Shath struggled alone along the iron shore of the gray sea, alone and hungry and all but naked. He hunched among the misty rocks when he heard the cries of the war eagles above him, hiding himself from their sight. He knew Emperor Kurux sought him with all his power, but he would not be taken again. He swore to himself he would die before he let himself be recaptured.
The coast here, north of the city, was barren and forbidding, with jagged, stony cliffs lashed by cold waves. The stones were embedded with fragments of steel left over from the wars of the ancients, and so the black stone bled under the crush of the waves, corroded metal seeping down into the water. Shath hid among the dagger cliffs and ate raw shellfish scooped from the tidal pools. Here and there lay the bones of dead sea-beasts, turning black in the perpetual twilight, and far out, over the waves, he heard the calls of the monsters of the deep.
He knew that somewhere beyond the iron waves lay the ruined city of legend – the black cenotaph of the elder age. Close by was the isle of Ixur, the accursed place where Kurux had been born to his exiled house, and always the inhabitants lay beneath the shadow of the Dead City. The seas here were blighted, filled with ruined engines of war and the bones of uncountable dead.
He had no weapon save his new iron hand, and he distrusted that. It might have the strength of ten men and feel no pain, but it had taken its place unbidden, driven coils of metal into his skin and muscle, and sometimes he felt it shift, like a sleeping spider, and it hurt him deep inside. Iron it might be, but the rest of him was cold and hungry, and yet he was a man of the Horned Clans, accustomed to much hardship, and he never slowed, nor considered giving way.
From the bones of a dead sea-beast he wrenched a long spar of rib, and he ground it against the rocks until it was needle-sharp. It was not a proper spear, but it would do enough damage gripped in his iron right hand. With it he hunted the scrawny birds that fished in the shallows, and the gray lizards that dove for shellfish in the tearing waves. He ate their uncooked flesh and felt stronger.
And he never ceased to push his way westwards, knowing that if he went far enough he might find a fishing boat that he might use to cross the water and so return to the lands of his home. They had said to him that his people were destroyed, but he would not believe it. No man could exterminate the Horned Clans entire, not with a thousand war eagles.
By night he slept in whatever shelter he could find, huddled among the wet caves, the shoreline haunted by mist beneath the blazing stars and the shattered moon. By day he made his way along the dead shore. In the dark he heard the waves rolling and crashing, and then he heard something crawl over the rocks, something that scraped and ground upon the stones, and he smelled the carrion breath of a flesh eater.
Slowly, he opened his eyes and saw a massive form hulking in the shallows, a long neck rising from the water, dripping with sea weeds and crawling with pallid crabs. He saw lantern eyes glow in the dark, and the gleam of glass dagger teeth. Something glowed and wove through the air, and he saw it was a light hanging like a drop of poison upon a long black stalk that grew from the beast’s skull. The hulking body coiled in the water, pushing it higher onto land, and the yellow glow swung back and forth, chasing shadows among the rocks.
Shath gripped his makeshift spear and began to shift slowly, gathering himself, feeling every muscle and skein, testing himself to be ready for a deadly spring. The glitter of those transparent fangs was closer now, and he knew one snap of those jaws could rip him in two. If it came for him he might have the chance for one single stroke, and then he would be dead.
The light dipped lower, almost dragging across the rocks, and he felt the cold breath across his skin, and he decided he could not await that fatal bite. Uncoiling like a steel spring, he erupted from the hollow where he had lay and leaped upward, the bone spear in his metal hand. Quick as a striking serpent, he drove the point of the weapon into one of those great eyes, and he felt it bite.
The beast tore free, sending a gush of hot fluid out to spill and steam on the waves. It barely brushed him, and yet the weight of the thing threw him bruisingly down to the rocks, and the bone lance was snapped from his hand and clattered away.
The thing reared up, a one-eyed serpent against the stars, and it bellowed a long, low cry of pain and frustration. Its great body lashed in among the rocks, sending waves rushing outward, washing over Shath and rolling him over among the crabs and scuttling sea stars. He tasted blood and struggled to rise, braced himself against a razor-edged rock, and awaited retribution.
The hunting beast howled and thrashed in the water, and then it simply turned and dove once again, plunging into the deeps, where it vanished. The waves closed over it, and he saw the light dwindle down until it was gone.
He held for a long moment, breathing in heavy gasps, every nerve stretched and ready for the thing to return, and then the slow rhythm of the waves returned and the night-birds began to cry again, and he knew it was gone. He felt a moment of regret, almost. The beast had only been a hunter, something seeking food for itself, and he had half-blinded it. It had been no supernatural creature, only a beast of the wild, as hungry and as desperate as he was himself.
By day he moved carefully, always keeping an eye on the skies above, but now he was far enough from the city of Zur to feel that he had passed beyond the vision of the war eagles. The sea grew wider, and he saw ships moving on it from time to time. He saw signs of people and he avoided them, not wishing to be seen. He found some ragged clothes and stole them, and he ate whatever he could find. The weakness caused by the loss of blood from his arm was beginning to pass, and the iron will and strength of his body was reasserting itself.
In the dark he heard the sounds of the sea serpents wailing out in the darkness, and from time to time he saw their lights moving in the mist. He stayed above the tide line, and so he was not disturbed. He had no more weapons to fight with, and so he sought to avoid having to fight. When he returned to his homeland, then would come the hour of swords.
By morning he smelled smoke, and so he knew he was drawing close to a habitation of men. He moved more carefully, creeping among the rocks, watching for movements, until he came upon the great carcass, and the carrion seabirds rose up in a shrieking mass and the smell of death rushed over him like a wave.
It was one of the sea serpents. It had been hooked and dragged from the water, and then it had been speared until it died. Then the hunters had stripped away the skin and left the corpse to rot upon the shore. Flayed and abandoned, it looked like something that had never been alive, something ruined and sad to look on. One great eye was bleared with death, and the other had been gouged out. Looking close, he saw the bone point of his own rib spear embedded there, and he knew this was the same creature that he had wounded.
Seeing it now, like this, it made him angry. It had been brought low and butchered for its hide, not even for meat by a predator. Like any other wild thing, it sought to hunt and to survive, and instead it had been trapped and left without even its skin.
Something moved in the mass of bloody flesh, and he watched and saw something inside the massive carcass push and pulse against the exposed muscle and bones. He came closer, and put his hand on the gory meat, feeling the movement from inside press against his hand.
The hunters had not taken all of their spearpoints with them, and several barbed iron heads lay discarded on the sand. Shath lifted one, drove it into the meat, and dragged it back, opening the body to release a gush of blood and fluids.
Then a glass-toothed horror pushed through the cut and slithered forth onto the sand, and another. Shath stepped back and watched as the dead beast gave birth to a dozen writhing young, each as long as a man. Blind and weak, they flopped on the shore, and then, as if by instinct, they crawled to the frothing edge of the waves and vanished into the sea.
He looked after them for a moment, wondering if their kind ate their own. It would make them no worse than men if they did. The waste of it all, and the needless cruelty, made him angrier. He hunted through the sand for more steel spearpoints. The ones left behind had mostly been bent or broken, but he found one that had only a damaged socket so it could not be fitted to a haft again. It was long and wide-bladed, and very sharp. It was also wasteful to leave good steel lying to rust in the sand. He gripped the blade in his iron hand and made his way up the beach, following the smell of smoke.
It was almost dark when he came to the hunter’s camp. The smell of smoke was heavy in the air, and the carrion birds swirled overhead. Shath crouched on the rocks and looked down on the shallow cove where they were camped. There were three fires, and three long spits of wood held up on stakes hung with cuts of hide slowly drying. He saw frames for scraping leather stretched tight, and he smelled the pots where they boiled the fats down for glue.
Men moved in the lengthening shadows. He counted three, then five, then eight. They were big men, with heavy arms from working their winch to drag up their prey. Their hands were rough and calloused from ropes, and they all bore scars. They were men who hunted sea-beasts with their muscles and their courage. They were not soft men.
Nor were they men of the Horned Clans. Shath had been born on a field of battle, his first sounds the scream of steel on steel, his first word a war cry. Now he crept down upon the hunters like a killing predator from the darkness. The sun was gone and the sea mist moved in, and in that mist he hunted. Gripped in his iron hand, the spearpoint was as keen and deadly as any dagger.
Two men sat beside a fire, warming themselves. He seized one around the throat and drove his blade in deep, then he leaped upon the second before he could cry out and slashed his neck so deeply the head was nearly severed. Blood coursed on the black sands, and Shath took a heavy coil of rope and vanished again into the fog.
Amid the smells of smoking hide and boiling fat, none detected the copper scent of fresh blood. He found two more men sleeping in their furs and left them with cut throats. Someone moved closer, and called out to him in the dark. He flung his rope around their neck and dragged them close, then pinned them to the earth with his blade.
Now he heard voices, and he moved quickly, put his back to one of the great fires stokes with bones and held up his arms and howled for battle. It was welcome to meet his enemies, and not skulk and hide. They came for him with long, keen spears in their hands, and he set himself, deadly and savage, poised to strike.
The first one was hasty, rushed headlong to impale him, and Shath batted aside the spear-thrust with a loop of rope and then slashed low, opening the man’s belly and spilling out his reeking entrails. He fell, groaning, and the other two drew up and faced him more warily. He saw their bald heads shaved to keep their hair from drying stuff with salt from the sea, skins rubbed with grease to keep them warm. He saw them look around and realize no more of their fellows were coming to help them.
The gutted man moaned and Shath put a foot on his neck and bore down, snapped it cleanly to silence him. He wanted to take up the fallen spear, but he knew they would strike to lance him the moment he stooped to reach it. Instead he swung the loop of rope in his left hand side to side, ready to use it to ward them off. It was a poor weapon, but he would have better soon.
They moved farther apart, so he could not easily watch them both. The heat from the fire baked against his back, and he felt as if it breathed through him, filling him with life and anger, stirring his blood. He bore so much rage caged inside, these scavenging sea-hunters would meet more of it than they deserved, simply for being here.
One lunged from the left and he twisted to evade it, swung the rope coil as the other one came from the back. The spear-blade slide over his ribs, the keen steel drawing a line of fire, but then Shath trapped it under his arm and flung the rope at the first man to slow him. He shifted his blade to his left hand and clamped down on the spear-haft with his iron fist.
The first spearman lunged again, and Shath parried with his blade, then he wrenched the spear easily from the second man, his strength too much to resist. With the same motion he drove the weapon forward and rammed the broad point into the first man’s chest, drawing a gasp, and then a gout of blood when he wrenched the point free.
He reversed the blow and drove the steel-capped haft into the last man’s belly and doubled him over, and then he turned and cut savagely with the blade in his left hand and slashed off the man’s head. It fell hard to the black sand and the body crumpled and spilled blood into the fire. It hissed and raised a cloud of murky, stinking smoke.
It was quiet now, with nothing more than the crackle of flames and the sounds of the night waves. Shath let out a long breath, feeling aches in his body that told him he was not yet to his fullest strength. He knew he would need to heal and grow stronger. He looked down at the metal hand that had taken the place of his lost sword-arm and again wondered where it had come from. Who had that warrior been who fell in that dark place so long ago. A hero of the ancients? A god?
He shrugged off the thoughts. He could not answer such questions now. The spear in his hand was sharp, and his strength would make it a deadly enough companion for now. He drove it into the sand to clean the blood from it, and he looked up to the sky, where stars fell one after another, streaking fire in the night sky.
He slept that night rolled in furs beside a fire, and when he woke he ate smoked meat and warmed himself over the coals. He looted some of the less bloodstained clothes to cover himself, and found a pair of fine enough knives and took a pair of spears with him. They were more for hunting than for war, but they would suffice.
Mist lay low over the slack waters as he hunted up and down the shore until he found their boats. They had long, narrow craft made from hides stretched over wooden frames, and he doubted how seaworthy they would prove out on the deeps, but he had few other choices. He loaded dried meat and hard bread in the best of the three boats, as well as a roll of tanned, scaled hide from one of the sea-beasts. If he found time, he would like to fashion some armor from it. That would please him.
He looked northward, toward the city, and he thought on his sword in the hands of that skylord, and it simmered an anger in him. He would return and reclaim it; he would have revenge for every drop of blood spilled from his people, for every indignity visited upon him. He would return and make the emperor crawl before him, and then he would tear his head from his body with his iron hand.
Shath spat his oath onto the sands, and then he climbed into one long boat and pushed out into the water. Only his great strength allowed him to push the craft alone, and he dragged hard on the oars, driving himself out over the fallow waves and toward the deeps beyond, where mist hid the land of his home from sight.
He heard the cries of birds overhead, and then, from beneath, came the low moaning cries of the sea serpents. He slowed his rowing, listening to the sound of it, wondering if it was a song of hunger or of sorrow. It seemed too keen a sound to be simply the mindless noises of a beast.
A shadow moved in the mist, and he saw one light, and then another. A long neck reared up from the waves, a head with glistening teeth and a dangling, glowing lure turned one way, and then another. Shath saw the lantern eyes, and he felt them see him, as clearly as if a hand touched him in the dark. He held very still, watching the sinuous movements, the coiling of the great body in the waves beneath. It was beautiful to see, and he waited to see if it would come to devour him.
The great serpent slipped back under the rolling waves, and he saw the light of its eyes dive down below, fading into the blackness beneath him. He wondered how far below the bottom lay, and whether it was cluttered with the ruins of another age. Ships of iron and towers of black glass now vanished beneath a sunless sea, home only to monsters and ghosts.
The serpent did not rise again, and he took the oars once again and began to row, pushing through the waves with brute power, unwilling to bend, unwilling to give way. His hand was steel, but so was the will that drove him, and it would see him across this gray-shadowed sea to the country where he had been born. There he would grow strong again, and when he returned to this place, he would bring blood, and fire, and death.