What a great first line! Moloch conjures images of the Moloch of the bible[?], a harbinger of death. It’s clear from the first that this is going to be an epic tale. The opening stages of the story set the stage for a story that harkens back to the dark, yet sweeping, tales of [WHAT’S HIS NAME’S] film Excalibur, or even the grittier sorts of swords and sorcery fairy tales presented by Heavy Metal. The images in my mind as I read this tale owed far more to a Ralph Bakshi animated film than the cookie cutter sort of Disneyesque fantasy that rules the box office today.
An initial confrontation with the King of Death establishes that Molok is less a primary actor, than he is a loyal servant summoned by the fates to do their bidding. The King’s ignorance of Molok’s mission gives us a hint that even the King is a pawn in a larger game. It’s a deft touch that tells the reader not to judge too harshly, not to assume that the black knight relishes the task ahead. That’s an important consideration when asking the reader to spend time and perhaps even sympathize with a destructive force of nature.
The long journey Molok makes to meet the white knight in battle shows Herstrom’s strengths as a writer who can paint detailed landscapes with just a smattering of words. In three short paragraphs, each just three sentences long, he crafts a world that stretches past horizon after horizon. The fourth paragraph eases the reader into the gentle rolling hills of the pleasant land of Lobon, the champion Molok has been tasked with slaying. Herstrom’s work in these short paragraphs so impressionistic you almost wonder if he’s ever heard of the concept of being paid on a per-word basis.
But the real trick of this story is the way that Hernstrom provides the reader with two champions, both appealing in their own way. The black knight is a relentless champion of death that yet retains a touch of humanity. The white knight is a fully human champion of life stained by an addiction to death. This is a yin-yang fight that leaves the reader an observer who is both fully neutral and fully invested in the outcome.
The fight scene is long and brutal and just what you’d expect from two deathless champions who have slain a thousand champions each. At the last, we are reminded once more of both Molok’s lingering humanity and its contrast with Lobon’s desire for both death and the continued dealing of death. In the end, both warriors earn their just rewards – peace or continued death – though perhaps not in the way they anticipated.
Of course, they both earned their unexpected reward after following the advice of the trickster god, and though subtle, that unpredictability may be the most predictable part of the story.