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Chapter 21

...Before It Gets Better

Mariel gripped Chumégal in icy hands as she stole nearer the enchanted Book. She had stood immobile by the door for several minutes, nearly hypnotized by the swirling lurid shades of red and dark purple that held the Hosridon suspended in the air.

Mariel had been lucky to get away from Inaryoo. When Sarah surprised them in the hallway, the young woman was a few feet away, and slipped into another room. In her ragged, gray garments, she looked like just another Sleepwalker, and the Witch's apprentice paid no attention to her.

From her hiding place the Jubilee spy watched the confrontation between the sisters. Mariel felt guilty that she just stood by and watched, but there was nothing she could do. When they left at last, she crept out and retrieved the magnifying glass, then moved into the library where the Hosridon was kept, determined to complete their task.

Now Mariel hesitantly reached out to touch the dark energy field surrounding the book, wondering how to dispel it.

"Stop!" A loud urgent voice arrested her movement, and Mariel pulled back involuntarily and looked up, startled.

In the doorway stood Inaryoo, the Witch's apprentice. She seemed relieved that Mariel had not touched the purple and red tendrils of power.

Mariel did not back away. She stood so close she felt electric prickles on her skin, and her face was bathed in the ghastly glow, making it strange and spectral.

"What is it, Sarah?" she asked. "Why did you stop me?"

"The energy is very dangerous," the girl said. "Watch." She picked up a piece of paper on one of the tables nearby and thrust it into a dark purple wisp. The parchment burst into flames.

"But why did you stop me?" Mariel repeated. "Why didn't you allow me to injure myself?"

Sarah looked startled and, for the first time, doubtful. "I should have let you!" she exclaimed with a little of the old malice. "I should have let you burn to a smoking crisp!"

"Then why didn't you?"

Inaryoo realized she was miserable. "I don't know," she whispered, falling into a chair and sinking her head into her hands.

More than anything Mariel wanted to comfort the little girl, to just hold her in her arms and chase away the bad things. She stepped back from the suspended Hosridon to see Sarah more clearly and held out her hands, not noticing that she still held Chumégal in one of them.

"Can it be that you are not as evil as you'd like us to believe, that real concern and human compassion still stirs in your heart? Could it be that you don't really want the power of a Witch, but something else you cannot name? Has all your spells and magic brought you no satisfaction, and now you are searching for something that will fill the emptiness?"

Sarah shook her head, still buried in her hands. But Mariel could see it was a desperate denial, a futile attempt to throw it off. Inaryoo was listening, and just maybe she was almost willing to accept the Light.

Ralph stared up at the terrible Katamobe towering over him, weapon raised. "What are you doing here?" it screamed so loudly Ralph winced at the sharp pain in his ear.

"I'm a scout," Ralph said boldly, his hand on Thoníphage. If he could move quick enough--

"What?" the creature bellowed.

"I'm a scout!" Ralph shouted.

"What?" The Katamobe shook its head. "Never mind! You're a human, and I will kill you!"

The battle-axe began to fall. Ralph drew his dagger, but it was too late! The Katamobe fell to the ground with a deafening crash, a dagger sticking out of its back.

Staring over the corpse with wide green eyes, Ralph saw his good buddy pluck out his dagger, clean it, and sheath it again.


"Boy." The Maychorian laughed. "That monster must've been deaf! He never heard me running up behind him!"

Ralph grinned as he stepped around the crumbling Katamobe to stand by his friend. "I sure am glad to see you! I thought I was goner for sure!"

"Oh, you could've handled it," Arim said with a dismissing gesture. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, thanks to you," Ralph said as they began rapidly walking. "I'm just curious--what happened to you back there? I turned to look at you and you weren't around."

Arim winced. "Sorry about that. I heard the marching and stopped to listen, but you kept going a little way, and before I could warn you they were there and we both hid. I was in a little cleft in the wall just a few feet from you, and I saw you take off with the creature on your heels. I followed as fast as I could."

"Well, let's get back to Quintálamus and tell him the Katamobi are gone," Ralph said.

"Okay," Arim said, leading the way. "Let's go!"

Eben managed to lift his saber into a defensive position above his head just as Lunehyder's weapon crashed down. Eben's sword splintered into a thousand pieces, and his wrist was badly jarred, his hand bruised.

The Katamobe roared, angry that his victim had cheated death once again. A second time he raised his sword and brought it whistling down.

Eben rolled out of the way as the gigantic weapon clove the earth. A good portion of his cloak was cut off, but he was otherwise uninjured by the ferocious blow.

Lunehyder was very frustrated and murderously enraged at his slippery opponent. Once more he readied his sword for the final stroke.

Eben desperately tried to get up, and managed to get his elbows under him. His head was badly wounded and blood flowed freely onto the rocky ground. The huge black figure of his tormentor was only a dark blur, and the young warrior wasn't sure how much longer he could stay conscious.

"Now you will die, small one!"

But now a tall, regal figure stood over the fallen warrior, sword held in readiness against the Vorprix. It was Juthwara, Eben realized as fire burst in his skull, blocking his vision with a white and red sunburst.

The elf was concerned for his protégé, but hardly spared him a glance as he faced the monster that had wounded him. Cold anger burned in the noble heart of Juthwara, for Eben was very dear to him.

"Stand back, Lunehyder! Your fight is not with this boy but with me!"

"Out of the way, Juthwara," the Katamobe growled. "He has twice wounded me, and I will have my revenge!"

"Not while I live. You have wounded him and had your revenge--he is badly hurt, much worse than you are. But if you do not leave, I will remedy that. Do you truly want to return to Katatchthonios today?"

Lunehyder paused. Never had he met a warrior so fierce and strong as this elf. He was beginning to doubt his ability to vanquish him, and wonder if the leader of the Jubilee Guild could back up his claim. Besides, his leg hurt.

But if he backed down from an elf only two-thirds his size, he could never show his ugly face again. No, he would have to fight to protect his pride and reputation.

"Very well, Elf. You will die first."

Juthwara braced himself. For the first blow only Lunehyder was on the offensive. After that the fight was Juthwara's and both knew it. Not once was the elf wounded, but his flashing sword found its mark on the Vorprix many times, drawing black blood and agonized bellows. Juthwara danced around his opponent, using his skill and speed to good effect, while Lunehyder had no opportunity to bear down with his strength and weight. His aim was off, his swings wild, and his huge bony fist that had done such damage to poor Eben never had a chance to land on the elf-leader.

At last the monster fell with a death-scream. Juthwara paid little attention as soon as he knew the Vorprix was slain, but quickly knelt by Eben and took his hand.

"Eben, can you hear me?"

The young warrior managed a tight smile. "I'm okay, Juthwara. But my rapier is shattered."

"I know." Juthwara pressed the metal hilt into the young man's hand. "That is all that is left. Don't concern yourself over it. You must rest and get well. There is much blood here, all over the ground and your head. Where are you wounded?"

Eben turned his head so the Elf could see where Lunehyder had struck him. Juthwara winced. "That's very bad. No, don't try to get up, my boy. The wound looks serious."

The elf looked up toward the ovens and saw the Guilders that had remained in hiding there: an archer with no skill in swordsmanship and a dwarf with some knowledge of healing. Both had been ordered to stay out of the action until they were needed. "Darin! Jeresíah! Come quickly!"

The two hurried across the few yards that separated them. "Get Eben to a safe place," Juthwara instructed. "See to it no Katamobi come near. Tend his wounds and make him stay still. I will join you later."

Cheryl moaned and struggled to get up, but Ryoo's power held her fast. Lenny was getting desperate. Without Chumégal he felt helpless.

Then Ryoo began to chant her evil spell, hoping to enslave Cheryl and break her will, making her a Sleepwalker.

Icy breath
Cold as death
Hide the light
Shroud in night

The words were cold and monotonous, in rhythm with the black, bitter power pulsing from Ryoo's fingers into her victim prostrate on the floor.

Seal your power
In this hour
O'er enemy mine
The drunkenness of wine
Shall bend the knee
And make unfree

Cheryl's defenses were beginning to be beaten down. She cried out as the hate and malice of Ryoo's dark soul pounded against her skull.

Lenny wrung his hands and begged the Maker for guidance. He didn't know what to do! The boy's searching glance fell on Morrévril, lying unguarded in the corner. But he couldn't use a weapon on a living Elf-woman, could he?

Wind the heart
In cruelty dark
Chain the will
That defies me still

Cheryl would not submit, and the evil energy was killing her by degrees. Lenny began to sweat, glancing from the sword to Ryoo's twisted visage and back again.

Ne'er again shall I hear
The Name held dear
To this enemy of mine
Who would still cut the bind
That attaches us two
In the power of Ryoo

The Witch was growing more and more frenzied as her enchantment did not work. She began to lose control, shouting the words, faltering in the rhythm and meter of the spell, pouring more and more power into the still figure before her.

In the soul's agony
It shall belong to only me
I'll be the master--

The spell ended in a terrible scream as Lenny gathered his wits and courage and ended the life of the Witch with a single mighty blow of the golden-silver shining Darkrender.

Inaryoo was very quiet on the outside, but inside a battle raged. A battle between good and evil, heaven and hell, Sarah's evil nature and Sarah's longings for something better. Two desires, two paths, two lifestyles, two choices. Sarah felt she was being pulled apart from the inside. She had to make a decision before she was ripped in half.

Mariel, perceiving the inner conflict, reached out a hand to comfort the struggling girl--the hand that held Chumégal. The amethysts began to glow faintly, but it was hardly noticed in the lurid backdrop of purple and red.

Sarah felt the light in her core, even with her eyes closed. It was indescribable, unexplainable, but she felt it. The confusion vanished. All the bitterness and hate and pettiness she had wrapped herself in dissolved. Faced with two clear choices, Sarah made her decision.

Light flooded her soul. The cleansing hurt--oh, so many mistakes, so many bad choices, so many unkind words and ill deeds. And these many sins could not be undone, but they could be forgiven. Sarah felt that forgiveness, and she wanted it--so badly it was a terrible ache in her chest.

Part of her wanted to reject it again--darkness offered so much, and her pride rebelled at the notion of humbly seeking forgiveness. But the part that said 'yes' spoke so much louder….

The violet light intensified, fighting the evil power surrounding the Book. And as the lavender hue ate away at the violent purple-red of Ryoo's spell, Sarah's wall of pride and bitterness crumbled.

At last the girl lifted her face to Mariel, tears shining in her hazel eyes. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes!"

The dark power dissipated completely, and the released Hosridon fell to the floor, open. Golden light filled the room, brighter than the sun. Chumégal's light was lost in the glow, became a part of it.

Sarah's heart cried to the Maker of all things, and this cry was part of the light too. So were Mariel's hands, gentle and supporting on Sarah's; and the girl's tears, shivering out of her eyes to fall unheeded to the floor.

Inaryoo was standing, staring up, clasping the servant-girl's hands in her own. "Oh, Abba! Oh Lord God, Heavenly Father! Take me in! Forgive me! I renounce the paths of darkness, my lust after power, my greed for wealth. I renounce Ryoo and the way of the Witch. From now on I am Yours, Lord, High King. I am nothing--but accept me as your servant, I beg! Make me Yours! I am no longer Inaryoo, but Sarah, a servant of the King!"

This was Sarah's heart-cry, but only a few broken words came from her lips. Mariel understood, and so did Abba. And Sarah knew she was forgiven, and belonged to the King of the universe.

Mariel embraced her. "Little Sister, fear not! You are free!"

It was the first genuine smile Mariel had ever seen on the former Witch's apprentice, and it was beautiful. "Yes, yes, I am free! Oh, yes, I am free!"

Suddenly the room began to shake violently. The Hosridon flipped shut and the gold light vanished, Chumégal's violet glow fading soon afterward.

Sarah clung to Mariel in desperation, fearing she would fall on the shuddering floor. "What--what is it?" she gasped, terrified.

Mariel was frightened too, but she smiled at the girl. "It's all right. Abba won't let us fall too far."

"What happened? Why an earthquake now?"

Mariel's smile broadened. "I think your brother and sister have succeeded in slaying Ryoo. Kataphage is probably pretty mad--but don't worry. The Maker is much stronger, and we rest in the palm of His hand."

Arim and Ralph were following behind the company of Guilders into the deserted dungeon when the Maychorian suddenly halted in his tracks. Ralph ran into him, then sighed. "What is it now?"

Arim's nose twitched as if smelling something Ralph could not detect. He was staring at nothing, listening intently to voices the other boy could not hear. Then he said softly, "Ryoo is dead. The Katamobi are screaming to their master for vengeance for their slain leader--" he broke off, then went on, "but their leader is not Ryoo, but a Vorprix called Lunehyder. Kataphage is paying no attention to their cry for revenge--he's more angry about Ryoo's death, though now her soul is his forever. His rage burns against--" Arim paled.

"Who? Who!" Ralph was frantic.


"Lenny?" The green-eyed boy was both incredulous and worried.

Arim snapped out of his trance-like state and stared at Ralph with fear in his blue eyes. "Yes, and Kataphage is going to bring the castle down on top of them with a quaking of the earth!"

On cue the earth trembled beneath them, traveling in waves from the epicenter of the quake, Castle Ryoo. In sudden fear Arim reached out a hand to grab Ralph's shoulder to steady himself. The rest of the Guilders, a little way up the hall, cried out in fear and some fell to their hands and knees, unready for the tremors.

Arim in tow, Ralph pushed his way through the frightened people to Quintálamus. The dwarf-leader looked at them with uncertain hope in his dark eyes. "Dost thou know what this is and what has caused it, strangers from Maychoria and another world?"

Ralph nodded. "It's an earthquake," he shouted above the rumbling of the earth. "Kataphage is mad 'cause we killed Ryoo!"

At that moment the shaking slacked off. The members of the Jubilee Guild were relieved to find that none had been harmed beyond a bruised knee or scratched hand.

Arim closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them. "The dungeon is completely empty of Sleepwalkers and Katamobi," he said. "We can free the prisoners unhindered."

"Excellent!" Quintálamus produced a jewel-encrusted tibian skeleton key Juthwara had presented him with. "Let us be about our work, friends. For the King!"

The Guilders cheered. They set off quickly down the dim corridor, eager to rescue Ryoo's prisoners from their chains. All of them knew a friend or relative trapped in the dungeon because they served the King instead of the Witch.

"Careful!" Ralph cautioned. "There could be aftershocks!"

Arim turned to his friend with curiosity. "What's an aftershock?"

Another violent shake knocked them all to the floor like so many unstable toys. It was all over in a moment, and the Guilders again regained their feet, more cautiously this time.

"That," Ralph informed Arim as he got up off his hands and knees, "was an aftershock."

Arim's answering groan was rueful.

Eben was not about to lie still when there was a battle going on. The ground shook beneath him, but he thought it a product of his weakness.

"Let me up," he said groggily, struggling into a sitting position.

"Nay," young Darin said firmly, easily pushing the weakened young man back down. "Juthwara said to keep you still."

"Nay he didn't," Jeresíah contradicted.

"Yea he did." Darin turned to the dwarf. "I distinctly remember him saying to make him lie still."

"Oh yea? What exactly did he say, I pray thee?" Jeresíah stood with hands on hips, facing the slim young man who knelt on the other side of their patient.

"He said, and I quote, 'Get Eben to a safe place. See to it no Katamobi come near. Tend his wounds and make him stay still. I will join you later.'"

"Thou speakest very glibly," Jeresíah grumbled. "I like it not."

While they bickered Eben again forced himself to his elbows. "I must join the battle," he insisted unreasonably.

"Nay!" both dwarf and boy exclaimed, thrusting him back down. "Lie still!" the young archer added.

Eben stared up at him. Through blurred vision he saw that Darin was several years younger than he was, clear-eyed and beardless. "How old are you, lad?" he asked.

Darin flushed. "I have passed through fifteen winters."

"And I eighteen," Eben replied. "Let me get up. I am your elder."

"But not Juthwara's," Darin argued with a faint note of uncertainty. "And he said--"

"Thou hast said what he said!" Jeresíah cut him off. "And I am unsure."

Eben cashed in on this doubt. "And you outrank this boy. Do you not see that I am fit for active duty?"

"That I am sure of," the dwarf replied. But as Eben began to get up he added, "thou art not fit. Lie still."

Darin grinned triumphantly and glanced at the wad of cloth he held against Eben's wounded head. "I believe the bleeding is slowing," he said hopefully.

Jeresíah glanced up. In sudden fear he cried out, "Yon comes a black Katamobic monster!"

Instantly the bandage was forgotten, and Darin snatched up his bow. More swiftly than thought the Katamobe was down, Darin's arrow through its throat.

Jeresíah blinked owlishly. "Good shot," he gasped incredulously, almost entirely speechless.

Eben was almost as shocked. It had all happened in a flash, so quickly Darin's hands were a blur. Apparently just because he couldn't use a sword didn't mean he couldn't use a bow.

Darin stared down at his hands. "I am well skilled," he said in puzzlement, "but I am not that good. Something guided my hands beyond my own ability and reflex."

Whether it was by an unseen guidance or Darin's peerless skill and swiftness, the lad's shot had saved them, and this Jeresíah would never forget. Darin suddenly remembered what he had been doing before the monster appeared and looked down at Eben.

"The bleeding has nearly stopped," he said with relief, pressing the bloody cloth back on the young man's head. "Are you thirsty?"

Eben winced. "Yes."

Jeresíah found a small leather bag among Eben's gear and put it to the wounded man's lips. Eben drank deeply, then opened his eyes in surprise. The pain and faintness had vanished.

Eben sat up, easily throwing off Darin's restraining hand. "Let me see that," he demanded urgently.

Too surprised to argue, Jeresíah handed the water over. Eben briefly examined the bag, then laughed heartily, adding to the others' bewilderment.

"Look!" he said, pointing to a design tooled in the leather. "It is the sign of the dwarves of the Purple Mountains! This is the water from the Pool of Turuth Lord Lenny and Lady Cheryl gave me after it healed my arm in the Urnvile Swamp. I'd forgotten all about it."

"What dost thou mean?" Jeresíah asked, confused.

"I am healed, my good dwarf!" Eben leapt to his feet as lightly as ever, then swayed slightly. Darin was on his feet immediately and supported him, pulling the warrior's arm around his shoulders and passing his own around the older youth.

Eben shook his head and winced a little at the sharp pain where Lunehyder's fist had landed. "Don't worry, Darin," he said, pulling back from the archer. "I just need a little more water." Eben poured what little was left over his head, and Darin stared up with open mouth as the terrible wound closed and healed in an eye-blink.

Eben laughed at the lad's wide-eyed expression, forgetting that the same had been on his face the first time he'd witnessed the healing properties of the water.

Darin suddenly shook his head and glanced down, abashed. The steady din of battle behind them reminded the young archer of their danger. "Come," he said. "We must go deeper into the group of ovens. We may be assured the origin of my arrow has not gone unnoticed. Other Katamobi will find us as that one did."

Eben disagreed. "I see no reason for flight. I am well now; I will join the battle."

Darin nodded. "Farewell, then. We must part paths now. I only hope no demon is lying in wait for us around the next oven. Being unable to use it, I left my sword behind."

"Yea," Jeresíah added, "and I am no warrior at all, but came to care for the wounded. Fare ye well, Eben. May Jah keep thee in safety."

Eben started back toward the battle, but hesitated. If what the dwarf and the boy said was true, they were nearly defenseless, and Katamobi could be lying in ambush.

"I will come with you," he said, turning back. "I don't care for the thought of leaving you helpless."

"Nay, thou shouldst go to the battle. We will be all right," Jeresíah said.

"I would be glad of your company," Darin said in the same breath.

Jeresíah scowled at his companion. "Eben is needed in the battle. Thy swift arrow will protect us."

"Not at close range," the boy replied. "And I am not as skilled as you believe."

"The incident earlier shows thee wrong."

"That was chance--or the King guided my hands. Besides, Eben doesn't have a sword."

The Dwarf shook his head. "Then what could he do to protect us? Thine own arguments prove thee wrong."

Eben was both annoyed and amused by their arguing as if he was not there. "I am not weaponless," he interjected, drawing a dagger from his boot. It was nearly a foot long. "This is as good as a rapier at short range, and I know how to use it. Darin, do you have a dagger?"

The lad shook his head, turning pale. "Only a hunting knife for skinning the rabbits I shot in the Urnvile Swamp for my family's table what seems an age ago."

"It will do. Draw it."

Juthwara's slaying of Lunehyder had turned the tide of the battle. The Jubilee warriors had cut off retreat to the dungeon, and the demons fought desperately. When the earthquake hit many of both armies had been thrown to the ground, and the Elf had scrambled to his feet and stared at the nearby city in fascination.

Castle Ryoo was trembling, shaken to its foundations. The highest tower began to topple, then was halted in midair as if by an Almighty hand. Even the violent aftershock did not fell the castle or the precariously tilted tower, though many poorly constructed buildings in the city were knocked down.

Then the battle continued apace, and Juthwara went on fighting, battling a path towards the ovens to join Eben and the two in whose care he'd left the wounded youth. It was then he noticed that some Katamobi, dismayed by the death of their leader and despairing of life for themselves, were fleeing into the ovens where Eben was hidden.

Juthwara fought with trebled intensity, suddenly worried.

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