The red sun burned in the skies above the plain of R’sharr on the third day of battle, and the smell of blood crawled in the shadows. The ground was black glass scourged by some ancient blast of fire, and the razor edges cut men where they fell. Iron relics of another age jutted from the ground like teeth. The cursed earth would drink no blood, and so it ran down the dagger channels and gathered in pools beneath the sky.
There on the deadly ground the armies of the empire clashed with the war-hosts of the horned clans. The legions stood in their rigid ranks, shields locked and spears uplifted, and again and again they withstood the charge of the mounted enemy. The warriors of the clans towered above their foes, faces hidden behind their horn-crowned helms. They rode their black-scaled beasts to the attack, howling blood-mad to the black sky.
Again their charge crashed home, and at their head rode their battlemaster, Shath the Iron-Handed. He came at the tip of the wedge, like the keen point of a spear himself. In his hand flamed his ancient sword and his shield was like a wall of steel. Larger than any man, he surged into the ordered lines of his enemy and plunged into the madness of battle. He hewed around him, cutting down men to either side, and the black armor of the legionnaires could not stay the bloody edge.
All around him the armies clashed, and red ran over the glassy earth that spurned it. The legions held to their lines, stabbing in with spears from behind their wall of shields, while the men of the clans sought to batter their way through, hacking with swords and axes, their reptilian war-beasts clawing a path through before they were speared and brought down. The line where the foes met became again a welter of blood and bodies, and the war-cries of each mixed with the screams of the wounded and the dying.
Shath’s beast was cut from beneath him, coughing out a tide of blood through its tusks as it fell with a dozen spears embedded in its flesh. He set one foot upon the carcass and battered the enemy back with his shield, using his weight to dash them off their feet and then cutting them down with his sword, splintering spear-hafts and shields alike. He looked up, beyond the battle-line, to the place where black banners flew over the dark form of the emperor himself, seated upon his massive, armored war beast in a saddle draped in black and crimson. Shath pointed his sword at that distant shadow and swore he would spill the tyrant’s blood.
But the assault was failing. There were not enough of the men of the clans, and the emperor’s legions seemed endless. Shath and his kin darkened the earth with the slain, and yet more marched in unflinching ranks to take the place of the slaughtered. Slowly, step by step, they were forced back. Their flanks seethed with marching enemy formations, and he knew they would never leave this valley.
A shadow darkened the battlefield, and he looked up to see the shape of a vast bird of prey. On crimson wings it descended, and seated on its back was the champion of the emperor himself, Tathar, the Hammer of the Empire. Sheathed in dark armor, he thrust skyward the thunderlance carried by the skylords, and lightning flashed from it and scoured the air and shattered the earth below.
The legions drew back, and the clans drew rein, seeing that they were hemmed in, and doomed. Behind the ranks of spearmen, they saw the archers coming with their long bows, and behind them the war-engines were in place, black and smoking. The end was upon them.
Tathar’s eagle landed with a billow of titanic wings, talons gouging the earth. He lifted his dread weapon and called forth. “You are called Shath, Iron-Handed! I challenge you to combat, sword against sword! If you fall, your people will be made slaves. If you prevail, they will be free to return to their homelands. What say you?”
Shath beat his sword against his shield-rim. “Come and face me. Bring your great steed and your lance of fire. I do not fear you!”
Tathar came down from his eagle, and he planted his thunderlance in the earth and left it smoldering there. He drew forth his sword and lifted his long shield on his left arm and came forward. “I will not give anyone cause to say I did not face you in fair battle. Come and let us test ourselves here, for there can be no rarer thing.” He looked on as the armies drew into a great ring around them, and the emperor rode his massive steed closer so he might look upon the combat. The red sun burned low in the sky, and the broken moon rose above the horizon, girdled by its host of shattered pieces.
The two champions hurled themselves into battle, and Shath’s blade rang against Tathar’s shield and hacked pieces from the steel as he drove him back. The battlemaster’s sword was made from metal wrested from a tomb of the ancients, and no steel could mar its edge. Tathar parried his strokes and saw notches cut into the edge of his own blade. The men of the horned clans were a head taller than other men, and the barbarian came onward like a storm of iron strength and savagery.
They battled in a ring there at the center, swords ringing against one another. Tathar’s shield split, and he drew a long-bladed dagger from his belt and met his enemy in a storm of steel. Shath was stronger and faster, and his sword never dulled. He struck Tathar’s gorget and burst it apart, drawing first blood that ran across the cold steel of his armor. Tathar struck back and ripped a wound in his enemy’s side with the dagger, and then he parried a final stroke and his punished sword snapped apart.
Shath struck a great blow on his helm, and then another, and he fell to one knee, stunned by the strength of the strokes. That sword lifted for a killing blow, and then the barbarian lord froze in place. His teeth clenched beneath his tusked helm. The cords of his muscles stood out, but he did not move.
Unable to free himself, Shath looked beyond the fallen form of his opponent, past the looming war eagle, to the dark figure of the emperor himself. The shrouded form of the tyrant held a single hand extended, and Shath felt a power enshroud his mind and take control of his body. He fought against that encompassing will, against the voice in his head that was not his own. He bared his teeth and tried to force his way through, but he could not.
The black hand of the emperor closed into a fist, and pain lashed through his body. Shath gave a terrible, grinding moan and collapsed, his sword falling from numb fingers. He pushed against the terrible weight in his mind, trying to rise against it, but it was too great.
An impressive display, the voice said into his thoughts, and he shuddered in pain at the feeling of that alien power within him. Yet you cannot be allowed to prevail. You will be made into an example, and so will your people. There can be no survivors. I can be the only one to possess an iron hand. There was amusement in that unheard voice, and then Shath felt a terrible pressure against his mind, as though unseen fingers were gouging into his eyes, and then all was blackness.
Tathar stood, unlacing his helm, and then he drew it off and looked down at the senseless barbarian. He had never faced such a ferocious opponent, and he knew that he should not, by rights, stand as the victor. He looked back at the black form of the emperor, and thought on the whisperings at court. That he had plotted the death of the old emperor, that he possessed some dark power beyond other men. Now, for the first time, he believed some of it to be true.
“Well, struck, my champion,” Emperor Kurux said, his voice carrying despite the growing wind. A storm was building in the north, and blazing stars fell in the ebon sky. “Take up the chieftain’s sword. It will make a suitable trophy.”
Tathar lifted the dark blade from the earth and held it, feeling the fine balance and deadly poise of the weapon. He saluted his liege. “We serve the empire, even unto death.” It was the oath of the legionnaires, the oath he had given when he was only a boy, and a different man sat on the Ember Throne.
“Good. Take the man as a prisoner. We will return to court with him, and make an example of all those who dare to raise swords against my throne.” The emperor drew back into the shadows of his robe, face hidden beneath his cowl. He gestured with one hand. “Kill the others.”
“I thought we were meant to enslave them,” Tathar said. “I promised them their lives.”
“Then you spoke rashly,” Kurux said, his voice biting. “It is not you who decides life or death, it is me. I desire no other prisoners, nor any slaves to nurture hatreds and later rise against me. No. Slay them all. I have spoken.”
Tathar saluted again and watched as the sovereign turned his hulking steed and rode away, surrounded by his black-armored guards. He went to his lance and took it from the earth, held it in his hand, pondering. Then he mounted again to his high saddle, looked down on the battlefield from the back of his great bird of war. He felt a bitterness in him like poison in a wound.
“You heard the command of the emperor. Carry it out.” He spurred his steed, and the red wings threshed and drove him into the sky. He did not wish to remain and watch as the last brave enemies were slaughtered with spears and arrows and siege bolts. He rose up into the dark sky and shut his mind to the screams that followed him.
The army returned to the imperial city of Zur, steel-clad legions marching so that they seemed endless. Rank after rank of faceless men and keen-pointed spears, while above, in the red sky, the Skylords wheeled upon their eagles, the dying sun flashing on their lances. The streets lined with the people, called forth by command to witness the victorious march, and when the great avenue was thronged with onlookers and hedged with the black spears of the Imperial Guard, the emperor rode through the gates.
He rode on the back of his scaled war-beast, crested with horns and dagger spines, a creature from the death lands to the west where animals spawned untouched by the hand of any god. It lumbered on clawed feet, its small, yellow eyes watching everything with a terrible hatred. The emperor rode on the back of it, on a saddle that was more a throne. Black and red banners draped it, and a canopy overhead shut out the red sunlight. Hooded and robed to hide his face, he lifted a hand, and the crowds cheered for him. They knew death waited for any who did not.
Behind him they bore the war-banners of the broken clans, and then there was a great litter borne by slaves, and on it was an iron saltre to which was shackled the naked, ragged form of the feared barbarian lord, Shath the Iron-Handed. Chained on his feet, he stood with his arms hanging and his head low, glaring at the crowds through his tangled hair. Stripped naked they could see his massive and inhuman strength, could see that the men of the clans were not the same breed of men as they.
Yet even bound he was fearsome, and no few who looked on him believed he could yet rend the iron with his bare hands and win free. He watched them, his blue eyes smoldering beneath the fall of his black mane, and his body marked by tattoos that seemed to writhe like living serpents. Jailers were called to the platform, and they lashed him as he was carried through the city. The scourges opened his skin and painted him with blood, yet he made no sound.
The great procession passed through the city, through the great carved gates of the palace itself, and then emperor and guards and prisoner all vanished within, and when the gates slammed shut the people made signs against evil and thanked the outlaw gods that they were not enslaved within that place of darkness.
Shath was hung in the great imperial hall, before the black throne that glowed from within, so that it seemed to be made from living fire or molten metal only just begun to cool. The throne was empty, and Shath understood that when the emperor came again, his life would end. He clenched his fists against the iron manacles and strained against them, but his power, great as it was, could not break the thick bonds.
He heard footsteps in that vast, empty space, flanked by row upon row of black columns, and he expected to see some torturer sent to keep him company with pain. Instead he saw a gathering of women such as he had never looked on in his life. These were not the rough and brutal women of his people, ever ready with knives to torture captives if they did not ride to battle themselves. These were the women of the emperor’s harem, and they looked on him with a kind of wonder.
There were dozens of them, all of different colors and sizes and forms. Some were tall, some slender and delicate, some full-bodied and sensual. They had black skin and brown, red and pale and even exotic shades like blue or golden. They wore costumes so elaborate it was difficult to say what was ornament, and what was simply their bodies. The old emperor had been said to love curiosities, and filled his court of women with mutants and hybrids of many kinds. A menagerie of strange beauty all decked in silks and jewels and golden chains.
One of them was different, even among that glittering host, and she stepped forward on black, split hooves, delicate and shining. She had coiled black horns on her head and her blue-black hair was piled and coiled around them, set with rubies and glimmering gold. She wore silks that did little to hide her lithe, predatory form, and her golden eyes caught the red lights of the hall and gave them back like sparks.
“Look upon this creature,” she said, pacing toward him with a sinuous motion. “Taken from the battlefield like a wild beast. Chained, and soon to die.” She came closer, and the throng of women seemed to shiver as she came close enough to touch. “Such a pity.” Her speech was accented and strange to him, yet he understood it well enough. He gave her no answer.
She reached out a hand and trailed one finger over his scarred and bloodied chest. “So magnificent a beast should not be simply butchered. Why waste it when it could be saddled, and broken, and ridden.” She leaned close and flicked her forked tongue at his face, but he made no motion in answer. “I will be sorry to see you die.” She spoke in the arch, ornate way of courtiers, but perhaps she did not mock.
The gathering of women suddenly gave back, and the tall form of Tathar was among them, scattering them away. The horned woman turned and faced him, not afraid, and he stopped before her and gave a small incline of his head. “Ashari. The prisoner is not for your amusement.”
“Better for him if he were,” she said, but she gave back, and Shath watched her as she walked away, her strange legs making her appear to dance when she moved. She joined the rest of the throng of painted and decorated ladies, and they vanished into the shadows like mysterious birds.
Tathar walked closer to him, and Shath looked at his belt and saw his own sword sheathed there. “You did not win that by your own prowess. You will be cursed if you wear it.”
The skylord touched the hilt of the ancient blade. “If I wear it so, then perhaps you may retake it from me someday.” He had pale skin and a high, narrow face; his eyes were steely gray that reflected the light like glass. He looked away. “I would not have had our contest end like that. I would have preferred to defeat you by my own hand, or fall by yours. The choice was not mine.”
“You did not spare my people either,” Shath said, and Tathar cast his gaze downward.
“That choice was not mine either. I spoke with true faith, but it was not given me to honor it.” Tathar looked away. “I am sorry.’
“You may set aside your will to that of your lord,” Shath said. “But honor makes no distinction, and will judge you.”
“Perhaps,” Tathar said. He drew the long, dark blade and held it up. “Soon the court will assemble, and you will die. It will not be clean. You will be tortured until you scream. Until you are broken.” He laid the flat of the sword across Shath’s shoulder. “If you ask it, I will strike you down now, and give you a clean death. You are a noble foe, and I would not see you dishonored by a filthy end. I will cut clean, and suffer the displeasure of my liege.”
Shath laughed then. “You think I fear your emperor? I do not. Let him work his torments and flay the very skin from my body. My bones will give no cry when I am dead. Take your weak mercy away and keep it. I will ask nothing from you.”
Tathar looked up at the high ceiling of the hall, to where the red glass let the glow of the shattered moon through like blood. “Very well. You may yet wish that you had taken my offer, but I will not repeat it.”
“Get from my sight,” Shath said. “May there be a curse upon your bones, and the stars burn your bloodline for a thousand years.”
Night came, and the stars blazed overhead and burned as they fell through the black sky. A thousand lanterns shone in the hall of the ember throne, and the courtiers gathered in all their decadent finery to witness the death of the fearsome barbarian chieftain. In the red glow of the lamps the pillars stood revealed as volcanic black stone thick with burned skeletons warped and torn by polishing into shapes that contorted and screamed silently.
The lords and ladies of the empire were a throng of the noble-born, decked in jewels and red gold, hair piled in delicate coils and braids, faces masked and painted and tattooed. Their ears and skulls and throats glimmered with implanted gems and draped chains, and their eyes glittered like the eyes of hungry vermin as they looked on the prisoner chained in their midst.
Drums pounded for obeisance, and the whole court bowed as one as the entrance darkened and the emperor entered among his host of black-armored guardians. The twelve masters of the skylords walked in his wake, gleaming in their bright mail, and Kurux himself walked robed all in ebon, his head upright and the black crown upon his head gleaming with white jewels.
All present averted their eyes from his terrible white face, marked by the scar that raged down his cheek. No one dared ask what had caused that scar, nor even to mention it within his hearing. Kurux was the emperor by blood, drawn from the ancient and accursed House of Ixur upon the death of Aredishir the Ninth. Last son of an outcast house, he had been called to the throne because there remained no one alive with the imperial bloodline. Now all lived in fear of him.
He ascended the steps to the dark throne and seated himself with a billow of black robes and a dismissing glance of his black eyes. There was utter silence, and he lifted a hand. “Victory has crowned my armies, and the scourge of the horned clans has been exterminated. Now I bring before you their chief, the one who dared to call himself the Iron-Handed, and to lift that hand to me.” He gestured. “Release him.”
There was an uneasy stirring in the crowd, and they watched as jailers came and unlocked the heavy chains. The one called Shath waited, making no motion, until his hands and feet were both free, and then he moved with a terrible, blinding speed. A single blow of his fist snapped one guard’s neck, and then he ripped a long dagger from the man’s belt and slashed open the other one’s throat and spilled him on the ground arching and gushing red.
Shath turned and rushed toward the throne, and the guards formed a hedge of steel spearpoints in his path. He never slowed, and seemed ready to hurl himself naked upon the implacable bodyguards, when the emperor held up one hand, and he stopped in his tracks. He shuddered and seemed to struggle against some unseen restraint, and then the emperor laughed.
“Now you will make obeisance unto me, last of your filthy tribe. You will show your submission.” The emperor clenched his fist in the air. “Kneel before me.”
Shath bared his teeth and snarled, and then his legs betrayed him and he fell to the hard, gleaming stone. His hand, still clutching the bloodied dagger, stretched forth and gouged the floor with the keen point. He looked up at Kurux, and the hatred there seared all who saw it.
“That good right hand, which you claim is iron, is but flesh,” the emperor said. His fingers flexed and curled in the air before him. “Cut it off.”
A gasp went through the crowd, and they watched as Shath struggled against the unseen power that gripped him. He slavered through his teeth like a beast as he gripped the blade in his left hand, and then set it against the flesh of his right arm, inside the elbow. He glowered at the emperor, heaving as though he would break loose from his own skin, and then he cut deep and the blood began to gush from his arm and across the floor. “I will drown this empire in blood!” he snarled, voice tight with agony.
He cut and sawed, until the blood formed a pool on the floor and his severed arm lay in the center of it. White-faced, he stood and pointed the dagger at Kurux, and then the jailers seized him and clapped a red-hot iron to his bleeding stump, and the hiss of burning flesh rose with the black smoke of it. Yet still the barbarian did not scream; he surged against his captors, but weak with loss of blood, he was dragged down and chained again.
“I have decided I will not allow you to die so easily,” the emperor said. “I want you to break before you die. I want you to grovel and to beg. I will have that.” He gestured, looking out over the silent throne hall, the pale and frightened faces. “Take him away.”
They chained him in the black pits of the dungeon, where cold winds blew upward from the unmeasured gulfs beneath the ancient palace. The cell was little more than a hollow cut into the wall, and the bars were set with spines like thornvines, so he had to hold himself away from them. He was cold and weakened from the loss of blood, and he had to dig his fingers into the stump of his severed arm so the pain could keep him awake. He would not rest in this cursed place.
When he first saw the light he thought his mind was failing him, or else some fell, glowing thing was arising from forgotten pits to devour him, but instead he saw it was a light carried by a human hand. Closer, and he saw the hand was not human at all, but the hand of woman Ashari, with her black hooves sure on the broken rock of the passage and her eyes glimmering golden.
He would have spoken, but she put a hand to his lips. He smelled her rich perfume, and it was like an air captured from some place long ago, before the world was slain and left for dead by the wars of ancient powers. Quick, she took a key and unlocked the cage, and the door swung open and he stepped free. She pressed a long knife into his hand, and the glowing stone she used for light.
“You may escape through the catacombs, or you may die there. I can give you nothing more,” she said, her voice low and furtive. “If you live, return and slay the emperor. And do not forget who set you free.”
He caught her quickly, his iron arm locked around her waist, the dagger blade pressing against her back, and he kissed her with bloodied lips before she could think to draw away. “I will not forget,” he growled into her pointed ear, and then he left her there in the dark and vanished down the shadowed corridor. He could see just enough by the weak glow of the stone to make his way. It was said the crypts beneath the imperial palace were endless. He would find the truth of that, now. He did not look back.
He descended in darkness, through vistas of abandoned grandeur only half-seen. There were shadowed galleries and vaulted chambers, walls heaped high with decayed skulls and deep pits with ghostly light glimmering on water far below. He made his way all but blindly through a world untouched by the red sun, where feral life skittered pallid and insectile in the cracks of the world.
Shath waded through cold water and climbed eroded stairs, always down, down into deeper places. He heard things move in the dark around him. Small things, mostly, but sometimes heavy shapes moved ponderously at the limits of his vision, giving him only a glimpse of blind reflective eyes and vast, colorless flesh.
There was no way to tell time, no way to judge how far he had come. Only his hunger and fatigue gave time any shape, and he was a man accustomed to privation and pain. He had been born on the iron-hard wastes where the soil was ground stone and the water was slow death. He had lived on bitter roots and raw meat, hunted with fire by night with arrow and spear through blizzards that cracked with red lightning. He could go for days without water or food and feel nothing, and even grievously wounded, he had reserves of strength that no son of a civilized race could call upon.
Soon the lighted stone in his hand began to fade, and grew weaker and weaker, leaving him to feel his way through the blackness until it died completely. He let the stone fall and crept on with the dagger in his teeth, using his single hand to grope ahead of him, until he saw more light.
Blue radiance that seemed bright as day after the utter dark filled the chamber ahead of him, and he saw there a great cavern filled with a forest of luminescent mushrooms that moved softly, as though in an unseen wind. Above, the roof of the cavern was smeared with glowing colonies of moss, and it illuminated the whole scene in shades of azure and soft green.
Shath made his way carefully, taking the long knife in his hand, ready to strike with it. He wondered if the mushrooms were poisoned, for he would have gladly eaten anything that would not kill him. Not knowing, he made his way among them, wary not to touch the glowing flesh. The cavern sloped downward, and at the center was a lake of cold, black water.
The shallows were littered with broken pieces of metal, overgrown with moss as they lay there for ages, and he wondered what they were. He looked more closely and saw a human shape made of cords and plates of metal, and he held very still as he looked at it, trying to see if it had been something living, or a statue. He could not say. There was a skull-like head, broken and crushed, and one metal arm reaching upward, like the grasp of a dying man.
The water rippled, and he had only a moment to react as suddenly a long, serpentine form erupted from the water, hundreds of legs waving in the air. It glowed as it attacked, and he barely had an instant to hurl himself aside as the dripping mandibles snapped closed on empty air.
He slashed at the thing, but it was too quick. Pedipalps like whips snapped out and closed around his legs and his body, and he was dragged toward the water with hideous strength. He saw the thing’s eyeless head as it pulled him under the water, and he felt the legs clawing and scraping all around him. He slashed desperately, cutting the cord-like tendrils, and he was suddenly loose, crawling across the moss-coated bottom, clawing for the surface with his single hand still grasping the knife, knowing those mandibles could close on him at any moment. He crawled onto the shore, and the metal hand was before his eyes. Unthinking, he tried to grasp it with his missing hand, and only touched it agonizingly with the cauterized stump.
Like a live thing, the metal yielded and moved, dissolving, losing its shape. He heard a voice and saw a glow spread from the thing, fitful and scattered. He had no more time to react as the metal unfolded and coiled and then closed around his stump, the metal burrowing into his flesh and making him scream. It clicked and slid against itself and pressed cold against his arm, crawling up to his shoulder, covering his skin.
Then he saw the metal form fingers, and he felt a shock go through him and suddenly the new arm was his, and he felt the motion of the fingers and the strength in them. The hungry monster rushed for him, surging ashore with the water like a cresting wave, and he took the knife in his new right hand and turned to face it.
The mouth yawned and he saw the venom drip from the fangs, but with new strength the metal arm plunged between them and rammed the knifeblade up through pulsing, luminescent flesh and into the center of the chitinous skull. The mandibles closed harmlessly on his armored limb, scraping off as the thing jerked away and fell back into the water, a stain of glowing ichor spreading across the black surface.
Shath found he was laughing, a sound that was half-mad there in the darkness. He fell upon the shore and clawed at the metal encasing his right arm, making his new hand, but there was no way to separate it from his flesh. He turned to the fallen metal form and stabbed at it until the knife snapped off, leaving no mark upon the strange metal.
He lifted the hand before his face and worked the fingers, seeing them respond to his will. Now he was in truth Iron-Handed, as he had never been before. Now he had a sword-arm again, and would need only a sword.
In the dark he staggered to his feet and made his way across the black lake and to the far shore. There he found a stream that led away, down into the blackness, and he followed it. Time lost meaning for him, and he grew so hungry that he scraped glowing moss from the walls and devoured it, no longer caring if it would kill him. His entire awareness narrowed to the simple will to move forward, until at last he staggered through a round tunnel and emerged at last into the open, beneath the dim red sun. He found himself upon the shore of the sea, looking out over the gray expanse of the waves, and he fell on his knees in surf and screamed defiance into the black sky. Now he would gather new strength, and with his new right hand, drown an empire in blood.