Leaping forward at the warlord of Hyssa, Atlas sent his warriors crashing to the ground on either side as he made his way toward his enemy. Casually catching and shoving sword strokes away from his body, he ignored the blows from maces and morning stars as if he was made of metal himself.
“He fights like a tiger!” cried Hyssa as Atlas connected with a mighty punch that knocked a burly soldier cold.
“You killed my father, you miserable worm!” shouted Atlas. “You killed my father!”
Hyssa smiled and said, “I’ve killed many fathers in my time. For that matter, I’ve killed mothers as well. Do you have a point?”
Atlas jumped into the air and tackled the armored figure, sending him reeling off the back of his horse as he began to pummel him with both fists.
“Stop! Let the warlord go, or we’ll kill your friend!” cried a soldier as he held a dagger to Chagra’s bony neck.
Atlas frowned and slammed the warlord’s head against the ground before backing away from him. “Let him go!” he cried. “He has nothing to do with this!”
The soldiers surrounded him, and one continued to keep a firm hold on Chagra. “Come with us to the keep, or we’ll slit his throat,” the soldier said. “For that matter, make any trouble, and we’ll kill the women as well!” He gestured to where the other soldiers had taken captive a number of young women from the crowd.
“You swine! You cowardly pack of serpents! I’ll obey you. Don’t hurt these people!” said a grim Atlas as he raised his hands, allowing the soldiers to bind him and force him into a march to a large keep outside of the city.
The warlord of Hyssa had been helped to his feet and then to his horse. Riding at the head of the group, he glanced backward at Atlas from time to time. I know those burning eyes! he thought. I think this brute is the wild child who once attacked me! I’ve never forgotten that whelp’s raw strength!
Chagra scowled in dismay as he found himself a helpless captive. He had made a career out of avoiding peril, having always managed to leave any act of danger to his brawny ally, and he bitterly resented being caught in the middle now.
I’ve never had any real affection for Atlas, but I’ve always pretended to be his loyal servant, since I’d hoped to profit by his inhuman strength or his mysterious past, he thought in despair. He vowed to take me to the Crystal Mountain where that gem of his originated. Why couldn’t I have insisted that he perform that task before I told him where to find those who wear the serpent crest?
Sighing, he recalled his first encounter with such a gemstone. I was a boy in the marketplace when my old uncle paid a good price for a crystalline sphere brought into his stall by a rugged brute of a man, he mused. He told me that such a gemstone had to have magical power if utilized by one with the gift of arcane conjuration. I remembered that and vowed to find other crystals and those who possessed them. When I reached adulthood, I managed to locate other gems of that type, but in every case their owners had bartered them away or lost them to thieves.
I learned nothing more than the fact that the crystals came from a fabled mountain range, but no man could tell me more or help me find such a range. I did learn that the people of the Crystal Mountain were few in number and scattered across the globe. They were a strange lot, and little was known of them, except that they alone could find the mountain that spawned their own individual crystals. I thought my fortune was made when I saw Atlas bring out that crystal, but my hope that he would lead me to others of his race never came true. Thus, I decided to profit from him once and for all and be done with his life of constant heroics! Now, it seems, I’ve waited too long.
Atlas was concerned about the gaunt man he viewed as a friend, and he also felt pity for the terrified women who found themselves enslaved by the fiendish warlord of Hyssa. He admired a fiery redheaded woman who wore a filmy pink tunic and slippers. She showed no sign of fear, even though she was as helpless as her peers. He allowed the soldiers to push him forward into a rounded pit within the heart of the old keep. Landing on his feet, he looked around, but the light was dim, and he could see little.
“You’ll pay for your actions, knave!” shouted Hyssa from above. “You’ll feed my pet, and I’ll watch your death with pleasure!”
Torchlight quickly illuminated the top of the pit, and Atlas saw the grinning warlord and his men watching from around the top. “The only thing that I’ll feed is my desire to see your corpse!” cried Atlas.
The strongman knew that, in time, he could climb out of the pit. All he had to do was form climbing holes with his powerful hands. He had performed such feats before in other deadly situations. Still, he suspected something more immediate had to be done before he could avenge his old losses.
“Where is the monster?” he said with a mocking smile. “There’s always a monster in this kind of spectacle. Let me slay it and be on my way!”
The warlord of Hyssa scowled and said, “Laugh when your allies suffer for your words!” He gestured, and his men shoved Chagra and the red-haired beauty into the pit.
Rushing forward, Atlas caught the girl in his arms as Chagra landed nearby. “I fear I was too slow to soften both your falls!” he said with a shrug.
Chagra rubbed his arm and said, “Yes, very amusing, Atlas. I’ll smile at the memory of this moment… when we’re away from this infernal pit!”
“What is your name, girl?” said Atlas.
“I am called Lana,” she said. “Please, can you help me? I’ve never faced such a frightening crisis in my life!”
“I have faced many a fight, and none of them have even left me scarred, except for one from my childhood,” said Atlas. “Those scars can’t be seen, but believe me, they are felt to this day!” Hearing a roar, he saw a green-skinned humanoid figure rear up on its legs to tower over him. The creature seemed to lack any obvious eyes or ears, but its open mouth and long tongue could be seen clearly. “Cosmos!” he said. “That thing is ugly!”
He jumped forward and felt the creature’s snaking tongue wrap around his wrist. The tongue burned as it touched his skin, and he gritted his teeth as he placed his hands around it, using it to physically drag the beast down to his level. He punched it again and again, noticing with confident pleasure how it staggered and finally fell after he landed another strong blow. “Your wife is indisposed, warlord!” he taunted. “Come down and revive her!”
The warlord of Hyssa scowled as his own men snickered at the remark. “Kill him! Rain down your spears, and end his witless prattle!” he cried. The guards stepped to the edge of the pit and raised their spears.
“I’d better end this swiftly,” said Atlas, “before one as pretty as you or as vain as Chagra gets hurt!” He bent over the fallen creature and, in a remarkable show of raw power, lifted it over his head and hurled into out of the pit and on top of the row of soldiers. “Now, while they try to free one another, let’s make haste and leave this pit!” he said.
Slamming his fist into the wall, he left a hole, then made a second one a bit higher along the wall, and used the holes to climb higher, where he could make additional holes with smashing blows. After he reached the top, he grabbed a chain from a wall turret and used it to pull both Chagra and Lana to freedom.
A swift kick sent a soldier reeling while he completed his task. He spun the chain around and around, using it to clear his path until he stood before the cornered warlord of Hyssa. “I will not beg for mercy, nor will I try to buy my life!” said Hyssa. “Kill me and be cursed for it, you savage!”
“I have never killed except in battle,” said Atlas. “Raise your sword and face me!”
The warlord nodded and said, “Very well. No man may call me coward!” He swung at the bare-chested warrior and gasped as Atlas shattered the blade with one precise swing of his arm.
Atlas gripped the struggling warlord by the throat and lifted him off the ground. “Your pet is stirring. I’ll let him finish you off. You’ve earned that kind of slow death!” he said, hurling the beaten warlord of Hyssa at the rising form of the green creature. It snatched him with its elongated tongue and swallowed him in one gulp.
Nodding at the sight, Atlas said, “A fitting way for such a man to go. Digested by one even more reptilian than himself!”
“Aye!” said Chagra. “Now, let us be away from here! His men are still at large, and they will catch us when we depart from this section.”
“No!” said Atlas. “You may leave, but I have a final task to accomplish ere I go. He has other prisoners here, and I will free them or die trying!”
The man in the red hood and tunic charged forward and, grabbing a wall of bars, ripped them away from the wall. He yelled into the cells beyond as he pinned approaching troops behind the huge metal frame. “Come! Your day of freedom is at hand! Do not fear the serpents of Hyssa! They will trouble you no more!” Cheers echoed as dozens of men and women ran out of the vast number of cells below.
Apparently, the ex-slaver had not forsaken his passion for human commodities! thought Atlas.
Lana clutched his arm and said, “Atlas, take us with you! We need someone like you!”
Atlas stared at the woman for a moment as he continued to lead the freed captives out of the keep. Finally, he said, “Lana, you are all welcome to follow me. I am about to take Chagra to the Crystal Mountain. Should you wish to go there, you may do so!”
Lana hurriedly conferred with the others as they departed from the keep. All it took was a few well-placed blows from Atlas to dissuade the remaining troops from trying to stop their passage.
A black man in a blue tunic stepped forward from the crowd. “Atlas, I am Garis. We would gladly join you. Our own villages are no more. The warlord of Hyssa burned them when he captured us. What can you tell us of the Crystal Mountain?”
“When I was a child, my father told me that this crystal was a sign of my heritage, and that it would lead me to the Crystal Mountain if I so desired,” explained Atlas. “He urged me to always keep it safe.”
Chagra sputtered in surprise. “You mean that crystal is a talisman of some type?” he asked. “The ones I found before did nothing for me! They must truly be some arcane work that will only respond to the touch of one of your kind. Why did you not use it to find that place when you were a child?”
“I never had a reason to do so,” said Atlas. “My life until this point has been dedicated to preparing myself for finding and slaying the man who killed my parents. I knew he was not in the remote regions, since his career of plunder required him to be based around some city!”
Lana took his hand and said, “We will all join you. You’ve freed us, and we want a leader and a new home. You could provide us with both!”
Atlas smiled and said, “So be it!”
Leading the group to the stables, he instructed them to saddle the horses found within. One swift punch dropped a protesting guard, and Atlas soon led his new band of followers out of the city.
“Won’t the guards follow us?” asked Chagra, glancing nervously over his shoulder.
Atlas laughed and said, “Those jackals? They will be far too busy fighting each other for the right to replace their late leader! In any case, let them follow. I’ll serve them in the same manner I dealt with their warlord!”
The group traveled for many days through rugged terrain before finally emerging above an open plain.
Chagra whispered to Atlas, “Atlas, what folly is this? We are no closer to mountains than when we started! Our food is running out as well! The game with which we restocked our supplies may not even be available on such a barren plain!”
Atlas scowled and raised the crystal over his head. “My father told me how to use this crystal when the time was right!” he said. “Watch, and hold your tongue!”
The crystal caught the light of the sun, and suddenly the barren plain gleamed as what had appeared to be empty space was revealed as a long range of shining crystalline formations. “By the cosmos! It was there all the time!” said Lana in astonishment. “Only that gem brought it into view!”
“Aye!” said Atlas. “That explains why no man could find it except for one of my race who knew how to work the crystals!”
“I could live as a sultan with the gold those crystals could bring me!” said Chagra.
“I fear that fate has other plans for that formation!” said Atlas.
“Atlas, it’s alive!” cried Garis.
The whole range shuddered and began to move as the massive structure rose out of the ground, looming high above them as previously concealed parts of the shining formation emerged from beneath the ground. “That’s not a mountain!” said Garis. “It appears to be a craft of some type!”
Atlas frowned and said, “Cosmos! It is some strange contrivance!” Running forward, he stopped as the crystalline structure parted to reveal a doorway. He entered and saw a recessed spot in the middle of the chamber. Placing his own small crystal fragment on the area, he saw a light flash to reveal a flickering image of a beautiful blonde woman in a light blue outfit.
“Some type of unholy phantasm!” said Lana as she moved inside after Atlas.
“It is a ghost!” whispered Garis.
“Nay!” said Atlas. “It is one of my people! I feel that to be true!”
“At long last, we have received a signal from the lost spacecraft!” the woman said. “It was not destroyed in passage as we thought!” She appeared to be standing elsewhere in a pastoral setting, and her words were addressed to some unseen person in her own realm.
Looking forward again, she said, “Lost travelers, we rejoice that, at long last, you have managed to repair your signal device and communicate with us. We deemed you all to have been lost to the forces we have opposed for so long. Dread Steppenwolf’s legions did not claim you after all!”
“Lady, I am Atlas. My ancestors came from your realm. I feel this to be true. You say they came here in this strange means of movement?”
“Yes!” she said. “You do have the look of our race — noble, strong, brave! Good sir, know that your ancestors left our world on a mission of peace in a time of war. They were attacked, and we thought they had been destroyed. ‘Tis now apparent that the primitive matter-threshold device they were testing allowed them to shunt themselves to a new world entirely. We searched for them, but gave up as war pressed us at every side. We later abandoned the matter-threshold for a new device!”
“Atlas comes from another world!” said Chagra. “That explains his inhuman power!”
“My father and mother and their friends must have separated on this world to find a way to return,” said Atlas. “They lived and died here, since none of them knew how to restore their craft. Why was that?”
“Because it was only a short time ago, as we measure time, that a brilliant ally found a way of creating a means by which any who used the threshold craft that brought your ancestors to your realm could possibly reach us,” said the lovely blonde. “He sought to do so as a purely intellectual achievement, but it has brought us joy. Now let us use the Boom Tube that replaced the crystal craft in which you stand to bring you home!”
Atlas frowned as he felt the crowd of followers gazing at him. “No!” he said. “I will remain here with these people. They need me, and I will not leave them. I wish you well, but my place is here. I will never join you, lady. Tell me, though, what is your name, and who were my people?”
She nodded sadly and said, “I am Lady Avia, and this is New Genesis! Fare well, noble Atlas. You will never leave our memories or hearts!” The image faded away, and Atlas turned to embrace Lana.
“I am home now,” he said. “Let us settle this empty land and make it a home for us and our people!”