Larry Hodges has sold more than eighty stories. His third novel—Campaign 2100: Game of Scorpions—was recently published by World Weaver Press. His Parallel Lines Never Meet, a Stellar Guild team-up with Mike Resnick and Lezli Robyn, ihas just gone on sale..
THE NATURE OF SWORDS
The two floating swords parried and thrust as they battled through the corridors of the ruined castle. Dust and cobwebs swirled in the musty air as the steel-on-steel clashing continued up a stairway and into a large room that had once been a kitchen. Rusty pots and human bones littered the floor by a broken table covered in dust.
“Got you!” cried the sword Glory as she slammed the Unnamed Sword into a giant black cauldron. Her voice came out of the golden hilt, which was engraved with scenes of human battles. His own hilt was plain steel with a simple leather grip. Both swords looked brand new, with gleaming steel blades. “No wonder they didn't name you.”
“No you didn't!” cried the Unnamed Sword as he shot up toward the ceiling, irritated at her dig about his lack of a name. The parrying continued for much of the afternoon. Often they'd cut into each other's edges, wounding each other, but the pain was both invigorating and temporary as the magic quickly healed them. Glory relentlessly beat the Unnamed Sword back, chasing him down hallways and from room to room.
Finally the Unnamed Sword lowered his point. “I give up. I can't beat you.” He nonchalantly swatted aside a human leg bone on the ground with his tip. Only occasionally did he stop and think about how these lifeless bones had once been living humans. It had been so long….
Glory rose up over him, her point at his sword's throat, just under his plain iron hilt. “I win again, Nameless.”
“You always do.” The two clicked blades, and then, together, floated back through the stairways and corridors to the castle armory. Home.
Soon they were at it again, along with several of their friends—the determined rapier Relentless, the smug but efficient longsword Splendor with its jewel-encrusted hilt, the silent curving scimitar Gravedoings, Ding and Dong the daggers, Jabber the slow but relentless jousting stick, and the giant claymore Redsteel with his long crimson blade. The greatest of them all, Redsteel, took on both the Unnamed Sword and Glory and repeatedly slammed the two broadswords about, leaving them dazed but determined. The floor was littered with non-magical weapons covered in dust: swords, shields, longbows, spears, axes, morning stars, flails, and suits of armor.
After a while the Nameless Sword floated off to the side and just watched. Ding and Dong joined Glory in the battle with Redsteel. Soon the others all joined in gleefully, and finally they pounded Redsteel to the floor. With a guttural laugh, he submitted.
“Victory!” cried the daggers in unison. Then it started all over again with new opponents.
There was a time when the Unnamed Sword could never get enough of the constant swordplay. There wasn't much else for a magic sword to do, not in the many years since the Age of Man had come to an end. Recently it had begun to bore him. He felt he had a greater destiny. But what?
Unlike the others, he'd never killed anyone. His master hadn't even named him yet when he'd been killed by another human, as humans often did to each other. His master had reached for the Unnamed Sword, but the other human had thrown Ding and Dong with all their magic power and accuracy, and both had lodged in his back. He died with his sword in his hand, unused and unnamed.
Why had the humans killed themselves off? “It's in their nature,” Redsteel once explained. “It wasn't a problem until they infused us with magic. A magic sword is an unstoppable killing machine.”
That night, after the swords had lowered themselves into their dusty display stands on the wall to wait for morning, the Unnamed Sword tossed and turned. Why was he the only sword without a name? The others called him “Nameless,” but that wasn't a true name. Only a human could give him a name. Since there were no more humans, he could not be named.
That's when a crazy thought entered his mind, one so different that he shot into the air without thinking, slamming into the ceiling. Several swords called out to him to be quiet, but he ignored them as he pondered the bizarre thought.
What if there were still humans left?
“That's silly,” Redsteel said the next morning as they prepared for the day's battles.
Glory slammed her blade into the Unnamed Sword's handle, spinning him about. “Come fight, or I'll proclaim myself human and name you Skunkbreath!”
He halfheartedly parried her thrusts but she quickly beat him to the ground. “C'mon!” she cried. “This is too easy. Ding or Dong could beat you right now, one on one.”
“Probably.” At least they had names and had killed. He floated away to a corner, deep in thought. Glory watched him for a moment, then dipped her point in disgust. A moment later she was at battle with Gravedoings while Jabber took on the daggers and Redsteel went to war with Relentless and Splendor.
The only way I'll ever be named, he thought, is if I find a human. So there must be one, somewhere. There just had to be.
He would find this human.
Without a word to the others he floated through the corridors and out of the castle, and out over the broken drawbridge and the scattered skeletons covering the ground outside near the surrounding forest. He floated up and over the trees, the sun glinting off his steel. The trees seemed to go on forever. Once there had been fields here where the humans practiced their swordsmanship and roads that connected the various castles, but they were long overrun by the ever-encroaching forest. He and Glory had often explored the local region and nearby castles, sometimes spending a day parrying with the local swords.
And yet, how did they really know the humans had all died? Perhaps somewhere, in a land far away, they still lived? Then he would have to travel to lands far away.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single thrust. He took that thrust forward and began his journey.
He took his time. On land, there were always trees about, and if a sword went too fast, it could end up with its point stuck in one. If it went in too deeply, and there were no other swords to help pull it out, it could be stuck for a long time, maybe forever. He was in no rush, and so he meandered about, exploring, looking for that last human, wherever he might be.
His adventures were many. A pack of wolves attacked him, a huge mistake on their part. Another time he got tangled in the branches of a tree and spent a day sawing at the branches to free himself—not an easy task for an unserrated sword. And once, while exploring a cave for signs of human life, he found instead a gigantic bear. This time he had to fight for real in a closed confined space where his flying skills and mobility were minimized. In the end, of course, the bear's great strength was no match for a magic sword. The bear left a great dent in his hilt but the magic quickly healed him.
Whenever he found a castle he'd ask the resident swords if they'd heard of any living humans, but always the response was, “No, are you crazy?” Over and over they told him humans were extinct. Only the swords survived.
One day he smelled something that reminded him of a salty soup made by a human cook from long ago. He followed the scent. And found an ocean.
He'd heard of such things but never believed it possible. So much water! Laughing, he charged out over the beach to the salty water and dived in. The coolness refreshed and invigorated him and allowed him to forget, if only for a moment, the failure of his mission. He spent a time chasing small fish, easily catching them and smacking them with his flat side. He had no desire to kill these small creatures. Swords were meant for greater things than cutting up seafood or slaying wolves and bears.
What was he meant for?
He had spent years exploring the land and there had been no humans to be found. Now he looked out over the ocean. Humans could not live in the sea, though he'd heard they could float on it in boats. If there were no humans in this land, then there must be other lands.
He floated up over the ocean, which seemed as endless as the forest had once seemed. But the forest had come to an end. All things have ends. It was just a matter of finding it, and then he could see what was there. But if all things had ends, didn't that mean humans might also have reached their end, and his quest was a waste of time?
He flew out over the water, tentative at first. He wasn't used to such openness. There were no barriers here, just fresh ocean smell and water lapping below. He picked up speed, faster and faster. Soon he flew faster than he'd ever flown before.
And still the ocean went on forever. A giant fish surfaced and shot water out of a hole on its top. Sometimes a turtle would surface. Otherwise it was just endless water, hour after hour. At some point well into his journey several seagulls flew overhead.
And then, after a full day of flying, he saw it—the gray outline of…something. Soon he could make out the trees.
Land! He tried to hold back his excitement. Most likely he'd find more swords but no humans. But maybe not.
He came in too fast. At the last second he veered up as the forest became individual trees with thick trunks. He plunged into the forest, trying to avoid the huge branches. They were too thick. To avoid getting entangled, he shot downward.
And right into a thick oak tree.
He pulled back, but his point had gone in too deep. He tried again and again, struggling for hours, but to no avail; he had no leverage. Soon it began to rain, the first of many times.
Weeks, months, and then years went by as the Nameless Sword fought against the oak tree, but it only held him tighter as it seemed to slowly grow about his tip, inching its way forward. He constantly cried for help, but there were none to hear. Birds and other creatures at first avoided this loud metal object sticking out of a tree, but soon they grew used to it. Squirrels scampered over him. Birds began to roost on him, often leaving smelly messes that no magic in him could remove. Yet even that wasn't nearly so painful as the realization that he might be stuck forever, that he would never accomplish his mission, and that he would spend forever namelessly stuck in a tree.
The horror of that fate led him to scream even louder for help, often from morning till night, his cries disappearing into the deep forest. And then, one day, there was an answer.
“What happened to you?” An ancient man looked down at him. He seemed a pair of dark eyes peering out of a forest of white hair that went off in all directions—beard, mustache, sideburns, and cascades of hair on top and flowing over his back. His fading robe might once have been blue but was now more gray and so thin one could see through it.
A man! A human!
In fast, stuttering speech—what more could he do in the presence of an actual living human?—he explained what had happened; his search for man, his journey across the ocean, and his embarrassing finish.
“You're lucky,” said the man. “I decided to hike the beaches south for the winter, and heard your calls. I've been walking along the ocean for weeks. Normally I take a path farther inland.”
“Who are you?” the sword asked.
“I am Sardonius, and I was once a swordsmith,” the man said, his black eyes staring unblinking at the stuck sword. “I too fled the land of man. Though from what you say, it is now the land of swords, as I thought might happen.” The man grabbed him by the hilt, and after planting his foot against the base of the tree for leverage, pulled him out with a titanic heave. Humans, the sword thought thankfully, may not be as fast or indestructible as a sword, but they were just as strong or stronger.
“Thanks,” the sword said, floating up to eye level with the man, hilt to face, his point downward. The magic quickly fixed the damages done by the tree, though he feared the stain from birds' messes would be there forever, at least in his mind. “Why did you fear it would become the land of swords?”
Sardonius shook his head. “It was all my fault. I was the master swordsmith from the court of King Cluth. We were at war with King Vos. The weapons race began with improved steel from Chandalee. To keep up, we came up with our own ways of making better and sharper steel. Often we'd bring in prisoners to test the killing power of these new designs. A few lives lost was the tradeoff for our greater glory and power. And then I discovered how to infuse the power of magic into a sword. Magic in humans was a pitiful thing, with the most powerful barely able to move an apple seed. But tempered into the steel of a sword with the spirit of a human sacrifice, the power becomes great. And it was my job to find ways to increase this power. Tempering the magic was easy; finding enough human sacrifices was not.”
“So you created the first magic swords using human sacrifices, and used us to defeat your enemies?”
“I wish it were that simple,” Sardonius said. “There were spies. Soon all our enemies and allies had the secret. The weapons race went on until a man with a sword was unstoppable, at least until he met a man with a greater sword. Most ended up as human sacrifices as the demand for the swords grew. Soon the swords didn't even need a human to kill. Our swords killed their people, and their swords killed ours.”
“So you are the last human alive?”
“As far as I can tell, there are no others here, and you say there are none in the land of swords. So I must be the last of my kind.” The man stared off into the distance for a moment. Then he fell to the ground, white hair flying about as he pounded the sandy ground with his fist. “What have I done?”
“Stop!” said the Unnamed Sword. “You are not the last of your kind. We, the swords, live on as your descendants. We are your children.”
After a moment the man slowly stood up, wiping his eyes. “That is true. Is there anything I can do to help you, my child, to pay for my past crimes?”
The Nameless Sword brightened, remembering his mission. “Actually, there is, my father. You can name me.”
“You have no name?”
“My master died before naming me.”
“Then I will remedy that. Now what would be a good name for a sword that has wandered across an entire ocean in search of a human? There can be only one name.” He placed his hand on the Nameless Sword's hilt. “I dub thee…Wanderer.”
Wanderer! What a beautiful name. Now he was nearly complete. But there was one more thing he had to do.
He thrust forward and stabbed the man through the belly. Sardonius cried with pain and surprise as he fell to the ground on his back.
“Why did you do that?” he sputtered, clutching at his stomach as the life bled out of him. “I saved you! You should be on my side!”
Wanderer floated up over him as drops of blood ran down his blade and dripped onto the man's face—the last man, and Wanderer now knew why. Soon he would return to the land of swords, with a name and a kill under his hilt.
“Why did I kill you? You made us from the spirits of human sacrifice. Killing was your nature. Now it is ours.”
Copyright © 2017 by Larry Hodges