The Man With the Iron Heart

“But you don’t look like you’re made of iron,” the gardener said in his strange fashion.

“I am not,” Magnus said. The dull patina of his mithril body was barely visible in the moonlight of the dojo’s garden.

“Then why are you called-“

Magnus interrupted, “I do not remember the origins of my name. It is simply my name.” Never one for pointless conversation, Magnus was even less inclined to chat with this man, whose words did not match the shapes his mouth made.

The little human leaned on the broom he’d been using to sweep a nearby pit of sand. “Very well, Magnus Ironhand,” he said, then bowed with the practice of someone who’d spent his whole life in pursuit of the task. “I welcome you in mind and body to the Veiled Dojo. Are you prepared to die?”

If the inert sneer on his warforged face were capable of cocking an eyebrow, Magnus might have considered it. “Is that a threat?”

“I mean no offense,” the man said hastily. “But someone who sneaks into the Veiled Dojo to issue a challenge must be aware that he’s not likely to survive. The Fighting Master will duel you personally and has never known defeat.”

Magnus spat. “I am the greatest warrior this dojo has ever seen. My martial skills are more powerful than yours. Bring your master to me, and I will prove the truth of my words.”

The gardener’s mouth flapped excitedly for several moments, but all that came out was, “This way!” He scampered off before Magnus could protest.

Even though he could not remember it, Magnus was very sure that he had always hated monks.

Following the man through the garden proved difficult. The gravel paths seemed to fold back on themselves in ways that made Magnus’ head hurt. Only by keeping pace with the fleet gardener did he avoid becoming lost.

At last they reached a small wooden cabin, which seemed to be their destination. It had a large, paper door painted with tigers, waterfalls and other bullshit. The gardener paused and looked at him somewhat plaintively. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know,” he said.

“My mind cannot be changed,” said Magnus.

The door slid open, though Magnus could not recall the gardener signaling their presence in any way. Standing before them was an elven woman, young and lean, with black hair pulled into a single braid that trailed down to her waist. She wore the same kind of loose-fitting robes as the gardener, though much cleaner and with a deep crimson sash.

“A challenge has been made,” the gardener said formally. The woman nodded to him, and he stepped away.

Magnus looked her up and down. “You are the master here?” he asked, fingers coiling into fists of metal.

“I am Seneschal Xi,” she said in a sonorous voice that at least matched her lips. “The Fighting Master will arrive shortly.” She beckoned him inside the cabin and into a spartan sparring room of surprising size. “Tea?”

Magnus lowered himself to a tea tray arranged in the center of the room. If they thought to weaken him with poison before combat, then let them believe their ruse was working. No toxin could survive his internal fires. The woman regarded him silently as they sipped the dirt-flavored water.

“Why have you come here?” Xi asked eventually.

“I am here to challenge your master.”

“Yes, I know. But why?”

Magnus paused only a moment. “Because I have been paid by your enemies to kill him in hopes of destroying you all.”

“The Veiled Dojo has many enemies who would steal our secrets. That is why we are veiled. Only those with strong minds can pierce our defenses. How did you manage to get in here?”

“I snuck in.” Magnus was in no mood to recount the weeks he’d spent wandering in circles before finding their fortress. Nor did he care to discuss how he’d vaulted their useless outer walls and waited at the bottom of a koi pond for three days for an opportunity to penetrate the dojo’s inner garden.

After a moment, Xi seemed to realize that Magnus would not resume speaking. She set her teacup down on its stupid little plate and considered her words. “I must warn you, your duel will not satisfy your employers.”

Magnus shrugged. “That is their problem. I will do as I said I would, and then my business will be concluded.”

“So you’re just a simple assassin? You kill for money, and that’s all?”

Magnus squeezed his empty cup in his mithril fist and let the powder sprinkle over the tea set. “I kill to achieve greatness. To forge myself in the flames of adversity. Across untold centuries I have reached for perfection.”

“Is that why you became a monk?” she asked. “To reach perfection?”

“I do not remember becoming a monk, much less why.” The woman’s questions grated on his nerves, but he could not seem to stop himself from explaining. “The curse of the warforged is to forget and diminish. Every few decades I lose what I was. But if I could build enough power before the fog hides it away, perhaps then I could achieve perfection. And that I will remember.”

Xi leaned forward and held Magnus’ crimson gaze. “What if there were another way?”

After a moment, Magnus stood, breaking the spell of their conversation. “There is no other way. Now fetch your master. It is time to begin.”

As if on cue, a panel slid open on the far wall to reveal a white-haired man. It took Magnus a moment to understand the scale of the figure, fully a head taller than himself and rippling with more corded muscle than he’d ever seen on an elf. The Fighting Master of the Veiled Dojo looked like the towering statues that clerics chisel of their gods. He stepped onto the mat with such harmonious grace that he almost seemed to float.

Magnus kicked the tea tray into the big elf’s face, and then they started fighting.

Still dripping hot tea, the master struck like lightning with a flurry of punches, kicks and elbows from every conceivable angle. His reach was longer and his attacks were nearly too fast to see. The blows that landed had the weight of battering rams. Each attack flowing smoothly into the next, leaving Magnus no room for counters.

Overwhelmed, the warforged retreated to a defensive shell and drew upon vast reservoirs of ki to begin deflecting the blows. After the master’s initial onslaught, his attacks grew more predictable. Magnus advanced, turning the rhythm of the exchange to his favor until he felt confident to make his own counterattack… and so stepped right into the master’s trap.

The elf twisted like an eel around Magnus’ predicted uppercut, catching the warforged off balance. “You still have much to learn, metal man,” he boomed as he unleashed a merciless barrage of strikes to all of the exposed weak spots on Magnus’ body.

At least, they would have been weak spots on any flesh and blood opponent. But Magnus was made of stronger stuff. The master’s fists glanced off of hard metal edges rather than soft and vulnerable flesh. And so Magnus was not left stunned and defenseless by the assault. There was barely enough time for the elf to blink in surprise as a jagged elbow smashed across his beautiful face, ripped off chunks of flesh.

“I have forgotten more of fighting than you have ever known,” Magnus snarled.

The hulking master staggered backwards, blood raining down. Magnus sprang forward with a hammering kick to his solar plexus, sending him toppling to the floor.

“Wait!” screamed Xi from somewhere as Magnus raised his mithril-shod foot and slammed it down onto the back of the prostrate master’s head, crushing it like a melon.

A gasp went up from a crowd of monks who had all gathered around the duel. Magnus glanced across the sea of aghast faces before finding that of Xi. Tears rolled down her cheeks as she fell to her knees.

“Your master is dead, and your veil is lifted,” Magnus told her.

“It is not,” said another voice. Magnus turned to see the gardener standing nearby, looking grave. “You’ve defeated our Fighting Master, it is true, but only our Psychic Master is responsible for maintaining the veil.”

“Two masters?” The concept of sharing power in any organization seemed absurd. “Where is the other?” But Magnus looked at the gardener with a new perspective, noting again the way his speech seemed to come from somewhere other than his mouth.

“Yes,” the gardener said, as if reading his thoughts. “I am the Psychic Master of the Veiled Dojo, responsible for the minds of our members as much as the Fighting Master was responsible for our bodies. The dojo will live on with my protection, and we will appoint a new Fighting Master to continue the noble tradition left behind by the old.”

“I don’t care what you do,” Magnus said.

“You should. By defeating the old master, you have earned his place. With the monks of the Veiled Dojo at your feet, you could lead us into a new era of fighting excellence.” The master’s eyes seemed to twinkle from beneath the layer of gardening dust. “And I can offer you even more.”

Magnus said nothing.

“You say you have spent centuries striving to hold onto your memories. With my powers, I can recover the life you’ve forgotten.”

Magnus still said nothing, but the little master advanced on him. “I can reach into your mind and find what you’ve lost. You want to remember your past, don’t you? How you became a monk? How you got your name? Stay with us, and I can help restore who you were!”

After a long moment, Magnus reached out and placed his heavy hand on the master’s shoulder. “I would only forget again, eventually. Who I was is gone. Who I am is of this moment, and I will kill the master of this dojo to lift the veil, because that is who I am.”

The master seized Magnus’ hand, his eyes burning, but he was not trying to escape. His mouth had stopped moving, but his voice seemed to come from many directions at once. “I can help you, Magnus Ironhand!” The voices twisted into his mind. “I can give you the perfect memory that you desire!”

Magnus remembered standing in a stunning forest surrounded by the people he loved. He was clasping his father on the shoulder with a hand of flesh. Everyone was singing his favorite drinking song. It was his birthday celebration, the day he became a man. With a smile, he lifted his stein in cheers and put the cup to his lips. The spicy aroma of the ale filled his nostrils. He tipped back the cup and watched the frothy golden liquid flow down. But before the ale could splash across his awaiting tongue, he jerked the cup back and smashed it into his father’s beaming face.

“No,” Magnus said. He punched the Psychic Master again, his cold mithril fist crushing cartilage and bone. “That’s cheating,” he told the gore that remained. Holding the master aloft with his off-hand, he kept punching until there was nothing left to grip.

The blood-caked warforged looked around at the collection of monks still surrounding him, all clutching their heads and moaning in horror. All except that elf woman, who still wept on the floor.

“I have done what I promised your enemies,” he told them. “You are going to die, and I will forget you in time. Then you will be nothing at all. But I will remain who I am.”

Magnus stepped out of the cabin and into the obnoxiously manicured garden. There were dark, spidery shapes scuttling over the walls of the dojo in every direction, vastly outnumbering the guardian monks. The sounds of mourning quickly turned to screams.

“I am always who I am.”