teh 1337est n00zpaper Circulation: 124,888,518 Issue: 252 | 11th day of Hiding, Y8
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The Price of Faith: Part Nine

by mutedsanity


The next morning I woke up in a groggy manner of daze, and the concept of lying there all day sounded just fine to me. The sun was still low and glittered above the horizon, already gracing us with a sweltering morning. If we had slept out there too much longer and let the sun gain on us, we would have positively roasted. Radom and I rose around the same time, both apparently used to not being able to sleep too late, me with my former duties in the castle and Radom simply living on that dreadful Terror Mountain.

     I lay there in the warm grass for who-knows-how-long, hands behind my head, staring up at the frail ribbons of white clouds laced vaguely in the endless blue sky. Radom sat beside me, saying nothing, just staring up at the sky. In the few quick glances that I gave him once in a while, I could swear he was smiling. Eventually the sun started making itself present, the air still and hot and stifling, so we picked ourselves up and moved yawning and stretching to lounge in the shade of a fruit tree.

     Shortly, the rest of the oasis stirred to life. The clanking of clay pots signaled Penny up and about inside, and Mia soon wandered out of their little hut, pausing at the pond to fill a blown-glass cup full of water. Tiny ripples webbed their way across the clear surface as she turned away and walked over to where Radom and I sat. "Good morning," she greeted us softly, smiling in that touchingly kind way of hers as she sat beside us. "Did you sleep well?"

     "Morning," Radom said, at the exact same time that I replied, "Very well, thank you."

     Mia giggled and lifted the cup to her lips, taking a long sip before turning her attention back to us. "We'll need to head to town soon. After we eat, we should set out."

     "Of course," I agreed, smiling appreciatively at the Aisha. I sat in the shade of the tree with my legs crossed and hands resting in my lap, still wearing what Penny had so kindly given to me the day before.

     Radom grinned and tilted his head at me. "You know something?"

     "No. And I don't think I want to." I smirked teasingly at him and raised my eyebrows in a silent inquiry.

     "I don't think I've slept so well in years. You must take a lot out of me or something. Either that or the fact that I'm not on a mountain buried in snow. That could have something to do with it too." He laughed, and I just smirked and shook my head at him.

     Mia smiled softly, but the three of us looked up as Penny came out of the house with a large ceramic bowl filled with food. "I hope you're hungry," she announced, taking a set in front of me and setting the bowl in between us, so that Radom and Mia were on either side of it.

     "Don't think I've eaten so well either," Radom added to me in an undertone. He flashed a quick grin at Penny and then dug in.

     I chuckled and thanked her once more. We ate cooked fish, rolls, and fresh fruit for breakfast. I'd forgotten how much I missed the taste of fish. When we finished, Penny took the bowl inside and returned with a shawl draped over her head and shoulders to protect her face from the sun.

     "You two ready?" she asked, watching as I stood and brushed clinging grass of my smoky grey dress.

     I picked up the shawl she had given me the day before and draped it over my head and shoulders as well, grateful that it was so long and fell down my back as well, where it helped cover my tightly folded wings. "Ready as we'll ever be," I answered, glancing out past where the grass ended and the desert began once more.

     She glanced at Radom, who nodded in agreement, and I took up my knapsack. Together, we filled it with some food for later in the day, and filled several pouches of water for the day in the desert. And then we were off.

     I paused only a moment at the edge of the flourishing little piece of paradise, and then willed myself to start out across the blazing sands. I was glad now for my boots, especially with the way poor Radom hopped and lopped along at a much quicker pace than the rest of us over the searing sand. There was no wind, no shade. Just a dry, still, persistent heat and a mocking sun high above us. The hot air folded in waves over the desert, and the sand dunes all around us shivered in the heat. On the horizon I could see the shuddering forms and colors of our destination.

     "At least we have water this time," Radom commented, smiling weakly back at me, forced to squint against the sun.

     I just shook my head and kept my sights ahead. "I'm going to the city if I have to crawl."

     He chuckled and turned his head forward once more, but I could see his ears perk. "That can be arranged..."

     Penny and Mia smiled faintly at one another. But after a few minutes of walking, Penny glanced ahead at Radom and bit her bottom lip. "Radomik?"

     "Mm?" His ears flicked.

     "Um... why do you want to do this?"

     A pause, but his pace remained steady. "Can't really say. It's just something I have to do. Not that I want to, mind you - but we don't have much of a choice."

     "I can't do it," I added softly, almost reluctantly. "And it's safe in his hands." I slowly shook my head before she could press again. "It's just something we have to do. We need that Crystal. It's very important to us."

     She stared at me for a moment. "Alright... if it's important to you, I guess that's that..." She nodded slowly. "But... well..." She glanced at Radom once more.

     "But what?" I was watching her curiously now, shifting the now fill knapsack on my shoulder.

     Penny's eyes lingered uncertainly on the brown Lupe. "Well... if it hits you wrong, you won't take any offense, will you?"

     Radom still hadn't looked back, but I could practically hear the grin in his voice. "I don't take any offense short of a punch in the nose."

     Mia giggled to herself, and Penny smiled a little, but not in a reassured sort of way. "It's just that..." she began. "Well, this tournament could be really dangerous... and I know you know that... but, well... are you sure you'll be able to do it, in this heat? Is it really worth the risk?"

     I remained silent at this. He was doing this all for me. He didn't have to, by any stretch of the imagination. Just... for me.

     "Yeah," Radom spoke after a moment. "I'd say so." He finally glanced back, and that tiny smile on his face seemed enough to reassure all three of us. "Hey, don't worry about me. Worse could happen."

     "I suppose..." Another weak smile on Penny's part, though this time a little more convincing.

     Mine made up for hers, I'm sure. "You're something else," I mused, shaking my head at Radom, but my eyes thanking him plenty for me.

     He just smirked, winked, and then continued on ahead.

     Mia, who had been keeping quietly to herself through all of this, quickened her pace and moved a little closer to Radom. She hesitated until he turned his head to look at her, and then told him softly, "There are going to be bad people in this race. Selfish people who will do a lot for that money."

     He just looked at her for a moment, in an almost thoughtful sort of way. "You know what I think?" He looked ahead once more when she shook her head slowly. "We can't really say what's good and what's bad. There's just... things people do. Some of the things people do are nice, and some aren't, but I guess that's all anybody has the right to say." He was silent for a moment, and we all looked at him in mild surprise. "I'm sure they're all doing right in their eyes. I'm just along for the ride. We'll see soon enough, anyway." He really did count on that good in people. That good in everybody that he always seemed able to see.

     "Cheers to that," I agreed softly, staring at my boots as they took me across the desert. When I glanced up, I thought I saw Mia smiling just a little bit.

     We were quiet the rest of the way. Perhaps the city was closer than it looked, because in what seemed like a lot less time than I had expected, we had walked right into the swelling city of Sakhmet.

     Simple houses made themselves present on all sides, tucked into every spot on the sand they could occupy, many so close together that neighbors hung out their laundry to dry on ropes tied from one roof to the next. It was rather cramped, the plain houses and sand underfoot leading us into the center of all the life in the Lost Desert. Occasionally the more tightly-packed, tight earth cracked and gave way to a few tufts of yellow weeds, the dried out stubble all the plant life I could really see. The packed area where most of the houses were opened up into a vast clearing where the houses made a semi-circle around half of it and then stopped. This clearing was filled with stalls and tents pitched all over, with people trying to sell their goods to the rest of the bustling city. There were people everywhere, all dressed in cool clothes that blocked out the harsh glare of the sun. They milled about on business, haggling and talking and tending to their lives, and across from the clearing sat the castle.

     It was enormous. Stone steps led up into the white and gold monster of a building that towered above all else. It was a sight to behold, breathtaking in its shimmering beauty. I could only stare wide-eyed up at it, as Mia and Penny branched off toward a stall to our left. Radom and I cut after them, walking past many other stands and politely declining any offers shouted out to us. "Look at this place," I said breathlessly, staring around in awe.

     "It's something else," the Lupe muttered back, smiling in a hushed sort of fascination as his bright yellow eyes flicked from one thing to the next.

     We followed Penny and Mia over to a wooden stand where an unpleasant looking red Grarrl sat, looking large and imperious in his shining golden robes and the way he scribbled things down in pen on a scroll in front of him when people walked up and gave him their name. "This is where you sign in," Penny explained, ushering Radom and me to stand behind someone who was speaking to the official.

     The Grarrl brushed the Ixi in front of us away and then rounded his gaze down to Radom and I, frowning in a way that practically said, 'Hello, I'm very busy and important. What do you want?' "Name," he growled, holding his pen over his scroll and staring at us.

     "You taking last minute entries?" Radom inquired, grinning up at him in a way that completely contrasted the scowl he got in return.

     The Grarrl glanced over his scroll, grunted, and then looked back at us. "We've got room. Name?"


     He jotted the name down, eyed Radom a moment longer, and then scratched something else down and brushed us off. "Just in time. We're starting in a few minutes. Go and meet everybody else out at the edge of the city." He gestured limply across the stalls, and then closed us off to check in the last few late contestants.

     "Thanks," I mumbled. We started off in the direction that he generally gestured toward, followed by Mia and Penny. Across the marketplace once more and out the side to where the desert began again, we joined the group gathered there.

     There were contestants of every nature, from the scrawniest of them that would be picked off in no time at all, to the hugest and most intimidating masses imaginable, of every species and color. Some were no more than disheveled poor folks fighting for the money, while others were pompous and wealthy, smug and here just to show off, no doubt. And then there was Radom, so plain compared to most of them, looking quite out of place with his messy brown fur and lean physique. Several yards from where the group was gathered, two poles tipped with orange flags marked the beginning of the race, and I had no idea where the end was.

     We were only there for a moment, listening to the rowdy crowd brag and threaten one another, when a red Scorchio pounced onto a wooden crate sitting among us. He fit in just fine, dressed for the desert, but he held a microphone in his hand that projected his voice around us via speakers hanging on nearby buildings. "Ladies and gentlemen! Your attention please! I am your host!" he cried, in a voice made painfully loud by his enthusiasm, and he spoke so quickly that all of his words ran into one another to make one long, breathless run-on. He grinned and gestured wildly in a way that looked almost humorously rehearsed. "Welcome! This is going to be quite a day, folks!"

     Radom and I couldn't help but smirk at one another. The crowd quieted down and turned their attention to the exuberant Scorchio. "The race will begin in just a moment! First we have the rules!" He cleared his throat importantly and gave a wild sweep of his arm toward the two flags. "This is the starting point! This race will be long and hard and will take you far into the desert! Our racers will have dangerous dunes, possible sandstorms, a river, and sweltering heat to overcome! No items are allowed! Anyone caught cheating will be disqualified! We have marked your course with orange flags, like the ones you see here! You must follow the path at all times, or be disqualified! It will lead you back around to the ending point, which will be on the other side of the city, after it takes you across some of the desert! But don't worry, folks! Pirry here will help us out!" He gestured wildly to a yellow Pteri that had just joined him on the crate.

     A large metal box was strapped on to her front, and a headset attached to said box allowed her to speak into what appeared the be the broadcasting system. "This is linked directly back here," she cried, in a voice so high and squawking that I had to snort back a laugh. "I'll be flying above the contestants and keeping you all updated on what's going on once they get out of sight! I'll fly along the entire race course, disqualifying anyone I see cheating and reporting all the action back to these speakers! This race will be long, so stay tuned with me until they get close to the finish line, at which point your host here will direct you to the other side of town to await the winner!"

     "Thank you, Pirry!" Our host looked positively psychotic with his monstrous grin. "And the prizes are fabulous! Neopoints for second and third place! Neopoints and our one of a kind Fire stone for first place!"

     "The Crystal," I whispered to Radom, who nodded in reply.

     Hello-I-am-your-host swung around wildly and threw his arms opened. "Contestants! Please prepare to begin! I hope you're all ready! No time to stop and many others to fight against!"

     I bit my bottom lip anxiously and touched Radom's back just as he was about to move away. "Are you sure you can do this?" I whispered, watching him nervously.

     He paused and looked up at me. "Nope. But there's only one way to find out."

     "Just be careful," I managed, forcing my hand back to my side.

     Radom grinned carelessly. "Can't make any promises. Don't do anything you wouldn't want me to hear about." He winked, and then turned and followed the crowd to the starting line.

     Penny, Mia, and I stood back and watched in an uncertain silence. I hated that he had to do this, but there was no other choice that I could see. Once the group had gathered and taken their stances, the host leapt up with a great cry of, "READY, GO!"

     And they were off. Pirry the Pteri took off and glided above, looking down on the running mass below her. The contestants raced out in a billow of sand and dust, streaking out into the desert. "Look at them go!" Pirry's obnoxious voice grated from the nearby speakers. "This is going to be a great race, folks!"

     Host was absolutely insane with excitement. He leapt up and down in a way that defied the forces of gravity and he was screaming so incoherently that I was certain he wouldn't have a voice for long. If one of the spectators didn't knock him out before then, that was. I winced and looked over at Penny and Mia, who were staring out at the steadily shrinking group already far ahead of us. "This is going to be close," Penny whispered, more to herself than anyone else.

     "I guess... all we can do is just hang around... and wait..." Mia spoke hesitantly, lifting her gaze up to me. We were all beyond nervous for Radom, that much was perfectly clear.

     I swallowed and managed to nod. "How long do you think this'll take?"

     "Don't know. It could be hours," Penny replied, almost reluctantly.

     I moaned and stared out at the figures now blurred and rippling in the heat on the horizon. "Be safe, Radom," I whispered, my heart and strength going out to him now. He could do it. He had to. I couldn't let myself think anything else. "Please..."


     The rest of that day was a rather cruel, blunt test of my nerves. It literally did take hours. Penny, Mia, and I sat in the shade of the buildings, under a speaker, and listened with tension to every word that came out of the Pteri's beak. Contestants were dropping out left and right. What started out with perhaps thirty entries would end up with about half left to race to the finish. People were frequently disqualified for being caught trying to take a shortcut or cross out of the path the flags marked, some for bringing their own food or water for the course, but what always scared me to death was the ones that were taken out for being caught with a weapon or for attacking another entry.

     Pirry spelled out the progress for us. The racers sped across the hot, empty, endless sand. They had to swim across the river and keep running, with no time to stop for a drink. They had to scramble over dunes where sand gave way under their paws, always desperately keeping ahead of whoever was nearest to them, not stopping to drink or rest or hardly even breathe. This tested every ounce of strength, discipline, endurance, determination, strategy, and will they had in them. They just ran endlessly for so long, the vicious sun beating down on them all the while.

     I suppressed whimpers every time Pirry exclaimed that a fight had broken out or somebody had gotten hurt along the way. But she usually gave names or descriptions, and I was beyond relieved to hear that none sounded like Radom. People were dropping out all over, either because they had been disqualified, had gotten hurt, or simply couldn't go on any more. The crowd was really into it, at first cheering or moaning at someone they supported or didn't like, and later in the day many of them had broken up or left because the racer they supported had been taken out, or to come back and await the winner later. But Mia, Penny, and I didn't budge, on the edge the whole time.

     When noon rolled around we ate nervously, not really tasting the food we had brought along but doing more so by impulse, making sure to save plenty for Radom. We gulped down water throughout the day, but each time I felt guilty that Radom wasn't getting any and must desperately need some at this time. This race was absurdly dangerous and I cursed the city's warped sense of amusement.

     Mia continually gasped or covered her mouth at negative reports from Pirry, Penny winced and sat rigid, and I had to bite my lip to keep myself from making any noise half the time. Finally, after what seemed like ages, Pirry announced that the contestants were nearing the finish.

     "It's been a long day, folks, but the remaining entries are nearing the end!" I sat up rigidly as I heard. "Head on over to the finish line, where we can all wait to see the three that come out on top!"

     I wished I could have seen it all for myself, but there was no way a group of spectators could have seen what went on way out there in the desert. So all we had done was wait for what seemed like all day, anxiously depending on every word a reporter could offer us. Now I scrambled to my feet, hardly pausing a moment for Mia and Penny as I grabbed my knapsack and rushed back into the marketplace. They scurried after me, and we made our way hurriedly across and to the other side, where another group was beginning to form to see who was the best and the hero for today.

     There were two more poles marked this time with blue flags to signal the finish. Spectators had gathered to stare anxiously out at the high peak of a sand dune ahead, where they expected to see their champions. Another wooden crate stood among it all, and in a moment the thrilled host came barreling through the crowd and flung himself to perch on the crate once more. He perked up and stared off in the same direction as everyone else, which my two friends and I joined, standing and waiting anxiously. Luckily I was taller than most everybody here and could see clearly where the winners would come.

     Near the finish line sat a pile of crates, which served as a perch for the prizes and was watched by some of the castle's guards to prevent anyone other than the winners from taking them. Huge sacks of Neopoints sat all around it, earning hungry stares from all who stood as close as they could get, and in the middle sat the Crystal shard. It was in a jagged shape much like a flame, and was now glowing a deep, rich red.

     I took one look at it and quickly checked the Crystal in my pocket, which was glowing deeply in response. Yes, that was certainly what we were looking for. The crowd roared and I looked up sharply to see a few figures cresting the sand dunes.

     "And here we go, folks! The last stretch!" Pirry's voice came from another speaker, but now we could see her, a small yellow spot gliding above the Neopets running below her. "They've all raced nobly today, and we have many contestants still left in the race, but these few have a great lead! Only three of them are going to be our winners today, folks!"

     I could see the figures that I made out to belong to a rich, noble Uni that was slowing down due to exhaustion, a few more well behind, and a scrawny, dirty Gelert that had taken the lead. But where was--?

     "There!" Penny cried, pointing to another shape that had just come over the tip of the tall, sloping dune. And there he was, the brown shape running at an even pace, the dirty and exhausted shape of Radom. I stood on edge and contained myself from calling out to him, for fear I would just be a distraction.

     Go, Radom, go! I just about shrieked and leapt up and down when I saw him suddenly pick up speed. He eased into a sprint, surpassing the Uni and other runners that couldn't seem to force themselves to go any faster. And before they knew it, he was neck-and-neck with the Gelert.

     "Ooh! Folks, this is going to be close! We--- But wait!" A gasp rippled across the crowd when the Gelert noticed how close it was going to be. She had desperately struck out at Radom with her front paws in a last attempt to keep the lead, which had caused Radom to stumble and collapse right into her. And, to my utter horror, the two of them hitting the sand and sliding shifted it off balance. Suddenly a sheet of burning golden sand swept right out from under them.

     "SANDSLIDE!" Pirry cried, faltering in the air. The contestants that had fallen behind scrambled up and out of harm's way back on the other side of the dune, but Radom and the Gelert couldn't get up and away in time. Suddenly the sand enveloped them, dragging them under as it cascaded down, and they slipped out of sight under the thick rush. "AND OUR TWO CONTESTANTS ARE UNDER, FOLKS!"

     My hands smacked over my mouth as I suppressed a scream. Mia and Penny grabbed one another and stared in horror as the sand slide slowed and left the dune intact, though smaller than it had been before. The rest of the racers had halted safe on the other side, now occupied with scrambling out of where they waded in sand. But there was no sign of Radom or the Gelert where they had been engulfed.

     "This isn't looking good, folks!" Now even Pirry sounded frightened. She was circling over the partially collapsed dune anxiously, and the palace guards now had to hold the crowd back to keep anyone from running out there and possibly disturbing the loose sand even more.

     I had to grab Penny to help steady myself, for my knees threatened to give way. Despite the heat that beat down on us all and left us parched and sweating, I felt utterly cold at this moment. I had to fight with everything in me to keep my wide eyes on that dune, my heart pounding like a hammer in my ears. Several long seconds passed. My mind raced with terror. He could have been crushed or suffocated or-or-

     "RADOM!" This time I couldn't keep myself from screaming out. I saw the sand shift, and out pushed the answer to all of my hopes and wishing. Radom clawed weakly out of the sand, pulling himself out from where he had been buried, now coated head to toe in heavy sand. I could see him coughing and gasping, though he was too far out for me to hear anything, and he collapsed once his body was free. He tried and failed to stand several times, but gradually he took a few staggered steps and stood there coughing and shaking himself off until he could see and catch his breath briefly.

     "HE'S ALRIGHT!" Pirry cried through the speakers.

     I screamed and leapt up and down, grabbing a stunned Penny all the while, and was promptly joined by an ecstatic Mia. I was beyond relieved. There wasn't a word for what I was when I saw that Radom was alright. Some of the crowd cheered, but many still looked apprehensive. A few shouts of "RUN!" reached Radom.

     He could win. He had a great lead on everybody, and the other contestants were just starting to climb the dune from the other side once again, once they thought it was safe to do so. Radom took a few staggering steps down the mound, but then stopped and stumbled around in a circle, his ears perking and wide eyes cast around wildly. He appeared to be frantically looking for something. Or someone.

     I had to squint to make out just what he was doing, but it appeared that he saw something, as he suddenly pounced at the sand to his side. And suddenly I understood what he was doing. He dug wildly at the sand until his upper half was partially submerged in it, and then heaved back, straining against some weight. In a matter of seconds he had dragged the Gelert out from under the sand, both of them staggered and gasping for breath. The Gelert started to collapse, but Radom shoved himself against her to hold her up, and it looked like he said something to her.

     Above, Pirry was fluttering in a thrilled manner. "THE LUPE JUST SAVED THE GELERT! FOLKS, THIS IS AMAZING! THEY'RE BOTH OKAY!"

     The crowd erupted into shrieking and cheering as they watched Radom just save the life of the Gelert that had just nearly taken his and had started that slide in the first place. They both stood there orienting themselves for a moment, when we all saw the next few people peak the dune as well, the ones that had fallen behind but now caught up in all of this. The crowd started chanting, "RUN, RUN, RUN!"

     Radom and the Gelert took one look behind them, stumbled a few paces, and then both managed to scramble down the dune without the aid of the other. A little bit of sand gave way, but soon they had sloped down to solid ground again and were picking up speed. Others were gaining now, but the two of them took the lead, scrambling with the last of their strength for the finish line.


     I was the first to notice that Radom was limping. "Radom," I gasped, shaking Penny suddenly. "He's hurt!" We all stared out fretfully as the two of them drew closer, Radom's paw giving way under him more than once. As he drew near, I could see his ears back flat against his head and the way he was wincing, and it was slowing him down just a tad too much.

     It all happened so fast. The Gelert stumbled across the finish line and was quickly swept into the arms of her hysterical family. The crowd went wild. Radom staggered in to take second place, and the moment he had crossed the line, he collapsed. The noble Uni took third place shortly after and the rest of the runners started returning, but that went relatively unnoticed, as half of the city must have been crowded around Radom and the Gelert in an instant.

     Pirry landed on the crate beside the Scorchio, who was throwing himself about in a wild jig on the spot, whooping and clapping hysterically. His excitement bordered on violence. As Pirry was taking off her equipment, he snatched up his microphone and bellowed into it, "NOW THAT WAS SOMETHING ELSE LADIES AND GENTS!"

     I shoved my way through the crowd, on the verge of picking up and throwing anybody in my way, with Penny and Mia trailing in my wake. I wanted to cry out, but I couldn't seem to make any noise. I stumbled through the crowd, dropping my knapsack and collapsing on my knees the moment I reached where Radom was sprawled out on the ground and where people had been trying to revive him. He was coated with dust and sand, his fur filthy and searing to the touch, his body heaving with heavy, labored breaths.

     Penny and Mia came up behind me. "Somebody get him some water!" Penny yelled, while Mia kindly straightened the shawl on my back to keep my wings hidden, and then picked up my knapsack and held it for me.

     A few people wriggled out of the crowd to comply, and I leaned over my dear friend. He had gone limp, with no strength left in him. I could only imagine how far he must have pushed himself and what he had to force himself to do out there, with no rest or water, under that fatal heat. "Oh, Radom," I whispered, my eyes stinging with tears and I gently started to brush sand out of his face.

     "Is he alright?" Mia squeaked, standing over me and staring down at Radom with concern.

     "He will be," I whispered certainly, running my hand over the side of his face. "He passed out. Wake up... Radom..." I couldn't believe him. He had just saved another life... look at him... "Radom!" I jolted when I saw him stir, to my unbelievable relief.

     His eyes fluttered opened and blinked unseeingly up at me for a moment. But when they focused, a weak smile graced his exhausted features. "Pandora," he whispered breathlessly, twitching for a moment as though he wanted to move, but then going slack once again.

     I was so relieved I let out a sharp, soft, almost stunned laugh. "You're alright! You-you-you idiot!" The crowd looked at me in sudden surprise. "You could have been killed! And now you're hurt! All because of that--- Oooh, where is the little--?" I turned around sharply and cast an accusing look through the crowd, but rather than the Gelert who was to blame for this, I saw the Scorchio host barreling over to us.

     "SECOND PLACE!" He stumbled to a halt over us and dropped a large sack of Neopoint into my arms, nearly knocking me over. "CONGRATULATIONS! That was AMAZING! You little hero, you!" He stumbled over his words as he beamed down at Radom. "Why, I haven't seen such courage since--"

     "Where is she?" I snapped, abruptly standing up to shoot a horrible dagger of a glare across the heads of the crowd gathered around us. A flash of real anger crossed my face like summer lightning. Several people took a step back, and the Scorchio offered a shrill, nervous laugh before darting off to give the third place his prize next. I saw the Gelert standing with her small family away from the crowd, all of them Gelerts of blue fur with ragged shawls to keep off the sun. They were crowded around her in hysterics, while she stood staring off toward me, completely dazed and stunned. They had their Neopoints and the Crystal already.

     I shoved the Neopoints into the arms of poor, stunned Mia. But before I could go toward her, I heard Radom's panting breath behind me. "Pandora, please... She didn't know... it wasn't as if she intentionally tried to kill us both..." I looked back to see him looking up at me, trying to push himself up to sit.

     I couldn't leave him. I lowered back to his side once more and helped him sit up, keeping my arms around him as two people returned with a bowl full of clear water. They set it down in front of him and I thanked them as Radom practically seemed to fall face-first into it and lapped rapidly at the water. I let my arms fall away from him as he drank, absently brushing sand off his pelt once more. I just felt the need to be close, to put my hands on his fur and know he was there. I could have lost him. And I couldn't even let myself think of that.

     Just then, the crowd started to back off, a bit parted to let someone through. I looked up to see the blue Gelert from the race, her family lingering back and watching Radom and I with what I was surprised to find were relieved smiles and grateful grins, and I could have sworn a few of them were crying. The Gelert was holding her sack of Neopoints and the Crystal in her mouth, and stopped in front of us, setting them on the ground and just staring at Radom for a moment.

     Before I could say anything, Radom lifted his head, his muzzle dripping water, and smiled faintly at her. "You alright?"

     She looked almost surprised at how soft and gentle and genuinely concerned his voice was, quite a contrast to the cold look I must have been giving her. "Ah... yes... yes, I'm just fine... thanks to you..." Her aqua eyes seemed to sparkle in the harsh sunlight. "Are you?"

     "I'll be okay. Hurt my ankle, though." He lifted one front leg as if to demonstrate, and then set it gently back on the ground, putting no weight on the paw. "No worries."

     "You both could have died," I snapped, at first leaning toward an angry tone, but found that my face cracked and hot tears stung my eyes. I had to look away, biting my bottom lip and taking a deep breath to fight it all back.

     This seemed to strike her even more than her own family's waterworks in the background. "I-I know, I-I don't know what I was thinking," she stammered, her eyes widening as she looked down at her paws. "Please try to understand... my family... we've very poor..." She spoke hesitantly, almost reluctantly. "We need that money badly... I had to win... I did it for them... If I had any idea that I would hurt anyone-I-I didn't mean to-I--" She looked straight up at me now, and I finally met her gaze as she whispered, "I'm sorry..."

     Our eyes locked for a moment. Hers were absolutely beautiful. And then I slowly nodded. "I understand," I sighed, casting my gaze back over to Radom. "You're both alright. And... that's really what matters."

     "You saved my life." She looked at Radom suddenly, her eyes wide. "Even though I endangered yours. It was all my fault. I would have died if you hadn't..." She trailed off, slowly shaking her head, as if in disbelief.

     Then, without warning, a human boy stepped forward and abruptly pulled Radom into a tight embrace. "You saved my best friend." He was staring with a sort of stunned relief in his eyes. "Thank you... Thank you so much." The utter gratitude in his voice was touching as he hugged the Lupe.

     Radom tensed up for just a moment out of surprise, but then a gentle smile overtook him and he nudged the boy with his head. For once, even he didn't know what to say.

     The crowd that had been watching all seemed to breathe out at once. I looked around in surprise, almost having forgotten that they were there, and couldn't help but smile when I saw so many gentle faces. As always, Radom was causing a scene, and I couldn't help but laugh a little to myself.

     "I wish there was some way we could repay you," one of the Gelerts in the family spoke up.

     "You've already won some money. Second place is still good," another offered weakly, hopeful that they could keep their money.

     And they needed it most. "We don't need any money," I replied, ignoring the questioning looks I was getting. "We actually entered for..." I trailed off, my eyes straying toward the glowing Crystal that had been dropped on the ground. I felt terrible asking for anything from them. But this might be our one peaceful shot at it.

     The Gelert that Radom had saved followed my gaze and offered the Crystal a puzzled sort of smile. "Oh, this thing? We don't need it. We've no need for weapons." She looked back at me, at that odd sort of hopefulness in my eyes. "Would you like it? It's a dreadful way to thank you, and I wish we could do more, but... if you want it..."

     "You don't have to repay me for anything--" Radom began, blinking in surprise at the very idea.

     "But we'd really appreciate it," I interrupted, shooting him a quick glance.

     She smiled slightly and went to pick up the Crystal. "Then it's yours." I gratefully accepted it when she brought it over and offered it to me.

     "Thank you," I managed, staring at it in half shock and half an overwhelming relief. Another piece. Only two more to go already. This was absolutely incredible.

     The boy finally let go of Radom, grinning sheepishly. "We can't thank you enough."

     Radom grinned brightly up at him, and then to the Gelert, who was completely radiant. "And you'll never need to."


     The sun was beginning to set, glittering red through the cracks between the buildings. We had said our goodbyes to the Gelert and her family, and scrambled our way through an excited and moved crowd that congratulated or commended Radom every few people. We paused on the edge of the city while Radom sat to rest for a moment, but he decided that he could make it to the oasis, rather than spending the night in the city. With our Neopoints and Crystals (which had fused out of sight) in the knapsack over my shoulder, Penny and Mia trailing behind us and still marveling at Radom, we set off on our last walk of the day before we could collapse at their home.

     "Well, you're a regular celebrity everywhere we go, I see," I commented jokingly, but in all honesty, I really was incredibly proud and impressed with him, as usual.

     "I try." He smirked and winked up at me. I could see he was trying not to put much weight on his hurt paw.

     I frowned at him rather suddenly. "You're limping."

     "How fortunate I am, in having a traveling companion of such wisdom and intelligence," he replied dryly, his smirk growing.

     I rolled my eyes in response. "Really, are you alright?"

     "Of course." Well, he really was lucky that a sprained ankle was all that came out of that possible disaster. But still, it was hurting him, whether he would admit it or not, and it might disable him somehow. And I certainly wouldn't be able to carry him for very long.

     But right now we just needed some food and some sleep, and we could figure out the rest in the morning. The four of us made our way to the oasis in the cooling evening, Mia and Penny drifting along in a daze. They had praised him just as much as the next person, and I had been stumbling over how I couldn't thank him enough and how proud of him I was, until he simply silenced all of us with one of his charming grins.

     That night is rather fuzzy. I remember us eating and drinking at the oasis, and then curling up and going to sleep shortly after dark. Mia and Penny had bid us good-night, we had thanked them for all their help, and then sleep took us all. Radom was beyond exhausted, and all those emotions attacking me all day had left me pretty drained too.

     The next morning, we all slept in late. We woke up around lunch time, had something to eat, and we both cleaned up using fresh pond water once more. By the afternoon, we were refreshed and ready to go. We decided that we shouldn't waste any more time.

     Mia insisted that she wrap Radom's hurt paw up before we went, and that he should be careful on it. So while she was tenderly wrapping his right front paw and ankle in white strips of cloth, I said my good-byes to Penny.

     I presented her with more than half of the Neopoints we had won in the race the day before. "It's the best thanks I can offer," I said simply, shoving the bag into her surprised grasp. "Thank you for everything. I don't know where we'd be now if you two didn't help us so much."

     "I--" She stared at the money, blinking in surprise. "You really don't have to--"

     I grinned and shook my head to silence her. "Don't you even start. You won't win," I teased, drawing her over to me in a hug.

     She smiled and returned the embrace. "You'll come back and visit someday, won't you?"

     "I hope so." Now wouldn't that be wonderful? Well, we'd just have to see. One step at a time.

     I released her as Radom and Mia came from inside, both grinning at us. "We leave you two alone for three minutes and you're already all choked up," the Lupe teased, raising his eyebrows at me.

     "You hush." I returned the grin. "Ready to go?"

     "Ready as I'll ever be." He nodded to Penny, and then to Mia. "Ladies. I imagine this won't be the last time we see each other."

     "Oh, do come back!" Mia exclaimed, smiling shyly at Radom.

     We both said our last goodbyes, and before we knew it we had headed off once more, Crystal safely tucked away in my new clothes. We looked back and waved to our two new friends until they were out of sight, and then I looked ahead and wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. "I'll be glad to be out of this heat," I muttered, shaking my head.

     "Cheers to that," Radom agreed, smirking out of the corner of his mouth. "Where to now?"

     "Well... we've only got two more shards to go. The Water and the Air." There were several places the water could be. Out at sea, Maraqua, Mystery Island, even Krawk Island. And who knew where the Air could be? "I suppose our best bet is to just catch a boat and start looking."

     He bobbed his head in agreement. "You got it."

To be continued...

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Other Episodes

» The Price of Faith: Part One
» The Price of Faith: Part Two
» The Price of Faith: Part Three
» The Price of Faith: Part Four
» The Price of Faith: Part Five
» The Price of Faith: Part Six
» The Price of Faith: Part Seven
» The Price of Faith: Part Eight
» The Price of Faith

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