The quiet scratch of a quill and the gentle shuffle of parchment whispered through the small cave, and then a sharp intake of breath was followed by a heavy exhale.
“I finally have it! The Tree of Life. It has to be!”
“And so we shall finally pass through the Gates of Death,” a woman said soberly.
“We must have faith, my love. This is our calling; we were created for this very thing.”
They had called this small hole in the rock home for nearly a year, their quest separating them from their daughter, Willow.
A musty scent clung to the air. The cave was lit by an oil lamp resting atop a makeshift desk composed of two small boulders and a flat oblong rock propped precariously upon them. A map, compass, and a few shabby books lay scattered about the desk. An orb of light from the lamp danced on the low rock ceiling, casting shadows on a tattered mattress pushed against the far corner and a beat-up wooden trunk housing their few possessions. Leaning against the stub of an old candle resting on the trunk was a well worn black and white photo of a beautiful young girl -- the only keepsake they dared to carry.
It was for their daughter’s sake that they had scoured the land with ferocity and commitment in search of long forsaken secrets. They had gone to great lengths to protect her identity -- even though it shortened their limited time together -- but secrets always had a way of surfacing in time, as their research had proved.
If he had learned of her existence, had understood everything that her birth portended, all would have been lost. Their precious child would have had no hope of survival. How could a mere child possibly withstand what none before had been able to overcome?
Both the man and the woman, dressed in filthy rags, were unusually tall, slender, and beautiful despite the toll cave life had upon their appearance. Their porcelain skin, almost luminous, shone through the dirt and the grime. The woman shared the same curly hair as the girl in the photo, though cropped short in a halo of golden blonde locks; her silver gray eyes only added to her angelic features. The man’s disheveled honey brown hair lightly fell across his hazel eyes.
“The Gates of Death, it is- ,” began the woman.
A muted thud followed by the shuffle of feet could be heard just outside the cave.
“He’s found us,” they said together.
The man turned to the woman, determination in his eyes. “Quick! Cause a cave-in.” He knew the collapse would do little to deter the Black Angel, but all he needed was a moment’s delay.
The woman gaped at him. “You’re asking me to dig our own grave.”
“This cave is already our tomb. We need the extra time a cave-in will provide. It’s the only chance we can offer her now.”
Understanding dawned on his wife. “Okay,” she said simply.
She hurried over to the cave entrance, stretched her right palm out as if motioning someone to stop, and slowly traced the rugged archway of the cave’s gaping mouth. A soft rumbling slowly grew into a deafening crash as the entrance collapsed.
Squinting through the rising dust, she watched as her husband walked to the furthest niche. Closing his eyes and mumbling softly, he pressed his palm to the moist, gray rock wall. A hole twisted open from the solid stone. He slid a small bundle as far as he could stretch into the deep recess. Once again, he pointed his palm at the hole which twisted closed, vanishing into the wall of rock, sealing the bundle within.
Immediately, a blast from the mouth of the cave alerted them to the intruder. Standing in a cloud of dust was a man whose beauty had been long corrupted from the inside out; his long, dark, greasy hair was pushed back with a black bandana. He had stone black eyes, a scruffy goatee, and was dressed in a black shirt with ragged sleeves and filthy black pants.
A tattoo of a knotted blood-red snake had a heart beat of its own as it undulated around his right bicep; a testament to his power as shape-shifter. Tightly grasped in his right hand, the hilt of a curved sword was untouched by the fierce flames that spewed from the blade and licked the air.
The Angels Grim stood behind him and smiled. They were dressed in a haze of black robes and were hungry with blood lust. Their grotesque faces beneath shadowy hoods, were eager for the upcoming slaughter, and they crowded the tiny entrance in gleeful anticipation. Their numbers were legion, but today only a few of their great number were present. They were not expecting much resistance.
The man stepped forward, shielding his wife. He whispered the sorcerer’s name. “Abaddon Ravana.”
“Thanks-s-s for doing all the leg work for me. I’ll be needing that journal now.” The shape-shifter’s hiss was barely human. His gaze flickered to the oil lamp on the homemade desk.
The man followed his gaze and caught sight of its tiny flame dancing. “It’s gone. We burned it.”
“The Father of Lies-s-s is not easily deceived,” Abaddon said.
The Angels Grim let out a low snicker that echoed in the cramped space.
“Very well, your death’s-s-s s-s-shall come first then. It is-s-s easier that way,” he mused. “Any last words-s-s?”
Willow’s parents turned and faced each other, their faces taut with pain for their daughter. A tiny pendant, a miniature torch housing a miniscule blue-white flame, hung from the woman’s neck. They whispered, “We love you, Willow. We are so very sorry. Be strong and of good courage, for you are never alone.”
As soon as the words slipped through her lips, the woman’s eyes flashed with terror and fell upon the photograph. How could they have been so stupid? Her heart sank like a rock within her chest. She shuddered to think that all their efforts to preserve Willow’s anonymity were for naught. Caught in a moment of panic, a single act of foolishness would betray everything. She willed herself to tear her eyes away from her daughter’s face, praying that Abaddon had failed to adopt her gaze, but knowing it was a futile hope.
A sly smile danced upon his lips.
The man and wife took each other’s hands, and once again he stepped in front of her. They whispered “I love you” to each other, and then in a much louder voice and with eyes closed the man said, “We commit our souls to You. May we open our eyes once more in the glory of Your presence.”
“Oh, how touching. Lets-s-s s-s-see your ‘Lord Protector’ s-s-save you,” Abaddon mocked. “And now....”
He plunged the flaming sword into both their hearts in a single blow. Where just seconds before stood flesh and bone, muscle and tendon, heart and soul, there was nothing but a smoldering pile of ash.
“S-s-search the place,” Abaddon commanded the Angels Grim.
Feeling their way along the rocky surface the Grim hunted for traces of enchantments or spells, the slight tingling sensation that would reveal the location of previous magic.
“Here, my Lord,” said the largest and most gruesome.
The Grim’s dark brown eyes glinted with evil pride. His smile looked like a grimace as it distorted his grisly features. He dragged a long sharp and ragged fingernail along the wall where he felt the presence of magic, and the rock crumbled beneath his touch.
“Such fools,” he laughed maniacally. With eager hands he snatched a bundle from the rock and passed it to Abaddon.
Abaddon looked around the cave one last time and his cold eyes fell on the black and white photo. He fingered it hungrily.
“Is that her?” the Grim asked.
“Most definitely,” Abaddon said. With a cracked yellow fingernail, he traced the girl’s features. “She has her mother’s beauty...” he sighed.
He exited the cave, the Angels Grim at his heels, and with a careless sweep of his hand what remained of the cave vanished into rubble. “Such a waste,” he mused, eyeing the girl in the photo appreciatively before letting the picture fall from his claw-like hands to cap her parents’ grave.
He took a long, deep breath, drinking in the destruction. With a smile, he said, “Now, let the real fun begin.”