The shimmer in the air around the temple fell once the guardian was dead. Now, Montrose saw it clearly. The facade of beauty gave way to a structure in disrepair. Stone columns shifted from eons of neglect. The relief sculptures along the front roof beam were cracked and pockmarked. One beam had fallen, littering the floor between the colonnade and the front door. Montrose climbed the stairs, stepped over the debris and found the tall doors askew, one ground into the marble floor, the other cracked under the weight of the lintel.
The doors did not budge. The crack was just big enough for her to crawl through. Montrose laid her shotgun on the steps, took her sword in hand, and squeezed through the gap.
The interior glowed with torchlight, the shadows shifting and flickering. Montrose moved carefully, studying every shadow as she passed, peering into the hidden recesses of the antechamber. Despite the illumination, this space appeared more like a ruin than an active shrine.
A tattered curtain of faded velvet blue hung across the inner doorway. Montrose pushed it aside with the tip of her sword. Peering into the great hall. The inner chamber was clear of debris. Montrose checked the entry before stepping inside. Two broad colonnades led up to a dais at the end of the chamber where a woman reclined alone on a faded lounge. Two golden vessels suspended from chains flickered with fire, flanking the dais.
The woman did not appear to be as neglected as the temple she dwelled in, but neither was she the godlike beauty Montrose had expected. She was neither young and spritely nor old and wizened, but looked instead to be middle-aged, her face puffy with waxy crags around her eyes.
Montrose did not hesitate. She stepped forward and knelt before the dais. She bowed her head and said, "Oh revered oracle, I am Montrose, warrior of the Knights of Truth, and I come seeking guidance in this time of peril."
The woman stared down at her as if in disbelief. Then she let out a dry cackle. "Lady Montrose, you are too late. You'll find no guidance here, for the future is now forfeit, and my vision provides no clear path."
Montrose stood. "The future is forfeit?"
"Aye. The creature you slew guarded only an empty shell."
"Then the great prophecy of the Godsbane is fulfilled? One has risen up and taken the throne of God?"
"To my eyes, the prophecy is nullified. All prophecy amounts to nothing now."
"I don't understand. Is the prophecy fulfilled or not? Has the Godsbane not risen? Has he not made the human sacrifice and—"
"I can speak of the sacrifice. This I know for certain: the sacrifice is complete. The Rat Messiah cast his victim into the void—into the one place that no one must ever go. Not even the Goddess herself dares to step into that place of peril."
The oracle threw her hands up in a gesture of defeat. "And that is all I know. Beyond that moment, there are no seers or prophets or oracles. There is only the infinite unknown."
"The sacrifice has blinded you?"
"Blinded? Nay. It has shown me too much, too many possibilities and no pattern to draw from the chaos. So many possible realities now plague me. There are a billion billion potential outcomes in this new world. All unique, all inevitable."
Montrose sighed. "Then you have nothing to offer me in my quest?"
The oracle blinked down at her. "What is your quest?"
"I seek the Godsbane. Whether the prophecy is fulfilled or no, I am sworn by oath to find him and know the truth behind the prophecies."
"And to slay him?"
Montrose shook her head. "I am not an assassin. My Holy Order has only one purpose, to learn truth."
The oracle scoffed. "Truth? What truth? Without a future, there can be no reckoning, no weighing of truth against lies. Your Order is likely gone, anyway. Your oath has no meaning now."
"My oath is with the Universal Power. It persists whether my Order stands or falls."
"I doubt even a Universal Power remains. The Goddess has fallen silent. I receive no guidance from above any longer."
Montrose stared at the oracle. The oracle stared back. Finally, Montrose said, "I am told the Godsbane dwells to the east of here, a king amidst the mountain spires. He gathers more sacrifices to renew his spell and seize power."
"Sacrifices?" the oracle repeated. "More than one?"
"That is what I've heard."
"Then you've heard a lie. The spell that subjugates the heavens requires only one human soul for sacrifice. That has always been foretold."
"You believe the king is a fraud?"
The oracle stared down, her eyes glazing over. "I cannot say. Perhaps the rules have changed. In this chaos, the Goddess herself can not know."
Montrose frowned. "This has been a disappointing visit."
"That is true of most oracles. Pilgrims come seeking certainty, but there can be no certainty for men and women with fleeting resolve."
"That has never been a problem for me."
"You've spoken to oracles in the past?"
"Yes. The last directed me to a village called Holcomb. She promised that there I would find the Godsbane."
"And did you?"
"I found the direction I need to locate him."
They stared at each other a moment longer. Then Montrose turned away. "I must go."
As she left, the oracle called after her. "If it is true, if the Rat Messiah—your Godsbane—makes another sacrifice, then this reality is an in-between, a timeless space amidst two storms."
Montrose turned back. "What does that mean?"
"It means you should be prepared for anything, for anything can happen here. You will find no truth in this realm, Lady Montrose, no matter how strong your determination. Reality itself is in flux."