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Chapter 20

It Always Gets Worse...

Cheryl and the three boys followed Eben down the damp tunnel. Eben's torch cast strange shadows on the earth walls-one moment short and stumpy, the next thin and spider-like. It was at once humorous and spooky, like a hall of mirrors at a fun fair.

Weird and dim as the tunnel was, they were all glad to be out of the swamp. Ralph had thought Eben was nuts when he led them to a huge tree at the edge of the swamp a half mile from the city wall. "The only denlon in Galgolb," he'd said. "And it's dead."

Though dead, the tree from the Bluewood still had vital importance, for a hole at its roots, (a tight fit for Eben, though even Cheryl slipped through easily enough,) led to this tunnel constructed by the Dwarves of the Jubilee Guild. Through it the members of the Guild could travel unseen in and out of the city.

"There is a whole system of tunnels and passages under Kakon," Eben said, his deep voice echoing in the close area. "We travel freely under the very nose of Ryoo!"

"Where are we going now?" Arim asked.

"To meet with our leader, Juthwara. I'm sure he is very anxious to meet you-all of you."

As a matter of fact, Juthwara was ecstatic to see the five young people emerge from a tunnel into the central meeting place of the hidden Jubilee Headquarters. The grin that spread across his dark face was the brightest Eben had ever seen on him, and the young man had known the Elf all his life.

"Ah, Eben, you have returned," Juthwara said excitedly, clapping the young warrior's shoulder. "And your quest has been successful, I see." He turned expectantly to the four strangers.

Cheryl smiled. She instinctively liked and trusted the elf-leader. "I am Cheryl, sir. These are my brothers Lenny and Ralph, and our fellow traveler and good friend, Arim son of Raemon, of Maychoria. My brothers and I are from the world you call Terra."

"A pleasure, my Lady." He solemnly kissed her hand, and for some reason the gesture did not fluster her the way it had before. "I am Juthwara, leader of the Jubilee Guild. Welcome to our Headquarters."

Cheryl looked around. If she couldn't have seen the rough rock dome above them and the torches lighting this underground cavern, she would have thought it a normal busy city square above ground. More than a dozen tunnels branched off like city streets, leading, no doubt, to other important underground places. Houses were built into the surrounding walls-supply huts and living quarters for those hiding from Ryoo's wrath, like their intrepid leader. The image of a town square was completed by the well in the center of the cavern.

"It's very homelike," Cheryl said. It reminded her of the Chambers of Healing.

"Pardon my inquisitiveness," Lenny said, "but do some of these tunnels lead to various supply rooms?"

At Juthwara's nod Arim remarked, "You'd be able to stand a long siege, wouldn't you?"

Juthwara smiled. "Indeed so, young lord, but I do not wish to try our endurance. This time we wish to besiege, not be under siege."

Cheryl's face lit with new interest. "Then you have a plan for the liberation of Kakon?"

"Yes, Lady Cheryl. The servants of the Most High have been too long on the defensive. It is time we took action."

"What is your plan?" asked Ralph. He was eager to get out of the ground and into the sunlight again.

"Ryoo's dungeons are less than two leagues from where we stand, as the eagle flies, in the hill called Noros'b. We have constructed a tunnel to a storeroom therein. Tomorrow our main host of warriors, nearly two score including young Eben and myself, will attack their front door. That will draw out the Katamobic army, which is quartered there." Juthwara drew a deep breath. "It will be a terrible fight, but it is only a feint. While we battle, another party of Guilders will enter through the tunnel and free the prisoners, slaying whatever demons stand in their way. When we receive the signal that their mission is accomplished, I will withdraw with my men."

"What about Ryoo?" asked Lenny.

"Won't she get in the way?" Cheryl added.

Juthwara looked straight at them. "That is where you children come in." He sighed. "With my puny, mortal understanding, I would have chosen seasoned warriors, not untested children. But Atheos knows what He is doing, and you all strike me as wise beyond your years."

"No offense," Ralph said, "but we have been tested. We've all been wounded, and each of us has saved the others' lives. If it weren't for Cheryl we wouldn't be here, if it weren't for Lenny we wouldn't be here, if it weren't for Arim we wouldn't be here--"

"And if it weren't for Ralph we wouldn't be here," Arim interjected.

"You get the point," Ralph finished.

Juthwara could not suppress a smile. "I do indeed. I think you will do quite well."

"What do you require of us?" Cheryl asked.

Juthwara's eyes darkened. "Yours is the most dangerous task, Lady Cheryl. I wish I could take it on myself and spare you, but I can see that the King has chosen you, and no other."

"What is it?" Lenny asked. He was unhappy with this. Whatever this dangerous task was, he would rather do it himself than stand by as his sister struggled with it.

"Lady Cheryl, you must enter the castle and bring back the Hosridon. I have no doubt you will encounter Ryoo. If you cannot destroy her, you must at least distract her, for our offensive on the dungeon will certainly fail if the Witch turns her attention and power that way. Our prayers are with you, Lady Cheryl. Go with the High King as your strong right arm and mighty protector."

"Wait," Lenny protested. "Is that all? You'll send her in there with nothing but Morrévril and a desire to succeed? Forgive my weak faith, but this does not sit well with me."

Something like gentle joy entered the elf-leader's countenance. "She will not go unprepared, nor unaccompanied, Lord Lenny. I can see well that you desire to assist her, or even do it yourself rather than see her harmed. Very well then, you shall go with her."

Lenny nodded. It was better than nothing.

"What about us?" Ralph asked. "Arim and me don't want to be left out."

Juthwara's eyes sparkled. "We will put your daggers to good use, young lord. You will help us in our tunnel attack on the dungeon."

The green-eyed boy clapped his hands and rubbed them together. "Great! When do we go?"

A smile touched Eben's lips. "Tomorrow, Lord Ralph, we attack at dawn."

Juthwara turned and waved a beckon to a young woman on the other side of the cavern. She quickly joined them. Her blue-green eyes lit at the sight of Eben, and brightened further to see the four children.

"This is Mariel," Juthwara said. "She is our most valuable informant within the castle. She is also engaged to Eben."

Mariel smiled. "I'm so pleased to meet you! Please come with me, and I'll show you to your quarters."

Cheryl felt a welcoming smile spread across her face. Another kindred spirit! They seemed to be everywhere. Within moments Cheryl and Mariel were chatting like old friends, comfortable and easy.

"What's it like being engaged?"

"Oh, the only person I really care about is Eben-that is, I don't care about myself anymore. And knowing he feels the same about me--oh, it's wonderful!"

"How long have you known Eben?"

"Since we were both very young. I know how good he is--and how bad. I know I'll never find anyone else. He's the one, all right."

Ralph rolled his eyes. Lenny laughed.

When they reached their rooms the boys immediately dropped their packs on the floor of the chamber they were to share and hurried into Cheryl's room, where she and Mariel sat, still talking away. The conversation had taken a serious turn.

"And Sarah didn't answer?" Cheryl was asking.

Mariel's voice was soft and gentle. "No. I could see in her eyes that she was trying not to think about whether she was on the right side. Then she turned and fled."

"I wish I knew what she was thinking." Cheryl sighed. "I wish I could see her face. Oh, Mariel, I'm so worried about her!"

"Hey, wait a sec," Ralph said suddenly. Cheryl turned to look at him. "Didn't Morralitha say something about seeing things in Morríenna? All that stuff about a heart-link and Abba's will that I didn't understand..."

Cheryl's hand stole up to touch the tibian locket that encased her marcellia stone.

Lenny's pale gray eyes brightened. "Yes, the Princess said that when you 'pour your longing' into the stone, it will show what is happening to the one you love. I do not understand it, but I believe it to be true."

Cheryl drew the locket from her bosom and sprung the tiny latch. "I remember now. I guess all that happened in the tunnels of Shimron Meron drove it to the back of my mind. I'm not sure how this's supposed to work, but well, here goes..."

Cheryl held the open locket in her cupped palm and gazed into the jewel's impenetrable gray surface. She drew a deep breath and let all the love and concern and longing in her heart flow into the marcellia stone. "Oh Abba, please let me see my sister and know how it fares with her."

Cheryl half-shut her eyes as Morríenna's translucent gray surface lit with powerful white-gray, then subsided into the image of Sarah leaning on a windowsill, staring out over the dark cityscape. Her face was clouded, confused, conflicting emotions flickering over it like ripples over a stone in a streambed. She bit her lip and looked up as a sunbeam pierced a cloud above and streamed down into her face. For a moment she gazed up into the patch of blue sky, and her face cleared for a moment. She seemed almost ready to accept the light, to let it shine in on her closed heart and cleanse it of evil.

Cheryl gnawed on her lower lip and leaned closer to her hand, praying for the Light to win. Then Sarah's young features hardened, and she turned away from the window with a set face and eyes hard and cold as two lumps of hazel crystal.

Morríenna blazed white, then faded back to dark gray. Cheryl sighed deeply and closed the tibian locket.

"So close," she whispered. "So very close..."

Arim patted her shoulder. "Tomorrow," he promised. "Tomorrow you will enter the Witch's castle and win back your sister."

I hope you're right, Arim, Cheryl thought as she pulled the hood of her cloak over her head. She tried to walk quietly as she followed Lenny and Mariel through the silent predawn streets of Kakon. Mariel led them, but it was difficult to tell since all three were similarly hooded and draped in formless robes.

Beneath her outer garments Cheryl was dressed like a servant for the infiltration of the castle. The girl suppressed a sudden grin. Ralph had made a face at her drab, ragged attire and said he was glad he could go in his jeans.

Cheryl sobered. Ralph and Arim would be in the party traveling through the tunnel to free the Princess and other prisoners while Juthwara, Eben, and the other warriors fought the Katamobi. Ralph had said he'd rather be with Juthwara-more action that way-but Arim had pointed out that daggers couldn't do much against swords, and Eben and Juthwara were more than qualified to handle the monsters. The boys were small and quick, more suited to the subterfuge required of those fighting inside the dungeon.

They had arrived at the inky black wall of the castle. Mariel stopped at a small door and beckoned the Terrans closer.

"From here on we must be very careful," she whispered. "Act like the Sleepwalkers."

"I beg your pardon?" asked Lenny.

"Keep your eyes on the floor, move like you are half asleep, and well, do as I do."

Cheryl and Lenny tried to mimic Mariel's slump-shouldered stance as she turned and knocked on a small peek-door at about eye level in the larger door.

It slowly opened, and a deep male voice from within intoned sleepily, "Pass words?"

"Our master is Ryoo," Mariel answered in the same lethargic tone, "and her master is Kataphage."

"Enter." Creaking, the door sluggishly opened, and Mariel shuffled in with the Bryants at her heels.

Lenny and Cheryl never saw the doorkeeper, which made it all the spookier, especially as the door swung lazily shut behind them. Following Mariel's lead, they plodded down the hall. After what seemed hours Mariel pulled them into a curtained alcove.

"There," Mariel breathed, throwing back her hood. "We can breathe easier here."

Cheryl and Lenny followed suit gladly. The gray-eyed girl didn't like the heavy hood at all. It was hot and stuffy and cut off peripheral vision, which made her nervous.

"Where will we go now?" Lenny asked breathlessly, tugging at his collar. The dark halls and forbidding atmosphere of the castle made him edgy.

Mariel's blue-green eyes flicked from him to the hallway visible through the partially open blood-red curtain. "The Hosridon is three levels above us. Down this hall is a stairwell. From there I'll lead you to where the Book is trapped in an evil spell."

"A spell? How will we break it?"

"That I do not know, Lord Lenny. Nor do I know how you will defeat the Witch and the Evil One that stands behind her."

"One miracle at a time, please." Cheryl gasped. "I'm not omnipotent, you know."

"But the Maker is," Lenny reminded her. He turned to Mariel. "Lead us to the Hosridon, if you please."

Ralph grinned at his Maychorian buddy. "Remember what you said a long long time ago, about going to a bad country to fight a bad queen?"

Arim thought for an instant. "Yeah. I said it was exciting."

Ralph's grin broadened. "Well, here we are."

Arim smiled back. The boys were traveling with a group of Guilders down the secret tunnel toward the dungeon. It was frightening and invigorating at the same time.

Quintálamus, the young Dwarf who led them, stopped and motioned for a halt. Holding his torch high, he peered around a sharp bend in the tunnel. The Dwarf stepped forward a few paces and was lost to their sight.

Given a few moments to think, Ralph began to feel nervous. He was in a tunnel, and he hated tunnels. It was even worse with all these other people--Dwarves, Elves, and humans--for the boy felt the need to protect them from any Katamobi lurking around corners or in the next room. He didn't mind fighting the evil creatures in the open; he enjoyed it, really, but the idea of warding off slashing claws and lunging teeth in these cramped conditions did not appeal to him.

"Give me a square fight any day over all this sneaking around," he muttered to his friend.

Arim nodded. "We'll have to creep up behind them," he replied. "It's not very sportsmanlike, but if it's for the King, count me in!"

"Art thou volunteering?"

The boys looked up. Quintálamus was back, and he was looking right at them.

"Excuse me, sir?"

"I just said I need a couple of scouts to go ahead and let me know when the Katamobi go out to battle our comrades. Did thou just volunteer?"

"Yes sir!" Ralph said enthusiastically. He couldn't wait for some action. "You can count on us."

Quintálamus's dark eyebrows lowered until his eyes were hardly visible. "'Tis a dangerous task, Lord Ralph."

"Good! Come on, Arim, let's go!"

And those words the Dwarf seemed to remember they were more than that young boys they seemed, and he nodded.

Drawing their daggers and grinning, the boys walked around the sharp bend and into the storeroom. Quintálamus's whisper followed them, "Farewell, young warriors. Jah go with thee and bring thee back safely!"

The boys sneaked around boxes and barrels until they reached the iron door that led into the dungeon. Ralph set his hand on the latch, but Arim laid a cautioning hand on his arm.

"Wait a moment, friend."

Ralph stepped back as the young Maychorian pressed his ear against the cold iron. For several minutes he remained in a listening attitude while Ralph chafed. At last Arim pulled back and faced his friend in the darkness.

"There are two guards pacing separately back and forth in the hallway. They meet each other in front of this door, then continue on their paths. They do not speak during these brief meetings, and their thoughts are slow and simple and full of fear. I think they're Sleepwalkers, like Eben told us about."

"That mean they're slaves. We came here to save them. Let's sheath our daggers for now." With a slight 'shooshing' noise, the daggers were replaced. Ralph hesitated. "You can read their thoughts? What, are you some kind of psychic?"

Arim shrugged, forgetting his friend could not see him in the dark. "I can't hear minds all the time, only when the Maker lets me. And what's a sigh-kick?"

"Oh, I'll explain later. How will we get past the guards? Just because they're Sleepwalkers doesn't mean they don't have weapons."

Arim shrugged again and began ticking options off on his fingers. "Well, killing them is out, according to you. Their rounds keep us from sneaking by them. The spell is strong, and I don't think we can break it and get them to join us. Their minds are already full of fear of Ryoo. Could we scare them away?"

Ralph snapped his fingers and started searching among the barrels and boxes. "Hey, Arim, how good are you at making spooky noises?"

"Spooky noises?"

"If these people are as simple and fearful as you say, they oughta be pretty superstitious, right?"

"Well, yeah..."

"And when Abba lets you, you can listen to minds. Can you speak to them?"

"Dunno. Never tried."

"Ah ha!" Ralph found what he was looking for. "You wanna be the ghost or should I?"

The two guards in the hallway wanted nothing but a break. Their garments were hot and chafing, their battle axes heavy and about as useful as lead clubs. But fear of Ryoo drove them and kept them pacing back and forth in the dungeon. It even overrode their fear of the dungeon itself, which was dark and gloomy, filled with terrible screams and mutant Katamobi.

Soon a new fear drove even that of the Witch out of their minds, for the door to the storeroom, which they had never seen ajar, slowly swung silently open, apparently without physical assistance. And then a white figure emerged from the room, terrible noises filled the hallway, and a low voice hissed in their minds, "Run!"

They obeyed.

Arim laughed as he and Ralph brushed the flour off the Maychorian's face and clothes. "Nice touch with the door, Ralph, having it open by itself like that."

Ralph grinned. "All it took was a little push. And that oil you found helped it open spookily silent."

Arim found that he couldn't stop laughing. "Did you see their faces? Those big, brawny men, and they ran from a boy covered with flour."

Ralph laughed too. "I guess when you get used to being afraid, the littlest things seem scary."

When at last the boys sobered, Ralph coughed into his fist and scrambled back to his feet. "Come on, Arim. We're supposed to be scouting, not laughing."

"All right." Arim stubbed his toe on an abandoned battle-axe while getting up. "Yowch! What should we do with these heavy things? We can't carry them around with us."

"Let's lug 'em into the storeroom. Keep 'em guessing."

Having disposed of the weapons, Ralph and Arim continued carefully down the dim hallway.

The fires in the smelting ovens had not been stoked up yet, and Eben was glad for it as he and Juthwara made their stealthy way towards the door of the dungeon. They crouched behind warm clay monoliths and slinked from oven to oven, trying to keep out of sight of the dungeon door.

At the last oven, Juthwara suddenly straightened. "Enough of this subterfuge. We are attacking, not spying. Come Eben, best foot forward."

The Elf stepped out from behind the oven and strode boldly toward Noros'b and the door set in its side. Eben followed more slowly. Until now he had seen only Juthwara's gentler side. Though strong and a definite leader, he'd never been at all frightening, but more like a warm big brother. Now he was strong, noble, in command, and positively the most intimidating regal figure the young man had ever seen.

Eben didn't know it, and probably wouldn't have cared if he had known, but he looked pretty sharp himself. Even in his slave attire his bearing had drawn attention to him, and now he wore garments more fitting to his noble heart. His slender sword added to his young, heroish charisma.

Juthwara walked directly to the door and knocked firmly. Eben stood beside him and readied himself to fight or take flight.

After a moment the door opened, and there stood Lunehyder, the terrifying Vorprix, leader of the Katamobe army. "What do you want, slave?" he growled.

Though the monster dwarfed Juthwara, the Elf did not seem afraid. His noble stance remained steady, and the Vorprix seemed less overpowering when faced by such a foe. "I am no slave, minion of darkness. I serve the High King, not Ryoo, and I serve Him of my own free will. But that is incidental. I have come to offer you my terms of surrender."

Lunehyder laughed. "Good! I accept your surrender. Would you rather be flogged or put on the rack first, weakling Elf?"

Juthwara's kindly face grew terrible, and Eben was glad they were on the same side, even facing the monstrous Vorprix. "Were you wise, you would not jest at a servant of the King, Lunehyder. Either surrender your dungeon, your subordinates, and yourself now, or die in the ensuing battle."

Lunehyder did not joke or laugh now. "Who are you, elf-slave? I wish Ryoo to be able to find you later and punish you suitably."

"I am Juthwara, Freedom Fighter, you hairy persecutor of all that is right and good. My companion is Eben, and he is worth more than two of you, oh cold-blooded demon, slave of shadows, you who lurk in the cesspool of lust and greed and despair, seeking whom you may devour."

"These are not insults to me, small one, puny fighter of a lost cause. You have heaped high praise upon me."

Juthwara shook his head impatiently. "It matters not. I did not come here to bandy insults with a refugee from a sewer. Do you refuse my terms?"

Lunehyder's eyes narrowed. "I will kill you slowly, Elf."

Juthwara bowed slightly, never taking his eyes off the massive figure before him. "Very well, Katamobe. Prepare yourself for the loss of your body as your spirit descends to the fiery pit."

Lunehyder lunged forward to grab the Elf, but Eben's sword was already in his hand, and he blocked the monster's evil intent, drawing first blood of the day. On a prearranged signal several Jubilee Guild archers leapt out from behind the tall gray ovens, arrows to the string and directed at the Katamobe's heart.

With the flat of his blade Eben thrust Lunehyder down into the recessed opening. Before the monster could step back out Juthwara said firmly, "Take one step and you will receive an arrow through your heart, Light-Hider."

The Katamobe glanced up and saw the archers and the arrows trained on him. Eben lifted his rapier threateningly, blue fire in his eyes.

With a growl the Vorprix backed down, retreating into the dank dungeon. "Prepare yourself for death, Elf. And you, little Man. You will suffer for that blow!"

Eben and Juthwara turned back to the ovens and walked swiftly to join their companions in arms. The archers were glad to have their leader back safely, and expressed this as they all ducked into hiding behind the tall gray ovens and dawn's first rays cast long shadows over the barren wasteland.

An elf-archer named Gowaine joined Eben and Juthwara in one of these shadows. "Are you well, Juthwara? I saw the Vorprix leap at you."

"I am not harmed, Gowaine, thanks to the swiftness of young Eben." He turned to the young man. "Thank you, my friend. I was a fraction of a second too slow. Had you not been so alert, I would not now be standing here."

Eben shook his head. "Don't give me that. I saw that your hand was on your hilt the entire time you spoke with that vermin. Had there been need, you would have been ready."

Juthwara inclined his head in acknowledgment. "Nonetheless, I owe you my life."

"And I owe you much. Let's not speak of it. That door will not remain closed for long."

Juthwara nodded. Watching from the shelter of the smelting ovens, they could hear demonic howls from the inner dungeon. Gowaine's arrow tensed against the string.

"Patience, friend," the other Elf cautioned, "but aim well. We will let them come to us, for we have the advantage here among the great ovens, and they must cross twenty yards of open wasteland to reach us. May your arrows fly true." The three still figures of the watchers were lost in the shadow of the oven.

The great iron door opened and Katamobi streamed upon the plain like a flood of black ink. Gowaine's first arrow took off a mutated wolf, and within moments half a score of arrows flew from the shelter of the ovens, each felling a Katamobe. The battle was joined.

They were just outside the door to the room the Hosridon was in when they were caught.

"Sarah!" Cheryl gasped. "Sarah, what's happened to you? You're so hard!"

The other girl truly was hard. Her face was hard, her eyes were hard, and her heart was hard.

"Hardness is strength," she replied.

Lenny swallowed with difficulty and slowly drew Chumégal from his belt. Could the healing amethysts close this wound?

Sarah laughed and made a violent gesture. The magnifying glass was knocked from Lenny's hand, and he gasped at the pain of the invisible blow.

"You can't do anything to me," Sarah said contemptuously. "And a magnifying glass? I despise you."

Cheryl clutched Morríenna in a trembling hand. She felt Sarah's hate like a physical blow.

Sarah turned her attention to her sister. "But you have a sword." Invisible hands tore Morrévril from the other girl, bruising her waist. "You didn't intend to use that on me, did you?" Sarah plucked the eagle-sword from the air and held it distastefully at arm's length. "Well, forget that."

"Sarah, I wasn't going to use the sword on you. I came to save you, to get you away from this terrible place. Please Sarah, come with us." Cheryl pleaded with all the fervor of her fervent heart, begging for her sister to be saved.

"Never." The word was a splinter of ice.

"Sarah listen to the Voice in your heart! You know the truth, the right way. Won't you believe it?"

"I hate you." The words were spat with all the intensity of Sarah's dark-shrouded soul. "You do-gooder. You look so perfect on the outside, but I know your heart."

"I know I'm not perfect," Cheryl said humbly, "but I'm forgiven. And that's all that's needed. It's all I want for you. Won't you accept it? Won't you taste and see?"

"Taste and see what?" Sarah's bitterness was more manifest every moment.

"His love, His forgiveness. His riches of a new life." Cheryl's entreaties were growing desperate. "Please, Sarah. Do it for yourself, do it for me." A mistake, that last word.

"I hate you."

"Sarah--" An invisible hand struck Cheryl's face with brutal force. She choked on a spiritual gag.

"Shut up, Cheryl. You belong to Ryoo, now. Come on."

Slimy, invisible chains pulled Lenny and Cheryl down the hall behind their sister.

Continuation of Chapter 20
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