They found themselves in the very same valley, but the air was now fresh and sweet. A light sprinkle of rain gently caressed them. The sharp rocks and thorny brambles were replaced by smooth mossy stones and a variety of ferns. Fine, springy turf created a natural path between the river and the steep sides of the rocky cliffs. The mournful wailing was swallowed by the joyful calls of a thousand birds darting through the crisp air.
The cool rain collected beneath the smooth stones in shallow pools and washed over Willow. She slid off of Bellefire and struggled under Devon’s weight as she helped him dismount. She supported him over to one of the sparkling pools and helped him quench his thirst. Bellefire helped herself to a cool drink. After helping Devon, Willow enjoyed her own blissful drink in the clear pool.
Devon’s color came back, but he was still shaky.
“Where are we?” he asked.
“I think we are still in the Valley of Weeping -- only it’s changed. That lion! Can you believe it?” Willow said, excitedly looking around in hopes of catching another glimpse of him. “We have to find Rohan! Do you think the lion saved him too? Or is he still on the other side of the arch?”
Devon had recovered his wits and said calmly, “I think we should follow the path up the valley. Rohan was ahead of us. I’m sure he got through before we did.”
Willow saw the reason behind his words -- they could not go back even if they wanted to, and surely they would have came across him on their way there if he had not made it that far.
“Okay. But we need to hurry. We have to find him!” she said stepping on a large stone to mount Bellefire.
Devon followed suit, but Willow insisted on taking the reins. She pushed the exhausted horse into a quick canter, calling Rohan's name.
The narrow pass widened into a vast green valley dotted with trees and containing a spectacularly blue lake in its heart. Willow spotted a dark heap on the grassy bank of the lake. She kicked her heels, willing Bellefire to find the strength to keep going.
They covered the distance in less than a minute. Willow jumped from the horse.
“Rohan! Rohan! Are you okay?”
“Oh, Rohan! Thank goodness!” she cried, throwing herself on top of him.
“Oomph! Willow...I...can’t...breathe...get off...me.”
“Oh, sorry! I’m just so happy you are okay!” she said pulling herself away and helping him sit up. “What happened to you?”
Rohan stood shakily and glared angrily at Devon.
“You! I will kill you! I will!” he shouted, pulling out his wand.
“Rohan, what are you doing?” Willow said, jumping between the two of them.
“Get out of the way, Willow. Now!” Rohan screamed.
“Not until you tell me what’s going on.”
“What’s going on? Exactly what I told you from the very beginning -- that’s what’s going on! You want the specifics? Ask your precious Devon!”
“Rohan, I don’t understand. What happened to you?”
“This! This happened to me!” He bent down and scooped something out of the grass. His face was contorted with rage “A Unicorn’s eye! A Unicorn’s eye!” he yelled throwing the stone with great force at Devon’s head. “Like you didn’t know what it really does! It’s supposed to bring the wearer great luck!”
“Rohan, what are you talking about. What did it do?” Willow asked.
“Ask him!” Rohan seethed, his wand shaking in his outstretched hand.
“Devon, what is he talking about?”
“I don’t know what he’s talking about. I’m just as confused as you are.”
“Like hell you are! You filthy scheming liar!”
Devon shook his head and looked at Willow, his expression dumfounded. Willow was at a loss for words. He seemed possessed -- gone mad with furry.
“Look, I have no idea what I did to make you so upset, but we really need to find the helmet, it’s getting dark,” Devon said.
Sure enough the mountain lake was a brilliant array of color, fiery reflections of the setting sun.
“Devon’s right,” Willow said. “We need to find the helmet.”
“You mean this helmet?” Rohan said, fiercely pointing at a shiny object hidden behind his rucksack.
Devon was astonished. “How did you get that?”
Rohan spit out his words. “I’m sure you’d like to know!”
“Rohan, really...where did you get that? And where’s Apollo?” Willow asked.
“Dead.” Rohan said, his harsh expression shadowed in grief.
“Dead?” Willow repeated.
“And it’s your fault!” Rohan said, jabbing his wand in Devon’s direction.
“Rohan, you have to explain. I don’t understand,” Willow said.
Rohan lowered his wand a fraction, but continued to glare at Devon. “That stone he gave me, it was a trick. The moment I put it around my neck, evil crept over me. Every bad thought I’ve ever had, every wrong I’ve ever committed flashed through my mind. But instead of feeling guilty and ashamed I felt proud and powerful. I felt a spasm of joy at every bad thing I've done, and a desire for all things dark and sinister to fill me.”
“Why didn’t you take it off?” Willow whispered horrified.
“Because the power of the stone consumed me with thoughts of what I could do if I never felt guilt or remorse. Without a conscience to hinder me, I’d be unstoppable. I wanted you, and I would have commanded it to be so, no matter what. When I saw you cozy up to him, it was too much. I drove Apollo forward planning on finding the helmet on my own and returning to you in triumph. I dug in my heels and Apollo and I rode into the darkness. Almost immediately we were surrounded by a pack of jackals. I tried to shoot spells at them, but my hexes deflected off of their hides. Their teeth cut into Apollo’s hind legs and we both fell.
“They went for Apollo first, and I tried to crawl away. But I wasn’t fast enough. An angry jackal tore at my leg, and I felt and heard the bone snap. The pain was unbearable, and I blacked out. I came to right here, an enormous lion standing over me. Oddly, I felt neither fear nor gratitude, only bitter hatred for the very beast that just saved my life. You see, the stone was still doing its work.
“The lion lifted its paw towards my throat, and I knew that he could sense my hatred. He had decided to finish me himself. But as gentle as a house cat's, his paw came down and broke the leather cord supporting the stone. The stone rolled off my chest and fell in the grass.
“The moment the stone fell away I felt myself restored; all the humanity in me returned. Before I could gather my senses, the lion turned and disappeared. My leg was still bleeding profusely and throbbing painfully. I crawled to the edge of the lake to clean my wound.
“I heard a thunderous roar behind me. The beast had retrieved the armor and my rucksack from where Apollo was slain. And what’s more? He had the Helmet of Salvation resting between his front paws.
“I didn’t know how to react. I felt like throwing my arms around the beautiful creature’s neck. But at the same time, I felt unworthy in his presence. I froze, torn. The lion approached me, lowered itself in the grass and did the unthinkable. He licked my damaged leg from ankle to knee. The bleeding stopped immediately. The bone shifted into place and was healed.
“He lifted his eyes to level with mine, and I swear he looked into my soul! And Willow, I know this sounds crazy and impossible, but I know it was Salvador. His eyes -- they were exactly the same!”
Finding her voice, Willow said, “I know, Rohan. He saved us, too!” She saw the relief in his eyes at her words. “So then what happened?”
“He stared into my eyes for what seemed like an eternity, until I unwillingly blinked, and he was gone. The next thing I remember is hearing you call my name.”
“That’s a fascinating story, Rohan. But what makes you so sure that I planned for all that to happen?” Devon asked.
Willow had been so absorbed in Rohan’s explanation that she failed to notice Devon had quietly made his way behind Rohan.
Rohan turned, his face bright red with fury, “You gave me that stone. THIS IS YOUR FAULT!”
“Yes, I gave you the stone, but I truly thought it was a Unicorn’s eye. How could I have possibly known it was a Stumbling Stone?”
As soon as the words left his mouth, Willow could tell he regretted them. It was his fatal mistake.
“Stumbling Stone! So that’s what it is, huh?” Rohan shouted waving his wand in fury.
“Well...I can only guess...I’m not sure...It just sounded like...I didn’t know!”
“Liar! Willow, you have to see he’s lying! He knew exactly what that stone is. He said it himself!” Rohan begged Willow desperately.
Everything Devon had said back in the gorge came rushing back to her. As well as his unexplained absence, and the expressions and behaviors she could not quite account for throughout their quest. All of it clicked into place in one horrifying moment. Willow took a weary step back, swaying slightly, her mind reeling.
Devon took one look at her unrealized that he had lost her. “Fine. Looks like we’ll do this the hard way then.”
Devon pulled a gleaming curved knife from a sheath tied around his upper thigh, concealed beneath his long shirt. In a flash he was standing behind Rohan, the sharp point of the blade pressed roughly against Rohan’s neck. Rohan’s arm holding his wand was pinned to his side beneath Devon’s much stronger and larger one. Rohan stretched desperately with his other arm trying to reach his wand.
“I don’t think so, mate,” Devon said pushing the cold steel so firmly against Rohan’s skin that it drew blood.
Willow rushed forward screaming.” No!”
“Now, now. Calm yourself, little lady. No one needs to get hurt here. If your friend here just hands over his wand, I won’t have to kill him -- just yet anyway.”
Rohan gripped his wand tighter. He was going to put up a fight that he could not possibly win.
“Please, Rohan! No! Just do what he says,” Willow pleaded through tears.
“You always were the smart one, Willow. I strongly suggest you listen to her,” Devon told Rohan.
Rohan dropped his wand. Devon took a firm step forward and his right foot landed squarely on the wooden rod. There was a loud snap and a few random sparks shot into the air, fizzled, and died. Rohan’s face crumpled. He looked as if Devon had stabbed him.
“One last thing and then we’ll settle down for the night,” Devon said.
He pushed Rohan roughly to the ground and tied his hands tightly behind his back with rope he must have gotten from Bellefire’s saddle bag. Then Devon walked over to Willow.
She looked into Devon’s eyes and saw an unrecognizable stranger. A shade had been cast over his features. He was no longer the perfectly chiseled, beautiful young man she had admired. His face was distorted, grotesque; and a malevolent fire burned in his eyes. His voice no longer carried the melodic charm that once captured her heart, but was gruff and full of venom.
She tried to take a step back as he approached, but he placed a heavy hand on her shoulder planting Willow where she stood. He reached out not for her hands as she suspected, but towards her chest. Willow tried but failed to pull back. Willow realized with horror exactly what he planned to do.
“No. Please. Don’t. It’s all I have. Please, Devon,” she begged.
“Sorry, love. But I can’t risk you two sneaking off into the night with my armor,” and with those words he ripped the tiny torch housing her parents’ Everflames from her neck. The moment his fingers closed around it, the blue-white flames burned red and extinguished.
“No!” Willow cried falling to her knees.
“Had to be done, love,” Devon said kneeling behind her and pulling her hands from her wet eyes.
He secured her hands before helping her stand and walked her over to Rohan. He tied them together, back to back.
“I’m afraid it won’t be very comfortable sleeping arrangements, but I suggest you make do the best you can. We’ve got a long hike ahead of us tomorrow, most of it uphill. And without Apollo, it looks like we’re walking. Although, I could always put an end to this one,” Devon said kicking Rohan hard. “And then you and I could ride quite comfortably on Bellefire.”
“No. No. Please no!” Willow sobbed.
“As you wish. It is better this way -- less messy anyhow. So who’s hungry?” He asked so cheerfully it made Willow’s stomach turn.
Neither Willow nor Rohan responded, but Devon took no notice. He pulled out the fishing gear and some matches from Rohan’s rucksack. He took a minute to greedily admire the royal blue sapphires that spelled out the word Salvation across the visor of the helmet.
He found enough dry bracken to start a fire before casting his line out into the deep lake, whistling to himself all the while. The sky was a deep black and speckled with twinkling stars by the time Devon caught and cooked his meal.
Willow cried into her knees. Rohan tried to comfort her, doing his best to trace circles on her hand with his thumb despite the cutting ropes. Devon offered Willow some fish, but she shook her head. He did not even bother to ask Rohan, whose stomach growled angrily.
While Devon made a show of enjoying his meal, a letter sealed with the Council’s crest, materialized in front of Willow. It hovered impatiently before her, twitching in the air as it begged to be noticed. With her hands secured behind her back, she could not reach out and take hold of the letter. Before she had considered her powers of Levitation, Devon noticed it.
“Say, what do we have here?” he said, snatching the letter with a hungry look. “Let’s see who thought to send their regards to my captives...Oh, the Council’s crest; how intriguing.” He broke the seal. “This is ought to be rather informative. Shall I read it aloud?”
He cleared his throat without waiting for a response and began to read:
“My Dearest Willow,
Do not read this without absolute assurance of your privacy. This letter is for your eyes alone.
“Oops,” Devon said. “Oh well, I’m sure you don’t mind if I continue. Am I right, Willow?”
Willow glared as him.
“I’ll take your silence as consent,” he said, returning his attention to the letter.
How will I ever forgive myself? You are in grave peril, and the fault lies singularly on my weary shoulders. I pray that this finds you in time. If not...no, I can not even think it. My many years have crippled my wisdom and blinded me from truth, though my pride in my abilities never wavered for even a moment. Pride comes before the fall -- no truer words have been uttered. How cruel, that I should learn this lesson at your expense.
I have bestowed trust in the undeserving, and unknowingly left you in the hands of our greatest enemy. I dare not ask for the mercy of your forgiveness...I deserve it not. You placed your unfailing faith in me, and I have failed you in the deepest way. I pen these words just moments after acknowledging your plight, and punctuate each sentence with my self-inflicted tears.
An army of Dwarves marched into Credo’s grounds this very evening. They brought good tidings of your success, but scarcely did I have time to rejoice in your victories, before my joy disintegrated. They spoke of a betrayer, and the moment the word escaped the Chieftain’s lips, I knew for certain that they refer to none other than Devon Riley. I delivered you to the Grim!
Since the moment of your departure, I have been plagued with unease. My brain felt muddled -- why exactly was I so eager to send you with Devon? Even now, I cannot recall. Some Black Magic must be afoot, quite imperceptible to a fool of a man such as me. Run Willow, take Rohan and run! That is my advice and yet I fear that I’ve left you with no escape: Save yourselves and forfeit the world. What kind of option is that? Either way, all is lost. My heart is shattered into a thousand pieces over the trouble that I have so unwittingly caused you both. Oh, that I could barter my fate to spare yours...I fear no good will come of this letter -- what comfort is there in my words? Alas, I bid you farewell. If you shall fail to escape, we all shall perish with you. May the Lord Protector have mercy on a tired, old fool’s mistake.
Professor Rayne Edgar
“Well, that was rather dramatic, don’t you think?”
Willow closed her eyes as angry tears rolled down her cheeks.
“No need for those -- they’ll do you no good, they only ruin your pretty face,” Devon said stuffing the letter in his pocket.
Before turning in for the night, Devon knelt at Willow’s side, lifting her chin in his hand and planted his lips firmly against hers. He kissed her hard, forcing his tongue in her mouth. Then he paused to look into her eyes before brushing his lips along her jaw up to her ear and back down to her lips.
“Goodnight, love,” he whispered against her soft lips. “It really is a shame things can’t work out between us. You are so very beautiful and your lips, so supple.” He sighed deeply, breathing in her scent. “Maybe Abaddon will work you into my reward. After all, I’ll be handing him the keys to the kingdom so to speak. We can only hope.”
He leaned in a final time forcing her lips apart with his, his breath heavy and hot. This was not how first kisses should have been. A coveted prize stolen, not earned. Rohan tried to squeeze her hand, and his comforting touch opened wide the flood gates.