Shath walked through darkness for six nights under the shattered moon, hiding from the sun by day. The desert grew more and more desolate, until he moved through a wasteland without feature or mark save barren earth and jagged stone. The stars shone down by night and by day, and there was nothing to be found of food or water or ease.
His small companion clung to him when he walked, and he gave her the last of his food and his water, knowing he could go on as far as he must. He was not a man made only of flesh and blood, but a creation of will and endurance. He would not fail in his quest because he would not allow himself to falter, and he would sustain himself upon pure iron in his heart and his veins.
On the sixth night, under the brilliant stars, they came to the place where the earth was torn, and he saw the first shadows of the trees. Ahead, across the earth baked hard as steel, the shadows rose one after another, and as they came closer he saw the familiar shapes. Like trees they thrust up from the desolate soil, metallic trunks forking again, and again, and again, until they ended in an array of glassine arrow points thrust upward to the sky.
He had never seen more than one, only the single, lone tree that had been the center of the myths of his people. The tree that did not live yet did not die. The tree that cut flesh and drank blood, that sparked like fire when touched, and whispered to those brave enough to embrace it.
Now he saw a forest of them, silent and still and gleaming silver in the starshine. Beneath, where roots should have been, there were metallic trails in the dirt linking one to the next. He felt a presence in them, a hum beneath the ability of his ears to sense it. Like a voice so low it cannot be heard, only sensed. There was something alive in this place, this dead place.
He moved among the trees carefully, keeping away from the razor leaves, and his companion huddled close against him, afraid. He wished he knew where to send her so she would be safe, wished he knew what to do with her, for he knew he was going into danger, and nothing could stop that. He wished her did not simply carry her from one danger to another.
Beyond the trees, the ground dropped away, and there in the moonlight he stopped and stared, for he had never seen anything so vast in scale, so immense it rendered everything else insignificant. It was a rent in the earth, a tear so deep and wide it vanished into the distance. Jagged and black, the sides dropped away from sight into a mist that lay below, and he knew this was the place he sought, and whatever he had been sent to find lay below, far down in the dark places.
He held up his iron hand and looked at it, wondering what bond there was between this thing that was not a part of his flesh, and this place hidden on the edge of the world. They were both the work of the ancients, he knew that, but beyond that knowledge was nothing. The ancients had destroyed their world so long ago none remembered it; none knew what manner of world it had been. He himself could not imagine a world other than the one he dwelled in, and did not wish to. The world was flesh, and blood, and steel, and that was all he wanted.
He made his way to the edge of the cliff and looked down, feeling wind sweep up past him, blowing back his hair. The air from the deeps smelled of strange life, and he wondered what manner of things might dwell down there, hidden from the sight of the sky.
His companion on his shoulder ruffled her wings and plucked at his hair, and he looked at her. She was wide-eyed and pale, and she looked down into the deeps and then questioningly at him, and he could only nod. He gestured, to show that she might go if she wished, but she only clung harder to him, and made no sign that she meant to let go. He stroked her small white wings, and again he wished he might return her to her home, but he did not know from whence she came, and he could not force her to go alone in this wasteland.
Shath had no rope, nothing to help him in his descent, so he simply climbed down over the edge with his hands, using his strength alone to cling to the black, crystalline rocks. They descended below him in tiers and setbacks in the shapes of jewels that gleamed like dark ice, and he did not know how far below they might reach, but he would not stop until he found what he had come to seek. He climbed down, out of the light of the stars, into darkness.
He descended through layers of mist, feeling the coolness on his skin, the condensation dripping down as he labored. His companion flitted around him as he clawed his way down across the jagged faces of the crystalline stones. She found easy wind in the updrafts that wafted up the cliffsides, and the moist air seemed to revive her. It was welcome to feel air that was not bone-dry and baked by the endless sun, and he welcomed it in his lungs as well.
Once beneath the strata of fog, he began to encounter plant life unlike anything he had ever seen. Violet vines with blue flowers clung to the rock face, and mosses in hues of red and edged with black grew in cracks and beneath the shade of larger stones. He smelled the scent of flowers and began to hear the sounds of rushing water, and in the mist loomed the shadows of immense trees hung with vines and sprouting with glowing fungi. Before he quite realized it, he was climbing down through a forest hidden here beneath the earth.
Deeper, and the life became stranger, and he saw flowers encrusted with crystalline growth, and vines entombed in the stone itself. Here, the rock was growing to cover the forest that grew from it. The boles of trees were festooned with jewel-like formations, and they glittered in the dimness.
At last he reached a kind of floor to the endless ravine, and he set his feet upon a carpet of slender grasses that cracked and broke like glass beneath his tread. He heard water, and through the mist the cliffsides and the massive trees were only shadows marking the edges of this hidden world. He did not know, in truth, what he sought. He had believed this was a place of the ancients, but it seemed much stranger than the ruins he had seen of that lost people. This place felt alien, and the work of something far more arcane.
He waded through the grass, his small companion coming to crouch on his shoulder, and he bore her weight without thinking of it. Crystalline pillars thrust up from the earth, and soon enough he came to a place where a waterfall cascaded down the cliffside and flowed across, forming a barrier of water that was not very deep, but flowed swiftly.
The water was clear and moved fast, and he wondered where it came from. There must be some spring that fed it, for there was no rain in the land above. Strange to find this oasis of alien beauty in the wasteland. It was deathly quiet save for the sound of water, and he heard no sounds of insects or small animals, and it made him wary, reminded him that this was no natural forest.
He crossed the stream, glad of the cold water when he waded through it, and then followed the path lined with sharp crystal growths and towering trees. The ground underfoot became smooth and hard, plated with hexagons of glassy sheen, and there were fewer irregularities in it, so it was almost flat. Flowers lined the path, their petals encased in clear crystal like ice.
He heard the tread before he saw it. Something heavy moved in the mist, and it was slow, so it took a moment before he realized it was the footfalls of something huge. He crouched down and put his flesh hand against the cool surface of the path, and he felt the shocks that traveled through like the beats of an enormous heart, and then it grew closer, and his companion whimpered with a small voice and flew from his shoulder to crouch on a slender tree limb above.
Shath drew out his sword, dark and tempered with the bones of kings. He had expected there would be a guardian here, something to protect the power he sought, but that heavy tread drew more menace with it than he had foreseen. He heard a shimmering, delicate sound in its wake, and he realized the crystalline leaves of the trees and the glass-sheathed petals of the frozen flowers were trembling musically at the approach of the unseen.
It emerged into the light slowly, pushing forth from the mist between the upright trees as though it stepped through a gate in the fog. Three times the height of a man, it first seemed to be armored, and then he realized it was made partially of metal. It walked on four legs, the head heavy and covered with glassy spines, the mouth hung with teeth as long as his body. Clawed forelegs scarred the ground where it walked, and the immense shoulders were topped by ridges of spikes.
It was like a great predator made from metal and from flesh both, the whole of it grown over with the crystal skin of this place. It glittered in the dim light like a statue, but it moved with a motive will, and a multitude of sharp lights gleamed on its head like eyes.
When it came for him, he heard the wail of his winged companion as she cried in despair. But he was not to be defeated by fear – he was no milk-fed son of soft lands. He was of the Horned Clans, and battle was his meat and starvation his milk. He rushed to meet it, and when it was almost on him he leaped aside, caught the fragile branches of a tree, and hurled himself onto its back.
Needle-sharp spines and spikes splintered against his scaled armor, and he gripped the armored hide with his one flesh hand, and then he smote the thing with his sword in his hand of iron. The blade rang on the plates with a sound like a hammer on an anvil, and he struck with all his power and saw them dent and crumple under the strength of his blows.
The beast howled with many voices and shook him off, hurled him aside to smash amongst the crystal flowers, and then it came ravening for him, shattering tree limbs as it shouldered them aside to reach him. Shath pushed up onto his feet and took his sword in both hands, howling the battle-cry of his people. The jaws snapped for him and he shattered teeth with a stroke of his sword. The great head dashed him aside and the claws furrowed the earth as it pawed at him.
It rooted for him with a great tusk, tearing a furrow in the hard ground, and then it caught him and threw him into the air. He turned end over end and fell through branches that broke like ice before he smashed back to the earth. He staggered to his feet, tasting blood that he spat upon the red flowers. Here was an enemy worthy to face. Here was a death that would carry no shame.
It bore upon him like an idol of war, and he leaped to meet it, smashing against the armored skull, hammering on it with his sword. Black blood flowed, and terrible blows fell on him as it battered itself against him. He drew back his arm and drove his sword into the cluster of glowing eyes, and the thing howled with pain and ancient fury. It reeled sideways and smashed through a wall of branches.
Together they fell into a pool of deep, clear water, a cascade of it falling down from on high, foaming as it spilled over the crystalline rocks. Mist filled the air as they plunged into the water and downward, the cold all around. Shath gripped his blade and drove it in again and again, prying the armor apart, seeking the vitals beneath.
It battered him against the rocks, and he felt the pain of it as though from far away. He held his breath with a terrible will and struck again and again as it bore him down until the light was all but gone. It ground him against the bottom of the pool, and then it tried to close him in its jaws. He felt teeth pierce his armor and then his blood was in the water, flowing up around him.
He struck again, and this time the beast let loose of him and pushed upward, seeking to leave him below to drown. He stabbed his blade into the thing’s flank and hung onto the steel as it dragged him upward. The guardian burst from the pool and shook its great head, and now in the light Shath could see the streams of dark blood pouring from the wounds he had made.
He tore his sword free as the beast clawed for the edge of the pool, roaring like a demon from beyond the sky. Shath fought his way to the shallows and staggered up. Blood ran from his wounds, and he could not say how grave they might be. In the grip of his battle madness, he did not stop to wonder, but hurled himself again upon his enemy. He rained blows upon it while the great jaws yawned and snapped for his flesh. His iron hand was filled with strength, and he struck and struck again, until the blade wedged deep in the armored throat in a torrent of blood, and then it snapped as he tried to draw it free.
The beast fell into the shallows and lay there, heaving, pouring forth blood that stained the water until it was still. Shath fell back against the stones and looked at the broken sword in his hand, the hilt-shard dark with red. Gasping for breath, he let it fall into the water, feeling as though the last of his people had died, and now he would remain here at the edge of the world.
He woke later, not knowing how long he had lain there. He looked up into a narrow, pale face with wide eyes, and he smiled a little at the sight of his small companion. She touched his face and spoke to him, and he wished again that he could understand her.
He lay half in the water, chilled and stiff, but in less pain than he had expected. He sat up and found his wounds stuffed with moss, tended and cleaned. He nodded to her, and she spoke to him rapidly until he gave in and stood up. He didn’t want to go on – he felt at the limit of his strength – but then he remembered he was of the Clans, and he could not give way, for he was the last. He remembered the mocking power of the emperor, and he looked into the mist. He had come seeking a power to match that.
Slowly, he rose and staggered into the forest, trying to shake off his weakness, his malaise. He did not know what he was seeking, only that he was certain he would know it if he found it. He passed among trees and jagged, lovely crystals, and then he saw ahead of him trees like the Tree of Death. They stood upright, branches dividing over and over until they ended in arrowhead leaves that pointed straight up. They were above, and now here again in the deeps of this strange rift.
He walked among them, seeming to hear voices just beyond the reach of hearing, and then ahead of him he saw a building made all of silvery metal, the outside etched with sigils he could not read, and like none he had ever seen. He approached it, and saw there was a vast door, as far across as two men could reach with outstretched arms, as tall as three men standing tall.
As he approached, he felt a thrum deep in his iron arm, and then the door shone small lights and opened, lifting upward until it vanished and revealed a blackness within. He went inside, heedless, now, his companion awaiting outside, calling after him, but he would not turn back. Lights glowed within as he passed, and he stepped into a shrine.
It had to be a shrine, all of metal and crystal. A round chamber with an altar at the center and a great sphere surmounting it. Strange, irregular lines were etched upon the sphere, and there were small lights that moved across the surface. It was beautiful to look at, and very strange. He did not know what it was. There was writing upon it, markings he did not know the meaning of.
He felt a vibration in the air, and a tingling in his iron arm. It seemed to creep up his shoulder, as though it sought to reach deeper into his body, to join with him in some way he did not understand. He wondered again who the warrior had been who bore it before him. For now he knew that the arm had come from this place, or that both shared a common origin. This was a holy place of that ancient people long vanished from the earth.
There was a small pedestal before the sphere, and upon that was an impression of a hand. Slowly, uncertain, he placed his iron hand within that hollow, and it fit cleanly. He felt a tingle go through his flesh, and then lights played across the sphere and the lines moved, and he felt something tickle at his mind, an awareness. Something spoke to him deep within, and he knew things he had not known before.
He knew the sphere was the world, lines of land and sea marked upon it, and he knew the small lights that moved were weapons of the ancients that rested beyond the sky. They had awaited there since before the breaking of the world, and now they would answer to him. They were swords such as no living man had ever seen. They would scour the earth and destroy his enemies, and with them he would strike down the emperor. He felt the world lie within the grasp of his metal fingers.
When he walked out of that place, he was a different man. He went with his head up, his back straight despite his wounds. He was healing more quickly, though he did not really notice. Tiny lights flickered in his blue eyes, and he felt a pressing of wisdom he could not name or voice. He knew the names of the rocks and the trees, he knew that the trees of death were instruments for speaking to the weapons beyond the sky, and he took branches from them, and broke them into pieces. From these he would grow more when he needed them.
His pale companion flew down and spoke quickly, glad to see him – that he could see in her face. He bent down and lifted her up, put her on his shoulder, and he laughed when she did not stop speaking. There was water here, and food as well, that he knew. They could leave this place and go east again. Shath the Iron Handed had gone as far as he would go to the west, and from now his path would carry him back toward the Black Emperor, and to the battle he yearned for, when the enemy of his people would be scourged from the face of the earth. Now his steps turned toward his chosen fate, and the day when all would be decided.