Arion stepped forward to confront the dashing, if sinister figure. Stopping directly in front of the evil being, he demanded answers of him. “The Host of Twilight? I know nothing of any such group. Your manner reeks of dark magic, though, and that is enough to prompt me to subdue you, like so!”
Using his magic, Arion created an expanding sphere that wrapped around Malvolio even as it contracted. The startled Shadow Lord found himself bound tightly by Arion’s magical trap.
“My, my, my!” said Malvolio of the Shadows. “You do have pluck! Perhaps our time in this realm will not be as deadly dull as we expected!”
“Where is Jheryl?” demanded Arion. “What have you done with her? What manner of being are you that your magicks can breathe a pale imitation of life into the very shadow substance of the Darkworld?”
Malvolio smiled wickedly and said, “Good questions, one and all, but I will keep my secrets close to me like the darkness that never fails me when I summon it!”
Arion cried out in pain as an inky blackness began to creep up his body, and his vitality began to weaken with every passing moment. Holding his hand out in front of his eyes, he gasped as his skin began to darken when a thick, inky cloud covered him. This foul shadow-spawn seeks to smother me! I cannot allow myself to be imprisoned here, not with so many depending upon me!
Summoning the last of his strength, Arion drew himself and Wyynde away across the Darkworld, and far away from the Negative Gem itself. They emerged out of a cone of magical power above a desert of white sand.
I cannot follow my desire and rush headlong into battle against a foe who is unknown to me, he thought. I must seek answers to the nature of this Host of Twilight. If one of their number can face me and either capture or drive Jheryl herself to flight, then they are truly potent enemies. I suspect that they come from another plane of existence entirely!
Hearing the sound of howling, he whirled to see a bizarre sight. Instead of viewing a normal field of vision with a landscape stretching even dimly to a horizon, he saw a variety of dimensional portals, each with a partially displayed reality of its own. They formed a crazy network or pattern across the sky around him, defying even his sense of order and perspective.
“By Deedra’s Chain!” cried Arion. “The Darkworld has been infected with some kind of dimensional warp that weaves and intersects in and out of our reality while linking a multitude of other realms to our own. It is like a cosmic patchwork quilt! If the Host of Twilight did this, then their power eclipses that of any being I have ever faced!” Looking up to his right, he saw a flying pack of savage purple hounds descending from a portal above.
“These hounds seek my life’s blood! But I will grant them no satisfaction this day!” he cried, creating a gleaming whirlwind of magical power that swept the snarling hounds into its embrace and carried them away.
Concentrating once more, Arion summoned the Eye of Ra again, peered through the ornate orb, and then returned it to its magical storage place. “My chance to find help for Wyynde is lost. Not only is fair Jheryl missing, but the Eye of Ra detected no sign of the enigmatic Weaver. That cosmic being restored me to my rightful magical prowess for love of Jheryl. I thought he could help me find her, but even he is beyond its sight!”
Arion had started to create a magical spell to take him homeward with Wyynde in tow, when a stunningly beautiful woman appeared before him, laughing a sultry laugh. Her flowing blonde hair and flashing gray eyes seemed to swell up until he could not breathe or see anything but her eyes. He gasped and fell backward as his mind was filled with a series of rapidly flashing images.
He saw another woman of equal beauty but with no warmth about her. Her skin was the color of ice, and her kiss burned his lips as it chilled his bones. She caressed him in a blizzard of ice and snow, then faded away to reveal powerful waves that crashed down around him, even as a lilting voice left his senses reeling and his heart pounding. When the waters parted, he saw an entire city beneath the seas and a hero in orange and green. That man swam away, and Arion screamed as fire surged through him, leaving him staring at a crystal void.
Before he could react in any way, a hand thrust itself over his eyes, and he felt fur and rough nails and smelled a bestial scent before blinking and coughing his way back to normal.
“By Calculha! I was lost in a maddening array of visions! I could not resist them!” he sighed, then turned to face the man whose inhuman hand had somehow broken the spell that had robbed him of his senses.
The man was tall and muscular with a reddish complexion. He was shirtless and wore only a brief loincloth with a sword belt, boots, and a strange red gauntlet that he used to cover the furry, misshapen claw that served as his right hand. “Aye, that is the way of the witch,” said the black-haired warrior. “Her eyes create madness and leave her victims to die mindless at her feet, while their world becomes nothing but a series of nightmare images! My hand severed her hold upon you. It has its uses, although the price may be too high still for me to carry!”
“You saved me,” said Arion. “I offer you thanks. Who are you?”
The warrior scowled at him and said, “I am Valcan, though men call me Claw the Unconquered! (*) I have been a prisoner within this foul realm ever since my quest led me unwittingly to enter this void!”
[(*) Editor’s note: For the first appearance of this character, see “The Sword and the Silent Scream,” Claw the Unconquered #1 (May-June, 1975).]
“I am Arion, high mage of Atlantis. If you seek passage out of the Darkworld, then I will gladly take you with me. I know not which of the myriad of dimensions swirling around us that you call home, but I can get you to the one I know best!”
“Mage, I have little use for your kind, but I will grasp at any way to achieve the goal that drives me ever onward,” said Claw. “As for my home, it has no need for me now, and I have never had much love for it!”
The trio vanished as Arion’s magic brought them back to Atlantis and the city of Mu. “You speak of a quest. Tell me more!” said Arion.
“You have a demanding way about you, Arion, but I will trust you for now,” replied Claw. “I am hunting the Shadow-Gods who fled from my world when I triumphed over their forces. I seek to stop them from taking over other planes of existence. The woman called Angelique, who nearly drove you mad, is one of them. The others are here as well. ”
Arion gasped as he listened to Claw’s tale. “I started this journey because of a friend in peril. Now I find my whole world is in danger. Come with me, Claw, and let me tell my allies of your story. You and I face a common foe now, and we must aid one another lest the forces of darkness win this day!”
Claw nodded grimly and followed Arion into the city.
After returning the magically protected Wyynde to his medical chamber, Arion addressed Queen T’Gallah and her assembled royal court advisers consisting of Wing the main advisor, Kali the astrologer, General Tesh the head of the military, Lady Chian the captain of the royal guards, and Hefed the black-cloaked leader of the telepaths. Claw stood nearby, watching the Atlantean high mage as he explained the crisis.
“As you know, our cosmos has traditionally been governed by various beings of great power and differing intents,” said Arion. “We have known the seven gods and goddesses and other lesser beings of power from legend and, in my case, from personal contact. Apparently, everything has changed due to an invasion of evil beings from another dimension! The Host of Twilight or the Shadow-Gods have fled from their own realm into our own. They seek to establish themselves as the governing forces of our cosmos. I know that they have great power, and they have deposed, captured, or even killed the Weaver and Jheryl, two of the Seven we have known.”
General Tesh, a handsome and regal black man, said, “Can such a thing be true? I am no cleric, but I have never doubted the power of the Seven!”
Stepping forward, Claw brought his red gauntlet down on the table with a resounding crash. “You don’t know these fiends the way I do!” said the barbarian. “I have been their tormented pawn since my earliest infancy. I have fought them. I have killed them. I drove them from my world. However, in time, circumstances showed me that I could never know true peace while they existed on any dimensional plane. So I have tracked them from one realm to another until Arion brought me here, where I can feel their old corruption in the very air!”
“Valcan, if you know these monsters, then will you help us fight them?” asked Queen T’Gallah.
“With or without you, I will not rest until they rot!” vowed Claw.
Hefed leaned forward with his long, narrow fingers linked together to form a support for his gaunt and pointed chin. “Be that as it may, Sir Claw, what threat do they pose to us?” he said. “We have not been attacked by them. We have only heard that some beings that acted against us on their own capricious whims have been driven away. That is liberation, not enslavement!”
Placing one hand on Claw’s massive shoulders, Arion said, “Hefed, you are, as ever, too given to philosophy. I tell you that the Shadow-Gods will work ruination upon our world unless we restore the former balance of power! I also tell you that I will find Jheryl or avenge her for the love I have for her. I tell this on my oath as high mage of Atlantis, and as a man!”
“Arion, you have convinced me,” said Queen T’Gallah. “I am ruler here, and that is enough. You will all do everything in your power to aide Arion.” The others in the court nodded in agreement.
Turning to Claw once more, Arion said, “Valcan, I thank you for the help you offer. I also ask for more. You come from the dimension in which those fiends originated. With your permission, I would perform a spell of similarity to allow me to track them by the essence common to you and they as beings from that foreign plane!”
“Do what you will, Arion,” said Claw, “only I warn you that I want to slay them with as little delay as possible!”
Arion frowned and said, “Friend Valcan, you are truly a man given to fierce passions!”
Valcan scowled and said, “In truth, I am merely a man who can only control himself through intense effort. If I don’t end the existence of the Shadow-Gods soon, their indirect influence upon me through this foul hand that came from their spawn will be the death of me!”
“I may be able to help you with that problem, in time,” said Arion. “Now, shall we take action?”
Claw nodded and said, “I would like that very much, mage!”
Soon, Arion was the one frowning as he explained the results of his ritual to Claw and Lady Chian. “It is worse than even I suspected. There are dozens of beings — be they men, women, or monsters — from Claw’s realm within our own world. Not all of them are within the borders of the Atlantean Empire. What is more, I see that I was correct when I feared the worst for our gods and goddesses. ‘Tis not merely fair Jheryl and the crafty Weaver who are missing from their normal haunts, but I now detect the fact that Deedra, Altana, Tynan, Chaon, and the rest are all missing. These Shadow-Gods have deposed all the gods and goddesses we have known. This cosmos in now entirely under the thrall of the invaders!”
“Arion, my love, as ever I am ready to die for your cause,” said Lady Chian. “What shall we do?”
“We prepare for war,” said Arion. “We seek out the missing cosmic beings, and we fight their replacements. To do less would result in the end of civilization as we know it. Claw has told me of how on his world, one culture after another ended in ruin because of the Shadow-Gods. Well, they will not bring down the Empire of Atlantis while Arion lives to oppose them!”
Claw nodded in grim approval, having decided to trust the volatile mage. Now he felt that his own long crusade would finally have allies.