The upper limbs of one of the flattened trees caught him in
the whiplash of its fall and sent him rolling, bouncing across the ground. He was bruised, scraped, and dazed.
He stumbled to his feet. The Sword had been knocked from his hand. Now it was gone.
There it was, only a few meters away. In a moment he had the hilt of the Sword of Heroes in his grip again.
But by now the dragon was a hundred meters away and receding swiftly to an even greater distance. It was still thrashing like a hooked fish worm and hissing like a windstorm with the pain of what he’d done to it. But it was not about to come back and try to get revenge against the Sword.
Zoltan realized that it was still making headway toward the farm.
He ran to get ahead of the monster again, with Dragonslicer howling in his two-handed grip. The Sword seemed to leap in his fists, as if to urge him on and drag him with it faster.
Momentarily the beast stopped its retreat to turn and raise its wagon-sized head and stare at Zoltan with its enormous eyes. Vague memories of childhood dragon-stories had started to come back to him; now there stirred one of such a story in which these beasts sometimes developed hypnotic powers, feeding themselves by bidding herds march down their throats. The nameless mermaid had mentioned something of the kind.
He felt no compulsion to let the dragon eat him. But now it was moving toward the farm once more, and he wasn’t going to be able to catch up with the thing on foot.
Zoltan turned and ran after his load beast. It allowed him to catch it once again.
The animal allowed him to mount and ride, and willingly carried him ahead of the monster. He had lost count now of how many times he had overtaken it.
And now, for a second or third time, the dragon got around him. As long as he stayed mounted, his mount panicked at the crucial moment and fled; if he was afoot, he
could not go fast enough to keep the thing blocked from its goal. If the dragon had had wit enough to keep moving quickly, it might have easily got around him to the far side of the farm and entered there to begin its devastation before he could catch up with it again. But it had no more wit than an earthworm, as far as Zoltan could tell.
And once it made a short detour, pausing to scoop up the carrion carcass of a feral cow or bull into its mouth.
Taking advantage of the delay, Zoltan was once more able to get directly between the giant creature and the farm. Then he jumped off his mount for the last time, drew Dragonslicer, and quickly cut the load beast’s throat with the keen blade.
Working feverishly, he opened the load beast’s belly with the same sharp tool and pulled out the entrails still pulsating and steaming lightly in the chill air.
Then Zoltan worked himself into the dead beast’s body cavity, where he lay in gory warmth and darkness, gripping the hilt of Dragonslicer with both hands.
Trying to control his own breathing, he could hear the breathing of the dragon as it approached, perhaps lured on by the odor of fresh blood. Next Zoltan could feel it, feel the earth quivering with the movement of the approaching mass. His plan had been to jump out at the last instant, when the head was lowering over him, mouth about to open. But it was impossible to time things that exactly. The creature was very near, and for an instant the noises stopped. Zoltan was suddenly afraid that it had sensed the presence of the humming Sword. But his next fear was of something else altogether. In another instant, darkness and swift motion had engulfed the dead load beast. It was being swallowed.
The boy could feel the carcass that enclosed him being crunched and ingested by the great worm. The process was tumultuous, almost deafening, the noise a compound of gaspings, crunchings, hissing, and the throbbing of the gigantic
internal organs. Accompanying this came a wave of incredible stench, so that Zoltan found it almost impossible to breathe.
The great teeth, actually small for the size of the creature that they fed, hooked the load beast’s carcass no more than twice as they sent it along into the dragon’s gut.
Zoltan struggled to draw breath. Utter darkness had closed around him, and air had been almost entirely cut off. The physical pressure was such that he could hardly straighten his arms or move his elbows. Though Dragonslicer shrilled loudly, he was almost helpless. With wrists and forearms he wielded the blade, and then, with a desperate, surging effort, succeeded in straightening his arms so that the Sword of Heroes thrust out blindly.
The blood of the dragon jetted over him from some deep reservoir. The fumes of blood burned at Zoltan’s lungs next time he managed to draw a little breath.
By now he had worked his arms and shoulders free of the load beast’s carcass and was carving a space clear around his head. There came a whistling roar and a blast of air as he cut into the windpipe. Blood was threatening to drown him anyway. And now Zoltan thought that the blade in his hands was trying to pull him with it in one direction, as if it would lead him toward the heart.
Meanwhile, the titanic body around him was convulsing with redoubled violence. Only the tight, soft cushioning that gripped Zoltan’s body on all sides saved him from severe injury.
With his last conscious energy, he strove to hack a way out through his enemy’s ribs. In utter darkness he could feel how massive bones were separating before Dragonslicer’s magic. He carved and carved again. At last light struck his almost blinded eyes, and again fresh air hit Zoltan, like a rush of icy water. Simultaneously the great worm’s body convulsed in a
spasm more frenzied than any that had gone before. Still inside the thrashing body, Zoltan could see that the opening he had cut was sometimes toward the sky and sometimes toward the earth.
Mark and Ben found themselves in possession of two Swords, Shieldbreaker and Woundhealer, and of the field of battle.
Amintor, having hurled Farslayer, creating a streak of light that dwindled rapidly toward the horizon to the east, had at once urged his mount to speed and was now rapidly disappearing in the opposite direction.
Neither Mark nor Ben were ready to pursue the Baron at once. Ben had been wounded in the skirmish just concluded, and the use of Woundhealer was the next order of business.
“Why are you here?” Mark demanded. “Where is my son?”
“I’m here to save your neck. Acceptable?”
“Sorry.” The Prince drew a deep breath. “But what’s happened to Adrian?”
“Happened to him? Nothing. All was well when I left the escort. He’s well on his way home, many kilometers from-”
“Then what is that?”
Ben turned to look. Then the two men stood together, looking with awe at the bizarre effects that appeared to be transforming a portion of the world before their eyes. It was the same area into which the Sword of Vengeance had vanished when it left the Baron’s hands. And on the fringe of it the Tasavaltan camp was visible. At the distance a few people, moving about slowly and lethargically, could be seen within it.
“That cannot be,” said Ben. “I left the encampment days ago, to try to follow you.”
Mark said, at last: “Reminds me of the time we looted the Blue Temple.”
Ben nodded. “We seem to have entered a land of magic again-and this time without a wizard.”
“I don’t know about that.”
“What do you mean?”
The Prince looked up at the sky and at the dead enemies on the earth around them. “I’d say that someone’s been trying to take care of us. I was thinking that Karel must be responsible for some of this at least.”
Some of the magical distortion of the landscape was clearing away, but something else, also out of the ordinary, had appeared.
“What in all the hells of Orcus can that be?”
“It looks like a farm. A well-kept, irrigated farm, here in the midst of nowhere. In the midst of a cauldron of magic.”
“I,” said Mark presently, “must go to that encampment and see about my son.” The Prince turned his head and pointed. “You scout that way. Take a look at that farm, if that’s indeed what it is. We can hope it’s something Karel’s sent us; we could all use fresh food and rest. But good or bad, we must know.”
And the two men separated.
Karel was still kilometers to the east of the epicenter of the magical turmoil, though he was riding as fast as he could toward it. Even from a distance, he got the distinct impression that the local geography had been pretty well jumbled, and he was impressed. It was a long time since he had seen anything of the kind. At least there was no doubt of where he ought to go. You didn’t need to be a wizard to see the signs.