In a strange world within the Dragonsword itself, Arion was battling a dragon as well. He spoke confidently as his magic flashed around him, and bolts of power rained down on the coiled green dragon as he lunged up at the floating mage. “You live within this realm inside the sword, and it is your malice that has turned Thiron to the service of the Shadow-Gods,” said Arion. “I have little doubt that, once I exorcise your foul spirit from the blade, he will be a different man!”
The dragon roared and blasted out with an intense burst of flame. Arion deflected the fires with a mystical shield for a moment, but fell back as the dragon’s power shattered the shield into fragments, then melted the wizard to ashes.
Exulting in its victory, the dragon hissed, “Nothing and no one may challenge me within my own realm!” His gloating ended abruptly when magical white light penetrated his body and exploded from within. His spirit dissolved like mist, and Arion came back into view.
“And yet your realm’s reality is subject to change at the whim of one mightier still!” said the high mage, emerging from the sword. “A simple phantasmic image of my death was enough to lull you into lowering your guard! That was to be expected from one as egotistical as you were!” Arion stood over a now-tranquil Thiron. His magical containment of the warrior had been broken earlier, but now the bearded man was still and seemed oddly quiet.
Bending over him, Arion noticed that he was staring straight ahead with vacant eyes. “Thiron?” he said. “He is not responding. I fear the dragon’s destruction has left him devoid of his faculties!”
“He will be fine again when we give him this!” said a voice from thin air as Lady Anna and Wyynde appeared before Arion.
“Wyynde, my friend!” gasped Arion. “How is it you are well again?”
Clasping hands with his friend, Wyynde said, “This lady healed me, and in return I helped her achieve her goal of obtaining this!” He held out a sword with an ornate hilt, carefully placing it in the hands of the staring Thiron.
“Poor Thiron!” said Lady Anna. “I assure you he will be well in a few moments!” Arion glanced in amazement at the newcomers and the dazed warrior called Thiron. “I would not have him go from enslavement to one dark force from another!”
The blonde woman smiled and said, “Arion, forgive my cryptic conduct. I am his benefactress from old!”
Wyynde shrugged and said, “Lord Arion, she speaks in riddles! I have yet to gain a direct answer from her!”
Thiron now spoke, and for the first time his voice sounded fully human. “She always was a mystery to me as well! Her deceptions were part of what led me to refuse to serve her cause on my own world!”
“That sword you gave him seemed to revive him,” said Arion. “Will he revert to his dazed condition without that blade? Have you merely exchanged one magical talisman for another?”
Lady Anna smiled and helped Thiron get to his feet. “Speak for yourself, my friend!” she said.
Thiron shook his head and said, “By the Balance, I am myself again for the first time since shortly after leaving the School of Battles on King’s Isle. Lady Anna, I would not serve you before, and that stubbornness led me to fall directly into the clutches of that demonic Dragonsword!”
“I am to blame as well,” said Lady Anna the archmage. “I should have been candid with you from the start. I have regretted my actions, and this quest was my way of making up for it. Will you forgive me?”
Thiron took her hand and said, “Aye! I will do so. I ask only that my own misdeeds be forgiven by these people!”
“We do not blame you for what the dragon spirit made you do,” said Arion. “Again I do ask that Lady Anna explain the reason she gave you yon sword.”
“That sword is known as Dragontear,” she replied. “It comes from a dragon who serves the Balance. I only acquired it since I knew it would restore you after noble Arion freed you from the thrall of the original dragon.”
“You knew of my actions before I ventured to do them,” said Arion. “You healed Wyynde when all my own resources failed! Just who are you, Lady Anna?”
“I embodied Order and the Balance upon a world not unlike this one,” said Lady Anna. “I have come here, since my own world no longer needs me, and this one does!”
“And yet you said you came to help me?” said Thiron. “Is there no easy truth to be had from you?”
She laughed and said, “Can the truth ever be easy? Is not all of life a balance betwixt shade and light?”
“You restored my friend, and I thank you for it,” said Arion. “Now, Thiron, can you tell me of the other dragons? Are you still in control of them?”
“I may direct them via the sword Dragontear!” he said. “I feel as though it will allow me to do so, but will not give me the power to become a dragon as did the accursed sword you destroyed!”
“Such was my desire,” said Lady Anna. “Good Wyynde, here, earned the blade when I could not! You see, Magisar the Dragon weighed Wyynde in the balance and found him to be so noble and his past suffering so great that he granted us this sword Dragontear and the purification that came with it!”
Thiron turned to Wyynde and said, “Then surely this blade is yours and not mine!”
Wyynde shook his head. “It was my past suffering that earned the blade, and thus it is mine to do with as I choose. I gladly give it to you, with the request that you use it for the good of Atlantis!”
“Well put!” said Arion. “I agree. Will you join our cause and continue to fight for the Empire?”
Thiron extended his hand and said, “I will! I will gladly risk life and limb to redeem myself for untold years of enslavement to that foul blade!”
“Then this day’s work was worthwhile!” said Arion.
Lady Chian, Owyns, and Mara rushed up at that moment and greeted Arion and Wyynde with excitement and surprise in their expressions. “Arion, I am glad to see you well,” said Lady Chian. “I am even happier to see Wyynde back on his feet!”
Wyynde smiled and said, “I am myself again, and eager to return to service!”
Mara hesitated for a minute as she gazed at up Wyynde. “Big guy, I’m happy to see you, too!” she said.
Wyynde leaned closer and said, “Mara, I am glad to hear that. I am also sorry for the way I acted when I was still trapped with the instincts of an animal! I remember what I did and said as though I witnessed it all through a nightmare!”
“Thanks!” she said. “I guess I always knew you weren’t to blame. You’re just not that kinda guy!”
“The dragons are returning!” said Owyns.
“I’ve summoned them back, and they will obey the commands of the Dragon-Riders again!” explained Thiron. “I wonder if there is still a place for me in that group.”
“I think I might have an idea that would make you both of use to Queen T’Gallah!” said Arion.
Meanwhile, Claw the Unconquered had entered the highest chamber within the tower, and he found himself facing a strange man with a palpable menace about him. He was taller than Claw and much broader than a normal man. His hair was long and black, and his eyes were deep-set and reptilian in appearance.
“I am Duke Wyvern! My brethren in the Shadow-Gods have told me about you, Claw! You carry a bit of our power beneath yon red gauntlet! Many of them see you as a potential champion for our cause. As for me, I think I’d rather just kill you and roast your corpse upon yon hearth!” He gestured to where a huge fire blazed beneath a bubbling cauldron. A red liquid hissed and popped within the huge pot.
“The only dining that will be done here will happen when I make you eat your words!” vowed Claw, charging forward and whirling his sword until it came down on the bigger man’s arm.
“Your weapon burns me, but it does nothing to seriously injury me,” said Duke Wyvern as he simply removed Moonthorn from his arm and stepped backward to confront Claw. “I’m immune to most weapons, and that is why I have never lost a battle. My brethren see me as a brute because I prefer simple bloodshed to their scheming. Still, I do my part for our cause, and your death will prove that!” Duke Wyvern laughed and lunged for Claw, immediately catching him, then beginning to crush him in a powerful embrace.
Claw struggled as he felt his feet leave the ground. He had lost any leverage that a good position might have granted him. He kicked and twisted until he had managed to pry himself free from the bigger man’s grip. He also connected with a series of blows, but none of them slowed down his savage enemy.
“You can’t harm me!” roared Duke Wyvern. “No mortal can! Nothing mortal can!”
Claw scowled and glanced around the room. “My weapon will not harm you, but perhaps your own foul brew will do the trick!” Removing his gauntlet, he allowed the demonic furred hand to reach out and grasp Duke Wyvern by his throat. Straining for a moment, he then managed to hurl the Shadow-God backward into the bubbling cauldron.
Wyvern shrieked in agony as the toxic mixture in the huge vat began to boil him. “The dragon fire can harm me!” he screamed. “It comes from non-mortal sources!”
Claw ignored the heat and continued to hold the now-frightened being down. By the gods! he thought. If this other-dimensional brew can kill him, then perhaps it can free me of the curse I carry as well! Plunging his inhuman hand deeper into the red liquid, he felt it begin to scorch away his monstrous hand.
The pain nearly left him senseless, but he resisted the urge to quit, and he kept the hand under the burning liquid until Wyvern ceased to struggle and his own hand had melted away along with the bone. He fell to his knees and gasped in pain. The room dimmed before his eyes, and he passed out.
Much later, when Claw opened his eyes, he found himself back in Mu in the royal palace’s medical chambers. Arion sat beside his bed and waited for him to awaken. “Valcan!” said the high mage. “By Calculha, you were out for a long time! I feared you might slumber until another ice age comes again!”
Claw frowned and sat up rapidly as he gazed down at his red gauntlet and noticed several notable changes. “By the Seven! My gauntlet is now a hand? Someone has turned it into a fully fingered hand!”
“That was my doing,” said Arion. “When I realized that your inhuman hand was gone, I acted swiftly to fashion a substitute. I realized the advantages a hand made completely of magic-resistant oraculum could be to you, so I used my magics to craft one!”
Claw closed the fingers of the reddish hand and said, “Magic-resistant? Then this hand will give me some protection from magical beings or spells, as did the gauntlet of old! But surely that solution will fail when the spell makes the hand return yet again. I fear it will return if it regenerates from the wound left where I burned off the previous one!”
“It will not return in this realm,” said Arion. “That spell applied to you only in your native realm. As long as you do not return to that world, then your infernal hand will never return!”
Grasping Arion’s arm, the barbarian said, “I did not trust you when first we met, mage. I have been betrayed by many so-called allies, and I’ve been a pawn to other forces of both good and evil intent. I lack the words to thank you properly, but I do say that I owe you greatly and will repay the debt, should you ever call!”
“You sound like you are leaving Mu,” said Arion. “I take it you will continue your quest to hunt down all beings from the Shadow-God’s realm and slay them. I intend to oppose them as well, and try to locate our missing gods and goddesses, but I will remain based here in the heart of the Atlantean Empire!”
Claw nodded and said, “We will both serve the same cause, and we will meet again, my friend!” He had begun to leave the room when he turned and said, “Arion, how did you find me in the tower? Was it some spell of your devising?”
Arion shook his head and said, “I did not find you. Wing told me that a woman brought you here. She seems to have departed while you were being treated.”
Claw frowned as he once again saw the phantom-like image of the Lady Trysannda, even as he also recalled once more Shalieka of the Rose.
I have a feeling this woman will find me again, and then I will have the answers I seek! thought Claw the Unconquered as he walked away from the palace. He was correct, for his quest had just begun.