Through storm and cruel seas, Shath the Iron-Handed dragged his boat to the shore and then climbed over the battered gunwale and set his feet upon the lands of his birth. This was no soft land for soft men, but the bitter realms of volcanic glass and poisoned fume that had long guarded the Horned Clans from invasion. Cruel winters had forced them southward, away from their homelands, until this had become their home. Harsh and cruel, where the soil itself was made of glass daggers and the rains burned flesh.
He stood knee-deep in the cold waters and pulled the meager supplies he still had from the boat, and then he let it go and saw it washed back out into the dark that clung to the waters before the red dawn. The night sky was alive with thousands of stars as well as the shards of the broken moon, and the light was silver upon the sky, while the land lay mired in shadow.
He carried a small bag slung over his shoulder, a little food tucked within along with the rolled, scraped skin of a sea monster. He carried two long knives sheathed in his rope belt, and he bore two hunting spears over his broad shoulder. His muscles ached from three days of battles with the sea, while his new right arm felt nothing. He waded up from the waters until he stood on black sands above the mark of the high tides, and he drove both spears into the sands and then knelt down and kissed the earth. Now he was returned, he would find the remains of his people, and he would gather them once more into an army.
Shath knew where his people would go, for there was one holy place where they would gather if they were driven away. He turned his head to face true north and walked, careless of rest and contemptuous of weakness. He was of the Horned Clans, and he would not give way before his own privations. He was made of iron and of wrath; he was a son of wind and cold and the howls of war. He feared nothing, not death nor pain nor the devils of a thousand ages.
The land here beside the sea was jagged with black stones that jutted from the earth like broken teeth, glassy and sharp. Some of them were tall as a man, some many times larger than that, so Shath made his way through a forest of stones, the ground beneath his bare feet plated with sharp points. It did not slow him; he had been accustomed to walk on harsher things since he was a boy.
He climbed up through blackened hills where the ground was rent by great fissures that streamed with vile smoke, and at last he saw before him the great hollow where the ancestors of his people were buried. This dark vale was where battlemasters were made, and where dead lords were entombed in the hollows ground in the face of the cliffs.
At the bottom was a smooth, black place where all was melted by some ancient fire into slag and razor-edged ridges, and at the center stood the great idol of his race – the Tree of Death. It stood unmoved and unmarred, a perfect tree with serpentine roots below and clawing branches above. Bare of any leaf or flower, the tree never grew, never faded, never changed. His ancestors had found it here, and made it the place for the keeping of the dead. Skulls adorned the spear-sharp branches, and bones were heaped around the roots.
He had expected to see the fires of a great camp, but there was nothing. He stood for a long moment, and wondered at it, for the fires of his people were nowhere to be seen. The wind keened as the red sun rose, and he suddenly saw, in the long shadows, the glimmer of a single fire.
He made his way among the sword-edged rocks and down into the smooth valley, and he walked toward the light. He saw no tent, no shelter, only a fire with a lone figure hunched before it, hooded and cloaked against the wind. It made no motion as he drew closer, until he stood across the fire and saw it was an old woman. Her eyes glinted yellow when she looked at him.
“Comes the battlemaster, the breaker of spears and the crusher of skulls. At last he has returned to his homeland. Come to my fire, Shath the Iron-Handed, and sit with me, for I am the last.” She beckoned him with a three-fingered hand.
“You cannot be the last,” he said. “I left behind an army, a camp filled with women and their children. Some of them must have survived. The empire claimed they slaughtered us all, but I did not believe it.” He looked east, where the battlefield lay, far beyond his sight. “It cannot be.”
“It is,” she said. “The skylords slew, and the war-machines belched fire and death. Arrows fell as rain, and the legions closed in. None were spared.” She looked into the fire. “A few may have crawled into cracks here or there, but the nations of us are no more. Only you remain, master of no one.”
He sank down before the fire, and he felt a tremble in his limbs, a weakness he had not felt even in the presence of death. “I came to seek those who remain, to weld them again into an army, so we might take our revenge. I won through torture and pain to return here, and now I find it hollow. Even this has been taken from me. Even this.” He held up his iron arm. “I lost my sword-arm, cut it away with my own hand, and now I have another.”
“Now you are iron handed for true,” she said. “Will you stop? Will you surrender now, when you did not before?”
“I will surrender to nothing,” he said bitterly. “I lost everything, and I will not make that sacrifice vain. I will have an accounting of the blood.” He cast his spears down before the fire. “If the Horned Clans are dead, I must make them live again. If each drop of my blood may become a warrior of my people, a mother, a child, then I shall shed all of it to see them rise.”
“It is not your blood you must spill, master of war. You are called upon to shed the blood of enemies. That is your nature and your purpose. You are meant to fight and to kill, do not speak of giving your life away, you must take it, all of it. Blood, life, bone, breath. You must take them all from those who would oppose you, until all lie dead at your feet. That is the way.” She laughed at him then, and he saw her sharp, sharp teeth.
Shath felt fire run through him, and he leaped to his feet, iron hand clenching into a fist. “Who are you, grandmother? You are not one of my kin.”
“Perhaps I am, and perhaps not, but I am here to speak truth to you. That is what matters.” She stirred the flames with a stick. “I can tell you where to find the power you will need to defeat the black emperor. I can set you upon a path of blood and vengeance.”
“Tell me,” he said. He looked on this old woman and wondered what she truly was, if she were some dark-hearted wraith from the tombs. There were said to be guardians of the crypts – hungry, yellow-eyed things that moved only by night. Here was an old woman who bore all the signs, and yet he did not quite believe, and the red sun stood above the far horizon.
“I will tell you,” she said, laughing darkly. “But first you must perform a service for me, a last task in offer to the dead gods of your people.” She pointed with her stick, the end of it blackened and smoking from the fire. A small ember gleamed there at the tip. “Now the Horned Clans have been wiped away, scavengers come to plunder the tombs of your ancestors. They come now, and I would see them drowned in their own blood, even as would you.”
He heard the sound, distant but growing. It was a rattling, grinding sound, and he knew it well. Always the scavenger peoples lived on the edges of the clan ranges, never daring to venture forth into the open lands beneath the red sun. Now they would come, and they would come first for this place.
Shath lifted his spears and cast his bag down beside the fire. “Wait here, then, grandmother. I will bring you a price of blood.” He turned and walked away, following the sound of the scavengers’ earth-devourer. A pillar of dust rose in the morning light, and he heard stones crack underfoot.
The scavengers came in their wake of their machine. A herd of chained zhars dragged the massive bulk over the stony ground, and rolling wheels of spikes and teeth chewed the earth up, crushed the stones, and left a path of destruction behind it. It was a device that broke the earth and milled it, and the scavengers rode or walked behind it, sifting the soil for what there was to find. They were robed and cloaked against the sun, masked against the fine dust that would kill a man who breathed it for a day and a night. They carried spears as well as shovels and picks for tilling the soil.
Shath wrapped a cloth around his face to keep away the dust and moved through the billowing clouds. It pained him to go to battle on foot and not mounted, but he could kill just the same. He saw a mounted warrior ride into view, a shadow in the semi-dark, and he drew back his arm, aiming the barbed hunting lance.
He threw with all the strength of his iron arm, and the weapon pierced armor and flesh and ripped the man from the saddle. The horned zhar reared and snapped at the air, and Shath was already moving. He caught the trailing reins and pulled himself into the saddle, and then with his second spear in hand, he rode down upon the scavengers like a vengeance out of lost ages.
Unprepared, they could not oppose him. In his new right hand the spear struck men down, rending flesh and bone. He impaled them, ripped them off their feet, and cast their bodies away. He had terrible strength in his iron hand, and soon the head of the lance was twisted and dulled by the force of his blows.
A rider came, hewing at him with a heavy axe, and Shath laughed as he crushed his skull, snapping the spear-haft apart, and then took the axe from his dying hand. It was a long-handled weapon with a wide blade, and he rode hard into the press of riders, cutting men down to either side, feeding their blood to the sundered earth.
He rode along the side of the great machine, chopping through the chains that drove its mighty gears. The mechanisms that drove it faltered, and the thing ground to a stop, spitting sparks as pieces of it shattered against one another.
They came for him then, seeing he was only one, and he shouted the battle-cry of the Horned Clans to the dark sky and rode to meet them. He struck the first man so furiously the axe cut through arm, shoulder, and body, cleaving him almost in half. He tasted blood when it sprayed him, and then he was among them, dealing death to every side. The strength of his new arm was unstoppable, and the lifetime of skill that measured his strokes cut through their guards and left a trail of dead behind him.
At the end, he faced only two, and he held up the bloodied and notched axe-blade and put it before him like a ward. “I give you the gift of wisdom this day. Come against me, and I shall leave you without a head. Leave this place, and never return, and I will not seek you.”
One of them looked at the other, uncertain, but the other charged him, lance a flicker of darkness and steel in his fist. Shath spurred to meet him, and when the spearpoint came for him he raised his iron arm and deflected it away. The two zhar came close to one another, gnashing their long teeth, they tossed their heads and their horns met like crashing shields. Shath rose up in the stirrups and smote down with the axe in his right hand, and the blade carved through the lance-haft and then rent the scavenger from shoulder to breastbone.
The axe handle snapped in two, and he flung away the remnant as he rode past the plunging beast and the bleeding body. The last scavenger turned his steed away and rode into the dust, vanishing from his sight. Shath drew rein and waited to be certain he was gone, and then he let out a slow breath. His iron arm radiated heat and burned against his flesh, sinking down inside him, and he was filled with the pleasure of victory.
He turned and rode back to where the fire was burning low, but there was no sign of the old woman. Perhaps she had indeed been a phantom. He had done what he swore to do, now she owed him an answer to his question, but he was not ready to leave this place yet. If he were to go forth into the world, he would go as a warrior armed.
He salvaged tools from the earth-devouring machine and from the dead bodies of the scavengers. He dug a pit and built a fire, and he used a piece of steel for an anvil. He broke open the tombs of his ancestors and took from them the dry bones of dead kings to cast into his fire, and there he heated a piece of steel until it was as bright and hot as the sun itself, and he pounded it upon the makeshift anvil. Slowly, over days and nights, he heated and shaped and heated again. He burned the powers of the dead heroes and kings into the steel, folded it until it had many layers, and he shaped it into the blade of a sword.
Rain came, and lightning touched the Tree of Death and lit the tips of its branches with fire. Shath heated his blade recklessly, until it all but melted and flowed away, and the he quenched it in the water that gathered in a pool at the base of the tree, among the roots, and he breathed in the steam that rose when the water boiled.
With the skin of the sea beast he worked, cutting and stitching and shaping, until he had a coat of scaled armor. He wrapped more of the fine skin over the hilt of his new sword, and then he ground at the edge with stones until it was sharp as mercy. The steel was dark and scarred by hammer and fire, but the blade was straight, and the edge was keen. It had no guard, for it was not a weapon made for dueling or the clean play of sword on sword. It was a killer’s weapon, a butcher’s weapon, heavy with the spirits of the dead.
“You have defiled the tombs of your ancestors,” came the thin voice, and he turned to see the old woman there. She was standing, and he saw her feet were wide and taloned, like the feet of a bird.
“My ancestors are dead,” he said. “My people are dead as well. If there are to be Horned Clans again, then I must forge them myself. This place will mean nothing to anyone. The tombs of nameless kings, soon forgotten.” He looked at her. “You should find another place to haunt, grandmother. This one is finished.”
“I shall dwell always in a place hallowed by the bones of kings,” she said. “If you would be a king, you must cut a crown from the world with that sword.”
“I have sworn to destroy the black emperor, and I will.” Shath looked at his new sword and touched the fell edge. “But the emperor has some power I cannot overcome. I faced him, and I failed. His attacked my mind, so that I could not break his will. Even with an iron hand, I cannot prevail against him.”
“Ahhhh,” the old woman said. “You shall need not only an army, but a power you can wield against his own. Know this, battlemaster, Kurux is empowered by more than mere sorcery. He is given the powers over minds and wills by those who dwell in the dead city. By Ixur is he empowered, and so no ordinary mortal man can hope to overcome him.”
“Then tell me how,” he said. “An army I can raise, battles I can fight. But I must have a power of my own. A power beyond flesh, beyond steel.” He raised his iron hand and clenched the unfeeling fingers into a fist. “Tell me, grandmother.”
She nodded. “Of all the Horned Clans, you are the fiercest ever born, and you have survived where no other could have. You must travel far to the west, away from the lands of the empire.”
“To the Sea of Azar?” he said, naming the most westerly place he knew.
“No, you must keep north, beyond the reach of the sea. Through the forests, across the rivers which feed the sea. Into the Lands of Death.” She looked at the tree. “Whence came the seed of this tree. Beware that place, for the land is poisoned, though it seems fair to the eye. Seek the deep rift in the Earth where mist flows like water. Climb down and find the cavern that glows from within. It may be guarded, I do not know. I do not know if those who once watched it still exist.”
“What will I find there?” he said.
“A power,” she said. “One of the old powers left by the ancients before they slaughtered one another. You will find it there, and it will measure you. If you are weak, you will not return from that place. But you are not weak. You will master that power, and emerge with it. Something to match the will of the dwellers in the dead city.”
“A journey across the known lands, to a place of death, in search of a power you will not name,” Shath said. “Fare well, grandmother. Perhaps I will see you again.”
He mounted the zhar he had taken, and took the reins of another as a spare mount. The rest he cut loose and watched them gallop away into the empty places of the wild lands. The zhar had lived here long before his people came, they would live here long after. Alone, he rode out of the vale of the dead, and when he looked back he saw no sign of the old woman, only the stark and terrible Tree of Death. He touched his sword in a last honor to his dead race, and then he turned his steed and rode west, toward the shadows of far mountains, and the dark lands that lay beyond.