Wyynde was engaged in a struggle all his own as he fought his way through the snowstorm that raged across the mountains, even as he and his female companion made their way ever higher. “Milady, what is the goal we seek?” he asked. “Is the cavern above us?”
“That cavern is indeed our goal, since any journey must begin with but a single step!” she said.
Wyynde shook his head and cleared the way as he tried to find some answers to his guide’s enigmatic words. This lady gave me back my wits, he thought, yet what good are they when her every word is a twisting and turning mire through which I am blindly wandering?
Catching the whizzing sound of an arrow with his keen ears, he shoved her down immediately. Indeed, arrows thudded down around them as Wyynde shielded the blonde woman even as he sought to spot the archers who were bent on stopping their ascent.
As he tried to see through the swirling snow, he managed to make out the vague shapes of a few figures who scrambled along the rocks and called to each other in strident tones. The sub-men are here! he realized. These rocky cliffs must shelter them. While Arion made peace with one such tribe, every clan lives by laws all their own, and this group wants us dead!
“Stay down!” he said. “I will take care of them!” His words were spoken hurriedly and in the tones of command, since in battle the mild-mannered guardsman could assume a bolder manner. He was fearless and capable, and he knew these traits could serve him well in perilous times.
Darting forward, Wyynde plunged off the ridge to roll to his feet on a lower slope. As he jumped across a narrow chasm, he found himself looking down upon the tribe of sub-men, who were clad in fur cloaks and possessed the harsh features and hairy forms common to their kind.
Wyynde’s shadow fell across them as he waited for them to turn and look up before he dropped down amongst them and lashed out with his large broadsword. He brought the weapon down across the chest of one rugged warrior, and as he yelled out in pain, Wyynde smashed him across the head with the hilt.
Shoving the warrior into his allies, Wyynde used his burly body as a shield to move closer, allowing him to take aim with his own hastily drawn crossbow. Two skillful shots left his foes dead at his feet, and he sighed as he took stock of the situation. A waste of life, but then, what can I expect on a quest without any rhyme nor reason? he thought.
Wyynde rejoined his guide, and the beautiful blonde woman smiled at him with beneficent warmth. She had retained the same strangely calm manner in spite of their ordeal, and she seemed as content to stand in the middle of a blizzard on the side of a rough and deadly mountain range as other women would be to recline on a divan in a palace. “Well done, good Wyynde!” she said. “Now, shall we continue onward? It grows dark, and we must ever work while light remains!” He nodded, and the two continued up the slope, then soon reached the cavern itself.
“The dragon you spoke of lives inside that cavern?” asked the warrior.
The woman shook her head, pushing one blonde strand of hair away from her blue eyes as she did so. “No,” she said. “That cavern is merely the portal through which we will find the means by which you will locate that dragon!”
Wyynde nodded, then plunged into the dark opening of the cave. There he quickly noticed a strong smell that permeated the cavern, and he tried to recognize the scent. That was when a hulking creature with black fur all over its body roared in anger and charged forward to tackle him.
Some type of troll! I little expected to find this kind of opposition! he thought as he reached out and grasped the creature’s shaggy arms, prying its claws away from his throat. Straining himself, he slowly succeeded in forcing it away from him, then turned to where the blonde guide stood watching the battle and yelled, “My sword!”
The woman merely shrugged demurely and said, “I fear I may not help you with ought save prayer!”
Wyynde had no time to react to her strange comment, since the troll was back on its feet and headed for him. He frowned as it started to approach the woman, but veered off as if repelled by some unseen force. Wyynde used that time to grab his own blade, managing to swing it up and across the path of the maddened creature. The troll impaled itself on the blade and ripped it from Wyynde’s grasp as he slammed into him and fell out of the cave and down the mountain.
“Are you hurt?” said Wyynde. “Why did you refuse to give me my blade? My delay has cost me that sword!”
Staring up at him with wide blue eyes, she sighed sadly. “Wyynde, I am forbidden to act directly. Just as you live by a code of honor, so am I bound to do nothing violent. I may heal and guide and instruct, but that is all!”
“I respect your values,” said Wyynde. “I just wish you had made them clear to me before I was left weaponless against the troll!”
Laughing softly, she said, “Gentle Wyynde! I do owe you answers. I will start with my name. I am known as the Lady Anna.”
Bowing his head slightly in acknowledgement, he said, “Very well, Lady Anna. Now, where do we go? The cavern holds no other unexpected guests, I hope!”
“It holds something infinitely superior, but even more deadly than occupants,” she said. “It holds possibilities!”
Wyynde sighed, wishing he had developed more of a fondness for abstract philosophical concepts. It was not the last time he would feel that way.
Back in the city of Mu, Arion’s allies were facing a threat of their own. One of the dragons dispersed by Arion’s mental command had gone wild and was now flying aimlessly over the city, creating panic in its wake.
Queen T’Gallah grunted in frustration as she saw the winged predator high overhead. She was not a typical aristocratic monarch, having spent years among a barbarian tribe beyond the Empire’s borders, and she possessed a rough and ready brawling, bawdy manner that left some courtiers aghast. She wore a leopard-skinned wrap around her hips and a copper-colored breastplate across her chest. She fingered a long spear, then hurled it skyward from the vantage point of a balcony outside the palace. The spear sliced through the dragon’s left wing, and the beast crashed down to the ground. She yelled in triumph as her guardsmen rushed out to finish off the crazed creature.
“Majesty, you have grounded the beast!” said Wing. “Now, perhaps, you will turn your attention to some diplomatic matters and allow the guardsmen to finish your noble work!” Wing was a small man in green who served loyally as royal adviser, spending more time than even he liked to admit in a ceaseless effort to get his queen to act more like a demure lady and not a two-fisted fighter.
The queen laughed loudly and slapped him on the back so hard that he staggered forward a step or two. “Well, Wing, I will heed your sound advice,” she said. “What is the matter that so concerns you?”
Smiling, he replied, “Queen T’Gallah, as you know, your late father ruled the Empire from the lost City of the Golden Gate, but he also had loyal vassals in place in the other cities. While Arion led us to reclaim long-abandoned Mu to replace our lost home, you still have to find a trusted administration for the city of Thamuz!”
She nodded sadly and said, “My late brother was a weakling, but he did rule Thamuz. I suppose I must find someone to perform in a royal capacity for me. I even wondered about our lost city itself. That sunken giant of a city is now nothing more than a vast sea of sorts. Could a type of floating government be established there upon those waters?”
Wing’s eyes widened as he contemplated the possibilities. “My Queen, I never imagined such a thing!” he said. “A ship or barge large enough to support a mobile government could indeed be based there and reduce the damage done to our commerce and trade by the loss of the city!”
Queen T’Gallah tried to lose herself in business of empire, since her heart ached for Wyynde. Due to Lady Anna’s enchantment, no one realized he had left the sick ward, and not even his lover had been able to see through the illusion left behind by the sorceress’ magic. The queen wrongly assumed the brave warrior was still trapped in the coma that had claimed him days before.
They continued their discussion while others tracked down the dragon.
Back in the streets of Mu, Lady Chian and Owyns raced through the scattering crowds, trying to reach the fallen dragon before it could do more damage.
Owyns was a lithe woman with delicate features beneath a row of jagged bangs. Her hair was bright red, and she wore a sleeveless top of black leather that matched her pants of the same fabric and hue. She moved swiftly and tirelessly, as befitted a member of her tribe of nomads. “Ye know, life here in the city is never dull! I rather like the challenges of livin’ among such civilized folks!” she said with a mocking smile.
Lady Chian, a petite but deadly woman from the Hoshan region, failed to smile back at the other warrior woman, but she nodded in agreement. “True!” she said. “No doubt your life in the outlands was tame compared to this!” As the Captain of the Royal Guards, she worked closely with Queen T’Gallah, Lieutenant Wyynde, and, most of all, with Arion. She and Arion were lovers, and she longed to see him safely returned to the city. Although she knew he was up to facing any threat, she preferred to be by his side when he did so.
Spotting the dragon, Chian nodded in approval. “The beast is injured,” she said. “Let’s finish it off swiftly. That would be a kindness to the creature as well as a necessary precaution!”
Owyns raised her own sword and said, “Well, never let it be said that I’m not in favor of mercy to dumb animals!” Rolling forward, she rose up directly beneath the dragon’s left side wing. A skillful slice of her sword removed the wing entirely as she cut along the line of T’Gallah’s spear thrust. She then flipped out of reach of the angry dragon as Lady Chian brought her own sword and a small dagger into play.
The two women managed to dodge the dragon’s claws and flames in a ballet of precision and skill. Neither of them said much as they grimly and relentlessly attacked the dragon. It roared and lunged forward to catch Owyns with the side of its massive, sinewy body.
Owyns cried out, cursing as she slid down beneath its raised claw. Before Lady Chian could get to her ally’s side, a white dragon dropped out of the sky and hurled the wounded dragon away from the women.
Lady Chian smiled in pleasure as the same dragon slammed the wild beast into the walls nearby, holding it down as Chian delivered a final killing thrust. “Mara, you arrived in the nick of time!” she said as the white dragon changed into a pretty girl with platinum blonde hair and a impish grin.
“Yeah?” said Mara. “I’m glad I got here in time! Visiting my old hometown of Thamuz was kinda sad and empty. With my father gone, there’s nothing left for me there but memories!”
“My thanks to ye, Mara!” said Owyns. “You are one dragon that is a welcome sight to these two eyes!”
“I heard the dragons went crazy!” said Mara. “You don’t think they are all shape-shifters, too, like me… and Dharel?” She referred to a musician whose soothing manner had seduced her long enough for the cult that he belonged to to take over her mind. That cult had been routed by Arion, and the shape-changing Dharel had died at Wyynde’s hands.
Lady Chian draped one arm over the girl’s shoulders and said, “No, Mara. I think that nightmare is behind us. Arion will tell us more when he returns.”
“When he returns?” said Mara. “Why don’t we go find him? He may need us!”
Chian nodded and said, “You make sense, girl! Let’s do just that! Arion may be more than mortal, but he is still my beloved, and I would gladly risk all for him!”
Mara nodded and thought to herself, You don’t know it, and I’m trying to hide it from you, but I feel the same way! Ever since Arion freed me from the cult, and our minds met in that telepathic bond, I’ve been crazy about him!
They hurried through the city in search of the missing mage.