Kumura left the desert behind him, entering lands of rock and bitter, hard earth. He lived on acrid plants and ate insects that crawled in the cracks, and at last, under a yellow moon, he saw again the trail of the tomb he sought gouged deep into the earth among the footfalls of an army. He bared his teeth to the night, for he knew he was on the path he sought. He spared a look behind him, at the way he had come, for the desert where Chona lay dead in a crypt of ancient kings, and then he set out to follow the path of his revenge.
Heavy-footed, he climbed the steep hills, covering his eyes by day when the sun blazed down from on high. The nights were cold, and soon the days were as well. Snow fell on the tenth day, and then he found himself looking upon a land of white-stoned hillsides and deep black forests. The wind moaned in the hard passes, and birds flew screaming in the iron sky above. He drew his tattered robe harder around himself, and he followed the path.
Never in his life had he thought to see such forests, and once he was beneath the heavy boughs it was as though he had entered a night land where the sun never touched the earth. The smells were like nothing he had ever encountered, and the breath of trees and cold wind was like a blessing that filled his veins with strength. He walked beneath the looming forest with his executioner’s sword over his shoulder, and he breathed smoke like a beast of the old earth.
He saw signs of his enemy everywhere, the earth marked by their feet and the crawling passage of the great tomb. He felt the coals of their fires on the cold earth and knew they wee not far ahead of him. Soon he would come in sight of the army, and then he would have to choose what he would do. He could not cut down an entire army, thousands upon thousands. No matter how strong he was, they would overwhelm him, and he knew it. Perhaps he could slip into the camp by night and find the man with the burning sword. Kumura could take his head and be gone. That would be retribution, but would gain him nothing else.
There was no day, for the sky came down low and dark and angry, and it hid the tops of the hills and the slopes of the mountains that rose like a wall ahead of him. It covered the tops of the trees, so that it seemed they stretched up into the sky above without end. The wind grew stronger and howled, and it shook the branches.
Kumura climbed higher into the bleak hills as the snow began to come down. The sky turned black and the wind bellowed down from the high places with a bitter cold voice, and he staggered into a world made black and blinded. Ice formed on his clothes and on his sword blade, and he spat it from his mouth as he fought his way through the deepening storm.
He clawed his way into the mountains, finding himself in deep stone canyons scoured by wind, the snow heaping deeper under his feet until he was wading through it to his knees. His hands and face grew so cold they were almost insensible and covered in ice, and he could barely see, making his way by feel. He was soon lost in the winding mountain pathways, stumbling sightless among titanic black stones like menhirs.
The wind rose to a terrible blast of fury, and even his iron strength could no longer drive him through in the face of it. He fell and slid down a jagged face of rock, caught himself, and then found a hollow to his left that offered shelter. Desperate, he pulled himself inside, gasping at the welcome relief from the terrible wind. He cracked ice from his hands and his arms and crawled deeper into the earth, thoughtless save to find shelter from the storm. Then the stone gave way under him, and he rolled and spilled down a deep slope in utter darkness. He struck hard against the stone, and then he knew nothing else.
He woke in darkness, but he was not dismayed, for he had lived in darkness for many years, and it was like home to him. He slowly worked his stiff limbs until he could stand, and then he looked about him in this hidden shadow world beneath the mountain. It was a cavern all of jagged forms and sharp spines, and it was a forbidding place. He saw no way back where he had come, and so he pressed on, deeper underground.
He passed between formations like great pillars of black rock, and there was a very slight glow, a phosphor gleam of some clinging moss that lit the whole with a fell and unearthly radiance. Kumura looked on a massive realm hidden here in darkness, and he felt as though his single eye was unequal to the task to seeing all there was to see.
The floor of the cavern was covered with shards of glittering rock like glass, and it crunched beneath his feet as he went deeper. He heard a deep rushing and wondered if there was some underground river close by, a great torrent that flowed through these lightless caves and down to a sunless sea. He made his way through caverns cut by water and time, grander than any palace beneath the sky, and he felt all around him the press of ages, the timelessness of this place, which he disturbed with his footsteps.
Something gleamed in the dark, and he bent and saw it was a bone. He saw another, and another. He made his way through this chamber of pillars, each one formed by ages of time, and among them he found more and more gleaming yellow bones. The bones and skulls of beasts, and then those of men as well, until they covered the stone and broke under his feet. Something vast moved in the dark above him, in the shadows of the cavern roof, and he felt cold along his spine as he looked upward.
Something moved against the blackness, a shadow even to his keen eyes, and then he saw trails of light flicker along the unseen skin and limn the shape of a great, hulking spider such as no sun-touched place ever spawned. It came down from above, swift and graceful, unfolding. He saw the glowing red eyes and the joints etched with blue light and pulsing violet, the heaving abdomen armored and immense.
Kumura took his sword in hand and braced, for there was no place he could go to escape this horror, not in this enclosed cavern where it had made a killing ground. It waited here for prey to stumble beneath it, and then it struck, but it had never found prey such as him.
The beast heaved itself upon him, forelegs lashing at him with hooked tips clutching, scouring the floor and shattering the fallen bones. He leaped back, slashing at them, but he was not swift enough to cut them. The thing screeched, stalked sideways, and then lunged again, flailing at him. Kumura hurled himself behind a pillar and backed away, saw the deadly limbs reach around the column, claw for him, and then the beast moved around it, its low-slung head moving side to side.
He realized that despite the glowing eyes, it was quite sightless, and it was listening for him. Like a lesser spider in a web, it felt for the tremors of his motion. Here, in this place plated with bones, he would be unable to take a step without giving himself away.
Even as he thought it, his weight crushed a bone under his heel and the thing twitched toward him, then lunged with hideous speed. Again the clawed forelimbs slashed after him as he backed away, and again he was too slow to sever them as they drew back. The thing was massive, but wind-swift and armored like a fortress. He was sure his sword could break those plates, but he would have to dare to get close enough, and then strike a deadly blow before it could rend him to pieces.
It screeched again, held very still, and he slipped back behind another crop of rock. The screams were perhaps meant to startle him into motion, but they also echoed from the walls and hollows of the cavern, and this creature would know them intimately. It would be able to hear him even if he did not move.
It climbed a great pillar of stone, slow and silent and deliberate, colors pulsing along its long legs. It moved smoothly, making a clicking sound with its fanged mouth, holding still as if it were listening for the echoes to return. Kumura felt the hairs on his neck stand up. It was stalking him; it was the size of a siege engine and it hunted like a panther, waiting for him to make a mistake. He could not win at this game. Sooner or later he would stumble, or be too slow, and those deadly claws would catch him and drag him in to the dripping fangs, and then the venom would finish him.
It crept around the column over him, came down slowly, the hooks biting into the stone as it descended. Without taking his eyes from it, Kumura reached down and grasped a bone. He lifted it as silently as he could, seeing the spider’s mouth twitch at the slight sound, and then he flung it behind him into the dark. It struck stone, bounced and rattled, and then the beast screeched and leaped over him, smashing down among the bones as it rushed away.
Kumura knew he would not have another moment, and so he hurled himself after the thing, his sword high. It was so fast. It heard him coming, turned to face him as he reached it and struck a thunderous blow with his sword. The blade crushed armored plates and glowing ichor splashed out. The spider screamed, and then it struck back with terrible force that sent him reeling back, tumbling through the breaking bones.
It rushed him, eyes glowing like lanterns, and he tried to get up, hacked at it almost blindly. One of the forelimbs dug into his armor and ripped it from his shoulder, dragged him towards the hungry mouth. He struck at the leg but did not have the room to swing properly; he could not get enough force to cut the armored limb.
The other foreleg dashed the sword from his hands and he was all but pinned as the fangs opened above him. Desperate, he seized the heavy limb in his hands, bent all his strength upon the joint and snapped the leg in half.
Glowing blue ichor gushed out over his hands, and the spider shrieked and convulsed, hurling him away. He smashed through a pile of bones, rolled down a slope, and then caught himself at the very edge of a black abyss. Air rushed up past him, and he knew there was a deadly emptiness beneath him. He clutched at the stone, clawing through tumbling bones for a grip. He heard the monster coming, legs hammering upon the floor like spearpoints. He saw the glow coming, heard the clattering of the mouthparts, and then it loomed over him and he could do nothing but deny it the pleasure of devouring him. With an oath, he let go and fell into the blackness.
He felt air rushing past him, and then he struck a slope and slid down, hard stones biting into him. He crashed against an unseen wall and groaned, feeling as if every skein in his body had been wrenched. He looked up through the dark, unable to make out more than shadows, and then he saw the glowing shape of the spider as it began to climb down after him. He was neither dead nor safe, and he clawed his way to his feet. He heard water rushing, and it was close.
He half-climbed, half-fell down the steep slope, and then he came to a narrow ledge that edged along the side of a great abyss – a canyon cut here beneath the earth. The sound of rushing water came from far below, magnified and echoing until it was a colossal sound. Kumura felt his way along the ledge, breathing hard, feeling pain all over his body. He looked back to the opening, and there the spider followed.
It moved carefully, the great bulk of it outlined with flickers of color, drips of glowing blood that trailed from the broken leg. It stopped, held still, and then it turned and climbed along the wall above him. The hooked legs dug into the stone, carrying the great weight, and he saw it press its dagger fangs against the stone. Surely in the rush of the river below it was blinded, but it could still feel his movements as echoes through the stone. It still hunted.
Kumura moved as silently as he could, but there were loose stones underfoot that shifted and clattered, slid over the edge and fell into the deeps, and the spider twitched as it felt them, moved closer along the wall. He saw the red eyes glowing like coals in the dark, blind yet still seeking.
There was a crack in the wall, a hollow, and though it was small, Kumura wedged himself into it, crawling back into a space the spider could never force its way into. Perhaps he could conceal himself here until it was gone. Perhaps.
The crack widened, and he found himself in a small cave, and in it he found a corpse. It had not turned to bone as the others had; rather, it had mummified over years, and the flesh was shrunken and shiny under the corroded armor. The face seemed to scream eternally into the blackness, and the glassine hands clutched the hilt of a long sword.
Eager but cautious, Kumura touched the ancient fingers and they crumbled under his hands. The sword was long and heavy, meant for two hands. The straight blade was black as night, and the hilt was ornate and carved with curling shapes. The pommel was a single black stone the size of an egg, and the balance was so fine it felt alive in his hands. He made out arcane sigils etched on the blade. Kumura knew many ancient languages from his long years alone. There had been little to do but study. He knew this one, and his fingers traced over metal, feeling the letters. Lightslayer they said, in a language as dead as the people who had spoken it.
He grasped the hilt and a strange feeling came over him. The colors of the world became brighter, more alive, and he saw the striations in the stone, and the glitter of crystal in the veins. He held the sword up and brushed the dust from the steel, and all seemed to fall silent around him, save for some sounds, which became clear as ringing bells. He felt the reach and weight of the blade, and it trembled in his hands with an eagerness to strike, as though he held an asp. With an engine of destruction such as this, he could make an end of even the spider.
Kumura looked back the way he had come, and he felt no more fear or hesitation. He crept along the passage, one hand on the wall, and he looked out into the darkness above the ravine, seeking to spy a motion or shadow to tell him where his enemy waited. Perhaps it had gone, and with that thought was a kind of disappointment, a feeling of loss that he could not slake his steel in blood.
He took another small step out of the cave, bent down and breathing slow, and then a droplet of glowing blood fell on the stone at his feet and he twisted to look up. There, on the looming wall of the cavern, the immense spider hunched like it was carved from the stone itself. His foot scraped on the stone, and he saw the beast’s fangs twitch, and then it rushed down upon him like a storm.
It slammed against the ledge, legs slashing for him, gouging the stone, and it screeched like tearing metal. There was nowhere to flee, no chance to escape, so Kumura set both hands on the hilt of the sword and hewed at it, cutting through a leg as though it were straw, and then another. The fangs reached for him and he leaped aside, cut through another leg, and the thing lost its balance and slid over the edge, clawing desperately for a grip. A leg hooked into the flesh of his leg and pulled him in, and he had a moment where the fangs rushed for his face, and then he brought the sword down.
The keen black steel sheared through the armored head, cleaving it in half like splitting an apple. H set his foot on the beast and ripped the sword free, raised it for another blow, and then the rock ledge gave way, and he and the spider both plunged over the edge and fell into the blackness. Even now it clung to a flailing, desperate life, and it tried to bite him with its ruined mouth. He struck again as they tumbled through the dark, wind rushing past them. Glowing blood splashed around him, and the sword seemed to sing to him, at the bottom of his mind. A song of death.
He struck again, and again, and then the great ruined spider struck the wall of the canyon and shattered, fell away from him as he tumbled past it. The sound of the river came up, and he laughed.
Kumura woke in daylight, washed on the shore of the river in the shadow of trees. He coughed out stones and stood, staggering on his wounded leg. He was cold, but he had always been cold. It did not bother him very much. He winced at the lances of sunlight that blazed through the tree branches. Mountains loomed all around him, and he did not know where he was. He remembered falling into the black river under the earth, and he remembered being battered against stones in the swift current. After that, he remembered nothing.
Looking back, he saw that the river emerged from the mountainside in a cascade that poured down the rocky slope and vanished in a cloud of mist. Around him he heard the cries of birds, and it was strange to be once more in the surface world, no longer in darkness. After so many years, the dark had become his home.
Something dark caught his eye in the shallows, and he saw a stain there, like a shadow cast by some creature beneath the water. He stepped closer, and he saw the shape of the sword. The black blade was driven into the stones at the bottom, and the ebon stone of the pommel just broke the surface. He was glad to see it, and he reached into the cold water and grasped the hilt.
When he drew it forth, the world around him went dark, as at a stroke. There were no new shadows, but it was as though he saw the world though a dark lens. Blackness flowed out from the sword and surrounded him, but it was a darkness he could see in more clearly than he ever had. His single eye saw bright colors and sharp details. The sword cast darkness around him, and keened his own vision.
He looked up and saw the sun was like a violet eye, limned with a nimbus of dark fire. He saw birds on the shore fluttering and snared in the bushes, unable to see in the darkness. Lightslayer it was named, and he laughed then. The perfect blade for him, a sword of night for he who had lived always in night. He had no sheath but he did not want one now, he wanted to walk shielded from the light of day.
He followed the river to another falls, and then he climbed up and stood upon a broken white rock and looked down on the land beyond. The sun was setting in front of him, and he realized he had come through the mountains and was in the land on the far side, where he had intended to be. Across the deep, forested valley below rose another chain of mountains, black and jagged against the red sky, and there he saw the campfires of an army in the darkness, and just beyond, the pass into the mountains men named the Black Gate. Legend said a dead city stood there, silent in the cold highlands.
It was the fires that drew his eye. There was the enemy he sought. There was the man with the metal hand who had stolen his eye and his kingdom. Kumura lifted his new sword, feeling the desire for killing simmer in his blood like a fever. Now he had his own weapon out of legend. Now would come the hour of his retribution.