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*****


The inner chamber of the Hidden Circle represented the pinnacle of the history of the order since its founding in Brookhollow. It was lit by several waist-high columns. On top of each, a pool of glowing water shimmered like quicksilver. The floors were of rift marble, an especially hard stone whose mixture of swirling and geometric patterns was unique to the dwarf realm from which it had come. In the center of the circular room lay a pool of placid water, a divining pool drained and filled daily by the savants. Most were aware that the pool was filled only as a formality, as it had not been used in years. Unlike her predecessors, Sameska did not approve of anyone displaying their powers in her presence, despite the Council of the Hidden Circle's long-held traditions. The whole of the room was topped in a dome, a smaller version of that in the primary sanctuary. Its walls were carved with thousands of concentric circular patterns like ripples in a rainstorm. Their similarity to the unceasing storms outside was not lost on anyone in attendance. Sameska sat in the polished oak chair at the head of the circle and glowered disapprovingly at her lessers. The twenty remaining oracles sat before their leader, avoiding her stare and deciding how best to continue their controversial inquiry into the fate of the other towns along the Qurth's border. In light of the edict against Brookhollow's resistance, none knew how to suggest that perhaps they could request aid from outside allies. Sameska had all but accused them of blasphemy. One young woman finally spoke, staring at her hands and attempting to resolve the situation calmly. "We do not doubt you, High Oracle, or the words of Savras" "Questions of this nature are the very soul of doubt, are they not?" The high oracle's voice had risen. Her eyes darted from one young woman to the next, seeking dissidence among them, alert to whispers and accusing eyes. Sameska had slept only fitfully since the evening of her chilling prophecy. Her nightmares had become amplified by her own fears. Her adamancy to stay the course, though, had been bolstered.

There was no other way, in her mind, no doubt whatsoever-none that she might share with these rivals, in any case. These girls are little better than Dreslya in hiding their obvious contempt and jealousy, she thought. What do they know of prophecy? Of true divination? She stared through the door as if it were transparent, knowing that the statue still stood, stained with blood and tainted by death. She imagined its single eye upon her, the eye of Savras, dimmed in red and unblinking.

"Forgive us, High Oracle," another said, "we are afraid and our own spells have shown us nothing. Anything within the borders of the forest is invisible to us. We seek your sight and wisdom in these trying times, nothing more." All stared at Sameska's back nervously.

She had turned around completely in her chair, staring at the closed doors while wringing her hands and mumbling incoherently. The words flitted through her mind, weaving between her thoughts and imagined horrors until she realized she had actually heard them. She spun back around, narrowing her eyes at them, wondering if they had heard her, seen what she'd seen beyond the door. She felt it still-Savras's lidless gaze on her back-and she shuddered. "What to say?" she whispered to herself, staring at their frightened and confused faces.

Her mind teetered on the edge of inspiration, chasing the spark of her own reasoning through the fog of numerous thoughts that assailed her weary consciousness. She stretched herself straighter in her chair, grasping its arms and clawing absently at the smooth wood. "Pardon, High Oracle?" the same woman asked quietly, a note of pity creeping into her voice. Sameska held her breath, tensing as the answer revealed itself to her. "The ruins of Jhareat," she said finally, formulating her words carefully so as not to reveal more than she felt prudent. "Beyond the edges of the Qurth, deep in the forest, lies Jhareat and its single tower. Do you remember its tale?" Several in the room were visibly relieved by the high oracle's suddenly lucid voice as they recalled the story. It was a tale that most of them had heard as children, first gazing upon the walls of the Hidden Circle's sanctuary. A few nodded, sagelike, while most listened attentively, curious as to the nature of Sameska's obscure reference. "All the oracles who came before us divined the history of this realm-the land, the forest, and the ruins that lay scattered across the fields and buried in the grip of the Qurth. The legends that they discovered decorate the walls of our sanctuary as reminders of history and how tenuous our survival is in this land if we lack foresight. "Evil ruled within the walls of Jhareat in ancient times, during the days of the Shoon Dynasties." She stood, looking down at them, almost smiling as she dangled her secrets before their blind eyes. She knew they would hear but a comforting tale while she held the truth in her grip, having seen that tower and the dark forces gathered around it. She did not trust their willful youth and would not see her prophecy disobeyed by brash actions and unthinking fear. "One man. One man brought about the downfall of that terrible city. Savras sends us one man as well and asks only for our patience." Her scholarly tone disappeared, overcome by her earlier anger. "Think carefully on this before you question and doubt me again!" She turned and left them, closing the doors behind her and ending all debate. Standing in the alcove to the sanctuary, she listened for their voices and their whispers. Silence.

Turning her attention from the door, she gazed at the dark curtain that hung between her and the altar of Savras beyond. In her mind's eye she could see him, standing there in stone robes. She raised a hand to move the curtain aside and stopped. Her fingertips brushed lightly at the cloth, but fear held her in place. A chill such as only a god might inspire in the faithful kept her from moving for many heartbeats before she finally entered the sanctuary.


***** | Bloodwalk | CHAPTER FIFTEEN