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Chapter 18

A Way Through

Lenny knew now why it was called the Whispering Oasis. Night had come, but a soft amethyst light surrounded them, emanating from the violets and lavender-hued pebbles. The zadron trees dispersed throughout the small paradise also shone their own turquoise light, and the pool itself glowed with the light of the amethyst-colored stones littered across its floor. Lenny lay on his back, one arm folded beneath his head, listening to the wind whispering in the trees. Above him the leaves undulated like a silk scarf in a gentle breeze.

Lenny alone of the four had discovered the whispers. Before there had been too much over-riding noise, and now the others were asleep. But the boy lay and listened, wondering why the zephyrs of his own world were never so articulate.

"Peace," whispered the breeze among the leaves. "Calm, healing. Rest and sleep; wake refreshed. Servants of El Shaddai are always welcome in the Oasis. No evil can enter, no ill dream disturbs slumber, no wound remains unhealed, no fear unquieted. Peace, peace and rest. Calm and healing, rest and sleep. Worry not for the morrow--let it worry about itself. Live where you are, serve where you are, gather strength where you are. The Oasis is safe and pure. Here the warrior can weep, the weary can rest, the fugitive can hide. Peace, peace and safety."

So the soft voice went on, whispering in a tune, the theme never changing but never repeating itself. It did not speak to his ear so much as to his spirit, for Lenny could never remember if the voice was male or female, young or old, low or high, only that it spoke peace to his soul. He felt the tension dissolve, and he realized how tight the muscles of his slight frame had become as they slowly relaxed.

And in the peculiarly bleary-yet-absolutely-clear moment between sleeping and waking, Lenny was smacked between the eyes by blinding inspiration.

"Ralph." The voice was low and urgent. "Ralph, wake up."

Ralph groaned and turned over, not even bothering to open his eyes. "Don' wan' wake up," he mumbled. "Comfy here…." His voice trailed off into a snore.

"Ralph!" Lenny hissed more insistently. "I need to use your dagger. Get up!"

Ralph sat up, suddenly alert. "My dagger?" he asked clearly. "What for?"

"To send a signal. Look, can you climb trees?"

Ralph's curiosity was fully waked now. A dagger to send a signal? Climb trees? "Well, sort of, but Arim climbs better." The boy rubbed his eyes and blinked.

"You want to wake him or shall I?"

Within moments Arim had been wakened and joined them, burning with curiosity even stronger than Ralph's. Lenny was wandering around the grove, peering up into the trees. He stopped by a stately denlon and motioned the other boys to join him.

"Here," the curly-haired boy explained. "This one is approximately two meters taller than any other tree in the oasis. Arim, would you do us the service of ascending to the top?"

Arim shrugged. "Give me a boost."

The blue-eyed Maychorian climbed as swiftly as a squirrel, even carrying both Chumégal and Thoníphage. Before long he was perched in the uppermost branches.

"Now what?" he called.

"Can you see the Purple Mountains?" Lenny asked.

After a moment Arim answered in the affirmative.

"Excellent!" Lenny called. "Are the emeralds of Thoníphage shining?"

There was a gasp of surprise up top as Arim checked. "Yes!" he replied, fumbling to keep from dropping the dagger.

"All right, then. Place the lens of Chumégal before the jewels, magnifying the light, and point it at the Purple Mountains, preferably Mount Shimron Meron."

Ralph was excited. "It this the signal you talked about?"

"I hope so," Lenny answered cryptically.

Topside, Arim was trying to hold both weapons and point them at the same time. It wasn't quite working, and the branch he was sitting on bounced up and down, shaking the leaves. The sound obscured the whispering breeze.

"Careful, Arim!" Ralph cried. "Don't fall!"

Lenny shuddered at the thought. Even the Pool of Turuth couldn't heal some things.

"I'm all right," Arim called down. "I've got it now."

A bolt of green light blazed through the night, invisible except where it struck airborne particles. For a moment a sandstorm enfolded it and its brilliance was lost in the sand slinging in the wind, but then the windstorm died, stilled by an Almighty hand. The beam of emerald green pierced on. But another danger barred the way: the rocky crags and cliffs of the heights of Shimron Meron. Then the boy at the other end of the beam shifted a hundredth of a millimeter, and the probing light fell into an opening in the cliffs where it finally reached its destination: Falkor, Prince of the Eagles.

Prince Falkor

"Did it work, did it work?" Ralph asked excitedly, hopping up and down.

"We'll know in a minute," was the mystifying answer.

Arim held the improvised flare steady for several more minutes. He was beginning to feel cramped when at last Lenny called up, "You can come down now, Arim!"

The blond-headed Maychorian descended as speedily as a chipmunk and hopped off the lowest branch, being careful not to drop the magnifying glass or the eagle-dagger. Before the last limb stopped rustling, Arim's eyes were as wide as Tekoa's had ever been. There in the grove on a large dark gray boulder perched a creature of gold distilled from the essence of the wind.

Arim stared with wide, uncomprehending blue eyes from regal Falkor to grinning Ralph to satisfied-looking Lenny.

"Good job," Lenny commended the bewildered Maychorian. "You summoned the Prince of the Eagles."

"I--I didn't--I mean--you--I--"

Ralph laughed and put an arm around his friend's shoulders. "Poor Arim, I guess you still don't get it. Thanks to you, we'll be flying to Galgolb!"

When she woke, Cheryl was both astonished and delighted to find that a way to cross the desert had been arranged. It was a great weight off her shoulders.

"We didn't want to wake you, Cheryl," Ralph explained somewhat sheepishly. "You looked so calm and peaceful, and you'd had an awful rough day."

"I'm glad you didn't wake me," said she with a smile. "I'm sure you had fun translating."

He looked a little shocked. "You know? I mean, I didn't mean to keep it a secret, but I never told you, either."

She laughed. "Silly Ralph, do you think I couldn't tell that you understand the speech of the eagles?"

The boy grinned sheepishly and shrugged.

Less than a quarter of an hour later they lifted off. Cheryl, though the largest of the four humans, was dwarfed by the great eagle-Prince she knelt on. Each of his wings was larger across than twice her height, and three of her could have easily rested in the downy spot she nestled in.

The soft platform was less than rock-steady; shifting and tilting in the wind as the great wings beat the air. Cheryl did not let that deter her from creeping closer to Falkor's neck so she could peer down.

"Caution, Lady Cheryl," the eagle's booming voice warned. "I relish not the thought of diving to save you again."

The girl wisely heeded him and lay flat, peeking down between his shoulder and neck. Far below, the Whispering Oasis was an emerald in a canyon of barren sand. Even as she watched, a wild sandstorm swept over the pinpoint of green, and when it passed the oasis was gone.

There was nothing to see now, so Cheryl crept back to the softer feathers between the eagle's shoulder blades. It was dangerous where she had been with nothing to hold on to but feathers, and she didn't want to hurt the lordly bird. No sense in staying up where the slightest caprice of the wind could send her tumbling off, though she could see the desert from that vantage. Falkor would warn her if any danger appeared on the endless tan dunes blow.

There was plenty to experience here. The sun was a disk of white-hot molten tibian in the cloudless sky, but this high up it was cool. Cheryl relished the sensation of flying as the huge warm body shifted beneath her. At times the great golden wings strove against the air, and the cool brisk wind of their speed stung her face, causing her to gasp in delight at its delicious sharpness. At other times they drifted with the currents in the atmosphere, floating in the sky, the golden wings at rest. Falkor and the other three eagles sang in the wild, free voices of the aquiline kind. Their melody was as unfettered as they were, and the lyrics had no rhythm or meter-or did they? It was nearly impossible to translate, but ever after Cheryl tried, concentrating to pull the syllables out of her memory. But it was like a poem read in a dream: beautiful and perfect when first seen, but impossible to remember or write down afterwards, for it has faded and cannot be recalled.

Fortunately, the writer of this tale is not Cheryl, and has the means at her disposal to put forth the lyrics for your eyes. Unfortunately, this is merely a fragment, and a translation of a fragment, and retains only a shred of the high beauty Cheryl and the others experienced. When set down in the crude inadequacies of tongue and pen, the song of the eagles runs thus:

We soar above the lofty heights,
The lands spread out before our sights.
While, far below, the winds do sigh
Among our airy aeries high.
The rivers sparkle far below,
The clouds, white as sheep with snow
Are strung among the icy glare
Of mountains high with snowcaps fair.
The Bluewood spreads with tall green trees,
But we are higher far than these.
Our eyes are bright and eagle-keen.
Few creatures escape being seen.
We see the ox, the fish, the bear,
The elf-maiden with flowing hair,
The man, the dwarf, the erring child,
Lost but not alone in the wild.
And a hunter, searching not for skins
Is there to bring the lost child in.
How happy, beneath the sky's dome,
Are those who welcome the wand'rer home.
Happy are we, the wind-riders,
Wild and free, the lofty gliders.
The entire wide world is our hall.
Stars form the roof; there are no walls.
Our music, which fills the cool air,
Is wild and high, and strangely fair.
We too are wise, beyond the ken
Of the Elves, the Dwarves, and the Men.
We know the forest, meadows, streams,
The mountain-lake of crystal gleam,
The farmland, marsh, and mossy fens,
The prairies, deserts, grassy glens.
We know the lore of beast and bird.
We watch the flocks, we watch the herds.
We knew Viara and Verdain,
Lush lands of greenery and plains.
The Witch, Ryoo, caused them to revert,
And now they are a trackless desert.
List' now to the sad tale of lore:
The lands of Green and Promise are no more.
Still we endure, the ancient race,
In aeries on the mountain face.
Our eyes and beaks are sharper more
Than Morrèvril, sword of warriors.
Our talons and feathered wings are strong,
Our music high, and wild our song.
Our eagle eyes all things do seek,
Our homes rise high on lofty peaks.
We live below the star-lit sky.
Far above, with the wind we fly.
The essences of the wind are we;
High and noble, but wild and free.
The same hand that shaped the mountains
Distilled and formed us from the winds.
Through frigid air our song now rings.
We eagles serve the King of kings
And Lord of lords; all wars shall cease
When He reigns as the Prince of peace.

Suddenly they hit a great draft of air that barred their way like a wall. Cheryl lay flat and hung on as Falkor and the other eagles strove mightily against it. Then the great eagle backed off, breathing hard.

"It is of no avail," he explained to his companions. "We have reached the Witch's Wall. I am sorry, my Lady, but we must set you young ones down here, though it is yet days to your destination on foot."

It truly was a wall, for where they were, a mere five feet from the disturbance, the air was still. They drifted down as lightly as leaves, the wings of the four eagles spread wide.

"The Witch's Wall?" Cheryl inquired as Falkor alighted deftly on the last dune of the Trakinos. On the west side of the dune was only barren sand, and on the east, rocks and hardy scrub brushes. The heat smote her like the opening of an oven door after the sterile coolness of the upper atmosphere.

"A great barrier that entirely surrounds the land of shadow," the eagle explained as Cheryl scrambled down. "Ryoo erected it by the evil power of Kataphage to protect her foul country from the servants of Abba. In the air it is a great hurricane, impassable by my eagles and me. And down here--well, look for yourself."

Cheryl and the three boys, who had also dismounted, turned and shielded their eyes. Through the ripple of heat they saw a black wall of stone blocks stacked higher than the eagle-Prince's head about ten yards to the east.

The girl turned back to the eagle. "How will we get through?"

"There is a gate less than a mile away," he replied, pointing a wingtip southwards.

She faced the direction indicated. "Well, then," she said resolutely. "We'd better get started." She began walking away, the boys at her heels.

"Lady Cheryl!" She turned back once more. "I have heard the gate is impossible to get through. Do you desire us to wait for you?"

She shook her head firmly, the tibian helm flashing in the sun. "We cannot go back, Prince Falkor. The hope of the planet, the freedom of the planet, rests with us. We will get through the gate."

His golden head nodded. "Then farewell, fair maiden--the strength of the Maker be with you."

Four golden arrows pierced the turquoise sky, and the children were alone by the dark Wall.

The gate was as impregnable as the Wall. Fashioned of ironbound ebony, it towered above them as high as the Wall itself, a solid barrier of darkness that barred their way into the shadows of Galgolb. The heavy weight of its towering malice bore oppressively on their spirits. Cheryl didn't doubt that it was also bound with the cruel spells of the Witch. And how in Maychoria could they pierce the forbidding barricade?

Lenny's heart sank into his boots at the sight of the indomitable gate. He had just gotten over the airsickness of the flight, and now as he stared at the great blackness his stomach began to churn again. While Lenny was the most squeamish of the four, the others were not unaffected. Something about that dark edifice stank nauseatingly.

"Look," Arim said suddenly, drawing their attention away from the negative impact the towering gate had on them. "There is something gold near the bottom right corner of the gate."

They hurried to the spot, eager to find what the color of the Maker would reveal. Closer up the gate was so gigantic they couldn't see it all, so some of its impressiveness was lost, especially when they saw what the thin lines of gold formed.

The outline of a door. It stood no higher than Lenny's hips, and all would have to crawl to get through. Ranged around the door in letters of tibian was a series of dwarvish runes. Against the immensity of the gate the tiny loophole was nearly invisible. Lenny wasn't sure how Arim had ever noticed it.

Without hesitation Ralph knelt and pushed on the door. When that did no good he began looking for a knob, and when he found none he sat back on his heels and looked inquiringly at Cheryl. She shrugged absent-mindedly, staring at the little door.

"How did it get here?" she wondered aloud. "Falkor obviously didn't know about it."

Lenny had been wondering the same, and had been thinking out a possible solution. "Perhaps the wall was built by slave labor," he theorized quietly. "And perhaps they rebelled against Ryoo's blueprints just enough to construct this small entrance. If Ryoo knows about it, she probably can do nothing, as it is under the protection of the King. I shudder to think what happened to the rebellious dwarves, however."

"How do we get through?" Ralph asked, looking hopefully to Lenny. Perhaps the gray-eyed boy knew the answer to that too.

Lenny shrugged and spread his hands in a helpless gesture, but Cheryl said hopefully, "It might help if we could read the runes. Arim, do you know anything about it?"

The young Maychorian looked startled to be consulted, but he obligingly took a closer look at the tibian runes. "I can speak and read both elvish and mannish passing well," he said, shaking his head. "But I know little of the dwarvish tongue. Few outside the dwarven people do, I believe."

Cheryl thoughtfully tapped her chin, gazing at the tibian inscription. "Well," she said. "We may not know how to pass through, but at least now there is more hope than before."

"Hope!" shrieked scornfully a shrill voice behind them. Instantly they jumped and spun around, the younger boys with daggers in hand, Cheryl clenching the marcellia stone lying against her breast.

Lenny stood stupefied, for there sat a wizened desert rat no bigger than his palm. Its nose sniffed mockingly, scraggly whiskers quivering with distaste.

"Hope!" it cried in a voice both high and hopeless. "So thought we when down we laid the foundations of black gate yon. So prayed we as defied the Witch's will we did and dared her plan to change. Help us Jah will thought we, and false proved our hope, false! Hope there is none. Changed, transformed am I, slain by Ryoo's wickedness my companions in rebellion. Come no warriors to change the fate of Maychoria hither. Preserved my life hath Jah, but my soul not. Scarred am I, and so wilt thou be."

Lenny saw understanding dawn on Cheryl's face, and with it horror. This was the last surviving dwarf who had dared defy the Witch's will. Cheryl dropped to her knees and gently extended a hand to the pitiful creature. Her small siblings on Terra called her an 'animal tamer,' but would her gentle charisma be sufficient to soothe this pathetic little rat?

"Dear dwarf," Cheryl said, voice trembling with compassion and grief. "Dear friend, it is because of you we have hope. See, here is the door, and by it we will enter the land of shadows and fulfill the mission laid on us by the King. Because of the actions of you and your companions, and your priceless sacrifice, a way through exists for us. But we need your help once more. Can you tell us how to get through the door? Can you help us complete our task and in so doing finish the work you began with the door you helped to build?"

"'Dwarf,'" the little rat-creature shrilled bitterly. "No dwarf am I. So said she as transformed and banished to the desert I was. 'No true dwarf you are, but a sneaking rat!' said she. 'And so henceforth shalt thou be! Begone!' And now sit I here, a friendless desert rat. Desert rat!" he screamed in despair. "Deeseeert raaaat!"

"No!" Lenny protested, dropping next to his sister and likewise extending a hand. With the other he reflexively drew Chumégal, and the amethysts shone radiantly.

As the healing light encompassed the dwarf rat, Arim spoke. "Lies, dear dwarf. Dear friend, indeed, Ryoo lies. You are the truest of dwarves. Now be made whole, and render your services once more. Abba loves you, and so do we."

When the violet glow receded, the tiny desert rat stood trembling, his front paws covering his eyes. When he uncovered them, he looked at them with clear eyes and sight.

"Strange warriors thou art, but warriors thou be," he said in awe. "Give thee the passwords I cannot, for my duty that was not while constructing the door we were, but read the runes for you I can."

The dwarf stepped into Cheryl outstretched hand, and she carefully lifted him to where he could read the tibian letters.

Few foolish travelers dare to brave
Trakinos's endless dunes.
And fewer are the ones who come
To read these dwarvish runes.

If thou be the Maker's foe,
Thou'lt not hope the door to win.
But if thou bear'st the Darkrender,
Speak words of truth, come in.

Hidden in the Hosridon
In letters of clear gold,
A purer, fairer rhyme is writ,
Spoke by prophet of old.

Find the passwords, little warrior,
Treasured, cherished therein
That speak of light, entrance, Word--
And by them, the door thou'lt win.

"By them the door you'll win," Lenny repeated musingly.

"Light, entrance, word," Ralph said in the same slow voice. "Cheryl, what does it mean?"

Smiling, the girl opened her Hosridon and again it fell open to the verse she sought. "The entrance of Thy Word giveth light."

The door popped open.

Cheryl turned back to the tiny creature who again stood on a large rock shaded by a tough scrub brush. "Thank you, dear friend," she said, and kissed him, much to the others' shock. "Perhaps when we return we can find a way to heal you completely."

"Thank you, m'lady," the little dwarf-rat whispered, placing a protective hand over where her lips had touched. But some of the hopelessness returned. "I know not whether return you will, but look forward to the day I do."

The transformed dwarf watched as the four children crawled through the tiny door into the blackness of the inner gate. The door swung shut behind them, and no sign remained of their passing but a scuffmark on a stone left by Ralph's impatient toe and a tear in the desert-creature's eye.

"Oh, nuts, nuts, nuts," it was Ralph's voice, close to panicking. "Not again. Cheryl, I hate caves."

The dark gate was not yet conquered. It seemed there were two gates, and they had passed through only one. And in this inner recess was pitch-blackness, darker even than the caves of Shimron Meron, for a malevolent presence weighed on them here. Ralph, though strong and courageous, was also claustrophobic. His fear had been strengthened by his bad experience on Shimron Meron, for though the tunnels were not directly involved, he unconsciously associated the sensation of small places and darkness with the terror that had gripped him as he hung by his fingernails on the edge of the cliff.

"I don't like this," he repeated shakily, as if talking could make his heart pound less. "I really, really hate caves."

Cheryl fumbled for his hand in the dark and couldn't find it. So this is what it is to be blind, she mused silently as Ralph continued to babble.

"I don't like this, I don't like this. Where are the walls? Where is the ceiling? What if there are Katamobi in here? I can't see a thing. Oh man, oh man, oh man, oh man. Nuts, I hate caves. Cheryl, Lenny, I really really really hate caves. Do something, please. Man, I hate caves. I really really really really really hate caves…."

"Ralph, Ralph," Cheryl shushed soothingly, still groping to touch his arm, his shoulder, anything to calm him down. "It's okay, Ralph, I'm here, and so are Lenny and Arim." She jumped as a hand brushed her shoulder. "Lenny?"

"It is indeed me, Cheryl." His fingers touched her again, rested there for a moment. "Perhaps Morrévril is illumining as it did in the tunnels. I suggest you unsheathe it."

As the first half-centimeter of naked blade showed, all covered their eyes against the brilliant golden-silver glow. When it was free of its sheath the light seemed less glaring. It lit their prison in a new and awful light, for they saw the great peril they were in, the trap they had fallen into.

It was like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. Deadly spikes and razor axes hung by the flimsiest of ropes, boulders and crossbows and a hundred other implements of sudden death were strung in the small space, held back by more ropes. Ropes that criss-crossed, surrounded, twisted, pulled--strung in a thousand confusing configurations, a Gordian knot of epic proportions.

"A giant booby-trap," Cheryl muttered. "We walked into a giant booby-trap. Careful, boys." She pointed to nearly invisible lines that crossed the floor in all directions. "Don't touch them. They trip the traps."

Ralph shivered, curling up into a tight ball of paralyzed fear. Darkness still lurked in the rectangular chamber, and who knew what hid behind the myriad ropes that blocked the walls from their sight. He realized in near panic that three thin trip-lines cut him off from the others in a triangle of danger. He didn't dare move.

Arim noticed his trouble. "Courage, Ralph," he whispered encouragingly, reaching over a line to touch his friend's shoulder. "You can step over it. Try."

Ralph shook his head, his green eyes wide and staring in his pale face.

"Try," Arim insisted.

Ralph closed his eyes. He tried not to think of the danger, but of the love of the True King, and slowly his terror diminished. With a flash of insight, he slowly relaxed and drew his dagger. Thoníphage shone silver-gold, strengthening his returning courage, and he quickly stood and stepped over the wire of death. Arim hugged him.

Lenny had been carefully studying the intricate traps and the mechanisms that operated them. To the others it was a hopeless tangle of ropes, but Lenny, having trained and disciplined himself in observation and knowledge of such things, understood the use of each line and cord, and he was impressed by the complicated engineering of the deadly trap.

He noticed something out of place and paused to examine it. The more Lenny studied it, the more excited he became. This could be the key to their escape!

"Cheryl, look!" He pointed to a system of gears, pulleys, weights, and ropes. "Do you perceive it?"

She saw no difference in that particular mechanism from all the others that trapped them. Cheryl shook her head.

"It's the mechanism that operates the gate that leads into Galgolb! See the winch spooled with rope? See the ropes leading from it to pulleys above the gate, the other one leading to this gigantic boulder? Do you see it?"

"I think so…." Cheryl began to have a glimmering. "Go on, Lenny."

"If we cut this rope here, it will release this weight, here, which will fall to the ground here, pulling this rope, here, and this rope as well. These ropes will raise the portcullis, and this one will release the winch, which is much too large for us to operate, anyway. Released, the winch will spin freely, and the gate will open, and we'll be free!"

Cheryl had never seen her brother so excited. She still couldn't see it with his clarity, and wasn't sure if she knew which rope, when cut, would solve their problem.

"Here, Lenny, you take Morrévril. You understand it better than I do. Cut the rope, buddy; set us on our way."

The gray-eyed boy eagerly took the sword and carefully stepped over several trip-lines to cut the rope. The other three watched with trepidation.

"Lenny!" Arim cried in sudden alarm. "You're standing under the weight!"

Lenny glanced up, then looked around. "There is no other vantage point from which I can cut the rope," he said. "I'll have to leap out of the way as soon as I sever it."

Cheryl bit her lip as Lenny lifted the great eagle-sword, his silhouette small in its bright glow. Swoosh! He brought the sword down in a swoop that sliced the rope. As the weight above him began to fall with a rumbling of pulleys and creaking of ropes, Lenny jumped back tripped over a trap wire and landed flat on his back.

A dozen crossbows in a wall exploded with lethal force as the portcullis began to rise with a great squeaking and clanking, and Arim and Ralph grabbed the winded Terran, pulling him away from where the weight was crashing down. Cheryl fell to her knees to help, and the huge boulder hit with a thunderous crash, inches from Lenny's feet. The gate began to fall open, and a gray light shone in. Most of the deadly arrows struck the fallen weight, but some pierced on through the thick dust raised by its landing, whistled over their heads and clattered against the far wall.

Creaking and rumbling, the great iron portcullis lifted, and the slab of wood beyond it fell. The sun shone in on the inner recess, and a noxious breeze entered the cavern that had been closed for years. It had all happened in about ten seconds.

The children laughed of sheer relief. They were unharmed, and they were free. They had found a way through!

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