Upstairs in the girls’ dormitory, Willow laid awake in her bunk, sleep evading her. As the hours ticked on, her heavy eyelids finally closed. Far from the heavenly peace she craved, her dreams were plagued with dancing blue-white flames, screams of agony, and smoldering piles of ash.
She woke with a start just as the image of a flaming sword was thrust towards her dream-self. Breathing heavily, sweat beaded across her forehead, she sat up in bed, looking about her. Her five roommates slumbered soundlessly undisturbed.
She slowly rose, tiptoeing over to the large arched window between her bunk and the next and pulled back the thick white drapes a fraction. The sky was dull gray. Willow could just make out a thin line of peach at the very horizon.
Next to the window, a sconce held a candle. She passed her hand over it, and a dancing yellow flame instantly flickered to life. Fire, she thought -- an Element. She found it amazing that after sixteen years without supernatural abilities, she was now capable of doing magic without even trying. It was as if her body knew what it needed before her mind caught up. She wondered if this was how it was for all Torchbearers, but then remembered Professor Edgar’s words: By all accounts you, Willow, are the strongest Torchbearer there ever was.
Letting his words sink in, she studied her reflection in the glow of the flickering candle. She felt years older than she did just one day ago. The weight of a quest not yet begun, already took its toll. This was her life now, she concluded.
She hated the thought, and so grabbed her robe and fled through the door. She raced down the long corridor, wiping at the stray tears running down her cheeks. She made a quick right leading her to the entrance hall. In a few long strides, she had crossed the hall and flew down the marble stairs into the chilled air of dawn.
She ran and ran, across the vast lawn feeling the cool air hit her lungs, the pumping of blood to her heart, her pulse racing under her fair skin. She ran to feel alive, focusing on nothing else. If she slowed, the pain would engulf her and she would break apart, the dragon mercilessly shredding her heart, drained and broken beyond repair.
Willow ran until the stitch in her side became impossible to ignore, her lungs bursting for air. Looking around she found herself at the lake. Collapsing behind a tuft of reeds swaying in the wind, she finally succumbed to her tears. When the tears ran dry, they made way for anger. That anger, so foreign to her carefree spirit, consumed her.
She scooped up some pebbles and threw them with all her might at a nearby oak. They connected with a pitiful, muted thud while she screamed aloud, “Why? Why my parents? Why wait to tell me now?”
Was she really supposed to believe that she was a member of an elite race with the powers of Angels? Was she just supposed to accept the fact that her parents were dead? Accept that she too would probably die like all the others before her? How could her whole world be turned upside down in just a few short hours?
She did not need much less desire, magical abilities. The price was too high, nothing was worth the pain.
She fell to the ground pulling her knees to her chest, slowly rocking herself, allowing the tears to flow once again.
She stirred to the only voice that mattered now. The left side of her body was tingling with sleep, the grass leaving tiny imprints in her silky, smooth skin. How long had she been out there? Opening her eyelids a fraction of the way, she noticed the sun low in the west; dusk was swiftly approaching. Out of the corner of her eye she saw Rohan sitting a few feet from her -- too far.
“Rohan,” she whispered, opening her eyes fully.
“How long have you been sitting here?”
“It doesn’t matter. I would wait as long as you needed me to.”
Rohan scooted beside her. His presence helped her to breathe normally again. They laid back in the cottony grass and Rohan put his arm under Willow’s head, pillowing it from the hard earth. Willow curled into his side absorbing his comfort. Rohan gently ran his long, slim fingers through her honey brown ringlets.
“You don’t have to do this, you know. The quest, I mean,” Rohan whispered in her ear. “Professor Edgar says you have a choice. He wouldn’t have said that if it wasn’t true.”
“Rohan, I love you for saying that, but you know as well as I do, I can’t leave the fate of the world to the Black Angel?”
“I guess not,” he admitted. “We should go back and get you some dinner. Professor Edgar wants to see both of us again this
As Willow and Rohan passed through the corridors once again, she saw that the sun was melting into the horizon. Yesterday evening at this time was the last moments that she had been happy. She paused for a spell to take in the beauty of the sinking sun and clouds which bled all shades of red.
Taking a deep breath, she prepared to confront her destiny. Resolve was carved into her features as she walked towards the Headmaster’s office, grateful Rohan was at her side.
She knocked softly on his door.
“Come in,” said a tired voice.
Traces of yesterday’s sorrow were etched upon his face. Their eyes met briefly, mirrors of pain.
“I’m ready,” Willow said simply.
“You’ve made your choice then?”
Willow struggled to prevent her eyes from rolling. Why the professor still insisted on pushing the idea of freewill seemed like utter nonsense to her.
“I have,” she said humoring him.
“Then there is one more thing we must discuss,” said the professor.
Truly weary at this point, Willow questioned what more she could take. “What now...sir?” She tacked on the sir at the end not wanting to sound rude. This was not Professor Edgar’s fault, she reminded herself. He was merely the unfortunate messenger.
“Well, every Torchbearer has a Guardian, someone dedicated to the success of the Torchbearer, even unto death. In the past, the Guardians were always fellow Torchbearers; your dad was your mom’s. But seeing as you are the last Torchbearer, your Guardian must be chosen from outside the Fellowship of Torchbearers.”
“I’ll do it!” Rohan said standing quickly and knocking over his chair.
“I was hoping you would say that Rohan,” said Professor Edgar.
“No, Rohan! Did you hear what Professor Edgar said? ‘Unto death!’ I will not loose you too.” Turning to the professor, tears rolled down her cheeks. “You can’t seriously consider letting him go. Please let’s find someone else, or I’ll go alone. Not Rohan. Anyone but him.”
“Willow, as much as the choice to take up this quest lies with you, the choice to become a Guardian lies with that individual. It is up to Rohan.”
Willow opened her mouth to speak, but just then the office door was thrown open.
Willow felt a chill and looked to see if a window had been left open. None had, but Professor Edgar was blinking rapidly. She felt lightheaded, and her head swam for a couple of moments. Rohan’s face grew red, but not from blushing this time. Some visceral reaction caused him to immediately dislike the young man who stood at the threshold.
The stranger’s chest heaved from exertion as he leaned against the door frame to catch his breath. He had broad shoulders and a muscular build. His ruddy brown hair was ruffled in careful disarray, and his dark brown eyes complemented his tanned skin. A well used leather bag hung across his body.
He was simply beautiful to behold. Willow’s body reacted in a way that made her uncomfortable. In utter disgust, Willow wondered at how she could possibly feel this way, especially at a time like this.
Turning to Professor Edgar, she noticed that he still appeared confused. He simply went blank for a moment as if drained of emotion, vacant.
“Poor man,” she thought. “My parents’ deaths have taken such a toll on him.”
The professor recovered and stood at his desk to invite the gentleman in. “How may I help you, young man?”
Seeming to finally catch his breath, the man stepped into the office and introduced himself, “I beg your pardon, but I must speak with you at once. I have important news. My name is Devon Riley. I’m from the village of Proditio on the west coast.”
He was younger than Willow had guessed, no more than eighteen.
“How can I help you Mr. Riley?” the professor asked.
“Please call me Devon.”
“I was friends with Willow Payton’s parents, sir,” he said nodding in Willow’s direction. “When I arrived at the school a few minutes ago, I was told to come here.”
He produced a well-worn black and white photo from his pocket. Though it was tattered with deep creases, there could be no doubt it was a picture of Willow. Taken by surprise, she turned to see Professor Edgar’s expression. Had he known of this friendship? It was evident that he was just as surprised as Willow.
“I met them during their travels, and they took me under their wing, so to speak,” Devon continued. “They asked me to come here immediately if something were to ever happen to them. They were extremely close to solving the mystery of the forgotten secrets and seemed to sense the end was coming. They have been living in a small cave out west. They chose that place because they were not sure how much the Black Angel knows, and they certainly didn’t want him to find out about Willow.
“I stopped by their cave this morning to see what progress they’d made, but all that was left was a pile of rubble and this,” he said holding up the photo. “The cave had been destroyed.” He looked down at the floor, seeming to gather himself before he continued. “They had told me I could find a journal of their research hidden, and that I must pass it on to Willow, at all costs. I went to the place they said it was hidden and then rushed straight here. I’ve been riding all day.”
He reached into his bag and pulled out a small shabby book with a broken binding.
“A journal?” The professor’s eyes lit with excitement.
“Yes,” Devon said holding the small book up. “They wrote down all of their research to the minutest degree in case the Black Angel found them before the task was completed.”
“Well, this is a pleasant surprise,” said Professor Edgar. “I assumed that the information had been lost with them.” Turning to Willow he said, “Your journey, if you choose to accept it, just got a little easier.”
“If she chooses? But she must!” said Devon.
“Devon, you must remember freewill. No one can take away a person’s ability to choose. It is the greatest and most pivotal gift we have been given. Willow has a choice in her fate.”
“But sir, her parents died for this. She is the only one! The final heir!”
How much had her parents confided in him? Much more than they had in her, she noted with a pang.
“Again, Devon, I tell you she has a choice,” the professor said firmly.
Looking to Willow, Devon seemed to find the resolution he sought and conceded. “Very well. If she chooses to accept her destiny, I would like to volunteer myself to be her Guardian.”
Relief flowed through her at the prospect of her best friend being spared the task. She turned to Professor Edgar, eager to hear him accept the offer.
Just then Rohan stood, stretching to his full gangly height. He stared at Devon with a fierceness Willow had never seen before. “I am her Guardian.”
“You?” Devon asked in disbelief as he eyed him up and down.
“Yes, me,” Rohan said, with a rare confidence. Willow thought about the authority she had heard just once before as he commanded the swing to stop the morning before.
Devon crossed the small room to appeal to the professor. He leaned his hands on the desk, ducking his head so that he was at eyelevel with the petite man. “Surely you see the advantages in having myself as the Guardian,” he said, his voice smooth as honey. “Not only are there the physical advantages,” he said gesturing to himself with a sweeping motion, “but also there is the fact that Willow’s parents trusted me. I will be a great asset.”
A gagging sound came from Rohan’s general direction. Willow, however, was awed by his assurance. He definitely seemed up for the challenge. She hated to admit it, but she would feel safer with Devon.
“I quite agree,” said Professor Edgar. “I think you will be an asset, and…”
Joy flooded through Willow at the professor’s words. Rohan would be safe.
Rohan cut the professor off, “But you said that it is my choice.”
“Please let me finish Rohan,” Professor Edgar said. “As I was saying, Devon, I believe you will be an asset; however Willow already has a Guardian.”
It was Willow’s turn to interrupt. “But Professor?”
Professor Edgar silenced her with the wave of a finger. “I tend to believe two heads are better than one. How much more, three than two? That is why, Devon, I suggest you accompany them on their journey, if you are so willing.”
“Fine,” Devon and Rohan said together, each glaring at the other with arms crossed until Rohan sat down clearly aggravated, but nonetheless appeased.
Willow turned to Rohan, “I have to do this. I am the only one. But Rohan, you really don’t have to come.”
“Willow, you heard Professor Edgar. Once a person decides to become a Torchbearer’s Guardian an unbreakable bond is forged, giving the Guardian the strength to give his life for his charge if he must.”
Willow cringed at his statement.
Ignoring her reaction, he continued, “I have made my decision.”
A single tear rolled down her cheek at his declaration. Rohan gently wiped it away with a sweep of his thumb.
Seeming to want to lighten the mood, he then said, “Besides I’m not going to let you be the only one that gets a swanky name. Think about it: The Torchbearer and the Guardian! Kind of rolls off the tongue, huh?”
At dawn the next morning, Willow was greeted by a cool breeze as she walked into the fresh air. Closing her eyes, she stood on the top step letting the soft wind caress her, reflecting on when and if she would climb those steps again. When she opened them again, she saw Professor Edgar and Devon leading three horses. Willow was once again struck by the young man’s beauty. She nervously fidgeted with the canvas sac draped over shoulder that contained a spare change of clothes, her toothbrush, and a comb, along with a few other essentials.
Devon’s perfectly tussled hair and slightly wrinkled lined shirt, unlaced at the top to reveal a glimpse of his tanned, marble chest, gave him a casual, understated charm. His deep eyes were warm pools of molten bronze. Professor Edgar held the lead ropes of two of the horses, as Devon walked up to Willow with the third, a snowy white mare. At an average of eighteen hands tall the horses of Tutis were quite impressive, majestic in beauty and mighty in power. They were extremely resilient creatures, able to travel great distances at a reasonable speed on a grass-only diet.
Transferring the contents of her canvas sac into the saddle bags, Willow addressed the horse like an old friend.
She stroked her silky muzzle and whispered a greeting, “Hey there, Bellefire.”
The horse nuzzled its snout against Willow’s cheek.
“You won’t be able to travel magically; the armor is too heavily protected,” Professor Edgar instructed, snapping her out of her reverie.
“May I ask then what the point of a Torchbearer’s magic is, if we can’t use it?” Willow asked.
Her head was still reeling from the news of the night before. Not only were her parents dead, but now she discovered she was a descendant of angels, and was about to impart on a quest that could cost not only her life, but that of dear Rohan.
“You may use it, just not to travel. The Torchbearers wanted to be sure no one but a fellow Torchbearer could retrieve the armor. If anyone with a wand could magically transport themselves to the armor, it wouldn’t be very protected would it? Your magic will provide protection and defense. In the end, it should make for a much more comfortable journey,” Professor Edgar answered.
In Devon’s hand was her parents’ journal, a bow and quiver was slung across his back. She had no idea where they needed to go and felt overwhelmingly unprepared.
“Devon, do you know where we are supposed to head first?”
“According to this,” he said holding the journal up, “we must find the Path of Life. Your parents seemed to think that in order to reach it, we must pass through the Valley of the Shadow of Death,” he said calmly.
A small shiver traveled down her spine.
Attempting to mirror his sense of calm Willow asked, “And how exactly do we get there?”
“The valley is approximately seventy miles northwest of here in the Umbra Mountain Range. I suggest cutting through the Elfin Forest. It should take us about two and a half days setting a modest pace, give or take a few hours. The route to each destination appears to be pretty straight forward. Though the journey home will be more demanding. It may be advantageous to take to the sea on the return trip.”
At least he seemed confident that there would actually be a return trip. Her faith in this particular matter was a bit more tenuous. The dangers of this journey were becoming very real to Willow.
Her voice shook slightly, unable to control her nerves as she said, “Whatever you think. You seem to have a plan.”
“I can’t take all of the credit. There was a map folded into the journal.”
“Excellent. Your parents really did think of everything,” Professor Edgar broke in, with a smile.
Rohan walked down the stairs, dressed similarly to Devon a rucksack thrown over his shoulder, but failing to produce quite the same effect. Willow noticed that his nervousness matched her own. She filled him in on Devon’s plan.
Sleeping had not improved Rohan’s attitude about Devon. “Whatever,” he muttered.
As though he was cued to show his gallantry, Devon turned to Willow and asked, “May I?”
She nodded, flushing again. With impossible ease and chivalrously mindful of her pale green, flowing dress, he gently lifted her onto the beast’s back.
Using the bottom step for added height, Rohan placed his foot in the stirrup of the second horse. Clumsily he climbed onto his warm chestnut colored steed held by the professor, nearly slipping over the opposite side, while Devon mounted his deep ebony horse with absolute grace.
Stretching his arm to full length, the petite professor reached out a closed fist to Willow. She extended her hand to meet his, her curiosity piqued. He passed her a miniature model of one of the torches in his office; just like the ones her mother and father use to wear, though this one housed two flames, instead of just one.
“Where did you get this?”
“Every Torchbearer carries one around their neck. You see the two separate flames?”
“Those are Everflames.”
“Whenever a Torchbearer passes and their torch is extinguished along with their final message, among the dying sparks, an ember remains -- an Everflame. Your torch houses both your father’s and your mother’s, thus the duel flames. Everflames provide a source of warmth and light in impenetrable cold and darkness.”
Rohan eyed the tiny torch with reverence. “I’m awed, Willow. I’ve known you most of my life, and now this.”
Willow shook her head. Her eyes brimmed again with tears. “I’m just me, Rohan. And you are my own true friend.”
“Be diligent, both of you,” the professor warned gravely. “If it passes into corrupt hands the flames will extinguish permanently.”
“We will. Thank you, sir,” Willow said, clasping it about her neck.
Though the flames rested so close to her skin they did not burn. All she felt was slight warmth where the torch rested above her chest, close to her heart, an external symbol for an internal reality. Her parents’ memory would remain safely preserved in her heart.
“And now, your journey begins. Take careful heed to follow your parents’ directions precisely. Do not deviate to the left or the right.¹ Let your ears be attentive and your eyes open.² Direct your hearts to the task and run swiftly. A time of trouble such as never was³ since Tutis was breathed into existence, is upon us. It will not tarry, nor should you.”
“So, no pressure, then?” Rohan jested.
“Abaddon is sly and cunning, deceitful and malevolent above all things. I urge you, be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour4. Now, go,” Professor Edgar said patting the hind quarter of Willow’s horse gently.
Rohan mellowed instantly at his words. Willow thought that she saw tears in the old man’s bright eyes, but could not be certain.With the professor’s final words ringing in their ears, they gathered the reins and directed their horses forward, towards the lone bridge that would take them away from security and into the great unknown.