Ilias took a deep breath. It was one of the first things one did in stressful situations. You had to make sure you kept breathing. And not that his life was in danger or anything, but, it wasn’t exactly a common occurrence that the leader of the Seven attended, much less partook, in an Ascension ceremony. And here he had two of them standing before him! They were part of the very head of the Fold, and they came to see him.
Part of his paranoid mind told him that this meant he had done something either extremely right, or extremely wrong. And even though he didn’t have a reason to believe that it was the latter, that’s the one he couldn’t help but imagine to be true.
At least he wasn’t standing in front of them alone. On his left stood Dorom; imposing, calm and father like in his bearing. He had been Ilias’ main Mentor ever since he had been brought to the Fold. On his right stood Ambrose; confident, relaxed and his Guardian. It was common practice these days to have both a Mentor and a Guardian during your training through the ranks. The Mentor would act as a teacher, guide and instructor while the Guardian did most of the hands on training and practice. Ilias remembered various conversations about them being used as live fire training targets. A small smirk brought up the corner of his mouth a little.
Dorom must have either noticed or sensed the shift in his attention for the calloused and rough hand on his shoulder squeezed gently yet firmly. Just as his parent would do, it was a silent warning when their child teetered on the edge of behaving themselves. But Ilias was behaving, and once again almost immediately found the fear and worry that had been floating in the back of his mind.
He kneeled down in front of the woman who stood in the middle of the platform before him. Close behind her stood the two others of the Seven and along with them a few of the Mentors, Reliquists and Guardians assigned to this Priory.
“You’ve come quite a long way from your rather abrupt entrance into the Fold, Illias Saavas. Through years of patience, guidance, and perseverance you have reached a point that requires little in the way of schooling and more in the way of practice and application within the service of the Fold.” The woman spoke with such a dignified and yet, authoritative voice. But that was what was to be expected of the Head of the Seven, Rhea. Ever since he had met her, she remained a constant balance between noble queen and kind mother. Though Ilias assumed perhaps a more accurate description would be a kind step mother.
She looked as if she was about to smile at him, but he knew this wasn’t the time for such sentiments so he refrained from smiling at her first. This was after all a serious moment.
“And now Oracle Ilias, you stand on the verge of joining the Reliquist Cast.” She shook her head, “Something that some would have deemed a challenge considering your background.”
To that Ilias wanted to show some sort of expression so she would be aware how much he disliked her having brought that up. But once again, it wasn’t his place to question her. Even though it wasn’t as though everyone in the room didn’t already know who he was, or how he had come into the Fold. Much less the life he had lived before he had been scooped up as it were into his current situation. He had to remain impassive. He had to show he was in control of his emotions.
Again Dorom’s hand squeezed his shoulder, just for a moment. The pressure was the kind that was given in pride. Dorom was proud of him? His training under his mentor had been nothing less than a long grueling torture to sharpen every skill that Ilias possessed and some that he hadn’t realized had been in him all along. Yet even though the words had always been there, the “good jobs” the “well done,” it was the unspoken gesture he had just done that really sunk home. And it made Ilias’ chest fill with pride.
Rhea continued, “Your final test, as tradition dictates, is going to be done alone without the guidance of your Mentor, and without the hands of your Guardian to protect you.”
Now it was Astra, one of the others from the Seven that spoke, “And no doubt it will test every aspect of your being.” Of the Seven, CreedKeeper Astra appeared to be the youngest looking while in fact was one of its elder members. It was difficult to imagine that she had been serving in the Fold since before the Deluge, even though she had only been an Adepted at the time fighting off the Corrupted and keeping them from destroying the world completely. For a woman of nearly a couple of thousand years at least, she could still make his face flush. Even now he could feel the burn of his cheeks as if he were but a young smitten boy again.
“It might even be a test of that quick wit of yours.” She added, causing Ambrose who had been standing quietly behind him to snort a laugh.
Even Ilias had to try and contain the smile that was threatening to overtake his face. He would never hear the end of it if he cracked so quickly before even beginning his assignment. During several of their past missions it had been his “wit” that had nearly ruined the success of their efforts. And even though things had always turned out in their favor, it looked as though he would never be forgiven for those past mistakes in judgement.
Rhea raised an eyebrow, one of the closest expressions to amusement she had shown so far, “Indeed.” She said simply, “Although under normal circumstances your first mission would be without any direct oversight from your Mentors, this particular situation will require that they keep a measured amount of vigilance, albeit from a distance.”
Ilias felt both Dorom and Ambrose tense and straighten beside him, apparently this was as surprising for them as it was for him. Had they not been consulted about this beforehand? That was interesting.
The Seven were never ones to break from their traditions. Clinging to them under the pretense that it had kept them as well as the rest of the Fold from discovery, not to mention alive, through all the trails that had befallen the Human Race thus far. For them to have changed a tradition during an Ascension, trivial as it may seem, told Ilias that there was definitely something serious going on.
“This will not be some raw or untrained Gifted you are seeking.” Astra continued, “In fact, since we became aware of her surfacing from wherever she had hidden herself away, it appears as though she may be one of the few remaining demi-gods from the 1st era that went missing.”
Ilias wasn’t sure if it was just his overactive imagination playing tricks on him or the air in the room suddenly felt charged enough to make his skin crawl.
Again, traditionally it was only fully trained Reliquists that were ever sent to deal with those that were even remotely suspected to have the power level of a demi-god. Even with a regular person who had begun to learn of their gifts and explore their Connection, while at times powerful, were still untrained in controlling their abilities and could be manageable. Usually anyway. Demi-Gods were a whole other matter.
The First Era after the Deluge that had nearly ended mankind saw a sudden uprising of Gifted before the Fold could be fully reorganized. It had been unclear whether they had roots with the Corrupted that had caused the Deluge in the first place. But from the several cultures that had sprung up around the globe sprung these powerful individuals that fancied themselves Gods of sorts and gained a measured yet deep control of their powers. They had nearly brought a struggling mankind under their rule; when they weren’t at war with one another.
Most humans now knew only of the stories and legends of the old Gods. But over the passing of time a good deal of these Demi-Gods had killed each other off while others had been recruited into the ranks of the Fold, and a few were Tempered. Severed from their Connection and unable to cause harm to themselves or others, they were allowed to live out their lives amongst the rest of the world. Still, there were those that had simply vanished, never to resurface. At least until now.
As far as Ilias knew, the few times Demi-Gods had come out of hiding since then, it had rarely been because they were seeking the Fold of their own will. And when they were confronted, any fight would end with either a Tempering, or the destruction of the Demi-God along with everyone and everything around them. Neither of those outcomes seemed positive in Ilias’ eyes. Yet this was going to be the Ascension Trial they had chosen for him? Did they really expect him to bring a Demi-God into the Fold?
The Creedkeepers had lost their minds.
“Since this mission is of such a higher caliber, both Dorom and Ambrose will be held in suspension to aid you at a moment’s notice.” Astra said, “They will be given all of the information on your target that we have been able to gather so far and will relay it you as it becomes relevant.”
Rhea nodded toward him and Ilias rose to his feet, “This will still be your Ascension Trial, Oracle Ilias. You will be monitored and graded on your actions as set by the standards already in place. This task however has reached a top priority amongst the Seven, and it requires immediate action. Our own Reliquist seem to be growing thin of late and we feel you are qualified enough for this assignment. You have proven your ability to adapt and learn quickly from unexpected situations. I am confident that this will be a key to the success of your Ascension.”
She hesitated, choosing her words carefully, “Treat this seriously Ilias, and I say this not because I think you incapable of it. But I fear the times are shifting again at a dawn of a new Era, and we have all seen the strings being pulled in the lives of men that have not been before. A change is upon us, something, important. We dare not miss it. Be careful out there and do not give in to Fear.”
The two Keepers bowed slightly towards them, ending the meeting and began filing out of the room along with their attendants and few other Reliquist Mentors and Guardians that had been present. All except for Astra.
“You could have prepared us somewhat for all of that, my lady.” Dorom said stiffly and yet without losing any of the respect and formality in his voice. Yet Ilias knew that tone all too well. Dorom hated being surprised, especially when it came to matters that came down from those in authority. “Do not misunderstand me either, I stand by my stance that he is ready for the Ascension. It just would seem to me that a Demi-God, or even the possibility of it being a Demi-God is a little more extreme than should be allowed for a first mission.”
“I believe the term they use, Sink or Swim, would apply.” Astra said coolly, “In all seriousness however, it was not a matter of being extreme or not. This is simply a case that needed to be dealt with as soon as possible, and there is no opportunity like the present. Ilias, as it turns out, is present. It will be a good and proper challenge for one who has so far surpassed our expectations in advancement in the time he has been here in the Fold. Besides, you of all people know how far stretched the Fold has become on this dawning of a new Era. Man’s fear is at the greatest it ever has been. Every little gust of wind that moves a branch or twig is met with axe and torch.”
Ambrose poked at Ilias side with an elbow as he bowed at Astra, “You know we are honored to help out however we can Keeper Astra, even if that means our trails today are a little more challenging than they might usually be.”
Ilias had only been half listening to their conversation. It was true he had felt honored that the Seven had decided he would be able to help them with this task. They had faith in him, otherwise they would not have given him this assignment. Yet the idea of what might lay ahead was still foremost on his mind. At least he wouldn’t be alone in it all, not completely anyway.
“Is there anything you can tell us now about who we are going to be meeting?” Ilias asked to which Astra shook her head and sighed.
“I’m afraid there isn’t much more information than what you will find on this.” She said and handed Dorom a qyuikstone. “What we know is that she is old, and was once very powerful. It’s doubtful she will put up much of a fight since it was never truly her way. Still, remain cautious. If she had wanted to join us she would have long ago. The knowledge she possess would make her a powerful asset to the Fold during the next Era.”
Astra placed a hand on Ilias’ cheek tenderly, like his elder sister used to do. “She has to know what is going on in the world already Ilias, she will know we mean her no ill will. Make sure you talk to her as much as you can to assure her of that. Talk before action. We trust you to do what is right. Do not give into Fear.”
She smiled at him briefly before turning and leaving the room.
Now that they were the only ones left in the room, Ilias felt as if the full weight of what he was
about to do had finally been allowed to be settled onto this shoulders. He felt sick.
“Is there anything you feel you will need before we begin?” Ambrose asked and Ilias shook his head. There was nothing he could think of that would prepare him anymore for this situation. Facing a Demi-God was never a certain thing, unless you counted that it was for certain going to be uncertain.
Dorom had remained quiet and pensive as he had watched Astra leave the room up until now. Ilias knew his Mentor would be deep in thought, perhaps even a little fatherly worry about what they were soon going to be up against. Well, to be precise, what he was going to be up against.
“I suppose then you are as ready as you are going to be this time.” Dorom said, grasping the qyuikstone in one hand while sliding the other across its flat and green speckled surface. The small flecks of green inside the stone began to swirl and move like leaves in a pond, causing the light they suddenly gave to shine in well-defined shapes and letters in the air above their surface. Ilias saw directions, coordinates, even images of what looked to be a ruined temple. All with lettering that he couldn’t exactly understand.
If there was one area he felt he needed to concentrate more on his studies was the ancient language of their ancestors before the Deluge, the Drae. Up until this point he hadn’t been required to learn the reading of the language as beginning stages of training in the Fold were focused solely on learning to control the powers each individual was gifted with. Now that he was on the very edge of becoming a Reliquist himself, he would be able to delve more into the true history of the world. But it would have to wait until he returned from his trial, if he survived it.
The three of them grasped each other’s forearms and formed a circle while Ilias closed his eyes as the feelings of the Transference began. Even though he had already begun learning how to move and shift an object through material space, the act of a Transference of more than a single person to the same destination without making a mess of putting each person separately back together again was tricky. The feeling of being plunged completely into icy cold water, unable to feel any freedom of movement, followed by the subtle pain of holding ones breath and a sharp twist in his chest as his heart was forced to skip a beat all made Ilias hate the times he had to go through them.
He knew the science behind it but it didn’t change the fact that he didn’t like them, especially when there was no way of preparing for the change in climate from one location to the other. In this case from the darkened, cool halls of the Priory to, in this case, a rather nauseatingly hot and humid Jungle. Instantly he could feel the perspiration start to bead on his skin.
Finally opening his eyes, Ilias found himself standing by a river that quietly rolled passed in front of him, the far river bank rising up in darkened and worn cliff faces capped with more lush greens far above the tree line behind him. Turning to study his surroundings, he found the jungle was thankfully not as thick here on his side of the bank as it seemed on the other side. Hopefully they had brought him to the right coordinates.
As if sensing his thoughts he felt the familiar buzz in his head preceding the disembodied voice of Dorom, “From the information that Astra has given us, the area we sent you to seems to have a high amount of alteration done to it. It is either used in Transference frequently or they’ve made some sort of alterations to make a path possible.”
Looking around at his side of the river bank Ilias nodded, “The shore here has been smoothed and hardened to almost stone, but I don’t see any recent marks of boats that were pulled ashore. The jungle here is a little less dense than the rest I can see.”
Ilias knew that they were no doubt seeing the exact same things he was, only from their positions in the sky above him. The Fold would use the suspension bubbles to keep members safe from sight during surveillance missions and he assumed mission such as these. Altering the air around them kept them invisible from below while allowing them to see everything below them, almost literally making them his guardian angels in this case.
“Where do I go from here? I’m assuming deeper into the Jungle.” He asked.
Ambrose’s voice came through this time, “She should be located in a temple not far from where you are now, but yes, it is through the line of trees before you.”
Ilias felt for the daggers at his side, along with the bars of metals and flasks of liquids that lined his belt. With any luck he wouldn’t need any of these things but it still gave him some comfort in knowing he wasn’t going to be going in empty handed. He was prepared and he could do what needed to be done.
“What can you tell me about this Demi-Goddess? Everyone keeps calling her a she, so I’m assuming you know who she is.”
Dorom’s voice buzzed in his head, “If what information as passed to us is correct, she is not only a Demi back from hiding, but during her time she had been a very busy one. She has managed to influence several cultural mythologies across the planet. The Phrygians called her Cybele, a Goddess of Earth and Animals, although she has gone by other names as well: Kishar, Arayani, Aisnthmah and Gaia among others. There’s close to no civilization that had not had dealings of some sort with a Mother Goddess entity of the Earth.”
“Violence has not been shown to be in her nature,” Ambrose added, “yet, when she has had the need to, this woman is extremely powerful and changing and manipulating matter. There are stories of her bringing forests to life, commanding animals and even moving mountains. Though I don’t think she has done that last one anytime recently.”
Ilias smirked; leave it to Ambrose to bring a little humor into the situation first. And here they would always try and blame him for his wit.
Ilias could see the evidence of the path as he walked further into the jungle, a single file line of hardened and trampled earth that weaved its way through the thick trees and dense undergrowth. It would have seemed a rather ordinary path were it not for the rather unordinary way that it formed what looked like a tunnel of trees and jungle vegetation.
“Well there is definitely evidence of a path through here.” He said, his senses going into high alert. “everything around the path seems to have been altered into a tunnel. But nothing seems broken or forced. It looks like she may have…grown? …everything or shaped it at least. Which reminds me, where is here exactly anyway?”
“You are in the southeastern region of Asia, Mynmarr.” Ambrose responded, “The locals here know little to nothing of here presence here from what reports we have received. Over the last few months the Fold has noticed an increase in the number of villages who have given way to fear of a ‘wrathful diety’ who comes and selects ‘chosen’ from them, usually younger ones, and are told that they are being taken to serve in her celestial palace.’
“So is she collecting Gifted for some reason?” Ilias asked as he finally reached the edge of the path as it opened up into a clearing. It was not all that large of a clearing. In fact the canopy of trees and branches did a thorough job of nearly enclosing it completely like a dome. And there in center, was a group of stone buildings Ilias assumed to be the Temple he was in search of. A dense fog seemed to surround the buildings under the shade of the trees around them. To Ilias they were awkwardly shaped, as if someone had melted stone and had let the pieces fall and harden as they fell creating an almost water drop look to them. If anything they were definitely old, the trees and vines had done a great job of covering most of the decaying buildings, that or they had been coxed to do so.
“If she was, that would go against what we know of her persona from the reports we had of her,” Ambrose answered, “This Gaia is not known for having even caring for the company of proteges. As with most of the other Demi-Gods of her time, she was content with devotees and worshipers, even the occasional group of priests or priestess. The only other mentions of her ever having companions or attendants were when she was accompanied by animals of some variety or another.”
Ilias crouched down by the edge of the clearly, trying to remain safely out of sight. “No Dragons right?” he asked.
His mind replayed a particularly challenging Gifted with a knack for altering animals into other forms. He had learned a valuable lesson that day that even the most clichéd of stories sometimes had a basis in truth, even if it was a very remote truth.
“No,” Dorom said, obviously amused as he recalled the same incident. “As far back as her earliest references she has never used dragons or any other Altered beast, at least as far as we have on record.”
“Not to say that she may have picked up a few tricks along the centuries.” Ilias muttered to himself as he placed a bare palm down on the ground.
Reaching into his mind, he sought his connection with the world around him. Those with Gifts were usually connected to one of two things that made up this Universe; Matter or Energy. There were some even that had deep connections into both fields and they were usually the strongest of the Reliquist cast. Ilias now with his mind’s eye tapped into his connection with Matter, and reached out, albeit gently through the ground and air that separated him from the Temple beyond. He searched for anything, traps or alterations, which had been set to keep out unwanted guests.
Ilias knew that even the most moderately Gifted would learn how to set wards of sorts to keep themselves safe. And those most times they were not made to inflict harm as much as they were to warn and keep them from being caught off guard. Even some of those alarms could be set off with too strong of a sensory sweep.
This was a Demi-God he was dealing with after all. Surely she would have at the very least been able to detect his being Transference into the clearing so close to where she lived.
He continued to stretch out his senses, carefully. Further and further he traveled inside his mind’s eye, across the clearing, being as gentle as he could about it. And yet he felt nothing out of the…
“There we go.” He smiled.
Only a few yards from where the line of ruined buildings and crumbled walls started he had felt it. Nothing. As if the world from that point on simply vanished and nothing else existed. There before him lay ancient ruins that he could very plainly see. But with his senses, there was nothing. No ground. No air. Nothing.
“There’s a sensory fringe in place around the Temple grounds.” Ilias said, finally standing from his hidden spot. “Crossing the clearing by foot would leave me exposed and in plain sight, any sort of pressing on that fringe would no doubt raise every alarm she might have in place.”
He started making his way along the edge of the clearing, trying his best to stay deep enough in the over grown brush so he would not be easily spotted by anyone who might be watching the tree line. He doubted circling around would provide any sort of easier entrance. There was no other way to be certain however, even if it meant he would have to walk further in this oppressive heat.
“Maybe by going around I can find a way to get closer or at least get more of an idea on how I might try and get over there.”
Ilias stopped the moment he heard the sound, his feet suddenly freezing to the ground as his heart picked up a quickened pace.
“What did you hear?” Dorom asked, his voice as on high alert as he himself felt. Even though their link enable them to talk to one another in their minds, they could sense nothing else but the voice.
“I could have sworn I heard something…” Ilias hesitated as he strained his ears again, trying to pick out the distinct noise he had heard amongst what he assumed was the regular noises of the Jungle. He wanted to move, but he used only his eyes, darting around everything he could see in front of him. Nothing looked out of place. “…it was almost like bells, small little bells.”
Ilias felt the air vibrate around him as he was suddenly tossed straight up into the air by a solid force of air. His immediate reaction was to panic as he felt certain that a painful death awaited him the moment he was slammed back into the ground. This was not the first time he had been thrown however, and he was dammed if it was going to be his last.
Already gravity was bringing him back down. Ilias spun his body to face the ground that was now rushing up to meet him. He was one of the lucky ones to have inherited both traits of Gifts, not only could he reach out to the Matter of the world around him, he could also manipulate its Energy.
Using the same technique that had been used to send him up towards the canopy, he absorbed the energy of his fall and sent the waves of it out with his hands, slowing his fall enough to land on his feet.
The air vibrated and shimmered next to him as Ambrose suddenly descended from the canopy above as he had phased himself out of hiding.
No sooner had his feet touched the ground when Ilias felt the surge of energy lash out directly between them a mere moment before solid air struck them both. If this was the work of Gaia or whatever she called herself now, she was extremely quick in her attacks with such little delay between thought and Connection that Ilias could not read her moves much less counter them before it was too late. Ambrose was launched clear back and out of sight just as he was flung in the opposite direction into a tree.
Slumping to the ground limply, he heard the bells clearly this time as a woman’s feet stepped into his line of sight, her ankles encircled with charms and small bells.
Somewhere off in the distance he could hear Dorom shouting his name as he slipped into darkness and his body felt doused in cold icy water.
When Ilias came to he didn’t feel the dull throb in his head until he tried to reach out to his mentors. The fog that clouded his mind seemed to keep him from concentrating nearly as much as the bindings around his wrists kept his arms strapped to the pole pressing against his back. On the bright side he was sitting on the ground and not hanging painfully from it.
Tentatively, he tried to make a connection with his Gifts, but was met with a dull throb in his mind as if he were slamming a fist around an empty bucket; only the bucket was his head.
For a moment his mind panicked but he knew he hadn’t been Tempered. At least from the descriptions of what it was like he knew he still had his Connection, it was just that they were being blocked somehow. In fact, even some of his memories seemed out of place for some reason. The harder he tried to focus on thoughts, the more elusive they would become. It was enough to be maddening if he hadn’t forced himself to take a deep breath and calm his mind.
If his Connection was going to be blocked or capped somehow, then he was just going to have to rely on his regular senses.
Finally allowing himself to actually look around at his surroundings he tried to focus on details but only could see that the room he was in was extremely murky, and this wasn’t because of the fog he felt in his head. The dim lighting came from the flickering lanterns around him on the walls and pillars. They did little however to show him anything other than he was tucked away into an alcove of a room that looked to be part of a larger hall filled with rows of pillars. Judging by the cool nature of the air, Ilias assumed he was probably a couple of level below ground since there wasn’t the slightest trace of the Jungle’s oppressive heat. If he was even in the same country that he had been before, his faint memory of feeling the icy cold water before he had blacked out told him he had been Transferred elsewhere.
Looking at the walls in more detail, he changed his mind. They carried the same designs and patterns he had seen on the outside of some of the ruins. And if he was interpreting some of the images he was seeing correctly, they had definitely been once used to worship a deity of some sort. None of what he assumed were words written on the walls around him looked familiar to him though. He wasn’t even sure what he was looking at anyway. Nothing seemed familiar.
Ilias shook his head. The fog was getting stronger in his mind. Taking a deep breath he tried to focus his senses, tried to clear some of the fog away before he sent himself into a panic attack.
“So, the ever watchful Fold has finally decided to make a move have they?”
The voice came clearly out of the darkness, just out of the lanterns reach, and had no distinct source for him to focus on. It sounded like a young girl, whoever she was, and had a very distinct accent that seemed all too oddly familiar to him. But that could still be the effects of the fog. His mind tried to gather what it could to prepare himself for whatever she might try and do or say next. Yet part of him couldn’t help but wonder…this was the voice of a Demi-God? It sounded so, ordinary by comparison to what he had been imagining. Of course, he had also imagined that if she were to ever gain the upper hand on him during this mission that he would have been dead by now.
“Was it Rhea who sent you on this little fool’s errand you are on young one? Or perhaps it was eager little Astra. They are both still in power in the Fold are they not?”
Ilias managed to slide one of fingers against the bindings and felt that they were… vines? They were thick vines at that, still connected tightly into the ground behind him. This really was a Goddess of Nature then.
He tried to separate his thoughts from focusing on his actions and found that he could not do that as well as he was able to before. Undoubtedly this Gaia person was clouding his mind as well as keeping him bound. With that kind of power he doubted she wouldn’t be able to read his mind as well. Ilias was determined to try though, there was no way he was going to let her end him while he was trussed up to this pole like some sacrificial virgin.
Again he stopped and tried to concentrate. He knew she was definitely fast since she had been able to attack and separate him and Ambrose before either of them even had a moment to figure out what was happening. Not only that but had also managed to take him captive and hide him away before either Dorom or Ambrose could intervene. At least they hadn’t been able to as far as he could remember, they were not bound anywhere close by that he could see. The idea that maybe they were dead passed through his mind just as quickly as he dismissed it. Had her intent been to kill them he was almost certain she would have done so already. It wasn’t as though she would have anything to gain from waiting till he woke to end his life.
It was only then that it dawned on him she had used both Astra and Rhea’s names. She knew of the Seven Keepers? While at first the thought seemed strange that anyone outside of the Fold would know of their existence, there was still a certain amount of logic to it. After all, those within the Seven had been there for many hundreds of years by this point. Certainly someone like this Goddess had to have had her fair share of run-ins with the Fold over the years, especially during the formative years. The Seven had been there to spearhead most of the campaigns to keep the old Demi-Gods from destroying humanity during their ruling days.
Or perhaps she had merely obtained the information from his mind while he had been unconscious. In which case there was no telling what further knowledge she had gained from him.
“Perhaps it was one of your younger Godlings then? I suppose, in the end, who it was that sent you after me doesn’t matter. You are here to try and recruit me into your Fold, true?”
Ilias heard what sounded like crumbling stone, or at least the sound of stone sliding and moving against stone. Light began to streak through the dust of what he saw was indeed a large open hall of a room. He could see now that not all the pillars were touching the ceiling as he had thought before, but he had been right about being so far below ground. From where he sat he couldn’t see the open air, but he could start to feel the warm and wet air mixing with the cool air that had surrounded him before.
At the far side of the room directly across from him he saw a stone stairway that curved up to the floor above and from what he could see continued on up to the floor above that. And there, coming down the stairs, he saw her.
Ilias felt his breath catch, as she was definitely not dressed how he had expected her to be, which considering all that had happened up until this point, he figured he should probably stop imagining how things should be. The woman coming down the steps slowly had her body covered by little more than rags and what looked like worn and weathered vegetation. Her face hidden under a dark woolen cloak, he could not truly make out anything below her lips. He knew from what he could see that she was no ancient looking Goddess of Nature. With cautious and careful steps she continued to approach, her body swayed slowly yet tensely as those she expected him to leap at her at any moment.
“If you know why I have been sent here, then I am sure you have already made your decision haven’t you.” He said, trying to keep his voice steady and in command as he had observed Dorom do countless times before. “You know what the Fold has to offer you, and no doubt what someone of your wisdom can offer the Fold as well. There is still a great many who need teaching, and having a Demi-God like yourself among us would be…”
As she walked closer, he could see more of her face, and the fact that she was smiling at him while tilting her head, “And who am I exactly?” she interrupted him, “How strange I find it that despite the obvious, predicament, you find yourself in you would chose to try and lecture me as though you were in a position of advantage. You speak as though you know who I am, who I truly am. Yet I don’t think you have the slightest idea who you are actually dealing with.”
Ilias could see her clearer now. She was definitely tall for the sound of her age. And were in not for her simple clothing he might have assumed her lived in a life of luxury at some point. The closer she came however the more he could see that though her body was fit and toned, she also showed some scars here and there. Things she no doubt could have healed but had chosen not to. Perhaps she was in fact more of a danger than they had been lead to believe.
Perhaps it was in his best interest to not try and get into a fight with her.
Reaching the bottom of the stairs, the woman before him pulled her hood back and Ilias saw her truly for the first time.
The voice had not lied. For nearing what he could only imagine was over a thousand years old or more, she looked no older then he was. Ilias knew that one of the effects of a person’s Connection was that the cells of the body stopped again and deteriorating. The point where a Gifted stopped aging usually depended at which age they began to truly gain a mastery over their talents. For some it came later in life and for others they seemed to forever be in or just past adolescence.
He saw before him a woman whose features while in part were young and kind also spoke of a great maturity and presence that nearly commanded respect. Her darkened hair was pulled simply and elegantly back, held in place by a woven crown that seemed to tie in parts to her dark hair.
“My true name, is Urvi.” She said while studying him intently, “At least that was the name my parents gave me. Since then there have been many names for me, as I’m sure your Masters have informed you.”
Ilias nodded, and while trying to shift his body to sit better, struggled at the bonds tying his wrists together.
“You know why I’ve come Urvi.” He said calmly, “Why have you started gathering Gifted? You are a very intelligent person to have stayed hidden from the Fold for so long. Surely you had to have realized that actions like that would bring you into the light. The Fold would see and send someone to investigate. If you really wanted to stay in hiding, why change your life? Starting a following and risking a war on the Fold in this day and age would upset more than just the balance of world. Too much is at stake for our future to risk losing it all now.”
Urvi crouched down to look at him in the eyes, her gaze on him seemed to measure not only everything on his face but also study intently all that was working in his mind. “Is that the message they are preaching these days? That those who are outside the Fold are the greatest threat to our people?”
Ilias tried focus his thoughts again to come up with a reply, but instead the fog only filled his thoughts. Why had she not acted? She was probing him for answers he felt, but she had not really asked any questions. Instead he felt he was given her what she was curious for without even knowing it.
She had not threatened him, nor even attempted to torture him by any means so far. Yet according to the stories and legends he had heard in the Fold of the Demi-Gods, their craving for power and dark ambitions mirrored those of the Corrupted from before the Deluge. Most had gone mad with their power and were ready to kill without mercy any and all who angered or stood between them and their goals. Maybe it was her affinity to life and nature that had kept him alive so far.
“What a twisted form of history they must teach you.” She mused to herself, her tone bordering on that of the sarcastic. “What else do they say? That we are creatures to be contained no doubt, that without the guidelines of the Fold we shouldn’t be allowed to be free or else we go mad while trying to rule humanity with our Gifts.” She shook her head with a laugh and turned her back to him, walking back towards the stairs from where she had come.
“For all I feel that they’ve told you,” she called back to him, “…there is twice as much they have not.”
Ilias moved fast. The edges of his cuffs had been rubbing against the bonds since he had discovered they were nothing but vines. And now free of his bounds he rolled away out of Urvi’s direct line of sight and into a patch of darkness against a collapsed section of the wall. His mind raced as he tried to clear it enough to prepare to evade her attack. But none came. He had tried so hard to not focus on his actions while working on his escape that he had failed to come up with a plan of action now that he was free.
“This is my home young Oracle, there is no place in it you could hide that I would not be able to find. And as I’m sure you have guessed to this point I have no intention of chasing after you.”
Even with his connection muddled as it was he could sense her altering something, almost feel the stream of Matter around him shift. The crumbling sound of rock around him was the only sound that echoed in the room as the wall that had been directly in front of his hiding spot suddenly collapsed onto the spot where he been but a mere moment ago. As picked himself up from where he had rolled away Ilias tried to reach out again for the Connection within his mind, and this time, he felt something.
“You seem a little rusty,” he called out to her, “Maybe I could help you work on some of your skills.”
He knew as he spoke that he would more than likely have to put this under the ‘not the best idea’ trying to instigate a Demi-God into a fight of talent. No doubt she would probably have been able to crush him had she truly wanted to do it a moment ago. Yet she hadn’t. So now his actions were a gamble, one which didn’t leave for many options.
“Is that going to be your play at this?” She asked, her voice once again coming disembodied as it echoed around the room. “You do realize this is going to be a game you are not going to be able to win. Not only are you very much out of your league, little one. But I have the upper hand of being in familiar surroundings.”
Earthen arms sprung from the wall at his back and nearly succeeded in wrapping around his neck before he ducked down and shoved himself away from them.
Reaching back behind himself he felt for the daggers that had been strapped to his armor and was not at all surprised to find they were gone, as well as the bars of metals and flasks he had carried in his belt.
“I’m surprised they haven’t changed much in the way they arm their minions and their armor over the last few hundred years.”
Ilias swung an arm around behind him at the source of the words that had been breathed against his neck. But he missed and spun through the air instead. He knew for certain, she was toying with him. That was why she hadn’t killed him outright, it had to be. She was testing him.
The sound stone sliding against stone echoed through the hall once again and the light that been pouring in from above started to disappear as she was sealing the room.
“I really don’t care to play these games with you anymore Oracle, I hope whatever Gods you worshiped in your life grant you peace before you die. At least you have a tomb built for a queen.”
This time her words came from a point.
Closing his eyes Ilias took a deep breath, and in that same breath, hurdled with all his might at the fog that had been clouding his mind. Driving the brightest most searing light he could imagine in the direction of her voice and mind. In that instant, from atop the staircase he heard Urvi let out a sharp gasp of pain and his Connection flooded back to him.
Clawing his fingers, Ilias swung his right arm around and gathered the burning flames from the lanterns and torches closest to him. Using the momentum of his motion he spun his body away from behind the pillar he had been standing behind.
The flow of Energy in his mind surged strongly as he consumed the flames he had brought to his hands, the burning power and light streaming through the veins below his skin and into his core.
Extending both hands he reached out into darkness and launched the energy he had into a Grapple and upon feeling it connect, brought both arms in, bringing Urvi tumbling down the stairs.
Ilias’ smile of momentary victory vanished though as he heard the tumbling was not that of a woman but of crumbling stone. He had been so into the action and the moment that he had used his energy and failed to make sure of what he’d had. And he had missed. With the fire of the torches and lanterns now dead, there was no energy left for him to drain into another attacked.
As if to punctuate his thought, the ceiling above sealed with a final rumble of stone locking into place, adding a sound of finality as the room was completely plunged into a greater darkness now that half the lights were dead. Cloaked as he was in darkness he dared not move.
“That was a quick and daring attempt, Ilias.” Her voice echoed, once again in its disembodied form. “And I give you credit for breaking out of the fog I placed in your mind. But you are used to Gifted with little to no practice at misdirection. Ones that have not had the need to learn to survive on their own for lifetimes, lifetimes without Gifts like mine.”
The attack came from the very air, as if a single focused solid gust of wind had punched into his stomach. And it caused Ilias to double over in pain as he fell to his knees.
“The Fold does not realize that all those years spent hiding away those with true potential comes at a price. For all the training done behind those Priory walls, it does little to prepare you for the harsh realities that abound in a world without any kind of rules or mercy.”
Breath. Gather. Expand.
Ilias reached out to the torches that remained and flung the flames to the ones he had extinguished. They flickered and began to slowly burn back to life just as another blow landed to this side of his head, as if some giant invisible fist struck him and sent him flying sideways.
As he landed he clawed at two of the closest torches and gathered their light and energy and sent them flying to two coal laden bowls at the foot of the stairs he had noticed when the room was lit from above. Even still, as he searched about the room from the floor where he lay, he could not see her.
One hand cradling the side of his head he started to stand as yet another blow landed, lifting him up into the air before slinging him flat against the nearest wall. Now held in place by her seemingly endless store of energy, he found he was pinned completely from head to toe, unable to move.
This time when she spoke, Ilias could hear the rising anger in her voice as this time it rang clearly in his ears. “The time has come for Fear to shake the Stars and what is left of our so called Humanity. He is here, Ilias. And his Coven of Fear shall rule with him.”
He could feel the bones in his arms and legs start to strain from the pressure of energy that she was flattening him with, it was increasing in strength.
“No amount of training will be enough to prepare you, or anyone within the current domain of the Fold for what he is capable of.”
Ilias could hear now in her voice that what he had thought to be anger had in fact turned to an almost sheer panic. This powerful and ancient being feared someone? And it was not the a reverential kind of fear, but a truly deep seated fear to the point of near madness.
And within that moment he felt it.
Though his body had almost reached a breaking point, he could feel the flow of Energy in the force she was using to crush him. He could sense it as it altered and twisted the air in front of him. Ilias could see the tether of energy that was charging and pushing him against the wall as it snaked out for several yards away, writing like a serpent of fiery light. And there at the end of that flaming light, a bright point now in the room, stood Urvi, radiant like a sun with pure energy.
The pressure on his chest increased, restricting it from expanding and letting him take another breath. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that if he were to simply give in to the crushing force, if he didn’t try with all his might to fight against it, his ribs would simply cave inwards and impale his heart with the very bones that had protected it.
Was this what fear truly felt like?
He had gone so long without feeling as though he were on the very border of mortality, that it almost seemed like a new feeling now, an almost nearness to death.
“Better I save you now from the fate you would endure under his hand” she said, her voice having lost the panic and now resigning to sadness.
The searing pain that followed after the first crack in his ribs was all it seemed to take as Ilias’ body and mind reached out almost out of instinct.
He reached out into the flow of energy and let his mind open to it, letting it into his very center and it rushed to fill him.
A part of him screamed in warning that what he was doing was wrong somehow, that he was not going to be able to control what happened next. It was a core discipline, the dangers of opening your mind to the flow coming from someone else. The differences in ability, not to mention the force of will behind it, could be so small and yet so monumental that a wrong move could very well shatter the body in every sense of the word. Absorbing energy always had its dangers, from any source.
Ilias knew this was in no way a controlled situation and still he pulled at the energy flow, trying to absorb what he could in order to lessen the crushing weight that had him at the brink of death.
And only slightly could he tell there was a change in pressure.
Already he felt that his body couldn’t take any more of either, the pressure or the power he was consuming. The weight that was crushing him was more than he had ever imagined he could possibly feel, and yet the energy now flowing into every part of his body was more then he knew he had ever contained at any given point during his training. But only because this energy was different than anything he had ever felt before. It was raw and pure.
And then a barrier in his mind he had never known to be there buckled and broke like a strained dam.
For the first time in what felt like ages Ilias took a ragged, if somewhat pain filled breath. Now with his mental barrier broken, he couldn’t stop the Energy from pouring in. The more that poured in the more he could feel the pressure lift, even though his body felt near to bursting in a whole other sense.
Ilias tried to stop himself, to sever the connection or somehow slow the flood of the purest Energy he had ever experienced in his life. He could feel it flowing and coursing through every inch of his body, and no matter how much he tried to stop it, it never even came close to slowing.
“STOP!!” he heard Urvi shout at him, “Enough!”
Ilias could only just barely hear her voice over the roaring rush resounding in his ears. By this point the crushing force had all but gone and in its place was the pure exhilaration he was feeling as the flow of Energy continued flowing into him.
Inside his mind however, he started to fight with himself. One side telling him enough, that anymore would overload his limits to a point beyond repair. Yet now there was another side, a darker side he had not known before, that told him that he could do more.
What could be the harm? The voice in him said.
The surge of power suddenly changed however, now it felt…bitter. And it was about then that he noticed the scream that he was starting to hear over the roar in his head.
He felt that it had been an eternity since he had actually opened his eyes and he wasn’t sure exactly at what point he had shut them. But now he no longer saw the swirling tendrils of power and light that had nearly blinded him moments ago.
Dorom indeed stood at his side, his mouth shouting things at him but no sound coming to Ilias’ ears. He noticed Ambrose kneeling down just a few paces away at the fallen form of Urvi, the ground around her and in a snaking line to him cracked and steaming with red lines that had already begun to fade.
Looking down at his own hands, they seemed foreign to him for some reason. He wasn’t even sure why he would feel that way. They looked the same, nothing seemed out of place. But the feeling remained.
The roaring in his head had stopped, leaving now only the dull and steady ringing sound in his head as though he had been struck by a lightning bolt.
Dorom still seemed to be trying to speak to him, although nothing he said made sense to Ilias. Most of the words he could actually hear came through muted, the rest he could not even recognize.
He knew what had just happened, at least he thought so. Now he wasn’t all that sure. Nothing was connecting.
The voice came through his head clearly, and it was neither Dorom nor Ambrose. In fact, he was sure it was a voice he had never heard before in his life.
“You’ve changed the course of nothing. She was not my only source.”
The man’s words made no sense to him, Ilias wasn’t even sure that words had been in English, but he knew he understood them all the same.
“Who are you?” he called out to the stranger’s voice.
Images flashed in through his mind.
A costal town…faces that were unfamiliar to him…a section of flooring moved aside to reveal hidden stairs leading down into darkness…more faces, but these were different somehow. They seemed marked in his mind, as though they were more important than the ones he had seen before. These were special.
And then he felt his blood run cold in his heart.
His younger brother and sister…