Elrod the Nimble glanced behind him as he raced down the twisting streets of Mu. Seeing no sign of pursuit, he allowed himself a smile as he jumped over a gate to land in a cluttered alleyway full of trash but free of people. He leaned against the old gate and caught his breath as he lifted a money purse and tried to determine its contents by weight.
“This has been a good night’s work,” he said, putting the purse in his flared belt. “If I can stay clear of the royal guards and snatch a few more purses like this, then I can depart from this place and live like a nobleman in the more isolated parts of the empire!” He walked slowly down the alley and peered out to see nothing except the normal scenes of passersby on their way to or from their own activities.
Joining them, he mixed in with the crowd in moments. Elrod looked admiringly at a blonde woman in a filmy outfit of pink, but frowned as he saw her huge escort. The man, who weighed more than a small horse, glowered at Elrod with the silent menace so commonly found in those who came from Hoshan.
The thief bowed slightly before rushing away from the odd couple. By the Seven! he thought. These new natives who came from the sunken City of the Golden Gate are a strange lot! They come in every hue and size! Well, I’m more eager than ever to leave this place now. I may be a thief, but I have my standards! As he started to move forward, a shadow fell across his path, and he felt a rough hand grab his collar and lift him skyward with seemingly impossible ease.
“Do not struggle so, pick-purse!” said a uniformed man who held him tightly. “I would hate to see you smash your skull on the pavement below before the royal court can remove your head from your shoulders in due legal course!”
Elrod gulped as he realized that a guardsman on a huge green flying dragon was carrying him away. “And it had been such a promising day!” he sighed.
The guardsman laughed harshly and said, “Such days of lawlessness are over now! Queen T’Gallah has summoned many of us Dragon-Riders from Thamuz to keep order here in the new city royal, and that is what we intend to do!”
Within the royal palace itself, Queen T’Gallah expressed little pleasure at the news that her idea had been so successful. The tall and muscular black woman wore a long skirt of black with a brief top of gold. She nodded as her adviser Wing concluded his report. “The Dragon-Riders of Thamuz, though small in number, have been very useful in keeping order and peace in the city,” said the small man in green. “From the air on their winged dragons, they can see so much that escapes the notice of the grounded guardsmen. You may take pride in how much you have done to make this place a home for our exiles!”
Queen T’Gallah idly fingered one of the large hoop earrings she wore and said, “Wing, I thank you for your support. I need all the good news I can get at such a time as this!”
Wing nodded and said, “Lieutenant Wyynde still lives! There is hope for him yet. Arion has done much to heal his burns, and assures us that the coma is better than a waking agony.”
“I know it is true,” said Queen T’Gallah. “The high mage of Atlantis speaks from the heart, but he also visibly mourns for his friend and my lover. Arion may not be able to save Wyynde’s life, and I cannot stand to live without him!” Wing remained silent and stood ready as ever to serve his queen.
Within a sick room, Arion the high mage of Atlantis brooded beside the still form of his closest friend. Arion was a young-looking man with long auburn hair and piercing eyes, who wore a blue and red costume with a flowing blue cape, with a gleaming ruby gemstone resting on his chest. Presently he was gazing down sorrowfully at the injured Wyynde.
Wyynde was a tall and powerful man of the now lost Khe-Wannantu tribe. He retained his stolid good looks, since much of the damage done to his body during a battle with a shape-shifting parasite named Dharel had been healed by Arion’s magic. Still, there was an unseen damage, and this wound threatened to end the brave soldier’s life within a few hours.
Arion jumped to his feet as a lithe woman in green and gold entered and looked to him with expressive eyes. “Arion, my love, is there no change?” she asked softly.
Shaking his head, Arion said, “Lady Chian, I have nearly exhausted my resources. In spite of having more magical might at my command than ever before, I can do nothing to restore a man who has served me with a devotion and friendship I little expected or deserved to find.”
Lady Chian took his hand and kissed it as she tried to calm his anguish. “Arion, you may work miracles, but even you can only do so much,” she said. “Do not torment yourself with such regret and recriminations. Wyynde would not want you to do so.”
Arion drew back his hand and said, “Wyynde would not blame me, but I blame myself. I have been of no use to him in his many perils. I restored him to human form after the now-deceased technologist altered his very body, but I failed to restore his mind. That left him as a savage and uncaring brute and not the gentle and thoughtful warrior we once knew. Now I can do nothing to wake him to even life on that lesser level! I ask you, what value am I to those who call me friend?”
A pretty girl with platinum blonde hair stepped inside the room behind Lady Chian and said, “You can’t say stuff like that. That was the way I was talking while I was under the control of that creepy Kr’rth. Nobody blames you for Wyynde’s troubles. You have to stop beating yourself up like this!”
“Mara, I thank you for your kindness,” said Arion, “but I will not accept it until I have ventured one last attempt to save our friend.”
“Arion, I thought you said you couldn’t do anything more!” Mara replied.
“That is true,” said the high mage. “It is beyond my power to restore him, but there are higher powers, and I will risk all to make them do what I cannot!”
Meanwhile, as Arion made his bold vow to save his friend, the Dragon-Riders were resting near the dragon stables. The group of eight men and two women had formed a tight bond over their years of service. Most of them had seen action during the misguided raid on the City of the Golden Gate during the time the evil Garn Daanuth had enslaved the ruler of their city of Thamuz. They enjoyed a real sense of comradeship with one another and a rare rapport with the powerful creatures they rode so effortlessly. However, none of the other nine could truly relate to their most skillful member. He was a solitary warrior who kept to himself and projected a demeanor of distracted introspection.
Glynda, the ranking Dragon-Rider leader, had made overtures of friendship to the strange man named Thiron, but the bearded man with the oddly blank eyes had rejected her in his customary abrupt manner.
“We need nothing more from you than a professional relationship,” he had said. “Give us our orders, and we will do our part as ever we have!”
Glynda had turned on one high-heeled boot and stalked off. She was a capable leader, but she was also a very attractive woman, and was not used to being rejected in any manner. Now she left Thiron to follow whatever interests governed his off-duty activities, since she could not deny that the brown-haired man performed his duties better than any of her other riders.
Still, as young Gavanon came out of a dragon stall after feeding his steed, he shivered as he overheard Thiron whispering to his own dragon in a weirdly sibilant tone. “We will achieve the goals we had sought for so long,” he hissed, placing his head against the huge scaled head of his dragon. “We will make known our rightful position when it suits the master!”
Gavanon frowned and hurried away. There was nothing Thiron did that made sense to the boy or to the other riders.
Arion had wasted no time in trying to live up to his promise to find help for Wyynde. The tempestuous hero had bid farewell to Lady Chian, Queen T’Gallah, and Mara before invoking a magical spell that transported him far from the mortal realm along with the still form of the injured warrior.
The high mage materialized within an incredible hazy void where sweeping storms of sand and gusts of strangely visible black wind threatened to overcome him, until he enveloped himself and Wyynde within a sphere of magical energy.
By Calculha! The Darkworld has grown no more welcoming than when last I traveled within this mystical limbo, he thought. Still, I would gladly venture into climes still less stable to achieve my goal. Only here within the realm of origin of all magics may I find she who will be able to heal Wyynde! He knew that the ever-changing, whirling winds and altering landscape would have left other men helplessly bewildered, but he was Arion, and he was superior in every way.
A magical glyph hovering before him led him onward deeper into the dimension called Darkworld until he found a glistening gemstone.
“The Negative Gem itself! At last I have located it within this nebulous void. This gem was home to me during my years of maturation, and without that connection, my wanderings here might have been endless.”
Entering the shiny, gigantic gem, he found himself in an environment unlike any he had ever experienced before. “By Calculha! This was the one warm and safe spot within the Darkworld, as it should be still. However, I find it cold, dark, and devoid of the affectionate emotions of its natural occupant!”
Glancing over to where his magic supported and protected Wyynde, he saw that there was no change in the warrior. Arion frowned as he realized that the woman he had hoped would cure Wyynde was not in her home place within the Negative Gem.
“Strange! Jheryl, the goddess of nurture and healing, is not here,” he said. “She seldom departs from this gem or this vicinity, for even the Darkworld can pose no challenge to her sense of direction. It is not possible that she became lost, so what has happened to the closest thing to a mother I have ever known?”
Arion referred to the lovely goddess Jheryl, who embodied healing and nurturing. The raven-haired beauty had made the magical gem her home within the void, and she and her impish companion Ghy had raised and tutored Arion during his years of development when his essence had been exiled to the Darkworld.
Sitting down, Arion began to meditate. As he concentrated, an orb with the imprint of an ornate eye floated upward and hovered directly in front of his furrowed brow. “Eye of Ra, I command thee to seek out Jheryl, no matter where she wanders within this realm of stygian night or beyond!” he said.
The magical eye obeyed its master, and a light beam illuminated the void until the dimness began to fade away into a brilliant light.
This light vanished abruptly as the eye snapped shut, and Arion was jolted to the ground by a sudden impact. He pushed himself to his feet as the darkness around him assumed numerous humanoid forms. “The darkness of Darkworld has gained sentience!” he cried. “It divides and attacks me like an army of shadows!”
Arion felt a freezing sensation as one of the shadow creatures brushed against his arm. Drawing back, he shouted, “By the light that ever diminishes the night, so shall I reduce you to the nothingness from whence you came!” Arion’s magic exploded around him and shattered the army of shadows into diamond shaped fragments, which slowly re-formed and returned to attack him anew.
This may take some time I can little afford! he thought as he resumed his own defense.
Arion stood his ground as the shadow things swarmed closer, and their inhuman chill washed over him. “This is beyond belief! Jheryl’s home has been invaded by these things! The goddess herself is missing! What type of dire magic could have produced such horrors?”
Gesturing again and again, he shot out bolts of yellow fire to destroy the shadowy horde. “These things re-form after every defeat. I may shatter them again and again without tiring, but I weary of wasting precious time here when Jheryl is in danger, and Wyynde lies in peril!”
“Time is of little importance, mortal! After all, no matter how your kind protests against the coming of the final night, you all eventually become nothing more than shadows of a life since ended!” The voice seemed to come directly out of the semisolid darkness itself, but unlike the silent shadow creatures with their frigid manner, this voice was mocking and alive with vital emotions and a palpable malice.
Arion frowned as a tall, saturnine man with bright red hair and an elegantly shaped beard stepped literally out of a shadow to bow low before him. The man had arched eyebrows, and his reddish eyes gleamed with a dark humor. His clothing consisted entirely of a red and black robe that shifted hues between the two extremes from second to second.
“I am Malvolio of the Shadows. Welcome to my realm. This visit comes prematurely, since you still possess the thrilling warmth of the living. However, my rough and ready spawn will accommodate you by chilling the very marrow of your bones until you fit in nicely in this silent realm! To do any less would brand me as a poor host, and that would make me no better than my brothers and sisters among the Host of Twilight, we who are called the Shadow-Gods!”