The Cave of Doubts
by Jonathan Higgs
Part 1: The Midnight Shore
The oars of the row boat slowed as we emerged from the shadow of the trireme, the moonlight glittering on the ocean’s supple surface as we approached the midnight shore. The black sand shifted noiselessly and allowed the boat to smoothly dock itself.
We stepped off cautiously, feet sinking into the smooth volcanic sand which quickly enveloped them to the ankle. Gazing up at the ruined temple looming above us, shielded by jagged rocks, I spread my arms and proclaim, “Behold, Delphi sacred island of Apollo, the light of truth that pierces the mist that clouds the minds of men!”
Silence — even the waves gliding onto shore did so without sound or whisper. Strange luminescent plants sprouting throughout the barren volcanic wasteland continued to sway, yet there was no breeze in the air. Even Patrolicus said nothing as he turned, with the air of one used to the routine, to deal with the boat.
Grabbing the stern with one dinner plate-sized hand he heaved the boat further up the shore so that we would not lose it to a change of tide. Admiring his gargantuan strength and physique, I’ve long believed his claim to be a spawn of one of Heracles’s famous trysts with the daughters of King Thespius. When asked in jest which daughter it was, he looked at me accusatorially, the great capacity to rage inherited from his ancestor simmering just behind his brown pupils. The matter was swiftly dropped.
Following the shoreline, we come across the only passage to the temple left spared from the destruction — a cave, the outside of which has long been smoothed from the waves of the sea, but with a line of jagged stalagmites around the ceiling and floor of its mouth; a gaping maw ready to swallow all those unlucky enough to enter. We paused before entering, the moonlit water pooling around our ankles, to look to each other. With a slight nod, we plunge into the cave and into darkness.
After hours of slipping on wet stone and cutting our limbs on sharp jagged edges, the left wall of the passage gave way to reveal a cavernous pit beneath us. A waterfall descending into the pit from far above our heads concealed what lay in the passageway behind it. The ghostly shimmer of lights refracted through the water danced on the cave wall behind us. One would expect the massive downpour of water to be deafening, but unsettlingly, the waterfall was completely silent. We walked on.
Though but a whisper in my ear, the voice was smooth and melodious. I turned and saw through the thick curtain of water, the shadow of a man. No, not a man! Though he was proportioned as such, the shadow stood nine feet tall, a thick tail twisting behind him and on his head stood two proud horns of a ram.
“A devil!” Patrolicus cried. Gripping a stalagmite on the wall, he ripped it from its sheath, ready to defend us.
I motion him to stop and be silent.
“Greetings stranger.” I said, “I am Joseph of Iolcus and this is Patrolicus born of Heracles. Are you friend or foe?”
There is a pause, then the shadow merely nods in response. I smiled to myself, it was going to be one of these games, I just have to ask the right question.
“We seek the oracle and her council. Does she still remain on this ruined isle?”
Again, another pause followed but then the voice replied
“She…lingers still though not much longer.”
Encouraged I push further
“Does the path we trek lead to her?”
Another pause and then the devil whispered, “the path ahead of you...” The shadow of the devil’s arm rose and pointed towards the exit, the water distorting and elongating his arm as it fell. “The path ahead of you will take you to the oracle...eventually.”
We take our leave and we head towards the exit of the chamber, but as we neared I hear whispered.
“I wish you luck among the mist.”
Puzzled, I turn to inquire but the Devil behind the water had disappeared, suddenly the falling water ceased, the veil was lifted to reveal the other side of the pit, of which no trace of the shadow remained.
A rumbling sound emanated from beneath our feet, small at first but in the serene silence of the cave, it became all consuming. The ground began to shake beneath us, fearing falling into the pit we clung to the walls and could only watch as thick steam erupted from below, thickening into a fog as it cooled down, enveloping us. I reached out to grip the arm of my companion, but my arms found nothing.
I was alone in the mist.
Part 2: The Mist
Clinging to the walls as a guide, I push further into the cave, Calling for Patrolicus, but the only response was my own mocking echo. Alone and afraid, the mist of the cave seemed to become heavier and heavier as I pushed through it, shrouding me in its heavy cloak and slowing my pace. Breathing it in my mind became consumed with thoughts of paranoia. Eventually the mist began to cling to my arms like a thick treacle,. I collapse to the ground in exhaustion, the mist now physically pressing my head into the cave floor.
A voice sharp with mockery, was one that was all too familiar, indeed when I looked up I saw a familiar face, clad with armour, spear and shield like an ancient sentry. My teacher Odell stared at me, his bright eyes concealed by the mist
“Odell…” I gasp the mist still weighing on my back “what are you doing on Delphi?”
“That is a question that I could pose to you, I speak for the people, your people who wonder why you have abandoned your kingdom and your duty in this selfish voyage. Your country is on the brink of catastrophe and Iolcus is without its king. I am ashamed to have once called a boy so conceited and prideful my student.”
I recoil from these words, but the man in front of me was the very one who taught me the art of rhetoric. Letting my anger and confusion guide my words I fired back.
“ You forget yourself Odell, you yourself forget the reason why I left, Amphrite was a citizen of Iolcus too and what happened on that day was not just. With the gods on my side…. I will return home soon. That is my promise.”
My teacher regarded me with a cool air, the mist still obscuring his face. I felt my fingers twitch, itching for the sword that I had left on the deck of the trireme. As suspected he raises the spear to stab me in a swift movement.
I closed my eyes and wait for the blow to strike, but feel nothing. I tentatively opened them to find Odell gone and the mist retreated leaving me kneeling in the cavern.
Free of the mists weight, I stand and push forward, the mist now merely pooling around my ankles, but the confrontation weighed heavy in my mind. And upon a fit of madness I cried out “What is this trickery?!!” the question repeated many times as it echoed throughout the cave
“Joseph!” I hear a familiar voice cry, and I look as the vast bulk of Patrolicus rushed towards me, we embrace, glad to be reunited. “I thought I lost you back there”
I step back regarding the man “Why did you run off?”
He stares at me for a second and then looks to the wall, flickers of mist still lingering among the crevices.
“This mist is strange…I’m seeing things”
“Yes” I concur glad that my own sanity was not in question “I saw my old teacher from Iolcus.”
His eyes met mine once more and for the first time I saw how frightened he truly was.
“I saw worse than that…death and destruction on a scale unimagined.” He paused his brow furrowed in thought. “I saw that this voyage will be the last for many of those that join it. Joseph you are like a brother to me and I’m with you to the end. But others that stand with us…. I worry that what you ask will be too much for them.
He licks his lips and stares into my eyes “Are you willing to sacrifice lives on such a scale for one woman? A friend’s life?
Taken aback by my old friend’s sudden sombreness and eloquence I take a moment to think
“What choices I make I live by, would I trade a life to undo the crime that has been done to my sister? Yes, I’d trade my own first!”
My friend smiles sadly and nods with approval, his features began to blur and distort, his body twist and collapse into itself as the form that was once Patrolicus disperse into the mist.
I put my hand in the fog that was once my friend but there was nothing to be done, steeling myself against the next apparition that would stand in my way I walk through the mist.
But surprisingly for the hours that passed very little occurred, and I soon found myself at the exit of the cave…bright light shining through the dense mist ahead. But there through the veil a figure approached me, hunched and shuffling forward with a stick, I knew it could only be her.
“Amphrite” I breathed and she stopped before me
“Joseph” she croaked. A voice I thought Id never hear again, “I’m so cold”
I embrace her, noting how real she felt, her body malformed and skin stretched across spindly bone pressed into me as she had once in life.
“I’m going to save you Amphrite I promise, I will get justice from the gods that made you so” I state looking into her face, marred by disease and twisted by a cruel design. I thought id never seen anything more beautiful.
“I’m alone lost and adrift” she says looking past my shoulder, never meeting my gaze. “why did you leave my body unburnt for the worms to feast on, why have you denied me my final rites and left me to wander in the abyss of Hades. How could you betray the love I had for you.”
This time, I am prepared and I knew what to say
“Amphrite…when we were children, playing and learning together what was it that I promised you?”
She paused and is still for a moment and she states. “ to love each other always.”
I grimly smile “ It is as I thought, you are not Amphrite and you sully her by adopting her image. You are merely another trick of the mist. The real Amphrite would know that the promise I made to her is the reason why I would sacrifice everything. Begone treacherous spirit! You may have stolen her image. But your words betray you!” And with that her form collapsed into the mist.
Not wasting time, I dashed towards the the cave’s exit into the moonlight, fingers of mist still clinging to my limbs as I launch myself out of the cave. I collapsed onto soft grass and waited for my strength to return.
After my rest I look around, I was in a rich and luscious grove. One that could not possibly have survived on the rocky arid lands of the Delphi.
“Time is indeed a tricky thing in the cave” A familiar sing song voice echoed throughout the grove. “the most difficult questions to answer are those left unasked, you cannot confront ignorance until you confront the truth.”
I grab a thick trunk from the ground and whip around “Show yourself devil!” I cried, hurling the log into the thicket and heard a distinct thump. The grove was silent for a moment but then, sweet notes of music emerged that soothed my strained temper and calmed the spirit. The echoes of the mist that lingered in the mind soon retreated. and I found myself laying on the grass letting the notes wash over me, feeling relaxed as I hadn’t felt for an age.
As the music entered a crescendo I heard the approaching of heavy footfalls and a shadow loomed above me. “You overcame the cave…much faster than anyone I’ve seen before. Well done well done indeed!” The melodious voice no longer a whisper but was now strong and bestial.
I gaze up at the stranger and see his true form. The creature was huge, strong and sleek; curling horns arose from his goat like head and shaggy fur white fur around his legs and head gave him the appearance of a primordial monster, clutching a set of pipes in his hand. He was a backwoods king, a fey lord over strange subjects. And it was utterly impossible for him to be here before me.
“A satyr” I breathed “but I thought…”
The satyr’s lips curled up upon being recognised revealing blunt white teeth. His ancient eyes crinkled with a quiet sorrow. “I am all that is left of my kind, and even I shan’t linger for long.
A moment of silence fell between us and then I asked, “what do I call you satyr?”
The sadness in his eyes disappeared and he laughed aloud the sound booming throughout the glen “many who come here seeking answers don’t have the resolve to ask the right questions. You are the first to ask that one in an age. But you may call me Pan.”
“Is Delphi your home Pan?”
“Now and again, live as long as I and you will accumulate many homes, Delphi serves when I am feeling weary and cynical about the world. But I find every once in a while, someone makes it through that cave and reignites my passion. But yes I have lived here long and I know the oracle well, she awaits you.”
I step forward ready to meet her. But stop myself “I cannot leave Patrolicus, he still remains trapped in the cave amongst the infernal mist I must find him.”
The fey lord looked on me with no expression and then carefully put his hand on my shoulder. He smelled like autumn leaves, sweat and animal fur.
“Your friend….is lost to the caves…. until he is able to face and overcome himself he shall remained trapped.”
“I cannot leave him” I protest, my words to his phantom in the cave weighing heavy on my mind.
“A man like your friend….a man with such a strong rage must have inflicted a lot of pain onto others. A lot within himself that he must face. Time passes differently in the cave, in a day, week or a hundred years he shall emerge. Only after he has fully confronted who he is, flaws and all, will he be able to hear the truth of the oracle. I sense that he will be the first sacrifice among many that you will journey with. Now come.”.
Grudgingly I ascend the temple steps, letting my new companion lead the way, and as we ascend the to the ruined temple, to Amphrite, to my destiny. The words I said in the cave now seem as hollow and vapid as the apparition I said them to. What choice I make I live by, would I trade a life to undo the crime that has been done? Yes I’d trade my own first.