THE TREE OF LIFE
Willow collapsed on the far side of the gates holding a painful stitch at her side. She breathed in the cold air. Rohan was breathing heavily beside her, a huge grin spreading across his face.
“Can you believe it? Saved again! We must be the luckiest people in all of Tutis. Where do you think that light and those birds came from?” he asked panting.
“The Lord Protector, of course! Who else?” Willow said.
She threw her head back and laughed, and then closed her eyes and listened to the wonderful sound of her own breathing. In and out. In and out. She was alive, and how good it felt. Just then a burst of warmth caressed her face and something wet and slimy wormed its way into her ear. She opened her eyes with a start and found herself looking back into two huge horse eyes.
“Oh, Bellefire!” she exclaimed getting herself up to her tip toes and throwing her arms around the horse’s neck.
“Sorry to break up the reunion...but in case you have forgotten, I’ve got a sword to find,” Devon said impatiently. “Willow, you’ll need your hands to grab the sword, but I’m not taking any chances with Rohan.”
All the joy drained from Willow. They were still captives and had no hope of escape.
While Devon was busy securing Rohan’s hands, Willow looked about. To her left a range of snow caped mountains, majestic yet foreboding, rose against the horizon. Streams had flowed down from glaciers to join the river that rushed in front of her in swirling rapids before falling over the ledge in a monumental waterfall. On the very edge of the cliff was a massive tree, its huge roots fed by the glacial water.
Succulent ruby red apples hung from almost every branch, as its vibrant green leaves danced and fluttered in the wind. It was far and away the most beautiful tree Willow had ever seen, and the most tantalizing smell wafted from the decadent fruit. There was no doubt that it was the Tree of Life that they had sought.
Willow’s mouth watered. Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she was struck by an idea. Devon seemed to be somewhat hypnotized by the tree’s fruit as well. With a greedy eye he took an unconscious step forward. Willow saw her opening.
Not wanting to draw attention to herself, she summoned the rock shard from her boot with her powers of Levitation and took the tiniest of steps toward Rohan. Devon took no notice and walked closer to the mesmerizing fruit. With one quick movement, Willow dropped the stone in Rohan’s bound hands.
Devon whipped around and barked, “Enough fooling around. Willow, get over here.”
She exchanged one quick meaningful glance with Rohan before walking hesitantly forward. She was too slow for Devon’s liking, so he strode toward her impatiently. He gripped her arm in an iron clasp and towed her forward.
“Let’s go,” he said with a wild hunger in his eyes.
As they approached the tree, Willow silently prayed that Rohan would be able to work the stone against his ropes to free himself before it was too late. She was still not sure what good it would do. She had no idea how they would possibly be able to prevent Devon from taking the sword, let alone escape with it themselves. The only way to stop Devon would be to kill him, and Willow’s heart could not bear the thought of taking someone’s life -- even a betrayer’s.
She knew full well that Rohan was only alive for her sake. As soon as Devon no longer had a need for her there would be little to stop him from killing them both; though she feared her fate might be worse than death. Devon’s words still echoed in her mind, Maybe Abaddon will work you into my reward. She shivered as she remembered the two previous nights. She would have much rather died than suffer through another night of the same...or worse.
Devon pulled up short, his sharp nails digging into her shoulder. Etched into the bark of the tree trunk was a message:
Dare not take of the fruit of the Tree of Life for dishonest gain nor out of compulsion for DEATH SHALL BE YOUR REWARD. But take only with a selfless heart for the sake of others and the HEALING OF NATIONS will spring forth.
“It really is a good thing Abaddon let you live,” Devon said. “Now take an apple and get me that sword.”
Willow reached tentatively out towards the closest apple. From this distance the smell was overwhelmingly intoxicating. It was almost impossible to suppress the desire to sink her teeth into the juicy fruit. Her hand slowly closed around the large apple, and she gave the fruit a gentle tug.
The apple popped off its stem. As the fruit fell into Willow’s hand, the branch sprang back into place free of its burden. For a moment, nothing seemed to happen. Then a slight rumble shook the ground where they stood. The rumble grew into a great tremble and an earth shattering sound of splitting wood filled the air.
The trunk of the tree twisted in two and the Sword of the Spirit rotated eerily in the nothingness between. Willow’s breath caught at the wonder of it all. The hilt of the sword was ablaze with color. Twelve sparkling stones were imbedded in the cold metal: a ruby, a topaz, a peridot, a garnet, a light blue aqua-marine, an orange fire opal, a royal blue sapphire, an emerald, an amethyst, a chryoberyl, a white diamond, and a tourmaline of the richest rose pink.
It was clearly the most magnificent sword ever cast. Its long pointed blade was sleek and straight and razor sharp. Devon’s hand reached out automatically for the marvelous prize. He caught himself just in time.
“Now. Take it. Give it to me,” he said with urgency.
Willow could hear the hunger in his voice. As the sword somersaulted in midair, she made the critical decision to die before handing over this powerful sword. If the people of Tutis could not have it, no one would. She was quite content to leave it there in its solemn place for all of eternity. She remained where she stood, making no effort to reach for the sword.
“I SAID GIVE IT TO ME!” Devon roared, his voice shaking with expectancy.
“Willow, don’t be a fool. Give it to me!”
“I’ll kill you. You know I will,” he said, venom dripping from every word. “You’ll die needlessly -- just like your parents. Just like mine. Without reward for a worthless cause.”
“I don’t care. I’m not giving you the sword,” Willow said just as firmly.
She had no doubt that Devon meant what he said. He would kill her. She did not fear death so much for herself, but for Rohan.
“Last chance. I mean it. Give me the sword.”
“No,” Willow breathed, closing her eyes for a brief moment as she prepared for her last seconds on Tutis.
Opening her eyes once again, she watched Devon pull out his curved knife. As he mumbled an incoherent word, the blade ignited in red-orange flames. A fiery glow burned from the steel but did not consume it. Devon raised the blade holding it just above Willow’s heart.
In her last moment she turned to face the man that she loved, for impending death brought a clarity nothing else could. Rohan was, is, and would always be her one and only true love. To die with his image forever frozen in her mind was all she could ask for.
Time had failed her; there was no more room for escape. But Rohan was not where she expected him to be. He was not standing horror struck with his hands tied helplessly behind his back watching the scene unfold. Instead, he was not far from Devon, a huge rock in his hand raised high above his head.
“Devon Riley, I demand that you drop that knife,” Rohan said with utmost authority.
Devon turned, startled by how close Rohan’s voice was. The rock flew from Rohan’s hand with a quick flick and landed squarely on Devon’s forehead with a sickening thud. The knife fell from Devon’s grip. The moment its fiery blade touched the life-giving soil, the blaze died out. Devon stumbled a moment before falling in a heap at Willow’s feet.
“Quick! Grab the sword! There is no time to waste,” Rohan said.
Willow stood stunned.
“Willow! The sword!”
Willow turned and reached out to grasp the hilt.
The moment her hand closed around it a steel grip encircled her ankle. Though bleeding profusely, Devon was not about to give up. With one hand firmly holding Willow’s ankle, he groped in the grass with his other searching for the fallen knife. He found it quickly and staggered to his feet, using Willow to pull himself up. He grabbed the wrist of Willow’s hand holding the sword and kicked the rock Rohan had thrown over the ledge. The fall was too far and the roar of the water too great to hear the splash.
Rohan rushed toward Willow.
“Come a step closer, and she dies. Back up!” Devon said to Rohan, as blood dripped into his eyes and trickled down his chin.
Rohan stayed where he was. Willow could see the desperation in his face -- he knew that they were finally out of options.
Devon held the knife at Willow’s heart and mumbled under his breath, but nothing happened. It seemed that the knife had been permanently extinguished.
Devon’s frustration was apparent, but he said through gritted teeth, “No worries. It would be a pity to destroy such beauty -- a waste really. This way, you’ll only feel as if you’re dying. You will recover, but your friend’s life is done. How dare he try to take on Devon Riley?”
Willow desperately longed to comfort Rohan but no words came. She had lost their last chance. She would live, and he would die.
Just then Salvador stepped out from behind the tree. In Willow’s shock, her grip loosened on the sword. Devon seized his opportunity and ripped it from her. Devon now had the sword, but Willow was free to run to Rohan’s side.
“Salvador, you are too late. I have it all. This is the last piece. I’ll never surrender,” Devon said.
It was clear that Devon still feared Salvador despite his harsh words. Salvador did not reply but took a step closer; his piercing eyes were pinned on Devon’s.
“Don’t come any closer,” Devon said, his voice shaking slightly.
Still Salvador remained silent and took another step forward, never taking his eyes from Devon's, despite his efforts to look away.
“I mean it. No closer,” Devon said, taking an unconscious step towards the falls.
Salvador, ever silent, continued to move forward.
“That’s it. You can’t say I didn’t warn you. You asked for this,” Devon said as he continued to back up nearer the ledge.
Finally breaking his silence, Salvador said, “What will it profit you, if you gain the whole world and yet you forfeit your soul?¹ Would it not be just as advantageous to grasp for the wind?”
Devon stared at Salvador with a befuddled expression.
Willow had no fear for Salvador. As far as she was concerned, he was nothing shy of invincible. He would undoubtedly get the sword and take care of Devon and all would be right again. Tutis would be protected once more. Good will overcome evil as always. The perfect ending to the difficult quest.
She turned to share this moment of joy with Rohan, and was startled by his expression. He seemed fearful and tears were rolling down his cheeks. His whole body was shaking. Willow wrapped her arm around his waist, and he leaned into her.
He must not have understood. Everything was going to be alright, now. Salvador was there. He would fix it all.
“It’s o-,” she started to say, but never finished her sentence.
Devon lunged forward, the Sword of the Spirit leading. He stumbled slightly still woozy from Rohan’s blow and drove the sword deep into Salvador’s side. It was clear that he had missed his target -- he wanted his heart, but the sword found enough purchase regardless. Salvador fell to his knees as the blood gushed from his side.
“No!” Willow screamed. “No! No! No!”
She rushed forward, but Rohan grabbed her arm and pulled her back.
She fought him; throwing punches as she yelled, “Let me go! Let me go! We have to help him!”
Rohan tried to comfort her as the tears fell freely from their eyes, “It’s too late, Willow.”
“No!” Willow sobbed.
“Ha! Your father couldn’t get you out of this one, could he?” Devon bent down to pull out the sword and spit vehemently on Salvador’s face. “That’s for my parents. You didn’t save them, and no one will save you now.”
Salvador looked deep into Devon’s eyes and said, “I took your parents home to receive their reward in full. Their faithful hearts never belonged in the confines of this broken world.”
For a split second Willow saw Devon question himself, a flash of repentance that quickly subsided. Devon shook his head clear, and said, “I shall have my reward.”
He pulled the sword dripping with warm blood from Salvador’s side. He took a step backward raising the sword high in triumph.
The moment of comprehension flashed across his face as he understood that he had stepped too far. His hungry smile fell into a grimace of horror, his arms flailed helplessly as he attempted to regain his balance. The sword was thrown from his frantic hand before he tumbled over the waterfall with a bloodcurdling scream.
The sword fell teetering on the ledge, the bloodied blade hanging precariously over the precipice. Rohan dove for it before it could fall. Willow ran to Salvador who was then lying on his back inhaling shallow breaths. She threw herself upon her bleeding savior.
“No...no. You can’t die. You’re not supposed to die. You’re supposed to be king. You’re invincible. Save yourself. Please...please...please,” she cried.
“Dear child, do not be afraid of those who kill the body². My kingdom is not of this world³. All these things must come to pass, but the end is still to come,” Salvador said, a wheezing sound accompanying his breaths.
Rohan reached her side, his face the picture of agony.
“I don’t understand. Why don’t you save yourself? I know you can. We need you,” Willow wept.
“I am with you always, dear daughter. Never forget that. Neither you, my son. Redemption draws near, lift up your heads.5”
Willow was shaking with grief, and her tears fell upon his dying body.
“The turtle doves but point the way. I shall rebuild the temple in three days6,” Salvador whispered.
“Temple? What temple?” Willow asked, looking to Rohan for answers.
“My temple, child,” Salvador said.
Willow still did not understand what he was trying to say.
Rohan took her hand covered in their deliverer’s blood and whispered in her ear, “He’s not coherent, Willow. He’s passing.”
Rohan’s bottom lip quivered with his silent sobs. Willow looked into her redeemer’s fathomless eyes for a final time as Salvador searched her soul.
Salvador said, “Hold fast, dear ones. Not one thing has failed. It is finished7.”
He breathed his last.
The whole earth wept. With his final breath, the ground shook in a violent, ear-shattering quake and the mountains were cut with deep fissures and split apart. Then all went black.