Mala of the Long Road
It was the jingling of metal that caught Mala’s attention. It was soft, almost unnoticeable, and accompanied by an uneven set of shuffling footsteps. The knight turned towards the sound as a creature lumbered around an ancient oak tree. Once, it had been a man, but his soul had long ago fled. All that remained was brittle, dry skin and patches of exposed bone. Its eyes glowed eerily green as it focused on her. She drew her sword from her back and clasped the hilt in both hands, steeling herself against the fear that ran up her spine. Lifting her weapon and holding it at her shoulder with the point towards the shambling corpse, she readied herself. The creature rushed forward. One strike and the body collapsed into dust, the head bouncing off and into the murky water along the edge of the bog.
Undead were not common in these parts. Bandits and goblins yes. Walking corpses, not so much. Mala rested the flat of her sword on her shoulder as she crept further into the bog. It was best to be sure that was the only one before she returned to town for her reward. A heavy mist rose to her waist, and she had to tread carefully. Though she was wearing chain and leather instead of heavier armor, one misstep could have sent her sinking to the bottom of the swamp.
Something moved ahead. A faint blue glow, almost like a candle, and she found herself following it before she had even realized what she was doing. The light stopped when she halted, and approached her. Out of the mist stepped a dark woman, tall and lithe, with piercing amber eyes and hair the color of raven feathers. She wore a shimmering aquamarine gown that clung to her form, but the woman was gone before Mala could say anything.
Wiping sweat from her brow and pushing strands of brown hair back under her leather helm, Mala stared at the space where she’d seen the apparition. She was seeing things. She’d been in the swamp for too many hours. She turned, only to be faced with the apparition once more. The woman was very close now. Close enough to read her eyes, to see a soft glow on tawny skin and catch a sultry quirk of the woman’s lips. Her features were striking, with sharply angled cheek bones and long, elegantly pointed ears.
While Mala remembered how to breathe, the woman took off at a light jog, and the knight felt compelled to follow her. She remembered the last time she’d seen an elf, years ago as a child. They were rare, but a group of them had come to trade with her village, and they’d caroused and danced long into the night. She’d made friends with one of their children, though she hadn’t thought about that day in a very long time.
The elf flitted through the trees, at times disappearing, only to reappear moments later much farther away. Mala paced herself. She couldn’t walk on water like the apparition could, and she could easily grow exhausted. Gradually, she was led out of the swamp and into a green forest. The sun had crested hours ago, but still she let herself be led through the trees, and into the ruins of an old temple. Archways had fallen onto stone paths, and a domed roof was cracked and half collapsed. She entered cautiously, and very nearly lost her head.
Mala’s reflexes were the only thing that saved her as she ducked under the lumbering swing of a large broadsword. The sword came around and she rolled out of the way. Though she was tall for a human, the creature she faced was at least twice her height. She drew her weapon and tried to get a better position. The light that fell through the cracked roof gave her her first real look at her opponent. Broad shouldered, with the head and torso of a man and the body of some beast she couldn’t identify. He gave her a twisted grin, and swung hard and fast at her side. The blow was a glancing one, and she hit the ground, skidding into a partially crumbled statue. Her mail was rent and the leather padding sliced nearly clean through, but the worst she was going to have would be a serious bruise.
The monster rapidly closed the distance. Grasping for her sword, she lifted it in a desperate attempt to deflect a blow that never came. Between her and the beast stood the elf she’d been following. Her gown swirled around bare feet as she wielded a scythe. Runes glimmered up its shaft, and the blade was engraved with images of flowing water. The muscles in her arms flexed and she twisted her scythe. The monster was thrown off balance, stumbling as he tried to recover. The elf woman danced to the side, swiping her weapon at the beast. He deflected the attack, but the elf moved fluidly, weaving under his sword. She slashed across his chest and thick green blood oozed out of the wound.
The elf flowed through her movements like the pattern of water on her weapon. Mala pulled herself to her feet, searching for an opening. She needn’t have bothered. The scythe cut through the air and through the creature’s throat. He came crashing down, nearly knocking Mala back off her feet from way the temple shook. His body twitched as viscous green blood pooled where he lay.
Not yet willing to sheathe her sword, Mala cautiously approached the elf. “Thank you. How can I repay you for saving my life?”
“There is a way,” she said. Her voice was low and deep, honey to Mala’s ears. It was a commanding voice, one used to giving orders.
“Tell me, and if it does not go against my code, then I shall do it.”
The woman lifted her hand, as if she were going to touch Mala’s face. “What is your name?”
The elf’s fingers didn’t quite reach Mala’s cheeks, and she found herself unable to move. “Mala. Mala of the Long Road.”
“There’s a story in that name. One day I shall like to hear it,” the elf laughed. She tilted her head, and touched her fingers to Mala’s skin. “I am Leilatha. Or I will be again, if you help me.”
Leilatha regarded her for another moment, before turning on her heels. “Please. This way. There is something you will need.”
Mala followed, adjusting her grip on the hilt of her sword as she stepped under an archway and into an antechamber of the temple. The roof was intact here, and no sun streamed in. That didn’t seem to matter. Wherever the elf stood, there was light. A soft, blue glow that constantly drew Mala’s eye. She watched as the elf circled a dias, then tapped her scythe against the stone. Blue light flowed like streams along engravings, and then something began to rise out of the stone.
It was an axe, marked with the same sort of runes that decorated Leilatha’s staff. The blade had different engravings entirely. While the scythe reminded Mala of rivers and streams, the axe was lightning, and thunder. She reached for it, and when she lifted it up she could feel a buzzing in the air. “Generally, I prefer swords.”
“Sometimes you have to try something new.” Leilatha’s tone was light and suggestive, and Mala felt her face heat up as the elf broke into a grin. “We will see each other again, Mala of the Long Road. Where the blue dragon meets the red.”
Flustered, Mala retorted, “I’ll have you know that I’ve handled axes before.” She wasn’t entirely certain that they were even talking about weapons any more, but the glow was gone and the knight was alone. She looked around in confusion, but the only sign of life in the temple was a squirrel. It scolded her as she trudged back towards town to retrieve her horse, Dawn, and the rest of her gear.