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Terminus Est and Severian
In the Shadow of the Torturer, after Severian is expelled from his guild and the city of Nessus for showing mercy to one of his charges, he is sent north to serve as a carnifex in a different city. A carnifex is an executioner, and may also perform excruciations (torture). Officially, Severian remains a journeyman torturer, to conceal the disgrace he has brought upon the guild. Before Severian leaves, Master Palaemon gives him Terminus Est. A sharp, intimidating sword, it serves as a symbol of his authority and as a deadly weapon. Despite its utility, the sword is apparently extremely ostentatious, as "art had been lavished upon her," according to the narrator.
Terminus Est is described as being "Light to raise, weighty to descend," by Master Palaemon. This is due to (in addition to the obvious ethical quandary, in that raising the sword causes no harm, but the descending stroke ends a life by decapitation) a channel in the spine of the blade, containing liquid hydrargyrum, another name for mercury. (Wolfe makes use of obscure terms from Latin and Greek in many of his works, and in the New Sun Cycle additionally makes heavy use of French and Spanish.) Given the fact the novel's text is described as having been translated from "a language that has not yet achieved existence", the substance referred to may not in fact be mercury, although its properties would seem to suggest that it is. The channel would have been extremely difficult to fabricate: the usual techniques of forging would have crushed it. However, a simple possibility is that the sword was forged and then the channel drilled, especially before quenching and heat hardening.
In addition, the melting point of iron is 1811 K (1538 °C, or 2800 °F), which is far above the boiling point of mercury (629.88 K, 356.73 °C, or 674.11 °F)), which would complicate the task of sealing the mercury into the channel. Terminus Est is mentioned several times in the book as being able to be removed from its hilt, and especially after it is destroyed, Severian removes the shards from the hilt and keeps the furniture. This indicates a Japanese style of construction with hilt independent of sword tang. A simple means of sealing the mercury into the sword would be to employ a plug or screw in the end of the tang. This could easily be hammered over once inserted so that the edges of the tang overlap and trap in the plug. All of this would be covered over by the sword furniture and could have been accomplished with well-below-modern levels of technology.
During the course of Severian's travels Terminus Est plays a vital role, alternately saving his life and placing it in peril. Shortly after leaving the Citadel of Nessus, Severian is caught in a ploy masterminded by Agia and her twin brother Agilus, designed to deprive him of his sword and belongings after he loses a duel to the disguised Agilus. Luckily, Severian survives the duel on the Sanguinary Fields (the portion of Nessus set aside for duels), even after being struck by a poisoned leaf of an avern (a plant whose viciously sharp, envenomed leaves were used as dueling weapons) because he is carrying "The Claw of the Conciliator", which has the ability (among others) to revive the dead by folding time back to when the dead person or thing was still alive. Agia becomes a major character in the series, seeking revenge on Severian for the death of her brother.
Terminus Est is described as having been one of the last works of a famous swordsmith—so in addition to its inherent utility, it is also an antique; Agia describes it as being worth ten times the value of her shop and its inventory.
The sword is double-edged, having both a "male" and "female" side, designed to sever only male heads with one edge and only female heads with the other. Severian takes meticulous care of the sword, always cleaning, oiling, and sharpening the blade before and after an execution, to the point where he uses Terminus Est to shave with, forgoing a razor.
It is analogous to a real-world Sword of Justice, which is designed solely for the purpose of execution. Just like this sword, Terminus Est has a square end and therefore cannot be used as a thrusting weapon.
Terminus Est is eventually destroyed while Severian wields it in battle. This occurs during his fight against Baldanders, his former traveling companion. When Terminus Est strikes the massive and bizarre mace Baldanders wields, which seems to be tuned to the resonance frequency at which Terminus Est would shatter, both weapons are destroyed.
Upon the destruction of Terminus Est, Severian recovers the hilt of the shattered blade, later returning it to Master Palaemon upon his triumphant return to the Citadel at the close of the series.
Terminus Est is commonly translated from the Latin as "This is the end", or literally "It is the end." It can also mean "this is the limit", "this is an end" (due to the lack of the definite article), or "this is the border". However, Severian interprets the phrase to mean "this is the line of division," and Typhon translates it as "this is the place of parting."
While it is not strictly in accordance with the grammar of the original Latin, it might perhaps be considered appropriate by some to rephrase the translation "This is the end" as "It is finished." This adjustment would provide a further nod to Christian symbolism, as in the section below.
Severian describes Terminus Est several times as a "paterissa" or cross (the sword has long, straight guards and is carried over the shoulder, tip-downward) and once as an "iron phallus" (an image suggested by the fluid-filled channel inside the blade.) The cross is of course an instrument of torture and death, but in Christianity it symbolizes resurrection. Master Gurloes's iron phallus was also a torture instrument, but phallic images have long been used to symbolize fertility and therefore life.
References in other works
- A sword called Terminus Est appears in Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, where it is a one-handed execution sword that has a poisoned blade. It is dropped by the monster "Nova Skeleton".
- The third edition of Dungeons & Dragons includes the "mercurial greatsword" as an exotic weapon.
- Plague Lord Typhus's flagship is called the Terminus Est in Warhammer 40,000.
- Julia Ecklar wrote a filk song on her album Divine Intervention called "Terminus Est" about Severian.
- Terminus Est, usually referred to as Est, is a spirit who takes the shape of either a sword or a girl, in the light novel series Seirei Tsukai no Blade Dance.
- In the online action RPG Path of Exile, a Unique Tiger Sword bears the name Terminus Est. Similarly, the sword has a square end and its flavor text speaks of an execution.