Zaneta weaved her way through the labyrinthine maze of topiary, the statuesque shapes just as frighteningly imposing as they’d been when she was a child. Back then she’d been too afraid of the lifeless creatures to venture out at night but now that she was older, she could almost appreciate the delicately trimmed foliage so artfully crafted and meticulously maintained.
Past the expansive garden with its overgrown rosebushes. Nowhere else had she ever seen the type of roses that grew in the church’s garden. Their soft petals were a shade of crimson so red they appeared black and their sweet-smelling fragrance was like nothing that could ever be bottled or reproduced.
Black roses were said to be a symbol of death but, to her, they had always evoked a feeling of youthful and innocent passion. It was in these gardens after all, surrounded by the blooming buds, that she’d first met Talon. It was in this place, enraptured by the delicately effervescent aroma of spring, that she’d first known the taste and touch of love.
At her chest, Zaneta clutched the single black rose, its sharp thorns biting into the tender flesh of her hand.
After all of the years she’d spent away why, she wondered, had he contacted her? Why had he left the rose on her doorstep rather than a note? And how had he known where to leave the token in the first place? Had he really kept his promise even after she’d left the church—had he really watched over her for almost 20 years without her knowledge?
Burying her nose into the soft petals, Zaneta breathed deeply, her mind drifting back to the image of Talon. She pictured the curved horns and marbled skin—the imposing creature standing tall and menacing with his frightening yellow eyes, sharpened teeth, and forked tongue.
Would he be waiting?
There was only one way to find out.
Beyond the meticulously manicured greenery stood the massive cathedral, its spires stretching into the sky. A golden cross rested atop the highest point and appeared to pierce the heavens.
The church—older than she could guess—had fallen into disuse in the years since her childhood but one would never have guessed that the place had stood abandoned for nearly two decades.
White stone statues of children playing decorated the parapet leading into the church and, ensconced by a marble balustrade, the virgin mother stood meekly in the center, crystal blue water bubbling from an ern she held in her hands. All along the veranda where the fountain stood and bordering the church grounds the monolith shrubs stood like silent phantoms.
The figures appeared so lifelike—though she knew they were only shrubbery—she could almost picture them as real flesh, blood, and bone. A terrifying chill crept up her spine sending gooseflesh racing along the surface of her skin. At the base of her neck her hair stood on end and her hand flitted to her chest in a bid to still her racing heart.
Standing sentry like living guards, first two bears positioned on either side of the wide stone path reared up on hind legs, their large paws outstretched, their gaping mouths hanging open as if prepared to devour her. Spaced several feet further along the stretch of road, twin raptors, their massive wings outstretched, their curved beaks wide open—she could almost hear their shrieks so alive they appeared to be. Both stood on one leg with the other—sharp talons menacing—reaching out as if to take hold of her.
A rush of wind blew through the garden, rustling the leaves and the animals appeared suddenly to move all on their own. The breeze brushed against her skin cold like Death’s touch, and Zaneta rushed on, past the bears and the birds. She ran past the two coiled cobras, their wicked fangs elongated and vicious. Her footsteps echoed ominously on the pavement as she rushed towards the safety of the cathedral, past the set of wolves that stood before the great stone steps that led inside, their massive maws open wide and waiting for the chance to take a bite out of her—to drag her away to some wicked, unnamed place.
For centuries, gargoyles had been considered guardians of the church. They were said to frighten away any demons or evil spirits that would dare trespass on hallowed ground. Three of the ageless creatures stood at each cardinal point though North was missing, their grotesque faces contorted, their snarling mouths open and threatening. Daring any evil beast to trespass. Standing beneath the stone figures, Zaneta felt her lungs fill with a rush of air and she realized she’d been holding her breath while she ran. Now beneath the watchful eyes of the church’s guardians she was less afraid and she took several calming gulps of air into her deprived lungs. She remembered at once being a child and feeling the same relief. The same sense of sanctuary as she’d looked up at her guardians and understood that they would always be there to protect her. That, as long as they stood, the church would always be her sanctuary. Even after she’d been adopted, even after the church had been abandoned, is had still remained her refuge. Her safe harbor.
Taking one last fleeting look at the ominous figures, both enthralling and petrifying all at the same time, Zaneta thanked them silently for their protection before pushing open the heavy oak doors and slamming them shut behind her with a deafening groan that echoed in the cavernous hall.
“Talon?” Zaneta called out, her voice echoing back to her fainter and fainter until it disappeared, unanswered. “Talon,” she said again, louder this time, not caring that the sound of the disturbed silence frightened her nearly as much as the grass sculptures had.
“Talon, I know you’re here.”
Zaneta was disinclined to leave the circle of colorful light. The dim glow of the moon filtered through the large stained-glass windows but did not reach the rest of the hall. Steeling herself, Zaneta pushed her way towards the darkness. But she didn’t need the light to know where she was going, she only had to reach back into her memory, back to when she’d roamed these halls. Back to when she’d explored each and every room and played on each and every floor. Closing her eyes, Zaneta allowed the memories from those times to flood into her—she let those memories guide her.