I couldn’t have been more grateful that we had Aisha with us. Not only did she know how to locate Hortencia’s cave, she also found the strength to vanish the three of us there, which saved God knew how much of our precious time.
We appeared outside the entrance to the cave—a cave that was rather familiar to me by now. I moved forward first, holding River’s hand and pulling her down the narrow passageway leading to the oracle’s front door, while Aisha followed behind us. I knocked three times.
When there had been no reply after ten seconds, I called her name, “Hortencia!”
Still no reply.
“Hortencia!” I called again, more loudly, my voice resounding off the tunnel walls.
I pressed my ear against the door. I couldn’t hear a sound. Not even breathing.
As much as I’d been dreading the idea of coming face to face with the oracle again and trying to make sense of her winding words, I couldn’t help but feel a surge of panic now. Is she all right? What’s happened?
“Let me go in,” Aisha said. She vanished.
River’s and my breathing was uneven as we waited in tense silence. A few seconds passed before the door opened; it was Aisha, letting us into an otherwise vacant room.
River and I stepped inside and gazed around. For a moment I feared that perhaps somebody had managed to kidnap the oracle and done something with her—after all, she was a most valuable asset to any race of supernatural—but there appeared to be no signs of struggle here. On the contrary, the few possessions the oracle had—a few pots, an old stove, her orbs and other strange artifacts—were neatly tucked away. It looked tidier than I’d ever seen it. The orderliness gave a chilling sense of finality to the emptiness of the room.
My throat dry, I looked from River to Aisha. “Where could she have gone?” I breathed.
Aisha looked just as bewildered as me. “I’ve no idea. She… She’s always been here. At least, every time I’ve visited. I wonder if maybe she went to visit her sister, Pythia.”
“Where does Pythia live?” I asked, my stomach twisting in knots. It made me sick to think of the time passing. We had just over a day left.
“I don’t know where she lives,” Aisha said, shrugging.
Cursing beneath my breath, I was about to grab River’s hand and leave the empty quarters when she pointed to a little package set atop a ledge. We’d been so distracted by the oracle’s absence, it hadn’t been noticed until now.
I walked over to it and picked it up. The wrapping was made of parchment, and within it was something weighty. I unfurled the paper and a tiny glass vial containing vivid green liquid dropped into my palm. Then I caught sight of four words scrawled across the parchment in burgundy ink:
Drink deep, curious fairy.
Curious fairy. Grimacing, I handed the vial to Aisha. The oracle always did have a way with words.
“What do you think this is?” I asked the jinni.
Aisha examined the vial with a deep frown on her face. “She knew that you were coming for more answers,” she murmured. She opened the lid, sniffed the potion, and wrinkled her nose.
“Well?” I asked. I’d had enough dealings with vials of liquid to make me averse to drinking anything out of a bottle for the rest of my life.
“I’m not sure,” Aisha replied, replacing the cap.
“Well, you can’t just drink it, Ben,” River said, taking the bottle from Aisha and examining it herself.
And yet the oracle knew I was coming for answers… and she told me to drink it.
I’d already resigned myself to the fact that the fastest way forward would be to consult the oracle—despite how maddening she could be. And here was her note, giving me a direct instruction… I’d just been to hell and back. Could anything really be worse than that?
“I guess beggars can’t be choosers,” I muttered, taking the potion from River’s hands.
As I took a seat in a rickety chair, River’s face drained of all color. I hated to do this to her, but I had no choice. If we stood a chance of having a future together, we had to take risks.
I removed the cap and, raising the bottle to my lips, downed it in one shot.
An unbearable bitterness overwhelmed my taste buds and stung my tongue, but before I could even gag, my vision started to fade. I felt myself falling backward and I guessed that I would have toppled off the chair, but I couldn’t know for sure. My consciousness was elsewhere.
Darkness enshrouded me, but then there was light. A dim, flickering light. Like candlelight. As if a lens had just focused, I found myself in another cave, quite distinct from the one I’d just left. It was larger, with a concave ceiling. And it was bare except for a burning torch that hung from one wall, a glass flask of murky water, a bundle of tattered blankets on the sharp, rocky ground, and an old, eyeless woman, wearing a long dark dress—the signature garb of the oracle. But this… this was not the oracle I had met. Hortencia, although horribly disfigured, had still appeared youthful. Her face was unlined, as though she was no older than twenty-five. I imagined that if Hortencia had eyes, her face might’ve even been pretty, in a pixie-like way.
This woman’s face was as shriveled as a hundred-year-old’s, her form bent and crooked.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
The woman slid slowly off the rock and padded with bare feet across the sharp ground toward me. Her skin looked thin. I was sure the rocks would cut her soles. “You know me,” she rasped, her lips curving in a knowing smile.