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ODE TO THE PAST (with the occasional nod to the present)

Behind THE ORACLE cover: the priestess

This is just my opinion, but the most haunting element of THE ORACLE cover is the pair of hands reaching through the smoke. It conveys both desperation and hope, themes that are prevalent throughout this novel.

The hands belong to the oracle of Delphi--the priestess who was conscripted to Apollo's service and acted as his mouthpiece to mortals. She sat on a tripod above a fissure in the earth from which flowed ethylene gases that caused her to fall into a trance. She looked into a bowl of sacred water from Apollo's spring and foretold the future to seekers who came from all over the world to be dealt their fate.

In THE ORACLE, we meet two priestesses: Aristea, the last oracle of Delphi who watched Apollo's temple (and paganism) fall to ruin in the fourth century; and Phoebe, the child priestess in the present day. The hands could belong to either.

We spoke a little about Aristea in the previous blog post, so here I'll share more about Phoebe. Taken from her mother at age 6, she was reared by her father--the fallen-from-grace Colonel Stephen Bellamy--to be the reincarnate oracle. Now 12, she sits on the same tripod as her ancestors and sees the future through a miasma of ethylene. Though she doesn't know it, Phoebe is a pawn in Bellamy's sinister plan to build a tectonic weapon targeting the western world.

Below is an excerpt from a scene inside the inner sanctum, where Sarah and the high priest, Isidor, are caught in an earthquake and rescued by Phoebe.

A low rumble, like distant thunder, sounded. Isidor placed a hand on the cave wall, his fingers vibrating. “It’s coming.”

Before Sarah had a chance to question it, the ground beneath them shook. It lasted only seconds, but she’d been in earthquakes before—though being trapped beneath the Earth’s surface added a new twist—and knew the pattern.

Another rumble came, this time louder. Hairline cracks formed in the stone.

Isidor snapped his head toward her. “We’ve got to get out of here.” The ground moved again. “Now.”

He grabbed her wrist and pulled her out of the chamber just as pieces of stone dislodged and came raining down. In his haste, he hadn’t bothered to take the lantern, so they ran through the dark tunnel, where visibility was nil.

As the limestone around them quaked, Sarah felt as if the walls were closing in on her. She lost her footing, and her shoulder scraped against the craggy stone. She felt an initial sharp sting, but the sensation was dulled by the adrenaline rushing through her body.
A major tremor knocked them off their feet. Bigger chunks of stone fell from the ceiling. She crouched instinctively and lifted her arms over her head.

“Get up,” Isidor yelled, hoisting her upright.

Stumbling, they ran as the tunnel disintegrated into a rock shower. She heard a dull thud, followed by a grunt, and suspected Isidor had been hurt by the onslaught of debris. Injury or no, he ran as fast as the shaking ground allowed.

He turned left, then stopped abruptly. “The exit is closed.”

Sarah reached in front of her and felt a pile of fallen rocks. She turned toward him. Though she couldn’t see his face, she heard his panicked breaths. She grasped his arms. “Listen to me, Isidor. When Plutarch wrote of this tunnel, he mentioned two exits. Where is the other?”

“Another exit . . . I . . . I don’t know.”

“I do.” A tiny voice came from behind them.

“Phoebe.” Isidor’s voice suggested agitation. “You shouldn’t be here.”

“I’ve come to help you.” Phoebe’s voice was delicate but calm. “This way.”

Sarah followed the swish of fabric down another passage. The girl was light on her feet, producing no sound of footfall. It was almost as if they were following a ghost.

The tremors quieted.

“In here.” Her voice issued from the left now, perhaps from another chamber. “You must climb.”

Phoebe led them, single file, up a series of steps carved into the rock like a ladder. The three stayed close to one another—so close Sarah could smell sandalwood and frankincense every time Phoebe swung her head. When they could climb no more, Phoebe spoke over her shoulder. “Wait.”

A moment later, the ceiling cracked open and a shaft of gold pierced the blackness.
Sarah squinted. When her eyes adjusted, she saw the lower part of Phoebe’s slender form slip through the crack and disappear. She tried to follow suit, but her shoulders were too broad to fit through the opening.

“Let me help.” Isidor stood next to her on one of the stone rungs, and she saw the blood smeared across his face and matted on his cropped black beard. The top of his white gown was splattered with red.

He grunted as he pushed the stone out of the way, creating a wider opening. He spotted Sarah as she lifted herself out of the cave. Finally on terra firma, her knees collapsed and she slumped to her side, gulping the fresh air.

Isidor kneeled next to Sarah and put a trembling hand on her shoulder. “This was not a random earthquake. It’s part of his plan.”

She sat up. The two-inch-long gash on his forehead still wept, but she sensed that wasn’t why he appeared so shaken. “Are you saying the tremor was controlled?”

He nodded. “He is behind it. He needs but one thing to destroy us all—the formula inscribed on the stone.” He leaned in. “If you tell him where it is, you will hasten the endgame.”

She pulled away. “And if I don’t, he’ll kill Daniel.”

“I will be completely transparent: the formula determines the precise depth at which catastrophic seismicity occurs. Pythagoras had spent years trying to figure out what brought about the Minoan Eruption and the massive earthquake that preceded it. At the twilight of his life, he solved the problem and handed the formula to the priestess at Delphi—his teacher. The knowledge was meant to keep a disaster of that scale from happening again.” In his deep brown eyes was a profound sadness. “But it could also be used to trigger such a disaster. Delphinios already has the tectonic weapon; he just needs to know where to point it. If a megathrust earthquake wiped out the Minoans, it can certainly devastate the Americans.”

He stood and offered her a hand. “I know I am asking you to make the ultimate sacrifice, but consider how much is at stake.”

Sarah let him help her up. She wanted to regard Isidor as an ally, but in this elaborate web of deception, she trusted only herself. “My mind is made up. Regardless of the stakes, I won’t put his life on the line. I will do this my way.”

“I pray you will be successful, for all our sakes.” He gazed at Phoebe, who was sitting on a rock nearby. The girl’s hair, a long swathe of golden brown curls, tangled and coated with the Earth’s dust, billowed in a rogue gust. He turned back to Sarah. “Now, go. I will tell Delphinios you escaped.”

Isidor walked to Phoebe and helped her to her feet. As they both walked toward the woods, Phoebe turned to Sarah. The breeze tousled the girl’s hair, revealing a tiny face as pale as chalk and hazel eyes tarnished with an anguish no child should know.

Sarah’s mission had just gotten more complicated.

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