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.
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.
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.
Malika wiped away the tears from her eyes with the palm of one hand and gracefully rose to her feet, turning to face the newcomer.
“Be you friend or foe?” she asked. “Morduth insists you be friend, but I be not so willing to trust in his judgment just yet.”
Mistress, replied the sword, I am hurt. The sword’s tone in her mind was more amused than injured, and so she ignored the jab. She had eyes only for the stranger before her, who remained cloaked in shadow at the edge of the clearing.
“Step forward,” she commanded, “so I may determine for myself. I have no fear of either man or beast.” She gestured to the dozens of dead and torn lycander bodies littered around her. “I have no fear of you, for Mardain blesses me this night.” At this the sword in her hand flared briefly again, as if to confirm her claim.
The man stepped forward, and Malika saw that he was robed in the vestments of the Church — and carried a sword of his own.
“Be at rest, child,” he said, “for I believe we both fight for the Fire.”
Malika brought Morduth up so it pointed at the newcomer. Blue flame flared up bright and tall along the blade’s length, spilling over the hilt and onto her hand and wrist. She didn’t notice. All her attention was on this man of the cloth standing before her and on the weapon he carried.
Strangely, his sword seemed to call to her, not with desire to be wielded by her hand. It was clear it belonged well and truly to this holy man. Instead, it was more a voice of camaraderie, of kindred spirits, of alliance.
Morduth seemed to feel it as well. Mistress, that weapon he carries is no mere sword.
“I can see that,” she murmured back, watching the orange flames licking along the edge of the sword.
No, you misunderstand, Mistress, Morduth continued. That sword is easily as old as I am — and possibly even more powerful.
Malika nodded. She felt something else, too. The power of her blade was born of darkness and pain while the power of his was clear and bright like a blade-shaped window into a summer’s day.
Orthael watched the child raise her weapon to point at him, felt the Judgement shiver slightly in recognition. Through it, the All-Consumer whispered of times long past, when demigods and archangels had come to the lands of men to fight darkness.
The triple-flamed shield of the Paladin Guard emblazoned on his golden shield seemed to vibrate with power, tugging the tip of the Judgement to face a threat. No, he whispered to himself, feeling his pastoral pendant under his armour. No, she is a child and the Flame welcomes her into its embrace.
With a gathered effort of will, he put away the Judgement for a while. He drew upon the warmth within and spoke a greeting imbued with the power of the Church.
“The Fire be with you, child. Its warmth comfort you, its light guide you, its purity inspire you.”
Orthael’s voice was quiet, but he knew the words would carry – just as he knew tears would dry and hearts would lift. There was no flash of light, but it was magic all the same.
“I ask you again,” Malika said. “Who be you, and how be it you come to be here, just at this very moment? Be you a final test, holy man or not, to confirm my resolve, to baptize me in the fire of purification against the forces of Ashmar?” She could feel her tone rising with every word, feel the heat of anger warm her face, feel the wetness of the tears sliding down her cheeks once more. “What be you, holy man? I would know, else I cut you down where you stand.”
Mistress… Morduth cautioned, but he was cut short as the other man spoke.
“I am Orthael, young swordmaiden,” he replied, “Paladin, holy warrior of the All-Church, servant of the All-Consuming Fire, wielder of Judgement versus the demons of Ashmar.”
He was silent then, and Malika took a long a moment to evaluate this man who stood so calmly before her. The rage and despair welled up inside her once more, and when she spoke again, she found herself shouting, her rage and grief now full and complete.
“Orthael!” she spat. “Protector of life, servant of the All-Consumer.” Her voice dripped disdain. “Summoned by a local parish, no doubt.” Orthael nodded. “To protect us.” He nodded again.
“Well, holy man, where were you when my village was destroyed by one of the Greater Dead? Where were you when everything and everyone I loved and cared about was ruined utterly?” Malika was weeping openly now, her grip tightening on Morduth’s hilt, its blue flames traveling further up her arm with each spoken word. “Where were you when we needed you, when I needed you?”
She lowered Morduth, bringing the sword into a ready position, and when she spoke again, her voice was cold, empty, bereft of grief and rage alike.
“Defend yourself, holy man, if you can. I would know the strength of your resolve — and the power of your god.”
And with that she charged, raising Morduth to strike even as the sword voiced a single word of alarm and objection:
And then blade crossed blade, blue flame mixing with orange.