His footsteps were sure and steady, despite the slipperiness of the moss underfoot. He knew his way to the little knoll, had walked this path many times before.
The mist swirled in around him, and he held the lantern high, although its light failed to illuminate much of interest. Should a boar or other denizen of the forest emerge, the light would grant him no advance warning, no increased chance of escaping to safety.
The mist soaked into his robes, making them grow heavier as they clung to his body. He paid little heed to how they clung to his skin. The journey was more important. No matter whether the forest was dry or wet, he would complete his journey, would reach his destination.
Moving around a tall tree, he reached out and brushed fingers against its trunk. The moss on the tree clung to him, wet and damp and soft. Everything around here – the moss on the trees, the ancient bark, the grassy ground underneath, even the air he breathed into his lungs – was soft, damp. Rotting.
He remembered when the wood had not been this way. Once, it had not filled with decay, with only things that fed upon the dead and dying, themselves passing even as they devoured.
Once, the trees had stood tall and stately, sunlight filtering down from between their branches to cast dappled patterns on the earth far below. The forest felt alive but restrained, an old man who, although still strong, knows the wisdom of considering each movement. Once, the forest seemed to contain light and age and wisdom itself, dwelling beneath the trees.
He didn’t often think of that time, not as of late. Now, there was nothing but fog and mildew, the ravenous cannibalism as the forest turned upon itself. A crow called in the distance, a single croak. It would not last the night, not here.
His footsteps moved deeper. Nearly there.
Finally, just as the slightest knife of fear moved towards his heart – the walk seemed longer, more strenuous, in these recent years – he saw the clearing open up before him. The earth dipped before rising up again, the mound intact and untouched, covered, as was everything, by moss and mold.
The fallen tree still stood, little more than a crumbling stump, and the blade leaned against its soft decay.
He held up the lantern, noting how, even after all these years, the blade still caught the light, still gleamed gold. That, he thought, he hoped, might never fade.
His eyes traced down the haft of the sword, down to where its point pierced into the ground. He knew that the blade appeared deceptively short, that it continued another foot into the earth, down to skewer the heart.
Here, evil had fallen. He had once been naive and idealistic enough to believe that it was gone forever, destroyed by the purity that pierced its black heart.
The cruel years had proved otherwise, as the forest itself turned, collapsed, grew misty and quiet and filled with nothing but the slow whine of rabid hunger. Gone was his tranquil land of dappled sunlight.
But the blade still stood, still held back the storm.
For a long time, he stood with his lantern at his side, looking at the blade. He didn’t think of what would happen if it withdrew, didn’t let himself think. He could not take it up again; no amount of good deeds would balance out this strike against him, the release of this source of pestilence and rot.
Finally, his heart even heavier than his mist-soaked robes, he turned and left, moving out from the epicenter of the decay.