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And thus he stands— blankly, exhausted, disconnected. The world ‘round him felt amiss, the little things leaving him skeptical of its gentle simplicities with thoughts of woe and confusion. However, that’s what dreams do, don’t they? They weave little insecurities into your mind or make the ones known even more present. It strikes a cold fear into the minds of the strong, leaving them to wonder where they went wrong and how it could have been avoided.
But this couldn’t have been avoided… could it?
“Such is life as an Oracle,” would be said, but it’s not the life of an ordinary, no-named famer. Mohan was the youngest son out of seven children—why would anyone find excitement in such basic lifestyles? How could he even be chosen out of scholars, kings, monks, or warriors? There was no weight to his name. There were no stories to be shared and no songs to be sung of his glory. Mohan Ívarr was nothing, and to the wealthy and regal, he was even less.
So why him?
Because the others turned her down.
If she was a demon sent to play with his tired mind, he’ll accept his failure of noticing, but… There’s just something off about it. Something real. Something that leaves her story open-ended, but truthful and he couldn’t quite put his finger on it…
Or smell it, for that matter.
There’s blood pooling at his feet in little black puddles. There are chunks of sparkling onyx mounds that reek of iron. The tips of his darkened talons drip with dark ichor unbeknownst to him, yet he doesn’t notice it. His mind had been so… cluttered. He barely knew he was awake. But he could still see her silhouette, dancing around him, her cape flickering in the shadow. Where he would turn, she would disappear, yet the sight of her would remain. Quietly. Watching from a distance.
“Why do you stay?”
The quiet is ponderous. The shadow shifts in the corner of his eye. He can see her begin to walk, now circling him quietly. But he can hear those whispers again, the ones he heard when she spoke, echoing lightly.
“Only for a moment. I had to deliver another gift.” She pauses, “His heart beats so strong for you. It reminds me of another.”
“That is another story for another day. Your protector is here.”
It’s like the breath was sucked from his lungs. Shock rose goosebumps to his skin, but he could feel it—the sharp pain at his jaw that tingled its way down his shoulder and the wetness that dripped from his hands. What was happening? No matter where his eyes darted, nothing within the space he was in looked familiar. Where was he? How long had he been standing there? Is the nightmare even over?
Mohan’s panicking now. His heart thudding in his chest painfully as he tries to piece things back together. He could still hear the woman, but she was nowhere to be see, but…
There was Damien. Even when he needed him most, he was always there with worry in his discolored eyes and gentle touch. Yet, everything burned under that kind touch. A pain that felt too familiar of alcohol cleansing an open wound. Smelled like it too.
“I leave you for a second and you’ve picked your scale like scabs?” There’s another sting of alcohol at his cheek, “what is going through your head right now?”
Mohan opens his mouth to respond, but he’s quiet for a moment, “The… prince…?”
“He’s frightfully annoying, I know. You just have to ignore him.”
“No… No, I—…”
Do you trust him, Voi’staa? Tell him.
To read an Oracle is to learn how to read a map. A good cartographer can decipher lines and dots on a map’s face and understand their terrain better than any other person in the world. For Damien, his position was the same. To understand an Oracle was to read his features, understand a timid body language that left so many so curious if he, himself, were a simple innocent soul or was he timid and kind? Damien knew better than that. Behind those black eyes hid emotion he could see so vividly. He could still see the silver shimmer of his best friend’s pupils—dilated and horrified as if he had seen the devil.
And with truth, it’s not an expression he’s used to. Mohan and the horrors that lie in his sight stood hand in hand, but… what exactly could have brought a look like this? The pain perhaps? Though his cheek healed and the blood finally began to dry at his shoulder, the skin is reddened and sensitive, but none of it connected. If he sheds, the skin is thin and dry like that of a snake’s remains—but this? They were gone, as if someone had taken a knife and skinned the scale off his flesh and left it in a lump of wet, iron scented meat on the floor.
“Talk to me. I can’t help you when you’re quiet.”
Or lie to him. Your choice.
The two of them have been like this for years. When Mohan did something ill-favored, Damien was there. The opposite was scant. There weren’t many times where Damien had ever caught himself stuck and in trouble since he became a paladin. Perhaps when they were children, yes, but never when they were older.
Yet, he begins to open his mouth, tongue dry and words gone. “There’s something… foul in the air… Like death.” It’s almost difficult to form words. Sentences come and go where most make no sense at all. “I smelled it on him last night, but I wasn’t sure. Now I am…”
“About what,” Damien questions, “What is going on?”
It’s… fascinating how the sound of nothing is what puts Mohan on edge. He had gotten so accustomed to the faint voices of the dead whispering him stories of when they were young to grizzly war stories that left them bloodied and mutilated on the battlefield. Their stories, to him, were comforting. It left him relaxed and welcomed rather than stressed and alone. However, for once, there’s no one. Not a sound. Not a whisper. Not even a ghostly chuckle. It was enough to know something was up. Enough to know that a hunch could be followed.
“That is not Prince Bartholomew…”
There’s a nervous chuckle, “What?”
“Just… trust me. Whatever is walking around in his skin reeks of rotted flesh and whatever souls lie within him are calling out in anguish. Keep an eye on him. I don’t know what plans he has or if it’s content with pretending to be him. But something is wrong and I can feel it.”
“Why didn’t you say anything last night?”
“I can’t just air out the man’s dirty laundry. But it wasn’t this strong last night. I could only smell it when I was close to him.”
Damien’s silent for a moment, “What does this mean?”
“He’s probably infiltrating the castle? Probably trying to start small before he really does some damage?”
The paladin sighs, pinching the bridge of his nose in light aggravation. He’ll do anything for his best friend… “I’ll keep an eye on him the best I can. I can’t be with him all day knowing that Jolyon will get me working on something… but I’ll do my best.”
== # ==
By dawn tomorrow, King Jolyon Cristwel will send his newest champion into the cities of Dómrien. No matter how excited the King is, Mohan and Emmeline can’t seem to match it. Emmeline’s anxiety bled into her work, leaving her unfocused and distracted, while that same nervous twist in her gullet sat like a rock in Mohan’s. However, he wasn’t afraid to fail. He was terrified of what lurked in the castle. If he leaves, what happens then? Will anyone else notice that unwelcoming feeling for fall for his allure as most seem to do?
There’s a feeling of emptiness within him that he can’t seem to understand. At one point he was simply lifting jewelry from noblemen for the sake of the thrill, at the next he was challenging soldiers and champions in pit fights for fun. To end here felt as if there was a moment of disconnect.
There’s a God in his head… or at least one pretending to be.
Here sits years of skeptic belief. Years of watching Barrowlea cave into itself from the war that ate its way across the nation in a series of burned bodies and treachery. For years, listening to those stories of how the Pantheon would protect them and lead them back to victory where their people were free and death would not coat their roads with blood and gore.
The Gods will save them. Now? After twenty years? Bullshit. The thing that haunts his mind, claiming to be some grand figure was nothing more than a coward. Why single one person out, bit by bit? What was the point of asking one and not all? Isn’t that what they were chosen for? Oracles were supposed to be the united group that saved their home as a unity… right? That was their prime objective and it felt as if even that was speculation.
It’s a mess. But there’s nothing he can do about it now, is there?
Despite everything, at least the rain feels nice this morning… It’s heavy. The lands have turned into a thick muck of mud and grass. Thunder cracks and lightning streaks across the sky in bright purple-white branches that brought Mohan mindlessly following the flow of it all.
“Can you hear me?” He keeps his voice low, eyeing a couple soldiers that saunter pass.
“Are you the Black Empress? You as a god doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Do your people see me as such?”
“It depends. You only answered half of my question.”
“It is definitely a title I have not heard in quite some time.”
Mohan scrunched his lips. Off in the distance he could see the sight of the forest wall hazing through the heavy rainfall and fog. It’s a haunting sight, but beautiful, even when the rain isn’t as heavy as it was now. Quietly, he finds himself wandering through the training fields, wondering of what questions he could ask this being. But one sticks out, “How did you obtain such a title?”
“Bren en’staa, that’s what they called me. They said I arrived within a supernova. The sky went black. The earth died at their feet, and there I stood. In the middle. They saw stars for the first time. I didn’t even remember my own name.”
“Do you believe them? A supernova would kill on-lookers.”
“Perhaps, but I do believe them. I remember the hole they found me in. I remember the smell of the corpses at my feet that rose when I stood. It was as if I had been reborn.”
Mohan sighs, “Does rebirth alter your appearance?”
“Yes. Those marks you held once before—the scale? A mutation. A harsh reminder of what life created me and what life ended me. You don’t need that. That is why I marked you personally.”
He pauses in his steps. Though his scale was gone, she left an engraved mark at his wrist. It looked to be of runes and what looked to be an older script of Cerlyic. At first he almost paid no mind to it. It looked like the others that stained his skin, why worry of this one? But now he knew it meant more than the others. “Why us? Why… me?”
“Would you believe me if I told you this was a curse and I know nothing of how it chooses others?”
“I wouldn’t. No.”
“That’s fair. Would you believe me if I told you this was supposed to be my means of escape? I had fallen in love with a warrior I found in a forest. She wore a crown of light over her head and whispered to me that she’d give me infinite power and I fell for it… Never thought that I’d crave for death when it eluded me time and time again. But it corrupted me and I’m sure it tainted that promise somehow. Nevertheless, I see all of you as my children… and my children deserve to see me.”
Thunder rolls again and as lightning strikes, he sees a shadow crawling within the fog, behind the trees of the forest wall. The silhouette seems to graze the top of the trees, curving itself to only give a monstrous view of what could only be a dragon. Then again, those have been extinct for centuries. Even with it lurking in the haze of the fog, Mohan could see them—figures, black, in the shape of humans, all adorned with glowing white crowns against that gray mist. Every last one of them, far away from the ground beneath their feet.
It’s quiet again once he’s stepped through the thicket of the forest wall, all he can hear is the sound of his breathing and the pitter-patter of the rain around him… They are still there, however. He can’t see their faces, but they’re closer to the ground this time. The figures are all clad in black armor, the helms wide open to nothing but dark smoke that poured free in clouds, all of it glittered like that of the cold fog he saw in his dream.
They stand around him in neat, motionless lines, weapons down and shoulders broad. Slowly, as the Oracle crept through the unspeaking guards, he’s greeted with a pit, one shallow yet ripe with a fetor that churns his stomach. A pit filled with disembodied hands and wet, fleshy bones of faceless innocents. There are limbs with muscle and no skin, heads with no familiar features—some missing eyes, others missing the other side of their face.
Mohan Ívarr had seen the burned bodies of the living… but he has never seen a feeding pit.
“There’s a monster among you, my little star. Don’t let it breathe. It doesn’t deserve your kindness.”