Graceleaf

Sara Miller
Graceleaf Sara grew up in Bethesda, Maryland. She attends Churchill High School and is a senior. She is working on her fantasy novel, Speak No Evil, and has won a Silver Key and two honorable mentions in the Scholastic Writing Awards. She volunteers with the Q?Crew at the Smithsonian Museum at Natural History.

“‘Aren’t they mad though, after the last fight?’ I asked, looking out into the desert of Hell. The sky was a bloody smear across the red landscape. No demons marched over the horizon, brandishing swords. There was only the barren wasteland and the burning sun.”

Yesterday, a pit of fire opened up below my family’s tent. In a moment, our entire life was swallowed up in a burst of flame. I rushed over to my former home, now a smoldering Hell pit. We didn’t have much inside — only clothing and a few daggers to ward off the imps at night. Still, my eyes filled with tears as I stared at the pit. When Mama came back from battle, she muttered curses under her breath and kicked at the dust.

Papa was still under the care of the healers, after the last battle fought in one of Hell’s countless plains. After I helped clean up, I flew to the makeshift hospital to see him. The camp zoomed past, an array of tents and shacks, and in the distance, officers’ barracks. Guards posted at the wall waved at me, and I recognized one.

“Flauros!” I hovered next to him. “How’s the shift?”

Flauros smiled, turning his gaze from the distance. “Well, I’ve seen dirt and a few tumbleweeds. No devils in sight,” he sighed.

“Aren’t they mad though, after the last fight?” I asked, looking out into the desert of Hell. The sky was a bloody smear across the red landscape. No demons marched over the horizon, brandishing swords. There was only the barren wasteland and the burning sun.

“The devils are still regrouping after the beating we gave them.”

I shivered, remembering the last battle. They had attacked at night, swarming over the walls. Devils wearing stinking furs and rusty armor, set fire to tents and soldiers. I hid in the officers’ barracks with the other children. With every burst of flame, another scream rang through the night. We huddled in the corner, silent. I wished that my sister, Laylah, was next to me, saying that it would be alright. But she and my older brothers were gone, stationed in a distant outpost.

By the time we emerged from the barracks at dawn, the cries of the wounded had died down. How many of us became orphans that night?

“Sorry about your dad,” Flauros said, when I looked down.

“It’s okay, he’ll be fine. Just a few scratches,” I said, not mentioning Papa’s delirious rambling and his rotting leg. At least he’s alive.

***

I lifted up the tent flap and ventured inside. The stench of blood and rot filled the air, and I tried not to gag. Injured soldiers groaned and cried out. I tried not to look at them, and stared at the ground. Healers tried to close bite wounds and repair charred skin, but it was no use. We all knew that the good healers — ones who mend shattered bones and grow new skin — were only for high-ranking angels. Papa lay on a stained blanket, healers bustling around him.

“Hey, Abaddon, how are you?” he said, propping himself up. His eyes glazed over. He stared in my direction, not really seeing. Papa’s feathers were ruffled and bent. I smoothed them down carefully.

“Fine, Dad. A Hell pit opened up under the tent,” I said, tucking the blankets around him.

“Hells! Again?”

“Is your leg alright?”

“Yeah, healing up nicely. I’ll be back in the fights before the week is up.” He grimaced. Thick bandages covered his leg, soaked through with dark blood.

A healer pulled me aside. She was from another rank, her robes a light, smooth blue. Her white wings glowed in the dim hospital tent. She smiled at me. I hated her, like I did angels of all other ranks. She didn’t care about us.

“Child, is your mother in the outpost?” she asked, her voice soft and lilting.

I crossed my arms. “She’s around.”

She sighed. “She has to come here now.”

“Why?”

“Your father is very sick. His leg needs to be removed before infection spreads.”

***

I hate the outpost. Red dust coats every surface — clothes, weapon, skin. It seeps into the water, until each drink tastes like copper. The bread is hard enough to crack teeth and tastes like it was tossed into the dirt.

Each day, soldiers battle devils. By nighttime, some return missing eyes, legs, wings. Devils lurk in the shadows, carrying clubs, swords, and spears. Beyond the outpost are untold horrors: lands crawling with monsters. I’ve heard stories that beyond the desert, there are more demons than ever seen near the outpost. Kings and warlords rule over the lands, each more terrifying than the last.

Life was hard, and devil attacks grew more frequent as time went on. When Mama and Papa were first stationed out here, no demons dared to approach. Now, it was getting worse.

My parents told me stories about Heaven at night, when the shadows descended on the camp, and the only light was from the campfire.

“Everything is beautiful, green everywhere,” my father said, as if in a daze.

“Are there trees? They have leaves and bark, right?” I asked. I imagined lying under a tree, resting in the shade. There was no rest in Hell. Only relentless heat, pounding down onto skin. “Why aren’t we in Heaven?” I asked.

Mama laughed bitterly, breaking the silence she held all night. “They don’t want us up there. We’re not pure enough,” she sneered.

“Hush.”

“Why encourage her silly dreams? Abaddon won’t escape this wretched pit, and neither will we.”

“Pa, have you ever been there?” I asked him.

“Once,” he said quietly. “The sky was such a nice color, a bright blue…”

***

Today was the battle. I kissed Mama on the cheek, where a jagged scar crossed her face. She was dressed in her armor, dented and dusty.

“Stay safe,” she whispered, as I hugged her. Dark circles ringed her eyes, and I remembered last night. It was dawn when Mama returned to our new tent, wiping the tears from her eyes.

Papa is alright, I repeated to myself. He is fine.

Mama turned her back and joined her company. I watched her from Flauros’ guard post as she disappeared into the desert. I sighed and turned away.

I hated this. Why did Mama and Papa and Laylah have to fight battles for the other angels? Soon, I would too. Mama said that soon, I would be drafted, when I came of age. She said they’d come to you, giant shining messengers with a thousand eyes. It’s scary at first, but then you can leave, leave the outpost where all soldier’s children live, leave the dreaded frontier, and maybe even see Heaven.

“Cheer up, Abby. Your Ma will be back soon,” Flauros said.

“I hope.”

Suddenly, more angels appeared a few feet away. I’d never seen anything like them before. Their golden armor gleamed in the sun, and wisps of flame floated from their wings. They carried fiery swords that radiated heat. They were beautiful. One turned and stared right at me.

“Those are Paragons. Don’t look at them,” Flauros said harshly.

“Why not?” I asked, glaring at him.

“Listen, don’t tell your ma I said this…”

“I’m not a child. I can handle it.” I looked for the Paragons again, but they were already gone.

“Well, Paragons are a… different type of angel. I don’t know too much, but before coming to this outpost, I saw some of them. In a devil village,” he said.

“And?”

“They set the village on fire. I don’t want to talk about it anymore,” he said and turned away.

***

“Is there anything else you can do?” I asked the healer, who was wrapping a fresh bandage around Papa’s leg. She shook her head, and looked away from me. I sighed and got up. Being in the tent was stifling, and each minute grew more stuffy. I patted Papa’s feathers and went outside for some air.

I plopped into the sand just as two angels hovered by. I looked up curiously. It was Captain Jael and the healer with blue robes, clutching an armful of yellowed scrolls.

“There has to be some way to help them,” she pleaded.

“Charmeine, this plant of yours is in the middle of devil territory. I’m not risking my troops for Graceleaf,” he said. Graceleaf? I’ve never heard of it before.

“It’s only fair that their wounds are healed too —”

He pushed past her roughly and flew away. Her shoulders drooped, and she finally noticed me.

“What’s Graceleaf?” I asked, standing up quickly.

“Did you hear everything?” Charmeine said, gripping the scrolls tightly.

I nodded. “Will it heal my dad’s leg?”

“Well, it’s just a story —”

“I can get it for you,” I said.

“Dear, you’re too young!” she said, frowning.

“I’m almost of age.”

“No, you need to stay here with your parents. Besides, the Captain forbids it.” She turned away and flew back into the hospital.

***

It wasn’t too hard to take her scrolls. She propped them on a mat with other medical supplies. She was busy mixing a salve and didn’t look up when I grabbed them. I hurried out of the tent and went to a secluded, shaded spot under the wall. I plopped down onto the sand, and unrolled the scrolls.

Strange, old Angelic runes were printed on the yellowed sheet, and I struggled to read them. Skimming the page, I eventually found Graceleaf listed.

Graceleaf – heals flesh wounds, blue leaves and thick stem, found in the Southern Barren Caves.

In another scroll was a detailed map.

***

My dagger was in its sheath, tied around my waist. My pack had a waterskin and some food in it. I hoped that this wouldn’t take long. I couldn’t stop thinking of all the horrors awaiting me — barbarian demons, fire pits and more. But I had to do this for Papa. What else could I do?

I pushed away a stone, revealing a hole in the wall, something I noticed long ago but never went through. It was tiny, but I fit. I squeezed through on my hands and knees, the rock scraping against my wings. I emerged outside, the sand already blowing hard. In front of me, Hell stretched out. I scanned the horizon for demons, but there were none that I could see.

It was disturbing being on the other side of the wall, like devils could attack at any moment. Hell seemed even bigger, its deserts stretching out in the far distance. I started flying. Every few minutes I saw a dented shield, chunk of armor, or broken sword. I had never been near the plains where angels and demons had fought for millennia; I’d only heard scattered stories from Mama and Papa.

Eventually, as the day became hotter, I needed to rest. I headed over to the shaded lip of a rock. I plopped down and drank slowly from my waterskin. Water washed over my parched throat, and I felt better.

***

The sun rose higher as the day went on. I traveled through vast plains and dried up river beds. Sweat dripped down my face, and I wiped it away quickly. My tunic clung to my skin, soaked through. I stopped at a stream and drank greedily from it, filling my bottle until it overflowed.

There were more strange sights as I traveled through Hell. Tiny red imps watched me from behind a rock, scattering when I turned around. In one plain was a black monolith, with strange markings on it. I looked closer at the squiggles and shapes. In its center was a drawing of a horned demon, bat wings stretched outwards in mid-flight. I turned away from the monument reluctantly, running my fingers over its smooth surface.

In another valley was a boiling pit of fire. Shadows waved from beneath the lava, and a strange whispering sound filled the air. So beautiful…

I moved on, past the lake of fire and onto the next ridge. As I crossed the crest of a hill, a valley opened beneath me. I gasped, bile rising in my throat. It was an abandoned battlefield. The dirt was stained with gore. Bodies rotted in the sun, their guts exposed by scavengers. Feathers, stuck to the rocks with clots of blood, were stained red. Angel and demon flags, tattered and worn, flapped in the breeze. The stench was horrific, a thousand times worse than the hospital tent. I vomited, and it splattered on a charred rock.

I threw up until there was nothing left in my stomach, trembling the entire time. Finally, I stood up shakily, tears running down my cheeks. It had been going so well, I had pretended this was just a trip. Now, all I could think about was Mama, facedown in the dirt, in a plain just like this one, never coming back. What if she was here, in this battlefield?

I stood there for a moment, not looking away from the ground. If I saw the battlefield one more time, I might never leave. Slowly, I flew forward, wiping the tears from my face. No matter how scared I became, I would remember why I was doing this, for Papa.

I went away from the battlefield, forever burned into my mind, and I approached a cave. It was dark inside, and I paused for a moment.

I took a few steps, the sand growing cool against my sandals. Another step and I was enveloped in darkness. But in the distance, something glowed on the cave walls. I flew forward and sighed with relief. A plant glowed, tethered to the walls. I could now see my surroundings and looked around. The cave was vast and chilly. Several different entrances were scattered around the cavern.

I flew through the tunnel. Water droplets dripped onto my head and my hands grazed moss on the walls. I heard the sound of trickling water against stone in the distance. Finally, I emerged into a natural cavern. The stream ran through, carrying clear water. An array of plants grew along the stream’s banks, glowing in the darkness.

The Graceleaf had vibrant blue leaves, I remembered. I flew over to the herb. It sprouted through the cool cavern mud, glowing a light blue. I pulled one plant out, its roots pale and dangling. I took all the sprigs I could find, and placed them in my bag carefully. I smiled and thought of Papa. His ugly gashes would close up and he wouldn’t have to lose his leg! The extra Graceleaf could help the others injured.

Time to go It’s getting dark, I thought. I hurried through the cave and back outside. It was already late afternoon, and the sun would set soon. I didn’t think of the monument, or the lake, or even the battlefield. Just the hospital and Papa.

As I entered a plain, there was the sound of flapping wings, and I hid behind a rock. Voices in the Abyssal language, rang out. I peered out carefully. There were two demons herding a crowd of scaly brown creatures. One was a young girl, the other, an older man, both with crimson skin.  I slowly got up and backed away until my foot slipped, and I fell onto the ground. The demons turned around and looked at me.  

I froze as they came closer and said something in Abyssal. The girl flew closer to me and reached out her hand. I took it reluctantly, and she helped me up.

“Are you really an angel?” she said, in accented Angelic. I nodded slowly, and she beamed, her black bat wings flapping. “Wow!” She reached out and touched my feathers. The other demon — her father I guess — looked at me distrustfully. He put an arm around the girl and pulled her back.

“Where is the outpost?” I asked. The girl cocked her head. She whispered into her father’s ear, then turned back to me.

“Over that hill,” she said and pointed at a spot to the left.

Before I flew away, she asked, “Is the sky blue in Heaven?”

I looked at her hopeful face and remembered what Papa said. “Yes,” I said and flew away. Behind me, the girl waved until I disappeared behind a dune.

***

The sun was almost completely gone by the time I saw the gates. The guard at post saw me in the distance and flew towards me. It was Flauros. “Abby, what happened? The camp was looking for you,” he said furiously. Then he hugged me.

“I’m fine, but I need to see Papa now,” I said, my face turning red, and I wriggled out of his grasp.

I flew past him and through the camp, people calling out my name. I ignored them and headed directly to the hospital. I rushed into the tent, and flew toward Papa. He was sleeping on a blanket, his feverish, red face relaxed. Charmeine was redressing his wounds and looked up when I entered.

“Where were you? You didn’t — ” I pulled a sprig of Graceleaf from my bag. She gasped and said, ”You went by yourself?”

I asked, “Can you heal Papa now?” Charmeine’s face went white, but she nodded. She took the sprig and began to mix the poultice.

“Where is she?” I heard from outside the tent, and Mama rushed in. She hugged me tightly, her face wet with tears. “I thought you were dead,” she said furiously. Her armor was still coated in dust from the day’s battle, and a bandage was wrapped around her arm.

“I’m fine, but Papa needs to be healed,” I said and looked over at Charmeine. She finished mixing the herb in a bowl, now a gooey blue substance. Carefully, she dipped her fingers into the mixture and applied it to Papa’s wounds. We watched as the rotten gashes in his leg closed, formed into angry red scars, which faded to pink, then white, then finally disappeared.

***

Flauros and I sat at the guard post. By noon, it was already a scorching day, and I wiped sweat from my face.

The past few days had been hectic. I was glad I wasn’t punished much for leaving the outpost, besides helping Charmeine with the Graceleaf garden. After Mama had a talk with him, Captain Jael suddenly retracted his threats to expel me from the outpost. Officials from Zion, Heaven’s capital city, visited, too. Wearing shiny armor and flowing robes unsuited to the desert, they gawked at the Graceleaf and how it healed every soldier in the outpost.

Earlier today, one of the Paragons approached me. Her armor hissing with smoke, she removed her golden helmet to reveal cold, yellow eyes. “Abaddon Brightsword?” she asked as I stood up from the Graceleaf I was watering. I looked at her, my eyes widening. Waves of heat rolled off of her, hotter than the desert air. “You’re an excellent candidate to become a Paragon. Don’t waste it by talking to devils.”

With that, she flew away, leaving a trail of smoke in her wake. How did she know that I talked to the demon girl and her father?

“How’s the garden going?” Flauros said, interrupting my thoughts.

“Hard to keep it watered, but we have volunteers,” I said, swinging my legs.

“What about your Pa?”

“He’s feeling much better. Should be ready to fight soon,” I said glumly. In a few days, Papa would be gone again. Hopefully, the Graceleaf would save him and the other soldiers sent to fight in this pointless war. Maybe Laylah would be safe too.

“Why so sad, Abby? You saved us,” Flauros said, wrinkling his brow.

“I’m not sad. Just thinking,” I said, looking at Hell’s horizon. The sky was such a nice color…

 

***

Epilogue

The cherub appeared at dawn. I stood, trembling in my new sandals. Mama and I had stayed up through the night to prepare, packing my bag and finding a clean tunic. She had even tried to mat down my curly hair with water, which hadn’t worked. Mama and Papa both fluttered behind me, their faces nervous.


It touched down. A thousand golden eyes blinked from the canvas of its crisp white wings.


“Abaddon Brightsword,” it stated. I clutched my bag tightly and flew forward. “You are chosen for duty in Purgatory.”

Mama gasped. Wasn’t that where Laylah was stationed? We’d stopped hearing from her a few months ago, when the devil attacks had grown more fierce.

I turned around and eyes filling with tears, hugged my parents. “Stay safe,” I told them.

“Goodbye, sweetheart,” Papa said.

“We love you.” Mama wiped away tears and pulled away. She rifled through a pocket and pulled out her dagger, in its worn leather sheath. She pressed it into my hands.

“Mama… ”

“You will be a fine soldier,” she said, and Papa nodded.

I turned my back on them and put the dagger in my belt.

“I’m ready,” I said to the cherub. A white, soft wing unfolded and wrapped around my body. The cherub took off, and I watched my parents’ forms grow small until they disappeared entirely.

 

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