They found Inchkeith huddled behind a hill of stone far away from the pool. All wondered at his odd behavior in hiding and the look of fear that twisted his features as he raised his eyes to meet them.

“What is wrong, Inchkeith? Why did you disappear like that?” asked Quentin. The master armorer peered at his discoverers with a distrustful look. His hands trembled as he worked up the nerve to speak.

“Do not make me touch it! I beg you, sirs! Do not make me touch it!” He hid his face in his hands once more, and his shoulders shook as if he were sobbing.

“This is very strange,” remarked Quentin, turning to Toli and Durwin. The hermit gazed with narrowed eyes upon the huddled body of the deformed man.

“I think I know what ails him. He is afraid to touch the blazing white lanthanil; he has seen its power and what it can do. He saw your arm healed, and he fears what it might do to him.”

“But,” Quentin spluttered in amazement, “certainly you are wrong here, Durwin. If anything, he should rejoice and rush to take it into his hands that he might be healed of his crippling deformity. I would, and so would anyone else, I think.”

“Would you?” asked Durwin. His bushy eyebrows arched high as they would go. “Think again. His twisted spine cripples him, yes. But he has lived his life with it and has come to accept it and himself for what he is. His spirit has risen above his physical limitations in the beauty of his craft. There is strong pride in that.”

“To be healed, to be made strong and whole again—what can be the harm of that?” Quentin shook his head slowly from side to side. The thing was a mystery to him.

“Quentin, have you never had a flaw of some sort, a hurt that you carried with you?” Quentin’s brow wrinkled sharply. “You cursed it and fretted over it and longed to cast it aside, and yet you secretly caressed it and held it close lest it should somehow slip away. For that weakness was part of you, and however hateful it was, it defined you; you took strength from it. With it, you knew who you were; without it, who could say what you would be?”

Quentin answered slowly. “Perhaps it is as you say, Durwin. When I was a child, I held many childish flaws and weaknesses as virtues. But I put them away when I became a man.”

“Ah, yes. But your weaknesses were not of the same kind as Inchkeith’s. His is not so easily put aside. How much more must he fear losing the thing—ugly as it is—that has given him such comfort all the long years of his life? It is no wonder that he shrinks away from the Healing Stone. For though he would give anything in his power to be made straight and strong, he would give much more to remain as he is.”

Quentin turned to regard Inchkeith where he sat a little way off, still huddled and trembling. There were no words to describe the pitiful picture that met his gaze. Sadly, he turned away from it.

“Go and ready yourselves for another dive,” suggested Durwin. “I will talk to him a little and convince him that whether he touches the stone or not, the decision is his. We will not think less of him for refraining if that, in the end, is how he chooses. Go on, now. We will be along directly.”

Quentin and Toli did as Durwin told them and returned to the pool. “Look how they shine, Toli,” marveled Quentin as he knelt before the two lumps of glowing rock. “Have you ever seen anything like it? It is as if they burn with an inner fire. They should be hot to the touch, but they are cool.”

“They possess very great power. Of that there is no doubt. I understand now why the Ariga closed off the mine and concealed what was left of the white lanthanil in the pool. The temptation to wield such power must drive men mad.”

Quentin nodded silently. “I wonder what else the stone can do?” he asked at last. His bright face shone in the aura of the stones.

“We shall see, Kenta. You have been chosen to carry the Shining One; you will find out.”

In a moment Durwin came, leading a sheepish Inchkeith toward them. “Very well, shall we continue? We have much work to do and have only begun.”

“One moment, Durwin. Please, I would speak.” Inchkeith held up his hand. “I am ashamed of my behavior, and you would do a kindness to a foolish old man if you would banish it from your minds. I am sorry to have embarrassed my friends so. I promise I will embarrass you no further.”

“Think no more on it, Master Inchkeith,” replied Quentin happily. “I assure you, it is already forgotten, and you shall never hear of it from our lips again.”

They all returned to work as before and threw themselves into their labors. The energizing force of the ore-bearing stones that Quentin and Toli brought up allowed the two divers to remain underwater for greater periods of time, and before long a fair-sized pile of the shining stone was heaped beside the pool.

When the heap had grown to the size of a pyramid half a man high, Inchkeith called a halt to the diving. “This is enough for our purpose, I believe. If this magic stone is similar to other ores I have worked, we should have enough to make a sword and a scabbard and chain, too.”

Quentin and Toli dragged themselves out of the frigid water and dried themselves. Inchkeith left them to hobble to the forge at the far end of the cavern. “Bring the lanthanil when you are ready. I will begin firing the crucible.”

Filling Inchkeith’s empty tool chest with ore, Quentin and Toli carried it to the forge, where, using fuel he had found neatly stored away beside the forge, Inchkeith had a fire roaring and ready. Durwin busied himself preparing food for them, as it appeared there would be no sleep for any of them for some time.

When Toli and Quentin had filled the crucible with ore, it was rendered into the fire, where a curious transformation took place. The stones did not crack and release their ore as the stones bearing copper and iron do. Instead, they were slowly melted away like ice in the spring when plunged into running water. Using a long rod, Inchkeith poked and stirred the molten lanthanil, causing the impurities to flame into hot ash and ascend to the chimney of the furnace. With long tongs he introduced new ore into the crucible and kept his ceaseless vigil at the fire, maintaining a constant temperature.

This activity continued for a long time, during which the others watched and dozed and ate by turns. At last Inchkeith pulled the crucible white-hot from the flames and gingerly set it down.

“Quickly, now!” he shouted. “Take up the forger’s yoke and lend a hand. Step lively!”

Quentin was nearest at hand and took up the tool Inchkeith had indicated—a long iron utensil with two handles and a circular bulge in the center. Inchkeith took the yoke and placed it over the crucible, directing Quentin to take one of the handles and carefully follow his instructions. Quentin did as he was told, and they proceeded to pour out the molten ore, now a shimmering pale blue like liquid silver, into four long, narrow molds that Inchkeith had arranged along the floor. There remained a fair amount of the precious metal when the four molds were filled, so Inchkeith poured the rest into a sheet mold, and then they sat down to wait for the metal to cool.

Waiting for the glowing lanthanil to cool was like waiting for an egg to hatch, Quentin thought. But at last the four rod molds were judged cool enough. Inchkeith took up a dipper of water and poured it over the still-hot metal, sending billows of steam rising into the dimly luminescent air of the cavern. He then broke apart the molds and, with tongs, and heavy gloves on his hands, drew out four square rods nearly four feet in length.

The master armorer hopped to his anvil, took each rod, and pierced one end; then he joined the rods together by passing a rivet cut from the sheet of lanthanil he had made.

“Now, then. I have done all I may do,” he said, holding up the four newly fastened rods for the others to see. “Durwin tells me that you must do the rest, Quentin.”

Quentin rose to his feet. “Me? You jest! I know as much about making a sword as I would know of making a tree!”

“Then it is time you learned. Come here.” Inchkeith held the rods in the tongs and indicated for Quentin to take them. Quentin stepped forward, looking to Durwin for approval. Durwin waved him on, and Quentin took the rods.

“Now, do not think for a moment that I will allow you to mar my greatest masterpiece, young sir. I will guide your hands to even the smallest movement. I will be your brain and your eyes, and you will do as I direct to the utmost. Do you understand?”

Quentin nodded obediently, and they began to work.

Under Inchkeith’s watchful eye he took hammer and tongs and began to braid the still malleable metal, one rod over the other, in a tight square braid. When he had finished the task, sweat was dripping from his face and his bare arms. He had long since stripped off his shirt and tunic and wore only his trousers.

The braided rods were then thrust into the pit of the forge among the burning embers, and Quentin turned the core—as Inchkeith called it—constantly, while the armorer plied the creaking bellows.

Soon the core began to glimmer blue-white once more, and Quentin pulled it from the fire, his own face glowing red and flushed. Taking the core, he placed one square end into the square hole in the side of the golden anvil and with the tongs began to twist the braid together.

He twisted and twisted, winding and winding until he could twist no more. Then Inchkeith let him stop, and the core was plunged back into the pit of embers and heated to blue-white once more. Then came more twisting and still more. Quentin was exhausted and feeling more so all the time, but the rhythm of the work began to steal over him, and he found he entered a free-floating state where he moved in concert with the master armorer’s wishes—so much so that he began to feel as if it were Inchkeith’s will directing his hands and muscles and not his own.

The braided core was twisted again and again until, by the very tension of the coils, it began to fuse together. When it had fused completely, Inchkeith had Quentin cut the long, thin core in two, for it had nearly doubled in length with all the twisting. One half was then set aside, and the other half was pounded flat on the golden anvil with the hammer of gold. Every time Quentin struck the core, dazzling sparks showered all around and a flash like lightning was loosed.

The flattened core was heated and pounded, heated and pounded time and again until it was very thin and flat. Then it was set to cool. Toli was given the task of dousing it with water numerous times to cool it more quickly.

Taking the length of twisted braid that had been set aside, Quentin thrust it into the forge pit to reheat it. He then began twisting it again and again, drawing it out into a thin rod. This rod was pinched in half as well, and these two pieces, along with the cool flat piece, were thrust into the burning coals once more as Inchkeith explained that the repeated heating and cooling of the metal tempered it and made it stronger, as did the braiding of the original rods. “You have then the strength of four blades, not just one,” he crowed. “This is how the legendary blades of old were made. There is a tension in the twisting of the braid that is never undone. This tension is what makes the sword leap to the hand and sing in the air. No common blade forged of a rod and flattened can stand against it.”

When the three long pieces were once more burning with blue brilliance and crackling with sparks, they were withdrawn. Quentin was so absorbed in his work it seemed as if he walked in a dream; all his surroundings blurred, becoming faint and insubstantial as he toiled on. His eyes had sight only for the flaming blue metal turning under his hands.

The three hot pieces were placed precisely upon the anvil according to Inchkeith’s exacting specifications. With quick, sure hammer blows, Quentin welded the two rounded pieces to the flat one. This action resulted in a very long, flat piece with a rounded ridge in the center. When that was done, Inchkeith sent him to plunge the core into the pool and leave it there until it could be handled freely.

Quentin hurried off, so absorbed that he nearly stumbled over the curled figures of Durwin and Toli rolled in their cloaks, fast asleep.

After a time Inchkeith came and settled himself down beside Quentin to wait. “You are doing a master’s job, sir. A master’s job. If you were not spoken for, I would take you in and teach you the armorer’s craft. You have the heart for it and the soul; I have seen how you look upon your work. You know what I am talking about, eh?”

“It is true. I have never done anything like this, but it is as if I feel in my hands what the metal would have me do, and I do it—though you must take credit there, for I would not begin to know what to do. But when I lift the hammer and I see it fall, a voice says ‘Strike here!’ and it is done.” Quentin lifted the core from the pool. Water slithered down its pale blue surface and slid back into the pool in shining beads. “It does not look very like a sword yet,” remarked Quentin.

“Oh, it will. It will. The work is just begun. Now we will see how this metal works. Now will come the test!”

Inchkeith and Quentin worked on and on, pausing to take a little food now and then, and to rest only in idle moments, though there were few of those. Toli and Durwin looked on and uttered words of encouragement when such words were needed, but mainly kept themselves out of the way and silent, allowing the master and his eager apprentice to work on undisturbed.

There was much heating and cooling, hammering and shaping of the gleaming metal. It was chiseled and chased, beaten and burnished, until at last the blade of a sword could be seen emerging from the long, flat length of metal. A hilt and handle were fashioned from the solid sheet that had been put aside. From this a flat piece was rolled and flattened, and it, too, was twisted and twisted and then joined to the emerging blade.

The blade was fired and refired. Each time it was scraped smooth and filed again and again with long, careful strokes. Inchkeith bent his face over the hot metal and directed Quentin’s fingers here and there along the length, pointing out minute flaws that only he could see. If his young apprentice’s strength and enthusiasm flagged, the old master’s never did. With praise and threats and stubborn demands, Inchkeith challenged Quentin to better and higher work, at one point taking Quentin’s hands in his own and guiding them over the blade to do the job he knew must be done.

And then it was finished.

Quentin sat exhausted on a large rock and looked at his handiwork as it lay across the golden anvil. Inchkeith studied it carefully, nodding and puffing out his cheeks alternately. Durwin and Toli were nowhere to be seen. Quentin’s eyes burned in his head, and though tired, he watched Inchkeith’s every wink and frown with breathless anticipation.

At last the master craftsman turned to Quentin, his face beaming, his chest swelling with pride. “Yes, it is finished.” He hesitated, seeing Quentin hungrily grasp at his words. “And it is a masterpiece.”

Quentin leaped and shouted for joy. “We have done it!” he cried. “We have done it!” He grabbed the old man and began dancing around the forge where they had lived and worked and sweated for what seemed years on end. They were so caught up in the relief and exultation of the moment that they did not hear Durwin and Toli return.

“Does this unseemly exhibition mean that you two have finished your labors at last?” Durwin called, bounding forward to clap them both on the back. He stopped, and a look of reverent awe lit his eyes. Toli, coming hard on his heels, stopped and began speaking in his native tongue.

“It is—” Durwin searched for words. “It is indeed a thing of fearsome beauty.” His hands flew up toward his face as if he feared the sight would burn him.

“It is the Zhaligkeer,” said Toli. “It is the Shining One.”

Quentin took it from the anvil and held it in his hand, lifting it toward heaven. “This is the Shining One of the Most High. Let it move as he alone directs. As I am his servant, let it be filled with his power, and let our enemies fly before its terrible fury.”

“So be it!” shouted the others. Durwin stepped up and brought out a vial from the leather pouch at his side.

“I have kept this for this time. It is oil which has been blessed in Dekra. With it I will anoint the blade of the Shining One.”

Quentin held the sword across the palms of both hands as Durwin opened the vial and poured the holy oil along the length of the blade, which shone with a pale, silvery blue light. The sword was indeed a thing of dread beauty. It was long and thin, tapering almost imperceptibly along its smooth, flawless length to a gleaming point. The grip and hilt sparkled as if cut from gemstone.

As Durwin poured out the oil, he blessed the sword, saying, “Never in malice, never in hate, never in evil shall this blade be raised. But in righteousness and justice forever shall it shine.” Then he took his fingers and rubbed the oil over the finely worked blade.

As he touched the shining metal, Durwin felt the power of the lanthanil flow through him, and it was as if the years fell away from him; he was a young man again and marveled at the sensation, for he had quite grown used to his numerous aches and pains. When he turned to the others, he was the same Durwin as before, but vastly changed in aspect. He appeared wiser, stronger, and more noble than before. He laughed out loud and pointed a long finger at Inchkeith, who gazed at him with some alarm, seeing the sudden change that had come over the hermit.

“Look there, Inchkeith, my friend. The blade has worked its enchantment upon you as well, I see.”

Inchkeith, aghast, sputtered, “What are you talking about? I never touched the stone, nor the blade. What do you mean?”

Quentin looked at the hunchbacked armorer and saw that he was standing erect and tall; he seemed to have grown several inches. How or when it had happened he had not noticed. Perhaps when the master had placed his hands upon Quentin’s, the power had gone into him; but they had been so completely absorbed in their work, they had not noticed until Durwin pointed it out to them just at that moment.

“Yes!” shouted Quentin. “You are healed, Inchkeith. You are whole.”

A look of stunned disbelief shone on the craftsman’s face; he squared his shoulders and raised his head. It was minutes before he would believe that his hump had disappeared, but when that belief finally broke in upon him, he sank to his knees and began to cry.

“Your god has done this, Durwin!” he cried as tears of happiness streamed down his face. “I believe now. I believe all you ever told me about him. Blessed is the Most High. From now on I am his servant.”

They all rejoiced together, and the high-domed roof of the great cave echoed with their voices. The halls of the Ariga, deep beneath the mountains, rang with joyful sounds such as had not been heard in ten thousand years.

Dragon King #01 - In the Hall of the Dragon King