THE GATES OF DEATH
Devon rose at first light, eager to find the last piece of the armor and receive his reward. All traces of diplomacy were gone. He was ready for the journey to be over.
He untied his captives. “Things will go much faster if you have use of your hands. The climb is not going to be easy. But if I sense any funny business, I’ll kill Rohan on the spot and ask questions later. I want you both in front of me at all times. And stay where I can see you, not that there is really anywhere to run.”
It was a dangerous climb over slippery rocks with a nasty drop into dark chasms below and cruel cliffs and jagged pinnacles above. The sheer ascent cut slantwise up the mountain between dense trees. Devon and Bellefire took up the rear, pushing Willow and Rohan forward.
The slope eventually leveled out. Willow smelled smoke and the distinct smell of burning flesh.
“We must be getting close. Smell that air!” Devon said, taking in a huge breath, a cunning smile firmly in place.
How he could stand the foul odor? She found it suffocating and nausea quickly set in. Rohan took on an ashen pallor as though he was struggling to keep bile down.
The path widened, and they found themselves on a plateau with a great, snowy peak towering above the far end. The plateau was ablaze with dancing flames that hedged its edges. Enormous wrought iron gates loomed ahead flanked by the fiery hedges.
Gaining a closer look, Willow realized that the hedges were not hedges at all, but piles upon piles of human bones. Bellefire let out a nervous snort, her eyes wild and red, reflecting the flames. Sweat poured down the trio’s faces in the glow of the fire.
“The Gates of Death,” Rohan whispered, clearly terrified.
“Time’s a wasting! Let’s get to it, shall we?” Devon said.
Willow was amazed by Devon’s audacity.
Rohan took Willow’s hand, squeezing it tight. Willow focused her mind on how his hand felt in hers. Together they took a deep breath and pushed open the massive gate. The metal was hot but did not burn them. The heavy gate creaked noisily open, and Willow and Rohan stepped reluctantly through.
The smoke was thick, and breathing was nearly impossible. Smoke burned her lungs and seared her throat. The ends of her hair and the hem of her dress singed with the fierce heat.
Devon pushed them forward saying, “We have to keep moving.”
Willow squinted to take in the scene before her. Colossal granite bedsteads rose out of the scorched earth marking the places of the dead. Shimmering silvery phantoms perched on the gravestones and chanted a ghostly rendition of a funeral march.
Rohan gripped her hand to the point of pain, but Willow did not pull away. Together they took a tepid step forward. The ghoul closest to Willow stretched out his translucent hand towards her. His hair undulated in a chaotic tuft and his crazed eyes bored into Willow’s. A rope of rusty chain was wrapped around his purpled neck and a dribble of silvery blood trailed from the corner of his mouth.
A transparent woman floated next to Rohan. Her stringy gray hair dripped with a glowing green fluid. Dark circles resided under her eyes, and there was a blue pallor to her flesh.
Devon urged them forward.
“They are already dead. What harm can they cause? We’ll never find the sword if you two stand here frozen all day.”
He pushed himself between them and took the lead, forcing the frantic Bellefire along behind him. Willow and Rohan rejoined hands and followed at his heels. They walked a few feet deeper into the billowing smoke towards the other set of blazing remains and the iron gates at the far end of the plateau, the eerie chant continuing all the while.
Every once in a while, an apparition would stop singing and glide in for a closer look. Willow thought that they seemed more curious than anything else, but then she felt they were being followed and glanced over her shoulder.
Her heart leapt out of her chest at the sight she received -- they were being herded. She could no longer see the cumbersome gates through which they had entered for they had been blocked by every ghost they had passed.
Willow reached out to Devon, who turned around abruptly, his knife grasped tightly in his fist. Apparently he was more jumpy than he had been letting on. He took in the image before him, clearly unsettled.
He recovered promptly and said, “Not to worry, love. We have to go forward, not backward. They are simply guiding us in the right direction.”
Willow was positive that Devon was either trying to keep her calm or was delusional. There was no way that ghastly army intended to deliver anything but harm. She hesitated a moment and that was all it took -- the phantoms who were following passed right through her.
Bellefire grew more and more uneasy. Devon had to struggle to contain her. As they neared the flaming border, a gusty wind picked up and the air turned frigid. The scorched ground froze into a solid sheet of ice and strangely shaped icicles decorated the tombstones.
A dark mass much blacker than the deepest smoke swooped down upon them. Bellefire went mad with fright, reared up, and charged forward clearing the burning wall opposite them in a single bound. Willow was grateful that at least the horse would be spared.
“No!” Devon screamed after Bellefire as the horse escaped with his plunder.
Before he could pursue the horse, an apparition before him called for his attention.
Standing in front of the travelers, cutting off their only escape, was a skeletal figure in an inky hooded shroud, his garment billowing in the gusty wind. His hood was pulled so far over his boney head that nothing but dark emptiness could be seen under it. A gray and haggard hand was wrapped around a large scythe, and icy breath could be seen coming in misty puffs as the figure took its rattling breaths.
Willow sensed movement behind them and risked the quickest of glances. The entire phantasmal mass was bent in a quivering bow. Willow felt as if all the air had been sucked from her lungs. Her hand trembled in Rohan’s; even Devon was shaking.
“Who are you?” Devon asked.
“Some call me the Grim Reaper, others the Angel of Death, and still others simply Death itself,” the figure said in a raspy murmur.
His voice made Willow dizzy with fear. Rohan wrapped a supportive arm tightly around her, and she leaned most of her weight into him.
“Let us pass,” Devon said forcefully.
“I think not,” came the Grim Reaper’s amused reply.
“What do you want?”
“Ah, what I always want, of course. My wages.”
“Your wages? And what are those?”
“The wages of iniquity is always death. I demand your lives.”
“There must be some other way? Another arrangement we can agree upon?” Devon asked fearfully.
“Neither strength nor courage can overcome Death -- all are helpless in my presence. I will have the final word. Unless someone blameless will pay the cost for you, I’m afraid that there is no other way. Blood for blood. Life for life,” the Reaper said, enjoying his game.
Devon turned to Willow and Rohan in apparent desperation, but they had nothing to offer. Trembling, Devon turned once more to face Death. The Grim Reaper raised his shriveled hand along with the scythe preparing to deal the fatal blow.
Willow screamed in horror. As much as Devon had betrayed them, she could not bear to see him killed. Her heart cried out to Salvador remembering his words, Do not fear, I am never far. With the scythe just inches from Devon’s throat, the Grim Reaper froze mid-swing.
At first Willow could not understand why he hesitated, but slowly comprehension dawned on her. A strange glow, dull at first, but steadily gaining strength, appeared above the ceiling of smoke. If Willow had not known better she would have guessed that it was the sun, but it was much too bright. In an instant, the light became so intense that it burned away all the ice the fire had failed to melt, yet it did not burn Willow’s eyes much like the light of the Fountain of Life.
If the sun had a heart, this luminous orb would have been it. A voice, majestic and deep, spoke from the light sending the ghouls rushing back to their graves.
“I will pay their wages.”
The Grim Reaper dropped the scythe. Whether he actually grew smaller or not, Willow could not be sure, but his presence seemed to diminish in the light. Willow felt instantly comforted, the color returning to her cheeks as the warmth of life flooded through her.
From the very center of the globe came another light, this one undefiled white. With the soft beating of wings and a flutter of feathers, three snow white turtle doves flew from it. Willow was struck by their beauty, their purity, their innocence. Never in her life had she seen such true and perfect pictures of blamelessness.
The three doves flew straight towards the Grim Reaper and burst into flames. Their ashes fell at his bare boney feet.
“Three lives for three lives,” came the magnificent voice from out of the light. “Their debt is paid, now set them free.”
The Grim Reaper’s hood fell back as he gazed into the light. His skeletal face twisted in a mix of confusion and fury. He slowly sank into the ground where the small pile of ashes lay and disappeared. The gates flew open and Willow, Rohan, and Devon ran as fast as they could muster on unsteady feet towards their freedom.