Terminus Est

"Terminus Est" is a sword in the science fiction series "The Book of the New Sun" by Gene Wolfe. It is wielded by Severian, a torturer and the narrator of the series.

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. 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 a channel in the spine of the blade, containing liquid hydrargyrum, another name for mercury. (Wolfe makes use of obscure Latin and Greek terms in many of his works.) 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. 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. It could be done by soldering with a low-melting-point alloy, but the solder would probably show.

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 rid 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 her shop.

The sword is double-edged, having both a "male" and "female" side, designed to only sever male heads with one edge and 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 resembles a type of German 16th-century two-handed sword that was 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 powerful 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.

Other meanings

"Terminus Est" is commonly translated from the Latin as "This is the end." However, Severian interprets the phrase to mean "this is the line of division," and Typhon translates it as "this is the place of parting."


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 "", where it is a one-handed execution sword that has a poisoned blade.
* 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 folk song on her album "Divine Intervention" called "Terminus Est" about Severian.
* "This is the place of parting" is the title of a science-fiction themed play by Neil Knox.

ee also

* Sword of Justice

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