Most of the night has gone by, a night of painful revelations, of ill-spoken words and inconvenient rendez-vous... It has taken her a long, lonely walk through the ward to process the full meaning of May’s words, of her betrayal. And Sky’s… Alma shakes her head and looks down at the package in her hands, carrying the Copper Pot logo. It wasn’t Kyri’s fault she got sucked into the lie, after all…
Now, Alma faces the running waters of the Waterfall, looking at her own image reflected on each and every drop of water that passes her on its downward path. She breathes deep and repeats the sacred words.
“Voice of the waters whisper to me, show me a glimpse of things to be.”
The falling waters part to allow the goddess entrance to the Oracle’s grotto and she steps in, carrying her offerings. The silence that often reigns in this temple, broken only by the occasional drop falling into the deep pool where the Oracle lives, greets her in a friendly embrace, filling her with a welcome sense of peace. Walking among the great columns that support the grotto’s ceiling, sculpted over the years by the constant, never-ending dripping of the mineral-rich waters that seep through the grotto’s stony ceiling, she proceeds to the Oracle’s pool. She sees the tall altar meant for offerings along the way, wrapped in the perpetual twilight of the room, but ignores it as she walks to the edge of the pool. Somewhere in the darkness, a play of shadow and light confirms that the nagas are still keeping the Pearl constantly under their watch.
A short, low ledge protrudes into the pool, sitting just above the water, and it is here that Alma kneels and deposits the small cardboard box, carefully wrapped in waxed string, containing her offering. The goddess undoes the string and opens the box, setting down to wait for the lovely and alluring scent of Kyri’s delicious freshly-baked pastries to fill the air.
She doesn’t have to wait long before hearing the water rippling with the graceful movements of Nevieve’s tail. The Oracle surfaces just beyond the very edge of the ledge, smiling at the marvelous aroma of Alma’s offering and coming to rest, elbows resting on the dry stone, with her upper torso out of the water.
“Hello, child,” she says, her clear, melodious voice reminding Alma of a stream singing its way through a peaceful garden during a spring day. “I was expecting you.”
“I have heard these are your favorite,” Alma replies, gesturing toward the box with a slight wave of her hand.
“Yes. Kyri’s pastries make for a rather strange offering.” Nevieve takes in the delicious scent of the freshly-baked pastries with a contented smile. “But a delightful one, I’ll confess.” She takes one in her hand and pushes the box toward Alma. “Please, do join me.”
“I thought only the Oracle was supposed to take the offerings.”
“Well, once I accept them, they are mine to give away, no?” Nevieve asks with a kind smile. “And your offering is welcome. Now, please, join me. I imagine it has been a while since you’ve last eaten.”
“A while, yes,” Alma concedes, choosing a delicately decorated, apple-sauce-filled pastry. “Thank you.”
“So, tell me, child,” Nevieve asks in a conversational tone. “What question do you bring before the Oracle?”
Alma remains in silence for a long time, making the simple consumption of the delicious pastry look like something of a century-old religious ritual.
“Why aren’t you dwelling in the First Ring?” she finally inquires. “You were once an Archon, after all.”
Nevieve looks at her for a moment before replying. “Is that really the question that brings you here?”
Alma resumes silence again, thinking of how unwise it would be to lie to the Oracle. “No.”
Nevieve slowly nods her head in agreement, picking another pastry from the box and consuming it slowly. “I didn’t think so either,” she notes after a moment. “Well, child, I did dwell in the Inner Ring for a long time. I had power and I had glory, and an enormous temple full of servants,” she explains, her voice denoting no nostalgia or loss at the memory.
“Then why did you leave? Is that not all a god could aspire to?”
“Oh, child, is that all you think that matters?” The Oracle looks at Alma with an expression full of pity and melancholy. “A title and a nicely-located temple? Servants and things?” She sighs at Alma’s confusion. “Tell me, Alma, when you wake up each morning, is that what fills your mind?”
Alma considers her words for an instant, images of the Bunnies and of the Station staff popping into her mind in response to the Oracle’s question. An image of the Three Rats neighborhood hovers at the edge of sight as she slowly shakes her head. “I guess not. It just happens to follow me to sleep each night.”
Nevieve looks deep into the goddess’ eyes, her colorless gaze appearing to Alma like bottomless pools into which all her thoughts soon rush to dive. The rhythmic motions of the Oracle’s long, scaly tail gently emerging from and diving into the water turn into a soft lullaby in Alma’s ears, merging with the mesmerizing effects of that alluring gaze as she stares, unresisting, into Nevieve’s eyes. As they cross through her mind, headed straight into those endless pits, some of Alma’s thoughts, secret and forbidden thoughts, awake her from the Oracle’s hypnotic gaze, making her look away in nervous urgency.
Nevieve smiles simply as the young goddess struggles to keep her thoughts to herself. “Well, it didn’t fill mine either,” the Oracle states, finally breaking the silence. “I woke up each day to nothing more than that. I could go for years without seeing a single worshipper. I was powerful and yet... I was completely out of touch with the source of my power, the people. I was precious but useless. Worshiped, but not loved. So, one day I just left. Doria was the only one that followed me – all others were too accustomed to the luxurious First Ring life to give it up.” She shrugs. “I don't blame them. I don't miss them, either. Here, I can be worthy of the prayers I receive. Here, I can shape the future and not just watch it unfold.”
“I see. My clan has worked and fought so hard and for so long for a place in the First Ring... Father has always tried with such ardor to become an Archon. I just...” Alma says with a sigh. “I find it very difficult to bend my mind around your words.”
“Well, child, maybe you have been pursuing someone else's dream for so long that you've forgotten to find a dream for yourself.” Nevieve smiles kindly at the younger goddess. “Still, I refuse to believe that Lyria has brought a child into this world and forgotten to teach her how to dream.”
“You know my mother,” Alma states, not a hint of doubt in her voice.
Nevieve nods. “And your father, and your brothers, and every creature that has ever set foot on Urbis Caelestis.” She turns and gestures toward the pool. “Tell me, Alma, what is it that you want? What do you see in your future?”
Alma exhales deeply and hangs her head. “Nothing, Oracle. I see nothing in front of me and very little around me,” she confides. “All my life I have walked in the shadows and yet...” The goddess shakes her head. “I have never been so blind.”
“Ah, yes,” Nevieve nods slightly. “Finally I hear the question you have come to ask.” She lowers head until her lips hover just above the pool’s mirror-like watery surface and blows into the water, making it ripple for a moment. “Look into the waters of this pool. What do you see?”
“Nothing but ripples in the water, Oracle,” Alma replies obediently.
“Very good,” Nevieve notes. “The future is pretty much like these waters. You can't see much in it other than ripples and swirls when the winds of change are blowing over it. But wait for them to settle down...” The Oracle indicates the clear, now absolutely calm water with a wave of her hand. “And suddenly, the veils lift and what lies beneath them becomes clear again.”
“Why won't they settle down, then?”
“Why don't you?” Nevieve touches Alma’s forehead with a wet finger in soft admonishment. “For a long time, you have moved and changed and left your original path for another, less-travelled one. So often and so suddenly that I have not been able to see you, no matter where I look.” Her smile fades as she says, “You keep blowing on the water, child. Settle down to wait and let your fate come to you.”
“You're not the first person to tell me that,” Alma concedes as her lips twist in a sad smile.
“Then why don't you listen? And while you're at it, tell your friends to listen too. You all have a rather interesting destiny to settle into. One where all you know will be seen under a new light.”
Nevieve’s words hit Alma like an ice-cold wave, sending chills down her spine. The wheels of her thoughts begin to turn into the dark corners of her mind, as her fears rise to the surface.
“What is it that you have seen, Nevieve?” she asks, her voice denoting her nervousness. “Oracle, please. Are we in danger?”
Nevieve shakes her head slowly, her tail flipping idly in the water. “You have asked your question, Alma. And you have been given an answer. You only get one of those for each time you come here. But I will tell you this: You and your friends are very interesting creatures. Unfortunately, in this world ‘interesting’ often means ‘short-lived’.” She pushes the now empty box of pastries away from her. “All the more so if one such creature insists on standing alone against Fate.”
“Can I trust them to stand by me, Nevieve?”
“Well, you really don’t have an option now, do you?” The Oracle smiles, raising herself slightly out of the water and stretching out a hand to hold Alma’s chin in a gentle grasp. “Trust your friends to stand by you, child,” she says as she brings her face closer to Alma’s, her eyes never leaving those of the young goddess. “Trust them to stand by you or trust yourself to fall without them,” she advises as she lets go and submerges again, disappearing into the deep, dark waters of the pool.
Alma awaits in silence, trying to catch a glimpse of the Oracle among the peaceful waters of the pool. Yet the silence remains unbroken, and the stillness of the water betrays nothing of Nevieve’s presence. The goddess sighs and gets up. She walks back towards the entrance of the grotto, leaving perpetual twilight behind her and taking more questions than answers on her way out.