Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Twelfth

In which the author speaks of Elric's harrowing pact with Stormbringer, the Black Sword.

"Know you that I am Elric!" he cried. "Elric!"
Still the creature attacked.
"I am Elric – more demon than man! Begone you ill-shaped thing!"
- The Singing Citadel, by Michael Moorcock

Let Us Speak of Magic: Part the Twelfth

Dear Reader,

Herein we conclude our conversation concerning Elric of Melniboné and his magical pacts. We have spoken of Beast Lords and Elemental Lords and Chaos Gods, but last week we left off our conversation with a promise to speak of one more pact: Elric's pact with the Black Sword.

If you wish to read what has come before, please follow the links provided:

Claiming the Black Sword

In the last letter, you may have noticed that our nemesis Yyrkoon mentioned something about a Shade Gate and the runeblades. Well, we return to that narrative to find Yyrkoon fled through said Shade Gate and Elric – yet again – unable to find a way to reach his foe and thus save his beloved:

“Aye — that’s sorcery, right enough,” said Elric. “And Yyrkoon has thwarted me. He conjured the Shade Gate and passed through it into some netherworld. Which one, I’ll never know, for there is an infinity of them. Oh, Arioch, I would give much to follow my cousin!"
- Elric of Melniboné

Uh oh! That’s not something you say to a being that radiates “confident evil.”

“Then follow him you shall,” said a sweet, sardonic voice in Elric’s head.

Arioch guides our hero yet again (and about now Elric begins to wonder if everything that has been unfolding is actually more about the schemes of the gods than the plotting of dear Yyrkoon).

But we have no time to worry about the schemes of the gods! Necessity calls us on! Elric enters an alien realm and eventually find his foe – in the presence of the Black Swords:

And in the centre of the cavern, hovering in the air without support at all were two swords. Two identical swords, huge and fine and black.

Yyrkoon claims the sword Mournblade and Elric claims Stormbringer.

“Stormbringer," he said.
And then he felt afraid.
It was suddenly as if he had been born again and that this runesword born with him. It was as if they had never been separate.
And the sword moaned sweetly and settled even more smoothly into his grasp. “Stormbringer!” yelled Elric and he leapt at his cousin.
And he was full of fear — so full of fear. And the fear brought a wild kind of delight — a demonic need to fight and kill his cousin, to sink the blade deep into Yyrkoon’s heart. To take vengeance. To spill blood. To send a soul to hell.

Like Arioch, the sword grants power, but this is a dreadful and frightening power, a power that changes Elric and threatens to overcome him. Elric quickly learns that the blade has a will of its own and will gleefully direct Elric’s strikes. This does not please our hero.

And Elric spoke through clenched teeth. “I’ll not be your puppet, runeblade. If we must be united, let it be upon a proper understanding.”
The sword seemed to hesitate, to drop its guard, and Elric was hard put to defend himself against the whirling attack of Mournblade which, in turn, seemed to sense its advantage.
Elric felt fresh energy pour up his right arm and into his body. This was what the sword could do. With it, he needed no drugs, would never be weak again. In battle he would triumph. At peace, he could rule with pride. When he traveled, it could be alone and without fear. It was as if the sword reminded him of all these things, even as it returned Mournblade’s attack.
And what must the sword have in return?
Elric knew. The sword told him, without words of any sort. Stormbringer needed to fight, for that was its reason for existence. Stormbringer needed to kill, for that was its source of energy, the lives and the souls of men, demons — even gods.

Elric insists he won’t be a puppet of a sword that can kill even gods. That certainly leaves me confident that he should be able to rein in the sword’s terrible power…Well, let’s at least be clear about the pact offered in reply: Elric will receive freedom, security, and power. All he must do in exchange is slay men, demons, or gods, feeding souls to the sword.

Elric takes the bargain and prevails. But he does not find peace.

The Fall of Quarzhasaat

Later on, as Elric travels with his new Runesword, his adventures bring him to the ancient city of Quarzhasaat. A city that I mentioned in Part the Ninth was not deserving of vengeance.

I also said, “That comes later.”

In due course, Elric comes into conflict with the wicked rulers of the city who seek to kill him at the end of the story. This does not end well for them, as Elric draws his sword and takes up his battle cry:

And the albino began to grin his horrible battle-grin, and his red eyes blazed and his face was the skull of Death and his sword was the vengeance of his own people, the vengeance of the Bauradim and all those who had suffered under the injustice of Quarzhasaat over the millennia.

Well that doesn’t sound so bad, we’re just going to do a little vengeance while they try to kill him. But it doesn’t stop there:

“Arioch! Arioch! Blood and souls for my lord Arioch!”
Then the true slaughter began.
It was a slaughter to make all other events pale into insignificance. It was a slaughter that would never be forgotten in all the annals of the desert peoples, who would learn of it from those who fled Quarzhasaat that night — flinging themselves into the waterless desert rather than face the white laughing demon on a Bauradi horse who galloped up and down their lovely streets and taught them what the price of complacency and unthinking cruelty could be.
“Arioch! Arioch! Blood and souls!”
They would speak of a white-faced creature from Hell whose sword poured with unnatural radiance, whose crimson eyes blazed with hideous rage, who seemed possessed, himself, of some supernatural force, who was no more master of it than were his victims. He killed without mercy, without distinction, without cruelty. He killed as a mad wolf kills. And as he killed, he laughed.
That laughter would never leave Quarzhasaat. It would remain on the wind which came in from the Sighing Desert, in the music of the fountains, the clang of the metal-workers’ and jewelers’ hammers as they fashioned their wares. And so would the smell of blood remain, together with the memory of slaughter, that terrible loss of life which left the city without a Council and an army.
But never again would Quarzhasaat foster the legend of her own power. Never again would she treat the desert nomads as less than beasts. Never again would she know that self-destructive pride so familiar to all great empires in decline.
- The Fortress of the Pearl

It would appear that Elric’s boasting regarding not being the sword’s puppet was overstated. He was as one “possessed,” “no more master of it than were his victims.” And Elric doesn’t appear to feel any remorse for the slaughter. Though perhaps it was truly only “a Council and an army” that he killed? Perhaps, but we are told he killed “without mercy, without distinction.” He killed as the "mad wolf kills." He probably doesn’t even remember everyone who died at his hand.

Stormbringer has the mastery in this pact.

What is the Sword Making Me?

And a white-faced demon stood over the dead thing of hell and its crimson eyes blazed and its pale mouth opened and roared with wild laughter, flinging its arms upward, the runesword flaming with a black and horrid flame, and it howled a wordless, exultant song to the Lords of Chaos.
There was silence suddenly.
And then it bowed its head and it wept.
- The Singing Citadel

There is a point where Elric begins to worry about what the sword is making of him. Yet he struggles because without it, how will he live? He is an albino and his condition makes him weak, requiring either a potent cocktail of drugs to function or the power of the blade.

Eventually, Elric grows so horrified at the sword that he tries to throw it away – But he’s unable to part from it.

So, in time, what does it make of him?

Amongst other things, a betrayer of friends. We’ll recall one instance and a character that I mentioned briefly in a previous letter: Duke Avan. It involves the incident where Elric compelled Arioch to a just deed.

Elric attempts to summon Arioch, but his patron won’t appear. It is at this point that the sword intervenes:

And then a voice which was not Arioch’s came to Elric’s ears and it seemed that the sword itself spoke.
“Elric — Arioch must have blood and souls. Blood and souls, my lord…”
“No. These are my friends and the Olab cannot be harmed by Stormbringer. Arioch must come without the blood, without the souls.”
“Only those can summon him for certain!” said a voice, more clearly now. It was sardonic and it seemed to come from behind him. He turned, but there was nothing there.
He saw Duke Avan’s nervous face, and as his eyes fixed on the Vilmirian’s countenance, the sword swung around, twisting against Elric’s grip, and plunging towards the duke.
“No!” cried Elric. “Stop!”
But Stormbringer would not stop until it had plunged deep into Duke Avan’s heart and quenched its thirst. The crewman stood transfixed as he watched his master die.
Duke Avan writhed. “Elric! What treachery do you….?” He screamed. “Ah, no!”
He jerked. “Please…”
He quivered. “My soul…”
He died.
- The Sailor on the Seas of Fate

Infinite power has a terrible price.

In "Let Us Speak of Magic Part the Tenth" we said this concerning the "infinite power" of the Black Swords:

And infinite power is something even the gods don’t claim – remember that. Also remember this was power that the emperors once wielded. It turns out they laid it down. Elric's cruel, decadent, and insane people laid down infinite power once before...
One wonders why.

Now we have something of an answer. This is the pact that Elric made. The pact that his ancestor's laid down and walked away from. And this sword is not finished costing him dearly.

Ah, Dear Reader, we have spoken at great length of our doomed hero and the pacts that he invoked. We will let the matter rest (and we won’t spoil exactly how Elric’s saga ends).

After this letter we will be taking an extended break from “Let Us Speak of Magic.” For one, the next book on the horizon – which has plenty to say on pacts and invocations – is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, and that is a text that I would like to spend more time meditating on before discussing its magic.

If there is a topic that you would be interested to read about in a Let Us Speak Of newsletter, please send me a note to let me know.

Until we speak again next week!

Best regards,


Want more words, Traveller? Come visit my website at bryanerye.com, or take the direct route to the blog.

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