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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.