The Black Hand (Part 3 of 3)

We conclude the story of The Black Hand (Click here for part 2 of 3.)

Then, as Ashera fled along the pathless depths of Shadow Wood, wolves attacked and devoured her. The Black Hand arrived at the site of her death too late to save his beloved, but in bitter grief, he placed a dreadful curse on the wolves of the forest, laying the bane of intelligence upon them. Robbed of their innocence, the lupines henceforth would know good from evil and anguish over evil’s continual triumphs. Their fierce pack leaders now understood the logic of gain and soon were fighting fierce wars with other packs for material possessions. Worse, the predators realized that they were mortal and the lurking specter of age and death drained their remaining days of peace and beauty. Of the truth of this legend we must withhold judgement. The wolves of Shadow Wood do not esteem writing, and one is faced with the choice of accepting their oral traditions or dismiss them as mere mythology.

Very possibly, it was his brief and tragic experience of love for the adventuress that called the Black Hand back into the world from which Ashera had come, for his behavior changed markedly after her death. He would now entice an occasional black magician of strong nerve into his domain to act as his liaison with the outside world. Before long, most of the kings of Minaria recognized the advantages of maintaining good relations with a necromancer as powerful as the dark lord of Zards. On irregular occasions, the Black Hand would accept alliances with one or another of the Minarian monarchs and generally served them well, directing his hosts of zombies, skeletons, and flying familiars against enemy forces.

In the last decade of the thirteenth century, the Great Chief Sagaradu Black Hammer led the northern barbarians in a war of conquest of Zorn. Minor bands swept the flanks of the Goblins’ country, entered the Shards of Lor, and approached the Tower, but were routed by the mere appearance of the gigantic Guardian demon whose summoning Ashera had witnessed decades before. The Black Hand pressed his advantage once they had betrayed their presence, sending his undead hordes against their encampment. In this grim battle, the necromancer tested a new spell for the first time—the opening of a portal to the ghost world that allowed yowling wraiths to career through the undisciplined mobs of the North. Black Hammer’s panicked warriors fled the mountains and did not trouble the residents of the Shards of Lor again for many years to come. Although they proved effective on their first try-out, the Black Hand did not often use these faint wraiths afterwards. In more recent times, he has brought to bear in their place the much more powerful and terrifying specters that men have come to call the Souls of the Damned.

For that matter, his sky-blackening flocks of familiars, the Wings of Darkness, have grown more deadly also, and not many years ago, the Black Hand surprised the world by taking his walking dead to sea in strange ships — magically-supported hulks that his magic has ripped from the ocean deeps, manned by dead sailors— the Ghost Fleet.

Shortly after the Black Hand’s victory over the barbarians, an ambassador arrived from Zorn beseeching aid. The Goblin people, on the brink of being overwhelmed barbarians from the north, had finally ended their intertribal quarrels and elected a single war chief for all Zorn—Ockwig, whom they called the “Sirdar.” He had sought allies among men and Elves first, but his embassies had been rebuffed throughout the Goblin-hating north. Zorn’s last hope was to beg succor from the mysterious necromancer.

As the weeks passed and the Goblin ambassadors brought back no good news, Ockwig drew up his last ragtag army to meet the massed barbarians in Stone Toad Forest. On the eve of the fight, he exhorted his depleted troops of weary veterans, walking wounded, elders, and juveniles, and led them forward to battle singing The Song of the Slain. It was better, Ockwig believed, to seek proud death against an enemy’s spears than to take flight and live in disgraceful exile. As the Goblins were filling in their order of battle, a clamor arose behind the barbarians’ watch fires. The shouting almost immediately grew into a wild chorus of terror. From out of the night forest, the barbarians came charging, not as determined berserkers but as fugitives, throwing aside their weapons in a blind panic to escape from some unknown horror. The Goblins fell upon the fugitives with a vengeance, but the thunderous noise that came their way interrupted the slaughter.

There loomed in the starlit sky the rude outlines of a giant so large it towered above the trees. Its flared nose was like a hill planted in the center of a broad field, while its boulder-sized eyes were overhung by lids the size of curtains. Its flesh was as blue as a long-dead cadaver, and the stench of the abomination sickened the keen-nosed Goblins. The Zornites broke and fled alongside the barbarians, but the monster paid them no heed and withdrew, having won the battle merely by showing itself. Afterwards, the Goblins deemed the woods where the Colossus first made its appearance bad luck, forever after called the Cursed Forest.

Since the Great Barbarian War, the Black Hand has intermittently interrupted his secret doing with periods of military activity, either in his own cause or in another’s. Cynics say that the necromancer is less interested in solving the problems of Minarian politics than in the opportunity war offers to practice his death-magic upon thousands of fresh corpses without too much offending his mundane neighbors.

Today, we know little more about the Black Hand than the Dwarves did when they first saw him, more than two centuries ago. By his silence, he has declared to the world that he has nothing to teach it, and by his actions, he has demonstrated that he is interested in no living thing of it.

One would not expect that the doings of the Lord of Zards, existing so remotely in the mountains of the far northeast, would have any opportunity to inspire fear among the sailors of distant Mivior. Nonetheless, the Black Hand has a vast reach that leaves few untouched, as this grim song makes clear:

“The Ghost Fleet”

Twas on a black and windy night
Off the hook of Serpent Bay,
When through a driving maelstrom
We steered our dangerous way.
Like soldiers from a battle,
Our lads were flagged and blear,
As wearily we strove to reach
The Boran port so near.

As wearily we strove to reach
The Boran port so near.


At length our helmsman gave a shout
Of stark fright and dismay,
As if he’d seen the grinning teeth
Of mishap in our way.
The waves around were topped in froth,
And breaking on our lee,
When we spied the Black Hand’s fleet
Come gouging through the sea.
When we spied the Black Hand’s fleet

Come gouging through the sea.
Take in our ragged mainsail, mates,”

Rang out the captain’s yell.
Avoid that black fleet’s company
Else tempt the jaws of Hell!
Every man who plows the swells,
Though he be hail and brave,
Should know that ‘neath those worm-gnawed hulks
There waits an earthless grave.”

He knows that ‘neath those worm-gnawed hulks
There waits an earthless grave.


Here comes that fleet of revenants,
A curse to bar our way;
It’s heralded by tempests strong
And seeks its living prey.
Ere its quest is over, mates,
Ere it sinks beneath the foam,
Some poor seamen it must take
Down to its watery home.”

Some poor seamen it must take
Down to its watery home.

Pray for the lost-at-sea, my lads,
For terrible is their doom;
There’s no peace for those who lie
Within a shipwrecked tomb.
They’re cursed to prowl the ocean,
Slave to a wizard’s call,
And should one sailor see them pass,
A sacrifice must fall.”

Should one sailor see them pass,
A sacrifice must fall.

And as we watched those tattered sails
Fade mist-like in the gale
Our frightened shipboard master
Feared for our vessel frail,
Just when his watch was finished
Just at the dawn of day,
The hound-tooth rocks off Boran
Tore our bow planks clear away.

The hound-tooth rocks off Boran
Tore our bow planks clear away.

End

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