“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.
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.
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.”
“There is blood in the rain,” stated the Deep One, matter-of-factly. He stood at the deck railing, staring out over the city spread out below.
“What do you mean, sire?” Kolster asked, looking up at the imposing figure looming over him.
“There is blood in the rain,” the Deep One said again, as if repeating his previous statement automatically lent it additional clarity. “Someone has broken apart a rain god and sewn it among the clouds.”
Kolster looked puzzled and turned his attention to the cloudless sky above. The moon was full this night, lighting the landscape in white light.
“But sire,” Kolster said, “it’s not even raining.”
“Nevertheless,” the Deep One said, turning away from the railing and walking back toward his chambers, “it is raining somewhere — and there is blood in it.”
Kolster sighed and followed after his master.
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.