“What about Ciara?” Peter asked, chucking a rock into the pond. It skipped all the way across, and even though it wasn’t a very large pond, we were still impressed. Teysha whooped. I clapped. “What about Ciara?” he asked again, after he’d soaked up all the praise.
Teysha snorted. “I like the fairer sex, but not that fair.” She took a particularly grotesque bite of her roasted duck, a sort of physical punctuation.
“Right, right,” Peter said. “You types are into the butchy ones. Only natural, still want someone masculine around.”
“I don’t mind dainty. Just not that dainty. Elves are…’M always afraid I’m gonna break one. And hey, I resent that, I’m plenty masculine. Tougher than Carlin over here. Talk about someone needing a man around.”
“I ‘spose that’s why he fancies them.”
“Hilarious,” I said as I scanned the edge of the pond for a suitable rock to throw. I wasn’t very good at this, if I was being honest, but I didn’t like where this conversation was headed. “I’ve never once heard someone insinuate that I might be effeminate because I’m gay. You’re a real pioneer of insult comedy.”
“Is that why you joined the militia?” Teysha asked. “So people didn’t make fun of you?”
I sighed, picking up a flat, smooth stone. Those were the good ones, right? “I joined the army so I didn’t have to have these conversations. I just like guys, okay? You like girls. Why do you people care so much?”
“Whoa there, Mr. Baggage.” Teysha held her hands up in a mock surrender and laughed. “I’m just being friendly. Peter’s the bigot, not me.”
“Unless we’re talking elves,” I muttered, and tossed the stone. It skipped twice, and then it sank. No one said anything, but I could hear Peter’s smirk. “Whatever. We should pack up, before they realize how long we’ve been gone.”
The three of us were part of the Grandia Volunteer Militia, a collection of soldiers from towns all across the kingdom. We weren’t quite the army, we were more like the people the army sent to find out if it was worth their time. Today we were investigating rumors that some dragonkin from the O’grofkala Mountains were trying to start a conflict with the neighboring human villages over religious differences. They probably were, but if it was a small enough group, it would still fall on us to handle it.
Despite (or perhaps because of) our sub-military status, our captains still drilled us like a proper army, and Captain Portsmouth in particular demanded we stay together at all times in case of an ambush, and would punish the entire platoon with extra squats or laps if any of us strayed for too long.
That didn’t stop us, though, and today we found ourselves eating lunch in the ruins of some long-forgotten no-name village two days out from the border towns. I don’t know why I hung out with Teysha and Peter to be honest. I initially felt safe around Teysha because she’s gay, but I never particularly liked either of them enough to justify staying around. Habit, I guess.
As we hauled the remnants of our picnic across the once-quaint town, Teysha saw fit to resume the conversation. “I don’t get you, Carlin,” she said. “Why do you get all squeamish when elves come up? Or minotaur? Or whatever. It’s just talk.”
“Not a good look for someone trying to seem tough,” Peter added.
Were we really doing this? I stepped onto the base of a dried fountain containing a statue made indistinguishable by time. It might have depicted a halfling, once, because it was about my size. It made me feel safe. And confident. I could look Peter in the eye.
“I don’t think it is talk,” I said. “I’ve seen your back tattoo, Peter. Grandia Of Old? Those people are terrorists. Last time I was in Castleton, I saw a dwarf strung up with their letters etched into his forehead.”
Teysha took a step away from Peter. “Is that true?”
“We’re not terrorists!” Peter snapped. “I’m not…we’re not. GOO is…we’re just proud of where we come from. Besides, Carlin, we’re cool with halflings.”
“For now. But they used to be cool with half-elves, too. And gnomes. It’s always a game of finding a new scapegoat when the last prejudice falls out of vogue. Maybe after halflings, it’ll be all people like us, Teysha. Or Westerners like you.”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Teysha said. “Can we talk about anything else? Please. We were having fun.”
I humphed and stepped down from the fountain.
“Look at that,” Teysha said, grasping at conversational straws. “That building is pretty nice still. Sign’s intact and everything.”
The building in question was charred, sure, and its interior was half-collapsed, but it was the only building we’d seen that retained its original shape. It was a shop, once.
“What kind of name is Odds & Ends?” Peter asked. “Could’ve just called it Boring & Worthless. At least that’d stand out.”
“It must have been pretty important,” I said. “Villages like this, out in the middle of nowhere, they rarely had shops at all, let alone one with a name. That meant they had trade. I’d assumed it was a commune, but maybe it was actually a part of Grandia. Especially curious, given the lack of roads.”
“Carlin, watch it, you’re nerding,” said Teysha.
“Holy – frosty damnation!” Peter gasped. He was standing in the entrance of the shop, mouth agape, hand stuck like he was trying to point and then forgot how.
Teysha shoved him aside. “What are you on ab-”
Embedded in the dirt floor of this dusty, ashen shop that could not have been much to look at even before its foul fate, was the most magnificent sword any of them had ever seen. Its pommel was not unlike a cloud backlit by the sun, and the blade resembled a starry night in its beauty, its calm, and its unimaginable depth.
“That’s…” Teysha began dumbfounded.
“Expanse,” I finished. “The Suntouched’s sword.”
“No shit,” Peter whispered, his voice tempered with reverence, if not his language. “But what’s it doing here?”
I felt a strange…pulling…in my arm. Like a restless muscle. My body begged me to touch Expanse, or perhaps the blade was begging to be touched. Peter and Teysha’s discussion grew muffled as a wordless whisper massaged the back of my mind like a beloved memory and sent my heart into a gallop.
Without consciously moving, I found myself directly before Expanse, arm outstretched. The world around me dimmed, the infinite void of the blade drinking in all the light. I was alone in the darkness, the only source of light was that shining white hilt, as white-hot as a star.
“Carlin!” Teysha snapped, yanking me by the strap attaching my spear to my back. “Don’t touch it! That’s rude!”
The room returned to me, and so did sense. “Sorry, I said. I…”
“We just realized he died and you’re going to go taking his stuff?”
“Died? What? Who?”
“Are you deaf? Carlin, you’re acting weird today.”
“The Suntouched,” interjected Peter. “I mean there have been rumors for a while, but…since the battle against the Below, no one’s seen him. My sister was there –fought by his side, apparently – and I guess he took a pretty nasty wound to his side. ‘Spose that did him in.”
“A wound to his side?” Teysha said. “He’s the Suntouched! He killed a living castle!”
“Human’s human,” I said, trying my best to keep my eyes off his sword.
A quiet fell over the shop, and I noticed then that the sword hummed softly as its magic presence charged the air around it. I wondered if the Suntouched ever got annoyed of it. Or maybe I was imagining that, too.
As we stood around, contemplating the hero’s fate, I could feel Teysha and Peter thinking about me; my defensive comments, my lunge for the sword. In an effort to salvage the afternoon, I unfurled a makeshift sack containing a wineskin. “Let’s toast.”
Peter and Teysha looked at me expectantly. My face got a bit warm. I cleared my throat. “To the Suntouched,” I said. “The world is forever darker in your absence.” The dragonkin brandy burned its way down my throat, but I did not choke. Was it the ensuing pride that warmed my heart, or the brandy? (Rhetorical. It was the brandy.)
Teysha took the wineskin. “To the Suntouched,” she said. “I hope you got all the hot chicks – and dudes and others – that you could ever want. You earned it.” She took a drink, and grimaced. “I hate this stuff.”
“To the Suntouched,” Peter was already saying as he reached for the wine. “The first girl I ever kissed had been saved by you on the road from the dwarven lands just days before, and I joined the militia so that I could properly thank you for that. It was a good kiss.” He took a drink, and his face went read, and he coughed, and spit half of it out. We laughed, and Peter pretended not to care.
“I saw them once,” said Teysha, after another lull.
“The Suntouched and Emelthea Crimsonfir. It was back home, in Brightbush. They were just passing through – they always were, I guess – and they offered to escort my girlfriend’s parents through the Bubbling Bog for no fee at all, even though they weren’t headed that way. And then Emelthea noticed that the roof of our silo had a hole that would have leaked next time it rained, and she magicked it away. She didn’t even tell anyone, she just did it.” She smiled. “I’ve never crushed so hard.”
“On an elf?” I asked.
“Exceptions, rules, et cetera.”
“Well, this is about the Suntouched, not Emelthea,” I said. “I saw him once, but only from afar. I was down south, visiting my cousin before his wedding. One night, a hooded man wandered into town, carrying a young girl. Apparently, she had been attacked by a flock of cockatrice while she was fetching fresh water for the town. He chased them away and patched the girl up, and brought her to the village healer.
“I only saw a baggy traveling cloak, but everyone in town including the healer agreed that the man was the Suntouched. He never said a word, though, or asked for anything in return.”
“Sounds exactly like my story,” Teysha said.
“Well, mine was actually about the guy who died.”
“Did you ever find out for sure it was him?” Peter asked.
I shrugged. “Sounds like him, doesn’t it?”
Peter shrugged as well, took another drink, and coughed yet again despite his best efforts. I laughed and looked to Teysha, whose eyes were on the door, but she hadn’t even cracked a smile. In fact, she looked grim.
“Oh no,” she said. “No. No no.”
“Captain Portsmouth? What’s she even doing…Teysha?” She was trembling. “Don’t worry, she’s just gonna make everyone do laps. Nobody likes us anyway.”
“No, you idiot,” Peter hissed. “Look.”
The reason for their horror was apparent at once. Out at the edge of town, a group of less than a dozen strangely-dressed people were headed toward Odds & Ends. Their glossy black armor with the glowing red ridges were unmistakable to anyone in the militia. It belonged to those we were taught to fear above all else: The Army of Below.
Teysha grabbed me by the strap again and began pulling me from the doorway – I nearly stumbled as I gathered myself to follow of my own accord. The back wall of the shop was largely destroyed, and it was easy enough to place ourselves behind the rubble of a nearby building.
There was a pang of emptiness in my chest where Expanse’s presence had lurked.
“We should run,” I said.
“Your legs are small. They’d catch you,” Teysha said.
“We should fight then,” Peter said.
“There’s more of them, they’d kill us,” I said.
“The sword!” Peter said. “We can use the sword! The Suntouched killed a dragon with that sword!”
“Every morning before he took a piss, the Suntouched did something more amazing than you could ever dream,” said Teysha. “Sword or no sword.”
“Then what?” Peter said.
“Shut up and wait.”
Teysha didn’t have to tell us twice. Within Odds & Ends, a metal boot hit the crisp floor and we went so still that I could have sworn I heard their hearts beating. My own chest was so hollow it hurt.
The soldiers were indistinguishable beneath their metal helms (though one was probably a dwarf, given their size), but their leader was a distinct individual. She wore no armor, adorned instead with dark green robes bearing a black glyph which resembled a pitchfork with a curled handle. Her skin was rust red, her eyes focused and yellow, her hairless head adorned with three jagged horns, positioned something like a scorpion’s tail and pincers.
I knew this to be she who founded the Below. The devil called Asylum.
Until then, I did not know what it was to be paralyzed by fear. My muscles were sore from the tension.
Asylum spoke in a soft, cracked cadence that carried across an incongruous distance. “Then it is true.” She stepped right up to Expanse, expressing neither surprise nor grief. I feel like she ought to have seen me, but her eyes were fixed on the sword. “Thank you, Branson.”
One of the soldiers inclined their head.
“It feels almost impossible,” Asylum said. “For better and often for worse, the Suntouched was unconquerable. But he would not abandon Expanse if he still draws breath. He loved his trinkets far too much. Either the man I knew is dead, or the man I knew has changed.
“I never thought I’d live to see either.”
Asylum turned toward her followers. “Apologies for sentimentality. It is unbecoming of my station and duties. I did not expect that I would feel the human urge to eulogize and yet…”
Asylum cleared her throat, a remarkably mundane act for such a remarkable individual.
“There’s an absence that demands to be filled. This sword is a kind of absence, you know, made by something much older than Sol, plucked from the very fabric of the universe. A tear in the night sky that was melted and shaped into a weapon that could slay that which cannot be slain. It was given to the Suntouched by a Far One who claimed to be descended from the being that forged it. Seemed mad to me.
“Ah. But I’m rambling. I simply do not know which words can do justice to a life that meant so much to so many. He was a person who saw the man he wanted to be in the stories he heard as a child, so he set out and became that very man. Turned fiction into reality. Very few can claim that force of will.
“The cynical call us who dwell beneath cowards, defined by our inability to face the impossible head on. They’re right in fact, if not in spirit. But the Suntouched, he did not break when the odds were impossible. He did not fear when a dragon – that which some would call a god – rose from the dead and challenged him. He fought, and he won. Time and time again he saw threats that no mortal man could face, and he faced them so that no mortal man would have to.
“Sure, he loved attention. He created problems half as often as he solved them. Rarely said ‘please’ and never ‘sorry.’ But those imperfections can fade into the past, now. He will be immortalized forever in the brilliant way that people imagine him.” I could hear a smile creep into her voice as she added, “He would have loved that.
“But make no mistake. He is admirable, but he is not a hero. He was the enemy. Rumors will say that we killed him, and we will seize on those rumors. His infinite tenacity was a fault, in the end. He saw the impossible face of the Void Lands and decided to fight it, rather than survive it. Perhaps now that he can no longer rally the spirits of the surface dwellers, our day has come. Now–”
I tried to stop Peter. I put a hand on his shoulder when I realized what he was about to do, but all he had to do was stand and I was powerless. Teysha whispered something, but he was already going.
To his credit, he had managed to sidle up to the hole in the building without being noticed. But when he lunged for Expanse, the game was over. He yanked on the sword, but it stayed in the ground. Two of the soldiers restrained him, and it was over before it began.
“Let go of me!” Peter shouted. “You people are sick! I’ll – I’ll!”
The color and rage drained from his face when Asylum approached. They were the same height, but Asylum’s intensity gave her a stature beyond her lithe frame.
“You would attack a woman in mourning?”
“You’re not in mourning,” Peter spat. “And you’re not a woman! You’re a devil.”
Asylum closed her eyes, as if in thought, and she shook her head. “I’m sorry, child. I deem you unfit to weather the storm. Do you have a name?”
Peter said nothing.
“Ah, Peter,” she said. “I hope someone will come to mourn you as well, Peter. Anyone who dies for what they believe in is worthy of remembrance, less it is for an evil cause. But yours is not evil, only ignorant.”
Peter yanked free of one of the soldiers, but Asylum’s lance of darkness came as quickly as it went, tearing through his throat and vanishing. They dropped him at her feet.
“A pity. Karak, Siddhaysh, each of you lead a quick search through this village. It’s unlikely he was alone.”
Sitting there against the wall of some ruined building, staring into one another’s wide, trembling eyes, Teysha and I had never been more scared. But, much as I disliked him, Peter’s actions stirred something within me.
“Run,” I said to Teysha. Some might call her weak for listening, but I know the strength it must have taken, ensuring that my sacrifice was not in vein.
Against my better judgement I charged into the remnants of Odds & Ends, my spear drawn, and cried out as I lunged at the closest soldier, aiming for the gap between their armor and their helm. The soldier dropped.
The reaction of their comrades was unnatural. There was no sense of surprise at my sudden appearance. No sense of concern for their fallen comrade. Immediately the closest soldier cleaved my spear in two with an axe with a glowing red edge.
I lunged at once for Expanse, feeling some semblance of security as my hands found its pommel and its white warmth cleared my head like coffee first thing in the morning. Like parts of me that were inactive suddenly sprung to life.
When one of the soldiers attempted to yank me off the weapon, it did not tether me to the ground as I expected. Instead, it pulled free of the earth with a deafening hum. The world grew dim around us as its infinite expanse drank in the light.
This time, fear settled in. This time, they backed away.
The longsword was taller than I was, yet it felt at home in my hands. I swung it as naturally as I might swat a fly or scratch an itch, and it cleaved through their shiny armor with no resistance. My fear gave way to calm, then calm to excitement.
With my newfound sense of power and control, I turned my attention toward Asylum, who stood in the doorway of Odds & Ends. She looked more interested than afraid.
“Sleep,” she said, as soon as my foot left the ground.
I listened. Exhaustion overtook me at once, and I collapsed.
“Spare him,” I heard as I felt myself drifting off. “He may prove useful yet.”
I could feel them dragging me away, but I lacked the energy to do anything about it.
“The Void Lands spread,” Asylum proclaimed.
“The Void Lands spread,” her congregation agreed.
“We will weather the storm,” Asylum proclaimed.
“We will weather the storm,” her congregation agreed.
And then nothing.