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Sunday, September 11, 2011

Dreams of Steel

by Thomas Grable

Red fire from the forge reflected in the swordsmith’s eyes as his hammer rang down upon the blade blank. The young apprentice sweated as he worked the bellows that fed the flames, bellows shaped like a dragon whose wings rose and fell, and from whose snout came the vents of air that made the coals burn white hot. The very air seemed to be made of fire, and the smithy echoed with the ringing sound of hammer on anvil.
“Hotter,” said the smith, and the apprentice obediently worked the bellows yet faster. The color of the metal ran from red, to orange, to yellow, and finally to white. “Hotter,” he yelled again, and young Kezran Blacksteel, his lungs working like bellows themselves, redoubled his efforts.

The fire became blue-white, the color of an exploding star. Kezran could feel the magic in the air as the hammer rang like thunder upon the blade. Though his lungs ached, though his throat was parched and raw from breathing the scorching air, though his arms felt like leaden weights that screamed in agony, the young apprentice did not falter in his task. Stinging sweat poured into his eyes, but he dared not pause to wipe it away, but instead merely blinked and watched through blurred vision as the sword took shape.

Minutes passed like hours, like eons, as the smith’s hammer rose and fell without surcease. Kezran’s vision swam as much from fatigue as perspiration, and he thought his heart would burst from the strain, but he would die before failing in his task.

He scarcely felt the master’s hand upon him, jostling him from his trance. The master shouted in his ear, “Enough! You can stop now.”

Blinking away the sweat, he saw that the master held the sword in his gloved hand. The blade glowed fiercely in the dark smithy, illuminating the master’s face with its light. As the sword cooled, the smith watched its color change, the color slowly shifting from white to yellow, thence to orange, and finally to a deep and sullen red. At that moment, the smith plunged the sword into the quenching bath, a vat of ice-laden brine kept at a precise temperature.

Steam hissed upward from the vat, obscuring the swordsmith’s face for a moment. He brought the tempered blade up to his eye, and beheld his creation. A grunt of satisfaction escaped him, and he placed the blade upon the block to be finished later. He then turned to his young apprentice.

Uthran Starforge looked over the young Dwarf. “You did well, boy. Few would have had the strength to keep the pace needed for this work.”

Kezran smiled, though exhaustion threatened to engulf him. “My father, and his father before him, and his before him, and for twenty generations before him, all were mighty weaponsmiths. With my ancestors looking on, I could not, would not fail.”

“Yes, I remember your father. That Orc raid took the lives of many of the Naugrim. Dorag Blacksteel was a good Dwarf, and a good friend.”

The master tilted his head, looking closely into the boy’s golden eyes. “Tell me, Kezran, what did you feel back there, during the forging?”

The beardling, taken by surprise, was at a loss. “I felt… fatigue, the heat, the sting of sweat in my eyes. I felt the pain in my arms and in my back. I felt the heated air as I drew it into my lungs,” he answered, and then paused, “and I felt …”

“Yes?”

A look of dawning wonder spread upon the youth’s features. “I felt the magic. I felt the magic. I could feel the power being drawn into the sword, from … from where, I do not know, but I felt it. It was something raw and primal, something alive, and I felt it bound within the blade as you forged it. And when you quenched the blade, I felt it change, somehow, as if something slumbering was shocked awake. I do not know how I know, but I know that that was so.”

For the first time in his memory, Kezran saw the craggy features of the old Dwarf split in a wide smile. The swordsmith slapped his apprentice on the shoulder. “Just so, boy, just so. You have the gift. Few are born with it. The others could become excellent armorers and weaponsmiths, even masters, forging fine blades or armor, but only those with that gift can become a true Smith-Mage. You have that precious gift. I saw it in you when I named you as my apprentice.”

The boy’s elation swept aside his fatigue. “I am honored to learn from you, Master Uthran.”

The grizzled Dwarf stared intently into the eyes of the youth. “I will teach you the ways of the forge, Kezran. Then you will be sent to Vorlnyaas, to learn from the College of Magik. They will instruct you in becoming a wizard. And when you return …”

“Yes?”

Uthran gave a fierce grin. “Then I will teach you how to combine the two. The creation of steel, and the creation of magic. This is what it means to be a true Smith-Mage.”

“I will not fail you, Master Uthran,” the boy vowed.

“Do not fail your self, young Kezran. Let yourself become that which you can be. Forge your own destiny, as you forge the blades that make the destiny of others.”

The boy’s eyes were aglow with the fires of ambition. “I will, Master Uthran. I will.”

Years were spent learning the ways of the forge, learning the secrets of steel. Kezran learned the rare and special elements that were blended with iron to produce steel that would take and edge of surpassing keenness and strength. He how one could tell when a sword was properly tempered by its color, and the taste of good steel. He learned the temperature of the quenching bath, and swore a blood oath to reveal it to no one until he took an apprentice himself.

He learned the ways to grind the blades, and the honing stones used to give them a razor’s edge. He learned how to use wet clay to keep part of the blade from heating, when one desired a differential temper, so that a blade could be both strong and resilient. All of these, and more, did the young Dwarf learn.

When Uthran deemed the boy had learned enough, he was sent to Vorlynaas, to the College of Magik. There he spent years learning the ways arcane, learning the ways of spellcraft and magic. His keen intellect and determination made him an able student, and his instructors commented on his zeal to learn.

Young Kezran saw great things in his future, and hungered for knowledge. That hunger drew the attention of Mistress Chareyas, the head instructor of the school’s section on Enchantment, magic of the mind.

He found himself in her study chamber one night, summoned by a note she’d left him. With a word and a gesture, she had him in her power. His muscles were locked in a rigid paralysis, his body a statue, unable to move or speak. The ageless Elf looked on dispassionately at his plight.

“Tell me, young Kezran, do you enjoy this feeling of powerlessness, of being captive to another’s will?”
The young Dwarf struggled to answer, but no sound escaped him.

“I take it from your silence that you do not. In the world without, there is only dominance or submission. People may speak of equality, but it is a meaningless term. Here, I am master, and you are slave. Do you doubt the veracity of this claim?”

Again, only silence answered.

“My arguments are persuasive, then. I see in you the potential for greatness, young Kezran, a potential that should not be wasted. You have great drive and ambition. It would be a pity to see that ambition thwarted by foolish sentimentality or compassion.”

She paused a moment to let the weight of her words sink in. “Power is not a means unto an end; it is an end unto itself. The purpose of power, is power. These are the truths by which the universe is ruled.”

Kezran listened, still unable to speak, but his mind spun as he pondered her words. She continued.

“Here is my offer, young Kezran. Become my apprentice, and under my tutelage you will learn the ways of the Enchanter. You will learn to control the minds of those weaker than yourself. You will have great power, but you must be willing to use it. As I will be your master, so too will you be the master of others. As you will be my slave, so too will they be yours.”

The Dwarf felt the siren song of temptation within his soul. The fires of ambition burned hot within him, and he considered the nigh-limitless potential of Chareyas’s offer. She smiled with evil glee, knowing the effect her words had upon the young Dwarf, but still she did not release him from her power.

“I now lay a compulsion upon you, Kezran. Return to your quarters, and say nothing of this to anyone. Tomorrow night, you shall return to me and give me your answer.”

Her eyes grew hard. “Should you try to speak of this, your tongue will fail you. Try to write it down, and your hand will fall useless at your side. Indeed, should you reject my offer, the memory of this night will be wiped from your mind.” Her smile took on a predatory glint. “And you will have thrown away a rare opportunity for power, one that will not come your way again.”

With a wave of her hand, the spell that held Kezran was released. “Mistress Chareyas, I shall consider your most,” he paused, “generous… offer.” He bowed, then withdrew from her chambers.

His mind in turmoil, the young Dwarf returned to his quarters among the students. He knew that the offer was a two-edged sword, a promise of power in return for servitude. But the temptation was great. Here was a path to true power, to mastery over the minds of others.

The words of Chareyas echoed in his mind. Dominance or submission. Already she had proven the efficacy of her power. She had ensorcelled him with ease, and could do so again at her leisure. The logic was inescapable. He was already her thrall; the only difference would be whether he was a willing servant, or a hapless slave. Either way, he was a pawn, but one path led to becoming something greater, as in chess, where a pawn may become a knight, a bishop… or a king.

Kezran slept, dreaming visions of power and unholy might. He rose from his slumber, and went through the lessons of the day. The hours dragged by as he awaited nightfall. At length, the day was finished, his tasks complete. Darkness enveloped the land, and laid claim on his soul.

He approached the door to Mistress Chareyas. Steeling his resolve, he made to knock, but the door swung silently inward before him. Mistress Chareyas awaited him, seated in a large leather chair. A smile played about her lips.

Kezran bowed deeply before her, and rose, his eyes locked on hers. “Mistress Chareyas, I have thought long upon your offer, and am ready to accept.”

“Excellent,” she intoned. “Then I can cancel the spell of death that I had laid upon you.”

The Dwarf’s eyes grew wide. “Oh, Kezran, did you think that I would allow you to live if you rejected my offer? You would have suffered a terrible seizure, and death would have swiftly claimed you. It would have been a shame to waste such promise and potential, but such things happen. You were wise to accept.”

Kezran bowed again. “Yes, Mistress.”

He had already learned the first of the many lessons she would teach.

Over the next six years, Kezran spent much time with Mistress Chareyas. The other students snickered and made snide comments about him being the “teacher’s pet,” but Kezran would merely turn his golden eyes upon them, and the comments would cease. The youth labored hard to master the concepts of arcane magic, and his aptitude showed clearly.

He discovered that he had no talent for conjuration, the magic of bringing objects or creatures from elsewhere, but his driving focus on enchantment made him the leading pupil in that field.

Finally, his tutelage was at an end. An apprentice no longer, he was now a true wizard, ready to make his mark upon the world. Kezran reflected on his lessons… all of them. He was ready to return to his old master, to continue is training as a Smith-Mage.

That night, Mistress Chareyas took him into her chambers.

“You leave us tomorrow, Kezran.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“You have learned your lessons well, young wizard. Now is the time for your final lesson.”

The Dwarf’s eyebrows rose. “My final lesson, Mistress?”

She returned a cruel smile. “You are returning to Mount Doom, and the home of your old master. It is your intent to complete your training as a Smith-Mage.”

“Yes, Mistress. This was my intent from the beginning.”

“By all means, Kezran, return to Uthran Starforge. Learn what he has to teach. Master the secrets of the forge, and then…” she smiled, “kill him.”

Kezran’s eyes grew wide. “Mistress, I… y-you ask me to, to…” He faltered.

“To kill him. Yes. This is your final test, Kezran Blacksteel. If you are to have the strength of resolve necessary to be a true Enchanter, to master the wills of men, of beasts, and of demons, then you must first master yourself. You must purge yourself of the weakness of compassion and sentimentality. Prove yourself worthy to rule others, by ruling your own heart.”

“But, Mistress Chareyas, he has been like a father to me.”

“And that is why you must kill him, Kezran. Only thus is the final test passed.”

The Dwarf’s head bowed in submission. There was no choice, really. That decision had already been made, six years ago.

Kezran returned to Mount Doom, to the forge of his master, though his heart was heavy. He let none of it show, masking his misgivings by rededicating himself to the mysteries of the forge. Uthran was impressed by his apprentice’s mystic knowledge, and showed him the arts of blending magic and metal.

For three years they toiled, until at last Uthran and Kezran worked together to produce a mighty sword of power. Forged of blood-red steel, it gleamed crimson in the light of the forge. The two had carved runes of fell power into the blade, and the edge would put a razor to shame.

“This may be my finest work, Kezran,” the old smith intoned. “Feel its balance.”

Kezran hefted the sword, and marveled at the sensation of power he felt from the blade. “It is perfect,” he said, in a mingled tone of pride and sadness. Unnoticed, a single tear trickled down his cheek, but that could have been perspiration.

“That scabbard there looks to fit it,” Kezran pointed. The old Dwarf’s eyes turned in the direction indicated.
“Forgive me,” Kezran whispered.

At that moment, Kezran struck. He plunged the blade into his master’s back. The point emerged from the old Dwarf’s chest in fountain of crimson. Kezran released his grip on the sword as he watched his master and friend fall to his knees. Something died inside him as he looked on at the sight.

Uthran gave a wet, wracking cough, then another. His body convulsed as he coughed again and again, and it sounded like… laughter? Kezran looked on in amazement as the old Dwarf straightened, and turned to face him.

A look of malefic humor played on Uthran’s features, and his eyes were glowing in the light of the forge. “At long last, you’ve shown your true colors, Kezran Blacksteel.”

With that, he reached behind him, and with some difficulty, slowly withdrew the sword from his back. “Ah, that’s better. Yes, we forged it well indeed, my apprentice.”

Kezran could only stare in dumbfounded amazement. Uthran chuckled. “Oh, don’t look so surprised, Kezran. I taught you everything you know, but I didn’t teach you everything I know. I knew from the first you had the gift, but it was a chore indeed to ensure that you would use it.

“I sent you to the College of Magik at Vorlnyaas. I also sent word to Mistress Chareyas. She played her part well, as did you. This was the final test, and you passed with flying colors. You have proven yourself worthy.”

“Welcome, Kezran Blacksteel, to the service of Xiombarg, Queen of the Chaos Swords.”

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