The path into the heart of the pyramid was one that was taken in darkness. The girl leading Aoife had a vice like grip on her hand, and Aoife felt safe enough that she wouldn’t fall in her presence, but it left her fumbling in the dark all the same. The darkness served as an extra security measure. If someone was able to find the way in, they would lose themselves instantly in the darkness, and much like Ankora itself, the innards of the pyramid were too built like a maze. The only hope they would have of finding their way out was for an Oracle to find and apprehend them, and given that word of the Oracles’ home had never spread…
All of a sudden, the darkness ended and Aoife was thrust into a room filled to bursting with candles and oil lanterns, and for just a moment she thought she mid go blind from the sudden change. Great white spots barred her vision—a sensation she was all too familiar with courtesy of the darker corners of the Cathedral and the candlelight filled nave—and she was left fumbling once more, for in the light the young Oracle had relinquished her grip on Aoife’s hand.
The first thing Aoife caught sight of once her vision had cleared were the same lavish silks that had lined the Oracle’s shack in Karasti. It seemed strange to the orphan that they would waste such expensive fabric as wall drapery when it was far more appropriate to make clothes from. Shay had kept quiet on the various traditions that the Oracle had told him of, so the reason for the state of undress was still unknown to Aoife, but as she looked around the room, she spotted but a few bodies draped in deep red fabrics.
These women were the matrons of the Order. Acting as something akin to mothers, matrons were charged with raising young Oracles and teaching them to hone their skills and their gifts. It was the matrons who ensured the traditions were followed, and ingrained in each Oracle’s brain by the time they left the safety of Ankora. It was the matrons who made sure young Oracles remembered to eat when their human shells were at risk of wasting away beyond repair, and it was the matrons who ventured into Ankora to obtain water from the old man. Were she aware of their duties, the matrons would have reminded her of Sister Ciara.
“We don’t often find strangers here,” one of the matrons said.
Her accent was decidedly different from the other Eastern ones they had heard, and her skin was pale as ice. Amidst the sea of dark hair and varying skin tones around her, the matron looked out of place, especially when Aoife caught sight of a light blonde braid creeping down her back.
“I mean no ill will, I promise,” Aoife said, suddenly all too wary of the Oracles. “My companions and I are lost, and we’d hoped maybe we could ask if you knew the way. The water merchant was less than welcoming.”
The matron, and in turn the thirty girls gathered around the room with her, let out a quiet laugh. Aoife wasn’t sure if they were laughing at what she had said, or if they were simply laughing at her, and it had her wanting to turn and leave already. How large could the desert be? Now that they had water, if they used it sparingly they could just walk until they found somewhere, couldn’t they…?
“Jabbar is not the friendliest of men,” the matron spoke once more, a smile on her lips. “But he is good to us, and he keeps us safe. Evidently he is not at his best today, or you would not have made it inside.”
“I must insist we mean no harm. We’ll be out of your way as soon as we know where to go,” Aoife said, keeping her voice as soft as possible.
“If you meant us harm, we would know it,” the matron assured her, but it didn’t set Aoife at ease. “We have been watching you and your companions.”
“And who exactly is ‘we?’” Aoife asked, not sure she enjoyed the idea of being watched across somewhere as large as Ankora. Wait, did that mean they’d seen them wandering in circles for hours? More importantly, did that mean they’d seen Rin’s stroke of genius?
“The other matrons and I. Mathangi was most interested in your clever friend, and I must admit I share her intrigue.”
“He’s very smart, that I can agree on,” Aoife said, trying to be enthusiastic without letting her nerves shine through. “In fact, he was the one who—”
“It was not his intelligence that caught our eye,” the matron said, seemingly not caring that she had cut Aoife off. “Is he outside still? It is against our tradition, but we would very much like to speak with him.”
The predatory look in the matron’s eyes held Aoife’s tongue. Whatever the Oracles wanted with him, it couldn’t be good. It was only then, trying to meet the matron’s gaze, that Aoife noticed how much older she was compared to the other girls filling the room. Most of the young Oracles, for she could only assume they were the Oracles, were barely older than twelve, by the looks of them. There were little ones, barely more than toddlers, being held and coddled by the older girls, but none of them were truly old enough to tend to little ones. Like the matron, they were all underweight and looked little more than skin and bones, but there was still a spark of life behind their eyes.
The matron, however, no longer held the prize of youth. She was by no means an old woman, but compared to her charges she seemed ancient. Her skin, despite being stretched taut across her bones, was wrinkled and beginning to sag. Her hair, while still blonde in colour, was beginning to thin, and her eyes had a touch of cloudiness about them, as if she were beginning to lose her vision. She was certainly a strange figure indeed, and perhaps served as a testament to the elevated status of successful Oracles, for surely only the very best would be worthy of raising more of her kind?
"I'm afraid my companions have already left," Aoife said. Could you lie to an Oracle? Would they know she was lying? What if they were still watching and could clearly see Rin and Shay outside?
"How strange," the matron mused. "Already departed, yet they have no idea where to go."
"We agreed we would meet on the outskirts of the town. I didn't think your Order would want two men so close, so we decided to avoid the matter entirely."
From the corner of her eye, Aoife spotted more flashes of that deep red fabric and sure enough, there were two more matrons, both of darker complexion than the first. Their actions did not speak of hostility, but Aoife found herself threatened all the same. Perhaps Shay had been right about her not entering alone. She may have spent her life in the company of women, but the matrons were not women, they were demons. In place of claws, they had long, skeletal fingers, and where scripture taught the orphan great leathery wings should be was that damned fabric. Only warriors of the Maker stood a chance against such evil, and as pious as Aoife was, she was no warrior.
"If they are on the outskirts, then there should be no problem bringing them here," the matron said, a sense of faux brightness in her voice that sent a shiver down the orphan's spine.
The other two matrons, both as old and as waif like as the one who had spoken, began to walk further into the room Aoife and the Oracles were occupying, like beasts closing in on their prey. Aoife had never suffered from claustrophobia—the cathedral was wide and open, and the city had felt much the same, even in its most cramped corners—but with the two harpies drawing closer, the walls of the pyramid were starting to feel too close.
“You really must excuse us, but we’re on a very tight schedule,” Aoife said, knowing her excuse was as unconvincing as it sounded. “I can pass a message along, if you’d like?”
“A message will do no good,” one of the other matrons said, her accent the same as the Oracle in Karasti. “We must read him like a book.”
“What Mathangi says is true,” the first matron said, suddenly standing closer than she had been before. If Aoife hadn’t been convinced they were demons before, she certainly would have been then. “If your friend is as we think he is, then we must read him.”
If all they wished to do was read Rin, Aoife reasoned they had little to fear, but she still didn’t trust the old women. Something about their intent was off, though she couldn’t quite place what. After all, what need could an Oracle have for a man? Of course if all they wanted to do was read him, it gave them a perfect excuse to be on their way.
“Well, you see, he’s already been read. We all have,” she explained, even if her statement wasn’t entirely true. As far as she was aware, Shay had managed to elude the Oracle’s gaze during their time alone together.
The matrons all froze at her words, gaze turning to each other in some form of silent communication. What Aoife had thought would save her could have condemned them all instead, were their fortunes not what the matrons were after. None who saw the Oracles’ home could be permitted to reveal it, and so none who saw the Oracles’ home were permitted to live, without proper cause. Only those with worthy destinies were allowed to continue their existence, and if the grand matron had it her way, that existence would only continue long enough for the individual to carry out that destiny.
“Who read him?” the first matron asked after a while, Mathangi and the third matron beginning to circle Aoife again, like predatory animals waiting for the right moment to strike.
“I didn’t catch her name.”
“Oracles do not have names. We must earn them as matrons,” Mathangi informed her. “Where did you find her?”
The matrons murmured something between each other in a language Aoife couldn’t understand. Did the Order have its own language? Aoife supposed that would make sense, but why teach them a whole new language when the rest of the world spoke a single unified language? Surely secrecy wasn’t worth that much, especially when no one was in Ankora in the first place.
“What did she say? Speak quickly, girl,” the first matron practically hissed.
There was no hiding her fear then. The three demons had all turned on her, and the silent faces of their young charges watched on as if it were nothing more than a dream. She took a few wary steps backwards, but the Oracles had formed a ring around her where they sat on the floor, barring her exit.
“She said we had to find a man clad in jewels in a city made of gold,” Aoife said shakily, gaze never drifting from the three matrons. “She said something about… about a prophecy, and there needing to be four of us.”
As if by some sort of magic, the matrons softened a little at her words, though that sense of unease still lingered in the place. The first matron, Frida, didn’t believe for a second that that was all the Oracle in Karasti had said, but with the orphan as scared as she was, they would never get anything else out of her. They could try to read her, but her fear would cloud the future and without her consent, they would be unable to divulge much more than vague guesswork.
“Then a golden city you must find,” Frida said, suddenly more enthusiastic than she had been before. “You must travel northeast, to the city of Tarşehir. From there, you must head north, until you find your golden city.”
“You’re being surprisingly cheery about this…” Aoife said without meaning to, earning another laugh from the matron.
“The three of you, or should I say four of you, all have very important destinies that we cannot interfere in. But you must promise us one thing before we send you on your way.”
“What thing?” Aoife asked suspiciously.
“You must not reveal the true nature of Ankora to anyone. Not even your jewel encrusted man. Understood?” the matron asked, and Aoife nodded in response. “And perhaps more importantly, you must return to Ankora when you have played your parts. All four of you. Is that clear?”
Aoife nodded in agreement, too scared to refuse.She was in the demons’ lair, and to refuse their demands could mean the end of her life, despite their insistence that they were not permitted to interfere. Without word, the matrons turned their backs on the orphan, and a tiny, delicate hand was wrapped around her wrist, pulling her back into the darkness she had traversed before. She barely had time to adjust before she was back out in the sunlight, those white spots clouding her vision once more as the sound of the trapdoor behind pulled shut behind her rang out like a pistol shot. Thus marked the end of their stay in Ankora, and frankly it could not have come sooner.