They walk side by side in uneasy silence, heading toward the clearing near the waterfall where Gwydion found Doria earlier. In her hand, Alma carries her notebook, currently open in the page where she made sure to write down every indication Doria managed to provide before the naiad finally lost consciousness again. She checks it once again, to make sure they are moving in the right direction.
There will be a clearing, she said. And beyond it, a path.
“We shouldn’t be too far from the entrance, now,” the goddess announces. “Where did you say you found Doria?”
Gwydion gestures to the indicate the territory directly in front of them. “Ahead of us, beyond that clearing,” he says as the sandy ground of the clearing materializes beneath their feet, soon followed by the opening in the trees itself. “There’s a path that leads towards those rocks. When I leapt over them, she was standing there, injured.”
Alma says nothing for a moment but looks sideways at him as she begins to walk to the designated place. Under her breath, she mutters, “Must have made quite an impression...”
“I think she was a bit too concerned with the Oracle at the time for much in the way of first impressions,” Gwydion replies, ignoring the sarcasm in her voice, his sharp ear catching the goddess’ words despite being spoken in such a low voice. “I’m not certain who was more surprised.”
Her senses used to the dark of night, Alma inspects the clearing as they walk across it. It is just a small cove between the trees, no more than ten steps across in length. She doesn’t bother to stop at the sight of a place where ground has been disturbed, the imprint of a prone body still barely visible in the sand, surrounded by two separate pairs of footprints.
Someone must be walking around with sand in rather uncomfortable places, the goddess muses, her thoughts betraying her impassive façade. Such a wonderful gentleman, not even bothering to bring a blanket for your lady.
A small shiny item catches her eye.
“I would say your...date was impressed,” Alma states, pointing ahead and to her right, to the ground where the small hoop of metal lies reflecting the faint light of the moon, filtered through the trees. “So much so that she left an earring behind. I am sure she would be pleased to have it back,” she adds, as she walks past it, refusing to look at Gwydion as she does so.
Gwydion locates the earring and picks it up, depositing it safely in a pocket of his jacket in one smooth movement. “Thank you. I will make sure to return it.”
Resuming silence,they cross the clearing and reach the path, the vision of the waterfall opening before their eyes in all its silvery moonlit glory. Her eyes wide, Alma stops for a moment to look at it, taking in the awe-inspiring veil of water plunging into the riverbed, purring softly in impossible quietness as water hits water. For a silent moment, she envies each and every drop, craving their abandonment into a fate so much greater than them. Catching Gwydion standing by her side, looking sideways at her with a beguiling little smile at her look of wonder, she quickly switches her gaze from the waterfall to her notebook, trying to ignore the refreshing feeling of the fine mist that fills the air.
Follow the path down and find the ledge along the rock wall. Don’t let the water keep from you what it’s meant to hide from evil eyes.
“There is a ledge further ahead, half-hidden by the waterfall,” Alma informs, resuming march. “We need to climb up to it, according to Doria’s instructions.”
Gwydion follows her without saying a word, walking a couple of steps behind her as they walk down the path and along the rim of the waterfall in search of the ledge. They take awhile to find it, so well it lies hidden from the idle eyes of strangers. Shallow grooves on its surface seem to resemble a ladder, worn into the stone rather than carved. Many must have walked this path to see the Oracle since she came to inhabit this temple.
They climb and reach a wall of water that stops them from going any further. Extending a hand, Alma feels the water coming down full force, promising a rather unpleasant way through should they insist on crossing it.
I cannot tell you how to get in, Doria said. For everyone is a key, hidden in plain sight. Take the steps and go where it lies; listen and then you’ll know.
“So, are we to assume there’s a path beyond that?” Gwydion asks in mild impatience.
“No. We are to know that the path is there,” Alma replies, inspecting her surroundings. “All we need is the key.”
Gwydion tilts his head to look at her. “And did Doria give you the key?”
The goddess shakes her head slowly in response. “No. She just gave me a riddle.”
“Ah...” Gwydion nods, looking at the water himself. “That should help.”
Alma searches around for signs carved on the rock wall, looking for clues or hints anywhere and everywhere. She finds none.
Take the steps, take the steps, she thinks, walking toward the wall of water. I have climbed the steps, and they lead here. And here is the gateway Doria described. But how to make the waters part? There is nothing here that I can use.
She looks around once again and once again she finds nothing she can use and nowhere she can go.
No keys here. No tools, no levers, nothing hidden or visible – there is only us here. The goddess’ eyes widen in sudden realization. For everyone is a key... I was hearing it wrong. We are the key. Listen and then you’ll know...
She closes her eyes, trying to hear something, anything. The soft humming of the falling water fills her mind, echoing within it, playing in her thoughts like a wordless tune. And then, out of the strange melody, her own thoughts fill in the gaps where the words are supposed to go. She speaks, barely realizing she’s doing so.
“Voice of the waters whisper to me, show me a glimpse of things to be.”
The waters suddenly part to let them in and they find themselves staring down a long corridor carved in the stone. Walking into the passageway, they can see stalactites hanging from the ceiling, looking down at them in silent challenge. They make the prospect of being impaled look not just likely but also rather... impending. The passageway soon leads into a large hall, naturally carved by the movement of old, long-drained aquifers. Here, the pattern of stalactites gains new texture with stalagmites and full columns, running along the walls and ceiling, creating archways and alcoves here and there. The natural and serene architecture is disturbed only by the rough sounds of a struggle.
A high pitched, gravely voice echoes through the room, crying, “Where d’yah think ye’re goin’, pretty fishy? We’s just getting started!”
Somewhere in the distance, a scream pierces through the moist air of the grotto.
“That must have been the Oracle,” Alma concludes, her head shooting in the direction of the scream. “Doria said her pool was straight ahead.”
“I don’t suppose she mentioned any company?” Gwydion returns cooly, raising his eyebrow at the high magic charges in the grotto.
“Well, from the sound of it, the company wasn’t exactly invited.”
Alma starts walking, moving faster and faster in the direction of the scream, finally breaking into a run when a second scream fills the room. Her fellow sergeant follows close behind as they struggle to find a path that doesn’t force them to move ridiculously slowly between the columns, stalagmites and shallow pools. Eventually, they find an area where the columns are set wider apart, and Gwydion manages to catch up with Alma and even outpace her, his powerful legs allowing him a longer and faster run.
He soon reaches the edge of the pool, closely followed by Alma. In the water, a long tail with with long, translucent terminal fins appears for a moment and then crashes against the water, splashing water in a wide circle around it, making small waves that ripple through the dark surface of the pool. A moment later, two dark shapes loom briefly above water, diving immediately.
“So, this oracle...” Gwydion muses. “What does she look like, exactly?”
Suddenly, the water ripples and rises in a column, parting to reveal a slender, definitely female dark-skinned body, shimmering here and there as patches of iridescent scales catch the dim light of the grotto. Above it, perching on a graceful, long neck slitted like a shark’s, a delicate, pretty face, contorted and disfigured by lines of pain, peeks out of long, full locks of dark-blue and algae-green hair. Below the woman’s navel, the dark skin turns into blue and green fish scales, the legs replaced with a long tail, that becomes progressively visible as she leaps above the water, her forearms decorated with short fins, stretched along her torso as she dives once more.
“I would say she looks exactly like that,” Alma says after a moment, pointing at the quickly disappearing terminal fins.
Not a second later, the two shadows from before leave the water, leaping. Eels. Huge, dark, ugly demonic eels decorated with numerous sharp spikes leap in the air, crossing paths in their flight, and dive again, the telltale lightning of an electrical charge surging through their bodies.
“Now why do you keep movin’ away? We’s sweet souls!” one of the eels says with a snicker.
“Yeah, we loves tah hug!” the other one adds.
The electricity from their bodies spreads around them, running over the surface of the water, impossibly strong and vibrant. The Oracle soon re-emerges, her head thrown back, screaming in pain, her eyes closed, the shimmering designs that decorate her cheeks distorted by her suffering. As the electrical surge dissipates, she opens her eyes, looking ahead of her, gaze unfocused for a moment. The light of her white eyes eventually locks on the gods, lingering on Alma for an instant as if knowing why she’s here.
“Doria...” she whispers before diving again, her tail appearing and disappearing here and there, moving away from the edge of the pool.
The eels immediately follow, ignoring the young gods on dry land, heading to the left side of the pool in close pursuit.
“Oracle!” Alma cries out.
The Oracle’s voice sounds clear and bright, cool and deep, like calm sea in a summer dawn. “You can’t get to them here. Come. Follow!” she orders more than asks.
Focusing their attention on Alma and Gwydion for the first time, the eels laugh, mocking the gods.
“You wanna come play too? Lessee how fast ya can swim!” one of them cries in a mocking challenge.
“Yeah, we’ll race ya for the fishy!” the other says as both eels launch in pursuit of their prey.
Watching the eels follow the Oracle, the gods exchange a meaningful look and set off running in the same direction, moving along corridors, dodging various natural formations, keeping the Oracle and her persecutors to their right. Interestingly enough, even in their element, neither the Oracle nor the eels seem to be much faster than the two gods on land.
She is stalling them, Alma realizes. She knows these pools in and out. There is no way she would be slower than us, unless she meant to be. And that means...
“You wouldn’t happen to be carrying a harpoon, would you?” Gwydion’s words pull her away from her musings.
“If I did have one, I would be going for a much bigger fish,” the goddess snarls in response. “Isn’t there anything in your magic arsenal capable of defeating a simple demon?”
“You flatter me if you consider this a simple threat.”
The maze of rooms and corridors opens into a larger chamber, richly decorated with murals depicting strange scenes, some featuring the Oracle taking offerings, some showing her in prayer, surrounded by amazing creatures never before seen in the Insula. Here and there, extraordinary items lie in various natural and artificial alcoves. Alma looks ahead of her, at the pool that fills the center of the room, and then at a shallow area, where the pool meets the water channel that connects with and feeds it. Above that area, a high arched ledge serves as a bridge between both sides of the canal. As soon as she sees it, the young goddess understands what it is that the Oracle is trying to do.
“There!” she cries, pointing at the natural bridge. “That is where she wants us to go!”
Gwydion looks at the ledge, and then at the stalactites that hang from its lower surface, making it look like the open jaws of a hungry shark. He freezes in his tracks as a plan begins to form in his mind. “Hmmm... Maybe we don’t need to get that far.”
He waits until the Oracle reaches the bridge and moves past it, and then, with a fast but complicated movement of his right hand, he draws an ancient rune in the air and sends it against the ledge, casting a spell that hits the bridge with full force and causes it to shake briefly, just enough to break and detach the stalactites. These fall immediately, travelling to the bottom of the shallow pool at great speed, like needles dropping to the floor. One of the demonic eels gets caught by the small forest of stone collapsing on top of it, its head and terminal portion of the tail being all that is left hanging free, thrashing wildly in the water in a desperate attempt to release the rest of the body. The second eel, swimming not far behind, leaps out of the water, trying to convert its forward momentum into springing force. At the sight of the horrible creature, Gwydion produces a dagger from a hidden recess in his jacket and throws it at the demon, effectively pinning it against a rock in mid-leap.
Confident on the prospect of an easy kill, the god then jumps into the shallow waters, short regulation-Guardia sword in hand, and advances toward the first eel, ignoring a sudden mysterious feeling of lassitude. An expert, simple swing of the polished metal blade is all it takes for him to chop the demon’s head off, killing it instantly. As Gwydion looks down at the creature’s disgusting dark, greenish, bloody entrails spilling out of its decapitated body, however, the second breaks loose, tearing its own fin to release itself from Gwydion’s dagger. Swimming silently closer to the unsuspecting god, the eel suddenly produces a powerful electrical charge and sends it into the water, zapping Gwydion with mind-numbing force and throwing him down among the broken stalactites.
At the sight of the fallen god, Alma raises a hand and points at the eel approaching Gwydion for a second attack. Just as the eel jumps to attack him directly, aiming to stop his heart by discharging its current directly against his body, the goddess calls upon her power. The world around her darkens, enveloping her and her target in shadows. The eel hangs, as if frozen in time, its beady eyes wide with fear, looking sideways at Alma, foreseeing an unpleasant near future.
The goddess opens her hand, palm forward, and her hair begins to blow back, the lighter parts of her patrolling outfit wavering in a phantom breeze. The demon starts to glow, shrieking in pain and horror as its soul is forced to rise from deep within it. Alma slowly closes her hand and the creature shrieks in excruciation, its soul slowly ripped away, burning the body on its way out. Half-formed, like the souls of most demons, it can easily be torn away from its body, the weak links that bind matter to essence sundering under Alma’s influence, setting the eel on fire with the sheer power released in the process. Burnt to a crisp, the eel’s corpse hangs for a moment, finally collapsing in a rain of ashes and falling into the water when Alma opens her hand, absorbing the quickly dissipating fragment of a soul.
She shoots a meaningful glance at Gwydion, a graceful eyebrow raised in mild annoyance. “You might want to have them both knocked out before entering the pool with a sword in hand,” she comments.
“Well, sure, that’s one way,” the god says, getting up, muscles still twitchy, and feeling curiously exhausted. “Somewhat dramatic though.” He looks at the pocket of his jacket, torn when he fell, and sighs.
Alma smiles with her lips but not with her eyes. “A little drama can go a long way, when used correctly,” the goddess replies. “But I am sure you already knew that.”
Looking at the clearly exhausted Oracle, currently curling up against the edge of the pool, she adds “Can I at least trust you to look after her for awhile?”
“Why? Where are you going?” Gwydion inquires.
“I am going to take a look at the grotto and try to figure out who called our little friends to play.”