The battle-weary defenders watched in horror as the conquest, so nearly won, dissolved in bleak futility, and certain doom swarmed in to take its place. The cheers of triumph turned to bitter wails of despair as the Ningaal, seeing their sure salvation, halted their retreat and turned once more upon the Dragon King’s battered army.
Eskevar had but little time to rally his flagging troops before the enemy surged around them like a flood whose waters rose to overwhelm all. At once the hapless defenders were surrounded on every side and cut off from any possible retreat. The warlords urged their warriors to fight in a frenzy, and one by one the Dragon King’s brave soldiers fell.
Ronsard and Theido fought to keep abreast of the king and protect him to the very end. But a sudden rush of the enemy swirled up before them and drove them apart.
Three black-braided, howling Ningaal, mouths foaming, eyes wild and faces smeared with blood, leaped up and grabbed the reins of Theido’s mount. One of the attackers instantly lost a hand in a crimson gush; another dropped dead to the earth, his axe in Theido’s chest, and the knight felt the blade bite deep as his armor buckled and parted. He reeled in the saddle, falling back beneath the force of the blow, which would have killed most men.
The Ningaal attacker, still clutching the haft of his axe, was pulled off the ground as Theido’s courser reared. Theido swung his buckler down upon the enemy’s head, and his opponent fell sprawling to the earth, where the warhorse’s flashing hooves made short work of him.
Theido, by some miracle, remained in the saddle and wrenched the axe from the crease in his chestplate. He knew himself to be grievously wounded but turned to look for Ronsard and Eskevar. The current of battle had carried them far apace. He saw Ronsard engaging four or five enemies with flaming pikes and swords, trying to keep them from reaching the king, when suddenly a warlord, charging into their midst with his black cape flying, struck into the fight.
Instantly the warlord was met by the lightly armed figure of Myrmior. The seneschal, his face a mask of hate, thrust himself between the king and the warlord. Theido saw Myrmior’s sword flash in the starlight in a shining arc. The warlord raised his blade; Myrmior’s sword shattered with the force of his mighty blow. The warlord struck again and beat angry Myrmior’s shield. Theido watched, helpless, as the warlord’s cruel and curving blade flicked out and buried itself deep in Myrmior’s unprotected chest. Myrmior clutched at the blade with one hand and pulled, even as the warlord sought to withdraw it, jerking the battle lord forward in the saddle. In the same instant Myrmior brought his broken sword up and slammed it into the warlord’s throat. Theido then saw the two men topple to the earth.
So quickly did this happen that Theido scarcely lifted the reins to send his mount forward and it was over. From his vantage point the knight saw Ronsard, who had killed three of his assailants, lurch away and drive once more to the king’s side. But in that momentary lapse, worlds were lost, for Theido, already pounding to his aid, saw Eskevar pulled from the saddle to sink into a boiling mass of Ningaal with pikes and axes.
Ronsard reached the spot where his monarch went down first. He killed two with one stroke and four more in as many passes. Theido’s arrival sent the rest darting away as Ronsard, heedless of his own safety, flung himself from the saddle and knelt beside his king.
Soon there were shouts all around. “The king has fallen! The Dragon King has fallen!” The defenders swarmed to his side, forming a wall around the body of their beloved ruler.
Ronsard held Eskevar’s head in his hands and carefully removed the king’s helmet. “It is over, brave friend,” Eskevar gasped. “I shall lift my blade no more.”
“Do not say that, Sire,” said Ronsard, tears seeping out of the corners of his eyes to run down his broad cheeks. He tore off his own gauntlet and thrust a corner of the king’s cloak into a bleeding wound at the base of Eskevar’s neck.
“There is no pain . . . no pain,” said Eskevar, his voice a whisper. “Where is my sword?”
“Here, Sire,” said Theido, placing his own weapon into the king’s grasping hands.
Eskevar clutched the weapon to his breast and closed his eyes.
Those watching from the castle ramparts and battlements saw the king fall, and a cry of grief and dismay tore from their hearts as from the throat of a mortally wounded beast. But the cry had not yet died in the air when someone shouted, “Look to the east!” All eyes turned their gaze eastward, where the forlorn watchers beheld a strange and wondrous sight.
It appeared to those watching, and to the soldiers crouching over the body of the Dragon King, that lightning flashed out of the east with the brightness of the blazing sun, for there was a sudden blinding flare that seemed to fill the sky, outshining even the light of the Wolf Star.
Another burst of brilliant light struck the sky, and surging Ningaal paused to look up from their bloody work to view with alarm this new marvel.
Suddenly all anyone could see was the form of a knight on a white horse bolting out of the east. In his upraised arm he carried a sword that blazed and flashed with living light.
All the earth seemed to fall silent before the approach of this unknown knight. The thunder of his charger’s hooves could be heard pounding over the plain as he flew as on eagle’s wings into battle.
“Zhaligkeer!” someone shouted. “The deliverer has come!”
A murmur swept through the ward yards and towers of Askelon. Alinea, Bria, and Esme, holding vigil in the eastern tower, looked out through tearful eyes to see this strange sight. The soldiers of the Dragon King, standing shoulder to shoulder around their fallen lord, raised their visors in astonishment.
The sword in the knight’s hand seemed to cast a beam of light toward heaven as he rode swiftly onward. The Ningaal, amazed at this unheralded apparition, looked on with gaping mouths. Even Nin, Supreme Deity of the Universe, struggled to his feet from his throne upon his platform to better see what was happening.
Quentin, astride the speeding Blazer, saw the remnant of the Dragon King’s army surrounded by the enemy upon the plain. With Toli at his side, he had no other thought but to rush to their aid and take his place beside them. In his dash he had seen the standard of the Dragon King fall beneath the flood of the enemy. He had then drawn his sword and with a battle cry he launched himself straight toward the place where he had marked the banner’s fall.
Zhaligkeer burned with the brilliance of a thousand suns, throwing off bolts of lightning that seared the air. For the Ningaal, transfixed by the unearthly vision, this was too much. Unafraid of bold earthly warriors, they were terrified at the appearance of this heavenly foe. The barbarians threw down their weapons and fled before him. Quentin drove into the center of the reeling horde and rode untouched into the midst of the Dragon King’s awestruck army.
Quentin glanced down and saw his friends Theido and Ronsard kneeling over the body of Eskevar. He read the sadness in their eyes and knew that the Dragon King was dead.
Without a word Quentin wheeled Blazer around and leaped after the fleeing Ningaal. An unspeakable grief seized his mind, and Quentin had no thought but to drive the hated enemy before him, to ride until he could ride no more, to the sea and beyond. In his mindless grief he drove straight toward Nin the Destroyer and his fifty thousand panic-stricken warriors. The Ningaal parted before the invincible knight with the flaming sword, as waves before the tempest.
Quentin saw nothing distinctly; it was as if he had entered a dream. Pale shapes moved before him, rolling away on either side like clouds; the night sky was filled with a burning white light. Then there was a darkness before him that rose up in a seething mass.
Zhaligkeer flashed in his hand. Quentin raised himself in the saddle and flung the sword skyward with a mighty shout. The sword spun in the air, and it seemed that as it reached the apex of its arc it suddenly exploded with a blinding crack that showered tongues of fire all around.
The sky went white, and every man threw his hands before his face to save his eyes. It seemed to Quentin that he entered his vision, for he was once more the knight standing upon a darkling plain, wearing the shining armor and lofting a blazing sword that burned into the heart of the darkness gathered about.
There was a shudder in the air, and he felt the fire rush through him. Though the lightning danced blinding waves around him, he opened his eyes and saw the darkness roll away, revealing a city splendid and beautiful, shimmering in the light as if carved of fine gold and gems. The exquisite sight brought Quentin off his horse and onto his knees.
He threw his hands before his face to blot out the vision, and the tears came rising up as from a spring. In that moment he felt in his inmost soul the hand of the Most High God upon him.
When Quentin raised his head, he was alone, and the night was dark. The Wolf Star had disappeared in a great flash. Some said that the Shining One had reached up into the sky and smitten the star and extinguished it, for it vanished in the same instant that Quentin had thrown the sword.
Zhaligkeer had fallen to earth and was found buried to the hilt in the obscene body of the Immortal Nin. The Conqueror of Kings lay dead, pinned to the ground like a serpent. His unhappy minions, witnessing the swift miracle of their cruel lord’s death, fled screaming over the plain. Their pitiful cries filled the night as they sought to escape the justice that would soon overtake them. The warlords of Nin fell upon their swords and joined their loathsome sovereign in his well-deserved fate.
Quentin returned to the place where Eskevar lay. Together with Theido and Ronsard and the lords and knights of Mensandor, he picked up the body of the king and, lifting it upon his shoulders, bore it away to Askelon.