Casting aside all thoughts of the oracle’s precise instructions, I immediately hurtled back down the mountain. The lower we sank, the more River’s coughing died down. Finally, she was able to talk normally. “Yeah,” she said, clutching her throat. “It must have been the smoke.”

Being half human, River was clearly more susceptible than me, who hadn’t been bothered by it.

“Right.” I clenched my jaw, eyes darting upward to the mountain’s peak, and then down to the ground where Aisha was hovering. “I’m returning you to the ground.”

Fear filled her eyes. “But, Ben, Hortencia said—”

“I know what Hortencia said.” Cutting short a debate, I flew her back down to the ground and planted her on the sand.

“Huh?” Aisha’s nose wrinkled in confusion. “What are you doing back down here already?”

“I have to continue by myself,” I said, sliding out the letter from River’s pocket. “It’s far too toxic up there for River.”

“But the oracle—” Aisha began.

“And if the oracle kicks up a fuss,” I went on, “well… so be it.”

Ben

Traveling back up the mountain, I flew fully into the cloud of smog. It became so thick that I could barely see two feet in front of me. I climbed higher and higher through the toxic gas, and it started to make even me feel heady.

Finally, I reached the top. The peak was actually not as sharp as it looked from the ground. Its very tip was a wide plateau and in the center bubbled a crater, spewing forth smoke and sparks of fuming lava. I moved around the crater, trying to scope the place out through all the thick fog, and as I’d almost come full circle, I found myself rooted to the spot. There, standing in a corner just ten feet away, was an old woman. An old woman with fleshy pits instead of eyes. She wore a long black robe.

“Hortencia,” I breathed. “You’re… you’re here.” A part of me wondered if this was some kind of illusion brought about by the fumes.

Lowering her hood, she hobbled close to me. She looked so ancient, even more now that I saw her in the flesh. So feeble that she might crack a bone just by walking.

Her shriveled lips curved in a smile that revealed her yellowed teeth. “Good,” she croaked. “You passed my second test.”

I gaped at her. “What?” But I didn’t even follow your rules.

Chuckling, she planted a hand around my right forearm and led me away from the middle of the volcano toward a clearer patch of plateau, where the wind was stronger and the air was slightly clearer.

“Some rules, boy, are meant to be broken. That is where the skill lies, of any true leader; deciding which rules should be broken and which should be kept intact.”

I still stared at her, wondering where she was going with all of this.

“Why don’t you take another peek at your letter,” she suggested patronizingly.

I unfolded it to see that the text had changed.

“Place love before law, and you shall live a fruitful, though not flawless, life.”

Okay… I guessed my refusing to bring River up here was approved by the oracle. This sure came as a surprise to me. Hortencia hadn’t exactly given me the impression that she was the romantic type, and had always struck me as quite callous when it came to finer sentiments like love or awareness of the feelings of others. I narrowed my eyes on her. Is this really the same Hortencia?

“What’s happened to you?” I asked.

Her mouth stretched in a small smile. “What must happen to all of us.”

“What?”

“Never mind that now,” she said. “Consult your letter again.”

My eyes shot to the parchment to discover a new note.

“What are you waiting for? We’re standing right in front of you. Kill us.”

There were lots of things about those few words that sent my head into a tailspin, though the first that surfaced was: We are standing? Hortencia was here, but I couldn’t see…

No sooner had the thought entered my mind than I caught a glimpse of another frail, old women approaching from the other side of the crater. She was exactly the same height as Hortencia and the structure of her face was identical too. The only striking difference between them was that Pythia was stark naked.

I fixed my eyes firmly on Hortencia’s face. Apparently Pythia was the more, ahem, eccentric of the two.

Pythia slunk up to us, her face panned up to me as she stood beside her sister. They linked hands.

“Well?” Hortencia quirked a practically nonexistent brow. “What are you waiting for?”

My focus returned to the note. “I-I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Does this smoke impair your tender little eyes?”

“I can read,” I said, exasperated. “But I can’t kill you!” Hollow disappointment swelled in the pit of my stomach. All throughout this journey, since the very beginning, I’d been hoping that she would have some trick up her sleeve to get us all out of this—one that wouldn’t involve actual murder. That was crazy.

“Why not?” Hortencia asked, frowning. She manifested a blade in her hand and pushed it into mine. “You have the means… and we are ready for it.”

I gaped at them in disbelief. What is going on?

“I cannot kill you!” I said, discarding the dagger and throwing my hands in the air. “And why would you even want to die?” None of this makes any sense.

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