Wolf of Maharz
Note – Excalibur is the property of Marvel Comics and is used without permission.
Racing through the ruined remains of the ancient city, the heroes ran for their lives. They rounded a corner, ducking into an alleyway with slavers hot on their heels, radium pistols spiting quick death all around them.
"Ooops. Wrong turn," murmured Kitty Pryde as she and her two companions skidded to a halt. The alley was choked off by a great pile of debris, stacked thirty feet high, stones fallen from the ancient, crumbling edifices hemming them in.
"Dead end," said Rachel Summers. Scowling, she pivoted on her heel to face the alley's entrance, clenching her poniard tight. "In more ways than one." The slavers turned the corner and came to a stop. Their scarred, dissolute faces twisted with evil leers. Behind them Alistaire Stuart struggled for breath, the whip of the slaver's green skinned leader choking him cruelly.
"Behind me, my ladies," commanded Lockheed the Great, Kitty and Rachel's new found friend and guide. The dragon man stepped in front of them, his tail thumping the cracked pave angrily, his twin scimitars held at the ready. "They will pay a high price before they reach you."
"Not as high as you think, dragon," sneered the slaver chief. His band laughed wickedly as they placed fresh loads in their pistols, thumbing back the hammers. Lockheed bellowed out a roar of defiance that seemed to shake the rotting spires towering on high. Kitty and Rachel grit their teeth, preparing for the inevitable. Then, behind the slavers, something rose up in the air, glittering and bright – a great sword, its blade four and a half feet long, hilt gripped by a pair of large, strong hands. The sword descended in a silvery arc of light that terminated in a spray of crimson. The slaver chief vented loose a truncated yelp and went down on his belly, his head split open from crown to jaw. His hand spasmed open, releasing his whip, and Stuart dropped down to the ground gasping, clawing desperately at the leather coiling around his neck. Startled, the slavers turned to find a tall, white cloaked man in their midst, striking like a lion amongst jackals, his bloodied sword dealing out savage death. Lockheed roared again and charged, taking advantage of the ambush. Caught between hammer and anvil, knowing not where to turn first, the slavers died to a man, hewn down quickly and without mercy by both stranger and dragon.
"Whoa…" whispered Rachel, awed despite her past experiences by the brutality of the short fight. Kitty swallowed, feeling nauseous. Blood puddled beneath still, sword-bitten bodies. Splashes of gore stained the walls. The stranger stood before the two girls, set in a fighting crouch, his sword held out straight to one side, his muscular, tanned arm poised to strike. His white fur cloak was voluminous, concealing his body, while his face was hid in the depths of a hood. Rachel and Kitty caught a quick glimpse of blue eyes, feral and bright, before the stranger turned from them, facing Lockheed, who was eyeing him warily. The dragon man blinked, a startled expression of recognition passing over his leathery, purple face.
"You!" he declared in a loud tone of surprise. The stranger let out a snort of amusement and shook the blood off his sword.
"You? You? Is that all you have to say to the man who just saved your life, Lockheed?" His voice was a basso rumble, somewhat harsh but good-natured, likable.
"I think I would have preferred death by a slaver's pistol to owing a life debt to Mad Volk," Lockheed grumbled as he sheathed his scimitars.
"I see now why drakhonic gratitude is held in such high regard throughout the Drylands," Volk answered sardonically. He returned his blade to the scabbard slung across his back, concealed underneath his white cloak. Kitty and Rachel relaxed, lowering their own weapons. If this man was not exactly a friend of Lockheed's, then at least he was not hostile. "You are far from your peoples' lands, Lockheed. What has brought you to Kanemar?"
"A matter of errantry. I serve as escort to these brave ladies. They are strangers to our world, and in the calamity of their arrival, were separated from their companions. We are searching for them, and by luck discovered one of them here." Lockheed turned to Stuart, who had just picked himself off of the ground. "Are you injured, sir?"
"Quite all right, thank you. A bit winded and my neck is a little sore, but otherwise unharmed, thanks to you two." The English scientist looked the dragon man up and down with obvious professional curiosity. "My word…"
"Hey, we helped too!" called out Kitty, looking at Stuart with love-struck admiration. Rachel rolled her eyes.
"Huh. You did a poor job of it," said Volk, glancing over his shoulder, the girls catching another flash of his blue eyes. He turned back to Lockheed. "Why did you confront this scum openly?" He kicked one of the dead slavers, a white ape-man, on the head. "And without either pistol or jezail. You have some nerve to call me mad, all things considered."
"What would you have done?" asked Kitty, nettled. Volk shrugged.
"Same thing as I just did – wait until an opportunity arose to take them unawares."
"I find little honor in ambuscades," said Lockheed coldly.
Volk shrugged. "There is little dishonor in practicality."
"Enough. What of you, Volk? Why are you haunting this miserable pile of ruins?"
"What do you care?"
"I don't. But I have learned, to my profit, to keep a wary eye on your doings when you are close at hand. Chaos and mayhem follows in your wake."
Volk laughed hugely, un-offended, the echoes of his mirth resonating through the air. "Such a complement! I am afraid my purpose here is far more mercenary than yours. I was searching for the Dust of Gods."
Lockheed stared at him in wide-eyed disbelief. "You truly are as mad as the storytellers say. Whatever possessed you to attempt such a foolhardy thing?"
Volk shrugged again. "I was paid to. The sorcerer Vthool offered me a thousand pieces of gold if I served as his bodyguard in an expedition to plunder Pharol's tomb - half when we set out, the rest when he had the Dust. Huh. We did not find it, and the bastard had the ingratitude to get himself eaten by a daemon before I received the rest of what I was owed, but I cannot complain too much. I was kicking around Kanemar, trying to figure out where to go next, when I spotted this swarm of vermin-" he gave the white ape another kick "-chasing after the strange clad man here. I hate slavers, so I was trailing after them, biding my time, when you and the young ladies here arrived on the scene and served as very convenient distractions, for which you have my thanks."
"You are welcome," Lockheed answered. "What are you're plans now?"
"Don't know yet. What of yours?"
"We resume our search. Four of the ladies' companions are still missing, along with their vessel."
Volk nodded. "I see. I will come with you, I think." Lockheed eyed the cloaked swordsman warily.
"That is not necessary."
"I think it is. You have need of a man with sense on this expedition. By my clan's blood, you do not even have a pistol amongst the lot of you, let alone a jezail!"
"We don't have money to pay you," said Rachel, perturbed at Lockheed's reticence. Volk turned to face her and Kitty, drawing his cloak tight about himself. Again the two women glimpsed flashes of blue in the dark depths of the swordsman's hood, and though they did not see it, they had the distinct impression he was smiling sardonically at them.
"It is of no moment. I have enough gold right now, and I think traveling with you will prove amusing. Besides, it has been awhile since I was last in the company of such beauties." He gave Kitty and Rachel a courtly bow.
"There is no way to dissuade you?" asked Lockheed wearily.
"None at all."
"Very well. Then I fear we must tolerate your presence for a time," the dragon man conceded. "And, in truth, no doubt another sword will be of use."
"Most excellent! Wait here a moment while I go fetch the gear I left at my camp. I suggest you strip these dogs' heads of their pistols and ammunition. Gods know they have no need of them now." Volk bowed to them all before trotting out of the alleyway.
"Are you okay, Alistaire?" Kitty asked as she approached him, gingerly stepping over the sprawled bodies of the slavers, clutching her cloak around her scantily clad body.
"As I told your companion – er – Lockheed, that chap said? More analogues to our reality – fascinating!"
"Earth to Professor Stuart?"
"Oh, sorry Kitty. I'm a bit bruised, but otherwise fine. Have you seen any sign of the others?"
"'Fraid not, Prof. You're the first we've run across. I hope they're all right. Somehow this dimension is suppressing our powers."
"So who's the clown, Lockheed?" Rachel asked. The dragon man was in the process of stripping the slavers of their ammo pouches with evident distaste.
"He is no clown, I assure you, Lady Rachel. He is a very dangerous man - Mad Volk. He is notorious throughout the Drylands – an infamous sellsword, thief and murderer."
"That last charge is unwarranted, in my opinion. To my knowledge, he has never killed anyone who had not in someway provoked him."
"Okay," murmured Rachel dubiously. Lockheed stood, shouldering an ammo pouch and thrusting a radium pistol in his belt. "Still, you don't seem too enthusiastic about him joining us."
"That is because Volk can be erratic. He is called mad with good reason – he goes on foolhardy adventures in a deliberate effort to get himself killed. 'Searching for a glorious death,' he says. By some miracle he still lives, despite years of trying."
Rachel stared at Lockheed wide-eyed. "Okay, now I know I don't want him with us."
Lockheed shrugged. "We can trust him. He has a code of honor he follows scrupulously. I know him well enough to say that he will not purposely endanger us."
"I don't think I like him very much," said Kitty.
"I feel sorry for him," answered Lockheed quietly.
Lockheed sighed and shook his head. "His reasons for helping us were not altruistic. Five years ago, when Volk was a stripling, Southroni slavers descended on his clan's lands in the North, near the Artic ice cap. His folk were usually peaceful, but very dangerous when provoked. Life in those harsh lands had made them strong. The fighting was fierce, and in desperation those damnable slavers released something slumbering in the ice – the Great Ice Wyrm, Rhezarrian. It devoured the slavers and killed the entire clan before Volk somehow managed to slay it – a feat that made him a living legend. It is little comfort to him - he is the last of his kind…"
"Are you ready?" Volk called out. The heroes turned towards him. Suddenly Kitty paled, her golden-brown eyes nearly bulging out of their sockets. Her knees buckled, and she clutched at Stuart in an effort to stay on her feet; he looked at her in alarm, then at Volk. Rachel gasped, bringing a gloved hand to her mouth.
Volk strode towards them with pantherish grace, his hood and cloak thrown back. He carried a long barreled rifle in his right hand and a large pack by its straps in his left. He was tall and powerfully built, his muscles rock-hard and his definition god-like. He was clad similarly to Lockheed, in a simple white loincloth, belt and sword harness. White, knee-high leather boots encased his feet, bracers of burnished bronze encircled his forearms. He wore his black hair long, tied in a ponytail, with braided forelocks framing his chiseled, handsome face. Scars of past battles criss-crossed his arms, legs and torso, standing out prominently on his pale white skin. Yet despite the barbarity of his outfit, the war-like nature of his poise, Kitty and Rachel recognized him instantly.
Mad Volk was the very image of Peter Rasputin.
Volk glanced at the girls and blinked, startled by their reactions. "Is something wrong, Lockheed? Your ladies look as if they have seen a ghost."
I love pulp fantasy and horror – the Weird Tales tradition, as some call it. Robert E. Howard is my god of fantasy, and if you never read any of his original Conan stories, or such works as The Shadow Kingdom, Valley of the Worm, Worms of the Earth, Hills of the Dead and many others, you're missing out on one of the most potent and important writers in the history of fantasy. I also enjoy Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter of Mars novels (technically not part of the Weird Tales tradition, but were serialized in such competing pulps as Argosy and Amazing Stories), the jeweled, decadent fantasies and horrors of Clark Ashton Smith, and the science fantasies of C.L. Moore and Leigh Brackett. So is it any wonder then why issues 16 and 17 of the first volume of Excalibur are among my favorite comics?
I've had this story rattling around my hollow skull for a while now. Being who I am, and writing the stories I write, I hope you're not surprised that I dropped an analogue of Peter into the Cross-Time Caper – something Claremont didn't do with any of the core X-Men, thought dead by Kitty, Kurt and Rachel at the time, save for Psylocke in the issue that spoofed Judge Dread, if I recall correctly. Anyhow, this story is a bit low priority for me, since I'm working on Birthday Gift with Lia Fail and I really need to get back to work on Deathless. I do plan on finishing it, though. Heck, I may finish it before Deathless, since Wolf of Maharz is not going to be anywhere near as long.
Anyhow, I hoped you all enjoyed this. Hopefully I'll have something more soon.
Thanks for your time and tolerance,