By Mikhail Gladkikh

It was dark, dry, and scary in the long corridors leading to the Hall of Corina. The familiar smell of rotten eggs and some other unidentifiable substances filled the dusty air. Jutta visited this place within the Shrine of Hepe every day, yet each time she felt goosebumps on her skin and expected a shadow of a creature from a different plane of existence to appear on her path. Jutta was the Interpreter, it was her job to collect questions from the Community and ask Corina – The Oracle of the Ever-Present Hepe – for answers and direction. Jutta knew: without Corina’s guidance and Hepe’s benevolent protection, the Community would not survive. To be the Interpreter was one of the highest possible blessings. The skill and sacred knowledge had been passed within her family from generation to generation, from her grandmother to her mother, Hilda. Jutta remembered her mother very well. They would stand together on a hill next to their village, overlooking the lakes below and their majestic snowy landscape, the mother teaching her little daughter the rites and incantations of the Interpreter. 

Jutta moved very carefully along the corridor, carrying her torch to lighten the path, wary of rats and poisonous spiders populating this dark passage. The Shrine of Hepe was located in the Ruins of the Ancients next to Jutta’s village. The past was surrounded by myth, and it was believed the Ancients were elevated by the Gods, who descended from their realm to help people in the act of infinite kindness. Some people said the Ancients knew how to work together with the Gods, they had built magnificent temples, metal monsters, flying palaces, and many other magical things. Now all this was forgotten and only the ruins and a few functioning shrines reminded people of that golden age. The Shrine of Hepe was maintained by a special group of Hepe’s Priests, who knew the rituals and holy ceremonies to interact with the God and guarded this knowledge very closely. 

Finally, Jutta entered the Hall of Corina and set the torch into a special holder near the entrance. She looked around. Some strange colorful offshoots of alien vegetation covered the approaches to the abode of Corina. She turned her gaze at a dark blue wall in front of her, illuminated by a dim light trickling out from below. 

Jutta unfolded pieces of birch bark, on which today’s questions were scribbled. She collected them in the morning from the Community Elders. She uttered a secret phrase and observed with trepidation how the wall in front of her came to life, strange symbols appearing on its eerie surface. This was a ritual to summon Corina. Nobody had ever seen the Oracle, and only very few people could communicate with her. Jutta was very proud to be one of them and provide Oracle’s responses to the Community. One by one, she asked Corina today’s questions. “How could we repair a hole in the roof?”, “Why did my crops turn brown?”, “How do we need to store cabbage for the winter?” – these were some of them. The Oracle answered each question dutifully, with precise instructions, Jutta inscribing them rapidly on the dried bark, until she reached a very strange question. Jutta could not understand why anyone would ask the Oracle a question like that, but she read it anyway. 

  “I am sorry, no information for this question can be found,” Corina answered.

Jutta was dumbfounded – this had never happened before. The Community completely depended on Hepe and His Oracle. If they’d stop providing answers and support the Community, the people would be unable to do anything and just die. Confused, she read the question again and received the same answer. 

Jutta panicked, she thought Corina was angry at her. She knew if she’d come back with no answer, the Elders would demote her from the position of the Interpreter, thinking she was no longer capable of communicating with the Oracle. Jutta could not afford it, being the Interpreter was the essence of her life. Besides, it was obvious she made the Oracle unhappy and lost Corina’s blessing. She could not decide what to do and was shifting her look frantically from the blue wall to the birch bark in her hand.  

 Suddenly, a crazy idea entered her mind. Jutta tried to chase it away, but annoying thought came back. No, people were not made by the Gods to be self-sufficient, they were made to follow Hepe’s Will, she told herself. But what if they couldn’t understand Hepe’s Will? 

Jutta sat in front of the Oracle’s wall in silence for a few moments. Then, with a sudden determination, she stood up and clenched her fists. She would find the way out. She would be brave and would be the master of her fate. She turned around, made a few resolute steps, picked up the torch from the holder, and rushed toward the blue wall. If the Gods decided to leave the Community to perish, the people had to act and think for themselves. The Gods who provide no protection are useless.

Running out of the Shrine, surrounded by flames and falling structures, Jutta heard people screaming and wailing in tears. The Priests were rushing toward the Shrine, trying to put the fire down, with no success. She looked around and saw one of the Elders and the High Priest of Hepe. Jutta came closer and overheard their conversation: Hepe was no longer there, no rituals were able to bring him back, they were doomed and would all die without their God. 

Jutta stood in the middle of the panicking, moaning crowd. She noticed a middle-aged man stabbing himself in the heart with a dagger, falling on the snow, a red halo starting to form around his dead body.  Jutta raised her hands.

“Stop it! Listen to me! I know the will of Hepe!”

Suddenly, the pandemonium stopped. People looked at Jutta with hope and disbelief. 

“The will of Hepe is this: the Community must survive without Him. We need to take care of ourselves. I’ve learned this from Corina. Now, stop crying and start working. We are on our own.”

Jutta looked at the crowd again, most of the folk running away, sobbing and yelling. Yet, some came closer to her. She glanced at the young man to her right. It was Tarvo, he was barely twenty years old. Tarvo looked straight at Jutta, raised his fist in the air, and said: “I am with you!”

She noticed more people joining them, standing shoulder to shoulder. Jutta opened up her palm, in which she still held the piece of bark with a fateful question. Jutta read it, whispering: “Can the Community exist without Hepe?” She knew the answer. 

Mikhail Gladkikh, Ph.D., is a new science fiction author residing in Houston, TX. He has published several short stories on the Wattpad site (https://www.wattpad.com/user/mgladkikh ) and numerous scientific publications in peer-reviewed journals (https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C44&q=mikhail+gladkikh&btnG= ). His professional career provides him a unique perspective on the technologies of the future. He spent sixteen years at Baker Hughes, an Energy Technology Company, where he is working at the forefront of the 4th Industrial Revolution, advancing technologies such as 3D Printing, Industrial Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, and Digital Supply Chain. 

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