At first, Tamuna felt as if she were falling through an abyss. Darkness surrounded her, so thick she could almost taste it.
Before she could panic, her fall slowed until she was floating in midair. Her feet touched water, and a deep sense of peace swept over her, the peace that one only feels in a dream. As the darkness cleared, she found herself swimming in a clear pool fed by a mountain spring. Rugged cliffs rose behind her, while a small stone chapel stood a short distance from the shore. An eagle cried out in the cloudless blue sky, momentarily breaking the solitary silence of the wilderness.
Where am I? Tamuna wondered. How did I come to this place? If this was a dream, it felt more real than any she’d ever experienced. The water was cool and refreshing, with a bed of fine gravel under her feet. There was no danger of drowning, though the pool was deep enough that she had to swim instead of walk. She was naked, of course, but that didn’t bother her. It would be silly to swim in her clothes.
She reached the edge of the pool and climbed onto a large rock. Snow-capped peaks lined the horizon in every direction, while virgin forests stretched out in the valleys below. The view was so stunning, it completely took her breath away. She’d heard of places like this, where the cattle herders took their cows in the summer and the hunters roamed in the winter. However, when she scanned the mountains on the horizon, none of them were familiar.
“Hello?” she shouted. “Can anyone hear me?” The echo came back a few seconds later, but only the wind answered her.
She shivered and rubbed her arms with her hands. The breeze was uncomfortably cool on her bare, wet skin, but fortunately the sun was rapidly drying her. She sat down on the rock and began to wring out her hair.
She noticed a small footpath nearby, leading to the stone chapel. A set of woolen clothes lay neatly folded at the head of the path, clearly meant for her. As soon as she was dry enough to dress herself, she climbed down from the rock and slipped the clothes over her body. They were thick and warm, perfectly suited for the mountains. The embroidery was red and gold on black in the style of the Khevsurans, with a recurring cross and circle motif. She took a few moments to admire her reflection in the lake before setting off down the path.
Like most mountain churches, this one was built in the shape of a cross, with tall, narrow windows and intricate patterns carved onto the exterior. The stones were crumbling, and a long crack ran down the wall through the highest window. From the outside, it seemed to be empty.
I’m alone, she thought silently. And yet somehow, she knew that wasn’t true. Ever since the darkness had lifted, she’d felt a presence nearby, waiting for her. It felt as if she were part of a story that she was living through instead of merely hearing about.
When she reached the front doors, they swung open of their own accord, revealing a vaulted chapel that was dark and empty. Aging marble tiles covered the floor, while the walls and pillars were hewn from rough-cut stone. A ray of light shone down from the cupola, illuminating the apse at the center.
And there, embedded in a slab of pure white marble, stood the sword.
Her breath caught in her throat. Once again, she felt the call of destiny compelling her forward. She covered her head with one of the shawls by the entrance and quietly stepped inside.
“Hello?” she said aloud. Though her voice was barely louder than a whisper, it carried throughout the sanctuary.
Tamuna, a voice spoke in her mind. She froze, her blood turning to ice. Was someone behind her? She glanced over her shoulder, but saw only shadows. Perhaps the wind was playing tricks with—
Tamuna, the voice spoke again, this time as clear as if she had heard it with her ears. She spun around, but again, she was alone.
As she turned back to the apse, the air immediately in front of her began to ripple like a mirage on a hot day. The sword seemed to morph and change, until she saw two images before her: the sword in the slab of marble, exactly as before, and a tall young man with golden hair and a carefully trimmed beard, wearing a silver coat of mail and the tunic of a warrior.
“Wh-who are you?” she asked, taking a step back. Something about his gaze held her, telling her there was no need to be afraid.
“Tamuna Leladze,” he said softly, looking at her with the barest hint of a smile. “Over a thousand years have passed since mortal eyes have seen this place, now in ruins in the world of men. Many have desired to wield me, but I have refused them all. I am Imeris, the twelfth and final sword, and this is my sanctuary.”
Tamuna frowned. “The twelfth sword?”
“Yes,” said the young man. His image faded until he was almost invisible, so that Tamuna found herself staring at the hilt of the sword in the marble slab. It called out to her the way it had in the tavern, and she realized that the man and the sword were the same.
“How did you know my name?”
“I know a lot about you, Tamuna,” said Imeris, coming back into view. “Our minds made contact the moment you laid eyes on me. I know how your heart longs for adventure, how you dream of faraway lands. And yet, your unshakeable loyalty to the few close and lasting friends in your life keeps you rooted to your home.”
“You can read my mind, then?”
“Only because you are too innocent to know how to shut me out. What I read in your mind, others can easily read in your countenance.”
Tamuna gazed into Imeris’s eyes and felt as if she were staring into a mirror back through centuries of time. And yet, he looked like a man only a few years older than her.
“Why have you brought me here?” she asked.
“Do you see the inscription written on the floor beneath your feet?”
Tamuna looked down and saw an inscription, written in old, faded letters in the marble floor. She squinted and tried to make them out, but the writing was too ancient for her to read.
“What is it?”
“It is an ancient prophecy, pronounced on the day when I was forged.”
“What does it say?”
“It says: This sword IMERIS, though last to be forged, certainly shall not be the least. For in the days when the order is broken and darkness sweeps across the face of the land, it shall await the one who will wield it in truth and wisdom to free the world of men.” He paused, looking her in the eye. “You are the one of whom the prophecy speaks, Tamuna. You are the one whom I have chosen.”
A crack of thunder sounded in the distance, sending chills down Tamuna’s spine. For a brief moment, a cloud overshadowed the sun, throwing the chapel into shadow. Imeris looked up and frowned.
“There isn’t much time,” he said. “The enemy is nearly here. They will seek to destroy us.”
“D-destroy us?” said Tamuna, her knees going weak. “There must be some mistake. I can’t possibly be the one you’re looking for. I’m just a tavern girl!”
Imeris looked at her long and hard, making her flinch. “There is no mistake, Tamuna. I recognized you the moment your mind reached out to my own.”
Her cheeks paled. “But…”
“Of course, you must take me up of your own free will if you take me up at all. If you so choose, you may leave this place by returning to the pool. Once you are submerged, you will return to your home.”
Tamuna nodded in relief. So there is a way out, she thought to herself. This doesn’t have to be my destiny. But even though the realization eased her somewhat, she couldn’t shake the feeling that to do so would be a mistake.
“What about the prophecy?” she asked. “If I reject you, will you find someone else?”
Imeris shrugged sadly and looked off into the distance. “Perhaps,” he said as he faded from her view. “Perhaps not.”
She hesitated a moment, alone now with just the sword. Once again, she felt it calling out to her, though this time, her thoughts were much clearer. You must take me up of your own free will, Imeris’s words came back to her. Another crack of thunder sounded in the distance, breaking the silence that had fallen with his departure.
I can’t do this, she told herself. This isn’t for me—I shouldn’t get involved.
As she walked back outside, her feet felt strangely heavy. A part of her longed to run back to the church and draw the sword out of the marble, just for the chance to experience an adventure. But of course, that wouldn’t be right. She couldn’t just leave Sopiko like that, after all that her aunt had done for her.
She reached the water’s edge, but hesitated before climbing in. A cool wind whistled over her skin, making the reeds dance and tossing back her long black hair. The surface of the water rippled, while a mass of giant thunderheads towered in the sky. She shivered, and not just from the cold. Lightning flashed in the valley, and a shadow darker than any she’d ever seen raced across the forests toward the mountaintops. There was a presence in that shadow, something primal and dangerous that made chills shoot down her spine.
Thunder rolled across the land, giving her pause. What if Imeris was right—what if she was the one from the prophecy? And if she was, then what would happen if she didn’t follow through?
The thunderheads towered high above her now, blocking the sun, and a stiff wind blasted the lake and flattened the golden-brown grass. Something evil was in that storm. Her heart raced, and she knew that she had to turn back.
She ran to the mountain church as fast as her feet would take her. Her breath came in short bursts, and her heart pounded furiously in her chest. She sprinted through the open doorway and ran to the sword in the marble slab.
“Imeris!” she shouted, gasping for breath. “Imeris, where are you?”
The sword called out to her, just as it had in the tavern. This time, she didn’t hesitate. As the sunlight turned to darkness, she gripped the handle and pulled with as much strength as she could muster. Thunder cracked directly overhead, and the sword came free with a metallic hum.
And then she was falling again through the abyss, tumbling as if a crack in the earth had swallowed her.