Cheryl faced the Trakinos Desert with a shrinking heart. Such a dry, barren, hot wasteland of sandy dunes bereft of life! She wished she were back in the Bluewood, or the Chambers of Healing, or even the dark tunnel they had just exited. But no, they must go on--and beyond that merciless desert lay the land of Shadows and the final conflict.
Ralph tugged at the shoulder of his mail shirt. "It's too hot for armor," he complained. "I'm gonna roast to death in this stuff."
Arim put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Cheer, friend. Abba is with us."
Lenny nodded. "Indeed, Arim. But how shall we cross the Trakinos Desert? We have no map showing sources of water, and by all accounts the desert is quite large."
Despite the heat, Cheryl shivered. "And Katamobi stalk the desert…."
Lenny gulped, but then his hand fell on the cool amethysts of Chumégal, and he pushed back his fear. Still over the undercurrent of peace was a feeling of uneasiness. He must not let peace become complacency, but he must also remember to put his trust in the Maker of all…. For a moment he stood still and silent, fighting for balance.
At last he sighed. "I see no other course but to venture out and see what happens. Remember Caerákenoe said the servants of El Shaddai are also in the wild, and God would not bring us this far to let us perish here. I doubt it will be comfortable, but there is no other way."
Ralph's chin lifted in defiance against the hot blowing wind that stung his eyes with sandy grit. "Lenny is right," he said. "I don't like it either, but God never said following Him would be easy. He just said 'obey,' and that's what I'm going to do."
"But not blindly," Arim cautioned. He pointed to something the others had not noticed. "See, here is a spring. The dwarves gave us plenty of extra water bags, but we'd better replace what we drank in the tunnels."
"Most definitely," Lenny agreed, kneeling to fill his leather water pouch from the tiny fountain in the rock. "I don't fancy running out in the center of that hostile environment."
Hostile, Cheryl thought hours later as they plodded over the unforgiving dunes. What an apt description.
By now all four longed to shed the hot, chafing armor. It was nearly midday, and they were quickly overheating in the heavy mail shirts and breastplates. The sun broiled down from directly overhead, and the sand scorched their feet even through their leather boots. All were drenched with sweat and yearning for a break. Their supply of water was much depleted. They had encountered no animals, not even a lizard or a beetle, just a few rocks and wind-blasted scrub brushes holding tenaciously to life.
At last Cheryl halted, panting. "Lenny," she gasped. "I can't. This is killing me."
Lenny stopped and turned back to her, concern in his pale gray eyes. She looked just about played out, sweat matting her long brown hair to her forehead and the sides of her face. "What should we do?" he asked anxiously.
Cheryl shook her head despairingly. "I don't--"
"Look out!" Ralph cried. "Katamobi!"
Black figures rushed at them from all sides and attacked from the air! Cheryl cried out in fear and stumbled back as a mouthful of jagged teeth lunged for her throat. Desperately Lenny struck the wolf-like creature over the head with his shield, trying to deflect the attack. The wolf grunted and fell back, then turned on the boy, but before his claws could find a hold Arim was there and plunged his dagger into the Katamobe's throat, sending a shower of black blood over the sand.
Cheryl had finally managed to draw Morrévril, and stood swinging it wildly over her head, trying to fend off the vultures that were attacking her from above. Ralph was standing his ground and fighting mightily. Thoníphage had already slain three monsters of various sizes, and the dagger shone green and silver with victorious glee. But more and more Katamobi thrust themselves on the courageous boy, and he had his work cut out for him. Arim too was doing his best with his dagger, and the ruby caught the sun in flashes of crimson. But he was young, his training inadequate, the Katamobi strong and many. He kept fighting, but it was clear he could not last long.
Chumégal's aura of violet did little but make the Katamobi weak and fearful, and Lenny had no other weapon. It is doubtless he would have fallen wounded had Arim not fought his way to his side and destroyed the unwary creatures that dared enter the circle of peace. So all three boys were more or less protected, but their positions were very precarious.
Cheryl was in a much worse state. The vultures flapped around her head and tore at her with beak and talon, and she could not use Morrévril to its full power. The gold and gray light seemed dim in her sight, and she saw nothing but the flapping black wings and tearing beaks and talons. She was weary and wounded, nearly falling under the assault, white and red fireworks exploding in her head. Worse, the words of the demons also filled her ears, and she reeled under their influence.
"You hypocrite! You weakling child of men! You who call yourself a child of the King, you are nothing! You act the angel, but inside you are only a sinner! Your face is pure while your heart is filled with pride and rebellion and bitterness! You are unworthy!"
"I know, I know!" Cheryl sobbed, falling to her knees. The sword slipped from her nerveless hands, and the armor provided little protection against the ripping claws and teeth.
"You say you know the Maker! You counsel others in acts of righteousness while you yourself cannot practice them! You lead others to the Master you do not serve with all your heart! You rebuke the unfaithfulness of others while you are faithless! You hypocrite! You painted tomb with folded hands and distracted heart! You are unworthy!"
"I am," the girl whispered in despair, sinking onto her face. All of it was true. She could offer no defense against the accusations, and she could not protect herself against the monsters that now attacked her without resistance.
Arim, with a clear inner sight and hearing superior to that of the Terran boys, heard the words in his mind, whispered there by the Maker, and witnessed Cheryl's attack and fall. "No!" he cried. The boy turned and slew another black lioness as it leapt for Lenny's throat. "Quickly!" he yelled above the roars and cries of battle. "Lady Cheryl has fallen!"
Cheryl lay prostrate on the sand, Morrévril at her side. She was barely visible through the huge black wings of the carrion birds that encircled her.
"Cease!" Lenny screamed, trying to battle his way to her side.
Ralph saw the danger and quickly killed the Katamobe he currently fought, then leaped to the side of Arim and Lenny. While Lenny held Chumégal aloft, Thoníphage and the dagger of Arim cut a swath to the circle of vultures. The boys pummeled the dark birds away and stood by the fallen girl. Lenny snatched up Morrévril, dropping his magnifying glass in the process.
Lenny and Ralph fought off the vultures that continued to attack as Arim knelt at Cheryl's side. He put a small hand on her bloody forehead and heard the monsters' continuing accusations.
"Liar! Hypocrite! Preacher of light while you walk in darkness! You are unworthy!"
Cheryl moaned, but Arim was incensed. "Lies!" he bellowed at the Katamobi. "She is pure and spotless! It is you who are evil!"
"Weakling child of Men!"
The tibian locket had fallen open, and Morríenna shone brilliantly, lighting Arim's face and mind. His blue eyes narrowed, and he spoke quietly, but it was heard above the din of battle.
"Lady Cheryl is a child of the King, foul Katamobi. He has purchased her life and covered her with His own righteousness, and she does not belong to you or your evil master any longer. By the Golden Eagle of Hosiotos, begone! Harass her spirit no longer! Perish under the blades of Fire-eater and Darkrender, and burn forever in the lake of fire!"
At those words, Lenny struck off the heads of three vultures with one unplanned swing, and Ralph slew the other two with a series of short lunges and chopping motions. It was a short-lived victory, for now the Katamobic host pressed in unimpeded by their comrades.
Cheryl sighed and opened her eyes as the battle continued around her. "They're gone," she whispered to the boy bending over her.
Arim's blue eyes did not waver from her face. "I know," he answered. "Lay still, Lady Cheryl. We will protect you."
Then he stood and re-entered the fray, just in time to save Lenny from another black wildcat.
For a time they continued to fight, but they could not go on long. Scores of Katamobi pressed toward them, leaping over the dead bodies of their comrades. And they were three boys, fighting tooth and nail with the courage and strength of warriors thrice their age and size, but boys just the same. Cheryl was their leader, their guiding light, the one they turned to, and now she lay wounded and nearly unconscious.
"This cannot continue," Lenny said breathlessly. "We must either win, retreat, or perish to end this battle, and I'm afraid the last is most probable."
"Then we'll die fighting," Ralph said grimly. "And we'll take a few of these demons along!" Then he cried out in dismay and leaped to kill a monster swiping at Arim's unprotected face. "Arim, are you nuts?"
Arim had paused in his fighting and stood with his hands clasped above his head, still the holding the dagger with the bloody blade pointed straight up to the sky. "Oh Maker of all!" he prayed. "Oh King of the universe! Protect us! Shield us! Enfold us in the golden cloud of your victory! Lead us to safety! We have no one but You!"
Immediately a windstorm sprang up, and a dust devil formed around the four companions. Whirling golden sand surrounded them, and they were in the eye of the funnel. The Katamobi were driven back by the cutting sand, their shrieks blending with the cry of the wind.
Panting, Lenny lowered Morrévril. He was wounded and bleeding in many places but didn't feel it in the rush of adrenaline and wonder at the way they were protected. "What a marvelous phenomenon," he murmured. "Thank you, El Shaddai! How wonderful You are!"
The moment he realized they were safe Ralph dropped his eagle-dagger and fell to his knees by his sister. "Cheryl, Cheryl," he half-sobbed, shaking her shoulder. "Wake up, please wake up!"
Cheryl did not respond. Ralph lowered his head and sat immobile, frozen in fear she was dead. There was so much blood!
Arim also dropped his dagger, but it was in surprise, for walking right in through the maelstrom of sand came a huge marmalade cat.
"Angel?" Lenny whispered. Morrévril fell from hands suddenly limp and numb.
The feline angel paid no attention to him. She padded silently to Cheryl and began to gently lick her dirty, bloody face.
Ralph looked up and stared at Angel with grief in his face. Slowly hope dawned in his green eyes. How silent it was! The storm around them seemed only a part of the purring that came from deep in Angel's chest. The three boys looked on as Angel continued to lick the unconscious girl's face with a warm, pink tongue.
And then, a change! Cheryl opened her eyes, blinked, and smiled. All she saw was Angel's warm furry face directly in front of hers. Angel nudged the girl's cheek, gently prodding her. "Up, Cheryl," she whispered softly. "Abba leads you, and you lead your brothers and the boy Arim. Fear not."
Cheryl squeezed her eyes shut. "I don't know if I can," she replied. "I'm so tired, and it hurts!"
"Of course you can," Angel said firmly. "Now get up!"
As quickly as she'd come, Angel was gone, and Cheryl was standing on unstable feet, staring at the tornado of sand they were in. And then Ralph was hugging her, delighted beyond words to have his sister back. Tears were silently rolling down Lenny's face.
Cheryl smiled gently and reached over to squeeze his hand comfortingly. As Ralph began to move away she grabbed his shoulder to steady her, gazing around at the swirling sand. "We must find shelter, an oasis, perhaps."
As if in answer, the vortex of whirling sand and air began to move, and they were compelled to walk to stay in the eye. Arim was frightened.
"What should we do?" he asked fearfully.
"Don't worry," Cheryl answered. "The Maker made this sandstorm for our protection. Just walk with it. Abba must be leading us to a place of safety."
They walked for some time in silence, Cheryl helped along by her brothers. Then she said thoughtfully, "Interesting how it fits together."
"What?" Lenny asked.
"The word 'Jah' in dwarvish means 'safety,' or 'refuge,' or the equivalent, though it also means God. And here we are, in the center of the eye of safety, a refuge from battle."
"Don't think too much," Ralph advised soberly. "You'll hurt your head."
Cheryl laughed. A few minutes later she spoke again. "Do you remember the song I made up so long ago, when we were walking in the woods of Maychoria?"
"Not so very long," Lenny replied. "It hasn't been more than six weeks."
"Really? It feels like years."
"I wonder what Jimmy and Johnny and Jerry are doing right now," Ralph sighed nostalgically.
Cheryl laughed again. "Knowing them, mischief."
"Indeed," Lenny laughingly agreed.
"I wonder if Mom and Dad miss us."
"I doubt they know we're gone. I'm sure it has all been arranged, like in the Chronicles of Narnia."
"What did I say about thinking?" Ralph interrupted cheerfully. "We'd all be much better off if you wouldn't do so much of it."
The others laughed. They knew he was trying to lighten their situation, and succeeding. For it wasn't a good situation at all. All four of them were wounded, their clothes rent and spattered with blood, both their own red and the drying, crumbling black of the slain Katamobi. They were all pushing exhaustion, in the last reserves of strength and endurance, though Cheryl was worst off.
Yet in other ways they were in the best position they had ever been in. For here they walked in the very center of the eye of Jah, surrounded by a golden cloud. Protected and guided by a gentle hand, they needed only to lift their feet and set them down, and this they managed well enough, though now they walked in utter silence, very nearly worn out. But if weary, it was not the hopeless weariness of a traveler in a storm with no shelter, but the weariness of a similar traveler who sees the lighted doorway of home not ten paces off.
Slowly the whirlpool of sand halted, and they with it. Gently the wind died, dropping the sand, and the sudden quiet was like a new kind of roaring.
They were standing just outside an oasis.
"How delicious," Cheryl sighed as they walked forward into the refuge. Everywhere they saw green, green, and more green, flowers exploding in riotous color, zadron trees of black trunks and blue-tinted emerald leaves, and everywhere violets of the most delicate hue imaginable. In the center of the garden was a pool: a sheet of blue glass, entirely undisturbed by ripples, cool as a mountain peak and clearer than the midday sky.
Instinctively Cheryl sank down by the pool and drank deeply. She saw pebbles of intense but soft lavender, slate-gray, and turquoise blue at the bottom. Urged by the same instinct that bade her drink, she removed her tibian helmet and filled it with the pure water, then bathed the wounds on her face and arms and legs. Instantly the pain vanished, and she watched without surprise as the gashes and scratches left the vultures' sharp claws and tearing beaks closed and healed, leaving no scars.
She looked up to see the boys holding back, watching her with some fear and more curiosity. "Come," she said. "Try the water. We have been brought here to the Pool of Turuth for this very purpose."
Arim's face lit, and he obeyed, kneeling to drink the water and wash his many wounds. "The Pool of Turuth," he said. "The greatest treasure in the land of Verdain. I have heard many tales of this place. We must be in the Whispering Oasis, but I've heard it said no one can ever find it. It's a mysterious place that vanishes like a mist when looked for. But often when those who serve Abba are in need, they find the oasis, and the waters of the pool give them strength and healing."
Ralph did not hesitate, but followed the example of Cheryl and Arim. Lenny sat with his back against a tree, his eyes closed. He didn't seem to hear the others.
Cheryl filled her helm again and carried it over to him. Her legs felt steady again, and the pain was gone. She felt cool and refreshed, healed by the waters of the Pool of Turuth.
He opened his eyes and stared at her, but didn't seem to hear.
He blinked, and seemed to notice her as if for the first time. "Cheryl, are you all right?"
"I'm fine, Lenny." She smiled in relief. "How about you?"
"I am extremely tired. Morrévril is very heavy."
He certainly looked tired. His eyes drooped and he sat limply against the tree his damp curly head rested on.
"Here, Lenny, drink this."
The minute he did so a new vitality filled his pale gray eyes, and he sat up and looked around. "Where are we?"
"The Whispering Oasis."
"Are Ralph and Arim okay?"
"They're fine. Look, there they are playing tag."
The laughter of the two boys floated on the cool breeze as they chased each under the palm trees and the blue-green leaves of the occasional zadron.
As they spoke Cheryl had taken a handkerchief from her pack, dipped it in the water in her helm and sponged the cloth over the deep gash in Lenny's forehead. Lenny smiled at her as the wound closed and healed.
"I thought we would be helping you along, Cheryl, but it turned out the other way around."
Cheryl ducked her head and smiled sadly. "I am an unfit vessel of Abba's love, Lenny. Don't look up to me too much."
He gazed sorrowfully in her downcast face for a moment and something like Arim's inner sight helped him see the deep wound on her heart.
"It's the vultures, isn't it," he said soberly. "You believe them, don't you."
Cheryl did not lift her head to say softly, "It's true, Lenny. I've always known it."
Had he been the type Lenny would have wrapped his arms around his big sister and loudly, repeatedly denied it. But he wasn't the type, and he didn't know the words to make her see.
"Of course it's true."
The siblings started at the new voice. It was Arim, standing before them. Soft sunlight filtering through the leaves caught in his golden hair like a sun gone nova.
Arim plopped down on the grass beside them as Ralph came up to see where his playmate had gone. "Ralph said it before," the Maychorian boy continued.
"I did?" Ralph sat by them.
"Yes, you did."
"That the reason Katamobic lies are so bad is they have a little bit of truth to them." Arim's bright blue eyes stared pointedly into Cheryl's dusky gray ones. "They didn't tell you the whole truth, Cheryl."
The girl was wise to enough to follow his point through and see what he meant. She smiled gently. "Thank you, Arim. I don't know what I'd do without you."
Slightly jealous, Ralph interrupted, "Know what, Cheryl? I made up a song."
He warbled the following verse to the tune of 'Over the River and Through the Woods.'
"Over the mountain and through the Wood,
To Castle Ryoo we go.
The desert is dry,
I hope we don't die.
Maybe we'll get lucky-o-o-o-o-o-o!"
The others laughed uproariously, and Cheryl got out between guffaws, "I think--ha ha--the last line--ho ho ho--needs some work--heeheeheeheehee!"
Ralph pretended to be offended, but his glee was transparent. He'd enjoyed it as much as anyone, probably more.
But their main problem was not solved. How in Maychoria were they to cross the Trakinos Desert?
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