The dark receded, like a crowd of people making way for a monarch, closing in around her again as she passed. She kept her bow raised high, pointing at the purple walls, daring them to make a move.
As she passed Bial’s cave, she halted. She lowered her bow. Brow creased, breath stolen, she walked to the cusp.
His body was still there. A vile stink, thick as smoke, weighed on her lungs. What was left of his skin had grown taut and grey; his eye sockets sucked in the light and devoured it; where once his belly created a vast mountain, his rib cage now created a giant valley. No vermin covered him. Decay like that, without nature to eat away at muscle and sinew and flesh….
Something was breathing down her neck.
She moved away quickly, making her way back to Elpis. But something was wrong. She should have seen the lake looming in the distance by now. She kept walking. Did she turn the wrong way? Spinning around and jogging back, she felt her heart beat on her rib cage. She kept running. And running. And running.
“Elpis! Do you hear me? Elpis!”
It grew harder and harder to breathe. She collapsed on the cave floor and held herself, rocking. “No, no, no no no no no.” She shook her head. Not in this place.
A grunt caught her attention. “Hello?” It sounded again, this time more feral. Potho stood and aimed her bow again. No longer was she in hunting mode; she was the hunted, the cave her predator. Very rarely was she in this position.
The grunting turned to laughter. A smacking noise accompanied it. Further up the tunnel was a fork, and to the right was another nook.
There was a garden. A very beautiful garden, likely from the southern reaches of Attica, for it was full of luscious grass and an array of colourful flowers. Lys told her of southern nature once. Exotic trees and bushes were meticulously arranged to allow a positive flow of energy, to enlighten the mind and soothe the senses. The laughter became a disturbing peal of cackles. The smacking grew louder and faster.
When had she entered the garden? Potho found herself rounding a round bush of morning bells and ducking under the low Terran tree branches. Then she found them.
The bodies were bound together, like stacks of twigs, blood covering their legs and backs. They were piled beside a bed of weeping roses. Beyond that was a stone dais, upon which a naked woman was draped, while Lys worked at her backside. His cackles were cut short when he turned and looked at Potho. He pulled Potho’s dagger out of the woman’s back, whose face was revealed as Elpis’s, and charged.
Potho let loose an arrow into him, but he didn’t slow. He was impossibly fast; the garden was large, but she did not have time to draw another arrow before he was closing the distance, howling with murderous rage. She fled the garden, trying to remember her way through the twists and turns that she had no recollection of traversing. Everywhere she ran she saw another pile of bodies, all stabbed in the back and brutally mutilated by the bowels, stashed between the beautiful shrubs, in the flower beds, under the trees. Lys would add her to his collection.
There—the gate to the garden—she sprinted for it, putting all that was left of her strength into her stride. She slammed up against the onyx bars, but they did not give way. Somehow she scaled the gate and threw herself over the top, nearly impaling herself on the spikes, and landed in a heap in the gravel on the other side. She lay winded while Lys beat against the gates, wailing like a Banshee and reaching for her desperately through the slats. New and old wounds reopened, painting the rocks beneath her crimson. When finally she did get to her feet, Lys lost interest in her, and left to continue his desecration.
Surrounding her now was a mountain top. She had never been to such a place. The sky, the valley, the trees, the other rock faces—everything here was grey. To place it, she would believe herself to be across the seas in Mogol.
Smoke rose from the forest canopy below her. When she looked around to see if she had other options, the garden was gone, replaced by more grey.
She made her descent.
It took hours. Several times she nearly tripped and tumbled down the slope. She passed a stream that had faeries surrounding it. Their coats where the same colours as the trees and the leaves around them, and while they were gentle and beautiful to behold, Potho found herself gripped with anxiety. Wherever there were faeries, elves were not far behind.
The forest here had the same eerie air as the Green Lands standing over the cavern, but the further she travelled, the more serene it became. Faeries started to follow her curiously. The air grew warm.
It did not surprise her to see Bial at the helm of the camp. Many men and women, all most certainly Mogol, were silent, sharpening their weapons, curing leathers, eating roast faerie, sitting in peace with their families. Bial was still a big as ever, but his constitution had changed; where once his gut stuck out further than his nose, he now had enough muscle to make an elf think twice. He looked healthier. Groomed. Mogol. There was a woman sitting beside him, tiny in comparison. She was tending to his hands, arms, legs. When she gazed up at him, she did so as if venerating a god.
Potho moved through the camp, catching no one’s notice but Bial’s. He smiled down at her like father to his daughter. She didn’t know what to find when she got to his feet. She didn’t know what to say. Was there anything left to say? Just standing by him, she could feel something warm radiating from him. Content. Peace. Freedom.
It felt as if she were underwater; sounds were distorted and far-off. She tried to remember how to speak. How did we get here? she thought.
Bial shook his head, then pointed beyond her. She turned.
The warm, welcoming forest now led to the snowy treeline they had crossed hours before. Before the gnarled sentinels stood a man. No, not a man. Tall. Short black hair. Royal blue mantle. Potho dropped her bow.
All the campers had stopped to stare as she walked by. The lieutenant waited for her in the snow, still as a statue, as real as Potho was. It had been so long. So long since she hurt. Since she felt joy. Were those tears in her eyes? That heaviness in her heart…. So that was what love had felt like all those years ago.
It had been ten years, but Antero stood before her unchanged. Not a day appeared to have gone by since her death. Her eyes, a watery green with splotches of gold in them, still held the same playful tone while they bore into Potho. Such a beautiful sight. To behold it….
I never thought I would see you again.
You hoped. Deep down, you hoped for an afterlife. You kept me alive.
Antero gave her usual crooked smile before cupping Potho’s face. A great sigh escaped her; she cried freely, holding onto those hands, not allowing them to leave her again. Oh, their lives back then; how many rangers could say they respected and loved their lieutenant, and that love and respect was returned? The two of them had fought wars side by side, conquering anything in their path and coming out more alive than ever before. The way Antero touched her—life was in that touch, the very purpose for existing and continuing on, battle upon battle. And it had ended so easily. It was not a blade nor any man who had slain Potho’s beloved lieutenant. It had gotten into her lungs and drowned her slowly. There was nothing Potho or Lys could do to prevent it.
I’m here now. You’re here. Stay with me.
Potho opened her eyes and wept; Antero smiled widely before kissing her. Sweet, slow, aching. They held on tight, so tight. It was so real.
Stay with me.
“You’re gone,” Potho whispered against her lips. Antero opened her eyes. Blood trickled from the corners of her mouth.
Please stay with me.
“I love you. I’ll always love you. You are my reason for living. Rest.”
And suddenly Antero’s warmth evaporated from under Potho’s arms.
Potho had spent years locking Antero away. So long building walls and closing doors to her heart, and it had all escaped. All it took was that moment, one false moment with the most honourable woman in the world to dissolve her defences. Her heart had been reopened, and from it poured all of her demons to haunt her for the rest of her days. This she knew. She could not escape them a second time.
When she finally found the strength to stand and wipe away her tears, she found herself standing in front of the trees alone. Something had changed, however. She looked over her shoulder. The snowfield loomed behind her. Their footprints were in the snow.
How did she get out? She ran into the trees, the air shifting. There was no sign of her troupe having fallen into the earth; the ground here remained undisturbed. She ran about wildly. She called Elpis’s name, then shrieked madly for her, throwing about snow, caught in a frenzy, trying to dig her way back into that evil cave.
Something cracked. She ceased shovelling and snapped her head up. The world was still. But she was no longer alone.
She stood slowly and began to back away. Her eyes were up in the trees, watching each and every one of them. None of them moved. It was hiding.
Her eye caught on something—she made a double take at a nearby tree. It looked thicker up top. She saw its beady black eyes the moment before it roared and launched itself from the tree at her.
Potho turned and bolted. She ran faster than she ever had in life, but the entire way she knew she would not escape it. Elves were as tall as three fully grown men and as strong as a squadron. Its giant tree trunk legs made the earth rumble with each giant leap. Potho heard her own scream as it drew in on her like a cat chasing down a snail. It snatched her up, its twig-like claws slicing through her tunic and making her bleed. It turned her so that she could look into its bark-covered face, its vine-like hair, before it opened its jaws wide and tore her in half.