"Where in Gehemol are you, you little shit!" Bhergom bellowed through the darkness ahead of him. The sounds of his leather shoes thundered throughout the darkened chambers and narrow corridors of the catacombs. "I'll make you choke on what you stole!"
Bhergom stopped to gather his breath for a moment. He steadied himself against the ice-rock wall of the corridor he was climbing through. He began to pinch at the bridge of his nose with his free hand. He would be damned if such an important artifact to his order be stolen by someone as dubious as Vhoggli.
He knew he should have stood his ground when the expedition started, back in Alsira Thaenat. The very moment that Grandmaster Toulam tried to shuffle the ugly, little runt onto him, he should have said, "No." Isilda worked her treacherous magic on him, softening him up with sugared words. He never should have relented.
By the gods, old and new, he could have found Neshran himself. It might have taken a few more months, but he was up to the challenge. As far as he was concerned, Vhoggli wasn't even a member of the Authrakallin Order. He was some slinking pet that Toulam kept for his own amusement. A slithering thing that stole knowledge from old books and provided nothing of worth to the order.
"You can't get far on those stubby little legs, you monster!" He bellowed again into the dark. "If you don't reveal yourself at this very moment, I'll kill you with my bare hands when I do catch you!" He lifted his steadying hand from the wall and punched the ice. A crack broke in the wall and echoed off. "Reveal yourself, now!"
He stomped up the rest of the steeply inclined corridor and made his way around a bend in the wall. He emerged into the large chamber containing the sarcophagus. A quick glance around the room revealed the absence of Vhoggli's stout form.
Bhergom walked slowly up to the sarcophagus before him, making sure to avoid stepping on ice or shallow ponds of frost. Once he was a few steps away, he bolted forward and screamed into the rock coffin. "Where are you, devil!"
He beat his fists on the ancient rock walls of the sarcophagus. His temper was growing with each breath. He could see the steam rising from his head and billowing in front of him from his face.
He stood for a moment among the tomb of the dead. He looked to the ice wall and the stalagmite-strewn cavern mouth above him. He didn't see any scrabblings or claw marks on the ice wall. He knew the little runt was agile and sneaky, but he had no way to know for certain if Vhoggli had mounted that wall and climbed to another area.
Light continued to filter through the ice above and from the mouth of that cavern. Shapes moved across the ceiling as light bounced off the surface of gently rippling water high above. The light was fading, however, as evening approached. The shadows grew long and it was hard for his old eyes to focus.
He looked behind him and upward. Shadows began to dance on the walls and across the ceiling. He narrowed his eyes and tried to focus hard in the dark. For a moment he thought he could make out a stout form leaping from one pillar of rock and ice to the next. He soon realized it was the dark playing tricks on him.
"Tolesh damn you! Olthenna curse you and take your wretched hide!" Bhergom took one more scouring look around the chamber and marched off to the next corridor. "The first of the Nesharite Spheres is not for you or any of your unsophisticated ilk! Return it now!"
As he made his way through another narrow corridor, he knew his words were correct. Such an artifact had tremendous importance to his order. The memories of the first oracles were trapped within. The legends of the Hoelath people were documented in each of the seven spheres. The first sphere was the very one that Vhaltenesh kept with him during his last years.
He stopped for a moment in the corridor. To his right, the water-carved stairs trailed downwards into a deep darkness. To his left was the incline up to another room he had been in. He cursed Tyverus under his breath for not being with him to supply light. He soon cursed himself for not bringing a torch.
The little creeping bastard had vision in the dark. Bhergom didn't know how powerful that ability was, if Vhoggli needed some scant bit of light, or could see things beyond the ken of mortals. Surely, it wouldn't make sense for him to run further into the dark with his prize. Even one as sly as he could get lost in the perilous tunnels and ancient chambers below.
No, he had to have gone back the way he came. If he was playing some kind of spiteful game, he knew that Bhergom wouldn't follow him to his death below. He would hide where it was familiar, where he could loom in the shadows. Or he would run like a coward and thief back to the camp above. Would he wait for them there, or would he steal their rations and make his way off this accursed island?
He turned to his left and began to march up the steep incline to the room above. He wished he could use his Haeth Arts and feel the little bastard out. He knew his essential stink from traveling with him for several months. He had the abilities, but this accursed place was playing havoc with his mind. He tried once more to reach out and feel for Vhoggli.
A snapping sound rang out in the dark. A feeling like a whip had been set loose right into Bhergom's mind. The feeling tore through him and made him stumble. He grabbed the wall before he lost his footing.
This feeling was different than when he had tried to use his arts earlier. Before all he felt was a strange sense of fog and detachment. He felt confusion then, like something kept tickling at his mind and pulling him away from pooling his energies. This was entirely different. This was intentional.
"Damn you!" The words erupted from his gritted teeth. He clutched his head tighly in his hands. The echoes of the whiplash rang in his mind and with each ring felt more cold. A sensation like a skeletal hand reaching out of the shadows to penetrate into his skull was taking hold. "If this your doing, Vhoggli, I will indeed kill you."
Whatever or whoever this presence was seemed to laugh at his words. There was no noise to be heard, but the feeling tore through into Bhergom's mind. He tried to reach out to the presence but it always seemed distant. Every time he tried to focus, it was as if his attentions were swatted away like he were nothing but a gnat.
As quickly as the cold lash and grip took hold, it receeded. Fog rolled back over his senses and that same tickle made his mind turn abruptly. More anger boiled up at him and his attentions were placed back on Vhoggli.
Bhergom shook his head and pressed forward into the dark.
* * *
Tyverus made his way into the dark corridor beyond the skull chamber. He continued about a dozen feet until the corridor split in two. The catacombs were becoming increasingly dark as the last of the twin suns far above were setting. He took a moment to gather his energy and thoughts.
He was drained from having his energies ripped away earlier. Some of his essential energies were beginning to pool into him again, given speed and focus by the glowing runes of his mantle. He didn't have enough to fully call upon his cantrip of light, but he could at least make a glow that would help him in the dark.
He breathed in deeply, calling upon the waning reserves inside of himself. Tiny sparks began to coalesce out of the dark and pool in the gloved palm of his hand. He waited for a moment, watching and intently focusing on their dance. An orangle wisp of plasma formed just above his hand. It was more like a miniature tornado of energy falling into itself over and over. The light produced was barely that of a flickering candle. That was enough for him to see, at least, his training in dark areas would have to cover the rest.
With a bit of light to guide his movements, he felt his attentions draw to the right-most split in the corridor. He hadn't followed that path before, and curiosity pulled on him. This place was deep and complex, no doubt containing far more rooms than he had seen thus far. Who knew what other strange things existed in its depths.
If this is what it was like to be one of the Authrakallin Oracles, always on the search for new discoveries and hidden artifacts, he was beginning to wonder about his own choice of caste. He wasn't lying when he told Bhergom that he originally wanted to be an oracle as a child. He was born far away from harsh lands of Alsira Thaenat, where the Authrakallin made their refuge. He was born to the luxuries of Morrthault City.
Being born in such an international and metropolitan area didn't allow him freedom to seek his own path. His father demanded that he put interest in subtle arts away as a child. His path was to join the Guardian Knights of Morrthal. It was a prestigious choice of caste, and like all choices a young person must make in Hoelatha culture at their coming of age, it was a permanent one.
Tyverus knew he had, at least in a sense, made the correct choice by following his father's demands. His skills were needed in the battles that he fought for the greater good of the Hoelatha people. From the Battle of the Wounded Wolves, which had drenched him in gore and far too many nightmares to live with, to his stationing in Fyrrantha and his almost-romance with a young druid there.
He remembered the horror he witnessed; the savagery of human-against-human when her village was burned, and her people were sacrificed to some perverted god from far-away lands. If it were not him and his detachment sent there, no one would have remembered that village, that poor girl, and no one would have avenged them against the Ssvacnothi raiders.
Still, there was some lingering and seflish regret that took hold of his heart. Battles were always fought and people always died; it was the sad fate of all in this world. What kind of life could he have lived if he followed the sutble path of Haeth instead of the destructive path of Maela, as he had. He had the power within himself to drawn upon elemental magicks that could sunder kingdoms if harnessed properly. Yet, the strange arts of divination always pulled at his soul.
Vengeance was had, wars were quelled, raiders found their violent ends due to their savage choices, all by his hand. What if his hands weren't soaked in blood, but instead held the same life-giving powers that Isilda's hands held. Would his choice of being an oracle meant that more lives could have been spared? Was he willing to give up the memories of that young druid and her village, for a life he could have spent with Isilda instead?
Tyverus shook the growing thoughts and feelings in his head. What was done was done and he was here now. The choices of his life, just like those of Isilda, Bhergom, and Vhoggli, led them to this place at this time. He may not be an oracle, but he was here with them, and in the presence of a beautiful one at that.
He might not be able to draw upon the powers of the past, of the future, or of the mind, but he was here to learn from them. He was here to discover the things they discovered. He could finally take part in something other than death and murder.
The darkness to his right continued to seduce him with its promise of discovery, but he pulled back from it. He turned to the left and began climbing the water-worn incline of rock. He took a few forward steps and then turned back whistfully to gaze at the darkness he turned his back on. Just like he had turned his back on so many life choices before.
Far off in the darkness above, he could hear the distant echoes of a voice bellowing. The words were muffled, but a few jumbled, vulgar words made it to his ears. It was the anger-filled voice of Bhergom, spewing his hatred of Vhoggli into the halls of the dead.
Where his curiosity stole his resolve, this dedication to duty bulwarked him. He made a promise to Isilda to find Bhergom before he killed himself in the dark. He wanted to find Vhoggli as well, if only to see what this profound artifact might look like. He pushed on into the darkness, climbing further. Each footstep was resolute, and his pace began to quicken.
* * *
Isilda sat for a moment with the metal-coated skull before her. She held both hands a few inches from the surface of the skull and focused intently upon the runes carved into the metal and bone. Her energies were depleted and it was hard to concentrate, but she had to try and get some answers, even if they only came to her in fractured bursts.
"Maenthraya, or Maenthrai, the beloved daughter of someone long ago. Please, share with me what you saw while you were still alive." Isilda closed her eyes and allowed the tips of her fingers to touch upon the chilled metal before her. "If your shade remains in this world, please come to me, show me what I must know."
Isilda drew energy from the area around her, feeling the fine hairs on body stand on end. Deep muscles in her solar plexus began to tighten as she felt a warm energy growing there and spreading throughout her body. Beneath her closed eyelids she observed the cascading flow of her mental energies folding out as a blue, purple, and gray tunnel stretching into infinity. Sparks and rings of energy flowed from her into the depths and after a few moments the first ripples began to come back to her.
The rings took on a brighter shade as the first rolled back to her slowly, and then the with increasing speed. With each wave of energy hitting her consciousness, the energy inside of her began to grow. There was still information in these old remains, and an echo of a soul was reaching back to her.
Wave after wave struck at her with increasing speed and her body began to convulse slightly with every impact. Images began to focus out of the depths she reached into. Fuzzy details of a young man's face. A disjointed feeling of happiness and sorrow at the flash of a young woman's birth. The memories cascaded with greater speed until Isilda's consciousness could barely contain them all.
The waves were forming into one long cascade of energy now. It was hard for Isilda to control all of it. She fought against the constant memories coming at her and the feeling inside of it of some consciousness wanting to take over her own. The sensations were growing painful and the convulsions in her body were wracking her with increased force.
Then everything went cold. The waves stopped, and darkness crept over her. She felt a snap come from inside of her, like some resistance in her mind had finally given in. She couldn't feel her body anymore, all she could feel is omnipresent cold that transcended any kind of phyiscal sense.
"You should not be here." A soft feminine voice reached to her from the dark realm all around her. "You are mettling in things you were not meant to."
"Who are you?" Isilda ignored the cautionary words. She couldn't see anything and had no sense of body. She called out with her mind into the abyss all around her.
"You should not be here." The voice became more commanding and louder. The voice no longer seemed to be coming from a single point in the abyss, but rather from all directions at once.
"Maenthraya? Is that your name?" Isilda continued to ignore the voice. She tried to coalesce some astral form from her energies but every mote she gathered seemed to be dispersed on a wind that grew in intensity. "Why will you not share your secrets with me?"
"You mean nothing, young one. You don't know with what powers you mettle with." The voice began to swirl around Isilda's consciousness while gathering force. "You pretend to know the powers you draw upon. You pretend to know the past of the world. You delude yourself with the purpose of your futile, and short life."
"What do you mean? All life has purpose." Isilda pressed her will forward and kept pushing against the growing winds around her. A slight incandescent form of her body could be seen beneath her. "I am here among the living. You are among the dead. I am the candle in the wind, and you are the echo of what has passed."
"That is precisely the source of your delusions, young one. You pull at energy that you don't know how to harness. You use arts that have had their time and died long ago. You walk into a den of evil and dare to pierce the secrets hidden within."
"The catacombs?" Isilda could feel more of her astral form growing in this place. She could feel the strong winds billowing on her ephemeral skin. She could hear the howls echoing throughout the darkness. "How is this a den of evil?"
"Mother dwells here, child." The voice was so loud as to be deafening now.
"Your mother? Merithault?" Isilda reached a hand out into the darkness, seeing the particles of energy making up her ghostly form. "Merithault is long gone. This is a place of the dead now."
"How naive you are." The winds pulled back for a moment and then hit Isilda like a hard wave once more. "Evil in this world does not die, it lingers, and grows hale off the sins of humanity. She is as strong as ever. She bides her time until she can seek out the last of my blood." The winds dissipated Isilda's energy for a moment, but she reformed herself easily. "The last of our cursed lineage. The forsaken. The Witchling of Alsira. The orphaned daughter of destruction and madness."
"Alsira? That is my home." Isilda paused for a moment to gather her fragmenting thoughts. "Who is this Witchling? Who is the last heir of your blood?"
The winds remained silent as they continued to whip around Isilda at a feverish pace. The darkness began to dwindle for a few moments, with images that looked like the skull cavern her physical body sat within. Isilda could see different perspectives of herself from out of her body.
"You are not meant to know. You aren't supposed to be here. Leave before mother returns." The winds howled against her. Isilda could see the hood on her head blow down her shoulders and her blonde hair rise and fall with each word.
"I must know. I can seek out the Witchling. I must know if I need to protect her."
"You are not meant to be here!" The voice tore through her like the skin-stripping sand winds of her home during a storm. "Leave now, or suffer our fate!"
"Your fate? Who do you speak of?"
"Myself, my family, and all those of my children, their children, and onward."
"These skulls are your children? Who killed them and took their skulls to be placed in this cavern."
"Is your mother, Merithault? Are you the daughter of the Mad Oracle?"
The perspective of Isilda moved around her physical form. She could see herself from above, from the sides, and from other oblique angles. Each shift corresponded to each word spoken by the voice of the other entity in this abyss. The winds continued to gather and then suddenly went quiet.
"Leave!" A hard gust of wind hit Isilda and sent her physical form into a convulsion backward. "Now!" The next gust threw her physical form backward off the boulder she sat upon. Her hands broke contact with the skull.
Isilda opened her eyes and felt the pain growing in her neck, chest, and arms. She pulled herself from lying on the rock and ice-strewn floor of the cavern to get back to her feet. She could feel groans of pain from her body that grounded her more to her physical form.
She walked over to the boulder, sat down upon it once more, and defiantly held her hands over the skull once more. She wasn't going to let this stubborn entity hold secrets from her. She was here to find out what knowledge this place held, and she'd be damned to let an errant shade get the best of her.
Isilda held her hands over the skull and then let her fingertips touch the skull once more. She threw caution to the winds and began to pool energy within her without constraint. She was focused now and she would rip the knowledge from the entity whether it liked it or not.
Isilda felt her eyes begin to flutter as she tried to form the same tunnel in her mind as before. She could feel erratic sparks of her consciousness reaching out, but they never seemed to come back to her. She tried to close her eyes fully, but could not do so as they continued to flutter.
She tried to pivot her hands to get a better grip on the skull and she soon realized she could not move her body. With a hard snap, her head was tossed forward and then backward. Her eyes flew open and she could not manage to shut them.
She stared at the skull in front of her as silver-blue light began to flow from the dimming crystals over head to pool around the skull in front of her. The metal of the skull grew painfully cold as the energy gathered. No mater the pain, she could not sever the connection between her and it.
Tears began to well up in her eyes, beginning first as water, and then with the sting of blood. The growing blood tears began to stream down her cheeks, freezing to them before reaching her chin. Her breath became pitched and the steam coming up from her nose and mouth soon dissipated. She could feel the cold air reaching into her lungs and freezing her from the inside out.
The blue light began to form into a faint outline before her. It looked like the sihouette of a woman clad in ancient robes. Features slowly began to form from the energy until she could make out eyes and the vague features of a face.
Isilda began to cough hard, unable to draw in breath. She gave gulps, hoping to capture what she could, but air continued to escape her. She coughed once more and blood began to spatter out from her mouth. The droplets seemed to float on the air and slowly drift to the form in front of her.
Each cough and sputter gave more blood to the form, and each droplet met with the others, freezing in place and forming what looked like strands of hair draping from beneath the female form's hood. The form was enchanting and beautiful in a strange way.
Pain soared throughout Isilda's body. The pain in her chest felt like she was drowning in ice-cold waters. The chill of the metal skull tore through into her hands with a frostbite beyond any she had felt before. Her eyes continued to sting, and despite the blood frozen over them, she continued to see everything around her in a crystal focus.
"My name is Maenthrai. I am the daughter of Merithault. I am the last of the true oracles. I am inheritor of the blood-curse, from my mother, to all those of my blood." The voice from the form before Isilda was hypnotic and commanding. She could hear every word, yet the accents of the language seemed foreign to her. "I was murdered by my mother after I created the Nesharite Spheres. I crafted them to keep our ancient culture alive, once I knew my mother would destroy all that had come before. I sought out the source of what turned my mother into the unliving creature she now is. In doing so, I found out the future of this world. I was given the choice to allow my mother to fufil her dark impulses, or to hope that one of my heirs would be able to fight back against her."
Isilda continued to remain frozen in place. The words and visions began to wash over her consciousness. The form was now opaque although shadowed in darkness.
"It was my dying wish that I could redeem my mother, but I failed. The Spheres I built fell to unworthy hands. The world I wanted to save, has now crumbled to dust. The only hope remains in one of my lineage. The last one to be cursed with the true powers of Haeth. The one that can be found with the blood hair."
The form leaned in close to Isilda. She could feel sparks of energy hitting her chilled flesh. The pain inside of her made her want to die, but she had to stay conscious long enough to learn the secrets of Maenthrai.
"You are not supposed to be here, child. I have warned you and you still do not heed me. If you must suffer the fate of your ignorance, then I might as well impart my wisdom to you. Perhaps your soul can be of use, one day."
The form moved back from Isilda and reached out a hand in her direction. The hand seemed to be clothed in transparent flesh. The bones beneath shone through with brighter energy than the ephemeral flesh coating it. Searing cold emanated from the hand as it neared Isilda's face.
The hand reached forth and grabbed Isilda by the skull. Cold, skeletal fingers penetrated through her scalp and to her very bone. She could feel the cold pressing in on her mind, freezing her while exploding her consciousness from within.
"You wish to know what I know, and see what I have seen. Then so be it."
Isilda convulsed backward as a brilliant flash of light went off in her mind. The sensations were overpowering. The emotions were more than she could bear. The visions tore through her and made all that she had ever known seem like specks of dust on the wind. Her mind was being ripped apart from the inside-out as each revelation struck her with increasing ferocity.