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The sound of hammer against anvil rang out. CLANG! It rang out for justice and it rang out for vengeance. CLANG! CLANG! It rang out for hope and for truth. CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! It rang out for honor and duty. CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! CLANG! It rang out loud and it rang out pure. CLANG!

In the searing light of the forge, the warrior known as Tal Rij sat and waited, as he had for a year. His features, long ago hardened by sorrow, had now been cast in steel by the blazing heat before him. For this was no ordinary flame, but a fearsome stream of liquid fire, surging ever upward from where it had been birthed, at the heart of the world. It flowed up through the center of the mountain that Tal Rij had climbed to arrive at this place. It flowed into the cavern where he now waited. It flowed toward the ceiling of that cavern, high above. Where it flowed from there was something that only the gods could know for certain, for it was said that it flowed all the way to their home, floating in the clouds. The natural pillar of stone that it pierced, and

upon which the warrior sat, was fifty paces across and seemed to hang over boundless open air. Down through untold centuries, fire and water had sculpted the cavern into a labyrinth of pathways, grottos, and hollows, all meeting at the central column. It was no longer a mountain, a thing of stone and ice. It was an impossible cathedral.

Next to the forge, bent over an immense anvil hewn from a fallen star, a figure toiled who was no less remarkable than his surroundings. Isri may have once been a man, but was now something else entirely. The smith to the gods, he had been endowed by them with powers unimaginable to mortal minds. Although Tal Rij had always been considered tall, Isri stood fully five heads above him and was nearly that wide at the shoulders. The smith’s skin was of a deep crimson hue, crisscrossed by an elaborate network of geometric tattoos, all colored white and illuminated from within by an otherworldly energy. His bristling beard cast the same glow and contrasted sharply with his bare head. The smith was a magnificent sight. An awe-inspiring sight. A fearful sight. Tal Rij, though, had grown accustomed to his host’s appearance long before, and now concentrated only on Isri’s work.

Suddenly, the hammering stopped, its final echoes reverberating off of a thousand different surfaces. The smith raised up the product of his long labor. It was a sword, made minuscule by the colossal hand that held it, but no less impressive for that. The blade shone fiercely, still hot from the fires of its creation.

Isri crossed the stone floor to where a rushing waterfall flowed from out of the darkness, before cutting a path across the forge pillar, and then cascading down into the emptiness below. He thrust the blade into the cooling spring and it hissed ferociously, the water dancing and sizzling off of its surface as it spat at the world in fury, aching to be put to its intended use. Time stood still as creator and creation waged a silent battle for control. Finally, Isri withdrew the sword, wiped it dry on his apron, gave it a final inspection, and then walked back to where Tal Rij stood waiting.

“The greatest sword ever crafted for human hands,” the smith intoned, his voice a thundering rumble that filled the vast cavern. “The Blackthorn.”

Tal Rij reached out, but didn’t take hold of the weapon yet. The Blackthorn’s form was simple. Beautifully, elegantly simple. The blade, longer than usual for a sword of its size and type, stretched along two straight edges that met at the tip with barely a hint of a curve. The cross guard spread from the center line, scribing a gentle arc. The bare hilt fit two human hands and tapered toward the pommel, a sphere that provided perfect counterweight. It was one piece of death-black steel and, although Isri had neither sharpened nor polished it, it gleamed in the light like a thing possessed. Tal Rij could see that its edge was keener than any he had ever beheld and he suspected that it would never dull.

“Astonishing,” the warrior breathed, finally taking the weapon in his hand and testing its balance. After a moment’s silence, he continued, “Isri…I have sat here for a year while you forged this sword. Not once have you asked me what I need it for. And not once have you told me why the smith to the gods found me worthy of it.” Isri smiled, and it was a smile that spoke of the passage of ages.

“My friend,” he began, “my home here, at the peak of Isrileryn, is the highest point in the world. All that is higher is the dwelling place of the gods themselves. When those gods set me here, so long ago, they charged me with a duty, in addition to my service to them. To forge whatever is asked of me by any mortal who comes to me. Because whoever reaches this place has been proven worthy by the simple fact that they arrived. The journey itself is the trial. And you are the first person I have seen in twelve hundred years.

“As for your reasons,” the smith went on, “they are your own, same as anybody. But know one thing. While this may well be the greatest weapon in the world…it is still a weapon. All that it requires of its bearer is that they know how to use it. It will not choose sides.” Tal Rij nodded slowly as he wrapped the Blackthorn in a bolt of soft cloth and strapped it to his back.

“Thank you,” the warrior said. “For everything. Now, I must leave, for I have been out of the world far too long.” Isri led Tal Rij across an arching stone pathway to the cave mouth that was the entrance to his home. Together, they looked down the mountainside and Tal Rij knew that below lay the world and the war that he had left behind a year ago. He only hoped that both had waited for him.

“Have a care,” Isri said. “The way down can be just as hazardous as the way up.” They clasped hands, the smith’s engulfing the warrior’s. Then, Tal Rij stepped beyond the shelter of the cave and into the biting winds of the mountaintop. Inch by inch, foot by foot, he made his slow descent. Eventually, when he looked back up, he could no longer see Isri or the peak. There was only stone and snow and sky. Onward he went. Hour by hour. Day by day.

When Tal Rij finally reached the ground once more, he discovered that neither the world nor the war had waited for him. But nor had they ended in his absence. Armed now with the Blackthorn, he took up where he had left off. But the enemy had advanced. Town by town. City by city.

Lord Bedlam, the sorcerer. Lord Bedlam, the warlord. Lord Bedlam, the conqueror. Lord Bedlam, the nightmare. His armies had ravaged the Known Lands when Tal Rij began his quest, and they had only grown larger and more vicious in the time since. Wherever the warrior’s pursuit took him, the Iron Order was there. Trail by trail. Battle by battle.

The Blackthorn at his side, Tal Rij hunted Lord Bedlam without rest. Wherever he and the sword passed, the balance began to shift. Armies rose. The Iron Order retreated. Right was done. Until, finally, the two foes met. As each knew they must. Man against monster. Steel against sorcery.

It was said that Bedlam had been human once, before he was consumed by his rage and his thirst for power. Before everything that he had been was burned away. On the day that Tal Rij faced him, he was a grisly sight. A skeleton draped in dusty black robes, the empty sockets of his eyes glowing with an infernal light. His teeth…his fangs…were a mockery of a grin as he took the field of battle. Carved into the bone of his forehead was the crest that flew on the banners carried by the Iron Order. Lord Bedlam was a nightmare. A nightmare from which Tal Rij, and the world, were ready to awaken.

Their fight was long and ferocious. Each of them knew that there would not be another. Their screams and strikes rang out through the day and night. Whether Tal Rij was able to turn aside Bedlam’s magic through the power of the Blackthorn, or simply through his own resolve, turn it aside he did, and they were evenly matched.

And then, the balance shifted and right was done. With a final cry of triumph and of agony, Tal Rij drove the Blackthorn through Bedlam’s chest and watched him as he fell. The conqueror lay still, the sword reaching out of him like it was trying to clutch the sky and pull it down.

Every ending is only another beginning, and even the death of a monster may give rise to new life. From the ground where he fell, where the point of the Blackthorn pierced the soil, there grew a sprout. Creeping out through his shattered ribcage, twining up around the sword, the sprout soon grew to a thicket of briars that covered his body and marked his resting place. Lord Bedlam had fallen. But the ways of death are mysterious. Uncertain. And so, Tal Rij knew that he still had one task left to him.

It was many days, weeks, perhaps even months later that the warrior appeared once more in the home of Isri. With no hint of surprise, the smith welcomed him back.

“You have been gone a long time,” Isri said. Tal Rij only nodded, lowering himself onto the stone seat that had once cradled him for a year. This time, he moved far more heavily than before. Seeing him, Isri had to ask, “Have you completed what you set out to do?”

“Yes,” Tal Rij replied. “But now, I have need of your forge once again.”

“You have scaled Isrileryn,” the smith said. “My forge is in your service.”

“You must have fashioned shackles that can bind the flesh of a man,” Tal Rij ventured. Isri hesitated, but when he finally nodded, the warrior reached into a worn leather rucksack that hung at his side. As he lifted the flap, an eerie glow shone from within.

And from it, he removed a ghostly skull, blazing but indistinct…unsolid. With a fearsome crest carved into its forehead. With fangs in a mockery of a grin. With empty eyes that screamed of rage and a thirst for power.

“What can bind a soul?” Tal Rij asked. Isri looked from the skull to the warrior and back again. Then, he gathered up his tools and set to work. And the sound of hammer against anvil rang out…

 

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