A True Beginning

She heaved, great, gasping, shuddering sobs, still clutching the sword in her hand. Her tears that fell on the blade glistened and glowed blue, etching fine, dark lines into the metal as they traveled along it. She was oblivious of the carnage she had left around her. She only knew the pain inside.

Eventually, her weeping subsided and she pushed herself upright again, though still on her knees. She had fulfilled her purpose for entering this gods-forsaken forest. She held the sword up before her eyes, examining the now-perfect metal, fresh and new as the day it had been forged. The blood of these beasts had fed it, restored it, returned it to its former glory.

As if in acknowledgement, a voice spoke in her mind. Mistress, it said. It is time. There is work to be done.

Malika nodded. “I know,” she replied. “This task that has been given me is great, perhaps too great. Just allow me this time with my grief.”

Would that I could, Mistress, came the sword’s reply, but another approaches.

Silence after the Storm

The forest lay in perfect stillness around her, the bodies of the beasts she had slain strewn haphazardly all about. She stood, head tilted forward, listening for the next attack. It never came. She held the sword aloft, the blue raging flames towering over her. No sign of rust remained anywhere on that ancient blade. Instead, there was only perfect, blue-satin steel.

Malika’s body trembled, both from emotion and exertion. Her chest heaved as she sucked in huge lungfuls of air. Sweat poured from her body, soaking through her blouse and leggings. She posed the figure of the mythic destroyer there in the darkness, lit only by blue flamelight. She stood there for several long moments.

And then, as if a spell had been broken, the flames chuffed out and she collapsed to her knees, weeping. All the pain and fury, grief and anguish she had contained before, that had fueled her need to fight and exterminate, tried to flee her body all at once, and she felt as though the surge of emotion might be the end of her.

A Chosen Tool

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.

Dancing with Death

Malika danced. Creatures emerged from the darkness all around her, and she whirled among them. Her steps were light, quick. She never remained still, never allowed the beasts to reach her. She was driven by need, fueled by the sword’s own desire.

Blood flew through the air, except that which touched the blade. That it drank up greedily. With every kill more rust flaked off the weapon, exposing good steel in the blue flamelight. The fire itself became taller, more vibrant, the pungent smell of seared flesh filling the air.

She danced with death, even becoming death. The sword fed, but it granted her no special abilities. It simply reveled in her art. No, her talent was her own, taught to her by her father. He had once told her, “Malika, you fight like a ballerina, with a grace and beauty that is both terrible and exquisite to behold.”

She stumbled with the memory, and claws passed a hair’s breadth from her face. That snapped her attention back into focus, and she sent another beast to the halls of Ashmar.

An Embrace Eternal

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.”

The Fire Consuming

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.

Feeding the Flame

Malika stepped back, spinning to her left as another creature lunged out of the darkness. The sword in her hand sang with need, and she swung it up in a swift, arcing motion, ramming it into the creature’s chest. Its momentum as it slammed into her knocked her to the ground. The creature landed heavily on top of her, driving the breath from her lungs. It took her a long moment to find it again.

“Get up, Malika. Get up,” she urged herself.

With effort she pushed the creature off her, rolling it to the side. Only then did she truly see it. It had the visage and form of a canine but the hands and feet of a man.

“Lycander,” she noted with disgust. She felt no satisfaction at the beast’s death, only a craving for another kill. Blood and gore spattered her face, hands, and clothes. The blade itself, though, remained clean. The flames licking up the sword glowed brighter blue, flecks of rust began flaking off the blade.

Malika’s eyes flickered in the flamelight. “C’mon,” she whispered. “Bring me another.”

Year in Review

It’s difficult to know just how to summarize this year, to put it into perspective. 2016 has been a universally bad year for everyone, from the number of celebrity deaths to the fiasco that has been the US election cycle to the myriads of personal trials that so many people have experienced these last twelve months.

For me, 2016 has been the single most difficult year of my life. The fight with my own mental health has reached new levels of hardship, uncovered previously hidden layers of anxiety, and spun my entire life into wildly unexpected directions. During this year I’ve lost my marriage, my home, my job, and my security. I’ve had to wade through some truly deep waters, at many times floundering as my feet have been swept out from under me, nearly drowning in the waves of turmoil I’ve faced.

But I’ve survived it all, even when I was certain I wouldn’t, and couldn’t. I’ve learned more about myself this year, become more self-aware, than I have been in years. I’ve been forced to face my shortcomings and mistakes and deal headlong with illnesses whose severity that before I’d only guessed at. But through it all, I have prevailed, partly due to a rediscovery of a faith in and reliance upon God and partly because I’ve made an effort to surround myself with people who are both supportive and sympathetic. 

There’s still a long road ahead of me, but 2017 is a new year. I’m looking at it as a fresh start. There’s so much that needs to be done, but I’m finally starting to feel like I’m up to the challenge. I’ve gone through several medication adjustments this past year, and I feel like they’re finally starting to make a difference in terms of my ability to focus for extended periods of time and to think more clearly overall. I feel stronger as a person, a survivor, if you will. 2016 was hard, and I’m under no illusions that 2017 will be easy, but I firmly believe that the work ahead of me is work I can do. 

I have good people beside me, encouragers, listeners, and cheerleaders. And I’m grateful to each and every one of you. You all have helped get me through the dark times, and I know I can count on you to see me through the difficult times ahead. 

2017 is going to be my year, and for the first time in a very long time, I’m genuinely excited and hopeful about the prospects before me. I still don’t know the answers the most of the questions I have, but I’m certain God will provide, and I’m eager to see where He leads me this coming year. I’m certain it’s not where I’d originally planned to go, and that, my friends, is a very, very good thing.

Night in the Cemetery

Mogram Stonecutter sat on the roof of the mausoleum in the dead of night, his lute resting in his lap. His fingers danced lightly over the strings, not playing any tune in particular but rather hitting notes and chords at random. It was an idle habit he had developed over the years when he was bored or lost in thought. This night it was a combination of both.

He was alone in the cemetery, but if the information he had been given was accurate and not some attempt to send him on a fool’s errand, that wouldn’t be the case for long. Others would be arriving soon, but for what purpose he didn’t yet know. Still, the cryptic message he had been given had been enough to incite his curiosity, and his bardic instincts had sensed an interesting story to be told. So here he sat. And waited.

The cemetery was not overly large, but it was not small, either. His vantage point from where he sat allowed him to see the whole of the area. The moon was still new, and the only illumination came from what few stars peeked out around the scattered clouds. This was no trouble for him, of course. Life living underground had adapted him to seeing in conditions where illumination was scarce.

His fingers tickled the strings of his lute once more, this time plucking out an eerie melody that caused the skin of his hands and arms to prickle with gooseflesh. He began to hum, a quiet harmony that ran in counterpoint to the notes he was playing. He parted his lips slightly to allow his voice to more easily flow over the music of his instrument. Melody and harmony tumbled over and around each other, twisting into a song that was both haunting and beautiful.

The air within 30 feet all around Mogram shivered, and several objects nearby lit up with magical auras. It was by no means enough to get a sense for the cemetery as a whole, but it gave him an idea of the area immediately surrounding him. Most of the objects were graves that bore the unmistakable gold aura of Abjuration magic, barriers set to prevent graverobbers, necromancers, and others with unseemly tastes from accessing the resting places of the dead. Others were headstones, obelisks, and similar markers highlighted with the red glow of Illusion magic. Mogram chuckled idly to himself at this. Even in death, there were some who bore their vanity to the grave.

One grave, however, glowed faintly green, the color of Enchantment. Mogram frowned at this. That was an odd one to see in a graveyard. A part of him wanted to investigate further, but he knew he didn’t have the skill to unravel the spell even if he did. He suspected it was some sort of snare for the unwary, but there was no way he could know for sure. Best, he decided, to leave it alone. A skilled wizard could probably take it apart safely, he thought. My luck I’d just end up the thrall of some malevolent sorcerer. He let the music die, both from his lips and from his fingers, and the auras faded away. Once more his fingers plucked aimlessly at the strings of his lute as he settled back in to wait.

Light, Faith, and Sacrament

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.

Jack-of-All-Trades, Master of Words