Even as Arion and Wyynde were involved in desperate missions, one of their newfound allies was fighting for his life as well. His name was Valcan, but he was better known as Claw the Unconquered, and the situation was nothing new to him. The brawny warrior had long black hair, a reddish complexion, and, most striking of all, a gauntlet of red that covered one of his hands.
None of these details mattered to the gang of thugs who had jumped him outside a tavern in the city of Thamuz. The brigands were far more concerned with simply staying alive as they realized Claw was a force to be reckoned with.
Scowling, he swung his sword Moonthorn in a spinning arc that sliced open three of the thugs before they could even reach him with their own drawn swords. He grunted and jumped forward to knock another blade out of a warrior’s outstretched hand before ramming his shoulder into the man’s stomach.
Hefting the man over his head, he hurled him into his allies before stopping to glance around and take stock of the situation. “By the Balance, a man cannot walk the streets these days without running afoul of a band of rats!” he said. “Luckily, I am carrying my own brand of pest control!”
A bald man with a jagged scar across his face shouted, “Jest while you may, barbarian! What you carry makes you a target! We want that fine blade of yours! It will fetch a pretty price!”
Claw grinned slightly and said, “You want Moonthorn? Well, you shall have it to your fill!” Lunging forward, he impaled the man before he could raise his own sword. With a deftness born of far too many battles, Claw withdrew his sword and blocked an attack from a fat black man.
“You are a large man to carry such a small brain! Surely the fate that downed your allies is clear enough to teach you better sense!” scoffed Claw as he punched the man in the face, leaving him stunned at his feet.
Suddenly, Claw’s gauntlet-covered hand reached out with lightning speed and caught a tossed dagger. “What madness is this? I haven’t removed the gauntlet, and still the infernal hand acts with a will of its own!” he muttered as he charged into the remaining three thugs, scattering them with a display of blindingly fast swordplay.
Standing over the bodies, he shook his head. “What a waste of life! With the Shadow-Gods spreading their malice into this dimension after I drove them from my former home, these idiots little suspect the danger they are in! Every stunt like this delays me from saving their world for them!”
Staring at his red gauntlet, Claw said, “I carry the demonic hand of the shadow spawn, and that makes me do things I would never do of my own free will. Still, if I can resist the urges it brings to me, I may use this cursed hand to kill the Shadow-Gods before they can conquer this realm. That is my vow, and that is what I intend to do!”
Waiting a moment, he saw his elegant sword glow with a white light. “Moonthorn’s light tells me I am near magic. That is good. I left Arion behind to track down the other-dimensional evil his spell detected in this realm, and so I shall!”
Claw stalked forward through the streets of Thamuz, ignoring the stares of the curious, the fearful, and the lustful. As he made his way along the city streets, he saw an image flash before his eyes for a moment before fading away. She haunts me still! he thought. What is the meaning of this ghostly vision? Why does she plague me thusly? He referred to a recurring dream or vision that started appearing to his waking mind when he first entered the world of Arion’s Atlantis. Claw had been trapped and lost within a magical dimension known as the Darkworld for an indefinite amount of time. Time itself was meaningless in that weird place in which the magic of this world originated. He had entered that realm in pursuit of the Shadow-Gods, whom he had driven out of his own world. He knew that, even with his impressive resources, he might still be lost in that ever-changing, multi-dimensional void had the mage of Atlantis not brought him to this world.
He felt as if the land of Pytharia and the rest of the world he had left no longer needed him since he had freed it of the Shadow-Gods. He also had no sentimental attachment to a place he had, in truth, only experienced for a short time, having been taken to yet another realm when he was an orphaned infant by powerful beings known as the Gods of Elder Light. They had trained him to be a master of every form of combat, they had equipped him with both the magical sword Moonthorn and a red gauntlet of magic-defying oraculum, which he used to suppress the evil impulses of the inhuman furred and clawed hand that had been his since birth. (*)
[(*) Editor’s note: See “Long Die N’hglthss,” Claw the Unconquered #9 (September-October, 1976).]
He remembered the Gods of Elder Light had been manipulative, and he had found himself used as a pawn in one struggle after another upon returning to his birth realm for the first time since his infancy. Thus he carried no real love for the place, and he cared little about the few differences that he had found in Atlantis and his old home.
“Home? That word is hollow to me,” he said, brooding. “I’ve never known a home. The Gods of Elder Light were nothing more than teachers who saw me as a living weapon who could hurt their foes with power drawn from their own resources. My parents died before I could know them or the world around me. What home can there ever be for me?”
Still, once more the image came to him. She was a beautiful woman with delicate features and long, flowing, silvery platinum blonde hair. Her violet eyes were expressive and soulful, and her movements were graceful, alluring, and confident. She wore what would be called a bikini in another age and time. The garment was beaded with costly and rare minute gems, and her translucent skirt revealed more than it covered, though it reached below her thigh-high silver boots. A gleaming tiara rested among her shining locks of hair. She gazed at Claw with affectionate, even imploring eyes, and he almost recalled something more. A name? Her name?
“Trysannda?” he whispered.
Claw rubbed at his eyes and moved faster. He couldn’t identify the woman. He had never met her, yet she seemed so real to him. Perhaps his departure from one realm to another had driven him mad.
The barbarian stopped in his tracks as the light from his sword increased, and he gazed upward at a tower that reached far above the rest of the city. “That tower contains a Shadow-God, or one of their spawn,” he said. “My mission is simple. I will kill them all before they can flee or triumph here. It may take me years to accomplish, but I will achieve that goal!”
He did not know that tower had once been occupied by one who hated Arion like no other. He did not know the mad mage of Mu had used many such towers during his one-hundred thousand years of tyranny and evil. In truth, Claw, being Claw, did not care.
Lady Anna and Wyynde had penetrated deep into the cavern, and the blonde woman had indicated that they should stop for a moment. “Wyynde, this may appear to be an empty cavern devoid of life or purpose, but in truth a great magical power is at work to create exactly that impression,” she said. “I wager yon troll never knew his shelter from winter storms housed a world of possibilities!”
Wyynde nodded and replied, “You said as much before, Lady Anna. Now, could you please share some of those possibilities with me?”
Laughing, she placed one small, dainty hand on Wyynde’s brawny arm as she said, “Oh Wyynde, you do amuse me! I can say no more. What will happen next is entirely up to the one who governs this portal!”
Wyynde frowned as he searched around the cavern to find anything, however small, that could serve as a portal. He saw nothing, yet he expected that to be the case. Nothing had been easy or clear since Lady Anna had entered his life.
They waited for what seemed to be hours, but might have been mere minutes, and then everything altered. “By the Seven! What is this place?” whispered Wyynde as he found himself alone in a new and startlingly different place. No longer did bare cavern walls surround him. Instead, he saw a wide open expanse with a blue sky above and a gentle breeze wafting over him. There were trees, wildlife, and birds, and no sign of the confined cavern of before. Neither could Lady Anna be seen.
Wyynde scowled even as he admired the beauty of the place. He had traveled through magical means before when in the company of Arion, and thus he was not entirely confused or surprised by what had occurred. He raised his hands defensively and longed for his lost sword as a giant figure emerged from the forest to stand before him.
The dragon towered above him, sunlight gleaming off of its many golden scales. It gazed down at him with hypnotic eyes that seemed to look directly into his mind and heart. It did not make any movement of attack or flight. Obviously, the dragon felt no need for either when faced with such a puny being based on its own vast size.
Wyynde slowly reached for his crossbow, then dropped the weapon to the ground. Something inside, some warrior’s instinct, something that appealed to his basic sensitive nature, led him to choose not to face the dragon in any spirit of aggression. He stood his ground as the dragon came closer, and the ground itself shook as it moved.
“I am Magisar! I have allowed you to enter my domain in order to test you. Should you prove worthy, you will depart again. Should you fail, then you will also depart, although you will be in no condition to care!”
The words echoed in his mind as the dragon’s hypnotic eyes burned into him.
Claw had made his way into the tower without encountering any offensive force. He wondered if that was due to a lack of care on the part of the occupant, or if it was merely designed to lull him off his guard. “Shalieka would call me a fool by venturing in without first determining how many foes await me, but then the Warrior Princess of the Rose always had a dim view of my way of thinking. Odd how she comes to my mind now after so long a time apart!”
He recalled Shalieka of the Rose. The female warrior had been leading her army against the Shadow-Gods when Claw had found himself facing the very demon whose inhuman hand had been magically grafted upon the arm of every male descendant of the ancestor who had first found himself bound to the monster. That demon’s own furry arm ended in the human hand of one of Claw’s ancestors, and since the family curse had first come into being, the monster had vowed to find and end the life of the mortals who dared usurp his limb.
Thus Claw had vowed to kill the monster and rid himself of the curse once and for all. The Gods of Elder Light had promised him that a victory in that battle would result in the freedom of their world from the dark forces that had plagued them for so long. Claw had readily accepted the challenge, since he knew of no other way to be free of his long nightmare.
Slicing off the hand did nothing to help me, he had thought. It returned and magically reattached itself to me not long afterwards! If I am to live with this curse, then I will do so free of the fiends who torment me!
Shalieka had witnessed his battle against that demon, and unlike the typical woman he had encountered in his time out of the realm of Light, she neither fled from the scene, nor expressed either admiration for Claw or tried to betray him. Rather, the beautiful warrior woman had lowered her large oval shield with the symbol of the Rose emblazoned upon its gleaming front. She had lowered her bloodied sword, and she had gazed at both Claw and the monster with dark, deep-set eyes that flashed with contempt.
“Enough! Your way is futile!” she had said in her booming voice. “Only a second magic ritual can undo what the first had caused. I — Shalieka — know the proper ceremony, but the outcome is unpredictable — one of you may die, I know not which.”
Claw and the purple-hued demon had readily agreed to follow the terms of the ritual, and in moments, after the black-haired warrior woman had performed the spell, the two had attacked each other with a fierceness unseen among the other combatants.
The barbarian had moved with the instinct of a proven hero. Taking a dagger, he sliced off the demon’s human hand. That one gesture brought him victory over the demon, and more importantly broke the hold the Shadow-Gods had on him, or so he had thought. (*) With their champion defeated and rotting in death, surely they had lost their hold on him. He was free. At long last, Valcan could be Claw no more.
[(*) Editor’s note: See “The Curse of the Claw,” Warlord #48 (August, 1981) and “Hands Across the Hells,” Warlord #49 (September, 1981).]
Claw was suddenly celebrated as a champion, a liberator, and even a king, if he so desired. He had heard the cheers of the army that followed the battle maiden, and he allowed himself to be led into the capital city as a hero.
He came to know Shalieka, and he grew to respect her, even though her acidic tongue and almost insufferable ego grated upon him at times. Their friendship never grew into anything more, though, because only days into his time as ruler, he came to realize that his old impulses still came to him.
The Shadow-Gods were gone, yet he still found that terrible hand drawing him onward to acts of violence and cruelty that were alien to his nature. He had angrily turned to Shalieka and asked her to explain how such a thing could be so, and she had displayed a softer side for once. Through sorrowful eyes and a remorseful tone, she confessed the truth.
“Valcan, I led my army against the Shadow-Gods, yet there is something about me you do not know,” she had told him. “It was through a pact with them that I gained that army to begin with! I rebelled against them and sought their defeat when I found myself feeling as if my life had been devoid of meaning. That was how I knew of the ritual that would allow you to slay the demon. I only drew upon knowledge that came from my former masters. You see, I served them for many years before repenting of my lifestyle of death!”
“I care nothing for your past,” Claw had said. “I’ve found betrayal at every hand all my life. What matters how you started your career, since you ended it on the side of Light?”
“You misunderstand me,” she replied. “I only knew that ritual because, in the moment of battle, the words and the way came to me. It was not something I had learned before that instant. The Shadow-Gods themselves spoke to me, and I listened. Although I had defied them to the point of leading an army against them, I still obeyed their commands.”
“You mean, you wanted me to lose?” he said, becoming angry. “You were setting me up for defeat!”
“No!” she insisted. “I wanted you to win! I didn’t even realize until much later that the Shadow-Gods had given me the ritual rules. It just seemed to be something that came to my mind, as if I had read about it or witnessed it of old!”
Claw gripped her arm and shook her in his excitement. “What do you mean?” he said. “Are you saying the Shadow-Gods wanted me to win? What madness is this? And yet how can it not be true when, even after slaying their champion, I still feel the call of the hand?”
Shalieka lowered her kohl-blackened eyes and said, “Valcan, they wanted you to win because they saw you as superior to the demon. They hoped to use you as their new champion! That was their goal. You were to slay the old champion and replace him when the hand took over your mind and soul!”
Claw cursed and shoved her aside as he shouted to the skies, “Curse them all! I will never bow down to them! Rather than yield to their siren call and rule this world in their dark names, I will use all my power to destroy them! I will not give them a world to rule. I will drive them out of this realm entirely!”
He had raced out of the castle, leaving the Warrior Princess of the Rose behind. That had been the last time he had seen her. He had used the hand to lead him to the Shadow-Gods’ hidden realm, and he had vanquished them, or so he had thought.
In truth, he had merely chased them out of one world and into another. Thus, he had entered the Darkworld and eventually found himself drawn here with Arion to battle them again on a new field of combat.
Now, for the first time in so long, he thought of Shalieka with a mixture of regret and a bit of affection. She had been as much of a pawn and dupe as he had been.
Banishing the memories, Claw the Unconquered raced up the steep stairs of the tower. There would be death and blood, and that was fine with him.