It was a long and brutal night, which would have been unbearable for Willow if not for Rohan’s presence. Willow’s eyes were puffy and bloodshot. A painful kink in her neck throbbed relentlessly from falling asleep in such an awkward position.
Rohan was a silent comfort. Willow did not dare to speak. Devon snoozed just feet from where they were propped up, and Rohan seemed to follow her lead. Her mind frantically searched for answers and a way out of this horrible mess. But Professor Edgar’s words rang true -- they were left with no escape. Though the professor claimed the blame, Willow knew otherwise. She had fought for Devon’s company despite Rohan’s urgent pleas. She felt so guilty, knowing it was her stubborn faith in this monster that had brought them there. How could her instincts have been so wide off the mark?
Rohan had known all along. How could she have chosen to believe a stranger over her best friend of ten years? Rohan had never once steered her wrong and only ever had her best interests at heart. How could she have doubted him?
Was she really so shallow that she would throw away their friendship with the first handsome man that happened to glance her way? She had always thought that she knew herself fairly well, but she found herself doubting everything.
And Rohan -- sweet, caring, loving Rohan. How could she have treated him so badly? If she had ever been worthy of his love at some point, that time had come and gone. And yet it was he that comforted her.
Why had Devon even bothered to give her the journal? Why had he not just gone to Abaddon? Had he changed his mind halfway through their quest? And why had her parents had such faith in him that they would have confided their secrets?
Devon stirred. He yawned and stretched, propping himself up on his elbows to check on his keep.
“Good morning. So how’d we sleep?” he said.
Neither Willow nor Rohan replied.
“Oh, come now. Let’s be polite, shall we? We have a couple more long days together. There are no hard feelings on my end.”
“Plenty of hard feelings on my end. You understand, right?” Rohan answered echoing Devon’s cheery tone.
“That’s the spirit. We just have to buck up and take what’s given. That’s all we can really ask of life. Well, we have a long day ahead of us. Let’s say we get moving.”
Willow had no desire to speak with Devon, but nature’s calling was too persistent to ignore.
Willow cringed internally at his address, but said with composure, “I really need a private minute.”
“Well, of course you do. How silly of me. Where are my manners? I only hope Rohan can trust you to return. We’ll have a chance to bond while you’re gone. But don’t take too long. I find I’m not a very patient man these days.”
Devon untied her hands before holding his knife threateningly at Rohan’s neck. Her fingers tingled uncomfortably as the blood rushed back to her sore hands. She cast an apologetic look towards Rohan before hurrying along to the shelter of a cluster of trees.
While washing in the freezing water, Willow found a sharp rock shard. She tucked it snugly into the fold at the top of her boot, not exactly sure what use it could serve, but knowing this act might very well be her only chance to do anything about their situation.
She had thought long and hard about their limited options during the night. None looked very promising. She could attempt to run and get help. But Devon would do away with Rohan the minute he realized she was gone. She could sit by and do nothing, praying for another miraculous rescue. But she could not stand the thought of sitting idly by waiting for a deliverance that had not been promised. Or she and Rohan could attempt to sneak away at night. Their only chance would be to get enough of a head start to get to the Sword of the Spirit first. They could not hide -- Devon knew exactly where they were headed. And they could not abandon their quest -- the fate of Tutis still rested in their hands.
For whatever reason, Devon still felt a need to keep Willow around. She could not fathom what was stopping him from killing both of them right then, but his inexplicable need for her was the only hope they had.
Willow rushed back, knowing that every second she was away she was risking Rohan’s life. Devon had Bellefire saddled and ready though no one would be riding her today. Apparently, Rohan’s life was not in immediate danger. The knife at his throat had been strictly for her benefit -- to hurry her along. Devon had not seen him as much of threat without his wand. While she was away, Rohan had been allowed to stretch his legs.
“Oh, good. You’re back. Here eat this. I can’t have you swooning halfway through our trek,” he said handing her a handful of nuts and dried fruit.
She glanced at Rohan whose stomach was still gurgling nosily. Willow split her share with him, feeding him as his hands were still tied behind his back.
“Look at the happy couple. So sweet,” Devon said mockingly.
Willow ignored his jeering and finished off the handful. Devon handed her a canteen. She tipped it into Rohan’s mouth before taking a sip herself.
Willow returned the canteen, Devon retied her wrists. “I’d like to believe I
can trust you to behave, love, but unfortunately I can’t take that risk.”
There was a narrow cut between two massive mountains heading southwest. It was this route that they followed. The pass quickly opened up into high, green hill country covered in dense forests. The larger distant mountains looked black against the horizon. It was toward those that they slowly made their way, Devon leading Bellefire in the rear.
Willow could no longer contain her questions, “Devon?”
“Yes, my lady?”
“Why did you do it?”
“Ah, I was waiting for one of you to pluck up the nerve and ask. It is quite brilliant actually. Hm, where to begin? Let’s see...I guess it’s best to start with my parents’ murders. That was the beginning of the end, as they say. My parents were a lot like yours, Willow -- naive, severely mislead, and in the end foolish.”
Willow was hurt by his words, but decided that it was best to keep quite if she wanted answers. Rohan mumbled an obscenity under his breath.
Devon continued, “Like your parents, my parents bought into the Lord Protector’s supremacy crock. They were working for the western branch of the Germanitas Council, fighting against corruption in the name of the Lord Protector. And what came of all their good will? Absolutely nothing -- we were destitute, living off of other people’s charity. My childhood was a dismal one.
“My parents had many opportunities to make a name for themselves, but they threw every last one away for the ‘cause.’ They were sold out for the mission and I resented them. They constantly preached about striving for a greater reward, but it never came to fruition. They died poor and forgotten.
“The day it happened was like any other -- another glorious event was on the horizon, and once again my family would not take part. Everybody who was anybody was getting ready for the summer ball. The invitations had been sent, dresses had been bought, and preparations had been made. It was all the town could talk about. But where could Mr. and Mrs. Riley be found? Getting primed and ready for the ball? Certainly not.
“There was a man known only as Findus, who lived among the tombs. The local youth spent the long days of summer harassing him. It had become quite the game, and he was the source of much entertainment. He was dressed only in filthy rags and smelt of grime, urine, and sweat. He had self-inflicted scratch marks all over his dirty skin. He was delusional and crazed.
The kids liked to throw rocks at him and watch him scream and thrash, ripping at his rags, and pulling out chunks of his hair as blood poured down his face.”
“Oh, how horrid!” Willow interrupted despite herself.
“Funny you should say that. That’s exactly what my parents thought. When they heard what had been going on, they rushed out to the graveyard. They were convinced that the Lord Protector had a greater purpose for this man -- that he wasn’t just some forgotten mistake. They wanted to show him love and get him some help. How noble, right?
“Well, they made their way among the gravestones calling out for him. The man must have thought that they were more of the same kids and that they sought to hurt him. He jumped out behind a large tombstone, a long serrated stone in his uplifted hand. My father had just enough time to turn around and face his attacker before the stone was driven into his heart. The man continued to stab him over and over again screaming with rage.
“And what did my foolish mother do? Run for help? No, she reached out her hand, tears streaming down her face, and tried to comfort the murderous lunatic. ‘Its okay. There is forgiveness. There is hope,’ she said through her tears.
“The demented loon turned his weapon on her, stabbing her to death. Drenched with my parents’ blood, Findus ran into the woods, never to be seen again. A young shepherd boy on his way home had witnessed the whole thing, frozen in terror. The moment the man disappeared, he ran and alerted the town. The villagers cleaned up the bodies quickly and then hurried on to the ball.
“My parents’ ‘good hearts’ brought nothing but poverty, pain, and eventually their own demise. Where was their precious Lord Protector in their moment of need? Certainly not protecting them, far too busy for his most faithful servants apparently. It was all well and good for them to sacrifice everything for him, but far be it for him to come running to their rescue if ever they needed it. They devoted their entire lives to him -- at my expense, I might add -- and he just let them die. If he is as big and powerful as they believed, it would have been nothing for him to step in and save them. Apparently they were not worth his precious time.”
“Devon, I’m so sorry. That’s absolutely horrible,” Willow said.
“I was only eight years old when it happened.”
Despite Devon’s betrayal, Willow’s compassionate heart yearned to comfort that boy who had lost so much. She could almost see in the depths of his brown eyes a glimpse of the little boy he once was, the shadow of the young man she had been fooled into thinking he was, the man he might have become if not for that tragic accident. No wonder he became so embittered. Even Rohan softened infinitesimally in light of that horrible history; his face was a fraction less spiteful.
“It is what it is. From that day forward, I vowed to never be so stupid as to meet a similar end. I was sent to a distant uncle, who unlike my parents chose a more practical approach to life. He was a very powerful and wealthy man. It was with him that I discovered my true powers.”
“Powers? What powers?” Rohan interjected.
“I was getting to that, if you’d just let me finish. In my anger towards the Lord Protector who had stolen so much from me, I found that I had the ability to manipulate other people’s wills. I’m an Enchanter -- I can control people’s perceptions, and by extension their reactions. My uncle encouraged my powers and helped me control them.”
Willow finally understood why she was so torn between Rohan and Devon -- she was under his spell. It also explained why he seemed so handsome to her and the inexplicable trust she had in him. Though she now understood why, she felt no less guilty about how she had treated Rohan.
“When I was at my prime, he took me to meet Abaddon. You should have seen the gleam in the Black Angel’s eyes at our meeting. With the promises of power and wealth beyond imagining, I became his apprentice. My uncle was richly rewarded, of course.
“I quickly became Abaddon’s favorite tool and was elevated to Chief Angel of the Angels Grim, second to only Abaddon himself.”
“You’re one of them!” Rohan shouted, all traces of compassion long gone. “I should have known!”
“Sorry, mate. But I did what I had to do. I wasn’t going to make the same mistakes as my parents.”
All that time they had been traveling with one of them. She knew he had betrayed them, but to what extent she had had no idea. When the professor wrote of delivering them into the hands of the Grim, she had never dreamed that he meant those words literally. Devon had been with Abaddon from the very beginning -- before he had even met her parents.
“Anyway, I guess a little back story on Abaddon is necessary. When Abaddon was first cast from the Lord Protector’s realm and had made his way to Tutis, he was hell-bent on total domination. He saw the Lord Protector’s heart for the people of Tutis and strove to use it against him. He used whatever tactics he deemed necessary -- stealing, killing, destroying -- the usual fare. He soon discovered that the Germanitas Council had greater defenses that he had imagined.
“He became aware of a super-race of beings that were created to protect the people of Tutis from the very corruption he was striving for. After several generations of unresolved war between the Torchbearers and the Angels Grim, Abaddon was forced to switch tactics. He decided to lay low for awhile and learn all he could about the Germanitas Council and the Torchbearers.
“He noticed an immediate change in the Torchbearers. With the sudden unexplained disappearance of the Angels Grim, they became cocky and boastful and grew lax in their protections. A rumor soon slipped out among the people of Tutis that eventually made its way to Abaddon’s patient ear. He learned about the existence of a magical suit of armor and that an oracle proclaimed it to hold an unlimited power of protection that would come to fruition when the Lord Protector establishes his reign here on Tutis, by way of his son.
“He found out that the armor had been divided among six Torchbearers and hidden in undisclosed locations. The idea was that only the six heirs of each generation would be passed the secrets of the armor. Of course, the theory outshone the reality...Well, obviously Abaddon decided that to prevent the oracle from coming true, he must have that armor. He was calculating -- he didn’t storm the council and demand the armor. He continued to lay low using deception and trickery to obtain information. Eventually, he was informed that through the generations the secrets had been lost.
“About the same time, a new generation of Torchbearers had been raised who embraced their destiny unlike their predecessors. Each subsequent generation tired in turn to find the lost secrets, some came very close. Abaddon could no longer bide his time, he had to act. He killed many Torchbearers, and the more he killed the greater the resistance grew.
“As their numbers dwindled, the Torchbearers became desperate. Talk of the fulfillment of the oracle circulated. They searched frantically for the forgotten secrets, but never got quite close enough. Abaddon had decimated their race, only one family remained -- yours, in fact,” he said, nodding at Willow. “The time of fulfillment would soon be at hand. The final heir had been born. Never again would a true Torchbearer be conceived. The time was ripe. If ever the oracle would be fulfilled, surely it would be with the parents or the child.
“When I came along, Abaddon saw his opportunity. He sent us on a mission to destroy your parents.”
Willow flinched at the flippant manner in which Devon spoke of murder. She was not sure that she wanted to hear the rest, but so many questions remained unanswered. She took a deep breath and asked, “So you never traveled with my parents at all? All of it was a lie?”
“We never met formally, no, though I saw them often. It quickly became a wild goose chase. No matter how hard we tried, we were always a step behind. Salvador’s interference was a problem we hadn’t counted on. Abaddon decided that we should pull back and let Mr. and Mrs. Payton finish the work before we would strike. After all, Abaddon still didn’t know where the armor was. And you see, your parents were very close, closer than anyone before them. They would find the armor, that much was apparent.
“We waited outside their cave every night for nearly a year, eager to hear the words that would end the chase. Finally, we heard them solve the puzzle.”
“You were there? You watched him murder my parents?” Willow said.
Devon simply nodded, a sly smile playing at the corner of his mouth.
“How could you? How can anyone be that evil? Willow trusted you!” Rohan shouted.
“All part of the game, mate. Maybe next time you’ll find yourself on the winning side.”
Rohan got up in Devon’s face. The ropes were the only thing keeping him from attacking Devon. His hands, clenched in fists, were straining against their bindings.
“Ah, I see I was wise to keep you in your restraints. Not that you really stand a chance against me,” Devon said to Rohan.
“Oh, yeah? If you aren’t scared, why don’t you untie me and face me like a man?”
“Rohan, no! He’ll kill you!” Willow cried.
“There now, let’s not upset the lady.”
Rohan mumbled something about a “filthy, stinking coward” followed by a string of unintelligible growls, but turned and continued to walk up the steep incline.
“Let’s see...where was I now? Oh, yes. So Abaddon was not far from the cave. We quickly summoned him. By now we knew your parents were keeping a journal and charting a map that would lead them -- well us, to the armor.
“Your parents absurdly thought that a simple cave-in would deter us. But Abaddon blasted away the rocky debris with ease. He drove a flaming sword through your parents and then had us search the place for the journal and map. Your father imprudently tried to hide them behind a rock wall. It took only moments to find.
“It was I who found them and received the glory of handing them over to Abaddon. We were gone as quickly as we had come. The inane enchantments the Torchbearers had cast to protect from thieves magically traveling to the armor were no match for the Lord of Black Magic.
“He broke the spells without delay and was standing before the Belt of Truth within seconds of finding the journal. Not that the Valley of the Shadow of Death would have stood in his way. After all, the slaves of darkness are all his servants. But it was much faster this way, and time was of the utmost importance, considering the final heir remained.
“What the Black Angel didn’t realize was that there is a greater magic protecting the armor itself. Magic from beyond this world, White Magic from the Lord Protector’s realm. One of the Grim stepped forward and reached out to touch the armor. He fell dead instantaneously. Abaddon sacrificed four or five more of his servants before confirming that only a Torchbearer would be able to remove the armor from its resting place.”
“That’s why you need me,” Willow said.
“Exactly. And it was a good thing that Abaddon didn’t see a sixteen year old girl as much of a threat. If he had, he would have killed you before going after the armor. And where would that leave us now?
“Well, Abaddon formulated a new plan on the spot. He would use me -- his most secret and lethal weapon. Of course this new plan would take much longer, seeing as magical travel would now be impossible. Only a dark sorcerer with Abaddon’s power could break the protective spells the Torchbearers had cast. Originally the protectors had known the counter spells, but all that was now lost.
“He handed me the journal and map and told me the story I was to use and then sent me to Credo. I arrived just after you had learned of your parents’ fates, but not soon enough,” Devon said to Willow.
“The original plan was for me to be your Guardian. But Rohan had already made his decision prior to my arrival. Professor Edgar was easy enough to manipulate. He agreed to let me accompany you, though even I could not convince him to deny the magical bond between Torchbearer and Guardian. I decided it would have to do for the moment, I could always deal with the spare if necessary.”
Reliving those events through his perspective was horrifying.
“The spare?” Rohan said through gritted teeth.
Devon just shrugged his shoulders and continued. “Your pure heart was so trusting it was almost a crime to work my enchantments. But Rohan, you proved to be a problem from the very beginning. Jealousy is a funny thing. It is one of only a few all-consuming emotions, and in Rohan’s case, it protected him from my manipulations. He would have seen me as a villain even if I was the Lord Protector himself, because I posed a threat to his relationship with you, Willow.”
After ten years, Willow was just then learning about Rohan's true feelings, and yet Devon had picked up on them immediately. Rohan's secret was that he loved her as more than a friend or a sister from the very beginning. He had cared for her -- she corrected her thoughts with a heavy heart. Surely after all that she had done, he no longer wanted her in that way.
Devon did not miss a beat and continued, “But as long as I had your faith, Willow, I tried not to push things. I was concerned for a brief moment when you discovered that the journal held your parents’ voices. Of course, you see, the last entry was written by Abaddon, and I thought that if you listened to that page you would detect the change in your father’s voice and know something was wrong.”
“I did notice, but I thought that it was because he knew that they were dying -- I thought that knowledge was the reason why his voice sounded off,” Willow said, recalling the memory of listening to that last, short entry.
“Which is exactly what I deduced you would think. You're so trusting, just as your parents were. That is why I never troubled over the thought again. But then Salvador’s interference became more and more pronounced. As long as he was at a distance, I was able to feed your fears. In the Valley he remained inconspicuous, taking the form of a shepherd and therefore I wasn’t too worried.”
“We were such fools! How could we have fallen for such rubbish!” Rohan said, shaking his head at their folly.
“As I was saying,” Devon said, “when Salvador actually talked to you about the quest while we were at sea, it was then that I panicked. That night I disappeared, I went to Abaddon and told him all that had happened while we were on the boat.
“I told him that Salvador had warned against the Fire Snake -- you see, there was only ever one. All this time, it was Abaddon. He is a shape-shifter, you know. He always takes the form of a blood-red snake, but usually it is a much greater and fiercer one. He was trying to stay unobtrusive, but you noticed him anyway. After our conversation, he decided to stay away until my task was finished.”
“That’s why we haven’t seen another Fire Snake since arriving in North Port,” Willow said, realizing that on some subconscious level she had noted the absence.
“Precisely. The Black Angel also told me to attempt to plant a seed of doubt about Salvador. I tried to get you to question his motives by telling you half-truths. Abaddon had changed his tactics, and his new plan was to gain your trust, only it wasn’t Salvador but me he was using. Salvador had warned you about me, you just didn’t know it. When he said to watch out for one who walks in the midst of your camp, he was not talking about some unforeseen trespasser, but me.
“Rohan came close to catching me and did accuse me, but I used his logic against him.”
“Everything makes complete sense now. How could we not see it?” Willow said to herself.
Devon said, “Before I headed back, Abaddon gave me the Stumbling Stone to use in case I failed to convince Rohan. I knew I wouldn’t be able to fool Rohan for much longer, and so I waited for the best time to give him the stone. You two were fighting, and I seized my opportunity. I gave it to him, but I severely undervaluing the bonds of friendship.
“I thought that if he treated you cruelly, Willow, that you would be able to leave him behind. I turned on the charm, feeding his jealousy, and he reacted as I anticipated – the stone magnifying his aggravation. I tried to persuade you to forget about him in the Valley of Weeping, but you wouldn't have it. I wasn’t overly anxious though. I thought that it would be impossible for Rohan to make it out of the Valley alive. But Salvador threw another wrench in things.
“I recognized him immediately despite his leonine form. I thought he was going to ruin everything, but once again he let me be. Why? I will never understand.”
Devon stared off into space his forehead furrowed with thought.
Willow knew that regardless of how thing appeared, there was no way Salvador would purposely enable Devon’s scheme to succeed. By Devon’s reaction, she was certain he recognized that truth as well.
He cleared his head and regained his composure. “And that brings us to last night. I believe we are all caught up, now.”
Willow was speechless. How many lies had she swallowed since beginning this quest? Devon had never known her parents. They had not given him the journal. He was Abaddon’s right hand man. Everything. Everything had been a lie.
Willow finally fully understood what Professor Edgar had said about free will. Devon knew the truth, yet ignored it for his own temporal gain. When confronted with truth a person must decide to believe it or not, accept it or deny it. Though the truth did not change based on one’s decision, the choice remained nonetheless. Willow chose to believe and embraced the truth and acted on that belief by taking up this quest. It is what one did with the truth that mattered in the end.
They camped at the base of a steep, rugged crag. The air was much colder, and the wind was howling. Willow and Rohan were weak from hunger and exhausted from the long steep hike. Devon untied them one at a time allowing them to eat his catch and wash up. Then he tied them back to back once more.
As much as Willow had thought about making an escape that night, she realized the impossibility of it. It was a moonless night, and their path was a long and tedious climb up the side of a rocky cliff. Making the climb in the dark would mean death for sure.
Before Devon lay down for the night, he walked over to Willow. She trembled all over as she prepared herself for the rape of the next kiss. Devon leaned in and kissed her more forcefully. His tongue found hers and forced it to respond. His hand wove into her hair at the base of her neck, twisting it painfully. Her tears only seemed to egg him on.
The kiss lasted for an eternity before he finally whispered, “I hope you can forgive me, love.”
Willow felt drained and distraught and prayed that she would never have to live through another night like this one. It seemed like hours before she could take a steady breath once again.
Rohan finally whispered, “Willow, I promise I will get you out of this. He will never defile you again.”
Willow could hear the mix of pain and determination in his voice and prayed that his words were true, though she felt that that was one promise, despite his pure intentions, he would not be able to keep.
“I’m so sorry. So very sorry.”
“This is not your fault!” he whispered fiercely. “Do you hear me? This is not your fault.”
“Yes,” she said, but convinced that their situation was most definitely her fault.