It had been a long, hard, unpleasant ride across the plains of Maelwysrin, made longer by the fact that she hadn’t been allowed to return to the barracks before starting west. She hadn’t been forced to draw her sword to fell anything other than brambles, so far. Grand quest indeed.
Justice squirmed in the saddle, raising her gauntleted hand to shelter her vision against the setting sun. The days were shortening. Autumn was coming, and winter would follow soon after. But the trees hadn’t started to turn, even on this side of the mountains. She had soaked through the jerkin beneath her armor with sweat. If winter was coming, it was taking its Light-damned time getting here.
How long had she been on the road? Was it only weeks? It felt like years. She had passed the Academy’s tests with flying colors, and yet her success had been answered with exile. Damn Donovon. Damn the Oracle. The Academy, just like her parents, had little desire to keep Justice around. Lost in thought, she remembered…
It was a two week trip into the mountains from the Jade Forest, and everyone in the unit was complaining, except for Justice. Out here, the solitude of having so many admirers but so few friends easily faded into the background as survival became paramount. As always, she had stayed closest to the march leaders, avoiding her fellow students whenever possible.
She was the only member of the Apectan Order on this march, a fact made painfully clear by the Sun and Crosspiece emblazoned across the breast of her armor. She was accompanied by warriors, but none of them had heard the Call. Even in this auspicious company, she was alone.
It had been a graduation march for the best and brightest of this year’s cohort. Even as peace had marginalized the Academy’s offerings over the past century, the quality of its warriors had grown. As she was often reminded, she was among the greatest warriors in the history of Aeres. Too bad they were all such arrogant fools.
Something shook her from her thoughts. A sound. A voice. Damn—Colonel Donovan was at her again. Trying so hard to learn; lost in daydreams again. She’d pray about it, tonight. Her voice, soft and melodic (but with a vein of steel running through it), answered the half-heard query. “Yes, Mistress! Everyone looks fine, Mistress! No need to slow, Mistress!”
Circling back on the dusty trail, Colonel Donovon’s charger bore down on the line of exhausted graduates, slowing just soon enough to keep from running Justice down. The corporal looked down from her horse, her nearly pristine state a sharp contrast to the dirt and grime that had become the small company’s only true companion. Donovon had never liked her, and she looked vaguely disappointed to see that the young paladin had not even flinched at her aborted charge.
Looking over the exhausted group, she settled her gaze on Justice. “The cohort looks tired, Fairweather. We can rest now, and finish our ascent in the morning. I knew you wouldn’t be able to make it this far without at least one more rest. You push too hard, Fairweather. There’s no one here to impress, not even dear old Mum.” The last words were cruel, a deliberate slight against her. Donovon’s lip twisted into a self-satisfied smile. Bitch.
Returning her attention to the mountain trail twisting back down toward the comfort of home, Donovon shouted to the cohort, “We’re setting up camp here, for the night. We can push on to the Oracle’s cave in the morning. Nothing to see there now that we won’t see in the morning. Swordswoman Fairweather has been pushing you too hard.”
As Donovon swung off of the horse, the rest of the cohort began to drop their packs, silent as they started to prepare for a night in the wild. Fools. Donovon was just goading her, trying make her look like a fool, and a weakling. Bitch, bitch, bitch! Justice stood, staring at Donovon, an angry flush reddening her already sun-blasted face. If looks could kill, the Colonel would have been halfway to Hell.
Slowly, Justice too turned back to face the busy cohort, trying desperately to unload their heavy packs on the steep incline of the mountain trail. Slowly, deliberately, she began shouting orders, her melodic stream of her voice now running over steel. “Belay that order, ladies and gentlemen! We’ll make the climb tonight.”
The cohort stood dumbly, some with bedrolls half spread over the rocky ground. No one moved; no one made a sound. She thought she heard someone cough.
Donovon wheeled to face her, then, furious at the junior officer’s attempt to override her authority. “Did I hear you correctly, Swordswoman Fairweather?” she emphasized the rank, beating her over the head with the club of propriety.
Justice ignored the older woman. This was her unit, at the moment, and it was her responsibility to decide when and where they made camp. Donovon had no right to stop them here, not when they were so close. “Pack it up, and gird yourselves for a bit more climbing. We can make it to the cave by nightfall, and by the Light we willmake it there, understood?”
She stared down at the cohort, and a half-hearted affirmative drifted up toward her. She snorted, her anger transferring from Donovon to the warriors gathers below her on the trail. “I said we’re making the climb! Understood!?”
This time, a better response, “Aye!” they shouted, with only a few conspicuous silences. Donovon’s babies. Let her have them. She was leading warriors, and warriors didn’t quit just because they were tired.
She turned away from them, half afraid to see how many would actually follow her all the way to the cave of the Stone Oracle. Setting herself against the slant of the trail, she pushed ahead, one foot ahead of the next. Her own breath deafened her, and the sweat of her brow blinded her. Still, she pressed on. Take that, Donovon. Take that, Mother.
After nearly an hour of pushing herself, she dared look back to the cohort she hoped she would find following behind her. Her breath caught in her chest, but she sighed in relief as she saw what seemed to be almost the entire group trudging up the path. Through the clouds of dust, she thought she even managed to see Donovon trailing behind the group. She’d never hear the end of it. Oh well—it had been worth it to see the look on Donovon’s face.
She allowed herself a small smile. She had been elected to lead this march by the class of young warriors, below. Although most of them were over-inflated idiots, it felt good to know that they’d follow when she asked.
Turning back to the trail ahead, she pressed on toward the small plateau upon which the cavern of the Stone Oracle huddled against the sun, wind, and rain. It seemed only moments between her triumphal inspection to reaching the mountain’s windy top, but by the time she reached the flattened stone, the sun had already begun to dip below the horizon. It would be dark by the time they set up camp. Yet, they had made it in record time—something for this graduating class to be proud of. Something for her to be proud of, though she had few to share it with.
She dropped her own pack onto the smooth stone outside of the cave’s mouth, nodding to some of the Academy’s march leaders that had arrived here early, just in case anything had gone wrong with the march. She had been the first to reach the cavern, and she would be the first to see the ancient, long-dead oracle.
She ducked her head as she stepped down into the cool, damp cave. Moving forward, she tried her best to prevent one of the low-hanging stalactites from catching her long, blond hair. The cave mouth descended for what had to have been a few hundred feet, a cramped stone pathway cut out of the ancient stone. This passage had been cut, carved out of the mountain itself for some long-forgotten purpose by something (or someone?) older than even the Alder.
As she moved further and further into the darkness, the age of the place seemed to press in on her. It was a strange forbidding notion, slowly building in the pit of her stomach. Even if the Oracle was dead, this place remembered what it was to have power. Still, she pressed forward into the darkness, slowly approaching a remnant of time gone by.
Like thousands of students from the Jade Forest Academy before her, she would challenge the Stone Oracle to reveal her future. It would stare out of the stone, in silence. It was supposed to be a sign that her future was what she made of it. Justice knew it was nothing more symbolic than the fact that it’s magic was long spent.
Still descending after what seemed like miles, the cavern seemed to brighten ahead of her. Something was producing light, ahead. Probably one of the march leaders. Maybe Tonnyn?
Muttering to herself as the passageway began to widen, she chose her steps carefully. The last few hundred feet down into the cavern were notoriously treacherous, and more than one of her predecessors had turned an ankle here. The light continued to brighten. Tonnyn (or whoever it was) must have been on his way back up. Still stepping with exaggerated care, she slid down a broken ledge of shale, using her long arms to steady herself.
She stopped suddenly, once more on flat ground. This must be the end of the descent. In the bowels of the Oracle’s mountain, she had finally reached the place where she would demand her future. She stepped around an outcropping of granite, a wall carved out of the stone to separate the Oracle’s chamber from the narrow pathway its petitioners were forced to tread.
She was surprised to find herself alone in the chamber. The light seemed to come from the walls of the chamber itself. Some sort of moss or lichen, perhaps? Maybe even an old magic still left over from whatever the Oracle’s makers intended. Whatever it was, it was bright enough to allow her to see the Oracle. No reason to question good luck.
The Oracle was carved out of the back wall of the chamber, a crude noseless face with no visible neck. A ring of stone seemed to surround the face, no more than three feet in diameter—almost as if its makers had intended to suggest a strange sort of halo around what she supposed was supposed to be a head. Was it once a Man’s face? An Alder’s? A Dwarf’s? Was this once a beautiful work of art, now ravaged by time? Whatever it was, it was fascinating, and ageless.
In the present, two narrow slits in the stone made its eyes, and a third slash nearer the bottom, a mouth. Now in its presence, she no longer thought the ceremony trivial. Even to hear nothing from this ancient granite soothsayer seemed to speak volumes for the successes her future would hold. She steeled herself, and asked the question she had been told to ask, the question that thousands before (and even more after) her would ask of the inert stone face. “Oracle, I beg thee, reveal what Time has in store for this humble servant of the Light?”
She smirked a little. No answer. The future was wide open, and she could choose her own path. Mother, wherever you are, take that! Tomorrow belonged to Justice.
Happily, she turned back toward the passage, ready to begin her journey up into the fading daylight. She saw a silhouette in the passage—the next petitioner. She took a step forward, and then she felt the ground shake. An earthquake, and she beneath uncountable tons of rock. Time to start her devotions, she didn’t have long, now.
Falling to her knees, she began, “I am the Hand of the Light…” but before she could finish the first sentence of her devotion, another voice cut in, far louder than her own. A foul wind seemed to rush from the depths of the cavern, and it carried her voice away with it. Turning toward the wind’s source, she nearly fainted. It may have been a trick of the light, but she thought she saw the Oracle’s features shift. Blinking, she tried to stand, bracing herself against the sourceless gust.
Then, it spoke. With every word, her world changed.
Stunned, she stood. Mouth open, half expecting to hear greater pronouncements of doom from the Stone Oracle’s now-unmoving mouth, she blinked into the rising darkness, as the strange light she had noted before began to fade. She felt a hand fall upon her shoulder, and she nearly drew her blade before turning to see it was a friend. Tonnyn.
Slowly, he turned her toward his own ashen, quivering face. “Did…did you…did you hear that? By the Light, Justice—I think it was talking to you!”
Regaining some small part of her composure, she batted his trembling hand away. “I heard it. But it couldn’t have been talking to me…” she said, all certainty leeched from her voice. “…it must have been a message for someone else. My future is my own.”
“Justice,” he said, trying to draw her attention away from a sudden, almost frantic search of the chamber for another person. “There was no one else here. I was still in the passage, coming to make sure you hadn’t hurt yourself on the descent…it was a message for you!”
“No…” she started to say, before his voice could overpower her own.
“It had to be! By the Light, Justice! It spoke to you! It has not spoken in uncounted generations! It has given you your future! You must go!”
She had lost the strength to protest. She was sure he went on for hours about the meaning of the prophecy, quickly copying it down from memory. She just sat, silently staring into the now blindingly dark cavern.
Yet, less than three hours later, she was on one of the march leader’s horses, with Tonnyn’s copy of the prophecy in one of her saddlebags. Even Donovon had come to see her off (although she had doggedly insisted that Justice and Tonnyn had fabricated the entire event from whole cloth). She had lost the battle in deciding the truth of the events of the Oracle’s cave, but she won the war. If the prophecy was true, than young Fairweather had no business returning to the Academy. Heroes of westward lands, it had said. So west she would go —chasing the setting sun. Chasing destiny.
A smile creased her dirty, yet still-beautiful face as her blue eyes focused against the light. Thanesport. The old city thrust itself out of the horizon, and into the sun. Red towers and ancient walls jutted out of the surrounding plains like a splinter wound in the earth itself. Nothing further west from here without crossing the Placid Sea.
She’d get a room with the gold the cohort had managed to pool for her journey, and hopefully a long bath. It shad been too long since she had last seen enough water to submerge herself in. After Thanesport, the Light only knew how long before she would see it again.
Settling back down into her saddle, she patted her new horse’s neck, and whispered, “Not much longer now, Dew.”
With the sun reflecting off of the studs on the tall, slender woman’s jade-green leather armor, the horse plodded forward, into the twilight. Thanesport beckoned–and for now, Justice Fairweather was willing to heed its call.