Monday, May 22, 2023

Pulp Fantasy Library: The Edge of the World

1979 saw the publication of not one but two different stories of Kardios of Atlantis by Manly Wade Wellman: "The Seeker in the Fortress" and "The Edge of the World." The former appeared in Gerald W. Page and Hank Reinhardt's Heroic Fantasy anthology, while the latter graced the pages of the fourth (and penultimate) entry in Andrew J. Offutt's long-running Swords Against Darkness series. Kardios had appeared in every previous volume of Swords Against Darkness, so it's hardly surprising he'd turn up there again. 

"The Edge of the World" receives its title from the "mighty city of Kolokoto," which lay, seemingly literally, at the edge of "a terrifying nothingness" that marked the world's end. Of course, Wellman elicits the reader's skepticism about this supposed fact early on, as he notes that it was "the sixty or so priests who did most of the thinking for Kolokoto's citizens" who declared this to be so. The subsequent unfolding of the story does little to lessen that skepticism.

Kardios enters the story first by word of mouth, as one of the aforementioned priests, Mahleka, has an audience with Kolokoto's "disdainfully beautiful" queen, Iarie. The queen, who is "as dictatorial as she was lovely," sits upon an ebony throne guarded by two tamed monsters.

One of these, the rather molluscoid Ospariel, was carapaced in a green shell, from which peered brilliant eyes above a stir of tentacles. The other, Grob, might be a great crouching ape, if apes had branched horns and were covered with green scales the size of lily pads.

Iarie has summoned the priest to find out the source of a "disturbance among the people," one that she had heard "shouted over the lower market-reaches." Mahleka explains that "the people [have] gathered to welcome Kardios the wanderer."

Iarie has heard the name of Kardios before, who was reputed to have survived the sinking of Atlantis, "overthrown mighty rulers," "conquered monsters," and "brought to an end the worship of several gods." This interests the queen, who asks that the Atlantean be brought before her, but Mihaka, as "her chief and most knowledgeable advisor," is already one step ahead of his mistress. "I've already ordered that done," he explains.

Though initially viewing him with contempt, Iarie soon becomes intrigued by Kardios, especially after learning that he had entertained the people in the marketplace with a song dedicated to the goddess "Ettaire, the bringer of love." She asks him to sing her the same song, which he does. So impressed is she by his skill that she commands him to take dinner with her that very evening, to which Kardios readily agrees. 

Over dinner, Kardios and Iarie discuss the religion of Kolokoto and its chief god, Litoviay, who is "worshipped by acts of mischief." This piques Kardios' interest, causing him to wonder why the god's priests forbid anyone to travel over the mountain range that separates the city from the edge of the world. "Why not let the people go over the range and fall into space? That would be in character." Iarie shrugs off such questions, since she is much more interested in making the Atlantean wanderer "especially happy." She sends away her servants and takes Kardios, along with a flagon of wine, to her bedchamber so that they may "talk, mostly of the love-goddess Ettaire, and how best to worship her."

The next morning, Kardios is awakened by "two burly men in black chain mail" holding curved swords. Iarie explains to him that they are her "most discreet guardsmen ... Safe with my secrets, for both are mute." She adds, "Kardios, I'm sorry you woke. I had hoped you would die happy." 

"You'd murder me so that I would not tell?" he asked Iarie, and her smile grew the more triumphant.

"How accurately you estimate the situation," she answered him sweetly. "I'm a lonely woman, and from time to time I invite a stranger to divert me overnight. Naturally, I can't let such partners go and gossip about it. What would my people think?"

Kardios manages to knock the two guardsmen unconscious. The queen, undeterred, sets Ospariel and Grob on him, which he also defeats, thanks to his star metal sword. With no more tricks up her sleeve, Iarie resorts to crying rape, which summons more guards to her bedchamber. The Atlantean flees into the depths of the palace to avoid capture, succeeding only because a young weaver-girl named Wanendi gives him a place to hide undetected (once again cribbing a page from Conan – and from himself). 

From Wanendi he learns much about the city, its queen, and its place at the edge of the world.

Kolokoto, said Wanendi, had been built many generations ago for the announced purpose of discouraging travelers from falling off the edge of the world. It was a manufacturing city, with a thriving trade in excellent textiles. Royalty and certain merchants got the profits. Weavers like Wanendi managed to live just short of want. Queen Iarie was the latest tyrant to uphold the law of not crossing Fufuna into nothingness, and the mischief-god Litoviay marshalled a line of stone sentinels to enforce that law.

The girl also provides Kardios with some clothing that will enable him to blend in better with the locals. He repays her for this and her other kind deeds with treasure he acquired in Nyanyanya before setting off with the intention of escaping over the barrier mountain range – a feat no one had ever accomplished before. Of course, that's easier said than done ...

"The Edge of the World" is another enjoyable Kardios yarn, engagingly told. I am constantly impressed by how charmingly Wellman spins these tales, filled as they are with the well-worn tropes and clichés of pulp fantasy. It's evidence, I suppose, that a master is capable of producing something worthwhile even out of the basest materials. Once again, I cannot recommend these stories enough. I was very pleasantly surprised by them and I suspect many of you will be as well.


  1. ", mostly of the love-goddess Ettaire, and how best to worship her."

    As pickup lines go, that's pretty good. :)

  2. You mean Heroic Fantasy, not Heroic Worlds.