BY J.B. TONER
A dam of glass. It rose above the wasteland, half a mile thick and fifty miles high, endlessly unspooled beyond the flat horizons. Before it was a vast country of dust and dying weeds; behind it were the pure silent waters. Above was nothing but the graveyard of heaven.
At the foot of that titanic wall, a Northman stood. With the desolation at his back, he laid a palm on the cool glass and squinted up to the distant heights where the sky was divided by its own dull reflection. His hair was night-black, his eyes a blue far darker than the empty empyrean; his features were frown-marked, pale, and lightly burned by the southern sun. A tall, lean fellow in his thirties, clad in blue, with a longsword on his hip.
There it was— an ocean’s worth, but fresh as mountain rain— perhaps a thousand strides away. Cundar of Raelor eyed the grim face eyeing him in the glass; eyed the quadrillions of gallons beyond. And slowly, deliberately, he balled his right hand into a fist. Raised it. Felt the earth pushing up against the balls of his feet.
Then he smashed his fist against the dam. Watched the impact ripple outward through the megastructure. And saw one tiny rivulet, an overslop from fifty miles up, come trickling down the surface to vanish in the hard, cracked dirt.
He raised his fist again.
“For the love of the dead gods, Northman.” Captain Mellifast gulped his drink and poured another. “You’ll be satisfied, I suppose, when you join them in the void.”
Cundar’s brow unfurrowed slightly: a smile’s equivalent. “I keep telling you, I never served one of your wispy southern dryads. Raelor’s god is War, and he’s alive and strong.”
“Then what’s the problem? You’re still on Kenoma’s payroll, go conquer one of our enemies instead of ‘training’ our soldiers into the infirmary. Did you know that sparring practice with you is considered the heaviest punishment in the Appleyard Brigade?”
The glimmer of smile faded like false spring. “I can’t do it anymore, Mellifast. These tepid battles. But for you and Kalagor, I haven’t met a fighter with spirit since I’ve been here; and if I kill you two, I’ll have no one left to drink with.”
“I too have always treasured our friendship.”
“And it’s no use taking on a platoon of spiritless foes at once. It’s just multiplying zeroes.”
“Doing what now?”
“Never mind.” (Folk of Raelor tolerated neither thaumaturgy nor natural philosophy in their battles, but they learned the rudiments of both, lest they be caught off-guard.) “I need a challenge or I’ll run yammering mad, is the point.”
“So you’ll pick a fight with the Maker of the Cosmos.”
“Many would say you yammer already.”
“Prudence and wisdom keep scant company. I have fears like any man, but they’re not of my body’s death.”
The big, mustachioed soldier studied the moving flames upon the hearth. Listened to the prowling wind outside and rolled the whiskey glass between his hands. “Cundar, I’m a simple man. I haven’t seen the things you have. I don’t understand them. I do know that no worldly wind can change your course once you’ve set it. What’ll happen to the earth if you kill the Demiurge?”
Cundar shrugged. “Who knows? Nothing, likely. He made all things, then left them to dry and shrivel. I can’t see that we’ll be any the worse with him slain.”
“Well. All these years, I’ve yet to hear one tale from the other side of a sword that crossed yours in earnest. If all is doomed to freeze and fade, I can’t say I mind if our Creator goes down with his ill-rigged ship.”
“Oh, he’ll be waiting at the bottom when we get there.” Cundar raised his drink to Mellifast, then drained it. “Pleasant dreams, old friend.”
“And a pleasant death to you.”
The Northman rose and left the room with his hand, as always, on his sword-hilt. Mellifast finished his drink and poured another. And sat quietly, staring into shadow, as the fire crackled and the cold wind blew.
Ballads and tales attribute many feats to the dark-haired sword-man of Raelor. One of them is the defeat (or massacre, depending on the teller) of the Archons, idiot demon-god lieutenants of the Demiurge.
“But in truth, there’s no story worth the breath,” said Runa Li, High Priestess. “Is there, man of the North?”
“They were dead when I found them.” The dim-lit altar smelled of dust and hyacinth. Virth, somber she-wolf of the Temple, sniffed his sword-hand, and he scratched her ears. “It should’ve been a mighty fray, not a coffin tally. The spirit’s gone out of this universe.”
The corners of her eyes crinkled. Hair like snow, grey-frosted, framed her long-since lovely face. “Should have been, hey? Now there’s a matter for bards. Let your friend Trenneth Lute-strummer croon lays of what should have been. Let’s you and I speak of what is.”
“And what’s that?”
“A dying world. You’re right, Cundar, the soul of the Cosmos burns low. It’s why I’ve proffered my succor to your quest. With these harvested bits of the Archons, I can grant what you seek— in part. I can send you to the realm of the Demiurge.”
“That realm is one of thought alone. Your flesh will stay below in slumber, while your astral form does whatever battle it may find.”
“You’re indefatigable, Northman. Come and sit.”
He obeyed. Next to her huge oaken throne was a humble seat reserved for acolytes; there he reclined, and Runa Li stood before him. Her hands rose and seemed to float, tracing slow designs of cryptic portent. The night sounds of the city did not penetrate the Temple walls. It was very still.
An orange glow arose from the Priestess— eerie but not menacing— strangely dreamlike. Despite his intensity of focus, the swordsman found himself blinking slowly. A not unpleasant lassitude stole into his limbs. Runa Li began to whisper rhythmic words in some old, forgotten tongue. And Cundar closed his eyes.
And opened them with a snap, suddenly bolt upright. He was no longer in the chair, no longer in the Temple. He stood in a withered expanse, a wasted land, with a pale blue nothing overhead.
The Northman cast his gaze across the barren vista. Left and right and rear offered only bleak infinitude; but straight ahead, a distant secret glinted in the bitter sun. Cundar started walking.
He understood that he was here as a naked soul, but it seemed he could still feel weariness and thirst. The far-off glint was farther than he’d guessed: he walked for many hours. Many days, perhaps, but the dull haze of the sun never moved. He knew not whether he was heading east or west. But as the hungry miles went by, he came to know what lay ahead.
Taller than a mountain range, longer than the coast of any sea, the Thing reared up above the plain. He thought it must be ice, a colossus among glaciers. But it was perfectly regular, a crafted wall. Accursedly refusing to grow nearer, it simply grew higher and higher.
But the journey was a battle, and he was a fighter of Raelor. He would not be beaten. He walked on, bearing his load of famine and fatigue, until at last he came to the foot of the dam and beheld the sparkling reservoir beyond the glass.
He felt the presence before he heard the voice. “Cundar of Raelor,” it said, directly behind him.
Drawing his blade, he turned. Opened his mouth to give challenge—closed it, wordless.
“I know. You sought a mighty fray. I cannot give it.”
“You’re the Maker of the Cosmos?”
“You’re just a bent old man.”
“In this place, you see not things, but the meanings of things.”
Cundar sheathed his sword in disgust. “Could you not create one worthy opponent before succumbing to your own flabby indolence?”
“My powers are a cistern full of sand. In my weaving of Time, I entangled myself in its fabrics. I became subject to entropy, to age. But in foolish arrogance, I tarried in the mortal realm, believing I could break free whenever I chose. Now it is too late.”
“To breach the dam. In this place, you see, you’re only as strong as your spirit.”
Involuntarily, Cundar glanced at the wall. “What happens if it breaks?”
As he turned back, he was utterly unsurprised to find the old man gone.
For a long moment, he stood at the base of the dam. Only as strong as your spirit, he thought. What happens if it breaks?
“One way to find out,” he murmured.
The first blow yielded a tiny rivulet. The second made a tiny crack. “Damn you,” he muttered. The pride of Raelor sparked, kindled, blazed. “Damn you!” he roared.
Weariness left him, and he began throwing punches with the power and speed of a war-god. The dam shuddered from foundation to summit, and water sloshed over the top in a hundred spots. The surface cracked and splintered along the length of the wall. From some of the cracks, water dribbled; from others, it geysered.
At the crescendo of his spirit’s conflagration, he freed his weapon from its scabbard once again. “My sword is my soul,” said Cundar of Raelor. And struck with all that he was.
As the dam exploded, as the world-shattering cataract erupted across the wasteland, every drop of that eternal ocean ignited into flame.
He overheard a whisper as he crossed the pavilion: “Northman looks a bit glum this morning.”
Stalking to the front of the column, he glared at the troops and barked, “Fall in!” They came to attention— rather more sharply than usual, he thought. Perhaps he’d finally dropped his standards. “All right, who’s first?”
As he raised his weighted wooden sword, he realized his voice did indeed sound glum. After the dam of the Demiurge had burst and filled the universe with fire, Cundar had woken with a start in his chair at the Temple to find that only moments had passed. At his tale, Runa Li had smiled with enigma and counseled patience; and the swordsman went home to a bottle of Forallan wine and a slumber of disappointing dreams. Now he faced yet another day of teaching these kittens to fight.
But lo, a posthumous marvel from some decomposing divinity: every man-jack of them raised their hands. Randomly, Cundar picked Sergeant Vorn, and was actually caught off-guard—rather than inching forward, striving only to be incapacitated with the least possible discomfort, the sergeant gave a hearty yell and charged.
One by one, he disarmed the men and sword-slapped them on the ribs or the head; and one by one, they grinned and asked for a rematch. When he explained where they’d gone wrong, they listened and made different mistakes the next time. By the end of the day’s training, Cundar discovered a look on his own face that he thought must be a smile.
Kenoma’s somber streets had an odd sense of bustle. The breeze felt cleaner and the sunlight warmer. When he met Mellifast that evening in the tavern, the room was full of song.
“Cundar!” the captain shouted, throwing his gigantic arms around the Northman. “Come on, try the ale. It’s never tasted so good.”
It was true. Everything tasted better. The woodsmoke smelled better. Cundar heard himself laughing, and wondered why it happened so rarely.
“Now let’s have the tale, you lunatic. How did you fare with the Maker?”
And the man of Raelor said, “We won.”