Elpis went into labour. Though she couldn’t feel her legs, she could feel the pain. The singing continued, unaware that it was being drowned out by her agonizing screams. The doctor was frantically fishing through his pack for something but appeared unable to find it. Herm held Elpis’s hand, to which she squeezed mercilessly. Potho gazed out over the impossibly calm lake. Was it small, or did it extend out as far as an ocean? It was hard to tell. She couldn’t stop looking.
“How long has Bial been gone?” Lys asked after cursing the chances and tossing his bag away.
Potho didn’t respond. She didn’t actually know. How long had she been trying to figure out if the cavern had a horizon or not?
“A long while,” Herm replied. “I’ll go after him. I’ll be able to follow his path the best.”
Potho was finally shaken from her trance. “Don’t go far. Keep coming back after a few minutes. Go deeper only once you know where you are and that no risks lie ahead.”
“I will.” When he let go of Elpis’s hand, she wailed and beat her fists on the ground.
Potho shared a worried glance with Herm only briefly before he hobbled into the dark.
Lys grabbed at a pot that had tumbled out of his pack. “Potho, get water.”
She looked out over the lake. Wanting and fear battled within her. “I don’t….”
“Elpis is going to need water. Now.” Lys tossed the pot in Potho’s direction, and it clattered at her feet. Elpis gave an alarming moan.
The water beckoned her. Like a Siren. She did not want to go for the same reason she wanted to avoid the forest. The singing was serene, yet…. Why was she sweating?
Herm called out from far in the cave, at first quietly, then with growing concern, before he stopped. Neither Lys nor Potho moved. She called out his name, and eventually he came waddling back into light. To see the look on his face….
“Bial.” Herm shook his head and leaned on his knees.
“Is he dead?” Potho asked.
Herm shook his head, then threw up what remained of his breakfast.
Potho approached and grabbed his shoulder. “Tell me.”
“He….” Herm motioned behind him and shook his head again.
“I’m going,” she announced, ignoring Lys when he told her to come back, lest he curse her name. Herm had not gone far. Bial was nearby.
Though it appeared pitch black at their post, purple light guided her through the rest of the cavern, up through a narrow rock passageway. She had her bow raised, arrow drawn, prepared to let loose on any sudden movement. Shortly she came to an intersection—the cavern opened up to her right. She turned to inspect it.
Bial was sitting up against the far wall, eyes distant and mouth hanging wide open, drool dripping from his lower lip. Potho lowered her bow. “Bial?” She slowly approached, watching him carefully. His eyes were glossy as marbles, his breathing more shallow than a man on his deathbed. He was sitting in a puddle of his own filth. When she knelt next to him, he did not look her way, or otherwise show any sign that he knew she was present. She put her hand on him. “Bial.” Nothing.
She did not know what to do. Was something watching her? She turned this way and that. Only her and Bial were in the alcove. No. Bial was no longer here. She should not be here either.
She stood quickly and left the cave behind, feeling that something was on her heel the entire way. Walking faster did not help. Soon she could see the remainder of their group again.
Then it hit her. Six months. They had travelled together six months, fighting unimaginable and unexpected foes in that country to this; Bial had saved them countless times, fighting men and beasts that would have decimated a lesser man. That powerful warrior had walked twenty paces from them.
Six months. Twenty steps.
“We need to get out,” she told them.
“What happened to Bial?” Lys asked. Even Elpis turned her head in her stupor, wanting to hear news of her gentle giant.
“Bial is…. He.” Potho swallowed. “This place eats souls. This is not. We need out.”
Lys had never heard that tone in Potho before, and did not know how to proceed, or what to make of it. “He’s gone?”
“Yes,” said Herm.
“No,” Elpis whined, tears coming to her eyes, “oh, no, oh, no….”
Herm began to tear up as he watched the frail girl cry. Lys rocked back and forth on his haunches. Potho had to swallow again, for it felt her throat had tied itself in a knot. Elpis’s sobs turned into feral howls; what parts of her body she could move twisted and arched, and she flailed her arms as if to hold onto something would make it stop.
Lys stood up, huffing with rage. “Potho, get the damned water. Herm, sit here by Elpis. I need…we need to find her something.” He cursed loudly and began pacing like a caged animal.
Potho gazed out over the cavern as Herm took his station by the young girl. Elpis wrapped her arms around him and squeezed, fighting for breath. Lys went to his pack again to search for what wasn’t there.
Did she see their voices dancing on the water in the distance? The swirling light played tricks on the glassy water, beckoning her forth. “I cannot. I need to stay,” Potho said. “Herm, I’ll stay with her. You get the water.”
Both men stared at her, but neither said a thing. Herm extracted himself from Elpis’s vise and collected the pot. Potho quickly took Herm’s place, her back turned to the lake, her eyes locked with the girl’s. Eight months ago, Elpis was only a palace servant, called to the king’s bed on a whim. Since then she’d become the only thing standing between anarchy and salvation for Attica. In the beginning Potho abhorred the little whore. Now she could not think of a thing more pure in this world that she desired to protect at all costs. How do you protect someone from pain like this?
“Keep your eyes on me,” Potho said to her. Elpis nodded through her fog. “Don’t lose sight of me. Watch me and you’ll be fine.”
Potho looked to the doctor; she refused to set her eyes in direction of the lake. “What is it?” she asked.
Lys ignored her. “Herm, not too far!”
She squeezed Elpis’s shoulders by accident, causing the girl to yelp and beg. It was sucking them in. They would die.
“Herm!” Potho called, her eyes never leaving Elpis’s. “Don’t look at them. Come back. Follow my voice.”
“What are you talking about?” Lys said.
“Is he coming?” was her reply.
Herm climbed up from the lake, dripping wet, the water rippling restlessly in his wake. He put the pot down by Lys, who dove into it immediately, and sat down on the cavern floor to stare out over the water. Potho grabbed hold of Herm’s ankle, for it was the closest part of him in reach, and searched him with imploring eyes. “Don’t. Look.”
With a tremendous amount of will, Herm looked away. Utter deprivation weighed heavy on him.
Elpis called to Potho weakly, and the ranger bowed her head to bring her ear closer. “What happened to Bial? Please tell me.”
Potho stalled as long as she could. Finally she whispered, “His mind has been stolen from him.”
Despite being paralysed, racked with labour pains, and gods knew what else, the girl started to tear up again solely from loss. “We’re not going to make it out of here.”
Potho almost shook her head but stopped. “We will. Herm and I will find an exit. All you need to do is relax and focus on your child.”
Elpis held her breath and nodded weakly.
Herm knew he needed to get out of this place. The singing sounded so much like Mother. It had been such a long time since he felt so peaceful and at home as he did in the water. He wanted desperately to go back…but underneath it was something wrong, so dark he could not grasp what it was, but knew without a doubt that it was the most abhorrent of things. So he would leave it far behind, and quickly. “I will scout further.”
“Remember what I said,” Potho told him.
“Yes.” Herm gripped Elpis’s hand and leaned in close. “Take care, Elpis. I’ll see you soon.” She said his name repeatedly as he kissed her cheek and walked away, but her attempts to get him to stay were futile. He hobbled away quickly.
Lys lifted Elpis’s head and tipped a cup of water to her lips. She sipped carefully, but spluttered and spit water down her front as another wave of agony hit. For a moment she sounded like a child, the way she cried, but then she sounded much like a wounded woman when she bellowed from the next contraction. Lys had delivered children in his time, but he had never seen this before. For a moment he did not know how to proceed. They were supposed to arrive back at the Attican palace by the time the baby was ready to be born. He had nothing which would offer a smooth birth. Poor young Elpis was in this on her own. He detested being useless.
“Breathe, just breathe,” Lys tried to say, but Elpis screamed over him.