The Black Hand (Part 2 of 3)

We continue the story of the Black Hand. (Click here for Part 1 of 3.)

The Black Hand (Part 2 of 3)

Pleased with himself and relieved that an assault on the daunting Tower had proven unnecessary, Gronek withdrew to await the arrival of his newest vassal.

In the starless dark of the next new moon, the scouts rushed into Gronek’s encampment and beat a frightened alarm on the bronze warning gong. The aroused Goblins scrambled out of their sleeping rolls and rushed armed to the perimeter of the village.

An awed hush fell over the Goblins. No attackers were descending on the encampment. Instead, it was a procession of tribute-bearing servants—servants the like of which the Goblins had never seen before.

At the head of the procession shuffled a troop of hawk-beaked creatures with stringy simian hair—ghouls from the dreaded Poison Desert of Yyng-go. In their shaggy arms, they bore open casks of onyx, jacinth, and lapis lazuli, whose facets glinted in the ruddy torchlight like a million devilish eyes.

As the ghouls proceeded by, a fiendish screech descended from the air above. Small, dark bodies on leathery wings plummeted out of the black sky, driving the Goblins back by their terrifying demeanor. As they alighted, the air filled with the odor of the sepulcher, for these awful flyers held in their clawed feet canisters of rare funerary incenses and embalmer’s spices: myrrh, cassia, and every type of exotic aromatic. These grotesque beings were the half-legendary gargoyles, denizens of the Wastes of Folmar far to the south. The creatures scanned the trembling crowd with scornful chatter, and then carried their burdens onward into the heart of the village.

After the gargoyles came other entities with a dull, uneven step. They represented many races and both sexes, and all their ravaged faces were frozen in slackmouthed stares. They were zombies all—deceased nobles and rich merchants mixed with mutilated soldiers and beggars in filthy rags. Some seemed newly dead; others were far gone into corruption. In rotting fingers, the zombies clutched baskets of blood-red rubies and carbuncles. The host of Goblins released a few sporadic screams, but a strangled silence held the village as securely as a stony golem’s clench holds a tender throat.

Scarcely had the undead staggered by when there sounded the clatter of bones. Uncloaked by the night, earth-darkened skeletons approached with an insect-like tread. The skeletons were swathed in kilts of gold brocade with buckles of topaz. On their heads, they wore turbans of black silk starred with emeralds. Lights like flickering marsh fires burned within their hollow domes and behind the empty eyes of their grinning skulls. They came on arrayed in jeweled scimitars and embossed shields, looking for all the world like the guard of honor for a major Hell-Fiend.

All eyes now turned toward the covered palanquin they escorted—framed of gilded wood and transported by a dozen soiled mummies. Magnificent tiaras circled each grey, withered head and suggested some lofty rank once held long ago in Death’s kingdom. The glories of the pasts were now belied by their crumbling wrappings and by the teeming parasites that feasted on their leathery flesh. From the shroud-covered palanquin issued forth a voice that Gronek had heard but once before, yet had been unable to forget, no matter how hard he tried: “This is the first portion of what is owed you. Is Gronek of the Mangubats pleased?”

“Is—is more to follow?” stammered the bewildered war chief.

“Draw back the curtains of my palanquin,” said the concealed speaker, “and all the remainder that you are owed shall be delivered forthwith.”

Gronek ordered his varlets to the litter, but they stood paralyzed in awe and could not bring themselves to touch that forbidding curtain. Ashamed to be thought a coward before all his people, Gronek invoked all the power of his gods in a low, breathy mutter and descended from his chair. With a trembling hand, he himself tore away the fluttering shroud-cloth. The sight revealed to his tortured eyes struck Gronek like a mace to the chest. Within the chair sat not the Black Hand, whom Gronek had expected, but one other whom the war chief knew very well indeed: the dark and corrupted features of Gronek’s dead brother, Whynaucht, glared at his sibling hatefully.

“Brother,” rasped Whynaucht, “you are my murderer and a thief upon my chair. May your name be cursed for eternity before the gods to whom you do ill service and before the people you deceive! May you live in unending terror and screaming madness, dwelling like a naked animal, eating nothing better than moss from the boles of the forest!”

Gronek howled and plunged demented into the woods, never to return. The Goblins say he was later seen living out his miserable days in frenzy, running nude along the woodland paths and, as prophesied, eating moss like a grazing beast.

Afterwards, the Black Hand returned to his seclusion in the Shards of Lor, untroubled by further demands from proud Goblin chieftains. But if he had hoped that his punishment of Gronek would force others to respect his privacy, the necromancer would be disappointed. Men who heard the Goblins’ story in strange and filtered retellings denigrated the power of the Black Hand, while fixating upon what the Goblins said of his wealth in gems and gold. Greed-crazed adventurers trespassed repeatedly upon the Shards of Lor — alone, in small bands, or in strong brigand gangs. Few of these returned and fewer still brought back any material reward.

An often-repeated legend from Basimar recounts the adventure of the warrior-maid Ashera and her band of bravos. They ventured into the Shards of Lor in the mid-1200s seeking the wizard’s gold, undaunted by the zombie sentinels they encountered and aptly dispatched with enchanted blades. In the brown twilight, they espied the ruined stronghold of Zards hulking on the grim scarps, its wizard-fires flickering weirdly behind crumbling embrasures.

Ashera led her companions up an avalanche of fallen blocks and peered into the tower through an unpatched gap in the ancient masonry. The spectacle they beheld stunned them: The whole ground floor of the tower had been hollowed out to make a chamber of awesome vastness. The demolition had been a superhuman task for which the necromancer must have enlisted the aid of mighty legions of demons and familiars. Thick, black vapors wormed their way out of a pond-sized cauldron filled with an awesome and noxious recipe. All about the rim of the cauldron writhed the necromancer’s nightmare creations that he had wrested from Death’s clutch, while the hollow of the vault echoed with the cries of flapping creatures that resembled bats and birds of prey but were in fact sorcerous creations not of this world.

As they watched, the adventurers’ souls were blasted. They beheld how the dark mists above the vast pit-cauldron twisted together like hibernating serpents and took on a kind of quasi-solidity. Before their stupefied gaze, a demon of horrifying size and repulsive features materialized. One of the intruders could bear no more: he wailed in terror and threw himself to his death on the mountainside. The creatures below turned laboriously toward the interlopers and Ashera knew that they had been discovered. She shouted for her companions to follow her in wild flight. As the yells of the hindmost echoed in her ears, Ashera saw the flash of wings and plunged into blackness as a cudgel clanked upon her helm.

At length, Ashera awoke to find herself in a luxurious room, not wearing armor but gorgeous silken raiment. The chamber’s sweet air beguiled her mind with the scent of fragrant flowers and aromatic food. Indeed, there truly was food—for upon a table spread with cloth of gold a sumptuous meal awaited. Rising bemusedly from her couch, Ashera searched the room for an exit but found none.

For what seemed like weeks, she was kept in captivity, seeing no one but feeling herself watched every moment. Each time she slept, she awoke wearing a new garment of more than queenly grace, and a new feast with fresh florid trimmings. Then, at long last, the silence was broken by the sound of labored breathing, more like a draft in a cave than a drawn breath.

She turned to face a mirror built into the tapestried wall, the apparent source of the strange sounds. This glass cast back not her own reflection but that of a young gentleman in a stylish cloak and featured hat. “Who are you?” she demanded.

“I am the lord of this castle,” the image replied. He explained that his servants had found her unconscious in the forest and brought her hither. He himself had been long absent while they cared for her, but was home now and he most happily welcomed her. He let her know that she might remain as long as she desired.

“I do not desire to stay anywhere where I am a prisoner!” she answered irascibly.

“Nonetheless, you must remain,” the young man said gently, not so much like a jailor as a petitioner. “I shall visit you every night after you have dined, and we shall speak.” Then his image faded, to be replaced with Ashera’s. Angered by being abandoned before she had said all she had to say, furious to hear that her imprisonment would not soon end, Ashera grasped a chair and shattered the mirror into a thousand pieces.

Instantly, the room changed. The tapestries and furnishing vanished as swiftly as a dream when a sleeper awakens. They left behind rough, algae-caked stone and a few rude furnishings of unfinished wood. The dainty meal upon the silver trays now lay revealed as cold cuttings of fungus and uncooked roots sprawling on wooden platters. The flowers in luxuriant vases were changed to bunches of dead weeds in cracked clay pots. Ashera’s gown itself faded away, its place taken by a tattered shroud that looked like a grave robber had stolen it from a crypt. Even her bejeweled slippers were reduced to ragged socks full of holes. The fragrance of the atmosphere fled also, replaced instantly by the heavy stench of mildew and universal decay.

Behind the shattered mirror lay revealed a lichen-stained corridor. Somehow, Ashera managed to descend an outer wall and escape into the forest beyond the castle. For days, she fled barefoot across wet and cold woods and hills, meeting an occasional woodsman’s family or adventurer to whom she told her weird story but, always upon stopping to rest for more than a day, she would hear her name shouted by a hoarse voice that vaguely resembled that of the handsome and kindly-mannered man in the mirror.

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