The Last Oracle Page 2

Pythia already felt the effect of the pneuma rising from the earth below her. A familiar tingle ran along her limbs. Her throat burned warmly as Apollo entered her. Her vision began to close.

But the child was smaller, more susceptible to the pneuma.

The girl’s head rolled back; her eyelids drooped. Surely she would not survive Apollo’s penetration for long. Still, if there was to be any hope, the girl had to be put to the question.

“Child,” Pythia rang out, “tell us more of this boy and the doom he whispered to you. Where will he rise?”

The small lips moved in a whisper. “From me. From my dreams.”

Small fingers found Pythia’s hand and squeezed.

Words continued to spill from the girl’s lips. “Your house is empty…your springs have dried up. But a new spring of prophecy will flow.”

Pythia’s arms tightened on the girl. For too long, ruin had lingered over the temple. “A new spring.” Hope rang in her voice. “Here at Delphi?”


Pythia’s breath grew more rapid. “Then from where will it spring?”

The girl’s lips moved, but no words came out.

She shook the girl. “Where?”

The girl lifted a boneless arm and placed a hand on her own belly.

With that touch, a vision swelled through Pythia, of silver waters gushing from the girl’s navel, from out of her womb. A new spring. But was it a vision from Apollo? Or was it born from her own hope?

A scream pierced her daze. Hard voices echoed down. From the stairs, a figure stumbled into view. It was one of the elders who had tended the fire. She clutched a hand to her shoulder. A crimson bloom spread from under her palm. The black head of an arrow protruded between her fingers.

“Too late,” the old woman cried out and collapsed to her knees. “The Romans…”

Pythia heard the woman’s words but remained lost in the vapors. Behind her eyes, she pictured the spring flowing from the girl, a new font of prophetic power. But Pythia also smelled the smoke from the Roman torches. Blood and smoke leaked into her vision. The silver spring now ran with a thin stream of black crimson and swept into the future.

The child suddenly sagged in her arms, completely lost to the pneuma’s vapors. Still, as Pythia studied the vision, she watched the dark stream form a black figure…the shadow of a boy. Flames rose behind him.

The child’s words from a moon ago echoed to her.

The brother of the Hebrew boy…he who would set fire to the world.

Pythia held the limp girl. The child’s prophecy hinted at both doom and salvation. Perhaps it would be best to leave her to the Imperial legion, to end such an uncertain future here. From overhead, hard voices echoed down. There was already no escape. Except in death.

Still, the vision swelled in her.

Apollo had sent the child. To Pythia.

A new spring will flow.

She took a deep breath, drawing Apollo fully into her.

What must I do?

The Roman centurion crossed the hall. He had his orders. To slay the girl who spoke of the empire’s doom. Last night, they had captured one of the temple’s servants, a maid. Under the lash—and before he gave her to his men—she let it be known that the child still remained at the temple.

“Bring the torches!” he yelled. “Search every corner!”

Movement near the back of the hall drew his eye—and his sword.

A woman appeared from the shadows of a lower stair. She stumbled forward, weaving two steps into view, unsteady, dazed. Dressed all in white, she bore a crown of laurel branches.

He knew who stood before him.

The Oracle of Delphi.

The centurion fought back a tremble of fear. Like many of the legion, he still secretly practiced the old ways. Even slaughtered bulls to Mithra and bathed in their blood.

Still, a new sun was on the rise.

There was no stopping it.

“Who dares violate Apollo’s temple?” she called out to them.

With the stony weight of his men’s eyes upon him, the centurion marched to face the woman. “Bring forth the girl!” he demanded.

“She is gone. Beyond even your reach.”

The centurion knew that was impossible. The temple was surrounded.

Still, worry pushed him forward.

The Oracle stepped to block him from the stairs. She held a palm against his breastplate. “The adytum below is forbidden to all men.”

“But not to the emperor. And I am under his edict.”

She refused to move. “You will not pass.”

The centurion had his orders under the seal of Emperor Theodosius, handed to him personally by the emperor’s son Arcadius. The old gods were to be silenced, their old temples torn down. All across the empire, including Delphi. The centurion had been given one additional command.

He would obey.

He thrust his sword deep into the Oracle’s belly and drove it full to the hilt. A gasp escaped her. She fell against his shoulder, as in a lover’s embrace. He shouldered her away from him roughly.

Blood splashed across his armor, across the floor.

The Oracle slumped to the marble, then to her side. A trembling arm reached to the pool of her own blood. Her palm settled into it. “A new spring…,” she whispered, as if it were a promise.

Then her body went slack with death.

The centurion stepped over her form and let his sword lead him down the stairs to a small blind cave. An old woman’s corpse, arrow-bit, lay in a black pool of blood. A three-legged chair lay toppled beside a riven crack in the floor. He searched the rest of the room and turned a full circle.


The chamber was empty.

March 1959

Carpathian Mountains


Major Yuri Raev climbed out of the Russian ZiS-151 truck and dropped to the rutted dirt road. His legs trembled under him. To steady himself, he leaned a hand on the green steel door of the battered vehicle, both cursing it and thanking it. The rattle of the week-long trek up into the mountains still made his spine ache. Even his molars seemed loose in his skull. Still, it took such a rugged vehicle to climb the stony switchbacks and river-flooded roads to reach this isolated winter camp.

He glanced over his shoulder as the rear door to the truck’s bed crashed down. Soldiers in black-and-white uniforms hopped out. Their winter garb blended with the snow and granite of the densely wooded highlands. Morning fog still hung in hollows like sullen ghosts.

The men swore and stamped their boots. Small flickers of fire sparked as cigarettes were dropped or ground out. With a clatter, the soldiers readied their Kalashnikov assault rifles. But they were only the rear guard, meant to keep all away.

Yuri faced forward as the second in command of this mission, Lieutenant Dobritsky, marched over. He was a blocky Ukrainian with a pocked face and broken nose, outfitted in winter camouflage. Red rings from his snow goggles still circled his eyes.

“Major, sir, the camp is secure.”

“Is it them? Who we seek?”

Dobritsky shrugged, leaving it for Yuri to decide. They’d already had one false alarm, raiding a winter camp of half-starved peasants, who’d been eking out a living by quarrying stone.

Yuri scowled. These mountains were from another era, Stone-Aged, backward, rife with superstition and poverty. Yet the craggy, forested highlands were also a perfect refuge for those who wished to remain hidden.

Yuri stepped to the side and studied the curve of the rutted track that served as a road. Mud and snow had been churned up by the lead vehicles. Through the trees, Yuri spotted a score of IMZ-Ural motorcycles, each bearing an armed soldier in a sidecar. The heavy bikes had swept up in advance and secured the site, cutting off all means of escape.

Rumor and tortured testimony had led to this remote place. And still it had required scouring the highlands and burning a few homesteads to warm the occasional frozen tongues. Few were willing to speak of the Carpathian Romani. Especially with the stories spoken about this isolated clan in particular, whispers of strigoi and moroi. Evil spirits and witches.

But had he found them at long last?

Lieutenant Dobritsky shifted his boots. “What now, Major?”

Yuri noted the sour turn to the Ukrainian’s lips. Though Yuri was a major in the Soviet army, he was no soldier. He stood a head shorter than Dobritsky, with a slight paunch to his belly and a doughy face. Recruited from Leningrad State University, he had risen to his position through the ranks of the military’s scientific branches. At the age of twenty-eight, he was already chief of the biophysics laboratory at the State Control Institute of Medical and Biological Research.

“Where is Captain Martov?” Yuri asked. The representative of Soviet Military Intelligence seldom left Dobritsky’s side and kept an officious eye on all matters.

“Waiting for us at the camp’s entrance.”

Dobritsky slogged a straight path up the road’s center. Yuri sidestepped to the edge, where the ground was still frozen and the walking easier. Reaching the last switchback, the lieutenant pointed toward a camp sheltered in a cover of steep crags and surrounded by black woods.

“Gypsies,” Dobritsky grunted. “As you ordered, da?”

But is this the right Romani clan?

Ahead, the Gypsy wagons were painted in faded hues of green and black, with wheels as tall as Yuri. Some paint had peeled and flaked to reveal bolder colors hidden beneath, peeks at happier times. The tall wooden wagons were piled with snow and fringed by icicles along the sides. Windows were etched with frost. Blackened pits marked old bonfires. Two fires were still lit deeper in the winter camp, casting flames as high as the tallest wagon. Another wagon stood shattered and burned to a husk.

To one side, a few swaybacked draft horses hung their heads dully from beneath a lean-to of salvaged wood planks and piled stones. Goats and a few sheep ambled through the camp.

The soldiers had the site surrounded. A few dead bodies in ragged clothes and furred jackets lay sprawled here and there. The living looked little better. The camp’s residents had been hauled from their wagons and heavy tents.

Shouts rose from deeper in the camp as the last of the Gypsies were rounded up. A spatter of automatic gunfire sounded. Kalashnikovs. Yuri observed the grim-eyed crowd. Some of the women were on their knees, sobbing. The dark men were steely in their black regard of the intruders. Most were bloody, wounded, broken-limbed.

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