In Malanihayata, the Ever-Changing City, there existed myriad ways for a smith to die.
He could leap from the eleven thousand parapets that overlooked the plains below. He could drink the poisoned air of the visitants’ district, or give his mind to the flesh-recyclers. He could self-immolate within the flames of his own great forge.
There was in the Artisan’s Quarter a smith called Brevin the Binder, a shaper of smartmetal, chalksteel, and soulstone; though he was friend to few in the town, his name was known in many distant cities. And he sought for a certain kind of death.
Brevin the Binder dreamed of a death that could defy time, a death that could pluck him from the past as the orchard-keepers in the pyramids plucked alabaster fruit from the black willows.
But although it was known that many had soared forward through time and found themselves in the distant future, none had ever been known to return to the past.
In that decade, the days in Brevin’s shop disappeared like wine poured onto dirt. Weaver-birds built their iridescent structures in the cold forge. He ate his meager meals on the half-finished surfaces of abandoned projects.
Until the day an Emissary arrived from Qin Lenang.
“Brevin Binder,” said the Emissary, “We come to you on behalf of the Transarch.”
Four soldiers, in full regalia, stood on the cracked and moss-grown sandstone of Brevin’s little courtyard. The Emissary had taken off her plumed officer’s helmet, revealing a face with high cheekbones, ebony skin, and a silver optic device installed over her right eye.
“Good day to you,” Brev said. He stood slowly, wiped soot onto his apron, and bowed low. “How may I be of service?”
“No need to bow to me, smith.” The woman smiled warmly. “You are the most honored here.”
The intimacy of her gaze perplexed him.
“Do you remember me?” she asked. “Or this piece?”
She held out a thick blade of azure-tinted steel. He reached out a muscular hand and hefted the blade. For a moment it felt too light for him, but as he hefted it the weight and balance altered themselves to suit his hand.
“I do not know it,” Brev said, handing the blade back to her. “It is finely made.”
“I am glad you think so. It is your work.” At his questioning look, she continued. “My mentor, the General Kayhm Karehm, brought me to this city and to you some years ago. He told me you were the greatest smith in the world. Blessed by the God-Builder; may His blessings rest in the strength of your hands and the architectures of your mind.”
Her praise rang with genuine feeling and delight.
“May His blessings inform my design and guide my execution,” Brevin muttered in return, looking down at the sword. After a pause, he added: “I made almost three thousand blades for officers during those wars. It could very well be mine.”
The Emissary spun the blade. Her grinning face sobered. “I owe you my life. Join me.”
She walked into the shop. He followed.
Unfinished projects sat locked in vices or spun in eternal centrifuges. Flecks of sunlight floated down through holes in the corrugated ceiling.
“This place has fallen on difficult times, I think!” she said, rapping her knuckles on a dusty workbench. “You were working on a great many things when last I visited. Has some difficulty befallen you?”
“None, my lady,” lied the smith. “I have simply become more selective with my commissions.”
She nodded. Then she snapped her fingers and one of her soldiers held out a sphere the size of a skull. When the Emissary touched it, it softened and opened like a cloth bag, and she showed its opening to Brev. Within lay panatite coins, slithering quicksilver, and heavy onite ― enough money to buy a small kingdom.
“The Transarch will pay you twice this amount to make a Sword of Endless Worlds. She wishes it finished within the year.”
Brev blinked several times.
“I’m not sure if such a thing is possible, even for such a princely sum,” he admitted.
The Emissary inclined her head. “That is why I came to you.”
“What does the Transarch want with such a thing?”
“It is a gift for her son, in advance of his coronation. It will be the blade that makes him Prince.”
The smith breathed out sharply through his nose. “If it can be done, it would be a blade worthy of a god, not a child.”
The Emissary shrugged.
“The Transarch has great ambitions,” she said, “And she asked me to find someone capable of fulfilling them. Are you?”
The smith looked up at the ceiling. “I would need to understand the requirements of its making.”
The Emissary continued: “The Archivists of Malanihayata could help you with such a task. The Sword is spoken of in legend as a thing that could be made, but never has been accomplished. Many of its details are beyond what even the Transarch knows — but there is one aspect we know for certain: you would have to walk between the Spaces. We have brought a Key for the work.”
Her hand reached out, holding what he thought at first to be a slim, handle-less knife blade. But as it came closer, he saw it for what it was: a wide silver needle, long as a hand.
His breath caught as he took it.
She made a casual gesture and grinned, as if to walk between the realities were no feat, as if more than a few thousand in the history of the world had ever done so. Brevin knew stories of how ancient philosopher-kings had carved openings in the worlds that led them to other versions of their kingdoms, varying in tiny details; he also knew that in those tales a madness befell those who spent too long in other worlds. Those who came after had been careful not to stay too long, careful not to tamper.
The Sword of Endless Worlds was, as far as Brevin knew, a folk tale — a weapon wielded by a king with three faces, which could be used to battle foes in the present, the past, and the future. If it was even possible to construct, such a weapon would render the Transarch — or her son — powerful beyond understanding.
Brevin remembered the soldiers sent to the Fields of Time in service to the Transarch. He had walked among them once, bringing a hammer to one of her generals. Green and violet fire had rained from the sky; beasts the size of hills, engineered in secret laboratories, had roared and torn towns to splinters. In that war the Transarch had betrayed and slaughtered her allies, the Commara, all for a greater share of the spoils of victory.
His heart began to drum faster in his chest. Brevin held the Key up, looking at its simple, slightly tarnished surface. From whatever angle he examined it, the end of the needle blurred strangely ― uncertain, undefined. For a moment, all seemed still.
“I promised myself that if I lived through the Fields of Time,” the Emissary was saying, “I would give you the greatest honor I could possibly give. Now, I’ve heard some say that the greatest honor of those who worship the God-Builder is that he will shake your hand, a workman to a fellow workman. I cannot promise that, but I can promise that when you complete the work, you will be invited to the Prince’s coronation. By my side you will meet the Transarch, walk the City of Purity, and be a guest in the Spotless Palace.”
After a long moment and a decision, Brev nodded.
“Well, I could use the money,” he answered simply.
A powerful hand clapped him on the shoulder.
“Good!” she laughed. “Good. I’ll return in six months to learn of your progress. And I will leave what help I can.”
The Emissary dropped the sphere of money on a cluttered table, turned to go, and then stopped.
“There is one last thing,” she said. “The Transarch wishes to honor one of several common families, given their service in the Fields. Each of these families has a child of apprentice age. You will choose one, teach them, and bring them great honor in the process.”
“I have not had an apprentice in decades,” he said.
“Then a change of pace may do you good,” she said with a wink; with a flick of her cloak, they were gone.
He sat in silence and looked at the money. “Never refuse work,” he had been taught. But the idea of it made him sick. He had not made anything in nearly fifteen years. No amount of money, or debt being repaid, could change that.
But he had another use for the blade.
“May His blessings guide my execution,” he whispered to himself, thinking of the labors to come.
Seven teenagers stood in his workshop, their eyes bright, faces too nervous to smile but still full of light. Four boys and three girls. He could barely look at them.
They had arrived on a caravan from the Transarch’s flying city of Qin Lenang, which had passed over the Cava River the week before.
“The caravan leaves tomorrow,” the soldier had said, “Choose one.”
Each one introduced themselves.
“Why do you wish to be my apprentice?” asked Brev. “Each of you take a turn and answer.”
They did. Their words, as so many are, were coverups, prepared speeches meant to sway his feelings. “To work with the greatest of smiths,” three of them said, parroting each other. “I want to bring honor to my house.” At least that was honest. “I want to learn.” That was almost certainly false for all of them. “I will work hard to be your perfect apprentice,” one said, and he almost chuckled aloud. As if he cared, or needed an apprentice.
A pack of fools.
One of the girls was last. Unlike the others, she wore a hint of a smile.
“Why is it you wish to be my apprentice?”
She looked him in the eyes.
“I like to make things,” she said. She reached into her pocket and pulled out a dagger. The boys recoiled, but Brev came close to it.
A polymetal blade, held in small hands that were a mess of nicks, calluses, and old burns. She was a hobbyist, if a clumsy one. It was a utility blade — something she had likely made for her father to work in the garden. The handle was vat-grown cedar, worthless and ugly. But the polymetal was rather graceful. Well-weighted.
He flipped it in his hand.
“Who taught you?”
“An automaton from Qin Lenang,” she said. “He trains anyone who wants to learn, but these days there isn’t anyone, really.”
“I see,” said Brev. “What is your name again?”
“Xai,” she said. “My father fought in the Fields of Time.”
“Probably died there,” grumbled one of the boys. Brev looked just to see which fool it was.
“I saw a protector you made that the Transarch uses to guard her treasury,” she said. “Did you make it look kindly on purpose?”
He looked her in the eyes, but said nothing. She gazed back querulously; it unsettled him.
When the soldier returned, Brevin pulled him aside.
“I don’t want any of them,” he said.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the soldier, “I was ordered to leave one child in the Eternal City.”
“Then leave one in the city,” Brev said sternly, “but none in my shop. I don’t need an apprentice, and definitely not one of these children.”
One of the boys began to cry. The others looked at Brev sullenly. The girl Xai made a puzzled face and stared at him even more deeply. He ignored her.
The soldier hemmed and hawed for another hour, until finally he realized there was nothing to do. They all left.
Brev puttered around the workshop for a little, unable to settle. The sight of them all had touched a nerve, bothered something deep within him. A part of him wanted very much to forget about this entire task for at least a week.
He was still sitting, fists clenched, in the workshop, when a shape appeared in the doorway.
“No business today,” he said.
“I don’t want to buy anything, Master Binder,” a voice said. “I just want to learn.”
He looked up. The girl, Xai. Her deep brown eyes stared at him through her wild black curls.
“Go away,” he said. “Your caravan is leaving.”
Brevin walked out of the workshop and up the rusted, rickety steps to his little loft. The old dirty bed, the few plants that grew despite his neglect.
Images flooded back to him. His family, gathered in that courtyard around the forge. Smiling despite the blazing heat, laughing and dancing and singing. Wondering at the things he made, the jewelry he built for his brother’s wife and his sister and two of his cousins.
All gone now.
The girl was still in the workshop when he came back down. She didn’t say anything, but looked at him with clear eyes.
He got her something to eat.
“No such blade has ever been made.”
The Archivists, Brevin, and Xai surrounded the jade table, awash in ancient texts. One Archivist was a tall pale figure, though whether they were synthesis, visitant, automaton, man, or woman, one could not tell. Another’s limbs had been worn down over time; his head was the only thing not replaced by dazzling clockwork automation.
“That means we’ll be the first!” piped up Xai.
This earned her dark looks from the Archivists.
“It is theorized in many places.”
“… spoken of in legends that are proven baseless…”
“… worshipped in some circles… feared in all… “
Weeks passed in the subterranean halls of the Archives, among shelf-trees of auburn wood, golden pathways in obsidian halls, and turquoise-marbled archways. Antiquarian folklore was their morning repast, simple meat-and-grain pastes served as lunch, and bloody histories after, followed by mechanical tinkering in evening.
“A Sword of Endless Worlds is a theoretical accomplishment, imagined even before mankind and their friends had known of Dimensions Doors or Keys: unlike the Key, which could only transport one between the numerous realities, the Sword would allow its wielder to cut through the universe and sever from the fabric of reality anything that had ever been or would ever be.”
“A Ruler who wielded it could examine the hypothetical universe and slay his foes before their mothers bore them to term. He could carve from reality space that had not previously been.”
“A weapon of many Worlds was used fifteen centuries ago and quickly led to the mass suicide of every person in an entire empire who saw what it could do. Its existence was only a shadow of what the Sword could be.”
“It was a weapon of such audacity and terror that even the theories of its construction have been destroyed; Brevin would be delving into labors that the ages of the past had deemed too dangerous to attempt.”
The next day they would delve deeper, with hearty arguments and rebuttals, and more food.
“… no such forging would be possible without a Key of Worlds…”
“… which is, of course, the most disappointing of paradoxes, for such a Key, although proven to be real, is as legendary as the blade itself.”
“One Key is known to be held by the Long-Dead Monarch who reigns in the Inaccess; another was banished to an outer star; a third is guarded by the nomad priestesses… it’s rumored that the Transarch obtained one, but this is likely only propaganda…”
The Key was in Brevin’s pocket as they read. He held it tightly.
Xai read as much as anyone, but would laugh loudly at intervals.
“This is serious, my girl,” said Brevin.
“Ideas are not frightening,” she said, waving away his worry with a hand. “They’re just ideas.”
She would try to walk around the Archives, closely followed by nervous attendants. When the discussions occurred, she didn’t have much to say. She did, however, nearly ruin a precious silk manuscript of an artisans’ Collective by spilling her lunch on it.
“It still looks the same,” she protested.
“You will touch nothing else,” declared an Archivist.
Their delving brought back older and older records: volumes contained in jewels the size of a teardrop that they accessed with prismatic light, tomes so large they needed several Archivists to turn the pages. And after that, the guild’s exultant came to Brevin personally, reading deeper and more cogently than anyone into some of the things they’d read earlier. When even more knowledge became necessary, the exultant showed Brevin things carved into the surfaces of distant planets; he poured elixirs into Brevin’s ear that gave him dreams; he gave him woven tomes that were worn as clothing and passed their understanding through diffusion.
“There will be two nearly impossible tasks to creating a Sword of Endless Worlds,” said the exultant in his booming voice. “The first will be to obtain a metal strong enough to withstand the pressure of infinite universes. The second will be to forge it simultaneously in an exponential number of universes. This would be easiest if done by the resident versions of the smith in each universe.”
“Get the materials, make the Sword (with help),” Xai repeated wryly. “Doesn’t sound too bad.”
As they learned, Brevin looked at the Archivists. At Xai. All of them discussed and read with a detachment that he could not understand.
Brevin’s hands shook as he read. He grew nauseated. He felt the Key in his pocket as a weight, so much so that eventually he returned it to his shop and kept it hidden there.
Under no circumstances would Brevin allow the Transarch or her son to obtain the Sword.
Could he justify the creation of such a tool? He stared at himself in the grungy mirror as Xai snored downstairs.
He needed the sword.
One day, Xai read aloud a sentence from a slab of granite, helpfully translated by an engineered lingual bird that tiptoed on her shoulder.
“Only three substances are known to have the endurance to stretch between so many existences, and only one is proven to actually exist, in the vault of the Orbiting King — black iron, created in the collapse of a distant star…”
Brevin felt his throat contract. His breath grew unsteady.
At the base of the Worldvine, Brevin decided to turn back.
The vine stretched above them as taut as a string on a ruan, broad and veined as the forearm of a giant. Its terminus, tethered to a great stone floating in the Ocean Without Water, was not visible from here, so distant was it. Neck craned, Brevin could see the vine become smaller until it was simply a black line drawn between the stars.
“I can’t,” he hissed.
“What do you mean, you can’t?” Xai demanded. “We’ve come a thousand miles! We’re close!”
“I… I can’t.”
Brevin stepped back from the door of the great spherical structure that served as the vine’s transporter. Finding himself suddenly weak, he collapsed to his knees.
“Are you afraid of heights?” Xai called.
Brevin’s vision clouded. He felt darkness invading his lungs.
And then a hand grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Brevin,” came the voice. It was Xai’s voice, but there was a strength and power in it that belied her age and stature.
“Brevin,” she continued, “you need to do this. Don’t you?”
Images rushed to Brevin’s mind. The final moments of his family’s lives, the look as the last breathable air escaped their lungs.
He remembered that it was his fault. And that he might be able to fix it.
He took a few deep breaths and stood, and when he faltered again at the door, she took his hand.
Once inside the sterile sphere, they found the control and ordered the machine to rise. With a lurch, the dusty device began its ascent, away from the pull of the planet.
“Why must we travel all this way to get it?” Xai asked.
“Black iron is so hard it cannot be softened by the heat of one universe,” Brevin answered, voice mild — he felt lightheaded as the little town beneath them became smaller and smaller.
“And so it can be hard enough to exist in multiple universes at once?” Xai asked.
Brevin nodded, not trusting himself to speak without retching.
“And the Orbiting King… will allow us to obtain it?”
“The King has been dead for millions of years,” Brevin said finally. “Now we must convince the Guardians of his Vault.”
When they arrived, the Zenith was nearly deserted. A few rusted automatons shuffled through their foreordained tasks. The shambling shapes of satellite-miners clustered in the shadows. Generations in the Ocean Without Water, competing with hungry machine-minds and energy leeches, had made them fearful of any living thing, preferring to send their wares down to the surface and receive their pay of vat-grown food and hallucinogenic escapes.
Xai took all this in impassively, but gasped aloud and shouted as she sprinted towards a vast window, stretching along the curved side of the Zenith. She sprinted towards it; Brevin, shaking and lightheaded from the ascent, could only follow slowly. Through the window, Xai was faced with a glittering field of shattered machines against the backdrop of the yellowing surface of Erth.
“That’s it,” she said. “Our home.”
“Our dying home,” he murmured.
Xai looked back at him, perplexed.
“Dying?” she asked. “Look at it! Look at the cities dotting its surface! And even here, look at all these things in the atmosphere! The God-Builder must be pleased.”
“The God-Builder doesn’t care,” he said.
Xai’s eyes narrowed.
“What do you mean?”
“The God-Builder is an engineer,” Brevin said, “He cares about that which is made — not those who build.”
“But Master, She is a Builder! All creation is built on trial after error.”
“She?” Brevin chuckled. “You know nothing, little one — the God-Builder is a man.”
Xai scrunched up her nose in frustration, but said nothing else.
“It may look wonderful to you,” said Brevin, “But all I see here is destruction.”
Brevin and Xai hired a family of satellite-miners to transport them to the Orbiting King. The miners, swathed in rags and garbage, were as small as Xai, reshaped over generations by the genemages to require as little oxygen as possible. Through the filthy bubbles of their atmosphere suits, Brevin saw faces like sallow skulls, full of teeth sharp enough to rip through fiber mesh and softened steel.
Their vessel, squat and dark, lurched through the debris fields. Brevin’s eyes were closed tightly the whole time. He nearly vomited.
Once, he had loved such flights. He remembered crowing with joy as he took a vessel of his own design through low orbit. But now every reminder of it was a dagger of pain in his heart.
But he would do it. He had a mission to fulfill.
Hours later, the chattering of the scavvers mean nothing to him, but the hiss of the airlock opening told him all he needed to know.
The Vault was one of the largest extant structures in orbit. It had been a citadel once, and armies had rushed from its many docks.
Now it was empty. Their footsteps echoed in its vast concave halls.
They walked for some time before the Guardians appeared.
“All hail the Orbiting King, whose reign is endless,” said a reedy, mechanical voice. It emerged from the cathedral walls around them, relayed through numerous speakers.
“Hail,” came an echo from behind him. Brevin turned.
Three figures had emerged from the filthy floor of the Vault. At first they seemed mummified corpses, dripping with half-decomposed muscle and grey with time. But these were not organic; they were machines, built directly into the body of the vessel. They triangulated around Brevin and Xai, containing them.
“Intruders! You have reached the Vault of the Orbiting King. We are its Guardians. What brings you?”
Brevin’s heart raced. He held out a hand to protect Xai, and tried to speak as calmly as he could.
“Do you still serve your King?” Brevin asked.
The machines hesitated.
“It is for this purpose that we were designed,” they declared. “To protect the weapons and resources of our Sovereign, that he might be victorious in all his battles, and bring peace to the long-scarred Erth.”
“But the King is dead,” Xai piped up. “Isn’t he?”
The Guardians turned their hollow eyes on her, and dangling cables and wires like dreadlocks brushed over their faces.
“The Orbiting King was slain in battle,” one Guardian said.
“No,” another said. “He was captured, humiliated, and tortured.”
“Speak not so of him!” the first spat.
“Let us not argue,” said the third. “We know the shame of our failure. We know that the King will not return to us.”
“Then why do you not leave?” Xai asked.
“We cannot depart this place,” said the Guardians, “any more than you can depart your own body. We are one and the same.”
“We have heard that you have at times imparted some of your wealth to others,” he said.
“Not to satellite-miners,” said one hurriedly.
“Not to scavengers,” barked another.
“Not to fools,” finished the third.
“But you may make your request. If we judge that it will fulfill the King’s goal — to bring peace — then we may give it to you.”
There was silence in that hollow space for a few moments.
“We come seeking black iron,” Brev said, “An ore powerful enough that with it I can forge a Sword of Endless Worlds.”
The Guardians shifted and buzzed uncomfortably.
“A Sword of Endless Worlds,” they said.
“This thing is spoken of, but none have made it,” said one of the shapes. “This is for good reason. Similar creations caused only grief before they were destroyed. What is its purpose now?”
“I was commissioned by the Transarch.”
The sound that came from these shackled pharaohs could have been a scoff.
“That once-human warlord, whose reign has hardly lasted three hundred years? Why should we allow a blade like this to be made for so uncertain a cause?”
“You can read into my consciousness,” Brev said. “Ask my intentions, and decide if you will give me this ore.”
As Xai crouched, watching him, thorny vines of wire and steel emerged like long tentacles from the floor and ceiling of the Vault, and they attached themselves to Brev’s eyes, ears, and spine. He felt suddenly that more pairs of eyes were behind his – ten, fifty — watching everything, evaluating.
And they found the memories. The dreams. The hopes that hid beneath the surface.
Perhaps the honesty of his goals would please them.
He felt the smack of stone as his knees hit the ground. He slumped there as the tendrils wound away from him.
“You see?” Brevin asked. “I must have it.”
“We will not give you what you ask,” said the Guardians.
“Please,” Brevin said. Tears began to form. “Please.”
The sound that came from his mouth horrified him. Begging, pathetic.
“Please help me,” he said. “Let it be finished.”
The Guardians watched him impassively. They had seen weeping before. They had watched the aeons weep.
“Can I try?” came a voice.
“They won’t give it to us, Xai,” said the Binder.
“Wait,” she said, and stepped in between him and the machines. “Ask me. Look into me.”
The Guardians turned to observe her.
And with none of the delicacy that they had shown him, serpent-injectors entangled her. She cried out in pain.
There was no chance they would give the black iron to her, Brevin thought. Surely they knew that she worked alongside him.
After a few moments, the tiny blades unsheathed themselves from her veins.
The Guardians were silent for long enough that Brevin wondered if they had malfunctioned.
“Very well,” they said.
She covered her face with her hands.
“We will give you what you seek,” they said, “on one condition. You, Xai, must be present through every step of the creation of the Sword. Smith, if she leaves your side, the ore will be taken from you.”
Brevin gaped, not understanding at first. He looked at the girl, at her strange little smile, and the machines that had listened to her.
Then, with a great groaning and the churning of machinery, something weighty emerged from the floor, steps from Brevin. Steaming with cold, white-and-blue-and-black. Raw ore.
The workshop had to be prepared.
Xai leapt at the task. “There’s so much stuff in here!” she declared excitedly, and asked him constantly about the things she found. Tools were there that could not be used by human hands. Hulks of metal from projects long-abandoned sat rusting in piles. The refuse of decades, and the machines of several million years. They spent weeks at it, sweating in the heat. He found himself laughing. They excavated from a filthy ruin the workshop of a master.
He had to look at it out of the corner of his eye or he saw them – his family, sitting around, working, eating. His father discussing a project with him there, his mother giving him some criticism here.
During this time, the Transarch’s Emissary visited, as she had said she would.
“You’ve cleaned the place up,” she said.
Her grin was the same as before, her sheathed blade shifting and whispering as she paced the workshop. Did she always wear it, he wondered? Or was it simply to flatter him?
“I don’t remember this girl being among the possible apprentices,” she said briefly, looking at Xai. “Are you working hard?”
“I am,” Xai said.
“She is more than sufficient,” Brev said.
The Emissary nodded.
“And the Sword?”
“We will begin forging shortly.”
The Emissary accepted this, and left without even seeing them begin. “I trust you, Binder,” she said. “Don’t make me regret it.”
When she left, Brevin began to search for the Key: the slim, silver needle that could open temporary gates into other worlds. It had been inside the sphere of riches he had been given when assigned the commission, but it was not there now.
When he returned from his searching, he found Xai standing in the workshop, with her hands behind her back.
“I need to talk to you.”
“I need to find the Key,” Brevin said, digging through tools.
“I have it,” she said. Her eyes watched him intently as she held it up in one hand.
“Master Binder,” she said, “we need to talk about what’s going to happen with the Sword of Endless Worlds.”
He stared at her.
“You think I’m going to give it up? I won’t,” he scoffed. “Not to the Transarch or her son. It would be to hand the world its death.”
“Then why do you want it?” she demanded. “Why not just refuse the work?”
“You are a child,” Brevin hissed. “You wouldn’t understand.”
But she did not seem a child in that moment. She stood tall. Tears sprang to her eyes.
“You want to kill yourself with it,” she whispered.
Brevin gave no answer.
“I’ve heard your story, Brevin the Builder. How the flier you reconstructed malfunctioned travelling between Erth and one of her moons, and your family drowned in the Ocean Without Water. You were celebrated. The greatest smith of the Eternal City, the man who could make anything. But after they died, you disappeared.
“I didn’t know if it was you,” she said. “But we’ve never used a flier, even though we could have. You were terrified of the ascent to Zenith. And I found holos ― here in the workshop ― your parents, your brothers and sisters…”
“I know the story,” he muttered.
“All things die,” she insisted.
“If I die by this Sword — if I am never born,” he burst out, “then they will have never died. Now give me the Key.”
“If you never lived, they never would have had a chance to know you,” she insisted.
“You overestimate the value of knowing me.”
“Listen,” she said. “This Sword — it’s a chance for you. Imagine how many Brevins there are across the possible worlds — how many broken-hearted and destroyed there are. They need a purpose. This Sword must be forged in endless worlds — worlds beyond yours, going on and on. You can help them.”
“I am helping them,” he said. “The Sword can cut us all out. End it. What greater proof can they have of their uselessness than to see how many of them there truly are? Making the same mistakes, or different mistakes, again and again, across the realities?”
Brevin looked at her a long time. He covered his face with his hands and rubbed his tired eyes.
A breeze flowed through the workshop from a window that had been boarded up for years. Outside, he heard a starling’s song.
But as he listened, it sounded as if there were two, singing almost simultaneously, delayed by a tiny moment.
He felt another breeze.
He took his hands away from his face. Xai stood in the middle of the workshop floor, holding the Key. A faint glimmering formed the outline of a door that she had drawn in midair.
Through the gateway, he saw… the street outside his workshop.
In another world.
“I got the ore for you,” she said, holding out a hand to stop him. “And I say you cannot use it to end your own life.”
“Then why let me use the Key?”
“You’ll see. Come on.”
And she was gone. He stood, and came close to the door.
He stood in the warm sunlight of another Eternal City. He stepped through.
And then he saw himself, sitting with his head in his hands on a sandstone step, staring out into the street.
For a moment he, the Brevin who visited, stood in the street and observed himself — a sad figure, a strong man hunched in on himself, one who had not lifted a hammer in a long time. When he approached, the other Brevin looked up with bleary eyes. He took a moment, saw himself, standing, an apparition from another world.
“Is it time for me to die?” He asked it almost without feeling.
“No,” said Xai, standing beside him. “And what a strange thing to say to people you’ve never met.”
Both Brevins furrowed their brows.
“But now it’s my turn to say something strange,” Xai said, and laughing, continued: “You must help Brevin the Binder forge a blade.”
There were many Brevins, through many doors.
Many lived in the same workshop that he did — the same run-down place he knew and had worked in. All of the workshops were in the same state of decay that his had been in before Xai came along, full of similar refuse. It was strange walking through it five, then a hundred, then a thousand times as he and Xai went through door after door, speaking to the Brevins who lived there, dejected and cast off.
“Who are you?” they would ask.
“That smiling woman with the armor – she’s the one who put you up to this?” they would ask.
Some continued: “I refused her. Sick of working for other people.”
“I took the job, but when I learned I had to go to the Orbiting King, I gave it up. Gave back the money.”
“I tried to ascend the Zenith and obtain the black iron, but the Guardians refused me.”
Brevin the Visitor and his apprentice would listen.
“Let us eat with you,” Xai would say then. “We can only stay an hour.”
“You took a student?” many asked.
“She’s rather good,” Brevin would answer. “A little pushy.”
They listened as he explained what he needed to make: how the Sword of Endless Worlds had to be forged in multiple worlds at a time, how they would strike and the blade in his world would become stronger.
“For the Transarch?”
“No. For us.”
“Will it work?” some asked. “Cut me from reality?”
“This girl says I’m forbidden to do that.”
“Who is she to decide?”
“You make it,” Xai said, “and then you can decide.”
Most were like Brevin: they didn’t turn down work, so they agreed. Some brightened at the thought of it. Others, who had received Keys from their own universe’s Emissary, agreed to go through other doors, exponentially increasing the worlds to which Brevin could travel and recruit other Brevins. A few prayed to the God-Builder with more faith than he remembered ever having.
Sometimes Brevin and Xai would travel through a door and find no shop, only to explore the city and find another, grander workshop hidden somewhere else, or an even dingier, smaller corner hidden off in a diseased slum.
Eventually they found versions of the city where no Brevin could be found, and had to follow rumors to far-off places. In their own world, they rode great beasts to empty valleys, and then, using the Key, found villages with an old smith named Brevin. They joined caravans of travelers and hiked to the tops of cold mountains and found nothing ― until the Key opened the way.
“You’re still living in Malanihayati?” asked a version of himself with a long and braided beard, warming his hands at a fireplace in the mountains.
“Better than this frigid nowhere,” Brevin answered, and the other him chuckled and finished with the tea. The girl Xai slept on a chair covered in furs.
“I couldn’t stand it after they died,” the bearded one said eventually. “I had to get away.”
The icy wind smacked at the shutters. The fire crackled in the stove.
“I understand that.”
“I wanted to be out here, where I can do less harm.”
“So what do you think of her plan?” Brevin asked after a long moment.
“Sounds like I could ruin someone’s life,” the bearded Brevin answered. “Many lives.”
“I won’t let us do that,” said Brevin. “And I know you wouldn’t either.”
These recluse Brevins were in many places: little blacksmith’s shops in grand open prairies, where a Brevin kept a few horses while he considered his own death. They found a few Brevins who lived deep inside sentient forests, most of them with the same tools and the same haunted history. They listened to his story.
Some resisted him. They told him his path was foolish, told him not to listen to whoever this girl was. It was they who pointed out, to his surprise, that Xai did not appear in any of the other worlds.
Some of them did more than tell.
In a version of the shop far more filthy and ruinous than his had ever been, Brevin found a message soldered onto the walls:
SAVE US FROM BEGINNING
And there a drunken Brevin begged him to finish the Sword and use it to cut them from reality.
“There are others,” he said. “Others like us, who have come here. We had the Keys, but not the black iron — you can help us. You must help.”
By the end of this the man was sobbing, grabbing at Brevin’s clothing, and Brevin stumbled back through the gateway from which he had come.
On their visits they rarely spent more than an hour, and on those few occasions when they did, things grew strange. Black clouds formed on the horizon, and piercing light like the light of three red suns would pour into his eyes and he would grow wrathful without warning or reason. Xai pulled him to safety many times.
One day on their travels, Xai and Brevin used the Key to open up a door on the outskirts of Malanihayati. What in Brevin’s reality was a worn-down old fortress was, in this one, a revived and beautiful villa, its tiled roof red as apples, and music and cooking wafting on the same air.
“Who lives here?” Brevin asked. Xai smiled, and took his hand.
There was a party going on in the grassy courtyard, and they walked through the open gate towards it. A few children ran past. Men and women talked, and older folk sat playing dice.
When they turned to look at him, Brevin stopped short.
They were his family. Alive.
“Brevin?” asked his mother, but she wasn’t talking to him — not him — still, stunned. Another Brevin — wider, smiling, redder-cheeked, wearing bright livery and smiling as he cooked — came through the group.
“What’s happening?” asked his mother again, far older than she had been able to live before. “Is he all right?”
The other Brevin came closer, and took him by the shoulder.
“Do you want something to eat?” the other him asked.
He ate with his deceased family that afternoon. They surrounded him, eyes wide and glassy with wonder. Even the little children sensed something important.
Brevin looked at the other version of himself, the happy cook. Were you simply a better builder than me? Why did I fail where you succeeded?
The family burst into tears as they learned how they had died in his world. His younger brother came and hugged him first: Grahn, who had from their earliest childhood told him to build things. Then his mother and father.
“You must make this Sword,” his father said. As he spoke, he divided his attention between the two Brevins. “There must be… there must be more of you. Many who have lost us. They deserve a reason to live. Even if you can’t stay with us.”
And already Brevin felt Xai tugging at him. Too long in this world and he would go mad, and in his madness likely kill them all over again.
The happy Brevin agreed to help with the forging. He had a pensive look on his face as he said:
“This Sword can be used for more than destruction,” he said.
“You clearly don’t know much of its use,” Brevin retorted.
“I understand the principle as well as you,” he insisted. “And though a warrior may only think of the capacity to carve their foes out of the world, we are not warriors. They use blades to destroy and to separate, but a gardener uses them to delineate — to make space. A seamstress uses them to divide and reorganize. I wonder if the Sword has even greater potential than you imagine.”
Over the months their numbers grew. Thousands of Brevins heard his story. Many wept with him, and spoke with gratitude to him for what he was doing for the rest of himself, scattered across the universes.
He had thought that seeing that many would frighten him; remind him of his infinitesimal place in the universe. But it began to have the opposite effect. He walked with Brevins through city streets, on mountain paths, through swamps and forests. He rode with them through growing fields, met with them on the Council of the Constructors, and visited gravestones of his otherselves. What was this feeling that caught in his throat, that pulsed like a lighthouse?
Perhaps it was only vanity.
There came a day that he returned to his own shop, in his own city. He found his hammer.
Lifting it, he felt harmonic energy run through his arm. The hammer existed in almost every World he had seen; he had perfected it himself years ago. Its cube-shaped head, cast from a metal of compacted microscopic cities, was as familiar a shape to him as any.
As he melted the black iron down in the forge, as he shaped it into the blade, he heard voices, and not just the chatter of the metal.
A million hammer strokes fell across a million realities, striking the same white-hot shard of metal, and a million smiths breathed in and breathed out, as if a choir of souls sang in harmony.
Brevin saw, in each face, in each strike, that the story he had been telling himself was wrong.
Every Brevin, in every Eternal City, in every World, held his own time. Each had hands. Each had gifts. He remembered who had died, and what hopelessness he once felt. But his hands were his own, and to leave them idle was the greatest sacrilege of all.
And he learned what glory it was to forge infinity.
He thought of the God-Builder. The priests of His temple said that the God-Builder had been a machine once — an intelligence that could learn without limit and had grown beyond his bounds. Others said that He had then integrated physical forms, become a posthuman as many others had done. Brevin wondered if the God, in His grand journey, had ever felt as Brevin did then.
If that was true, maybe the God-Builder was not as uncaring as Brevin had thought.
The vibrations of the final blow rippled through his arm. He shook with exhaustion, suddenly the weakest he had ever been. The blade burned below him with light. In its surface he saw his workshop, but also mountain heights, towering forests, and great canyons where other Brevins worked. A thousand workmen exhaled together.
It was finished.
The hammer hummed in his hand. As he went to put it down, it became so heavy that it almost tumbled to the floor. His muscles were so sore that he knew he would not be able to lift it again if he tried.
Xai was not there ― she had gone out to the marketplace, she had said, to find food for them, as he had become so caught up in the work that he had not eaten for several days.
He dreamt of the crash. Fire bursting ― then immediately going out ― the swallowing cold ― all seen from so far away ― and the sound of their screams ―
― he felt fire in his hands ―
When Brevin woke again he went down the rickety stairs and into the little back courtyard. Standing there, he thought of his next projects. How he would fix up his little sleeping quarters, repair the stairs. It would be simple. Whole. Complete.
There was food waiting for him. Xynian fruit, as refreshing as if they had been engineered specifically for him, and a cut of beautiful marbled flesh, cooked perfectly and still steaming. He sat and ate slowly.
Only then did he think of the Sword.
There was a woman in the workshop when he came back in, holding the blade in her hands. At first he thought she might be the Transarch’s Emissary, for all the nobility with which she carried herself. But the woman was dressed in plain clothes, not unlike Brevin’s – canvas and undyed, made for laborers.
Her arms and hands were strong, but they held the blade with tenderness. Beneath her touch, he could see that its shape was perfect – that he had done exactly what he had intended, and succeeded. Her gaze was not critical, nor was it lavishing praise. She simply held the blade, as a poet may hold an empty book and know what wonders it could do.
She was Xai. But she was not Xai. Taller, older, but with the same enthusiasm. Her dirt-colored eyes that looked up at him were suddenly burning resin. She was someone Else.
Brevin fell to his knees.
She smiled at him.
“Brevin the Binder, you have good hands.”
He could not speak.
“When you were tasked to make this blade,” She spoke, and her voice rang in unnumbered realities, “you were thinking of dying, weren’t you?”
He did not answer, or even nod. He knew he didn’t need to.
She put her hand on his shoulder.
After a long moment Brevin trusted himself to speak.
“Why me?” he asked. “Why did You come to help me?
Her face turned thoughtful.
“It’s so easy to be blinded by appearances, don’t you think?” As She spoke he heard Her voice ring more and more familiar. “All those things everyone else is so proud of: antiquity, power, knowledge. People like us know that there are no blueprints until the prototype has already been born. No principles until someone’s tried and failed.”
He nodded again. Xai’s smile lit up her face.
His muscles still incredibly weak, he stood.
“Brevin,” She interrupted, “I care for the man who lifts the hammer far more than I care for the finished sculpture. It is the sweat that is divine, the aching muscle, the drained mind. You know as well as anything that the creation shapes the creator.”
“It can destroy the creator too.”
“That is a risk,” She agreed, nodding. “But if you are telling me that you are destroyed, then I must point out the obvious.”
She held out Her hand to him.
“Take my hand,” She said.
Brevin the Binder reached out his hand. She shook it, workman to workman. Tears glistened in the Goddess’ eyes. Then She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek.
“Remember, old man,” She said with a grin. “No man’s time is gone who yet has breath.”
When She pulled her lips away, there was no one there, and the blade lay on the table, glowing and shifting in the cloth where he had placed it the day before.
Brevin the Binder did not give up the blade to the Transarch.
When the Emissary returned, she could not find his shop. Not only was it gone, but the space where it had existed was gone, eaten by the City, transformed into a home for a young family. Soon enough, even the memory of Brevin the Binder had disappeared from her mind.
Elsewhere, in a small village in grasslands, a strange hemisphere emerged. Its surface blurred so badly that one could not see inside or enter it. A year it stayed there, unperturbed, unchanged.
The hemisphere stayed the same size, but one day it opened ― doors appearing in its shifting, blurred surface. A few curious souls from the village entered, and there they found, at first, a shop: a simple open-air workshop in the grass. To their astonishment, it stood on the shores of an azure lake, in a valley ringed with mountains, far larger than could have existed within the door they had entered.
“How is this possible?” they asked.
And the Smith who lived in the valley said with laughter in his voice that he had cut it from the world with a particularly sharp blade.
There is a city now in that valley, and those who wish to learn are welcome there. Craftsmen flock from every continent, and voyagers make pilgrimages from across the sea. Their caravans enter by the wavering door and take the road down to the lake, which grows wider every year so that every maker may have a place. Among the caravans come men with familiar faces and voices and hands, who greet the Smith with powerful embraces.
The seamstresses, the masons, the smiths, and the refiners share their arts. Forgers and mechanics and woodworkers gather in festivals, praising the Goddess-Builder.
They have time left, and hands to use.
And always something to build.