THE VALLEY OF THE SHADOW OF DEATH
Cautiously rising to her elbows, Willow watched as a lizard scurried under the brush and a lonely vulture circled overhead. Devon was already up, tending the fire.
“I heard a snake,” she said. “I know I did.”
Devon smiled reassuringly. “That was just a fire snake, nothing to worry about. Their mouths are too small to bite humans.”
Despite his words, a shiver traveled through her even though the temperature was clearly rising. Willow's muscles and joints were sore, and her whole body ached with exhaustion, but she reluctantly pulled herself up and spied a cactus with reddish-orange fruit.
She pointed to it and asked Devon, “That's edible, isn't it?”
He nodded, so she wandered over to the plant. She carefully avoided the sharp needles with the aid of a jagged stick and speared some of the reddish-orange fruit. If Rohan had to suffer through another breakfast of apples, he just might snap. She, herself, gladly welcomed a change.
She rotated the fruit in the flames to remove the small, hair-like prickles. After a few minutes, she set them aside to cool and decided to check on the horses. She greeted Bellefire, Caper, and Apollo, wishing she had some sugar lumps or carrots to offer. By the time she gave each of the horses a thorough pat down, Rohan was stirring.
“S’morning already?” Rohan asked, his mouth wide open in a yawn.
“I’m afraid so,” Willow said.
Devon chimed in munching on the cactus fruit. “Buck up, you two. We should be at the Valley of the Shadow of Death by noon.”
“Is that supposed to be good news?” Rohan asked.
“It is if we still want to find the armor. That's why we are here, right?”
“I hope we can find some grass for the horses on the way,” Willow said, watching Caper tear absently at a dry leaf.
“If not before the Valley, we certainly will find some on the Path of Life,” Devon said.
Willow handed a piece of fruit to Rohan, and they ravenously bit into the deep purple flesh, eating around the skin, while Devon boiled some more of the murky water to fill their canteens.
It was a smooth northwest ride, and they covered the ground quickly aiming for the rugged shapes of the Umbra Mountains against the horizon. The air gradually grew cooler as they rode. The scrubland slowly turned to a grassy plain, fed by a mountain river. Willow insisted that the horses be allowed to graze.
Devon agreed reluctantly, “We really should keep going. But for you, I’ll give in. Just a half an hour or so though. That is all we have to spare. We have no idea what the Valley of Death has in store for us. And I have an inkling that it is named for good reason.”
“Thank you, Devon! We won’t stay too long. I promise.”
While the horses ate, the three took turns rinsing off in the cold river. They reveled in washing away all the caked on sweat from the trek across the desert. By the time Rohan finished, Devon was anxious to get moving.
“Willow, I’m sorry but we have to go.”
“Ready when you are,” she said walking over to Bellefire.
About four miles farther, with the range clearly in view, their shadows elongated unnaturally until they grew so large that they began to overlap. At the base of the range, a steady darkness blanketed the three.
“We’ve reached the Shadow Lands -- Death’s shade. Won’t be long now,” Devon said grimly.
The entire plain ahead was draped in shadow. They were soon corralled into a dark stony crevice strewn with boulders between two imposing mountains.
Rohan's voice was dry with nerves. “This must be it; it smells of death.”
He's right, Willow thought. A morbid scent engulfed them. The hair along the horses’ necks and backs bristled as they slowed their pace and entered into an even narrower ravine. Bellefire gave an agitated whinny. The sides of the two mountains formed solid rock walls that seemed to reach to the very heavens.
Ahead of them, a luminous mesmerizing glow began to shimmer in a pool of water at the base of the eastern wall.
“Come on, Bellfire,” Willow said, and urged her to sprint forward.
“Are you crazy, Willow? Let’s get out of here!” Rohan warned as he followed her reluctantly.
When she reached the pool, she quickly slipped out of the saddle. Devon froze in his; grim curiosity crossing his features.
“Willow, stop,” Rohan begged.
Willow ignored Rohan, walking in a trance drawn in by the light. Above the pool, carved into the rock wall in large silver letters were the words, Vanity of Vanities. The water, if it was water, seemed like liquid moonlight and appeared fathomless.
“Willow, seriously! Come on!” Rohan pleaded.
She reached out her right hand, her index finger extended.
“Don’t touch it!” Rohan struggled to dismount. “Do something. Devon!”
Devon remained frozen, his brown eyes reflecting the luminous pool.
The instant Willow’s finger broke the surface, the water began to swirl rapidly, and she was met with the images of her parents’ faces. At first they appeared quite tangible, but the longer she looked at them the more they distorted. Their skin turned sickly gray; their faces shrank as if the flesh beneath their skin wasted away. Their eyes became blank and lifeless as their faces rotted away.
How fleeting life was, how transitory. Willow was consumed by futility and utter hopelessness, and felt a pull to plunge forward to never surface again. They were all going to die. Why prolong the inevitable?
As she bent forward preparing to jump, Rohan grabbed her around the waist and dragged her away.
“Your parent’s died fighting. They wouldn’t want you to give up. Fight Willow, fight!” he whispered fiercely into her ear.
The second Willow’s eyes broke contact with the swirling pool, Devon thawed, and the spell was broken. Willow shook her head, coming to terms with what just happened. “I’m so sorry,” she said crying into Rohan’s shoulder.
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he whispered pulling her into a tight hug.
“I don’t know what happened. I saw…I saw my parents. But they were dead and rotting, and I felt so helpless.”
“This place must be under heavy enchantments. We should get going,” he said, taking a step back.
As he did he found himself teetering on the edge of a vast precipice. There were only a few feet between the pool and the chasm. The deep shadows were so disorienting -- concealing, amplifying -- they had no idea that they were traveling on the edge of a bottomless drop-off.
Willow reached out and pulled him to safety.
Devon's face had lost all color. “That was close.”
Rohan grunted in response clearly aggravated by Devon’s lack of help. They mounted their horses and rode further into the valley. The light of the pool behind them failed to penetrate the cruel darkness and a marrow freezing cold had descended. A scant chink of sunlight was a ribbon above them. The valley was obscured in darkness -- deep as midnight.
They came to halt concerned they might walk the horses right over the edge. Shivering, Rohan pulled out his wand, and with a wave of his hand said, “Lumen.”
A beam of light appeared but was instantly swallowed by the darkness.
“My wand’s light won’t work,” he said.
Willow touched the Everflames she carried around her neck. It was beginning to burn her skin. She took the torch between her fingers and held it up. A blinding light flashed, forcing their eyes to blink rapidly as they adjusted to its glow. A bubble of warmth enveloped them, and they continued forward.
To their left, there was a patch of black deeper than the rest on the rock wall. Willow wondered if it could be a cutout in the rock.
“Do you see that darker square over there?” she asked, pointing.
The boys nodded. They urged their horses forward. Shadows began to move behind every boulder and in the emptiness between crevices. They were soon surrounded by wraiths that swooped down upon them, their wails echoing in the narrow valley.
Willow thought she felt one of their icy fingers scrape down her back and screamed. The horses spooked. Devon and Willow just managed to keep control, but Rohan lost his grip and was bucked off. Caper took off at a mad gallop back the way they came, foaming at the bit.
The wraith passed over Rohan on the ground, Willow realized with relief that they were only a spell that the canyon had cast.
“Shadows, just shadows. They can’t harm us,” she panted.
Rohan groaned as he cradled his right arm, “Can’t, huh?”
From the ground, he clumsily lifted his left arm and fired a ray of light at a swooping shadow with his wand, “Congelo.”
The spell passed through the shade and bounced off the rock wall leaving a small crater in the stone where the beam made contact.
“A wand against a shadow is of no use,” Devon said.
“I figured as much, but thought I’d try anyways -- just for good measure,” Rohan jested weakly, stifling a groan.
Willow asked, “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, I think so. I may have messed up my arm though,” he said groaning as he tried to move it.
Devon took off his shirt, revealing his sculpted physic. Rohan looked at him in disgust as he squinted through the pain.
“Really, mate? It’s freezing here.”
Devon ignored him and dismounted from Apollo. He took his shirt and wrapped it around Rohan’s injured arm creating a makeshift sling.
“Oh, thanks,” Rohan grunted, clearly surprised by Devon’s kindness. “So, what do we do about Caper?”
“We have to pray that she makes it back to Credo,” Willow said sadly. “It’s too dangerous to go back for her, and I don’t think we could catch her if we tried.”
“She’ll be alright, Willow. She’s a tough horse,” Rohan reassured her. “At least I was wearing my rucksack, but the blanket was in the saddle bag.”
“I guess we will have to make do without it for now,” Devon said. “Blankets are not easy to come by in the middle of nowhere.”
With Devon and Willow’s help, Rohan climbed up behind Willow. Willow thought Rohan seemed to be holding onto her unnecessarily tight, leaning the side of his face against her back and wondered if he was not trying to prove something to Devon. But what?
“Come on, let’s get going,” she said.
The torchlight had dimmed, and now only lit the space right before them, not strong enough to lesson the darkness even a few feet ahead. Devon ran his hand along the wall, and almost fell sideways off Apollo when his hand reached the patch that Willow had spied earlier.
“There's an opening here,” he said regaining his balance. “What do you think we should do?”
“We can’t go in,” Rohan said. “The torch isn't working well here. We’d have to be mental to try.”
Rohan was right. Willow said, “I agree, let’s keep going.”
But as they decided to continue, Willow heard the shuffling of tired feet intermingled with an occasional thud, resonating in front of them.
“Shhh...” Willow said. “Listen.”
“Someone’s coming,” Devon breathed.
“What should we do?” Rohan whispered.
“It’s too late to hide. The torch’s light will give us away. I say we just wait, and face whatever comes.”
Willow strained her hazel eyes, searching the darkness for any sign of whomever was advancing. Holding her breath, she watched as an elderly man walked into the orb of light. She let out a sigh of relief.
Upon closer examination, the man appeared ageless -- deep lines in his face spoke of ancient wisdom and yet he possessed an aura of playful youthfulness. He wore a pure white robe cinched with a cord about his lean waist, his dusty feet secured in sandals. He looked like a man familiar with hard work. In his right hand he carried a crocked staff, in his left a shepherd’s rod. His white beard and flowing white hair accentuated his glowing face. There was nothing but kindness etched into his features, his deep brown eyes radiated love.
“Excuse me, sir?” Willow asked.
“Yes, my daughter?” His gentle tone denoted a quiet power.
“Where are you going?”
“To feed my sheep.”
“Yes, my sheep.”
All of a sudden, Willow caught sight of a tiny lamb hidden among the folds of his white robe.
The shepherd saw her eyeing the lamb and said, “This one wandered off. I left the ninety-nine to find the one.¹ Rejoice with me, for I have found my lost sheep.”
“He has been cleansed,” he said, a huge smile creasing his luminous face.
Willow paused for a moment before asking, “Sir, which way to the Path of Life?”
She had no doubt that this good shepherd would not lead her astray.
“My daughter, you are but standing at the very threshold.”
“But it’s so dark,” Willow whispered.
“Have faith, dear one,” and with those final words the shepherd and the lamb grew as bright as the light of the torch and were no more, becoming the very light that encompassed the three.
“Where did he go?” Rohan asked, his startled voice echoed off of the side of the canyons.
“I don’t know,” Willow murmured.
“Do we go through, then?” Rohan asked.
“I think we have to,” Willow said. “How can we not? What do you think, Devon?”
Devon looked pale and dazed and did not answer.
“Devon?” Willow asked again.
“Yes, we need to go through. The shepherd spoke tru-th.” Devon said, his voice broke on the last word.
“You alright?” Willow asked.
“Of course,” he said, shaking his head free of whatever was distressing him. “Let’s get a move on.”
Pausing a moment to gather her courage, Willow urged her horse forward. Devon followed her into the pitch black.