important to these two oracles. He doubted that Vhoggli had done anything wrong, but with a few steps after Bhergom and Isilda, he would soon find out.