The cavern may as well have been an anthill for demons. There were so many twists and turns, forks and dead ends that Herm had lost his way easily, despite having devoted years of study to mapping and finding his way. As he passed different tunnels with mysterious sounds and backtracked to find a completely changed path, he quickly came to the realization that he was not plotting the cavern—the cavern was plotting him. Fear did not take him; he remembered that all dark paths only needed a light to be traversed, and that light came from a clear mind.
He heard tinkling laughter. “Elpis?” He moved back along the cavern. There—was that not Bial’s final resting place? He peeked inside. The man was not there. Had he recovered and returned to the group? Herm was close to them now. He could see for himself.
As soon as he rounded the bend and saw the lake from the corner of his eye, singing caressed his ears once more. That same longing and captivation wormed in his mind; it called to him, begged for him. When he was in the lake the first time…oh, gods, it had been nigh impossible to tear himself away. If Elpis hadn’t been in dire need of their help, he would have answered the call of the lake willingly, despite sensing its wrongness. He wanted to submit to it now.
Clear mind. Elpis. Don’t forget why you’re here.
When he looked to where she should have been, he saw a pile of bones.
Perhaps the cavern had twisted itself to send him to another corner of its multidimensional depths. But no, that was the same rocky shore of the utterly still lake. Those rock formations in the distance had the exact same arrangement. He was in the same place.
He approached the bones and realized they sat upon layers and layers of very, very old material. When he touched it, he felt dizzy. It used to be fur.
The most gripping of chills ran down his back. He could feel the eyes on him.
When he turned, he saw a young woman standing before him, with blonde tresses that touched the floor, and the most flawless figure to rival any goddess. He stood swiftly and shifted backwards, unsure what to do. It was hard to tear his eyes away from her nakedness, but when he did, he recognized her face. She was the spitting image of her mother.
The goddess put a finger to her lips and shook her head. Her grey eyes were made from storm clouds, her skin from ice. The sun seemed to shine when she smiled, however. The same finger with which she hushed him was now pointed towards the lake.
The singing grew louder. The moment he looked into that golden-purple light, he knew there was no more fighting. The goddess laughed once more; she was right beside him suddenly, merrier than a princess on her wedding day. She took his hand and urged him forward. They went together.
As he stepped down the slope, he heard their voices. They were lost in his past, but it was them without a doubt ringing in his ears now. All the cruelties he’d faced. Their insults, their hatred. He heard his companions—Potho, Bial, Lys—their doubts in the beginning becoming praises near the end. His mother, bestowing wisdom upon him. As the water came to chest level, one voice spoke louder than the rest.
Years before he became a mapmaker for the king, he spent his life with the Church, though never became a Devoted. He used to be given a slot in which he was granted the podium to speak of virtues and a level of higher thinking. This went on for months, with no one muttering a word for or against his sermons. Eventually, one middle-aged, repugnant, uncouth man stood, folded his arms, and interrupted Herm’s speech. “What is it you’re preachin exactly, little man?”
Herm informed him he was speaking of the ways in which a better world could be achieved—one without prejudice, deceit, ill communication, or unnecessary encumbrance.
The man had snorted. “You’re jes waiting for somethin that won’ happen.”
Herm smiled as he sunk beneath the surface, for he knew now how wrong that man was. He could see the world he’d hoped to help create before his eyes. They were all waiting for him to guide the way.
The last thing he heard was Elpis, but he missed what she had to say.