He had wrested the soul sapphire from the forehead of a God.
Entire armies had taken him on and fallen before his skill and strength.
There were cemeteries full of tyrants and monsters who had died at his hand.
Life stretched out before him, bland and smooth, and all he had to show for it was a reputation larger than him and pain when he awoke.
He attracted women, but they seldom stayed. His fires burned too long to bear for long and part of him went with him. He replenished himself in solitude and battle, but there was a bleak ennui which tainted his meals and marred his sight.
The Ragged Ghost was full, which he welcomed as he took his place by the fire with a bowl of venison stew held in his large, rough hands and a flagon of ale on the table. He stared into the fire as he recalled old hates and older loves.
‘Seven? You fight seven champions, and then what?’
He turned his head to the source of the conversation. The hour clad the men in shadows, sat in a corner of the inn where the light did not reach.
‘You win your greatest wish from The Lady Of Heaven.’
Two men, soft voices and youthful, which raised no concerns. He put his bowl down and stood up, walked over to them and stared into the liquid, shining eyes of a young priest, his features smoothed out by faith and discipline.
‘How do you enter?’ he said.
His voice was a mountain struck by lightning, the hiss of melting stone and the avalanche which follows. The priest swallowed and reached into his robes, held out a scroll which Hand took from him with a mutter of thanks.
The scroll was a set of instructions and a map which he calculated to be three days ride from here. He kept his face still, but his heart thumped against his ribs and his hands shook with anticipation.
He stood up, rubbed his scalp and picked up his sword, threw a few gold on the table, and left with a nod to the two priests. They brought his horse to him, and he rode out into the night. His eyes were damp with joy, but he told himself it was the wind across the plains.
There was a mountain. He took two days to climb it He sat on the peak and waited for the opening in the clouds.
A bank of thick, black cloud moved towards him, against the wind but he sat and stared into the north wind as patterns of frost appeared on his scalp and through his beard. When it reached him, it stopped and the clouds parted to reveal a set of steps which led up into the sky.
He walked up the steps into the first sky.
A cyclops on a bicycle, with thick spiked wheels pedalled until they were a blur of razors, rushed to meet him as Hand set foot on the first battlefield. He rolled to the side and was up with his sword drawn. It galvanised him with shock to see the one-eyed giant, already turning the iron frame around to charge at him again.
He ran to meet him, legs pumping as he roared with bloodlust, but the sword stayed down by his side. If he fell beneath the iron wheels, they would tear him to pieces, but as the cyclops stared down at him, he slipped to one side and disappeared.
The cyclops stopped the bicycle and lifted it, reaching out with an enormous hand to spin the wheels and see if the spikes had caught his opponent. It moved with a screech but there was no sign of his opponent’s body. He set the front wheel down and growled with frustration before he reached to scratch an itch on the back of his neck. Before he had flesh underneath his nails, he felt a sharp puncture sink into the meat of his throat. His hand came up, fearing something had stung him.
The cyclops was right. Hand pulled his sword free and with it, came a gout of blood, reddening as it hit the air. He leapt over the cyclop’s shoulder and clung to the lank ropes of hair which protruded from his scalp as the cyclops collapsed, the iron bicycle tangled between his enormous legs.
Hand walked away from the corpse but it was miles until he was free of its shadow.
His second opponent wore the face of his best friend, and although it made battle difficult, Hand fought the creature until his sword sank into its gut and it returned to its natural form, a thing of lights and shapes which drifted away like petals on the wind.
The Rotten Hound was a shambling thing, which dropped pieces of its own flesh as it chased him, bones aglow from within as it spat fire at him. It clawed his chest and cut through to the bone, but he got onto its back and wrench its head all the way around. It fell beneath him and he stayed there until the next set of stairs appeared.
They sat his third opponent before a deck of cards and a small pile of stones. A pot of steaming tea sat next to him and he gestured for Hand to sit down. It took a dozen hands, but Hand agreed it was the most pleasant fight he’d ever had out of bed.
His history met him in the next two rounds. Old foes, resurrected for their reputation and armed with knowledge of his weaknesses. Their mistake was to fight the man he had been, not the man he was. It was awkward to fight them, and he was embarrassed to find their defeat came to him with ease.
There was a surprise waiting for him on the sixth round. The time between rounds passed in a blur, but word reached him that there were great wagers being placed on his success, but he ignored it.
She came to him with a smile as bright as the blades in her hand. Her hair flowed out behind her, and the sunlight blessed her skin. Hand looked into her eyes and saw a broken, inexorable hatred there. When he dropped his sword, she stopped and raised her swords.
‘Fight, damn you.’ she said.
Her voice was a hiss, but it was fat with unshed tears.
He opened his arms and shook his head.
‘I will not take arms against you.’ he said.
She threw one sword and he leaned to one side as it flew past him. He stared at her as she brought back her remaining sword, ready to bring it down on his head. Hand let the sword come down, but stepped to an angle and wrapped his hands around hers and brought his knee up into the bones of her forearms. The crack was loud, and it sickened him as she fell forwards, fainting from the pain. He laid her on the ground and asked her forgiveness. She turned her head and said nothing so he stood up and walked towards the next set of stairs.
Hand looked back at her, but not for long.
He walked up into darkness and thunder, like he were in the lungs of some great monster. Hand drew his sword and held it before him.
‘If you defeat me, then what?’
The voice was his own, amplified to the roar of a storm.
‘I will claim the prize.’ Hand said.
‘Then what?’ the voice said.
‘I do not fear death, if it is what you are getting at.’ Hand said.
He sheathed his sword and walked further into the darkness. It was humid and his skin grew slick with sweat.
‘Then what do you fear?’
Hand closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
‘Being forgotten.’ he said.
Laughter, rich and mocking washed over him.
Hand shook his head and looked into the darkness.
‘I know my fears, and yet it is difficult to speak of them. There were lovers who would have enjoyed such an admission.’ he said.
The voice sighed, mocking and aware.
‘Yet here you are. Lost in the darkness, Hand, and no one can see or hear you.’ it said.
Hand took a deep breath.
‘I know myself. My fears are not things to be defeated, but learned from.’ he said.
The darkness closed in. Hand controlled the unsettled bubbling in his stomach and gritted his teeth.
Hand’s limbs shook and he felt his hands, reach for the hilt of his sword.
‘You will learn this lesson, Hand. Your final one.’ it said.
Hand focused on his hands but they drew the sword with the grace of experience and his arms lifted as they aimed the blade at his stomach.
‘Give in. Win this fight with the same determination as the others, Hand. No one will question your determination.’
Tears ran down his face and he screamed, shaking his head as the sword came down towards his stomach. It was a good blade and it would pierce him with ease, but a blade to the belly was a slow death.
‘I WILL WALK THROUGH.’ Hand said.
He managed a few steps before the tip of the blade opened his skin and he gasped as the darkness guided the sword. Hand kept walking and breathing until he felt his arms return to his control. He let the sword fall from his fingers and lifted his arms to the sky.
The darkness dissipated. Its absence revealed the audience. All the gods and monsters of seven skies. They showered Hand with gold and praise, but he waited for the true prize. The wound in his belly was small, and it closed up when an angel smiled at him.
She floated down, raven hair and eyes glittering with an amused intelligence. The Lady of Heaven, Mother and Wife, Warrior and Priestess.
‘Hand, you have won your prize. Name it.’ she said.
Her voice was a melodic delight, a dark sweetness of tone which sounded too rich to be divine. Hand looked into her eyes and ached with desire for her.
‘Come closer.’ he said.
He sheathed his sword and lowered his head so her mouth was next to his ear. Despite the attention they paid them, no one caught what she said to him. Her fingers rested against his cheek before she stepped backwards, a wry smile curved her full lips upwards as he gave a terse nod and walked away.
It was many years before someone asked him what she said to him. He smiled, pulled the thick fur blanket down his chest and sat up, wincing with the cost of a lifetime’s battle.
‘She told me I was a good man.’ he said.