As Nancy watched the others lift off Iskander asked, “Are you sure you want to do this? It will be quite dangerous.”
Nancy was terrified of the idea of dropping in on an Oracle that could turn men to stone with a glance. She had assumed they were all like the child they had just visited in the serene palace. She had made a commitment though and for Iskander’s sake she had to exhaust all possibilities. After all, it was she who had cost him his sight and if the blast didn’t kill her, she might have been the one to lose her sight instead of him. Either way Nancy felt her visit to the Oracle of Kinfos was inevitable.
“Of course I’m sure, why are you scared?”
“Only a fool would have no fear of the Oracle of Kinfos,” Iskander sniffed, “but if we are cautious we may just survive this little adventure.”
“What would we need to do? We know you can’t be turned to stone because you’re blind.”
“Yes, but you are not.”
“Right, but I’m a woman.”
“You certainly are,” Iskander smiled briefly, “and as a woman you face a fate worst than an eternity encased in stone.”
Nancy’s heart thudded in her chest. Did she want to know?
“What happens to the women who see the Oracle?” She asked quietly.
“The Oracle is incredibly vain and thrives on adoration and envy. The sight of a beautiful woman in her temple ignites her jealousy for she is a rival. However, if she can cause that rival to reciprocate that envy, she is able to consume her rival’s youth and beauty and her victim takes her place as a snake on the Oracle’s head.”
Nancy shuddered. Her mother was a vain woman too and thrived on being the most beautiful and graceful lady in the room. At times Nancy half expected to walk in on the woman asking a mirror who was the fairest of them all. Growing up feeling like the ugly duckling beside a swan, Nancy prided herself on other attributes like her wit. She often used her wits to rile her mother on particularly taxing days.
“Oh mother, those silver streaks really add a level of finesse to your hair!” She might say while the woman was fretting over a dinner party she was throwing for this or that Senator.
Growing up in Society, Nancy came across many young women being groomed to become pompous and thick like her mother. She sharpened her ability to sweetly make backhanded comments that lingered like cheap cologne long after she had quit the room. She was confident she could avoid spending the rest of her days as a snake.
“I really don’t think we’ll need to worry about that, milord.” Nancy chuckled sourly. “Besides, if she does know how we can restore your sight I reckon it’s worth the risk.”
They boarded a dragon and lifted into the air, drifting over the clear blue ocean, mountains and desert. Both were silent, as they were deep in their own thoughts, when Nancy suddenly asked, “Why are the Oracles so different? The Oracle of Nerys Island was a beautiful child in a lovely temple. Why is the Oracle of Kinfos so dangerous and for that matter why didn’t Ydra turn all the men into stone at the Crystal Palace?”
Iskander shrugged. “All Oracles are dangerous, A’Janae, some more than others. It may have to do with how they became Oracles.”
“What do you mean?”
After the War of the Gods, Baelcrest had been plunged into chaos but the land of Quendaris had become the most polluted and desolate of all. The rivers and lakes turned to molten lava, the earth was scorched and the air poison. Most people tended to avoid the forbidden land and any who were foolish or unlucky enough to find themselves there and attempted to cross, perished. Only a chosen few had crossed and lived, seven in all. After the seventh Oracle came into existence the land began to heal itself and is inhabited by the kingdoms of Shayn’del, Rune and Northern Lothiari.
No one knows how the Oracle of Kinfos arrived on the shores of Quendaris and the Oracle herself refuses to speak of it. It has been said she was kidnapped and thrown there on the orders of a vengeful wife whose powerful husband had been seduced by the woman’s incredible beauty. Upon crossing to safety, the Oracle gained her powers but her thirst for revenge gave those powers a sinister spin. Kinfos women, whose beaus the Oracle desired, suffered terrible fates or were unwittingly sent to their deaths by the information she provided. As punishment the gods declared any man who met the Oracle’s eye would turn to stone so as to deprive her of admirers.
The dragons touched down in the dark, craggy swamps of Kinfos. A thick mist covered the ground and chilled Nancy to the bone. Standing before them was the ruins of what looked to be an ancient Greek temple. Rising from the center was a dome of rock carved to look like the coils of a snake; its head and gaping mouth was the entrance. Suddenly remembering the rules of the previous Oracle, Nancy hoped she wouldn’t have to face this one alone.
Nancy took King Iskander’s arm and breathed, “Alright, let’s make this quick.”
Iskander placed his warm hand over her chilled one and nodded. As they approached, a hunched withered old woman hobbled out to greet them. She wore a simple grey robe and her grey hair hung down in frayed strings past her brown wrinkled skin. One clouded eye gazed at them beside an empty socket as her mouth stretched into a toothless grin.
“Ah, welcome King Iskander of Shayn’del. Welcome Queen Valeska of Rune. The Blessed One is expecting you.” She stretched a gnarled hand towards the dark entrance. “Come with me, if you please.”
Steeling every nerve against the overwhelming urge to flee, Nancy led Iskander down the corridor. It was dimly lit by torches on the walls and as it opened into a wider room Nancy gasped. Scattered throughout the chamber were several statues in various poses wearing a myriad of expressions from amusement to abject horror. Some statues were merely stone blobs, their features having worn away long ago. At the top of a short wide dais stood a stone door from which two figures reached out in terror as if fighting to escape.
Nancy lost her nerve. “Iskander, I don’t think we should do this.”
The king squeezed her trembling hand on his arm. “Take heart, my queen, no harm shall come to you.”
“The Blessed One is finishing with a visitor and shall grant you audience in a moment.” The old woman told them.
Suddenly there was a flash of light and thunder shook the temple.
“Ah, you may enter now.”
The doors swung open to reveal a brightly lit room with white walls much like the one Nancy had entered on Nerys Island. The room was filled with porcelain statues of well built naked men strategically accented with gold. Draped across a plush white chaise was an impossibly beautiful woman garbed in a white silk toga edged with gold braid that crisscrossed over her middle. Her long manicured nails were painted gold and golden snake bracelets wrapped around her alabaster arms. Her emerald eyes sparkled beneath golden lids and a nest of shimmering sleeping snakes lay tightly coiled upon her head. As the couple approached, the beauty mark at the corner of the Oracle’s mouth twitched as her ruby lips broke into a smile that revealed her porcelain fangs.
Welcome King of Shayn’del, Queen of Rune, I am honored by your presence.
Though her mouth had not moved, the voice they heard was soft and melodic and rounded off the woman’s intense beauty. She smiled at Iskander but watched Nancy very closely. Having the gift of Sight, Nancy ventured the Oracle already knew of Iskander’s blindness and would be focusing all her attention on her. Should she fail in her mission she wondered what the Oracle would do with him.
“You honor us by granting us audience, Blessed One.” Nancy replied, genuflecting as she had on Nerys Island.
The Oracle raised one perfect eyebrow as she sat up. You seek a cure for your beloved’s loss of sight. I do not blame you. Had I a beau as luscious as he I would wish him to gaze upon me always. Were you not satisfied with the answer you received from my sister on Nerys Island?
Nancy smiled.“The Oracle of Nerys Island was pleasant enough but no, she did not have the answer I seek. So I thought why waste our time with inferior Oracles when we could visit with the best?”
The Oracle smiled. You deem yourselves worthy of seeking out the greatest Oracle in Baelcrest?
Nancy sighed. “Only if one as lovely and powerful as yourself might deem us worthy.”
“Very good!” Iskander murmured.
The Oracle raised herself from the lounge, the scales of the tail that had been wrapped around her glittering as she moved, and slinked up to them. Of course, the woman would smell like a blend of exotic flowers and the richest vanilla, Nancy thought. As she watched the Oracle place a hand on Iskander’s shoulder, Nancy caught a glimmer in her eye.
Should your beloved redeem his sight, he may develop a wandering eye as men oft do. The Oracle’s eyes traveled up and down Nancy’s form. His current state may be a blessing for you.
Nancy blinked. Did the Oracle just insult her? She knew she was no great beauty, especially compared to the gorgeous creature currently running her hands along Iskander’s shoulders and arms, gazing upon him appreciatively while circling him but she was no, well, Medusa! Nancy caught on to the Oracle’s tactic and smiled. Sneaky bitch, time to up the ante!
“True, there is more to the man than his eyes.” Nancy replied, caressing Iskander’s cheek as she cooed, “Right, baby?”
Iskander pulled her into his arms and kissed her so deeply her entire body turned to jelly. She clung to him until she was able to will her legs to regain their strength and her head to stop spinning. Reluctantly, Nancy pulled away gently but held his hand in hers. Catching her breath, she was thrilled to find the Oracle glaring at her.
“Of course, gazing does have its attributes, Blessed One, and you have many fine specimens to admire yourself.” Nancy gestured to the statues that adorned the Oracle’s chamber. “Though it seems we share a similar predicament.”
“Nancy.” Iskander murmured a warning.
“I have but one admirer to gaze upon me,” she continued, “and a woman is nothing without a beau to cherish her.”
The Oracle’s eyes narrowed and a few of the snakes on her head yawned and blinked. Less than nothing.
“Well, bless your heart!” Nancy smiled.
The Oracle’s eyes flashed and the snakes on her head sprung to life, hissing and undulating. Insignificant peasant, you dare to mock me!
Iskander stepped between the women, drawing his sword and pressing its point to the Oracle’s belly.
“I will say this only once.” Iskander hissed. “We came here seeking your wisdom but, help us or no, you will not harm Queen Valeska! If you do not have the answers we seek then let us be on our way.”
The insolence! The Oracle sputtered.
She tried to back away and looked surprised to find the king moved with her. The point of his blade poked her skin, drawing a bead of blood.
Your blindness is permanent, my lord king. Tis the result of a dark and ancient magic. She spat. The traitor in your midst shall reveal herself in Abiloth and your friends are in grave danger. You will find them in the Shumkarja Outlands to the North. The snakes on the Oracle’s head hissed and rattled fiercely and the doors to the chamber burst open. That is all I can tell you. Now leave this place and do not return!