“Death is lighter than a feather, and life heavier than the mountains.”
Those words were impressed upon every shazi who guarded the border in the farthest south. Those words were recited, like a prayer, by the monks who visited once every three months, to hear confessions and to restock the prayer candles. They would be horrified to know that those candles weren’t often used during praying.
Men forgot how to pray up here.
Unless that phrase was a prayer after all.
Death is lighter than a feather, and life heavier than the mountains.
Maybe that was why more than half of recruits threw themselves off the battlements less than a week after they arrived. Maybe that’s what hollowed the eyes of the men who were crazy enough or jaded enough to stay alive.
Saen-ji was both jaded and crazy, and he knew it. He’d been here years longer than anyone else. Five years on the southern ramparts, guarding the world against monsters it refused to believe were real.
The men here knew they were real, but most didn’t make it home to tell the stories.
“Icedrake spotted- two kilometers, sir.”
Saen-ji stepped out into the cold; tiny flakes of ice surged around him, biting. The wind- chill and deadly- carried the scent of hot metal to him. Icedrake, indeed, whirling around in the sky, invisible in the haze of snowstorm clouds.
Great. Of all the monsters slithering around the frozen mountains, today it had to be an ice drake. He’d lose at least ten percent of his men no matter what.
The ice-wolves’ howl drove them indoors; its’ bite froze their blood and bone.
The Spectres haunted their dreams and drove them out of windows, still sleeping.
The Yeti lured them off the wall and into the snow, never to be seen again.
But the ice-drakes’ blood flowed with a dangerous magic—an older magic—that caused them to hear the voices of those they’d wronged. The phantoms came accusing, screaming in agony, or worse: whimpering their names- and the sight and sound drove men mad.
“Light the braziers,” Saen-ji barked. Men clattered to do his bidding. He stepped out into the cold again, his eyes drawn to the quick-fires pulsing atop the Wall every thirty yards. Fires hindered the drakes, but wouldn’t drive them away—when one of the beasts got hungry, nothing would deter its attacks for long.
“Roast the arrows,” he poked his head back in the door and barked. Men who’d seen the drakes before still sat or stood where they’d been minutes earlier, frozen in horror. The newer recruits were pale and terrified, but they’d already brought out the sheaves of long, almost spear-like arrows, and were fitting them into slots above the fire. The bronze arrowheads glittered with moisture as they heated.
Wind tugged at his body and numbed his exposed face. He listened. The drakes came only with the wind—it masked them, made them invisible until the last second, so their prey could not flee. Not that anyone at the Wall could or would flee—there was nowhere to go except out into the wasteland that would provide a slower and more excruciating death.
The arrows ready, the new recruits paired up, one cranking back the huge winches on the Wall, the other dropping the steaming, glittering arrow into the slot along the top of the giant cross-bow-like ballistae. The second man swiveled the machines around, squinting vainly into the billowing clouds of snow.
“There!” Came a shout, from the far end of the Wall, just before the round guard tower.
Two arrows, hissing against the cold, thudded from their places and vanished instantly into the white. No sound followed. No hit.
Saen-ji shook his head as he peered off the ramparts. Behind him, a man screamed and leaped off the edge. No one stopped him. His body plummeted downward, and when it hit, every man could hear the crunch.
“Steady, men,” Saen-ji said. “Steady.” Some of them looked ready to follow their comrade, their unfocused eyes and white lips a testament to the hallucinations they were seeing, not just to the cold.
Oh, yes, Saen-ji thought. The drake is very near.
Then it came, rearing up over the edge of the wall, scattering men before it. Two more arrows, colder now, shot wildly over the beast. Four more men, at various points along the wall, screamed and jumped. The drake’s slithering tail raked their bodies toward it.
Then, as quickly as it had begun, the battle ceased. An arrow hit the dragon in the head, piercing one eye and the back of its head. The beast slid backward to the ground and moved no more.
Men relaxed, but not Saen-ji. This was the most dangerous moment, really. The drake’s last breaths would expel the remainder of its magic, and in that moment, more men would cast themselves to their deaths.
“Inside!” Saen-ji shouted. “Everyone get inside. Now!”
The men shuffled halfheartedly, most unable to find the doors to safety. Saen-ji watched them, his vision blurring. Then, above the vicious howl of the wind, he heard a cry.
Some of the beasts here cried, to lure men from the Wall, but none of them would dare get so close to a drake. Saen-ji stepped up on top of the ramparts and strained his ears. A handful of men fell, unable to see past their hallucinations.
There. There it was again. Saen-ji moved toward it, his ears attuned to the sound. He descended the stairs, snow and ice and the smell of metal swirling around him. The drake’s body heaved one last sigh as Saen-ji’s booted foot hit frozen earth in place of stone.
A tiny bundle lay, not far off, between the stairs and the hulking corpse of their enemy. The drake had been a large one. A fortuitous shot.
Saen-ji drew his blade as he approached the wailing bundle. It moved. Was this a trick?
It was a baby.
Saen-ji’s eyes narrowed. How on earth?
He stabbed his blade into a mound of snow and bent to lift the tiny child. As he did, the babe dissolved into nothing. At the same time, a dozen or more of his men leaped to their deaths and came crashing down around him, their blood spilling onto the sheet of pure white snow.
I want to die. I want to die. Saen-ji thought. The thought drummed around in his mind, driving him mad. I am the only one left, over and over again.
But he could not throw himself over that Wall. Maybe it was cowardice, maybe not. Sanity held him back, no matter how much he wished those barriers would dissolve like the child in the snow. The sadness in his bones remained too. Sanity and deep sadness, his twin shadows.
He’d lost twenty men to the drake. Twenty.
Darkness had fallen, casting everything into shadow. Men hid there, in the corners away from the candlelight, to silently weep for their comrades. They cried in the light, too, but it soothed their pride to hide their hurt.
Saen-ji sat at a rough wooden table, staring at a piece of paper covered with names. Twenty letters he’d need to write. He had no heart for it. He just wanted it all to end.
They called him ‘the survivor’, and he hated that name even more than he hated this place, with its monsters and its neverending winter, and the death toll that it meant for his men. He hated that name the most.
It meant he could never escape.
Dieyu, something whispered in his head, and he thumped it against the table.
“What are you thinking, master?” whispered one of the newer recruits, from a place hidden in shadows.
“Nothing but foolishness,” Saen-ji replied calmly as he straightened. Talk of Dieyu would cause the men to believe he’d gone permanently mad—the place of the monsters was a place of myth. But… if the myths were believed, the heart of Dieyu held the power controlling the monsters.
Madmen, braggarts, and glory-mongers had sometimes set off for that place. Mostly they never returned, but sometimes one or two would show up again, in the wrong place, having no memory of their trials. They usually died a few days later from unknown causes.
If he wanted to die, Dieyu was the place for it. Since the south hadn’t killed him yet, maybe the only place that could was a place that didn’t exist.
He set off that night, wrapped in furs. Hundreds of days upon the wall and hundreds of calculations gave him a good idea in which direction he needed to travel.
Dieyu. He was mad.
The nights in the south were calmer than the days. At night, the wind died down and the world quieted. Even so, Saen-ji had no trouble slipping away. The sky ribboned with green and purple, and as the Wall slowly receded behind him, he could see for miles. The wastelands of the south stretched out before him, and the solitary peak in the distance—his destination—grew steadily closer as the night passed on.
But maybe ‘passed on’ was the wrong term. Dawn didn’t exactly come; the stars and the lights in the sky faded, but the sun didn’t rise. The day passed as a gradient from black to grey to black again, and still, Saen-ji walked. The Wall vanished behind him, but the mountain never seemed to sweep closer. It still stood like a spectre on the horizon.
He walked on.
He slept in patches, with one eye open. The few animals that crept toward his fire instead of away he caught and ate, raw or roasted.
He walked on.
And suddenly, as if by magic, the solitary peak’s foothills reared up before him. The mountain howled, snow blowing from its ice cap, yet he wasn’t sure the howling was wind. It seemed to come from within the mountain rather than the snowstorm sweeping about him.
Trees clung to the rocky sides of the foothills, twisting and shuddering in the wind. Something thundered down the mountain and out of sight. Ice stung his eyes. He just wanted to die. Was it so hard? Frostbite hadn’t touched him, starvation hadn’t come. It was as if something supernatural protected him and wouldn’t let him die. The world turned white as a stinging blast brought sheets of snow down off the mountainside. He stumbled forward, into the whiteness.
And when it passed, he found himself facing a great cave. Its mouth stood at least ten meters high, rimmed with broken stones and jagged teeth of ice. He stepped inside, the thin ice beneath his boots crackling. The fur lining poking from those boots stood up like the nape hair on an angry dog—frozen from so long out in the cold.
The cave stretched back into the darkness, hollow and wide. Saen-ji stomped the layer of snow from his clothing, pulled a torch from his pack, and set off into the dark. Frantic symbols were etched into the stone walls at every turn as if directing an adventurer to follow on. Or turn back—they were in a language foreign to his eyes.
The path sloped down, past great echoing caverns and between narrow crevasses in which he had to shove his pack through first and then scrape through. The bowels of the cave were strangely warm, and occasionally he came across a fur wrap or an overcoat cast aside by past explorers.
Strangely, anything fine: the buttons, the cloak frogs, the braided cords, the lace on each lost item . . . were gone. Threads, long and discolored, trailed off where the finery had once been attached. He paused to peer into a small leather purse in the midst of the path—a letter and a single link from a pocket watch chain lay in the bottom. The letter dissolved in his fingers as he fumbled to open it.
Those shreds of a life lost followed him as he moved again toward the back of the cave. Ice sparkled and shone as he moved onward—until—
There was light. And as he paused, he could hear a sound muffled by his own quiet movements… it was the sound of wind. It rushed and clattered against the sides of a large cavern just ahead. The light was soft and twinkled like the stars. Deeper messages, more desperate, were scratched around the mouth to the cavern. He didn’t have to be able to read them to know what they said:
Maybe he finally was dying after all. Perhaps his body was crumpled back along the path, senseless. Maybe he’d started losing shreds of himself when he’d touched that letter.
Fearless, he stepped around the corner.
A glittering pool perhaps a hundred meters or more across met his eyes. In the center rose a tiny island, from which a pearlescent stalagmite jutted toward a matching stalagtite stabbed down from the shadowed roof above.
Betwixt point and point, glimmering in a wide, misty sphere, suspended a vaguely human shape. Twined about him, in the suspended light, hung all the finery missing from the cloaks and jackets. The pool was full of glittering coins, and gem-encrusted brooches, of floating bits of lace and drapings of velvet cast just upon the water’s edge. A sword lay, glittering, near a box of crystal, and a half-dozen golden daggers scattered along the bottom. Other fine items, too far away or too deep in the pool to identify, flashed and glittered in the water.
A diadem rested around the jutting stalagmite.
Saen-ji felt the breath pull from his lungs.
He hadn’t realized he’d said the word beneath his breath until it magnified itself in the chamber. The suspended being laughed, and the sound of it was like a rockfall. He swiveled from his suspension, then leaped lightly down into the water.
“Yes,” said a deep voice. “What’ll it be, then? Power or riches, which do you seek?”
Saen-ji said nothing.
The figure approached, one hand caressing the pommel of a plain sword around his waist. His face was white and thin, and his eyes milky. The closer he came, the more Saen-ji could see the bones jutting from beneath the man’s skin.
He was not well.
Was it possible an immortal could be unwell?
“Well, what is it?” The being splashed out of the water, his robes, embroidered with scenes of dragons and warriors and exuding that faint starlight, trailing a bit of lace. “No, wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess.”
“You are Dieyu?” Saen-ji whispered.
“I am,” said the being, circling him and peering. He made a full circle and stopped in front of Saen-ji, one hand gripping each shoulder. “You don’t seem to be in search of power or riches, my friend. Are you lost?”
“Legend says you can kill a man who can’t die.” The words slipped easily from Saen-ji’s lips. As if death was an easy thing.
“Sorry, run that by me again.” Dieyu’s hands tightened in a spasm on Saen-ji’s shoulders before he stepped back and scowled.
“Legend says you can kill—”
“Stop,” said Dieyu. “Death is what you seek?”
Before Saen-ji could say anything, the globe-shaped cloud still suspended around the pinnacle and diadem shivered and turned opaque. He stumbled back, and Dieyu turned wearily.
“What is it this time?” he shouted into the air.
Blowing snow skidded over the image, in and out of focus, until a pack of three or perhaps four ice-wolves nosed out of the whiteness. Saen-ji stood his ground, but his blood ran cold.
Dieyu sighed, his face grey. “Very well! Send them in.”
Saen-ji whirled but cut off his words as Dieyu pulled out his sword. The opaque globe filled with mist, then dissolved to reveal four wolves, chest-high in water, howling and snapping.
Saen-ji found he could not move—the howl of the ice-wolves often had that affect… freezing blood and bone.
Four wolves against one immortal?
Nothing made sense, nothing at all. He probably had died back there in the tunnels.
Dieyu had struck one wolf, and its blood stained the pool red as rubies. Two, three—they fell almost easily. Almost. But Saen-ji saw the weariness in the immortal, the fragility.
How can an immortal be fragile?
The final wolf lunged, latching onto Dieyu’s hand before he slid a dagger into its heart. The cavern fell silent, but for echoes, the lapping of the red, stirred water, and the labored panting of Dieyu. He staggered out of the pool and touched Saen-ji’s shoulder.
Saen-ji found he could move again, and he sank down to his knees.
“I don’t understand.”
Dieyu turned compassionate eyes on him. “You’ve come closer than most.”
The immortal’s hand was bleeding far more than it should have been. Saen-ji tamped down his instinct to bind the wound. Dieyu’s milky eyes fluttered, and he staggered and fell hard onto the uneven stone.
“My lord!” Saen-ji knelt.
“Don’t you call me that,” Dieyu gasped, closing his eyes. “Just a man like you.”
Saen-ji found his breath stolen again. None of this made any sense at all.
“I’m dying,” said the immortal. “You must become the Guardian.”
“The what?” Saen-ji gave in to his instinct and pulled a length of cloth from his pack, but as soon as he wrapped it around the puncture wound in Dieyu’s arm, the cloth became heavy with blood and it began to seep through.
“The Guardian fights and protects the world,” Dieyu said hoarsely. “My time is over. You cannot leave the guardianship vacant.”
“Your War on the Wall… without a Guardian, you’ll be overrun in hours. Your war,” he repeated, “is nothing compared to what it will be if there is no Guardian.” He coughed.”Take the diadem. Put it on. With that action, you become Dieyu and the Guardian of the world.”
Saen-ji let out a hoarse laugh as things came into focus. “I want to die. I came here to die, came here for you to kill me. Yet you’re the one dying, and I’m left with a choice to become immortal or allow the world be overrun with monsters?”
Dieyu did not answer. Black liquid from his arm spilled into the pool.
Saen-ji stood, shakily. An immortal had died in his arms.
He shook his head. Not an immortal, clearly.
A whisper came back, from his mind or from the once-again- misty orb: “Death is lighter than a feather, and life heavier than the mountains.”
He felt the weight of it, the weight of that mountain. Death was the feather, immortality heavier than the mountain. And he had no choice.
He stepped into the water. Velvets tangled around his feet, coins slid over one another beneath the surface of the water. It came to his knees, filling his boots and washing the blood from his pants.
The diadem twinkled, hung before him around the stalagmite.
The cavern suddenly seemed empty. He turned back to look at the body of the Guardian, but it and the bodies of the dead wolves were gone.
A dream, he thought, this is a dream.
Death is lighter than a feather, and life heavier than the mountains.
He breathed out, once—twice. No, he was not dead. Not dreaming. This felt more real than anything he’d experienced. The Wall was his training ground. The Guardianship his destiny. Curses be upon him if he turned from his duty.
He reached out, lifted the diadem from its place, and set it on his head.