Mercer scratched at the wound on his face. A lucky swipe from one of the goat cultists had robbed him of his sight in one eye, and though he hadn’t seen the damage, Nicyes assured him that when it healed, it would leave an impressive scar.

It seemed as though Arturo’s plan had worked. It had been a night and a day since they’d last skirmished with Pan’s cultists, and they paired off to sleep and keep watch in the interim. Alquis was foraging nearby, which left Mercer alone with his thoughts for the moment.

Perhaps Pan’s cult had decided Mercer and the others were more trouble than they were worth after the ambush, or maybe they decided to leave them to their fates in the woods. There was nowhere really for them to go, and they had no means of leaving the island. He and Nicyes had the strength to swim the lake, but they couldn’t leave Arturo and Alquis alone to fend for themselves. Even to return with aid.

They had to get by, scratching meager sustenance off the rocks and trees. There was no meat to speak of, and none of them were very good at foraging. Esther could’ve kept them fed, but they still had no way of knowing what happened to her.

The simplest explanation was that she was somewhere under all the rock from the collapse. She might’ve even triggered the collapse, to keep the cultists from moving something to the surface. Alquis went over his memory from when he first discovered the well, and Nicyes shared what he remembered from his fight with the beast.

But there was no way for them to get close to the collapsed well to check while the cultists were there, digging through the rubble. They would have to lure the cultists away from the site or otherwise dispatch them, but even counting the casualties from skirmishes, they were still badly outnumbered.

Mercer considered sacrificing himself to create a distraction but he knew Nicyes would dismiss the plan immediately, and by now he himself was realizing the pointlessness of such an action. He thought he heard Alquis returning, and he coughed and scratched at the wound on his face again.

He peered into the dusky gloom of the woods and continued to pick at the irritated wound, but stopped when he coughed again. His vision began to cloud and he stood up in alarm when he noticed the steam rising from beneath the ground where he was sitting. He also saw steam rising from the ground where Arturo and Nicyes were sleeping, but he started choking when he tried shouting to rouse them.

Mercer felt like he was being turned inside out and he sank to his knees. His chest and throat burned, and the vision in his one good eye became hazy. He reached out to Nicyes and grabbed hold of the warrior’s leg as he began to lose consciousness.