Chapter 17 - The Tree that Bears the Fruit
They had followed the rut – a winding, erratic, sometimes-there, sometimes-not gouge in the ground – seemingly to infinity. Off in the distance smoke filled the air, but for all their haste it never appeared to get any closer. The map told them they were still headed in the right direction, but how much farther they needed to go, was anyone’s guess.
Shortly after the last attack of forearm-bladed demons, they were caught unawares by more. Just as horrifying as the previous group, this bunch seemed faster and more determined. Barely surviving the attack the guardian and cherub limped away considerably hurt. Trying to protect the already injured Noel, Art had lost his helmet leaving him with a nasty gash near his temple. Phil, defending himself furiously from the bounty on his head, sported a long, bloody line on his right arm for his efforts; just a centimeter or more deeper and his arm would have slit wide open like a gutted fish.
All of them now battered, bloodied, and bruised, they continued their apparently never-ending trek toward the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The masked and helmeted messenger still held the map, leading them, as Art and Phil trudged slowly behind. With no forewarning, Noel stopped. Art and Phil had taken a few steps past him before they noticed.
“What the…?” said Phil.
“Uh…guys,” said Noel clearly through his copper-colored motorcycle helmet, “I, I think we’re lost.”
“Lost?” said Phil, becoming angry almost immediately. “What do you mean lost?”
“Haven’t you two noticed?” replied Noel. “We’ve probably taken a hundred or more steps and the rut’s completely gone.”
The guardian and cherub looked at the ground ahead of them and behind, sure enough, no rut. In the haze of their injuries they failed to notice it had disappeared altogether. The rut had not been one constant mark – sometimes it was a series of grooves while at others it was a deep gouge –at other times it disappeared altogether, but the rut had always picked up within five or ten steps of where it left off.
Not this time.
“Why didn’t you say something?” asked Phil incredulously. The cherub slapped his thigh angrily, “Who knows if we’ve going in the right direction? What a waste of time!”
“I’m trying my best here,” said Noel defensively. “You’re following the same path I am. If you were paying attention you could have stopped me and asked.”
“You’re kidding, paying attention? Who do you think helped keep that ugly head on your neck? You weren’t any help in that last attack, messenger.”
“Enough brothers,” interrupted Art. “We are angels, not prideful demons of the Deceiver.” He turned to Phil and added, “We have wasted time—arguing.” Wearily the guardian turned his back to them, facing the direction they were originally walking, “We need to press and move forward. Let’s just get to the top of this hill and see. I—we need to get out—I mean, find the Tree.”
The messenger and cherub passed suspicious looks to each other. Was Art beginning to suffer as the Archangel once did?
“The Great,” said Noel, approaching the guardian and stopping behind his right shoulder, “has it started?”
Art scratched at his now scraggly beard; he looked strained, “Has what started?”
“You know exactly what he’s talking about,” challenged Phil, stepping quickly to stand before Art. Looking up defiantly, he added, “This place is finally gettin’ to you, isn’t it?”
Glancing at Phil and then looking over his shoulder at Noel, the burly guardian gingerly touched the injury on his head, “I think so. It’s a…feeling, no, a desire to remain.” He placed his hand on the middle of his chest and continued, “I feel it here, in my heart, growing. Like if I leave I might just as well die the true-death.”
“Oh boy,” said Phil. “And you? Noel? How are you feeling?”
“Me?” said the messenger, taken aback. “Except for my face, I’m fine. What about you?”
Phil replied by laughing dismissively. Pulling a cigar from inside his salwar-tunic he lit it with another match taken from out-of-nowhere.
“Yeah, right.” After a long drag he let out a big puff, “I think we should listen to Art, let’s get to the top here and see.”
They lumbered while trying to reach the hill’s crest, once there, the source of smoke they had watched in the distance for so long became obvious.
“What in all Eden is that?” asked Phil.
“It can’t be,” said Noel, referring to the map. He took off running.
“Hey, wait,” said Phil. “What is it?” The guardian and cherub quickly followed.
Noel raced down the hill toward the smolder, stopping just feet from the actual source. He referred to the map again and looked around. At this point, Art and Phil had reached the messenger and not only noticed his animated body-language but the source of smoke as well – the burned remains of a charred and blackened stump.
“What’s going on?” asked Art wearily. “What’s wrong?”
“Can’t you see?” said Noel, his voice pitched high. “It’s gone! Burned to nothing.”
“What’s gone?” said Phil, slowly realizing. “The Tree?”
“Yes, the Tree!” snapped Noel. “It’s supposed to be here!” He crumpled the map into a ball, angrily throwing it away.
“This, this stump is the Tree of Knowledge?” said Phil, chewing his cigar.
“We failed,” Art said matter-of-factly.
The three angels stared in shocked silence at the smoky remains of what once was the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. There were bits and pieces of the tree scattered about, and its offering was strewn all around as well, burned or crushed. They stared at the scene with complete and utter anguish. Not only did they fail, but even worst yet, they failed the Almighty.
“Aww, come on.” Phil started to stomp around crazily. “Can’t He make another one?”
“No, He won’t.” said Art calmly. “That’s not how it works.”
“Fine. Then what do we do now, o’ great one?”
A simpering voice from behind the angels interjected, “Is there something wrong?”
They turned around startled, facing the voice. It came from one of four creatures. Three of them were fallen angels: Contorted, evil-looking faces with red-eyes, horned heads, grayish-black skin, and hoofed feet. The other was a Nephilim, the last of its kind. This massively large, man-like beast stood there sneering at them, dressed in tattered and dirty clothes there were broken chains hanging from clasps wrapped around its wrists and ankles. Standing but a step ahead of the three demons, the angels saw that it held the flaming sword. So large were the Nephilim’s hands that it appeared to carry the divine object daintily with only an index finger and thumb.
“You’ve released Anak as well, I see,” said Art, an undertone of anger to his voice. Addressing the only demon in a black toga, he added, “You think you’ve won, Gremory, but you haven’t.”
“Oh really?” returned Gremory, the torn holes in its wings twitching. “Where do you think you’ll find another Tree of Knowledge? Over that hill?” The other demons and the Nephilim chortled. “Don’t worry, I did save one of the things you were looking for…”
A clawed hand stretched out, on its palm appeared what looked like a perfectly red, almost glowing, pomegranate.
The angels all tensed when they saw it.
Phil swiftly drew his absurdly long sword then pointed it at Gremory, “Give—me—the fruit.”
The demons and the Nephilim laughed long and heartily, they guffawed while pointing back at the cherub, making fun of him for his sword. Then with no warning the huge Nephilim’s expression turned sour and he cursed, “Go to hell!”
The creatures vanished with a gust of wind.
“What? Where’d they go?” asked Noel, looking around frantically.
“You heard him, messenger,” said Phil, spitting out his cigar and adjusting the grip on his shield, “get ready to leave.”
“What are you talking about?” returned Noel. “They just disappeared, they could be anywhere.”
“Anak just told you,” sighed Art impatiently. “Now get ready…We’re going to Hell.”
And with those words, they vanished.