THE DEPTHS OF SHEOL
With the curtains drawn tight and the fire dying out overnight, the three slept well into the morning. Willow woke first and splurged on another hot bath, allowing the scalding water to free her knotted muscles. Following her soak, she grabbed a piping hot cup of coffee downstairs and made her way to the stable. Her cold hands cupped the warm mug appreciatively.
The night’s stay in the soft, warm hay had done the horses much good. They appeared in fine spirits as they greeted Willow with soft whinnies and nuzzled their muzzles against her cheeks. She gave the grateful horses another carrot and sugar lump each, before she walked back to the tavern to pay for the horses’ treats and to wake the boys.
Devon was up and had rekindled the fire, while Rohan snored softly into the musty sofa.
“Morning,” they each said.
Willow walked over to Rohan and prodded him gently with her finger, but he snored on. She crossed to the window and pulled back the heavy curtains. Dismal, was all she could think. A heaviness hung over the town. She had sensed it the night before. But now as she watched a lonely pelican perch on a pylon, she knew that an unnatural pall had weaved itself into the hearts of its citizens. She said a quick prayer of thanks for Devon having led them to this establishment, where as rough as it was, the owner was kind.
Rohan let out a low groan. “Morning already?” he mumbled through a yawn.
The smell of sizzling bacon and fried sausage greeted them as they tramped down the stairs.
“It's such a pleasure to have young fresh faces in this town,” Mr. Cenwig said. “One forgets that there is life outside this miserable place.”
“What brought you here?” Willow asked.
“My great grandfather built this place when North Port was founded. He had high hopes, but . . .” He paused for a second. “There's a beast under the sea, and not a year goes by before he rears his head. Too many of our men have been killed by him. But this is where we live, and our livelihood is the sea.”
The three young people looked at each other.
“Then the sea serpent is real then,” Willow said.
“As real as I am standing in front of you,” Mr. Cenwig pronounced.
“So much for the luck of the Unicorn,” Rohan said.
“And he lives near the Island of Feducia,” Devon said. “Where we're destined to go.”
Mr. Cenwig was aghast. “Are you fools?”
“Sir,” Rohan said. “We may be, but we have no choice. Imagine all of Tutis under the same type of evil. If we don't face the beast, that will be the fate of our planet.”
Mr. Cenwig shook his head. “Then may the Lord Protector save you.”
They ate their fill in silence, and then walked out to the docks where Devon had secured a small boat, nothing more than a glorified row boat.
Devon, his bow slung across his back, stopped a sailboat captain just as the man was about to board his vessel. He was very scruffy, with a seasoned appearance to his features, and a rather stout gut.
“Excuse me, sir. Would you mind directing me towards the Island of Fiducia?”
“The Island of Fiducia! You can’t be serious?”
“Yes, sir. Quite.”
“The waters surrounding the island are referred to as the Depths of Sheol for good reason.”
“Nonetheless, sir, Fiducia is where our errand takes us.”
“You are either exceptionally brave or bloody fools. But if you insist, it is not far from the coast; about five miles northeast of the bay right past the drop off. It is that very drop off that concerns me. You are aware of what is housed there?”
“A Leviathan is said to reside in those waters, yes.”
“Great Scott! Said? Not said, but proved to live there.”
“Have you seen the beast, then?”
“Nay, not I. Those who meet the monster never survive to tell the tale. Again I urge you, do not venture into those waters.”
The captain spat out a wad of tobacco and walked off.
Rohan stepped aboard the small vessel scarcely avoiding an early dip in the cool waters. Regaining his balance, he and Devon helped Willow in. Devon stepped agilely aboard. Rohan sat by the rudder in the back, Devon in the front to provide the power. The boat was too small to allow for three sets of oars, so once again Willow felt utterly useless as the boys took the brunt of the work.
As they prepared to push off, a frail, bedraggled old man in an oversized raincoat and wide brim hat called for their attention.
“Ahoy,” Devon answered.
“Is it true?”
“Is what true, sir?”
“Do you really mean to shove off for the Island of Fiducia? And in that, no less?” he said gesturing to their boat with eyes wide.
Obviously the sailboat captain had lost no time in spreading the word along the docks.
“Aye, sir. We must.”
“I never thought I’d live to see the day that someone would be dunderheaded enough to try. The serpent is dangerous enough without waking him at his home. Just wanted to meet the foolhardy lot that was going to attempt it. And lo and behold, you are nothing but babes, and one a dainty lass, no less. Where do you find the pluck?”
“I assure you, we do not have a choice, sir. And now, we really must be going.”
“The Lord Protector bless your souls. I’ll be darned if I don’t buy you a pint each if you return,” he said as he walked back down the docks.
Rohan laughed darkly. “Well, that was encouraging.”
Freeing the boat from the cleat, the boys settled in for a hard day’s row. Willow sat on the middle bench wishing she had something other than visions of ferocious creatures to occupy her thoughts. The damp fog bit into their skin through their clothes. Willow shivered in her seat, envious of the boys who were being kept warm by rowing.
They set their course towards the spit of land to the northeast. Large smooth rocks broke the surface just off the jagged jetty that supported the lighthouse. After a long hour of rowing, the boys rested. The little boat bobbed up and down in the small swells. The whole world was gray, water and air, the weathered hull of their little boat. Willow felt as though they were disappearing, slowly eroding into the mist.
Rohan suddenly stood up, rocking the boat. “A dream come true.”
Devon had turned his head sharply to scold Rohan, but before he said anything, he stopped.
Mermaids had risen out of the water.
Like the boys, Willow was mesmerized. It was said that their temperaments mirrored the sea -- they could be tender and soothing one moment or destructive and murderous the next.
One golden haired Mermaid eyed the boat with narrowed weary eyes. She dove and then surfaced at the bow beside Devon, resting her arms on the boat’s gunnels. Her glorious blue eyes pierced Devon’s with speculation.
Devon obviously knew enough about Mermaids’ ever fluctuating tendencies to treat her with the utmost respect and consideration.
“Good morning, fair maiden,” he said bowing his head.
“Good morning to you, kind sir,” she said in a melodic voice that melted Willow’s heart.
The exchange seemed to attract the attention of the other Mermaids. Within a few seconds, the small boat was surrounded by the creatures, their tails flicking like rainbows in the charcoal colored water. Rohan could only continue to stare. Willow grew more and more anxious, her eyes flitting to the surrounding sea for any sign of a disturbance.
“What brings you three landlubbers into our domain?” she asked, tilting her head with genuine curiosity. Her voice was pure velvet.
“We seek safe harbor at the Island of Fiducia,” Devon answered.
“Who are you that you should refuse to honor a lady with the truth?” she asked incredulous, her vivid blue eyes betraying her anger.
“I speak only truth, my lady.”
“Then it is death that you seek. Even my sisters and I do not tread the waters beyond the drop off.”
“I’m afraid that we have no other choice. It is not with a light heart that we undertake such a task; I swear it.”
“Your bravery is astounding. A stronger man than you would cower in fear at the very thought. Death at any other hands would be merciful in comparison to the Leviathan’s fury.”
“You mistake duty for bravery, fair lady.”
The assembly moaned in unison. A young mermaid with jet black hair, reached up for Rohan's hand. He leaned down, and she stroked his face.
“So sad that such a pretty one must die,” she said.
“Duty and bravery are one and the same,” the golden haired one said. “My sisters and I wish you well -- such honor and courage should be rewarded, though your need for deliverance surpasses even my powers. Therefore...may your deaths be swift and painless.”
She leaned in and kissed Devon on the cheek.
The Mermaid sank into the sea swiftly followed by her sisters.
Rohan finally woke from his trance. “Wow,” he said, shaking his head in disbelief.
As the boys put their oars to work again, the Mermaids swam beside the boat, jumping into the air and twisting and turning in fantastic maneuvers. Their scales on their strong tails sparkled like gemstones, even in the drab day.
They rowed on in peaceful silence, enjoying the Mermaids’ company as the waves gently rocked the small boat. Willow found it difficult to believe that a fierce creature lived in the waters ahead.
As they drew near the island, the Mermaids broke the surface before the bow of the boat, all eyes turned towards the travelers. The golden one said, “This is as far as we dare to follow. Farewell and Godspeed.”
She blew a kiss before jumping high into the air and disappearing beneath the dark water. Her sisters followed suit. Now only danger lay ahead.
Shadows darkened the water, and Willow glanced up at the sky. The fog was transforming into brooding black clouds. The wind increased in strength as waves swelled. The boys dug in with their oars cutting deep into the water, pushing the boat faster and faster. Large drops of rain fell splattering their faces with a sharp chill, and the wind let forth a dreadful howl.
The boat pitched ominously as the rain fell in angry torrents. Willow grabbed the topsides to keep from falling overboard. The boys were forced to abandon their oars, wedging them against the hull of the boat before grasping the sides of the hull.
Through the shrieking wind, Devon yelled, “Willow! See if you can calm the seas and the storm. They are Elements; you should be able to.”
Concentrating, she closed her eyes and focused on the seas of earlier that morning.
“Brilliant!” Rohan yelled.
For a fleeting moment, the raging storm quelled and the seas settled. But Willow could not maintain the effort. She nearly swooned with exertion, her jaw clenched with the endeavor. With her concentration broken, the storm’s fury intensified.
“I can’t do it. I’m sorry. It’s too much.” Willow panted. A trickle of blood ran from her nose.
Lighting flashed like fiery arrows. Thunder shook the boat. As it was tossed about in the heavy waves, Willow saw two pillars of smoke rise in and then out of view.
“Do you see that?” Willow yelled into the chaos.
It can’t be smoke,” Rohan screamed over the roar of the storm.
The vapory columns suddenly shot higher in the air. Two round lumps resembling identical moss covered rocks jutted from the water. With horror, Willow realized that they were nostrils.
“The Leviathan!” she cried.
Folds of fleshy tight loops broke the surface behind the tapered snout. The beast raised its scaly, green-gray head, thrashing it in anger. Its broad head resembled a crocodile with evil yellow eyes set squarely on top. The doors of its massive jaws were ringed with imposing teeth. Its back was armored with rows of bony shields. Its underside was ragged potsherds.
Its snorting was what propelled the flashes of lightning. Firebrands flowed from its jaws. The thunder they had heard was its guttural growl. The Leviathan lifted its neck high above the little dingy preparing to strike like a cobra.
Rohan aimed his wand at the monster.
“Evito!” he screamed.
A jet of red light streamed from his wand. It hit the beast’s flesh with an audible sizzle but left only the slightest sear mark. Devon drew his bow, but arrow after arrow splintered and broke as they connected with the beast’s hardened underbelly. The creature persisted in its attack, emitting a deafening growl. Willow, Rohan, and Devon were paralyzed with fear.
Willow’s soul cried out for deliverance in their hopeless plight.
“Be still,” commanded a deep and powerful voice from out of the storm.
The voice woke the three journeyers out of their paralysis. Willow watched in awe as the cloaked figure from the Pit of Despair walked across the crashing waves as though he were taking a stroll through pleasant sand dunes.
The Leviathan’s attention was diverted to the drifter.
Willow screamed, “Watch out!” to the stranger who appeared oblivious to his peril.
He appeared not to hear her and continued on. Willow cringed as she prepared herself for the inevitable attack. But it did not come. When the man was just feet from the still pitching boat, he spread his arms wide.
The man was tall, dressed in the same long black cloak as earlier. It flew out behind him in the wind. His wide brimmed hat was pulled low over his deep brown eyes. His lengthy brown hair was pulled back in a low ponytail beneath his hat, and a shadow of a beard covered the lower part of his face. His deep eyes appeared to pierce Willow’s soul.
The storm swelled to a final crescendo and then fell still. Immediately, the skies cleared, the waves shrunk, and the beast lowered its head with a mournful groan and sank into the depths. The trio stared in wonder at the man who could walk on water and calm the seas. Suspended in the sky behind him, a radiant rainbow shone, larger and brighter than any Willow had ever seen.
“Who can this be?” Rohan asked, still gaping.
“You are the Lord Protector’s son, aren’t you?” Willow asked.
“Well done, my daughter,” the man said. “Here in Tutis I am known simply as Salvador, though I am known by many other names elsewhere.”
“How do you know who he is?” Rohan asked Willow in surprise.
“I think I always knew, deep down.”
“You are very wise, young one,” Salvador said. “Yes, deep in your souls the truth resides -- all are created with eternity stamped in their hearts. But all open their eyes to understanding in their own time, and most regretfully some never do,” he said, an ancient grief reflecting out of the depths of his eyes.
“But if you are really the Lord Protector’s son, why would you set a Griffin on us?” Rohan asked.
Willow shot Rohan a look of warning, but Salvador shook his head and said, “No, my daughter. Rohan is not wrong to question. He seeks the truth with a pure heart, and therefore he is sure to find it. I sent the Phoenix and the Griffin upon you for a single purpose. The horses would not cross the bridge at the Pit, and youwould not leave them behind,” he said, glancing at Willow without a trace of accusation.
“And the journal? That was you, too?” Willow asked.
“Yes, it was I. I also was the shepherd in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and I blew the trumpet in the forest during your battle with the Centaurs. I have been with you always, from the very beginning.”
“Why can’t we see you always?” Rohan asked.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways¹, young one. Faith cannot be forced. And even those who believe do not always accept. Many are called but few are chosen². But trust this: The plans I have for you are plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.³
“With great trials come great wonders, my children. All will be seasoned with fire4. You endure trials so that you may gain wisdom, understanding, and true knowledge -- to purify your faith. He who endures to the end shall be saved5. All things will come to light at the ordained time, you need only believe and nothing will be impossible. Your labor is not in vain6, but serves as a testament to the measure of your faith.”
“Ask your question, dear one,” Salvador said addressing Willow, after a minute pause.
“Why do my powers continue to fail?”
“You trust in the powers themselves -- relying on your own strength -- and not in the one who gifted them to you. You were created in our likeness7. But with the exercise of freewill that image has been skewed and distorted. It’s in imperfect representation. Much like the moon, which fails to produce its own light but reflects the splendor of the sun instead. The sun will continue to radiate regardless of the moon for it is the source of light, the very essence of illumination if you will, but moonlight would altogether cease without the existence of the sun -- the moon would be no more than a barren, granular rock. No one can stare at the sun’s brilliance without causing harm to their eyes and yet one can endlessly gaze at the moon and receive a mere glimpse of how bright the sun’s light truly is.”
“I think I understand now.”
“Very well, then. I believe you have an errand to complete?”
Recalling their task, Willow answered, “Yes, sir. We must retrieve the Shield of Faith from the Island of Fiducia.”
“Go now, my children, the Leviathan will trouble you no more.”
“Are you leaving then?” Willow asked with tears in her eyes.
“Do not fear, I am never far. I must warn you however, take careful heed, treachery is imminent. A day of trouble is swiftly approaching; let your eyes be open. Beware the Fire Snake and the one who walks in the midst of your camp.”
With those final words, Salvador was gone.