The blacksmith worked in the searing, familiar, heat of his forge. Sweat trickled from his brow, rolling down through his thick beard before dripping onto his bare chest as he worked, furious yet methodical. Each hammer blow was a thing of precision, each movement carefully calculated. He folded the glowing hot metal, shaping it. Each strike was accompanied by the slightest draining sensation, and he felt The Stranger’s hand guiding him.
After all, he thought, it would be a shame to waste this Gift.
“Kaynan!” A gruff shout from the front of his shop. He swore under his breath, resenting the disruption. He put the sword into the cooling liquid, his own special recipe, and smiled at the vicious hiss it made. Then he patted his hands on his own bare chest and moved towards the intrusion.
Kaynan pushed through the beads that separated the forge from the shopfront. It was, as always, a hot day in Tashek. His shopfront was little more than a large tent, as most of the building was, but it did host a few weapon racks that proudly displayed Kaynan’s work. His wife, Alia, pointed at the man perusing the racks and said simply, “Customer.”
“I know it’s a customer, good wife. I can see that.”
“Then you can serve that.” She said simply, sipping Firetea. He watched her take a sip, her lovely lips making no quarrel with the almost acid-hot spices. He smiled at her, as in love with her as he’d ever been. Then he strode forward to meet the man and proudly exclaimed: “Welcome to my shop, good sir. Can I interest you in the finest weapons in Tashek?”
The man looked troubled. He bore the same dark skin as Kaynan, but his eyes were alight with a strange, baleful glow. He studied them both, and then looked back to the weapons. All masterworks, forged with a little piece of Kaynan’s soul. But he shook his head.
“No. No. These won’t do. This won’t be enough…”
Kaynan was aghast, but he was also a master salesman. He didn’t let his offence show and instead nodded to his wife, who poured two cups of new Firetea from her kettle and set them on the counter.
“Sir, you seek something special?”
“I do.” The man said simply. Then he turned to Kaynan. “Have you heard the rumours? Of what the Northmen are doing?”
“I have heard…tales.” Kaynan said simply. Nothing more. Building machines powered by Arcana. That’s an affront to The Stranger. He won’t allow it.
“They are not all tales.” The man said, shaking his head. “The Glorious Emperor is worried by what is happening.”
“The Emperor, you say?” Kaynan’s eyes lit up. “You know this?”
“I do.” The man said. Then he looked straight at Kaynan with a certain grim resignation on his face. “I’m his son. Hadith.”
Kaynan heard his wife’s sharp intake of breath, but he tried to ignore it. Instead, he swept his hands over the shop. “Well, your Excellency. I offer you any of these weapons at no cost. For the service of the empire!”
The man looked around again and shook his head. “I appreciate that gesture. But as lovely as these weapons are, and they are lovely…” He paused. Kaynan felt a sensation clawing at the back of his spine, a coldness. He was beginning to guess. “I need something…special.”
Kaynan moved past the man and closed his shop’s tent flap. Shutting out the ears that waited amongst the sands. “You speak of something that has not officially existed for hundreds of years.” He motioned to the weapons around him. “Each of these has some of my talent, bestowed into them. At great cost, as you know.”
The Emperor’s son nodded sadly. “And yet, Kaynan the Bladewhisperer, they are not enough.” Kaynan looked up at the man, who was likely a few chronological years older than him – if Kaynan’s use of the Gift had not already artificially brought their biological ages closer together. He wore finery, but his face was grim. “I know the price. I know everything.”
Kaynan’s wife sighed. “Do you, really?” She said. Both men looked towards her, and she shook her head in open disagreement. “Do you have a conduit? Do they know what you suggest? Who will serve?”
“That is no concern of yours,” the Emperor’s son began. “All I ask from you is that you perform this task. And then speak of it to no one.” He paused, looking around the tent. “The fate of Tashek depends upon it.”
Kaynan saw his wife’s face twitch, the corners of her mouth beginning to smirk. He cut in front, desperate to not offend the emperor’s son, but also to instil upon him the seriousness of the request.
“What you ask will take one month. I think you are aware of the terms, but do you truly understand what it will cost?”
“The cost?” The man asked, eyeing Kaynan. “You are doing a duty to Tashek. What cost do you demand?”
“I demand nothing, Excellency.” He bowed his head. “It is The Stranger’s price that I speak of.”
“I know the price.” The man said. His eyes looked distant, troubled. He looked at Kaynan’s wife, then met Kaynan’s own eyes and sighed. “Without this weapon, Kaynan, all of the south may be lost. All of our homelands, replaced by the Victans and their Magi. The cost, however great, is worth it.”
“As you say…” Kaynan agreed sadly. “I suppose I have no choice?”
Hadith reached up and clasped him on the shoulder, holding it firmly in his grip. “No, Bladewhisperer. You do not.”
And so it begins.
After agreeing to the work, Kaynan watched the Emperor’s son leave, his shoulders hunched and troubled. That night, Alia tried everything to dissuade him. She spat Firetea in anger as she talked about the Emperor’s son. His arrogance, she said, was incredible. To come to the finest smith in the south and ask him to do this work…something that had been unheard of for centuries. How does he even know we can do this thing? She asked.
But Kaynan said nothing. He stared into the mirror, looking at the days, weeks and probable years he’d given over to the blades he’d created. Masterworks all, but none suitable for the emperor’s son’s purpose. What he asked for was something…greater. His wife did not know about the first time Kaynan had done this exact thing. The first time he’d discovered the secret, closely guarded for centuries. The first time he had created a living blade. But somehow, the Emperor and his family did. And that meant that Kaynan had no choice. And it would be a shame to not work his real talent, one last night.
His wife did not come to him that night and Kaynan could see her lying away from him, her face set in a frown of worry.
The next day, the Emperor’s son returned. This time accompanied by a young child, a boy of no more than six. The child looked nervous, hiding behind Hadith’s legs.
“Hello!” Kaynan said, as happily as he could muster. “Welcome back. This is him?” He said, motioning towards the child.
Hadith looked uncomfortable, but forced a smile. “Yes. He is to assist you in forging the blade.” He hasn’t told him, has he?
“Ah, a welcome little apprentice then!” Kaynan said, his eyes warm towards the boy. So young. But he could sense the talent there and understood immediately why Hadith had chosen him. The bond between them was there, stitched and tangible for those who had the Gift to see it.
“You are to assist this man, son. He is forging a blade that will end the Northern pretenders. It is a great task.”
“Yes, father.” The boy said. He looked up at Hadith, eyes full of admiration and fear. He looked back at Kaynan, his eyes sweeping over the weapons arrayed in the shop. “You made all of these?” The boy asked. Kaynan nodded.
Hadith looked at Kaynan, moving towards him to speak in a whisper. The boy had wandered off, entranced by the weapons as all little boys were. “You probably realise this already, but you are to speak of this to no one.”
“The boy doesn’t know, does he?”
A momentary pause before replying, “No.” The man looked down at his son, and Kaynan saw regret, fear and pain in a single glance. And love too – great love. “I could, by all accounts, have chosen anyone. A soldier. A prisoner. Anyone with the Gift, correct?”
“Yes,” Kaynan agreed. “That is true.”
“But,” Kaynan interjected. “The final blade is stronger if there is a true bond. The Victans do not know this. They don’t understand the subtlety of the Gift. They do not work in bonds as we do. They see only stocks and suppliers.”
“And this blade must be the best. So I have brought my third son.”
The boy giggled at a suit of armour that featured a maned headdress, and both men shot glances at him. Kaynan felt the pain in Hadith then, as keenly as though it were his own son. He doesn’t want to do this.
“Excellency…” Kaynan began. “It is no place of mine…but if what they say of the Victan Magi is true, then even this blade will not even the war. You could always outfit an army with my finest weapons – I have already given them all some of my own gift, at great cost…”
“No.” Hadith said. His jaw was set. “The cost is mine to bear.”
Kaynan looked at the child again. And at the desk where his wife should be sitting, sipping Firetea. She wanted no part of this. Do you really understand the cost? He thought, but didn’t dare say.
“How long?” Hadith asked.
“One month.” Kaynan replied, still looking at the awestruck boy.
“Will it…” The strength in his Excellency’s eyes faded. He looked pensive, troubled. “Will it hurt him?”
“I will do my best,” Kaynan said, a noncommittal response.
Both men met each other’s eyes once more. Hadith nodded firmly. “One month, then….” He trailed off as if in deep thought.
“For the glory of Tashek.” He said after a pause, then moved to his son. He said something quietly and then left without another word. His son stood in the tent, staring at the back of his father’s cape as he exited the tent.
“For the glory of Tashek.” Kaynan whispered.
And then he got to work.
For a few days, Kaynan’s wife avoided him. She had gone to the village, she said, to avoid his madness. But gradually, she returned. More than anything, Kaynan believed, she was compelled by her kind heart to spend time with the boy.
For his part, the boy didn’t seem to notice what was happening. He never asked why his father had left him here, or when he could go back. Kaynan had put him to work on his own little smithery project, showing him how to create a small dagger. Each stage of the boy’s learning brought an open, enthusiastic smile to his face. Kaynan was impressed – the boy took to his training with the kind of curiosity he’d once had. Alia took it upon herself to feed the child meals from her own people, those of the deepest south where the herbs and spices were a joy to taste.
But at night, when the boy slept, Kaynan did The Stranger’s work. It was a price they all knew, and accepted readily — that magic cost lifeforce. Each of Kaynan’s weapons was better than any other because he knew how to infuse the Gift into his work – and he’d artificially lost what must have been years of his own life in exchange.
This was a cost he welcomed and was prepared to pay. But the boy did not know. And that troubled Kaynan.
“Ordinarily they know, don’t they? A life freely given?” His wife asked him that night. She’d tucked the boy into bed in their spare room, and then come to Kaynan before the real work started. He tried to avoid the question, turning away to work. His wife’s hand fell on his shoulder and he turned back to face her.
“I’m sorry, Alia.” He said gently. “I don’t want this either.”
“But I’m right, aren’t I? The giver should know their sacrifice.”
“Yes, and that is the case with most users of The Gift. But what we do here…” He shied away then, unable to meet her eyes. “It is a thing of darkness. A trick of The Stranger. It is best when…it causes pain.”
“So the Emperor’s son does this to cause himself pain? Why couldn’t he use himself?”
“Because it is worse for him to use his son. It will cause him unimaginable pain…”
“And that’s a good thing?”
“It’s a necessary thing, for what he wants us to create.”
“Us?” Alia said, her nose curling. “Don’t say us. You do this, with The Stranger. But I will be there for the boy.”
His wife’s words hurt him deeply. He wanted her to understand. He didn’t want to do this and yet…knowing it was for Tashek. Knowing he could use a secret even more treasured than The Gift itself…it awoke excitement in him. Silently, he went back to the forge and set to his foul task.
Each night, the weapon began to take shape. Each day, the boy grew weaker. His own dagger was newly smithed, and he showed it proudly to Alia as he retired to bed on the fifth day. She had to help him get in, but made no show of it and instead fussed over his fine craftsmanship. “Kaynan says I can do a sword next week!”
“Yes.” She said quietly, pulling a sheet over the boy. “A sword.”
Kaynan stood outside of the tent, the sun setting down over the western sky. Sand and dust had been whipped into the sky by an earlier storm, casting a dull haze over the world around Kaynan’s workshop. It was almost time to go back inside and continue the work, but the Bladewhisperer was finding it difficult.
The boy had been exceptional that day, despite his increasing weakness and ill health. He’d vomited in the morning, but had taken to the work Kaynan had given him with vigour. He’d smithed a full sword already, and had moved on to a glaive. This was advanced work, and Kaynan could not help but be proud. And incredibly guilty too, for the boy was unaware of what was happening.
Alia continued to console the boy as he weakened. Each night, Kaynan saw the blade that this dark work was creating come together. It hurt him to recognise it, but he could already tell that this was his masterpiece. The greatest blade he’d ever smithed. Perhaps the greatest anyone had ever crafted.
“Kaynan” The boy said one afternoon, as they dressed him for bed. By now, the blade was almost fully forged. The child was very weak. “Why has my father not returned to see my works? He told me he’d come and see the sword I created.”
Bastard, thought Kaynan. But instead he smiled at the boy. “I’m sure he’ll be along any day now.”
Alia wept that night. She begged Kaynan to stop the work. But they both knew that it was impossible. “The Emperor demands it,” he explained. “But there’s something else, now. We’ve gone too far. The Stranger would not let me simply stop.”
“Fuck The Stranger, Kaynan! Look at the boy. He doesn’t know.”
“Best that he doesn’t, my love.” Kaynan said sadly. He shook off her hand, which clung with nails dug painfully into his arm. Then he went back to the forge.
A week later, the blade was almost complete. The boy could not finish his glaive, instead spending each day in bed. His breathing grew shallower each day, until his breath rasped in his throat — a hollow rattle as he tried to suck air through a weakened mouth. Alia was with him constantly, bringing water and dabbing his head. His wife’s eyes had grown hollow and she’d not so much as talked to Kaynan for a full day. He understood it, and he bore the burden.
His masterpiece was almost finished.
“Kaynan!” His wife shouted, before he moved to the forge. Her voice was desperate, choked. He went to her, where she sat on the bed with the boy, wiping sweat from his brow. The happy, curious child who arrived three weeks ago was no more. Instead, he was a hollowed-out husk that looked more weathered old man than child.
“Wife?” He asked. She was shaking her head sadly, pointing at the boy’s lips.
The boy coughed, softly at first before progressing to a hacking sound that lifted him from the bed. Flecks of blood spattered Alia’s handkerchief with each cough. She comforted him through the fit, and when he relaxed back into the bed she whispered soft reassurances to him. And then the boy spoke, almost in a whisper. But they both heard it.
“W-w…will….will I be a good sword?”
Kaynan’s heart dropped in his chest. Somehow, it was far worse and far more terrible that the boy knew. Alia clearly agreed, her own eyes clouded with tears. They both looked down at him now, and Kaynan felt a sense of admiration he’d never thought possible. He knew. The boy knew. And still had not fled, or fought, or tried to prevent it.
“My-….My father…he will save Tashek…because of me?”
Kaynan nodded. He moved to the boy and put his hand on his shoulder. “Hush now, child. You have done your duty. You…” Kaynan hesitated.
“You will be the greatest sword the world has ever known.” Alia interrupted. She smiled at the boy, and he smiled back weakly at her words. Alia looked away for a moment, fixing a glare at Kaynan. “Go now, husband. Put an end to this.”
And so he did.
Kaynan finished the sword. The moment he put the final touches on the blade, the boy died. He could hear Alia weeping, but Kaynan’s work was not completed. He crafted the sheath and the detailing, working his masterpiece to its final, stunning conclusion. Holding it, the weapon practically sang. It knew. It was. It served. The final secret of the Tashek people. Living blades. Kaynan was the only man left who knew the technique, and likely the only one who would ever build such a thing again.
“You are a good sword.” He said to it, sliding it into its sheath and storing it in a chest. In the heat of the forge, Kaynan’s sweat dripped freely. But it was tears that rolled down his face, this night.
Hadith, his Excellency, came to claim the sword a few days later. Alia refused to see the man, but Kaynan felt she should have. The pain on his face was visible for all to see. He had aged, and his eyes spoke of a deep sacrifice. Whatever hatred Kaynan had expected to feel, he did not. Instead he felt a deep, mutual kinship with this man’s grief. Together, they had done something wonderful — and terrible.
“For the glory of Tashek.” Hadith said as he took the blade from Kaynan, who bowed deeply as it was offered. Hadith could barely look at it. Advisors flooded Kaynan’s shop, laying down chest after chest of gold. “You must never do this again, Blacksmith. This money is to ensure you never feel the need to smith another blade. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Kaynan agreed, feeling the guilt of his work weighing heavy. “I hope that the weapon helps you do as you say you will do.”
The rumours from the north were terrible and worrying, but right now Kaynan struggled to see how Hadith, even wielding the most glorious sword that had existed for centuries, could do anything to prevent what was coming.
“So do I,” Hadith said sadly. He looked towards the back of the shop for a moment, eyes lingering on the drawn curtain behind which Alia sat, still weeping. “Is his bo-….” He seemed to think better of it. Instead he looked directly at Kaynan, fixing him with grief-stricken eyes. “Did it hurt him?”
Kaynan shook his head. “No.” He lied. “There was no pain.”
The man heartened at that. “Good. He was a good boy.”
“The bravest I have known.” Kaynan agreed.
Less than ten minutes later, Kaynan and Alia stood in their shop together. They stared at the treasure laid out for them, but said nothing. The work had cost Hadith dearly, and The Stranger’s price had eclipsed any mortal treasures. His wife opened her mouth as if to speak, then fell silent again. After such a thing, thought Kaynan, what is there to say?
He felt Alia’s hand reach over and squeeze his. “You did what you had to, husband. He was a good boy.” Her touch and her words were the most wonderful thing he’d felt in as long as he could remember.
His glorious Excellency of Tashek, Hadith the Bold, rode with his riders across the sands. Forward scouts had already located the Northerners – reporting that they’d been building strange tracks on the ground in Tashek territory. The Magi of Victan had been expanding their empire so rapidly that they’d grown too bold. First it was these tracks. The next it was their machines. Tashek could not stand for this.
Hadith felt Elko’s soul strapped at his waist. His beloved boy, who had been so warm and curious, was now a weapon of near-unspeakable arcana. The people of Tashek had always been Gifted, but they respected their Gift in a way the Northern Magi did not. Each power was based on sacrifice. And Hadith had sacrificed much.
They reached the hill that overlooked a great valley, where the sand gave way to grass and rock. In the ditch were the Victan forces, arrayed around a long track that they’d managed to lay halfway through the valley already. With great foreboding in his heart, Hadith watched the Victan people at work. They used the Gift differently, spending it freely without any concern for their health or their loved ones. It was an affront to The Stranger, a cheat they’d somehow worked that no other kingdom understood. How did they power all of this?
Hadith ran through the battle plan with his riders, reminding them why they were here. The times were changing, the Victans had announced. But Hadith and his father disagreed. Their way of life was better. They knew the cost of their Gift. The Victans played with Arcana, building and expanding without slowing down. Hadith and his riders were to strike a decisive blow today, to announce Tashek’s intentions and to send the Magi of Victan a clear message: there is no room for your ‘technology’ here.
Hadith smiled at the force below him in the valley. His son had gave himself to an ancient Tashekki secret – and now Hadith held a blade that could cut through anything…and anyone. No Magi, no matter how powerful their talents or technology, could hide from it. This was Tashek’s redemption.
“For Elko!” Hadith roared, raising the sword high above him. Flame immediately cascaded out of the blade, searing its way down the valley towards the Victans. They were caught unaware, and some died screaming – burned to ash by Hadith’s blade. He felt the thrill of battle rise within him, galloping down the hill towards the defenders. His son’s soul beamed in the blade, spouting flame. They had pulled back behind their ‘track’, hunching down and gathering themselves.
They did not look afraid.
Hadith’s riders wooped and hollered around him, each giving some of their life force up to cast wild magics down at the Victans. Hadith could see only one Magi with the men, and was encouraged by that. We will slaughter you all! The closer he rode, the more he realised that the men, ordinary men who were usually fodder for the slaughter, looked unafraid.
They had each raised something now, a long barrel that had a glass case on one side, filled with a green glow. The men pointed their sticks at Hadith, and he laughed aloud, raising his Sword-son, ready to butcher them all and show no mercy. He had given everything for this power, it would be a shame to waste it. What could their long sticks possib-
Johnathan lowered the Arcrifle. It sizzled and smoked. He watched the large man fall from his horse, the flaming sword he’d been holding up clattered to the ground on the hill. Everywhere around him, his friends shot holes through the Tashek line. The old magic men didn’t stand a chance.
“Silly cunt,” Johnathan spat. In Victan armies, each member was given an Arcrifle – a little bit of Arcana they could all wield. Not just reserved for the elite, like it was in Tashek or Vahlia. He looked down at the gun, and then back up at the retreating Tashekki riders.
It was over, already. The flaming sword had vanished into the dirt and confusion of the hill charge, churned underfoot by horses or Stranger knows what.
Johnathan found himself feeling a little sad. He’d grown up reading about the Magi of Tashek and their powers. And he’d just shot one down, easy as that.
Times change, Johnathan thought to himself. Already the Magi in charge of their group was ordering them back to normality. They were collecting their own dead. The machines had almost instantly resumed work, building more of the train tracks. Johnathan himself got back to work, but he made a mental note to go out that night and see if he could fish out that magic sword the man had dropped. Back in Victan, he’d be able to sell it for a handsome sum.
After all, he thought. It’d be a shame for a good sword like that to go to waste.