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The Goblin Gronek became war chief of the Mangubat tribe upon the 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 raids might be mounted against 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 himself, 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!" 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 slack-mouthed 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
The Black Hand
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 it 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 witch-built 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, the moon, or the 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 figure 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 spectres running amuck in the Shards. Shortly afterwards, the rumor was confirmed by Dwarven prospectors in 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 or grew from it like proliferating weeds. The wraith-being gave a curt command and the undead army fell into ranks around him, like the flesh-andblood soldiers they once had been. A new tenant had come to inhabit the forbidding Tower of Zards -- a shadowy wonder-worker who possessed some dread glamour which 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." Opinion holds that the magician emerged from the East. Alas, no document or authoritative legend supports this guess. The Muetaran scholar Asiongabur, who 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 to not believe.
The remains of a stalwart soldier, perhaps soon to be ‘drafted’ into service into sevice by the Black Hand
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 than there sounded the clatter of bones. Uncloaked by the night, earth-darkened skeletons approached with an insectlike 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 to see 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 circling each grey, withered head and suggested a lofty rank lost long ago in Death's kingdom and since then belied by their crumbling wrappings and the teeming parasites that feasted on their leathery flesh. From the shroud-covered palanquin issued forth a voice that Gronek had heard but one time before, but which he 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 which 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 by his act of folly struck Gronek like a mace to the chest. Within the chair sat not the Black Hand whom he 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 you misserve and the people you deceive! May you live in unending terror and screaming madness, dwelling like a naked animal eating the 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 madness, running nude along the woodland paths and, as prophesied, eating moss like a browsing beast. Afterwards, the Black Hand returned 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 miscalculated. Men who heard the Goblins' story in strange and filtered retelling denigrated the power of the Black Hand while fixating upon what the Goblins said of his wealth in gems and gold. GreedAn artifact alleged to be from the Tower crazed adventurers trespassed of Zards 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 warriormaid Ashera and her band of bravos. They ventured into the Shards of Lor in the mid-1200's seeking the wizard's gold, undaunted by the zombie sentinels they encountered and 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 which he had wrested from Death's clutch, while the hollow of the vault echoed with the cries of flapping creatures which 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 the dark mists above the vast pit-cauldron twist together like hibernating serpents and take on a kind of quasi-solidity. Before their stupefied gaze, a demon of horrifying size and 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 was 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 air beguiled with the scent of fragrant flowers and aromatic food. Indeed, 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 like so much like a jailor as like 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 furnishing 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. 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 posses sions. Worse, the predators realized 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 judgment. The wolves of Shadow Wood do not esteem writing and one is faced with the choice of accepting their oral traditions or dismissing them as mere mythology. Very possibly it was his brief and tragic experience of love that called the Black Hand back into the world from which Ashera had come, for his behavior changed markedly after the adventuress' death. He would now entice an occa-
sional black magician with 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 the Tower. 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 against Goblin Land. Minor bands swept the flanks of the Goblin country, entered the Shards of Lor, and approached the Tower, but were routed by the mere appearance of the gigantic Guardian demon whose construction 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 which allowed the yowling wraiths to careen 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 them afterwards, and in more recent times he has brought to bear in their place the much more powerful and terrifying spectres which men 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 magically-supported hulks ripped from the ocean deeps and manned by dead sailors -- the Ghost Fleet. Shortly after his victory outside Zards, an ambassador arrived from Goblin Land to beseech the Black Hand's aid. The Goblin people, on the brink of being overwhelmed, 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 and 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 rag-tag 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 barbarian 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 which came their way interrupted the executions. 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, and forever after called it 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.
The high summit of the Tower of Zards
Today we know little more about the Black Hand than the Dwarves did hundreds of years ago 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. Though one would not expect that the doings of the lord of Zards, existing so remotely in the mountains of the far northeast, would have opportunity to inspire fear among the sailors of distant. 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 in those worm-gnawed hulks There lurks an earthless grave." He knows that in those worm-gnawed hulks There lurks 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.
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