The barren plain that surrounded Karasti sat before them, like a page waiting to be written on. The rest of the South, for all its focus of artisanal crafts, was comprised of a mind boggling mix of rolling green hills, and factories that belched thick, black smoke into the air. But Karasti seemed to be devoid of either. The village, for it was hardly large enough to be called a town, sat in the midst of a wasteland, devoid of all life, save for the patchy grass on the ground beneath them and a few sparse trees that looked more dead than alive.
To Rin, the place was incredibly reminiscent of his former home in the Aur Valley, but even that had been home to more greenery than this. The Aur Valley was most known for its plentiful coal deposits, but word of the natural beauty of the place still spread, for it was close to the Riverlands and the beauty seemed to trickle down in the water. Maybe that was why Karasti looked so miserable. They hadn’t seen any rivers since leaving Eturia, and while they could hear the ocean in the distance, there didn’t seem to be any sources of water. For a boy from near the Riverlands, where the hearts of most of the rivers in the world lay, it only made sense that no running water would make for a lifeless landscape.
Shay, however, was less alarmed by the landscape than his Southern counterparts. His corner of Olmaea had felt much the same as the land surrounding them, though Karasti was decidedly cleaner than his home, even with the dust clouds their steps threw up into the air. For all the luxe Olmaea boasted of, there was a real sense of emptiness in the poorer parts of the city. Not that the upper class were aware of that. Shay had been looked down on his entire life, purely because of his place of birth, and he had come to resent the aristocracy and grandiose displays of wealth because of it. What business did people have judging others based on their wealth alone? All the Lords and Ladies sat around in their giant houses while their servants made them money, and they claimed to be better people for it? Shay had lied, stolen, borrowed, conned and worked his entire life, and he was no closer to getting out of the slums he’d been trapped in for his twenty three years of life.
He had hoped that moving to a new destination might grant him a better lease on life, but every time he managed to accumulate some wealth, whether it was through stealing or hard work, something would come around that forced him to spend it again. He didn’t like to admit it, but he was worse off for leaving the slums.
“I don’t mean to question you, Shay, but are you really sure we can make anything here?” Rin asked, brows raised towards him hairline. Karasti didn’t look like it even had any money to spare.
“Trust me, Rinian, I’ve got this all worked out.”
He didn’t. He shifted his pack on his shoulder, and took the lead once more, leading the other two towards the village. The sound of the waves grew louder the closer they got to the village, and soon enough the pungent scent of dead fish hit their noses. It didn’t bother Shay. The slums had smelled worse, the fish was almost what he would call fresh air, if he were back home. Rin endeavoured to just get through it. He knew his nose would adjust to the smell eventually, he just had to fight his way through it long enough to reach that level of indifference. But Aoife was less optimistic about it. The stench was overpowering, and no matter how much she covered her nose and her mouth, nothing seemed to block it out. Each step she took towards Karasti left her drained, and her knees were shaking. She thought she was going to vomit if she got any closer. She was close enough to vomiting as it was, she didn’t want to make it any worse.
“Shay, I can’t do this,” she said, frozen to the spot, her cheeks devoid of colour.
Shay turned, walking back towards the girl. Maker, give him strength. He was starting to regret ever getting involved with these two. Had they never left the city before? Rin kept insisting he came from the Aur Valley, but he’d never seen a miner that waiflike before. And now Aoife, acting like a bad smell was the end of the road. How would she ever cope in the slums?
“Sure you can, Aoife. You’ve gotta be our Oracle, haven’t you?” he said, hands cupping her cheeks and raising her face to look him in the eye. The young girl managed a nod. “Then you need to cover your nose and suffer through it, okay dollface?”
Shay didn’t give her time to answer, hands straying from her face as he took the charge again. They were getting to Karasti if it killed him, if it killed any of them. And when they finally reached the village, all three began to question Shay’s judgement.
He had assured them the place would net them a remarkable profit, that would see them resting in inns for as long as they needed to hide. Karasti barely looked like it had enough funds to support itself, let alone them. Aside from a few roughly built wooden shacks, the place was as devoid of life as the plains that surrounded it. The ground beneath them was little more than a thick coating of mud, and more than once Aoife had needed help freeing her boots from its vacuum-like grip.
The people of Karasti were too busy going about their daily business to notice the newcomers at first, but gradually the villagers began to stop what they were doing in favour of staring at the trio. They were all thinner than anything Aoife had seen before, and most of them looked sickly. She thought she caught sight of a child, but they were hurried inside one of the shacks before she could really look at them. For the first time since meeting him, she was beginning to lose faith in Shay. What was he hoping to find here?
As they reached the centre of the village, the source of the stench became apparent. On the easternmost side of the village, paired with the sound of the ocean waves lapping against the shore, was an array of wooden frames, each one covered in dead fish. It was unclear to trio what exactly they were for, but had they dared to inspect further they would have discovered the racks were used for drying the fish. What little income Karasti had was dependant on its fishing trade, and so they needed to sell on as much as they physically could. Drying the fish bought them extra time. The stench was not coming from the drying fish, but rather the barrels scattered around the seafront, all filled to the brim with the guts and spare parts of the fish the villagers had caught. At the end of the day they would all be slopped back into the ocean, but until then the sun, however cold it was, and the sea air would cause the remnants to putrefy. The villagers were all too used to this smell, though, and in fact had come to associate it with a profitable day. After all, the worse the smell, the more fish had been caught.
It was a fisherman that first addressed the trio. His hands were coated in blood and slime, and his leather apron—a shoddy piece of work by Shay’s standards—was covered in a thick layer of scales and fish guts, as if he had just wiped his hands on it. He was a large and foreboding man and had Shay not been with them, Aoife and Rin would certainly have lost their nerve in his presence. He stepped out from behind one of the barrels, gaze never leaving the three of them as he made his approach, steps slow and menacing.
“Are you lost, strangers?” he asked, no sense of welcome in his tone.
“We heard there was an Oracle,” Aoife said, quickly stepping in between Shay and the villager. She didn’t know if the villager had noticed, but Shay’s fists had clenched and the muscles in his arms were tense, as if he were gearing up for a fight. “We thought maybe we could visit her, since… since I’m an Oracle too.”
She knew it was risky, and they were nowhere near prepared yet—she wasn’t even sure what Oracles did beyond giving heroes war counsel in the olden days—but there was no harm in establishing their cover ahead of schedule.
“We don’t need no more Oracles round ‘ere,” the villager said, stance suddenly more aggressive than before. “And I tell you what, you go see your fucking Oracle, and you tell her to get the fuck away from ‘ere, alright?”
“Don’t fuckin’ talk to her like that,” Shay protested, trying—and failing—to move out from behind Aoife.
“Or what, mate? There’s one of you, and thirty of us.” As if to echo the villager’s point, a few more men appeared from the seafront, each brandishing various knives and tools that were no doubt important in fishmongery. “So you can leave quietly, or we can toss you in the ocean with the fish guts.”
“Shay, let’s just go,” Aoife pleaded, turning to face the Olmaean. She could see Rin to their left, eyes darting from person to person nervously. He stood lightly in the mud, as if he were expecting to tear off into the distance at a moment’s notice.
Shay wasn’t one to shy away from a brawl. Back in Olmaea, his trade and his relative maturity granted him certain advantages; manual labour had given him the brute strength to overpower less well built opponents, his age and colourful upbringing meant he had more than his fair share of practice in a fight, and despite his larger frame he usually had a speed advantage in whatever altercations he involved himself in. He was used to winning, even if it was by the skin of his teeth. The facts remained that he was outnumbered, and Aoife still had his knife so he was unarmed. No matter how many advantages life on the streets had given him, one unarmed man against thirty with weapons was never going to end well.
Rin was the first to move once the three had made it quite clear they were going to leave. Their plan had always been to head north, and in a bold move the Western boy chose not to exit Karasti the way they had come, through the southernmost entrance to the village, but to carry on their journey. He refused to be forced to circle around just to make further progress on their big adventure, and if these country bumpkins had a problem with that, they’d just have to get over it. Aoife followed quietly after him, half dragging a reluctant Shay behind her through the mud. She had to admit she was curious as to why mentioning the rumoured Oracle had elicited such a negative response. Surely one woman couldn’t cause such distress, could she?
It was by some kind of luck—or perhaps it was fate—that the Oracle’s abode was to the north of Karasti, else they would have missed her entirely. In fact, to begin with the trio weren’t sure her home even was the home of an Oracle. The shack was even more rundown than those in Karasti. It looked like a strong enough gust of wind could topple it completely. Shay had spoken of the Oracles’ grandeur, not undeniable poverty. If Karasti disliked her so aggressively, and she was making no real profit, why did she simply not leave and ply her trade elsewhere?
She tried not to be disheartened as they approached the shack. A thin stream of smoke rose from a hole in the roof, and as they reached the structure, the pungent scent of herbs and spices greeted their nose. The exotic scent conjured images of dazzling sunlight, warm sandy beaches, and women clad in vibrant silk. Perhaps this Oracle was from the East, and hoped to emulate her home in the midst of the emptiness of Karasti.
It was Rin that finally picked up the courage to knock on her door. If anything, he was the most curious of the trio as to what would lie behind the frail wooden door. Shay’s tales hadn’t quite filled his head with delusions as they had Aoife, but it was hard to deny the allure of a woman swathed in gold, silk and finery. He might have been born working class, but the Western boy had middle class taste.
There was no sign of the elusive Oracle as the door swung open, but something bade the trio to enter, despite the creeping darkness that lay before them