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"Hear me now." Sameska's voice buzzed through the crowd, familiar and distant, bereft of ceremony, gripping the nerves in a vice of rapt attention. None could look away, touched in that primal place between reason and wild alarm. All the oracles except one, a young woman on Sameska's right, had passed out. Whether from fear or exhaustion, none could say. The young woman's neck had broken out in a dark rash and her nose continued to spill crimson drops to the floor. On her hands and knees, the high oracle raised her nearly vacant eyes, peering at her stunned followers through loosened tangles of gray hair. "An enemy sits at your doorstep, scratching at the edges of your security. I have been shown things. Things that were, things that are, and things to come. We have been brought plague and storms, received silence to our pleading prayers, but Savras speaks now. "He tells us of the forest and a river of blood, a flood of crimson to rot the soil and feed unnatural trees. He delivers prophecies of dark warriors and foul magic standing at our gates and demanding submission. "In my visions, these secret truths whispered in my ear, I have seen and heard our fall. We will fail against that which we resist. This must be our test, a crucible from which we can hope to gain favor once again. Stay your swords, leave your gates, and let plague claim who it may. Such is the will of the All-Seeing One." Her words horrified them all, but none responded except with breathless silence. Nothing in their greatest fears could have prepared them for this. Doom was coming to claim them all, and the greatest act of faith they could perform was to let it happen. Warriors, especially those of the temple, bristled at the thought of inaction and submission, despite prophecy.

Elisandrya watched, enraptured as they all were by Sameska's strange behavior. The high oracle stared emotionlessly at them, aware, but lost in the power caught in her throat. "Hope has not yet abandoned us, though." The hollow undertones of the high oracle's voice lifted a little, and hope did indeed seem to brighten in the eyes of a few. The hunters listened carefully. None could fathom that Savras would see fit to condemn them all in prophecy without offering some foe to put bow and blade to. "One man comes to us from the north, across many miles and haunted plains. He alone must see to the ruins deep in the forest. He alone must come to excise that which sits at the delta of decay and complacency. He shall walk on a road of shadow that skirts the borders of the afterlife, where the whispers of the fallen carry him on swift winds." "Ghostwalker he is known to be, Hoarite and Knight of Old Assuran. We shall hold ourselves mute and incapable, unmoved by emotion or blasphemy, until he arrives to deliver us. Such is the will of Savras-such is his prophecy and the edict of the High Oracle of the Hidden Circle. "It is done." Sameska's head slumped for a moment, then lifted as she took a deep breath, gasping for air, wild-eyed and trembling. A torrent of words poured from her mouth, too fast and jumbled to make sense. Moments before the gathering, she had been prepared to deliver those words in triumph. Now they were ashes on her tongue, forgotten and useless. She stepped backward, pushing herself awkwardly and tangling her feet in the hem of her long robes.

Several in the gathering ran forward to assist and calm her, still in shock and full of questions. Hands and faces surrounded Sameska, filling her sight, all but blocking the view of the multi-hued glass dome above. She'd been helpless, trapped in her own body, fighting to speak past the power that had clutched her throat and used her voice.

She wanted to scream, feeling as if raped. She wondered if Savras had been with her, within her. Deep down, a black flower of doubt blossomed in her heart. Its roots spread and were cold, twisting her gut as bile boiled in her throat. How, she wondered-how, with all the wards and protections in the temple, could it have been anything but his voice? The ceiling spun in her eyes, the dome becoming a swirl of sickening color as questions filled her ears and clawed at the core of her reasoning. She fought again, squeezing her eyes shut and breathing deeply, calming herself and avoiding the well of sorrow that yawned in the back of her mind. Blinking, she looked closely at the faces above her, not yet hearing them, and saw their awe. They looked upon their high oracle, overcome by the power of their own faith. They sought the wisdom of she who had borne the voice of Savras, she who had spoken to them with his words. The horror that had so consumed her moments ago gave way to pride and wonder. The questions slowed, becoming more distinct. All of them echoed the same words, the same query, over and over. "What do we do? What do we do?" Doubt tugged beneath her gathering tears. Slow, swallowed sobs met with her inner exultation at being returned to her rightful place in their sight. She knew all that she had said, knew it all to be true, though it had not been delivered as she had planned. Who was she to question the wisdom of her god, here in this temple, shielded from his enemies? Collecting herself and clearing her throat, she motioned for silence so she could speak. She sat up and pushed her words past the lump in her throat, past tears of amazement and the pervasive doubt that settled in her stomach like a ball of lead. In a solemn voice of command and practiced wisdom, she responded. "Nothing. We must do nothing." Elisandrya stood at the balcony, clinging to the rail in white-knuckled anger and frustration.

Dreslya knelt below, listening as Sameska finally answered the barrage of questions, her answers loud enough to be heard by all. Dres turned to look at her sister, worry and confusion etched in her face, tears trailing down her cheeks. Eli looked away. Her eyes fell on a place to the left of the altar, shadowed, but just within the radius of newly lit candles close to Sameska. Others noticed as well. Those who had heard what they needed from Sameska turned to that spot, frightened and curious. Sameska eyed these, hunting for doubt in their whispered voices, seeking any hint of disbelief among them. Glinting in that flickering light, a stain of dark crimson slowly turned brown, marking the place of the oracle who had bled when the temple went dark.

***** | Bloodwalk | *****