Her arms were folded tight to her chest and her legs and she tried to unfold enough to kick, to fight, then froze against the absolute iron and fur paws holding her tight. S,he couldn’t scream but she could whimper and then she realized she could bite.
She twisted her head sideways, realizing suddenly that the wings… those glorious wings were beating hard and they were off the ground. If I can make it flinch it would be better to be dropped, than ripped apart alive.
Her first try got her a mouthful of soft fur and she tried to pull on it, as effectual as a kitten. Her second and third tries were no better, then her fourth try she found skin.
“OUCH!” The sphinx roared, deafening Naida but she wouldn’t let go. “Stop it! Stop it! Wild kitten, I’m not going to hurt you—ouch!”
There was a horrid jolt and Naida got thrown head over heels, into complete darkness, her mouth full of blood and fur stuck in her teeth. She tumbled and landed on what felt like a yielding roll of leather coiled up before someone caught her, in human arms and held her. “You’re safe, you’re safe!”
“ASTERI!” Naida spit the name out in a horrified scream.
“I’m right here. Stop it. You’re safe. This is my friend Sybaris and her friend Temis.”
“Friends?!” She was crying and shaking, and couldn’t keep her voice steady. “Friends???”
“Yes…” it was Temis’s voice out of the dark, the velvety purr rolling over Naida like a comforting hand.
“You needn’t fear, little daughter.” The other voice out of the dark was as soothing as what Naida imagined northern velvet to be… or as slick as the glossy silk ribbon the baker’s wife had had. “You are with a friend, and thus are a friend, and I do not eat friends.”
Asteri’s hoof twinkled in the dark. He giggled. “Thank you, Sybaris. And thank you for your hospitality. I’m sorry I’m not grown enough yet to remember you.”
“You needn’t worry,” the glorious voice said. “That will come back.” Naida felt as though someone were looking at her.
“Hello, Lady Sybaris,” she said in a small voice.
Temis purred out of the dark. “We thought that if those awful people saw you taken by a sphinx we could do two things. One: get you away from them. Two: steer them away from this path because it’s blocked further on and is unstable. They’ll get to Kuvatala before they perish that way.”
“Sybaris?” Naida managed to squeeze the name out, shakily. “and Temis?” she repeated.
“I’m not going to get eaten.”
“No, no, child, however much the Shining Twins accuse us, we don’t eat children! We’re teachers.”
The powerful hands set her on the coil of cushion or whatever it was. “I can’t see anything,” she said softly.
“Yes.” Sybaris said. “And in my opinion as a healer, you should have a wash, some food and some sleep before we actually spring anything else on you.”
“I…” she was suddenly angry, ragingly angry. “You two have lived up here my whole life?”
“Oh, longer than that,” Asteri said. “They’ve been here almost since the rocks cooled.”
“That’s an exaggeration, Goat-Mane,” Sybaris said tartly. “We’ve only been here since the Twins got upset with us.”
“WHY DID YOU LEAVE ME IN AFARIS? IF YOU WANTED ME AWAY FROM THEM? IF YOU KNEW I WAS THERE?”
There was a startled silence in what sounded like a gigantic cavern. Sybaris coughed, almost a hissing noise and Temis cleared her throat. “You mean… I mean you’re human, right? Best raised by humans? Wasn’t that for the best?”
Naida collapsed against the warm bolster and just cried. “I was so alone and waiting for my Great One and now I’m bleeding and I’m surrounded with what sound like a whole SET of Great Ones and none of you are my companion and you left me alone with those mean people, except for Zeno and Oios…”
“Zeno knew us.” Sybaris said flatly. “We asked her and she thought it would be best this way, though none of us knew this disaster was going to come…”
The sphinx cleared her throat. “Neither Sybaris or I could see clearly. We could only see washes of fire and vague, wild images of all encompassing disaster. In one vision I saw all of Atlantis drowned. In one vision Sybaris had there was another sea ripped open and most humans in this part of the world died… obviously this isn’t what happened here and now, but then and there.”
Naida was just sitting, staring toward Temis’s voice in the dark, Numb, not really taking in anything. She was dirty and hungry and kept pulling fur and hair out of her mouth with her fingers, but not wanting to spit blindly.
“What did I say?” Sybaris cut in.
Naida couldn’t say anything, her throat closed up tight. “Oh, child…” the warm smoothness under her hands moved suddenly, vanishing away from her, and a hand took hers. “Be welcome. I’m sorry you cannot see. I fear that you would not find it very pleasant to see. Asteri…”
“I’ll show her to the baths.”
“You don’t remember me but you remember baths?” Sybaris sounded amused instead of angry.
“I can smell them,” he said. “We can talk after she sleeps.”
“That’s what I said.” Sybaris’s voice rose higher and higher toward the ceiling and the bolster under Naida shifted so she was raised up onto her feet. She put out her hands to keep from falling forward and found one of Asteri’s horns.
“Come on,” he said. “I remember how to get there and I can see in Syb’s darkness.”
“What?” She stumbled after his tug on her hand, staggering with tiredness and hunger and suddenly she was so thirsty. Her last water had been the single half-empty cup Yalenda had given her… and why had that been half-empty? She shrugged and realized that she could see now.
As she stepped around what she suddenly saw as a corner, Naida could see as though there were candles and lamps everywhere. The cave walls glowed with light and the pools in the floor shone blue-green. Thousands of glow worms hung from the ceiling like stars trapped mid-fall. There were four pools, each with steps carved into their rims, their edges worn smooth.
“Take your time, soaking. The water’s hot and you need to get all the ash off you, it’s starting to make your skin raw,” Asteri said. “I’m just going to go talk to Syb and Tem.”
Naida pulled off her tunic and put a toe in the water. It was hot. Better than sun-warmed hollows on the edge of the sea! She eased in and sank down gratefully. It felt so good. She ducked under and watched the horrid mass of ash float free of her curls and drift away. When her breath ran out she came up, shaking her hair and raked her hands through it, slowly, getting her fingers caught in the mats and tangles.
After a few more dunkings she laid her head back on the smooth edge and just let her legs float in the water. That was when she could hear Sybaris and Asteri talking in the other cavern. Temis wasn’t saying anything but Naida could tell that Syb was angry with Asteri.
“Chimera, you are being stubborn!” The Lamia’s amazing voice was rough edged with annoyance. “There is absolutely no reason to keep it from her.”
“Syb.” Asteri answered as snootily as he’d announced his name. “I’m her mother’s Bennu as far as I can remember. I know what I’m doing. She doesn’t need to know.”
“You mean you don’t remember and don’t want to look stupid in front of your heart-friend’s child.”
Naida could hear the sniff all the way from here and got out of the bath, dripping and padded to what, from this side, she could see as a wall of darkness, with Asteri and Sybaris talking from the depths of it. She could hear the massive, heavy sound of something like a very large snake crawling over rock; a smooth, near hiss.
“She’ll find out when I’m ready to tell her.”
Naida stood, looking at the drips on the floor, wrung her hands together, took a deep breath. “Tell me what, Asteri?” She called into the dark.
There was an appalled silence from the main cavern.