At long last, Orthael returned the sword to its guard position and stood quietly for several seconds before realising there were no foes left to slay. That was not to say that he was alone, however. There was someone in the clearing beyond the trees, a silhouette that knelt low at the very centre of a circle of destroyed bodies.
Lycans, thought he. Not the Dead. Ashmar’s touch lies not on these.
The flame that tugged was still now, burning low. Neither spark nor smoke nor ember spoke, and so Orthael approached. The figure was slight, young, female. She rose to a full kneel, lifting and displaying a sword that rang clear with power.
Orthael strode on until he reached the very edge of the clearing and waited, for though he could not see her tears he could feel the grief within her crackle – fierce and hard like the wrath of the Fire. He stood, patiently.
Surely the Fire had brought him here, moving through the world on its mysterious and benevolent dance. There was no need to rush the moment.
Onwards and forwards, path guided by faith, Orthael strode on. He did not see where his feet feel, he did not know where the end of his journey lay, he did not drive the weapon that tugged him onwards on its lethal dance. The golden light at the tip of the sword traced across the hearts and throats and claws of the Lesser Dead that swarmed from the trees as if to overwhelm him with the weight of their bodies.
Now and again he murmured prayers of supplication and delivery, words of comfort and delight that kept the darkness within at bay. Then he would shout promises of retribution and redemption to assault the darkness without.
All throughout, the Dead were returned. Scores were flung backwards or even vaporised where they stood by scintillating bolts of flame. Some were swept away by sword and mailed fist. Others yet dissolved where they stood, the Fire’s divine presence sufficient to send them on.
This way, tugged the fire in his heart. The night is not yet over.
Orthael stopped by a small crossroads, the signpost and its accompanying shrine to the Fire covered in a sick, black tar. It oozed away from the point of Judgement, peeling back wetly when he swung it close and returning when he lifted it away.
Distantly, he was aware of a faint alarm. In his contemplation and studies there had been numerous mentions of this substance – but all attempts to recall them faded before the peaceful calm that seemed to blanket the world now.
He tried again, aware that this was important. But the concern and insistence seemed to belong to a man, just a man, and he was something greater now: an agent of the All-Consumer, chosen and prepared and transformed for just this point in time.
Just this point in time.
He listened to the flame that illuminated his days and chose the centre path. His Judgement burned a little brighter, as if to light the way.
With a speed and grace divine, Orthael spun to receive the blow to his shield. His foe held close, as if embracing a lover, hissing wildly.
The shadow was humanoid like its puppets, for it too had once been a man. It was a flickering silhuoette of a thing, all abstract shapes and sharp angles. The paladin continued his spin, throwing the pair apart, but they sprang at each other again a moment later.
Two swipes from Judgement, the flaming blade almost guiding itself. The shadow slashed again, a blow that left scratches on his golden shield. Orthael smashed it with the pommel and shouted a shorter spell, barely a syllable, that punched the Greater Dead down in a shower of white sparks.
It raised its head and feinted right, slashing across. The paladin ducked, feeling an impact rake across the shoulders, and drove the Judgement of the All-Consumer up as far as it would go.
Fire blazed. Shadows died. Orthael strode on contemptuously.
“Return to whence you came, fiend.”
Orthael was not entirely surprised when the first creature stepped out from behind a tree, not far ahead. It had once been a man, but grossly elongated arms led to a soft rustling from knuckles dragged along the forest floor. A few others joined it, all-too-dead eyes glistening with hunger for Life.
Pointing, Orthael spoke a sentence in a language not of his world. Golden flame dripped, gathered, and lanced through each undead slave with impacts that sent them crashing backwards through the undergrowth.
Inwardly, the man sighed. This was an old spell, bequeathed to him when he had been much younger. Long enough ago that the paladin force of the Church of the All-Consumption had been able to patrol darkly wooded places like these. Tonight he was alone, and even his meagre presence was a sacrifice for his home parish.
No matter. By the will of the Fire Consuming, he would be enough.
This was the thought on his mind when the shadow leapt at him from the darkness beyond his light.
Orthael kissed the symbol and took a deep breath, feeling the power of his god like a warm wash of water. The exhalation is a release: a surrender of all that comprises him, an acknowledgement of his weakness and an acceptance of strength that is not his own. It is wonderful.
Thus prepared, the man draws the weapon that is both blessing and duty – as such things are. It comes free reluctantly, still wrapped in linens of prayer and sanctification. At a word, the white fabric disintegrates into fire that gives no heat but flows up the blade in silent hunger.
Much has been forgotten about this weapon, so ancient is its provenance. Only a fragment of its original name remains, kept by the priesthood in reverence. Judgement, the bishop had whispered to him, and both of them had witnessed the sword shiver on the altar.
There is a cry in the forest that is not like the others. Memory forgotten, purpose in mind and hand, Orthael marches in.
The man strode rather than walked into the forest. He had the mass of his Church behind him, and so he had nothing to fear. The creatures of the night howled and cried to each other, but he was unmoved. His defenses were stalwart, and any attack would break itself on his unshakeable faith and will. The horrors outside were nothing to what lay within.
He whispered a prayer and reached for the symbol of his god that lay around his neck. There would be blood tonight, but that was not entirely a bad thing. The darknesses in man and beast both would be ready for his light.