Through the dark forests, across the deep quick rivers and through the screaming snow, the army of the Left Hand dragged the great tomb of the ancient king. They climbed higher and higher in the mountains, toward the deadly pass men called the Black Gate, where destiny waited for the touch of a spark. The sun hid behind the clouds, and the sky drew down low and hard and cold, as if the earth herself willed them to turn away, but they would not. They were driven by a more than mortal faith, the words of their prophet branded on their flesh, and though men died in the cold and were left to be torn apart by wolves, no man would turn aside.
Khamag rode at the head of his army, and though the wind was a blade of winter, the sword in his metal hand warmed him and guided him on. The sword of flame was a shard of red in the gray landscape, and when the snow grew thicker he held it up like a beacon. It heated his iron hand, until he felt the sting on his flesh, but he would not turn it loose. He had struggled and planned and waited for three hundred years for this moment. He would not be denied.
The Black Gate loomed ahead of him, the two great pinnacles of basalt, black as moonlight blood, scarred by wind and time, jagged against the sky. The wind howling through them was like voices raised in anguish, screaming words no ear could understand. The voices of the dead, gathered in this place as the stars wheeled unseen above.
He reached the pass and stopped, turned his horse to look on the long line of his army, his fanatics struggling upward through the wind and snow, heads bent, forcing their horses up the slope. In the midst of them rose the great tomb, gleaming with jewels and blackened silver, covered in ice. A hundred of the chosen bent their backs to drag it onward, the heavy wheels gouging the earth and the stone. They were close to the end. These men had dragged it across the breadth of the old empire. Five hundred had died on the journey, their limbs and hearts burst from the unrelenting toil. Khamag would have sacrificed a hundred times as many.
He felt the red dagger driven through his dead heart pulse with fire, and the sword of flame steamed in the flailing snow. Now, at last, he would consummate the quest he had undertaken centuries before, the goal for which he had forsworn his own people, and the oath into which he had been born. Khamag had forsaken that oath, and taken another one. He had bled across the world, died and risen again into a new life, and now he would achieve his goal. Gathas was gone, the short-sighted wizard who had seen only power for himself. Asherah was gone, his blood-kin who had been his relentless enemy. No one remained to stop him.
The tomb gouged the stone as it was dragged beneath the peaks of the gate, and then Khamag turned and rode beside it as they passed beneath the shadow, and began to descend through layers of freezing fog and billowing snow. The looming mountain peaks covered them in shadows, and then the storm seemed to part before them, and the Dead City emerged from the darkness.
Half-buried, the city seemed all but perfect, the towers still tall and straight, the arches clean. Empty windows looked on the world like dead eyes, and Khamag knew it had been a thousand years since anyone had dwelled in this place. In a single night, when the sky was scarred by fire and falling stars, every man, woman, and child in this city fell dead and rotted away to bones where they lay. None remained who knew anything of the city, not even its name. It was the Dead City, and none came to look upon it, lest they be slain as well.
Khamag had no fear. The hand that struck down this city did not frighten him. He breathed with another kind of life, and no simple curse would stay his hand. He set his horse upon the stone road, and then he heard a hissing sound, as if the snow itself were boiling.
He looked up to the slope above, and there he saw snow break loose and come sliding down, a beautiful cascade of white moving swift as a deer, rushing down upon them all. He held up his sword and shouted, and all his warriors looked up, and then the avalanche struck the earth. He felt the impact beneath him and his horse reared and screamed. Snow billowed through the dead streets, driving a wave ahead of it like the breath of winter in the far northland, and at the center of the cloud came something dark.
Khamag squinted through the snow as it rushed past him, burying his horse to the knees, driving it backward. The sword of fire hissed in his hand, and through the storming white he saw blackness. A shadow of ultimate night came toward him, and with more than human eyes he saw a figure at the center, tall and powerful, and moving swiftly.
Blinded and stunned, his men were helpless before the sudden onslaught of the giant form, and Khamag saw a black sword at work in the darkness, a great blade that swept through his warriors, splitting armor and flesh. He saw a single eye gleam in the unnatural blackness, and then he knew his enemy for the giant he had faced before the walls of Utar. The pale one. The killer.
Now at the center of a shroud of darkness, he killed his way into the ranks of the army, cutting a path to the tomb, and Khamag set his spurs to his horse and rushed ahead through the snow and ice, the sword of fire high in his hands.
Khamag charged, and when he drew close the giant turned and smote his horse a furious blow, shearing most of the way through its heavy neck with one stroke. Blood gouted, and it hissed on the sword of fire as he struck his own blow, tearing open the giant’s ragged armor before he was hurled to the ground.
He rose, the heart of flame beating quick within him, filling him with strength. He struck with terrible speed, and the giant fended him off, moving quick in the eldritch darkness that surrounded him. This close it was so strong that even Khamag saw through it with difficulty. The black blade came for him with incredible power, the strength behind the blows almost superhuman. The sword of night met the sword of fire, and the sound rang and echoed from the mountains and the silent towers.
The giant was massive and powerful, his weight and strength making his blows dreadful in their power, but Khamag had been trained with the sword in a deadly style, and he had centuries of immortal life behind him. He gave back from his enemy, parrying and evading, drawing the giant after him, letting his fury expend itself on empty air until he made a fatal mistake.
One great blow left the giant off-balance and overextended, and Khamag sidestepped and struck low, cutting viciously into the back of his enemy’s leg. Another lunge, and the leg folded, spilling the massive warrior onto the ground. Khamag struck the black sword from his hand and the darkness vanished as the blade skittered across the stone and vanished into the snow.
Khamag turned back for another stroke, to finish the battle, but he was too slow. One massive hand locked on his arm and dragged him down. The great arms were too strong, and he was suddenly pinned upon the earth as fingers like steel clawed for his throat.
He locked his iron hand on the thick wrist, but even metal was not equal to that awful strength. Desperate, he pressed the blade of the sword against the arm that held him and he heard the flesh hiss and smelled the burning meat. Fire burst from the pale skin, and at the flare of light the giant flinched back. Khamag twisted and threw his enemy aside, then he turned and struck a fierce blow against the heavy skull. The edge did not split the bone, but only gashed it, and sent the man to the ground, senseless, and still.
Kumura woke and felt cold and pain, but that told him little. There was blood in his single eye, and he wiped it away, feeling his hands and neck shackled with heavy chains. The wind had lessened, though he still lay half-buried by the falling snow. He looked up and saw the sky was black, and all around him loomed the ancient, brooding city, dark and silent. Closer to hand was gathered the host of his enemies, torches in a great circle around him, and behind him stood the massive shape of the tomb.
He turned, and his enemy stepped from the crowd, shrouded in black with eyes glowing red. In his iron hand he bore the burning sword, and Kumura looked, seeking a sign of his own blade, but he saw nothing.
“It is good that you have come,” the Left Hand said. “I did not expect such determination, such strength. The ritual will require blood, and I was prepared to spill that of my own men, but a great enemy fallen in battle, that is much better.”
Kumura strained against the chains, but they were heavy, and strong. They soaked in the cold and seemed to burn with it against his skin. He watched as the Left Hand came closer. His right leg ached with the wound, and he knew it would not support him. But if the man came within reach again, he would drag him down and snap his neck.
“This is a great night,” the dark man said. “The world has waited for it for centuries, ever since Druan, the Immortal Emperor, went into the earth by his own choosing. I dreamed of him. I saw him alight with fire, and I knew I was chosen to bring him back into the world.” He held up his jagged red sword. “I have worked and fought for that my whole long life. I found the wizard to help me, even though he believed he would be the master of the risen Emperor. I let him believe, so I could learn what I needed to know.”
He came closer. “We took him to the city of Samzar, because we needed the stars to align for the ceremony. But we were prevented, and the moment passed. I waited three hundred years for another chance, for the stars to align in the right place. It comes now. It comes here, tonight.” He pointed the red sword. “And your blood will consecrate it.”
“Come and take it then,” Kumura snarled. “Come close.”
The Left Hand beckoned, and his men came surging forward to seize the chains and drag Kumura to his knees. He snarled and heaved against them, and it took a score to hold him in place, and then it was only just enough. They struggled to hold him back while he tried to pull them close enough to reach with hands or teeth. If they wanted blood, he would give them some of their own.
The Left Hand came closer, and in his iron hand he held the sword of fire, while in his other hand he drew a long, lean knife that glittered in the light of the many torches. “Let blood quicken in the heart,” he intoned. “Let fire arise in the veins. Upward we raise our voices to call upon you. You who are master of the world. The Emperor of All Things. The Sleeping Tyrant.”
He swept the knife blade in, and he cut across Kumura’s chest, bringing black blood steaming into the air. It ran down the blade, and he turned and flicked it against the tomb. The gathered warriors began a low, steady chanting, stamping their feet and beating their swords against their shield-rims. The Left Hand held the bloodied knife up to the sky, and shouted in a clear, ringing voice.
“Come you great powers that stalk the skies! Come you gods and demons who watch us from behind the stars! Come and visit your power upon us! With blood I call! With fire I call!” He cut Kumura again, the stroke like a trail of burning across his skin, and this time he held up the dripping knife and the blood fell upon the sword of fire, and it hissed and sizzled as it was consumed.
“Out of darkness, into fire! Out of the frozen deeps of time, into the blazing skies I call!” The Left Hand thrust the burning blade upwards, stabbing it toward the heavens, and a shadowy blaze erupted from the gilded tomb. It burst upward in a pillar of flame that drove them back with the heat of it, and it touched the sky and split the clouds apart. Ice hissed away and vanished into steam, and the clouds opened like an eye.
Kumura looked up and saw a tunnel carved through the heavy clouds, up and up, until he saw the stars blazing overhead. He felt as though he were looking back through ages of time, into another sky. He saw two points of fire, one red and hot, one cold and blue. They spiraled around each other in the firmament, searing the black sky with their fury, and then there was a flash of white like the cut of lightning and it was gone, and he saw the single bright fire of the pole star above.
The Left Hand screamed into the sudden wind. “Fire upon the earth!” he howled, and then he smote the jeweled tomb with the burning sword and the metal seared and ran like molten blood. The door burst open, and then the warriors went within and affixed chains upon the sarcophagus. They dragged Kumura back as they bent to their work and dragged the silver casket into the light. Wreathed in fire, the silver turning black with age, the jewels cracking in the heat, the tomb of the dread emperor emerged into the light.
Shaped in an elder age, broken open, and then forged together again, it was hideous to look at, the metal deformed and twisted, jagged where it had been hammered back into place. The face that had once been worked upon it was monstrous. Kumura looked on the tomb of the emperor, and he felt a cold hand inside him.
“I call upon you!” the Left Hand shouted into the void above. “Return and wake!” He struck the sarcophagus a great blow with the red sword, and the metal screamed as it burst open again. Silver smoked and curled, and jewels shattered, and then the face of the dead overlord was revealed to the sky. He was old, and his face had sunken and desiccated until his flesh was like glass, his lips drawn back from black teeth. Even in this time-ravaged remnant, Kumura saw a greatness in his form, a nobility and pride stamped upon the ghost of his face.
“I bring you, the hand of fire!” The black-clothed fanatic cast aside the bloodied knife, and then he drew forth four red shards of glowing crystal. Like knives made of fire, or like claws, they gleamed in his hand. He stepped forward and loomed over the tomb with its ancient denizen. “The fire of life!”
He plunged his hand down, and drove one crystal fang into the chest of the fallen king, piercing his aged mail and into his ageless flesh. Again, and again. He placed all four of the shards within, until they glowed there, embedded and shimmering.
“The fire of life gives life!” he shouted to the sky. He turned to Kumura and pointed to him. “The heart gives blood to the heart. And then the last of the fire.” He touched his own chest, and drew aside the black robes to show the red stone that glowed there, fixed in his own flesh. “The last fire that is mine. Even that I will give for my emperor. Even that.” Then he gestured with the red sword, pointing at Kumura. “Take his heart.”
Kumura snarled as the men who held his chains pulled hard, digging their feet in, pulling to keep his arms pinned while another man came close with sword bared. Kumura showed his teeth, and then he clenched his fists and called on the will that had preserved him through his years of imprisonment, the will that made him strong. The blade came closer, and Kumura’s iron muscles let loose their power.
With a savage pull he ripped a dozen men off their feet, then turned and rushed upon the others. They tried to get away from him, but he was too quick, and he caught a man and twisted him like a toy, bones snapping inside him. He pulled savagely and then his chain was free, whipping from his manacle like a long flail. He struck with it like the tail of a scorpion, and the cold steel shattered as it ripped two men in half, spilling hot blood across the snow.
He seized the other chain with both hands, and he wielded it like a lash. He swung it high, brought it around in a terrible, sweeping blow that threshed off the head of the man coming for him with sword held high. He turned in a circle, striking all about him, the chain shattering flesh and bone until it snapped and left him holding the dangling shards.
Kumura caught up a fallen sword, and when the warriors rushed on him, he hacked them down with his terrible strength, the blade notching and sparking as it sheared through armor and spilled blood in a tide upon the cold stone. The dead city rang with the sounds of war as Kumura left a trail of carnage in his wake. He killed until the sword snapped, and then he took another one from a dead man and fought on. His breath was a burning agony inside him, his limbs dead from fatigue, his weak leg sang with agony, but he would not stop.
Then through the press of foes came the Left Hand, the red sword held high, and he swept it down in savage blow that rang against Kumura’s stolen blade and shattered it into fragments. The force of it drove him from his feet and he fell into a drift of snow, his cut leg blazing with pain. He groped for a weapon, and his hand closed on a cold hilt that filled him with a sudden hunger for slaughter, and the world around him went dark as the night, snuffing out the torches like the breath of winter.
Kumura heaved himself to his feet, the wound on his leg no longer seeming to matter. His single eye gleamed with a fire, and he saw the red sword before him like a shard of the sun. He spat blood in the snow. “I am not finished yet.”
“You shall be!” the Left Hand snarled, and they came together in a storm of blows. Their swords rang together, black and fiery, sparks jetting from where they met. The Hand was swifter, but Kumura would not give ground, and they fought in a deadly circle, the other warriors blindly staggering away from the sound of the battle.
They fought through the plaza, treading wounded and dead men underfoot. Kumura was wounded again and again, but he would not fall. The sword urged him onward, filling him with the lust for battle, for a hunger for blood and the scream of steel. They met blade to blade, pressing, edges grinding.
“You will fall,” the Left Hand snarled. “Your blood will feed the emperor, and you will die that he may live!”
A sound grew above the wind, and it became the sound of footfalls, the marching of many feet coming closer. Kumura saw a flicker of uncertainty in the eyes of his enemy, and he smiled a bloody smile as the air filled with the thunder of war horns. “I am not finished yet,” he growled. “Not yet.”