The Mountain Town

See Torna: Introduction for the first part of this story.

We knew, from our debriefing, that the mission would be one of collection. Loyal servants of the Empress had written to the gendarmerie to complain that one of the town’s mine, a primary source of income for them and an important resource for the Final Empress’s legions, was currently unusable. Within it was a sword, possibly a newborn, which had not yet been claimed by servants of the Empress.

They were not able to describe the sword, because they were too afraid to approach it. The civilians had left it alone when they discovered it, informing the local gendarmes so that it could be dealt with properly. The gendarmes, who were only two in number because of the town’s small size and lack of crime, had failed to return from the mine, leaving the civilians understandably apprehensive.

It took Torna and I two weeks to arrive. As was recommended by our superiors, we took a path that meandered slightly to either side of a direct line to our goal, so that we could rest and resupply at various towns and outposts along the way. I would rather have made haste and taken the slightly less comfortable route, saving a few days’ worth of travel, but recommendations from people that outrank me are best heeded, not ignored.

The village perched on the side of a mountain, where either their ancestors or natural processes had carved enough of a flat space for them to build their homes. Down the mountainside away from the village, terraces, accessible only by steep steps, have been cut into the earth, giving the village some sustenance other than that provided by trade. The tallest building in the village is a watchtower, clearly installed by the gendarmerie.

I paused on the road, still well below the village, and placed my hand on Torna’s hilt so that she, too, could observe our destination. Torna’s knowing, the primary sense of living swords, has an even more limited range than most, despite its relative power.

Her body manifested behind me in the saddle, coalescing out of nothingness and into full solidity in the span of two seconds. My saddle, unlike most in the gendarmerie, had been constructed to carry two people just for moments such as this.

She leaned forward, placing her chin on my shoulder. The sharp stone armor that covers her breasts scratched against my uniform, pulling at the threads, but Torna’s power went to work on the damage immediately, repairing it. She put her hands around my waste. “Are we almost there, Inspector?”

Her voice is light and breathy, but hollow-sounding in the same way of most swords who can speak aloud, despite being produced by an imitation of a human body. I sighed before I answered. Torna has a fascination with physical proximity to me. I couuld feel her breath on my ear as she spoke.

“Yes, Torna. I thought you might like to see our destination.”

“It looks boring,” she said. I couldn’t see her face, but I could picture the expression perfectly in my mind: lips in a slight pout, eyebrows drawn together in fake concern, and violet eyes glued to me, not to the view ahead of us.

“Perhaps,” I said. “I doubt we will be bored, though, given our mission.”

“I’m never bored with you.” She leaned back away from me, no longer pressed up against my back, but as she did so, her hands travelled upward along my stomach, inching toward my chest.

“Torna,” I warned.

Torna sighed dramatically. “I lied. You’re completely boring. No fun at all, really.”

Torna has a tendency to be, to put it lightly, overly affectionate toward her wielder. Most swords don’t express a desire for physical affection at all, out of a basic compulsion to be held in hand, but Torna is the exception, and her ability to manifest a simulated human body only makes it worse. That’s why I, as someone who has never felt sexual desire, was chosen to be her wielder.

I ignored her, choosing instead to continue to stare up at the town. It looked like a place full of people who live their lives according to their function. Unlike the city, no expense had been spared on the aesthetics or artfulness of its construction. Everything there existed for a real purpose. I respected that. In some ways, I envied it. I still do.

Torna chose to interpret my silence in her own way. She nuzzled my neck with her chin. “Are you afraid?”

I shook my head and shrugged in an attempt to encourage her to withdraw. “No.”

“You don’t have to worry, you know,” she said, finally sitting back. “I’ll keep you safe.”

“I know, Torna.”

I wasn’t afraid. I was curious. Swords don’t just spontaneously come into being any more than humans do, except for the First Blade, which came to being in the Forge and came from there to the world. This sword had to have come from somewhere.

Swords weren’t often a threat to those who attempted to wield them, either. In a way, swords have a sort of forced symbiosis with humans. They need wielders in order to function, and we desire weapons. Both of us benefit from the relationship. A sword that harms those that try to take it in hand is only harming itself.

I took my hand from Torna’s hilt and continued up the path. Her body disappeared as quickly as manifested it. I had felt odd, at first, when working with Torna, because her second body made dealing with her feel different than any other sword I’d met. It had felt wrong, not to have my hand on her hilt as often as possible. It took me weeks to get used to the fact that she still existed, in her primary body, when her human body wasn’t manifested, despite my work with other swords in the past.

As we drew closer to the town, my curiosity transformed into apprehensiveness, and I wondered whether Torna had been right to comfort me and assure me that I didn’t need to be afraid. I felt uncomfortable not because at least two men had died, but because the town seemed oddly silent. Even with the mine currently inactive, there should have been people in the fields at this time of day. From my current angle, I should have been able to see people in the streets, going about their lives.

I could see nothing but the buildings from down the slope. The road rounded a curve as I drew closer, passing through a stand of trees and obscuring the town from my view. I glanced down at Torna, where her flowers bloomed above the sheath strapped to my waist. “Something is wrong, Torna.”

Without her body, she spoke within my mind, in the odd sword-speak that communicates with far more than words and makes you wonder whether the thoughts are theirs or your own. It’s too quiet.

She was right. Though we hadn’t yet entered the range of her knowing, even here she should have been able to know some sounds coming from the village. I couldn’t hear them, either. I could hear the wind brushing through the trees, accompanied by birds singing to one another in the forest that grew up the sides of the slope. I could hear the beat of my horse’s hooves and, if I listened hard, the jingle of the metal clasps of my packing and my own breath.

I couldn’t hear the distant call of a man to another, nor the wheels of carts traversing the streets, nor the laughter of children as they played with one another in the late afternoon sun. I should have been able to hear something. The town was just around this bend. When I left the trees, it would be mere meters ahead of me, but if I closed my eyes, I wouldn’t have known it.

I did close my eyes, and it led me to notice something other than the sound. My horse continued to plod forward, which was good. It had been trained well. On my own feet, I might have faltered at the smell that the wind carried toward me. Blood, death, and rot.

I sighed. I suppose I, or my superiors, should have predicted this, but nevertheless I was caught off-guard. The gendarmes stationed here had died approaching the sword. Perhaps I had put too much faith in the wisdom of the populace here, assuming they would avoid the mine and the sword within it until I was able to arrive and handle it myself.

I opened my eyes again as the full sunlight, freed from the dappling of the tree leaves, fell across me. The road led directly into the town. On either side of it, buildings, the square, functional homes of those who had made residence here, stood their ground against the tide of bodies spread across the dirt.

I dismounted, leading my horse to a hitching post. He was surprisingly unperturbed, but then, he had been raised by the Legion’s best handlers. He was trained to be unbothered by death. With one eye and with Torna’s knowing focused on our surroundings, I brought his feed bag around, then left him, for the time being.

I placed my hand on Torna’s hilt and drew her. Her body manifested at my side, all hints of seductive tendencies gone. Her full lips were set in a firm line. She was just as bothered by the scene around us as I was. With her body, she would be able to observe with both eyes and her knowing, getting a more complete picture of any scene we came across than I would ever be able to.

“This is not what I expected to find,” I said, needlessly. She and I both already knew that, but hearing my own voice, and making conversation, made the death around us easier to bear.

“No,” she agreed. She approached a woman who had fallen across the steps of the home in front of us. “Bring me closer. I want to know this woman better.”

I obliged. As I drew closer, I frowned. There was little blood about the woman. She had nothing in the way of stab wounds or slashes, as I might have expected from a sword able to function without a human, or a human who had been overtaken by a violent sword’s consciousness.

“Her neck is broken,” Torna said, kneeling. She turned the woman over, revealing her face. Her jaw hung unnaturally. “So is her jaw. She’s been bludgeoned by something hard and long. There are contusions beneath her clothes.” Torna sighed. “Her name was Corellia.”

“So it wasn’t a sword that killed her?” I asked. “Or was it a sword, but with some power that killed without involving its blade?”

“It was…” Torna frowned. Her knowing, while stronger than most swords, couldn’t give a perfect picture of the past. It let her know about objects as they were in the present, and, with people, small details about how they saw themselves — such as their names —but it could rarely provide more than that. “It was a sword. I’m pretty sure. It feels like one of us.”

“Yet she hasn’t been cut.”

“No,” Torna said, standing. I followed her as she made her way further down the street. She paused at another body, and I stopped as well, holding her over it. “This man is much the same. Broken. Bludgeoned. No cuts. He was beaten to death with something hard and long, like a staff. Edgard was his name.”

“Are you sure it was a sword?” I asked.

“Positive, now,” Torna said. “It left something behind, something like anger, or rage. Desire, maybe? It’s hard to say, this long after the fact.”

“Can you tell when they died?”

“Yesterday, I think, or the day before.”

That was more recent than I had expected. It meant that the people had waited to approach the sword again. I wondered if I had taken too long to arrive, and they had begun to fear I wouldn’t arrive, therefore deciding to take matters into their own hands. I felt guilty, then, for following the advice of my superiors. I should have made greater haste in arriving. If I had shaved even one day off of my journey, perhaps I could have prevented these deaths.

Torna led me toward the center of town, pausing at each body we passed and confirming that each had been downed by a living sword. There was an aura of sadness around her, and through her connection to my mind, it touched me, as well. I knew she wasn’t communicating it on purpose, but it affected me nonetheless. Her knowing brought her so close to those who had died. She couldn’t help but feel their loss deeply.

She named each of them in turn, even after she stopped identifying their cause of death. Wyman, Nura, Itempas, Kolly, Orfen, Anos… The names began to bleed together, for me, but I could tell that Torna held each one close to her chest. She would try to never forget them. She might fail, but she would try.

We found him in the town center. It wasn’t the center of the town, geographically, but it was an open space in front of what appeared to be the town hall. It was roughly circular, with the buildings on all sides facing it. To my surprise, there was something like a statue in the center, carved roughly out of a whole tree trunk. It seemed to be a man, though his proportions weren’t quite perfect, and I could tell whether the artist had intended him to be wearing clothes or not.

I don’t know why I remember the statue at all, when it was the figure sitting at its base that truly drew my eye. Clad in what seemed to be armor woven of strips of flat, nonreflective gold, he floated, legs crossed as if seated, above the ground at the base of the statue. His hair, a dark black that stood out starkly from the gold of his armor, floated around his head, as though he was submerged in water. Across his lap was not a sword, but what appeared to be a quarterstaff of the same golden metal as his armor.

“That’s him,” Torna said quietly. “The sword.”

“What?” I asked. We were out of range of where her knowing was strongest. She could see him mostly with her eyes. “That’s not a sword.”

The man’s eyes flashed open, and with them, an eye opened in the center of the staff. Three eyes, all a brilliant, glowing blue, stared at us from across flat dirt between us. He rose from his seated position, staff held in one hand, though his feet still did not touch the ground.

“Sword is an unfortunate choice of terminology by whomever started calling us that,” Torna said. “We are not all blades and hilts. There are… aberrations that don’t quite fit that mold.”

The man holding the staff-sword tilted his head, looking first at me, then at Torna’s human projection, and then at Torna in my hand. As I felt Torna’s thoughts when she was in my hand or at my hip, so I felt intent radiating from the staff in waves. The man said nothing. His expression was inscrutably blank, in fact, as though he had forgotten how to move his face at all.

“He’s going to attack,” Torna said.

I thought to call out to him, to ask him to rethink his violent plans, to tell him we were agents of the Final Empress and that we wished to take him safely into our care, but I had no time even to speak. The man launched himself across the space between us, feet skimming above the ground and staff held ready to strike.

Torna, the human Torna, jumped between us. She raised both arms, blocking his first blow with a crack that echoed through the mountains. Shards of stone sprayed outward. The armor over her forearms cracked from the force, then began to reseal as Torna’s power set to work.

The man swung the staff again and again, and each time Torna’s body moved to intercept it, with forearm or leg. It was like watching an intricate, choreographed dance. Chips of stone few out. I stepped back, fearing that the shrapnel would catch me and slice my much-less-durable body.

I began to circle around to get an angle on the man from which I could swing with Torna’s blade. I watched the stone chips where they had landed on the ground, waiting for them to make an opening for me.

Now, Torna said within my mind. As she spoke, the shards arrowed upward from their resting places, each flying toward the armored man like a deadly blade of its own.

I quickened my pace, aiming to put myself behind the man, where I could strike at him while he was distracted with Torna’s human form and the rain of stone blades. He moved faster than I expected. His body shifted backward, fluid as a snake. One leg lashed out, catching Torna’s projection in the chest and sending her back. He withdrew it in a flash, thrusting out one arm and opening his palm.

The staff spun about, rotating around its center like a windmill in a maelstrom, moving so fast it seemed, to my eyes, to be a single, solid circle. Many of the stone chips snapped against it, flying back away from him. Still, he could not cover every angle. Sharps of stone struck against his thighs, back, and torso.

Most of them shattered as they met with his armor, but some slipped between the cracks in its woven make. Two, I knew, as Torna sent bits of her knowing into my own mind, letting me feel the battle in a paltry reflection of the way she did. I expected him to flinch from the pain, and so I struck in what I hoped would be a moment of distraction.

The man whipped around, his staff swinging out to meet Torna as though it hadn’t been in violet motion in another direction just moments before. I held Torna in both hands, and it took all of my strength to not let her fly free of my grip, which would surely have meant my death. As it was, the shock of the blow jarred my wrists, making my fingers tingle.

Like the armor of her human form, the stone of Torna’s blade shattered, sending shards of shrapnel outward. These curved in the air and redirected themselves toward the man’s face. He jerked back, his motion less fluid in his surprise, and brought up his free hand to block.

I glanced down at Torna, wanting to get a measure of the damage done to her. Her blood leaked out of the bite-sized chunk missing from her blade, but already she had begun to repair herself. She would be fine. Even with my eyes off the man, Torna fed me her knowing: the shrapnel struck the armor of his hand, breaking further and falling away, but several shards of it pierced his cheeks and forehead, narrowly missing his eyes.

I raised Torna again, turning her to ready a strike with her uninjured side. I swung, but this was a feint. I let him turn my blow aside easily, for Torna’s projection was launching the real attack from behind. With armored hands bent like claws, she lashed out toward the man’s neck.

Her fingers pierced the armor, though not deeply enough. The man’s eyes widened, and something with the feeling of a scream rippled through my mind, inaudible yet somehow deafening nonetheless. I cringed at the weight of it. The man thrust backward with the staff, both hands upon it, catching Torna’s projection in the stomach with a blow that caused her to crumple forward.

He snapped the staff upward behind him, crashing it into Torna’s jaw. I felt it break, through Torna and her knowing. She flinched with pain. I ignored it, as did she, and together we swung from the front, blade aligned with the man’s neck. It met with nothing. I nearly fell, having braced myself for the resistance. Then I did fall as something struck my ankle, breaking it.

I didn’t register what had happened until I hit the ground. I had to replay the scene in my head to understand. As I’d swung, the man had tilted, sliding downward toward the ground until he was parallel to it, all while swinging the full weight of his staff at my ankle. I grunted as I struck the ground.

I rolled away from where I had hit, operating on instinct. I couldn’t take the time to try to gather my wits. Sure enough, the man had floated back to a standing position. The staff struck the ground where my head had been seconds before.

Torna was already repairing my ankle, but it would be several seconds before it could bear my weight again. The man glided over me, his toes inches above my body. I was breathing hard. He raised the staff, ready to bring it down on my head like a spear. I swung the sword as hard as I could, but in this position, I couldn’t bring my strength to bear. It tapped against the armor coating his leg, achieving nothing.

From the side, Torna’s projection leapt at the golden man, tackling him. Her broken jaw was still mending, but she didn’t care. Her hands bit into the man’s torso as she forced him, for the first time, to the ground. With the violence of a wildcat, she began to tear into him, heedless as she tore at the armor, removing as much of her own finger armor as she did the golden bands of his armor. Her blood mixed with his in across his chest and around the in the dirt.

I rolled to my feet. My ankle was still tender, half-repaired, but I limped toward where they struggled. The man couldn’t find an angle to bring his staff around. He slipped it beneath her chest and pushed upward with all of his strength, raising her slightly but not bringing himself out of range of her claws. Through all of it, his face remained blank and inhuman.

With Torna held in both hands, I drew near, ready to drive her through his skull. He was clearly not himself anymore. The staff he held — the sword — seemed to be operating his body for him. If we could divest it of its wielder, it would be rendered impotent.

In the time it took me to ready my strike, he drew his legs up, slipping them with eerie fluidity from between Torna’s. He kicked out, catching the projection’s hips. She was too heavy to go far, and she might have landed right back on him, but he squirted backward, gliding up away from the ground. Without even bothering to right himself, he shot off along the ground like an arrow loosed from a taut bowstring.

I tried to chase after him, but my ankle, still weak, wouldn’t allow it. Torna’s projection stood. Gone, she sent. He’s far too fast for us to catch.

“The horse…” I protested.

Not in this terrain.

She was right, of course. He seemed to be able to fly, if in a limited fashion. We were bound by the limitations of our legs, and our mount’s legs.

“Rennam. His name was Rennam.” The projection’s jaw had healed enough to allow her to speak again.

“The blade, or the man?” I asked.

“The man. He was one of the gendarmes.” She shook her head. If she were capable of crying, I believe she would have, then. “He is not dead, but he may as well be. His body isn’t his own anymore. It’s the swords.”

“What was the sword’s name?” This mattered, because with the help of another sword in the hands of the Legion, the sword’s name might allow us to find it.

“He kept it from me,” she said. “If I’d had more time, or if I’d been less focused on the fight, I might have been able to know it.” She brought her arms up to embrace herself, as though she was cold, though Torna’s projection doesn’t feel the cold like I do. “I’m sorry. I failed us both.”

I looked away. She had failed, as had I. We had failed together. I didn’t blame her for it, though. I blamed myself more. It was my responsibility, as the wielder, to succeed. If I wasn’t strong enough to put her strength to use, perhaps I didn’t deserve her.

I sheathed her as I thought this, because her projection turned to look at me, sensing if not the exact thoughts, at least the general sense of them. Her projection faded away, leaving me with the illusion of loneliness among the dead bodies of the town I had failed to serve.

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