By Jack Logan
This tale starts shortly after matter had settled and time started rolling forward in this universe, when its gods still looked down on the world for their lives and their entertainment. The creatures below amused these high beings, the greatest amusement coming from man and woman. These little beings were the funniest, the gods decided, because they tried so hard to be like the gods. But they were only pale and simple imitations.
One day the gods, who had yet to be named properly, gathered and looked down from their high palace and watched all the types of man they saw. The god of the Hunt and its Feast spoke first, and laughed.
“Look down there. Do you see? That man toils and searches for his food, clumsily moving on the ground. Every step alerts the beasts of the forest. Do you know why he hunts? He will starve without his food, and slip away from this plane into that cold abyss. In his haste, he doesn’t even care to prepare his meal properly. I remember when he didn’t even cook the meat. You all should thank me, for every beast I kill and every meal I prepare has been divine.”
“Perhaps that causes much of their deficiencies.” Love and its Arts said, voice appalled and filled with concern. “Even before their bodies expire, they tear on the road and cook in the sun. These imperfect forms surely lead to their imperfect joining. This pain they feel, it mars their sense. Give one of them a meal, and see if they strengthen.”
“You blaspheme.” Hunt and Feast said amused, but with drips of real venom. “Their frail stomachs would burst.”
“It is not the body that fails them, it is the spirit.” The Wind that Covers the World said. “This weakness has revealed recently. They have begun using us elements, doing so pathetically. They can spit out little winds, for toppling over their little bodies or scattering rocks. This is under their greatest effort. If I wished, and if it did not affront my brothers, I could lift the mountains to stay in the air.”
“Their hearts fail them.” Said War. The other gods silenced. Of those assembled, War was supreme. “When they perform my art, it is sloppy and longwinded. They set out to take lives, and when the task is right before them they falter and whimper.”
“They threaten.” Said the Forger and the Crafter. He stood on the edge of this great palace and looked down intently. Several other gods tensed, as they did not like to speak right after War. But the Forger had nothing to fear, he had done War a great boon in the past. “All these things you list, they used to be worse at. Even incapable of. But we have watched them improve, little by little.”
“From horrifying to merely ugly.” Laughed Love.
“Who of us can say they have improved?” The Forger said, somber. “Who has tried?”
War rose and moved to The Forger. The other gods dispersed. “You worry for nothing.”
“Is this worry?” The Forger asked unsure. “It is an odd sensation. A many faced tension. I fear it, and I look to meet it.” The Forger gripped the ledge, more certain. “I will call on you in seven days.”
And The Forger descended down to the mortal plane.
Ulcan Astar sweated over his forge. It was all set up out doors, near a stream for easy access to water. It had been built so generations ago. It was a damp day, and his fire suffered for it. Ulcan filled his large hands with coal and tended to his flame. When he looked up, he had a customer. It was a large man, wearing a heavy brown fur over his shining armor. His metal gleamed like nothing Ulcan had ever seen. The man stood impossibly upright, his chest extending far out even between breathes.
“Greetings, My lord.” Ulcan said, looking the man in his eyes and then at his iron crown.
“Good day.” The upright man moved past Ulcan, onto his wares which were displayed in the open. He took a sword into his hand and balanced it. “A fine blade. Is it complicated to make such a precise instrument?”
“Precise? Excuse me, yes. Every element here has to be fine tuned to the crafters specifications.” Ulcan gestured to his forge. “The Astar forge has stood and been tended by four of my fathers. It has been tuned finer and finer by each one. As it shall be by my son.”
“Entire lives for your craft. True dedication.”
Ulcan did not feel he was being spoken too, but answered anyways. “Yes, of course.”
The man returned the sword to its rack. “I would see a sample of your armor.”
“My lord, I’m afraid I have no armor that would suit you or even fit you.” Ulcan answered carefully, his curiosity about the man having overtaken his awe. “Although I have made armor for men larger than you, both in height and in girth, your shape is unlike that of any man I have seen. And I have crafted for many. Your arms and legs are too long, your elbows and knees too sharp. And I believe my armor would burst before you.”
“You have truly memorized the form of man. As you must have. My deceit was foolish.”
An orange flash and a white heat expelled from The Forger as he shed his mortal disguise. He grew many times his size, and the designs on his armor grew red hot as if they were still in his godly forge. On the sides his armor had four openings to his left and four to his right, his arms coming out of the highest opening. It seemed a strange design to Ulcan.
A roar covered the field, and the god’s fur leapt off his body in surprise and quickly retook its form as a large brown bear. The bear ran away from the heat and the god that turned it.
Ulcan perceived the god as metal armor on hairless metal skin, with bright fire escaping from its mouth, eyes, and nose. His flesh glowed like metal cooking in a violet flame. In his mighty hands, flawless and unscratched from working his divine forge he held a mighty hammer that came up to his belly. Ulcan feel to his knees before The Forger. “You are of the divine. I should not look upon you.”
“You must. Rise and look upon, as I have studied you over all your time at the forge. You have become a craftsman I cannot ignore.”
“I apologize for any offense.” Ulcan spoke still on his knees. “I know no other way of life.”
“Nor do I.” Said The Forger. “Rise and hold you hammer tight, Ulcan Astar. I would perform an experiment.”
Called by name, Ulcan rose to his feet. The forger took him into his left hand, and with his right thrust his mighty crafting hammer upwards, and the two traveled to the home of the gods.
The celestial palace on high went to alarm. Those gods present flew down to the sensed intrusion, the spot of imperfection in their divine. “Betrayer!” Bellowed Love, accusing The Forger and shaking the halls. Hunt and The Wind formed beside her in agreement. War watched from a distance. “Bringing that flesh here!”
“We have all had our experiences with these mortals.” The Forger spoke calmly, but with no intention to relent. “Surely letting them into our lives, how we live them, is less than letting them into our home.”
Hunt spoke next. “You disgust me, without even a warning or a discussion you bring this. We have shared everything with you!” The gods approached, looking fiercely past The Forger to his mortal who would surely be easier to wound.
“And what of that I have shared with you, my siblings?” The Forger banged his hammer against the floor of the palace, and his fires leapt back to life on the armor of his siblings. Love’s ornate metal gripped and burned, the tools of Hunt twisted and stabbed at him, and the bands of The Wind shook and heated him. The three collapsed and lost their preferred forms. Wind dispersed throughout the halls of the palace and would not reform for eight days. Hunt and Love grew together, forming a forest of trees, flowers, and animals that would take the same eight days to pull itself apart. The palace filled with the laughter of all the gods not present.
“Is this to be my summons?” War asked.
“Not yet. But soon.” The Forger answered. He turned back to Ulcan. “We must climb, I carved my forge into one of our five peaks.
“Will your siblings seek revenge on you?” Ulcan only half asked the question. He was distracted by the makings of the palace he walked through. The corners were lined by flawless gold beams, obviously made a stronger metal than it was on the mortal plane. The walls themselves flowed, flared, and stood as the unearthed guts of the world itself. Some were flowing stream of liquid fire, others ageless and invincible tree trunks, and a mirrored ice that burned as deep as any flame.
“It is likely they will try. But those three are geared more towards mischief, and use tools that do not affect me.” The Forger smiled. “I am made of sterner things than they.”
The Forger ascended through the palace walking over black stones that rose like a staircase, floating unsupported in the air. As Ulcan approached, fearful, the stones broke into smaller pieces with less distance between him to accommodate his smaller size. The stones didn’t shake once, but Ulcan still grasped the edges for balance. He was too afraid to move on. The Forger gestured at the stone, and it carried the mortal guest the rest of the way.
The floating staircase lead out to the open of the palace. The cold thin air and brilliant sun stunned Ulcan. The Forger plucked him up in his hand again and moved toward a mountain side opposite the palace exit. Ulcan shifted in the god’s grasp and looked back at the palace of the gods. The outer walls were constructed out of blue crystals, which darkened and stretched with the setting of the sun. During the long climb Ulcan watched as the dining hall extended further out, preparing for dinner. The palace was built on the rim of the planet, above the blue sky and beneath the dark void. “We have arrived.” The Forger placed Vulcan down on the flat peak of the mountain. On the top of the mountain sat the Forge of the Heavens.
The forge had an older look to it compared to the rest of the gods’ palace, but it didn’t look old. It looked permanent. It was made of a smooth, dark stone, without the ornamentation of the palace. Out of that black stone a gold flame tensely played within its bowl, barely holding itself back like an obedient pet waiting for its master to say it can run. The fire rose a little higher with every step The Forger took.
“You possess a grand fire.” Ulcan said. “Truly, it is unequaled.”
“Thank you mortal. None of my brothers or sisters ever understood its beauty as you do. The forge itself was crafted from my own flesh. When I discovered this fire, I knew immediately what it could be. I threw three pairs of my arms into the flames and crafted this forge.” The Forger stood prideful. “There is an equal, an opposite, flame though. This fire you see here is part of the creation birth, life which cannot be put out. There is a flame of destruction. It lies as beneath your ground as this does above.”
Ulcan’s mind itched at the concept. Surely it would easier to reach the depths of the earths than to find this ethereal plane without its owner guidance.
“You do not have to contemplate any journeys.” The Forger said, reading Ulcan’s face. “You are not here to be teased or tormented. I have brought you here to work my forge.” Ulcan look up in awe, in thanks, and began to weep. “You and I will each create a sword this week. Then we will compare them.”
Ulcan did not understand how anything he could create would compare to the work of that being standing before him. But he did not speak against the god, he would not speak against this opportunity.
“You will work without the toil you are used to.” The Forger said. “That is the only way this forge knows. Dedicate yourself to the fine tuning of your blade.” The Forger placed his hand into the fires, and his six arms beneath flexed and fanned the flame. Gold light and heat burst upwards into the sky. The Forger strode over to the opposite side. “To your work, mortal.”
Ulcan observed the flame for a moment longer. But the need to use it, to craft something, grew and swelled within him. He looked around for what he would craft with. At his thought, shining rocks floated up to him, waiting in the air for further command. Ulcan wished the golden brown rocks into the fire, and they obeyed. The metal bubbled and heated, taking a liquid form that still moved to Ulcan’s will. In midair he shaped it to the right length and width. Upon satisfaction, Ulcan ordered it out of the flame. It stayed before him at waist high.
Ulcan adjusted his grip on his hammer. During the trip through the palace, he had clung to it as his only sanity. While beholding and working the forge, he nearly let it fall out of his hands. Now, he readied his hand and his hammer for work.
Although he questioned how the metal before him would react to impact, he did not hold back from his first blow. He hammered it as if he stood before his trusted workbench back home. The metal beneath him did not budge from the blow. Ulcan saw this, smiled, and began to shape a blade. It could have been the clear sun bearing down, or the way the metal glistened while it hung at the perfect distance, but Ulcan saw his raw element like he never had before. He saw the metal breathe as he forged its lungs, flex as he crafted its muscles. And his hammer detailed the metal in a way impossible for such a blunt tool.
Ulcan had done all he could with his hammer. He knelt down and placed it gingerly on the ground, proud. He then rose and plucked the shaped sword out of the air. Despite its time in the fire it was cool to his touch, as he knew it would be. Ulcan rose the blade high into the air, and the wind of the gods’ peak came down to greet the metal. The wind acted as the grindstone, sharpening the blade finely and evenly. The blade whistled as it formed. Ulcan twisted the blade by its handle, guiding the edge, making a true sword. Finally, he lowered it for inspection. It gleamed a brownish gold. “This is a good blade.”
“A fine product for your weeks work.” The Forger said. He had returned from the other side of the forge, and brought with him a mighty blade, covered in the ornate script of the gods, metal glowing with divine fire.
“You have worked well too.” Ulcan laughed at the difference between the two products, but still treasured what he had made. “Did you say we’ve been here a week? The sun has not set.”
“Night cannot be found in this part of the palace.” The Forger tensed, his time of trial had arrived. “War, I would hold counsel with you.”
The mountain shook, and War appeared dressed in the armor The Forger had made for him. The armor was a dark blue metal with a silver trim. Finely engraved, the great battles of the world still waged on. War’s breastplate showed the first being and god of this world holding down a dragon. Black tendrils wrapped around above god and beast, splitting them up into the world, the races, and the gods.
Beneath the breast plate, over War’s abdomen, the new gods looked down as the many races and tribes carved up the world for themselves. Over the arms and knees were tales of the gods’ own conflicts, lighter in scope without the threat of death.
The armor was known as The Forger’s greatest creation.
“I see you two have created.” War said, eyeing both blades. “Why have you brought me here? Dressed for great battle?”
“I would test my new creation against my old.” The Forger answered.
“And what of the mortal?”
“A further test.”
War shrugged and waved his brother on. The Forger stepped back and swung his blade against the mighty armor. The metals clashed and the palace’s grounds quaked. The Forger carried through the stroke and readied again. The Blade curved, and when it clashed against the armor red fires of destruction leapt out and covered War. The Forger swung once more, with a blunt blade that produced the coldest ice. The change in temperatures toppled Ulcan. The Forger relented. Smoke and mist cleared and War stood undamaged, his armor unmarred.
War roared in appreciation. “A fine tool! To command such an outburst from the elements… Still not enough to scratch your true masterwork, however.” He looked down at Ulcan, who stumbled to regain his footing. “That would have changed the map on your world, mortal.”
The Forger looked over the armor. It had indeed ignored the blows. “Ulcan, if you would take your swing?”
Ulcan at last righted himself. He approached War, who did not stifle his laughter. The god lowered himself down to Ulcan’s size, “Swing where you will. All amusements must have their peak.”
Hesitating, Ulcan did not move. “There will be no punishment.” The Forger, who joined his two guests at their level, assured. “You cannot insult. You are here under my protection.”
Ulcan swallowed his fears and swung. His human blade smacked into the black armor, creating a few sparks. War laughed. “Has your fascination been sated, brother? Do you still believe there are mysteries left in these little beings?”
The Forger spoke calm and worn, like a man suddenly certain he was lost. “You must remember to control yourself.”
At first War took it as a joke he didn’t understand, but the meaning swelled before him. He looked down and scanned his prized armor. Where Ulcan had struck, there was a small scratch. A shard of the silver trim lay on the ground.
War rose to his true size and screamed. The windows of the palace all shattered, and the elements that rested within were whipped in to a frenzy. Most of the gods inside fled, only a few of those high enough watched the scene and wondered if they would have to intervene or if it would be wise.
Ulcan felt his body and soul twist from the god’s roar. He collapsed, clutching at his chest. As the world stretched around him, the many tools of war which he crafted over his life flashed back to him. Before he had always separated his creations from his mind, What they did was up to their owners. Now he felt their swings, the blood they spilt and the battles they won. Ulcan’s heartbeat grew hot and consumed his whole body, and he wished he had made his tools deadlier. More efficient. A strange bloodlust grew within him.
The Forger shielded the human, so the mortal would not be lost. This act of protection further enraged War.
“You protect this mortal?” He bellowed, “He who has scarred your greatest work? He is blasphemy incarnate!”
“You blind yourself to the larger picture.” The Forger spoke calmly, his feet firmly pressed to the ground while the world whipped around him. “How could he cause such a mark?”
“Because he is an imperfection! Because you have tainted or home with his humanly stink!”
“And is he different from all others like him?” The Forger asked. War began to settle as he pondered the question. The axis between the blue sky beneath and the black void above returned to a straight axis as War began to understand The Forger. “I don’t think so. Perhaps every one of them can chip away at us.”
Vile little whispers began to slither out from the god’s palace as the castle rebuilt and righted itself.
“What do you propose?” War asked The Forger.
“I must depart our perfect home. Perhaps the mortal world will test me.”
“It tests them. It will not affect you. But do as you will.” War looked down to Ulcan, who was still shaking. “I shall not harm your creature. But you must take him away from our home.”
“Thank you, brother.” The Forger reached down and tapped Ulcan. The man began to feel himself slip away from the realm of the gods. He stole a last glance at the golden fires at the top of the world. He reached out to them, but he was already gone.
The air in the mortal realm lacked the sweetness the gods enjoyed. The colors around Ulcan’s home seemed duller. The Forger stood over him, surveying the land and where it could take him.
“I cannot see as far…” The Forger mused to himself. “There are challenges here for me.”
“You must take me back.” Ulcan whispered, just as he regained his voice.
The meaning of the words dawned slowly on The Forger. “I cannot. You would not be welcomed.” He smiled. “Nor would I.”
“You cannot tell me that…” Ulcan’s words regained some of their strength. “You cannot show me such creation, such potential, and have me indulge just once. It is not fair.”
The Forger looked down, past Ulcan’s exterior into his inner workings. “I see. I have damaged you, taking you to a place of the unfamiliar perfection. I apologize. But you cannot return. You must cope with your desires.” The Forger was remorseful as he spoke, but he would not say anything else. He walked off in his direction, and did not turn back.
But Ulcan would not be calmed, and he would not be dismissed. He returned to his home, and instructed his family to pack up. They did, presuming they were moving closer to a town which would net better business. Ulcan marched them off, never correcting them.
He could feel the call of that golden fire in his gut. His perfect sword, crafted in golden fire, refined his hunger into a guiding point. For months Ulcan and his family traveled, until they reached the base of that impossible mountain. It was of dark grey rock, and it dwarfed all the other mountains near it. At first sight Ulcan began the climb, not hearing the calls of his family behind him.
The climb possessed Ulcan, his desire batted away the needs food and sleep. It pushed him up, beyond it all. But after ten days, with the top of the mountain still out of view, Ulcan ran out of air. He fell. A great distance down he caught himself, and once again resumed his climb. But he could never pass that airless barrier.
Ulcan raged and he cursed the selfish gods above him, certain that he was close enough to be heard. Ulcan brought his perfect sword down against the mountain, and it carved and crafted the rock which he stood on. Again and again he slashed, and as the days passed his fury took shape and purpose. Ulcan would craft a home greater than that of the gods into their own mountain. Cragged cliffs became stately columns, the solid rock was gutted and thrown out to the earth bellow, and Ulcan crafted his own perfect temple. He did not craft something to change and bend to the wills of gods, instead he made it to stand resilient against their whims and their meddling. He built a grand temple, but it had limits. One day, he could carve no deeper, and rise no higher. Ulcan had built a wonder to man, but could not yet touch the gods.
One day, deep within the carved temple, the sound of timid footsteps approached Ulcan. He did not look away from the smooth, towering wall that he had created. It was the point where he could dig no further in, and no higher up. “Husband?” A voice called to him, “What is this wondrous place?” His wife, who had finally reached one of the temples many entrances, waited for his response.
“It is my petty, ugly, imperfection.”
Ulcan’s family would pass in and out of the temple throughout the years. Ulcan’s wife stayed with him, too weak to venture back down the mountain, until the day she died. Ulcan however, did not age with her. He watched his family grow, and drift away back down the mountain.
In this time he still forged, but it had become routine to him. He now had a higher instinct, and crafted great works. But that perfection eluded him. Still, his metal was lauded as the greatest in the world. And that made him a legend.
One day, three troops of three hundred each approached his mountain temple. They marched up the hundreds of stairs, under the stone arches, and into the main hall. Those whose eyes roamed shuddered at the large empty temple. Only one light blared in the hall, a lit forge that Ulcan stood over. “If you want swords for an army, send notice.” Ulcan said without turning from his work. “I do not like such crowds in my home.” In his time alone Ulcan had crafted many masterpieces, all which lay scattered and discarded around the forge. Strong blades and armor, tossed away in disdain for their lack of the divine.
At his word, three personal carriages were rushed to the front of each battalion. The carriages were lifted off the ground by six soldiers each, all wearing matching armor. One group wore sparkling gold, another silver, and the last a shimmering blue. These colors matched the carriages and all stood out from the rest of the soldiers, who dressed in battered and nearly scrapped armor. Ulcan looked at them. The shining armors were all decorative, and would not withstand many blows.
The carriages were all set down within an instant of each other. The soldiers carrying them looked at their competition, hoping they had arrived first to avoid penalty. The fine curtains of each carriage were drawn back, and out stepped the owners. From the gold, a thin man with flawless skin and a painted face emerged. A woman of similar description came out of the silver carriage, drawing the eyes of every soldier in the hall. Lastly, from the blue carriage an obese man flooded out half the way, having to be pulled out the rest of the way by the men who carried him. All three raced over to Ulcan.
Lit up by the forge’s light, their colorful armors sparkled. They were dressed in real metal, made to protect. Not one scratch marred any of the three sets. “Greetings, great crafter! I would-”
“Quiet, you fat oaf!” The three glared at each other and started to squabble. Each battalion shifted to action and readied their weapons, but it was only procedure. Every man knew there would be no battle while the three lords were within striking distance.
Ulcan sighed. He did not have many visitors as of late, save for a few descendants who would drop by the hall. Although his body was strong and he had not aged in many years, company of any kind quickly took a toll on him. This was especially true of those not invited. Ulcan lifted his hammer and struck it against the ground. His hall quaked and the blow roared through the temple, out, and down the mountain. “I would have you all silent. I would have you all depart.”
The shock had floored the three lords, and many of their troops as well. The young, thin man regained himself first. He looked down at the young woman, whose decorative shoes kept her from standing back up, and the obese lord trying to roll himself back over. He smiled, and turned to Ulcan. “I apologize for my haste in approaching, great crafter. But your aid is needed in settling a dispute between us three.”
“Quite right.” The fat lord said, as his attendants pushed him to his feet. “These blasphemers and their ilk have been feuding over my father’s land for generations now!”
“And who do we blaspheme against, you tubby little oaf?” Asked the thin elegant man.
“Against my father!” The lord replied, his face blasting to red.
The woman had been righted as well, balancing on her heels, and with one hand extended to an attendant approached closer to Ulcan. “We each would commission from you an item that would carry us into battle. I desire a lance, that can pierce any armor.”
Her counterpart ran up just as far as she had. “I wish for a shield that cannot be pierced.” The young man snapped, shooting a superior smile her way.
“And I require a helm, one of shining glory, that will etch my family’s victory into history.” The large lord went no further from where he stood, but panted heavily. “It’s not like any of us will be fighting anyways.” He muttered.
Ulcan judged all three equal nuisances. But as he looked over the large force they had assembled, a yearning and an idea grew within him. He could go no higher, no closer to the flame he desired no matter how many numbers he had. But he knew of its counterpart, as far beneath the earth as the gold flame was above. The god’s golden flame called out to him, burned in his heart. And this opposite flame froze his back. Ulcan knew right where it lay; far beneath the earth, where the small, stout, and strong man had dug just deep enough to find the creatures that roamed that blackness. There, where an army might make a difference.
“I can make these for each of you here. They will be perfect, but not special. If you want weapons and armor that will win you battles and fame, those cannot be forged here. I require passage to The Deep.”
Three collected armies shuddered.
“Whoever remains of your forces will deliver back each your item. If none survive, it is forfeit.” Ulcan did not have to wait for his terms to be accepted.
“Send a message! Three hundred more men to meet at the entrance to The Deep!” The large lord stumbled toward his bird master.
“You double that order!” The three lords raced off, ordering men and provisions to be delivered. Ulcan picked up his hammer, tightened his grip on his immortal blade, and exited his temple for the first time in decades.
He tilted his head up just slightly, looking up the mountain. He could still not see the top. He left the grand, hollow, hall he built for himself. While stepping down he could taste his trails and his old rage, left over from when he first climbed. The unison marching behind him took him back to the present. Ulcan looked back and saw a dejected army following him. They were tired from the march up, and terrified by where they were headed.
But those fears were of no consequence. Ulcan marched them down the mountain and around it, searching for an entry he knew had to exist. They marched for many days without Ulcan ever looking back. The armies knew how to move, large trees and angry beasts were quickly cut down so that the journey could continue.
And then Ulcan found it, the beginning of a labyrinth of underground passages. It was a small hole at the base of the god’s mountain, with no dressing or carvings to make it stand out as anything other than a cave. But Ulcan could feel the cold grasp of destruction’s flame reaching out, deep below.
Ulcan turned and surveyed the forces available to him. The three lords had abandoned their soldiers, but every other man remained. He jerked his head toward the entrance. The armies approached. “Give me a torch.” Ulcan commanded. Many flames behind him lit, and one was handed to him. Ulcan took it and entered the tunnel, one hand grasping the torch and the other lightly tracing around his perfect golden blade. His weapon rattled the deeper they traveled, sharp and angry jerks. Ulcan had always been able to hear this blade he had crafted, but on this day he finally understood its movements. Jealousy.
“Of course you are good.” Ulcan said as he drove deeper, not caring that his voice carried back to the following soldiers. “Good is so far beneath you. You are perfect. But that is not enough.”
“It is not unknown for a man to talk to his weapon. But when the device is like yours, all should take notice.”
The voice came from deeper down, a rough and amused sound. Ulcan stuck his torch out at full arm’s length, and the man appeared right below it. A tough and grizzled man, with long hair and beard, in a strong set of armor stood blocking the path. He was waist high to Ulcan, and just as wide. To his right he gripped a hammer as tall as he was. Ulcan lowered the torch right next to the man’s face. The flame did not frighten the depth dweller, and he did not feel the heat.
“What do you know of my blade?” Ulcan asked.
“I know its edge, and the kind of flame necessary to forge it. How it can carve beyond itself, beyond what any tool should.” The dwarf looked closer. “And it is just a tool. Not made for dealing death. Quite an absurdity you lug around, a sword that should not kill.”
“I forged this blade many years ago, and it is true that it has never spilt blood. I have never had the desire to do so. This sword is my great creation. I seek the lower depths, where I could once again create at this level.”
The dwarf studied Ulcan’s face. Ulcan was covered in the shadows of the cave, his torch’s light not leaping far from its wood. But the dwarf could see him as if it was daylight, and Ulcan’s face was as stone as anything else in the depths. “You are right to come here, we do have a similar flame. With it you can craft at that level, but your product will not be the same. You will make true tools of destruction.”
“I am aware.” Ulcan said. “But I must work that flame once more. I cannot rest without it. Please, point me the way.”
The dwarf nodded. “I will lead you down, as far as I can. Beware, there are dangers there that your army can fight. But there are others too.”
The dwarf turned and delved deeper into the caves. He walked like a man and a rock. His arms moved at the shoulders and his legs at the hips, with little bending of the extremities. He lead Ulcan and the three armies through the small and subtle turns of the caverns. Many soldiers whispered to themselves that it must be a trap, and that the depth dwellers could not be trusted. But Ulcan knew the route was true. Every turn brought him closer the sublime resource that he craved. With every he could see it better and better, like a flame behind a series of sheets growing brighter with every cloth stripped away.
The dwarf stopped. In front of him the cave grew much wider. Torches lined its walls and their light revealed that there were no more twists and turns. Just a steep decline downward. The dwarf took his hammer and struck the ground three times. The strikes were precise. “I have disarmed the traps and sent signal to my family. You shall not be bothered by anything of our creation on your way down. And so I have done all I can for you.”
“May I ask why you have been so cooperative?” Ulcan asked.
“That flame down there that you hunger for, only our very best can shape with it. If you can, it is your right. If you cannot, it will consume you. May you be made of stone, and triumph here.”
“Thank you. But it has already consumed me.” Ulcan continued further down, with the three armies following. The dwarf waited for the last man to pass before he began his journey upwards. As he left he hummed an old song he knew, one of mourning and pity.
As Ulcan walked forward, the ground beneath him shifted. He steadied himself, than knelt down and ran his hand against the ground. The stone had softened to dirt somehow, and it was warm. Ulcan had not felt a chill in many years, but from the shivering of all the men behind him he knew the cave to be cold. He looked down the path. Far down beyond his vision, a mass approached. A gargling, clicking noise carried up to him. The trials had begun.
“To arms!” Ulcan called out, and the three armies behind him drew their weapons.
And up rose the guarding force of the depths. Walking like men, the charging army looked like a combination of snakes and rats. Their skin was studded leather, with whip like tails and clawed arms and feet. They stood about as tall as the dwarf, but ran swiftly and shifted every part of the body when moving. The mass of them looked like a rushing flood.
They clashed against the shields of Ulcan’s three armies, but being small creatures most fit in-between the thrusting spears. Unarmed, they swiped wildly at the armored defense knowing by smell and instinct where to find flesh. They carved up the bare arms of many soldiers.
The men adapted. They abandoned their spears and swung with their shields, bashing and rattling the smaller creatures. And they’d finish with the swipe of a sword. Ulcan joined with his own precious blade, and was horrified by the results. His blade did not cut the creatures, but drove them into the ground, like mud falling on mud. The little demons hissed in pain as they scrapped at the ground trying to dig themselves back out. They were put to death by any soldier that saw them. The human army held strong, and the remaining creatures fled. The tunnel was quite.
Ulcan looked back. Many men were bleeding, but there were few casualties. He let them regroup, then marched forward. His army followed.
Not long after, the second trial began. It started subtly, a small plague on vision. Images began to leap of their host’s. Ulcan would glance over to a soldier and see double. Extra fingers wriggled off of human hands and steel swords bent and danced in the dark. The images soon demented. The fingers stretched out, growing whole bodies, taking the image of slain comrades, the swords leapt out and expelled all the blood they ever spilt. And before Ulcan appeared his wife. Long cold pangs of desire and love resonated within Ulcan.
All around soldiers screamed and slashed at their tormentors, cutting either air or their brothers. Ulcan walked forward slowly, transfixed by the woman he loved. She looked more beautiful than ever. When he was but steps away, her face started to crack and peel. Ulcan leapt and put his hands over the damage. His touch was a balm, acting like water to caking dirt. Her beauty returned, and he embraced her.
“I have lost so much over the years, allowed myself to lose…” Ulcan spoke softly, oblivious to the screams and bloodshed around him. “In my obsession I let you fade away, gave up years of our time together.” Ulcan cupped her face in his hands, guiding her vision to his. “And I am sorry. But my obsession remains.” He drew out his sword, took her hand in his, and gently cut.
A small gasp escaped from his wife. In that moment Ulcan remembered her voice in full. In that moment she faded, and so did the horrors. Ulcan looked back. He had lost many men. He gave them time to cope, and then continued the march down.
The pull of creation nearly carried Ulcan on its own, he had no notion of his legs moving. And just when he felt his goal should be right in front of him, a wall. The passage ended, not with any grand sign or terrible cliff, just a natural end to a natural tunnel.
Ulcan drew out his sword and slashed, again and again. He left not a mark, not on the wall and not on the blade. He placed his hand on the wall and collapsed. Shame welled up in his stomach and spread. And then, in the dark, an icy voice spoke to him.
“Yes, it is the same impenetrable existence. This is no stone of earth, it is the rock of reality. That’s what’s at the core of this mountain. It tells you when you must stop, it sucks out your air, it says ‘no further’. It gives you trials, battles, and terrors. And when you pass all those, you find the guardian. And then, there is nothing to be done. Turn back.”
These words lit a great anger in Ulcan. “I do not except that! I have tasted this type of flame before, I am deserving, and you will let me through.”
First silence, and then a mocking, terrible, laugh. “You walked past, no you were invited, carried past, by a lost, wandering, and overly philosophic guardian. That’s the type you get when you let someone stand at the top of the world and forget their job! I am not so giving. I demand sacrifice.”
“What do you require?” Ulcan asked immediately. The voice told him. Once again Ulcan was shamed. But this past quickly. “I have need of three. One of each banner.” Ulcan saw nothing, but he felt the creature smile. The stone wall vanished, and a white flamed forge stood before him.
Ulcan entered and readied his hammer. The white flame shuddered, and repulsed him. The flame cut just as much as it burned. But Ulcan would not be denied. He rose his hand, and commanded the immovable rock that surrounded him to enter the flame of destruction. It resisted, but it obeyed. Ulcan thrashed with his hammer, far more violent than he had to be on the mountain’s top. His muscles tensed and stretched with each blow. Ulcan did not sacrifice his precision. He had spent much learning about his craft during his seclusion, and he had fantasized about this moment for even longer. There was so much more to his craft than casting shape. Here he took power, and put it to form. He dimly remembered what had been asked of him. And so he crafted a lance, a shield, and a helm. When he was done, the three items lit up like stars.
Ulcan went to the edge of the forge. Three soldiers remained, each one dressed in his own army’s colors. He displayed his three master works, and counted on each soldier to remember what his master wanted. Each man took an item and ran out of the cold tunnel, past their many comrades frozen in lifeless stone. Ulcan returned to the forge, and found himself at a loss. For the first time in decades, he had no driving purpose. He stared into the flame, now calmed due to its rare use. In its flickers, Ulcan watched the three pieces leave the cave.
The arms flew to the battlefield, which had assembled and waited for them. All three lords delighted in their newly gotten gains. In the daylight the weapons shined like brilliant pearls. The three wielders rushed to the frontlines, guided by an exploding lust for glory and victory. It was not a wise thing to do, and they would have known that on any other day. They did not command their own movements.
A woman with a lance, a young man with a shield, and another with a helm. These three ran out to the field of battle, leaving behind a cadre of soldiers all wondering if their lords had taken ill in the head.
The woman smiled. “You shouldn’t have been so adventurous. I’m the only one who can strike out.”
“I will withstand it.” The man with the shield replied. “I can do no less.”
The larger man boomed his voice over them both. “You under estimate a divine command! You shall fall, because that’s what both of you were meant to be! Beneath my feet!”
The woman struck out with her lance, not near either man. A fierce light unleashed, bathing the flat field in a white stuttering flash. To look at the bolt itself was like gazing into the sun. It clashed against the invincible shield, and it held there. The young man’s arms began to shake holding the bolt still. It occurred to him that he might’ve been hasty in meeting like this. With one shove and all his power he tossed the bolt away, towards the large man and the white helm.
The bolt of light and heat narrowed and focused on the ethereal helm. That shining, mirror and diamond like casing glowed, doubling and redoubling the light that met it. It’s wearer laughed, as the shine blinded his two foes. The lance and the shield absorbed much of the fury, but their possessors started to sweat. They stood strong, defiant, not willing to relent an inch to a man they both knew to be foolish. The ground beneath all three began to cook. The heat ate upwards, turning fine cloth shoes to scraps and shining ornamental metal to molten slag. And in that blinding storm, laughter gave way to screaming.
The light faded. The three militias looked to where the lords had stood. There was charred bone, melting metal, and three beautiful, flawless weapons. All three groups ran from the battlefield to report the news. They left the weapons to lie.
The white flame died back down to a sedate flicker before Ulcan. He was not surprised. In crafting the items together, they had attuned to each other. Parts of a whole. And something so powerful turned in on itself, would certainly lead to destruction. “Perhaps someday… someone…” Ulcan drifted off. He had made his masterpieces. Works that scratched the realm of godhood with their power.
Ulcan ran his finger over the edge of his sword. It no longer seemed the fixation to him, he had crafted better and let them walk away without a moment’s thought. Ulcan placed the blade down on the forges rim, its tip just touching the white flame. “Perhaps, it is finally time to turn my attentions to smaller goals.” Ulcan exited the forge of destruction, and passed out of the mountain tunnel without incident. He kept his head straight when passing by the stone men he condemned.
Back in the daylight, Ulcan stole a glance up the mountain. It no longer tormented him. He gathered his bearings, and headed through the woods to the place he once called home. It was a strange journey. He remembered every step, but the scenery had changed so much. And then, all the same. A tiny little house with a forge in the middle of a green field with a stream running close by. The sight froze Ulcan. A tiny voice shook him from his wonder.
“Excuse me sir, are you looking to buy a sword?” A young boy tugged at Ulcan’s leg.
“Are you of the Astar line?” Ulcan asked the boy. He nodded. “Call your father, please.” The boy did, and his father came out of the house with a stretch. He balked at the sight of Ulcan.
“Who is he father?” The boy asked.
“He is your… my grandfather.” The man answered. He was generous by a few generations, but did not want to confuse the boy. Every generation of Astar had made a climb up the mountain top, to meet their progenitor. Ulcan had given the man a few secrets of the flame, many years ago.
“I have come to my old home, hoping to have a greater hand in our family’s trade.” Ulcan reconsidered his tone, it sounded too much like a command. “If that is no inconvenience.”
“No trouble at all.” The man clutched his child. He felt like he was seeing something very important unfold before his eyes, but everything about it was all just so normal. “The forge is being tended to right now, by our assistant.”
“You’ve taken an assistant?”
“Yes. He’s quite good. Please go introduce yourself. I’ll… tell my wife you’re here.”
Ulcan headed around the house to the forge. He spotted several newly crafted items. One look told him who he would find around the corner. At his family’s long burning flame, the God of the Forge stood working.
“My ‘grandson’ described your work as quite good. He needs more training if he cannot recognize perfection.”
The Forger smiled, but did not look away from his work. “Perhaps human eyes are not built to see as such.”
“Perhaps not.” Ulcan sighed. “Have you been crafting like this all this time? All these years?”
“I have sent many perfect weapons out into this mortal world. I even made flawed devices, as an experiment.”
“Oh? How were they?”
“Perfectly useless.” The Forger lamented. “I believe you have made more headway than I have over these years, correct?”
“Yes, I was able to craft the divine again. I thought it was with a harsher flame, but I now suspect I may have just had harsher desires.” Ulcan nursed his sore hands and sat down on a bench nestled against a wall of the house. “All those years, turning angry thoughts over in my head, to leave that mark. I think I have abandoned any further desire.”
The Forger placed a plate of armor down and moved to stand beside Ulcan. The god still stood impossibly upright. “You have reached beyond the limitations placed upon you. It is a feat I admire.”
“The cost was high, and I paid it without so much as a thought. It’s something I believe will weigh on me.”
“Sacrifice…” The Forger mulled on the thought, but returned to the conversation. “I would not presume to take any sides on morality. What was taught to me as right and wrong I have already betrayed.”
“With me.” Ulcan laughed.
“Ulcan, what was it like. Treading where you were not supposed to?”
“Exhilarating and terrifying, made even greater by the incontestable truth that I would be at my very best and beyond because of it.”
“I suppose that would be the natural reaction, to spitting in the face of the natural law.”
“I believe so. But I have come down from it. I am going to tend to my family inside I have left them all for far too long. Good night, Forger.”
The Forger nodded and returned to the flame, looking for any sign of resistance. And Ulcan reentered the life he had abandoned, with the tension and hardship that every mortal man feels.No tags for this post.