The Black Hand (Part 1 of 3)

The Tower of Zards has borne an evil reputation since pre-Cataclysmic times. The Scarlet Witch King, when he rose against Lloroi rule, raised the mighty Tower with demonic aid and braced its cyclopean stones with potent magic. In the end, the Tower could not shelter him from defeat, but its ruins stood tall despite the devastating upheavals of the Cataclysm in the next generation. Afterwards, the barbarous survivors of the deceased civilization shunned the witchbuilt citadel, not caring to dwell in the shadow of grim, cliff-chiseled walls so often lit from within by some lurid glare whose source seemed to be neither the sun, moon, nor stars. The nomads early began calling the tower “Zards,” a word that translates as “taboo.”

For twelve hundred years the castle stood; those few who trespassed upon it inevitably figured in terrifying legends of doom or madness. Located far from any civilized state, the Tower became known to the outside world only through the discounted tales of an occasional traveler or trader from the barbarian territories. Doubtless, affairs would have long remained just so had not a strange intruder appeared without warning in the Shards of Lor early in the twelfth century.

A remnant of a Goblin raiding party came straggling back to the Nithmere Mountains, telling a ghastly tale of howling specters running amuck in the Shards. Shortly afterwards, the rumor was confirmed by Dwarven prospectors in King Alcuin’s time. The Dwarves had spied upon a wraithlike being at the ancient battlefield of the Wasted Dead, where the Witch King’s Scarlet Army once went down to defeat. The wizard—for such he, she, or it had to be—walked a circled path in the dust where the ancient, magic-slain dead uneasily lay. Hissing an invocation, the mage struck a bone against the ground, whereupon the earth commenced to crumble, and a thousand soiled skeletons emerged, grown like proliferating weeds. The wraith-being gave a curt command, and the undead army fell into ranks around him, like the flesh-and-blood soldiers they once had been.

A new tenant had come to inhabit the forbidding Tower of Zards—a shadowy wonderworker who possessed some dread glamour that allowed him to command the dead. The wraith-being gave no name, and his appearance was so strange that even “his” gender could not be guessed with certainty. The barbarians called him the Black Hand, and so he came to be known throughout Minaria. Physical descriptions of the Black Hand are rare; the diarist Codew, a courtier in the palace of Pennol, describes him so:

A black, gaunt lich in crumbling mummy wrappings, whose details of visage were obscured by a dark mist that clung to his angular frame.

Early scholastic speculation held that the magician emerged from the East; alas, no document or authoritative legend supports this guess. The Muetaran scholar Asiongabur, who more recently compiled a collection of Black Hand legends entitled Lord of the Dead, rejects the Eastern origin theory. He believes instead that the Black Hand rose from the Tower of Zards itself, an undying demon or mummy imprisoned in its collapsed dungeons since the fall of the Scarlet Witch King.

For the first few decades after his discovery, the Black Hand remained secluded in the Shards of Lor. The sight of his undead servants shuffling stiffly over the frosted rocks taught the races of Minaria to shun the necromancer’s baleful domain. His castle being far from the beaten track, most persons who heard of him continued not to believe.

The Black Hand stepped into the outer world with devastating impact in 1248. The Goblin Gronek became war chief of the Mangubat tribe upon the suspicious and sudden death of his brother Whynaucht. The ambitious Gronek aspired to extend the range of his people into the uninhabited Shards of Lor, from where Goblin skirmishing parties might raid the Dwarven principalities. He had heard of the Black Hand but either dismissed the mage as a charlatan or esteemed his own conjuring powers overmuch. Leading his warriors through the Shards of Lor, Gronek beat upon the lofty barbican of Zards and demanded the magician’s homage.

For reasons known only to him, the Black Hand deigned not to hurl his undead servitors against the invaders but instead appeared on a high balcony with head bowed and hands folded. The Goblin lord shouted up at him impudently, demanding submission and tribute.

From the shrouded wraith there tumbled down a hoarse, hollow voice like a reverberation from the tomb: “What you have asked for, you shall be served. I will bring you your tribute in the dark of the moon.”

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